“I’m worried about activating War God before the others,” Thara, the famous Awesome Alien, told her director at the UN, Dr. Pamela Quinn-Singh.
“Because she has no powers?”
“You trained under her in JT2; you said you’d never fought her like on Earth or your homeworld.”
“I never have. She bested me. Every time. My strength and speed meant nothing at all to her. Yet a stray bullet could kill her.”
“Not everyone on this team is bulletproof, Thara. But War God isn’t a civilian like the others. They just aren’t ready for activation. Faith Jackson is. She’s all we have besides you.”
“What’s the urgency? We can’t even locate the Infernals so far.”
“The leader, Zealot, announced she would empty the vault of the Citibank at 32nd and 10th. A fortress. She’s going to throw all the currency to the crowd again. She’s invited you to stop her.”
“Today. Five pm., busiest time. Your plane is waiting. War God is flying. We didn’t argue. Read the mission briefing on the way.”
In the spacious cockpit of PowerTrip’s Arrow supersonic transport, War God looked serene, as though she could feel the plane all the way through her, feel the sky through the plane. “What is it, Thara?” The Colonel smiled. She had such delicate fingers and hands for a warrior.
“Sorry, Colonel. I didn’t mean to stare at you. It’s not rude to my people, to look at each other closely. Personal space and privacy are different. Thanks for not being weirded out.”
“We’re cool, Gladiator. We always have been. And you can call me War God on missions and in public, and Faith on the flights and at home, okay?”
“What’s on your mind?” the Colonel asked.
“Col—Faith. What do we do about this fight? I’ve got a plan but its going to involve casualties. I’ve fought and killed, lost women, but never this…”
“They attack civilians. With their powers it’s hard to fight them at all without civilians getting hurt. But every second we delay striking at them, they kill more people. You have to make hard call after hard call with blood spilled any choice you make. That’s command.”
“I understood that on Plagus, where fights were territorial—more like team duels to you. No innocents were anywhere near conflicts between neighbouring nobles. This … confuses me.”
“Think of this as a challenge, Gladiator. Your first command. Try to enjoy it as a warrior does danger!” The Colonel’s eyes sparkled with joy. She was at peace. A stone in a storm. Gladiator felt like a sheet of newspaper in the rain. She took her anxiety meds. Her hyperdrive ship stored in PowerTrip Compound had twenty years of her prescriptions. She was beginning to shake. Fuck, no. Not now. She couldn’t afford it now. Let her mind burn with fear on her own time.
The Colonel knew exactly how to lead this mission, smiling as she did. Thara could ask her to take command.
And lose her respect forever. Fail and fall so deep in failure the very memory of it would bring about her anxiety every time a situation with innocents lives at stake loomed.
She would be a cripple of a commander. But if she went ahead and another moment of indecision came and she froze, her mind locked with anxiety—knowing innocents had died for her failure would destroy her. No way but forward for a warrior. But if that doctrine cost the lives of those she was sent to save? There was no safety. The anxious thoughts turned into a feeling of horror and epiphany. No way out. No right choice.
“You’re sweating like a hostage. Thara, what’s wrong?” Faith put her pretty, long hand on Thara’s forehead, wiped her nearly dry. Thara could feel new beads breaking out right away.
“Anxiety problems. Your people have it, too, but it’s a problem for a warrior.”
“I thought so. Hard on a fighter before a mission, isn’t it?” the Colonel asked her.
“Harder during the mission, I fear.”
“You’re scared you’re going to freeze.”
“Yes. How do you know? Have … Have you ever frozen, Faith?”
“Authority never reveals itself, junior,” War God said. Then she tapped Thara on the nose just hard enough for her to feel before putting her hand back on the yoke. “I know you’re having a problem. The way past fear is through, not around or any other way.”
Thara nodded. Tried to make it a physical lesson. Something she could do with her fear.
“Thirty minutes,” the Colonel said. “Let’s plan.”
The Arrow set down in the nearest public park to the bank. War God grabbed Thara’s head in her maroon-gloved grip and pressed her forehead to Thara’s, which was wet with sweat. “Pride is on the other side of this. Okay?” the Colonel said.
“Okay,” Gladiator said, feeling very much like an impostor of some kind. She had only known this people for a short time. She presumed to be its defender. Defend from whom? she wondered. And who was this Zealot really, under her mask?
