Landon rubbed his eyes. “So how about you?”
Emily looked nonplussed. “How about me what?””
“Do you think I should quit? Or stay the course?”
In the years since the first public emergence of parahumans, super heroes are at the peak of popularity. Across America and the world, the battle between heroes and villains is a thrilling spectacle and a grateful populace strongly supports their protectors… sometimes at the expense of prosahuman institutions. These are Justice Wing’s Halcyon Days.
In Evergreen City, a software engineer named Julia Kelly was murdered by the villain Pallid Jan. Julia’s sister Emily Smith has learned Julia’s fiancé Landon Moore is also the hero Artifact, and Julia’s death was part of a plan to defeat him. In the wake of Julia’s death, Emily and Landon are both disgusted to find that the media, the other heroes’ ‘civilian’ friends and loved ones, and even other heroes are less interested in Julia and her legacy and more in Landon continuing as the Artifact, often asking what Julia would want him to do. She also met Justice Wing’s abrasive archer Broadhead – who knew Julia – who was both scared Landon would quit and offended Julia’s name would be used to guilt him into staying. When Emily asked Landon what Julia actually wanted him to do before she died, he told her: Julia wanted him to quit.
Evergreen City, Washington
Em bit into the burger. It was a “Dick’s Deluxe,” which meant two patties, both with a bit of char on them, cheese, mayo, lettuce, and pickles on a relatively limp looking bun. “This is way too crappy looking to taste this good,” she said, then took another bite.
The Artifact chuckled, sipping a chocolate shake. “Dick’s has been around for decades. I think if they dressed up the burgers they’d lose business. And it’s not like they need it when they taste like this.”
“Yeah, well, with that name…” Em took another bite, and looked around. They were on the rooftop of a strip mall, over a movie theater, over in the University District. Oddly, there was a small wooden patio with a canvas rain shield, a couple of chairs, and a table up there. “I don’t see a roof access door. Why is this up here?”
“They know me downstairs,” the Artifact said. “I helped them out a couple of times, and they knew I liked to take breaks here – sometimes with a lady-friend. So they set this up.”
“Huh.” She laughed. “Did you seriously call Julia a ‘lady-friend?’”
“It’s how she introduced herself when I was in uniform,” the Artifact said. “‘I’m his lady-friend.’ She said it let people assume the worst and best at the same time. This kind of thing she enjoyed.” He laughed again, a little more bleakly. “This kind of thing.”
“And she wanted you to quit?”
“Since day one.” The Artifact drank more milkshake. “So right there? There’s your chance to hate me.”
Emily blinked. “Hate you?”
The Artifact looked down. “If I’d quit like she wanted me to, none of this would have happened. She’d be alive.”
“I can’t get over this. She actually wanted you to quit? Julie? Miss fantasy loving ‘let’s go run around the woods pretending to be elves and hitting each other’ was engaged to an honest to god top tier superhero and wanted you to give it up?”
“Yeah. Yeah she did.” The Artifact leaned back in his chair, staring up at the canvas of the rain guard. “That’s the thing. Back in college, there were six or seven of us. We gamed, we did SCA or Future War, we hung out and socialized and drank too much beer. Of the core group, Julie and… what did Broadhead call his brother when he was talking to you?”
“Right. Julie and Arrowhead were the dreamers. Lian and Rod were the stick jocks. People like me or Lian’s boyfriend were somewhere in the middle. But Julie was very clear from the very beginning – she loved fantasy and adventure as fantasy. As fiction. She was convinced I’d get myself killed, and for what? There was no requirement that said I had to use the Artifact to fight crime, right?”
“So why did you?”
Artifact didn’t answer.
“The Moristaphik sent the Consanguineous Assay to learn about humanity,” the Artifact said, slowly. “To learn what an average human would do when given the ultimate tool. Would he build or destroy? Oppress or defend? Do nothing at all? Or make himself rich? I felt… I was representing the whole human race to an alien culture that is tens of thousands of years more advanced than we are. I felt I had to do my best to do what was right, as our culture defined ‘right.’”
Em snorted and lit a cigarette. “What is ‘right?’”
Artifact grunted. “I have no idea,” he said, quietly.
Em took a long drag. “So she wasn’t… what, proud of you?”
“She was very proud of everything I did. And she wanted me to stop. She wanted us to live our lives. Finding out that Arrowhead died trying to be a hero only made her more resolute. You don’t even want to know what she thought of Vermilion. ‘This lifestyle kills and maims people,’ she said. ‘You’ve done more than enough already. Let the trinket go and let’s live, okay?” He took a deep breath. “And I didn’t, and now she’s dead.”
