Ice crystals had formed along the length of her arms, all the way up to her shoulders. They always started at the finger tips, but the more she used her powers, the further up they would go. She’d been at this for hours. The crystals on her fingers were beginning to bond together into small thin sheets of ice that would break every time she flexed her grip. In the sunlight of the mid afternoon, they made her sparkle.
Her white and blue uniform had tears in it, patched with an ugly black thread, but it was all that had been available, and her thoughts focused on the little slashes of black as she crested the rooftop riding a column of ice that propelled her upward.
She leaped forward toward the building, somersaulting and spreading her arms wide. As her feet hit the tar of the roof, her eyes locked in on her target and she brought her arms together in front of her. As they swung in, he hands began to glow with a swirling blue and white. Her hands clapped together and ice crystals shook free of her sleeve and filled the air. The swirling glow coalesced into a hard white, a column of ice forming forcefully outward from her grip.
The frozen battering ram split the group of aliens in half, three on the left, three on the right, and two pushed over the side for a thirty story dive to the street below. The ice extended downward to the rooftop and formed a wall between the remaining six. Icy fingers reached out from the wall and started crafting cages around the aliens.
They were alert now, the moment of surprise was gone, and ice wasn’t the strongest of prison bars. As they began breaking the ice cages and shooting through the wall, she turned to her left and ran for the edge of the building, with her right arm she launched ice balls to try to distract them.
The aliens, finally free, fired upon her, but she was already at the edge, diving into the open air. She brought her arms together in front of her again and willed a slide of ice to form beneath her to ride to the next rooftop fifteen stories down.
“On my six,” she said, the sub vocal communicator strapped to her neck taking the words to her team.
“Got ’em,” the reply came, and Gyro rocketed past her, gun in hand.
She completed forming her slide and flipped over to watch the fight and provide support if needed.
The first alien appeared over the ledge and got a face full of whatever it was Gyro had loaded these days. It split open, likely a shock to the ones behind him.
Gyro disappeared over the rooftop and all she was left with were stray fire and the sounds of explosions. As she touched down at the end of her slide, she switched completely into team leader mode.
“Finishing up here,” Gyro said quickly. “Down in a sec.”
“Got the two on the street boss,” came Lightwell’s booming voice. “Where to next, Coldfire?”
She waited a second before answering, “Just hold position for now Light. Marcus, your status?” She’d come to hate pauses in communications. These days it usually ended up being another hero lost to the war. “Marcus?”
Coldfire, ran over to the west side of the building and looked down the street for any sign of Marcus. There was nothing. “Gyro, to Marcus, now.”
“On my way.”
“Lightwell, take Walter and Plaetus and head back to the line and wait there.”
She jumped off the building and again formed an ice slide, more crude this time, a rougher but faster ride to the street. Coldfire hit the ground running as Gyro arced down from overhead.
“Marcus, do you copy?”
Gyro cut the jetpack engine and dropped to the ground next to her. “I got nothing on scanner, CF.”
“Marcus? Knight? Ginny? Do you copy?” She tried not to sound worried or frazzled. She was breathing slow and deep, trying to keep her tenuous grasp on calm.
The street exploded in front of them, a shower of asphalt debris peppered the buildings. Coldfire threw up an ice shield to protect her and Gyro both.
Marcus body flew through the air from up out of the new hole in the ground. Gyro snapped on his jetpack and was in the air immediately.
Coldfire watched as The Blue Knight and Ginny backed out of the depression Marcus had come from, Knight using his sword to deflect blasts coming out and Ginny hurling fireballs back in.
Knight was screaming into his comm device, loud enough that he could be heard even though his comm wasn’t working. “Coldfire! Do you read?! Under heavy fire! Found a whole nest!”
Coldfire got to her feet and ran out to join her teammates. “I hear you, Knight, but your comm is dead!”
“Well shit!” he exclaimed as he deflected another round of blasts. “Where’s Marcus?”
“Gyro, where’s Marcus?” Coldfire asked.
“He’s with me, pushing through the ground with his field like that put him in a daze. He’ll be alright in five.”
Looking back into the hole in the street, Coldfire shook her head. “Negative, get him out of here, back to the line.”
“But,” Gyro started.
“But nothing, we’re done here, get him gone, we’ll be right behind you.”
Blue Knight and Ginny were still holding the aliens off, keeping them below street level. Coldfire began forming up ice drifts, pushing the street rubble toward the hole. “Ginny, I need you to focus your fire,” she said between pushes, “I need ice, not water.”
