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For your enjoyment: an excerpt of Tusks

Tusks, Just Cause Universe, superheroes, pencape, Ian Thomas HealyOne

All people are tools. Some are sharper than others.

August, 2009
New York City

As hard as it was to lead a superhero team during the times of conflict and crisis, Sally learned it was even harder to do so during the lulls in action. After the initial turbulence surrounding the opening of Just Cause New York died down, the political drama and the scandal drifted further and further away from the front page, top-of-the-website headlines, Sally had found being in charge was a lot like being the Residence Assistant for a dorm full of particularly difficult students.

Take Snapdragon and Snowball, for example. The two heroes couldn’t be more different. His powers were based in fire, while hers focused upon ice. He was the child of ethnic Albanian immigrants, while her ancestry was Scandinavian within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle. He was tall and lanky. She was a dwarf. And yet, the two of them had connected early on, even before JCNY had officially opened. More than once Sally had rounded a corner to find steam billowing through the halls—a side effect of their passion throes. She had to bring the two of them into her office to have the same talk that Juice had once given to her and Jason. Don’t let it interfere with duties. Keep things professional in public. She’d felt funny saying those things to her younger charges, knowing full well that she and Jason and been in the same place years before. Nabil and Sara made such a great couple that Sally really enjoyed watching their relationship blossom from the sidelines.

When they broke up, it was loud, ugly, and messy.

Their arguing had echoed up and down the halls of Fort Justice, to the point that even Jason had looked up from his laptop and asked Sally if she was going to do something about it. If it had been loud enough for him to notice, it must have been bad.

“We broke up once. We got over it.” Sally was wearing a strip in the carpet of her office, pacing back and forth at super-speed as she often did when struggling with a problem. Her assistant Davey had suggested replacing it with a treadmill generator to help offset the power requirements of the base. Sally had chuckled, but she’d also seen the item come up for her approval on budgetary forms. She hadn’t rubber-stamped it.

“And as I recall, babe, it took someone trying to take over the world to get us back together.” Jason closed his laptop. He’d been experimenting with some composition software, thinking about getting into the production side of music. Ever since getting nailed in the head with a powerful sonic attack several months prior, he’d been dealing with some minor hearing loss. It wasn’t enough to affect his daily job or ability to toss cars around like they were frisbees when the time called for it, but it meant he had a hard time playing his guitar the way he’d used to. Sally could tell it hurt him in ways she, someone who couldn’t carry a tune, would never understand.

“We’d have worked it out, eventually.”

“And we weren’t having our knockdown drag-out in a rebuilt floating oil rig or shooting fireballs or ice streams at each other. I know it’s high summer, and it’s miserable out there, but I really don’t feel like going for an unplanned swim in the Bay, and neither do you.” As if to illustrate his point, the entire base shuddered and Sally overheard techs in the Command Center ordering pumps to adjust ballast to one of Fort Justice’s legs.

“Fine, I’ll go talk to them. What do I say?”

“You’re the boss. Be the boss.” Jason grinned. “Bring down the Gavel of Swift Kicks in the Ass Justice.”

Sally smiled back. “Oh, I can definitely bring that. I’ll be right back.” She left her office at what was for her a gentle trot, but to Jason she would have vanished in a blur of crimson and gold.

She found half of the residence level coated in a thick sheet of ice, already melting into puddles on the carpet that would have the cleaning crew working overtime. A whooshing sound and flash of heat suggested Snapdragon wasn’t taking the argument any better than Snowball. The door to Sara’s room was frozen solid with multiple layers of ice, but the sounds of the couple’s anger carried clearly through it. Sally knew from experience how to deal with ice walls. She placed her hands against the sheet and started quivering them at super-speed, setting up a sympathetic vibration in the ice that shattered it into snow. She didn’t have the brawn to kick open the door like Jason could have, but she could still make an entrance, and proceeded to at top speed.

Snapdragon got doused with a fire extinguisher before he knew what hit him. Snowball got a super-speed-redirected jet of water from the kitchenette faucet to the face that froze in place. A moment later, both heroes stood stupidly in their dripping, steaming clothing while Sally gave them the kind of dressing down that would have been a legendary scene in a movie if anyone had thought to film it. She suspended them both for a week and ordered them off the base. “I don’t care where you go, but you better not go there together. I find out you’re anywhere near each other for the next week and your next duty assignment is cleaning toilets in Deep Six!”

Thoroughly cowed by their boss’ righteous anger over their behavior, Snapdragon and Snowball departed, one flying toward Manhattan on wings of flame and the other jetting off toward the mainland atop an icy ribbon.

Sally turned to leave and found Davey standing in the hallway with a woman she didn’t know personally but about whom had heard many good things. “Was it too much? I don’t think it was too much.”

Davey shook her head. Her mass of curls was pinned up atop her head in an artful stack. “No, I think you showed remarkable restraint, and it will help our newest member here know that you’re one not to trifle with.”

Sally smiled at the newcomer. “Yeah. No trifling, like she said. You must be Penelope. Do you prefer Penny?”

The woman cracked a smile. “Please.” She was a minor telekinetic with a law enforcement background and a real success story for the Parahuman Resources Agency, as she was the first Champion ever promoted up to regular membership with Just Cause. Sally had specifically requested Penny Lane for New York for her non-parahuman talents. She had spent seven years in the NYPD, was a member of the Emergency Services Unit, and a top-rated sniper. Her ability to fling weights of less than one ounce with deadly accuracy was a bonus. She might not replace Sally’s former second-in-command Crackerjack, but she would certainly fill the tactician spot on her team that had been lacking since his retirement. Penny was only a couple inches taller than Sally, but probably had fifty pounds on her, all rock hard muscle. Sally knew women had a harder time in police departments, and those who went into SWAT training had to fight against years of discrimination and sexism. From the scar decorating one eyebrow to the nose that had been broken a couple times, it looked like Penny had fought every step of the way.

