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Chapter Seven

     Tropic walked quickly around the corner and down the corridor, past the room where he had fought the Crey personnel, musing all the while about Hecate‘s presence. Artemis said there would be help from an unexpected source and she was certainly right about that. The tug of the child had grown more insistent, a constant pull now as he approached the end of the hall, blocked again by the same double doors that had become an almost constant nuisance. His teeth were practically grinding together as he stood before the doors, the feel of the baby a near physical presence. The hero reached out and operated the blank mechanical lock. The doors slid open, hissing as they went. He was completely unprepared for the chaos they revealed.

     A pitched battle raged between an unmasked Paragon Protector and three of his fellows. The man’s fists swung in great arcs, battering the man nearest him. The other two rushed to the attack and behind him a female Protector lay unmoving. He was shouting something about a line and how this wasn’t right but Tropic barely heard him…or anything else for that matter. His eyes were drawn to the back of the room.

             There in the arms of an older man with wild, uncombed hair and even wilder unkempt eyebrows was his daughter. Tropic stared in open mouthed fascination. True, Artemis had shown him the child but until now his daughter had been an abstract concept. Its your daughter, go get her, and he had pursued her with the same dogged determination with which he undertook any mission given by one of his contacts. Save the Fortuneteller, get the computer disk, find the Freakshow boss, rescue your daughter. All were the same to him.

     Until now. The battle in front of him faded away as he focused on the child. His red skin, her mother’s deep black hair…there was no mistaking her parentage. He smiled when he saw she was wearing a little Top Ten blue/gold uniform, a small version of their shield on her chest. WillowWind’s doing and he knew then that the little girl would probably inherit the need for shopping her mother thrived on.

     He noticed movement ahead of him and saw that the female Protector had regained her feet behind the unmasked man. He was oblivious to her presence and paid dearly. A sharp spine extended from her hand and she stabbed him through the side in almost the same position as Hecate’s wound. The man staggered and fell heavily, face first into the unforgiving metal floor.

     Tropic threw his hand forward and a beam of flame leapt forth, striking the Protector in the middle of her back and burning through, leaving a fist sized hole in her chest. She dropped at the head of the man she struck, smoke rising from her body.

     All movement stopped. The scientist and the three remaining Paragon Protectors all turned their attention to the fiery hero. “WHAT?!?” Albriecht screamed. “YOU?!? YOU’RE DEAD!!!” He clutched the child closer, his eyes wild.

     Tropic said nothing, his eyes focused on the girl. She stared at him for a moment, dark eyes wide. And then stretched her arms out to him.

     And Tropic became a different man entirely. This was his daughter. His. A miracle that she could even exist. A miracle that he could even be here. He felt his heart swelling, beating hard within his breast, filling, overflowing with love, pride, fear, worry…emotions he had always kept close…hidden. And now, these animals, these filthy animals had her. His daughter. His baby. His.

     Unacceptable, the voice whispered.

     Tropic nodded.

     Protect, the voice said, a bit louder this time.

    Tropic sneered.

    Punish, the dark voice echoed within his skull.

    Tropic’s shoulders hunched forward, the muscles rippling beneath the long coat he wore. The flame flowed from his eyes and over his lowered head, making his hair look like Medusa’s snaked tresses. His hands clenched into fists so tight his knuckles cracked and showed white through his skin. And the waves of heat surrounding him caused him to shimmer like Arizona asphalt.

    He inclined his head at the scientist and growled, “That belongs to me.”

    “DESTROY HIM, MY CHILDREN!! DESTROY HIM!!!” Albriecht screamed, his voice high and inhuman.

    A Protector, a huge bear of a man, rushed toward Tropic. The hero never broke stride. He looked at his enemy and two beams of focused white fire erupted from his eyes, thin lasers of deadly power that struck the forehead of the man’s masked face and continued out through the back of his head. The Protector died instantly, taking two more steps before falling and sliding across the polished floor. Tropic kept on, step after step, the intense heat of his footsteps leaving small pools in his wake.

    The second of the Protectors rushed to attack, firing spine after spine. The immense heat surrounding the hero caused them all to melt before reaching their target. The man was in front of Tropic, drawing back his hand and then thrusting forward. A long, sword like spine appeared and stabbed straight at the hero’s head. Tropic turned his body and the spine-sword passed harmlessly by. The fiery hero snapped open his right palm and a blazing sword of fire leapt into being. Effortlessly, he sliced up, cutting through the Protector’s midsection and the two cauterized halves of the man fell bloodless at his feet.

    The frown on Tropic’s face deepened, his lips a thin canyon of anger as Dr. Albriecht retreated farther into the room and the final Paragon Protector approached. The fiery hero felt the air shift around him and smiled inwardly, realizing this final villainous obstacle was trying to manipulate the gravity around him.

    The man was reckless, believing that Tropic would hardly be able to lift his arms due to the great pressure he was subjecting him to. He planted his feet in front of the hero, his right arm swinging, hoping to crush the hero’s head with the roundhouse blow. Behind his mask, his eyes opened wide in horror as Tropic blocked his arm and felt the hot hand of the blaster as it covered his face.

    Tropic stepped with his right leg behind the Protector, his hand forcing the man back, tripping him. Before the Crey soldier’s head struck the hard metal floor he heard the vengeful man of fire whisper, “Idiot. Fire is lighter than air.” As the man’s head struck the ground, Tropic’s hand burst into flame, burning straight through, his palm slapping the steel floor. Tropic stood, eyes never leaving the scientist or his daughter, his relentless stride bringing him ever closer to the frantic doctor.

    Dr. Albriecht backed away, clutching the now squirming child tighter to him. “NO!” he screamed, his voice echoing through the steel chamber. “This prize is mine! The secrets she can reveal, the power that is within my grasp…none can have it! None but I. It is mine to wield! Mine, I say!” His back bumped against the cold wall and his retreat halted abruptly. Throughout his raving, Tropic came ever closer. Now that there was nowhere to go, he watched with wild eyes as the hero stopped directly in front of him.

    Tropic stared for a moment, expressionless. His palm struck the doctor hard in the sternum and Albriecht snapped back into the wall as if he had been shot from a cannon. At the same moment, the hero reached out and plucked the child from the doctor’s grasp. The father and daughter watched as the scientist slumped to the floor.

