Owen sat in one of the waiting room’s many reinforced chairs and flipped through an old Capes & Cowls magazine. It detailed the rise of one of the latest crops of heroes, fresh off their internships and making quite a splash in the world. Their costumes were crisp, their dialogue concise, their images squeaky clean. These were the kind of Heroes the world needed more of, or at least that’s the idea the reported lauded. These were the kind of wholesome, homespun, moral warriors that would take the lead in creating a new world, free of immorality.

It would have been vastly more impressive if Owen didn’t know that two of the featured four were already dead. He’d heard one was in rehab upstate, but the final member was still active. She wasn’t quite so eager or wholesome anymore, she certainly didn’t schedule in time for op-ed piece with interviewers. Now she just focused on getting the job done. That was trouble with old magazines, the media darlings rarely lived up to their initial hype, and for the ones who did, the eventual fall just became all the more catastrophic.

The door a few feet away flew open and a younger man than Owen stepped out. He wore a bright red costume with yellow trim, a matching mask, and a cape that fell to just above his calves. Own hoped this kid was a flier or a strongman, otherwise someone was going to make him regret that fluttering fashion choice. A couple of steps behind was another man, this one older, shorter, and sporting a significant paunch instead of a body rippling with muscle.

“Don’t worry about a thing, you just go on home and relax,” the smaller man assured him. “We’ll get this whole mess cleaned up and fixed before you can say Bam Piff Zow.”

The costumed man nodded his head and set off through the waiting room, his eyes lingered on Owen for a moment, a spark of recognition flickering through his eyes, then immediately being dismissed. No way, couldn’t be Him. Must be a new guy who was a fan, paying homage with the outfit. He walked through the door without another glance, this man had more worrisome things on the brain.

“Good to see you, Lenny,” Owen said, rising from the chair and towering over the smaller man. From here he could see Lenny’s prominent bald spot. A different man might have gone for a toupee, or a comb-over, or tried some radical drug to fix such vain failings. Not Lenny. He spent every day around people who that physically superior to him, if his ego were wrapped up in his looks it would have hung itself long ago.

“My stars, look at you,” Lenny muttered, taking in the massive form towering over him. He’d have sworn it was a few decades ago and this was the same fresh-faced newbie who was hot out of the HCP. Same chiseled frame, same red shirt and jeans, same dark wavy hair, same bright mask. The biggest differences were under the mask. A crooked smile that wasn’t as carefree, the stubble of working man who didn’t have time to shave, green eyes that lacked the luster and hope of a new Hero. That might have worried others in Lenny’s field, but personally he preferred his clients with the shine wiped off. They’d learned they weren’t invincible, and they made smarter choices because of that.

“Genetics is bullshit,” Lenny said at last. “I bet you don’t even have to watch what you eat.”

“Not really, no.”

“Hell, doctor has me eating whole wheat and cheese curd every day for breakfast. Do you what it takes to make that crap taste good?”

“No, what?”

“Damned if I have a clue, I was genuinely asking. Enough jawing in the waiting room, let’s go to the office.”

It was strangely comforting how little Lenny’s office had changed since Owen left the Hero world. The tacky décor, the oversized filing cabinets, the weathered globe that turned into a bar when you swiveled it, all of it was still here. What had changed were the posters on the walls. Lenny always kept his brightest stars up, the hot tickets, so that anyone who came in knew the kind of clientele this man catered to. A few of them were even framed, these were the ones that weren’t coming down, those Lenny considered being of ‘legendary” status. Owen only knew of one framed poster Lenny had taken down, and he didn’t hold it against the smaller man one bit.

“So,” Lenny said once he was situated behind his desk, “You want to come back to The Life.”

Owen smiled, he’d forgotten the way Lenny referred to working the Hero scene. The Life. It was actually a pretty apt phrasing. Being a hero wasn’t a nine to five, it dominated every aspect of who you were. Even the parts you might wish it didn’t.

“Yeah. I do.”

Lenny ran a hand through his ever thinning hair. “Listen, Titan, you know I never held the whole fiasco against you. Shit happens, if it didn’t I’d likely be out of a job. That said, time does not heal all wounds as far as public perception is concerned.”

Heroes didn’t need agents, technically speaking, any more than a cook needs butter to create a meal that will meet a person’s nutritional requirements. Most found out quickly that having a job in the public eye led to a lot of pressure, and people like Lenny made everything flow a lot smoother. He was a confidant, a fixer, a PR specialist, and damage control all heaped into a single roly-poly package. Still, even Lenny had his limits, as Owen had learned firsthand.

“That’s okay. I know I’m not going to be walking back to a warm reception.”

“You always did have a knack for understatement,” Lenny said. “They’ll come after you hard. A lot of people took what happened really personally, and there is nothing they’d love more than a chance to tear you apart.”

“I know. Believe me Lenny, no one knows better how hated I am than me.”

“If only you were just hated. Hated I can work with, we play you as a gruff counterpart to some guy whose image can tolerate it, do a turnaround over time and presto, you’re golden again. No, you’re hated And held up as an icon by different groups. That gets people fighting, bickering really, about some deeply held beliefs. When you’ve got one man with two different images you can’t shift one without impacting the other.”

“I can deal with that.”

“Of course you can, you’re fucking Titan. But not so long ago this was enough to make you hang up the mask. Thankfully your certification never expires, but getting you relicensed for Hero work will be a bear after so long, not to mention the headaches I’ll get once the media gets ahold of it. Now, we go way back, and I like you, so that’s shit I’m willing to wade through, but only if you can convince me that I won’t do it only to see you walk off again three months later. What’s changed?”

Owen sat silently for a few moments, his giant frame pulled in on itself. “My son came to see me a few months ago.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. This stays quiet Lenny, dead quiet, because if you think I’m a PR shitstorm you have no idea what kind of hellhole he would open. He’s in the HCP himself now, and doing pretty good from what I hear. “

“I didn’t think the HCP took Powereds.”

“They don’t.”

“Hoe-lee-shit.” Lenny turned and popped open his bar, grabbed a glass of vodka and tossed in a few ice cubes, then motioned for his prospective client to continue.

“Anyway, he was having trouble getting his ability to the next step, so he hunted me down. I took a week, got him on the right path, then asked him to keep in touch. I’ll spare you the finer points of the conversation, but he essentially told me to go fuck myself.”

“Look, hurt feelings can run deep, especially at his age.”

“See, that’s the thing Lenny, I don’t think he was just hurt. I think he was right. Why should he want to talk to me? Why should he care? I walked out on his mother and him, reasons be damned, I still did it. I could have made more of an effort. I could have tried to stay in some part of his life. I fucked up. I let my own shit get in the way of people who need me. That’s a hard truth to face, but I did. Unfortunately, that was when it occurred to me I had only scratched the surface on people I abandoned.”

Lenny could already see where this was going. “Titan, come on, you’re strong, but there’s other Heroes out there.”

“It isn’t about that, Lenny. It’s about the fact that I could be out there, I could be helping people and making a difference, and instead I holed up in Colorado to lick my wounds. I missed out on the opportunity to be a real father, and I know I’m never going to be an A-list Hero from a popularity point of view, but I think it’s time I stopped running away. I’m a strongman. We hit and we get hit. It’s time for me the finally shake off that last one and start moving again.”

“Shit, Titan. Why couldn’t you give those kind of speeches back in the day? I could have made you freaking king of the Heroes if you talked like that.”

“So what can you do now?”

“I can make a few calls,” Lenny said slowly. “No promises, just a few calls. For an old friend. A favor, if you want it.”

Owen gave him a smile, and for an instant Lenny was staring through time at the enthusiastic kid he’d first signed so very long ago.

“I’ll take it.”

Chapter 1

Two Months Later

“You’re sure about this?” Lenny asked for somewhere around the ninth time, if Owen’s count was correct. “That’s the beauty of living behind a mask and a costume. Change those elements up and Poof! New Hero. It takes a little wiggling here and there, especially with guys of your proportions, but it’s nothing I can’t pull off.”

Owen shook his head solemnly. They were in Lenny’s office, cheesy decor surrounding the two very different men. Owen was suited up in his Titan costume, red shirt, red mask, and blue jeans all wrapped around nearly seven feet of solid muscle. As strong as he looked, he was actually far more powerful. Lenny, on the other hand, was round, balding, and had a nose that looked like he’d tried to win a few boxing bouts by attacking his opponent’s fists with his face. Still, there was more than a touch of smarts and charisma in that foul-mouthed cherub’s eyes. Both were masters of what they did, though one had been out of the game for a long while.

“I’m not changing identities,” Owen said. “I’m coming back as Titan. If I don’t, then I feel like I’m still running. It might not make sense to you, but this is how I have to do it.”

Lenny ran his hand across the top of his head, touching more skin than hair by a large margin. Habits didn’t die easily though, even if follicles did. “I was afraid you were going to say that. You know that makes things harder, right? The other way would open up a lot more options.”

“The options I get going at it the right way are the ones I want,” Owen insisted.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Lenny cautioned, sliding a manila envelop over to his client. “Even with your license reinstated, there weren’t a lot of people clamoring to have you on their team. You come with more heat than most folks are willing to take.”

“Solo Heroes exist,” Owen reminded him.

“Not for you they don’t,” Lenny countered. “We let you go solo and that’s how you’ll be until the end. You’ll look like an outcast, the guy that no one wanted after his scandal. People like me will use your story as a cautionary tale to keep younger Heroes in line.”

“But no one does want me,” Owen pointed out.

“Why would you bring that up? My ulcer isn’t bad enough this week without you reminding me what we’re trying to pull off here? You’re a hurtful man and you should be ashamed,” Lenny chastised. “Besides which, you’re wrong. The team in that folder agreed to take you, so at least some people want you.”

Owen took the clue to flip open the folder. As soon as he began reading a frown formed at the corner of his mouth, visible just below the bottom of his skintight mask. The frown deepened the longer he read, until finally his gaze rose from the pages and across the desk to his agent.

“Corpies? Are you shitting me?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did my months of trying to impress upon you how few your options were not provide a slight clue that you were getting the bottom of the shit-bucket? And don’t call them that. The technical term is Privately Employed Emergency Response Supers.”

“Come on Lenny, these guys aren’t even Heroes,” Owen said dropping the file onto the desk. “Why would I be on a team of Corpies?”

Corpies were Supers who hadn’t gone through the screening or training to get their Hero Certifications, and were therefore not allowed to confront criminal Supers. However, through some loophole maneuvering and fancy legal footwork, it had been established that a Super did not need a Hero Certification to assist in any emergency response operation that didn’t involve combat. This charge was led by corporations that yearned to get their logos emblazoned on the capes of champions doing good, saving innocents, and spreading the word about how this particular laundry soap got your whites the whitest. Rarely did a Corpie attain any real popularity, however the few times they succeeded had made so much money that companies kept paying for the right to keep their names on Supers and continue rolling the dice. Though many Heroes considered them worthless hacks who couldn’t cut it in the Hero game, the fact remained that having them on hand usually did more good than harm, so their continued existence was tolerated with minor grumbling.

“Why? Because in order for them to function as an independent team, with their own fancy headquarters, responding to various disasters and calls, they have to have a Hero on staff. Someone to bat cleanup if things get messy or trouble shows up. This team, as luck would have it, just lost their Hero to retirement. No others are stepping forward, so they had to either take you on or go back to working in the basement of a police station where the lights don’t work and it smells like piss. Those were their options, piss smell or you.”


“AND,” Lenny said, raising his voice and rising slightly off his chair, “I had to wheel and deal to make it happen. It was you and a luxury high-rise loft, or no you and a dank piss-soaked basement and I had to convince them to take you. Are you getting the picture here?”

“Then forget it,” Owen replied. “If no team wants me then I’ll go solo after all. Let me be a story, let everyone call me an outcast and a failure. Better that than chaperoning a bunch of Corpies.”

“That is your prerogative,” Lenny said, his temper cooling as he lowered himself back into his seat. “You have the right to go at this alone. But, if you do, then you’re doing it completely alone.”

A pang of uncertainty smacked Owen in the gut. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that if you go solo, I’m out. I’ll finish the paperwork to make you official again, and that’s it.”

“What the hell Lenny? Suddenly it’s ‘my way or the highway’? What ever happened to finding what works best for the Hero?” Owen resisted the urge to jump out of his own seat, only because he was afraid he might crack the floor.

Lenny didn’t yell back this time, instead he took an antacid from his desk and dropped it into a glass of water with a fizzy plop.

“I am thinking about what’s best for you. We worked together for a long time, back in the day. I know you, and that’s why I’m telling you that you need a team. The family man image we sold you as worked because you are a family man. You need people around who depend on you. They give you strength. They are what pushes you past your hardest moments. Last time you went off on your own, your funk lasted over a decade and didn’t break until your son called you a fucker. You need a team, Titan. Without one, it’s just a matter of time until it all becomes too much and you fall apart again. And I’m not hanging around for it this time.”

Owen felt his indignation metamorphosize into shame. He’d been calling Lenny a quitter when he was the one who’d walked away. Lenny was doing what he did for all his clients, just trying to make sure they were put in the best position to stay happy. He was watching out for Owen, even after Owen had nearly cost Lenny his reputation all that time ago.

Softly, Owen reached across and picked back up the folder. “Are they expecting me?”

“You report for duty at nine tomorrow morning,” Lenny informed him.

“Seems late.”

“They have a photo shoot at seven.”

Owen resisted the urge to groan, but only barely.

Chapter 2

Owen stared up at the building, admiring the way it jutted into the sky, as though it were trying to spear clouds. On days with the right weather, it probably succeeded. He adjusted the duffel bag on his shoulder more out of habit than necessity. Even as fully as it was packed, the bag was nowhere near heavy enough to actually cause him discomfort. Most of his possessions had been stored back at his place in Colorado, though some had been sent ahead to this building via courier. The things in the bag he never trusted to anyone else. They were too important to be risked.


The voice snapped Owen out of his marveling and brought him back to reality. He wasn’t dressed as Titan currently, instead he wore simple clothes and a generic grey mask. It was standard practice for Heroes who didn’t want to be “in character” but still needed to go places without showing their face to wear such types of mask. It was inconvenient, however it beat the hell out of having one’s identity get blown. Since he wasn’t wearing his Titan costume, though, it meant this was the man who had known he was coming. Or someone who was a really good guesser.

The man who was spoken was tall and lean, wearing a suit that said corporate but was expensive enough to show he was high on the food chain. His glasses and watch were designer, and his hair had been expertly styled. Owen suspected he was not going to like this fellow.

“You’re Harold?”

“Mr. Greene, if you don’t mind,” the man replied.

“Whatever you say.” Owen hefted his bag again. “We going inside?”

“Of course,” Mr. Greene said. “If you’d be so kind as to follow me.”

Mr. Greene and Owen walked through the front doors, large glass ones that opened into a sprawling lobby that seemed to be made of marble. All around them other people in suits and business appropriate outfits scuttled about, doing things that they no doubt believed were of the utmost importance. In the center of the lobby, just ahead of a long row of elevators, was a circular station where a pair of guards sat. Mr. Greene stopped at this station and handed them a card extracted from his breast pocket.

