I’ve completely given up on trying to fight the urge to write superhero stuff right now. I don’t know why it’s in my head, but that’s what’s there, so that’s what’s coming out. And on that note, when I saw this week’s picture for Friday Flash Fics, it struck me I could begin telling the other side of “Lesser Evil.” “Lesser Evil” was my first superhero story—or, rather, super-villain—and focused on a telepath named Tristan Edwards, who could not only read minds but could force people to do (and even believe) whatever he wanted them to do. He was, for a while, with a superhero group, but he gave in to temptation when he developed feelings for another member of the team, feelings that weren’t reciprocated, and he did the unthinkable. That story is found in Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy, and I’ve written other flash pieces about those characters before. “Greater Good” partners with “Lesser Evil” in that it takes Jeff McKenna’s point of view—the Canuck superhero known as Cinder—who was the man Tristan fall for and telepathically manipulated and forced him to return the feelings. “Greater Good” takes place after the events in “Lesser Evil,” but only a little while after. This story is going to take quite a few parts to tell, and I’m not sure it’ll be every week (though right now it seems to be the only thing I want to write, so…) but I hope you enjoy the ride.
Greater Good (Part One)
Solange was staring at him again.
Jeff forced a smile, and she reached out and patted his hand.
“We’ll get him,” she said, her Quebecois accent a small comfort. It felt like home. He missed Canada. He was glad to be heading back.
Even if their mission in the States had come up completely empty.
What have I done?
“Thanks,” he said.
She nodded, and turned her head back to the window of the plane. They’d all changed out of their combat gear, and she wore a plain t-shirt and jeans, with a cardigan over her shoulders to fight off some of the plane’s AC. Her baby bump was noticeable. He hadn’t wanted her to come on this mission, but she’d pointed out that without a telepath, they’d have nothing of merit in their arsenal against Aleph, and although he’d known that wasn’t true, he couldn’t argue without telling them what he’d done.
And it turned out not to matter in the slightest. Aleph hadn’t been there.
Neither had Tristan.
Jeff realized he was clenching his jaw, and forced himself to take a breath and unclench the muscles. He considered a trip to the small galley, but didn’t really want anything. Still, he got up from his seat and made his way there anyway.
Solange was a telepath, after all, and he didn’t need her to suffer through his foul mood.
Or realize what he was thinking.
You gambled and it didn’t pay off. Telling himself that didn’t help. He kept trying to figure out what could have happened. He hadn’t heard from Tristan since he’d given him everything they’d had on Aleph—including his location—but when they got back to Ottawa, he’d send another e-mail.
Jeff snagged a package of cookies. One of the NAMDA agents caught his eyes and offered him a smile of support.
Jeff returned it. Playing the role of confident leader was second nature. Sure, they’d just flown the whole team to take down Aleph and found an empty building instead, but they’d found Aleph’s computers. Their intel had been right.
Which meant the intel he’d given Tristan had been right.
If only he knew what Tristan had done with it.
He went back to his seat and sat down, not bothering to do up the buckle. He knew he’d need to move again soon enough. He ate a cookie, and eyed the empty seats around him. The jet wasn’t large, just enough to get the team around the continent when they needed to, but it felt so empty without the rest of the team. But Lustre and Noire were in D.C. where they had to pretend to be happy about the new President, and Cirrus and Touchdown were on their way back to Mexico.
He closed his eyes to block out the empty seats.
What if Tristan was dead?
That was the thought he was trying most not to think, because he had no emotional answer to the question. Logically, his idea had been a good play: lean on Tristan’s sense of guilt to do him a solid favor: functionally disarm Aleph long enough for the team to take him down. Tristan could do it. He was a telepath of the highest order, and capable of deep mental control.
Jeff knew that better than anyone.
But if it had gone wrong… If somehow Tristan hadn’t gotten the better of Aleph? Aleph’s abilities outclassed Tristan in nearly every way. Hell, the whole team working together could barely keep Aleph at a standstill the last three times they’d tried to take him down, and it had only been Solange—their telepath—who’d made that remotely possible.
But Solange was no Tristan. And when he’d learned she and Juan were expecting (and had gotten married on the sly, no less) he’d realized their intel on Aleph’s location meant he was putting far more in jeopardy than he wanted to risk.
So he needed another plan.
And that plan didn’t seem to have worked.
He rubbed his jaw. It was already aching. He’d have to put in his mouth guard tonight, or he’d wake up in real pain.
Tristan used to massage his face when he was like this.
Jeff swallowed, hard. He hated these moments, when little memories of his time with Tristan came to mind. The events happened. It was okay to remember them. But it couldn’t be nostalgia. Never that.
If Aleph killed him, what does that make you?
Cinder tipped his chair back and closed his eyes. He wouldn’t sleep, but he could fake it.
