Roger Hesker pulled up to his favourite spot in the alley from which to watch Tanelle. He was bleeding all over the inside of his poor car. He’d spent every evening and most nights for a year today parked here, watching a troubled young woman cope with the murder of her mother. Hesker had killer her. War God, the unpowered costumed hero on PowerTrip who always seemed to be turning the tide for the superheroes. Hesker won everything a year ago when he fought her. Killed the greatest fighter alive. It damned near went the other way. Now Tanelle, War God’s daughter, had become the most dangerous mark he’d ever hunted.
Hesker tried to nerve up the whole drive for this moment. The moment he’d test his minor telepathic ability against a young woman with the full ability and creativity to boot. Tanelle. She’d attacked him three times during the drive. Betty’s boot mat was starting to soak with his blood, all from a nosebleed he couldn’t stop. Was this how he died? A fucking nosebleed? The Watcher tortured and then killed by a fucking girl who never spent a day in training.
Hesker wasn’t ready to attack. He did anyway. Looked out and sent his focal point ahead six kilometers to Tanelle’s university res room and saw her. He made himself breath evenly. Knocked on the monster’s door. He fastened onto her easily enough, but there was nothingness where he usually saw clusters of her thoughts. Tanelle must be blocking him.
Hesker. Die, you motherfucker!
He felt another hot prick of pain in his head. Fresh blood poured all over his sticky green and black Kevlar costume. Time to play his best card in this fight. She wasn’t a killer yet, but she’d make it. He looked up, looked at her again. Fastened to ensure she would get his thoughts.
Watcher imagined burning her feet over an open fire at the campsite where he’d found War God on the day he killed her. He imagined her screaming, made himself smile. Brighten inside. He grabbed her hair, pulled it back, thrust into her. Came over and over. Day changed to still night. Watcher still played with his toy.
He opened his eyes. Looked at her again. Thoughts appeared. They raced. Panic. Good.
“Chapter 11 of Warrior Ethos, you fucking cunt,” Hesker said. “Browse it while you wait.”
The thoughts were scattering like a flock of pidgeons hit by a hawk. The thoughts were staying thoughts, not mixing and building into decisions. Hesker saw her thoughts with a granularity he’d never seen. Incredible texture and richness. He felt a twinge of pain in his chest as one of his ribs shifted. Christ, how could he even fight?
He’d scared her. Badly. But how long until she shook free? He floored the gas as soon as he hit the highway, taking Betty up to 250 km/hr. He had to be fast.
Hesker pushed Betty’s door open with his boot. It was hot in Brooklyn for May. Hesker’s blood from a nasty scalp cut ran into his eyes. He did not know how often he and Betty had rolled, but he knew how bad it hurt as all his previously broken ribs shifted and cut up his insides. Something massive hit him. Where did it go? He hadn’t even seen it.
He tumbled out of Betty and reflexively crawled for her trunk to gear up. He didn’t think he could use his sniper’s bow, but he shouldered it, felt the fibrous string and action of the bow as if it were his favourite toy. Maybe it was.
He shut the trunk, revealing Gladiator of PowerTrip. Of course. He wasn’t thinking. He was in shock. He reached into his satchel for a stim and took it. Gladiator was so beautiful, barefoot and wearing her simple costume that was little more than a bathing suit. Her skin was copper. Seeing it in the sunlight was breathtaking. The Awesome Alien. He’d watched YouTube clips of her clocking speeds of 350 km/hr. She’d just sprinted into him and bulldozed Betty about twenty meters from the main highway. The crash must have been cool.
Look at him. Relishing another fight in the shape he was in. Admiring his adversary. It was his nature.
“Gladiator,” Hesker said. She smiled. Hesker winced.
“You can hardly stand, Watcher. We would have left you alone for a while if you hadn’t moved on Tanelle. She’s PowerTrip family, fuckwad,” Hesker’s legs were gone, stripped out so fast he wasn’t sure if they were intact. His head hit grass hard. The pain tore half a scream from him. She’d swept his legs with perfect form for a followup kill strike. A super-fast, super-strong martial artist with training in special forces from two different worlds. None of his fans would be disappointed with this amazing death.
A weight came down on his chest. Gladiator’s foot, pressing a lot more gently than he’d expected.
“Hurts, I bet. You came into this in rough shape, didn’t you, Watcher? I’m almost sorry to have to share what’s left of you,” Gladiator said, looking up from him at someone else.
“Unmask him. I want to see the face of the man who killed Faith,” the Angel Wrath said.
Anyone but the Angel. He thought of Darkfire. The way he’d giftwrapped his teammate for Wrath and PowerTrip to gang up on yesterday. He wondered if Darkfire had killed any of them. Probably not with an Angel fighting him along with three other superheroes. He was starting to wonder if he was defective. Good soldiers were loyal. He had betrayed the only family, only thing, he’d ever been proud to be a part of. Killed them all. What kind of world-changing superhero did something like that?
Wrath bent over him. Smiled at him. Thara moved her foot, and some fresh needles of pain swept over him from his broken chest. It got so much worse when the Angel picked him up like a coat.
“Ha, ha. He doesn’t look tough enough to take Faith. How did you get her?” the Angel said.
“Call me Watcher,” Hesker said.
“How did you kill her?”