    Finally, Tropic looked at the little girl sitting securely on his forearm. Both regarded each other with the same open-mouth look of wonder. Suddenly the child laughed and her little hands reached out, playfully trying to grab the tendrils of flame flowing from her father’s eyes. Tropic smiled broadly, immediately leeching the fire of its heat and whispered, “I’ll show you how to do that one day.”

    “Bah!” the doctor said as he struggled to his feet, rubbing his bruised chest. “This finishes nothing!”

    The fiery hero looked down his nose at Albriecht, the girl now resting her head on his shoulder.

    “Go ahead. Arrest me,” Albriecht continued. “Turn me in to your authorities. I will be out within the hour. And my work will continue. Her potential is limitless, I think. I must know more. And I will.” His eyes widened as his voice rose at least an octave. “Science will find a way! And I, Dr. Heinrich Albriecht, WILL NOT BE DENIED!”

    Tropic frowned, the doctor’s words beginning to turn in his mind. “Wait for me here, doctor,” he said quietly. He struck the scientist hard, the left uppercut lifting Albriecht from his feet and almost causing him to somersault backwards.

    The little girl laughed and clapped her hands at the sight. “Fall down! Boom, boom!” she squealed.

    The hero smiled and leaned his head closer to the child and whispered conspiratorially, “I’ll show you how to do that too, but don’t tell Mommy.” He turned, crossing the large room quickly. “Now, let’s go find your mother.”

    Tropic was almost to the door when he came to the prone, bleeding body of the unmasked Protector who had been trying to help his daughter. He stood over the man, chewing his bottom lip in thought. The fiery hero nodded to himself, at last coming to a decision and quickly scanned the computer terminals and tables nearby. His eyes fell on a small disk, about the size of a drink coaster. He picked it up, his fingers stabbing at the keypad on its raised surface, and placed it on the Protectors uniform. He pressed another button and the man shimmered, then faded from view. Tropic sighed. “I hope that’s still the transport code to our base.” He smiled at the little girl. “Either way, someone is going to be surprised,” he whispered as he passed through the sliding doors.*


    WillowWind walked down the corridor, using the wall to support herself less and less. Some of her strength had returned, but using her powers as she had, the great release of energy, had left her weakened. The beating she had suffered had not helped matters and her legs still trembled slightly with each step. Her brow creased with worry and the fatigue had only served to heighten her feelings of desperation. Keep going, weakling, she chided herself and rounded the corner into the hall where she had left Hecate. She gasped and her eyes widened in shock and horror.

    Hecate lay in the hall, her back propped up against the wall, her head slumped and blood pooled around her.

    “NO!” Willow cried and rushed to her fallen friend. “HECATE!” she screamed, kneeling at the wounded woman’s side. “Oh, no…no…please,” she begged. “Don’t you be dead. Please, don’t” WillowWind reached out and grasped the Knife assassin by the shoulder. Hecate jerked up and the heroine almost fell backward, a small “Eeep” of surprise escaping her lips.

    “What?” Hecate shook her head. “Where…”

    “You’re alive!” Willow sighed in relief.

    “Of course, I’m alive,” Hecate said with a frown. “Just had to rest a bit…you look awful,” she said.

    “You should talk,” Willow smiled. Her expression darkened as she looked at the assassin’s wound. She tore a strip from her now tattered cape, realizing that she would be unable to bind the injury. “This is real bad,” she said worriedly.

    Hecate smiled. “I’ll be alright,” she nodded. “I can’t go anywhere now.” The Knife warrior looked away down the hall. “He’ll be back soon. I told him it would heal”

    “Hmmm?” Willow replied, not really listening to the woman. “Who?” she asked absently, still examining her. The strike had gone straight through. If it had just been the front or the back she could have bandaged her friend. But this…this was out of her experience. Although the bleeding did seem to be slowing. Whether it was because Hecate was healing or simply bleeding to death, the heroine did not know.

    “He came back. Just to get her.”

    WillowWind looked at the assassin’s face in confusion. “Who are you talking about?”

    “He went to get her.” Hecate looked at her hands. “Where’s my sword?”

    “Here.” Willow picked the weapon up and handed it to her friend. She beginning to get frightened. The woman was rambling, talking nonsense. “Who came back?”

    “He had to. Just to save her.” Hecate smiled sweetly at the puzzled girl. “The Goddess told him to.”

    “Hecate,” Willow placed her hand on the Elite Sister’s shoulder. “Who?”

    Hecate looked down the corridor and simply said, “Him.”

    WillowWind followed the assassin’s gaze and leapt to her feet in shock, the breath catching in her throat, eyes snapping wide open. There, rounding the curve in the hallway, came Tropic. The same as he’d always been - the red skin, flaming eyes, spiky blond hair, and now…alive.

    “YOU!!! TROPIC!!!” the heroine screamed. “I can’t…its imposs…how…you’re…you you…you’re dead!”

    “People keep saying that,” Tropic grinned with a raised eyebrow.

    He emerged fully from the corridor and the small package in his arms began to squirm at the sight of her mother. “Mama! Mama!” she cried, stretching her arms out to Willow.
“BABY! MY BABY!!!” Willow crossed the distance between them with a single bound, snatching the smiling child from the hero’s arms. She twirled around, crying, covering the little girls face with kisses.

    The little girl laughed, her fingers entwined in her mother’s long, black hair. Suddenly her face scrunched up and she stared intently at Willow. She frowned at the woman’s puffy black eye, the cut lip and the blood smeared across the heroine’s forehead. “Mama got booboo,” she said seriously.

    WillowWind laughed. “No, sweetheart, Mama’s ok. See, the kisses make it all better.” She kissed the child loudly, the mua, mua, mua of her lips caused the baby to squeal. Willow sighed heavily and finally turned to Tropic. “How?” she asked simply with a shake of her head.

    Tropic briefly recounted the visit in the afterlife from Artemis, the Hun Lord ritual and his eventual arrival. He shook his head as well. “I don’t understand it myself,” he smiled. “But I’m here and alive and…,” his voice trailed off as he looked at the child in her arms.

    WillowWind grinned at his fascination with his daughter. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

    The fiery hero nodded. “She’s…I don’t…I…It makes me dizzy to look at her,” he said, his voice almost a whisper. “I wish I were…Oh!…Wait!” his eyebrow raised. “I think I have something…” His hand dipped into his coat pocket.

    “Is that my coat?” Willow asked

    “Yes,” he grinned. “Please tell me you were never big enough for this to fit.”

    “There was an oversized clothing fad. Be grateful you were dead.”

