:from the Chronicles of Purgatory Station
Scott William Foley
Allen walked into the living room to find Sophie and Franklin, his elderly roommates, working on dinner. Of course, Sophie, a tremendous cook, needed absolutely no assistance from Franklin, but her boyfriend loved to observe the minutia of her culinary artistry.
Allen smiled when he noticed they crafted the first meal he ate with them in the apartment above Franklin’s bookstore—Trover’s Fine Literature. So much happened since then, all those months ago.
In fact, during the last seven months, Julie Carmah still refrained from uttering a single word to Allen. He didn’t even dare step foot in her shop, Carmah’s Cup, located next door. In a reversal of their original understanding, now Franklin retrieved all of Allen’s coffee.
He sat at the breakfast bar and watched the couple bicker with each other as one of them cooked and one of them impeded the process of cooking. Allen felt a pang of jealousy at their happiness, and it sickened him to feel as such.
Allen now chided himself for ever believing he and Julie could attain that sort of happiness. After all, the death of Julie’s husband rested on Allen’s shoulders.
“You look upset,” Sophie said as she shooed Franklin away.
Allen snapped to and faced Sophie. Was he upset? He supposed so, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons, though a separate issue from Julie, buzzed at the forefront of his mind.
“I got an encrypted e-mail from one of my former … associates.”
“A member from MAP?” Franklin asked.
Sophie and Franklin froze. MAP meant trouble for their friend, the kind that proved fatal. Allen deserted his post in the government’s highly classified Meta-Agent Program—MAP. He served as a public Colossal for the government, acting as a patron of goodwill. However, the program utilized many, many more agents than just Allen—codenamed Freedom—and none of them acted like him, the people’s hero. They were not meant to serve that role. Instead, they executed covert operations for the security of the United States of America, and most of those maneuvers involved sabotage and assassination.
When Freedom become too comfortable in his position as a Colossal, MAP officially decided to put him in his place. They assigned him to purge the leader of Ulrakistan, a country with which his own warred. He refused. They could have commanded any other MAP operative to fulfill that order, but they chose him. The decision did not come easily, but he could not commit murder. As a result, the war raged on, men and women died, and Allen blamed himself for every one of those deaths. Julie’s husband, Trent Carmah, perished only weeks after Freedom went AWOL.
“Are you in danger?” Sophie asked.
“No,” Allen answered. “It came from an ally; maybe the only ally I have left in the program. The botched mission with the Nocturnal Knight and the others brought me all the wrong kind of attention from MAP. I’m apparently back on their list, though I didn’t think I ever really went off of it.”
Franklin placed his hand on Allen’s powerful shoulder. “This is my fault. I never should have suggested you work with the Knight,”
“The Shadow Serpent has killed nearly a hundred people,” Allen replied. “I had to take action. The Knight focused his all his efforts on the case; it only seemed reasonable when Devil Woman approached me to join their cause.”
Franklin muttered, “I never dreamt it would end so badly. The Knight isn’t the same man he was twenty years ago. He’s not the man I remember.” His eyes were laden with shame.
“We all make mistakes,” Allen reassured, this time placing his strong hand on Franklin’s tiny shoulder. “I’ll deal with both the Knight and the Shadow Serpent when the time is right.”
“So did your friend have anything else to say?” Sophie questioned. Of course, the meal could not be ignored for too long, so she asked this while busying herself anew with the nuances of preparation.
Allen noticed she kept brushing aside her gray hair as it fell into her eyes before he said, “I don’t know I’d go so far as to call him a friend. We weren’t really trained to think like that at MAP. He just wanted to offer a warning.”
The three of them stood in silence for some moments, contemplating the implications of such dire news. A man replaced Allen when he went rogue. MAP designated this man Agent 0104, but the public knew him only as the newest government sanctioned Colossal called Anthem. Unfortunately, Anthem did not consider himself a Colossal. He was everything Freedom was not, and that included being a killer. However, Anthem followed his superiors’ orders, so in their eyes, that made him perfect.
Franklin’s brother, Walter Trover, worked for MAP in his younger years as a scientist. When he discovered that Allen tested off the charts in morality and conscience, he doctored the books a bit to keep the young boy in the program. Such attributes were not generally held in high regard for a program manufacturing super soldiers. Walter Trover considered Allen, then known only as Agent 0099, his penitence for all the killers he created. Walter Trover died long ago, apparently, but left a subconscious directive for Allen to come to Purgatory Station if he ever found himself cast out—to find the bookstore called Trover’s Fine Literature.
“You need to tell him,” Franklin mumbled to Sophie.
Sophie glared at her boyfriend and replied harshly, “I think he’s had enough for today, don’t you?”
Allen could hear most conversations at a normal volume from well over a hundred feet way. He said, “I can take it. If I need to know, I need to know.”
“Put the meat in the oven, won’t you?” she requested of Franklin with ice in her voice. She wrung her hands on a dishtowel and said, “Allen, sweetie, I saw Julie last night, after she closed, over at Malko’s Café. You know they stay open quite late.”
“I know,” Allen returned patiently. He knew what came next. It was inevitable.
“She was on a date, honey.”
His face did not change expressions, but Allen felt his heart crumble at the conclusion of Sophie’s statement. He told himself months ago he must let her live her life. She wanted nothing to do with him, and he would respect her wishes. He understood at his most rationale level that it would be best for everyone if he let her go. However, his distinctiveness at MAP derived from the fact that he had a heart. He was not a heartless machine instead a human being. His face flushed.
“Anyone we know?” Allen asked with his voice a steady tone despite the tempest wreaking havoc within his chest.
“No,” Sophie answered.
“I should talk to her,” Allen muttered after dropping his chin.
“You can’t,” Sophie informed far more directly than intended. “Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry to be so abrupt, but she deserves a chance at happiness. You know I love you, Allen—”
“We both do,” Franklin interrupted as he put some green beans on the stove, nearly catching his plaid shirtsleeve on fire in the process.
“—but we also love Julie,” Sophie concluded. “We know why you had to do what you did in Ulrakistan, and she does too … in her head. But in her heart, she can’t help thinking what might have been.”
“I can’t kill,” Allen growled. His ears felt as though they’d been doused in gasoline and lit afire.
“Honey, I know that. That’s what makes you the hero you are. But, she doesn’t see it that way. You realize that. She only knows Trent would still be here if you’d been the soldier she thinks you were supposed to be.”
“You know I respect the soldiers,” Allen volleyed. “And you know if I could trade places with Trent, I’d do so in a heartbeat. But the entire world saw me as a symbol of justice. Even though my country asked me to do it, I couldn’t execute a man. I may have been just another soldier to my superiors, but the children of my country saw me as their champion. I simply couldn’t cross that line, no matter what.”
“Allen, we don’t think ill of you for your decision, you know that,” Franklin proclaimed while approaching. “We all have to make our decisions in life, and my brother knew even when you were a baby that there were some things you wouldn’t do. You can’t blame yourself for who you are.”
“But Julie can, and she probably should,” Allen proclaimed barely above a whisper. His head remained lowered. He spread his palms out wide on the breakfast bar, stretching his fingers as far as he could in an effort to relax.
“We’re sorry, dear,” Sophie offered.
“What should I expect?” Allen garbled. “What kind of a life could I offer her when Allen Hemingway doesn’t even officially exist?”
“Nick, I’m home!” Julie said as she entered the apartment that she shared with her brother-in-law.
She entered the television room and saw the red-haired teen watching a late night movie.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked as she removed her coat and tossed it over the old, patched-up recliner.
“It’s Friday night, Julie,” Nick said while grinning at her.
“Yeah, I bet you had an awesome Friday night closing down the shop for me,” Julie half-joked, half-apologized as she plopped down and extended the footrest.
“It wasn’t bad,” Nick reassured. “Franklin and Sophie helped me. Then we played cards for a while.”
“They’re good people,” Julie acclaimed.
“The best,” Nick agreed. The light from the television reflected off his face.
“So, what are we watching?” she asked as she pulled her brown, curly hair back into a ponytail and took off her jewelry.
Nick cleared his throat and awkwardly said, “It’s a film based on the end of the Absolutes. You know, that old team of Colossals.”
“Yeah, I know,” Julie replied. She detested the overabundance of Colossals in Purgatory Station, but since her encounter with Allen Hemingway, she found them somehow even less favorable.
Nick, contrastingly, couldn’t get enough of them. His experience with Freedom at the defeat of the Nether Man was something he’d cherish for the rest of his life.
Wishing to switch topics, Nick inquired, “So, how was your date with Hunter?”
Now it was Julie’s turn to feel rather awkward.
“Oh, it was fine. We had some coffee and took in a quick one-man show.”
“How was it?”
“Pretty funny, actually. I didn’t think it would be, what with being titled after a cave man and all that.”
Nick glanced at the television and saw the nearing destruction of the Absolutes by the hand by their greatest adversary, Vitriol. Of course, no one actually witnessed how the Absolutes’ lives ended, so this scene, and the movie as a whole, employed quite a bit of poetic license. That being said, Nick knew it upset Julie, so he turned it off.
“Thanks,” she said.
“No problem. I’ve seen it before.”
