BEN WAS never rash like this. His sister, Beverly, often urged him to be more impulsive, but she probably hadn’t meant by risking his life.
Not that Ben was in danger! He’d be fine. The Streak had never harmed anyone before. Though maybe that was because no one had ever gotten in his way before….
Shaking that thought from his mind, Ben raced down the block from his apartment toward the jewelry store on the corner, then down the back alley. Even a super-fast thief had to be smart, and Streak’s previous heists had always shown evidence of typical breaking and entering—through the back.
Maybe Ben was too late, but just as he worried he’d missed his chance, the back door burst open and a sparking blur skidded to a stop.
“Who the hell are you?” The figure materialized into a man covered head to toe in black, holding an impressive-sized bag, overflowing with loot, over his shoulder.
Ben was certain he should have come up with some sort of witty one-liner, but all he could think to do was aim his gun and fire.
THE NEWS had dubbed the incident six months ago “Vertigo” because in an instant, the world had been turned upside down. A third of the population had suddenly developed superpowers, all because an abnormal solar flare had triggered previously dormant genetic markers in everyone across the globe.
Most of those triggered saw no change at all, and most of those who manifested powers only had minor abilities that were rarely a threat to others. The small population with more pronounced abilities, however, could be very dangerous, and unfortunately, at least in Benjamin Krane’s city, they all seemed to want to cause chaos or take control like some rabid mass of supervillains.
The police could do next to nothing. The government couldn’t step in because they were busy dealing with the same thing all across the nation—and around the world. All anyone who was Powerless or merely Enhanced could do was hope to find a way to protect themselves against those who were Super.
Or that maybe, just maybe, a few Supers would turn out to be the heroes they needed.
So far, no such luck in Fairview City. Ben did his best to contribute, being Powerless but hardly, well… powerless. As one of the premier engineers at Mohs Labs, he had more patents than any of his peers, more money than he honestly knew what to do with, and his own floor at the labs to work on whatever he pleased.
Since Vertigo, he had dedicated most of his research to finding ways to stop Supers who wished the city harm. His first invention had been power-dampening handcuffs for the police. That had led to the invention of anti-Vertigo cells at Fairview Penitentiary, but both inventions assumed the police had already caught the bad guys. Catching them, stopping them, still proved next to impossible.
Which was why Ben had been working on a projectile version of his anti-Vertigo technology. The power dampeners only worked while the cuffs were on or when the person was in their cell, but with a gun, he hoped to depower them beforehand, at least long enough for the police to get them into custody.
“Once again, Talon escapes FCPD officers before Mohs Labs-issued handcuffs could be secured,” a newswoman reported, causing Ben to look up at the TV on the wall. “Talon, or Adriana McAllister, one of the few Supers whose identity is known, first appeared on the scene two weeks post-Vertigo after killing her sister and proceeding to break through a concrete wall to a bank vault and then fly to safety. Her abilities are said to be connected to harnessing the nature of various animals. Police are at a loss for how to bring her to justice.”
Talon. They all had fancy names they had either given themselves or that the media had dubbed them. Ben thought it in poor taste and that it only encouraged them. He knew how the criminal mind worked.
He’d grown up in a bad neighborhood and probably would have turned out bad himself if his mother hadn’t taken him and his sister in after his father went to prison. His mother, not Beverly’s. His father had remarried, but when Beverly’s mother passed away, Ben’s mother, Lorna, pushed for full custody. Their father ending up in prison made it easy for her to win and then get custody of Beverly too.
“Scientists say the solar flare at the start of Vertigo was brightest right over our city,” the reporter continued.
“Too bad it created so much darkness, eh, Janet?” her counterpart said.
“Ooph, Gideon!” Ben cried, startled by his cat jumping onto his workstation to sprawl over his schematics as though they had been laid there just for her. “I need those, young lady.” He tapped her pink nose pointedly.