    “Um hmm,” he nodded. “Ah…here we are.” Tropic pulled his hand from the pocket and held it out to the girl.

    Her face split into a broad smile and she bounced in Willow’s arms. “Be Ba!” she cried. “Be Ba!” and she reached out and took the little black and white stuffed monkey from her father’s grasp. She clasped it tightly to her chest then waved the toy in the air a few times and then, with a flourish, placed its head in her mouth.

    The heroine smiled as the child chewed on Be Ba, and held her a little tighter. She looked up at the…amazed look on Tropic’s face. “Yes?” she asked.

    “What is…How…How is the child named?” his voice sounded small.

    “Ann,” she answered, looking at the little girl. “Annie”

    “Annie,” Tropic repeated, nodding, considering. “That…that is acceptable.”

    WillowWind gave him an oh, please look. “Oh…good. Because I was so worried you would come back from the dead and not approve.”

    “Can we go now?” a tired voice said from behind them.

    The two heroes turned and saw Hecate standing, leaning heavily against the wall, her left hand pressed against her wounded side. WillowWind and Tropic looked at each other for a moment, concern clear on their faces. Hecate’s right side from her waist down was dark with blood and she was pale and getting paler.

    “Lets get going,” Willow said as she approached the assassin.

    Annie stared at the Knife warrior, her little eyes squinting. One could almost see the wheels turning inside her head as she regarded Hecate. Finally she turned to her mother and said matter-of-factly, “Big booboo.”

    The heroine smiled at her daughter then turned to the assassin, grinning evilly. “That’s right! Its Auntie Boo-Boo!”

    Hecate mouth dropped in horror and she started to protest the foolish name but it was already too late. The child began to bounce in her mother’s arms, laughing happily as she repeated the Elite Sister’s new name loudly. “Andie Boo-Boo! Andie Boo-Boo!” She turned to Tropic for help but the man of fire shook his head and shrugged, an expression of resignation on his face.

    The assassin fixed her eyes on the heroine and said coolly, “When I recover I am going to kill you.”

    Willow smiled wide, bright teeth flashing, “No, you won’t. We’re pals now.” The heroine draped the wounded assassin’s right arm over her shoulders and, with the baby in one arm and her other around Hecate’s waist, nodded to Tropic. “Lets go.”

    “Your teleport unit should be working now,” Tropic began. “Hecate needs medical attention. Get to our base. I’ll finish up here and meet you there.”

    “No!” both women said in unison.

    “I’ll be right behind y…,” the fiery hero started but WillowWind cut him off.

    “If you think I’m going to let you out of my sight, you’re crazy,” Willow said calmly, looking to Hecate for support.

    The assassin nodded her head. “We leave together. That’s final.”

   T ropic looked at both in turn. “I have to finish things here,” he said. “I need you to…” He pursed his lips, realizing from their stern expressions that they would have none of it. He frowned for a moment then took a different tack. “All right…wait outside for me.”

    “What?” Willow asked. “No, I’m not going to let…”

    “Two minutes,” Tropic interrupted. “I’m going to clean things up. They have research on Annie and I’m not going to let that fall into anyone else’s hands.” He smiled at them and the little girl still waving the stuffed animal in the air. “I’m not going anywhere now. I’ll meet you outside. Two minutes. I promise.” He looked at Hecate and said softly, “We need to get her some help and I need to take care of this. Please.”

    Willow chewed her lower lip, looking at the pale woman on her arm. Tropic was right. Hecate needed help and they couldn’t waste time arguing about it. “Ok,” she said angrily. “Two minutes or I’m coming in after you.”

    “Fine,” Tropic grinned. “Now, go.” He watched as they turned and moved to the elevators around the bend. The fire blaster’s face hardened as they disappeared from view and he spun around, making his way down the corridor to the room where he had left Albriecht.

    Tropic walked calmly into the chamber, noting that the scientist was groggily struggling to his feet. “You know, Doctor,” he said, looking casually at the bodies littering the floor, “you’re a very intelligent man and I’ve come to the conclusion that you are absolutely correct.”

    “Of course I’m right,” Albriecht muttered, rubbing his sore chin. “Wait…about what?” he asked in confusion.

    “Oh…what would happen if I turned you over to the authorities,” the hero elaborated as he walked nonchalantly through the room, looking over the computer terminals and desks, slowly making his way closer to the scientist. “You might not be released within the hour as you say but certainly by the end of the day.” He picked up a test tube and shook it for a moment, watching the blue fluid it contained swish about. “And then what? Europe, perhaps?” Tropic smiled, “or maybe the Rogue Isles? I have heard a smart fellow like you could make quite an impression down there.”

    Dr. Albriecht watched silently as the hero came unhurriedly toward him. He watched as Tropic picked up a compact disc and looked at his reflection, tugging at his goatee. The hero grinned and replaced the disc gently.

    “Or even into the Crey labyrinth,” the fiery hero continued. “Either way, you’d be gone but…as you say…’Science would find a way’. You would return to terrorize my child or some other innocent who tickled your scientific funny-bone. And we’d be back at square one.” Tropic now stood face to face with the doctor. “And I can’t allow that.”

    Albriecht stared sidelong at the red-skinned hero. The flames flowing from the man’s eyes seemed larger, reaching far above his head, changing color as they danced upward. “You can’t allow?” Albriecht sneered. “You have no say over me, clod!”

    Tropic smiled crookedly. “Please, Doctor, don’t misunderstand me…its really not your fault.” The hero shook his head, sighing. “You see, as you villains became more and more cruel, your methods more and more ruthless, more…evil, the rules we heroes abide by became static, invariable, set in place by a great hero a hundred years or so ago .” He stared intently at the confused scientist. “And even though touched by a god, he lacks foresight.” Tropic chewed his bottom lip. “So in this never ending battle against evil, one could say that we heroes haven’t failed. The rules failed us.”

    The fiery hero turned his head to the side for a moment, staring at nothing. Within his minds eye he saw the orange glow of his daughter and he could judge…feel her outside the building. He was a bit surprised to find that he could sense the body heat of WillowWind and Hecate as they waited, a cool blue against the bright heat of his child. Tropic sighed and turned his full attention to Dr. Albriecht. “And there’s going to be a change.”

    “What? What change?” The confusion on Albriecht’s face had now changed to concern.

    “The circles you have set spinning by taking my daughter have consequences. I have done what I have come back to do and now there is a new purpose.”

