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Max_Writer

Superworld: Fire and Ice Session One Part 1 - Investigation

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Monday, June 1, 2015

(After playing the original Superworld scenario Fire and Ice Sunday from noon until 5 p.m. with Briant S. Davis, Kyle Matheson, Logan Scott, James Brown, Joey Scott, Nissa Campbell, and Aaron Scott.)

Recent News in Charlotte included:

On Monday, October 20, 2014, both the television news and the Charlotte Observer carried stories of the fire in the early morning hours at the Hopeful Hills Apartment Complex in Lockwood Neighborhood. According to the news stories, the three heroes Arclight, Solomon’s Key aka Absolem’s Riddle, and Cool Crocman aka Cool Crocodile Man (reports varied) entered the building and rescued several people trapped by the fire.

“Yes, there is a crocodile who will go unnamed, but he was the true savior here today,” Arclight reportedly said.

It was also reported that Solomon’s Key aka Absolem’s Riddle performed CPR on one woman and saved her life. It was reported Cool Crocman had saved a baby and Arclight saved an old man and his dog and a child, as well as rescuing people off the roof. The best photo in the Charlotte Observer showed Arclight with the little black girl hugging his leg, the burning building behind them.

An artist’s rendition of Cool Crocman was a badly photoshopped picture of medieval armor with a crocodile’s head sticking out of the great helm.

On Wednesday, October 22, 2014, the fire marshal determined the fires in the Hopeful Hills Apartment Complex had been deliberately set in the basement and then spread with unprecedented speed to the rest of the building. The case was handed over to the police as arson.

Thom Tillis vowed, if elected to the U.S. Senate in November, he would crack down on exotics in the United States. This came after the slaughter of over 100 Thom Tillis supporters at a fundraiser at Charlotte Country Club on Thursday, October 16, allegedly by a super villain called Dr. Murder. Police continued to investigate the murders and search for the perpetrator.

In world news, on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, NATO intercepted Russian jets over the Baltic Sea while Sweden's six-day search for a possibly damaged Russian Navy submarine continued. Also, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced there would be a 21-day monitoring period for all travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea due to outbreaks of Ebola. In Major League Baseball, the Kansas City Royals defeated the San Francisco Giants 7–2 at KC's Kauffman Stadium in Game Two of the 2014 World Series, evening the series at 1–1.

* * *

Vanguard had been out of town for almost three weeks. After helping the others track down the Gentleman after the Sterling Jewelers Robbery, he had gotten a tip from José about the Cybernetic Automated Nanotech Suit (C.A.N.S.) Project he’d found online. Apparently, a suit much like his had been spotted in the city a year before. The tip seemed to indicate there was some kind of project dealing with it in Philadelphia so he’d gone in search of it, trying to keep as low a profile as possible. The lead turned out to be legitimate. He was not able to get much information about it but did find an abandoned research facility of some sort. It had been totally cleaned out.

He didn’t return to Charlotte until Tuesday, Oct. 21. He found Arclight still lived at his apartment and there was apparently a little pug living there now too. The pug could talk.

“Hey, who’s this guy!?!” Doug the Pug asked when he walked in the door.

The little dog ran over and started sniffing him. He seemed very friendly even if it was somewhat strange. José had managed to get a little costume for Doug the Pug online. It was a blue suit and a red cape. On the chest of it was a yellow badge with a red “D” within it and a red circle around it. Needless to say, Doug loved it.

* * *

Protean had returned to his astral state after the returning the jewelry the Gentleman had stolen. He felt the need to meditate for some time. When he finally returned, finding a dirt body and forming it around himself, he found it had been two weeks since he had been corporeal. He read the newspapers and got caught up. There were even some articles in the newspaper, letters to the editor mostly, by Ruby Lovette, a reporter at WBTV Channel 3, asking where Protean was as he had not been seen.

* * *

Tera, impatient about the Federal Organization for the Registration and Certification of Exotics (FORCE) taking so long to get back in touch with her, flew to Atlanta, Georgia, and found the FORCE offices there. She talked to an agent Beauregard Hanson, who told her he was the rep for her area. She was asked for some DNA, which she was only willing to give as a little skin sample. She proved her powers and was admitted into FORCE, registering her powers and getting her codename (Angelus) and a password for use on the FORCE website.

She also did some research on the FORCE database about aliens. There was not a lot there and very little about the grays. Most of the information she found pertained to the mantoids, the aliens that had invaded Earth in 2000.

She was also told that, as a part of FORCE, she would have access to FBI and Interpol Files, a computer message board where she could contact other superheroes, training on police and other procedures, and even a deputy program.

She returned to Charlotte on Wednesday, Oct. 22.

* * *

Tinker had been working on the rifle they’d gotten from the gray saucer. In order to protect himself from being tracked by the grays, he had set up a rather delicate interference field around his lab. Unfortunately, Absolem’s Riddle had contacted him by cell phone a couple of times while he examined the weapon. He feared the cell phone transmission might weaken his already delicate field and eventually turned off the phone.

He had finally completed his research. He was not terribly happy with what he’d learned.

The weapon was, as far as he could tell, a disintegrator. However, the physics were wrong. It shouldn’t work how it worked and it broke about three laws of physics, including the conservation of energy. When the beam hit its target, it scattered the atoms to such a degree that they essentially vanished, leaving not even dust remaining. The power source was an atom of anti-matter held in a magnetic field. He guessed the atom would charge the weapon for about 10 shots if his calculations of the power usage were correct. He figured he would have to get anti-matter in order to charge it.

He finally checked his messages and found he had a couple, including one from Absolem’s Riddle asking him to make some kind of device to keep dogs away from her sugar glider.

Yeah, anti-matter can wait, he thought sarcastically.

* * *

“Don’t forget to tell him!” Doug the Pug said to Arclight. “Don’t forget to tell him!”

“Oh, okay, thanks man,” Arclight said.

“That thing that you told me to tell him!” Doug said. “What did you tell me to tell him?”

“Iunno,” Arclight said.

“What’s he talking about?” Vanguard asked.

“Agent Smith−” Arclight said.

“Yeah!” Doug said. “That’s right! Agent Smith! That’s right!”

“Yeah, the guy from FORCE, he−” Arclight said.

“No no no!” Doug said. “You didn’t say FORCE. You said the Men in Black.”

“Men in Black …” Arclight said. “They want to talk to you.”

He handed over the card. It read “Agent John Smith” and had a phone number.

“José, what do you know about an Agent Smith?” Vanguard asked.

José told him there was one on The Matrix but it was just a generic name. He also told them about the Men in Black, noting it was a super-secret government organization that hid all UFO contact information from the public. It was a big cover-up conspiracy that might have had to do with Majestic-12 or Delta Green.

“Guys, Vanguard’s back,” Arclight texted everyone on his pager. “With love, Arclight.”

The pager tagged his post so it actually read “With love, Arclight. Arclight.”

As an afterthought he texted “Also, I have a pug. With love, Arclight.”

“I’m on my way,” Tinker texted back.

Tinker sent a text to Absolem’s Riddle that if she could get him a car alarm, he could make her the device she wanted.

“How will that fit?” she texted back.

“I just need to see how it works and then I can make it smaller,” Tinker texted.

“And that won’t hurt his ears?”Absolem’s Riddle texted.

“And a pair of earmuffs,” he texted back.

“Regular people earmuffs?” she texted.

“I just need to find out how they work,” Tinker texted back.

