Night City(2): The Funeral
Chapter One: "Resurrection"
Part One: "In Memory Most Fair..."
Fatal fascination with the seedy part of town
Walk down the street, and your head spins 'round
Don't be seen alone without your friends at night
Take a gun, or a knife, to the low-life.
-- The Police, "Low Life"
"Investigation continues into last week's terrorist attack and resulting explosion at the Vectronix Linear Dynamics Research Institute. Federal investigators are now attributing the attack to a subversive paramilitary organization calling itself Genocide. The death toll from the attack is now estimated at 23 people, most of whom were scientists working on the institute's Quantum Collimator project. Next on Nightline..."
"In KROQ news, funeral services for the remaining members of the paranormal group Vanguard will be held tomorrow. The services for the hero Michael Sargent were held by his family yesterday. Since the remaining members of Vanguard have no known family, their surviving teammate Modulator has arranged for their burial, which will take place tomorrow morning at Sturtevant Memorial Cemetary. For safety reasons, the City Manager has requested that the public not attend, and serveral members of the LAPD will be on hand to make sure things don't get out of hand. However, your K-Rock radio station has scored a limited number of passes to the funeral, and we'll be giving these out for the rest of the afternoon. There are seven superheroes being buried, so caller number seven will get two passes to the event..."
"Another body has been found in downtown LA with its skin removed, this time in the South-Central area. Police have not yet identified the body, the third such to be found in Los Angeles this year. Police deny that the gruesome killings are the work of a serial killer, saying that the area where this body was found is known for gang violence, and that the murderer probably merely imitated the style of the previous killings. Area civic leaders are attributing the deaths to the vigilante calling himself Beowulf, who is known for both his intolerance of drugs and his brutal methods of dealing with those he catches in the act of dealing them. Police have no suspects at this time."
"Tonight on Beyond Human: Embalming a God. How does one embalm a being whose skin is hard as stone, and whose blood is thicker than mashed potatoes? Burying Hercules, tonight on Beyond Human...."
After the Challenger went up with Stephen's best materials (and most of his research money), he was offered a job at Vectronix, where he would be working in their solid-state crystal development lab. Sure, the work was dull, and he was the lowest guy on the lab's totem pole, but he had access to the lab's computers, vac chamber, centrifuge, and the other high-tech toys he needed if he was ever to prove his theories and be more than a lab drone in a dead-end job. On his lunch hour, he would set up his projects and run them, rushing to get the experiment over before the hour was up (using the multibillion-dollar lab for personal projects was a serious no-no; he would surely be fired if he were caught, and would probably not be able to get another job in his field).
He's still not sure what happened next; the next day's newspapers mentioned something about a supervillain group breaking into the complex to steal some equipment from the lab next door. Whatever the villains' motives, they apparently decided to eliminate Stephen as a possible witness.
His experiment ruined, his money gone, his life destroyed, Stephen had nowhere to go. He tried to return to his apartment, but could not even walk up the stairs without crushing them beneath his massive weight.
Then, on a day-old newspaper warming a sleeping vagrant's huddled body, Stephen read the news of Vanguard's decimation, and at last he saw a glimmer of hope. Perhaps he could join the new group. He would have a home, maybe even some friends. Perhaps the scientists who seem to surround such organizations could find a way to help him return to humanity.
(Roscoe investigates the Vectronix accident)
Assuming your visit was on the up & up (as renowned author J. Roscoe McGrath), there would be a record of your presence there before the attack, as well as some sort of accounting for you after the attack. Unless you took pains to hide the fact you lived through it, you were counted among the 30+ survivors and sent home with a couple of band-aids on your scrapes, scratches and/or second-degree burns.
The FBI isn't releasing the gory details of their investigation, and Darlene (with whom you worked at the CIA Langley installation, filing papers and translating boring records of even more boring European bureaucrats) is as much in the dark about it as you.
"I don't know, Roscoe. The guys in Section 3 are trying to get the feds to turn over the info to them, but the feds are stonewalling saying it's a domestic problem. I figure somebody smells a promotion in it if they can solve the case and shut down whatever Genocide cell is responsible.
"Although it might not even be Genocide. Phil in Microwave Surveillance says he's picked up the feds talking talking about some new terrorist group, and he thinks that the Genocide story is just to keep the norms happy. If you find out anything, let me know."
Privately you wonder how long it will be before the Powers That Be find out what a horrendous security leak Darlene is, and give her the boot.
You spend the rest of the evening listening to the "ROQ Of The 90's" (alternative and post-punk music), speed-dialing trying to get a pass to the funeral. Around 3:30 in the morning, you wind up being caller 2, 3, 5, and 7. The DJ, Bob Alar, congratulates you on your persistence and asks you a couple of stupid questions. You are told to come by the studio the next morning and show your ID to claim the ticket.
Mcgrath hangs up the phone. Finally, it's about time I got that pass, I couldn't listen to any more of that new age bunk. Now that I have the pass should I even bother to use it? Maybe I should just watch the funeral on tv, it's bound to be on cnn or the superhero channel or something. After all, what do I know about the superhero biz, I can't even figure out how to fly without getting a bunch of bugs in my teeth. I need to start work on my next book, "Jack Blade slices back", I don't have time for this stuff. Hey Mcgrath are you crazy? You finally get the chance to show that you have the makings of a real hero but instead you want to go on with your life as a typical couch potatoe? Maybe your superiors at the cia were right: all you are cut out for is a desk job. All right, all right! I get the point. I just hope that the next time I get superpowers I get something that lets me shut off my conscience before it gives me a headache.
Emerald put down the paper in disgust. Vanguard, a priemier superhero team, devastated, and a disk jockey was giving away tickets to their funerals as if it were a circus or concert. She had never seen anything so disrespectful in her entire life.