    “Purpose? What do you mean?” the scientist said, his voice high.

    “Protect the innocent. Punish the guilty. Because when it comes right down to it, the people…the citizens…just want to feel safe.” Tropic began to shimmer, waves of heat surrounding him. The doctor noted the papers on one of the desks start to shift as a small breeze began to swirl toward the man of fire. The hero’s lips curled up and he said roughly, his voice a whisper yet echoing throughout the room. “Congratulations, doctor, on ushering Paragon City into a new era.”

    Dr. Albriecht saw the glow expand and was able to get his arms up to cover his face but the gesture was futile. A blast of superheated air flowed forth, followed a mere second later by a great, rolling ball of red-yellow fire. Every corridor, every chamber filled with the immense heat and flame. It traveled over everything and everyone, through the air ducts, up and down the elevator shafts, everywhere. The entire facility scoured with cleansing fire, the metal floors and walls hissing, steaming as the flame passed.

    It ended almost as quickly as it had begun. Tropic looked where the scientist had been and at the melted computer terminals and equipment around him. He nodded once and the Lord of the Fatal Primeval turned and walked briskly from the barren facility.

    Hecate leaned heavily on a metal crate near the edge of the sidewalk, watching as WillowWind paced to and fro. She clutched at her wound and grimaced. The knife assassin was becoming lightheaded and was beginning to find it difficult to stay focused. She knew the severity of her situation and prayed silently that this would not be her time.

    WillowWind held the baby on her hip, stalking outside the Crey lab’s door. She frowned, biting her lip as she glanced worriedly at the assassin. She sighed heavily and said softly, “I’m sorry.”

    Hecate looked up, her brow knitted in confusion. “Sorry?” she shook her head, “why?”

    Sadness fluttered gently over the heroine’s battered features as she stared at the Hand of Artemis, noting with regret the state of her new friend: wounds in both legs, stabbed in the hip, the horrid, life-threatening puncture in her side, a gash in her arm and a large bruise on her left cheek that was rapidly causing her eye to swell shut. Her stealth suit as ripped, cut, slashed and sodden with blood, especially below her waist under the massive injury. “For…for…all the, everything you…”

    “No,” Hecate shook her head and a feral smile curled her lips, a little animal smile like a fox who had managed to steal the chicken and its eggs. “No,” she repeated, her teeth flashing in the darkening twilight, “it was a good day of fighting…a good day.” She nodded with satisfaction.

    Willow sighed again, smiling in return. “You are crazy,” she said and the assassin’s grin widened. She adjusted the child on her arm, the baby’s head resting on her shoulder, and resumed her pacing outside the laboratory door. Finally she grimaced and said, “That’s it, time’s up. I’m going in to…” The door opened and a plume of steam escaped. She squinted through the cloud and Tropic appeared in the doorway. “Finally,” she murmured and shook her head.

    “Its not two minutes yet,” Tropic replied indignantly.

    They were interrupted by a loud thud. Hecate had fallen to her knees beside the metal crate she had leaned on. She stared up at them, her face pale, almost translucent, and she grunted, “Can we go now?”

    The two heroes rushed to her side and helped her to her feet, Willow to her right and Tropic to her left. With her left arm around the assassin’s waist and the baby in her right, she looked at Tropic. “You remember the port code?”

    The red-skinned hero nodded, and reached over to WillowWind’s belt. He removed the teleport module, no larger than a pager, and stabbed at it with his finger. He nodded at the two women and soon the three of them began to shimmer, fading away into nothingness, leaving only an empty bloodstained street to mark a hero’s return.


    Lord Nikon folded his arms over his chest, the gesture emphasizing the stern look of displeasure on his face. He stared down his nose at the unmasked Paragon Protector sitting before him. Nikon’s eyes squinted behind his opaque blue goggles, trying to determine whether or not to believe the man.

    The Protector had teleported directly into the medical lab of the Top Ten base, unconscious and bleeding. Nikon practically tripped over the wounded man and his shocked call for assistance was immediately answered by the three others in the base at the time. TuxedoGin and Princess Buttercup hesitated a moment in wide-eyed surprise but quickly surrounded the Protector and called for Dr. Silver, the team’s resident doctor, surgeon and scientist, who hustled the man into an examining room, the ever present cigarette dangling from his lip. Forty-five or so minutes later, Silver wheeled the bandaged man into the medical bay telling the others, “He’ll never win the lottery. Damn thing missed everything. He’s just got a hole in his side and a pretty fancy scar to impress the ladies with.” With that, Sliver lit another cigarette and went back to his office.

    Nikon sighed and shook his head, gazing at the Crey super-soldier sitting in the metal chair. The medical lab itself was the same grey metal color, broken by the clean white of the ten hospital gurneys around the room. At the head above each bed, a medibot was bolted, its claw like pincers ready to assist in whatever capacity Dr. Silver ordered. A large computer terminal dominated the center of the room, several monitors jutting up from the dull silver of the desk and four large lcd screens were imbedded on the wall opposite the desk. 
    The hero sighed again and ran his hand through his light brown hair. “So,” he said, turning to face his companions, “what do you think?”

    TuxedoGin pulled on his black beard, his eyes peering through the shadow his low fedora cast. The black uniform he wore only heightened the unsettling effect of his albino skin, causing him to appear even more menacing. He was not a tall man, one could say he was short...very short, but he was a dangerous, deadly, cat quick martial artist and the Zig was littered with criminals who had underestimated him. “I don’t know,” Tux said with a shake of his head. “It sounds thin but with the reports we’ve been hearing...I just don’t know.”

    “C’mon!” Nikon waved his arm at the Protector. “He’s Crey! Liar, thief, criminal...I don’t think we can believe a word of this crap!”

    “Sitting right here,” the Protector mumbled under his breath.

    “Shut up,” Nikon growled.

    “We were a step behind them in Founders,” Princess Buttercup said softly. She pushed her dark brown hair behind her ear, observing intently the man in the chair. She tapped her high heeled boot and felt the Protector’s eyes as they moved up her bare leg, taking in the miniskirt and tight Top Ten uniform blouse she wore. Buttercup grimaced and restrained herself from breaking his nose. She, too, was an accomplished fighter, but where Tux was hummingbird fast, she was more deliberate. “So it hurts more,” she explained once. Now, she shook her head along with the others. “I’m not sounds plausible but...”

    “That talk about the sun and the sounds like...,” Nikon shook his head rapidly, “no...that’s impossible...”