“Your folks are Beatles fans, huh?”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Never heard that one before.”

“My husband likes the Beatles, but he’s a musician. Personally, I can’t stand them.” Sally spotted Yunbao at the end of the hall, looking at the melting ice chunks with curious interest. “Yunbao, are you busy right now?”

The Chinese woman trotted down the hall, her paws making no sound on the floor. She was one of the rare parahumans who’d developed actual physical mutations—in her case, the appearance and abilities of a humanoid leopard. She was the daughter of former Just Cause member Lionheart and a formidable martial artist. “I am free.”

“Yunbao, this is Penelope Lane, our newest member. Would you show her around Fort Justice and help her get settled in?”

Yunbao bowed. “I would be honored.”

Penny looked up at the lithe felinoid. “I hear you’re quite the bad-ass. I hope you’ve got time to teach me some nifty moves.”

Yunbao bowed again. “I have some talent in close-quarters fighting I would be pleased to share.”

The two women headed down the hall, their conversation rapidly turning to discussion of various techniques and applications of hand-to-hand combat. Sally and Davey watched them go. “She’s more like Jack than I thought. Punching and guns on the brain.”

Davey chuckled. “Wait until you see her costume.”

“What is it?”

“She doesn’t have one. It’s a SWAT jumpsuit and combat boots.”

Sally laughed. “My God, she is Jack. We better make sure they never meet. They might accidentally blow the base up on purpose.”

“So what are you going to do about the more immediate problem of Snapdragon and Snowball?”

“Let them cool off. A little time apart will do some good. Then when they come back, if they’re still in a mood to fight, we can all head down to the Tank and go a few rounds.”

“Combat therapy?”

“It has its place.”

“That it does, boss. That it does.”

* * *

“Are you going to spend all night doing paperwork or are you coming to bed?” Jason was lying on his stomach on the bed with his head where his feet would normally be, his feet kicking up behind him and his chin resting on his clasped hands. He was putting maximum effort into being cute and sexy at the same time, and Sally loved him dearly for it.

“You think you’re annoyed? Try running a superhero team for the government sometime.” Sally grimaced at her computer. “This system runs so slow that every time I start exceeding normal human words-per-minute, the buffers crash and burn and I have to call a Command Center techie to replace processors and memory and stuff.”

“Government cheese at its finest.” Jason yawned. “Maybe you should hire your friend Vanitha to come redo our systems.”

“I’ve asked her to. She’s not interested. She’s got some big time corporate clients that are keeping her in hardware without her having to worry about the PRA breathing down her neck.”

“I thought everyone wanted a big fat government contract.” He batted his eyelashes at her.
“Not everyone, babycakes.”

He patted the bed. “Come on over here, beautiful. Don’t make me go all Tarzan on you.”

“Oooh, are you going to knock me in the head, drag me back to your cave by my hair, and have your way with me?”

“I’m thinking about it.”

“I always heard that the sex dried up after marriage.” Sally put her computer into standby mode and stretched her arms over her head. “Somehow I don’t think we got the memo.”

Jason grinned and let his native Georgia drawl shine. “I ain’t never thought highly of book-learnin’.”

“Stay right there, lover. I’m just going to brush my teeth and take my pill. Be there before you can say the sixth sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.”

“I can’t say that and you know it.” He rolled over onto his back and looked at her upside down. “You ever think maybe about skipping your pills? You’d make a beautiful mother, you know.”

Sally sighed. It seemed like the topic of starting a family came up more and more frequently. She knew Jason loved kids. He’d grown up with a couple of younger brothers, in a tightly-knit neighborhood where everyone’s kids knew everyone else’s and they all looked after each other with the kind of care that can only happen in the South. As long as she’d known him, he was involved with volunteering for disadvantaged kids. Their first date had been to an inner-city children’s center. She’d enjoyed it more because of the time she got to spend with Jason than the kids. Sally’s opinion of kids was they were walking germ and snot factories, forever handing you things that were inexplicably sticky and crawling with filth. “I don’t have to be a mother to be beautiful, silly boy.”

“No, but then I could call you my MILF.”

Sally looked down at the wheel of her birth control pills. She had never seriously considered not taking them. The idea of being pregnant had about as much appeal as a strong bout of the stomach flu. She popped the next pill out of the foil and swallowed it. “I hate that term.”

“Sorry, babe. I know you’re not really into us having kids.”

Sally brushed her hair in swift, vicious strokes, making it snap with static electricity. “Then why do you keep bringing it up?”

“I can’t help it. I know this is something we probably should have talked about before we got married. I can’t force you to have kids. I really hope you’ll want them someday. I’m just afraid of something happening to one of us before that point.” He sighed. “Also, my mom keeps asking about it.”

Sally felt like stamping her foot as if she were a petulant child. She held back her temper, knowing it wouldn’t make either of them feel better. Instead she pulled off her sweats and t-shirt and laid down beside Jason, nuzzling his neck. “Someday my clock will go off, and that’s the day I flush the rest of my pills for good.”

“Yeah?” He kissed her forehead.

She let her hands wander down his torso. “Until then, all we can do is keep practicing.”

