Chapter 1: Ashes and Rebirth
The Emerald Assassin and his horde of Jade Warriors fought the Midland chapter of the Guardians to a standstill in the streets of Kansas City for two solid hours before they were defeated by a final desperate sacrifice by the Sprite. Her blast overwhelmed the Assassin's kinetic barrier and destroyed almost half of his gemstone-powered artificial forces. The effort almost cost the Sprite her life that day, and she was never able to return to her crime fighter's role again.
A lot of people in Kansas City almost died that day, caught in the spillover from her final, brilliant attack.
I was one of them.
I was Ceferino Escobar. My friends called me 'Spider'. Then the blast hit and a wall of stone and steel fell on me, and for a long time, I wasn't anybody, just a body with nobody in particular at home anymore. When my body was ready for me to come back again, I did, and I was Ceferino again, but I wasn't Spider, and I wasn't the same.
My friends still came, and they still joked and told stories, and we laughed together, and it was good, but it wasn't the same. The called me 'Ceffy', or 'Cef', or even Ceferino, all breathless and humbled before me. Nobody called me Spider, and as I worked to be whole again, fewer and fewer of them came.
Even Bethania came less and less often and her visits grew shorter and shorter, until the day she came to say she was moving to San Antonio, and had met someone, and they were getting married. I wished her luck and happiness, and cried as I thanked her for sticking it out so long with the cripple.
After the first couple of years I was left with no one but the therapists and the nurses. Even the nurses stopped coming eventually. Not because they stopped caring, but because I no longer needed their care. I was self-sufficient for the most part, me and my wheel chair.
The physical therapists were good. They cared, and they found little bits of progress to remark over every visit, and true enough, there were small signs of recovery. I had regained all feeling in my legs, I could even move them, a little. What I couldn't do was stand or walk or run, or any of the tiny little things that had made me Spider Escobar.
After three years of physical therapy, including two surgeries and countless examinations by specialists, physical and mental, it was decided I was as well as I was going to get. The special fund provided by the Guardians of Man stopped paying for the therapy. I still had a modest 'pension' from them that let me rent a small apartment, buy groceries and listen to the radio. I could even go to the corner bar now and then and have a beer, or a glass of wine, if I was of a mind to, and every once in a while I did, but all it did was remind me that people saw me differently now than they had before. They saw only Ceferino, where there had been so much before.
I found a job, working for the Kansas City Star, working in the newspaper's circulation department. I spent my days either on the phone asking people to subscribe to the Star, or asking why they had dropped their subscription. A good day was one where all I had to do was work on our mailing list to make sure it was up to date.
I hated it, but it was a decent job, and I could do it as well as any of the ambulatory bastards in the cubicals around me.
That's not fair, actually. For the most part, they were good people, and they watched out for each other, me included. Once they'd gotten over the surprise that this Escobar could speak perfectly unaccented English, they let me do my job and made sure I didn't go stir crazy.
It drove me crazy anyway. Potlucks and office parties, nights out and trips to the ball park. Socializing with the whole people drove me insane, and it could take an entire weekend alone to recuperate from a particularly insipid episode.
Alone at home on the weekend, I indulged myself in the one thing I could still feel good about. Electronics. I built radios, alarm systems, anything I could find plans for, and a few things that I just cooked up myself. Most of it was pretty trivial, and pretty useless, but there were some people out on the west coast doing some stuff with silicon semiconductors that were very interesting, and I followed their work like an eager acolyte at Sunday Mass. I had a feeling this kind of research was going to produce marvels a few years down the road. It probably already had for some super-thinking heroes or villains. Still, my Friday evening anticipation of the weekend was ruined by a visitor I should have anticipated, but didn't.
The Guardians were represented by the law offices of Deloit, Burke and Blevins. They were the ones responsible for checking up on the various pensioners within the Guardian's compensation system, and I had received an annual visit from one of their representatives each year at the beginning of December. I didn't hate them, it was just that the nameless efficiency left a bad taste in my mouth. I always disappointed them, not having acquired a wife and family, showing no signs of moving beyond the job at the Star and the small life I had found.
This year was different though. Oh, the visit was the same, a lawyer looking to check some boxes off on the forms he carried, make sure I was 'happy' and not planning any legal action against the Guardians. Ask the same questions, get the same answers, hand me a small Christmas bonus check and wish me a happy holidays and be on his way.
Yes, that part of it was just like always. It was what came after that was different. As I returned from the door where I had seen this one off, a Mr. Simmons, I almost fell over in my wheelchair when I realized there was a woman standing in my kitchen, by the refrigerator. A tall, statuesque woman. Very statuesque. Maybe my Friday wasn't ruined after all.
