(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance!!)
The private airplane owned by the Guild of Heroes landed on Newark airport, West of New York. The number of flights going in and out of the city had been limited since the launch of the manhunt and a portion of the airport’s real estate was taken up by the National Guard for the express purpose of setting up a temporary base of operations. The Guild, or often abbreviated by the public as GoH, was one of the parties “cooperating fully” and had set up their own base here as well.
The normally-busy airport full of tourists and businessmen, was now playing home to packs of military personnel and journalists looking to get a scoop of a lifetime. As Vanguard and his company descended from the plane, the male representative coming over to guide them warned the group not to talk to anyone outside of their circle.
There was no need for such a warning, though, as they were already familiar with the score. Speaking to a member of the press, even if it’s so-called off the record, would only be detrimental in delivering a controlled, unified message at a later time.
Not to mention, Vanguard didn’t need to hear such a warning as he had received extensive media training. He wouldn’t make the gaffe of saying stuff he should not say in front of unrelated people.
Vanguard, Blast Storm and the one other Super, a woman named Blue Solstice, were guided to the hangar occupied by the Guild of Heroes, located on the outskirts of the airport specially arranged for them.
Vanguard took a glance at Blue Solstice, his eyes slightly narrowing. She was an enigma, even to the high-ups in the Guild. She never spoke more than three words, always worked alone, and the extent of her powers was also a mystery. Blast Storm didn’t seem to care much, though. To the wind-wielding Superhero, as long as one was an ally, it was all good, frosty personalities be damned.
The three including the guide remained largely silent as they walked to the hangar, keeping out an eye for any rat scurrying about. The distance between the runway where the plane landed and the hangar itself wasn’t much, but it paid to be cautious regardless of the surroundings.
The building was heavily guarded by the private soldiers employed by the Guild, called the Peacekeepers, and low-level Supers as well as high-tech security systems custom-made by the Guild’s technicians.
The reason for the extra level of security was simple. Inevitably, there would be sensitive information attainable only by those in the loop, and for the reasons of national security and stability, they were obviously kept out of the public domain. It wouldn’t do good if any of them was leaked ahead of time while not under the careful control, after all.
The temporary base for GoH in Newark airport was set up to facilitate quicker response to the Superheroes cooperating with the search for the JFK mass murderer. The idea was that there would be a simple chain of command here that directed intelligence to the Supers on the ground.
And when the need arises, the command would then efficiently dispatch a rapid-response team that was tailor-fitted for the crisis at hand. It was how the military did things, but the crucial difference was, the troops were comprised of low-to-mid level Supers, connected via a powerful communication network so the flow of information was far more succinct and smoother.
The interior of the hangar was divided into several areas. One was reserved for a debriefing, the other as the loadout where the response team could be outfitted on a short notice, a rest area with beds and showers, and finally, the command center where almost all of the action taking place was being monitored and guided by the well-trained personnel.
The Guild owned several military-grade satellites graciously funded and sometimes provided free of charge by many benefactors, such as Mylorne Akkad and other wealthy industrialists. They nearly had no reason to rely on the U.S military to provide the real-time bird’s eye view into the city.
As Vanguard was brought in here, he could more or less survey the lay of the land through the multiple large projections set up in the middle of the command center. One of them was a three-dimensional map of the five boroughs. He nodded slightly after checking out the movements of all the Supers and the police force. The National Guard troop’s movements were relayed a little later, perhaps a sign of information flow not being as smooth as it could be.
There were several familiar faces as well as ones Vanguard didn’t immediately recognize in the command center. Of course, he offered warm, diplomatic greetings and encouragements to all of them as he walked past. He was like a perfect politician, aiming to get re-elected for his position. Of course, Vanguard wasn’t like that, but after years of doing nothing but PR work ensured such a behavior would be ingrained deep down to his bones.
He saw the emotions displayed by the members of the Guild here, almost all of them not Supers and thus not possessing powers, and they were that of concentration, focus, dedication and belief.
Seeing those mixed bags of steely faces, Vanguard felt reassured. They would surely catch the culprit of the massacre sooner rather than later. But that warm, fuzzy feeling ran into a cold, impassable wall soon after, in the skeptical face of a masked Superheroine, Mercury Retrograde, who blocked Vanguard’s and Blast Storm’s path.
“I heard you were coming over, Vanguard. Doubt you’ll be much of a help, though. Shouldn’t have bothered to come here, unless you were planning to get some of us hurt.”
