“So. You’re Artifact.”
Landon paused, then snorted. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m Artifact.”
“Seemed dumb to dance around the subject. It’s pretty obvious. I mean, Jesus. You call the Lieutenant ‘Jayce.’”
“Everyone calls the Lieutenant Jayce.”
“No one calls the Lieutenant Jayce, Donny. Jesus Christ.”
Several years after Paragon first saved the world on national television, that world had begun adapting to the parahuman heroes and villains that lived among them. With years of heroic successes on the part of Justice Wing, heroes enjoyed great popularity all over the world — and with popularity came latitude. While some resented the privileged position heroes enjoyed, most people were just glad they were out there, protecting humanity from who knew what? These are Justice Wing’s Halcyon Days.
Evergreen City, Washington
Evergreen Post-Intelligencer, Section C2: Obituaries and Death Notices
Julia Kelly, Software Engineer and Community Volunteer
Julia Kelly, 24, tragically murdered on August 9 in her home in Evergreen City’s Fremont neighborhood. She was a dedicated, community spirited citizen who volunteered at the Ballard Food Pantry and supported many causes. Born in Grantham, Massachusetts, Julia graduated from high school as President of the National Honor Society before attending MIT, where she ultimately received a Masters degree in software engineering. Julia relocated to Evergreen after graduation, working for Anodyne Pharmaceuticals as a software developer and analyst. She was considered a key contributor to Anodyne’s integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning with vaccine development and gene therapy techniques. Julia enjoyed fantasy and science fiction and was a long time member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Committee for Future War Reenactment.
Julia is survived by her fiance Landon Moore of Bridgeton, Alberta, Canada, and her sister Emily Kelly Smith of Meridian City, Rhode Island. She is predeceased by her parents Ruth and Tyler Kelly. Services are scheduled for Friday at Corbin Funeral Home in Fremont. In lieu of flowers, mourners are requested to make donations to the Evergreen City Food Pantry Network.
Once upon a time, a woman named Julia Kelly died.
It was a familiar story. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy becomes hero. Girl becomes occasional hostage. Since the day Paragon first flew into orbit on national television and Barbara Babcock took his first photograph and became ‘Paragon’s Girlfriend’ it was practically cliche. And of course everyone knew that the hero always saved the day – and that included saving their paramour. Always.
But sometimes, stories didn’t play out the way you expected. And sometimes the lighthearted adventure story turned out to be a horror story instead.
Emily wasn’t surprised that there had been a lot of people at the funeral. Julia had always been popular – making friends wherever she went, joining up with her fellow nerds to do nerd stuff and go to nerd events out in the nerd woods. Em had been the athlete of their family. Julia had been the student. The jock and the nerd.
Em hadn’t expected to recognize very many people at the service beyond Landon, Landon’s family, and Julia’s high school friends who flew out. She absolutely hadn’t expected to see celebrities there, but there they were. There was a blond man in the dress blue uniform of a Major in the Air Force – he was Kyle Storm, and everyone knew he was close to the Goddess Freya. There was Amanda Bierce, the close confidant of Whippoorwill. Off to another side she saw a stylish man in an impeccable suit alongside an unmade bed of a woman in what was clearly the only black dress she owned, and they were the most famous of all – Teddy Porter and Barbara Babcock, reporters for the Crown City Chronicle. Paragon’s Chum. Paragon’s Girlfriend.
“Miss… Smith, was it?”
Em turned. A strikingly beautiful woman with an impressive mane of black, curly hair, striking blue eyes, and olive undertones to her otherwise pale skin was there, wearing a black dress that was the perfect balance of fashion and understatement.
“Yes… and you’re… you’re Victoria Delgato, right? I absolutely loved your CD.” Delgato was a classical composer, a pianist, and a violinist. She was also the daughter of a dead mob boss and the woman most connected to Jason McCallister, aka the Lieutenant. Em couldn’t actually pick Delgato’s music out of a police lineup, but it seemed like the polite thing to say. She worked from the assumption Delgato had a CD out. It seemed safe.
