THE PRICE OF VALORThis is pretty much a rough draft, but several people inquired about seeing it, so here it is. I really don't like the title, but I don't know what else to go with - am open to suggestions in regards to that. Also tempted to flesh this out even more, another couple to four thousand words, mostly backstory. Not sure, though. Anyhow, enjoy.
David paced back and forth in the lobby of the apartment building. He was a tall, muscular young man in a trench coat, and normally this would be a concern for the night security guard, but Luigi knew David. He wasn't too familiar with the look of consternation on David's face – generally, David was a very happy-go-lucky sort of guy.
Luigi watched David from time to time; he wanted to ask what was bothering the young man, but he felt it wasn't polite to be a busy-body. His wife, Edna, she would have nagged him to ask David what was wrong, if there were problems between him and Martha.
Martha lived on the seventh floor, two doors down from Luigi and Edna's apartment. David and Martha had been dating for almost a year now and it was looking pretty serious. This was a good thing, as Martha hadn't had many boyfriends in the ten years she'd been living there. David was only the third guy that Luigi had ever seen visit Martha – for the longest time Edna was concerned that Martha might have been a lesbian, with all the girls that came over.
But almost a year ago, David and Martha had met through a mutual acquaintance. The change in Martha was almost instantaneous – she started paying more attention to her appearance than she had. Luigi had always thought of her as 'bohemian', but Edna didn't approve and constantly nagged Luigi about it... though she never said word one to Martha.
Luigi frowned, though not as severely as David... he had really come to care for Martha – she was like the daughter that he and Edna had never had. David reminded them of their son, Giovanni, who lived on the other side of the world. And he was very concerned for them. He'd never seen David behave like this.
Finally, Luigi had seen enough. “David, is something wrong, son?” David didn't react, he just keep pacing. Luigi stepped out from behind the desk and walked slowly towards David, who was still pacing back across the lobby, from the front entrance to the elevators and back.
Stepping in front of David, Luigi held up his hand, “Son, hold it right there. Keep it up and you're going to wear the carpet out and the owners are gonna dock my paycheck to cover it.”
David blinked, startled. His blue eyes were red with stress, his blond hair wasn't combed – it was short, so it wasn't that bad, but he looked like he was very upset. Luigi found himself voicing the question he'd been asking quietly the past ten minutes, “Son, what is problem? What's wrong?”
“Lou,” David mumbled, “I'm so scared... I'm so scared to tell her...”
Frowning, Luigi put his hand on David's shoulder. David was much taller than the older man – he was easily six foot three, if not taller, and built like a linebacker. He had some thick clothing on under the coat, felt almost like a flak jacket. Luigi didn't have time to process all of that, though his instincts did.
“Tell her what, son? What happened? What did you do?”
David shook his head, “No, Lou, I didn't do anything... nothing like that, no. I mean... I have a secret. And I've been hiding it from everyone, Lou.”
Luigi laughed, “David Jonas Anderson, there is nothing that you could have done that is so terrible. You're a good man. Even if you made a foolish mistake, it could not be that bad. Why not tell me?”
David took a deep breath and smiled. “I can do better, Lou, I can show you.” He stepped back and opened his trench coat, revealing the strange clothing beneath.
Luigi's eyes grew wide as he stared at the costume. His eyes moved from the insignia on the chest up to David's face, questioning. David nodded.
“Oh, my... that is a big deal.”
Edna brought in a tray of tea into the living room, where David and Luigi sat. David was still in his trench coat, though it was unbuttoned and his costume was visible underneath. It was a silver costume with a sword and shield insignia in black on the chest.
“We've never entertained a real superhero before, I hope our tea set is good enough,” she said, setting it on the low table. “Now that you're a superhero, do you still like cream and sugar in your tea, David?”
David smiled and nodded, “Edna, I'm still David, the same David you've always known...”
Edna smiled, sitting down next to Luigi. She was buzzing with excitement, and David could see that Luigi was just as wound up, though he was much calmer. David suspected that it came from his years on the New York Police Department.
“Guys, you have to understand, I've been Paladin longer than I've known you, longer than I've known Martha.” He paused to pour the cream and sugar into his tea and stir it. “And I'm sure you have a million questions... but the only question on my mind is what I should do about Martha.”
