When our astral bodies returned from Mountie Hell our regular bodies woke back up. Jake was seated next to the room’s central pillar, gently tickling the chin of a cat muzzle that protruded from its bottom segment. For once he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses but instead a yellow silk eyepatch with our logo emblazoned on it. A thick black cord ran from the eyepatch, across his ear and into his coat-pocket.
He stuffed the patch into his pocket as we came to our senses. “Very nice work, team!” He pointed at Gail and Truman. “You two, loved the Rabbit of Seville routine, very unexpected. Not exactly the most efficient choice but in this career, style sells.”
“Sells? We’re public servants.”
“That’s right Torchbearer,” he punched me on the arm as he said it. Just before the sunglasses went back on I noticed deep bags and pale green eyes. “And your public can be very picky. Can’t ride a tiger without catnip. Speaking of! I have treats.” He waved his hands and then began to jog backwards towards the kitchen, polished black shoes clicking the polished white tile.
When he stopped he ran his fingers along a steel panel in the kitchen until he found a thin groove along its side. With a fierce tug he pulled the panel off, revealing a six by three foot refrigerator hidden in the ceiling. Inside was an array of beers, wines and liquors along with a freezer full of ice.
“Ugh, finally!” Timmy shouted. He grabbed a bottle of Everclear from the freezer, then stalked over to one of the main fridges for a 2-liter of orange cream soda. He popped the lids off of both bottles and tossed them in the trash before retreating to his room.
“That should be illegal,” Truman muttered.
“This totally is,” Jake said. “But you guys did good. It’s gonna be tough work doing everything we ask, I get that. So I, personally, want to reward you guys for your good behavior. It’ll be our little secret.”
Hans grabbed a six-pack of brown bottles for himself. “Breaking the rules is the best part. Other than the hops, of course.” He opened a perspiring brown bottle. As he drank you could see him suddenly become aware of two things. First, that everyone was looking at him. Second, that he didn’t like beer nearly as much as he expected to. He spat discreetly into his sleeve. Not discreetly enough.
Jake took Hans to fetch some napkins while the rest of us recovered from our laughter. Eventually Gail yawned and said, “I think I could use a snifter of brandy after a long day.” She filled her glass with ice before grabbing a big brown bottle. “Care to join?”
Truth be told, I still wasn’t in much of a mood to hang out with Gail yet. I was partially still irritated from our last conversation, partially exhausted with her relentless schtickiness. Was she going strawman or was she just kind of full of herself? So far I’d seen her attempt one honest conversation and she stuck her foot in her mouth right away. Maybe acting like a cartoon was her best bet.
Still, the bottle of brandy dangled in the air. Was I really about to be that girl? Surely I had to cut loose and have fun eventually, right? If only I could cut loose somewhere else.
Truman spoke up before I had to. “This is nice Jake but it’s kinda… redundant, to be honest. I don’t drink. Even if I did, with my power I could just make myself drunk, you know?”
Gail took a long look at the super-suit draped across Aaron’s arm. “…Have I ever told you that you’re my favorite?”
He blushed. “Sh-shit, Dad. I didn’t… Wait! No! Goddamn it, Gail.”
“Come on!” she whined. “You could just make your brandy non-alcoholic, then Jesus wouldn’t care!”
I slipped out of the kitchen while they continued to argue. There was no way I was getting drunk with any of these people tonight. Drinking alone didn’t sound too hot either. Timmy was hidden away somewhere handling a near-century of stress the 1940s way. That may have been well and good for him- the kid was immortal anyway. His liver was made of dreams, jingoism and shame. Mine was fragile. Flesh.
Jake managed to intercept me as I walked back to my room. His jacket was gone, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his glasses misty with club soda. “Leaving the party so soon? We just got the ale out of Kaplan’s jumpsuit.” He grinned. “The trenchcoat, sadly, couldn’t be saved.”
“A tragedy.” I smiled. ”But it’s been a long day. I’m more of a sleeper than a partier.”
He nodded curtly. “Suit yourself, I suppose. Just remember, you want to know your partners inside and out. We expect great things from you. And I mean you, Torchbearer.”
He kept calling me that. Insisting on it. I cleared my throat. “That’s good to know, sir.”
“Please, call me Jake.” With that he was back down the hallway. A trail of club soda footprints followed him.
* * * * * * *
The next few days were spent in rest and basic training. Jake, Dr. Misenhelter and Major Sedgwick had outlined some exercises that we could run through based on the research they had done on our powers. They promised they had some more exciting exercises mapped out for our future but in the near term we needed to go over the basics.
For me this meant memorizing what levels of force I’d need for certain tasks as well as what levels of force to avoid. Even then, it was more art than science. They’d quietly shelved the problem of getting useful information out of the Torch just yet. I tried not to feel like the failure was all mine.
Truman, meanwhile, was busy studying pharmaceutical textbooks and dosing labrats. While he’d already mastered a few simple drugs like caffeine, alcohol and so forth he hadn’t focused much on the medical side of his power. While an on-demand pharmacy was a far cry from a proper medic it was a hell of a lot better than nothing.
The others barely showed up in the training rooms at all. Hans continued to tinker with his machines and continued to farm ghosts, of course, but he’d also spend long hours completely unsupervised. Gail and Timmy, meanwhile, sounded like they were receiving something more like therapy than proper training.
It made sense. Timmy had nearly a century of practice using his powers and a century of trauma to go with it. Meanwhile, Gail’s powers were too abstract to properly measure or quantify. Maybe they worked best if she spent some time every week unpacking her own issues with her folks. Maybe the therapists were just making sure she didn’t go insane.