She said with ice in her voice, her deep gray eyes narrowing as she blocked Vanguard’s path. Her tight fitting silver armor seemingly barely containing her resentment of the big luchador mask-wearing former Superhero.
“It’s been a while, Miss Mercury,” Vanguard coolly nodded at her, choosing to not to respond to her provocation.
Blast Storm cut her off as he stepped out. “Cut it out, will you? We are on the same team. Don’t forget that.”
She snorted coldly, before turning on her heels. “Well, whatever. At least you should be useful for talking to the press and saving us the bother, so that’ll be nice.”
Vanguard sighed inwardly, watching her walk away. That was not a very pleasant reunion, one he definitely could do without. Seeing his friend somewhat distressed, Blast Storm firmly grasped his shoulder and spoke wryly to loosen up the tension.
“That woman is never going to forgive you, isn’t she?”
“Can you blame her? I couldn’t save her husband, after all.”
“Still with that?! Hey, listen here, man. You did the right thing. No one here is blaming you for the choice you made that day. It was either one Super who signed up for this sh*t knowing the risk, or the truckload of powerless civilians dying a horrible death. You made the correct call. So, stop beating yourself over it.”
Vanguard smiled ruefully, while recollecting that very important moment when his career veered off to the left. Unconsciously, he reached down and massaged his damaged knee – the scar of that day, the unwelcome reminder of that difficult choice he had to make.
Blast Storm sighed. “Look, if you’re still bothered by it, think of it this way – you’ve paid penance with your leg. You had to retire early. That should be good enough, no? Being a Superhero was all you ever wanted to be and you paid the price for the choice you made. So, there. Now, let’s get going.”
Vanguard nodded silently. Some might say those words uttered by Blast Storm may have bordered on being insensitive, but Vanguard appreciated these kinds of talks. They were coming from a man who also made numerous difficult decisions almost daily, a man who didn’t lack empathy or sincerity. Blast Storm was a reliable friend who’d set him straight if Vanguard’s boat rocked unsteadily against the winds for whatever the reason might be.
Blue Solstice watched the interactions with the emotionless face, before silently walking away. Vanguard and Blast Storm briefly thought about stopping her but then decided not to. She’d have her own reasons for separating from them.
“Good day to you both. Thank you for joining us here at such a short notice.”
A cool, professional voice greeted them from behind the two Supers, drawing their focus. It was from Emma Gilberts, in charge of assigning roles. She was, just like the most of the command center staff, not a Super but her ability to perform terrifyingly menial administrative jobs like clockwork was verging on being a supernatural ability in itself. Vanguard seriously admired her for that alone.
She was dressed rather smartly in a two-piece business suit, her short blonde hair pulled tightly back. A pair of frameless glasses sat high on her nose and a multi-channel radio with a mic was firmly affixed to her right ear. She carried thick files in her arms.
“Please, follow me to the debrief,” said Emma as she handed out those thick files to Vanguard and Blast Storm.
They followed her to the partitioned debrief room. As expected, it was sparsely furnished, only with a round table and a set of chairs around it. A projector and a whiteboard with aerial photos of the city clipped on were the other fixtures present here.
After sitting down, the two browsed through the files and saw that these papers contained all the reports of what had conspired up until now. Still, Emma offered commentary for a quicker summarisation.
“We had received new updates after those files were printed. Now we have a name and a face to go along with all the material evidence collected on site.”
Vanguard and Blast Storm looked up from the files and at Emma’s cold but beautiful face.
“The target’s name is Nico Gavalas, 36, a Greek national.”
She pointed with a slim remote at a white wall and a projection of a smiling man appeared there.
“His background is being compiled as we speak, but so far, no history of Super activities, no history of known criminal affiliation and his past behavior seems to check out as that of a regular citizen. The facial recognition software had matched the face in the security footage to this Nico Gavalas from the passenger manifests submitted by the airlines. It’s a 90% match – as good as we’ll ever get.”
Vanguard nodded as he flipped through the files. “Says here that the searches of Queens and Brooklyn area are now complete, that they haven’t located the target. How far along are we now?”
“The scanning of Staten Island should be completed by now. Manhattan and the Bronx are still ongoing. The cops and Feds have encountered something of resistance from the locals in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, so that’s why it’s taking some time to sweep them all, while on the island of Manhattan itself, there are a lot of shadowy places to hide even if it’s geographically boxed in.
“To be safe, we are also conducting a thorough search of Jersey City as well.”
Blast Storm browsed through the file but half way in, he simply chucked the document on the table and leaned back in his chair.