Victoria smiled a very small smile. “Thank you,” she said, bowing her head very slightly. “I wanted to see how you were holding up. I know how overwhelming all this can be, especially in these circumstances.”
“Thank you,” Em said, looking around again. “I… I have to admit. I didn’t expect all this. But… I guess I should have, huh? Did… did Julia really know all of you?”
“We met a few times,” Victoria said. She looked around. “Julia didn’t socialize with the society much, but she was aware of us. I wish I had known her better.”
“Oh yes. It’s not anything official, mind, but a number of us have taken to using the term. I like it better than Barbara’s – she calls us ‘supporting cast members.’ I do not choose to define myself that way.”
“Barbara.” Em shook her head. “Barbara Babcock. Major Kyle Storm. You. So… what? Super hero girlfriends?”
“Civilians. Civilians who are linked to heroes, by any number of ways. I’m sure by now you know—”
“That Julia was… linked to Artifact? Yeah, that’s pretty clear to everyone, now.” She looked around, again. “Do you all show up at these things?”
“They happen only rarely.” Victoria’s voice dropped, slightly. “They’re not supposed to happen at all. This isn’t how it is supposed to be. But the world does not always accommodate.” She shook her head sadly. “I am so, so sorry, Miss Smith.”
Em had a moment – a rush, where it all came back. The phone call from the Evergreen Police. The second call, this one from Landon. The media circus surrounding her death. The graphic, gruesome details that had come out.
She shook her head. “Me too. Thank you, Miss Delgato.”
Em watched the woman turn and seemingly glide over to where Bierce was talking to Porter. She looked around. She’d been acting as the family representative because there wasn’t anyone else, except for Landon himself, and Landon…
She saw Landon then. He was thin, about five foot eight, but still managed to convey a sense of presence. He had chestnut hair and normally a ready smile, and he always gave off a sense of being in control of the situation all around him.
But then, he would, wouldn’t he?
Right now, he seemed a bit lost. He was talking to Victoria’s ‘linked hero’ Lieutenant Jason McCallister – the biggest celebrity to show up. He was blond and tan and looked maybe thirty even though he was in his eighties, wearing a formal police uniform that didn’t bear any specific police force’s insignia. That was by design, because he was part of every American police force and more than a few international ones. There was a woman with them too – a tiny ginger woman with glasses. Em had no idea who she was.
Landon didn’t look particularly impressed by McCallister. If anything, their talk looked… comfortable. With obvious familiarity. As much as anything else, it looked like a confirmation…
Em took a breath and walked over to join them.
“–understand. Of course I do, Donny,” McCallister was saying. “But you need to take some time. You shouldn’t make decisions like this until…”
“Until I’m all better?” Landon asked, slightly bitterly. “Until it doesn’t hurt any more?”
“Oh Donny,” the girl said. “It’s always going to hurt, but you need to mourn and grieve and process all this before you…”
“Before what? We just had to give my fiancee a closed casket funeral. Do you honestly think I need to process that, Astrid?”
“Absolutely, I do.” She looked over, then smiled to Em. “Hello there. I don’t think we met. You’re Julia’s sister?”
Landon looked back over his shoulder. “Hey,” he said to Em. “Emily Smith? Astrid Bixby and Jason McCallister.”
“It’s nice to meet both of you,” Em said, stepping into their circle. “I… had no idea Julia had friends like you, Lieutenant McCallister. I mean, there had been rumors about her and Artifact having a connection, but…”
“I didn’t know her well,” McCallister said, softly, “but I respected her a lot. Her work with Anodyne Pharmaceuticals may save more lives than all of Justice Wing combined. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“We all are,” Astrid said.
“Thank you,” Em said, dully. She had thanked so many people in the last two days the words had become meaningless to her. “Landon, can I see you for a few minutes?”
