Gentle Guardian/Awaken, Blessed of Sacrifice
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
"Shut up and move!" Seth Peterson pushed at the cop in front of him. "I want to see! I need to see!" The cell phone call had come from an unlikely source, and Seth had spent the last ten minutes trying to shove his way past the officer, hampered by his broken arm and cramping lower body. "Look, Seth, it's not pretty, and you don't need to see her like this." The cop spoke with quiet compassion.
"I don't care!" He shoved harder.
The detective in the room looked up, and sighed. "Let him through." Seth stumbled past the officer, and into the room where his sister lay, the officer supporting him near the door. He looked upon her - smoke still rose from Jessica Peterson's body, her face locked in an anguished rictus of pain. Blood soaked the floor and walls, some new, some old.. Seth sagged slightly against the cop, weeping helplessly, letting the officer guide him out.
"We're gonna be down here for the next couple days playing D&D," Seth yelled as he led his friends into the basement, balancing the pizzas against his shoulder.
"Days?" Jake Nielson laughed. "Dude, I know your writing. Y'can't DM your way into a wet paper bag, let alone outta one!"
"Hey, I need some form of cover." Seth grinned.
Tyler Lane made an odd meep noise, as he was wont to do when he was pondering a situation, while Chris Paulson checked over the various character sheets. "You realize, Seth, that we're gonna need a lot more caffeine for that much D&D, with you DMing." Chris's incisive gaze turned to Seth. "You are, as you have been since -that- game, hiding something."
"Shuddap! Tyler, close that door.. thank you. Chris, hold this." He plopped the pizzas into Chris's hands, and picked his way through the assorted junk toward the south wall. "This'll scare you." Seth put his palm up to the wall.. and then a blue glow shrouded it, a yellow bar going up, then down.
Administrator confirmed. The contralto female voice was toneless and lifeless. The wall near the glow slid open to reveal some sort of tube.
"...coooooool." Tyler broke the silence, and the two others practically ran over Seth in their rush to get into the tube. Thirteen expletives and a near-incident with the pizza later, the four of them were in the tube, headed downward.
"You didn't have to leave a shoeprint on my ass," Seth complained.
"What the hell is this?" Jake peered around the opaque walls as the motion of the tube continued. "Why'dn't you tell us 'bout this?"
Because the last time he came here, he told me to fuck off and that he didn't want my help. This sourceless soprano female voice was smug, far more feminine than the last one, and almost felt like it was purring every word.
"Oh, Lord." Chris said it with a certain reverence that can only be achieved by the truly jaded. "You have managed to get us into a real mess this time."
"So, what's the deal?" The four of them had found various seating places in what had been dubbed the command center, and Jake had spoken up. "I say you ain't gonna show us this without a reason."
Seth shrugged. "It-" He inclined his head toward the larger monitor "-said to me, a while ago, that it could control what I had better than what I can do now." Seth held up his gloved hands, giving a pointed look. "I told her.. I didn't really care. I didn't, four weeks ago, you know? Put on some gloves.. and never take them off.." Seth sounded more than a little sour at this point.. "Everything works. Then.." He didn't need to finish the sentence. Two weeks was not long enough for anything to heal.
"Where d'we come into this?"
"You think I'm gonna do this alone?" Seth grinned. "You think you'd let me live it down if I tried to and you found out?"
"Waitaminute, waitaminutewaitaminute." Tyler jumped in here, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. "You actually -do- have powers, if Chris wasn't bullshitting us. We don't."
That... is where my expertise comes in handy. The feminine voice returned.
"...expertise?" Chris said the word as though it were distasteful, and Seth laughed quietly.
Cybernetics, powered armor, perhaps a bit of genetic tampering... The feminine voice reeked of smug, like it was talking to a bunch of primitive children.
"There has to be a price, then." Chris was, as always, the practical one, and his glance at Seth spoke of mild reproach.
Not one I want from you. Seth's the one that interests me. The voice purred. It is, of course, quite simple - I enhance and modify you as best I can, as you see fit.. and he allows me to see through his eyes, hear through his ears, and feel through his hands. I offered something similar before, and as I said before, he told me to fornicate.
Jake looked around, frowning. "...that's it?" Jake gave Seth a look of exasperation. "Dude, what the fuck are you doing still acting normal?"
Seth glared. "I didn't have a good enough reason to let something into my skull. I have a better one now."
Jake laughed. "Fuck yeah. I'm in." He grinned fiercely. "Who else isn't a pussy?"
Tyler swung his gaze back and forth between Seth and Jake.. then pushed off the console, nodding, grinning. "I'm in. Can't let you two jackasses have all the fun."
"If I don't go with you three, you will blow up the wrong city block. I'm in." Chris shook his head. "God help us all."