“We’ll get your keycard and I.D. done this afternoon,” Mr. Greene informed him. “You’ll need them at all times while on premises, otherwise you won’t be permitted access.”

“That so?” Owen said the words casually, however as he spoke his eyes swept the room, years of experience alerting him to the bits and bobbles of security a casual observer wasn’t supposed to see. “Have to say, the tazing system built into the floor wouldn’t really slow me down, and the knockout gas dispensers you’ve got disguised as fire alarms would only tickle my throat. Now the pulse cannon you’ve made to look like a potted plant, that might set me back a few steps.”

“Impressive,” Mr. Greene commented. “I suppose there is more to you than size and reputation.”

“I aim to please.”

Once they passed the security guards, Mr. Greene flashed his card in front of an elevator near the end of the line. It whooshed open and the two men stepped inside.

“All this for one team?” Owen asked as the elevator began to rise.

“Don’t be silly. This building houses offices for multiple companies all owned, at least partially, by Morent Holdings. Each member of the team is sponsored by at least one of our companies, so we made a few floors into facilities for them. We find it best if our representatives stay on site.”

“You mean where you can keep an eye on them,” Owen said.

“We provide housing, food, facilities, and entertainment, all at no deduction from their salaries. I’d say that’s quite a generous situation for them,” Mr. Greene shot back.

“Because we all know corporations love doing things from the goodness of their hearts.” Owen fiddled with his duffle bag once more. “Look, I’m not telling you how to run your company or your team, just calling it like I see it.”

“I’d suggest you call it more quietly,” Mr. Greene said, his eyes never wavering from the climbing numbers on the elevator’s display. “We approved taking you on as the Hero Liason because it was deemed to be an overall net gain. Should that equation change, we may need to revisit your position’s feasibility.”

“Yeah yeah, tow the line like a good boy or I’m out on my ass. If you don’t mind me asking, what made you decide to take me on, anyway? I’m not exactly the best PR magnet these days.”

“Morent Holdings has recently received negative publicity at the hands of discrimination lawsuits alleging we create a hostile working environment for women and homosexuals. Some of the recordings played in court and leaked online were particularly damning. As part of our efforts to assure the public such culture will not be tolerated, we’re making strides to earn back the trust of the female and LGBT communities. Hiring you was one of many examples of our new corporate culture.”

The elevator dinged and slid open, revealed a carpeted hallway leading to a single door at the end. Owen peered down its depths, counting at least four more security measures designed to take down anything from humans to rhinos to Supers with enhanced durability. These people didn’t skimp on security, at least.

“So you give me a second chance and hope the public will give you one. Not bad. What about the rest of the team? They picked to smooth out scandals too?”

“No, they were chosen for their abilities, appeal, marketability, and talents,” Mr. Greene told him. “There are four, aside from yourself: Galvinize, Hexcellent, Bubble Bubble, and Zone. Galvinize is their leader, since he has the most training and experience.” As he spoke, Mr. Greene stepped out of the elevator and began walking down the hall. “Don’t worry, the system recognizes biometrics, and anyone accompanied by me is considered friendly. We’ll get you programmed in when we do your keycard.”

Owen contemplated telling this man that he hadn’t been worried for himself, he was more afraid of breaking something if the system went after him. He decided to stay quiet, however. No need to rock the boat too much on the first day. Besides, there was zero doubt Mr. Greene was the kind of man who’d read up on Titan. He knew it would take more than standard safeguards to bring down this near-giant of a man.

“Anything else I should know before we go in?” Owen followed off the elevator, noting that it closed swiftly as soon as he exited.

“Only that even though you are not sponsored by any of our companies, by aligning with people who are you become a de facto representative of us. We expect you to take that seriously and behave appropriately.”

“Me? I’m always appropriate,” Owen said, making a face as innocent as he could through the grey mask.

“Glad to hear it.”

“Glad to say it. Now let’s go on in, fuckwad.”

The look on Mr. Greene’s face was worth the earful Owen knew he’d be getting later. With a slight chuckle and a genuine smile he crossed the last several steps and opened the door.

Chapter 3

Owen’s first headquarters hadn’t been much. Whether it’s a Hero, a doctor, an MBA, or a guy who bartends, a recent college grad is a recent college grad. True, Owen had made a little money during his internship under Citadel, his Hero mentor, however he’d likely have made better cash waiting tables during that time. The end result was that when his first team formed, their financial resources were limited. Their headquarters/living area had been a near condemned old mattress store that they’d erected half-assed partitions in. It had been derelict, dirty, and largely unsafe. Still, he carried fond memories of that time in his life, if only because both he and the people he worked with were still young and idealistic enough that the future looked like a bright and wonderful thing.

His first thought upon walking into this new team’s headquarters was that if his first team had been able to get a place like this, they would have taken a lot less calls in favor of staying home and being comfortable. The front doors opened into an expansive living room. Next to it was a large kitchen, stuffed with stainless steel appliances. The windows were along the far wall, looking out into the city and providing a breathtaking view. The floor was carpeted in lush, soft material. In the living room, a gigantic television stood in the center of an entertainment unit, surrounded by various videogame systems. A young woman with ink black hair and make-up pale skin mashed on a controller while she perched on the leather, wraparound couch, and a small man on said giant screen plummeted down a spiked pit to his doom.

“Fucking bullshit horsecock dickgarglers,” the woman swore, spitting it all out as nearly one word. She jammed a button on the controller and the screen reloaded, the digital man immediately resurrected.

“Keep it down,” said another woman, this one sitting on an end of the couch so far away it faced toward the door rather than the television. Her skin was pale too, though it was also dotted with freckles at irregular intervals. Her carefully styled copper hair was swept to the side, purposely not obscuring her line of vision as she flipped the page on her magazine.

“Why don’t you go try to suck a gig out of a producer’s cock,” the video game playing woman shot back.

“Why don’t both you notice we have a guest and show a little a class,” said a new voice, this one from a young man emerging out of the kitchen, peeled orange slices in hand. He turned to greet Owen and Mr. Greene with a wide, practiced, and dazzling smile. His wavy brown hair and boy-next-door features only completed the effect, making him appear affable, friendly, and immediately accessible. “I’m sorry about that. I’m Galvanize, the team leader.”

“Titan,” Owen replied, taking the young man’s hand in a firm shake. It had been a lot of work learning to shake hands without shattering bones, but he’d perfected it ages ago.

“The one playing video games is Hexcellent, and the woman reading is Bubble Bubble,” Galvanize said, pointing to each as he spoke.

Hexcellent paused the game to give Owen a half-hearted wave, turning in her seat rather than standing up. She was lean, slender all over, but with the type of tight muscle one saw in athletes and Heroes. Her face was probably pretty, however since it was obscured by several piercings, dark lipstick, and so much eye makeup that it even coated her cheekbones, it was hard to tell. She wore all black, and had a tattoo of some bat-like creature on her left shoulder.

Bubble Bubble, on the other hand, was especially well put together. She wore clothes that had the kind of simple elegance Owen knew meant they looked normal but actually cost a dump truck of money. She had a more classic beauty, the kind one might find in the Marilyn Monroe era. This one at least, gave a smile and said “Hello” before turning back to the magazine in her lap.

“Where’s Zone?” Mr. Greene asked, interrupting the already awkward introductions.

“In the gym,” Galvanize replied. “His exercise quota is higher than ours, after all.”

“Of course. That is acceptable then, just be sure he is introduced to Titan when he finishes,” Mr. Greene instructed, then turned his attention to Titan. “I’ll send someone to help you get set up in an hour or two. In the meantime, settle in and meet your new team.”

With not so much a “good luck” Mr. Greene turned around and walked through the doors, which closed with a whooshing sound afterward.

“Isn’t he just a ray of sunshine,” Owen muttered.

“You get used to him,” Galvanize said. “Why don’t you get comfortable, take off your mask and shoes, can I get you something to drink?”

Owen’s eyes immediately went to the glass, which seemed so clear it barely registered as being there. Galvanize saw where he was looking.

“Don’t worry, it only looks that way from our side. It’s custom. Durable beyond durable and impossible to see through from the outside.”

Owen trusted Galvanize’s words, however unmasking in an unfamiliar place was something every bit of his life’s experiences told him not to do. Besides, he was going to have to leave soon to go get his access card and what not. Better to be masked in case the person coming to get him had access.

“I’m fine for now. As for the drink, what kind of beers do you have?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, none of us are allowed to have alcohol,” Galvanize told him. “Part of our contracts and health requirements. I can offer you fresh squeezed guava juice, mango juice, specially made vitamin infused water-”

“A water is fine,” Owen said, his own head reeling at how kids this young could be okay with being banned from beer. Afterward, he chastised himself, these were accomplished professionals in their own right, he didn’t need to start thinking of them as kids just because he was old.

“Coming right up,” Galvanize said, walking into the kitchen. He returned with a colorful bottle mere moments later. “So, since you’re new here, what would you like to know?”

“Let’s just start with the basics,” Owen said, grabbing a chair in a part of the living room not dominated by the giant couch where the two women were still largely ignoring him. “What is everyone’s power?”

“A perfectly great place to start,” Galvanize agreed enthusiastically. “To go around the room, Hexcellent has the ability to summon creatures out of thin air.”

“Demons,” Hexcellent corrected, not looking away from her game.

“They are somewhat scary looking, and given the gothic image her advertisers pay for, we would like it if you referred to them as demons,” said Galvanize, soothing his teammate while shooting Owen an apologetic look.

Summoners weren’t too common, Owen had only met a few in his Hero career. Of course, the term was a bit of a misnomer, what they actually did wasn’t summoning, it was creating an animate energy construct. It worked the same as people who could duplicate themselves, only instead of a personal copy they formed something else. Most only had a few things they could create, the level of complexity in forming one was so intense that having more than a couple of options made it too muddled to keep straight.

“How many can she summon?”

“I got three,” Hexcellent answered from the couch.

Three wasn’t bad. It was definitely HCP grade. Owen made a mental note to find out more about her power later, then motioned for Galvanize to continue.

“Bubble Bubble can create energy spheres that are pretty durable, and she can even move them with her mind. Not terribly fast, so we can’t use them for transport, but it’s really helpful in getting people out of high places and the like.”

Evidently Bubble Bubble saw no need to correct Galvanize’s assessment, as she merely continued to read quietly.

“Zone is in the gym, but his ability is basically enhanced agility, strength, and reactions. He’s not at the level of really powerful Supers, but from the human perspective he’s the best athlete alive. That’s why he picked that name, because it’s like he’s always in the zone,” Galvanize said. “Which only leaves me. Aside from a little bit of enhanced durability and strength, my main power is to give people a little extra push. I can amp them up and bring them to their peak.”

Owen’s eyes went wide. “You’re an enhancer?” Enhancers were rare, damned near mythical Supers who could increase the strength of a person’s power.

“Not a true one, no. I just bring people to their own physical best, and I have absolutely no effect on people’s abilities. It’s all physical. I can’t make them better than they normally would be, just take them to the maximum of their own level. It’s like, if you were a car, and the absolute best you could get up to, with ideal handling, was one hundred and ninety miles per hour, I would jump you to that speed. A real enhancer would bump you to like three hundred.”

“I see. So when you use this ability of yours, anyone you target is suddenly going at maximum strength, speed, etc, within the limits of what their body can physically do?”

“You got it,” Galvanize said. “It doesn’t last long, but it’s made the difference a few times in helping get people to safety.”

“I want you to listen to me very, very carefully,” Owen said, leaning in slightly so that he was towering over Galvanize, even while they both sat. “Never use that power on me. Never. No matter what. Are we clear?”

“I…okay,” Galvanize mumbled, clearly taken aback. “There’s no shame in needing a push on occasion, though.”

“My worry is not that I will need a push. It is that I am incredibly strong and have worked for years to make sure I am in total control of that strength. If you suddenly jack me into maximum power then I don’t know how much destruction I’ll cause, but it will be a lot. Now, are we clear?” Owen repeated.

“We’re clear,” Galvanize replied.

Chapter 4

Owen stepped into his room and surveyed the new living space. It was large, not that he was surprised, however aside from the boxes that had been shipped from Colorado, he found it surprisingly sparse. A bed in the corner, dresser by the far wall with a small television perched on top, and a desk across from the door with a monitor and keyboard parked in place. Truthfully, it only seemed under-furnished compared to the opulence that had been present at every other place he saw throughout the day.

After basic introductions, Galvanize had shown him around. The area set aside for their residence consisted of three floors. The one below the elevator entrance was the gym, a sprawling, state of the art facility with enough equipment to accommodate a team of Olympian hopefuls. Unfortunately, since none of his new team had strength that was too advanced, there were no ultra-dense weights that Owen could use. He didn’t mind that too much, though. Part of his ability kept his muscles from atrophying, so it wasn’t as though he’d get weaker without training. If the need arose, he could always have someone ship his old weight set from Colorado over.

There was also a large room set aside with various sandbags, movable platforms, and mock-building fronts. Galvanize had explained to Owen that this was the room where they honed their rescue skills, doing drills through constantly changing scenarios to make sure they were on top of their game. Here Owen had met Zone, a tan young man with frosted tips, a dazzling smile, and a body-fat percentage so low it had to be unhealthy. They’d exchanged pleasantries, then Zone had hustled off to shower before an appearance promoting a skateboard company he represented. From the speed at which the younger Super moved, Owen suspected he was less than thrilled to have this new addition to their team. Owen didn’t really mind that either, he wasn’t exactly dancing at the idea of being here himself, after all.

The middle floor was the one where he’d come in at. Aside from the living room and kitchen there was a large dining room, a conference room, and an office area with several computers, printers, and the like. Galvanize explained that this was so anyone who needed to print out headshots or other such paraphernalia before an appearance could do so in the comfort of their own home. Evidently they had formerly outsourced such tasks, however, it had turned out that doing them in-house was far more cost and time efficient.

The last floor was living quarters, five large bedrooms, private bathrooms, a small nook with a coffee bar, and a sealed door. Owen had asked about the sealed door, however Galvanize had told him that it was a high-tech area that only upper-management was allowed to access. Evidently, inside was a variety of gadgets and technology they were only permitted use of during training and missions. For a brief moment Owen contemplated snapping the metal door down with a minor exertion of effort, then thought better of it. It was only his first day, and he’d promised Lenny he’d try and be on good behavior. Given the abundant wealth of the team Owen was now on, he suspected his manager had pulled more than a few strings to make this happen. He needed to play nice, at least until he knew if he could handle this place or not.

Once the tour was done, they headed back to the main floor, where a pretty woman with a notepad was waiting for Owen. She took him back through the building, down to a normal business floor, and set about the task of registering him in the system. Stacks upon stacks of forms were signed, so many that Owen nearly spaced out and used his real name several times. Heroes’ code names were, for purposes of legal contracts, considered acceptable alternatives to their own names. This had come about as more Heroes sought to enter private industry based on their Hero credentials, but were not willing to compromise their secret identities. The only exception to this rule were Heroes who inherited a legacy name, a name used already by a previous Super. They had to add a number after their signatures, distinguishing their identities, so that they were not bound by contracts or agreements their predecessors had signed.

