THE RIDE BACK TO BASE isn’t nearly as tense as the ride to the island. I’m glad to be leaving. After Ammo, Megamoth, and…Vinnie the Vampire were loaded into their respective transports and the area was secured, about a dozen lab technicians had swarmed me. Apparently they’d all been watching my battle through the security cameras situated along the outer walls and wanted to congratulate me on another epic victory. And, of course, ask for my autograph.
Having fans doesn’t bother me. Who doesn’t appreciate an adoring public? And, after all, I probably did save their lives, so the gratitude is warranted. I suppose. Besides, the PR folks back at HQ say I need to be as approachable as possible, so as not to scare people. So I play ball. I sign the autographs, I kiss the babies, I take the pictures and shake the hands.
The hard part is when the reporters show up. They’re a little more difficult to be approachable for, mostly because I don’t really like them approaching me to begin with. Always shoving their microphones in my face, demanding statements that they can misquote later. A lot of them aren’t actually interested in what really happens, only in how they can twist the facts into a story. I had assumed—hoped, actually—that seeing as we were on a remote island in the middle of the ocean, I’d be spared the media presence this time. But oh, was I wrong. Three reporters descended upon me just as I was wrapping up with the technicians, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. I’d tried to escape to the safety of the chopper before they reached me, but I was too late, and now, nearly an hour after the battle, I’m finally on my way back to base after having my brain thoroughly picked.
I look forward to reading all about my saying things that I didn’t actually say in tomorrow’s paper.
It’s a quarter past midnight when we touch down in New York, where we transfer to a jet headed to DC, where the Posthuman Corps Headquarters is located, not far from the Pentagon. Thankfully, the jet has darkened windows and a smoother ride, so I can relax a little bit. HQ has been my home for nearly five years, ever since my powers manifested when I was thirteen. I’ll never forget that day, and neither will any of my former classmates who saw me start hovering in my desk in the middle of math class. I thought I was going crazy, that I was turning into some kind of monster. Back then the nation was just coming to terms with the existence of posthumans, and there were still groups that believed we were a threat to not only national security, but to humanity in general. There had been violence, riots, confirmed posthumans were attacked, some of them killed. Tensions had been high. Many speculated that we were on the verge of an all-out war. But then the Posthuman Corps had been formed, with the goal of bringing us all together to fight for the same cause. In time the Posthuman Corps came to be a symbol of peace and advancement, and it soon gave rise to some of the greatest heroes the world has ever known.
I remember the day they showed up at my door. A man and a woman, both wearing dark formal clothes, asking my mom to speak with me. It had been one week after the incident at my school, and I hadn’t left my room once in all that time. I had been afraid, afraid that if I went outside I’d start flying again, that I’d go higher and higher and I wouldn’t be able to come back down, that I’d be lost forever in the sky. Mom had finally been able to coax me out into the living room, promising me that the strangers had come to help me. They told me they understood what I was going through, that I wasn’t a monster, and that they could take me to a place where I could be taught to control my powers, a place where I could help people. Then, they’d asked me if I wanted to come with them. They’d told me that the choice was mine and mine alone to make.
I’d said yes without hesitation.
Fast forward five years, and I’ve become one of the most recognizable superheroes on the planet. My likeness—well, my likeness with a mask on—has been on trading cards and video games. I’m an action figure and a doll. I’ve done hundreds of interviews, met tons of celebrities, and received the keys to every major city in the country. I’ve heard rumors that they’re talking about making my birthday a national holiday. I’ve served on the UN’s official posthuman affairs liaison committee. But I don’t feel like I deserve any of it. Not that I haven’t earned it, if that sort of thing is something you can earn. I’ve definitely put more than my fair share into keeping this planet rotating and making sure the people that inhabit it continue to do so. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that you’ve personally saved the entire planet four times over.
Even so, I don’t feel like I deserve any of this. Because deep down, I’m just as afraid as I was five years ago.
From the jet, we’re escorted back to base in an armored SUV, a necessity given that we superheroes are never without enemies. My stomach growls, reminding me that I haven’t eaten all day. I brainstorm different dinner options, and by the time we pull into the garage I’m pretty sure I’ve got a taste for a big, fat burrito. But of course, the second I step foot out of the car, my communicator pings. It’s a summons from General Bighorn, so called because he’s got a voice like…well, a big horn. I let out a groan, which Firebrand notices. “Debriefing?” he asks.
“Debriefing,” I say with a sigh.
“My sympathies. Good luck with the Bighorn.”
Yeah, right. General Bighorn is the new operations leader, having taken over after our last leader was promoted. He reminds me of Captain Ahab, which makes me, unfortunately, Ishmael. He definitely runs a tight ship, expecting military precision at all times and in all things, which doesn’t always sit well with some of us. I don’t mind so much. His methodology suits my own in that we both expect the absolute best out of ourselves and those we work with, and we both understand exactly what’s at stake each and every time one of us suits up and departs on a mission, that despite our colorful costumes and our larger-than-life personas, we superheroes are very much soldiers, and our war is against evil itself, in all of its forms.
