I did a lot of world building for Champions Online. My two favorite projects were “Spandex in the City”, a superhero gossip column written by Champions rock star superhero Sapphire, and “The Ironclad Saga”, which told the origin story of Champions hero Ironclad. Sadly, I never got to finish the Ironclad Saga because of Star Trek Online’s impending launch.
Spandex in the City
Fighting Crime is a Dirty Business
Fighting crime is a dirty business. No matter how careful you are, you are going to rip your costume. You’re going to get bloodstains, and grass stains, and mud, and lime jello all over your costume (blame Foxbat for the lime jello, and no, I don’t want to talk about it). Costumes, sadly, do not magically clean themselves. Unless, of course, that’s part of your superpower.continue...
There are a variety of ways to handle the laundry problem. One, of course, is doing your laundry yourself. However, if you’re going to do that, you need to develop an arsenal of stain removal techniques. You will need every trick in the book to keep your costume looking sharp and fresh. I have a cupboard full of vinegar, club soda, salt, hydrogen peroxide, spot remover, carpet cleaner spray, bleach, ammonia, shampoo, peanut butter, you name it!
The problem there is that you’re constantly doing laundry right after fights, when you’re exhausted, you just want to shower and pass out for a week, and you probably aren’t thinking too clearly anyway. But if you let your laundry sit, the stain sets and you’re out yet another costume.
The other solution here is having someone else do your laundry. This is great if, say, you’re wealthy and have a household of servants (this generally only works when you have a secret identity – more on that another time). Supervillains just make use of minions or henchmen. In which case, you need minions who know about stain removal. You have no idea how hard it is to find good minions!
There is always the option of using a dry cleaning service, which is what I prefer. But even that is fraught with complications. Do you know how hard it is to retain a dry cleaning service when you bring them clothing dripping with toxic goo or biohazardous material? Believe me, most dry cleaners completely don’t want to deal with any of that. Heck, most dry cleaners don’t have the ability to deal with that kind of mess. The few who do charge an arm and a leg. (I hasten to add not literally here).
The dry cleaners I go to are amazing! Radiotron, the now retired supervillain, is co-owner with his former superhero wife, Spell Key. It’s great. Either they, or one of their kids, will show up at your place after any major conflict (they listen to the police radio, so they know exactly when things are going down!). If it’s a secret battle you don’t want made public, you can call them. They are so discreet. And they have laundry bags for every kind of problem. Radioactive goo? No problem. Cursed threads? Easy! Because he’s radioactive, he can handle all sorts of items that you’d normally have to give to Hazmat to dispose. And she can exorcise lingering evil spells out of your clothing. They are quick, competent, and discreet. But they are not cheap!
There are two last options, neither of which is one of my favorites. You can just go on the assumption that anything you wear is going to get destroyed the first time you wear it and just buy closets full of the same costume. Single use. It just seems awfully wastefull to me. Or, you can wear your stained and ripped costume out again. Maybe, if you’re lucky, your opponent will be intimidated by how rough and rowdy you look. If you’re unlucky, they’ll just make fun of you.
Keep it clean! Until next time.
“For Justice, for Fashion, for Rock’n’Roll!”
They say you can never go home again…
Although we may be superheroes, and we may travel far from home, and far from whatever humble or grand beginnings we may have… we never really escape where we came from.continue...
Some of us are haunted by where we came from, and some of us take strength in it.
Last week, Dr. Silverback asked me to help him with some experiments using my energy powers on the Qularr technology on Monster Island. So of course I said I’d be delighted, and Ironclad agreed to fly us on the V-Jet.
Now, I’d never been to Monster Island before. Just so you understand how excited I was, think of Monster Island as the superhero’s version of Hawaii. You’ve got volcanoes! And pina coladas, and cabana boys (admittedly, those cabana boys are manimals and therefore slightly unusual, but still – cabana boys!).You’ve got sultry jungles to wander through, and beautiful wildlife, and dangerous radioactive dinosaurs! It’s just so fun!
What surprised me, though, was how quiet Dr. Silverback was on the flight. Now, he’s not a chatterer like me. But he usually talks. He was so quiet, he made Ironclad sound outgoing! He just stared out a window, and smiled occasionally when I said something.