Gideon chirped at him, unimpressed.
She was a basic shorthair, colloquially a tuxedo cat—though since her fur was Russian Blue gray, Ben preferred to call her his little Suit Cat.
One of the benefits of being Mohs Labs’ best asset, besides having his own floor, was that he got to choose his staff—which was no one—and to be allowed to bring in his cat. It didn’t bother him that most of his coworkers barely said two words to him each week. They only ever saw him when he wandered up to the other floors because he was out of coffee.
“Fine,” Ben said as Gideon stretched and blinked at him slowly, clearly having no intention of moving. “You’re lucky I’m ready for a test run. Shall we give the gun a try?”
Gideon mewed lazily back at him.
“My thoughts exactly.”
Ben wished he’d had his gun design finished sooner. He might have been able to get the prototype to Tony to use against Talon before she caused more trouble.
Tony Garrett was his oldest and dearest friend, and Captain of the FCPD. Tony was also the only Enhanced person Ben knew, though Tony didn’t think it very useful that his abilities had manifested as being able to regulate temperature in any condition.
He could walk out stark naked in a blizzard and be fine, or bundle in a parka in the Caribbean and not be bothered by the heat. Ben had tried explaining to him on numerous occasions how remarkable that was, but Tony merely shrugged.
Leaving the main room for his testing grounds, Ben felt uncharacteristically optimistic. He had set up several police-issue training cutouts as targets with microscope slides of Super-positive DNA attached to them, hoping for the gun to work on affected cells from as great a distance as possible. He also had multiple variants for how the cells manifested, but even though abilities came in all types, the basic DNA markers were the same.
Squaring himself a good ten yards from the cutouts with safety goggles on over his glasses, Ben took aim and fired his inaugural shot. The output of the somewhat sci-fi-looking blaster was like ripples of heat on a summer day, visually subtle but with an impressive kick that nearly threw him backward. Ben laughed at the thrilling jolt and sprinted ahead to collect the slides.
He had placed a microscope nearby and checked each slide as quickly as he could. As long as the slide had been within the blast radius, even if not centered, the cell reaction appeared to be the same, almost as though the Vertigo cells had frozen but without any sign of degradation. Ben didn’t want anyone hurt, after all.
Then he watched the clock, checking every thirty seconds to see when the cells became active again. The center slides lasted the longest, ten whole minutes, plenty of time for police to act, while the outer ones slowly ticked down until they were closer to five minutes before reactivation.
Even that would be helpful, and trained officers could be taught to aim more efficiently than Ben.
“I did it, Gideon!” he called when he returned to the main room.
Gideon’s tail fwipped back and forth where she lay on the schematics, though she had the courtesy to open her eyes.
“And I have everything I need to build more in bulk and get these issued to the FCPD straight away. Tony will be so pleased. I’ll let him have this one himself, though I think I’ll have to tinker a bit at home tonight.”
“This just in.” Another reporter’s voice broke into his monologue. “While officials were preoccupied with the events surrounding Talon, there has been another sighting of the Super called the Streak. Little is known about the thief who has been active since nearly day one of Vertigo, but he is believed to have the ability of great speed. All anyone has ever seen is trails of lightning and the occasional blur of a tall, thin figure in black. To date, the thefts include….”
Ben tuned out the list of the Streak’s many exploits. “At least he’s never killed anyone,” he said—the only villainous Super who hadn’t.
Gideon mewed again as he returned to his workstation.
“You’re right, Gideon, the Streak could be a she. Shall we take one more hour before heading home?”
Gideon purred agreement, though it may have been more for the scratches under her chin.
Ben just needed five minutes to clear his head before he finished everything necessary to take the rest of his work home for the night. He could use those five minutes to start the next chapter of the eBook he’d been reading.