She pushed herself away from the table, and walked into the dojang. A workout would do her some good, clear her mind from the terrible events of the past week. After bowing to the Korean and American flags hung against the wall, she began warming up, letting the evil days slip from her thoughts as she recited "hana . . . dool. . . set. . net"
She quickly worked her way through her stretching exercises, and moved on to practicing various kicks, punches and blocks. As she did, images of Genocide agents sprung unbidden to her mind. She stopped, suddenly angry with herself. This was no way to work out. Taking a deep breath, she began tungsen breathing exercises to return her mind to a proper framework.
The images returned as soon as she hit the showers. The murders of those good people lay bedded within her, and she could not shake them loose. After she had dressed, she returned to the kitchen to see Grandfather calmly reading the paper. Emerald murmered a good morning, and set about fixing breakfast.
"What plans have you for this day, granddaughter?" Sung Park asked, putting down the paper and pencil. The crossword-puzzle was two-thirds finished. Grandfather loved crossword puzzles.
Emerald kept her eyes on the cereal as she responded. "I'm supposed to be flying to New York to meet with Captin Marvelous of the Guardians. He was interested in my proposal when I talked to him on the phone, but wanted to meet face to face."
"That is well. The Guardians are most respected. If they agree to help you, your quest has improved chances of success."
"Yes, sir," Emerald sighed.
"What's the matter, child?"
"Did you read about what happened to Vanguard?"
Park nodded solemnly. "Yes."
"I can't stop thinking about it. That came so close to being me, you know. That time in Atlanta," Emerald said softly.
Park paused, as if weighing his words carefully. "You fought well. Do not blame yourself. Make use of what you learned from that encounter."
"Yes, Grandfather. That's just the problem. I've learned that Genocide will never stop the slaughter. I've learned that the police simply cannot handle them. How can I allow them free reign to oppose them in the political arena, when Vanguard's defeat leaves the city undefended?"
"Each must fight for freedom and justice in their own way," Park said, gently. "You have fought well with the sword. But as Genocide fights with the pen, so must someone. I... thought you had decided that should be you."
"I did," Emerald replied, slowly. "But that was before . . . this. I will still try to fight with a pen . . . but the city needs the sword now. I think . . . I think I must offer my sword to Modulator. If for no other reason, perhaps to let him know he is not alone."
Parks nods, but his brow creased with a frown. "In a world such as this one, there are many dangers. People such as Modulator face these dangers to protect those who cannot protect themselves. I was glad when you decided to fight with a pen rather than with a blade; you are the last of our family, and I would not wish to see you fall in battle as these others have. As the other did."
Grandfather sighed, and smiled a sad smile. "But you are like your parents. Your mother was a willfull child; she would ever follow her heart before she would hear my words. And your father... for all that he was an American, I am proud that you are so like him. I could never tell your mother...."
"Be careful, Granddaughter. But know that you make me proud. Which ever path you take, know this always."
She had to park her car blocks away. At the scent of blood they came: the curious, the maudlin, those feeling sympathy and those seeking to use the publicity to further causes of their own. They crowded the sidewalk and spilled onto the street, some carrying signs, some carrying candles, a few capitalists selling souveniers commemorating the Fall of Vanguard.
Emerald pushed through the throng, making her way up the steps to Vanguard's headquarters-estate, and pressed the buzzer at the gate.
"May I help you?" asked a female voice.
"I would like to speak to Modulator, please." Emerald replied.
"I'm sorry. Modulator isn't accepting visitors today. If you wish to leave a message, you may send it to . . . "
"I cannot send a message," Emerald interrupted. "I must speak with him personally, about a matter he may find of interest."
"Whom is calling?"
Emerald glanced around to be sure no one was listening. Little chance of anyone hearing above the sound of the chanting crowd. "My name is Emerald," she whispered into the mike. "I've served with several superhero groups. I am not here to only to express my condolences. Please ask him if he will see me."
The speaker was quiet for several moments. Emerald stood uneasily at the gate, as curious passersby stared.
A different voice replaced the first, that of an older woman: crisp, professional. "Please come in." With a click the glass doors swung open, and Emerald stepped through and walked towards the main entrance of the estate . . . .
The air in the lobby is cool and comfortable, a welcome relief from the baking heat of the afternoon LA sun. The door closes silently behind Soon Li, and her eyes adjust to the cool darkness in a few moments. The lobby is quiet, the glass doors and smooth hum of the air conditioning masking the noise from the street. On the walls are portaits from ages past: photographs of former members of Vanguard. They start with the Scarlet Avenger, the hero who formed the group in 1935, and progress like a timeline of Los Angeles' first superhero group.
First the Scarlet Avenger's compatriots: Dryad, the Atomic Man, Night Woman.... Moving down the wall, Emerald sees the heroes who survived World War 2: Doctor Neutron, Impervion, Quantum Man, Omega Ray, another portrait of Dryad.... The faces blur, heroes spanning decades of service to their city, their people. Finally, Emerald stops before the last series of portraits, the fallen heroes, their portraits draped with black felt: Blue Star, Trevor Castle, Hercules, Perseus Jones, Nemesis, Michael Sargent, the TK Kid, and finally Dryad, looking as young and innocent as she did when she joined the group in 1935. Of the last nine pictures, only Modulator's is not draped in black cloth, his chrome red armor gazing impassively at her from behind the glass.
"Emerald?" asks the voice she heard on the speaker outside. Soon Li turns from the protraits, and finds herself facing a blonde woman in her late 30's. She is wearing a white labcoat over a comfortable-looking grey dress, and her expression is friendly but professional. Her hands are in her pockets, and she doesn't offer to shake Soon Li's hand.
