Justice Wing, Serial, Superhero

⎇001JW Halcyon Days: Motivation #6

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Motivation

Conclusion

“I came out there for my sister’s funeral, and to help wrap up her final affairs. And you know what I found out?”

“What did you find out?” Bryce asked, quietly.

“I found out that Julie was… the smartest person ever. And she was nice and kind and never forgot how to sew. She liked to cross stitch and she looked good in peasant dresses and I watched a Chief Technology Officer break down and cry over her, and… and the thing of it is, no one cares. To everyone else? She was just… an appendage. Something strapped to the Artifact to give him depth or some kind of… Jesus. Backstory.”


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. Landon and Julia’s sister Emily Smith, in town for the funeral, sought to settle her affairs and remember her life, but the world seemed determined to make it about her death — and what motivation the Artifact could take away from it. Going to Julia’s workplace gave their pair a respite, and Em learned how tremendously respected and gifted Julie had been… but the world brought the Artifact crashing back into the foreground with the news of Pallid Jan’s murder while in custody.

Motivation

Part Six

Evergreen City, Washington

Landon let the elevator carry them up for a few moments, then pushed the elevator stop button. There was a buzzing sound – an alarm, probably. Almost without thinking he deployed the artifact off his wrist and it formed into a module over the service keyhole. With a ‘thunk,’ the buzzing stopped.

Landon fell back against the glass back wall, sliding to the floor. The wall faced out, overlooking a ‘natural’ setting that was clearly as well tended as any park.

“I know,” Emily said, sliding next to him. “I know.” She paused. “There’s usually a security camera in the elevators.”

“Stealth field,” Landon muttered.

“Right, right. Of course.”

Landon snorted. “Of course, that thing’s why the Artifact’s under suspicion for murder.”

“C’mon, Donny. You heard the Lieutenant. They know you di– the Artifact didn’t kill Pallid Jan.”

“It’s not about that. You heard the people down there. They assume that Justice Wing’s covering it up.”

Emily didn’t have an answer for that one.

“I mean, I don’t really care about that. It’s just one more thing.”

“It’s crazy, though. Broadhead and Vermilion both said that the villains would kill Pallid Jan in prison – make her an example, so that the heroes would know that my…” Emily took a deep breath. “…that my sister’s death was… I dunno, unsanctioned. But here it is, and the Artifact’s taking heat for it.”

“Of course he is,” Landon muttered. “They sent their message about Julie’s death. But if they make my life harder because of that message, so much the better. They don’t like the Artifact, Em. They’re evil and they’re bastards. Clearing my name with the authorities? They’ll do that, because they don’t want the message to get missed. But letting the public think the Artifact hunted down and murdered a prisoner in her cell? Oh, that’s fine.

Em shook her head. “I kind of hate your life.”

“So did Julie.”

“Yeah.”

Landon’s shoulders shook. Emily realized he was crying. “Hey—” she said.

“For a few minutes, I got to… I got to be someplace where Julie’s life had more meaning than her death, but it couldn’t last, could it? It’s all about the Artifact. It’s all about what he did, and what he’s going to do, and how he’ll take this and be so much better or so much worse. What would Julie want, huh? Huh?”

“Hey, I got told off by some mouth breather who didn’t even work with Julie that he knew her so much better than I did,” Emily snapped. “You don’t have to convince me.” She snorted. “The Hell of it is, he probably did.”

“No he didn’t. If he thought for a second Julie’d want Pallid Jan killed in prison he didn’t know her at all. He’s just projecting his own opinion onto her, because she’s not here to defend herself.” He shook his head again. “We go up, get her stuff, and get out. Period.”

“Her door will be locked, won’t it?”

“Probably. If only I had literally every key to every lock ever made, huh?” Landon dropped his head forward, between his knees. “God. You were right, before. I can’t quit being the Artifact. Clearly I’m useless without this damn thing.”

Emily closed her eyes. “Hey, are all heroes this depressed? I mean, I know you’re extra depressed because Julie’s dead, but…”

Landon snorted. “Yeah,” he said. “Every hero I’ve ever known goes through waves of monumental depression.”

“Why?”

Landon lifted his head back up. “Why? Because we’ve chosen to do a job, and no matter what happens, we’re going to fail. That’s why. We can’t save everyone. We can’t stop everything. And even if we ‘win every battle’ we lose skirmishes constantly. Most of the time, you can focus on the good. But it overwhelms you. The faces of people you failed swim past your vision. And most of the time, you have to pretend it’s not happening or people freak the Hell out.” He sighed, pushing up to his feet. The artifact unlocked from the panel and returned to his hand, causing the alarm buzzer to go back off. He punched the button and the elevator began rising again.

