“Hey, what’s with the rough stuff, Alexa?” Buddy asked as he wrestled his arm back from her surprisingly strong grip. Alexa slammed the door shut behind them. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” she scowled. “Let’s get you down to the lounge.”
“Hey, wait a minute, kid. I’m no psychologist, but you’re obviously pissed off about something. Can we talk about it?”
“There’s no need. I’m not here to talk, I’m just here to do whatever Arthur asks me to do, so let’s do it already.”
“Whoa, easy on the tone, Alexa. I’m just trying to help.”
Alexa took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Buddy. I just get so frustrated with how Artie treats me sometimes. It’s always, ‘Ms. Rose, escort Mr. blah blah there’, or ‘Ms. Rose, please pick up my blah blah blah from the blah blah’. I mean, it’s like he thinks I’m his personal assistant or something.”
“I thought you were.”
“Exactly my point.”
“I’m not sure I understand. Don’t you like Arthur?”
“Ugh,” Alexa said as she started walking away.
“No, seriously. You two seem to be pretty cool with each other. Why the sudden change?”
“Don’t get me wrong, Artie’s done a lot for me. If it weren’t for him, I don’t know where I’d be. But I just don’t think he takes me seriously. I feel like I’m more of an errand girl than anything else around here.”
“This is probably exactly the wrong thing to ask right now, but what are you to Arthur? I figured you were his go-to guy, well, you know, but a girl. You know, the one he trusts enough to get things done.”
“Well, sure, I take care of everything, but it’s all his pointless stuff. I mean, most of what he asks me to do could be done by a town car driver. Sure, they wouldn’t be nearly as quick as me, but it just feels like, ugh, I don’t know.” Alexa dropped her head in exasperation.
“I’ll be the first to admit I’m not too good on the whole understanding women thing, but I’ve got a hunch there’s something else going on here. You wanna talk about it?”
“No,” Alexa said, as she walked to the elevator door. She pressed the button. Buddy walked up beside her to wait for the elevator to arrive. “It’s just, look, we’ve got some big stuff going on right now. Damon Memphis is back from exile and all of a sudden I’m expected to be on the front lines with you and Zero. Yesterday I was just the one who went out for the paper in the morning. It’s cool that I’m getting into this stuff, scary as hell, but this is where I want to be.”
“So, then what’s the problem?”
“The problem is, even though Artie’s ready to toss all this stuff on my plate, without even asking, he still doesn’t trust me to be around when he works on his plans. Instead, I just get sent to guide you around the building. Why can’t I be in there? It’s my freaking life on the line too, you know?”
“I don’t think Arthur really seems like the kind of guy to want much for input from other people on his ‘plans’.”
“That’s exactly the problem.” Alexa brushed the carpet with her foot. “All of a sudden he’s looking for suggestions and I get kicked out. Fine, no big deal, but he lets Ryan stay around? What the hell is that all about? He just got here, he doesn’t even know how we operate. I should be the one in there.”
“So, I’m guessing you and Ryan aren’t on the best of terms, then?”
“It’s not that, not exactly,” she began pacing. “I love my brother. It’s been really hard on me being separated from him. But he’s always been given special treatment. He was my dad’s favorite and now. . .”
“Now you’re thinking he’s going to be Arthur’s favorite too.” The elevator doors opened and they stepped inside.
“Yeah, I know it’s stupid. But for the first time in my life I thought I had the chance to actually do something worthwhile, by myself, without it being all about my dad or my brother. I know I’m not as smart as either of them, but I’ve got ideas, I can–”
“Can I offer a bit of advice?”
“I guess so, sure.” Alexa pressed the green button and the elevator doors shut.
“Forget about it.”
“You’re right. You really don’t understand women.” She rolled her eyes as she scowled in frustration.
“Okay, yeah, I understand that might not be the most sensitive answer. But look, ever since I learned about all of this crap with the whole mind wipe redaction whatever, I’ve felt like I have had absolutely no clue what was going on. But throughout all of this, the only person down here I’ve felt could actually talk to me like a real person is you.”
“I’m not fishing for compliments, Buddy.”
“No, really. If it weren’t for you taking care of me I doubt I’d still be around. I’d be willing to bet that’s the reason Arthur’s had you escorting me as well. He realized you were the only one who could make this whole thing seem grounded somehow.”
