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Acknowledgements 

Amazing to think how in just a few short months, what started as a quick one-off amusing idea
turned into a full-blown novel. But this certainly would never have happened without the
following people, so time to give credit where credit is due:

™ First and foremost, Matt “Positron” Miller, for creating what has become one of my three
favorite NPCs in the CITY OF HEROES universe, the inimitable Dr. Raymond Keyes,
a.k.a. Positron.
™ Sean “Manticore” Dornan-Fish, for creating one of my other favorite NPCs in the CITY
OF HEROES universe, the hyperactive Steven Berry, a.k.a. Synapse.
™ Joe “Hero 1” Morrissey, for generously badgering Matt when I needed background
information on his character, or world information about the CITY OF HEROES
universe.
™ Troy Hickman, whose interpretations of Positron and Synapse in his comic book story arc
“Smoke and Mirrors” helped shape my own presentation of them.
™ Robert Silverberg and Robin D. Laws, whose novels Web of Arachnos and The Freedom
Phalanx, respectively, provided significant backgrounds for the world of CITY OF
HEROES.
™ RC and DeAnna Craigo, for founding the Justice server-based SuperGroup known as the
Star Patrol, whose adventures were the inspiration for the creation of Sorina Tavarisch
and Andrea Blake, and for being vastly supportive friends during this story’s creation.
™ The Star Patrol members who so generously gave me permission to feature their
characters in my story, and for providing insight into their characters.
™ @TalynDerre, for a fateful in-game invite from Leading Lady to Sorina Tavarisch to beat
up on Anti-Matter, which led to the joke that started this whole thing in the first place.
™ Curt “Uziel21” Allen, of Hero Portrait Studios, for a knockout rendition of Sorina
Tavarisch and Raymond Keyes, as seen on the cover.
™ The countless readers of the Roleplaying section on the CITY OF HEROES forums, for
providing endless support, proofreading, feedback, enthusiasm, humour, well-wishes, and
general clamouring for MOAR NERD FLIRTING NAO!
™ Last but not least, my husband John, for founding the Star Patrol’s nemesis, the Justice
server-based VillainGroup known as the Nova Dominion, creating its lead villain
(Banestar), providing story ideas and suggestions, and generally putting up with me while
I wrote this book.
Contents 
Chapter One ................................................................................................................................ 4 
Chapter Two................................................................................................................................ 7 
Chapter Three............................................................................................................................ 11 
Chapter Four ............................................................................................................................. 14 
Chapter Five .............................................................................................................................. 17 
Chapter Six................................................................................................................................ 20 
Chapter Seven ........................................................................................................................... 23 
Chapter Eight ............................................................................................................................ 26 
Chapter Nine ............................................................................................................................. 30 
Chapter Ten............................................................................................................................... 35 
Chapter Eleven .......................................................................................................................... 39 
Chapter Twelve ......................................................................................................................... 42 
Chapter Thirteen ....................................................................................................................... 45 
Chapter Fourteen....................................................................................................................... 49 
Chapter Fifteen.......................................................................................................................... 53 
Chapter Sixteen ......................................................................................................................... 57 
Chapter Seventeen .................................................................................................................... 61 
Chapter Eighteen....................................................................................................................... 65 
Chapter Nineteen ...................................................................................................................... 70 
Chapter Twenty......................................................................................................................... 75 
Chapter Twenty-One................................................................................................................. 80 
Chapter Twenty-Two ................................................................................................................ 84 
Chapter Twenty-Three .............................................................................................................. 88 
Chapter Twenty-Four ................................................................................................................ 93 
Chapter Twenty-Five ................................................................................................................ 97 
Chapter Twenty-Six ................................................................................................................ 103 
Chapter Twenty-Seven............................................................................................................ 108 
Chapter Twenty-Eight............................................................................................................. 112 
Chapter Twenty-Nine.............................................................................................................. 118 
Chapter Thirty ......................................................................................................................... 123 
Chapter Thirty-One ................................................................................................................. 128 
Chapter Thirty-Two ................................................................................................................ 132 
Chapter Thirty-Three .............................................................................................................. 136 
Chapter Thirty-Four ................................................................................................................ 141 
Chapter Thirty-Five ................................................................................................................ 146 
Chapter Thirty-Six .................................................................................................................. 152 
Chapter Thirty-Seven .............................................................................................................. 157 
Chapter Thirty-Eight ............................................................................................................... 162 
Chapter Thirty-Nine ................................................................................................................ 167 
Chapter Forty .......................................................................................................................... 172 
Chapter Forty-One .................................................................................................................. 176 
Chapter Forty-Two.................................................................................................................. 181 
Chapter Forty-Three................................................................................................................ 186 
Chapter Forty-Four ................................................................................................................. 192 
THE COURSE OF SUPERHERO ROMANCE… 
A Positron Story by Michelle “Samuraiko/Dark_Respite” Travis 

Chapter One 
POSITRON’S PLANS
“So, any other business before we adjourn?”
Statesman glanced at each member of the Freedom Phalanx in turn, waiting to see if any of them
would speak, but most seemed inclined to remain silent. Not surprising, considering it had been
another long day for them, what with dealing with back-to-back-to-back fires in Steel Canyon,
rescuing a few less experienced heroes after getting in over their heads during a battle with the
Kraken in Perez, and then the impromptu Tsoo-Freakshow gang war that had erupted in Talos.
“No? Then I declare this meeting adjourned.”
To Statesman’s surprise, as well as the other members of the Phalanx, Positron was for once the
first one out of his seat.
“Whoa, what’s the rush? You pretending to be Synapse?” Manticore asked, eyebrows raised, and
Positron looked away in embarrassment. He hadn’t meant to get up that fast and draw attention
to himself.
“I’m, um… I’ve got plans.”
“Oh, really?” In a red and blue blur, Synapse zoomed around the large table to drape one arm
across Positron’s shoulders in an exaggeratedly casual gesture. “And would these plans happen
to include a certain dark-haired researcher turned superhero?” Positron barely managed to stifle a
groan, and Synapse laughed aloud. “Oh, yeah, the uber-geek finally scores!”
“WHAT’S this?” Manticore’s mouth fell slightly open, and Numina gave a slight chuckle as she
leaned back in her chair.
“I was wondering what had you so distracted during this meeting, Positron…”
Sister Psyche also grinned. “‘Distracted’ is not quite the word I’d have chosen.”
Positron did NOT want to know what word the psychic would have chosen instead.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, time out. Are you saying that HE-” Manticore pointed at Positron “-has a
DATE?”
Positron was now looking like he was wishing the floor would open up underneath him. “It’s…
not really a date…”
“Riiiiiiiight,” Synapse teased. “And I’ll bet you’re gonna fly right home and get all spiffed out
over this not-a-date. Hey, you might even take off your armor!”
Manticore smirked. “Doesn’t that sort of thing usually happen at the end of the night?”
“It’s not like that!” Positron protested in frustration, trying to ignore the grins that now nearly
every member of the Phalanx was wearing.
“That’s enough, you two,” Statesman warned. “What Positron chooses to do with his own time is
none of our business.”
Positron nodded slightly to Statesman in thanks, but Synapse wasn’t quite ready to let the matter
drop.
“I was wondering when you were going to work up the guts to ask her out, Oppenheimer. You’d
think that for someone willing to go toe-to-toe with the city’s biggest villains, asking a woman
out would be a cakewalk.”
“Actually, she asked me out,” Positron blurted out before he could stop himself, then he
reddened.
“Who is ‘she’, anyway?” Citadel asked in his slightly rumbling voice.
Positron mentally gave up his vain hope that he’d be able to just leave and escape the barrage of
questions. “Her name’s Sorina Tavarisch.”
That got even Statesman’s attention, and he turned to the armored superhero in surprise. “Dr.
Tavarisch? The Vanguard scientist?”
“Yes. And guys, I really do need to go.” And with as much dignity and haste as he could
manage, he quickly left before the questions could resume.
*****
The whole way home, Raymond was kicking himself for not having managed to keep it a secret
from the rest of the Phalanx. If he’d only managed to play it cool for five minutes longer, they
wouldn’t have found out about it, and now to make matters worse, not only did they all know,
but he was running late. With a scowl, he kicked in some additional power, accelerating past the
skyscrapers of Steel Canyon.
As it was, he was still nearly ten minutes late getting home, only to find that Steve was already
there, sprawled on the couch with a beer and obviously waiting for him to arrive.
Raymond only grunted and ignored him as he headed to change clothes.
“Ahhhhh, now I KNOW this is serious,” he heard Steve laugh. “You’re leaving the armor at
home… well, she certainly is hot, so I can’t say I blame you.”
“Steve, to you, EVERY woman is hot,” he grumbled, almost reluctantly starting to set aside his
armor. Since his death and resurrection, his powers were once more fully under his control, but a
trace of fear still lingered, the gut-wrenching sense of helplessness of feeling his powers surge
free of his control…
“Not my fault the ladies love me. So where are you taking her?”
The question jolted him out of his darkening thoughts. “What? Oh… small place in Steel near
the University. She recommended it. And I’m already late, so save the questions, will you?”
Then Raymond became aware of a familiar rushing sound in the living room, which meant that
Steve was doing one of his Flight of the Bumblebee impressions, and he stuck his head out the
door of his room. “What the hell are you doing now?”
The blur of movement abruptly stopped, and he suddenly realized the living room looked
cleaner.
“Just getting the place presentable for later.”
“What ‘later’?” Raymond asked before he caught on, and he gave his roommate a frown.
“Steve…”
“You want me to clean up your room, too? I can have your sheets changed in four seconds.”
“Steve…”
“Or how about running to the drugstore?”
“NO!” Raymond stomped back into his room and slammed the door, grumbling under his breath
while trying to ignore Steve’s laughter.
Chapter Two 
THE DATE, TAKE 1
After making sure his armor was carefully stashed away, Raymond stalked into the bathroom
and turned the shower water to just shy of ‘scalding’. Standing there under the water, scrubbing
himself clean of his earlier heroic exertions, he tried to tell himself that he wasn’t nervous about
the upcoming evening. He could keep this professional - he knew he could. They were both
scientists, after all. And both of them had been around the block a few times. He frowned to
himself as he washed away the soap. How old was she? Thirty-five? Only a bit younger than
himself, that was for certain.
Damn Steve for making him think there was another way this evening might end. There would
be no adolescent pawings this evening… although as he turned off the water and stared down at
the tile, he couldn’t tell if he was more relieved or saddened by the idea.
It also didn’t help that while he’d been showering, Steve had apparently decided to continue his
silent ragging and had cleaned up Raymond’s bedroom and changed his sheets. Unfortunately for
Raymond, though, Steve had wisely left the premises to avoid getting yelled at.
Twenty-five minutes later, feeling extremely uncomfortable in a suit and tie, Raymond arrived
almost breathlessly at the small restaurant, then he ran his hand over his scalp, squared his
shoulders and entered. Once his eyes adjusted to the muted lighting, he made his way over to the
host’s station.
“Um, I’m supposed to be meeting Sorina Tavarisch here, but…”
The maître’d glanced up and gave a slight bow. “Ah, you must be Dr. Keyes. Welcome. Dr.
Tavarisch is already here. If you’ll follow me, I’ll escort you to her table.”
Raymond mentally grimaced and followed the maître’d through the restaurant - not the most
auspicious beginning for him to show up fifteen minutes late.
However, when he saw the look of genuine pleasure - and relief - on her face as she glanced up
and saw him, he wondered if things might still go well. Had she honestly thought he was going
to stand her up?
“Raymond! Dobriy vyecher! I was starting to wonder if you’d changed your mind.” She rose
from her chair and held out one hand to shake his.
Apparently, she had, and Raymond shook his head, momentarily distracted by the slight Russian
lilt to her voice. “No, just swamped with Phalanx business. It’s been a hectic day.”
“For you, too, hmm?” she commiserated. Quickly he moved to hold her chair for her as she sat
back down, and she thanked him with a smile. Raymond was hard-pressed not to stare at her - he
was accustomed to seeing her in either a lab coat or field officer camo gear. To see her in a
cocktail dress with her long black hair twisted up like that… Resolutely he dragged his mind
back under control, and looked around with interest. “I’ve never eaten here - what would you
recommend?”
“Everything I’ve had here is good. It just depends on how adventurous you feel like being.”
He tried not to think about the different ways that statement could be taken, and turned his
attention to the menu. “Do you eat here often?”
Sorina shrugged elegantly. “What’s life if you can’t indulge yourself? I enjoy it here, and I can
certainly afford it.”
It was true, he knew - like himself, Dr. Tavarisch earned royalties on several lucrative patents,
allowing her to continue her research while avoiding the need for government subsidy or private
fundraising. Raymond briefly wondered if the gossip were true that the scientist was on Crey’s
aggravation list because of her refusal to sell her patents to them, but he decided now was not the
time to ask.
After they’d ordered their drinks and appetizers, she rested her elbows on the table, steepled her
fingers, and studied him, her dark eyes half-hidden behind her spectacles. “So, tell me about
yourself - what do you do when you’re not saving the world with the rest of the Phalanx?”
Raymond stared down into his water glass, twirling it idly between his fingers. “Not much,
actually. I tend to keep rather busy with my research.”
“That’s it?”
“I’m… not exactly what you’d call social.” The admission surprised him.
Sorina blinked in confusion. “Whyever not?”
He shrugged uncomfortably at the question. It was something of a sore spot between himself and
Steve, who was always teasing him about living the life of a monk. Time and again, Steve would
try to hook him up with some woman or another, and time and again, the evenings would end
somewhere between ‘nice’ and ‘disastrous.’
Slowly she nodded, seeing the look on his face. “Ne obrashhajte vnimanija. I withdraw the
question, then. So what are you researching at the moment?”
At first, he was ready to launch into a discussion of the schematics of his armor, but then he
closed his mouth again. “I’d hate to bore you.”
She laughed and gave him a long look over the rim of her own water glass. “Bore me? I’m a
scientist, Dr. Keyes. I can take it when a man talks techie to me.”
He grinned before he could stop himself. “All right, you win. I’m currently working on
improving the circuitry of my armor to see if there’s a more efficient way to handle the flow of
anti-matter.”
She looked intrigued. “What metals are you using as conduits in your circuitry?”
While waiting for their drinks, Raymond was surprised to find himself opening up to Sorina and
her questions. It quickly became clear that she was well-versed in the latest scientific research,
and was involved in quite a bit of it herself. Her questions about his work were insightful, and he
soon began taking notes as their conversation sparked ideas for his research.
“You’re amazing,” he told her as their drinks arrived, and he lifted his glass to her in a toast.
“How long have you been studying electrical engineering?”
“Double doctorate, along with theoretical physics,” she replied, looking slightly smug. “But my
talents lie in adapting existing technology, not developing original technology.”
“And you used to be with Vanguard, doing research for them.”
“Yes,” she said slowly, looking down at her wine glass. “I started out as a civilian consultant to
them during the Rikti War… they needed all the help they could get. I later formally joined
them, served with them for five years.” She shrugged again, her eyes somber behind her glasses.
“And not just research - I served on the front lines as well.”
“You’re serious…”
“Da. When they found out I could field-adapt Rikti technology, I would accompany teams on
almost every raid they managed. Weapons dumps, assault strikes, raids on the pylons…” Sorina
gave a faint smile.
“So why’d you leave?” he asked in curiosity, and was surprised to see her eyes turn sad.
“I… had my reasons.” He thought she seemed to almost force herself to cheer up. “But enough
about that. Shall we order dinner?”
Before he could respond, however, an almost deafening ZISH sound had them clapping their
hands over their ears and wincing in pain. The windows rattled for a moment and the ground
shook, then things went still. For a split second, their eyes met, identical horrified expressions on
their faces, then they both leapt to their feet and ran toward the door of the restaurant, skidding to
a halt outside.
An almost sickly greenish cast had come over the evening sky, but that wasn’t what held their
attention.
“The War Walls,” Raymond whispered. “Oh, God, the War Walls are down…”
He turned to look at Sorina, and was astounded to see her dashing back into the restaurant,
running for their table. Quickly he pulled the door open and followed her. “What in the world are
you…?”
She reached into her bag, grabbed some money, and tossed it on the table, then raced back
toward the door, one hand to the side of her head. At first, Raymond thought she’d lost her mind,
then he realized that what he had thought was jewelry was actually a communicator in her ear.
“Yes, I saw, Andrea,” she was snapping angrily, brushing past other diners on her way outside.
“Warn the other members of the Patrol that the Rikti are hitting Steel Canyon. I’m on my way to
the base now.” She paused for a second outside, and Raymond nearly cannoned right into her,
then he heard her howl, “Zatknis’, it’s not like I PLANNED this, Sharpe, so stop laughing! Tava
out!”
“Where are you going?” Raymond asked her, and she whirled around, looking at him as though
astounded he even had to ask.
“The Rikti are invading! You think I’m just going to sit and have dinner with that going on?”
With a frustrated growl, she stomped both of her feet like a child. “Dlja ljubvi k Bogu! Couldn’t
they have attacked on ANY OTHER NIGHT?!” She threw her head back and screamed up at the
sky. “I WAS ON A DATE, YOU INVADING IDIOTS!!!”
“But you… you…” He stopped, at something of a loss for words. This wasn’t happening… this
was just not happening. His first date in God-knows-how long, and now this. He blurted out the
first thing that came to mind. “You’re going to fight the Rikti dressed like that?”
Sorina glanced down at the elegant blue and black dress she was wearing, along with her high
heels. “No. My powers are not nearly as strong without my armor. That’s why I’m heading for
the base - my uniform is there. And I can’t even fly like this! Prokljat’e!” she growled. A
moment later, sirens began to wail, and the two of them glanced up to see a line of Rikti assault
dropships began making their way across Steel Canyon in a bombing run. She turned and started
running as fast she could toward Blyde Square, hampered by her heels, and swearing in loud and
vehement Russian the whole way.
Raymond let out a sigh and covered his face with his hands.
“Steve is never going to let me hear the end of this.”
He reached into his pocket and triggered the remote-summon for his armor. In a flash, he felt the
familiar metal begin encasing his body, and sensed the circuitry synching up with his nervous
system. Thirty seconds later, the process was complete. Then he kicked off from the ground,
flew after Sorina, and before she could protest, swept her up into his arms, and accelerated
toward Blyde Square.
“What are you-?!”
“You’ll get to the base portal faster if I fly you there,” he said simply, looking down at her. It just
wasn’t fair, damn it. If he was going to be so lucky as to be able to hold her, it should have been
while they were dancing or something, not while carrying her to her base so she could change
into her uniform to fight off an impending invasion by the Rikti. “It’s too bad, though…”
“About what?”
“Your dress… you looked lovely.”
To his surprise, she blushed and looked away. “Spasibo… and… for what it’s worth…” She
glanced back at him. “It’s too bad you had to get back into your armor. You look good in a suit.”
Now he was glad he was wearing his helmet, because it hid his own blush.
Chapter Three 
PREPARATIONS FOR COMBAT
Moments later, Raymond and Sorina arrived at the shimmering base portal access in Blyde
Square, and he carefully set her down. The second the ground was under her feet, Sorina dove at
the portal, vanishing in a haze of blue, and Raymond knew that the portal’s system had scanned
Sorina’s DNA and hero identification information, then routed her to the correct base.
About two minutes later, she re-appeared, and at first, he almost didn’t recognize her. He had
forgotten that since leaving Vanguard, she had been recruited by one of the specialized branches
of the Freedom Corps. Now she wore a red-and-white uniform and mask, what looked like
shoulder braces, gauntlets, and a belt of a titanium alloy, plus high-tech goggles. A closer look at
her hands and belt revealed the faint glow of microcircuitry engraved in the metal, and as she
turned her head to look at him, he saw a sophisticated tracking laser system attached to the left
side of her goggles.
She looked good in uniform, he thought, before he abruptly figured out he was staring at her.
Even though it covered her almost completely from head to toe, there was no mistaking the
feminine form beneath that skintight outfit… he mentally cursed and glanced away.
Then she tilted her head as though listening to something, and Raymond suddenly realized she
was listening to the radio broadcasts throughout Steel Canyon. Quickly tuning in himself, he
could hear various heroes through the city communicating with one another, calling out locations
of bombs that needed to be neutralized, or escorting civilians to safety. However, he could also
hear several younger and less experienced heroes trying not to panic.
“Damn it, they’re hitting heroes just as they leave the hospital!”
“We got a rallying point yet?”
“Brass Cannon, reporting for duty…”
“Bombs here by the University…”
“What the hell is going on?!”
“We’ve still got Outcasts and Tsoo over in the Copper District, they won’t leave…”
“Auramancer, you in Steel yet?”
“GET BACK, THAT BOMB’S ABOUT TO-”
“Oh, hell, reports are coming in that they’re hitting Talos as well…”
“Latvian Lass, you okay? I saw you get nailed by that dropship…”
Raymond then heard Sorina’s voice come over the channel. “This is Commander Sorina
Tavarisch. Do not panic - heroes in Steel Canyon not currently assisting with UXB removal
should report to Blyde Square. Do not, I repeat, do not attempt to engage a dropship in combat.”
“Tava!” came another voice over the radio. “Hey if you’re looking for help, let me know!”
“Good to know you’re here, Agent Tavarisch… we’re on our way.”
“Greetings, Agent Comrade! Want a hand or three?”
Raymond looked at her in surprise. It seemed that quite a few of the superheroes on the scene
knew who she was, and were interested in joining her efforts to repel the Rikti. She gave him a
faintly sardonic grin. “You up for helping?”
“Try and stop me,” he replied. “You think I’m going to miss the chance to see a Vanguard
operative take on the Rikti?”
A moment later, two other heroes, a man and a woman dressed in uniforms similar to Sorina’s
dropped out of the sky to land beside her, and she glanced over at them in surprise. “That was
fast.”
“We were just over in Brickstown, taking out a few Council soldiers that were getting out of
hand,” the man replied, looking with interest from Sorina to Raymond and back.
“Positron, meet Agent Sharpe and Agent Blake. Ray, Andrea, this is Dr. Keyes.”
“Ohhhhhhh, that’s right. That was tonight! Hell of a way to spend your date, huh, Tava?” Sharpe
teased, and Sorina gave him a look while Raymond again reddened. Remembering his own
teasing at the hands of the Phalanx, he couldn’t help wondering what sort of comments the other
members of Sorina’s group had made when they’d found out.
Blake, on the other hand, gave Raymond a long appraising look, then turned to Sorina.
“So much for getting him out of that armor…” Blake winked at Raymond, a slow smile
appearing on her lips.
“Shut UP, Andrea!” Sorina growled, but Blake just chuckled.
Thankfully, several other heroes then arrived, and Raymond watched as Sorina, Andrea, and Ray
began forming teams, providing support and direction while coordinating their efforts with other
veteran heroes. The warm, open personality he’d seen in Sorina earlier was gone, replaced with
the cold professionalism of a veteran soldier. It was almost as if she’d forgotten he was there, so
busy was she with making sure the heroes were ready to repel the Rikti.
“Sharpe, Blake, I’ll leave you two to each coordinate your own teams.” Sorina glanced around,
nodding to some of the heroes standing around before lifting one of her gauntlets and speaking
into her wrist computer. “Command. Accept Ally Identification Signal: Soviet Garden.” She
briefly winked at the other Russian hero, then went on. “Spasibo, tovarich. Accept Ally
Identification Signal, repeated command: Divine Scourge; Lustrious; Downcast; Hinomizu;
Galebringer; Taek M. Down.” At that last, she paused for a moment, but the hero just grinned at
her.
Raymond saw her look all of them over, then she nodded slowly. “Right - most of you know the
drill. Once they’re done bombing, they’ll start teleporting in. Stay together, it’s the best way to
make sure that the healers can keep you alive. Andrea!” The other petite Star Patrol member
turned around from where she was forming her own team. “Think you can keep an eye on this
group as well?”
“Don’t I always? You just turn stuff into piñatas, and Sharpe’ll blast them into next week.”
Raymond frowned, wondering what that comment was supposed to mean, but an ominous
silence suddenly fell over the square, and the heroes all looked up at the sky.
“Bombing run is just about over,” Sharpe said quietly. “Which means that…”
Sure enough, five seconds later, the sharp tang of ozone filled the air as the first wave of
teleportation portals opened.
“INCOMING!” Blake shouted, lifting one hand and materializing a large patch of dark energy
on the ground under the incoming Rikti troops to slow them down.
At first there were only a handful, but as if realizing that the heroes intended to make a stand,
dozens more opened virtually on top of them. Raymond tensed, and began sending the mental
commands to his armor to start tracking targets as soon as they fully appeared.
For a split second, he was surprised to admit that he was actually glad - because if his date had to
get screwed up, at least now he had something to vent his frustration on.
Chapter Four 
INCOMING!
The chaos of the attack was almost overwhelming - no matter where one turned, Rikti seemed to
be teleporting in. Soon the air was filled with the hums of drones and the cracking sound of Rikti
cannons, but the heroes gave as good as they got, refusing to back down from the incursion.
Their job was made harder, though, when Guardians began appearing and creating forcefields
around their allies, but Raymond was relieved to see there were healers among the gathered
heroes as well, using magic or technology or raw talent to keep their own allies on their feet and
in the fray.
Although riding the familiar adrenaline rush as his armor blasted away at the Rikti, Raymond’s
mind was all too familiar with the concept of multi-tasking, so while laying down some cover
fire, he found himself watching Sorina as she led her own small team against the Rikti.
“Downcast, Galebringer, keep them off their balance, we need every advantage we can get!” She
immediately ducked as a drone targeted her and nearly blasted her off her feet. “Damn it, I…
REALLY… HATE… DRONES!” With a growl, she raised one hand, pointed it at the drone, and
clenched her fingers into a fist. To Raymond’s astonishment, a shimmering energy field seemed
to surround the drone for a split second before it collapsed on itself in a ball of flame.
“Keep them locked down, Tava!” Sharpe yelled over the noise as more Rikti materialized and
immediately began opening fire. He suddenly let out a startled yell of pain as two Rikti infantry
brought their swords down with vicious strength, but Raymond unleashed a series of concussive
anti-matter blasts and hurled the Rikti several feet away, giving the hero some much-needed
breathing room. Sharpe gave him a quick thumbs-up, then mystical energy surrounded his fists
and he started beating on the nearest Rikti.
Sorina, however, was busy directing her own team. “Taek, Scourge, you heard him!” They and
Sorina lifted their hands, and moments later, the Rikti quickly found themselves on the receiving
end of several restraining powers. Buffeted by tightly contained snowstorms, gravity wells, and
energy fields, the Rikti were powerless to move, and several of the more hands-on heroes
quickly waded in to pound on then. Sorina never seemed to stop moving, her hands darting
around her like birds - one moment gesturing toward three Rikti and lifting them off the ground,
the next moment slamming one of the Rikti’s few mentalists facefirst into the pavement.
Suddenly the ground began to shake underneath their feet, and Raymond looked up to see six
enormous energy fields begin to materialize over their heads.
“BOHZE MOI, WE’VE GOT INCOMING HEAVIES!” Raymond heard Sorina yell over the
fracas, and sure enough, six Rikti Heavy Assault Suits appeared above them, their fusion
cannons opening fire on the crowd of heroes below. Several heroes went down from the sheer
ferocity of the Assault Suits’ attacks, screaming in pain and frustration and anger, and a sick
feeling of helplessness twisted in his stomach. But before he could react, he saw Blake nimbly
dodge between several Rikti soldiers to stand in the very middle of the heroes, and raise her
hands as if in offering.
“No sleeping on the job, you guys!” she laughed, and as Raymond watched, darkness seemed to
coalesce around her hands, then flow from her body to a nearby Rikti Communications Officer,
which had been right in the middle of summoning reinforcements. But at the touch of the dark
energy, it stopped and reeled as though struck, and now the darkness was radiating from it
instead toward the fallen heroes.
Who, one by one, were lifted off the ground in a swirl of darkness and light before landing on
their feet, fully healed.
Raymond wasn’t sure what chilled him more - the sight of that Netherworld energy surrounding
Blake like a mist, or her laughter over the sounds of battle.
“Thanks, Andrea,” Sorina called out, her voice filled with relief at seeing that the other heroes
were all right. Blake flashed a quick victory sign before pivoting on her heel and unleashing a
painful psionic scream straight into the minds of a group of Rikti, doubling them over in pain.
Raymond’s attention was yanked back to Sorina, however, when he heard her suddenly scream
in agony, clutching at her head and rocking back and forth.
“SORINA!” he shouted, and whirling around, he saw a Rikti priest pointing at the woman, waves
of psionic energy pouring off it and pulsing around its hand. Sorina was howling in pain from the
priest’s psychic assault, until Raymond snarled, raised his own hands, and blasted the priest into
nothingness. As the mental connection was severed, Sorina staggered briefly, one hand against
her temple, then she lifted her head to dazedly look around her. Noticing him watching her, he
saw her nod and mouth the word “thanks” before focusing her attention on the battle once more.
“Tava, you all right?” Andrea turned back to her comrade, but Sorina waved her off.
“I’m fine… don’t worry about me!”
“We need to take down those Heavies!” another hero shouted, but as if on cue, two more
appeared over them, their lasers sweeping over the crowd and blasting heroes off their feet.
“All right, you Rikti bastards!” he heard Sorina yell. “Dovol’no!”
Sorina raised both hands over her head as if reaching for the Heavy Assault Suits brutally
assaulting the heroes, and the circuitry that ran from her shoulders to her fingertips glowed with
power. Instinctively, Raymond triggered his armor’s scanners to start analyzing what was going
on, and he realized that she was somehow folding space/time in on itself in some sort of
gravitational anomaly. A second later, all eight Heavy Assault Suits were surrounded by reddish-
gold energy, and Sorina closed her fists and yanked downward, and the Assault Suits briefly
flickered out of existence, only to re-appear much closer to the ground, their weapons systems
offline and their forcefield protections down.
“Nice one, Comrade!” Soviet shouted as he and several other heroes began attacking the
vulnerable Assault Suits.
“Thanks!” she called back. “And for my next trick…”
Carefully positioning herself to get a clear line of sight on the nearest Assault Suit, she flung one
hand out at the machine, and for a split second, Raymond’s armor picked up what appeared to be
a stream of energy moving from Sorina’s hand to the Assault Suit. He blinked in surprise as pale
blue energy seemed to suddenly radiate from the Rikti Assault suit, only to be suddenly absorbed
by the heroes battling nearest it.
“Oh, yeah, Tava, thanks for the recharge!” Lustrious and Hinomizu, who only moments ago had
been panting for breath, suddenly seemed reinvigorated, and quickly rejoined the fight.
“It’s not possible…” Raymond whispered to himself. “It’s just not possible…”
But it was - God only knew how she’d done it, but somehow Sorina had figured out a way to
exert a fantastic control over the forces of gravity and kinetic energy. What he’d done with anti-
matter, she’d done with dynamics. He channeled his power through his armor, focusing it and
adapting it through the suit’s circuitry, but he’d had no idea that Sorina’d had a similar power
within her - it was almost too much to take in.
As the battle wore on, Raymond’s mind was divided between taking out the Rikti and the
implications of his discovery. Between blasts, he wondered what exactly Sorina’s true power
was… it wasn’t control over anti-matter, that much was for certain, and his armor’s scanners
confirmed that. No… this was something different. But where did her raw power come from?
And was that why she’d left Vanguard? With effort, he forced his speculations to the back of his
mind and focused his attention on the combat.
“The War Walls are back!” he heard Divine Scourge call out, and glancing to his left, he saw the
familiar bluish-green haze of the War Walls’ forcefields once again stretching up toward the sky.
As if realizing that they’d soon be trapped, the remaining Rikti began teleporting away. The
slower ones, however, were quickly dispatched by the heroes, who chased down any that tried to
run.
A few moments later, it was over.
An hour ago, this all seemed so much simpler, Raymond ruefully thought to himself, watching
Sorina conferring with her friends, issuing orders, and congratulating the other heroes on their
courage in battle. An hour ago, he’d thought he’d known Sorina Tavarisch… just another
researcher, another hero in a city full of heroes… just another woman.
But as she turned and glanced at him over her shoulder, giving him a rueful and chagrined smile
before turning back to the other heroes she’d been teamed up with, he felt a slight shiver run
down his spine. No, he thought, he might not know what she was…
… but he did know that he wanted to find out.
Chapter Five 
THE SILENCE AFTER BATTLE
Now that the battle with the Rikti was over, Raymond found himself facing a bigger problem…
… what to do with the rest of his evening.
On the one hand, he was tempted to see if Sorina might be interested in trying to finish the date
they’d started earlier, before the invasion had completely derailed their plans. She had certainly
seemed to be enjoying herself earlier at the restaurant, and he was looking forward to continuing
their earlier conversation.
On the other hand, though… maybe she’d be too tired, or frustrated, or just not interested in
continuing their earlier plans. It was just so damn hard to tell.
As he watched her talking to her teammate Sharpe, he noticed that Blake had come sidling over
and was standing next to him.
“Yes, you should ask Tava if she still wants to have dinner,” Blake murmured quietly, also
watching Sorina and deliberately not looking at Raymond.
Behind his helmet, Raymond’s eyes went wide. “How’d you…” Oh, hell… he’d forgotten that
during the fight with the Rikti, he’d seen Blake using psionic attacks against her opponents. He
blushed, grateful that she couldn’t see his face.
“Don’t feel embarrassed,” Blake went on, still not looking at him. “I’m just teasing you. And I
know it’s none of my business, but it’s just that Tava hasn’t had a date in ages. I swear, all she
ever does is work.”
He wasn’t sure he knew what to make of that comment - although in a weird way he was glad
that he was the first person that the researcher had actually wanted to go out on a date with.
“I know,” Blake replied to his unspoken comment. “You’d think, as pretty as Tava is, she’d have
guys lined up around the block, but she intimidates a lot of them, what with her being a scientist
and all, plus the whole war hero thing. But I guess you and she have a lot in common, so you
should go enjoy yourselves. God knows both of you deserve it.”
Then Blake turned to look at Raymond, and he almost flinched from the intensity of her eyes.
“Or you could plan to just take off after this and that’ll be the end of it…”
“Would you mind not doing that?” he asked her in a low, almost harsh voice, momentarily hating
her for being able to see into his thoughts like that, especially when he was already frustrated
with himself for being tempted to end the evening early.
“You’re broadcasting,” she said simply, shrugging her shoulders. “It’s hard to ignore. Besides,
considering you hang out with Sister Psyche, you should be used to it by now.” Then suddenly
she smiled, and he was struck by just how young she looked. “Anyway, if you leave now, I’ll
have nothing to rag Tava about. So come on, make sure she has some fun. Please?”
“I get enough of that from Synapse,” he grumbled, looking away. “I’d hate to wish it on Sorina,
too.”
Blake laughed and waved one hand dismissively. “Yeah, whatever. You should have heard the
hard time some of us were giving her earlier, oh, I thought Tava was going to blow her stack
when Jen wouldn’t stop giving her fashion advice. But Tava gives as good as she gets when it
comes to teasing. This one time, Sharpe had been getting on her case about something or
another, and then he made the mistake of falling asleep in the base. Too bad for him when he
woke up and rolled out of bed, he found out the hard way that Tava’d levitated the bed eight feet
off the floor.”
In spite of himself, Raymond grinned, then he was reminded of something Sorina’d said earlier.
“My powers aren’t nearly as strong without my armor…”
Something about that bothered him, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Then he noticed
that Blake was again looking at him, a faint frown on her face.
“What am I broadcasting now?” he said, his voice slightly defensive.
“That… nothing. You’ll figure it out eventually, anyway.” She seemed to deliberately banish her
earlier frown, a sunny smile re-appearing on her face. “Of course, I could really make your lives
difficult and order Tava to go with you.”
“As if,” Raymond scoffed. Judging by her appearance, Blake was barely in her early twenties.
“She’s got, what, ten years on you?”
“Eleven, to be exact, but as far as the Star Patrol is concerned, I outrank her,” Blake said blithely.
“Besides, Synapse might be right and you could get lucky.” Before Raymond could get past the
sudden rush of embarrassed chagrin, she tossed him a quick salute, then turned and headed over
to Sorina and Sharpe. “Yo, Ray, we’ve still got a lead to follow on those Council. You ready to
hit the sky?”
The blue-haired hero turned and nodded. “Yeah, we’re just about done here. Tava, you need
anything else from us?”
“No, I think that’s all. Watch your backs over in Brickstown, you two. With Crey swarming all
over that place, I’d hate to have to scrape the two of you off the sidewalk.”
“We will, comrade, we will,” Blake said, rolling her eyes. “Have fun on your date, Tava! And
that’s an order!”
“ANDREA!” Sorina said in exasperation, but Blake just laughed, then she and Sharpe took off
toward the Green Line tram that led to Brickstown, leaving both Raymond and Sorina standing
there looking uncomfortable.
There was a long, drawn-out pause where neither of them said anything, then Sorina gave a
sudden and gusty sigh, under which Raymond heard her mutter, “Prokljat’e.”
She turned to look at him, and tilted her head to indicate that she wanted him to follow her. As
she took off into the sky, he followed along behind her, until they finally came to land on the
balcony of one of Steel Canyon’s taller skyscrapers. Sorina moved to lean against the railing,
looking down at the lights of the city as things slowly returned to normal.
“Not exactly what I’d had in mind for this evening,” she said at length, and he quietly laughed
and moved to stand beside her, also leaning his elbows against the rail.
“To be honest, me neither. But I guess… for heroes, the job never stops.”
“Nyet,” she said softly, gazing off into the distance. “It doesn’t. By the way, do I even want to
know what Andrea was saying to you?”
“Er, probably not.”
“I didn’t think so.” She turned to look at him, and for a long time, just studied him, her eyes
inscrutable behind her goggles.
“What?” he asked her at length, wondering if Sorina was psychic like Blake.
“I… I was just wondering if…” He could see her face turning red beneath the edges of her mask,
and she looked away in embarrassment. “I was wondering if I… if I could interest you in trying
this again.” She gave a slightly awkward laugh. “Without the Rikti invading, this time.”
Behind his helmet, Raymond closed his eyes, not certain if he was more uncomfortable or
relieved that she’d confronted the issue so directly. It would be safer to say no… to continue
leading the monk-like existence for which Synapse was constantly teasing him. But… he
couldn’t help thinking of earlier, when they’d been sitting and talking and laughing together.
How long had it been since he’d let himself enjoy life?
For several long moments, he was silent, then quietly, he said, “Yes.”
She started in surprise. “Y-yes?”
“Yes. I’d like that.” He reached up and removed his helmet, then turned to face her, leaning one
hip against the railing. “But you’re right… this time, no Rikti.”
She smiled at him, a slow and shy smile. “Da.”
They stood there and looked at each other for another minute or so, then he looked down at his
feet. “Although we’re not exactly dressed to go back to that restaurant, unless you don’t mind
going in uniform.”
Sorina looked down at herself ruefully. “I look a mess now,” she sighed, pushing her disheveled
hair back from her face. “And after I spent an hour getting ready for tonight.” Then she blushed.
“Ja ogorchenn, I can’t believe I said that.”
“Sorina?”
“Da?”
“You look fine.” Before he could give himself time to talk himself out of it, he held one hand out
to her in invitation. “Let’s go.”
Chapter Six  
THE DATE, TAKE 2
“Good evening, and welcome to…” The voice of the maître’d trailed off as he looked up and saw
Raymond and Sorina, still in full hero uniforms, come strolling into the restaurant. For a
moment, he blinked in surprise, then drew himself up with aplomb and slightly bowed.
“Ah, forgive me, Dr. Tavarisch. I… didn’t recognize you. Your table is actually still available, if
you and Dr. Keyes would care to follow me.”
“Thank you,” she said, managing to keep the amusement out of her voice as she removed her
goggles, hanging them from her belt.
The maître’d led them back to the table they’d been seated at earlier, politely holding the chair
for Sorina as she sat, then bowing again before leaving them. Raymond, however, was
uncomfortably aware of the stares they were getting from the other patrons.
“Maybe we should have stopped off and changed clothes first,” he mused as Sorina then
removed her gauntlets, setting them in her lap to leave her hands bare.
“Bah, they’re just surprised that you actually EAT,” Sorina replied, giving the staring patrons a
dark-eyed glare that made many of them suddenly decide to memorize the patterns of their
tablecloths. “Freedom Phalanx members tend to be viewed as rather lofty individuals, above
such needs as food.”
“You’ve obviously never seen Synapse eat, then,” he said frankly.
“No, but I can imagine. Let me guess, he consumes his body weight in food at each meal.”
That much was certain, Raymond thought - Steve’s hypermetabolism was an absolute nightmare
on their food budget. “Put it this way - this date would cost five times as much if he were here.”
“One more reason, then, I’m glad I’m here with you,” she said with a soft smile.
Before Raymond could get his brain back into gear after her comment, another voice cut in.
“Dr. Keyes, Dr. Tavarisch, would you care for something to drink before ordering?”
The two of them glanced up to see a waiter standing discreetly to one side.
“The way this evening has been going, vodka, please,” Sorina sighed, rubbing her eyes. Then
suddenly her eyes opened wide and shot to Raymond’s face. “Oh, God, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean
it like that-” But Raymond was already laughing.
“Don’t worry about it. And I’ll have what the lady is having.”
“Will there be anything else, sir?”
Raymond looked over at Sorina. “You’re the expert on this place, what would you recommend?”
She gave him a slow smile. “Are you feeling adventurous enough to try Russian food?”
“There’s a first time for everything, I suppose.”
Sorina turned and looked up at their waiter. “We’ll start with the borscht. Then a tray of the good
things - mushrooms, caviar, blini. Pirozhki and shashlyk for dinner.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“I leave the choice of meat for the shashlyk to the chef.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded politely, finished scribbling, then left.
“It’s strange,” she said softly a few moments later, her eyes slightly distant. “I’ve lived in
Paragon City for… five years now? Six? And I still get homesick for Moscow.”
“So why not go back?” he asked her, leaning back in his chair. “At least for a visit, the Freedom
Corps can’t be that strict about its members taking vacation time.”
“Oh, I still go home from time to time. To visit my brother, if nothing else.” A smile of pride lit
up her features. “Stefan is a member of the Valiant Defenders.”
“Really? Is he a scientist like you?”
“Stefan? Oh, no. He’s much more into the… um… active side of things. Which is how he earned
the nickname Molotov Svobody.” At Raymond’s blank look, she clarified, “It means ‘Freedom’s
Hammer.’” Her smile turned slightly rueful. “He often jokes that he received the brawn in our
family, while I received the brains.”
Raymond grinned at her. “Older brother or younger brother?”
“Older by two years. He’s talked of coming here to Paragon City for a visit, but sometimes I
think it would be better if he stayed in Moscow.”
“Why?”
“He’d be constantly telling me, ‘Sora, you don’t eat enough.’ ‘Sora, you work too hard.’ ‘Sora,
you should find a nice young man.’ I’m thirty-five, but he still sees me as his sestrenka, his little
sister.” Then her lips curved in a wicked smile. “I can just imagine if my brother met you,
knowing you’d gone on a date with his little sister.”
Raymond looked down at his armor. “I hope my armor’d be up to the task of fending off that
hammer of his, then. I’d hate for him to try and pound me to a pulp just for going on a date.”
A minute later, the waiter returned with an elegant cut-crystal vodka service, which contained a
decanter and two slim fluted shot glasses. He poured them each a measure of vodka while a
second waiter arrived with the tray of appetizers that Sorina had ordered. “Enjoy your food,
ma’am… sir.”
Raymond looked at the vodka warily, and Sorina chuckled.
“Sip it,” she advised him. “I won’t hold it against you.”
“I thought you were supposed to drink vodka fast, like doing shots.”
“Usually, yes, but if you’re not used to it, it can be… intense. Of course, it depends on how
adventurous you want to be.” Her dark eyes were sparkling with mischief over the top of her shot
glass, and he felt his cheeks go slightly red. Not for the first time did he wish he had Steve’s
ability to banter, to come out with just the right thing to say to a woman. But with the way she
was looking at him… it was hard to even form a coherent sentence, let alone anything intelligent.
He almost wanted to laugh, all of a sudden - earlier at dinner, when they were both there as
civilians, they’d been almost formal, professional colleagues, despite their evening clothes. Two
scientists, amicable but proper.
Now here they were, in the exact same place less than an hour later, this time slightly disheveled
and wearing their uniforms, and she was actually flirting with him. Or was she? He briefly
wondered if she was just teasing him, until he looked her in the eyes. No, he thought, she wasn’t
teasing… she was genuinely flirting with him.
Covering up his sudden nervous exhilaration at the idea, he lifted his own shot glass and met her
eyes directly.
“To adventure.”
“To adventure,” she echoed softly, clinking her glass against his, then they both tossed back their
drinks.
Then Sorina began laughing as Raymond nearly choked when the fiery liquid seared his throat.
“You know, it’d be extremely undignified if you died from this after surviving the Rikti…”
“Holy sh-” He gasped, his eyes nearly watering as he fought for breath. With a shaking hand, he
reached for his water glass, but accidentally knocked it off the table. However, even as the water
spilled, before the glass itself could hit the floor, Sorina’s eyes swiftly moved to follow its path,
and the glass halted in midair. She reached out and caught it, then set it back on the table before
handing him her own glass of water.
“Breathe, Raymond… breathe,” she teased, fanning his face with the drinks menu. “Come on,
don’t pass out on me now.”
“I’ll… be fine… just as soon… as I remember… how to breathe.” Raymond shook his head and
drew in a deep breath. “Whoa… you weren’t kidding that it could be intense.” He gave her a
faint glare as she continued to fan him. “And you can cut that out.”
Sorina laughed and set the menu back down. “While I am all in favor of having a man breathless
for me, inhaling vodka is not the way I’d suggest going about it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Of course, he had no intention of telling her that if she was going to
keep looking at him like that, she’d have him breathless anyway.
“Good… caviar?”
Chapter Seven 
WHAT A MAN WANTS
It was much later in the evening when the two of them finally left the restaurant, both of them a
little more relaxed after having consumed most of the decanter of vodka.
“Thank God the management here was understanding,” Sorina was saying as they stepped
outside, pushing her hair back from her face and enjoying the night breeze.
It had not been until the end of their meal that Raymond and Sorina had belatedly realized, to
their mutual horror, that between her having changed into her uniform, and him wearing his
power armor over his clothes, neither of their wallets were exactly accessible. After the initial
freak-out session, Sorina had quickly excused herself, her face nearly as red as her uniform, and
dashed back to the Star Patrol base to retrieve her wallet, leaving Raymond sitting at the table,
torn between embarrassment and amusement.
Fortunately, the restaurant management had been gracious about the matter, but he could tell that
it would be a long while before Sorina would feel comfortable going back there.
“Well, it all turned out all right in the end,” he said, stretching and tilting his head back to look
up at the stars. Then he looked over at her. “However, I do intend to cover my half of dinner.”
“I did invite you,” she pointed out as she pulled on her gauntlets once more. “Theoretically, that
does make tonight my responsibility.”
“But what kind of gentlemen lets the woman pay?”
“One whose wallet is currently underneath several pounds of body armor,” she replied tartly.
Then she gave him a smile, folded her arms across her chest, and leaned back on her heels.
“Unless, of course, you intend to take your armor off to get at your pockets.”
From the grin on her face, he had the feeling that she wouldn’t mind that idea in the least, and
damn it all if he didn’t all of a sudden hear Synapse and Manticore’s earlier teasing about her
getting him out of his armor.
But before he could respond, he became aware of a beeping sound from his helmet, indicating an
incoming transmission.
“Sorry, just a second,” he apologized, quickly donning his helmet. As the connections linked up,
he stated clearly, “Play message.”
Synapse’s cheerful tones suddenly blared in his ears. “Noticed your armor disappeared, man - I
gather your date’s not quite going as planned. Hope you’re both all right - you probably are, if
you haven’t called for backup. Unless you’re just trying to impress her. If so, good luck. And
don’t forget to try and kiss her good night! Or better yet, offer to show her your etchings. Or
circuitry. Or whatever. Synapse out.”
Damn, damn, damn, damn, DAMN, Raymond thought, his eyes going to Sorina’s face as she
watched the people passing by as she waited for him. He was going to kill Steve for this when he
got home. Thank God Sorina hadn’t heard the message, he didn’t think he could have survived
the humiliation.
Blushing fiercely, he removed his helmet again, staring intently at the sidewalk. “Sorry about
that.”
“Everything all right?” she asked in curiosity, noting his blush. “Or do I not want to know?”
“Just… Synapse checking up on me, since he noticed my armor was gone.”
“Oh. Well, it must be nice to have someone who worries about you,” she said after a moment,
but Raymond shook his head.
“More like having someone to rag on me.” He deliberately locked away any further thoughts
inspired by Steve’s message. “But it’s getting late, and we’ve both had really long days. I’ll
escort you home.”
Sorina gave him a slightly arch look. “I am capable of flying alone, even after having had a few
drinks, you know.”
“Call it chivalry. You bought dinner, you have me as an escort.” Then he immediately covered
his mouth and stared down at the pavement as she burst into laughter.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he muttered when she finally stopped laughing.
“I know,” she chuckled, “I just couldn’t help it. You in a hurry to get home? Or do you mind
taking the scenic flight to Founders?”
“No rush.”
“Follow me, then.”
He put his helmet back on as she slipped her goggles back over her eyes, then the two of them
kicked off from the sidewalk, hovering in midair for a few moments. He briefly wondered what
she was thinking as she turned to look at him, but her eyes were inscrutable behind her goggles.
Then he thought he heard her murmur, “Pity…” before turning and flying toward Atlas Park.
It probably would have been faster to take the Green Line train to Founders Falls, but he couldn’t
really blame her for wanting to fly. Even after years of being a superhero, there was still a part of
Raymond’s soul that loved the feeling of soaring over Paragon City, and judging by the look on
Sorina’s face, it was something she enjoyed as well.
Together they skimmed through Atlas Park, cut across Skyway City (where they narrowly
avoided one of the area’s infamous Troll Raves), then took a quick shortcut across Talos Island
before heading into Founders Falls.
“Where do you live?” he asked her, drawing alongside her as they flew.
“Just up ahead,” she called back as she veered southeast to follow the Red River, and soon they
arrived at one of the taller buildings that lined the river, an area that Raymond realized was near
one of the entrances to the interdimensional dance club known as Pocket D.
“Nice location,” he commented as they landed by the double doors, removing his helmet and
rubbing the back of his neck.
“Da,” she replied simply, entering the building and crossing the lobby with him at her side. “It’s
convenient to both the college and Vanguard.”
They rode the elevator in silence to one of the topmost floors, then he followed her down the hall
to one of the corner apartments. He could tell it was one of the larger ones, but he suspected that
she’d also wanted her own research or office space rather than renting a separate facility.
As she unlocked her door, she hesitated, and Raymond saw her briefly bow her head. Her lips
moved silently, as if in prayer, and then slowly she turned to him, pushing her goggles up on top
of her head.
“Would… would you like to come in?” Her voice was soft, and for the first time since they’d left
Steel Canyon, her eyes met his directly.
God, it was tempting, even without Steve’s earlier teasing about trying to kiss her good night
or… anything else, for that matter. But Raymond couldn’t ignore the old familiar doubts that
stirred inside him, and although he was even more loathe to admit it… the fear.
Sure, it had been years since he’d regained control of his powers and his body, thanks to the
Dark Watcher. But before that… he’d had years of being nothing but energy, locked away inside
his armor, cut off from the world and everyone in it. Years of never feeling the sun on his face,
or the movement of his own body, or the warmth of someone else’s touch.
Years to get used to being alone.
A difficult thing to get over. And it hadn’t helped that both before and since, he’d never really
had the greatest luck with relationships.
So as much as he wanted to, he slowly shook his head. “Thank you, but… I think I should be
going.” He held one hand out to her, and she clasped his in her own, following his lead toward
polite distance. “Thank you for a wonderful evening… even if the Rikti did crash the party.”
Sorina gave him a slightly wry smile. “Thank you for coming with me, and for escorting me
home. Have a safe flight home… and if you’d like to discuss electrical engineering again some
time, give me a call.”
She almost managed to pull off keeping her voice and expression casual, but he was suddenly all
too aware of the flicker of disappointment in her eyes. Had she wanted him to kiss her? Should
he try, after seeing that look in her eyes? Or was it because he hadn’t asked her earlier if she’d
like to go out again?
“I’ll do that.” His own voice became quieter. “Good night, Sorina.”
“Good night, Raymond.” She turned and entered her apartment, closing the door behind her. But
as he pulled on his helmet once more, his audio sensors picked up a faint thump on the other side
of the door, as if she’d slumped against it, followed by a long, drawn-out, and surprisingly sad
sigh.
That sigh haunted Raymond the whole flight back to Steel Canyon.
Chapter Eight 
THE RECORDS OF A LIFE
He should have been exhausted after the day he’d had, but Raymond was too distracted to sleep.
