Posted by: lordkyler | November 5, 2016

Torchbearers – Short Story

“Flying is never as easy as it looks in the news, kid. You gotta contend with wind and bugs and all kinds of regulatory nonsense, and it doesn’t come naturally, at least not until you’ve got a few hundred hours of practice in. So stick to jumps at first, alright?”

The old man is practically dragging me down the corridor, making my sneakers squeal against the linoleum with each stumbling step. I tried to note the turns we took and keep track of all the advice he was rattling off, but it was hard to keep everything straight in my head. Had it been the second left or the third? What had he said about using slipstreams? Could I really be talking to Cyclone?

“The other thing you have to watch out for is the media. No, really. You’re gonna be a public figure, right, and the media these days are just itchin’ for a chance to blow something up. You’ll learn about fighting villains and disasters and stuff – we have protocols and years of intel – but if you slip up in front of the cameras, you lose public support and things start to go sour real fast. You remember what happened to Zenith.”

“I- Zenith?”

“Oh, you’d probably know him as Apogee. Sometimes you can pull off a comeback, but you’re better off just being careful in the first- over here, kid! Keep your head down.”

He jerked me to one side, down a corridor that ended in a large window. He didn’t seem interested in the doors on either side. I suddenly developed a bad feeling about the window. Outside, the world was gray and cloudy, treetops straining against a blustery wind. Cyclone twirled a finger, and the dull howling of the wind became a roar. The glass quivered in its frame, and then erupted, filling the air with transparent knives.

I shrieked, trying to throw myself behind my quote-unquote abductor, but Cyclone reversed the direction of the wind with a flick of his wrist, throwing the shards to the impending storm.

“You’ll get the hang of  this soon enough,” Cyclone promised, continuing to drag me toward the end of the hall. His words should have been drowned by the wind, but the air around us was still, tame enough that it didn’t even ruffle my hair, despite the fact that leaves were being plucked from their branches by the handful. I could still hear the wind, but it was in the background, about as loud as the wild thumping of my heart.

As we reached the opening of the former window, I realized I could hear another sound growing closer – the rhythmic thud of helicopters. Lots of them.

Cyclone cocked an eyebrow, bemused. “Faster than I thought,” he said mildly. “That bastard Cherubim must have tipped them off. You’ll want to stay clear of him, by the by. Although you do have to question the decision of sending the Air Force to catch an aerokinetic, eh?”

“The Air Force?” I whispered. This day had started badly and gotten worse every time I thought we had reached a new low. The only redeeming aspect – the thrill of potential super-powers – was becoming less appealing with every passing minute. “Mr., uh… Cyclone, sir. I don’t-”

I trailed off, expecting to be talked over or dragged outside, but to my surprise, Cyclone stopped what he was doing and turned his full attention to me, as though my thoughts were of the highest priority. I almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation. This morning I’d been sitting alone on the bus, feeling invisible, and now a world-famous hero was waiting on my words during the middle of a crisis.

It was too much. Rational thought abandoned me. It was about as much as I could do to keep breathing without hyperventilating.

Cyclone knelt in front of me, taking my shaking hands in his. Even on his knees, he was tall enough that our eyes met at the same level. “I know this is all overwhelming, Isabelle.  I’m throwing you straight into the deep end, and that deep end is full of sharks and toxic waste, but you aren’t going in alone. You’ll have my powers, my resources, and my allies to keep you afloat. Just trust me for the next little while, and I promise everything will be–”

A flash of incandescent light streaked through the window, leaving me half-blind and totally deaf. I was thrown backward by some force, and suddenly the wind was tearing at my hair and clothes, unhindered by Cyclone’s calming influence.

Lightning, said some detached part of my brain, but I didn’t see how that was possible. It was stormy enough, to be sure, but the bolt had struck sideways, ignoring the plethora of trees, spires and flagpoles that dotted the campus. Something directed?

As if summoned by my thoughts, a figure appeared at the open window frame, hovering weightlessly in the air. Between the darkness of the storm and my dazzled eyes, it took me a moment to realize who it was. Dynamic.

She wore a suit of armor, styled to look like some sort of futuristic samurai, complete with gadget-enhanced katanas at her side. The battle-worn armor plates were the same gun-metal gray as the clouds overhead, but neon blue lights glowed at the seams, giving her an almost ethereal look. A black cape flapped behind her like a banner, only adding to the ghostly effect, and her ebony hair was wild around her visored face.