“It came out when I was your age,” she informed.
They then sat in silence, both quietly reflecting on their evenings.
“He’s a nice guy,” Nick finally blurted out.
Julie studied her brother-in-law in search of sarcasm. She knew Nick though, and it wasn’t part of his personality to purposefully antagonize. So many were such jerks at his age, but not Nick. Not now … probably not ever.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “He is a nice guy. You know, if it’s weird for you, I’ll stop seeing him.”
Nick smiled gently and said, “I know my brother’s your first love, Julie. Nothing will change that. No one expects you to die an old maid, least of all me. Hunter’s good for you. He’s a lot like Trent, really.”
“You’re wise beyond your years, boy,” Julie crooned. “Good thing I met Trent before you, who knows what could have happened?”
“Yeah, I’m sure you’d love to date a sixteen year old. Just what you want, a boyfriend ten years your junior with acne and a cracking voice.”
They both laughed. After several seconds passed, Julie grew serious and said, “I mean it, though, Nick. You say the word, and I’ll break it off with Hunter. It hasn’t even been a year yet, after all.”
Nick rolled his eyes, then informed, “The only way I’d ask you to dump Hunter is if you’d give Allen another chance—”
Julie huffed in irritation.
“—but I know you’ve got some grudge against him, and I know you refuse to tell me what it is, and I’m going to respect that. So, unless you’ll give Allen a shot, I’m good with Hunter if you are.”
“Allen’s not right for me, kiddo. Just take my word for it,” she seethed.
“Franklin and Sophie think he’s okay.”
“They’re old, Nick. They don’t know any better.”
Julie saw the look of disgust come over Nick’s face and instantly realized what she said. She couldn’t believe she decreed such filth. Franklin and Sophie were pure gold to she and Nick, and she had the audacity to speak against them because of a chip on her shoulder.
“Oh, Nick. Oh, Nick, please forgive me for saying that. I’m an ass. I didn’t mean that. You know I didn’t mean that.”
“I know, Julie. This kind of thing can’t be healthy, though. Your beef with Allen is turning you against your loved ones. That can’t be good.”
“You’ve been watching Dr. Gill again, haven’t you?”
“No comment,” Nick laughed.
“Oh, I don’t know how long it’s going to last with Hunter anyway. He’s a great guy, but he doesn’t make me feel the way Trent did,” Julie admitted as she began playing with her own ponytail.
“Has anyone?” Nick asked while swinging his feet off the coffee table and onto the rest of the couch so he could face her better. He pulled the old quilt from the back of the decrepit couch and covered up.
Julie’s face turned red, but she refused to answer.
“Hey, speaking of Allen, I’ve got some tough news for you.”
Julie immediately asked, “What?”
“I saw him last night at The Machine in the Ghost.”
“What’s that?” Julie inquired.
“It’s an all night internet café. He was … having coffee.”
She exploded, “He’s drinking someone else’s coffee!”
Nick said, “You know, we’ve been studying this play where someone says something like, ‘I think you protest too much.’”
“Hardy har-har,” Julie mocked. “You know we need every customer we can scrounge up! Whether I like him or not, we need his business. How dare he go somewhere else?”
“Yeah,” Nick chuckled. “How dare he go to another coffee shop when you won’t allow him in yours?”
“First of all, it’s our coffee shop, not just mine. You know that. Secondly, that’s not the point, and you know that, too.”
Nick leaned his head back on the pillows and stared at the ceiling. He loved his sister-in-law, but he sometimes wished she could ease back on the throttle a little. Trent loved her fire, and Nick knew he’d never settle for someone who didn’t have it as well. It still annoyed him, though, when it made her unreasonable.
“What time did you see him there?”
Nick felt very tired after leaning back on the pillows and getting cozy with the blanket. Without thinking, he replied, “Oh, I guess it was around one-thirty.”
Julie erupted from her recliner and screamed, “What the hell were you doing out at one-thirty in the morning?”
Startled by her outburst, Nick sat up, stunned, and realized he just jumped into a whole heap of trouble. Crap. He knew he should have gone to bed earlier, but he felt like Trent would have wanted him to wait up for Julie and make sure she got home okay. Now he dove headfirst into the proverbial fire.
“Um, I was, uh . . . well, you see, I was, um—”
Just as Julie was about to issue a stern ultimatum, their phone rang. She glanced at the clock and saw it read eleven-thirty at night.
“Who in the world?” she whispered. She walked into the kitchen to grab the cordless, but pointed at Nick with her eyes wide, which signified that their conversation had not reached anything near a conclusion.
She answered the phone.
Nick watched her, relieved at the reprieve, until a look of shock come over her face.
“Nick, honey,” she said between sudden and choked sobs, “would you mind going to bed now?”
“Is everything okay?” Nick asked in genuine concern. He felt his heart race, for he assumed something happened to Franklin or Sophie. His parents, grandparents, and only brother were all deceased—he tended to obsess about the well-being of his still living loved ones.
“Please, sweetie, just go to bed, we’ll talk tomorrow morning, okay? We’ll talk tomorrow morning, I promise.”
Before leaving for Ulrakistan, Trent made his little brother promise to mind Julie in every way, shape, and form, and Nick, for his part, lived up to Trent’s expectations. Although it pained him to leave her obviously distraught, now would not be the time he defied his brother’s orders.
He squeezed her shoulder as he walked past and shut himself in his room for the night.
“Okay, I’m back,” Julie said with a snivel.
Twenty painful minutes later, Julie stood looking out the window upon Geoff Avenue. The tears flowed more slowly now, but they did not end. A headache arose due to the tears, and her sinuses felt as though they’d been packed with mud. A million chaotic thoughts raced through her head.
She then saw a familiar, tall figure walk by on the other side of the poorly lit street. She knew him anywhere.
“Someone else’s coffee, huh?” she sniffed, suddenly wiping at her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt. “We’ll just see what’s so great about this Spirit in the Computer or whatever the hell it’s called.”
She grabbed some tissue, rubbed away the running mascara, threw on her coat, and pursued the man who not only betrayed his country, but betrayed her business as well.
Allen Hemingway glanced through the immense windows of The Ghost in the Machine internet café. If all went according to plan, he wouldn’t have to offer his patronage there any longer after tonight.
He powered three blocks past the café until he came to an alley leading nowhere. There existed entirely no reason for this alley to be in this particular spot, but it was standard MAP protocol to have a “clean street” in every city. These were streets incapable of falling victim to any sort of electronic surveillance. Although Purgatory Station could not compare to its larger neighbor across the bridge, Boston, it still found itself the host of many, many undocumented meetings. Smaller cities were more inconspicuous, after all.
Allen, now a defector of MAP, avoided this alley as though his life depended on it. And now, ironically, his new life hinged entirely upon the ghost spot.
He stood in the center of the alley, perfectly still. He could feel the eyes watching him, assessing him. He expected nothing less.
“Serve the country first,” a hollow voice said from nowhere.
“And the people second,” Allen returned without conviction.
From the shadows stepped a large, powerfully built man. A metallic membrane coated his chest and shoulders, then climbed his neck and covered the entirety of his head. Allen saw two iridescent eyes boring upon him. In an alley unlike theirs, one that wasn’t masked with electronic buffers, those eyes could decode an awfully lot with just a glimpse. The man’s arms were bare from the biceps down, except for gloves that fit tightly up to the wrist. They were not a laborer’s gloves, nor a soldier’s. They were an electrician’s.
“You know I don’t actually believe that, right? The whole people come second thing,” Allen said.
“The entire MAP facility knows that by now, Agent 0099,” the man said. His side arms thumped against his legs while walking toward Allen. Though an electronic microphone, a filtered voice said, “I suppose I should be calling you ‘Mr. Hemingway’ now, correct?”
“I prefer it, Agent 0091,” Allen returned. “Or do you prefer ‘Cyber Spy?’”
“Actually, I do, if you’re serious,” the large man returned.
“How are you?” Allen asked, extending his hand.
“Fine. You look well,” Cyber Spy affirmed, taking Allen’s hand and shaking it briefly. Allen sensed the man felt more than compromised by this action.
The two men walked side by side to the end of the alley. Both stuck to the shadows. Even though they were in pitch darkness, Allen could see the yellowish slits glowing where Cyber Spy’s eyes should be.
“Been on any missions lately?” Allen asked in an effort at levity.
“Classified,” Cyber Spy responded.
They both realized Cyber Spy achieved success seven months ago with at least one mission. After all, Cyber Spy located Agent 0099 for MAP, and Allen suffered a high caliber bullet to the temple as a result. Even though Cyber Spy fired not the actual shot, both men thought it best to abandon the topic. Allen got his dig in, and that was quite enough.
Orders were orders. Allen didn’t follow his last order. He was considered a bad solider. Cyber Spy was still a good soldier. He had yet to mutiny. He probably never would. Walter Trover allowed Agent 0099, Allen, to retain an aspect of humanity seldom evident in MAP prospects. While Agent 0091, Cyber Spy, proved the only other agent Allen could stomach, he was still far from a typical human with typical emotions. Cyber Spy, like the others, were bred to follow orders. Period. No matter what. He would kill Allen if the order arrived—no questions asked, no hesitation.
