Spacer Aside 240a
  | Asymmetry | Role-Playing | Villains & Vigilantes | The Revolution | Story So Far | Aside |





It had been a while since Talon last called Candi. Too long, probably, but other things had kind of gotten in the way.
    "Oh, hi," she answered with a distinct lack of enthusiasm when she realized who had called.
    "Hi. Uh, sorry I haven't called, but if you've been watching the TV you probably know why...."
    "Um, I have to go to Houston this week, but I was wondering if I could take you out to dinner before then?" he offered.
    "I suppose. Is tomorrow night okay?"
    "Yeah. Pick you up at seven?"
    "Why don't you come by and pick me up at the set?"
    "Okay. Sounds good. See you then." He hung up, puzzled by and a bit resentful of her coolness. It's not like he hadn't been BUSY, for pity's sake.
    Speaking of which, there was important Blood Board business to conduct; he called a meeting at the usual spot later that afternoon. The kids were all wearing black armbands, their mood a mix of elation at their recent success and grief for their friends. He took Stu aside before the meeting.
    "You did a good job there at the hospital," he told the older man seriously.
    "Thank you."
    "So, I'm giving you and Stan an award. You'll receive it at the meeting, just wanted you to know."
    "Thank you, sensei!"
    He looked Stu in the eyes. "Unfortunately, I think you should stop being a Blood Board, Stu."
    "But, sensei—" he protested.
    "Stu, you got kids," Talon pointed out. "I think if these past few weeks have taught us anything, it's that this is dangerous, and you've got a family. Now, the way I see this developing is that in the future, there's gonna be a steady stream of guys coming in and going out of the Blood Boards. So you'll be our first alumni member. You'll be a... in Japan they got this word, 'senpai.'"
    "What's that mean, sensei?"
    "It kinda translates to 'pioneer.' Somebody who goes before. You see it a lot in high schools, freshmen say it to seniors. Somebody who's been there, and can give them advice," he explained. "So I want you to be our first senpai. And we're gonna get an alumni network going, you know, as time goes on, to help the new kids."
    Stu looked uncertain, but nodded. "Okay, sensei. If you think that's best."
    "You're not gonna stop being a Blood Board," Talon assured him. "You're just gonna stop being an active Blood Board."
    "I'll be the Blood Board senpai?"
    "Can I keep the board?"
    Talon nodded firmly. "Yeah, it's yours." They returned to the main gathering. "Line up!" he barked. Their discipline had improved vastly since they'd begun training. "Men, congratulations on your recent victory. You did good. All of you did good. We lost some members, but we'll always remember them," he told them somberly.
    "I've got a couple of announcements to make, I'm going to start off with this... first, everyone performed incredibly the past couple days. But there's two people I want to single out for performance above and beyond the call of duty. Those who saved our brothers who were in the hospital, against incredible odds...." He signaled Dawn, who walked out and gave Stu and Stan the finely crafted kendo bokken he'd had made. "This is a special award, I don't know what to call you, I'll think of something later, for Stu and Stan for bravery and general butt-whuppin'." The rest of the group cheered enthusiastically.
    "I have another announcement," he got their attention back. "I've talked with Stu. We've agreed that he should become our first alumni member, our first senpai." He explained the word to them. "So from now on, Stu is Stu-senpai. So that means at this point we have seven vacancies. Now, I gotta go to Houston this week, Rick will be in charge while I'm gone. I want you to keep practicing, and I want you to start looking for potential new members. This does not include any former Blood Board members who are currently not members because they were stupid enough to join Manta Master etc. Their window is gone," he emphasized.
    "Presumably this doesn't include any of the Alley Cats, either?" Billy asked.
    "Right. No Alley Cats. Anybody you guys know, especially any relatives you can vouch for, we'll have tryouts when I get back. You made me proud this week," he told them.
    They cheered some more, and since the meeting seemed to be over broke out the alcohol Stu'd scored for them. Phoenix Talon didn't get bothered about it; they'd been warned not to drink and board, and a lecture seemed out of place, particularly given his own youthful experiences.
    The next day he showed up at the studio where they were filming Boston Common. He had dressed well but casually, with his bar-coded pass giving him access to the stage area as "John Astaverdia, Stunt Coordinator." No one gave him much notice; he watched Candi for a while as they did the last of her scenes. She wasn't bad, really.
    "Okay people, that's it, we're done for the day," the director announced, noticed Talon. "Oh, hi, John! How are you? We don't actually have any scenes for you today, you just coming down to check things out? The big fight scenes aren't for another couple weeks."
    "I was waitin' for Candi, actually," he nodded in her direction.
    "Oh, all right. Candi!"
    "Yeah, I see him. Hang on," she called back, came over still wearing her nurse's costume. "Hi. Have you had a chance to see the whole set yet?"