“Okay, what are we looking at here? Because to me, this whole thing smells like a pile of a sh*tstorm, rolling down the mountain side and ready to sucker punch us in the ass. The NYPD, the Homeland Security, the FBI, the National Guard and us, all jockeying for a position here, am I right? Just how bad is the level of cooperation? Are we sharing, if any, useful info between us and them?”
“We are sharing enough,” replied Emma. “No jockeying going on here, Mister Storm. But truth be told, there are things only we can do. Likewise, there are some matters we can not get involved in.”
“Let me guess, the brass chose not to butt in, am I right? The NYPD and the FBI are using the excuse of finding this guy, this Nico whatever, to crack down on the local wise guys, am I right? Don’t even deny it, Emma. And what’s the Homeland boys up to? Are they looking into one of those ever-elusive terrorists gathering hot spots again, saying that a Greek national might blend in with the local immigrant population since they all kind of look alike?”
Blast Storm didn’t mince his words. Vanguard thought that he was getting heated up at the wrong person, but to her credit, Emma didn’t show any signs of getting flustered.
“There are, certainly, movements like as you have described, but it is the prerogative of the local law enforcement to act as they see fit. Well, look at it this way, Mister Storm. If the bad elements are weeded out in this increase of proactivity by the authorities, then our jobs might get just a little easier overall.”
Blast Storm snorted derisively and waved his hands. “Okay, whatever. So, what’s our role here? Both of us are not what you’d call subtle types, investigating around and all that stuff. Well, maybe Vanguard can, but I know me, and I can’t sit around doing that. Not my style.”
Emma sighed softly. “It’s good that we have you two on board. Mister Vanguard will be tasked to liaise with other agencies invested in this manhunt as well as to engage with the media, while Mister Storm will ride shotgun with a team ready to deploy in a couple of hours.”
Vanguard sat forward in alarm. “Wait a minute. That’s not what I agreed to do when I signed up for this mission. I’m still a Super, Emma, and I came here to find the villain, not to play a dress-up in front of a camera, no matter how many times I’ve done it for the Guild until now.”
“I understand your feelings, Mister Vanguard, but it is true that you are not medically cleared for a full active duty. I’m sorry, but you have to be on the reserve roster in case the extra assistance is required. This is the best way for you to help us right now.”
Vanguard felt like slamming down on the table in frustration but held back. He might break the poor furniture if he did that. Instead, he took a deep breath to calm himself.
A slight hiss from Emma’s earpiece broke the tense atmosphere in the room. She responded to the call and listened attentively for a long while before informing Vanguard and Blast Storm to the contents of the call.
“Okay, a new update. Our man, Nico Gavalas, does not have a history. He’s clean, confirmed as a non-Super civilian. No powers, no prior special forces or tactical assault training. But he is being flagged by the Greek police and Europol as a person of interest in an ongoing investigation over there, for the deaths of multiple known criminal syndicate members.”
Blast Storm frowned. “Huh? Okay, I’m interested. What’s up?”
“Apparently, Nico Gavalas lost his job as a stockbroker after the market collapse. Being out of work and on welfare for almost five years, he found a job as a security guard on an archaeological dig of a recently uncovered underground burial chamber, suspected to be that of Alexander the Great.
“Last week, the vault where the recovered artifacts were kept, was broken into and men affiliated with a known smuggling ring were found dead within. All personnel involved with the dig are accounted for and interviewed, except for our Nico Gavalas.”
Vanguard sat forward in his chair, thinking that something didn’t make sense here. “He’s not a Super, received no training and yet, was able to take care of a gang of would-be thieves singlehandedly? Even if he was armed, that would take a miracle to pull off. Is this info reliable?”
“Well, the FBI and the Homeland should have received the same information as us, so they are probably trying to verify it,” said Emma. “The report here says two items went missing from the vault, and they are a ceremonial golden skull and an ancient stone tablet, thought to be as valuable as the Rosetta Stone. That’s it.”
“A skull and a stone brick, huh? That could explain the reaction of the customs officer. Anyone would freak out when you see a skull as the very first thing inside a bag.” Blast Storm slowly scratched his chin as he spoke. “But what I don’t get it is, what the hell is he doing in the States, of all places? If he wanted to fence those stolen items or whatever, couldn’t he hop on a train and head over to the deep recesses of Eastern Europe or the Middle East? Surely, that should be better than coming over here, where the security is a lot tighter.”
