Ophiuchus 1: The Masked Man

One thing I’d considered using to fill in my Sunday slot was bits of my draft of the ongoing novel I’m working on. The problem with this is that I don’t want first draft material from the novel making it in, when it could see heavy revision or even be cut completely by the time it actually appears in the story. Plus, while first drafting, it’s important to just get to the story’s end even if some of the chapters aren’t very good, because you can clean up the bad stuff in editing just so long as you actually finish a story and reach the editing stage. Dumping bad bits of the first draft that need to be cleaned up before publication will only serve to convince people that they’ve already given the story a chance and didn’t like it when that isn’t necessarily true.

Fan fiction for MMORPGs that went offline seven years ago doesn’t have this problem. I can dump first drafts directly into the blog and if people don’t like it, that’s because they actually don’t like my fan fiction. This stuff can’t be sold, is written purely for fun, and as such receives only as-I-write editing. The only outline is that I am loosely following the plot structure of City of Heroes except and until I think of something better. If I decide to write more of these at all, I may jump multiple “issues” into the future whenever I feel like shaking up the status quo but don’t feel like explaining how we got here, and the interim issues may or may not ever get written.

I have no idea whether or not this is going to be a regular thing (I made a category for it just in case, but a lot of categories are speculative, don’t pan out, and end up with like four total posts in them). Maybe this will be my Sunday slot going forward. Maybe this will just be something I do for this specific Sunday and I figure something else out later. We’ll see. The “#1” designation is less a promise that this will be a series and more meant to invoke comic books in general. I’d have started us at, like, #7 or something, but this is too clearly an origin story.

Ophiuchus #1: The Masked Man

He stretched the layers of white fabric tight over his eyes. His bedroom was a haze of blurred light and indistinct shape. With a grunt of frustration, he pulled the mask back off. He could navigate a costume party with this thing on, but not the dimly lit back alleys of Argosy Industrial. Peeling the top layer off, he tried it with just a single layer. It was easy enough to see through, but now his face was easily visible. Pink flesh tinted rather than obscured. Experiments with cutting eye holes in every layer but the top one resulted in those bottom layers being almost completely destroyed from the bridge of the nose to just above the eyebrows. The scissors from the sewing kit he’d bought from a dollar store were so dull that poking them through the fabrc to get a cut started resulted in a huge, jagged tear. His lack of tailoring skill made a bad situation worse.

7/11 was always open, even at the mopiest hour of night. He stood at the rack of sunglasses, looking from one to the next, trying to imagine how they’d look on the half-torn mask. How small could they go and still cover up the hole he’d accidentally torn? Maybe he could buy some more of that fabric and make a new mask. When did Joann’s open?

There were three pairs of shades on the table in the end, and he dug through his pockets to pull out a few more stray dollars to pay for them. Could he even afford more fabric? Would it be in bad taste if he took a Hellion’s wallet to fund costume repairs before dropping them off for the police?

Back in his bedroom at Skyway City, he stood in front of the mirror. If this suit got wrecked, it would take him weeks to save up enough to replace even one piece of it. He didn’t think there was a single piece of it that cost less than $50. If the suit got wrecked, though, probably he was, too, and then he wouldn’t have to worry about it. Instead of special powers, he had a green belt from a Karate dojo that had gone down with the rest of Freedom Court. Instead of special gear, he had a box of magic tricks from his school talent show. Longbow had put him on a waiting list for new hero assessment three weeks ago. He had no idea how long it would be before they pulled themselves out from under the rubble of Galaxy City. Maybe they never would.

He twirled the fedora in his hands and set it atop his head. It was his least favorite part of the costume, but he needed some kind of hat to cover up the torn edges of the fabric at the top. On the bright side, it was the one piece of the costume most likely to go flying if he wound up getting knocked around or blasted to pieces, and if his body was already shattered, the poor costuming at the top of his head wouldn’t look out of place at all. What would people think, when they found his body? Probably they would assume he was trying to get famous. He considered leaving a note. Some video message on a dead man’s switch: “I knew I was probably going to die going into this. I knew that even if I lived I probably wouldn’t get famous. I’m not trying to be a star. My friend went missing and I had to try.”

