Nero looked out from the back porch of his farmhouse at the once quaint scenery of his private acreage, nestled into the Appalachian Mountains. He drank a swig of beer and sighed as he watched the mountainside smolder. The forest burned, stinging his eyes and filling his lungs with smoke. John Denver’s Country Roads played from the speaker on the window behind him. He liked things to have an irony to them. Destroying a patch of West Virginia while playing a song written about it in the background hit that sweet spot.
Pretty soon the fire would reach his house. He drained the rest of his beer. He reached down for the revolver at his feet.
A helicopter soared overhead and landed in the clearing behind his house. He could barely hear the chopper’s blades over the forest’s fire song and John Denver crooning.
Come to think of it, he could barely hear John Denver anymore, either.
Cynic disembarked the copter, flanked by two of the Primum capes and Danger Close.
She wore the same lady suit she always wore that made her look like Hilary Clinton merged with a soccer mom. Danger Close looked ever the same, a Top Gun wannabe.
The Primum capes didn’t seem bothered by the fire in their fancy white armor that made them look somewhere between a knight and a super soldier. Nero snorted and spat. His armor meant nothing, just another way to quicken his power. Their armor actually protected them.
Cynic approached him with a scowl on her face. Nero made sure of the revolver tucked into the back of his pants and greeted her with all the defensive posturing he could muster. Crossed arms, nose turned up, jaw clenched tight. He hated her. He hated her and he made sure she knew it from the bottom of his mind to the very tics of his body.
“I know what you’re going to do,” Cynic said as she approached. “Please don’t waste my time.”
Nero planned on doing just that, anyway. He pulled the pistol out of his pants, which caused the Primum to freak the fuck out and get between Nero and the director. Danger Close watched, his expression unchanging.
A teasing mood struck Nero. “You know, if I wanted to kill her, I could. There would be nothing you three could do to stop me. I’d guess you’d buy her enough time to get to the helicopter before I brought it down.”
“Ma’am?” Danger Close asked.
“Need I remind you, Nero, of what my death would do to you?” Cynic asked.
She didn’t need to remind him. She could ruin his life if she wanted. “You know, I think I’d literally rather kill myself than have this conversation.”
Cynic glowered at him. “It wasn’t funny the first ti—”
The sharp report of the pistol cut off the end of her sentence. The bullet danced inside his brain and sent him for a loop, and at the top of that loop he spun off into the night.
Color filled his vision, silver and sapphire, and beyond that the infinite void bore down on him. It folded him up and threw him along the invisible current, a body floating on the sea. He revolved aimlessly until molten copper pierced the veil of darkness and drenched him in burning metal.
He exploded back into life. His porch was in pieces, the speaker melted into slag. Cynic, Danger Close, and the two Primum were now a hundred feet back from his porch.
“Glad you got that off your chest?” she asked.
Nero stretched his muscles. His body was always stiff coming out of death. He grimaced, feeling a migraine come on as his brain reknit itself inside his skull. A sharp pricking sensation accompanied the skin and skull closing, forcing the bullet out of his head. It plunked to the ground at his feet.
The energy he’d gained crossing back into life flooded through his veins and made him feel like he could topple mountains and upend cities.
Instead, he fed the energy back into the ground as tremors and heat, and let it die out as he walked next to Cynic back to the helicopter. The two Primum capes watched him warily over their shoulders as they led the way. Danger Close didn’t seem to really care one way or the other whether or not Nero killed them all. He smoked a cigarette and kept a steady pace behind them.
“So, what’s going on?” Nero asked.
“There’s been a development.” Cynic snapped a glare at him. “A bad one. Several bad ones, actually. I have a few new assignments for you.”
They climbed into the helicopter, which drowned out any potential conversation until the doors closed. Once they were in the air, Cynic resumed. “By the end of the year, the U.S. will no longer be part of the UWC.”
“Am I supposed to give a shit?” Nero asked. He loved the games, the teasing. Cynic knew he’d follow her orders even if he hated it. He still made her fish for his obedience.
“Yes. The country with the largest military infrastructure, population, and per capita just pulled out of supporting OPI. It means our belts tighten and God knows how many capes drop out of patriotism. It means rival organizations and the unity we’ve fought so hard to achieve fractured.” Cynic looked like she could crack a walnut with her teeth. “You know all this. You’re just being difficult.”
“I’m being difficult because it’s the one thing I can do, madame dictator,” Nero said. “What kind of problems does this make for us?”
“OPI Central will have to move. Likely we’ll return to the old Foundation base in Buenos Aires. That’s the only facility with the space for HQ.” Cynic shook her head. “For now, we have until the end of the year to pack our things. That gives us about two months to clear Central.”
“I’ll miss New York,” Nero said.
“You were barely ever there,” Cynic replied. “What do you care?”
“They have this awesome coffee shop I like.” Nero grinned and summoned the mental image of one of the baristas he took back to his hotel one time. He made sure Cynic got a good view of her spread eagle on the bed. “What’s the other bad news?”
“Some local capes reported a huge disturbance in Chile that I think may be connected to Gabe and his little resistance.” Cynic no doubt dropped that line hoping that just the mention of Gabe’s name would boil Nero’s blood.
But Nero had already let off all his steam about their fight. Gabe’s name didn’t do much for him. He already knew that Gabe would never be able to kill him. After all, Megajoule hadn’t, and while Gabe was a fighter and Megajoule wasn’t, the kid had half the power Megajoule had. One of these days, Nero would take him down. A fun fight. A regular day, just like the rest. Until he died of old age.
If he could die of old age.