* * *

An odd buzzing sound woke Sally from her post-coital slumber. She  listened to Jason’s stentorian snores, a sound which might have disturbed someone else but which she found to be as soothing as a white noise generator. The sound repeated itself and she sat bolt upright in bed. Unexplained sounds had no place in a secure paramilitary facility. A flashing drew her eyes toward her computer. It was no longer in standby mode. A swirling maelstrom of colors danced across the screen to coalesce into the terrifying visage of the goddess Kali. The fanged, blue-skinned woman’s tongue lolled from her mouth like a serpent as the necklace of shrunken heads dripped realistic blood down the face of Sally’s computer screen.

Normally the sight of such an unexpected image could be interpreted as the beginning of a dream or a nightmare, but this was someone familiar. “Vanitha? What are you doing here?”

Vanitha Bhat, or Kali, as she called herself, was a freelance parahuman operative with the ability to physically enter computers and control them from the inside, making her the perfect hacker. She had been instrumental in helping Sally several times in the past couple of years, and Sally trusted her—at least as much as one could trust a reliable and honest mercenary. “I’m fulfilling a contract.” The Kali-figure spoke with a lisp, probably due to the flopping tongue. It wasn’t necessary; Vanitha could have simply used her own voice, but she prided herself on realism in her hacks. “An interested third party wants to speak with you.”

“What about Jason?” Sally glanced over at her husband. Unlike her, he was a notoriously light sleeper, and she was surprised he hadn’t already awakened.

“He’ll stay asleep. I’m broadcasting a subsonic carrier wave designed to keep him in delta wave sleep. Just like that signal I used to awaken you was broadcast on a frequency that he can’t hear due to his auditory damage.”

“How do you know that? Did you hack into his medical records?”

“You make it sound like I used a blunt axe, Sally. Please. It was much more finessed than that.”

“Dammit, Vanitha!”

“Hush. It’s still possible for Jason to wake up if you keep stomping around there like an angry elephant. Now get up, get a drink of water, and pick up your phone.”

“My phone?” Sally looked at the smartphone on her bedside table.

Kali’s image appeared on the small touchscreen. “Incoming call in ten . . . nine . . . eight . . .”

Sally didn’t know what else to do, so she went and took a drink of water like Vanitha suggested. It helped wake her up and cleared some of the sleep taste from her mouth. She returned to her phone and a chill ran down her spine. There were very few people in the world who could afford Vanitha’s services and then use them solely to reach out to Sally. She couldn’t see how anything good could come from such an arrangement.

“ . . . three . . . two . . . one. Go ahead, sir.” The Kali image vanished from Sally’s phone to be replaced with the standard screen for phone calls.

“Hello, Sally.” The voice sounded oddly familiar, yet incomplete, like it needed something more for her to identify. That very thought was the nudge her brain needed to realize to whom she was speaking.

“Harlan Washington.” Of course it would be him. The man who murdered several heroes at Tornado’s funeral in 1985. The man who took away any chance for Sally ever to know her own father two months before she was born. The man who had time and time again been a nasty thorn in the side of Just Cause, and who’d taken his grudge to deadly levels.

The man to whom she owed a favor.

When a nanotech plague had threatened to eliminate human life on the Earth in favor of solely parahumans, Sally had swallowed her pride and approached the most brilliant and devious man she knew, and he had delivered. His ability to understand, build, and control machinery was as primal as a god shaping life from the mud of a river bed. His counter-plague had saved the world, and nobody but Sally ever knew how much a debt he was owed. All he had asked for in return was a favor, to be called in at a time of his choosing, which she was bound to accept. Sure, she could refuse it, but then the world would know she had made a treaty with one of America’s most-wanted criminals. It would mean the end of her career in Just Cause.

“It’s time, Sally. I’m calling in the favor you owe me.”

Sally grimaced and swallowed against the acidic bile threatening to rise up her throat. “What is it?”

“I need you and your teammate Minerva to assist me for a period not longer than one week. You won’t be doing anything illegal or immoral. I promise.”

Sally shook her head even though Washington couldn’t see her through the phone. Or maybe he could. Maybe he’d paid Vanitha enough money to be spying upon her through her computer’s camera even while talking to her. “No. Minerva’s not part of this. She owes you nothing.”

“But you do, and the favor I’m calling in requires her as well.”

“No deal. Pick something else.” Why was he asking for Minerva? Something about her teammate’s powers, certainly, which were at best undefined. Was she the real goal? Was Sally only a stepping stone to Minerva?

“This is the favor. I’m calling it in. Or perhaps you’d like me to start contacting the media? There’s nothing Americans like better than to see a hero taken down a peg or two. Your association with me will ruin you.”

“Dammit, Washington! I don’t have an association with you!”

“That doesn’t matter once the press gets hold of it. You will be ruined and we both know it. It doesn’t have to go that way. Fulfill my request and we’re quits.”

“How do I know you’re not just doing this to get me and Minerva out where you can attack us?” Sally didn’t say kill us, even though it was precisely what she was thinking.

Harlan snorted. “Please. If I wanted you dead, you’d have been feeding the worms a long time ago. No, you’re far more useful to me alive.”

“Useful.” Sally’s tone was bitter. “I’m just a tool to you, aren’t I?”

“All people are tools. Some are sharper than others.”

Sally sighed. She was going to have to accede to his request, and couldn’t do anything to back out. He was holding all the cards and they both knew it. “Minerva’s my second-in-command. The two of us can’t just leave the team together for some unknown location or an indeterminate amount of time.”

“You leave that to me.”

“Why am I not surprised?” But the phone beeped to let her know Harlan had already disconnected the call.

