The day that Doctor Demolition finally managed to seize control of Grand City Capital Bank, the Heroes of Hope were meeting to plan his capture in an underground parking garage, and Jane Maxwell was fired from her job.
She stood in her boss’s office, staring down at him like the dumbass that he was.
“Wait . . . You’re firing me?”
Her boss—weedy, thin faced, poor posture and poorer skin—nodded as if he was in the row of bobbleheads that lined the edge of his desk. “Effective immediately.”
Jane threw her arms wide, as if she couldn’t possibly accept the enormity of the stupidity before her. Which she couldn’t. “Because I dared to stand up for myself?”
“Because you insulted our readers.”
“One reader,” Jane said. “Well . . . and all the trolls he brought along for the ride, but—”
“You called him a fuckface, Jane.”
“He is a fuckface!”
Her boss shrugged. “And that’s why you’re out.”
“I don’t believe this,” Jane said. She put her hands on her hips and began to pace the office like a caged animal, that was how much she didn’t believe this.
All around the room, framed posters of heroes and villains towered over her. City skylines at night, valiant protectors standing tall as they surveyed their domain, rubble flipping through the air in the wake of a furious explosion. Jane caught flashes of enormously flexing muscles, and women in skintight catsuits twisted up in impossible poses.
She stopped in front of one in particular, a cover shot of six people: the Heroes of Hope, each striking their signature pose. Windforce, covered head-to-toe in blue spandex, hovers several inches off the ground as his skydiving wingsuit flares around him. Granite Girl, petite but oh-so-deadly, her skin hardened as she throws one of her lethal punches. Rip-Shift, in cyberpunk black and mirrored sunglasses, steps out of a rip in the fabric of reality, the world parting around him like a curtain. Pixie Beats, grinning in her masquerade mask, her punk-rock-meets-ballerina styling bright even in miniature, is shrunk down and standing on Mindsight’s upturned palm. Jane’s eyes, as usual these days, avoided looking at Mindsight too directly, though the image of her filled Jane’s mind: the film-noir aesthetic of trench coat, fedora, and shingle bob, the mask obscuring her face, the fingerless gloves. Finally, in the middle of it all, gazing heroically beyond the camera, the leader of the group. Muscles run tautly beneath the sleeves of an armored suit drawn in what Jane called “Hero Red.” Light gleams around his fingertips, outstretched toward the sky. A red mask obscures only his eyes, leaving a chiseled chin and a blinding smile fit for a toothpaste ad.
In the corner of the frame was a set of autographs in silver ink. Jane stared at hers, the familiar scrawl.
She turned back. “I gave you Captain Lumen.”
“Yes, and we’re all very grateful for your work—”
“Fuck you, Eddie. If you were grateful, I wouldn’t be out of a job. If you were grateful, QZero would stand up for me.”
Eddie pinched his lips. Through the skylight of his office, the sun was hitting him in just the right way to accentuate his bald spot. Jane took note of the way the shadows divided his face, her brain already chewing on an idea for the way she’d design Doctor Demolition’s new statue of himself, when she realized with a jolt that she’d never get to design it.
She stormed out of the office. Eddie was midsentence, something about the reputation of QZero, about Jane being a public figure now, about not letting herself get dragged into mud fights—as if it had been her fault that some knuckle-dragger had started sending death threats to her office. All Jane had done was talk about what was happening. The “fuckface” remark wasn’t even in her first blog post, wasn’t even directed at her stalker. It was only after forty-eight hours of being flooded with comments, of needing to shut down the flamewar now raging on her blog, of being a trending hashtag on Twitter, that she’d finally snapped.
Jane cut a sharp path through Quantum Zero Comics. In her mind, she saw the panels perfectly: a view from above, lines across the image as if it’s being seen through a security camera. The hall is empty save for a silhouette in the distance. A close-up of clenched teeth, another of clenched fists held fast beside her body. Her finger, pressing the elevator button, the thick lines of her ring drawn in loose, bold strokes. On the next page, a series of employees scattering at the sight of her, ducking into cubicles or back into the restroom.
