After Wrath had been rocketed into the stratosphere I was told, rather forcibly, to sit on the curb by an agitated Spectral. His arm was dripping blood and hung rather limply at his side. I was no doctor, but it looked serious. I watched as Quatermain and Ghost met with Cypher and started talking in low voices. Ghost’s name was fitting: he could turn invisible and walk through walls, making him a very versatile at infiltration. He was covered head-to-toe in what looked like armored urban camo. It had a hexagonal pattern on it flecked with shades of grey. His uniform had a cowl extending from the shoulders that covered a hi-tech looking mask that covered his entire face.
Quatermain looked similar, although his armor was noticeably heavier, and he lacked the full mask, instead it was more like a set of goggles, revealing a short, white beard. If he had any abilities, no one knew what they were. I tried to hear their conversation, but I could only make out snippets. Apparently, most of the other villains had gotten out about the same time and by the same way the Gold Diggers had. I thought that was great news: they were gone, the heroes had won. Cypher, though, still seemed agitated.
I had managed to calm down from the adrenaline rush, but I thought it best to keep my energy barrier manifested just in case anyone decided to point any blame my way. Better they be mad at the blue-faced nobody than me. I glanced at Spectral and Animus who were having a conversation of their own. The Regent pulled something from one of the many pockets on his uniform and handed it to Spectral. The member of the Shield nodded his head in thanks and then injected whatever it was into his arm.
An armored truck pulled around the corner and I saw the Argus logo printed on the side. It was a variation of the UN’s emblem, with the map of the globe stylized as the iris of an eye encompassed by the staple olive branches. Several uniformed soldiers climbed out of the back and a few bearing a red cross patch on their shoulder moved to help Spectral.
More than one of the soldiers glanced my way, but they didn’t make any move to approach, which was a good sign in my opinion. The sound of rushing air soon caught my attention, and I glanced up to see The Eagle coming back down. I finally got a closer look at the state he was in after the bomb- or what I assume was a bomb- went off in the cocoon. His uniform was little more than rags hanging on his muscled frame, though he seemed to be faring better, but not as unscathed as I thought at first. The area around his chest where the bomb went off was slightly discolored, like the early stages of a bruise. He had dozens of small lacerations all over his arms, neck, and shoulders from what I guess was Cerf Tueur’s antlers.
His hands were burned too, probably from holding on to the living nuke. Luckily, his voice carried, and I could hear him fine from across the street. “Wrath passed out after Peregrine got us high enough. He’s taking him back to the tower and making sure he’s calmed down.”
Peregrine was the only member of the Regents I hadn’t seen so far. He could fly at supersonic speeds, and then slam into things harder than several types of artillery. It made sense for him to be waiting in the wings, pun intended. It allowed him to build up speed before picking off a pesky target. Or maybe this was Cypher’s plan all along? What if he knew they would try to get Wrath to detonate, and that’s why he’d call in The Eagle and had Peregrine waiting?
And what was “The Tower”? Was it what they called the Regent’s base? Maybe, but what ever it was, the public probably weren’t supposed to know.
I couldn’t help but fall back into thinking that it was all my fault that the Gold Diggers even tried to use Wrath in the first place. What if Cypher hadn’t been able to deal with Wrath in time? Then… the city would have been destroyed because of me.
That was exactly why I didn’t want to be a hero.
I needed to get out of there before they started asking questions. When they realized I wasn’t sanctioned there’d be hell to pay, but how could I slip away without them noticing? Cypher alone had superhuman senses, and The Eagle could catch me faster than I could blink, even with my new running trick. I was screwed.
Spectral was talking to one of the armed Argus soldiers and I saw him look in my direction. The soldier turned to look at me himself and nodded, turning to walk towards me.
Shit shit shit.
“You,” the soldier snapped when he got close. “I don’t recognize you or remember any reports of having a glowstick of a hero in the area. Are you sanctioned?”
“Uhh,” I started to reply, hating myself for not being able to keep quiet. “I… I was just in the area and, uhh…”
“He’s with me,” Cypher interrupted, walking over next to me. I scrambled to me feet and he put a hand on my shoulder. I flinched from the unannounced contact, but tried to act normal, keeping my mouth clamped shut.
