Buddy, Zero, Alexa, Ryan, Oscar, Maggie, and Talmadge stood on the grass outside the Sun City Convention Center, watching as the police crew taped off the area and interviewed witnesses.
“Well, that was a waste of my morning,” Maggie groaned.
“Why’s that?” Buddy asked. “I thought this was going to balance the budget.”
“No, you idiot. I get paid based on having people come through the line. I actually had to pay to be a vendor, which means this whole thing is costing me money.”
“But didn’t you just say we had an extra twenty thousand dollars in our bank account?”
“Well, yeah, but it’s not like we’re going to be able to keep it.”
“Because you obviously had to do something incredibly stupid to get it. Wait, you didn’t really rob a bank, did you?”
“Of course not!” Buddy laughed. “I did exactly what you told me to do. I got paid for being a superhero.”
“Will one of you tell me what the hell my brother’s talking about?” Maggie asked Ryan and Alexa.
“Damon Memphis, well, the guy who used to be Damon Memphis, offered us money for any help we could give him on taking out Arthur Flores,” Alexa answered.
“Yeah, Buddy told me about that,” Maggie responded matter-of-factly before she stopped herself and then followed it up by punching her brother in the shoulder. “Tell me you didn’t!”
“Didn’t what?” Buddy asked.
“Tell me that you did not get this money by helping out that evil man who tried to kill me!”
“God damn it, Buddy! We didn’t need the money that badly.”
“Actually,” Ryan interjected, “it wasn’t exactly Buddy’s fault. I was the one who sent the guys to the MHDT.”
“See,” Buddy shrugged, “it wasn’t even me. And now we can pay off some of the debt we’re in, right? No harm done.”
“There is no way in hell we’re keeping that money,” Maggie yelled. “Not if it came from that evil, evil man.”
“Well, to be fair,” Oscar cut in, “I’m not so certain that the man currently inhabiting the body of Damon Memphis is all that evil. In fact, from my limited interaction with Agent Murphy, I’d be willing to say he came off as being rather nice, at least in comparison to the prior version of the man in that body.”
“I’m sorry, and you are?” Maggie yelled at the man who dared disagree with her.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Maggie. I didn’t even think about how you might not have recognized me. I’m Oscar Reed.”
“Oscar Reed?” Maggie asked, her face falling in surprise. “Like, as in the Reed Pharm Oscar Reed?”
“One in the same. How’s the old diner holding up?”
“You know about my diner?”
“Of course I do. My wife and I were some of the initial investors in your little venture. Of course, back then we didn’t have nearly as much money as I do today, but–”
“Wait, you invested in my diner?”
“Actually, if I remember correctly, I think I still hold somewhere around a fifty percent stake in the business.”
“That’s impossible. I mean, well, actually, I guess I don’t know if it’s possible. It does seem that I had some investors to help start things up, but, well, I guess I don’t remember who they were.”
“Don’t worry Maggie, it’s just the effects of The Great Redaction. I’m not surprised they would have removed your memories of Rose and me, considering how odd it would be for us to be connected without The Defenders.”
“So, we were friends? Back then?”
“Oh, yeah, great friends. You and Rose were especially close. In fact, Rose and I went on a great many double dates with you and–”
“We should not continue on such idle banter,” Zero interrupted. “You said we needed to get into the building in order to gain entrance to The Bunker’s back door, correct?”
“Um, yeah, that’s right.”
“That’s gonna be a tad hard with all the boys in blue around, isn’t it?” Buddy asked.
“I could get in there easily,” Alexa responded.
“Sure, sis, but what about the rest of us. That hole in the side of the building is pretty big, but I’m still not certain you could get your rickshaw in there without being noticed.”
“Is that a dare?” Alexa smiled.
“Do you seriously think you can get in and around the police tape without anyone noticing?”
“I know I can get us in there without anyone thinking anything of it. You wanna say fifty bucks?”
“Okay, hold on a sec and I’ll nab the rickshaw. Don’t go anywhere!” Alexa disappeared and a split second reappeared behind her brother. “Boo!” she shouted.
Ryan jumped in the air. “Dammit, Alexa. You know that gets me every time!”
“Why do you think I keep doing it?”
“Alright you two,” Oscar smiled. “Enough of the sibling rivalry stuff, let’s get in there already.”
“Okidokie,” Alexa laughed. “Now, there’s not really enough room for all of you to sit comfortably back there. Hope you don’t mind sitting on some laps for the short trip in.”
“We’ll deal,” Oscar said with yet another smile.
“Maggie,” Buddy spoke softly. “You gonna be alright?”
“Of course I’m going to be alright. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s just that last time we went into battle against–”
“Yeah, I know. And you had better be certain I’m not going to be put into another one of those types of situations again.”
“I still remember my, I mean his hands–”
“Stop Buddy,” Maggie said, looking away from him. “I don’t want to think about it, okay.”
“So, what are you guys up to anyways?”
“Oh, nothing too much,” Ryan cut in. “We’re just breaking into The Bunker to try and find Carl and break him out so he can cure cancer.”
“Oh,” Maggie said abruptly. “So, just another day at the office?”
