Paora laughed. “Quit? We don’t quit. We die. Oh, he might give the Artifact up. I hope he does. And then somewhere down the line he’ll be dragged back into the game under another name, or he’ll get it back, or he won’t have it and he’ll get killed. That’s how this works. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t know that, but it’s true.”
In the years since the first public emergence of parahumans, super heroes are at the peak of popularity. These are Justice Wing’s Halcyon Days.
In Evergreen City, a software engineer named Julia Kelly was murdered as part of a battle between Landon Moore – aka the Artifact – and his villainous nemesis Pallid Jan. Now Landon and Julia’s sister Emily Smith wrestle with the fallout of Julia’s death and the fact that heroes, the media, and the public care more about how Julia’s death affect the Artifact’s motivation than about her life and legacy. As Landon goes to bed, Julia is sought out by Kate Paora – Julia’s friend, and the vigilante hero called Vermilion.
Evergreen City, Washington
There was an alley between the hotel and the next building, which is where they went to smoke. Emily had a feeling alleyways were a second home to Kate Paora.
“Gimme one of those,” she said when Emily pulled the pack out. Emily tapped the pack against her palm and offered, and Paora slid one out. She pulled an old Bic lighter out of her jeans pocket and lit it. Tight jeans, red tank top, Doc Martens. She was short but solidly muscled, and leaned up against the damp wall as she lit the cigarette. “Thanks,” she said in a cloud of smoke.
“No problem.” Emily struck one of her own. “So half of Julie’s friends at College ended up super heroes. Only Julie, I swear.”
“It’s better than that. Think about it. Me, Broadhead, Arrowhead. Artifact. Four of us. And not a one of us has a native super power. We’re all a pack of Norms and we’re all going to meet bad ends. Arrowhead beat us to it. I didn’t expect Donny to get Jules killed, but I should have. He’s an idiot.”
Emily frowned. “Donny didn’t kill Julie. Pallid Jan did.”
“I’m aware. Except of course Donny killed Julie. Or got her killed. Works any way you look at it.”
“So do you want him to quit?”
Paora laughed. “Quit? We don’t quit. We die. Oh, he might give the Artifact up. I hope he does. And then somewhere down the line he’ll be dragged back into the game under another name, or he’ll get it back, or he won’t have it and he’ll get killed. That’s how this works. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t know that, but it’s true.” She shook her head. “All those idiot hangers-on at the funeral, looking so shocked because they think they can’t die. They think that the bad guys won’t kill them even though they have all the reason in the world to kill them. They think this is a comic book, same as both the rest of the capes and the crooks. But it’s not. It’s a sickness, and we’re all infected, and it’s inevitably terminal.” She sucked on the cigarette.
“Broadhead says that the… dependents aren’t supposed to be killed. He says the villains will kill Pallid Jan before she goes to trial to maintain the balance.”
“Broadhead’s only wearing a mask because his brother got himself killed. And he’s hardly the only guy in Rod’s life to die, not even counting Jules. But he’s right about Pallid Jan. She’s a goner, because the bad guys want to maintain the fiction as much as the good guys do. Right now, it’s a game and everyone loves it. Even the villains. The minute the wives and girlfriends and chums get iced, the whole world wakes up and realizes these are walking nuclear weapons and no one’s in charge of them. But you think Pallid Jan’s the first one to break the unwritten rules? You think she’ll be the last? You think the Dark Gods of Greystone will keep the peace forever? Or Leo Lucas, if he figures slaughtering the whole staff of the Crown City Chronicle will give him a shot at killing Paragon?” She laughed bitterly, shaking her head again. “There’s a storm coming! Anyone who doesn’t have their heads in the sand or up in the clouds can see it! Jesus, the most powerful human being on Earth was killed and no one noticed!”
“What – Paragon?” Emily felt a clutch around her heart.
“No, not God damned Paragon. He’s a dime a dozen. Strong, burny eyes, whatever. Antonym!”
