As promised, this is the first official Justice Wing post, appropriately named “Prologue.” It sets up a few things, gives you some better idea of who the players are and how long they’ve been at this, and… well, gives us something to go from.
Which is, in the end, what a prologue is supposed to do.
I hope you like it.
*** *** *** ***
December 24, 1985
“–throwing these… I don’t know. Sharpened metal letters and numbers at us? Attacking us with typography?” Nightstick chuckled. “It was bizarre.“
“They were like throwing stars,” Cudgel cut in. The teenager was excited. “Like Cipher was a ninja or something? He starts chucking them and he’s making some joke about us getting the point–”
“You’re kidding,” the Lieutenant asked. He had the SWAT team helmet he always wore off, and was drinking a ginger ale. “He actually did a pun about sharp things?”
“Oh yes,” Nightstick said. “And what’s worse, he overemphasized it. ‘Let me send you a letter, Nightstick! I trust air mail will suffice? I’m sure you get my point!‘” He shook his head. “It was like being locked in a room with Adam West.
Freya laughed. “Spoken like a man who’s never been locked in a room with Adam West.”
“Wait — you were locked in a room with Adam West?” Cudgel asked, staring. “Really?“
“It was an auto show a couple of years back. He had that car from the television show.” She considered. “Nice guy. Worked hard to talk to my face instead of my chest.”
The Ancient Mariner snorted.
Freya arched an eyebrow. “Comment, Mare?”
“You can’t tell me you’re that worried about people staring at you. You’re essentially wearing a bathing suit and feathers.”
“You’re wearing a bathing suit and no shirt.”
“I swim for a living. A bathing suit makes a certain amount of sense on my patrol.”
Freya smiled. The smile fairly smoldered. “And I’m a fertility goddess. Honestly, you mortals should be glad I wear clothes in the first place.”
“That’s okay,” Cudgel said. “Don’t feel like you have to on our account.”
“Clean thoughts, chum,” Nightstick said with a grin.
The Centurion walked back in with a tray of drinks. “I think I’ve got everything,” he said. “If I didn’t say before, thanks for coming over tonight. I just thought would be nice… you know.” He was a little flushed, his helmet’s visor up so the others could see his face.
Freya giggled, accepting an Arnold Palmer from the tray. “As sad as it is to say, it’s not like I had anywhere else to be. Astrid Bixby was just going to sit at home and watch the Yule Log on channel 38.”
“What about that Air Force Major of yours? He couldn’t be convinced to make it a Merry Christmas” Nightstick asked, smirking slightly. Off to the side, the Centurion turned magenta.
“Oh, I’m sure if the Goddess Freya swept onto his doorstep wearing something slinky and fur trimmed, he’d make most merry,” Freya said with a laugh. “But the Goddess Freya doesn’t observe your heathen rituals, now does she? And Major Storm had little interest in taking Astrid Bixby out for a Christmas Eve dinner.”
“You know, I noticed you do that,” the Lieutenant said, cocking his head at Freya.
“Do ‘that?’” She asked. “Giggle? Make innuendoes that have Cudgel’s heartrate up and threatens to make our host burst a blood vessel? Give me something to work with, my dear Lieutenant.”
“You speak of ‘Astrid Bixby’ and ‘the Goddess Freya’ as two different people,” the Lieutenant said. “I mean, I sometimes refer to one or the other of my identities in the third person. I think we all do. But you do it every time, as near as I can tell.”
Freya opened her mouth to answer, when there was a thump on the terrace. They were on the eighty-fifth floor of Baldwin Towers, which meant the new arrival had flown in.
“Hm. It’s about time,” the Ancient Mariner said. “I was beginning to think Centurion’s last invited guest would be a no-show.”
“No chance of that,” Nightstick said, smirking once more.
Paragon swept into the room like a gale force wind, his grin threatening to split his face. He scooped up Freya and hugged her, far more firmly than he could dare hug any normal mortal woman. “You look wonderful tonight,” he half-shouted, eyes darting from hero to hero. “You all do! Merry Christmas, everyone!”
“Look at him,” Cudgel “Something tells me Paragon’s been hitting Christmas cheer a little early.”