Landon turned to look at Em. “You can see me whenever and however you need, Em. Excuse me. Jayce. Astrid.” He nodded to the two before turning to follow Em.
Em was waking for the front door. Landon paced her. “We’re going outside?” he asked, softly.
“I need a cigarette,” Em answered, just as quietly. “And you need to follow me out and watch me smoke a god damn cigarette.”
“Fair,” he said.
Em smoked Kamel Reds by choice. She’d been vaguely surprised to find them in Evergreen, but as it turned out the Pacific Northwest had a pretty robust tobacco selection. She lit off her lighter and breathed the smoke in, feeling it curl through her throat down into her lungs. She offered the pack to Landon, but he shook his head, slightly.
“Right, right. You don’t smoke. You and Julie.” She took another drag. “She used to rag on me for these things,” she said after blowing the smoke back out. It was partly cloudy today, but it smelled like rain might come. But then, it was Evergreen City. Rain could always come.
“They’re just not my thing,” Landon said. He wasn’t looking at Em. He hadn’t really looked at her since she arrived. Em understood why – she knew guilt when it was written all over someone’s face. Survivor’s guilt, she’d assumed when she first arrived. She’d revised that opinion since then.
“They’re not anybody’s thing,” Em said, snorting. “They’re nasty, they stink, and they kill you slowly.” She took another drag, then looked at Landon. “So. You’re Artifact.”
Landon paused, then snorted. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m Artifact.”
“Seemed dumb to dance around the subject. It’s pretty obvious. I mean, Jesus. You call the Lieutenant ‘Jayce.’”
“Everyone calls the Lieutenant Jayce.”
“No one calls the Lieutenant Jayce, Donny. Jesus Christ. He’s… what? Eighty? A hundred?”
“I never asked.” Landon was looking down at the sidewalk.
“Of course you didn’t. I bet personal details are a major faux pas in your social circles. Comes with the masks. Is Paragon here, too? Or Freya? Or just their significant others?”
“Not a question we generally answer,” Landon said. His voice lacked inflection. It wasn’t like him. But then, the Landon Moore Em had gotten to know at Thanksgivings and Christmases wasn’t exactly the superhero type any more than he was the cigarette type.
And yet, here they were.
“Sure. Of course not.” Em looked away. “You’re in God Damned Justice Wing.”
“Reserve. I’m a reserve member. I’m not the team type.”
“Not the cigarette type, not the team type. What does ‘reserve’ even mean in this context?”
Landon closed his eyes. “It means that I have a panic button. It works both ways. If there’s an emergency and I’m needed, they can call me. If I need help, I can call them.”
“How often do you call them?”
“Until all this? I’d never used it. I never really needed to.”
“Is that why Julie’s dead? Because you don’t call for help?”
Landon’s shoulders locked. Em regretted her words. She’d regretted them the moment they left her throat. But she didn’t walk them back and she didn’t apologize.
“Julie’s dead,” Landon said, slowly, “because Pallid Jan slit her throat, then cut her into small pieces and put her into our oven, set it to 375°, and left a note on the outside telling me to check dinner. She was dead long before I even knew to try calling for help.”
Em had thrown up more than once, thinking about her sister’s gruesome death. Now, she just felt empty. “So it was revenge?”
Landon snorted. “No. It was tactical. She wanted to shake me, make it easier to beat me. Throw off my reactions. Julie wasn’t… she didn’t factor. She wasn’t a person to Pallid Jan. She was just…”
“A supporting cast member? A society member?”
“A prop.” Landon’s words sounded bitter. “Don’t you get it? She didn’t give a damn about Julie, except she thought she could force a reaction the way she wanted. She didn’t know anything about Julie. She didn’t care about Julie. All she cared about was how Julie’s murder would affect me.”
“Did you kill this… Pallid Jan?”
“I wanted to.”
“So why didn’t you?”
Landon didn’t answer. He just stood. Head down. Eyes closed. Like he was listening to the sidewalk.
“Artifact doesn’t kill. That was a promise I made.”
