Jordan Delp shifted his weight backwards, cocking his head slightly, quickly, to the left, as a jagged shard of glass passed just millimeters from his neck.
He frantically looked around, trying to find the source of the explosion. Christine, the new girl, was standing on the far side of the counter staring open-mouthed at the middle steamer, its glass top shattered. “I… I only looked a way for a few minutes…” she stuttered as Jeff, the manager, came running in from the back.
“It’s okay, everyone! Everything is fine! Go back to your coffees, nothing to see here!” he shouted, arms out. His faux smile melted into a scowl as he faced his two employees.
He quickly pulled them together and growled in a low whisper. “You’re still holding your phone, Christine. I know this is your first week, but this is the third time your inattentiveness has damaged company property. I’m really starting to doubt that you are JavaBEANS! material.” Jordan wondered how Jeff managed to make the shop’s name sound the way the corporate logo looked. Does he practice in front of the mirror? “And Jordan! Why the heck weren’t you paying attention?”
“I was hoping that promoting you to assistant manager would motivate you take this more seriously. But you’re still coming in late or taking off early all the heckin’ time. That makes me think I made a bad call. Both of you need to shape up! If I don’t see improvement soon, we’re going to have to talk about ending your relationship with JavaBEANS! Now go clean up that mess.” Jeff turned back, smiling brightly at the shop’s patrons as he headed to the back office.
Christine started to apologize to Jordan, but he waved off her concern. “I’ll clean,” he offered, “Why don’t you take register? It’s dead in here, and you look like you need a minute. Just try to look busy in case Jeff peeks out from his fortress.” He grabbed a broom and pan from the storage closet and walked around the register, searching for the shards of glass spread across the floor.
Jordan wished he could explain his poor punctuality. “I’m Fight Guy!” he dreamed of saying. “I’m a member of The Defense! And I was late for the double you scheduled me for last week — EVEN THOUGH I ASKED FOR THE DAY OFF — because I was saving the city from a lunatic who could control skunks with his brain AND make them shoot eye lasers!” Thinking this to himself for the 108th time, he sighed and picked up the last piece of glass. Jeff wouldn’t believe him. Jeff would probably have fired him on the spot for making up excuses, and Jordan needed the money. Rent in North Harbor wasn’t cheap, the monthly payments on his graduate degree in Post-Modern Literature with an emphasis on Southeast Indian Neopagan Folklore were oppressive, and JavaBEANS! was the highest paying job he could find.
Jordan kept an eye on Christine as the line slowly built up, but his mind was preoccupied. He was so absorbed in his thoughts and his cleaning that he didn’t notice his nemesis enter the coffee shop. It wasn’t until that incomparable snort jolted Jordan back to his present surroundings that he was alerted. Damen was next in line.
His first thought was to dash out the back of the shop. The Entity that possessed him and guided him when he was in danger was urging this same course of action, as usual. But at that moment, all Jordan could think was, What would Amanda do? Amanda, who he still hadn’t saved, whose abduction remained a total mystery two years later. Jordan knew what Amanda would do. He dashed up to the empty register and looked at Damen. “Next in line?”
“Well, it is about time,” Damen began his daily rant. “I’ve been waiting in line FOR. EVER. The service here just gets worse, and worse, and worse. Are you ready for my order?” Jordan nodded, dreading the familiar routine: request a ridiculous specialty order, search for something to get angry about, pitch a fit at the manager, get something for free. Jordan, relieved to have saved Christine from the nightmare customer, was hopeful he could at least get through the ordering portion of the ordeal without setting Damen off. “Okay, give me a large cup and a marker, otherwise you’ll definitely mess it up,” Damen condescended.
As Jordan handed the items across the counter, he heard a quiet, muffled, electronic chirp come from his pocket. He was CERTAIN he’d turned his phone off. He glanced at the irritable customer. “Fill to here with regular, and add a pump of vanilla, fill to here with decaf, then add two pumps of white mocha…” Another chirp. “Do you hear that noise?” Jordan stared. “No? Hrm, okay, well, then pour heavy cream up to here, and make sure you get this in the right order because otherwise the taste changes and it’ll be RUINed. So after the heavy cream, drop a shot of espresso, then add ice to here. Then please stir it a little for me, you don’t have to shake it or anything. Okay, now, ring that up as a regular coffee, add…” Another chirp. “Are you really telling me you don’t hear that chirping? Are you deaf as well as dumb?” Getting no reaction from Jordan, he widened his anger-net to include Christine. “Which one of you — yes, Miss, I’m talking to you too, MISS — didn’t turn off your phones?”
