Paragon City. Home to the largest population of Meta Humans on Earth. Most were just like everyone else, they had jobs, families and lived in relative normality. Some took advantage of the skills Meta genetics had given them. Those born stronger had a predisposition to working in private security or construction. Those born faster would take up admin work, accounting or sports. Every one of them had to be registered for a Security Level. That way their potential was recorded and could be monitored. Action was only taken if something went wrong. Other than that intervention, they were left to get on with their lives, just like anyone else. A rarity were those Metas born with powers that could only lead them on one path; becoming a Super Hero. Paragon City had no shortage of Super Heroes, so many so it had earned itself the fond nickname of the City of Heroes. It was a great nickname and one that earned their economy millions thanks to tourism. But it wasn't all positive. Paragon City also had no shortage of villains; those not content to live a normal life who, no matter their Threat Level, would use it to their advantage and commit as many criminal acts as possible. Despite the frequent acts of Meta crime, the destruction of public property, the huge sentient robots that roamed free and the even larger sentient and lethal plant life, for a good fifty years, Heroes and Villains had lived in a balance, normal Humans had lived alongside Meta Humans. It was just how things were in the City of Heroes. But that had all started to change.
A lot had happened in the last year. The Freedom Phalanx, Earth’s finest Super Group of Heroes, had left through an inter-dimensional portal to fight their most dangerous battle yet against an incomprehensible force. The Earth mourned. No one knew if they’d come back. But they knew it was something that had to be done. If the Freedom Phalanx didn’t win, the beings they went to confront would end up coming to Earth one way or another. It didn’t take long for people to feel their absence. The Paragon Times once described it as the city feeling like Metropolis without Superman. Gotham without Batman. There were plenty of other Heroes still on the streets, all out fighting the fight, but without the city’s figurehead, without the Freedom Phalanx, something was left feeling empty. Jain Acheson knew the sensation all too well; what it felt like to feel empty. As part of a Meta human Marine unit, he’d taken the same path as the Freedom Phalanx. He’d gone to another dimension and left everything behind to a world empty of Heroes. He’d come back, but that emptiness had stayed with him. Jain came back a different man. He came back to his wife and family. He’d held them in his arms. He’d played father and husband. But something had changed. It boiled to the surface, that anger and emptiness he carried with him, the day his wife, Tara Sinclair, had been hit in her car by a getaway vehicle carrying a group of Skulls from a bank robbery. He’d pulled her from the wreckage and held her until help came. Then he’d turned his rage on the Skulls and hospitalised each one of them; months of rage at missing embracing Tara when she found out she was carrying his child, at missing Tabby growing on the scans, at missing Sophie’s first day at school and at the realisation he’d left them alone in a world more dangerous than anyone could comprehend. Jain was sent to prison for that day and sentenced to a new form of anger management therapy created especially for traumatised Meta Humans, like him. He’d responded to it well, thriving under the guidance of his counsellor, Ria Da Silva. After just a couple of months he felt like a new man. He felt in control of his life and when he was finally released he agreed to leave his old, empty life behind and become a founding member of the group that could fill the void left by the Freedom Phalanx. He would wear his costume again and Frozen Phoenix would become part of White7.
White7 were celebrated by the world. Seven hand-picked Super Heroes. The cream of the crop, ready to defend the people of Earth from any threat. Jain was the happiest he’d been in his life. He didn’t see the heartbreak he left in his wake. He left Tara. He rarely saw his children. He took a new woman to his bed; a White7 member named Nurse. For him, everything was just as it should be, for one reason and one reason only. Doctor Ria Da Silva told him that was the way it should be and it made him feel better. Every therapy session made him believe it more and more until there was nothing else but his new life and White7. A chance encounter saw an old friend stepping in, Taylor Di La Conti, a Meta Marine like him. Taylor was a psychic. He saw through the lies Ria’s abilities had planted into his brain. He broke Jain and Nurse free of the bonds of White7. Jain saw the truth and it nearly destroyed him. He swore to help and do anything he could to find out why a doctor would create a Super Group seen as the height of Meta Human perfection for seemingly no real reason. He swore to stay with White7, to live the lie and to prove he was the man he knew in his heart he could be.
A couple of months later, phase 1 of Ria Da Silva’s plan was complete. The security of the nation now rested solely in the hands of White7. The President had signed the new Amendment that had initially rocked the nation, but had gained unprecedented support within mere weeks. It was an Amendment that ensured second class citizenship to all Meta Humans and passed all matters of national security to Ria Da Silva and her perfected Super Group; Metas under full control of what the country believed to be a normal human. Metas that acted in the best interest of their country. Metas that didn’t wrack up huge collateral damage bills. Metas that the whole of America could be proud of; all seven of them. She kept White7 in line behind closed doors. She was a Projector, the most dangerous and rare of psychics. Projectors were one in a million psychics, and psychics were one in over five hundred thousand people. They were known to be able to put images and ideas in people’s heads. With a wrong thought they could do far more harm than good. Paragon City was home to all 4 known projectors; a girl with a new identity who had told her boyfriend to “go jump off a bridge” in an argument an hour before he’d been rescued trying to throw himself into the harbour bay from a city flyover, a young meta marine named Taylor Di La Conti with potential more than skill, an infamous villain named Pyrerain who drove a lawyer to eternal madness before his death a decade ago, and a young girl named Rihanna who had disappeared from her Meta training before she could be fully classified. That young girl, Ria as she went by now, was a month into being the most powerful person in the United States. Though no one really knew it but her. Over the years she had honed her powers to spin a web of influence that now spread to every public figure and military commander in the continental US. She’d seen to it that Meta Humans had become effectively outlawed. Every single one had to be registered at first, at about the time Jain Acheson had been imprisoned. That had made for a good example for why Metas should be controlled. After that, she began a subtle campaign that had seen to all Super Groups eventually being disbanded but hers, the use of Meta powers made a criminal offense and the most powerful of Meta Humans imprisoned in the Ziggurat Prison.
The massive political overhaul had meant no one had really noticed her allies rising in power either. The Vanguard had become more visible by the day; at first with more posters proclaiming Earth for Humans, a powerful message when faced with the “terrifying prospect of what these Metas can really do”, then they began the round up; helping the Paragon Police Department and forces all over the country arrest any Metas caught using their powers. Now they patrolled the streets as enforcers armed with suppression array weapons courtesy of Crey Manufacturing, the world’s largest distributer of technology. With the Vanguard and the Crey keeping the city safe, there was no need for anything else. Nothing else but figureheads to fill the void left behind by the Freedom Phalanx. It made for a pretty political dance and Ria was the best damn dancer the world had ever seen. She had even been there the day the mayor had signed the papers to deactivate the War Walls around Paragon City. After all, with no Meta Humans to be a threat, the inter-dimensional Rikti fleet would have no reason to return and start another war. And even if they did, Vanguard and White7 would keep everyone safe. At least that’s what the carefully crafted articles and new specials told everyone.
Ria marvelled at what she’d accomplished. All of that in under 3 years. Sure, there’d been some setbacks. There’d been a recent break out at the Zig orchestrated by an underground rebel group of ex-superheroes, but they were nothing White7 couldn’t handle. Although, they weren’t really White7 any more. The loose cannon of the group; Jain Acheson had gone rogue some time after she’d realised his mental conditioning wasn’t working. She had no idea how. He was all brawn and very little brain, but somehow her programming had never quite taken as strong a hold as it had with the others. It didn’t matter. He’d screwed up every relationship he’d ever had in his life in his time with White7. He’d destroyed his long standing friendships with the Outlaw Stars, his original Super Group, tearing them apart and he’d ended his marriage to Tara Sinclair. Ria was confident that even if he went crawling back to them and their rag tag bunch of scum, wasters and criminals they’d never trust him again. And then there was WhiteAlpha, her self-improving Artificial Intelligence that ran White7’s base of operations. Her core programming had been stolen at the same time Jain had broken free from her, but not before any information that could be of use had been scrambled in her memory banks. They’d never be able to decode any of it in time, not without the Gilliam program, and he’d long been deactivated. No, Ria knew, that despite some hiccups, everything was going to work out.
She stood in Atlas Park and gazed up at the green glow in the sky and smiled. “It is just a weather phenomenon, Aurora Borealis appearing too far south because of the damage to the atmosphere that weather Controllers had caused over the years”. “The Rikti portals were much greener” “much bluer” “opened much faster than that” No one suspected a thing. No one knew that in less than an hour’s time “Aurora Borealis” would tear open and spew the largest Rikti invasion fleet over Paragon City mankind had ever known. No one but her and her perfected six remaining members of the newly reborn White7. They waited for her in their base, getting used to their new, genetically enhanced bodies. Earth for Humans, that’s how the saying goes. Real Humans. Not the weak, pathetic creatures that built their skyscrapers and drive throughs. The real Humans. The Rikti.
On the shore of Talos Island, near a disused maintenance entrance to the sewer system, Tara Sinclair watched the viridian stripe in the sky. She was certain of it; it was no coincidence that a month after the last war wall was deactivated that this appeared. She knew what Rikti portals looked like and no idiotic Paragon News Special on global warming would change her mind. When it had become harder and harder to just exist as a Meta Human, she’d done what she could. She’d set up a place to hide for anyone wrongfully being hunted to hide. When the Haven, her bar, her home, her life, had been shut down, that place to hide moved to the abandoned fight club underneath Talos Statue. Over the months it became home to hundreds; an eerily familiar recreation of an alternative world the Outlaw Stars had visited once. Maybe that’s where she’d got the idea from, or maybe it’s just because it made sense. When it finally became illegal to be a Meta and the War Walls had come down, she’d sent her children to the safety of the Iowan farm Jain’s parents owned and she’d dropped off the radar. Now, Tara did what she could from the shadows. She’d formed an alliance with the Evisceration, as much as it killed her to do so, and she’d scraped together the largest and most powerful Supergroup the city had ever seen. Although no one could see them. Not yet. They were a secret and they’d stay that way until they were needed. When Sayia DeLaurent could do no more to protect people like them in the courts across America she’d handed control over to him. The Ultimate Outlaw Stars. They all wore the black and white star. They all stood together and were ready to fight. They knew the day was coming as much as she did. Though she suspected most of them didn’t think it would be today.
Tara narrowed her eyes under the pulled up hood of her non-descript grey hoodie and watched the long sliver of green in the sky. It was changing; growing shorter, thicker and brighter. It wasn’t a theory anymore, it was happening. “Shit…” she sighed. They needed more time. While everyone agreed they had a city to protect, they were very much divided on how to do that. Sayia wanted to follow the laws they had all been used to; he still didn’t like having villains for allies, Tara wanted to do whatever would work to save the people in the city even if it meant making questionable friends and at the polar opposite to Sayia, was Jemima Taylor, or Sister Sever as she’d taken to being called again. She was of the opinion that they should just kill anyone who tried to stand against them. But no one could work out if she meant it or was just saying it for effect. Then, there was Jain. He’d recently busted out of White7’s headquarters just in time before being forced through a procedure that would have left him more Rikti than man. He’d hurt a lot of people, her more than anyone, and she had no idea if she could trust him. He’d escaped at just the right time and she didn’t believe in coincidences. For now she was going to try and ignore it, like he’d ignored her for months. Tara’s jaw tightened. Just leave him to screw his way around the Ultimate Outlaw Stars and he’d be out of the way for sure. Tara looked up at the gradually forming rift one last time. She sure hoped Sayia and Gilliam had managed to get something out of WhiteAlpha. There wasn’t long left.