After the seemingly endless forms, he’d been taken to a different area where he was force to step into a strange machine that catalogued his biometrics to allow him access to his new home. Then he was given a badge and card for entry into the building. Owen could not, for the life of him, understand why they insisted on taking a picture for his badge even though he was wearing a mask. He’d pointed this out, even offering to go back and change into his Titan mask so that it would be consistent, however his female guide had merely shushed him down and assured him this was all part of standard procedure and had to be done in a precise way. Owen tried once more, pointing out it made no sense. The woman agreed, then told him to sit in front of the camera and not to smile, because that would make the picture harder to recognize. Owen gave up and complied.

Now, at last, he was done for the day. Officially registered, he was a part of this team in every legal way. He might have made an effort to connect with them more, but by the time he finished everyone was out doing various appearances. Owen wondered if they spent every day like this, and if so how they ever were around to respond in time to emergencies. He needed to see what these kids could do, and soon, otherwise when they finally did go on a call he’d have no idea how to treat them if something went wrong. It was an issue he’d try and remedy tomorrow.

Owen carefully unpacked his duffel bag, the possessions too important to trust to a courier service. First were his Titan costumes. He kept three of them, so that if one was dirty or in need of repair he had spares on hand. They were made from hardy material, but Supers like him were often put in situation that not even technology enhanced cloth could stand up to. Next came a large metal box with a strange, orb shaped lock on it. Inside were a variety of trinkets and trophies from his first round of Hero days. Some were too dangerous to let out of sight, but most just held too much sentimental value.

The final item extracted from his bag was a picture frame. Inside it were two photos, set side by side. The first showed a younger Owen and a small boy in a junkyard, the boy proudly holding a washing machine over his head. The second was Owen and another small boy, this one noticeably heavier, this one clutching a spelling bee trophy in his hands. In both photos, one could easily make out traces of Owen’s strong face in the younger boys’ growing features.

Owen carefully set this frame on his desk, next to the monitor. Now, he was home.

Chapter 5

“This is stupid,” Hexcellent complained loudly, hands incessantly tugging on her sweatshirt as she tried to get comfortable in the unfamiliar garb. “You’re not our fucking leader, you’re just here as a token Hero so we can do our job. We don’t need to prove shit to you.”

“Hexcellent, that’s enough,” said Galvanize, his tone gentle but firm.

“No, it’s okay, I don’t blame her for calling bullshit,” Owen replied, his own chest bare as he found none of the sweatshirts in the gym were large enough to fit him. As it was, the sweatpants he’d found only came halfway down his calves, looking as though they’d been meant as capris.

The first thing that morning, Owen had met with Galvanize to request a full team meeting. Galvanize had complied and gathered everyone in the gym, in appropriate attire, less than an hour later. Unfortunately, since it was an official meeting, the rules demanded they wear their official team sweats, rather than whatever was comfortable and fit them best. Currently they were all standing around in the part of the gym designed for rescue simulations, eyes set on the now unmasked newcomer in their midst.

Walking in maskless had been a tough decision for Owen, one he’d ultimately realized was inevitable. Teamwork hinged on trust. They had it with each other, he could see that in their body language. As the new guy, he would have to earn it. Showing them his face was a small, but necessary step in that process.

“I took the time to read up on all of you last night before bed. You have good response rates, excellent percentages of civilians saved, and zero unauthorized encounters with criminal Supers. The first two are good, but the last one struck me as odd. Given that nearly half of the incidents you respond to are caused by a criminal Super, it seems like you’d at least have needed to retreat or work around one at some point.”

“We don’t take unnecessary risks,” Zone contributed. Even in dumpy grey sweats, the man still looked as though he’d walked into a fashion shoot. “If Mirror Fog suspected any criminal Super involvement, we kept our distance.”

“That’s because Mirror Fog’s ability allowed him to discover if one was at the scene of the emergencies,” Owen pointed out. Mirror Fog had been their last Hero on staff, now retired to somewhere tropical and pretty. “I don’t have that power, which means when we go on calls there will be a very real chance of running into a criminal Super.”

“So, that’s your problem,” Hexcellent reminded him.

“It is my problem. But getting civilians out of the danger zone is yours. That’s why I need to see what you each can do. It will tell me whether to call for a full retreat or have you keep helping people while I handle the situation,” Owen explained.

“Technically, that would be my call,” Galvanize said.

“With all due respect, no it wouldn’t,” Owen said carefully. He liked Galvanize, the kid seemed earnest in his efforts to help, but it was important to make things clear from the get go. “Most of the time, yes, you’re the leader and I respect that. But the minute we have to deal with some Super causing trouble, I’m in command. I’ve got the training and experience to make those kinds of calls.”

“Mirror Fog never tried to pull rank on us like that,” Zone shot back.

“Mirror Fog kept you away from other Supers, so it never came up,” Owen countered. “Our goal here is the same, we don’t want anyone to get hurt. The difference is that when things go wrong you have to worry about civilians and I have to worry about you.”

The debate might have gone on longer, however at that moment Bubble Bubble stepped forward and made a gesture at one of the dummies. A blue-tingled sphere appeared around the false person and began slowly moving upward.

“My speed is slow, and it gets slower the more bubbles I try to move at once,” she said, her tone as even as it had been when reading her magazine. “At best, I could move one across a football field in two minutes. At worse, it would be around ten. The largest sphere I can create is big enough to hold around five people or one sedan sized car. I can partially engulf large objects without destroying them, however that bubble’s integrity is very compromised. ”

“How many can you conjure at once?” Owen asked.

“Up to five, but any more than three and the durability begins to degrade,” Bubble Bubble answered calmly.

“I see, and how durable are they?”

“They’ve stopped bullets, repelled flames, and taken large chunks of debris falling on them without giving way. However, if you would like to test for yourself, feel free.” Another gesture and a sphere roughly five feet wide materialized in front of Owen.

“You read my mind,” Owen said, looking the bubble up and down. The thing about energy barriers people often failed to realized was that in order to stop something physical, it meant force had to be exerted on it. Force flowing one way meant it could flow back the other, so while energy barriers were resistant to physical attacks, enough strength behind a blow could still shatter them.

Owen went slow, first doing nothing more than giving it a one-fingered thump. The sphere rippled, but held firm. Next he made a loose fist with his hand and struck it with a knocking motion, as though he were rapping on someone’s door. The rippling was far more evident this time, yet still the bubble held. The fingers in his hand grew closer as his fist tightened. When he struck this time it was like he was pounding on a door, a hammer of flesh trying to pierce the obstacle before it.

The bubble shattered in a bright burst of energy, whooshing sounds and a surge of heat accompanying the event.

“What the hell, B.B.? I thought your bubbles were supposed to be tough. Gramps there barely even touched it,” Zone chided.

“No, it was surprisingly strong,” Owen corrected. “The force I used on that last blow was roughly equivalent to it being hit by a speeding car.”

“Sounds about right for the reaction it generated,” Bubble Bubble replied, making a quick motion with her hands to drop the still suspended dummy everyone had forgotten about.

“Horseshit it does, that wasn’t even a punch, even for an old man,” Hexcellent said.

“Then I say it’s time we tested your power next,” Owen replied. “I think this old man may just surprise you. Unless you’re afraid to put your power where your mouth is.”

“Bring it on, Gramps,” Hexcellent replied, stealing the nickname Zone had used. “I’ve always wanted to show up one of you fancy-ass Heroes.”

Chapter 6

“You should walk more to the center of the room,” Galvanize advised. “So there’s space to move about.”

“If you say so,” Owen complied. He wasn’t too worried about needing to dodge, but stranger things had happened in his life. A few large steps brought him to the center of the unobstructed area, with ample space around him. Hexcellent made no such motions.

“Aren’t you coming?” Owen called to the dark-hair woman.

“I don’t get my hands dirty, I’ve got people for that,” Hexcellent replied. “Let me demonstrate.”

“No,” Galvanize said immediately. “I know what you’re about to do, and no. Show him the other two first. This about a full-assessment, not you trying to prove a point.”

“Fiiiiiiiiiiiine,” Hexcellent agreed, drawing out the word into a whine. “I’ll start from the bottom. My smallest demon is Impers. We use him for recon and message relaying.” She stuck out her hand and exerted a minor bit of focus. Next to Owen, a small creature appeared in a puff of red smoke.

It was about a foot tall, human shaped with red skin and diminutive horns on its head. Large, bat-like wings nearly as long as it was tall extended from its back, and a three inch tail swept from side to side out of its rear. The creature made a chittering noise, then leapt into the air. Owen was surprised with the grace it had in flight, moving through the air with precision and speed. Impers circled the room four times, then landed on Hexcellent’s shoulder and made the chittering noise again.

“How is that thing used for messages?” Owen asked. “It can’t talk.”

“‘It’ is a he, and we worked out a system,” Hexcellent explained. “Impers can understand the questions we ask him, plus he can control the clicks he makes. One click means yes, two means no, three means follow me, and four means run like hell. As long as you ask the right questions, it’s pretty effective.”

“Useful,” Owen commented, trying his best to hide the surprise at this creature being any gender, let alone a male. Still, since it sprang from the summoner’s mind, no one was more familiar with it than her. “Anything else I should know?”

“Impers is the smartest of my summons, so he can take the most complex directions. The others make noise, but they have to be ordered more directly. Impers excels in situations where we’re trying to located people who are trapped, since he can remember where he sees them and point to it on a map. He’s frailer than the other two, but fireproof. All of them are fireproof,” Hexcellent said.

The fireproof part didn’t shock Owen at all. “Okay, what’s next?”

Impers vanished in the same smoke he’d appeared in. Another motion from Hexcellent, and a much larger cloud of red smoke appeared near Owen. Out of this one came a creature roughly five feet tall, the head of a vulture atop a hunched body. It had no wings, its feet were taloned, and where each arm should have been was a long, pale-white blade in the shape of scythe.

“Her name is Huggles,” Hexcellent informed Owen.


“I was feeling a bit feisty and sarcastic when I created her,” she admitted. “Anyway, those blades on her arm are sharp enough to cut through most metals, and she’s got the strength to wield them. She’s most useful for getting people out of cars, sawing through debris, that sort of thing.”

“I see, mind having her strike me?”

“I can, but it won’t prove anything,” Hexcellent admitted. “Huggles can’t cut through anything stronger than steel, and even that gives her trouble. I’d assume a veteran Hero like you is at least that tough.”

“None the less, I’d prefer if you did,” Owen said. He stuck out his left arm and left it there, freely exposed.

“Have it your way. Huggles, cut his arm!” Hexcellent yelled. The words had no sooner left her mouth than the bird-thing whirled into action, again moving with more grace than its form should allow. She swung both arm-blades down in a smooth slice, striking two places on Owen’s forearms. As soon as the blades met his skin, the motion ceased completely. He’d never expected Huggles to be powerful enough to move him, but he was surprised by the amount of strength the demon could muster. It was good to know this thing had some power behind it.

“Not bad,” Owen complimented. “I take it there’s one left?”

“Yup, and I saved the best for last,” Hexcellent replied. This time her motion was slower, and there was a noticeable delay between Huggles’ disappearance and the next demon’s cloud of smoke. Once it appear though, it was impossible to miss. The cloud was huge, and Owen caught the faint scent of brimstone in his nostrils. Once it cleared, he found himself in the rare position of looking up.

This monster stood over seven and half feet tall, likely eight if one included the large, black horns jutting upward from its forehead. Thick, chitinous, black plates covered much of its body, most concentrated on the disproportionally large arms, the broad chest, and the thick legs ending in large hooves. Its face was dog-like, black sharp teeth in its muzzle and a pair of glowing red eyes above the snout. Any monster movie company would have paid top dollar for this creature to appear in one of their films, assuming they could keep the rest of the cast from pissing themselves.

“His name is Big Henry,” Hexcellent supplied helpfully. “His job is heavy lifting. Clearing rubble, moving cars, holding up support beams, that sort of thing. More or less the only things you’d be good at, except he doesn’t need a room and pay.”

Owen examined the creature closely. He knew enough about summoners to know that their creatures were often born of a problem or a need. Creating another being from nothing was intensely difficult; the only way to succeed was to pour an aspect of one’s self into it. The summons were supposed to do something that summoner couldn’t. They represented a strength to fill in a perceived weakness. And this summon was not built for heavy lifting. It was built for fighting. Maybe for killing.

“Guess we should give the people what they want,” Owen said, pointing to the other three Supers. “Why not have him give me a little tap?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Hexcellent replied. “Big Henry, punch him with everything you’ve got.” This time she didn’t yell, she barely even raised her voice. Owen had just enough time to wonder if her summons even needed to be close enough to hear for her orders to work, then Big Henry sprang into action.

This one didn’t have as much grace as the other two, but he made up for it with a shocking amount of speed. He whirled forward, hooves nearly cracking the floor with each step, closing the gap between he and Owen in mere moments. The punch came at the end of the movement, part of the motion’s flow that utilized the extra momentum. It was impressive, especially for a being that Owen suspected had never been trained. The black armored fist drove directly into his torso, right between his sternum and stomach. It had so much power that, even braced in an appropriate stance, Owen was still moved back several inches as the concrete under his feet crumbled against the indirect force.

“Better than I expected,” Owen said, clearly unharmed or inconvenienced by the attack. He glanced up at Hexcellent, whose face had morphed from its usual anti-social glower into an expression of genuine shock. Given how strong this summon was, she’d likely thought it would at least do some damage to him. Owen didn’t fault her for that belief. She hadn’t been inside the Hero world, her sense of scale for what constituted strong didn’t even have a ranking for someone like Titan.

“How durable is this one?” Owen asked, shaking her out of her surprised reverie.

“Damn near indestructible,” she called back, her jaw setting and her eyes growing narrow. She was gearing up for round two, when she’d show that her summon was at least no less durable than he. If it could take his blow with the same lack of effect, it would prove they were on even footing. Owen, fortunately, knew better.

“Good to know,” Owen said, taking a step back from the still half-crouched-in-attack summon. “Luckily, since you don’t have to use him to fight, we don’t need to test that. Let’s move on. Zone, how about you show me what you can do?”

Hexcellent stared at him for a few moments longer before dismissing Big Henry into the smoke cloud. Owen was sure she wasn’t happy with him at the moment, but that would have to wait. He needed to finish seeing everyone’s skill set for now.

After that, he could work on making them better.

Chapter 7

                Before either of the men could step forward, a bright red light began flashing through the room, followed by a brief siren. That dissipated in moments, replaced by the calm voice of Mr. Greene.

                “There is a fire two point five miles away from here. It’s an older building, and structural integrity is a concern. Firefighters are currently spread thin, so they’ve requested our help.”

                “We’ll do it,” Galvanize yelled into the air. Owen presumed Greene could hear them, a suspicion confirmed moments later when the voice came back into the air.

                “Understood. They’ll be waiting for your presence. Transport is in the basement when you’re ready.”