    "No, I haven't. Looks good," he nodded, glancing around.
    "Frank, why don't you give John a tour of everything while I go change out of costume?"
    "Sounds good," Talon agreed, although it didn't look like there was much to see.
    "Have you seen the virtual room yet?" Frank asked.
    "This is where we're gonna be filming all the superhero stuff, I understand you're gonna be stunt coordinator for all that?"
    "Yeah." He had the feeling that this guy didn't have the vaguest idea who he really was, which was all right with him. The room was a uniform green color.
    "So, we'll be superimposing images here for getting the flight sequences and all the rest of it. We actually have a scale model somewhere else, 1/1000 scale of the city area, we'll be filming that in order to provide the correct backdrop and everything, but the fights are gonna be in here essentially. Does this meet with what you're gonna need?"
    "I think so." He'd never done this before, after all.
    "And this is the hospital part of the set, over here we have the park area, these are the apartments through here, have you seen any of the script stuff for this?"
    "No, I haven't."
    "Here you go. Just go through and check it out, that's the rough plot synopses for the first couple of months worth of episodes."
    He flipped through, looking for the fight scenes. It looked like they were going to overlap the Techmaster stuff from the comic book and the animated series for the opening.
    "You can keep hold of that, no big deal. I mean, you've signed the confidentiality contracts?"
    They wandered a bit further until Candi showed up, having changed from her costume into a dazzling outfit several levels of formality higher than what her date was wearing.
    "Thanks a lot, Frank," she told the director.
    "Oh, no problem. Good to see you, John."
    "Nice to meet you," Phoenix Talon shook his hand. "Hey, hon. You look great. Where you wanna go?"
    "Oh, I don't know, it's up to you," she demurred.
    This, he sensed, was an important decision. "Top of the Hub?" He'd have to charge it.
    "That sounds fine," she smiled.
    One deathtrap avoided, anyway.
    When they got to the restaurant Candi commented, "You were on the news an awful lot lately. You spent all of Thursday and Friday stopping those vicious gang members?"
    "It was pretty hard. They got Rico and Toby."
    "I'm sorry to hear that. Your—your little boys did a good job over on my side of the river, the Cambridge area."
    "Yeah, we managed to get Tybalt, too. Son of a bitch," he added with feeling.
    "He was the one responsible for all of this?"
    "Yeah, he was the leader."
    "Then... this won't happen again, will it?" she asked worriedly.
    "Well, there's always another gang out there, always some idiots. Although I think y'know, if we got the Blood Boards it'll give people an alternative maybe, hopefully. So they won't have to go and join the Alley Cats."
    "You're looking to give them an outlet, to curb their violence?"
    "Channel, really. But y'know, give them a future, so they can get a job, and y'know, less dead-end." He noticed that she seemed to be warming up to him a bit; in hopes of continuing the thaw, he asked, "So, what've you been doing this week?"
    She talked for a while about the job and filming. From what she said, the show seemed to be going very well; it would be going on the air at the same time as all the other properties hit the public. He mentioned Peter in passing.
    "Oh, he's been great!"
    Talon looked surprised. "You met him? I didn't think he had anything to do with the soap."
    "He's connected to it, inasmuch as the Revolution's going to be showing up in it. As soon as they decided to take that track, he was all over it. Every day, it's like the guy's got boundless energy."
    "Yeah, he seems to be a big fan," Talon remarked warily.
    "He was really excited about it, he was very happy that I took the job."
    "Did he offer you the job?" His paranoia level ratcheted back up.
    "No!" She seemed a bit exasperated by his lack of grasp of how things worked.
    "Sorry, stupid question...."
    "He was just on the committee. He certainly likes you, though," she added.
    Oh really? "What'd he say?"
    "Well, I was seen in the papers with you, and so he asked me how that was going," she gave him a bit of a coy look, "and if I knew how lucky I was to be dating a superhero...." Definitely warming up.
    He changed the subject. "So, anyway. I gotta go down to Houston this week...."
    "Houston? What's in Houston?"
    "My old variant studies program, I went to University of Houston."
    "Oh, you're going back to school?"
    He shook his head. "I'm just going to see my advisor, I want him to take a look at Dawn."
    "Is something wrong with her?"
    "It's not what's wrong with her, we just need to know exactly what she can do, 'cause she's done some pretty amazing things."
    "I thought she just made things?"
    Just? "She made a building," he informed her. "Remember the Cadacus Project? Where we went for the party?"
    "You mean Caduceus?"
    "Hai. That place was pretty much trashed, and she just went over there one morning and put it back. They sent us a fruit basket."
    "Didn't you end up trashing that again with the...?"
    "Yeah, but that wasn't my fault. There's a scale, we learned about this in school, there's a scale of variant power, I'm just curious where she fits in. And also my bokken's busted, 'cause Tybalt shot it and it blew up, so...."
