The world is changing
The room would be considered large by normal standards. It was however, crowded with men wedged in several sofas surrounding a ninety inch plasma screen mounted on the wall. Given how little space there was you would have expected a dozen or more people but there were in fact only six men. Five of the six were, to put it mildly, huge. The furnishings in the room were larger than normal to try and accommodate them but it only just let them sit together. The oversized sofas also served to make the sixth man look pathetically small. In addition to the people, crates and boxes were piled haphazardly around the room and the entire wall opposite the TV had a graffiti mural with the words ‘Beat Street Boyz’ in large, jagged, monochromatic letters.
The reason for the crowding was clear, the television was on and another showing of Far From Noble’s video was airing. The six were paying close attention to the added commentary from four political correspondents and military experts offering their perspective on the situation. Each one of them spoke as if they knew all the answers and each one actually had no idea of what they were talking about.
“It’s clear the President and Congress will have to act after an attack of such magnitude,” pronounced one of the experts, his face appearing in the lower right hand corner of the screen as Maximum and Boom Box’s fight played out behind him.
A second face took his place, this time a woman. “Perhaps,” she added, “but after the whole debacle looking for weapons of mass destruction after 9/11 and the time it took to hunt down Bin Laden, the American people will demand something more definitive.”
“Obviously we are heading for universal super and powered registration and service,” interrupted another man whose face appeared next to the woman’s half way through his sentence.
“The American people won’t stand for that,” she shot back, “it’s a clear violation of people’s rights. The ACLU has already made a statement that they will fight super registration until the end of days.”
“It’s amazing what people will stand for when they believe their safety is threatened,” the last of the four correspondents interjected, his face appearing where the others had been. “Look at all the changes that happened after 9/11, look at what the Patriot Act did.”
“Griff,” said the first of the huge men turning to the smaller man. His sausage-like finger nearly crushed the remote control for the television as he muted the next reply. “What does all that mean?”
The small man looked away from the television, his face locked in a thoughtful expression. Looking at him you would never expect the rapt attention all the others suddenly gave him. He was less than half their size, five foot eight at most, the shortest of the others had a good six inches on him. He was slimly built and sported a goatee on his slightly weathered face. A wide brimmed hat rested on his head and shaded his eyes. “All that means we have problems,” he said in a concerned matter of fact manner.
“I don’t like problems,” the largest of them said, there was a childlike petulant quality to his voice.
“I know Wayne,” Griff said soothingly, “none of us do but don’t worry.” As Griff spoke Wayne seemed to calm down a bit, he nodded and sat back turning his attention back to the screen.
“Seriously Griff,” the first man asked, “What do you think this means for us?”
“Seriously Walt, nothing good.” He stood up and started pacing, maneuvering through the crowded room. “Do you guys remember what happened after 9/11?” He didn’t stop and wait for an answer. “In addition to the war and all the new security etcetera, there were all sorts of laws put in to give the government new ways to track and stop terrorists.”
“Yeah,” said another of the small giants, “but we aren’t terrorists.”
“No Sam, we aren’t, but people manipulated those laws to go after criminals who they couldn’t nail under the normal laws. They bypassed due process and search and seizure and all those things we use to keep the cops away.” He stopped his pacing and looked right at Sam. “We aren’t terrorists but we are supers. With this level of destruction by supers as an act of terrorism the eye of the law is going to fall on all supers, especially those of us who live outside the law.”
“You mean crooks,” another of the large men said laughing at his own words.
“Sure Rafe, crooks. But it won’t matter that we wouldn’t think about doing anything like that. We will be guilty just because of who we are and how we act.”
“But they aren’t allowed to do that,” Sam said, “they are supposed to obey the law. We break it.”
“Yeah, if you think cops or heroes never break the law Sam then you are unbelievably stupid.”
“Hey,” threw back Sam, “I’m not stupid, but I’m not talking about a cop who takes his usuals. I’m talking about openly breaking the law by applying rules about terrorists to ordinary… OK, extraordinary criminals.”
“They won’t actually break the rules,” Griff explained, “it’s all about the loopholes. We exploit loopholes to stay out of jail all the time. Well, they exploit loopholes just as easily. They don’t really care if the loophole eventually gets closed, they don’t even care if we eventually get let out on appeal. All they care about is using the loophole to get us off the street if possible.”
“So what are you suggesting? We lay low and hide?” asked the last of them, a large man of mixed race.
“No,” replied Griff, “hiding will just convince the cops, who already are looking for a way to come after us. It will look like we have something to hide after the attack. Hiding will only make it worse.”
“I don’t know Marlon, I really don’t know.”
Marlon and the rest looked stunned. It was the first time in five years together that they heard Griff admit he didn’t know what to do. When they were surrounded by the entire Brute Squad with no escape Griff never admitted he had any uncertainty. He guided them through everything and they always came out ahead.
Griff grabbed the remote away from Walt and unmuted the TV. A new show had started, this one was showing images of a college campus. A man in a blazer holding a microphone was walking across a lawn with ivy covered buildings in the background as he began to speak.
“Here at Lander University as well, as all four of the other schools which play host to HCP programs, we are told that applications to the HCP just hit an all-time high. A spokesman for the HCP program here at Lander has stated they have no intention of decreasing their standards for acceptance or increasing their class size just because this attack has made more people interested in becoming super heroes.”
Rafe started to laugh again, “We… we can always…” he had to stop and catch his breath. “We can always become super heroes.” He collapsed in gales of laughter and the others except for Griff and Wayne joined in, though with less enthusiasm. Griff shook his head and Wayne looked confused.
Marlon stopped laughing after a minute. “Wait a minute, why not become super heroes?” He stood up suddenly gesticulating wildly and knocking over a stand lamp next to his chair. “It’s perfect, no one would suspect us then, they get respect, and they get money. I heard Gemstone makes millions a year even after she gives ninety percent of it to charity.”
“Marlon,” interrupted Griff with no success.
“Adamant is rich, Torsade stars in movies, Dyna…”
“Marlon!” Griff interrupted with more force this time and Marlon cutoff in mid-word turning to face him.
“What?” he asked pleadingly.
“It would never work.”
“Sure it would, we’re strong enough, we’ve beaten heroes before. If we can beat them we can be them.”
“Ok,” Griff started, “let’s say they ignore the criminal records three of you have. Let’s say they forget about the fact that even those of us without records are people of interest. Let’s say they forget all that. Do any of you think you can go to college at this point?” He looked at each of them in turn. “Do you think Wayne can?” Wayne turned away from the screen again on hearing his name. “It’s OK Wayne,” Griff said using the same soothing tone he used before, “go back to watching TV.”
“OK Griff,” Wayne replied and turned back to the news report.
“Let’s say miracle of miracles they take us all, even Wayne,” he glanced over at him but he was still watching TV, a smile on his face as the fight between Tantamount and Faraday is shown, it rapidly turned to a look of despair when it switched to Tantamount and the psychic, Mariana, as she pulled the doll out of the wreckage.
“Awww,” he said, “someone broke the dolly.”
Griff uttered a few soothing words and once again Wayne was smiling and watching the TV. Then Griff turned and addressed the others again. “Let’s say all that happens. You know only one in five make it through, we stick together, that’s why we live, that’s how we survive. Right?” he asked.
“Yeah.” “Right.” “Of course.” “Damn straight!” came from the others.
“OK, said Sam this time, “HCP, bad idea. What about something else that’s legit and lets us use our powers? Something that lets us all stay together. How about cage fighting? The super level ultimate fighting is popular, those guys make lots of money. We’re naturals, we can sign on as a heel team, play the bad guys.”
“Yeah,” agreed Marlon quickly, “we can actually get paid and respected for being the bad guys,” he laughed again but no one joined him. “Come on guys that’s funny.”
“It won’t work either,” said Griff calmly.
“What? Why not?” asked Marlon.
“For similar reasons. The criminal record isn’t as much of a problem, lots of guys in there have rap sheets. But we wouldn’t get the protection joining the HCP would give. The league would just be an open place to hide out. If we were becoming heroes they might, and I mean might, assume we aren’t a threat. But cage fighters are violent until proven otherwise, the whole sport revolves around violence.”
“Yeah man,” added Walt, “I’d love to try my hand in the ring against Rick ‘Right’ Cross, I bet I could lay him out.”