Ginny smiled, “You got it, Andrea.” There had always been a bit of a rivalry between them, one being fire based and the other ice, but other than the occasional sly smile all of that had disappeared when Coldfire took over the team. Ginny’s fireballs shrank as she made them denser. She’d explained it once, the small fireballs, how they were heavier and harder to throw, but they gave off less heat, at least until they exploded on impact.
Coldfire had finished pushing around the rubble, using her ice drifts like telekinetic shovels. “Okay, on three, you two move straight back, I’ll push in the rocks, then Ginny fuses it shut.”
“Roger,” both of the others replied.
“One, two, three.” Ginny and the Knight moved back as the ice drifts shoved all the rocks into the hole. Knight didn’t stop moving when Ginny did, and Coldfire joined him in his run.
Behind them the street exploded in a giant fireball as Ginny melted the ice and fused the rubble in place.
Coldfire sighed in relief. No losses today, she thought. Ginny came walking out the fire and steam to join them down the alley they had run into. “Okay guys,” Coldfire said, “lets get back to the line and report the activity.”
They started the long trek back to the line.
The line wasn’t so much a line as it was pockets of resistance. Its possible there was a line, as much of Atlas Park had been spared the initial assault and following days, but various groups of heroes had set up base camps around the city. It was fairly safe these days to fly at a good height, or teleport, for travel between camps, but everything else was still a battle field.
The Rally Boys had settled down in the Baumtown camp. Coldfire was in charge of them. Ricochet headed up the Incredible Nine, of which only six remained. And The Hangman had organized the independents into a loose group he referred to as the Lynch Mob. Ricochet, or Rico as he preferred to be called, was essentially the leader of this camp. He communicated with the other camps and tried to organize strikes to support each other.
When Statesman had come by, all three of them had been pulled into the meeting. “Hold the line,” he’d said. “We are all heroes, but dead heroes don’t do anyone any good, so we need organization, we need planning. We don’t need people going off half-cocked and making unneeded sacrifices. I’m telling every group the same. Hold the line.”
Nobody bothered to question his order, so holding the line is what they had done for the past two weeks.
The aliens attacked almost nightly. The heroes made small skirmish runs during the day, and rotated guard duties and sleep duties to try to keep people rested.
Coldfire was washing up in the building the Rally Boys had taken residence in when Gyro found her.
“What’s with sending me off like that,” he was clearly angry. “Lightwell’s a rookie who hasn’t even been in the game for a year, Walter’s been unreliable since he lost his hand, and Plaetus isn’t one of ours, so I can understand calling all them off. But Marcus was fine; I could have left him on a rooftop or something and stayed. This team needs my firepower.”
Andrea just continued washing her hands.
“This is a war, and its not my first,” Gyro plowed onward. “I’m cool under fire, and frankly, no offence to the rest of the team, but I’m about the only one with the guts to do what needs to get done.”
Andrea lost herself the warmth of the water, soaking her hands until the feeling returned down to her bones.
Gyro shifted uncomfortably. He demanded, “You got anything to say to that?”
Andrea lifted her hands from the water and grabbed a towel from the rack. She turned around and leaned back on the sink while drying her hands. She let the words just sit in the air and worked her response in her head.
“It was my mission,” she began. “Yes, Light, Walter and Plaetus got street duty because either I know they have issues or I don’t know them. And yes, I sent them back for exactly the reasons you stated.” She stopped and turned the phrases around in her head, hunting for the ones with just the right impact, to defuse the situation. “This is war, I know this. So when I give orders, I expect them to be followed, without question. I don’t just give those orders on a whim. Every command is thought out, looking at the moment and at the future. Being in charge means that sometimes you make decisions to minimize loss, even if that means making sacrifices. And seeing as, as you so succinctly put it, you are the only one with the guts to do what needs to get done, I ordered you home, not just to take care of Marcus, but because I was already in the middle of it, and if something happens to me, the Rally Boys need someone to take over, and like it or not, you’re it.”
There. That ought to do it, she thought.
And it did. Gyro looked down at the floor, she knew she’s put just enough shame, scolding and praise into it to make him feel happy to have been yelled at. He didn’t look up or say anything, Gyro simply nodded and then left.
Be honest with yourself, Andrea thought, you don’t really like the idea of him being in charge. He’s too into the killing, the winning.