“What’s with him?” I whispered to Ironclad.
“He’s always quiet when I fly him to Monster Island,” Ironclad told me. “It’s his home. For him, it holds dark memories, as well as dear ones. He served Dr. Moreau here, and did great harm. He also turned against Moreau, here, and freed the other manimals.”
I nodded. Everyone knew that story.
“That kind of past will leave a mark on you.”
I guess it should have been obvious. But I hadn’t ever really thought about it that way. To me, Dr. Silverback has always been this incredibly smart, charming scientist. He’s been a superhero since before I was born. In fact, he’s part of what defines being a superhero in my head. He’s someone who works crazy hours, dedicated to helping people. And he’s funny and interesting. He gives great interviews and makes people feel good about superheroes. I’d never thought about how his past might haunt him.
But it does. In my eyes, and probably the eyes of the rest of the world, he’s more than made up for his time with Moreau. He’s saved so many lives directly, and so many thousands – or millions – more with his inventions and with the help he gives to other superheroes. But watching him on the island, seeing the way he was so gentle with the manimals still on the island, and the way he would listen to them no matter what else was going on, I began to realize that he hasn’t forgiven himself for that time. He still feels responsible for the other manimals. In a very real sense, I think he’s trying to make the rest of the world safe so that they can be a part of it.
It got me thinking about where I come from. I grew up just off Figueroa in LA. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that area, but it’s not glitz and glamour. It’s all about hard work, and making ends meet, and fighting with your sisters, and slaving in a hot kitchen with your mother when you’d rather be outside. It’s climbing a rusty old jungle gym in a park the size of a postage stamp, and scraping your knees, and singing to your baby brother to try to get him to sleep. And it’s watching your parents work from dawn until dusk to keep you fed and a roof over your head. And maybe I can’t see all the ways that history makes me who I am, but I’m pretty sure that it shapes me. I look at my singing, and I look at how hard I work as a superhero, and I look at my friendships with Mayte and Witchcraft, and I can see how all of those things grow out of who I was when I was a kid. I want to protect other kids, like me. I take strength from those memories, and use that strength to keep me fighting.
And then there’s Ironclad, and I don’t know all of his story. But I know that he’s been through a lot, and that he’s one of the most honorable people I know. You can tell, when you talk to him, that he’s fought in a lot of hard battles, and lost so much. Being a superhero is part of what makes him whole. He fights to protect other people, and to make sure that they don’t get hurt the way he did.
We all come from somewhere. We all have things that matter to us, that are important, and that drive us to be superheroes. We can never fully escape our pasts, but maybe that’s a good thing.
Part 1: Drogen
If I’d wanted to be a scientist instead of a soldier, this would be my dream come true. Well, almost.continue...
The curious mix of metal, ammonia, and whatever other chemicals were floating around in the lab today were well on their way to giving Drogen a headache. Even worse than the hangover he’d had last weekend, but with none of the fun. Not, he admitted to himself, that he’d had all that much fun getting the hangover anyway. Drowning his sorrows didn’t seem to be a particularly productive use of his time. He made a note: no more drinking.
In the meantime his job was to get the lab floor as clean as possible, as quickly as possible. The whole place would be covered by volcanic ash by the end of the day. And it was always his job to clean it. The joy of the summer season. Once it was clean, though, he could get out of here and away from the headache inducing miasma. Somewhere I can brood in private, he mocked himself. Why did I ever believe I had a chance to get into the marines?
“Drogen! Drogen!” one of the scientists called out. Drogen’s shoulders tensed until he recognized Scientist Arven Gho’s limp as the old man lurched towards him. Unlike pretty much everybody else in the military, Gho didn’t pay attention to caste at all. Drogen didn’t doubt that the old man knew that his father was servant caste. Gho knew nearly everything. He just didn’t seem to care.
“You really must come see this! The alloy is just beautiful!” Gho’s eyes peered up at him over the older man’s mask. “Shogar’s blessings, why aren’t you wearing your mask?”
“Scientist Rhega said I wouldn’t need it today. None of the compounds are toxic.” He kept his tone even and as uncritical as possible. He didn’t want the old man thinking he was complaining.
