[Chapter 1 found here]
With transport complete, Tinker spun around but dropped abruptly as if the floor was swiped away from him. It was a sight The Gunslinger had seen many times when he pulled the trigger on men he had killed. Death, the kind he was so intimately associated with, wasn’t as glorious and spectacular as Hollywood made it out to be. There weren’t any gasped out final words or last-minute jump scares. It was a well-placed shot and you were done. The Gunslinger worried that the shot he fired travelled with him and seeing The Tinker drop suggested it had. The white noise of terrified thoughts that screamed guilt jump started him into action. He leapt up, holstered his piece, and rushed over all in one go, but every step he took was a thousand-mile journey even though there were a few steps between them, but he made it and he saw that The Tinker was alive.
But he had to ask, “You alright Tommy?”
Tommy nodded his head quickly, but The Gunslinger wasn’t satisfied. He quickly scanned him for any blood or injury, but his attention was broken when Tommy spoke with mustered up machismo, “I saw your gun and ducked. You’re scary with a gun Carlos.” A smile cracked through Carlos’ often deadpan let’s get down to business charm. The words “mad scientist” were said often whenever a scientist with a far wackier smile than Einstein’s proclaimed, with gusto, that they had an ah-ha idea, and the antics of men like Doctor Aeon only helped to make those words mainstream, but sometimes, they were spoken in ignorance. Tommy Burton was born a mutant with an IQ that would have made Einstein whistle in shock and awe. One day he was a young kid who did all the things any other normal kid did, and the next day he became a genius. He absorbed all the knowledge he could get his hands on and he would dabble in those subjects. Carlos had taken to calling him ‘Tinker’ after a Louis L’amour character who ‘tinkered’ with various jobs and the likes. That sudden shift of priorities from play to study had taken away his childhood. It was only now, in his early twenties, where his childhood was slowly catching up with him. He watched cartoons, played video games, collected toys and more. His interactions were on that very same level and directly noticeable like with his little white lie. Carlos knew immediately that he wasn’t saying that as fact but rather as a way to impress. “You didn’t duck,” he said with a wide grin that took pleasure from this revelation, “you fainted.”
Tommy was about to stammer out a more from the heart than well thought out retort when a woman’s ahem cut through the banter. Both turned and to see a living corpse with great beauty stare down at them with great disapproval. Her narrowed eyes showed just how deep her displeasure went and that made the two feel so young and so caught. Tommy held up a hand, ready to explain himself when she spoke coolly, “I think our guest needs your attention Thomas.”
The sting that came from being called by his actual name, and not the one he preferred, jolted him into action. He hopped up and rushed towards the survivor who was on her hospital bed and blissfully unaware of everything. All the monitors and IVs she was attached to were still there, and they worked even though they were unplugged as each had its own internal power supply for such occasions. Robots, that he had summoned through a wrist computer, came in and helped with the equipment. As he pushed the survivor towards medical, he called out, “Send Katie my way. I’m going to need her assistance.”
“Will do,” said Carlos. He looked up to The Dead Woman who still stood over him with that parental look of disappointment, but her smile over his feeling uncomfortable then was enough to break through, and she offered him a hand up to which he took.
“Are you going to tell me I was foolish to go out on my own Lilly?” He asked.
The vampiress nodded simply and said rather casually, almost being parental again but was good natured and affectionate with her chiding, “You acted foolish in going out on your own Carlos and you shall never do it again.”
A smile formed on his lips as he strode past her saying, “Yes ma’am.”
Vampires were often brooding and over emotional but not Lilly. She was an unnaturally beautiful creature, but it was her wild and untamed spirit that made men and women fall head over heels for her. Carlos had asked her once, “why aren’t you tortured like all the others of your kind?” She had responded rather simply, “Because that wastes time dahling,” she always spoke the word darling with a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent and a touch of flourish as that was her thing. She continued, “and I don’t like to waste time.” He respected that. Most considered her eccentricity a symptom of insanity but not Carlos. He knew there was a method to her madness. She laughed from the belly up when he asked her to join him as his second in command, and for several minutes berated him, but he didn’t allow it to get to him; in fact, he even dished it back to her, and that was what made her change her mind. She had said that that was the sign of a good leader, being able to take it and dish it. Later on, he had asked her, “Why do you call yourself The Dead Woman?” She spoke with good cheer, “Because that is what I am dahling! I am a dead woman.”
On the way to his quarters, Lilly said, “I sent the footage from your goggles to Emi. The thing you faced looked familiar to me, but Emi has lived far longer than I have and would probably know what it is.”
