Ch-ch-ch-changes

From the Story Arc: The Death of CCCP

Previous Story in the Arc: In the Ghetto by Red Saviour (Sunday, April 10, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: City By Night by Belladonna Aura (Monday, May 16, 2005)

(posted Monday, April 11, 2005)

The name on the ticket said “Bella Dawn Parker,” but Dr. and Dr. Parker’s little girl Bella existed now only in scrapbooks and photo-albums and the Bonanza High School Yearbooks, where Bella’s blue hair and skin were unusual, but by no means extraordinary. Her graduating class had included Tommy Shane, who was surrounded by a permanent aura of shadow, Violet Running Deer, who could power the entire school in the event of a power failure, Sam Begay, who could channel the Great Thunderbird, Fred Saltzberger, as bright red as Bella was blue, who tended to break out in stone armor—

No, she wasn’t alone at Bonanza, nor for that matter, in Las Vegas as a whole. Super-heroes didn’t stand out in a city like Lost Wages, where you could stand waiting for the bus next to a Russian acrobat, a seven-foot-tall transvestite in Cleopatra drag, a guy with an albino anaconda wrapped around his shoulders, and five Elvi (the plural of Elvis) and all anyone wanted to talk about was the football scores. It was a good city for a mutie like her to grow up in, where blue hair and blue skin and the ability to manipulate radiation were cool and assets and not the possible indicators of being a biohazard. . . .

She’d thought about taking a plane to Paragon City, then thought better of the idea. Not that she didn’t like flying—she loved flying and she dreamed, hoped, even prayed that one of these days another of her unknown powers would turn out to be flight. Just she decided that she wanted to see something of the country before she got locked down, and trains were the way to do that. After the Rikti invasion, rail service had experienced an upsurge, in no small part because when your method of transport was shot out of the sky, you were sure to die, but when it was on the ground, you at least had a chance of survival.

Mom and Dad had sprung for one of those little private compartments. Now she was glad they had. Maybe they had already known once she got out of Vegas, the stares, the avoidance, and worst, the fear in some peoples’ eyes would begin. Oh, the little Air Force Badge she wore did help; everyone recognized the Air Force “Special Civilian Service” star given to volunteers of the Rikti War, but you had to get close enough to see it, and a lot of people didn’t. Mom and Dad had insisted she wear that too, and a good thing. It kept the hassles to a minimum.

But the Observation Car was good. And the conductors, who were all friendly, made sure she got good seats there and in the dining car. One of them had lost one of his Army sons to the Rikti, and she had spent a lot of time talking to him about it—well, not talking, listening really, but that was part of being what she was, she had come to find out. There was a name for it, a class, actually, of superheroes that did medic and that kind of support work. “Defender,” they called it. She liked the sound of that. She liked it a lot.

Gramma and Grampa Parker liked it too—funny thing, her being the first in three generations not to go to college. Gramma and Grampa had worked for Oppie—Robert Oppenheimer—out at the Nevada test site. They’d met there, in fact, and later, when their son Robert had gone to work at Groom Lake—what most people called “Area 51”—he’d continued the tradition of finding romance at work by meeting and marrying Bella’s mother. Gramma said once that while giving birth to a bouncing blue baby had been a little disconcerting, it hadn’t exactly been unexpected—well, the number of “Talented” kids at Bonanza who had parents working at Groom was pretty high.

This was the last leg of the long trip to Paragon City, and she was spending it in her little cabin rather than the Observation Car. That was partly because there wasn’t a lot to observe, and partly because she was tired of being the one being watched.

She leaned against the window, and wondered what the darkness out there hid. The East Coast, she’d heard, had been hard hit. Nothing near as bad as Paragon, of course, but Las Vegas itself had hardly suffered at all. The Rikti had, purely by accident as far as anyone could tell, taken out exactly one hotel/casino—a brand new one called “The Interplanetary” that had had a science fiction theme—and the only reason that anyone could think of that they’d hit it was because it had looked like a grounded spacecraft to them.

