Answering the Call
by Denver Mason


It's been weeks since I was given the Surge armor, and in a fashion befitting a mature intelligent young man with a creative nature, I've dealt with it in the best way I know how. I've ignored it and waited for it to suddenly just go away: So far, no luck. I've kept it in lockers, I've kept it in bags, I've kept it in drawers, I've covered it in rags, I've kept it at the office, I've kept it at home, I even cart it when I roam. This damn thing is driving me to Dr. Seussville.

Actually, I haven't totally ignored it. It's not my fault, really. Dad brainwashed me at an early age. I remember taking the old VCR apart just to see how it worked. Mom was appalled, but at least I got it to stop blinking 12:00. The Surge armor is just freaking amazing. Opening it up was a pain, but once I did I discovered a complicated web-work of tiny circuitry that pressed moistly against the skin. My first thought was "ewww," but after mulling it over I realized it was the only logical way. If Dad managed to somehow make it so the suit could interact with a nervous system, the more conductive it is inside, the better. I suppose the helmet's main hook-up would be at the temple regions.

No, I'm not putting this thing on. That's going too far; that way lies madness. Of course I'm being melodramatic, but if I put that thing on, it's almost like giving up. Dad wins, and I put aside the life I've chosen and take up his priorities. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to walk my own path. I'm going to live my own life. My dreams are no less important than whatever messianic complex he cooked up for himself. I'm an artist, not some highbrow, hi-tech high-flyer with delusions of knighthood. Hell, there's nothing wrong with living my life instead of his.

So why do I feel like shit?

Today's yet another day where I throw myself into my work. The fact that my work includes drawing the Surge comic is just one of those tongue-in-cheek little quirks that seem always funny, save when you're suffering it in the first person. I can honestly say I now draw the Surge armor more accurately than any man alive. Then again, not many artists have held their subject's power armor in their hands. Now, if I could just get Sue to loosen her iron-grip on my pens a bit.

Susan Chiba is a good writer, an attractive lady of Japanese American descent who fought tooth-and-nail to get into what is often considered "man's territory." And she's smart as a whip. Just to prove how intelligent she is, she's turned my offers for a date down twice. I tease her as trying to portray Surge in her stories as a modern-day samurai holding desperately onto his honor in a world that's forgetting such paths in exchange for expediency. She informs me my illustrations are too damn Anime when I draw people. I guess that'll teach me to stereotype even in jest.

Sadly, she has a problem leaving me room to work with. The latest storyline she's sent me describes panel for panel positioning, posing, with meticulous, painstakingly exact details. I start to work, but make a mental note to talk to her later about giving me a chance to improvise and experiment.

I click on the radio in my office, and my pencil bobs to some classic rock. Right in the middle of one of Metallica's golden oldies, "Die Napster Die," or whatever the song is, the music is interrupted with the DJ's more than nervous voice...

"To our listeners, we've got news, bigger news than we'd like... Umm... there's some sort of robot right outside... I'm serious...and it..."

A boom comes from the radio, and then there's just static. This can't be good. Mind you, it's not the first time something weird has come up in Baltimore. Surge will likely be racing towards the situation any second now and... Uhm, oh yeah. I eye the oversized plastic suitcase I've grown accustomed to lugging around. I gulp down the saliva that's built up in my slightly open mouth; I then sigh and give my head a shake. I can't believe I almost forgot about that. Where's the Protectorate when you need them? This job's for them - not me. I look at the case again, and I realize my hands are shaking. Jesus, what am I thinking...?

I reach for the case and open it up.

Maybe it won't fit. I strip down to my boxers, if I'm right the interface will likely work better with less material behind it. So, if someone ever peels me out of this tin can, it'll be more than just my face I'm showing. Clean underwear gains new importance when one engages in a war on crime. Leggings, breast plate, gauntlets - oh crap, it fits like a glove. Each section applied grows rigid, but the plastic mesh around the plates keeps it from being too heavy. Ugh, I was right, that moist feeling is kind of gross when it's all over the body. Finally I'm holding the helmet in my hands. It pops open in the back and I balk. I can do this, I think to myself, it's not like I have to keep doing this just because I gave in once.