Below Talos Island, in the former Tsoo Fight Club that now housed the group of Meta Humans who now called themselves the Ultimate Outlaw Stars, Sayia DeLaurent sat in the aged storage closet he’d taken over to be his research base. He’d wired up what hardware he could scavenge from the Talos warehouses into a functioning super computer. At least he called it a super computer. Really, it was a barely adequate computer. It was enough to house both the Gilliam and WhiteAlpha operating systems, though neither of them were fully supported. WhiteAlpha was the prototype of Gilliam, a programme he had affectionately named Sephora. She had been stolen years before and never recovered. It broke his heart to think she’d been twisted and changed, ‘perfected’, to be White7’s A.I. Over the weeks since her recovery he had had Gilliam working day and night to decode her and any information she may still possess. He was starting to think it may be fruitless. Her algorithms were scrambled and this computer just wasn’t giving Gilliam the power he needed. Sayia stretched. He’d been sitting watching streams of code for nearly five hours as if somehow there would be a Sherlock moment where suddenly it would all make sense. He had realised about two hours before that this was not likely to happen, but his stubbornness meant he was still trying.
“At least I got you back…” he sighed and leaned back in his chair
“I will decode her” Gilliam’s voice tinnily promised out of tiny computer speakers
“Yeah” Sayia sighed again “I guess it’d be exactly the same if you’d got stuck on a memory card too…”
Gilliam’s bass-less voice laughed “I would never fit on a memory card”
“She shouldn’t’ve either” Sayia exhaled slowly. He couldn’t help but think this must be what it’s like waiting at the bedside of a loved one in a coma. Knowing everything is still in there somewhere, but having no idea if all those thoughts, feelings and memories could ever be experienced again
“I have every faith you can repair her programming. You built her.” There was hope in Gilliam’s voice. It was strange to think a computer could feel hope. But of course it was no different really to a brain feeling it. Both are simply networks of conductors for electricity, firing tiny impulses based on input from the external world. Sayia could make it so cold, but it was true. In reality, Gilliam and WhiteAlpha were no different from anything else on the planet. They could assess and learn from the world and be damaged beyond repair by it too. It was times like this that he wished his Regen didn’t just burn off alcohol before it had any effect; he could do with a drink.
“We’re fucked.” Tara had a way with words. She really could be as subtle as a brick smashing through a glass door when she wanted to be.
“More fucked than we already are?” Sayia glanced to her as she walked in, half smiling.
“Yes, smartass. More fucked than we already are.”
Sayia took a deep breath and unfolded his arms. Tara was easy to rile, there was no getting around that, but she wasn’t one for exaggeration “What’s up?”
Tara moved his boots from the edge of the table where they were resting crossed over each other by his keyboard and a half-finished bottle of water. She took their place, leaning against it and looked down at him. In the low light there was a bluish purple something about her skin. It only took half a second to work out she was riled enough to be generating a static charge that danced between her pores “Hey!” He should probably pay attention. She only got more pissed when she figured out people were looking at her rather than listening. Sayia stopped examining the hair-thin streaks of lightning and looked up to her eyes; bright blue and reflecting the light of his four monitors. He realised on a whim that she was sitting far too close to comfort to the only thing housing both Gilliam and WhiteAlpha. Considering the electric charge she was capable of generating she… “Hey! You’re glazing over.”
Sayia shook his head “Sorry. You’ve just got me worried already.”
“It’s great to know I have that effect by walking in.” She didn’t look impressed. She was pouting.
“You know that’s not what I meant. You’re… “He absently waved a hand at the visible static “…you know.”
“Because, I’m trying to tell you how fucked we are.”
“Ok, ok” Sayia lowered his hand, pandering to her “What’s up?”
Sayia didn’t need to hear anymore. He got to his feet. “Gilliam. Keep working on it” He picked up a headset and fixed it into his ear.
“Yes, of course.” Gilliam politely replied “I will update you every…”
“Just keep me updated when something happens.” Sayia answered firmly. Gilliam didn’t need to reply. Sayia started to walk. Tara moved with him “What did you see?”
“It’s brighter. And not the sun is shining in just the right kind of way brighter. Like actual brighter.”
Tara simply nodded.
“Then it’s time we earned our name. Get everyone ready. I’ll get Jemima.” Sayia strode away, heading towards the labyrinth of storage rooms that Sister Sever and her cohorts currently occupied. Tara stopped to watch him go. She still didn’t know if this alliance was going to work out. But Jemima had kept her side of the bargain so far. Even her most unstable of followers had fallen in line and to an outsider; you wouldn't have known who was hero or villain.
“Something’s happening huh?” she heard the familiar, corn fed voice over her shoulder.
“Yeah.” she folded her arms defensively without even realising, her eyes still on the entrance to the storage rooms.
Jain exhaled slowly and ran his hand over his buzz cut and onto his five day stubble “You’ve got to stop doing this.”
She turned to him, looking straight up into his eyes so quickly it almost caught him off guard “I don’t have to stop doing anything.”
“You've got to take us out of this.”
“You made this about us.”
“No. You screwed everyone over. I’m not just going to forget that.”
“I’m not asking you to.” Jain shook his head “I’m asking you put aside what I’ve done to us. Just for today.”
Tara’s jaw tightened “Taylor put blocks in your head. Blocks to…”
“I know he did. And what would have happened if I’d suddenly changed? Huh? What would have happened if I’d ditched the women and the lifestyle? What would have happened if I’d suddenly become ex-husband of the year?”
Tara’s expression grew sourer. They both knew he was getting through to her.
“You honestly think I was still taking them home, don’t you?”
Tara didn’t answer.
“T… The moment Taylor…” He sighed and looked away, taking a moment before returning to her cutting gaze “I realised what I’d done to the Outlaw Stars. To Sophie, to Tabby. To you… And then I took a leaf out of the Sayia DeLaurent 2006 edition How to Look Like a Dick: Volume 2. I was being seen with them. I was dating them. But I never. Ever. Took them home…”
“Just forget about it.” Tara shook her head, breaking away from his eyes. The warmth of them hurt.
“…ok.” He nodded slowly, studying her expression. He could have played her at her own game. He could have pulled her up for running back to Sayia, or worse. But he knew all of that was down to him. He also knew he was blaming himself more than he had to. Mind control on the scale Ria Da Silva possessed was impossible to resist without help. And he’d been an unresisting slave for months. Worse, he remembered enjoying it. She had twisted him so much his entire personality had changed. He’d had good, no, great times freed from Tara and the Outlaws Stars and that’s what he hated the most. He hated that he couldn’t turn those memories to ones he wanted to forget. He hated that he’d been programmed so well it was as if he hadn’t been programmed at all.
They both realised at the same time they’d been caught up in each other’s eye lines. Tara broke away first, but he didn’t want to. She could still feel his eyes on her “It’s going to happen today.” Tara spoke the words slowly and clearly.
His expression changed “What?”
She looked back to him. She knew that look. The look that said right now he was a Meta Marine and an Outlaw Star ready for deployment. “The rift is opening and whatever is on the other side is going to come through.”
Jain looked up, even though all he could see was dull, dark concrete coated in moss. He narrowed his eyes and then looked to her “Then it’s time to get them back online.”
“Get what back online?” Tara’s head tilted involuntarily.
“The War Walls.”
“Jemima?” Sayia called out down the dark, echoing corridor. It was the kind of corridor you’d see in a torture movie, the kind where unsuspecting teens have to fight some strange, masked kidnapper to escape. The roof was just a little bit too low, pipes stretched along the tops of the walls to vent… something and the lights that cast flickering circular spotlights onto the floor were ever so slightly too far apart, leaving you to walk in darkness just long enough to feel a chill run down your spine before you found brightness again. Sayia had decided a month or so ago that his frame that didn’t help. He was tall sure, but even he was used to ceilings that didn’t make him feel like he needed to duck. He knew Jemima and her cohorts had chosen this part of the sewers deliberately. The thought of creepy, twisting concrete corridors and the villains you may find down them was enough to put most people off bothering the Evisceration, but he didn’t scare so easily. He knew more about these people than they did about each other. Both as a lawyer and a Hero much of his time was spent reading files; know your enemy was a phrase he often swore by and it was true, information was power in Paragon City. You could knock a kingpin villain off their throne just by knowing something about them no one else did. Whenever he was about to encounter the Evisceration he’d run through the basics in his head to kick start the memories of everything he’d read about them, just in case he needed it.
He rounded the corner and came face to face with the young girl known ‘affectionately’ as Miss D and one of his in head recitals automatically started. Miss Directed. Real name: unknown. Known aliases: Miss D, Missy D, Alice. Known villain group affiliations: The Evisceration. Known associates: Sister Sever, Dark Pain Lord, Vera-Ellen. Threat Level: 50. Known powers: psychic, telekinetic. Suspected projector. Suspected necromancer. Distinguishing features: scarring across the entire body suggesting extreme physical abuse as a child. Sayia blinked. Miss D’s head was tilted and she was staring at him with cold, dark, dead eyes. He could tell she knew what he was reciting in her head. Out of every villain he’d met, Miss D was the only one who frightened him; genuinely frightened him to his core. She was unstable and had no moral compass whatsoever. No one knew for sure the extent of her powers. All he knew was that every time he encountered her he could feel something in his stomach. It was like being hollow. It was as if just looking at her drained you. The hairs on the back of his neck started to stand up on end and then the whispering started. The rumour that was most abundant with Miss D was that every person she’d killed followed her. The more superstitious believed that she can drain souls and those souls stay with her. He didn’t believe that was true. The whispering could be a cruel trick created by a powerful psychic mind. On the other hand, he could be wrong. In the maddening moments he allowed himself to listen to the whispers, he could tell each one had a different voice. When Miss D was sedate, as she seemed to be now, the voices seemed to cast out warnings, tell him to leave, to run for his life. Some even told him to kill the girl who couldn’t be much older than 16. But when she was angry, or under Sever’s command, the voices would change as if she controlled them. They would scream about what she was going to do to the person in her sights, sending vicious messages of violence and death as if they were heralding that person’s fate. Sayia moved his eyes to meet Miss D’s and there was silence.
“…what do you want…?” a soft, female whisper crept into his ear, though Miss Directed’s lips didn’t move.
“GO AWAY!” another screamed; older, more masculine
Sayia cleared his throat “I’m not here to try to hurt you. You know that.” He tried to keep his voice calm
There was a long pause, even the whispers stopped; before a single voice cut through his mind “You hurt me” He knew that one. The voice he was certain only he and Jemima had ever heard.
“Miss D…” he changed his mind “…Alice. I need to speak to Jemima. It’s…”
“You. Hurt. Me.” Miss D’s eyes darkened
“It was an accident.” he didn’t realise, but he was starting to hold his hands out defensively in front of himself
“You wanted to kill me”
“…I didn’t. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt” His voice started to waver as she took a single step forward. Or did she? Christ, she was like the kid out of that Japanese film that scared the crap out of him, though he’d never admit it.
“You. Hit me. You put your hands on me. You wanted to kill me.”
Jesus Christ how the hell did she get so close?! His mind screamed at him. She’d been fifty metres ahead hadn’t she? Now she was standing under the same spotlight as him, staring straight up as though she’d been there all the time “…Alice. It was an accident. I know you can see that. I know you can.” All of sudden he was on a rooftop. It was raining. He was chasing Jemima’s purple flash as she darted across the concrete. He reached out to stop her and there was Miss Directed. She blocked him from getting any further; a black hooded figure as still as a statue. He couldn’t stop himself. His hand connected with her and she crashed to one side. Her head hit the breezeblock edge of an air conditioning unit. Blood started to run down her face from her hairline. Blood? He didn’t remember the blood. Sayia reached forward, leaning down to cup her face with both hands. She was out cold. Hurt, but still breathing. Now was his chance. His hands started to squeeze her head. He lifted it very slowly, revelling in the opportunity and then started to bash it over and over on the concrete edge behind it. He used every ounce of strength. On the third hit he felt the crack. On the fourth he felt the splintering of bone. Then it was like pounding meat; soft and growing softer by the moment. Her face was impacting as her skull gave way, one eye bulging as the cheekbone shattered under it. He was smiling. God it felt so good. He’d never felt anything so good!
“STOP!” A voice rung down the corridor. Sayia stumbled backwards into the wall and gasped for breath. He stared down at his hands. They were violently shaking; so badly he couldn’t’ even bend his fingers.