“Sure you could Walt,” Griff chuckled, he recalled meeting Walt for the first time five years ago, he was hanging out outside the Nassau Coliseum waiting to get an autograph from the very same cage fighter he was now wishing he could fight. When he couldn’t get the autograph he got a little upset. Only his own swift action kept him out of jail that night. That was when he started gathering the Beat Street Boyz.
“You da man Walt,” said Wayne, jumping up and getting in on the conversation. The whole place shook a little as he jumped.
“Yeah he is Wayne,” agreed Griff, “but we better keep that quiet,” he shifted tone again, “or else ‘Right’ Cross will know he’s coming and he might not fight him. It’s got to be a surprise.”
“Oh, oh yeah,” he said light dawning on his face, “sure Griff, I’ll keep it quiet,” he stopped jumping and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “I’ll be your biggest fan Walt.”
As Wayne sat down again, Griff added in a quieter voice, “they’ll never take Wayne, too much liability, not enough control.” He looked at each of them in turn again. “I worry about all of your control,” he said more seriously, “the number one reason a cage fighter is kicked out is lack of ability to control their violent tendencies. I know you would try but I don’t think most of you have it in you.”
“I try Griff,” Walt added, “I really do. I just get so frustrated sometimes.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said with understanding in his voice. “Also, let’s face it, I’m not really cut out for cage fighting.”
“Come on Griff, you could be our manager, and we don’t need Wayne to fight, he could be part of our posse, everyone there has an entourage.”
“No. Wayne sees one of us fighting and he will join in. We want it that way, just here it works against us.”
“Shit!” exclaimed Rafe, “so you’re telling us we’re well and truly fucked.”
“No Rafe,” Griff shook his head, “I’m telling you I don’t know what to do yet.” He looked closely at each of them. Except for Wayne, who was still amusing himself watching the TV, they all looked like someone just ran over their puppy.
As quiet came over the room again the voice of the reporter on the TV almost sounded like he was shouting. “At recruiting stations around the country we are seeing an echo of the days after 9/11 where they are seeing higher enlistment numbers than any time since World War II. Recruiters around the country have actually been instructed to not accept any enlistments at this time. People’s names and contact information are being taken so that they can make such a decision with some distance from the shock of Meredith Falls.”
The scene focused on a recruiting station in Chicago where the Force Ops shield was prominently displayed. “Unlike 9/11 a large rise in supers attempting to enlist has also been seen. Speculation is that since this was a terrorist event by supers there is either a belief that it will take supers to stop them or a lingering guilt that this was allowed to happen.”
“Interesting,” said Griff, suddenly paying close attention to the reporter.
“A memo issued today from the office of General Joshua Glenn, Commander of Army Force Ops, stated that Force Ops is following the temporary suspension of enlistments but expects to resume normal operations for enlistment within forty eight hours.”
“That’s it!” exclaimed Griff excitedly. “Boys, we are joining Force Ops.”
His proclamation was immediately followed by stares of disbelief. Marlon shook off his stunned shock first, “Fuck no!” which immediately brought all the others in on the side of not enlisting.
“Guys,” interrupted Griff, “stop a minute and think about this. We are all perfect for Force Ops. They can never get enough high level supers, all of us range in the upper level of our power sets. We can enlist together and insist upon being stationed together. There aren’t so many supers in the military that it should be a problem. Wayne should be OK, the army has a history of taking guys with,” he glanced over at Wayne still watching TV and pitched his voice low, “lower IQs.”
“You mean they take people who are dumb as stumps,” laughed Rafe.
Griff shot a glance back to the TV once again but Wayne didn’t seem to notice Rafe’s outburst. He hated being called dumb.
“Yeah Rafe, that’s what I mean, but shut the fuck up you stupid asshole. Say something like that again and Wayne is gonna tear of your sack and stuff it down your throat, and I won’t do a thing to stop him.
Rafe suddenly seemed to realize what he said, “Oh shit! Griff man, I’m sorry,” he looked nervously over at Wayne. “I was just joking, I didn’t mean Wayne… I… Man Griff you wouldn’t let him do that to me again. Would you?” He looked pleadingly at Griff, “come on man, it hurt so fuckin much and finding a healer who could regenerate my balls cost me months of my share.”
“It’s alright Rafe, just… learn to keep your stupid mouth shut. It’s a skill you are going to need in Force Ops.”
“Come on Griff, we aren’t really gonna join the army, are we?”
“I haven’t told you the most important reason why we are. Force Ops gives us the protection we need right now.”
“Griff,” replied Sam, “seriously, the army? If it was hard to picture us in college, can you really picture us in the army? Following orders, crew cuts, yes sir, no sir. Come on man, we’re the Beat Street Boyz, we don’t take shit from no one.” All the others nodded and murmured agreement. “That’s why you put us together, that’s why we stay together.”
“And this is how we keep staying together. I can’t think of another way.”
“You gonna be happy with army pay Griff?” asked Walt. “We have a pretty sweet life now and while you might have some money squirreled away it won’t last.”
“I know a guy who was in the army and came out a millionaire, he was a master of procurement. Anything anyone needed or wanted, he got it. I think among the group of us we can easily do the same. You never know what opportunities will present themselves for profit.”
“No Griff, it ain’t gonna happen,” said Sam, “we follow you but… not there… and if that’s the end, well it’s been a good run. It took a freaking town being turned into a crater to break us up, that’s gotta say something.” He dropped his voice again, glancing over to the couch where Wayne was sitting. “And if you’re going to do this,” he paused for just a bit, “well, Wayne can stay with me. Don’t worry I’ll look after him. I can usually handle him when you aren’t around,” he added hesitantly.
Griff looked around and saw the others were with Sam on this. ‘How did he lose them?’ he wondered. ‘I’m usually much better at predicting which way they’ll jump. It’s the damn attack and all the coverage. I’m flustered,’ he answered his own question in his thoughts. ‘I haven’t had to do this to them in four years, things have gone so well till now. I hate this.’
“Yes Sam, it will happen.” He answered, the timbre of his voice changing, his speech was more insistent without sounding either desperate or whining. “We are all going to join Force Ops.” He looked over at them, they were listening intently now, their eyes were slightly dilated. “It’s the only way we can stay together and get the protection we need.”
“Yeah of course,” said Sam and all the others echoed him. “You’re right, it makes perfect sense.”
“Of course Griff,” added Rafe.
Then Walt jumped in with “You know we always follow you Griff. You think this is what we need to do and we do it.”
Griff looked over at Marlon, he didn’t have to worry about Wayne, he would follow their lead but he needed all of the remaining four to follow. One of them broke loose now and disagreed all of them would and he might not recover.
Marlon had a war of emotions battling across his face, he almost looked like he was in pain. ‘Damn,’ thought Griff, ‘he always was the strongest willed of them, despite the evidence to the contrary,’ he bent his will toward Marlon.
“Marlon, you know we all go together,” he said, the tone of his voice insistent but somehow welcoming as well. “We’ll still be the Beat Street Boyz, but now we’ll be the Beat Street Boyz in black uniforms.” He pushed as hard as he could, “we need you.”
Marlon looked at him, still clearly uncomfortable. “Griff… I…”
‘Come on Marlon,’ Griff thought, ‘just give in before you pop an aneurysm’.
“Griff… Why Griff, there’s more to this.” Each word came slowly, Marlon’s strength translated to his force of will also.
‘Damn an iron will is supposed to just be a saying,’ thought Griff and kept concentrating. “What do you mean there’s more to it?” he asked. ‘Maybe if I give in a little he’ll stop fighting back so much’.
“Griff, why do you want to join Force Ops, it’s not to hide, it’s not for protection, we can protect ourselves. There’s a reason. Tell me what it is.”
‘Well when all else fails,’ thought Griff. His voice took on a more weary tone, he was clearly tired. “I’m… disgusted, I suppose is the best way to describe it. I’m disgusted with what happened in Meredith Falls. I went through there once, maybe ten years ago, before I met any of you. I was just wandering back then, still finding my way. I remember the place, nice town, nice people. I hated to use my powers there. And now… look Marlon, we may be bad men… I may be a bad man. I rob, cheat, and steal. I’m not above hurting someone who is out to hurt me or mine. I’m even OK with hurting someone to get what I want. I may be a bad man but I’ve never seen evil like that, and I god damn hope I never see it again.”
