Quinn heard Gilda coming before she reached the door of her apartment. She’d recognized her footsteps three floors down, and now she could hear her just outside. But she waited for her to do their special knock, just in case – twice slow, three times fast. She opened the door and ushered her in, quickly closing the door behind her. She smelled like the grit and sweat of a hard day’s work – harder than usual, by her estimation – and whatever was left of her deodorant. “Hey, curly top,” said Quinn. “What’s the scoop? How was work?”
“Work was… something. I got a scoop for you, that’s for sure.”
Gilda helped herself to one of the two stools by the island in Quinn’s kitchen. Gilda was her only visitor, so her apartment had accommodations just enough for the two of them.
Quinn poured two mugs of coffee and sat down beside her. “No kidding? I heard a couple of Cerberus agents got caught stealing intel. Talk of the town. Got anything to do with that?”
“Oh, yeah. That isn’t the half of it, though.”
“There was a girl there, too, right? She’s been a little thorn in our ass for a while. We get calls about her all the time, don’t really know who she’s affiliated with. But we think she was trying to help those two escape. She took out three merc vehicles before we caught her. And she must have been on something, right, because she was crazy strong. We stick her in jail, and the next thing we know, she’s beating up inmates left and right. It took the whole damn cell block to subdue her. They have her in protective custody, but they really don’t know what to do with her.”
Quinn nodded along to her sister’s story, but her head was somewhere else – at least partially. “No kidding. That’s, uh… that’s something else,” she said, running her finger along the rim of her coffee mug. “Uh, Gil, weird question, but this perp… she didn’t happen to have red hair, did she?”
The question caught Gilda off guard, just like Quinn knew it would – in part because Quinn was blind, so she didn’t know what “red” was, in a practical sense, but also because the question wasn’t at all out of left field, and she had to wonder how she hadn’t seen it herself. “Oh. Yeah, she did. Should’ve thought of that.”
Quinn just nodded in agreement. There was a pregnant pause. “So, uh, Gilda, you don’t think we could – y’know…”
“Go and see her?”
“I mean, sure, but… why? Even if she is who you think she is, what are you gonna do about it?”
“I don’t know. I’d just like to see her.”
“Yeah, uh-huh, sure.”
“Really really. Well, I can pull some strings, Quinn, but don’t you do anything stupid, alright?”
Quinn laughed. “Yeah, sure. Thanks, Gil.”
Gilda finished her coffee. Quinn left half a mug go cold in their absence.
“She’s the third cell down, right here -” said Gilda, starting to lead her down a dank stone hallway lined with cells. All around her, Quinn could hear inmates going about their day – spitting, cussing, snoring, hollering, and one was crying, she thought.
Quinn touched Gilda’s shoulder before she could go any farther. “Hey, thanks for getting me this far, Chief, but, uh…”
“You wanna talk to her alone, huh?”
“Well, alright, then, I guess I’ll go be chopped liver somewhere else.” They shared a laugh, and Gilda turned and left for the lobby.
Quinn felt along the bars of the cells, fingers brushing calloused, dirty fingers, but the inmates didn’t try anything. She was the police chief’s sister, after all. She stopped at the third cell and clicked her tongue through the bars of the cell. She could make out the figure of a young woman sitting stark still on the bottom bunk, watching her with – apprehension? Hostility? She couldn’t tell. Faces were hard to make out. But she could hear her breathing, shifting, and already, she seemed too familiar in a way that pained her. “Hey, there,” she said. “You sound awfully familiar, Jane Doe. Do you know who I am?”
“No.” The woman seemed to be doing something with her head – tilting it? She had to admit, she was a strange specimen. Her eyes were entirely white and sightless, not clouded like cataracts, but pure, milky white. She was tall and dark-skinned, and she looked well-muscled for fifty, with curly hair buzzed close to her head. “Should I?”
“No. No, you don’t know me. I just thought your mother might have told you about me. But then, that’s a touchy subject…” she said, running a finger up and down a prison bar. “You are hers, aren’t you? I’d know that voice anywhere. That’s her voice.”