“Pah! What nonsense! There’s no need to skimp on masks. We’re fully funded. No point making our lab assistants pass out from needless exposures! They’re preventative. To prevent accidents! Why she insists on being so miserly…” Gho rambled on, leading him towards the mask dispensary. Drogen refrained from pointing out that all the other lab assistants had masks. There were three others there that day, and each one had a mask on. But when it came to him, Rhega refused to key in approval.
“All right. Now that you have your mask, would you like to operate the laser?”
Drogen looked down at the old man in surprise. “Operate the laser?”
“Of course! You’ve been here long enough, you’re more than capable. Come now, no dawdling.”
Drogen found himself following the old man, a bemused smile on his face. Thankfully, no one else could see it because of the mask. He knew he’d been there long enough. But none of the other scientists considered him anything more than a glorified janitor. They assumed he was as dumb as he was large. And he… he was too busy being disappointed about not getting into marine training to really care all that much. It was all one big ball of misery. Except for a few moments, like this one, when Gho was in the lab. As the oldest scientist, he wasn’t there all that often.
“Here, here.” Gho patted him on the arm. “Take the controls! And there’s the ship siding!”
Indeed, there was a portion of a spaceship hull, coated in the latest version of the alloy. It was the most important project in the lab, and the reason Drogen was supposed to clean everything up today. Tomorrow several of the highest ranking admirals were coming in to see the alloy at work.
Drogen took sight with the laser and ratcheted it up to its minimum level and let fly a laser bolt. Nothing happened. That he expected. Nodding, he set the dial one higher and let loose again. Still nothing.
“Oh, you can hit it harder than that, my boy!” the old scientist crowed.
Higher? All right. He’d set it higher. Still nothing. This was clearly a stronger alloy than the last one he’d seen tested. At level three, the laser had burned right through the prior version of the alloy.
He looked at the old man, who was cackling in glee, and then back to the laser. He felt himself begin to grin. The military may not have made him a soldier, but at least for right now, he was still getting to shoot lasers! He thumbed the dial all the way to the highest setting, shot again, and waited for the ship siding to disintegrate.
For a moment, the sheet of metal glowed a dull red where the laser had hit it. And then it faded back into a cool metallic gray.
Drogen just stared.
“You see, you see?!” Gho nearly danced a circle in glee.
“I’ve never seen anything resist even a level 6 strike. Much less an 11! How…” he trailed off, just trying to comprehend the immensity of it.
Any ship equipped with this alloy was going to be near invincible. They’d already proven it could resist heavy impact with meteorite showers. And now this. He swallowed. What he would give to serve on such a ship as that.
He was startled when he felt a hand on his arm.
He looked down at Gho, who was no longer dancing. Who, in fact, was looking at him quite somberly.
“You are a good man, Drogen Lar. And someday you will make a fine soldier. Remember your patience, and hold to it. Ours is a culture that does not readily accept change. Remember, too, what you value.”
He swallowed again, and barely managed to say, “I didn’t realize you knew…”
“Knew you dreamt of serving with glory, instead of cleaning lab floors? Drogen, you burn so brilliantly, even a blind man would have to know.”
“I was not born into the soldier caste.”
“Pah!” Gho slapped his arm. “Don’t defeat yourself before you’ve begun to fight. I was not born into the scientist caste, either. No. Soldier caste was my birthright. And I found my way where I belonged.” He paused, his eyes very intent on Drogen’s face. “It will not be easy. It will be even harder for you than it was for me. I apologize for that. I have done my best by you. Remember that, too.”
“Of course, sir,” Drogen bowed his head, still shocked.
“Scientist Gho!” Rhega’s acid voice rang out. “The Admirals have arrived! Your presence is expected at the dinner!”
A frown knit Gho’s brow and was gone so quickly, Drogen thought he must have imagined that momentary annoyance.
“I am on my way, Marvi.” He patted Drogen on the arm one last time before limping off, muttering to himself.
Which left Drogen facing Rhega on his own.
Her eyes narrowed. “Why haven’t you finished cleaning the floors?”
“I was assisting Scientist Gho,” he told her, keeping his voice carefully neutral.
She sniffed. “Finish your duties. Then you may join the dinner.”