Damen continued to work himself up, grumbling about The Millennials and their phones. Jordan reached quickly into his pocket, mashing the buttons on his phone to silence the ringtone. The noise continued. It was coming from his other phone.
He pulled the The Defense communicator from his other pocket. The screen displayed “NEW MESSAGE,” on a background of blue and red. He knew those colors were a secret notification code, but before he could remember what it meant, Manager Jeff reappeared and snatched the device from his hand. “Jordan, what have I told you about turning off your phone during work hours? Whoa, what kind of phone is thi… nevermind, Go. Go take out the trash.” After poking the device until it stopped chirping, Jeff dropped it into his pocket like a school teacher reprimanding a high schooler who texted during class. He turned his focus to calming the disgruntled customer, ignoring Jordan’s protestations and repeated requests for his “phone” back.
As he emptied a trashcan into the dumpster behind JavaBEANS!, Jordan wondered if he’d be able to pickpocket his manager, or if he’d have to wait for his shift to end to see what The Defense needed of him.
Jordan tapped his fingers impatiently on the armrest, then picked up his comm and reread the message. “BE COOL. Get to Palmer Airfield, Hanger 12, now. Try not to draw too much attention. Try not to think about it. Keep your warpaint handy. -802”
It’d been hours since 802 sent the message, but only a few minutes since Jordan had read it. He’d asked if everything was okay, but 802 hadn’t responded, and that was making him nervous. She was a computer! Or something, he wasn’t really clear on that. Texting was her whole deal, though, and to not respond for this long… Jordan opened a message to everyone on The Defense.
“Hey guys. I caught an Uber and I’m on my way to the airfield. What’s going on?” He started tapping on the armrest again, eventually looked up from the device’s blinking cursor, and immediately made accidental, awkward eye contact with the driver in the rearview mirror. He quickly turned back to the comm and typed again. “Are you still at that hangar?”
A few minutes and awkward glances went by. He typed again. “I didn’t get the message til just now, but I’m coming!”
“My boss had my comm, and made me stay late to clean because…” He stopped typing. They didn’t need to know about that. He deleted the message, and paused for a moment, growing anxious that no one had responded.
“Is everyone okay? I don’t see any, like, giant lizards or ninja robots or whatever on the news.”
“Getting on the interstate. If I need to go somewhere else, let me know ASAP!”
“Anyone know what’s happening?”
“Pulling up to the airfield. Be there in a minute.”
Jordan entered the huge hangar, empty except for a car that he recognized as belonging to Slate Flamepunch. He spotted a door on the far wall that led him to a small office. An unsecured computer soon showed him security recordings of his teammates boarding a large cargo plane that taxied out of the hanger shortly thereafter. He also found a flight plan for the plane, revealing its current position over the Atlantic.
Jordan was crestfallen. The Entity only gave him superior reflexes and fighting abilities, he couldn’t travel that sort of distance. He couldn’t fly, like half of the team. He didn’t even have a car! Much less a sweet flying car, like Slate’s! Oh, wait…
Jordan ran over to Slate’s car and spotted the keys half-heartedly hidden under a pile of scripts in the passenger-side foot well. He started the engine, and paused for a moment of reassurance. He usually took public transit or an Uber. He couldn’t afford a car anyway. But, after joining The Defense, he’d finally gotten his license for emergencies just like this one. He’d taken the driving test recently. And he’d watched Slate work the little spinning thing on the dash that made it ascend and descend. After they defeated Fear Falcon and Jordan started singing “Can’t Fly Friends,” Slate had asked him to stay quiet, giving him plenty of time to observe how the dial worked. Jordan was confident he could get the car airborne.
Jordan sped the car out of the hangar and down a runway, gently manipulating the altitude controller. The vehicle started to climb. After a few seconds, Jordan looked out the window. The hangars below were shrinking rapidly. He had a brief moment of elation at being untethered by gravity at his own direction, but before he could form the conscious thought This is going well!, the car began to list.