    "So you need a new one?"
    "Yeah. Buddy made my bokken, so I decided I'll ask him again. It's been a while, but he enjoyed making the first one. Long as I was down there, it made sense."
    "So, when are you due back?"
    "Week from tomorrow."
    "Why don't you come by my place after your plane lands?" she invited.
    "Sure, yeah. That sounds great."
    After further conversation, "And the guy they have playing you? Really nice guy. Not as cute as you," she added.
    "What's his name?"
    "Horace?" He gave her an incredulous look.
    Candi shook her head. "Yeah, I know. And the frightening thing is, that's his stage name. He won't tell us what his real name was, so the guys on the set have started calling him Azathoth."
    "Oh. Well, I'll have to meet him."
    "He's playing one of police officers, and the lady who's gonna be Needle, she's playing one of the pilots. Do you know that there's rumors flying around that there's a thing going on between her and Thunderbolt?" she added.
    Talon snorted dismissively. "Yeah, it's bullshit. You can't trust the papers, you just can't."
    She looked surprised. "Between Tao and Thunderbolt?"
    "The actress."
    "Well, this is something I hadn't heard. I thought there was a rumor going around about Needle and Thunderbolt, that's bullshit, but...."
    She nodded. "I heard that, too, but I assumed as much, after I met him on the island and stuff. I thought Thunderbolt had that thing going on with Scott's secretary, and Needle had that thing going on with that guy with wings?"
    Talon gave it some thought and shrugged. "You know, I don't know. I don't think Needle's going out with him.... Apparently Paul did get hit on last week by this supervillain. She caught him out at the old Irish lady's house. She stole some artwork, and—"
    "The old Irish lady stole some artwork?"
    "No, the old Irish lady's artwork got stolen."
    "Oh, okay. And the villain hit on him?"
    "That's what he kinda said. You have that, sometimes supervillains get obsessed with certain superheroes and kind of stalk them, it's very weird."
    "Really. That ever happen to you?" The cold front was moving back in, but he didn't notice.
    "Yeah, kinda, I'll tell you about it someday."
    "What's her name?"
    "Oh, it's not a her," he corrected.
    "Oh, that's fine," Candi relaxed. "You can tell me about it later."
    "I wouldn't mind so much if it was a her," he went on blithely. "Anyway, normal people don't become supervillains, I mean you really do have to have a screw loose."
    Now she seemed confused, still wary. "Okay.... So female supervillains kind of attract your attention, then?"
    "No, that's not what I meant." He wasn't sure where he'd taken the wrong turn, but she seemed to be hearing something other than what he was saying. "Female supervillains can be meaner some of the time, like Gretchen? She was the first supervillain we took on, she was a sorceress. She was like sacrificing shit down in the subways. That was nasty. Tried to bury us alive," he recalled.
    The issue of female supervillains having been put to rest, the remainder of the evening went pretty well. The next morning he and Dawn got ready to depart for Houston. Dawn had three suitcases; Phoenix Talon reminded himself that he was trying to discourage random matter generation on her part, and didn't say anything about overpacking. He left the numbers where they could be reached; Thunderbolt offered to check in on the Blood Boards for him, and then drove them over to Logan.
    Phoenix Talon was in plainclothes, but he had his costume and the remains of the bokken in his carry-on. He didn't want the baggage handlers playing with his plastique.
    "You're a Revolution member? Hold on a minute," the woman at the metal detector requested, got on the phone. "Yes, security? Just wanted to let you know that flight 217 down to Houston? We need to upgrade our security protocol. Thanks." Studies had proven that planes with superheroes on board were three times as likely to be the victim of a terrorist attack. Not to mention pterodactyls, air pirates, anomalous weather, dimensional portals....
    A few hours later, Phoenix Talon was reminiscing about his college days as the plane touched down, free of terrorists, pterodactyls, air pirates, etc.
    "You really did that?" Dawn asked dubiously.
    "Well, not on purpose...."
    The heat was ferocious after a Boston September. They rented a car, found their hotel, and Talon called Professor Kandel to let him know that they had arrived safely.
    "If you don't mind, I've told the current class that you're coming, hope you don't mind."
    "Oh. All right." Might be kind of fun to see how the new kids were shaping up. Then he called Buddy; they agreed to meet for dinner after the scientist got off work later that night.
    Villa Lobos was a college bar, full and noisy at nine thirty on a Saturday. There was a brief wait for a table; Dawn was hit on twice in fifteen minutes by men who correctly read their body language as saying "not together." Phoenix Talon glared at them, but was distracted by Buddy's arrival.
    "Dude!" He waved the other man over to where they were standing. Buddy was variant, although he looked normal enough, aside from a slightly larger than standard head. He was a foot shorter than Talon.
    "John, how are you?!"
    "How's it going?" They clasped hands enthusiastically, looked one another over for changes since they'd last met.