                “You heard the man. Everyone, into your costumes and downstairs. If you take longer than five minutes, you’re getting left behind,” Galvanize commanded. His tone had seamlessly shifted from controlled but friendly to authoritative. Owen had no doubt he’d be abandoned if he dared go over the five minute mark. Evidently the others believed Galvanize too, as they immediately dashed off toward the door, Zone peeling off part of his sweats before he’d even gotten clear of the room.

                “Feeling nervous?” Galvanize asked, breaking into a light jog so as not to violate his own edict.

                “Lil bit,” Owen admitted. “Been a long time.”

                “You’ll be fine. Fires are where B.B. and Hexcellent really shine. Just follow orders and everyone will get home safe.”

                “That would be a pleasant outcome,” Owen agreed. How nice these kids had it, when if they did their job right, no one died. In the Hero world, even if you did everything perfectly, sometimes success still meant blood on your hands.

*              *              *

                Titan nearly missed his debut that day, due to the mirror in Owen’s room. He’d tried on his old costume before leaving Colorado, of course, but that had been a piecemeal ordeal. It meant wearing and checking each piece separately so problems could be identified as they occurred. It wasn’t until he was fully suited up, walking toward his door, that the figure in the mirror caught his attention and stopped him cold.

                It had been over a decade since he’d seen this person looking back in a reflection. This was different than going to see Lenny; this was a man about to walk out into a world of danger. He wasn’t just Owen Daniels wearing a costume. He was Titan, and the full of weight of that realization nearly sent him to the ground. So many memories, so many ordeals. So much loss. Part of him wanted to shrink back, to let Titan fall away in costume pieces and turn back into Owen.

                Instead, he reached up to the side of his mask and pressed a device in his ear, hidden by the red material covering his face. None of the others would have this accessory. It was only for Heroes. They’d made improvements to the ear pieces since his time away. This one was light, and nestled into the crevice of his ear with total security, giving a sense that no side-ways blow would knock it loose. The things had always been damned tough, but a good rocking could send them away. Titan was unsurprised to find this flaw had been addressed.

                “Titan, reporting in.” His words echoed through the empty room.

                “Dispatch recognizes Titan,” said a soft voice in his ear. Somewhere in his stomach, a knot of worry loosened. Part of him worried Dispatch would have changed as well, but her voice was the same as always: strong, well-enunciated, and with a vaguely European accent. No one, at least no one Titan had ever talked to, knew Dispatch’s real name, location, or even powers. She was just always there, no matter what time you plugged in. Always there, always the same.

                “Titan, please respond,” she repeated.

                Titan realized he’d zoned out, listening to her voice but not her words. “Sorry, repeat the question.”

                “You are cleared for active Hero assignments and for monitoring of a Privately Employed Emergency Response Supers team. Which of these tasks are you signing in for?”

                “I’m babysitting the corpies tonight,” Titan replied, working very hard to keep the annoyance out of his voice. If he signed in for active Hero duty, it would mean she’d direct him to any calls for help that fit the bill. Being on oversight duty meant he could use her if a situation arose, but she wouldn’t try to provide any new tasks to him.

                “Confirmed,” Dispatch said. “Is your team responding to the fire on forty-third street?” Since corpies and Heroes overlapped on rescue duties, Dispatch always knew who was going where.

                “If that’s about two miles from my current location, then yes,” Titan told her. He also broke his eyes away from the mirror and headed out his door. The earpiece wouldn’t be bothered by anything like walking. He’d seen people easily hold conversations with Dispatch while flying at supersonic speeds.

                “Confirmed. You are on note.” Titan winced, involuntarily. “On note” meant he was officially working the incident, and any other Hero who wanted to check and see if it was handled could find out he was there. Being a working Hero made it pretty much impossible to keep a low profile.

                “Thank you. Anything I should know going in?” Titan rounded the corner and stepped into the elevator at the end of the hall. The team had already informed him that the space below the lobby button would take him to a transport basement, if pressed by someone with the right biometrics. A small push from his thumb and spot of clear metal suddenly lit up, sending him a rapid journey downward.

                “No documented Supers or Powereds in residence at the building. Cause of fire is undetermined, though given degree of neglect and decay in neighborhood, natural causes are highly possible. Nothing in the reports so far suggests any variant-human activity.”

                “So if it is a Super, I’m going in blind,” Titan muttered. He preferred to get at least a forewarning on these sorts of things.

                “Again, nothing suggests-”

                “I know, I know, sorry Dispatch. I’m just a little on edge,” Titan told her.

                “Ah yes, this is your first active assignment since renewing your license,” Dispatch said. “In that case, let me be the first to say welcome back. The world has missed you, Titan.”

                The elevator doors whooshed open, revealing a large black vehicle with a single open door.

                “Tell the world I’m on my way.”

Chapter 8

               The vehicle had a siren, which Owen found surprisingly delightful. In his Hero days, they’d had people with flight, teleportation, and other various mean of covering distance, so the only time he’d heard sirens was from the police and emergency responders showing up in the aftermath. Sitting in the vehicle making the sound, it reminded him of his childhood, before his abilities manifested, when he would feel a thrill every time the fire fighters or policemen would drive by.

               Certainly, this team’s vehicle had far more advanced accoutrements than the siren. It was constructed out of an SUV; however, the whole thing, from the wheels to the antenna, had been heavily fortified. Even with five people, one of whom was far from slender, in their seats, the car had only dropped a few inches. Bright lights buzzed along the dashboard, and Zone was fiddling with something where the passenger glove box should be while Galvanize drove them quickly, but safely, through traffic. There was likely an electronic's store worth of useful gadgets and pricey doodads, all at their fingertips, but Owen was really only fond of the siren.

               Everyone could see the source of their trouble a few blocks before they reached it, telltale smoke billowing up from the fire. Had it been darker, Owen knew, there would have been an orange glow cast against the clouds, visible for miles. Daytime stole much of the scenic drama away.

               They came to a stop just outside a police barrier, Galvanize dashing out the door before the rest of them could even unbuckle their seatbelts.

               “He has to go talk to the cops and firemen,” Hexcellent said, answering a question that Owen would have been tactful enough not to ask. “Unlike Heroes, we can’t just galavant in wherever we want. We have to respect the chain of authority.” She’d changed into her costume, a black number with lots of zippers, buckles, and torn fishnets. Several logos for makeup companies were dotted about her outfit, and one for a clothing store named Fiery Subject was featured no less than four times.

               “To be fair, it’s also a good practice because they can tell us where our help is needed most,” Zone added. He wore a skintight material across his torso that was see-through everywhere a logo wasn’t present. It seemed he was heavily sponsored by skateboard companies, a few football franchises, and one very enthusiastic energy drink. The latter logo, for a brand called Punch Juice, took up almost the entirety of his back.

               “He’s right,” Owen agreed. “When we can, Heroes talk to uniforms too. It’s smart to get all the information you can.”

               Zone gave a nod, but pointedly avoiding making eye contact with Owen, despite the older man’s agreement. This, it seemed, was going to be the least cordial of his working relationships. He idly wondered if Zone was a fundamentalist, a bigot, or just didn’t care for having a washed-up Hero on his team. It didn’t really matter, as long as the young man could stay polite, he was free to dislike Owen all he wanted.

               “We should catch up,” Bubble Bubble advised them. Her costume was barely a costume at all, more like an experimental outfit from a high-end designer. It was white and green, which went well with the emerald contacts she’d slipped over her naturally brown eyes, hugging her body in a way that spoke to the figure beneath without going so far as to divulge secrets. Even the logos she wore seemed a bit more tasteful than the others, colors downplayed so they didn’t clash with her ensemble. It seemed she was sponsored by make-up companies, as well as skin management creams, and a name Owen fleetingly recognized as someone who made designer handbags.

               Corpies didn’t need costumes or masks, of course, since they didn’t undertake activities that made them enemies. Heroes wore the capes and cowls by tradition as well as necessity: when your job requires capturing or killing powerful people who often have powerful friends, its pertinent for them to not know where you hang your hat. Corpies were effectively specialized rescue services, like EMT or firefighters. They weren’t making anyone mad, so it was assumed by most, Owen included, that they wore the costumes in a vain attempt to seem more like the Heroes they weren’t. He kept those thoughts to himself as they exited the car and headed toward Galvanize. It was a free country, and they had as much right to wear costumes as they did to wear t-shirts or jeans.

               Their leader met them a few feet from the building, his own outfit’s cape flapping slightly in the breeze. Galvanize wore a costume closest to the style of real Heroes, a navy and white ensemble with the cuffed gloves, calf-high boots, and even an emblazoned cape. He was sponsored by Punch Juice as well, along with several protein and nutritional supplement companies. The enthusiastic young man wore a serious expression, exactly what one should look like when dealing with a dangerous situation. Owen knew the pictures of him would look great, which was clearly the point.

               “Alright team, I just spoke with the firemen, and this place is very unstable. They believe they’ve gotten everyone out from the bottom floors, but the top ones have proven treacherous to explore. We need to search for any survivors. Hexcellent, get Impers up to the top floor immediately and have him let us know if he finds anyone. Zone, I want you to start on the floor below. Bubble Bubble, that means he needs a way up. Titan, you and I will make our way from the ground. Hexcellent and B.B. will stay out here to evacuate anyone from the higher floors with Big Henry and energy spheres. Be quick, be adaptable, and make sure you don’t get in the any of the firemen’s way. Any questions?”

               “Do they know what started the fire?” Zone asked.

               “Nothing conclusive. It’s an old building, lots of smokers and ancient wiring,” Galvanize replied. “If that’s it, let’s go!”

               Galvanize had no sooner yelled the last part than everyone sprang into action. Hexcellent summoned Impers in a cloud of smoke and had him leap into the air, heading for the top floor. Galvanize took off toward the entrance, pausing only to throw a small black mask on over his mouth and nose. Owen was a few steps behind, lagging a bit out of curiosity. Bubble Bubble had been told to give Zone a way up to the second highest floor. Given what Owen knew of their powers, he was wondering how they were going to pull that off.

               The spectacle did not disappoint. Zone took off running, aiming himself at the side of the building. In a smooth, fluid motion he leapt from the ground; foot catching a brick window sill that he used for a second leap. Another jump off the top of the window’s outcropping brought him a few feet higher, but with it he was out of usable footholds until the next window. When Zone’s sneakers met the flat, brick wall, he pushed backward instead of up, executing a perfect backflip that sent him twirling through the air. Instead of plummeting to the ground, as one would have expected, he momentarily landed on the energy sphere Bubble Bubble had place directly under him. Launching himself off of it, Zone’s nimble feet made it to the next window sill and the dance began all over again. It was difficult, dangerous, and stupidly risky.

               But it was impressive. Owen had to give them that.

Chapter 9

                The wave of heat that washed over Owen was oppressive, stifling, and strangely familiar. It had been well-past a decade since he plunged himself into a wild inferno; he found the experience a touch nostalgic. The bottom floor was almost entirely engulfed in flames to some degree, thick, dark smoke pouring out and limiting visibility. From what he could make out, the situation looked grim. Despite the brick exteriors, almost the entire inside was made of wood, wood that was rapidly turning to ash. At the rate the fire was spreading, it was a matter of when, not if, the entire structure was going to come crashing down. By his estimates, they had maybe twenty minutes left, and that was only thanks to the incredible efforts of the firefighters to control the flames.

                “Come on,” Galvanize urged, his voice coming through the communicator in Owen’s left ear. Right ear was always reserved for Dispatch, but he needed to be able to talk with his team as well. Their earbuds weren’t quite as good as the Hero-issued ones; however they weren’t as far behind the curve as he might have guessed they’d be.

                Owen followed his leader, taking careful steps. The floor appeared solid enough, but the stairs were a source of concern for him. They weren’t blazing in earnest yet, so thankfully their structural integrity was enough to hold his weight as he ascended to the second floor. Still, Owen continued being watchful in his movements. Him falling through a few burning floors wouldn’t injure him in the slightest, but it would definitely hasten this building’s destruction.

                The first and second floors were clear of everyone save for emergency responders, and it was clear they were going to have to pull out soon. The building was eight stories tall, so that meant they likely had at least two more levels to go before they met up with Zone and Impers, assuming neither team had to stop and facilitate any rescues. He hoped they would find the whole place properly evacuated. Getting someone out of the middle floors might be tricky.

                “So, does the heat bother you?” The question came so suddenly that Owen nearly twitched in surprise, a move that easily could have crushed the smoldering wood beneath his feet. Luckily, his entire career of experience hadn’t quite deserted him, so he managed to keep control.

                “No, not really,” he replied. “I’m a little surprised at how well you’re taking it though.”

                “I did mention I was a bit hardier than normal,” Galvanize replied.  “Besides, the costume does a lot of the work. It’s specially built for extreme temperatures in either direction, along with a fair bit of armoring in the more vulnerable spots, just in case I get hit by debris or something. Pair it with the breather mask, which keeps me from getting carbon monoxide poisoning, and it’s a handy ensemble.”

                “Pretty snazzy,” Owen said, dating himself unapologetically with his word choice.

                “One of the perks of working for the big guys. When I started out all I got was a t-shirt with a logo on it. This is much safer.”

                Galvanize’s word choice struck Owen as intriguing. He’d have expected the glorified model to use words like nicer, cleaner, more appealing, or even sexier. Safer implied that his first concern was for the job the uniform denoted, not how it made him look. Owen had known Heroes who wouldn’t have said safer. Again he felt his respect for the wavy-haired young man raise a few degrees. Even if he was only playing a part, he played it exceptionally well.

                It was on the third floor that their streak of finding everyone safely removed came to a halt. They’d just come off the stairs when Owen heard the sounds of muffled screaming coming from a few apartments away. His hearing was good, above human grade but not so impressive that it would count as an ability on its own, so he could also make out sounds of someone scuffling about.

                “We’ve got people,” he declared, alerting Galvanize while taking two careful, but sizable, steps toward the apartment that the noise was coming from. A single attempt on the doorknob told him it was locked, and he could see keyholes for three deadbolts. He reared back his hefty fist and prepared to turn the door into splinters.

                “Titan, hold!” Galvanize’s order was curt and quick, spoken with the sort of veteran authority that reminded Owen of his intern days. “Time is short, but we don’t know where they are behind that door. You punching it could seriously injure someone.”

                “Got a better idea?”

                “Yes, actually. You’re incredibly strong, so just stick a finger through the door and run it down past where the knob and deadbolts are. That should let us in without sending chunks flying through the home.”

                Owen bit back a terse remark and did as he was told. It was easy, like sticking a finger into pudding. The deadbolts put up a valiant effort to stop his index finger, but they may as well have been trying to reason with a thunderstorm. In less than half a minute the locks were removed. Galvanize moved forward, pushing the door open and stepping into the apartment’s living room.

                The two men had both been in rescue situations before, and this was not the first fire for either, so they’d had certain expectations of what to find behind the door. A huddled, scared group of people awaiting rescue, a panicked cluster that would race forward and possibly knock their rescuers down, or even the worst case scenario: one or more bodies that had already been claimed by smoke inhalation. This was none of those situations. Not even close.

