The world regained its focus around Buddy and he saw the familiar street in front of Maggie’s apartment building. He climbed out of the rickshaw and looked at Alexa.
“Thanks,” he said.
“No problem,” Alexa responded.
“Guess I’ll see ya around.”
“Does that mean you’re not going to help?”
“Look, you guys made your point. There’s probably something going on that I don’t know about. Hell, I punched through a metal door today. But, I really can’t be the guy you need me to be. I’m sorry.” Buddy turned away and walked toward the steps to Maggie’s apartment.
“Buddy, wait,” Alexa pleaded. “I know what you must be going through, so I don’t blame you for wanting to leave us. But. . . well, I just wanted you to know that I really enjoyed having you around today. It’s pretty cool to finally get to meet you.”
“Hey, I’m really glad I got to meet you too.” Alexa walked to Buddy and gave him a big hug.
“I just need you to know that there are people that still care about you, whether or not you choose to be Buddy Hero again.”
“I’m fine, kid. Don’t worry about me.”
Alexa laughed softly. “It’s pretty funny, isn’t it? I mean, someone like me being concerned for the great Buddy Hero?”
“I guess so, I don’t know.”
“Right. It’s just that, well, I know that it wasn’t always super-awesome for you when you were THE Buddy Hero.”
“That’s definitely not something to worry yourself about, Alexa. I don’t remember any of it.”
“Sure, I know. I’m just saying, there’s probably good reason for you to not want to go back to doing that.”
“Do you have something you want to tell me?”
“Yeah, I guess. You see, it was about a year before the Wipe when I first discovered my abilities. Artie approached me. He told me about a place for people like me, a place where people with abilities could learn to cope with what they had and learn to control and use their powers more effectively.”
“Sounds pretty nice.”
“Yeah. I had just left home and didn’t have much to my name, so when Artie promised me everything I could ever dream of, I had a really hard time turning him down.”
“Yeah, I think most people would have that problem. What does that have to do with me?”
“Well, Artie ended up not exactly being one of the good guys. He kept his promises and took really good care of me, but he used me, he used all of us, to do a whole bunch of bad stuff. I never got into much back then since I was still pretty young, but I quickly realized the type of guy he was.”
“Like Zero was talking about, right?”
“Right. I quickly found myself feeling less and less troubled by the things Artie was getting into and I really hated myself for it.”
“I’m sorry, I’m still not sure what this has to do with me.”
“Well, that was all before the first time I actually saw you in action. I knew about you, of course, everyone did, but I always just thought you were some silly freak out there trying to get famous. I never really knew who you were.”
“Okay. . . “
“Well, I mean, okay, for example, when the whole thing with Damon started up, it became really easy to think of you, and all those people like you, as the bad guys. You were the ones who were causing most of the damage and it seemed like you were all causing more trouble that you were stopping.”
“Is there a point to all of this?”
“Okay, so, I was downtown in Sun Square having lunch when Damon came out of the sky. He landed right in the middle of Sun Square, landing all of about 10 feet from me, and started spouting off all sorts of death and destruction-type stuff, you know, really scary, angry things. Then he stood up, raised his hands to the air, and the ground started shaking. People were running and screaming about the end of the world. It was crazy. And then you appeared. You fell from the sky with a mission. You knew what Damon was capable of and what he had planned for you. You knew the danger he posed, but you jumped right in as though it was just another day at the office. The rest of the Defenders were there with you, sure, but it was you who had my full attention.”
“Look, Alexa, I’m flattered and all, but–”
“Please, let me finish. You see, I watched the entire battle from ground level. I couldn’t tear myself away from it. There was debris and fire flying everywhere, but I was stuck in place, just sitting in complete awe of you. But even though I was amazed by the fight, it wasn’t what stuck with me. It was something that happened after the battle was over. As Damon lay on the ground beneath you, you looked around. You saw all that had been destroyed in your wake and I saw the real you. For a brief moment I saw why you did what you did.”
“Cool, now can–”
“You didn’t fight crime because you felt you needed to. You didn’t do it because you were the only one strong enough to do it. You did it because you cared about every single person in this city. For that short second of time, I saw what it all meant to you and it changed my perspective. I realized then that I should be fighting for the world, not against it.”