“Not likely,” Nightstick said, smiling slightly. “A tanker truck full of Christmas cheer couldn’t affect him. What is it, Paragon? Had a good fight?”
“The best fight,” the Crown City Champion said, clapping his hands together. “It was… it was glorious! Leo Lucas had teamed up with Doctor Nebula, and this time they weren’t kidding around. Nebula had synthesized a kind of concentrated nerve gas — a single canister would have taken out half of Crown City. Naturally, Barbara Babcock had gotten herself tied to the gas bomb–”
“Oh, naturally,” the Centurion said. “You want something to drink?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Tea. Or whatever everyone else is having. Anyway — there were all these robots, and I’m really pushing to my limits, and there’s a chunk of Xenonite somewhere in the room to boot. Barbara’s shouting about how they won’t ever get away with it, and Doctor Nebula’s gloating while Lucas is trying to get a bead on me with one of those blasters of his — why does he always go back to the blasters? They’ve never hurt me, even when I’m weakened by–”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” Freya said, putting a hand on Paragon’s back. And leaning forward slightly as she did it. Always on display, or so it seemed. “Don’t lose the trail when we’re so close to base camp.”
Paragon laughed. “Right, right. Anyway. I managed to breach one of the force fields protecting the bomb. See, I cracked open one of the robots and discovered their power was focused through an artificial ruby…” Paragon chuckled, shaking his head. “It doesn’t matter. I mean, it was a great fight, and of course I won, but that’s not the point.”
Nightstick grinned a bit more. “Then what is the point,” he asked.
“Look at us,” Paragon said, gesturing around the room. “In the — what, four years since we started our careers–”
“Just shy. You were the first, and your fourth anniversary is January the third of next year,” the Ancient Mariner said. He was always a cool customer, taking a pull off his pipe but standing just slightly off from the rest of the group.
“Close enough, close enough,” Paragon said, waving the correction off. He was still recovering from the adrenalin of the fight, the exhilaration of the win. Cudgel was more or less right. If the Diamond Hard Man wasn’t drunk, he was the next best thing. “That’s not the point. I understand now.”
“He ‘understands’ now,” Centurion said, shaking his head. “I thought I left late night conversations like this one back at Crescent Bay University.”
“What do you understand?” Freya asked, quietly.
Paragon looked around. “Look at us. Me. You, Freya. Nightstick and Cudgel. The Centurion. The Lieutenant. The Ancient Mariner. A new breed of hero. No one’s ever had the battles we’ve had, with the stakes as high. I saved an entire city tonight. Freya saved half the Eastern Seaboard last week. Nightstick, you and Cudgel saved the nation last month. Centurion — didn’t you save the world earlier this year?”
“Who keeps track,” Centurion asked, shifting slightly. A little uncomfortable, perhaps.
“Don’t you all see?” Paragon asked, looking around. “Given the stakes we and the other heroes have had to endure, shouldn’t we have lost some of these fights?”
Cudgel blinked. “What?”
“You heard me, son,” Paragon said, leaning closer to the teenaged hero. “What are the odds that we’d win every fight, every time?”
“Not good enough,” the Ancient Mariner said. “There’s always a price to be paid–”
“Yes yes yes,” Paragon said, shaking his head. “I know that, Mare. That’s not my point.“
“Then what is your point?” Freya asked, grinning full out. “I’m beginning to wonder if we’re ever going to hear it.”
Paragon’s smile grew. “We’re never going to lose.”
Nightstick blinked. “Excuse me?”
“We’re never going to lose, Nightstick. Don’t you see? Oh, our line of work is dangerous — there’s no doubt of that. We might die or be injured or something… but we’re never going to fail. We’re always going to keep the bomb from going off, or at least hurl it out to sea so it can’t hurt anyone. We’re always going to foil the nefarious plans set against us. We’re always going to win.“
“Well, sure,” Cudgel said. “That’s what being a hero is all about.”
“That’s an expression of faith, not statistics,” Nightstick said. “And statistically–”
“Statistically, Paragon has a point,” Centurion said, gesturing with his gauntlets. A blue holographic computer terminal appeared in front of him, and he began to type. “By the law of averages, we should have lost some of these fights. Only we really haven’t.”
