Rebecca shivered as she lurched into the toilet once more. Sour vomit dribbled from her nose before she could open her mouth and expel what little she had eaten last night from her stomach. Her fingers curled under the cold porcelain. She put a hand out for Jessica to hold, but instead of her daughter’s warm palm she was touched by weightless air. That gave her all the motivation she needed to heave bile until there was only a trickle left on her lips.
She felt blindly for toilet paper, inadvertently knocking the roll to the floor, and yanked up some to dab her mouth with. Her puke was yellow-green. The doctors had been telling her to hydrate better. She, the Phantasm, the bane of criminals everywhere, needed to be told to drink water instead of whiskey. To stop drinking the pain away. No, to stop thinking she could drink the pain away. God, she was pathetic.
She tossed the paper into the water and flushed her night terror away. As she washed her hands she turned and squinted into her bedroom. It took a minute, but her eyes focused on the digital numbers of her bedside clock: four o’ six. She wasn’t going to get back to sleep much before seven so she wasn’t even going to try. Uttering a long sigh, she dried her hands and fumbled for the light switch.
Her room was idiosyncratically compact, but furnished like a queen’s quarters. A full bed with purple sheets lay against the wall, one pillow showing far more wear than the other. On her nightstand, beside the clock, was an expensive bottle of scotch being drunk sloppily from a table-glass. The scotch was the only item with visible use. Her 72 inch TV hadn’t been dusted in a month. The sliding glass doors leading to her waterside balcony had a bird dropping stain she really needed to clean. Lord knew the last time actually read any of her books.
She shuffled over to bed and plopped down, pouring half a glass as her mind began to wander. There was much to think about in the maelstrom of her mind, but in true maternal fashion, her daughter bubbled to the surface. Jessica had always been a spirited one, having not fallen far from the tree in that regard, and sure enough it had gotten her into some trouble in her youth. But the challenging, the fighting, the outright rebellion, that hadn’t happened until the teen years. Really, she should’ve seen it coming, but she never wanted to let go of that little girl who gave her the brightest smiles and saw her as a hero.
A hero. God, when’s the last time anyone called me that, she thought bitterly, guzzling the woody spirit to mask the vile taste in her throat. But she knew that she had lost the privilege of being called a hero a long time ago. She told herself that Scott deserved what was coming to him, but logically, she knew the action was morally gray at best. And if the public knew the dirty games she played to gun after crime bosses the world over, they’d burn her, cape and all, in effigy.
Not that any of that would have mattered if she could have just gotten through to Jessica. The one person in the world that understood her, her doppelgänger made from her own flesh, thought she had become a monster. She shivered, scratching at her itching skin. Why couldn’t her baby girl just understand? She did what she did so that Jessica and her children wouldn’t have to mug people just to survive. She wasn’t a monster.
“Hnh, fuck…” She supposed it was time to bite the bullet. Yanking the nightstand’s drawer out, she retrieved her phone and dialed her Field Commander.
“Huh, wh-what? What time is it,” the man murmured.
“Time for you to call the DARPA director, or, or whoever you need to call to get the ball rolling.”
“Oh.” She could make out his stirring. “I’ll get right on it ma’am.”
And that was that. Come hell and high water, she’d have to steel herself and finish what she started a long time ago. America would thank her for it, but would Jessica? Suppressing a whimper, she finished her scotch and fell onto the well-worn pillow.
“Forty four… forty five… forty six… forty seven…” Alex huffed out a deep breath as he bent his arms at the elbow, dribbles of sweat darkening the stone floor. Quinn had ordered him and Fritz to record exercise repetitions to make sure they were in top shape which, though tiring, sure as hell beat the lecturing.
Quinn had gone on in great length about the meaning of being a superhero and the rules and expectations that accompanied such a responsibility. Surprisingly, it turned out that vigilantism wasn’t technically illegal – thank God for citizen’s arrest – but there were a great many legal and ethical pitfalls a studious Maverick had to know. For instance, you’d get in a lot less for shooting a criminal with a tranquilizer dart than a bullet, which was what she was instructing Jessica about in the next room.
Alex didn’t need to be told twice to be a good boy. He didn’t bring it up at the time, because God knew Fritz never took anything seriously enough, but he couldn’t speak for his friend. Though, then again, it wasn’t Fritz who Quinn had trust issues with. Yes, Fritz stole a peek at her phone. Alex could yank Fritz’s leash if he acted up, but a mercenary clone with anger issues? A bit outside his sphere of experience.
After the lecture came the fun stuff: codenames and costumes. The little kid inside Alex rejoiced at that part. Who didn’t want to grow up and become a secret agent, fighting crime in a dashing outfit? Then came the mind blank. What exactly was he going to call himself? He didn’t have any captivating skills outside of a football playbook or kitchen, but even he wasn’t lame enough to call himself something like Midnight or Shadow Man. So, Fritz took to Google and came back with Onyx. Apparently Roman soldiers would carry black amulets engraved with Mars in the hopes of receiving the god of war’s bravery. Alex definitely needed a little bravery.