    "It's going good. So you're all over the news," Buddy grinned slyly. "You guys are getting to be famous."
    "Yeah, we are. This is my daughter, Dawn—it's a long story. Dawn, this is Buddy."
    "Buddy, nice to meet you," she smiled.
    "Dawn, pleasure. Daughter, huh?" He gave Talon a sidelong look. "What's her mom look like?"
    "She hasn't got one. Let's go in."
    Buddy looked around at the crowd. "Is it just me, or do the girls look an awful lot younger than they did a few years ago?"
    "Damn straight," John agreed.
    "So, whatcha been doing?" Buddy asked as they were seated.
    "Well, if you've been watching the news...."
    "Well, I saw you guys fight off Godzilla, and then there was stuff about how that wasn't really Godzilla, it was some guy named Toy Man?"
    "Yeah, this asshole has been doggin' our steps the past couple weeks. He locked me up in a scale model of a house, except I was like the equivalent of a GI Joe doll, like three and a half inches tall?"
    "I saw that, the videotape was on rotation. In fact you can get it through mail-order."
    "Son of a bitch," he muttered. "The little sleazeball made that video himself and sent it to the networks. I've got a pretty good guess on who it is," he added. "See, the city signed this deal with Agglomerated MegaCorp to turn us into a media product?"
    "I think this is part of the marketing campaign," Talon confided. "I don't know if they're consciously allying themselves with Toy Man, or if Toy Man is a spy within the department... I'm trying to find out. And when I do, trust me, I am gonna kick the guy's ass ten ways from Sunday."
    "You know, that sounds like you." Buddy grinned.
    "I went to Japan for a while last spring...."
    "Oh, you always wanted to do that, what was it like? I haven't made it any farther than Mexico..."
    "It was a very interesting experience. I met a lot of real ninjas."
    "...Well, other than that time on the moon."
    That gave Talon pause. "When did you go to the moon?"
    "I work for a NASA aerospace company, they've got a base up there. Had to do some work on zero-g metals. The moon is cool! So tell me about Japan," he prodded.
    "I met these ninjas, and it was good...."
    "You met ninjas?" He shook his head in apparent amazement. "You're like a walking comic book."
    "This from the guy who's been to the moon?"
    "I'm just upset they haven't sent me to Mars yet. They keep sending other engineers to Mars, have I made it to Mars yet? No. All the work I'm doing, that gets sent to Mars."
    "Hey, you're still young."
    "I have a lot of time within me before I have to go to Mars?" he suggested dryly.
    "Damn straight. Three margaritas," he ordered from the waitress.
    "I can have a margarita?" Dawn asked, startled. Rare were the times Talon didn't treat her like the teenager she appeared to be. No one even thought about carding her.
    "Just tonight."
    "So anyway—there were no ninjas on the moon—but the view...." Buddy sighed. Actually, Talon knew for a fact that there were ninjas on the moon. The depressing thing was that they weren't doing anything different from the things everyone else was doing on the moon. "So, I've been doing a lot of work—you would not believe the stuff that's going on on Mars," he added. "I can't tell you, 'cause I've got security clearance issues, but—all the experiments that people aren't allowed to do here? Mars," he declared flatly. "Weird!"
    "Sounds cool."
    "So you broke your sword? I can't believe you broke your sword. How long ago did I make that sword for you?"
    "It was like this. That sword has pulled my ass out of the fire more times than I can count."
    "Well, I'm glad to hear that."
    "This guy from the Host, Apollyon—"
    Buddy put down his drink. "You met Apollyon?! He's real?" The question echoed in one of those momentary lulls that can fall over public places. Then the band started up again.
    Talon nodded. "He directly told me that the bokken had 'a nice soul.'"
    "Whoah," he breathed, clearly overwhelmed.
    "Yeah, it was back in the spring, just when we were starting out."
    "Wow, man."
    "So what happened was last week, we've had this gang in Boston, called the Alley Cats, I've been tracking them down with my boys, the Blood Boards."
    "You have a gang?"
    "It's not a gang, they're like our assistants."
    "They're like your Baker Street Irregulars?"
    "Yeah. They were a gang, but they're not now. So anyway—"
    "Do you know what you want?" the waitress interrupted.
    "Yeah, the enchilada," he replied.
    Dawn turned and spoke to her in Spanish.
    "Si, si," the waitress nodded.
    Buddy was staring at her. "Yeah, I'll have the taco plate. Dawn, what did you just order?"
    "Well, I didn't like anything they had on the menu, so I asked them to make something specifically, assuming their chef is from this particular region in Mexico, it's a local dish." She smiled stunningly.
    "And their chef is from that region of Mexico?"
    "Oh, yes." Still smiling.
    Buddy seemed a trifle unnerved. "I'll have to try a bite of that."
    "Oh, sure, you're welcome to."