“…that didn’t happen…” He swallowed, trying to cut out the sound of his heartbeat thundering in his ears “…that didn’t… happen…” Somehow he looked up at Miss Directed. He was met by the smallest of smiles. The kind a cat would wear after catching the juiciest of pigeons. Then he caught sight of Jemima. He’d never been so grateful to see her. She slipped her hand onto Miss Directed’s shoulder and suddenly she seemed to calm and grow meek. He watched as the girl, mentally younger than her physical age, that could be the only explanation for her being able to be so cruel, curled into Jemima, seeking her protection. Jemima looked down at her and gently stroked her hair as a mother would.
“…you gotta keep control of that kid…” Sayia tried to smile. He tried to make light of it.
Jemima’s violet eyes moved to him “I’m sorry. She’s still upset.”
“…I got that” A nervous laugh escaped his lips.
“Go on” Jemima cooed to Miss Directed “Go get some sleep. You need your strength.
The girl looked up at her, nodded and then slowly made her way along the corridor as if nothing had happened; as if she was no different to any other.
As soon as she was out of sight Sayia exhaled, rested his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry. I’ve asked her not to do that while we’re here.” Jemima nodded very slowly “She’s a good kid…” her words were cut off by the laugh Sayia couldn’t stop coming out.
“If that’s a good kid, I don’t ever want to see a bad one.”
Jemima’s expression hardened “She has been through more than any person should have to endure.”
“Coming from you that’s…”
“Coming from me, that means it’s about as bad as it gets.” Jemima stared him down, coldly “Think what you want about me. You know what I’ve done. You know there’s worse you’ve never been able to prove. I can choose to do awful things. She can’t.”
Sayia went to speak, but chose not to.
“She doesn’t understand anything but fear. She only feels safe when people are frightened of her or if I’m there…”
“I know.” Sayia nodded very slowly and looked to Jemima “You know I believe you when you say you keep her in line…”
“I know you don’t understand.”
Sayia sighed “I don’t understand. You’re right. I don’t understand why if you can stop her when you want, you don’t just stop her…”
Jemima took a long, deep breath “Because we see things differently. The people you see as victims, I see as the problem.”
He didn’t want to get into a debate. Meta rights were something he and Jemima saw rather differently and he didn’t want to risk losing her commitment to his cause. “I didn’t come here to fight.”
By the look on his face, she knew he was telling the truth “What do you want then?”
Sayia took a moment to choose his words so he wouldn’t cause panic if he was being overheard “You, me, Tara… we need to talk. It’s important.” He didn’t blink as he spoke, to make sure she understood just how important it was.
Jemima looked away for a moment and then back to his eyes “I’ll be there.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” Sayia heard Jain’s laugh as he approached the thirty year old sewer CCTV room. It was filled with small black and white TV screens, some of which still streamed flickering images of the huge tunnels and maintenance shafts surrounding them. A table and chairs had been set up in the centre; crammed in amongst the screens, so it could be used as a makeshift war room. A very makeshift war room. As Jain’s laugh continued, Sayia prayed in his head that that comment had not been directed at Tara. As he walked in, he realised, of course, that it was. Tara was sitting at the table, arms tightly folded, and predictably had a pout already on her face.
“No, I’m not kidding.” Tara spoke with a tense jaw.
“You can’t trust him, Tara.” Jain continued. He was leaning against the opposite wall, arms folded too.
“You don’t know him.” Tara’s eyes narrowed.
“Neither do you.”
“I knew him way before I knew you. I’ve known him since I was eighteen.”
“Yeah? You got married to me, and apparently you don’t know me at all.”
Sayia wanted to face-palm. He’d walked into a marital.
“This is totally different.” Tara looked like she was having to really control herself. Sayia could feel the static in the air, crackling from her skin.
“You’re right. This is way worse.” Jain took a breath and then carried on before she could cut in “The guy killed people. And what about that lawyer? Last I heard, he's still in a padded room and a straightjacket. All he did was piss him off!”
“That wasn’t him! You know that wasn’t him.” Tara’s jaw tensed.
“And you think ten years in a glass ball has made him more sane? You think ten years watching the Circle of Thorns do the same thing to other people has made him less like Pyrerain?”
“Fuck you!” She pushed herself to her feet, ready to go at him. Sayia winced. He could’ve sworn he’d got an electric shock when she moved. That was enough.
“Whoa whoa!” Sayia stepped into view.
“Don’t you get involved.” Tara’s anger turned on Sayia, pointing a finger right at his face.
He held his hands up, conscious of the tiny crackles of lightning lingering around the fingernail jammed in his direction. “Don’t dismiss Jain just because you’re mad.”
“Oh. So you’re on his side now?!” She looked mortally wounded.
Sayia hated that expression. He always felt it prang right in his guts and wanted to face-palm again. He could never seem to say the right thing when she got mad. “Jain has a point on this one, T.” He had to stick with what he really thought. This wasn’t just another argument.
“Sorry. I forget how you’re like… best friends?” she sat back down, folding her arms so tightly it looked like it hurt.
“Tara, you’re being unreasonable.” Jain kept his eyes on her.
“No!” She sat bolt upright. The TV screens all blurred simultaneously. “You’re not willing to listen because you think you know better. If you just shut up for one second and listened to what I had to say for once…” She stopped talking as Sayia held one palm up.
“Ok. Ok.” Sayia sighed and looked to Jain “Just…” he sighed again “Just hear her out.”
Tara almost looked smug as Jain rolled his eyes and relented “Go ahead…”
She took a moment to revel in a petty victory. In that same moment, the air became more comfortable; like the fresh feeling right after a storm passes. “We have got to use every resource we have, right?”
“Right.” Sayia nodded. Jain’s expression, however, read more as a “whatever”.
“You want to turn the War Walls back on.” Tara was looking at Jain and suddenly Sayia started to too. Jain met Sayia’s concerned look and nodded. Tara didn’t wait to continue “If you want to turn them on, you’re gonna need to get inside Terra Volta. Terra-fucking-Volta. Currently the number one most protected site in Paragon City. And I wonder why…”
Sayia knew she had a point there. There was no plausible explanation for Terra Volta to be as guarded and patrolled as it currently was unless something was going on there.
“They know that if we get in there, we’ll get an advantage and we can turn them back on.” Tara seemed to be calming.
“Which is exactly what I’m going to do.” Jain folded his arms again.
“You can’t just waltz in there alone.” her eyes stayed on Jain, while Sayia’s darted between them.
“Yes, I can.”
“Will you stop being a jerk for just one second?!” Tara sounded exasperated. Sayia winced again as the TV nearest to him buzzed static. “If you go in there all by yourself, you’ll get yourself killed and then they’ll know exactly what we’re trying to do. You’ll make it twice as hard for anyone else to do it!”
“Well, I’m not taking him.” Jain growled.
“Why the hell not?!”
“Because he’s…” he never got to finish.
“You don’t want to take him because he’s my ex!” Tara raged.
Jain became just as incensed “I’m not taking him because he’s a goddamn liability!”
“You don’t know that!” Tara got back on her feet.
“Yes. I do!”
“You need backup!”
“Not that kind of backup!”
Sayia stepped right between them, one hand on each of their chests. “Quit it! Both of you!” He was getting a headache. “Tara. I know what you’re getting at, but Jain has a point too.”
“Thank you!” Jain tossed one hand in the air as he backed off; thankful for someone finally stating the obvious.
“So you’re both willing to take on the Evisceration, no questions asked, but Kai Rayne is one step too far?” Tara almost laughed. She stepped back and then actually did to laugh, shaking her head as a realisation came over her “That’s right. I forgot. It’s ok to have your psycho ex here, but anyone else's…”
Sayia felt the sting of the comment flung at him, but he had to take control. He took a long breath “Let’s just all… calm down here…” He stepped away and walked to the wall of aging televisions, one of which showed Jemima heading their way. He watched her for a moment; his psycho ex, and then looked back to Tara and Jain “Look, ordinarily, I’d say no villains, under any circumstances… but…” he sighed “if we need to get into Terra Volta, Tara is totally right. No one can go in there alone.”
“But…” Jain went to protest, but then someone caught his eye. He had no idea how long the raven haired man in the jeans and grey t shirt had been standing there. No doubt long enough to be insulted by pretty much everything Jain had said. He cursed silently in his head, even more so when he saw Tara’s eyes catch sight of the man too. She looked guilty. Guilty that Kai had heard the things Jain had said as if she’d said them herself. Jain closed his eyes and wished he hadn’t spoken at all.
“I get it.” Kai addressed them all from the doorway. “I wouldn’t trust me. No way would I trust me. I’m the walking shell of a summoned demon. I'm Pyrerain. I had a permanent “lethal-force-allowed” rule against me, even before martial law.” He stepped inside, taking a moment before speaking again. “I know I’m more of a villain than any kind of Hero and I always will be. I shouldn't be trusted. I don't know if Pyrerain's really gone, or if he's still in here somewhere” Kai touched his chest lightly.
“Kai…” Tara tried to stop him.
Kai shook his head as he looked to her. “It’s ok. Look… last thing I knew I was walking home from the Paragon Times. Then I got ten years in a glass ball.” his eyes moved to Jain as he quoted him. Jain felt the look burn into him even with his eyes closed “I got to see everything I... he did. Like an out of body experience or something. His actions; my eyes” It looked as if he really didn’t want to be talking about it. It definitely looked like Tara didn’t want him to talk about it, as if she’d witnessed what it had done to him before. “First thing I did when I woke up outside of it, was to tell T to put me straight back in. I don’t deserve a second chance.”
“Kai…” Tara tried again, but was met with him shaking his head once more.
“I don’t. My body is still Pyrerain. Somehow. He’s just not in control right now. but this is a second chance, whether I like it or not. I’m not trained to fight, but I know I can. I know what Pyrerain’s... my body can do. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but if you need to get into Terra Volta, I know I can help you get there.”
Jain had to admit it; he was starting to buy into the idea now it was coming out of someone else’s mouth too, even if it was the man himself. He opened his eyes and looked at Tara. She was staring at Kai as if she’d never believed in anything more in her entire life. That hurt. He was jealous, he knew it; jealous that it has been a long time since she had looked at him that way. Tara’s gaze glanced to Jain, a small smile spread across his lips, totally out of control and catching him as off guard as it caught her. He looked away. He looked to Kai “Ok.” Jain left a pause and then carried on as if that had been his intention all along “but if you screw his up, I’m putting you back in that ball myself.”
Kai nodded “You’ve got it.” He held a hand out to Jain.
Jain tried not to hate him. He was nice. The kind of nice he knew Tara liked. He could see why she had been with him. Jain shook his hand. He tried not to make it cold and slightly too assertive.
“Thank you.” Kai looked at him as if he genuinely appreciated the gesture, even if there was an air of hollowness to it.
“For what?” Jain spoke quietly, feeling the tension coming from both Tara and Sayia as they looked on.
“For looking after her.” Tara’s eyes dropped as Kai spoke and soon after, Sayia squeezed her shoulder gently.
“…no problem” Jain swallowed, his heart sinking. He hadn’t done a lot of looking after her in the last year and he realised that despite everything, Tara hadn’t told Kai what Jain done to her. She hadn’t turned to him as a shoulder to cry on. She’d just carried the pain of him walking out on her. Jain shook hands with Kai for a little too long, the grip warming and gaining an honesty to it before Sayia broke the silence.
“Ok. Let’s sit down and talk this through.” Sayia pulled out a chair and settled down on it.
“Am I late?” Jemima’s purring voice joined them from behind Kai. He stepped aside to allow her in.
“Not at all.” Sayia gestured for her to sit as Kai and Jain joined him and Tara at the table. He tried to ignore the icy chill of Tara’s stare at Jemima and the equally dark gaze she was receiving back.
“Well… White7, the Outlaw Stars, the Evisceration and Pyrerain sitting at the same table” Jemima smiled as she took her place “It’s like the start of a joke.”
“…you’ve got that right…” Tara sighed. She was tired of this meeting already.
“So.” Jemima looked between the awkward four she’d joined, surrounded by the ancient TVs. “Why am I being made to sit in here? This place feels like Videodrome.”