                A group of four adults were racing about, filling buckets from the sink and, judging by sound, the tub, emptying them onto a person in the center of the room, then repeating the process. This person in the center was young, roughly seven to nine if Owen had to guess, and sitting in a metal washtub that was glowing from the heat. This heat wasn’t from the fire that was engulfing the building; it came directly from the source.

                This young person, a girl, Owen realized as he noticed her hair and facial features, was the one who had released the muffled screams. They didn’t seem to be ones of pain, that would have been impossible to bite back. No, these screams were likely of fear, or guilt, some mixture containing elements of the two. She was clearly terrified, and Owen didn’t blame her one bit.

                Because, in addition to sitting, crying, and screaming softly; the young girl was also engulfed in fire. Her whole body rippled with flame, cascading off her and flowing to the world around her.

                “Shit,” Galvanize said, taking a step back. “We’ve got a Super.”

Chapter 10

                Owen didn’t fault Galvanize for assuming they were dealing with a Super. He was in a dangerous situation, and a Super willfully causing fires would be his worst case scenario. It meant he had to run like hell and leave these people behind, because he wasn’t cleared to stop a fire-coated arsonist. It was a reasonable leap to make, but it was wrong.

                There were things he recognized, as a former Hero, and as a father, that told him something was off. The blackened spots on the metal tub showed it had been used for similar purposes before. The people, probably her family, were scared and frantic but not lost in panic, and that meant this was something they’d come to terms with. The way the girl was sobbing and trying to bite back her fear spoke volumes of how much she hated what was happening to her. Above all was the efficiency of the system they were using to douse her. This had been planned, worked on, and drilled. They knew she might start burning, and they had a method in place to deal with it.

                “It’s not a Super,” Owen said, correcting his team leader. “It’s a Powered. She can’t control it.”

                “You can’t…” Galvanize’s words trailed off as his brain finally snapped to the context clues Owen had already seen. Fear had made him momentarily slow, not stupid. “Crud, I think you might be right.”

                “I am right,” Owen stepped forward, his large body’s movement finally seeming to snap the people in the apartment aware of the costumed men’s presence. One of the older men lowered his bucket and raced over to Owen.

                “No… go… Go Away!” His voice was heavy with a Hispanic accent, and his stilted way of speaking made it clear he was still learning English. Once upon a time Owen could have faked his way through some basic phrases, but Spanish was a skill he’d long ago let rust into oblivion on his mental shelf.

                Galvanize, thankfully, had not been so lax in his language exercises. He hurried over immediately, snapping into a quick, fluent conversation with the older man. Owen was impressed; the kid even rolled his r’s, a trick he’d never managed to get down.

                “I’m hitting a wall,” Galvanize told him after a few moments of conversation. “They understand that the building is on fire, but they’re refusing to leave. They seem keep to thinking we’re here to take the girl away.” He shot Owen a confused expression, visible even through the mask and breather apparatus on his face. “Any insight you want to offer?”

                “Mirror Fog really did keep you kids away from other Supers, didn’t he?” Titan gave a small shake of his head. “Powereds with abilities that are a severe danger to others, ones like hers, are often put in ‘protective custody’ until they find a way to let them safely interact with society. Usually some tech-genius can slap a suit or something on them, but there’s always rumors of people never being heard from again.” Owen pointedly refrained from commenting on his own suspicions of the validity regarding those rumors. There were more important things at the moment.

                “I can see how he’d be worried about that at the moment,” Galvanize said, sparing a moment to glance at the growing amount of fire filling the building. “But we need to get them out. I’m going to have to ask you to pick them up and remove them forcefully.”

                “You open to a suggestion?”

                “I’ll hear it out,” Galvanize assured him.

                “They’re here to protect the girl. If I take her out, they’ll follow on their own. Faster and safer,” Owen pointed out.

                “True but… well I guess you’re allowed to deal with her. But be gentle, Powered or not, she’s still a person.”

                In that moment, Owen grudging respect for the young man leading this team of corporate shills metamorphosized into genuine affection. Job be damned, he liked this kid.

                “Don’t worry,” Owen assured him, stepping past the older man still jabbing in a language he couldn’t understand. Dimly, he felt a pair of hands grip his bicep, some poorly thought out attempt at stopping him. His assailant, like countless others who’d tried such things before, was in for disappointment.

                Owen continued forward, kneeling down next the metal tub and staring at the girl in the face. He smiled at her, his big, wide, corny grin that had endeared him to the hearts of the public so many years ago. It seemed he still had a bit of his old charming magic left, because the girl stopped crying long enough to turn and look at him.

                “Are you okay?” His voice was calm and gentle, ignoring the urgency of the situation around him.

                “No,” she said, her words high-pitched, hoarse, and heart breaking. “I can’t stop this time. I keep trying and it won’t stop.”

                “Don’t worry,” Owen assured her. “I’ll get you out of here. We’ll go out to your apartment’s pool and help you cool down. Does that sound okay?”

                She shook her head fiercely. “I can’t leave. I can’t get up. I’ll burn people. I’ve burned Papa and Mama and my sister and our house… I burn everything.”

                With great care, Owen reached out his hand and brought it down on top of her head, momentarily smothering out the flames before they regrouped and dashed across his skin. The girl tried to pull away, but he held fast, holding his hand there long enough to send the message. Then, he pulled it away and held his fingers in front of her face.

                “You can’t burn me,” Owen told her. “I’m special, like you. No matter how scared you get, no matter how hot you get, you can’t hurt me. I promise.”

                Her eyes grew wide, an unsettling sight since they were still coated in flames, as she stared as his unmarred skin. Not even the hair from the back of his knuckles had been singed. She reached out and grasped his fingers with hers, ever so carefully, and watched in amazement as the fire coating her failed to scorch him in the slightest.

                “Who are you?”

                “My name is Titan. What’s yours?”


                “Well, Alexandria, how about that swim?”

                She nodded, and he reached over, delicately scooping her out of her metal washtub and pulling her against his chest. His uniform crackled and wrinkled as she came into the contact with it, but his words held true as he fire proved unable to burn him.

                “Ready when you are,” Titan told Galvanize, who gave a quick nodded and hurriedly escorted the rest of the apartment’s occupants to the stairs. Titan followed, even more careful in his steps than before.

Chapter 11

           It took a good ten minutes of submerging in the apartment complex’s pool, now partially filled with ash, before Alexandria’s cloak of flames started to dissipate. Titan spent that time talking with her, asking her about life and school, pretending he wasn’t gently holding her face above water while the rest of her sent steam billowing into the late-morning air. Before taking her out of the building, he’d wrapped in his fire-resistant over-shirt, illustrating one of the many reasons that Heroes always dressed in layers. It had held up well, which was a stroke of good fortune because he was relatively certain she’d have torched through anything else he could have used. Having fathered a Powered, Titan was more familiar with their condition than most. Their abilities were triggered involuntarily. Sometimes this was purely physical, like a nervous tic. Sometimes it happened from other stimulus, like sneezing. And for many, their ability was tied to their emotions. So while the water was keeping Alexandria from burning anything else, Titan had a firm suspicion that it was the act of calming her down that finally banished the flames.

                The rest of the team had finished checking the building and reported there were no more people left inside. Only Alexandria’s family had stayed behind, too scared to move her and perhaps set something else aflame. With the coast clear, the firefighters had pulled out and focused on getting the blaze under control. Galvanize, Hexcellent, Bubble Bubble, and Zone had all gathered out in front of the smoking building to catch the eye of various reporters and news crews that were gathering on the scene. Technically, Titan should be with them, but he felt he was doing better work standing waist deep in dirty water, getting a little girl down from her emotional rollercoaster.

                “Titan, the Powered girl’s transport is in route, estimate arrival in five point two minutes.” Dispatch’s voice hummed in his ear, nearly startling him. He’d forgotten about the earpiece already. It would take some time for the Hero habits to kick back in. At least he’d remembered to call the incident in. A person with her ability and no control needed some serious help.

                “Understood.” Titan tapped the side of his mask covering his ear as Alexandria looked on curiously. He stuck out his thumb and pinky, making an “I’m on the phone” gesture to explain his seeming discussion with no one. “The secondary transport as well?”

                “Yes, another car for the girl’s family is paired with the one for her. They will not be able to ride in the same vehicle, however.”

                Titan smiled down at the girl, but inwardly winced. If he threw her into a mysterious van without so much as a friendly face, it was highly likely she could flare up again. The team getting her would have things to control her fire, but it wouldn’t be a great first impression.

                “I can accompany. There shouldn’t be any danger for me.”

                “It was never an issue of danger. We have equipment to completely neutralize a fire-conjurer of the level you described; however that equipment occupies a large amount of space. We cannot fit anyone in the van aside from the driver and the Powered.”

                Damn, there went that idea. If a normal person couldn’t fit, then Titan had no chance of squeezing in. He was still trying to think of another way to help when Dispatch's voice grabbed his attention again.

                “Titan, another Hero has flagged your location as a destination. Gale is currently en route.”

                “Make that, arrived.” The new voice came from a source high above the pool: a woman floating forty feet in the air. She wore a green and black outfit, standard pants and top paired with a matching coat that ran down to her ankles. It fluttered out behind her, billowing in the breeze as she began to descend.

                She was halfway down when Titan realized there was no breeze. That probably meant air-elementalist, and if she had enough oomph to fly herself without riding on something as ostentatious as a hurricane then she must be a pretty good one. Her brunette hair fluttered about as she descended, coming to rest a few inches below her shoulders when she finally landed.

                “Gale, I presume?”

                The woman, Gale, nodded, and then flashed a warm smile at Alexandria. She turned her attention back to the man in the soot-covered outfit a moment later. “And you’re Titan, or so I’m told.”

                “That I am.”

                “From what I heard, Titan left the business years ago. So that leaves me with a question: original, or legacy?” Her tone was cheerful, and the smile she’d shown Alexandria had only faded a bit, yet Titan could still sense the tension in her body as she quizzed him. He didn’t blame her, the return of someone as legendarily infamous as himself was bound to stir up a lot of something. Maybe it would be bad, maybe it would be good, but it would be something.

                “Original,” Titan replied. “Just reinstated, actually. You caught me on my first job.”

                “A burning building? Interesting choice for a strongman.”

                “Long story,” Titan said with a sigh.

                “Are you really Gale?” This question came from neither of the registered Heroes, but rather from the small girl who had finally stopped burning a few minutes prior. Both adults looked at her, realizing they had something more important on their hands than a pissing contest.

                “I really am,” Gale told her. She took a step off the edge of the concrete and began to hover over the water, making a small ripple below her feet as she glided across the water’s surface. “See? I can fly and everything.”

                Seeing her interact kindly with Alexandria, it struck Titan that Gale was quite pretty, evident even through the mask that concealed all of her face save for her eyes, a bit of nose, and everything at or below the mouth. Dark skin, full lips, and likely a fit body beneath all the armored clothing she wore. If his inclinations had lain in that direction, he’d have been a bit tempted to ask for her number.

                “You came to speak at our school last year,” Alexandria said. “You talked about how being a Hero meant making good choices, even for young people like us.”

                “And I meant every word,” Gale assured her.

                Alexandria nodded, even though nothing had been asked of her. The girl was clearly star-struck. Titan would have bet dollars to donuts that somewhere in the cinders of her now-charred room were the remains of a Gale poster. That thought, sad as it was, gave him an idea.

                “Gale, maybe you can help me, us, out,” he said carefully. “I’ve got friends who are coming to take Alexandria and her family somewhere secure, where she won’t have to worry about setting things on fire. Unfortunately, her car will be too small for anyone else to ride with her, but I want her to know she’s still got people watching over her. Are you free to fly alongside her car and make sure she arrives safely?”

                “Of course I can,” Gale said, giving the young girl another comforting smile. “That works out well, actually. I wanted to see if you had some free time later on to chat, so now we can meet up and I can tell you she got there.”

                Titan had known he was handing out a favor by asking her to do escort duty, but he didn’t expect her to cash it in immediately. Clearly she wanted to know about his return as soon as possible. From the way Alexandria had recognized her and her skill at diplomacy, it seemed a fair guess that she was one of the better known Heroes in the city, which meant she likely also belonged to one of the top teams. He’d hoped to avoid getting too mixed up in the Hero world before he settled in here, but it looked like that wasn’t going to happen.

                Oh well, at least he was going to get something out of it.

                “Sounds like a great idea,” Titan agreed.

Chapter 12

                “Nice job.” Mr. Greene was the first thing the team saw when they stepped through the door of their base; he stood between the living room and the kitchen with a neutral expression on his face.

                “Thank you, sir,” Galvanize responded immediately. “We were thankful to get everyone out with no injuries or deaths. It was a good day.”

                “Very good,” Mr. Greene amended. “The firefighters actually went on record thanking you for your help, the footage of Zone leaping into the building is being picked up by a station running the story, and the post-rescue photos came out looking quite striking.”

                Owen wondered how this man knew so much about pictures he hadn’t taken and stations he didn’t run, then let the curiosity slide away. This place had a lot of money, and Owen had been around more than long enough to know that with the right amount of cash there was almost nothing one couldn’t access.

                “Unfortunately, our newest team member wasn’t present in any of the group photos.” Mr. Greene’s face was still neutral, his tone still even, yet one could feel the disapproval radiating off of him. “Titan, you understand that as Hero Liaison to this team you're expected to appear alongside them, don’t you?”

                “I know what I signed up for, and I’ve got no issue with that; when time permits. My priority was taking care of a little girl who couldn’t stop herself from radiating fire. Once she was safe, I went to join in the photo-shoot, but it had already wrapped up.”

                “A girl radiating fire? Galvanize, please explain,” Mr. Greene said.

                “There was a Powered in the building. She seemed to be cloaked in flames and was unable to extinguish herself. Titan secured her, calmed her down, and arranged for her to be transported somewhere safe where she wouldn’t present a danger to herself for others. He prioritized it as higher importance than dealing with the media, and I agreed. Left unattended she could have injured someone or started a new blaze”

                Owen felt a spark of surprise at Galvanize’s words. That was only somewhat how it had happened; in truth he’d just taken the girl down and Galvanize hadn’t stopped him, but this made it sound like the actions of Titan had been done at Galvanize’s orders. The kid was putting himself on the chopping block instead of Owen.

                Mr. Greene stared at the two men for a long moment. “And why couldn’t Hexcellent have had one of her demons restrain the child? They are also fireproof, as well as less necessary on camera.”

                “The fire was coming from fear,” Owen said, not about to let Galvanize try and absorb anymore blame. “Powereds abilities often tie to their emotions. She was scared because she lost control and that fear fed her ability, causing a chain-reaction that almost torched a whole building. Hexcellent’s demons aren’t what we’d call child-friendly, so I seemed like a smarter pick for calming her down.”

                Mr. Greene remained silent for a few seconds, then seemed to relax.

                “Very well. Our first job is to provide emergency services, and it appears your choices were made with the public’s safety in mind, so missing a photo-op is an acceptable loss. Just make sure everyone, Titan included, writes up their standard post-response report. Every detail, every action, every name of every person encountered. There were no injuries today, however we all know that doesn’t preclude reports surfacing later. Good day.”

                Mr. Greene strolled out of the room, eyes staring straight ahead as he headed down the hall.