Emily paused, and frowned. “Who?”
“Antonym. I thought you were an East Coaster. The Excelsiors? The Guardians?”
“Oh – yeah, I remember. She’s the one with the exclamation point, right? She’s the strongest super?”
“As far as I know she had no limits on her power whatsoever. And now she’s gone and they don’t talk about her. I sounded out McCallister at the funeral, seeing if he’d say anything. He clammed up. He was her teammate and he won’t even admit to knowing where she is. Ergo, she’s dead. And if she can die, we can all God damned die. And the world will be better for it, assuming anyone at all survives.” She took another long pull off the cig, then dropped and stomped on it.
Emily looked at her, then snorted. “So what’s your story?”
“Me? I wear body armor and I attack people with a giant God damned sword. I break criminals. I’m really God damn good at breaking criminals.”
“With a sword? Do you cut them in half?”
“It’s not that kind of sword. Think broadsword on steroids. Like a claymore but made of modern materials so it’s lighter and faster. That kind of sword only cuts people in half in the movies. That’s not what they’re meant for.”
“What, it’s not sharp?”
“Of course it’s not sharp! Look. Longswords, broadswords, all that? None of that was sharp, because they weren’t designed to hit average schmoes. They’re designed to hit people in armor, especially plate armor. So all their force and mass is focused on this thin edge so that it has the best chance of cracking through plate or breaking a bone through chain and leather. Only stupid people and posers sharpen those swords. Which doesn’t mean I can’t hack off a limb with it. It’s just the flesh doesn’t cut, it tears and the bone shatters. Horrible to see.”
Emily shivered, staring. “That’s what you do?”
Paora rolled her eyes. “No. If I did that, I’d end up in jail or dead that much faster. I break bones, sure, but I don’t God damn maim people and I sure don’t kill them. If I killed them someone’d find me and lock me up and then I couldn’t do my God damned job.”
Emily kept staring.
“What is your ‘God damned job?’”
Paora snorted. “I punish the wicked. I torment them and terrorize them and make them into cautionary tales told to little baby gangsters in their cribs – don’t be a criminal or Vermilion will make you suffer.”
“Why? Because it has to be done. Because while idiots in spandex play cops and robbers, there are people being hurt or killed and someone has to make that stop.”
Emily paused, then nodded. “They said it was vengeance.”
“I’m sure they did. And that’s a nice word, isn’t it? ‘Vengeance?’ Or ‘obsession.’ Or ‘psychosis.’” She ran her hand through her now-wet hair – the drizzle hadn’t stopped. “My fiance and me? We were at an SCA event down in California. Local thing, being held in a warehouse because of rain. Mairo? He loved those things. Loved to dress up and sing songs and play lutes. He built a period accurate lute by hand. Me? That stuff bored me, but I liked the hitting. Me and Rod bonded over that back in the day. It was a Hell of a good workout and I was good at it.”
“So what happened?”
“What happened? The Meta’d happened. You hear of them?”
“Super-crook street gang?”
“Parahuman gang bangers. The warehouse was part of their claimed turf, which our seneschal knew but figured it wouldn’t matter since he’d rented it from the property owner. They disagreed. Showed up. Had a grand old time. Knocked me unconscious. Killed a bunch of people, including the seneschal. And Mairo. Me and a local armorer both survived, and we went to work so that wouldn’t happen again.” She rubbed her eyes. “But of course it will. I can’t stop it. Rod can’t stop it. Donny sure as Hell can’t stop it.”
“They said you were on the edge because of Julie’s death.”
“I’m sure they did. Because I am. Except they’re still idiots. They don’t get it.” Paora looked at Emily, her eyes burning into Em’s as intensely as Paragirl’s beacon vision. “I’m what ‘supers’ will be. I’m the future. I’m ahead of the curve, but just barely. I told you – a storm’s coming, and when it blows through none of this hero or villain stuff will be left standing.”
“But you don’t kill.”