However, hadn’t Cyber Spy broken protocol already by warning Allen? And if this meeting unfolded as planned, wasn’t Cyber Spy defying his superiors even more so? Perhaps Cyber Spy retained more humanity than Allen credited.
“You’re risking execution,” Cyber Spy reminded.
“I know,” Allen confirmed. “It’s worth it.”
“What’s worth it?” Cyber Spy interrogated.
“You’re the master spy, figure it out.”
“We’re not constructed to be normal citizens, Allen,” Cyber Spy lectured. “You cannot offer anyone the American Dream. MAP members are incapable of what you’re thinking.”
“I haven’t even told you what I’m thinking,” Allen chuckled.
“I am a master spy.”
“Then you’d realize I’m not a member of MAP any longer.”
Allen’s eyes shot up to the rooftops when he heard a sudden howl erupt, filling the night with maliciousness and wrath.
Within seconds, Allen hit the pavement—hard. The concrete splintered beneath.
He made an effort to spring to his feet, but a heavy boot planted itself firmly onto his chest and forced him back down.
“Stay put!” a gnarled voice roared.
Allen looked up and saw Agent 0050 standing over him, nearly foaming at the mouth. The most feared soldier in the entire Meta-Agent Program employed the most dangerous aspects of both wolf and man, and he had both hunted and caught Allen.
“Hell Hound,” Allen moaned.
“Shut your damn mouth or I rip out your tongue.”
Cyber Spy started to make a move, not entirely sure what he would do, but Hell Hound raged, “Stand fast, Agent Cyber Spy. I am your superior officer, and you’re in it deep enough as is.”
Cyber Spy remained still, as ordered.
Hell Hound gave his attention back to Allen.
The long, forked beard, the crescent, reddish eyes, the elongated incisors, the long fingers tipped with razor sharp claws, and the brown hair covering his entire body unnerved even Allen. This should be considered no small feat, for, during his time as Freedom, Allen fought against things most humans couldn’t imagine.
Hell Hound removed his boot. “Now, get up, traitor. Fight back. Give me a reason to call in Shootdown and Anthem. Give us a reason to celebrate tonight. We would love to finally eliminate the only member of MAP to revolt.”
“I serve the people, Hell Hound,” Allen announced. “And I don’t serve the people by blindly assassinating world leaders.”
“Well, don’t worry about that, Agent 0099. We cleaned up that mess for you a few months ago, but don’t bother thanking us. It’s not your fault you can’t hit anything if your fists aren’t involved.”
“I didn’t miss. I chose not to kill him. And the assassination did a lot of good, didn’t it? The President announced we’ve got another four years in Ulrakistan. So, great job with that.”
Hell Hound narrowed his feral eyes, then grumbled, “Unless you’re in Freedom uniform or attacking a member of MAP, I’ve got orders against killing you. So do me a favor and fight back.”
Hell Hound suddenly started kicking and punching Allen even as the man remained upon the ground
Cyber Spy backed away and leaned against the wall of the alley. His orders remained in effect; he would follow his orders. It wasn’t a matter of a choice.
“If we’d caught you during that Shadow Serpent fiasco,” Hell Hound snarled, “you’d be dead right now.”
Though he tried to fight to his feet, Allen couldn’t escape the Hound’s kicks enough to do so. He shouted, “The Serpent’s killed countless people! Why doesn’t Anthem stop him?”
“Because the Serpent’s doing exactly what MAP—”
Cyber Spy cleared his throat.
Hell Hound ended his attack against Allen, turned to Cyber Spy, and nodded.
“The lust of the kill,” Hell Hound shrugged while taking deep breaths. His narrow, sinewy chest expanded with every intake of air beneath the tight black shirt he wore.
“Understood,” Cyber Spy responded.
Hell Hound glared at Allen again and spat, “This is your last warning, ‘hero.’ You show your face in the red, white, and blue one more time and you won’t have a face left. Stay off the grid and MAP won’t bother with you.”
“Got it,” Allen gargled.
Hell Hound huffed before leaping straight to the edge of the rooftop above.
Cyber Spy next walked over to Allen and offered offering his hand.
The spy dared say nothing; Hell Hound’s hearing should not be underestimated.
He heaved Allen up when a roar thundered down from above, saying, “Do not help that traitor!”
Cyber Spy released Allen’s hand, which caused him to fall in a heap to the cement once more.
They would never again have such a friendly meeting.
“You okay?” Julie asked with such little sympathy that she surprised even herself.
Allen looked up and saw the woman with whom he hadn’t spoken in seven months.
He got up, rubbing his ribs a bit, and inquired, “How much did you see?”
“It was dark; I didn’t see anything,” she replied.
“Stick to that story, would you? I think it’d be better for both of us.”
“Sure thing,” she agreed. She walked with Allen as he started to leave the alley. “So,” she began, “what’s so important that you’d let yourself get beat up?”
Allen drew to a stop when they neared the alley’s threshold. He faced her, taking in her lightly freckled face, but found it difficult to keep eye contact. He held his hand out to her.
She looked down to see a small electronic card.
“This,” he declared.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s a key. And it’s got a time limit. Once we leave this alley, we’re going to have to make small talk. We can’t talk about what just happened, and we can’t talk about this key. If you want to tag along and get some answers by watching, that’s fine. We’re not in any danger as long as we don’t talk about what we’re doing. If you want to go home, that’s fine, too. You’re going to find out what all this was about one way or the other. It just depends how quickly you want to know. So, what’s it going to be?”
“You know me, Allen Hemingway. Lead the way.”
As they walked through the chilly night, Allen and Julie spent more time together than they had in over half a year. Although nowhere near ready to forgive him for, she believed, the death of her husband, she could not go back home. She needed to be out, doing something to take her mind off things, and if this was it, so be it.
“You’ve been crying,” Allen said.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
“About what?” she snapped.
“I don’t know. You’d have to tell me first,” Allen volleyed sarcastically. He never behaved so immaturely in his life. His time away from MAP truly made him more and more human, for better and for worse.
“No, Allen, or whatever you want to be called, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I want to be called Allen.”
Several moments of silence passed until a cold rain abruptly beat upon them.
“Great,” Julie muttered.
“We’re too far out for you to walk back by yourself,” Allen said. “You’re going to have to deal with it.”
“Easy for you to say; I’ve seen you shrug cars aside,” Julie mumbled as she pulled her coat up over her head.
Allen trusted Julie never to tell anyone about his other identity, Freedom, and he knew she addressed it only to irritate him. He would instead simply change subjects.
“So who’s this new guy you’re seeing?” he asked through the rain.
“How’d you know about him?”
“I should’ve known.”
“So? What’s he like?”
Allen assumed she chose to ignore him until she finally replied, “He’s not Trent.”
Allen thought it best to change subjects again. “How’s Nick?”
“Still a devoted fan of anyone wearing tights—especially Freedom.”
“Good to hear,” Allen returned. “And I don’t wear tights. My uniform fits closely in order to avoid ensnarement.”
“You wear a cape,” Julie reminded.
Allen did not counter.
“Actually,” Julie began, “I do have something you could help me with—it concerns Nick.”
“Anything he needs,” Allen said.
Julie said, “He told me, on accident, of course, that he saw you at some café the other night.”
Allen did not break stride as they continued walking through the rain. “That’s true; I was communicating with the gentlemen you saw. Not the furry one, obviously.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“I didn’t want to risk a trace on Sophie’s computer.”
“That’s happy news. I thought I’d lost your business.”
“No. You may not allow me in your shop anymore, but I’m still a loyal customer. At least, as long as Franklin’s willing to go get it for me.”
Julie threw her head back in frustration, then continued, “Anyway, he saw you there at one-thirty in the morning.”
Allen stopped in his tracks and bellowed, “What’s he doing out so late?”
“That’s what I want to know,” Julie returned. “I plan on talking to him about it, but I think, now that it’s confirmed, this has been going on for a while. Little signs, here and there. I thought it was just my imagination, but now . . .”
“You need to know what he’s been up to.”
“I worry about him. Trent trusted me to take care of him.”
“I’ll check into it.”
Almost inaudibly, Julie said, “Thanks.”
“No strings attached,” Allen reassured.
“I assumed not,” Julie said.
They walked anew, their shoes making flatulent sounds as the chilly water seeped into their soles.
Several more blocks passed by until Allen stopped before a dilapidated building. “We’re here.”
“We’re where?” Julie asked.
Allen led her through a doorway, though devoid of any doors. Julie feared upon entering they meet with some unsavory characters seeking shelter from the rain, but then she remembered the nation’s greatest hero accompanied her, and the fear subsided.
They descended decrepit stairs that groaned under Allen’s heavily muscled frame and entered a cellar of sorts.
Julie watched as Allen approached a brick wall, pulled out the electronic keycard, and swiped it past an apparent sensor.
An efficient purr emanated, and before Julie knew it, a small portion of the wall slid aside revealing a recess no larger than that a shoebox. Allen reached in, pulled out a black leather pouch, dropped the key inside the space, then watched as the wall slid back into place anew.
“You wanted to know what was so important?”
