Mandy felt an itch, just at the base of her neck. Her headache seemed to pulse a bit more. She narrowed her eyes — what…?
Mandy felt a spike of pain. She ignored it, spinning and grabbing Jake’s arm. “Jake, run!”
Society has acclimated to the presence of super heroes and villains. New heroic organizations spring up seemingly daily, to the delight of an adoring public, even as tension between the unenhanced prosahumans and the enhanced parahumans are growing, and the world’s military and law enforcement grow increasingly frustrated with the situation. Still, the sun is bright and shining down on a world that feels protected. These are Justice Wing’s Halcyon Days.
Mandy Shapiro is a lawyer who specializes in ‘parahuman criminal defense,’ which most people assume means ‘supervillains.’ This time, her client is Daniel Holland, a young former hero called Firescale turned tenderfoot Calhoun Syndicate villain called Flux, after his defeat by the hero Vortex and his arrest by the East Meridian Police Department in East Meridian City, Rhode Island. Mandy’s access to Holland was blocked briefly by Detective Corporal Ellis West – an officer whose son Leland died after an overdose on the Calhoun Syndicate’s drugs. Mandy filed a 717B – ‘civil rights violation by law enforcement against a parahuman citizen’ – with federal agency DETAILS. That pushed through the logjam but also created animosity between Mandy and the police.
Thanks to Detective West’s mistakes, Mandy told Holland she could get the charges dismissed but encouraged him to help the police anyway. Holland had just fallen on hard financial times following the death of his mother and his younger brother’s sports ambitions – fifteen year old Jacob Holland was an archer making a run for the Olympic team – and Mandy believed he could be pulled back.
Complicating matters were Mandy’s two daughters, Danni and Evvie. Evvie was on the other side of the country, competing in the Gymnastics America Under-10 division under the guidance of her coach, Iosaf Albescu. But Albescu’s become increasingly unstable over time, and won’t take Mandy’s husband Evan’s calls any more. The pair are preparing to fire Albescu, but know he may have a potentially violent response. That would be distracting enough, but then Mandy’s older daughter, Loredana ‘Danni’ Shapiro, was dealing with her own unexpected — and unwanted — primary parahuman expression at the same time.
Having met with Avery Siegal – an assistant District Attorney who was also in the pocket of the Calhoun Syndicate – Mandy has gotten Holland’s charges dismissed. She also met with Police Lieutenant Lila Berganza and DETAILS Junior Field Agent Marla Theriault and made arrangements for Holland to quietly be collected by DETAILS after things calmed down, letting him work with them, arrange for Jake’s safety and training, and getting him out of the cycle of villainy.
Book One: Mandy
East Meridian, Rhode Island
Mandy closed the phone and walked over. Jake and Danny Holland were walking out, being escorted by Berganza. “Counselor,” the lieutenant said, brusquely. “You can take it from here, I’m sure.”
“Thank you, lieutenant. Right. You two have a good talk?”
Berganza nodded, and stepped back inside. Mandy started for the door — she wanted to get Jake and Danny out of the building.
“Yeah,” Danny said, answering Mandy’s earlier question. “I think.”
“We had a talk,” Jake said, a bit sullenly. “That counts, right?”
“Sure. Right. I’ll give you two a ride home. For the record, though? I’m back to recording.”
“For the record you’re recording? There’s a pun there. And why are you recording now?” Danny didn’t sound surprised.
“Paranoia. Not my first rodeo. And besides, I like to have a nice complete file package at the end of this.”
“Are we all even gonna fit in your car?” Jake asked.
“Why, what’s she drive?”
Danny snorted. “What kind of lawyer wears a Rolex and drives a Civic?”
“A lawyer who cares more about the time than impressing someone with her car,” Jake said nonchalantly, as though the answer were self-evident.
“It’s an EX. I’ve had my whole family plus luggage and beach gear in there. I promise – you two plus archery gear won’t kill us.” She looked at Danny. He was dressed in a dirty white t-shirt and jeans. “Was this your uniform?”
“If you can call it a costume, yeah.”
