Ch. 9.1 – Powerstar

John Wilson stood on a rooftop high above Los Angeles. He wore a blue-and-silver costume that clung to his skin and made him look just a touch wider and more muscular than he was. The cowl covered his head from the nose up, and the cape flowed idly at his back. Both were a vivid royal blue that nonetheless concealed him well in the dark, when John didn’t want to be seen. Twilight hadn’t set the city to shining in the night, but he knew it wouldn’t be long.

Of course, even if I do want to be seen, people will rationalize me away if I do anything ‘impossible,’ he mused, feeling a touch irritated.

*…he thought for the hundredth time,* Heather Wing, his fiancé, noted in his mind. *John, what we have is special. You can’t just wave your hand and fix whatever’s broken in most people.*

Wait, Powerstar?
For those who would like a little more background on our guest hero, check out the Powerstar entry in the codex.

*I know,* he sent back, still frustrated. *Still, we healed you. There has to be a way.* He gestured, and a flicker of static electricity played around his fingertips. Far below, two cars about to merge into one another swerved apart at the last moment.

*Go save some lives, hero,* Heather sent back, impish grin appearing in John’s mind without the need for telepathy. *We can save the world later.*

How much later? John wondered, but he kept the thought to himself. Heather didn’t pry, sending a kiss instead. Then John Wilson took a deep breath, sheathed his body in a faint aura of blue distortion, and flew over the city, becoming Powerstar in mind as well as body.

*Who are we after today?* Heather asked, following him with one mental track as another switched songs at KXNX, readying her DJ spiel for the coming break.

Powerstar frowned inwardly. *The White Herald,* he replied evenly. Heather’s response was a wordless pulse of sympathy. It felt like the Platonic ideal of a hug. *Yeah. After two years of doing this, there’s still no one worse. He’s got to be behind the recent spike of Vortex activity. Martinez playing nice is bad enough, but when Harkin is behaving himself, I worry.*

Heather paused. Powerstar made a fist, and a mugger dropped his gun. It fell down a sewer grating, where the Empowered hero turned it into a paperweight. *You’ve never talked much about the Vortex things,* Heather noted gently. *They’re basically horror gods, right?*

Powerstar came to a halt over an intersection of back alleys. *That’s how the Herald sells them, but I’m not buying.* He watched, sensing nothing unusual – the gang fight he broke up with a sudden sprinkler outburst was, sadly, all too routine – and clenched his teeth.

*Yeah, my humanist honey isn’t going to get into the whole ‘cosmic horror’ thing,* Heather quipped. *I’m guessing they’re not dead gods that lie dreaming.*

Letting the frown reach his face, Powerstar descended, the buildings shielding him from casual sight. Lengthening shadows wrapped around him as he drew the cape over the silver highlights in his uniform. *I don’t think so. Still, after the big one Herald summoned…it’s hard to be completely sure.* He glanced around, halting his descent only a story up. *I’ll never buy into the idea that we’re some aberration, that ideas like honor and freedom and love are delusions. Thing is, even the grunts, the ‘Vortex Spawn,’ are like hate incarnate. It radiates off them in waves.*

Martinez and her team appeared from a Rift overhead, standing on their hovering discs, weapons out and ready. “Down!” she shouted.

Sensing – knowing – that she meant him, Powerstar dropped to the ground, crouching at the ready, cape flowing out and around him like wings readied for launch. Their strange rifles, deep purple lines glowing in etched channels, fired dim bursts of power. John’s kinetic senses came up empty, his electromagnetic awareness only detecting the weapons’ power sources. Nevertheless, the blasts had been effective, because several Vortex Spawn shot up out of the ground, then materialized. About half of them were scored with ashen gray lines that reminded John of burn marks. They unleashed a quiet yet terrible keening, a discordant set of cries that felt like jagged razors slashing at every nerve, weaponized hatred for all not of the Vortex. “White Herald,” Powerstar called up.

Martinez grimaced. “Of course. My day is complete.” She pointed twice, and her agents flew in opposite directions, sweeping the alleys. She floated down toward him, and Powerstar rose to meet her. The spawnlings merely watched as the Complex agents flanked them. “You’ve been a lot less trouble than I expected. I have told you about Division One, yes?”

“I’m thinking about it,” Powerstar admitted. Heather radiated a mutinous silence.