Julie watched as he zipped open the pouch and spread it open for her. With water dripping down her forehead, she perceived dozens of documents, cards, identifications, and forms, all detailing the existence of Purgatory Station’s newest official resident, Allen Hemingway.
“Yale, huh?” she said, looking at one certificate in particular.
“His idea of a joke,” Allen dismissed.
“What would make you go public like this, Allen? I thought you and the government agreed to be cool as long as you don’t put on the tights?”
Allen answered before he could think about it too hard, for he knew to think about it too hard would result in not saying it at all: “I realized if I’m ever going to share my life with someone, I need to have a real life to share.”
Julie stared at him, wide-eyed. She then turned and left, back into the downpour.
The next morning, Allen sat with Sophie and Franklin at the breakfast bar. They ate toast, fried eggs, as well as sausage, for their morning meal. While Franklin craved coffee, he’d have to wait a half-hour until Julie had Nick bring it over, as was habitual. In the meantime, he settled for hot tea.
“And so she just walked away?” Sophie asked after crunching into her toast.
“That she did,” Allen answered. “Without a word. I followed her, of course, to be sure she got home safely.”
Franklin said, “That’s the most she’s spoken to you in quite some time.”
“Yes,” Allen confirmed.
“Well, there’s nothing more you can do now other than wait and see what happens,” Sophie said.
The three of them all nodded together, without anyone voicing anything otherwise. They finished their breakfast as such, in silence, contemplating this new turn of events. After all, Franklin and Sophie previously boarded a man who didn’t exist. Now they had a real, certified citizen of the United States living with them.
“What is it, Franklin?” Allen questioned, alarmed by the elderly man’s outburst.
“I’m going to have to report your pay to the feds,” he groaned. “Damn taxes.”
“Are you still in business?” one man asked another in the shadows of a tavern.
“Always,” the second man answered.
“Good. I’ve got a job for you,” the first said.
“Where?” the second asked.
“What is it?”
“Your specialty,” the first man said.
“Same rates as last time.”
“Worth every penny,” the first man said.
“I’d ask what you get out of it,” the second man mused, “but you don’t pay for that.”
“Like a good soldier, you don’t question my orders.”
Allen hid in the shadows across the street from Carmah’s Cup. He’d been waiting since midnight, waiting for some sign, and now, finally, his stoic patience paid off.
“What are you up to?” Allen asked under his breath as he followed his target, careful to stay a half-block behind at all times. Disparaging scenarios fluttered though his head. Drugs? Gangs? Weapons? Worse? Could it get worse? Allen didn’t know. Whatever the case may be, he would keep his promise to Julie and help Nick however possible.
Nick had a heart of gold and Allen knew it. Nick strove always to make his brother’s spirit proud, but Nick’s age and inexperience made him easily swayed by fools. Allen hadn’t experienced such things personally, of course, but he had a basic knowledge of child psychology, just as he had a basic knowledge of virtually any topic one could conceive.
Members of MAP may have been brutish, but that didn’t make them brutes.
He watched Nick enter an alley and disappear into the darkness. Allen readily followed. He soon witnessed Nick standing before the back door of the business called Malko’s Café.
“What’s all this about?” Allen pondered. He remembered this location served as the setting for Julie’s recent date.
The back door slid open just a sliver and Nick slid though like a greased snake. The door immediately closed.
Racing up to the back door, Allen gently took its handle and turned.
Nothing happened; it’d already been locked behind the redheaded boy.
Allen took a step back and looked up at the building. He could see that, like so many other business in Old Downtown, the owner lived above in an apartment.
He hated to do it—dawn had yet to break, after all—but to pick the lock and possibly set off an alarm would do no good for his newfound status as an official citizen of the world. Though loathe to wake up a hard working family, Allen needed to ensure Nick did not expose himself to any sort of danger within those walls.
Allen took a deep breath then pounded his open palm against the door. He held back in order to avoid knocking it off its frame.
Sooner than expected, a middle-aged man yelled down from the window above, “What the hell do you want, you moron! It’s two in the morning, here! I’m gonna call the cops, you freakin’ idiot!”
“Sir, please, there’s no need to shout,” Allen replied.
“You wake me up and you tell me not to shout?” the man yelled. “I’ll shout all I want, you miserable—”
“Sir, please,” Allen interrupted. He held up his identification for the man to squint at through the darkness. “My name’s Allen Hemingway. I’m a friend of a woman whose brother-in-law just entered your café.”
“I got a burglar in my shop!” the man cried hysterically. “Maria, call the cops! Some punk broke into my store!”
“Why isn’t the alarms going off?” a nasally, somewhat feminine voice returned from behind the irate shopkeeper.
The middle-aged man looked back at Allen with his thin eyebrows raised skeptically.
“Someone let him into your shop,” Allen informed. “Sir, really, can you come down and open your door for me so we can discuss this inside? We’re waking up the whole neighborhood.”
The man hesitated.
“Sir, my friend is very concerned about him. His brother died in the war and my friend is taking care of him.”
Once more, no response issued.
“Sir, do you have any children?”
Again, no answer.
“Look, sir, I live with above Trover’s Fine Literature. If you want to call Mr. Trover right now and check my credentials . . .”
The rotund café owner’s eyes lit up and he blurted, “My poppi was friends with those Trover boys! I’m glad to hear Franklin’s still up and running that store of his. Why, just the other day I thought about—”
Allen abruptly caught movement within his peripheral vision. As trained, he resisted the urge to turn his head and notify the quandary they’d been spotted. Instead, he rolled his eyes sideways.
The boy eased out of a window just three rooms away from the man Allen presumed was Mr. Malko. Nick looked fully prepared to scale the lifted stonework of the building downward.
Allen envisioned Nick’s splattered skull against the pavement. He said a quick prayer.
“Sir,” Allen interjected rapidly. “Could you just search your home and café for me? You’re not being robbed, of that I’m certain, but I need to know what my friend’s brother-in-law is doing in there.”
Suddenly, the window to the man’s right opened and a young girl appeared.
“Poppi, what’s going on?” she asked.
Allen breathed a sigh of relief. Now he knew the situation. Nick had good taste. Not only was the dark haired girl cute, she was also quite smart. After all, she misdirected her father’s attention, and Allen’s, from the boy crawling down the wall to her father’s left.
“Irene, this guy says there’s a boy in our store, but there ain’t no alarm going off. Did you let any one in?” the man asked. His voice offered no conviction that his little girl could actually be capable of such a thing.
“Poppi!” Irene cried out, obviously offended. “Of course not!”
Irene next gazed downward at Allen with eyes so pleading they nearly broke his heart.
“There you have it, fella,” Mr. Malko said in irritation.
“My mistake, sir. Please accept my apologies.”
“Yeah, well, if you wasn’t friends with Trover, you can bet your ass I’d be callin’ the cops right now.”
Mr. Malko then slammed his window shut.
Allen shot Irene an amused, scornful look. She blew him a sincere kiss and gently closed her window.
Allen left the alley and there Nick waited for him.
“Smart enough not to run, huh?” Allen asked while putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“You’re in pretty good shape, Al. I knew you’d catch me.”
They strolled along the sidewalks of the city, heading back to their respective homes.
“So that’s what this has all been about.”
“What do you mean?” Nick asked.
“Julie knows you’ve been sneaking out a lot. I told her I’d find out. Now we know.”
“Yeah. Are you going to tell?”
“No, I’m going to leave that up to you. But I’m not doing so to punish you, Nick, although I imagine Julie will. Purgatory Station is a dangerous city. It won’t do for you and Irene to be out so late on the streets. You could literally be killed if caught alone by the wrong people.”
“I know, Al. It’s just, we go to different schools, we both work all night at our family’s shops; if we ever want to see each other we have to sneak out!”
“I understand, Nick,” Allen sympathized. “We’ll have to work something out. That is, assuming this is something you want worked out.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nick asked.
“Well, if you really care about this girl, I’ll try to assist you somehow, but if this is just about . . . well, if you’re just after, um, well . . .”
Nick erupted, “Sex! You think I’m just with Irene for sex?”
“Well?” Allen countered.
“No! We’re too young for sex, Al! Cripes, is that what you think of me?”
Allen stumbled, “I mean, I hoped you knew you were too young, but, I guess, I mean, I’ve heard the temptation—”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You’ve heard? Are you saying you’re a virgin?” Nick interrogated.
Allen felt his cheeks flush. Members of MAP were not allowed to have any meaningful relations with anyone, nor did they ever have an opportunity to bond with anyone on a personal level. They were regularly given access to the opposite sex in order to satisfy certain needs, but Allen did not partake. His instinct told him it was worthless if done with someone you didn’t care about.
They arrived at Carmah’s Cup before Allen said, “Oops, here we are. “Listen, I’ll talk to Julie in the morning; don’t wake her up now. She’s going to have to talk with Mr. Malko. I’m sure they’ll come up with something so you two can date at reasonable hours.”
“Thanks, Al. I know I can always count on you to be fair,” Nick said.
“All right, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Allen replied. He patted the boy on the back.
“Good night,” Nick said before sneaking back into Carmah’s Cup.
