Apologies for the lack of updates this week, hoping to get back into the swing on Monday.
With a copy of the Brading Standard tucked under one arm and the notepad app on his phone loaded with useful information, Albert Starr returned to the car to find Zara fussing over a cart horse while chatting with the owner. The young woman was staring into the amber eyes of the horse with a broad smile on her face, as the gentleman she had struck up conversation with gestured over towards the church.
“Made a friend, Zara?” Albert called out, diverting her attention away from the workhorse.
“Uncle! This is Jamie, his family owns one of the local farms. And this is Sunny.” She said, gesturing between the pair as she mentioned their names. “She’s an American Cream.”
“Jamie Matthews, sir.” The young man said, offering a hand.
“Albert.” The hero replied, feeling the handshake drop off a little as recognition caused Jamie’s eyes to widen and grip to slacken.
“Honour to meet you, sir.” Jamie said after clearing his throat. A slightly perturbed look crossed his face, and he leaned in to whisper. “Is the town in danger? I can ring the church bell if an evacuation’s needed?”
“We’re just here investigating something, Jamie. There’s no danger to anyone here.” Albert quietly reassured.
“Good. Grand.” Jamie breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, if there’s anything you need?”
Two different answers came from the two different Starrs at the same time. From Albert, ‘Information.’ From Zara, ‘Accommodation.’
Feeling two sets of eyes on her, Zara looked to her uncle to explain. “Work needs to know if they should book us in to the Watertown Hotel?”
“Well, if it’s hospitality and information you’re looking for, why not drop by the farm? The Matthews family have been here for five generations, and if Dad doesn’t know the answer, Grandma might.” Jamie offered, scratching at the back of his head as he spoke.
His niece’s eyes were boring a hopeful look at him. Lifting a finger to ask for a moment, he gestured Zara into the car. “We appreciate the offer, could you give us a moment?”
“Sure, Sir.” Jamie nodded, hopping up onto the cart. “Sunny here needs to drink up ready for the return trip.” Pointing to a water trough outside the Brading General Store, the young man grabbed the reigns and set off in that direction.
“Please can we, Uncle? He seems really nice and he knows about the town and he said I could take Sunny for a ride if-”
“Quiet, Zara.” Albert interrupted her eager spiel. “Don’t forget, we have a mission here. It’s not a vacation.” Setting the newspaper on the back seat, he unlocked his phone with a few taps of the touchscreen. “There’s a few names to look into. Martin Aimes-”
“I met him, briefly.” Zara spoke up. “He’s just a kid, maybe nine or ten? Bright red skin and was getting bullied for it. Jamie ran the bullies off, but the kid headed home. He lives with his grandmother.”
“… I see. Then there’s Clarissa Gable. Came off a horse in a nasty incident a year back, but she’s made a remarkable recovery. Possibly due to an accelerated healing factor. Libertas had that and was much more durable than baseline humans.” Albert read off the screen, glancing to his niece to see if she’d interject.
“Daniel Davis, star quarterback of the local high school in Watertown.” Noticing the expectant look sent her way, he shrugged. “Sometimes athletic achievement is a good precursor to power activation. It may be the hometown hero effect when he was mentioned, but they seem to think he’s turned the team’s fortune around.”
“So, a kid with red skin. Someone who fell off a horse. A high school footballer. What about that artifact you mentioned? Can it pick anything up now?”
Fetching his jacket from the rear seat, Albert slipped a slender case from the inner pocket and opened it. Placing a slender stone arrowhead on his palm, his amber eyes began to glow as he fed energy into it. With a shudder, the stone piece rose up and began to just spin around.
“What’s that mean?”
Albert let the flow of energy taper off, the arrowhead soon falling to his palm to rest. “We’re in the right location, but they’re not actively using their abilities so it can’t get a read.”
The blonde next to him nodded, deep in thought. “So we should make friends with the locals, with a good source of information and someone to make introductions…”
“All right, Zara. We’ll take Mister Matthews up on his offer. Go and let him know.” Albert relented.
“Can I see if I can ride with him on the cart?” She added, beaming expectantly.
