by Martin Maenza
At a small diner just off the Interstate, about fifty miles from the Colorado/Utah border, a young blonde woman returned from the rest room. She was tired, bored, and now a little bit creeped out after having had to use that less-than-pristine toilet. Her stomach still grumbled a bit as the runny eggs, burnt toast, and greasy sausage sat left half-eaten on her plate.
What am I doing? she thought to herself. But she knew the answer to that question. She knew the reasons why she’d left home in the first place, without so much as telling anyone she was leaving, much less where she was going.
In truth, she wasn’t sure if running away was going to even help solve her problems. Still, she had to try something. The condition wasn’t going away by itself. The huge fight she’d had with her boyfriend eighteen hours prior didn’t help matters, either. She tried to push that out of her mind, for the more she thought about it, the angrier she’d become.
She sat quietly nursing her tepid coffee, lost in thought.
A dark-haired waitress in a hair net passed her by. “Say, honey,” she said through the snap-snap of her gum. Margie had been trying to quit smoking and had taken up the annoying habit, much to the dismay of the rest of the diner staff and clientele. “Ain’t that your bus boarding out there?”
“Huh?” the blonde woman said, snapping out of her dazed state. She glanced to the front door where, sure enough, folks were boarding the bus. “Oh!”
“Better get a move on, honey!” Margie said as the young woman scurried to gather her things. Pulling on her coat and grabbing her bags, the blonde tossed a few bucks on the counter for the food and such.
“Wait for me!” the woman called out as she hurried toward the door.
Margie shook her head. She’d seen it dozens of times. Glancing back at the counter, she noticed the money strewn on the counter. “At least she was a good tipper,” Margie smiled as she scooped up the cash and put it into her apron pocket. She started to gather up the dishes and realized something. Something was missing.
The bus doors were about to close.
“Wait!” The young woman lunged for them. They seemed to stop fast and push back open hard.
“Sorry,” the woman said as she trudged up the bus steps.
Gus, the dark-haired mustached man, half-nodded to her. “Thought you might be making this your stop,” he said, jiggling the controls to close the door again. Something felt stuck. He had to slam it extra hard to get the doors to go back. “That’s weird.”
Frances Kane barely looked at the folks in the seats as she passed. Some of them had been picked up since she left Central City. One or two had been on the bus when she first got on. She really didn’t care, though. All she wanted to do was settle into a seat, close her eyes, and let the road try to lull her to some form of sleep.
She’d be at her destination in another day or so.
The bus began to jerk forward. She quickly found a seat near the back, one she could have by herself. Frances tossed her bags in first and then plopped herself down. Something poked her back side.
What the–? she thought. Frances reached back to the outside of her coat and felt something odd. She brought it forward and held it up for examination.
It was a fork — from the diner.
Great — just great, she thought as she tossed the utensil into her purse. The last thing I need now is for my powers to start acting on their own. She sighed heavily and leaned back in her seat. The morning sun was rising over the beautiful countryside.
Mal Duncan, dressed in his blue Herald costume with cape, stepped inside the specially designed room. As the door closed solidly behind him, the room sprang to life. A number of special laser cannons popped out of the walls just as a pedestal at the far end of the room rose into view. His goal was to reach that point as fast as possible without getting tagged.
“Let’s do it!” He removed his special sonic horn from its holding place, activated the weapon, and placed it to his lips.
The African-American hero started his sprint down the left side of the room. The lasers with their mechanical eyes immediately pivoted to follow his course. Their cannons fired up, propelling searing blasts in his direction.
The Herald, however, had already entered a sequence into his horn’s keypad. His blowing into one end only served the purpose of initiating and maintaining the selected function; his breath really had little bearing on the end results. Yet, given his musical background, this was a natural action for him, and thus the weapon was geared toward that.
A sonic field appeared before him as he ran. As he pivoted, the angle of the field adjusted as well. This allowed the man to block each blast as it came to him. His eyes smiled. This was a worthy challenge.
