The concrete slab rocked from side to side as I hoisted it out of the remains of the building. It wobbled in my grip, close to sliding away and down the hill of debris behind me. I lifted my hands and tried to keep control, suck in more of the electromagnetic waves around me and channel it through the gloves.
"Steve," I grunted, "if it's not too much trouble." The cries of the women trapped below the collapsed roof had faded, and I knew we were running out of time.
A large hand clamped down on my shoulder, almost causing me to drop the hunk of debris.
"Got your back, boss lady." The huge man moved in front of me and grabbed the jagged piece of rubble with one hand as if it were made of Styrofoam. His bronze and silver skin glistened with sweat. "Let me take this off your hands."
"Be careful." I watched as he shoved his hands under the block. "I'm going to let it down."
"The women are okay for now." Peter's voice echoed in my ear, courtesy of our communication link. "I've just had a few rats run in some bottles of water."
I laughed. "Bet that spooked them worse than the quake." The chunk of roof, or maybe wall, settled down in Steve's hands. He let out a whoosh of air as he lifted it over his head and turned to walk down the small ramp set on the side of the collapsed building by the rescue workers. The silver veins running over his skin shifted and flexed with every step, as if they were liquid mercury about to pour off him.
"Jo?" Hunter scrambled up the hill to stand beside me, looking rather handsome in his dirty T-shirt and jeans. "The rescue workers are getting anxious. Tell me we've got something." He peered into the dark chasm we'd just unveiled. "I told them that Peter had contact with the survivors, but they're a bit skeptical until they get some rescue dogs here to verify. Might be an hour until a unit can get here." His natural hair color was growing out, the blond streaking through the short dyed-black hair. "Quoting a group of rats as your source is tough."
I wiped the sweat off my forehead with the back of my right hand, the soggy black glove absorbing the moisture. The temperature had to be close to one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, but I couldn't risk going barehanded, the work was too delicate. I needed the gloves to focus everything I had on this rescue operation. I couldn't afford to have any accidents, making the disaster worse. "Tell them that we're going to keep going until the women come out, dogs or not."
He grinned. "I already did." He leaned over and stole a kiss before sliding down the hill of debris, skipping and tripping all the way to the bottom. "Go get 'em, Surf!"
"I hate that name," I growled, knowing he'd hear me over the link. When I turned back to the deep hole, I spotted a pair of German shepherds burrowing in, pushing through holes too small for most humans. They weren't wearing bright orange vests like the other rescue dogs.
"Peter," I called out. "There's some street dogs here. Please confirm that they're here to help and not looking for a free meal." I powered up just in case and pointed my hands at them in what I hoped was a nonthreatening move. The worst I could do was taser the poor beasts, but we couldn't have wild animals chomping on the survivors.
"They're on our side." The note of pride in his voice had me smiling. "Asked them to give us a hand and show up those snobby rescue dogs."
I saw the bushy tail of one dog wag like a semaphore flag on hyperspeed. A yowl split the air, magnified by the cement walls and booming out across the scene.
"They're just a few feet away," Peter Boyos wheezed as he ran up beside me. He gasped for air, bending over with his hands on his knees. I patted him on the back, grimacing as I touched the wet white shirt clinging to his skin. "The dogs say they can see them. A tight fit, but it looks good."
I tapped my jaw out of habit. The link activated mentally, with my words going out either on the group channel for everyone to hear or plain off for when I didn't want to broadcast to anyone. Didn't know how it worked, didn't care.
"Hunter, tell the rescue team to get up here. If there's room for the dogs, there's room for us. And I'm getting these women out before we all roast to death."
An hour later we stood on the street in front of the rubble, watching as the stretchers carried the three survivors down the small hill and past us. It'd taken most of the hour to prop up the structure enough to get the medical team in there, but once the rescue workers had declared it stable, the marathon had become a sprint to get the women out. Steve had done most of the heavy lifting, the workers ducking under his broad shoulders to set up supports.
He stood there now, covered in grey dust, looking like a giant golem. A sharp cough mutated into a gurgled throat-clearing, the Pittsburgher twisting to one side and spitting into the dirt.
