Aerie Way – 3:00 PM

“Can’t you see what they are doing to us?” His voice boomed throughout the area, echoing off the distant concrete. It was a sound as common in the industrial sector known as Skyway City as police sirens and the constant background hum of traffic. Self-appointed emissaries of The Lost were as serious about teaching their dogma as they were about their extortion and protection rackets.

“This city keeps us from our homes! They spend YOUR tax dollars to keep their precious superheroes in lofty high-rise apartments while we beg for scraps under the shadows of their failures!” The corner preacher reached up to one of the many expressway overpasses that crossed this part of Paragon City as if trying to grab it and tear it down. In front of him, several of the city’s homeless raised angry voices in agreement.

“You there!” he shouted triumphantly, leaping off his soapbox and pointing at a pedestrian who foolishly made eye contact.

“Please I just want to get home,” he pleaded, taking a step back.

“How much money do you make? Working here, it must not be much. And how far has it gotten you in life?”

“Not far at all,” one of the rag-tag members of the Lost’s congregation chimed in. “Might as well give it to someone who will put it to better use.”

The hapless businessman looked around nervously, cringing when his eyes fell on an 8 foot tall and nearly 3 foot wide man standing behind the gathering. The monster sported a massive, curved strip of sheet metal, even taller than he was, strapped diagonally across his back.

“Please. I only have enough fo-“

“Then you do have something!” the preacher, by no means a small man himself and obviously a mutant, loudly interrupted. “Yet you have been conditioned to hoard your pennies. Can’t you see they are making you weak?”

The man wanted to protest, but could not help but look up at the freakish preacher and say, “W-What?”

It was the wrong answer. The preacher’s face contorted in rage as he suddenly grabbed the little man.

“Hey!”

The preacher paused, fist poised over his head, as all eyes converged on the source of voice.

She stood at 6’2″ yet with the poise of a dancer. Blue boots with purple trim stretched up to thigh height, wrapped around fair-skinned, muscle-toned legs that finally reached purple spandex shorts. The blue and purple theme continued above her rock solid abdomen with a spandex halter top, cut with horizontal rectangles spaced down the center. She wore matching gloves and a mask that stretched across deep blue eyes and under long locks of lavender hair.

“I’ve got something for your cause, boys,” she said with a wry grin. “Come and get it.”

***

“Here you go.” A little boy reached up and accepted the autograph book with a grin that stretched from ear to ear.

It was the perfect day for a signing. The sun shone down brightly on the crowd gathered in Blyde Square, forming a line that flowed to a giant banner that read, “COOKE’S ELECTRONICS WELCOMES RAMPART”.

At the center of attention on a stage centered under the banner stood the man of the hour, sunlight glinting off his polished armor. The bright blue metallic suit was detailed in white, with a sigil on his chest that resembled a tower embossed on a shield. He was a black man with dark skin, a cleanly shaven head, and proud features distinguished by a goatee and mustache. Though covered in metal and cybernetics from the neck down, he wore no mask aside from a sleek blue and white visor styled like simple sunglasses.

“Nightstrike, please tell me you’re kidding,” Effigy said with a furrowed brow. The two stood a block away, having just reached the big event. “He’s poster boy celebrity.”

Nightstrike just shook his head. “He grew up in The Gish, Effigy. Clawed his way out with nothing and earned PhD in engineering before the war. He designed that armor and uses it better than the best field agents the Army could find.”

He paused, turning his eyes to face at her. “When the invasion started, he gave up a research grant with the NSA to enlist so he could support the front lines. When the reconstruction began, he was among the first to sign up with the Corps.”

Effigy looked back, the color of her eyes shifting imperceptibly. “Perhaps having someone so high profile will give our enemies pause.”

“That wasn’t on my list of reasons before, but it’s a good one to add I guess.” Nightstrike began to walk forward. “You have to meet the man to understand. Come on.”

The pair made their way down the block and past a police checkpoint with a flash of their ID cards. From the stage, Rampart did a brief double take as he was signing an autograph. He pulled someone aside from the staff, and then waved to the crowd, assuring them he’d be right back.

Nighstrike extended his hand as Rampart approached. He took it with an underhand grasp and pulled, bumping shoulders and patting him on the back.

“He Who Strikes By Night, my man.” Rampart spoke with a smooth, baritone voice and carried himself with a confident presence that Effigy could not help but respect.

“It’s been too long.” Nighstrike nodded toward his companion. “Effigy, I want you to meet Jeremiah Stone, better known as Rampart.”

The black man turned his gaze from Effigy back to Nightstrike. “You have been out of the loop way too long, old friend. My name is Hakim Abdul-Ali, now.”

Nightstrike took half a second to absorb that, and bowed in deference. Rampart nodded, then returned his attention to the redhead.

“I’d like you to meet Effigy.” Rampart took her hand gently and bowed his head. Effigy almost caught herself blushing. “She’s got quite a story to tell,” Nightstrike added.

“After you are done here, of course,” Effigy said, indicating the crowd of curious fans.

Rampart looked at them as well, but sighed. “I wanted them to hold this at the 88th Street shelter,” he said with a hint of resignation. “When I said I’d like to give back to the community, I meant a community that needs it.” He paused for a few heartbeats, but before the silence felt awkward added, “But Cookes footed the bill.”

Nightstrike saw the opening and took it. “We’re looking for allies to help us with a new threat, Rampart. There’s no one I’d rather have watching my back.”