Sayia moved his eyes to Jemima and then to the rest of them “It’s happening today.” He watched as their expressions all sank, all but Tara’s. After all, she already knew. “So from right now, we’re quitting the bickering.” He pointedly looked between Tara and Jain, then to Jemima “we’re quitting playing games. As of right now we are all here to do the same thing.” He gave them enough time to nod in agreement before continuing, “We don’t have much time, so this is about defence. First thing’s first, I agree with Jain, and that is we have to get the War Walls back up. We may not be able to stop the Rikti coming through, but we’ve got to try and stop as many of them getting to the city as we can. Jain, take Kai with you.” he took the decision out of their hands “Get into Terra Volta and see what you can do.”
“You got it.” Jain nodded. He was sick of fighting.
“Ok. What else?” Sayia looked between them all.
“You’ll need a distraction from White7.” Jemima smiled, especially when Sayia raised an eyebrow. “You know, keep them busy elsewhere, or at least make it so there’s less attention on Terra Volta.”
“What do you have in mind…?” Sayia asked cautiously, knowing exactly what she had in mind.
“A little chaos on the streets.” Jemima answered simply, shrugging as if the suggestion was innocent enough.
“How much chaos is a little?” Tara sounded even more suspicious than she looked.
“Well, I was thinking we could go out and kill a few cops, blow up a couple of coffee shops, that kind of thing.” Jemima was met with a stunned silence. She couldn’t hold her laughter back. “I’m kidding. Wow… you people have no sense of humour…”
“No violence, Jemima.” Sayia spoke low and slow, pausing between each word.
“Seriously, I was kidding. I know you won’t let me out to play if you know I’m going to misbehave…”
“Jemima…” Sayia narrowed his eyes.
“Fine.” She sighed “No dead cops. I’ll be nice. I'll even leave the coffee shops alone. We all will…”
“Not too nice.” Jain piped in, to everyone’s surprise.
“Not too nice?” Tara’s eyes widened as she looked towards Jain.
“If we’re getting on board with the whole using villains thing, we should do it properly.” Jain looked between them as they started to listen “White7 are trying to maintain that they’re in control. If we can show that they’re not, that’s going to be a distraction and a blow to Ria too…” He said Ria’s name with enough disdain to make them all uncomfortable.
“I agree.” It was easy to tell everyone in the room was shocked Tara would agree so quickly. She looked between them, “No really, I do. If we set the Evisceration loose somewhere in Paragon, all eyes will go there. They don’t know we’re… whatever screwed up kind of allies we are. As far as they know, it’s a group of rogue supervillains taking advantage of a city, on the worse day possible for them to do so.”
“Then there’s no other reason for me to hang around this little Heroes’ club.” Jemima got to her feet, smiling.
“Wait.” Sayia looked up at her “If the Rikti come through…”
“…when.” Tara corrected him.
“…when the Rikti come through." Sayia nodded. "We’re going to need you.”
“I know.” Jemima smiled and simply walked out of the room. Sayia sighed and rubbed one temple as it throbbed.
“It’ll be ok.” Tara tried to sound reassuring.
“…I don’t want to be the one setting them on Paragon City…” Sayia leaned back in his chair, rubbing the bridge of his nose between his eyes. The headache was getting worse.
“Say I did it.” Kai spoke for the first time since the conversation started and all eyes turned to him “You’ve got the perfect scapegoat sitting right here. As far as Paragon City knows, I’m Pyrerain right? Last time I checked I wasn’t exactly popular.”
“He’s right.” Jain agreed “I’m not one to throw anyone in the firing line, but at the end of the day we can’t have the Outlaw Stars known for using villains against anyone, even if there’s a good reason for it.”
Sayia looked reluctant, but couldn’t disagree, not matter how much Tara's expression was telling him to. “Ok… what else?” Tara looked disappointed in him for agreeing so easily. That meant, deep down, she agreed too, she just didn't want to admit it.
“We’ve got to figure out what to do about the Rikti. We can get the War Walls back up, but anything that comes through has to be dealt with and we sure as hell can’t trust the Vanguard with this one.” Tara looked between them, pushing bright white hair back from her eyes.
“Fire teams.” Jain chipped in “There’s enough of us to lead one each.”
“You’re going to be in Terra Volta.” Tara disagreed.
“Yeah I am, but once the walls are up, they take twenty four hours to power down again. Even if someone flicks the off switch, we’ve got time for me to come back and help.”
“Ok.” Sayia cut in, before it turned into yet another disagreement. “Fire teams. Playing to our strengths. Kai, there are plenty of villains down here that aren’t affiliated with the Evisceration. Round them up, get them on side and get them clearing. Any Rikti foot soldiers, drones, small attack ships. They’re yours.”
Kai nodded. “You got it.”
“Jain, find the tanks and the defenders. Get the strongest ones to lead and get them to evacuate as many citizens as possible. As we come out of here, get them down. We’ve got to minimise the collateral damage.” Jain didn’t look happy about it, but he agreed nonetheless. “Tara, you’re on the offensive. The blasters, the controllers, the scrappers, anyone with the potential to cause damage. Siphon a couple of defenders from Jain’s team for support too. There’ll be heavy firepower coming our way and it needs to be dealt with, fast.”
“What about you?” Tara raised an eyebrow, looking to Sayia. Sayia took a deep, considered breath. “I’ve got an idea, but I'll need time. Time we don't have. So no matter what happens, I need you to keep them away from Peregrine Island. There's no other way.”
An hour later Sayia stood before the televisions, watching the CCTV’s blurry images of a car exploding in down town Galaxy City. It was quickly followed by another, then another, all in a line that led very obviously towards Galaxy City Bank. A heist was in progress, headed up by Sister Sever and the Evisceration. Sister Sever, her Brutes; the muscle-bound eight feet tall Dark Pain Lord, and 486, the result of a genetic experiment of the same name, and the southern-belle Stalker, Vera-Ellen, strode down the street as if it belonged to them. Behind; fifty of her strongest henchmen followed, armed to the teeth with guns, bats, chains and anything else they could find that could cause damage. Dark Pain Lord was carrying a “Welcome to Galaxy City” sign over his shoulders. Even Sayia had to admit, that was a nice touch. In his head he could hear the PPD sirens already and was delighted to see at least one news drone was hovering overhead. They were taking the bait, just like he wanted. As the Evisceration approached Galaxy City Bank, the screen flashed and blurred from the blinding light of something teleporting right in front of the camera. As the picture cleared, he was able to make out white clad figures. Good. White7 had turned up too. He flicked the screen off, leaving Sister Sever to have her fun.
“Time to go.” Sayia glanced over his shoulder at Jain’s voice. Just like him, Jain was in costume, though he hadn’t expected it to be the white spandex of White7 “Don’t…” Jain shook his head “Why do you think I wear the coat?” He tugged a midnight blue long cut greatcoat around himself protectively.
“You look like a bobsledder, I ever tell you that?” Sayia smiled, adjusting his own coat around his shoulders. He preferred his own red leather to Jain’s blue.
“You left that observation out…”
Sayia smiled “Didn’t want you to feel any more stupid than you look.”
“Thanks.” Jain half laughed, then in frustration adjusted the inbuilt protective cup disguised behind a blue triangle of spandex at his groin.
“Seriously, how did you manage to get so many girlfriends over the last year?” Sayia laughed at the sight, but immediately regretted it as he caught sight of Tara. She stopped at the door, looking as if she was pretending she hadn’t heard, but she obviously had.
“Am I interrupting?” She looked between them; ice holding her hair up in thick, sharp spikes at the back of her head. The spikes let off a chilled mist into the air matching her tone perfectly.
“No, of course not.” Sayia smiled, covering the awkward silence caused by Jain’s staring.
“…what?” Tara looked up dubiously towards Jain and the slightly dopey expression on his face.
“…nothing” he gulped. He never gulped. But it had been a really long time since he’d seen his wife in costume and there she was; black boots, no longer heeled, but still showing off an impressive set of legs, and a high cut black bodysuit made of H-Tex woven fabric, tough enough to stop shrapnel and even a bullet from far enough away. Over the years her costume had changed. It no longer showed cleavage; instead it was high necked, but he was fairly certain it was tighter. Her arms were no longer bare, instead the bodysuit had inbuilt gloves. And there was no cloak, just an Outlaw Star logo emblazoned on her chest in white. He stared at her as if she was his favourite movie star, not noticing he was still holding his cup.
“You look like a pervert.” She seemed unimpressed.
Sayia glanced between them “I’m uh… just gonna…” he cleared his throat “Keep your comms open.”
Tara looked at him and nodded “You got it. Be careful.” She couldn’t help but hug him and he welcomed it, even if the ice on her hair felt as if it was leading to frostbite.
“If I’m not back in two hours, you carry on like you’re in charge.”
Tara nodded again. She hated it when he said things like that, but she knew it was a very real possibility “Good luck.”
Sayia smiled like he didn’t need it, like he always did and strode away. Tara watched him go as if it may be the last time.
“…T…” Jain broke the silence very softly “He’ll be ok.”
She did her best to agree and then looked up to him “And you?”
“What about me?”
“Will you be ok?”
He couldn’t disguise his surprise “Me?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “You. I may be a year’s worth of mad at you, but I’m not explaining to Sophie and Tabby that you did something stupid and got yourself killed.”
“Just worried about Sophie and Tabby, huh?” He could tell she was lying.
Her eyes floated away from him.
Jain gently reached to Tara’s chin and turned her face so she had to meet his gaze. “I’m not going anywhere, T. Not again.”
Her eyes warmed as if she couldn’t help it. He was so close. She could feel his familiar heat and how he made her stomach feel as if a thousand butterflies had just burst into life. “Jain, I…”
“THEY’RE HERE!!!” A scream tore through their moment. Tara shook her head at Jain with a look that promised she wasn’t finished with what she wanted to say. She was gone before he even had a chance to react. His eyes lowered. He couldn’t follow. Not yet.
“Get out of the way!” Tara yelled, pushing herself past panicked body after panicked body in the main room of their sewer hideout, until she reached the young man who was screaming his lungs out. “Show me!” She grabbed at the phone he was waving. On the tiny screen she saw a shaky recording of the green rift stretching and slowly, but surely, starting to gape open. It was only seconds before the gape began to spew its black and chrome contents into the sky; Rikti Fighter ships. Tara’s eyes widened and she shoved the phone back into the young man’s hands before pulling herself up onto a nearby air vent “Hey!” She yelled over the throng below her as the crowd started quickly started to descend into full blown hysteria, pushing and shoving at each other in a torrent of fear that could only turn to violence if it wasn’t quelled. “Hey!!”
“Listen to her!” Jain barked from the very back of the crowd. The message took it’s time to spread, but soon, Tara found herself with more than a hundred face staring up at her expectantly.
Tara nodded just once in appreciation at him before her eyes moved to the people below “We’re all here because we’re the Heroes and the Villains of this world.” Her voice echoed; bouncing off stonework and piping. “We’re the ones they’re frightened of! That’s why they’ve been looking us up. That’s why they’ve been killing us. That’s why we’ve had to hide. It’s because they know we can beat them!” There was a rumble of voices below her; cynically wondering if she had any idea what she was talking about. “We all know what we need to do! We know how to end this.” She could feel herself pleading inside that they’d listen. “We protect our city. It doesn’t matter if you’re holding a Security Level or a Threat Level. It doesn’t matter what that level is. We’re all the same now. And we’ve all got a job to do.” She took a breath and lowered her tone “You’ve been given your assignments, but that isn’t what this is about. This is about making sure, once and for all that the goddamn Rikti know that this is our city. Our planet. This is about making sure, when we kick their ass, they will never, ever come back. Are you ready to make this happen?” She was met with a weak, unconvinced response from the faces. Tara looked across the crowd, her fists balling and starting to spit electric blue sparks. She lowered her tone, voicing every bit of anger she had held inside for the last year. “I said, are you fucking ready?” Tara met every pair of eyes she could, forcing them to feel her anger. Forcing them to understand that she would be beside them every step of the way, no matter what it took. A young Blaster near the back, Flamerush, glanced either side of him and then tentatively raised his arm. He curled his fingers and ignited his hand into red flame “For Paragon City!”