The woman stirred from her bunk, approaching the cell door slowly. “Yeah? Whose?”
She listened hard. A few of the inmates were whispering about them. She lowered her voice. “Rebecca’s. Right?” She clicked her tongue, and the details of the daughter’s face came into focus. “You’re a spitting image, as far as I can tell, and your voice – she sounded just like you when she was your age.”
The girl jerked back. “Shhhhhh! For the love of God, be quiet! How do you know if you’re blind? Just – just who the hell are you?”
A swell of whispers flooded Quinn’s senses. “I’m Quinn Fletcher. She was my pupil before she created Cerberus.”
The silence was taut. Rebecca’s daughter let go of the bars, and Quinn could make out her features contorting.
“Hmph. So I see,” she said, her voice nowhere near as strong as she probably thought it did. “So you’re that pathetic excuse for a ‘hero’ that let this city down. That let me down. Look where your childish nonsense has gotten all of us. Get out of here.”
The smile fell from Quinn’s face. Her hands twitched and turned into fists, her nails digging into her palms. But she let go. “You know less than you think you know, Jessica. I’ll see myself out. But I’d like to take you with me.”
The woman returned to her bunk. When she heard Quinn’s offer, she snorted, then turned to the wall.
“Why? Can’t I just be left alone for once?”
“Well, call me presumptuous, but it sounds you think you could do better. And hey, I don’t think you’re wrong. But if you wanna put your money where your mouth is, you’re going to have to leave this cell.”
Rebecca’s daughter rolled onto her back. “So let me get this straight. You were fed a bunch of idealist claptrap from Scott and when you tried to emulate him with my mother, you failed because things aren’t so black and white and the root of evil goes deeper than neurotic freaks running around in silly costumes. Now you see how the existential crisis has broken my mother and think you can make up for it by doing better with me. Is that right?”
Quinn felt a pang in her heart at the mention of Scott’s name. “I don’t need to prove anything, girl, to myself or you. I may have failed to accomplish what Scott trained me to do, but he never told me why I would serve as a Maverick. I decided that for myself. I did it because I believed in this city, and I’m proud of that. You got something to be proud of? What’ve you been doing for the last twenty years or so? Would you do it differently if I gave you a chance?”
She could’ve sworn that it was the girl’s heart that now skipped a beat. “Staring at jail walls,” She muttered. “That’s what my life’s been. I never asked for any of this, and you’re damn right I’d do it all over again if I could, but…”
She groaned, and with a grunt, sat facing the door. “I’m sorry. I was just made this way, I guess. Mother turns people into pessimists.”
“No joke,” replied Quinn. “I’m worried for Blackburn. Many of the cops are in her pocket – not Gilda, of course, but she can’t take her on her own. Now, I don’t have the Mavericks anymore. They’re long gone. But I have what they left behind. I can show you,” she said, her words heavy with implication. “And you can make up your own mind.”
“I see what they left behind in the mirror everyday,” The woman retorted. “And you should be worried. You don’t know the real reason I’m in here, do you?” Quinn shook her head. “Two Cerberus operatives got their fingers into mom’s private server. She’s been delivering arms to the major crime bosses. Military grade firepower. Lady, whoever you are, if you want any chance at stopping whatever he’s got planned, get me out of here yesterday… And the soldiers too. They’re in the men’s wing, I believe their names were Alex and Fritz.” The woman paused, tapping the wood with what looked like a bemused expression. “I’m sure you’ll know Alex when you see him. Guy’s a dweeb…”
“I’ll see if I can’t post bail. Any enemy of Cerberus is a friend of mine,” said Quinn, picking herself up to leave. “And thanks for the poetry hon, but just so you know, by ‘what they left behind,’ I mean a giant bunker with lots of weapons.”
“So who is Gilda anyway? And what’s this bunker about? What’s in it exactly? Who left it? Why’d you invite us? What does any of this have to do with Cerberus?”
