Excelsior was gone in the morning. Gone like the hope I had for the day, for the week, or even the month.
His communicator, however, twinkled on the table. A light flickered across the face of it, every few seconds. It didn’t match the thump of my heart, or the waves of rising bile in my throat. It didn’t match anything poetic. Didn’t match anything that was even remotely worth waxing about.
I picked up the communicator and held it in my fist, then flicked the unlocked combination I’d seen Excelsior use many times.
“Congratulations on your field promotion, Gale. You’re now ranking B-Class for the city of Mobile,” Excelsior’s voice came through loud and clear. “Sorry kid. I got a message from Guinevere over the radio. Might need me to hold back Fafnir.” A long drawn out sigh, a pained hiss. Things I knew about. Things that reminded me of times long before. “This Com is yours now. I won’t be needing it.”
Long pause, but I could hear his breath through the recording. “I’ll get it back from you when this is over. Be careful with it, it used to be my mentor’s, back in the Purple Capes.” I ran my fingers along it. It was heavy. Maybe a pound or two, but cradled in my hand like that, it felt like the most delicate thing in the world. “Keep rising, Gale. Keep rising to the occasion. I got faith in you. Sorry I ever doubted you.”
I felt my eyes water and a tear roll down my face and splatter across my exposed arms.
Then the message cut off without another word. Just me, sitting in that lonely room, the inky black com cradled in my hand. Just a useless hunk of plastic and metal.
And it had held a final message from him.
I detested the use of the word final there, and yet I couldn’t help but think it might be horribly accurate. This could turn into the longest last stand in history. Heroes scattered about like ants. The big guys, the top ranks, the higher ups, all called off to deal with the S lister villains.
Leaving just the lower ones to keep society from falling apart. To prop up that fragile bastion we loved, and called so dear to us.
My fingers clenched, driving the back of the device into my skin. Then slowly, I set it back down on the table and read the swooping spirals of the old Purple Cape symbol etched in my skin from tension.
“As always, Excel.”
Then I lay back down into the couch and breathed.
It was what I was good for. And now… I was good for a lot of other things, if my rank had something to do with it.
The ranking system was… useful. It was based, foremost, on power. Powers were not created equal. My classmate, Ken, had ended up with the ability to incinerate things he could touch. Very dangerous ability, and so he was shunted into a program designed to teach B classes how to use their powers responsibly.
Considering he had discovered his power by burning down their classroom, that stratification made sense. Focus research on stabilizing those with the greatest power. Focus time and effort on those with the greatest power. Be grateful that you did not have something horrible. Be glad that you were not high maintenance, Gale.
But the closest I had ever gotten to helping people were for publicity photos. Father had gotten me attached to a number of hero groups, where I was dead weight, or worse. A secretary, at times. A number taker. A signaturist. Someone who handled the fame of others instead of having any fame of my own.
Was it rude, or bad of me to crave some of that spotlight, before?
But now, I was staring at the list of rules dedicating to B Classers, people who could keep cities safe, and I wondered if I could return to being known as useless.
At least then, there were far fewer stakes for me to bungle when I failed.
B heroes could lead squads of C heroes. C heroes could command D heroes. A heroes could command everyone except S heroes.
And S heroes…
My eyes jerked knowingly to where Faraday was buried. I couldn’t see the graveyard, but I would never be able to take his tomb away from my eyes. Faraday, whose skin itched with the desire to slack off and corrupt modern living, whose nullification powers had been grafted onto him by his father to keep his power from detonating.
S heroes were legendary. Beyond legendary, they had to prove themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were worthy of being leaders. People who everyone could point to and say; that’s the definition of a hero. Who could fight against their circumstances and keep rising, keep spiralling to the top, like fireworks.
The difference between an A rank and an S rank was moral fortitude.
I wanted to be them when I grow up.
Swallowing, I stood up and picked through the baskets I’d left on the unbalanced table by the door. Picked out muffins and baked goods and started eating.
I wasn’t hungry, but I wasn’t going to let people down by being weak when they needed me.
After all, I had people to recruit.
My uniform had been tattered and torn, blown to pieces by energy blasts and scraped against the ground like a piece of chalk, so what I walked around in was all of Excelsior’s spare body armor and the colored purple bands that made up my uniform.
I pretended that it made me look cool, but looking cool wasn’t on my mind.
Then calmly, I gathered in the center of the town. A few businesses were open, but I slid into the tea parlor (Mobile was a modern city in everything except metropolis size. Perhaps the one saving grace of this crisis) and sat among them, quietly.
I jerked my head over to the business owner, cell phone camera taking a picture of me. “Do you mind if I use this as a meet?”
She blinked a few times, then slowly put the phone down. “Of course. They paying?”
“Might not be,” I admitted. “Our accounts are probably all frozen.” It’s what I would do if we had been infiltrated. Freeze as many accounts as possible to stop the bleeding. I could only assume that the head of my association was just as intelligent.
One of the patrons stood up and flashed me a grin, then slapped his credit card onto the table. “I’ll cover it.”
I blinked, startled, and stared at him. “You will?”
“Of course, Gale,” He shot me a grin. “The least I can do, my father told me how you got them all to help you sift through rubble. I can help you with some funds.”
I felt my face, stern with stress and nervous tension, relax slightly into a bit of a smile. “Thanks.”
“Just keep the city safe, will you? What’re you, anyway? A lister?”
My eyes jerked down to the octagonal box strapped to my hip. “B lister, actually.”
He whistled. “Never thought I’d see a B on the rise like this. You’re going to go far.”
I swallowed, and the girl behind the counter slid a cup of hot green tea onto the table. “It’s fine, Hero.”
How could I tell them that I was balanced on the edge of a blade. That I had taken a chance, a horrific, awful chance. Had made my peace with the idea that it was fine if I died, if only they lived?
That I had no clue what I was supposed to do now?
That the strongest hero in the city was gone. Had left. They were defenceless.
I took a sip of tea, hot enough to scald my lips, shot them both a grin that didn’t reach my eyes, then lifted the com in my hands. Flicked a few buttons.
“Calling All Heroes in the area. Meet at a Spot of Tea for an Emergency meeting.”
Then all I had to do was wait.