Emily stood as well, even as the elevator stopped with a ding and the doors opened. No surprise it didn’t take long – they were only going up from sub-level one to the second floor, after all.

Like all the floors, the lobby outside the elevators was green marble tile walls, with black and gold tile floors. Raised letters on the wall announced this as ‘DATA AND INFORMATION SERVICES.’ Walking through the library to the office area, they saw a mostly empty cubicle farm – nice, maybe, but cubicles nonetheless. There were the sounds of typing somewhere in the maze, but most people were apparently at lunch.

Landon didn’t walk into that maze, but stuck to the edge, walking to the end and around the corner. There were a number of open areas to let sunlight in through large heavy windows, but there were also a number of private offices. That’s where they were going, and they reached it soon enough. A wood door with two white nameplates slid into a metal rack. ‘JULIA KELLY,’ the top one said. ‘SENIOR LEARNING ALGORITHMIC ENGINEER’ was on the bottom one.

Emily stared at it, biting her lip.

“Let me guess,” Landon said, quietly. “She never actually told you her title around here.”

“Of course not,” Emily said, as quietly. “Like you said before. She let me think she was some IT dork in a dank basement, like something off television.”

“Yeah,” Landon said. “But that’s not… that wasn’t her.” He reached for the handle, testing it while getting ready to let the Artifact unlock the door—

But the handle turned and the door opened, and a heavyset man, with warm, deep brown skin, gold wire glasses, and hair that had been black once but was now kind of a slate color on top and edged in white half jumped out of the chair behind Julia’s desk. “Oh my—” he said, looking shocked.

Emily was startled and so was Landon, but she calmed herself quickly. She recognized this particular man. Thayne Young. The one who’d called himself ‘one of Julia’s coworkers’ at the funeral. Chief Technology Officer for this Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company.

“Hey Thane,” Landon said, forcing a smile. “What – what are you doing here?”

“Oh… hello Landon. And Emily – hello, hello. I… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be in here—”

“It’s all right,” Landon said. “But…”

“But why?” He looked down, a bit embarrassed, clearly.

“Yeah,” Emily said. “I mean, it’s nice to see you but—”

“No, no I get it. This must look creepy. I just…” he looked around. “I was doing okay, today, and then we got the word about that woman at the prison, and everyone started to yell and argue and… and I just couldn’t. I… I wanted to…” He shook his head. “It’s crazy.”

“Everything’s crazy right now,” Landon said, softly. “It’s all right.”

“Yeah. Well… see, I have a way of dealing with stress. There’s people… I’ve always had people… well, a person, usually… someone I can vent to, and talk out problems, or just let myself be frustrated around. I mean, I have to try to be… I’m supposed to be some kind of executive but… seriously, I have a degree in computer cognitive learning from Johns Hopkins. I’m not a manager, but they keep promoting me, so… so I went to vent to that person but that person… right now that was Julie. Julie kept me grounded. Julie wasn’t afraid to tell me I was being a butt or… or tell me I was doing fine, or…” He looked around. “I came down here because the world is crazy and I needed to talk to Julie, but she’s not here and that’s why the world is crazy in the first place.” He laughed. Quietly. Bitterly. “I must sound insane.”

“No,” Emily said. “You don’t sound insane.” She looked around the office. All cool off-white walls and blue carpets and grey formica desk and workstation, but it was so incredibly Julia at the same time – a poster of a dragon on one wall. A cross-stitched coat of arms declaring itself ‘KELLY.’ Emily had no idea – maybe it was accurate. Pictures up and on the desk. A bonsai tree on a wooden half-sized file cabinet. A purple plush dragon hanging from the coat rack. “You don’t sound insane at all.”

“What were you looking at?” Landon said, walking around the desk to look at the computer screen.

“What – oh. Um… it’s our… it’s the last thing Julie had checked out of our version repository. I was just looking at her code.” He nodded to the open window, which had amber text on a dark background. That one window looked like one of the old terminals in the computer lab back at Emily’s college. “Just… it’s… I can feel her, when I see that code.”

“And that’s… artificial intelligence?” Emily asked. “That’s what a thinking computer’s brain looks like?”