Slipping the artifact back into its case, Radiant let out a long sigh. “If I didn’t, you’d complain all the way there. Go on.”
Zara flung herself across the divide to kiss his cheek. “You’re the best, Uncle!” She said with arms wrapping around his neck. “Um, just don’t tell Uncle Emilio I said that.”
Albert shook his head as she left the car and dashed in the direction of the general store. It was bad enough that his daughters could wrap him around their fingers, now Zara was doing it too.
The road off from US 212 wound its way past fields, farms and forests. By the time they pulled onto Main Street, Brading, it was mid-afternoon. The fields had a fair number of workers in harvesting, and a number of buses were lined up along the road in front of the small collection of shops and utilities. Edging the rented car past the parked vehicles, Albert found a space off the southern end of the crossroads marking the center of town. The local church sat just across from The Brading Inn, a diner from the look of it.
“It’s a lot busier than I thought it’d be…” Zara remarked as the engine came to a stop.
“It’s picking season. Looks like the buses are from Waterfront.” Albert explained. “Even with those in town, I imagine they need more help to get the crops in.”
“So now what?”
Peering in the rear and side mirrors, Albert spotted the newspaper office tucked between the veterinary practice and post office. “I’m going to get a newspaper and do a little small talk.” He replied, opening the car door.
He smiled at her. “Contact B-VOS and let her know we arrived safely. You need to get used to your commslink.”
Craning her head back to watch her uncle depart for the offices of the Brading Standard, Zara lifted a finger up and tapped it against the side of her head. “B-VOS?”
“Yes, Zara?” The voice in her ear responded immediately, smooth and feminine as always.
“Uncle wanted me to check in, we’re-”
“Parked at Long Street, Brading, just outside Farmer’s Fabrics. Opening hours are from nine till half four, if you feel like dressing in the local style.” B-VOS informed her.
Fiddling with the audio console in the car, Zara huffed. “Why did he have me report in if you already knew where we were?”
“Common courtesy. In any case, there are things that I cannot see from my current position. How is it?”
Scanning her surroundings, there was a lot to notice. For all the modern brands and some newer automobiles, there was a rustic, dated quality to some of the buildings. Some of the vehicles looked like they came straight from an episode of one of the historical dramas her grandmother enjoyed watching. There were a few old bicycles lined up outside some of the shops and services. There was even a young man driving a horse and cart up the street.
“Like an episode of The Arnolds, B-VOS.” Was the best description she could come up with. “Are there any hotels about? Depending on how long we need to be here, well, I don’t want to sleep in the back of the car.”
“There are some bed and breakfasts, an inn a little way out of town, and some InstaBee private accommodation listings. You may have trouble finding anywhere with vacancies, however.” The AI paused. “Just in case, I can book a suite at the Watertown Hotel for you?”
“I’ll ask Uncle Albert when he gets back.” There was a knock on the driver’s side window. The horse and cart had come to a stop just outside, and a tanned fist rapped again on the window. “Um, I’ll speak to you in a bit, B-VOS.”
Grabbing the keys from the ignition, Zara climbed out and peered over the roof at the teenager sitting on the utilitarian carriage. His hair was a sandy brown, his eyes blue and his tanned form set with the muscles of a labourer. “My uncle’s just at the news place.” She quickly explained, thumbing over in the direction of the building. “He’ll be back soon to move the car.”
A smile crossed his face. “That’s good to know, but not what I was going to ask. You here for work? Usually people come in on the buses, not in a Mason.” He gestured at the car, giving it an admiring look.
“Oh, no. I’m only fifteen.” She admitted, before going bright red as he laughed a hearty, booming laugh. “What?!”
“Most of us in town would already have several years of work experience by then. Me? I’ve been working on the family farm ever since I could pick eggs from under hens.” Sliding from the seat on the cart, the strapping young man walked around in front of the car to offer his hand having wiped it on the thigh of his trousers first. “James Matthews. Everyone calls me Jamie, though.”
Shaking the offered hand, Zara flashed her best smile at him. “Zara Starr. No one calls me Jamie, though.”