“You ask a lot of questions. Gilda’s my sister. But you probably know her as Chief Fletcher. This bunker used to belong to the Mavericks before – y’know. They all passed away. Except for me, of course. It’s got a lot of stuff in it – useful to those who know how to use it, but I was the only one left who did, and I was powerless on my own, so I sealed it all away. Cerberus is a long story. Oh, and I brought you and Alex because Jessica told me to.”
“Oh.” Fritz turned to Jessica, his brow furrowing. “Why would you want us around?”
“To make sure you’re not a triple agent,” she said, watching the forsaken industrial center of Olympic City come into view over the horizon of the Crane Bridge. They had passed through the sleek streets of Midtown to get here, away from the prying eyes of citizens and nosy tourists. If one wanted to get away with less-than-legal activities in Blackburn, this was the best district to do it in. “And please, keep your eyes on the road. I’d rather not end up at the bottom of the river with those who’ve pissed off Mouse.”
“You know, I think that’s sassy young lady speak for ‘I need some new friends’,” Alex remarked. “Am I right, Jay?”
“Sure, let’s go with that.”
“Alex, that’s not how you flirt,” Fritz groaned. “I mean, jeez, what kinda generic pet name is that?”
“Tch, shut up.” Alex kicked the back of Fritz’s seat. “Ignore this guy, his mind never leaves the gutter. He thinks it’s acceptable to try for home base on the first date.”
“Hey, it works three times out of five!” Fritz bit back. “You have all the advantages in the looks department. Chicks hate short dudes and love a good tan, and I still get more of them than you.”
“Yeah? Did you get the number of any cute cops while they were hauling us around jail?”
“Hey, that Jeff guy didn’t look half bad,” Fritz said, batting his eyelashes at nothing in particular. “Maybe he’d bat for you, might be more your speed.”
“Everyone’s horny and bisexual in your world,” Alex muttered.
“So, Jessica,” Fritz said, veering off the topic at hand. “You never answered my question last time: who the hell are you anyway? What were you doing picking us up in that fancy ride?”
“Oh, geez.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I wasn’t lying when I said it’s complicated, okay? You know Rebecca Napier, right?”
“Ah, so you are her daughter,” Fritz said. “Wasn’t she, like, an old superhero or something back in the day? I mean, I know she’s the CEO of Cerberus now.”
“Yeah. Yeah. And you know how she switched jobs? She went nuts and killed the other Mavericks when they found out about her nasty doings and tried bringing her in.” Quinn twitched in her seat, and she paused for a moment, apprehensive. “She betrayed everything she stood for in the name of ‘the greater good’. She grew tired of seeing the same people cycle in and out of jail, thought she could clean up the world by handling things a little more… permanently. Judging by how she operates on foreign soil, if it were up to her, she’d turn Blackburn into her own personal police state.”
“Jeez, sounds like she’s uptight. So is that why you left?” Fritz asked.
“No, I left because she taught me how to use a gun when I was six.”
“Huh,” was all Fritz could say to that. “Yeah, I can see why you might take issue with her.”
“Oh my God, six?” Alex shook his head. “And something tells me it wasn’t about responsible gun ownership.”
“Yeah, what clued you in, the supervillain lair, the evil scheme or all the extra legal murders? No, she raised me from birth to be a soldier, to continue her legacy once she got too old.”
Shocked flickered across Alex’s face before he continued. “That’s terrible! Didn’t your father ever step in?”
Jessica snorted, leaning on the car door and resting her head on one finger. “What father?”
Alex blinked. “I – beg your pardon?”
“Well, you guys have made several comments that I look exactly like her. I imagine that I would, given that I’m her clone. I was created by the same insane doctor who created Mouse. As soon as I could hold a gun my mother was drilling everything into my head: weaponry, CQC, stealth, tracking, survivor skills, the whole nine yards. When we didn’t have body armor on she tried to be a good mother, she really did, but, she’s so myopic, so zeroed in. And sometimes, so wasted…”
“She didn’t even give you a father?” Alex seemed to shoot a dirty look across the city. “I’m sorry, I know that sucks.”
