Author's Note: Wow, long hiatus! Deepest apologies about that. School's started and all, so I don't have as much time to write as I'd like. Thanks to those who did review. I really appreciate it. Again, I apologize if this seems rushed. I'm trying to keep myself as close to five chapters as possible with this story as an exercise in cutting out unnecessary stuff.
Disclaimer: Yup. You guessed it. I don't own any of these characters.
"Syllabus 3-5-9," the garbled computerized voice on the other end of the line said.
Syllabus? I thought, a little surprised. I got up quickly and grabbed the manila folder sitting in the drawer beneath the phone. I leafed through the colored pages of code prompts and their proper responses until I got to the section marked "Syllabus." I looked down the list until I found the prompt "Syllabus 3-5-9," and glanced over to the response column before speaking.
"Avalon 7-2-6," I replied, enunciating my words. I heard a click and several short dial-tones as my line was transferred. Never had to use the Avalon pass codes before, I thought to myself.
I prayed silently in my mind that whatever mission I was about to be assigned would be quick and simple. It was a nice, sunny, summer Saturday afternoon and I would have much rather been spending it outside and with Paula than on a mission. But because the day was as nice and serene as it was, this mission had to be something big. The news had made no mentions of any giant robots or mutant slug armies, so there was no hope of getting some simple job like that.
On the other end of the line, I heard a few more clicks and then, finally, a voice. "Is this Barron Battle?" it asked.
"Yes," I replied.
"I've heard many good things about you, Barron," the voice said. "My sources say that you're very good."
I chuckled lightly. "Thank you," I said, "but not to be rude, I'd like to have my assignment so I can get to work."
A crisp laugh came over the line. "Of course, of course," the voice said, "down to business." There was a rustling of papers. "Please take some notes, a briefing will not be sent to you. This subject is too sensitive."
I fumbled around in the drawer beneath the phone for a pad of paper and a pen. "Go ahead."
The voice cleared itself before beginning. "I've gotten wind of a new smuggling ring that has been gaining force in the past weeks. They call themselves the Family."
"The Family," I repeated, thoughtfully. "Sounds Italian."
"We don't know where they originated from, but we do know that they have been regularly smuggling goods into the country at least since the beginning of this month. Perhaps even earlier."
"Smuggling?" I said. "Of what?"
"That's just the thing," the voice continued. "We have no idea what the Family is smuggling. However, we do know that, whatever it is, it is extremely important and very sensitive. I have sent several other heroes on investigations already, and all have reported back to me that they ran into powered resistance." The voice placed special emphasis on "powered."
"And you want me to...?"
"Investigate the situation. The Family have been feeling a little too secure lately and have become more bold and less cautious with their movements. A big shipment of goods is supposed to land tonight at Pier 42."
I noted the location. "Gotcha."
"The Family is treacherous, Barron," the voice said as I was putting down the receiver. "Be on your guard."
I hung the phone back on the hook and started upstairs. A simple investigation needn't deprive me of my entire day. I'd get going just after dark so I could have some cover and spend the rest of the afternoon with Paula.
"Be careful, John," Paula said to me as I walked towards the hall closet. I retrieved the last piece of my supersuit, a black leather jacket that I'd had for at least five years, and pulled it over my shoulders and my maroon shirt. I knelt down and tied the laces on my black boots and pulled my pair of fingerless, black leather gloves over my hands. I had many things to be thankful for, but there were two things that I was especially thankful for: I was married to my high-school sweetheart and was living a perfectly happy and content life; and I hadn't got saddled with one of those skin-tight costumes done up in flashy primary colors.
"Don't worry, honey," I said, grabbing the keys to my car and starting towards the door. "I'll be back late, so don't stay up for me." I kissed her softly. "And don't worry, it'll just be a quick in-and-out."
I turned the knob on the front door and pushed it open. The night air as cool and crisp and felt refreshing after the warm day. I stepped out onto the porch and looked up at the sky, blanketed in thousands of winking points of light.
"I love you, John," Paula said affectionately as I stepped off the porch and started walking towards my car.
"Love you too," I said back, waving a kiss to her. She closed the door quietly and I climbed into my, also black, sports car. I turned the ignition and, after a moment spent finding a good radio station, drove off towards the Maxville Pier.