“I’m looking for Chase Winters,” he said into the mirror with his best Manticore baritone. “I’m looking for Chase Winters,” he said again, trying for a bit more menace. Did this sound as intimidating to others as it did to him? He got halfway through opening up Audacity to record himself and check before deciding that would be stupid. If it turns out his voice wasn’t very intimidating, what was he going to do? Find a voice coach willing to work for exposure and put off the whole “vigilante” thing for another three months?

There was only one other person at the Bronze Way station. He was flying the colors of an Outcast charger. Trains passed through once every hour, and he’d walked here from his aunt and uncle’s condo in Blyde Square. The walk was long enough that aiming for the hour could easily have landed him with a 55-minute wait. He’d aimed for 1.30 AM instead, and got here at 1.40. So now he was waiting, duffel bag with his costume tucked between his feet, for twenty minutes with this Outcast. Outcasts were known to work with Hellions off and on if the internet was to be believed. He tightened his grip on the duffel bag strap, reached halfway down to the zipper, and then thought better of it. What was he going to do, suit up right in front of this guy and then try to punch his lights out? Ask him what he knew about a kidnapping operation in another neighborhood, nearly a month ago, conducted by a loosely allied gang? Not worth the risk, he told himself with a deep breath. Especially if that guy had actual lightning powers. Or if he was just carrying a gun. The only thing in the duffel bag was a snappy outfit and a bag of magic tricks. He could try tossing a throwing knife at him, and just skip the part where he swapped it out for a trick knife halfway through. That would work great, provided that this Outcast was willing to be his lovely assistant and hold perfectly still exactly ten feet away. This whole plan was crazy enough already without picking a fight before he’d even got to Atlas Park.

The more nervous energy he had, the more he felt like the most obvious criminal on the train. Even compared to the guy who was actually wearing a gang sign. Poseurs were a thing. And the more he felt it was obvious he was about to go assault someone without any kind of hero license, the more nervous he got. He flicked a coin between his fingers. If anyone asked, he could just tell them he was practicing for a magic show. It would even be mostly true. He had YouTube videos of a few card tricks online. It really did take a lot of practice to get this good with the coin, the cards, all the little props. No one had to know his heart was pounding louder in his chest every moment the tram crept closer to Atlas Park. As the train drew nearer his destination, his subconscious supplied excuses. Maybe he’d have better luck tracking down lone Hellions in Skyway City, the next stop over. Atlas Park was Hellion turf, walk into the wrong neighborhood and it’d be crawling with them. He knew it was just an excuse. Once he put the mask on, everyone would know he was a super. Or at least playing at being one. The only question would be: Team Red or Team Blue? To the Hellions and the Skulls, he was here to track down a missing person: Team Blue. To the PPD and Longbow, he was planning on committing a violent assault as part of unlicensed hero work: Team Red. Every moment he was in costume, he was in danger. Go to Skyway City, he’s surrounded by the Lost. Go to Atlas Park, he’s surrounded by Hellions. At least in Atlas Park, he’d be surrounded by the gangsters he planned to shake down.

He’d been to Atlas Park before. Every kid in Paragon City went on a field trip to city hall sooner or later. That this was eight years ago notwithstanding, he hadn’t exactly looked around for a place to change clothes while he was there. Back in the safety of his aunt and uncle’s condo, he’d just told himself “find a place to change into the hero suit, and then…” like it would just happen. It had taken him half an hour to find an overpass where he didn’t think he’d been seen, and even then, probably everyone who passed in a nearby car noticed him. Hopefully they thought he was just homeless. In order to get the coif tucked properly into his shirt so that none of his neck would be visible, he had to put the mask on over the undershirt. Being that the dress shirt went on over the undershirt, but before pants, that meant that he was standing under an overpass in an undershirt and boxers, kneeling down next to the duffle bag, hands wrapped around the mask, and suddenly keenly aware of how much easier it would be to just go back to Blyde Square. Standing half-naked in an alleyway was the worst compromise. It wasn’t getting him any closer to Blyde Square. It was even less safe than putting the costume on. Make a decision and commit to it, he told himself. And if he ran back to Blyde Square, he’d spend the rest of his life wondering what would’ve happened if he’d had the guts to stay. Wondering if it was his fault that Chase was dead.