For that matter, I probably could have used a little therapy myself. I’d been used to being the loner for a while. Ever since joining the Academy I’d adapted to living without my folks, living on the outskirts of the crowd. Now, though, I was supposed to be an adult. We all were. So why weren’t things any different?
Before long I started to have stress dreams. They always took place in this cold maze with wet chains in the corners. A deep sound like a giant stomach growling came from deep within. I knew I needed to find my way to safety but it was too dark to see my way, and the Torch just wouldn’t light.
One night, my dream was broken by an alarm. Had we been trained to know an alarm? Maybe a fire. I rolled out of bed. Jake’s voice cut into the alarm over the intercom. “YOUTHFRONT! We have an emergency. Suit up and gather at the hangar.”
That sounded real. Half awake, I pulled on my jumpsuit and helmet. The sound of a growling stomach still lingered in my ears.
“We’ve got a surprise situation,” Jake announced once we were all assembled. “You’re needed at Proteus Bay.”
“At this hour?” Dad asked incredulously. “I’ll be up all night worried sick about myself.”
Aaron groaned. I couldn’t blame him. Jake ignored the commentary. “We’ve got four terrorists coming in from New Pandemonium and we don’t know what they’re up to. Nobody can make it faster than you and border patrol can’t handle four supers.”
“How do we know they’re terrorists if we don’t know what they’re up to?” I asked as Hans typed into the keypad on the garage. The door slid open, revealing what looked like three giant robot birds with skulls for faces. Each was in a flying formation, massive engines hanging beneath outstretched wings.
“Is that a serious question?” Jake snapped. “They’re making illegal passage from a quarantine zone into one of the most populated cities on earth.” He pointed at the robots as he climbed into a command station on the right side of the room. “Grab a valkyrie and go. Save your questions for the air.”
My cheeks burned as we approached the valkyries. Everyone knew the quarantine was bullshit, I wanted to say. They basically admitted as much when it was announced. But we were in a hurry and Jake had more intel than we did. This was the time to be a soldier, right? Not some know-it-all girl with too many questions.
“Dang, Hans, did you program these?” Aaron asked as he climbed on.
“Oh please. The software doesn’t need to be any more complex than an old Nintendo,” he scoffed. “It’s the robotics you should be impressed by. And the fucking magic, of course.” He pat one of them on its massive wing. “These Vikings died centuries before the Other-Force arrived. Their geists are echoes of echoes hiding in echoes. It would have been easier to bind trilobyte souls from a tank of gas.” He paused. “Hey, somebody write that down. I should try that.”
“No time,” Jake insisted. “Quit the necrobabble and tell them how to ride.”
Hans sighed. “Just hop on and stay in contact.” In his hands he held a helmet built from some large animal’s skull. It had headphones on the sides and over the eye sockets rested a pair of those old phones that looked like little TVs. Red and green cables ran along a spine that arched from the helmet’s rear before disappearing into the back of a black leather E-Z Boy. “I’ll handle the rest from here.”
Once he was seated he activated the Valkyries. Their bodies had a smooth chrome polish and secure black seats behind the neck. Leather straps buckled us in at the waist and shoulders. Twin machine guns were mounted right at our feet. Their engines roared to life beneath us, absolutely massive compared to the tiny rockets of Timmy’s jetpack. We were off, Gail and Aaron on either side of me while Timmy flew ahead on his rocket boots.
“Alright kids, here’s what you need to know.” Jake was back to his usual practiced chipperness. I felt bad for not trusting him, for making him angry. He… wasn’t our friend exactly but he tried to do his job right. Besides, Hans gave him enough grief as it was. Did I really want to be like him? “Our bogeymen passed through the Quarantine Grid about five minutes ago. I’ve got some idea where they’ll be but you’ll have to look sharp in case they’ve adjusted their speed. We want as many of them taken in alive as possible.”
That last line was supposed to be reassuring but it knotted my guts right up. This was for real. This was a battle. I’d assumed there’d be more warning than this but what more could I have really expected? Pick up a weapon, join an army. Join an army, join a war. I put myself here. Now I had to make the best of it.
As many as possible.
I expected riding the valkyries to be a bit like flying a car but they didn’t move the way cars did. It was more like riding an enormous bat that was almost well-trained. Hans could direct their flight reasonably well from the control room but the viking ghosts inside bucked and meandered as they followed his instructions.
Despite that, we were on the scene in minutes. I’d have given anything for a longer flight, more time to weigh the job ahead. But there was no excuse for stalling when our nation’s safety cwas on the line. What was the value of keeping my hands clean if they let danger slip through? It was my duty to protect normal people living normal lives. The folks on the boat knew what they were getting into. They put themselves here.
That said… where was the boat? Our valkyries adjusted their jets to hover in mid-air as Hans and Jake scanned the perimeter. Timmy pointed ahead with one hand and began to draw his laser cannon. “It should be right-”
A sudden fall. A horrible sound. My helmet muffled most outside noise and I could still feel the scream rippling through my guts. The others were even less lucky. Dad and Truman both collapsed on their valkyries while some terrible force tried to drag Timmy into the water.
The night air melted and a yacht floated before us. There were people on board and a monster in the air. A woman screamed on deck while the little man next to her held out his hands. His skin was shiny like a pearl and he wore a dapper black suit. His eyes glowed silver as he stared at Timmy.
Just as my valkyrie turned to face the screaming woman a pain exploded in my shoulder. The flying monster. There was a rifle in its hands and the barrel was smoking. Blood ran down my arm. It smeared against the valkyrie as I braced myself for death.