If Aleph killed him, will you feel guilty, or relieved?
They landed, gathered their gear, and were on their way to the NAMDA offices when Jeff’s phone rang. He pulled it out and checked the screen, and his already dark mood plummeted when he saw the caller.
“What’s wrong?” Solange said.
Jeff showed her the screen, and she bit her lip.
Delphi. Thea Callas was one of their reserve members, one of two stationed in Toronto. Her metahuman gifts were all perceptive in nature, including the somewhat unreliable ability to catch glimpses of the future.
He tapped the answer button. “Cinder,” he said. Even though it had been years, he still felt just a little foolish answering the phone with his callsign. “I’ve got you on speaker. Mentaliste is with me.”
Delphi, as always, was direct. “I need the team in Toronto.”
Jeff tilted his head back, squinting his eyes shut and barely suppressing a sigh. “We’re not together. Mentaliste and I just landed in Ottawa. What’s happening?”
Delphi’s voice took on a tone he hadn’t heard before. Her usually crisp, borderline rude attitude didn’t seem to be up to the task today. “It hasn’t started yet, but it’s bad,” she said. “The worst I’ve felt, honestly. And it’s definitely here.”
Thea was afraid, he realized. “How long have we got?”
“Not long. Might be better for you to come direct.”
She wanted him to fly there under his own power? That wasn’t a good sign.
“It’s just me and Mentaliste,” Jeff repeated. “Touchdown and Cirrus are in Mexico City by now, and Lustre and Noire are in D.C.”
“I don’t care. Just get them here as fast as you can. Bring whoever you can. Deke and I can’t handle this… this whatever that’s coming.”
“I’ll be on my way in a second,” Jeff said. Then he paused, and forced himself to ask the question he was afraid he knew the answer to. “Delphi… Is it Aleph, you think?”
“Aleph?” For the second time in a single phone call, Thea Callas spoke in a way he’d never heard her speak before. This time, though, it was surprise. “I thought you got him.”
“No, he wasn’t there.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s not him. In fact, my sense of him just kind of vanished a couple of hours ago. I figured… I honestly figured you got him.”
Solange raised her eyebrows. Jeff blew out a breath, not sure how to even begin to deal with that particular piece of information, then leaned forward to get the driver’s attention.
“Can you pull over?”
They were downtown, so he grabbed his visor and comm but left the rest of his gear with Solange, and tasked her to organize getting the message out to the rest of the team, and any reserve members within range. It wasn’t like he could strip and change with all the crush happening around him.
Once the car pulled away, he took a second to step onto a side street so he wouldn’t make more of a spectacle than he needed to.
A second later, he was in the air, a trail of heat pulsing out behind him. He heard a few people down below, and his callsign—“Cinder! Hey Cinder!”—but there was no time for showing off for fans. He called up the GPS on his phone, aimed for Toronto, and poured on the heat.
He wished he’d had more cookies.
In the air, less than an hour later, Jeff understood Delphi’s worry. He tapped his comm, not slowing down in the slightest.
“Connect to Delphi,” he said, as clearly as he could manage with the wind whipping around him. Thankfully, it was enough.
She answered before the first series of tones had even finished.
“You see it?” she said.
“I see it.”
The swirling dark mass of clouds above the city was almost a perfect circle of black, and didn’t look at all natural. A band of a sickly orange-yellow flickered around the edge, while pulses of sterile blue-white flashed inside the cloud in seemingly random pulses.
“Sturm?” Jeff said, knowing there was no way, but wanting to be sure anyway. A racist bigot of the highest order, Sturm was a metahuman with weather manipulation abilities, yes, but nothing like this.
“No,” Delphi said. “I don’t think so. This doesn’t even feel like weather to me. Deke’s suited up, and she’s going to meet you on the ground.”
The clouds pulsed again, a rapid series of white flashes among the bruised oranges and browns.
“Okay,” Jeff said. “I’ll head to—”
The white pulses grew faster, and then shifted to something brighter, and blue. The clouds, which had been slowly rotating up to now, visibly reversed direction and went from the dull orange and brown of stormclouds to a something much paler. From brown to orange, orange to yellow, and yellow to a unique shade of brilliant gold.
“Oh shit,” Jeff said.
“What?” Delphi said.
“I know what this is. I’ve seen it before. It’s an incursion. A big one.” Jeff shifted in the air. “Call up records from… Shit, it was a few years ago now. Just search Incursion. And Quantum.”
After a few moments of silence, Delphi’s voice came back on the line. “I’ve got it, but it’s sealed.”
“Unseal it. On my authority.” He was hovering in the air now, watching the swirling clouds speed up right before his eyes. “You’re going to need to know what we’re up against, and it looks much, much larger than last time.”