“For Paragon City!!” He pushed at seeing the Outlaw Star he looked up to for inspiration the day he realised he was different to everyone else. Tara nodded very slowly, challenging the crowd to do better than a kid in a red suit.
“For Paragon City!” A single voice joined Flamerush’s. Then another and another until the call echoed through the sewer tunnels as hundreds of trapped voices cried out for their city.
Tara. No, Triblaze. She wouldn’t be Tara again until this was done. Triblaze took a long, deep breath and pushed her mask to her eyes. “Get out there and give them hell!”
Sayia smiled as he heard the second cry, this time so loud it could be heard above ground. He knew he’d made the right decision. Sayia looked down to his wrist and pressed a button on contraption that looked like a watch, but wasn’t. In a sudden flash of white, he was gone. When he reappeared he was in front of Portal Corp on Peregrine Island. “You! You can’t be here!” an armed guard barked and instantly opened fire. Sayia simply walked forward, letting each bullet sear into his torso as he got closer and closer. The guard’s eyes widened. He re-aimed and opened fire again. Sayia just kept going until eventually the man whimpered and dropped his assault rifle. He was met with a punch square to his jaw and fell unconscious to the tarmac. Sayia shook his hand, the pain of a cracked knuckle quickly going away; he’d already forgotten the pain of his chest pushing the bullets back out and sealing the holes behind them. He didn’t look at the guard as he stepped over him and walked straight inside the Portal Corp building.
He was met by more than that one guard before he reached his destination, but he didn’t let any of the others come close to stopping him either. With a singular vision, one he hadn’t felt in a long time, he just kept walking; taking bullet after bullet and putting guard after guard down to the ground. It didn’t take him long to reach the main portal room. “Jesus Christ!” a terrified scientist, on night duty took one look at him and fled straight by. Sayia smiled to himself, at least that was one guy he didn’t have to punch. With utter clarity of thought, Sayia made his way to the portal console and started to type in a series of commands he’d repeated in his head so many times they had become second nature: Initiate portal warm up. Set home address. Set destination. Set duration. Set capacity. Initiate power flow couplings. Open portal. He looked up as an explosion that appeared to be somewhere between an imploding star and a whirlpool burst into life in the giant metallic ring towering over the rest of the room. Sayia straightened up and walked to the only door that led into the room. He took aim at the door locking control panel and punched it as hard as he could. He broke four knuckles that time, but he didn’t care. The panel sparked, fizzled and then died, sealing him in and everyone else out. Sayia shook off the pain in his hand and walked towards the portal. He took one single, last breath and then stepped through.
“…unconfirmed reports are coming in from all over Paragon City that Rikti attack flyers have been spotted off the coast.” A young, blonde and very leggy anchor on The Nightly News with Annie and Tom took a breath to continue speaking but then put her fingers to her earpiece and fell silent. Her eyes darted from side to side before she looked to the camera “We’re taking you live to a Nightly News drone in the Talos Island region of Paragon City. Tom?”
Tom, a man in his 30s with painted white teeth and hair so perfect it could be from a mannequin looked stressed as he stood by a large screen. On it was a grainy and slightly bobbing image of warehouses and the coastline of Talos Island feeding in straight from a news drone. “Thanks Annie.” He nodded. He looked very serious. Goddamn, this was the story of his career and he wasn’t letting her have all the airtime “We’re seeing live images from Talos Island. This quiet neighbourhood is normally home to shipping companies and commuters but tonight” he paused for dramatic effect, imagining that news anchor of the year award in his hand “tonight it is the scene of what could be the start of another Rikti War.” He was good, he thought. War made headlines. War made people tune in their TVs. War made people watch the Nightly News with Annie and Tom. Fuck! It should be the Nightly News with Tom and Annie. How did that bitch get her name first? He knew how. She was good with her mouth. Real good with her mouth… He almost grinned. Tom caught himself. Serious journalist face. No. Serious anchor-man face. News Anchor of the Year face. He walked in front of the large screen, drawing the viewers’ attention with him to the night sky, torn open by green light that was spewing Rikti ships like flies out of a nest. “What scientists confirmed as Aurora Borealis appearing un-seasonally early and too far South earlier this month, has now shown itself to be another cruel twist in the Earth / Rikti conflict. Washington has just released a… Oh goddamit!” he yelled at the top of his lungs as the studio went dark. “What the fuck people?! This is the fucking story of the goddam decade and you can’t even keep the power on?!”
“Tom…!” Annie called through the darkness
“Shut the hell up Annie! Adjust your cleavage or something! Where the Hell is the power?!” This couldn’t be happening to him. This was his News Anchor of the Year moment going down in flames!
Jain’s father smacked the side of the TV “Stupid thing.” It wasn’t unusual to lose the TV signal this far into the middle of the nothing that was Iowa’s corn fields. But this was really inconvenient.
“I’m sure it’ll be back.” his wife’s voice cooed from the kitchen, saying the same thing she always did when he got himself het up over nothing.
“Stupid, goddamn…” he grumbled gruffly, smacking the side of it again before leaning over to check the cables.
“Grandpa look!” Sophie squeaked from the sofa where she was sitting with a huge bowl of Choco-Corn Heroes between her legs, staring at the television. “It’s Mommy!”
“For Christ’s sake this is…!” The lights came back on in the studio. Tom instantly became the epitome of professionalism, but then curled his head down and moved his fingers to his ear as someone spoke to him. On the large screen behind him sewer covers were bursting right out of the street and figures were streaking out from the holes left behind. The news drone tracked onto one of them. A white and black clad female trailing an electric blue and violet static charged cloud behind her. “…viewers. We’re seeing what appears to be meta humans leaving the sewers underneath Talos Island…” Tom started to watch the screen as slack jawed as the 350 million people who were one by one turning their TVs on to join the live feed “…this isn’t confirmed but… That’s Triblaze!”
Tara could feel the speed even with her eyes closed as she climbed higher above the city, fists clenched and at her sides. As she burst through the chilling wetness of the cloud line her body relaxed and slowed. She hung just above the sparse cumulus below her, one leg bent, the other staying straight for balance and opened her eyes. Her heart stopped. Everything stopped. There it was; the largest Rikti inter-dimensional rift she’d ever seen. Tara had been much younger the last time one of these had opened and so young the time before that she hadn’t even found out she had meta powers. It was beautiful, in the same way fire is beautiful; rippling colours even an artist couldn’t recreate but holding such threat and terror, there were no words that could describe it. The rift wasn’t even fully opened yet and already two or three hundred ships had come through. She recognised the pattern. First through, a compliment of fighter ships designed to pick off any early threats. They already owned the sky, taking down drones that didn’t know not to get too close. Now the carriers were coming through. Each would have fifty or so Rikti ground troops inside, armed and ready to attack anything that moved at city level. Anyone who could fly and fight back was with her. One by one they burst through the clouds too and took their place by her.
“…What are we going to do…?” An inexperienced member of a junior supergroup whimpered at her side. He wore bright orange and had a flame logo on his chest. Flamerush, the kid who’d led the crowd only a few minutes earlier.
“We do what we’ve been trained to do.” She nodded at him, keeping eye contact all the time “We…”
“…Triblaze…?” The young hero’s eyes went blank and his fingers curled out to her. Horror suddenly spread across Tara’s face and her hands shot forward to try and grab him. But she couldn’t. It was too late. Where the flame logo was there was now a gaping, singed hole tinged green from Rikti plasma weaponry. He dropped, punching a pipeline through the cloud and then slamming into the concrete below so hard it split. The news drone focussed in on his face; an utterly expressionless mask with the tiniest dribble of blood leaking from one eye over his mask. Tom hurriedly moved in front of the image in the studio, just as his producer started to bark at him through his earpiece. He felt sick. “The Nightly News would like to apologise for the graphic nature of this report…” his voice shook “…as I said…we’re coming live from Talos Island…”
For a moment, Tara couldn’t react. He looked as if he’d barely been out of high school. The other flyers hung with her, despite the Rikti blaster shots that were now blasting around them, all staring at the hole in the cloud that was gradually knitting itself back together as if nothing had happened. “We do… what we’ve been trained to do…” Tara nodded. Now wasn’t the time for reactions. She’d find out his real name later and make sure everyone knew it. “Take down those ships.”
Jain looked up from hundreds of feet below. He’d seen the kid fall. Flamerush he thought the kid’s name was. He’d wanted to join White7, he remembered that. From there all he could see was cloud and more and more flyers, teleporters and super jumpers making their way upwards into the sky. “Let’s go.” He heard Kai’s voice and nodded. He’d wanted to see Tara one last time, but he realised it wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t have time to be selfish. Jain pushed himself off the ground, manipulating a combination of super chilled air streams and energy waves to carry his body up and away from Talos Island. Kai followed shortly after, flames staining the sky behind him. He was just simply rocket powered, though to anyone watching that trail looked just a little like a Chinese dragon.
It didn’t take long to get to Terra Volta; the city’s power station. It was state of the art; a self-perpetuating energy source that never ran out and emitted zero emissions. It was also guarded more than Fort Knox. On the ground, Jain could see groups of Vanguard soldiers at every conceivable entrance. “Have you got any ideas?” Kai shouted to him over the wind. Jain looked in his direction. That fire around his face sure looked like a dragon head. Got to love the Tsoo’s flare at least, he thought to himself. “Yeah, I have.” Jain returned the shout and then started to dive. Kai raised an eyebrow, not asking any questions, and simply followed. A few second later, Jain’s feet touched the ground. He adjusted his coat over his shoulders and started to walk straight to the main entrance, getting instantly met with raised weapons “Don’t bother guys! I’m here on White7 business!” he called out.
The nearest group of guards looked between themselves “We’ve been told to stop you!”
“Why?” Jain smiled charmingly, still walking, arms held out.
“Orders say you’re a fugitive!”
“Do I look like one?” Jain’s smile grew broader.
“…no.” The guards looked at each other, clearly doubting themselves.
“That’s because I’m not.” Jain laughed jovially, making the guards smile with him, embarrassed they’d even asked.
“I am.” Kai swept through them like a hurricane of fire, not even giving them time to react to the fear that crossed each and every one of their faces. The force of the burning dust and wind carried them up and in an instant dumped them right into water just off the coast of the man-made island. Kai landed at Jain’s side and began to walk in, just as casually.
Jain smirked “Not bad.”
Inside, the power plant was dark, the manpower focussed outside to stop anyone getting in. Kind of easy, Jain thought. He should probably be worried. Then he remembered he was effectively a bullet proof tank accompanied by a psychic dragon and suddenly he realised everything was probably going to work out. He and Kai slipped through the darkness, avoiding any direct gazes of security cameras.
“How do we turn them on?” Kai asked quietly, after fifteen good minutes of steel corridor after steel corridor.
“There’s a control room. It overlooks the core. In cases of emergency, there’s these buttons that shut off the main parts of Paragon City’s grids to reduce stress on the place. It’s also the only place that has the on/off button for the War Walls. I was there when it got pressed last time…” Jain didn’t look proud of himself. Kai didn’t press him for details. After a few minutes they found a long set of grey stairs leading up to a single door. “This is it” Jain started to jog, moving faster the nearer he got to the door. Kai followed, keeping pace. When they reached the door marked only as “private” Jain lifted a boot and kicked it off its hinges. The control room behind was empty. Jain’s brow furrowed and he stepped in. It wasn’t a wide room, but it was very long with a strange, green ebbing glow to it. The side to his left was a glass panel and showed the control room to be at a dizzying height over the central power core of Terra Volta. The side to his right was a huge bank of computers “Come on…” Jain walked forward, carefully, but determined. He could tell Kai didn’t like this either. Moments later he was standing in front of the emergency control panel. It consisted of twenty or so buttons that all looked as if they should launch nukes. Nineteen of them glowed green. One was red. Jain reached his hand out.