He pulled the mask on over his head.

The Hellion standing on the corner could only be thinking one thing as an unfamiliar super approached him: Team Red or Team Blue? The one sitting down on a stoop would be thinking something different: Don’t talk to me. Talk to the guy on the corner, so that I can get behind you. The masked man walked past the Hellion sitting in the stoop to talk to the one on the corner. His mind raced with a million possibilities. So far as the Hellions knew, he was a super villain. If he could convince them he was Team Red, maybe they would tell him what they knew just in case he was dangerous. Or maybe he could intimidate the Hellions into thinking he was an experienced hero, and it was better to talk than to make trouble. A million possibilities, and what came out was “I’m looking for Chase Winters.”

“Never heard of him,” the Hellion said.

“Last seen in Galaxy City, during the disaster,” the masked man said, one hand drifting to the pocket that held his knives. “Eyewitnesses say she was being abducted by Hellions.” Technically true. He was an eyewitness, and he was saying it now.

“Oh, we got some wannabe cape, do we?” the Hellion asked. His friend in the stoop stood up behind the masked man.

“I’m not here for a fight,” the masked man said.

“Then you better run along,” the Hellion said, “before someone gets hurt.”

The Hellion from the stoop was standing a dozen feet behind the masked man. He could see the Hellion drawing a gun in the shadow he cast from a nearby street lamp. The masked man gripped the knives in his pocket tighter. This was it. If he was going to die tonight, it would be right now.

The knife flew from his hand and into the throat of the Hellion behind. The wound sprayed blood in jets. One hand reached up to clutch at the knife, while the other, trembling, began to raise the revolver. The masked man threw a side kick into the face of the Hellion in front, then leapt behind him, putting the stunned Hellion between him and the one with the gun. The Hellion recovered his senses and threw a punch towards the masked man. The masked man stepped in and underneath the punch, throwing an uppercut into the Hellion’s gut. The one with the gun aimed with a shaking hand until, seeing no shot, his strength gave out and he collapsed. The masked man slammed his fist into the remaining Hellion’s head, his gut, his face, over and over again. A single, desperate thought permeated his mind: Don’t relent, don’t hesitate, if you do for even a moment, if you let him recover, you die.

The Hellion had been beaten senseless by the time the masked man’s own perceptions returned to him, his focus finally expanding beyond the monomaniacal desire to continue beating the Hellion down. The Hellion with the gun was lying stil, blood gushing. The other was on the ground, groaning and feebly attempting to crawl away. His own knuckles felt raw and he thought he could feel blood pooling in his gloves. First, he backed away. Then, he ran.

He stopped in an alleyway. Willed his heart rate to go down. It didn’t. He’d killed someone. He had killed one of the Hellions. Maybe two. And he’d gotten nothing from it. He looked over his shoulder back the way he came. He’d left his knife in that Hellion’s throat. He’d made sure to wipe them down for fingerprints before leaving, just in case some got left behind. That didn’t mean he wanted the police having their hands on the weapon he’d used to murder someone as part of an unregistered, unlicensed hero investigation. He’d taken a dozen steps back towards the crime scene when he realized that the police could show up to the scene of that murder any minute now, and even worse than leaving his knife at the scene of the crime would be getting caught there.

He took in a deep breath. Those throwing knives were part of a box of tricks that any aspiring magician willing to dump a few hundred dollars on the hobby could buy. Paragon City was huge. There were dozens of people in the city, maybe hundreds, who owned a set. He didn’t live and had never lived in Atlas Park. The police would be extremely hard-pressed to trace that knife back to him, specifically. No, his real problem was that he had fought the Hellions, won somehow, and had nothing to show for it.