Chris looked on with disinterest, while the others avoided peering into the room where Jake was under the knife. "I believe she took him seriously when he said 'Replace everything non-essential with cybernetics'. I think I'll be scared to play basketball with him."
Seth pondered his new gauntlets, newly-installed heads-up display fascinating him. "At least you can still play basketball. I'm just glad there's no long-term recovery period."
Don't ask, don't tell. The female voice was now in his ear, though much softer. A girl has to have some secrets.
"How d'you think he'll keep 'em running, though?" Tyler murmured. "Pain in the ass, if you ask me."
"He will burn that bridge when he comes to it, I'm sure." Chris laughed. "What do you intend to have done?"
"Well, the basic suite, of course. Comms, targetting, the hud.. After that, I figure an energy cannon and shield, and enhanced legs.. I might as well put those karate courses to use. Not as radical as Jake's.." A look of mild disbelief. "Didn't he say 'put a fuckin' death laser in my chest'?"
"How do you think she'll interpret that?"
"Energy cannon. Or antimatter cannon."
Tyler's toe tapped at the ground as he droned a series of meeps, clearly wondering. "High-tech, yeah? Wonder how the fuck it went unnoticed."
I'm good at hiding what I want hidden, and I don't want to be found. A laugh. I would rather have as few prying eyes as necessary, and I do not want to be dismantled to satisfy some fool's curiosity.
Tyler looked up at the speaker in the corner, and directed his question toward Seth. "What's it like to have her in your ear?"
"Not that bad. Quieter than the speakers. The heads-up display takes getting used to, but I'm starting to get it under control." Seth shifted and stood up, the powersuit's motors aiding his motion silently. "And the suit's not that bad."
"At least none of us need that heavy crap." Tyler grinned. "Spandex and plastic.."
"...I thought I would try a covering that would appear translucent, but that would be an illusion. Appear as ice."
"Go with your powers?" Seth grinned, clenching his fists, sudden, sharp arcs of teal electricity curling around his fists, the crosshair in his eye reticle scanning through the potential targets.
"Of course. There is something to be said for the clichés. If they were not useful, they would not be clichéd. Have you decided on a name yet?"
Tyler laughed. "What? You're no holy man, and you don't use a sword or crusade.."
Seth arced a light jolt of electricity toward him, and Tyler ducked. "It's not about swords or crusading! It's about sacrifice. My power is, in essence, the power to sacrifice myself for another - I figure Paladin's as good a name to devote to that as any."
Chris nodded. "I concur. I did a bit of checking. It seems Ice was not taken, and I dare say that is as good a name as any."
Tyler snickered. "Regulator."
Seth rolled his eyes, leaning back. "Isn't that a supergroup?"
"Yeah, but there's no one with the actual -name-."
The computer's voice cut into his ear. I wanted to talk to you about finding a way for me to get on this 'internet'...
Two years pass. The Rapiers make a name for themselves as a versatile superteam specialized in rapid crisis response, aided by a flight of alien-seeming atmospheric fighters. Then, in March of '02, the Rikti War begins, and heroes everywhere step forward to fight. In November, the last battles begin - the Rikti stage one final assault on Des Moines, two days before Alpha and Omega Teams lead their assault. It rages for three days...
The dust began to settle as the last Rikti attack craft crashed into the farmland east of Des Moines. The Paladin caught his breath, lessened power to his flight module, and sent a broad-frequency transmission to command, team, and universal, frowning at the orange glow at the corner of his vision, his suit's status. "All allied forces, report."
Chatter broke out into his comm, while the lower corner of his HUD lit up with names and status - groups and individuals. He set his jaw, watching the list of confirmed dead grow, though, as far as he was concerned, they had beat the spread. Three-fifths of the metahumans who had stood up to fight would be going home unmasked and in boxes, and another twenty percent were burned out, crippled, powerless, or missing. Thankfully, for some reason, the aliens had at long last turned tail and retreated when their ship began to fall...
No response, no contact with Ice, Syber, and Regulator.
The Paladin shifted his jaw slightly to bring up his private frequency with the AI that had dubbed itself Shodan after finding System Shock. "No contact?"
None. Not even from their vitals transmitters. Running a second scan.
"Pal! Where're your boys?" Radiance, leader of a local group of heroines - although she herself was actually a well-designed android - flew upward as she shouted, her jetpack adjusting to hover beside him.. "The bugs-" She always voiced the opinion that the Rikti were bugmen "-are retreating, and I don't think anyone wants to go chasing after them. Thought I'd drag you farmboys to a club tonight. Figure I owe you guys and Control a drink!" She flashed a grin.
"I don't know. Rapier Control's lost contact, and I don't have a read on their vitals." Seth shifted his jaw again, eyes lidding slightly to bring up a menu, which he flicked to "show missing and non-checked in". At the top of the page:
"Give me a waypoint on last position, Shodan," Seth subvocalized.