“Where the party at?” Protean texted to everyone.

“Come to this address,” Vanguard texted and included his address at 728 Grandin Road.

When Protean arrived at the apartment in his steel body, only a few blocks from where he lived in the sewer, he found Arclight trying to play video games with a pug, who was not having any luck due to his lack of opposable thumbs. Tinker, Absolem’s Riddle, and Angelus arrived as well. Doug seemed very glad to meet everyone. He was a little confused at Protean, who only smelled like the sewer. The huge steel man petted Doug.

Absolem’s Riddle had a box of stuff for Tinker. Tinker carried the rifle they’d gotten from the grays.

“Hey, who are you?” Doug asked Tinker. “Cool costume.”

“What the ****?” Tinker said.

“I’m Doug the pug!” Doug said.

“He’s my dog,” Arclight said.

“I’m not in costume right now because I’m in my secret identity!” Doug said.

“That makes the fourth thing I’ve discovered in the past week that just makes no sense,” Tinker said.

He held up the rifle.

“It … it … it it it shouldn’t work, to begin with,” he said. “I don’t know how it does. If anyone understands anything about anti-matter, that would be great.”

“There’s always Germany and France,” Vanguard said. “The supercollider, they’ve been working on it for a while.”

“That’s true,” Tinker said. “I don’t know how I could get there, though.”

“Where’d you get this rifle in the first place,” Protean said. “I’ve been out of the loop for a while.”

“So glad you’re alive,” Tinker said.

“No hard feelings, man,” Protean said.

“Wait, what happened between you two?” Arclight asked.

“He totally killed me and sent me to the astral plane,” Protean said.

“What!?!” Arclight said. “Why?”

“Because I was being controlled,” Tinker said. “By that dickhead.”

“Weren’t you both being controlled?” Angelus said.

“Yeah,” Tinker confessed. “So, I don’t know. It uses an incredibly minute amount of antimatter to charge. I’m afraid to use it because I don’t know how to get antimatter and I haven’t had a chance to study it right. I don’t have the right equipment in my apartment.”

“So, if you touch it, do you disappear?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“No, but if you get hit the beam−” Tinker said.

“I meant the antimatter,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Is that what the beam is: antimatter?”

“I haven’t had a chance to fire it because I just know that it disrupts matter.”

“Don’t so it indoors.”

“Yeah. So I brought it.”

“That’s a good idea. Is there a safety lock on that thing?”

“I just … I don’t trust it. You know.”

There was a small device attached to the disintegrator rifle that Tinker had crafted in the hopes it would block any signal the device might be sending the grays.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Protean said. “Aliens?”

“Yeah,” Tinker said.

“I mean, if it was related to the CANS Project, my whole suit could deal with aliens,” Vanguard said. “You never know.”

“Me and Edward fought with aliens!” Arclight said.

“I was there too, but that’s okay,” Tinker said. “So, I just, you know, if someone can help me try to figure this out, Vanguard. I was hoping you might know something.”

“I’ve been running into a lot of dead ends lately, myself,” Vanguard said. “But … José.”

“What?” José said.

“Research antimatter,” Vanguard said.

“Okay, man,” José said.

“Is he, like, our secretary now?” Tinker asked.

“What?” José said. “No! I’m not a secretary, man!”

“He’s, like, our bad info guy,” Vanguard said.

“What!?!” José said. “My information is all good, man! What are you talking about?”

“I’m just playing with you, man, it’s all good,” Vanguard said.

José’s computer beeped and he pulled up something.

“Oh,” he said. “What the hell? Uh … I just got a tweet - private message, man. It’s for you, though.”

“Oh,” Vanguard said.

José looked nervous.

“Nobody follows my twitter account, man,” he said.

“Totally private I’m sure,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“No, the username is like 80 digits long,” José said. “Nobody can type the whole thing in. So people can’t … man!”

Vanguard looked at the short message, which read: “Vanguard, I’d like to talk to you very much.” It was signed simply “Agent Smith.”

“How did … wait. What!?!” José said. “Wait, there’s another one. ‘José, why did you use your own car when you chased UFOs?’ God damn it! They know where I am!”

“They were gonna find out eventually,” Tinker said.

“I gotta start burning stuff,” José said, leaving the room.

“So, tell me guys, what do you know about this Agent Smith?” Vanguard asked. “Since he keeps trying to contact me.”

“Seemed like a swell guy to me,” Arclight said.

Absolem’s Riddle asked about Edward and Protean noted he had not seen him when he went to retrieve his steel body in the sewers.

“That’s that smell,” Angelus said.

“That’s not that bad,” Doug said.

“Sure,” Angelus said.

“I can’t smell myself, so …” Protean said.

“What?” Doug said. “That would be awful.”

“You get used to it,” Protean said.

“I can’t imagine a life like that,” Doug said.

“Not being able to smell?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“You get used to it,” Protean said again.

“If you can smell so well, how do you walk around with that breath, Doug,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

Doug breathed to the floor and sniffed it.

“It’s not that bad,” he said. “I would eat something that smelled like that.”

“Yeah, cause you eat your own vomit!” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“It’s pre-chewed,” Doug said.

José came back over and shut down his twitter account. Angelus noted Agent Smith could have just come to the apartment.

“He might actually just want to talk,” she said.

“I don’t think he wants us to know what he wants to talk to Vanguard about,” Arclight said.

“That’s true but, you know I have a natural distrust of the government after the whole alien fiasco,” Vanguard said.

“Is it the government?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

She suggested if he wanted to meet, she could be nearby, very small, and teleport him right out at the first sign of trouble. He called Smith on his cell phone.

“Hello Vanguard,” the voice on the other end answered. “Thanks for calling.”

“Put it on speaker phone,” Arclight hissed at him.

Vanguard changed the phone to speaker and Arclight grabbed Doug and put his hand over the dog’s mouth. The dog fought him a little until he grabbed a box of Oaties and fed them to him. Then Doug contentedly munched away during the rest of the phone call.

“Are you still there?” Agent Smith said.

“How’d you know it was me?” Vanguard said.

“Of course I knew it was you,” Agent Smith said. “Who else would be calling this number? So, when can we get together and talk?”

“Where do you want to meet?” Vanguard asked.

“Iunno. Where do you want to meet? I’ll leave it up to you.”

“You’ll leave it up to me?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“How about the Burger Company?”

“Yeah, sure. When?”

“What’s good for you?”

“An hour?”

“An hour? Okay. See you in an hour.”

“All right.”

The phone went dead.

“So, what do you all think?” Vanguard said.

“He doesn’t sound very professional,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “‘Where do you want to meet?’ ‘Iunno.’ I’ve never heard that come from an agent.”

“He’s pretty nonchalant,” Angelus agreed.

Arclight thought they should be careful who they sent as they might be found out. Protean said he could scout from the astral plane and Tinker asked if the man had told him to come alone. Vanguard said he hadn’t. They discussed it and when Arclight asked if they thought he knew he was on speaker phone, they realized that he probably did. When someone switched from the regular speaker to speaker phone it was pretty obvious.

They decided to be nearby when Vanguard met with him.

“I could accompany you in spirit, in case things get heavy,” Protean said.

“What are you?” Arclight asked.

“I was just a man,” Protean said.

“What?” Arclight said.

“But now I’m something else,” Protean said.

“Very informative,” Angelus said.

“You like a ghost, man?” José asked.

“That’s the closest thing I could figure,” Protean said.

“So, you’re dead?” José asked.