For a while, he lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling through the darkness and thinking of her, but
he eventually gave up trying to fall asleep. Instead, he climbed back out of bed, pulled on a t-
shirt and jeans, brewed himself some coffee, and took the pot and a mug into his ops center.
Shoving papers out of the way, he set down the pot, poured himself some coffee, and started
keying commands into the main computer one-handed.
A moment later, a new screen appeared.
FEDERAL BUREAU FOR SUPER‐POWERED AFFAIRS 
Part of him was hating himself for doing this, but as a member of the Freedom Phalanx,
Raymond had access to some of the more restricted databases of the FBSA, so he entered his ID
and password, then waited.
ENTER SUBJECT FOR INQUIRY 
Taking a sip of coffee, he typed in:
TAVARISCH, SORINA 
SEARCHING… 
Given the sheer number of heroes operating in Paragon City, he knew it could take a while, so he
leaned back in his ergonomic chair, put his bare feet up on his desk, and continued to drink his
coffee. It wasn’t until he’d started on a second mug that a new screen finally appeared.
ONE MATCH FOUND. DISPLAY RECORDS? Y/N 
He selected YES, and watched as text began to fill the screen.
TAVARISCH, SORINA 
SUPERHERO ALIASES: NONE 
DUAL CITIZENSHIP: RUSSIAN/UNITED STATES 
DEGREES HELD: 
DOCTORATE (THEORETICAL PHYSICS/DYNAMICS), CONFERRED BY MOSCOW INSTITUTE OF PHYSICS AND 
TECHNOLOGY, RUSSIA; 
DOCTORATE (ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING), CONFERRED BY UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND 
KNOWN AFFILIATIONS: 
FREEDOM CORPS (DIVISION – STAR PATROL, RANK: COMMANDER) 2007‐PRESENT; 
FREEDOM PHALANX (RANK: RESERVE MEMBER), 2007‐PRESENT; 
PARAGON CITY UNIVERSITY (FACULTY/RESEARCHER, SCIENCE DEPARTMENT), 2003‐PRESENT; 
VANGUARD (DIVISION – SWORD, RANK: COLONEL), 2002‐2007 
POWERS: CONTROL OVER GRAVITY/KINETIC FORCE THROUGH TECHNOLOGICAL DEVICES 
INHERENT POWERS: NONE 
SECURITY LEVEL: 50 
CLEARANCE LEVEL: OMEGA 
RECIPIENT OF ATLAS MEDALLION 
RECIPIENT OF VANGUARD MEDAL 
RECIPIENT OF RIKTI RESISTANCE MEDAL 
RECIPIENT OF TASK FORCE COMMANDER HONORARIUM 
There was a brief pause, then another line of text appeared.
FURTHER INFORMATION AVAILABLE. CONTINUE? Y/N 
Raymond frowned, then selected YES.
SUBJECT: ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT, PERPETRATOR(S) UNKNOWN, 2008 
SUBJECT: ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT, PERPETRATOR(S) UNKNOWN, 2008 
SUBJECT: ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT, PERPETRATOR(S) UNKNOWN, 2007 
SUBJECT: PATENT DISPUTE, BROUGHT BY CREY CORPORATION, DISMISSED, 2007 
SUBJECT: RESEARCH DISPUTE, BROUGHT BY CREY CORPORATION, DISMISSED, 2007 
SUBJECT: ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT, PERPETRATOR(S) UNKNOWN, 2006 
SUBJECT: PATENT DISPUTE, BROUGHT BY CREY CORPORATION, DISMISSED, 2006 
SUBJECT: PATENT DISPUTE, BROUGHT BY CREY CORPORATION, DISMISSED, 2005 
SUBJECT: PATENT DISPUTE, BROUGHT BY CREY CORPORATION, DISMISSED, 2005 
So, the gossip was true. Sorina had indeed gotten on Crey’s bad side if she’d refused to sell her
patents and work for them, but as usual, the Countess had been able to cover her tracks too well
to prove anything. Gulping down the last of his second mug of coffee, he shook his head.
“So how was your date, Romeo?” he heard, and Raymond nearly spat his coffee all over his
desk. He glanced over his shoulder to see Steve lounging in the doorway, a sly grin on his face
and his hands shoved in the pockets of his bathrobe.
Despite himself, Raymond blushed. “I already told you, it’s not like that.”
“Sure, you just keep telling yourself that, Oppenheimer. So how’d it go?”
“It was…” He tried to think of a word that Steve wouldn’t misinterpret. “… nice.”
Steve shook his head. “You are hopeless, man. Telling a woman that the evening was ‘nice’ is
second-date-suicide.”
“Well, what was I supposed to say?” Raymond said in exasperation, trying without success to
keep the embarrassment off his face. “We barely even got to dinner before the Rikti showed up-”
“Yeah, I kinda figured things weren’t going too hot for you two after your armor vanished from
the ops center…”
“-and after that, things just… sort of… well…” He looked down at the floor. The evening
certainly hadn’t ended BADLY, but it wasn’t quite what he’d hoped… if he even knew what
he’d been hoping for.
As though reading his mind, Steve chuckled. “Did you kiss her?”
Raymond’s blush deepened. “No.”
“Did she kiss you?”
“Steve…”
“Not even a hug?”
“STEVE!” Raymond was almost certain he’d pass out if any more blood rushed to his head.
“Even after I called you and told you to go for it? You are hopeless.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“You gonna see her again?”
“I don’t know… it’s kind of complicated.” He wanted to, but he wasn’t certain what she’d say if
he asked her out this time. Maybe she’d been put off by his lack of response… maybe he’d bored
her over dinner… it was just so hard to say. He sighed and stretched his shoulders as he looked
away from Steve, briefly wishing that women were as easy to understand as computer
schematics were.
“So what’s got your circuits in a twist?” Steve wandered into the ops center and looked over
Raymond’s shoulder. “Her FBSA records, huh?” He let out a low whistle. “Do I even want to
know why you’re looking her up in there?”
Steve momentarily vanished as he headed for the kitchen to grab himself a mug, then reappeared
and poured himself some coffee as well. While he was drinking it, the computer beeped again,
and both men turned to look at another set of monitors. Raymond recognized the data as what he
had downloaded from his armor once he’d arrived home, a habit he’d established years ago as
part of his mentality that there was no such thing as too much information.
“During the attack on Steel, there was something strange about Sorina when she was fighting the
Rikti,” Raymond mused as data began filling the screen.
“Big shock there,” Steve scoffed, knocking back the last of his coffee and pouring himself some
more. “You of all people should know that you can’t throw a rock without hitting a superhero in
this town. They come in all shapes, sizes, and powers.”
Raymond, however, leaned forward and traced his finger along lines of code that were scrolling
past. “No, THIS is what’s odd. According to her FBSA records, her abilities only come from
those gauntlet things and such that she wears.”
“Like you with your armor?”
Raymond shook his head. “No… I can generate anti-matter on my own, but with my armor I can
do much, much more.”
“So?”
“So…” He pointed to some more data. “If Sorina has no powers of her own… why did my
scanners detect this?”
Steve wandered closer and looked at the monitors. “My specialty is amortization charts, not
nuclear physics, Einstein.”
Raymond sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Come on, even you should have learned some of this
stuff by now. Open your eyes and LOOK.”
Steve took another sip of his coffee and followed one particular series of jagged lines. “Looks
like an energy spike of some kind.”
“And it’s not from her equipment. That power is hers.”
Slowly a frown appeared on Steve’s face and he leaned back on his heels.
“Which raises an interesting question…” Raymond sat back in his chair and gazed at the
computers pensively, remembering how last night at dinner, she’d caught his water glass in
midair with nothing but a thought… even though her gauntlets had been removed and resting in
her lap.
Steve, as usual, was far more willing to put things bluntly. “You mean like why she lied about it
to the FBSA.”
The thought was troubling Raymond as well. “But it doesn’t make sense. Why would she lie to
the FBSA?”
“You think that Vanguard knows the truth?”
“I’d be surprised if they didn’t… and they don’t have to answer to the FBSA, or to Freedom
Corps for that matter.”
“So what happens now?” Steve asked after a long pause.
Raymond stared moodily at the computer monitors. “I don’t know… I wish I did.”
Chapter Nine  
SORINA’S SECRET
It had been only a week, but to Raymond, it felt like much, much longer since he’d last seen
Sorina. For his part, he’d picked up the phone almost a half-dozen times, wanting to call her, but
had always decided against it at the last moment. He told himself that he’d just been busy with
Phalanx business, and that she was probably busy with her own life.
But still, he wondered why she hadn’t called. And he wondered if he should be relieved. And
underneath it all, he wondered why she hadn’t told the truth about her powers.
Finally, after another long day of fighting villainy with Synapse, the other superhero cornered
him before he could take off.
“Look, dude, this has got to stop.”
“What?” Raymond asked, confused.
“This moping stuff. Just call her already. You’re driving me nuts with this brooding melancholy
attitude.”
“I don’t remember this being any of your business,” Raymond said coldly, glaring at him, but
Synapse shook his head.
“You’re my teammate, you’re my friend, and you live with me. That makes it my business.”
Raymond turned to leave, but with a red-blue blur, Synapse moved in front of him. “Listen, Ray
- I know why you’re upset. But unless you just come out and ask her, you’re just going to be
miserable.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Raymond protested. “It’s not like she and I are in any kind of serious
relationship - it was just one date and that’s it.”
“That’s not true, and we both know it. You and she might not be dating, but she was, and still is,
your colleague and your friend. And finding out that she’s not quite the woman you thought she
was can’t be an easy thing to deal with… especially if one or both of you has been wondering if
you could be more to each other.”
Raymond looked away, extremely uncomfortable with the implications of that, and Synapse
sighed.
“Just… just talk to her, okay?” When Raymond still didn’t say anything, Synapse put one hand
on his shoulder. “Please?”
That surprised Raymond - Steve wasn’t usually one to ask for anything, so he finally nodded.
“Okay.”
*****
He thanked his lucky stars that Steve hadn’t insisted on escorting him to the base portal system;
this was going to be hard enough as it was.
Using the communications system in his armor to access the SuperGroup Registration System,
he quickly searched for the code for the Star Patrol, then called them. A moment later, a small
audio/video feed appeared on his internal viewers, and Raymond recognized the features of
Andrea Blake.
“Star Patrol Headquarters, Agent Blake.”
“Um, hello, Agent Blake, this is Positron.”
Her eyes widened slightly and a smile spread across her features. “Hey, Dr. Keyes! Surprised to
find you on the line… how’d your date with Tava go?”
“Um….” He should have been expecting the question, considering his previous conversation
with her, but he was still caught off guard. “It was… nice. Er, at any rate… I’m actually looking
for Dr. Tavarisch… is she there?”
She nodded. “Yeah, actually, she got in about twenty minutes ago from the RWZ… hang on a
sec, I’ll grab her.”
“Wait!” he said quickly before she could turn away. “I… I actually wanted to talk to her face-to-
face. If that’s all right.”
She nodded again and he saw her reach toward a panel just out of his line of sight. “Sure, give
me just a second to allow you access.”
As he waited, watching the portal’s glowing energy, a new signal came in via his
communications system, indicating permission to be routed to Star Patrol’s base.
“Okay, come on in.”
He stepped into the ring’s blue light, felt the quicksilver chill of the identification system’s DNA
scan, and then he appeared in a well-lit and spacious base, decorated in the familiar red and
white of the Freedom Corps.
Standing near the portal was Blake, holding out a hand to Raymond, who shook it.
“Welcome to SP Headquarters.”
“Thank you.” He removed his helmet and looked around for Sorina.
“Sorina’s actually in the computer lab,” Blake explained. “If you’ll follow me…”
The two heroes headed down one of the hallways into a brightly-lit computer room and research
laboratory, where Sorina was bent over one of the base’s supercomputers. She hadn’t changed
into her regular uniform upon returning to the base, Raymond noticed - she was still wearing her
field officer camo gear, although she’d tossed her jacket onto a nearby chair. She had removed
one of its panels and had her arms stuck inside the thing all the way to her forearms, her glasses
halfway down her nose and a flashlight suspended in midair beside her head. As Raymond
watched, he saw one of the computer’s screens dissolve in a blaze of static, and Sorina let out a
torrent of furious Russian before reaching up, taking the flashlight in her hand and sticking her
head inside the panel.
“Hey, Tava!” Blake called out as they entered.
“Da?” came her muffled response.
“You’ve got a visitor.”
“Kto ono?”
Blake blinked in confusion. “You wanna say that in English, comrade?”
With a sigh, Sorina pulled her head back out of the computer and whacked the side of the
machine with the flashlight she was still holding.
“Sorry… who is it?” She removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes tiredly, still studying the
computer’s open panel. Then she turned around and saw Raymond standing there, and took a
surprised step backward.
“Raymond! What are you doing here?”
“I… was hoping to talk to you. Do you have a moment?”
“What? Oh… of course.”
Blake said quietly, “I’ll leave you two some privacy.” As she left the lab, she touched one of the
controls on the wall, and a forcefield flickered into existence.
*****
At Raymond’s look, Sorina explained, “Sometimes I do some pretty volatile work in here, so we
had to find a way to cordon off the lab. It also helps when one of us is working and don’t want to
be disturbed.”
“Oh.”
For a moment, they both just stood there, then she gestured to a chair. “Would you prefer to sit?”
He shook his head, wondering how to broach the subject, and in the end, he just took a deep
breath and plunged ahead. “Sorina… you’re telekinetic, aren’t you.” It was a statement, not a
question.
The scientist went absolutely still, her face pale. For several moments, she didn’t say anything,
then she closed her eyes and turned her face away.
“Prokljat’e,” she whispered. Then she opened her eyes again and locked gazes with him. “Does
it matter?”
“It does when your FBSA records say that you have no inherent powers of your own.” He saw
her expression change to one of dismay, and he hurriedly explained, “I wasn’t doing it to check
up on you, I did it because… because I wanted to know more about you.”
Sorina looked away again, but Raymond went on. “Why would you lie about it? It’s not like it’s
anything to be ashamed of - sometimes I think half of Paragon City has metahuman abilities.”
“It’s not that,” she said, her voice low and her eyes troubled. “It’s… it’s…”
She closed her eyes, her voice dropping to barely a whisper. “It’s because I’m not a hero.”
Raymond frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She sighed and wrapped her arms around herself, still not looking at him. “I’m not a hero,
Raymond. Not like you.”
“I don’t understand,” he said at last, and she abruptly whirled around.
“I’m not like you, I’m not brave, I’m not special, all right?” she cried. “Can’t you understand
that? I never trained, I never tried to develop my powers, because that’s not what I wanted to be.
I never wanted to be a hero, the world has enough of those. All I wanted was to be a scientist.
That was it. Because that, at least, I could do well.”
“Sorina-”
“But when the Rikti came, and Vanguard recruited me, they were thrilled to find out I was
both… until they learned I wasn’t strong enough to do anything meaningful.”
Raymond was astonished to see tears of frustration in Sorina’s eyes, but before he could speak,
she went on, the words almost pouring out of her.
“My powers are pathetic on their own - I can barely do anything with them. And no matter how
hard I tried with them… I couldn’t save anyone with them. I watched thousands of people die
during the Rikti war, soldiers, civilians, heroes… and my powers were useless. I was with
Vanguard for five years, Raymond. FIVE YEARS. But no matter how hard I trained, no matter
how hard I tried, my powers stayed… insignificant. So as part of my work for Vanguard, I
helped design most of their gear that boosts a metahuman’s powers. But not just because I was
trying to help other heroes, although it certainly has done that. In truth… it’s because it was the
only way for me to be the hero I’m supposed to be.”
He took a step toward her, but she violently shook her head, and he stumbled as though she had
physically pushed him back. He tried again, but again he was pushed back, and he realized that
she was instinctively using her telekinetic powers to keep him away. “Sorina, listen…”
She shook her head again, ignoring him while the tears spilled down her cheeks and she wrapped
her arms around herself. “But I still couldn’t keep up with the other heroes of Vanguard. I…
After a while, I couldn’t stand it anymore, I couldn’t bear seeing my own failures result in the
deaths of others… oh, not directly, but because I couldn’t use my powers to save them. No
matter how quickly I researched and developed technology, it was never enough, and I… I just
couldn’t take it any more, Raymond. So when I finally left, and joined the Freedom Corps,
Gaussian helped fake my Vanguard service records to hide any trace of my natural powers. The
FBSA used that information to generate my records with them. And the only reason I’m anything
now is because of my inventions - it’s not me.”
Sorina lowered her head in shame. “Sorina Tavarisch, war hero, Vanguard scientist… is nothing
more than a failure in hero’s clothing.”
Raymond’s mind was whirling as all the pieces fell into place. Her fierce concern for her
teammates, the sadness in her eyes when she’d talked about serving with Vanguard, her obvious-
in-retrospect worry that he wouldn’t want to spend time with her… and underneath it all, a
desperate need for acceptance.
Her research, her skill, her learning, all of it… all the result of a woman yearning to make a
difference in the world, while believing all the while that she was unable to do so because she
wasn’t what she thought she should be.
“Sorina,” he said at last, stepping forward to rest his hands on her shoulders, and this time, she
didn’t stop him. “You remind me so much of myself it’s almost scary.”
“How so?” she asked bitterly as she finally looked up at him.
“We may be two of the most brilliant scientists I know, but we are both such idiots.”
She gave a half-laugh, half-sob at that, and before he could talk himself out of it, he gently
wrapped his arms around her, holding her as she rested her head on his shoulder.
Chapter Ten  
DOUBLE DATING
Neither of them was certain how long they’d been standing there in each other’s arms, but soon
Raymond became aware of a quiet sensation in the back of his mind, like a memory he couldn’t
quite recall or a half-forgotten feeling.
Sorina sighed and lifted her head from Raymond’s shoulder, then addressed the air around them.
“You can stop eavesdropping now, Andrea, we’re both fine.”
Then the sensation changed slightly, and he abruptly realized that Blake had been mentally
checking up on the two of them.
Sorry, Tava, he heard inside his mind, Andrea’s voice sounding concerned, I just needed to be
sure.
Sorina sighed and threw a glance toward the door of the lab, and Raymond glanced over in time
to see the forcefield switch move of its own accord, and the field flickered and vanished. A
moment later, Blake entered the lab and leaned against the wall near the door, her young face
somber as she looked at Raymond.
“So now you know,” she said quietly. “Are you planning on ratting Tava out to the FBSA?”
“No,” he replied, looking back at Sorina and then again at Blake. “I think I understand her
reasons, and if you and the other Star Patrol leaders are willing to respect them, I can, too.”
A slow smile spread across Blake’s face as she turned to face her teammate. “Told you so, Tava.
And you were so worried that he was going to hate you if he found out the truth.”
“Do you blame me?” Sorina asked, meeting Blake’s gaze directly. “Not everyone is as
understanding as you and Bowman. Nor as perceptive, for that matter.”
Blake’s eyes were slightly mischievous as she glanced over at Raymond. “Yeah, but you two are
so much alike that the odds were pretty good he’d figure out it eventually, and be cool with it,
too.”
Raymond gave a slight chuckle. “You sound a lot like Steve.” Then his own smile turned rueful.
“Who is probably going to give me a serious ragging when I see him later for stressing about this
whole thing.”
“So now that you’ve bared your souls and found that you’re not as hopeless as you thought you
were, you two gonna go out again?” Blake asked, folding her arms across her chest and looking
back and forth between the two, who both turned slightly red.
“Errrrr…” Raymond looked over at Sorina, whom he abruptly realized he was still holding in his
arms, and as though following his thoughts, Sorina took a hasty step backward. “Well… we’d
not really talked about it.”
But he’d certainly thought about it, if he were being honest with himself, and he actually did
want to see her again… or rather, to see her again under circumstances where they were both
enjoying themselves.
“If Dr. Keyes wants to,” Sorina said hesitantly, “but I wouldn’t want to force him into it or
anything.”
He caught Sorina’s dark eyes with his own, and he saw the brief spark of worry there before she
managed to hide it. “Yes, I want to,” he said firmly, and was rewarded by the sudden brilliance
of her smile.
For a few moments, they stood there just smiling at each other until Blake loudly cleared her
throat. “Okay, so we have established that a second date will be happening. Let us now move
on.”
“Zat’knis, Andrea,” Sorina grumbled.
“Hey, it’s part of my job description to give you crap, so deal with it.”
“Are you sure you’re not channeling Synapse right now?” Raymond asked, only half-joking, and
Blake laughed, then her eyes became serious.
“No, I’m not, but I gather from Dr. Keyes’ thoughts that Synapse was just as worried about the
two of you as I was.” She gave him an apologetic look.
Raymond, however, was suddenly struck by an idea, and a grin of his own began to appear on
his face as he looked from Andrea to Sorina and back.
“What’s that look for?” Sorina asked him curiously.
Instead of answering her, Raymond turned to Andrea. “What are YOU doing tonight?”
*****
“So you two finally kissed and made up,” Steve was saying an hour later as he and Raymond
stepped out of the elevator into Pocket D. Both men were in casual clothes, and Raymond was
for once grateful that he’d let Steve give him advice on what to wear.
“Not quite,” he said wryly, “you’ll be disappointed to know there was no kissing involved.”
Steve raised his eyes to the ceiling in a look of long-time suffering. “If you think I’m the one
disappointed you didn’t kiss her, man, it’s small wonder you’ve been single all this time.”
Raymond wisely didn’t say anything to that, and just followed Steve up the stairs to the second-
floor bar.
“So what time are they supposed to meet us here?”
“They should be here any minute, actually,” Raymond said, glancing at his watch.
Steve signaled the bartender to bring them two beers, then he looked around the club with
interest. “I gotta admit, though, this makes a major change - it’s usually me introducing you to
someone. So what’s this chick like?”
“Andrea? Oh, I think you two have a lot in common.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I meant-”
“Dobriy vyecher, gospoda.”
Both men turned around, and whatever either of them was going to say died on their lips as
Sorina and Andrea came up the stairs into the bar. Steve, however, recovered first as he caught
sight of the young superheroine next to Sorina.
“HOLY CRAP, SHE’S HOT!”
Raymond was momentarily grateful that Steve was actually the one who had blurted that out and
not himself, although the thought had certainly crossed his mind when he’d seen how Sorina was
dressed.
Gone was the elegant look of a week ago, or even the familiar professional look he was used to
from her. Now Sorina was wearing a black leather jacket over a cropped red t-shirt, and black
cargo pants tucked into black leather boots. Her long dark hair hung loose around her shoulders,
and her glasses were low on her nose, allowing her to gaze over the tops of her spectacles.
Raymond had had absolutely no idea she could look like that, and he saw her turn slightly pink
even as she smiled.
As he looked at her friend, however, it was all too obvious why Steve was staring at her. Part
schoolgirl, part seduction, Andrea was wearing a sleeveless form-fitting black leather vest over a
white dress shirt and black tie, the shortest black leather miniskirt Raymond had ever seen, and
thigh-high, high-heeled black leather boots.
Another part of Raymond’s brain, though, was openly laughing at the look on Steve’s face as he
stared at Andrea.
“So, Dr. Keyes, you gonna introduce us to your friend?” Andrea was saying, looking supremely
innocent about the effect she was having on Steve, and Raymond had to wonder if she’d
deliberately dressed like that.
“Wha… oh. Yeah.” But before Raymond could get out another word, Steve was in front of
Andrea, taking her hand in his and kissing it.
“Just call me the man of your dreams, gorgeous.”
Raymond cleared his throat, even as part of him was mentally howling with laughter. “Er, this is
my roommate Steve Berry. Steve, meet Sorina Tavarisch and Andrea Blake.”
Sorina barely managed to hide her grin by covering her mouth with her hand as she moved to
stand next to Raymond at the bar and ordered a drink, while Andrea leaned slightly back on her
heels as she gave Steve a very obvious once-over in a reversal of the time-honored tradition of a
man’s assessment of a woman.
“Oooooooh,” she purred at last. “I like.”
“A woman of discriminating taste,” Steve was saying as he escorted Andrea to the bar, now
completely oblivious to Raymond and Sorina, who had both given up on trying to hide their
grins.
“This should be good,” Sorina murmured to Raymond as she glanced over at Andrea and Steve.
Raymond, however, was still trying to recover from his own initial shock at Sorina’s appearance.
“You… you look fantastic.”
“Spasibo.” She looked down at herself ruefully. “This is what happens when I let Andrea and Jen
take me clothes shopping.” Then she leaned back against the bar and took in his own casual
appearance, and the same slightly wicked smile she’d worn the night they’d had dinner once
again curved her lips as she gestured with one hand. “Turn around.”
“Why?” he asked when he finally remembered how to say something.
“Please?”
Wondering what she was thinking, he did so, then he was suddenly aware of Sorina giving him
the same once-over that Andrea had given Steve. As he turned back to face her, he saw her lift
her eyes back to his face.
And at her open grin of appreciation, he blushed.
Chapter Eleven 
DRINKS AND DESIGNS IN THE D
“Well, it’s nice to see that they’ve hit it off,” Sorina said dryly as she looked over at Steve and
Andrea. “Then again, there are few people that Andrea doesn’t get along with.”
“I imagine being psychic helps,” Raymond replied, taking a pull from his beer and glancing over
at his roommate. “I just hope she’s not the type of girl who’s looking for commitment, because
she’s not going to get it from him.”
Sorina shook her head. “Andrea? Not a chance… she’s not looking for Mr. Right, she’s looking
for Mr. Right Now.”
Raymond choked on his beer and coughed before finally getting his breath back. “Oh, then those
two are perfect for each other.”
“What about you?” Sorina asked after a moment’s pause. “What are you looking for?”
“You mean, am I looking for a relationship, or am I just looking for a good time?”
She went red and stared down into her drink, but nodded, and Raymond suddenly had the feeling
she was almost afraid to know his answer.
After almost a full minute, he said quietly, “I don’t really know.”
“Me, either,” she admitted, then she tilted her glass back and drained it, and signalled the
bartender for another. As he set her drink in front of her, she lifted it to her lips and sipped, then
looked over at Raymond again. “Don’t mind me, I’ve been mentally off my stride since this
afternoon.”
He had the good grace to look embarrassed. “Yeah… look, I really am sorry about that.” He set
down his beer bottle and held one hand out to Sorina. “Can we be friends again, and just forget
that happened?”
Sorina looked from his face to his outstretched hand, then slowly she smiled and shook it.
“Friends.”
Thirty minutes later…
“Nyet, you can’t focus that much power without causing a feedback loop in your secondary
systems,” Sorina was arguing as she and Raymond were now sitting in a booth, taking turns
drawing schematics on the back of a placemat. With an exasperated sigh, he took the pencil away
from her and began erasing part of the schematics and then re-drawing them.
“Yes, I can. All I have to do is re-route some of the anti-matter control to auxiliary systems, and
store the rest in the backup power cells.”
As he drew, she picked up his beer bottle and gestured with it toward the placemat. “But based
on your existing calculations, your power cells can only hold so much before you overcharge
them.”
“Maybe so, but that’s just one more reason why I have you. You’re the thermodynamics expert,
I’m sure you can come up with a way around that.”
Sorina smirked. “Flatterer. Give me that.” She held out his beer bottle and he handed her the
pencil in exchange. “So, based on your theories, figure…”
The pencil flew over the page as she began doing calculations, Raymond occasionally nodding
as she worked. A few moments later, without looking up from the page, she stated, “And you
don’t have me…”
Then she lifted her eyes to his and gave him a smile. “… yet.”
Fifteen minutes later…
“I think this one is my round,” Raymond was saying as he got up from the booth, which was now
covered in placemats filled with mathematical notation, electronics schematics, and other
scientific information. “Same as last time?”
“Da, and tell him not to forget the shot of crème de cacao this time,” Sorina reminded him.
As Raymond walked over to the bar, he found Andrea and Steve in the middle of doing tequila
shots, and judging by the number of glasses on the bar, they’d been at it for a while.
“Jeez, you two, slow down. We have all night.”
“Hey, some of us are here to party, not to discuss nuclear physics,” Steve replied before salting
his wrist and downing yet another shot of tequila.
Raymond looked over at Andrea, belatedly remembering that while Steve was virtually immune
to the effects of alcohol, the young psychic was not. But she seemed to be all right, if slightly
bemused as she looked back at him.
“Oh, don’t worry, Dr. Keyes,” she said blithely, “I’ll be fine.”
“You sure?” he asked in concern. “Steve could drink an ocean of Everclear and still be sober.
You don’t have his hypermetabolism.”
“That’s true,” she admitted, salting her own wrist and tossing back another tequila. “But I’m a
big girl, I can take care of myself.”
“Would you excuse us a second, then?” Without waiting for a reply, Raymond took Steve by the
elbow and pulled him to one side. “Are you trying to get her drunk?”
“It was her idea, man, and like she said, she’s a big girl. And I don’t need you babysitting us.”
“Steve…” Despite having had a few drinks of his own, Raymond was entirely focused on his
roommate, disapproval clear on his face, and Steve sighed.
“Look, don’t get all bent out of shape. But if it makes you feel better, don’t worry, I’ll make sure
I get her home safe, sound, and with her dignity intact. Okay? Now go back to paying attention
to Sorina, she’s probably wondering where you went.”
Now it was Raymond’s turn to sigh, and he rested one hand on Steve’s shoulder. “You’re right…
I should know you better than that. Sorry.”
“Hey, don’t feel bad. But you should consider doing a few shots with Sorina… you both could
use the lightening up.” At Raymond’s frosty glare, Steve held up both hands and laughed. “Just
kidding.”
Fifteen minutes later…
“I’m serious, this guy had belted me so hard that he would have broken my jaw,” Raymond was
laughing as he and Sorina finished off their fifth round of drinks. “And he was ready to pound
me into the pavement when Steve showed up.”
“I’m surprised you let things get that far.”
“Well, I was trying to do the sensible and civic thing, and all it got me was a wicked bruise and a
seriously damaged ego,” he admitted.
She gave him a slightly wistful smile. “But it wasn’t enough to break your principles or your
dreams.”
“No,” he said quietly. “Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t. But you know what was?” She shook her
head. “It was the fact that at first, I couldn’t get anyone to help me. I had all these lofty goals,
these plans to save Paragon City from itself, and I couldn’t convince anyone to help me.”
“Maybe so, but in the end, you succeeded,” Sorina pointed out, then she stretched. “I think I need
to get up, we’ve been sitting in this booth so long I’m ready to take root.” She slid out of the
booth and got to her feet, then she looked over at the bar. “Where are Steve and Andrea?”
“Um, I think they would have told us if they’d left,” Raymond said with a frown, getting up and
looking around at the other tables, but there was no sign of the other couple. Then he made his
way over to the railing and looked out at the crowded dance floor.
Over to one side were Andrea and Steve, dancing to the latest rave music courtesy of DJ Zero
and his team of sound technicians. And even through the pulsing strobe lights of the club,
Raymond could clearly see that the other couple was not at all bothered by the extremely close
quarters of the crowded floor.
“Did you find them?” he heard as Sorina came up behind him.
“Err… yeah.” Raymond wasn’t sure if he was more embarrassed or intrigued as he watched
Steve dance with Andrea. While it was one thing to know that couples danced like that, and
another thing to occasionally see it, it was something else entirely when it was someone you
knew.
“Is something wrong, you sound-” Then she spotted them as well, and Raymond saw her cheeks
turn slightly pink. “Oh.”
There was a long, long pause, then Raymond took a deep breath and turned to her. “May I have
the pleasure of a dance?”
He immediately winced, thinking that his words sounded either pretentious or cheesy, but all
Sorina did was smile, then she followed him down to the dance floor. Instead of heading into the
heart of the crowd, they chose to stay on the fringes where things were a little more relaxed.
Then Raymond realized his next problem… that he didn’t really know how to dance, and God
knew what Sorina would do if he tried to dance with her like Steve was dancing with Andrea.
Sorina caught his slightly panicked expression, and leaned closer to be heard over the steady
thumping of the loud music. “Come on, Dr. Keyes… time for your first lesson in motion
dynamics.”
Chapter Twelve 
MOVING CLOSER
Raymond found himself torn between wanting to look over at Steve and Andrea so he’d know
what he was doing when he danced with Sorina, and not wanting to watch his roommate
practically seducing the other girl out on the dance floor. For the first time that he could
remember, he was actually wishing he’d taken Steve up on those offers to be his ‘wingman’ on
club dates, so that he might now actually have a clue what to do instead of panicking. But no,
instead he’d spent night after night in the lab, working on research while Steve and Diego had
gone off to party.
Although she was no psychic, Sorina nonetheless seemed to pick up on his mood, and turned to
him with a concerned frown. “What’s wrong?”
“Ummmm…”
“It’s really not that difficult,” she said, moving slightly closer and looking up at him in the
strobing light. He could tell that she was genuinely wanting him to have a good time, but he
couldn’t quite make himself move. Sorina gave a soft sigh, then asked him, “Do you remember
when you first tried to use your power armor?”
“What?” The non sequitur confused him as he turned to her. “What’s that got to do with this?”
“Remember how it felt? Awkward and uncomfortable and feeling like your body wasn’t
anything like it should be?”
Truth be told, the first time he’d actually used his armor was to save Steve’s life when he’d burst
into the lab and collapsed in his arms, but he thought he understood the point she was making.
And the way she described it did sound a lot like the way he’d felt when he consciously tried to
train in it, rather than just acting on reflex, and he nodded.
“Then one day, you just got it, and you moved like you’d always been wearing it.”
He nodded again.
“Think of this like that.” With that, she started to sway and move in time to the music, while still
giving him enough space to keep him from feeling pressured. “Come on…”
Offering up a silent prayer, Raymond followed her lead, feeling extremely awkward, but he did
his best while keeping his eyes on some of the other people in the crowd, trying to emulate them.
It also helped him to keep from staring at Sorina, who while not looking quite as comfortable as
Andrea did on a dance floor, certainly seemed more at ease than he did.
“See?” she told him. “It’s not that hard…”
But soon another influx of people joined them on the dance floor, and Raymond found himself
dancing so close to Sorina that he had to make a conscious effort not to touch her. Until he saw
her catch him doing it, and there was no mistaking the flash of unhappy confusion in her eyes.
And he was horrified to realize that she was interpreting his hesitation as reluctance, and he
actually stopped moving.
“It’s not what you think,” he began, but she just shook her head.
“It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”
“It’s not okay,” Raymond protested, startling her by reaching out and taking her wrist to pull her
away from the crowd to one edge of the room and then turning her to face him. “Damn it, I
just… I…” He let out a loud sigh of frustration and ran one hand along his scalp.
“Look,” he said at last, “I may be brilliant in a lab, but I’m hopeless in social situations. And
now I’m here with you, and I wish I knew even half as much about how to have a good time with
you as I do about physics. It doesn’t seem to matter what I say or what I do, it always comes out
wrong. I can’t even dance without feeling like I’m doing something wrong.”
“Are you saying that I’m making you feel like you’re doing something wrong?” she asked,
aghast.
“No! It’s something about you… no, that’s not right, either. It’s something about me, that when I
look at you, I become a terminal klutz, I…”
He almost missed the sudden dawning in her eyes, until she held up her hands and waved him
into silence.
“You’re an idiot.”
At her blunt statement, he gaped at her in shock, but she went on before he could say anything.
“Do you think I’m not just as nervous as you are? That I’m not afraid of scaring you off or
saying or doing the wrong thing? That I’m not wondering every moment if I’m getting too close?
So stop worrying, have a good time, and dance with me. Don’t think about all the things that
could go wrong, we both do that enough as it is.” He gave an abrupt laugh at that, and she
smiled.
Then he reached out and gently touched her cheek. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome… now dance with me.”
She was right, he thought a few minutes later as he danced with her. It really was like the first
time he’d truly mastered his power armor.
*****
Just like last time, Raymond again escorted Sorina home, this time taking the shortcut out of
Pocket D to emerge near her apartment building. Steve and Andrea had still been going strong at
Pocket D, but he’d agreed to get her home, so Raymond and Sorina had decided to call it a
slightly earlier night. But this time, standing outside her door, he was very much torn about how
he wanted the evening to end.
“Can I ask you something?” he said at last.
“Of course.”
He took a deep breath. “I’d like… if you wouldn’t mind…”
Sorina waited, but he couldn’t quite make himself go on, and she gently prompted, “You’d
like… what?”
“Well… it’s just that… I’d like to kiss you, but I… I don’t know if you’d kiss me back or slap
me. Especially since this is only our second date.”
To his astonishment, she chuckled, then she folded her arms across her chest and adopted what
he often thought of as her ‘lecturing’ voice. “It seems to me, Dr. Keyes, that you have a scientific
inquiry in need of further research. And you’re going into this with pre-established notions of
limitations on your inquiry.”
“What?”
“Well, you currently have four possible courses of action for your hypothesis. You kiss me and I
kiss you back, you kiss me and I slap you, you don’t kiss me and I get upset, or you don’t kiss
me and I don’t mind. You’ve established as a possible limitation that this only being a second
date might preclude the possibility of the first two options. Now, as a fellow scientist and
participant in this research of yours, my informed opinion is that of your latter two options, not
kissing me and me being upset is definitely likely.”
As his brain made the belated connection that she was actually flirting with him, almost daring
him, he was hard-pressed to stop the slow warmth that was building inside of him.
“So…” he said slowly, trying to keep the smile off his face, “we can discount those latter two as
potential courses of action. That leaves only two possible outcomes, both of which involve
kissing you.”
“Agreed. And of course, a scientist approaches every research possibility with an open mind,”
she remarked.
“I see… then tell me, Dr. Tavarisch, if you’d be averse to a little scientific investigation?”
“Not at all, Dr. Keyes.”
Time seemed to slow for Raymond as he took a cautious step forward and lowered his mouth to
hers. He was amazed to see her then close her eyes, as though focusing all of her attention on his
kiss, before he did the same. And even though only their lips touched, the warmth he’d felt
earlier seemed to spread through his entire body, making him aware of it in ways he’d not felt in
years.
Then he finally lifted his head and opened his eyes, and a moment later, saw her open hers.
“So, I guess we’ve answered that particular line of scientific inquiry,” she said, her voice slightly
breathless and her cheeks pink.
“I don’t know,” he said, deliberately putting doubt into his voice, and she gave him an astonished
look. “I’d not have thought you as being such a sloppy researcher, Sorina, when you know that
well-conducted research means duplicating your experiments.”
“Shall we try again, then?” she teased, but he slowly shook his head and gently touched her
cheek.
“I’d hate to rush my results.” At her crestfallen look, he added, “But perhaps another night…
soon.” He reached out and gave her a sudden hug, the only way he could think to express to her
how tempted he was to take things farther. “Good night, Sorina.”
“Good night,” she whispered against his chest, then he let her go and she entered her apartment,
closing the door behind her. But as he turned to leave, he heard from inside the apartment a
sudden, triumphant, and joyful whoop of laughter.
Raymond was grinning to himself the entire way home.
Chapter Thirteen 
ONE NIGHT STANDS
By the time Raymond got home, all he wanted to do was fall into bed and think about Sorina
before falling asleep. He felt more relaxed than he had in years, and he fully intended to savor
the feeling for as long as he could before reality would insist on intruding again with all its
myriad problems.
As he let himself in the house, he paused to listen, but there was no indication that Steve was
home yet. Small wonder, if he and Andrea were still partying it up at Pocket D. Raymond
shrugged, tossed his jacket onto the couch, kicked off his shoes, and headed into his room. A
quick wash-up later, he pulled off the rest of his clothes, pulled on the shorts he usually slept in,
then flopped onto his back on his bed, staring up into the darkness.
He felt a slow grin spread across his face as he lay in the dark, remembering how it felt to kiss
Sorina. Damn if he didn’t feel like a teenager all over again. She wasn’t the first woman he’d
kissed, that was for sure, but after the numerous less-than-successful dates he’d been on in recent
years, it was the first time he had actually let himself enjoy a kiss.
But as he shifted to get more comfortable, he thought about the rest of the evening as well - how
it had felt good to sit and talk to her, to discuss scientific stuff in a friendly debate sort of way
rather than a pressing need to solve a problem, to joke and laugh and tease.
Some time later, as he felt himself drifting off to sleep, Raymond heard the front door open.
Glancing over at the clock, he saw it was close to 2 a.m. - a typical night for Steve, considering
the guy rarely needed to actually sleep. Raymond briefly considered getting up long enough to
ask Steve how things had gone with Andrea, until he heard something else.
A soft, feminine giggle.
Raymond froze, not moving a muscle, not even certain that he’d heard what he’d thought he’d
heard.
“What’s so funny?” he heard Steve say.
“Sneaking in here… it’s like you’re expecting Dr. Keyes to come bursting in here like an
outraged dad, catching you out after curfew.”
Raymond closed his eyes as he recognized Andrea’s voice. This was not happening… Steve had
only just met the girl, for heaven’s sake.
“Ray? Ha, no doubt he’s tucked up in bed sound asleep like the Boy Scout he is.”
“You think he brought Sorina back here?”
For a single horrifying instant, Raymond was certain that Andrea was going to mentally search
the apartment to see if Sorina was in fact with him, and the last thing he wanted was for Steve
and Andrea to know that he was in fact awake and listening to them.
But then he heard Steve bite back a howl of laughter. “HIM?! Not a chance.”
“Pity,” Andrea said, and Raymond thought he heard a trace of sadness in her voice. “I still think
they’d make a good pair.”
“Yeah, me too, but Ray’s the kind of guy who takes a while to figure out what he wants. I just
hope I’m there to see his face when he finally clues in to the fact that he wants her.”
“And what about you? Are you the kind of guy who takes a while to figure out what he wants?”
he heard Andrea tease, then Raymond heard her give a muffled squeak and a few seconds later,
he heard Steve’s bedroom door close.
Oh, hell, was all Raymond could think as from the next room, he heard Steve and Andrea
laughing over the sudden creak of mattress springs. And as their laughter gave way to moans and
sighs, Raymond rolled to his side to face away from the wall that divided his room from Steve’s,
pulled a pillow over his head to block out the sound, and suddenly felt more intensely, terribly
alone than he had ever felt in his entire life.
*****
“OH CRAP, I’M LATE!”
Raymond jerked awake at the sound of Andrea’s wail, instinctively sitting bolt upright in bed
and searching for the source of the noise before remembering where he was. Although he’d tried
desperately to ignore the couple in the next room, between the sounds of them making love on
and off through most of the night, combined with the inadvertent and embarrassing discovery
that Andrea tended to broadcast psychically while in the throes of passion, Raymond had gotten
only an hour or two of sleep.
From the next room came the sound of someone falling out of bed, another wail from Andrea as
she’d apparently banged her shin on Steve’s footboard, Steve’s sudden laughter, and then Steve’s
door opening.
Wearily climbing out of bed, Raymond rubbed his eyes and opened his own bedroom door to
find Andrea in the living room, wearing one of Steve’s t-shirts and nothing else, rummaging in
her bag and then pulling out a cell phone. Quickly punching in a number, she tapped her foot
impatiently while waiting for the person on the other end to pick up, oblivious to Raymond
standing watching her.
“Sharpe? It’s Andrea. Listen, I’m running late, tell Bowman and Wright I’ll be at the base in an
hour, okay?” She paused for a moment, then Raymond saw her roll her eyes. “None of your
business. Look, just tell them, okay? What do you mean, Tava wants to talk to me? No, Ray, no,
stop, don’t give her the phone-” She groaned and stamped her foot, covering her face with her
free hand. “Hey, Tava. What… first tell me if Bowman and the others are there. No? Good. Yes,
I went home with Steve.” While listening to whatever Sorina was saying on the other end,
Andrea ran her fingers through her disheveled auburn hair. “Haha, wouldn’t you like to know…
well, I’ll tell you, because I know you won’t tell them. It was fantastic.”
Raymond went red when he saw the openly carnal grin on Andrea’s face.
“I don’t suppose you got lucky last night yourself, huh?” There was a brief pause. “WHAT DO
YOU MEAN, NO?!” Another pause. “Damn, Tava, why the hell didn’t you just grab him and go
for it?”
Even from where he was standing, although he couldn’t quite make out what she said, Raymond
could hear Sorina’s outraged yelp.
“Yeah, whatever. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have jumped at the chance. But look, I’m already
late, so we’ll talk about this later. I gotta run. Bye!” Cutting off whatever Sorina was going to
say, Andrea hung up and shoved her phone back into her bag. But before Raymond could duck
back into his room, Andrea turned and saw him.
“Oh! Sorry if I woke you up, Dr. Keyes,” she said apologetically, completely nonchalant about
the fact that they were both half-naked as she dashed back into Steve’s bedroom and slammed
the door.
A minute later, the door opened again, and this time Steve emerged in his bathrobe, looking for
all the world like the cat that got the proverbial canary.
“I don’t want to know,” was all Raymond said as their eyes met.
“Sounds like someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” Steve said, rolling his
shoulders and stretching, but before Raymond could answer, Andrea came back out, wearing the
outfit she’d had on last night and carrying her boots in her hand. She sat down on the living room
couch and pulled them on, cursing as she shoved her feet in, then she stood again and slung her
bag over her shoulder as Steve wandered into the living room after her.
“Well, hotshot, we’ll have to do this again.” Raymond watched as Andrea reached up and pulled
Steve’s mouth down to hers, kissing him intensely before letting him go and swatting him on the
rear. “Call me some time.”
“Will do,” Steve replied, grinning at her, and Andrea turned to Raymond and gave him a quick
wave.
“Catch you later, Dr. Keyes!” Before he could reply, she was out the front door and taking off
into the sky.
Steve walked over to close the front door, then turned around and leaned against it, watching his
roommate in silence.
“You were going to see her home safe, sound, and with her dignity intact,” Raymond said coldly.
“Remember?”
“Last time I checked, what two consenting adults do is between them and no one else,” Steve
replied, just as coldly. “Or maybe it’s just jealousy that’s got your armor tied up in knots.”
“I’m not interested in Andrea.”
“That’s not what I mean. Just because you had a chance to score with Sorina and you didn’t
doesn’t give you the right to take your frustration out on me.” At that, Raymond flinched, but
Steve wouldn’t back down. “That’s what I thought.”
“But how could you… I mean…” Raymond waved his hands in a vague gesture toward Steve’s
bedroom. “Damn it, did it even mean anything to you?”
All Steve did was shrug.
Unable to meet his roommate’s eyes, Raymond stared at the floor, but he still caught the look of
dawning comprehension on Steve’s face.
“Oh, now I get it.” Steve flopped down on the couch and put his feet up on their coffee table,
while Raymond slowly trudged in after him and sat in one of the kitchen chairs. “Two people can
choose to just have fun, Ray… it doesn’t always have to be about commitment.”
“I’m… I’m not like that, Steve,” Raymond said at last, looking at his roommate.
“How do you know? It’s been so long since you’ve actually gone after a woman that who’s to
say what you’re like anymore?” Raymond didn’t answer that, and Steve went on. “But as long as
you’re letting me actually be honest with you, I think you spent so damn long in that armor that
you’ve forgotten what it means to just be a man.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t give me that. ‘Positron, build this.’ ‘Positron, solve that.’ Hell, you had ME convinced
you were just a computer sometimes.”
At hearing Steve accurately describe the very feelings he’d tried so hard to suppress, and which
had been tormenting him most of last night, Raymond snarled and twisted out of his chair,
lashing out with one foot and kicking the chair over. “Shut up.”
“And now here’s Sorina, a beautiful, smart woman with the same interests as you. And even
though you’re flesh and blood, you still want to keep the armor on, keep her away, because it’s
safer that way.”
“SHUT UP!” Before Raymond could stop himself, he rounded on Steve, feeling the pulse of
anti-matter gathering around one fist, but all Steve did was get to his feet.
“Damn it, Ray, last night you looked happy for the first time in God knows how long. And of
everyone you know, I’m the last person on the planet who wants to see you screw it up. But if
you want to hit me, go ahead and try, if you think you can.”
For a long time, the two roommates stared at one another, then the energy around Raymond’s
hand subsided as he fell back against the wall and rested his face in his hands, his entire body
trembling.
“I’m afraid, Steve…”
He heard his friend come padding over and then felt Steve rest one hand on his shoulder. “I
know, man. It’s okay.”
They stayed like that for several moments, which more than anything told Raymond how
concerned Steve was, since it was nearly impossible for him to do anything longer than five
seconds at a time.
“Come on, we’re gonna be late,” Steve said at last.
“Yeah.” Raymond started toward his room, but then stopped and looked back at Steve. “Look,
Steve… I’m s-”
“Forget it,” Steve grinned, vanishing into his own room, and Raymond finally smiled before
turning away to get ready for work.
Chapter Fourteen  
SO MUCH FOR SECRETS
Forty-five minutes later, Raymond and Steve arrived at the Freedom Phalanx base, late for their
usual weekly morning meeting.
Citadel, Numina, Manticore, Sister Psyche, and Statesman were all sitting at the enormous
meeting table as the two heroes walked in, and all of them save Statesman turned to look at them
with expressions varying from amusement to chagrin to mild embarrassment.
“Hey, guys, sorry we’re… late…” Steve’s voice trailed off as he realized that something was
wrong. “What, haven’t any of you ever been late before? What’s with the stares?”
The other Phalanx members glanced over at Statesman, who rose to his feet and slid what looked
like a newspaper across the table toward Steve and Raymond.
“Would either of you care to explain this?”
They both looked down at the paper, and saw that it was one of the larger tabloids for Paragon
City. But what really caught their attention was the slightly grainy but unmistakable cover photo
of Raymond and Sorina in Pocket D, just beneath the blaring headline, HAS POSITRON
FOUND LOVE AT LAST?
“What the HELL?!” Raymond shouted, reaching out to grab the tabloid, but Steve was faster and
snatched it away.
“‘Romance appears to be in the air at long last for Positron, aka Dr. Raymond Keyes, one of the
founding members and leading lights of Paragon City’s Freedom Phalanx,’” he read aloud from
the story beneath the photo. “‘Well-known for his shunning of the social spotlight that other
Phalanx members seem to enjoy (most notably Synapse, see following story), it seems that the
good doctor is on the prowl of the social scene.’”
Raymond lunged for the paper, but Steve kept dodging him, reading out the rest of the article in
between vanishing and reappearing always out of Raymond’s reach.
“‘We were surprised to find him in Pocket D, the interdimensional dance club that is home to
many a cross-factional rave between the heroes and villains of the world, intensely focused on
his partner for the evening, one Dr. Sorina Tavarisch of the Star Patrol branch of the Freedom
Corps, and lecturer at Paragon City University. While the two doctors have publicly maintained
a professional friendship, privately the situation appears to be quite different. And last night’s
jaunt to Pocket D, where they were seen sharing drinks and dancing together, would certainly
seem to indicate the latter.’”
“WOULD YOU GIVE ME THAT?!”
“‘Further investigation discovered that the two had dined a deux at the Canyon View restaurant
last week, although sources say that their evening was interrupted by a Rikti assault. Side by
side, the two superheroes helped fend off the incursion with the help of several other heroes, then
they returned to the restaurant to continue their evening.’”
“STEVE!”
“‘However, both Positron and Dr. Tavarisch were unavailable for comment at press time about
these developments in their relationship, as were the ranking members of both the Star Patrol
and the Freedom Phalanx. Only time will tell if wedding bells will chime for Dr. Keyes and Dr.
Tavarisch as they did earlier this year for Positron’s teammates, Manticore and Sister Psyche,
whose highly-publicized wedding was actually officiated by Positron himself. Perhaps Statesman
will officiate for Dr. Keyes in the near future?’”
Raymond gave up trying to catch Steve and dropped into the nearest chair, his face in his hands
as Steve stopped reading.
“It gets worse,” Manticore said, gesturing at the paper that Steve was still holding. “They’ve got
an article on Synapse in there, too.”
With superspeed, Steve turned pages and found another column with the headline RACING
TOWARD HEARTACHE? Beneath it was a picture of him dancing with Andrea Blake on the
Pocket D dance floor.
“‘Synapse is well-known for his love-’em-and-leave-’em relationship streak, but he may have
met his match at last. The exact opposite of his Freedom Phalanx partner, the brilliant but
socially reclusive Positron, Steve Berry seems determined to enjoy life in the fast lane as only he
can. But last night in Pocket D, we spotted him partying it up with the lovely Andrea Blake, one
of the founding members of the Freedom Corps branch known as the Star Patrol. While not quite
achieving Synapse’s level of notoriety, Blake has already made a name for herself for being
romantically linked to some of the most eligible bachelors in Paragon City.
It’s perhaps inevitable that these two social dynamos would eventually find their way to one
another, although bets are already circulating amongst the gossip circles as to how long such a
relationship might last. Given their previous relationship histories, their active courting of
danger as superheroes (Blake has been hospitalized for no less than three comas), not to mention
the fifteen-year age gap, this pairing looks to be about as explosive and short-lived as a box of
dynamite on a bonfire.’”
“Hey, how comes Ray gets the cover story and I’m on page eight?” Steve complained.
“Because everyone already knows you’re a social animal,” Sister Psyche replied with a smile.
“Positron coming out of his shell, as it were, is a totally different situation.”