“I can’t kill. If I did, then heroes would stop me. I can’t afford that.” She snorted. “Which isn’t the same as saying I save people. If some scum bastard manages to Darwin himself, that’s not my lookout. And I’m not a cop or a fireman. I’m a God damn vigilante. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who’s figured that out.”
Emily nodded. “Would you have killed Pallid Jan?”
Paora froze. “What?”
“If you’d been there. If you’d had a shot, after Julie’s murder. Would you have killed Pallid Jan?”
Paora looked off into the distance.
“Call me Kate when I’m not wearing the mask,” she said, almost absently. “I didn’t kill the bastard who killed Mairo. Killing that bitch? I’d want to but I have too much to do. Besides, Rod’s right. Her friends will kill her soon enough.”
Emily nodded. “So why’d you walk up to me in the bar?”
“Why?” She shook her head. “I saw you talk to McCallister at the funeral. I saw you talk to Donny in the bar. I saw Rod’s fireworks so I figured you talked to him, too. So I wanted you to hear the truth from someone. Someone who wouldn’t sugar coat it or pretend anything any of us do is somehow right or noble. You want to talk noble? Jules was noble. She went to work every day and tried to make the world a better place. And then she died a stupid death, all because some psychotic wanted to get under Donny’s skin. And everyone’s shocked and they’re all scared Donny will quit. Well, it doesn’t matter if Donny quits or not, and the only real shocking thing? Is that it started with Jules and not Barbara Babcock or Victoria Delgato. Someone had to tell you. Someone had to say, out loud, that your sister died an absolutely horrible, terrifying death for no reason at all, and that she’s just the first.”
Emily snorted. “Of course you did. Because that means you’re right, and have been all along. If Julia’s death is meaningless, then your life has meaning.”
“My life has no meaning. I have a purpose. A job. I keep the darkness at bay. And don’t make any mistake, Emily Kelly Smith. I will fail at that job. I will fail, and I will lose, and I will die. But I won’t go down easy and I won’t go down quick.”
“So you’re the only one who understands? Who gets it right? Everyone else is an idiot?”
“Heh. I know that tone of voice. It’s the one that says ‘oh, wait. Kate’s insane.’ Like any of this is sane.” She looked back off into the distance. “I’m not the only one. There’s a guy – he was the second Cudgel. The one who got fired. He got it. Foolhardy, in Empire City. He gets it. Rubicon, down in Port Meadows. But we’re few, and far between, and we can’t stop what’s coming. No one can.”
“Not even Justice Wing? They’ve got Paragon, the Beacon, the Ancient Mariner – not to mention a literal Goddess—”
“Freya. They have Freya. Do you know much Norse myth? There’s a big Norse revival going on because she showed up, you know that? Have you read any of the old stuff? That was my college major, once upon a time. My useless God damned college major.”
“Oh. Well. Let me tell you something. Freya? She’s interesting in the myths. For one thing? She survives Ragnarok. You know Ragnarok? The Norse Armageddon? Freya lives through it. Like, essentially none of the other Gods do, but she does. She lives through it.” Paora’s eyes narrowed. “But she doesn’t stop it. Hell, she doesn’t even try.”
Emily stared at Paora, who was still looking off into the distance. Looking at nothing – or at least nothing Emily could see. “So. What’re we supposed to do about it?”
“Nothing at all. The avalanche started the day Paragon punched asteroids on National TV. The rocks in the middle of the avalanche don’t get a say. They just get to slide down the mountain destroying everything in their path.” She turned to look at Emily. “If there were justice? If there was some happy ending in all this? Then of all the people I’ve ever known? Jules is the one who should have survived all this. Thanks for the cigarette.”
Emily watched Paora leave the alley. She looked at her own cigarette. It was still burning, barely, though she’d forgotten about it. She shook her head and stubbed it out on the side of the building, then reached down and picked up Paora’s wet, crushed butt. Once again, polite smokers didn’t litter. She wasn’t sure why the super heroes missed that memo.
