The bus hurtled toward him.
Victor ‘Ace’ Jackson wrenched himself out the huge projectile’s path. The bus speared into a five-story apartment building, punching a massive hole through brick and glass.
A ruptured tank hemorrhaged gas and a colossal fuel-fed eruption swallowed the bus, magnifying the size of that hole. An incendiary carpet unfurled upward, racing to the top of the building.
Jackson whirled about to face the one who flung that bus. His Adjusted View Display (AVD) filtered out a swirling haze of previous damage to provide a vividly enhanced image of his nemesis.
Garbed in signature red and gold with a Black letter I displayed on his broad chest, Invinci-Man stood in the middle of a gutted out street. He cut a majestic figure, as if carved out of cobalt. Built like Mr. Olympia, endowed with the strength to move mountains, the ability to soar beyond the heavens, the durability to shrug off any weapon short of a nuke, Invinci-Man once reigned as a shining exemplar of goodness and integrity. Once upon a time, billions called him a hero. That was then. This was now.
Jackson stared at his former friend, briefly torn between reasoning with him and continuing this contest. No. The time for reasoning was long past. Jackson solidified his resolve and prepared to meet whatever his opponent could dish out.
Invinci-Man’s costume appeared fresh and crisp, its wearer assuming an air of casual indifference as if he were strolling through the park on a sunny afternoon. Jackson, by contrast, seemed to have attracted every particle of debris to his Energy Field Supplemented Hyper Fortified All Environment Battle Suit, until its olive green surface was caked in gray ash.
Despite the suit’s climate control, Jackson sweated bullets.
A burst of thermal energy rippled from Invinci-Man’s eyes, striking Jackson in the chest. The Battle Suit’s contact shield deflected 89 percent of the blast as Jackson tumbled backwards. A windstorm of a shock wave roiled equidistantly from point of impact. A gasping Jackson plopped on his back. The center of his suit radiated a crimson patch of deadly intense heat. He felt like his chest had been caved in. A diagnostic readout crawled across the bottom of his AVD. His suit registered a nine percent power drain from that single hit. Jackson neuro-linked a command to his suit’s core computer to compensate its powerplant’s loss…and just in the nick of time. Jackson leapt upright as Invinci-Man came at him. He linked a second command, phasing his shield from contact to absorbent mode and braced himself.
BAP! A combination of super speed and immeasurable strength barreled into Jackson, knocking him through the air at a velocity exceeding the force he received. One building, two buildings…after that he lost count of the buildings he penetrated before crashing on another empty street. A fifty-foot trench ending in a dredged up mound of smoldering black top marked his hard landing.
Muscle stimulating fluids from his suit pumped into Jackson’s body, accelerating his physical recovery. A dopamine compound cleared the fog from his brain.
Invinci-Man swooped from the sky, his fist reared back for a devastating followup.
Jackson raised his arm and his ordnance bracelet roared, releasing a spray of rockets. Each rocket was a tube of graphene, impregnated with a seething core of energy so dense it was as if the mass of Mount Everest were compressed into a space the size of an index finger. Jackson didn’t take the time to aim. He couldn’t. Fifteen out of 30 rockets pummeled Invinci-Man and the very fabric of existence seemed to come apart at the seams from the fury they unleashed.
Jackson witnessed his opponent being swallowed up in a boiling brew of unleashed energy. Invinci-Man flailed to the ground some distance away, landing yards short of an SUV. The close proximity of Invinci-Man’s impact swept the vehicle end over end as if swatted by the careless hand of an impetuous giant.
Jackson’s AVD status indicator elevated off the scale. By engaging Absorbent Mode, his suit had borrowed the kinetic energy of Invinci-Man’s blow, channeled it to its servos and stored it for potential use. This meant that for exactly two minutes and 35 seconds, Jackson would be as strong as the most powerful being on Earth. At least theoretically. Absorbent Mode was a new feature he hadn’t tested. Now was as good a time as any. Jackson catapulted himself half a block, landing in front of Invinci-Man.
The super being looked groggy and was slow to rise.
Jackson delivered a roundhouse kick that sent Invinci-Man cart wheeling through a wrought iron gate fifty feet away. An astonished smile flashed across Jackson’s face. It worked. He reveled briefly in his extra strength, ephemeral though it was. No time to waste. The clock was ticking and when this mighty strength was expended, he wouldn’t be able to engage Absorbent Mode for up to eight hours.
