Starfall CH08 – Gut Punched

[2930 words]The chimney missed them by bits with the larger portion of its body crashing into no mans’ land but the top of the thing slammed into the street right beside them catching wires and pulling down poles as it went. It set a cloud of dust and concrete that scattered them. On the opposite side the skeleton of the building was caving into the ground where a large lightning scar separated the street giving the foundations an unstable feeling. Iron rods from the fifth floor came tumbling down giving a ringing sound. One of them went right through a Prowler grounding him permanently where the rest of his squad tried to escape. With dust in his eyes Joaquin was flying blind. He sprinted toward where he thought the van was but it all felt the same, disorientation and darkness doing their job.

“Over here! Joaquin, this way!” Following Kid’s voice Joaquin maneuvered through the settling dust. He could hear the screech the tilting building gave threatening to collapse any second now. He was finally out of the dust cloud when he heard her voice.

“I don’t get what’s so special about you but Globe seems utterly fascinated. Still I don’t think he’ll mind if you are somewhat… damaged.”

Joaquin spun around meeting the butt of a gun to his face. He stumbled backwards.

“When I reached out to Globe and told him who I was and who I worked with he lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Cosma fired the stasis rifle, once, twice, thrice. The rounds caught him square in the chest, not harming but slowing down his reflexes.

“Why didn’t you turn us in sooner?”

She rolled her eyes.

“What makes you think I didn’t?”

Joaquin didn’t know at what value to take her words.

“He’s bullshiting you and you know it. Look what he’s done to people like us!”

Cosma cocked her head. “Saving them? He’s doing just that.”

“He’s hunting us like pray, experimenting on us. C’mon! You spent three months fightin’ against him.”

She just shook her head. “I’ve already been saved, given a purpose beyond this pity little game you called vigilantism. I can be a Goddess. And you can be just some test dummy labeled in a jar. I’m just sad dear old Betty isn’t here to see me wipe that smug look off your face.”

Cosma waved her hand manifesting the vacuum prison. Joaquin wiggled as it started crawling around his body, the cool black substance like jelly putting impossible weight on his limbs. The crushing strength of space encompassed him.

“Step away from him, bitch.”

Joaquin watched a bullet erupt through Cosma’s middle. She stumbled, the vacuum bubble bursting to nothingness. Her fingers clutched at her stomach, blood spilling between her fingers. Some words bubbled on her lips, incomprehensible now. She hit the ground, body curling. Then she lay still. Joaquin’s searching eyes found the shooter and he lighted up when he saw Betty trembling with her gun still raised. She helped him up.

“Looks like you guys have it all under control.” She raised an eyebrow, eyeing the destruction that surrounded them.

“Where the hell were you?”

“To see a man about a horse.”

Joaquin blinked confused.

“You aight?”

Betty offered a smile. “Considering the fact I just shot someone I shared breakfast with yesterday, I think I’m doing fine. Let’s just get out of here.”

They stepped carefully over Nightprowler bodies, victims of chunks of concrete, skulls and spines cracked. Joaquin spotted one soldier struggling to pull himself from under the chimney shells. He propped the gun against his head watching the eyes behind the lifted visor flicker in anticipation. Joaquin licked his dry lips. He removed the gun and moved away from the Prowler. Betty was watching him. Was that pride in her eyes? Joaquin smirked puffing his chest out. A rumbling sound directed them to a vibrating pile of debris. It cracked open revealing Quake and Kid underneath it.

“You boys aight?”

“That was freaking insane! It was dope!” Joaquin helped Kid out of their makeshift bunker.

“That was hella dangerous. I didn’t know I could do that,” Quake brushed dust out of his eyes. “Where’s Nightwave?”

They found Xavier easy enough – he was a shadow pulsating on the ground near the van, unharmed in the seismic session. It was impossible to stare at the intensity of the dark, the abyss it mimicked as too much on the eye.

“Nightwave…” Joaquin knelt down and reached for his shoulder feeling the shadows slither away under the touch, revealing a knocked out but unharmed man. He mumbled something coming back to consciousness. He let Quake pick him up and they went for the van and Miles.

* * *

Betty’s body still buzzed with adrenaline. From afar the scene had looked like a war zone, dust and sirens and screams and the occasional blue blast. She rubbed her hand on her tired neck watching the men extract Miles Jensen from the back of the van. She had to remind herself he was not the killer the world had come to believe in – that was a falsification done by Globe. He was just a guy fallen into the hands of Globe and his lackeys, used and abused. And he was their friend… Betty’s mind reverted to Cosma, the way her eyes had gone all glassy when she fell to the ground clutching her wound. Betty tried to swallow the lump in her throat but it wouldn’t go down. Joaquin had sent Kid to confirm Cosma was dead.

“Patterson! You there?” Joaquin beckoned her to follow their limping frames to safety. Just as she was about to follow them a pair of strong arms grabbed her around waist and lifted her in the air. Her back hit the ground, her breath escaping her mouth.