He gripped his hands into fists to steady the shaking. He’d won once. He could do it again, and this time, he’d think to ask for information.

“I’m looking for Chase Winters.”

“Who’s that?”

“She was at the Galaxy City incident. Last seen being abducted by Hellions. Tell me what you know.”

The Hellion started to chuckle, and the masked man pounced. A jab to the face, a hook to the side of his ear, an uppercut into his gut, and then a shove to send the off-balance Hellion tumbling. When the Hellion fell to the ground, the masked man was atop him, knees pinning the man’s elbows and hands gripping the collar of his leather vest. “Chase Winters!” he demanded, pulling out one of his knives. He had no idea what he was going to do with it. “If you don’t know her, you know someone who does! Talk!”

“Cinderburn!” the Hellion said, “Cinderburn’s in charge of rounding people up!”

“Where is he?” the masked man demanded.

“His turf’s on Prometheus Street, south of the park!”

The masked man looked down at the Hellion. Now what? Did he just…believe him? He didn’t have a whole lot of incentive to tell the truth rather than make something up, and that wouldn’t change no matter how many times the masked man punched him. He stood up from the Hellion, who immediately wriggled out from underneath him. The Hellion got up to his feet, fists up in front of his bloodied face, panic written across his face. The Hellion was bigger, stronger. The masked man had no idea how he had beaten him the first time, but the Hellion seemed convinced he could do it twice. “Run away,” the masked man said, and the Hellion turned and fled.

/How do I keep doing this?/ the masked man asked himself as he walked through the alleys, a soaring euphoria battling with a terrified doubt. When he set out for the station, he didn’t plan on winning. He knew the whole idea was stupid, doomed, and he was doing it anyway, because he had to do something and this was his best idea. Two fights in and he’d won twice. How? Maybe he had some minor mutant power, some kind of super combat awareness, something that wouldn’t have come up until now. A smile spread across his face under his mask. Maybe he was made for this all along.

The euphoria only won out for maybe ten or twenty seconds, and by the time it had faded, he was glad he hadn’t found any Hellions in that time. He had won two fights, and it’s not like he was completely unprepared for either of them. Maybe he hadn’t given his magic tricks enough credit. The whole thing with throwing knives at someone and not quite hitting them is that throwing knives are a lethal weapon. That’s what makes it exciting. More than that, though: Getting lucky twice isn’t that unusual. He wasn’t a kung fu master, but he knew enough to know that anyone can get lucky in a fight. That no matter how great you are, any fight can be your last. That’s why they were taught to take every fight seriously and never to start one unless it was important. Basic tenet of self-defense.

So, real talk? He had gotten lucky, he told himself, and his luck wouldn’t hold forever. From now on, his story was that he was Team Red, looking for Cinerburn for villain business. He wanted to buy one of the missing persons from Galaxy City and was interested in knowing who the Hellions had available. He’d heard Cinderburn was in charge of some kind of kidnapping scheme and was prepared to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the right person. He didn’t actually have that kind of money, but once Cinderburn confirmed he had Chase, the masked man could arrange a time and place to make the swap and just call in the police. He’d gotten lucky twice. If he was lucky enough to have gotten the truth out of that Hellion, too, then he could make this whole mad scheme work on just that luck alone. No more fights.

“I’m looking for Cinderburn,” he said to the first Hellion he found on Prometheus Street, “I’ve got business with him. From the Rogue Isles.” There were a few other Hellions loitering around, sitting on the trunk of a car, leaning against a wall and staring at their feet. Body language that said “don’t talk to me, talk to the guy with the big gun.” Ambush position. No problem. The masked man was here as part of Team Red, and he had a big payday to offer.

“Yeah,” the Hellion said, pumping a shell into his shotgun’s chamber. “Firemark told me you’d be coming.”

