Though she had sounded less than enthusiastic, Miranda gave Warren the go-ahead to take the following day off over the phone, assuring him that she would handle any complaints about it from Turner. Warren hung up the phone and tossed it onto the bed behind him, facing Roger with his hands crossed over his chest. “All right, my schedule’s cleared for tomorrow.”
“Didn’t have to do it right away,” Roger replied, smiling despite himself. “The order’s good for a month, man.”
“Yeah, well, this sort of thing should probably be done as soon as possible, make sure I don’t get second thoughts about it,” Warren said. He hitched a sigh, looking over his shoulder at the papers Roger had given him. “To be honest, I’m kind of surprised they’re holding him in a regular prison,” he observed.
“Probably some kind of special wing or solitary unit, I figure,” Roger commented, pulling out a cigarette from his coat and lighting it. “A lot of supermax prisons have them now. The HAC advised the federal government that it would be a bad idea to try locking up all the superpowered big bads in one location.”
“Well, yeah,” Warren said, pulling an ashtray out of his bedside table. He hadn’t smoked since his sophomore year of college, not regularly, but he kept an ashtray and lighter on hand for the rare occasions when he would indulge. “I mean, I’ve read comic books. It never goes well for people when all the rogues in someone’s gallery end up in the same spot.”
“How did you manage this,” Warren asked, picking up the court documents again and flapping them at his sponsor.
“Well, the HAC has been holding me up as a kind of poster boy for the program,” Roger informed him, stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray. “I reached out to them a couple of weeks back and asked if there was any way they could get me a few visits cleared for members of the group. Yours was the first one to come back.”
“What about your own?”
“Impossible. Cyclonus was killed in a prison riot at the facility they sent him to,” Roger replied. “A lot of these supers, they go down swinging, end up dead when the HAC shows up alongside a hero to capture their targets. You gotta remember, most everyday soldiers in the HAC are just normal human beings, like you and me. Sure, they’ve got gear and plenty of training, but they come face-to-face with powered people, they shoot first and ask questions later.”
Warren nodded, perfectly aware of the sort of terror that must afflict HAC troops in such circumstances. The Zapper had squared off with a couple of powered would-be do-gooders in his time, and Warren had been involved in one of those altercations. The hero in question had been a super by the moniker of Big Fist, owing to his incredible punching power. Warren and the men in his unit had heard stories and seen shoddily filmed cell phone footage of Big Fist in action, but they learned firsthand precisely what they were dealing with when a seasoned member of their forces launched herself at the superhuman.
Big Fist had literally knocked her head off of her body, sending it flying off into city behind them. Warren and the other henchmen sprang to action, opening fire with energy weapons that shot concentrated bolts of electrical power. Big Fist managed to dodge a few of the bolts, but Warren had countered by having the men take a spread formation, keeping out of hand’s reach of the superhero.
Yet like many other powered humans, Big Fist had been possessed of above-human endurance, taking the shots and continuing to advance on them. Another of Warren’s colleagues went down, the super’s trembling fist punching a hole through his chest. The protective armor suits they wore did nothing to stop Big Fist’s power.
Warren, somehow keeping his calm, dropped his energy weapon as Big Fist pushed the corpse off of his arm. The henchman drew out the Sig Sauer he kept strapped to his left hip, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger twice in rapid succession. Two bloody holes opened up on Big Fist, one through his nose, the other an inch higher, on his forehead. The hero dropped dead, gone from the world at the hands of a group of henchmen.
In short, Warren could see why powered villains might not be taken into custody alive. “So, I assume you want to tag along on this trip tomorrow,” Warren asked.
“I’d prefer to, but it’s not mandatory or anything. It’s just that, well, seeing him in person again, it might dredge up the urge to return to certain habits or go out and do something stupid, like pick up where he left off.” Warren scoffed.
“That’s couldn’t happen to begin with. I’m just a human being, Roger.”
“So was Doctor Tyrant, but he did plenty of damage,” Roger retorted. “So I’ll swing by about nine, it’ll take us about an hour and half to get up to the prison. We can take the El Camino.”
“Sounds good,” said Warren. He walked Roger out of the house then, heading back inside to the living room a minute later as his father changed the channel and set the remote aside after landing on a hockey game. “Speak of the devils. Mind if I watch with you, dad?”
“Sure thing, sport,” said Samuel Voss. “Do me a favor before you get settled in, though?”
“Grab you a beer?”
“That’s my boy,” said Voss the elder.
“You make it sound like these people are drug addicts or something,” said the man in his orange jumper, the streak of dark purple hair down the center of his otherwise shaven head puffy but free of any styling product. He’d kept it standing pretty much straight for nearly seven years with gels and mousse, but since his apprehension, the guards had been very explicit that he was not to be given access to anything that could be used as a chemical component in a weapon or explosive, styling products included.
“It’s my understanding that it isn’t much different than that, Mr. Lesinski,” the warden replied from his side of the wide mahogany desk in his office. The average visitor might be underwhelmed by the warden’s primary workspace; no bookshelves around the room, no diplomas or pictures of himself with local politicians on the walls. It was a largely barren chamber, devoid of any kind of personalization. The blue triangular placard on the man’s desk just said ‘WARDEN’, with no name attached, which made matters worse. The warden himself appeared to be little more than an average-looking man of color in his mid-to-late 30’s, with a thin mustache and goatee, both already turning iron gray, and plain black-framed spectacles.