“Are you saying we’re unbeatable?” Freya asked, frowning. “That smacks of hubris. The Gods–”
“No no,” Paragon said. “Any one of us can be beaten. But so long as we stick to the straight and narrow, none of us will fail. Don’t you see that? The bad guys won’t win. They can’t win.”
The Ancient Mariner leaned back in his chair. “Well,” he said after a moment. “It’d be a comfort if it were true.”
“It is true,” Paragon said, practically bouncing. “It feels true, Mare.”
“Well, good enough,” Nightstick said with a grin. “That makes this a Merry Christmas indeed.
July 25, 2003
The Paramount City Monarchs were up three runs to two, taking on the Crown City Uniques at home. Paramount City hadn’t been selling out the Garrick County Coliseum as a matter of habit that season, but the rivalry betwween the Monarchs and the Uniques was old and bitter, so even the bleachers were full that Friday.
Darren was sitting in those bleachers. He was in sweats and a baseball cap. That was the easy way to cover up the bodysuit until he was ready. Sweats, a ball cap, a pair of black sunglasses. It was the top of the fifth.
He had to admit, it was hard to kick the plan into high when the Monarchs were up by a run. After all, there was home town pride involved. He considered holding off — let them get into the late innings, so they’d count this as a Monarchs win instead of a ‘rain out’ or the like.
But if he held off, people would start to leave, and he wanted as many people here as possible. The biggest splash. The biggest impact. And the best bait for the Beacon.
He pushed up his sleeve. The crystal bracer on his left arm functioned as his watch as well as one of his control units. He checked the time. With a tap, he checked system status on the remote units. Green lights. He tapped again, going into the blacklight laser controls — the blacklight lasers took time to charge up, and they were the most effective weapons he had against the Beacon, so he needed to charge several capacitors at once for them.
It looked like everything was running. It was just moving into sundown, so they’d turned the giant arclights on, which meant the systems he’d painstakingly installed in the towers were online and ready.
Darren pushed up out of his seat. He made his way up the steep stairs to the top ring of the stadium, and started to circle around for the stairwell. Down on the field there was action going. Smits had hit a sweet one between left and center — a double that had two runs batted in — the Uniques went on top, four to three, with Smits on second and only one out.
Darren shook his head, taking off his cap and replacing his sunglasses with his control visor. Looks like he was going to do the Monarchs a favor after all.
Darren got his ID and money clip out and slipped it into his uniform’s belt pocket. His sneakers and socks he slipped off and dropped into a concrete wastebasket along the walkway. They were WalMart specials anyway. The sweats joined them quickly enough. There weren’t that many people in the cheap seats even today, so he went unnoticed.
Darren grinned. That was about to change. He keyed in the activation code.
Hidden concussion charges went off in the light towers even as they burst into polychromatic light. These were unnecessary, of course, but it was good theater. There were shrieks of surprise, even as lances of deadly light arced onto the field, burning large furrows. The exit tunnels had golden bars form in front of them — solid light tricks. You couldn’t take hostages without sealing the exits. The storage batteries kicked in, so that if someone killed the power to the Stadium all his tricks would keep going.
Darren laughed a solid villainous laugh, his voice feeding into the PA automatically. He jumped up, the magnetic repulsors on his boots letting him skate along the metal superstructure of the stadium down each tier to the field. Seeing a group of Stadium Security guards running for him, Darren sent a pulse of light in front of them, setting the turf on fire. The Monarchs and the Uniques were fleeing for the dugouts — let them flee. The solid light grid cut off those exits too.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Darren shouted, his voice echoing all around him. He brought his hands together, bringing the holographic projectors online, and creating a seven hundred foot tall duplicate of himself in the middle of the field. “There is no cause for alarm! Cooperate, and no one has to get hurt!”
“Oh my God!” he heard one of the bat girls shriek. “It’s Refraction!”