He rammed into Invinci-Man with all the speed his suit could muster, inundating his foe with kicks, chops and punches.
Invinci-Man took the barrage for an initial few seconds, before defending himself. He lifted an elbow, blocking a punch and countering with a fist to Jackson’s faceplate.
Jackson’s head snapped back with bone rattling force. Briefly, he wondered how far it would have flown were it not shielded by field-augmented armor. He reeled on the defensive, straining the agility function of his suit as he tried to elude a flurry of strikes from Invinci-Man. A kick boxing style blow from a super powered foot landed solidly in Jackson’s gut, bending him over, but not knocking him down.
Invinci-Man switched to a short, sharp karate kick, but Jackson caught the other’s leg and shoved, plowing his foe to the ground. He attempted to slide underneath Invinci-Man’s guard, apply an arm lock, and for an instant he achieved a hold.
Invinci-Man shifted. It wasn’t a brute motion. It was more of a soft, subtle, judo-style reflex, containing just enough exertion to free his arm and topple Jackson off balance.
Jackson pushed off the ground with one hand, flipping to his feet.
Invinci-Man stood, still appearing irritatingly unwinded. He regarded Jackson with keen, measuring eyes. “Your suit has always amazed me. I used to wonder what it would be like going up against it with you in it. My natural powers versus your mechanized prowess.”
Invinci-Man’s expression hinted at a smile. He so much resembled a young Sidney Portier, with a deep, resonating Barry White voice. A charismatic combination, one that used to wow the masses, especially the female element.
Jackson snarled a challenge. “Well, I hope I’m satisfying your curiosity. Allow me to satisfy it some more!” He charged. Jackson had one minute remaining of borrowed strength. He was determined to make the most of it. He delivered a forearm to Invinci-Man’s rib, receiving a thunderous uppercut in turn.
Invinci-Man’s close quarter skills were superb. Jackson never understood why for all his prodigious powers, the super being trained so rigorously in martial arts…until the latter clashed with a villain of comparable strength years ago.
A warning alert warbled in Jackson’s ear at the same instant a blip popped up on his AVD’s threat sensor display. An incoming aerial bogie. But it wasn’t a machine.
Jackson dove left, narrowly avoiding a vivid orange beam that burned a bubbling hole into the spot he just vacated. His auto-targeter captured an image of the airborne aggressor: a dark skinned woman, clad in silver breast plate armor, anatomically correct to the smallest detail. A matching kilt of glimmering lamellar flowed to mid thigh. She wore black ankle high sandals, attached to gray, spike studded shin guards. She wielded an intricately designed staff that appeared to be carved from hard wood. The world knew her as Candace, the Nile Goddess.
Jackson fired off an anti-personnel laser from his shoulder emitter.
Candace lifted her star staff faster than an eye blink, using it to catch the beam. The staff grew bright as it absorbed the laser, so bright it appeared a second sun had formed overhead. Instantly, the glare subsided and the staff reverted back to its cool earth tone. Candace dove toward Jackson, her face a mask of ferocity. “Let me have at him!” She shouted to Invinci-Man.
Jackson soaked in her rage, and for a second, vestigial fear gripped him as he pictured how much of an avenging goddess she must have appeared to her ancient subjects. Assuming her claim to godhood was valid.
The Nile Goddess pointed her star staff, summoning a second stream of orange fire.
This time Jackson was not quick enough to elude its bite. The beam caught him in the side, wrapping him in a writhing hot blossom.
Candace reached into the mini-conflagration, grabbed Jackson’s arm and hurled him effortlessly a full four blocks.
Jackson ricocheted off the corner of a building, ripping the roof off a parked station wagon before slamming headfirst into a dumpster. The large metal container crumpled around him in a distorted hug.
A red tint shrouded his AVD. Diagnostic alerts shrilled with urgency until Jackson silenced the clamor. His suit’s power level took a grave dip, forcing him to draw additional juice from his powerplant. At this rate, it wouldn’t be long before he had to tap into his reserves. He managed to pry his way out of the remains of the dumpster just as Candace arrived, looming over him like a hungry raptor, her star staff raised.
She brought her staff down in a swift, gleaming arc. Jackson leapt clear. The staff struck the dumpster, incinerating what was left of it. Jackson slid behind the Goddess, neutralizing her staff arm while clamping a forearm to her throat.