"I'm Dr. Redgrave, an associate of Modulator's. Follow me, please." The woman turns and heads past the front desk into the hallways of Vanguard's headquarters. Down a grey-carpeted hallway, past ceiling-tall potted palms, Emerald follows Dr. Redgrave until they reach a large office, its walls covered with books and its massive desk covered with piles of paperwork. Dr. Redgrave closes the door behind Emerald and gestures to a comfy leather-upholstered chair. She then sits behind the desk, takes a sip of her coffee (black, no sugar), and waits for Emerald to speak.
Prism (that's how he's starting to think of himself, he thinks ruefully) squats in his alley and reads the newspaper Red handed him earlier. Nice of the folks at the soup kitchen to hand out papers to the homeless. Red only went there for the food. No self-respecting bum would sleep in one of those flop-houses, Red said. Unless, of course, it was raining. Only a fool sleeps out in the rain, or so Red said. Prism wondered what it would be like to sleep in the rain, and rather looked forward to it.
Red was boss of the alley. The other bums deferred to him, and when Prism showed up Red was the one that made it clear who was in charge. Prism chuckled to himself. He could probably crush Red's head like an egg, but Red didn't care. All he had was this alley, and these men (and one woman, Crazy Alice, but no one told Alice what to do), and Prism wasn't about to take that away from him. When Red found out that he was still at the top of the pecking order, he seemed relieved. In the days since, Red had looked out for him, bringing him papers and blankets from the soup kitchen. After Prism pointed out he really didn't need the blankets, Red just brought him the newspapers.
As he read about the funeral tomorrow for Vanguard, Prism thought of the other inhabitants of his alley. They were all the same, in a way. Screwed over by life, the driftwood of the city, washed up into this urine-soaked tidal pool, forgotten and unloved. Red, Crazy Alice, Bob, Old Ray... he wondered about Old Ray. The others were all crazy, in their way, but Old Ray seemed the most far gone. He would babble in his sleep, and once he stood in front of Prism raving about being "one of them." Whether Prism or Old Ray was "one of them," he didn't know. Maybe they both were. Eventually Old Ray returned to his cardboard box, clutching his bottle and mumbling to himself. Later, Prism saw him pointing at the sky, mumbling "shoom... shoom... shoom..." Poor old guy.
Then Prism saw his hand, his crystal hand, holding the paper, and a mixture of rage and despair filled him. As bad as the rest were, at least they were human, not some deformed monstrosity. He crumpled the paper and threw it aside. No tears came, of course: he'd learned that quickly enough. Even the solace of tears had been denied him when he was transformed into this monster's body.
Recovering from his fit of despair, Prism retrieved his paper and looked for the time and place of the funeral, and a plan began to form....
Beowulf is most distressed at the slander of his name and the death of the group Vanguard. The only bright side is that, with the membership call, he might find some allies and much-needed support. But will they take him, with his murderous rep?
Emerald sat quietly in the chair, taking in her surroundings while her mind focuses on what to say. She gazed silently at Dr. Redgrave for a few moments. The woman was obviously making an effort to control her inner emotions. Her face, although composed and calm, was showing a certain strain in the eyes, and the corners of her mouth. Exactly what Redgrave was feeling, Emerald couldn't be certain. Grief, undoubtedly. Anger, possibly.
"I would like to speak to Modulator himself," Emerald said. She knew she was going to have to tread carefully.
"I'm sorry, but Modulator is unavailable. You said you weren't here only to express condolences. May I ask why are you here?"
"I have something for him."
Dr. Redgrave put her elbows on the arms of her chair and gazed at Emerald above her steepled fingers. "I believe I've heard of you. You're a martial artist, correct?"
At Emerald's nod, Redgrave went on, "It's very kind of you to stop by -- I apologize for the crowd outside. I'm sure they'll find something else to entertain them soon enough." Dr. Redgrave raises an eyebrow at the obvious discomfort of the younger woman. "Modulator will probably not be available for the rest of the day. You may give whatever you have to me, if you like."
"It is not my intention to intrude on his grief," Emerald replied, smiling slightly. "It is, however, my intention to offer him an alternative to it. Give Modulator this, with my regards. She reached into her bag, and pulled out a sheathed wakizashi, and placed it on the desk. "There is a companion to this blade. If Modulator has need of it, send this blade to Lee's Oriental Grocery, in Chinatown. I will receive the message, and return."
Emerald rose to her feet, and bowed to Dr. Redgrave, and turned to walk out of the room.
"Miss." Dr. Redgrave's voice was firm, authoritative. Emerald stopped almost before she realized it. Cursing herself silently for responding so instinctively, she slowly turned to face the still-seated woman.
Dr. Redgrave's expressioned softened a bit. "I don't mean to treat you badly, but Modulator really isn't available. I'm sure he'll be very pleased when he learns of your offer of assistance." Looking at the small sword, she frowns a bit. "I'm certain that you have more use for this than he does. We know where to reach you, now, there's no need to leave your weapon here."
Opening a drawer of her desk, she pulled out two slips of pink paper. She stood and offered these and the wakizashi to Emerald, who was still standing with one hand on the doorknob. "These are passes to the funeral tomorrow. If you would attend, I'm sure it would mean a lot to Modulator, and to the rest of the staff here. Afterward, he is meeting here with several other people who have offered us their services; that would give you an oportunity to speak with him in person. I'm sure that he would like to speak to you."
Emerald accepted the pass and her blade gravely, and bowed. "Thank-you, Dr. Redgrave. I am honored. I will certainly attend." Not knowing what else to say, Emerald turned back towards the door.
Emerald sheilded her hands from the bright sun as she stepped back onto the street. She turned to walk to the bus stop for the trip home, when suddenly something was thrust into her face.
"Connie Peking, Live Action News! Miss, you just came out of the Headquarters of the defeated superhero group, Vanguard! Can you tell us anything about the sole surviving member, Modulator? How is he handling the loss of so many superheroes."
