Authors note: Hey, I'm finally back after a while. I decided to take a break which turned into a much longer break as real life got in the way. Hopefully updates will come faster now, but no guarantees. I also hope everyone's staying safe and well during this crazy time. Thanks.
I stretched out my hands, cracked my knuckles, and then placed them on the buttons and control knob on one side of an arcade machine. At the same time, Leon stretched his arms and wiggled all his fingers before he took the controls on his own side. It was an impromptu round two of our earlier video game battle, and that time, I was more than determined to win that one, if only to get a satisfying feeling of a little payback and to recover some of my pride.
Our battlefield that time was Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, a fighting video game based on the smash-hit cartoon series of the same name. I freely admit that while the show wasn't really made for someone within my particular age bracket, I had seen many of the episodes, solely due to the fact that I was over at the Wolvertons' place all the time and their daughter Sierra was a die hard fan. I liked the show, but it wasn't something I'd literally rush home to watch whenever it came on.
Anyway, for our characters, Leon, of course, chose Buzz Lightyear while I embraced my inner dark side and went with Emperor Zurg. Hey, sometimes it was fun to be bad, at least in a pretend world. There were even times when I pretended to be an evil version of myself in Ultimate Super Melee 3. I loved roleplaying as it gave me the chance to be someone who I could never be in real life. I mean, could you imagine an evil Phoenicia flying around without any restrictions, morals, or mercy and raining fiery death destruction down upon the land? Let's hope not.
"So, Jess, ready to go 0-2 today?" Leon taunted as our virtual fight was about to begin.
"Not a chance," I shot back. "It's on now. Payback time."
The arena was part of Zurg's palace on Planet Z. A cutscene played out where Buzz flew in and landed on the floor while Zurg just simply rose up through the floor on a platform.
"Ah, Buzz Lightyear," Zurg said in his signature robotic voice while cocking his infamous ion blaster. "So we meet again, for the last time."
"Not today, Zurg!" Buzz retorted and powered up his iconic arm laser.
We then began our virtual fight. We were both experts at that game as we played it so much over the last few years, so our skills were just about even. After nearly a minute of ducking, dodging, blocking, and trading physical blows and firepower, I won the first round by knocking him off the stage.
"One down, Leon," I taunted. "Think you can keep up this time?"
"Don't get too cocky, Jess," he warned. "It's not over yet."
Our second round went about the same way as the first. Yeah, it was great being a true expert at a fighting video game, but when the person you're playing against was also an expert, it was really easy to get frustrated quite often, especially when your most powerful moves were easily blocked. But I was pretty sure Leon was feeling some of the same frustration that I was, so that gave me some comfort. Unfortunately, I lost that round after all the moves and blocks I did against his most powerful attacks, it was a simple laser to the face that got me.
"You were saying, Jess?" Leon said with a playful smirk on his face. My only reply to that was a growl through gritted teeth.
As we both won a round, there was a third one to determine the overall winner. We both were giving it our all and more that time around, looking for any chance to take advantage. Well, at least I was, anyway. I wasn't sure about Leon, but I was fairly certain it was the same with him.
And, obviously, with both of us so evenly skilled at that game, a victory would come at being more lucky than good. What else was expected?
Basically, it was literally as simple as Leon doing a jumping flip over me to line up a better laser shot while I got off one shot with my ion blaster. That one plasma bolt managed to hit the exact split second between him landing on his feet and putting up his guard. Not only that, it was a critical hit, which took down the rest of his health meter, and the entire upper half of his body with it. His smoking lower half, which was his legs and hips, remained standing for a few seconds before falling to the floor. For anyone who was probably a little squeamish, that game was as far from the ultra gore fest fighting games as you could get and had no blood and guts at all. It had mainly stylized and cartoonish violence and all the characters were based on their action figures.
As the words 'ZURG WINS' flashed on the screen and his trademark evil laugh blasted out of the speakers, both of us just stared at the screen for a few moments before I pumped my fist in the air three times while saying, "Yes!" to each one. Then, with a mischievous grin and in my best Zurg impression, I added, "So Buzz Lightyear, now you see that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb."
Leon gave me a really strange look. "Wow, going dark side much, Jess? Hope you don't become like that for real."