A bleeding Nightprowler covered in the dust’s camouflage straddled her putting his full weight on her tiny frame. Armed with only his hands, he dealt fists to her face. The first punch nearly made her pass out, the second jumping her senses on red alert. She managed to flip them both over, knee pressed in his abdomen. His elbow struck her chin but Betty didn’t waver. Where his attempts were sloppy, Betty’s were adrenaline fueled. She pumped her fists at his face aiming for his nose, turning it into a bloody mess. His hands on her elbows loosened and went lax. Betty switched her hand delivering more into the pooling blood. Only then did she realize someone was calling her, someone was trying to pry her away from the limp body.

“Betty! Betty! Snap out of it!”

She stopped protesting and went still in Joaquin’s embrace staring down at the Prowler.

“The hell was that?”

He looked at her in disbelief, her bleeding face covered in sweat.

“I’m fine, I just…” She was lost for words.

Quake supporting Jensen’s body was staring at her and so was Nightwave, dazed as he was sitting in the back of the van, feet dangling. Kid came running back. He slowed down sensing there was tension and his eyes found the body of the Prowler. He stilled a bit missing his words.

“Uh, she’s uh gone. What happened here?”

Joaquin left Betty’s empty stare.

“Let’s go.”

* * *

“They took my power. I have no idea how, I just know that I woke up and it was gone. Not one iota of ice remaining in me.”

A bottle of water from their stack in this hideout was thrust into Miles Jensen’s trembling hands. He dabbed at his bruised eyebrow with a piece of cloth cleaning the dried blood. His back eased into the seat of the busted up school bus in the off city junkyard, the furthest place from the collision zone they could think of. Nightwave was sleeping it off in the back where Betty sat, further away as possible from Joaquin, her gaze locked nowhere in particular to the world outside the window. The bruises had begun to show, pink rings spilling purple ink around her cheek and chin.

“Just to be clear, back then, those kids wasn’t me.”

“We know,” Joaquin mumbled, standing between two seats, hands digging into the dust soaked striped fabric. His mind was miles away, head swimming. Underwater. Drowning. Idiot. He had jumbled up the mission. Misjudging Cosma had nearly caused the capture and possible deaths of his other team members. Doubt creeped up on him and he eyed the rest, all tired, beaten, shaken. Could he trust them? Was Cosma the only rat? But seeing them like that how could he doubt them really, they’d nearly died trying to save their lost friend, trying to protect Joaquin. They weren’t his enemies. Globe was. Cosma was.

He let out a deep sigh and slumped down on the driver’s seat with the missing steering wheel and studied Miles Jensen. Seeing him in person and not through low quality videos on Andy’s computer gave him a different view of the man. He was a short guy and the containment had shrunk him further. The grey in his hair was turning to white on the sides making him look older than his 37 years of age. There were shadows around his grey-blue eyes which bore a dull glimmer. Joaquin had a hard time imagining this shell of a man founding a supers club, leading the others, provoking them to be better and try their powers, embrace them. But aside from his shattered features there was an aura of calmness around him, the way he spoke, measured words, a rich baritone voice delivering them. Joaquin could see he had won them over with his charisma and positivism. The latter was gone now, the image of a world accepting the supreme difference in them faded the moment he was captured and accused wrongly. Joaquin recognized the passion that had driven him to be a hero and not just an everyday Joe.

He had hoped Miles would contribute to the team but with his power gone and his mind somewhat absent it meant little useful information too. A pang of anger swiped over Joaquin’s features pinching them. It almost felt like they had risked their lives for nothing. Sure, Miles escaped death but came back to a dystopian future ruled by a madman. And he was a fugitive because no one in the world believed him to be innocent. No one aside from the people in the bus.

“Can you tell us about the place where they kept you before your power was taken?” Quake asked taking the role from Joaquin.

Miles puffed out a sigh. “I don’t know honestly. I guess it was some kind of facility. White, sterile. Very quiet. There were other people there I think. It’s all a blur, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay Miles,” Kid squeezed his shoulder reassuringly.

“In the prison did anyone come to visit you?” Quake continued.

Miles slowly nodded.

“Some guy came two days ago to give me a suit. He was all polite manners and short smiles like he was apologizing from having me in that predicament of mine, locked up, prepped for death. Said his boss wanted the…my execution to be a special moment and I had to look good for the cameras as they were bringing me in.”

“Globe,” Joaquin groaned. They all lapsed into silence.

“I can’t believe you guys became vigilantes. It’s…incredible. We joked about this in the meetings but I never imagined you would go through with it. I mean, I know you since high school, old boy, you never lifted a finger against anyone. And you are the sweetest, shiest kid I know. From that sleeping ass over there I could probably expect it but you two…”

Quake shook his head. “Things changed out here very fast man. We had no choice.”

“It was this or…whatever happened to you.” Kid played with the strap of his backpack.