“What? Oh! No. No no. I mean, yes, but people don’t always understand what AI is. I mean… obviously there are sentient computers. Mason Temple has one, and there’s those android heroes in Park Valley. But in our business… I mean, in the profession – well, we call those digital personalities, because they’re… they’re sentient. Self-aware. Like you or me, but not made out of meat. This? This is… this is mostly definitions. Mathematics mostly. See, you define as much as you can mathematically, and create a model, and then you run that model against a training set of data, and you see how much it interprets and predicts accurately. Those results become part of the model, and it learns from them, and you run a second time and it learns from those results, and it gets better and better.”

“And then… lightning hits the building and it starts talking like Johnny Five from that movie?”

Young laughed. “Everyone thinks that. Always lightning. Always… maybe it’s because of Frankenstein or Ben Franklin and his kite or something. No. No, this can’t suddenly become self-aware. It’s like…” He thought for a moment. “Julie always said it like this. Imagine you’re building a car. You test it out after you put it together, and see where parts maybe don’t quite fit right or come lose or the engine loses power. You fix those and refine them, and maybe replace some parts, and do it again. Do it enough times and your car will run perfectly… but it won’t drive itself. It takes huge time and effort and much more advanced technology and design to make a car that’ll drive itself, and no matter how great your hand-made car is, it won’t suddenly make that leap all on its own.”

“So… that’s… that stuff on the screen? It’s…”

“It’s… mathematics, mostly. Definitions. Things that define the model, and define the information the model considers, and define the ways it interprets positive and negative results.”

Emily nodded. “I don’t understand. But okay. So… how can you ‘feel her’ from that? I mean… why would that be different from anyone else’s… definitions?”

Young laughed again. “Oh… oh Emily.” He shook his head. “A lot of people think that. They think that there’s one way to write a computer program, and that if ten people write a program to do the same thing those programs will be identical. The truth is… coding is personal. Individual. It’s like writing a story – you may describe the same events but your words and your sentences will always be different than mine are. And AI? Work like this? It’s like writing poetry – sometimes structured poetry like a sonnet, sometimes free verse. Sometimes garbage doggerel that does the job with simple little cute rhymes, and sometimes it’s… Emily Dickenson. Or Maya Angelou. Or Allen Ginsberg.” He looked at the screen, then pointed to it. Pointed with the index and middle fingers pressed together, the rest curled back. “That’s… that’s poetry. It’s elegant. I don’t know how to explain it without first teaching you Python and Prolog and LISP.”

Emily opened her mouth. “I—”

“They’re computer languages,” Landon murmured.

Emily nodded slowly. “Okay. So Julie’s code was… good?”

Young smiled, more sadly than before. “Julie’s code was inspired. She saw… she understood… she could write… she did things that no one had ever done in so little code before. She saw relationships and ways to bridge things that hadn’t ever occurred to other people. Julie… I’ve never known anyone like her. Never seen anyone do what she could do in an IDE.”

Emily nodded again. “I… okay, gotcha. I…” she looked around the office again. “It’s weird. Growing up… I mean, Julie was always super smart, and sometimes… it was easy to get so jealous of her. I mean, she understood concepts the first time she heard them, and she could apply them to new situations. I remember once… she’d learned about the circulatory system in school, and how the veins and arteries moved blood in the body. She was like eight years old. And fine, sure. But later, our Mom was explaining… something about trees or flowers. Flowers, probably. Mom gardened. Anyway. She said that plants had these… tubes or something that moved nutrients up from the soil.

“Xylem,” Young said. “Xylem and phloem.”

“If you say so. Well, she looked at mom with her head kind of tilted to the side and said ‘oh, so like arteries and veins in the human body?’ And I told her to be quiet and not be stupid, but Mom said that she was right. I mean, more or less.” Emily looked away. “I was so angry. ’How does she know that?!’ I demanded. But… but she just did. She made that connection, and she was eight, and I was older and…” Emily rubbed her forehead. “A friend of hers said she was jealous of me. How does that work? How does someone who does all this get jealous of me? I’m not… I’m nobody!”

“Hey,” Landon said. “Hey, Em. You’re not… she envied your life. Your stability. Your athleticism. Your ability to organize and rally people around you. The way you could walk into a room and make friends with everyone. The way you could talk to strangers and not feel like an idiot.”

“Those aren’t anything special,” Emily said.

Young laughed. “Are you kidding? I… my whole life I…” He shook his head. “Come on. Landon – give me a hand here. We’ll track down her personal files and get them copied so I can wipe the machine. Let me just get out of this.” He leaned down and started typing, Landon walking over to join him.