Em shook her head. “Okay, I’d love to point a trembling finger at you and accuse you of killing Julie to feed your own ego, but that’s a crock. You didn’t kill Julie. This… Pallid Jan killed Julie.”
“I know that.”
“You know that quitting won’t bring her back to life, right? As gestures go—”
“Of course I know that,” the Artifact snapped. “Just like swearing to end the scourge of crime at her grave won’t bring her back to life. Julie’s death isn’t… it can’t be the reason I make this decision. If it is… then Pallid Jan was right, and Julie’s death stops being about her and becomes my motivation. And I’m so sick of people making that assumption. No matter what I do, Julie will still be dead.”
“So why quit? Doesn’t that do the same thing?”
“Julie wanted me to quit. She said that over and over again when she was alive. She wasn’t worried about herself. She was worried about me. I can’t… I won’t base this decision on Julie’s death. But…”
The Artifact leaned forward, putting his head between his legs and his arms behind his head.
There was a clatter and glow, and the Artifact dismantled itself and seemed to vaporize the Artifact’s uniform, before it settled back into its watch form on Landon’s wrist. He was back in his civilian clothes. He sat up and looked at Emily. “Em – everything I do… everything I am is influenced by Julia’s life. Our lives together. We dated for years. We were engaged for over a year. Bought a house together. We discussed everything. I can’t and won’t cut her out of my life now that she’s gone. I won’t let her life be reduced to her death, and part of that is listening to the things she told me when she was alive.”
Emily looked at Landon, then turned away and took another drag off the cigarette. “So what the Hell is a stick-jock, anyway? Both you and Broadhead used the term.”
Landon stared at Emily for a moment, then shook his head and drank the rest of his shake. “A stick-jock’s one of the people who show up to SCA events to fight. They don’t care about the reenactment or getting into character or history or lore or melodrama or any of the rest. They want to wear armor and hit people with rattan swords.”
“And what’s a DNPC?”
Landon scoffed. “It stands for ‘dependent non-player character.’ It’s from a roleplaying game. It’s… a trait you could take for your character – it gave you more points to use to make your character stronger. It’s a liability.”
Em shook her head. “Broadhead thinks this is all a game?”
“No.” Landon turned back to Emily. “Broadhead thinks civilians are liabilities. All of them. He’s systemically cut non-supers out of his life for years, not to mention the supers closest to him. Driven people he cares about away, whenever he could. Like Crosspointe.”
“That’s… She used to be Quiver, right? His sidekick?”
“Ex-sidekick. She walked out after a pretty loud argument, then went independent. She ended up going to the Justice Wing’s Institute. If she hasn’t graduated she’s about to. A lot of that charter class has graduated. Paragirl, Shillelagh, Selkie…”
“And he drove her out? God, what a terrible way for him to live.”
“Yeah, well. Rod’s a terrible guy. Just ask him.” Landon rubbed his eyes. “So how about you?”
Emily looked nonplussed. “How about me what?”
“Do you think I should quit? Or stay the course?”
Emily just kept looking at Landon. She thought about the question for a long moment.
“I don’t give a shit either way,” she said, finally.
Landon snorted. “Best answer I’ve heard so far.” He saluted her with his milkshake, then drank the last of it.
There was a popping sound, off in the distance. Three pops, rapid succession.
“Wait,” Emily asked. “Was that—”
“Gunfire,” Landon said, standing and throwing his left arm forward. “Deeper in the U District.” The Artifact deployed off his wrist, twisting around and splitting into two – one a sphere with what looked like a lens on it, which swept up into the air. The other formed into the same globe form it used before, projecting a hologram showing what the probe-half was seeing.
Em stared at the holographic display, showing the buildings, bright points of light she figured out were people, cars, red reticles forming around what she realized were weapons – guns, mostly. A couple concealed, sidearms for police… it kept going, kept looking…
It focused on a group of figures in what looked like an open lot behind a few storefronts. Ten figures, all with weapons, with six clearly trying to kill the other four. There was a green reticle that formed around a briefcase, and another around three stacked boxes.
“What’s going—” Emily started to ask.
“Drugs. Probably a turf war.” Landon straightened up, even as the display dissolved and the Artifact broke apart, reforming the hoop and putting him back into his uniform. “Stay here.”
“No, Donny. No. I’m trying to get my head around whatever the Hell you are and what you’re doing and figure out why my sister had to die for it. I’m coming with you!”
The Artifact stared at her for a moment, with those purple glowing eye-slits on his mask. It was creepy. “Fine,” he said. “But stay back out of the way.”
“Don’t worry. I will.”
The Artifact nodded, the modules separating off his vambrace again, sliding around Emily’s waist and locking into belt form. It was bulkier this time, and she could actually see more of a red and blue haze. A force field, maybe?