Bullets began to spark off his defensive field. The hologram was sparking too — some of the guards were dumb enough to waste bullets on it, so he needed to waste power on solid light for it — the last thing Refraction wanted was for rent-a-cops to shoot through his hologram and hit bystanders. That kind of heat he didn’t need.
Refraction spun, letting his visor tag the guards with guns. The system locked on them and he lifted an arm. His wrist unit burned with light, attracting peoples’ eyes while the tower projectors locked and fired, slagging the guns in their hands. Some guards would get burns, but nothing too serious. “You threaten the Lord of Light with those toys?” he shouted over the PA. “Not too bright, boys!” To be honest, Refraction was a little tired of the light puns. Still, you had to work the crowd.
That got the guards scrambling. Refraction laughed, gesturing again and incinerating second base. He’d start making demands in a couple of moments, when the crowd was sufficiently lathered up. Then, it was just a question of waiting for the Beacon to arrive. His grid was in place, so even at lightspeed she’d be intercepted and driven into human form. From there, he would finally end this little feud once and for all.
She just needed to take the bait.
The Beacon shuddered, throwing up into the wastebasket for the third time. Arrowhead knelt next to her, holding her hair to keep it out of the line of fire.
“God,” she muttered. “Justice Wing’s finest moment.”
“Hey, don’t sweat it,” Arrowhead said. “We all get sick sometimes.” He glanced over to where Paragon was looking out one of the huge windows. “Well, almost all of us. Anyway, you should be home. After you have crackers and some weak soup.”
Paragon didn’t answer. He just kept looking out the window, down to the city far below.
“I’m on duty,” the Beacon said, miserably. “With Flight Control taking the night off, I have a responsibility–”
The system monitor chose that moment to ping.
“Speak of the devil,” Arrowhead said. “C’mon, sit up. I need to go check that.”
The Beacon managed to sit up. Even though she was the current leader of the team, she was still one of the younger members. Her costume reflected that — very twenty-first century chic: cargo pants and a bustier in burnt orange, and a black leather coat over them. A matching orange mask set off her black hair. It was a good look when she wasn’t this pale. “Where’s the call,” she asked.
Arrowhead made sure the Beacon wouldn’t throw up again. He then walked around the couch to the system monitor. It was a huge computer, largely glass and metal, with a holographic display. He was sometimes embarrassed to play video games on it. He glanced at Paragon. “You know, you could have checked this for me,” he said.
“I’m not actually on duty tonight,” Paragon said mildly.
“You’re here, aren’t you? If you’re not on duty, why show up?”
Paragon didn’t change his expression. He kept looking out over the world, his eyes picking out microscopic details from hundreds of miles away. The color of her dress — blue. Last time she wore white. The sharp angles of her man’s black bow tie. The candles along the walls. “What else do I have to do on a Friday night?”
Arrowhead shook his head. “That is weirdly pathetic, ‘Goner.” He pushed the right keys on the unit, and frowned. “Arena taken hostage.”
“What one?” the Beacon asked, rubbing her brow through her mask.
Arrowhead paused. He considered lying, but decided that wouldn’t work. “Garrick County Coliseum,” he said. “Paramount City. Refraction terrorizing the crowd.” He opened up a window to the ESPN broadcast.
The Beacon shuddered. “Great. Of course. My villain, my city. Okay, I’m gonna need something. Dramamine maybe–”
“No way,” Arrowhead said. “No way. You can’t walk twenty feet without throwing up.”
“Don’t need to walk, remember?”
“Don’t be stupid. I’ll take Refraction down.”
“He’s out of your weight class,” the Beacon said, pushing up to her feet.
“I been fighting guys out of my weight class for twenty years!” Arrowhead snapped.
“Sixteen,” Paragon said, quietly. “Next month.”
“Oh, sorry — I didn’t think I was being graded.” Arrowhead moved to block Beacon from the launch tubes. “You’re not going out there. You know this is a trap. It’s too public to be anything else.”
“We do this,” the Beacon said, trying to stand without trembling. “He tries to trap or kill me, and I send him back to pri… puh… ohGod….” she half-dashed back for the wastebasket, before her muscles locked and she went down. The vomit hit the floor, a good six feet from the basket.
“Jesus. Why didn’t you light-shift there instead of running?”