Rampart turned casually, but with the slightest hint of a spark in his demeanor. “Will it get me out of these appearances for awhile?”

***

The Lost preacher screamed in rage as he watched his followers fly through the air like rag dolls. The giant sword that seemed so intimidating earlier lay discarded on the street, literally ripped in two and tossed away. The monster that wielded it had been the first to fall.

He sneered at the girl with the purple hair in the center of the chaos. A scathing comment about the superheroine came to mind, but it was only more infuriating when he looked around to find there was no one to hear it. The preacher ducked to avoid a flailing body, grabbing the soapbox that served as his pulpit. He tossed the crate aside, revealing a glowing energy rifle.

Quickly, he picked it up and spun, but before he could even line up a shot, a gust of wind blew over him and he found himself gawking at his empty hands.

The preacher wanted to scream again, but was too flabbergasted. He whipped around, following the direction of the blur that swept his gun away. Emerald Ghost stood there grinning for a second before he cranked up the energy feed dial and spun-drop kicked the rifle into the air. The Lost’s eyes just followed the weapon’s arc until it exploded in a brilliant green cloud high overhead.

“Hey, Lumpy!”

The familiar voice drew the preacher’s attention just in time to see a giant hunk of concrete sail into view before slamming him in the face.

Emerald Ghost stared at the slumped over body of the mutant for a few seconds, frozen with mixed fear and admiration. Finally he said, “Hey, you’re name is Adamantia, right? Remember me?”

The girl regarded him curiously, catching her breath and wiping a lock of lavender hair from her face. “Boomtown, right? Ghost.”

“Emerald Ghost now. But yeah. Everyone calls me Ghost anyway. Maybe I should have gone with Green Ghost, but that sounds… ehh. Anyway. Glad I finally caught up with you. Been looking for over a half hour now.”

Adamantia’s eyes danced back and forth, trying to think of how to respond to that. She giggled. “Guess I’m not as hard to find as I thought.”

“So I see you’re working solo again.”

She looked around, shrugged, and smiled.

Emerald Ghost hesitated, waiting for a reply in there. But finally said. “See that’s cool, ’cause we’re forming a team. And Nightstrike said we needed someone to do the heavy lifting, so-“

“You’re working with Nightstrike again? I heard you two…”

“Yeah we’re teaming up again. Sounds like he’s onto something pretty major. It’s not really like him to ask for help, you know. I get the feeling it’s not his idea, though.”

Behind Adamantia, the giant swordsman stirred. Catching himself from making too much noise, he started to climb to his feet.

“So anyway, I say, ‘Remember the Outcasts case?’. And he says, ‘Yeah’. So I said, ‘How about Adamantia?’ And he says, ‘Perfect. See if you can find her.’ So here I am.”

“You remembered me?” Suddenly Emerald Ghost’s eyes shifted behind her.

Before he could even get out the words, “Behind you,” Adamantia whirled around, driving a leg to the Lost’s groin, a clothesline to the stomach, and an elbow to the face. Even as the big mutant slumped to the ground, she whirled back around without missing a beat. “That is so sweet.”

Javi once again just stared in silence.

“I’d love to join.” Adamantia bent down slightly, trying to regain eye contact.

“Are you sure? I mean, I wasn’t kidding when I said this was major. It’s enough to make Nightstrike a little scared, and that’s gotta be pretty damn scary.”

“Javi,” she said, flattening the tone of her voice. That and the proof that she remembered him were enough to put make the speedster pause. “I’ve gone face to face with Dr. Vahzilok. I can handle scary. You want me? I’m in.”

“Okay,” Emerald Ghost replied, sincerely impressed with the lady. “He said to meet in Independence Port at King’s Tunnel.”

Adamantia beamed. “Race ya,” she announced as she hopped into the air. She floated there for a second, grinning at him, then took off like a bullet.

***

Effigy, Rampart, and Nightstrike arrived at the rendezvous point to find Emerald Ghost and their newest recruit chatting on a street corner. Nightstrike stepped off a blue disc, which quickly dissipated as Rampart landed behind him. At the approach, the laughter between Adamantia and Emerald Ghost suddenly cut short, like the principal had caught them doing something bad in class.

“Hey, Strike. Told you I could find her.”

Adamantia waved, eyeing the others hesitantly. Introductions were quickly made, but it was obvious to anyone watching that there was still a lot of ice to break. Effigy, in particular, thought of the many stories of rookie Freedom Corps teams that started exactly the same way. She was pressed to think of one that did not end in tragedy.

“So,” she said at length when the silence had grown awkward enough. “Here we all are. What now?”

“No,” Nightstrike replied. “There’s still one more. We’re here to get-“

Suddenly Effigy cried out and hit the ground face first, a heavy metal chain link bag landing beside her. In that same instant, Rampart’s armor reacted to a spray of automatic gunfire, forming a translucent blue helmet around his head.

Everyone spun around in the direction of the attack. From seemingly out of nowhere, Adamantia found herself engulfed in an impossibly solid web of white goop. Emerald Ghost took one step and yelped, looking down in shock at a sea of tiny sharp spikes on the ground around him.

A figure leapt as if from the air itself, light bending around a stocky outline to make it almost transparent. Rampart waved his arms toward it, but ended up catching a ticking bomb with the effort.

A double-layered shield slammed down around the bomb and Rampart just as Max Payment melted out of the camouflage and tackled Nightstrike headlong.

“What the hell did you get me into?!” he screamed in an almost incoherent rage. “They’re dead! They’re all dead!”

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