Emerald's first instinct was to hide her face from the reporters. She had protected her Secret Identity for so many years without thought. Now that she was abandoning her plans to go into politics, she would need to protect it again. Something stopped her, and it took her a moment to realize what it was. Anger. A slow burning anger at the fools who thought so little of the lives spent to preserve their freedoms.
Her hands itched to grab the mike from the ignorant woman, and shove it down her throat.
Suddenly, Emerald laughed aloud. The crowd of people quieted and took a step back at the unexpected sound. Sternly looking the reporter in the eye, Emerald replied, "I did not see Modulator. Show the man some respect, and stop hovering about his house like a vulture." Emerald watched in satisfaction as the woman's expression quickly turned to indignation. "Well, why are you here, then. No one has gone out of that house since Vanguard was destroyed. Are you a superhero?"
Emerald smiled. "I am a human being. So is Modulator. Why can't you treat him like one?" She pushed her way thorugh the crowd. The reporter and her crew shouted a few more questions at her, but Emerald ignored them, and quickly walked away.
Grandfather was waiting for her when she returned home. He sat in the living room, watching television as she quietly hung up her things, and walked into the kitchen.
"I saw you on television today, Soon Li."
"Yes, sir." Emerald rummaged through the refridgerator, and pulled out a Mountain Dew.
"I had thought you were going to be more . . . discrete."
Emerald popped the tab and took a quick swallow. "I know, Grandfather. But I don't like sneaking in and out of places, like a thief in the night."
"There is a possiblity your face will be remembered."
"I know, Grandfather. Are you angry with me?"
Park sighed. "No, child. But I worry about you taking unecessary risks."
Emerald grinned, and sat in a chair next to Park. She took his gnarled hand in hers. "I'll try and be more careful. I promise."
"Don't make promises you can't keep, Granddaugher," Park smiled. "How did your meeting with Modulator go?"
"I didn't see him in person," Emerald replied, taking another chug of her soda. "I've been given an invitation to the funerals tommorrow, and invited to a meeting afterwards. I'll go in costume, of course."
Park nodded. "Well done. By the way, Jess called. He wanted you to know he's off the stakeout."
Emerald leaped off the chair, and hurried to her bedroom. "I've got to call him, thanks Grandfather!"
"Extension 608," a strong, masculine voice replied when Emerald dialed the number.
"Li! Glad you called. We made the bust this morning. I'm off tommorrow. What do you say we take a trip to the beach or something?"
"I can't tommorrow. I have an appointment. But I can go Thursday."
"Damn. I have to work Thursday. Can't you reschedule?"
"No, Jess, I can't." Emerald flushed. Damn. "I've GOT to make this appointment. Top priority."
"You'd think the State Department could find another translator in a town like this," Jess complained. Emerald said nothing. "OK, girl. How about Saturday, then?"
"All right. And I'll make you my sweet and sour special to make it up to you," Emerald replied, relieved.
"That makes it almost worth it," Jess replied, chuckling. "Gotta run, love. See you then!"
"Bye." Emerald hung up the phone.
Carlos is hanging from the lintel of the door in his "gym" doing finger pull-ups when Luz comes bopping down the stairs to the basement. "Ooh, Carlito! You look so macho doing that. You gonna be a real jock?" She grins up at him, a large parcel under her arm.
Carlos turns his head a little, but just grunts out, "Hey, Luz." As he finishes his set, he drops down to the floor. Luz looks down at him across their four-inch height differential.
"Go back up! You're cuter when you're tall."
Carlos gives a hint of a good-natured smile. "Hey, fuck you."
Luz gives him a predatory grin. "No thanks. I got someone already."
"No kidding." Luz punches him in the shoulder.
"Hey, got some muscles there, Mr. pole vaulter. If only you had some height and weight."
Luz wrinkles her nose as she looks around the basement room. "Phew! You gotta get some air freshener, primo. It is cool down here, though. It's damn hot upstairs." She shifts uneasily. She looks at a blank spot on the poster-infested "wall" of plyboard.
"Hey! You took down the picture of the plant girl. Howcum?"
"She's dead! I din't think it was right."
"Uh, yeah. You can lust over her pinup when she is alive, but not dead."
"I don't tell you whose palo to..."
Luz interrupts quickly,"What happened to TK kid?"
Carlos nods his head towards the wastebasket. Visible on top of the other junk is a crumpled picture of the TK kid. It appears to have many, many dart holes in it.
"It din't seem funny now. I never thought they'd die. They were like the Raiders or somethin', the local team. How they gonna die? There has to be a team to protect LA."
"Now you brung it up, I brought you something." Luz opens the parcel and pulls out a long "suit" of some sort of thick spandex. "Happy birthday! Early. Never say I din't do nothing for you." Her eyes shine with pride as she drapes it across the weight bench. It's royal blue with gold lightning on it. "I used your favorite colors." It looks sturdy, although it is obviously homemade. Carlos rolls his eyes.
"You think I'm gonna wear something like that out at night and fight the entregado cabrones? Yeah, right! They see me in that....suit and they think I'm a G.I.Joe action figure! No way am I gonna look like some kid playin' pajama police."
Luz gives him a hurt look. "What? I'm gonna clean up all of East Los Angeles? And lightning? I can't do lightning or run fast or nothin'! I shrink down!"
Luz' eyes tear up a bit, but Carlos doesn't seem to notice. Luz turns her head away so he can't see. "Carlos, I worked for months on this. You know me. Have I ever worked for months on something?"
"Hell, you don't work for months on the same boyfriend, even!"
Luz reddens. "No me friegues, pendejo! I'll go to mi padre, tell him that you are the one who keeps messing around at school, making El Espectro to pick on the creeps. He'll have to tell his brother, and your dad will kick your ass."