Another chuckle came from the young man, his handshake firm and fingers calloused. “Well then Zara, welcome to Brading. It’s a little town, but its ours.”
With her hand free from his grasp, Zara looked around. “It’s… nice. Sorry, I’m from the city and I’ve never really been anywhere like this before. Still not sure what to think!” She was babbling a bit, and calmed herself by wrapping a lock of hair around her finger to toy with.
“From Watertown? I don’t get into the city much.”
“Oh, no, La Estrella.” She corrected, his eyes widening.
“You’ve come a long way then.” Jamie whistled in awe. “I’ve never set foot outside of the state, let alone gone to the coast. So what brings you out here then?”
Before she could respond, a stone was lobbed out of an alleyway. Snatching it out of the air to avoid the paintwork on their rental getting scratched, her silver-grey eyes sought the source as her ears picked up the sound of arguing and running.
“Go back to Mars, Martian!” A young lad yelled, chasing a slender boy with bright red skin out of the alleyway. Several more teens were in pursuit of the out-of-breath kid with the unusual hue, some carrying rocks and others wielding gnarled sticks. She started to move to interject herself between them, but Jamie was already striding over.
“Hey!” The older teen barked as he made his approach. The blonde from La Estrella couldn’t help but wince as the pursuing boys were thrown and knocked to the ground, rocks plucked from their hands and sticks broken over his knee. The leader of the little gang sprang back to his feet and dusted himself off, fists bunched up. His wild swings were ineffective, and after an overextended right hook he found himself span round and kicked in the back of the knee. As the red-skinned boy bolted off in one direction, the other kids looked up at Jamie, then backed out the way they came from.
“Sorry you had to see that.” Jamie sighed, flexing his fingers a little. “Kids, you know?”
“Who was that boy?” Zara asked, nodding in the direction the lone boy had ran in.
“That’s Martin, Mrs. Aimes grandson.” Jamie replied, scratching at his chin. “He’s not from Mars, but he is…”
“Bright red?” Zara filled in.
“Is that it, up ahead?” Zara asked, leaning towards the dashboard as a settlement appeared to the west of the interstate. Compared to her home city of La Estrella, it was tiny. Not a hint of a high rise or skyscraper. At a guess she’d have thought the tallest building was four stories at best.
“That’s Watertown. We’ll be going past the outskirts. Brading’s to the east.” Albert explained, double checking the GuideLight mapping app on his phone. “There’s a regular bus service, the town has an elementary school but for anything beyond that? They all come here.”
Zara was quiet as the city drew closer, nibbling on the tips of a lock of hair. Summer was drawing to a close, so their surroundings were bright and the plant life still vibrant. “It’s different out here to what I was expecting.” She finally spoke, staring out the window at the city as they skirted past it on the interstate. “But I’m not sure what I was expecting.”
“You’ve spent most of your life in one of the largest cities in America, Zara. I doubt many of the shows you watch are set out here.” Albert replied, getting into lane for the turn off onto US Route 212.
“Hey, that reminds me! We didn’t cover the other stuff I asked about. Why out here, and how do we even know to look out here for this new hero?” The blonde suddenly asked, shuffling about in the passenger seat to focus on her uncle.
Albert was quiet until he got a little further out from Watertown. “We’re not sure as to why it would be someone out here. We know it is someone out here due to the efforts of mystics, seers, and those more attuned to the mysterious sides of our abilities.” A smile crossed his lips. “We actually have your father to thank, in a way. He suggested a while back that we use the information gleaned from the more magically-inclined by running it through a computer system with the ability to match references and draw up shortlists to investigate.”
“B-VOS.” Zara stated. The AI that helped run the day-to-day activities of VIGIL could process vast amounts of data in a short length of time. “So we know where to look. How do we know who we’re looking for?”
“With the help of an artifact on loan from the Ravensburg Museum, and good old fashioned leg work.” Catching her confused look, he went on. “We ask about town. Find out if anything strange has occurred. Unusual sporting achievements, miraculous saves, feats of strength.”
“Narrow it down and then use the artifact to verify?”
A proud smile was shot her way. “That’s right.”