Vanguard was curious as well, but there was no one who could answer that question present in the debriefing room, so a contemplative silence dominated the proceedings for a short while until it was broken by yet another soft hiss from Emma’s earpiece. She listened, nodded and turned to the two Supers.
“Well, looks like there’s something else. NYPD just informed us that there was an incident down at the warehouse district in lower Brooklyn this morning. A local crime boss, Wilhelm Milosevic, was found murdered, along with his men. A dozen or so girls were found, alive, from what looks to be a holding cell of some kind. And the initial investigation has confirmed that Nico Gavalas could be the main suspect. The security footage has matched the face to that of the JFK’s.”
Vanguard and Blast Storm looked at each other.
“Okay, so that’s a new development. Probably too early to ask, but what the hell is the link here?” Blast Storm continued to rub his chin. He narrowed his eyes slightly before nodding his head. “He’s a gangster, right? This Russian-sounding dude. So could he be the buyer for the golden skull and the brick? Paying for the trip and all that, for our man? Then, for some reason, the deal goes sideways, and so as a retaliation, the gangster gets taken out. Hmm. Makes sense to me.”
Vanguard shook his head. “We can’t make any assumptions yet. For one, we don’t know what triggered Gavalas to unleash an attack of that magnitude in JFK. And why he killed the gangster. We need more evidence.”
Emma cut in here. “Perhaps unrelated, but NYPD also reports that Abyss the vigilante was seen leaving the scene with an unidentified young female in tow.”
“Abyss? That crazy guy? He’s not dead yet?” Blast Storm chuckled in wry surprise before cranking his neck. “Oh boy. Is this thing getting complicated or what?! That guy Abyss is like a rabid dog. Once he sniffs a scent he likes, he ain’t gonna stop until he bites down on the baddie. But are they related, this Nico what’s-his-name and Abyss? Ah, never mind. You don’t know it yet.”
Emma nodded. “I’m sure NYPD will keep us updated with new info. In the meantime, the Guild President wishes to send a small team over to the warehouse in question. Mister Vanguard, I’ve been told to pass along the message – you’ll be deployed there as the spearhead. Please get ready, as the team will be departing in five minutes. I will brief you on what to expect once you’re ready.”
Vanguard didn’t like it, but since this was better than doing nothing, he reluctantly got up and left the debriefing room. Blast Storm too, got up from his seat to follow his friend, but Emma stopped him.
“Mister Storm, your presence is required elsewhere. As soon as Mister Vanguard departs, you will be assigned to a new team and head for the South of the Central Park. We will provide you with the coordinates.”
“Why? What’s there?”
Emma waited for a bit before answering. She was waiting to make sure Vanguard was out of earshot. Not because she wanted to, but she was ordered to.
“There was an unconfirmed sighting of the target in the vicinity only a moment ago. The Guild President wishes you to take a small force and visually confirm it and if possible, track the target.”
The Central Park was oddly empty this time of the day. Early Sunday morning or not, the world-famous park would host countless New Yorkers wanting to enjoy a bit of sun, each other’s company and fresh air – as fresh as it could be in the middle of one of the most densely packed cities on the planet, that was.
The main portion of the blame fell mostly on the people trying to avoid the popular gathering spots thanks to the ample warnings from the authority figures. And then, there was the presence of the National Guard troopers, heavily armed police and Supers all over the city that showed this thing was not a drill, not a joke to be scoffed at. Most New Yorkers, while defiant in the face of adversity, were also pretty street smart, so they ably understood the score well enough.
Besides, this arrangement worked out in favor for those searching for the one suspect, Nico Gavalas. Fewer the number of people on the street, the easier it was to check those still out and about. The more people stayed put in one place, easier to corral and probe for the authorities involved.
By now, Nico’s identity was out in the open. His face was plastered in many electronic sign boards, local TV stations’ broadcasts and even the front pages of every newspaper on sale.
Yet, like a strange miracle nobody wanted, not one cop or a soldier or a Super could recognize Nico as he blithely walked past them. No one, and absolutely no one, even took a glance at his way. It was as if he didn’t exist on the same plane as the rest of humanity.
This greatly increased his enjoyment of the city’s sights and sounds. The daytime possessed a different charm compared to the night when Nico had crossed these streets so it was like walking on a completely new world. And because of his invisibility, no one hassled him, no one tried to mug him, no one tried to stop him and ask him troubling questions.
It was all so very relaxing. He’d never guessed he’d be able to travel to this greatest city on earth and culturally enrich himself and become a better human being at the end of the day.