Emily shook her head again, and let them go to work. She walked over to one of the walls, where pictures were hanging. Julie and her college friends – she recognized Landon, back when he had that dumb goatee. They were all dressed up like Shakespeare characters. Probably that SCA or a Renaissance Festival or something. She recognized a younger looking Kate Paora, but only barely – this one was softer on the edges, with a saucy look and long hair in a braid, wearing a bodice meant to make people stare. She was nothing like the nihilist vigilante who bummed a cigarette off her the night before. She supposed a couple of the others were Broadhead and his brother, but she couldn’t tell who…

She turned, slightly, and saw another picture on the wall. Julia and Emily herself, at Disney World – Em at 19, Julie in her teens. Mickey Mouse in the background. The two of them making goofy faces for the camera, pun intended. Em in her tight shorts and t-shirt. Julie in a loose t-shirt and jeans, a few extra pounds that Emily remembered as being ‘fat,’ but seeing her there… she just looked normal. Human.

Alive.

Emily put her head down and began to cry. She hadn’t cried for days at this point, but she cried now. Her shoulders shook and her face scrunched up and she tried hard to be as quiet as possible, because it sank in right then – Em’s sister she never saw hadn’t died. Em’s sister the egghead, or the Artifact’s ‘lady-friend,’ or Landon’s fiancée hadn’t died. That Julie – the Julie in the picture, at Disney World with her family, being a doink and embarrassing Em. She was dead. She was dead and Emily would never see her again.

A hand touched her shoulder. Landon. “Em?” he asked.

“Go on,” she murmured, snuffling hard. “Keep working with Thayne. I’ll… I’ll be okay. Eventually.”


“You’re sure you’re okay?” Bryce sounded worried.

“Yeah,” Emily said. “It was all… it was harder to be there when we heard about… you know. Pallid Jan.”

“Yeah. That… I can’t imagine. You’re sure you’re okay?”

Emily closed her eyes. “I’m… no, Bryce. I’m not okay. This has been the craziest… do you know what bothers me?”

“What?”

“I came out there for my sister’s funeral, and to help wrap up her final affairs. And you know what I found out?”

“What did you find out?” Bryce asked, quietly.

“I found out that Julie was… the smartest person ever. And she was nice and kind and never forgot how to sew. She liked to cross stitch and she looked good in peasant dresses and I watched a Chief Technology Officer break down and cry over her, and… and the thing of it is, no one cares. To everyone else? She was just… an appendage. Something strapped to the Artifact to give him depth or some kind of… Jesus. Backstory.”

“…I can’t imagine how that feels,” Bryce said, softly. “I’m so sorry, Em.”

“Yeah. But… there are some people. People who knew her and… that helps, you know.” She laughed, though it was slightly choked.

“What is it?”

“She had… she had so much to do, Bryce. Did you know she was… doing something that made vaccines smarter? The people she worked for… they don’t know how they’ll manage without her. I never… I never really got that.”

“I never talked with her about that stuff. I mean… I liked her, but… we didn’t really…”

“Have a lot in common? Me either.” She snuffled. “She was jealous of me, Bryce.”

“Heh. No shock there.”

“No– have you even been listening? What did I ever do?”

Bryce paused. “You have a good life, a happy marriage, friends… we vacationed in Europe last year, for God’s sake. And Em? It’s not a competition.”

“I know. I… I know.” She closed her eyes. “Except it is. It was. And I lost. Only I guess not because she’s dead. That’s a forfeit, right?”

“…oh Em.”

“Anyway. I’m gonna crash one more night and then fly out in the morning. I’m done here. Donny can handle the rest.”

“How’s he holding up?”

Em snuffled. “Pretty badly. He’s got a lot on his mind. And a lot of choices to make.”

“Like what?”

“Career stuff. Anyway. I should go.”

“Yeah. I love you, Em.”

“I love you, Bryce.” She paused. “Do you hear me? I love you, Bryce.”

“Wh– I hear you. And I know. Em—”

“If… if the plane goes down or some dragon or laser-alien destroys it or something, I want you to remember that. The last thing I said to you was that. I love you. Just you. Please.”

Bryce paused. “Okay,” he said, quietly. “I love you too, Emily. Please… please don’t… please be safe and come home to me. Promise.”

Emily thought about Julia for a second. Thought about Landon’s words. About her asking him to quit, over and over. “I’ll try,” she said. “Love you. B’bye.”