“Too obvious, Acheson.” There it was. He’d been expecting it since they got inside; a White7 ambush.
Jain drew his fingers back and turned to look at the voice. There were two of them. One had his hand out, pointed like a weapon towards Kai. He was an illusionist, a good one too, known as The Conman. The other one could do something with plants. He’d laughed at that and had decided the moment they met to call him Pot Plant Guy. Jain had never liked either of them, so hadn’t really bothered to learn much more. He knew the second guy could control Devouring Earth if he wanted to and that was enough for him not to launch straight away into a fight. Also, there was something different about them… They seemed taller, broader… and something was up with their skin. It looked kind of grey and leathery… Shit… he guessed that Rikti makeover he’d escaped had worked.
“Give it up Acheson” Pot Plant Guy sneered.
“Or what?” Jain sighed. This was already feeling like a dick length competition.
“Oh, you don’t want to test us…” Pot Plant Guy sneered even more.
“Or what?” Jain sighed again. He really hated this guy.
“Or...” Pot Plant Guy looked to his friend, The Conman. He was twitching. Every part of his white spandexed body was twitching and then foam started to leak between his lips and his eyes began to bulge. “What the…?” Pot Plant Guy didn’t even get a chance to finish the sentence before the illusionist’s head exploded, splattering his pristine uniform with brain. Pot Plant Guy’s mouth fell open as he went to react but it was cut short as a pointed, black spike burst through his chest and lifted him from the ground. A moment later he was tossed aside like a doll, landing in a crumpled heap by a cold cup of coffee and a folded copy of the Paragon Times left on one of the work stations.
“Did we interrupt?” A low, almost metallic voice came from where the Conman was just standing. In his place was a woman in a black vinyl dress with starkly pale skin and a shock of white hair. Her black eyes stared coldly at Jain and Kai. But it wasn’t her who spoke. It was the large man with the fur collar and the eight black, curled legs protruding from his back, one of them dripping with blood. He spoke from behind a silvery helmet, not a long way away from the one Statesman wore. “Hello Frozen Phoenix, Pyrerain. What a happy coincidence.”
For the first time in his life, Jain was entirely sure how to react. Part of him wanted to kiss the giant spider-man for getting rid of the Conman and… hell; he really couldn’t remember Pot Plant Guy’s actual name. The other part of him mostly wanted to scream like a little girl, not because he was frightened of Lord Recluse, more because he really wasn’t fond of heads that simply explode and giant spider legs. There was a small smile on Ghost Widow’s face. He suspected she could tell what he was thinking, so he moved his eyes, forcefully, over her spandex dress and made himself imagine her in a bikini. She started to look like she wanted his head to explodetoo. He decided to never have a single thought ever again.
“This puts me in quite a quandary.” Lord Recluse spoke from behind his helmet “I could kill both of you right now and get rid of two more “Heroes” or, I could let you live…”
“No offense.” Kai chipped in “But no one in this room is a Hero. What do you want?”
“At this moment, the same thing as you.”
Jain raised an eyebrow “Ghost Widow in a tiny red…?” Ah shit, she was going to kill him. Lord Recluse put a hand out to stop the black shadow that was swirling out of his companion’s hands.
“We both want the Rikti out of my city.”
“Your city?” Jain was silenced by an elbow to the ribs from Kai.
“My city. We all want them gone. We all want the War Walls back where they belong.”
“Ok…” Jain could work with this.
“But my quandary is whether you would still benefit me once the War Walls are back up.” Lord Recluse had clearly already made his mind up, he simply enjoyed playing with his prey.
“Listen, bug brain, you can either kills us and turn on the War Walls or not kill us and turn on the War Walls. Just decide already.” Jain could feel the withering look from Kai. Ghost Widow had rattled him enough that all clever comments were failing to form in his mind and instead being replaced with “Things Idiots Would Say”.
“I believe that there is a time and a place for exterminating Heroes. This is not one of them. With one exception.” Lord Recluse looked between them.
“What’s the exception…?” Kai asked very carefully.
“White… 7…” Lord Recluse’s gaze moved to Jain.
“Hey hey hey, you may have noticed they were trying to kill me. The shitty white spandex does not make me one of them.” Jain’s head shook vehemently and for some reason he was holding his hands up as if someone was holding a gun to his head.
“I realise that.” Lord Recluse nodded “and so I propose a solution. We will turn on the War Walls and I will allow you both to live. This is on the proviso that we drive the Rikti away from the city.”
“We?” Jain lowered his arms.
“We.” Lord Recluse nodded again. “Your comrades freed mine from the Zig. In return, I am offering the full loyalty of my army until the Rikti are wiped out.”
“…call it a ceasefire…” Ghost Widow had the voice of a snake. Both Jain and Kai felt the hair on the napes of their necks stand on end.
“I’m good with a ceasefire. Kai? Do dragons do ceasefires?” Humour. Humour made it look like Jain wasn’t bothered by this situation, definitely.
“Yes… yes they do…” Kai rolled his eyes and folded his arms.
There was a long, awkward silence where the four simply looked at each other, no one wanting to make the first move. Jain began wondering how long it would be before guards came to cause trouble and resolved to be the one to break the stalemate. “Let’s do this then.” In good faith, he turned his back on Lord Recluse and Ghost Widow. 90% of him expected his brain to get plastered over the control room, or to get skewered by a spider leg, but neither happened. Instead, he simply walked over to the single red button. “This will give us 24 hours to do what needs to be done.” He held his breath and pressed the button.
“War Walls activated. 60 minutes to full city coverage.” a very polite computer voice piped out.
“That gives us an hour to divide out their forces and keep them away from residential areas.” Jain turned back to them. “Then 23 more to get rid of them in case some bastard tries to turn the Walls off again.”
“What about Talos Island and Independence Port?” Kai looked to Jain.
“The people in Talos can go underground, just like we were and we’re just going to have to hope anyone in Independence Port can make it through the tunnels.”
“The Rikti will make them all targets.” Kai replied.
“We will ensure that does not happen.” Lord Recluse interrupted.
“Arachnos saving the day. I can’t wait to see that” Jain half laughed and then stopped immediately as Ghost Widow tilted her head in disapproval. He cleared his throat. “Ok, well… I guess that’s that.” No one moved. This was getting awkward again. “We’ll be going then… Thanks for the… help.” He couldn’t help but look at the splattered remains of the half man-half Rikti team mates lying on the control room floor. He stepped over the Conman, followed by Kai and then sidestepped Lord Recluse and Ghost Widow to squeeze through the door. He’d never been so grateful to be on a staircase in his life. Tara was never going to hear about this. She’d never let him live it down. Trying not to move too quickly he descended.
“…seriously… I thought my balls were going to ride up into my throat when they appeared…” Kai spoke hoarsely. Jain remembered that, despite being the embodiment of Pyrerain, Kai had never had any dealings with anyone worse than street thugs.
“Don’t worry about them, just remember that if all else fails, setting things on fire goes a long way.”
“In a power plant?” Kai raised an eyebrow, stepping off the last stair.
“Ok, that mind fuck thing you did to that lawyer, do that instead.” Jain walked at a decent pace towards the exit. Kai didn’t want to be picky and point out that it wasn’t really him who broke Alan Barr’s mind; but he got the point.
“Are they following us?” Kai caught up with Jain.
“I don’t know and I really don’t want to find out. Let’s just get out of here and thank God they’ve decided to be on our side.”
“Best idea I’ve heard all day.” Jain and Kai burst outside into the sun beating down on Terra Volta and right into the middle of several hundred Arachnos soldiers rounding up the Vanguard men and tying them to anything they could find. “…he really wasn’t kidding about an army, was he?”
“You have no idea.” Jain shook his head “…Grandville is crawling with these guys…” He moved his eyes over the black, gleaming armour of the Arachnos fighters.
“Hasty exit?” Kai turned to look at Jain.
Both men leapt up and soared away as quickly as possible from the island now swarming with spiders.
“Take them down!” Tara cried out at the top of her lungs “We’ve got to that them away from the city!” She and her fellow flyers were darting through the clouds, desperately trying to bait and divert the Rikti ships over the water and away from the residential areas of Talos island.
“Take them down!” Tara cried out at the top of her lungs “We’ve got to that them away from the city!” She and her fellow flyers were darting through the clouds, desperately trying to bait and divert the Rikti ships over the water and away from the residential areas of Talos island.
“This is Frozen Phoenix. Terra Volta is secure. I repeat Terra Volta is secure. And… spidery” Jain’s voice crackled out of her earpiece.
“What the hell?” She pushed two fingers to her earpiece as she took refuge in a low hanging cloud. She couldn’t stay there long without causing hail to start falling, but it would give her a moment to talk away from the barrage of fire bolts, sonic beams and luminescent projectiles being flung left right and centre by her squad.
“The War Walls will be up in sixty.”
“Ok, ok. But what’s this about spiders?” Tara looked stressed and confused.
“That little jail break you guys pulled just won us one hell of an ally”
It suddenly dawned on her “…Recluse.”
“Yeah” Jain’s voice crackled again as a nearby blaster sent out an electromagnetic pulse.
“He’s got control of Terra Volta and he’s going to keep it that way.”
“Ok. That’s good. I guess… that’s good. Priority one now is to get any civilians in Talos Island to safety.”
“We use the sewers, just like you did for the Metas. Those things go everywhere in the city. We’ve got an hour before we’re really noticed. We get the people into the sewers and we get them running.” Jain sounded commanding, his military training coming out and all thoughts of Ghost Widow in beachwear behind him.
Tara nodded, her fingers still to her earpiece. “We could use the controllers to get the message out.” She paused, long enough to tap an interface on the back of her left glove, but before she even had to relay a message, she had a reply and it was right there in her head.
“Give us three minutes.” A girl with blank white eyes, Sensor, stared up to exactly the cloud Tara was hidden in, even though she couldn’t see her. “Everyone will know. They’re all connected now” Sensor closed her eyes. It was like a ripple. The herd of terrified people streaking towards the Green Line monorail station started to stop one by one, as if they could hear something. Sensor had reached out and the psychics were creating a net to catch every last human on Talos Island.
“You need to get back here.” Tara contacted Jain once more. “We need more firepower.”
“We’ll get those ships going. You’ve got them worried, they’re not dropping the soldiers, they’re trying to pick you off first.” Jain looked to Kai “Do you remember what happened under Talos Statue?”
“I remember.” Kai nodded solemnly. Everything in his body remembered taking the true form of the demon that inhabited his body. He felt it, even from his prison in a cavern below Perez Park.
“Well they don’t. They know what to expect from Heroes here. They have no clue what our villains can do.”
Kai let him have that one. Pyrerain was always going to be a villain.
“Let them find out.” Jain smiled as they soared into range of a Rikti gunner ship.
“My pleasure.” Kai nodded as the sight of bolt after bolt of green plasma smashing through clouds and buildings alike caught his eye.
“Tara…” Jain spoke quietly, so she would listen “Sky High.”
Her eyes widened. She hadn’t heard that term ever actually being used in the field. On the ground, Sensor tilted her head as if she could feel the sudden shift in Triblaze.
Tara took a deep breath “This is Triblaze to all flyers. Sky High. I repeat. Sky High.” In an instant, every hero over Talos Island stopped and hung mid-air; processing the order they’d just been given. They’d all been trained, but no one had ever done it. Like missiles they shot up after each other, pushing through the air as fast as their powers would allow them; disappearing from the firing angles of the Rikti ships they were fighting.
“…fuck it…” Tara whispered, took a deep breath and summoned every ounce of strength in her body. She could feel the electro-magnetism in the air, hanging there, useless to anyone without control of electrical forces. She gathered it, pulling it into her core like a battery on charge and then in one single action shunted every charged atom away from herself, punched a hole through the cloud above her and rocketed up into the sky.