“Shut up. Gotta get going…”
“Forget it.” Arrowhead looked up, over to where Paragon was standing. “You could always go instead.”
Paragon didn’t turn to face Arrowhead. Far away, she was smiling. Her hand still had a slight scar from her old wedding band. The new ring covered it over. “I’m not on duty tonight,” he said, quietly.
“Yeah? You’re the one who asked if there was something better to do on a Friday night.”
“S’okay,” the Beacon said, pushing back up to sitting. “I’ll go. Refraction’s my villain.”
“Not an option,” Arrowhead said. “If big Blue doesn’t feel up to it, I’m heading for the launch bay.”
“I’ll go,” Paragon said, quietly.
The Beacon looked at the Diamond Hard Man. “That’s… that’s okay,” she said. “I just need–”
“No,” Paragon said. “Arrowhead’s right. Get some rest. I’ll take care of it.”
The Beacon watched Paragon slowly turn, and walk back towards the launch tubes.
“There,” Arrowhead said. “Three cheers for the blue and gold, right?”
The Beacon shivered, then crawled closer to the wastebasket to throw up again.
“Hey, Kid?” Arrowhead asked. The Beacon hated it when he called her ‘kid.’ Which is why he did it of course.
“Yeah?” she croaked.
“You sounded like you didn’t want Paragon going. I know why you didn’t want me to go — I’m just some guy with a bow. Why not mister Last Prince of a Dead Civilization?”
The Beacon looked away. “No reason,” she said. “We’re playing Crown City today, and we really hate the Uniques, so–”
“So you didn’t want the Crown City Champion to save the stadium?” Arrowhead half-smiled.
The Beacon looked down. It sounded like he was buying it. “Something like that,” she muttered.
Refraction had activated the drone program, which caused a series of holographic projections of himself to buzz the crowd, keeping things stirred up. They were collecting the box office receipts and bringing them to him now. He resisted the urge to check his watch. He’d been worried she’d show up too fast — if she’d been in the crowd he’d have been screwed. But late? The woman turned into light — she was never late.
Maybe she was on another call or something. Damn it, he’d probably make a profit off the box office receipts even with all the money he sunk into the emitters and prepwork, but when was he supposed to get another shot at–
His visor pinged. Incursion from above! By the time he turned, his blacklight lasers were already firing–
There were explosions from all twelve tower arrays. Refraction staggered back, slapping at his controls as his visor became a chaotic mess of conflicting information. Power supplies and solid light emitters reported sudden failures, then cut out entirely. Refraction bit his lip, clearing his vision and looking up–
And freezing, shocked into silence along with the entire crowd.
Paragon was two hundred feet up in the air, his arms folded. Clearly standing on air. His golden cape fluttered like a flag in a breeze. The golden starburst logo on his chest gleamed in the stadium’s lights. His blond hair seemed to shine like a halo over his head.
The crowd went apeshit. Cheers and shouts from all sides echoed all around Refraction as the Diamond Hard Man stared down at him.
“What the Hell are you doing here?” Refraction finally managed to sputter, over the PA.
“Are we done here?” Paragon asked, curtly. Even at two hundred feet in the air, the hero’s voice could clearly be heard. He did not sound happy.
Refraction bit his lip. “Not even close!” he shouted, triggering his primary laser lances. They burned into Paragon from all sides, from emplacements Refraction had carefully installed over the weeks he had prepared for this.
Paragon didn’t move. He let the lances fire, but didn’t acknowledge them even as they seared into him. “Are we done here?” he asked again.
“It wasn’t supposed to be you,” Refraction spat, bringing his arms up. His wrist units pulsed as he brought his personal arsenal online–
Paragon swept up another hundred feet, curving in the air. His eyes glowed for a half-second before golden light — his ‘beacon-vision,’ ironically enough — seared out, burning the laser lance emitters out. Before Refraction could adjust his aim to compensate, Paragon shot down to ground level, closing his hands around Refraction’s wrists. He squeezed just hard enough to turn the crystal lattice of his control units into cracked junk, though Refraction barely felt the pressure of it. Refraction’s visor flared and lost power. Refraction found himself staring in Paragon’s glowing eyes, even as he felt heat on his side — Paragon was burning out the leads to Refraction’s suit power pack.
