“I didn’t want all this,” Charlotte Green said.
“I know,” Force said. She put a hand on the older woman’s shoulder.
Protectors Tower usually stood alone in a sea of grass, a glass and steel anomaly on the plains of middle America. Over a hundred miles from the nearest town, no roads led to the tower. No phone or power lines marched, pole to pole, over the prairie to connect the tower to the world. Power generation was internal and communications were conducted by a satellite in geosynchronous orbit dedicated to the needs of America’s premiere superhero team.
Designed and built by an earlier generation of heroes, the tower had been placed in the middle of nowhere so that any attack on it would not endanger civilians. The idea had proved sound on several occasions. Transportation to and from the tower was by personal flight, for those who had that ability, and by use of flying Protectocars.
Force had always winced at the name “Protectocars,” but it was an established holdover from the early days of the team and she had to live with it.
Today the tower seemed less lonely on the plains. Sections of folding bleachers had been set up nearby, and in addition to Protectocars flying in and out of the site, helicopters brought the many congressmen, senators, and other Washington sycophants and hangers-on who wanted to be seen at this important event. Soon a helicopter would disgorge the President of the United States, who had decided to make a speech.
The past and current members of the Protectors roster gathered together in one area, along with other members of the hero community. They talked in low, respectful tones. Later, when the civilians were gone, they would gather in the tower, tell war stories, drink, and take advantage of this rare chance to talk to their peers without having to uphold their heroic public images.
The politicians, lobbyists, congress members and their staffs, along with a few foreign dignitaries, stood stiffly on the other side of the bleachers. Looking at both groups, Force was amused that the heroes looked like a gathering of circus performers next to a business convention.
Charlotte Green stood apart from everyone. Force had decided to stay with her as much as possible during the day. All the activity; the heroes, the politicians, the impending arrival of the President, was for the funeral of Charlotte’s father.
Charlotte had known Horace Green only as a severe and largely absent father. She believed that he worked for an insurance company, one that sent him away for months at a time. Only when he was over ninety years old, and he grew unable to control his powers, did Charlotte learn the truth.
Force knew Blue Bolt, legendary superhero and founding member of The Protectors, as a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. He was old fashioned, a product of the World War Two generation for whom right and wrong were absolute. He was very hard on the young heroes at the Academy. When he did give out a sliver of praise, it felt the same as a gushing waterfall of approval from anyone else.
Charlotte and Force had talked for hours, when Force could get away from her duties, and had been unable to figure out how Horace Green and Blue Bolt could be the same man.
“Beth, where are you?” The voice of Force’s husband came through her implanted communicator.
“I’m with Charlotte,” she replied.
“You have to talk to Sanders before I send him falling into outer space. We’re at the podium.”
“All right, don’t do anything rash until I get there,” Force said. She turned to Charlotte. “Bill needs me. Are you all right?”
Charlotte nodded. “I just want it to be over so I can go back to a normal life.”
“Soon,” Force said. “I’ll be back.” She made her way towards the podium. A day that should be dedicated to remembering one of the greatest superheroes was turning sour, and all because of Greyson Sanders. What had him in a huff now?
Force remembered her earliest days as a Protector when the super team was independent, supported by its richest members and by income from licensing their names and images for movies, TV shows, and toys. After an attack by Eviltronn in 1997 almost destroyed the tower, they had started accepting direct government funding. They were still left largely able to do their work as they saw fit, until the Department of Homeland Security came into existence. The Protectors were placed under DHS control and Greyson Sanders was sent to oversee them directly. From then on every detail had to be cleared by Sanders.
As she walked she checked the sky to see Condor circling high above the crowd. He was keeping an eye out for any villains that wanted to take advantage of the occasion. Of course, there were also going to be about a dozen Blackhawk helicopters in the vicinity while the President spoke, but the Protectors didn’t leave the security of their tower up to outsiders.
Inside the tower, Mercury Man was monitoring all electronic traffic for anything suspicious, and Myragga Eastwitch scanned the minds of all present for evil thoughts.
The Secret Service had insisted on following all its usual procedures at a public appearance of the POTUS, though the head agent had been heard to mutter, “How can we make sure that no one is carrying a weapon when so many of these people ARE weapons?”