                “What’s this about reports now?” Owen looked around, finding that the rest of the team didn’t seem to share his confusion.

                “Post-response reports,” Galvanize told him. “PEERS are big targets for the occasional lawsuit. We’ll have people we pull out of cars claim we caused exacerbations to their injuries, or that our presence made things worse, stuff like that. The company can usually beat them with telepaths, but those can get muddy, legally-speaking, so one of the ways they combat it is to have us document everything we did. A lot of lawsuits have fallen apart when the person’s story didn’t match up at all to what we recorded.”

                “Sounds like a massive pain in the ass,” Owen said. “No one mentioned paperwork.”

                “Why don’t you blow it off then, like you did doing camera work?” Zone had been silent for most of the trip back, but it was immediately clear that it hadn’t been because he had nothing to say. “Just let Galvanize stand in for you again. God forbid the legendary Hero cops up to his own fuck-ups.”

                “Zone, that’s enough,” Galvanize snapped.

                “No, let him go.” Owen patted Galvanize’s shoulder, then turned to face Zone. Looking the younger man in eye required Owen to tilt his head and noticeable incline. “He’s been biting back his tongue since I got here; that shit isn’t healthy. Come on, kid, if you’ve got something to say then say it.”

                “Gladly! I think it was a mistake to bring you on. Mirror Fog was a Hero, but he wasn’t like you. He was a decent guy, humble, never looking down on us. But you? From the minute you stepped in here you’ve acted like Babe Ruth sitting at a tee-ball game. The photo-op was just one more example of the real problem: you think you’re better than us. You didn’t want to be seen with us. And while I’m used to that from Heroes, to see it from you just chaps my ass, because you are in no fucking way better than us. ”

                Zone’s face was red, a vein bulging near the top of his forehead. He looked half-ready to swing; likely the only thing holding him back was the knowledge that it would injure his hand if he struck Titan’s legendary body. Owen leaned closer, until he was less than a foot from the fuming man’s face.

                “And what, pray tell, makes me so much worse than the other Heroes?”

                “Because you’re a goddamned coward.” Zone spun around and stormed out of the living room, off toward the gym.

                Owen stood, frozen in place. He’d expected any number of things to come out of Zone’s mouth: bigotry, arrogance, outright hate, but he hadn’t been braced for that little bastard to cut to the quick of him. Coward. That was what he’d called himself countless times over his years in exile. He’d tormented himself with that word for so long, but it had been a private pain. It had genuinely never occurred to him that others would see his failings all on their own.

                “Ignore Zone, he’s got a short fuse and an ego bigger the he needs,” Galvanize said. “He’ll calm down once I explain that you skipping the photos wasn’t a personal slight.”

                “It’s fine,” Owen said at last. He looked over; noticing that while Galvanize was keeping the peace, Hexcellent and Bubble Bubble had both remained silent after Zone’s rant. One look at their faces told him why: they agreed with their teammate. Maybe not about him being worse than other Heroes, but certainly about him thinking he was too good for them. And they weren’t really wrong, were they? He had been thinking that way, ever since Lenny handed him their folder.

                “I promise, we’ll get things smoothed out-”

                “Just show me where to get one of those report things,” Owen said. “Please. I want to get it done with.” As much as he would have liked to sink into a funk over his lifetime of failings, Owen needed to knock the paperwork out as soon as possible.

                Little as he felt like going, he still had to meet with Gale. 

Chapter 13

                There were all sorts of Hero-themed bars and restaurants: Supper with Supers, Capes & Cocktails, and Planet Hero were only some of the more nationally franchised ones. For the most part they were horrendously tacky affairs, with staff wearing costumes and walls decorated in art featuring Heroes, or even some vintage Hero memorabilia.

                In larger cities, Heroes would frequent these establishments in costume; having a quick beer or bite then signing autographs for the adoring fans. Such appearances were, of course, purchased by the respective establishment and carefully scheduled. They wanted patrons to think that any trip could lead to meeting a real-life Hero in the flesh.

                Off-duty Heroes, or ones not contractually obligated to show up, avoided those places like they’d seen the kitchen. A real Hero bar was one that catered to them when the capes were off. These masqueraded as unassuming watering holes, almost a dive without the rustic charm. There was, of course, no way to turn away non-Heroes without advertising what clientele they actually catered to; so instead the staff made sure regular people didn’t want to stay. Horrid service, flat beer at room temperature, and food that would turn a garbage disposal’s stomach ensured that if you weren’t supposed to be at a Hero bar, it wasn’t a place you felt inclined to linger.

                Owen felt the assessing stares as he stepped through the door of Brin’s Gate, a small bar twenty minute’s jog from base. He was dressed in streets, as was everyone else here. You didn’t step into one of these places in costume, it defeated the whole point. The staff saw that he was big, but big might only mean he was a Super, not a Hero, and even that required some assumptions. He’d probably be stuck getting treated like a mundane until Gale arrived and vouched for him.

                “Hey, over here!” A breeze hit his left ear and Owen turned, finding Gale standing up at a booth and waving him over. He saw the staff relax, accepting him as a proper client. It usually took more than a wave to do that. Either this place had lax standards or Gale had more clout than Owen realized.

                He lumbered across the room and slid into the wooden booth-bench that awaited him. Instead of the usual groans and creaks he was accustomed to from furniture, the seat held firm. That was one thing about Hero bars; they either started out with reinforced furniture or learned very quickly to get some.

                Gale was dressed in slacks and a blouse, the sort of outfit that said she might have just gotten off work or could be heading out for a proper dinner after her drink. Without the mask, she was even more fetching, comely features now on full display. In front of her was a cocktail, halfway watered by down by the melted ice.

                “Been waiting long?”

                “I had another meeting here earlier, so I just hung around for this one,” Gale replied. “I appreciate you being prompt.”

                “Course, we all have our schedules to keep.” The waitress came by, and Owen ordered a local beer. Once she left, he turned the conversation toward the most important subject, so far as he was concerned. “Everything go okay with Alexandria?”

                “No issues. She made it into the facility without so much as a flare-up. I think it helped that she was a little star-struck.” Gale was keeping a neutral face while she examined Owen with attentive eyes. “I’m surprised you care so much about one Powered girl.”

                “First job back. Haven’t had time to get jaded again, yet.” Owen’s beer arrived and he took a long draw from it. Dark, yeasty, and potent; he’d have to find out the name of the brewery so he could try more of their wares.

                “About that, I was wondering what made you decide to leave retirement. And why you picked Brewster, Illinois to reappear in, of all places. We’re a decent sized city, but we’re no New York or Los Angeles.”

                “I left retirement because I wanted to start doing some good again,” Owen said. “As for why I came here… this is where I got a job.”

                “You’re on a team?”

                “I’m…” The urge to lie, or at least tell half-truths was almost overpowering. But Zone’s words were still ringing in Owen’s ears. He thought he was better than them, and what right did he have? Those kids didn’t have his power or training, yet they were still doing the best they could to help people. Meanwhile, he’d taken all his abilities and holed up in Colorado. Like a coward.

                “I’m working as a Hero Liason for a team of Privately Employed Emergency Response Supers. I’m also going to do a little Hero work when time permits, but they’re my main job.”

                Gale stared at him, then let out a short, sharp, laugh. “You expect me to believe that Titan, the Titan, finally came out of hiding just to lead a bunch of corpies? I’m not an idiot.”

                “No, you’re the leader of Elemental Fury, one of the most well-known teams in Brewster. It’s been in existence for over twenty years and you’re the fourth leader they’ve had, presiding for the last three years. Your team is efficient, skilled, and great at minimizing collateral damage, which is probably part of why you’re so liked by the citizens. It also means you’re on top, which makes you a target for criminals and Heroes more concerned with image than the job. You think I’m the latter.” Owen had done more than just paperwork in his time before the meeting; he’d also pulled up some background information on Gale. Knowledge was usually more useful than muscle, in his experience.

                “Titan was quite a media juggernaut in his day. I find it hard to believe you plan on laying low. Seems like you might want to be the new big-dog in town, and the only way someone with your rep could do that would be to make us look bad.”

                “I’m not here for the media, and I’m sure as shit not a gunner who is going to sabotage your PR. Those guys don’t last as long as I did before I quit, and you know that.”

                “I’m not sure what I know when it comes to you,” Gale said. “Nearly every piece of information I have on you is from hearsay and propaganda. The one thing I do know is that you’re powerful and experienced, which makes you dangerous.”

                “Only if I come with ill-intentions, which I don’t.”

                “Why should I believe that? You come here and feed me a story about baby-sitting corpies; giving me nothing to go on. I’m not trying to be a bitch, Titan, but this is my city. I was born here, I grew up here, and I lay my life on the line every day to keep it safe. Glory-seekers are a real danger, they take stupid risks that get people killed. For someone on your scale of power, that could be a whole lot of people.”

                “Gale, you can either trust me or not. What you can’t do is stop me.” Owen meant it in a general sense, but her saw her tense. She probably had a hurricane ready to go the moment he made a sudden move. “I mean that in a technical way. I’ve got my certification and my license. Until I do something worthy of bringing before the DVA, I’m free to fulfill my Hero duties as I see fit.”

                “I can make it hard on you.”

                “That just gets us into a stupid feud, and I don’t need that kind of headache,” Owen replied. “Here’s what I’d suggest instead: watch me. Let my actions tell you if I’m here to hunt glory or here to help. If I fuck up then you’ve got something to bring before the DVA, and maybe along the way you’ll realize I’m telling the truth.”

                “You know damned well I was going to put surveillance on you anyway.” Gale gulped down the last of her drink, half-melted ice cubes and all.

                “It might have occurred to me.” Owen gave a lop-sided grin, then finished his own drink.

                “Alright, I’ll back off for now, on one condition.”

                “Let’s hear it.”

                “I want you to come by my base for an ability assessment,” Gale replied. “I’ll feel more comfortable once I know what you can do, and it’ll be interesting to see how my team stacks up against a legend.”

                “I’d have to schedule it around my own team. I wasn’t kidding about them being my main priority.”

                “Understood. We’ll shake our schedules and make something work. Bring them along if you like, might be a thrill for them to see what a real Hero team looks like.”

                For a reason Owen couldn’t yet define, that comment rankled him.

                “I’ll find a time. Hate to tell you this though, but you were wrong about one thing.”

                “What’s that?” Gale asked.

                “Once you’ve seen what I can do, comfortable is the last thing you’ll be feeling.”

Chapter 14

                The powerful knocking on his door roused Lenny from a pleasant dream. In it, he’s been just about to sign three coordinated Hero teams under a group contract, with a percentage that was so high he’d have never allowed himself to indulge it in real life. The caped leader had been putting his signature on the contract when he jerked, slamming his knee into the desk. Then he did it again, and again, over and over until Lenny tore free of his dream world and realized someone very strong was knocking on his door. It took him exactly one guess to figure out who. Truthfully, he’d expected this visit to come earlier.

                “Gimme a damn minute!” Lenny rolled out of bed and put on his orthopedic slippers. Other men might have been embarrassed to greet a visitor comparable to the gods while wearing grey slippers. Other men lacked the brass-balled confidence of Lenny.

                He trudged through his home, a one bedroom apartment next door to his office, heading toward the door. Lenny could certainly afford better, one didn’t get to be as renowned as he was without squirreling away a good nest egg, but that was for when he retired. Lenny lived and breathed the job, you had to if you wanted to be good at it. The closest thing he’d had to a vacation in the last decade was when he went to the coast to bail one of his client’s out of a drunken indecent exposure charge.

                The knocking ceased as Lenny pulled open the door, revealing the mountainous form of Owen holding a twelve-pack.

                “Can I come in?”

                “Wipe your feet.” Lenny trudged back in, heading for the kitchen. He heard the door close behind him as he reached into the fridge and pulled out one of the frozen coffee drinks his doctor said was bad for his stomach lining. “Tough shit, Doc,” he muttered as he downed the frosty concoction. That done, Lenny walked back into the living room.

                “So, I take it things are bad.” He’d known Owen long enough to skip the preamble. The big lug was bothered about something, and Lenny was the only person he felt he could talk to. That in itself pretty much spoke to the problem: he wasn’t getting on well with his new team, else he’d have been talking to them.

                “They’re not great.” Owen cracked open a beer and took a lengthy sip. His body had long ago lost the ability to be affected by alcohol; that didn’t mean he didn’t find enjoyment in the flavor though. “Looks like I’ve alienated my team by acting like I’m better than them, one member seems to have hated me before I walked in the door, and I managed to catch the eye of Elemental Fury’s leader: Gale. She seems to think I’m here to cause waves and might just make it her goal to be a pain in my ass.”

                “That is pretty damned not great,” Lenny agreed. He reached over and pulled a beer free from the case. If the man was going to barge into his home at almost midnight, the least he could do was share his drinks. “Not great, but not unmanageable either. Gale is a righteous bitch if she suspects someone of making trouble, however, she’s one of the best people to have in your corner if she trusts you.”

                “One of your clients?”

                “No, I manage The Birdsman and Granite, two people on her team. I’m involved enough to get a sense of her. Lady’s got a lot of pressure on her to perform, and Brewster has been growing more active with criminal Supers over the last few years. Once she sees you’re genuinely trying to help she’ll back off. Till then, just keep your temper in check and try to keep the dick-measuring to a minimum.”

                “Might be tough, she invited me over to do an ability assessment.”

                Lenny held in the exasperated sigh that might have escaped from a less-tenured individual in his role. Ability assessments were officially used by Heroes when they were looking to work with someone and needed to know exactly what that person was capable of. Unofficially, they were a great way to put rookies in their place or settle grudges of which Super was more powerful. Heroes were good folk, but that much power and training definitely resulted in equally super-human egos.

                “Did you agree?”

                “Sort of. I said I would do it when schedules aligned, so I bought some time at least.” Owen gave a wide-shouldered shrug.

                “It’ll have to be enough. Let me try and finagle a few things. Until you hear from me, focus on your real problem: the team.”

                “That’s the one I’m most clueless about,” Owen admitted. “I know I’m pissing them off by acting like I’m better than them, but the thing is that I am better. I’ve got more power, more training, and more experience, even with my time away from the life. They’re good kids, and I respect Galvanize’s attitude, but at the end of the day we exist on totally different levels. I have no idea how to make that gap disappear, and if I try to fake it I’m pretty certain they’ll hate me even more.”

                “No, don’t fake it,” Lenny advised. “These folks already get shit on by Heroes who see them as sell-out wannabes, if you start acting fake they’ll think it means you’ve decided to placate them like children.”

                “Then what’s my other option?”

                “Tell them the truth,” Lenny replied. “Meet it head-on like you would any other challenge. Let them know you’re having trouble fitting in like you told me, except maybe don’t be quite such a dick about it. Then, and this is key, realize what a fucking schmuck you’re being.”


                “Titan, you’re a great Hero and an all-around unstoppable guy. No one could do your job like you,” Lenny said. He ran his hand through the wisps of hair that remaining on his bald head; this part would require careful wording.


                “But, do you think you could do my job?”

                “Be an agent?”