Miles of rural countryside passed by before Zara sat up, seeing a small settlement come into view. “Is that-”
Zara slumped down in her seat. “I bet Adam’s battling the L.E.Mentals or busting a InterCon smuggling ring right now.” She sighed.
“Your brother did offer to let you shadow him. You were the one who wanted to go on a ‘proper mission’.”
The fledgling heroine couldn’t help but laugh. “Funny thing is, I passed on that as I didn’t want to be in the shadow of family. Now I’m in a car with my uncle playing spot the silo.”
“It’s important for us to make contact and extend an offer to this new hero.”
“Because Libertas never joined?” Zara guessed, getting a nod of acknowledgement.
“Plus some of the more science focused among us are hoping to get an avatar-class newline in the scanner to gather information on their nature. Their powers are limited outside of their country of origin.”
“And VIGIL has scanners in the US, one on the space station, and one north and south of the borders.” The teen guessed.
Another nod from her uncle. “Plus… It’s been nice spending some time with you.”
He sounded a little low as he spoke, so Zara leaned over to peck him on the cheek. “Don’t mind my grumbling, Uncle. I’m just not used to being this far from civilization.” She joked. “It’ll be better when we finally get to Bra- is that it?!” Her excited tones filled the car as she spotted another cluster of buildings coming up on the road, just south.
“That’s Goodwin.” Albert chuckled, patting her on the shoulder as she flomped back onto her seat. “We’ve still got a ways to go.” The sound of teenage disappointment was one the father of three was used to. “I might regret this later but… you can put another album on.”
That was all it took to perk Zara up again. “Don’t worry, it’s not Tokyo Dragonboyz!” She proclaimed, rooting through her bag to find a certain jewel case. A CD-R was quickly pulled with it, a rough scrawl of black marker pen on the front of the disc. “I burnt the Ultramachines album leak!”
As technoscreeching burst forth from the speakers, Radiant wouldn’t be regretting it later. He was regretting it right then and there.
The pancakes came stacked high at Sarah’s Diner off the I-29, and the coffee plentiful. The two members of the Starr family had grabbed a corner booth tucked away in the bright and airy eatery. Albert had slipped his jacket off and was savouring his cup of joe, while Zara’s tall strawberry milkshake was an effort for the young woman to drink through the straw.
The pair lingered over their meal of pancakes, bacon and syrup, conversing quietly with Albert mindful of any eavesdroppers.
“The invasion was hard on all of us. Injuries, illness, property damage and the loss of friends and family. Libertas took it especially hard though.” Albert explained, his fork pushing a piece of pancake back and forth through a pool of maple syrup. “She was tireless, battling the alien invaders and coming to the aid of those in need. None of us got a lot of sleep during the war, but her?”
“Didn’t anyone try and make her rest?” Zara asked.
“We tried. She wasn’t part of VIGIL so we were limited in what we could do.” Came the weary reply. “After we beat back the Toranosians, she kept in costume and helped with the reconstruction. Once that was done?”
“She… ‘gave up’?” The blonde trailed off.
He nodded. “That was nearly three years ago.”
Slipping off her shoes, Zara brought her legs up and hugged them, chin resting on a knee as she hid a little behind her hair. She could see her uncle looking concerned, and blurted out what she was thinking. “Is that what happened to Grandpa?”
An arm quickly draped around her shoulders after some shuffling so Albert could sit besides her. “No, he really was ill. Keep in mind he was seventy-six, and this career takes its toll.”
“I just thought… sorry.” She apologized, leaning against him in the hug.
A kiss was planted on top of her head. “It’s fine. Let’s finish up.” He said, moving back to his plate to spear some bacon with his fork. “I might get us some of that apple pie to take away, too.”
“You’re so like Dad sometimes, Uncle.” Zara smiled softly. “Thanks, for telling me that is.”
“If you’re old enough to be sent out on missions, we can’t wrap everything in cotton.” He replied, holding up his pancake-skewering fork to encourage her to eat.
