I knew there was a problem when I saw Ace spit out a mouthful of blood and teeth, staining his snow-white uniform down the front and covering the big black A on his chest.
"What's going on?" Mike walked out from the bathroom, a white towel wrapped around his ebony middle and barely doing the job. I didn't take my eyes off the television screen, despite the obvious distraction.
"Ace is getting his ass kicked and he's losing." I sucked in my breath through my front teeth as Ace took another punch to the gut. "Didn't see this on the schedule."
"It's not." Mike sat beside me, grabbing the remote from the table. I caught the edge of a frown out of the corner of my eye. "There's nothing scheduled today."
"Well, someone's kicking the crap out of him. Must have been a late addition." The air between us began to shimmer just slightly. I closed my eyes and tried to focus, take it down a notch. I'd learnt how to control my powers without thinking, but every now and then I'd slip up and start seeing the electromagnetic waves around us. It was like staring through a bad set of prescription glasses, all fuzzy and out of perspective. A second more and the world was back in focus. For now, at least. Mike sounded stressed and that wasn't a good thing, and I knew that we were about thirty seconds away from going live or from having a rip-roaring argument about something.
The sound tones told me he was dialing a phone, probably his direct line to the Agency. I hadn't ever asked for the number; never wanted it. Not that I would have gotten it, anyway.
"What the fuck is going on?" he roared into the phone. "I said..." His anger died down as the siren went off from where it was mounted in the corner of the living room, turning off the television set and all external lights other than the spiraling red light and the most annoying noise I knew.
"Mount up, Jo." I opened my eyes to see him standing in front of me, the towel in danger of agreeing with gravity. His eyes were steel--cold blue steel. "We're going out."
I didn't really have much to do, not compared to Mike. While I went into my bedroom and put on my outfit, he walked into the far room, out past the kitchen where the technicians had assembled, ready to strap him into a walking tank. A few minutes later I trotted in to join him.
"What's wrong?" I tugged on my gloves. "We're not supposed to be on for another few days. Rematch with Danny Digger."
"There's an alien ship hovering over New York City. Looks like a giant fat green avocado." He climbed up the stepladder and into the harness and lay back, letting the techs go to work slapping on the metal plates that would turn him into Metal Mike, my sidekick.
"Yeah, I saw that on CNN with their coverage of Ace." The warped metal gave me a nice view of myself. I'd grabbed the first thing out of the closet, thankfully not the sleek leather costume the Agency demanded for the big-ticket fights. It wasn't that the outfit was impractical or anything, but the tight leather was almost too tight. Still, it got the fanboys kicking and the merchandise sales went up every time I wore it. Along with, I expect, the superhero porn.
I really didn't need a sexy nickname like Dominatrix. Who, for the record, kicks ass when she gets sober and in gear. Today I looked like a middle-aged woman out for a nice stroll in a leather jacket and jeans, almost the opposite of what a superhero was supposed to look like. "Figured it was part of the show."
"It's not. It isn't." Mike's voice boomed out as the helmet slammed home over his head. "You ready to go?"
I smiled, levitating up to stare at him eye-to-eye. "Always."
"Then grab the back and hang on--we're going supersonic as soon as we can. No time to show off for the kids."
Usually I didn't ride shotgun. It really didn't cultivate the best image to have you seen riding into battle on the back of a giant robot in some weird piggyback game. But right now I didn't know what the hell was going on, and from the nervous sweat trickling down Mike's face I knew it couldn't be good.
It took a few minutes for us to get to the roof, the freight elevator groaning under the weight of Mike's suit as usual. The techs had disappeared into the woodwork, back down to the floor beneath our condominium where they'd be working the stats and the computers and telling Mike anything he needed to know.
Mike. Not me. Not that I didn't want to know, but I didn't have the security clearance. None of the supers did.
The ceiling opened up in the elevator as we hit the roof, cool night air racing in. The oversized boots began to warm up, spouting out grey smoke that rolled over our feet like some sort of ghostly fog. Mike looked up at the sky. "Going to be sunset by the time we hit New York."
"Yeah." I swallowed past the lump in my throat. "What's going on?" I moved to grab the steel bar on his back, white-knuckling it.