                “Yes, be an agent. Handle PR disasters, coach rookies how to deal with the spotlight, wake up to console grown men who show up with beer in the middle of the night. Do you think you could do my job better than me?” Lenny was wide-awake now, locking eyes with the man who could kill him in a single motion and refusing to blink.

                “Of course not. I mean, you’re Lenny.”

                “Good, there is a bit of humility left in that skull of yours.” Lenny let the staring contest lapse and leaned back into his chair. “Titan, you’re a fucking beast of a Hero, never let anyone tell you different. Thing is, you’re not working as a Hero, not while you’re out with this team, and you kind of suck at that job. Being a good Hero is a wonderful achievement, but it doesn’t automatically make you the best at everything. It just means when a Super needs putting down, you’re the guy we call. If you need an agent you call me, and if your toilet won’t flush you call a plumber. None of us is inherently better; some jobs are just more prestigious.”

                “I get it, just because I’m good at my job doesn’t mean I’m better at theirs.” Owen had the sense to look at least somewhat ashamed.

                “You’re damn right. So, my advice to you is to get to know these people, find out all the things they can smoke you at. Learn to respect them, because they deserve it, and the rest of your problems will solve themselves.”

                “Thanks Lenny, I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Owen stood up to go, reaching for his beer.

                “Leave the case,” Lenny instructed. “That’s quality stuff and I have some new clients coming by tomorrow that I’d like to woo.”

                “Your midnight consultation rates have gone up,” Owen said.

                “Economy is a bitch,” Lenny replied. “Now go home and sleep. You’re going to need your rest, because you’ve got a lot of crow to eat in the morning.

Chapter 15

               When Hexcellent walked into the living room the next morning, she was struck with a smell that was foreign and familiar all at once. She’d been with Morent Holdings as a PEERS for over two years, subject to their rules, restrictions, and endless examinations. One aspect of that included a carefully controlled and monitored diet, to ensure everyone on the team looked camera-ready at all times. This meant that in her time doing the job she'd somehow managed to forget this heavenly aroma’s source; a memory which came flooding back as she witnessed Titan adding his latest batch of flapjacks to an already sizable stack.

                “Morning,” he greeted. “I made pancakes.” He was dressed in sweats again, though this time they were topped with a cream-colored apron what was far too small for him. It was no surprise, Hexcellent recognized it from their linen closet. It was a communal apron they used when cooking, and no one else on the team had the same proportions as Titan.

                “Galvanize is going to fucking shit when he sees those,” Hexcellent said, walking over to examine Titan’s culinary efforts. She was clad in a black tank-top and silk pajama pants with silver spider-webs stitched across, intent on lazing about for as long as she was able.

                “Why am I going to shit?” Galvanize stepped in from the hallway. Unlike the other two, he was fully dressed for the day. “And what’s that smell?”

                “Pancakes,” Zone told him. He and Bubble Bubble were directly behind Galvanize; clearly the trio had just finished something and was coming toward the kitchen together.

                Galvanize frowned, a strange expression on his perpetually positive face. “Titan, we can’t have pancakes. They aren’t on the approved dietary restriction list.”

                “These are. They’re some sort of hippie-whole-grain-low-gluten-low-taste-clusterfuck, but they pass the bar for acceptable breakfast. I even checked it out with Greene first.”

                “That was… quite kind of you,” Galvanize headed over, with Bubble Bubble trailing close behind. Zone took his own time in crossing the room.

                “It wouldn’t have been much of an apology if I made you something you couldn’t eat. And that’s what these are, apology pancakes. Last night I went for a walk and did a lot of thinking. What I ended up with was the realization that Zone was right: I have been thinking that I’m better than you four, which is stupid. You kids, sorry, you four do a damn respectable job and I’ve got no right putting myself above you just because we have different career histories.”

                “Nice words,” Zone said, finally making his way to the kitchen. “But they don’t mean shit without action.”

                “Zone, control your tongue,” Galvanize chided. “Our teammate just gave an honest apology and is trying to make amends. That is not the sort of thing we stomp down, regardless of our personal feelings.”

                “Let it go, I think Zone and I are going to have to square on some different issues sooner or later.” The last of the pancakes were pulled from the griddle and slid onto a waiting plate already piled high. “But he’s dead-right about words meaning nothing without action. Which is why I'f you all to know something: my real name is Owen Daniels.”

                Zone’s mouth had already been open to snap something at him, but the words rotted on his tongue. Revealing one’s name was far more personal than a face. Faces were changeable and concealable; names were far more dangerous. Names opened the door to research, to history, to learning everything there was to know about a person. It was widely regarded as fact that the only people Heroes shared their real names with were their families and their teams.

                “Tit- Owen, that gesture means the world to us,” Galvanize said. “Truly, it does.”

                “It’s just a name,” Owen replied. “The pancakes are the good gesture, or as good as this healthy stuff can be. I already stuck some of those juices you stock, berries, and fruit on the table. I thought we could all have a team breakfast, then move onto the next part of my efforts to stop acting like a prick.”

                “More than healthy pancakes and name-dropping? Sir, you do us too much honor,” Hexcellent said. Despite her words, she did come over and help him with two of the pancakes-bearing plates.

                “What can I say? I’m a giver by nature.” Foul-mouth and strange way of dress aside, Owen sort of enjoyed his gothic-styled teammate. She had the sort of spit-fire nature he’d always been fond of. Hell, he’d liked one woman with it so much he’d managed to convince himself he loved her enough to marry.

                “So what’s the plan then?” Bubble Bubble took her seat at the table, piling her plate with mostly fruits and veggies alongside a single pancake.

                “That’s up to you four,” Owen said, putting far more than one pancake on his plate. Health-assurances aside, he suspected the bulk of the eating would fall on his ample shoulders. “I want to learn about each of you, understand how everyone works on their own as well as in a team. I don’t even know what your jobs entail outside of actual response work, and that’s something that needs rectifying.”

                “Sounds like setting you up for a shadow day is the best option,” Galvanize said. “Unfortunately, today I’ve got a debrief meeting about yesterday’s fire. Even if I thought it would be educating, only the team’s leader is allowed to attend. Bubble Bubble, how about you?”

                “Photoshoot. He’s welcome to tag along, but it’s just going to be posing for five or six hours.”

                “Let’s call that our last resort,” Galvanize said. He looked over at Zone, who was silently stuffing food into his mouth while purposely avoiding any eye-contact with Owen. Had he been only a tenth of the leader he was, Galvanize would still have seen that situation for the trainwreck it represented. Instead, he turned his gaze to the girl with ink-bottle black hair. “Hexcellent, what have you got today?”

                “Decent assortment,” she replied, mouth half-full of berries and pancake. “Doing a store promo, then a mini-photo-shoot with Spyda, plus a small branding meeting. All that paired with the usual shit, of course.”

                “Of course. Well, Owen, if you really want to learn more about what we do when not saving people, I think Hexcellent is your best shot today. That work for you?”

                “If she doesn’t mind, I’d love to tag along,” Owen said.

                “Fine by me,” Hexcellent replied. “It’ll be nice to finally have someone to carry my bags other than Big Henry. He scratches up damn near everything he touches.”

Chapter 16

                Owen was surprised to find a car waiting for him and Hexcellent. They’d finished breakfast and gotten into their respective costumes, then headed down to the street level where she walked without pause to a dark sedan idling at the curb.

                “You don’t drive?”

                “Company policy,” Hexcellent sighed. “Two years ago one of their old PEERS got into a fender-bender with some old lady. She developed back-problems, went after him and Mordent in court, and generally drummed up a lot of bad press as well as draining some cash out of their pockets. Now we’re only allowed to use a car service, unless we’re driving to an actual response in the approved vehicle. Keeps us from being liable.”

                “Also keeps you from going anywhere they don’t know about,” Owen added.

                “For a guy whose whole career is built on having Armageddon-level muscles, you’re pretty quick on the uptake.” Hexcellent climbed into the back seat, followed soon by her massive co-worker, and the car began maneuvering back into traffic.

                “I’m actually not Armageddon,” Owen told her once they were buckled up. Laws were laws, even if he was effectively invulnerable. The minute a Hero began to think he was above them was the same moment his downfall began.

                “Really? I thought you were this legendary dude with impossible strength.”

                “I am, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s pretty much impossible for a strongman to be considered an Armageddon-Class threat. We just don’t have the damage capacity.”

                Hexcellent cocked her head to the side, current blasting of make-up causing her to look like a somewhat befuddled bat. “Damage? Isn’t the rating system like a power-level thing?”

                “No, but a lot of people mistake it for that, even some Heroes.” Owen tried to cross his legs in an effort to find a more comfortable position, but this only resulted in him slightly bending the window handle. “People have tried putting a level system into place plenty of times, actually, it just never holds up. First off, we’re always learning about new people and powers that make us re-think things in terms of scale. And the second reason it always goes to shit is that lots of powers negate or overwhelm each other. For example, a good telekinetic can knock most strongmen out of a battle by lifting them off the ground, even if the strongman would be rated higher in terms of raw power.”

                “You’re explaining to me how there’s no level system to help me understand the level system,” Hexcellent pointed out. “I’ve got some old Algebra teachers you’d fit in just great with.”

                “Sorry, I just wanted to show why measuring Supers by level doesn’t work. What you can measure, regardless of their power, is their capacity for destruction. As I recall, the default rule is it’s how much damage a Super could do if left unchecked for an hour.”

                “Sounds sort of morbid, and that’s coming from a girl wearing zombie themed lipstick.”

                Owen nodded. “You won’t hear me disagreeing. It serves a purpose though, knowing someone’s class tells you how dangerous they are. It informs on how we prioritize protecting civilians, minimizing property damage, and escalating force. There’s no need to try to cripple or kill a Standard Class threat if subduing is an option.”

                “What if they’re higher up the chain?”

                “Then we do what has to be done. No Hero, at least none that lasts, enjoys that part of the job. But if we don’t stop them, innocent people will die. Personally, I always try to subdue or de-escalate first for anything below Armageddon Class. Bear in mind, my power gives me that as an option. Others aren’t so lucky.”

                “Jesus, and here I thought all you people did was pick kittens out of trees and foil bank-heists.” Hexcellent’s eyes were wide, creating a strange contrast in the whites of her sclera and the ink-black of her make-up.

                “PR departments try to de-emphasize that aspect of the job, same as with cops. It might be necessary, but that doesn’t mean people like to think about it.”

                “No shit.” Hexcellent turned to look out the window for a bit, watching the buildings roll by. “So what are these classes, then? Like, where would I fit in?”

                “You’d be a Standard-Class,” Owen replied. “Most Supers are. It means you can do some significant damage and are a danger to life; however you’re not a threat to a large-scale area.”

                “Great, I’m lowest rung.”

                “Actually, that would be the NTC Class. It stands for Non-Threatening Combatant, though we just call them ‘knocks’ for short. That nickname comes from the fact that usually one little tap to the head can bring them down. They’re Supers whose abilities are in no way dangerous, meaning they have the same propensity for damage as a regular human. Healers, people with low-caliber display abilities, that sort of thing.”

                “But Healers become Heroes, they can’t be that weak,” Hexcellent said.

                “It’s not about weak or strong, just about immediate destructive potential,” Owen reminded her.

                “Alright, so it goes NTC, Standard, then I’m guessing there’s something between that and Armageddon.”

                “Two steps: Demolition Class and Manhattan Class. Demo, which is my actual classification by the way, means a Super could level several city blocks if left unchecked. Manhattan means the level of destruction they can wreak would be roughly on par with a nuclear bomb. That’s why Supers like me never hit too high on the scale; we just can’t cover enough ground to be considered a massive threat.”

                “Well damn, here I thought we were at least getting a hot-shit Hero and you’re not even in the second to best class? Maybe we should see if Galvanize thinks you’re really cut out for the penthouse.” Hexcellent smiled at him, showing more warmth that she seemed to with some of her other team members.

                “You can try to throw me out, but I should warn you: I’ve kicked the dogshit out of countless Manhattans and even a few Armageddons. They might be better at large-scale destruction, but I’m in the top when it comes to one-on-one.”

                “Unless a telekinetic lifts you in the air,” Hexcellent reminded him.

                “I said that works on most strongmen. I’m not among that number.”

                “That so? Please enlighten me, great Hero, what secret technique do you use for getting out of such a precarious situation?”

                Owen reached into the belt of his uniform and pulled out a few steel-balls, roughly the size of marbles. “I throw these at whoever lifts me. They’ll at least break the person’s concentration, and if I hit them then that problem pretty much takes care of itself.”

                “No way that works. I’ve seen a bunch of telekinetic Heroes hold shields while doing other stuff. They could just block them.”

                Owen slipped the balls back into his belt pouch and gave Hexcellent a smile of his own. “Shields, like everything else in this world, can only take so much. Put enough force behind it and the right blow can shatter them.”

                “You’d have to be throwing pretty damned hard.”

                “Unlike keeping my mouth shut, that’s one of the few things I can do well,” Owen said.

Chapter 17

               The store promo, as Galvanize had called it, turned out to be little more than thankless glad-handing at the opening of the latest Fiery Discussion, Hexcellent’s most prominent sponsor. There was a small crowd there, no doubt drawn by the advertised sales and giveaways meant to promote the store’s new presence in the South Brewster mall. A small black tent was partially obscuring the mall’s walkway, filled with the store’s staff, along with several corporate representatives, gathered to greet the eager shoppers. Hexcellent, in her capacity as a representative of Mordent Holdings, the conglomerate that ultimately owned this “rebellious”company, was tasked with circulating through the meager audience.

                More people recognized her than Owen had expected, a mystery that solved itself when he glanced through the glass storefront and realized she was heavily featured in posters on the walls. Even those who didn’t know her usually greeted her with some warmth, at least among the males. Hexcellent was pretty in a way that appealed to them, she used their products and style with skill that still showcased her natural gifts. True, she wouldn’t be winning any classic beauty pageants, even if she had scrubbed the make-up and tattoos away, but that was what they liked about her. She didn’t look like a model grabbing a paycheck; she appeared to be the genuine article. Since Owen had seen her dress in similar fashions while on her off-time, he had no reason to suspect that wasn’t exactly the case.

                “Nice costume.”

                Owen glanced down, noticing a gangly male somewhere in his teens staring up at him. Despite all the reasons he had to don his non-descript mask, Owen had shown up in full Titan uniform. He sat away from the corporate folks, as Hero he needed to take care not to accidentally endorse their products, but he still drew attention as he towered over the rest of the crowd.

                “Thanks. Do I look like the real deal?”

                “I mean, it’s close, but the real Titan used bolder reds and had different stitching along the seams. Plus, he was taller, not that you can really help that. Still, all in all it’s a commendable job. I bet you could win a few prizes at conventions if you attended.”

                Owen suppressed the urge to frown as the teen wandered away, off to find a new novelty to occupy his time until the doors opened. On one hand he was glad not to have been recognized, it helped that almost no one knew Titan was back, but… taller? It was those damn television cameras always choosing the perfect angles, making him look like he was even bigger than he was.

                “Anyone pieced together that you’re the real deal yet?” Hexcellent asked, walking over with a water bottle in hand. It surprised him how few curse-words she’d used since they arrived, but he supposed even among this crowd certain personality aspects required corporate sanitization.