She turned back to the sink. Then again, maybe that must win attitude is exactly what we need. She stared into the mirror; hunting for the lines she knew had to be forming. Only twenty-one years old and so many people relied on her. Sometimes she thought the weight of it all might just be too much, but each time she managed to make it through. Andrea dunked her face into the hot water and soaked in the warmth until her lungs felt like they were going to burst from holding her breath.
That night had gone as expected, another raid by the aliens. The next morning, Rico called her into the office he’d been using and asked her to bring Blue Knight along.
His office used to be a post office, and there were still letters all over, left when the attacks began and people either fled out of the city, or deeper into it for safety. Rico had been sorting it to distract himself when making plans, coldfire suspected he might have a secret identity and that he might himself be a postal working or some other kind of office clerk.
She and Knight came in and found Rico on the other side of the counter making marks on the giant map he’d been drawing on the wall for the past few days.
“Come in,” he said without looking up. “Come on around the counter too.”
Colfire and Knight made their way around the counter. Knight switched off his armor and waited for it to retract. Andrea was always fascinated by watching his suit of steel armor fold on itself again and again, eventually pulling itself inside the pack on his back, revealing the silver spandex he wore beneath. When it was done, he hopped up on the counter and stared at the map.
Coldfire found herself a chair, spun it around and straddled the back of it. They both waited for Rico to tell them what was up.
Rico made a few last marks on his map, then capped his pen and turned around. He was out of uniform today, and it made him look out of place in the heroes’ camp wearing only blue jeans and a t-shirt. “So, I heard you ran into some aliens?”
Knight looked over at Coldfire, who spoke. “Yes. A half-dozen or so on a rooftop, and before that a few in an alley. Blue Knight and his team, however, found some sort of alien nest.”
“Underground?” Rico was looking directly at Knight with an odd look of excitement.
Knight adjusted himself in his place on the counter. “Umm, as a matter of fact, yeah. We found one, chased him into a storm drain, through some tunnels and ran smack into a whole bunch of them.”
Rico put his hand to his chin and rubbed it slightly, “Man made tunnels or caves?”
Blue Knight furrowed his brow in thought. “Well, it started out being sewers. Then we went through a hole in the wall and that was caves, like it was dug or burrowed.”
Normally Rico was a very sullen man. When Andrea had told Gyro about making sacrifices, she hadn’t been speaking from experience; she hadn’t had to do that yet. But Rico had. The Incredible Nine were only six because Rico made the choice to leave them behind in order to prevent the aliens from overtaking the line. Right now, though, he was almost smiling.
“There have been rumors of the aliens tunneling.” Rico explained. “Some other groups have found them here and there. I’ve been keeping track, and I think all these tunnels might be linked somehow.”
“And if they are,” Coldfire asked, “what does it mean?”
“I have no idea,” Rico replied. “But its definitely news I can report to command. Some of the other heroes might have an idea or two.” He paused for a moment. “Coldfire, I’m going to need to take Knight off your hands.” Andrea’s shock must have shown on her face because he immediately started an explanation. “I’ve got no one else. Three of the Nine are still missing in action, and I’ve lent two more to another camp that had some unexpected losses. New heroes from outside the city are coming in each day, and I’ll make sure you get some of them to fill out your team. But Knight has military experience, and I’ve got a couple of platoons of soldiers coming to help us out. Knight’s going to work with them, training them to fight the aliens better, and leading them into combat.”
“Don’t I get a say in this?” Blue Knight looked almost like a child with an almost bashful look on his face.
Rico regarded him for a moment, “Go ahead then, say your peace.”
Knight hopped down of the counter he’d been sitting on and cleared his throat. “Look, don’t think I’m ungrateful, but my place is with the Boys. We’ve been lucky so far, Walter lost his hand, but that’s it. And I think that’s not really luck, or it is, but its all of us, together.” He was shuffling his feet now, kicking at invisible stones on the floor. “I just don’t want to be the one who jinxes that and gets us all killed.”
His words hung in the air, both Andrea and Rico afraid to touch them. Coldfire finally spoke, “It’ll be okay Knight. Having the soldiers around will be less on our shoulders, better chances on raids. And with you training them and leading them, all the better.” She crossed the space between them and put an arm across his back and squeezed him in a half hug. “I don’t believe in luck anyway,” she lied. “Its skill that gets us through the day.”
The Blue Knight smiled and straightened up his shoulders. He was just about to say something as the front wall of the post office exploded and the force of the blast sent them all crashing into the wall. Coldfire instinctively raised a soft snow drive to cushion herself and an ice shield to hide behind. Ricochet absorbed the kinetic energy of his fall and the debris headed his way. Underneath his armor, without his power suit, Knight was just a man, and his neck broke on the impact with the map wall. He died instantly.