Normally, Candace would have broken such a hold with contemptuous ease. Her strength was second to Invinci-Man’s. While Jackson had 35 seconds left of Invinci-Man’s strength, the physical advantage in this instance was decisively his. It was an advantage he utilized with zest as he increased pressure on the Nile Goddess’ throat…squeezing…squeezing…
Candace strained to break free. She tried to wrench her other arm from Jackson’s grip so as to gain room to direct her staff. Jackson tightened his hold on both her arm and throat. The Goddess’ struggle began to slacken.
Could he do this? He questioned himself. Could he kill her…like this…in cold blood? A former colleague?
A warning alert interrupted his musing. His scanner detected massive air displacement, an indicator of something or someone moving very, very fast. The threat was inbound on his five.
Jackson shoved the Goddess aside and turned in the direction of the source just as a streak of blue grazed him. The contact was peripheral but imbued with enough force to send Jackson spinning to the ground.
Marty Buckles, also known as the Blue Blur, the fastest man in the universe, stopped on a dime. He wore wind resistant head to toe blue spandex with blue-tinted wraparound sunglasses.
He threw a frat boy grin at the Nile Goddess. “Boy, I wish I could have recorded what I just saw. Ace nearly had you down for the count, lady!”
Candace straightened, rubbing her throat, murder burning a ruby light in her eyes. “If you don’t shut your insufferable trap, I’ll put you down!”
The speedster raised a lewd brow. “I think I’d like that.” Then he was off.
“I’ll bet you would,” the Goddess murmured irately.
The Blue Blur bowled into Jackson at a speed that most certainly earned him his sobriquet, and held on tight. “How ‘bout a quick ride, Ace?”
The Blur held Jackson for little over two seconds, which in distance translated to six long blocks. He let go and halted, but Jackson kept going, sailing across a park, through a playground until he collided with a tree, rupturing its trunk to splinters. Jackson lay curled on the grass, emergency bells and whistles again filling his helmet with a low key racket.
The Blue Blur was far from the strongest member of the Guardian Protectors. Still, even a rabbit, moving at supersonic speed, could cause considerable damage if it bumped into something.
Jackson stood shakily, orienting himself. He spotted the Blue Blur standing on the other end of the park wearing a cocky smirk. The next second the speedster was gone…in motion!
Jackson didn’t think. He acted. He powered his foot repulsors. Tiny thrusters in the soles of his metal boots lifted him straight up. At the same time he ejected a dark gray marble size object from his lower torso harness. The object fell in the Blue Blur’s path and detonated. The impending blast threw the speedster back as if he’d bounced off a steel wall. Clods of dirt and grass, mixed with a bubbling froth of black smoke, bloomed from a ten-yard diameter crater gouged by the explosion.
The Blue Blur flopped limply on his back, the wind knocked out of him.
“Surprise, surprise,” Jackson taunted. He switched his thrusts to flight mode and glided out of the park. The mayor had evacuated the entire southern district of Valor City at Jackson’s request. He needed to keep the battle within its bounds.
Something struck his right shoulder as he zipped over a wide avenue. Jackson spiraled out of control before regaining enough of his bearings to manage an off balance landing. He cast his gaze about until his threat sensor locked onto a red Ford Taurus 30 to 40 yards in the direction from which he came.
The car suddenly disassembled. Its parts shifted and shuffled in a dizzying array of motion that resolved into a man. At least from all appearances.
George Kennan, aka MachineWare, always had more of an affinity for gadgets than people. His psychic ability to manipulate machines made him a valuable asset to the Guardian Protectors. But as Kennan, little by little, converted himself into a gadget, that’s when the corruption set in. It could be said that his humanity and all the compassion and empathy it entailed diminished with his imbibing of a new cybernetic component.
Ropes of super hardened overlapping metal coils, connected to metal plates, layered MachineWare’s gaunt frame. Only his face remained bare of any markers denoting his bizarre transformation. He raised his right arm and it reconfigured into gatling gun. The gun’s eight barrels rotated and a flaming chatter of titanium bullets ripped forth.
Jackson staggered backwards as a sleet of hot metal pounded his suit. He pushed outward with his mind, extending the range of his shield to approximately seven feet in front of him. Waves of bullets deflected off the shield.
MachineWare raised his other arm. It lengthened and thickened in a clanking whir of adjustable parts, forming a long-barreled cannon. A black missile whisked out of the cannon’s maw, plunging into the shield. A scorching shower of released energy gushed from the shattered missile, winking the shield out of existence propelling Jackson into a brick walled corner drug store.
