… EPISODE FIFTEEN…
Dante crashes shoulder first into Jeremy, who shoves him into Nitro, who falls to the ground from the force of the impact.
“Hey!” Nitro kicks out at Jeremy’s ankle, tripping him.
Dante lunges at Draven.
In a matter of moments the four guys are beating the crap out of each other. Fists are flying, knees and elbows are being driven into guts and jaws, and curses permeate the air. At least they seem to be relying on their muscle, not their powers. Jeremy’s technopathy wouldn’t stand a chance.
For long seconds, Rebel and I just stare in shock. I’d figured it would be the three villains against Jeremy.
But it’s not that way at all. Jeremy and Nitro are going at it, and Draven and Dante are hitting each other at least as hard. Maybe harder. And every once in a while, they switch, so that at any given moment any one of them is beating on any one of the other three.
Like a musical-chairs version of a parking-lot brawl. It’s every super for himself.
“We should stop them,” I say.
Rebel throws out her arm to keep me from interfering. “No, let them fight.” She throws me a weary look. “They need to work off some anger.”
“But if it looks like they’re going to kill each other…”
“Oh yeah,” she agrees. “Then we’ll definitely step in.”
Almost on cue, Jeremy lets out a particularly plaintive screech.
“And that would be now,” Rebel says. Hands outstretched, she heads for Dante and Nitro.
A half second later, both guys are suspended several feet off the ground. The fact that they’re floating doesn’t cool their fight; it just forces them to change tactics.
Nitro fires up a glowing, pink energy ball while Dante sends a gust of gale-force wind at his face.
Rethinking her strategy, Rebel releases Dante and grabs his shirt—or what’s left of it.
“Dante, babe. Come on. Stop. Please.”
He shrugs her off, pretty gently considering he’s got Nitro wrapped in a small F5 tornado.
I don’t have a power that will help me break up the fight, so I wing it and hope I don’t die.
Between Jeremy and Draven, my ex is more likely to listen to reason. But since Draven is kneeling on top of him, plowing his fist into Jeremy’s face, I don’t think Jeremy is in any position to help me out here.
A series of high-pitched beeps sound from the vicinity of the van.
With a muttered curse of my own, I wade into the tangle of bodies and grab Draven’s arm before he pounds Jeremy again.
“Stop!” I tell him as authoritatively as I can muster. “Stop before you kill each other.”
I half expect him to shove me out of the way, but he pauses. He looks wild, his eyes a bright blue that glows under the parking-lot lights. Blood trickles from the corner of his mouth, and I can see a bruise forming on his right cheekbone. Looks like Jeremy got in a couple of good hits.
The series of beeps sounds again in a familiar pattern. “Stop,” I tell him again, more softly this time. “Please.”
He shakes his head, like he’s trying to clear it. Jeremy, of course, takes the opportunity to punch Draven in the stomach.
Draven’s breath whooshes out of him.
“Hey!” I yell at Jeremy as he shoves Draven off him and climbs to his feet.
I expect him to kick or hit Draven again. Instead, Jeremy staggers toward the van, weaving drunkenly from all the punches he’s taken.
When the beeps start again, Jeremy reaches for something and the sound cuts out mid-pattern.
Without the energy of another battle going on beside them, the fight goes out of Nitro and Dante. Nitro shoots his latest fireball—a crazy swirl of green and blue— off into the trees. Dante lets his tornado twist away into nothingness. Rebel lowers Nitro back down to the pavement, and the two villains stare each other down, breathing heavily.
Rebel throws her hands up in the air, as if to say, Finally.
“Where are you going?” I demand when I notice Jeremy climbing into the van. Seriously? I just saved his butt, and he’s going to bail?
He waves me away, but Rebel isn’t letting him off that easy. “I know this whole thing was crazy, Jer, but we can’t—”
“Shut up!” he snaps.
Draven’s eyes narrow and he starts for the van. I have visions of another fight breaking out and move to throw myself between him and Jeremy, but I don’t have to. Jeremy presses a finger to his lips. He’s holding a device in his other hand that looks like a walkie-talkie, and voices are coming from it. Familiar voices. Familiar hero voices.
“Listen,” Jeremy whispers harshly. “Someone’s in Mr. Malone’s office.”
The bug. Oh, God. The bug Rebel and I planted is actually working. I’ve been so caught up in our failure that I completely forgot about our success. I don’t know whether to be excited or terrified.
Rebel and I crowd around to listen, and seconds later the villains join us. The walkie-talkie has gone silent except for the clicking of keyboard keys. We hold our breath waiting to hear if there’s going to be any more talking.
Jeremy opens the passenger door, pulls out his laptop, and sets it on the front seat. I wish I could say it’s the first time I’ve lost shotgun to one of his computers. A few keystrokes later, he opens a remote desktop mirror and his screen shows everything that is happening on Mr. Malone’s monitor. All of us watch in shock as Rebel’s dad types a memo to the officers of the Collective.