But he had to be careful, too. He had to keep moving. His protective field could not be everywhere at once. One stray blast was all it would take to…
One shot managed to tag him in the left foot. It caused him to misstep, and the Herald fell to the cold floor. He barely had time to tuck into a ball so that he could roll with the impact. He knew he had to keep moving, otherwise those lasers would zero in on him. Then it would be game over. Still, the maneuver needed to keep himself from falling flat also caused him to take the weapon away from his lips. The protective field fell. He needed a back-up plan, and fast. Luckily, the right sequence was at his fingertips.
Quickly entering the new codes, the Herald put the horn to his lips once more. This time, the weapon emitted tight, focused blasts of sonic energy. He took aim at the nearest cannon and disrupted its systems with the shot. He quickly aimed for the next one in line, taking it out in a similar fashion. This allowed him enough time to get to his feet to run once more.
But could he get to the pedestal before it was too late? Mal had to try.
The hero continued to blast away at the cannons. They were getting closer, but not close enough. Just a few more feet, and I’ve done it, he thought with confidence.
With his back turned, he failed to see a piece of the floor drop out of sight. His feet contacted empty air, and the Herald fell. He dropped a few feet below the floor’s surface to a small containment pit, landing with a hard thud.
“Damn!” he cursed aloud. “Forgot the random factors.”
He leaped up and grabbed the edge of the pit, hauling himself up. Once his head cleared the edge and his balance was firm, he called out, “Abort sequence. Access code: charlie-delta-one-five-nine.” The laser cannons stopped firing and recessed back to the wall. The pedestal began to slowly lower itself back down. As soon as he cleared himself from the pit, the flooring returned back in place.
The Herald wiped his brow with his hand as he headed toward the door. “Gotta get this down!” he criticized himself aloud. “I can’t have the kids showing me up!”
“You always were hard on yourself,” a female voice called from the control room above. “Mal Duncan, his own worst critic.”
The Herald smiled as he recognized the voice. He spun around to see a familiar red-haired figure dressed in a green skirt and blouse. She was waving to him from the glass enclosed room that overlooked the training floor. “Lilith! Girl, what are you doing here?” He ran toward the doorway so he could talk to her in person.
The two old friends shared a long embrace. “It is so good to see you again!” Mal said as he flipped down his cowl. “What brings you back out to California?”
Lilith Clay ran her fingers through her long red hair, adjusting a piece behind her ear. “Just doing some traveling, you know? Here and there.”
“Let’s chat over some coffee,” Mal suggested as they walked down toward the break room. “You still take it with cream and sugar, right?”
“You remembered,” she smiled.
“Hey, I remember all those long study sessions we put in for Mr. Jupiter back in the day,” he said. “We needed the caffeine to get through some of them all-nighters.” He laughed as he prepared a mug for her. “So, where’s there?”
“What?” Lilith asked absently.
“You said you’ve been here and there. I know here’s L.A. Where’s there?”
“Oh, right. Sorry. I went down to Kentucky for a little bit to visit with my adopted folks. Will and Dolores Clay have always been such friendly, welcoming people. It’d been a while, so I thought I should maybe pay them a little visit. You know, to catch up and what not.”
He handed her the beverage and then poured his own. “Uh-huh. Good to go back to the old homestead. Nice place to just relax and think about the good times.”
“Right,” she said, taking a sip. She noticed how her old friend was looking at her. They’d known each other for many years and, even though they hadn’t spent a lot of time together in recent years, he still had one of those looks that could cut through to her very soul. Without saying a word, he sometimes could tell what was on her mind. And he didn’t have the benefit of her special mental abilities. “OK, Mal. I know you’re dying to ask me.”
“Ask you?” Mal said, playing innocent. “Me?”
She gave him a slight punch in the arm. “Yes, you. I can always tell when you’ve got something to say. So, go ahead.”
He reached out, taking her hands gently into his. “Girl, you know we go way back. I kind of think of you as I would a sister, my lighter and paler sister.” Mal smiled. “And I know that you know that I talked to Dick recently. I understand a bit about what went down after he flew Karen, Charley, and I back to San Francisco after the wedding was interrupted.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See The New Titans: What’s Love Got to Do with It?]