MachineWare hurled five more missiles after the first, and the entire storefront, along with a good chunk of the building that housed it disappeared in a fiery, demolition collapse.
An ashen cloud belched from the flame-smothered ruin, encroaching on daylight like a horde of demon wraiths springing from the underworld.
MachineWare’s armaments retracted into his body. He stood before this howling destruction he’d wrought, unaffected by the smoke and heat, unmoved by his action. His expression held a very machine-like dearth of emotion.
“Pity, Victor Jackson. You should never have opposed us.”
“Pity on you, George. You should never have gone rogue.”
MachineWare whirled to find Jackson standing behind him.
Before the cyborg could react, Jackson triggered a beam from his ordnance bracelet.
A crackling web of electromagnetic energy surrounded MachineWare. The cyborg quaked violently, his previously impassive face, twisted in a convulsion of agony. When the web vanished MachineWare crumpled to the pavement in a short-circuited heap.
Jackson pumped enough EM into MachineWare to plunge of all of Valor City into Stone Age darkness. It would require ten times that amount to fully and permanently disable him.
Jackson had neither the time nor the output to finish Kennan off.
A cold wind whipped around him. It was a winter-like gust in the middle of a humid summer day. Dark storm clouds boiled into sudden existence overhead. The odd weather was no natural occurrence. The wind grew more frigid, more active, becoming a raging twister.
Jackson powered his thrusts to get away, but the savage funnel snared him with irresistible force, driving him skyward.
In a wink, the twister vanished and Jackson found himself face to face with the tornado’s conjurer, a flame-haired woman called Windrider.
Valerie Hewitt had been a climatologist in a past life. Ironic.
Windrider crossed her forearms. A tendril of lightning danced from the sky, poured into her body, surging out of her hands in a pulse of linear energy directed at the armored man.
Jackson extended his contact shield, blocking the pulse. He countered with a salvo of rockets.
Windrider waved an arm, scattering the rockets with a high speed blast of wind.
“Give it up, Jackson!” Windrider derided, her crimson mane waving in a self generating breeze like flickering candle light. Her sky blue cloak vividly contrasted the yellow body suit that hugged her comely contours like a perfectly fitted glove. “You can’t beat all of us. Hell, you can’t beat one of us!”
“I’d say I’ve been holding my own pretty well so far,” Jackson retorted.
The air temperature around him dipped drastically, frosting his armor. Within seconds he was encased in a block of ice.
“It’s a cold, cold world, Jackson.”
Windrider watched with psychotic glee as the man in armor plunged ground ward from well over ten thousand feet.
Jackson didn’t doubt that he would survive the fall, even encased in a ton of ice. He just preferred not to experience it.
He ignited his shoulder emitter. The light’s coherence bored through a section of ice, providing a pocket of space for his emitter’s turret to rotate. He also powered every thruster pimple on his armor, creating a sweltering buildup of heat. The ice dissolved to the point where Jackson could apply brute strength to break out. With servo-powered arms and legs, he hammered away at his confinement until he burst free in a sparkling cloud of ice crystals.
Jackson righted himself, and boosted his thrusters beyond their maximum limit, accelerating upward as if he had been launched from a rail gun. He fired over two dozen rockets at Windrider.
The weather-manipulator batted the projectiles aside with directed wind just as she had done the first time. The rockets twirled every which way, but Jackson linked on to one. He displaced the sole rocket’s internal guidance with manual.
Windrider crossed her arms, summoning a second bolt of lightning.
Jackson stayed on his trajectory toward her, making no attempt at evasive maneuvering. He focused on the rocket, bringing it about, lining it up with its target.
Windrider must have sensed something. She glanced behind her just as lightning channeled through her body. She caught the most fleeting glimpse of the rocket and extended a hand toward it, redirecting the electrical energy pulse intended for Jackson.
Pulse and rocket met point blank.
A blinding, deafening eruption birthed from the collision. A flaming fist knocked Windrider out of the sky.
Jackson didn’t know if she was dead or alive. He didn’t try to find out. He ignored her and headed south, deeper into the district, where he needed to be. He checked his power levels and grimaced. 47 percent reading. Not good. His power plant was nearly depleted and his diagnostic screen painted a bleak picture of points of structural damage. Some of his primary functions were so busted he had to switch to auxiliary. He needed to keep this contest going until he was in a position to implement Phase Two.