“Gosh. I wonder how your real name got into the media’s hands. Goodness me.” Mandy used her fob to unlock the doors to her car.
“So what’s your itinerary from here?” Danny asked.
“With the case? There’s paperwork to file. I need to check in. Submit certain things here and there. Have the front office send you my bill. You know, the usual.”
“I meant tonight. You need a couch to crash on?”
Mandy pulled out. Her head was hurting again. “If I were smart? Yeah. But I’m not particularly smart. And with my daughter’s situation going downhill fast…”
“This the gymnast?” Jake asked. He was in the back seat.
“Yeah, it’s rough.” Jake paused. “I remember… Mom tried to go to competitions but sometimes even juniors were too far or stuff. Danny’s been to a few but… the schedule’s pretty intense, and I guess gymnastics is worse.”
“I should have been at more,” Danny said, a little distantly. “I should have done a lot of things.”
Jake snorted. “You did a lot of things. That’s why we’re in a Honda Civic after a day at the jail.”
“Guys? I have the worst headache, and like a five hour drive not even counting traffic through the Greater Empire City Metro. Maybe be passive-aggressive at each other after I hit the road?”
Danny snorted. “Five hours? Seriously, Shapiro. Take the couch. Or at least crash in a motel. You’re… not looking so hot, you know?”
“He’s right,” Jake said. “I wasn’t gonna say anything but you look… I dunno, pale.”
“I always look pale,” Mandy said, absently.
“I mean since dinner.”
Mandy rolled her eyes. “Yeah, well. It’s been a day.” She paused. “But thanks. I appreciate the offer. It’ll be fine.”
“All right. You know your limits.”
Mandy snorted. “You’re describing my whole life, Danny.”
“Am I missing something?” Jake asked.
“Not really,” Danny said. “Turn left up here — you’ll probably have to park down the block a bit. They’re doin’ construction.”
“Sure.” Mandy navigated through the streets, pulling into a spot. They were in Meridian Heights now — middle to upper middle class, signs of gentrification here and there, but a good number of out of business places, too — Mandy had seen similar back in Bay City and all along the Jersey Shore. Signs of growth but with the foundation beginning to rot out. Heroes weren’t riding the only bubble these days.
“Yeah, this is good,” Danny said. “And if you’re gonna go drivin’, can I offer you a cup a’coffee for the road? I guarantee it’ll help keep your eyes open.”
“Oh, man — don’t offer her some of that nasty slime coffee!” Jake said, shaking his head. “What is wrong with you?”
“Slime coffee?” Mandy asked.
“Swedish thing,” Danny said, unbuckling his seat belt. “Boil water into a pot, crack an egg — shells and all — into a cup. Add grounds and mix’em up, then pour them into the boiling pot. Let it roil a bit, then take off the heat, add a cup of ice cold water, and pour off the coffee. Smoothest damn coffee you ever drank, and it’ll wake you the Hell up.”
“Jesus. Someone actually remembers how to make Cowboy Coffee in Rhode Island. All right, you talked me into it.” Mandy opened her door.
“Wait — that really is a thing?” Jake asked. “It’s disgusting!”
“How’d you ever know?” Danny asked. “You ever had a cup?”
“No, because I can see disgusting, so I don’t have to drink disgusting. Besides, I avoid caffeine.”
“Because respect your body and it’ll respect you?” Mandy asked, smirking.
“That’s truth,” Jake said. The three were walking down the block now, Jake having his bag slung over his shoulder. There was indeed a lot of construction along the street — which right now meant shut-down backhoes and the like in the street. Dinner break, probably. The three were walking past a brick wall — a branch of First Meridian bank, extruded off a prefab ‘bank’ mold like most modern banks.
Mandy felt an itch, just at the base of her neck. Her headache seemed to pulse a bit more. She narrowed her eyes — what…?
“Oh God, don’t tell me you’ve been giving her your zen and the art of training tables spiel,” Danny was saying.
“Yeah, you don’t get to talk about that, today,” Jake snapped. “You don’t get to—”
Mandy felt a spike of pain. She ignored it, spinning and grabbing Jake’s arm. “Jake, run!” she shouted, hauling him back.
