The familiar bustle of life in Metroplex City produces a certain comforting rhythm, a pulsing flow of cars and busses along the city’s central streets. Supervillain and monster attacks are rare here, thanks to its proximity to the Watchtower, the headquarters of the secretive Sentry agency, a monolith dwarfing the skyscrapers it stands beside. This section of the city is considered one of the safest, an oasis in a desert of danger.
There are almost never any incidents here.
The robotic voice emanating from the metallic backpack is starting to get on Simon’s nerves.
“Head to the armored pickup truck ten meters to the northeast.”
“Alright, alright, I see it!”
The behemoth of a vehicle sitting between a beat-up sedan and a small car isn’t exactly inconspicuous. How the Combine had managed to deliver it so close to a building as highly guarded as the Watchtower was a mystery to Simon, but he didn’t have much time to figure that one out.
Several bullets ricochet off the steel shielding of the truck as the Watchtower security forces fire on Simon and the only other mercenary left of their original merry band. He curses and dives behind the small car, while the other man laughs and throws an incendiary grenade at them.
“Toss this unit into the driver’s seat,” the irritating voice says, over the crescendo of spreading napalm and surprised shouts.
“As you wish.” Simon dashes forward and flings the backpack through the open driver side window. As he hops into the back of the truck, he watches spindly arms emerge from the backpack. They insert into the dashboard and the truck awakens.
“Get in!” Simon yells at the man gleefully shooting at the security agents. He looks back, and fires one last shot before grabbing Simon’s outstretched hand. He pulls himself into the truck, white robes billowing. The moment his boots hit the truck bed, the vehicle lunges forward, clawing through the old sedan.
Simon steadies himself and takes a breath that he had been holding in for quite some time. His blood, still pumping in his ears, provides a beat to a symphony of pandemonium as the wind bellows, cars swerve out of the way and civilians scream. Simon looks over at the robed man and coughs out a weak, “You got that file we came for?”
A smile spreads across the other man’s bronze face and he raises a manila folder. “Of course.” He raps on the rear window with a gloved hand. “What exactly is in this thing?”
“You are here to complete the operation, not to ask questions about it.”
The man’s right eye narrows, the runes etched in the metal eyepatch over his left eye glow darkly, and yet his bright smile holds firm. “The other four are dead just because of a couple papers. I reckon we have a right to know.”
The mouthless voice responds. “Negative. Access to this information is not granted at your security clearance level.” Even through the hot adrenaline and sweat, Simon notices the air getting colder and colder, the truck bed around the robed man somehow becoming darker.
“And what’s stopping me from looking anyway?”
“The Combine’s policy of payment suspension and termination for noncompliance.”
“Why don’t we worry about this later?” Simon interjects as sharp sirens become not-so-distant anymore. They turn to see two black trucks roaring down the street. “Those aren’t from the Combine, are they?”
The backpack chirps back. “Negative. Two Sentry Defense Vehicles identified. Danger level: yellow.” As if to confirm the statement, two armored figures with white and red lightanium masks, the hallmark of Sentries, emerge from the roof of the black trucks. The large, ivory rifles they carry glint in the morning light and Simon really, really does not want to try getting shot by them.
He ducks behind the truck’s rear door as they begin to open fire, purple bullets slicing through the clear blue sky. The truck swerves more than before, ramming through concrete barriers. Simon unholsters a black slingshot and pulls out two small, metal balls from a pocket in his shoulder.
In a practiced motion, he swings the slingshot over the rear door and loads the black orbs. He blinks, and he is back in the competition hall. The floodlights are beaming, the crowds are watching expectantly.
Deep breath, in.
Deep breath, out.
Eyes on the targets.
Energy flows through Simon’s body, green bolts arcing along his right arm, imbuing the slingshot’s rubber bands with unnatural strength and amplifying their elastic energy. His personal, “illegal” touch.
The balls send a shockwave through the air, blasting away the high-roofed ceiling and audience stands. Even as the truck continues to barrel down the street, Simon feels the wind reverse for a second. The projectiles instantly tear through the thick rubber layers of the two vehicles’ front tires. The sentries tumble across the concrete as their crippled vehicles screech and slam into each other. Simon slumps against the side of the truck with a pleased sigh, electricity still crackling along his skin.
A perfect shot. So what if he used what was given to him at birth? It’s not like he was on any performance-enhancing drugs or anything.
Simon’s silent grumbling is interrupted by the deafening, but unmistakable approach of a much more pressing issue. His heart stops beating as the rhythmic cadence of familiar rotors fill his ears.
“One Sentry Assault Helicopter identified. Danger level: magenta.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“You will die.”
The helicopter’s palladium-glass windshield and lightanium plating reflect harsh rays of sunlight into Simon’s eyes and shred his hopes for an easy getaway. The twin machine guns attached to each side of the chopper begin spinning, a droning whir, preparing to unleash a brutal hailstorm of lead. Simon cowers behind the truck’s steel walls, but he knows better than to hope to survive. He’s seen those guns cut through far stronger material.