So my date with a very large burrito can wait, because I’m not off the clock just yet.
The General is waiting in his office, which is located at the very top of the black spired watchtower at the center of our base. The office is round, and the walls are all glass, providing a 360° view of the entire grounds. He’s standing behind his desk, shoulders squared, arms folded behind his back, his mouth a grim line. He harrumphs once when I enter, motioning with his wrist for the doors to close. He turns and sits, clasping his hands together in front of him. The General is an ordinary human, with no powers to speak of save for the ability to always look like he’s sucking on a lemon. But he intimidates more than a few people around here, even some of the posthumans, most of whom, ironically enough, have the power to destroy him a hundred times over. Not me, though. He stares at me with that hard glare of his, and I stare right back. I think he respects me because of my gall.
“Another mission success,” he grunts with a small nod. It’s the closest thing he ever gives to a job-well-done. I nod my thanks, but I can tell there’s more. I wait patiently, and he shakes his head. “Before you complain, know that I don’t like this anymore than you do.”
My stomach drops. Bad news. I knew it. “Sir?” I ask, waiting for him to continue.
He mutters something about ‘stinking bureaucrats’ before speaking again. “I’ve spent all day in a meeting with the Secretary of Defense. There’s a concern.”
Me? “I don’t understand.”
The General’s frown deepens. “I won’t mince words, with you. The Secretary is worried that you’ve got too much power. He’s concerned that we’re becoming too dependent on you as an individual as opposed to you as a member of the Posthuman Corps as a whole.”
I pull my mask off and run my hands through my hair. “Sir, are you saying that I’m too good at my job?”
“I’m not saying it. The Defense Department is.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose in a useless effort to rein in my anger. This isn’t fair! This is the most stupid, asinine thing I have ever heard! The only thing that keeps me from saying so is the fact that I can tell by the look on the General’s face that he’s just as angry about it as I am. So I take a slow, deep breath and ask, “So what happens now?”
“We’re reshuffling our infrastructure. We’ll be forming our operatives into teams.”
“We already have strike teams.”
“These will be permanent assignments. Each team will operate under a team lead, a field captain, if you will. Each captain will report directly to mission control. I know you don’t like this, but it’s the way of things now.”
“Sir, this is ridiculous.”
“You’re preaching to the choir.”
“We won’t be as effective. Mobilizing a team for every assignment will only slow down our response time.”
“Possibly. And when the Secretary sees that, perhaps he’ll have second thoughts.”
“But in the meantime people could get hurt, or worse.”
The General sighs, and I can tell he’s losing patience. “These are the exact arguments I just spent all day voicing. There is nothing more to be said about it. This is how we operate now. You will report tomorrow at 0800 to receive your assignment. Dismissed.”
I sit there fuming for a few seconds, wondering if it’s worth it to argue more. This is so unfair. Why should I be penalized for doing a good job? With no small amount of self-restraint I manage to stand and mutter a, ‘Yes, Sir,” then I turn stiffly around and march out of the office.
I don’t sleep a wink. I go to the mess hall—which, thankfully, is open 24 hours thanks to the chef being a nocturne who literally doesn’t sleep—and order the biggest, fullest burrito they can wrap, woof it down, then head to the bunker. The bunker is technically just a gymnasium, one outfitted to withstand a more…intense form of exercise. Instead of a pool, there’s an open water simulator complete with three settings: whirlpool, tsunami, and rogue wave. The weights start at five pounds and go all the way up to fifty tons. And instead of punching bags, there are sparring robots we can program with any combination of preexisting powers. I call up four of them, set all their powers to super-strength, and crank the settings to no-holds-barred. Once I activate them, it’s essentially a full-on death match, which is exactly the sort of distraction I need to take my mind off of how furious I am. It’s times like these when I wish I could call my mom. She’d know just what to say to help me feel better. But I can’t call her. Not anymore.
By 0700, I’m breathing hard and drenched in sweat, the mangled remains of the four sparring robots scattered all around me. I exit the bunker, hit the showers, and put on some civilian clothes, a pair of gray pants and a short-sleeve black shirt. When you’re always wearing a costume in loud, screaming colors, you tend to gravitate toward a darker wardrobe whenever you aren’t wearing it. I’ve got a few minutes before I’m due with the General, so I drop by Mission Control, where I find Lock and Load working opposite ends of the computer terminal. Something about last night’s assignment is bothering me, and I’ve got a few questions that need answering.
“Our favorite M-and-M,” says Lock when I enter the control room.
“To what do we owe the honor?” asks Load.
“First of all, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, would you stop with the finishing each other’s sentences thing? It’s disorienting. Secondly, how many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?”
“Sorry,” they both say in unison, although neither of them look sorry about it at all.
I just shake my head. “Anyways, about my last assignment. Did anyone ever figure out what the three stooges were after in that lab? It seems out of character for those three idiots to work together, much less to break into a lab of all places. I think they were working for someone.”
“You aren’t wrong,” says Load.
“How do you know?”
“Because they told us,” says Lock.
“Wait, they just flat out confessed? Already? That seems unlikely.”
“Yes, well, as you said—” says Load with a shrug.