The spear in her hands still crackled with the aftermath of the shot she’d fired.

Cyclone was slumped against the wall, skin and clothing blackened where he’d been hit.

He wasn’t getting up.

Dynamic descended toward us, spear still held at the ready, point leveled at Cyclone’s heart. She barely spared a glance for me, but I could sense the disdain she must have felt at Cyclone’s choice of successor. She landed a few feet from him, setting down gently, her electrified weapon still crackling, ready for another attack.

She said something I couldn’t understand, Chinese or Japanese or something, but a synthesized voice translated her words, droning on with none of the passion in her voice. “Somehow I always knew it would come to this, despite all your false promises. I know you’re alive. My sensors-“

Cyclone leapt into action as though he hadn’t been injured at all, extending one hand toward Dynamic and the other toward me. Dynamic was thrown back against the wall, her suit’s flight systems straining against the force of the wind, but the air around her head was twisting, and her face was turning blue. She fell to her knees, clutching at an empty throat. I tried to run, but I was surrounded by a bubble of solid air, like glass, and every time I touched it, the pressure pushed me back.

Cyclone stood, hunched over his wound, and I barely recognized him. The dignified, experienced man with the wise eyes and heroic smile had been replaced by someone who looked more animal than human, teeth bared in a snarl, eyes bloodshot and wild. He spat, leaving a red streak across the floor.

“Yeah,” he said, snarling and slurring at the same time. “I’ve kept a few tricks in reserve. The really scary shit, the kind of stuff that doesn’t play well on TV.”

He began limping toward the suffocating Dynamic, whose face was beginning to bloat. I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears, but I could hear perfectly. Cyclone wanted me to hear. “I’ve put up with a lot over the years, played by all the rules, because it was the right thing to do. But when I asked for my one concession, the right to name my own damn successor? Suddenly a lifetime of service goes down the tubes. I’m public enemy number-goddamn-one, even with the likes of Carnivore and Jasmine on the loose. You want to make me into that? Fine.

There was a tearing sound, and Dynamic screamed, her voice torn into ribbons by whatever Cyclone was doing to the air, so that her cries were strangely melodic. That didn’t make them any less awful. I had thought I was overwhelmed before, everything turned upside-down, but now it was all inside-out and backward at the same time. Cyclone was… what was he? What was I?

I was crying, curled into a ball, when I felt two hands placed on top of mine, at either side of my head. They were wrinkled and slick with blood, but they were gentle, which only made them more unsettling.

“Kid, look at me,” Cyclone said. He didn’t sound noble or reassuring or cruel now, just… tired. Weary like a man at the end of a marathon with no finish line and nobody left to cheer him. I opened my eyes a little, trying very hard not to look at the place where Dynamic had been. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

I shook my head no for both questions. Cyclone sighed. “I didn’t– I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But I’m not about to let my legacy be decided by a bunch of government suits with shady agendas. You shouldn’t let me decide yours, either. I’m out of this, kid, passing the torch. Take it and do what you will. If you want to hold it up like the goddamn Statue of Liberty, or use it to burn the place to the ground, that’s your choice. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

I started to say something, but Cyclone closed his eyes and gripped my hands with the desperate strength of a dying man. “As these powers were vested in me, I gift them to you, Isabelle, and name you the next Cyclone.”

For a second I thought Dynamic had returned and shot me with her spear. Power flooded into me, racing up my nerves like fire, coursing through my veins like pure light. My hair stood on end as the sensation of pins-and-needles rolled over my flesh, like a skin of static electricity. Tremors shook my bones until I thought they would snap from the vibration. The power within me spread, jarring, painful, growing, until I thought I would explode.

And then, just as it permeated every atom in my body with unbearable pressure… it stopped. The conflicting forces found harmony, suddenly working in perfect tandem to strengthen and support one another, every aspect in perfect equilibrium, perfect synchronization. It reminded me of the time my uncle had let me rev the engine of his muscle car. I could feel the purr of the engine humming through my body, inconspicuous but undeniable, ready to roar into life at my command. It was intoxicating.

Then something clicked in my head and the entire universe realigned with it.

I could feel the winds as they raced across the campus, like an extension of my own body, touching everything, everywhere, all at once. I could hear every sound for miles – from the thump of the helicopters to the heartbeats of sparrows in their nests. I could sense the sky above me, churning like my own thoughts, an omnipotent presence. It was unimaginable power, all at my fingertips, begging to be released.