“To who? Paragon?”
Landon lifted his head and opened his eyes, turning to look at Em. “To Julie. Give me one of those.”
Em snorted, pulling her pack back out and offering. “I thought it wasn’t your kind of thing.”
“Yeah, well. My kind of things suck.” He looked at the cigarette in his hand. There was a sudden blue-red spark on the end of the cigarette, followed by the familiar glow of the cherry and the curl of smoke. He put it in his mouth and sucked deep. Clearly he wasn’t used to cigarettes, but he didn’t cough or hack. Instead he held the smoke in, his eyes closed.
“For someone who says he doesn’t smoke…” Em started to say.
“The Consanguineous Assay protects and regenerates me,” Landon muttered, causing a cloud of smoke to billow from his mouth. “A little smoke isn’t even irritating.”
Landon snorted again. “The Artifact. Everyone calls it the Artifact. That’s where the name comes from. It’s why all this happened. It’s why Julie died.” He shook his head. “At least, that was what Pallid Jan wanted originally. These days, it’s as much about me as that damn thing.”
“But it’s not about revenge.”
“No. Not revenge, or love, or anything recognizable by a sane mind.” He took another drag, then dropped the cig on the ground and stomped it out. He’d barely smoked a third of the thing. It was a waste of a coffin nail, really, but Em couldn’t care less. “We should get back inside.”
“Yeah,” Em said, watching him turn and head back in. She knelt and grabbed his stomped cig so she could throw it out. Conscientious smokers didn’t litter.
“So what does tonight look like?”
Em was lying on her hotel bed, eyes closed, phone pressed to her ear. Bryce was on the other line – he’d had to stay in Meridian for a work thing. He’d tried to get out of it, but Em had told him not to. He didn’t know any of the people who’d be at the funeral – there was enough of a gap between Em and Julia that their old high school friends didn’t converge at all – not that they would have anyway. There had been an uncle and a couple of cousins, all of whom had already left for home.
“I have no idea,” Em said. “I’m still processing Julie’s death. It didn’t help that apparently my sister moved up in the social world when I wasn’t looking.”
“You said. Major Storm? Barbara Babcock? The Lieutenant?”
“And Victoria Delgato.”
“Yeah… God, my Mom would go nuts. I’ll have to call her. She lives on classical music public radio.”
“I told her I liked her CD. What else do you say?”
There was a pause.
“…Victoria Delgato’s a composer, not a performer. She doesn’t release CDs.”
Em flushed. “Oh, like she’s going to care. She’ll know what I meant.”
“I’m sure she will.” Bryce sounded amused. “So, did you spend any time with…”
“With what? The super hero set?”
Em chuckled ruefully. “No, Bryce. I was burying my last immediate family member. I didn’t take time to network with Whipporwill’s live-in lover. There was so much to do. I don’t know how Donny and I got it all taken care of.”
“Oh, man. Landon. He must have been freaking out.”
Em paused. “Well, of course he was. Julie was murdered horribly. You don’t get over that very fast.”
“No, I mean – here’s all these people. Did he have any idea Julia knew these people? I mean, he must have known she was connected to the Artifact, right? But still – there’s connected and then there’s Paragon’s Girlfriend and the Lieutenant showing up to your wake.”
Em opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
“…Bryce? You… you have to… you have to have realized…”
One of Julia’s favorite words had been ‘gobsmacked.’ It was so her – so ridiculous and hyperbolic. Gobsmacked. Until this very moment, Em hadn’t really understood it. But now? Now she was living it.
“…he seemed to… he seemed familiar with it, yeah.”
“Yeah. I guess with everything… you’d have to get used to it fast. I’d… I’d ask if the Artifact actually showed, but how would you even know?”
“…he showed up, yeah. In the background.”