Landon drove a sedan – recent model Temple Motors car, nothing too extraordinary except it looked like an all-steel model which probably knocked the price up quite a bit. Of course, it took Emily about ten minutes before she realized they were driving inside the Artifact.
“Do you use this thing to microwave your food, too?” Emily asked, looking out the window as they drove over a floating bridge. Anodyne Pharmaceuticals was out on Ordway Island – not a long trip, but in morning rush hour the time took exponentially longer. Jazz was playing on the car stereo – local public radio – but it was quiet.
“I didn’t, until I ended up living out of a hotel room.” Landon sounded distracted.
“Well, there’s why you can’t quit,” Emily muttered. “If you quit, you’d lose your car, your telephone, your microwave and who knows what else? Can you even afford to quit, with all the stuff you’d have to replace?”
“Convenience isn’t a good enough reason to be a super hero,” Landon said in that same tone of voice. “Besides. I have savings. And…” He trailed off.
“And insurance. I know. It’s okay to accept the insurance payout for my sister. Julie had that insurance because she wanted to make sure you’d be provided for if—”
“I know why she had it. That doesn’t mean I deserve it.”
“Yeah, well. Don’t throw the cash out the window because of that. Part of your burden is accepting Julie’s gift to you, whether you deserve it or not.” She looked at the water off the side of the bridge. “Anyway. You’ll recover. You’re a professor at a major university, right?”
“I’m an instructor.”
“What’s the difference?”
“About twenty thousand dollars a year and tenure.”
“All the more reason to keep the insurance money.” Kate sighed. “So Vermilion talked to me last night. As Kate Paora.”
Landon didn’t say anything.
“I heard you. She outed herself?”
“That’s not a great sign. I’d have expected her to show up in your hotel room in full togs, not in her civvies. She has no reason to trust you, which means…”
“Which means what?”
Landon sighed. “Which means she doesn’t think it’ll matter. She’s been on a doomsday kick for a couple of years. Julie’s death pushed that a lot farther along. If she thinks her identity doesn’t matter… it’s a short step to deciding the rules don’t apply any more.”
“She says that’s inevitable. That everyone’s playing dressup and it can’t last.”
Emily kept looking at the water. They were going maybe five miles an hour, and this bridge was ridiculously long. She supposed that’s why it had to float. “Is she right?”
Landon didn’t answer.
“Donny? Is she right?” Emily turned to look at Landon.
“It’s not as clear cut as right or wrong. She’s right that the current balance won’t last. It can’t. It’s as much society still adapting to the existence of parahumanity. But that doesn’t mean that it’ll fall into anarchy or chaos the way she insists. It’s more likely there’ll be an evolution of roles. Heroes and villains will change – become something different. It’s why that Institute out in Grantham exists. It’s why the Excelsiors formed in the first place, and the Protectors after them.”
“But you don’t know.”
“No one knows. But I know what history shows us.”
Emily scoffed. “When did anything like this happen before?”
Emily paused. “That’s not what I meant.”
“But it’s relevant. Nuclear weapons. Before that, things like mustard gas – or the machine guns of World War I destroying a romanticized impression of war that had been held for centuries, especially in Europe. Steamships displacing sails. Wireless transmissions. Television. Records and cassettes and CDs. The world has a lot of practice with monumental, shocking change. It’s just we grew up with those changes, so it doesn’t seem that shocking to us.” Landon chuckled. “There are kids in high school right now who’ve never known a world without Paragon. Parahumanity isn’t new or shocking to them. It’s just how things are.” He chuckled again. “Think about the way their kids will see the world.”
“So there’s nothing to worry about?”
“I compared parahumanity’s emergence to nuclear weapons for a reason. There’s plenty to worry about. The problem with history is we see it from a remove. We forget that history’s happening right now, too, and that living through history can suck.”