                “Not so far,” Owen replied. “Though that last kid said my costume was ‘close.’ So, that’s progress.”

                Hexcellent snorted, trying not to spray water from her nose, then quickly turning away lest any of the audience should see her near-mishap. “It’s your own fault,” she said as she delicately wiped her face, careful not to smudge any make-up. “You’ve got that grey mask, you could have come incognito.”

                “Forget it, I’m here with you. We’re part of a team. Sooner or later people will realize that Hexcellent and Titan are working together, think of how thrilled these folks will be when they can say they were at the first public appearance.”

                “You severely over-estimate how many fucks are given about our team.” Hexcellent caught the curse only after it had exited her mouth and glanced around frantically to make sure no one else had heard. “What I mean is, yes, they’ll shake my hand and all, but at the end of the day that has way more to do with my face and body than with my professional exploits. Same is true for everyone on the team.”

                “I disagree,” Owen replied. “You guys save lives for a living. Just because this group doesn’t understand and respect that doesn’t mean there aren’t others who do. I bet at least one kid you’ve pulled out of a wrecked car or burning building has a poster of you over his bed.”

                “Trust me, I’ve seen the sales numbers, statistically your statement is probably true. Personally, I just try not to think about all the other posters of me that get sold. You know, to people who don’t know my name. Gives me the creepy-shivers.” One of the men wearing a collared shirt with the Fiery Discussion emblem on it was waving Hexcellent back over. It seemed they were nearly ready to open the doors, meaning Hexcellent had to stand-bye to do another round of greetings and handshakes that lasted a bit too long.

                “Titan, are you able to take assignments?” He didn’t jump in surprise at Dispatch’s voice humming in his ear this time, maybe he would get the hang of this again sooner than he thought. By plugging his earpiece in that morning, he’d put himself on the grid of Heroes without going officially active. While he didn’t anticipate a need so great they had to rally coverage, it was his obligation to at least be prepared for such things.

                “I’m working as Hero Liason right now, so I’m not taking assignments unless there’s a severe shortage or tremendous threat. Then I’ll do my part.” Owen pulled a cell phone from his pocket and stuck it to his ear as he spoke. No need to make people worry that the enormous, muscle-bound man was also having a psychotic break.

                A slight pause came before Dispatch's reply. “Status recorded. There is a minor disturbance some distance from you. It is escalating, but the responding Heroes are establishing control. Should you be needed, teleportation will be arranged. If you hear nothing from me in the next fifteen minutes, consider the situation resolved.”

                “Gotcha. What is this situation, anyway?”

                “Mechanical constructs with capable weaponry and high-levels of adaptability. Appeared and began wreaking property damage roughly ten minutes ago in the south-western area of the city. Elemental Fury has now arrived on the scene and diminished their numbers by forty percent. Likelihood of your needed intervention is dropping, but stay ready.”

                “Of course.”

                Owen put the phone away since their conversation had momentarily ended. Dispatch wasn’t really gone, she never stopped being right there. She was simply not talking, at least to him. If Elemental Fury, Gale’s team, was as good as their rep then he probably wouldn’t be needed. Even knowing that, Owen looked around, finding the most likely route of entrance for a teleporter to take. In a real battle, nothing was ever certain, no matter how good the Heroes were.

                Hexcellent looked up from her crowd and flashed him a pained oh-god-how-much-longer-do-I have-to-do-this-grin. He responded with a small wave, doing all he could to hide the sudden spike of pre-battle anxiety rising in his gut.

Chapter 18

               They were outside the mall when Dispatch’s voice crackled in Owen’s ear, only a few yards from the town car that would whisk them away to their next location.

                “Titan, you have hostile constructs closing on your location. Elemental Fury wiped out the first wave, but a second appeared and scattered in various directions. One cluster is on a path that will intersect with your location in less than five minutes. Can you respond?”

                Owen had stopped walking when he heard Dispatch speak, leading Hexcellent to shoot him a look of confusion. He held up one finger, gave a small shrug of apology, then replied to Dispatch.

                “I can. One the Supers from my PEERS team is with me; do we have time to get her clear?”

                “Negative. The constructs caused several accidents, leading to traffic congestion on every applicable route to safety. We have teams clearing, but until they’re done getting in a car will put her at higher risk.”

                “Excuse me, did you just ask if I could ‘get clear’?” Hexcellent said, narrowing her eyes and sticking a hand on her hip. “If something’s going down, I’m one of the people helping, remember dipshit?”

                “We’ve got robots or something like it less than five minutes away. If they come, it’s possible they’ll go after you, and I don’t want to get you in trouble for engaging in combat,” Owen explained. “Unfortunately the roads are jammed, so you’re stuck here.”

                “Well that sucks, but they’re coming to us, right?”

                “That’s what I’m told.”

                “Then if I get attacked I can respond in self-defense. Just because we can’t start shit doesn’t mean we can’t end it when some other douchenozzle does.” A wry, daring smile lit up her face at the prospect of sanctioned battle. Owen again found himself wondering why a woman like this hadn’t found her way into the HCP. It was a curiosity that would have to be sated another time.

                “Alright, I’m ready to respond and I’ve got a PEERS with me for helping with the civilians. What can you tell me about these things?” He turned away from Hexcellent, not because he thought his words would in any way be muffled, but rather as a polite way of distinguishing that he wasn’t speaking to her. Dispatch didn’t require any indicators; she always knew what was conversation and what was for her. It was one of the many strange, yet useful, aspects of the mysterious voice.

                “You have four heading toward your location. They have strength and resilience on par with a Standard-Class strongman, laser weaponry on par with a Standard-Class blaster, and reaction speed at elevated human-levels.”

                “If that’s all there is then I don’t see why they caused such trouble,” Owen prodded.

                “I was getting to that. They also show adaptability to tactics, learning from the mistakes of others. Given your skillset, I do not foresee it being an issue. The other unique capability of these constructs is that they show minor regeneration. Disabled units would re-enter combat after being let alone for some time. They cannot heal beyond complete dismemberment or destruction, however.”

                Owen stretched out his arms, tensing every muscle from his shoulder to his fingers. After a moment, he rose up on his toes, adding his legs to the procedure. He felt the mild strain in his tendons, and for an instant he was intimately aware of every fiber of muscle in his massive body. Ever-so-slowly, he released the stretch, pulling his arms back in and lowering down on his feet. It should only be a minute or so now.

                “Hit them hard, hit them fast, and don’t stop until they are scrap. That it?”

                “That will neutralize the threat. We have others trying to gain information out of their wreckage and systems, but I’m aware your talents lay in other directions. They have continued on their current course and will be breaking into your line of sight momentarily.”

                With a squint of his eyes Owen could make out the shimmering shapes of four sizable humanoids running toward him. They were big, probably a little taller than he was. Not that it would help. He pulled back his left leg and judged the distance. It had been a while since he pulled this trick; Owen hoped he hadn’t lost the touch.

                “So, am I finally going to see the legendary Titan let loose on some motherfuckers?” Hexcellent’s tone was light but she’d positioned herself several feet behind him. Her attention was split, eyes darting between her teammate and the mall entrance where shoppers were already beginning to line-up and point.

                “I’ll do my best to put on a good show, but to be honest this is probably going be a pretty boring fight. Stay ready though, if any of them get past me you’ll have to draw attention from the humans.”

                “Big Henry ain’t exactly a subtle sumnabitch, if you hadn’t noticed,” Hexcellent replied. She hadn’t summoned any of her demons yet, but Owen had seen how quick she could pull them. It was the right call, bringing them out might panic the civilians. Best to let him settled things quickly.

                With a nod to Hexcellent and a minor grunt, more out of habit than effort, Owen pushed against the concrete with enough power that it cracked under his boots. The force of the jump sent him sailing forward in an arc more long than high, carrying him across the parking lot to where four metal behemoths were just arriving on the asphalt.

                Whether it was luck or skill, Owen hit his mark dead-on, landing only a few feet away from the cluster of constructs. The concrete sprayed them as he effortlessly tore through it with his landing. Before any of them had a chance to register him as a threat, Owen sprang. He darted up to the two on the left and slammed a hand into the torso of each. Flexing his fingers, he easily shredded their armored facades and gripped the firm inner workings that kept them moving.

                His guess had been close on their size; each was nearly half a foot taller than him. Despite this, he showed no apparent effort as he lifted the two constructs off the ground, spread his arms, and then clapped them together like two high-tech tambourines. Sparks and shards of metal rained down on Owen, who ignored it all just as he’d been ignoring the flailing blows that the two bots had been pelting him with since he arrived. He pulled them apart and them banged them together again, and again, and again. After the fourth strike there was barely enough left to hold, let alone smash, so he dropped the remains of his first victims and turned to the other two.

                This was the first time Owen got a good look at them, as he’d deformed the ones he held too quickly to get a mental picture. Each one possessed a small, dome-like head, as though someone had spray-painted a bowl and turned it upside down. They had awkward, triangular torso and fore-arms that were vastly over-sized and out of proportion. That anomaly explained itself quickly, as the one on his right raised its hands and fired red beams at Owen’s chest.

                Oh yeah, he’d forgotten about the lasers. Owen dashed forward to the one attacking him, ignoring the slightly singed smell of roasting costume, and grabbed it by one of its triangular shoulders. If the robot had the capability of feeling surprise, it certainly didn’t get an opportunity to. With another hand snaring its waist, Owen ripped the metal warrior in half as easily as one would tear serrated paper. Just for good measure, he quickly tore it into a few more pieces before scattering them about with a whip of his arm.

                Spinning on his heel, he found the last one shuffling on its feet. Dispatch had said these things learned, and were adaptable. It was probably trying to compute a strategy to overcome him.

                “Good luck with that,” Owen chuckled. The robot stopped shuffling for the barest of instants, and Owen pounced.

                It was too bad, really. He had wanted to put on a better first exhibition for his new teammate.

Chapter 19

               “So… are you completely invulnerable or some shit?”

                Hexcellent had been largely silent after they finished calming the civilians, letting a cleanup team get the robot scrap, and piled into the town car to hit their next destination. She’d mostly just been skimming her phone and throwing occasional, furtive glances his way.

                “No one is truly invulnerable,” Owen told her. How many times had he used those words? Not only to fans or interviewers, but to upcoming Supers who hadn’t yet learned how important a lesson that was.

                “Yeah, you say that, but those robo-douches were whaling on you the whole time you had them, and one hit you full-force with lasers that could tear through concrete and steel. That seems pretty invulnerable to me.”

                “I never said I wasn’t tough, that’s part of my power. Invulnerable implies beyond all means of injury, and no one has that ability. No matter who you are, no matter how strong your power, we all have a weakness.” Owen paused for a moment and considered her words. “Wait, how do you know what their lasers could do?”

                Hexcellent waved her phone, really just a big screen, in his face. “It’s all over the web. Those things did a shitload of damage before Heroes got there, and even then managed to put a few out of the fight. You went through them like Thai food through Galvanize.”

                Owen scrunched his brow in response.

                “Oh, right, you haven’t been here for Pan-Asian cuisine night. Just be glad we all have our own bathrooms. Also, the point was that you fucking wrecked them.”

                “I had the benefit of knowledge on my side. The others went in blind, but I got to know what they could and couldn’t do. That let me tackle them efficiently, without having to worry about them secretly being explosive or having enough firepower to bring me down. First response is always the hardest, most dangerous work,” Owen explained.

                “Yeah, I get it, humility, politeness, and blah blah blah. Did they at least get all of those things?”

                “They did.” When Owen had told Dispatch about bringing his down, she’d updated him on the rest of the threat. The second wave had been smaller and less organized than the first; by the time a crew was picking up the remains of his fight the rest had already been terminated.

                “What do you think they wanted, anyway? To rob the food court?”

                “Honestly, I think they were a test-run,” Owen replied.

                “Wait, that was a fucking beta-trial?”

                “It’s my theory.” Owen glanced out the window, marveling at how quickly they’d gotten the messes cleaned up and traffic flowing. “Those things were strong, but they had some serious design flaws. Add in the lack of a clear objective, and it points to someone seeing how his first batch of bots stacked up against the town’s Heroes. You’d be surprised how many tech-genius Supers use the exact same opening gambit.”

                “Oooh, or what if the robots sprang to life and got away from him. They surged out of the laboratory, hellbent on destruction of the human world. Titan, you may have just helped stop the robot-apocalypse.” Hexcellent reached over and patted him on the head, stretching her long arms to their limit. “Good boy.”

                “You just pretty much drift along in your own world, don’t you?”

                “I’m a quasi-celebrity. I think we can both agree that’s my right.” Hexcellent stopped patting as the  town car whispered up to a curb. Before she could reach the handle, the door swung open and a hand literally covered in tattoos reached in. It delicately took hers and helped pull her out of the vehicle as Owen emerged on his own side.

                He surfaced to see Hexcellent lip-locked with a taller man, bald head and face nearly as tattooed as his hands. After a kiss long enough to register as uncomfortable for all bystanders, the two finally parted.

                “What kept you babe?” The tattooed man had a slightly southern twang to his voice, the sort of lingering accent that belonged to people who tried to remove it from their voice. Owen might not have noticed it, but his time with Sally and her south Texas family had trained him to pick up on the vibrations.

                “Robots causing traffic,” she replied. Hexcellent turned around and pointed at Owen. “This big bastard is Titan, our team’s new Hero Liason. Titan, this is Spyda, my boyfriend.”

                “Pleasure to meet you.” Spyda walked around the car and grabbed Owen’s vast hand in an enthusiastic shake. The Hero was a bit taken back at how friendly this man who looked like an advertisement for biker gangs was being. Hexcellent seemed to read the expression on his face, even through the mask.

                “Spyda is a guitarist for a hardcore metal band. Don’t let the look fool you, he’s actually a fucking softy.”

                “But let’s keep that between us. Image and all to consider, I’m sure you understand.” Spyda released his hand and turned back to Hexcellent. “Darling, I hate to rush you, but the photographer doesn’t have much time left and we’ll both catch heat if the shoot isn’t done.”

                “Lucky for you, my hot ass is always camera ready,” Hexcellent replied. “Titan, you can hang out in the prep room if you want, we shouldn’t be more than an hour.”

                “You two go on ahead, I’m going to take a walk,” he said. “I’ll be here when you get out.”

                “Okay, see you then,” Hexcellent called as they head toward the front door of the large office building.

                “It was wonderful meeting you,” Spyda added before they vanished behind the frosted glass door.

                As soon as they were gone, Owen turned and headed up the street. He’d seen an internet café on their way over, and Hexcellent had gotten his interest piqued in whatever footage was already online. Back in his day they had to rely on the scrap footage put together from cameras sewn into the team member’s costumes. With a whole world watching, it would be interesting to look at an attack from so many different angles.

                Besides, his experience told him that this wouldn’t be the last rampage of robots from whatever low-rent techie had cobbled them together. Best to see as much as he could and be ready for next time. If these things had really brought other Heroes down, Owen had a feeling he would be called in a lot sooner when they resurfaced.