“Huh. I’m a little surprised. I mean, on the one hand that makes sense. I mean, given what happened you’d expect he’d have the decency to show up. But on the other hand it seems… I don’t know. Tone deaf? Like, this isn’t the time, right? You’re there and I’m not so tell me if I’m being—”
“…it was on everyone’s mind. Look, this is costing us a lot and I’m actually pretty tired. I may go down to the bar and grab a drink or two, and then I’m going to crash.”
“Oh – right, sure. Makes sense. Hey… Em?”
“If you need anything – even just to talk. You can call. Any time of day or night. Anything. I love you.”
“I love you too,” Em said, almost woodenly. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow morning if nothing else.”
“Okay. Love you. Bye.”
“You too. Bye.” Em hung up, and stared at her phone.
Bryce Smith was a smart guy. Not smart like Julia had been smart, maybe, but savvy. He was in management for a reason. He put things together fast. Em rubbed the bridge of her nose as she replayed the phone call in her head.
How… how was it possible he hadn’t figured out that Landon Moore was the Artifact? It clearly had never even crossed his mind!
That drink sounded like a better idea all the time.
Em had been a little worried that some of the other funeral attendees would be in the hotel bar. Some of Julia’s old friends from college, say, who’d flown out like Em had. She didn’t want to be social. She certainly didn’t want to be social with strangers who were at best going to be uncomfortable with her. She’d deliberately dressed down so that if there were people there, she could beg off most social engagements.
As it turned out, there was only one person she recognized. It just wasn’t anyone she would have expected.
Em got a beer from the bar and walked over to the back booth where he was sitting. She slid across from him. He’d been reading a newspaper, wearing a sportcoat over a button down and jeans. He looked like a grad student.
“Hello, Landon,” she said. “Mind if I join you?”
Landon looked up. “Hey, Emily. Feel free. There’s no smoking in here, though.”
“Believe it or not, cigarettes are a sometimes, not an always. Why are… what are you doing here?”
“Having a drink.” Landon nodded to a glass with amber liquid in it, ice floating along the top.
“Why here? Is it because it’s where I’m staying?”
Landon snorted. “Yeah, that’d be a whole new level of creepy, wouldn’t it. Stalking the married sister of my dead fiancee the night after the funeral?” He sipped his whiskey. “I’m staying here, same as you.”
“Don’t you have a house?”
“I have a crime scene with major structural damage. It’ll be weeks before I can even go back in there. And even if I could… I couldn’t sleep there.” He chuckled. “I’m negotiating with a firm – their recommendation is tearing the whole place down and selling the lot.” He shook his head. “At least I can save myself the cost of a demolition crew, right? I couldn’t save the woman I love but I can sure as Hell implode a house.”
“Yeah. Okay, I get that. Why’d you end up here?”
“Same reason you did. There’s a funeral rate that was arranged at this place. It’s how the room was so cheap even though it was upscale.”
“I was going to ask about that. Is it a funeral home add-on or something? I didn’t think funerals were run like trade shows.”
Landon chuckled. There was no happiness in his laugh. Just noise. “A lot of them are. It’s all business, right? But in this case… there’s… some benefactors out there. They help fund Justice Wing, and they have a few things set up for heroes. Health insurance that doesn’t go on a permanent record and covers theta radiation burns. Relocation and identity services. Mason Temple’s one of the big ones behind it, since he’s public as the Centurion. There are others.” Landon nodded towards the lobby. “They arranged the rates here. They arranged the funeral. They arranged a lot of things. They are great at arranging the aftermath of terrible events.”
Em scoffed, drinking her beer. “Sounds like they have a lot of practice.”
“No.” Landon looked down into his glass. “Not at this. It almost never happens.” He glanced up at Em. “Tied to a chair while a bomb counts down? That happens. Thrown out of an airplane with only seconds to save them? That happens. But this? They don’t have much practice at all at this. Which maybe explains the last three phone calls I’ve gotten.”