“Be careful, kid,” Cyclone – the former Cyclone – croaked. He was short of breath, weakened without his power. “That power – it’s hard to control. Too much, or too little, and you’re screwed. Play it safe.”

I nodded, still in a daze. Grimacing at the motion, the old man pulled a micro-computer from his wrist and handed it to me. It was splattered with blood, but I took it anyway, giving it a quick rub on my jeans to clear the screen. “You can use that to get the answers you need,” he said. “Follow it to my lair – you’ll be safe there for a while. Don’t trust anyone unless they’re marked blue in the system. Now go!”

Tearing my gaze from his weary and battered face, I stepped to the edge of building and shut my eyes for a moment, trying to understand everything that was happening. The wind was swirling wild, barely kept in check, but the helicopters were approaching quickly, stabilized by some sort of technology. Students around the campus were crying and shouting, running for cover from the chaos. On top of all that, some sixth sense told me that more capes were closing in.

Following an faint impression in the air, I caught sight of an feral figure stalking the rooftops. It was hard to make out any details in the shade of the storm, but there was no mistaking that build and posture. As if to confirm my suspicion, the watch on my wrist buzzed, flashing the name Carnivore. It was marked with black and red tags – as if I needed the warning.

The sooner I was out of here, the better. Steeling my nerves, I took a deep breath, reached for my newly-given powers, and leaped.

•••

Carlos eased back, resting against the wall. He’d become so used to augmenting his breath with his powers that he’d forgotten how old he truly was. And yet, for all the power he’d just given away, the burden he’d just shed from his shoulders was enough to balance things out. He could spend his final moments as Carlos, free of duty.

He was worried about the girl, to be sure, but he’d chosen carefully, given her every advantage he could buy, steal or borrow. It would have to be enough. She’d have a tough time of it, but that wasn’t his problem. He was out of the game. Nothing left to do but die.

Some distance away, the wind howled like a banshee, almost drowning out the sound of the exploding helicopter that followed. The young miss Cyclone was learning just fine. Carlos smiled to himself, pulling a small flask from his belt, taking a long pull and closing his eyes.

When he opened them again, he was not alone. Across the hall stood a man in a luminous white robe, untouched by the grime and gore that covered the hallway. His long, curled hair shone like burnished gold, artfully framing a soft, youthful face. Light shimmered and danced around his person, glimmering in the vague shape of encircling wings. He looked furious.

Carlos chuckled, the sound fading into a ragged cough. “Somehow I don’t think you’re here to escort me to the pearly gates.”

Cherubim scowled and flared his wings, clearing the hallway of debris in an instant. “Do you even realize what you’ve done?” he asked, his voice strangely flat.

“Trust me, I know as well as anyone,” Carlos said, taking another swig from the flask. It burned going down, the fire spreading to places it shouldn’t. He didn’t have much time left. “But I figure that’s your problem, not mine.”

Another explosion rocked the building, followed by a frenzied roar. Cherubim turned to study the chaos for a moment, letting out a sharp huff of breath. “This isn’t over, Cyclone. The Alliance is fragile enough – this might be enough to break it.”

“I’m not Cyclone anymore,” Carlos wheezed, feeling the strength fade from him. “But if you’re smart, you’ll help the girl. She’s what we need… for a fresh start.”

Cherubim bit his lip, looking from the old man on the floor to the battle raging outside. With another huff of annoyance, he held out his hand. The lights around him leapt to his fingers, coalescing into a halo of pure energy that shone like the sun. Carlos had seen that power in action before. It was enough to bind Isabelle’s attackers… or to kill an unprepared and inexperienced miss Cyclone. Cherubim had never liked him personally, but surely he respected the power he had passed on. Would he really waste so much power to settle a grudge?

He would never know. He could no longer keep his eyes open, and with a sudden surety, he knew that the next breath would be his last. Sorry, kid. I did what I could.

And then power surged through him, nerves set afire, every cell burning with scalding heat. Wounds pulled together, new skin sizzling where the flesh joined. His heart exploded back to life, veins filled to bursting, and his lungs inflated with all the violence of an air-bag, screaming in his chest.

Being healed hurt more than any injury he’d ever felt.

Distantly, he heard Cherubim speaking, but his racing mind could not stop to comprehend the words until much later. “No, old man, you may have given your powers away, but you’re still Cyclone. No rest for the wicked.”

He smiled, a mirthless mockery of warmth, and Carlos realized it that the angel was not here to see him to heaven after all. He was headed for a long stay in purgatory.

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