“They are idiots,” finishes Lock. “We don’t even know if they realize they’ve confessed yet.”
“‘The boss is going to kill us,’ I believe the exact wording was,” muses Load, which makes them both chuckle.
I don’t quite find it amusing. “Okay, well, who is ‘the boss’ and what are they after?”
“We’re still working on that,” says Load. “They may be idiots—”
“But they’re stubborn idiots,” adds Lock.
“Just keep me posted, will you? I gotta go.” The dreaded meet and greet with my new team. Just thinking about it makes me want to go right back to the bunker and order up a few more sparring robots. But I’ve got orders, so I swallow my irritation and march to the meeting quarters.
I’m not sure what I was expecting out of this new team of mine, but the three individuals standing at attention waiting for me are not that.
The first is a girl who can’t be older than I am, with a baby face and a wide, toothy grin. The second is a tall guy who looks to be about my age who’s wearing dark sunglasses even though it isn’t particularly bright in here. The last is another guy, this one wearing what look like streamlined earmuffs. All of them are dressed in matching lime green uniforms, which I sincerely hope I won’t be expected to wear as well. “Um…hi,” I tell them, wondering if there’s something I’m supposed to say, like “Welcome to the team,” or “It’s great to be working with you.” It really isn’t, so instead, I settle for asking them what—
“Voyant, Claire Voyant, and it is truly an honor to meet you,” blurts the girl. “Oh, oops, sorry. You were about to ask us what our names are.”
I cock my head to one side. “Okay…”
“Oh, I’m a telepath. I read your mind. Sorry. You were about to ask me how I knew that.”
“Right. But please, stay—”
“Out of your head? Sorry, I’ll steer clear. Also, sorry again. Last time, promise.” She gives me an eager, goofy grin. I take a deep, patient breath and move on to the next one in line.
“I’m Infrared,” says the guy with the glasses. “I have enhanced vision.”
Duh, I think, and I shoot Claire a hard glance when she has to stifle a giggle. She offers me an apologetic face, and I move to the last guy, with the earmuffs.
“White Noise,” he says quietly. “Sound manipulation and amplification.”
I cross my arms and chew my lip. So, they’ve set me up with a brain, some eyes, and some ears. That must make me…
“The muscle,” Claire Voyant blurts before she can help herself.
I hang my head. “Thank you, Claire.”
“Problem?” asks General Bighorn, and I turn around to see him marching in with a look on his face like he’s daring me to put words to what he must know I’m thinking. And I’m just annoyed enough to take him up on his dare.
“With all due respect, sir, yes, there is a problem.”
“Oh boy…” mutters Claire under her breath.
“I don’t need a team. You know that. I know that. I just don’t see the point to all of this. It’s a waste of all our time.”
The General arches a brow, and I turn to see all three of my new team mates wearing the same look of embarrassment. Infrared shuffles his feet, and White Noise mutters something sarcastic under his breath. Whoops. “Nothing personal, I’m sure you’re all very heroic. It’s just that I work better on my own, and I don’t think—”
“Miss Might!” I hear Lock’s voice calling me from nearby. It immediately sets me on edge. Lock never uses my full moniker. Something must be very wrong. I rush outside, with the General and the others at my heels. Lock and Load are both racing toward the building, clearly in a panic.
“We’ve got trouble!” yells Load.
“We know what they were after in the lab!” says Lock as they catch up to me, huffing from their run.
“What’s going on?” barks the General.
“That’s not good…” says Claire, staring forlornly at the twins.
“Does somebody want to clue us in?” I demand, glaring at all three.
“They were working for Doctor Dominion,” says Lock. “They were after something called a—”
“Neutralizer,” finishes Load. “And we think he may have got it.”
“That’s impossible,” I said. We’d stopped them before they’d breached the lab. There’s no way they could have gotten ahold of any tech.
Suddenly a distant humming sound catches my ear. I cock my head to one side, listening. “What is that?” I ask to no one in particular.
“Oh my god,” exclaims White Noise. “We’ve got incoming!”
Infrared dives for Claire, and the next second the world explodes into chaos. Something streaks across the sky, whizzing straight over us and slamming into the side of the tower. A ball of fire erupts from the glistening building. The ground shudders as something else explodes, throwing everyone except me to the floor. Smoke and fire rise from the ground all around me. I hear screaming in the distance, growing closer. More explosions, coming from everywhere, rocking the entire facility. I cough and struggle to gain my bearings. We’re under attack! But that’s impossible! HQ is one of the most fortified strongholds on the planet.
As if to contradict me, another explosion sends a spiraling ball of fire into the air only feet away from where I stand. I lunge, grabbing whoever is nearest me and diving for cover. We all land in a heap, but I don’t have time to check if everyone was alright. Impossible as it is, HQ is under attack. I can ask questions later. Now it’s time to end this. “Stay down,” I shout to whoever can hear me. “Keep yourselves safe. I’ll deal with this.”
With that I turn and charge headlong into the smoke and the flames and the heat and the rubble. Whoever’s stupid enough to attack us is about to learn a very hard lesson, courtesy of yours truly.