Lilith glanced down at her cup for a second. She watched the last of the swirl of cream dissolving into the coffee, creating a light brown conglomeration. “It definitely all went to hell in a hand basket over those few days.” She let out a sigh.
“My Momma always used to say: when life gives you lemons, you can still make lemonade,” Mal said. “All’s it takes is a little sugar, sugar.” He was trying to get her to smile but was failing. “You know, it’s not too late if you wanted to patch things up.”
“I don’t know,” Lilith said with a shake of her head. “I mean, it’s all up and changed. I saw a different side of Azrael when Eros was disguised as Gnarrk. It’s like I didn’t know him. He was like a totally different person. And the fact that Eros had manipulated him and us for a couple of years, even going so far as to work up a fake past and have Lord Chaos spoon-feed it to us so easily. When I thought Azrael was a seed of the Titans, I felt like I’d found a soul-mate of sorts. Like we were destined to be together. When Eros revealed that was all a lie he made Chaos tell us, all that fell apart.
“And his feelings. How can I know where Azrael’s feelings stand after Eros manipulated him so? I don’t think he even knew himself. I think that’s why Azrael left. He didn’t even say anything to me after that. He just left.”
“Did you try talking to him?” Mal asked.
Lilith bit her lower lip. “Well, no.” She noticed that her old friend gave her a look. “No, I didn’t. I was angry and hurt and drained. First I thought that Gnarrk was alive again, and that brought up so many old feelings. Then they fought, and Azrael killed Gnarrk again. And then I lashed out at Azrael. Then when Eros revealed the truth, well, I just lost it!” Her eyes started to well up just by going over those events again.
Mal handed her a napkin to wipe her tears. “Hey, that’s understandable. Maybe with time it’ll get better.”
“I hope so,” she said, and then she blew her nose.
“So, you figured you’d come out to California?” Mal asked.
“Yeah,” Lilith said. “I’ve always liked it out here. The sunshine and what not. And I knew Loren Jupiter had something going out here. If nothing else, I figured on having a place to crash until I got my life together.”
Mal laughed. “As you can see by this place, he’s got room to spare. And maybe you can help me out some, too, if you’d like.”
“Sure,” she said. “With what?”
“I come down here from San Francisco once or twice a week to train the kids: Kid Devil, Air Wave, and Arisia. Kind of like the Titans West teen force. A teleportation device that Arisia’s Green Lantern friend Kilowog rigged up makes the trip a snap, but it still takes time away from Karen and the bar and such.”
“You want me to help you train those three? Sure.”
“Actually, they’re coming along pretty good themselves. Arisia really didn’t need much. She’s a G.L., for crying out loud. That ring of hers is amazing! And Air Wave’s got a pretty good handle on things, too. Kid Devil can use some work, but a lot of that is just youth.”
“Oh,” Lilith said. “So what can I help with, then?”
“Back in April, when we all came out to visit in New York, I had a chance to sit down with Dick. He was pleased to hear about our little program I had going out here. Kind of continuing the tradition of sorts by training a new batch of teen Titans. With Loren’s backing and my background, he thought it was a good fit. Definitely not something he or his group was equipped to do. Can you imagine a bunch of kids running loose around the Tower? It’d be insane.”
Lilith nodded. “I suppose it would. Though Roy having Lian there was nice. Granted, she’s only two.”
“Right,” Mal said. “So, like I said, Dick and I were talking about this when he suggests that maybe I can bring in some new students, now that Arisia and Hal are ready to move to the big league.”
“You have other candidates in mind?”
Mal nodded. “Yeah. Dick suggested those kids you all encountered on New Chronus. The ones that Lord Chaos threw against you guys.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See The New Titans: Quest, Chapter 6: Seeds of Chaos.]
“The Titan seeds?!” she exclaimed. “You can’t be serious. Given what Eros recently revealed, how can we even be sure who those kids really are? They might have been tools that Eros provided to Lord Chaos as well!”
“Maybe,” Mal said, keeping an even tone. “Or maybe they’re the real deal. Who’s to say at this juncture? But we do know of a few facts. One, they’re a bunch of raw kids with powers. Two, they’ve got some potential. Three, if someone doesn’t act as a guiding influence in their lives, then who will? Imagine what kind of trouble they might get into.”