Almost immediately, her computer pinged with the arrival of a new email. Sally didn’t want to look. She wanted to go get a cup of hot chocolate and then cuddle up in Jason’s arms and never leave. But she looked anyway. It was from Davey, who never seemed to sleep. Apparently, Sally and Minerva had both been assigned by Juice, Sally’s friend and Director of the Parahuman Resources Agency, to attend a leadership seminar in Philadelphia. Just Cause Richmond second-in-command Icebreaker would assume temporary command of JCNY until they returned.

And that, as they said, was that.


Two

I never said it was a good idea. I said it didn’t feel like a trap.

When Sally got to the lounge, Minerva was already there, waiting for her, a mug of tea warming her hands. The smell of smoked leaves filled the lounge, reminding Sally of the desert camping she and Jason had done on their honeymoon. Without her Roman-style armor and flowing cape, Minerva seemed more like an average twentysomething girl dressed for a comfortable sleepover. Her thick black curls were caught up in a topknot and her lavender pajamas were nearly too large for her. She had her feet curled up beneath her in a chair and she sat unmoving, not checking her phone or watching TV or doing anything at all, really. She looked at Sally and raised an eyebrow like she was a Vulcan.

“Leadership seminar?”

Those two words carried more accusatory tones than if Sally had gotten a full-on shouting lecture. Sally dropped into the chair opposite Minerva and hugged her knees. “I need to tell you something, Minerva, and I need you to trust me.”

“I’ve always trusted you, Sally. I don’t intend to stop. What is it?”

Sally licked her lips. “We do have to go away for a few days. You and me.”

“Where?”

“Philadelphia, I think. Beyond that I’m not sure.”

“Why?”

“I owe someone a favor, and you’re part of it.”

“Who?”

“Uh . . . Harlan Washington.”

“You owe Destroyer a favor? That’s a story I would like to hear sometime.”

“He helped me stop Champion’s nanotech plague.”

“I see.” Minerva sipped at her tea. One of the things Sally appreciated about her second-in-command was her intuition and innate understanding of the way things connected to each other in the world. Minerva could understand more from a single sentence than Sally could by sitting down and reading a dissertation. Minerva’s senses were so finely-tuned that the smallest sound was like a full symphony, the barest swatch of color was an epic mural, and a few stray molecules could tell her an entire novel in the language of scents. “What does this favor entail?”

“I don’t know. I suppose he’ll tell us when we get there. He promised me it was neither illegal nor immoral.”

“You believe him.” It wasn’t a question, and Sally was surprised to discover she actually did believe what Harlan Washington had told her.

“Yeah, I guess I do. Like he told me, if he wanted me or the rest of us dead, we’d be dead. Maybe he could pull it off and maybe he couldn’t. We’re a pretty stout bunch and hard to kill, but he’s really good at it. Either way, I don’t think that’s his game.”

“I think you’re right.”

“Are you mad?”

“No. Anger is a fruitless emotion.”

“You sound like Yoda. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

“I did finally watch those movies, you know.”

“Did you like them?”

Minerva sipped her tea again. By not answering immediately, Sally knew her teammate was working on something tactful. “Some of them. The Campbellian Hero’s Journey was done well. I can see why you like them.”

“You know I’m just a big nerd.” Sally sighed. “Listen, you can’t tell anyone anything about what’s going on with us. Not even Ment.” She paused. “He, uh, he doesn’t read your mind, does he?”

“Not without permission. I would know if he was trying to do so, and that would mean the end of our relationship. He knows that too, so he behaves himself.”

“Good.” Sally paused to think about what Minerva had just said. “Wait, so you let him read your mind sometimes?”

Minerva offered a rare smile. “It does heighten intimacy at times.” She sniffed the air. “He’s up now. I should go tell him I have to leave. And you should tell Jason.”

“He’s not going to be happy. Neither of them will be.”

“We’re women. We have to have secrets from our men.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“I usually am.” From anyone else, it would have sounded insufferably conceited, but Minerva was only stating the truth.

* * *

Sally had only been to Philadelphia once before in her life, and that was to meet Harlan Washington. Returning there was leaving a bad taste in her mouth. She and Minerva had said their goodbyes to their teammates and loved ones and taken the ferry to Manhattan. They’d packed their costumes. At least, Sally had packed hers in a messenger bag, which was the only thing that would hold her boots. Minerva only had a small purse slung over her shoulder. It wouldn’t have held her helmet, much less her breastplate, skirt, lace-up sandals, spear, and cape. And yet, Sally knew when the moment came for Minerva to gear up, her costume would be readily available. It was part of the mystique of her abilities which even Minerva admitted she couldn’t easily explain or define.

Sally enjoyed the trip on the ferry as much as she could, considering the nature of their end destination. The sun was bright on the water and the normal wreath of smog and haze seemed to have taken the day off, leaving the New York skyline a sparkling cavalcade of towers against an azure sky. “Maybe I can get a tan. I’ve been pale as a ghost since we moved out here.” Sally rubbed her arms. Born and bred in Phoenix, Arizona, she considered anything less than a pure Polynesian brown to be an unhealthy pallor. She regarded Minerva’s natural tan with jealousy.

“I can’t help my ancestry.” Minerva shrugged. “That guy over there is checking you out.”

“Are you sure? Eek!” Sally whispered. “I can’t look. I don’t want him to know.”

“You’re not missing anything. He smells like clove cigarettes and five dollar wine.”

“Yuck.”