Logically, she shouldn’t have been surprised at basic sympathy, but she was. Unsure how to handle it, she muttered a quick “Thanks”.
Quinn took a pained breath, like there was something sharp in her lungs. “Yeah,” she remarked. “That sounds like Rebecca. I think we’re here, Fritz, stop the car.”
“What? There’re hardly even any buildings around.”
“McCamey Road, right?”
Fritz glanced at the nearest road sign. “Yeah.”
“This is it. Pull over.”
Fritz did as she asked and veered to the shoulder. Quinn climbed out without assistance, and Jessica followed suit. The group hopped over the ditch and started into the edge of a forest. Quinn was clicking her tongue rapidly, feeling her way along boulders, big trees, and pieces of ruin. Echolocation. That explains it. A few times Quinn stumbled, but she picked herself up and carried on, and it happened less and less often the further they went. After about ten minutes of walking, they reached the base of a big hill, and Quinn stopped. She ran her hand up and down a particular tree. Her tongue stopped clicking. She felt her way over to a short cliff face and reached into a cleft between two rocks. It looked shallow, but to Jessica’s surprise, she kept reaching further until she was up to her shoulder in it. She grabbed onto something and pulled hard.
A much larger boulder began to move, grinding across the forest floor just enough to reveal a metal door with a keypad. Quinn felt it with her fingers, then began to punch in a long code. There was the metallic sound of a lock disengaging. “It’s down here,” she said, pushing open the door and starting down a long flight of stairs that smelled of dust and abandon.
The room at the bottom was so pitch black, Jessica could only see a few feet in front of her, but Quinn ventured into the darkness without hesitation. She couldn’t see her, but she could hear her laughing. “Isn’t this place great?” Quinn said, her voice echoing three times over in what must have been a massive room. Everyone was silent. “Oh.”
She clapped twice. Unseen lights flickered, then lit up the bunker.
It was massive, a great, high-ceilinged box of stone with banners the size of banquet tablecloths hanging from the ceiling. A long meeting table sat in the middle of the room. A few of the chairs were staggered and out of place, exactly where the late Mavericks had left them when they’d left in a hurry and never came back. Several passageways branched off the main chamber. There was a big TV screen on the wall behind the head of the table, and to the right was a wall of brass plaques engraved with the names of every Maverick that had ever been, starting with the first American Spirit, all the way down to the seven shiniest and newest plaques, whose years of death were all 1997 – all except the newest one. The space where Quinn’s year of death should have been was still blank.
“There we are,” said Quinn, running her hand along the table. “So. Isn’t it great?”
Great? Very, but perhaps not in the way that Quinn had meant. Jessica walked slowly towards the plaques, tracing her fingers over the names of the fallen. Jose Santiago, aka Golden Thunder. Gary Jackson, aka Crash. Anastasia Tokarev, aka Plague. Scott Pierce, aka American Spirit II. She slouched under the weight of it all.
“Mother… she gave up all these people for Cerberus? All these friends?”
She followed the names through the decades, all the way back to Kyle Pierce, who died young in 1945. Eighty years of history led to a door nearby. It took a hard shove to open, and she was greeted with a particularly musty odor. A series of locked crates ran along the walls, each under an acrylic glass display case. Inside, looking like they hadn’t aged a day, were the old costumes of the deceased Mavericks, immortalized in a gallery of Blackburn’s colorful past. The shadow of the Phantasm loomed at room’s end: a deep purple polyester bodysuit with pieces of sleek black body armor sewn on. Combat boots, knee pads, shoulder pads, goggles, a double-layered balaclava with a ‘mouth’ made of purple holes, and a tattered, hooded cape.