“B’bye.”

Emily pushed talk and looked around. She was standing in a picnic area near a small copse of trees, just off of a drive-in restaurant that called itself ‘BURGERMASTER.’ It looked like something out of the fifties. Landon was just leaving the Burgermaster, walking towards her with a drink tray and a bag of food.

“Hey,” she said as he reached her. “You and Julie always did eat like ten year olds. Burgers every day, huh?”

“Yeah,” Landon said, setting the bag down. He accepted the phone back from Emily. “Yeah, that was always a thing. We kept saying we were going to start eating healthy, and it just… never happened.”

Emily nodded. The two had gotten all of Julie’s stuff boxed up back at Anodyne, but had left by way of the roof instead of the parking garage. The press had indeed surrounded the building, looking for anyone they could pounce on for a comment on Pallid Jan’s death. This time, the Artifact had taken the form of a flying sphere that could make them completely invisible, and the two had ridden in it along with the boxes. They’d flown them to Landon’s self-storage unit and put them away, and then they’d diverted here for burgers, since their lunch had been abortive at best.

“So what happens now?” Emily asked.

“Now? A lot of little details and insurance and God knows what,” Landon said.

“Well, yeah. But I meant…” She nodded towards the artifact in Landon’s hand, still in its phone form.

“Oh.” Landon closed his eyes. “I don’t… I don’t know, Em. It’s…”

The phone rang.

Landon rolled his eyes. “Should have converted it back to watch mode,” he muttered, glancing at the display–

Landon paused.

“What?” Emily asked.

Landon showed her the phone. ‘CC1’ was written on the LED. CC1? So far, the different codes had been the home cities of heroes. GC1 for Greystone City, home of Nightstick. PC1 for Paramount City, home of the Beacon. CC1?

Crown City?

Emily’s mouth dropped open, even as Landon pushed talk. “Yes?” he said, lifting the phone to his ear. He listened for a moment. “That’s very kind of you. Yes, that’s…” He closed his eyes. “Of course. No, no of course. I’ll send a homing signal. I’m in civvies and I’m with Julie’s sister, so– yes. Absolutely. Thank you.”

Landon hung up. The phone twisted around his wrist, becoming a watch, but its face began flashing a blue light on and off.

“A signal?”

“Yeah. We’re having a visitor.” Landon turned, looking up into the sky. “One you don’t say ‘no’ to.”

Emily bit her lip, looking up where Landon was looking.

It looked like a dot at first. Then like some kind of missile or jet. But it didn’t take long to recognize the shape in blue and gold for what it – for who he was.

“No,” Emily murmured as Paragon circled the trees and came in for a landing. “No, I don’t suppose you do say ‘no’ to him.”

He was… bigger than life, in one sense. He looked idealized – like he’d been sculpted out of marble and brought to life. His blue uniform was tight but flattering instead of bulgy. The cape looked like gold metal even though it fluttered like cloth. The thirteen-point star on his chest was like a shield in gold and blue, raised up and apparently made out of some kind of resin or polymer. His blond hair was very slightly messy but looked absolutely in place. His eyes were almost honey brown – lighter brown than anyone she could remember.

And they were kind.

“Thank you for having me,” Paragon said to Landon and Emily, quietly. “I… um… I’m afraid I don’t know what to call you.”

“Landon,” Landon said. “Landon Moore. This is Emily Smith – she’s Julie’s sister.”

Paragon shook both their hands. “Of course. Ms. Smith… I can’t say how sorry I am. I didn’t know your sister very well, but I know she was so special, and that she cared about people so much. Her volunteer work at the food banks here in Evergreen alone made such a difference to so many, and I know her scientific work will continue to help millions of people. Millions.

“Thank you,” Emily said, quietly.

“We… were about to have lunch,” Landon said. “Would you like something? A milkshake? They’re… really very good, here.”

Paragon considered, then nodded. “Please. Butterscotch, if they have it. It’s been a while since I’ve had a butterscotch milkshake. Let me grab out some cash—”

“It’s on me. I’ll be right back.”

Paragon watched Landon go. The hero’s face was solemn.

“So is it your turn?” Emily asked, quietly.

“Excuse me?” Paragon asked, turning to her.

“To lobby him into keeping the Artifact? That’s what all you Justice Wing seem to do.”