    I am not disturbed, Talon commanded himself. "So anyway, these guys were led by this guy Tybalt, he had guns. So I was chasing him through the Science Museum, and he turned," he mimed firing, "got a lucky shot, right in the middle of it."
    "And busted the bokken?"
    "Yeah. I was so pissed."
    "Do you still have it?"
    "Yeah, it's back at the hotel."
    Buddy nodded. "I have some ideas on a better one. Since you called, I've been doing some sketches."
    "Well, I really appreciate it, y'know."
    "Hey," he dismissed thanks. "Y'know. Just use my name more often, because then, y'know, people know that my engineering is top notch."
    "I think I told Apollyon who made it...."
    "You told...? Oh, man, dinner's on me!"
    Which was as it should be, since aerospace engineers make a lot more money than superheroes.
    When Dawn's dinner arrived, the chef was hovering anxiously behind the waitress. He spoke with her in rapid-fire Spanish, motioning her to eat. She took a bite, smiled. A further exchange, which Talon's vaguely remembered high-school classes could not come close to translating.
    "He's insisting on paying for your meal," the waitress informed him.
    "Okay...." He stood up and introduced himself. "Thank you very much, we appreciate that."
    "It's been so long since I heard the sounds of home," he explained, moist-eyed. "Thank you. Thank you."
    "'Heard the sounds of home?'" Buddy asked when he had gone.
    "Oh, he's from a very small village, they use a strange dialect there, it's not widely spoken. Just the accent thing."
    "Dawn, how did you learn how to speak with his accent?"
    "I just picked up Spanish from one of the guys in the Blood Boards," she shrugged. "I guess he's from the same area."
    "Oh. All right... quite a coincidence, though."
    "That's how I knew to ask for this particular meal."
    "Oh. All right, that makes sense," he decided in the face of the evidence. "Can I try some?"
    "Go ahead, sure."
    "Mm, that is good. Got a kick to it."
    "So tell me more about your dad, how's he doing now?" Talon tried to steer the conversation back toward more easily explicable topics.
    "Still the same, how's your mom?"
    "Not dead yet."
    "Pretty much what I expected. Dawn, did he ever tell you about the time his mom came down to visit? And you know how normal parents would get a hotel room nearby? She insisted on sleeping in the room."
    "Next," Talon suggested, rolling his eyes.
    "No, he didn't. I always liked his mom," Dawn admitted.
    "You did?" Buddy gave her an astonished look.
    "Yeah, fortunately that went well, it was kind of a minefield," Talon admitted.
    "I can see how it would be." Buddy politely didn't ask any of the obvious questions, but he was clearly aware of the oddities. He was a genius, after all. "I kind of regret not doing the whole superhero thing sometimes," he confessed later. "I mean, I've got the degree, and everything, but it just didn't seem right."
    "It's got its ups and downs," Talon judged. "The drawback is sometimes you feel like it's a fuckin' conveyor belt. Every fifteen seconds there's some other idiot who really wants to get his ass kicked by you coming up."
    "I feel that way about deadlines."
    "But at least you're doing something. I'm just beating people up."
    Buddy still looked wistful. "Well, y'know, if you guys ever need anything space-related, don't hesitate to call."
    "You should come up sometime. Boston's a great city, better than Houston."
    They spent a few more hours catching up. Phoenix Talon was subliminally aware that Dawn's mannerisms were already changing, her accent beginning to fit in. It worried him. Sometimes he wondered about the real Dawn.
    The next morning they drove over to campus and parked in the lot next to the new gym. The one they'd had to build right after he graduated. He was going to have to make a big donation one of these days. It went through his mind that if Dawn had been around then, she could have solved a lot of problems....
    It was all very familiar, of course. Kinda neat to be back, now that he'd "made it." Standing by the front door of the Variant Studies building was an extremely overmuscled young man in a skin-tight pullover and skin-tight shorts with a bandolier across his chest and a pair of swords worn across his back.
    "Morning," Talon nodded without giving him a second glance.
    "You Phoenix Talon?" the kid demanded.
    "I hear word tell around here you were some type of badass when you were a student."
    "Kinda. We got an appointment."
    "Oh. Well, why don't you just walk on through, then?" he suggested sarcastically.
    Talon did so; no point getting into it with some punk sophomore who wanted to prove himself. The kid didn't seem to know how to react to that; Dawn smiled and said hello in passing, and they went on up to Professor Kandel's office.
    "Did you see a wall with swords down by the door when you came in?" Talon asked when greetings had been exchanged.
    Kandel sighed and shook his head forbearingly. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, that's probably Rob, he's one of the students. Freshman."
    "Freshman? Oh, man." That explained it. "He kind of idolizes you but won't admit it. Y'know, ever since you started getting all the media coverage, and then there's the stories about what you used to be like when you were here, the drinking and the partying and the getting into fights with the other students...."
