Chapter 53

                It was getting late into the evening by the time Owen finally made it back to the building’s massive penthouse that he’d begun to think of as home base, if not quite yet as home. True to his word, Jeremiah had shifted down the over-the-top advances and focused on delivering pertinent information about the robot attacks. There hadn’t been anything groundbreaking, but that was to be expected at this point. If those running down the leads found anything juicy, there would have been a call to action, even if Owen wasn’t included on it. The food had been excellent and Jeremiah was right about the craft beers the restaurant had; so overall it would have been a pleasant night out, if not for the whole awkwardness of the dinner’s beginning.

                Owen tried not to dwell on that part, or how right Jeremiah might have been, as he walked through the front door. Most of the front lights were out; save for a small one in the kitchen and the massive glow thrown by the television screen. On it, a virtual character in a skimpy outfit was striking an overly-muscled man with her sword. It only took Owen a few seconds to recognize the male character, and the moment he did a long groan escaped his mouth.

                “Really? You found a copy of a Hero Team Battle Force 5? Lenny swore to me that they’d back-listed it years ago.”

                “Yeah, welcome to the age of the internet,” Hexcellent said, maneuvering her scarcely clad character around the battlefield, blade still in hand, as she slashed away at Virtual Titan’s health bar. “Someone put up all the games forever ago, and people have been tossing on their own mods as well. It took me less than five minutes to get this baby hooked up.”

                Owen just shook his head as he saw the version of him made from pixels go into a death animation. It seemed Hexcellent was pretty good for having just downloaded the game, Titan was one of the boss characters. It had been specified in his contract.

                “I’m going to bed,” he announced.

                “Aw, don’t be like that. Grab a controller and show me if you can make your avatar kick as much ass as you did the other day.” Hexcellent held up a spare controller, and to his surprise, Owen walked over and picked it up. He’d never been much for arcade games, but right now doing anything besides marinating in his own thoughts seemed appealing.

                “Awesome, now A is punch, B is kick…” Hexcellent continued explaining the controls to him, then gave Owen a few minutes to practice before they started their first match. It lasted less than a full minute, with both rounds combined.

                “You are not great at this,” Hexcellent said, clicking the button to start a rematch.

                “Give me a break, I literally just started playing.”

                Hexcellent laughed softly; a sound more personal and delicate than the showy boisterous chuckles she put on when the crowd was around. “No, I’m actually kind of glad you suck. I was starting to wonder if there was anything you weren’t impossibly good at.”

                “Trust me, I’m bad at loads of things,” Owen assured her.

                “Really? Not from where I’m sitting. You stroll in here out of the past and proceed to pretty much kick ass at everything you do. You saved a girl on your first night here, and then went out of your way to make sure she was taken care of. You get a call about some incoming robots that took down a whole Hero team and you smash them to pieces. The minute you start dealing with the media again it’s all they can do to stop talking about you, and yesterday you took down the top Hero team in this whole fucking city. So far this is the first thing I’ve seen that you really blow at.” To illustrate the point, Hexcellent delivered a killing stirke, finishing the first round of their rematch.

                “Well, I’ve also managed to act like an ass when I first arrived, and piss off our boss multiple times, not to mention alienate one to two members of the team. I’m clearly not great at this job.”

                “Look, Zone’s stuff is his own. He’s not dumb, he understands that if you’d played things a different way there’s no guarantee things would have been easier on his brother. He’s just pissed at how things went, and you’re the only tangible thing he can point at and blame. Sooner or later he’ll get over it. But who is the other person you think you’ve alienated?”

                “Bubble Bubble seems largely indifferent to my presence,” Owen admitted.

                “Oh, yeah, she is, but that’s true for all of us. BB isn’t exactly what you’d call a team player. She tries not to get attached, makes moving about easier on her. I tried a lot to connect with her when she first joined; the girl was having none of it. Now I mostly just trade insults with her. I like to think it’s affectionate, but even I’m not totally sure at this point.”

                The digital version of Titan began his final death animation again as Hexcellent’s blade wielder took him down. Before Owen could object, she’d clicked on the rematch button and new battle was beginning.

                “I guess it’s reassuring, in a way, to know that she at least acts the same toward everyone,” Owen said.

                “Yup, total ice queen. Don’t let it get you down. For what it’s worth, I’m really glad you joined our team. It’s kind of neat, having a legendary Hero with us. Instead of just being the dorky corpies, we get to see what it’s like around the cool kids. Plus, you know, you aren’t so terrible as a person either.”

                Owen smiled, attacking with his character and being summarily driven back by Hexcellent’s superior skills. “I think you’re easily the coolest kids I’ve dealt with since getting back. But honestly, if you ever wanted to go Hero, you’ve easily got enough power to make the program.”

                 “I appreciate it, but they don’t let people with my kind of criminal record into the HCP,” Hexcellent said. “Trust me, I tried every last one of them before I took this job.”

                “Oh.” Owen had been wondering almost since he arrived why this girl; this powerful, courageous, tenacious young woman, had gone the route of the private response instead of trying to be a Hero. That made sense though; having a criminal record was almost always an automatic rejection from the HCP. She would have needed someone to really take an interest in her to get offered a shot, and even then it still might not have happened. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

                “Relax, I know you meant it as a compliment,” Hexcellent assured him, killing his avatar for the sixth straight time and ending their third match. “When I was young I got caught up with the wrong crowd. A few years and a meth addiction later I finally hit rock bottom and decided to clean my life up, but it didn’t change what I’d done. There’s a price for fucking up that badly, my chances at an HCP career were a part of it.”

                She held up her controller and glanced over to Owen. “Want to scamper off to bed, or are you itching for more of this sweet, sweet punishment?”

                Owen regarded her for a moment, impressed by her maturity. Most people couldn’t own their demons like that, they had to push off what they’d done onto circumstances or others. She’d taken her responsibility without hesitation, and Owen found his respect for her growing yet again. It truly was a shame she’d taken a bad road, he thought the world would have benefited from Hexcellent the Hero.

                “I’m down for a few more matches, but I’d like to switch characters first,” Owen said. “Between you and me, this Titan guy kind of sucks.”