“This is not a matter to make jokes about, Psyche,” Statesman said gruffly. “As members of the
Freedom Phalanx, we have an image to uphold. Becoming fodder for the gossip columns is
hardly conducive to that.”
“The Freedom Phalanx is used to being in the spotlight, but the Star Patrol tends to be
overshadowed by Longbow,” Numina said, her voice soft. “Never mind what Dr. Tavarisch and
Ms. Blake are going to think when they see this.”
“Knowing Andrea, I doubt she’d care. Hell, she’d probably think it was hilarious, but Sorina’s
going to go ballistic,” Steve remarked, taking his seat next to Raymond.
“Especially since by now, the press is probably going to be camped on her doorstep,” Manticore
added, no stranger to the social limelight himself.
“So you’re saying that when we try and go home, the media is going to be all over us?”
Raymond asked, and Manticore nodded.
“Actually, it’s also likely that when you leave the base, the reporters will be waiting,” Citadel
added, looking from Steve to Raymond.
Raymond let out a long sigh and ran his hands over his face. “I did not get nearly enough sleep to
cope with this.”
In a flash, Steve was gone and then back with a steaming mug of coffee that he set in front of
Raymond. “Drink up, my man, I think you’re going to need it.”
*****
Citadel’s prediction unfortunately proved to be accurate. He and Raymond used the security
cameras to check outside, and saw a legion of reporters clamoring at the doors.
Raymond turned to Statesman with an almost despairing expression. “What do I do? You’ve
been in the forefront of the media for decades, don’t you have any advice?”
“Unfortunately, Positron, my experiences with the press have been mostly to discuss my
crimefighting, not my personal life.” Statesman shook his head. “You only have two real options
- ignore them, or confront them.”
“If I might make a suggestion,” Sister Psyche chimed in from where she was leaning against the
doorframe. “It might be best if you contacted Dr. Tavarisch and discussed this with her. Justin
taught me that a unified front at least makes it a little easier to force some consistency on them.”
Raymond looked back to Statesman for permission, and Statesman waved him toward the lab.
“Go ahead. Best to figure out how to handle this now so we can get on with the job.”
With a nod, Raymond entered his lab, closed the door, and picked up the phone. He first tried to
call Sorina’s apartment, but the phone just rang and rang, and he wasn’t certain if it was because
she wasn’t home or she was avoiding the press. Giving up on that, he hung up and used the lab’s
communication system to contact Star Patrol headquarters.
After a brief pause, an audio/visual link opened, showing a man slightly younger than Raymond
with sandy brown hair and light brown eyes.
“Good morning, Dr. Keyes… I’ve been expecting your call. I’m Agent Eli Bowman, leader of the
Star Patrol.”
“I gather you’ve heard what happened, then?” Raymond asked, leaning back in his chair. So
much for the hope that Sorina hadn’t learned about this.
Agent Bowman nodded. “Yes. And while Andrea finds the whole thing amusing, Tava doesn’t.”
“Is she there?”
“Actually, yes, but she’s getting ready to leave on an extended assignment to Portal Corporation
- Dr. Tina MacIntyre requested assistance with a problem over there and since Tava’s our
technical expert, it seemed best to dispatch her there. At least there she’ll be away from the
press, while still in contact with us.”
“Is there any chance I can talk to her before she leaves?” Raymond asked quietly. “With all
respect, Agent Bowman, I was hoping to talk to her about all this - the press are going to be all
over me too, and I’d rather she know what was going on.”
The other hero nodded slowly. “Hold on, I’ll route you to her terminal in the lab.”
“Thanks.”
Bowman’s image disappeared and was replaced by Sorina, once again wearing her Star Patrol
uniform. “Hello, Raymond.” She sounded tired, and Raymond wondered if she’d gotten any real
sleep either since last night.
“Sorina, I’m sorry.”
“For what? It’s not your fault.”
“Still, I feel kind of responsible.” He sighed and rested his chin in his hands. “I guess that’s the
price of fame, huh?”
“But how do we deal with this?” Now it was her turn to sigh. “I’d personally be inclined to
ignore them, but God knows what else they’d make up in the meantime.”
“Let them,” he said at last. “As long as you and I know the truth, and the people whose opinions
we care about know the truth, I say let the press go to hell.”
He was gratified to see her smile. “Da. I just feel bad that you’re going to be stuck dealing with
them while I’m gone.”
“I’ll live.”
Sorina looked away briefly, then back at him. “Listen… I’ll be gone for a few days. But… when I
get back…”
“I’d like to see you again,” Raymond said softly, remembering the warmth from last night. “Call
me when you get back, all right? And stay safe, Sorina.”
“You too. Tavarisch out.”
Chapter Fifteen  
KILLING TIME
The next few days were business as usual for the Freedom Phalanx - stopping yet another
attempt by the Banished Pantheon to unleash some horror from beyond the veil, preventing a
rather large group of Freakshow from breaking some of their comrades out of the Zig, and in one
really memorable day, stopping the Clockwork, Vahzilok, and the Circle of Thorns from taking
out one of Paragon City’s power substations.
Things were made a bit more complicated, however, by the fact that the media was hounding the
Phalanx for interviews at every chance they could get… or at least any chance they could get
when the reporters wouldn’t find themselves under fire from whoever was fighting the Phalanx.
No matter where they went, it seemed like the media was right there along with them, and while
it made for great additional publicity for the Freedom Phalanx, after the third day, it really started
getting tiring.
Raymond, especially, was getting fed up with Synapse cutting out what he thought were the
funniest of the speculative headlines and hanging them up in his lab. It had not gone well when
Raymond had returned from the men’s room to see the bold headline POSITRON SECRETLY
MARRIED! plastered to his computer monitor.
“I wonder if maybe I should just ‘convince’ them to leave us alone,” Sister Psyche mused as they
returned to headquarters after a rather intense scrap with the Carnival of Shadows on Peregrine
Island.
“That would hardly be fair,” Statesman scolded her as they headed inside, ignoring the crowd of
reporters camped out on the steps. “They may be annoying, but they’re still trying to make a
living.”
“Can’t they make their living some place else, though?” Raymond groaned, grateful that his
helmet provided anti-flash measures to keep him from being blinded by the barrage of flashbulbs
as he followed the others inside. “This is really starting to get annoying.”
Manticore gave him a look that was part sympathy, part condescension. “You have no idea…
when Shalice and I got married, they were ALL over us. How the hell they got into Ouroboros for
the wedding when it was invite-only is STILL a mystery.”
“I bet I could swipe all the film out of their cameras before they even notice,” Synapse
volunteered, turning to go back outside, but Statesman stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“No. Positron already made his decision on how to handle this.” Statesman turned to look over at
Raymond, but the hero had already headed into his lab and closed the door behind him. “All we
can do is support that decision.”
*****
Raymond pulled off his helmet and dropped it on his workbench before collapsing into his chair.
As had become his unconscious habit over the last couple of days, his eyes automatically sought
out the one clipping he had not discarded.
The picture of himself and Sorina in Pocket D - sitting together, leaning in toward each other,
and laughing.
Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes and tried to unwind from the stress of the day.
Then he heard a soft knock on the door of the lab, and without opening his eyes, called out,
“Come in.” Raymond heard the door open and the sound of careful footsteps, then he heard,
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
He opened his eyes to see Sister Psyche standing in the doorway, looking concerned. He waved
her inside, and she closed the door behind her and came over to lean against his workbench.
“You really do seem under a lot of strain these last few days. Is there anything I can do to help?”
For several moments, he was silent, then at last he said, “I don’t even know where to start.” A
moment later, he felt the familiar sensation of Sister Psyche’s mind touching his own, but he
shook his head and met her eyes.
“Don’t, Shalice.” As much as he might have wanted her insight, there was an instinctive need
within him to keep things private.
“Are you sure?” she asked softly, but he nodded. “Do you at least want to talk about it?”
“Maybe soon, but not just yet. I… I want to try and make sense of this myself. But I appreciate
the offer.”
The psion reached out and lightly rested her hand on his arm in a silent gesture of reassurance
and support, then turned and headed toward the door. But before opening it, she paused and
looked back.
“Two things - one, Synapse is waiting outside wanting to know if you’re ready to head home.
Two… being worried about Dr. Tavarisch isn’t stupid.”
Raymond gave Sister Psyche a slightly crooked grin at that. “Thanks a lot, Shalice. And tell
Steve I’ll be ready to go in a few minutes.”
Just then, Manticore’s voice came over the base’s intercom system. “Hey, Positron, incoming
message for you.”
Raymond frowned slightly as he glanced over at his computer terminal in the lab. “Who is it?”
“Someone you actually want to talk to,” Manticore said cheerfully. “So give the man some
privacy, Shalice.”
With that as a hint, Raymond leaned over and opened the communication channel while Sister
Psyche chuckled and left the lab. “Sorina?”
“Zdravstvujte, Raymond,” she greeted him as the audio/visual link was established. “I apologize
for calling you at Freedom Phalanx headquarters, I suppose I should have just called you
directly.”
“It’s okay,” he reassured her. “Is everything all right?”
“Da. I just got back to headquarters and checked in with Bowman and the others, but I wanted to
let you know I was back.” He saw her turn slightly red beneath her mask.
“Why, Dr. Tavarisch, did you actually miss me?”
There was a brief pause, then she replied softly, “Yes, actually.”
Raymond’s insides seemed to do a brief flip-flop at that, and he hoped it didn’t show on his face.
But when he saw her faint smile, he realized that it had, and he gave her a slightly embarrassed
grin.
“How has the press been treating me in my absence?”
He groaned and leaned back in his chair. “Be glad you were gone. They were on me like ants on
a sugar donut.” She looked like she was about to apologize, and he waved one hand, cutting her
off. “Don’t apologize, it’s not your fault. But you’d best be careful when you go back to your
place, it’s a safe bet that the media are going to be there waiting for you.”
“I figured as much… they almost swamped me when I came back to headquarters.” She muttered
something in Russian that sounded rather scathing, and Raymond smiled.
Then she ran her fingers through her hair, looking hesitant. “Anyway… um… I have stuff to finish
up here, but… I was wondering if… maybe later this evening…”
He waited, then prompted her, “Later this evening… what?”
“Would… would you like to come to my place for a drink?”
“Yes,” he said quietly, and she seemed to relax. “What time?”
He saw her turn her head and guessed she was looking at a clock. He did the same and saw it was
about five in the afternoon.
“Say, seven-thirty?”
“Sounds good to me. I’ll see you then… oh, and Sorina?”
“Da?”
He paused, then said in a rush, “I’m glad you’re back.”
Now it was Sorina’s turn to grin. “Why, Dr. Keyes, did you actually miss me?”
Raymond went red. “Yes, damn it. And you can stop laughing.” But he had to admit, he did
enjoy seeing her smile.
“I’ll see you tonight,” she chuckled, and as she ended the transmission, he sat back in his chair
and smiled up at the ceiling.
*****
“So Sorina’s back safe and sound?” Steve asked Raymond over the radio as they made their way
home, Raymond flying while Steve zoomed along the streets.
“Yeah.”
“You gonna see her tonight?”
“I’m meeting her at her place later for a drink.”
Steve’s laughter echoed in his ears. “There may be hope for you yet, Romeo…”
“Oh, shut up.”
“You want to swing by the drugstore on the way home?”
Raymond gave a half-growl, and Steve just laughed again.
“So what did Sister Psyche want to talk to you about?” Steve asked a few minutes later, dropping
the bantering tone and sounding a bit more serious.
“She’s worried about me,” Raymond replied with a sigh. “Knowing my luck, the Phalanx thinks
I’m about to crack under the mental strain.”
“You? Never. You’d have to be in touch with reality for that to happen.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Hey, just being honest- WHAT THE HELL?!”
Raymond stopped in mid-air. “Steve? What’s wrong?” But no sooner were the words out of his
mouth when over the radio came an agonized cry of pain. “STEVE!”
Chapter Sixteen  
DOUBLE TROUBLE
Looking down, Raymond saw Steve falling to his knees, surrounded by writhing darkness, and
he dove out of the sky to land beside his friend. “Steve, what’s-” An instant later, he realized his
mistake, for now he was trapped in the same patch of darkness that chilled him to his bones,
slowing his movements and dulling his senses. Right after that, it felt like an icy hand had
grabbed hold of his spine and was tightening its grip, freezing its way throughout his body.
He fought back the urge to scream and reached out for Steve, his only thought to heal his friend
and then get them both the hell out of there.
Raymond’s armor had the ability to convert anti-matter into a nanomachine healing field, but as
he lifted his hand to help Steve, he suddenly reeled as if shoved, his concentration broken, and
then readings flashed in front of his eyes - almost ninety percent of his armor’s primary energy
reserves had just been drained.
“What the…”
As fast as he could, he ran a systems check, and realized to his horror that something had
managed to come up beside him and with unearthly precision, had severed most of the wiring
from his armor’s main power unit.
What briefly puzzled him, though, was that if his attacker’s blades had gone in only inches
deeper, he’d be dead right now. So why hadn’t he just killed him?
Raymond shoved the question to the back of his mind to deal with the more immediate problem
of them being attacked. His backup power cells were really only enough to allow him limited
flight and control over the suit, not to use the full range of his powers. If he used his remaining
energy to heal Steve, he’d be helpless, his armor almost deadweight on his body.
Lightning flashed from Steve’s hand, blazing over Raymond’s shoulder.
“What are you-”
“Behind you…” Steve choked out, gasping in pain, and Raymond whirled around to look, but
saw no one there.
“Where…?” He triggered every visual scanner the armor had, sweeping the area for Steve’s
assailant, but found nothing, and as if adding insult to injury, Raymond and Steve suddenly
found themselves surrounded by a cloud of darkness, making it nearly impossible to see. “Where
the hell did he…?”
Beside him, fighting the pain, Steve abruptly turned his head to one side and flung out one hand,
sending a searing bolt of lightning down an alleyway, but Raymond couldn’t see anything.
“Damn… missed…”
“What the hell are we even shooting at?” Raymond said in frustration. “How can you even SEE
anything in this darkness?”
“Whatever it is… it’s centered… on me…” Steve gasped. “If you move… you’ll be… out of
it…”
“But what about you?”
Steve’s head snapped around again and he sent another blast of lightning at something Raymond
couldn’t see. “Just… do it…”
Moving as if through molasses, Raymond fought his way through the darkness that was
surrounding them both, then abruptly staggered as he reached the edge. As he did so, his
scanners picked up the energy readings of a figure standing off to one side, hand raised and
darkness flowing toward Steve.
Turning, he saw it was female, petite and slender, her entire body wrapped in patchwork black
and grey leather, with chains around her hands, feet, neck, and waist, and her eyes covered by a
blindfold and held by barbed wire.
And she was laughing.
With a snarl, he used the last of his armor’s primary energy cells to hurl a massive blast of anti-
matter at her. She turned too late to avoid the blast, and was thrown several feet before slamming
into the side of a building. As she slumped to the ground, the darkness surrounding Steve
dissipated, as did the patch of inky blackness on the ground. Raymond staggered toward her, but
she was already getting to her feet, and as she tossed him a mocking salute, she laughed once
again, leapt into the air and vanished.
At the sound of her laughter, Raymond went absolutely still, a single feverish thought running
unchecked through his mind.
ANDREA…?
*****
“They’re… both gone…” he heard over the radio, and Raymond turned back to Steve, who was
now on all fours, holding one hand to his side.
“Both?”
“The one… you hit… and the one… who hit me…”
Raymond was horrified to see blood dripping from behind Steve’s hand where he was pressing it
to his side. “Damn it, why didn’t you teleport to the hospital?”
“He disabled… my teleport signal… when he… stabbed me…” Steve’s eyes were dazed, but
still focusing on Raymond. “He… was good…”
“We’ve got to get you to the hospital,” Raymond said as he lifted Steve into his arms, feeling his
suit tapping into his backup power cells. But then he saw down the street the familiar glowing
ring of the base portal system. “On the other hand…”
Flying as fast as he dared while holding Steve, he raced straight to the glowing ring, and as he’d
hoped, his access to the Star Patrol base was still valid. With luck, they’d have medical facilities
of their own, and a second later, they were standing in the headquarters of the Star Patrol.
“IS ANYONE HERE?” he bellowed. “WE NEED HELP!”
Several agents came running, and Raymond recognized Agents Bowman and Sharpe among
them.
“What the… Positron?”
“Medical bay, where is it?” Raymond said desperately, and Bowman quickly led him down a
hall into a small but well-equipped medical bay, in the meantime shouting to someone named
Caroline and Raphael, while Sharpe ordered the other agents back to work and out of their way.
As Raymond set Steve down on the nearest treatment table, two other agents came running in
from the office next to the medical bay.
“Bowman, what on earth-”
“Synapse has been stabbed… maybe worse,” Raymond said, and was quickly shunted aside by
the two new arrivals, one of whom immediately began hooking Steve up to the medical scanners,
while the other rested his hands on Steve’s side, over the site of the injury, a pale green light
slowly beginning to glow around his hands.
“Got him stabilized, Caroline, what’s the deal?”
The woman, Caroline, quickly read over the scanner’s readouts. “No sign of poison… primary
injury - dual stab wounds, monofilament blades by the look of it. Some residual effects from
exposure to Netherworld energy, causing a slowdown in natural recovery. Go ahead, Raph.”
Raphael nodded, and the glow suddenly intensified, surrounding both him and Steve from head
to foot. As the light brightened, Raymond’s scanners saw Steve’s life signs abruptly improve,
and as the glow faded, he saw that they had reached almost optimum levels once again.
Groaning, Steve lifted his head and looked around the room, then let his head fall back with a
sigh. “Damn, that hurt.”
“Maybe so, but you’re okay now,” Caroline said cheerfully. “And don’t worry, you’ve still got
plenty of juice left in you for hero work.”
“Thank God…” Raymond whispered.
“Good work, you two,” Bowman said, and Caroline and Raphael both nodded. “Positron,
Synapse, meet Dr. Caroline Smith, our chief physician, and Agent Raphael, our foremost combat
medic.”
“We can’t thank you enough,” Raymond said sincerely, shaking their hands, as did Steve.
“All part of the job,” Caroline said with a slight smile.
Three seconds later, he heard a gasp behind him, and turned to see Sorina and Andrea come
skidding to a halt inside the medical bay.
“My God, Raymond… I just heard-”
“Is Steve all right? Blitzium said-”
“He’s fine,” Bowman reassured the two women.
“Thank God,” Andrea sighed, not taking her eyes off Steve where he lay on the treatment table.
Raymond, however, was looking at Andrea, and a nasty suspicion was slowly forming in his
mind.
It couldn’t be… it just could not be. But as he remembered the woman standing there, one hand
extended, laughing…
“How long have you been here?”
Andrea looked confused. “You mean here in the lab? I just got here.”
“I mean in the base.”
She frowned. “The last couple of hours, at least. Why?”
Raymond then turned to Sharpe and Bowman, his expression grave. “You’re certain?”
Bowman and Sharpe looked at one another in bewilderment. “Yes, she’s been here for a good
part of the afternoon. Before that, she and Kolton were on assignment together in Faultline, and
before that, she was over at SERAPH…”
Steve struggled to sit up, assisted by Caroline and Raphael, one hand over his side where he’d
been stabbed. “But that laugh… I heard it too.”
“What laugh?” Bowman asked.
As Raymond and Steve began describing the attack, both Sharpe and Blake went white.
“Then I turned and saw this woman standing there,” Raymond went on, “and she was laughing…
and she-”
“She was wearing a leather bodysuit, black and grey and almost patchwork, with a black
blindfold and chains on her body,” Sharpe finished, closing his eyes with a dismayed expression.
Raymond and Steve exchanged astounded looks. “Y-yes… but how did you know?” Raymond
whispered.
Sharpe looked over at Blake, who was biting her lower lip and looking for all the world like she
was fighting tears. “Andrea…”
But she shook her head, her auburn hair rippling past her shoulders with the movement. “I… I
can’t, Ray… you explain.” She turned on her heel and stalked out of the medical bay.
“Would someone mind telling us what’s going on?” Steve demanded, cautiously getting up from
the table.
Sharpe sighed. “You’d better come with us.”
Chapter Seventeen  
THE NATURE OF THE ENEMY
Soon Sharpe, Bowman, Sorina, Raymond, Steve, and Andrea were seated in the main boardroom
of their headquarters. They’d been joined by a tall, wiry black woman whom Sharpe introduced
as Joelle Wright, the fourth founder of the Star Patrol along with himself, Bowman, and Andrea.
“So who was that woman who attacked Steve earlier?” Raymond asked, looking from one person
to another.
“Her name, as far as we’ve been able to determine, is Soulcatcher,” Bowman said slowly. “She’s
a member of a rather vicious villain organization known as the Nova Dominion.”
“But why did she sound like Andrea? Can she imitate people or something?” Steve asked,
puzzled.
Andrea didn’t reply, but just stared at the top of the boardroom table. Sharpe gave her a
sympathetic look, then replied, “It’s difficult to explain, but…” He sighed. “You know that
Andrea taps into the Netherworld for her powers. I gather Dr. Keyes saw something of that
during our battle two weeks ago against the Rikti.”
Raymond nodded.
“Well… Andrea’s been in at least three comas, and had God knows how many other brushes
with death over the years. And every time she does… it’s like she leaves a part of herself in the
Netherworld. It doesn’t diminish her here, so far as we can detect. But for a long time, a part of
her soul existed there.”
Sharpe sighed and ran his fingers through his spiky blue hair. “Well, to make a long story less
long… one of the other members of the Nova Dominion, while wandering the Netherworld,
found that part of her soul. And recognizing it for what it was - and who it belonged to - he
genetically engineered a body, and used blood magic to bind that soul fragment to a mortal
form.”
Raymond and Steve turned in astonishment to Andrea, who was sitting now with her eyes closed
and tears slowly sliding down her cheeks.
“Wait a second…” Steve exclaimed. “You’re not saying that that woman, Soulcatcher, is
actually-”
“-another aspect of Andrea Blake,” Wright finished for him. “Yes. Soulcatcher is not an identical
copy - their powers are different, so far as we can tell. And Soulcatcher does not have all of
Andrea’s memories, but… they are linked in a way, a connection that we’re still trying to
understand.”
Raymond, however, was still trying to take it all in. “But why would she attack Steve? It doesn’t
make sense!”
“Most likely it wasn’t her idea,” Bowman replied gravely. “We don’t know much about her, but
Soulcatcher is not the murderous type. However, based on your description of the attack, she
probably had help. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that she was only there as a distraction,
drawing your attention away from the true assassin.”
“Another Nova Dominion member?” Raymond asked, and Sharpe nodded.
“Yes… we don’t know his name, but we know that they have an assassin of virtually
unparalleled skill and brutality working with them. We’ve tangled with him before, but we know
almost nothing about him.”
“But why Steve?”
The leaders looked at one another, and then at Sorina, who was now looking uncomfortable.
“You have to understand,” Bowman began, turning back to Steve and Raymond, “what we’re
about to tell you is classified, according to Longbow and the Freedom Corps. But… you have the
right to know, because you’re Phalanx members, and… you deserve to know, after what
happened today.”
“The… leader of the Nova Dominion,” Wright said hesitantly, “was once a Star Patrol member.
One of the founders, in fact, named John McTavish. For… reasons we won’t go into now, he
was expelled.”
“More than that, he was handed over to Longbow,” Andrea said at last, looking sad. “On charges
of voluntary manslaughter. He was tried and sent to Ziggursky Prison, but escaped and fled to
the Rogue Isles. She lifted her head and met Raymond’s eyes. “Where he adopted the name
Banestar, and later founded the Nova Dominion.”
“The Dominion, like most other villain groups, has their own designs on the world,” Bowman
explained somberly. “But… more than that… they want to see us destroyed.” He looked from
Steve to Raymond and back again. “Us… and anyone who associates with us.”
“And after those articles appeared in the tabloids about the four of you,” Sharpe sighed, “it really
only became a matter of time.”
Slowly Raymond began to realize what the leaders were saying. “So… because Banestar hates
all of you…”
“You two are now potential targets,” Andrea whispered. “Because of your involvement with us
on a personal level.”
Steve closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again to meet Andrea’s. “That’s why you’re
known for one-night stands… you don’t want Banestar to think you’re attached to any one
individual who might be singled out as a target.”
“Among other reasons, but yes,” she admitted quietly.
Raymond then looked at Sorina. “And you… is that why you’ve deliberately kept yourself at a
distance from most people?”
“Yes and no,” she said reluctantly. “Part of it has to do with all that happened to me in Vanguard,
but…” Sorina gave a long sigh. “You see… in the hierarchy of the Star Patrol, I’m McTavish’s
replacement. We even have similar powers. And… even though I joined after he was removed,
Banestar sees me as his substitute, and an inferior one at that. What I do with technology, he can
do naturally. To say he resents me would be an understatement.”
Andrea briefly hid her face in her hands, then lifted her head once more and looked at Steve.
“His logic is as warped and twisted as he is, but there is method to his madness. He knows now
that Tava and Dr. Keyes are dating, and he knows that on some casual level, you and I are
connected. You also happen to be Dr. Keyes’ best friend. If the Nova Dominion took you out,
they’d have dealt a major blow to the world by killing a leading member of the Freedom
Phalanx, they’d have hurt Dr. Keyes by killing his best friend, and they’d have hurt Tava and me
by making us feel responsible for you two.”
Bowman looked grave. “It’s… the primary reason for the unspoken rule that Star Patrol
members don’t get involved in relationships. Most of us are loners anyway, and several of us
don’t have families, either. And while it’s painful, it at least means fewer targets for the
Dominion’s wrath. But romantically…” Bowman’s eyes went to Andrea and Sorina. “Well, most
of us stay single, or at most, confine our relationships to other Star Patrol members.”
Wright nodded. “Everyone who enlists knows that joining the Star Patrol is a possible death
sentence if found by a member of the Nova Dominion, and we’re all willing to take that chance.”
“It’s easy to fight for Paragon City,” Sharpe added.
“But sometimes, to get the job done, you have to be willing to die for it,” Bowman finished. “But
that’s us. You’re not obligated to carry that burden.”
Raymond looked over at Sorina, and saw that she was watching him, her goggles pushed on top
of her head and her eyes faintly shimmering with tears.
Next to her, Andrea was slowly nodding. “Yes, Dr. Keyes. You’re going to have to decide if
you’re willing to take the risk of being involved with a Star Patrol member. Because if Banestar
finds out… they will come after you.”
*****
Raymond was stunned as he stared at the five Star Patrol members, who were calmly facing him
and Steve even as they talked about the risk that hung over all their heads as part of their daily
lives. Then he looked at Sorina again, and as he did so, Bowman signalled the other three
leaders.
“I think these two need some time alone. We’ll make sure you’re not disturbed.”
As the four leaders filed out, followed by Steve, Sorina looked down at the table, her eyes filled
with misery.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “But believe me, I’ll understand if you choose to walk away from all
of this.”
And part of him was sorely tempted to - considering that he wasn’t even certain what he wanted
out of this relationship, the notion of risking his life for it seemed almost insane.
And yet, as he sat there looking at her, Raymond was hard-pressed to just get up and leave. Not
when he saw the same heartbreaking loneliness in Sorina’s eyes that he saw all too often in his
own when his melancholy moods got the better of him.
“You’d leave that choice up to me?”
Still not looking at him, she nodded. “After seeing that article in the paper, I was… I was
tempted to break it off then. Make it look like I was embarrassed about the whole thing. But I… I
couldn’t make myself do it.”
Finally Sorina looked up at him, her dark eyes miserable. “And now this. Raymond, I know I can
never make this up to you and Steve, but I swear, I’ll understand if you walk out right now and
end it.”
For several long, agonizing minutes, they sat there in silence, never taking their eyes from each
other. And Raymond could see that while Sorina was deathly afraid that he would just walk out,
she would not stop him. It would tear her apart emotionally, but she would not stop him.
Slowly he rose to his feet, and he saw the blood drain from her face, yet she neither looked away
from him nor said a word. But at the edge of his vision he saw her hands tightening into fists, her
knuckles whitening with the effort of keeping herself from reaching out to him.
Then Raymond surprised them both by walking around the table to stand beside her, then he
reached down, took her hands in his, and helped her to her feet, still keeping his eyes locked on
hers.
“So is that offer for a drink at your place still good?”
Her lips parted and she tried to speak, but no sound came out. And even as Raymond saw a
single tear slide down from beneath her mask, the look in Sorina’s eyes was enough to take his
breath away.
Chapter Eighteen 
SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENTATION
“So, you two ready to leave yet?”
Raymond and Sorina turned to see Steve in the doorway of the boardroom, watching them with
an amused grin on his face.
Sorina sighed and rubbed her eyes. “I think I was ready about two hours ago.” She looked up at
Raymond. “How about you?”
He nodded. “I know exactly how you feel. You think Bowman’ll have a problem with you
sloping off a bit early?”
She wearily shook her head. “Nyet. Most of my work here is done, anyway. Anything else can
wait.”
Raymond turned back to his roommate. “I’ll be heading over to her place for a while. You going
to be all right?”
Steve nodded, resting one hand over his side where he’d been stabbed. “Should be. Sharpe says
he’ll fly escort just to be on the safe side, and Bowman says he’ll see about assigning some of
their agents to keep an eye on our place.”
It was galling, Raymond thought with a grimace, that they’d have to resort to measures like
these, but he’d be damned if he’d let himself or Steve get caught out like that again. Better to
know what they were up against first, and accept the help that the Star Patrol was offering.
“Let’s get out of here, then.”
They headed to the base’s teleport center, pausing long enough for Steve and Raymond to again
shake the hands of Caroline and Raphael in thanks, while Sorina aligned the teleporter beacon
with the signal for Steel Canyon. As she finished, she glanced up at Sharpe, who was entering
the teleport center.
“Ready?”
He nodded, and the four heroes found themselves in Steel Canyon near the Green Line… only to
turn around and see one of the nearby apartment buildings in flames. All around the building
were several people in familiar red and orange gang colours, some clapping, others hurling
torches or dynamite into the spreading fire.
“Oh, crap, Hellions,” Sharpe cursed, zooming over toward the fire with Sorina, Raymond, and
Steve right behind him. “Don’t they ever get tired of this?”
“You three put out the fire,” Sorina said firmly, lifting her hands. “I’ll deal with the Hellions.”
As the Hellions turned, some of them lifting their torches as weapons, others pulling guns or
crowbars and still others summoning fire around their hands, Sorina made a swift gesture and
lifted all of them several feet off the ground. One or two struggled and almost broke free, but she
clenched her fist and they all jerked like marionettes whose strings had just been pulled. While
she kept them immobilized, Raymond, Sharpe, and Steve grabbed fire extinguishers and spread
out around the building, dousing the flames. A few minutes later, other Hellions members
arrived and tried to attack Sorina, but with a yanking gesture that Raymond recognized from
their battle with the Rikti, she teleported them several yards away, straight into a group of
approaching heroes who’d spotted the smoke and were coming to help.
“Take care of them!” she called out to the newcomers, who nodded and quickly pounded the
Hellions into submission. The remaining arsonists decided that their pyromania wasn’t worth the
beating, and quickly fled, leaving the heroes free to fight the fire. With the additional heroes
helping out, some using fire extinguishers, others just sending blasts of ice and wind from their
hands, plus Steve zooming around the building so fast that it was pulling away the oxygen, in
short order, the Fire Marshal was sounding the all clear.
“Boy, did you give those Hellions what for!” he said admiringly as Steve, Sharpe, and Raymond
rejoined Sorina in the street.
“Not just us,” Sharpe corrected him, waving to the latecomer heroes. “Everyone contributed.”
Several of the residents came over as well to offer their thanks before leaving, and Sorina
glanced over at Sharpe.
“Keep an eye on Synapse, okay?”
“Will do - you keep an eye on Positron.” Then he grinned cheekily at her. “Like you wouldn’t be
doing that anyway.”
She turned pink and lightly punched him in the arm. “Zatknis.” Then her expression turned
serious. “But call if something comes up, especially if it’s them.”
“I will.” Sharpe also looked serious as he looked over at Steve. “But don’t worry - I think of all
of us, I’m the most used to dealing with them.”
Raymond wondered about that, but neither Sharpe nor Sorina seemed inclined to comment.
“Catch you two later,” Steve said cheerfully, grinning at his roommate, then he and Sharpe took
off into the heart of Steel Canyon while Raymond and Sorina headed back to the Green Line,
which they rode to Founders Falls.
*****
As they neared her apartment building, however, they both groaned to see a few diehard
reporters still waiting outside the main doors.
“Oh, this is great,” Raymond grumbled. “Can you imagine what they’d print if they saw me
walking in there with you?”
“I have a way around that.” She lifted her wrist computer and spoke clearly into it. “Command -
Accept Ally Identification Signal: Positron.” It beeped once, and then she looked over at him,
then up at the roof of her apartment building. “Head up to the roof and wait there.”
“What for?”
“For me to let you inside.”
Raymond wasn’t sure what she had in mind, but he shrugged and flew toward the roof while she
headed toward the main doors, ignoring the press who immediately began shouting questions at
her. He touched down lightly on the rooftop, watching the sun set behind the towering borders of
the War Walls and wondering what exactly she was going to do.
He found out three minutes later when he suddenly saw a shimmering haze surround him, and
then a yanking sensation took hold of him and nearly pulled him off his feet…
… and he found himself standing inside her apartment, with Sorina standing in front of him,
looking pleased with herself.
“What the hell was that?”
“Short-range remote teleportation,” she explained, pulling off her gauntlets and her goggles.
“Welcome to my humble abode - make yourself at home.” She looked down at herself. “I think
I’m going to change, though - I’ve had enough of being in uniform today.” As she wandered off
toward her room, she called back over her shoulder, “You’re welcome to lose the armor.”
Then she stopped abruptly and covered her face with her hands. “Please tell me that didn’t sound
the way I think it sounded.”
“My, aren’t we forward, Dr. Tavarisch.”
Raymond was grinning as she left the room with a groan, then he triggered the deactivation
sequence for his armor. Forty seconds later, it was neatly stashed to one side, and he was once
again in t-shirt and jeans. “Mind if I use your bathroom to clean up?” he called out, and heard her
muffled “Da. Second door down the hall on the left.”
Heading into the bathroom, he splashed water on his face, then washed his hands and towelled
himself dry before walking back into her living room. While waiting for her, he studied her
apartment. It was neat without being too much so, and rather casual. She obviously didn’t go for
expensive but uncomfortable furniture, he noticed - there was an almost Zen-like quality to the
place. Not unlike his own house, most of the available wall space was taken up by bookshelves,
covering a wide variety of topics. To his amusement, one full shelf was devoted to what looked
like romance novels, while another held several tomes of poetry, while other shelves held various
knickknacks or curios. The remaining wall space had a few abstract prints or high quality
photographs, and he moved closer to look at those. One in particular caught his eye - a younger
Sorina was smiling at the camera, her arm around the waist of a tall well-built man that looked
enough like her for Raymond to guess it was her brother, Stefan.
“Much better,” he heard Sorina say with a relieved sigh from behind him, and he turned to see
her now wearing an oversized t-shirt and fitted jeans, her feet bare and her hair loose around her
shoulders. Then she stopped when she saw him and slowly smiled, her eyes moving down the
length of him and then back to his face. “Yes, I’d say much better.”
“I agree,” he replied with a grin of his own.
For a few moments, they stood there looking at one another, and Raymond wondered how she
would react if he gave in to the impulse to hold her.
Damn, Tava, why didn’t you just grab him and go for it… don’t tell me you wouldn’t have
jumped at the chance…
But despite Andrea’s certainty that Sorina would have done so, Raymond could tell that the other
scientist was still very much uncertain, although whether of him or herself he wasn’t sure.
“What are you thinking about?” he said softly.
She gave a slightly guilty start, but without looking away, answered, “About how you would
react to something.”
“Aren’t you the one who’s hot on scientific inquiry?”
At his reminder of their last date, and how that had ended, she smiled wistfully, one hand moving
unconsciously to her lips. “Check my premises, in other words?”
“You got it.” He rested his hands on his hips and waited, and she chuckled and crossed the room
to stand in front of him. “So… what is your hypothesis, Dr. Tavarisch?”
“Determining how a certain scientist might respond to an embrace.” She began counting on her
fingers. “Response one: he reciprocates. Response two: he just stands there. Response three: he
pushes me away.”
With effort, he managed to keep a straight face. “Well?”
Sorina slowly stepped forward and slid her arms around his waist, resting her head against his
chest, and he briefly closed his eyes. It felt good to have her holding him, to be trusted and
welcome in her space.
Then she paused, and Raymond knew she was awaiting his reaction… and that for all her
teasing, she really was wondering if he’d push her away. Fat chance of that, he thought, an idea
in his mind as he opened his eyes again, kept his arms at his side and waited.
Sure enough, a moment or two later, she gave a sigh. “That answers that.” Looking sad, she let
go, lifted her head and looked up at him. “Note for future reference, said scientist’s response is-”
She got no further than that before he lowered his head and kissed her firmly on the mouth.
Barely pausing, he whispered against her lips, “Damn, but I have been dying to do this for a
week.” It felt just as good as he remembered it feeling a week ago, but that had been gentler,
almost hesitant. This time, knowing that she had enjoyed it before gave him the courage to be
bolder. Then he straightened up again, vastly enjoying the look of wide-eyed amazement on her
face.
“Response four, which you failed to consider. Honestly, Sorina, for a brilliant scientist, your
research skills really need work.”
She gave him a look that was part exasperation, part amusement, and part… well, he wasn’t
exactly certain, but if she kept looking at him like that, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep his
thoughts off his face.
“That wasn’t fair,” she complained, although he saw the grin tugging at one corner of her mouth.
“You’re not supposed to introduce new variables into the experiment once it’s started.”
“Hey, science is all about adaptability,” Raymond replied, doing his best to look innocent, even
though part of him (that sounded suspiciously like Steve) was urging him to just kiss her again.
“You can’t always expect a hypothesis to cover every single eventuality.”
“But if you change the circumstances of the experiment, how am I supposed to duplicate my
results? Oh, wait,” Sorina mocked, crossing her arms, “I forgot that you don’t believe in rushing
your experiments. Oh, well, I can just wait until next week and try again. At this rate, I’ll be able
to write up my conclusions some time next month.”
“Well, we don’t necessarily have to wait until next week,” Raymond protested, then went red as
she laughed.
“And you say that I’m forward…”
“I DIDN’T MEAN IT LIKE THAT!”
Okay, he thought, it was official. Living with Steve was starting to rub off on him. Or maybe
Steve was right and he wasn’t that kind of guy any more. But still, he didn’t want to rush things,
not if there was a chance that doing so would screw things up. And while he liked Sorina a lot…
did he really want things to go that way? Sure, she was pretty and smart and she seemed to
reciprocate how he felt, but was it enough?
Looking at her, Raymond knew he’d be hard-pressed to deny that he was attracted to her, but no
matter what Steve said, there was still a part of him that wanted to be certain that if (or when,
chimed in the voice in his head that sounded like Steve) things… got to that point, that they were
mutual, and that they were right.
“You look so serious all of a sudden,” Sorina was saying, and he dragged his attention back to
her. “Is something wrong?”
“No…”
Grinning, she moved past him toward the small bar that divided her living room from her
kitchen. “Something to drink?”
“Yeah, I think I need it.”
Chapter Nineteen  
RAYMOND’S CONFESSION
“What are you having?”
Sorina pulled a bottle of red wine from the wine rack next to the bar. “Wine, but if you’d prefer
something else…”
“No, that’ll be fine.”
She opened the bottle, set it aside so it could breathe, then went into the kitchen for two
wineglasses. As she set them next to the bottle, she said over her shoulder, “I’ll pour it in a
couple of minutes.”
“Fine by me, I’m in no rush.” He walked over to the sofa that was against one wall and sat down,
stretching his legs out in front of him as he looked around at her apartment. “I like your place…
it suits you.”
Sorina smiled. “Spasibo. It took a few tries to get it right, but I think it was worth it.”
“And your lab is here too?” he asked, and she nodded, pointing down the hall.
“There’s a connecting door to what would normally be the next apartment. I lease them both, and
use the other for office and laboratory space. But it’s primarily computers and research -
anything dangerous I do in the Star Patrol lab.”
“Sensible,” he agreed. “I do the same thing.”
She moved toward her entertainment stereo, selected a CD from the rack next to it, and put it into
her player, and the soft sound of classical guitar filled the room. Then she paused for a moment,
glanced over at him shyly as though about to say something, then apparently changed her mind.
“What were you going to say just now?” he asked her curiously as she walked back over to the
bar.
“Nothing,” she said, her cheeks slightly pink.
Sorina poured two glasses of wine, then carried one over to him, and curled up on the other end
of the sofa, tucking her legs underneath her.
“Cheers,” Raymond said quietly, clinking his glass against hers.
“How have things been here while I was gone?”
“Busy,” he admitted with a sigh. “Didn’t help that the paparazzi were following us around
everywhere we went.” As they drank, he filled her in on what had been going on in Paragon City
during her absence - both the Phalanx’s exploits over the last few days, as well as the haranguing
by the press.
“That must have made things rough,” she sympathized when he was done. “Maybe you should
have gone on assignment to Portal Corp with me.”
“Next time, I think I will,” Raymond said. “It’d probably be easier than dealing with the media.
How’d things go there, by the way?”
He was surprised to see her eyes take on an almost haunted look.
“It was… nothing like I thought it would be.” She set down her wineglass on the coffee table and
drew her legs up against her chest, wrapping her arms around her knees. “It’s not the first time
I’ve assisted Portal Corporation, but this dimension was disturbing. Destruction everywhere, and
not a living soul to be found. Just… ghosts.” She shuddered, then she looked at him.
“While I was in Alpha Upsilon 24-2, I found… well…”
“What?”
Getting up, she briefly headed into her bedroom, then came back out holding a small, tattered
book in her hands. Sitting on the couch once again, she silently handed the book to Raymond,
who opened it in confusion.
Filling the worn, stained pages was what he soon recognized as diary entries, and his blood ran
cold as he quickly read through it. Detailed in the diary’s pages was the tale of a hero who, while
seeking to control power, had lost control to that power, and destroyed the world in the process.
Entries about vengeful spirits, mass chaos, and death on a cataclysmic scale also filled the book,
but what chilled him to the core was the fact that the diary bore the name and handwriting of
Sorina Tavarisch.
“Good God,” he whispered, lifting his eyes to meet hers. “But how…?”
“Dr. MacIntyre says it was most likely an alternate version of myself, one corrupted by power
who fell from grace, as it were.” She shuddered once again as she looked at the book. “I only
barely glanced through it before when I found it, but I couldn’t make myself read through the
thing. I know I should, but… I’m not quite ready just yet.”
He didn’t blame her in the least - to learn that you were somehow responsible for extinguishing
countless lives, the ruin of an entire world… the closest thing to that he could imagine was his
reaction the first time he had encountered his Praetorian Earth counterpart, the archvillain Anti-
Matter. It wasn’t something he liked to admit, but just knowing that a twisted, evil version of
himself existed kept Raymond awake some nights. But at least there was still life on Praetorian
Earth, even if humanity there was living under the domination of Tyrant.
He looked down at the book he held in his hands, then back at Sorina as he handed the book to
her. “When you do decide to read it… if you’d like someone else there…”
“Thank you,” she said softly. “That means a lot to me.”
She got up once more to put the book on one of her shelves. While she was doing so, Raymond
also got up and came to stand beside her.
“I know that look,” he told her as she turned around to face him, “and you’re not allowed to start
brooding.”
“Oh, really?” she asked.
“Really,” he said firmly.
“And how do you know ‘that look?’”
Because I see that look on my face in the mirror often enough, Raymond thought to himself, but
he didn’t want to have to explain to her why he might be brooding. He was more than willing to
listen to her, but he wasn’t quite ready yet to share. “Great minds think alike,” he finally said.
“So, tell me how I can cheer you up.”
She tilted her head to one side and thought for a moment, then she held one hand out to him in
invitation. “Dance with me.”
“What?”
“We have music, and it’s just us.”
That was what concerned him. The idea of dancing with her was certainly tempting, but between
his worry about making an idiot of himself, and his awkward attraction to her, Raymond was
half-ready to say no. But there was still that haunted look in her eyes… was he going to do this
out of compassion? Pity? Mutual loneliness?
I think you spent so damn long in that armor that you’ve forgotten what it means to just be a
man… Even though you’re flesh and blood, you still want to keep the armor on, keep her away,
because it’s safer that way.
The memory of Steve’s words nearly made him flinch, because deep, deep down, Raymond was
afraid that Steve was right.
To be honest, he wanted to dance with her. So he resolutely locked that part away and took her
hand in his, stepping closer to her to place his other hand at her waist while she reached up to put
her hand on his shoulder.
It had been different, Raymond thought as he looked down at her, dancing with her in Pocket D.
There the music had been loud, there had been the dynamics of the crowd around them, and an
entirely different mood - one of living, breathing energy, but this…
Swaying in time to the lilting music, the two slowly moved closer to each other until soon her
temple rested against his chest, and his cheek was against her hair. Raymond closed his eyes and
let out a slow sigh as he listened to the music.
“But if my silence made you leave
Then that would be my worst mistake
So I will share this room with you
And you can have this heart to break…”
As they danced, he could feel the tension of her body slowly start to ease. He wasn’t sure if it
was her letting go of her earlier melancholy mood, or losing her nervousness about dancing with
him, but he was glad to know that his presence was helping her. And damn it all, he was
enjoying himself. This was how he’d wanted to hold her, almost from that first date…
“What are you thinking about?” she asked softly, and he opened his eyes and looked down at
her. Could he really tell her that? But she hadn’t given up on him yet… not after that less-than-
stellar first date, not when he’d tried to keep her at a distance, not when he’d been awkward and
afraid in Pocket D, not when he’d kissed her…
Suddenly he was sick and tired of lying to himself, of pretending that he didn’t need anyone. It
had been so long since he’d found someone who wanted to relate to him as a human being, as
Raymond Keyes and not Positron…
As a man.
And yet…
“Honestly…” He swallowed hard and then went on, “I’m wondering if I really have forgotten
what it means to just be a man…”
Sorina opened her eyes and lifted her head to look up at him as they danced. “How so?”
“I… I’ve always been a loner. I can make friends, socialize, and stuff, but… it’s risky letting
someone close to you. You can hurt them, they can hurt you, and I… I’ve never been good at
that.”
“You mean relationships,” she said quietly, and he nodded.
“Then there’s the whole Positron thing. When I joined the Phalanx, I suddenly found myself
famous. But it wasn’t about me, because I was anything special - it’s the mystique of being a
hero, working with Statesman, all that. And I hated it.” He looked away, his eyes distant.
“And then… then came the Rikti War. And I… I lost control of my powers. No longer flesh and
blood, I’d become the energy I’d controlled for so long. And as long as I was like that, I was a
danger, so I sealed myself in my armor. To protect Paragon City… and to protect myself. And
for years, I was trapped. It was like fate was mocking me for all those childhood years when I’d
wanted nothing more than to be a hero.”
Raymond shuddered and closed his eyes. “But… but the worst of it was ‘the day the powers
went out.’ Suddenly not even my armor was enough to hold me together, and once again, I’d
become a danger to everyone. So I sealed myself in the Freedom Phalanx headquarters.” He
shuddered again, then looked down at Sorina, his hands unconsciously tightening on her hand
and her waist. “Six weeks, Sorina… six weeks of being cut off from the whole world… of an
unbearable loneliness that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”
Suddenly it all came rushing back to him - the helplessness, the frustration, the anger, the terror,
and worst of all, the slowly mounting urge to just give up… to breach his armor and blow
himself straight to hell.
“I wanted to die, Sorina… But I was so afraid of dying alone… I couldn’t even have someone
there with me because if I unsealed my armor, I’d kill them, too. How could I ask someone to
give up their own life just to make it easier for me to die?”
He didn’t realize he’d stopped moving, his body trembling from the force of his memories.
“I almost went insane, wishing I could just die of loneliness, to just die of…” His throat closed
up and he couldn’t go on.
“What were you going to say?” she asked him, her eyes intent on his.
“I wished that I could just die of a broken heart,” Raymond said at last, oblivious to the tears on
his cheeks until Sorina lifted her hand from his shoulder and gently brushed them away. Then
she slid her arms around his waist once more, and he wrapped his arms around her and held her
tightly against him, hiding his face against her hair.
And Raymond thought to himself that while the Dark Watcher may have healed his body…
Sorina was the one healing his soul.
For a long, long time, they stayed that way, neither of them saying a word. Then at last,
Raymond spoke.
“I’m sorry.” Suddenly feeling embarrassed, he tried to move away, but Sorina held him in place.
“Don’t, Raymond,” she chided gently, looking up at him. “Nobody should have to carry a burden
like that, and certainly not alone.” Then she reached up and touched his cheek, her eyes
searching his.
“I used to wish the same thing,” she said at last. Then to his surprise, she smiled.
“What’s the smile for?” he asked, startled, as she grinned up at him, her eyes alight.
“Well, we’re both heroes, strong enough to survive. But as two of the smartest scientists in
Paragon City, you think that together we can learn what it means to actually live?” The
cheerfulness in her eyes dimmed momentarily. “If… I mean… well… if you’d want to, that
is…”
Raymond suddenly hugged her so hard that she squeaked.
Chapter Twenty  
LEARNING TO LIVE AGAIN
For the next month, time seemed to fly by for Raymond. But rather than feeling rushed or
stressed, for the first time in ages, he actually felt… happy. Ever since that evening in Sorina’s
apartment, where he had named and faced the fear and sorrow that haunted him for years, he felt
as though he had somehow regained the years he’d lost.
It was a revelation like nothing he’d ever known in his life.
However, since his discovery, he’d sworn to himself that he’d never go back to the way he’d
been before, not as long as he could help it, anyway. And so, with Sorina’s help, he was making
a concerted effort to learn to live again, one day at a time.
The two now saw one another at least two or three times a week, sometimes as brief as a few
stolen moments to share coffee, other times a full evening or afternoon to just enjoy the other’s
company.
There was the time that they’d gone out to dinner only to have a few loudmouth Family members
force their way in to try and extort protection money from the owners. That had gone on all of
thirty seconds before Raymond and Sorina had stepped in. They mopped the floor with the
Family members, then turned them over to the PPD before going back to their meal, to the
applause of the other patrons.
There was the time that Raymond had been visiting the Star Patrol base, helping Sorina fix one
of the base supercomputers, when the call came in from one of their field teams that a Malta
Kronos Titan was rampaging near the Green Line tram station in Skyway. Hooking up with
Synapse and Mynx along the way, they’d raced together to the battle. Later, Sorina had
complained that they hadn’t been able to take the thing intact, because she’d wanted to study it
further.
There was the time that Steve had come home to find Raymond and Sorina in the middle of a
heated argument in the ops center, shouting over some flaw in their designs to improve his
armor… only to realize five minutes later that they’d both misread something and that the whole
argument was moot. Steve had left the ops center shaking his head when the couple had nearly
fallen over laughing at one another.
There was the time that while Sorina was lecturing at the University in Steel Canyon, Raymond
had dropped by her class, enjoying the brief blush that had coloured her face when she saw him
sitting in the back row of her otherwise packed classroom.
But for all the time they spent together, there was still one line that neither of them seemed ready
to cross.
*****
“I hear that the good doctor is coming by here later?”
Raymond nodded at Manticore’s question as he worked in his lab at the Freedom Phalanx
headquarters. “Yes… we’ve been working on a way of improving my armor’s power systems,
but we need to do some testing here. It’s not safe to do it using my lab at home.”
“Probably a good idea,” Manticore agreed. He, like the other members of the Freedom Phalanx,
had been told about the attack on Steve the previous month, as well as how Raymond’s armor
had nearly been disabled. Since then, the Phalanx had been on a somewhat heightened alert, and
Statesman had approved of additional research time to counter a potential second attack. “Got
any plans for after that?”
“Don’t know yet. I guess it depends on how long the modifications and the testing takes.”
“Invite her back to your place.”
“She’s been to my place,” Raymond said absently before he belatedly realized what Manticore
meant. “Damn it, Justin, how many times do I have to tell you that our relationship isn’t like
that?!”
“Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t been thinking about it,” the archer said with a superior look that
made Raymond want to slap it off his face.
The really annoying thing was that he had been thinking about it, but apart from the occasional
(and very intense) kisses that he and Sorina had shared, things had physically progressed no
further. It wasn’t a deliberate attempt to try and build tension or anticipation of anything
eventually happening, at least as far as Raymond was concerned. However, they had so far
resisted the impulse to take things farther.
But while he was willing to respect at least her wish to take things slowly, lately he found
himself facing a situation he’d not had to deal with in a long, long time.
Frustration.
Steve, of course, was constantly giving him a hard time about the matter, urging him to throw
caution to the winds, and Raymond suspected that Andrea had been doing the same thing to
Sorina.
Then he realized where his train of thought had been leading, and he yanked his attention back to
Manticore, who was again talking to him.