"You DO that," snaps Carlos. "I tell your dad how you go out the window on weekends. He'll do worse to you!"
"Mierda! Carlos, just listen. Why do you have these powers? You told me yourself when I caught you that you thought that Madre de Dios saved you! So howcum you still can do this? There must be something else you have to do."
"Right! First you try to blackmail me, now you make me feel guilty!"
"Answer the fuckin' question! Howcum you still got these powers?"
"I dunno. Maybe it just happened. Maybe it wasn't anything. Maybe it was a reward for being good."
"So you can mess around, making the crummy teachers look bad? Wha happened to all those big morals you had? You even told me the story of, I don' remember, Batman, Spiderman, one of those guys. 'With power comes responsibility.' you said! That must have been you telling me about what I should do! God forbid you listen to yourself!"
"Hey, I dunno. Look, I'll see your costume and try it on, ok?"
"You better, cabron. I did research for this. The head's perfect! Just look!" The headpiece includes a mask that covers the eyes, nose and chin, but stops at the forehead. Luz waves at it. "The books say that the chin is the most recognizable part of your face, the eyes and nose're second. This has padding to change the shape, and it'll change your voice. Carlos holds the mask over his mouth. (muffled) "You're right. How the hell am I gonna talk through this thing?"
"You'll do what any hero does: you talk loud and clear, sorta commanding."
Luz hides a smile as the implication of his last sentence hits her. "The top is open to let you cool off and sweat. You're gonna hafta change your hair when you put on the costume. Maybe some dip?"
"Oh yeah, I'll really be a chulo, then! Still, I could kick ass." Carlos stiffens for a moment, as if seeing something. "Maybe I just think about it, huh?"
The crowds around the cemetery tied up traffics for miles around. On a hot, muggy day, Emerald was actually glad she had no car. She was making better time walking than she would have if she had driven, or taken the bus. Several blocks away, she found a place to hide, and stripped away her street clothes to reveal the green ninja suit beneath. She pulled the hood and mask over her head, concealing her identity. She tucked the bag with her clothes safely away, and slung her katana over her shoulder, and resumed her walk to the cemetery.
The crowds got worse, the closer she got. The police had cordoned off several streets to keep the worst of the rubber neckers out of the way, but quite a crowd had gathered around the entrance to Sturtevant Memorial Cemetary. Some of the crowd appeared to be the merely curious. However, a sizable number of people were carrying signs reading things such as
VANGUARD: WE'RE GLAD YOU'RE DEAD!
DOWN WITH "SUPERS"
YOU SAY PARANORMAL, I SAY ABNORMAL!
Emerald scowled as she read the signs, then sighed. It was classic. Every society seemed to need it's scapegoat, some group to hate in order to feel good about themselves. In Germany it was the Jews, in Communist countries it was the intellectuals and the rich. Here in America it was anybody who wasn't white, Anglo-Saxon, and Prostestant. In her home country of Korea, it was anyone who wasn't pureblood Korean. Now the scapegoat everyone seemed to agree on were those with unusual, spectacular Gifts, such as Flight, or the ability to project energy blasts, or extraordinary reflexes. But when you got right down to it, you could contrive a reason to hate anybody, if you were just looking for something to hate.
Emerald quietly showed her pass to the strained looking ushers at the gate, and went inside the cemetery itself. A steady stream of well dressed people made their way towards a plot well inside the cemetery's boundries. An occassional limosuiene passed by on the narrow road.
Emerald's eyes widened in surprise at the sheer number of people gathered around the cluster of graves. Most of them appeared appropriately sober, but there were quite a few people around who seemed to be simply gawkers. Emerald remembered the disk jockey's passes, and clenched her teeth in anger. She decided to keep a low profile. She noted several other costumed supers in the crowd, but didn't recognize any of them.
After another fifteen minutes, another limosuiene pulled up. The door opened, and a man in red armor stepped out, accompanied by Dr. Redgrave dressed in black. A black armband was tied around his arm. Emerald couldn't see his face. A minister stepped forward out of the crowd as Modulator and Redgrave took their places, and began the service.
Emerald kept her eyes on the crowd as the service began. She was beginning to have an uneasy feeling. Suddenly, she noticed a young man, casually dressed, holding a red balloon. He began making his way forward in the crowd, towards where Modulator was standing. Emerald quickly slipped through the mass of people. As the young man pulled his arm back into a throwing position, Emerald reached out a hand, and grabbed the man's wrist on a pressure point. He gasped with pain, but did not drop the balloon. He turned towards Emerald, a look of venom in his eyes. She returned the gaze calmly, and whispered, "Drop it now, and leave at once. Try to start any trouble here, and I'll personally break both of your arms."
"You've got no right," the young man sputtered. "You're not a cop. You're just another costumed freak." A few neighboring heads turned to look, then turned away. Emerald caught a glimpse of more than one smile through her peripheral vision as the crowd ignored the troublemaker's plight.
"I've got all the right I need to crush your hand if you don't stop what you're doing," Emerald responded, her voice dangerously quiet. "You shall not dishonor this ceremony."
The man dropped the balloon, and began making his way back towards the gate. Emerald followed him to the edge of the crowd and watched to make sure he didn't double back, then turned her attention back towards the funeral . . . .
Prism watches with a sour expression, matching the sour feeling in . . . well, what once was his stomach. Jesus Christ, why can't people just leave each other alone? So what if they didn't look like you; they're still dead. Give 'em a little respect. The unspoken, unthought corollary: Give me a little respect. With a silent sigh, he turns away from the scene, finding only a small measure of satisfaction in the oriental woman's quiet effiency in sending the idiot away.