A sound of clapping came from the alleyway next to Maggie’s apartment building.
“That’s a beautiful story, Miss Rose. I’d give you the award for best actress, but unfortunately I’m not wearing my tuxedo.” A man stepped out from the shadows, two men stepped out with him. The man in front was a large man, wearing army fatigues. He stood a head above the other two, wearing a brimmed hat and aviator sunglasses. Buddy recognized the other two as Agents Parker and Kent. He looked at the ground, not wanting to be caught by Agent Parker’s ever-watchful eyes.
“Duff, you rat. What do you want from me?”
“It’s not you I’ve been looking for, my darling Alexa. Mr. Jackson is the subject of interest on this particularly beautiful evening. It looks like you’ve been running around with the wrong crowd, Buddy. As such, you’ve started to appear on my most wanted list.”
“Not sure I’ve ever been all that wanted. And who are you?”
“Sergeant Alexander P. Duff. I’ve been tasked with the job of finding folks like the two of you and bringing you into custody. Of course, if something were to happen to my captives during transport, well. . . let’s just say my chain of command doesn’t ask too many questions.”
“He’s a fed, Buddy. He’s part of the reason you don’t remember anything. He’s the reason supers have to hide underground. He’s also a really big jerk.”
“Oh, come on, Alexa. We’ve had some good times together, haven’t we? What about that night at Starlight Park?”
“Shut it, Duff. What do you want with Buddy?”
“Well, it just so happens we’re missing a couple of people we had been holding in captivity down at the Sun City Hospital. Both of them happen to be old friends of our pal, Buddy, here. And the way I hear it, Mr. Jackson was seen hanging around that very same facility just this morning. I don’t suppose you have any information on this you might like to share with us, do ya?”
“He has no clue what you are talking about. C’mon Buddy, let’s get out of here.”
“Oh, but Miss Rose, don’t think I don’t find it even more coincidental you are here with Mr. Jackson on the very same day one of my captives disappeared from view in front of my very own eyes. I believe we’ll need to take you in as well, just to be safe. Parker, restrain these two.”
Alexa disappeared from view.
“Kent, can you take care of that?
Agent Kent disappeared from his position in front of Buddy.
Alexa had run down an alley opposite of where the men had stood and came upon a chain link fence. She began to climb the fence when Agent Kent appeared on the other side.
“Wha-?” Alexa said, as she fell to the ground. She ran to a door she had passed before getting to the fence. She opened the door and inside stood Agent Kent.
She slammed the door in his face and ran back down the alley, towards Buddy, running faster than she thought possible. An arm appeared right at neck level just as she exited the alley, bringing her immediately to the ground. She looked up to see Agent Kent, who had been hiding behind the wall.
Buddy looked confused as Alexa appeared nearby and collapsed on the ground.
“Ms. Rose, I’d like you to meet one of my new agents, Thomas Kent. As you may have guessed, he’s pretty good at getting around quickly, just as yourself.”
“She’s unconscious, sir,” Agent Kent said.
“Well I guess we’ll just have to leave the introductions for later then. Alright, Mr. Jackson, which way do you want to come in? I am preferential to the runners, but I take you for being a bit more accommodating than that. I’ll make sure the judge takes it easier on you.”
“Buddy Hero shall indeed be judged, but his judgment lies with me and there shall be no mercy here.” The words roared from the sky. Buddy looked up and saw a figure engulfed in flames lowering towards the street. He landed and the flames disappeared. The silhouette of the man walked through the residual smoke toward Buddy.
“Damon Memphis, you are hereby ordered to cease and desist all super-human activity,” Sergeant Duff yelled at the silhouette. Buddy saw the sly confidence the Sergeant had previously displayed cracking. Damon raised a finger and pointed it at Duff. A ball of flame exploded from his fingertip and flew directly into the sergeant’s chest. Duff flew through the air and landed roughly against the wall of the building behind him. He hit the ground and slumped forward.
Agent Kent looked at his leader and then back at Damon. He grabbed Agent Parker’s arm and ran to Duff. He touched Duff’s shoulder and the three disappeared, leaving only Buddy and an unconscious Alexa on the street with a very angry looking Damon.