Landon opened his mouth, but a soft electronic bleep cut in. He slid his hand into his coat and slipped out a pocket phone. It was a bit sleeker than most of the brick like portable phones, but not as compact as the newer generation cellular phones. It was sleek with a satin finish on metal. It looked like an expensive Temple model from a few years back, but lacked branding. He looked at the one-line LED panel, then held it so Em could see. ‘GC1’ gleamed in purple. “Case in point,” he murmured, pushing a button and holding the phone up to his ear. “Hello, Nightstick,” he said, his voice dropping into a lower register.
Em drank her beer, a bit fascinated. The idea that the Greystone City Guardian was just up and calling her not-quite-brother-in-law was surreal, even in a day full of weirdness.
“I know,” Landon said. “Of course I’ve been thinking about it. I– Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Look, I’m out with Julie’s family right now. I can’t talk about this. Please call around and tell everyone else to stop calling me tonight, all right?” He closed his eyes. “I know that, Nightstick. Of course. Of course. Right. Good bye, Nightstick.”
Landon pushed a button. ‘Hanging up’ without actually hanging anything up. Em still thought that was weird, but then she wasn’t about to get a portable phone. “Sorry,” he said.
“No problem. That’s… an impressive phone. Is that one of the Temple tech models?”
“Heh. Not really. It’s emulating one, sort of. But they don’t have my phone number – I have a built in Wingcomm in the thing.”
“Justice Wing Communicator. They issued me one, so I incorporated it into this.”
“You did? Or Julia did? I mean… you’re not a scientist or engineer, right?”
Landon paused. “Em? This is the Consanguineous Assay. The Artifact. It looks like a portable phone right now because that’s convenient. It can be a Wingcomm because I need it to be a Wingcomm. No one had to engineer those things. It does it all by itself.”
Em blinked. “That’s the Artifact? It looks so… small.”
Landon half-smiled. “It’s looked larger. It depends on the circumstances. And… it’s weird, how mundane the utterly fantastic can seem.”
“So… if I’d reached over and just pulled it out of your hand… what, I’d be the Artifact and you’d be out of luck?”
“Not quite.” Landon rubbed his eyes. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“All right.” Em finished her beer. “I was talking to my husband. He clearly had no idea you were the Artifact, even though it’s clearly obvious in retrospect.”
“It’d be surprising if he did,” Landon muttered.
“Why? It seemed pretty obvious to me.”
“DeForrest’s Codification of Imbued Obfuscation,” Landon answered, before finishing his drink. “I usually just hear it called the Mask Principle or Mask Ritual, but then I know the guy who did the codifying, so…”
Em looked blank.
Landon half-smiled, despite himself. “Basically, it comes back to masks. Obviously we wear masks to hide our identities, and just as obviously they work, even though sometimes we’re talking about a domino mask, or a pair of sunglasses, or even streaks of face paint.” He shrugged. “But you and I both know they don’t disguise voice, or most facial appearance, or height, or in some cases most of the face.”
Em nodded. “I guess I never thought about it, but of course you’re right.”
“Well, DeForrest – he’s a professor down North Carolina way – discovered that several heroes were enhancing their masks to enhance their disguise. So he worked with some of his colleagues in other departments and they figured out a guiding set of principles behind it. Whether through magic, or divine power, or psionic resonance, or even some gadget or xenotech solutions, something like a mask can be… amplified, I guess. In effect, they do their job more efficiently. A mask that’s undergone that process… well, it helps make a viewer’s perceptions kind of slide off the wearer, both in person, over film, and even in memory.”
“So… it brainwashes people?”
“It’s not mind control, Emily. It’s… like misdirection. A slight of hand, but with a stronger technique behind it. It turned out some people, like Freya? They’d been doing it for years. DeForrest figured out common principles connecting the different methods.”
Em nodded, then paused. “Wait. You went to college with him? Undergrad?”
“You’re a history teacher.”
“And he teaches literature, myth, poetry – he’s done some amazing work on Yeats.”
Em looked dubious.