    “I agree,” Tux added.

    “Yes,” Buttercup nodded, “but the baby sounds like Annie. If that’s the case we have to...”

    She was interrupted by a loud crash. Buttercup spun around in time to see the medlab’s door open violently, slamming against the wall behind it. In the doorway stood two women; one wearing a grey one-piece uniform, ripped, torn and sodden with blood from the waist down on her right side, the other wearing the battered Top Ten colors, supporting the bleeding woman and carrying a small child on her hip.

    “Willow!” Buttercup exclaimed. “Oh, my God! Are you alright?!?” She rushed to the heroine, Lord Nikon and TuxedoGin close on her heels. She took the baby from WillowWind’s arm as Tux helped Hecate to one of the beds.

    Nikon called for Dr. Silver and turned to the bruised heroine. “Willow, what’s going on? Are you...?”

    WillowWind smiled up at her friends and teammates, her eyes filling with tears of relief, at last realizing she and her daughter were safe. She nodded through her tears and whispered with a beaming smile, “He’s back.”

    Lord Nikon’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What? Who’s ba...?” His question was cut off by a shout from the corridor.

    “OH MY GOD! YOU?!?!”

    He took a step to the door and suddenly its opening was filled by a red-skinned man with a small goatee’, his flame filled eyes flowing up through his spiky blonde hair. Nikon took a step back, feeling as if he had been punched in the stomach. “T...Tropic?!?” he stammered, the painful confusion in his eyes hidden by his blue glasses.

    The room came to a standstill. It seemed the air itself ceased to move. Behind the fire blaster stood SuperBrain. He had arrived at the base just moments after the trio and it had been his excited voice in the hallway. “What the hell is going on?” he frowned, staring warily at the returned hero.

    Tropic grinned and his familiar rasp filled the chamber. “Only had to go through a little bit of hell,” he said.

    “What’s going on in here? Who’s this?” Dr. Silver asked gruffly, the cigarette bouncing in his mouth. His eyes were riveted on Hecate. “A Knife? Well, this is a first...” He finally noticed what everyone else in the room was looking at and his normally weary face showed shock for the first time in years. “I may have been mistaken...” Hecate grunted and the doctor turned his attention to her once more. He grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet. “Come with me,” he said over her yelp of pain. “Ah, c’mon, you’re tough. You made it this far.” He turned to Tropic and stabbed a finger at him. “You. Don’t go anywhere,” and he disappeared with the mercenary into one of the examination rooms.

    SuperBrain shook his head, his voice laden with emotion. “Is it you? I don’t...I don’t understand. I”

    “I know,” Tropic smiled. Brain stood beside him, clad as always in black. Black shirt rolled up at the sleeves, black pants, shoes, sunglasses and a hat, the same type of fedora that Tux wore. The only color on the man was his red tie, its brightness seeming to split the man in two. He looked like a mob enforcer and the fiery hero nodded at the muscular man. “You’re still wearing the same clothes, I see.”

    Brain shrugged. “When a look works...”

    Tropic looked past SuperBrain and saw the injured Protector from Albriecht’s lab. He moved through Nikon and Tux and stood in front of the man, regarding him with a raised eyebrow. “Why?” he asked, eyes flaring.

    The Protector shrugged. “I guess...I guess there’s some things even the worst of us won’t do.” He grinned up at the fiery hero, “Hell, I hear even Lord Recluse likes cats.”

    Tropic stared hard, expressionlessly at the man and then moved his head toward the door. “Go,” he said flatly.

    “What?!?” Tux and Nikon exclaimed together.

    “You can’t be serious?!?” Tux said, arms waving at the Protector.

    Thou darest question me? Tropic thought but said aloud, “He tried to help Annie and almost died for it.” He looked at the Crey soldier. “You helped her, I helped you...our book is balanced.”

    The Paragon Protector stood, looking warily at Tropic and the other heroes in the room. He started to the door hearing the fiery hero’s voice behind him. “You may want a while. Crey may be eager to ask you some questions you don’t need to answer.” The Protector paused for a moment then nodded, holding his bandaged side as he left the hero’s base.

    Lord Nikon and TuxedoGin frowned in unison, eyes meeting briefly then returning quickly to their friend. Tux rubbed his chin, the beard scratching roughly against his hand. “Tropic, I don’t understand how...this is imposs...,” he shook his head and finally blurted out, “I don’t understand.”

    Tropic smiled warmly and said with a sigh, “Gods and Goddesses, my friend.”

    “We’re going to need a story here,” Buttercup said as she lay the child on one of the hospital beds. She had WillowWind sit and was tending to the cuts on the heroine’s face.

    Willow grimaced as the astringent touched the thin slice at her hairline and she scowled at her friend. “I guess...I guess it started with the Knives of Artemis,” the heroine began. She told them of Helene’s treachery and how Hecate had given up everything to help her, of the battle in her apartment and through Founders Falls, of the kidnaping of her baby and the trail to Crey’s Folly ending with the meeting in the lab with one thought dead.

    Tropic took up the tale, telling how Artemis appeared to him in the afterlife and how, to save the daughter he never knew he had, she sent him back to the time of the Ritual, to regain his powers. He spoke of the darkness and the light, his return to this place and finding his way to the Crey lab and his baby and now his friends.

    The telling of the tale took almost an hour and when it was done Buttercup, Tux, Nikon and Brain looked at each other, smiles now slowly spreading across their faces. “Man,” Nikon snorted, “that’s crazy.”

    Tropic smiled in return. “I seem to remember that it usually is with us.”

    No one moved for several moments, then Buttercup stepped forward. “Welcome home,” she whispered and hugged the red-skinned man tightly. Lord Nikon and TuxedoGin took a step closer, slapping him on the back, grasping and shaking his hand hard. SuperBrain simply shook his head in amazement.

    They were interrupted by a door opening down the corridor leading to the examining rooms. Dr. Silver pushed a wheelchair containing a very angry looking Knife assassin toward them and Hecate frowned as she approached the gathered heroes, muttering softly, “This is humiliating.” Her ruined stealth suit was long gone, replaced now by a long, fluffy blue robe with the Top Ten insignia on its breast pocket. Silver smirked and wheeled the blonde warrior to a stop next to Willow.

    WillowWind smiled at her new friend and asked, “Is she going to be ok, Doc?”