“Oh… before I forget. Listen, Shalice and I will be hosting a charity ball next weekend.
Everyone is invited, and that includes you.”
Raymond looked almost alarmed. “A charity ball? You mean, like, formal dress?”
“The whole nine yards,” he agreed. “Black tie, shined shoes, everything.”
“I don’t even own a tux,” Raymond protested. “Hell, I’m lucky I even own a suit. And you know
I hate formal parties.”
Manticore gave him a rather smug smile. “Ah, but you’ll get to see Dr. Tavarisch in an evening
dress. That is, if you haven’t already.” He laughed at Raymond’s blush. “I’ll take that as a no.”
And as if on cue, Citadel’s voice echoed over the base intercom. “Dr. Tavarisch has arrived.
Should I send her to the lab?”
Doing his best to ignore Manticore’s smirk, Raymond leaned over to the intercom. “Yeah…
thanks, Citadel.” He looked at Manticore. “Did you already invite Steve, too?”
“Yeah. God knows who he’ll bring as his date, but he’ll be there. And I already warned the
caterers.”
A few moments later, Sorina arrived in the lab, wearing her Star Patrol uniform and
accompanied by Statesman. “Dobryj den’, gospoda.” Although her greeting was casual and
directed at both himself and Manticore, Raymond noticed that her eyes lingered on him a
moment or two longer. For his part, he wanted to get up and hug her hello, but he sensed that if
he did, Manticore would start ragging on him.
“Hello, Doctor,” Manticore said cheerfully. “Do you own an evening dress?”
The apparent non sequitur obviously puzzled her. “Er… yes, actually. Why?”
“Good.” Manticore glanced over at Raymond, who was glaring daggers at him. “Okay, Posi, no
getting out of it now. Rent yourself a tux, bring this lovely lady, and be at our place at eight
o’clock next Saturday. I’ll even loan you the Ferrari so you can pick her up in style.”
“Justin…”
Statesman gave Raymond a sympathetic look. “I know, I know. He’s forcing me to come as
well.”
“And don’t forget to bring a date yourself,” Manticore chided him. “If nothing else, you’ll need a
shield from the women who’ll be throwing themselves at your feet.”
“That’s hardly a nice thing to say,” Sorina protested. “Shouldn’t he invite someone because he
wants to be with her?”
“It’s all right, Doctor,” Statesman said frankly. “Tact is hardly Manticore’s strong suit.”
Raymond grinned. “He could always invite Andrea, if Steve doesn’t beat him to it.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” the other hero replied with a wry smile. Statesman had already met
Andrea Blake a couple of weeks earlier when the Star Patrol leaders had visited Freedom
Phalanx headquarters to bring the Phalanx up to speed on the Nova Dominion’s activities. The
entire Phalanx had been vastly amused at Andrea’s open flirting with Statesman, much to the
older hero’s embarrassment. “Let Synapse take her, he’d be better able to keep up with her.”
“We’ll leave you two to your experiments, then,” Manticore said with a grin. “Try not to blow up
the base, Pos.”
Raymond gave Manticore a sour look. “I’ll remember that crack the next time I have to do
upgrades on your helicopter.”
Chuckling, Manticore and Statesman left the lab, and as they exited, Raymond gave a loud sigh.
“Someone remind me again why I put up with him.”
“All in the name of heroism,” Sorina replied. “So what’s going on next Saturday?”
“Charity dinner dance at the Sinclairs’ place,” Raymond explained. “Formal dress and all. It’s
sort of expected for a guy in his social position, and he tends to invite us along. I’m not sure if he
does it for publicity or just because he knows that most of us hate stuff like that.”
“Ah, so that’s why he wanted to know if I owned an evening dress. I thought that a bit odd,
considering he’s married.” She gave him a rueful smile. “Not that I could compete with Sister
Psyche.”
“You don’t have to,” he said, and she blushed and smiled.
Now that they were alone, she approached his workbench and sat on the edge of it, her feet
swinging idly. “So how much progress have you made on the rewiring preparations?”
“Some, but I was waiting for you.”
“How sweet,” she teased, and he chuckled and got up to give her a hug.
For several moments they stayed in each other’s arms, then they both leapt apart, Sorina almost
falling off the workbench, as Manticore startled them both by coming back into the lab. “Damn, I
almost forgot… Hey, Dr. Tavarisch, you think the Star Patrol will be up to providing some
additional security just in case the Dominion decides to crash the party?”
“Sure, but I’m surprised you don’t have Wyvern covering things,” she replied, now blushing
fiercely at being caught in Raymond’s arms.
“Oh, they’ll be there, too.”
Sorina nodded slowly. “I see… just a moment.” Activating her communicator, she paused to
think, then said, “Assignment. Authorization: Sorina Tavarisch. Subject: Spec ops security detail.
Recommended team: Nacht, Dust Raven, Takimura, Leading Lady, M’rshaan, Doc Black.
Details: Contact Manticore, Freedom Phalanx. Send.”
Her communicator beeped twice, indicating the message had been sent, and as she signed off,
Manticore nodded to her in approval. “You keep a special operations team?”
“A small one, but yes. Four of the six I suggested are members, plus I’m requesting some
additional firepower. They should be able to handle anything that gets thrown at them.”
“Sounds good. Have fun, you two.”
“Next time, knock,” Raymond half-growled as Manticore left the lab again, grinning widely.
“Should we lock the door this time?” she asked, turning to Raymond.
“Then they’ll wonder why we did.”
“Why?”
Then a second later, she caught on, and looked down at the floor. “Oh.”
He wasn’t sure how he managed to keep a straight face at that, considering the immediate turn of
his thoughts. No, damn it, he wasn’t Steve to just take her in his arms and…
For a long awkward moment, neither of them said anything, then they both spoke at the same
time.
“Raymond-”
“Sorina-”
They both stopped and looked at each other. He wondered if she was thinking the same thing that
he was.
Then he saw her eyes briefly drop to his mouth, then lift again to meet his, and he saw her hands
tighten briefly at her sides while her body tensed, but then she seemed to deliberately relax and
smile.
“Shall we get to work?” she asked, turning away to pick up the schematics on his workbench.
“Yeah.”
He just hoped to hell he’d be able to concentrate worth a damn, he thought with a grimace. It’d
be hell having to explain to the others how they’d managed to blow up the lab because they’d
been too distracted to think straight.
Chapter Twenty­One  
A SLIGHT MISCALCULATION
Raymond and Sorina worked together for over two hours, side-by-side at the workbench, intent
on the task of modifying the backup power cells for his armor. Soon the workbench was covered
in their notes, extra wiring or circuitry, and discarded tools, while the two scientists checked and
double-checked their work. Raymond handled the actual hands-on modifications, carefully
soldering and tinkering with the power cells while Sorina sat at the computer to check readings,
pull up schematics, or other design work.
“And… I think that’s it,” Raymond said at last, removing his protective goggles and looking
down at his handiwork. “We ready to fit this into the armor?”
She was busy scrolling down a list of readouts from the cables that were hooked up to the power
cells. “Just a moment, I’m double-checking something.” A moment later, she smiled. “Yes, I
think we are.”
He picked up the power cells and disengaged the forcefield tube that housed his backup armor,
removed one of the back panels, and fitted in the new cells while Sorina ran a systems check on
the armor.
“How’s it look?”
“It appears to be synched up with your primary power cells,” she read, “although your
monitoring systems are having problems recalibrating to the new power levels of the backup
cells.”
Raymond frowned. “Damn it… I thought I adjusted that.” He carefully eased her aside and
began entering a new series of variables into the monitoring system for it to track, and three
minutes later, all systems appeared to run normally. “Okay… we should be good to go.”
“How do you intend to test this?” she asked, looking over at his armor as he continued to type.
“Put it through a series of maneuvers to test for stress levels and power spikes.”
“You’re not going to put on your armor without testing it, are you?” Sorina asked in alarm, but
Raymond laughed.
“No, of course not. I’ve got the backup armor rigged for remote access through the armor I’m
wearing, I’ll test it that way. Let me at the computers. And we’ll need something to test the
armor against.”
“I can provide that,” she replied, and lifted her hands. With a sudden hum, light coalesced around
her hands, then it flashed brightly, and a swirling ball of reddish-gold energy appeared.
At the sound, Raymond turned from his typing and stared at the energy in disbelief. “You have
got to be kidding me,” he said flatly. “A self-contained gravitational anomaly?”
“Da,” Sorina answered, looking smug as the energy pulsed slightly. “Through the tracking
program in my gauntlets, it detects approaching opponents, maintains a consistent repelling
radius, and even duplicates some of my own abilities remotely. I call it the Singularity program.”
“How the hell did you come up with THAT?”
“Trying to reverse-engineer a Rikti forcefield,” she explained. “Rather than use the flow of
kinetic energy in a perpetually generated outward state, meant to prevent inflowing energy, I
turned the math around to cause it to consistently collapse in on itself, while drawing on my
power to initially maintain it. Then there was the matter of occasionally introducing a reversal
into the energy collapse, causing a few random spikes in energy, which in turn then fuel a further
round of collapses, making it almost self-sustaining.”
Raymond shook his head in amazement. “You are something else, you know that?” Then he
turned back to the computers. “All right, then, let’s pit that thing against my armor and see how
the armor holds up.”
*****
Sorina nodded and concentrated, directing the Singularity over toward his armor, while
Raymond activated the armor through the computers. It felt strange for him to watch his armor
moving without him being in it. Then to be safe, he triggered a forcefield wall between them and
the armor and Singularity.
“That should keep things contained, just in case. Okay… turn that Singularity of yours loose on
it.”
Flexing her fingers, she sent the command to the Singularity that the armor was a target, and the
Singularity suddenly flared much brighter. The armor’s sensors registered abrupt gravitational
distortions surrounding it, and its hydraulics systems kicked in to compensate for the sudden
restriction of movement. As the Singularity ran through its various offensive capabilities, the
armor responded to maintain optimal combat levels.
“So far, so good,” Raymond said, monitoring the other suit’s response through his own systems
as well as the computer’s. “Listen, can you use whatever kinetic transfer power of yours that was
that you used against the Rikti Heavy Assault Suits?”
“The Transference program? Da.”
“Okay… go ahead and hit the armor with that to force it to access the backup power cells, but
keep the Singularity attacking the armor so I can run a test on how well the armor handles the
changeover under stress conditions.” His fingers moved over the keyboard, typing in commands
while Sorina sent a new attack program to the Singularity, then held one hand out toward the
armor. Blue light surrounded the armor as Sorina manipulated its kinetic energy, but just then a
series of warnings flashed across the computer monitors.
Sorina had just enough time to glance over, grab Raymond, shove him down to the floor, and
cover his body with her own before the backup power cells exploded, sending a wash of heat
over them both even through the forcefield wall.
Alarms began blaring through the lab, and his ears were ringing like church bells, but oddly
enough, Raymond’s main thought was that it felt really good to have Sorina on top of him.
Then he got his brain back into gear when he realized Sorina was shouting at him, presumably
over the ringing in her own ears.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” he coughed, turning his head to look over at his armor. It appeared to be intact, although
the blast had certainly damaged it. The Singularity, he noticed, was still active, and was
randomly tossing small pieces of shrapnel around like some bizarre form of juggling. “Good
thing the forcefield was up.”
“I wasn’t certain it would hold,” she said apologetically, looking down at him, and Raymond
realized that surrounding them both was a faint glow, humming with energy. “Personal
forcefield,” she said in response to his slightly puzzled look.
“You do realize that I was also wearing armor,” he remarked, and she went slightly red.
“Force of habit.”
There was a slight pause.
“I wonder what happened,” she said at last, also turning her head to look at the armor.
Raymond, on the other hand, was wondering why she hadn’t gotten off him yet, but figured that
if she didn’t mind being on top of him, he didn’t mind having her there, although the thought did
cross his mind that he’d have preferred this to happen when he wasn’t wearing his armor.
Just then, the door to the lab opened, and in charged the other members of the Freedom Phalanx,
taking in the smoke, the alarms, the Singularity, the ruined armor, and Sorina and Raymond both
lying on the floor.
“Are you two all right?” Statesman called out when he saw the two of them, but once Steve got
past the initial concern for his friends, a grin appeared on his face.
“Don’t tell me that you set off the alarms THAT way!”
“NO!” they both blurted out in unison, scrambling to their feet in embarrassment.
“What the hell happened?” Manticore asked, looking over at the cordoned-off section of the lab.
“Slight miscalculation in the power systems of the armor,” Raymond explained as he deactivated
the forcefield and approached the smoking form of his backup armor, Sorina following him and
disengaging the Singularity program while she was at it.
“Hell of a miscalculation,” Steve remarked, coming over to look at the damage.
“You can say that again,” Sister Psyche added. “You two set off every alarm in the base. We
thought a bomb had gone off in here.”
“It certainly felt like it,” Sorina said ruefully, lightly touching some of the exposed circuitry on
the backup armor. “Prokljat’e. I wonder what it was that I missed - I thought I had double-
checked everything.”
“Everyone makes mistakes,” Steve said, looking over at her with a smile. “Even geniuses screw
up sometimes.”
“Da, but I prefer to limit blowing things up to my own stuff, not someone else’s,” she retorted
with an ashamed look at Raymond.
“It’s not entirely your fault,” he pointed out, “I missed it too. But at least it was my backup
armor. I should be able to have that fixed in no time.”
“Seriously, though, are you two all right?” Sister Psyche asked, and they both nodded.
Manticore, however, was openly grinning. “So much for not blowing up the lab, Positron.”
“Shut up, Justin.”
“However, I do think you’re done for the day, Positron,” Statesman pointed out. “Especially
since we cannot risk having you out of action by you using your primary armor for testing.”
Raymond, however, was already pulling panels off the backup armor and studying the half-
melted wires. “The diagnostics system looks to still be functional, so I can- Hey, Sorina, come
take a look at this…”
She bent her dark head near his to look at the open panel. “Were those your power regulators?”
“‘Were’ being the operative term.”
“So the primary power cells didn’t disengage,” she guessed. “Instead the armor routed their
energy into the backup power cells and overloaded them.”
“Damn… back to the drawing board, I guess.”
Then they both started as Steve come up behind them and clapped them both on the back. “You
heard the boss - give it a rest.”
Sorina looked over at Statesman, who was watching them both with that unmovable expression
on his face, then she looked at Steve.
“He’s your boss, not mine,” she pointed out.
“Not true,” Statesman pointed out. “You are a reserve member of the Freedom Phalanx, and
you’re here in Freedom Phalanx headquarters, working on Freedom Phalanx property. That
makes me your boss.”
“Careful, States, I’d think you’re developing a sense of humour,” Manticore said with a faint
chuckle.
“It’s the truth, Manticore. So, I’m ordering you two to take a break.” As Raymond and Sorina
opened their mouths to protest, he glared at them, and they both subsided. “You can clean up the
lab when you get back.”
“Yes, sir,” Raymond grumbled, knowing full well that Statesman hated to be called ‘sir’.
“And don’t call me ‘sir.’”
Chapter Twenty­Two  
YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED
“‘You can clean up the lab when you get back,’” Sorina grumbled as she and Raymond left the
Freedom Phalanx headquarters. “I’ve half a mind to go back in there and give Statesman a piece
of my mind.”
“Trust me, Sorina, it’s not worth it,” Raymond sighed. “That’s the way Statesman is - you might
as well get mad for the Red River being wet.”
“But what are we supposed to do now? We need to get the power cell problem resolved before-”
She stopped abruptly.
“Before what?”
“Before the Nova Dominion decides to take another shot at you.”
He could see the concern on her face, even under her mask. “There’s no guarantee that they
will.”
Sorina gave him an almost pitying look. “Oh, they will. Trust me on that one.”
“Look, we’ll give ourselves an hour - take a flight around Paragon City or something. Then we’ll
come back and give it another try. Okay?”
She opened her mouth to say something, but he placed one finger across her lips to stop her.
“Thank you for being worried about me,” he said softly. “But I’ll be fine. All right?”
At last, Sorina nodded and gave him a faint smile. “Da.”
“Let’s go.”
But as they took off into the sky, Raymond couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being
watched.
*****
It took them another three tries, however, before they were successful in installing the new
backup power cells. First Raymond would apply himself to fixing his damaged backup armor
while Sorina pored over schematics and the diagnostics reports on what had gone wrong. Then
they would switch, with her working on his armor while he made the necessary design changes.
Unfortunately, it didn’t help that both Raymond and Sorina suspected that Statesman was
monitoring them, making sure they didn’t set off an explosion like they had the first time around.
It also didn’t help that Steve would randomly show up in the lab, ostensibly to ‘make sure they
were all right.’
At last, however, all systems showed as ready and the backup armor almost hummed with power.
“Finally!” Raymond exclaimed, rolling his shoulders and trying unsuccessfully to unkink his
neck. But as he glanced at the clock, he almost fell out of his chair. “It’s five in the morning?!
Where the hell did the time go?”
“You had to mention that?” she groaned, slumping over his workbench with her forehead on her
wrists. “I wasn’t tired until you said that.” Then without lifting her head, she turned to look at
him. “But we did get it done.”
“Hooray for our side,” he agreed tiredly. “But I don’t think I’ve pulled an all-nighter like that
since I was in graduate school.”
Sorina got up to stretch, rolling her shoulders and reaching for the ceiling. “I intend to go home
and sleep until noon. With as many Star Patrol members as we have, I think Bowman and the
others can do without me for eight hours.”
“Must be nice,” Raymond said enviously. “I’m lucky if I get four hours of sleep at a time.” He
tried to stretch, but winced. “Ow, I think someone nailed a two-by-four across my shoulders
when I wasn’t looking.”
She gave him a slightly thoughtful look. “Well, I can’t do much with your armor on, but…”
Sorina moved to stand behind him, set her gauntlets on the workbench, and started massaging the
back of his neck.
At first, he stiffened, trying not to react too much to her touch. It was the first time she’d ever
touched him like that - before now it had always been just a hug or resting against him while
they danced. But he had to admit it did feel really good, so he just sighed and let his head fall
forward, enjoying the gentle pressure.
They stayed that way in silence for a while, then her hands stilled, although she kept them on his
shoulders.
“That felt really good,” he said softly. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Then, to his surprise, she leaned down and embraced him from behind
before straightening up again and re-donning her gauntlets. “But I think it’s time for me to go.”
“Do you want me to fly you home?” Raymond asked, turning around to look up at her. He could
see she was tempted to say yes, but then she shook her head.
“Nyet… you should go home and get some sleep, too.”
Then he saw her face turn scarlet underneath her mask, and she sighed quietly and murmured,
almost too softly for him to hear, “Prokljat’e, I hate it when Andrea is right.”
“Sorina…” He wasn’t even certain what he was going to say, but she slowly shook her head
again and was gone.
*****
All through the following week, Raymond found himself in a constant state of distraction, to the
point where he completely forgot about the charity ball at the Sinclairs’. Manticore, however,
caught him the Thursday beforehand as he was leaving headquarters.
“Have you rented your tux yet?”
Raymond stopped in his tracks and cursed. “Damn it, I completely forgot!”
“Yeah, you’ve not exactly been yourself lately,” the other hero remarked. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah.”
Manticore waited, but Raymond didn’t go on, so he asked, “Is everything all right with you and
Dr. Tavarisch?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes.”
“Well, as long as you’re okay…” Again Manticore waited, but Raymond still wasn’t about to
admit to him what had been distracting him all week long. “Do you know what she’s wearing
yet?”
“Huh? No.”
“Give her a call.”
“You mean now?” Raymond asked in surprise.
“No, next week. Yes, I mean now. Trust me on this one. Call her and ask her what she’s
wearing.”
“Why would I do that?”
Manticore rolled his eyes. “It’s customary to bring a lady flowers or a corsage for something like
this. You don’t want to give her something that will clash with her dress, she’d never forgive you
for it.” He took Raymond by the arm and led him back inside, Raymond protesting all the way.
Grumbling under his breath, Raymond called Sorina’s apartment.
“Hello?”
“Heya, Sorina, it’s Raymond.”
“Raymond, hello!” He hoped he wasn’t grinning like an idiot when he heard the warmth in her
voice.
“Listen, I’ve got a stupid question, but Manticore’s making me ask.” He ignored Manticore
punching his arm and went on. “What color is your dress? The one you’re wearing to the
Sinclairs’ party?”
“My dress? Well… to be honest, I hadn’t exactly decided what to wear. Why?”
Raymond blushed, doing his best to ignore Manticore’s quiet laughter. “Well… I’d like to bring
you flowers, but I didn’t know what color.”
“Oh! Well… white would always work.”
“Okay… sorry to bother you. I’ll see you on Saturday.”
“What time?”
He thought for a moment. “Well, we need to be there at eight, so how does seven-thirty sound?”
“Fine, I’ll see you at my place at seven-thirty. And… Raymond?”
“Yeah?”
There was a slight pause. “Nothing. I’ll see you on Saturday.” She hung up, and so did he.
Turning around, he folded his arms across his chest and looked at Manticore. “Happy?”
“Thrilled. Ecstatic. Rapturous. Oh… before I forget…” He handed Raymond a set of keys, who
looked at them in confusion.
“What are these?”
“The keys to the Ferrari. Since I know you don’t own a car, what with being able to fly
everywhere.”
“I can’t borrow that!” Raymond said in alarm.
“You’d rather I arrange for a limo?”
The scientist sighed and ran one hand over his face. “No…”
“So say thanks.”
In spite of himself, Raymond grinned. “Thanks, Justin.”
“You’re welcome. All right, let’s hit the road.”
“Where are we going?” Raymond asked, puzzled.
“Picking up a tux for you. God knows what you’d pick out if you didn’t have someone along
with fashion sense.”
“Justin…” Raymond warned, but Manticore ignored him, frowning in concentration, and he
guessed that he was telepathically calling Sister Psyche. A moment later, the psychic arrived and
looped her arm through Manticore’s.
“So we’re taking him clothes shopping? This should be good.”
“Oh, now, wait a second,” he protested. “I’m an adult, don’t you think I can do this on my own?”
“It always helps to have a woman along,” Sister Psyche teased, and Raymond groaned.
“Why me?”
Chapter Twenty­Three  
RAYMOND’S NEW LOOK
“So where exactly are we going?” Raymond said, showing a marked lack of enthusiasm.
“ICON,” Manticore replied as Sister Psyche used her talents to allow him to fly as well, rather
than teleporting via the Emergency Medical Network.
“Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no,” Raymond said, stopping in his tracks and waving his hands. “The
last time I was there-”
“-the Circle of Thorns attacked the place,” Sister Psyche finished. “Yes, we know. Don’t worry.”
“Can’t we at least go to a different location?”
“The one in Steel’s the closest, so stop grousing,” Manticore said firmly. “The sooner we find
you a tux, the happier we’ll all be.”
Raymond groaned as he took off after Sister Psyche and Manticore. “I suppose I should be
grateful that Synapse didn’t volunteer to come along.”
“Oh, he did,” Sister Psyche remarked. “But I told him that he’d have to save his ragging until
you got home.”
“Thanks a lot, Shalice, you’re all sympathy.”
Ten minutes later, they landed in front of ICON, and Raymond visibly squared his shoulders
before walking in. Inside were a couple of other heroes who were busy being attended by the
store’s employees, but Manticore strolled right up to Serge, who was busily chatting on his cell
phone.
“No, no, no - tell Vogue that they can’t have the new designs until next week. I don’t care who
they offer to have model on the front cover. And don’t forget to contact New York to make sure
there’s sufficient press coverage of the fashion show.”
“Excuse me,” Manticore said, producing one of his more winning smiles. “We’d like your help
with something.”
Serge didn’t even look at him. “Can’t you see I’m busy? Bother one of the employees, that’s
what they’re there for.” He was about to resume his conversation when he suddenly realized
exactly who was talking to him.
“Oh… it’s you. Just a moment.” He brought the phone back to his ear. “I’ll call you back.” With
that, he hung up and turned to the three heroes. “All right, what villainous horde am I supposed
to be expecting through my doors this time? The Freakshow? The Tsoo? Not that they’re not in
here too often as it is.”
“No, no villainous horde this time,” Sister Psyche said with a soft smile that Raymond was
surprised to actually see get Serge’s attention. “Just some fashion assistance for our colleague
here.”
Serge turned to Raymond and gave him an appraising look that made Raymond want to hit him.
“Hmmm. Well, armor is not usually my forte, and that color doesn’t do a thing for you.”
“He needs evening wear,” Manticore explained. “And no, it’s not supposed to go over his
armor.”
“Well, that’s different. By evening wear, I gather you mean a tuxedo.”
“Yeah,” Raymond said. “It’s some black tie function.”
“You sound so enthusiastic,” Serge said, rolling his eyes. “But needs must, I suppose. And do
you have a way out of that armor that doesn’t involve a can opener and a blowtorch?”
Raymond triggered the armor’s removal sequence, and forty seconds later was in t-shirt and
jeans. “Better?”
“Not really, but at least I can get your measurements,” Serge said frankly. “Follow me.”
*****
Raymond, Manticore, and Sister Psyche followed Serge back to one of the private fitting rooms,
where they were met by one of the designer’s assistants. While the other two heroes sat in chairs
and watched, Serge had Raymond stand on a slightly raised platform and began measuring him
for a fitting, talking the entire time.
“Well, at least you’ve got a decent physique. You should see some of the people who come
through here - shoulders broader than I am tall and absolutely no sense of proportion.”
“Excuse me, sir,” the assistant asked hesitantly during a brief pause. “Have you chosen a jacket
style?”
“I am not wearing a tux with tails,” Raymond said flatly, glaring at Manticore. “Absolutely not,
no, hell will freeze first.”
“Fine, you can get away with just a dinner jacket then.”
Serge rattled off his measurements to the assistant, who vanished into one of the other back
rooms and then returned with several different jacket styles.
“Do I have to try them all on?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sister Psyche replied, giving him a slightly arch look. “And don’t forget, I’ll know if you
try and pull that ‘say I like something so I can leave’ tactic.”
“But I hate this!”
“Oh, stop whining,” Manticore told him. “Jeez, you’d think you’re being told to scrub the
Phalanx headquarters bathrooms with a toothbrush.”
“I feel sorry for the poor woman he’s supposed to be escorting to this function of yours,” Serge
said without turning around, only to have Raymond pick him up by the back of his neck and lift
him a foot off the floor.
“Take that back, or the next thing you’ll be designing is a hospital gown.”
“Raymond!” Sister Psyche protested, shocked.
“Put me down! Are you sure you’re a hero?!” Serge exclaimed, trying to twist out of Raymond’s
grasp.
“I said, take it back.”
“All right, I’m sorry, I take it back!” Raymond set the designer back down, who made an attempt
to smooth his suit back into place. “Are you always this touchy?”
“Only when you insult my girlfriend,” Raymond said with a glare.
“Then perhaps you should consider her during this ‘ordeal’ of yours,” Serge said, folding his
arms, “rather than complaining. Don’t you want to do her proud?” Before Raymond could
answer, Serge went on. “Exactly. So stop fussing and let me make you presentable for this
evening of yours.”
Faced with twin looks of disapproval from Manticore and Sister Psyche, Raymond looked down
at the floor, ashamed of losing his temper. “You’re right. I apologize.”
“Accepted. Now…” One by one, Serge had Raymond try on various jackets, sometimes actually
waiting for him to voice an opinion, other times immediately muttering to himself and nearly
pulling it off of him. His assistant, in the meantime, was going through several vests and ties to
provide a selection based on color and material. Sister Psyche immediately began poring over
those.
“Hmmmmm. Did she say what color her dress was?”
“She said she hadn’t decided what to wear yet,” Raymond replied, shrugging into yet another
jacket. “Hmm… I actually like this one.”
Serge snapped his fingers, and the assistant was there with several dress shirts. “There’s a
washroom you can use through that door, and fresh towels on the stand. Then select one of these
and come back out.”
Raymond headed into the bathroom, pulled off his t-shirt, and used one of the fresh washcloths
to quickly scrub himself down, then towelled himself dry and pulled on one of the dress shirts.
As he came back out, he saw that Sister Psyche had chosen a couple of the vests and ties for him.
“Er… which one should I try?”
“Well, if you don’t know what color she’s wearing, I’d suggest going with something neutral,”
she replied, still looking over her selections.
“Neutral?”
“You know - grey, black, that sort of thing. Kind of like what Justin wore to the wedding.” She
turned around, holding up a satin vest and tie in gunmetal grey. “How’s this?”
Raymond supposed he should be glad he didn’t have to wear a bow tie for this, so he accepted
her suggestion without comment, shrugging into the vest and then struggling to manage a four-
in-hand knot with the tie. After his fifth try, cursing the entire time, Sister Psyche got up to help
him.
“Don’t worry, Justin can’t tie one of these either without my help.”
“That’s not true,” the archer protested. “I just like having you fuss over me.”
Serge, in the meantime, was busy conferring with his assistant, who again left and returned with
a couple pairs of pants that matched the jacket.
“You’ll need to try these on as well so I can fit them,” Serge explained, but Raymond looked at
Sister Psyche, his cheeks turning slightly red. However, all she did was grin and sit back in her
chair.
“You forget, I’ve seen it all, so just pretend I’m not here.”
“You may have seen it all, but you haven’t seen it on me.” Even though he knew she was
married, and definitely not available, the psychic was still a very attractive woman, and the
notion of stripping in front of her was not one he cared to entertain.
“Actually, that’s not entirely true. You forget that time that the Dark Watcher brought you
back… and without your armor, I might add.”
Raymond looked to Manticore for support, but all the archer did was shrug. “You honestly think
she listens to me?”
Blushing fiercely, Raymond pulled off his jeans and set them aside, then pulled on the dress
pants that Serge handed him.
“Hmmmmm… not too much to take in there,” he muttered, crouching down and making chalk
marks to indicate where custom tailoring might be needed. “They actually fit rather well… do
you have dress shoes?”
“Um… not that go with a tux, no.”
“Shoe size?”
“Eleven wide.”
The assistant was back three minutes later with four pairs of shoes for him to choose from, so he
selected the ones that looked the most comfortable and tried them on.
“Not bad,” Manticore said, looking him over. “You think you’ll be able to dance in those?”
“Dance?”
“It’s a charity ball, Einstein, remember? Unless you’re going to do your wallflower
impersonation and leave your date to dance with other men while you’re there.”
Raymond sighed and ran one hand over his scalp. “No, they feel fine.”
“Now the jacket,” Serge said, and Raymond shrugged into it, allowing the tailor to flit around
him, checking the jacket’s fit across his shoulders, chest, and arms. Occasionally he would use
pins to take in material here and there, and then he finally stepped back to survey his handiwork.
“Well, I must say, I almost don’t recognize you now. You actually look presentable.”
“Thanks,” Raymond said sourly, but all Serge did was tut at him and turn him around to face the
triple mirrors at one end of the room.
And Raymond stared at himself.
*****
That couldn’t be him, he thought as he slowly approached the mirrors. Only other guys looked
that good in a tuxedo, someone like Statesman or Manticore, but not him. Yet the man he saw in
the mirror wore an elegantly tailored tuxedo as though he’d been born in one, and the material
felt almost remarkable against his skin. He turned around and looked at himself over his
shoulder, then turned back to face the mirror again.
“Quite a transformation,” Sister Psyche murmured softly, coming to stand beside him, her eyes
meeting his in the mirror. “I almost wish I could be there to see the look on Dr. Tavarisch’s face
when she sees you like this.”
At his questioning look, he heard her reply inside his head, Well, don’t tell Justin, but if Dr.
Tavarisch responds the way I think she’ll respond, her first thought will be that you look
fantastic… and her second will be wondering how fast she can get you out of that tuxedo.
He went absolutely scarlet at that, and she chuckled, but he resolutely put it out of his mind and
looked at himself again.
“Is that… really me?” he asked, reaching out to touch his reflection. With startling clarity, he
remembered the last time he had been here, when he’d come with Synapse to stop the Circle of
Thorns from abducting the model Candy Lebeaux.
“Not a big fan of mirrors, Pos?”
“Not really. Some stuff you don’t need staring you back in the face every day.”
Back then, he’d still been trapped in his armor, still been forced to endure the knowledge that
without it, he’d be nothing but energy, rather than flesh and blood. He’d almost forgotten what
he actually looked like, sometimes. He closed his eyes and shook his head to dispel the memory.
That was then, this was now… and now he was with a woman who actually gave a damn about
the man inside the armor. The least he could do was look his best for her.
“Yep, it’s you,” Manticore said in satisfaction, lacing his fingers together behind his head as he
leaned back in his chair. “And I gotta say, Pos, if I’d known you looked that good in a tux, I’d
have had you showing up at my parties ages ago.” He looked over at Serge. “Can you have his
adjustments made by Saturday afternoon?”
“If I said no, would it matter?” At Manticore’s look, he sighed, looked thoughtful, then nodded.
“Yes, it shouldn’t be too difficult to fit them in, if you’ll forgive the pun. There’s not much
needed in the way of alterations.”
They agreed on a time for him to come in, then Raymond changed back into his street clothes
(this time in the washroom so he wouldn’t have to face Sister Psyche’s knowing grin again) and
then re-donned his armor. As they left the shop, Raymond looked over at Sister Psyche and
Manticore.
“I… I guess I owe you guys an apology.”
“Don’t feel bad,” she said kindly. “Justin may have all the sensitivity of a rock sometimes, but I
know that this is difficult for you. However, I really do think you’re going to do Dr. Tavarisch
proud.”
Raymond slowly nodded. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow then. I’m going to head home.”
“Catch you tomorrow, Pos,” Manticore replied, taking off after Sister Psyche.
As he flew home, Raymond kept thinking about Sister Psyche’s comment as they’d stood in
front of the mirror. And he wondered what Sorina would say when she saw him.
Chapter Twenty­Four 
THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT
“Soooooo… how’d your shopping trip go?”
Raymond gave Steve an annoyed look as he closed the front door behind him, then turned back
around.
“It went all right. I’m supposed to pick up my tux Saturday afternoon.”
“Good thing for you that you’re not wearing that outfit you wore to Justin and Shalice’s
wedding,” Steve commented, and Raymond rolled his eyes.
“Like yours was any better? I just hope for your date’s sake that you’re not wearing that on
Saturday.” He paused. “Who are you taking, by the way?”
“Andrea, of course.”
“Thought so.”
“And of course you are escorting the good doctor. How do you think she’ll react to seeing you in
a tux?”
“How should I know?” Raymond said in exasperation. “I’m not a mind-reader.” Then he
remembered what Sister Psyche had said and headed toward his ops center before Steve could
see his blush.
“Well, warn me before you leave the party if you’re gonna bring her back here,” Steve called
after him, and Raymond groaned to himself.
Friday seemed to alternately take forever and yet fly by, and before he knew it, he was meeting
Sister Psyche again at ICON, Manticore having stayed at home to finish preparations for the
party.
“You guys really shouldn’t have done this,” Raymond was saying as they left the store.
“Why not? It’s not like Justin can’t afford it, and it’ll give you an excuse to take Dr. Tavarisch
out on the town more often.”
“Yeah, but to buy me a tux…” He looked embarrassed. “It’s not like I couldn’t have afforded it,
either.”
“I know, but think of it as… an early Christmas gift?” she suggested. “An incentive to have you
get dressed to the nines more often? Come on, this also gives me the excuse to get Justin into his
glad rags and the four of us can go out.”
“Well, when you put it that way…” Raymond admitted. “Look, I gotta book it home if I’m
gonna get ready in time for this party of yours. And I still need to stop off at the florist.”
“We’ll see you tonight, then!” Sister Psyche said cheerfully, as she and Raymond headed in
separate directions.
His next stop was one of the florists nearby in Steel Canyon, where he’d gone the day before to
pick out a corsage for Sorina. After consulting with one of the saleswomen there, he’d eventually
selected a small but elegant corsage of a single orchid. He just hoped she wasn’t allergic to them,
but he guessed that she would probably have mentioned it over the phone when he’d called her
the other day.
Now as he studied the elegant flower inside its case, he wondered yet again what she would be
wearing.
Back home, Raymond took one of his scalding showers, standing under the hot water as though
trying to boil away his nervousness. He thought he’d felt awkward the night of his first date with
Sorina, but now here he was, two months later, escorting her to one of the biggest black-tie
events of the season. As he scrubbed away the soap, he just hoped that he wouldn’t make too
much of a fool of himself that evening.
Steve, however, seemed determined to have fun at his expense, for when Raymond came out of
the shower, he again found his room cleaned, the sheets changed, and to his utter mortification,
an all-too-familiar box on his nightstand beside the bed with the note Just in case… This time,
his groan was audible as he crumpled the note and threw it across the room in frustration.
Removing the plastic wrappings from his tux, Raymond slowly dressed, marveling yet again
how light the clothes felt compared to the stuff he usually wore.
It turned out to be a good thing he started getting ready as early as he did, for he again found
himself struggling to manage his tie properly. Once he finally got it right, he put on his jacket
and moved to look at himself in the mirror.
“Weeelllllllll…” came Steve’s voice, and Raymond turned to see his roommate standing in the
doorway. “Hot damn, Romeo, you may have finally attained chick magnet status with that
outfit.”
“Oh, shut up. I’m not out to impress every woman there.” Just one, he thought to himself.
“Even so, man, you look good.”
Raymond looked over at Steve, who was also wearing a tux not unlike his own. The biggest
difference was that Steve’s vest was a rather flamboyant shade of turquoise. “Nice vest.”
“Well, it should go with Andrea’s dress, so at least we’ll be a matching pair.”
“How do you know what she’s wearing?”
“I asked her the other day when I called her about the party.”
“How are you guys getting there, by the way?”
“Manticore gave me the keys to the Porsche.” Steve’s grin turned slightly rueful. “I think he did
it on purpose, actually.”
“Why do you say that?” Raymond asked as he straightened his sleeves in front of the mirror.
“You ever tried to make out in a Porsche?”
Raymond’s face went red. “Can’t say that I have, no.”
“It’s a bit cramped.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
*****
Twenty minutes later, both men left the house, Steve to pick up Andrea, and Raymond to pick up
Sorina. As he drove, Raymond had to admit it felt distinctly weird to be driving rather than
flying somewhere. He’d almost gotten spoiled by being able to fly wherever he wanted, but it
certainly would not have been ‘the done thing,’ as it were, to fly to the Sinclairs’, especially
since Sorina couldn’t fly without her gauntlets.
Besides, he thought to himself, momentarily allowing himself a burst of speed on the highway
that looped around Paragon City, there was a certain style to driving a Ferrari. Maybe he should
see about getting one of these for himself - his patents certainly allowed him a decent standard of
living, although Steve was usually the one who handled their money. And God only knew what
Steve would say if Raymond said he wanted to purchase one of these things.
He managed to find a parking space near Sorina’s building, and as he rode the elevator up to her
floor, he found himself fidgeting with his tie and straightening his clothes.
“It’s just a charity ball,” he muttered to himself. “It’s no different than any other date we’ve been
on. I can do this.”
Carefully holding the case with her orchid in one hand, he knocked on her door with the other,
and heard her faintly call out, “Come in!”
The door was unlocked, so he let himself in and closed it behind him as Sorina came down the
hall, her head bowed as she tried to fasten a necklace clasp.
“Can you help me with this? I swear this thing has a clasp that Houdini couldn’t figure out…”
Then she looked up and stopped dead in her tracks, her mouth open and her eyes wide.
“Bog pomogaet mne,” she whispered.
For his part, Raymond had only a split-second to wonder what she’d said before he took in what
she was wearing, and his entire thought process ground to a halt.
Sorina was dressed in a strapless evening dress of dusty rose, a silk cloak of the same color
tossed back over her shoulders, and matching high heels. Her long hair was brushed straighter
than he’d seen her wear it so it fell in a sleek dark wave to the middle of her back.
Raymond’s first thought was that if ever the word ‘beautiful’ applied to a woman, it was Sorina
as she looked right now.
His second thought was that it was a good thing they had a party to go to, otherwise he’d have
been strongly tempted to throw every sense of propriety right out the window.
“My God,” she said at last, her eyes taking in every detail of his appearance before meeting his
eyes once more. “Raymond, you look…”
If Dr. Tavarisch responds the way I think she’ll respond, her first thought will be that you look
fantastic… and her second will be wondering how fast she can get you out of that tuxedo.
And damned if Shalice hadn’t been right, Raymond thought with a blush, for though she’d
managed to quickly hide it, there had been no mistaking the spark in Sorina’s eyes as she’d
stared at him.
For several drawn-out moments, there was only silence, then at last she flushed. “Say
something…”
“I would, if I could find the words to tell you how you look,” he said quietly and with absolute
sincerity. Then he handed her the box with her orchid in it. “This is for you.”
“Oh, it’s lovely!” she exclaimed, opening the box with a delighted smile. “Thank you so much!”
She moved toward a mirror that hung on the hallway wall and carefully fastened it in her hair,
then she turned around and held her necklace out to him.
“Could I trouble you to help me with this?”
“What? Oh. Sure.” He took the necklace from her, and she lifted her long hair out of the way.
Oh, God, he thought as he stepped behind her, she even smelled fantastic, too. Whatever perfume
she was wearing, he was definitely going to have to insist she wore it more often. On the other
hand, if she wore it more often, his ability to concentrate would be completely shot to hell. Then
he resolutely dragged his thoughts back to more practical matters as he managed to fasten the
clasp of her necklace.
But when she turned around, Raymond was all too aware of how close she was standing, and of
the look in her eyes as she gazed up at him.
No, God damn it, no… Without even realizing it, he’d tensed up and his heart was pounding so
loudly that he was surprised she couldn’t hear it. He was not going to go there, not unless it
would actually mean something to the both of them, no matter how frustrating it was.
“Raymond?” Her voice was soft, and to his surprise, almost hesitant.
Rather than tell her what was really on his mind, he instead asked, “What did you say when you
first saw me?”
Her cheeks turned nearly the same shade of rose as her dress. “I… I said, ‘God help me.’”
His heart skipped a beat for a moment. “Why?”
“Because…” She hesitated, then looked up at him helplessly. And before he realized what she
was doing, she’d wrapped her arms around his neck, pressed her body against his, and was
kissing him until she’d made him understand exactly what ‘because’ meant.
“Wow,” he whispered at last when she finally stepped back.
“Da.”
Again they stood looking at each other, before he finally cleared his throat. “We’re going to be
late if we don’t get going.”
And as he followed her outside, a single mantra was running through his head.
Steve is never going to let me hear the end of this.
Chapter Twenty­Five 
THE CHARITY BALL
As he opened the door of the Ferrari for Sorina and handed her into the car, Raymond was
extremely glad he’d let Manticore loan him the car for the evening. There was definitely
something to be said for driving one of these things, and even though he knew she knew that this
wasn’t his, it still felt really good.
Of course, it didn’t help that as they drove out to the Sinclairs’ estate, he kept thinking of Steve’s
earlier comment about making out in a Porsche.
“Why are you turning red all of a sudden?” she asked.
“Er… nothing.”
Twenty minutes later, they were pulling into the driveway of the Sinclairs’ estate, where valets
were waiting to park the cars of arriving guests. Raymond then groaned when he noticed several
reporters from the various society magazines of Paragon City clustered near the front door,
shouting questions at guests.
“Brace yourself,” he said to Sorina in a low voice, indicating the reporters waiting up ahead. “I
think we’re about to get mobbed.”
“Do we ignore them?” she asked, turning to look at him. “Or do we actually respond?”
“I guess it depends on the questions. If they ask if you’re my date for the evening, I guess a ‘yes’
can’t hurt. Anything more than that, though…”
“… would be asking for trouble,” she finished. “I agree. Well, at least this time we’ll be better
dressed for making the front pages.”
As they got out of the car, a couple of the reporters noticed them, and immediately the rest
followed suit.
“Dr. Keyes, is it true that you and Dr. Tavarisch are now in a committed relationship?”
“Dr. Tavarisch, what’s it like dating one of the city’s leading heroes?”
“Dr. Tavarisch, look this way!”
“Positron, how does Statesman feel about you dating Dr. Tavarisch?”
Sorina gave Raymond a sideways glance, and he gave her a barely perceptible nod. They both
smiled for the cameras, but neither of them answered any of the reporters’ questions.
At least, they didn’t until just as they reached the front door, when one reporter called out, “Dr.
Tavarisch, how did you manage to get Positron out of his armor?”
At that, Sorina stopped, then slowly turned around, as did Raymond. She met the eyes of the
reporter who’d asked the question, then with the sultriest smile Raymond had ever seen on her
face, she drawled, “I asked nicely.”
And with that, they turned and went inside.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Raymond a few moments later, her tone both apologetic and amused. “I
just couldn’t help myself.”
“Trust me, Sorina, if you’d asked me in that tone and with that smile, it would have worked,” he
said frankly, and she grinned.
“Pos! Dr. Tavarisch!” Manticore appeared, looking rakishly elegant in a tuxedo. “Welcome to
my humble home.”
“Get real, Justin, you wouldn’t know what ‘humble’ meant if someone hit you in the head with a
dictionary,” Raymond remarked, shaking his friend’s hand. Then Manticore turned, took
Sorina’s hand, and kissed it.
“Well, I must say, Dr. Tavarisch, you’re looking stunning.”
“Thank you,” she smiled. “But where’s Sister Psyche?”
“Playing hostess in the ballroom.”
“How about Steve and Andrea? Did they show up yet?” Raymond asked, looking around for his
roommate.
“Yeah, they’re already here. Which reminds me…”
Manticore led Sorina and Raymond into a small library and closed the door behind them, then
perched on the edge of a desk. “Your spec ops team is also here. They arrived yesterday, did a
prelim sweep, showed up again today four hours early and have been on ready status since then.”
“They’re a good group,” Sorina said with a small smile of pride.
“But isn’t that girl Takimura a bit… young? She can’t be more than what, sixteen?” Manticore
asked, looking a bit skeptical. “And that kid Dust Raven’s not much older.”
“Well, if it’ll put your mind at ease, Mayumi’s been our undercover agent with the Tsoo for the
past year and a half. And Dust Raven… well, he might be young, but he might surprise you.”
“I’ll take your word for it. I’ve got your team working with a Wyvern team to make sure nothing
untoward happens.”
“Good.” Sorina gestured to the door. “Shall we join your party then?”
Raymond offered her his arm, and together the three of them strolled through the vast house and
arrived in a ballroom packed with guests. A small orchestra off to one side was playing familiar
standards, with several couples on the dance floor, while others mingled and socialized
throughout the room.
*****
“Quite a crowd,” Raymond commented as they entered. He recognized several of the heroes,
even out of uniform - there was the Back Alley Brawler, looming at least a head and a half over
most of the room; there was Castle, over near the bar; there was Ms. Liberty, holding court over
to one side of the room, with Swan nearby in her trademark white.
“Ah, I see Andrea,” Sorina murmured, pointing off to one side where Raymond could see the
younger woman on Steve’s arm, laughing at something Steve was saying to Foreshadow.
Raymond, however, was hard-pressed not to stare at Andrea wearing an extremely low-cut dress
that was the same vivid turquoise as her eyes.
“Oh, boy,” Raymond said in a low voice. “I really hope Steve doesn’t turn out to be the jealous
type.”
“Why?” Sorina asked.
“Well, let’s just say that Andrea in that outfit means Steve is going to have to work harder at
keeping her attention.”
“I don’t think she’d mind,” Manticore remarked. “Synapse might be her date, but she’s not been
shy about checking out the other men in the room. Myself included, I might add.”
“But she’s smart enough not to go after men that are taken,” Sorina pointed out. “She’ll flirt, but
she knows that’s one line you do not cross.”
“Smart girl,” Manticore mused. “At any rate, it’s my host’s duty to go and mingle. Help
yourselves to a drink, dinner’ll be served in about an hour and a half.”
He disappeared into the crowd, and Raymond escorted Sorina over to the bar.
“How’s it going, Castle?”
Castle turned around and did a classic double-take when he saw Raymond. “Whoa! Damn,
Positron, I wouldn’t have recognized you if you hadn’t opened your mouth!” He then
immediately noticed Sorina standing next to him, a slight smile on her face. “And you must be
Sorina Tavarisch. Synapse’s told me about you.” He lifted his glass to her in a toast. “To Beauty
and the Geek!”
“Do you mind?” Raymond said, rolling his eyes.
“Not at all,” Castle replied with a grin, downing the last of his drink.
“So did you come alone or did you bring a date?”
“Nope, just me. Thought I’d see if I’d find some lovely lady here. Which reminds me…” He
leaned a bit closer. “Would you happen to know who that fox is that’s talking with Synapse and
Foreshadow?”
“That’s Andrea Blake,” Raymond answered. “And she’s here with Synapse, actually.”
“Damn…”
“Anyway, we’re going to make our hellos, so we’ll talk to you later.” Raymond signalled the
bartender, who brought over two glasses of champagne, then he handed one to Sorina and took
the other for himself. Together they wandered over to where the Back Alley Brawler was sitting
and intimidating half the room without even trying.
“Wasn’t sure if you’d be coming,” Raymond said with a grin, shaking hands with the other hero.
“Justin throwing a party? Of course I had to come, who else would keep an eye on him?”
Sorina leaned past Raymond to also shake hands. “Good to see you again.”
“And you, Doctor. You look fantastic, by the way.”
“Spasibo,” she smiled. “Although I must admit it’s strange seeing so many of you wearing
something other than your usual uniforms.”
“Yeah, my gloves tend to make people nervous, so I left them home.”
“Raymond! Sorina!”
The couple turned to see Sister Psyche approaching, radiant with the success of her party.
“Thank you both for coming.”
“Thank you for having us,” Sorina said, shaking hands with their hostess.
Raymond then had the disconcerting experience of seeing Sister Psyche making idle chat with
Sorina and the Back Alley Brawler, but hearing in his head, So, was I right?
About…? As if he didn’t know, he thought guiltily.
What her reaction was when she saw you.
Ummmmmmm…
That’s what I thought. He heard a soft chuckling in his head. And let me guess… you had the
same thought when you saw her in that dress.
Raymond flushed, and Sister Psyche laughed, although he knew that the others thought she was
laughing at something they’d said.
“Well, I hope you all have a wonderful time! Now I get to go smile at a bunch of rich people I
don’t really know to thank them for donating to charity.” With a quick wave, Sister Psyche
disappeared into the crowd.
The Back Alley Brawler leaned back in his chair and studied Raymond and Sorina. “You know,
Justin was right. You two do look good together.”
“Do I even want to know what he was saying about us?” Raymond asked, holding a chair for
Sorina and then sitting down as well.
“Only that you look happier than you have in a dog’s age. His words, not mine.” Then the big
hero looked over at Sorina. “I hear your group’s known for being a bit beyond-the-book. Could
have used you guys twenty years ago when I was still running the Regulators, since some of your
teammates have the reputation for kicking tails and taking names.”
“We try,” Sorina grinned.
“Yeah, but I also hear quite a few of you have made enemies in high places. You guys better
watch your backs - your team’s good people, I’d hate to see you guys get stomped on because
you bit off more than you could chew.”
“Tell that to the gang outside,” she replied, gesturing toward the wide French doors that led to
the terrace. “We’re also helping Manticore run security tonight.”
“I saw a couple of them earlier. That big feline friend of yours looks like he’d happily filet
anything that got in his face.”
“Oh, you mean M’rshaan. He’s a rare breed, that one.”
Raymond grimaced - he remembered when he’d first met the big catlike warrior during one of
his visits to the Star Patrol headquarters. He’d learned that Sorina had been responsible for
recruiting him after defeating him when M’rshaan had arrived in Paragon City, wielding two
blades and challenging a hero of Earth to combat. Sorina had stepped in, accepted his challenge,
and then immobilized him until he’d surrendered, and he’d since sworn fealty to Sorina and the
Star Patrol.
The Brawler finished off his beer and stood up. “I’m gonna grab myself another drink. You two
want anything?”
“No, thanks… we should probably continue making the rounds ourselves. We’ll be back in a
few,” Raymond replied, standing and holding one hand out to Sorina.
For the next hour, they mingled with several of the other couples in the ballroom, some of whom
were familiar to them, others who were not. One thing Raymond noticed, however, was that
quite a few of them seemed quite curious about his relationship with Sorina, but he hardly
intended to broadcast the details of his private life… not if he could help it, anyway.
“Yo, Romeo, you’re here!”
He turned to see Steve come weaving through the crowd with Andrea right behind him. Steve
stopped, took Sorina’s hand, bowed, and kissed it.
“And may I say that you are looking ravishing this evening, Sorina.”
“Thank you, Steve,” she chuckled as Andrea rolled her eyes behind him.
Steve then threw his arm around Raymond’s shoulders. “So, whatcha think of Ray’s new look?”
Raymond tried valiantly to keep a straight face as Sorina went red. “I already let him know what
I think of it.”
And it still made his blood hot to think about it, Raymond thought to himself.
“Uh-huh,” Andrea teased with a sidelong glance at Raymond that told him she knew exactly
what he was thinking. “I can imagine.”