The podium had been set up on a small stage in front of the bleachers where the Washington crowd was meant to sit. It faced away from the bleachers, so the attendees would be looking at the back of the President and other speakers. The more important audience was the crowd of TV cameras that had been set up to carry the ceremony to the world.
Blue Bolt’s coffin sat, draped in an American flag, over the grave where the superhero would rest. The flag stirred in a breeze, then lay still. Force sent a brief thought to the old hero, wherever he had gone. He wouldn’t have liked all this fuss any more than his daughter did.
“Mrs. Hollison,” Greyson Sanders said as Force neared the podium. He marched up to her, twitching his thin lips and looking as officious as he knew how. He insisted on calling Force and Graviton by their legal names. Secret identities were another casualty of DHS control. Even if their names were not released to the world, all Protectors had to have complete files with names and biometrics on file with the government.
“Maybe you can talk some sense into your husband,” Sanders went on. “I make a simple request, and he goes ballistic.”
“You want ballistic, Sanders,” Graviton said, coming up behind the Homeland Security liaison, “I can arrange it. I can shoot you like a cannonball into the next state.”
“I log all your threats in my reports to the Secretary,” Sanders sniffed.
“What’s the problem, Mr. Sanders?” Force asked.
“The podium must be moved,” Sanders said. “I specifically requested that it be placed in front of the first set of bleachers.”
Force looked around. The podium had been placed on a stage exactly the height, width and depth that Sanders had requested. The Presidential Seal had been placed on the front of the podium with Sanders supervising.
The television networks had placed their microphones on the podium and wired them to their cameras and other equipment. Since they couldn’t bring their usual satellite trucks to a place without roads, they had been allowed to tie into the tower’s satellite dishes. This had given Mercury Man a migraine as he complained bitterly about the possible hacking of all the tower’s systems.
“We don’t have much time before the ceremony, Mr. Sanders. Why didn’t you notice this before?”
Sanders tried to make himself taller than he was. “It is not my job to notice when my instructions are not followed,” he said. “This ceremony will not take place until the podium is correctly placed.”
Force couldn’t figure out why Sanders was being even more annoying than usual. She looked at the bleachers behind the podium. The congress members and other suit-and-tied crowd had mostly taken up the seats in that set of bleachers. The colorfully clad heroes were filling up the other set. What did it matter where the podium was?
Force’s communicator beeped. She put a hand to her ear and waved at Sanders to wait. “Yes?”
It was Graviton. “Condor has spotted the president’s helicopter.”
“Ok.” Force then told Sanders, “Your boss is almost here. We don’t have time to move the podium.”
“YOU HAVE TO!” Sanders screamed. “I am in charge here, and I say it has to be moved.!”
“Since when are you in charge?” Graviton asked. He arrived and floated with his feet inches above Sanders’ head. “If I give myself three or four Gs you’ll be in charge of Flatland.”
“Mr. Sanders,” Force said. She took him by the arm and moved him away from under Graviton, giving her husband a disapproving look. Graviton shrugged and settled to the ground. “Why is this so important? Maybe there is some other way to fix the problem.”
“He can be in front of Congress any time,” Sanders said. He gestured at the Washington people in the bleachers. “Today he must be in front of the heroes.”
Force glanced at the bleachers. “Then I have an idea,” she said. She walked to the bleacher section where all the heroes sat.
“Jennifer,” Force said to one of the Academy cadets who was acting as an usher. “We need to make a switch. The heroes need to be in the other bleachers, and the congress members here.”
Jennifer was a blond eighteen year old who could shoot lasers from her eyes. She wore the silver and blue cadet uniform. “You want me to tell the whole congress to move?”
“Pretend they’re the henchmen of Galaxos,” Force said with a smile. “Just don’t singe them too badly.”
Jennifer did an excellent job, along with other cadets. Despite blustering and objections from the Washington big wigs, the two groups switched bleachers. Some of the retired heroes had to be helped. The Amphibian, who was eighty six years old, used a walker, and some others used canes. Even the oldest had come in their costumes, even if they had to have new costumes made for bodies that were more stout and less straight than in their primes.
The gossip rags that had sent reporters would probably make fun of these old heroes, but Force thought they all looked great. She knew their histories and how many times they had each saved the world.