    "I wasn't really all that out of the ordinary," Talon objected, uncomfortable.
    "No, but you do have a certain cachet. You're one of the only ones who went into the Show. Or what do you guys call it, the Game?"
    "I don't, some people do."
    "And I have to tell you, the current crop of students, they're all raring to go into the Game. They're happy you're here, but you're probably going to catch some flak. You must be his ward?" he addressed Dawn.
    "Daughter," she corrected. Talon did the introductions. "So, what do you need me to do?" she asked.
    "Well, I understand John here's concerned about your power level."
    "Not really concerned, I'm just curious as to where it lies." He didn't want to give Dawn the wrong idea. Or maybe it was the right idea, he wasn't sure. "I was thinking we could put her through the battery you put all the freshmen through."
    "That's fine, no problem," he nodded.
    "I'm not afraid of anything," she stated calmly.
    "Well, why don't you just come through here," he led them into the lab next door. "This won't hurt at all, it's just a standard machine that we have to test the degree of bioaura and to judge from that the amount of raw power, to determine the base variant level."
    "Okay. All I have to do is stand in here?"
    "We hook a couple wires up to your skin, at the important energy nodes in your body. Hold on." He bustled about with electrodes for a few moments.
    Talon was reminded uncomfortably of the fact that his own power level had tested rather high, but he remained unable to overcome the mental barriers that had always prevented him from using his power to the fullest extent.
    Thanks, Mom.
    "It don't hurt a bit, hon," he assured Dawn.
    "Okay, and we're just going to turn the machine on...."
    The needle buried itself instantly.
    "Okay, I'm shutting the machine off...."
    "That's good, isn't it?" Talon asked.
    "Is that all right?" Dawn looked a bit worried.
    Kandel's brows flexed. "That's... that's fine. I have to say that's pretty impressive. I don't know that I've ever seen the machine do quite that," he admitted.
    "Ever?" Talon asked, startled.
    "Dawn, why don't you get a look at the campus?"
    "Yeah, hon, just give us a few minutes," her dad agreed.
    "You're going to talk about me behind my back, aren't you?"
    "That's okay, as long as you're honest about it," she smiled. "See you in a bit, Dad, I'm going to go talk to that cute guy by the front door."
    When she was gone Talon repeated, "Never? Granted, it apparently was off the scale..."
    "That puts her at a high epsilon scale," Kandel confirmed. "The machine's not really designed to measure anything accurately past that point." Largely because once you were at that point, there was no real point in taking measurements.
    "Remind me again what most of the members of the Host come out as?"
    "If we're gauging their abilities properly, from what we've seen the Host members are gammas."
    "This is kind of embarrassing, but I can never remember the scale. Epsilon's higher than gamma, isn't it?"
    "Two levels higher," Kandel informed him patiently.
    "She's a god, isn't she?" he realized with a sinking sensation.
    The professor shook his head. "No, that's not a term we like to use in the Variant Studies field. Um, she's merely a high epsilon. Can you give me a list of the abilities that she's displayed thus far?"
    That took a while.
    "I think you were wise to bring her down here," he decided. "I don't want to tell you I'm concerned...."
    "I am, I'm responsible for her!" Having everything made concrete like this made it easier to worry about it.
    "Well then I will tell you that I'm a little concerned. There aren't very many epsilon-class variants on record. Most of them have extraterrestrial or extradimensional origin."
    "That pretty much fits it." He launched into the story of her origins, daemonwhore, vampire and all. How when she'd awakened as the new her, she'd been lacking a few of the standard body parts (like a uterus) but later remedied that.
    "Have you had any contact with this Yasmina since these events?"
    "No, and I don't want any."
    Kandel sighed and rubbed his forehead. "In my expert opinion, Dawn is very clearly not human. She mimics humanity very well, but she is something else entirely," he said somberly. "I'd recommend sending her to here or any other university equipped to train someone like that, except that I don't feel there's anyone properly equipped to train her. Has she ever hurt anybody?" he asked intently.
    "She hurt me when she threw a car at me, but that was before she was her, really."
    "Once the transformation occurred, has she ever hurt anybody?"
    He thought back. "She came close in Japan a couple times."
    "But refrained from doing so?"
    "Yeah. She wanted to get involved in the war with the Alley Cats, but I headed that off. I didn't think it was a good idea, kind of for the reasons we're discussing now."
    "Do you think that she wanted to get involved because of a sense of loyalty, or because of a desire for violence?"
    "A sense of loyalty. I mean, she's going out with Rick."
    "She's dating?" He seemed a bit alarmed.
    "Yeah. I know the guy, he's a good kid. I wouldn't let it happen if I didn't think I could trust him. And I keep a close eye on 'em."
    Kandel sighed again. "John, you've let yourself fall into a very interesting situation, and I use 'interesting' in the proper Chinese sense of the term."