This one had a recent divorcee on hard times finding love with her burly neighbor. Ben was an engineer by day; he couldn’t help that on his breaks and off-hours he enjoyed cheesy, tawdry, smutty fiction. It didn’t matter if it was two men or a man and woman either, as long as one of the men was young and rugged and powerful, preferably with scruffy facial hair and a take-charge attitude, who could lift their partner without effort and ravage them against any nearby surface.
Like Ryder was currently doing to Sofia in the chapter pulled up on Ben’s computer, hoisting her onto the kitchen counter and tipping her back as he kissed her hard and tore away her clothing. Ben wished someone would lift him like that. Kiss him like that. Touch him even remotely like that.
The ring of the office phone made his breath catch. Had to be Beverly. She knew better than to try his cell phone during the workday, and no one else ever called down here.
“What are you doing tonight?” she asked before Ben could even utter a hello.
“You’re always working.”
“I’ll have you know I had a breakthrough tonight that could make Mayor Jesse look very good for you.”
Beverly was Deputy Mayor with grand plans to make a real difference in Fairview City. Ben couldn’t have been prouder. Mayor Jesse was a good man, too, though a little lacking in charisma, which was why he needed Beverly to help him make more of a splash to the public. Being mayor during the Vertigo crisis was not helping his poll numbers.
“Fantastic,” Beverly said, “I can’t wait to hear all about it—when you join me as my date for a press event tonight.”
“I have vital work that needs to be completed.”
“And what about seeing your sister?”
“I’ll see you tomorrow for dinner with Mother. Tony will be there also.”
“That’s family night, not a social life. When was the last time you went on a date? You don’t even go out for drinks with your coworkers.”
Ben remembered his coffee maker in the neighboring break room. He was out, and he definitely needed a cup to go if he was going to be productive tonight, which meant getting a drink with coworkers somewhat differently but equally undesirable.
“Fraternizing is not necessary,” he said as a familiar panic reared at the potential of interaction.
“You’re practically a shut-in.”
“I am not a—I am doing important work. And people make me… wary.”
She made a disappointed noise that stirred guilt in Ben’s stomach, but not enough to change his mind. “I’m only letting you off the hook if you promise that someday soon I get to have some arm candy at a press event.”
“I am hardly arm candy.” Ben chuckled in disbelief. He didn’t fuss over his appearance the way she did. He kept his graying hair short mostly for ease’s sake, wore glasses instead of bothering with contacts, and dressed—in Beverly’s own words—like Mr. Rogers’ nerdier neighbor. His medium-dark skin didn’t betray any wrinkles, though.
“You do know that the only way to stop being a forty-year-old virgin is to have some confidence occasionally, right?”
“I—” Ben felt his face flush hot. It wasn’t as if he had zero sexual experience, just nothing complete. His anxiety over human contact wasn’t helped by how terrible he was at it. Fantasy men were easier.
“It would be different if you weren’t interested,” Beverly said, “but I know you are. I’ve seen your browser history.”
“That is none of your business,” Ben hissed into the phone, as if needing to keep the conversation private from Gideon.
“Fine then, have a nice evening with your cat. Again.” Beverly ended on an aptly timed tease.
Ben knew she wouldn’t let this go, but he decided to focus on having won the battle—sort of—even if the war still loomed. He just preferred the recharge of alone time, was that so terrible? People were exhausting. He loved his sister, his mother, Tony, but branching out got harder the older he got, with less of a stomach for disappointment, especially where romance was concerned. No real man would ever sweep him off his feet or pin him to a solid surface with a smoldering look. He wasn’t the type to be lusted after.
Hanging up with Beverly, Ben left Gideon on the schematics once more and made for the elevator. Brewing a whole pot of coffee would be wasteful and take too much time. Besides, he needed more grounds anyway. He could refill his cup and acquire a few bags from the upstairs lounge without running into anyone.
“Benjamin.” His boss—naturally—happened to be striding past just as the elevator doors opened, the President of Mohs Labs herself, Leslie Mohs. “What a pleasure. Coming to see me?” She was sweet and selfless and entirely too friendly. She also treated Ben like a little brother at times, despite being a few years younger than him.