"Why?" I asked, my grin getting wider. "Scared?"
"Uh, yeah," he replied.
I laughed and gave him a few pats on the shoulder. "Hey, don't worry. I'm just playing around with you. You don't have to worry about me going all evil or anything. Anyway, great game."
"Yep," he said, and then added, "but you do know what this means, don't you? It means we're now at one a piece, and are now legally obligated to have a tiebreaker."
"Of course," I agreed. "It just won't happen tonight, though."
"Why?" he asked with a cocky grin of his own. "Scared?"
"Oh, please," I said while giving him a playful shove. "No, I kinda want to go home to get some last minute cramming in before the finals."
"Yeah, I hear you on that one. Just as well, though. You should count yourself lucky you didn't get your butt kicked again tonight."
"Oh,really?" I crossed my arms and glared into his eyes. "Okay, Mr. Hotshot, you think you're so all that and stuff, let's make this really interesting. We're gonna make actual bets on this one."
Leon raised an eyebrow. "Ooh, okay then. I'm game. What's your bet?"
I raised up my hand. "Hey, hold up there. Not so fast. I gotta keep you in suspense for a little longer. How about this, we come back here the day after our finals for the tiebreaker and we tell each other our bets then. Deal?"
He nodded. "Deal. Oh, this is gonna be good. I can't wait."
"So sure you'll win, are you?"
"I know I'll win."
"Don't bet on it."
"I thought that's what we were doing anyway."
"Oh, will you two just kiss and get it over with already?" Chance cut in as he walked up to us from behind. He had left ten minutes earlier to make an important phone call and so he wasn't around to be our lone spectator in the match.
"Yeah, yeah," Leon said, giving him a wave off with his hand. "Anyway, everyone ready to call it a night and go home?"
"Yep," I replied.
"Ditto," Chance joined in.
We started to leave the place, all of us still in high spirits after such a great night. If we didn't have to study for our finals for the following week, it probably still would had continued. It was really nice when those kind of nights happened even as they were getting rarer those days, especially over the last year.
The reason why was basically as simple as you could get. We weren't kids anymore. We were on the verge of becoming full adults, and would soon have adult responsibilities. Take myself, for example. Right around the time I turned sixteen, I seriously started thinking about my future. The three main questions I had were: what possible career path did I want to go with, where did I want to live if and when I decided it was time to move out, and, most importantly, how was I going to keep balancing out my two very different lives? I mean, that last one was hard enough as a teen, when all I really had to worry about was high school drama. As an adult, though? Yeah, it probably wouldn't take long for me to wish for the return of 'the good ole days'. Still, I was more than confident I'd figure it out. Countless of other supers before me did. My mother obviously did. How was my own life any different from theirs?
As for the other two questions? Well, the second one was easy to answer. I wasn't looking at moving out anytime soon. It was purely out of convenience, mainly the fact that there weren't very many places out there that had ready-made super rooms, a definite requirement in my case. Also, it was a little hard to start home shopping if you didn't have a job to support that.
And that perfectly led into my last question, my possible future career path. Well, my hope was getting an advanced degree for engineering. I hadn't seen that one coming, but I suppose it showed what a difference a single year could make. If that wasn't strange enough, it didn't even come close to where I wanted to work.
Ready for it? ATI.
Yes, that ATI.
So onto the obvious question. What the hell happened that made me want to willingly work there, of all places? Well, it wasn't like it had been a lifetime goal of following my dad into that career field. On the contrary, for three years after our first adventure, I was still extremely suspicious of ATI. I mean, yes, Randall Pine and his partner were dead, but who's to say he didn't have other people there who were still hidden and were just waiting for the perfect chance to finish the job. I even talked about my concerns to both Dad and Violet, but both of them assured me, or at least tried to, that everything there was now fine. Violet even told me that the day after that crazy night, she personally requested the NSA to investigate every single employee at ATI to see if any of them could had been possible hidden moles. Despite learning that two of them had falsified their resumes concerning past violent felonies, the NSA found no red flags or any evidence whatsoever which could had linked any current employee to Randall's plans.