    "Interesting's a Chinese word?"
    "As your former advisor, I am advising you to be cautious," was the patient reply. "I don't know what the limits of her ability are. Most epsilon-class variants fall into a particular pattern of power level; whether they need to or not they focus on one particular thing. Dawn seems to have focused on creativity, which in and of itself is not a negative aspect, very far from it. If she had focused on obliteration, or even something like psionic abilities, that would be more worrisome to me. But it might do you some good to do some further checking into her origins. It certainly seems as if there was a large degree of mysticism in them."
    "Talking to someone who has some skill as a mystic might help you understand more."
    "See, we had a guy like that, his name was Chandler, Chandler Prentice."
    "I don't know the name."
    "He was kind of our Weird Shit advisor for a long time. He was the one who got Yasmina in the first place, and he always used to talk to us about this kind of things, but now he's gone. He and Lucky took off."
    "There was a few Shinto priests back in Japan, but they were real religious about it, I don't think it was too accurate."
    "I'm going to spend some time conferring with other experts in the field, see if I can't put together a program for you that might be helpful in figuring out exactly what Dawn is capable of. As long as you continue to give her strong moral guidance, I don't think we have any problems. Her power level is incredibly high; as long as she remains level-headed about using it, that's not a threat. It's the moment that she is no longer level-headed that the phrase 'duck and cover' might come to mind."
    "Yeah." Sobering news. Not a big shock, just a confirmation of things he'd suspected but tried not to think about.
    He headed out to look for her, and found a gathering of students on the quad; Dawn was right in the middle of a small crowd of people in costumes. The guy with two swords postured self-consciously. All of them were inordinately well-muscled, except for the lone woman, who had to have stretching powers if she could stand like that without breaking her own back.
    Phoenix Talon changed course and went for a walk; no reason not to let her socialize. He thought for a while about life, the universe, and the hydrogen bomb that seemed to be living in the room down the hall from him. When he returned they were all still there. The condition of the grass suggested that several of them had been showing off their powers. The groundskeepers of U of H had a heck of a job.
    "Dad!" she called, spotting him on the path.
    One of the young men stood up along with her. He was even more developed than most of them; his forehead had muscles. He also had gills on his neck.
    "How'd everything go?" she asked.
    "It was good, we had a good talk."
    "Good. This is Steven, he really wanted to meet you."
    "Steven, how you doing?"
    "I just wanted to ask you a favor—when you get back up to Boston, could you tell Needle thanks?"
    "Sure. Thanks for what?"
    "She let me put her down as a reference. She met me when she was up in Maine a little while ago, and I was able to use her as a reference, and that got me into here."
    "Oh. I remember her mentioning going up there. Yeah."
    "She mentioned me?"
    "Not you specifically, just the fact that she went up to Maine."
    "Oh. But it's really working out for me here, other than the code name problem...."
    "What's your code name?"
    "I don't have one yet," Steven maintained. "That's the problem. Although they keep calling me something."
    "Yeah!" one of the guys yelled. "Go ahead, tell 'em your code name! C'mon!"
    "I am not using that code name," he said firmly, glowering at his comrades over his shoulder.
    "But it's the perfect code name! You're superstrong and you swim, you can get up any river!"
    "I am not using—"
    "You're Spawn, man, you're Spawn!"
    "I'd like you to meet the rest of the guys from the University of Houston variant team," Steven sighed. "These are the guys."
    One of them stood up. "Yeah, our team name is the Image. I'm Wildcat. The guy with the swords on his back, that's Youngblood. That's Dragon, that's Stormwatch over there," he nodded at the woman. "Cyberforce isn't here, he's away visiting family. Apparently his toaster died or something like that."
    "Glad to meet you." He wondered if they were all on steroids, or what. I can use your damn pecs as a cheese slicer! And it was kind of a stupid name, but what the heck. Kids would be kids.
    "So, c'mon, you gotta tell us what it's like," Wildcat urged; the others clustered around Talon. "I mean, we're ready to go!"
    "Well, okay. You're enthusiastic, that's good." He tried to think of some pointers. "First off, pay attention in criminology class."
    "Oh, man, but that's boring!"
    Phoenix stood firm. "It's more important than it looks. Information tends to be much more important once you get out in the real world."
    Youngblood drew his swords; each had two blades. "I just like beatin' people up, man. I heard about what you were like when you were here, that's what you do, right?"
    "It's a fair amount, yeah, but first you have to find the guys you wanna beat up; that can be tougher than it seems. Like last week we were going after this guy Tybalt." He gave them the rundown on the gang leader's powers.
    "That'd be no problem, I'd just have Stormwatch tell me where he is," the kid shrugged.
    "What're Stormwatch's powers?"
    "I have moderate weather control, and I can sense the environment really really well," the woman explained. "I could feel you coming because you were displacing wind."