Either way, the Artifact leapt up into the air, rocketing off in the direction the probe went. Emily rose off the roof and followed him.
It looked like there were some innocent civilians caught in the same lot. College students, maybe. Men and women. They were trying to hide behind cover, and a couple were shrieking. All the ones with guns were male. Emily thought they might have gang colors or something but they mostly just looked like more college students, if you set aside their pistols and uzis.
The Artifact swept overhead, his vambrace rebuilding into some kind of arm cannon. He fired it with a ringing noise, heavy on the bass. It slammed into the ground between the two sides, knocking a few of them back, even as he turned in the air and slid down to the ground feet first. The arm-cannon was already splitting apart, with a large chunk building into a kind of ball with lenses on it – like the projector at the Hayden Planetarium. Emily and Julia had gone once, with their parents. Julia’d loved it. Em had been so bored—
The ball landed in the middle of the college students, who shrieked again even as it projected a dome shaped force field over them. There wasn’t a huge amount of the artifact left for the Artifact himself, but he didn’t seem to mind – it had formed into two armored gauntlets, and he started punching the crook nearest to him and growling something. Another tried to shoot him but he dodged and punched forward, his gauntlet firing off like a rocket and slamming the guy in the face.
The four guys who’d been the ‘other side’ of the fight had turned and started running. Emily was still floating in the air – she wondered for a crazy moment if she should go after them, before realizing how stupid that would be. Either they would get away or the Artifact would collar them after he finished punching out the other drug dealers, right?
There was a sudden burst of yellow-white light in front of the fleeing crooks, and they shrieked and dove to either side. Before they could recover, there was a blur that shot down out of the sky and slammed into the ground between them hard enough to cause a shockwave that threw them even further off balance. Emily stared as the figure stood. She was female, pale pink skin, and brown hair, wearing a blue dress and darker blue opaque tights underneath it. And she had a yellow cape on her back and a yellow and blue symbol on her chest – no, not just ‘a symbol.’ She wore the most famous emblem on Earth on her chest: a yellow thirteen point star, outlined in blue with blue lines down each point of the star where they met in the middle. Paragon’s Star, it was called, and everyone knew it on sight.
Her eyes were still glowing gold-white, but then shifted to dark blue, and two of the crooks she’d floored slid back to the ground, like there wasn’t any friction all of a sudden. Emily realized there was now black ice underneath them. Before they could try to get back up, she took a deep breath and then blew, causing them to slide on the ice and hit a parking barrier, knocking them unconscious.
“Holy crap,” Emily muttered. “Paragirl.”
One of the other crooks pointed an uzi at Paragirl, but she sliced it in two with another burst of her gold/white beacon vision, then blew at him the way she had the others – a gale force wind that made him tumble and fall back onto the ground and into a telephone pole, knocking him senseless. The last guy standing fired his pistol at Paragirl – five shots, before it clicked empty. The bullets had hit Paragirl and dropped to the pavement, their force apparently spent. Her clothes weren’t even mussed.
With a scream, the crook threw his pistol at Paragirl. It bounced off her face and landed next to the deformed bullets.
“Always,” Paragirl said, shaking her head. “They always throw the gun. I’m clearly bulletproof, but they always figure throwing the gun can stop me. She blurred around behind the crook, her eyes glowing blue again as she carefully laid him on the ground with a fluid move. ice formed along his legs, freezing him in place. “Now go to sleep. I need to see how your dance partners are doing.” She tapped him on the forehead very gently, but it seemed enough to knock him out. She rose, turning—
The other gang was also lying on the ground, quite unconscious. And the Artifact? The Artifact was staring at Paragirl.
Emily flew down to where the Artifact was standing, landing just in time to see Paragirl blink and move closer. “Ohmigod!” she said, a bit frantically. “Did I – oh crap, did I steal your fight? I didn’t see you! I should have because I scanned the area with paravision but I didn’t see you!”
“I’m under a stealth field,” the Artifact said, coolly. His gauntlets split off his hands even as the force dome dropped and its projector flew back to him. The probe dropped down from the sky as well, all of those coming together to form the Artifact’s vambrace mode on his right arm. “What are you doing here, Paragirl? Are you keeping tabs on me?”
“Keeping tabs on– oh. Oh God, that’s right. I’d forgotten… oh, I am so, so sorry, Artifact. I can’t imagine what it must feel like. I didn’t know her, but…” Paragirl blinked, looking at Emily. “Um…”
“Paragirl,” the Artifact said, coolly. “This is Emily Smith. Julia Kelly was her sister.”
Paragirl’s eyes grew wide. “Oh, Miss Smith. I’m so, so sorry.”
“Thank you,” Emily said. “If you’re not keeping an eye on the Artifact, why are you here?”