Face, meet helmet - helmet, meet face. You two play nice. With a click that sounds way too much like the locking of a cell door for me to be comfortable, the armor's on. It comes alive. The circuitry comes into alignment and, with a pleasant tingle filling my body, I feel the power of the suit racing throughout it. I know dad would be using anyone of a number of scientific terms to describe the energy flow and feel of it. But I'm a simpler kind of guy: this is kicking!

"Peter? - are you there?" a voice sounds right next to my right ear out of nowhere, I whip around and no one is there.

"What the hell?" Then I put two-and-two together and speak. "Hi, Jessica. I should've figured you had the suit's frequency. Thanks, I think I may need your help."

"Well, it's about damn time." Her voice is as angelic as I remember. Of course, a lot of angels are involved in punishment, death and even torment, I hear. So take that comment with a grain of salt.

I really don't need this, so I respond. "Look, do you want to chew me out or help me here? I need to get out of the office or this 'secret identity' is going to be pretty easy to figure out. In case you haven't heard, there's a giant robot on the loose."

"No, really?" The sarcasm in her voice would be a strong indicator that yes, she's indeed aware. "You should already be flying on the way to save the city. Now, I assume you've been practicing before this, so you've got the basics down..."

Practice? Oh great, she thinks I've been prancing about in my golden-can jammies since she first dropped it off. This should be good. "Not exactly," I reply.

"What? What do you mean?" She's a quick girl though, and suddenly snaps, "Please don't tell me this is your first time with it on?"

"Ok, I won't." I open the window as she begins to tear into me about how irresponsible, selfish, and just plain stupid I am. I cut her off as I look down at the streets below. "We have a problem." Below me, is a blurred world, distorted, and fuzzy at the edges like a charcoal drawing. "I'm blind."

There's a long pause, then, "What do you mean, you're blind? That's impossible. The suit is aligned to your nervous system - you have radar, for goodness sake."

I hold up my gauntleted hand in front of me, watching the image of my digits fuzz then focus on me. "It's like wearing the wrong pair of glasses..." Hmm, Dad and I did have different prescriptions. "Great, I guess as long as I hit the large metallic blob, instead of flesh colored blobs, I'll be okay. Now, how to I turn this stuff on?"

Her voice grows professional, clipped. "A mix, voice commands, neural interface, and mandible motion."

"Mandible motion?"

"Of course. Why do you think he calls them those names? Megabolt, Thunderburst, et cetera? The mouth motion combined with a synapse command..."

"Gotcha..." I mouth quietly at first, and think real hard like I'm straining a muscle I don't know I have. "Flight," I say and suddenly the suit sends out waves, likely repelling electromagnetic energy, and I'm floating. I tilt forward and find myself zipping out the window. Cool.

And I mean that, as juvenile as it sounds, despite the fact the city is a blur through the helmet, this is a rush. "Field," I say and the suit sparks for a second. "Hey, Jessica, what gives?"

She sighs. "Ion or High Charge? One fries those who lay hands on you; the former is more... protective."

"Both, I guess. Ion Field, High Charge Field." Crackling energy dances about me - and I'm a living dynamo. "I think I'm getting the hang of this."

Jessica replies with her endearing desert dryness. "Lovely, and perhaps you'll learn not to speak it aloud so every foe you meet has the script of your battle strategy right in their hands."

I think I could grow to hate this woman, I really, really do.

******

Thank goodness for radar, because what should be familiar sights to me are now blurred patches of Baltimore scenery. I also find out that flying is easy, in a totally unhindered and open sky; here in the world of buildings, tree branches, and starlings with attitude, it's a slalom course. Mind you, it doesn't help that my own Jiminy Cricket from Hell can hear some noises even outside the helmet.

"What was that?" She asks as I accidentally tear through a store's canopy outside its front door, before narrowly averting doing the same to a wall.

"Nothing," I lie, and dust the ribbons of material from me, sure hope no one saw that. "Now, any news what we're up against?"

"Imperious Maximus," she answers.

"You sound like you're reading a Namor: The Submariner comic... Really, what're we up against?" I smile a bit as I hear her huff. "Relax, Jess. Even I've heard of this thing. Giant robot, serves the Dictator, last version defeated by Blur and the Bronzeman in L.A. years ago?"