He reached into a pocket and took out a flask, he opened it took a slug and handed it toward Marlon, shaking it in offering. As Marlon took it he continued. “The problem is I know we’ll see it again. The world is changing. This isn’t the same world it was two days ago and it will never be that world again.” He took back the flask and drank what was left inside it. “If that’s what it’s going to mean to be a bad guy then I don’t want any part of it. I want to separate us from anything considered villainous.” He shook his head as if he didn’t believe what he was about to say. “No more than that, I want to be there to stand in their way and spit in their eye. I want them to know that there are lines that should never be crossed. I want them to know it’s not just the heroes that stand against them. I want them to know they have no place in this world. And then… then I want to put a bullet in their brains.”
Suddenly Marlon’s face smoothed out. “Of course you need me Griff, who else is gonna put up with all your shit. Right, we’re in the army now, just call me Major Marlon.”
“One step at a time Marlon, one step at a time.” He looked around, he was going to miss this place. “Alright guys, we have two or three days to get ready. Let’s see what we want to pack up and try to set up a nest egg for when things die down and we finish our hitch.”
Other than Wayne, who remained watching the TV, they all started moving about, gathering boxes, finding papers, generally getting ready to close up shop. Griff looked up from a pile of papers at his five… friends… teammates… subordinates… servants? Whatever they were he would be happier seeing them in a black Force Ops uniform than locked in some concrete cell waiting to be ‘interrogated’ by people who weren’t as gentle at convincing others as he is. He was halfway through burning some papers that should never be seen by anyone when he suddenly realized, he had stopped using his power on Marlon at the end. He looked over at him and the others. ‘Yeah,’ he thought, ‘definitely friends’.
The bar was dark, the little bit of lighting came from flickering LEDs placed here and there around the room. This was not the kind of bar you where you came to pick up women or hang out with friends. At this bar you drank to forget your troubles. To stand alone among others going through the same shit knowing they wouldn’t chase you away out of fear. The people in this bar weren’t different here. Here they were among their own kind.
The air was dry, but the pervasive heat found outside wasn’t so bad in here. No air conditioner whined to try to keep up with the New Mexico desert but the hundreds of tons of concrete which made up the walls served as a great heat sink.
Dissonant music started up, the place seemed like some exclusive underground club where the latest nihilist band was about to take the stage. Above the main bar a new light flashed into existence as a neon sign lit up proclaiming ‘The Silo’ for everyone in the room to see. Other lights winked on here and there flashing in time to the music. Occasionally it lit the edge of the room well enough to see the curving walls of the place. The concrete was damaged here and there, cracked or scorched, in one place it sagged like oatmeal revealing rebar and girders hidden beneath. The walls bore mute evidence of why the patrons of this particular bar weren’t welcome outside it.
Leaning against one wall Michael Hynes, Mickey to his friends, though he didn’t really have any of those, nursed a drink. He stood there staring out at the crowd of his people, the crowd of powereds. It seemed to him that the patrons were more frenetic tonight, more desperate than they normally were, and that was saying a lot. The mood in The Silo was never good, it was always overlaid with a patina of depression, a hatred of the lot that life had cast them in. Tonight it was worse.
When the music died down he moved away from his perch walking to the center of the round room. As he went bits of this and that fell out of the air behind him, a rock, a coin-like disc, shredded paper with the consistency of confetti, a misshapen lump of steel, something that looked like a gold nugget and was quickly snatched up by another patron. Random items, random bits of this and that. He ignored them all, he kept walking until he was almost dead center in the bar. He raised his glass upward, glancing up the hundred feet or more to the sealed doors which served as a roof to this place, he leveled his gaze, stared out at the rest of the crowd and shouted at the top of his lungs, “To Meredith Falls!”
There was only silence meeting him for a second, then a couple of hundred or more voices answered back, “To Meredith Falls.”
He wasn’t sure why he gave the toast. He thought there should be some memorial everywhere for those people but especially here. “The survivors are probably the only people in the world worse off than powereds,” he muttered under his breath.
“Whine, whine, whine,” slurred a short man in an open trench coat. Mickey was so surprised that at first he thought he was asking for something to drink but then he realized he was reacting to what he had just said. Anger surged through Mickey and was reflected in the area around him which became a sudden hailstorm of small pebbles and bits of wood. He looked around at the sudden deluge of clutter and sighed, he was tired of people comparing him to Pigpen from Peanuts.
“Excuse me?” Mickey said, trying to calm himself before he decked this annoying drunk. In this place it wasn’t really safe to throw a punch, you never knew when the person you hit might turn to stone or explode, or have acidic skin.
“You heard me, you self-loathing excuse for a man. Whining about your plight.” The man in the trench walked over to the bar, he had a pronounced limp and Mickey notice he had a metal cage around his leg, the kind of support an orthopedist might put on when someone had surgery to repair a fracture.
Mickey looked closer, he had never seen him before, he wasn’t a regular, and he had never been to any of the support groups as far as he could tell. ‘He’s too old for his power to have just come on him. Maybe he’s new to the area?’ He got ahead of him and faced him. “If you’re not careful you’re going to get your ass kicked,” he said by way of warning. “If you had said that to Leo over there he would have probably killed you. He calls himself Leo Go Boom, do you want to take a guess as to why?”
The stranger looked up at Mickey’s face, shook his head, and then walked around him. He stumped up to the bar and shouted for the bartender.
“What will you have?” asked the bartender.
“Well you won’t have what I really want so how about grappa, do you have that?” he said, “the good stuff if you have it.”
“Not much call for that around here but I have everything,” replied the bartender. He looked at the stranger, sizing him up. “I’m Turk, this is my place. You’re new here so you have no tab, I’m gonna have to ask for some money up front and I don’t take credit cards. Lots of sad cases around here who can’t pay a bar bill and think I’ll let them off the hook, powered solidarity and all that.”
“Heh, yeah right, no such thing,” the stranger replied. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of bills. He unfolded it and took a hundred off the stack. “Is this enough to start me a tab?” He pulled out four more of the same bill. “How about this? That ought to be enough,” he said.
Turk took the bills and looked closely at them. He then put in on a small machine he kept behind the bar, laying them one at a time on a flat grid and watching a laser run over the surface of the bill. After each bill was put through the scanner a small green light lit up. “Can’t be too careful,” Turk said, “a couple of years ago we had a guy in here who turned leaves into money, couldn’t decide what kind of money or how long it would last. As powereds go his curse wasn’t so bad. Course when he tried to pass them off here, that was bad.”
“Heh, I’m sure,” replied the stranger, “no worries here mate, my money is good.”
“What should I call you?” asked Turk.
“Thirsty,” said the stranger and made a small shooing motion. “My grappa?”
Turk shook his head but that was the only thing you could take as a negative about his response. He went to a room behind the bar and came out with a dusty bottle.
“Just give me the bottle and a glass,” the stranger said. Turk did so and the stranger took a seat at one of the small tables that dotted the edge of the room.
Mickey saw him sit down alone in the shadowy area. He had watched the whole exchange with Turk and was somewhat surprised Turk hadn’t thrown the little piss ant out, he’d seen him throw out people for less of an insult. ‘But,’ he thought, ‘none of them had a stack of hundred dollar bills shoved into their pocket.’ He walked over to the table the stranger went to and saw he had poured a glass of the potent drink which sat on the table opposite him where a second chair waited. He was drinking right from the bottle, a small trail of the liquid dripping down his face through his stubble and along his neck.
As Mickey approached he shook his head, “It’s not the good stuff,” he said and gestured for Mickey to sit. When Mickey hesitated he spoke again, “look you have something to say to me and I’m going to let you say it, but I’m not going to sit here and drink while you lecture me. So either you sit down and have a drink with me and say your piece or you get the fuck out of my face and leave me alone.”
Mickey pulled out the chair, the scraping sound being echoed by more small items dropping to the ground around the table. He sat and picked up the glass. “What are we drinking to since you didn’t like my toast to the fallen?” he said sullenly.
“The fallen, why not toast the Towers, or Oklahoma City? What about New Orleans? How about Nagasaki or Coventry? How about Alexandria, or Pompeii, or Troy?” He shook his head. “There are always fallen, there is always loss, go watch Kubrik’s 2001, since man came from apes there has always been killing, there has always been death. Cities come and cities go, we walk on the dust where once stood empires. Who is to say when the next empire will fall?”
“Some of those were natural disasters you know.”
“Ah right, natural,” he looked thoughtful, “of course.” He took another drink from the bottle.