To: Superhero Collective
From: Rex Malone
Subject: ESH Lab Closure
Recent occurrences have brought to light villain knowledge of the ESH Lab at location Bravo Charlie. Therefore, it is my recommendation that we close the Boulder facility immediately and indefinitely.l
This is not a decision I make lightly, as doing so will inconvenience many of our staff members, as well as disrupt numerous top-priority experiments and projects. However, we have had multiple security breaches during these last few days, and for the sake of our research, as well as the future security of the League, it is necessary.
As of 8 p.m. on June twenty-fourth, the doors of this lab will be shut. All research and activities will be relocated to Lima Whiskey. Every effort will be made to do this with as little disruption to our scientists and their work as possible. We will use all safety precautions to ensure that the secrecy of the new facility remains unaffected by this move.
Thank you for your understanding in this matter. I will make every effort to keep you updated on our plans and progress once the move is complete. Rex Malone
cc: file, TR, SecLev5
The typing stops and we all watch as Mr. Malone saves the memo and emails it to the ten Collective officers who serve with him. He blind-copies two other addresses that aren’t on League domains. Seconds later, he logs out, and the League logo screen saver bounces around on Jeremy’s laptop like a shield-shaped ping-pong ball.
“Is it done?” a harsh voice from the speaker asks.
“Yes,” Mr. Malone answers. “It’s just a precaution, but I think it’s wise. It never pays to be careless with villains.”
“I agree. Some of our research is…quite delicate in nature. We would hate for it to fall into the wrong hands.”
There are a few unidentifiable sounds, followed by the clatter of ice cubes and the slosh of pouring liquid. A lid is screwed back on. Mr. Malone swallows deeply.
There are a couple of clicks. A door opens and shuts. And then there’s nothing. Just silence as the six of us continue to stare at the computer, the knock-down, drag-out fight forgotten in the wake of these much larger, more worrisome problems.
Jeremy sets down the walkie-talkie and begins typing furiously.
“June twenty-fourth,” Rebel hisses after a minute. “That’s—”
“Three days away,” Dante finishes for her.
“Three days and Deacon will be gone,” Draven says.
Deacon and my mother. Gone. The entire lab moved to a top secret hero facility.
The people—the villains—housed at ESH simply disappearing without a trace.
And that’s assuming my mom is being held at the lab. Really, she could be anywhere. Literally anywhere. At least we know where Deacon is—for now. He’s still within our reach, and he can’t hold on for long. As much as it hurts to say, he has to be our first priority. Mom would agree.
Hopefully we’ll find some clue about her whereabouts along the way.
Two days ago, my biggest concern would have been Mom losing her research.
Today…my perspective has changed. A lot.
This can’t happen. It just can’t.
“Don’t suppose either of you birds know where this new top secret facility is?” Nitro asks.
Rebel’s eyes meet mine, and one look tells me she’s as lost as I feel. Neither of us had any idea such a facility existed. The ESH lab was kept a secret so our research wouldn’t fall into villain hands, but it was never a secret from other heroes. Up until a couple of days ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue why they’d need such a place—or what might go on there. Now, I’m terrified that I know exactly what’s going on there.
“We have to get Deacon before ESH shuts down,” I say, frantic now that the truth is sinking in. “We have to get him and then find my mom. We have to—”
“We have three days.” Draven brushes his hand over my lower back. It’s a fleeting touch, nothing serious really, considering how close we’re all standing to see the computer screen, but it comforts me anyway. It helps me draw my first breath in what feels like forever. And the next one. And the one after that. I’m not alone in this. I’m not the only one hurting. And I’m not the only one desperate to get my loved one back.
Unlike the villains, I can hold out hope that my mom is just being questioned, just being…kept. I can believe that she’s not being tortured, or worse. Draven and Dante don’t have that luxury.
“I doubt we have that much time,” Jeremy says, not taking his eyes off his screen as lines of undecipherable computer code scroll by. “Mr. Malone wants the whole lab shut down in three days. Which means that whatever plans they have for Deacon—” The words hang there as he pauses and clears his throat. I’m imagining the worst now, and I can tell by the way the others tense that they are too. “Whatever they’re going to do to Deacon, they won’t want to wait until the last day.”
“So what does that mean?” Dante demands. “We have less time?”
“If we’re lucky,” is Jeremy’s grim answer.
If we’re not already too late. He doesn’t say it, but we all feel the unspoken words.
My stomach pitches, but I ignore it. Someone needs to take charge. And since everyone else seems shell-shocked, that someone is going to have to be me. The sooner we save Deacon’s life, the sooner we can move on to looking for my mom.
“Jeremy, you have to get us in,” I tell him, forcing a steadiness into my voice that is far from what I’m feeling. “Find a way around the villain signature sensors, because we’re going in as a team.”
Draven looks at me, hot and powerful emotions lurking behind his gaze.
That’s right. We are stronger as a team, not fractured like a bunch of kids fighting over who gets to play with the cool toys at recess. And it’s time we start acting like it.
“I’m on it,” Jeremy says. His fingers fly across the keyboard.
“Let’s get started,” I tell the rest of the group. “We have two days to figure this out.”.
“I’m in,” Rebel says. “Where do we start?”
“With figuring out how to blow that lab wide open without hurting my cousin or Kenna’s mom,” Draven answers firmly.
“Exactly.” I straighten my spine. “Because one way or another, we’re going in.”