Whew! So this took me long enough, didn’t it? In two more chapters I’ll finally wrap up the second season of the League series. I’ve started to sketch out the next season which will feature new characters and surprising revelations. So basically par for the course. Thanks to everybody who has been enthusiastic about this series even while it was on hiatus. You guys rock.
Jack Valence had made the leap from musical tastemaker to celebrity superhero after admitting to having powers and forming the Orthodoxy. Of course I was under the impression that the Orthodoxy, for all its rebellious attitude, still functioned under the aegis of the SLA. I voiced these concerns to Boros, who sighed and shook his head ruefully.
“I can’t speak to Jack’s intentions. We take missions collectively as the Orthodoxy, but we also work independently. I can’t say what Jack thought he was doing here…”
“And we’re supposed to believe you’re here by coincidence? Or is it out of the goodness of your heart?” Ringo barked.
The ringed superhero stood with arms crossed beside Justin, who looked none too pleased to be suppressing the powers of a room full of notable people with abilities. Boros didn’t back down.
“We didn’t see eye-to-eye. He found the job amusing so he took it. Pit some of the most well-recognized forces in Capital City against each other and see what shakes out? It’s a prankster’s wet dream.
“But have you asked yourselves what you’re all here?”
Ringo snorted. “To keep you all from destroying property and potentially killing civilians. Is that a worthy enough goal for you?”
“Wait a minute. What are we doing here?” Devon asked. “I got an alert saying there was trouble in this building. I recognized it as Nick’s, so I came right over.”
“I got a similar message. I assumed it was Sanctuary,” Zashir offered.
I was about to speak up when I heard the nagging buzz of helicopters. Capital City isn’t quiet at night, but I heard helicopters. Plural.
It wasn’t too much later shortly when Capital City police kicked in what was left of the door and flooded into the apartment. Even with their SLA credentials, the cops insisted on disarming and handcuffing everyone standing (or sitting, in my case) in the remains of my apartment. So I got arrested. The part that I didn’t expect was being walked out of the building into a full on media frenzy: multiple camera crews videotaping our ignoble fall from grace, reporters screaming over each other, each trying to snag some exclusive quote from the individuals behind the destructive dust-up in downtown Capital City.
The cops brought separated us and I lost track of the others, but I was brought to the central jail and shown into a cell without any acknowledgment that I was being charged for a crime. I found that weird, but then again, I’d never been arrested. The SLA functioned more as a military-adjacent than a police force, so I didn’t have much experience with local law enforcement besides the occasional assistance we provided them with super-powered sociopaths.
The jail cell I landed in was nicer than the ones I’d seen on TV. It was carpeted and right outside of it was a mounted TV on which I could watch my own arrest. Even with the sound switched off, I could pick up the vibe from the headline flashing across the screen: SLA CRUSADERS UNLEASH CHAOS DOWNTOWN CAPITAL CITY! I watched the bad press roll steadily in after that. Someone from the Human Defense Force (as if people with powers aren’t human) railed about dangerous and subversive forces undermining the efforts of the police, then an expert prosecutor pointed out that it was incredibly rare that charges were ever brought against superheroes; a clear and abject failure of justice. The one bright spot was seeing Exeter, as neatly coiffed and well-dressed as ever, being interviewed for a cable news show. He calmly explained that the incident was unfortunate, but isolated, and that those involved had already been punished. He urged the public to remain calm and to remain skeptical of those “peddling narratives about anarchy and chaos where there is none.”
Six hours into my jail stint I finally saw a familiar face. Flanked by two police officers, Europa Evers was escorted in the holding area and stood aside while the cops unlocked my cell and released me into her custody. She looked immaculate in a maroon pencil-skirt, gray sweater, and heels. I started to thank her and she gave me a withering look that silenced me thoroughly until we had exited the police station and gotten into the town car awaiting her. Ensconced in the vehicle, Europa tilted her head back and sighed.
“It’s days like this that I miss cigarettes.” Still staring up at the roof of the car, she asked, “do you smoke? No. I don’t suppose you do, but you’ve probably tried it before. You’re the kind of man who would try to impress some impossible crush with your habit, but it wouldn’t stick. You’d give it up. Step out of it like old clothes.”
A friend turned more-than-friend introduced me to smoking in my senior year of high school. It didn’t stick. Neither did he.
She turned her hard gray-flecked eyes on me. “I can guess at that because I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time, Nicholas. When I first met you—your pants still leaking semen—I can admit that I thought you were probably not SLA material. I’m glad to say that I was right.
“I told you when we first met that there were those within the SLA who would use any leverage to get what they want. I told you not to trust and you learned that lesson the hard way with Owen. That said, I find myself in the position of needing to trust someone and you strike me as the likeliest person for the job. You were bold enough to leave my service for reasons of ideology, for what you thought was right. I need you to do what’s right again.”
I couldn’t imagine, and still can’t, what it must have been like to grow up in her world. The daughter of the Virtue, one of the most famed heroes of all-time. Unlike her younger sister who went on to lead a mostly normal life, Europa was groomed as the heir apparent of her father’s legacy. She created the SLA out of a group of stubborn, ragtag “heroes” more interested in punching villains through walls than keeping peace. This organization had been her entire life.