Buddy couldn’t help but be disappointed at the sight of his so-called nemesis. Damon was a thin wisp of a man. Buddy towered over him in both height and weight. He questioned why everyone was so afraid of this tiny, frail man. Buddy fought back laughter as he noticed what the man was wearing. His fashion sense had been stolen directly from the pages of a comic book. He was wearing a black jumpsuit, covered in images of flames. And around his neck was a large crucifix.
“Look, Damon, pal. I know it’s been a while and you’re probably wanting to catch up and all, but I’ve had a really long day, so I’m thinking maybe we reschedule this for–”
“Always with the inane wit, Buddy Hero. That is just one of the many examples of your corruption,” Damon spit out Buddy’s name as though it burned his tongue. “Your judgment has waited long enough. No longer shall you terrorize this world with–”
“Look pal, I understand you’ve got the whole evil super-villain thing going on and all, but can we cut through the crap for just a minute? Why don’t we strike up some sort of deal? It’s been a while since you’ve been around and things have changed. I’ve changed, you can ask anyone. So, I promise I’ll be good and we’ll just leave the world like it is, you know, all nice and not–” Buddy’s words were cut off when Damon grabbed him by the throat and lifted him into the air.
“Okay, I can see you’re not up for discussing this,” Buddy sputtered through gasping breaths, his face turning red. Damon’s hand heated around Buddy’s neck and Buddy smelled the pungent aroma of burning flesh. The pain was almost unbearable. Buddy pulled strength from somewhere within himself to not scream out in agony.
He pulled his hand back and swung at the man before him. Damon did not even wince. He brought his hand to his neck, trying to release the grip holding him. The heat made it impossible to even touch. Buddy searched for the strength he had found so easily before, but nothing came to him.
“You think you are the savior of this world and therefore think of everything as nothing more than a joke to you. Yet, everything you do sends this world into a deeper despair. Where are your followers, Buddy Hero? Where are the throngs of people shouting your name? Has the great Buddy Hero truly fallen from grace? Perhaps this world has finally come to its senses. It’s a pity I still have to destroy it. Its transgressions have passed the point of forgiveness. You may pretend you are different as you hide behind your extra layers of fat, but I see through your tricks. You will still be the first to be judged, Buddy Hero. You shall be my example to the world, before I rip it from existence.”
“Hey, you want someone to judge? I’ve got a confession for you!” A voice came from across the street. Buddy saw a short man running in their direction, carrying something in his arms. The figure walked under a nearby streetlight and stopped. Buddy saw Ryan Reed holding a large metallic device in his arms. It looked like a modified vacuum cleaner.
“Ryan, get out of here! You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“No can do, Buddy. I owe you one and like I said, a Reed always pays back their debts.” Damon turned to look at him with a glint of pure evil in his eye. He dropped Buddy to the ground as he faced Ryan.
“Ryan Reed. . . Son of Oscar Reed, perhaps?”
“That’s right, scumbag. Just so happens the Reeds have a debt to pay you back for as well.” Ryan sounded angry, but shaking. Damon walked towards him. Ryan stepped backward, keeping the same distance between him and Damon.
“And the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son a thousand times,” Damon recited, as though he were cursing Ryan.
“Dude, shut up. We had enough of your fire and brimstone talk the last time you were around. You wanna torch me? Then torch me already.”
“I see the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Your father always showed a great deal of discomfort for the words of God as well. And so shall you be judged like him.”
“Seriously, freak. You gonna light me up or what?” Ryan’s voice cracked.
Buddy stood on his feet and lunged at Damon. Damon didn’t even notice.
“You young insignificant speck of dust. You think you stand a chance against me? Do you know who I am? Do you dare question the power at my command? I am Dominion!” Damon’s hand raised and pointed at Ryan. Ryan clutched the device in his hand closer to his body, bracing for impact. “I am the Angel of Death, sent to judge all mankind!”
The flames flew from Damon’s finger toward the young man. The device in Ryan’s hands lit up. A thick white fluid escaped from the device at high velocity, swallowing the flames in its path as it headed toward Damon. The liquid landed on Damon and quickly covered him, expanding as it hit.
“Is this how you battle fire, dear boy? You bring a fire extinguisher to a battle with Dominion? Is this all the mighty Defenders have to face me with?” The gooey substance turned black and expanded over him completely. It hardened into a crystallized surface with Damon inside.