There was an explosion of white foam and smoke as four — no six men in combat gear swung out of hiding places along the construction, each with a long nozzled carbine which were firing suppressive foam in streams. The foam converged on Danny, who howled as steam poured off his skin, his body rapidly cooling and the sound of metal grinding against metal as he moved—
“Go, Jake! Go!” Mandy shouted again, pushing the teenager, who was stumbling back and then running. Mandy whirled, backing off at the same time. Don’t oppose them, she told herself, desperately. Focusing. Don’t oppose them! The pain was running down her arms, but she was holding it back — holding back the power that would equalize the odds between herself and her opponents—
Mandy realized with a sickening shock that the six assailants converging on Danny were wearing PATER gear, though the police and PATER insignia were covered over with duct tape. Their visors were down, and the carbines they were using were Church-118 Multiload Parahuman Suppressives. Mandy remembered being shown the prototype. She’d scoffed, calling them Super Soakers for SWAT—
“Keep on him!” one of the attackers shouted. Mandy recognized West’s voice. Idiot didn’t turn the voice modulator on, she thought to herself. “Now! Switch to endos!”
Four of the PATER — no, not cops and not PATER. Thugs, damn it! — flanked Danny, rechambering their 118s. They fired what looked like blue eggs then, with fwump sounds — each hitting and bursting into a sudden endothermic shock — point impacts of more than two hundred degrees below zero, celsius. Danny screamed in pain, huddled down on himself, arms wrapped around his legs.
“Get the lawyer!” another — Moroz, by voice — was shouting. One of the two hanging back spun, rechambering.
God damn it, Colin, Mandy thought as she stumbled back for cover. If your damn carbine kills me I’m tracking you down in the goddamned afterlife—
The thug swung up, the unit chambering. Deadfire slug from the sound. Oh God only oppose this one! Only oppose this one! Only oppose this one! Mandy desperately focused on the one man, feeling her powers kick in — if she opposed all six, the neuroleptic surge—
The thug fired — a heavy thump which slammed into Mandy’s midsection. Mandy dropped to the ground, rolling forward. The deformed slug was under her — her skin had adapted, not just becoming bulletproof but negating most of the force of the slug as it hit her. She had to hide that and her lack of blood. She felt her head pounding, blood dripping from both nostrils as she hit the ground. She could see the glass of her Rolex, with a pink flash happening every second — detecting dangerous neuroleptic surges… if DETAILS or the Excelsiors got the signal in time…
The Rolex. Her A/V! Mandy rolled slightly. She was nauseous now, but ignored that, positioning so the camera in her lapel pocket could catch the attack. She couldn’t… she couldn’t fight them! She’d never survive fighting them and she had rules for a reason and— but she could video the attack and if DETAILS or the Excelsiors or ’Star or Jetgirl got here fast enough—
“God damn it!” West roared. “Mack, what the Hell! Did you — you don’t kill people!”
“I mischambered!” the guy — Mack? — shouted back. “I never used this damn thing before!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Moroz hissed. “Think about who he shot! She’s worse than this guy! Keep him cold!”
“Damn it!” Danny shouted. “What the Hell are you—”
“Shut up!” West shouted back, spinning towards Danny. “I didn’t want anyone to die, damn it, but this is on you, not me! Now shut up and listen. We need information from you, punk! That’s all! We need information and you’re going to give it, and then we can all go home, you hear me?”
“After you murdered my damn lawyer?!” Danny snapped. “You’re not letting me walk away from here and I know it!”
“No one was supposed to get hurt!” West shouted back. “And no one has to get hurt! Everyone just be cool! Everyone—”
“Back! Away! From my brother!”
Oh God no, Mandy thought frantically. Jake, I can’t — I can’t fight them! You have to get out of here!
Jake was a good 20 meters away. He had his bow out — a recurve, metal. Definite high end. Mandy could see the different places where he’d mount sights and other gear on it but he hadn’t bothered. He’d just assembled and strung it, and had an arrow drawn and nocked, his stance relaxed, fingers and bowstring pulled back to his face, anchoring against his cheek. “Just back away from my brother,” he called out, voice calm. “We can end this right now!”