When it finally registered that this very gifted woman was wearing a somewhat familiar outfit, with a mask and gloves, I took a second look at the overall picture, and I realized that I recognized her. I had seen pictures in the paper now and then. The pistols at her hips and the swords over her shoulders helped.
"Midnight?" I asked. I know, stupid, right? A world famous super heroine, one who should be doing pinup shots for the magazines, and I have to ask if its her, like I don't know.
"Sorry for dropping in like this. Have you had dinner?"
"Dinner?" I know, again, stupid, right? Got a gorgeous, live super woman in my kitchen and I get monosyllabic. I may be a cripple, but I'm erudite, dammit! I did a slow burn at my stupidity, and it finally burned through the binders on my brain and tongue. "Midnight, I'm sorry, you've got me feeling a bit stupid at the moment. What are you doing here?"
"That's okay, you have reason to be confused. I should have no business being here. I'm not one of the Guardians, I'm not here for anything to do with them, so why am I here? There can be no reason, right?"
"Well, that would have been my current thinking," I agreed. "In the old days I would have assumed, falsely, that you had been captivated by my suave manner and drawn by my masculine magnetism."
"That is not the reason I am here, not that you aren't a handsome man, and I'm sure if I were younger and more prone to swooning, I would have already been overcome by your presence."
The light-hearted manner in which she returned my playful posturing was nice. I hadn't been able to play those kind of games with a woman in a long time. The pity factor always came up too quickly.
"No, I expected not. So, since it is not the Guardians, and it is not my manhood, what is it that brings you to my apartment?"
"You still haven't answered my question," She said, playing with the basket of rolls on my kitchen table. I hope she didn't try to take a bite, they were probably hard as rocks. I had to replay the last few minutes back in my head to remember the question.
""Dinner? No, I haven't had dinner. I was going to make something, but the lawyer interrupted me before I'd even begun..."
"Then dinner, my treat?"
"Okay," I answered. You taking me out to some place fancy, or you wining and dining me here?"
A raised hand later, there was a glowing ball of blackness on the kitchen table, and when it receded, the table had two places set with fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and gravy.
"And you can cook!" I joked. It was the right thing to say, because she laughed out loud and shook her head before answering.
"I can cook, actually, but my abilities at ordering take-out meals are like no one else you know. Shall we?"
The fried chicken tasted like it had just come out of the cooker, and everything else was perfect as well. That was a hell of a skill to have for someone who was single.
"Obviously, with my arrival following the Guardian's lawyers, I know your story. I'm not here to make any sort of charitable donation, or sympathy-based offer," She waited for my eye contact on that before she continued. "I'm looking for someone who has what it takes to finish something that I was once a part of. Something that never got its chance."
"And you think I am the guy to do this?" I snorted. "This doesn't make me feel confident, to think that you have scraped the bottom of the barrel, coming to me."
"You are far from the bottom of the barrel, Ceferino," She told me, again with those eyes locked on mine. "You are not even close to the bottom of the barrel. What I will ask you to do will take brains, heart, strength of will and a hero's soul."
I wondered what a super hero would ask of me. What someone who could do the kinds of things that Midnight could do, would expect of someone like me. "I'm willing to listen, of course." I bluffed.
"You think you are fooling me, when you say that, don't you?" She interrupted. "But I know better. You are willing to listen, and you are willing to believe in something outside of yourself."
It gave me the creeps, a bit, the way she seemed to be peering straight into my soul when she said that. If she knew better, then she knew me better than I knew myself. But I couldn't say she was wrong. I decided that greed was the better part of valor, and tried to turn the conversation.
"What do I get in return, if I do as you ask?" The question meant nothing. I would do what she asked and only hoped it would leave me someplace besides the place I was now. If it didn't? If I was back to being Ceferino Escobar, boy circulation clerk, then that was okay too.
"I promise you nothing," she said, exactly as I expected, "But that does not mean that nothing is what you will get. The future is unwritten, and we are going there."
"Perhaps we will walk the same path for a while," I offered, quoting something my father used to say. "That might not be so bad, eh?"
"Perhaps," she said, and I saw the glowing blackness surround us, and when it receded again, a moment later, we were not where we had been.
We were in the mouth of a huge cavern. This mouth was on the face of a high cliff, and I could see more cliffs and mountains beyond. The cavern was not natural, I could tell that immediately, and the smooth floor looked to be poured concrete.
"What is this place?"
"We never got a chance to name it, beyond calling it the Fortress. This is what we called the Flight Level." Midnight said as she guided me across the huge open floor to a normal looking elevator door set into the far wall.
"You keep saying we. Who else are we talking about?"
