It didn’t take long. The helmet probably adjusted more quickly than my eyes did.
At first I only saw silhouettes, and lines of brightness in the windows where the boards weren’t quite flush.
Instants later, I saw more than I wanted.
The room hadn’t been updated since the 1950’s, or maybe the 1930’s. Cracked plaster walls, and worn, wooden floors told of abandonment and decay.
It wouldn’t have been a bad cottage. The living room was big enough, and the highly detailed, stone fireplace on the far wall argued that the original owners had had some money.
If I’d visited the place at any other time, I might have checked out the woodwork on the stairway, or the old, peeling wallpaper.
I might also have wondered what sort of furniture they’d had back when people used the place, or why it hadn’t been fixed up.
But I didn’t wonder any of that. I got distracted.
Sean lay on the floor. The black Heroes League uniform had been ripped half off him, and his left forearm bent in the middle.
Gina bent over him, but not quite as remembered her. The last I’d seen her, she’d been about the same height as Ray. Now she had to be seven feet tall at least, and even her muscles seemed to have muscles.
I couldn’t tell for sure on the height because she wasn’t standing. But as she bent over Sean, splinting his arm, it was obvious she had to be bigger than he was.
I also noticed that the back of her shirt had ripped, and from what I could see, she had long, red scars on her back, and bloodstains on the ripped pieces of her shirt as well as her pants.
Unmoving, Sean looked pale.
I wondered why they were saving him. It seemed out of character.
Ray stood in the middle of the room, semi-automatic pistol in hand. My mom had been tied to an old wooden chair near him, her hands bound behind her back.
She’d been gagged, but not blindfolded, and stared up at us.
Two men in Syndicate L’s power armor stood behind Ray, paralysis guns and automatic rifles hanging under their arms, aiming them at us.
“Nice to see you again, Nick. And nice to see your sister Rachel too.” Ray pointed the pistol in Mom’s direction. “Now that we’re all here, I thought I’d lay some cards on the table. First, you’ll find we’ve got protection against Ghost here phasing a bullet into our bodies. Try it, and we shoot your mom.
“Second, the guys in the armor back there have armor-piercing bullets. Maybe your armor can take it. Maybe it can’t, but are you going to risk it? I wouldn’t.”
Remembering the last time I’d been shot in the stealth suit, I knew I could take one, but not too many–and maybe not even one if the guys in armor were using higher caliber weapons.
“So here’s what you’re going to do now. Drop the utility belts, the guitar, the gun, the Rocket’s helmet, and ditch the jetpack.”
“It’s not a jetpack,” I said. “Notice that there’s no air intake, blades or compressor. It’s a rocketpack.”
I knew it was a mistake as I said it, but a part of me couldn’t let that go.
“Right,” Ray said. “Gina, please move.”
She backed away from Sean, and as she did, Ray pointed the gun toward Sean, and fired.
The bullet thumped into the plaster just past Sean, adding a few more cracks and a hole to the wall’s collection.
“Missed,” Ray pointed the gun back at Mom. “Next time, I won’t. I figure he’s got a few shots left in him. How about this? I’ll shoot a toe every time you mouth off. That sound fun to you? And when he’s done, we move over to dear old Mom. Got it? Good. So ditch your junk, rocketpack included.”
We did it.
I left the helmet till last, but at the end, I took it off and put it on the floor next to the guitar, the belt, and the rocketpack.
“Great,” Ray said. “Now push them across the white painted line toward me, and when you’re done, make sure you’re on the same side.”
Someone had painted a white circle on the floor. Rachel and I looked over at each other, and stepped across it.
I didn’t look at Mom. Between unmasking and the block, it seemed like tempting fate. If I pretended she wasn’t there, maybe we could avoid any weird, block-related side effects.
Then I tried to think of a way to get us out of there. Well, to the degree I could keep my mind on it, given that Ray was in position to kill half my family.
“Can I ask you a question?” I watched Ray, hoping he wouldn’t start shooting Sean just for that.
He didn’t. He smiled, and said, “Go on.”
“I’ve been wondering how you ended up at the D’Onofrio Christmas party in the first place. You came there for years. How’d you start?”
He smiled wider. “It’s a funny story, and we’ve got a little time. Sure, what the hell?”
You know how sometimes near the end of the story, the villain explains pretty near everything he’s ever done? I guessed it probably didn’t work that way in real life, but it was worth a shot.