“Are we done here?” Paragon asked softly, still holding on to Refraction’s wrists. His eyes stopped glowing, and seemed all the colder as a result.
“Yeah,” Refraction said, swallowing. The PA link had cut out when the suit had lost power. “Yeah, we’re done here.
Paragon looked at him, his brown eyes burrowing into Refraction’s for a long moment. He then pushed gently, and Refraction fell over onto his butt, looking up. “Good,” Paragon said, and shot straight up into the air. Far above the city, Refraction heard a sonic boom.
The crowd was still going crazy, cheering and chanting Paragon’s name. On the sides, Police and SWAT were now streaming in the now-opened exit tunnels.
Refraction knew he’d get dogpiled any moment, but he didn’t move. He just stared up into the now empty night sky.
“Hah hah,” Arrowhead was saying. “Punked out. I thought you said that guy was big leagues.”
The Beacon was sitting, a blanket around her, watching the ESPN coverage with Arrowhead. “No,” she half-whispered. “I said he was out of your league.”
Arrowhead laughed harder at that. “Yeah — okay. Point. Ain’t no one out of Paragon’s league. Hell, who’s even in Paragon’s league, boss?”
The Beacon chewed her lip. On the screen, one of the announcers was talking. “Well, we’ve received word that Major League Baseball is officially postponing tonight’s slugfest between the Monarchs and the Crown City Uniques. They are not saying when the game will be picked up at this time, until Monarchs officials have a chance to thoroughly examine the stadium and discover the extent of Refraction’s modifications and any damage. Dick, the crowd seemed pretty excited to see Paragon come to the rescue.”
“Well, that was unexpected for sure. I guess Paragon must have been at home in Crown City watching his home town team play the Monarchs. You’d think — who is it who’s in Paramount City?”
“The Beacon,” the first announcer said. “I guess maybe she’s not a baseball fan.”
“I guess not,” the second announcer said, laughing.
“No one,” the Beacon said quietly. “No one’s in Paragon’s league.”
“Was that supposed to be cute?”
Chad Keillor reclined back on the deck chair. He pressed the beer bottle to his head. “Don’t you start, Gus.”
Augustus Fitch didn’t answer. He cradled a beer of his own, his white hair contrasting with his dark skin. Just another old sailor living on the coast. An old sailor who’d looked the same age as long as Chad had known him. “I’m serious. Was that supposed to be cute, Chad? You’re pissed off, so you clocked in a ten second collar on that kid?”
“That kid had taken a sports stadium hostage. I wasn’t going to endanger their lives to make a good show.”
“That’s the game,” Gus said. “You know that. You invented it. You do that kind of thing, and people’ll get scared of you. Maybe Paragon’s too powerful. Maybe we need to do something. They haven’t forgotten Freya, you know.”
“Jesus, Gus, what’s the point?”
“Things aren’t always good for us,” Gus said. “Everybody loves you, and that helps, but they don’t always love us. So if you–”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean?” Gus sat down on the deck chair next to Chad. “Or is this about Barbara remarrying?”
Chad lay back onto the chair. “Of course. But it’s not just about that, Gus.”
“So what is it?”
Chad looked out over the ocean, before tipping more of the beer back. “When I first started out, I had a route.”
“Yeah. I split the city up into two halves, and split the two halves into a grid, and every night I’d fly out over the city and check every square of the grid out, using beacon vision and my hearing. I wanted to make sure I was there if I was needed.”
Gus nodded. “Most capes do that, starting out. I found there wasn’t much need, but then the Seven Seas aren’t really ‘grid-like.’”
Chad didn’t acknowledge Gus’s interruption. “After four or five years, I found myself skimming over bits. A few years after that, I’d just cover chunks of each city half. And then I just started flying wherever I felt like it.”
“Sounds healthy. Or at least less anal.”
“These days, I don’t even bother, most nights,” Chad said, finishing off the beer. “I just listen really hard from my apartment.”