Paragirl paused. “Um. I…” She looked around. The college students were still nearby, but were keeping their distance. The crooks were all unconscious. She looked almost sheepish. “Well,” she said, her voice dropping. “I’m going to Evergreen University in September. I’m here for New Student Orientation.”
Emily’s mouth dropped open.
“I see,” the Artifact said, perhaps a bit stiffly. “It’s a good school. Good luck with it.”
“Thanks. Um… I didn’t… I know Evergreen’s your turf, and I really don’t mean to—”
“I’m not worried about turf, Paragirl. Not now and not ever. You did good work here. Thank you for your help. Excuse me, please.” The Artifact rose into the air and flew off into the night.
“…sure, no problem,” Paragirl said, softly. She shook her head, closing her eyes and shaking her head. “Idiot idiot idiot. Great first impression, P.G.! Amulet was right, you can’t go anywhere…” She paused, opened her eyes, and looked at Emily. “Um… heh. Hi.”
Emily nodded. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “He’s… off his game right now. He’s in mourning.”
“Oh. Of course he is. I really am—”
“Sorry. I know. Thanks. Excuse me, won’t you?” Emily kicked up and flew after the Artifact – she figured he’d keep within range so her belt would keep working, but it seemed best not to test that theory. Besides, she had no idea what to say to the World’s Most Powerful Girl, especially when that girl was kicking herself for being ‘an idiot.’
Whatever she’d thought the lives of super heroes would be like? This wasn’t it.
Landon and Emily were on foot, walking up to the hotel. It was still drizzling, but they were ignoring it. It’s what you did in Evergreen. Emily’d learned that when she visited Julia a few years back. Landon hadn’t said anything for most of the walk. Emily hadn’t pressed.
“You know what the kicker is?” Landon said, finally. “I’m teaching Western Civ next year. I figure it’s even odds Paragirl will be in my class.”
“…will you… I mean, how do you handle something like that? How do you teach Paragirl about Mesopotamia?”
Landon snorted. “I don’t know Paragirl’s secret identity.”
“But she doesn’t wear a mask.”
“Not in that identity. She may have something in her civilian identity. Regardless, I seriously doubt I’ll recognize her if I see her.”
“Oh. Well, she’s supposedly Paragon’s sister. So—”
“Yeah, well. I don’t know Paragon’s identity either. He and I aren’t close. I’m not close to most of Justice Wing.”
“Still a weird thing for someone to say.” They walked into the lobby. “I need another drink. Want one?”
“No,” Landon said. “If it’s all right with you, I’m going to go up to my room and crash. It’s been too long a day.”
“That’s fine. There’s details to wrap up tomorrow. Want to meet up and tackle them?” Emily hoped he’d say yes. All this insanity had distracted her from her grief, but going to Julia’s workplace to take care of ‘details’ was going to suck, and having Landon there would help.
“That’s fine with me. I’ll see you tomorrow, Em.”
“Yeah. ‘Night, Donny.”
Emily watched him go, then walked back into the hotel bar. There was more of a crowd, but there was still plenty of space at the bar, so Emily went and sat down. “Amstel Light,” she said to the bartender, who nodded to her and went to pull the beer.
“Wow. You’re in Evergreen City. Microbreweries are second only to espresso places around here, and you’re drinking that crap?”
Emily blinked, and looked to her left.
There was a woman there. Maybe five foot six, wearing a tank top that showed off impressive muscles. She had a short cropped dark haircut and a cool brown undertone to her skin – she looked maybe Polynesian or Hawaiian? Emily wasn’t sure. Her eyes were brown and intense, and Emily recognized her from the funeral. One of Julie’s friends. “Oh,” she said. “Hey there. Um…”
“Kate. Kate Paora. I went to college with Julia.”
“Right! Right. Sorry. It’s been a crazy day.”
“Yeah, well. Hanging out with Donny will do that to you.” She drank some of her own beer – it looked cloudy. “Not to mention talking to… I assume you know him as Broadhead?”
Emily paused. She looked at ‘Kate Paora.’
Paora saluted her with her beer glass.
“So you’re Vermilion,” she said, softly.
“Jules always said you were smart.” Paora shook her head. “She always said you were way smarter than you ever let yourself be, so you wouldn’t scare off the boys.”
Emily flushed. “Julie was full of shit a whole lot of the time.”
“Amen to that.” She drained the rest of the beer. “Let’s go smoke.”
“Let’s say yes. You obviously do. Kamel Reds, from the smell.”
“You can tell my cigarette brand based on how I smell? In a crowd? I mean, I haven’t had a cigarette since this afternoon, and I’ve showered since then.”
“Yeah.” She smirked. It was at least a little condescending. “Like you said. I’m Vermilion. C’mon.”