The two costumed heroes walked down 32nd a couple of blocks from 10th. There was an eerie quiet; the streets were empty but for stray people running from their destination. Then they saw all the people. They were packed thickly on the streets of the intersection. There was broken glass and many millions of bills on the sidewalk surrounding the bank. The crowd included security guards, police officers, and two swat teams that Gladiator could make out. All urgently pressed to near a costumed figure in blue and red holding a triangular shield of red, blue, and black. Wind swept money across the ground; none bent to pick it up. The costumed Zealot spoke:
“You know us as Hell’s Legion, the Infernals! We are the waking of the world to the will of the people for change, for a decent chance at happiness and a dream or two for everybody. The wealthy and powerful elites create a game of competition called the market, and we all compete until we die, occasionally remembering our dreams and noticing that others are losing the game, too. Almost all of us are losing the game!” The crowd roared as if singing in a choir of hate.
Gladiator nodded at the Colonel, and the two picked their way through the milling, intent audience. They were not being compelled in any way Gladiator could see, just listening with a fervor she had never witnessed. It frightened her. What would such people be capable of? The Colonel could not survive a mob no matter her prowess as a warrior.
“Ah, if it isn’t the Alien—the Awesome Alien—Thara! Gladiator and War God of PowerTrip, sent to hunt me down. See me tremble?”
The crowd numbered a thousand or more, those in earshot caught in the web. They all turned angry eyes on the two heroes. War God and Thara were twenty paces from where Zealot stood pressed by people reaching to touch her. Thara put her hand up to halt.
“Very wise, Gladiator. But you’ve crossed the Rubicon. These people I fight for will fight for themselves, you’d better believe. Show the world real change. Won’t you?” Zealot cried.
The crowd moved like a single being and Thara was clutched by so many hands. She couldn’t see War God. Didn’t know if she was coping. How could she be? Thara had to act. She had trained carefully with War God to incapacitate humans without killing them with her alien strength. But it took concentration, and care. War God could be dying under the boots of what had become a mass of homicidal maniacs. Decide.
Gladiator threw five or six men and women off, hoping they would land okay. She pushed through dozens of people jammed tight and pressing for her, fists and some weapons and stones striking her harmlessly. War God must be down. She kept pushing through a dozen or more people at once, crushing them against the ranks behind, hurting them, all to try to find the Colonel. Thara might be killing someone!
“Gladiator!” called War God. The colonel stood in a narrow alley allowing only two people at once to come at her. One rabid man or woman, old or young, even children, sprinted at her one after another. The Colonel felled each effortlessly, sometimes with her nunchucks if two attacked at once, a gentle choke if there was time between attackers.
The Colonel wasn’t even afraid. She was drawing attackers to her to give Thara a chance to strike the enemy. Only Gladiator was a physical match for Zealot, who could lift a tank and was invulnerable while she held her shield.
Gladiator threw off a crowd of people and sprinted through the hole she’d made to lay hands on Zealot. Zealot was unafraid, smiling.
Gladiator struck her on the side of the jaw with a little of her real strength, trying to knock her out. Zealot’s head snapped to the right and she turned back, grinning but clearly shaken by the blow. Harder next time.
Hands covered her face from behind and sought for her eyes, pried at her eyelids. The people had begun by fighting with fists and feet. Now she felt fingernails and teeth all over her skin. She felt as though she were being tasted, and in the teeth a desperate pulling, a pack animal’s exultation in its death-grip exertions. The people were now less than a mob, and more—become a pack of human predators. The Colonel. No sight of her, so she must be pressed further down the alley. It was deep, but eventually she would have to run. Would she run? Or die fighting? Fighting victims of a madwoman drunk on her superpower with a childish dream of revolution.
Thara exploded. Rage filled her. People were going to die because of this maniac. War God might be dead because of this maniac. MANIAC. People flew like plush dolls, landing near, some very far. Gladiator moved at a speed she reserved for race tracks, and then had the grinning young woman in the ridiculous American flag-coloured costume by the throat. Strong hands grasped her wrists. Super strong. Not nearly strong enough to matter. Thara was going to kill a defenceless opponent. A first. Zealot was at her mercy, and her smile was gone. Her life, she saw in Gladiator’s eyes, was going to end any second. Thara needed to squeeze and hold. That’s all. And wait.