Jordan tried to readjust, but only made it worse. The car flipped, started to spiral, and began to plummet back towards the earth. Jordan frantically tried to steer the car away from… the ground, he guessed, disoriented by the spinning.
Time slowed to a crawl. Jordan became acutely aware of his surroundings, extraordinarily attuned to the dangers around him. Loose change drifted lazily past his face as he turned his head. A figure had appeared suddenly in the seat next to him. The same figure that had taken Amanda. He called himself “Balance” then. This is the closest he had ever been to Jordan. He usually appeared to taunt Jordan from a distance. Balance’s grey shroud seemed unperturbed by the car’s askew angle. His face was obscured by a golden mask with shifting white and black patterns. He turned toward Jordan. “Hurtling thoughtlessly towards destruction. Are you still surprised?” His voice was quiet and even, and sounded closer than he looked. Jordan felt an underlying maliciousness whisper coolly into his ear. “All that you hold dear, gone, and all your fault.” Balance turned forward. Jordan felt his body suddenly twitch, arms jolting towards the door. He followed the expressionless mask’s gaze and saw what The Entity was trying to avoid.
Before Jordan could reach the door handle, Slate’s car collided with a tanker truck as it filled up with fuel for the airstrip’s private clients. Later, the fire marshal in charge of the investigation would write in his report that collateral damage was minimized by chemical accelerants in the cargo of the flying vehicle that consumed most of the jet fuel before flames could spread. He noted that the chemicals were most commonly used in special effects work, which may be useful in identifying the owner as the scorched remains of the John Doe pulled from the wreckage were burnt beyond recognition.
“Good evening, Harrison. Let’s see what you’ve brought me today. I hope our last discussion has helped you to find what I require.”
“Yah, sure, Doc. But seriously, just call me Harry. I checked all’a these against that list, but like I toldja, ya gotta be less choosy if you want that many of ‘em.” Harry gestured over his shoulder to six metal tables, three of which held large, black bags. His taller companion approached a stack of file folders on an empty table and selected the folder on top. He briefly adjusted his glasses before thumbing through each.
“You must not have understood the list, HARRISON. My list said ‘no significant burn damage’ and you brought me a body bag with a chart that says ‘Incinerated in Fire,’ nonetheless.”
“Yah, and? I checked it out! Body looks fine. A few burns on the skin. Musta been the smoke. Saw a video on that once, Doc. Said ain’t the fire that kills ya, the smoke chokes ya first. I’m sure his guts or whatever are good, but maybe not his lungs, know what I’m saying?” The man guffawed a deep snorting laugh, to match his wide belly, looking back at the doctor’s two bodyguards who stood nonplussed by the small room’s entry. “Really, Doc, if you need ‘em a specific kinda dead, I could bring you however many you want. But I gotta snag ‘em alive first,” he laughed, again.
The doctor curled his lip into a sneer as he moved towards the bag matching the chart in his hand. “That’s ‘asphyxiation’ not ‘incineration,’ and I’d trust the M.E.’s opinion over yours. I shoulder some of the blame, trying to use a hammer like a scalpel. Perhaps we should remain within your skillset.” He leaned in and unzipped the bag to examine the supposedly scorched, possibly suffocated corpse.
A hand burst from between the zipper teeth. The base of the palm impacted the doctor’s jaw, knocking him unconscious. Fingers clenched into a fist around his glasses, snapping them in two. The body sat up from the bag. The two halves of the glasses flung at the guards waiting by the door. The metal frames found their marks in the goons’ wrists, and as they dropped their weapons, Harry reached for his. The now-alive corpse rolled forward, springing off the operating table with one hand, before dropping an axe-kick across Harry’s face. The body lunged forward as Harry hit the ground, dispatching the guards quickly. One head-butt to the nose, one knee to the solar plexus.
Jordan Delp looked around the room — somewhere in a sewer by the smell of it — and at the people groaning and writhing on the ground around him. It only took a moment for his heart rate and breathing to slow. He remembered the fireball burning away his flesh, and realized he was naked. He stammered, “Wwwhat. The. FUCK?!”