Rico and Coldfire emerged from the wreckage of the post office. Costumed heroes scattered as energy shells slammed into the surrounding buildings and the street.
One voice carried through the noise, Lightwell’s booming baritone, “They have a tank!”
Andrea looked over at Rico and found him looking back at her. “A tank?” she said. “I thought they’d all been destroyed.”
Rico shrugged, “Guess not.” He reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders and looked deep into her eyes, “Are you okay?”
He meant about Knight. They’d both seen him, his neck bent at such a sharp angle, his eyes wide open. She nodded.
“No way,” he said. “You don’t get to do that. Answer me, are you okay? Are you alright to be in charge?”
She blinked a couple times then nodded again. “Yes, I’ll be fine.” She could feel the weight settling in on her shoulders.
“Good.” His face was grim, “I’ll find the rest of the Nine, we’ll take the tank. You have to get everyone else, stop the panic and get them to hold the line. I don’t care if these aliens tunnel under us or go around us, but they don’t break through here.”
“Affirmative.” She started hooking her sub vocal communicator around her neck as Rico headed toward the building the Nine had been bunking in. She switched to channel one. “Lightwell, do you copy?”
“Coldfire? That you?” came the reply.
“Who’s with you?”
“I’ve got Walter and Plaetus with me. I’m in the bunker, I see Marcus across the way.”
Marcus’s voice chimed in, “I’m here. Ginny’s with me. And a guy named… Hey, what’s your name? Grubb. We’re in the August Building.”
Coldfire started laying out the plan in her head, “Rico’s taking the Nine and going after the tank. I need the two of you to lay down cover fire and provide distraction. Pull as many of the aliens away from the tank as you can. If you have to, leave your positions and draw them into the alleys.”
“Roger,” they replied in unison.
“Oh,” she added. “If you see any other heroes, take them with you. Tell them it’s my orders, Rico’s orders or Statesman’s, whichever you think will work best. And if you see Hangman, tell him to have his people assist you with the assault as well.”
“Roger,” Marcus confirmed.
“Hangman’s already on the field. I see him.” Lightwell’s eyes worked better than most people’s. “His people are in the thick of it, heading for the tank.”
“Then do what you can to support his people too.” Andrea debated internally whether or not to tell them about Blue Knight, decided against it, then asked the only question she had. “Where’s Gyro?”
“Not seen him,” Lightwell said. “Not since this morning.”
“Me neither, Andy.” Then Marcus added, “After I told him where to find you, he just vanished.”
Blasts of fire and darkness started to explode from the August Building, light and electricity from the bunker. Coldfire concentrated, ice crystals started to form on her arms as her body went cold, a column of ice appeared beneath her feet and propelled her skyward toward the rooftops.
She leaped the last few feet and rolled to a stop against an air-conditioning unit. Coldfire switched over to channel twelve, direct to Gyro. “Gyro, come in.”
She thought about Knight as the silence dragged on. “Gyro, do you read?”
Andrea sat on the rooftop and pulled her legs to her chest. She was about to call for him again when a whisper of a voice came through.
“I made a mistake,” it said. “I took a couple of the rookies.” His voice was fading. “I wanted to prove you right. That I could lead.”
“Gyro, where are you?”
“They’re dead.” He was barely audible; she touched the volume dial and tried to adjust the signal strength. “I am too. I can’t stop the bleeding.”
“Gyro,” she said sternly. “Where. Are. You. Tell me right now damnit!”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered and then the signal faded out completely.
Coldfire listened to the battle through her communicator as Marcus and Lightwell kept each other informed. The Bunker had fallen, but Lightwell and the others had made it out. Marcus had taken his team from the August Building and tried to flank the aliens, but he’d run into another force of them that were trying to flank the heroes. Grubb lost his leg and they were carrying him.
A few days ago she had given a communicator to Hangman, but he’d refused to use it. As he lost ground, he’d put it on and tried to coordinate with the others. It wasn’t doing much good.
“I’ve got twenty, maybe thirty of them, coming in from the west.” Marcus sounded out of breath.
“We’ve stopped pushing toward the tank,” came Hangman’s soft slow tones. “Rico and his people are there, but they are cut off. We are falling back, losing ground.”
Lightwell brought the only glimmer of hope, “I’ve got a corridor open to the east, and I think we can hold it long enough for a retreat.”