"Something no one planned for." The voice rumbled in my ears. "Locked in?"
The shimmering waves surrounding me settled into a nice placid blue, intermingling with those coming from Metal Mike. Gently I wove them together where my hands were, securing the hold.
"Five by five," I whispered, knowing he'd hear me through the link.
We lifted off into a clear blue sky that was getting darker by the second. I spotted a few flashes below us, tourists who had come out for a sunset viewing of Niagara Falls and instead got the chance to spot the local celebrities taking off from their private penthouse heading for...well, something they'd read about soon enough. Rumor had it we were the second most popular attraction after the Falls and that's on the Canadian side of the border--I had insisted on keeping a Canadian home base in my contract. It gave me a sense of at least trying to do my country proud.
"So what's up?" The cool air rushed by us as he gained altitude, ripping through the clouds like paper. There was no use in trying to shout. Within hours of my "recruitment", the Agency had installed a sweet little microphone in my jaw and accompanying receiver in my ear to allow me to communicate with Mike without trying to scream. Not with my permission, of course, but that was beside the point. All I had do was whisper the words and he'd hear them. We called it a link for the sake of making it sound high-tech and less scary.
"Agency's freaking. Big time." There was a note of fear in his voice, something I'd never heard before. Not in two years of playing superhero and sidekick, of taking on bad guys like Duke Krasher and Maestro Maniac.
He went supersonic and the world blurred around me as we shot out over Lake Ontario. I increased my grip on the bar even though I knew that, in theory, I'd be able to use my power to surf the waves safely back to dry land if for some reason Mike broke down or I had to let go. In theory.
The metallic voice stuttered into my ears. "Okay, first--this is between thee and me, and if you love me you'll take this seriously the first time I say it."
I nodded. He could see me on the external cameras.
"The Agency is freaking because there was no fight scheduled for today. Ace was supposed to be standing down. He had a brawl three days ago with DominAce and he was still pretty sore."
"I caught it on the delayed feed. One helluva fight." I couldn't help smiling. "He took her downtown and then back up again."
Mike gave a rough chuckle. "Yeah, it was a good one. She really bitched about taking a few shots to the face. She likes staying pretty. Even with being invulnerable and all."
"It's a girl thang. We don't like being slapped around."
He grunted in response. "Anyway, he was on downtime until the call came in that an alien ship had suddenly appeared over New York City, hovering over the Hudson. Straight local news feed, no official Agency alert."
I frowned. "So someone else was assigned to take out the big, bad alien invaders. I remember when they did that three years ago. Great for the ratings, if I recall correctly. Pissed off a few Hollywood moguls 'cause we had better special effects than the upcoming summer blockbuster."
"You were still in training." Mike's metal body jerked a bit, leveling out quickly. "Sorry 'bout that."
"I watched it in the lounge. Sorry I missed it." In my mind's eye I was back at the Agency trying to figure out what the hell had happened to me and what was going to happen to me if I fucked up the training. Already we'd had a few rookies disappear out of the dorm and rumor had it they'd just been removed. I'd never tried to find out if they'd been shoved into the supervillains program or if they'd just had their plugs tapped. Didn't pay to ask too many questions then or now.
Mike's voice brought me back to the present as we cut over the edge of New York State. "Guy comes out of the ship yelling something about taking on our greatest warriors. Says it in English, of all things."
"English?" My body bumped against the metal shell as we changed altitude. "So it was fixed?"
"Not by anyone we know. The Agency got on the horn with Russia, Mexico, the EU--anyone who has a program. No one had any sort of exchange arrangement set up. Besides, been years since the last one, and Venezuela is still claiming they won that scrap."
The fields below us began to grow larger, the roads less like loose hairs spread out across a brown and green canvas. I could see the cars on the highway jockeying for position on their way somewhere that I'd had once. A home.
"So it's a rogue?" My face felt cold, the shield protecting me from freezing to death starting to wear thin. "Can you get a bit lower? I'm losing a bit of integrity here..."
"Sorry." Metal Mike dipped down suddenly, almost causing me to lose my grip. "Better?"
A bit of concentration, and the waves around our bodies shifted again, melding together with a warming that took the edge off my chilled body. "Much. Thanks."
I could hear the smile in his words. "I forget that you're not invulnerable."