“Uh … uh … maybe?” Protean said. “Last thing I remember, I was meditating in Tibet before waking up in Charlotte 20 years later.”

“Wait, 20 years later?” Vanguard said. “I’ve heard of astral projection but not astral time projection.”

“Well, I did experience the 20 years … painfully,” Protean said.

“Were you in Hell, man?” José asked.

“I thought I was,” Protean admitted. “But I must have just in the center of the Earth or some shit. But, in any case, I can freely jump from body to astral plane.”

Tinker asked José to find anything he could about antimatter. He also said he was going to leave the disintegrator rifle there. Vanguard asked if he was sure and then told José not to touch it. Tinker also told the man that if he touched the trigger, everything in the place would disintegrate. José said he didn’t want to touch it.

“That’s UFO stuff!” José said.

“I’m trusting you,” Tinker said.

“Once you touch ‘em, they get your DNA, man!” José said. “Then they imprint on you! There’s probably alien tech all over your hands, man.”

“I think the rifle is safe,” Vanguard said.

“Put it on top of the fridge!” José said. “And don’t drink that thing inside that says ‘Don’t drink this.’ It’s Arclight’s crap.”

Angelus, curious, went to the refrigerator and opened it up as Tinker put the rifle on top. She immediately spotted a strange-looking bottle filled with a glowing bluish-green liquid. It was about the size of a small coke bottle and stoppered with a cork. The whole thing was in a zip-lock plastic bag that someone had scribbled “Do Not Drink. Poison. Why did you put this in here Arclight?” upon.

“Don’t drink that!” Arclight said to her.

“I’m not drinking anything!” Angelus said.

“Good!” Arclight said.

Since the Burger Company was within walking distance, Absolem’s Riddle and Tinker headed over to the restaurant early. Angelus, meanwhile, went to the roof of the apartment complex and relaxed, soaking in the sun and watching the clouds.

Arclight and Doug headed down into the sewers to find Edward. They entered the sewers nearest to where he knew Edward lived and found his niche.

* * *

Edward woke to the sound of voices outside of his niche. His area consisted of a short, narrow tunnel about 10 feet long that ended in a slightly larger chamber that might have once been some kind of access for steam pipes, now long disused.

“Is this it?” the first voice said.

“Yeah, I think this is it,” the other voice said.

He reached over and picked up his laser rifle.

“It’s really dark,” the second voice said. “Let me see if I can light this up.”

That’s when Edward recognized Arclight’s voice.

“What are you doing here?” Edward called.

“Did you not get our beeps?” Arclight said.

“Oh, we woke him up,” Doug the Pug said.

“No, I saw them,” Edward said.

“Are you … are you coming?” Arclight asked.

“Edward!” Doug called. “It’s me!”

“Hey Doug!” Edward said.

“Hey!” Doug said.

“Hey!” Edward said.

“We could really use your help,” Arclight said. “We’re dealing with some shady individual. We might need your help.”

“All right but no media this time,” Edward said. “Don’t tell people I’m a crocodile.”

“I can’t control where the media goes!” Arclight said.

“You said there was a crocodile,” Edward said.

“They saw you!” Arclight said.

“Yeah, well …” Edward said.

“I mean, until they see you, you’re going to be known as the crocodile man,” Arclight said. “For all they know, you’re just a man in a crocodile suit.”

There was silence.

“So, you coming with us, man?” Arclight asked.

“Yeah, I’m coming,” Edward said.

“Well, we gotta fly there,” Arclight said. “You wanna hop on my back.”

“Sure, man,” Edward said.

“Well, we gotta drop Doug back off at José’s.”

“Why’d you bring him, then?”

“He wanted to see you!”

“Hey!” Doug said. “I wanted to see you!”

“Oh, okay,” Edward said.

Arclight asked Doug if he wanted to stay in the sewers or go back to José’s with Oaties. Doug opted to stay in the sewers and meet Edward’s friends.

“Let everyone know you’re a superhero now,” Arclight said to him.

“Sh!” Doug said. “My secret identity. I’m just plain old Doug the pug. Not Doug the Pug!”

Arclight said he’d be back to pick up the pug but Doug protested he knew where he lived and could find his way back.

“Okay, remember, look both ways before you cross the street,” Arclight said.

“Oh, I always do,” Doug said.

“You don’t!” Arclight said.

“Okay, I’ll be more careful,” Doug said hanging his head.

“Okay, I’ll be back,” Arclight said.

“Okay,” Doug said.

“With food,” Arclight said.

“I like food,” Doug said.

Edward climbed onto Arclight’s back and they flew out of the sewers.

* * *

When Vanguard entered the Burger Company on West Morehead Street around 1 p.m., Arclight and Edward were on the roof of Carolina Lighting Systems, cattycorner to the building. Both of they were lying on the front of the taller building, where they could see in through the front windows of the restaurant. Protean had found a place behind the building behind Uptown Cycles across Grandin Road. Then he went astral and floated into the restaurant, invisible and intangible. Tinker, in his secret identity, was sitting at a nearby table while Absolem’s Riddle, also in civilian clothing, had a booth.

Tera was still on the roof of the apartment building nearby, sunning herself and not really paying attention.

Those outside saw a black SUV pull up out front. Three men got out, two in black suits and the last in a blue suit. They went into the restaurant.

Vanguard spotted the three men come in. They looked around and their eyes rolled right over him. The waitress then seated them at another table near the front window. The three watched the door and ordered lunch. Tinker recognized Agent Smith and also recognized the two men with him as two of the men who had been in Concord a couple weeks before.

* * *

“Why’d you bring me?” Edward asked Arclight when he saw the three men.

“He might be in trouble,” Arclight said. “We protect our own.”

* * *

Absolem’s Riddle sent a page to Vanguard: “They don’t recognize you. I’d leave and come back in costume.”

Vanguard had actually been thinking that and hadn’t ordered yet. He left the place, went around the building, powered up, and went back in. The hostess was taken aback at the man in the golden armor with spines sticking out of it when he entered the restaurant.

“He’s with us,” Agent Smith called.

He waved Vanguard over. As the hero approached, Agent Smith stood up and offered him his hand. Vanguard shook it. He could see that there was a bulge under his jacket.

“Just stand there,” Agent Smith said.

He walked around the man, looking him up and down.

“Very nice,” he said. “Very nice indeed.”

Then he sat down at the table and gestured for Vanguard to do the same, which he did.

“So, what’s your name?” Agent Smith asked.

“Vanguard,” Vanguard said.

“The real one,” Agent Smith said.

“The real one?” Vanguard asked.

“Your ‘secret identity,’” Agent Smith said, making air quotes.

“I don’t feel inclined to give you that yet.”

“Oh, that’s fine. So, Vanguard it is. You know what you’ve got there?”

“I just know that it’s some secret project called CANS.”

“CANS, yeah. Yeah. That belonged to us, you know.”

“And who is ‘us?’”

“It’s classified. I’m not allowed to say. Sorry.”

The waitress came up.

“Uh … can I get you something to eat or drink … sir?” she said to Vanguard.

“I’m good, thank you,” he said.

“Okay … I’ll bring you some water …” she scurried away.

“Yeah, what’s interesting is, if it belongs to you, the last person I saw that the stuff belonged to, they got killed while I was trying to help them out of the care, so …” Vanguard said.

“Yeah, did you ever think about that?” Agent Smith said.

“I don’t know if y’all are the good guys or the bad guys,” Vanguard said.