    “Oh, yeah,” Silver answered, lighting a cigarette from the butt of another. “Amazing recuperative powers on this one,” he inclined his head at Hecate. “I could even see some of her internals knitting themself back together,” he shook his head. “Dressing’ll need to be changed a couple times over the next couple days...but she’ll be fine...probably won’t even have much of a scar.”

    WillowWind smiled brightly at Hecate and said broadly, “See? All better!”

    Sister Hecate closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose as she shook her head.

    Dr. Silver turned his attention to Tropic and gestured to the man of fire. “You. Come with me,” he said, face shrouded in the tobacco’s blue-white smoke.

    “Me?” Tropic’s eyebrow raised in confusion. “I am not injured,” he declared matter-of-factly.

    “Maybe,” Silver replied with a snort, “but you’re my first hero to return from the dead and not be a zombie so forgive me if I’m a bit curious.” He took a long drag on his cigarette, then flicked the ash into his hand and placed it in his labcoat’s pocket. “Plus, I have to do the power reports for the city’s Department of Superhuman Affairs so we can keep our supergroup charter and you can start to get yer monthly stipend again.” He smirked, “You want to get paid, don’t ya?” The gruff doctor didn’t wait for a reply. “Now...march.”

    Tropic frowned but did as Silver told him. “I had forgotten how lovely your bedside manner was, Doc,” he said as he walked down the hallway.

    “Heh, I don’t have a ‘bedside manner’, buddy,” Silver replied as he followed the blaster into the examining room.

    Willow grinned as the two disappeared down the hall. She stood and looked at Annie now sleeping soundly in the hospital bed. She was curled up into a little ball, clutching the stuffed monkey tightly to her chest, her other hand in a fist under her chin. The heroine smiled sweetly at the baby, brushing a strand of dark hair from the child’s face. The little girl, once surrounded by familiar faces and places had fallen blissfully asleep, the events of the day already fading from memory. WillowWind sighed and pulled a blanket up to cover the child’s shoulders.

    “You guys were all over the news,” Buttercup was saying. “We tried to port to Founders but we couldn’t get through.”

    “Yes,” Willow nodded. “The Knives were scrambling teleport transmissions. I tried to port here but no go.”

    Tux frowned at Hecate. “You people have that kind of technology?”

    “You really expect me to answer?” Hecate looked at him as if he were an idiot.

    “Anyway,” Buttercup continued, “by the time we got there, everyone had disappeared.”

    “Not everyone,” TuxedoGin grinned crookedly.

    “That’s right! Wait a second,” Nikon said as he hurried from the room.

    SuperBrain nodded at the Knife assassin. ‘You Knives are gonna be the story du jour for a while. All the tv stations have footage of the ‘mysterious Knives of Artemis’ now.”

    Hecate’s face darkened. Secrecy was the Knives stock in trade. Without that expectation, would become more difficult. Add to that the whore-like nature of the news media...she shook her head and smiled inwardly. Well, no one’s going to miss a few reporters. She was roused from her thoughts by a small yelp from the corridor.

    Lord Nikon returned, carrying a little, white squirming bundle of fur. It was the dog from Founders Falls whom Hecate had fed and who had bitten Sister Mari. It was clean now, white fur almost shining, and was bandaged around its waist near its hind legs. When the little fellow saw Hecate, he barked loudly, whining as he tried to wag his little tail. Nikon approached Willow but she motioned her head imperceptibly to Hecate and he deposited the dog in the assassin’s lap.

    “He’s...he’s alive?” Sister Hecate asked as the dog tried to climb up to lick her face. The pain was too much for the little fellow, however and he contented himself to yip happily and lick her hand.

    “Yeah,” Tux grinned. “You and everyone else were gone by the time we got there. He was the only one left. We couldn’t leave the little guy.”

    “We brought him back and Doc fixed him up,” Buttercup continued. She looked at Willow and shook her head. “Man, did Doc complain. ‘I’m a doctor not a vet’ You know how he is. Called him a ‘damn dog’ about fifty times...but he’s an old softie...”

    Hecate looked at the gathered heroes in turn, her eyes finally ending at WillowWind. Her bottom lip quivered a bit and she lowered her head, almost touching the dog in her arms.

    “Hecate?” Willow asked, lightly touching the assassin’s shoulder.

    The Hand of Artemis looked up, her eyes wet and full of tears and said softly to Willow, “I...must be allergic.”

    Willow smiled a sweet, crooked smile. “Yes, I think that must be it.”

    The heroes of Top Ten talked amongst themselves about the events of the day, all of them consciously avoiding the topic of the now living fire blaster. The baby slept peacefully. Hecate silently scratched the contented dog in her lap behind its ear. The only other sounds were the hum of the base generators and the whirring of computers.

    The assassin became aware of a presence in front of her and looked up to see the woman she had heard called Buttercup.

    “I’ve never had the opportunity to talk to any of you...errr...a Knife of Artemis before,” the brown haired heroine said. She noticed the Knife warrior’s frown and quickly continued, trying to say something interesting to the assassin. “ arts do” Idiot, she called herself as soon as the inane question left her lips.

    Sister Hecate pursed her lips in thought as she looked smugly at Buttercup, letting the silence drag on in order to make the woman more uncomfortable. Finally, the warrior said softly, lips pulled back ferally from her teeth, “I am water.”

    “Water,” Buttercup repeated.

    “Don’t pay any attention to her, sweetie,” WillowWind said from behind her teammate, “she’s crazy.”

    “I don’t think...” Buttercup began but was interrupted by Tux.

    “Is it getting hotter in here?”

    The heroes looked at each other but before anyone could move, the door to the examining room opened and Tropic emerged, walking down the hall to his friends. He grinned and said, “It appears that Dr. Silver has confirmed I am, in fact, alive.” He turned to Willow and smirked. “What a relief it is to know that I’m living.”

    From the examining room the doctor’s rough voice echoed, “Smartass!”

    Tropic sighed and looked at everyone in turn. He exhaled heavily, heated air blowing from his nostrils. “I’m very tired,” he smiled, “I suppose coming back from the dead is quite exhausting.” He looked around the lab shaking his head. “I’m going to lie down for a while and...”

    “Wait,” SuperBrain said. “You don’t have to stay here. We...”

    “That’s right,” Tux continued, opening a desk drawer and rummaging around its contents. He smiled and turned to Tropic. “Catch,” he said and threw something at the blaster.

    Tropic snatched the object from the air and looked at the palm of his hand. “These...these look the keys to my apartment in Talos,” he looked at Tux in confusion.