Maybe I shouldn’t have used my superpower to get ahead.
He starts mumbling some prayer he had seen on TV before.
Maybe I shouldn’t have used it, in a last act of stupid, defiant pride, to annihilate that wooden target, the projectile shooting straight through the building’s wall and killing a passerby.
He can’t quite remember how it goes, so he starts begging, pleading for some deity out there to save his ass.
Maybe I shouldn’t have run, shouldn’t have killed the police officers, shouldn’t have joined the Combine as a mercenary to hide among stronger people.
The helicopter starts firing, and the concrete becomes a trail of dust, snaking behind the truck.
Simon’s quiet grovelling is soon overpowered by a slowly-rising chant. Once more, he notices the floor around the man in white robes begin to darken, while he starts to glow faintly, dangerously. The coolness of the wind against Simon’s skin turns glacial as warmth and light seems to be sucked out of the very air around the robed man. The light coming from the runes in the metal eyepatch is now blinding. The incantation grows louder as the man steps toward the helicopter, and raises an arm. A circle of pure light emerges from his open palm, and expands rapidly. The disc becomes the size of a pool umbrella just as the bullets are about to hit the truck, and they sizzle as they are melted in mid-air by the glowing shield.
Simon stares in awe as the massive screen continues to cook the bullets, leaving only hissing droplets of lead to fall onto the concrete. However, he is shaken out of his stupor when the robed man yells, “Shoot it down!”, the strain in his voice evident.
“I can’t, the armor is too thick! Can you send that light shield into the chopper or anything?”
“Yea, something like that! But it won’t do that much damage on its own!”
“Leave that to me!”
The light shield begins to flicker, as more and more heat is spent turning the bullets into hot sludge. A few slip by, one of which zips past Simon’s ear and rips through the truck bed, creating a window to the concrete road rushing by. Simon pulls a metal ball out of his now-empty pocket, energy beginning to zigzag across his skin.
“Get ready!” yells the robed man. In an instant, cracks and lines form along the light shield, and it shatters into a dozen, large shards. The robed man clenches his hand shut, and the dim shards shrink into small, blazing daggers. Simon pulls back the slingshot, eyeing the pilot sitting in the cockpit. The robed man throws his fist forward, and the flurry of radiant blades fly, liquifying the travelling bullets before slamming into the helicopter’s armor and windshield. They glow white-hot, and the helicopter reels backwards as the pilot recoils from the sudden onslaught of heat. Simon releases a breath through gritted teeth and takes aim.
Maybe I should stop here, get away from the Combine, make a new, clean life for myself.
But the shriek of the heated metal and glass, the roar of the truck engine tearing down the street, the pounding of adrenaline through his exhausted body create a sonata of chaos and thrill that convince him otherwise.
Another gale wind tears through the street, knocking people on the sidewalk off their feet. The truck is given a barely perceptible boost, and the black blur stabs through the smouldering windshield. A pop is heard over the roaring winds and the helicopter begins to list to the side, disappearing behind a building, before a sound of shattering glass and fuel tanks igniting goes off. The truck continues down the road, unhindered.
“One kilometer away from the destination.”
The armored truck speeds through the decimated outskirts of Metroplex City, far outside the reach of the Sentry agency and any law enforcement. Simon eyes the robed man, who has been sitting and looking at the folder for a while now. The man slowly stands, picking up a pistol from the truck bed. Before Simon can react, he unloads several bullets into the backpack. The annoying robotic voice lets out a last, weak command before sputtering out. The truck drifts to a stop.
“Why the hell did you do that?” Simon stands, gripping his slingshot.
“Don’t tell me you don’t want to know what’s inside this folder too.” The man turns, his right eye glinting from under his hood.
“Even so, the Combine is gonna come after us for failing to complete the operation!”
The man cocks his head, the now-familiar grin spread across his face. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Simon opens his mouth to respond, but he can’t find any words to counter this.
“I know you’re just like me, Simon. I saw it in your eyes. You crave that melody of mayhem, just as I do. Sentries, the Combine, does it really matter who is chasing us?”
Simon furrows his brow. The man was right. The rush of chaos was addicting, the buzz still coursing through his veins. Safety wouldn’t be an issue anymore, with that robed man’s incredible superpower. Going with him would still be dangerous, though, and might not pay quite as well as working as a mercenary for the Combine. He turns to look at the smoking metal backpack sitting quietly, at last, in the front seat. If it means not having to deal with those things anymore…
“Alright, I’m in. So what now?”
The man in white robes opens the folder, brushing the soot and dust off the papers inside. Simon’s eyes widen. Rows and rows of names, pictures, cover jobs, and superpower details line the pages. The classified identities of Sentry agents, spread throughout Metroplex City. A doctor with incredible control over her blood, a barista who can create gravitational forces. The smile widens.
“Now, Simon, let’s go meet our new friends.”