There's a pause. Clearly she didn't expect me to know my stuff. "Yeah, quite right. Equipped with laser beams, napalm throwers... how do you know this?"

"Jess, I had to draw this thing once. Mind you, it was from a description, but the ways of the superhuman foe are not unknown to me." I smile under the helmet; both at zinging her one, and with renewed confidence. If I know it, I can beat it. Right?

I make a sharp turn around the corner, and then I see it. No, make that and then I see it! Even to my blurred eyes, this thirty-foot tall dreadnaught of blood-red steel comes in loud and clear. The thing rips up the street. I mean that literally. It just plunged its steel mitts into the asphalt and stripped it up. There's an eerie glow coming from the crease below its neckline, and it pulses like a heartbeat. This rather intimidating image is becoming more and more clear because I'm streaking straight for it after that last turn, and I'm really not sure how to hit on the brakes. I figure it out, just in time, but I still find myself hovering less than five feet away from it.

Its head spins around a full three-sixty and the eyes, sharing that same crazy pulse, meet my own gaze. I hear someone from a window ("Get away from there, you moron! We could be going through that building any moment!") call out, I assume to a family member, "Thank God - it's Surge. Our prayers have been answered."

Dear God, I don't even believe in you really, but ... please, ignore Window-man. He's a freaking idiot. Please send down some heavy-hitter, like Avatar or Zodiac or, barring that, the Draughtsmen with some high-tech can openers. Amen.

To my surprise, it's the robot that speaks first, and it isn't the synthesized man-voice the news programs I've seen says it has. It's an infernal chorus of gibbering voices, none of them sounding quite human. "A knight?" Imperious says. "A champion of light come to stop us, are you? It's been so long since we've been free, and now someone comes to play with us?"

I'm glad the gulp isn't audible on the outside of the helmet. I have to look calm, in control; the people of this town are counting on me, well, counting on Surge. In a booming voice of my own, maybe the suit knows I want to be heard, I respond, "Enough of this, Imperious. You're going back where you came, and definitely out of my city."

"NO!"

Man, does its voice give me the chills. Suddenly, Imperious lashes out with the back of its giant gauntlet, and slams me clear through a side building. I find myself in the top of a parking garage on my tin-plated rear. Great, not even five minutes into this fight and already I'm Maximus's bitch.

I stagger up, and gaze with bleary eyes searching for the next onslaught. The thing is giggling like a kid, and setting some parked cars on fire. The stench of brimstone fills the air. What the hell? What sort of twisted weapon-maker has napalm smell like brimstone? Then I realize something.

It's ignoring me. One hit, I'm out of its sight, and Imperious Maximus returns to mayhem. I'm not even important enough for it to check on. I could just fly away from this, and it would never follow. If I avoided any cameras, folks might not even ever know I ran like a chicken. Jessica asks me if I'm okay; she wants me to report. She would know and maybe, if there's a heaven, Dad would know to. And, damn it, I would know.

"Megabolt," I hiss, and light up the sky with lightning that perhaps exceeds 640 Kilo-Watz as it strikes the robot's back. It actually slams forward a bit into a lamppost, which folds under the weight, and Imperious Maximus squeals like some herd of swine from hell. Then it floats up - just floats - and turns as it approaches me.

"There's no propulsion," I announce to Jessica through the static. "I thought this thing had boot-jets."

"It does," her voice responds. "Boot-jets, lasers, very advanced technology used just for mayhem. It's supposed to be a war machine. Try to find a power source."

"On it," I answer back, and rise up as well. We're the ultra-modern rendition of David and Goliath - we're myth meets science. Only I'm really wishing for a bigger slingshot here.

Imperious Maximus speeds towards me effortlessly, and I send another Megabolt down into its torso. This time the energy barely slows it, shoving it back only a little. This might as well be hard rain to it. It starts taunting me. "We're going to destroy your city, and the lamentations of your people will be music to our ears until we silence the music forever."

I don't believe it. I thought it was just the writers wanting to earn their pay, but apparently super-battles really do involve a lot of talking. "You don't have ears," I point out.