    Buttercup nodded. “We tried to clean it out a couple of times after know...but we just didn’t have the heart.”

    “Its just like you left it,” SuperBrain said with a smile.

    “Maybe a little less dusty, though,” Lord Nikon quipped then looked around quickly as if to see who said it.

    Tropic stared at the keys in his hand then closed his fist around them. He looked at his friends, his features softened and he said quietly, “Thank you.” He nodded for a moment and his lips turned up crookedly. “I...I guess I’ll go home...” The fiery hero looked at the child sleeping peacefully and said in a hushed voice to Willow, “I’d like to...maybe come over tomorrow and...and...spend some time with her.”

    WillowWind smiled warmly, her eyes shining. “Of course. Any time.”

    “Tomorrow afternoon, then,” the returned hero answered, his head bobbing up and down in happy agreement. “So...I’m going home,” he grinned. “See you all tomorrow.” He crossed to the medlab door, his teammates goodbyes filling his ears.

    As the door closed behind him, his face darkened, flowing like molten stone into a hard, emotionless mask. He walked around the corner to the teleport units, each of them set and ready to transport to a different city zone. He deliberately passed the pad marked “Talos Island” and stopped at the next in line. In a flat voice devoid of humanity, he whispered, “Steel Canyon,” and shimmered from view.

    Those remaining in the medlab shook their heads, foolish, happy smiles still on their faces. Their friend had returned somehow from the dead, and although all had questions, the infectious glee they felt suppressed the asking.

    Lord Nikon gathered himself up, squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath. “Well, I guess I’ll head out...go to Atlas Park and answer some noobie hero questions.” He grinned, lips pursed. “Always good for our image.”

    “Me, too,” WillowWind moved to gather up her daughter, “see what’s left of my apartment,” she scowled at Hecate who shrugged, “and then I’m gonna have a drink.” She was just bending over the bed to pick up Annie when she noticed Dr. Silver enter. He was staring at the sheaf of papers in his hand, a concerned expression on his face.

    TuxedoGin observed the doctor’s preoccupied manner and asked, “Doc?”

    There was no response. Silver moved around the computer desk, one hand stroking his chin, the other tightly clutching the papers he read.

    “Doc?” he called again, lips lowering in confusion. Finally he said loudly, “DOC!”

    Silver finally looked up at the pale man. “Hmm?” he said absently.

    “Is there a problem?”

    Dr. Silver looked up at his teammates and chewed his lower lip in thought. “No...yes,” he paused for a moment then finally said softly, “I don’t know.”

    Nikon looked at the others, “What do you mean?”

    “Explain,” SuperBrain motioned to the papers.

    Silver sighed and took a drag on his cigarette. “All right,” he said through the smoke escaping from his lips, “let me show you.” He crossed to one of the desk’s keyboards and punched at the keys. An overhead lcd screen popped to life and a file page was displayed. It listed down its left side categories of powers relative to one with fire based abilities. To the right of each listed category a bar extended, changing color from green to red.

    Dr. Silver cleared his throat and stared intently at the screen. “As you know, in order to keep our supergroup charter and be eligible for city assistance, payment, damage control and the like, we have to provide detailed power reports of all our members to the Department of Superhero Affairs.”

    “Yes, go on,” Buttercup said.

    “What yer lookin’ at here,” the scientist waived his cigarette at the screen, “are the test results I took of Tropic when he first joined us several years ago.” He nodded with crooked lips. “As you can see he’s powerful in some areas, like heat, force, light,” he pointed out the bars extending from those categories going into the high yellow and red range, “...and not so much in others,” he pointed to the strength and agility bars which moved into the green and low yellow range.  “Nothing truly out of the ordinary, just what you’d expect from a fairly powerful fire blaster.”

    Dr. Silver poked at the console’s keyboard again and another file appeared on the screen beside the first. “These,” he took a long pull on his cigarette, “are the results of the tests I just ran.” The bar next to every category on this new page was red, most pushing against or exceeding the black bar at the page’s end. “I can’t explain it,” Silver whispered.

    “Doc, what’s...,” Buttercup started to ask but the teams medic cut her off, shaking his head.

    “I said I don’t know.” He rubbed his chin, exhaling from his nose. “Almost everything is off the charts. Some of it even exceeded my equipment’s limits.” He pointed at the ‘heat’ indicator. “This is what’s most worrisome to me.  My heat containment fields go up to maybe twenty-five hundred...three thousand kelvin but he was burning hot and getting hotter. I had to tell to back down but...,” he shook his head again, the concern evident in his eyes.

    Nikon raised an eyebrow beneath his blue goggles. “Why have him back off? Would there be...?”

    “Sun burns at about four thousand kelvin,” SuperBrain answered.

    “So?” Lord Nikon fixed him with a ‘remember, I have no idea what you’re talking about’ look.

    Brain grinned, the expression fading quickly as he explained. “There’s a...theory...that if something burns at the temperature of the Sun here on Earth its possible that the atmosphere may catch on fire.” He noted the blank stares of Nikon, Willow and Buttercup. “Um...Earth burned to a cinder, end of human life, dogs and cats living together, end of the world stuff,” he smiled briefly.

    “Its amazing,” Dr. Silver continued. “I mean, we’re talking Class 100 power here.” Silver shook his head as he spoke, his face darkening. “Its on a par with Statesman and  that Norse guy in New York...maybe even that fellow in Metropolis.” He moved around the desk and stood in front of the screen, bathed with its white light as he stared at the unmoving file. “I just can’t understand it.”

    A small voice filled the room. “Perhaps I may be of assistance.”

    All eyes turned to Sister Hecate. She sat calmly in the wheelchair, softly stroking the now sleeping dog in her lap. She noted with some amusement the heroes lively, shocked expressions and smirked at all and none of them at the same time.

    “You?” Dr. Silver asked, a quizzical look covering his face.

    “Oh, come on!” Nikon waved his arm at the woman. “She’s a..a..,” the hero shook his head searching for the exact disdain he felt for the criminal but could only think of “...she’s a bad guy! How can we trust anyth...”

    “You hush right now!” WillowWind forcefully cut him off with a glare. She turned to the assassin and nodded. “Go on, Hecate. What do you think?”

    The Hand of Artemis looked warmly at the girl then gave Lord Nikon an archaic smile, blinking her eyes tightly at the man. She looked at the other heroes, sighing as she gathered her thoughts. “You all know how Tropic first received his powers, yes?”