The restroom was clean and furnished with a nice little range of local-made soaps to freshen up with. Zara peered into the mirror as she brushed her teeth, her attention drawn to the silvery glitter in her irises rather than the minty-fresh foam being worked up by the bristles of her toothbrush. If she concentrated hard she could make the flecks twinkle with a soft light. Zara laughed and quickly spat out the mouthful of toothpaste before she choked, thinking back on when she was nine and had concentrated a bit too hard. The flash of light her eyes emitted was awesome. Less awesome was having it reflected back, or the coloured spots she saw for days afterwards.
The door swung open, a woman walking in. She flashed a smile to Zara then came to a stop, staring down at the floor. “Are… are you floating?” She stammered out.
Zara glanced down and saw she was about an inch off the ground, shoelaces just brushing against the white tile floor. Exhaling carefully, she forced herself back down on the ground and flashed her best smile at the middle-aged lady. “It’s the pancakes here. They’re so light.”
“Have I seen you on the television?” The woman at the counter was asking as she boxed up two slices of apple pie. Zara wasn’t sure if she was the Sarah, or even a Sarah. With the curly brown hair and the homely build, she thought she seemed more like a Sally.
“I hear that a lot.” Albert chuckled. “I think there’s a news anchor out there who looks similar.”
“Ah, and here’s your beautiful daughter.” The woman smiled broadly as Zara rejoined her uncle at the counter. “Are you two off anywhere nice?”
“I’ve business in Fargo, and we’ve got family there we can stop with.” Albert lied before Zara could say anything.
“Well, have a wonderful trip and maybe see you on the return journey?”
He smiled. “You just might, if this pie is as good as the pancakes.”
“Why’d you lie to her?” Zara asked once they were back in the car.
It wasn’t until they were back on the interstate that he answered. “Force of habit. When it comes to work like this, it’s better to work quietly.”
Zara mulled over that for a minute before asking the follow up. “So why did Dad let me bring my costume?”
“‘To have and not need is a sensible creed.'” Albert rattled off the quote that had been drilled into him from an early age.
After twelve tracks of assorted Japanese pop-rock, Zara sat in silence and stared out at the South Dakota countryside as it passed by. Grass and shrubs were plentiful, as was farmland and associated buildings. The odd tree broke the view of the sky as they traveled north, her nose lightly resting against the window as she gazed outside.
She felt eyes on her and turned back to look at her uncle. “What?”
“I was just wondering what you were thinking about. You seemed deep in thought.” Albert stated, looking away to pay attention to the road.
“Guess I was just wondering… why this little town? I know avatar-level newlines are a big deal, but how do they differ from what we do? I looked up Brading on the flight. You know what the Encompedia article has on it? Census data and a brief description of the town’s founding.” The words tumbled out of her mouth as she let out the torrent of thoughts that had been stewing in her head since they left the airport.
Albert Starr looked thoughtful as he considered his reply. “I guess we should start with avatars.”
Turning to give him her full attention, she snagged a hard fruit candy from the bag in a cup-holder to suck on.
“Where do our powers come from?” He asked.
Zara mulled over that. Research had started around World War One, intensified in the superpowered arms race of World War Two, and made further strides in the sixties and seventies from better computers and more precise scientific equipment. The key was the spaceborne element, Aether. It was present everywhere and in everyone, in varying concentrations.
Those who could harness Aether were called a number of things over the ages. In 2005, meta-humans and newlines were the terms in vogue. Millennia ago she might have been worshiped as a divine goddess. Centuries past, her golden light may have been seen as the touch of the Devil. And depending on how far back in decades she went, she would have been considered the next stage of humanity or a dangerous freak.
Her father wasn’t about to stop her from chewing on a lock of blonde hair as she furrowed her brow. Those who expressed powers were more likely to have offspring that could do so, and those children’s abilities often shared some of the nature of one or both parents. The Starr family itself was proof of that. Her dad stood as testament that you might not get any powers.
“Well, it’s from Aether.” She eventually replied. Her uncle laughed.
“You were overthinking it, weren’t you?”