“Is that acceptable, Mr. Sanders?” Force asked when everyone was settled in their new seats.
“It will do,” Sanders said. He still didn’t look happy, but he never did.
Graviton had done an investigation once, to find out what had made Sanders qualified for his job. The only thing he could find that made Sanders the best man to be a liaison to a group of superheroes was that he was the son of one of the President’s classmates at Yale.
“He’s here,” Graviton said over the communicator. Sanders got the same message from the Secret Service. They both turned and saw the Presidential helicopter landing on the roof of the tower.
The ceremony finally got under way about fifteen minutes later. Graviton and Force sat on either side of the podium. Force checked with Charlotte before going to her seat. Blue Bolt’s daughter looked a bit lost among the Washington group. She told Force she would be fine, though it was clear she was trying not to cry. Everyone around her was there just to be seen at an important television event, and didn’t care at all about the man who was being buried.
Charlotte had prepared a speech about her father but when Sanders turned the funeral into a media event, she had decided not to read it. If the press knew who she was, her life would never be normal again.
Just before the President was to be announced, Force’s communicator bleeped and Condor’s voice shouted “Incoming bogey!”
Quickly she formed a force disk and stood on it. Graviton swooped by and picked up the disk, with her on it. They flew, or actually fell, with Graviton’s gravity powers, into the sky.
Every hero that could fly took to the sky. Active Protectors who didn’t fly scrambled for Protectocars. The Secret Service passed the word of the alert to the Blackhawk helicopters hovering in the area. They all turned to face the oncoming, unknown flying object.
It was incredibly fast. It flew over the tower leaving a sonic boom that Force could feel in her bones.
“Wait! Wait!” Mercury Man said over the com. “It has a Protectors ID! In fact, it’s...oh my God.”
“What is it?”
“It’s code number four.”
Force exchanged a look with her husband as they hurtled through the air. “I thought he was dead,” she said. There were six founding members of the team, and with Blue Bolt gone, they should all be dead.
Number four was The Living Jet.
“Do not fire!” Graviton communicated to the team and the helicopters. He signaled to Force that he was taking them down.
The flying figure circled around and throttled down his speed. Force couldn’t believe it. She hadn’t seen The Living Jet for over ten years. It was thought he went down in the battle with Eviltronn. His body hadn’t been recovered, but when Eviltronn kills, there is nothing left but a cloud of atoms.
All the heroes were landing, and crowding around the Jet, who had come to Earth next to the podium. Force leapt off her disk and made it vanish, then ran to him.
She got into the center of the circle and he was there. He looked exactly the same. He was the image of the iconic superhero, with the chin and the rugged good looks and the muscles. His dark blue and grey costume clung to him as tightly as ever. He still had dark, slightly curly hair. He was, in fact, the hottest man Force had ever known. She had a crush on him long before she had married Graviton.
“Jet!” she shouted, and he swept her up in a huge hug.
“What is the meaning of this?” Greyson Sanders said, struggling to get through the crowding heroes.
“This is the Living Jet,” Force said. “One of the founding members.”
“Does he have clearance?” Sanders asked. “He will have to leave unless he has been cleared by the Secret Service.”
“He’s had clearance since 1956,” Graviton said as he arrived. He put out a hand. “I can’t believe this,” he said.
The Jet shook Graviton’s hand firmly. “I leave for a few years and they put a snot-nosed kid in charge.”
“Mr. Jet,” Sanders said. “This is highly irregular. You should have arrived for security clearance two hours before the ceremony.”
The Living Jet turned his blue eyes on the DHS liaison. Then without a word he walked past Sanders towards the bleachers.
“I don’t know,” The Living Jet said when a Jennifer asked why he looked exactly the same as he had fifty years before. “I can’t tell you,” he said when asked where he had been for over ten years. Then he looked at Graviton and said, “Later, you and I have some things to discuss.”
Graviton sipped his whiskey and nodded. He was among the core membership of the Protectors, past and present. Jennifer and a couple of the other top cadets had been allowed to join them.
This was the real memorial ceremony for Blue Bolt. Deep in a sub basement of the tower, in a room that was secure from electronic bugging and strengthened to withstand almost any kind of attack. A room with a well stocked bar.