Carlos’ instinctively asked, “What does it remind you of?”
Her pause was enough to make Carlos stop and look at her. Being obscenely flamboyant was part of her overall charm. Carlos had listened to it for so long that he knew things were alright when she was abundantly cheerful. There were times when it went silent and that was always worrying for Carlos. It meant that he would need a steady drink after hearing her lay out some really bad news. He waited for her to speak and she did by saying, “An old enemy that I thought was long gone.”
“Gone? How? Who are you talking about?”
There was another pause that only added to Carlos’ concern. She finally said, “I would rather wait for Emi to get back with me.”
There was the unknown and there was there dark, and the Circle of Thorns rested in between. The ancient war that sunk the great city of Oranbega left those spirits awake and unable to rest. They watched as time passed by naturally, unable to do anything but watch. Man evolved and they began asking questions in the hopes that the answers would evolve them further. The Circle of Thorns was in mourning over the loss of their paradise on Earth and the people they once were. Their grief propelled them to act as sirens and lure men towards them and possessed their bodies. Emi, who was once a great priestess, had found refuge in the body of Edith Ritchie, a punk rock groupie. To smell fresh air, to see the sun and feel its touch was a glorious feeling, and it was that that made her feel criminal. She had stolen someone else’s life for her own. She wanted to give it back but couldn’t as the library of souls had been destroyed by an Oranbegan who wanted to stay the course. There was only one alternative and that was to ensure that life was protected and not destroyed. She called herself The Envoy after a rock band that Edith fawned so happily for.
Lilly and Emi combined had a wealth of knowledge that was vast, and he appreciated it whenever it was given. Some thought that it was foolish to listen but Carlos didn’t think so. He had learned to trust their judgement, but that didn’t make his annoyance and frustration any less severe. He wanted to know what spooked Lilly and he wanted to know it now, but he wasn’t going to press the issue. Such a thought only made his mouth water for a drink. He turned and kept going saying, “Keep me up to date.”
The two stopped by Katie’s room along the way. He peered his inside and saw Katie on her bed reading one of those motivational books. He never bought into it because he had become jaded. There were good people in the world that needed to be protected, but those who had fallen too far just couldn’t be saved. They were rabid dogs that needed to be put down as Carlos saw that as an act of mercy, but Katie changed his mind, and she did it by being herself. Ever since she was a kid, Katie Jones listened to the stories her grandfather told when he was a hero in Paragon City. Most remembered Albert Jones as Tomorrow Man – a hero who fought with Statesman when the Nazis invaded Paragon City in 1941. His profound strength of will saved many lives and touched many hearts – including Katies. And she constantly dreamed of the day when her own will could unlock powers that she could use to save lives with. That day came when Crey invaded her hometown in order to cover up an environmental disaster. Her psionic and empathic abilities allowed her to push their assault back. When asked who she was she called herself – Ms. Tomorrow. And like her grandfather, she touched the lives of those who Carlos would have killed and saved them.
Carlos knocked on Kate’s door. She looked up, saw him and beamed, “Hey boss.”
Katie was quite the gabber and before she could ask about his adventure, he told her, “We found a survivor and Tommy is asking for you. Join him in medical.”
She snapped her book shut and hopped out of bed saying, “I’m on my way.”
After Katie had left, a young man, clad in priestly black, turned a corner and called out, “Boss.”
Carlos acknowledged him by saying, “Rick.”
Lilly on the other hand bit her lip and looked away, and Carlos murmured to her, “be nice.”
It was no secret that kids could be cruel if they wanted to be. It was a fact that wasn’t truly tackled since everyone was a kid once in their lives and they dabbled here and there in childhood cruelty. They often said that school would end one day and they would get over it. After all, they put it behind them so it stood to reason that the same could be said for their kids. But there were moments that slammed the breaks on that sort of thinking like with Rick Boofer. He was constantly ganged up on by kids at school. They tortured him because he had a funny sounding last name, and it was a common sight to see them use his last name as a derogatory adjective. Pain wasn’t objective as some felt it was. It couldn’t be controlled nor could it be ignored, and people would do anything to make it end once they reached their limit. Rick had reached his and he felt the only way he could cope was to find permanent rest under the sea, but something caught his eye as he stood underneath the great statue of Talos. In the water was a sword. His first thought was that it was a foam toy because it was floating, but as he reached out to grab it, he found that it was real. It had weight. It had an edge. And its beauty showed that it was a nobleman’s sword. He held it in his hand and wondered the swords mysteries, and as he did, he felt himself changed. His reflection showed a face that was not his own. It was the face of a man whose faith was so strong that it reached out and touched another’s life promising that there is a reason to live; that there is always a reason to live. Anytime he held the sword, people would see this face only, but that was nothing. What amazed him most was that he knew how to use the sword, and that was strange as he never held a sword before. There were no answers to the sword’s mystery and he didn’t want to find any. He wanted to use it to make things right and he did as The Templar, but his greatest act of heroism came from himself. He had put the sword down and stood before a group of Hellions that invaded the local high school. They wanted to snatch some teens to sacrifice, but they could not pass Rick for they felt something unworldly come from him that denied them access. It was the same thing Lilly felt to which often strained her relationship with Rick as vampires and faithful knights rarely mixed.