She had her headphones on, and the MP3 player Dad had loaded up for her going—an Archos Jukebox, very cool, her going-away present. Mostly classical, mostly Russian, actually, but the whole David Bowie library too, and a lot of New Wave stuff he and Mom collected that she liked. “Changes” was playing right now, and it seemed like an omen—


Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes

Don't want to be a richer man

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes

Just gonna have to be a different man

Time may change me, but I can't trace time



She was going to have to be very different from the Bella Dawn she had thought she was going to become when she’d graduated from Bonanza. She’d never wanted to be a superhero, just a paramedic. . . .

She felt the brakes being applied. They were pulling into the station, and just as she turned off the player and tucked the earbuds in her pocket, the conductor knocked on her door and opened it. “Paragon City, Miss Parker,” he said, with a smile. “You’ll be at something they call the ‘Intake Hub’—it’s the train station, it’s the interstate bus terminal and there’s a tram line to Atlas Park and the Airport there too. And Taxibots—“

She blinked at that last. “Taxibots?” she faltered.

He laughed. “You’ll see. Just go to the Registration Desk, they’ll take care of everything.”

She hoped so. Now, more than ever before, she was feeling very alone.

That feeling lasted right up to the point where she got off the train and into the Art Deco Revival terminal That was when it ended.

There were three girls about her age chattering away like old friends; a tiny blond with short, shaggy hair, a medium sized brunette, and a tall, platinum blond in a red cowboy hat. All of them had luggage, and the person they were chattering to was—

Good heavens.

He spotted her. He was tall, very tall, and built like Li’l Abner from the Al Capp comic. And green. It looked like he was made of green rock. He waved to her.

“Come on over!” he said cheerfully.

She hauled her suitcase over to him and looked up—and up—at him. “Um. Hi? Are you from the city?”

He laughed. “No, not officially. I’m Jade Empath, and I like to come down here when I have a few minutes and meet the newbies and help them get settled in. I came in with a bunch of friends and it was a lot easier doing it that way. Though you—“ he looked down at her and spotted the star badge on her arm. “Not such a newbie. This is Valeria Victrix, this is her sister Vic, this is Tex Larimie.”

“Bella Dawn Parker,” she said, feeling a little better now that she wasn’t standing in a strange terminal alone.

“Ahre you gonna use that as your handle?” the Texan drawled. “Val and Vic ahre plannin’ on usin’ their real names, but ah’m callin’ mahself TexArcana, an account’a ah’m a magician.”

“Uhm—I was going to call myself Belladonna,” she said, hesitantly.

Jade Empath consulted a PDA and shook his head. “Taken. Try a variation?”

She thought. This guy had clearly named himself after his power. So far as she was concerned, her main powers, the ones she was most proud of, were all Auras. “Belladonna Aura?”

“Good.” He did something to the PDA. “There, reserved, no one can take it. Come on over to the desk and start your interviews.”

She was the last in line, and Jade Empath had already shown the others off to the tram—they already had apartments rented, but Tex was overjoyed to discover that she didn’t. “Ah need a roomie!” she exclaimed gleefully, and wouldn’t hear a word against it. Not that Bella was going to say anything—she already liked Tex, and figured they would work out just fine together. So now she had a place to stay, and the address for it—

Just one last hurdle.

The gray-haired woman at the desk was very kind-looking, and asked her all the pertinent details to register her with the Paragon City Provisional Authority as a deputized hero, starting with asking her if she had reserved her “hero name.”

“Jade Empath said—“ she began, and the woman chuckled.

“Does half my work for me, that boy—you would have to be the last on his list, Belladonna Aura, right? And I don’t think I need to ask you to actually demonstrate your powers—“ there was a shrewd glance at the badge again “—but can you tell me what they are and why you decided to come here?”