    “Yes,” Silver replied. “Evil, insane magicians...forbidden ritual...hello, Tropic.”

    Hecate nodded. “Yes...well...yes, pretty much.” She cleared her throat and continued. “The...first...time he received his powers he was dragged underground, terrified, kicking and screaming...he fought against them with all the will power he could muster but...the power was literally forced into him.” 

    Willow frowned, nodding sadly. “Yes, I know the story. His cousin was murdered, burned alive by those mystics...what did he call them? The Hun...”

    “The Hun Lords of the Feuer,” Hecate finished. She looked up at the power report still visible on the overhead screen. “He said that Artemis came to him and sent him back to the Ritual.” She looked intently at Dr. Silver. “Suppose this time, to save his daughter...suppose this time he wanted the power.” The assassin saw the spark of realization in the scientist’s eyes as she gently petted the little dog.

    Silver stood silently for a moment, stroking his chin, deep in thought. “I see,” he said finally, lighting another cigarette. “Fascinating. Quite possible...”

    “Doc?” Buttercup’s brow furrowed in confusion.

    The medic looked up at the screen, nodding. “Fascinating,” he whispered again. He turned to his teammates, noting the blank looks. “He wanted the power,” he said softly. He shook his head, “Don’t you see? What she’s saying...and this is entirely possible...she’s saying that Tropic has always been this powerful.”

    “” WillowWind picked up the sleeping child, the baby’s head now resting peacefully on her shoulder.

    “When he first acquired his powers, he fought against them with everything he had,” Silver explained. “Its possible that, in that agitated, terrified state, his mind set up...I don’t know...mental barriers or blocks that prevented him from accessing the complete potential of his abilities.” Dr. Silver stared at the shimmering screen again. “Fascinating.”

    “Doc, is that possible?” TuxedoGin looked at the report overhead with a raised eyebrow.

    Silver puffed on his cigarette, white smoke dissipating over his face. “Yes. Even with all the heroes and villains we’ve come across with mentally based powers, the human brain is still very much a mystery to us.” He glanced at Hecate, “So..yes..this is entirely possible.”

    Silence filled the room until Hecate spoke, shattering the quiet like a hammer on glass. “There is something that may be a bit more...problematic.”

    “Go on,” Willow said reluctantly, her mind already reeling.

    Hecate looked sadly at the heroine, then spared a glance at the rest. She sighed again. “ power,” she began, making sure all were listening. “Even the Hun Lords, with all their arcane might, could not just pluck it out of thin air. It had to come from somewhere...or someone...or something.”

    A deep foreboding silence filled the room, each of those gathered pondering the assassin’s words. The happy occurrence of their friend’s return had now, for some, turned to a sense of dread, an oppressive, heavy weight pressing onto their shoulders.

    Lord Nikon at last broke the thick, worried silence, asking the question that was an almost physical presence among them. “Are we in any danger?”

    “We may need to...,” Silver began but an angry voice interrupted him.

    “Of course not! That’s ridiculous!” WillowWind said, eyes flashing. “He came back from the dead to save his little girl and now you think he’s going to jeopardize her well-being?” She frowned deeply, brow furrowed in anger. “You think he’d harm any of us? How dare you even...”

    Nikon held his hands out to her. “Willow, have to admit that this is...”

    “’re absolutely right,” TuxedoGin stepped forward. “This is Tropic, after all.”

    “But...,” Nikon started again but saw Tux shake his head with an imperceptible ‘no’ and he caught on quickly. Willow had been through enough the last few hours and this was an argument for another day. He sighed heavily. “You’re right. I just thinkin’ crazy out loud.” He grinned sheepishly at the woman. “C’mon...its Tropic...right?”

    Willow’s face softened and she nodded. “Right. He wouldn’t...couldn’t harm any of us. After all he’s been way.” She smiled. “Well, I’m going home. I’m just tired of this day.”

    “Me, too,” Buttercup added, joining Willow as she walked to the door. “Early day tomorrow.”

    “I still gonna go to Atlas Park,” Nikon said as he fell in behind them.

    WillowWind was almost to the door when she stopped suddenly. She turned and looked back at the Knife warrior, noting the forlorn expression on her face as she sat in her wheelchair with the little dog. “Hecate?”

    The assassin gazed sadly at the heroine for a moment then turned her eyes downward. “I have nowhere to go,” she said somberly.

    The heroine stared resolutely at the Hand of Artemis and sighed loudly. She adjusted the sleeping child in her arms and said with a wide smile, “You can stay with me.”

    “What?!?” the other heroes said in unison.

    Willow smirked as she crossed to the injured woman, pushing her wheelchair with one hand to the exit. “I’ve got an extra room. Besides,” she grinned, “you blew up my apartment. You’re gonna have to clean it up.”

    The assassin raised an eyebrow. “Well, if you feel you need assistance with such a...rudimentary task...I suppose I can aid you.”

    “Believe what you have to believe, Shorty.”

    “Why do you say these things when you know I shall kill you for them?”

    “Big talk from the girl with the hole in her side,” Willow said brightly, wheeling the scowling blonde to the teleport pads.

    “I am in hell,” Sister Hecate said sadly as she and the heroine faded away, porting to Founders Falls.

    Dr. Silver, TuxedoGin and SuperBrain were left in the teams headquarters, each deep in thought as they gathered in the medlab again. SuperBrain stood in front of the large monitor, looking at the ominous test results of their now living friend. He shook his head whispering one word to himself, over and over again. “Power...power...power...”

    Silver and Tux sat at the desk looking at the screen as well. Both were silent, contemplating the events of the night, particularly Tropic, his now immense power and the effect his return would have, not only on the superhero community, but also on the various associations of villains within the city and possibly beyond. The villains with ties to the occult, the Circle of Thorns and the Carnival of Shadows in particular, would be most agitated.

    Finally, Tux turned to Dr. Silver, his voice low and worried, “So...what are you thinking, Doc?”

    The scientist bit his lower lip and sighed, shaking his head. “I’m thinking I don’t know what I’m thinking.” He was intent on the two power reports hovering overhead. He puffed on his cigarette then stubbed it out on the edge of the desk, blackening its burnished, metal surface. “But I’ve got a few questions,” he said as he pulled the keypad of a team communicator in front of him. He pressed a few keys and waited, the units beeping filling the room.

    He did not light another cigarette.


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