On top of that, when he did decide to interact with the locals, they couldn’t recognize him. Like just now, when he stopped by a food vendor after catching the whiff of a smell that reminded him of home. Well, almost, but reasonably close enough.
The vendor was selling traditional Greek food, and the one that caught Nico’s fancy was the chicken Souvlaki, chunks of chicken meat in a skewer. Nico just couldn’t go past without sampling it, what with this being potentially the last time he could taste an American version of Greek cuisine. Not that he needed to eat, but the man could indulge himself now and then, no?
The vendor turned out to be an immigrant from Greece, so the two of them chatted for a while in their native tongue, swapping stories of here and back home. The Souvlaki itself was not as good as Nico’s own mother’s but truth be told, it had been so long, he could barely remember that taste anyway. And the good company meant the meal was one of the best he had in years, so he was quite satisfied with the result.
After paying the vendor, Nico said his goodbyes and carried on in his way, towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There were street lamp-mounted banners loudly announcing the dates of the upcoming exhibition in the world-famous museum. The items of immense value from all corners of the globe, dating back thousands of years in history were to be displayed there and the eyes of the world would be focused here. Accordingly, the security was very tight.
Even the passing city buses were adorned with the same banners. It was expected that the opening night, the gala event, would be attended by countless celebrities and people in a position of power – although, now that Nico had caused a bit of trouble, it was doubtful just how many of them would show up. Not that Nico cared anyways. Hell, he didn’t care whether the whole exhibition got canceled or not.
He was after one single artifact, after all. Even if the whole show was canned and the items shelved in storage, he’d still be able to track it down, thanks to the Compass of Wishes in his pocket. With this mythical, unfathomable compass in his hands, there was literally nothing in this world he could not find no matter where it was hidden. Nico’s confidence was totally justifiable, in other words.
Setting his foot on the 5th Avenue, he followed the iconic street down until the imposing gray structure of the museum came to his view. There was a cordon of cops around the steps that led up to the entrance, and to his slight concern, Nico spotted two Supers among them. Besides the flashy costumes, Nico sensed a certain type of undulations from the powers they possessed coming off them, so he knew straight away to be cautious and not to stand out from the crowd.
They were spot checking people entering and leaving the museum. So the place wasn’t closed to the public, which was good since he didn’t have to force his way through. Saved him from wasting time and energy, really.
He rifled through his wallet and found exactly $25. He read somewhere that this was the “suggested” admission price for an adult. What a stroke of luck it was, him having the exact amount of money in his pocket. Well, he was not worried about running out, though. After he was through here, the concept of a monetary system might collapse altogether, anyway. Or not, but either way, he didn’t have to worry about money ever again.
He was about to walk straight past the police blockade when he noticed that the cops were searching through almost all the bags people were carrying. He frowned slightly, realizing that this might present a slight problem.
Nico could walk right past them just fine, but then, his big bag would draw in unnecessary attention. The cops would demand him to open it, and the similar thing as the airport could happen here. Not that it mattered in the grand scheme, but still, he wasn’t sure just how long he’d need to get everything going, so the longer the distraction stay away, the better. He couldn’t really afford to draw attention to himself.
After mulling his options for a bit, he heard a suggestion from his…. unseen friend, and nodded in delight. Nico then approached the nearest police officer and smiled at him.
“Hello officer, can I have a moment of your time?”
The uniformed cop looked up and down at Nico, his expression slightly confused. The cop vaguely thought that there was something oddly familiar about this smiling man, but he just could not put his finger on why.
“Yes, can I help you with something, sir?”
“Indeed, I need your help. Please, will you follow me for a second?”
Nico’s suggestion was ludicrous and under the normal circumstances, the cop would have become vigilant, but yet, his words seemed to hold some kind of strange, persuasive power. The cop couldn’t refuse and ended up accompanying him.
Nico had no sinister motives for the man. All he wanted to do was to simply hand over the gym bag in a place where no one could see them, so the officer could carry it inside the museum for him.
Since the cop was under the influence of his liege, Nico didn’t have to worry about the spell breaking off in the middle of the deed. The cop carrying the bag went up ahead, while Nico leisurely sauntered up the front stairs of the museum, getting himself checked by the security, all the while smiling warmly like a gentleman that he was.
The cop handed the bag over as soon as Nico found him waiting by the front help kiosk right in the middle of the Great Hall. “I won’t do this again, so you better ask someone else next time, sir.”
“Thank you very much for your help, officer.”
Nico chuckled amiably and saw the policeman leave the museum, none the wiser of what he had done.