“Jesus Christ,” Moroz snapped. “Someone take him—”
“No!” West shouted. “Be cool! He’s just a kid, damn it!” West had his arms to his sides, spread, the carbine still in one hand but pointed towards the ground. “Kid… listen to me. That’s a competition bow, and that’s a target arrow. Maybe if it were a hunting bow or a compound bow you could hurt one of us in this gear, but that thing? No way. There’s only one way this goes.”
“Don’t make assumptions,” Jake said, still calm. “Just back off, and take off!”
Mandy felt her head spin. No! She forced herself to relax, to not oppose. Remember Danni! Remember Evvie! Danni and Evvie! Danni and Evvie!
“Kid, get out of here,” Mack called back, gesturing — gesturing with the hand holding the Church-118, the barrel moving forward—
Jake let fly. There was a sudden burst from the carbine. Mandy realized he’d shot the arrow up the carbine’s barrel, blowing it when Mack reflexively pulled the trigger! Mack stumbled, shouting, clutching his hand with the remains of the Church-118 hitting the ground—
“That’s it,” Moroz hissed, rolling into position. “Take him out—!”
“NO!” Danny screamed, throwing himself up onto his feet and swinging both arms, smashing into the thugs nearest to him. His arms were hissing, glowing red from under the skin, the supercooled surface cracking, black flakes of carbon cracking off as he spun and punched into one of the other, then threw himself into a body-block on West, hurling him ten feet—
“God damn it!” Moroz shouted, rolling again. He fired — full endo charge into Danny, bursting into one of the colder-than-liquid-nitrogen bursts on the metal man’s skin. Danny screamed as Moroz fired again, and again, standing and moving towards the writhing man, the sound of snapping metal audible across the block.
Danny’s screams grew ragged, the man dropping to his knees, heat from deep inside fighting supercooling on his skin. Taking another hit, and another—
“No,” Mandy whispered. “Please, no…”
“Hey Holland!” Moroz hissed. He rechambered. “Mad respect. Really.”
He fired. Concussive charge.
The explosion threw all the men back and onto the ground, Mack screaming as he went down. Danny’s upper body seemed distorted, like he’d burst from within, even as he fell back, the remaining reddish cast cooling to a silver metal color… no blood, but clearly his insides were torn apart…
“No!” Jake screamed, dropping his bow and running forward. “No! God, no!”
“Get outta here, Jake,” Daniel hissed.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Jake said, tears coming now as he dropped to his knees next to Danny. “I didn’t — I’m so so sorry!”
“No, Jake,” Danny hissed. “I’m sorry! I let you down, Jake! I let you down. This isn’t on you. It’s on me.”
“Don’t — just don’t!” Jake sobbed.
“Jake, I wasn’t… I was never strong enough. Not like you, Jake. You’ve got to be strong. Stronger than me. Strong enough to stay the course. You hear me?” Danny’s voice was wavering… cracking… sounding tinny, like he was shouting from a storm drain.
“Danny… I can’t… I don’t… I don’t have your powers, man. I can’t—”
“You don’t need powers, Jake! You never did! Not you. You’re just… you’re just… you’re just that damn good. You hear me? P-promise me, Jake. You’ll stay the course. Don’t make my mistakes. P-please, Jake… promise me!”
“I promise,” Jake said, choked with tears. Gripping Danny’s hand. “I promise, Danny. I promise.”
Mandy felt weightless… the pain seemed remote now… far away… her whole body disassociated… was she dying? She didn’t know. The watch was still flashing but that seemed so distant… watching as Danny said something she couldn’t hear… hearing his brother cry as Danny shivered, black and silver bits cracking off his skin, before his eyes stopped focusing on anything at all.
“…what did you do, Moroz?” West hissed. “We… we needed him! We needed his information!”