Edna sat forward, “Now, dear, this is a big thing to spring on a girl. Are you sure it's the right time to tell her?”
Sipping his tea, David nodded, “Yes, it's absolutely the right time to tell her. I think we're getting too serious not to tell her.”
Luigi nodded, “He's right, dear. Think back to when we started dating. You had thought I was a patrol officer, and when I told you the truth, that I was working undercover, it changed everything.”
Edna, gazing at her husband, smiled, “Yes, and it was awfully frightening, but I am glad that you told me. Had something happened to you and I hadn't been aware of things, it would have destroyed me and my memories of you.”
“And that's why I've got to tell her now, before it's too late. It may be late already, but if she and I are going to continue, if we're going to get more serious than we already have, then she needs to know now, so she can make the proper decision.”
Luigi looked at the clock, “Well Martha won't be home for at least another hour... and I have to ask, David – how did you become The Paladin? The Paladin was around when I was just a kid... was that you?”
David laughed, “No, Lou, that wasn't me... okay, I guess it can't do any harm to tell you, but you have to promise not to tell anyone?”
Luigi and Edna both nodded vigorously.
“The original Paladin was Mark Albert Danielson – he was recruited by the United States Army just after World War Two... well, around 1950.” David shrugged, “I never was good with memorizing dates and all of that. But I know he debuted in 1952 and that was after a training program that lasted several years. Hell, I'm the third Paladin and my training program took over two years... and back then, they were making it up as they went along. Mark I – that's actually his designation in the files – was selected from over a thousand candidates, all of them American citizens, most of them soldiers in the Army.”
Luigi nodded, “I remember the Paladin in the news reels and papers... it was 1953 before he become public knowledge, at least here in New York. I've heard that he was busy for a year before the news started spreading across the country. Today, it'd be all over the world in hours thanks to the Internet.”
Nodding, David took a sip of his tea. “Excellent, as always, Edna. You make the best cup of tea in the five boroughs” Edna blushed and waved her hand dismissively – it was their regular routine, and one David intentionally did, hoping to further put them at ease – he could tell that they were still both rather wound up over everything, not that he blamed them one bit.
“Mark lasted twenty-three years in an active role as The Paladin; he was killed in the line of duty in combat with some bank robbers who had decided to bring a rocket-propelled grenade launcher with them. His son, Eric, stepped into the role four years later – by then, there were other heroes, the Shield of America, Man-Tiger, the Amazing Three, and others.”
Edna patted Luigi's hand, “Lou was sent as part of the honor guard from New York to the tribute in Washington. He was so handsome in his full dress.” David glanced at Luigi, for this was news to him. Luigi smiled, proudly, “It was a sad but very proud and amazing experience, David. We have pictures in one of our boxes, we'll have to dig them out for you.”
“I'd like that,” David replied. “Eric's powers were more developed than Mark's – the serum made Mark as strong as five men, enhanced his physical abilities three to sevenfold, and made his skin impervious to small arms fire. Eric could dead lift ten times the recorded strongest man at the time, and could leap far enough that most people thought he could fly. Also, he was much faster than Mark, or even myself, for that matter. But then, he inherited his abilities genetically, where mine were grafted to my genes by science.”
“How exactly did that happen, dear? We know the second Paladin disappeared, w hat, twelve years ago?” Edna sat forward, her own cup of tea forgotten.
David squirmed a little. “Well, to explain what happened, I need to tell you more about myself. I was born with [debilitating disease for children]. I spent the first thirteen years of my life in hospitals or extremely septic environments in my parents' house. Fortunately, they had money to spare... and they did their best to make me comfortable, and I knew I was loved, but it was still a miserable existence.”
Luigi and Edna both sat forward, clenching the other's hand in intent silence, listening to David's words. He smiled and, not for the first time, felt that they were almost like his parents as well.
“I don't know if you remember march sixteenth, ninety-eight or not, but that's a day I'll never forget.” David's eyes took on a faraway look as he recalled that fateful day.