“Just another day at the office,” Zero agreed.
“Okay, well, good luck then, kids. You better all come home safely.”
“If you promise to make me a raspberry pie, I’ll guarantee you right now that not a hair will be harmed on any of them,” Zero said hopefully.
“Get home in time for dinner, and I’ll make two. One just for you, Zero.”
“Deal,” Zero said, extending his hand to her. Maggie took it and shook firmly. Zero stared at her hand, holding it much longer than necessary.
“Alright, get out of here already,” Maggie said, wrenching her hand from him. “Make me proud.”
“Always,” Buddy agreed.
The group climbed into the vehicle, Buddy, Oscar, and Zero sat while Ryan climbed onto his father’s lap.
“Been a while since I’ve had you up on my lap, son.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said awkwardly. “And it’s not weird at all, right?”
“Talmadge,” Buddy yelled down to the man in the yellow suit. “Climb on in, boy. You’re going on an adventure.”
“We have no other choice,” Zero said reluctantly.
“You won’t regret it,” Talmadge said as he excitedly climbed into the vehicle and sat down on Zero’s lap.
“I wouldn’t be so certain about that.”
The world melted away and reformed into the destroyed interior of the Sun City Convention Center. Talmadge jumped up quickly in surprise.
“Whoa, what the hell just happened?” he asked as he stepped out of the vehicle and looked around in amazement. After three steps he fell to the ground clutching his stomach. “Ungh,” he grimaced.
“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Alexa said quickly. “Everyone gets queasy the first time around. You’ll get over it in no time.”
“What the heck?” Talmadge asked as he returned to his feet. “This might sound crazy, but, well, with all that seems to happen around you guys, well, I’m just going to say it. Are you guys actual, real,” Talmadge hushed his voice as he spoke these last words, “superheroes?”
“The best and the brightest,” Zero said grandly. “The Defenders of America!”
“Whoa,” Talmadge said quietly. “So, like, real superheroes, with the superpowers and everything. That’s. . . whoa.”
“Yeah, we’re a pretty big deal,” Alexa brushed Talmadge off. “Alright Ry-guy, pay up.”
Ryan fished a fifty out of a hole on his belt and quietly handed it to his sister.
“But what do you guys need me for?” Talmadge asked. “I mean, this changes everything. I just thought you were like me, but you know, so–”
“Jeez,” Zero spoke. “Does this kid never stop?”
“Listen, son,” Oscar spoke gently. “I don’t really know how to explain this easily, but there’s a whole history of the world that, well, that you’re not really aware of, but that your family played a big part in.”
“Okay,” Talmadge said uneasily. “And…”
“And,” Buddy continued, “because of that history, we need your help.”
“Sure, anything, but why me?”
“Because your parents used to be like us,” Alexa answered, gesturing to the statue in front of them. “Actually, they weren’t just like us, they were us.”
“I’m still not following.”
“The statue that you know as the, um, what was it called again?” Oscar asked.
“The Founding Fathers,” Buddy answered.
“Right,” Oscar continued. “The Founding Father’s Statue, well, the story behind it isn’t quite right. The people depicted in that statue were, at one time, known as The Defenders of America.”
“Yeah, I know all about that. My dad used to tell me stories. But, I mean, they weren’t real.”
“Petru?” Oscar inquired.
“Yeah, how’d you know my dad’s name?”
“Because, he’s one of the seven people up there,” Oscar pointed again, gesturing to the figure of Petru. “So am I,” he said, indicating the bronze version of himself.
“And me,” Buddy added.
“And me!” Zero added proudly.
“But, that can’t be,” Talmadge responded. “That guy up there doesn’t look anything like my–well, actually, I’ve never really looked at it before. I guess maybe he does kind of look like Dad. Holy crap, you’re saying this is a statue of actual superheroes that actually exist?”
“Precisely,” Oscar replied.
“But… how? I mean, I’ve never heard of you guys, outside of the stories that my dad used to tell me. How can there be a statue in town dedicated to a bunch of people no one actually knows about?”
“I’ve been asking myself the same question,” Buddy laughed.
“The answer to that question is somewhat difficult to explain, in that I’m still not entirely certain I understand it. Anyways, we have more pressing matters to attend to right now. But, needless to say, you are part of a pretty important legacy. And because of that legacy, we need you to help us.”
“Okay, like I said, I’ll do anything. What do you need?”
“All of you,” Oscar said as he walked closer to the statue, “come here and I’ll show you.”
The group followed him to the base of the metal structure where he felt around a lip in its base.
Oscar looked up and smiled frustratingly as he continued his search. “Stupid button. Been too long since I placed it here, I don’t– Oh, there it is.” A click sounded and the entire base of the structure slid down to reveal glowing colored panels around the circular stand.
“Whoa,” Talmadge said in awe, “you did all that with a button that’s been sitting here for forever?”
“Yeah, in hindsight, I probably should have put in some sort of fail-safe mechanism,” Oscar reflected. “Oh well, it’s apparently done well enough in staying hidden so far.”
“Alright, Big Red,” Zero said as he approached the statue eagerly. “What do we do?”