The masked man dived behind a car parked on the side of the street. The shotgun boomed louder than a thunderstrike. He dug through his pockets and drew out a throwing knife, a few more clattering across the asphalt by his panicked draw. Popping up from behind the car, the masked man threw the knife. It went a solid three feet over the Hellion’s head, but the Hellion flinched anyway, fumbling the shell he was trying to load into the chamber. The Hellion from the trunk of the car had slid off and was trying to box the masked man in, cutting off his escape across the street, while two others ran towards him from the other side. At the speed of thought, the masked man realized that he had time for one and only one strike on the Hellion in front of him before the two behind caught up, and that strike had to put this hellion on the floor and provide enough momentum to start running. The masked man sprang into the air, a kick snapping out to catch the Hellion in front with all the momentum of the jump. He fell to the asphalt and the masked man hit the ground running. As he pulled away from the two Hellions chasing him, the shotgun cracked again. The masked man felt nothing. Had he been missed? Or was the adrenaline just masking the pain of some fatal wound? Either way, he sprinted down an alley.

Shots rang out behind him, two or three in succession. One of the bullets hit the brick nearby with a tiny shower of debris. Taking a corner in the alley, he found himself at the loading bay for a warehouse. Nothing but flat, empty asphalt for trucks to roll up in one direction, and a locked warehouse on the other, but he could see a second alley between the warehouse and the adjoining building. He sprinted for it. More corners meant it was easier to get around one before someone could line up a shot.

Around the corner was a dead end. The Hellions followed him in behind, and he spun around to face them, fists raised. The Hellions hesitated as he turned to confront them, and the one with a revolver fired off the rest of his chambers in a panic towards the masked man. The Hellion didn’t have good aim. But he had good luck. The masked man’s legs suddenly gave out from underneath him, and a pain like none he’d felt before shot through his body. It started in his leg, but he could feel it racing all along his nerves, lighting everything up. He struggled back onto his feet, trying to ignore the pain driven like spikes through him with every twitch of his maimed leg, trying to lurch behind a nearby dumpster for cover. Maybe he could try to fight them as they came around the corner, just rely on punches?

The Hellion with the revolver was feeding bullets into the chambers, but the other three rushed him long before he reached cover. One swung a baseball towards him. He raised his arms to absorb the blow instead of his face, but the force of the blow was still enough to send him to the ground. Another Hellion kicked him in the stomach, driving the breath out of him as he struggled to get back to his feet. The masked man caught the kick aimed at his face and pulled hard, yanking the Hellion off of his feet. He pounced upon the fallen Hellion, but couldn’t even get a single punch before a baseball bat was swinging for his own face. He raised a hand in time to block the blow, but his arm was slammed against his face and he was knocked off of the Hellion. The one with the bat kicked one of the masked man’s arms aside and pressed his boot down, raising his bat high to strike at the masked man’s half-protected face.

Someone whistled from down the alley. The three Hellions turned to see who. Ms. Liberty held the Hellion with the revolver, one arm wrapped around his neck to hold his head in place while the other gripped his wrist, aiming the gun towards the wall and away from the fight. “Here, boys! Come get your treat!” she shouted. The Hellions looked to themselves and around the alley. Ms. Liberty had them trapped in just like they’d had the masked man. One of them ran towards her, and the other two were quick behind. Ms. Liberty snatched the revolver from the Hellion she was grappling and flicked the chamber open, bullets flying out. She unwound her arm from the Hellion’s neck, sending him spinning to the ground, and then tossed the gun into the face of the Hellion who’d first charged her. When the other two arrived, she drove a roundhouse kick into the gut of one, then hopped onto the foot she’d kicked the goon with, bringing her other up in the air to ax kick the final Hellion of the charge.

The Hellion who’d had the gone thrown in his face was the only one standing, now, backing away as Ms. Liberty stepped over the groaning, prone bodies of his comrades. “You could just surrender,” Ms. Liberty offered.

The Hellion raced back towards the masked man, who had brought himself to his feet. Flicking out a switchblade, the Hellion tried to wrap an arm around the masked man’s neck to threaten his throat with the knife, but the masked man grabbed him by the wrist, shoved an elbow into his gut, then peeled the Hellion’s arm off while he was still out of breath. He shoved the Hellion away, nearly knocking himself over on his weak leg, but the Hellion went tumbling towards Ms. Liberty, who knocked him to the ground with a punch to the jaw.