I switched off the headlights as I pulled up to Pier 41. The Piers were one of the oldest parts of the city; and Pier 41 really showed it. The sheet-metal walls of the warehouses surrounding the dock were rusted, some with holes in them and others entirely missing. The loading crane looked horribly in disrepair and hardly able to lift anything anymore No one ever used this pier, or even any of the piers past Pier 20, anymore. Perfect place for a secret smuggling ring, I thought.
And sure enough, as I stalked around the stacks and piles of rusted barrels and broken crates, I saw movement. Lots of movement, in fact. A ship was docked at the pier and there was a steady line of trucks driving back and forth between the ship and some other location behind a warehouse.
Let's see, I thought to myself, if I were the operator of a super-secret smuggling ring, where would I hang out? I eyed a door on the back side of the warehouse where all the crates were being unloaded to, deciding that that looked like as good a place as any to start.
We'd all learned stealth and finesse at Sky High. I'd never been very good at it. Nevertheless, I put what meager stealth skills I had to use as I crept around the crates and barrels and parked forklifts. I pressed my body close against the wall of the warehouse and shimmied up to the door. I glanced quickly around to make sure no one was watching before cracking the door open and slipping inside.
Like I said, I was never too good at stealth. A big part of stealth is anticipating traps. That part I'd been the worst at. When I slipped into the warehouse through the door, I was met not by the pitch darkness or sparse moonlight that I had expected, but instead by a blinding flash of white and the feeling of a pair of enormous hands wrapping around my shoulders and covering my eyes, pulling me into the room and shoving me down into a chair. Oh great, I thought.
When I felt the pressure of the hands release and opened my eyes, I found that I was sitting at a table across from a rather old looking man, shallow wrinkles showing around his eyes and mouth and his graying hair beginning to thin. He fingered the gold buttons on the sleeve of his white jacket absentmindedly while he thumbed through a manila folder with his other hand. He seemed to sense that I had opened my eyes and looked up.
"Mr. Peace," the old man said, an elitist drawl in his voice, "I am quite disappointed. Your file here says you are much too good a strategist to be caught by something as simple as this." He gestured around at the large room, bathed completely in brilliant white light, save for the windows which remained entirely dark as the night outside. He swished his finger. "John, I am quite disappointed."
"How do you know that name?" I growled, trying my best to stem the rage rising within me and keep the flames extinguished.
"Oh, that's right," the man said, chuckling. "You go by a different name when 'doing business,' don't you?" He rifled through the folder and retrieved a typed sheet with my picture on it. He squinted at one of the top lines and read, " 'Barron Battle,' is that it?"
I tried to hide my disbelief. How could anyone know about who I was? I was careful to keep my identities separate and never told anyone that John Peace knew about the Barron whom the Barron didn't already know. So how had this old man, the leader of a smuggling ring that just popped into existence, and whom I'd never heard of before in my life, know about my two identities? But even though his face was entirely new to me, I couldn't help but feel that there was something familiar about him. But before I could place it, he chuckled again.
"You're wondering how I know so much, aren't you?" he said, leaning forward, lacing his fingers and placing his chin atop them. "I've been watching you for a long time, Barron. I'm on quite familiar terms with you, in fact. Oh? You don't remember? Well, maybe if I talk," he cleared his throat, "like this," he said, the drawl suddenly gone from his voice.
And then it clicked. That's what was familiar about him. His was the same voice that had been giving me my last few missions. His was the same voice that had given me this mission! I tried to hide the frantic anxiety threatening to sweep across my face. If this guy had been giving me missions, then that means he'd have had to have infiltrated AMSA (the Association for the Management of Superpowered Affairs). And that was supposed to be impossible!
He laughed again. "You want to know how I got into AMSA?" he said. How does he keep doing that? "It was simple really. Let's just say that I'm very... persuasive." He chuckled again. "But enough about me. Tonight is about you."