Even with all of that, I still wasn't convinced. After all, the NSA failed to pay close attention to Buddy Pine's cousin, who changed his name and started a company in his garage which, after twenty years, had grown into a major corporation with a very dark secret that not even its own innocent employees knew about. So I wasn't ready to accept things were okay there. Still, I had no real reason to doubt anyone's word. After all, it was mainly Dad and Violet telling me those things, and both of them continued to work there even while knowing the real truth. If it were otherwise, then they would either try to change it or they could even had left the company altogether. On the other hand, there was the possibility of the "boiling frog syndrome", that they were there so long they were unable to see what was really happening. Violet herself admitted that somewhat that night. In short, I suppose it was a case of me still being affected by the events of that night and being worried about both of them.
Then, just over a year ago, right out of the blue, Violet and Dad both wanted to take me on a full afternoon tour of ATI's corporate campus, clearly an attempt to ease my concerns. To avoid some confusion, I should explain that ATI had two locations within the Metroville area: the corporate campus just outside of downtown, and the testing facility way out in Needlewood Hills. Most employees worked solely at one or the other, but Violet and Dad were among those who split time between the two.
Anyway, the tour was far more extensive, informative, and eye-opening than I expected. The few times I'd been there before, I wasn't allowed to go past the main lobby. However, Violet and Dad used their executive privileges to grant me special access to almost the entire complex. The corporate campus wasn't just for the higher-ups, but was also where many ideas were thought out and drawn up. The testing facility was where most of those ideas were built into reality and tested. It was truly an amazing experience to see the labs, workshops, and meeting areas where those ideas were born. Even more, I felt the real passion and enthusiasm radiating from most of the employees there. They truly loved their work, especially since ATI encouraged their employees to use their imaginations to think up new ideas and innovations. Whether or not that was secretly due to Randy's plans, I didn't know, but it did seem to have a very positive effect on the entire company as a result.
However, what really surprised me was how massive ATI's renowned humanitarian outreach and development program really was. I mean, I knew a little about it, but not the real size, scope and ambition. The goal was simple: to design, fund, and build advanced public works projects to greatly improve the quality of life both at home and abroad. For example, they were building and testing a vertical farm complex in Kansas, a new type of desalinization plant for the Middle East, a revolutionary solar power plant in the Australian Outback, and that was just a few of their current projects, not even mentioning what they had planned for the future. It was truly incredible work ATI was doing those days. Interestingly, all of it basically started just a few weeks after our night at the testing facility. Was it them already trying to make amends in some way, or just simple coincidence?
It was that moment that seemed to flip a switch inside me. Before I entered that place, it was just a tour to help alleviate my concerns over the last four years. After I left, I found myself willingly wanting to work there, specifically in the outreach and development program. It was like my path in life became totally clear, that I didn't have to be just a super in order to help people. Before I knew it, I was researching what classes I needed to take to get there, and what colleges offered the best of those classes. Amazingly, the college that I had already planned to attend, Metro Tech University, was among the best places which offered those classes, so it was all set. Of course, I could had just asked Dad and Violet, who both attended and got their degrees there, but it all still worked out. Lastly, there were talks of me possibly getting an internship there over the summer, but nothing was official yet.
So that was my life, but what about my friends? Leon and Chance were hoping to start up their own video game company in a few years. It had been a dream of theirs for a while, and they were just starting to get serious about it. They even asked if I wanted to be a part of it, and all I said was maybe. I was already set on working at ATI, but I didn't rule out working with them on the side. Could be fun. And Allison? She got a job over the summer as a sales associate for the communications giant DevTech and worked at their downtown office tower. She liked it enough, but didn't seem to want to make a career of it. It was mainly paying off for part of her own college tuition, and for her new car.
But right then, future plans were the last thing on my mind as Leon, Chance, and I left Pizza Planet through the "airlock", as they liked to call their main entry and exit doors. A pair of animatronic robots flanked the doors and held pizza tipped spears over the doors. When we approached, the robots pulled their spears back and said in a monotone voice, "You are cleared for departure. Please come again to Pizza Planet." It might had been cool to look at if you were seven years old, but at eighteen, I just found it tacky.