As for himself, Fritz ran with Prism. Something about reflecting light? The science bored him, so he stopped listening halfway through Fritz’s ramble. Quinn sent their names and abilities to some guy Scott used to know, promising that they’d get their costumes in a few days. Fritz gave a painstakingly detailed request. Alex told the man to surprise him.
“Ninty five, ninty six, ninty seveeeeen – ugh!” Alex collapsed to the floor, his right knee screaming at him for touching the cold floor. “Fritz. Please get off me.”
“Come on, don’t you want to be able to fight even while I’m on top of you?” Fritz asked.
“Yeah, aren’t you a little old for piggyback rides?”
“Aren’t you a little old to be a virgin? Letting me piggyback might be the closest you ever get!”
“I’m twenty-one, I’m not over the hill yet. I think. Besides, that’s about as many reps you’ve done.”
“But you still can’t fold yourself in half as well as I can.” Fritz shook his head and clicked his tongue. “For shame, Alex, what would your father think?”
“I think,” Alex wheezed, teleporting to his feet a couple yards away and letting Fritz’s butt hit the floor, “He’d be proud that I’m doing something in my off time besides watching the Longhorns, green in the face.”
Fritz grunted as he hit the ground, but hopped up just as quickly.
“I mean, if that’s what you have to tell yourself, don’t let me stop you.”
Alex frowned. He hated when Fritz did that. “Dude, I’m serious,” he said, jotting down ninety-seven push-ups in his notes. “He doesn’t say it, but you know how he’s been since I dropped out of school. I just want him to, you know. Be proud of me.”
“You do what you want, Alex,” Fritz said, putting his hands up in front of himself. “But I know that, for me, I had to stop worrying about making my parents happy before I started being happy myself.”
“My dad didn’t drag me to synagogue.”
“You’re Catholic, Alex. Consider yourself lucky.”
“Lucky,” Alex mimicked under his breath. “Yeah, right.”
“Guess it says a lot about our luck that we ended up here,” Fritz mused with a shrug. “We’ve been in some weird spots before, but this is really something else, isn’t it?”
“You’re telling me,” Alex said, getting on the floor and beginning his crunches. “Superheroes.” He paused. “You believe it? It feels like prank, and Quinn’s gonna say ‘gotcha’ at any moment.”
“Well, I know I’d do that, but I dunno about her. But hey, now that we’re here, we might as well make the best of it.”
Alex paused again. “You think we can do it?” he asked between breaths. “What do you think Rebecca’s up to, anyways?”
“How would I know? She could be looking to build a monument to herself for all the information we have. We need to be looking for more of that, come to think of it.”
“Well, maybe we can start with her.” Alex gestured towards the door with his head. “Jessica I mean. She knows her better than any of us.”
“You really think she’s gonna want to talk about her mom like that?” Fritz asked, squinting at Alex. “I mean, by all means, you can try.”
“Hey, she’s on our side, right? Right?” When Fritz raised an eyebrow, Alex sighed. “She kinda scares me too to be honest.”
“Aw, that always happens when you have your first crush.” Fritz slunk up behind Alex and bodily pushed him towards the door with his foot. “Come on, say hello, tell her she’s pretty, ask about her crazyass mom.” Alex got to his feet, whining the whole way, and walked into the next room.
The training room was wide and rectangular, stretching about forty yards, Alex estimated – quite impressive for an underground structure in Florida. Air conditioning machines whirred above, blasting air on several areas partitioned off by white painted lines. To his left, on the far end of the room, was an assortment of exercise equipment, as expensive looking as the ones he worked with in college. Along the side of the opposite wall was what appeared to be an arena, complete with a scoreboard, a bell and a rope barrier like boxing leagues would use. To his immediate left was a refreshments table, though nothing was placed on it at the moment. Finally, to his right was a firing range. Jessica was plugging away at her targets, with Quinn listening intently behind her. Oddly enough, neither were wearing headphones. Jessica’s tranq pistol only made a light twiping sound.
“Hey, uh, boss,” Alex said to Quinn. “Should we call you that, or…?”
Quinn turned from the targets. “Just Quinn is fine, Alex.”
“Right. I was almost done with my measurements until Fritz here-” he patted his friend on the shoulder, “-decided he had a few questions he wanted to ask Jay. Isn’t that right, Fritz?”
“Sure, Alex, sure,” Fritz said. “So, seeing as you’re related to who we’re going after, we were wondering if you could, I don’t know, tell us a little more about her. What makes her tick, what she might be planning, what we could do to stop it, that kind of stuff.”
Jessica unloaded her magazine, letting it hit the floor, and reloaded. She fiddled with her gun for a while before taking aim at a human gel dummy and firing a dart into its neck.
“You don’t trust me,” she said as-matter-of-factly.
Alex hesitated, looking at Fritz. He saw Quinn turn downrange, which told him she was going to let them handle this themselves. “That’s not what-”
“You don’t. Right Fritz?”