She didn’t look at anybody as she stalked through the jungle of desks and drawing tables. A bank of enormous windows looked out over the city, and Jane marched straight to her own table, right in front of them. The best view in the house—or at least, in this department. Pieces of her reflection caught the bright sunlight: the yellow of her plaid shirt and the shine of her glasses.
In comics, you always get a nice file box to carry your stuff outside; Jane mashed everything that she could fit into her messenger bag and the pockets of the jacket that had been hanging across the back of her chair ever since it had finally warmed up in April. An umbrella hung off her wrist and banged against her thigh as she lugged an armload of reference books out the door.
Twenty minutes later, her stuff was piled on the table around her as she fired off a series of angry texts from the corner of her favorite Starbucks. Her phone jerked underneath the mash of her thumbs, her whole body curling over the table in frustration.
I mean, where’s the loyalty??? Like I haven’t given them fucking EVERYTHING.
I’m sorry, Janie, her mother texted back. I know it’s rough.
Rough?? It’s OBSCENE. I should sue them. I wonder if I can sue them.
You want me to ask your father?
Jane shook her head, an automatic response. She pulled up the emoji menu, trying to find one that would express her feelings on that idea, when someone came up beside her.
“Jane?” he asked. “You okay?”
Jane jerked, startled out of her little bubble. Her thumb struck a picture of a pair of red ladies’ shoes, and then slid over to “send” before she realized. She looked up, already frowning. “You really don’t want to ask me that today, Cal.”
Cal gave her a sympathetic smile as he took off his sunglasses. “That bad?” he asked, pulling out the empty chair beside her.
“You could say that. I—Oh. Sorry, one second.” Jane’s phone chirruped in her hand, her mother sending back, I don’t understand—is that a yes or a no?
No, Jane typed. Later, mom, GG. Love you.
“I hope that I’m not catching you at a bad time, then,” Cal said as Jane put her phone facedown on the gritty tabletop.
Jane slumped back in her chair. “You did, but I’m kind of grateful for the distraction. What’s up? You back in town for long?”
Cal hesitated, just long enough for Jane to notice. He shrugged. “I don’t know yet. Listen, though, um . . . I was hoping that you’d have time for something tonight. Can you meet me? Say, at seven?”
“This is all very mysterious.” Despite herself, Jane almost laughed. “What’s the deal?”
“No deal . . . nothing I want to talk about here, at any rate.”
Cal glanced around the Starbucks, at the baristas chatting as they made drinks, the bored trail of customers yawning and glancing irritably at their phones, the group of old ladies with their knitting, the one pretentious arty type that had set herself up with a laptop and a chipped mug from home. He seemed to be scoping the place out, and when his attention returned to Jane, finally, there was a tiny frown wrinkling his forehead.
“Can you do it? Seven o’clock? I’ll meet you back here?”
Jane raised an eyebrow. There was something . . . different, about Cal today. Beyond his behavior, beyond this shadowy “meeting” that he was insisting on. Jane’s artist eye trailed him up and down: he was good-looking in a movie star sort of way, his blond hair mussed just so, his jeans and t-shirt perfectly tailored, a leather jacket that was exactly the right amount of broken-in. There was a reason that Jane had modeled Captain Lumen after him, and not just because QZero had refused the scripts where Jane had written her as a woman.
Jane shook herself—she must have been imagining it. “Yeah, whatever.” It’s not like she had plans anymore. “Seven is fine.”
Cal let out a breath. “Thank you.” He stood up to go, tapping his phone against hers. “My new number,” he added. “In case . . . in case you run into trouble between now and then. You let me know, all right?”
“Sure.” Jane frowned as she turned her phone over. New contact, it said. “I’ll do th—”
But when she looked back up, Cal was already gone. Jane craned her neck, then leaned over in her chair to get a better look at the door, out the window, up at the counter. Despite a clear view of the street, there was no sign of him.
Jane scowled. “You’re seeing things, woman,” she muttered, as she pulled up her Twitter feed to see if news of her departure had broken yet.