"When I say we, I'm talking about Trey Young. Once, he was a super-villain called Lord Steel. Later, he was a super hero, or he would have been, but he never got to appear publicly under his new identity, not even once. I'm not even sure if He'd settled on his new name. There were several suggested."
The elevator doors opened and we were in a new area, a confusing tangle of open beams, steel shelving and workbenches. If there was any doubt what this room was for, it was washed away when the suit, bathed in light, came into view.
Fifteen feet tall and made of steel. Articulated, banded steel that had the feel of a coiled spring just sitting there. When I turned to express my awe to Midnight, she was at the other end of the room, staring at something else, also sitting under its own light. I wheeled myself over and looked past her at what drew her attention. It was a statue of a man, on his knees leaning back, as if resting. It was the look on the man's face that told the story.
"This was Trey Young?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered, turning away again.
I think I understand love. I've been in love before. What was in this man's carved face, and what I saw in Midnight's eyes as she turned away? That was love, I'm sure.
"So do I understand you correctly then?" I began once I'd caught up with her again. "You wish me to don the suit, and become the super hero that Trey Young didn't get the chance to be?"
"It won't matter that I'm a cripple?"
"Well, about that. I've called in a specialist, if you don't mind."
"What's one more specialist? I've been poked and prodded by the best. I'm used to it."
"All right, lets get moving then."
We got back in the elevator, and we went back up, and past where we'd started. The door opened to a very nice looking area, like a huge loft apartment. I could see a very nicely appointed kitchen, a comfortable looking living room with a big fireplace and what looked like huge floor to ceiling windows which I didn't think could be real. If they were televisions, they were like nothing I knew existed on Terana.
"Nice view, don't you think?" I turned and the woman in front of me was almost unrecognizable, beyond a certain spectacular architecture. The mid-length blond hair was gone, and in its place was long, black hair that went to her back. Her face was paler, with milkier skin than the tanned Midnight had.
"Wow, that's quite a change," I said, captivated.
"This is my normal appearance. My name is Serenity McKesson. I wanted to be looking normal for our visiting medical expert."
When she said this, the woman I now knew as Serenity McKesson held out a hand, as if to make an introduction, and as she did, another woman appeared out of nowhere.
Serenity McKesson is a lovely woman, and one with a lot to be admired in the 'assets' department. The woman who appeared beside her was beautiful. The Helen-of-Troy kind of beauty.
"Wow." I said, without realizing it until it had been said.
"Ceferino Esobar, I'd like to introduce you to Dr. Ginny McKesson."
"A pleasure indeed," I said in a foolishly overwhelmed tone of voice. The last name finally clicked. "You are related then?"
"Serenity is my daughter," the woman said in a clear voice. "A pleasure to meet you as well, Mr. Escobar."
"Call me Spider," I said.
"You are a doctor?"
"Yes, I am, and one with some advantages the doctors you are used to don't have. I am going to ask you to trust me for a moment, but I do not need to put you on an exam table, or any of that normal stuff. Just sit for a few moments, okay?"
"Okay," I said, relaxing into my chair. I watched the doctor, and she simply stood there, eyes closed and a slight smile on her lips for a long moment. The smile slowly moved towards a frown, and I could almost feel her gathering some sort of energy around her and then her brow furrowed slightly before smoothing out again. We remained that way for quite a while.
"Spider, there is damage in a couple places, very small and hard to see, that affect your motor control and ability to balance. This is a kind of nerve damage, and would be impossible to treat by normal methods. Fortunately for you, not all of my methods are normal."
I felt something wash through me then, a wave of energy that felt amazingly good.
"Wow!" I said out loud.
"Wow, indeed," the doctor said. "Serenity, would you come stand beside Spider while we see if he can stand up?"
Stand up? Crap, I was feeling like I could charge through a crowd of elephants right now! The good feelings, the energy, the rush had me wired, but I was wired with fear too. This was an awful big bait to dangle. I wanted it to be real, but the fear was there that it would be another bad dream.
'If this is a dream, then let me keep on dreaming a little while longer, ' I muttered silently to myself. I pushed up and out from my chair and lifted myself up onto my feet, and stood.
I kept waiting for the wobblies to set in, as they always did; for my legs to buckle or waver, but nothing happened. I simply stood, like I had done most of my life. I decided to go for it, and took a step forward. So far, so good! Another step, and I was feeling woozy and suddenly sweating bullets.
"Here, you'd better sit down," Midnight ... no, Serenity said.
"You are going to have to build those muscles up again, Spider. Your legs aren't used to the work, and the rest of you will have trouble for a while remembering how to work together, but with plenty of exercise and daily walks, you should be back to normal pretty quickly."
"Thank you doctor McKesson," I said, grinning. I turned to Serenity and asked a heartfelt question. "Who did you say I had to kill for this?"