Eventually they had to leave the bright sunshine for the confines of a train station and shortly boarded one for Philly. Minerva asked Sally to give her as many details as she could remember about her conversation with Harlan Washington, both when they made the deal for her to owe him a favor in return for him saving the world from Champion’s nanotech plague and when he called it in. Sally scrunched up her face as she tried to drag every stubborn detail from the morass of her memory. The conversation filled the trip and before Sally realized it, the train was slowing down to pull into a station in Philadelphia.

“We’re here.” Minerva looked through the window. “Weather’s not as nice here.”

“That sucks. I wonder if we have time to go get a cheese steak and run up the steps of the Art Museum like Rocky. That’s what you’re supposed to do in Philadelphia, right?”

“I’ve never been here before either.” Minerva sniffed the air. “I wouldn’t buy any food from any nearby street vendors. Their ingredients and sanitation are . . . questionable.”

“You’re convenient to have around. It’s like having my own personal food taster.”

Minerva grimaced. “You should experience it from my perspective. I’ll have nightmares about our train car. Some days there isn’t enough soap in the world.”

The two women caught a cab to the destination for their so-called leadership workshop. Sally felt her heart starting to hammer with urgent anticipation as the cab pulled up in front of the building where the workshop was supposed to take place. It was in a fairly busy section of downtown Philly, with people in business attire hurrying to and fro while tourists wandered at a more lackadaisical pace like colorful butterflies amid a sea of monochrome beetles. Minerva nodded her head toward a young black man in a hoodie and jeans who was leaning against a support pillar for the building. “That guy is waiting for us.”

Sally didn’t ask if Minerva was sure or how she knew. “That’s not Washington. Maybe a lackey or henchman.”

Minerva chuckled. “Henchman. I didn’t know that was a real thing. He’s a blood relative. Too many similarities in facial structure to be a coincidence.”

“God, you’re telling me Harlan Washington has a son? Now that’s a woman with a serious lapse in good taste.”

Minerva shrugged. “Anyone can fall in love. Look at me and Ment.”

“He’s a superhero.”

“His father was a supervillain.”

“His father was pathetic.”

“You’re talking about a man who could be my future father-in-law.”

“That’s . . . wait, are you and Ment going to get married? This is new.”

“Let’s just say that we’ve opened discussions on it and leave it at that.” Minerva cocked her head toward the young man who was openly staring at them. “Come on, boss. We’re expected.”

They crossed the plaza to meet the young man. As they drew closer to him, Sally thought she could see some of the facial similarities Minerva had mentioned, although they were far more subtle in her eyes. His hair was divided into short dreadlocks that gave his head a mop-like appearance. He shuffled his feet a lot and once he saw the women heading his way, spent more time looking at those feet instead of Sally and Minerva. “He’s nervous. I can see that even without having powers like yours.”

“He’s meeting two powerful superheroes. That might be a big deal for him. Sometimes we forget what that must be like for people who don’t travel in our circles.”

Sally nodded. She’d spent her entire life surrounded by superheroes. Before Just Cause was her time with the Lucky Seven team in Chicago. Before that was the Hero Academy. And before that, she was raised by her mother, who’d been a member of Just Cause. With the exception of Davey, her assistant, virtually everyone Sally knew was a superhero.

They reached the young man. Sally accelerated her perceptions briefly to get a good long look at him without overtly staring. He was only a bit taller than Minerva and slender like a runner, but without the associated muscle definition. Now that she could see his face clearly, she thought perhaps he did look enough like Washington to be a relative. His clothes looked funny and it took her a second and third glance before she figured out why. They had no seams, no fabric texture. They were colored like regular clothes, and they had surface details that suggested seams and fasteners, but upon closer inspection they were merely patterns on the surface. The clothing looked more like it had been manufactured as complete items instead of put together from pieces.

“H-hello. Are you Minerva and S-Sally?”

“I’m Sally, and this is Minerva. Who are you?”

“My n-name is March. March W-Washington.”

At first Sally thought he was terrified to meet them, and indeed, he did look somewhat intimidated, but she quickly realized he had a stutter. “Nice to meet you, March. Harlan was too busy to come meet us himself, I take it?”

March nodded. “I’m to take you t-to him.”

Sally glanced at Minerva, who nodded back. “It’s fine.”

Those two words did more to put Sally at ease than anything. If Minerva couldn’t sense a deception or a trap, the odds were it was as safe as anything involving a powerful supervillain could be. “Is he here in Philadelphia?”

“N-no. I have a . . . a car.”

Somewhere close, then, Sally thought. Well, once she fulfilled her role in whatever twisted plot Harlan Washington was after, all bets were off and she’d take him down once and for all. Her father’s death would finally be avenged and she’d go to sleep with a smile on her face the night afterward. “Fine, let’s go.”

March led them across the plaza to a parking structure and they took the elevator to the rooftop. The doors slid open to a completely empty level except for a single vehicle parked several yards away. Sally looked over toward the exit and saw the gates down and orange cones blocking off the level, a simple and effective barricade to almost anyone. March headed straight for the vehicle, some kind of low-slung van with dark tinted windows and flat, featureless hubcaps like Sally had seen in pictures of old hot rods. The van looked like it was sheathed in stainless steel or brushed aluminum and Sally immediately thought of the DeLorian from the Back to the Future movies. “What’s this, a time machine?”

Minerva hesitated. “No, it’s something else.”

“Dangerous?” Sally felt her perceptions about to accelerate in preparation for combat.

“I . . . I actually don’t know. I’ve never encountered this before.”

March raised a remote and the side door of the van slid open, operating on smooth, silent electric motors or hydraulics. “Ladies, if you p-please.” He entered the side door as well and slipped into the front seat.”