Allen waited until Nick’s safe entrance before saying, “Good night.”
He pulled on the ridiculous suit.
If someone met his fee, he’d put it on. After all, he was one of the world’s most feared MegaMals, and for good reason. None defeated him, though the official scorecard said otherwise. If the numbers got bigger in his account, his pride could take any blow. He was a business, after all, a franchise unto himself. Those other guys who were just plain nuts or seeking vengeance, well, that wasn’t him. He didn’t have any personal vendettas. He didn’t consider himself an evil individual.
It’d been a long time since his most recent job. Ironically, Freedom “took him down” last time. Not today, though. Today, Freedom would be embarrassed, and Anthem would be the hero.
The customer is always right.
The black mask slid over his face with a hard tug.
Julie heard the ring signifying a new customer. She looked up, brushing a curl out of her vision as she did so, and saw Allen approaching. It’s the first time he entered Carmah’s Cup in months, and it marked the first time she wouldn’t stop him from entering in the same amount of time.
He stopped in front of her counter and said, “We need to talk about Nick.”
“He told me about it before school,” Julie informed. “Thanks for checking up on him for me.”
“Not a problem,” Allen returned. “So, you know it’s nothing bad.”
“Well, other than all the problems that can spring up from late night rendezvous with the opposite sex, no, nothing too bad.”
“I think he’s serious about her.”
“He’s just a kid, Allen. You know how fleeting high school love can be . . .”
“Actually, I don’t.”
Julie blushed, then said, “Right, I forgot. Well, anyway . . .”
At that moment, the door sang again as a thick, strawberry-haired man entered her store. He walked briskly up to the counter, leaned over it, and pecked Julie on the lips.
Allen clenched his fist into a solid, bone-crushing mass.
Julie pushed Hunter back a little and grumbled, “Hunter, I have a customer.”
“I’m not a customer,” Allen seethed. “I work next door.”
“Ah, well,” Hunter began, sensing the man’s tension. “I’m sure you’ve seen two grown-ups kiss, right?”
“Of course he has,” Julie interjected.
Just then, several more customers arrived—businessmen and women hoping to hone their morning’s presentation over some coffee. Hunter moved aside, next to Allen.
Hunter noticed Allen glaring at him.
“Got a problem, Mr.—?”
“Hemingway is my name,” Allen said. “And I do have a problem.”
“Would that problem be me?” Hunter interrogated, turning squarely to face his doppelganger in size and stature.
“Yes, it is you. But, it’s no fault of your own,” Allen answered. His heart pounded, for he completely recognized the fact that he acted irrationally. These were not the actions of a Colossal. Provoking a civilian out of pure spite because of his own jealousy! What was happening to him?
“Then whose fault is it, Hemingway?” Hunter demanded.
“My own,” Allen responded.
“Got a thing for Julie or something?” Hunter asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Allen fired back.
“Yeah, in fact, it is. She’s with me, so deal with it. If you work next door, you could have made a play earlier.”
Although he never backed down from a fight, Hunter didn’t see the point in initiating one. He thought he’d change the subject.
“So, Hemingway, what do you do next door?”
Allen watched as Julie took orders from the table full of suits and dresses. “It’s a book store. Trover’s Fine Literature.”
“Book nerd, huh?” Hunter grinned.
“Yeah, I guess I am. How about you?”
“Soldier. Just got back from Ulrakistan.”
“How’s it going over there?” Allen asked.
“How do you think it’s going?” Hunter countered. “We’re still there, aren’t we?”
“So you’re against it?” Allen inquired.
“No, I’m not against it,” Hunter said, aghast. “I just wish they’d let us take off the gloves and kick some ass. You?”
“I think we should pull out. Immediately.”
Allen experienced shock when a rock-hard set of knuckles smashed into his chin. He rolled with the punch to spare Hunter a broken hand, but the savagery of the attack confounded him. He fell to the floor, not hurt in the least—he needed to sell it. After all, most small arms fire couldn’t rupture his skin.
“You’re nothing but a damn coward!” Hunter bellowed at Allen while shaking his fist in pain. “Wimps like you are the reason we won’t get down to business!”
The entire patronage of Carmah’s Cup stopped what they were doing and gaped at the ruckus.
Julie came running across the shop and, under her breath, demanded, “Hunter, what are you doing?”
“This chicken shit thinks we ought to pull out overseas. Tell him to get lost, Julie.”
Allen stood up while rubbing his chin, then said, “My opinions are my own, Hunter—”
“That’s Sergeant Ares to you, turncoat.”
Allen continued anew, “My opinions are my own, and the fact that I think we should leave because we’re not doing anything but getting ourselves— and a lot of innocent civilians—killed does not make me a coward or a turncoat. You would assault someone without warning just for disagreeing with you?”
“Yeah, well, you didn’t just watch twelve of your buddies die three weeks ago, did you, punk?”
Dropping his head in genuine sorrow, Allen said, “Don’t you see? Those soldiers didn’t have to die needlessly.”
Hunter made a fist while stepping up to Allen again, but Julie held him back—rather insufficiently. He bellowed, “You call dying for your country a needless death? They died fulfilling their sworn duty! You bleeding hearts just don’t get that, do you?”
Julie rubbed Hunter’s arm as she said, “You’re upset. Please, go back in the kitchen, have some water, calm down.”
“No, damn it!” Hunter cried out. “Are you going to get this guy out of here, or do I have to throw him out?”
Julie met Allen’s eyes and answered, “No, I’m not going to throw him out. He’s welcome to his opinions, as misguided as they may be.”
Hunter tore his arm free. He scowled at her, and though quite menacing, no one in the shop believed for an instant he would harm her. Hunter emitted both honor and courage, and, after learning he just lost so many friends, all were willing to overlook his brashness.
“What would Trent think of you?” Hunter hissed before powering past Julie. He flung the door open, leaving Julie’s life forever. She would never see him in person again.
The shop quietly resumed its normality. The business people went back to their business, the readers went back to their reading, and the daydreamers went back to their daydreaming.
Allen took a step toward Julie and whispered, “I’m no coward.”
“Prove it,” she rumbled before storming back into the kitchen.
“So you know Freedom’s gonna show?” Agent 0104, also known as Anthem, asked his superior.
“I’ve taken care of it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Agent 0050, Hell Hound, snapped.
“Are you questioning me?” the superior interrogated.
“No, sir,” Hell Hound uttered.
The superior looked about the hold of the stealth ship. He saw Agents Anthem, Hell Hound, Cyber Spy, and Shootdown. All suited up. Anthem, of course, alone looked the part of a Colossal. He dressed in a garish uniform of black, red, and blue. His cape hung loosely about his body, all the way to his ankles, fixed in place by a silver star against each collarbone. That was his job, after all—to be the government’s officially sanctioned Colossal. The rest were covert agents dealing mostly with overseas issues or concerns the people of the nation were never to learn. They were each dressed to most efficiently deal with their area of expertise. Other than Hell Hound, all wore masks or helmets.
Freedom not only betrayed MAP, but he also stole a G-Repulser, the belt that defied gravity. The government invested far too much in both to leave them in the field. They needed time to implement Anthem, however, and so they promised Allen they’d leave him alone as long as he stayed off the grid. Freedom, consequently, could not subvert Anthem’s role. Should Freedom appear publicly, he would be apprehended by any means necessary.
Now that Anthem gained America’s acceptance, Freedom and his G-Repulser could not remain liberated. He rarely utilized five MAP agents for one mission, but this situation will prove multifaceted. The first step is locating Freedom out in the open.
Good thing he hired somebody to make sure that happened.
“She saw me take on the Nether Man! How can she call me a coward?” Allen complained.
“She didn’t call you a coward, Allen, she told you to prove you weren’t a coward,” Sophie reminded.
“Semantics,” Allen mumbled.
“Not really,” Sophie replied. “There’s a big difference.”
Allen threw his head back. “What was I doing? I was ready to annihilate that guy in the middle of Julie’s shop because he kissed her! I’ve gone from being a disciplined super-soldier to a soap opera reject!”
Franklin laughed before he said, “Oh, now, sure, you’re developing a penchant for the dramatic, what with all those Fitzgerald and Shakespeare works you’ve been reading, but don’t go overboard. After all, some of your changes have been for the better.”
Allen glanced over at The Bible that Walter Trover left behind. It retained the bloodstain on its cover from when Agent Shootdown attempted an assassination upon him. He read it twice now, and was currently in the middle of his third run. Much of it confused him, but some of it made perfect sense.
“I know you’re right. I’m just becoming so damn . . .”
“Human?” Franklin finished with a smirk.
Allen said nothing in return.
“We know you’re no coward, Allen, but face it, there are some fears you’re not facing,” Sophie said.
“Like what?” Allen asked.
“Well,” Sophie began, “why don’t you tell us?”
“What? My biggest fear?”
The hero sat upon the couch, unable to verbalize that which immediately sprang to mind.
“Well, if you’re anything like Walter, I know what your biggest fear may be,” Franklin hinted.
“What’s that?” Allen inquired.
The silver mustached old man rose creakily from the couch and disappeared for a few minutes. When Allen studied Sophie for an answer, she looked even more perplexed than did he.