Now that Nico and his bag had safely crossed over, it was time to locate the final object – the ancient Seed to revive one of the six great Trees of the World.
He looked around and saw that there wasn’t a lot of people here today. The mood of the city probably didn’t allow for visitors to muster up the courage to come and enjoy what this wonderful place had to offer.
Oh well, it wasn’t like Nico could worry about how they felt right now, when in a matter of few hours, the whole world would be transformed for the better, anyways.
Jimmy Costanza and his wife, Connie held their long-lost daughter Cleo tightly and cried. No one present in this family living room thought of stopping this tearful reunion, choosing to stand by the side and quietly watching the scene unfold.
Erik and Lei both felt really awkward for being here like a pair of sore thumbs sticking out unnecessarily, but couldn’t say anything. No, they had nothing helpful to say. Erik was doing his best to calculate what the future would hold now, while Lei was constantly keeping an eye out for all the communication floating in the airwaves.
Tony Costanza was also busy wiping the tears off from his face. Most of them were from the tender reunion, but some of them happened to be from the acute pain in his chest when Cleo hugged him. She was way too strong for a regular person, after all.
Still, he was happy. At the same time, concerned. What the teens told him just now, while waiting for Cleo’s parents to hurriedly return home from their deli, left him dazed and unsure of what to do or say.
He glanced at Erik and Lei, wondering just how much of the stories told by them could be believed. Ten years of forced captivity and training by the secret government project involving augmented Supers? Sounded like stuff from a cheap, Made-for-TV Friday midnight special. But the aching chest indicated that maybe there was a morsel of truth there, somewhere. He decided not to pry right now, as another chance to deeply delve into the matter should come around soon enough.
But the implication was serious if the story was proved to be 100% legit.
Tony groaned inwardly and kneaded his forehead. His worries for the future was reasonable. His side business as the “guy who knows a guy who knows another guy who happens to perform certain things for the right price” could be in serious trouble if there were Feds getting involved in the family’s affair. No, it was a given that Feds would get involved. It was a certainty.
But he’d cross that bridge when it came to that. For now, he would focus on the family being whole again.
He could remember vividly the day when young Cleo went missing. Didn’t matter she wasn’t his kid, she was a family and her disappearance, an apparent kidnapping from the Elementary school she went to by the fake cops, shook his life pretty badly. He remembered putting up hundreds, thousands of posters with Cleo’s face in black and white all over the damn city, sometimes at 2 o’clock in the night, fighting the effing cold and jeers from the passing drunken frat boys and crap like that.
That felt like yesterday to Tony. And now, Cleo was in the same house, under the same roof, as him. She sure had changed a lot during the ten or so years she’d been missing, but the odd thing was, she was almost instantly recognizable. Yes, Tony didn’t initially, but that was because of his long night, but Cleo’s parents had no such trouble. They knew they were looking at their missing little girl the second their eyes fell on her.
Tony mused that it was probably the oft-talked about the blood – or the parental bond in this case – running thicker than pretty much anything, as the old but modified saying went.
Jimmy and Connie were busy stroking and laughing and talking and crying all at the same time, making for a somewhat difficult conversation. But miraculously, everyone understood what was being said.
“My god, Cleo, my little baby has grown so much!! God, thank you so, so much….”
Connie held her daughter so close, afraid that if she let go, her little girl would disappear again. Jimmy too was holding his daughter tightly.
Watching them pouring out their decade worth of grief and anguish, Lei and Erik didn’t feel so good anymore.
Lei felt pretty especially conflicted, probably more than Erik, because unlike him, she would never get to have a reunion of any kind whatsoever.
But Erik wasn’t feeling bad because of the reunion that he’d not have, but because of his awareness that the time was running out for them. The Project Dead Kings operatives would be surrounding this house in a few minutes, if they haven’t done that already. They literally had no time to waste reminiscing about the past. They had to move, preferably now.
He cared not one jot about meeting his deadbeat parents. Gone were the days where he harbored a fierce desire to interrogate his family why the hell they threw him away, but he had gotten over it. It didn’t matter anymore. Probably. There was a bigger fish to fry, and that was ensuring that he’d have a future free from controlling hands of the Big Brother or indeed, anyone else.
Erik’s impatience was growing. The time was wasting yet the waterworks showed no sign of ending at all. He and Lei had already explained the situation, albeit roughly, to Tony Costanza so at least that wouldn’t eat up the precious minutes, but this, to him, was ridiculous.
“Hey, Cleo. Mister and Missus Costanza? I don’t want to be that guy, but we don’t have the time here. We should get going. Like, right now.”
Erik’s words were like buckets of ice-cold water pouring over the tender reunion, and was received just as well, too. The Costanza family glared daggers at him, but Erik ignored the stares and stated his position pretty clearly.
“Like I explained to Mister Tony Costanza over here, we’re being chased by the shady government people. We risked a lot by coming here to bring you guys out of the city before the really serious things happen. So, please, time’s a wasting. We need to leave, now.”
“What do you mean?! Who is chasing after you?” Jimmy Costanza roared, evidently incensed by the claim. Connie too, was about to raise hell, when Tony hurriedly intervened and laid out the main gist of the story.
“See, that’s what it is. So, according to these kids, we better get the hell out of this city before that freak JFK villain does something even worse.” Tony shrugged his shoulders. “Well, it’s not such a bad idea to leave the city for a day or two, don’t you think? I mean, Jimmy, you wanted to go to Boston, see the Red Sox game at least once in your life, right? This might be a nice timing and all.”
“Jesus, Tony. I’m a Mets guy, and you are busy tempting me with a Sox game? You must be really desperate or something.” Jimmy quipped acidly before turning to Cleo. “Okay, hon, honestly, do we really need to go?”
“Mmm.” Cleo nodded her head while carrying a serious look on her face. “Yeah, there are a bunch of bad people after us. And according to someone, uh, sorta reliable, this city is not safe too. We shoulda go somewhere that’s not Queens.”
Jimmy locked his gazes with his wife, Connie, who returned an understanding nod.
“Okay, we pack up and go. No problem. We’ll just go and get Junior from the Bible study class,” said Jimmy.
“Eh? Who’s Junior?”
Cleo asked after hearing an unfamiliar name.
Only then, Jimmy, Connie and Tony’s face color changed, realizing they had made a huge mistake. Even though there was plenty of reminders in the form of multiple family photographs hung around the living room and throughout the house, none of them thought of mentioning this little, albeit significant, development until now.
“Baby, Junior is your little brother. His name is David. He’ll be eight at the end of this year.”
Cleo was struck speechless, indescribable feeling welling up inside like flood water, until she exploded in a giddy craze. “I have a little brother?!! I need to see him, like, right now!!! Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!! Did you hear that, Erik? Lei? I have a little brother!!”
Cleo screamed in happiness and jumped up and down wildly, causing the whole brownstone building to tremble noticeably. The floor creaked and groaned in protest at the undeserved abuse.
“Hey, hey!! Calm down, Cleo!!”
Erik hastily grabbed Cleo’s shoulders and shook her, hard. Or, at least as hard as he could manage. He used a small bit of his eye power to bring Cleo’s excitement down a notch or two. Erik was the only one in the entire project that could do this with his power – the Eyes of Judgment. It took a lot out of him each time he used it, however, and he refrained from using it often as a result.
On the other side, the Costanzas were in a complete daze at what just happened to the house. Gulping softly, Jimmy took a long glance at his daughter, before nodding his head. He was fully believing the story now, thanks to that bit of demonstration of Cleo’s Superpower.
“Connie, babe, get the essential things only. I’ll call the church and the Sister Brenda, tell her that we’re coming to get Junior. Tony, your car’s still in the shop, right? Why don’t you get us a rental? There won’t be a space for everyone in the minivan when we pack it up with luggage.”
Erik shook his head. “We came with our own ride, Mister Costanza. It’s fine. It will take too much time to rent a car.”
Jimmy and Connie sprang to action. They packed the important stuff first, like toiletries, cash, clothes, and jewelry that could be sold later, and Jimmy packed a small caliber revolver as well. A precaution, he said. No one argued, although Connie frowned a little.
Tony, meanwhile, called the church that held the Bible study group for the neighborhood children, informing them that the family was coming to get Junior, David, early. He also called a few other people, telling them to evacuate from the city as soon as possible.
The bags were shoved in the back of the old Chrysler minivan in a hurry. Jimmy told his neighbors to evacuate as well as he pulled out of the driveway, heading straight for the church. Cleo rode with her parents, while Tony got in the car Lei commandeered alongside Erik.
“Hey, let me drive this car. Less chance of the cops stopping us with me in the driver’s seat, am I right?”
Tony said with a matter-of-fact tone. Lei shrugged her shoulders and told him it was fine either way.
Erik remained vigilant, trying to ferret out anyone threatening them hidden in the shadows, but to his partial relief, there were none. It did add to his unease, however.
The church was a few blocks away. There were one or two cars on the street, and as if it was a break between the classes, within the church’s fenced ground there were young kids running around, playing and fooling around.
Jimmy parked the minivan and along with Cleo and Connie, went to the church to get David. Meanwhile, Erik and Lei exited their own car and vigilantly surveyed the surroundings.
Almost immediately, three black SUVs drove up from nowhere and blocked the road. Several people, kitted out in black, jumped out and glared at Erik and Lei.
“Oh, crap. So they have caught up with us.”
Erik muttered under his breath, tensing up at the faces staring at him. He recognized almost all of them. He did spend the last ten years with these guys, after all. It’d be worrying if he couldn’t, actually.
Out of all the familiar faces, one stepped forward. He was tall, handsome, wore the slick sunglasses like a Hollywood action star, a young action star at that, and walked with a certain confident swagger. Not an exaggerated one like something a pro wrestler might do, but more like a star athlete going out to the podium to receive the winner’s trophy.
“Hey, Erik. Fancy seeing you here,” said the tall youth. It was obvious in the way the others were looking at him, that he was the designated leader of the group.
“Hey to you too, Stu. How’re things?”
Stu shook his head. “I wish you’d stop calling me that. I’m Stewart!! Well, whatever, man. Actually, I’m disappointed in you three, you know? When you left without permission, I thought maybe you’d be smart enough not to show up on the grid anymore. But here you are. This is why you’ll never become a squad leader, Erik.”
Erik shrugged his shoulders, trying to act nonchalantly.
“I don’t really care about taking away your fancy job from the very beginning, Stu. I thought I made that crystal clear before. But I do care about leaving this city as soon as possible. You don’t mind accommodating us on that front, do you?”
Stewart sighed ruefully. “You know I can’t do that. Orders. We are to bring you in. By force if necessary. You guys did hurt quite a few people while trying to go AWOL, after all.”
The black SUVs blocked the road, and even though it was Sunday, a small amount of traffic built up pretty fast. Irate motorists, who got their paths blocked, let their anger known by honking their horns.
Of course, the teen Supers present collectively ignored them. The tense atmosphere simply didn’t allow them to do anything else other than stare the other party down. Even the slightest movement from either side could set off a chain of events that might end up troublesome to clean up afterwards.
“Huh. So, why did you wait until we came to this church? You could’ve come for us back at the Costanza residence.”
Erik asked, trying to buy time as his mind worked overtime to find a way out.
“I wanted Cleo to see her little brother at least, before taking her in. Because, I got a feeling that once we return, she won’t be seeing them anymore.”
“Oh, how considerate of you, Stu.”
Erik sourly retorted. He had formed a plan in his mind, but wasn’t feeling confident of its success. Stu, Stewart Baxter, was a talented commander and a Super himself. He’d know what to expect from Erik and Lei, and probably came prepared as a result. Erik needed Cleo here if he were to have any hope of breaking out of this barricade.
However, even before Erik could start implementing his plan, something quite unexpected changed literally everything. Not even the irritated users of the road could scarcely understand what happened next.
A sudden burst of blinding light from the West, where Manhattan was located, exploded and showered everyone until nothing could be seen.
Not even Supers were spared from this temporary blindness.
Erik could barely see, thanks to his specially made glasses that could filter out certain types of naturally-occurring radiation from affecting his eyes. The lenses darkened in an instant and prevented Erik from going totally blind, even if the blindness was only for a few seconds.
But as soon as he saw what the cause of the explosion of light was in the distant sky, he kind of wished he didn’t.
Erik felt chills quite unlike any other he felt in his life.
Something tall and dark, enveloped in the light, shot into the sky, stabbing the blue canopy above like a spike. And even more shockingly, this “pole” literally pierced into the sky, cracking and then shattering it open like glass and exposing the starry darkness beyond it.
The light lessened slowly after that, forming white clouds around this “spike/pole” thing. And when people’s eyes returned to being normal, they too could see what Erik had been seeing for a while longer than them.
A giant black rod, completely made of unknown metal, that was piercing into the heavens.
(Please support my writing by reading it, and talking to your friends about it. Any comments you wish to make are welcome, especially the constructive criticisms. Also, I would deeply appreciate if you show your love by donating some $$. Ahahaha. Well hey, I need “motivations” too, you know!!)
(This Sunday is my birthday, and I won’t be able to post a chapter. Please expect it on Monday or Tuesday at the lastest. Apologies for the delay.)
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