With a shrug, Martinez swept the tentacled monsters with another burst from her rifle. They scattered, and her surprised agents started methodically picking them off. Martinez grunted, rifle raised to cover her partners. “I’ll take it. Are you thinking this is too easy?”

“By half,” Powerstar agreed, floating higher to cover the Complex agents. “You’ve mellowed.”

“Perspective,” she said cryptically, herding Vortex monsters into the kill zone her agents had created. “I’ve never seen Vortex Spawn act like this. I set up this sweep to avoid getting swarmed, but they’re just…taking it. Something’s very wrong here.”

“Or,” a familiar voice rasped from every alley, “something is very right.” It sounded like a chain smoker’s nightmare, rattling and hissing like a dying snake. Martinez tensed. Powerstar let lightning play across his body, ready to unleash it the moment he had a target.

When that target rose through the buildings behind Martinez’s agents, John decided he would have been just as happy without one. It wasn’t simply a larger version of the spawnlings he’d fought before. It looked like a cancerous albino squid, pale and lumpy. Long tentacles grasped the air beneath it, no two alike, ranging from thick and muscular to whip-like. The thicker ones were covered in suckers, while the thinner limbs had either split ends to serve as “hands” or razor-talons of something like bone. A mouth like a long slash carved vertically through the bottom of its pulsing body. Its beak-like teeth, each one as unique as the tentacles, quivered independently as the monster radiated malevolence and anticipation, but hunger most of all.

Powerstar released a carefully-controlled burst of power at the horror, threading it between the two Gray Company agents and avoiding the buildings. The pair looked behind them, and Harkin screamed. Both flew back and away. The remaining spawnlings took shelter among the tentacles. The monster grabbed and ate one that looked badly wounded, cutting off a shriek of despair, but left the rest to swim through the air in its shadow. John could still see the buildings through its translucent body, but it was congealing by the moment.

“Martinez?” Powerstar asked, nearly breathless. She shook her head. Great. He floated ahead of the trio as the two agents retreated to Martinez’s position. “I fought a smaller one of these, once,” he continued, forcing his voice to remain even. “It wasn’t fully manifest, White Herald had already bailed, and there weren’t civilians nearby. I almost died. You really need to call in backup.”

“Comm’s down,” she explained. “We cannot let this thing get into the city.”

Powerstar whirled on her, his shock overriding the terror that made his stomach churn. “It’s already in the city! We have to stop it, now!”

“On that,” she replied, voice hollow, “we agree. If this thing gets two blocks away, the world loses its collective mind.” She pressed something on the rail controlling her platform. Though there was no reaction visible to the naked eye, to Powerstar’s energy senses it began to glow.

“Boss? What are you doing?!” Harkin blurted.

Martinez stuck her rifle in a holster on the railing. It harmonized with whatever she’d activated. “Harkin, Maxim, get back to base. Powerstar, I’m going to need you to contain the explosion.”

“There are over a hundred people in that building alone,” Powerstar replied coldly.

Martinez glared at him. “Don’t you think I know that? If I had another option, I’d take it. If you have one, I’m listening.”

For an instant, Powerstar focused on the monstrosity before them. It was still a creature of mind, or spirit, but it was growing more substantial as they watched. If it fully manifested, Martinez’s sacrifice would only kill herself, because every non-Empowered human within the thing’s reach would already be dead, consumed by its power. His mind then flickered to the Complex team’s rifles. They fired beams of the same pseudo-substance as the Vortex creatures. Vision, Powerstar realized, the word coming to him from the very stuff of thought and soul that defined it. They’re creatures of Vision.

Heather sensed John’s plan the moment he came up with it. *NO! John, please, there has to be another way!*

*I love you, Heather,* he replied, then cut the connection. “Throw me a rifle,” Powerstar told Martinez, “then run.”

“What are you doing?” she asked, but obeyed, tossing him her rifle with a thought and a gesture.

“What you were going to do,” Powerstar explained, “but in their world.”

The dying snake voice screamed, and White Herald appeared in front of Powerstar, as ever the dirt-caked, shriveled body in the pristine robe and cloak. “You will not!” Herald snarled, clawing at Powerstar.