Finally, Franklin returned, holding a very small box.
He cracked it open, and Allen saw before him an engagement ring.
“What in the blue skies above is that?” Sophie cried.
“Relax, old gal,” Franklin eased with a wave of his hand. “I’m not going to break our promise. This isn’t for you.”
“Who’s it for then?” Allen questioned while scrutinizing the ring.
“This was for my brother’s lady, way back when.”
“I didn’t know Walter considered marriage!” Sophie interjected.
“Thought about it!” Franklin exclaimed. “He dated that woman for six years, and he bought this blasted thing after only their six month together! He darn near thought about marrying her since the moment they laid eyes on each other!”
“I don’t believe it!” Sophie said. She rose from the loveseat and moved to admire the diamond.
“I didn’t either. He showed it to me after a year and a half with her. Said he was going to pop the question any day. Well, after four and a half years passed, she got tired of waiting on him to work up the nerve, so she moved on. Within months she met some school teacher and they married the same year.”
“I don’t believe it!” Sophie repeated, stunned that the brother of her boyfriend could surprise her so thoroughly from beyond the grave.
“Said it was the biggest regret of his life, God rest his soul,” Franklin enlightened. “I’d sure hate to see someone else make that mistake.”
Allen couldn’t remove his eyes from the ring.
He wore a black trench coat and a black fedora. When he stepped into the middle of the busy street, motorist barraged him with insults and complaints. It was just before rush hour.
He threw off the coat and hat, revealing a skin-tight costume beneath of black and white.
“Time for a little death and destruction,” he whispered in perverted glee.
“Okay, soldiers,” the superior said to his MAP operatives. “We’ve got reports of MegaMal activity in Old Downtown Purgatory Station.”
“Where there’s a MegaMal in Purgatory Station . . .” Hell Hound began.
“There’s Freedom,” the superior finished.
He then continued, “Despite your personal feelings, you’re orders are to capture him . . . Got that, Agent 0091?”
“Yes, sir!” Cyber Spy replied.
“And,” the superior continued, “I want him brought in alive. Do you copy that, Agent 0104?”
“Piss on that,” Anthem muttered before shouting, “Yes, sir!”
“Superb. Remember, Anthem plays to the cameras, the rest of you stay invisible. I don’t want our citizens to know about you yet,” the superior commanded, feeling quite satisfied. “Get ready, gentlemen, we’re bringing in the last of MAP’s defectors.”
Allen entered Carmah’s Cup with a sense of fear never before experienced in all his years of battling MegaMals. His feet felt as though they melted to the tile floor as he trudged through the doorway.
That fear abated, however, when he saw Nick working the tables alongside his girlfriend, Irene!
“Oh, I am so glad you’re here!” Irene called out to Allen. “I never got a chance to thank you!”
“Thank me?” Allen questioned as he shook her proffered hand. “I thought you two might be upset with me for, well, you know . . .”
“No way, Allen!” Nick chimed in. “Julie and Mr. Malko talked it over, and they decided Irene and I could work together at each other’s shops during the week. Sure, we’re working extra hours, but—”
“—at least we get to be together!” Irene finished.
“Well, that’s good news,” Allen said. “I’m glad this has all worked out.”
“Who would’ve thought my dad could be so reasonable,” Irene laughed.
“What do you need?” Julie suddenly interjected from the counter. She wore a scowl on her face that did nothing to hide the disdain she felt for Allen.
“I wondered if we could talk, um, in private?” Allen asked, moving past Irene and Nick, towards Julie.
“No, we can’t talk in private, Allen. I mean, you ruined the only relationship I’ve had with a man since . . . well, in a long time, and you didn’t seem to mind doing that in public.”
“You could have told me to leave. That’s what Hunter wanted,” Allen reminded.
“Why don’t you just tell me what you want and get out?”
“Fine,” Allen mumbled.
He dropped to one knee and pulled out Walter’s engagement ring.
Julie, Nick, Irene, and everyone else in Carmah’s Cup gasped at the sight of the diamond and all it entailed.
Their gasps coincided with hundreds of panicked screams from the street outside.
Allen turned his head to gaze out the windows of Carmah’s Cup. His eyes bulged at the sight of street tables, chairs, papers, and all manner of debris flying through the air. People clung to light posts and mailboxes to fight against the unseen force drawing them to its source; others smartly rushed through the nearest doorway. The wind howled with the fury of a hundred tornados, yet the sun shone brightly without a storm cloud to be found.
Allen dropped the ring box and sprinted out the door.
Just as he laid eyes on the villain not more than a quarter mile away, the city’s alarms sounded. Unfortunately, Purgatory Station knew the sound well. It had more than its fair share of Colossals, after all, and with that came a disproportionate number of MegaMals.
“What is that?” Julie shouted over the thunderous winds as her hair whipped and flailed after stepping out of Carmah’s Cup. She yelped as she lost her footing and slid.
Allen grabbed her and hauled her back into her coffee shop, then slammed the door shut in Nick and Irene’s faces as they seemed about to exit the business as well.
“Get to cover!” he shouted through the glass.
Nick looked down at Allen’s feet and saw them dig an inch into the concrete. His eyes engorged at the sight, then they locked with Allen’s.
With a familiar voice, Allen commanded, “Get them to cover, Nick.”
The teen followed Freedom’s orders.
Allen turned back to face the cause of the cataclysm.
The void raised nearly seven feet tall and four feet wide. It sucked everything into it; everything, that is, but for a man dressed in all white and a black cape with a featureless black mask that completed a black circle on the upper half of his body. He stood directly before it, unaffected, with his arms spread wide and his cape billowing madly behind him. He ducked and weaved in order to avoid large object forced into the abyss.
“The Black Hole,” Allen muttered.
Hard work awaited.
Allen burst into the apartment above Trover’s Fine Literature and rushed into his bedroom.
Sophie took cover in the corner of the kitchen with a small television playing on the counter. Franklin busied himself boarding up the windows that faced Geoff Avenue.
“You better take a nap!” Franklin shouted through the apartment.
“I thought the same!” Allen hollered in return. “Don’t disturb me for a few hours, please.”
“Not a problem,” Franklin mumbled as he hammered.
Allen tossed his bed aside and lifted up the loose floorboards. He pulled out his black satchel and put on the red, white, and blue uniform with the large, red “F” on the chest. He next affixed the blue and white cape, and then slid on the red gauntlets and boots. Lastly, he fastened the mechanism that allowed him to fly, the G-Repulser. He suffered no illusions – they would kill him to get it back.
Allen knew he faced a ferocious confrontation. He’s certain he’d never beaten the Black Hole fair and square. It always seemed the villain gave up far too easily for a man with those sorts of powers.
Although not a true black hole, the void Black Hole controlled could lift cars off the ground and its range hit up to a half-mile. The only weakness, as Allen saw it, was that the cavity would only devour those things within its perimeter. If a person were to walk right alongside it, they wouldn’t feel even a twinge of its power. However, they would be swallowed whole the moment they entered its area.
Because Black Hole always took refuge directly before the pit, it was hard to lay a hand on him, shoot him, or even blow him up. Everything—shells, fire, energy of any sort—diverted right into his personal chasm.
Last time they fought, Allen and he tore up five city blocks in Noir Port City before Black Hole’s field unexpectedly dissipated. Allen rushed in and broke the monster’s jaw. The battle lasted about an hour, but he saw no reason why Black Hole’s abilities should have a time constraint. Again, it seemed to Allen almost as though the Black Hole simply called it quits.
“Let’s hope he gets tired again,” Allen said.
In the next moment, Freedom flew out the skylight above Allen Hemingway’s room.
“This is Sydney Attwater with WPUG news, bringing you the live attack of the unstoppable MegaMal, the Black Hole. This onslaught’s motivation has yet to be determined, but Senator Otto Janus joins me with some strong opinions of his own. It so happens he granted me an interview in the area prior to this development and has graciously agreed to adapt to the situation at hand. Thank you for that, sir.”
Like so many of Old Downtown’s denizens, Julie, Nick, Irene, and the patrons of Carmah’s Cup took cover from the devastation while watching events unfold on television. They were huddled in the upstairs kitchen of Julie and Nick’s apartment. They watched the live newscast set up a block behind the villain, where his powers didn’t reach, for the latest developments.
“My pleasure, and thank you, Sydney,” Senator Janus said in response to Sydney Attwater. I’ve just called in the only Colossal our nation’s government condones—Anthem. He should be here any moment. Let’s pray no vigilantes decide to take action before he arrives.”
“Senator, when you say ‘vigilantes,’ are you referring to this city’s Colossals such as Freedom and the Nocturnal Knight?”
“You’re damn right I am,” Senator Janus declared. “We all agree that Freedom is out of control, the Nocturnal Knight has always been a madman, hell-bent on his own agenda. He’s plagued this city for decades. This has been a concern of mine for some time, especially in this city, which is why I wanted to originally speak to you in this locale. This spectacle merely confirms my alarm.”
“But the Colossals didn’t cause this attack, and they usually don’t. In fact, didn’t Freedom stop the Nether Man mere months ago? What would have happened had he not intervened?”