As Prism scans the crowd, looking for Modulator to arrive, he notices a man in a business suit looking at him. Sure, stare at the freak, he thought. But this man wasn't staring, exactly. It was as if the man was trying to remember where he had seen Prism before. For a minute Prism panicked, thinking someone had recognized this monstrosity as Stephen Aquillon. But it did seem that Prism knew this man, though he didn't remember ever meeting him before. The feeling grew as he looked at him, a serious sense of deja-vu.
After a few seconds, the other man shakes his head and blinks, seeming to shrug off whatever illusion of recognition had possessed him.
David trudged home from his warehouse job, walking through the door around 6:30 AM. He set up the VCR to tape the Vanguard funeral (live on CNN), chugged down a V8, and watched the sun come up as he got ready to go to bed. A loud knock at the door disturbed his reverie, and he walked over and looked through the peephole. He saw a short, balding man somewhat resembling John Lovitz -- his mentor and Aikido instructor, Ron Fry. David opened the door, and the older man looked at Dave's blue jumpsuit with the nametag on the chest saying "Dave."
"You're wearing that?" Ron asked, his slightly nasal voice sounding more annoyed than usual.
"What?" David said.
"That, the jumpsuit. You're wearing a jumpsuit that says "Dave" to a funeral?"
"What?" David said. David noticed that Ron was wearing a black tux, rather than the jeans and Hawaiian shirt he usually wore.
"Don't tell me you weren't planning on going. Don't tell me you were going to pass up the best chance this decade to schmooze with other superheroes. Don't tell me you were just going to stay home and watch it on TV." Ron rolled his eyes and gave the ceiling a "what would they do without me" look, and walked into David's apartment and closed the door behind him.
"Lucky for you I picked up an extra tuxedo. You're what, a 42? Well, I got you a 42, so today you're a 42." Ron handed a garment bag to David, and pushed him back toward his bedroom. "Go ahead and get dressed. We don't have all day, you know, and traffic will be hell as it is. Go on, now, go."
David got changed.
"I'm amazed they sent me an invitation at all," Ron was saying as he drove the Hyundai through a gap in traffic almost too small for it. "When I was Captain Paragon's sidekick, I never got any respect from the other superheroes. We sidekicks risked our lives just as much as the 'real' superheroes, but did we ever get statues erected to us? Did we get action figures and comic books about us? No. Bob got a royalty check from Action Comics every month for doing nothing, and I wound up doing supermarket openings to make ends meet. Sidekicks got crapped on, and no one took us seriously. Not the other supers, and certainly not the villains. I'll never forget the expression on Dr. Vivisecter's face when I flipped him into the arms of his pet necrobot. He wet his pants; I started calling him Dr. Sphincter after that." Ron winked at David with a wicked grin. "Of course, Bob gave me shit about that, too. Didn't even thank me for it, just bitched at me for 'behavior unbecoming a superhero.' Asshole."
"It was nice of them to remember me, though," he said, the bitterness fading from his tone. "When Bob got killed, I was crushed. I mean, he could be a real shit sometimes, and we quarrelled a lot, and there was that time I walked out when he tried to keep me from coming along when he went after the Dennio gang, but when he died it was like my life was over. Bob was about the only family I had, you know? He was an asshole, but I loved him. We argued like a married couple, but Bob was the best friend I ever had." With a deft turn of his wrist, the car dove past a 18-wheeler and tucked into the space between it and an icecream truck.
"Anyway, when he got killed, I was crushed, and Dryad came and stayed with me for a while while I got over it. Nothing sexual -- though that would have been great, of course -- but still it was pretty amazing. Here was this girl I grew up fantasizing about, and here she was comforting me, some kid who wasn't even a real superhero, just a sidekick. I'm probably still alive because of Dryad." Ron spares a glance for David. "Don't tell anyone that."
"Anyway, I guess somebody remembered, because I got the passes by FedEx yesterday. Hard to believe Dryad's gone. You know she was a founding member of the group? Girl could have been a thousand years old, as far as I know, but you'd never know it to look at her. Or even to talk to her, really. I had a crush on her from about the time I was ten. I guess a lot of guys did."
He drove in silence for a while, zigging and zagging through the 85mph traffic on I-5.
"There used to be a lot of sidekicks. You don't see them much anymore. It's too bad, really. I pulled Bob's fat out of the fire more than once. Of course, I got him in the fire just as often, so I guess it all balances out." Ron sighed. "Things are so different now. When Bob got killed, man, that was a tragedy. There were candlelight vigils all across the country. The President gave him a Medal of Honor (of course, what did I get? Bupkis, that's what.) But now look at this shit."
The crowds around the cemetery tied up traffics for miles around. The day was turning hot and uncharacteristically muggy. Several blocks away, Ron found a place to park, and he and David got out to walk the last few blocks. Ron glanced around nervously as he locked up the car. "I hope the car will be okay here. Some of these people are nutcases."
The crowds got worse, the closer they got. The police had cordoned off several streets to keep the worst of the rubber neckers out of the way, but quite a crowd had gathered around the entrance to Sturtevant Memorial Cemetary. Some of the crowd appeared to be the merely curious. However, a sizable number of people were carrying signs reading things such as
VANGUARD: GOOD RIDDANCE!
NORMAL PEOPLE HAVE RIGHTS, TOO!
JESUS WAS A HUMAN BEING!
Ron scowled as he read the signs. "Zipperheads. Who do they think is keeping people like Oberon from squishing their little pink bodies into paste?" He spat at the sidewalk and continued threading his way throug the crowd. Ron quietly showed his passes to the strained looking policemen at the gate, and David and Ron went inside the cemetery itself. A steady stream of well dressed people made their way towards a plot well inside the cemetery's boundries. An occassional limosine passed by on the narrow road. "I didn't know we could park in here. You think I should get my car? Nah, we might miss something. I guess it'll be alright out there. I hope it'll be alright."