Lilith’s face still had a frown. “I suppose,” she had to admit. “And keeping an eye on them might be a good idea.”
“That’s what we were thinking, too,” Mal said. “So, you up for helping me track them down and see if they’re interested? I’ve bounced it past Loren, and he thinks it’s a good plan.”
“OK,” Lilith said reluctantly. “I’m in.”
Out in the South Bay a few miles out into the Pacific Ocean, a personal yacht had dropped anchor. The sun was about to set, and its owner was throwing an impromptu party for a few dozen friends. “Enjoy yourselves, my friends,” said the short, portly man. While not overly fat, the bald man with thick sideburns was still fairly attractive. It helped that he was well-dressed, the best resort wear that money could buy. As owner of San Francisco’s own WKSF, he was a well-known and well-liked man despite his wealth.
“Lovely party, Willard,” a young blonde, about half his age, said with a wink. She plucked a glass of champagne as the waiter passed by.
Willard Stanton smiled, sucked in his gut slightly, and sauntered over to the woman. She was a new intern at the station, one with great potential.
Still, Stanton’s actions were not going unobserved. Just below the ocean waters a few hundred yards off the ship’s starboard side, a dark figure raised its eyes above the water’s surface. That’s right, you fat clod! the figure thought. Eat, drink, and be merry! For in a little while, you shall die!
The head submerged back under the waves.
At St. Mary’s Medical Center, two adults in their early twenties stood at the bedside of another young woman. The bruises on the face of the brown-haired young woman were healing nicely, but she still lay quietly in the bed with her eyes closed. Monitors tracked her vitals, and tubes were used to keep nutrients in her body.
The young woman with blonde hair watched her silently with a saddened look upon her face. The rugged brown-haired young man put his arm about her shoulders. “Dawn, we should probably go,” he said.
“Another minute, please, Hank,” Dawn Granger said. She reached for the young woman’s hand and held it gently. “I wonder if she knows we’re here.”
“I’m sure she does,” Hank Hall said. “We’ve been dropping in every other day for the past week or two.”
“I feel like I have to,” Dawn said. “I feel like its my fault that Renee is here.”
“Don’t go beatin’ yourself up about this,” Hank said. “You weren’t in the car with her. You didn’t make her run into that parked car. How can you say it’s your fault?”
“I invited her to Charley’s party. She was on her way to it when she crashed.”
“Still can’t blame you,” Hank said. “I didn’t know her too well. Only met her those couple of times she was seeing Parker. Still, she seemed like a good kid, level-headed. The docs said it was just a simple traffic accident and nothing more. Just a tough break that she banged her head and is in a coma.”
A nurse came into the room. “Excuse me,” she said. “Just need to check the monitors.”
“Of course,” Dawn said. She and Hank stepped out into the hallway. “Well, whether or not it’s my fault, someone needs to be here to talk to her. Now that the semester’s over, I plan to keep coming down here to keep her company.”
“If that’s how you want to spend your summer vacation,” Hank said.
The nurse stepped out of the room. “Thank you,” she said. Suddenly, another nurse called to her from down the way. “What is it, Rhonda?”
“Just got word from the emergency room,” the other nurse said. “Looks like there’s been some fire on some bigwig’s yacht in the South Bay. They’re rushing the bodies in as soon as they can. Some severe burns.”
“I’ll get some rooms blocked off,” the first nurse said.
“Get this,” Rhonda said. “Something about the fire being caused by an attack of some kind of fire-breathing mer-man or something.” The two nurses hurried off.
Hank gave Dawn a knowing look. “Maybe we should check this out,” he suggested.
They slipped back into Renee’s room to grab Dawn’s handbag. “I suppose so,” she said.
“Hey, Hawk and Dove have to do what they can,” Hank said softly. The two departed the room.
Alone in the hospital room, the brown eyes of Renee Laisaille snapped open suddenly for a brief moment. The look was one of intensity and anger. Then they closed once more.