“So what would you toast to if not the fallen?”
A single mirthless chuckle escaped his lips. He raised the bottle. “To the survivors! And to the warriors who emerge from the wreckage and hold back the darkness once more!”
Mickey raised his glass, “Yeah why not. To the survivors and the warriors. Go kick some ass fellas.” He tossed back the drink and promptly stopped breathing. He sputtered and choked and shook his head to clear it.
“Yeah,” the little man said as he took a swig from the bottle at least twice as much as Mickey just drank, “I told you it wasn’t the good stuff.”
“I… I…” he coughed again trying to catch his breath, showers of gravel and moss fell all around them, “huuuuuuh…” he took a deep shuddering breath, “I’m not sure I could survive the good stuff,” he finally got out between deep inhalations as small bursts of light, like sparklers formed all around him.
The little man laughed out loud, he nearly fell from his seat. “Oh my friend,” he looked at the sour face on Mickey, “come now we have shared a drink surely we are friends.” He went on without waiting for a response. “My friend you don’t know how true your words are.”
“Yeah well… look just be careful, this isn’t a place to go and shoot your mouth off, this is a place to drink and commiserate among our own kind.”
The little man laughed again. “Oh my friend, why do you think I am your kind?”
“What…” Mickey couldn’t have been more shocked if he had told him there was a cure for being powered, “you aren’t a powered?” he said a little too loud. He looked around quickly no one seemed to have noticed his outburst. He dropped his voice to a whisper, “you aren’t a powered? What are you doing here? Why would a super come to The Silo, you guys don’t need a freaking nuclear missile bay to contain the drunken consequences of no control.”
“I don’t think I said I was a super,” he looked thoughtful then slowly shook his head, “no, I definitely didn’t say I was a super.”
If Mickey looked shocked when this little man said he wasn’t a powered, he was utterly floored when he revealed himself to be a normal. A normal who walked into The Silo and surrounded himself with some of the most uncontrolled dangerous people alive. “What are you?” he asked. “A super groupie who can’t get near the heroes so figures he can slum with some powereds?” When he got no response he shot out another thought. “Wait, are you one of those danger freaks, looking for the thrill of being locked in a room with a bunch of out of control powereds who could kill you as simple as breathing?” He stood up and shook his head, “well I want nothing to do with it. You crazy bastard go get yourself killed away from me.”
“My friend, we were doing so well.” He pulled back the left side of his trench revealing the butt of a large handgun, dull gunmetal blue sitting in a quick draw holster under his right arm. “I also never said I couldn’t protect myself.” He gestured Mickey back to the seat.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked taking his seat again. “Are you crazy bringing a gun in here?” He pitched his voice to a loud whisper so no one else could hear. “Half the guys in here a gun wouldn’t bother despite the fact that we’re only powereds. And if Turk saw it you would be lucky if he didn’t shove it so far up your ass that you would be shitting bullets. Along with any fingers that happened to be holding it at the time.”
“See, I told you we were friends,” he said jauntily, “you are trying to give me advice to save my worthless life.”
“Worthless is right, because your chances of getting out of here if you have a similar drink with anyone else here are no better than one in ten. Most of the people who come here are on the extreme high end of uncontrolled power. Why the hell do you think Turk built this place here? If the walls could contain the launch of an ICBM it can contain most of us.”
“You don’t seem so dangerous my friend,” the little man said looking around at the piles of clutter forming around them. “What’s your name anyway? I can’t just keep calling you my friend despite the clear affection I hold for you.”
“What’s your name?” Mickey shot back. “I can’t keep just calling you that freaking insane guy.”
Again he laughed, “Yes well I suppose I am, aren’t I? Very well in the cause of friendship I will give you my name.” He paused as if trying to remember something, “My name is Ni… no, um it’s He… no well, I haven’t used that name in a long time, just call me Rube,” he said shaking his head. Mike heard him muttering something else under his breath, “…er life,’ or something like that. He couldn’t make out the whole thing.
“Ok then… Rube,” he said slowly, “my name is Mickey”
“Is that short for Michael?”
“Yeah but I go by Mickey.”
“Very well Michael,” he said ignoring him, “that’s a noble name you know. Michael is the archangel who leads god’s armies again the forces of Satan. Sounds like a noble calling.” He seemed to be more serious than he had been before, despite the subject matter.
“Yeah well slim chance of that for me,” he said holding his glass out for Rube to fill it with more grappa. When he did so Mickey took a sip, much more carefully than before.
“Why do you say that? You are strong and capable. You can channel your wrath and bury your enemies.”
“What don’t you understand about powered? I have no control over it, random crap falls from the air around me, I get excited or upset and it gets worse but it never stops and it’s never anything I want. Every now and then something valuable falls out which keeps me eating.” He stopped and laughed for a second, “Johnny Three Eyes grabbed a piece of pyrite that fell before, he has a bit of disappointment coming. When I think about it, I know what falls. I just can’t control what falls.”
“You toasted the fallen and then raised your glass as I toasted the warriors. Do you not intend to join them?”
Mickey just started unbelieving at Rube.
“Are you not going to gird on weapons and lead the army of god against the forces of Satan?”
“I was right, you are insane.”
“I told you, I’m powered I can’t fight them, I can’t lead armies, and I can’t gird on weapons… who girds on weapons anyway? I’m not an angel and I’m no warrior.”
“Oh I think you sell yourself short my friend.”
“I’m not your friend!” he shouted standing suddenly again, this time several other patrons and Turk took notice. He shook his head at Turk, indicating he didn’t need to do anything. Turk took security in the Silo very seriously. He put a lot into this place, it was his place, it was the place for the powered. ‘We don’t have very many places, he’s not going to let this one go’ he thought. He sat again to show him that a fight wasn’t about to break out. Turk and the others turned away but he could tell they were paying attention now. ‘Great,’ he thought, ‘just what I want Turk watching me while I have to deal with a crazy man’. “Don’t get me kicked out of this bar, I love this bar.”
“Alright, Michael, you are no angel, the warriors never are.”
“I’m not a warrior either,” he closed his eyes and shook his head, “I’m just a cripple.”
“No my friend,” he reached across the table and grasped Mickey’s shoulder, “you aren’t a cripple. The only cripples are those who let their disabilities get the best of them. Your body can’t cripple you, your power can’t cripple you, only your mind can cripple you.”
“Easy for you to say, you aren’t a powered.”
Rube got up from the table and stood up straight so he was his full height, he was five foot four at best and wide for his height. He tilted a bit, the bad leg being more obvious when he wasn’t slouching. “People would call me crippled but I am not, I refuse to see myself that way. I am strong,” he gestured down at the bad leg, “this does not make me a cripple. My mind refuses this definition and thus I am not a cripple.”
“Yeah you have a bad leg, so what? You wear a brace. There is no brace for being powered.”
“Ahh, so we come to the heart of it.” He said taking his seat again and pouring another glass of grappa for Mickey. Mickey looked down at his glass, he hadn’t even realized he had finished it. “Man can build a brace for my leg to straighten it and let me walk. What if such a thing could be built for your power? What if you had a brace? What would you do with it?”
“Might as well ask me what I would do with the moon, you could get that easier. Such a thing doesn’t exist.”
“Humor me… in the name of friendship.”
Mickey’s thoughts were a swirl, the tragedy of Meredith Falls, the shock of Far From Noble, the grappa which was definitely affecting him, and dealing with an absolute crazy person all added up to a level of confusion and disorientation which he hadn’t experienced since the first time crap started falling from the air around him when he was twelve and out with a girl for the first time. “What do you want me to say?”
“Tell me your heart! Tell me your soul!”
“Alright! You want to know what I would do?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I want.”
“Fine!” he almost shouted, heedless of anyone who might decide to pay attention. “If I could, I would do exactly what you said. I would gird on my weapons and fight against those who did this. It takes a special kind of evil to do what they did. You want to talk about the forces of Satan? Well they call themselves Far From Noble.”
Rube looked him right in the eye as he said it and when his admission was complete, Rube nodded once, as if in salute. “Well my friend, I wish you luck in this, there are many warriors who will come to this fight I think. It will be a war such as you have never seen before. Take up your name and your birthright and smite the forces of evil.”
“I don’t think so,” he shook his head, “there is no place in the world for a powered like me. Some maybe, some can gain some enough control. They can use techno tricks to help them, or learn ways to train the trigger for their powers. Like forcing a sneeze or a burp or whatever they are linked to. But not me, I can maybe learn to make the crap that falls all around me come down a little harder or a little less but I can’t control it. I can’t start or stop it and I can’t decide what it is.” He looked right into Rube’s eyes, “no not for me, I will never be a warrior in this fight.”
“Michael, there is no such thing as never. If there is one thing I have learned in many years it is that. The world is changing Michael. Who is to say how it will change for you?”
With that he raised the bottle again for a toast. “To you Michael, to your war, to your faith, and to your mind, remember always you are no cripple and you never will be.” He tilted back the bottle to drink the last of it.
Mickey picked up the glass filled to the brim with the potent drink. He probably had too much of it already but he didn’t care. He raised it high and threw it back all at once. His head tilted back to get the very last drop and again he saw the doors on the ceiling which once would have opened to release nuclear destruction across the world but now just kept out the weather. He wondered briefly if the coming war would be worse than a nuclear war. It didn’t matter in the end he wouldn’t be fighting in it.
When he lowered his head and his vision cleared Rube was gone. Sitting in front of him on the table was Rube’s gun. It was a large semi-automatic revolver, he would have called it a hand cannon. There was a laser sight attached to it, and a place to screw on a silencer. This thing was made for killing. Dirty Harry would have looked at it and pissed himself.
He looked around, Turk was distracted by another customer, no one else seemed to be looking. He knew he had to get that thing out of sight before someone saw it and blamed him for bringing a gun into The Silo. He grabbed it and moved it to his lap where no one could see it.
It was so subtle he almost missed it. He stared for a second, looked from side to side. What was it? He could tell there was a change. The music was still going in the background, the lighting hadn’t changed, then it hit him and he stopped breathing.
The sound… the sound of things hitting the ground around him was gone.
It was a good night. Not the best but good. The crowd was excited, given the last few days he wasn’t surprised. People frequently need some entertainment to get rid of the horrors of violence. He walked down the aisle of the arena his head held high. He was surrounded by flunkies, hangers on, and yes men. His kind of people, they helped support the image he cultivated and he liked having an entourage.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer’s amplified voice rang out, “entering the arena to challenge for the title of the Ultimate Level Combat League Champion, the one, the only, Max ‘the Muscle’ Malone.” Each word of his name was emphasized, even his first name. He kept trying to get them to drop it and just call him Muscle Malone but the league kept refusing, they liked the alliteration they kept saying. It just kept bringing to mind the hero Maximum, who everyone called Max. They were both strongmen and while the league loved the comparison and the people who kept guessing that they were the same person, despite overwhelming proof that they were not, he hated it. ‘Why can’t they just call me X instead of Max, or just Muscle like I wanted?’
He got to the center of the arena where the cage stood. The thing was huge. Thirty feet tall, fifty feet across, with three inch thick alloy bars built to contain human implements of destruction. Tonight was an “anything goes” match and people were looking for blood. It was this whole Meredith Falls thing. Everyone was scared and when confronted with true violence then they wanted to see “fake violence.” Time and time again the ULCL has denied that anything was fake. No one was sure who really believed it. ‘Seriously,’ he thought, ‘what do they think is going to happen when you put a bunch of supers into an unbreakable cage and tell them no one comes out until only one is standing?’ He looked over at the team of six healers on call for the fight. ‘Hell if not for them they wouldn’t just get blood, they would get death’.
‘Time for a show,’ he thought and leapt on top of the cage. Cheers erupted all across the arena. He grabbed the chain that was used to raise and lower the cage with one arm and pivoted around it so everyone could get a good look. He flexed and his robe tore across his back, the screens hanging throughout the arena focus on his back and the audience saw the lettering indicating he was ‘The Muscle’ shredded into unreadability. He raised his free arm to the crowd and he was met by cheers as well as boos, ‘Not everyone loves a showboating heel, but in this sport heels can win. As long as we have the talent’. He started pumping his fist in the air and the crowd chanted in rhythm with his motions. “Muscle… Muscle… Muscle…” the cheers clearly outshouting the boos at this point.
The noise of the crowd was suddenly drowned out by loud music, a heavy electronic beat sounded through the arena. The lights flashed in time and audience started singing out the title line of Martin Solveig’s “We came to smash”. His eyes rolled upward and almost snapped the large chain link he was currently gripping. ‘Just because the song has his freaking stage name in it…’ his anger smoldered. ‘Use it’, he thought, ‘use the anger, it just makes me stronger and focuses me. I’ll show him I came to smash… his head in’.
As the music faded to a more reasonable level the announcers voice rang out again. “And now entering the arena, Samson Smaaaaash,” he extended the last name ridiculously. ‘God damn league, his name is Sam, and they don’t use his last name cause Fink doesn’t flow well and makes their hero sound like a heal’. Smash didn’t jump up to face him on top of the cage, instead he activated his power and his whole body began to glow. As the audience cheered the glow moved outward forming a skin of energy around him which grew until he was floating off the ground in a nine foot tall shimmering duplicate of himself. He’d have to watch himself in the fight, that energy body of his was tough and kept most of the damage away from him. It gave him incredible reach but he knew it made him clumsy. Muscle jumped down and face his opponent. He had to look up because of the form, if he refused to acknowledge the construct he’d be staring at Sam’s crotch and that wouldn’t play well. ‘Man, if this guy hadn’t shown up I would be champion already. Freaking nineteen year old kid with an impressive power set. I’ve been working at this for six years and tonight it’s mine, punk kid or no punk kid’.
Muscle was getting ready to turn and step into the cage when the announcer’s voice came on again interrupting his action. “And now would everyone please rise in a moment of silence for the victims of the attack on Meredith Falls and the brave heroes who lost their lives trying to rescue survivors.” There was a short murmur as everyone in the audience stood and then overwhelming silence filled the arena. Muscle bent his head and stood there for the minute with everyone else. Then he and his opponent turned and walked into the cage.
“Good luck,” Sam whispered to Muscle as they entered the wide door leading inside.
“Whatever Sam,” he replied, annoyed by the sentiment, “I don’t need luck, I’m gonna tear that suit of yours like plastic wrap.”
“Hey man, I know your persona but really, good luck, I just want to end on a good fight.”
“End? Sam, what the fuck are you talking about?”
“You’ll see in a second.”
The cage door clanged shut behind them and the powerful locks whirred as they engaged keeping them in and containing their destruction. The bars turned transparent to allow for a full view of the fight by the spectators. A containment field sprang up between the bars to prevent any debris they might create from exiting between the bars. Everyone still remembers when the fighter who simply called himself Rude had a tooth knocked loose and fly out nearly killing a spectator.
They got to the center of the cage and the referee came up to them holding an old style microphone. He recognized the ref, a super himself with the power to turn intangible. All the refs in the ULCL had some way to stay in the ring safely, his was a good way, he would never be in the way and you could fight right through him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the ref began, “this is a title fight. Samson Smash is defending his belt against Max, ‘The Muscle’, Malone. This is an anything goes match, the fight continues until one of the fighters is disabled or taps out, there are no technical knock outs or voted on victories in this fight. Healers are on hand for the conclusion of the match but there are no rounds and there is no healing while the match is underway.”
Before the ref could announce the start of the match Sam dropped his energy form and asked him for the microphone for a second. The ref looked confused. Clearly Sam hadn’t run this by anyone before this. Sam’s hand was out open and waiting while the ref tried to figure out what to do, this sort of thing never happened, all the boasting and bragging happened before the cage was closed. Not having a real choice the ref handed the mike over to Sam.
“I want to thank all of my fans,” he started, “if not for the huge support they have given me I would not be standing before you as champion.” Cheers erupted from around the arena as well as some boos which were clearly from Muscle’s fans. He gave them a moment to quiet down.
“So, it’s only fitting that here, as I stand in the cage to defend my title, I announce I am leaving the ULCL after this match. Win or lose I am retiring from cage fighting after tonight.” Stunned disbelief radiated from the crowd, echoes of “Noooo…” and “How could you?” ran through all jumbled together in a sudden cacophony.
Again he waited for the sound to die down. “This is not a decision I make lightly. I don’t want to leave you, my fans.” He paused again sighing before continuing. “But in light of the recent events in Meredith Falls, in light of the…” he paused looking for the right words to express his thoughts, “the sheer evil that showed its face in claiming responsibility. Well I just feel like I need to do more. The world is changing and I am changing with it. So I am announcing my retirement from the ULCL after tonight in order to take my place in the next class of the HCP.” A deafening cheer erupted from the crowd. Smash fans and Muscle fans alike all cheered the sentiment, a new hero to take up the cause, a new hero to fight against Far From Noble and their ilk.
When the noise died down for the third time he added, “I pledge to you that I will finish my four years in the HCP and stand tall defending this country and its people against supers who think that might makes right and having a little power entitles them to murder and destroy.” A last set of cheers nearly deafened them as he handed the microphone back to the referee and formed his other body again.
The referee started the fight and the two of them grappled Sam having the advantage of height and leverage while Muscle was clearly the stronger of the two. “Nice bit,” Muscle said to Sam as he grasped his arm and flipped him into the wall of the cage. “I didn’t think you had it in you to push those buttons in the crowd.”
Sam recovered and grabbed Muscle from the air as he tried to jump on him and press his advantage. “It’s not a bit,” he said as he slammed Muscle down into the floor of the ring. “I’m joining the HCP, I already got my acceptance confirmed.”
Muscle spun around and twisted out of Sam’s grip, “Oh yeah?” he asked snidely, “How do you plan to make the secret identity requirements when everyone knows your face and you just announced you are joining the HCP?”
“Fake name, change my appearance,” he said as they traded a series of blows to the cheers of the crowd. “I can do it, don’t you worry about it Max.”
Muscle grabbed Sam’s wrist in both arms as he overstepped and flipped him over. “I told you not to call me Max.” He said as he leapt onto Sam’s chest and started raining blow after blow on his face. The energy form flickered a bit with each punch he landed but it never shattered. ‘Damn energy form, he doesn’t take any damage and if I do knock it down I need to make sure not to kill the kid’.
“Sounds like someone has a Maximum complex,” he mocked. “You’d think the comparison would make you happy, after all he’s a great hero,” Sam added emphasizing ‘he’s’ just a bit more. He tried to knock Muscle off him without success, he had his legs locked around the energy forms chest and he couldn’t dislodge him.
“I hate that crap,” he kept raining blow after blow on the energy form, “I’m no hero, I don’t want to be compared to a hero, you want that shit, it’s all yours, but you’re gonna go there a loser cause I’m gonna take your title from you.” Sam tried to get leverage to flip him off but he just kept squeezing his legs together to hold on. “Hey Sam,” he said and started to laugh, “I’ll give you some help with the secret identity requirement. I’ll smash your face in so it’s not recognizable.”
Sam continued to struggle but the lock Muscle’s thighs had on his body wouldn’t budge. Seeing a defeat in the near future the crowd started the chant again, “Muscle… Muscle… Muscle.” Keeping his legs clenched he raised his arms over his head in a winner’s pose and half turned, rotating to show his face to the crowd as he prepared for the final series of blows.
Suddenly his legs started to come together no longer gripping Sam’s form. He was facing away showboating for the fans and he wasn’t sure what happened. Before he could turn back he was flying through the air again. He crashed into the cage not feeling it but the impact hard enough to knock the breath from him. He hadn’t had any time to prepare for the impact or he would have bounced off the wall easily. He shook his head to clear it and saw Sam coming toward him. The energy form was different, still nine feet tall but now it was skinny with oversized forearms, like a mockery of Popeye.
“I’ve been practicing altering the form Max,” Sam said emphasizing the name and heading toward Muscle. “I figure it will help in combat rankings when I get to the HCP. Can’t go from number one here to something less there.”
Sam pulled back to do his signature move and smash Muscle against the cage wall. Muscle went to duck under it only to be caught right in the pit of the stomach by a kick, the huge punch never actually thrown at him. Sam mocked him, “I’ve also been learning more and more about feints and distractions. Being strong might be enough out here but at the HCP being a strongman isn’t enough. It’s about tactics and tricks, using everything you have to the fullest possible extent.”
Muscle caught his breath and let his body become less rigid and more flexible, maybe he can use the Sam’s size and unbalanced nature against him, if he can reflect the blow back at him he might get the advantage back again. Sam seemed ready for anything he did though. The oversized forearms hit like sledgehammers if the person swinging them could lift ten tons or so. ‘It’s a good thing I can’t feel pain,’ he thought, ‘cause if I could this fight would have already been over damn it’. He finally managed to slip past Sam’s guard and knock him off balance when he came in a bit too fast. He might be practicing with new forms but he’s not perfect with them.
“You may have new tricks Sam but I’m still stronger than you.” Muscle planted his feet and pushed his forearm up into the energy forms midsection, actually lifting it off the ground. With his other arm he put his fingers right against the sternum and started pushing. Sam struggled but couldn’t seem to free himself, the oversized limbs not able to get at Muscle properly when he was so far inside their reach. Slowly, inch by inch Muscle’s hand was sinking into the energy form coming closer and closer to Sam’s head. Once there a single flick of a finger would be enough to knock him out. Muscle’s feet were sinking into the flooring as he exerted as much pressure as he could to pin Sam to the wall.
“You should definitely go off to be a hero, you don’t belong here Sam,” Muscle mocked, “I’m no hero and in a minute I’m going to beat you. Then I’m gonna go out with my flunkies and get wasted, pick up a girl or two and have a blast.” He continued pushing his hand into the energy form, sinking in like pushing into molasses. “You know what the difference between me and heroes are?” he asked. “People like me, we don’t fight for causes, we don’t fight for others, we fight for ourselves. Best motivation there is.”
Sam continued to struggle, tried in vain to reach Muscle without success. The chant of “Muscle” was going again, the fans were stomping their feet on the floors, the whole place was shaking. “Do… do you know what the real difference between heroes and people like you are Max?” Sam asked struggling to get the words out as he strained against the pressure Muscle was applying.
“You mean there’s more?” Muscle shot back.
Suddenly Muscle was falling forward hitting his head against the cage causing it to ring like a bell. Below him squatting on the ground he saw Sam, the energy form completely gone. ‘That crazy idiot!’ he thought, ‘he could have killed himself, if he didn’t get out from between me and the cage I would have turned him into paste’.
The energy body formed around Sam again, faster than Muscle ever saw him put it up before. This time it was squat and dense, barely taller than Sam himself. He was already in motion as the body was forming. Punching upward straight into Muscle’s chin, he had no time at all to react. The punch landed squarely and suddenly Muscle was flying upward and then impacting on the roof of the cage, the bars bending around him then actually tearing. As he came down bars and other debris rained down with him.
He landed on the floor of the ring embedding himself six inches into the reinforced material. He turned to face upward, wrenching himself out of the divot he was trapped in. Standing above him was the now squat form of Sam, his theme music was playing again and the crowd was singing “smash… smash…” in his hands was a four foot long piece of bar from the cage. “The real difference is heroes take crazy chances,” he swung the bar and hit him across the head, “heroes risk their lives,” the bar struck him again setting his head to ringing. He saw the bar coming at him again, unable to do anything to block it, “and in the end,” Sam said the last thing Muscle heard before he lost consciousness, “heroes win.”
Muscle wasn’t out for long, he came to before the healers even had a chance to work on him. His jaw was actually broken, his face was a mass of bruises, and still he tried to sit up before anyone did anything to him.
One of the healers came over to try and push him back down. He resisted, “no I gotta get back to the fight,” he shouted.
“Fights over Muscle,” it was his manager, ‘at least he knew better than to call him Max,’ he thought.
“What… I…” he mumbled, his jaw and tongue not cooperating with him.
“Muscle,” he said quietly, “let them heal you. You got hit bad in the head, you can’t tell how bad but you definitely have a concussion and I wouldn’t be surprised if you were bleeding in that thick skull of yours.”
Muscle lay back as his manager pressed back on his chest gently. The healer took a hold of him and let loose with his power. It was like he dove into icy water, he shook suddenly as the bruises receded from his face and the jawbone straightened and fused. “Brrrr,” he shivered, “I always hate that. I wonder if the alternative wouldn’t be better.”
“In this case,” the healer said, “the alternative was you would have been brain-dead in about three minutes as the blood in your skull squeezed what was left of your brain into jelly.”
“Hmm, might still have been better.”
“Muscle,” his manager said, “in your case, I’m not sure you weren’t already brain-dead.” He shook his head sadly, “God damn it Muscle, if you had just paid attention to the fight instead of showboating you probably would have beaten him. But the attention was more important to you than winning.”
Muscle wasn’t in the mood to hear more, there wasn’t anything they could say that he wasn’t already thinking. “Sal,” he said in answer to his manager, “don’t give me shit now. I’m outta here, I need a drink and some company,” he looked him up and down, “female company,” he clarified. “I need to work out all the pissed off I have before I can think about talking to you.” He got up and started for the locker rooms over Sal’s ignored objections.
He showered, changed into street clothes, and left the arena through a side exit. He left his entourage behind. In this mood he didn’t want yes men and flunkies to try and make him feel better. He needed a stiff drink and an easy woman, maybe several of each. He walked about ten blocks to get away from the arena crowd and then started looking for a bar. He found one called Liquid Gold and went inside. He found a place at the bar, there were a good number of people mingling, some music playing, and serious drinking going on. Just the kind of place he was looking for.
He was on his sixth or seventh drink and chatting up a promising looking nurse who had just gotten off her shift when the inevitable happened. Someone recognized him.
“Max the Muscle Malone,” the voice rang out.
Muscle kept his face down and ignored him, hoping against hope that when he didn’t react the fan would assume it wasn’t really him and move on.
“Max Malone,” he persisted, “that was an amazing fight, real shame how it turned out.”
He pointedly ignored the fan until the woman he was with also added “Are you this Muscle Malone guy?”
“Look,” Muscle turned to the fan angrily, “I’m here with this beautiful lady, and I’m not really interested in talking to anyone else right now.” He flashed the nurse a smile and clinked glasses with her having yet another drink.
“But I’m your biggest fan, you were robbed tonight, you had that kid dead to rights.”
“I don’t want to talk about it!”
The nurse looked uncomfortable, “I should go,” she said, starting to get up and wobbling slightly.
“No!” Muscle said with a bit more force, “you should stay,” he looked up at the fan, “you should go!”
“But Max,” he continued heedless of the anger growing on Muscle’s face, the way he started cracking his knuckles, and the tightening cords in his neck, “haven’t you heard what the news has been saying?”
He went over to the bartender and got the remote for the TV nearest Muscle and the nurse. While he was gone the nurse had tried to leave again but Muscle had convinced her to stay and they both had another shot.
The fan returned and the TV was changed to ESPN Infinity which focused on super level athletics, it was detailing the ULCL matches tonight and of course focusing on Muscle’s match with Samson Smash.
“Joan,” said the host addressing his co-anchor, “with tonight’s victory Smash will retire with an undefeated record.”
“Yes Kyle,” the stunning blond co-host replied, “it’s easy to see why the HCP wants him despite having potential issues with maintaining the secret identity requirements.”
“That’s for sure, if there was anyone destined to be a hero, it’s Samson Smash.”
The commentary continued but was drowned out by the fan who was suddenly right at Muscle’s face. “Max, it’s a crime what they’re doing, Smash is nothing compared to you. If they wanted a hero they would recruit you Max. You’re the best, it was pure robbery that you didn’t win tonight Max.”
He couldn’t take any more, the loss, the frustration, the anger, and the alcohol all combined into a mix that spelled nothing but trouble.
Muscle lashed out faster than the eye could follow and grabbed the fan’s collar. “Don’t… Call… Me… Max…” he said shaking the fan and enunciating each word. “And, I’m no hero!” he added and tossed the fan into the wall giving proof to his statement.
As he did it, he realized it was a really bad idea, the guy was a normal, somewhere through the drunken haze he realized he was in trouble. It wasn’t the first time but it might be the worst. There was a sickening crunch of bone as the fan impacted the wall and slumped to the ground. He was moaning Muscle noted, at least he wasn’t dead. The nurse was looking at him with a look of horror on her face, ‘so much for getting laid,’ he thought and then felt the Billy club the bartender kept for trouble makers crack over his head and splinter.
He needed to get out of here, he needed air, he needed to clear his head and sober up. That much he knew but he was too drunk to come close to doing it in a manner which didn’t cause more trouble. He stood up suddenly knocking the chair and table over and shoving the bartender into the next table. The nurse was backing away a look of pleading on her face as if to say ‘don’t kill me’.
Muscle shook his head to clear it and three bar goers jumped him. He shook them off as he tried to walk to the door. He wasn’t trying to hurt them but his fine control was gone. They went flying too. People had cell phones out, some were making calls. To the police no doubt. Others were taking video of the whole thing.
‘Great,’ he thought through the drunken haze, ‘just what I need. This is not the way I wanted a million hits on YouTube. I gotta get out of this place and sleep it off. Sal, Sal will know what to do’.
He headed toward the door shoving anyone who got in his way to clear a path. Unfortunately two things happened at the same time to cause even more trouble. First the bartender he knocked over tried to stop him again, this time with a Taser, second the other bartender pulled a sawed off shot gun from under the bar. Muscle didn’t even think, as the Taser started to shock him, about the equivalent of a joy buzzer to a normal person, he grabbed the bartender and threw him into the one who pulled the gun. The two crashed backward knocking down all the bottles and glasses stacked behind the bar. One of the beer taps was torn loose and beer started fountaining the whole area.
No one else was stupid enough to try to stop him. He got outside into the open air just as two motorcycles pulled up with a man and a woman in bright costumes leaping off almost before they stopped and a third man in a blue uniform with a cape landed in front of him.
The caped man spoke, “Max Malone, AKA Muscle Malone or The Muscle. You are under arrest for criminal use of variant abilities with potentially deadly force.”
Muscle looked at them shook his head again but raised his hands in surrender. ‘OK, I’m really in trouble,’ he thought as the titanium alloy cuffs closed around his wrists.
A quick trip to the local lockup for processing and he was pulled into court. Faster than he expected but super villainy was taken pretty seriously here.
He had tried to call Sal but could only leave a message with his office, so when he came before the judge there was only a public defender to speak for him.
“What are the charges?” the judge asked.
“Drunk and disorderly, criminal use of variant abilities with potentially deadly force, aggravated assault, battery. In addition damage amounting to between one hundred and two hundred thousand dollars was done to the bar in which the events happened.” The prosecuting attorney looked smug; she was also beautiful which didn’t help him concentrate given the frustration with the nurse. “In addition Your Honor, this is the third instance of such occurrences and I would ask for summary judgment under the three strikes rule for supers.”
Muscle, had been paying more attention to the prosecutors legs than what she was saying. But when she mentioned the three strikes rule he suddenly turned to the defender with something akin to shock on his face. ‘Summary judgment, three strikes rule, this sounded…’
“I ask for fifteen years without parole in Sanderson Super-Max.”
“Mr. Malone, do you have anything to say for yourself, or defense to offer before I consider the prosecutor’s suggestion?” asked the judge.
“I…” he turned from the judge and looked at the defender. The lawyer who was supposed to be there for him and found him looking as confused as he felt. “Your Honor, I…”
Before he could go on he was interrupted from the back of the courtroom. “Your Honor, J. Alec Godwyn for the defendant.” An immaculately groomed man in a three-piece suit carrying a leather briefcase approached the defense table. “May I have a moment with my client?”
The judge looked at the lawyer and nodded. “Five minutes Mr. Godwyn.”
The newcomer looked at the disheveled lawyer from the public defender’s office, “you can go now,” he said dismissively. The public defender gathered his papers in an untidy pile and hurried from the courtroom looking relieved.
Muscle looked over at the new comer, “who the hell are you?” he asked quietly.
“J. Alec Godwyn, didn’t you hear? I’m your lawyer and you better be glad I am.”
“I don’t remember hiring you Mr. Godwyn.”
“Sal and the league sent me. You’ve created one hell of a PR nightmare for them. Not to mention a huge legal issue for yourself.”
Muscle looked at him and suddenly felt something he never did, even after the fight with Smash ended with him losing. He felt defeated. “Yeah I think I’m just coming to realize that.” He rubbed the left side of his face as if he had a headache. Staring up at the lawyer with one eye, “so what can I do? It sounds like I’m going to the super-max.”
“Well that’s a punishment certainly within the judge’s purview. I’m hoping to give him and you a better option.”
He took his hand away from his face looking somewhat hopeful again, “and what’s that?”
“You’re going to become a hero.” Muscle looked at him with complete disbelief on his face. “Well of sorts.”
“I’m no hero,” Muscle started to object but the lawyer waved him down.
“Your Honor,” he addressed the bench, “may we approach?”