Rick stopped as Carlos slowed down and said, “I found a survivor and brought her back. Tommy is looking after her right now in medical. How I found her and got her out was unique to say the least so what I want you to do is to do a quick security check.”
Rick nodded and said, “I’ll get right on it.”
When he was gone, Lilly said with some dulled cheer, “I think my relationship with him is improving. He didn’t once give me that look of his.”
Carlos felt a chuckle sneak out of his lips as he said, “The good lord works in mysterious ways.”
Feigning offense, Lilly said, “Please watch your language.”
Carlos’ gut busted with deep laughter.
At his private quarters, Carlos took off his Stetson and goggles and hung them up. He caught his reflection in the mirror beside the stand and took a moment to look at himself. What looked back at himself was a sixty-five-year-old who made sixty-five the new thirty-five. That’s what he told himself but hey the back of his mind bought it and that was all that mattered. He reached into a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Tequila and a glass. Even though he was no longer Malta, he still had contacts that did some favors for him. One of them always sent him a bottle of top shelf Tequila on his birthday. He poured himself a glass and downed it. Looking up he saw his framed photo on his dressers floating in mid air.
Lilly asked, “What is this?”
Hollywood had always made a big deal of vampires not having a reflection and they played that off well with good special effects but seeing it live and direct was a shock that Carlos nor anyone could ever get over. Even now he felt uneasy but he the Tequila he swallowed helped dull that. He said, “Show me.”
She showed him the one picture he knew she would zero in on. Grabbing another glass from the cabinet, he poured himself another drink and made one for Lilly. He turned and offered it to her and she accepted only after she had placed the picture down. He picked it back up after he sat down and looked at it fondly. It was a black and white picture taken at a packed full auditorium. There were many smiling faces who wanted to be immortalized, but the star of the picture was of a masked wrestler and a little boy he had hefted up in his arms and both were pointing straight up to the sky.
After a moment, he said rather dreamily, “That’s me on my eighth birthday.”
Lilly didn’t seem to listen as she was more focused on Carlos’ obvious trip down memory lane. He continued, “My mother had arranged for me to meet the greatest luchador ever – El Santo.” He pointed to the woman whose face was barely visible from behind, and it was obvious that she was his mother as only a mother could irradiate such warmth with a simple smile.
Lilly probed him for more details by saying, “I know of El Santo – The Saint. I remember watching that movie of his where he battled the vampire women.” That made him look up and beam this wonderous smile that told that he had also seen it. The movie was terrible of course but for an eight-year-old boy it was an event that left a wonderous and indelible mark upon him.
He nodded with enthusiasm that he had seen it. He chuckled out, “I remember that,” he looked to her and prodded her with a bit of teasing by saying, “I’m sure you got upset over how he handled them.”
She pouted her lower lip and shook her head like it was no big deal saying, “I thought they were all beauty and no brains anyway.”
That got him to laugh but he doused it a little by swallowing more of his drink. He looked back to his picture and continued on with his story, “I was a huge fan of his like so many boys in Mexico.” He jammed in a quick, “I still am a fan of his, even today. I watched him wrestle on channel 3 on Saturdays, and I would beg mom to take me to the movies whenever he had a new one come out. He was my hero.”
Lilly smiled and asked, “How did she make it happen?”
Another sip of Tequila but this time it was to steady himself. Memories like this were always welcome, it was just sharing them with others that unsettled him. After another sip which magically became a gulp, he said, “My mother worked at the National Palace in Mexico City as a cleaning lady.” He felt some of his courage waver, another gulp, and he hopped, skipped, and jumped through some of the details. “Sometimes she would meet some very important people who visited, and one day she saw him. He was acting as an ambassador to a visiting diplomat, I think. My mother watched him and then moved to him when he was alone. She thought that he would be upset and everything, but he wasn’t. He greeted her and listened to her talk about me. She hoped that maybe he could give an autographed picture or something. He did her one better. He explained that he was going to be wrestling in Mexico City, which happened to be on my birthday. He invited her and me to be guests free of charge, but my mother said no.”