“Definitely the good guys,” Agent Smith said. “We’re definitely the good guys.”

In her booth, Absolem’s Riddle rolled her eyes.

“So, my Agency, we developed the suit from technology from another source we acquired 67 years ago and again 22 years ago,” Agent Smith said. “Most of the tech came from the more recent acquisition. Agency scientists modified pretty extensively. But you’re messing with something you don’t understand. And not even we understand everything they could do. It’s dangerous. And the people that my Agency acquired the tech from are also very, very dangerous. We were formed, my agency was formed to protect the United States from enemy incursions and we’ve been doing it for the last 67 years and we’ve been pretty successful. We’re not really interested in getting the suit back at this juncture because it would probably mean killing you.”

“Yeah, I was about to say, it’s the only thing that’s suppressing my condition,” Vanguard said.

“Your condition?” Agent Smith said. “What’s your condition?”

“I have cancer,” Vanguard said.

“Ah. Well, that’s not what I meant. The nanotech has connected itself to you now. I’m not sure if we could actually get it to de-connect without actually killing you. And we have no interest in harming an American citizen. You are an American citizen, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

“And, so far as I know, you’ve broken no major laws, except, you know, property damage. But, you know, exotics.”

The other two men snickered lightly.

“My Agency was not formed to deal with exotics in any way, shape, or form,” Agent Smith went on. “So, I don’t have any interest in you particularly. However, you can help me. You’ve got my card, right?”

“Yes, I do,” Vanguard said.

“Great, great,” Agent Smith said. “If you learn of any other powers of the suit, if you could let us know, we’d be interested in knowing what they are. As a matter of fact, what powers have you used? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“So far, most of my abilities are sonar, but I have been able to integrate with electronics,” Vanguard said.

“All right. That’s excellent. Also, if you’d like to get rid of the suit, we could make every attempt to remove it from you, if you’d like to get a normal life back. But that’s up to you. You ever wonder about that car crash?”

“Yeah. I have wondered about that.”

“Yeah. Car was crumpled like paper on a residential street, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was.”

“You heard the crash, right?”

“Yes, I did. Heard it from my apartment.”

“Did you hear the car engine before you heard the crash?”

“I don’t think I heard the car engine. I just heard the crash and ran out to see what was going on.”

“Yeah. Was that crash like anything you’d ever heard before?”

“Not really.”

“How’d a car get so badly damaged if it was only doing about 35 miles an hour? Ever wonder about that.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah. Oh well.”

The waitress walked up and put down a glass of water in front of Vanguard.

“We’ll take a to-go bag,” Agent Smith said to her with a smile.

“Okay, thanks,” the waitress said nervously and scurried away.

“Look, one more thing,” Agent Smith said. “We assume that the original owners of the technology are still looking for what fell into our hands. They’re very dangerous and very powerful and if you run afoul of them and you want some help, we can try to help you. You got my number.”

He shrugged.

“I thought you said you weren’t equipped to handle exotics though,” Vanguard said. “How are you gonna help?”

“They’re not exotics,” Agent Smith said. “You’ve got my number.”

“I do,” Vanguard said.

“Good luck,” Agent Smith said. “Like I said, you might want to try to get rid of it. If you want to, let me know.”

He stood up as the waitress approached with a plastic bag with three Styrofoam containers within. The other two agents quickly finished their drinks and one of them took the bundle. Agent Smith gave him a nod and the three left the restaurant.

The waitress crept back.

“You sure there’s nothing I can get you sir?” she said quietly.

“Oh no,” he replied. “Oh no.”

She crept away.

He stood up and went into the restroom, went into the stall and powered down. Then he walked over and sat with Absolem’s Riddle. He waved Tinker over.

“What did you guys think?” he asked.

“It didn’t seem naughty,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“We should probably talk about this somewhere else,” Tinker said.

He left. The others followed him. Vanguard saw a kid run into the bathroom and them come out with his head hanging.

“Hey, the guys left. What happened?” a page came. “With love from Arclight. Arclight.”

“I guess meet back at the apartment, we’ll talk,” Vanguard paged through his nanotech.

* * *

They met at the apartment once again. Absolem’s Riddle teleported to the apartment and scared the hell out of José.

“Good thing you don’t walk around in your boxers, huh?” she said.

“No, I’m always fully dressed,” José said. “In case I have to leave in a split notice.”

“You shower with your clothes?” she said.

“They’re never very far away,” he said. “Give us some warning. Give us a phone call or something. I could have a lady over here. Okay, no, I probably couldn’t.”

They discussed what had happened. Protean told him the Agents didn’t seem tense or nervous.

Tinker said he wanted a sample of Vanguard’s nanotech and Vanguard found a Tupperware container. He told Tinker he could take a sample but warned him sometimes the suit reacted on its own when he was in danger. Tinker suggested he take the sample and Vanguard scraped off some skin and hair from his arm with a knife, putting it into the container and giving it to the other man. He asked José about antimatter and the man said he found several websites. Tinker gave him his email address and asked him to send the links there.

“Hey, hey,” José said, pointing to the disintegrator rifle on the refrigerator. “Don’t forget.”

“I know,” Tinker said. “I won’t leave that here. Not with you.”

“I don’t want it here!” José said. “I don’t want no DNA imprinted on me, man. I know how they work. All they need is something like this big.” He held his fingers very close together. “And they know where you are, man.”

“That’s cool,” Tinker said.

“It’s not!”

“You’re right. Sorry.”

Tinker got the disintegrator rifle and headed back to his apartment.

Vanguard told José Agent Smith said he wasn’t behind it, noting they might have to look into another agency. He said he wanted him to know. José again pointed out there were plenty of agencies: Men in Black, Majestic, Delta Green, R-Complex (though he noted that one might be made up as it was in a comic book), or CIA. He didn’t think it would be the FBI.

They talked a little about the car crash Vanguard had seen. Vanguard told them before he got the suit, he was in the apartment one day and he heard a loud crash. He went outside and saw a car with a woman in it. He tried to help her but she was dead though there was a canister that said “CANS.” It was cracked open. He said José remembered the next morning. José said he did: Vanguard had run out of his room screaming with the armor on and scared him to death. He had thought it was aliens coming for him and Vanguard had scratched the walls with the spines growing off the suit. He pointed out where he had scratched the wall.

Angelus asked about Dr. Murder and wanted to know if they’d found out anything about him while she was gone. They had not and she suggested they check out the FORCE database. They said they could and she borrowed José’s computer to look him up. There was very little information on Dr. Murder and he had no prior information before the Thom Tillis slaughter.

Protean said he was going to go to the police station to ask about their investigation of Dr. Murder.

Arclight stopped him before he left.

“So, I was helping Edward with finding these missing individuals in the sewers,” Arclight said. “Because you know some of the hobos and vagrants are going missing.”

“That’s what I heard,” Protean said.

“We went to this part of the sewers that you’re supposed to stay out of and there are these … ghoul monsters down there that eat dead people,” Arclight went on.

“Man,” Protean said.

He told them they met one who had worked for a man in black who hired him to help a man with an eyeball on his chest. They figured out that was Troublemaker. He told them the ghoul had helped him in the bank job in return for meat - food for his people who live underground.

“But … um … there are a lot of them,” Arclight said. “And … it scared the **** out of me. And I’m never going back down there and I’d advise you not to. But there are ghouls that eat dead people.”

“Didn’t they say there’s a thousand per graveyard?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Yeah,” Arclight said.