Andrea got to her feet and moved to the edge of the building where she looked over the battle field. She turned her microphone back over to channel one, “Rico’s orders were to hold the line.”
“Coldfire,” she could tell that Marcus was about to, for the first time, question her orders, “we are losing here. If I stay put much longer, the three of us are goners. Where’s Gyro? We could use his firepower.”
“Gyro’s holding the line elsewhere, his comms are down.” This could be true if she hoped beyond hope that he hadn’t really died.
“Then I respectfully request to fall back to another position.”
She watched the battle. Ginny’s fireballs continuously exploded to the left. The main road where Hangman was slowly but steadily losing inches was little more than a path of rubble and destruction. The tank had stopped firing, but was still there, Rico’s people likely distracting the aliens but not winning. To the right it was relatively calm, a shot of light fired every now and then, but the corridor to the east stayed clear.
“Okay,” she said finally, “listen up.” She cleared her throat and tried to dismiss the downsides of what she was about to do. “Hangman, try to hold your position, push if you can. You need to give Marcus enough time to get to you, if you fall back any further, he’ll be cut off. When Marcus gets there, join up and start moving east. Once you’ve connected up with Lightwell, we’ll reassess there and either counterattack or call full retreat.”
“Got it,” Hangman confirmed.
“Falling back,” Marcus asserted.
She waited for Lightwell’s reply; it came in on channel eight. “What about Rico?”
Andrea switched to channel eight, “Hopefully, he’ll finish off the tank before they overwhelm him. Maybe he’ll get out by the skin of his teeth. But we can’t stay. Holding the line now means the death of us all, and I won’t have any more heroes die today.”
“Any more?” Lightwell asked.
“I’ve given my orders, Lightwell. Hold the corridor open until the rest make it through. I’ll join you shortly.”
Coldfire switched off her communicator.
The aliens were focusing on the retreating heroes. As Coldfire hit the bottom her ice slide on the street, she was behind them, and hopefully unnoticed.
She made her way back inside the post office, retracing the path through the debris she’d taken to get out.
Andrea pulled a digital camera from her belt pouch and snapped a few quick shots of Rico’s wall map. His marking on the tunnels might be important. She finished the last photo and was about to leave, when she decided instead to round the counter to the Blue Knight’s body.
He lay still, facing upward staring at the ceiling. She kneeled beside him and placed a hand over his eyes to shut them. Tears began to well up in her eyes as she tilted his head and straightened his neck as best she could. Then she touched the controls on his belt and stood back to watch the armor unfold and seal itself around him.
The Blue Knight, she decided, will always have died with his armor on, in battle, protecting her during a surprise attack.
Gyro didn’t run off. She would tell everyone that she sent him and the others on patrol, and they discovered the attack plan of the aliens’ just moments before it happened.
History needed heroes, not renegades and accidents.
She said a small prayer for Knight and Gyro, then made her way back outside again. Coldfire formed another column of ice from nothing and pushed herself to the rooftops.
Sliding from building to building, she picked her way around the battle field and caught up to her team. The alien numbers were thinning. Their losses were always high, but they tended to outnumber the heroes a hundred to one, so thinning numbers often meant less that one would expect.
Coldfire slid down to the street below, switching back on her communicator as she went. Lightwell had taken command. He has the remaining Rally Boys and the Lynch Mob working in perfect harmony. For a moment, she thought they might even be able to retake their position, but the images of the tunnels and Gyro’s death left her feeling unsure of their chances.
“Grubb needs a hospital, Lightwell.” The voice was Marcus, she’d always relied on him as a squad leader because of his concern for others, and she’d actually expected to find him in charge.
Lightwell’s answer was to the point, “His wound is cauterized, and he’ll be okay in the short term. We hold here for orders.”
“Let’s get him to a hospital, Lightwell.” Coldfire’s voice seemed to startle a number of the people listening in.
Lightwell had a grin on his face a mile wide beneath his yellow mask. “Is that an order?”
“It is.” Coldfire looked back over the advancing alien forces. “Full retreat. We’ll pull back to Steel Canyon and regroup.”
“You heard her everyone,” Lightwell’s voice boomed over the sounds of battle. “Full retreat. Fall back to Steel Canyon.”
Hangman’s voice came through on channel four. He’d obviously been listening when she’d explained the communicators, though he hadn’t appeared to have. “The line is broken then?”
She didn’t bother switching channels and spoke loud and clear. “The line is broken, but only for today. We will be back.” Coldfire began forming ice walls to slow down the enemy as her people began their retreat.