* * *
When Jane was fifteen, she almost died.
This isn’t an exaggeration. It wasn’t that she was caught doing something and that her mom was going to, like, literally, kill her for it—no, this was actual, life-and-death death, and it had come so close that Jane had felt the coldness of its jaws against her skin.
Only six other people knew the truth of this story, and those only because they were right alongside her when it happened.
It wasn’t as exciting as it should have been. Jane was out with her friends: Cal and Devin and Keisha and Marie and Tony . . . and Clair. Always Clair. This was the night of Tony’s sixteenth birthday, and he was pissed because his parents hadn’t let him schedule his driving test yet. Everyone agreed that this was vastly unfair. He was the oldest, and they’d been counting on him to be their ride. Now they’d have to wait who knows how long—God, maybe all the way until December, when Keisha would be next.
For seven teenagers stuck in the outermost stretches of the suburbs, this was as good as death.
They rode their bikes out, then, since fine, they didn’t have a car. Like a bunch of dumb kids. Tony wanted to do something different, so they were out hunting new hotspots to meet up. That’s what they called it, “hotspots,” like if they started hanging out there, then obviously all the cool kids would follow. Never mind that it had never worked before. Tony had heard of an abandoned building on the far edge of town, a chemical factory that had been empty since the eighties. This seemed the ultimate height of cool, so they’d peddled out farther than they’d ever gone, the night sky stretching out endlessly above them. They roved as a pack, whooping it up and cruising down the middle line of the road or even into the oncoming traffic lane—feeling like total badasses—until they’d see headlights in the far, far distance, and then they’d all scramble not to collide as they jerked out of the way.
Years later, when Jane drew the version of this that didn’t happen, the infinitely cooler one that needed to appeal to the all-important 18–25 demographic, she’d crammed them all into a bumblebee yellow-and-black Camaro from 1973. There was beer in the backseat, and the hint that maybe someone had a joint hidden away for later. But in real life, they were on Schwinns and Walmart specials, helmets safely strapped to their heads, Pepsi and Snickers bars crammed into Cal’s backpack.
It took ages to reach the factory. Long enough that their legs were aching, that their shirts clung to their sweaty backs. Long enough that they’d started to talk about turning around. But then the building rose up out of the horizon like some kind of apparition, the castle finally coming into view at the end of a long and grueling quest, and that had been enough to refuel their enthusiasm.
They ditched their bikes at the chain-link fence that edged the property, and made the rest of the trip on foot. Dry grass came up to their knees, shushing as they trampled through it. Jane had tied her jacket around her waist, letting the cold air pour against her. Clair’s arm kept bumping against Jane’s, though it was hard to say if she was doing it on purpose, or if the ground underfoot was just so uneven that in their haste she hadn’t noticed. This was after they’d come out to each other, but well before they dared to tell anyone else, and so Jane didn’t take Clair’s hand, even though she desperately wanted to.
When they got to the factory, the door was locked. Tony and Cal tried to bust the lock, and even Keisha went over and gave the door a good kick because her legs were so strong from ballet, but it refused to open. They tried looking for another one, or maybe a window they could break—but this was the only door, and the windows, if there were any, were so high that they disappeared into the dark.
“This sucks!” Tony said, a sentiment that was quickly agreed upon by all. But, with nothing to do about it, they began to shuffle back toward the road, grumbling and mumbling about how nothing cool ever happens around here, anyway.
That was when they spotted it.
Well, Clair spotted it. She’d always had sharp eyes, wide and observant. Plus, she was taking one last look back. “Look!” she’d shouted, and she pointed to a spot behind them. A large piece of equipment lay rusting out on the lawn, a box that might have been a generator or something. Just beyond it, they could see the faintest glow, haloing it as if it was a mission point in a video game.
They all ran over it.