“Sanctioned as hero number twelve thirty-five,” Cypher said as he and the Soldier locked gazes, both of their faces hidden behind masks, waiting for the other to back down. I just stood there in shock. The top dog of the hero community was covering for me, even after I nearly got his team and the entire city killed? He seemed to exude confidence and finality with everything he did, something I wish I could have, or at least pretend to have.
“I guess he’s one of the new guys,” The soldier grumbled, not wanting to get into an argument with the hero. He broke the virtual eye-contact and started walking back to his squad.
“Why…?” I started to ask, but Cypher’s grip on my shoulder tightened. “Not now. Just go back to work. I’ll handle it,” He said, walking back to his team without another word or backwards glance. Not wanting to look the gift horse in the mouth, I turned and walked back towards DT rather awkwardly, at a loss as far as knowing how to carry myself. After I was out of sight, I broke into a sprint. My powers would let me get back faster, and I didn’t have much time to waste. The Metahuman Warning would be downgraded to an Advisory after an hour of no villain activity, and I had been sitting on the curb for at least twenty minutes after the whole thing was reportedly over.
Under the Advisory, people would start to venture out of their homes, businesses, and wherever else they might have happened to be when the Warning popped up on their TVs, phones, and anything with an internet connection. Then Argus would slowly start letting evacuated citizens back into the area affected by the metas if their intended destination wasn’t turned to rubble.
Finally, I made it back to DT, but found myself faced with a new problem. Getting back into the building without setting off more alarms. It was possible the door I forced open earlier was still broken, so I made my way around to the side of the building. No one was stationed outside, so I crept up to the door and peered inside. Damn it, I thought as I saw a group of guards through the door’s window. Several were sitting on crates and playing cards by the look of it while two were standing at the door that led to the rest of the building.
I ran through possible scenarios in my head trying to find a good way in. I thought maybe if I used my speed, I could rush past them and get far enough away to let the energy dissipate. But there was no way I could move fast enough they wouldn’t notice, so scratch that idea. Think, I chided myself. Maybe I was overthinking this. Turning my powers off and just walking in was a possibility. They would probably just think I was unlucky enough to be caught outside. Nothing else came to mind, no matter how much I thought. The only thing left to do was pray they would buy it.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and worked on relaxing my powers; closing the valve I opened when I summoned the energy. The first thing I noticed was the warmth returning as the barrier evaporated away. It was strange feeling something return you didn’t even know you were missing. Almost like walking on a leg that had fallen asleep. I opened my eyes and saw my own skin, no blue in sight.
Here goes nothing, I thought to myself, scanning my key card for added effect before pulling the door open. The guards immediately took notice, putting the card game on hold and standing rather menacingly. “Hey guys,” I said cheerfully, trying to be nonchalant.
“Woah, woah, there buddy. You can’t just come in here, we’re in lockdown,” One of the guards said. I paused and tried to put the words together in my head but seeing some of the ones in the back reach for their guns was very distracting. “I, uhh, work here,” I said with a smile, showing my keycard. “I used it on the door, and it unlocked, so I didn’t think anything was wrong,” I explained as the nearest guard took the card from my hand and inspected it.
“Yep, that’s me.”
He looked between me and the card to check the image against my face. Once he was done with that, he swiped it through a miniature card reader he wore on his wrist. It wasn’t a surprise guards working for a leading tech company would have some nice toys. “Alright, everything checks out,” He said, handing the card back. “But why were you running around during a Meta Warning?”
“I didn’t hear any more explosions, so I figured it was safe to head back here.”
That sounded incredibly stupid, but I was hoping they would peg me as an idiot: Everyone knew to wait for the Warning to be downgraded.
“Alright, let him through,” He said to the others before looking back at me. “Go on, but don’t be running around with an active Warning, it isn’t safe.”
I nodded with a smile plastered to my face as I walked past them. I could deal with being patronized. Being arrested for illegally using my powers was another story.
Lunch had more than come and gone, so it was time to get back to work. I didn’t waste any time heading down to the locker room, but while I was putting my coveralls back on, I started to take note of the soreness in my chest. Something had felt off while I was running back, but I pushed it off. It wasn’t a mystery why: I had been shot there. There was a mirror in one of the corners of the room, so I let the top half of the coveralls hang behind me and managed to pull my shirt over my head with only mild extreme discomfort.