The Paladin was aboard an alien spacecraft over Waterloo, Iowa. He was embroiled in physical struggle with Moggo, Overload of the Ttauran invasion fleet. The Paladin had managed to trick the rest of the fleet into returning to their home galaxy, but Moggo was suspicious that the report of the Ark'leayan Battle cruiser approaching Earth was faked, so he returned with his personal craft, after halting the invasion fleet just past the planet Pluto. (Back then, Pluto was still a planet. And, in fact, it is still considered a planet by most star-faring races to this day.)
Moggo, of course, was right in his suspicions. The Paladin had his associate in the Society of Heroes, Technus, hack into the alien computers and falsify the readings of a Ark'leayan Battle cruiser
And it almost worked.
But it didn't, and that's how The Paladin found himself in mortal combat with Moggo. Moggo, like most Ttaurans, was over seven feet in height and weighed almost 850 pounds. He was a bull-man, and had two sets of horns, razor sharp and gilded with gold and silver, protruding from his skull.
Fortunately, The Paladin was stronger, because he was not as accomplished a fighter as the Ttauran Overlord was. His suit was torn in fourteen places, and he was bleeding from seven wounds. He could feel the poison burning in his veins, though he hoped that his metabolism was strong enough to battle it.
“Foolish human, you will die for your temerity!” Eric (The Paladin) always wondered why aliens were able to speak English and why they spoke like comic book villains. He would never find out an answer to that question. As he and Moggo struggled, the ship was out of control, for there was no pilot – The Paladin had rendered him unconscious before grappling with Moggo.
The ship crashed into the street outside the (David's family) home on Hammond Avenue in the middle of town. David was awoken from a medicated slumber by the impact and stepped to his window to look out at the brightly shining ship, half-buried in the pavement. Even though it was two in the morning, it was almost as bright as mid-morning, from the energy being thrown off by the craft.
The front hatch of the ship exploded off and two men... or rather a man and an alien came tumbling out, punching and goring and biting and kicking in places where gentlemen don't kick, even on other planets. They fought like wild creatures and both of them were bloody and battered by time they ended up in David's lawn.
Moggo hefted The Paladin high above his head with both arms and threw him into the second floor of the house, through the wall, into David's bedroom! The boy was knocked to the ground and caught beneath the heavier frame of the superhero.
Moggo leaped up into the room with ease, and pulled out a phase reaction grenade. “You think you have won, but you haven't, human.”
The Paladin stood up, shakily, spitting blood. “I know your armada is beyond your ability to call – the communications on your ship are shot. Earth tech can't get a call out there before they head home, assuming you are dead or captured. Police are on their way, as is the Army, and more importantly, Megaton Man and the rest of the Society – and if you think I'm tough, I'm a weenie compared to Megaton.”
Moggo sneered and David, who was still lying on the floor behind the shaky Paladin, trembled in fear. There was desperation in that sneer. “Stupid Earthers, I won't be captured and my Ttauran forces know that. Rule number one dash four of our Imperial Code of Battle says to never be captured for it is a stain of dishonor against the Empress and against our family.”
He pulled the pin on the phase reaction grenade, “But if I'm going to go, then I'm taking you with me.. you and this pathetic boy. Such a weak creature... on my world, he would have been stomped to death upon birthing. Only the strong survive!” Those were the last words that Moggo spoke, he held the grenade high.
Eric covered David with his body and whispered, “Close your eyes kid and hope we live through this.” Those were the last words that the second man to wear the mantle of The Paladin ever said.
Then there was a flash of bright, red light.
“The next thing I knew,” David said, finishing the tale, “was waking up in the hospital ward of the Army base in Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. It was two months later, and I was cured. I was healthier than I ever had been, and in fact, was healthier than any teenager had a right to be.”
Edna took in a deep, long breath, “David... what happened to Eric? To the alien?”
Luigi patted his wife's hand, “Now dear, think... you remember the story about the alien ship that crash-landed in Iowa? I think that was the one and same, wasn't it, David?”
“Yes, Lou, it was. In 1998, the ship crash landed and it was reported that the crew of three were dead. And that was true – the pilot and engineer had died in the crash, and Overlord Moggo took his life and Eric's... and saved mine.”
“So what happened to you? How did that... phase reactionary grenade do it?” Lou's eyes were alive with excitement – this wasn't the sort of story you heard every day, after all.