Martinez flew into the madman, body-checking him and knocking Herald to the ground. She paused just long enough to salute Powerstar, then jumped down to face the Vortex cultist. Powerstar nodded back, then concentrated on the rifle. If I convert myself into the same Vision energy, I should be able to blow all of us to kingdom come before –

Another Rift opened above them. Powerstar sighed wearily. I don’t need this. He looked up.

When he saw a character drawn by Jack Kirby, a magical girl, an urban vampire, a sorceress with a book the size of a printer, and an amazon dropping into the battle, he changed his mind. *Go ahead. Let me have it,* he sent to Heather as he reestablished their link. Her only response was a sob of relief.

Then she looked through his eyes. *What the hell?!*

* * *

Powerstar flew to the side of the armored psychokinetic, adding his power to the newcomer’s. Somehow, he was combining his energy with the Vision power, forcing the monster back and preventing it from materializing. “Wow, you’re real,” he said. “Hi, I’m Alex.”

The superhero blinked. “Hello. Who are you people?”

A pretty young lady in purple and black dropped to the ground beside them, grinned, and threw her hand out. Interlacing threads of a vast, subtle power burst from it, reinforcing their field. The monster began to growl. “Good question. Hey guys, we need a team name!”

The redheaded amazon punched one of the spawnlings, sending it reeling into the physical world. “No,” she objected, following up the punch with an axe kick that crushed its head like a rotten grape, “we don’t!”

“Actually, I’m with Sara,” the magical girl said, thrusting her crystalline wand at the Vortex creatures. “Wonder Rose: Vision Burst!” she called. The creatures writhed as Vision force pulsed out in waves to pummel them. “She’s not a member of the Alliance, so technically we’re independent. What good team names aren’t taken?”

“Can this wait?” the sorceress asked testily, flipping through her book and occasionally calling glowing sigils from it. She threw each sigil into the web the heroes were creating around the Vortex horrors, strengthening it further. “That Vortex Beast isn’t down yet.”

“And you were supposed to stay with Max!” the amazon shouted at Sara with a faint brogue.

Sara laughed. “What, and miss all the fun?” She held up an exquisite platinum bracelet. “I’m back in the game, Molly! No way I’m hanging back when there’s Vortex ass to kick!” Incongruously, John’s next thought was, I have got to get one of those for Heather.

*Survive now, make up later,* Heather shot fiercely at him, still shaken by how close she’d come to losing him. *Martinez and the goons have Herald – take that thing down!*

*Yes, ma’am,* he replied as jauntily as he could, then focused on the “Vortex Beast.” Even with all the help that had arrived, Powerstar felt it pressing against every limit he knew. It wasn’t just challenging his power but his mind, his soul, the very reality of his existence. It droned with a craving to undo all that he was, consuming him and leaving only the Vortex in his place. He replied with the Platonic ideal of lightning, using his new friend’s trick to convert his power into Vision.

“Impressive,” Alex said, smiling weakly as he added his might to Powerstar’s. “They tell me that Blaze and Vision are on opposite ends of the Talent spectrum, and I believe it, but you’re already mixing them like an old pro.”

“Blaze?” John blurted, blinking as much from confusion as strain. An instant later, though, it felt right. “It’s not like mixing for me, more like pouring one into the other, like filling a cup.”

Alex glanced at Powerstar in mild surprise. “Huh,” he replied evenly, then turned on the Vortex Beast anew. His Vision shields grew stronger, mimicking Powerstar’s trick, barely checking the monster’s advance. “We’ve got it pinned, but that’s not going to last. Ideas?”

“We need backup,” Wonder Rose replied, smiling, and pointed her wand at the sky. “Akira!”

A shaft of silver energy shot up, followed by a ray of golden light beaming down. A man in a silvery business suit appeared in the golden light, and for a moment Powerstar was nonplused. Then golden wings burst from Akira’s back, and he took to the air. Somehow Powerstar knew he was looking at the closest thing he would ever see to an angel in flight. Akira summoned a white-gold blade to one hand, glared at the creature, and slashed the air. A spiral of sunlight flew into the horror.

Powerstar gasped. The angel had wounded the thing, but the cut was shallow and the Vortex Beast looked more irritated than injured. It lashed out with its largest tentacle. John braced himself, and forced the shield to hold, but the entire field shuddered and both he and Alex gasped in pain. His counterpart’s comic-art armor cracked. Powerstar tasted blood. “This one’s worse. White Herald must have been planning this for a while.”