"Yes, yes. I have been watching you for many years, Barron, and I think you have great potential. Potential that you are wasting living such a life of servitude and humility towards those you are clearly above. You control the fire, John," he said, fervor rising in his voice, "the primordial substance that brought life to the world when time was young and has the power to take it away just as quickly. I have watched you for many years, John, as you lived out your life serving others, others who can do nothing more than dream and yammer. You have the power of action John! You should be in control!"
I couldn't help but agree with him. My power did elevate me above everyone else, certainly above those civilians I saved on a regular basis, but even above other heroes. I had so much more power than any of them could ever have.
"Why waste your power, your potential on such weaklings?"
No one had ever thanked me for a rescue or saving the city. And what was I getting out of all this heroism? Less time with my wife and a chance to see an early grave? I could be doing so much more, couldn't I?
"I can help you realize your potential, John. I can help you come to your full power. All you need do is come with me and stop being a hero. Simple, really."
He was right, I agreed. It was simple. And there was so much I felt I could learn if I wasn't tied down into being a hero. So much more power I felt, hidden beneath another layer in myself. And I just had to stop being a hero.
But stop being a hero? That wasn't right. I couldn't do that.
"No... I can't do that..." I said, hesitatingly.
"John, don't be absurd!" the old man said. "You have to think of yourself for once!"
Think of myself? "Our powers make us special," my father had said, "and we have to use our gifts to help other people." I'd believed that all my life. Putting myself before the people, working to my gain at their expense would be just... selfish.
"No, I have to think of the others," I said, struggling to make myself believe that that was the right path. I began to get up.
"Sit down, John," the old man said. "You're throwing away a great opportunity here!"
I felt compelled to sit, as if there was some inexorable force tugging at my mind, convincing me to sit and stay.
"I'm sorry, your offer is great and all," I said, "but I just can't abandon everyone. Who'll keep them safe?"
"But John," he said, leaning forward, "you must." And for the first time, I noticed that his eyes began to glow a brilliant crimson red just as I felt in my mind a little voice begin tugging and pulling me, pushing me to agree with the old man. So he was a telepath. That's how he'd known so much about what I was thinking. All of what he'd said was probably just a ploy to get me off track of his operation. I couldn't just let him manipulate me.
I pushed the little voice into a corner and out of my mind and quickly got out of my chair. "You can't convince me to do anything, especially not with any mind tricks like yours!"
The old man closed his eyes, the red glow fading from them, and uttered a deep sigh. "You are very perceptive, John," he said, "to have noticed my powers. But now that I see I cannot sway you the easy way," he motioned to one of the guards standing off to the side of the room who stepped off and returned with a television set and rolled it up so we could watch it, "I suppose that I will have to use the hard way." He took the remote and switched the set on.
"I am an enormous proponent of the concept of leverage. And in a moment," he said, pointing to the screen as the tubes warmed up and a foggy amalgam of colors appeared, "you will see just what that concept means to you."
An image of the Earth, blue-green and white appeared on the screen against the dark of space. "There are over six billion people living on the Earth," the old man continued, "and from what I read in your emotions, you care for, at some level, each and every one of them. Now, I'm not the type that would pressure you into acquiescing to my offer with some overblown plan to destroy the world," he said, apparently sensing my rising worry as I watched the globe revolve. "After all, I live here too, so what good would destroying the Earth do me? I do sense however, that, among those six billion, there is one for whom you care the most," he drawled, turning to look me in the face. "Am I right?"
I watched the screen closely as the image zoomed down to the surface and began sweeping over the country, slowly zooming in further until it resolved over a skyline that I knew very well: Maxville's. He couldn't be thinking of...
"Oh, but I am. Of all the emotions, Mr. Peace, love is the easiest to read. No one hides love, caches it away in a corner of their mind that not even they themselves are aware of. Everyone always wears their love openly; and the object of that love is very easily read from the emotion." The image continued to zoom in and refocus. I gasped silently as our street, Paula's and mine, materialized on the screen. The image continued to refine until it had centered perfectly on Paula, out in the garden with a pair of jeans on, tending to her patch of tulips and daisies.
A crisp smile played across the old man's lips. "So you see my point then?" he said finally. My head fell heavily to my chest. I fought back my urge to cry. "She is such a beautiful woman. It would be most unfortunate if something were to happen to her."
"I'll do anything you ask."