Shane immediately flopped into his chair after entering his quarters, the plastic and metal piece of furniture squeaking slightly under the sudden weight of his costumed body. After tossing his helmet onto the bed, rubbing his chin covered in light stubble and absentmindedly thinking of a haircut, Shane went through his mental checklist.
He had night patrol with Spectrum in a few hours, so some light training to limber up and a shower were a must. The only real indecision he faced was what to do with the hour or so of free time he had now. Shane’s first instinct was to get in even more training with his teammates, and maybe rope in Pulp so that they could talk more, but then his gaze landed onto his laptop and the young man decided to do something he’d been dragging his feet on.
After feeling a bit stupid for just typing in “Styx” and only getting the Wikipedia page for the mythical dark river itself, Shane clarified with words like “Super” and “Hero” to get actual news about himself and even found a few forums. After a few minutes of being confused Shane decided to sort any results by “Oldest First” to make the numerous comments more sensible.
Suffice to say; what he saw had a very apparent positive trend to it and the manipulation was obvious. Not to say that the public reactions to the fights he’d been in were stupidly optimistic or trusting, there was plenty of concern about the grievous injuries and blood he left behind, but it was easy to see how his more “media friendly” stints were obviously advertised and pushed more than others when you knew what to look for.
Manipulation of the media and how it tended favor Heroes more often than not was something Shane had come to terms with long ago, Grandpa had made sure that he knew how the Hero system came to be and that included how Heroes were immediately raised to super-star status to help popularize the idea of attending an HCP.
That didn’t stop his stomach from instinctively twisting at the idea of the government controlling what the public saw in order to progress an agenda. (Even if the feeling did make him feel a bit childish.)
But a small part of him was also thankful for how effective of an agent Lenny was. He’d perfectly cultivated the kind of image they’d agreed on for his Hero persona; people thought he was scary, but also reliable and amiable enough that it didn’t completely consume how the public interacted with him. Shane had no doubt that without Lenny’s help the reaction to him would be far more volatile.
Shane chuckled a little to himself then. He’d always viewed Heroes that became obsessed with how the public perceived them and attended to many PR events with a bit derision; and yet here he’d been, primed to get all stressed out over a bit of bad press. Perhaps he’d been a bit too quick to judge.
Suddenly his personal phone started ringing and Shane looked over the number to see that it was Lenny’s.
“Lenny?” Shane asked right after answering the call.
“Yeah. Sorry for calling a bit late but I’ve got a feeling you’ll want to know about this as soon as possible.” Came his agents reply, Lenny’s east coast accent twisting the enunciation of each word. Though it became less noticeable to Shane each time they spoke.
“It’s no problem. You actually caught me at a good time, just got done with a meeting.” Shane wasn’t sure exactly how DVA confidentiality applied to agents with something so potentially big, so he decided to err on the side of ambiguity.
“Good, that means I can take my time explaining this to you. The long and short of it is this; you’ve apparently skipped a few levels on the Hero social game. Some big wig senator is offering to give you a free, personal tour of one of their private buisnesses.”
Shane made an annoyed sound in the back of his throat, the inflection coloring his response. “Let me guess; It’s too important to ignore? Which one is it anyways?”
“Yes, to the first question and it’s Laurel Decker. If the reputation is anything to go buy; she both isn’t the type to give up and she’s way too influential to completely ignore. It’s scheduled for a week from now on Thursday, though I would like to give a smidgen more advice before ending the call.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Suddenly getting a free, media friendly offer from a what’s practically the terminator of politics? All free of charge? I don’t trust it one fucking bit.”
~ ~ ~
“So, are you gonna go for it?” Styx asked before taking another bite of the surprisingly good hotdog he’d just purchased from the vendor.
“I’ll allow it. Your agent’s right that Laurel’s persistent and we definitely don’t have the time to play keep away with a politician. Better to just bite the bullet if it’s still cloudy that day.” Spectrum replied before taking a bite of his own dog. A little drizzle fell upon the kiosk’s umbrella above them, sounding out an erratic staccato with every watery impact.