A warning alert. Danger flew at him fast. Jackson pulled directional data from his AVD and banked to avoid what was coming…too late!
Invinci-Man slammed into him with a bone-crunching wallop, his massively muscled arms wrapping Jackson in a super powered bear hug.
Jackson squirmed to break the grip, but his borrowed strength had run out. He was helpless as a field mouse in the clutches of a hawk.
Gone was the look of casual indulgence on Invinci-Man’s face. A cruel glimmer shined from his eyes.
Jackson felt exposed as a newborn in the light of the other’s utterly ruthless gaze.
“We’re done toying with you.” Invinci-Man went into a sudden dive.
Jackson’s gut lurched.
Within a millisecond of hitting the ground, Invinci-Man released his hold on the armored man with a shove and shot upward.
Jackson torpedoed into the top of a tractor-trailer truck. Both tractor and trailer were sheared in half on impact an instant before the collision’s full force shredded them to scrap, producing a bruising shock wave that blew out every window in every building in the vicinity.
Jackson groaned. Half his body was embedded in concrete beneath the tractor/trailer’s flaming wreckage. His climate control must have been shot, which explained the failure of his armor to provide insulation from the ferocious fire-generated heat. He needed to get up and out before he baked to death inside his armor. He tried to extricate himself, but the entire left side of his suit refused to respond to his neuro-linked nudge.
Jackson looked up to see the Nile Goddess plunging into the fire with star staff raised.
She brought the staff down in a blurring stroke, striking Jackson’s paralyzed left shoulder. A crimson orb issued rapidly from the blow, followed by a powerful blast that tossed up an oil black mushroom cloud.
A hot breeze cleared away the worst of the smoke.
Jackson lay prone at the center of a deep, steaming depression. Parts of his armor hung in scorched, tattered strips, barely connected to its pliable, carbon-nanotube inner layer. In some places the armor became porous, oozing globs of inertial gel.
His AVD flickered in and out. Snowy static clouded the remainder of his displays. Of course he didn’t need diagnostics to tell him that his suit was no longer functional. As for his body, he ached to high hell from that final round of abuse inflicted on him by Invinci-Man and Candace. The slightest motion ignited a firestorm of pain. But he weathered the suffering, rising slowly to his knees. He could rise no more. He pulled a string of release tabs along the upper section of his neck guard and removed his helmet, tossing it aside.
Jackson ran a hand down his face, wiping away perspiration. He lifted his head and saw that he was surrounded.
Invinci-Man, the Nile Goddess, Windrider, the Blue Blur, and Machine-Ware loomed above him from the ridge of the depression. Undoubtedly, they would have slaughtered him on the spot. All it took was one word from Invinci-Man.
Jackson stared at Invinci-Man, partly resigned, partly defiant, and waiting for the latter to give that word.
Instead, the leader of the Guardian Protectors hovered and descended into the pit, his expression softened by sympathy and memories of bygone fraternity.
Jackson remembered as well, and for a moment the two men shared fond memories in silence.
“What happened to you, Jeff?” Jackson asked with a tinge of anguish. “How did you of all people cross that line from a noble caretaker to being no better than the thugs, lowlifes, and murderers we used to battle?”
Invinci-Man tilted his head, his brow narrowing as if mulling over the question. “Call it enlightenment. One day an epiphany hit me. I realized that people don’t need caretakers, they need prison guards. They need control, discipline, structure. And if they go astray they need swift, harsh punishment to correct their errors. Who else can provide these things other than those of us endowed with the capabilities, be it by accident, design or birth, to exert our will over this depraved planet?”
“How has the killing of innocents made this world any better than before you decided to run rough shod over it?”
“I don’t worry about the innocent. What is that saying?” Invinci-Man caressed his broad chin in a show of thought. “Ah, yes…let God sort them out.” He settled on his haunches, looking Jackson square in the eye, scrutinizing, searching. “Your self righteous platitudes choke with hypocrisy. You hadn’t always abided by the law in your crime fighting. For all the wonderful hi-tech toys that sprang out of that genius head of yours, you were still nothing but a vigilante.”
Jackson dropped his eyes. “You’re right. I was a vigilante, albeit a glorified one. I admit to operating outside the law when I had to accomplish an objective. But this…what you and the others are doing…I never embarked down that path.”