It was a sign of how shaken he was by Gho’s words that he didn’t even resent being denied dinner with the Admirals. All of the other lab assistants were putting away their gear and going to the dinner. While he would be left behind to clean up after everyone. Again. He just nodded. In his head, he replayed Gho’s words. “Someday, you will make a fine soldier.”
He hoped so. He hoped so more than he could ever say, but he didn’t see any way for it to happen. He had been foolish to believe that his talent could overcome his caste in the eyes of the military council. That he had gotten even this far was more than his father could believe. “You’ve done so well, Drogen!” the older man had told him the last time they spoke. His rheumy eyes were wet and shining, “To be among the scientists! Who would ever have dreamt it?”
He found the broom, where he’d left it leaning against the wall, and began sweeping more vigorously than necessary. There were curled slivers of metal on the floor, and flakes of what looked like Ormean leaves (a stimulant that was strictly outlawed), and shining black powder near where Rhega’s group had been sawing away at Malvan glass. He snorted. He ought to report the leaves, but there was no way to prove who had been using them. Nasty business, and likely to kill the user eventually. He swept it all up off the floor and made a note: Tell Gho. The old man would keep an eye out for it.
The lab was as clean as he could get it, without disturbing the various projects strewn about the place. He went through, turning off harmonic measuring devices that one group had left going. Turning on the coolant that another group had forgotten – they’d lose three months of work if they let the Tarkanian eggs come up to hatching temperature.
Last, he checked Gho’s smelting equipment. Everything was pristinely put away, as always. Except, and that was odd, there were three blinking red lights going off on the console.
“What, by the Three Ladies, is this?” He checked the main control system. Everything looked right. The containment system was working fine. The power was set to stand by, as opposed to active.
“Better run a scan,” he muttered. He ran his fingers over the controls, punching in his personal code before initiating the scan. Immediately, those blinking red lights became steady and the welder began to hiss. “What the-“
That was when the world exploded. He had one brief glimpse of the welder shattering into pieces and shining arcs of alloy fountaining up out of it. Then his skin was burning. His mask burnt away in less than an instant. He felt his skin crisp and split.
“Shogar!” he tried to scream. God of fire and magma! But nothing came out. Instead his mouth filled with liquid fire. Fire travelled down his throat, pooling in his gut and burning him hollow. He had time to think, I’m dying and then, I’ll never be a soldier now. And then there was nothing left but fire and pain.
Part 2: Servant to the Empire
I’ve displeased Shogar and for that he’s encased me in a volcano.
That was the only explanation for the pain that crackled along his every nerve. Even the Gods disapproved of his quest to leave his own caste and become a soldier. All I wanted was to serve, and to protect my people. He wept, and the tears were a river of fire against his cheeks.continue...
Every part of his body hurt. I am burning over and over again, forever. A sudden cacophony of sound made the fire within him flare, and he screamed. Then the heat of the sun burst against his arm, and he cried out again.
Within the fire there was suddenly ice. Ice ghosting along his veins, calming the crackling fires. A slow glacier running down his throat, into his belly, down his legs. The absence of fire was sudden, and ghastly. It hurt nearly as much as the perpetual burning.
The cacophony of noise around him slowly became clearer. “…idiots! Of course it was necessary! Were any of your needles making a dent? No. Were any of your shots getting through to him? No!”
“Honored Scientist, we cannot permit –“
“So instead you’d rather torture the boy needlessly?” It was a familiar voice, but far harsher than he’d ever heard it.
“Scientist Gho, you have made your point. We thank you, Doctor, for your concern. Our top priority, however, must be the young man in that bed. We will all work together in pursuit of his recovery, yes?”
That was a nasal voice. One Drogen had never heard. Meanwhile, the memory of fire faded. Instead, his body was a hollow ache. He opened his eyes, but could see no more than blurry figures surrounding his bed. He blinked, trying to get his inner eyelids to open, but they remained stubbornly shut. Like any infant, he couldn’t even open his eyes fully.
“Drogen!” That was Gho.
“Scientist Gho,” he said. Or tried to say. What came out instead was a croak.
“You’ve been… hurt,” Gho said. “I injected you with some pain killers. You’re going to feel strange.”
“Relax, soldier,” said a new and vaguely familiar voice. “You’ve earned yourself a rest.”