“Worse than what?” Alex blurted.

“The last big one I fought,” Powerstar explained. “It wasn’t nearly as large or powerful, and there weren’t innocents to protect, but it still messed me up for days.”

Wonder Rose gaped at him. “How have we not heard of you before?” she half-demanded.

“Because Gray Company decided that Powerstar does not exist,” Martinez explained, “and your alliance isn’t nearly as powerful as you think.”

“Then it’s time that changed,” the book-wielding sorceress replied, her voice cold as the void. She flipped the book to the last page. “Cover me.” The pseudo-vampire literally emerged from her shadow, sliding to go back to back with her. She smiled. “Thank you, Maxwell.” She focused on her book while Maxwell glared at Vortex Spawn, driving them back with twistings of Vision. “Bonds of friendship, forged in blood,” she chanted. “Ever faithful, never broken, hear me now, beyond space and time, and come! David, Marie, Lucas, Eve, let our fellowship be the road to reunion!”

Three figures appeared around the sorceress. One was a huge young man in a sleeveless T-shirt, a long ponytail trailing behind him as he flexed and slid into a ready stance. Beside him was a young woman dressed almost entirely in pink, a powder-blue belt and white sneakers her only concessions to chromatic diversity. Blaze energy flowed invisibly around her with a might that rivaled Powerstar’s. On the sorceress’ other side was a woman in brick red blouse and pants, both with turquoise-colored trim, her boots radiating an unfamiliar power similar to that filling the man. She, too, wielded Blaze, but unlike either Powerstar or the woman in the pink dress, hers was as focused as a scalpel. “Nicole!” the lady in pink exulted, beaming a smile at the sorceress. “It’s been too long!”

“Marie. Where’s Lucas?” Nicole asked curtly.

“Family business,” the man who was clearly David said, grinning and crouching for a leap like a fighting game hero. “Don’t worry. We’ve got this.”

“It’s a Vortex Beast, you unthinking brute,” the other woman, Eve, said sharply, summoning knives into the air around her fingers. They were actual, physical knives, created whole using Blaze and the energy Sara wove to bolster their shield, but they were filled with power enough to slice through tanks. “Look around you. We must pour all we have into this.”

“Stop!” The White Herald screamed, somehow still fighting the three Gray Company agents. “You don’t know what you’re doing! We’re so close to bringing the truth to the world!”

“If he says stop,” Powerstar shouted in response, “then that’s the last thing we want to do! Fry that sucker!”

Everyone hit it at once.

Powerstar and Alex crushed it with their forcefield, Sara tightening her threads of pure reality to reinforce the barrier like magical rebar. Marie flowed her power into theirs, pulsing it further with an exquisite harmony that the monster convulsed against as if retching. Molly, Max and David all leaped to the field’s edge and punched, Molly’s pure focus and Max’s eerily precise strength contrasting with David’s wild, raw power. Eve fired her knives into the wound left by Akira’s majestic sunlight, and the Beast bled a terrible energy that drained color and music from the world inside the shield. Finally, Rose, Nicole and Akira waited until the Vortex creatures wavered, then threw all their collective Vision might into throwing the horrors out of the universe entirely, shoving them back into the walled-off reality from which they’d come.

Even with their collective skill and power the battle wavered, the wounded monster and its terrible spawnling servitors pressing at the barrier. They tore at it with power, with Vision, with gut-churning loathing made manifest. Powerstar’s legs threatened to give way.

Then, all at once, the Vortex creatures vanished with an almost gentle pop.

Powerstar exhaled vehemently, letting himself fall back. Instead of sitting on the ground, however, he found himself in a surprisingly comfortable folding chair. “Well,” he said, glancing over at the three Complex enforcers. White Herald was gone. Of course. He smiled ironically. “That was fun.”

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Written by Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan was born in the Bronx, New York, giving him the right to root for the Yankees while making less than six figures. After a long, largely pleasant interregnum in suburban Connecticut, he moved to the Inland Empire, California to be with his wonderful wife and muse, a stepson, and a crazed feline. An occasionally too-avid player of and writer for tabletop roleplaying games, his other passion is metaphysics, which informs most of his fiction.

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