Nero greeted that thought like he greeted everything. Head on. He relished Cynic’s squeamish expression as he thought of himself dying of old age, rejuvenating to the point right before his death, and then expiring again, over and over. Forever.
“You’re doing well for yourself,” Nero told Danger Close.
Danger Close merely grunted.
“Houston Hero, and now you’re Cynic’s private bodyguard. You’ve got some ambition.” Nero couldn’t help that his smile looked more like a snarl, but he owned that fact and smiled very wide for Danger Close. “You thinking about replacing me?”
“Nah,” Danger Close said.
Hm, someone whose buttons he couldn’t immediately press. Nero would get him eventually. “Where are we headed now, then?”
“Central. To put together your team for Chile,” Cynic said.
Nero hated New York. He hated the crowded monstrosity made up of glittering skyscrapers gathered so close a fart couldn’t pass through them, he hated the streets clogged with traffic, and most of all he hated that people crammed into every nook and cranny of the metropolis. You couldn’t turn around without finding someone new. For Nero, that was his worst nightmare.
OPI Central just had to be the biggest tower in the city. The Titan Tower, they called it, and just like every other OPI building, they’d plastered Megajoule’s face on the side. He imagined the regular people found his blown up face and self-assured grin soothing, even if he was dead.
Even if the people in that tower had ordered Nero to kill him. Funny that. Funny that.
Cynic never went through lobbies, she landed on the top of every building she went to and entered in secret. Nero kept his head down and followed her around, while her two Primum led the way. He noted the silver stars on their pauldrons. “Standard package, huh? Superman lite?”
“It’s what’s practical,” Cynic said. “Most Primum are. Has to do with the kind of person that would become a soldier in the first place.”
Nero grunted. He didn’t really care. Bulletproof meant little to him. He could fly. He had super strength. He was not the kind of person that would want to become a Primum.
Wind Rider and Meltdown were waiting in the conference room overlooking the bay. They sat on the far ends of the table from each other and didn’t seem to be talking before Cynic opened the door.
Hard to believe they were husband and wife, sometimes. After all, Meltdown looked so much like Bedevil with golden hair and brown eyes, and Wind Rider cheated on Bedevil. Why marry practically the same woman if you didn’t want her the first time?
Nero wondered if it was a slap in the face the day Bedevil found out Wind Rider married her clone. He barked a laugh at that thought, considering Bedevil had jumped the bones of Megajoule’s clone.
“What’s so funny?” Wind Rider asked. Even when he was grim and dour, he sounded like an airhead surfer douche bag to Nero.
“Just thinking about clones,” Nero said.
Danger Close let out a small laugh with a grim smile. At least they had a sense of humor in common.
Meltdown was a reserved girl, but Nero knew when he’d struck a nerve, and he’d just struck gold, apparently. One moment she was only lightly frowning and the next she wore a vicious scowl. “What is this, Cynic? What did you call us for?”
“I believe we’ve found Gabe, Bedevil, and Templar,” Cynic said. “Which means we’ve found Linear and Archimedes, too, and whoever is behind their escape.”
“Why would someone be behind it?” Wind Rider asked. “Archimedes is smart enough to have organized this on his own.”
“Not without me finding out,” Cynic said. “I want you three to go and investigate the sightings in Chile. The local OPI chapter reported a huge explosion and signs of a battle. The town of Puerto Guadal was wiped out, apparently.”
“Damn,” Wind Rider said. “What do you think happened?”
“That’s what you’re going to find out,” Cynic said. “I’ll leave you all to it. When you determine the cause, we’ll meet back up in Buenos Aires.”
Meltdown stammered. She gripped the table and looked to Cynic. “Is the U.S. leaving the UWC going to cause problems for us? I have family in Wyoming.”
Cynic looked, for just a moment, a woman unhinged. Nero frowned as he saw her face betray the insane pressures of OPI, the UWC, and the States all squeezing in from opposite sides, and if there’d been any sympathy for her inside him, he’d have pitied her. But Nero thought that she’d made this bed and now she’d lie in it.
He did, however, pity Meltdown. She was the only person in this room he did pity, actually. Caught in a marriage with Wind Rider, hailed as the next Megajoule because she had power over electromagnetic energy, and yet she couldn’t be older than 24. And yet she was just a lookalike replacement to the girl Wind Rider screwed over. Nero doubted he could set her fears to ease, but he’d try. “We’ll figure it out. It’s not the first time the States have said they’re going to leave the UWC. Brazil threatens the same on the regular. Mexico, too. It’s saber rattling, nothing new.”
“It’s the first time anyone’s voted on it,” Meltdown said.
Nero shrugged. “You know they once voted to make beer illegal, right? Just because there’s a vote doesn’t mean it won’t get overturned later. Or even rejected by the people.”
“Public opinion is largely behind the move,” Cynic said, her voice low like she was slipping a knife through the ribs of the conversation.
“Whatever. They want to leave because of what happened in Houston, right?” Nero asked. “Let’s bring them back the person that did it. We bring them Gabe and tell them—”
“If we tell them Gabe is responsible for everything in Houston this last half year, they’ll move their exit from the UWC up to this week,” Cynic said. “No. That’s not an option.”
“Then we give them everyone else,” Nero said. “I’ll kill Gabe. He’s got to go, now. But we bring them Archimedes, Linear, Templar, and Bedevil? Tell them a bunch of top capes orchestrated a rebellion because of some personal vendettas?”
Cynic tapped her heels on the floor. The tapping grated on Nero, but he said nothing. “Fine. Bring them back.”
“One more thing,” Nero said. “I’ll need Carnality. I promised her another Gabe.”