One woman reached out from her stretcher as they passed and grabbed Steve's hand, stopping the convoy.
Thank you, she mouthed, her voice gone. She cried as her tiny fingers were swallowed in the giant's grip. Thank you.
He smiled and patted her hand. "You're welcome. Now just rest."
Steve stepped back with a nod to the paramedics carrying her. As the procession continued towards the waiting ambulances, Steve found himself surrounded by rescue workers, getting plenty of backslaps and smiles.
Peter preened at all the attention, having gathered alley cats and dogs around him in a circle for the photographers. I had suggested leaving the rats out. No matter how cute cartoons make them, rats and mice don't make good photo ops.
Me, I hid behind one of the fire trucks. I'd had all the press I wanted in my former life.
"Jo," the disembodied voice whispered in my ear. "You there?"
"Jessie?" I looked skyward, towards the satellites far above that linked us with our headquarters, nicknamed the Lair, in Toronto. In the past the links set in our jaws had a range of less than a hundred feet, barely enough to help our Guardians coordinate the staged fights between superheroes and supervillains. But thanks to our new arrangement with our former captors, the Agency, we had access to a lot more technology, and we weren't afraid to use it for a good purpose. It didn't hurt that Jessie, our resident computer expert/hacker, had friends of friends who loved a challenge when it came to making such toys bigger, faster and more powerful as we needed it. He'd managed to encrypt the team's links so our group chat was private, locked away from other supers in the area whose own links would allow them to listen in.
It hadn't been a problem before because we were all under the Agency's thumb. But after we'd won our freedom, some supers went back to their old lives and some disappeared into the underground--and they deserved their privacy. Aside from distracting them in their private lives, it also screamed possible security leak for the team. So Jessie fixed it as only Jessie could.
We each had a private and a group channel so we could talk one-on-one without pulling in the rest of the team. We also had an off button if we wanted privacy and didn't want to hear anyone else. I imagined it as a box with two dials, small black arrows switching back and forth between "group chat" and "private", "on" and "off".
Right now we were all on the group chat, including Jessie. I couldn't imagine any reason to go private in the middle of a rescue operation, and whatever Jessie had to say we all needed to hear.
His words rang in my ear. "The quake, the one that knocked down that building and half the block? I started looking for the reason it happened. I ran the usual suspects--gas main breaks and so forth, got into the geographic records and checked out the fault lines, mining history and everything you can think of. According to all the data I've acquired, this shouldn't have happened in Erie, Pennsylvania." I could imagine Jessie sitting in front of his computer, tapping madly on the keyboard.
"We talked about that on the flight over." I waved at one of the Red Cross workers, the muscles holding up my smile aching for relief. "Buildings don't just collapse without reason. We talking terrorist attack?" My heart skipped a beat at the image of some extremist setting off bombs in civilian areas to push some crazy cause.
Jessie took another long pause before continuing, long enough to increase my heart palpitations. "I'm still running numbers and kicking out scenarios. I've got some theories, but I'd rather talk to you in person about them." There was a nervous tension in his voice I hadn't heard before.
This wasn't good.
Twenty feet away from me Hunter almost snapped his neck as he turned away from chatting with the reporters to stare at me. Steve Nyre put down the two children he had been hoisting over his head and scowled at the sky. Peter knelt and hugged one of the rescue dogs, letting it lick his face as he closed his eyes and enjoyed one of the simple pleasures of life.
I kept the smile going even as I ground my teeth together.
"Time for us to get going," I shouted towards the others with a lighthearted laugh. "I'm hungry and need a shower. Time for the Protectors to take a break."
As the team disengaged from their adoring public, I turned away and dropped my chin to my chest, talking as quietly and as quickly as I could. "Jessie, call the jet and have it ready to go when we get to the airport. There's nothing else we can do here."