“Taren, don’t be perverse. I don’t want to hear this. Cook him and be done with it,” Gladiator said.
The look on Hesker’s face made the Angel guffaw. Hesker was off the ground by a foot, a fistful of his costume in Wrath’s fist.
Wrath affected a horrified expression and gasped. “Come on, badass. You’ve been tortured before and well … you’ll live to be tortured again, I promise,” Wrath said. The Angel looked like he was twenty. Wrath opened a gloved hand and showed it to Hesker. A tiny flame ignited in his palm. “Hell’s fire, Watcher. Know what it does?”
Hesker had put up with a lot from his dead friends in the Infernals, but he asked Ella to forbid Darkfire from using Hell’s fire on their enemies. Ella refused. Darkfire himself acceded to Hesker’s qualm and promised Hesker never to use it again. Poor Darkfire.
Hesker next thoughts might be his last ones as a sane person. Being tortured to death was disgraceful for anyone involved, but he realized now that a permanent humiliation was a fate far worse than death. Somehow, he made his hand move for his knife. It had worked on Infernals. Maybe it could cut the Angel. He’d think about how to kill Gladiator in the next desperate instant.
“Look at him reaching for his knife!” Wrath said, still holding Hesker aloft. “Go ahead. Go for it. I’ll happily wait for this!”
“Taren,” Gladiator said.
“All right, all right. I’ll cook him,” Wrath said.
Hesker winced. He’d never faced a fate worse than death. He wished the Colonel had written something about facing such a fate. She’d know how.
Nothing happening. No horror he’d seen in eyes of people he’d seen Darkfire burn. He’d never forget what he saw.
I’ve got them. They can’t move. You owe me your life, Hesker.
Hesker said nothing. The Angel released him and he tumbled to the grass. Everything hurt. Almost everything bled. He marched like a soldier with the pain. It would be a long, thirsty walk before he got the day over with for good.
Hesker knocked on her residence room. Tanelle opened the door. This was their first face-to-face meeting since a year ago. He saw the Colonel. War God was there, right in her eyes and the set of her face. A deep peace filled her eyes. War God had had that look as she fought him. He had marvelled at it.
“Kneel down. Easier ride that way,” Hesker told her. She knelt in the doorway. She knelt, reached for his pelvis.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Hesker rasped. “Close your eyes,” he yelled.
“Take off your mask!” she said in whisper.
Of course. His mask. It revealed nothing of him. That was the point. His mask had a steel plate soddered over the eyes to symbolize his renunciation of limited mortal vision. The world knew he could see, just not how much. Hesker hesitated and hoped to Christ Tanelle was still too terrified to use that. He didn’t want to show her his face—his identity—even though she’d probably read every thought he’d had over the last twenty-four hours.
Amazing how you clung to a blown secret identity.
“Okay, Colonel. That’s fair,” Hesker said. He had a choice again. War God was coming back right before him. How could he help her change?
He peeled his mask off. It was stuck to his face with a second skin of clotted blood, but he got it off. Hesker waited.
“Soldier, take your mercy pill,”
Hesker’s heart sank. He was ready to die, but he wanted to live so badly. But the Colonel was giving him an honourable end, if not a glorious one. What more could a solider ask?
Hesker drew a fold open in his satchel. Fished out a pill. The mercy pill worked fast but he would have to wait five very long minutes. He felt like he was being benched by the coach. He must have failed the Colonel somehow.
“Colonel?” Hesker asked
What is it, solider?
“What did I fuck up? Did I fuck up?” Hesker asked. He was feeling … broken. No, it was heartbreak. For himself. For being done, and he wasn’t even young.
Take the pill, Soldier!
He swallowed the pill. Why wasn’t the Colonel answering him? The Colonel understood him as no one had. Why wouldn’t the Colonel let him die in battle? Something wasn’t right.
Hesker, cut your throat.
He drew his knife and pushed the blade against his throat across his carotid artery. Was this honour?
“Tanelle,” Hesker said. His head swam and something seemed to release him. He was still in a death duel… She’d fucked with him somehow and he’d not seen a sign of it. Made him believe things about her that only might come true.
Hesker stuck his finger down his throat, vomited, then half-screamed, half whispered as his ribs shifted. The pain drove him right over.
He saw through her. Through himself and his empty life full of weightless glory and so little love. There had to be more to live for.
His bow was in his hand. He knocked an arrow. Drew. Tanelle knelt before him, eyes shut, brow knitted. She was pounding on his door, screaming for her life, but he didn’t answer. Watcher felt the bowstring on his naked fingers. The only skin his costume revealed. Her eyes opened. Hesker saw something he’d never seen in those eyes. A look of resolve meeting fear. He’d seen the Colonel get that look when she learned he’d taken her daughter.
“Please?” she said aloud.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t want to die…”
Neither did he. Life. It was so rich. Even when it was awful. He was a killer, though. If he didn’t kill Tanelle now, he’d be waiting for the day she moved off the terror that bound her to him. It was his nature to kill her. A necessary act of war.
“Then live. And learn from me,” Hesker let the bow string go slack.
Tears began to roll down her beautiful cheeks. Gratitude?
“Learn to fight?” she asked, after a long time.
“Your mother would have taught you that,” The Watcher said, staring ahead at nothing. Hesker thought of the Colonel and wondered if she would approve. “I’ll teach you a new trade.”