“You mean that?”
“Of course I mean it. Between Arthur and the whole mafioso thing he’s got going on, Carl and his weird experiments, and Jeff’s stupid power struggle thing, you’re the only person I’ve met down here that acts like, well, a person.”
Alexa sighed. “Thanks. But still, I mean, it’s such a boy’s club down here. Artie, Jeff and Carl are always having these secret meetings without me. I know they’re family and all, but I just feel left out. And now, without any warning, suddenly my brother’s allowed to be involved as well?”
“Yeah, I get it. But you know, they didn’t really want me around either.”
“It’s not like you’ve been all that willing to cooperate.”
“Sure, okay. But look, how many people are down here? I must have seen at least a hundred folks when I was down in the barracks, right?”
“There’s around 1500 people living in the complex right now.”
“Wow, really? Okay, well, out of those fifteen hundred people, how many interact with Arthur on a daily basis?”
“I don’t know, there’s probably hundreds of them. Artie gets around the complex pretty frequently. He likes to have his hands in everything that goes on around here.”
“Alright, but how many of them actually get real, honest, one on one time with him?”
“I don’t know. I guess it would probably just be Jeff, Carl and me. Oh, and Smith and Frederick are around him a lot, but I’m not sure they actually talk.”
“Body guards don’t count. And Jeff and Carl are his sons, so, that means the only person he’s actually choosing to have around him is you. That’s gotta mean something, right?”
“I guess. . .” Alexa began drawing a line with her foot on the floor.
“And I can’t imagine Arthur’s all that fond of his kids anyways. They both seem to have fallen far from the tree.”
“Well, sure, but they’re his kids. He loves them.”
“Right, they are his kids. And they’re both busy doing their own things. So, he just lets them do whatever they want. He has you around to get stuff done, stuff that he actually cares about.”
“Well, he does have over 1500 people working for him, I’m not the only person who does stuff.”
“Okay, fine, but you’re still in his inner circle. I mean, I can’t imagine he told too many people Damon’s back, or that he was going to bring back the legendary Buddy Hero, right?”
“The way I see it, you’re Arthur’s right hand man.”
“But then why did he kick me out of his office?”
“Probably because he realized the same thing I did.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“You’re scared out of your wits.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“He’s protecting you, Alexa.”
“From the fact that he has absolutely no clue how to deal with Damon.”
“Okay, fine, I’ll believe you. But. . . it still would have been nice to have been asked.” The elevator doors opened. The two paused in silence. Alexa looked in Buddy’s eyes. “You know, I’m starting to believe there really is some piece of Buddy Hero left in there.”
Buddy and Alexa entered the lounge and Zero and Maggie both looked up. Maggie was red-faced and teary-eyed. Zero looked uncomfortable, as though he had something he had been about to say but wasn’t sure how. Maggie, seeing Buddy had entered the room, jumped up and ran to him, thrusting her arms around his torso.
“Buddy! You’re alive!”
“Whoa, chill sis, of course I’m alive. It’d take a whole lot more than some flame-throwing destroyer of worlds to take down good ol’ Buddy Hero.”
“Don’t call yourself that!”
“Sorry, yeah, I knew it was wrong when I heard it too.” Zero slowly got off his seat and walked to the group, looking happy to see Buddy, but there was something else in his eyes Buddy couldn’t quite pick out.
“Chum, it’s good to see you back with the living.”
“How do you feel?” Maggie asked. “Sounds like you were in some real trouble there.”
“I feel great. Honestly. I mean, you’d think after all that happened, I’d be a hurting unit, but I seriously feel fine..”
“Well, of course you feel fine, chum. You’re Buddy Hero, feeling fine is the Buddy Hero way.”
“Stop calling him that stupid name.”
Buddy laughed at his sister’s annoyance, put his arm around her, and walked with her back to the couch. “So, you were worried about me, huh Mags?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Maggie retorted. She smiled at Buddy. The smile expressed a playful joy Buddy was glad to see in her eyes again, especially amid the current crisis. “I’m just mad you didn’t save my diner.”
“Well, let’s just hope the insurance company is willing to cover destruction by act of false god,” Buddy laughed.
“Do we have a plan yet?” Zero asked, returning to his normal self. “Have you seen Flores?” He sat in the chair opposite the couch Buddy had taken with his sister. Alexa joined the group as well, but stood slightly back, with a contemplative look in her eyes.