“You doing alright?” Ms. Liberty asked the masked man.

“Been shot,” he said, clutching the wall to keep himself stable while blood ran out across his slacks.

“Lemme see how bad they got you,” she said, and knelt down besides the wound, rolling up the pant leg to examine it. “It’s your lucky day,” she said, pulling out an ampule of green fluid and loading it into an injector gun, “bullet went straight through. Won’t need any surgery.” She looked up to him and, with a rueful grin, said “you’re gonna feel some pressure.” The masked man winced as the needle punched through his skin. Once she’d emptied the ampule, she slapped on some gauze from her utility belt, tightening it around the wound, and then pulled the pant leg back down.

“They don’t talk about this part on TV,” the masked man said, his breath steadying. Already the pain was numbing, and his leg felt like it could support some weight again. Everyone knew that Rikti medicine worked faster than anything that could be fabricated here on Earth One, but he’d never thought he’d personally feel the effects.

“You’re new?” Ms. Liberty asked.

He considered claiming to be a veteran just to help mask the truth that he was completely unregistered, but it’d be a lot easier to pretend to be a recently registered hero. “Yes,” he said.

“We were all new once,” Ms. Liberty said, sensing his hesitation to answer but – the masked man hoped – misinterpreting it as embarassment for needing to be rescued rather than terror at being caught. “You should definitely get a doctor to take a closer look at that by the end of the night,” Ms. Liberty continued, “Rikti juice usually fixes everything, but it isn’t magic. It’s masking the pain and clotting the blood, but that hole in your leg will be there for a while. Statesman always told me not to finish out a patrol injured, but,” Ms. Liberty shrugged, “I never listened to him. You do what you think is best.”

“Thanks for your help,” the masked man said, testing his leg. There was no more bleeding, but he was definitely walking with a limp. No way he was going to be able to kick on this leg.

“Thanks for yours,” Ms. Liberty said, “if you save even one person, that lightens the load on all of us.”

“Still working on that,” the masked man said.

“What’s your beat?” Ms. Liberty asked, pulling out some zipties to keep the Hellions, still groaning on the ground, from slipping away once they caught their breath.

The masked man had looked up enough Team Blue slang to know what Ms. Liberty meant. “Missing persons from Galaxy City. Eyewitnesses saw Hellions abducting people from the rubble.”

Ms. Liberty nodded. “Have you talked to Matthew Habashy yet?”

He caught himself before admitting he’d never even heard of him. Maybe all newly registered heroes were supposed to meet this guy. Instead, he just stammered out “n-no,” tripping over the words he’d almost said.

“FBSA agent working the same job,” Ms. Liberty said. Then she put a finger to her earpiece. “I’ve gotta go,” she said, “Skulls are trying to move in on Atlas Park, hitting the Hellions while they’re down.” She was already backing away, and there were already sirens in the distance. “Just in time. Cops will take care of these guys. Good luck on patrol!” The masked man just nodded as Ms. Liberty turned and ran off to save some other day.

You should definitely get a doctor to take a closer look at that before the end of the night, Ms. Liberty had said. But he had no hero license to show them. The Rikti juice might not be magic, but it would have to do. Have you talked to Matthew Habashy yet? she’d asked. Could he look this Habashy guy up without going through the Bureau? A super hero bailing him out in the field might be happy to just assume he was a proper registered member of Team Blue, but an FBSA receptionist would want to know his ID number.

“Hey, there, these are your collars?” a police officer asked, emerging from the car he’d parked at the entrance to the alley.

“Ms. Liberty did all the work,” the masked man said.

“I just need a name for the super on scene,” the officer said.

He had batted around a few different ideas for a name while making the suit. Whatever name he gave them wouldn’t show up as a real super ID, so it hardly mattered, so long as they were busy running something through the machine while he left. He thought he’d just pick one at random if it came up, and keep the others in reserve in case he ever needed to change identities. Now, he fished around and picked one of those names at random.

“Ophiuchus,” he said, already walking away.

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