I’m not a soldier, he tried to say. But again, no noise came out. His throat felt strange and slippery.
“Drogen, don’t talk yet. Your vocal chords were damaged in the accident. Let them recover.” The blur that was Scientist Gho limped towards him and sank into a chair beside his bed.
“Are we all in hell?” he tried to ask. This time he made some noise.
The other voice he recognized barked with laughter. “No, we are not, my boy. Unless you count the Imperial Military Hospital some kind of hell. Which it well might be!”
“That’s hardly funny, Qyr,” the nasal voice cut in.
“Oh, have a heart, Vhen. The boy nearly died.” Qyr answered. Qyr. Drogen gasped. Admiral Qyr? And Admiral Vhen?
“All the more reason to take things seriously,” Vhen answered.
“Drogen,” Gho began, his voice low and quiet, “I don’t know how much you remember. You were in an accident in the lab. You were the last one there, cleaning up, and something happened with the smelting equipment.” He paused for a long moment. “There was an explosion. You were absolutely covered in the liquid alloy.”
No wonder all he’d felt was fire. That burning liquid must have destroyed his body. And now he didn’t feel anything. He had a sudden vision of himself, burnt and crippled, in his father’s house. Wrapped in a blanket and sitting in his grandfather’s old chair, while his father moved about the place making him soups bland enough he could eat them. His heart clenched at the thought. And to think he’d dreamt of being a hero.
“But you’re alive, my boy,” Gho was saying. “You’re alive and you will recover.”
He blinked again, and forced his inner lids open. Gho was leaning in towards him, his old face looking more charcoal gray than ebony. Strange, Drogen had never seen worry lines on his face before.
“How well?” he asked. “How much will I recover?” His voice was coming more easily. It sounded like one of the grinders in the lab, but it was audible at least.
“Ah, well, that’s the exciting part, soldier!” Admiral Qyr said.
“I’m not a soldier,” he said.
Someone sniffed. He was pretty sure it was the nasally one, Vhen. “Maybe you should listen to him, Qyr.”
Drogen managed to focus his eyes on the other two men in the room. Qyr was broad shouldered and smiling just slightly. He looked older, but not gray like Gho. He was a stocky man with medals on his uniform. He was the Hero of the People, and had been since his ships defended Dorvala IV from invasion. Vhen, on the other hand, looked old. He was taller than Qyr, and more slender. In fact, he might be as tall as Drogen himself. But far more slight. He also looked like he’d bitten into something sour.
“You are a soldier, son, and you’ve just won your first battle!” Qyr declared.
Drogen looked at Gho, who gave him a strained smile. “The Admirals were here to get my report on your progress, Drogen,” he said. “Your test scores for the military were quite good. Good enough to get you into the Space Corp. But…”
“Some of our more narrow-minded members were against breaking caste to take you,” Qyr said, shooting Vhen a look. “But there’s no way they can refuse you now.”
He stared at them. “Truly? I qualified for the Corp?”
“Yes, you certainly did!” Qyr grinned even more broadly. “We just had to make sure you had a track record for dependability and dedication to duty. I think you proved that quite thoroughly, risking yourself to protect the lab!”
“But-“ he hadn’t been protecting the lab. He’d just been cleaning up.
“Say nothing more about it, son,” Qyr sat at the foot of his bed. “Modesty is becoming, but there’s no need to protest. There’s every indication that you’re going to recover fully, and be even better than before! We’ll be dropping you straight into training as soon as you’re up and about.”
“Marine training?” He blinked again. From useless failure to marine in less than five minutes! “I get to start marine training! Scientist Gho! I’m to be a soldier after all!”
But Gho’s face didn’t reflect his own excitement. Gho just nodded, but his eyes were sad. “And you’ll be a fine one.”
“I’m a fool,” Drogen said. “I’m sorry. I’ve been glad to serve you Scientist Gho, I didn’t mean to imply I wasn’t. “
Gho smiled at that. “Of course not! I’m not some fool like Rhega to get my hair in a twist over something silly. You needn’t apologize, my boy.”
He relaxed. “So I’ll be back to normal, and in the marines.” He grinned. How proud his father would be!
At that Vhen, who had been quietly disapproving in the background, laughed. “Normal? Oh, you’ll never be normal, boy! Just look at you!”
