Mike had music playing, keeping him revved up while he did a short evening cardio workout. His living room space wasn't that big, but as long as he pushed the coffee table out of the way he had room to move. Tonight's workout alternated between repetitions of speed jump rope, push-ups, and squat thrusts. He was nearing the end of his final set of reps when his phone rang. Mike stopped jumping, switching the rope to one hand so he could grab his phone and answer the call coming in. The cell screen showed a mix of symbols and numbers but no name, a sign that the call was from an encrypted line.
"Hey, Mike. It's Caleb. Your new tech is here."
"Already?" Mike was impressed. A short two days had passed since he'd discussed the limitations of his powers with Caleb. "That was fast."
"I was excited to see how they would turn out so I bumped the project to the top of my to do list. If you don't have anything scheduled for this evening, Strong wants you to come by for your trial run. You can pick them up and then go try them out."
Mike snorted under his breath. His schedule was embarrassingly open every night this week. "Nothing on tap for tonight," he answered Caleb. "I'll be there."
"Great. See you soon."
Mike tossed his phone on the couch then completed the rest of his reps. When he finished, he took a few minutes to catch his breath, then stretched to cool down. He made his way to the kitchen to grab a protein shake from the fridge. Leaning against the counter, he drank the shake while he considered what he was about to get into.
Superheroes were common throughout the world and major cities like St. Louis often had several. Many worked on their own while others had corporate sponsorship. Some were connected to the military as super soldiers. Lieutenant Strong was an example. Born with super strength and rapid healing, he'd entered the A-Wing initiative and been fitted with exo-skeleton retractable wings that allowed him to fly as naturally as an eagle.
As part of the Arch City Guardians, Mike wouldn't have the military structure and training that he was used to. But he'd be joining a group of heroes with various levels of experience, led by a director who'd served both in the military and as a superhero. The operation should be a perfect fit for him. He knew nothing about being a superhero, had only become an enhanced human a few months ago. He could learn to be one with the Guardians. And he couldn't discount the fact that he was looking to find his spot in St. Louis - the place where he belonged. There was no guarantee he would bond with the members of the ACG but he hoped that he would be able to form some positive connections on the team.
The shake finished, Mike went to take a shower to wash away the sweat from his workout before dressing in fresh clothes and tactical gear. As he sat on the bed to lace up his combat boots, excitement bloomed in his chest. He'd missed the thrill of being in the field. His time in the Arctic had mostly involved standing guard. The position had allowed him to return to active duty soon after recovering from the attack that had resulted in his reassignment from his unit. But the work was boring and uneventful, since there weren't too many villains or evil regimes who wanted to freeze their asses off in the Arctic while carrying out their schemes. And although he was grateful he now had a civilian job after his discharge, he couldn't deny that he was - for lack of a better word - restless working at Marin's. Now, he was filled with anticipation, ready to do something more than stand in front of a lab door to keep watch over scientists or sitting behind a desk reviewing social media accounts.
Eager to hit the road and get started, Mike grabbed his keys and left the apartment, locking the door behind him.
After making the drive from his apartment complex to the neighborhood that housed the ACG headquarters, he approached the now familiar brick wall hologram. The top of his spine itched, as if a dog-sized mosquito buzzed just behind the back of his neck. Even though he expected it, he still recoiled from the unpleasant sensation, rolling his shoulders in a futile attempt to shake it off. The corners of his mouth turned down in distaste as he drew abreast of the brick wall mirage, instinct urging him to turn around and drive away to escape the unsettling feeling. Once he passed through the barrier, the buzzing sensation began to fade. It was gone completely by the time he parked in the small lot next to the firehouse. Mike sighed with relief as he turned off the engine and stepped out onto the pavement.
Surrounded by darkness, the brick firehouse was a welcoming beacon with warm light shining from its windows. Inside, Caleb sat at his command center. He had what looked like a Sugar Daddy candy stick dangling from his mouth, while he stared at the computer in front of him with his eyebrows drawn together in concentration. Ignite was up in the loft, relaxed back in a chair with his feet up on the table. Mike gave him a quick wave, then looked again at Caleb, who'd jumped up from his seat.
"Good, you're here."
He went over to the locked cabinet against the wall, typed in a code on the electronic key pad, then pressed his thumb to a small glowing screen. There was a beep and a click before the cabinet slid open. Caleb grabbed two boxes, relocked the cabinet, and brought them back to where Mike waited in front of his work station. A grin on his handsome brown face, Caleb slowly lifted the hinged lid of the bigger box, as if he were presenting Mike with a piece of fine jewelry.