“Does it even matter?” Fritz asked, shrugging. “We’ve got so little to go off of, I don’t care where a lead comes from.”
She plugged a few more darts, grouped closely together, into the dummy’s chest. “I suppose it doesn’t in this situation. Mother might be, hmm, complicated, but if you’ve known her as long as I have then you’d know her actions aren’t adding up. She hates criminals. Despises them. She loathes them beyond any healthy limit.” Alex heard Quinn mumble something in agreement. “So giving them guns? It doesn’t make any sense. I’m not saying it isn’t her, because she tried to get me to help her while we were in jail, so I guess I’m saying she has to have more cards close to her chest. What they are, she didn’t tell me, but if I were her, I’d want them to wipe each other out and leave my hands clean, especially since her lobbying failed.”
“Give both sides rocks and push them into beating each other to death. Sounds plausible to me.” Fritz tilted his head at Jessica, blinking twice at her. “Sure seems like her complicatedness might have rubbed off on you.”
Alex shuffled on his feet. This was getting nowhere fast. Did Fritz always have to make things awkward with people?
“So,” Alex blurted out without thinking, “you said Rebecca was a good mother, for the most part. What was she like, away from the cape and the guns?”
Jessica paused, looking down at the empty magazine in her hands. Briefly she smiled, then sighed, letting it fall into the growing pile. “Either of you boys grow up near downtown?”
“Nope,” they said in unison.
“There’s a city park there, only a few blocks away from Cerberus headquarters. It’s named after the second American Spirit, Scott C. Pierce, and the city has always done a fairly good job of keeping it safe for residents and tourists. Mom would always take me there every Friday she was in America, letting me romp around and do what little kids do. It was one of the few times in a home-stationed week where she seemed genuinely happy, just being a mother and getting away from the all firefights and formations. But every time we went, she always stopped at the gates and frowned. As I got older, she started coming with me less and less. When I was eleven, I got too old to be playing with the little kids, but I still went in the hopes of spending some time with my mom. But, by then, she’d stopped going completely. I got fed up. I went home on a perfect July afternoon to find her passed out at her desk. I nudged her awake, and she began to cry and mumble incoherently. When she oriented herself enough, she told me she couldn’t walk through those gates anymore. I didn’t understand. What was wrong with Scott? Why wouldn’t she discuss her days as a Maverick? She was a superhero for fuck’s sake, I worshipped her. I kept pushing and eventually she snapped, hurled her glass at the floor, and stormed off when she realized what she’d done. We never talked about that incident again, but you can bet I stopped going to Scott C. Pierce Park.”
“Geez,” was all Alex could say to that. What else could he say? He didn’t expect her to sound so – human. Away from all the bluster, was she really just a scared and confused woman, doing what she thought was best? What was driving her to these insane plans? Quinn, for her part, didn’t look like she bought whatever the excuse was. “Sorry about that. And uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but you didn’t have a lot of friends either, did you?”
“Yeah, what told you that?”
“Lucky guess. Well, we can all become friends over our mommy and daddy issues, right Fritz?”
“There’s always room at the pity party!” Fritz chirped. ‘Don’t worry, Jay, it might seem bad now, but give it a few years.”
“Hmph. Didn’t like your parents very much?”
“Nope,” Fritz said, beaming all the while. “They were a couple of fuddy-duddy Jews and I’m glad we don’t talk anymore.”
“And you Alex, your mother left you at a young age, didn’t she?”
Alex jumped a little. “How did you-?”
“I dunno what that means, but yeah. My dad got very mad once and called her a bad word that I won’t repeat here, but I’m sure you can guess what it was.”
“I brought it up once and it’s the first and only time I heard Judd say ‘whore’,” Fritz chimed in.
Alex sighed. “Yes, thanks, Fritz.”
“You’re welcome! Someone has to say the naughty words for you, boy scout.”
“You kiss your mother with that mouth? Oh, right, oops,” Jessica said with feigned innocence.
“Hey, at least my mom isn’t the supervillain of this story.” Fritz elbowed Alex with a smile. “She likes you already, good job.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. Why was he always out of the loop? Were people speaking telepathically behind his back or something? “How do you know?”
“Inductive reasoning!” Fritz said, patting Alex on the shoulder.
“What does that even mean?!”
Once more, Fritz winked at Jessica. “I bet you can explain to him.”
Jessica cocked her pistol loudly. “You’re a tech geek, right Friedrich? Wanna see how this thing works?”
“Now now children, I’ve let you have your fun,” Quinn said, grinning ear to ear. “God, it’s nice to hear this place full of life again. Speaking of which – Fritz, read me off your physical numbers.”
Fritz gave an uncomfortable laugh and made to back off.
“Well, you know, I kind of stopped writing things down after the first couple sets, but I think I did pretty alright.”
“He’s full of shit,” Jessica said promptly. Quinn echoed Fritz’s laugh.
“His heartbeat gave it away. Get your ass in the next room son, I’ll be supervising you this time.”