    "That might have helped, that's impressive," he judged. "But Tybalt was able to use any cat as a scout, and there's cats all over Boston—there was one in our fuckin' base."
    "All right, guys, remember that. No cats in the base," Wildcat noted.
    "So he had better information, he was able to tell where we were and avoid us, easier than we could find him. Now eventually he got stupid, and we were able to kick his ass, but it took longer, and there were some casualties among my boys, the Blood Boards."
    "You have your own gang?"
    "Yeah, he has his own gang, haven't you been paying attention?" Wildcat snapped.
    "Not a gang, not anymore anyway." He was already getting tired of saying it.
    "Oh, I have to let you know, I'm on the advance mailing lists for the comic book—can I have you sign it?"
    "Here." His body turned into inky oil and stretched across the quad, into a window. "Fortunately, it's still in its bag."
    Banzai, John "Phoenix Talon" Astaverdia, he wrote.
    "Great! Have you seen the artwork in this? You guys look so cool!"
    He flipped through, checking it out. Looked pretty much like the sketches. "Needle doesn't look anything like this," he noted. Pity, really.... "I mean, this is really ridiculous."
    "Ridiculous how?"
    "That's all I'm saying, Needle doesn't look like this. This looks like she has a torpedo rack on her chest. Also, concentrate on your base defenses," he added to the group a whole.
    "But if we just stay in the base the villains'll come to us eventually, right?"
    "Yeah, but in the meantime they'll rampage through half the city. You don't wanna do that. You want the base to be safe enough that you don't have to be tied down to it."
    "Are you taking notes on this?" Wildcat asked the rest of the group; Dragon nodded.
    Talon thought some more. "Whenever possible, get the aerial view, take the high ground. And when you hit 'em, hit 'em hard. Don't fool around."
    "No foolin' around. Right."
    That was all he could think of for the moment. "I'll be talking to Dr. Kandel's three o'clock."
    "That's us!"
    Well, who the hell else would it be? These kids certainly needed advice before they got the illusions beaten out of them in the real world.
    As the kids scattered, he took Dawn off to a private spot, the place he and his friends always went to drink beer and have Significant Emotional Moments. No one else was there.
    "Dr. Kandel says you're an epsilon."
    "That's high, isn't it?" she asked with a worried look.
    "That's more powerful than anybody else in the world, hon," he said gently. "Just about."
    "Oh." She was quiet.
    "You remember those guys from the Host? You're more powerful than them. You know Sergeant Master Stryker? You're more powerful than him."
    "Oh. So, you're saying I should be careful."
    "I don't know what I'm saying," he confessed. "On the one hand, yeah, I know, you could probably rearrange all of Boston if you wanted to, but on the other hand... y'know, you're my Dawn."
    "Aw, dad...."
    "So no matter what happens, you can always come to me. I don't know what the hell I'll do," he added honestly. "So, we can't just leave it at that, we're gonna, you know, look into more how you got your powers, how they work, find somebody who can help you to train them."
    "Any idea who?" she asked dubiously.
    "No. I wish Chandler was still here, 'cause he could talk about these things."
    "But... yeah. I know, that Silas Vandemar guy. No, I'm just kidding," she added immediately, seeing his look.

    Night in Boston, a half dozen figures crouched on a rooftop.
    "All right, yeah. They're definitely in there. Okay." Rick lowered the binoculars. "All right, there's about ten, twelve more of 'em in there. We ready to go? Stan, how you holding up?"
    "Feeling great!"
    "All right, on the signal. One, two—"
    The others screamed and charged.
    "Bastards." He sighed and followed them.
    The Blood Boards swooped in on the dilapidated building from all directions. Gunfire broke the night, but it did no good. The Boards had learned that if they flew very close to someone at high speed and did a sudden turn, the gravity field would throw the other guy across the room, and if they flew just past their head, it would lead to a sharp, momentary loss of blood pressure to the brain which rapidly led to unconsciousness.
    One Alley Cat jumped toward a window. Stan flew up behind him, grabbed hold and yanked back. The Cat flipped back and slammed into the ceiling, slid a few further feet and collapsed on the floor; Stan looked at his own hand, dumbfounded,
    "Whoah! Guys, maybe the boards make us stronger, or something?"
    "I don't know, could be something with the gravity fields."
    "We'll have to ask sensei about it when he shows up."
    "Yeah. All right!"
    "All right. How's everybody doing? We got 'em?" Rick asked.
    "We got fourteen men down, and we're all set."
    "Okay. Um, head out to the pay phone, make a call to the cops, everyone collect the bodies up here on the first floor. I figure they got maybe three, four more of these nests and we'll have nailed all of them. That's for Rico, you little bastards," he muttered, kicking one of their captives savagely.

| Top | Back to Main Narrative


© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson