“Have I ever told you how much I hate taking the bus?” Buddy asked as he climbed out of the rickshaw.
“Yeah, sis,” Ryan laughed. “What gives?”
“Is that all you two think of me?” Alexa growled as she walked toward the doors to Reed Manor. “You two should feel lucky when and if I decide to allow you to go at my speed.”
“Whatever you say, mum,” Buddy snorted.
“Hey,” Alexa said, snapping her head around to glare at him, “You had better watch it or you’ll be walking back.”
“Jeez,” Buddy said as Ryan laughed, “take it easy. I was just making a joke.”
Alexa opened the door to the mansion and stepped in. “Yeah? Well, I wasn’t. One more crack about me needing to run you all over the place and you’re out on your ass. Get it? I’m not a town car.”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was such a sore subject.” Buddy and Ryan looked at each other in dismay before following her inside.
Bosley, the Reed’s butler, appeared at the top of the stairs near the entrance. “Ah, Master Ryan and Miss Alexa, so kind of you to visit your father while he lies on his deathbed.”
“Can it, Bosley,” Alexa snapped. “You know full well I was here just this morning. I don’t need any more of your guilt trips today, okay?”
“I apologize, Miss Alexa. I had not realized it was your time–”
“Don’t even go there old man,” Alexa yelled. “Don’t even think about it!”
“I’ll be in the library if you should need me,” Bosley responded, exiting quietly.
“God, that man can be such a tool,” Alexa said as she stormed through the hallway and up the stairs.
Ryan whispered, “What climbed up her butt?”
“No comment on that one, kid,” Buddy grimaced. “But if I had to guess, I’m thinking she’s not taking your father’s condition too well.”
“Are you two coming or what?” Alexa yelled from the top of the stairs before disappearing down the hall.
Buddy and Ryan looked at each other again before ascending the staircase.
“I know one thing for sure. I don’t want to be the person to get the brunt of that,” Buddy stated sincerely.
“Let’s hope she takes it all out on Dad before we get in there.”
“You think he can handle it?”
“He was married to my mom,” Ryan answered.
“I don’t think you answered my question.”
“You obviously never met my mom.”
“I’m serious, Buddy.”
The two walked into the room cautiously, concerned at how quiet things were on the other side of the door. The sight they were greeted with was quite grim. Oscar Reed sat in a bed which appeared to have been borrowed from Sun City Hospital’s most expensive wing. The room was filled with numerous machines measuring things Buddy could only guess and other gadgets whose function Buddy wouldn’t be able to identify under threat of death. Yet, the man who lay in the center of all this medical machinery could not have looked more excited.
“Buddy! I’m so glad you’ve come to visit!” Oscar exclaimed, sitting up slowly in his bed. “I would have had the maid pick up a bit, but, well, the doctor said I need to keep all this junk lying around to make sure I stay alive.”
“Psh,” Alexa muttered. “You don’t have a doctor. For some stupid reason you think you can do all this yourself.”
“Ah yes, that’s right. I’m the doctor. Like your mother always said, it’s my fault.” Oscar laughed heartily. Buddy looked on uncomfortably.
“Hey Dad,” Ryan said, approaching the bed. “Looking pretty rough.”
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about, kiddo. The only reason I’m looking so bad right now is because of this new treatment I’m testing out. I’ve added a myostatin blocker I developed off some meta-human DNA to the traditional chemotherapy recipe. The idea is to attack the cancer cells while strengthening the body at the same time. I call it Therapeutic Chemo.” Oscar looked at everyone to gauge their responses, which were still pretty grim. “Well, it’s only a working title.”
“It’s not working,” Ryan said somberly. “You look weaker than ever.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s not working. It’s definitely more chemo than therapy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not doing its job.”
“You’re looking pretty chipper, at least,” Buddy offered.
“Well of course I am, Buddy old pal. Always happy to have you come and visit. Not only that, but Alexa says you’ve got a lead on someone who may be able to help me with my cure research. I’d say that’s more than enough to make me mighty chipper.”
“Well, I wouldn’t make any promises or anything, but Carl at least seems to have a pretty–”
“Carl? Wait, you don’t happen to mean Carl Flores, do you? Arthur’s son?”
“Yeah,” Buddy answered slowly. “You know him?”
“Know him? I adore him. I’ve been trying to find him ever since The Great Redaction. Just figured he must have died or something.”
“You have?” Alexa asked. “Why?”
“Why? Because it’s his work I’ve been trying to reproduce. He’s the one who came up with the Super-Cure.”
“You mean he’s the one who developed the cure to cancer?” Alexa asked as her eyes lit up.
“Not just cancer, sweetheart, the cure to disease. Obviously he didn’t do it alone, but he was definitely the central figure of the research. So, you think you know where he is, and that he might be willing to come out of hiding to help me?”
“I can’t imagine why not,” Alexa answered.
“This is spectacular news!” Oscar clapped his hands together in excitement and started pulling electrodes off his chest.
“What are you doing?” Buddy exclaimed. “Nobody said you needed to go ahead and pull the plug, Oscar. These things are—“
Oscar laughed. “Relax, Buddy. None of these machines are doing anything to keep me alive. These are all monitoring different parts of my body to make sure nothing’s going wrong with the process. Those over there are to actually inject my system with—“
“Don’t you think–” Alexa began.
“That’s right!” Oscar cut himself off. “No time for an explanation of these machines, we’ve gotta go find Carl. If he’s still alive, we can’t waste a minute. Are you certain you know where he is?”
“Yeah, of course. I don’t think he’s left The Bunker since the Mind Wipe.”
“The Bunker?” Oscar asked, stopping himself midway through pulling out an IV line from his right arm.
“Yeah, you know, where The Def–” Ryan was cut short.
“I know what The Bunker is, kiddo. I developed and built the damned thing after all. I just realized why you’re here talking to me about all of this.”
“Well, yeah, we need help getting in. We were kinda hoping–”
“Right, none of you have access to enter through the main teleport entrance, right? That’s the problem you came to me about?”
“Yeah,” Buddy started, “but we thought that maybe you–”
“You thought maybe I had developed some sort of back entrance, in case a situation like this would arise where we wouldn’t be able to get in the front door, you know, like if some super-villain had managed to take over the base and lock us out.”
“Yeah,” Ryan answered. “That’s pretty much it.”
“So, you’re saying there’s no back door?” Buddy asked.
“Of course there’s a back door!”
“Well then what’s the problem?” Alexa asked.
“The problem is that I didn’t just put some damned door on the street for any old jerk with a crowbar to open. I installed fail safes to make sure only the right people would be able to get in, namely, The Defenders.”
“Well that shouldn’t be a problem, should it?” Ryan asked. “We’re the New Defenders, right? Heck, with you, Buddy, and Zero, we’ve got almost half of the original Defenders. Speaking of which. Where is Zero? I don’t think I’ve heard from him all day.”
“History lesson,” Buddy answered flatly.
“Oh,” Ryan responded. “That explains where my library card got off to.”
“It’s not that simple, Ryan. The Bunker was designed to be the most secure place on earth. So, when designing the back door, I had to ensure it was even more secure than the front. There are security systems inside security systems designed to make sure only the people who should be using the back door are. Not to mention–”
“But you built them all, didn’t you?” Ryan asked. “Don’t you have some blueprints around somewhere so you can tell us what all we need to be prepared for?”
“It’s not that simple. You see, the back door to The Bunker is so complex I wouldn’t be able to merely draw you a map, listing out possible danger points.”
“Well, fine,” Buddy continued, “we can get you on the radio and you can walk us through from here.”
“That won’t work either,” Ryan responded. “With how deep The Bunker is, we wouldn’t get too far before any radio would be completely useless.”
“Yeah, there’s not a chance anything’s getting in or out of there, radio signal-wise. I had intended to create a link for D.A.W.N. to be able to transmit above the surface, but never quite got that completed.”
“Well crap,” Buddy stated. “I mean, we still have to go down there, don’t we?”
Oscar resumed disconnecting himself from the machines.
“What are you doing now, Dad?” Alexa asked.
“Simple,” Oscar smiled as he swung his legs off the side of the bed. “I’m coming with you.”
“No,” Alexa shouted. “Not a chance. Look at you. You can barely sit up, much less walk. You need to rest.”
“Calm down, kiddo. I’ll take along the old Red Rocketeer suit. I won’t even have to lift a finger without mechanical assistance. It’ll take a little while to run the diagnostics on it to make sure everything’s still in working order, but–”
“Don’t worry Pops,” Ryan responded excitedly. “I’ve actually made a few modifications to the old suit. It’s as good as new. Well, actually, it’s better than new.”
“Ryan, what have I told you about going into the Red Rocketeer Chamber?”
“Chill out, Dad. I promise you’ll love it.”
“Sounds like we’ve got a plan, then,” Buddy said. “We’ll wait for you downstairs while you suit up.”
“Well, there is one more teensy issue we’ll have to deal with first,” Oscar said.
“Okay,” Buddy replied.
“You see, like I said, the back door was designed with the original Defenders in mind. In order to even open the back door, we need DNA from each of the Defenders, well, except for Arthur. I did manage to purge him from the system before, well, before everything that happened happened.”
“Are you saying we have to go hunt down the old team?” Buddy asked incredulously. “Is that even possible?”
“In one word, no,” Oscar answered. “I know for a fact that two of them are dead, so unless you want to dig them out of the–”
“Why the hell are you getting us all excited about this back door if we can’t even–”
“Calm down,” Oscar smiled. “Just because I said we couldn’t get the old team back together doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We simply need their DNA. So, for instance, one of the dearly departed Defenders was my wife, who also happens to be the mother to my children.”
“Ah,” Ryan grinned. “So, Alexa or I should be good enough, right?”
“Right!” Oscar agreed. “Which means there are only two members of the original team left unaccounted for.”
“Okay, so what do we need to do?” Alexa asked, her face tight with determination.
“Well, that’s where the trouble comes in. You see, Piper passed away a number of years ago. And Petru…well, Petru’s always been someone who’s been hard to find. I have no clue what’s happened to him.”
“That seems like more than a little problem,” Ryan replied. “That sounds more like we’re completely screwed.”
“Not exactly,” Oscar shook his head. “You see, Piper and Petru actually had a bit of a thing going on back in the day.”
“Okay, so they were shacking up,” Alexa said flatly. “Does that mean they had a kid or something?”
“Well, maybe yes and maybe no. Piper died in childbirth and the father was never confirmed. If you ask me, I’d be willing to bet most of my empire that Petru was the dad.”
“Sweet!” Buddy exclaimed. “So, where is this kid? Is he still in Sun City?”
“That’s where the good news stops, unfortunately. Their son, like Petru, also appears to be rather difficult to track. I haven’t been able to locate him since The Redaction either. However, I do know that at one point he was in the foster care system looking for adoption, which means we might have a better lead on his current whereabouts than we would with his father.”
“Awesome,” Ryan exclaimed. “If you have a name, I bet I can get you the names of any foster or adoptive parents for him within a couple minutes!”
“Talmadge Bouchard,” Oscar reflected.
“Awesome,” Ryan shouted as he started toward the door. “Can’t be too many people in the system with a name like that!”
“Actually,” Buddy interjected. “Considering how many people I know named Talmadge, I have a feeling I know exactly who we’re looking for, and exactly where he’s going to be.”
“Reverend,” Buddy said as he entered the cathedral. “I hope this isn’t a bad time.”
Damon glanced over his shoulder and saw Buddy striding toward him. He placed the lit candle in his hand down next to the others. “You’ve a lot of nerve walking into this place of worship.”
“I just heard about your wife. It’s a terrible tragedy, one I wish I hadn’t been so directly involved in.”
“Wishes are for fairy tales, son.”
“I’m honestly sorry for what happened, Father, but I hope you understand it was never my inten–”
“The only thing I need understand is that you are a reckless fool who believes you stand above God and man as something to be worshiped.”
“This is a trying time, I get that. I don’t want you to think I am taking what happened lightly. That’s why I felt the need to come here in person. I need you to know–”
“The only reason you came here is to flaunt your existence over me. Don’t think you’re the only one who has been given special gifts.” Damon turned to Buddy, flames bursting from his eyes. “God will no longer allow people like you to continue on your paths of faithlessness. He has plans for you, Buddy Hero, of that I’m certain.”
“Father, your eyes–”
“Yes, that’s right. I’m not so different from you, now that I’ve been given my gift. Where we differ, however, is where the LORD will place judgment.”
“Are you saying these are new abilities. If so, I’d really suggest–”
“Silence!” Damon’s nostrils flared as the flames shot out of his eyes, sputtering fire onto the floor. “You know nothing of what you speak. My power comes from God himself. This is not the work of some foul demon, as it is with the likes of you. I am here to judge you, and that judgment shall be quick.”
“Surely you don’t intend to–” Buddy said, backing away slowly from the man who burned with rage.
“I don’t intend to do anything. Not here at least, not in this place of sanctuary. However, your time will come. And it will come soon.”
“Um,” Buddy stuttered. “I have some friends who may be able to help you understand what your body is–”
“Get out!” Damon screamed. “Your kind is not allowed within the House of God any longer. You shall no longer be allowed to foul this place of worship.”
“Out!” Damon screamed again, his entire body bursting into flame as he yelled. The scent of burnt cloth and ozone filled the air.
Buddy stared at the specter in front of him, uncertain how to respond. Fear that more damage would be caused by him staying than leaving assisted him in reaching the decision to exit swiftly.
“That’s right, Buddy Hero, run. Run from your judgment! Just remember, no one can run from the wrath of God forever!”
Damon fell to his knees as the sound of the slamming door echoed through the cavernous building. The flames died down revealing the naked form of a feeble old man. Tears fell from his eyes, instantly evaporating as they hit the heat of his skin. Through the steam of those tears, he looked at the ceiling and spoke through choked words.
“Hear me, LORD,” he screamed into the darkness. “I beg for your guidance.” He took a deep breath and continued. “Something is happening, something I do not understand. A new emotion burns within me, like anger, but something far more sinister. I feel I am unable to resist its siren’s call, incapable of denying its unyielding release.
“The man who just fled from these hallowed halls, the man who believes himself to be man’s salvation. He seems to be at the center of this emotion, the cause for its inconceivable pull. At the very sight of him, I find myself yearning to pull him apart. And the most frightening piece of it all is that even considering that option feels comforting somehow. Just the idea of delivering harm unto this man gives my heart release.
“I fear losing sight of Your plan for me. I fear that through this emotion, I may be following selfish means, instead of Your Will. The man who gave me this gift, Arthur Flores claims to be Your servant. He says it was Your Will that I receive these abilities. Yet something about this man feels off.”
Damon paused and looked at his hands as they lit up again.
“I need a sign, good LORD. I need a sign of which path I am supposed to take. Am I to act as Your messenger, bringing death and destruction as a part of Your judgment, or would acting in such a way merely cause me to become one of the Horsemen?
“Or, perhaps. . . perhaps these men and women who bring their own destruction, in the guise of salvation, perhaps they are the true Horsemen of the Apocalypse? War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death. Does not my gift resemble the purging fire more than the quest for death? Or the fiery red horse of Conquest, the demon whose image is that of mass slaughter.”
The flames extinguished themselves as Damon stood and walked toward the back of the sanctuary. He paused halfway from the altar to the doors and looked up to the sky, tears hissing once again as they hit his face. He returned to his knees unable to continue any further.
“Please give me a sign. And please don’t let her die.”
Go to Chapter Seven