“There’s a thousand of them per graveyard in Charlotte,” she said.

“Wow,” Protean said. “I remember facing Arch-Ghoul and Troublemaker after the bank heist.”

“Arch-Ghoul?” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Facing him?”

“Oh, so that was him?” Arclight said.

“What do you mean, facing him?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

Protean told them as he chased the two in the sewers, they split up. He followed Troublemaker and fought him. When Absolem’s Riddle asked if they were together, he said they were. He noted Arch-Ghoul had dug out of the bank and into the sewers. Absolem’s Riddle told them he had done it for the food but they had plenty so he wouldn’t be doing it any more. Arclight told them if they brought him a lot of meat, he could be a potential ally. Protean asked where they would find the meat. Arclight noted he didn’t know, but if they were ever in a pinch, they might want to do it.

“Well, that’s kind of creepy,” Protean said.

“Yeah,” Arclight said. “Don’t go down there.”

“Okay,” Protean said.

“Let’s go down there,” Angelus said.

“No!” Arclight said.

Arclight said he’d go with Protean to the police station to talk to them about the arsonist. He claimed he was close with the chief, who just let him walk into his office.

“I gotta go home,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “My mom’s bugging me. She hasn’t seen me in weeks.”

“Edward,” Angelus said. “You’ve seen these ghouls, right?”

“Yep,” Edward said.

“Were they scary?” Angelus asked.

“I mean …” Edward said.

“They didn’t smell great,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“No,” Edward said.

Arclight looked at him. Then he turned to Angelus.

“Did you hear anything I said?” he asked.

“Well, I didn’t see them,” Angelus said.

“You don’t want to!” Arclight said.

“They look those things in those really bad horror movies,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“But they’re harboring fugitives from the law,” Angelus said.

“Don’t say my name if you go there!” Arclight said.

“‘Arclight sent me,’” she said.

“No!” Arclight said. “No, God, please God, no.”

“Why are you going to see them?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“I’m just asking about them,” Angelus.

“Edward, don’t take her there,” Arclight said.

“I’m not going to,” Edward said.

“Edward take me there,” Angelus said.

“No, they asked us not to come,” Edward said. “Unless you brought food. Unless you have some dead people lying around.”

Absolem’s Riddle again explained they only helped Troublemaker for food but it was a one-time thing. Protean said it was a situation of not messing with them and they wouldn’t mess with others. Absolem’s Riddle told them that was exactly what they said.

* * *

Absolem’s Riddle, feeling obligated from the dozens of texts and voice mail messages from her mother, went by her house that afternoon. They argued, as they always did, about trivial things like lemonade and its preparation. She ended up stuck there for most of the afternoon as her mother questioned her about any nice boys she might have met, why she didn’t have a better job, and the like. Sometimes she asked another question before Absolem’s Riddle even had a chance to answer the last one.

She accused her mother of making the lemonade that tasted funny with salt so she would come over.

“I thought it was sugar!” her mother protested. “I thought it was sugar.”

“What if I told you─?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“If you would answer your phone once in a while then I would not have to do these kinds of things, would I?” her mother said. “Which I didn’t do! Someone obviously came in my apartment, broke in. We should probably check the whole apartment, make sure nothing was stolen. C’mon.”

“Mom, nobody stole anything,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “We put in a security system when I moved out.”

“Well, it’s almost dinnertime, so you better stay,” her mother said. “I’ll make you something nice.”

* * *

Angelus flew around town, enjoying herself in the sky. He thought about all of the things they had told her and wondered if the fire might have been caused by exotics.

* * *

Vanguard got José to help him cross-reference what happened with Thom Tillis to any other events going on in Charlotte. José told him other organized events in October had been cancelled. Anything that involved large donations of money or supported the rich had been cancelled.

Vanguard looked into the opposition: Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. He found she was very sympathetic in all of her own commercials and speeches since the massacre, with talk of hoping to avert such catastrophe in the future. She also said her prayers and thoughts were with the families of those who died in the terrible tragedy. She didn’t have any events in Charlotte.

They found a commercial from a small group of Kay Hagan supporters that basically boiled down to “Vote for Thom Tillis and you’ll probably be gassed!” The commercial was only on for a very short time. It was sponsored by People Who Really Like Kay Hagan, a small fringe group. However, the Dr. Murder Massacre was not, apparently, politically motivated.

José also showed him the video of Dr. Murder’s Massacre.

The footage, probably from a camera phone, showed the inside of the ballroom of the country club. There was a man in a long black coat wearing a gasmask and a black, wide-brimmed hat. He held a strange gun in his hand with an unusually wide barrel.

“Greetings to the richest and most powerful in Charlotte,” he said in a German accent. “I regret that this war between the rich and the poor must begin with bloodshed and death, but there is no other way for it to happen, I’m afraid. You will suffer less than those who have toiled for you in the past, than those who have suffered that you might be some of the most powerful men and women in the country, perhaps the world. All the shame for that. Though I take no pleasure in what I am about to do, it must be done, nonetheless. Good-bye.”

He pointed his gun into the room and a trail of gas came out and struck the floor where it expanded. The other men, who also wore gasmasks, hoods, and long coats, flung several gas grenades filled with the same green gas into the room. People panicked and tried to flee. Only a very few were gunned down by the other men or gassed at close range by the first man.

At some point during the carnage, one of the gunmen called out “Doctor Murder.”

* * *

Arclight and Protean walked downtown to the police department. Arclight walked in, heading for the back. The desk sergeant grabbed his phone.

“Arclight’s here!” he said. “Arclight’s here!”

The chief was not totally unprepared when the two men strode into his office like they owned the place. Chief Dean, a handsome black man with a mustache, slammed down the phone.

“God damn it, Arclight!” he said.

“What’s up, chief?” Arclight said.

“Wait until I tell you to come in here!” Chief Dean said. “I tell you this every time.”

“I know,” Arclight said.

“Protean,” Chief Dean said.

“Sergeant,” Protean said. “Or captain.”

“Chief, moron!” Chief Dean said. “What do you want?”

“I got my team back together, we’re looking for the arsonist,” Arclight said.

“Arclight and Friends?” Chief Dean said. “Is that really the name of your team?”

“Ain’t a better one right now,” Arclight said.

“All right, it’s arson. According to the fire marshal, it’s arson.”

“You want me to go talk to the fire marshal?”

“No. Well, you can if you want. He’s said it’s arson. There were fires started several different places in the basement and in the lobby on the ground floor but there shouldn’t have been fires. There was no … what’d he say … accelerant … there was no accelerant used, which was weird.”

“Okay.”

“He said there was no trace of any kind of gasoline or oil or anything that would naturally be used as an accelerant in an arson. But the fires broke out in places it shouldn’t have broken out. So, we’re investigating at this point.”

“Can we get copies of arsons that have happened in the last six months, so we can pinpoint where it’s happening at?”

“Yeah. Talk to Whittaker, Sgt. Whittaker. He can get you on the database. You guys can take a look at it.”

“All right.”

Arclight turned to Protean.

“You know Whittaker, right?” he said.

“I know Whittaker,” Protean said.

“All right,” Arclight said. “Take me to his office.”

“All right,” Protean said.

Sgt. Whittaker didn’t have an office but Protean knew where his desk was. He was not there though another officer was at the desk on the phone. He hung up as the heroes approached him.

“What?” the officer said.

“We were looking for Sgt. Whittaker, hoping we could get some files on the recent arsonist in Charlotte,” Protean said.