“They say I’m a Defender, and I—I control radiation,” she said carefully. “I have a healing aura, and that was all I had for a long time, I thought I would be a paramedic and my folks thought that was pretty cool, but then—then the Rikti came—“

The memories came flooding back. The frantic cell-phone call from her Mom, the code-phrase they had set up, but never thought they would have to use that meant something had gone horribly wrong and she and Dad and the scientists on their team were blockading themselves into the old Cold War fallout shelter at the back of their lab. News reports of a spaceship taking out that new hotel/casino. Her jumping on her motorcycle and screaming out to Nellis AFB, about to fling herself at the nearest officer and demand—what, she wasn’t sure, but she was intercepted—intercepted!—by a flying Air Force hero who said he was calling for super-powered volunteers to mount a counter-attack on an alien invasion force at Groom Lake. Two teleports—her first experience of that!--and she was there—

“And I guess you know about the Area 51 attack—“

Everyone wanted to know, where are the real heroes? And that was when they got some of their first views of what was happening around the world, and worst, at Paragon City. Her first views of the Rikti—

“—and I signed on as a paramedic—“

That was all she was supposed to be, in the motley crew of retired heroes of Freedom Phalanx and baby heroes like Sam, and a few come out of the woodwork, who knew from where. Heal and patch up. Except that as the combat continued and the bodies started to pile up like cordwood and she saw one friend after another die, she couldn’t take it anymore and something happened—

“—but I guess it was the stress and I got some kind of radiation blast, and a way to make my team faster and stronger and recover quicker, and something that makes the bad guys easier to hit, weakens their armor or something—“

Her mouth was saying those words, but her mind was overflowing with those memories now, and she couldn’t stop them, all those things she hadn’t wanted to think about, Vi lying in a crumpled heap, only half of Fred visible under a pile of crushed machinery, and the anger and the fear and the terrible, horrible grief bursting out of her like the radiation that was suddenly as much a weapon as it was a balm—

She was crying, crying now, and she couldn’t stop. Crying for Fred, for Vi, for Iron Hawk the Navaho superhero from the old days, for that Air Force guy called Top Gun who had been one of the first dead, just shot out of the air to land at her feet, for people she knew and people she didn’t and people she had only met half an hour before—

The old lady came from behind the desk and put her arms around her, gave her a box of Kleenex, and let her cry. And when she finally stopped, brought her a cola and a cold, wet washcloth.

“Will it help to know you aren’t the only kid I’ve had fall apart in this office?” she asked quietly, but with a faint smile as Bella wiped her face and her eyes. “Not by a long shot. Not all with that badge—but sometimes I wonder if what drives people to become heroes here isn’t as much a lot of pain as anything else—“

She shook her head, and went back to the paperwork, and finally, after a trip into the back, handed Bella an ID card that looked like it was engraved on some sort of metal, and took what Bella recognized as an RFID tag implanter out of a cabinet. “This is mandatory, I’m afraid,” she said apologetically. “The chip monitors your health, and if it falls below a certain point, if there isn’t another means of revival nearby, activates the Portal system to send you to the hospital.” She grimaced. “I’m sorry you didn’t have that at Groom Lake—but it’s experimental—“

Bella shook her head. “No, it’s okay, I understand.” The woman went around to her back; there was a thud as if someone had hit her under the shoulderblade, and a hiss and a brief sting.

“There you go. Your paychecks will come straight to your bank account which is tied to your ID card, everything else will come to that address you gave me. Go to the Outbreak Icon store to get your first costume, then go on to Outbreak to train in our methods, and you will be as ready as any other hero to hit the streets.” The woman smiled slightly again. “Are you going to be all right?”

She thought about Jade Empath, who had promised to introduce her to his “high level friends” as soon as she got in and unpacked. About Tex, who had sworn there would be a pot of chili waiting on the stove when she got to the apartment. About Vic and Val, who seemed both so much younger and so much older than she, but who, she sensed, were going to be good friends too.

She nodded. “Yes,” she said simply. “I think I am.”