“Vhen!” Qyr said.
“You’re neither of you telling him anything useful,” Vhen pushed past Qyr and came to stand at the foot of the bed. “Drogen Lar, you are an experiment. You are a machine. Look at yourself, look at your hand. Look!” he growled, leaning forward and fixing his gaze on Drogen’s. “I am no friend to you, but I will not lie. Look at yourself.”
Slowly, Drogen lowered his eyes from Vhen’s. He raised his hand, expecting to see burnt flesh. Ashy with damage or red and raw. He expected to be horrified. But he could handle that. He could handle scars. He could handle wounds. He could even handle being horrific to the eye. So long as he could respect himself, he could handle anything.
But he didn’t expect what he saw. His hand was perfect. Whole. No sign of burning or any damage at all. Except, it was silver. He blinked, thinking somehow his inner lid had come down again. But no. He flexed his fingers. Silver. Light reflected off the movement as if off metal.
“The alloy,” he whispered.
Part 3: Exile
Drogen stared at his silver hands.
“Yes, the alloy!” Vhen sounded disgusted. “The ever precious alloy.”continue...
“It catches the light,” Drogen murmured. It was all he could think to say as he tried to understand how the alloy could have bonded to him, and what it meant for his future.
“It will simply make you a better soldier,” Qyr said. “So you’ll be a little shiny. Better to catch the girl’s eyes!” He laughed, as if he’d just made some excellent joke.
“You blustering idiot,” Vhen said without much venom. “Tell him, Gho. Tell him what the alloy does for him.”
Gho was still sitting by Drogen’s bed, his brows knit with worry. “You will have all the invulnerability of the alloy. Your genetic profile allows you to bond with the alloy in a way very few can. The alloy has replaced your skin, and become part of you. It will live with you, breathe with you, grow with you. You will be completely immune to radiation, you can resist nearly anything any of our weapons can deal out, and your strength will be several times what it was. You are the first, and you have become the perfect soldier.”
Drogen looked at all of them, then. Gho sitting worried by his bedside. And Qyr falsely cheerful. And Vhen, clearly hating him, clearly resenting breaking caste. And yet agreeing that he could be a soldier. Not just a soldier, one of the Space Corp.
“It wasn’t an accident, was it?” he said softly. “I was the only one in the lab. Everyone else was at dinner, with you,” he looked at the two Admirals. “And those lights were blinking. You knew,” he looked at Gho, “you knew I would check them. And it was only when I input my code that the explosion happened. That wouldn’t have happened to anyone else, would it?”
“No,” Gho said, not meeting his gaze. “It wouldn’t have.”
Vhen gave him a sour half smile. “You would never have made soldier,” he said, “if not for this. And now, thanks to no effort of yours, you’re the future of the Dorvalan military. Welcome to the Marines.”
Admiral Qyr was looking at him with a vague expression of concern. He seemed about to say something, when Vhen poked him in the shoulder. “Come on, Qyr. We have a luncheon with the It’s time for you to go play hero of the people again. I doubt your verbal circumlocutions would go over well here at the moment. We’ll come back later to discuss the future with Cadet Lar.”
The two Admirals left. Which meant it was just Drogen and Gho.
“For what it’s worth,” Gho said, “I am sorry.”
“You knew.” It wasn’t quite a question. He hoped Gho would deny it. He wanted to believe that the old man had really noticed him because of his own merits, not because of some genetic profile that fit the alloy. He wanted to believe that Gho had been an unwilling accomplice. That maybe Rhega had done it, setting up Gho’s equipment.
Drogen shook his head. The entire last year had been a lie. He’d thought his promotion to work in the lab had been recognition of his potential. That the military couldn’t handle someone from the servant caste being a soldier, but that they were willing to admit he was more than his caste and let him at least be a lab assistant. And how proud his father had been, to think his son had earned a position with the scientists! Lies. All lies.
He looked up to find the older man watching him, waiting. “And how shall you make use of this gift?” Gho asked.
“A gift?” Drogen said. “If they had asked me, maybe it would have been a gift. Maybe then it could have been a gift I gave the Corp, to offer myself up for experimentation. But now? The Corp doesn’t want me. They want only the technology that covers my skin. Me, they loathe.” He clenched his fists. “Three Ladies of mercy! How can I serve a military that treats me like an expendable, filthy lab animal?”