“Gladiator, kill her!” War God. Running toward her from another alley, a mass of people dashing after her.
“Gladiator!” yelled Zealot. The red and blue shield was in her face.
A Youtube video titled “Gladiator kills 89.” Over three billion views. Thara saw herself flinging a swath of people into a wall, crushing them. The bodies fell to the ground like broken dolls, leaving blood spots where heads had struck wall. The video cut to footage of the mayor of New York City: “Gladiator isn’t the friend from another world we thought she was. We saw her rage. Saw her thirst to kill innocent victims of mind control. Another super power. We trusted good superbeings to fight the menaces we couldn’t begin to fight. Perhaps we are alone in a new world of monsters that dwell in our midst, some with UN mandates.” A cut to a weeping child. “Why are you crying, honey?” asks a journalist. The caption: FIVE-YEAR-OLD BETH SIMON, DAUGHTER OF GLADIATOR VICTIM ANGELA SIMON appeared. “Gladiator is my hero and she killed mommy…”
War God struck her face again. Gladiator steadied herself. Dizzy. Under some spell. Wake up.
People were milling about. There were no ambulances. No one laying flat. Zealot was gone. War God was okay. She was okay.
“We’ve all seen the footage. Gladiator, do I need to show it again?”
“No, Ma’am. May I ask you to ask me a helpful question?”
“Is this how a UN agent conducts herself? Is this the behavior we can expect from a symbol of our belief in non-violent change?”
“I responded out of concern for the life of my fellow agent. My use of force resulted in no serious injuries to people who, through no fault of their own, were attacking and threatening the life of my partner and very probably of each other and others. Zealot has turned mobs upon themselves before. I had to very quickly use enough force to stop Zealot from doing such a thing, even if there was risk of harm to innocents. It’s among a commander’s more painful decisions to make. To minimize loss of life.”
“War God. Your record of service in the Canadian and UN forces is distinguished to say the least and your judgment in morally challenging situations lauded. What do you feel about your partner’s conduct?”
“I feel she experienced a very brief moment of confusion, but even under desperate circumstances she used force within constraints we trained many hours to make second nature for her. Confusion afflicts young commanders. It did me. Gladiator led well today.”
“And of the woman who died? Sarah Parmela, age 37, died of a broken neck? No explanation of how the fatal injury was sustained. How did it happen?”
“We think she was killed in the violent struggles of the crowd to lay hands on us. We fear that is so,” the Colonel said.
Thara was wrong. A woman lay on the ground next to the car she had been flung against. No. Find out if she’s alive. Gladiator made herself sprint to the still woman. Faint breath against her palm. Frightened eyes. Terrified.
“Am I paralysed?”
War God knelt next to the woman and examined her. Asked her if she could feel, moving up her body. Tears streamed down the woman’s face as the Colonel’s gloved hands moved up her body, searching for feeling. “You can feel here, can’t you?” the Colonel asked. Her fingers pressed the woman’s throat gently.
“Yes…” the woman said, hoarse. “I can’t be like this. I just can’t…”
“I know. I know. I’m Faith. I’m going to stay with you until we figure this out, okay?”
“Okay,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you, Sarah?”
“Thirty-seven. I just got pregnant.” Fresh tears flooded the young woman’s face.
“I’m going to feel around to see how your ribs and organs are, okay, Sarah?”
“Okay, thank you.”
The Colonel felt the woman’s chest and abdomen. Frowned. She stood and put a hand on Thara’s shoulder. Whispered in her ear close enough to feel her breath. “She’s terrified. She has a few hours,” Faith said. She looked Thara in the eye like she were asking something. She smiled and nodded at Thara. Thara guessed her feelings were written all over her face. Gladiator knelt over the woman. The woman’s face was trembling. Gladiator trembled also, but it wasn’t her anxiety. It was something new. She reached for the woman. A gloved hand took her shoulder.
“Let me, okay?” the Colonel said, smiling sadly at her.
“No, Colonel. Thank you.”
“She’s gone now,” Thara told the Colonel. Gladiator was still trembling. War God’s hand never left her shoulder.