“Yeah, I saw him. Looks like we’ll be getting this whole deal wrapped up pretty quickly.”
“So you know all about the trench, right? You know of the amazing efforts D.A.W.N. put–”
“Yeah, he told me,” Buddy cut Zero off and shot him a silencing look. He then looked at Maggie. “Like I said, this should be over with in no time.”
“Hey, Buddy,” Alexa interjected. “You remember that dream you were talking about earlier? The one where you were Memphis?”
“Dream?” Maggie asked, the look of concern on her face growing.
“It’s nothing Mags, don’t worry about it.” Buddy looked at Alexa and spoke in a low tone. “What about it?”
“Well, I was thinking. If that means you’ve got some sort of mental connection to Memphis, maybe we could use–”
“You can stop right there, Alexa, it was just a dream, not some sort of crazy psycho babble about twins, alright? Let’s just leave it at that.”
“Twins?” Maggie asked, her concern now having an added twinge of confusion.
“She deserves to know, Buddy,” Alexa said.
“Know what?” Zero asked. “Do I deserve to know as well?”
“Fine. I’ve been having all sorts of dreams lately. Turns out they’re probably a sign that I have some sort of connection with Damon, you know, where I can see what he sees and, well, you know, hear his thoughts.”
“What are you talking about?” Maggie asked, looking unhappy.
“Really, it’s probably nothing important. And it could just be some sort of crazy coincidence.” Buddy looked down at his feet. “But it’s probably not.”
“I’d say,” Alexa added.
“Just like the twins at the school,” Zero exclaimed.
“What school,” Maggie asked.
“The school for people with abilities that Buddy started. It was a pretty big deal, I can’t believe you don’t know about it.”
“What? We ran a school too? Along with saving the world on a weekly basis and making leaps and bounds in science and whatever else? How in the world did we have any free time?”
Zero looked at Maggie wistfully. “We made the time, chum.”
Maggie noticed the look she was getting from Zero, stood and walked away from the couch. “What does this mean, Buddy? Does it mean Damon can see what we’re up to?”
“I don’t think so. I mean, maybe. Who knows?”
“Well, shouldn’t we do something about that?”
“What do you suggest we do, Maggie? I mean, it’s not like it’s going to help anything if you put me in a dark room and cover my eyes and ears, is it? Especially since he would be able to hear my thoughts.”
“You’re right. I still think we need to be careful.”
“Sure,” Buddy looked at Alexa. “So, why’d you bring up the dream anyways?”
“Well, I was just thinking, if we have that kind of a connection with him, maybe we could use it against him. I thought that maybe if we were to think of him as a puppet, we could–” The elevator doors opened and Alexa stopped mid-sentence. The group all turned to see who had entered the room. They saw the worn face of Arthur Flores as he entered. He was followed by Jeff and Ryan.
“Well, well, everyone, I hope we’re all having a wonderful day. Who’s ready to take on the angel of death?” Arthur’s cheerful tone clashed with his weary face as he walked across the room to join the quartet.
Jeff tagged along at his heel, limping. “Yeah, someone’s gotta be willing to help out, unlike last time.” Jeff looked angry. “Seems like you should probably start earning your keep, Buddy.”
“Now now Jeffrey, we talked about this. Both Mr. Jackson and Mr. Hamilton did their very bests to aid in the battle. Unfortunately none of you were quite ready to face off against Mr. Memphis. I should have realized that and as such, I am dreadfully sorry.”
“Oh, I was ready,” Zero began, “just didn’t realize what Damon was hiding up his sleeves.”
“Precisely, Mr. Hamilton. So, as you are aware, we went back to the drawing board and I believe we have finally developed a fool-proof plan on how we will be able to finally defeat Mr. Memphis for good.”
“Is it safe?” Maggie asked. “I can’t come so close to losing Buddy again.”
“I will admit that there is a certain amount of risk involved, as should be expected when facing off against someone as strong as the man in question. However, I do believe that we have enough of an idea on how Mr. Memphis will respond to given stimuli that we should have no fears for the lives of our loved ones.”
“No fear?” Ryan appeared flustered. “This is a suicide mission you’re talking about. I understand the idea of–”
“Mr. Reed, please don’t make me regret my decision to allow you to be a part of our discussion.”