There was a large bruise forming on my chest, mostly on my right side. It was red and blue, and hurt like a bitch. Still, I was alive. I pulled my shirt back on and finished sliding my arms into the coveralls. Every time I shifted it reminded me it was there.
I knew there would be a price to pay, a punishment for using my powers. There always was. I sat down on one of the benches and winced as I felt my injury protest. Everything finally came rushing back. I had been stupid enough to walk into the closest thing to a warzone I hoped to ever find myself in, get held hostage by a group of villains, and then give them the idea to nuke the city. I was fucking worthless as a hero.
But I was alive.
There was still time to promise myself I would never use them again. Out of everything, I hated the visions the worst. They were always there; sometimes they were short and inconsequential, but other times… they showed me the most horrible things. Then, if I ignored them, I felt guilty not trying to prevent them, to warn someone. The worst was knowing that I can see the future, but then still being blindsided by something important. Devastating. Life-wrecking. Like my parents…
Oh God, I couldn’t stop myself before their faces flashed through my mind. I could barely remember them anymore, I had been so young. Shit. I felt a lump form in my throat and the sting of tears in my eyes. Exactly what I didn’t need to think about. Great.
My phone’s ringing smashed its way into my breakdown, offering the chance of escaping my downward spiral of thought. The caller ID read “Janet”, and I hit accept without a second thought. “Hello?”
“Hey, Soot,” I couldn’t help but smile as Janet used my nickname, “I’m sorry to call you at work, but I had to make sure you were safe with the Warning going on.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied. I felt bad, realizing I hadn’t called her to tell her about what happened at the gas station or about the dampener. But that was probably for the best, she would have been freaked out by it. Not to mention what I’d just done; diving straight into a fight with murderous villains. She could tell something was wrong, though, “Are you sure? You sound strange.”
Was it that obvious? “Yeah, I’m still safe at work. It could be the basement messing with the signal.” I hated not telling her the truth, but I would be fine once I calmed down, so it wasn’t really a lie. Right? “Alright,” She said, not sounding convinced.
There was an uncomfortable span of silence, but Janet thankfully had more to talk about. “Oh, and before I forget: Ana is coming home for the weekend, and Paul and I wanted to know if you would join us all for dinner tomorrow night?”
“Yeah, that sounds nice,” I said, glad to get to see how Ana was getting along at college.
“Oh, I see, all I have to do is offer you a meal to get you to visit, huh, Mr. Independent,” She scolded, only partially trying to hide the humor in her voice.
“Come on, that’s not fair,” I chuckled.
“Maybe, but that doesn’t make me miss you any less. Since you and Ana moved out the house has felt empty.”
“Really, Paul isn’t making enough noise to drive you crazy?”
“I said empty, not quiet,” She replayed with a laugh. “I’ll let you get back to work. See you tomorrow, Soot.”
“Alright, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I ended the call and held the phone in my hand for a moment. It had been a while since I’d visited, Janet was right about that. But they, at least, knew what I was going through with my powers. What I had gone through. They still welcomed me in despite that, as if I was their biological son. That feeling of overwhelming gratitude turned to guilt. I knew my powers could be dangerous, and they didn’t deserve that. I knew it hurt them for me to pull away, and I hated to do it, but I couldn’t risk hurting them after everything they’d done for me.
But for now, it was time to get back to work. I bottled everything up and went to get the rest of my gear from the storage closet. Mr. Hartley’s invitation came to the front of my mind, so I decided to get that over with before getting to finishing up my work for the day.
Now that the Warning had passed, most of the DT employees had decided to get back to work. Riding the elevator was almost painful. It seemed like it was having to stop every other floor to let people on or off. People didn’t really seem daunted by the fact that my cart took up roughly a third of the small space, which was an annoyance. Still, I eventually reached the forty-second floor but realized I didn’t really know where to go from there.
Leaving my cart against the wall, I started waking down one of the halls looking for signs of activity. Most of the rooms were locked and empty, waiting to be used. Finally, I found the room I was looking for. I looked in through the windows that lined the wall of the room exposed to the hallway and just happened to spot Mr. Hartley inside.
“Ah, Nate, glad you could make it,” Hartley said, motioning me to come over. There were about five other people in the room, all milling around various machines. It looked like they were stress testing some of the designs, but I became distinctly aware that I was the only meta in the room.