Imperious' response is two ebony energy discharges from its eye sockets. I twist to avoid them, but one still pegs me in the arm. Cold - god, I haven't been this cold since I first went camping and insisted on sleeping with my blanket above me instead of under. That night the earth sucked the heat from me and I woke up teeth chattering. They're chattering now. I can feel the pain, even visualize myself dying; people will peel my frostbitten corpse out of this can. I'll never be warm again...

I shake my head and snap out of it, and call into the helmet, "That was not - repeat not - a laser!" The field is holding, barely, and this makes no sense. Cold helps conductivity, fire does not smell of brimstone without the right chemical components in it, and if you're going to fly, you need a source of thrust, dammit!

"Imperious Maximus, this one's for Newton." I wait until Maximus gets close, and then mouth silently. "Thunderburst."

I suppose I could go on with how the Thunderburst is basically a glorified EMP cascade, coupled with visual and audio effects. That's right, it blinds, deafens, and knocks radar out all in one explosive electrical storm. The suit is shielded from its own effects, and it's clear if I stick to trading blows, I'm going to lose. I need an edge, and this is it.

The mechanical monster makes more of that tortured cacophony, and I'm rewarded by it swiping into empty air. I arch bolt after bolt into it again, hammering it down, but I'm barely getting through. What is this thing made of? And more importantly, how can a machine hate me? I can feel that it hates me, and not only is that scientifically impossible - it's downright unnerving.

I spiral after it. Man, are we already all the way up to Dolphin Street? It lands, not with the crash I had hoped, but a heavy thud. I don't know if it can still see me or not, but it backhands a water tower sending it spilling towards an apartment. I find myself body-checking the thing to throw it onto a new course. I'm sure the guy who owns the Mustang will be glad to know it gave its life in a good cause.

Suddenly I'm kissing pavement as Imperious Maximus slams me to the ground, holding onto one of my legs. It hauls me back-and-forth, using me like a club against the sides of buildings, cars, and the street. You know, you don't get an appreciation for just how hard concrete is until someone puts you through it. One pain starts to blur into the next, and the robot laughs. It's getting off on this!

"We do not like you, Storm Knight. We do not like how you interrupt our play. We are finally free - and you spoil our fun! Where is the blood on the streets? Where is the wail of the innocent in pain?" It raises me up, grabbing arms and legs now. I'm hardly a pro-wrestling fan, but I recognize the move, it's going to try to break my back.

The creases about his body, the source of that baleful, pulsing glow remind me that I'm dealing with an unearthly power. I manage to twist despite the grip. I have to line up just right or this won't even have a chance of working.

"First of all," I say, "the name isn't Storm Knight.... It's Surge!" Then I cut loose.

Streams, ribbons of electricity, pour from me, to it, and to me again. But what comes back to me is recharging the suit - I'm feeding myself, and I keep pouring it on. Die, you sick destructive S.O.B. robot! Or at least let me go!

I get my second wish as Imperious Maximus lets out a dozen shrilling hellish screams at once, and hurls me away. I think it staggered! I think I might win! Then blackness fills my eyes as I crash into the earth once more. For a moment, my world spins. Is this what boxers feel like just before they fall over? Also, what's with the smell? Oh, oh great, I'm in a dumpster. I need a moment, a moment to breathe, I'm exhausted. I can't keep this pace up.

The screams tell me I'm not getting that breather. I peek out of the dumpster, like a smelly paranoid ground hog, and look around. One warehouse is on fire - people fleeing it as the flames dance and cackle. Worse, Imperious Maximus has found a school bus, and the kids are the source of those screams I'm hearing as the robot lifts the full vehicle overhead. It's going to kill them, just for kicks and because it can. Not only no, but hell no.

"Ion Field - Flight." It's almost a mantra now. The charged field doesn't have the oomph to even sting this thing, and I'm almost out of power. Then an idea comes to mind. I speak quickly.

"Jessica, this suit can redirect electrical energy into its own exoskeleton right?"

Her voice punches through static, and for once the hard edge is gone. If I didn't know better I'd swear she was even worried for me. Well, that makes two of us. "Yes," she answers. "Mind you, that doesn't protect you any more. It was put in after an encounter with an electrical foe that thought he could overload the circuitry of the armor. He almost did."