This is where their stories differed. The others, in an unspoken agreement, concluded that someone must have accidentally snagged on a power cable leading up to it, which for some reason hadn’t been shut down properly. The cable made contact with the generator, sending out a jolt of electricity that threw them all back, and scrambled their heads for a good ten minutes or so. That was the reasonable explanation, and despite the group’s collective love of science fiction, they also prided themselves on being so rational and scientific. Cold, hard logic was their mistress, and any hesitation there might have been at accepting this obvious explanation was quickly swept aside.
For a long time, even Jane accepted this. Even once she started telling her story, she framed it as a great jump-off point for an RPG that Devin was trying to develop, modeled after Dungeons & Dragons but more sciencey. What if that wasn’t what had happened to them, she said? I mean, obviously it was—but just for the sake of the game, let’s use this as the backstory.
But little by little, she’d started to remember more, or maybe she just imagined it. It was hard to say. So little by little, she’d started to write it down. A strange device, sitting just behind the generator. A mechanical base with a green orb pulsating in it, wires and cables hooking it directly to the generator of the abandoned factory. “Do you think it’s aliens?” they asked in the comics, years later, when the issue hit the stands. “Maybe a government conspiracy.” By this point, the RPG was long since shelved, and so Jane was free to use her tale in a different medium.
And so the Heroes of Hope were born: transformed by the radiation of the alien/government device, each with unique abilities that allowed them to band together and fight crime wherever it may arise. And in the real world, the seven of them woke up with wicked headaches and a mad thirst. They chugged down all of Cal’s Pepsi, and raced back to the main streets to buy some pizza or something, laughing at how close they’d come to death, because everyone knew what happened when you touched a downed power line. They collectively swore to never tell their parents, and that, it seemed, was that.
* * *
Cal was late, and when he did show up, he was out of breath.
“Come on,” he said, instead of “hi.” He grabbed Jane’s hand, dragging her into the street.
“Where are we going?” Jane asked as she trailed behind him like a puppy on a leash. Her Converse caught on the sidewalk, and she tripped against his back.
She was in no mood for mysteries and surprises today: the latest issue of Hopefuls was out, but the reviews were getting buried beneath the news of her firing. Maybe Jane should have been pleased by that—let those bastards at QZero burn, let the beginning of their most epic story arc get swept away and ignored under the onslaught of a headline that would flare and then die out like a flashbang—but her heart ached over it just the same. This was her story, and it was getting ignored by a mess of her own creation.
Cal didn’t answer her question. He hailed a taxi at the corner of State Street and Bellwood Boulevard, ushering Jane inside as if she was Us Weekly’s favorite popstar of the month and the paparazzi were hot on her tail. Jane fell into the cab, her elbow clonking against the opposite door as she scooted over to make room. Cal leaned forward, whispering directions to the cab driver, and when he sat back, he wouldn’t look at Jane. His attention kept flying to the passing rooftops, the deepening shadows of every alley. Jane saw their little cab as if from outside, the yellow of the roof drawn as the only splash of color in an otherwise dark panel of black and gray and off-white cars packed thickly around them. You’d see Cal’s alert face through the window next, though Jane would have added a smattering of raindrops on the glass to throw just enough shadow on his perfect cheekbones.
For the first time, Jane wondered what she was even doing here. There were so many things that she should be taking care of right now. All afternoon, she’d poured over spreadsheets of her finances, trying to figure out how to make things work until she could get a new job lined up. Or maybe she should try her hand at freelancing again? Though that idea left a sick knot in her stomach—the uncertainty of her next paycheck, the demands of fussy clients. She’d done it before, and been so happy to shed that life when she landed her job at QZero. Maybe she could try Kickstarter or Patreon, but honestly she had no idea where to even start with those. Plus, her greatest ideas didn’t belong to her anymore, legally. Jane frowned, adjusting her glasses as she stared absently out the window of the cab.
They stopped in the heart of midtown. Tall buildings crowded thick around them, like Jane was a mouse standing underneath the trees of an ancient forest. She stood in the dying sunlight, reflected yellow-orange off the building in front of her, and pushed up the already rolled sleeves of her shirt. Jane had been wearing the same style for so long that it had gone out of fashion and come back around again: plain jeans, slightly baggy through the legs, a camisole or graphic tee with an open plaid shirt layered like a jacket over it. In the world of artists, she blended in fine, but here in the financial distinct, the difference was as strong as good scotch.