“But you considered it! Didn’t you, Victor?!” Invinci-Man leaned in close until his piercing, umber eyed glare became the only object in Jackson’s scaled down universe. “Be honest. You never thought once about using your suit to its fullest potential?”
Fullest potential. The question stung in ways Jackson couldn’t disregard. He kept his eyes averted, unwilling…or unable to meet the other’s gaze.
Invinci-Man stood, choosing not to press for an answer. His tone weighed heavy with regret. “You should have joined us, Victor. I hate that you forced me into this position. I would just love to plop you inside a maximum security lockbox somewhere far from civilization. But then I’d have to spend my every waking hour worrying that you might figure a way to escape. We can’t be distracted by loose ends. Not while we’re in the midst of whipping this world into shape. I can make this quick and painless for you. It’s the least I can do for a friend.”
Jackson eased his way to a standing position. Pain surged like electricity through his body. “Thanks for the offer, Jeff,” he managed through gritted teeth. “But I have a second option.”
Invinci-Man possessed multi-spectrum vision. Had he used the X Ray portion, he would have spotted a thumbnail size wafer lodged beneath Jackson’s temple.
Jackson pressed a finger to his temple, activating an implant. That action sent up a transmission to a satellite orbiting in geo-sync directly above Valor City’s South District.
Invinci-Man’s brow crinkled in suspicion. Suspicion morphed into alarm. He made a move toward Jackson. “What are you…”
A haze of light suddenly filled the depression. Jackson squeezed his eyes shut. Even so, the searing brightness soaked through his eyelids, fully immersing him in a glaring void of white.
Seconds, moments, minutes may have passed. Jackson had no idea. It was like he slipped into a crease in time. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Invinci-Man was gone. Jackson searched the ridge. The others were also gone, seized by the light.
“And this was the least I could do for a friend.” Jackson sank back to his knees as exhaustion took its toll.
Intelligence Chief Yohannes Brady approached the ambulance where a paramedic just completed wrapping Victor Jackson’s ribs in bandages.
Jackson gently prodded the area above his two cracked ribs and winced.
Brady expressed something close to paternal concern. “How are you, Ace?”
Jackson’s lips parted minimally in a tired smile. “I could be better.” He gave a thumbs up. “But I’m alive.”
The intelligence chief looked around, taking in the bleak sight of a neighborhood resembling old footage he’d seen of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II.
The place had truly been a warzone. The difference in this case was that the combatants comprised one human, of extraordinary brilliance with technology to match, pitted against a squad of super-powered psychopaths.
Brady had to shake his head at the wonder of it all. “Your suit held out pretty well. Longer than I expected to be honest.”
“It took some hellified punishment, didn’t it?” Jackson boasted. On a serious note, he added: “I upgraded it. I needed it to last just long enough for me to gather them in one area.”
“And spring your trap,” Brady finished. “What exactly was that light beam from the sky? A weapon? Did it kill them?”
Jackson shook his head. “No, they’re not dead…at least I’m sure they’re not. There exists multiple universes, multiple realities. I discovered a way to open a door to any one of them. The satellite I built created a portal.”
Brady gave a look verging on merriment. “You sent Invinci-Man and his gang to another universe?”
“I’m not exactly comfortable with that outcome,” Jackson qualified soberly. “I would’ve liked to have had time to vet universes before I used the portal. Now, I’m afraid I might have sent them to a populated realm where they’ll be able to duplicate the terror they’ve created here. But I needed to get them out of this universe with all due haste, before they caused further pain and suffering.”
The intelligence chief nodded thoughtfully. “Humanity is going to be damn grateful to you for getting rid of them. And don’t worry. Chances are you sent those bastards to a place without people. They could be stranded on a dead world.”
Jackson considered the possibility. “Could be.”
At that moment, a sleek black SUV limo pulled up beside the ambulance. The driver, a long-legged, cocoa skinned beauty (whom Brady suspected might have served Jackson in other ways) emerged from the vehicle.
“Mr. Jackson, thank God you’re all right,” said the driver reaching for her employer’s arm.
“Hello, Chastity…no, please, I don’t need help. Thank you.”
Chastity held back her assistance, but remained vigilantly close as Jackson moved gingerly toward the limo.
“And where are you off to?” Brady asked.
“Home,” replied Jackson. “I’m going to hit the sack and sleep for a week…maybe two.”