“The janitor? That’s who you brought to test the new designs?” One of the researchers asked with a scowl on his face. He was a shorter guy with eyebrows that made his entire face look top-heavy.
“He’s a fellow employee, and he agreed to test their functionality,” Hartley shot back.
“We’re going to take the designs to a focus group next week, why do we need to test them now?”
“Because, it will allow the chance to potentially correct any immediate issues before the focus group, Mr. Baker,” Hartley said, matching the other man’s scowl.
“So, what do you need me to do?” I asked as Baker walked off in a huff to fetch one of the watch-like designs from a case nearby.
It was another researcher that answered, this one a woman. “Just take off your dampener and put one of these on and tell us how it feels,” she said with a smile.
“Alright,” I said, turning off the dampener on my wrist- which was acting normal again after I put it back on when I got back to the building- and reached out to take the prototype.
This all felt kind of strange. I had assumed I would be with a group of other metahumans, but knowing I was alone was uncomfortable. Luckily, though, the whole thing went by smoothly. One by one, the group of researchers gave me their model of the prototype to try on. Honestly, they all felt the same, but they all looked so eager to hear what I had to say, I tried to give them something positive. As far as the tech went, they all still caused the same buzzing in my jaw, but most of them did have smaller, sleeker designs.
One of the best looked like an ordinary wrist watch. It had an analogue face with two buttons on the side. The top one was the knob to set the time, and the second was the on/off for the dampener. Then, we got to Baker’s. It was a like a brick at least twice the size of the one I already had.
“To be honest, its kind of heavy and awkward to wear. On top of that its really noticeable, and the corners are pretty sharp,” I admitted.
Baker didn’t seem to take kindly to my feedback. “Its not made to be ergonomic: it’s a new design for the mandatory dampeners Argus uses. And its ‘kind of heavy’ because its built to make sure you don’t accidentally break it. You know, because you metas are good at breaking things.”
Did he really just say that? I tensed up and looked around at the others They had expressions ranging from surprise to shock to anger. Hartley, who had been sitting nearby with his arms crossed in a relaxed posture stood up and glared at Baker.
“What?” He asked, noticing the change in the room’s atmosphere. “It was a joke,” he said sullenly and unconvincingly. If he had been going for a deadpan delivery, he had failed miserably. I’d felt it before; some people didn’t like metas. They thought they were all dangerous and deserved to either be locked up or be forced to wear power dampeners. Racism wasn’t the word I would use- it didn’t matter what color their skin was- but it was still bias.
“Baker, go home,” Hartley said suddenly, an edge in his voice I hadn’t heard before.
“What?” He asked, as if he was surprised, we were all uncomfortable. “I still have tests to run…”
“Go. Home.” There wasn’t any questioning Hartley this time. Baker just swallowed hard and nodded before collecting his things and storming out.
“I’m sorry about…”
“Its fine,” I said, cutting Hartley off. He didn’t seem offended at me, though, and just nodded. I put my original dampener back on and walked out. Complaining didn’t do any good against people like Baker; if anything, it made their argument stronger.
Once I was clear of the lab, I grabbed my cart and got back to finishing my rounds for the day. I hated having to hide how I was feeling.
Just pretend to be the good little meta.
Like everything else, I just pushed it down, and moved on.
Working as quickly as I could, I finished up a few minutes early. Sure, it meant a few toilets might not have been scrubbed squeaky clean, but I didn’t really care. Once everything was check off, I stashed my cart in the supply closet and practically tore out of my coveralls. I didn’t feel myself start to calm down until I got on the bus headed home.
Everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours had wound itself tighter and tighter in my chest. I hadn’t realized until tried to unpack it all. So far, I had almost blacked out because of my uncontrollable powers, ran into a metahuman slugfest, been shot, captured, and then freed all before nearly getting the entire city destroyed, killing everyone in it. Awesome.
I hopped off the bus and started the short walk home, ready to put everything behind me. The sun was starting to get low as I passed the gas station where, only yesterday, I had been shot at. This was becoming an unhealthy habit. My house finally came into view and I could hardly wait to cross the street and get the door open.
I hung my jacket up and made my way to the kitchen to get myself something to drink. I walked through the door way and flicked on the light, spotting something out of the corner of my eye that didn’t belong…