Sally looked at him, then at Minerva. “You still think this is a good idea?”

“I never said it was a good idea. I said it didn’t feel like a trap.”

“Want to forget this and go get a cheese steak instead?”

Minerva thought about it for a moment. “I’m curious.”

Sally hated to admit it, but she was as well. “All right, then. Let’s get this over with. We’re superheroes. We can handle anything that comes our way, right?”

They climbed into the van. Instead of a couple rows of bench seats, there were two seats where the middle row would be, each one looking more like something from a jet fighter. The interior of the van was all black plastic and rubber bumpers, with a dark carpet lining the floor and walls. The cabin ended right behind the passenger seats, sealing off the entire rear of the van.

“B-buckle up.” March wiped his hand across the van’s center console and it shifted and flowed, folding and unfolding until it resembled something that belonged in a futuristic concept vehicle.

“It’s not a time machine. What is it, a flying car? Do you know how many people have spent their entire lives wanting flying cars?” Sally fussed with the seat belts until she figured out the complicated locking mechanism. “Washington could build these and sell them and make billions. Who needs to be a supervillain when you have a dream patent? I’ve dealt with corporations who put to shame a single guy with a battlesuit and a bad attitude.” Even despite her flippant attitude, being inside the van was pushing all of Sally’s science-fiction-nerd buttons, and she couldn’t help but be a little excited at the idea. She’d flown in the arms of other heroes, in the cabin of the high-tech Just Cause VTOL jets, and even ridden on Destroyer’s battlesuit high into the skies over Guatemala once, but a flying car? That was the stuff of which dreams were made.

March touched a control on the center console that made the entire van seem to shimmer momentarily, like some kind of Hollywood special effect. “Stealth mode eng . . . gaged. Repulsors online.” The van lurched upward a few inches, making it feel to Sally like she was in a small boat. March looked back at her and smiled. “Watch this.”

The van shot into the sky like a rocket.


Three

You could have said no. And then you could have dealt with the consequences of that choice.

Sally had grown up watching Doctor Who and Star Trek reruns on TV, and had never missed a first-run episode of shows like Babylon 5, Andromeda, or Farscape. She considered herself an authority on all things Star Wars, had a long brown overcoat for Halloweens when she wanted to be Zoë Washburne from Firefly, and could hold her own in discussions of all things related to geek culture and space for hours and hours without getting bored, which was a major accomplishment for someone with her kind of super-speed.

She’d never thought about actually going into space herself, and when it became apparent that’s where March was taking his flying van, she couldn’t help but start squirming with excitement like a child the night before Christmas.

The flying car would have been cool enough all on its own. The stealth modifications that made it invisible to radar and visual scanning were like the frosting on a cake. Then March took it on a slow but steady climb, heading east over the Atlantic Ocean, climbing higher and higher until the sky was more black than blue and the clouds looked like tiny bits of cottonwood fluff floating on the expanse of the ocean. The curve of the Earth made a magnificent sweep across the sky. At first, Sally thought the windows were misting over, but then she sniffled and realized she was crying just a little.

“Are you all right?” Minerva reached over from her seat and touched Sally’s hand.

Sally smiled back at her. “Yes. This is . . . amazing.” She turned back to the window, wiping her eyes, and stared out at the Earth as it fell away below her. “Does Washington live on a secret satellite? Maybe that’s why we couldn’t ever find him.”

March didn’t look back at her, busy flying the . . . Sally couldn’t very well call it a flying van any longer. It was a spaceship, plain and simple. “No. Well, n-not exactly. It’s a secret.”

“How does this vessel fly? What is its power source? It seems too small to use standard rocket fuel.” Minerva slipped her purse off her shoulder, held it at arm’s length, and let go. It floated in midair, tumbling gently in the microgravity.

“It’s t-t-t . . .” March took a deep breath.

“Technical?” asked Sally.

He nodded. “Yeah.”

Sally shrugged. “It’s probably some kind of reactionless thruster that violates physics as we know it. Kind of like the parahuman ability to fly, except recreated by that overcooked lump of charcoal Washington calls a brain.”

“Sally . . . Let’s not forget that March is the man’s nephew.” Minerva retrieved her purse.

“Minerva, let’s not forget the man killed my father. And Forcestar. And Glimmer. And a whole lot of other people.” Sally felt a stab of anger poking into her excitement. “I don’t have to like him. I just owe him an . . . ohhhh! ” She gasped in wonder as the spaceship swept far enough around the Earth for her to see a false sunset behind them. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, and fresh tears came to her eyes, except instead of rolling down her cheeks, they stayed stuck in her eyes like she was looking through chopped-up clear Jell-o. She scrubbed the backs of her hands at them until she was able to see once more. Tiny droplets spun away from her knuckles like diamonds.

“St-stand by for acceleration . . .” March turned back to look at them. “Seatb-b-b . . .”

“They’re fastened.” Sally felt bad about his stutter. She hoped it wasn’t because she made him nervous. She tried to remind herself that he couldn’t help who he was related to, and she shouldn’t judge him just because of that. “It may be my first time in a spaceship, but I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck yesterday.”

Minerva looked at her with a raised eyebrow.

“It’s something my grandma used to say.”

“My grandma used to say that too. I wonder who picked it up from whom.” Minerva smiled.

“I would say we’re going farther than either of us expected.” She nodded toward the front window of the van. A brilliant white circle gleamed in its center, blocking out the light of the stars around it.