Paragon opened his mouth, then looked down. “No,” he said, quietly. “If he asks for my advice or opinion I’ll give it, but he doesn’t need me pushing that on him. Not today. Not ever.”

“You’re not scared he’ll give it up?”

“He’s a good hero. I won’t pretend he isn’t. But it’s his choice. I… I would hope he’d take some time, after all the raw emotion of the last few days, but I trust his judgment.” Paragon shook his head. “I can’t imagine what he’s going through. I can’t imagine how he feels – what it was like… I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bring up painful subjects.”

“No, that’s okay,” Emily said. “It’s… kind of refreshing. Most people just use Julie’s death as… I don’t know. Emotional leverage.”

“I couldn’t do that,” Paragon said. “That just dishonors your sister. She deserves better from us. I… I’ve been trying to think how I’d react, if it were Barbara or Teddy or Bernie Jonson or my sister.”

Emily bit her lip. “What do you know about my sister’s death?” she asked, quietly.

Paragon looked at Emily. “I know it was horrible. And I know that the world is diminished without her. I know that she did a lot of good and had a lot of friends. I know her loss broke Broadhead’s heart, almost as much as his brother’s loss did. And I know that nothing I know can possibly equal what you know about her.” He shook his head, slightly. “And I know her death isn’t as important as her life.

Emily nodded slightly. “And what do you know about Pallid Jan’s death?” she asked, slightly flatly.

Paragon looked, if anything, a little sadder. “I know it shouldn’t have happened. I… I know that we can’t save everyone. We can’t protect everyone. But that doesn’t make it right.”

“Even after what she did?”

Paragon looked at Emily again, smiling sadly. “I… realize you may not want to hear this right now… but I believe everyone has the capacity to turn themselves around. That everyone can become something better. Where there is life, there’s hope. And the greatest tragedy of death is that door closing.”

Emily nodded again. “I don’t… I can’t be that… forgiving. But it offends me that anyone was killed in my sister’s name. And it offends Landon even more.” She closed her eyes. “You know… can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

Emily opened her eyes back up. “People keep telling me that Julie was jealous of me. But… I’m an office manager who works nine to five. I have a husband who’s middle management at a different company. I don’t… make things or program thinking machines or even work at food banks on the weekend. How could she possibly envy that?”

Paragon smiled a bit more. “Easily, Emily. Envy doesn’t care about what you have. Envy comes from seeing something you don’t have. I’m… by any rational assessment the most gifted, blessed human being alive, but I still get jealous. You’re describing a life that seems mundane to you. But to Julie… it probably looked stable. Without the worry she felt for Landon. Without the tragedy that hit so many of her friends. And I’m sure she felt a tremendous amount of pressure – to perform, to meet peoples’ expectations. And I’m sure it looked like you had everything figured out and were happy, and that made her jealous. I can understand that feeling.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “It comes from respect. Julie clearly respected you a great deal.”

Emily felt tears welling up a bit. “We argued a lot as kids, but… she was a good little sister. Embarrassing.”

“Yeah, well – my little sister embarrassed me, too.”

“I met her, last night. She’s pretty impressive.”

“Yeah. Yeah she is.”

Emily cocked her head to the side. “What do you envy?”

Paragon chuckled softly, turning to face the Burgermaster. Watching Landon standing in line. “Landon, for one thing.”

“Why?”

“Because he has a choice. He can let the Artifact go. He can walk away. Really walk away.” Paragon shook his head again. “I… I know that barring some kind of accident or losing my powers, I’m going to be Paragon until I die. I’m never going to be able to walk away… to put that burden down. I envy Landon a great deal, Emily.”

Emily looked at Paragon – at the greatest hero of the age. “Sure you can,” she said. “Landon told me about the… Mask Principle, he said? You could get something like that… put on a mask, and no one would ever know you.”

Paragon chuckled. “It’s a nice dream, but…”

Emily nodded. “Yeah.” She turned to watch Landon, who was walking back over. “Julie wanted him to quit.”

Paragon nodded. “I’m not surprised.” He shook his head. “In the long run… whether or not Landon keeps the Artifact doesn’t matter. Not like Julie mattered. Or you. Or even Jan Olsson. Life matters, Emily.” He looked at her again. “I’ll talk to the others. Get them to back off. Give him some space. He doesn’t need that pressure on top of everything.”

“One butterscotch milkshake,” Landon said, walking up to the two of them, offering the cup to Paragon. “So how’re things going at the Volary?”