“That’s right, Attwater!” Nick screamed at the television. “You give that pencil pusher heck!”
“Shush, Nick!” Irene shot out. “I want to hear this!”
“As I see it,” Senator Janus corrected, “Anthem stopped the Nether Man, with the help of a concerned citizen.”
“Pastor Irons, I believe,” Sydney Attwater hissed.
“Yes, that’s correct. While I am not a member of the blockheaded religious right, it seemed a man of the cloth proved integral in the defeat of the rock man. Thank goodness Anthem figured out such a man would be necessary. Freedom simply convoluted the matter. Anthem progressed admiringly on his own,” the senator argued.
“Does this mean the government is not backing Freedom any longer?” Attwater asked.
“That’s exactly what that means,” Janus clarified.
“Shouldn’t this be coming from the President?” Attwater countered.
“In two years, I will be the president,” Senator Janus informed. “And I plan to make Freedom and the rest of those lawless grandstanders my number one priority.”
Sydney Attwater looked directly into the camera and said, “You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen! America is no longer sponsoring the Colossal known as Freedom and Senator Janus’s will throw his hat in for the next Presidential election! This has been Sydney Attwater with—”
“—Just a moment, Attwater,” Senator Janus interrupted. He took Sydney’s microphone and announced, “I want this city to understand something. We have video surveillance taken from one of our satellites showing the vigilantes Freedom, Nocturnal Knight, Turf, Excitor, Silver Streak and two unknowns engaging the Shadow Serpent. You remember that, Purgatory Station, don’t you? Several innocent civilians were killed that night. We were ready to deploy Anthem and some other highly trained operatives on the Serpent, ending his vicious murder spree once and for all. Had those . . . vigilantes . . . not interfered, the Serpent would be in our custody at this very moment, and this city could get a good night’s sleep once again. I vow, America, that when I’m elected President, I will end the reign of these so-called Colossals. Don’t you see? These MegaMals seek out people like Freedom and the Nocturnal Knight for a fight! If you were rid of these narcissists, these men and women who enjoy pissing all over the Constitution, you’d be rid of your MegaMals like the Shadow Serpent and the Black Hole—”
“I hate to interrupt you, Senator,” Attwater said, “but it seems as though one of your local ‘vigilantes’ is on the scene!”
Julie, Nick, and Irene watched as the cameraman panned from Senator Janus to the Black Hole, just a block ahead of them. Amazingly, his ring remained invisible from the back. Objects flew toward the Black Hole and then simply disappeared from sight. The camera then focused tightly on a man flying in at a steep angle.
“He’s going to whip that MegMal just like he did the Nether Man, and it’s going to be right outside our apartment again!” Nick cheered.
“That deal with the Nether Man was outside Carmah’s Cup?” Irene asked Julie.
“Yeah, what a coincidence, right?” Julie fumed. Senator Janus was right. He spoke gospel to Julie. Allen attracted these freaks.
Freedom flew right up to the edge of Black Hole’s chasm and stood next to the villain dressed in black and white.
“What do you want?” Freedom screamed over the tempestuous winds.
“This is just another day at the office,” Black Hole responded. “Why don’t you come closer and take me in?”
Freedom saw as a car lifted and flew towards Black Hole. He watched it collapse and fold until completely engulfed.
“Is this going to be like last time?” Freedom demanded.
“Oh, no,” Black Hole answered. Freedom perceived nothing in that opaque mask, not even a pair of eyes. Black Hole continued, saying, “This isn’t going to be like last time at all. Today, you don’t beat me. Today, people die. Today, I win.”
“This is Old Downtown. The Banking District is blocks away. There’s nothing of value in this area. What . . . do . . . you . . . want?”
“Just to earn an honest day’s pay,” Black Hole crooned.
Freedom at last realized whom he truly fought, but he had no time to contemplate the matter, for he saw several citizens stupidly walk right into the void’s perimeter. The hole compelled them closer, sending them aloft through the air.
“Looks like you have work to do as well,” the Black Hole mocked.
Freedom propelled upwards, flying as close to the edges of the void’s territory as he dared. He raced to the victims approaching him while crying they put their hands above their heads.
Luckily, they careened near the top of the zone, so they were able to extend their hands beyond its realm. Though the action dislocated a few shoulders, Freedom caught their hands and yanked them free.
He landed near the closest storefront and ushered the citizens inward, away from the unmerciful gale.
When Freedom turned around, he saw his most dangerous enemy, the government sanctioned Colossal called Anthem, soaring headlong at the Black Hole.
Freedom next saw the cavity inexplicably vanish just before Anthem landed in front of the Black Hole and knock him to the ground. It seemed an out of body experience for Freedom, for he executed the same motions with the villain in the past. His suspicions confirmed, Freedom now understood the Black Hole served as nothing more than fodder to make the government’s agents look good. Like a fool, Freedom never considered such blatant deceit possible.
Freedom rocketed though the air before landing next to Anthem. The Black Hole laid on the ground, his black cloak spread wide beneath him. He cursed under his breath at Anthem for the stiff punch.
“You’re nothing but a scrub,” Freedom mumbled at the felled victim.
“Hey, gotta eat,” the Black Hole replied. “Don’t you think if the government really wanted me gone they’d just nuke me? That’s the only way to get rid of me, and don’t think they wouldn’t do it.”
“They still might if you don’t shut your damn mouth,” Anthem condemned. “Why the hell are you detailing classified information to this traitor?”
“Hey,” Black Hole responded, “I might work for you guys, but I’m not one of you. Boss knows I don’t give up the info to just anybody. I figure Freedom’s going to be taken in with me anyway, right?”
“Right,” Anthem said with a grin as he turned and faced his predecessor.
Though Freedom couldn’t see the eyes behind Anthem’s star-shaped visor, he knew those eyes overflowed with hatred.
Sydney Attwater ambushed both men, saying, “This is Sydney Attwater with WPUG News. Anthem, it looks like you and Freedom have teamed up once again to take down a MegaMal. Should we expect this from now on?”
Anthem faced both Attwater and Senator Janus, who joined the group. He said,
“Absolutely not, Ms. Attwater. In fact,” Anthem continued, “by order of the President of the United States, I have been called upon to incarcerate Freedom so that he may pay for his crimes.”
In their kitchen, Sophie and Franking gasped.
Next door, Nick and Irene, as well as the patrons taking shelter, were astonished as well.
Julie sat tightlipped, resentful of the pain flooding her heart.
“So, this is it, huh?” Freedom grumbled at Anthem. “That’s what this has all been about?”
“What do you mean?” Attwater asked.
“This whole thing, it’s been a set up. The Black Hole is no MegaMal. He’s a mercenary. A lap dog.”
“Are you coming in quietly or not?” Anthem interrupted.
“What exactly did Freedom do to warrant such aggression?” Sydney interrogated while sticking the microphone into Anthem’s face.
Senator Janus grabbed Sydney Attwater’s hand and pulled the microphone towards him. “Freedom betrayed the USA several months ago.”
“Oh, no,” Franklin muttered.
“Don’t do it …” Julie moaned.
“What?” Sydney Attwater asked. She noticed Freedom’s head drop.
Janus said, “He was given an order, and he defied that order, taking matters into his own hands. He’s been fleeing his government ever since until that debacle with the Nether Man. Anthem could have stopped the Nether Man in record time, by the way, had Freedom not acted like a loose canon.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Freedom said. “Anthem was ready to call in an air strike and destroy Old Downtown right along with the Nether Man. If I hadn’t smashed his communications link, he would have done just that!”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Senator Janus chastised. “A government Colossal would never do such a thing!”
“What do you take me for?” Anthem asked.
Freedom responded, “Exactly what you are—a cold blooded killer willing to follow any cold blooded order.”
“The fact is,” the senator resumed, “that little piece of equipment you see around Freedom’s waist is government property. The tax payers of this great nation funded that device, and Freedom stole it from those very same people!”
“I use it as I always have,” Freedom said. “I fight for justice in the homeland. I don’t go overseas and murder our opponents while they sleep, I protect those who need it here.”
“Really?” Senator Janus countered. “Then why didn’t you and the rest of those ‘heroes’ stop the Shadow Serpent? He’s been killing the citizens of this fair city for months, yet you’ve done nothing to stop him!”
Freedom noticed that, with the Black Hole still lying on the ground, pretending to be unconscious, the people along Geoff Avenue wandered out of the buildings. He looked over and saw Sophie and Franklin standing arm in arm with one another, staring at him for a sign to take action. He then saw Irene, Nick, and the patrons of Carmah’s Cup emerge.
However, Julie did not appear.
“Freedom, could you answer the question?” Sydney Attwater asked just above a whisper. He detected the sympathy and understanding in her eyes, after all, she played a role in the botched capture of the Shadow Serpent as well.
Freedom cleared his throat and said, “We cornered the Shadow Serpent, but he dove into the water to escape. We needed to tend his victims and, if I’m being honest, thought better of diving in after him. None of us were underwater combatants.”
“So, you were all cowards,” Senator Janus mocked.
“Screw you!” Nick yelled from the sidewalk, then moved threateningly towards the senator. A tiny explosion of concrete detonated at Nick’s feet, which forced him to jump back and land on his rear.