David shook his head, “We really don't know for sure how it happened, but somehow it merged Eric and I into one form. His genetics and mine were fused, and though not very often, I can tap into some of his memories. Most of it is subconscious stuff – my body knows how to fight because he was trained. My mind knows the history of Ireland because Eric studied that in college.”
Edna got up and walked over and gave David a big hug. Luigi just smiled, “David, you are surely an amazing person... there's no way Martha would be anything but pleased to know the truth about you, if I have any inkling about the girl.”
David smiled, “I hope you're right, Lou. I need to tell her. But I've got to take care of a couple things, first.”
The Paladin stood atop the Chase Manhattan Bank and waited. He was impatient, always had been, ever since the day that he and Eric had been fused together. The boy David had been had been forced to be patient – patiently waiting for death, but Eric had never been a patient man, and once he was healthy, neither was David.
He stood and listened. His augmented hearing (a mix of technology woven into his helmet, technology stolen from the wreckage of the Ttauran spacecraft, plus the genetically-enhanced hearing inherited from Eric) strained and listened and filtered out random noises, the sounds of traffic, the wind, the voices of people throughout the city... and tuned in on the building below him. He strained and made an effort to listen into the building, specifically the fortieth floor.
There, in the offices of Crocker and Longino, was a trap. The famous art brokerage had a recently unearthed statue of Diana, the Hunter, by Leochares. The truth was otherwise – it was a fake, but one that had been carefully arranged between the owners of the firm, the NYPD, David and several associates.
This was an important night; the rest of New York's population of superheroes were at a well-publicized, televised event in Washington, DC, honoring President Obama for supporting the American Superheroes Authorization Act, in effect deputizing all approved heroes as agents of the federal government. Prior to that, many superheroes had to worry about the local law enforcement, as they often were considered to be vigilantes, and at times pursued by the very law they were seeking to protect.
David was staying behind, though someone wearing a Paladin costume had been spotted at the public events throughout the day. Hopefully, that would be convincing enough for his targets' caution to be thrown to the wind.
The last two members of the five-woman crime syndicate called the Femme Fatale were David's intended targets. Myst and Feral were still unapprehended and believed to be in New York. Dementia and Lady Flame were at Riker's Island, in the super powered detention wing. Queen Bee had fled to South America and was being pursued by the CIA and the US Marshals Service.
The Femme Fatale had been the closest thing to an arch-nemesis that David had. Feral and Lady Flame were believed to be half-sisters, daughters of the original Paladin's arch-rival, Doctor Darke. When they first appeared a decade ago, only months after David debuted as the third Paladin, they singled him out and almost killed him on their first attempt. Before long, they'd taken on a third member, Medusa, though she died from radiation exposure during a battle on the Moon. The other three joined up over the following years, Queen Bee joining and appointing herself their leader two years ago.
Since then, David had his hands full with the five women more often than not. They operated out of the greater New York area, often from temporary secret bases and lairs of Doctor Darke, whenever one was discovered. (Darke had an estimated seventy-five or more secret lairs around the world. To date, forty-three had been found and either decommissioned or destroyed.)
The temptation of an ancient, extremely valuable statue of Diana the Hunter was too much for them to resist. At least, that was the plan. It was a good plan. It was a very good plan.
David kept tuning out other sounds, sirens of police cars and ambulances responding to small acts of mayhem – there were other super-criminals in the New York City area and as most of New York's heroes were out of town, it was to be expected that the mice would play while the cats were away. For this reason, the entire police force was on duty and there were reinforcements from the National Guard, the FBI and US Army.
David would not, could not allow himself to worry about others. His job was to wait and pounce when Feral or Myst, or hopefully both, showed up. So, despite his desire to go and help and protect and capture villains, he stayed atop the building and filtered out all sounds that would distract... until he heard them.
Arguing. Feral and Myst, both. He listened more and triangulated their location – the forty-second floor. They weren't completely stupid, then... they suspected a trap, probably on principle. After all, Feral's suspected father was a criminal mastermind, there was no doubt she was raised to be paranoid and seeing conspiracy everywhere. Myst, there wasn't much known about. She was in her twenties or very early thirties at best... was a non-combatant, and had the ability to transform into mist. It was also believed that she had some control over temperature, could generate extreme cold, enough to kill some people with her touch.