David's eyes widened in surprise at the sheer number of people gathered around the cluster of graves. Most of them appeared appropriately sober, but there were quite a few people around who seemed to be simply gawkers. David remembered the disk jockey's passes, and felt anger at the inappropriateness of it all. He noted several other costumed supers in the crowd, but didn't recognize any of them. Ron apparently did, but he was too busy looking for Modulator to put names to the paranormal faces around them.
After another fifteen minutes, another limousine pulled up. The door opened, and a man in red armor stepped out, accompanied by a blonde woman dressed in black. A black armband was tied around his arm. David couldn't see his face. A minister stepped forward out of the crowd as Modulator and the woman took their places, and began the service.
At the front gate of the cemetery, a couple of strained-looking policemen were checking people's passes. A steady stream of well dressed people made their way towards a plot well inside the cemetery's boundries. An occassional limo passed by on the narrow road.
The sheer number of people gathered in the cemetary at 9am was mind-boggling. Most of them appeared appropriately sober, but there were quite a few people around who seemed to be simply gawkers. Most of the crowd appeared normal, but a few were wearing obvious costumes. Many of these were clustered around the pavilion where the services were to be held.
After another fifteen minutes, another limosine pulled up. The door opened, and a man in red armor stepped out, accompanied by a blond woman dressed in black. A black armband was tied around his arm. A minister stepped forward out of the crowd as the pair took their places, and the service began.
It lasted about firty-five minutes. The eulogies were brief but sincere, given by superheroes who had known or respected the fallen members of Vanguard. Through it all, Modulator stood motionless and emotionless, the woman beside him slightly less so.
FYI: The Interred
Blue Star: Former leader of the group, and second-oldest member (only Dryad had been a member longer). Very strong, very smart. She could fly faster than anyone else in the group (though still only at subsonic speeds). She wore a cape (the only member of Vaguard to do so). She gave good speeches. The minister calls her a "brave leader."
Trevor Castle: Powerful telekinetic, capable of lifting skyscrapers and aircraft carriers. Unfortunately, his powers were not entirely reliable, and on one occassion he leveled a city block when he tried to telekinetically grab a villain's fleeing skycycle. Did not wear a costume or have a "superhero name." The minister calls him "an honorable man."
Dryad: She had been a member of Vanguard since it was founded in 1935, although she still looked like a scantily-clad green-haired 17-year-old girl when she was killed. Up until her death, she was widely regarded as immortal (oh, well). She could control plants of all varieties, making them grow enormous and moving as she commanded. She was probably the most mourned of the fallen heroes; most residents of LA regarded her as a cross between a local landmark and the girl next door. A great many LA teenage boys of the past 50-odd years have had crushes on her, and she got a lot of fan letters. The minister calls her "a pure-hearted innocent."
Hercules: Showed up one day in 1983 claiming to be the Greek demigod Hercules, and no one has been able to prove him wrong. Friendly, outgoing, quick-tempered, and a womanizer like his father. Considered one of the strongest individuals on earth (until he died, that is). Despite his prodigious strength, he was a tactical weak link in the Vanguard chain; he was unruly and didn't take orders well, and it was no secret he resented the fact that Vanguard's leader was a woman. The minister calls him a "powerful force for good."
Perseus Jones: The second of Vanguard's three flight-capable heroes (Blue Star and Modulator being the other two). Perseus Jones was a mysterious individual -- no one knew quite what to make of him. He could fly, though not any faster than Blue Star or Modulator. He was strong, though (again) not as strong as Blue Star or Modulator. He seemed to have the ability to absorb others' powers by touch, transferring those powers temporarily to himself. On several occassions, however, this ability seemed to fail him for no apparent reason. He never spoke in public, and popular mythology portrayed him as a loner and a malcontent (though there isn't any evidence for this assumption). The minister calls him a "steadfast defender of the weak."
Nemesis: A recent addition to Vanguard, Nemesis was nothing but trouble for them from the day he joined. He constantly fought with police, other superheroes, and members of his own team. He was a martial artist with mysterious mystic abilities, the full extent of which were never documented. The minister calls him a "troubled soul."
TK Kid: The most recent addition to Vanguard, a 14-year-old orphan who was learning to use his powers under Trevor Castle's tutelage. He was not Castle's equal in power (nowhere near), but his skill in using his powers had already far surpassed Castle's. He could simultaneoulsy juggle a dozen objects telekinetically, and his control was very precise. The minister calls him "a brave and idealistic youth."
Michael Sargent: A happy-go-lucky stretching strongman who joined Vanguard at the same time Nemesis did. Where Nemesis was bellicose and ill-behaved, Michael Sargent was cheerful, cooperative, and a team player. He always tried to work with the other members of Vanguard, and worked with a great many charities and local public services. Always smiled and signed autographs when approached in public; he obviously enjoyed being a hero, yet he managed not to appear the least bit vain about it. He was buried a few days ago in his family's cemetary plot near San Francisco, but the minister gives him a brief eulogy, as well.
Modulator: The only survivor of the Greenfield Observatory Massacre. He wears chrome red armor, and may in fact be some kind of android. He was the third strongest member of the group (behind Blue Star and Hercules), he can fly, he can fire a laser from the visor plate covering his eyes, and his armor is generally thought to be impervious. It is known that his armor exists in more than three dimensions, and is opaque to most particles which pass through ordinary solid matter. He often served as team leader in Blue Star's absence.
After the funeral is over, the crowd surges and throngs around Modulator. He just stands there, and the police and cemetary security start herding people out the gates. They seem to be concentrating on people in normal clothes (i.e., those not wearing a suit or a costume). It takes the better part of an hour to clear the bulk of them out of the cemetary.
In the meantime several dozen sympathizers line up to give Modulator their condolences. His responses are uniformly subdued -- usually just a nod, or a monotone "THANK YOU." Once in a while, he stops and says something to one of them, usually just a word or two.