“Um, no actually. Just out of coffee.” Ben forced himself to step out of the elevator rather than let the doors close like his instincts demanded. “But I should have that prototype anti-Vertigo gun completed by tonight for your review, and hopefully continue into rapid deployment.”
“Excellent,” she said. “Mohs Labs and Fairview City are in your debt again. Are you certain you don’t want any press coverage—”
“No,” Ben spoke up quickly. What was it with the women in his life trying to get him in front of cameras and crowds? “I don’t need any undue attention, thank you. That Mohs Labs gets the credit for my inventions is enough for me.”
“Well, the attention would hardly be undue,” Leslie said, “but say no more. You enjoy your anonymity. But do be careful with too much late-afternoon caffeine. I’d shudder to think of it keeping you up at night. And get something on my calendar for tomorrow, will you?”
“Already on it.” If Tony could attend as well, maybe Ben would feel more at ease giving the presentation. Leslie liked to bring in gawkers.
Thankfully, she was on her way to a late meeting, so Ben was able to make for the lounge—where several of his coworkers were gathered around the coffee machine. Urg.
Their animated conversation came to an abrupt stop at his entrance, and suddenly he was fifteen again with nowhere to sit at lunchtime whenever Tony had a sick day.
“Hello, Benjamin,” said Warren Douros, one of the few who actually tried to be cordial. The others—fellow engineers Lydia Shepherd and Jon Swisher, and Head of Research and Development, Nora Linares—had given up long ago. Warren was young but still lead engineer on several projects. They were all fantastic peers to be counted among.
“Warren. Everyone.” Ben mustered a tight smile and continued to the coffee maker, causing the others to part like the Red Sea.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be friendly, or maybe even make friends, but he’d been so afraid of a new environment when he first started working at Mohs Labs, he’d waited too long to try until it just became awkward, and now everyone thought he hated them.
It was better that way anyway. Machines and cats would never judge him.
Well, Gideon did sometimes.
“As I was saying,” Nora began as the others politely started to leave, “I think it would do everyone good to sign up for the symposium together. We could make a weekend of it, compare notes, have a few evenings out after panels.”
“Benjamin, were you considering attending the upcoming symposium at Laird Industries?” Warren asked, not retreating with the others. “I hear they’re unveiling several new technologies around Vertigo. Perhaps you could learn something useful for your own research.”
“Oh, I… hadn’t heard that. I’ll have to look into it.” Ben had no intention of attending anything guaranteed to have so many people.
“You could join the rest of us,” Warren tried again, lingering, alone with Ben now and looking so earnest.
“I wouldn’t want to impose. I don’t even know if I’m available those dates.”
“Well, how about I forward you the info and you can let me know?”
“That would be all right, I suppose.” Ben hated to lie, but he didn’t want to see disappointment stare back at him either.
Of course now what was he supposed to say to continue the conversation when Warren smiled and didn’t immediately leave? Should he small-talk? Was Warren expecting him to say something first? Maybe Ben should attempt a benign compliment, like… Warren’s glasses. They were nice. Similar to Ben’s but equally becoming.
Although then Warren might think Ben was hitting on him, and that would be a disaster. Ben knew from overheard gossip that Warren had been dating a man—at some point, maybe it was months ago—and while Ben didn’t date and Warren was not his type, it might be common knowledge that he was gay.
Crap, now the pause had stretched too long. Ben was overthinking this.
Social life, conversation, normalcy. Surely, Warren wouldn’t think it too odd if he—
“Warren, were you coming?” Jon peeked his head back in, and Warren startled, glancing over with what Ben decided must be relief that he’d been saved.
“I’ll forward you those details. Talk to you soon,” he said before hurrying away.