Rapier Control accidentally spoke on the open channel. Last position before no-contact was.. that can't be right. Reads as.. Seth turned, when the arrow appeared in his view, Radiance turning with him.
"Oh, God, Pal, I'm sorry.." Radiance's quiet condolence was lost as the Paladin turned up the power to his flight module, streaking toward the remains of the Rikti vessel. Thankfully, when he arrived, it was already deserted. The powered armor let him pull aside heavy chunks of the blasted vessel, digging toward the bottom, where the waypoint lay, a part of his vision changing hue, beginning to flash angry red. He barely noticed the six female forms landing next to him, pulling up bits and pieces in the same area, pushing them aside.
I've got a signal from their lifesign transmitters. They've flatlined. Quick download of the last fifteen minutes says that Ice has been flatlined for 12 minutes, Regulator for 7, and Syber for 3. Shodan's distant, dispassionate voice turned him frantic, ripping up the layers of metal and forcing it aside.. Until he found the bottom - a massive metallic dome.
They had met their end, in different ways, but had gone out surrounded by Rikti. Ice's faux-translucent blue form had holes, both in the illusion, where the spandexy material he used was melted by plasma blasts, revealing the flesh underneath, and literal ones, where the skin and bone was destroyed. Regulator had been skewered by shards of the falling ship - deflected off course by his energy shield, but still fast enough to punch right through him and skewer him to the ground. Syber had simply collapsed, his wetware's energy cells, built by his body's own metabolic energy supply, spent after exhausting itself to generate a force shield to prevent his allies from being crushed by the descending ship.
The Paladin did not hesitate, beginning to undo the clasps of his powersuit's glove as he reached for Syber. He didn't hear the woman's voice yelling "Stop him!", and failed to notice anyone around him, until he was on the ground, with three women on top of him, one making sure to hold down each hand, jamming the gloves onto his wrist, the third pushing herself against his chestplate, holding him to the ground. A fourth was behind him, hands on his shoulders. Radiance's upside-down face glared into his eyes. "No, Pal. You said you have to take it yourself. I'm not going to let you kill yourself! Not after everything!" She slammed his shoulders into the ground, bright blue hair framing heated fury. "I won't. Let you. Commit suicide."
"They fought for me! I got them into this! They don't deserve to be corpses on a battlefield!" It wasn't the Paladin speaking. It was Seth. "I can't let them be.."
"They came of their own will! They knew the risks. They fought because they wanted to. They wanted to be here. If you hadn't led them here, they would have found some other way." Radiance leaned close, blue hair tickling the Paladin's cheeks. "I lost four of my girls, here. I'd give anything to have 'em back.. but I can't. I won't trade you for them, and I damned well know you'd trade anything for your boys, Pal.. but you've gotta let go."
"Get the fuck off me." Paladin spoke flatly, and Radiance nodded toward the other three girls. The one in the middle winked slyly at him and assumed a mischevously seductive pose before finally standing up. Radiance glared at her, before releasing his shoulders, allowing the Paladin to drag himself to his feet. "The feds know where to deliver the bodies." He sounded tired, and hollow. "I am going home." He sighed, finally letting the red aura around a corner of his vision move forward. "The powersuit's combat functionality is nonexistent, and it'll take time to fix the damn thing."
"When you finish, let us know. You can always work with us." Radiance smiled at him, reassuring, honest, and gentle. "My card.. just in case." She tucked it into a hole in his suit.
He looked up at her quietly, then put his hand to his ear, making a small show of speaking to Control. "Control, this is Rapier Lead. Requesting pickup - Powersuit has suffered extensive damage and is no longer effective."
The female voice came out over the command frequency. "Confirmed, Rapier lead, one for pickup, fighter is en route. Stand by."
"I give up"
Why aren't you fixing the powersuit?
"I don't wanna to do this anymore." He sounded defeated.
Yes, you do.
"No. I pissed in Death's eyes too many times for one lifetime. I lost three friends because of it. Never again."
I think that if you did, you could have an opportunity to mate with that nice blue-haired artificial human.
Seth went silent in mild awe. "...Just because some people get stupid about opportunities to use their penis, does not mean I'm going to do so."
Hmph. I thought all human males appreciate opportunities.
"You sound like a half-kitty alien version of my mother."
Perhaps your legends about women feeling kinship with felines is accurate.
"Perhaps I shouldn't take life advice from a species that thinks pissing on things is a way to say 'this is mine'."
Perhaps a species that flings its own feces is too stupid to take advice when given.
"I'm allowed to be."
What exactly is malfunctioning?