The pulses were still speeding up. Cinder took a breath. There was no way to stop this. Nothing he could do.
He hated feeling powerless.
“Have Deke read the file and then meet me at the CN tower.”
“That’s not near where the clouds are,” Delphi said, and then a moment later. “Oh fuck. Time travel?” He’d never heard her swear before, but he had to admit, the situation called for it.
“Yeah. I’ll wait for—”
The whole cloud flashed, one brilliant blazing moment of brightness so overwhelming he swore himself and turned away from it in the air. By the time he’d blinked away the after images, the clouds were almost gone.
“And they’re here,” Jeff said.
There was silence on the signal. “Delphi?”
“Cinder, it’s me.” It took Jeff a moment to recognize Lydia Zhao’s voice. Deke. “Delphi is unconscious, I found her on the floor, and…” She cleared her throat. “I took her to medical.”
Jeff swallowed. “I’m on my way.” He eyed the cloud, which had almost entirely dissipated.
Who knew how many people had just arrived. Or from where.
Or, more to the point, when.
By the time he got to the Toronto offices, Delphi was already in the medical suite, hooked up to machines, which were undoubtedly offering up all sorts of information he didn’t know how to interpret. Delphi was normally such a striking figure, tall and lean, with a kind of confident grace Jeff admired. Now she looked ashen and small, lost among the wires and sheets.
A doctor came to meet them.
“Is she going to be okay?” Deke—Lydia—said. She was in full gear, but she’d pulled off her visor and helmet. Jeff hadn’t worked with Lydia before. She was almost brand new, and they’d only spoken a few times. A little on the short side, and built solidly, Jeff had to remind himself she was older than she looked, and capable of moving at an incredible speed.
The doctor nodded. “All signs say so. A mild seizure from the results of the tests, though I hesitate to use the word ‘mild’ given how hard it hit her.”
“Thank you,” Jeff said, in a tone that made it clear the doctor was dismissed. He left.
“Did you read the file?” Jeff said.
Lydia shook her head. “I came in and she was on the floor, having the mild seizure.”
Jeff put a hand on her shoulder. “You did right. But now go read the file. I need you up to speed.”
Lydia smiled. “Really? A speed pun?”
Jeff blinked, but let a small smile creep through. “Unintentional.”
“Uh-huh,” Lydia gave one last look through the glass at Delphi, then left him.
Jeff checked his phone for updates from the rest of the team. They were all making arrangements to get to Toronto. Solange was already on her way. Good. They’d need her most of all.
Damn but she couldn’t catch a break.
Jeff turned. One of the uniformed agents, an older man with salt-and-pepper in his hair and beard, stood a few steps behind him. Former CSIS, if Jeff had to guess. Career intelligence.
“You need to come with me. We found someone, unconscious, after the storm, and…” The man didn’t break off eye contact, but he hesitated just a moment. “I think you’re going to want to be there when he wakes up.”
Jeff frowned, but nodded. “Lead the way.”
They went to one of the temporary cells, the kind adaptable for a variety of uses proven helpful when trying to contain a metahuman, and in the cell, lying on the bed as though he were simply sleeping, was Colin Reichert.
Jeff’s jaw ached. So did his chest.
“Did anyone else recognize him?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” the agent said. “I, uh, transferred here from Ottawa, sir.”
“Let me in,” Jeff said, and the agent unlocked the door with a swipe of his keycard.
Jeff looked at him, really looked. Same, beautiful deep brown skin, but no scar along the top of his left eyebrow. Same strong jawline, but no trim beard. The outfit, too, was different. The jacket, made of a strange material with the matte black finish was completely unscuffed, and he wore matching pants that looked just as new. It was Colin, yes, but…
Colin’s eyes opened, and he blinked a few times.
“I need to get to NAMDA, or whatever you call your metahumans here… the ones that protect people…” Colin said, voice rough and uneven. He tried to sit up, and Jeff helped him.
“You’re already there,” Jeff said, waiting for a sign of recognition in Colin’s dark eyes.
There was none.
“I’ve got a lot to explain, and you’re in real danger,” Colin said. He took a second just to breathe. “And I’m going to ask you for a pretty big leap of faith, right off.”
“That cloud above the city,” Jeff said, a sick, twisting feeling in the pit of his stomach. This whole conversation was laced with a surreal déjà vu.
“It wasn’t just a cloud. It was the side effect of a quantum incursion,” Colin said. “Something very much like time travel, though there’s more to it than that.”
“Time travel,” Jeff said, in a low, quiet voice. He’d met this man years ago. And lost him, too.
Colin nodded. “I’m Colin Reichert, by the way. And I’m going to help you, I promise. Nice to meet you.”
“Jeff McKenna,” Jeff took his hand, and shook. “Call me Cinder.”