“So instead we sent a message,” Moroz hissed back, making it to his feet. It looked like Mack was down, wrapped around his probably maimed hand, and at least one of the others had been taken out by Danny’s desperate attack. West looked rocky and so did one of the others, and even Moroz was shaky. “We clean up and we go.”
“A mes— he’s just a kid!” West shouted.
“What the Hell do you think we’re doing out here?!” Moroz shouted back. “This is war, and no one cares about us, El! Well no more, do you hear me? We clean up and we go, and let Calhoun take the blame! He’d probably have killed them all anyway!”
“…no…” Mandy whispered again… her voice sounding alien to herself… her heart beginning to pump… the light headed feeling turning into an almost warm rush… “…no…”
“You gonna murder me too?” Jake said, turning to the two. Chin up — tears streaming down his cheeks but no weakness in his eyes. “Do it! Kill me! Murder me too!”
“Nothin’ personal, kid,” Moroz said, leveling the Church-118 towards Jake. “But this is war.”
“No!” Mandy howled, throwing herself up — her body shifting as it adapted to the four still active, all hurt but all dangerous — the initial wave rushing out of her like a flow of heat off of tarmac, spreading over them and causing their weapons to spark.
“The Hell?” West shouted, turning to shoot, then staring at his Carbine. “What the — why doesn’t it work?!”
“Because now the odds are even!” Mandy howled, hurling herself forward, the clock slowing down, the rush of pain supplanted by the warmth and pleasure of movement, her body adapting. Speed and strength and precision. She drove a knee into Moroz, then spun and slammed two rapid punches into West’s midsection. She jumped, kicking off the wall and bringing a third down into a bulldog, cracking his helmet as she pushed off to her feet, driving three more low punches into Moroz. She was careful not to knock any of them out — not yet. She needed them awake to maintain her opposition level. It was so familiar, and felt so good. She knew just how to manage the power, how to use it — the adaptation conveying skill at the same time as it conveyed strength and speed and durability. The first wave had been more intense, which is why she’d adapted the power to kill the power packs on the Church-118s.
The fourth jumped at her. She hooked around him and fell back, her body suddenly three times heavier as she gave him a DDT into the pavement. First one down for good, and she rolled to hit the second, still reeling from the bulldog. She sprang up, feeling tears — no, not tears, blood… streaming from her tear ducts… blood from her nose… blood from her ears but everything feeling strong and fast and right as she smashed back into Moroz, hitting him one-two-three-four-five, six-seven-eight-nine-ten!
That left West. “What the Hell are you?” he gasped.
“A hero,” Mandy said, throwing herself into a midsection punch that was enough to crack his PATER gear the rest of the way, followed by an uppercut under his exposed chin that left him sprawled. “This is why you don’t get a turn, asshole!”
And then it was just Mandy, and all the men were down. Her heart was still pounding, her body feeling the rush… she could see the watch from the corner of her eye, flashing many colors now.
“Mandy?!” Jake sounded horrified.
Mandy turned to look at him. What a sight she had to be — crying tears of blood… blood from all her orifices as her body rebelled— in the distance she saw blue and white flashing lights…
Mandy felt a shock like a lightning bolt, starting from her brain and going straight down her spine into her legs. Her muscles locked, her tongue felt like it was swollen, the world suddenly losing coherence….
“Mandy!” Jake shouted, from so far away.
Mandy fell forward onto her knees, then collapsed down onto the pavement. She didn’t break her fall – she couldn’t break her fall. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. Full neuroleptic shock, just like that horrible day….
Mandy could see the blue and white lights getting closer. The police, she thought. As far as they were concerned, Danny and Mandy would have been taken down by a PATER unit. Jake would get blamed, and no one would believe him. Danni and Evan and Evvie would never see Mandy again and for nothing at all…
Her vision began to dissolve… the last thing she could see was her watch, flashing many colors now. Green-blue-yellow-red-off. Green-blue-yellow-red-off. Green-blue-yellow-red-off.
As the world grew dark, she realized this was it. She was sorry, but she’d never get to tell anyone that. She just had to live with it.
Well, okay. Maybe not live with it. Not for much longer at least.