Inside the box lay a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses with sturdy gray metal frames and emerald green lenses. They didn't look like anything special, but Mike knew they had to be if they were going to help him with his blasts.
"Go ahead and put them on," Caleb said eagerly.
Mike took the sunglasses from the box and settled them on his nose. Looking through the lenses, his vision became tinted with a green hue. He faced one of the offices to get a look at his reflection in the window. "I look like I'm auditioning for a background role in Top Gun."
Caleb gasped with mock offense. "A classic film filled with the finest male specimens."
Mike grinned at that assessment of one of his favorite old movies. "They look good. Thank you."
"You're welcome. As we discussed, the glasses will focus your beams, giving you the accuracy you need in the field. If they aren't as accurate as you'd like, let me know and I'll make adjustments."
Mike removed the glasses in order to study them. Looking closer, he could see the lenses weren't one smooth surface as they appeared from the front. There were minute cuts in the glass, creating prisms that directed the focus to the center of each lense. And although they were easy to see through, the lenses had an odd sheen to them that hinted they were made from something more than average eyewear glass.
"And next, your ACG field tech."
This time Caleb gave him the box to open himself. Mike removed the lid to find an ear piece and a watch. The earpiece was small, clear, and fit snugly over the shell of his ear. The watch was black with a big face, several buttons, and a thick strap. Once Mike had it fastened around his wrist, Caleb sat down and spun around to his main computer. After he tapped a few keys, the earpiece clicked once, and lights on the watch rapidly blinked before going dark again.
"Okay, both are activated. You are ready to go."
Ignite slid down the fireman's pole and came over. "Check you out. Very tactical-chic."
Since the other man was geared up in a red hero suit and black mask, Mike assumed they'd be partnered up. "I'm looking forward to working with you. What's our mission?"
"Oh, no," Ignite said, shaking his head. "You won't be working with me tonight."
Caleb spoke up. "Your partner isn't here yet."
At that moment, the roar of a motorcycle could be heard approaching outside.
"But he should be here in just a minute," Caleb continued.
Mike tensed, hoping that there was more than one person on their team who rode a motorcycle. The sound of the bike grew closer, until it was right outside. Then it cut off. A few moments later, Mike realized his desperate hoping was in vain. Stardust strolled in, the light gleaming off his tight black pants, his gold mask pushed up to rest on top of his head. Mike clenched his jaw to hold back a frustrated curse. He wanted to work with someone uncomplicated during his trial but it seemed it wasn't to be.
Strong came out of his office at the hero's appearance. "Perfect timing," he said to Stardust. "Zielinski is geared up and ready to help you patrol the Playground tonight."
Stardust froze, his golden eyes wide and locked on Mike just long enough for Mike to see that he was unhappy with Strong's announcement before he spun around to the team director.
"Strong, I asked to work with Blaze on this."
At that clear rejection by the hero, Mike's shoulders stiffened. Ordinarily, he wouldn't have questioned an order from a superior, but this wasn't the military. And if Stardust didn't want to work with him, he had no problem requesting to be partnered with someone else. "Yes, Lieutenant. It might be best to pair me with someone I haven't already worked with to help me get to know the other members of the team."
"Blaze is otherwise occupied," Strong said to Stardust before turning to Mike. "And since at this juncture you'll mostly be doing recon while we learn the scope of this situation, this is the perfect mission for you to get acclimated to our squad." He paused to clasp his hands behind his back, one eyebrow raised in question. "Is that going to be a problem for either of you?"
Mike immediately fell in line at the ring of authority to Strong's tone. "No, sir."
Stardust cast Mike an annoyed glance before he answered with obvious reluctance in his voice. "It's not a problem."
"Good. Hit the streets. Contact headquarters with anything we need to be aware of or if you run into trouble and need back up."
Mike looked at the face of his new watch, which was basically a mini-computer. Several lines of data flashed on the glowing blue screen. The address for their start point was on the top row and he scrolled down with his thumb to read the mission parameters on the next three. He nodded to himself after reading it through, clear on their goal for the night. "Got it. I'm ready."
"Fine," Stardust snapped. "Let's go."
Ignite looked back and forth between them, questions in his dark eyes. If he was wondering why he and Stardust were like two alley cats with their backs up, he wasn't the only one. Mike had no clue why he and Stardust sparked off each other like this.
"Have fun," Ignite said.
The two of them went outside, Mike slightly behind Stardust's quick and clearly annoyed stride. He couldn't make it any more obvious that he didn't want to work with Mike. And Mike didn't want to go where he wasn't wanted. But orders were orders so they'd both have to suck it up and deal. "We can take my truck so we can ride together," he said when they reached their vehicles.