Feral, on the other hand, was a sadistic and competent fighter. She had superhuman strength, agility and reflexes. She could regenerate broken bones and bullet wounds in a matter of hours. Once, in a fight with Rabid Weasel, one of the anti-heroes (and one not authorized by President Obama's bill), she lost an eye and two months later was seen with two completely healthy eyes.
David used his wrist computer to tap into the CCTV cameras inside the building; it wasn't long before they would take them down, undoubtedly, but he wanted to keep an eye on them while he could. The two women were moving (Myst floated a few inches off the ground, the lower extremities of her legs lost in a cloud of vapor) down the hallway leading to the offices being renovated two floors above the offices of Crocker and Longino.
David switched over to his night vision; it was built into his mask and allowed him to see in night as if in perfect daylight. The only drawback was any bright light could temporarily blind him – had Lady Flame been part of the team at this point, he would not risk using the night vision as one burst of her flame, whether it hit him or not, would effectively incapacitate him for a minute or longer.
He scaled down the building using wire crafted from the materials of the Ttauran ship. He had to drop almost forty stories to get to where he wanted and had plenty of time. The CCTV cameras showed the women entering the empty offices on the forty-second floor and begin placing laser charges in selected areas. He just wondered how they were going to transport the statue – Feral was strong enough to carry it, but she would be slowed down by it's girth and mass. They had to have some sort of vehicle handy. Likely in the sub-garage of the building, he suspected. It would be a cocky plan to take the statue on the cargo elevator down to the garage, but he was hoping they were feeling cocky.
By time he'd gone down twelve stories, they'd taken out the CCTV cameras – he wasn't sure how, but it seemed to be an area effect. More likely than not, one of Feral's father's gadgets – both she and Lady Flame were known to carry them around – it only made them more unpredictable and dangerous.
David stopped to secure the air filter over his mouth; between that and his mask, his entire head was covered now. It was a necessary precaution, as he'd rigged the statue with some paralytic gas emitters, as a potential weapon against them. He suspected that it wouldn't do much against Myst, but if he could take out Feral, then it was good enough.
He continued his descent, going past the forty-second floor, heading towards the fortieth. He heard the muffled explosions from the laser-charges (another of the good Doctor Darke's inventions, surely) and knew the girls were now one floor above the statue. He continued his descent, stopping outside the window to the offices of Crocker and Longino.
A few minutes passed, as he listened in on the women. They weren't talking much, just enough to confirm placement of the second round of charges. They were all business, these two. He couldn't help but admire their efficiency and the effective way they approached their obstacles. It was a shame they were on the wrong side of the law. Perhaps after they served their sentences, they would consider working for the government.
He saw bits of the ceiling collapse as the charges went off in the forty-first floor. No alarms sounded, though this was no surprise. While he had been waiting, David tapped into the security computer of the building and found a nasty program effectively cutting off the security sensors for floors thirty-seven through forty-seven.
Watching, he observed as Myst floated down, slowly gliding around the statue in a rather drone-like fashion. There was something odd about her movements, but he couldn't quite place it.
At least, not until he saw her reflection on the window pane. She was behind him as well as inside the building!
Paladin spun about, and gaped – sure enough, Myst was floating behind in, in mid air.
“Surprised, Paladin? I bet you didn't know that I could do that... create a double and control it from afar. Now that you've found out, you'll have to die,” Myst hissed, in an ethereal voice, sounding like a ghost. She reached towards him and he was surrounded by vapor, thick and clingy... he felt it grabbing him, grabbing his costume...
As he squirmed and struggled, he spun about and saw Feral lifting the statue with ease. The doppelganger of Myst just faded into a cloud that followed Feral out the office door.
No, you can't get away that easily... David pressed the button to trigger the paralytic gas and Feral caught a full dose right in her eyes and mouth. She staggered briefly, then collapsed, the statue falling right on top of her.
Myst hissed, “You'll pay for that with your life!” David kicked at her, but his foot passed harmlessly through her. He felt the clingy, viscous vapors about him pressing into his costume, into the fabric of his suit, his mask... and then, breaching the fabric and attacking his skin!