Jain saw the lightning bolt first. It shot down from a cloud just above a warehouse and then a moment later the lingering sound of a sonic boom, crossed the water and hit Independence Port. Jain stared at the empty sky where the heroes had been. He prayed to God that they’d made it high enough to be out of range for what was coming next. “Sensor, you’re in charge. Make sure not a single citizen is left out here.” She didn’t answer, her mind was elsewhere. But he felt something in the back of his head that told her she knew what he’d said. Jain looked back towards Talos Island proper, where a single troop ship was preparing to land. “Are you ready for this?” Jain glanced to Kai.
“It’s been a while.” Kai smiled “To be fair, I’ve never done this before. My body has. The rest of me…” He shrugged “Worst thing that happens; I burst into a ball of flames and you’re down one demon.”
“If that does happen, make sure you aim for something useful.” Jain forced a smile, realising in that moment that he was starting to like him. Huh, who’d have thought?
“You got it!” Kai laughed to himself but then looked to Jain “Listen, if I do this and it goes…” He paused before restarting “If I do this and I become him again. I want you to make sure I’m finished properly this time. And I want you to swear that it won’t be her who has to do it.”
Jain nodded just once, he didn’t have to words to do anything else.
“Alright” Kai slowed, until eventually he was hovering about a mile clear of Talos Island “Don’t get too close.” Jain moved his eyes over him and floated 50 yards or so away. “More!” Kai’s voice carried to him on the wind despite their earpieces. Jain wasn’t going to argue and backed up to an even hundred. He watched as Kai’s eyes closed; ten years of pent up rage filling his features. So this is what it’s like to see a demon take over, Jain thought to himself whimsically. It always seemed more sexy in the movies. He found himself wondering if Kai would sprout horns, even when the man was curling into a twisted bundle of pain in the air. But his musing was interrupted abruptly as a ball of fire erupted from Kai’s body. Jain cursed without realising, instinct taking over. Within half a second his eyes were closed and his skin was coated in three inches of ice. A good thing too, as when the fire hit him he’d never felt anything like it. If it had lasted any longer, even his powers wouldn’t have held out. A moment later the fire had passed and he was utterly drenched; all three inches melted and dripping from him. Jain cursed again, a stronger word this time, and forced his eyes open. His jaw dropped. He’d seen it ten years ago at a distance, but never this close. Where Kai had been there was a full size, golden and red Chinese dragon bathed in flames. It curled around itself in the air; the picture of infinity. All along its length, heat shimmered from under its scales. He had to give it to Pyrerain. He’d had good taste in picking a form to scare the shit out of people. Jain couldn’t help himself. He pushed his fingers to his earpiece. “So Rayne. Is that your final evolution? Or do I still need to take you to Pokémon day care?” The dragon didn’t answer, but he heard a laugh in his head at the exact moment it’s black inkwell eyes moved to him.
“A few trips around Kanto and I’ll be fine.”
“You know that party trick is dangerous right? Nearly melted me.”
“Women like the wet look. You should be grateful.” The voice laughed again. Jain couldn’t help but join in.
“I can’t even tell you to get your ass moving. Do dragons have asses?”
“You don’t want to know.”
About a mile above Talos Island, deep inside a cumulus cloud Tara stared blankly in horror at what she was hearing through her earpiece. “Is everything ok, Triblaze?” The weather controller responsible for the cloud, a young girl with white wisps where her hair should be and eyes that looked like pools of water, stared right back at her. It took a moment, but Tara shook herself to. “Do you know the name Pyrerain?”
“Who doesn’t?” The girl, who could be in her late teens, at the most her early twenties, though it was hard to tell, shook her head.
“Well, he’s down there, right now.”
The girl, Nimbus, looked like she’d just been punched in the gut. Several others around them looked the same.
“There’s something you all need to know.” Tara took a very deep breath “Ten years ago when I…” She swallowed “We buried him. Pyrerain was gone. But the Circle of Thorns kept the soul of the man whose body Pyrerain used. We managed to find it. To free it, just as the Circle of Thorns were preparing to bring Pyrerain back. They’d dug him up, healed him…” Tara knew she look as sickened as she felt. “The soul of the man; Kai Rayne, took his body back. He stopped his body becoming the host for that demon again. They merged. He is Pyrerain. He can do everything that monster could. But his soul is his own. We have to trust that.” She looked around the mixture of emotions facing her “We’ve all had to ally with people we’ve wanted nothing more to do with that throw in a cell in the Zig. And this is no different. Today, we let him help us fight the Rikti. If he tries to turns on us, then we all have to make sure he doesn’t get the chance.” The flyers all nodded, one by one “Right now he’s with us and he’s strong. We have to make sure that every ounce of that strength is used against the Rikti. We have to protect him. He’s our best hope.”
“When is this going to stop?!” A voice called out, belonging to a Hero named Bullet.
“When the Rikti understand that we are more of a threat than them. When they realise that every time they come to this dimension we will kick their asses right out again. Whatever it takes.”
“I’m not protecting someone who killed all those people!” Bullet cried out.
“I’m not asking you to!” Tara shook her head “I’m asking you to protect Kai Rayne. He’s the only hope we’ve got.”
The cloud turned orange red around them, as if the sky below was on fire. The flyers looked down, not all of them knowing what they were seeing, but not wanting to dare to drop lower to find out. Underneath the fog Kai, now a dragon the length of a Paragon City metro train with scales yielding fire as hot as the core of Terra Volta, tore through the air towards the nearest Rikti drop ship. He didn’t know what was going to happen. But he knew he wasn’t going to let it land. All over the city, Rikti troops were being reported, and below him, far below, he sensed Jain Acheson desperately fending off soldiers trying to cut off citizens’ escape from Talos Island to the sewers of Paragon City proper. All he had was a skin of ice and the hope that his energy manipulation was strong enough to counteract Rikti weaponry. Neither power would last long enough if more of those parasites reached the ground. Kai fixed his sights on the ship. He figured it carried about a hundred soldiers, maybe more. It would be a good test. Of course, the ship had spotted him. Everyone who could see Talos Island had spotted him. Every ship within 10 miles had spotted him; he was like a second sunrise blazing over the skyscrapers. He saw the guns on the ship move, targeting him. And a moment later they opened fire. Blasts of green split his fire apart and hit his scales. They weren’t really scales. They were… him. Him made to look like scales to scare people. But the Rikti weren’t people. He didn’t know if they were scared of him or just thought he would be a good test too. The green hurt as it hit him. Not like the pain of a bullet, or a knife. It was like a hundred pins digging into his skin all at once. As blast after blast hit Kai he began to get angry. That was a good sign. Anger must mean he wasn’t being that badly hurt. He shot forward.
Kai opened the jaws of the dragon visage and bathed the ship in fire. The hull baked, then groaned, then started to melt under the intense heat. The guns fell free; dead weight falling onto a gas tanker left abandoned in the street below. The explosion levelled half a city block, but it sure helped Jain out, though Kai was certain he’d have to listen to the complaints of Jain being knocked back onto his ass for the next month. But he had half the number of Rikti to hold off now and that’s what mattered. Jain looked up, grinned and then landed a punch with the force of a small traffic collision into the faceplate of a soldier as the blast hurtled it towards him. Kai circled, hanging mid-air as the drop ship listed. It looked like a wax toy left too near a candle. Its engines were failing and there was nothing its baked occupants could do. Something in his stomach twisted at the thought of a hundred lives ended in a heartbeat. It had been fast at least. A few moments later the drop ship smashed into a Crey skyscraper. The building seemed to implode at the impact, crunching in on itself before tumbling like kiddie blocks into the building next to it. The drop ship, the skyscraper and one half of Talos Island Mall disappeared in a plume of dust and bright green engine fuel. Kai watched it, seeing every pattern in the smoke, feeling the emptiness where the demonic blood in his body had felt the Rikti lives. In that moment he resolved that when this was all over he’d hand himself over to any authority that wanted him and he’d answer for what he’d done. Everything. Even the crimes Pyrerain had committed while he was stuck in a glass ball. But not before he’d made sure this was finished. Kai sensed them and his eyes confirmed it; five more drop ships, guns ready to fire, were approaching. He wasn’t going to give them the chance.
“If I’d known…” Jain ducked as a Rikti soldier tried to hit him square in the nose with the butt of his rifle “…that all we had to do was awaken a demonic fire dragon…” He sidestepped as the angered trooper tried to hit him again “…I’d have recommended it in the last two wars.” He booted the Rikti in the stomach. It went tumbling backwards, taking the one about to shoot at Jain down with it.
“Hindsight. Twenty Twenty…!” Taylor di la Conti, the psychic who had put blocks up in Jain’s mind to stave off the advance of White7’s mind control gritted his teeth and shoved the Rikti rifle in his hands forward; bracing it to keep a huge scythe like blade away from his face. He was marine trained, just like Jain, and it was pissing him off that the Rikti helmets weren’t allowing his mind to penetrate them.
Jain stopped and looked up “That’s seven ships he’s taken out. Give him another ten minutes and this’ll be over.”
Taylor broke the stalemate between him and the wielder of the blade. The Rikti launched for him, but Taylor was too fast. He had no idea why, but he thought a headbutt would be the best method to take the trooper out. Surprisingly, the soldier went down, stone cold unconscious. Taylor moved his hand to his bloody nose, broken clean across the bridge on the Rikti’s mask. Jain winced at the loud crack as his friend twisted the bone back inline. “Baby” Taylor smiled, wiping the leftover blood away.
“Listen, I’ve had a broken nose too. Let me tell you, tomorrow you’re going to cry like a little girl.”
“Jealousy is a bad, bad thing.”
Jain raised an eyebrow and punched a Rikti in the throat as it ran at him with an ice laden fist. “Trust me, I looked better with a fucked up nose, than you look on your best day.”
“Is all this because your ex-wife’s psychic, super-strong, probably immortal, fire-breathing dragon ex-boyfriend is currently being cheered by every person in this city?”
Jain looked grumpy “I talked down Lord Recluse.”
“Is that right?” Taylor half smiled, “Sweet nothings to Lord Recluse huh?”
Jain looked even grumpier at knowing that whole conversation had probably been overheard. “Just shut up and get back to posing already.”
“Are you guys done comparing dicks?” Tara’s voice crackled in their ears “We’re flying blind up here.”
Taylor looked up into the sky; eyes that almost appeared to become blind moving over every inch of it. “You’re good to go, Blaze. Those ships are evac-ing fighters. Take them out.”
The cumulus cloud dissolved as fifty Heroes burst from it. Moments later the sky lit up with streaks of flame, electricity and energy bolts one by one taking out the smaller Rikti ships.
“Recluse’s forces have Terra Volta under control. The Rikti there have surrendered.” Flashback, the super-speed scrapper leading a surveillance team around the city reported over their communications. A moment later they heard his voice again “Confirmed victories in Faultline and Kings Row too thanks to the controllers and the Evisceration have held Galaxy City.”
“I guess this was a bad day to be a bad guy.” Jain smiled.
“Too bad for your boss, huh?” Jain glanced to him.
“Yeah… too bad” Jain looked troubled.
In Galaxy City Sister Sever stared down at the glass eyed bodies of the three members of White7 sent to stop their bank raid. Next to her, Vera-Ellen wiped off a six inch blade “Oops.”
Sever moved her eyes to her “Just make sure the money’s left.”
“What? Ya’ll’ve gotta be kiddin me?” Vera-Ellen looked mortally offended behind her messy blonde hair.
“I’m not. We’re not out for ourselves today. We can come back for it tomorrow.” Her eyes moved back to the bodies; the not quite human bodies. “That’s two at Terra Volta. Three here. Jain makes six… One to go…”
Vera-Ellen glanced to Dark Pain Lord, who was approaching with 486 after surprisingly thoughtfully arranging a group of unconscious bank guards on the floor so they’d be comfy when they woke up “What’re you thinking, boss?”
“I’m thinking that something is going on.” Sever straightened up “Acheson escaped them and they didn’t come after him until he made it to Terra Volta, but the place would have been swarming with Arachnos. They’d have known that. Even a group of superior assholes like White7 wouldn’t just swoop on in there. They sent three here… That’s a lot of attention for a bank heist. Even if it is to deal with us… We’re being double bluffed.”