It was day after the confidential meeting and they both looked far calmer than they felt as they occasionally waved at passersby while taking their lunch break. Ever since the recording Pulp had let them listen to revealed that the White Boars had an ambush planned even before their dual base assault had set everyone on the team on edge. They knew it was probably intended for Styx, but couldn’t be sure and Tedd hadn’t known much of anything about their plans after being entirely regulated to building tech and nothing else.
But after some deliberation they’d decided to just patrol as usual while being on guard for any suspicious movements. Any serious deviation in their behavior might give away the fact that they have forewarning of what’s to come and cause all the information they were acting on to suddenly become null-and-void.
“At least it’s something new to do in this city.” Styx mused before they finished their meal and paid the slightly nervous looking and chubby woman manning the vendor. He waited until they’d made their way down another alleyway short cut before continuing. “I knew this city rivaled Port Vallins in how much action a Hero could see but the constant patrols and weekly fights was more than I was expecting.”
“Trust me; it’s unusual even for this city.” Spectrum assured him, the rain easily sliding off of the slightly-water proof material of his costume. “Sure, this place has always been sorta hectic, but always in bursts or a steady stream with only a few exceptions. The White Boars really threw a wrench into things and got everyone’s hackles up by escalating so quickly and with so little consideration.”
They both flinched when they saw the flash of light, the shadows around Styx warping into solidity as orbs of energy flickered into existence in Spectrum’s hands. It happened as they walked into what looked like the love-child between a courtyard and a parking lot that held a small crowd of teenagers lounging under umbrellas at small tables, the poorly thought out architecture leading to there only being four alleyways and one actual street that accessed the popular hangout for high schoolers. The flash of vermillion light started from each alley before solidifying and spreading up and around, trapping the area in a bright dome of energy, setting the crowd of students into a panic of frightened whispers.
The energy dome brought up memories of Lander’s Crucible which set Styx’s teeth on edge as he frantically felt the shadows around them for any kind of warning for what was coming next… Then he felt it.
“Styx, what do you feel-“ Spectrum tried to ask before his intern grabbed him by the arm and dragged them quickly out from in front of the opening of the alley they’d come through. Just in time to avoid the three shots that came through it, the sound and subsequent shrieks of pain from those hit put crowd into an even bigger panic as they all scrambled out of the way.
“We’ve got gunmen coming from each alley!” Styx shouted but didn’t bother to ask before taking his next move, desperately trying not to think about the kids that just caught some stray bullets. Shadows erupted from the buildings adjacent to the alleys, but instead remaining in the same thin, bladed shape that he was known for they widened into something resembling walls and blocked off every alleyway before more shots could go off.
“Styx, guide the crowd and I’ll take care of the gun men.” Spectrum said as a plan formed in his mind, despite the suddenly tense situation. The panicked mob was starting to crowd around them, if whoever was attacking managed to get past Shane’s shadows then they would just be convenient hostages that also blocked his vision.
Styx followed his orders without hesitation, barking commands at the crowd of civilians, using other shadows to corral and direct them towards the actual street that was, while still blocked off, was free of any gunmen. Styx turned back to his mentor then, only to hear a pinging sound just as something slammed into his shoulder and sent him stumbling. He regained his balance just in time to see Spectrum dash behind a lamp post before the spot he’d been standing at sparked and cracked with the impact of a bullet.
“Someone’s angling shots.” Spectrum grunted as another shot pinged off the lamppost. “I need you to open up some holes so I can take my shot, we can’t let them keep peppering us like this.”
Styx had already taken cover behind a red sedan half-way through the older man’s orders. While his suit was certainly a grade above what even SWAT teams had at their disposal, standing still and trusting it to just soak up multiple high-caliber rounds would be like willingly getting into a crash at over a hundred miles per hours and expecting to be okay just because your wearing a seat belt.
With a flick of his wrist, the shadows covering the alleys warped to have a hole the size of a trash can in each one. Not two seconds later Spectrum had launched yellow balls of electricity, the orbs of energy exploding into a nexus of lighting upon impact. Most Supers had to take more time to properly line up and control electricity-based attacks to avoid it running wild to every grounding point. But Spectrum’s power was more like throwing a contained type of damage that would emit its effect or explode on impact rather than pure energy itself.