He screamed in pain and not a little terror and squirmed and struggled. He snapped the line and went into free-fall, leaving most of the vapor and Myst behind, but the substance within his costume was still there, and still causing him a lot of pain.
He fell the forty stories, hitting the street hard. He felt his leg break in several places, and was sure several ribs and his left wrist were broken as well – fortunately he was tough enough to survive such a fall with relatively minimal damage. Still, his skin burned and he tore off his mask and re-breather with his good hand, trying to remove whatever it was that was attacking him.
He staggered to his knees, and looked around – there wasn't anyone nearby (traffic had been redirected under the pretense of road work left unattended), which was good – there was nothing he worried about more than innocents getting caught up in a fight, like he did when Moggo and Paladin II fought to the death.
“Now you die,” he heard Myst say from above him, and he looked up. She was coming down at him, keening like a banshee, when all of a sudden she stopped. “David? David, how? David, I can't believe it's you,” she said, her voice no longer sounding like a ghost's, but rather a woman's voice.
A very familiar woman's voice.
David put the last of the boxes in the back of the rental U-Haul truck. It felt strange, boxing up his life and putting it in one small truck, but he had never been much for stuff. Some books, some furniture, a few knick-knacks, some things from his family... those were really the only things that he had.
Well, that and his costumes. Three of the twenty-three boxes were filled with his costumes and gear and gadgets. The Paladin was all that was left of his life, and it only took up three boxes. There was something strangely appropriate about that.
He felt empty, he'd felt empty these past few weeks. Ever since that battle, when Myst almost killed him and then revealed herself to be Martha. She landed by him, transformed herself corporeal, and he acted before his heart go in the way. He struck her with a right cross that broke her jaw and knocked her out for almost seventy-two hours.
Both Feral and Myst were in Riker's now, and they would stay there until sentenced to federal prison, to the Ultra-Max facility at Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas, just west of Key West. That was where most of the super-criminals were being held – it was all part of the President's bill. They were looking at a minimum of seventeen years each, for a variety of crimes – fortunately for most of the Femme Fatale, they had never committed murder, though there were a couple deaths that came about because of their actions... if they were lucky, they'd get off with manslaughter charges.
As David closed up the U-Haul, a black sedan pulled up and came to a stop. Luigi and Edna got out, both of them looking very somber. Edna had been crying recently and looked like she was about to start again any second. David walked over to her and gave her a big, gentle but firm hug.
“I have to go, I can't stay here any more... the memories are too painful,” he whispered to her. She nodded and began crying and he just held her, patting her back gently.
“Where will you go,” Luigi asked, putting his hand on David's arm.
“I'm going to visit my family for a while. We have a summer house in Minnesota, so I'm going to go there for a few weeks, spend some time with Mom and Dad and some cousins. After that, I'm thinking Seattle. There's a large population there and they could use a new hero in town.”
Lou nodded, “So you're not giving up being the Paladin?”
“I couldn't do that, Lou... too many people need me.” And he didn't add, And I need the purpose... it's all that I have left. David still couldn't help but feel that he lost everything that night. Everything that mattered. He had been willing to give it all up for Martha, he just wanted to try to get the Femme Fatale off the street.
“I'm so sorry, son... I can't help but feel that I let you down.” Luigi looked as if he was about to cry, and if he did, then David knew he would, too. He stood up straight, and Edna backed off a little, wiping her eyes.
“What are you talking about, Lou? You had nothing to do with it.” David looked down at the older man, who seemed ten years older than before.
“I should have noticed... I was a police detective, for Christ's sake.” Luigi shook his head, “I should have noticed.”
Putting his hand on the old man's shoulder, David gave a soft squeeze, “Lou, we were all fooled. She was a con-artist amongst other things. Don't blame yourself. We all suffered equally at her hands, but now she's locked up and won't be getting out for a long, long time.”
Edna gave David another hug, one he returned equally. “Look, guys, I need to get going before I get caught in traffic. I'll call you in a couple days, and we'll stay in touch, okay? I love you guys like family, you know that.”
Lou joined in for a three-way hug, and then the older couple watched The Paladin get into the U-Haul, and with a wave, he drove out of their lives.
Author's post-script - those of you who have read all my stuff (all zero of you) might recognize the story. I did a similar story as a four page comic book script called Trenchcoats