The Amphibian drank beer but most of the others had something harder. Graviton thought about the above-ground ceremony. About half way through he had realized why Sanders was so intent on placing the President in front of the heroes. It was the President’s silver and blue tie. Those were the Protector colors. The man was trying to look like a superhero himself. He did the same thing with the military, trying to make himself a hero just by being seen with real ones on TV.
They didn’t talk about Blue Bolt at first. The Jet started telling stories of the old days. Some of the other old timers chimed in with details.
“That little cemetery out back, where we put Bolt today,” the Jet said, “was necessary back then. We took secret identities seriously. If we lost a member we often didn’t know who he was. We announced his death in the papers, and if no one claimed him in a few days, we put him out there.”
“Are you coming back?” Crimson Cowl asked.
The Jet shook his head. “I have learned a lot in the last few years,” he said. “I will tell Bill what I know in private, and he can decide whether to pass it to the rest of you. I have learned that good and evil are not as clear cut as I used to think. The worst villains wear suits and ties, not skin tight costumes.”
That gave Graviton a start. He had been thinking along the same lines recently. In his darkest moments, he wondered if The Protectors were fighting the right people. Though he and Force never talked about it, he knew that they both had questions about a bright, beautiful Tuesday morning in 2001 when they had been ordered to take Protectocars to northern Alaska to look for a possible new hideout of Galaxos. They had lost communication with the tower and by the time they returned, the events in New York and Washington D.C. were over.
The Protectors looked somber and the cadets looked uncertain. No one replied to what the Jet said. They sipped their drinks.
The door opened and light spilled in from the hallway. Force entered. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” she said, “I know this is unusual, but I would like to bring someone in who was very close to Blue Bolt. This is Charlotte Green, Horace’s daughter.”
Charlotte entered, looking unsure of herself. The gathered heroes didn’t know how to react. Civilians were never allowed in this sanctum of sanctums.
The Living Jet sprang to his feet. He went to Charlotte’s side. “I held you when you were a tiny baby,” he said.
“I don’t remember that,” Charlotte said.
“Of course not,” The Jet said. “Horace decided to remove you and your mother from our world to protect you. I last saw you before you could walk.”
“I used to see you on TV,” Charlotte said. “I read some of the superhero comics too, though I liked romance comics more.”
Force said, “I talked Charlotte into coming down here. She has something to read.”
“I don’t really think I should bother these important people...” Charlotte said.
“There is no one more important than Blue Bolt’s daughter at his funeral,” the Jet said. “Everyone listen.” He sat down again.
Charlotte opened her hand and unfolded a piece of paper. It had been folded and re-folded many times.
“I have learned a lot about Blue Bolt since coming to Protectors Tower a month ago,” Charlotte said. She glanced at the paper but clearly knew what it said by heart. “I was told of the time he dug a well in an African village with one energy bolt.”
“I saw that,” Crimson Cowl said.
“I heard about the time that the villain The Trapper had all of the Protectors in devices that canceled their powers. Blue Bolt talked his way out the trap and rescued all the others.”
“That was bolt,” The Amphibian said. “Smart as a whip.”
“Maybe I can tell you a few things about my father, Horace Green,” Charlotte said. He could be very severe and unyielding. However he was very generous at Christmas and on my birthdays. He usually wasn’t there, but he always gave me wonderful gifts.”
“Christmas 1968,” The Living Jet said. “We were in the lost land of Ir. Horace was very upset that he couldn’t get back.”
“Thank you,” Charlotte said. “That helps. I think the greatest gift he gave me was a love of reading, and of learning. Our house was full of books. I learned a lot more reading at home that I ever did in school.”
“He would take books on missions,” The Amphibian said. “I never understood it, but hey, I live under water, books don’t last long down there.”
“So thank you all,” Charlotte said, tears starting to roll down her cheeks. “I’m glad he had such good friends.”
“To Blue Bolt!” The Living Jet said, raising his glass.
The heroes all raised their glasses and said, “To Blue...”
Graviton stood up. “To Horace Green!” he shouted over everyone.
There was a moment of silence. Then a thunderous chorus came from the assembled Protectors, former Protectors, and cadets.