The jazz trailed off, and an announcer’s voice came on. “That’s a little Dave Brubeck to liven up your morning. KPLU is a service of Pacific Lutheran University and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Jazz in the morning on KPLU is brought to you in part by Church Aerospace. Church Aerospace – reaching for the stars – and by people like you, and we very, very much thank you. The news is up next.”
“I wonder what will happen to Church Aerospace now that the Cavalier’s dead,” Emily murmured.
“He had a son. It’ll be fine.”
“Is it true that… Answerable’s dead?”
“The Excelsior? The girl in the black with the exclamation point?”
“Antonym. As in ‘opposite.’” Landon sucked air between his teeth. “I don’t really know the Excelsiors. Our paths pretty much never cross. I see the Protectors and Justice Wing. I haven’t heard she’d died, but I also haven’t heard any news about her for a while.” He shrugged. “Not all heroes get to be national news.”
The radio finished playing the news theme. “From the United States Broadcasting Service in the Capital District, this is USBC-1 News. I’m Shaneta Craskell. A representative of the Protectors have said that the mysterious glowing cracks that appeared in the sky above Las Bendiciones last night have been permanently sealed, with no danger to the populace. Micronought of the Protectors spoke to reporters at a press conference this morning.”
“Oh, did the world almost end last night?” Emily asked, looking back out over the water.
“That’s my understanding.”
“Did they call you?”
“Nah. The Protectors had it covered.” Landon snorted. “Right there. Potential catastrophes are reported in the news and it’s barely worth paying attention to the radio. That’s cultural adaptation in action.”
“Sometimes it’s all too much. You can’t be panicked twenty-four/seven.”
“Yeah. Even in the worst war torn corners of the planet you eventually get used to the situation. It’s still stressful, but you have stuff to do whether bombs are going off or not. Food, water, shelter…”
“Why are there wars, anyway? Why doesn’t Paragon fly over and stop them? Or Freya, or… or you?”
Landon snorted. “Because we’re not in charge. We shouldn’t be in charge. If we fly out and depose dictators, we’re setting ourselves above the people. Making ourselves into government. Making justice something we dispense instead of defend. That’s one of the differences between heroes and villains. Villains impose. Heroes defend. Every time a hero decides to get ‘proactive’ it’s a disaster.”
The voice on the radio changed. “From the KPLU news desk, I’m Aiden Morrison. Representatives of Parahumanity First are protesting the conditions under which supervillain Pallid Jan is being held. Parahumanity First representative Cole Dickens gave a statement to reporters outside the King County Parahuman Containment Facility in Northbrook.”
“We understand that when a criminal is arrested they have to be held,” Dickens said in the pre-recorded statement. “However, Janet Olsson is being held in an Omega level containment cell. This is despite her power level and threat being rated by DETAILS as Delta level. She has not been arraigned yet, much less gone on trial for her crimes. While we know she has been accused of horrible acts, that doesn’t give the King County District Police the right to punish her before she’s undergone the full legal process. She has rights, whether we like her or not.”
Emily bit her lip, but didn’t say anything.
“Rick Dawson, the Assistant Director of the King County Parahuman Containment Facility, responded in a press conference just a few minutes ago.”
Emily turned to look at Landon while ‘Rick Dawson’s’ voice filled the car. Landon was impassive, watching the road and the bumper of the car ahead of them, but he was clearly listening to Dawson’s statement. “We can understand the concerns that have been raised. However, they are based on false information. Yes, we have placed Ms. Olsson in Omega Level containment, but we have done so because there have been credible threats on her life, and we need to take every precaution to ensure her safety while she awaits arraignment and trial. Omega containment is as hard to get in as it is to get out. While there, we are absolutely affording her socialization, albeit remotely, plus the amenities we extend to other inmates who are awaiting trial.”
“Both Broadhead and Vermilion say Pallid Jan won’t live to see trial,” Emily murmured.
“I know,” Landon said. A gap opened up ahead of them and he swerved into it, pulling forward and off the bridge, accelerating to thirty miles per hour. “Those threat ratings are crap, anyway.”