Cal came around, taking her by the elbow. “This way.” He led her through a sea of monochromatic suits, sharp lines and sharper glares. Everything here was reflective: the buildings, the black sports cars, the leather handbags, the phones and smartwatches winking at them from every direction.
They entered a high-rise that Jane had never been to before. It turned out to be a hotel, the lobby full of lawyers and execubots, of brokers and investors. Jane groaned inwardly. Cal’s favorite place to pick up women was a hotel bar—why bother with the local flavor, he liked to say, when you could have the continental breakfast?—and now it all made sense to her. The mystery, the secrecy; Jane would never have agreed to come with him, not if he had told her the truth.
Jane stopped walking, but Cal’s grip on her arm jerked her forward. “Cal,” Jane said. She kept trying to backstep, to get him to slow down. “Cal, come on. I’m not in the mood for this.”
Cal stopped, but only because they’d reached the elevators. He raised an eyebrow at her. “ ‘This’?”
“Yeah,” Jane said, pushing her glasses up her nose. “I mean, I know you guys think you’re being helpful, and everyone keeps telling me that I need to get back out there and meet new people, but it’s just . . . I’m not . . .” She paused, taking a shuddered breath. God, this really wasn’t the day for their meddling. “I’m not ready. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready.”
Cal was just looking at her, his face steady. Jane couldn’t meet his eyes. She kept looking, instead, at his sunglasses, folded up and hooked on the breast pocket of his leather jacket. Her own reflection gazed back at her, distorted like a fun-house mirror. Why did everyone insist that she had to move on? It had only been a year. And a half.
Cal’s hand slid from where he’d been holding her elbow, up to a comforting grip on her shoulder. He gave her a light squeeze. “Hey, Main Jane. I promise you, that’s not what this is about.”
Jane made herself nod. “Okay,” she said, the most that she could get through her closed-up throat. She was hugging herself without meaning to. A suit came to stand beside them, and a flare of self-consciousness burned through Jane. Her face was warm, probably a little blotchy. She turned away from the suit as the elevator doors clunked softly open.
People shuffled out, people shuffled in. Cal had released his hold on her, but he still kept her close as they settled in. He pressed the button for the top floor, and Jane raised her eyebrows at this, but said nothing.
At the twenty-third floor, the last of the other passengers got off. A blond woman in a flawlessly tight white dress, her killer stilettos clicking in the marble hallway. She cast a curious glance backward at them—at Jane, really, because Cal had at least finally nailed his cool-guy aesthetic. He gave the blond a wicked grin as the doors slid shut. He could have been a secret agent on Casual Friday, or a superhero in his alter-ego garb.
At that thought, Jane’s stomach gave a lurch that had nothing to do with the elevator setting off once more. She didn’t have long to dwell in discomfort, however, because almost as soon as the doors had closed, Cal moved over to stand in front of the floor buttons. He pulled out his phone, swiping it awake. The elevator panel had a screen showing their current location, inching up one floor at a time. Cal laid his phone across it, similar to how he’d tapped his number into Jane’s phone earlier.
“What are you doing?” Jane asked, but Cal only shook his head. He had some kind of app open, a keypad that he hurriedly typed a long string of numbers into. After a moment, his screen turned green, and the elevator chimed twice as if they were preparing to arrive at their floor.
Only they hadn’t. Instead, the elevator lurched as it sped up. Jane stepped to the side, steadying herself against the wall. Cal was tucking his phone into his jacket, and pulling his sunglasses out. He slid them into place as the elevator finally came to a halt.
The doors opened.
Dying daylight poured in. Jane threw her hand across her face, temporarily blinded by the setting sun. Cal guided her forward, the wind whipping her ponytail and the trailing ends of her shirt.
They were on the roof, and they were not alone. When Jane lowered her hand, the Heroes of Hope were waiting for her.