“I don’t know how I can help you, Director,” I said. “I couldn’t even keep myself out of jail.”
“I am a puppet-master, Nicholas. I have been for a very long time and we’ve come to the inevitable point where I must start cutting strings.” She grinned, catlike and sudden. She pulled out her cell phone and rapped a few quick motions on the screen with one finger. “But not before causing a little of the havoc they’re accusing me of on television. I’ve transferred a non-negligible amount of money into an account which you alone can access. I won’t tell you what to do with it, but my suggestion would be to find allies that you can trust and ask them to rally around you.”
“This sounds like the last will of a condemned woman. What do you know that everyone else doesn’t?” I asked.
The town car slowed. Europa opened the door and invited me to leave, succinctly ending our cryptic conversation. As I climbed out, she said offhandedly:
“Rally. There’s a heroic name. Much better than Wetspot, don’t you think?” she said, and closed the door.
I looked around the area where Europa and her driver had dropped me off. It was somewhere in eastern-most part of Capital City. Inconvenient, I thought. My phone buzzed and distracted me from my irritation: it was an email alerting me that I had been given access to a bank account. I checked the balance and nearly dropped my phone. It turns out I wouldn’t have any problem affording a cab.
Ian stared at me over his coffee and had me recount Europa’s story for a second time. He shook his head and took a sip of the coffee, set it down and shook his head again.
“The head of the SLA, the fucking SLA, drops a bag of money in your lap and drives off, but says that she’s cutting puppet strings? She’s still playing games,” he said.
I checked with the police and the rest of the crew were still in jail. I’d been the only one that Europa sprung and so I didn’t have any of the usual suspects to bounce my ideas off of. I went into the office and called Ian. He showed up in sweats and a beanie with a five o’clock shadow. If I hadn’t just had one of the strangest nights of my life I think I would have pheromone-pushed him a little, just to see the outline of his cock throb against the loose cotton. I tried, hard, to move the idea out of my mind.
“I know. I can barely make sense of it, but I’m telling you, Ian, she looked like she was going off to war. I think something shook her up badly,” I replied.
“Maybe it’s the fact that one of her own agents tried to get you guys to kill each other? That’s not bad enough?” Ian threw a newspaper in my direction. It had a recent concert photo of Jack Valence with a headline reading: PUNK ROCKER GOES FULL CRIMINAL.
“Europa’s nephew joined a terrorist organization and there wasn’t a word of it published anywhere, but a few of us get into a fight and there are helicopters and reporters on the scene in minutes? Something doesn’t make sense. And how did they know Jack Valence was involved?”
“Guys, check this out,” LaVona said. She and Ian came as a matched set and I trusted her discretion as much as I did anyone’s.
She showed us a video on her tablet that was starting to go viral: An unmarked transport going down a highway is suddenly assaulted by all manner of wild-life. Six or seven SLA guards pour out and are savagely attacked, not just by crazed animals, but by a smoke-throwing woman and someone spewing fire. They take a young girl from the transport, but not before critically injuring close to a dozen bystanders.
“Selena Huerta…” I muttered. LaVona nodded, Ian swore.
“The day after a brawl involving the SLA that somehow got tipped off to the cops and media, Selena, who has already been at the center of a fight in the suburbs, is publicly kidnapped by powered-terrorists? This is not a coincidence,” I argued.
“Glad you’re starting to use your head, kid,” said a new voice.
LaVona jumped backward and Ian tugged at a tattoo of a knife on his left forearm. The detailed ink slid, fully formed, and suddenly real, into his hand as a blade.
“It’s OK. He’s a friend,” I said, then added, “a jerk, but he’s on our side. Probably.”
Shugo appeared with his body folded in lotus position. His hands sitting in his lap. Around his head was a corona of light and his face was that of an anthropomorphized fox. There were six or seven bushy tails sprouting from his lower back that floated gently on an unseen breeze. The expression on his fox-face sat between smug and beatific.
“That thing is a friend of yours?” LaVona asked.
“That’s a little specist, isn’t it?” Shugo shot back.
LaVona covered her mouth and shot Ian a worried glance. No one wants to be called a bigot, especially by talking animals. I figured I’d console her later with my own tale of my first encounter with Shugo, but I had other things to address with the Walker.
“Zashir sent you,” I said.
“Got it in one. He’s still locked up, but they’re not filing charges. They’re stalling. Keeping him out of play.”
“They?” I asked.
Shugo shrugged his delicate shoulders. “‘Not SLA, but someone with serious influence,’ is what he says.” Shugo hesitated, for what felt like the first time since I’d known him. He wasn’t one to equivocate. “I try not to get too into mundane politics, but you should know…there’s someone else, someone like me wrapped up in all this. I’ve sensed them moving in and out of several locations directly before or after shit went down. They’re getting directly involved. Whoever is doing this has serious chops if they’ve contracted another Walker. We’re a prideful and prickly sort.”
Ian ran a hand through his hair. “So we’ve got someone or someones with influence over the police and now some kind of teleporting…person—” He said diplomatically. “—on their side. They’ve got Europa fucking Evers trembling in her designer heels and we’ve got…well, I’m not even sure there is a we.”