For a moment Sally didn’t understand what she was seeing, and then it came to her and she laughed. “That’s no space station, it’s a Moon. The Moon. Are you telling me we’re going to the Moon?”

Minerva nodded. “So it would seem.”

Sally squealed in barely-restrained excitement. “But I didn’t pack for the Moon.” Then her giddiness subsided and the gravity of the situation settled in around her. “We’re going to the Moon. Harlan Washington has a secret Moonbase. How the hell did he manage that?”

“Nuh . . . nuh . . . nano . . .” March pulled back on a lever and sudden acceleration pushed all of them back in their seats. A roaring howl came from somewhere behind Sally and she wondered what kind of amazing and mysterious engine Washington had invented to propel them through space. She wondered if this was how it felt to fly in the Millennium Falcon.

“Nanotech. He built his base using nanotech.” Minerva nodded her head. “That’s why this vessel smelled so odd to me. Moon dust and it wasn’t manufactured so much as it was grown. That’s . . . Amazing doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m impressed.”

Sally nodded. “He’s one devious son of a bitch, that’s for sure.” She looked ahead at the Moon, already growing larger in the windshield as the engines howled behind him. “I hope this doesn’t turn out to be a one-way trip.”

“Don’t w-worry. I’ll b-bring you home safe.” March locked down the controls and turned the seat around to face them. “I p-promised.”

“Was it ever in doubt?” Sally folded her arms. “I mean, was the original plan to use us up and then throw us away? That sounds right in line with his M.O.”

March’s lip curled out and he spoke through gritted teeth, slowly enough to avoid stuttering. “He. Is. Not. Like. That.”

“Maybe not all the time. But then, you’re family. You know he killed my dad, right? He told you that, right?”

“Sally, now is not the time.” Minerva’s voice was gentle but insistent.

Sally knew Minerva was right. She wasn’t behaving like the leader of the world’s premier superhero team. She was being, well, a petulant bitch. March spun around in his seat again to face front. From the way his shoulders hunched, Sally could see he was upset. She felt bad about making him feel that way.

But only a little.

* * *

It took several hours of flight time for them to cover the distance between the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere and the long shadows of the mountains of the Moon, filled mainly by the stony silence between Sally and March. Sally had waited for him to say something to her, to respond to her last attack upon him, but he’d kept his own counsel. Then she’d wondered if Minerva would perhaps chastise her for being so callous, but her friend and second-in-command had seemed content to sit in quiet contemplation of their journey.

The Moon drew closer, filling the windows with its stark gray and white beauty. The reflection of sunlight off the Moon’s surface bathed all of them like they’d been fixed in the wash of a floodlight. Very little of the Moonbase existed above the surface, which Sally thought was probably to better protect the facility and its inhabitants from solar radiation. The idea of inhabitants worried her. How many people lived down there with Harlan Washington? Could he actually convince others to stay under his protection? His past record showed his willingness to work alongside others so long as they were working toward helping him achieve one of his goals, but the minute they were no longer of help, he would cast them aside like a crumpled receipt. Was it possible he lived there by himself? Sally was betting on it. Washington hated people, and he’d just as soon kick someone out of the airlock than have to listen to them or deal with them. The fact that he’d gone to such great lengths to retreat from the world, and had gone to equally great lengths to bring one of his greatest enemies to his very doorstep meant whatever he had in mind was of the utmost importance to him.

Sally wondered what it could be.

Harlan Washington’s Moonbase was set into the side of a crater on the Moon’s north pole, out of view of the Earth altogether. The spaceship dipped down into the crater, making for a pair of large metal doors built into the side of a hill. The doors slid aside, showing a tunnel or ancient lava tube descending at a forty-five degree angle. Lunar dust swirled around the tunnel mouth for a moment before the doors closed, shutting out the perpetual twilight of the Moon’s north pole and leaving the spaceship to settle upon a landing pad. It touched down with the slightest of bumps, which was still enough to elicit a squeak of delight from Sally. “I’m on the Moon. Holy shit, Minerva.”

March engaged the vehicle’s wheels and it became a van once more as he drove it from the landing pad into an airlock. Doors shut, pressure equalized, and the van’s vents opened, letting in air that resembled the smell of chalk dust when blackboard erasers were pounded together. The van rolled through the opposite side of the airlock to halt upon a circle on the floor. As soon as it came to a stop, the circle moved, rotating the craft around to face the airlock door once again in preparation for its next departure. Autonomous machines rolled or floated up to the van, connecting themselves to ports and inlets and sockets, performing what Sally figured were restocking and recharging tasks.

March slipped out of his seat through the driver’s side door, shutting it behind him while Sally was transfixed by the intricate mechanical ballet outside the windows. “Hey!” she yelled after him. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“It’s all right, Sally.” Minerva took a slow, deep breath, feeling the air with all her senses, forcing it to give up its secrets to her. “He’s not doing anything untoward.”

“He better not be.”

The side door of the van slid open with the barest whisper of hydraulics, and in doing so, it revealed the man to whom Sally had hated since she was old enough to understand what it meant. Harlan Washington stood alone in a pool of overhead light, his eyes hidden in the shadow of his brow. He wore a simple black one-piece jumpsuit made without seam or stitch, zipped up to his sternum, over a plain white t-shirt. He was not a large man, in fact only a few inches taller than Sally. He seemed larger, though, mostly because Sally had seen his colossal battlesuits firsthand, and she always had to remember that they were only vehicles for the small man within. He was Destroyer. His battlesuits were just costumes, like Sally’s own crimson and gold outfit. His hands rested at his sides, as cold and unmoving as the rest of him. He was the sort of man for whom extraneous movement was a distraction, a sign of weakness. His skin had a slightly shiny appearance, giving it the color of deeply-burnished bronze. Sally knew it was because his body teemed with nanotech of his own design.