Paragon chuckled. “Chaotic. Jayce is going ballistic, trying to figure out how the assassin got past the countermeasures they’d put in place. I… I wish I’d gotten back just a couple of hours sooner.”

“We can’t save everyone,” Landon said. He snorted, picking up his own milkshake. “We can’t save everyone.”

“I know.” Paragon half-smiled. “I’m told you’re making a pretty big decision.”

Landon snorted again. “And?”

“And nothing.”

Landon looked at Paragon, then nodded. “Actually, I’ve made it. Can you stick around for a while? I could use your help with a couple of things.”

“Absolutely.” Paragon smiled. “I was already thinking of pestering my sister for a while.”

“We met her last night. She’s nice. I’m probably going to teach her Western Civ in September.”

“Well. I won’t out her identity, but in general? Reinforce the idea that penmanship counts.” Paragon smiled more broadly.

And despite everything, Emily smiled too.


Gas Works Park was an oddity in a city of oddities. The ‘gas works’ was a large coal gasification plant that had been shut down in the 1950s and left to rust. A lot of cities would tear down an ugly mass of metal and pipes. Evergreen City bought the land the plant’s remnants sat on and created a park around it, right on the shore of Lake Union. Across the lake, the Evergreen Spire could be seen, along with downtown Evergreen itself. Emily was surprised how pretty an old rusty ruined mechanical works could be at sunset. But then, maybe that was the point.

“Everything’s set with the house?” Paragon asked Landon, as they walked down the hill to the shoreline.

“Yes, and thank you. Mason’s agreed to purchase it and see to the demolition. He wants to build something. A memorial. He’s also interested in collaborating with Anodyne – maybe get them back on schedule. He’s fascinated by the implications of intelligent vaccines.”

“So am I.” Paragon turned to Emily. “Well.”

“Yeah.” Emily looked at Landon. “You’re sure about this?”

Landon snorted. “No. But I’m doing it anyway.”

Emily smiled a bit more. “That sounds like a Julieism.”

“Then it’s probably the right choice.” Landon looked at his wrist. At the heavy watch.

It twisted and reformed, becoming the sphere, with a metal ring around it this time. He carried it to the water’s edge, and set it down. He crouched, looking at the Consanguineous Assay for a long moment. Emily wondered what he was thinking about.

Landon stood, and took three steps back. “Okay,” he said. “And thank you.”

The Consanguineous Assay thrummed, red, blue and purple energy humming around it. There was a sudden thunderclap-like sound, and similar energies seemed to pour out of Landon’s body, flowing into the sphere. With a burst of white light, Landon stumbled back, dizzy for a moment. Paragon was there in an instant, steadying him.

The sphere seemed to spin, energy humming, then rose up into the air. With a burst of light, it rocketed up towards the stars, and a few instants later it was gone.

“Are you okay?” Paragon asked Landon.

“I… yeah,” Landon said. “Yeah, I am. It’s… different. But it feels good.”

“Can I bring you back to the hotel?”

“Uh… no.” Landon shook his head. “I’m… going to walk for a bit, then catch the bus. Heh. I guess I need to finally buy a car.” Landon looked at Emily. “You should go with him, though,” he said. “You don’t get many chances to fly with Paragon.”

“Meaning you’d like to be alone,” Emily said. “I get that. Sure thing.” She looked at Paragon. “Hang out for a second?”

“Sure.”

Emily looked at the setting sun, and the light reflecting off the gas works. She turned and watched Landon walking along the shoreline. “You think the next guy will be as good as Landon?” she asked Paragon.

“No,” he said. “I just hope the next person tries to be good, period.”

“And if they don’t?”

Paragon smiled. It was an easy smile – confident and friendly. “Well, that’s why the rest of us are here, right?”

“I guess so.” She watched Landon slowly wander away. “Julie’d be pretty happy, I think.”

“I bet she would. Ready?”

“Sure. I want to call home anyway. Man, do I have some things to tell Bryce.”

Later, this would be the point where Emily stopped telling the anecdote, first to her husband, and then years later to her children after she had some. She stopped on her description of being lifted up into Evergreen City’s sky by Paragon, seeing the sunset reflect across the lake, and gleam on the Evergreen Spire’s saucer that she’d literally stood on the night before. It was a good image, and wrapped her anecdote up nicely.

But of course that wasn’t the end for Emily, Bryce, or Landon. It wasn’t the last time Em saw Landon, of course. Whether or not he’d formally become her brother-in-law, Em’s children grew up seeing ‘Uncle Don’ now and then. Neither was it where Broadhead or Vermilion’s stories ended, and it’s not like Em’s path and theirs never crossed again either.