Stardust cast his SUV a derisive look then rolled his eyes.
"I don't think so. You've got the address, right?"
"Then I'll meet you there," he said as he swung his leg over his bike. "Try not to fall too far behind."
Mike bit back a retort. It wasn't as if he drove an old beat-up van that Stardust would be embarrassed to be seen in. And even if he did, so what? Mike yanked open the door to his truck to get in. By the time he had the SUV in gear, Stardust had already zipped out of the parking lot. Mike pulled out after him, barely restraining from stomping on the gas and speeding to catch up. As he drove past the barrier, he didn't have that awful auditory itch buzzing at the back of his brain. Either the earpiece or watch must have the tech to cancel it out. He was grateful that he wouldn't have to deal with that anymore.
Giving his attention to the road, he followed Stardust through dark streets lit by softly glowing streetlamps, heading for East St. Louis. As he drove, he hoped he wasn't making a mistake. Lieutenant Strong had been highly recommended to Mike by someone he trusted. Through that contact, he'd learned that Strong had years of both military and superhero experience. He wouldn't have put Mike with Stardust if he didn't believe that the two of them could work well together. More importantly, he wouldn't have allowed Stardust on his team if he didn't believe the other man was capable of living up to the role as a superhero. Therefore, they should be able to get along for the mission. He hoped.
By the time they were on the bridge leading to the colorful lights of the Playground, Mike had eased back from his annoyance, determined instead to trust Strong's decision. Arriving in the red-light district was just as visually extravagant as the first time he'd come. The multicolored neon lights washed over his windshield as he drove through the busy streets, but tonight he didn't take the time to cruise and look around.
Near the center of the district, he pulled into the parking lot of a strip club. This one was decorated in blinding hot pink neon accents and advertised Furries Gone Wild! Stardust was already there, straddling his bike with his mask again pushed up to rest on the top of his head. Mike got a good look at the motorcycle for the first time. It was a glossy black with gold accents, built heavy for power and stability. Focusing on his decision to trust Strong's methods, Mike offered his temporary partner an olive branch. "That's a nice bike."
Stardust swung off the bike and Mike found himself watching the sensuous way that lithe body moved as he approached. He was dressed as he had been the first time he'd seen him: skin tight black pants with gold shimmer to the fabric, black boots and gloves, and a cropped jacket. His long black hair was confined in a single braid. He must only wear it loose when he was in his Glimmer persona, like the night he'd seen him on stage at the Flirtatious Fox. Mike assumed this was the other man's official look as Stardust.
Mike didn't have any official hero gear yet. For tonight, he'd dug through his collection of military supplies for a black flak vest to throw on over a long-sleeved black T-shirt, worn with black tactical pants. His right hand was covered by a glove. Boots and the glasses provided by Caleb completed his uniform. Mike didn't think he looked much like a hero, but it would do for now.
Stardust pulled his mask back down to cover his face. Up close, Mike saw that the mask was all gold, except for three columns of glittering black stars under his left eye. It had holes for Stardust to see through, but no openings for mouth or nose. Mike assumed that the mask was designed in a way that allowed the man to breathe through the material.
"We're patrolling the red-light district tonight," he said from behind the mask. "Is that going to be all right with you? Protecting strippers and whores?"
The implication underlying Stardust's questions raised Mike's hackles. He forgot his own olive branch from seconds before to snap back. "I was there when Strong said where we'd be patrolling, and I read the mission brief. Did I give any indication that I had a problem coming here?"
"No. But there are plenty of folks who keep their disdain for sex workers hidden. That's not the kind of guy I want watching my back."
"Like I said. I don't have a problem with the area, or the people working here. A job is a job. And I'm not a hypocrite to enjoy watching exotic dancers while judging them for their job choice."
"So, you did enjoy watching me dance."
Mike's shoulders stiffened at the question and the slight change in Stardust's tone and posture: a hip slightly cocked to the side, chin canted low. How could anyone go from surly to flirty that quickly? "I meant dancers in general."
Stardust stared at him, those golden eyes watching him closely. Mike stared back, refusing to give in and admit that he'd enjoyed Stardust's performance. Or that he'd replayed it in his head multiple times while imagining that Stardust was dancing for him alone. Stardust tilted his head to the side, continuing to stare for several seconds. Mike stood still, outwardly calm, while on the inside his heart pounded so hard, he could hear the rush of his pulse in his ears. Finally, Stardust shook his head, making the end of his braid swish past his hip once as he broke their tense face off.
"Okay. I'll work with you."