Now outside, we headed for Leon's car and he and Chance started to talk about what they wanted to get their parents and relatives for Christmas while I hung slightly back and started to think about my final exams. I had faith about passing them with ease, but that didn't stop me from being a little worried. I suppose even in college, the fear of school tests never fully went away.
Suddenly, just a few steps away from the restaurant, I stopped dead in my tracks as a very strange feeling completely swept over me at that moment. I couldn't explain it, but it was a very cold and unpleasant sensation. It actually made me shiver. I didn't know what caused it, but I knew it was bad.
"Hey, Jess, you okay?" Leon asked. He and Chance were at my side. "What's wrong?"
I thought about it for a few seconds before I replied, "I don't know. I just got a feeling all of a sudden. It's like...not right. Something's wrong."
"Do you know what it could be?" Chance asked.
I shook my head. "No, I don't. I just think something's happened. I better call home to check in."
"Good idea," Leon agreed.
I pulled out my cell phone and flipped it open only to see that the battery was drained. I groaned. Figured.
"Phone's dead," I said. "Either one of you have a quarter?"
"Yeah, here," Chance said as he reached into his pocket, pulled out a quarter, and handed it to me.
"Thanks," I told him and went over to a nearby set of pay phones. After putting the quarter in and dialing my home number, it rang a few times before someone picked up.
"Hello?" Mom answered.
"Hey, Mom, it's me," I said.
"Oh, hey, honey. What's up?"
"Is everything okay there?"
"Um, yeah, everything's fine here. Why? Is there something wrong?"
I wanted to ask a little more, but that would almost certainly go into super territory and I knew better than to do that on an unsecured phone and especially out in public, so I just replied. "I don't know, but it's probably nothing. It's been a long night and maybe I'm just tired. I'll be home soon and we can talk more then."
"Okay, I'll see you soon then."
We said our goodbyes and I hung up. I was relieved that nothing seemed to be wrong at home, but that strange feeling still persisted. I just couldn't figure out what else could be causing it. But if it really was my senses telling me that something was wrong, it wasn't like I could do anything about it. Leon, Chance, and I were done for the night, and our suits were back at home.
"Everything okay?" Leon asked.
I nodded. "Yeah. Let's go."
We got into his car and started to head home. It was about a fifteen minute drive from Pizza Planet to my place and most of it was done in silence except for some small talk between Leon and Chance. I almost certainly would had turned on the radio, if it was working. Unfortunately, it shorted out a few months ago and Leon had yet to replace it. It was just as well though. It had been a good night and I didn't want to drag it down by, for all I knew, was just a feeling.
About five minutes from home, we were passing by our local Dinoco gas station and convenience store. We went there countless times, mainly for gas but sometimes picked up their hot fast food which, for convenience store quality, was surprisingly edible. Also, unlike other places, their employees at least tried to make you feel welcome.
"Hey, hey, look at Dinoco!" Chance suddenly exclaimed.
Leon and I looked in that direction just in time to see two men completely covered in black clothing and wearing black ski masks jump out of an equally black car and rush to the entrance with guns in hand. It was clearly a robbery in progress.
"Oh shit," I cursed out loud.
It was an extremely rare thing to just stumble across a violent crime that was about to happen without any warning whatsoever. Even on our patrols over the last four years, I could count only three times that happened. That moment was the first time it happened just driving home.
"I'll pull into the strip mall and hopefully we can get the cops down here fast," Leon said.
There was a small strip mall directly across the street from the station. Unfortunately, because we didn't have our suits with us, we couldn't directly intervene, but that didn't mean we couldn't help out in some way. From that location, we could call the police as well as observe discreetly. Hopefully, we'd be able to get detailed descriptions of the robbers, their car, and especially their license plate number.
After pulling into a spot that mostly shielded from view but still allowed us to observe the station, Leon said, "Okay, Chance, go over to those phones and call. Jess and I will check it out."
"Gotcha," his younger brother acknowledged.
We all got out of the car and Chance went over to the nearby bank of phones to call while Leon and I made our way to a spot where we were well concealed but still had a great view of Dinoco. We could see the robbers inside with one of them holding up the two clerks while the other was harassing the few unfortunate customers who were there. One of them even had the nerve to punch a man in the face and then hold a gun to the back of his head when on the floor, a sight that had me cursing under my breath and my blood boiling.