"Only in my mind."
"Anyway, the Agency put out a call for any supers in the area who could respond, to answer. Ace's Guardian, Dan Fremont, asked Ace if he was up to it."
The setting sun was in my eyes now, blinding me as we circled around, staying clear of the air traffic in the area. "And Ace wanted another notch in his gun belt."
"Something like that. I never knew you were the jealous type."
"Jealous of a guy with super strength and able to withstand having a tank tossed at him? Pshaw!"
The metal back wobbled a bit, and I knew he was laughing inside. It was a welcome change from the serious stuff we were discussing.
"So Ace answers the call of duty and gets his game on," I continued. "And who else?"
"Well, we're not sure," Mike admitted. "Because as soon as Ace showed up all hell broke loose with this guy slamming him into the ground and smacking him silly."
"I believe that's where we came in." The tall spires of New York City weren't that far ahead of us, the jagged metal mountain range alit with not only the evening lights of a city that never sleeps but also random gunfire and more than a few city blocks ablaze. "Holy..."
"Yeah." Mike swallowed. "It's a bad one."
"How bad?" My hands felt very cold, despite the gloves.
"Ace has just been confirmed dead. Along with three other A-listers." He paused, gave a heavy sigh. "And we're going in next."
I'd seen buildings on fire; we all had. There wasn't much to do other than try to stay clear of the flames and hope the firefighters could do their job while we fought around them. But so many of them and so many people in the streets...
"Focus, Jo," Mike barked into my ear as we circled the scene. "Focus and start charging up."
Sucking as much air as I could into my lungs, I spotted the waves around us and started to pull them inside myself, booting and filling up what I had been taught to think of as a capacitor in the core of my body. It was a hell of a long way away from working in a bookstore.
"We've got reinforcements as well. Tan and Black; Davie Lyon." Mike ground his teeth, sending stuttering Morse-code-like static down the line. "Lost Aviator and Jane Doe already."
The pounding in my ears increased. "Two Alphas? What the hell are we going to do?"
"What we always do, girlfriend." The rolling joke didn't lighten the weight on my heart. "We save the world."
We spun around, feet in the air, and spiraled down towards the center of the fighting, or what Mike guessed was the center. All I knew was that with the rush of civilians out of the area and the police and National Guard rushing to get into the area that it wasn't good. The Agency didn't like getting civilians involved. Only supers fought supers. Of course, that was when we just beat each other senseless and went away to fight another day. The sinking feeling in my stomach told me those days were long, long gone.
We landed near a Starbucks that had already been half-destroyed, the windows shattered and a few stragglers walking out through the door with coffee machines. Mike pulled himself up to his full height of ten feet and hit the external speakers.
"Drop the loot and get the fuck out of here."
The kids stared at him as if they'd never seen a giant robot before.
"I said, drop the stuff and go home." He raised one hand towards the sky, displaying the Gatling gun prominently placed on his forearm. "You really don't want to be my warm-up exercise, do you?"
The looters split and ran, one tough guy holding up his pants with his right hand as the other troublemakers sprinted past him to safety.
"You've got a way with kids, you know?" I put my hands on my hips and scowled at the mess. "You'd think they'd have better things to do than steal coffee beans."
"As we do." The metal hand pointed down the street. "We're going to rendezvous with Tan there, in the doorway."
I didn't try to argue. Mike had always been the tactician, mostly because he had the Agency connection. Me, all I had was a plug and orders to do what I was told.
Tan and I had met only once, at a brawl in Detroit where they had been trying to evaluate whether I could work with a partner or not. Metal Mike wasn't really a partner for me under the rules, him being a Guardian and all, and the Agency thought that Tan was possibly a good match.
It had all the subtlety of dog breeders trying to decide which bitch to breed with which stud.
Tan had laughed about it after we had taken out the tag team composed of Smiling Mick and Dancing Damsel. Not exactly a challenge, but I had gotten pinned under Mick after he slammed a door into the side of my head, eerily reminiscent of how I got fucked up in the first place. He had been sparking up and getting ready to do a sweet little bit of electroshock therapy when Tan slammed into him with righteous fury and rolled him like a cat would a ball of string across the street and into the parked car. Ratings had been good for that one but not enough to justify making us a team. Not to mention that Tan had decided during that broadcast to come out of the closet and declare his homosexuality, live on the air. I adored him for being so honest, but the Agency had freaked and kept him single until the chance to team him up with another man had appeared.