Mike relaxed slightly. "I didn't realize I had to pass a test first. And you did tell the lieutenant that you would work with me."
"I know what I said. And I meant it. I just wanted to be sure that I could trust you out in the field."
"And do you trust me?"
"I trust you to do the right thing. That's enough for now."
Mike sucked in a breath through his nose but didn't say anything in response. He was going to end up with indigestion if he kept swallowing things down with this man. For now, he let it go.
* * *
They walked through the entertainment district, down both dark alleys and well-lit streets. Music thumped from the clubs and businesses they passed, revelry spilling out into the parking lots every time a door opened on an exiting group. There didn't seem to be any issues, or more precisely, nothing that wasn't already being handled by the bouncers and club security.
Stardust looked at the man beside him out of the corner of his eye. He'd been a bit of an asshole when asking him how he felt patrolling the Playground. But he needed to be sure he wasn't teamed up with someone who might end up doing more harm than good. Especially since he was giving off Call of Duty: Black Ops vibes in the outfit he'd chosen. It wasn't exactly a style that would engender trust in the bright and shiny Players of the Playground.
Although, Stardust had to admit that Zielinski looked pretty damn sexy in the all-black gear. His broad shoulders easily carried the tactical vest he wore over his torso, and the defined muscles of his biceps were perfectly outlined by the thin material of his shirt. With arms like that, Stardust had to wonder why Zielinski always seemed to wear shirts that kept them covered. Unfortunately, he couldn't make out the beefcake's chest or abs behind the vest. But the cargo pants he had on were just tight enough to show off his thick thighs, and allowed Stardust to check out the muscled curves of his ass whenever Zielinski managed to get a few steps ahead of him. Stardust grinned behind his mask. It'd be a waste if an ass like that had a stick of the not-fun variety shoved up it.
After several minutes of walking in tense silence, his partner for the night asked him a question.
"Have there been any more muggings since the one I witnessed?"
"Yeah. There was one the next day actually. Another that I heard about right after it happened and then one on my night off that I didn't learn about until two days later."
A short, low whistle came from the big man as he shook his head. "That's a lot of muggings in a short period of time. Is that normal for this area?"
"Nope. Several years ago, we took measures to take back and clean up the red-light district. Crime happens, but not this often or with this type of regularity."
"We? The ACG?"
"No. We reclaimed this area long before the ACG came on the scene. By we I meant the sex workers. This is sort of a for us-by-us part of town."
"How did you-."
The frantic scream pierced the night, immediately grabbing Stardust's attention.
"Hold that thought."
They sprinted toward the panicked cry, Stardust's speed easily keeping pace with the taller man's longer strides. In the back parking lot of one of the smaller clubs, they came upon an ugly scene. The man he recognized from the previous alley attack was trying to rip a bag away from a woman, while she valiantly struggled to hold on to it. The man switched tactics, grabbing her by both arms to slam her up against the wall of the building behind them. Her head went flying back from the force of the blow. There was a sickening crack of bone against brick as her head hit the wall, and she went limp in the mugger's grip.
"Assess the scene, see if there's anyone else-".
"Screw that!" Stardust yelled before he rushed in. He sprinted toward the attacker. When he was right next to him, he jumped up, tucked his knees into his chest, then kicked out hard with both feet, striking the mugger on the side and knocking him away from the woman. Stardust landed on his back but instantly flipped upright in time to catch the woman as she slid down the wall.
A warning shout came from behind him.
There was a loud buzz and a flash of light. Acting on instinct, Stardust held on to the woman as he dove to the side, protectively cradling her head when they fell to the ground. A red ray shot across the space, hitting the spot where he'd just been standing. He looked in the direction the ray had come from. There was a second assailant. A woman dressed in all white, holding what resembled a big Super Soaker water gun, except it was gray metal instead of colorful plastic. He hadn't noticed her in his rush to rescue the mugging victim.
Another ray shot down the alley, this one a deep emerald green. It knocked the woman to the ground and the gun went flying from her hands. Stardust snarled, ready to go after her and retrieve the weapon. But the first attacker leaped forward to grab the strange looking gun and brought it up to aim it at Zielinski. Thinking fast, Stardust pulled one of his sai from its thigh holster and threw it with practiced aim. It twirled end over end, striking the man's hand in the split second before he fired. He yelled, recoiling in pain, causing the shot to go high and wide, and thankfully not striking Zielinski or anyone else.
"Let's get out of here!" the man's partner shouted.
The two took off running. Stardust growled in frustration as he watched them escape. He hated to let them get away, but they had an injured victim who needed their help.
