Protector Airport, Esperanza City
I stepped onto American soil for the first time in eighteen years.
All around me, men and women – mostly men – were falling to their knees, kissing the tarmac of the runway the way I’d always imagined the first Jews to reach their promised lands once had.
Feeling oddly empty and calm, I straightened the rumpled suit and tie I’d been given in Japan – the flight had taken a while, I couldn’t even tell how long, not really. Mostly, I’d just concentrated on keeping the damn monkey calm.
We were greeted with flashlights and cheers, the president himself had shown up to welcome us back. I barely even noticed what was said by him and the others who took the stage, keeping myself busy by making sure no one got a clear picture of my face. What I also noticed was a shadow on a wall that belonged to no one present. I did my best to ignore it.
After what felt like an entire day, but turned out to be less than forty-five minutes, the assembly ended and we were loaded into a bus that would take us to our next destination, some place to process us and send us on our way with official papers and all.
There was little talk while we travelled – the few who did not fall asleep from exhaustion, instead had their faces plastered against the windows, taking in the shiny city of Esperanza – built atop the decontaminated wasteland that had once been Los Angeles. Not the most practical spot by any means imaginable. But the few survivors of Los Angeles – and many others – decided to build a monument to their defiance of DiL’s terror, right there. Right here.
The last time I’d been here, construction had just begun around the memorial obelisk at ground zero. Now, there was a gigantic city that spread far inland, built with cutting edge technology, designed by Gadgeteers that specialized in construction and generally just built to be an impressive monument all by itself, even without the countless statues, standing all over the city, of heroes and villains that fell to DiL’s first attack.
Of course, all the monkey could think about was how to tear it down again.
I couldn’t care less for it, at least right now. I just wanted the papers I’d been promised so long ago, and then…
Then I’d see if it had all been worth it.
* * *
Once we reached the processing center, things went far, far faster than I had expected, considering the usual pace at which the bureaucratic system worked. But I guess the whole buzz around our return had some upside. Namely, they wanted this to be a shining example of smooth procedure. No having us complain later on how we’d have been forced to wait for hours and all.
Apart from them trying to enlist me for a possible war against the remnants of the Sovjet Union, which I turned down very quickly, everything went smoothly. Even though the monkey was trying to convince me to just kill them all and be done with it.
Finally, after eighteen years (and thirty-four minutes), I left the building with my damn papers. It had taken quite a bit longer than I had expected back then, but now…
Now I would see if it had been worth it.
* * *
Highway to the East
Fortunately, they also gave me a substantial ‘wad of cash’, to use the colloquial term. Pay for services rendered, pay for… everything else.
I used the money to buy myself a cheap, reliable car (second-hand, at best, but a good one), filled up the tank, bought enough junk food to feed an entire football team after the superbowl (the monkey was less likely to act up if it was well fed), and went on my way.
Eighteen years, and by all accounts, it still stood. It had gone through its own share of catastrophe and madness, but it still stood. I’d doubted it, every now and then.
So I drove up the highway. It was stupid, really. I had more than enough money to pay for a first-class ticket on a plane. Not to mention the shadow that had been following me until I got on the road – it was probably still there, I just didn’t bother to look – that was also a quick way.
But after the last eighteen years, I really enjoyed the idea of travelling at my own pace, by myself. Not that I wasn’t going to cheat along the way. The monkey did need some exercise, after all.
* * *
I was officially lost.
I don’t know how that happened. How can you get lost driving on the interstate?
However that might have happened, I ended up driving through a forest of all things. When, according to the map, I should be driving through a plain.
And it was a strange forest, too. All hills going up and down, big gnarled trees, colourful bushes, golden light falling through thick leaves… it wouldn’t have been out of place in a fairy tale at all.
Strangest thing was that it had been night just moments ago, and now it seemed to be noon.
Oh, and the monkey was actually quiet. That never happened.
Well, at least the road is still here.
* * *
Surprisingly close to Chicago
I did not do the stupid thing and stop to take a look. Oh no, I’d read a few too many books to fall for that trap. I just drove on, like nothing had changed, and after what felt like an hour, I was suddenly back on the normal road.
And Chicago was right in front of me. I’d barely put half the way behind me when I got into that forest, even with the monkey’s help, and now I was barely a mile out of the city.
I’d almost think dad was responsible, but he wouldn’t have gone for the sunshine-and-pretty-flower imagery.
Either way… I’d never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I drove into the city, heading for the apartment.
* * *
I had to get to the northern side of Chicago, and the fastest way for that was right through downtown.
Having turned the radio off – it had taken all of fifteen seconds for me to grow to hate the program – I’d missed the warnings, and I was distracted enough to not notice the usual tells.