“Oh,” the officer said. “Yeah, the chief just called the desk. You can look. Whittaker’s on patrol. I’m going to get some coffee.”

Protean started to type on the keyboard but Arclight warned him to be careful as he was still in a steel body. The officer ended up not going for coffee, but helped them find the files in the computer. They did not find any similar fires in the last six months. Everything seemed normal. Protean said he wanted a map of the city and dots where all the arson had taken place. The officer told him there hadn’t been any. He finally showed him on the map of Charlotte where the single fire had taken place.

“Interesting,” Protean said.

They asked him to print out the map and he did so. The single dot was in the Lockwood neighborhood, which was a poorer part of the city. Arclight asked if they had interviewed any of the tenants of the building. The officer told them no one had seen anything though one man claimed it was faulty wiring, though the fire marshal had ruled that out. Arclight asked for the man’s name and the officer found it: Melvin Flatbush. The officer was not sure where he might be as the apartment building had been destroyed. He told them he thought the Red Cross was trying to find places for everyone from the building to live. The officer noted there were rumors one baby was found alone in the building as well but they couldn’t corroborate the information. When Arclight noted they had saved the baby, the police officer asked if he knew the names of the parents but Arclight didn’t.

They decided to look for Flatbush. They started by checking with the local Red Cross but it still took several hours to find the man.

* * *

Tinker returned to his apartment and built a small electron microscope of incredible power in an attempt to compare molecules from the disintegrator rifle, his own implant, and Vanguard. However, he couldn’t find anything in the skin and hair he’d gotten from Vanguard. There was no evidence of any nanotechnology or anything of that kind at all, which he found odd. He wondered if he needed a blood sample or when Vanguard was powered up.

* * *

Arclight and Protean found Melvin Flatbush. He wore worn-looking clothing he had probably been given by the Red Cross and was staying in a homeless shelter. He seemed very, very angry. He claimed the fire was caused by faulty wiring.

“Because the God damned owner thinks that we, just ‘cause we’re poor, we should live in crap!” Flatbush said.

“Just because you’re poor?” Protean asked.

“Yeah!” Flatbush said. “‘Cause everybody’s poor that lives there. Those little, tiny, one-bedroom apartments. They’re cheap. And he doesn’t keep the place up.”

“Does the owner have insurance on the building or anything like that?” Protean asked.

“I dunno. You’d probably have to talk to him.”

“I want you to take me through the events of that day.”

Flatbush did so. He was unemployed and got a welfare check. He was still looking for a job but his unemployment insurance dried up a couple of years before. He lived on the second floor and always had problems with the toilet and the oven was broken and the refrigerator didn’t keep things very cold. When he would call and complain, he was told someone would come make repairs but no one ever came. He was certain the wiring was faulty. He noted he had some good neighbors - good people lived there. Most of them had fallen on hard times or were having problems.

He said that day was like any other day. He went out for about four hours, looking for work. He came home and watched television and had dinner. He was woken in the middle of the night by people screaming. There was smoke in the apartment but he managed to get out of the building. It was on fire by then. He noted the superheroes showed up and saved several people who had not been as quick as he.

“I tried to tell them … you were there!” he said, pointing at Arclight.

“Yeah,” Arclight said.

“I tried to tell them it was faulty wiring,” Flatbush went on. “So …I told him. And I told this girl, that key girl …”

“Solomon’s Key,” Arclight said.

“Solomon’s Key, yeah, that’s her name,” Flatbush said. “I told her and there was this crocodile. It was! There was a crocodile!”

“No way,” Protean said.

“It was a little guy, like, he was only this tall,” Flatbush went on, holding his hand about four feet above the ground. “He was wearing this, like, armor, but he was all muscular. Like super strong! And he had this tail, and he was trying to put it out, put the fire out with his tail. And he saved a baby. And he saved a little girl.” He pointed at Arclight again. “This lady … and I watched this other lady, this key lady, and she brought out Rosalita, and Rosalita wasn’t breathing. And she gave her CPR and she gave her mouth-to-mouth until she saved her life. It was great.”

“That’s a beautiful story,” Protean said.

“Oh! And McAlister!”

“McAlister?”

“McAlister had a gun! He wanted to kill himself!”

“Who’s McAlister?”

“He lived … second floor? I think he lived on the second floor. He tried to kill himself. And that lady gave him money to go see a therapist.”

“That lady?”

“Uh … Key lady.”

“Key lady.”

“Solomon’s Key. Yeah. She gave him money to go see a therapist instead of killing himself. And he went!”

“Damn!”

“Yeah! He’s trying to find her. He wants to thank her or something.”

“I’ll let her know,” Arclight said.

“He was at the shelter but I think he went to live with his daughter,” Flatbush said. “He hasn’t talked to her in five years! And this lady said ‘Go get some therapy’ and he talked to the therapist. And she gave him money and he went and then he talked to his daughter for the first time in five years? It’s like … wow!”

“It wasn’t faulty wiring,” Arclight said.

“But it was!” Flatbush said.

“No,” Arclight said. “We read the police report. I think there’s an exotic that might have caught this building on fire. Somebody like us, but bad.”

“It was the owner!” Flatbush said. “It was the owner! He probably has super powers. Son of a *****!”

“If it’s true that the owner would not perform any maintenance work on the building …” Protean said.

“He was a son of a *****,” Flatbush said.

“Do you know … was there anybody else here who was a little bit suspicious?” Arclight said.

“Tommy McElroy!” Flatbush said. “That was his name.”

“Tom McElroy, the owner?” Protean asked.

“That’s him,” Flatbush said. “I hate ‘im! Find him and punch him in the face for me.”

“Holy shit,” Arclight said. “So that was the only guy that was suspicious? Nobody else in this building? Because I find it weird that this building out of all buildings would be caught on fire by something unnatural.”

“I feel like we should talk to his Tommy McElroy,” Protean said.

“Yeah,” Arclight said. “That’s our next lead.”

It had taken them most of the afternoon to find Flatbush and it was after dinner time by then.

“I’m not even hungry,” Protean said.

“Aw,” Arclight said. “I am.”

* * *

Vanguard had gone to work that afternoon. He was working, this month, as a janitor in one of the small Charlotte weekly shopper magazines. It was a small office with the advertising staff up front and the writers, photographers, and the like in the back. He was vacuuming when his pager went off.

“Skin sample didn’t work,” the page read. “I need to find you.”

It was signed “Tinker.”

“Yeah, I’m at work,” he paged back. “Here’s the address.”

He sent it.

Tinker arrived at the office on a motorcycle shortly after. Vanguard wore coveralls with the name Anderson on the patch. He had a tool belt and the keys to the building. A radio was also on the belt. He let Tinker in. No one was working that afternoon so they had the place to themselves. Tinker told him what he’d gotten from the man was just hair and skin with no trace of anything else. He told Vanguard he had to get a sample of the suit when it was active or perhaps a blood sample. Vanguard agreed.

They went to the janitor’s closet, which was pretty good-sized for such a small company. Tinker gave him the syringe he had brought and Vanguard had a terrible time drawing some blood. He ended up jabbing himself and figured it would leave a pretty bad bruise. They discussed getting a little of the suit and Vanguard mentioned he had a blade in the suit. He caused the armor to appear on one of his arms and then the other, creating the blade in the second arm. He scraped it across the first arm and got a little bit of metal. Tinker caught it in a glass sample dish and closed it up.