Landon looked at her, then shrugged. “You don’t have to believe me, but we live in a world where engineering, science, art, literature, history – it’s all connected in ways we’re just beginning to understand. Parahuman Studies crosses disciplines you’d never have believed before Paragon first showed up on television.” Landon looked down into his now empty glass. “The Venusians understood that, at least to hear Enklah Eben talk about it.” He shook his head. “But then, he’s dead too. Just like Julie. Julie understood it, too.”
“Why? Because she was so special?” Em realized how petty her words sounded, but after the week she’d had…
Landon looked up from his drink. “You’re the only one who thinks so. You and me.”
Em blinked. “What?”
Landon tapped the paper he’d been reading. “I’ve been following up. Checking things. Watching for the impact of this horrible… this senseless death. And do you know what I see? I see articles about the Artifact. The most detailed, well thought out piece came from the P-I’s sunday supplement, and it was entirely framed in terms of the Artifact’s reaction, response, and restraint. I get all these phone calls from my supposed peers, checking up on me, and they all say they’re so sorry, and then they talk about the Artifact.” Tears were beading in the corner of Landon’s eyes. “None of them talk about Julie, Em. They talk about what happened to her. They talk about what it’s supposed to mean to me. To my motivation.”
Landon shuddered, wrapping his arms around himself. “Julie understood the way that every aspect of human understanding, of human achievement fit together. She was working with a team that was using science, zero-point expression, magic, divine force, even alien technology… synthesizing them to eliminate disease. To extend life. To give every human being the chance to be healthy and happy. Julie understood that in a way I don’t. She was developing AI to make it possible, to regulate and extend it. How many people would she have saved? How many people did she save? And no one remembers anything about her except her death and how it affected me!”
Emily looked at Landon, then down into her own beer. “What about that ‘society’ Victoria Delgato told me about? What about those heroes who keep calling you? They… they must—”
Landon’s voice was quieter now. “Victoria Delgato and those like her didn’t know her or care about her. Not really. They see her fate and think of themselves. They never shared a beer with her or listened to that Godawful arena rock she loved. And the heroes? They’re not calling about her. They’re calling me, because—”
The phone – the Artifact – rang again.
Landon looked at it. He picked it up, showing the front to Em. “PC1” glowed on the LED bar. He pressed talk and held it to his ear. “Hello, Beacon,” he said. His voice had none of the shakiness, none of the thickness or tears Em had been hearing. It was firm, and cool, and maybe a half-octave lower.
Another mask. Em wondered if DeForrest’s research covered that too.
“This isn’t a good time,” Landon was saying. “I’m with Julia’s family. We’re covering some things.” He paused. “No. Not now.” He closed his eyes, listening, then opened them again. “No. No I’m not going to call you before I decide anything.”
Em raised her eyebrows.
“Because this isn’t about you, that’s why. You’re the leader, Beacon. Tell the others. Tell the Excelsiors and the Protectors. Tell them to stop calling me. Now excuse me. I have to go. I’m with Julia’s family.”
Em watched Landon push talk again, terminating the call. He stared at the phone in his hand.
Em heard a slight hum, and the phone seemed to fold up, twisting, parts and panels opening and closing and reconfiguring until they’d settled around his wrist. When they finished, it just looked like a pretty expensive analog watch was around that wrist. Stainless. Chunky.
“Can they still call you on that?” Em asked, softly.
“If they hit the panic button, it’ll let me know. I’m not currently taking calls.” Landon looked down at the paper, again.
“Donny? Why were they calling you?”
Landon snorted. “Why else? They want to know if I’m quitting. You want to continue this upstairs – somewhere less public? It looks like a crowd might be coming in.”
Em looked around. It was true. Travelers and tired parents, their kids probably in bed in the hotel above, filtering in to get a few drinks and maybe find a piece for the road. She looked back. “Quitting?”
Landon scoffed. “Why does that surprise everyone?” He got up, scooping up the paper on the way. Em followed him out, watching him toss the paper into the recycling bin, and they headed for the elevators.