“Ya’ll thinkin it’s a diversion?” Vera-Ellen put one hand on her hip, looking between her comrades.
“Yes… Yes I am…” Sever’s eyes darkened as the sound of victorious cheering penetrated the damaged walls of the bank and the chatter of celebrating Heroes came through her own earpiece. “I think this has all been a diversion…”
The Heroes gathered at the centre of Talos Island amid the smoking rubble of the buildings. Between them, in a matter of hours, thousands of citizens had been moved to safety, hundreds of Rikti had been rounded up and were en-route to be held in the Ziggurat and every Rikti ship that had made it through the portal had been brought down. There had been causalities. Over a third of them were wounded and half of that number again would be memorialised when this was finally done; their names inscribed forever next to their fallen brothers who had given their lives in the first and second Rikti wars. But spirits were high. They’d achieved what they’d set out to achieve. Villains had become Heroes and they’d stopped the Rikti from gaining any more ground on Earth. As they all gathered, the Outlaw Stars stood ready in front of them to speak, casual for now, their arms folded, still grubby from fighting.
“That shouldn’t have worked.” Tara shook her head; her mask in her hand.
“It shouldn’t’ve worked, but it did.” Jain nodded.
“We had things White7 couldn’t have anticipated. No one would ever factor in Arachnos joining the fight. And not even we thought of a resurrected demon.” Taylor smiled, hoping Kai would understand his terminology. Kai didn’t seem to react either way, arms folded, a stony expression on his face.
“You had to.” Tara spoke very gently.
“…I know” Kai nodded.
“So what now?” Jain looked between them.
“Clean up. At least for the majority. We’ve still got a job to do.” Tara’s eyes moved over them.
“Ria.” Jain growled.
“Exactly.” Tara agreed.
“The sooner the better.” They all glanced to Sister Sever’s voice together, like an inbuilt reflex, and not surprising too given the number of times they’d faced each other in the past. “It’s a set-up.”
“What is?” Tara already looked suspicious of her arrival at just that moment, not liking that Sever was flanked with every member of the Evisceration.
“Think about it.” Sever joined their circle “Every part of that plan just went off without a hitch. Sure, we trashed the hell out of Talos Island, but that’s to be expected. I don’t know White7 as... intimately as some of you…” Her eyes drifted to Jain, who gritted his teeth in response. “But I know that someone who would spend two years working to slowly eradicate us from society all to open a Rikti portal without raising suspicion isn’t done yet. She’s disappeared and there’s one member of White7 who hasn’t even made an appearance yet.”
“Nurse?” Jain suddenly looked worried.
“The one that broke you out?” Tara looked to him, the same worry filling her face.
“Nurse wasn’t involved in this. She had a mental cap like me.” Jain shook his head.
“So where is she?” Sever shrugged.
“I haven’t seen her since she got me out…” Jain could feel the silence of the group seeping into his stomach. He shook his head vigorously “She wouldn’t be involved in this.”
“Maybe you just didn’t see it because you were sleeping with her?” Tara couldn’t stop herself from saying it; though fell instantly silent as Taylor shook his head subtly at her.
“No!” Jain could feel himself getting angry “She wouldn’t do this!”
“Slow down.” Taylor held his hands out in an attempt to calm them. “We don’t know what “this” is yet. It could be nothing.” He looked to Sever. “I know what you’re saying. It shouldn’t have been this easy, but we had some serious advantages, even with the Freedom Phalanx off world. The Rikti have become desperate, we know that. They could have grown cocky; attacked too soon.”
“They waited two years. This isn’t done.” Sever shook her head. “There’s something more to all of this. You know it.”
“We’re not about to start telling people we didn’t win here today.” Jain shook his head defiantly.
“Well if I were you, I wouldn’t break out the champagne. That’s all I’m saying.” Sister Sever looked into his eyes. “You know how to find us when we turn out to be right…” She held his gaze a little longer, then turned and headed towards a Paragon City Bank armoured van Dark Pain Lord had just started up.
Jain watched her and her crew go; a bitter taste in his mouth.
“What if she’s right?” Tara broke the silence first.
“Then we work it out before we find out the hard way.” Jain sighed.
“How?” Tara pressed him.
“I don’t know...” Jain took a deep breath and walked off in the direction of the Talos Island sewers, much to the dismay of the crowd, waiting for Outlaw Stars to speak.
Dimension 7183 had been a particularly un-noteworthy place of exploration before an expedition of scientists, guarded by a company of Meta Marines, actually went there. From what Portal Corp. could tell from sending a probe through a smaller portal six months earlier; that world was among the many that had fallen foul of a Rikti invasion force. They had found evidence of a Paragon City nearly identical to their own, but with the remains of technological advancements that implied a civilisation that had not evolved to include Meta-genetics. Without the beyond genius intellects of their world, dimension 7183 had ticked along since World War II, improving in line with similar worlds that were absent of Meta humans. “Remains” was certainly the word to describe what was found in dimension 7183. Paragon City was nothing but the bones of destroyed skyscrapers still trying to stretch to the sky and the rubble of their failure to get there. The world was dust, with radiation levels that would ensure any remaining populace would be dead within twenty years and an air quality, thick with pollution, that would likely kill many of them sooner. Portal Corp. were going to write off that world as not worth their time as there was little to offer in terms of research, until the probe found the body of a human. That human had been augmented. This was beyond their expectations of the people of dimension 7183. The augmentations were cybernetic, something no other reality had managed without meta-genetics. But more than that, the augmentations were Rikti. It was as if the humans who had survived the destruction of their cities were doing so by using the very technology that had tried to kill them. Where their bodies were failing, they were replacing parts. They were letting the Rikti technology, renowned for its ability to change human physiology to become almost Rikti, heal them. But it was with devastating results. This human was part man, part machine, part Rikti. He was a Frankenstein’s monster of two races and technology that should never be combined with either of them. The result wasn’t pretty, but it had seemed to work. So why then was this human dead? On closer inspection, the probe found bullet wounds. The Rikti augmented human had died in a fight, and was still holding his gun. The conclusion excited the scientists of Portal Corp. and warranted further investigation and eventually a manned mission.
The next probe studied dimension 7183 in more depth. From the levels of destruction, it had been several years since the Rikti had left and the Rikti didn’t use bullets. This meant the human found by the first probe had died fighting another human. Portal Corp. research had shown in worlds destroyed by invasion or war on such a scale, that the survivors rarely fought each other without good reason. And if they were fighting, there were enough survivors to mean they should step in and offer aid.
It had been agreed when Portal Corp. first started reaching out to other dimensions that despite wanting to help humans who had been affected by the Rikti as much, if not worse, as them that this would prove complicated. They didn’t have unlimited resources and man power. They also didn’t want to risk opening portals to worlds that could later prove to be a threat. In their early missions, they had found survivors and offered them amnesty in their dimension, which they referred to somewhat arrogantly as dimension 1. They soon came to realise that the people they were bringing through were often doppelgangers of existing citizens of dimension 1. Naturally, this caused much debate and in the end it was decided that unless situations were extreme, Portal Corp. was to send aid, not offer amnesty. In the case of dimension 7183, Portal Corp. needed to survey the remaining population to understand what, if any aid, they could provide or if this world warranted an offer of amnesty.
Due to the conditions and clear hostility of the locals, Portal Corp. sent through a company of Meta Marines to safeguard their scientists. These men and women were trained to cope with situations dimension hopping could bring up. They were often ex-Heroes, recruited into the roles and they were aware that sometimes it was a one way trip. Nearly 8 years ago, Jain Acheson and his company of Meta marines travelled to dimension 7183 and within 2 weeks they were declared lost in action. Just another one way trip.
Dimension 7183 was at war with itself, as suspected. It was divided between Rikti augmented humans who lived in the rubble of Paragon City and a surviving population of non-augmented humans who had taken up residence in the sewer system below Talos Island. Jain Acheson and his company lived in dimension 7183 for nearly a year before they finally managed to contact dimension 1. They brought a peace, of sorts, to that world and left ensuring both populations would receive the help they so desperately needed from Portal Corp.
Now, it was time for some payback. Sayia DeLaurent stepped into the dust of Talos Island 7183 and listened to the sound of the interdimensional portal closing behind him as he surveyed his surroundings. Little had changed in nearly a decade. The city was still rubble, but at least it wasn’t the irradiated rubble it had been. He knew that the sewers below the streets had become a home to the entire population while clear up efforts happened on the surface. Portal Corp. had supported building them sufficient water and power supplies, as well as medical facilities to help both augmented and non-augmented humans. He knew tensions here were still high. But he also knew of a good way he could relieve them. Saia set down a signal beacon into the concrete dirt and sent a greeting message, letting them know of his arrival. The last thing he wanted to do was stroll in with demands.
“Long time no see.” The man who came up from the sewers to meet him smiled. That smile was identical to his own, though it had aged since he last saw it. Laurent, his doppelganger in dimension 7183 had been sent as a welcome party. Sayia often wondered if Laurent really was his doppelganger. He was so much more like Sayia’s twin brother than himself. So much brasher, malcontented and vicious. But he knew the eyes. No matter how much the face had aged, his eyes were the same ones that stared back at him in the mirror. “Jesus, you haven’t changed a bit.” Laurent quipped.
“Regen.” Sayia smiled just a little, trying not to appear smug about it.
“Damn. I used to be prettier.” Laurent laughed. “Though I bet I still get more girls.”
“Maybe you haven’t changed a bit either.” Sayia tried to be amused; tried to make a joke out of Laurent’s womanising ways. But the truth was he couldn’t stand the man. Laurent had taken advantage of the people of dimension 7183 as a mercenary, when he could have been a help. He’d pushed drugs, women and weaponry. He’d taken money and supplies from people who had nothing and enjoyed every bit of profit he’d made doing it. Honestly, Sayia couldn’t understand how he could be capable of it; how any version of himself could be capable of that. But then this was a different world, with a different history, despite its familiar face.
“What do you want?” Laurent looked at him, arms folded.
“It’s nice to see you too.”
“Don’t bullshit me. You and your “Outlaw Stars” disappeared as soon as you rescued your buddy, Jain. So what do you want?”
Sayia sighed. He’d hoped they’d have sent somebody, anybody, else to greet him. “Is she here?”
Laurent almost laughed. “Of course she’s here. Your Portal Corp. wasn’t fond of granting amnesty to anyone non-augmented, remember? Plus, they deemed her “too important to displace”.”
“That wasn’t my decision.” Sayia knew Laurent was shooting the messenger. He was man enough to take it.
There was an awkward silence. “Come on.” Laurent turned and headed back the way he came, kicking up grey dirt with his toecaps.
Sayia followed, making small talk about how the population was getting on. They seemed to be doing well. At the very least they were healthier, better fed and less regularly shooting each other, so that was something. The Sewers were significantly different to how he remembered them. The entrance had been fitted with steel doors and the huge sewer tunnels had been cleaned, fitted with flooring and bright lighting. Most of all, you no longer had to sit through a decontamination shower before being allowed in.
There was another welcome party the other side of the steel door, all familiar faces in more than one sense of the phrase. Jain Acheson; bearded and greying at the sides, Taylor di la Conti; a stark contrast to his dimension 1 counterpart, with a shaved head and no tattoos, and Tara Sinclair. This Tara always caught him off guard. Without her Meta-genetics she looked wildly different; tanned skin, long dark hair and deep brown eyes. This Tara was a long way off the white/blue hair, pale skin and sky blue eyes of the woman he’d once thought he’d marry. It made him feel a little guilty that he couldn’t decide which one was more beautiful.
“So.” Tara looked at him, a serious expression on her face. She was dressed for combat. In fact they all were; sniper veils around their heads and throats, bullet proof vests, gun belts, weapons mounted on their backs and hips. He noted, with a turn of his stomach, they were Rikti weapons. Tara waited, as if she knew that he was taking it all in before she spoke again. “It’s finally time, right?”
Sayia’s eyes moved to hers and offered her a small smile as he fulfilled a promise he’d made to her a long time ago. “It’s time.”
To be continued....