Oscar smiled. “It’s pretty simple. At this point, the doorway just needs to do a simple DNA scan to ensure we meet the requirements for entrance. You’ll notice each of the panels is a different color, matching that of the appropriate Defender, multi-colored rainbow that we were. Also note, the panels are each under the image of the appropriate hero in the main structure of the statue. I thought that was a nice touch, right?”
“Yeah, go you,” Buddy groaned. “So, what do we do?”
“Simply place your palm on the appropriate panel. We’ll need to do it at the same time, of course.”
Ryan ran to the panel and placed his hand on the red light, “I’m in!” he shouted as a tone sounded.
“Actually, Ryan, you’ll be needed on the pink panel. I’ve got something else planned for Alexa. I’ll take the red one. Zero and Buddy, I think you can figure yours out, right?” Everyone nodded as they approached their required locations.
“Which one do you need me to touch?” asked Talmadge, rubbing his hands nervously.
“That’s where Alexa comes in,” Oscar answered. “If you look, you’ll see that the yellow and orange panels are on opposite sides of the structure. Alexa, do you think you could lift him and take him from one to the other? You should be fast enough to beat the system.”
“Oh, I can move him alright,” she stated.
“Okidokie,” Oscar clapped his hands.
Each member of the team placed their hands on their respective colors, causing a tone to chime with each verification of their identities or lineage. Talmadge was the last to place his hand upon the pedestal, choosing the orange panel. There was a pause before the tone finally chimed.
“Just like the kid of Petru’s to cause the system to do a double-take,” Oscar laughed. “Alright Alexa, do your thing.”
Alexa stood behind Talmadge. “Okay, kid, now don’t think this means anything, got it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Talmadge responded nervously.
“Now, just keep your hand out like it is now and I’ll make sure you’re in the right spot on the other side,” she said as she wrapped her arms around his waist. “Oh,” she remembered, “and you may feel a little nauseous again.”
“I’m still queasy from the–” Talmadge disappeared and a tone sounded from his touching the yellow panel before he could finish his sentence “–rickshaw.” He fell over to his knees as Alexa released him.
As Talmadge returned to his feet, the statue replayed the series of tones in sequence, lighting each panel as it did so. Once all the tones had been played, there was a loud hissing noise as the statue of Arthur Flores separated from the rest of the group, revealing that the structure was designed to be split into seven different pieces.
After the section completed its move, a panel in the floor slid open. A series of clicks sounded and a ladder appeared, leading down through a dark tunnel.
“Now that was cool,” Zero cheered.
“I’ve always been a fan of the theatrics. I could have just put an inconspicuous panel on the wall, but I figured this would be a bit more dramatic in the situation we ever had to use it.”
“Spared no expense, huh Oscar?” Buddy asked.
“Hey, once we finally got on the city’s payroll, we could pay for whatever we wanted. How could I have resisted?”
“Our taxpayer dollars at work, right?” Buddy shrugged.
“It was a different time then. The people were ecstatic about this thing being built. The taxpayers were the ones who crafted the petition which commissioned the piece. I just added a few finishing touches.”
“Can we can it with the political discourse?” Ryan asked. “Why don’t we head on down there and get this over with?”
“Sounds like a plan to me, Little Red,” Zero agreed, heading toward the hole in the ground. “I can’t wait to see what else Big Red has waiting for us.”
Buddy turned to Talmadge. “Thanks for your help, kid. I hope you can find your way home alright.”
“Wait, what? You’re just going to leave me here?”
“It’s mighty dangerous down there, Talmadge,” Oscar agreed with Buddy. “It’s best if you just go on your way with the knowledge that you did a great service to your nation.”
“Hey now, I know I may not be as awesome as you guys, you know, with your cool super powers or whatever, but I’ve been out there doing the same thing you guys have on the streets without any special abilities, and I’ve been doing just fine.”
“You mean like how we found you tangled up in your uniform, destroying private property?” Zero asked as he began descending the ladder.
“Zero could probably be a bit nicer about it,” Oscar apologized, “but he’s right. You haven’t faced anything near what we’ve had to face. And although it may sound rather boastful, I did a bang-up job of making the back-door to The Bunker pretty darn close to impregnable. You’ll need more than some fancy gadgets to find your way through.”
“I hate to be that person, Dad, but what do you have outside of fancy gadgets?” Alexa asked.
“You cut me to the quick, sweetheart. But, quite simply, I have the knowledge of what’s down there. That’s more than I can say for any of you.”
“Yeah, and barely the ability to walk without your suit. Come on, let the kid come down. You never know what he might be capable of. Just think of where we’d be if I had counted Buddy out because of how he looked when I first found him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Buddy asked.
“Are you guys going to just debate all day,” Zero asked, his voice echoing up from the hole he had entered, “or are you going to come down here and help me break into this place?”
Alexa looked at Oscar questioningly. Oscar looked over Talmadge one final time. “Fine, if you guys want him to come along, I won’t fight you.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d say we want–”
“Shut up, Buddy,” Alexa defended. “Okay kid, welcome to The New Defenders. Don’t get killed.”
Go to Chapter Fifteen