Seth ground the heel of his hands into his eyes, groaning quietly over the husk of the suit. "The biofeedback buffers are fucked. The strength amp circuits are functional, but they won't be after we rip the thing apart in order to start fixing things, and we'll probably have to spend another year and a half rewiring it even after we put it back together. The armor itself is pretty much melted - couldn't deflect a small rock without it hurting. The focus arcs and charge conducers are so fused that I'd be better served using my normal gloves instead of armored gloves. Flight module has about.. 30 seconds of flight time left before I drop out of the sky... Targetting is spotty, phase system is blown.. Basically, I'd be wearing 200 pounds of 'Please shoot me, I look meta'."
...well, at least I won't have to worry about you using it at a moment's notice.
Seth looked up a moment. "Speaking of dumbass reflex actions, did you ever find Eric? And how the fuck do you actually lose someone, anyway?"
It was an emergency! And no, I haven't. Shut up.
"Would she still be trying to get in my pants if she knew?"
Angie - Radiance enjoyed assuming a few vanities of normals when she wasn't being heroic - itched at her scalp, blue hair bouncing. She had met Seth at the funeral, and they had developed a friendship - with her somehow ignorant of his old life. "PCU. Daaaaamn. No one gets in there except superbrains. Kinda'd tick me off, being a normal competing against them." She paused for a moment. "You know, if I was human and all."
Seth laughed, pulling his letter jacket tighter around himself in the wintry chill. "I just.. wanna get away from here. Bad memories and all that, and I figure, I learn enough out there, I can do something helpful."
"What, like a hero? You know I can set you up with cybernetics.."
"No." Seth's voice was firm. "Mundane stuff. Normal tech. That sort of thing."
You should do her. Seth ignored the voice in his ear - Shodan gained more sarcasm and slang over the past five months. Angie had made a pass at him once, and Seth had turned her down. Angie had also broached the subject of giving him powers via cybernetics before - about 10 seconds before making another pass at him. Shodan was not amused by his denials, but Seth didn't want any of that - the past was past.
"They say there's two ways you get after a year in Paragon - jaded, or psychotic."
"I'll take jaded for two hundred, Alex." He grinned, stomping his feet to shake off the cold. "What are we seeing tonight?"
"Bringing Down The House."
"Dear God. Please tell me you brought chaperones." Seth had a rule: No more romantic comedies without outside companionship.
A dramatic, put-upon sigh, blue hair tossed in the wind. "Yes, it's a group outing. The girls are meeting us there."
Another block in silence. "I'm not doing it to get away from you."
"Yes, you are. Me, and the graves, and the girls, and your other fellas." She smiled sadly. "It's okay. I'll visit an' stuff, and maybe even bring the girls. We can go drinking when you turn 21."
"Sentient entities that cannot get drunk do -not- get to take advantage of me when I'm drunk. That can be rule two."
"It is, in fact, all about the money"
Seth was now three years older, and three years wearier. Statesman's call for anyone capable of being superhuman to rise up and take back the streets of Paragon happened six months ago.
Now, Seth had moved from his dorm out to the suburbs of Paragon, and the outer shell of the Paladin - wait, that name belonged to someone else, now - Seth's powersuit lay peeled aside and scattered around the floor. Seth's spot welder was patching up the inner layer of plating.
What the hell are you doing?
"What's it look like? Make yourself useful and find me schematics for the inner biofeedback buffers. And the kinetic feedback mechanisms for the bio armor gauntlet layer."
What, are you actually getting out there again?
"No, I'm going to sell the suit."
They're going to ask questions.
"They're also not going to know it's your tech, and even if they reverse-engineer the structure, they still won't know how to make it function. I get a good laugh and a ton of cash from selling them a suit that works flawlessly, but that they can't figure out how to power, they get a new type of tech to reverse-engineer. Win win."
...I'm thinking death thoughts toward you.
Here's a better idea. A slot opened under the TV and spewed out a sheet of paper. Half of the reason Seth had moved out here was so he could thoroughly wire Shodan into the house without anyone asking questions.
Seth raised an eyebrow as he read. "A $20k scholarship, plus a $500 a month stipend. Nice." He balled up the sheet and tossed it into a corner. "It would help if I actually wanted to do this job again, though."
You don't have to worry about trivial little things like people dying.
"The hell you talking about?"
They have this Medicom thing, now. I've actually managed to get my hands on some of the schematics, and set up my own little thing, just in case the City's doesn't quite work. They've got a patch that'll stabilize you - like the suit does, remember? - and they teleport you right out. No muss. If we'd had it during the war..
"Are you done talking?" Seth snapped, punctuating it with a snap of electricity through his arc welder.. that wound up fusing the wiring. He swore again.
I'm just saying.
"Fine. Fine. Find a nice little name so I can get back to work. I can use the money, paying out of pocket is a pain in the ass." He frowned at the biofeedback relays on the hands. "I swear to God, I'm never going to be able to get into a scrap again, as delicate as this thing is.."
And I bet that that cute little metahuman that you tutor in Calc, what was her name? Vix...
Seth's jaw dropped. "Is that ALL you think about?!"