The media swarmed over us as we backed out of the crowd and headed for an empty spot in the street, cameras grabbing as many shots of us as they could, joined by everyone with a cell phone. Forget that an entire city block had just collapsed, they all wanted their shot with the new superhero team. A bit of bile swished up my throat at the sight of the newspeople fawning over the supers. Around us firemen, rescue workers and the military worked, with the police trying to control the traffic to get rescue vehicles in and ambulances out. And the reporters wanted to take pictures of us? Who the hell were we, other than a bunch of super-powered punks who had played at being heroes, fighting staged battles for public viewing? One big battle, one final brawl to win our freedom and save the earth, and we'd ended up here, self-declared Protectors of the Earth.
Hunter was talking. "Overall, we got lucky. Medics are saying that no one's died at this point. Plenty of bruises, broken bones and a lot of shaken people, but no deaths."
I nodded. "No deaths. That's good. Let's get to the plane." I jerked a thumb at the rescue workers. "Let the real heroes get some attention."
The boys circled around me in our usual flight plan. Hunter took my left hand, Peter my right. Steve grinned and waved as he leapt into the air, his strong legs throwing him far over our heads. He would beat us to the airport with two, maybe three jumps, while I took the slower, more dramatic route of flying my group there.
Our pasted-on smiles disappeared as I rose off the ground, cleared the wrecked buildings and turned towards the airport. The two men stayed silent during the trip, exhaustion kicking in.
An invisible weight lifted off my chest, removing the stress of worrying about civilian deaths. There'd been enough deaths for me in the recent past, enough for a lifetime. Tan and Black, Ace and others, many of whom I could call friends and a lot more I'd call acquaintances. All of us trapped under the Agency's control.
I had nightmares about Mike's death. He'd been a true hero, sacrificing himself to try and take out the alien in New York City, and he'd also been my friend and occasional lover. As well as my Guardian, sworn to keep me in line through the small explosive set in the back of my neck. It was a bit of a strange relationship, in retrospect. But I still missed the big lug.
Steve waved at us as we landed a few feet away from him near the terminal, a wide smirk on his face.
"Slowpokes," he rumbled.
I flipped him the bird as I released Hunter and Peter, letting them move ahead of me. There wasn't a lot of press hanging out around the private jet, thank goodness. Most of them were still working the earthquake story and, to be fair, we were old news. Still, more than one media personality tried to bully their way through the wooden horses set up as a security barrier, shouting questions at us while we headed for the jet. The sun was setting, painting everything and everyone in surreal shades of grey. Surreal being the perfect word for the questions being tossed at us.
"Surf! Is it true you're pregnant with Metal Mike's baby?"
"Surf! Is it true you're secretly married to Hunter Dillon?"
"Slammer!" This last question came from a beefy journalist in a black trench coat bellowing over the heads of the other reporters. "Is it true that you're dating Ani-Man?"
That stopped our resident strong man in his tracks. The former supervillain looked at me, his left eyebrow arched skyward.
"Let it go, Steve." I gestured towards the waiting plane with my thumb. "Don't play their game. You don't have to say anything. We'll let the Agency deal with it. Anything you say can and will be used against you and all that."
Peter moved up alongside me. "Dude, it's none of their business. I got over the stupid questions long ago. They know who you are, they know who I am. They're just digging to see your reaction." The youngest member of the Protectors grinned, a sheepish smile that had probably broken a thousand men's hearts. "You get used to it."
Steve stood up as straight as he could, his bare chest glistening in the oppressive heat. Spinning around, he advanced on the press corps and the journalist in question.
The crowd scattered, leaving a clear trail to the single reporter who stood his ground as Steve approached, the earth shaking just a bit with each step. Finally Steve leaned forward over the wooden barrier, almost touching noses with the now-trembling man.
"Peter is a good friend, a good man and a great superhero. His sexual orientation or mine, who he dates or doesn't date, is none of your business. I'm proud to work alongside him, along with Jo and Hunter." He glared at the clustered newspeople, his voice low and contained. "Any more questions?"
The silence followed him all the way to the plane where we waited. He winked at me and then climbed up into the jet.
Hunter looked at me. "You were scared about what he was going to do there for a second, weren't you?"