Then she slightly elbowed Steve out of the way to stand on tiptoe and kiss Raymond’s cheek in
welcome. “You really do look great, Dr. Keyes.”
“Thanks, Andrea, so do you.” He looked around. “Are any of the other Star Patrol leaders here?”
Andrea shook her head. “Nope. Sharpe’s out doing security detail at Firebase Zulu, Wright’s
leading training maneuvers in the RWZ, and Bowman’s minding the home fires.”
“Pity, it’d have been nice to see them.”
“Yeah, I know they wanted to come, but hey, when duty calls, duty calls.” She shrugged.
“Bowman probably could have come, but with the spec ops team on security detail, he wanted to
make sure someone was monitoring things from the base. That whole better-safe-than-sorry
thing.”
“You really think the Nova Dominion’s gonna hit the party?” he asked, looking slightly
concerned, and even Steve looked serious.
“I don’t know… I wouldn’t say that this sort of thing would be Banestar’s style, but you put this
many heroes in one place, and he might just be ambitious enough to try and get one up on us all
and then gloat about it afterward.”
Just then, one of the attendants at the party approached. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but
dinner is now being served in the main dining room. If you’d care to follow me?”
Raymond turned to Sorina and offered her his arm. “Shall we?”
“We shall,” she smiled, taking his arm as Andrea did the same with Steve.
However, as they turned to follow the crowd into the dining room, Raymond saw Steve give him
a grin and a wink, his eyes going from Raymond to Sorina and back, as well as the twinkling
amusement in Andrea’s eyes.
Oh, great… now they both know. Raymond lifted his eyes to the ceiling in silent appeal. Why
me?
Chapter Twenty­Six 
DINNER, DANCING, AND DARES
As they entered the formal banquet room, another attendant at the door asked their names, then
directed them to a table where they saw crisp parchment place markers with their names beside
their places. Raymond courteously held Sorina’s chair for her as she sat, while Steve did the
same for Andrea. Thankfully, the two couples had been seated together.
As servers began moving among the guests, taking orders for drinks, he felt a strong sense of
pride that he was here with Sorina. Normally he’d have hated being forced to something like this,
but damned if it didn’t feel good being here with her. He liked seeing her enjoy herself, and she
seemed to be happy as she chatted with Steve and Andrea.
It had been a while since Raymond had last dined at the Sinclairs’ place, and he’d not had much
recent experience with truly formal dining, so when he saw the number of pieces in his
silverware, he momentarily blanched.
Noticing his reaction, Andrea leaned over from where she was sitting to his right and whispered,
“Easiest way to remember is to start from the outside and work your way in.” Then she grinned.
“Of course, you might well find yourself eating soup with a napkin if you do that.”
“Thanks a lot, Andrea,” he said with a wry grin.
“Good God, have you seen how many courses they’re serving?” Sorina was saying in
amazement. “If I eat this much, I’ll be the size of a house!”
“Ah, you know how it goes, Sorina,” Steve teased. “They serve such small portions that they
have to give you a lot of food to make up for it.”
“Which is going to be rougher on you than the rest of us,” she said sympathetically, but Steve
shook his head.
“Nah, Manticore warned the caterers to make sure I got extra. My kind of guy.”
As their first course was served, Raymond quietly decided to himself that he wasn’t going to
worry about impressing anyone. If he just kept his cool, he should be fine.
His theory, however, only lasted the first three courses, when he nearly leapt out of his chair after
Sorina put her hand on his knee under the table. When he realized what it was, his hands shook
so much that he had to set down his fork and knife and draw a deep breath to calm himself.
“Sorina!” he hissed as quietly as he could while the others at the table carried on their
conversation over the meal.
She glanced at him, then down at her hand and immediately went red, quickly removing her
hand. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, maintaining a calm expression for the benefit of the others, but
Raymond saw the mortification in her eyes.
She momentarily stared down at her plate, then resolutely smiled once again and rejoined the
conversations going around the table, and Raymond was cursing himself mentally for making her
think she’d done something wrong.
But now he couldn’t get her attention about it without drawing undue attention from the others,
so he quietly bided his time. When she reached for the napkin in her lap, he carefully reached out
and caught her hand in his, his eyes meeting hers, willing her silently to understand that he
wasn’t angry with her.
In fact, he thought to himself, if he weren’t so… well… shy, he almost wished he were bold
enough to put her hand back on his knee. Instead, he settled for gently running his thumb across
the back of her hand.
For a moment, her eyes went wide, and he saw the same spark he’d seen earlier in her apartment.
Then her features relaxed into the warm smile he’d seen on her face earlier, and she lightly
squeezed his fingers before letting go.
It was a good thing Andrea and Steve were actually at their table, he thought ruefully. Mainly
because they were both so talkative that no one really paid much attention if he and Sorina were
quietly focused on one another. And while he wasn’t sure if it was Steve displaying a remarkable
amount of tact, or Andrea mentally reining him in from teasing them, he wasn’t about to
complain.
*****
Once dinner was over, and liqueurs had been served, Manticore stood and tapped his spoon
against his water glass to get everyone’s attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Shalice and I would like to thank you for joining us this evening. Your
generosity is greatly appreciated.” He paused to acknowledge the wave of applause and cheers
from the guests. “We’ll soon be returning to the main ballroom, and in an hour, we’ll be starting
our charity auction, whose funds will be donated to the Cyrus B. Thompson Memorial Center.”
There was some more scattered applause, and then the guests began making their way back to
the ballroom.
There seemed to be even more guests than there had been before, and as Sister Psyche wandered
by, Raymond mentioned it to her.
“Oh, there were guests who were only coming to the auction, and not to the banquet,” she
explained before leaving again.
“Yeah, I can imagine seating THIS many people in that banquet hall would have been a bit much
even for them,” Steve said, looking around.
The small orchestra then started up again, and with a grin, Raymond led Sorina out onto the
dance floor.
“Whoa, she taught you to dance?” Steve exclaimed, clutching at his heart in mock dismay, but
Andrea laughed and elbowed him in the ribs.
“Oh, give the man a break, Steve,” she remarked, leading him onto the dance floor as well.
Several other couples joined them on the dance floor, and Raymond was silently grateful that
he’d gotten in all that practice with Sorina over the last few weeks. He still wouldn’t call them
Astaire and Rogers, but even he had to admit that they looked good.
Occasionally the two of them would part and dance with other people. At one point, Raymond
found himself dancing with Ms. Liberty while Sorina was dancing with Manticore, then later, he
partnered Andrea while Sorina partnered Steve. What surprised Raymond, though, was that after
that dance, Andrea then headed off to one side of the room, while Steve headed over to the bar.
“Taking a break?” Raymond asked as he joined his roommate.
“Nope… Andrea and I have a bet.”
That got Sorina’s attention as she returned to Raymond’s side, and she raised her dark eyebrows.
“Oh, really? Do I even want to know?”
At that exact moment, there was a general lull in the conversation, and Raymond could clearly
hear Andrea’s voice all the way across the ballrom.
“Wow, I’d never have thought that Statesman was a wuss.”
If the conversation had lulled before, it came to a dead stop right then and there, as everyone in
the room turned to stare at Andrea, who was leaning back on her heels, looking at Statesman
with an almost pitying expression on her face.
Statesman, on the other hand, was staring at her as though even he couldn’t believe what she’d
just said. “I beg your pardon?”
“Well, maybe ‘wuss’ is a strong word. But I can see how dancing with someone like me might be
intimidating. I mean, you’re only twice my size, and larger than life. And while anyone can
shotput a tank, I’ll understand if dancing is beyond even your capabilities.” She patted him on
the arm sympathetically, and turned away, or would have if Statesman hadn’t caught her by the
elbow and turned her back to face him.
“I’ll have you know, Miss Blake, that I’d mastered dancing years ago.”
“Yes, back when Mozart was still performing concerts,” she teased.
At that, a few people nearby chuckled, but a glare from Statesman stifled the laughter. “I could
make a woman swoon just by dancing with her,” he countered, turning back to Andrea.
Andrea just laughed, and Sorina groaned and hid her face in her hands. “I cannot believe she’s
doing this.”
“I can,” Steve said cheerfully.
But then, to their amazement, as Raymond and Sorina watched, Statesman moved out onto the
dance floor, still holding Andrea by the arm. Every other couple on the floor took one look at the
pair and quickly moved back. As they reached the center of the dance floor, Statesman let her go
long enough to have a quick word with the orchestra’s leader before returning to Andrea’s side.
Then, taking Andrea’s hand and waist, he drew her close, an almost defiant look in his eyes.
“Try to keep up, Miss Blake.”
“Give it your best shot, Mr. Cole,” she shot back.
“This should be good,” Raymond murmured to Sorina as the orchestra began a sultry and
dramatic tango.
Everyone in the room stood and watched as Statesman and Andrea danced, their eyes locked on
one another. The hero danced with an almost predatory grace, but Andrea was certainly not
slowing him down. In fact, Raymond guessed, her psychic talents were helping her follow his
lead, since she could tell what he was going to do almost before he did it. Every step, every turn,
every bend, wherever he led, she stayed right with him, even as their dancing became bolder and
Raymond would swear he saw sparks as they danced.
Just then, Manticore came up beside him and Sorina, his mouth slightly open. “Tell me I’m
imagining this.”
“You’re imagining it,” Sorina whispered back.
“But States with Andrea? And Synapse isn’t having a fit over this?”
“Apparently it was a bet between him and Andrea that she could get Statesman to dance with
her,” Raymond said softly.
He wondered how it was that two people who barely knew each other could dance in such a way
that it almost seemed like lovemaking on the dance floor, and his face went red at the idea of
dancing like that with Sorina. How would it feel, he thought, to dance with that kind of
controlled passion?
Then out of the corner of his eye, he caught a wistful longing on Sorina’s face as she watched her
friend dance with Statesman.
“What’s wrong?” Raymond whispered to her.
“I wish I could dance like that,” she murmured, her voice envious. Then she lifted her eyes to
his, and he would swear he heard her silently add, … with you.
He slid one arm around her waist and drew her slightly closer, and she relaxed into his side.
As the music reached a crescendo, Andrea suddenly came up against Statesman’s chest, one leg
hooking around his waist, while he caught her leg beneath her knee, his other hand at her back,
and lowered her into one last bend, her long hair almost reaching the floor as her head fell back.
And as the tango ended, he drew her upright once more before releasing her, stepping back, and
bowing from the waist, while the crowd around them burst into thunderous applause.
“Well, Miss Blake?” Statesman said, straightening, his voice mocking as he took in her shining
eyes and wide smile.
Andrea looked as though she were ready to faint. “Oh, wow…” she gasped, one hand over her
heart. “I take it all back… that was INTENSE!”
Statesman’s smile softened a bit, however, as he studied the young woman. “You’re not bad
yourself,” he admitted, escorting her off the dance floor back to Steve.
“I think, however, you’d be better able to keep up with her,” Statesman said wryly, bowing once
more to Andrea before turning and walking away.
Andrea wisely waited for a count of five before turning to Steve with one eyebrow raised.
“And you said it couldn’t be done…”
*****
Curious to know exactly what their wager had been (although he could certainly guess by the
smile on Andrea’s face), Raymond was ready to go over to talk to the other couple when he
suddenly noticed Manticore frowning about something. Then he saw Manticore lift one hand to
the side of his head, and Raymond realized he was still wearing his communicator.
“Something wrong?” he asked the other hero in a low voice, not wanting to draw attention to
themselves.
“Wyvern’s reporting a possible situation outside.”
“What kind of situation?”
“Not certain yet, they’re scouting the area…” Manticore slowly moved off to one side of the
room to a quieter corner, and Raymond followed him. Then he stopped abruptly. “Hell…”
“What is it?”
“Seems the Carnival of Shadows has decided to crash the party.”
“What?!” Keeping his voice down, although not without difficulty, Raymond suddenly had
visions of a horde of Carnies wreaking havoc in the middle of a crowd of civilians. Considering
half the heroes here had left their gear elsewhere, the situation could rapidly turn into a
bloodbath… just the sort of mass chaos the Carnival enjoyed.
“Wait…” Manticore held up his hand for silence, his eyes moving to the French doors, while
Raymond’s did the same. As they concentrated, Raymond could faintly hear the sounds of battle
outside, but so far, no one else seemed to have noticed. “Wyvern’s locking them down… Star
Patrol’s team is helping.” He touched the communicator to open a channel. “Ops team, what’s
your status?”
Manticore listened for a few moments, then nodded and met Raymond’s eyes. “Busy, but not
overwhelmed. They brought quite a few friends with them, but the two teams have got things
covered-”
Just then, a deafening explosion shook the ballroom as the four sets of French doors to the
terrace exploded inward of a hailstorm of glass and debris.
Chapter Twenty­Seven 
THE PARTY CRASHERS
In an instant, the ballroom was transformed into a scene of mass chaos - screaming, crying,
shouting, as some people tried desperately to get out of the way, while the heroes in the room
fought to get between the guests and whatever had just blown away half the wall.
Choking on the dust that rolled across the ballroom, Raymond found himself nearly deafened by
the panicked shouting and screaming of the other guests, but he shut it out by focusing on the
one thing that was most important to him in that exact instant.
Where was Sorina?
His eyes swept the room in growing fear, but he couldn’t see her in the crowd.
Then out of the dust and smoke, he heard a voice, husky and strong.
“How rude… a party and we weren’t invited.”
Then came another voice, clearer and colder.
“Not the warmest of welcomes, either.”
Then came a third voice, this one soft but with an edge of menace.
“Let us show them how we dance, then.”
And out of the smoke and dust stepped three women.
One was wearing black leather from head to foot, chains around her waist like a belt, with
reddish black hair that fell to her shoulders, burning red eyes and the most feral smile he’d ever
seen on a face. The second was wearing a skintight and tattered black bodysuit, revealing bone-
white skin underneath. From behind hip-length black hair, her eyes glowed white as they moved
over the room in cold amusement. The third was slightly smaller than her companions, slim in
some strange organic-looking body armor, her hair a waist-length bluish-black, and her eyes
gleamed like black orbs.
Raymond froze - even without his armor, he could feel the power surging around the new
arrivals. However, he didn’t recognize any of them, even as they moved further into the room,
looking dispassionately at the furor they were creating.
“How dare you?” he heard Sister Psyche demand, and turned to see the heroine kneeling on the
ground, her face filled with anguish and grief and rage as she looked down at the bodies of
several guests who’d been killed by the blast. As one, the three women turned to her, and for a
moment, Raymond was certain they were going to attack her.
“We know you… Sister Psyche,” said the one in leather, her husky voice almost purring.
“We know you… Shalice Sinclair,” said the one in tatters, her voice becoming colder.
“We know you… Sister Solaris,” said the third, her soft voice almost puzzled.
Raymond frowned. Sister who? But then his train of thought was interrupted when several
heroes stepped forward, Synapse and Manticore among them, anger on their faces.
“Get the hell out,” Manticore snarled. “And I mean now.”
The three women looked amused.
“But we have come to join your party,” said the one in tatters, and then her eyes shone even
more brightly, and Manticore let out a cry of pain and sank to his knees, clutching at his head.
“Justin!” Steve shouted, and a blast of electricity surged from his hand at Manticore’s attacker,
but the woman in leather laughed and stepped directly into the blast. Then she flung out her hand
to send red lightning straight back at Steve, hurling him backward into the crowd.
Sister Psyche, however, didn’t take too kindly to seeing her husband attacked, and she let loose a
wave of psychic energy that sent all three women reeling backward, enough to free Manticore
from the psionic barrage.
“Steve!” Raymond shoved his way through the crowd to reach his roommate’s side, but Steve
waved him off as he climbed to his feet once again. Raymond then saw Andrea also reach
Steve’s side, and her expression darkened with anger.
“Where’s Sorina?” Raymond asked urgently.
“I’m here,” he heard, and turned his head to see Sorina pushing her way through the heroes still
in the ballroom. “I wanted to make sure the civilians got out. Ms. Liberty and Swan are keeping
things organized, but barely…” She lifted her head to look at the three women in black. “Who
are they?”
“I don’t know, but I think things are about to go to hell in a handbasket,” Raymond muttered. “I
can remote-summon my armor, but I doubt they’ll give me the thirty seconds I need for the
summoning cycle to complete.” He looked over at Sorina. “And without your gauntlets…”
“I’m powerless,” she finished, a wretched expression in her eyes. “Or mostly, anyway.”
Then another voice cut across all of theirs, echoing with a power that made them tremble.
“ENOUGH!”
*****
Raymond looked up to see Statesman step forward between the line of heroes and the three
women.
All three turned to look at him, and this time, Raymond saw the same expression on all their
faces.
Confusion.
“I… know you,” said the one in tatters, her hand to her temple as though trying to remember.
“Statesman,” said the one in leather, frowning in puzzlement.
“Marcus,” whispered the third, her eyes widening slightly.
Statesman ignored them, lightning crackling around his body and his eyes filled with the white
light of divinity. “Leave this place, and now. I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I must.”
No matter how many times he’d heard Statesman take on the power of Zeus, it still made
Raymond’s blood freeze, and even though he wasn’t the one Statesman was talking to, he was
half-ready to bolt out of the room himself.
The three women, however, didn’t move, but continued to stare at Statesman, shaking their heads
but never taking their burning eyes off of him.
“You… shared our hospitality,” said the one in leather.
“You… shared our wine,” said the one in tatters.
“You… shared our secrets,” said the third, and Statesman went pale. Advancing on them once
more until he was standing within arm’s reach of them, ignoring the calls of concern from the
other heroes, he cried out, “What madness is this? What happened to you?”
Now it was their turn to ignore him, and the three women turned to face each other.
“We remember…” they said as one, and Raymond watched as dark energy seemed to spark and
dance around them, arcing from one to another and another.
“He is Marcus Cole, our ally,” said the one in tatters.
“He is Statesman, our enemy,” said the one in leather.
“And we…” said the third, turning with the others to face Statesman once more. “We are death
and destruction.”
“Death and destruction,” howled the other two with voices like the damned of Hell itself, and as
one, all three attacked Statesman.
*****
“What the hell is going on?” Raymond shouted over the chaos as he grabbed Sorina and forcibly
pulled her away from the combat in the middle of the room, while the other heroes jumped in to
help Statesman.
“I don’t know!” she shouted back. “But don’t just stand there, summon your armor while you
still have a chance!”
“But what about you?” He couldn’t just leave her here unprotected, but she glared at him.
“Don’t worry about me, damn it, just do it!”
He held her gaze for a second or two longer, then reached into his pocket to trigger the remote
summon for his armor.
As his armor materialized around him, he saw Castle swinging a sword made of flame at the one
in leather, who caught the sword in one hand and laughed before punching him in the jaw and
sending him flying backward. The Back Alley Brawler caught him before he hit anything, tossed
him out of harm’s way, then charged in.
“Come on, let’s see if you really do hit like a girl!” he bellowed, and the one in leather rounded
on him, and soon the two were trading blows, while Manticore was laying down cover fire.
Sister Psyche was battling the one in tatters in what looked to Raymond to be some sort of
psionic struggle, assisted by Steve who was hurtling lightning at the woman in black.
Statesman, however, was fighting alone against the third, from whom the chilling dark energy of
the Netherworld was spiralling, coiling around him, choking him, and stealing away his energy.
Then the armor finished synching up with his nervous system, and Raymond lunged forward to
help Statesman. The woman turned her gleaming black eyes on Raymond, and he couldn’t help
shuddering inside his armor - it was like staring into hell, only hell wouldn’t have anything that
dark and lifeless.
“Come back, Megan!” Statesman was shouting as he dodged her attacks, his voice almost
pleading. “I don’t want to fight you!”
But she ignored him, her hands flashing out, and Statesman was soon surrounded by icy darkness
and driven to his knees.
“LEAVE HIM ALONE!” Raymond shouted, firing a blast of anti-matter at her, but to his utter
amazement, Statesman forced himself to his feet, lunged at him and threw off his aim.
“No, Positron, don’t!”
“But Statesman-”
“NO!” There was the voice of divinity again, and Statesman rounded on the woman he’d called
Megan. “Stand down, Megan, I beg of you!”
For a second, Raymond thought she was going to actually do it, but then he saw the woman’s
eyes move to look at something behind them, and he turned to see Andrea approaching, moving
to stand among the fallen guests.
The woman Statesman had addressed as Megan abruptly stopped, her eyes narrowing. “Blake.”
Her two companions also turned away from their opponents to look at Andrea, then the one in
tatters turned and saw Sorina off to one side. “And Tavarisch.”
“Star Patrol,” said the one in leather, her eyes bright with anticipation for battle. “Forget these
others.”
Raymond saw Andrea and Sorina exchange a look of mutual horror, a horror he also felt. For
them to be specifically targeted as members of Star Patrol meant that these three had to be
members of the Nova Dominion.
Which meant they would show the two women no mercy.
“Who first?” asked the one called Megan.
“Tavarisch,” said the one in tatters, and Raymond’s blood turned to ice in his veins. “That should
please him.”
Ignoring the attacks of the other heroes, the three women leapt toward Sorina with screams of
unholy glee.
Chapter Twenty­Eight 
JUSTICE OR VENGEANCE
“Sorina, NO!” Raymond screamed, but before the three howling women could reach Sorina,
there was a sudden blur, and Sorina seemed to vanish. The three skidded to a confused halt and
whirled around, as did Raymond, to see Steve standing near the gaping hole in the wall with
Sorina in his arms.
“GRAB ANDREA!” Steve shouted, before turning and dashing outside, still carrying Sorina,
while the three women in black snarled in fury and then leapt after him in hot pursuit. Without
pausing, Rayond lunged forward and scooped the other Star Patrol heroine into his arms and
soared after Steve and Sorina.
Normally Raymond wouldn’t have a prayer of catching up with Steve while he was using his
superspeed, but between the weight of holding Sorina, and the fact that if he ran too fast, she
wouldn’t be able to breathe, he was forced to slow down. Fortunately he still seemed capable of
outrunning their pursuers, and accelerating past the three women, Raymond caught up to his
roommate two blocks away.
“What’s the plan?” he shouted.
“Lead them away from the mansion, then we find some way to take them down,” Steve called
back, but another voice cut theirs off.
“I won’t let you harm them.”
They both glanced back to see Statesman flying alongside them as well, his expression deadly
serious. Close behind him were their three pursuers, still howling and baying for blood.
“We don’t have much choice, Statesman,” Raymond protested. “If we don’t take them down,
they’ll kill Sorina and Andrea without thinking.”
“I said no,” Statesman rumbled, his voice harsh. “And that’s an order.”
“Then let’s stop and face them,” Andrea said from where she rested in Raymond’s arms. “We’ve
put enough distance between us and anyone else who might get hurt.”
Steve slowed, as did Raymond, and as they stopped and set Sorina and Andrea on their feet,
Statesman took up a position between them and the three women in black, who also slowed and
came to a stop about ten feet away.
“At last our prey has tired,” said the one in leather.
“Pity… and we were so enjoying the hunt,” said the one in tatters.
“And now it is time for the kill,” said the third, but Statesman raised one hand and lightning
arced around it.
“You may not have these two.” His voice was low and clear, filled with the unmistakable power
of heaven.
“You cannot stop us,” said the one he’d called Megan.
“You may be the embodiments of death and destruction, but you were also the embodiments of
justice. What crime have these two committed to warrant your wrath?”
“Justice…” whispered the one in tatters.
“Do not speak to us of justice…” whispered the one in leather.
“It no longer matters,” said the third.
“Yes, it does!” Raymond pleaded, moving to stand in front of Sorina, not caring that now all
three women turned to face him.
“Why?” demanded the one called Megan.
“Without justice, we’d be nothing more than savages,” Steve said, stepping to Andrea’s side.
“Then where were you when we deserved justice?” snarled the one in leather, flames leaping into
existence around her body as she advanced.
“What do you mean?” Statesman whispered.
The one called Megan held up her hand, and the one in leather stopped.
“You do not know?” asked the one in tatters.
All five heroes shook their heads, and the three women looked at one another.
“Tell me, Megan,” Statesman said softly. “Tell me what happened to you and your sisters.”
Raymond glanced at Steve, startled, and mouthed, Sisters?
The three women straightened, and once again, Raymond saw dark energy pulsing around them,
like a single shared heartbeat.
“Listen, that you may know,” said the one in tatters.
“Listen, that you may understand,” said Megan.
“Listen, before you die,” said the one in leather.
*****
“You once knew us as three sisters, living on the island of Kythria,” began Megan. “As
Megan…”
She glanced at the woman in leather. “Alexis…”
She glanced at the woman in tatters. “And Phoebe.”
“You were the protectors of the island of Praxidae,” Statesman prompted. “But later, you were
known as Megaera, the grudging…”
Now it was his turn to glance at the other two. “Alekto, the unceasing… and Tisiphone, the
avenging.”
“The Furies?” Andrea said in surprise.
“The Erinyes,” Sorina said softly. “Also known as the ‘angry ones.’”
“But they’re just legend!” Raymond protested, and Statesman almost chuckled.
“Not quite.” But then all humour faded as he looked back at Megan. “What happened?”
“For years, we continued to live in peace,” said Megaera.
“For years, we watched,” said Tisiphone.
“And then one day… he returned,” said Alekto.
“Who?” Steve asked, frowning.
“The one who was once Stefan Richter,” Alekto replied, her eyes focused on Statesman.
“The one who now calls himself Recluse,” Tisiphone added.
“The one who nearly destroyed us,” finished Megaera.
“WHAT?!” Raymond, Sorina, Steve, and Andrea all exclaimed at the same time. They all knew
who Lord Recluse was - Arachnos was the implacable enemy of the Freedom Phalanx and the
world at large.
“But how?” Statesman was flabbergasted. “You’re over four thousand years old, you have more
power than half of this city put together!”
“We came by our powers the same way you did,” Alekto reminded him. “And Recluse had
decades to study the waters he took from the Fountain of Zeus.”
“While he could not duplicate the powers it gave,” said Tisiphone, “he learned much about what
it could do.”
“And in studying the waters, he learned much about his own powers…” said Alekto.
“And yours,” said Megaera.
“And ours,” said Tisiphone.
“You have the power of Zeus,” said Megaera. “While he embodies that of Tartarus. But he
wanted more.”
“He wanted us,” sighed Tisiphone.
“And so, he persuaded those who serve him to delve into ancient magics, long-forgotten and not
without reason,” Alekto explained.
“He succeeded in doing what no mortal has ever done,” Megaera whispered.
“And that was?” Sorina asked softly.
“He trapped us,” answered Tisiphone. “He used sorcery to tear our power from us, and forced it
into new bodies, to breed an army of Furies at his command.”
“But it was not enough,” Alekto added, looking slightly smug.
“For he did not think to give the new bodies intelligence of their own, hoping to keep us
tractable. Nor did he realize that… some of our memories survived,” Megaera said quietly.
“We escaped,” said Alekto.
“But not before punishing those who held us captive,” said Tisiphone.
“But I still don’t understand,” Andrea said desperately. “If Arachnos did that to you, why are you
hunting us?”
“When we escaped, we were soon discovered by another,” Tisiphone replied.
“Banestar,” Sorina whispered, and the three Furies nodded.
“He gave us sanctuary,” said Tisiphone.
“He promised us revenge,” said Megaera.
“But for a price,” added Alekto.
“And what was the price?” Raymond asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“The lives of the Star Patrol,” said the Furies in unison.
“Once they were destroyed, he would turn the power of the Nova Dominion against Arachnos,”
Megaera stated.
“And the blood of Recluse would flow at our feet,” Tisiphone said in satisfaction.
“But Banestar would be no better than Arachnos!” Sorina cried. “Can’t you understand that?”
Then she recoiled as the dark energy around the three women intensified, and their eyes rested
on her.
“Do you think we care?” asked Megaera.
“Do you think it matters?” asked Tisiphone.
“We will have had our revenge,” finished Alekto.
*****
“No!” Statesman said angrily, waving one hand in a cutting motion. “I won’t allow that! I am
sorrier than you will ever know for what you’ve suffered, but this has to stop, here and now!”
“You cannot stop that which has been set in motion, Marcus,” Megaera said quietly. “We must
have justice, or there will be no justice for anyone anywhere on this Earth. We have sworn it.”
“We will have the lives of the Star Patrol,” said Alekto.
“And we will have our revenge,” finished Tisiphone, and together, the three Furies lifted their
hands and the dark energy around them flared. As one, they pointed at Sorina, but Raymond
stood before her defiantly.
“You want her, you have to come through me!” he said through gritted teeth.
“Your devotion is commendable, but it will not save her,” Megaera said, and darkness shot from
her hand straight toward Sorina. Raymond, however, took the full force of the blast against his
armor, staggering backward and groaning in pain.
“Nyet, Raymond, stop!” Sorina pleaded, trying to move in front of him, but he shoved her behind
him once more. “Please, you don’t have to do this!”
Raymond ignored her, bracing himself for the next assault, but a sudden thunderclap shook the
ground, nearly knocking him, Sorina, Andrea, Steve, and the Furies off their feet.
Statesman had drawn himself up and was now surrounded by the lightning of Zeus.
“Spare them… and I will give you the justice you deserve,” he said.
“How?” the three Furies demanded, and Statesman bowed his head.
“I will deliver Recluse to you for your judgment.”
“Recluse is not enough,” Alekto said emphatically.
“How many others were involved?”
“Most of them are dead,” Tisiphone said slowly, “killed when we escaped. But some still
survived.”
“And they were led by the one known as Ghost Widow,” said Megaera.
Statesman looked pensive for a moment, and for the first time, Raymond could truly see
Statesman’s age in his eyes.
Then Statesman lifted his head once more and met their eyes directly, and even they stepped
back from the intensity of his gaze.
“You will have your justice against those who wronged you. But no more. Enough blood has
been shed already.”
The three Furies stood still for several moments, then they looked at Sorina and Andrea.
“Banestar will continue to hunt you,” Alekto said at last.
“Until the last member of the Star Patrol is dead,” said Megaera.
“But if you will assist Marcus… your lives will be spared,” said Tisiphone.
“You mean… you’ll let us live?” Sorina asked cautiously.
“After a fashion,” said Tisiphone, and the smile that appeared on her face made Raymond
shudder. Then she turned to Raymond. “I sense the power in you to heal… how great is your
power?”
“Great enough,” Raymond said slowly.
“Good.” Tisiphone turned to Sorina and Andrea. “How great is your courage?”
The two women looked at one another, then back at the Furies. “Great enough,” Sorina said with
a glance at Raymond.
Megaera slowly moved forward to stand before Sorina and Andrea, her eyes glowing darkly in
her pale face. “Die, then, that you may live,” she intoned, and suddenly bright flares of light
exploded around her with echoes of howling screams. A second later, the lights surrounded
Andrea and Sorina, who both screamed in pain as they were lifted off the ground, their bodies
writhing in agony before the lights faded away and they collapsed to the grass, unmoving and
lifeless.
“YOU LYING MURDERERS!” Steve screamed. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!” In an instant,
he was on his knees beside Andrea, cradling her in his arms, while Statesman stared at the two
bodies in shock.
Raymond was frozen in place, his heart stopping at the sight of Sorina’s lifeless body lying
before him.
How great is your power to heal…?
He hesitated only as long as it took to focus his energy into the nanomachine healing field, then
he pointed one hand at Sorina and the other at Andrea.
I won’t lose you, Sorina, he thought fiercely, and the energy around his hands brightened, then
surged around the two women. I can’t lose you, not now…
Greenish yellow light pulsed around their bodies…
… maybe… not ever.
And slowly, with groans, the two women stirred. Raymond and Steve both gave cries of relief,
kneeling beside Sorina and Andrea, making sure they were truly all right.
“It is done,” said the Furies in unison, and as one, they vanished.
“No,” Statesman murmured, staring at where they had been. “It is only beginning.”
Chapter Twenty­Nine 
CROSSING THE LAST LINE
“Owwwwwwww,” Andrea groaned as she sat up with Steve’s assistance. “Did anyone get the
license plate of that truck?”
“Yeah, I think it was 1FURY1,” Steve joked, but Raymond could tell just how shaken his friend
still was by the slight trembling in his voice. Then he returned his attention to Sorina, helping her
sit up as she pressed one hand against her chest, wincing in pain.
“Tell me again, Andrea, what’s your secret for recovering so quickly after you die?” she asked
wearily.
“No secret, I’m just more used to death than you are.”
That got weird looks from Raymond, Steve, and Statesman, but Raymond chose to let it go for
now, helping Sorina to her feet, then embracing her tightly and not caring who saw. Sorina also
clung to him, resting her head against his chest as though drawing strength from him, then at last
she lifted her head and nodded.
“I’m fine… but we need to get back to the Sinclairs’.” Her eyes were sad as she turned to
Andrea. “After all… it’s our fault.”
“I don’t think it was, not entirely,” Statesman said slowly, looking at the two Star Patrol
members. “I don’t think that Banestar knew you two would actually be there, otherwise the
Furies would have gone straight for you. But they only noticed you by chance.”
“That’s a matter for further consideration,” Andrea said tiredly. “But Tava’s right. We still need
to complete damage control at the Sinclairs’ place.”
So with Raymond carrying Sorina this time, and Steve carrying Andrea, the five heroes returned
to the Sinclairs’ estate. As they arrived, they could see the mess outside where Wyvern and the
Star Patrol teams had been doing battle with the Carnival of Shadows, and of course, there was
no mistaking the area where the Furies had blasted their way into the party.
As they entered the ballroom through the hole in the wall, Manticore glanced up and approached,
his face tense with anger and sorrow.
“Thirty-eight dead, fifty-six more wounded, and all civilians,” he said, his voice low. “Would
someone please tell me what the hell this was all about? And I hope to God it was worth it,
whatever it was.”
Andrea, however, ignored him, and slowly moved past him to stand in the middle of the room
where the paramedics were still treating the injured and arranging the dead.
“Leave them,” she said softly.
“These people require medical attention,” protested one of the paramedics, but Andrea gave him
a look that made him turn pale and step back, his hands raised placatingly.
Andrea turned back to the others, her eyes resting on Statesman.
“I… I need a favor,” she said. “I need a focus for my power, a life to draw on. I can’t do this by
myself.”
Raymond saw Sorina step forward, but Andrea shook her head. “Not you, Tava… not after what
just happened.”
Statesman nodded in agreement, then joined Andrea once again in the middle of the dance floor.
“Go ahead, Miss Blake.”
She gave him a grateful nod, then Andrea lifted her hands as if in supplication, and dark energy
writhed around Statesman, which briefly passed through Andrea before spiraling among the
guests that lay dead on the ballroom floor.
“Come back,” she whispered, her eyes closed and tears sliding down her cheeks. “Please come
back…”
One by one, they were lifted from the ground in a swirl of darkness and light, and the resurrected
and healed guests shakily rose to their feet.
“I’m alive!”
“My wounds…”
“Thank God!”
“It’s a miracle!”
Andrea gave a deep sigh of exhaustion, and would have fallen to her knees had Steve not dashed
forward and caught her. She looked up at him and Statesman wearily, but she smiled in triumph.
“And death shall have no dominion,” she whispered as she lay her head on Steve’s shoulder.
“Not today, anyway…” Statesman looked down at the petite young woman in front of him.
“Well done, Miss Blake. Well done, indeed.”
Manticore, standing next to Raymond and Sorina, was staring in amazement, as was Sister
Psyche, who came to stand beside her husband. “Good God…”
“Yeah,” Raymond breathed. “For a kid, she’s something else.”
“Yes, she is,” Sorina agreed, and Raymond saw the pride in Sorina’s eyes for her teammate and
friend. Then Sorina looked over at Manticore. “What was all that about that we saw outside? The
Carnival of Shadows attacked?”
“Yeah, just before those three psychos showed up,” Manticore said, rubbing his eyes. “Wyvern
and your ops team had them under control, but once those three women burst in, they realized
that either it was a lightning-strike coincidence, or the Carnies were just a diversion.”
“That, my friend, is a matter that will have to wait until tomorrow,” Raymond sighed.
Sorina nodded in agreement. “I’ll notify Bowman and the others to meet you tomorrow at
Phalanx Headquarters. A pooling of resources and intelligence in this matter would not be amiss,
and we have more to tell you about what happened this evening.”
“I can live with that,” Manticore said, “but I have one question.”
“And that is?”
“Did you guys win?”
Sorina looked at Raymond, then at Andrea, and then at Statesman, and Raymond saw her hand
go again to her chest where Megaera’s attack had just about killed her.
“We have won this battle… but the war still goes on.”
*****
The reason for Manticore’s question soon became evident when the press arrived en masse,
clamoring for details, interviews, photographs, and whatever else they could get. Raymond,
Steve, Sorina and Andrea were content to let Statesman and Manticore do all the talking,
explaining how the combined efforts of Wyvern and the Star Patrol had initially stopped an
attack by the Carnival of Shadows. While they admitted to being caught by surprise by the three
unknown assailants, Statesman explained how he and the others had led them away to prevent
further injury to innocent bystanders, and then had dealt with their attackers.
Raymond, having removed his armor once again and standing just inside the hallway where he
could hear the press conference going on, smiled slightly when Statesman told them that further
details were unavailable in the name of security, but that justice had indeed prevailed.
“Why are you smiling?”
He turned to see Sorina approaching from where she had finished debriefing the Star Patrol spec
ops team with Andrea.
“I swear, I think Statesman’s real power is rhetoric and speech-making.”
Sorina smiled at that, but Raymond could see that her eyes were still shadowed… something was
still wrong.
“What is it?” he asked in concern, but she shook her head, and he sensed that she didn’t want to
discuss it while they were still in public.
“Can we please leave?” she asked.
“Yeah, let me tell Justin and Steve we’re going. Wait here.”
Raymond threaded his way through the crowd until he reached Steve, who was with Andrea at
the bar. Steve was watching as Andrea downed a large brandy, her hands shaking and her face
pale.
“Battlefield cure,” Steve explained as Raymond approached. “What’s up?”
“Sorina and I are leaving. Just wanted to let you know before we headed out.”
“Will you be spending the night at her place, or bringing her back to ours?” Steve asked, and to
everyone’s surprise, including Raymond’s, he didn’t immediately deny Steve’s words.
“I… don’t know.”
With that, he turned and left.
As he collected Sorina and escorted her outside, the press caught sight of them and immediately
began shouting questions at them.
“Positron, what happened during the fight?”
“Dr. Tavarisch, were you or Dr. Keyes seriously injured?”
“Dr. Keyes, do you believe this attack to be a political statement of any kind?”
“Dr. Tavarisch, do you have any comment?”
The couple ignored all questions, even though the reporters continued to call questions out to
them once they were in the car, and Raymond accelerated away from the Sinclairs’, heading
toward Founders Falls.
The ride back to Sorina’s place was quiet, but Raymond was almost afraid to break the silence.
He didn’t know what he could say that wouldn’t sound trite or inappropriate, but he desperately
wanted to talk to her. Sorina, for her part, was gazing silently out the passenger window, more
withdrawn than Raymond had seen her in weeks.
Then Sorina suddenly doubled over in her seat.
“Stop… please…”
He glanced at her, startled. “Are you all right?”
“Please…”
He pulled over to the side of the road, parking at one of Paragon City’s scenic lookouts, and as
soon as the car stopped, Sorina was out of the car, her arms wrapped around herself as she
doubled over.
“Sorina!” he exclaimed, hurriedly following her and wrapping one arm around her shoulders.
“Sorina, what’s wrong?”
“I… oh, God, it’s not f-fair,” she whispered, and Raymond saw to his horror that she was
weeping.
“Oh, God, please don’t cry,” he begged. “Please, Sorina, don’t…”
“I’m s-sorry,” Sorina sobbed, hiding her face in her hands. “I… I j-just thought… I thought I’d
have more t-time…”
“More time? For what?”
For several moments, she didn’t answer, then she turned her head away. “Before I’d h-have to let
you go.”
Raymond went absolutely still. “W-what are you talking about?”
“You could have been k-killed… and it would have been all my f-fault. When Megaera attacked
you… I wanted to scream, I felt s-so helpless.”
At last, her sobs subsided and she straightened up to face him, her face streaked with tears.
“And… I can’t let you take that kind of risk, not for me. Because the Freedom Phalanx needs
Positron. Paragon City needs Positron… so… so it doesn’t matter that I need… that I want
Raymond Keyes.”
Only one part of what she’d said actually registered in Raymond’s mind in that moment.
“You… do you mean that?” He rested one hand on her shoulder, and lifted her chin with his
other hand to stare into her eyes. “You… want me?”
Unable to look away from him, she nodded.
Raymond’s whole world seem to stop in that instant as he stared at the woman before him, but
then she closed her eyes, unable to look at him.
“Sorina…”
“I’ve tried for so long to fight it, Raymond,” she whispered. “I want to respect your need for…
for privacy and for space, and yet I…” She shook her head fiercely. “But this can’t happen.”
“Why not?” he demanded, his hands tightening on her shoulders.
“Because they’ll kill you… and because I… because I…”
“Because you what?”
She bowed her head. “Because I don’t think you feel the same way… about me.”
For almost a full minute, they stood like that, him staring at her, her keeping her eyes closed and
her head bowed, as though afraid to look up and see confirmation of her fears in his eyes.
Conflicting emotions filled Raymond’s heart as he looked at her. All of his old fears, every
single one of them, seemed to batter at him, urging him to accept the way out she was giving,
urging him to give in to the fear and walk away.
I don’t deserve someone like her…
I might die if they come after me again…
I can’t allow her to get close…
I have a responsibility as a hero…
I could lose her if they find her again…
His whole body shook as he fought for control. No… no… I can’t…
“You’re wrong.”
She opened her eyes and looked up at him, as though unable to believe what she’d just heard.
“What?”
“You’re wrong about how I feel.”
“What do you mean?”
He reached up and brushed a long tress of her hair back from her face, feeling a smile slowly
coming to his lips. “How could you not know? After two months of your experiment?” He gently
traced the shape of her mouth with his fingertips. “After the way you kissed me earlier?”
“Raymond, I-”
“Shhh,” he whispered, covering her lips lightly, then moving away his hand and bringing his
mouth down on hers, kissing her until he sensed the moment when understanding filled her.
“Bozhe moi,” she whispered against his lips. “You were serious.”
He nodded, barely trusting himself to speak after a kiss like that. But then words became
completely unnecessary, because then she was kissing him back, her arms around him, holding
him to her.
Chapter Thirty 
THE WALLS COME DOWN
It was almost unbelievable, Raymond thought dizzily to himself, holding Sorina as she kissed
him like there was no tomorrow. Considering how close she’d come to death, maybe she was
still also remembering how if it hadn’t been for him, there nearly hadn’t been a tomorrow for
her…
And he thought the way she’d kissed him in her apartment was intense. Damn it all, but she was
making it difficult for him to remember to be a gentleman. On the other hand, he thought, maybe
she wouldn’t mind-
Reality hit like a cold wave when he and Sorina suddenly found themselves the target of bright
headlights. Both of them gasped and broke apart, startled.
“What the-”
“The lookout is closed,” they heard over a set of loudspeakers, and shading their eyes against the
glare, they realized that it was a police patrol car. “Move along, or be charged with trespassing.”
Oh, you have got to be kidding me, Raymond thought with a groan.
His frustration must have been written all over his face, because when Sorina looked over at him,
she immediately began giggling.
“Stop laughing!” he growled, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. As Sorina covered her mouth
with her hands in a vain attempt to hold back her laughter, Raymond dug out his wallet and held
up his FBSA ID.
“Don’t you guys have someone else to bother?” he shouted in irritation. “You see this ID? You’d
think this would at least entitle me to some courtesy! Now do you MIND?!”
“Oh! Positron! We’re so sorry, sir, we didn’t recognize your vehicle. We’re sorry to bother you!
Carry on!”
The lights were abruptly turned off, and the patrol car quickly backed up and left, and as
Raymond replaced his wallet, he turned to see Sorina leaning against the Ferrari, laughing until
she was gasping.
“It’s not that funny,” he grumbled, but she only laughed harder, and eventually he joined in.
“Note to self for future reference,” she managed at last when she finally regained her composure.
“Making out in public can be hazardous to one’s health and dignity.”
“Yeah,” Raymond agreed, still chuckling as he wrapped his arms around her once more.
“You should have seen the look on your face!” she laughed.
“Oh, and I suppose you enjoyed being interrupted?”
“I didn’t say that.”
Raymond looked off into the distance where the patrol car had disappeared down the highway.
“Well, something tells me that they’ll be radioing other cops to leave us alone.”
“You think so?”
“Probably.”
“Good.”
“Why?”
And as she smiled sweetly up at him, he thought, Oh…
A few minutes later…
“Sorina?”
“Hmmm?”
“If you keep kissing me like that, Manticore is going to kill us.”
That got her attention, and she stepped back long enough to give him a confused look.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well… unless you think he wouldn’t mind if we started making out in his Ferrari.” Not to
mention, Raymond thought, that considering that both he and Sorina were taller than average,
Steve’s observation of things being cramped would certainly be true in their case.
She arched one dark eyebrow at him. “Hmmmm… yes, I suppose he’d be rather aggravated with
us.” Turning around, she studied the Ferrari as if it were a scientific experiment. “Not to mention
that I don’t really think there’s much in the way of room.” She turned back to him, eyes
twinkling.
Somehow, he was thinking that if that twinkle in her eyes meant what he thought it meant, she
wouldn’t mind the lack of space. However…
“I’m serious, Sorina.” Raymond reached out and caught her hands in his. “I… I don’t want to
make any wrong moves… not now, and especially not about this.”
She was silent.
“I’m… not very good with words,” he went on. “I think no matter how I tried, it’d come out
crass or inappropriate or wrong. But…”
Raymond paused, praying for strength. “I don’t care if the world needs me as Positron. Right
now, the only thing that matters to me is that you need me… and want me… as Raymond Keyes.
And what I want… what I need… is you.”
For a long time, they stood there, looking at one another, and Raymond was almost holding his
breath, waiting for her answer. Maybe, he thought, he’d done too good of a job of convincing her
he still needed to keep his distance, still wanted to remain separate, somehow.
But damn it, he didn’t want her to think this was just lust, either. Maybe he was old-fashioned,
maybe he was naive, or maybe, just maybe, Steve would even accuse him of being a romantic,
but he still wanted this to mean something… he wanted her to be happy.
Give me a sign, he prayed as he looked at her. Show me that I’m not the only one who feels this
way.
As though reading his mind, Sorina looked down at their joined hands, as earnest as he’d ever
seen her, and she lifted his hands to her lips, kissing one, then the other, and softly whispered,
“Da.”
*****
Raymond came awake at the sound of rain gently splattering against his window, and the faint
rumbling of thunder. It was still dark out, and he turned his head to look at his bedside clock. It
was one thirty in the morning, and he lay back against his pillow, closing his eyes again for a
moment. A quiet lassitude like he’d never known was filling him, and he stared up into the
darkness.
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it had all been just a dream.
But it had been real, for Sorina lay asleep beside him, one arm across his chest, holding him even
as she slept, and he gently pulled her closer.
He’d been grateful that Steve had not been home when they’d arrived - not that he was ashamed
to be bringing her here, but he didn’t want Steve’s joking to mar things for them, and things were
already slightly awkward as they were.
Truth be told, he thought, one hand idly stroking Sorina’s hair, he had actually been terrified, and
not just about the physical side of things. Sure, it’d been ages since he’d been in a physical
relationship, and sure, she had visited his place more than a few times over the last two months,
but this was closer than he’d allowed almost anyone. His room, even more than his ops center,
was his space, his refuge from the world, off limits to everyone. But as he looked at Sorina, he
wondered if he’d ever be able to lie in this bed again without thinking that she belonged there
with him.
And relationships were difficult enough for him as it was, but intimacy was another matter
altogether. It’d been far longer for him than even he wanted to admit, and he suspected that it had
also been some time for her as well.
“You look thoughtful,” he heard Sorina say sleepily, and he glanced down to see that her eyes
were open, watching him in the half-darkness of his room. “Any regrets?”
“No,” he said quietly. “None.”
“Not even that we should have done this sooner?” she teased, but he shook his head.
“I don’t think it would have meant the same if we’d had,” he replied, his eyes pensive. No, he
hadn’t really even begun to suspect what she was to him until this evening - when he had seen
her lying lifeless on the ground before him. “However, I do hope that we don’t always need a
near-death experience to progress in our relationship.”
She chuckled at that and hugged him, but he surprised himself at how tightly he hugged her
back.
“What’s wrong?” Sorina asked.
“I keep thinking I’m dreaming, and I’ll wake up and find myself alone,” he admitted.
Sorina drew him closer to her. “Nyet,” she whispered, “you’re not alone. Not anymore… and
thank God, neither am I.”
“You can say that again,” he murmured, closing his eyes and enjoying the warmth of her against
him.
It was almost astounding, he thought to himself as he lay in her arms. If someone had told him
two months ago that he would be taking a lover, he’d have either laughed in the person’s face or
else died of embarrassment. Yet here she was. God only knew how she’d managed it, slowly
working her way past every barrier, every defense, every fear, straight into his heart. “How did
you do it, Sorina?”
“What?”
Raymond abruptly realized he’d spoken his last thought aloud. “I was so good at keeping people
at a distance. I knew exactly who I was, what I wanted, where I was going, and then you stroll
into my life, turn it upside down, bringing chaos in your wake, and yet I’ve never been happier.
It mystifies the hell out of me.”
“That makes two of us,” Sorina told him. “But I’m not about to complain.”
“Oh, I’m not complaining,” he said hastily, leaning back to look at her. “God, no. But how did
you do it?”
“Someone once told me what the secret was for making your dreams reality,” she said, her voice
soft as she bent her head toward his and kissed him.
“Am I a dream come true?” he said with a grin.
“I’d say yes… I never really thought I’d find someone like you… that a relationship like this was
only a dream.”
“What do you mean?”
She rolled onto her stomach and propped her chin in her hands, looking thoughtful. “Well… I’d
spent so much time recently thinking I’d never find anyone who could, well, accept me for me.
You’ve seen it for yourself - as a scientist, as a hero, we both intimidate others. But you’ve
always let me be me.” Her voice became quieter. “Not to mention you know truths about me that
no one else knows, and you’re still here. That alone means so much more to me than you’ll ever
know.”
Sorina looked away from him for a moment, but not before he saw the haunted look in her eyes.
“But to stay by me, even when death stalks me… sometimes I wonder if you’re mad for doing
that, and if I’m mad for letting you.”
“Would you rather I didn’t?”
She turned to him in alarm. “God, no! But I know it’s selfish of me, and yet I can’t help myself.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m not going anywhere,” he reassured her, trying to banish the
haunted expression from her eyes, but he could see it was still lurking there.
“So what’s the secret for making your dreams reality?” he asked her finally. “Hard work?
Dedication?”
And she finally smiled. “The answer is patience.”
“And how does the reality measure up to your ‘dream’?”
“Well, let me think… you’re intelligent, wise, caring, kind, good-looking, compassionate, a
talented lover-” Her eyes sparkled wickedly as he blushed, but then her eyes became slightly
wistful. “I’d say… better than any dream.”
To hear her describe him like that made his heart ache inside him, and he reached up, threaded
his fingers in her hair, and kissed her again, closing his eyes against the faint welling of tears.
“There’s something I suppose I should tell you,” he said at last, opening his eyes. “It… wasn’t
my original intention, that’s for sure. But lately it’s been on my mind, and after… everything
that’s happened tonight, you deserve to know.”
Sorina now looked wide awake, her eyes filled with concern as she sat up and stared at him.
“Will it… will it change things between us?”
“Probably,” he agreed, never taking his eyes from hers. “You see, Sorina… I’m in love with
you.”
Chapter Thirty­One 
NO LONGER ALONE
“What did you just say?”
Sorina’s whisper was barely audible over the sound of the rain outside the window, and her eyes
were absolutely enormous in her face as she stared at Raymond in disbelief.
“You heard me,” Raymond said simply, resting his hands behind his head as he looked up at her.
It was an incredible relief that the words were finally out, although her reaction wasn’t exactly
what he had expected… not that he was certain what he’d expected in the first place, that is.
“You…” Sorina was so pale that he thought for a moment she would faint.
“What?”
She was silent for a moment, then she blurted out, “Raymond, if you’re making fun of me, I
swear by everything I hold dear that I will never forgive you for this.”
Of all the things he might have guessed she would say, that was most definitely not one of them,
and he sat up abruptly and grasped her forearms, giving her a slight shake.
“After what happened between us, you can’t honestly sit there and think that I’m making fun of
you!”
“Then if you’re not making fun of me, are you just saying that because we… we…”
He sighed. “No, I’m not saying it because of that.”
“Then… then why?” She seemed genuinely astonished, and Raymond began to wonder exactly
what some of her previous relationships must have been like for her to react like this.
“I said it because it’s true,” he told her, his eyes locked on hers. “I swear to God, Sorina, I’m not
making fun of you, I’m not saying this because of earlier, I’m saying it because I mean it.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but he let go of her arms and placed one hand over her mouth.
“Now you hush and listen to me,” he said firmly. “I don’t say stuff like that lightly, and I’m
thinking that neither do you.”