And Anodyne continued its work, of course. People like Daisy Whitford and Thayne Young never lost their passion. Evergreen City, of course, continued to see occasional villainous activity, and Paragirl stepped up to counter it, like you expect she would. And of course, this wasn’t the last time the Consanguineous Assay was seen on Earth.

And even on that day, being carried up into the sky by an icon, but with the fresh memory of flying at her own free will the night before, Emily thought it was a good story. And even then, she thought maybe… maybe it was just beginning. Maybe its opening line had just been written.

Once upon a time, a woman named Julia Kelly lived.

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8 thoughts on “⎇001JW Halcyon Days: Motivation #6”

  1. Okay, I have to admit, since we just got done discussing how average and ordinary she was, I was half expecting the Assay to turn around right there and choose her.

  2. Honestly? I think it would make Paragon very sad to hear that he’s “Someone you don’t say no to.” He …acknowledges that not everyone is perfect, including him, and that he tries to be a very good person. He’s also the type who’d hate to interject somewhere he really wasn’t wanted, but he would anyway if he thought he was needed.

    Ultimately, you should feel able to tell him no. He might not listen or agree with you, but he’d want you to feel able to.

    1. Paragon would agree with you.

      I think Landon didn’t mean intimidation — he’s not intimidated by Paragon — but respect. You didn’t say no to Paragon because Paragon’s earned at least the courtesy of being heard out.

      It’s also worth noting that he was willing to hang up on Nightstick and the Beacon alike — the Beacon being significant as the leader, and Nightstick being something of a legend — after it became clear they were calling over Landon’s potential retirement. Paragon called to offer his condolences, apologize for being off-planet for the funeral, and ask if it would be all right if he visited. Part of the reason you “don’t say no to Paragon” is because Paragon asks the right way.

  3. > ‘JULIA KELLY,’ the top one said. ‘SENIOR LEARNING ALGORITHMIC ENGINEER’ was on the bottom one.

    > Emily stared at it, biting her lip.

    > “Let me guess,” Landon said, quietly. “She never actually told you her title around here.”

    This seemed weird to me. Is “Senior X engineer” generally a significant title in US? To me it sounds like maybe not “some IT dork in a dank basement”, but not much higher either, certainly not a private office kind of title. It can be a big deal with a specific company culture, but Landon seems to treat it as more general.

    1. I wouldn’t say Senior X Engineer is more significant a title than you’d think — I’d argue that Em’s reaction was less to Julie’s seniority or the significance of her title in the management chain, and more that her title implies far greater depth to Julie’s position than Em had ever considered. I doubt she’d ever put any thought into what Julie’s position was actually called — seeing the title, and seeing it’s more impressive than ‘Programmer’ or ‘Computer Dude’ (or, in actual real world terms, Software Engineer, Computer Programmer, Information Technologist or some such).

      As far as being impressed at Julie’s apparent seniority, Julie’s name and title being on the door to an actual office instead of sitting in the middle of the mentioned cubicle farm would take care of that to whatever degree was needed… and the office’s existence in the first place is meant (successfully or not) to suggest something both about Julie’s career and Julie’s priorities.

      In my own experience, there were generally two different incentive paths that key IT or Software Development departments used to retain key personnel beyond pay increases. One was titular — increasingly impressive sounding titles as acknowledgement of the importance to the company and their goals, whether or not those promotions included a financial bonus. The other was perquisite-based. Better parking spots, better equipment, more vacation, and — as in this case — private offices. Julie’s work (and retention) was important enough to give her the capacity to close and lock her door so she could concentrate (or just hang out on her own).

      In this case, Julie got a pretty decent title — certainly one that sounded more interesting than whatever Em expected — but her priorities were focused on having her own space and privacy. She was less focused on impressive other people with her business card and more focused on her personal environment, and Anodyne accommodated her needs over time.

      Thayne Young’s own career path is meant, in part, to contrast with Julie’s. He has a C level position and authority in the department and company — with certain suggestions that he’s gotten caught up in the paradox of the Peter Principle. It’s notable, I think, that Young still sees Julie’s office as a refuge even now.

      1. Thank you. What confused me was not Emily’s reaction itself, but that Landon’s words seemed to imply that if Julie *had* told Emily the title she would not react that way. But now I see my comment didn’t make it at all clear 🙁

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