Miles nodded, a fleeting smile crossing his thin lips. His watery grey eyes focused on Joaquin.

“Thank you for keeping them safe, Joaquin. I can see they respect you a great deal and you gave them something I never could. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”

Miles reached out his calloused hand and Joaquin shook it with little hesitation, not wanting to bring the subject of Cosma back up. A part of him wanted to ask more questions, to probe. He couldn’t leave without needed answers and after the failure tonight… he needed a progress.

“Listen man, I know you is tired and all but can you try, please. Something, anything you remember would be useful.”

“Leave him be, Joaquin-” Kid tried to plea but Jensen waved him down.

“It’s alright. I owe you that much after rescuing my ass tonight. Uhm, let’s see. In the lab I think I stayed for a few days, at least counting the times they changed my IV system. They didn’t talk to me and I didn’t really see their faces, them being with masks on. Whatever they drugged me with knocked me out pretty darn fast.” Miles’s forehead wrinkled. “There was a name I kept hearing though. They spoke of someone…Kristian or Craig-”

“Kristof?” Joaquin’s mouth went dry.

“Yeah, that was it. I guess he’s someone like us, someone trapped there? They made him sound important.”

“Not in the slightest like us, bruh. Anything else you can think of bout’ the lab?”

Miles shook his head but then his eyes lit up. “Well, at the start, I remember being wheeled into a glass elevator. I was going out of my apartment and then all of a sudden I was lying on my back, my arms and legs strapped. I thought I’d been in a car accident or something. Anyways, I guess the sedation hadn’t kicked in fully then. We um, we went up with the elevator. The sun was in my eyes the whole ride. The lab, I guess was on the top floor of whatever building I was in. That’s all I saw before waking in the prison.”

Joaquin shrugged. “I don’t know what that means.” He suddenly turned toward Betty, eyes wide.

“What did the man say ‘bout the horse? Could he or his friend know anything bout’ this elevator shit?”

Betty had been listening to their conversation, he knew that. But now she faced him, offering a weak smile that he’d gotten the hint she dropped earlier.

“I bet he does. He’s waiting for me to call him but maybe you’d do the honors.”

Betty fished in her pocket for the burner phone, offering it to Joaquin.

* * *

On the other side of town…

Massey’s footsteps were light on the carpeted floor. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to wake up understanding the world and his place in it. He wanted to remember that feeling of carelessness that came with the evenings coming home, seeing Denisha, his little girl. Always his littler girl no matter that she was a grown woman now. He wanted to feel vigor in his throbbing limbs, reminiscent with the ache of the combat.

His feet stopped in front of the slightly ajar door with the light seeping out, toying with the burner phone, Joaquin’s request still ringing in his ears. He couldn’t help but wonder what sort of man he would meet tonight. Certainly not the cocky hothead thug, too stubborn to bend a knee here and there for the greater good? Massey heard the water in the bathroom stop and hesitated there but then he pushed the door full open, revealing the plain set of the small motel bedroom, a bed, a desk, a lamp and rested his shoulder against the oak colored frame. Anne exited the bathroom, pulling on a fresh shirt over her wet body. Massey averted his eyes from her voluptuous shape waiting until her figure was covered.

“Do you have something to say or are you just going to stand there and pretend not to stare?”

She had picked up her ruined jacket from the pile of clothes tossed by the foot of the bed, inspecting the received knife slash, tutting at the tear it had created in the material. She popped a finger through it tugging until it came loose.

“Joaquin called. He wants to meet up in an hour.”

The ceiling fan behind him rotated lazily, plastic fins slicing sluggishly through the stale air, the stench of gunpowder, blood and death soaked into the beige walls. The noise, that swish-swoosh above him nestled in Massey’s ears drowning the other noises, the car alarms and tire screeches. Her response came slowly but surely.

Anne threw her jacket back on, pushing aside the wet strands of hair to shrug it in place. Auburn strands turned crimson by the water, by the lighting, Massey noticed. She picked the handgun from the bed and tucked it in its holster on her belt. Her fingers brushed against Massey’s arm on her walk out of the room. Her eyes had a returned sparkle to them that Massey appreciated.

“I’m dying to hear what the little sucker has to say. Shall we go?”

The front door swung open and Andy stepped through the threshold carrying two plastic bags containing Chinese takeout.

“We going somewhere?”

Massey reached for his own gun loathing it after the evening conundrum but needing it nonetheless.

“Joaquin wants to talk.”

Andy’s raised brows signified something Massey didn’t want part it. It was equal parts delight and disgust. The younger man dropped the bags on the table in the small adjusted kitchenette.

“I guess we’re not eating then.”

Next: Children of the Moon

About Mark Gardner

Mark Gardner lives in northern Arizona with his wife, three children and a pair of spoiled dogs. Mark holds a degrees in Computer Systems and Applications and Applied Human Behavior. View all posts by Mark Gardner

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