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Chapter 3
A Surge of Hope


If his meeting with Watchdog was an example of the uncertainty and danger of
his quest, then Dexter’s meeting with Azuria was an example of the comfort
of sureness and the hope of peace.  From Colonel West’s office Dexter was
marched into a waiting transport truck and driven without haste to City Hall
in Atlas Park.  Dexter remembers his conversation with Sgt. Milgard.

“So the Dog got a sour whiff and it was you, huh?” Milgard asked.
“Um, I guess.”
“I’ll tell you something for nothing, kid,” said Milgard, lighting a
cigarette with an ornate silver lighter.  “I’ve never known the Watchdog to
be wrong about anyone.  Ever.  But you?  I just can’t see it, you know?”
“I know,” admitted Dexter, knowing all too well.
“All the same,” added the Sergeant, “you better watch what you’re doing.  
This is a dangerous place.  There are people in this city who would kill you
just to say they did.”
“I understand.”
“Not here in Atlas, though.  As danger goes, Atlas Park is kept pretty
clean.  If Paragon were Disneyland, Atlas would be the Main Street
Electrical Parade.”
A soldier nearer the front of the canvas-covered truck piped up.  “They
don’t have that anymore, Sarge.”
“What do you mean, they don’t have it?” said Milgard.
“They discontinued it a few years ago,” said the soldier.
“Really?” said Milgard, genuinely surprised and disappointed.  “That was my
kid’s favorite.  Some things never stay the same.  Okay, we’re here.”

Dexter got off the truck and took a long look at the milk white walls and
columns of City Hall.  It was a huge square building surrounded by wide
stone steps and capped by a white dome.  A large U.S. flag flapped lazily
from the dome’s flagpole.
“Wow,” said Dexter.
“Yeah, wow,” replied Milgard with a smile.  “And this is just the back of
it.”

The soldiers accompanied Dexter up the steps.  As they did, Dexter began to
notice the brightly colored red and white uniforms of Longbow Corps agents
as they patrolled City Hall grounds.
“Longbow Corps.  Wow.  I’ve only seen them on the news.”
“Don’t fall in love, kid,” said Milgard with a note of bitterness.  “They
ain’t so hot.”

Out of the corner of Dexter’s eye he spied something descending rapidly
toward them out of the sky.  Before he could say, “What’s that?”  The Hero
landed near them with a ground trembling thud, shaking small flakes of
concrete loose from the sidewalk in the process.

“Milgard, you old scrapheap, how are you!” came the electronic approximation
of the Hero’s voice through his helmet.
Milgard squinted into the morning sun.  “Cyberforce?”
“The same.”
“Well how have you been?” said Milgard excitedly, walking to the Hero and
giving his gauntleted hand a firm shake.  “I haven’t seen you since I got
back from that trouble with the Council in Boomtown.”
“I’ve been good,” replied Cyberforce.  His navy blue armor shone almost
purple in the mid-morning sunshine and the golden chevron on his breastplate
seemed to glow.  “A little tired these days.  Burning the midnight oil.”

Cyberforce’s unseen eyes scanned the whole group and settled on Dexter.  
“And who is this?  And why does he need a security escort?”
“Ah, something for the ‘Dog,” said Milgard dismissively with a curt wave in
Dexter’s direction.  “He smelled something funny on him this morning and
we’re taking him to Azuria.”
“Really?” said Cyberforce, taking a few steps toward Dexter.  “What’s your
name, son?”
“Dexter,” said Dexter.  Then, jokingly, “What’s yours?”
The Hero ignored him, staring at him through his faceless golden blast
shield.  “Do you have a medical condition, young man?”
“Uh, medical condition?  No,” said Dexter.  “I don’t think so.”
“Hmmm,” mused the Hero.  “My EEGs are picking up some interesting brainwave
activity.  I’d watch this one, Mike.”
“Absolutely, for at least another fifteen minutes,” said Milgard.  Then, as
if eager to change the subject, Milgard said, “What, no cape yet?”
Cyberforce seemed distracted by Dexter for a moment, then turned to Milgard.
  “No, not yet, but soon.  Always too much work to do, am I right?  Anyway,
I noticed you and thought I’d drop in – literally.”
“Well it’s good to see you.  Hey, look, after we get done with this detail
I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
“And how would I drink it?” replied Cyberforce, tapping his helmet where his
mouth would be.  “Besides, I’m on my way to put down some Outcasts in a
Steel Canyon warehouse.  I hear they’ve got hostages inside.”
“Well, get going!” said Milgard.  “And good to see you.  We need to get
together and go hunting again sometime.”
“Absolutely, if your boss will let you.  See you around.”
Cyberforce walked a couple paces from their group and turned his helmet to
the sky.  As the Hero began slowly to crouch, Dexter heard a low tone coming
from his armor.  It built in volume and pitch until, with a burst of
metallic noise, the Hero was sent skyward at great speed, his leap carrying
him off toward one of Atlas Park’s massive War Walls.  In no time he was
gone.

“Who was that?” asked Dexter, as they walked up the back steps of City Hall.
“Cyberforce,” replied Milgard.  “Been around about a year.  Nice guy.  Good
in a fight, especially against anything mechanical.”
“Oh,” said Dexter.  “He’s kind of intimidating.”
Milgard barked a quick laugh.  “You should see him when he’s angry.”