“What the-” Buddy said, not knowing how to finish his sentence.
“Yeah, you like that? It’s a little prototype dealie my company’s been developing. It supposed to be a flame retardant insulation for use in between buildings that butt up next to each other. Seemed like the perfect tool for the job when I heard Damon was back.”
“Well why did you wait so long to use it. I’m pretty sure my heart stopped for a moment there.”
“Yeah, pretty intense, right? I totally felt it too. I was pretty certain I was going to be deep fried. The major drawback to this device for a situation like this is it only expands and hardens when in contact with flame. So, I kinda needed to wait until he lit up before dousing him. I wasn’t even sure it would fire up fast enough. But it looks like we can mark the the field test as a win, right?”
“Kid, you are out of your mind, but thanks. How did you find me anyhow? And how’d you know he’d be here?”
“When I saw Damon was back, I set up a tracking system looking for heat anomalies within the city limits of Sun City. He might as well have been wearing a tracking chip. Too easy.”
Buddy walked to the newly created rock in the middle of the street and knocked on it. “So, he’s stuck in there for good? That is too easy.”
“The goo was developed to disintegrate a couple hours after it’s removed from heat. It’s no prison or anything, but man, there’s no chance he’ll get out of there until the rock’s ready to give.”
“So, uhh. . . we just leave him out here?”
“We don’t have much of a choice, even you would have difficulty moving that thing. So, you back in action? I wanted to ask when I fell on top of you the other day, but figured I should play it cool.”
“Really, you know about me too? Am I the only one who didn’t know?”
“Yeah, well, you know, my dad. . . Anyways, so, Damon’s gonna be pretty pissed when he gets out of there. If you’ve got a place to hide, I’d suggest getting yourself hidden as soon as possible. Either Duff’ll be back looking for trouble, or Damon. Not entirely sure which one is worse. See ya, dude.” Ryan ran off into the darkness.
Buddy ran to Alexa’s side. She was slumped over on the ground in the opening of the alleyway. He reached down, picked her up, and carried her into the apartment building. He took her upstairs to Maggie’s apartment. He opened the door and Maggie jumped off the couch and ran straight to Buddy.
“Buddy! I’m so glad you’re safe. When I didn’t hear from you all day, I got worried. And then there were the men who came here asking about you, the story about the man on fire at the hospital, and—Who is that?”
“It’s a friend, Maggie. I think she might be seriously hurt and we need her to wake up so we can get out of here.”
“What’s going on?”
“There’s too much to explain right now, but the simple version is, we’re in a whole bunch of trouble and the only person who knows how to get us somewhere safe is unconscious in my arms. Got any ideas on how to wake her up?”
“Put her on the couch. I’ll see if I can’t find some smelling salts or something. I probably still have some left over from your boxing days.” Maggie jumped into action, taking charge of the situation. She ran out of the room.
Buddy felt a sense of comfort knowing someone else still remembered history the way he did. He placed Alexa on the couch and propped her head up on a pillow. He brushed her hair out of her face and used the opportunity to take a real look at the woman he had spent most of the day with. He saw sadness in her eyes, even in her comatose state. He wondered what could cause someone so beautiful to look so sad. Maggie returned to the room.
“We’re in luck. Looks like I’ve got a bit of ammonium carbonate left.” She opened the container and took a whiff. “Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve smelled that. Brings back some memories, huh?” Buddy took the bottle of smelling salts from Maggie and placed it under Alexa’s nose. She quickly jumped up, inhaled deeply, and then began coughing roughly.
“It’s alright, you’re safe now, Alexa.”
“Duff. Where is he?”
“He’s gone for now, but we’ve got to get back to the base right now and we’re taking my sister with us.”
“I don’t know if Artie would be too happy with me bringing a civvy down, Buddy.”
“I don’t care. She’s coming and we don’t have time to discuss it.”
“Okay, whatever. Where’s the rickshaw?”
“It’s right outside. You okay to run?”
“Run?” Maggie interjected. “Shouldn’t we use a car or something?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Let’s get going.”
“It’s really not a problem, my car is parked right out back.”
Alexa bolted from the couch and went straight to the door. She opened it and looked back.
“Race you down?” she asked with a smirk on her face before disappearing.
Go to Chapter Fifteen