"So if I zap myself?" I'm in range. I hope this works.

"That's insane... what good is a temporary boost that might knock you out, or even fry the armor?"

"We're about to find out." I mutter "Mega Bolt" again, only this time it doesn't go anywhere besides its source.

Smoke starts to leak out of my side and every nerve in my body feels like it's on fire. The suit crackles in protest to the abuse, but I manage to rip the bus from Imperious Maximus' embrace. The kids scream again, and I don't blame them. I may join in. The robot seems surprised - there's no other word for it - and I'm not supposed to be this strong. It knows this. With staggering effort, I manage to set the bus down past an armed squad of men.

Hold up - armed squad of men? It's the police Special Crimes Unit come to help. I solemnly swear never to whine about a speeding ticket ever again.

I rasp, "Get the kids to safety."

One officer, a sergeant I suppose, nods and motions to the others. "Move, get the citizens off the streets."

My suit sparks on its own now, and I don't particularly like it. Imperious Maximus extends its right arm and a chamber of what seems like a chain gun rat-tats into me. The bullets aren't natural, most bounce off my energy-field, and as they hit the ground, they wither. Others try to eat my armor. What are these? Maggots?

Then the giant boot kicks me in the face, hurling me back about fifteen feet. I can't make heads or tails of which way is what, I see Maximus' looming head over me as it pulverizes me with another slam, this one from a steel clad fist. The Surge armor does what any device pushed past its limits would do; it stops working. The protective field shuts off. Its left forearm extends, oh crap, I'm going to be burned alive. I'm going to die, and I'm going to fail.

Dad, I'm so damn sorry I...

"Enough, Imperious Maximus," a chillingly amused voice speaks from the shadows, the smell of sulfur hanging in the air. To my surprise, the robot stops. I can't move. The armor never felt heavy before. "It is time for us to go."

"But this one interrupted our play!" the blasphemous choir within the depths of the automaton whine.

A woman's voice accompanied with a sigh that sounds completely and utterly bored comes from the same alley. "It figures, Priest. You dig 'em up, find 'em a host for their first real action in a thousand years, and all they do is grouse."

Another chuckle comes from this guy in the shadows and I get a peek in the darkness. I catch a glimpse of some man in black robes. The outfit would be cliché', corny even, but I recognize him, and a subconscious feeling of dread hits me colder than Maximus' eyebeams. The Black Priest, the bogeyman of the superhuman set. I never really bought into the whole magic shtick, let alone the idea that this guy has really been around for centuries. Clearly, this is just a chain of Dread pirate Roberts, each taking their turn to inspire dread. And as I lay here helpless, I'm going to keep thinking that because the alternative is too scary to contemplate.

"Now, now Misfit, Imerious Maximus knows its place in my cause." I can't make out the other two figures at all, but I think the third one has a rifle of some sort. The Black Priest speaks again to the robot. "Go to the other task I had set for you. Your leisure is over."

"We go. Hell on earth!" It gives an almost solemn gesture of supplication, and then floats off with casual speed, until it is no more than a sparkling crimson steel speck. Just like that, it's gone.

"I could finish him off really easy for you, if you want." There's the sound of a safety or something being removed as the man with a gravelly voice speaks. "One less do-gooder."

"Hardly necessary, Hellblade, the Black Priest says. "I observed Surge years ago, and he's not one of the Chosen. Let him suffer helplessly." There's a sensation of something being thrown open, a rush of heat, and more of that brimstone stench, and they're not there anymore, as if they never were.

I stagger up to my knees, then stand slowly. I notice my armor is pocked and dented, my body is aching like I've been in a train wreck and I should be dead. Three times over, I should be dead. I "win" because some guy whistles for Imperious like a pet? Great, some superhero, some champion of the city, some...

"Surge!" a voice blurts out, and I twist to see a mob of reporters on me. Other voices chime in, cameras, microphones in my face.

"How did you drive Imperious Maximus away?"

"How did you know to lead the robot away from the more populous parts of the city?"

"Do you predict a rematch, or has it learned its lesson?"

I feel swarmed, trapped. What's wrong with these people? Didn't they see me get my ass handed to me? This is the media for crying out loud, the same people who grill a nun or actually ask someone who just lost a family member. How do you feel? Why are they treating me like I just walked across the harbor? I lost!