She nodded, an embarrassed flush coming to her cheeks.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know. It’s rarer in animals, but a few of them can utilize Aether. Some plants can too.” Albert explained. “They all have exposure to it. But the land we stand on does too. And sometimes in even higher quantities due to impacts from meteors rich in the element. The current theory is that avatar-class newlines are an expression of a nation’s character, fueled by the shared mindset of a population interacting with the environmental Aether levels.”
Snagging a hard candy for himself, he unwrapped it with one hand before popping it into his mouth. “What bit caused your eyes to glaze over?” The question came, the sweet tucked against his inner cheek for the moment.
“National characters. So… the way a country thinks shapes the hero?” Zara asked.
“That’s what the theory would indicate.”
A frown crossed her face. “So what happened to the former one?”
The response she got seemed to come out of nowhere as Albert steered the car off the road and pulled into a roadside diner. “You want some lunch, Zara? I’ve not been to a place like this in years.”
Her eyes blinked rapidly at the subject change. “Yeah, I could- wait. Uncle? What happened to the last one?”
As their car slowed to a stop and the engine idled, Radiant’s hand clasped her shoulder. “If there’s one thing you learn as a hero, make sure it’s this: You’re more than just the costume, the powers, the name.” He stressed, his eyes severe and his tone firm.
“Dad said something similar, like… always being Zara before Starspire. Self-care and awareness stuff, right? So the previous one…”
“She gave up.”
Zara was about speak when she caught the distant, pained look in her uncle’s eyes. It wasn’t the expression of a man talking about someone who retired.
The flight from La Estrella International to Sioux Falls Regional Airport was done in Business Class. As much as Zara wanted to put her new costume on she opted for comfortable jeans, a pale orange strappy top, and a soft, white cardigan. Radiant had changed from his hero costume into one of his many business suits, and was busy making notes on his laptop as they crossed half the country.
Zara’s own laptop was much smaller than the executive business model her uncle was using, and instead of pages of documents she was updating the track selection on her JukeMan. Files ripped from her CD collection were being dragged across as the charge was topped up. She wondered just how many albums she could get through before they landed.in South Dakota.
It took seven and a half albums before she was off the plane. Standing in the reception area at FSD, Zara stretched awkwardly as she waited for her uncle to collect their belongings from baggage and grab the keys for their rental car. She had already wandered around the gift shop eyeing possible present ideas for her father and her older brother. Nothing in particular leapt off the shelves, she couldn’t imagine a keychain being of particular interest, and they all had plenty of mugs.
There had been some appreciative looks from a couple of teenage boys hanging out at one of the restaurants near the security checkpoints. Zara couldn’t help but think they’d be less interested if she summoned up a blade of starlight or fired off some starbolts. It took them a little while to draw up the courage and make their approach.
“Hey.” One tried to say in a deep voice that cracked a little at first. “You new in town?”
“Zara,” Albert called, “our car is ready.”
“‘kay!” She replied, giving both boys an apologetic smile before hurrying after her uncle, grabbing her bags from him as soon as she caught up. “Thanks for the save.” She quietly said as she fell into step alongside him.
“Turning down attention can become a bit of a pain.” Her uncle replied.
“All those galas and charity events?” Zara asked, receiving a knowing nod in reply. “Is that why Dad avoids them?”
Albert was silent as they exited the main building and made for the rental area. “It’s one of the reasons. Your father prefers to leave that sort of thing to your aunt, your grandmother, and myself.”
Zara didn’t need to ask anything else on that matter. Caleb Starr was the only one of the children of Saul “Shining Star” and Ruth “Mirage” Starr not to have any powers. Instead of hero work, he opted to help oversee the various family businesses that had blossomed out of Starr Studios.
A hand placed on her shoulder roused her from her thoughts. Albert gestured to a 2004 Mason Sprinter in royal blue. “Our car.”
“Looks nice, and comfortable.” The blonde spoke up after taking a quick walk around the four-door. “I can put an album on, right?”
“Just one for the moment.” Albert replied, opening the trunk to deposit his cases. “Maybe another later, depending on traffic.”
Clambering in and sinking down into the front passenger seat, Zara sighed in relief as she stretched her legs out and made the most of the leg room. “Are you okay with the Tokyo Dragonboyz?”