"Damn," Leon said quietly beside me. "And here we are without our suits. This sucks."
"Tell me," I agreed.
"Can you see their plate number?" he asked.
I shook my head. "No, it's blocked by the pumps. Maybe when they pull out of there."
A few seconds later the robbers burst out of the doors and ran towards their car. I was still contemplating whether or not to go ahead and intervene by using our location to my advantage and launch a fireball at one of their tires while still being shielded from view. Even without a suit, I still felt like I had to do something, that I just couldn't sit by and watch criminals get away without trying to stop them. Brave? Yes. Dangerous? Of course. Reckless? Absolutely. Successful? That one remained to be seen.
Suddenly, whatever I was planning to do didn't matter anymore, because what happened in the next minute was among the most insane things I'd even seen.
The moment the robbers started to get back in the car, there was a bright flash just a few feet next to them. Standing in the spot of that flash was a figure wearing what I could describe was either a black or very dark hooded trench coat. I couldn't see much else due to the distance and location, but I instantly knew that I'd never seen anyone like that before.
"What the…? Who is that?" Leon whispered.
"No idea," I whispered back.
Just seconds after appearing, the unknown figure reached out with a gloved left hand, and the entire front of the car seemed to almost instantly implode on itself with a shrieking and crumpling of metal that was loud enough to be heard from our position. Sparks and steam erupted from what had been the engine compartment. The robbers reacted by pointing their weapons at the figure, but before they could fire, the super's right hand came out and the guns instantly flew from their hands and well out of their reach.
"Whoa," Leon said quietly and I nodded in agreement.
The action wasn't done yet. Either brave, suicidal, desperate, all of the above, or something else entirely, the robbers charged at the super. The super didn't move, but what looked like bright blue and purple energy started to appear around the hands and feet. The moment the two robbers got into range, the super lashed out with a blindingly fast palm to the chest of one of them. The energy around the hand burst out in a small explosion, and the guy was launched off his feet and slammed into the side of the car. The super instantly followed that with an equally fast roundhouse kick to the chest of the second robber, and he was sent flying as well into the car's side.
"Wow," I whispered, completely amazed by the power being shown by this super.
The super reached out once again with one hand, and the two robbers were lifted up into the air and squeezed against each other. Then the super held the other hand towards the station, and the nearby tire air hose was yanked from its pump. Then, seemingly on its own, the hose wrapped itself around the robbers and tied them together. After that, the super set them down right next to the station entrance and then moved the car, which at that point had caught fire at the front, away from the station and set it down on a nearby empty parking lot that was clear of any dangers. When all of that was done, the super took time to look around and did a wave to the clerks and people inside the station before disappearing in another flash of light.
For the next few seconds, Leon and I just stared at the location in shocked silence by what we'd seen. Leon then said. "Okay, we gotta find out who this super is."
"Absolutely," I agreed.
A few seconds later, Chance came back to us. In all of that time Leon and I were watching the action, I never even noticed that Chance hadn't been beside us during all of it, we were just that caught up in it.
"Okay, cops are on their way and...wha…" he stopped as he finally noticed the aftermath at Dinoco. "Okay, what the hell happened?"
"You didn't see all that?" I asked him.
"No, I was talking with the cops, giving them the location and info," he replied. "Seriously, what happened?"
"It was a super we've never seen before," Leon explained. "He just appeared out of nowhere and was wearing this hooded trench coat or something. He took them out with what I think were telekinetic powers, really powerful ones, too. It was really something to see, I can tell you that."
Chance seemed to be surveying the area for a few seconds before he started walking in that direction. "I want to take a closer look," he told us.
I looked over at Leon, who just shrugged and followed his brother. With a quick chuckle, I took up the rear. Admittedly, I was probably just as curious as Chance about this new super. I kept myself current with news about supers who operated in Metroville and the surrounding regions, and I hadn't heard of anyone matching what we saw. So, it was almost certainly a brand new super. So, that just left two questions. Who was this new super and where did this new super come from?