Meanwhile, off to side (and largely ignored by the crowd) a gaunt woman in black leather is talking to Dr. Redgrave, the blonde woman who accompanied Modulator in the limo. Anyone with some familiarity with superheroes might recognize her as Shrike, the leader of the San Diego group "Barclay's". Shrike appears to be furious with Dr. Redgrave, but whatever their dispute, the doctor seems to be holding her ground. After a few minutes of quiet but intense discussion, Shrike spins away from Dr. Redgrave and stalks off to one of the several sleek aircraft parked nearby. A group of costumed heroes follows her, they all get in the black aircraft, and it takes off with a muffled WHOOSH!
Other VTOL aircraft soon follow suit, and the limo's begin lining up to leave, as well.
When the ceremony ends, Britestar makes his way to the blonde woman he saw get out of the limo with Modulator. When he manages to thread his way through the crowd, he begins to say "Hello miss, I --"
Britestar blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Doctor. Not miss. Dr. Redgrave."
Taken aback, Britestar started over. "Hello, Doctor. I saw you arrive with Modulator and I was curious if you could answer a question for me. I heard Modulator on tv say that he was going to restart Vangaurd. Is that true and If so how would a prospective hero apply?"
"Come to Vanguard after the funeral. Modulator is meeting with some local superheroes who are interested in putting together a new team. You are welcome to attend."
Britestar leaves Doctor Redgrave excitedly, knowing that soon he would enter the world of real-life superheros. He looks for an uoccupied restroom where he will change into his Britestar costume. He then will fly toward Vangaurd headquarters, looking out for any other heros and/or craft that are also flying to Vangaurd.
As Emerald is warming up for her jog, a . . . person steps up to her. Nearly two meters tall, it is manlike in form, but rather than flesh and muscle, its body appears to be made of solid crystal. The thing's eyes are beautiful gleams of sky-blue, the rest of the body a translucent silvery color. It wears a ratty beige overcoat; despite its size (probably XXL), the coat still won't button closed over the massive facets of the being's crystal chest. It speaks, its voice almost a pure sine-wave without any timbre or character. Still, Emerald notes shyness or hesitancy in the voice, incongruous given its huge size.
"Excuse me, uh, ma'am? You don't know me, but I was wondering . . . um, are you going to Vanguard headquarters, by any chance? Because I'm going there . . . at least, I would be going there, if I knew where it was. And you seemed to know Modulator, so . . . could you possibly give me directions?" The creature smiles wanly, the tiny facets of its face crinkling upward into a hopeful gaze.
Emerald gazed in wonder at the creature's body. She had never seen anything like him. An impressive physical form, combined with a voice that instantly gave Emerald a mothering feeling.
"I can't say I know Modulator, sir," she replied. "But I have been invited to his home, and would be glad to show you the way, if you don't mind the walk. I don't have a car, and the bus is a little awkward for both of us at the moment," she added, pulling slightly at her mask.
Emerald began walking, the creature instantly falling in step beside her. "I am called Emerald," she introduced herself. "Might I have the honor of your name?"
"No, no, walking is fine," the tall crystal-man says. "Or . . . well, you looked like you might have been planning to jog, and I don't want to hold you back. I think I can keep up, if you did prefer jogging." Either way, it falls readily into step beside her, whether walking with long strides or shaking the earth with its massive weight as it jogs. The day's hot sunlight gleams dazzlingly off the being's crystal body as they travel.
"Hello, Emerald," it says. "I'm Ste-- er, Prism." It ('he,' Emerald thinks, though she's not sure why) begins to extend a gleaming, faceted hand towards her, then pulls it back awkwardly. "It's good to meet you." With that said, Prism seems content to lapse back into silence, at least for now, as he travels beside Emerald towards Vanguard HQ.
Emerald and Prism make good time jogging to Vanguard. They get a few odd looks, but no one stops and accosts them. At one point a car honks at them as they pass, and the kids in the back wave happily.
Eventually they reach the Vanguard estate. The wall around the grounds is about two meters high and made of brick, and it's topped by a wrought-iron lantern every few meters. The wall is interrupted twice by wrought-iron gates where driveways lead into the compound, and once where it intersects the main Vanguard building (which faces the street).
Emerald pushes the buzzer outside the dark glass front of the building, and after a moment the door swings open and they are met by the smiling face of a young Hispanic woman. "You are here for the meeting?" she asked.
"I'm Emerald, and this is Prism. Modulator invited us..."
"Great," she says, smiling. "They're not ready yet, but you can come in and wait, ok?" Emerald and Prism enter the cool lobby, the air quietly humming from the air conditioning. The pretty young maid shuts the door behind them, and it closes with a quiet click. She leads the colorful pair through the lobby and past the front desk to a meeting room down the hall.
To Emerald, the girl says, "Go ahead and have a seat with the others, and Modulator will be with you as soon as he can. If you need anything, just call -- I'll be out here in the lobby." She waits to make sure there is nothing else Emerald needs, then turns to Prism.
She hesitates a moment before beginning, and Prism starts to wonder what she is going to say. Was he not to be allowed in with the others? "Um, sir, I don't, like, want to offend you or anything, but I can't help but notice that your coat doesn't quite, like, fit? If you want, I can get you something that might be more, like, comfortable." She gives Prism a tentative smile, obviously afraid that she might have insulted him.
"No," he says, after a few moments of thought. "Now that I'm here, there's no reason to hide what I am. If I wind up staying, you can burn that coat; if not, I guess I'll pick it up on my way out." He hesitates awkwardly for a moment before flashing a wan smile and adding, "Thanks." He then turns and heads down the corridor after Emerald.
The girl looks baffled. "But... you have to have pockets, don't you?" Prism stands firm on his "new look," and she shrugs and goes to hang his coat in the closet where the other coats are.