Past all the shouting and screaming from the civilians, Styx heard several shouts and the sounds of bodies dropping and nearly relaxed, until he saw all too familiar red beams of light sear through the shadow barrier of the central alley before a group sprinted through the opened gap.
He looked over from his position behind the sedan, ready to launch strategic strikes at the rushing assailants before, for the second time in his life, Styx hesitated. What he saw weren’t the violent gang members he’d been expecting, what he saw were… high schoolers. The oldest of any of them looking seventeen at most and almost all of them were black, which would be extremely odd for the White Boars to say the least. But what caught his attention the most about them were the roiling silvery caps covering the tops of their head, an obvious Super construct. He also saw two individuals that did fit with what he typically expected from White Boar members; two white guys, one wearing a ski mask and another with a white and red bandana, both men wore thick, brown clothing and were surrounded by a miniature twin of the dome above their heads.
He pegged the one in the ski-mask that was glowing with the same energy as the barrier being the one who’d set it up. The guy with the bandana however seemed far more important, and not just because he didn’t have an aura that could ward off his shadows; the fucker had hands of rippling silver. Not unlike the silvery material that flowed around the top of the terrified kid’s heads.
Before Styx could act on these observations his assailants took advantage of his hesitation and worry about the other teens he could see that Spectrum had initially dropped. The man with metallic hands flexed his fingers and the scared teens turned and fired off beams towards Styx’s position, unable to vocalize the terror they felt or give a warning. They only got off four shots, each beam burning nearly all the way through the sedan he hid behind, before an orange orb slammed into the center of the group before bowling them over with a moderate explosion of force.
Not a second later Spectrum made another orange orb, this time holding and cooking the charge to deliver a more devastating strike at the duo hiding behind a shield. But another gesture of the silver man’s hands had the people that were just knocked down jumped up and surrounded them in a loose ring with unnatural swiftness.
Spectrum made an annoyed sound in the back of his throat that Styx could hear through the comms before deciding to instead let loose his blast directly upward. There was a large *THOOM* sound as the energy exploded and the entire top half of the shield shattered, the rest flickering out of existence a second later. A wave of backed up rain water fell on everyone, save the two crooks that stood dry in their personal dome, but the crowd didn’t waste anytime taking that opportunity run away from the super powered battle going on. The only exception being two girls that had caught, thankfully nonlethal, gunshot wounds and were writhing on the ground.
Styx noted that the glowing guy didn’t even react to his barrier being broken; either he could just remotely set one down without having to maintain it or he had an exceptional poker face.
“Well isn’t this something?” The man with silver hands began to gloat, the corner of his eyes crinkling as he grinned from behind bandana. “Didn’t think we’d be able to push you guys into a corner so easily. Why don’t we make a deal here? If Styx comes out from behind that car, we’ll let go of these innocents do nuffins.”
His vulnerable position and the criminal’s tone put Styx’s teeth surprisingly on edge and he hissed hot air from between his teeth, but he pushed past the anger and started formulate a plan. First off, the guy was lying, Shane didn’t need to be a Subtlety major to figure that out. If he gave himself up without a back up plan than the only thing that would get would be a laser through the chest and leaving his mentor to fight alone.
“I’m going to walk out and block the shots using this car, then drop it on top of their shield.” He whispered inside of his helmet before calling out, “Sure, if that’s what it’ll take to make you let them go!”, without waiting for an answer.
“Alright, I’ll trust you on this.” Was Spectrum’s whispered reply through the earpiece. “The ones in the alley are starting to shake off the electricity, you take care of them while I stun the hostages in front of us.”
Styx didn’t respond, merely pushed past the creeping anxiety and began to walk out from behind the sedan with slow, measured steps while mentally reviewing the situation; this was precarious. The gunmen-hostages Spectrum had initially dropped were starting to stir, the one controlling the hostages and the shield maker were behind a glowing barrier that his shadows would probably dissipate upon contact with, and judging by how Dispatch hadn’t said a word, that barrier had probably interrupted communication…
<Spectrum and Styx; reinforcements are in bound in one minute.>
There it was.
Standard procedure here would be to immediately neutralize the hostage taker, even if it meant dealing immediately lethal amounts of damage. Easier said than done, he’d have to time this just right.
“Ah, there he is.” Silver-hands said as Styx stepped fully into view, tone mocking. Though his leg twitched back a bit involuntarily.
“I expected him to be taller.” The glowing one snarked.
Styx didn’t bother with any fanfare. “I expect that you honorable criminals will hold up your end of the deal and let these innocents go?” Shane asked, his voice dripping with contempt.
The man wearing the ski mask sneered at him in anger just as silver-hands made another gesture and suddenly every laser weapon held was pointed directly at him.
Before a shot could be fired the shadow under the sedan morphed into a four-pronged claw and lengthened, latching onto and dragging the large vehicle in front of him in less than a second as Styx rolled to the side.
He heard several laser shots scour and wreck the interior of the car even further, then the familiar sound of the guns winding down on energy reached his ears. He mentally lifted the car up, aimed it down, and speared it hood-first onto the energy barrier, just barely missing the scare looking victims.
Styx took some satisfaction at seeing the duo’s terrified faces as they disappeared in a twisted wreckage of steel and glass in the same moment that Spectrum curved two shots of electricity into the group still standing, downing most of them. Then his expression became grim as he set about his next task; blades of shadow rose up and struck at the limbs of those that started picking up weapons in the alleyways. It was brutal, but effective; regardless of how they were being controlled, the human body simply could not move properly if certain muscle tendons were severed.
Then suddenly sirens pierced the air as a police car drove up, stopping only a few yards away from the pole Spectrum had taken cover behind, two officers stepping out of the vehicle nearly before it even stopped.
‘They must have been near by to respond this quickly.’ Styx thought, and he felt a flash of relief for the extra help… right up until both officers drew their guns and sighted on of the remaining few kids that were rigidly trying to pick up laser weapons.
Styx reacted more on instinct than thought, the officer’s own shadows solidifying into tendrils, wrapping around their hands and yanking their aim towards the ground. “Don’t shoot, they’re being controlled!” He barked the order before his attention snapped back to his opponents as he heard the shriek of twisting metal.
The barrier hadn’t been destroyed under the strike, and he could see that the shield was beginning to expand. With an effort of will he made the same shadow claw rip the car up again and then slam it back down; his time the barrier did crack, and then began to shudder. Both criminals jumped form inside the shield just in time to avoid being crushed.
Spectrum let loose another ball of electricity as soon as the shield maker was unprotected, the explosion of electricity catching the target and another staggering thrall. But Styx didn’t act quite fast enough before silver-hands gestured while scrambling from his to feet, forcing the thralls near by to jump and surround him as a wall of human shields. He made another panicked motion with his hands and turned to look at the unresponsive forms twitching in the alleyways before turning away with a curse.
One of the cops had backed up and rebolstered his gun in exchange for a taser, partially hiding behind the squad car they’d arrived in. The other one looked like he was about to follow suit, before leveling his side-arm again at a controlled girl that was jittering to her feet, pain twisting her features.
Styx didn’t bother with an order this time. With a mental pull he grabbed the dark-haired man by the waist with a tendril and bodily dragged him behind his car alongside his partner, feet barely touching the ground before being dropped.
“Alright, back up!” Silver-hands shouted.
Styx turned back towards his opponent to see that the criminal had pulled a small handgun and pressed it against the back of the head of one of his thralls while the others surrounded him on all sides. The young Hero tensed, but didn’t make a move.
“I swear to god if you don’t back off I’ll blow her brains out!” The criminal continued to bluster as his panicked eyes frequently shifted focus between the two cops and Heroes.
<Guys, give me just a few seconds to set up my shot.> Greg’s voice crackled to life in both Styx and Spectrum’s earpieces.
So, both mentor and intern slowly backed up with their hands up; shadows receding and energy dimming down to nothing.
“Alright, you made your choice.” Spectrum said as soon as they stopped beside the squad car. His voice was level and far more distant and colder than Styx had ever heard it.
Silver-hands noticed the tone as well, his eyes turning suspicious. At least until something the size of a golf ball streaked down leaving a trail of gold and slammed through the top of his skull, perforating the rest of his body. The silver on his hands and which covered the heads of the people around him melted away as his body slumped to the ground, eyes glazed and empty as the rest of his expression was covered by a red and white bandana that was marred with blood.
Styx gulped than grunted before walking forward as the hostages dropped to hands and knees, a chorus of sobbing, screaming, and groans rising up as the rain lashed down in an oppressive sheet.
“Terram, we’ve got multiple civilians injured, get over here as soon as possible.” Spectrum said into his communicator.
<The leader of Remedy Squadron is also in-bound.> Dispatch supplied.
Styx still hurried over to the nearest alleyway where the largest group of people had been crippled by his shadows, already feeling along his utility belt for the compartment that contained a roll of gauze. No one had said it, but he was well aware that he had caused the most civilian injuries in this fight and the kind that were most likely to lead to a civilian casualty.
There was no way he was going to sit on his ass and wait for healers to arrive while he could still help.
~ ~ ~
It was almost a full hour later before the situation was deemed fully under control and resolved. Several police cars and ambulances were now crowding the street, lights refracting through the rain cover that’d gotten progressively heavier. Though the latter was only there for transport to the nearest hospital rather than treating the injured; Terram and Remedy Squadron’s leader, Organicum, had arrived in time to heal every downed civilian. Though the renowned healing Hero in the orange and purple suit did the most work, flinging globs of orange biomass with purple veins that seeped into and seamlessly healed wounds nigh-instantly.
The hours of now having patches of discolored flesh was disconcerting for most, but none complained as it was measurably less painful(and less bloody) than having to make do with gauze. Even if the efforts of Styx and the police had kept several from potentially fatal blood loss.
“Alright, I think we’re done here.” Spectrum said as he jogged back from a group officers that’d been talking animatedly with him.
“That cop I had to stop twice still doesn’t look happy.” Styx breathed as he stood beside Samshiel and Terram’s hulking form at the end of the courtyard opposite to the police, a barrier from Samshiel keeping the rain from falling on them. The adrenaline had run its course, leaving his breathing a little ragged while giving his body jitters that was barely concealed by his suit.
Spectrum looked over and saw that indeed the cop with the mop of black hair that Styx had thrown was still shooting him the occasional glare. “Well, I did only say that we were clear to go, not that everyone was happy. Officer Jerad over there can file a report and make an issue of it if he wants to, but that’s a problem for later. Now we need to wait for Maria so we can get back to base.”
“You doing okay?” Terram asked as Samshiel as he shifted back to human form, cloudy sclera making his eyes seem pure white in the pale light of the cloudy afternoon.
“I told you, I’m fine.” Samshiel said, hands lazily clasped behind his head as he effortlessly maintained the shield above them.
Styx looked over the blood streaked courtyard and alleys, the twisted and mangled car leaking gasoline that mixed with the running crimson, before finally falling upon the tarp covering a long cold and soaked body. It wasn’t the kill that bothered him, it was a clean shot, neither did the suddenness of the violence, and he could cope with the civilian injuries. But all of it at once had his mind running in circles, desperately trying to find a way to justify it or the logical chain of thought for such an ambush.
A hand clapping on his shoulder shock him out of his brooding thoughts and he looked up at Spectrum.
“This. This is what they wanted.” He said reassuringly. “This was a bit of a clusterfuck, but don’t let it bury you; this is an almost textbook example of why new Heroes need a good mentor and agent. We’ll smooth over whatever problems come one at a time and our agents can advise us on the PR front.”
Styx nodded before responding with a, “Yes, sir.”, that felt a lot steadier and more confident than he felt. The cold rain water that had seeped into his suit during the conflict sending an involuntary shiver down his spine.
* * * *
Author’s Note: Discussion and criticism of my work is encouraged and appreciated.