The three of us crossed the street and onto the parking lot of Dinoco. By that time, more people were appearing there, probably just as curious as we were about what had happened there. We were now close enough to hear the two robbers cursing and grunting as they were struggling to break free of their makeshift bindings. They weren't making any progress, though. The super had wrapped the hose so tightly around them that they may have had just enough slack to breathe and nothing else. It was really impressive considering it was done with nothing other than psychokinetic powers.
Chance, however, was much more interested in what was left of their car. At that point, it was on its roof in another parking lot adjacent to Dinoco and completely on fire. A couple of people tried to put it out with extinguishers, but it was too intense and they had to back off. We kept our distance just in case the car exploded. Still, we easily saw just how much damage was done to it by the super.
"Take a look at that front," Chance said. "Completely crushed flat width wise. You know how much power and force it'd take to do that, especially with the engine block there?"
"A lot, I bet," Leon answered.
"And then some. Whoever this new super is, he's immensely powerful."
It was then that we heard multiple sirens, distant as first but steadily getting louder as they were getting closer to us.
"Sounds like the cavalry's almost here," Leon said. "Come on, we should get going."
We left the scene and went back across the street towards Leon's car. We got in and pulled out just as a small number of police cruisers and fire engines arrived on site. Nothing like a little more excitement on what had already been a pretty good night.
The rest of the ride home was quiet with me spending that time going through things in my head I felt needed more work in preparation for the finals. I wasn't really looking forward to it. I wanted to relax and enjoy the rest of the night in peace and quiet. Dad even told me last week not to overdo it. Just be calm and take it easy and I'd ace the finals, he had told me. It was great advice, but it didn't stop me from wanting to put in a little extra work to make sure I did ace them.
Before I knew it, Leon had pulled up to the curbside of my home. He put the car in park and announced in an almost chauffeur like tone, "Thank you for choosing Harding Taxi Services for a nice and safe ride home, madame."
"The pleasure was all mine, monsieur," I replied in a way over-the-top and extremely fake French accent.
After a laugh from all three of us, Leon said, "Well, team, another great night for us. Good guys win, bad guys in jail. No one got hurt. A perfect score." He then held his hand out. I placed my own hand on top of his and Chance reached out from the back to place his on top of mine. "On the count of three. One...two...three."
"Go Triangle!" the three of us said together and pulled our hands back.
As I opened the door to get out, Chance said, "I'll see if I can find out any more info on our new mysterious super friend. If I learn anything, I'll let you know."
"Sounds good," I told him as I started to get out of the car. "Well, good night, guys, and I'll see you later."
"Night, Jess," Leon said.
"Later," Chance joined in.
I had just gotten out of the car and was starting to close the door when the front door of my house flew open and both of my parents rushed out. Dad ran towards our own family car with Mom right on his heels at first, but she quickly noticed me and came running over.
"Jessica, we need to get to the airport right now," she told me in a loud, very distressing tone of voice. "Come on."
"Why?" I asked, my own voice full of worry and concern. "What's going on?"
Mom lowered her head and took and took a few deep breaths to compose herself. She then put her hands on my shoulders and told me, "We heard on the news and from Nathan. It's Kyra and Brian. Their plane crashed."
It was at that moment that my world completely shattered. I instantly became so overwhelmed with total shock that my legs gave out and I collapsed to the ground. Plane crash? No, I couldn't believe it, didn't want to believe it. I kept trying to come up with excuses. Maybe it had been another plane. Maybe they missed their flight. Kyra and Brian couldn't be gone, not like that, not when they were going to have a very romantic vacation together in the Bahamas. But I knew. I knew even before I asked the questions that it had to do with their plane. Why else would we need to rush to the airport? And that strange feeling from earlier that I couldn't explain, it had to be that. I felt the moment of the crash but didn't know it until right then.
I couldn't deny it. It was their plane, and Kyra Wolverton, also known as Blazestone, my teacher, mentor, and great friend, was dead.
I knew my parents and Leon and Chance were around me and were speaking to me, even shaking me a little, but in my new state of immense shock and grief, I barely heard a word of what they were saying and didn't even really see them standing around me at all. My mind had completely shut down and I wasn't aware of anything except for three words which kept repeating over and over.
But as horrific as that was, it would only be the beginning.