The judge waved him over and he spoke to him quietly.
“What?” asked the judge loudly.
The lawyer continued to speak to him lower than Muscle could hear. Suddenly the judge banged his gavel. “I want Mr. Malone, prosecution, and defense in my chambers now!” then he stood and walked out.
“Well that went well,” Godwyn said confidently as he returned to the table.
“What went well?” asked Muscle.
The lawyer winked at him and motioned him to follow him to the judge’s chambers.
They entered the chambers, the judge had hung up his robe and was sitting behind a cluttered desk. “Alright,” he started, “Mr. Godwyn has an interesting proposal. I doubt the legality of it but let’s get it out there and see what it allows.” He nodded at the defense lawyer to begin.
“To put it simply, no one doubts Mr. Malone’s guilt, not even him,” he looked at Muscle with a look that said if you disagree with me on your head be it. “However what we are here to suggest is an alternative to sentencing him to jail. That will benefit no one.”
“I disagree,” interrupted the prosecutor, “it serves the people, and it serves justice. In these dark times the people need to know that criminals, especially super criminals, are prosecuted, are sentenced, and are punished.”
“Yes,” agreed Godwyn, “these dark times is exactly the point. What I suggest is in lieu of jail, Mr. Malone joins Force Ops.” Everyone except the judge looked stunned and that included Muscle himself.
Muscle tugged on Godwyn’s jacket, “can I talk to you?” he whispered.
“Not now,” Godwyn replied back also in a whisper.
“Impossible,” said the prosecutor.
“Actually, there’s a long history of military service in place of prison time,” replied Godwyn.
“Yes,” said the prosecutor snidely, “but, that hasn’t been practiced in decades, and all the branches have rules against it. Well except the Navy but it’s well established they won’t allow it.”
“Yes, very true, there are rules in place to prevent it. However, there are loop holes.” He pulled a document from his briefcase and handed it to the judge.
“The regulation from the Air Force makes it clear that no enlistment will be allowed if it is in lieu of a judgment against the enlistee, if the enlistee will suffer that judgment should they not do the military service.”
“What does that matter?” asked the prosecutor, “first this is Force Ops we are discussing, not the Air Force, and Force Ops is under the Army. Second there is no way I would support this defendant being allowed military service in place of prison if there was no way to be sure the military service would be performed.”
“I would have to agree,” added the judge, “I am not about to accept a plea bargain which can’t be enforced.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” replied Godwyn, “I just think there can be a civil solution rather than a criminal one. That takes the enforcement out of the hands of the court and allows for the loophole.” He took another document from his briefcase and handed it to the judge.
The judge perused the papers he was just handed, “interesting,” he said after a few minutes.
“What?” asked the prosecutor.
“This has two versions of a document from the ULCL. The first is an acknowledgement that due to the recent actions of Max, ‘The Muscle’, Malone, he is suspended from the ULCL and claims from the ethics clauses in the amount of ten million dollars are hereby sought.” Muscle looked up suddenly and was about to object when Godwyn stepped on his foot.
“The second version,” continued the judge, “is an acknowledgement of the mistakes that Max, ‘The Muscle’, Malone has made and his earnest desire to make amends. It sets up a fund from Mr. Malone’s earnings to pay for damages to the injured and notes the beneficence of his actions in joining Force Ops in order to gain the discipline needed to prevent such an event from ever occurring again while helping the nation in its actions against its enemies. It also welcomes him back to the ULCL after his tour of duty is complete should he choose to return.” The judge tapped the papers together to straighten them out, “a very neat piece of work Mr. Godwyn.”
“Well Your Honor,” Godwyn replied smiling, showing immaculate teeth, “I hope you can understand why I was a few minutes late to court.”
The judge waved a hand dismissively. “Miss Connely,” he said addressing the prosecutor and handing her the sheaf of papers, “would you be amenable to this ‘plea bargain’?”
She examined the papers and thought about it. “I would be,” she said. “I don’t feel Mr. Malone is a hardened criminal like those in super-max, nor do I want to see him become one due to exposure to them. I do however want to see justice done and set an example in these trying times.” She handed back the papers, “I believe this accomplishes that nicely. However, I still see one major problem. This is a loophole, Force Ops isn’t going to take him. They don’t want people to serve instead of jail time, those are the worst possible soldiers.”
J. Alec Godwyn, always prepared it seems, took another document from his briefcase and handed it to the judge.
“This,” the judge said to the prosecutor, “is a document, signed by a Major Olivia Townsend from Force Ops recruitment accepting Mr. Malone for enlistment into Force Ops. It’s on official stationary and all it needs is Mr. Malone’s signature and a witness to make it legally binding.”
“That removes my objection,” the prosecutor said with a look of surprise on her face.
“I suppose the only thing left is to ask Mr. Malone how he feels about it.”
Muscle was about to speak when his lawyer shot him a silencing look. “A moment with my client Your Honor?”
“A short one Mr. Godwyn.”
He took Muscle off to the side, “this is your only chance Muscle,” Godwyn started before his client could say anything. “If you don’t agree to this, you are going to Sanderson, and you will be branded a super villain. In addition the ULCL will strip you of ability to fight and all your earnings not to mention what the civil suits from the bar fight will do to you.”
“I told you, I ain’t no hero.”
“Are you a villain?” Godwyn asked. “Because if you don’t agree to it, that’s exactly what everyone will think you are. It would be bad enough in normal times, but this soon after Meredith Falls…” he shook his head, “you won’t just be a villain, you’ll be a pariah.”
“But…” Muscle started.
“No buts,” Godwyn didn’t let him continue, “get over there, be humble, be apologetic, be absolutely contrite, and then agree to enlist.”
Muscle stopped, in mid-sentence, looked his lawyer in the eye, and then slowly nodded.
The two of them came back and stood in front of the judge’s desk. “Your Honor,” Muscle began, “I am truly sorry for what I did last night and what the people must think of me in this, one of the most tragic chapters in our history.” Muscle paused, ‘they might think I’m an idiot with nothing but muscle between my ears,’ he thought, ‘but that should show them, I can be eloquent and convincing when I need to be.’ He looked from the judge to the prosecutor and back, “in order to address my mistakes and make amends for what I have done I agree to the terms set forth by my lawyer and the league in the document you read. I’m ready to sign on the dotted line.”
The judge looked him in the eye. “Very well Mr. Malone. To make this official, with no prior commitment, I hereby dismiss all criminal charges pending in this matter against Max Malone, AKA The Muscle. Now Mr. Malone, if you will please sign the document provided by the ULCL and the enlistment forms from Force Ops.”
Muscle took a pen his lawyer held out to him and signed both papers. The judge signed as witness and stamped each document so no possible mistake could be made in interpreting the legality of it. He made copies of each and handed them to Muscle and Godwyn.
“My clerk will deliver the originals to the appropriate parties.” He stood and looked Muscle in the eye. “Mr. Malone, let me be the first to thank you for what you are doing for your country.” He reached out and shook Muscle’s hand. Before he let go he added, “Let me also warn you, off the record. Should you renege on this somehow, I don’t care that these charges have been dismissed. I guarantee you will pay and fifteen years in Sanderson will look like a walk in the park compared to what you will be facing.”
Muscle swallowed hard and nodded before taking back his hand. He had faced down people who could crush a tank but this judge made his knees shake.
Godwyn picked up his briefcase and walked out with Muscle. As they left the courthouse the lawyer turned to him and said, “well Mr. Malone, I wish you the best of luck. It really was the best solution you could have hoped for. Remember that.”
“What do you mean?” he asked but before he could get an answer his cell phone which he had retrieved before leaving rang. “Just a minute.”
He looked at the caller ID and saw it was Sal and he answered.
“Muscle, is everything OK? I’ve been trying to get through to you but it went right to voice mail.”
“Yeah, I’m well enough I guess.”
“What’s the status? Are you out on bail? Is there a court date?”
“No I’m out, your lawyer got me out, I don’t like the deal but… well if this is what I need to do then I can do it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The deal you guys worked out, me, Force Ops, no jail, you know?”
“Muscle what are you talking about?”
“The lawyer you sent, Godwyn, he worked it all out. Didn’t he tell you what he was going to do?”
“Muscle, what lawyer? I didn’t send a lawyer.”
Muscle nearly dropped the phone, he looked around the street, Godwyn was gone, Muscle was standing there all alone.