I take a moment, and compose myself, "I'm not completely sure myself, are the children ok?" One of the reporters - bless her - tells me they are scuffed up, scared, but fine. Thank goodness, because if they told me one of them had died, I'd probably hurl inside my helmet. Some hero, I can barely keep my cookies down.

More questions, more lights, I babble some answers, and the closest thing I get to a confession of what a fraud I am is that I hope I never have to fight that monster again. Even that doesn't lose any of the admiration in their voices, the hero worship. I can't take this - I didn't earn this. The armor sputters out sparks, but I start up the flight and propel myself away, making some comment about how I'm needed elsewhere.

You want to know the worst thing? They actually believe it. Look, there goes Surge, noble hero, already rushing to the aid of yet another in need. The office can wait, no one seems to be following me, and my body is one blue and black lump. I head home through the skylight, and almost literally crash onto the bed. I barely remember to take what is left of the armor off before I drift to sleep.

******

The next day, I'm back in the office. Jessica has tried to contact me since via the helmet. Heck, she even called and left a message and number for me. I haven't responded. What can I say? Hey, you're right, I'm not worthy to kiss Dad's tin-plated rear, let alone wear his armor? No, I think I'll just huddle in my art, doing the Simon and Garfunkel "I am a rock, I am an island" gig.

There's a knock at the door, "Come in," I grunt, not looking up.

A silken voice I've grown to like, Susan speaks. I'd forgotten I'd left a note for her telling her to ease up on the direction a bit, leave me some room. Her dulcet tones are always a pleasure to hear.

"Christ, Peter, I'd heard about the mugging, but you look like two miles of rough road."

I probably do, the glance in the mirror this morning revealed the right side of my face had a bruise on it the size of a palm spread. The one on the chest is worse, but she can't see that. The shower hurt this morning, suffice to say, I'm tender.

She, on the other hand, looks great. Classic Asian beauty combined with American girl sass and no-nonsense. Normally I'd give a more artistic description as I not-so-discreetly check her lovely self out, but frankly, I think if I get turned on, it will hurt. I'm bruised in a lot of places, after all.

"Thanks, Susan. And how's your day? Give Van Gogh some art lessons?"

"Cute. Fine, be a brat." Despite her words, she gets me a cup of coffee, and if I would've asked her to do that for me under other conditions I would probably get a withering glance. Hmm ... Pity has its perks. I take it from her.

"Thanks. I take it you got my note?"

Susan nods. "Yeah, I did... and sorry, I just had the image so clearly in my head, you know?"

I smile, not much, a big smile would hurt, and take a sip, "I can understand, and its not bad stuff, just give me more room though, and I think you'll be pleased. Okay?"

"Okay, I guess I better, or you might start suggesting some sophomoric plot devices for me to write in," she jibes back.

I chuckle. "Yeah, I might decide to get rid of the old Surge, and say the armor was now in the hands of some incompetent putz who didn't deserve it. Wouldn't the fan boys love that?"

It's her turn to laugh a bit. "Oh, they'd hate it, and it would kill sales, but the idea isn't really that bad. It's almost a classic in ancient and modern tales. The sword passes to a new generation, that sort of thing."

I snort. Right, only this Samurai nearly disemboweled himself in his first fight. "No offense, Susan, but the mantle might be a bit big for the successor."

She sips her own coffee." That's part of what makes the story so appealing, and so classic. It's what draws us back to that tale despite the fact there are only two out comes." She takes another drink. "I'll loosen up a bit, and trust you to do what's right. Sorry, you know how protective I am of my baby." A dark, almond-shaped eyed winks. "But for now, I have to go talk to our esteemed editor. You're not the only one who wanted to see me."

"Sure thing." I watch her start to depart. "Susan, one other question?"

"Hmm? What?"

"You said there are only two outcomes? What are they?" For some reason I need to know.

Another gentle laugh comes from her. "Oh, that's easy. Either the successor realizes he's not ready for it, and hands it over to yet another..."

"Or?" I press.

She gives a shrug. "He grows into the mantle."

Then Susan departs, and I sit there letting her words linger.
 

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