Street into downtown empty, street leading out of it all but clogged up, news helicopters in the air…
I ended up in a freaking hero/villain fight. And by the looks of it, it was a doozy.
It took place on a big crossroad – a new one, I didn’t remember it, and I’d memorized Chicago pretty well back in the day – and it was immediately obvious why they were fighting – an upturned armoured car lay in the middle of the crossroad, with several bags of money spilling out.
Three minions – and they obviously were minions, dressed in colour-coordinated punk-attire, their hair up in those pseudo-native-american hairdo’s (I’d never been able to remember the damn name, something starting with an ‘Irok’) in every colour of the rainbow and decked out with what looked like contrived energy guns – were standing guard around it, trying to shoot down the heroes fighting their superpowered pals.
In the air above the street – interestingly, every single cape present seemed capable of flight – no less than fourteen metahumans were duking it out. And judging by the reaction of the city, this was considered normal.
Stars above, eighteen years ago, a battle between fourteen metahumans would have been reason enough for a full-scale evacuation of the surrounding blocks! There were people on the streets and in buildings around the scene of battle watching like it was some big show! A police cordon cut me off from entering the crossroad itself, but I had a prime spectator position from where I stood.
I almost turned the car around to find another way to my destination – eighteen years ago, I would have jumped right into the fray and mixed it up with both sides, but now, I just felt annoyed at he delay – when one of the fighters caught my eye.
Of the fourteen metahumans present, the battle was mostly dominated by three that fought almost exclusively against each other – two villains against one hero – while the rest made sure to stay out of their way and fight the apparent lesser members.
The villains looked quite a bit scarier than the average supervillain of my time. One was a woman with a very obvious, very bad case of Chimaeraism – she looked like someone had taken six different animals and at least three different women, cut them up and sewn them back together without any regard as to the functionality of the resulting body. I counted one elephant, two lions, a giraffe, a dog and a snake, as well as two dark-skinned (but not quite African-American) women and what could have been an Asian or Caucasian woman, at least judging by the skin colour (not that that really meant anything nowadays, especially with metahumans). She – though I counted no less than five different male genitals – looked like an elongated slug made of thick skin and fur, a patchwork monstrosity with no clear front or rear, flying around by blowing air out through its mouths, attacking her quarry through charging attacks, bites and the air she blew out.
The other was not as strange but definitely more scary in the classical sense. He – well, I thought he was male, but it was difficult to tell – lacked pretty much everything below his rib cage, save for his guts, which were dangling in a disgusting show of half-rotten, pustule-covered flesh. From his ribs and above, his body looked no better – thin, corpse-white skin stretched over brittle-looking bones, without an ounce of flesh visible, oozing yellow-green pus from countless gashes, pustules and warts. His torso alone was as large as I was tall and was topped by a long, meatless neck upon which sat an impossible long and narrow hairless head, its skin just as diseased and corpse-like as below, its eyes just two sickly points of light in dark, empty eye sockets, a dead face without lips to cover the shark-like fangs in its mouth, and oozing wounds where its nose and ears were supposed to be. Furthermore, its arms were at least thirty feet long and each had five joints and twelve fingers tipped with claws that were another five feet in length. It was floating without any visible means of support and seemed to mostly rely on its claws for combat, using its long, many-jointed arms to attack from obscure angles.
Despite the rather interesting nature of these villains (and I was very sure they were villains – not due to their looks, but due to the attitude they had going; the monkey agreed here with me), it was their quarry that caught my interest.
She was tall for a girl – and I had a pretty good feeling that she was a girl, as she fought with a kind of energy and zeal you mostly found in younger people – nearly six feet tall. Her costume, white body-armour styled to evoke an angelic image on a golden bodysuit, was surprisingly practical compared to what I was used to from my time, and what I had seen so far in a few magazines and commercials of the average modern superheroine, concealing her figure more than accentuating it, even detracting a bit from her overall looks I’d say. Her mask was styled like a solemn humanoid with the beak of a hawk and the horns of an ox, with the facial lines themselves also suggesting some kind of cat. What drew me to her, though, was not her strange mask or practical costume. Rather, it was the mass of wings that floated behind her back.