Ever since he’d been a child, Harlan Washington had been fascinated by machinery and the myriad ways in which he could force it to do his bidding. As he grew older, his mastery over it had grown more and more exacting until now at this stage of his life, Sally knew he’d achieved one of his heart’s dreams—to become fully melded with machinery until it was no longer simple to determine where Harlan ended and where Destroyer began. She knew he could sheath himself in impregnable armor with a simple thought, or fly like any number of superheroes, or cast forth deadly streams of energy, all thanks to the nanites permeating his body.

She wondered if he even had a battlesuit anymore.

“Welcome to The Preserve,” said Harlan. “Thank you for coming.”

Sally snorted in disgust. “The Preserve? That’s an awfully pretentious name, even for you, Washington. And I didn’t have a choice, did I?”

The corners of Harlan’s mouth twisted up into the most unnatural, forced smile Sally had ever seen. “Of course you did. You could have said no. And then you could have dealt with the consequences of that choice.”

“Well, I said yes, and now I’m dealing with the consequences of that choice. So tell me, Washington, why am I here?”

“All in good time. March, will you please take our guests to the lounge and see that they get some refreshments and time to acclimate to the lunar gravity?”

March reappeared from a side passage. “Yes, uncle.”

“I will join you in an hour and explain my purpose for bringing you here.” Harlan turned away from Sally and Minerva and floated into the air like he naturally had the parahuman ability to fly instead of one founded in nanotechnology.

“Why not now? Hey, I’m talking to you, Washington. Why not now?” Sally took an angry step forward and felt herself bounce in an awkward fashion. It occurred to her that at the reduced gravity of the Moon, she only weighed about the same as a bag of charcoal.

Harlan didn’t look back. “Because I’m not ready, and neither are you.” He flitted on down the corridor until he was swallowed up by the shadows.

Sally felt like punching someone. She would have chased after him, and caught him in between heartbeats, if only she felt like the first super-speed step she took wasn’t going to catapult her into the roof. Clever of Washington to pick someplace like the Moon, where her powers were much less of a factor. “Sally, calm down.” Minerva’s soft voice spread over Sally’s flaring temper like oil on a hot pan. “Remember we’re here to fulfill a favor to the best of our ability. The least we can do is be pleasant guests.”

Sally took a deep breath, trying to shed her deep-seated hatred. “I’m trying. Maybe you need to treat me like you do Ment, keeping me on an even keel.”

Minerva nodded. “That’s what I’m doing. And right now, I can tell your blood sugar is low and you’re dehydrated. I believe there was a mention of refreshments, March? Now would be an excellent time.”

March indicated another corridor. “If you would b-both follow me.”

Sally resolved to try to be a better guest, like Minerva had suggested in her typically untactful way. At the very least, March didn’t deserve her wrath. He was likely as much a pawn in Harlan Washington’s devious games as she was. “March, I’m sorry I’m being such a bitch. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this whole secret-base-on-the-Moon thing. Can you forgive me for my hurtful words and, I don’t know, throw a rock at me or something if I start up again?”

Minerva snickered into her sleeve, something she rarely did. Sally always felt it a victory when she elicited an emotional response from her normally cool and collected second-in-command.

March smiled back at Sally. “It’s ok-kay. I’m not mad. Come sit and I’ll b-bring you suh . . . suh . . .”

Sally worked up a smile of her own. “That’s fine, March. Thank . . .” She lost her train of words as the corridor ended in a broad room with tall, wide windows that seemed to be set into the side of a crater wall, for a great grayscale landscape spread out before her, punctuated by long shadows from the sun and the sparkles of what must have been ice crystals on the crater floor. Overhead, stars shone steadily, showing none of their characteristic twinkles. A large couch sat in the center of the room with a couple of convenient end tables nearby, facing out into the void. “God, that’s beautiful.”

Minerva drifted across the room and sat upon the couch. “Very peaceful. And comfortable. Come sit down, Sally.”

Sally joined Minerva and for a few minutes they sat in silence, looking out at the universe.

March loped back into the lounge with a tray of cookies, crackers, and unmarked bottles of brown liquid. “C-cola and snacks. Please enjoy them.” He hesitated. “They’re safe.”

Sally felt her face grow hot. “I wasn’t going to . . . I mean, I’m sure they are.” She glanced at Minerva, who said nothing but helped herself to the items on the tray, which was as much an indication of their safety as anything. Sally took a handful of snacks herself and nibbled on them. They had an odd texture and flavor. She wondered if her sense of taste was being affected by the lighter gravity. She’d heard astronauts often craved items like hot sauce because their sense of taste diminished over time. Or maybe the food was manufactured by Washington’s nanotech as a completed product instead of prepared conventionally. That wouldn’t have surprised her in the least.

Washington rejoined them after a while, flying into the lounge and then walking over to the couch where the two young women sat. “I trust you’re feeling more comfortable now.”

Sally’s ire rose like a fire fed fresh oxygen, but she forced herself to keep her cool. She was a guest, dammit, and she’d behave like one until she was given a real reason not to. “Yes, thank you.” She paused. “Look, I know this isn’t easy for any of us, Washington, but I’m really trying, okay?”

He nodded. “I understand. If there had been any other way to do this, you must believe I would have tried it first.”

“Tried what? What is it you want from us?”

“I want . . . I need your help to heal my sister.”


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