Slipping his jacket off and laying it on the back seat, Radiant climbed in and started the engine. “Zara, I’ve never heard of them.”
As the CD was fed into the machine and started to autoplay, a pained expression crossed the hero’s face as he navigated his way out of the car park. Barely one track in and he couldn’t wait for track twelve to end. If Albert Starr was lucky, this trip would be the first and only time he’d hear of them.
When Zara Starr asked to be sent on her first mission, she knew she would be paired with an older hero.
She did not expect to be paired with her uncle.
When Zara requested that her first task as a superhero should be a bit further afield than La Estrella, she had one of the big cities in mind. Ravensburg, Eastport, New Kincross, maybe even Fort Mayhew?
The small town of Brading in South Dakota was not what she had in mind.
Zara hoped for a battle with a powerful villain, or assaulting an evil organization’s stronghold while calling forth blades of starlight to vanquish her enemies!
“Our magical specialists have indicated this is the area where an avatar-class newline is emerging.” The AI of VIGIL, B-VOS, informed her at the mission briefing. “Given they tend to start out in their teenage years, sending a representative from both VIGIL and the New Vigilants is the best approach.”
“I know, but…” Zara sighed, sinking down in the chair she was escorted to.
“But what?” The AI asked, having no physical presence in the room. Her voice just emanated from all around.
“I just wanted something a little more… you know? Exciting?”
“In our line of work Zara, exciting usually means the public are in danger. This is an important task and we expect you to be on your best behaviour.”
From just behind her, she could hear her dad laughing. She quickly span her chair around to glare daggers at Caleb Starr. He was the eldest of his siblings, a thin man with greying hair, a scholarly look and a gentle smile. He had taken her in when she was just a few days old. Fifteen years later, he was as protective as ever.
“Dad, can’t you-”
“No, I cannot.” Caleb smiled, reaching over to pull out the lock of blonde hair from between her fingers just before she started chewing on it. “I am not a hero. I’m not even a member of VIGIL. B-VOS was nice enough to allow me to sit in with you. This is your mission. I expect you to do it well.”
The door to the mission briefing room slid open as Radiant stepped in, his body-fitting blue costume with the gold banding pristine. Albert, Caleb’s younger brother, moved with determination and an aura of command. Also a faintly glowing aura of yellow-white light. Where her dad was thin, her uncle had a strong jawline and a physique honed from years of training and hundreds of hours of combat against criminals and supervillains. “If you want to sit this mission out, Zara, I’m sure one of your cousins would leap at the chance.”
Looking between her father, her uncle, and where she imagined the disembodied computer intelligence present in the room would be, Zara sighed. “All right, I’ll go to South Dakota…”
With a proud smile, Caleb held out a sports bag and a plain white garment bag. “I put some spending money in your bag, and here’s the costume you finally decided on.”
Ignoring the bags for a moment, Zara slid between his arms to give him a hug. “Thanks, Daddy. I’ll bring you back… um, something from South Dakota. I don’t know what kind of souvenirs this little town will have.”
“Likely something farming related.” Radiant interjected. “Agriculture is big in Brading.”
Zara did her best not to pull a face at the thought of her debut as ‘Starspire’ being in Tractortown USA. Instead, she slung the sports bag over one shoulder, draped the costume bag over her arm, then looked to her uncle. “How are we going to get there? Are we going to fly? A Vigilwing jet? Teleport? Magic portal?”
Her dad and uncle exchanged a look. Radiant held up a pair of airline tickets. “We’re flying out to Sioux Falls, then renting a car for the drive north.”
To her credit, Zara didn’t even argue. There was a glum look on her face until the wheels were turning in her head. “Can I bring some albums with me, Uncle Albert?” She asked with her best smile.
It was Radiant’s turn to look a little downcast.
Moving from a tiny village to a massive city had some drawbacks, but there were some perks amidst the noise and bustle. One of the perks was just a five minute walk away: 17 screens, IMAX 3D, ear-popping THX sound and clean carpets that your feet wouldn’t stick to after years of trodden in confectionery and spilled soda.