Irene rushed over to make sure he suffered no harm.
“I’m a United States Senator, boy,” Janus reminded. “Threaten me again and you won’t like the results. I have bodyguards everywhere.”
Freedom knew better. Yes, Janus had bodyguards, but none of them would shoot at a high school student. Janus improvised to explain the sudden gunfire, but Freedom knew the real deal. Shootdown surely kept Freedom in his crosshairs and, considering this seemed his grand finale, Freedom expected that Cyber Spy and Hell Hound also targeted him.
Anthem leaned into Freedom’s ear and said, “No bulletproof glass to protect you this time.”
Just then a large, black transport vehicle arrived. Unrecognizable soldiers leapt from it and secured the perimeter. These were MAP’s foot soldiers. They were not genetically engineered like the actual agents themselves, but they experienced much psychological tinkering. They would do anything a superior ordered—anything.
The soldiers restrained the Black Hole by injecting a sedative and binding his extremities with bizarre shackles. They led him, as he stumbled wobbly, into the transport vehicle.
“We’ve got a nice spot for you in there as well, Freedom,” Anthem informed. “So, do we need to clear the people out of here, or are you going to go in peacefully?”
Freedom glanced over at the multitudes of people standing along the sidewalks—thrust back by the foot soldiers. Franklin and Sophie wore expressions that begged him to fight back, to protect himself. Nick and Irene looked horrified that their hero was now considered a villain, though they did not believe such a thing. And then . . . then, Julie walked out of Carmah’s Cup. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Freedom could sense her distress.
He had to know.
He left Senator Janus and Anthem to console Julie. No matter how poorly she thought of him, he loved her. She needed him; he knew it. He would not abandon her in her time of need.
“Where you going?” Anthem interrogated, grabbing Freedom’s arm.
Freedom spun and delivered a thunderous roundhouse to Anthem, sending him flying into the side of a building twenty feet way.
Blood instantly spurted from Freedom’s left shoulder.
“A warning shot, traitor,” Senator Janus professed. “You give us back that G-Repulser and let us take you in, and you won’t have to take any more shots. Keep in mind, we’re using artillery designed just for you.”
Freedom argued, “I give you the G-Repulser, right now, you give me two minutes without skirmish. No one gets hurt; none of these civilians get caught in a crossfire. I’ll go in quietly, just give me two minutes.”
Senator Janus started to laugh, then realized he still remained on camera with Sydney Attwater. “In respect to your past good deeds, I’ll honor said request. However, remember, one misstep and you will be terminated.”
Freedom nodded once, paying no attention to his shoulder’s torment, then unlocked the G-Repulser. He let it fall with a heavy thud. A soldier gathered it up and ran to the transport.
With blood pouring down his arm, Freedom approached Julie. He spoke over the interlocked arms of the foot soldiers forming a barrier against the inhabitants of the city.
“What’s happened?” he asked her.
“My father . . .” Julie began. “He had a stroke a few days ago. I was going to fly out tomorrow to see him. He . . . he died. There were complications . . . I just got the call on my cell.” She broke into tears.
Freedom fought through the foot soldiers and took her into his arms, neither minding the smeared blood.
Finally, she stumbled, “You’re turning yourself in . . . j-just so you could find out what’s wrong with me?”
“W-Why?” she asked.
Freedom held her out at arm’s length, then said, “Because I love you, Julie. Despite how you feel about me, I love you. I meant to propose today, truthfully, if this craziness hadn’t happened.”
“I know,” Julie whimpered.
Freedom felt his heart pound. “Your answer would have been … ?”
“Time’s up!” Senator Janus yelled from behind.
“Just a minute!” Freedom hollered.
Blood showered Julie’s shirt when Freedom’s other shoulder exploded. He dropped to his knees in horrid pain, but refused to remove his eyes from her.
“I don’t even know your real name,” she sobbed. “How can I marry a guy when I don’t even know his real name?”
The soldiers collected him, each mercilessly clutching an arm.
Ignoring the agony, Freedom said, “Since my earliest memories, my name has been Agent 0099. But you know my real name. You were there for my birth.”
They dragged him away.
Freedom, now only Allen Hemingway, tore his eyes from Julie to say good-bye to Franklin and Sophie. Both of them offered sympathetic smiles even as tears slid down their faces.
“I know a pastor who can help!” Franklin called out.
“No,” Allen yelled in return. “Let me handle this on my own.”
“You’re never on your own, son!” Franklin issued in return.
“I know,” he responded, gritting his teeth against the misery.
“I love you!” Sophie wailed.
“I love you, too, Miss Sophie,” he chuckled through the pain. The old woman couldn’t help but choke out a laugh.
Finally, as they hoisted Allen into the transport, he shouted to his biggest fan, “Be a good man, Nick. Trent and I are both counting on you now.”
Nick, helped up previously by Irene, fell to his knees once more and covered his face. Irene dropped and placated him as best she could. Within the span of one year, he’d lost his two greatest heroes.
Allen stood, shoulders bloody and torn asunder, just inside the transport as the doors slowly shut. He focused solely upon Julie.
“I’m sorry about your father,” he yelled.
With that, the transport doors closed, and the mammoth vehicle pulled away.
A clean-up crew promptly arrived and began putting the devastated area back into order. Senator Janus lectured the camera again regarding Freedom’s unpredictability and that the nation couldn’t afford to allow him, nor the rest of the Colossals, to simply roam free. Anthem dug himself out from the wall Freedom’s blow drove him into, then unceremoniously flew away. Although no one saw them, Hell Hound, Cyber Spy, and Shootdown gathered their equipment and made for the rendezvous, satisfied with another mission accomplished.
As Irene held an inconsolable Nick, Franklin and Sophie moved to take Julie into their arms. They were comforting her about her father when she lifted up her left hand.
She wore the engagement ring Allen left.
Through a thick wall of tears, she whimpered, “I wanted to say yes.”
Within the deepest innards of the Meta-Agent Program, a conference room existed.
Within this conference room rested a gargantuan table. At this table, there sat seven men.
Facilitating the meeting? Senator Otto Janus.
“And so, the mission succeeded. All objectives were competently satisfied. Well done, Agent 0104,” Janus commended.
Agent 0104, Anthem, dressed in standard fatigues, nodded in acknowledgement.
“Well done also to Agents 0050, 0073, and 0091. Excellent shooting,” Janus said.
“Thank you, sir,” Agents Hell Hound, Shootdown, and Cyber Spy replied. Cyber Spy did not actually fire a shot, but only because his orders were to fire third if necessary—the kill shot. Although he counted Freedom as a friend, if such a word can be used in conjunction with MAP, he swore an oath to follow orders. No matter what.
“Dismissed,” Senator Janus, their superior, the Supreme Commander of the Meta-Agent Program, said.
Anthem, Hell Hound, Shootdown, and Cyber Spy stood, saluted, then left. Only two men stayed with Janus.
“Well, ‘Black Hole,’ you delivered perfectly once again,” Janus complimented as he tossed a satchel full of bills the MegaMal’s way. “Consider this a bonus. The predetermined amount has already been wired to your account. As usual, money impeccably spent.”
“I aim to please,” the mercenary replied. “You ever need me again, you know where to find me.”
“Affirmative,” Janus answered. “Take care, Cody.”
“Same to you, Otto.”
Dressed in civilian garb, the Black Hole took his leave.
The lone man with Janus wore black fatigues and a black mask. A black visor allowed this man to see, but even it gave no hint of the man beneath.
“Agent 0102, now that your bullet wound has healed, you are to resume activities, understood? You didn’t need both eyes anyway, right?”
Commander Janus, of course, did not expect a verbal reply.
Janus stood, leaned upon the table with his hands outstretched, leered at Agent 0102, then said, “It’s time Agent Shadow Serpent attack Purgatory Station again. After a few more hundred murders, perhaps the people will finally turn their backs on their ‘heroes.’ Dismissed.”
Agent 0102 stood, saluted, then exited the conference room.
To Be Continued …
Copyright © 2006, 2015 Scott William Foley
All Rights Reserved
Also published in the short story collection
The Imagination’s Provocation: Volume II (iUniverse, 2006)
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.
Also By Scott William Foley …
Short Story Collections
The Imagination’s Provocation: Volume I
The Imagination’s Provocation: Volume II
Dr. Nekros Electronic Serial
Dr. Nekros: The Tragedian (1 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Phantasms and Chicanery (2 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Bloodied Pistons (3 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: An Unforeseen Calamity (4 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: A Nightmare Realized (5 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: An Abhorrent Culmination (6 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Monstrosity’s Dawn (7 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Demons Within (8 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Lineage (9 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Inevitable Demise of Anton Hall (10 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Diatribe and Divulgence (11 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Peripeteia (12 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Realm Within (13 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Depths of Fate (14 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: A77 (15 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: A Catastrophic Convergence (16 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Devil’s Ashes (17 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Requiem For the Redeemed (18 of 18)
About the Author
Scott William Foley is a proud husband, father, educator, and writer. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in English Secondary Education and his Master’s degree in Reading from Illinois State University. Foley currently lives in Normal, IL