“I’m in a hurry,” Tinker said. “I’ve got to do this research. Thank you.”

Vanguard let him out and he was off.

* * *

Angelus returned to Vanguard’s apartment. José was there and seemed pleased to see her. She sat on the couch and pulled the pager from her satchel.

“Where are you?” she paged to everyone.

“We’re chowing,” came back. “With love from Arclight. Arclight.”

“I want some food,” came another response. “Edward.”

“Meet us at Papa Pizzerios,” Arclight texted. “With love from Arclight. Arclight.”

* * *

“Mom, we’ve got to hurry with dinner,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Work’s … work’s calling me.”

“You don’t hurry a good thing,” her mother said.

“Well, I also don’t want to get fired from a bad job.”

“You know, you could do better than working in a bar.”

She started to talk about that a lot.

“Mom, I’m gonna go,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“What!?!” her mother replied.

They argued for about 10 minutes, which is how their meetings usually ended.

“So glad that I came over!” Absolem’s Riddle said as she stormed out the door.

“Me too!” her mother yelled without sarcasm as she slammed the front door.

She knew the next time they talked, it would be like the fight had never happened. Her mother always glossed over everything bad that happened in her life.

* * *

Papa Franchetti’s Pizzerios was a small, independently run restaurant in The Shops at Freedom. The place specialized in calzones but they also had pizza and Italian food. The logo out front showed a plump cartoon chef in a white uniform and hat with a dish in one hand, a goofy satisfied look on his face, and the other hand held up to his face as if making a kissing satisfaction “mwa!” The restaurant had lots of windows in the front with curtains and an Italian motif on the inside. The food was not bad though the place did not have a salad bar.

When Arclight had arrived and they’d ordered, he’d also told the waiter they could contact his agent if they wanted him to do commercials for the restaurant. The waiter said he’d tell the manager and took his information, including Arclight’s agent’s phone number. Arclight realized he should tell his agent, Murray McDonald, about Doug so they could use the pug in commercials as well. He knew better than to call Murray outside of his work hours of nine to five. He’d gotten an earful from the man when he’d done so before.

Everyone arrived except Tinker, Vanguard arriving last having done his job quickly and headed out early.

The people working at the restaurant seemed excited to be serving superheroes. The waiter was especially excited, nearly squealing when he brought them their water and menus. Arclight signed a photo and gave it to him.

“Number 13,” he said.

“Aw dude!” the waiter said. “Thanks! That’s my lucky number!”

He took their order, making sure to note their specialty was calzones. He didn’t recommend the salads as they were not great. Arclight ordered the house special calzone, which was the everything calzone with extra meat.

They seemed excited to see Edward too.

“Is that the Cool Crocodile Man?” the waiter asked when he spotted him.

Oh God, Edward thought.

“What do crocodiles eat?” the waiter asked.

“Pizza,” Angelus said.

“You like pizza?” the waiter asked.

“Sure, let’s try it,” Edward said.

“What do you want on it?” the waiter asked.

“Meat,” Edward said. “More meat.”

“We have the meat gorger’s pizza,” the waiter said.

“Double the meat on it,” Arclight suggested.

The waiter got the rest of the orders. Angelus ordered a cheese calzone and Absolem’s Riddle asked for some pineapple for her sugar glider.

Everyone wore their costume except for Vanguard and some of them overheard the waiter telling one of the waitresses maybe the Asian guy with them was one of their sidekicks. Edward laughed at that.

Food came out after only a short time. It was hot and good. There was also beer the place if any of them wanted it. Protean sat with his water, just staring at it.

“So, what if the fire was started by an exotic?” Angelus finally said.

“Yeah, we’ve been … yeah …” Arclight said. “Where have you been?”

“We’re actually on our way to interrogate the land owner,” Protean said.

“Well …” Arclight said. “Are we gonna interrogate him?”

“We’re going to ask him questions,” Protean said. “That sounds like interrogation to me.”

“That’s a harsh word for somebody from FORCE,” Vanguard said.

“Who, exactly, are you talking about?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I mean, there are good cops and bad cops,” Protean said.

“Who are we talking about?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“We’re talking about the arson,” Protean said.

“Yeah, but who are we going to interrogate?”

“The owner of the apartment building. Mr. Tommy McElroy.”

“Okay. Why don’t we just question him instead of interrogate?”

“It’s the same thing.”

“Interrogate kind of implies, like, harassment during the questioning.”

“I am going to be the good cop interrogator.”

“You’re a rock. How can you be─”

“And you all will be the bad cops.”

“And everyone else here will be the bad cops,” Angelus repeated.

“Yeah,” Protean said.

“No,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“We all have to take turns,” Angelus said.

“But, in any case, this guy refused to do any maintenance work whatsoever,” Protean said.

“I mean, that just sounds like a slumlord to me,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“It does,” Vanguard said.

“And then the place burned to the ground?” Protean said.

“Yeah, because he was a slumlord and didn’t keep it up,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“We’ve got to figure out what he knows,” Protean said.

“I don’t see why we just don’t ask him,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“We can go talk to the landlord but I honestly don’t think he’s guilty,” Arclight said.

“I don’t think he’s guilty but he might know some more facts,” Protean said. “Some more leads.”

“I don’t know,” Vanguard said. “Have you not heard of this thing called insurance fraud? You burn down your buildings to get your insurance money and stuff like that? Could be one of those cases too.”

“So this guy you talked to only said the owner did it?” Absolem’s riddle said.

“Well, he suspected the owner because the owner refused to make any maintenance work whatsoever and then just a general unpleasant person,” Protean said.

“So nothing else?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

Protean noted they had been on the way to talk to him when Arclight got hungry so they had to stop to eat.

“Papa Pizzerios!” Arclight said with his mouth full of food.

“Yeah, it’s nice,” Protean said.

“I don’t understand how the ladies can resist you,” Absolem’s Riddle said sarcastically.

“I have a love potion now,” Arclight said.

“Wait,” Angelus said.

“Is that that neon shit that’s in the fridge?” Vanguard said.

“Yep!” Arclight said.

Vanguard laughed.

“What?” Angelus said.

“I got a love potion,” Arclight said.

“Oh,” Protean said. “Okay.”

“But don’t drink it,” Arclight said.

“From where!?!” Angelus said.

“The sewers,” Arclight said.

They all looked at him.

“It’s legit!” he said.

“Sure,” Protean said.

“I think,” Arclight said.

“What?” Angelus said.

“Wait,” Vanguard said.

“He got a love potion from a witch lady with no face,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“What?” Angelus said.

“It’s totally legit,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I thought the sewers were uninteresting, smelly places,” Angelus said.

“Oh yeah, I found McElroy’s number, I just haven’t called it yet,” Arclight said between bites of calzone.

He had Googled McElroy’s name and eventually got his number in the white pages online. He’d written it down on a piece of paper.

“So that guy didn’t say anything else?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Can I see that for a second?” Vanguard said to Arclight.

Arclight handed over a piece of paper with the phone number on it. Vanguard entered the number and address into his GPS and saw that the house was in the Villa Heights neighborhood.

“So, wait, who’s actually gonna go talk to him?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“I’ll talk to him,” Protean said.

“Don’t scare him and don’t beat him up,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I would never do either of those two things,” Protean said. “On purpose.”

“You wanted to interrogate him,” she said.

“Yeah, Mr. FORCE,” Vanguard said.

“I use the word interrogate merely to imply question,” Protean said.