She couldn’t talk with his hand over her mouth, but she slowly nodded.
“Right. So how can you be so smart and yet be such an idiot to think that I’d lie about something
like that?”
Sorina looked away, looking uncomfortable, and he removed his hand from her mouth. It hurt
him more than he thought it would to think that she was almost afraid to believe him, but it was
too late now to take back the words.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “And you’re right… I should have known better than to think you’d
lie about how you feel.” Then she looked back at him, her expression earnest, and blurted out,
“But it’s only because I thought you could tell and I didn’t want to make you think you had to
say it!”
Raymond stared at her in confusion. “You thought I could tell… what?”
Even in the dim light, he saw her blush, and then understanding filled him, but he wanted to hear
it from her lips.
“Say it, Sorina,” he said slowly, half-holding his breath.
“I thought you knew I was in love with you,” Sorina admitted quietly, and for Raymond, the
whole world seemed to stop and then start again. Then to his surprise, she gave him a rather
rueful smile. “Of course, I didn’t even really admit it to myself until earlier this evening, so I
guess that you’d have needed Andrea’s talents to have known. You’re right… I am an idiot.”
“What made you admit it?” he asked her, sitting back slightly.
“When I saw you in my apartment,” she told him, turning and picking up the orchid he’d
removed from her hair earlier. As she turned back to him, she held it up. “When I turned around,
I saw… well, the look on your face was something I’d never thought I’d see. I can’t describe it,
but that’s when I knew… how I felt about you.”
She looked down at the flower, idly twirling it between her fingers. “And then at the lookout…
when you told me you needed me… I wanted to say it then, but…”
“But what?”
“Well… you’d said ‘I want…’, ‘I need…’, but not ‘I love…’ And so I held back.”
“Some holding back,” he teased, gesturing to the bedroom around them, and she blushed.
Then she flopped back on the bed and sighed dramatically. “I can see it now… my next lecture
class at the University should be ‘Love for the Romantically Retarded.’”
“I don’t suppose you’d be interested in making it a private class?” he asked, stretching out beside
her, and she looked over at him with the same wicked twinkle he’d seen in her eyes earlier.
“I might.”
He took the orchid from her and gently placed it in her hair once again. And as he leaned down
to kiss her, she murmured, “Of course, the final exam will be a practical one…”
*****
Two hours later…
They had just dozed off in each other’s arms when suddenly they were both jolted awake by the
sound of someone knocking on Raymond’s bedroom door.
“Damn it,” Raymond groaned, reaching over the side of the bed for his pants and pulling them
on. Opening his bedroom door, he growled, “Steve, this had better be an emergency.”
“Not quite, but Andrea’s worried about Sorina,” Steve said, looking concerned. At the end of the
hallway near the living room, Raymond saw Andrea, her young face serious. “She says that
Sorina looked kind of ‘off’ earlier, and she’s tried calling Sorina’s apartment but there’s no
answer, it just rings and rings. How long ago did you drop her off?”
Raymond went slightly red. Uh-oh… “Actually…”
“It’s not like Tava to not answer,” Andrea told him, taking a step forward. “Did she seem all
right?”
“Well…”
“Look, I know you were sleeping, but we’re gonna swing by Sorina’s place, just to make sure the
Dominion didn’t pay her a surprise visit,” Steve said, and Andrea nodded in agreement. “You
want to grab your armor and come with us?”
“Don’t bother,” Raymond said, bracing himself for what he knew was coming.
“What do you mean, don’t bother? Are you even worried about her at all?” Steve sounded almost
indignant, and Raymond would have grinned had this actually been happening to someone else.
“Nope… because she’s here.”
“Oh, well that’s-” Steve stopped dead, doing an absolutely perfect double-take. “Wait, what did
you just say?”
“What is it with people asking me to repeat myself tonight?” Raymond asked the ceiling, and
heard Sorina’s soft chuckle behind him. “I said she’s here.”
Steve and Andrea both turned and looked at the living room as if wondering how they might
have missed Sorina sleeping on the sofa or something, and then they both turned back to
Raymond with the same expression of dawning comprehension.
“Wait, let me get this straight,” Steve said after a pause. “You’re saying she’s here… but I woke
you up… HOT DAMN!!”
Steve fell against the hallway wall, howling with laughter, while Andrea’s eyes went wide as
they went from Steve to Raymond. As her eyes went slightly distant, Raymond knew she was
mentally checking to see if Sorina really was there, and if she really was all right.
A few moments later, Sorina came up behind Raymond, and he saw she’d pulled on his
bathrobe.
“Yes, Andrea, I’m fine.”
“You could have called, damn it!” Andrea shouted, stamping her foot, and Raymond saw then
just how worried she’d been for her friend. “You looked like hell when you left! How was I
supposed to know that tonight of all nights, you’d finally-”
“Yes, well… I can tell you it was just as much a surprise for us,” Sorina said, hastily cutting her
off, giving Steve a look as he was still laughing. “Honestly, Steve, it’s not that amusing.”
“Well, damn, you two, it’s about time,” Steve finally managed once he’d calmed down.
“Yes, now you guys can stop harassing us,” Raymond said flatly, although he was smiling just
enough to let them know he wasn’t really angry.
“We didn’t mean to harass you, Dr. Keyes,” Andrea admitted, although she was also openly
grinning now that her fears for Sorina had passed. “But you guys were just so perfect for each
other!”
If only she knew, Raymond thought with a glance back at Sorina, but considering it was Andrea,
she probably did know.
“Thank you for the endorsement,” Raymond said dryly. “Now if you two don’t mind, we’re
going to go back to sleep.”
“Riiiiiiiiiiight,” Steve said with a chuckle. “As if.”
Sorina looked over at Andrea, hands on her hips. “Not a word to the others, Andrea.”
“Aw, come on, Tava…” Andrea began, but Sorina shook her head.
“NO! And ESPECIALLY not Sharpe!”
Raymond couldn’t blame her - considering that Sharpe and Sorina had a sort of ‘merry war’
between them, as the saying went, he could only imagine what the hero would say if he found
out about this.
Andrea looked crestfallen. “Can I at least tell Jen?”
“Oh, fine, go ahead,” Sorina sighed, but as Andrea pulled out her cell phone, she suddenly
shouted, “Not NOW, damn it! It’s almost four in the morning!”
“But this is GOOD!” Andrea protested, until Sorina yanked the cell phone out of her hand
telekinetically. “Tava, give me back my phone!”
“You can have it back tomorrow,” Sorina said emphatically, with a pointed look at Steve.
“Besides, don’t you have something else to keep you occupied until then?”
“You make it sound so romantic that way, Sorina,” Steve said, rolling his eyes while Raymond
laughed. “But hey, no reason why you two should have all the fun tonight.”
“Just keep it down,” Raymond grumbled, ushering Sorina back inside his room and closing the
door, ignoring the laughter that started up again on the other side.
Chapter Thirty­Two 
THE MORNING AFTER
Raymond’s eyes slowly opened, adjusting to the sunlight filtering into his room, then he looked
down at Sorina, who was still asleep, curled up against his side. In sleep, she looked younger,
more vulnerable, and he found himself wondering what she was dreaming about as she lay there
next to him.
Yawning and stretching, he carefully tried to ease himself out of bed so as not to wake her, but as
he moved to get up, she reached out for him.
“Stay,” she murmured without opening her eyes, her voice slightly muffled against the pillow.
“We really should start getting up,” he told her, although not without a hint of regret. “We’ve
slept late as it is.”
“It’s Sunday,” she protested sleepily. “We can sleep late.”
Damn, but it was tempting, he thought, but he resolutely forced that thought to the back of his
mind.
“We still have that meeting at Phalanx headquarters about last night, remember?” he reminded
her, and she groaned, grabbed one of his pillows, and pulled it over her head.
“You are so mean.”
Raymond laughed and got out of bed, then pulled on his shorts. “I take it you’re not a morning
person, Sorina.”
“Not on weekends, I’m not,” he heard her say from beneath the pillow, and he chuckled as he
walked into his bathroom.
After finishing his morning ablutions, he studied himself in the mirror, wondering if it would be
obvious to anyone else about what happened last night between himself and Sorina. Although
he’d be hard-pressed to keep Sister Psyche from figuring out the truth, with luck the others
wouldn’t say anything. Physically he didn’t look any different, although he blushed when he saw
one or two love bites that Sorina had apparently left on him. Those, thankfully, would be hidden
by his armor.
He briefly closed his eyes and ran his hands over his face. With his eyes still closed, he bowed
his head and thought about everything that had happened between them since last night.
Raymond had told her the absolute truth - he had no regrets about any of it… not about making
love to her, nor about telling her the truth of how he felt. And to know that she felt the same
way… it was one of the most remarkable feelings he’d ever experienced in his life. Part fear, part
exhilaration.
As he emerged from the bathroom, he saw that Sorina had pulled the covers up over her head,
although her bare feet were still dangling off the edge of the bed.
“Come on, Sorina, it’s time to get up.”
“Nyet.”
“We still need to get cleaned up and I have to take you back to your place for your uniform. I’ll
even take you out for breakfast.”
“Five more minutes.”
Looking around the room, Raymond spotted the orchid she’d worn in her hair, and with a grin,
he picked it up and began using it to tickle the soles of her feet. At first she seemed determined
not to react, but then she laughed and kicked him in the knee.
“Cut it out!”
“Come on, sleepyhead.”
Sorina emerged from the covers long enough to throw a pillow at him, which he deftly caught.
“Just you wait, Raymond Keyes… I’ll have my revenge.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he told her as he pulled fresh towels out of his closet. “You can start getting up
and getting dressed while I’m in the shower.”
Then he saw her grin, and he reddened slightly. “If I’m reading the look on your face correctly, I
take it I should lock the bathroom door, otherwise we’ll never get out of here.”
Sorina laughed at him, but then tossed back the covers and got up as well. “Fine, but let me wash
up before you get in there.”
While he grabbed clean clothes from his dresser, she picked up her own clothes and took them
with her into the bathroom to dress after she’d washed up. A couple of minutes later, she came
out fully dressed, and indicated his bathroom with a flourish. “Your turn.”
“Thank you,” he said dryly, taking the towels and clothes with him into the bathroom. He
quickly showered, not trusting Sorina not to use her telekinetic talents to either unlock the
bathroom door or to take some other revenge on him while he was in the shower. After dressing,
he came out to find her idly wandering around his room, apparently lost in thought.
“You okay?”
She slowly nodded. “Da. It’s just that… in broad daylight, I still can’t believe it was real.”
Raymond crossed the room to take her in his arms, holding her tightly. “I know how you feel,
but it was real - all of it.”
Sorina tilted her head back to look up at him, her eyes almost pleading. “Then… please tell me
again.”
“I’m in love with you, Sorina.” He bent his head and kissed her. Then he pulled back slightly and
waited. “Well?”
“Well what?” she asked in confusion.
“Aren’t you going to say it?”
She smiled. “Oh, I’m in love with you, too, I suppose.”
“You suppose?” he said in disbelief, and she laughed until she saw that he was actually serious.
“Yes, sometimes I need to be told, too,” he told her, then he gave her a thoughtful look. “But I’m
curious… how would you say it in Russian?”
“Ja v vljublennosti s vami,” she whispered.
“Write that one down for me,” he teased before kissing her again.
*****
Carefully they opened Raymond’s bedroom door, but saw that Steve’s was still closed, and it
was quiet.
“Good, they’re still asleep,” Raymond whispered, carefully leading Sorina down the hallway.
“Why are we whispering?” she asked as she followed him.
“Do you really want the third degree from them right now?”
“I see your point.”
On their way out the door, Sorina left Andrea’s cell phone by her bag in the living room, and
then they drove to her apartment in Founders Falls, not saying much along the way, but quietly
enjoying each other’s presence.
Once at her place, though, she gave him a puzzled look. “So, how are we getting to Phalanx
headquarters? Driving or flying?”
“Flying,” he told her. “We’ll leave the Ferrari here and I’ll give Manticore the keys at the
meeting. Psyche can fly him here and he can drive it back, so go ahead and change into
uniform.”
“What about you?” she asked, gesturing at his casual clothes.
“I’ll summon my armor while you’re taking your shower.”
“Make yourself at home, then,” she invited, gesturing around the apartment and as she
disappeared into her bedroom, he triggered the remote-summon for his armor. Then just as she
had done while at his house, Raymond wandered around her bedroom while Sorina showered
and dressed. Like the rest of her apartment, it was simply decorated, with an almost peaceful feel
to it. And not unlike his own room, Sorina’s bedroom also had numerous books piled beside her
bed and on her nightstand. However, he noticed with a grin, hers were a mix of scientific texts
and romance novels.
As she came out of the bathroom, he turned around with a smile.
“You actually read this stuff?”
Sorina blushed hotly as he held up one of the romance novels. “And what if I do?”
He laughed as she snatched the book out of his hand and tossed it onto her nightstand, but not
before swatting him with it.
“Oh, hush.”
Just then, the phone rang, and Sorina picked up the phone beside her bed. “Hello?” She
immediately held the phone away from her ear with both hands as Raymond heard Andrea’s
excited voice on the other end of the line. Then she cautiously brought the phone back against
her ear as she sat down on the side of her bed.
“You know, Andrea, ‘hello’ is the traditional greeting during a phone conversation.” She paused,
and while Raymond couldn’t hear what Andrea was saying, he could guess because Sorina once
again went as red as her uniform.
“It was…”
Raymond grinned at Sorina and leaned against the doorframe to listen to her half of the
conversation, and her blush deepened. She gave him an almost desperate look and mouthed, Do
you MIND?
Not at all, he mouthed back, and gestured for her to answer without moving from where he
stood.
“It was…” She gave him another look, but he just smiled and waited, and she finally gave up.
Then her face became almost wistful. “It was beautiful.”
There was a brief pause, then Sorina lifted her eyes to the ceiling. “What did you want me to say,
that there was thunder and lightning and harps and angels?… You’ll have to ask him that, I’m
not psychic like you… No, you’re not getting details… No, it’s not just because he’s standing
here… Aren’t I entitled to SOME privacy?”
Raymond laughed at that, and Sorina gave him a look before turning back to her phone
conversation. “Look, Andrea, we’re supposed to be at Freedom Phalanx headquarters soon,
you’ll need to notify Bowman and the others if you haven’t already… We’re supposed to meet
WHEN?… And you didn’t mention this last night why?… I know Steve can get ready that fast,
but you’re not him… You know, I really did not need to know that… Don’t forget, not a word to
the others… All right, good-bye.”
She hung up and Raymond burst out laughing. “So what was it Andrea wanted to know about
me?”
“She wanted your take on last night.”
“I’ll bet.”
“And you standing there smirking the entire time didn’t help,” Sorina told him with a glare.
“Oh, don’t give me that look, I know you’re not really angry. What time’s this meeting?”
“Twenty minutes from now.”
“Good thing I woke you up, then.”
There was a pause, then he folded his arms across his chest and gave her a slight smile.
“‘Beautiful’?” he quoted, and Sorina shrugged in embarrassment.
“Well, it was.” Her voice dropped. “At least, it was for me.”
“Me, too,” Raymond admitted, and as she gave him a surprised glance, he told her, “But don’t
tell Andrea I said that.”
He gently pulled Sorina to her feet. “Let’s go.”
Chapter Thirty­Three 
A MEETING OF THE MINDS
Twenty minutes later, Raymond and Sorina landed outside the entrance of the Freedom Phalanx
headquarters. He noticed that she was almost self-consciously squaring her shoulders, as though
expecting a cold reception upon entering.
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” he reassured her. “I promise, okay?”
“I hope so,” she sighed as she followed him inside. “Something tells me this isn’t going to go
well.”
They strode down the hall and entered the Phalanx’s large conference room, where they found
several of their respective teammates already present. Statesman, Citadel, and Numina were
already there, as was Agents Bowman and Wright.
Statesman glanced up as Sorina and Raymond walked in, nodding to them both. “The others
should be here momentarily.”
Though her eyes were hidden behind her goggles, Raymond had the feeling Sorina was looking
at him, and he gave her a barely perceptible nod, then she walked around the table to sit beside
Bowman and Wright while he sat next to Citadel. A couple of minutes later, Steve arrived with
Andrea, then Manticore and Sister Psyche came in.
Sorina looked around, puzzled. “Where’s Sharpe?”
“Right here,” came another voice near the doorway, and Raymond looked up to see Sharpe
escorting in six Star Patrol members. When he saw the red and black uniforms that four of the
six were wearing, he realized that these were the special ops team assigned to Manticore’s party
the night before.
Sharpe drew himself up to address Statesman and the rest of the Phalanx. “Some of you already
know these members of the Star Patrol, but for those who don’t…” He turned to gesture at them,
and the six heroes stepped forward.
“Agent Takimura…” A petite young Japanese woman bowed politely.
“Agent M’rshaan…” Raymond recognized the big feline warrior he’d met at the base once
before.
“Special Agent Nacht…” The tall, slim hero nodded to the others, but quite a few of the Freedom
Phalanx seemed surprised that not only had the Star Patrol admitted a Kheldian into their
ranks… but a Warshade, at that.
“Dust Raven…” A slender young man with dark hair, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses,
saluted to the others.
“Agent Garrison, also known as Leading Lady…” A tall, athletic woman also wearing power
armor nodded to the Freedom Phalanx.
“… and Doc Black.” Another tall hero, this one with dark hair, mustache, and goatee drew
himself up and saluted.
Statesman studied them all, and Raymond could almost tell what he was thinking as he looked at
Takimura and Dust Raven. The young Japanese couldn’t have been more than sixteen or
seventeen years old, and the young man wasn’t much older. However, despite their youth, the
two met Statesman’s eyes look for look, and he gave them a slight nod.
“So you’re the Star Patrol’s spec ops team.”
“Not quite,” Agent Bowman corrected, nodding to the team, who came to stand behind the four
leaders and Sorina where they sat at the table. “Takimura, Black, Dust Raven, and Nacht are all
spec-ops members. Garrison and M’rshaan were there for additional leadership. We have other
members in the Star Patrol who are also spec ops-qualified, such as Tava and myself.”
“I see.” Statesman looked over at all of the Star Patrol members one by one. “So, what can you
tell us about last night?”
Bowman looked over at Doc Black, who nodded and stepped forward. Setting a small device in
the center of the conference room table, he tapped a few keys and a large holographic model of
the Sinclair estate appeared. Several areas were indicated with blinking markers.
*****
“We arrived Friday afternoon for preliminary surveillance and recon,” he began, indicating the
model as it rotated slowly. “There we met up with Manticore and the Wyvern team assigned to
also provide security. Given the resources at his command, the estate already provided some
basic defenses, and Manticore had also already taken some steps for security measures.”
He touched another key, and the model zoomed in on some of the blinking markers. “Saturday
afternoon, the spec ops team returned to the Sinclair estate, and the members were deployed to
key locations on the grounds, as indicated by the markers you see here. The stars indicate the
patrol routes or lookout stations of the Star Patrol team, while the other symbols indicate the
patrol routes or lookout stations of the Wyvern team.”
“So you arranged for overlapping coverage of the estate by your two groups?” Citadel asked,
leaning back in his chair, and Doc Black nodded.
Leading Lady then spoke up. “As you can also see, four of the six members of our team were on
patrolling routes, while Takimura and Dust Raven were on stationary lookout. Wyvern’s team
did something similar, but as they were an eight-man team, they had six on patrol, two on
stationary.”
Manticore looked over at the two youngest heroes. “Were they on stationary because of their
age?”
Agent Wright gave a faint smile and shook her head. “No. It’s because both Takimura and Dust
Raven are the best trained of the spec ops team for… shall we say… individual threat removal.”
“Something tells me I don’t want to know what that means,” Numina remarked, and the two
younger heroes smiled.
“So things initially went well,” Statesman said, “but eventually things went wrong.”
“That they did,” Leading Lady agreed. “A group of the Carnival of Shadows appeared,
apparently granted invisibility by those illusionists of theirs. It was a fairly sizable group too.”
Nacht then spoke up, and Raymond found it unnerving to look into those glowing eyes. “It is
interesting to note, however, that for all the stealth they used to arrive at the estate, upon their
arrival, they seemed out to cause as much havoc as possible.” He keyed another command into
the holographic model, which rotated and then zoomed in on a section of the estate. “Here was
where they came in - as you can see, well away from the main driveway and entrance to the
grounds. It was this that caught both us and Wyvern slightly off guard, as the Carnival tends to
enjoy the limelight, and with several members of the media up front still, it seemed strange that
they wouldn’t come in that way.”
“I agree,” Sister Psyche replied, looking thoughtful. “They seem to thrive on publicity, even bad
publicity, because it gives them a sense of glamour, I suppose.”
“Yes,” Blake concurred with a nod. “That’s been our experience with them as well - more than
two thirds of the time we’ve clashed with the Carnival, it’s at some function or another.”
“At any rate,” Doc Black went on, “as soon as we discovered them on the grounds, Wyvern
diverted five of its members to investigate, we sent three - M’rshaan, Nacht, and myself. The
others remained on patrol or at their posts in case of a second attack. Most of the scuffle took
place here-” He zoomed in close to one side of the mansion. “-and the two teams soon had them
under control.”
“All well and good,” Manticore rumbled, looking rather out of sorts, Raymond noticed. “So how
do you explain those other three psychotics?”
“Both we and Wyvern were alert for a second attack,” Doc Black reminded him. “Our first guess
was that it would be another group of Carnival members, our next guess was that it would be
members of the Nova Dominion. The problem is, our roster of the Dominion is incomplete. We
could only watch for the ones where we knew what to expect.”
Statesman sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers and studying all of the Star Patrol members.
“So I take it you did not know that those three were Dominion members.”
All of them shook their heads. “No,” Sharpe said bluntly.
“To be fair, that still left six members of our combined teams on guard for a second attack.” Doc
Black looked down at the table and touched another key, and the holographic model disappeared
to be replaced by images of the three women in black.
Raymond’s blood still ran cold at the sight of them - holograms or not, he could not look at them
without remembering facing them down in the darkness, terrified that Sorina would be killed
before his eyes.
Steve looked over at the spec ops team. “So how come you weren’t able to stop them?”
“We tried,” Takimura said softly, her speech precise. “But even outnumbered two to one, they
were… most formidable opponents. And they fought as if they shared a single mind… a
disconcerting experience.”
Dust Raven also nodded. “We tried separating them from one another, but no dice - they were so
well-coordinated we couldn’t take them down. The six of us almost had them in a stalemate,
hoping to keep them busy long enough for the other teams to finish with the Carnies, but then…”
“Everything went straight to hell,” Leading Lady said with a shudder. “None of us remember
exactly what happened, but those three women seemed to… change, somehow. The next thing
we knew, we were all on the ground, nearly unconscious.”
Bowman looked over at Statesman levelly. “Blake has explained to us who these three women
really are… as well as your history with them, and your flat refusal to see them harmed if at all
possible.”
“WHAT?!” Manticore shouted, halfway out of his seat before anyone could stop him, glaring at
Statesman. “They killed thirty-eight people, injured fifty-six more, and you wanted to just let
them go?! Have you gone completely insane?”
“There’s more at stake here than you realize, Manticore,” Statesman said coldly. “So before you
start shooting your mouth off, I suggest you sit down.”
It was clear to Raymond that Manticore was dying to give Statesman a piece of his mind, but
gritting his teeth, the archer sat down once again.
*****
“We agree with your intial assessment from yesterday, that most likely Banestar could not be
certain that any member of the Star Patrol would be at the party,” Bowman replied. “However,
given that Banestar already knows of the relationships between Positron and Tava, and Synapse
and Andrea, not to mention they are both members of the Freedom Phalanx, as is Manticore, the
chances of them being at the party were high.”
“So if I’m following you,” Manticore began slowly, “Banestar could be reasonably certain that
Posi and Synapse would be there, and only somewhat guess that Sorina and Andrea would be
there.”
“Correct.”
“Our best guess,” Wright said, running her fingers through her short dark hair, “is that Banestar
hired the Carnival to wreak havoc on the party - you put that many heroes in one place, turn a
bunch of Carnies on them, and you can learn a lot about how the heroes will react.”
Sharpe sighed. “And as far as Banestar is concerned, not only did he blacken the eye of several
heroes in public, but he got one of the few things he craves more than anything else on this
earth.”
“And that is?” Raymond asked.
“Information. Banestar is psychotic, but he does absolutely nothing without at least a dozen
contigency plans. And information is worth its weight in blood to him.”
Sharpe reached out and keyed in a command, and data began scrolling past the images of the
three women.
“We did some digging after Blake called in this information last night. They’re tentatively
identified as the MistWalkers, a rogue trio of villains who apparently cut quite a swathe through
the Rogue Isles before Banestar found them. Rumour had it they were some Arachnos project
gone wrong, but details are still rather sketchy. We’ve got one or two of our members in the Isles
looking into this, but it’s not going to be easy.”
Bowman, however, was still looking at Statesman. “You, however, know them differently, I
gather.”
Statesman nodded. “I knew them once… as three sisters, living off the coast of Greece - Phoebe,
Alexis, and Megan.” He lifted his eyes to meet those of Sorina and Andrea. “But I also knew
them as Tisiphone, Alekto, and Megaera.”
“The Furies,” Numina murmured. “The Angry Ones, they were once called.”
“Indeed,” Statesman agreed. “God only knows how, but Stefan… Recluse found a way to
imprison them into the bodies of those three women who appeared at the party last night. All of
their power, and none of their restraint.” Then he looked over again at Sorina and Andrea. “But
what still puzzles me is why they were there in the first place.”
Blake looked over at Sorina, then at the rest of the Phalanx. “I agree with Statesman and
Bowman that Banestar couldn’t be sure we’d be there. But it’s a safe bet he knew Statesman
would be… and what better way to test out the MistWalkers than by setting them on him?”
Statesman rose from his chair and looked around at everyone, Star Patrol and Freedom Phalanx
alike. “I forbid any of you to interfere with them. I will deal with them, and I will do it alone.”
“It’s too late for that,” Sharpe said quietly, and Statesman gave him a look that would have deep-
frozen an ox.
“I beg your pardon?” he said in a dangerously low voice, one filled with the power of a deity,
and Raymond was fiercely glad he was not on the receiving end of Statesman’s growing anger.
“I said it’s too late,” Sharpe repeated, the only indication of his discomfort at that stare a faint
pallor to his blue skin.
Sharpe pointed at Statesman. “He now knows that Statesman won’t harm them, no matter what.
Even if the MistWalkers stay with the Dominion for now, playing them off us and all of us off
Arachnos, Banestar knows that if Statesman encounters those three again, he won’t be able to
stop them if lethal force would be the only way to do it.”
Blake sighed. “And Banestar now knows that if he hadn’t already, Statesman would order all of
you to leave the MistWalkers to him, rather than see them harmed.”
“Not to mention that the MistWalkers got Statesman to agree to compromise his principles, due
to their past history.”
At that, Statesman flinched, and everyone turned to look at him. “That’s not true!”
“No?” Bowman asked softly. “If and when you deliver the wrongdoers to the MistWalkers, it
doesn’t make you any less culpable for their deaths, just because you’re not doing the deed
yourself.”
Raymond and the other Phalanx members were horrified to see all the blood drain out of
Statesman’s face as he sank back into his seat.
“Yes,” Sorina said quietly, and Raymond shivered at the eerie hopelessness in her voice. “Now
you understand what we in the Star Patrol face, Statesman. When the Nova Dominion targets
you, there’s no right and wrong anymore… there’s only how much wrong you’re willing to live
with.”
Chapter Thirty­Four 
GAUSSIAN CALLING
While the Freedom Phalanx sat in shocked silence, a sudden beeping from Sorina’s
communicator drew everyone’s attention.
“Tava…” Bowman said warningly, but she seemed more puzzled than embarrassed.
“It’s not a Star Patrol ID code…” Sorina muttered something under her breath in Russian that
Raymond didn’t quite catch, then activated it.
“Tavarisch here.”
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything important, Dr. Tavarisch.”
Raymond saw her sit up straighter in her chair as though coming to attention. “No, Gaussian, you
know I’m always available to assist the Vanguard,” she replied quietly, and the Phalanx gave her
startled looks.
“Vanguard?” Manticore said in surprise, looking at Bowman and the other leaders. “I thought
she’d left them to work with you.”
“She did, but Tava is our official liaison to Vanguard,” Blake explained. “She still assists them
from time to time, and in exchange, Vanguard shares the information with us.”
“Very neat,” Statesman said, an almost grudging admiration in his voice. “So through your team,
Vanguard found a way to work with the Freedom Corps that doesn’t involve working with
Longbow.”
Bowman nodded. “Maybe it’s because Longbow’s not that thrilled with us, either. But as long as
everyone benefits, that’s all that matters.”
Sorina, in the meantime, was listening to Gaussian. “Listen, Doctor, I know you’re theoretically
no longer one of my active operatives, but you’re still in our reserves. We’ve recently received
word that the Rikti are somehow bringing in new supplies and weaponry.”
“They’ve opened another homeworld portal?” she asked in alarm, and everyone in the room
looked up in concern. Most of them knew what it would mean if the Rikti had found a way to
revitalize their war effort.
“Seems like it, and you know we can’t have that.”
“That’s for sure,” Wright said bitterly.
“You’d think they’d have called us instead,” Statesman said, his voice somewhat disapproving,
but Sister Psyche shook her head.
“You remember what happened before when we tangled with the Rikti despite Vanguard’s
warnings.”
Statesman didn’t look too happy at the reminder, but most of the Freedom Phalanx remembered
all too well what had happened when they had gone up against the Rikti on their own turf, as it
were.
Synapse, Sister Psyche, Manticore, and Positron had all been killed… Ms. Liberty had barely
survived… and Statesman had only escaped certain death at the hands of a twisted and mutated
Hero 1 thanks to the efforts of Serpent Drummer and the other leaders of Vanguard. The Dark
Watcher had restored the fallen heroes to life, but the lesson had been brought painfully home -
leave the Rikti to Vanguard.
“At any rate, Doctor, we’re sending in an assault team to give the Rikti a setback they won’t
easily recover from. But we need an expert in Rikti technology to accompany our assault team,
and I want someone there I can trust.”
“You want me to bring any other Patrol members? I’ve got a few here with me now who
wouldn’t mind a little target practice in the RWZ,” Sorina offered.
“We’ve currently got a six-ops squad ready to go, seven once you say yes. You can bring one
other along - anything more than that, and your chances of getting caught go up significantly.
Who are you thinking of bringing?”
Sorina turned to look at the other Star Patrol members, but Raymond startled her by half-rising
from his chair.
“I’ll accompany you. I know quite a bit about Rikti portal technology myself.”
“Are you sure?” Sorina murmured, too quietly for the others to catch, but Raymond only nodded.
She turned to Bowman, who nodded his approval.
“All right, looks like the eighth member of the assault team is Positron. When do you need me
there?”
“As soon as you can manage it… did I hear you say that POSITRON was coming with you?”
“Da.”
Gaussian’s voice turned slightly cold. “I thought the Phalanx was supposed to be focusing on
Arachnos, and leaving the Rikti to us.”
Sorina let out a long sigh. “Maybe so, but I think Dr. Keyes’ knowledge of Rikti science would
be of great assistance. You want someone there you can trust, I want someone there I can trust. If
you’ve got a problem with a member of the Freedom Phalanx coming along, take it up with
Statesman, and let me and Positron do our jobs.”
There was a long pause, and Raymond was half-expecting Gaussian to say no. But then he heard
a faint chuckle.
“You always were stubborn, Doctor, but I suppose that’s also why you’re still alive. The assault
team is meeting in the briefing room in two hours. We’ll expect you then. Gaussian out.”
*****
Raymond, however, was suddenly all too aware that Statesman and the other Freedom Phalanx
members were staring at him rather intensely, and he fidgeted in his chair. “What?”
None of them spoke, and suddenly Sister Psyche’s eyes narrowed. Turning to look at the Star
Patrol members, she asked quietly, “Would you mind stepping outside for a moment?”
All of them nodded, rose, and stepped into the corridor, closing the door behind them. Once the
door was shut, Sister Psyche turned back to Statesman. “All right, let’s hear it.”
“Hear what?” Citadel asked.
“Statesman’s got something on his mind about Positron going with the Vanguard team.”
“I don’t see why he should,” Steve said, leaning back in his chair. “It’s not like Vanguard’s all
that hot on sharing information with us to begin with. If they’re letting Pos tag along, why
shouldn’t he go?”
Statesman rose and looked down the length of the table at Raymond. “Because I think Positron is
going to protect Dr. Tavarisch, that’s why.”
“If Vanguard needs someone along who knows Rikti technology, other than Sorina, I’m the most
qualified,” Raymond said quietly. “And it’s not like I don’t have experience fighting the Rikti.”
“That’s not the point,” Statesman rasped, planting both hands on the conference table and
leaning forward. “The point is that you’re doing this because of Dr. Tavarisch, or am I wrong?”
Raymond knew that no matter what he said, Statesman would find a way to argue with him, so
he kept silent. Manticore, however, wasn’t about to let the matter drop, and also rose to his feet
to jab an accusing finger at Statesman.
“That’s a load of crap and you know it, States. Hell, of all of us here, Positron is probably the
best one here at putting all feeling aside and getting on with the job.”
Raymond was surprised to hear Manticore defending him.
“Positron’s ability to remain objective on a mission is not in question here. It’s his ability to
remain objective about Dr. Tavarisch that concerns me,” Statesman replied.
“What the hell business is that of yours, anyway?” Manticore protested, but Raymond held up
one hand to stop him.
“Justin, it’s okay.”
“No, it’s not, damn it.”
“Stop it, please!” Numina pleaded, waving her hands to get their attention. “This is getting us
nowhere! The fact of the matter is that we’ve not been in a situation before where a Freedom
Phalanx member was involved with someone not in the Phalanx.”
At Numina’s words, everyone fell silent, and Statesman and Manticore slowly resumed their
seats.
The Freedom Phalanx needs Positron. Paragon City needs Positron… so… so it doesn’t matter
that I need… that I want Raymond Keyes.
It seemed that Sorina had been more right than she realized, Raymond thought sadly. He
wondered briefly if she’d suspected that Statesman would express concerns about their
relationship, and if that had been one of her reasons for trying to keep him at a distance.
But it was too late now… after everything that had happened last night.
I don’t care if the world needs me as Positron. Right now, the only thing that matters to me is
that you need me… and want me… as Raymond Keyes. And what I want… what I need… is you.
Sister Psyche looked over at Manticore, her expression pensive, then over at Raymond, then over
at Statesman. “Statesman… considering that two of us in the Phalanx are actually married, it’s
not really fair to Positron to place any restrictions on him when you don’t do it to us.”
“Like I’d listen to him anyway if he tried to pull that,” Manticore said under his breath, but Sister
Psyche silenced him with a glance.
“My point is, why should the rules be different for Positron than they are for you and me?”
All of the Phalanx members looked over at Statesman, who was studying Raymond with somber
eyes.
“Can you stay objective about Dr. Tavarisch while on a mission with her?” Statesman asked
finally, looking directly at Raymond.
“I don’t know,” Raymond said at last. “But I’ll never find out unless I try.”
Slowly, Statesman nodded. “Fine… accompany the Vanguard team. Whatever intel you can
bring back, do so.” He looked over at Sister Psyche. “Tell the Star Patrol members they can
come back in.”
Sister Psyche concentrated, and a moment later, the door opened. The four leaders and Sorina re-
entered the conference room, and at the inquiring looks from the Phalanx, Sharpe explained,
“We told the spec ops team they could leave. We’ve gotten what we need from them, anyway.”
Statesman drew a deep breath before stating, “Positron will accompany Dr. Tavarisch and the
Vanguard team. In the meantime, I’d like at least one of the leaders to provide the Phalanx with
whatever information you have on the Nova Dominion - every detail, no matter how trivial.”
“Blake and I can do that,” Sharpe agreed, with a glance over at Bowman and the others.
“Then this meeting is adjourned.” As the Star Patrol members turned to go, Statesman called out,
“Dr. Tavarisch, stay a moment.”
She turned to the four leaders. “I’ll meet you at headquarters - I want to change to my Vanguard
uniform anyway.”
“And it’ll give us time to collect what we’ve got on the Dominion,” Wright agreed. “We’ll see
you in a bit.”
Once they were gone, Sorina resumed her seat next to Raymond. “Yes?”
“Dr. Tavarisch, can you remain objective about Positron during this mission?”
“Statesman!” Steve gasped, giving the other hero an indignant look.
Sorina’s eyes narrowed, and she gave Statesman a long, thoughtful look. Then she gave a low
sigh, filled with a sadness that made Raymond almost wince, and looked down at the table.
“Nyet.”
Then she looked up at Statesman again, her expression determined. “But that won’t stop me from
doing my job.”
A swift rush of pride filled Raymond as he looked over at her, and he wished he could hug her,
or at least reach over and take her hand, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate.
“I believe you,” Statesman said quietly. “I’ll wish you two luck then. Be careful out there.”
Raymond and Sorina nodded, then they rose to their feet and left the conference room.
As the door closed behind them, Raymond caught her by the wrist. “Sorina, wait-”
She silenced him by placing her fingers against his lips. “I know, Raymond. But right now… I
need you to be Positron.”
Then slowly, she smiled. “When we’re done… I’ll want Raymond.”
And he smiled back.
Chapter Thirty­Five 
ONCE A VANGUARD OPERATIVE
Raymond and Sorina left the Freedom Phalanx headquarters and headed for the entrance to the
base portal system. Upon arrival, Raymond guessed that Sorina had coded it to allow him
permanent access, and with the familiar quicksilver rush, they appeared inside the Star Patrol
base. There they found Bowman, Wright, Sharpe, and Andrea in the computer lab, Wright typing
away at the keys while the other three stood nearby.
“Compiling the dossiers on the Dominion?” Sorina asked as she and Raymond entered the lab.
“Yeah,” Andrea said, turning to look at them. “It’s not really all that much, when you look at it,
but it’s better than nothing. Sharpe and me will head back over to Phalanx HQ in a bit and give
them what other information we can.” She shrugged. “For what it’s worth, anyway.”
Then she folded her arms and looked at Sorina and Raymond. “So what did Statesman want?”
Sorina glanced over at Raymond, who shrugged and replied, “He’s concerned about Sorina and I
being able to stay objective while on a mission together.”
“I kind of figured that’s what it was,” Bowman said without turning around. “I can’t say I blame
him for asking - it’s a reasonable concern.”
“But you didn’t ask me if that would be a problem,” Sorina pointed out to him.
“That’s because I know you,” Bowman replied, glancing at her over his shoulder. “Statesman
doesn’t. And, to be blunt, we’re not as important in the grand scheme of things as the Phalanx
is.”
“At any rate, I need to change and we need to head to the War Zone,” Sorina sighed. “Something
tells me this is going to be ugly.”
“The War Zone always is,” Wright said quietly, looking over at Sorina and Raymond. “You two
watch your backs out there.”
“We will,” Raymond assured her, and then he and Sorina left the computer lab to head toward
Sorina’s small personal quarters in the base. As he followed her in, he closed the door behind
them, then turned to see her rummaging in a locker behind her desk.
“You kept your Vanguard uniform?” he asked her quietly. He remembered how she’d told him
early on in their relationship about her troubled years serving with Vanguard.
“I thought about giving it back,” Sorina said after a moment, looking down at the armor she held
in her hands. “But it’s too much a part of my history… and even though I sometimes have a hard
time believing it, I know I did good wearing this uniform.” With a sigh, she began removing her
gauntlets, goggles, and then the rest of her Star Patrol uniform.
Raymond blushed and glanced away. Despite their intimacy the night before, it was still a bit of
a shock, and even knowing that now was neither the time nor the place, he couldn’t help
remembering their earlier time together. “Um… should I step outside?”
“If you’d prefer to, go ahead,” she replied, not looking at him.
“No… I’ll stay.” He found it odd, though - somehow, knowing that she wasn’t trying to be
enticing or seductive made it easier to watch her as she stripped off her clothes and set them
aside. It was as though they were reinforcing the notion that they were just two professionals
getting on with the job, so he stood and waited patiently as she donned a dark grey kevlar
bodysuit, then a distinctive set of black and grey armor with matching boots.
As he looked closer, he could see that the armor had clearly seen some serious use. Here and
there, he could spot discoloration patterns caused by Rikti plasma rifles, and other parts of the
armor were scuffed and scratched.
“Wait a second…” Raymond said in surprise, moving around the desk to look more closely at
her. “Vanguard operatives wear silver and purple armor, don’t they?”
“Generally, they do,” she agreed, donning shoulder plates, hip plates and shin plates of the same
black metal as her armor. Then she pulled on a black web harness across her chest, put her
goggles on again, and holstered what he recognized as a Crey CBX-9 pistol at her waist.
“So how come yours is black and grey?”
“Ask Gaussian about that when you see him,” she said with a slightly twisted smile, pulling on
black gloves and then a set of black and grey metal gauntlets that matched the rest of her
uniform. As she flexed her fingers, he briefly saw electricity arc around her body once, almost
too fast to see, then it disappeared.
“It’s strange,” Raymond mused as he looked at her, “but… that uniform suits you. Not to say that
your Star Patrol outfit doesn’t, but…”
Sorina looked down at herself and sighed. “You can take the operative out of Vanguard, but you
can’t take Vanguard out of the operative, I guess.” Then she looked over at him. “Are you
ready?”
“Yes,” he said quietly, and they left her office to head to the teleport center.
“We’ll use the teleportation system in the Vanguard base in Atlas Park,” she told him, aligning
one of the teleporters with the signal beacon for Atlas Park. They stepped into the teleporter, and
Sorina keyed in the sequence for activation. But just before they disappeared, Raymond saw
Andrea enter the teleport room, watching them with an expression of grave concern.
*****
Moments later, they appeared in Atlas Park, and flew toward the Vanguard building that faced
Paragon City Hall. An armored guard was posted outside, and he held up one hand as they
landed and approached. Even though Raymond knew that the guard recognized him, the guard
still scanned them to match them against the authorization list, then waved them inside. They
nodded to the two Vanguard operatives on duty at the desk, climbed the stairs toward the
glowing portal, and stepped through.
Raymond had only been in the forward base of the Vanguard maybe a handful of times, so he
followed Sorina as she headed down the stairs and across the base toward the large bays where
several Heavy Vanguard Assault Suits, or HVAS, were kept. Standing near one of them,
overseeing two Vanguard operatives doing maintenance, was Gaussian.
As they approached, he glanced up and saw them, and he gave them a grim smile. “Well, well,
well. It’s good to see you again, Dr. Tavarisch.” He paused. “Although I must say it still feels
odd not calling you Colonel.”
“Yes, well, a lot of things changed when I resigned from Vanguard,” she admitted, running her
fingers through her dark hair.
“That they have… you seem to be moving in high circles these days.” His eyes went to
Raymond, who quietly nodded to Gaussian in greeting.
“Is that a problem?” she asked.
“That depends… I know you’re aware that Lady Grey and Dark Watcher feel that the Freedom
Phalanx should leave the Rikti to us.” Gaussian shrugged. “Ultimately, they’re the ones in charge
of Vanguard, not I.”
“That doesn’t exactly answer the question,” Raymond said dryly.
“No, and it wasn’t meant to. I run my division the way I choose, and generally, Lady Grey and
Dark Watcher leave how I handle things to my discretion. But don’t be surprised if they voice
some concerns.”
“They’ll be at the briefing?” Sorina asked quietly, and Gaussian nodded.
“So what brings you here so early? You still had at least an hour before this starts.”
“You know me - always prepared.” She moved slightly closer to Gaussian and lowered her
voice, while Raymond also moved closer as well. “Besides, I’d rather know who’s coming with
me on this mission before I actually meet them in the briefing room.”
“Four of Vanguard’s paramilitary division, and two others with magical training. The Rikti
might have gotten a bit more adept at dealing with magic, but we’re still better at it. We intend to
push that advantage for as long as we can.”
“Do I know the ops?”
Gaussian shook his head. “No, they’re more recent recruits. We’d thought about assigning other
volunteer metahumans, but to be honest… this is going to be rough, and for that, we’d rather use
our own.”
“So we’re the exceptions,” Raymond quipped.
“Indeed. But a second scientist on the team can be invaluable, which is why I agreed to her
request.” He gave Raymond a level look. “And of course, I take it you’re going to share your
information with the rest of the Phalanx.”
“Of course.” Then Raymond glanced over at Sorina, then back at Gaussian. “Oh, yeah… one
more thing. Sorina says I should ask you why her armor is black and grey, rather than the silver
and purple of the rest of your soldiers.”
Gaussian looked at Sorina with arched eyebrows. “Modesty, Doctor?” She shrugged and looked
down at the floor, and he turned back to Raymond with a smile that was equal parts pride and
chagrin. “I’m afraid I can’t quite provide you with that information just yet. But I can tell you
this - only certain members of Vanguard are entitled to wear that armor, Positron. Dr. Tavarisch
was one of them, and she’s one of maybe a hundred heroes now that I’d let wear that armor even
if she’s resigned her commission.”
“So… it’s a good thing?”
Gaussian’s smile become slightly darker, and Raymond was hard-pressed not to shudder. “That
depends on your definition of ‘good.’”
*****
An hour later, they entered the main briefing room, where the other six members of their team
awaited them. To Raymond’s surprise, both the Dark Watcher and Lady Grey were also there.
“We are pleased to see that you have returned, Dr. Tavarisch,” Lady Grey said, her voice coldly
elegant. “Although we must admit to some surprise at your choice of companion on this
mission.”
To her credit, Sorina didn’t look away. “Gaussian trusts me to choose my comrades. Do you?”
“If we did not, neither you nor he would be here,” Lady Grey chided her.
The Dark Watcher also looked at Sorina and Raymond with some skepticism. “I’m surprised
Marcus would agree to such a thing.”
“We didn’t give him much choice,” Raymond said frankly. “Besides, I know almost as much
about Rikti portal technology as Sorina does.”
For a long moment, the two Vanguard leaders merely gazed at them, as though waiting for any
sign of hesitation, doubt, or weakness. But Raymond refused to back down, as did Sorina, and at
last, they nodded.
“Very well,” Lady Grey stated. “Dr. Tavarisch, as you have the most experience with this sort of
mission, you will lead it.”
“With all due respect, my lady,” Sorina said slowly, “I’m no longer an active member of
Vanguard. It would be best for the team to be led by someone who is-”
“You may no longer be a colonel, but you are still the best qualified,” the Dark Watcher cut her
off. Sorina glanced at Gaussian, who nodded as well, and then she looked over at the other six
members of the team. All six Vanguard operatives straightened and saluted, and she sighed.
“Very well, my lady.”
The Lady Grey and the Dark Watcher sat, as did the team and Raymond and Sorina, while
Gaussian moved to stand in front of the large display screen, which now showed the crashed
Rikti mothership.
“As you know, we keep a close monitoring on all ship activity,” he began, and the image zoomed
in on a section of the mothership, with one of the pylons in the foreground. “The Rikti have
managed to repeatedly push us back enough to construct and maintain the pylons that generate
that force shield around the ship. Occasionally, we’ve had teams of metahumans go in and take
out the pylons, allowing us and them to thin the Rikti forces and force them to expend their
efforts and materials, such as they are, on repairing the pylons and ship rather than on making
further inroads into the War Zone.”
The image then changed to show what looked like a collapsed tunnel near the ship, maybe two
hundred yards from the ship.
“Recently, however, our sensor equipment has picked up some anomalous signals near the ship.
We thought at first it might have been a glitch, but it seems that the Rikti have set up their own
exclusion zone - someplace that cannot be teleported into or out of… or rather, that we cannot
teleport into or out of. A recon team went to investigate those tunnels earlier today, and
discovered that the Rikti appear to be close to finishing another homeworld portal.
Unfortunately, they were ambushed by the Rikti before they could escape… and with the
teleportation system blocked, we were not able to retrieve them.”
“You mean…” Raymond began slowly, and Gaussian nodded.
“Yes… they were wiped out. It cost them their lives to get us that information, and I don’t intend
to let it be in vain.”
The image changed to one that Raymond found frighteningly familiar, and Gaussian turned to
Sorina. “Dr. Tavarisch, if you would…”
Sorina rose and approached the screen, taking the laser pointer from Gaussian and indicating a
section of the screen.
“A Rikti dimensional portal - capable of transferring troops, supplies, and in large numbers,” she
explained. “It’s powered by four massive generators - the energy needed to stabilize and
maintain one of these things is almost staggering.” She turned to look at Raymond and the rest of
the team. “However, the portals can only function one way at a time - in other words,
simultaneous crossings are beyond their limits. This is why they’re so heavily guarded… the
Rikti know full well that if they are attacked, they cannot use the portal to retreat while
reinforcements are coming through at the same time. If previous skirmishes are any indication,
we’re looking at no less than four to six platoons of Rikti guarding the portal, not counting
reinforcements or any other troops we might encounter along the way.”
There were faint murmurings of concern among the team, and Raymond could fully understand
their worry. Eight of them versus anywhere from forty to sixty Rikti, and that was just the group
defending the portal. And with no chance at bringing in reinforcements of their own… he
swallowed hard, glad that his face was hidden behind his helmet.
He could see that Sorina was also concerned, but she was just as determined not to show it if
possible.
The Lady Grey rose to her feet and turned to face them. “There is more… we fear that the Rikti
know of our intent to infiltrate these tunnels and destroy their portal. So it is almost certain that
they will make certain to have their most formidable warriors there…” Her cold blue eyes
seemed to pierce theirs. “Yes… the Lord of the Rikti Lineage of War will be there to defend that
portal at all costs. Worse… we fear that an even more powerful warrior will be summoned, in the
event that you do succeed in defeating Hro’Dtohz.”
Sorina squared her shoulders and looked at her team.
“I trust that all of you know what is expected of us. This is a time for heroics, but not foolhardy
courage. We must work together as a team, or we’re dead the minute we enter that exclusion
zone. But remember this, above everything else. That portal has to be destroyed, even if it costs
all of us our lives.” Her voice dropped slightly and she looked over at Raymond for the first time
since the briefing began. “I pray it does not come to that.”
“Are there any questions?” Gaussian asked, but no one spoke. “Then may fortune favor the
brave. Dismissed.”
Chapter Thirty­Six 
WELCOME TO THE WAR ZONE
Hoping that his worry didn’t show, Raymond followed Sorina and the ops team down the
corridors of Vanguard’s base to the cavernous room that served as Vanguard’s armoury and
firing range. While the ops team signed for their weapons and other gear, the two magically-
trained operatives collected the strange technological staves that channeled their powers.
“Dr. Tavarisch, will you or Positron be requiring any weaponry?” the quartermaster asked, but
the two heroes shook their heads.
“No, thank you.”
“Not even an HVAS? We’ve got one that we just finished repairs on, it’s not yet been assigned
to a division, if you need it.”
Sorina hesitated, looking past the quartermaster into the hanger where several armored assault
vehicles and HVAS were undergoing maintenance, then shook her head. “No. If the Rikti have
got an exclusion field up, I won’t be able to teleport it in, and it’s too large and noticeable for the
initial infiltration of their tunnels.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
Raymond looked over at the rest of the ops team. “How will we be getting to this tunnel
entrance? I know Sor… Dr. Tavarisch and I can fly there, but…”
The quartermaster waved the six operatives into the hangar behind him, where two mechanics
opened several large storage units. “We’ve actually managed to adapt several of the Sky Raiders’
raptor packs for our own use. Their range isn’t quite as great as the Raiders’ are, but ours allow
for better maneuverability, and put out less of a heat signal.”
“Neat,” Raymond said in appreciation as he looked over at the jet packs being shouldered by the
ops team.
The team then collected their weapons, and Raymond’s eyes widened slightly at the sight of the
heavy assault rifles that they had shouldered.
“Impressive firepower…”
“Best to be prepared, sir. The Rikti certainly aren’t going to pull their punches for us, so no
reason why we should do it for them.”
Sorina, however, was intently looking at each member of her team, her eyes resting on them one
by one. Then Raymond saw her briefly close her eyes and her lips move silently.
“One more thing, Doctor…” Raymond and Sorina both turned to see Gaussian standing behind
them, one hand extended toward Sorina. Looking at his hand, Raymond saw that he was holding
a set of military tags in his palm. “These belong to you.”
Sorina, however, did not reach for them right away, but stood silently and looked at them, her
face briefly showing despair. Then she took them from Gaussian and hung them around her
neck.
“Thank you, sir,” she whispered, and Gaussian nodded and strode back down the corridors to his
usual post.
“Ready when you are, Doctor.” Major Thomas Vale, the senior ops team member, glanced over
at the two heroes. “And if I may say so, ma’am, it’s an honor to serve with you both.”
“Thank you, Major,” she replied, and Raymond did the same.
Sorina drew herself up and looked over at her team. “Let’s go.”
Together they headed down the corridor past the guards and stepped through the glowing portal
that led directly into the Rikti War Zone.