As Milgard reached the back doors of City Hall, he took out a key ring and
put a key in the lock.  Then he paused and turned to his detail.
“We’re going in the back way today, boys.  I just don’t have time today to
deal with Atlas-holes.”
After they were inside, Dexter asked, “Atlas-holes?”
“New Heroes,” said Corporal Green.  “They gather under the statue of Atlas
outside City Hall, stand around for hours and ask dumb questions.  Milgard
can’t stand’em.”
“Well then I’m glad I’m not one of them,” said Dexter.

They walked quickly through the back corridors of City Hall, down a flight
of narrow steps, and into an alcove decorated with the paintings of Heroes.  
Statesman.  Sister Psyche.  Manticore.  And Dexter’s favorite: Positron.  
Dexter was very impressed.  One of the doors said “M.A.G.I.” and through
this door they went.

Azuria had already risen to greet them, as Milgard knew she would.  Azuria’s
abilities made him nervous and uncomfortable, but over the years Milgard had
learned to trust her, even if he was unnerved by her glowing silver eyes –
the sign of her power.  She quietly considered Dexter as Milgard explained
why they were there.  Dexter remained quiet as well, and so did the Minion.

“…so we brought him to you,” finished Milgard.  “What do you think?”
“I think he needs a bath,” said Azuria sternly.
There was an awkward silence, then Azuria added, “That was a joke.”
Noticeably relieved, Milgard said, “Then he’s okay?  You’ll take him?”
“Yes, sergeant.  You may tell Colonel West I’ll take him.”
“Very well,” said Milgard.  “Boys, we’re heading back.”

As the security detail filed out, Dexter could feel Azuria’s gaze on him
again.  He relaxed, feeling strangely comforted.  A peace came over him.  
His nervous breathing slowed.  In the back reaches of his mind, however, the
Minion burned like a tiny ember of anger.

As if she sensed the Minion, Azuria said, “Dexter, you have nothing to fear
here.”
“I know that, ma’am.”
“Call me Azuria,” she said graciously.  “Now, can you tell me why Colonel
West sent you to me?”
“I think so.  He says he smells evil on me.  He said you could help me.”

Dexter chanced a glance at Azuria, but the director’s face remained
expressionless.  She took a soft step toward him.  “You are certainly not
what you seem, but I do not sense any malice in you.  Would you consent to a
short procedure?  It won’t hurt, I assure you, but it will let me see your
memories.”

*If you let her in our head I’ll kill her,* the Minion
snapped from his hiding place.

“Um, I’m not sure that would be a good idea,” said Dexter.

Azuria leaned back.  If she was surprised she did not show it.  “Very well.  
Do you have a place to stay in the city?”
“No, ma’am.”
“I have some accommodations at my disposal – a small apartment not far from
here.  A hostel of sorts for young people affiliated with MAGI.  We can put
you there for now.  But I am not responsible for your expenses, Dexter.  
Your other essentials will be up to you.”
“I understand.  Are they heroes?”
“Are who heroes?” replied Azuria.
“The people in the apartment.”
“I suppose you could call them heroes-in-waiting,” said Azuria with a small
smile.  “They have not yet registered as heroes.”
“Why not?”
“Because I have not allowed them to.  Many are young like you, and some do
not have full control over their powers yet.  And some have – other
problems.  But they will be able to teach you a little about Paragon.”
“Thank you.”
“You are welcome, Dexter.”

She pulled open a drawer of her desk and took out a key, handing it to
Dexter.  “This will get you into the apartments.  The address is on the key
tag.  The Longbow agents will give you directions.  When you get there,
speak to Ramone.  I’ll tell him to expect you.  Report to me tomorrow
morning and we shall see what we shall see.”
“Yes, ma’am.”

As Dexter made to leave the intercom buzzed.  “Miss A,” began a female
voice, “Tumbleweed is here.  He says it’s urgent.”
“Not again,” said Azuria to herself with a sigh.  “Very well,” she
announced. “Send him in.  And Dexter?”

Dexter turned. Azuria’s eyes were ablaze with silver light.  “Each person
has many paths to choose from.  Sometimes only one is visible, and it may
seem the only choice.  But sometimes one must burn a new path where none
existed before.  That is the Untrodden Path; the Path of the Hero.  I am
here to help heroes travel that path, but I cannot burn the trail for them,
or make their choices.  Do not fear to make such choices, young Dexter.  If
you look for it, you will find help along the way, however dark the road.”
In spite of the Minion’s faint derisive laugh, Dexter felt a surge of hope.  
“I’ll try,” he said.
“One more thing,” Azuria continued.  “I can sense what Watchdog smells.  I
am not to be trifled with.  Do not disappoint me.”
“Y-yes, ma’am,” replied Dexter, and hurried out.

He walked out the immense oaken doors of MAGI headquarters and into City
Hall proper.  He was in a giant carpeted hallway with marble walkways and
ceilings twenty feet high.  There were Heroes everywhere.  Dexter was
amazed, but it didn’t compare to what he felt when he stepped out the front
doors and into Altas Plaza.

Heroes running, Heroes talking, Heroes flying, Heroes jumping.  Heroes
appearing out of thin air.  Heroes exchanging items, Heroes talking on
closed channel communication devices, Heroes reloading weapons, Heroes with
armor, Heroes with swords.  Heroes with robes, Heroes with capes.  Heroes
surrounded by flames and smoke, Heroes who glowed, Heroes four feet tall,
Heroes eight feet tall.  And all of them coming and going under the largest
statue Dexter had ever seen, that of the famous Atlas who gave his life to
save his fellow citizens.  Dexter was at once amazed and afraid, but mostly
he was overjoyed that he had made it this far, after all he had already been
through.

“Not bad for my first day,” he said to himself, but he had spoken too soon.







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