“So, why don’t you just say question?” she asked. “Or inquire?”

“Because interrogate is such a better word,” Protean said.

“Inquire,” she said.

“Inquire is a good word,” Protean said.

“Inquisition vs. interrogation,” she said.

Angelus laughed.

“I think inquisition was a little worse,” she said. “How about them sewers.”

“You want to go mess with the ghouls?” Vanguard asked her.

“Don’t!” Arclight said. “Don’t!”

“I don’t know, that just sounds … crazy,” Angelus said.

“There’s no reason to go down there, though,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“They might like you, though,” Vanguard said to Angelus. “‘Cause of your appearance.”

“There’s no reason to go down there,” Absolem’s Riddle said again. “What reason is there? We’ve already gone down there.”

“Possibly to find Troublemaker?” Angelus said.

“He’s not down there,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “That was a few months ago and they said they don’t work with him anymore and they won’t work with him anymore. You can go in the sewers, but just don’t bother the ghoul people.”

They discussed talking to McElroy.

“Where’s Tinkerer?” Arclight asked.

Absolem’s Riddle paged Tinker: “How are things coming along, Tinker?”

“He’s researching something,” Vanguard said. “Just let him be. He’ll contact us when he’s done.”

“Oh, I already texted him,” she said.

“He probably hates that you text him so much,” Vanguard said.

“How’s it going?” she texted Tinker.

Vanguard sent a text telling the man to ignore it.

* * *

Tinker had been very busy since he’d gotten the new samples from Vanguard. He started with the piece of metal from the armor. He put it into his electron microscope and started to analyze it. The metal was unusual and the spectroscope gave him an indication it was similar to the gray disintegrator rifle and the material embedded in his spine also thought to be gray technology. However, as he looked at it, the atoms seemed to be disappearing. They were either moving away at a speed too fast for him to track, or the atoms themselves were simply vanishing.

“My God!” he said.

He guessed the three things all came from the same source, though Vanguard’s material had significant changes as if it had been altered at some point.

By the time the pages came through, the sample from Vanguard had almost completely disappeared. He quickly built a scanner to track the atoms. He realized the atoms were not actually disintegrating, but migrating somewhere, probably at the speed of light. It was amazing. He was able to spot them all start to move in a certain direction before they vanished, too fast for him to track.

“Hey, I found out some pretty interesting stuff,” he sent a text. “Where you at?”

“I’m at Papa Pizzerios with everybody else,” Vanguard texted back.

“Where is that?” Tinker texted.

Vanguard texted him the address at The Shops at Freedom.

* * *

The others had all finished eating when Tinker drove up to Papa Franchetti’s Pizzerios on his motorcycle.

Arclight was signing photos of himself for everyone working the pizzeria. He gave the waiter four more photos for the rest of the staff there at the time. Everybody seemed pretty interested in getting the photo. The waiter was really excited and brought a menu, asking everyone to sign it. It went around, with Absolem’s Riddle signing it first. Arclight signed it “Arclight XOXO.” Angelus and Protean signed it, the latter so hard that it creased the paper. When it came to Edward, he sat in thought for a moment.

“I think your name should be Vicegrip,” Arclight said.

“Okay,” Edward said.

He signed it “That Crocodile.”

The waiter came to Vanguard last and when he took the menu, metal rolled up his arm. He signed it “Vanguard. I’m no sidekick, *****es.”

“Oh my God it’s Vanguard!” the waiter said. “Put your hat on! People are going to know who you are! Thanks Vanguard. I didn’t know you were Vanguard!”

Tinker entered the restaurant.

“Is this another one of you guys?” the waiter asked when he saw him.

“He’s our tech man,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Hey, dude, can you sign this?” the waiter asked him.

He quickly scribbled “Tinker” on the menu.

“Thanks!” the waiter said. “You want a table?”

“No,” Tinker said. “No.”

He walked over to Vanguard.

“I want to look at your arm,” he said.

“Uh … which one?” Vanguard said.

“Wait, what’s going on here?” Arclight said.

“The one you scraped,” Tinker said.

“Here ya go,” Vanguard said.

He held out the metal arm. It was completely intact. There didn’t seem to be anything at all wrong with it.

“Alright, so, did you notice when this happened?” Tinker asked.

“Um … I just know that as long as I’m in sunlight, it heals pretty rapidly,” Vanguard said.

“Well, the pieces I had were zipping off in a direction and I’m assuming they were coming here,” Tinker said. “They were reassembling themselves.”

“Wait,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Your atoms ran away?”

“Yeah!” Tinker said.

He told them he took the sample out after he got back to his apartment and noticed it was smaller. He said when he scanned it, atom by atom it was zipping away. He didn’t know where. When Absolem’s Riddle asked if it was coming to Vanguard, Tinker said it was.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “I don’t know what it means, but … I mean … so wherever pieces of this are, it will reassemble itself.”

“Everything is connected, man,” Protean said. “Everything is connected.”

“It seems to be made up as the same basic stuff as the rifle and the nanotech that’s in me,” Tinker said.

“Wait a minute, what?” Vanguard said. “So, it’s all linked?”

“Wait a minute, so you’re alien too?” Absolem’s Riddle asked Tinker.

“No,” Tinker said. “No. I’ve got something in my neck.”

“Where did it come from again?” she asked.

“It was found at a crash site,” he said.

“And they just inserted it into the closest person?”

“No. No. It started off … they found it inside a rat.”

“You … were a rat.”

“No.”

“Okay.”

“After the rat died, they used human trials without …”

“So, you have rat technology that was just placed in your …”

“Not rat tech … anyway, it’s all connected somehow.”

“With the grays?” Angelus asked.

It suddenly dawned on Tinker that just about all of the other exotics he knew in Charlotte were there.

“What are we doing?” Tinker asked. “What’s going on here?”

“Stupid grays,” Angelus muttered.

“These guys had to stop and eat,” Protean said.

They discussed the implications of the moving atoms. Vanguard asked how much light had been on the sample and Tinker told him it was just fluorescent light. Absolem’s Riddle suggested it might be the amount of light Vanguard had been in. Tinker noted it was lit up but there was no sunlight. He wondered if there might have been a residual charge left in the sample. He noted it could have been a lot of things.

“But it was fascinating,” Tinker admitted.

The waiter ran out from the back.

“Hey heroes!” he shouted. “There’s a fire over at Tyron Hills!”

“Holy Shit!” Arclight said.

He ran out the front door and took to the sky. Angelus flew after him and Absolem’s Riddle teleported in the direction they were flying.

“What apartment complex?” Protean asked him.

“It’s in Tyron Hills!” the waiter said.

He pointed vaguely out the front of the restaurant.

“Arclight, give me a lift!” Protean called.

He looked around and saw the man was already gone.

“Somebody give me a lift!” he said.

“Who needs a lift?” Vanguard said.

They ran out to Vanguard’s sedan and piled in, Tinker climbing onto his motorcycle and following them. Vanguard tore out of the parking lot, driving over the speed limit and running stop signs and red lights as he went. He soon saw red and blue lights in his rear view mirror as a police car started chasing him. He heard the police siren but decided to deal with it when they got to the apartment. Protean leaned out the window and motioned for the police car to follow them. Edward, alone in the back seat, just kept his head down. Tinker, on his motorcycle, held back a little and followed both of them.

“Pull the car over!” came over the police loudspeaker.

“Some of us should look for the arsonist while others deal with the fire,” came a page from Absolem’s Riddle.

* * *

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