“Well, at least she used to have style…”
“She did,” came a voice from behind. Quinn had appeared in the room while Jessica wasn’t looking. She made her way over to a door at the far end of that long, long room. “It was practical, too. I was proud of her design choices.” She opened the door to what appeared to be a custodial closet full of used-up Windex bottles. Two big, long crates stood up against the wall, looming over a smaller one. Quinn took a hammer from the wall and began to pry away the nails from the small crate.
“I was the last person in this bunker. Stopped back one last time after the ambush to put my friends in the hall of fame where they belonged. I couldn’t bring myself to put my suit under glass. Hadn’t earned my spot. So I stuck it in here.” The last nail came loose, and she pried the lid off. Inside was a folded mass of brown material. She grabbed it by the shoulders and held it up. It was the suit of Chiroptera, Jessica recalled, a little dusty and creased in a few places, but no worse for wear than the last time Quinn had been seen in public under that name. It was a simple suit, compared to the others, of some brown, skintight material, with hard pads upholstered in leather and bits of metal and machinery near the joints that enhanced her strength and guided her in flight.
“I guess I’m glad I did. The wings are in the boxes, but those are a bitch to assemble. I always had to do it in the main hall, there’s so much stuff… Her suit’s yours, if you want it.”
But Jessica had already found the buttons beneath the display, and the glass retreated into the ceiling. She rolled the Phantasm mask between her fingers, felt its breathing fabric melt into her skin. Thoughtlessly she slipped it onto her face and let the old thing speak to her. No, it wasn’t a mask. It peeled back the layers of her ego, laying bare the wriggling black shadows of her id. The little angels and demons whispered ancient things, speaking to her soul. Looking through its lenses was like looking at the world for the first time, wiped clean of any pretenses.
The weight was too much. Jessica clawed it off her head, letting it fall to the ground in a heap.
“Look, th-there’s no way I can be a Maverick,” she said breathlessly. “I’m no hero. I’m- I’m fucked in the head, Quinn. You have no idea.”
Quinn just glanced at the pile of fabric on the ground, then to her, face in turmoil. “I’m sure you are.” She came over and crouched to pick up Phantasm’s mask. She felt the fabric in her hands, ran her fingers through the holes. “But believe me, Jessica, I know what a Maverick looks like, and I wouldn’t have brought you here if I didn’t think you could handle it.” She offered her the mask. “The cape can come later. We can start here, if you’re ready.”
Jessica held the mask in her fist. She didn’t have much of a choice, did she? Whatever her mother was planning, she wouldn’t stop. Not until she lined the streets with the piked heads of everyone she deemed a criminal. The cops wouldn’t stop her, the government wouldn’t stop her, the people of Blackburn didn’t even know to stop her. It was up to her. Her against an army.
Great, Jessica Napier, year of death, 2017.
“Alright,” she said softly. “You win.”
Quinn smiled. “I always do.”
The recruits gathered in the main hall, sat down at the long meeting table. The chair at the head of the table was bigger, with a high back and leather pads. It was made for the leader of the Mavericks. Quinn wondered if she should sit there. She wouldn’t have dared way back in the day, when she was a new recruit, still getting left behind on more dangerous missions, all alone in the bunker where no one would ever know if she decided to try out Scott’s chair. No one had ever even told her that she wasn’t allowed to sit there, but she decided not to anyway.
Was she the leader of the Mavericks now? She didn’t know. But she was still half convinced that if she sat in Scott’s chair, she’d be struck by lightning, so she stood beside it as she addressed the new recruits.
“I hope you’re all honored to be here. The Mavericks have been serving the city of Blackburn for over eighty years now. As a superhero organization, we are presumed defunct following the loss of our entire team, save for myself. But I am not the Mavericks’ future. You are. So if you would, tell me why you’re here.”
“I’m here because I thought there’d be free food,” Fritz called out. “We were lied to!”
“Ha ha,” Alex snapped back, rolling his eyes. “The last thing you need is more free food. The reason we’re here is that there’s a crazy lady out there who hates criminals but is giving them guns for some reason and the cops can’t do anything about it so you brought us here instead.” Alex looked around the table, frowning. “Three stupid kids. I don’t mean to be rude, but uh, what do you honestly expect us to do?”