"Hey." Tan staggered out of the shadows. He bent over, wheezing as he tried to catch his breath and spitting out a mouthful of blood. I couldn't do anything but stand beside him, rubbing his back as he coughed up more blood. His skin still had that deep tan that had given him his nickname despite his pleas to come up with something more...well, macho.
"This is bad." I looked at Mike, unable to read his emotions through the faceplate. "Could be internal injuries."
"Probably is." Tan stood back up again, both hands on the base of his spine. He closed his eyes. "Black's down."
Mike turned and began to stride down the street. "I'll see you there."
I grabbed Tan's arm. "What's happening? What's going on?"
"I don't know." Tan drew another pained breath, his left hand hugging his ribs. "It's just one guy but he's killing us. Literally." He smiled at me, revealing the loss of more than a few teeth. "Go keep the big guy out of trouble. I'll be there in a minute when I catch my breath."
Levitating a few feet above the ground, I watched him, feeling tears prick my eyes. "Be careful."
"You be careful." He thumped his chest with a closed fist. "I'm the one with the GQ cover." The effort bent him over again, coughing up more blood. "Don't hold back. This guy's got more power than anyone we've seen before."
I nodded, moving away slowly. There was a screaming sound around the corner, of metal tearing and warping. A woman raced into sight holding up some sort of small video camera. She stopped upon seeing me and Tan, her mouth opening and closing without a sound.
"Take him to the paramedics." I nodded at Tan as I flew past the astonished civilian. My gloved hands clenched into fists.
Mike was standing at the center of it all, deflecting blue energy blasts from the alien attacker who hovered about ten feet above a crater dug deep in the asphalt. I saw Black curled up in a fetal position against the side of a car, his head caved in on one side and his sightless eyes staring at me as his brains pooled on the ground.
This wasn't even beginning to be a fair fight.
The attacker turned towards me, ignoring Metal Mike for a second. I must have seemed sort of puny, a woman in black just staring at him with a dazed expression.
Part of that was because he appeared, well, like a man. No tentacles, no spiky tail waving around in the air, nothing. He looked like a thousand other guys I'd passed in the street--blond and blue-eyed with a pretty good physique. His uniform wasn't anything fancy, just a blue dress shirt and black dress pants--hardly the clothing of your average alien invader. Not that I knew much about the idea. But I sure as hell didn't expect some guy out of a fashion magazine.
He looked like the barista who made my morning coffee down at the corner Starbucks.
The other aspect of seeming dazed was part of a game plan Mike and I thought up years ago. It worked best on new villains who didn't clue into the fact that Mike was the sidekick and I was the superhero. Focus their attention on the big man in the iron suit and forget the little girl hanging off to one side. It grabbed high ratings every time we pulled it off.
With a roar Mike set off both lasers from his arms, channeling the energy of the entire small nuclear reactor on his back into two devastating shots. In the past it'd been enough to knock the bad guy on his butt and give us the win. It was a one-time-only shot--Mike would be totally defenseless for five minutes after it--but it was a game-winner. Or it had been in the past.
The dual blast caught our attacker square in the chest. I studied the alien fighter as the red light spiraled around him, enveloping him in what would probably be a lethal amount of heat and light.
The man took a deep breath and inhaled the laser attack through his open mouth.
Then exhaled it back at Mike.
I saw the blast hit Mike squarely in the center of his chest plate. The metal buckled and screamed under the attack as the humanoid robot suit fell back onto the concrete. His arms flailed in the air as he tried to roll over--it'd always been one of the suit's problems that hadn't ever been fixed 'cause they never choreographed anyone turning him into a ten-ton turtle.
"No!" Raising both hands, I focused all the trapped energy I had gathered into the palms of my hands. Fifty thousand volts of electricity and power and energy all aimed at one man. I'd never tossed that much at a single person before, usually only enough to send a shock through their system and shut them down like a taser blast. This was lethal, and I'd never had permission to use that much force before. I figured it was worth the extra paperwork.