“If not us then who?” I asked. “Zash, Akma, Devon, even Taras and Justin. They’re all locked up for the brawl at my apartment and…”
I paused. My apartment. I realized that I had no idea what had happened to Ray. In the confusion that followed the attack, I’d lost him. Akma had covertly assured me that the SLA hadn’t gotten their hands on him, but that didn’t mean he was safe, especially with Sanctuary now staging armed kidnappings.
“Shugo, can you find Akma? I need to confirm the safety of—”
Shugo cut me off in a tone implied his irritation with my unspoken request. “Already done. Ray is safe. He hid in your closet and used his power to make it look like a wall. He snuck out once the police left. Smart kid.”
“And you know this—”
“Your horticulturist friend asked me to look out for him. I checked on the others before I came to you, genius. After all they’re still in jail and you’re free. I figured their needs might be a bit more immediate,” Shugo said, his voice laced with judgment.
“Couldn’t you just break them out of jail? I mean, if you can travel in and out…” LaVona asked him.
I interrupted. “There’s already tension between the SLA and the police. Breaking SLA members out of jail will fan the fire. We have to let that part play out.”
Shugo, for once, seemed pleasantly surprised with me.
“Exactly what Zashir said. Looks like you’re starting to think like a leader, kid.”
“Maybe soon you’ll stop calling me kid.” I turned my attention to the others before the Walker could craft his inevitably rude reply. “As much as I’d like to go after Selena Huerta, we don’t have the resources or the manpower to coordinate an attack on Sanctuary. I’ve fought these guys before, they’re a bona fide paramilitary organization.”
“So maybe we fight fire with fire,” LaVona offered.
“Better be a damn big fire,” Ian shot back.
She continued undeterred. “It’s not like you don’t have ties to the SLA.”
“If you haven’t been keeping score, darling, they’re all in jail,” Shugo replied.
“Some. Maybe most, but not all.” She gave me a look. “You could call Exeter Holmström. Think about it: he’s Europa’s executive assistant, turned public relations coordinator. He has to know more about Sanctuary than we do. And isn’t his power memory related? I’m sure he has information stored that could help and you already have a personal connection to him.”
“He’s still active in the SLA and he has a leadership position. Right now he’s as much a face of the organization as Europa is. It wouldn’t be beneficial for him to get involved,” I pointed out.
The four of us turned the idea over until we’d argued every side of it, but in the end LaVona made an excellent point: I didn’t have enough allies to choose from to get picky. I called Exeter, who didn’t answer, and left a message more or less detailing my need for assistance, while Ian called Rich Huerta and tried to explain that we were going to look into his daughter’s abduction independently of whatever investigation that the SLA was mounting. He insisted on getting involved despite Ian’s counsel, justifiably arguing that staying out of his daughter’s protection led to her being taken by Sanctuary in the first place. He was already on his way over.
Rich arrived with a duffel full of weapons—two machetes, a shotgun, a pistol, and, improbably, two hammers. I didn’t think it was appropriate to poke fun considering his daughter had been kidnapped, but imagining going after Jasni and his animal army and Wyrm, the fire-belching dragon-woman with a hammer in each hand was the only thing that made me crack a smile all day.
“So, when do we leave?” Rich asked. His eyes were red and he looked exhausted, somewhere under the wild-eyed anger and indignation cocktail that was keeping him running.
I explained that we didn’t have a plan yet or, to be honest, much in the way of a team to accomplish it. Both Ian and Rich had useful abilities, but little to nothing in the way of combat training, while LaVona didn’t even have a power to her name that I knew of. Shugo was a non-combatant, despite his power being technically the most impressive. That left me. I hadn’t been active in months and even then I had been still discovering the extent of my abilities when I left the SLA. A sorry group to be sure and not one that had much hope of taking down a Sanctuary safe haven, even if we could find it. Rich was not happy with that explanation, but without an enemy to fight, his anger started to deflate by degrees. It didn’t take much of push to get him exhausted enough to fall asleep. If he was going to help us, we needed him fresh.
I recommended the same for the rest of the “team.” Without a target, there wasn’t much we could do right away. We had to wait for Exeter to get back to us or I was going to have to bite the bullet and try to convince Europa to share her intel with me, which I didn’t foresee going particularly well even considering our recent tête-à-tête. It seemed that whatever help she was offering was going to come on her terms.
Ian nodded off first on the couch and then LaVona went home to grab some sleep, a change of clothes, and a phone charger. Shugo fizzled away before my eyes, leaving me alone to my thoughts. I wondered how I got here from a fresh SLA recruit to a vigilante in the making. What kind of advice would I give myself if I could go back to that first day, I wondered, probably: fuck Devon sooner.
At around three a.m. there was a gentle knock at the door. I don’t know if I’d been nodding off or zoning out when I heard it, but it startled me nonetheless. I answered it expecting LaVona back, but instead Exeter’s hazel eyes and sympathetic smile greeted me.
“Hey, Nick. I hear you want to do the impossible. How can I help?” he asked.