Ben sighed. He had his coffee. He just needed to grab those few bags of grounds and he could escape, but instead, he found himself shuffling to the door and craning his ears for the hushed conversation the group began as soon as Warren joined them.
“Why do you waste your time?” Lydia asked.
“It’s not a waste of time to be nice.”
“First I’ve seen him up here in months,” Jon said, “and always to poach our coffee.”
“It’s company coffee.”
“Can’t he keep enough down on his own floor?” Lydia snickered.
“You can’t complain that he has his own floor given his results.”
“Oh, Krane’s a genius, no doubt,” Nora interjected. “Deserves everything he gets. Frankly, I’m glad he has that floor to himself.”
“Yeah, saves us from the awkward silences. He must think us all rather beneath him,” Lydia mimicked some haughty voice.
That was usually what people thought of him, and he didn’t feel up to correcting them as their voices drifted too far away to overhear.
Ben grabbed his bags of coffee and was grateful he made it back to the elevator without encountering anyone else. He knew he could never make friends, let alone have a romance without getting to know people, trying, but like with his inventions, it was easier to stay in the shadows and live vicariously through other people.
So maybe Ben had turned to technology instead of crime when he was younger and allowed himself to hide away in the cold comfort of it. He wanted to help people so no one would ever have to live like he had—hungry, afraid, helpless. But deep down, he also wanted to be part of the adventure, any adventure, and prove he could step into the light without getting burned.
The pit in his stomach had still refused to go away by the time he’d finished half his new cup of coffee, so he decided to head out. The elevator went down one more floor to the garage and Ben’s parking spot was right beside it, allowing him to avoid meeting anyone there either. With Gideon safely in her carrier, and the gun and Ben’s needed equipment packed in the trunk, he left Mohs Labs behind.
Home was a loft apartment almost as large as his floor at work. Not extravagantly decorated, just spacious for his experiments and penchant for clutter. He fed Gideon, ate dinner, then turned on the news for background noise as he began his tinkering to be sure the gun would be in top form for review tomorrow.
He’d texted Tony after scheduling a time on Leslie’s calendar. He could attend. The FCPD loved that Tony had an in with Mohs Labs and got first crack at all of Ben’s inventions.
The news had switched to live footage of a reporter in front of City Hall discussing upcoming Vertigo-related legislation. Debates raged on whether Super and Enhanced people should have to register their abilities with the government—and at a city, state, or national level. Ben had never been so grateful to be Powerless, but he felt for those affected by Vertigo who just wanted to live normal lives.
“The Mayor’s press event, going on now, could be—” The reporter cut off abruptly, drawing Ben’s attention, and he caught the tail end of a flash of something like lightning zipping by in the background.
“Did you see that?” the reporter cried in excitement. “A live Streak sighting right here on Channel 9! Let’s hope the city’s most notorious thief isn’t taking advantage of the press event the same way he did Talon’s appearance earlier today.”
The press event. Beverly’s press event. She’d probably thought she could convince Ben to attend because he didn’t live far from City Hall. In fact, the direction the Streak had been headed would be closer to Ben’s building—and the jewelry store at the end of the block that fit his MO to a T, especially with the diversion of a large event keeping everyone busy.
Except Ben, who knew exactly where the Streak was headed and had the only tool that could stop him.
Gideon rubbed against his legs.
“Am I crazy if I bolt for the jewelry store to catch him myself?”
She mewed plaintively.
“You’re right. Definitely crazy.” But then, maybe crazy was taking advice from his cat.
Snatching the gun and goggles from his worktable, Ben ran for the door before he could change his mind, grabbing the parka he hadn’t put away from winter yet at the last second to have something to cover himself.
Technically, he was about to play vigilante, but only long enough to catch the Streak. He texted Tony that he was certain where the Streak was headed and to send patrols immediately, though he left out that he was headed there himself. Tony would trust him and do as asked.
Which was how Ben ended up in a back alley, firing his gun at a live Super.