“Oh.” Brady looked troubled and hesitant, but only for a second. He tried to mask his unease with affability. “Hey, uh, why don’t you hang out with me for a little while. We can run to the local office, you provide a debrief, and afterward I’ll treat you to your favorite restaurant.”
Nothing in the intelligence chief’s manner escaped Jackson’s keen notice. Which is why he enjoyed seeing the other trying to suppress a squirm as he refused the invitation. “Appreciate the invite, but I’ll debrief later. And my favorite restaurant is not in this city. It’s not in this country for that matter.”
Chastity opened the limo door.
“Victor,” Brady called out. “How does it feel being the only Guardian Protector?”
Jackson’s expression dimmed with melancholy. “I’m no longer a Guardian Protector. They don’t exist anymore.”
He stepped into the limo and the driver closed the door.
An hour later, Jackson entered his ops center located in the basement level of his mansion. Chastity Hunter, his driver and assistant, frowned her disapproval, insisting her employer get some much needed rest.
Jackson kindly declined her advice. Rest could wait for a few minutes. There was something he needed to check on. The side walls of his ops room were lined with book shelves that were neatly stocked with thousands of volumes. The facing wall was a gigantic terminal screen that doubled as a CCTV monitor. A brown leather bound swivel chair and a large maroon desk with a computer and keyboard sat in the center.
Jackson noticed the swivel chair was turned a hairbreadth of a degree to the left, evidence of an intrusion. His suspicion was confirmed.
There were other ways he could tell that he’d been breached. One of them he picked up from MachineWare who long ago constructed micro-size video pickups the size of dust particles. Jackson had deposited a small handful of the micro-cams throughout the ops room, on the floor, the book shelves, the desk.
He pressed a key on the keyboard, bringing the wall screen to life. Then he inputted a code that pulled recorded visual data from the micro-cams and transferred it to the screen. A view of the ops room from the perspective of the west facing book shelf came up.
Three figures in black skulked into the picture. One took a seat at the desk. The other two did a circuit around the room before taking guard positions on opposite sides of the door. Dressed in head to toe black combat gear and armed with short barreled assault weapons, Jackson had no doubt the intruders were Intelligence Branch Para-Military ops soldiers.
He fast-forwarded the scene. The soldier at his desk was typing on the keyboard. Jackson knew what the soldier was after. He was trying to crack Jackson’s network, gain access to his files in order to steal his technology. It was the schematics to the armored suit that they wanted in particular. That was the prize.
Instead of feeling alarmed or violated, a certain amusement fell over Jackson. Brady’s people thought they had executed a clean in and out operation, undetected. Of course, they did manage to bypass his security to get this deep into the mansion. Jackson would give them that. The Intelligence Branch didn’t recruit slouches. Good as the organization was, however, it wasn’t that good. The intruders still failed to hack into his files.
Jackson tapped another key, bringing up a schematic of his suit.
His network remained the most secure on the planet. If the full resources of the federal government couldn’t break it, no one could.
He smiled. He actually liked Brady and had worked with the intelligence chief in the past. Strip away layers of subterfuge and a good person lay at the core of that which was Brady. Nevertheless, Jackson trusted the man about as far as he could toss the moon.
Jackson plopped in his chair, fixated on the schematic. His thoughts raced back to the question Invinci-Man asked him…the question he didn’t want to answer. But Jackson knew the answer. The temptation to abuse the power of his suit dogged him like a bad habit since he built the thing. The urge still beckoned, a devil’s enticing whisper appealing to the very worst aspect of himself, an aspect he could ill afford to let loose upon the world. He couldn’t…would not follow the others down that dark path.
Oh well. There was only one way to overcome temptation: get rid of the source.
He could have turned over the suit’s schematics to the government. No good. The military would have replicated it. One super advanced armored suit had been enough. A mass produced army of suit wearing killers amounted to an affliction the world could damn well do without.
His finger hovered over the delete button. He faltered for a few seconds, before tapping the key. The schematic vanished from his screen. Years of research, development, creation… purged… gone.
Jackson’s shoulders slumped. He was an ordinary citizen again. The world would have to tackle its own problems. Humanity didn’t need superheroes. It didn’t need caretakers.
He stared at a blank screen, staving off feelings of loss and emptiness. He would get over it in time.
He stood and walked out of the ops room. He never looked back.
The Fall of the Caretakers © Ronald Jones 2011-2013, All Rights Reserved