As they advanced up the steps into the courtyard of the Vanguard compound, its entrance flanked
by two enormous HVAS, Raymond was almost immediately deafened by the sound of artillery
fire. He looked up to see four mounted missile turrets hammering away at a squad of Rikti who
were charging the main gates, but between the turrets and the ten Vanguard soldiers stationed
near the gates, the Rikti had no chance.
“They’re still trying frontal assaults?” Sorina asked Major Vale, who nodded.
“Yes, ma’am. You’d think they’d have learned by now, but they keep trying. We think they’re
trying to gauge the range of our weapons, so we try to keep them guessing.”
She nodded, and pulled a small scanner from the pack she wore slung over one shoulder, tapping
the keys until a small holographic map of the War Zone appeared.
“Our entry point is about nine-tenths of a mile from here, a building about four hundred yards
west-southwest of the ship,” she explained as Raymond and the others gathered around. “It
seems the Rikti collapsed the tunnel when they ambushed the other ops team. But we can go in
through this building and blast through the floor to drop into another section of the tunnels.”
Shutting down the display and digging into her pack, she tossed a second scanner to Raymond.
“We’ll be using these to collect whatever information we can on their dimensional portal,
weapons, whatever.” She affixed her scanner to her belt, while Raymond did the same with his
armor. Then the eight of them kicked off from the ground and flew out of the compound.
After gaining enough altitude to avoid detection by the pylons, they set out toward the crash site,
taking care to overfly any forward defense base they passed to make sure that if they needed to
land for any reason, they had some place reasonably safe to stop. Fortunately for them, however,
they managed to approach the crash site without incident. Pausing in mid-air, well out of range
of the pylons, Sorina indicated one of the few intact buildings near the ship.
“That’s our target. But we have to be careful, there’s a Rikti pylon only a hundred yards from the
building entrance, and there’s bound to be some scattered Rikti there fighting the Vanguard
forward units.”
“We’ll need to go in fast, then,” Raymond agreed, gauging the distance from the pylon to the
building. “But with that second pylon just southwest of the building, we can’t go around that
way.”
“No hope for it,” Major Vale replied, “we just zoom in. Fortunately the pylons can only track
one target at a time.”
“Is that so?” Raymond remarked. “Didn’t know that… well, my armor is probably the most
capable of taking a direct hit, so if Dr. Tavarisch doesn’t have any objections, I’ll lead the way
in.”
Raymond didn’t need to be the scientist he was to see that she certainly did have objections, but
she wisely bit them back because she knew he was right, so all she did was nod. Then Raymond
turned and with the other seven following close behind, flew straight at the building’s entrance.
Unfortunately, however, as they shot past one of the ruined buildings toward their target, several
Rikti spotted them and opened fire as they raced by. To avoid the blasts coming their way, the
ops team were forced off their course, sending them careening dangerously within range of one
of the pylons.
“Oh, God, no,” Raymond heard Sorina plead, but luck was against them, as the pylon’s targeting
system suddenly glowed with power, and a hail of heatseeking missiles swarmed toward Sorina.
Raymond, however, was faster than she was, and before the missiles could reach her, took the
brunt of the attack against his armor. It jarred his entire body from head to toe, rattled his teeth in
his head, and made his ears ring, but his armor’s integrity held, and he recovered his wits quickly
enough to get out of range before the pylon could launch a second volley.
Landing outside the building, soon followed by the rest of the team, Raymond could see that
Sorina was dying to yell at him for protecting her, but knowing that it would be useless, all she
did was turn on her heel and blast open the door of the building, sending it tumbling down the
hallway.
*****
The four paramilitary ops members moved in unison to take up cover fire positions, making sure
the hallway was clear, then they preceded Sorina, Raymond, and the two magicians down the
hall. Raymond checked the scanner he’d attached to one gauntlet, looking thoughtful.
“This building has floors beneath the surface - storage facilities most likely or a basement of
some kind. We should head down there to find the best entry point to the tunnel system.”
“Agreed,” Sorina said, her voice still taut with repressed anger and concern, but Raymond could
understand her emotional response. God only knew how he would react if she’d pulled a similar
stunt.
They found a stairwell and made their way down two flights into a dank and musty-smelling
storage area. The ops team carefully shone flashlights along the floors, looking for any indication
that the Rikti or anyone else had been in the building.
The sensor displays inside his helmet suddenly flashed a message, and Raymond held up a
warning hand before they moved further into the area. “They’ve been here… and recently, too.”
“How can you tell?” one of the ops team asked.
“By the smell,” he replied.
Sorina lifted her head and sniffed at the air, and she nodded at the major.
“He’s right… I can still smell ozone.”
According to his armor’s scanners, it was faint, and rapidly decaying, but there had indeed been
an ozone spike… the trace elements of a short-range teleport.
“Rikti soldiers have the ability to teleport,” Sorina said quietly, following Raymond’s train of
thought. “But we’ve no way to know if they’re just occupying the building, or actively waiting
for us. Keep your guard up.”
The ops team moved in two-by-two formation, carefully advancing further into the room, while
Sorina and Raymond scanned the floor, searching for the best place to enter the tunnels.
“We’ll need to be careful about blasting in here,” he pointed out. “The last thing we need is to
accidentally bring the building down on top of us.”
“We’ll find a way,” she said quietly. “In fact… right… about… here.” The scanner was beeping,
indicating that there was a tunnel beneath their feet. She nodded to Major Vale, who pulled two
blocks of C-4 from his pack.
“Where do we go in?”
Raymond was scanning the structure of the walls and floor, then indicated one location near the
eastern wall. “There. That’s our best bet while still allowing us access to the tunnels.”
The major attached a short-fuse timer to the explosives while the rest of the team moved to
safety, then followed them and triggered the fuse. With a muffled roar, the floor and part of the
wall collapsed into the tunnels, sending smoke and dust billowing across the room.
But before they could move, Raymond’s sensors registered an abrupt energy spike, and he
whirled around to see a Rikti soldier teleport in behind them.
“Look out!” he shouted, blasting at the Rikti, who quickly returned his fire. Sorina and the others
also turned and opened fire on the Rikti soldier, gunning him down in a matter of moments. For
an instant, they were frozen in place, waiting to see if reinforcements would be arriving, but after
several moments, everything was still quiet.
“I think we took him out before he could warn the others,” Sorina said with relief. “Come on… if
they’ve got patrols in the tunnels, they’re going to find out about this sooner or later.”
“Hopefully later than sooner,” Raymond quipped as he, Sorina, and the ops team carefully
approached the gaping hole in the floor. He looked at the edge of the hole into the tunnels, then
back at the rest of the walls and ceiling above us. “I wish we had time to reinforce this… I would
hate to have this collapse behind us.”
“Unfortunately, time is not a luxury we have at the moment,” Sorina replied, cautiously lowering
herself through the hole into the tunnel below. “We have to hurry.”
The other seven followed her down the hole, taking up quick defensive postures as they looked
both ways down the tunnel.
“It’s clear,” Major Vale reported after a minute or two, and Sorina nodded.
“All right… we have to head in an eastward direction, because it’s almost certain they’ve got the
portal located as close to the ship as possible.”
But as they carefully made their way along the tunnel, it was barely moments later when they all
heard the sound of approaching feet from the tunnel behind them. As quickly as they could, they
flattened themselves along the wall, trying to stay in the shadows.
Standing close to Sorina, Raymond heard her softly curse in Russian, and he wanted to smile if
he weren’t so worried. He knew, however, that as soon as the Rikti patrol saw the hole blasted in
the tunnel ceiling, they would know exactly where they were. All they could do now was hope to
find someplace in the tunnel system where they could hopefully throw off the trail.
Sorina glanced at the ops team and made a quick gesture, indicating that they were to move
down the tunnel. Moving as quickly as they dared, they advanced, trying to put distance between
themselves and the patrol.
But from behind them, they suddenly heard, “Alert status: heightened. Intruders: detected.”
Chapter Thirty­Seven 
HIT AND FADE
Without even looking at her, Raymond could tell what Sorina was thinking as they heard the
Rikti patrol behind them - Do we try to outrun them and lose them in the tunnels, or do we take
them out?
On the one hand, eliminating the patrol would cut down on how many Rikti could be summoned
as reinforcements, and minimize their chances of getting caught in the tunnel system itself. On
the other hand, however, the Rikti now knew they were here, and a firefight could draw other
patrols to their location. Either way, it wasn’t a choice that Raymond envied Sorina for having to
make.
Then he saw her mouth tighten, and she signalled to Major Vale, who moved closer to her.
“We can’t risk them following us, so we’ll have to take them out as fast as we can,” she rasped,
her voice barely a whisper. The major nodded and gestured to the rest of the team. Two of the
paramilitary members kept watch in the direction they’d been heading, while Vale, Sorina,
Raymond, and the others waited for the patrol.
Thirty seconds later, from the shadows emerged two enormous Headman Blasters, recognizable
by their armor, four other smaller Rikti, and two drones. Quickly scanning the four Rikti,
Raymond saw to his dismay that one of them was running an open communications relay - a
Rikti communications officer, capable of summoning in reinforcements in a matter of moments.
Raymond managed to get the others’ attention long enough to point out the comm officer, and
Major Vale nodded. Unslinging the rifle from his back, he brought it to his shoulder, levelled it
at the approaching Rikti, and waited for Sorina’s signal. The other paramilitary ops member did
the same, while the two mages clenched their staves more tightly and waited as well.
Raymond began cautiously routing more power to his armor’s weapons systems, and saw by the
faint glow of Sorina’s gauntlets that she was doing the same, but still they waited for the Rikti to
come closer… closer…
“Now,” Sorina hissed, lifting both hands and pointing at the group of Rikti, three of which
suddenly found themselves bodily lifted from the ground and held there. Raymond, however,
saw that the forcefield shielding on the drones had prevented Sorina from immobilizing them,
one of the Headman blasters had teleported out of her reach, and two of the smaller Rikti had
raised forcefields of their own.
Raymond and the ops team, in the meantime, had concentrated their firepower on the comm
officer, and while the Rikti was trapped in Sorina’s gravity field, gunned it down before it could
break free and summon reinforcements. He allowed himself a moment to breathe just a bit easier,
since they wouldn’t have to worry about reinforcements teleporting in, but then he focused on
taking out the other Rikti that Sorina had trapped.
From over his shoulder came blasts of ice, and he glanced over to see the two mages hammering
away at the drones, but then the Headman blaster that had teleported away earlier appeared
behind them, prepared to shoot them in the back. Raymond growled and with calculated
precision, hurled a blast of anti-matter between the two mages to slam the Rikti into the tunnel
wall. One of the mages turned in surprise and began attacking as well, while the other continued
her assault on the drones.
It wasn’t long before the drones exploded, scattering shrapnel in every direction. Sorina and the
ops team, however, were busy pounding on the two Rikti guardians, forcing them to expend all
their effort in keeping their defensive fields up rather than attacking, and with the drones out of
the way, Raymond and the mage turned their attention to the other Rikti soldiers still trapped in
the gravity field, who went down shortly after.
But from behind them, the Rikti soldier that was fighting one of the mages got off a shot that
caught Sorina in the back, breaking her concentration, and the gravity field dropped as she
swayed on her feet, stunned by the blast. Raymond took an instinctive step toward her, but she
shook her head as though clearing it, whirled around, and with a snarl, flung out her hand. The
Rikti who’d shot her was heaved off the floor, slammed into the tunnel ceiling, then collapsed to
the floor, and the two mages blasted it with fire and ice until it stopped moving.
Vale and the other ops sniper, aided by Raymond, took out the two Guardians, but the last Rikti
soldier was lifting its rifle to attack. Sorina turned around again and lifted her hand, and
Raymond saw energy swirl around her fist…
… but nothing happened.
Sorina recoiled in horrified surprise. “What the…”
The rest of the team, however, concentrated their fire on the last Rikti, mowing it down before it
could attack.
“We should keep moving,” Major Vale said after quickly making sure the rest of the team was
all right, but one look at Sorina told everyone there that something was wrong.
“Dr. Tavarisch, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, damn, damn, damn,” she whispered. “I should have known that would happen.”
“What is it?” Raymond asked in concern, and she lifted her head to look at him.
“The Rikti teleportation exclusion field…”
“What about it?”
She looked down the tunnel at the last Rikti they’d killed. “I tried to teleport in something to
throw at that Rikti… but nothing appeared.” Raymond saw her frown in concentration as she
pointed at him, but again nothing happened. “Oh, no… even the short-range remote teleportation
doesn’t work in here. This isn’t just an exclusion zone… it’s got to be some kind of dampening
field.”
Sorina briefly clenched her fists, then squared her shoulders and turned to head down the tunnel
once more. “At any rate, it can’t be helped now. We have to take that portal down, with or
without my powers.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Major Vale said quietly, and Raymond and the rest of the team followed her into
the darkness.
*****
For the next hour, they made their slow, laborious way through the labyrinthine tunnel system
beneath the Rikti War Zone. Blind alleys, switchbacks, collapsed tunnels, and the constant threat
of Rikti patrols had all of them on edge, but like the professionals they were, they refused to give
up.
Raymond in particular found it mentally exhausting, having not had nearly the combat
experience in the War Zone as the rest of the team. For the ops team, fighting the Rikti was
second nature, and at times, he couldn’t help but shudder when he saw how coldly they could kill
the Rikti that got in their way. It was the same side of Sorina’s personality he’d seen on their first
date, when she had led a team of heroes against a Rikti incursion in Steel Canyon… the cold,
almost ruthless mindset needed to get through a distasteful task.
Was this also why she’d left Vanguard, he wondered as they travelled deeper into the tunnels.
Was she tired of the constant game of predator and prey, and the ever-shifting nature of those
roles?
Finally she called a brief halt. “We’ll give ourselves five minutes to rest, then re-orient ourselves
on the portal’s signal. St. John, Carleton, you two keep watch.” Two of the ops team nodded and
took up positions on either side of the team. Raymond knew that if they kept pushing themselves,
they’d be worn out by the time they reached the portal, but even when relaxing, the team still
remained ready for any threat.
He pulled out his scanner and called up a small holographic map of the tunnels. “We’ve mapped
a good chunk of the tunnel system - Vanguard should be happy with this information when we
get it back to them.”
“Da,” Sorina agreed, looking over at the map. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Major Vale, however, was frowning as he glanced at the display, and Sorina and Raymond both
caught the look on his face. “Is there a problem, Major?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “But unless I’m mistaken, we’re not far from where the other
recon team was ambushed.”
Raymond and Sorina immediately looked again, and then Sorina swallowed hard.
“You’re right.” She hesitated for a moment, then rose to her feet with a determined look on her
face. “Change of plans - we’re going to find what’s left of the recon team.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Raymond asked her, too quietly for the rest of the team to hear, since
questioning her orders in front of them would only undermine her authority.
“We don’t know what other data they might have collected before the Rikti killed them,” she
replied, still looking at the display. “And besides… Vanguard doesn’t leave its own behind. Not
like that.” She looked up at the rest of the ops team. “Let’s go.”
It took them another ten minutes to make their way to where the earlier reconnaissance team had
been ambushed, and as they rounded the corner, Raymond heard Sorina gasp as her hands
covered her mouth in horror. Vale and the other operatives also looked like they were about to be
sick as they stared at what was left of their comrades, lying in pools of blood on the tunnel floor,
mangled almost beyond recognition.
“Oh, dear God in heaven,” Sorina whispered, and then she nearly let out a shriek as one of the
figures on the floor stirred.
“He’s alive!” Raymond shouted, lunging toward the Vanguard soldier, but as he approached, he
saw that the soldier was half-buried under rubble from the tunnel ceiling, and he realized that the
Rikti had attempted to collapse the tunnel on top of the operatives. He began trying to shift the
rock away, but the faintest of whispers stopped him.
“Too… late…”
“No, you have to hold on,” Raymond protested, but the soldier weakly shook his head.
“We… we tried… but… it wasn’t… enough.”
Sorina held out both of her hands, concentrating. Slowly, the boulders and debris lifted from the
ground. Her voice strained as she continued to levitate the rubble, she ordered the ops team to
pull the others clear. Raymond carefully lifted the wounded Vanguard soldier into his arms while
Vale and the others pulled the others from the debris, then with a grunt, Sorina let the rocks fall
once again.
Raymond was about to trigger his armor’s healing nanomachine field, but the wounded soldier
barely managed to lift his head to look at Raymond. “Save… your strength… you’ll… need…
it…”
It seemed to take all his strength to focus on Sorina.
“Colonel… what’s down there… you can’t…”
“It’s all right,” she told him, kneeling beside the soldier and lifting her goggles from her eyes,
but he reached out for her, and she caught his hand in hers.
“Promise me… something… tell… Lady Grey… we made… her… proud…”
“You can tell her that yourself,” Sorina said, her voice almost harsh with worry and
determination, but the soldier shook his head.
“No… I know… I’m not… going… back…” But his eyes seemed to burn as he stared at
Raymond and Sorina. “Down there… it’s… the apocalypse… not just… Hro’Dtohz… it’s…
it’s…” He gave a strangled gasp and his head fell back as the life went out of his eyes.
Behind his helmet, Raymond closed his eyes and swallowed hard as his sensors registered the
cessation of the soldier’s life signs. Then he opened his eyes again and with infinite care, lay the
soldier’s body down on the tunnel floor beside his fallen comrades. The rest of the ops team
knelt in respect to their fallen dead, weapons shouldered and faces rigid from holding back grief.
But Sorina was trembling next to Raymond, and he could see the anguish in her face, in every
line of her body as she stared down at the soldier and the rest of the recon team.
“We could have saved him,” she whispered brokenly.
“No, Sorina,” Raymond said, reaching out for her hand, not caring who else saw. “You heard
him… he wanted us to save our strength to fight… whatever it is that’s waiting for us.”
He saw her close her eyes to hold back her tears, and he suddenly understood, with almost
painful clarity, what it was that had truly driven her to leave Vanguard. Even after all this time,
he knew that she would still think she’d failed this soldier because she hadn’t been able to save
him.
“Sorina, listen to me,” he said urgently, taking her by the shoulders and turning her toward him,
but still she kept her eyes closed and her face turned away. “You didn’t fail him… if you survive,
and we shut down that portal, and we get this information back to Vanguard, you’ll have honored
the sacrifice he and the rest of his team made. Damn it, Sorina, this isn’t like before. You have a
chance to save thousands of lives, don’t throw it away because of a burden of guilt you should
never have had to carry in the first place.”
Inside, his heart was almost breaking at the suffering in her face, but they were running out of
time. “Please, Sorina… we have to go on. We owe it to them.”
Slowly, she nodded, and she wiped the tears from her cheeks and lowered her goggles over her
eyes once more. Drawing in a deep breath to calm herself, she looked over at the rest of the ops
team. “Major, collect their tags. We’ll present them to the Lady Grey when we return. Carleton,
St. John, Halley, take whatever supplies of theirs we can still use, plus their scanners.” The four
paramilitary ops members nodded and set to the task while Sorina and Raymond stood, his hand
still on her shoulder. When they were done, Sorina ordered all of them back, then she looked
over at the two mages. “Etienne, Phillips… collapse the tunnel. We’ll give them the only burial
we can.”
The two mages nodded and lifted their staves, and the ground beneath their feet trembled. Then,
with a low rumbling roar and a cloud of dust, what was left of the tunnel ceiling came down,
burying the fallen recon team.
For several moments, there was silence, then a half-remembered quote came to Raymond as they
stood there, the only words he could offer as an epitaph.
“‘When you go home, tell them of us, and say / for your tomorrows, these gave their today.’”
“Thank you, sir,” said Major Vale, his voice barely a murmur, and Raymond realized he’d
actually spoken the quote aloud.
Sorina hesitated a moment or two longer, then she turned to face her ops team.
“‘For their service to Vanguard and their homeworld…’” she recited.
“‘We will remember them,’” the team replied in unison.
Her voice hardened. “‘And for their sacrifice…’”
“‘We will avenge them,’” the team answered, lifting their weapons in salute.
Chapter Thirty­Eight 
BREACHING THE ENTRANCE
Shouldering his weapon once more, Major Vale turned to Sorina and Raymond. “Orders,
Doctor?”
“We have to keep going,” she said without hesitation. “The Rikti aren’t fools, and we’ve taken
down now how many of their patrols?”
“Nine, ma’am,” Halley replied.
“They won’t need to be rocket scientists to figure out where we’re heading.”
Raymond was inclined to agree. Understandably enough, Sorina had been unwilling to sacrifice
caution for speed, which meant that while they’d been able to traverse the tunnels relatively
unharmed, they’d given the Rikti more than enough warning that they were on the way. As he
glanced over at her, he knew she was thinking the same thing, even with her goggles hiding her
eyes.
To cover his concern for her, however, he turned to the other paramilitary team members. “Were
any of the recon team carrying scanners of their own?”
“Yes, sir,” they answered, handing him the scanners they’d retrieved. Working as quickly as he
could, he hastily rigged them together to pull all the information from each one, and then collate
together into the data he’d gathered along the way. While conferring quickly with Etienne and
Phillips, the two mages, Sorina handed him her own scanner.
Raymond watched as it slowly compiled the data into one larger map, areas slowly being
delineated as the information was added, and he let out a low whistle.
“I think you guys need to see this.”
At the tone of his voice, Sorina broke off her conversation and moved to look over his shoulder
while the rest of the team gathered around.
“Bohze moi,” she whispered, crouching down beside him to stare at the holographic display.
The recon team had done a remarkably thorough job in mapping the tunnels, but what had the
group’s undivided attention was what appeared to be an enormous underground facility,
constructed by the Rikti in secret, and of far greater scale than Vanguard had first believed.
Like Raymond, Major Vale let out a whistle. “A communications center, two weapons dumps,
data repository, habitation areas, medical facilities, and unless I miss my guess, that-” He pointed
to a small marker on the map. “That looks like the portal chamber. How the HELL did they get
all that built?”
Sorina was tapping away at the keys, and a moment later, she nodded, her own suspicions
confirmed. “At this point, we’re far enough underground to avoid detection even by the radar
array at Point du Hoc, and with all the energy readings from the crashed ship, any fluctuations
could almost have been written off as increased Rikti activity on the ship itself. And unless the
metahumans fighting in the War Zone who’ve gone on pylon raids have actually made it inside
the ship…”
“They haven’t,” St. John said ruefully. “Though not for lack of trying.”
She sat back on her heels, open dismay on her face. “If the recon team hadn’t found all this, we’d
never have known it was there.”
She abruptly rose to her feet, her jaw set in determination. “But based on the maps from the
recon team, we’re less than two hundred yards away from the entrance to this facility. At least
then we won’t be fighting the terrain along with the Rikti.”
Raymond disassembled the networked scanners, but not before making sure that the same
information was now on both Sorina’s and his own. Tossing hers back to her, he affixed his to
his gauntlet again. “Then I think it’s time we pay the Rikti a house call.”
*****
Motivated now not only by the nearness of their objective, as well as the intel taken from the
fallen recon team, Raymond, Sorina, and the Vanguard operatives moved at an increased pace,
pausing only to take out the few patrols that were stationed between them and the facility
entrance. Since Sorina now knew the limitations of her technology within the teleportation
exclusion field, she didn’t bother some of the attacks Raymond had seen her use during the Steel
Canyon incursion.
As they approached, though, Raymond was more aware of the sensation of moving downward
even as they moved forward, confirming Sorina’s earlier assessment that they’d progressed
further beneath the surface. However, it was difficult not to wonder how they were going to get
back out once they’d done what they’d come to do.
Then they rounded a corner and the whole team paused, weapons at the ready.
“Oh, bloody hell,” Carleton cursed, and Raymond felt like he was speaking for all of them, for
gathered in front of the large carved archway so reminiscient of Rikti architecture were two
platoons of Rikti - twenty soldiers in all. And to make matters worse, from where they crouched
in the shadows, they could see two Rikti who were quite distinctive by their lack of armor.
“Mentalists,” Phillips murmured, clutching her staff a little tighter. “This is going to be ugly.”
“It hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk up until now,” her partner reminded her.
“They’ve also got three communications officers,” Raymond added, having scanned and
detected the open communications relays.
“Can we pull them away from the entrance?” Sorina asked softly.
“We can try,” Major Vale replied, but no guarantee they’ll follow.”
“Damn it, but I wish I had access to my teleportation programs,” Sorina cursed, but the two
mages looked at one another, then over at her, straightening their shoulders.
“Ma’am, just tell us which two you want and we’ll bring them to you.”
“How?” Raymond protested. “The teleportation exclusion field won’t let you.”
“The teleportation field is based on technology,” Etienne said with a slight smile. “Magic,
however, operates on its own level, something the Rikti have proven inferior at.”
“And if it still doesn’t work?” Raymond asked quietly.
“Then we worry,” Phillips said, her face somber.
Sorina hesitated, and Raymond knew she was weighing the odds of two different tactics. The
first was to grab the mentalists, which would leave them vulnerable to almost certain Rikti
reinforcements called in by the officers. The second was to grab two of the communications
officers, minimizing the number of reinforcements, but as all eight of them knew, the Rikti had
developed formidable telepathic powers, and two mentalists would be a serious threat to the
group.
Finally she sighed and bowed her head. “We can’t leave ourselves open to the mentalists. The
sheer weight of numbers we might be able to stop, as long as they don’t call in their chief
soldiers.” She looked over at Etienne and Phillips. “When I give the signal, grab the mentalists
and position them in front of us in their same relative locations. Pray, chant, I don’t care, but
whatever you do, don’t miss.” She glanced over at the rest of the ops team, but they were already
priming weapons and waiting for her signal. “Once the mentalists are in range, Phillips, Vale,
Carleton, target the one on the left; Halley, Etienne, St. John, and Positron, target the one on the
right. We take them down, and I mean FAST, because after that the others will be all over us.”
“And when that happens, ma’am?” Halley asked.
“Kill them all, and I don’t care how,” Sorina replied. She lifted her hands to shoulder level and
her gauntlets glowed with power. “On my signal… NOW.”
The mages’ staves abruptly flared with a burning bright light, and as Raymond watched, two
gleaming auras of light surrounded the two Rikti mentalists, who had just enough time to react in
surprise before they suddenly blinked out of existence, and reappeared in front of the ops team.
As soon as they appeared, Sorina clenched her fists, gritting her teeth from the effort of holding
the two mentalists in place.
Then there was no more time for thought as he focused his attention on the Rikti in front of him
and threw every ounce of energy he could spare into an anti-matter blast. He was dimly aware of
the others hammering away at the mentalists, while Sorina was utterly focused on keeping the
Rikti from fighting back. But the two mentalists were all too quick to realize that if they took out
Sorina, they’d be free to attack, so they brought their mental power to bear against her.
Sorina gasped and nearly stepped backward, but then she closed her eyes, resisting with
everything inside of her. “Nyet!” she gasped, turning her face away to avoid looking at them, but
they wouldn’t relent, and Raymond’s scanners could detect waves of psionic energy battering at
the scientist.
“They’re coming!” Major Vale shouted, and the ops team renewed their assault against the
mentalists, and finally one of them went down with an inhuman howl of rage. The other yielded
a moment later, but the Vanguard team had only barely enough time to look up and see the rest
of the Rikti platoons bearing down on them.
“Take out the comms!” Sorina gasped, reeling backward, one hand to her head from the abrupt
release from the Rikti mental assault. “Don’t let them-”
Too late, for Raymond saw the open communications relays spike from two of the
communications officers, and just behind the advancing Rikti appeared two portals, glowing with
a sickly green light. From each of the portals emerged two Rikti and two of the small, mutated
forms that the heroes of Paragon City had dubbed ‘Rikti monkeys’ because of their quick, jerky
movements and their agility.
As the platoons came into range, several of them drew weapons and opened fire on the ops team,
while four others lifted their arms and began creating forcefields around their comrades.
“COMMS FIRST, THEN GUARDIANS!” Major Vale shouted over the noise as the Vanguard
team began returning fire, and with Sorina doing everything in her power to slow down the
advancing Rikti, Raymond and the others focused on the task of blowing the Rikti to hell.
At first, even as outnumbered as they were, as long as the Rikti had been careless enough to
remain in a close group - the better, Raymond assumed, to allow their healers to keep them
fighting - the Vanguard team had been able to slow their advance to a near crawl. But whether
out of courage, foolhardiness, or tactics, the Headman blasters of the platoons began teleporting
to other locations, forcing the ops team to split their attention away.
And unfortunately, Sorina couldn’t teleport them back, nor could the Vanguard mages let up
their own attacks to summon them again.
Now caught in a bloody crossfire, it didn’t take long before Phillips and Etienne were forced to
break off their own attacks to try and heal the other members of the team through their magical
arts, and the loss of firepower meant losing more ground to the Rikti. Sorina was facing the same
dilemma herself - use her control over energy dynamics to revitalize her team, or attack the Rikti.
And while she never seemed to stop moving, Raymond could tell this was exhausting her.
Eventually the mages gave up any hopes of attacking and focused all their efforts on keeping
their teammates on their feet, while Sorina was alternating between immobilizing the Rikti and
channeling energy to the ops team. But even as they took out the advance platoons, now it was
five against thirteen as the reinforcements joined the fray.
“We can’t keep this up forever!” Sorina cried, even as she raised her hands yet again to trap the
Rikti in a gravitational field.
“It’s those damn Guardians!” Major Vale shouted back. “We need a breathing space, even if it’s
just for a second, then we can take them out permanently!”
“Sorina, the Singularity!” Raymond yelled. “Its repulsion field!”
But she hesitated, and he realized that for her to summon it, she would have to drop her
concentration and the gravitational hold she had over the Headman blasters that had appeared
next to Halley and St. John and were firing at them.
Then she lifted her hands over her head, and with a loud hum and a swirl of reddish-gold energy,
the gravitational anomaly appeared in their midst. As though detecting the threat to its creator, it
abruptly pulsed, sending the nearest Rikti soldiers hurtling backward as its repulsion field
activated.
The brief respite was all the Vanguard team needed to bring all their firepower to bear on the last
two Rikti guardians, leaving the rest of the Rikti without their healing and forcefield capabilities.
But there was no time for congratulations, not with eleven Rikti still attacking them.
Now that the Rikti no longer had the advantage of the Guardians, the Vanguard team began to
regain some of their lost ground, forcing the Rikti back toward the facility’s entrance. The four
Rikti monkeys were the next targeted, removing the threat of their strange mindwarping abilities,
followed by the general Rikti infantry, but exhaustion was rapidly taking its toll.
Raymond saw the brief flash of indecision on Sorina’s face, then she lifted her hands, and his
scanners once again detected the flow of energy from her body to one of the Headman blasters,
and pale blue light seemed to surround it, then was absorbed by the ops team. For Raymond, it
was the first time he’d actually experienced the effect of his armor somehow recognizing it as an
alternate power source, and he was astounded to see his suit’s power readings surge back to near
normal levels.
However, the gravitational distortion field that Sorina had been using to lock down the Rikti
suddenly collapsed, and one horrified look at Sorina as she fell to her knees told Raymond that
she’d apparently not been in the radius of the revitalization.
“Doctor!” St. John yelled, pulling back slightly to cover her as she weakly scrabbled at her belt,
searching for something. Pausing only long enough to blast two Rikti infantry away from her, the
soldier pulled what Raymond recognized as a stimulant patch from his utility pack. Not wanting
to waste the time she’d need to remove her gauntlet, he pressed it to the side of her cheek, the
only immediately visible skin on her body.
As her head snapped back while the chemical stimulant surged through her bloodstream,
Raymond and the others gunned down the last of the infantry, but the two remaining Headman
blasters briefly disappeared. One almost instantly reappeared beside Etienne and Phillips, but the
ops team concentrated its fire and mowed it down before it got off more than a shot or two.
“Where’s the last one?” Raymond called out, his scanners searching for any sort of energy spike
that would indicate its return, but there was nothing.
“It may have gone for reinforcements,” Major Vale said, leaning against the wall, trying to stifle
the flow of blood from his shoulder where a Rikti energy sword had barely missed hitting a
major artery.
No sooner were the words out of his mouth, however, when the Headman blaster teleported
directly beside Sorina and raised its weapon to fire.
“SORINA!” Raymond shouted, but riding the adrenaline surge that the stimulant had given her,
Sorina had lunged to her feet, her hands glowing with energy, and bodily hurled the Rikti soldier
into the ceiling, crushing its skull before letting it fall to the ground.
For a moment, she stood there, silently staring down at the remains of the Rikti, then she gave a
long sigh and let her head fall forward.
“Two minutes,” she said weakly. “Patch yourselves up, check your ammo, and catch your breath.
This job’s not done yet.”
Chapter Thirty­Nine 
SEVERING COMMUNICATIONS
“Major Vale, are you all right?” Raymond approached the Vanguard soldier to get a closer look
at his wounds, but the major had already half-shrugged out of his kevlar vest and was covering
the injury with a medical plaster.
“Yes, sir, I’ll be all right,” Major Vale replied, but Raymond could see his face was still rather
pale. Looking at the rest of the team, he saw the faint lines of exhaustion and tension and pain
starting to appear in their faces, but they wouldn’t let it stop them.
Was it always like this, he wondered as he glanced at the Vanguard team, who were quietly
talking, patching each other up, and checking their weapons. Was there always this sense of
fighting a battle to a stalemate, of going until you dropped? Did the battles ever stop, here in the
Rikti War Zone?
All too quickly, their two minutes of rest were up, and Sorina was waving all of them over for a
hurried meeting.
“This is our route to that portal chamber,” she pointed out, tracing along the holographic map
with her finger. “There’s no one ‘best’ route to the portal chamber, unfortunately; these tunnels
weave all over the place.”
“So we’re going to pass through that communications center,” Raymond mused. “We going for
disabling it, destroying it, or grabbing information?” He paused as another thought came to
mind. “For that matter, does anyone here know Rikti?”
“I know a little,” Sorina replied, her eyes still on the map. “But I know more about Rikti
computer technology, so what we’ll do is download whatever information we can from their
computers, then turn it over to the Vanguard scientists who’ve been working on deciphering the
Rikti language. After that, we’ll make sure the computers are in no condition for them to use.”
Major Vale studied the map. “I agree,” he said at last. “It’d be nice if we had the time to hit those
weapons dumps on the way to the portal chamber, but…”
“But hitting the communications center is more important,” Sorina finished. “Maybe once the
portal’s shut down, we can come back along a different route and finish the job properly.”
“We should worry about taking down the portal first,” Raymond pointed out. “Then we’ll worry
about how we’re getting out of here.”
“Ever practical,” Sorina chuckled quietly, then she drew a deep breath, closed her eyes, and re-
opened them. “All right, let’s move out.”
Once inside, they no longer had to fight the terrain, but now they faced the double-edged sword
of being in a well-lit facility. On the one hand, it made it easier for them to see, but on the other
hand, it was just as easy for the Rikti to see as well. Moving with the same caution they’d used in
the tunnels, Raymond, Sorina, and the Vanguard team headed deeper and deeper into the facility.
They quickly fell into a routine of scouting a corridor or room, dealing with whatever patrol
happened to be there, pausing for a minute to wait for reinforcements to arrive, and then moving
on again.
“How many has it been now?” Carleton asked during one of their brief pauses after fighting yet
another patrol of Rikti.
“Eighteen,” Halley replied, rubbing his eyes tiredly, when just then, another Rikti infantry and
two drones rounded the corner, but the ops team was ready, and quickly gunned them down
before they could get off any sort of warning.
“Nineteen,” St. John said a few moments later. “And that doesn’t count the two platoons by the
front door, either.”
“How are we doing on medical supplies?” Raymond asked, looking over the team in concern as
they turned left and headed down another corridor in the direction of the communications center.
“Starting to run low, sir,” Phillips said after a moment, and Raymond looked over at Sorina.
“Do you think hitting their medical bay would be of any use?” he asked softly, but she shook her
head.
“It’s in the wrong direction at this point, and we really can’t spare the time.”
Rounding the corner, they nearly walked straight into four more Rikti - a Headman blaster, a
Guardian, and two more drones. The blaster got off a shot and teleported away, so the Vanguard
team quickly shot the Guardian and then the drones, while Raymond and Major Vale waited for
the blaster to return. Sure enough, a minute later, it teleported back into their midst, but Sorina
was ready, and grabbed it in a gravity field while Raymond and the major blasted it apart.
“Twenty,” Raymond sighed.
*****
At last they reached the communications center, and Raymond nearly let out a low whistle of
astonishment. Three sets of stairs led down into a lowered section of the room, where glowing
holographic information displays scrolled continuously upward from six long computer
terminals. In the four corners of the lowered section were four round terminals, from which also
spiraled information in the strange symbols that the Rikti used.
The ops team hung back in the corridor, for they’d noticed another platoon of Rikti soldiers in
the center, not to mention the handful of Rikti among the computers.
“That can’t be coincidence,” Major Vale murmured, indicating the platoon. “Especially
considering they’re guarding the only other way out of the room, which leads toward the portal
chamber.”
“They’re here for us, all right,” Sorina agreed, her eyes sweeping over the platoon. “What are we
facing in there?”
Raymond was conducting his own scan, and a moment later replied, “Two blasters, one
Guardian, one communications officer, three drones, two infantry, and…” His voice trailed off.
“And what?” Sorina prompted, but just then, the enormous figure of a Rikti chief soldier stepped
into view. “Prokljat’e.”
“No mentalists, though,” Carleton noted. “Be grateful for small blessings.”
“Comm and guardians first,” Major Vale said quietly, and Sorina nodded.
“I’ll try and keep that chief soldier locked down… don’t know if it’ll work, though, that armor of
theirs enhances their strength cybernetically.”
“Do your best, Doctor,” the major replied. “What about the Rikti scientists?”
“Hit them as opportunity allows,” she answered. “But focus on the platoon first.” She glanced at
the team, then back at the Rikti. “Halley, you and Positron take out that comm officer. Vale, St.
John, and Carleton, use your sniper rifles on the Guardian. Phillips, Etienne, keep those drones
off us once they’re in range.”
The four military ops members lifted their rifles to their shoulders to sight their targets, while
Raymond’s targeting computer locked onto the comm officer.
“On my mark…” Sorina whispered, waiting for the chief soldier to turn away again. “NOW.”
Five blasts lanced across the communications center, catching the Rikti completely off guard and
killing the Guardian and communication officer before either had a chance to react. The
remaining Rikti, however, were quick to recover their bearings and charged toward them. Sorina
was ready, though, and generated a gravity distortion field that trapped the two infantry, one of
the drones, and one of the blasters.
“Hit the ones in the gravity field!” she shouted over the gunfire that exploded in the
communications center, and Raymond and the ops team opened fire on the trapped Rikti. Etienne
and Phillips, however, concentrated their magic on the two drones still free of the field,
hammering at them until they exploded into fragments.
Without reinforcements and their Guardian, the Vanguard team managed to make quick work of
most of the platoon, but the blasters were proving to be a problem. Sorina, however, left them to
the team, and was throwing all of her effort at trying to keep the chief soldier occupied. Every
time she would immobilize it, the Rikti would only be trapped for a few moments before
breaking free and attacking her again.
Raymond turned from where he’d just blasted one of the infantry apart and saw the Rikti soldier
lift its enormous gunblade, ready to bring it down and carve Sorina in half, and without thinking,
he focused all of his energy into a single powerful anti-matter blast. As the blast slammed into
the soldier, it rocked back slightly on its feet, its blade arcing down and barely missing Sorina,
who dove to one side and once again caught the Rikti in a gravity field.
The rest of the ops team then turned as well and opened fire on the Rikti soldier, throwing
everything they had against it, but the chief soldier wouldn’t go down. With a tremendous effort,
it broke free of Sorina’s gravity field and attacked again, this time its gunblade sweeping straight
into Raymond, catching him square across the ribs, and sending him crashing into a wall. His
armor took the worst of it, but sharp pain arced up his side and across the back of his head, and
his armor’s sensors flashed the warning that three of his ribs had just been broken.
“RAYMOND!” Sorina’s horrified scream rang in his ears, and with a howl of rage, her gauntlets
glowed with energy and she lifted the chief soldier off the floor, holding him trapped within a
powerful gravity field.
He tried to tell her he was all right, but he couldn’t seem to catch his breath.
She flung out one hand, and his sensors detected an energy spike not unlike the one she
generated when she generated that revitalization field of hers. This time, however, a green glow
flared around the Rikti, washing over Raymond, and his body convulsed as energy filled him.
For a split second, he felt his heart stop, then the pain in his side and his head vanished in a
powerful rush of endorphins surging through his system. Gasping, he got to his feet, and turned
back to Sorina and the others.
“What was tha-” The words died on his lips when he saw the expression on Sorina’s face, and
she lifted both of her hands, her fingers spread wide, and pointed them at the trapped Rikti, who
was still being battered by the rest of the Vanguard team.
Then she closed her hands into fists, and the Rikti soldier convulsed once under the full force of
her gravity field, then collapsed to the floor in a heap. Without looking at Raymond, Sorina
turned to look down into the communications center, but the scientists had fled deeper into the
complex.
“Should we go after them?” Major Vale asked, but Sorina shook her head, her expression distant
and her voice unsteady.
“There’s no time. Come on.” She descended toward the computers, Raymond and the rest of the
Vanguard team following. Sorina unhooked her scanner from her belt, crouched down next to
one of the terminals, and opened it. Raymond crouched next to her to see what she was doing,
then when he was fairly confident he could do the same thing, he plugged his own scanner into
one of the other computers.
“Vale, Halley, keep an eye on these. Positron, give me one of the recon team’s scanners.” He
tossed it to her, and together they crossed the room to the other two terminals, and wired two
other scanners into the Rikti communications system.
“Are you all right?” he asked her quietly while the four scanners downloaded information from
the system.
She shook her head, but he had the feeling it was her telling him not to ask her that right now,
rather than a negative response to his question. “Not now, Raymond,” she said softly, but he
remembered how she had screamed his name when he’d been attacked… even though she had
taken care to only refer to him as Positron while on the mission.
They then moved to the long computer terminals in the middle of the room, attaching scanners to
each, and Raymond stared in fascination at the glowing amber glyphs scrolling upward from
each terminal. He’d not often had the opportunity to study what the Rikti used as a written
language, and he wondered what the linguistic basis might be. At first he thought it might be
pictographic, but the relatively limited number of symbols made him wonder if it was more like
the runic languages, or maybe it might even be mathematically based… Then he shook his head
and brought his mind back to the task at hand.
The scanners beeped, and they disengaged them from the computer system, and collected the
other scanners from Halley and Vale. Quickly he hooked all the scanners together, copying
information from one to the other until all of them now held the same information, then handed
Sorina back her scanner, affixed his own to his gauntlet, and gave the others back to Major Vale.
“Analysis will have to wait until we’re back at the base,” he admitted. “Especially if those
scientists got away.” He looked over his shoulder at the other corridor leading out of the
communications center, then back at the team. “Major, if you’ll move your team back, I think it’s
time for some selective vandalism.”
“Yes, sir,” Vale replied, and Sorina and the Vanguard team moved toward the corridor leading
out of the center. For a moment Raymond stood looking at the communications network
equipment.
As a scientist, it was in some ways abhorrent to him to destroy such advanced technology, not
when it could still be put to use for the cause of right. He thought ruefully of how much he
wished they had time for him to study this machinery… of how much he could learn… but there
was no more time. So Raymond began systematically blasting the computers, one by one, until
the terminals lay in smoldering piles of metal, damaged beyond repair. He then shattered the
support columns holding up the ceiling, and the lowered section of the communications center
was buried completely.
*****
Four patrols later, the team finally reached the entrance to the portal chamber, and they all
stopped, staring in amazement and dismay.
The chamber was vast, almost like a cathedral, with four enormous pillars that blazed and pulsed
with energy. Guarding each pillar was a full platoon of Rikti, clearly ready for an attack. Here
and there across the chamber were other smaller Rikti squads, carefully patrolling the room. And
in the center of the chamber was the dimensional portal, nearly thirty feet in diameter and
humming with power.
But it was not the portal itself that held the team’s attention, but the towering Rikti that stood
before it with a platoon of soldiers on either side. Heavily armored, standing nearly a head taller
than even the chief soldiers, and wearing a vivid red sash of rank, the Rikti was an imposing
figure.
Raymond stared. “Is that…”
“Hro’Dtohz,” Sorina whispered.
Chapter Forty 
THE ONLY COURSE OF ACTION
Raymond stared in dismayed fascination at the huge Rikti standing before the dimensional
portal. Powerful, armored, and wielding a gunblade that was almost as long as Raymond was
tall, Hro’Dtohz was a formidable enemy, even without the two platoons of Rikti that stood at
attention around him.
“How many total?” Sorina asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Seventy-nine,” Major Vale replied almost as quietly, trying but not quite succeeding in keeping
the despair out of his voice. “Twenty beside Hro’Dtohz, Hro’Dtohz himself, ten Rikti in front of
each generator, and six patrols of three Rikti each.”
Small wonder he sounded disheartened, Raymond thought, looking at the major. As capable as
the Vanguard team was, they were still outnumbered nearly ten to one by the Rikti, and the
twenty soldiers beside Hro’Dtohz were almost certainly their elite warriors.
For a long moment, all of them were silent, their hearts sinking at the true magnitude of their
task.
“Is there any way we can draw some of them away?” St. John suggested, but Raymond shook his
head.
“The minute we attack, we’ll draw the attention of everyone in the room. Eighty Rikti at once?
It’d be nothing short of suicide.”
“What about summoning some of those smaller patrols out from behind them?” Sorina asked,
glancing over at Etienne and Phillips, who had their heads together and were whispering to each
other in a rather intense discussion.
“Possible, but we’d still risk them noticing us,” Major Vale said with a weary sigh. “God, even if
we’d had the earlier recon team with us, it’d still be five to one.”
Sorina frowned, her eyes moving over the members of the Vanguard team before coming to rest
on Raymond. Although she tried her best to hide it, he could see the faint shivering of her body
as she fought back the fear. “And our weapons and powers aren’t strong enough to take
Hro’Dtohz out with a single strike, are they?”
It was more of a statement than a question, but Major Vale nodded.
Phillips and Etienne, however, still seemed to be arguing about something, and Sorina glanced
over at them. “What is it?”
“With respect, Doctor, we have an idea. But…” Etienne’s voice trailed off.
“But what?” Sorina asked, and the two mages looked at one another.
“We can use our magic to hide ourselves from the Rikti… and we can each grant that invisibility
to one other person. If Etienne and I take two of the ops with us, we can each get to one of the
generators.”
“Leaving four of us to face Hro’Dtohz and his soldiers,” Major Vale finished heavily, turning to
look at the four generators. “Dr. Tavarisch, how durable are those things?”
Sorina began scanning them, a faint holographic display appearing in front of her face as data
scrolled past her vision, assessing their construction, their power input and output, and the like.
“Not too much,” she said at last. “A couple of really good blasts and they should go down fairly
easily. If they’re too heavily shielded, it restricts their power output, so that’s why they’re
guarded.”
Raymond, on the other hand, was scanning the dimensional portal. “The portal’s got a reserve
power source, just enough to keep a relay open between here and the Rikti homeworld. Even
once all four generators go down, at a rough guess based on its power capacity, the portal can
still function for three minutes before its reserves are exhausted.”
“At full capacity?” Sorina asked, but he shook his head.
“No. Right now, with four generators and the reserve, I’d guess that the portal could handle an
energy transfer of approximately fifty troops, or an equivalent mass of supplies.” He glanced
over at Sorina. “But as long as even one generator is left, they could still transfer up to twenty
Rikti at a time.”
“And what if all four generators are gone?” Major Vale asked him.
“Ten Rikti at most, before the reserve gives out,” Raymond answered. “It’d be enough for them
to send through a couple of troops, an engineering team, and probably enough supplies to fix one
generator.”
Sorina’s face was pale but composed. “Very well, then.” She looked over at the four Vanguard
soldiers, who met her gaze unflinchingly. For several moments, she didn’t speak, then she
slightly bowed her head. “Carleton, Halley, you will accompany Phillips and Etienne.” At her
words, both men nodded, while Major Vale began removing several bundles of C-4 from his
back and handing it to them. “Your first priority is the generators. Once those are dealt with, if
you find Rikti communications officers, take them out. Nothing else matters.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they said solemnly, as did Etienne and Phillips, and Raymond felt a slow chill
beginning to build in his stomach.
“Major Vale… you, Positron, and St. John will deal with Hro’Dtohz. I will deal with his
soldiers.”
All three men gave her astounded looks, but only St. John broke discipline enough to protest,
“But… but Doctor, that’s cra-”
“That’s an order, soldier,” Sorina said, her voice colder than ice, and the Vanguard soldier
swallowed hard and then nodded.
“Yes, ma’am.”
As the cold dread continued to fill him, Raymond saw Halley, Carleton, Etienne, and Phillips
approach Sorina and each hand her something. Each time, she nodded, then she placed whatever
it was they had given her into one of the pouches on her web harness.
“You have two minutes to get in place,” she told them, and they nodded. “When I give the
signal, we’ll attack Hro’Dtohz and his soldiers, while you four will blow up the generators
simultaneously.” Her voice dropped until it was barely audible. “I pust’ Bog pomozhet nam
vsem.”
*****
Moving the group back and just out of sight of the portal chamber, Sorina nodded to Etienne and
Phillips, who raised their staves and softly began muttering under their breath. Then they pointed
their staves at Carleton and Halley, who each slowly faded from sight, and then they pointed
them at each other and disappeared. While Raymond’s scanners could still faintly detect them by
their body heat and their magical auras, he knew that without his armor, he’d have been hard-
pressed to spot them.
As they vanished, Sorina nodded, lifting one hand to activate her heads-up display, and
Raymond briefly heard their footsteps as they advanced into the portal chamber. His scanners
locked on the four saboteurs, he tracked their slow, cautious movements. Etienne and Halley
took the left, while Carleton and Phillips took the right. Looking back at Sorina, he saw a timer
counting down on the holographic display, ticking away the seconds before she would give them
the command to take out the generators.
90… 89… 88…
The icy dread inside Raymond, however, refused to go away, a chilling doubt that he was
missing something, something terrible. But what was it, he wondered. What could he and Sorina
have missed?
63… 62… 61…
The two teams had now reached the first set of generators, and one of each pair remained behind,
while the other carefully headed toward the second set of generators on the far side of the
chamber.
It’s a sound plan… taking out all four generators at once will immediately start the power-down
sequence of the portal itself, and with Hro’Dtohz and his troops tied up fighting us, there’d be no
one available to spare to try and fix the generators, he thought. And once Sorina teleports the
other four back to us, we’ll be…
31… 30… 29…
The other two saboteurs were closing in on the second set of generators, and so far the Rikti still
seemed unaware of their presence.
Raymond’s breath caught in his throat as the icy feeling intensified. Once Sorina teleports
them…
20… 19… 18…
Sorina…
10… 9… 8…
Then the truth hit him like an out-of-control freight train as he whipped around to stare at Sorina,
who along with Vale and St. John, was staring intently into the portal chamber, her eyes fixed on
Hro’Dtohz.
But Sorina’s teleportation powers don’t work!
As if reading his thoughts, Sorina turned to look him directly in the eyes.
And hanging between them, just in front of her face, was the holographic display.
7… 6… 5…
Paralyzed in horror, screaming soundlessly inside his head, Raymond couldn’t even move in
futile denial of what was about to happen.
4… 3… 2… 1…
Chapter Forty­One 
THE WRATH OF WAR
As the countdown reached zero, Raymond saw Sorina straighten her shoulders, her entire body
tensed for action, even as he saw her mouth tremble with the emotion she fought so hard to
repress.
“Zero.”
In unison, four deafening explosions rocked the portal chamber, the power generators detonating
in a roar of flames, catching the Rikti guards completely by surprise. Several of them were killed
in the blasts, while those remaining were badly injured by the flames and shrapnel. The four
glowing lines of power that had streamed from the generators to the dimensional portal winked
out, the glow from the portal itself immediately dimmed, and alarms began blaring throughout
the entire underground complex.
In an instant, the Rikti forces were thrown into complete disarray, and Hro’Dtohz whirled
around, lifting his massive gunblade and shouting orders across the portal chamber.
“Generators: sabotaged! Those responsible: seek and kill! Destroy: opposition! Mercy:
none!”
But even as the patrols that had been scattered across the chamber swarmed toward the smoking
generators, Sorina sprang forward, followed instantly by Vale and St. John, charging directly
toward Hro’Dtohz while his attention was elsewhere.
Raymond remained where he was, however, his armor’s scanners frantically searching for the
four saboteurs, hoping against hope that they would be able to get away.
Where are they? If they can just get away from the generators without the Rikti realizing where
they are, they can head back here and at least help us face down Hro’Dtohz…
He took a step toward the nearest generator, hoping against hope that he could still reach one of
them, save even one of them-
“POSITRON!”
Major Vale’s cry wrenched his attention back to the three who were preparing to confront
Hro’Dtohz, and he belatedly remembered where he was and what he was supposed to be doing.
Snarling in frustrated helplessness, he charged after Sorina and the others, his armor powering up
for combat.