"We need to get her medical attention," he said when Zielinski rushed over to them.
Zielinski pulled a phone from one of the pockets in his tactical pants and kneeled down next to the victim. "Calling 9-1-1 right now."
Stardust nodded while watching the woman. He listened with half an ear as Zielinski talked to the operator, in case he needed to supply any information. At the sound of sirens wailing in the distance, the woman opened her eyes. She moved to sit up, but Zielinski stopped her with a light hand on her shoulder.
"Stay still," he said in a firm but soothing voice. "You took a hit on the head and it knocked you out. EMTs are on their way to look you over."
"My bag!" she said in a panicked whisper.
Stardust grabbed the dropped bag and held it up so she could see it. "Everything is right here. Just relax."
She went still, her eyes sliding closed again.
"Keep her awake," Zielinski directed in that same calm voice.
"Hey." Stardust lightly squeezed her hand. "Keep your eyes open, just in case, okay?"
The woman agreed but her eyelids were still drooping. Stardust knew he'd have to get her talking to keep her awake. "Tell me about your night. Are you a dancer?"
"Yeah. At the Barbed Wire."
"What'd you dance to?"
"I went old school. Teased the hell out of my hair and stripped to Warrant's Cherry Pie."
"Classic." Stardust grinned down at her even as Zielinski shone his phone's flashlight in her eyes.
"Both pupils are responsive," he said to the 9-1-1 operator.
He kept talking and a minute later, the blue lights of an ambulance washed over the alley. Zielinski told the EMTs what happened, then stepped back to let them take over.
They quickly got the victim on a backboard, then up onto a gurney, and into the back of the ambulance.
"Thank you, guys!" she called out before the EMTs closed the doors.
Just before they drove off, Stardust thought to check in with his partner for the night. "Are you hurt?"
"No, I didn't take any damage."
"Yeah, not with the way you blasted that woman from the other end of the alley." He went to retrieve the sai he'd thrown. "How did you do that?" he asked as he slid the weapon back into its holster. "All I saw was the green light just like the other night. You got your own laser gun hidden under that vest?"
"No. The light came from me. From my eyes."
"Laser eyes then. Wow."
"They're not lasers. It's a voluntary magnetic pulse powered by the Aurora Borealis moving at jet turbine speed."
Stardust hadn't paid much attention to his classes outside of dance, so he had no idea what the beefcake was talking about. He tilted his head to the side in question. "What?"
"It's basically a really strong and tightly focused wind."
"And you can control it."
"I can activate it at will. And the sunglasses Caleb gave me tonight allow me to aim it with precision. That was my first test of their accuracy and they did great."
"I'm glad to know you aren't wearing sunglasses at night trying to look cool."
A smile twitched the corners of that serious mouth. "I assure you that was not my goal."
"Damn. Your superpower is a knockout blast from your eyeballs. That's pretty boss. You might be on a level with Helios."
Mike shook his head. "Probably not. We received our powers in similar incidents, but he has far more abilities than I do."
"You're saying you can't fly?"
"No, I can't."
"Well, thanks for stepping up and taking care of the second assailant. I didn't even see them."
The small smile began to fade. "That's why I wanted us to wait and scope out the situation first."
"That woman needed help. And neither of us were hurt so it worked out all right in the end," Stardust said with an unconcerned shrug.
Zielinski pressed his lips together, the smile completely gone. He clearly didn't agree with Stardust's assessment.
"Running an operation like that is a surefire way to get someone hurt. You can't just charge forward and hope it works out all right in the end. You need a plan."
"There isn't always time to plan. Especially not in the heat of the moment."
"Then you need to learn how to make time."
Stardust scoffed. "I don't need to learn how to do anything. I've been patrolling the Playground for two years now and managed to help plenty of people. I don't need some military man with a plan coming in here telling me how to handle my business."
A muscle bunched in Zielinski's jaw. Stardust couldn't see the eyes behind those glasses, but he had a feeling if he could, he'd see the beefcake glaring at him. That was too bad. As far as he was concerned, what was done was done. If Zielinski didn't like it, tough. "I'm going to report in to Strong then do a sweep for the rest of this area to make sure those assholes don't attack anyone else. Are you coming or are you going to stand here and bitch about drawing up battle plans some more?"
Again, a muscle clenched in that hard jawline before Mike responded.
DR. Z is available on Amazon and in Kindle Unlimited October 15, 2021. Sign up for my newsletter to receive notification when it’s released. And don’t forget to check out the Arch City Guardians page on my site for lots of fun superhero extras!
My rambling and not at all edited thoughts on romance novels, writing, and pop culture.