The release shot me back ten feet as the blue light sprang from my palms and nailed the stranger right in the chest, ripping what appeared to be a smile from his face. The jagged bolts shattered all over his body, bouncing from one point to another, one finger to another, to his head to his nose to his teeth and hopefully across his heart, shutting it down.
I landed on my ass, gasping for air. Around me I spotted the electromagnetic waves from everything and everyone and began to suck them back into me just in case I needed a second blast to take this guy down. There wasn't time for a full recharge. I'd never had to do this so quickly.
"Sweetie..." Mike's anguished voice whispered in my ear. "This guy's packing serious heat."
"No kidding." I snarled as the electrical cloud around the alien dissipated, leaving him in perfect condition. His damned shirt wasn't even burned. Scrambling to my feet, I worked the waves back around me and into my hands again, feeling the sensitive metal fibers in the gloves begin to burn with the heat.
"Don't do it." My Guardian rolled onto his side, pushing himself upwards with a weariness that translated through the burnt and scorched metal. "Save it, Jo."
"This guy's got to go down." Clenching my teeth, I fired off a blast, maybe half-strength if I was lucky. The alien rotated to stare at me, a confused look on his face.
"Jo, you've got to get the hell out of here." Mike moved to a kneeling position. His labored breathing was loud in my ears. "This guy's not alone. Just got the word, there's alien ships appearing all over the world. And they're all dropping guys who are killing anyone and anything that's thrown at them."
"What?" Scooping the waves up from around me, I raced to weave them together and into my palms.
"The Alphas are dying." Metal Mike lumbered to his feet, one steel leg shattered to the point I could not only see the damned skeleton that held it together, I could see Mike's ebony skin. "Every nation's sent out their A-list and they're all going down."
"That's impossible," I blustered. "Impossible."
The stranger was watching me intently as I tossed another blast at his head. Raising one hand, he swatted it away, ignoring me and advancing on Mike.
Mike jumped up and grabbed both feet of the intruder. "Jo, get out of here. If you stay here, you'll be killed."
He slammed back to the ground, his feet digging huge holes in the concrete. The suit wobbled for a second before falling backwards, leaving Mike flat on his back, both metal fists clenched around the feet of the invader.
"Mike!" I sent off another blast, the weakest yet. It bounced off the man's head as he levitated back to stand upright on Mike's chest.
Mike kept his grip on the black leather shoes. "Just go!" he roared. "I'm setting this baby on overload. Maybe it'll take this bastard out."
"What?" I moved a bit closer, sucking up another series of waves. "You can't do that, you'll destroy the city."
"Limited casualties." The wheezing grew stronger in my ear. "It's not a full meltdown; it's all measured out. A feature we never thought we'd have to use."
The blond man was staring down at him with a puzzled look, almost of sadness, as the metal fingers kept a firm grip on the feet.
"Jo, it'll take out about five city blocks. Agency says it's a go, so get the fuck out of here and save yourself." A beeping began in my ear. "Less than a minute."
"I'm not leaving you here." The weakest shot yet, barely enough to earn me a glance from the stranger.
"It's not an option." The voice grew fainter. "Lyon's down; you saw what happened to Black and Tan. Don't be an idiot, someone's got to rally the troops."
"The Agency's panicking. Everyone is." Mike coughed. "Save yourself, then save the world. That's always been the deal, girlfriend."
"Get your ass out of here before I take you with me." He yelled in my ear so loudly that I instinctively shot into the air, obeying my Guardian's last order.
As I rose higher and higher I spotted the police and firemen racing to clear the area--obviously the word had gone out that something was going to happen, something bad enough that they didn't mind sacrificing a few city blocks in order to stop these guys.
A last, soft voice in my ear. "Hey, girl...kick ass for me."
A supernova appeared far below me, rising up to devour the buildings and anyone who wasn't fast enough to get out of the blast radius. The shock wave rolled towards me, a shimmering ripple racing outward that I knew I couldn't escape.
So I rolled onto my back, stared up at the sky and let it carry me off into darkness where I could imagine I was safe in bed with Mike, watching another late-night brawl in Japan between Osuki and Gojira with the bad translations and the taste of hot buttered popcorn on Mike's lips.