Lilly interjected by asking, “Pride?”
Carlos shrugged a bit as he said, “Not really. For her, it was important that I knew that she saved up for this. It wouldn’t be much, but it would come from the heart.” He finished the rest of his drink and then rose up to get some more. He filled his glass and brought it and the bottle back with him. All the while a nagging voice whispered in his ear about how unworthy he was of in having such a wonderous memory. That voice reminded him of the blood that was on his hands, and already he could feel it on his fingers and could smell it in the air. He took another drink hoping it would free him from that and looked to Lilly and her smile urged him to go on and he did.
“So, they worked out an arrangement. She would buy the tickets and tell the manager where we would be sitting at, and after he wrestled, he would then come to where Mom and I were.” By then, his fear was forgotten as the story he was telling was spilling out uncontrollably with so much passion, “I watched him wrestle, and like any stupid kid I prayed that he would win. I cried every time he lost his advantage and cheered when he reclaimed it, and when he won, I celebrated just like everyone else in the arena did.” He paused spoke with whispered passion that said that this was the climax of the story and you won’t be disappointed, “and then I saw him come my way, and within moments he was standing right before me. It was like,” he held up his hands, saying apologetically, “and sorry for my language, seeing God almighty.” Lilly didn’t even flinch that was how engrossed she was in the story.
“How can you describe that feeling? You can’t. Its too powerful. You can only bask in it. I looked up at him as he said with the voice of God, ‘Are you Carlos Gallardo?’
“I nodded my head as I was unable to say anything. He then knelt down so he could look me in the eye and let me tell you I felt sickened by that. God should not bend a knee and look us in the eye,” Lilly laughed in delight when picturing the little boy Carlos was trying desperately to convince a god to keep standing with childish innocence. He continued, “But the Saint was not swayed by this as he said to me, ‘I hear that today is your birthday. Is this so?’
“I was paralyzed with awe; how did he know this? I had no time to contemplate this as he hoisted me into the air and I cheered when he proclaimed to all, ‘Then before God on this very day I dedicate my victory to you little Carlos.’” Shame came back to him after he finished his story. That moment in time had lasted forever and ever and it inspired him to become a hero, and he was one but it came at the cost of murder. He killed the enemies of Uncle Sam. That was not what gave him nightmares. No, it was the monsters that Malta, in the guise of Uncle Sam, deemed too good to lose. He thought back to The Candyman and his experiments on mutant children. Carlos had put a bullet in the Candyman’s skull for that but it left him wondering if there were any other monsters that Carlos protected.
Lilly had reached out and touched his leg and he looked up to her. She was smiling at him and her smile was just like his mother’s warm and loving. She knew what he was thinking but didn’t say it openly. What she said was indirect but heartfelt, ”That is the sign of a mother who loves you and who would always be proud of you,” she raised a glass to him, “To your mother.” He raised a glass to that and she downed hers.
There came a knock on the door, and it opened up.
It was The Spaceman. He said, “Tommy has found something he wants you both to see.”
James Estes had a life most people would sell their souls for. He was a brilliant engineer whose work provided a home and security for his family. Then the Skulls and the Trolls had a war that spilled into James’ happy home life. His wife of ten years and two kids were killed leaving him all alone, but what most couldn’t understand was that he died as well. He recognized the name James Estes and even responded to it, but who James Estes was, was gone. His mind could not and would not accept the fact that everything that mattered to him was gone and nothing he could do would bring them back. That snapped his sanity and pushed aside everything James Estes was – except for his engineering skills. He used them to create a new persona – the Spaceman. He was a wanderer through space and had no name but he found a home on Earth and took up the name James Estes as a secret identity. People had tried to help James away from his fantasy world but every attempt failed. Lilly had once said that death wasn’t always about the body dying. Sometimes the body lived on but the spark of life that gave it individuality went away, and in those moments, it could find new life much like the phoenix. Besides, The Spaceman did better as a hero patrolling the streets of Paragon. Carlos was even saved a few times by The Spaceman. Why keep that locked up at all when it can do good? Though part of Carlos hopped that one day, some day, James could find himself again.
Carlos and Lilly rose up and followed The Spaceman out.