Gus frowned. “That seems a touch cavalier.”
“Yeah, well — you’d think.” Chad looked at the empty bottle for a long moment, then flung it out. The glass arced a few hundred feet in the air, down towards the bay.”
“Jesus. Don’t litter, okay?”
“You know the difference between my old anal grid days and now, Gus?”
“I know I’m going to have to clean broken glass out of the bay. Things live down there, you know.”
“I’m serious. Do you know the difference between my active patrolling days and today? In the grand scheme of things?”
Gus sighed. “No. Tell me, Chad. What’s the big difference between then and now.”
Chad looked at Gus. “Nothing.”
Gus frowned. “You can’t tell me Paragon doesn’t make a difference to the world.”
“Of course Paragon makes a difference. But I don’t make any more or less of a difference now than I did then.” Chad leaned back in his chair. “Crime statistics are exactly the same. The number of crimes I foil in a year hasn’t changed. The number of threats or monsters or Leo Lucas plots I stop hasn’t changed. I’m always there. I’m always on time. I always win.” Chad shook his head. “So tell me. Why should I bother to fly around at night? Why not sit at home and actually get some television time in before something happens and I need to suit up?”
Gus shook his head. “We don’t always win, Chad.”
“Of course we do.”
“Yeah? Tell Paragirl that. Or Shillelagh. Hell, tell Freya that.”
“I didn’t say we always survived. I didn’t say we never got hurt. I didn’t say we don’t pay a price, Gus. But Scourge was stopped. The Overking was defeated. And Freya redeemed herself in the end, didn’t she?”
Gus took a deep breath. “Maybe so.”
Chad sat back up. “Besides. Have you checked the crime statistics in Evergreen City?”
Gus frowned. “Now why would I possibly do that?”
“Paragirl used to live in Evergreen City.”
Gus looked down. “I suppose I knew that, once upon a time. What’s your point?”
“My point is… things aren’t demonstrably worse in Evergreen City now that she’s gone.” Chad looked down at his hands. “Threats come up, of course. But other heroes show up to deal with them. I’ve dealt with one or two myself.”
“So you think she didn’t matter?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Let me guess. You’re thinking that if you disappeared tomorrow, there’d be no change at all. Someone else would beat Doctor Nebula or Madam Hypnos.”
“Madam Hypnos retired.”
“Don’t be that guy, okay Chad?” Gus pushed himself back up to his feet. “So what do you intend to do about it?”
“Nothing. Everything. I’m going to retire too.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“No. I don’t believe you. You’re Paragon.“
“So let someone else be Paragon.”
“No one else can be Paragon, Chad. It’s a singular position.”
“Centurion retired. He passed the name on to a successor.”
“Mason wore power armor, Chad. He gave his power armor to someone else, so they could become Centurion. You’re the ‘Last Prince of a Dead Civilization,’ remember? You have any idea where we’re going to find another ‘last’ prince?”
Chad looked down. “I gave Paragirl her powers. She got a blood and marrow transplant from me while we were on Interplanet Station Seven. I could find someone–”
“Didn’t they say Paragirl was a one in a million fluke? Didn’t they say your bone marrow would have killed almost any other human? Are you going to take that kind of risk with someone’s life, so you can retire? And are you honestly saying the retirement would even take, after that?”
Gus leaned down, gesturing at Chad with the stem of his pipe. “Even if someone else wore your cape and had the beacon vision and everything, the next time some planetkiller showed up you’d be the first phone call. Once a year — maybe once a month you’d have to suit up all over again. What would the point be?”
“So — what. You’re saying I can’t retire? I’m not allowed?“
Gus shook his head. “You’re talking to the wrong man here. I have an eternal curse, remember? I’m going to be the Ancient Mariner until such time as my sins are absolved.”
“I wasn’t aware I had sinned.”
Gus shrugged. “Either way. You’re Paragon, Chad. You have to live with that. There’s no rest for either of us, this side of the grave.”
Chad frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Nothing. I’m gonna grab another beer. You want one?”
“Yeah. Yeah, thanks.”
Chad watched Gus head into the beachhouse. He looked back out over the water.
And slowly he smiled.