“Tell me differently, if you can! Do they respect me? Do they think I’ve earned my place? Will I ever be credited with anything more than being the result of your genius?” he demanded of Gho.
“Did you always want to be a soldier?” Gho asked him.
He looked at Gho in disbelief.
“Or did you want to be a hero? The two are different, you know. There are many soldiers who are heroes, like Admiral Qyr–”
Drogen snorted at that. Gho smiled slightly, but continued. “But there are even more heroes who are not soldiers. Which one will you be? Are you only capable of heroism within the Corp? Or are you capable of more than that? It will not be easy.”
It will not be easy. It will be even harder for you than it was for me. I apologize for that. I have done my best by you… Gho’s voice echoed in his mind. It’s what Gho had told him before the accident. Before leaving the lab, and knowing full well what was about to happen to him.
“You’ve been playing a very deep game, haven’t you?” he asked. “You never intended me to serve the military.”
“Ah.” Gho smiled slightly. “Have I been that obvious?”
“You could have hidden this from me. But you didn’t. You knew I couldn’t serve the Corp under these circumstances. Vhen wouldn’t even think I’d resist, and Qyr is clearly confused, but you knew I would never accept this.”
“Yes,” Gho said. “Your sense of personal honor won’t allow it.”
“There’s no way for me to stay on Dorvalla now, is there?”
Gho shook his head, “I’m afraid not. The military would never leave you alone if you did.”
“And what happens next?” Drogen asked him.
“You fight your way out of here,” Gho told him. “To the hangar. There you’ll find the Admirals’ shuttle with enough fuel and resources to get you to Malva. You’re smart enough, you’ll figure out how to pilot it. And I will be distraught and outspoken over how the military mishandled you. How they attempted to destroy your honor. This will necessitate an Imperial Investigation of the military, which will find the source of the corruption that lead to this stupid plot to secretly create a super soldier. Which, they will find, was lead by men who intended to usurp the throne from the Emperor.”
“Shogar,” Drogen whispered. “Is that true?”
Gho nodded. “Yes. Otherwise there would be no need for secrecy.”
“Three Ladies have mercy,” he said. “That will change the world.”
“Yes. When you leave, causing an outcry too large for the Admirals to silence, the world will begin to change.”
“And I’ll become a hero,” Drogen murmured, “in my absence.”
“Yes,” Gho said, “but that’s often true. At least, unlike many heroes, you won’t have to die first.”
“All I had to do was burn with fire for… how long?” Drogen asked.
“Three days,” Gho whispered, his eyes haunted. “I am truly sorry for that. It took me three days to make a syringe that would pierce your skin. I had forgotten that necessity.” Gho closed his eyes for a moment, looking both very tired and very old. “Your father will be taken care of, in honor of his heroic son. In several years time, you will even be able to return to Dorvalla, if you wish to.”
Better this, Drogen thought, than serving under Vhen and Qyr. At least this he could respect. He nodded. “When should I escape?”
“Tonight,” Gho said. “The Admirals will be at a state dinner. There will be guards here, and you will have to fight them.”
Drogen snorted. “Good thing for me that I have this near impenetrable alloy on my skin.”
Gho smiled slightly in response. “Indeed. Make noise, make it spectacular. Remember that they cannot hurt you.”
“I will,” Drogen said.
“There is a bag of your things,” Gho said, “that I retrieved from your quarters. As well as my notes on the alloy. Hopefully, those will help you.”
Gho rose to leave, “I am sorry,” he said again. “If I could have done this without making you an exile, I would have.”
Drogen just nodded. He didn’t know quite how he felt about Gho anymore. It was all too complicated.
At the door, Gho stopped and looked back at him. “There was one other in the lab who had the same genetic variation you do, but I could not trust his honor. He would have taken their poison gift and been glad of it.”
And then Gho was gone.
Shogar guide me, Drogen thought. Strangely, though, he felt nearly peaceful for the first time in his life. He knew what he was doing, and he knew why, and he knew his sacrifice would be understood and honored.
Tonight, I battle my way to freedom. Tomorrow… Who ever knows what tomorrow holds?