At the major’s shout, however, Hro’Dtohz and his platoons turned and saw the four heroes
bearing down on them, and he leveled his weapon at them.
“Annihilation: commences! Your efforts: futile. Our victory: assured!”
“Don’t count on it,” Sorina growled, as Raymond, St. John, and Vale began blasting away at
Hro’Dtohz.
For once, Raymond had no earthly idea what she was planning to do. The last time they had
fought twenty Rikti at the same time had been at the entrance to the Rikti complex, but then they
had been eight, and had still gotten pounded. Now they were four, and outnumbered five to one,
with the Rikti being led by their greatest warrior. Swallowing the sickening sense of despair,
Raymond refocused his mind on the task at hand.
As Hro’Dtohz howled in rage and sent his platoons charging at them, Sorina lifted her hands
above her head, and with a loud hum and a flash of reddish-gold energy, her gravitational
anomaly appeared in the midst of the Rikti soldiers. It abruptly flared, convulsing gravity around
itself to send nearly a dozen Rikti soldiers hurtling backward as its repulsion field engaged.
Hro’Dtohz raised his blade in frustration and swiped at the Singularity, but it flared again, and
while unable to quite lift the massive Rikti off the floor, it was able to temporarily rock him
backward, throwing him off balance.
“Vanguard warrior: destroy!”
Realizing that Sorina’s Singularity now made her the most dangerous of the four, Raymond
shouted in fury, lifted his hands over his head, and focused a tremendous amount of anti-matter
between his hands until it blazed so brightly it almost hurt to look at it. Then he hurled the anti-
matter straight at Hro’Dtohz and the Rikti, who had just barely managed to get to their feet, and
sent all of them save Hro’Dtohz flying.
Then he saw Hro’Dtohz turn and look at him, and he would have sworn that somehow, the big
Rikti had recognized him.
“Designation: Positron. Power: formidable. Changing: attack priority. Ignore: Vanguard
woman. Destroy: him!”
The Rikti platoons reformed and charged straight at the Vanguard team, and Raymond turned his
attention to them, but Sorina waved him away with a shout.
“NYET!”
She lifted her gauntlets and pointed straight at the twenty Rikti surrounding the Lord of War.
“I said I’ll deal with them! ALL of them!”
“ARE YOU INSANE?!” he bellowed, even as he fired blast after blast at Hro’Dtohz.
“I GAVE YOU AN ORDER, DAMN YOU!” she screamed back.
Then Sorina closed her hands into fists, pulled her hands back slightly, and then made an abrupt
shoving motion as her fingers opened wide.
The Rikti platoons got only a single step forward when they all froze in their tracks, and seemed
to fade to near intangibility. It was obvious that they were completely baffled as to what was
happening to them.
Only Hro’Dtohz seemed unaffected, but even he stopped in surprise and looked at his troops
around him.
“Power: dimensional shifting. Skill: impressive. Challenge: more interesting now!”
*****
But Raymond and the others only paused for an instant before resuming their assault. Firing
again and again, and now no longer blocked by the Lord of War’s other troops, they concentrated
their fire on Hro’Dtohz, who roared in response and charged to meet them in combat.
More heavily armored than either Vale or St. John, Raymond stepped between Hro’Dtohz and
the Vanguard soldiers just as the Rikti swung his gunblade, and deflected it off his armor with a
resounding clang. But the sheer momentum of the blow nearly knocked him down, and for a split
second he wondered if his armor’s integrity would hold. Reacting instinctively, he adjusted his
armor’s nanomachine healing field to surround Hro’Dtohz.
For a moment, the Rikti warrior seemed to convulse, and then his movements were abruptly
slower, less coordinated, and he seemed to be struggling to lift his gunblade. Behind his helmet,
Raymond smiled - ever since he’d learned that Rikti were partially cybernetic in addition to their
armor, he’d made adjustments to his armor’s own features to be able to counter their cyber-
enhanced metabolic systems. Now Hro’Dtohz would be hampered by his heavy armor, at least
until the effect wore off.
Hro’Dtohz staggered a step backward, using both hands to lift his gunblade and point it at
Raymond.
“Surprised observation: tactical thinking. Reputation: deserved. Same mistake: not twice.”
This time he fired a powerful plasma blast at Raymond, blasting him clear off his feet and
sending him crashing to the floor. The hero gasped in pain as his armor reacted to minimize the
impact, dispersing the kinetic force of the plasma bolt across his entire body rather than allowing
it to punch through.
But in focusing his attention on Raymond, he’d neglected to notice St. John and Vale firing away
at him, and taking advantage of his hampered reflexes, the two became more aggressive in their
attacks. With St. John laying down cover fire, Major Vale pulled a frag grenade from his web
harness and tossed it at Hro’Dtohz. As it exploded, it tore through the big Rikti’s armor, and
Hro’Dtohz roared in rage and pain. He swung around to attack the major, but Raymond was once
again on his feet and blasting away at the Rikti.
Even in the midst of the battle, though, Raymond kept one eye on the Rikti platoons, waiting for
whatever effect was holding them at bay to wear off, but as long as Sorina kept her arms held in
front of her, as though pushing them back, the Rikti could not advance.
However, he could see that her arms were starting to tremble from the effort of keeping the Rikti
phased out of reality, and he wondered how long she could sustain her effort.
Then his attention was caught by Sorina’s horrified shout, and he turned to see the Rikti
dimensional portal suddenly begin to brighten and a rumbling hum filled the chamber. But with
the generators still lying in smoldering ruins…
“Reinforcements!” he shouted, and Major Vale and St. John also both turned to look.
“Something is activating the portal from the other side!”
Hro’Dtohz’s voice boomed, “Reinforcement arrival: imminent! Your deaths: certain!”
Taking a dangerous risk, he had his armor scan Sorina’s gauntlets, trying to find whatever
program she was using to hold back the Rikti, but she had sensibly added several precautionary
firewalls in her gauntlets’ computers. Come on, come on…
He saw her eyes widen, and he realized he must have triggered some sort of anti-hacking
detection program. For a split second she took her eyes off the Rikti to look at him, and then
suddenly his internal displays began scrolling information past his eyes.
Unreal… he thought in admiration. She had reverse-engineered one of Portal Corporation’s
dimensional stabilizers to phase an individual into another dimension, rather than anchoring him.
However, whether by inability or by design, the program was not capable of forcing an
individual into another dimension entirely, only trapping him between them. But the routine
could only run as long as Sorina focused her concentration on it…
Initiating a series of random attack patterns through his armor with Hro’Dtohz as the target,
Raymond feverishly worked to rewrite Sorina’s program. If she could then divert her attention
away from the platoons, she might be able to take down the dimensional portal, or at least stall
the reinforcements coming through until the portal’s power reserve was exhausted. But if he
made so much as a single mistake, it would render her program useless.
Duration of program… if it goes too long it could drain all her energy, so limit it to 45 seconds,
that should be enough… but it’ll have to reboot that program afterward to recalculate a new set
of dimensional coordinates… damn it, that’ll take a full minute, she might not be able to hit them
with the same trick twice… but we don’t have any choice… Oh, please, God, please let this
work…
And all the while, he was all too aware of the increasing brightness of the dimensional portal.
Then his internal sensors flashed, and with a silent prayer, he sent the new program to Sorina’s
gauntlets. For a second, the glow of her gauntlets dimmed, and horror filled him at the thought
he’d gotten it wrong, but then they brightened once more, and Raymond laughed aloud.
“Sorina, you’ve got 45 seconds! GO!”
Making the shoving gesture once more, she kept the Rikti platoons phased out, and then she
turned and dashed toward the portal.
Hro’Dtohz turned as well and slashed at her with his gunblade as she raced past him, but
Raymond gave a yell of rage and hit him with an EM pulse, causing a massive overload in the
big Rikti’s cybernetic systems and throwing him off balance. But while his attack almost
certainly saved Sorina’s life, it had left his primary energy cells almost completely drained. Then
he felt his armor’s backup power cells engage, and was heartily grateful for all the effort he and
Sorina had put into redesigning them to accommodate a much greater power supply.
Sorina skidded to a halt in front of the portal, but paused for just an instant, and even with her
back to him, Raymond sensed something was wrong. Then he saw her square her shoulders, and
she lifted both of her hands to point at the dimensional portal, which was now glowing brightly.
In the center of the portal appeared a conflux of energy so bright it almost hurt to look at it, but at
its center was darkness, a hole from which inky nothingness spiraled outward. The energy of the
dimensional portal seemed to falter as the conflux appeared, and howling winds surrounded them
both, swirling madly while Sorina stood alone in the heart of the chaos.
The dimensional portal shuddered and cracked under the force of Sorina’s gravitational
distortion field, and Sorina was herself shaking from the effort of trying to tear the portal apart,
but she wouldn’t give up. Turning around, she kept one hand pointed at the portal, and pointed
the other at Hro’Dtohz. Even as she battered at the dimensional portal, she siphoned some of its
energy and then focused it on Hro’Dtohz, and blue-white energy blazed from her hand to slam
into the Rikti’s back. Snarling, Hro’Dtohz turned to face her, but Raymond, Vale, and St. John
continued to pound on him, and soon Hro’Dtohz was staggering to his knees.
“Defeat: impossible… Your victory: denied… Our reinforcements: arrive!”
“NO!” Sorina screamed, summoning every last ounce of energy from within herself that she
could, but it was too late, as the energy within the portal coalesced, and she was hurled backward
with such force that she slammed into the wall behind Raymond and the others.
Then the dimensional portal flared, and tendrils of energy gathered and focused from the center
of the ring to all points along the ring, and in the center of the portal, the light began to take
shape.
Chapter Forty­Two 
COMES THE DESTROYER
Ignoring Hro’Dtohz, who had fallen to his knees and was only weakly attempting to fight back
against Major Vale and St. John, Raymond sprinted over to where Sorina was slumped against
the chamber wall. In an instant, his armor had scanned her body and assessed that she had
sustained a couple of cracked ribs and what he suspected was a concussion from her hitting the
wall, but she was already struggling to her feet.
“Are you all right?” he asked, pulling her to her feet, his voice tense with concern, and she
dazedly nodded.
“D-Da. The portal…” They both turned and looked at it, and saw the brilliant glow at the center
of the portal coalesce into one, then two, then five distinct shapes. Then the bright light of the
dimensional portal went out completely as the portal’s backup power supply finally exhausted
itself.
Raymond’s attention, however, was wholly focused on what had come through.
Five Rikti stood there in front of the now-inactive portal, gazing around them in surprising
indifference. Minimally armored compared to the other Rikti, these five were almost slender, and
one of them stood slightly taller than the rest. But what had Raymond staring in disbelief was
that the leader was carrying what he would swear was a double-bladed scythe, and wearing
armor that had stylized sigils engraved upon it.
Impossible, he thought.
Then Hro’Dtohz’s voice cut across his thoughts and he glanced over at the big Rikti soldier, who
had staggered to his feet, ignoring the two Vanguard soldiers and focusing on the five Rikti by
the portal.
“Av’Adn,” he spat. “Query: reinforcements! Explanation: demanded!”
At the term ‘Av’Adn,’ Raymond frowned. Was that the name of the Rikti with the scythe? Or a
term referring to… whatever they were? Looking over at Sorina, he saw that she was just as
puzzled as he.
St. John and Vale glanced at one another, then carefully backed away from Hro’Dtohz, sensing
that something was amiss but not at all sure about what it was. Neither Hro’Dtohz nor the new
arrivals paid them any heed. Instead, the leader of the arrivals turned to look at Hro’Dtohz, while
the other four went on studying the portal chamber, looking around them with calculating
interest.
“Your position: not one for demands,” the leader stated matter-of-factly.
Hro’Dtohz snarled and pointed his enormous gunblade at the other Rikti. “Your existence:
abomination among Rikti! Your status: nothing!”
If a Rikti’s face could be said to adopt a human expression, Raymond would have said that the
leader was actually smirking. “Yours: no better. Defeated: by humans. Pathetic.”
Before Hro’Dtohz could reply, however, the twenty Rikti that Sorina had dimensionally
displaced faded back into reality. At first they brought their weapons around to target the
Vanguard soldiers until they saw the newest arrivals by the portal. Then all of them looked to
Hro’Dtohz for orders, and Raymond guessed that with the arrival of the newcomers, and
Hro’Dtohz’s surprisingly vehement reaction, that they were unsure as to whom to target next.
“What’s going on?” he heard Major Vale whisper, and he glanced over at the major and the
others, who looked just as puzzled as he felt.
“I don’t know,” St. John replied softly. “But Hro’Dtohz is obviously angry about something.”
“And I’ve no idea who those Rikti are,” Sorina added, her voice barely louder than a breath to
avoid drawing attention to them. “I’ve never seen a Rikti wielding a weapon like that, though.
And look at his armor - no Rikti uses designs like that.” She lifted one hand to her goggles,
activating her heads-up display, and Raymond realized she was scanning the new arrivals, and
soon he was doing the same. Even if they couldn’t make sense of the data, perhaps the scientists
or higher-ups back at Vanguard HQ might have some idea.
Hro’Dtohz, however, ignored the Vanguard team, and pointed his gunblade once again at the
new arrivals. “Destroy: abominations! Polluting: Rikti ideals! Kill: Av’Adn!”
Sorina glanced at Raymond, her face showing her confusion. Polluting? she mouthed.
But as the two Rikti platoons levelled their weapons at the five who had come through the portal,
four of the new arrivals pointed at them.
And before the Vanguard team had even a moment to take in what they were seeing, a maelstrom
erupted in the midst of the twenty Rikti soldiers, a howling storm of fire and ice and wind and
dust. Caught completely flatfooted, the Rikti soldiers quickly found themselves engulfed in f
lame, impaled by stone spires erupting from the ground, frozen in solid blocks of ice, and
battered by bolts of lightning. The soldiers were fighting back, struggling to free themselves
from the abrupt elemental onslaught, firing as they could at the four who were attacking them,
but their resistance was almost a futile endeavour, and in less than a minute, all twenty Rikti
soldiers had been mercilessly wiped out.
Raymond, Sorina, St. John, and Vale stared open-mouthed at the massacre. Completely
speechless at what they had witnessed, all they could do was look at one another in horrified
amazement.
“That’s… impossible…” Sorina whispered at last. “They’re… they’re using magic.”
“But we know that some of the Rikti have been using magic stolen from the Circle of Thorns,”
Vale protested, even as he stared in disbelief.
“That’s not Thorns magic,” Raymond said grimly, his attention drawn to his internal sensor s
display, which he’d triggered to scan the Rikti the instant they had attacked. “I don’t know what
that was, but that was not the energy used by the Circle.”
“You’re sure?” St. John asked softly, and Raymond nodded. Ever since the Phalanx’s run-in with
the Circle of Thorns back when they had tried to summon a demon from the depths of Hell into
Paragon City, he’d made it a point of studying their powers. It had mostly been to devise a means
of protection against their spells, since the Freedom Phalanx had nearly been destroyed when
they’d found themselves trapped in their own worst nightmares. But now, as he studied the four
Rikti, he nodded once again.
“I’m sure.”
Two things, however, worried him. The first was that their leader had not also attacked
Hro’Dtohz’s platoons, but had instead simply stood by and watched, as though attacking the
Rikti soldiers were beneath his notice. The second was that none of them had attacked
Hro’Dtohz himself.
The Lord of War, however, had remained absolutely still while his platoons were wiped out by
the new arrivals, staring coldly at the five Rikti in front of the portal, even as they all turned to
face him.
“Query: coward?” he said at last. “Hiding: behind inferiors. Mages. Magic. Lack: true
courage?”
The other Rikti pointed his scythe at Hro’Dtohz, and the sigils on his armor seemed to gleam
even in the dull light of the portal chamber. “War: all you know. Then battle: will decide. You
succeed: keep Earth. You fail: we rule.”
Just then a volley of shots struck the five Rikti mages by the portal, startling everyone present,
and Raymond and the others turned to see the remains of the Rikti patrols and the platoons
guarding the generators. There were maybe eleven in all, all of them looking worse for wear after
dealing with the four Vanguard saboteurs, but they were still ready to fight.
The four mages who had attacked earlier raised their hands once again, but their leader’s voice
stopped them.
“Leave: four. Kill: the rest.”
In a handful of moments, only four of the eleven soldiers were still on their feet, and they were
encased in ice, unable to move.
The mages’ leader then turned to Hro’Dtohz. “I: have four. You: have four. They: witnesses.
Victor: takes all.”
The Vanguard team held their breath, waiting to see what Hro’Dtohz would do.
Then, slowly, the big Rikti nodded. “Proposition: accepted.”
*****
“You have got to be kidding,” Raymond whispered as Hro’Dtohz ordered his small forces to one
side, instructing them to remain out of the way, while the leader of the mages did the same.
“They’re going to duel… for control of the Rikti forces on Earth…”
“I’m not sure who I’d want to win,” Vale murmured, his face pale. “Hro’Dtohz may be a military
genius, but he’s at least a known variable. This newcomer… Av’Adn, or whatever he calls
himself… could change things drastically.”
“Especially if he’s a mage as well,” Sorina said softly, her gaze intent on the Rikti with the
scythe. “I have the terrible feeling that this is going to become ugly.” She turned her head to look
at Raymond. “Just how good are your armor’s scanners?”
“I designed them myself… what does that tell you?” Even as bleak as things appeared, he
couldn’t resist the humorous remark, and was rewarded by her faint grin.
“Can it scan a being’s DNA?”
He frowned behind his helmet as he looked at the Rikti. “Without a sample? No. I’d need some
biological sample from the subject.” As he looked at her, he wondered what she was thinking.
“You want to try and get a sample from the newcomers?”
“I want to know how it is they can wield magic, if they’re no t using the Circle’s powers,” she
said slowly.
“Always knowledge first,” he sighed. “Well, maybe we’ll get lucky… then again, the rate things
have been going, I doubt it.”
“Dr. Tavarisch, now might be a good time for us to move for the portal,” Vale suggested. “If the
Rikti are busy fighting each other, we can try to destroy it once and for all. The generators may
be destroyed, but the portal itself still exists.”
Sorina hesitated, then shook her head. “Nyet… we don’t have the invisibility advantage that…
that the others had. At the very least, we should wait until they begin fighting.”
She swallowed hard. “And… after seeing their powers… we wouldn’t stand a chance against
those mages.”
Sorina’s words, however, triggered another series of thoughts in Raymond’s mind, and he turned
his attention away from the Rikti to sweep the rest of the portal chamber.
Noticing his attention shift, Sorina hissed, “What’s wrong?”
Instead of replying, he focused his scanners on searching the chamber, hoping against hope that
he might find the energy signatures of any of the saboteur team. If there was the slightest chance
that one of them might have survived… even one of them to help them battle the Rikti…
… but there was nothing.
Gritting his teeth, he scanned again, whispering prayers to any deity that might be listening. Just
one… even if it’s just one… he pleaded silently, checking each generator location. Let even one
of them have escaped the Rikti’s notice-
Then he went absolutely still, his eyes widening behind his helmet.
“Oh God…” he whispered. Blinking his eyes to clear them, he looked again. “Phillips… she’s
still alive!”
Sorina, Vale, and St. John all turned to him in astonishment. “What?!”
Redirecting some of his armor’s power to his scanner system, he focused on the farthest corner
of the chamber, where he’d thought he had detected the mage’s energy signal. Sure enough, there
she was, flattened against the wall, as far out of range of the Rikti as she could get.
“She’s alive,” he repeated.
Sorina, however, looked more dismayed than ever. “For now,” she murmured, closing her eyes.
Sensing Raymond looking over at her in surprise, she opened her eyes and met his gaze directly.
“That invisibility spell of hers can’t last forever. If she can’t get here before it fades…”
“But you can just-” Raymond began until he belatedly remembered where they were and what
had happened to Sorina’s powers. Turning away, he cautiously activated his communications
system. “Positron to Phillips. Do you copy?”
Silence rang in his ears as he waited desperately for an answer. “Positron to Phillips, do you
copy? Please respond!”
Finally, a faint rasp came back. “I copy, sir,” came Phillips’ voice, ominously weak.
“Thank God. How long until that spell of yours wears off?”
“Not long enough,” Phillips replied, her voice fading briefly, then strengthening again. “Listen…
to me. That Rikti… with the scythe… Something about him… his magic is… I don’t know. It’s
just…”
“We know it’s not Circle magic,” he told her, his eyes moving back and forth from the scythe-
wielding Rikti to where Phillips was slowly creeping along the wall. “We don’t know what it is,
though…” Then he realized she was moving farther away. “Phillips, what are you doing?”
“You need… to destroy that portal. I’ll be… your distraction. Mages… always target… other
mages first.” Raymond heard her give a faint, rasping laugh. “It’ll be… just enough time…”
“Phillips, don’t do this!”
“Sir… I’m…” Her voice trailed off. “I’m… bleeding pretty bad. Caught shrapnel and… I can
barely feel my right arm or leg.”
Behind his helmet, Raymond closed his eyes in despair. This can’t be happening… for her to
survive the initial attack only to die like this…
Then he heard Sorina’s voice. “Phillips… wait as long as you can. If Hro’Dtohz defeats this
other Rikti, we can still take him. He’s wounded and exhausted already, and we nearly had him
before. But… if this Av’Adn defeats him…”
“I understand… Doctor. Phillips… out.”
“Will she survive that long?” Vale asked softly, looking over at them, but Sorina could only lift
her shoulders helplessly as Hro’Dtohz and Av’Adn moved to the center of the walkway,
stopping about ten feet apart from one another, while their escorts stood and watched, weapons
at the ready.
“It’s in fate’s hands now. All we can do is watch… and pray.”
Chapter Forty­Three 
MIGHT VS MAGIC
“Something tells me this is not going to go well,” Raymond murmured, watching the two Rikti
squaring off on the walkway. Av’Adn seemed calm, almost as though the proceedings were not
worth his notice, but Hro’Dtohz still looked ravaged after his battle with the Vanguard team.
Nonetheless, he stood defiantly before the Rikti mage, his massive gunblade at the ready, glaring
at Av’Adn. “Hro’Dtohz is already been beaten within an inch of his life… Av’Adan has a clear
advantage.”
“That depends on whether Av’Adn intends to play fair,” Vale replied. “At least one of
Hro’Dtohz’s surviving troops is a Guardian, maybe he’ll let him heal Hro’Dtohz before the duel
starts.”
“Not to mention it would be a tremendous psychological advantage,” Sorina added softly. “To
imply that your opponent can only beat you at full health, and that you still don’t expect him to
win? That’d be a significant insult, especially to one like Hro’Dtohz.”
Sure enough, they saw Av’Adn look Hro’Dtohz up and down, then nod to the Guardian,
gesturing him toward Hro’Dtohz with an almost contemptuous toss of the head. The Guardian
looked ready to attack anyway, but seemed to reconsider it and extended his arms toward the
Lord of War, and the big Rikti was suffused in a pale green glow, his wounds closing as the
Vanguard team watched.
“So much for that advantage,” St. John groaned quietly. “And to think, we almost had him.”
“We may still get that chance,” Raymond reminded him. “If Av’Adn’s even comparable to those
mages of his, this battle is going to get ugly.”
Then he glanced over and saw that Major Vale was engaged in a quiet conference with Sorina,
nodding intently at whatever it was she was saying. The major then swallowed hard, but
straightened into a barely perceptible salute, then moved away to stand beside St. John.
“If you’d excuse us for a moment, sir,” the major said softly, and although confused, Raymond
stepped to Sorina’s side, leaving the two Vanguard soldiers alone.
“Is something wrong?” he murmured to Sorina, but she shook her head as she stared intently at
the inactive portal.
“Nyet… I’m fine.”
By now, however, Raymond had gotten adept enough at reading Sorina’s moods to know when
she was lying, but before he could press her about the matter, Major Vale spoke.
“You know… once they start, we should be able to get to the portal without too much worry…
the Rikti with Hro’Dtohz and Av’Adn wouldn’t dare disrupt their fight to tell them about us, nor
can they leave their posts since they’re there as witnesses.”
“You sure about that?” Raymond asked. “That’s one hell of a gamble.”
“Maybe so, sir, but we don’t have much choice.”
Behind his helmet, Raymond grimaced, as he knew the major was right. Then he felt and saw
Sorina’s body tense.
“They’re going to start,” she whispered. “Get ready. When they begin, start moving toward
Phillips’ location, but be as careful as you can.”
Out on the walkway, now fully healed, Hro’Dtohz nodded to the Guardian, who bowed his head
in respect and then stepped back to join the others.
“Ready,” Hro’Dtohz rumbled.
“Ready,” Av’Adn replied.
Then at the same instant, the two Rikti struck.
*****
The team, however, had barely taken a single step when suddenly it seemed that the entire portal
chamber dimmed, and Raymond looked over in astonishment to see that darkness seemed to
swirl around Av’Adn. Hro’Dtohz, however, only slowed for a moment before swinging his
massive gunblade at the other Rikti, which Av’Adn only barely managed to avoid. Bracing
himself, Av’Adn leaned forward, his attention focused on the big Rikti, and Raymond wondered
what he was doing…
… when suddenly an absolute, mind-numbing terror swept through him, paralyzing him where
he stood. Every nightmare, every fear, every whisper of dread he’d ever felt in his soul engulfed
him until he was nearly screaming inside of his armor, cold sweat pouring off him as his
heartrate skyrocketed.
He was only dimly aware of the moans of fear coming from the others, which meant they were in
the same state, and sinking his teeth into his lower lip so hard that he drew blood to keep from
actually screaming, he fought to regain control.
No… no… I won’t… give in… to this…
It took every ounce of his concentration to lift his foot and take a single, controlled, cautious step
backward, away from the two Rikti. Then another. And then another. Trying to block out the
howls of terror deafening him inside his own mind, he reached out to catch Vale and St. John by
their wrists, and slowly pulled them backward along with him until he backed into Sorina. Step
by step, pulling them and pushing her, Raymond moved them away until suddenly they were free
of whatever magically induced fear had crippled them.
The four collapsed against the wall, gasping for air, their hearts hammering wildly.
“What in the name of God was that?!” Major Vale whispered.
“I don’t know, but I sure as hell don’t want to go through it again,” Raymond rasped, feeling his
armor attempting to compensate for his spiking lifesigns. “And I don’t think it was meant for
us.”
“What do you mean?” St. John asked, but Sorina answered instead.
“Because Hro’Dtohz was affected as well.” She ran her hands over her face, trying to regain her
own composure. “Prokljat’e. It must work on some sort of line of sight, so we need to get behind
Av’Adn.”
“Assuming he doesn’t move,” Raymond said, his heartrate finally settling down after several
seconds of deep breathing. “And I don’t think that’s the only trick up his sleeve… look at them.”
The other three turned to watch as darkness spiraled from Av’Adn’s outstretched hand, swirled
around Hro’Dtohz’s feet, and then black tentacles extended up out of the ground to flail at the
Lord of War. But while Hro’Dtohz swiped at the tentacles, a brilliant blue-white light exploded
from Av’Adn’s staff to strike the big Rikti, nearly knocking him off his feet.
“Light and darkness,” Sorina murmured. “And those other four mages were using the classical
elements of fire, earth, wind, and water… something is very wrong here.”
Moving as quickly as they dared, the Vanguard team backed away along the walkway that
surrounded the chamber, following the walls and keeping to the shadows, a much easier task
since Av’Adn had cast whatever spell it was that had dimmed the entire chamber. Once out of
earshot, they quickened their pace, nearly sprinting to try and reach Phillips before any of the
Rikti spotted them.
With Major Vale in the lead, then Sorina and Raymond, then St. John following, every moment
was agonizing in that they were moving farther and farther away from the only way out of the
chamber. If they were seen, even without the Rikti calling for reinforcements, they’d be trapped.
Luck, however, was only marginally on their side, for while they managed to avoid being seen,
occasional stray shots from the duelling Rikti would streak across the chamber, nearly striking
them by random chance. And as Raymond glanced over his shoulder at the two combatants, it
was abundantly clear that neither one was holding back. The walkway beneath the two Rikti was
visibly shaking and cracking from the energy that Av’Adn was wielding, and as he watched,
Hro’Dtohz gave a mighty roar and brought the gunblade down with such force that he pounded
Av’Adn through the walkway and into the water that covered most of the chamber floor.
“Who’s winning?” Sorina gasped as they ran.
“Hard to say,” Raymond replied, just as Av’Adn gave a roar of his own and swept his scythe
around, nearly decapitating Hro’Dtohz. Sending the retinal-command to his scanners, he zoomed
in on the two Rikti. “They both look pretty messed up at this point. Hro’Dtohz looks like he’s
been hit by a truck, got a couple really deep gashes on him, too. Av’Adn’s about the same, but he
seems to be favoring his left arm… Hro’Dtohz may have broken it or something.”
There was a flare of searing white light and Raymond instinctively closed his eyes, even as his
helmet adjusted for the unexpected flash. Opening his eyes again, he saw Hro’Dtohz go
staggering backward, howling in pain and half-blindly firing at Av’Adn, preventing the mage
Rikti from pressing the attack.
*****
“Positron, Doctor, can either of you spot Phillips?” Major Vale called out hoarsely, and turning
to look along the back wall, Raymond’s scanners detected the Vanguard mage huddled at the
base of the column.
“Yes, she’s at the base of that column thing. She should be out of sight of those Rikti back
there…”
Scrambling out of the water and back onto solid ground, Raymond and the others moved behind
the stone pillar, with Raymond directing the others so that they wouldn’t trip over Phillips.
“Phillips?” Major Vale asked, kneeling down and directing his question at the area that Raymond
indicated.
Then the invisibility spell with which she’d surrounded herself finally wore off, and the
Vanguard team saw her half-sitting, half-slumped against the column, her helmet off, her staff
held in a weak grip at her side, and blood everywhere.
Sorina paled, but quickly knelt down and began doing what she could to bind the other woman’s
wounds. Raymond then moved forward, intending to use his nano-healing field, but Phillips
weakly waved him back.
“Don’t, sir… save your energy…”
His scanners ruthlessly cataloguing her injuries, Raymond angrily shook his head. “Phillips, if I
don’t heal you right now, you’re going to die.”
“And if… you heal me… we’re all going to die,” she whispered faintly. “Those Rikti… are too
powerful.”
As if in response to her words, a explosion shook the portal chamber, sending dust and smoke
swirling in every direction.
“Please, sir… I’m not… strong enough… to destroy the portal… by myself. We’re running…
out of time… please… help me stand.”
Major Vale pulled Phillips to her feet, and Raymond saw how much effort it took her to keep
from crying out in pain, but she leaned on her staff and turned with the others to face the portal.
Sorina unholstered the Crey pistol at her waist and straightened her shoulders, while Phillips got
a fresh grip on her staff, St. John and Vale doing the same with their rifles.
“This is it,” Sorina said after a moment. “We are taking that portal down. Major, you and St.
John will keep your eyes on those Rikti, in case they break off to attack us, while Phillips,
Positron, and I destroy that portal. If any gods are smiling on us, that might be enough to knock
out the teleportation exclusion field, and Vanguard can recall us back to base. If not…” She
didn’t finish the sentence, but Raymond knew what was left unsaid.
Then Sorina gave the major and St. John each a look, and they both nodded to her, and they set
off first, with Sorina helping Phillips walk, and Raymond on Sorina’s other side.
Hidden from the Rikti by the beams that held up the walkways, the five of them advanced toward
the portal, and Raymond heard Phillips muttering to herself. He couldn’t quite make out what
she was saying, but he gathered it was something arcane, because he could see her staff slowly
begin to glow with power.
“You two… stay here.”
Raymond and Sorina stopped and glanced at Phillips, who let go of Sorina and swayed on her
feet, but remained standing.
“I can’t… have you… too close to me… when this goes off.”
“Phillips,” Raymond began, but she shook her head.
“It’s… been… an honor… sir.” Slowly, painfully, Phillips drew herself up and saluted, then
began shuffling weakly toward the portal. Raymond moved to follow her, but Sorina held him
back.
“Nyet. Let her go.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but despite the sick feeling in his heart, he knew that she was
right. So instead, he reached out and took Sorina’s hand in his, holding her tightly and watching
Phillips’ slow progress toward the portal.
“She’ll attack first, drawing their attention, then we attack as well.”
There was so much more he wanted to say, but all he did was nod. “Understood.”
Until he realized that St. John and Major Vale had moved much closer to the Rikti than they’d
planned.
“What are they-”
Before he could finish the sentence, Phillips lifted her staff, and green lightning exploded around
it, crackling and sparking brightly in the dimness of the portal chamber.
“FOR VANGUARD!” she cried, and levelled the staff straight at the portal, and tremendous
bolts of green lightning blazed from her staff straight at the portal. As they slammed into the
portal’s structure, circuitry exploded into flame, and the entire portal ring cracked.
It wasn’t enough to destroy it, so Phillips lifted her staff again. But before she could strike,
Av’Adn, Hro’Dtohz, and the eight other Rikti turned.
“You dare: interfere,” Av’Adn hissed, but Phillips, however, howled in defiance and pointed
the staff at the portal once more, and runes seemed to spiral up from the ground to circle her
body, then travel down the staff. Then another volley of green lightning struck the portal, racing
along the ring until it was wreathed in electricity.
“KILL: HER!” Hro’Dtohz shouted. “OBLITERATE: THAT HUMAN!”
He, Av’Adn, and the Rikti opened fire, even as Phillips rallied herself for a third attack. Wave
after wave struck the Vanguard mage - fire, lightning, plasma bolts, and other attacks coming too
fast for Raymond to see.
Then he could barely see anything at all through his tears as Phillips’ body virtually disintegrated
from the force of the Rikti’s attacks.
But the portal still stood, although now seriously damaged, and Sorina and Raymond now
opened fire on the portal as well, Raymond’s anti-matter blasts followed immediately by a
searingly cold cryogenic blast from Sorina’s modified pistol. The entire portal ring shuddered
and fractured, but still didn’t break.
“Hit it again!” Sorina cried, gesturing at the portal and tightening her fingers into a fist, bending
gravity to her will to distort and warp the portal ring even further. Raymond fired a series of
concussive anti-matter blasts, targeted in sequence around the ring to weaken it in key points,
further destabilizing it.
Then Raymond heard Av’Adn howl suddenly, as though in pain, and he glanced over to see that
St. John and Major Vale had closed on the Rikti while they’d been attacking Phillips.
“What the hell are they DOING?!” he shouted over the chaos, when he saw Major Vale draw his
arm back and hurl something, end over end, straight at Sorina. A moment later, the other soldier
did the same, and Sorina stretched out her hand. Telekinetically reaching out, she drew the two
projectiles toward her, catching them in her palms just as Raymond’s blasts blew the portal ring
completely apart.
As debris flew everywhere and flames roared toward the ceiling, Sorina’s head-up display began
scrolling information past her eyes. “The exclusion field is down!” she screamed over the chaos.
“We have to get out of here!”
“Not without the others!” he bellowed, turning to face her, until he saw what she was holding in
her hands.
Vale’s and St. John’s military tags, each one wrapped around a hypo-syringe.
“N-no,” he whispered, realizing what Sorina had told the major earlier. “NO!”
Turning his back on her, he began laying down cover fire, blasting into the group of Rikti to try
and push them back away from the Vanguard soldiers.
“COME ON!” Raymond shouted to them. “THE FIELD IS DOWN, TELEPORT OUT! ST.
JOHN! VALE!”
Major Vale’s voice came over the comm channel. “For… Vanguard…”
Then he felt Sorina’s hand on his shoulder, and immediately his armor’s sensors flared, for she
was triggering his teleportation recall signal.
“Recon team to Vanguard,” she whispered. “Mission accomplished. Returning to base.”
“NO!” Raymond howled, but it was too late, the Rikti were now closing in, the world was
already flaring to white…
Chapter Forty­Four 
THE ASHES OF VICTORY
Raymond’s voice choked off in mid-shout, and whirling around, he saw that he had been
teleported from the Rikti underground base, and was now standing inside the Vanguard’s main
base in the War Zone. Standing beside him, her eyes downcast, was Sorina, absolutely ashen
beneath the grime and blood on her face. As he turned, her hand slipped from his shoulder, but
she didn’t lift her head.
Looking down, Raymond barely managed to hold back a startled yell as he realized that at his
feet lay the bodies of the rest of the team - Vale, St. John, Halley, Carleton, and Etienne. Only
Phillips was missing, and he shuddered when he remembered the Vanguard mage’s body being
blasted apart by Rikti magic and gunfire.
“You have returned.”
At the sound of the Lady Grey’s voice, Raymond glanced over and saw the Vanguard leader
standing in the doorway, flanked by Gaussian and the Dark Watcher.
Her face remained as impassive as ever, even as her eyes moved over Raymond and Sorina, then
over what was left of their team. Then she looked over at Sorina.
“Your report, Dr. Tavarisch.”
“Is that all you have to say?!” Raymond bellowed, his hands clenching into fists. “FIVE
PEOPLE ARE LYING DEAD AT YOUR FEET, DAMN YOU!”
“Control yourself, Positron,” the Dark Watcher said softly, but Raymond ignored him as he
pulled off his helmet, glaring directly into the eyes of the Lady Grey.
“Oh, it’s so easy for you to tell the Phalanx to leave the Rikti to you,” he hissed, all the pent-up
anger and fear and sorrow that was tearing him apart boiling to the surface. “And while you sit
here in your tower, they gave their lives.” He pointed down at their feet.
“Yes, they did,” the Lady Grey said calmly, her eyes locking on his. “And they knew the risks
when they first signed up for Vanguard, long before they volunteered for this mission with you
and Dr. Tavarisch.”
“DON’T YOU EVER CARE?!”
For the first time, he saw a flicker of emotion cross her face but before she could speak, he
turned his back on her to look at Sorina, who still had not moved nor lifted her eyes.
“You didn’t even try to save them,” he whispered, his voice filled with accusation. “I’ve seen
what you can do, you could have held the Rikti back long enough for St. John and Vale to
escape, could have dimensionally displaced them, could have done anything, but you didn’t.
WHY?!”
All Sorina could do was shake her head, mute in the face of his accusation, but he took her by the
shoulders and shook her, trying to make her look at him. Sorina, however, turned her face away,
her eyes still on the floor.
For a moment, none of them spoke, then the silence was broken as several members of the
Vanguard’s medical staff arrived to carefully take custody of the fallen soldiers. Raymond
moved aside to allow them room, but Sorina stayed where she was, almost oblivious to their
activities.
When they were done, Sorina reached into her pack and withdrew a handful of items that
Raymond recognized as military tags. Slowly, haltingly, she began to speak.
“Major Thomas Vale, deceased with honours. Lieutenant David Carleton, deceased with
honours. Captain-”
The Dark Watcher frowned. “Dr. Tavarisch, your report-”
Sorina’s voice, flat and lifeless, cut him off. “Captain Michael St. John, deceased with honors.
Lieutenant Andrew Halley, deceased with honours. Lieutenant Charles Etienne, deceased with
honours. Lieutenant Claire Phillips, deceased with honours.”
Then she pulled out the tags from the fallen reconnaissance team they had found in the tunnels,
but Gaussian raised his hand.
“Enough.”
“I’m not done,” she said quietly, her voice still flat and expressionless, and even as angry as he
was, Raymond couldn’t suppress the shiver that ran down his spine at the emptiness in her voice.
“I was asked by one of Recon Team Sierra Zulu to bring a message to the Lady Grey.”
“A message?” The Lady Grey gave Sorina a measured look. “Very well.”
Sorina still did not lift her head, but continued to stare at the floor. “He said, ‘Tell the Lady Grey
we made her proud.’“
She drew a deep breath, then went on.
“The Rikti… are far more entrenched than you realize. Beneath their ship… they’ve built a huge
underground facility. Big enough to help them keep their foothold here in the War Zone for years
to come, if necessary.”
Still not looking up, she shrugged the pack from her shoulders and held it out, waiting for
someone to take it. After a moment, Gaussian stepped forward.
“Ray… Positron and I also took scans of the portal system, the generators, and the Rikti
communications system. So did most of the team. You’ll also find the scanners from Recon
Team Sierra Zulu. It’s all there.”
“And what are those?” the Dark Watcher asked, pointing to her gauntlet where she still held the
hypo-syringes.
“Bio-samples of the Rikti mages who came through the portal.”
The Lady Grey’s eyes widened in surprise, as did Gaussian and the Dark Watcher’s. “Mages?”
“Yes, my lady.” Sorina’s voice remained empty, her eyes still downcast. “Positron will confirm
that their magic was not the same as those of the Circle of Thorns, like the few mages we have
seen among the ranks of the Rikti. These were… something new.”
Gaussian turned to Raymond. “You’re sure of this?”
Forcing his emotions under control, Raymond nodded. “Yes. After we tangled with the Thorns a
couple of years back, I began studying their magic, trying to understand exactly how it worked.
Whatever these Rikti were using, it wasn’t the same thing. Phillips confirmed it as well, before
her death.”
The Dark Watcher gave them both long looks, then led the way to a private briefing chamber.
Once they were all inside, and a guard posted at the door, he waved Sorina and Raymond to
chairs. “Sit. And start at the beginning.”
Since Sorina had ostensibly been in charge, Raymond let her start, and slowly she explained
everything that had happened from the time of their departure. Occasionally Raymond would
comment as well, clarifying or explaining, while the Lady Grey, Gaussian, and the Dark Watcher
asked them questions. Both Raymond and Sorina were quite familiar with debriefings, and knew
how to give information in a clear, concise manner. Certain details were questioned again and
again, and Raymond began to wonder just how much the leaders had known before sending the
two teams in to investigate matters.
When they got to the subject of the portal, and what had happened there, however, it was clear
that whatever the Lady Grey and the others had expected, news of a new Rikti faction was not on
that list.
“But you’re certain the portal was destroyed?” Gaussian asked, and Raymond and Sorina both
nodded.
“Halley, Carleton, Etienne, and Phillips blew up the generators,” Raymond explained. “They
weren’t just sabotaged - they were blown to pieces. After that, the portal’s energy reserves were
completely drained moments after Av’Adn - that other Rikti leading those four mages - came
through. And when the portal was destroyed, it took down the teleportation exclusion field.
Based on my armor’s scans of the portal’s technology, it seems that the Rikti were blocking
external teleportations as a means of boosting the integrity of dimensional transfers.”
“How long before they could theoretically rebuild it?” the Dark Watcher asked.
“It’s hard to say,” Raymond said slowly. “Four generators of that magnitude, a new portal
system, plus engineers and raw materials? Could be weeks, maybe months. It’ll certainly split
their resources. If they focus their attention on the portal, their ability to rebuild those pylons of
theirs will be curtailed. On the other hand, if they focus on keeping the pylons built…” He
shrugged.
The Vanguard leaders exchanged troubled looks, and drew to one side for a hurried conference.
While they talked in hushed tones, Raymond heard, “The black and grey.”
Turning to Sorina, he asked, “What did you say?”
“Vanguard soldiers who wear black and grey are ones who have left behind comrades on the
field of battle when the return of information is deemed more important,” she said softly, not
looking at him. “Even knowing that the lives we save as a result far outnumber those who die
bringing back that information… doesn’t make it any easier to bear.”
Sorina briefly closed her eyes. “It’s both an honour and a stigma to wear it. Besides, I…”
Her voice trailed off, and although he waited several seconds for her to speak again, she didn’t,
so he prompted, “Besides what?”
Before Sorina could answer, however, Gaussian approached, his expression grave. “Those bio-
samples… I think we need to investigate these as quickly as possible. Doctor, please take them to
our medical facilities in Atlas Park. Once you’re done, consider yourself on compassionate leave
for two weeks.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, her voice still empty, but she stood and drew herself up into a salute, even
though she did not look at Gaussian.
As she turned away from Raymond and Gaussian, however, Gaussian’s voice made her pause.
“Sorina…”
She stopped, but did not turn around.
“Da?”
“‘For their service to Vanguard and their homeworld…’”
“‘We will remember them,’” she whispered. “‘And for their sacrifice…’”
“‘We will avenge them,’” Gaussian finished. “Dismissed.”
*****
Raymond watched her go, torn between following her, letting her leave and pursuing matters
with Vanguard, and just saying the hell with it all and leaving both Sorina and Vanguard behind
him.
She didn’t even try to save them…
But no one in Vanguard knew about that underground base… if we hadn’t gotten that
information back, they would never have known…
But she didn’t even try to save them…
We all knew going into this that we might not be coming back…
But she didn’t even try!
“Sorina!” he called out, taking the stairs two at a time to catch up to her before she reached the
teleportion system. But just before he reached her, she stepped through the portal and vanished
without looking back.
“Damn it,” Raymond growled, keying the portal system for Atlas Park and stepping through
himself. He emerged in time to see Sorina being saluted by the two sentries standing guard in
front of the medical section of the Vanguard building. Lengthening his stride and ignoring the
sentries’ salutes, he caught up to her just as she reached the door, then followed her inside.
“We need to talk,” he began, but she didn’t respond. Instead, she headed straight for a small
group of scientists who were in the middle of some experiment. Although genetics wasn’t
exactly Raymond’s forte when it came to science, he knew enough about biochemistry to see that
they were analyzing Rikti DNA and attempting to create some sort of genetic sequencing map.
“Delivery from Gaussian,” Sorina said, cutting across his thoughts as she handed the two hypo-
syringes over. “Highest priority.”
“Details?” asked one of the scientists.
“Rikti, male, taken by direct sampling from live subjects. Compare samples to known Rikti DNA
sequences, cross-referencing any known information with the Rikti warriors we call Magus,”
Sorina said rapidly.
The scientists looked at each other, then at Raymond and Sorina. “You’re saying we’ve got a
new type of Rikti?”
“It’s possible,” Raymond sighed. “And we don’t like the idea any more than you.”
“How long for analysis?” Sorina asked.
“Highest priority? Twenty-four hours for initial findings, give or take.”
“You have twelve hours,” she replied in a voice that left no room for argument. “When
completed, arrange for secure-line transfer of the results to Gaussian at the main Vanguard
compound, to Positron at Freedom Phalanx Headquarters, and to me at Star Patrol
Headquarters,” she told them, and they nodded.
Raymond was briefly surprised, but with his face hidden once more behind his helmet, Sorina
didn’t notice. To be honest, though, he wasn’t certain what surprised him more - that she was
arranging to get a copy of her work at Star Patrol Headquarters, despite being place on
compassionate leave from Vanguard, or that she was arranging for the Phalanx to get full access
to their discovery.
“It’s good to see you back, Colonel,” said one of the other scientists, but Sorina shook her head.
“I’m not back… this was a favour to Gaussian, nothing more. Twelve hours.”
“And this had better be worth it,” Raymond muttered. “That stuff cost the lives of six Vanguard
soldiers.”
The scientists looked somber. “Yes, sir… ma’am. Twelve hours.”
Sorina turned on her heel and left the lab, with Raymond right behind her. Not wanting to
embarrass her in front of the Vanguard staff, he waited until they had exited the building before
catching her by the elbow and turning her to face him.
With a strength he’d not realized she possessed, she threw off his grip, backed away, whirled
around, and leapt into the sky. For a moment, he stayed where he was, stunned, then he took off
after her as she accelerated across Atlas Park, heading for Skyway City.
“SORINA!” he shouted after her, but she ignored him, skimming low and swooping into the
express tunnel that ran under the War Wall from Atlas Park to Skyway. Growling, he switched
on his communications system and accessed her private comm channel. “Damn it, I know you
can hear me!”
There was no reply, and he kicked some extra power and raced after her. When she still showed
no signs of stopping by the time they reached Talos Island, he finally shot past her and stopped
in mid-air. Rather than braking, however, she swerved around him, and he lunged toward her to
try and catch her. Twisting out of his reach, she dove toward the exit to Founders Falls.
“Stop ignoring me, damn you!” he called to her over the radio, but there was no answer, and he
finally decided to just follow her to her apartment. He landed moments after she did, and strode
into the building after her, not caring who might see them. Even in the elevator on the way up,
she wouldn’t acknowledge him, not even to tell him to go away, and Raymond suspected that
whatever was wrong with her, part of her did not want to be alone.
When they got to her apartment, however, she hesitated before unlocking her door, but then
opened it and moved inside. He waited to see if she would lock him out, and when she didn’t, he
entered the apartment after her and closed the door behind him.
Sorina was standing in the middle of her living room, facing away from him, her gauntlets and
goggles off and lying on the carpet at her feet as though she had simply dropped them.
“Sorina?” he said quietly, taking a step forward, when suddenly he realized that her entire upper
body was shaking. Then her legs seemed to give out, and she sank to her knees, her arms
wrapped around herself, and Raymond realized that she was sobbing.
“It’s my fault,” she cried, shaking her head violently. “It’s my fault, it’s all my fault…”
“No,” he said softly, finally accepting that he could not place all the blame on her. As a soldier,
she had done what was right. “No, it’s not your fault, Sorina.”
“But you were right,” she wept. “I could have saved them but I couldn’t risk losing you…”
And he realized that was the truth that had been tearing her apart since returning from the War
Zone. Statesman had questioned her ability to stay impartial during a mission, and it seemed that
he was, in the end, correct. During those last terrible moments against Hro’Dtohz, Av’Adn, and
the other Rikti, Sorina’s decision to teleport them to safety had not been based on information or
practicality or Vanguard’s needs.
It had been because she could not bear the idea of his death, even if he had accepted it.
And as he looked down at her, kneeling on the floor as she cried, he realized that he would have
done the same for her. Not because he didn’t think she could take care of herself, not because her
choice to risk her own life was hers, but because he simply could not imagine life without her.
Right now, I need you to be Positron. When we’re done… I’ll want Raymond.
He silently triggered the removal sequence for his armor, feeling it disengage from his body until
forty seconds later, he was in civilian clothes once more.
Then slowly he knelt down behind her and put his hand on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, love.”
All at once, she was in his arms, hiding her face against his chest as she howled and wept, and he
held her tightly as his own tears fell.
*****
Much later that night, they were seated on the floor in front of her couch, Raymond with his back
against the sofa and Sorina in his arms, her back to his chest.
After regaining their composure earlier, they had contacted the Freedom Phalanx and the Star
Patrol to let them know they’d returned safe and sound. They then quietly tended to each other’s
injuries, then spent the past several hours quietly talking, slowly coming to terms with the truths
they had learned in the Rikti War Zone.
It was hard to believe, Raymond thought, that less than twenty-four hours ago, they had been
making love without a care in the world, lost in the joy of each other and the discovery of love.
Then had come the horrors and death of today, and their worlds had been turned upside down.
But Raymond was also experienced enough in life to know that you couldn’t appreciate
happiness without sorrow, and while he wasn’t keen on repeating the events of today, it made
him appreciate what he and Sorina had all the more.
“Do you blame me?” she asked softly.
“Why would I blame you?” he asked her in surprise, and she tilted her head back to look up at
him.
“For my choice… in the War Zone.”
That was a hard one for him, and he couldn’t answer right away.
It was true that it would have been just as hard for him to make that same choice as it was for
her. It was also true that during the mission, time and again, each of them had risked their lives
for the other, acting not only on the needs of their assignment, but on keeping the other one safe.
Was this what Statesman had been concerned about? Watching someone you loved in danger,
knowing it was their choice, and still wanting to protect them and keep them safe?
Raymond wondered how Statesman himself had dealt with it, first with his wife, Maiden Justice,
then his daughter and granddaughter. How did one ever get used to letting them go?
As he thought about it, he realized that Manticore and Sister Psyche must have also gone through
something similar. How had Justin felt, handing the woman he loved over to his worst enemies
on a desperate gamble to save the city? And then Shalice, trusting Justin when no one else did,
believing that he was doing the right thing and carrying on a deception necessary for the city’s
well-being.
“No, I don’t blame you,” he said at last. “I… I understand why you did it.”
“Do you?”
For answer, he held her closer, and a long time, they sat in peaceful silence.
“But you know what this means,” Raymond said eventually, and Sorina slowly nodded.
“Da.” She tilted her head to look at him again. “Will the Phalanx understand?”
“I think so… and the Star Patrol will probably agree.”
Sorina nodded and sighed. “It’s not how I would have wished things would turn out, but perhaps
it’s for the best.”
“Then it’s decided.”
“Da, it’s decided.” She turned around so that she was kneeling between his legs, and gently
kissed him on the lips. “Ja tebja ljublju, Raymond.”
“And I love you,” he whispered. “When do you want to tell them?”
“That while Raymond and Sorina are choosing to stay together, Positron and Agent Tavarisch
are going their separate ways?”
“Yes.”
“Tomorrow. For tonight, just stay with me.”
He slowly smiled. “As Raymond?”
But she shook her head. “As both. They are both you.”
“Then they’re both yours, for as long as you want them.”
So the city would have Positron, and Sorina would have Raymond, he thought as he rose to
follow her into her bedroom. If that was to be the price, it was one he’d gladly pay.
*****
TO BE CONTINUED IN…
THE COURSE OF SUPERHERO ROMANCE II:
COURTSHIP AND CRIME FIGHTING