As a kid, the cinema was an hour away on the bus for her. Four screens, one of them still possessing a brightly-lit organ from decades ago. Despite the size and limited selection of films, it was still a place of wonder. Tiny kernels of corn could be seen blossoming into white-popped clouds of joy, the drinks were cold and the chocolate tasty, if expensive. Granted it would seem like the Pearl and Dean adverts had barely finished running before the tub was half empty and only watery dregs of cola remaining, but it was such a rare treat that a refill wasn’t too much to ask for.
Now in her twenties and with a pass for discount tickets, she envisioned herself spending a lot of time at the pictures, settled into comfortable seats as the trailers rolled.
“Could I have a large cola and a medium box of sweet popcorn, please?” She beamed at the concessions vendor.
“Sure.” Came the reply, popcorn quickly scooped into the flimsy box as the last drips of fizz neared the brim of the branded cup.
The cost made her wince but the warm, sweet scent hitting her nose eased the pangs of pain in her purse. There was a little while before she could take her seat in the screen, so she sat on one of the sofa’s provided, resisting the urge to deplete her popcorn reserves so soon.
Instead she looked around, taking in the young families and groups of friends. The staff tearing tickets. The cleaners flitting about with their brooms and bin sacks. A concessions worker hauling a… big bag of pre-popped corn that was as wide as he was and taller in size!?
The sharp stab of anguish pierced both credit card and heart. Her medium box of traditional cinema fare was no longer sweet, just bitter with betrayal.
The tools of the trade he had assembled belonged to others. Some he had wheedled permission to use. Others he had borrowed without the owners knowing. Even the act of walking to the cave was trespassing. Old Man Adams was standoffish at the best of times; when it came to the caves on his land he was outright hostile towards anyone entering them.
With ropes, a carefully shielded lantern, a pick and some sturdy clothing in addition to the more specialized caving gear, he made as quick a time as he could without exhausting himself. John Marlow had spent a lot of time scouting out his route to the cave as well as reading the previous exploration reports he managed to get his hands on. A little preparation went a long way, and he was soon at the mouth of Bloodpit Cavern.
The name came from the odd phosphor just visible in the lowest regions of the cave system. It was reported to wax and wane with the moon; John figured there was an opening somewhere letting light down to be refracted by some crimson gemstone formation, or perhaps some bloom of fungi was responsible. With a hunter’s moon falling over the English countryside and a family emergency drawing Farmer Adams away, the young man who had perhaps hit the cups a little hard that night felt it was the perfect time to find the cause once and for all.
The cave’s surface was fairly dry as he made his way in, securing his guide ropes as he went. The path he chose had been gleaned from old journals and reports scrawled onto scrolls from long ago, taking him away from one of the galleries and squirming his way down narrower channels into the depths of the earth. As he turned one corner he reached out with a hand and probed in the darkness. The pointed, curving stalactite he found was the ‘devil’s fang’ a monk had written about three hundred years earlier. Gripping onto it and craning his head down to catch the briefest glimpse of the red glow, a lump formed in his throat.
Rather than a tiny sliver of light, the twisting tunnel was bathed in the dull red luminescence. Securing his guide rope, John started to prepare for the more difficult journey into uncharted parts. Fear and superstition had driven off more renowned explorers from venturing that way. The Truth of Bloodpit Cavern was going to be the place that got his name into all the periodicals!
With the lantern in place and the rope gripped tightly, John wriggled his way further in. It was tough going, but a harsh childhood and a tendency to forget his meals while deep in his books had given him a wiry physique. He could traverse where more burly men could not tread.
It was when he had made his way around a curve in the path and became fully immersed in the red light that fear started to cut through gin-fortified courage. Coming to a stop, John Marlow clung to the rope as he mulled over his options. The cool air of the caverns cut through the haze in his head and chilled his bones. He had started to turn back when something gave way and he felt his entire being lurch as he fell deeper, bumping and bashing against the walls as he slid further into the heart of the land. The phosphorescence was almost blinding now, yet he still saw his fingers stain the rocks red as bloodied clawing failed to stop his descent.