I wiped the sweat from my forehead. "Nope."
Peter grinned as he passed us. "I hope David's got pizza ready. I'm starving."
Hunter studied my face again, frowning. "Not worried at all?"
"Nope." I turned on my heel and headed up the steps. "Figured we'd be able to drop the body out over the lake on the way home."
The answering snort followed me to my seat. I ignored him and snatched a granola bar from the well-stocked snack bowl on the table, along with a cold bottle of water from the mini fridge beside it. Saving the world made me hungry. Not to mention that my metabolism demanded lots of fuel every time I used my powers. It may have kept me thin and the envy of women around the world, but I hated having to eat every few hours or risk fainting.
We taxied down the runway and were airborne in a few minutes, soaring up and over the local devastation.
I studied the disaster area out the window as we circled the airport. The jagged line of destruction reminded me of a kid knocking over a tower of bricks, a straight line running along one side of the residential street while the other side of the street remained pristine, untouched.
As the jet gained altitude I put the seat back, trying to get comfortable. It'd only been a few weeks since our emancipation, for lack of a better word, from under the Agency's thumb, and I was still coming to terms with the way the world had changed. A month ago I'd been getting ready for one of our staged fights, Mike and I, arguing over who appeared better in the latest promo shoots and then brawling for the television remote control to see the newest superhero versus supervillain fights. Now I ran the only superhero team in the world, most of the escaped supers choosing to go and make a regular life for themselves free of the Agency's threats and intimidation.
I continued to stare out, munching on the bar and getting bits of raisins and granola caught in my teeth. Lake Ontario stretched out under us, different shades of blue competing for our attention. Sure, I could have flown us home to Toronto the same way I'd gotten the fellows to the airport, but I didn't have to with a private jet waiting on our command. This, of course, was the whole point of having the Agency work for us, instead of the other way around. My shoulders ached with the memory of my first time flying the team across the lake towards an unknown future. We'd been lucky we hadn't dropped into the water like rocks with my inexperience at carrying passengers.
Still, there was something uneasy about sitting in a closed compartment shooting thousands of feet into the air. I'd gotten used to surfing the electromagnetic waves to travel, soaring wherever, whenever I wanted. Planes just seemed so...restrictive.
I'd loved flying with Metal Mike. Zipping out over Niagara Falls at night, Mike in his huge metal suit and me looping circles around him. We'd swoop down over the multicolored spotlights and catch the spray from the Falls, twisting it into a fireworks display with a few well-placed flares from Mike. The tourists had loved it. Hell, I had loved it. The big guy had some fine moves, in and out of his costume.
I leaned back and closed my eyes. There had been talk of arranging a memorial ceremony for all the supers who had died during the alien invasion. Setting up a lovely large tombstone somewhere, dedicated to their memories. A big block of granite with all the names engraved on it, nicknames and our real names chiseled into stone for all eternity.
Including those, I assumed, that had been murdered by the Agency for not wanting to go and fight a near-suicidal battle.
My hand drifted to the back of my neck, to the ridged scar that held the now-inert plug. The small explosive could take my head off if activated by the Agency and their agents, the Guardians. Implanted as soon as we were identified as supers, it allowed the Agency to keep control over us. But thanks to the help of Jessie, we'd been able to first jam the signals and then destroy the system itself, scrambling the activation sequences to the degree that no one could ever use them to threaten us again. We still couldn't remove the plugs themselves without major surgery and risking an explosion, so the unpleasant reminder of our slavery stayed with us.
Someone squeezed my hand.
"You're frowning," Hunter whispered, "and you've got chocolate on the side of your mouth." A light pressure brushed over my skin, either his fingers or his lips. "All gone now."
"Not in front of the kids," I grumbled, keeping my eyes closed.
"Bad memories?" He wasn't talking about his stolen kiss.
"Yes. Hard to forget where we came from, what we were. There's always going to be a shadow there." I exhaled, feeling the jet list to one side.
"Just don't forget you're not alone." His hand slipped into mine.
I sighed. Sometimes I missed being a clerk in a used bookstore.