“Really. Broadhead’s rated Epsilon under those, same as Lian. I’m rated Alpha. I promise you Broadhead could take me in a fight. Lian… it’s up in the air. And if I’m Alpha and Pallid Jan’s Delta, you’d think…” He grimaced.
“Donny… you can’t…”
“Yeah. I can. I will.” He signaled for the offramp.
Emily looked down at the floor. It had grime on the carpet, as though this car hadn’t started the morning as a wristwatch. “So do you want her to die?”
“It’s not up to me.”
“And that’s good, ‘cause you’re not exactly impartial when it comes to her. Do you want her to be killed in prison?”
Landon kept driving.
“It’s important, Donny.”
“I know it’s important. And I’d answer you if I knew. I don’t. So I’m not going to think about it. King County knows she’s under threat and so does Justice Wing. Let them think about it.”
“Fair.” Emily traced her finger along the door. “So, the aliens who made this thing…”
“Sure. They don’t care how you use it. The point is to see what you do, not make you do a thing, right?”
Emily nodded. “So… why not quit being the Artifact but keep the actual thing?”
Landon scoffed. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Why not? It can’t be because you have to protect the city. Paragirl lives here now, right? Let her do it.”
“You don’t think someone will come calling? You don’t think some threat will hit? As long as I have the Consanguineous Assay there’ll be a point where I have to use it or people will die.”
“And if you don’t have it, they’re safe?”
“If I don’t have it, then someone else will have to cover it. And people will know that. They won’t rely on me being here.”
“What is with that name, anyway? I looked up consanguinity – it’s about people with common ancestors. They use it to figure out if two cousins can marry without mutant kids.”
“Exactly. The Moristaphik see all of humanity that way. Which makes sense – we’re related to each other way more closely than we are to sentient sludge halfway to galactic central point. To them, we’re defined by a common ancestor in our background.”
“Still a stupid name.”
Landon snorted. “Yes. Yes it is.”
“So who all’s quintessence based. You are, I know. The Centurion—”
“Technically, the Centurion uses xol’chil, not quintessence.”
Emily paused. “What’s the difference?”
“I’m told they’re not related in any way. Xol’chil’s from an ancient galactic civilization that’s extinct, but Mason Temple found some old tech and boom. You now know what I know.” Landon turned off the road and pulled into the parking lot in front of a broad building – a couple of blocks long and wide, six stories high, all green glass and silver. Anodyne Pharmaceuticals. Julia’s workplace.
“All right then. Still my question. Who else is running off alien juice?”
“Me, Shooting Star of the Excelsiors, Doc Muon of the Protectors, all of the Incendiknights… it’s one of the five recognized major superhero types.”
“Right, right. Alien, magic, godly… innate? And… um…”
“Not innate – zero point or Vril, meaning an inherent connection to the power field coexistent with our dimensional plane. And the last is called discipline or training or things like that. That’s Broadhead and Vermilion.” They moved into a parking garage, and drove around for a spot.
“And then there’s primary and secondary expression, induced expression… God, it’s all so complicated.”
“It gets worse. Not everyone falls neatly into those categories. Take Freya – she’s the goddess of magic, among other things. So is she arcane or divine? The answer’s ‘both.’ Technically, I’m both xenological and discipline, because I’ve had training for when the Artifact’s offline. Go ahead and get out here.”
Emily unbuckled her belt and opened the door, sliding out into the parking garage. He did the same, and then with a series of clanks the car folded up like a piece of paper, getting progressively smaller until it flew up and wrapped around Landon’s hand, becoming his watch once more. “…won’t somebody notice that?”
“Not likely. The same stealth field that kept Paragirl from seeing me last night screened us from the security cameras, and I did a fast scan. And there’s… call it a corollary to the mask principle I told you about before.”
“Meaning ‘shut up and accept it, Em?’”
“Pretty much. C’mon. Let’s get this over with.”