“I started out as a stupid kid. Most of us did.” Quinn said. “But you’re more than capable of making your own decisions. I can give you all of the equipment and training you need to become fully fledged superheroes. But first, you need to decide for yourself whether you’re willing to put your lives on the line. That’s all I expect of you for now.”
“Well, I’ve already embarrassed myself and spilled my guts on the floor, so I really have no choice here,” Jessica chimed in, leaning back in her seat. Alex glanced briefly at her, fingers tapping the table rhymically.
“Uh, I mean, I guess? I, um, it’s just – I’m just a guy. She’s a super soldier raised by mercenaries and you were trained by Uncle Sam himself. Anomaly or no, I couldn’t even finish college because of a football injury. I dunno if I’m the guy you’re looking for Quinn.”
“Are you nuts?” Fritz piped up again. “Don’t listen to this idiot, he’s got all the gall he needs to fight this crap. Absolutely no sense of self-preservation, determined as hell, too pure for his own good. I know I’d trust him to save a city.”
“Gall is exactly what you’re looking for. If it took book smarts to be a Maverick, we’d be much fewer and further between. Do you have any idea how expensive books in braille are? So long as you’re brave enough to say yes, I can make a superhero out of you – no second rate vigilante, either, so put the thought out of your mind.”
“Alright.” Alex took a deep breath, then nodded his head. “Alright, but I better get a knee brace. So, what’s the first drill coach? Or do we have to get a snazzy code name and spiffy costume first?”
“That can come later. First, there’s something I want you guys to know about your training before we begin. I’m not going to force you three into ill-fitting molds. That is to say, rather than starting from the ground up, we’ll be building on the fighting styles you’ve already begun to nurture,” she said. “So tell me, how do you guys go about fighting?”
“Uh.” Alex sheepishly rubbed the back of his head. “I just use my powers, really. I’m so big I can just plow people over with a shield. Or I’ll just wrap ‘em up.”
“Don’t get hit, that’s my philosophy,” Fritz said. “Unlike my brute of a friend here, I’m not running towards a wall of muscle. I’ll blind him first thing and go for the legs. Or maybe I’ll just skate around for a while and get him to run until he’s tired. I’m sure not gonna win a head-on fight.”
Jessica, who now had her shoes crossed on the table, raised an eyebrow when the others turned to her. “What? I already told you. Trust me, hand me some quiet boots and a silenced gun and I’ll take out a dozen men for you.”
Quinn stiffened abruptly. If she weren’t blind, she would have almost certainly made eye contact with Jessica. “Interesting. Before we go any further, I’d like you all to know that the Mavericks have a strict policy against the taking of lives. Are we understood?”
“No complaints here,” Alex said with a hint of relief.
Jessica paused for a few moments before asking “Hmph. Well big boy here has his powers, but how am I supposed to take on more than a few foes without a gun? Ask them nicely to stop?”
“You won’t. Not until you’ve learned to neutralize them without using lethal force. Which brings me to my next point. As superheroes, our first duty is to protect. It’s not our place to decide where justice needs serving. You all seem to understand the concept of being a superhero – we put on our masks and go by aliases to protect our identities, we protect the innocent in our city, we beat the bad guys, and we look good doing it. That’s the fun part. It comes at a price.”
“Price?” Fritz echoed. “I don’t usually like prices, but what kinda price?”
“We train hard, we know our place, and if need be, we die in the line of duty. I’d say it’s as simple as that, but it’s not. It’s a whole mess of tough decisions. How far would you go to protect an innocent civilian? Who’s worthy of being saved? What’s worth dying for? It’s okay if you’re not ready to make those kinds of choices yet. We’ll get there, but we had better get there fast. Time is short, and you’ll be out in active combat much sooner than I’d like. As for Blackburn,” Quinn said, turning to face the wall of names engraved in shining bronze. “This city’s in for a surprise.”