“But you’re talking about–”
“Mr. Reed, please, allow me to explain things to the group.” Arthur gave Ryan a short glance telling him he was facing severe retribution if he didn’t cease his talking. “Now, the first step in our plan is to go on red alert. That means, in approximately,” Arthur looked at his watch, “five minutes, I will give the order for every last person in this complex to be placed on the streets of Sun City.”
“Your plan is to throw an army of supers at him?” Zero asked. “Didn’t we try this plan in the battle for Artemis?”
“I understand we have seen Mr. Memphis cut through fields of people without a second thought. However, my agents are highly trained. These are not your run of the mill tight-wearing superheroes, Mr. Hamilton. No, these are, in fact, specially trained agents, fully capable of handling themselves against even the worse they could come up against. They are, if I may be so bold, the green berets of superheroes. I’d wager that even your Defenders, in their prime, wouldn’t have stood a chance against my men.”
“Alright Artie, we get it. Our guys are good. But, what are we going to do?”
“Well, Ms. Rose, therein lies the brilliance of my plan. We shall lure Mr. Memphis into the location of my choosing and once he has arrived there, our army will pounce on him in an ambush. After he has been contained, Carl has promised he has a device which should be able to contain the man.”
“What do you mean lure him?” Buddy asked, afraid he already knew the answer.
“Always ready to cut right to the point, aren’t we, Mr. Jackson. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the only thing we have at our disposal of enough interest to Mr. Memphis to serve in this capacity is you.”
“Right. . . “
“You really are going to make me say it outright, aren’t you?”
“I know I’m not going to be the one to offer it.”
“Fine. Quite simply, we will place you in Sun Square to sit in wait for Mr. Memphis. That is where we will make our final attack.”
“So, you’re planning on using me as bait against this monster and you didn’t even think you should ask me first?”
“Buddy’s right, Artie. You can’t ask him to do this.”
“What, are you chicken, Buddy?” Jeff cackled. He shifted into the form of a chicken to complete his point.
“Please, Jeffrey, that’s not helping.”
Jeff walked around the room in his new form making chicken noises.
“Look, I’m just saying I think I have a right to choose my own fate here. If I’m going to be put up on a spit waiting for the dude with the matches, I think I should at least have a choice in the matter.”
“You are right, Mr. Jackson. I hadn’t considered the possibility this decision might not be to your liking. With that in mind, I will fully understand if you decide to back out of the mission.”
Buddy looked at Maggie. Maggie had tears in her eyes.
“I can’t leave my sister like this, Arthur. I mean, I’m all she’s got left. If I go down because this mission of yours gets screwed up, I, well. . . I don’t know.”
The room went silent as everyone looked at Maggie, expecting her to echo Buddy’s words. Maggie slowly stepped forward and grabbed Buddy’s hands as she looked into his eyes.
“Buddy,” she said quietly. “You know you have to do this. Everyone here needs you. The world needs you. I can’t ask you to–”
“Maggie, forget about it. They can come up with some other plan. It’s not the end of the world or anything.”
“Well. . . “ Carl started. Buddy shot him a look.
“No, Buddy.” The strength reappeared in Maggie’s voice. “You can’t run anymore. You know that and I’ve known that for a long time now. This is who you are. This is who you’ve always been. I used to wonder what happened to the Buddy I grew up with, the Buddy who wasn’t afraid of anything. And now I know. He’s always been there. He’s just been hiding.”
“No buts, Buddy. This is what you are destined to be. The world needs you now. You can’t hide anymore.”
Buddy looked deep into his sister’s eyes. Through the tears he could see a smile taking over her face. She coughed as she smiled and wrapped her arms around her brother, burying her face deep in his chest. Buddy wrapped his arms around her and smiled.
“Thank you, sis,” Buddy said as he held her tight.
Maggie pulled away from him. “And when you come back, can you explain to me why that guy over there just turned into a chicken?”
Buddy laughed. “I don’t think anyone can explain anything Jeff does.”
“Hey,” Jeff yelled as he shifted back into his normal form.
Buddy looked at Arthur, a sense of urgency crossing his face. “If we’re going out for our deaths, I guess there’s only one more thing left to do.”
“What’s that, chum?”
“Let’s get suited up.”
Go to Chapter Twenty-Two