As far as I could tell, she had a shimmering crystal sphere that floated just inches behind her back, from which grew countless white-feathered wings – technically just three pairs, but each wing asymmetrically branched out into various additional wings. Each of the six ‘core’ wings was as large as she was, and the branching wings varied in size from ‘pinky finger’ to ‘five-foot cutting implement’. Oh yeah, those feathers looked so sharp I thought they couldn’t possibly be as sharp as they looked to be. And just to add a note of extra-creepty to the mix, each of the ‘main’ wings had a row of glowing red eyes along its upper rim, as well as a football-sized eye growing out of the back of the sphere, where the wings sprouted from. Seven long ‘tails’, which looked more like thin white stripes that were half again as tall as she was, with the central one being three times that length, emerged from the ‘bottom’ of the sphere, trailing after the heroine as she flew around, evading attacks and striking back with some kind of invisible blast (any time she hit her enemies, they were thrown back violently, while missed shots often caused heavy impacts in the surrounding buildings or the street below, leaving cracks and craters behind. Something about the way she fought, the very way she moved, gave me the impression of anger. Lots and lots of anger, and probably anger that was not directly related to this fight. And as if that wasn’t enough weird at once already, the… construct behind her gave me the vibes like something that was alive.
Intrigued, I turned the radio on for a moment, and just in time to get the name of the strange heroine.
<…r young star heroine, Chayot, has engaged the Necrophobe and…>
I turned it off again. Chayot… ah, I see. A living creature… how very fitting. Obscure biblical referances, drawing on classical angelic imagery instead of the care bear stuff you had nowadays. I liked her already, whoever she was.
Might as well just enjoy the show, I thought and leaned back on my seat, watching the battle unfold.
* * *
Chayot was fighting surprisingly smart, considering how angry her every move felt. She obviously had the upper hand when it came to ranged combat, while Necrophobe’s claws turned out to be capable of slicing through concrete. The flying patchwork slug seemed to rely mostly on its bulk for charging into opponents, or throwing them around with her air streams, both of which were quite ineffective against the young heroine, who easily evaded her attacks.
Since the other participating metahumans were quite tied up with each other, or seemed too weak to be of importance in that particular fight, the fight ended consisting mostly of the participants dodging like crazy while trying to hit their enemies.
For a minute or so, it seemed like a stalemate, but then one of the other heroes got a lucky shot and knocked the slug’s charge aside, making her slam into this Necrophobe.
Showing a refreshing amount of pragmatism for the average young hero (again, by my apparently outdated experience), Chayot capitalized on this to blast both of them back, then keep up the assault to try and slam them into the building behind them.
If I were this Necrophobe, then I’d…
He used the cover that the slug’s superior bulk provided to slip through a window into the building as the slug slammed into it, then he suddenly burst out of another window further down, charging Chayot at an angle, so that if she missed him, she would hit some of those idiotic bystanders.
Well, not quite what I would have done.
Unfortunately, it did prove effective, but not in the way he or I probably expected – Chayot did take the shot, after angling herself so it would just barely miss any bystanders in case of a miss, and it did miss, but her distraction allowed the patchwork slug to slam into her.
Odd, how unimportant this seems. The monkey was clamoring for a chance to join the fray, to crush and kill, but I wasn’t even all that interested in watching, beyond a general… actually, I had no idea why I was still watching this fight.
It just seemed so alien, twice over. So much more brutal, and yet so much more… harmless. Necrophobe at least was trying to kill his enemy (unless Chayot had a serious healing factor), Chayot was tearing up the scenery, the other heroes and villains were also barely pulling any punches, and everyone seemed so angry.
I could still remember me and my pals from back in the day running over the rooftops in search for our next big adventure (or just the next fight). And when we found it, we had our fun – yeah, we fought to win, but there were rarely any hard feelings involved afterwards. Heck, a few times we even invited the losers (or were invited by the winners) to drinks and had a blast afterwards that topped the actual battle.
Sure, even back then, those nights were an exception, but something told me that none of these capes would ever willingly go clubbing with each other.
This reminds me, I need to look up the old gang, see who’s still around. And if they want me back.
I was startled out of my reminiscing by a loud crash.
The patchwork slug had knocked Chayot down to the street, smashing the young girl with an air blast that drove her into the asphalt – though it looked like that faux-angel on her back absorbed the brunt of the attack. Necrophobe was charging towards her, his claws outstretched.
He was almost upon her when I slammed my car into him, throwing him across the street and against a wall. He couldn’t have weighed much, because he left barely a dent, as far as I could see (though this particular little box on wheels was quite sturdy to begin with).
I’m such an idiot.
I put my foot down on the gas like it was made of lead. The car bucked, then drove right into the pseudo-undead (not a projection or the result of a power – the monkey could smell him, and his power was his own) and slammed him through the wall and into a supermarket.
Ducking to the side, I evaded a stabbing quintet of claws, simultaneously kicking down on the gas again to drive through the building and pin the asshole against the opposite wall.
What the sweet heavens above am I thinking?!