He was, in a word, unremarkable.
“How do you figure it’s like being an alcoholic or a druggie, warden,” asked Lesinski. “Mind if I smoke?” The warden made a small gesture with his left hand, and a guard in riot gear came from his spot beside the door and handed a cigarette to the Zapper. He then leaned down and lit it for the captured supervillain, and returned swiftly to his post.
“Many of these men and women bounce from boss to boss, serving brief stints here and there. Whenever one of you gets caught, they feel compelled to join up with another one, because it’s all they know. They enjoy the thrill of being on the wrong side of the law, and all the perks of being a criminal while avoiding being under law enforcement’s spotlight. There’s an escape in that, sort of like there is when someone is drunk, or high. They get to claim they’re not responsible for their behavior, that the big bad boss man or lady made them do what they did, but I personally believe that’s horseshit.”
“I take it you’re not a fan of this program of theirs, then,” the Zapper asked with a smirk on his face.
“Not in the least, no. But if the HAC thinks it’ll do some good, I say let them have their little project, so long as it doesn’t cost the people of this state anything out of pocket.”
“Suits me,” said Lesinski. He blew a thick stream of smoke out of the corner of his mouth and leaned forward. “What’s the kid’s name?”
“Warren Voss,” said the Warden, flipping open a folder on his side of the desk. He turned it around and nudged it toward the Zapper, who inched forward to the edge of his chair and took it, looking at the cover photo and rap sheet. A tingle of memory jangled along the inside of his mind.
“I remember this fellah,” he said, pointing his cigarette at Warren’s picture. “Big guy, pretty smart too. Hell of a fighter one-on-one.”
“The file says he was a member on your sub-command level, a step down from your second-best people as it were,” said the warden. “Funny you should remember him at all, if he wasn’t one of your top men.”
“Yeah, but I remember him,” the Zapper said with a sigh, shaking his head slightly. “This kid, he had a lot of potential, but he was missing that one key element, I knew it the moment I met him for the first time. It was something that no amount of ability could make up for, not when I was just getting started,” he said, closing the folder and lofting it back onto the desk.
“And what was he missing, Mr. Lesinski,” asked the warden.
“I looked him in the eyes, and I could tell that no matter what I wanted him to do, if it meant for sure killing an innocent bystander, he wouldn’t do it.”
“In three-quarters of a mile, turn right. Then, drive straight on County Road 171 for three miles, and you will arrive at your destination,” intoned the automated voice on Warren’s cell phone the following morning. Roger had showed up a few minutes before nine, but Warren had been awake and ready to make the trip since seven. Sleeping had proven difficult the night before, even after sharing a few beers with his old man.
“There’s nothing in here about protocol for the visit,” Warren said, once more going through the court order. “Figure they’ll give us the run-down at the prison?”
“You, yeah,” Roger said, eyes firmly on the road ahead as gold and green fields of corn passed on either side of the road. “I won’t be able to get past the main waiting area. Order’s only good for you to visit him, not you and a friend.” Roger cracked his neck and sighed. “You want to hand me my second sandwich?” Warren reached down between his feet and plucked out one of the wrapped items from the McDonald’s they’d stopped at an hour earlier, taking the time to unwrap it before handing it over to his sponsor. “Fuck me. Am I crazy, or are these things getting smaller every fucking year while they charge us the same amount?”
“The two might not be mutually exclusive.”
“Fuck you very much, War,” Roger replied, taking a bite. “You tell your dad about this trip?”
“Yeah. He didn’t want to talk about it much, though.”
“Can’t blame him,” Roger said. “I know it wasn’t Lesinski personally who did it, but one of his people was responsible for your mom’s death.” Warren thought back to the moment, just a couple of years earlier, when he’d been informed that one of the casualties at the assault on a concert venue in downtown Spiral City had been his own mother.
The entire operation had gone off the rails, according to Zoey. She’d come and found Warren in the battletank deployment hangar, working on one of the lethal machines that had taken damage in a confrontation with Mighty Max, another powered hero who’d been unable to take down the Zapper. The concert assault was supposed to be a mass robbery that began with a tech team snatching data from the venue’s credit card readers, then transitioned into foot soldiers corralling the crowds with the battletanks to threaten them until they surrendered any and all cash and valuables on their persons.
A trigger-happy tank pilot had reacted poorly to the appearance of armed security, however, opening fire with the primary cannon on his machine. The crowd had reacted in a panic, and the rest of the unit ended up opening fire on them.
It had taken three days for local authorities to identify all of the dead, and when Zoey accessed a copy of that list from local law enforcement, she decided to inform Warren personally. He’d been on a roller underneath the battletank, replacing one of the right side tread servos, when she grabbed his feet and rolled him out. Warren, assuming she had come down to have a little bit of flirtation with him, smiled up at her, but upon seeing her expression and the printouts in her free hand, he sat up on the roller and started wiping his greasy hands on a nearby oil rag.
“What’s wrong,” he asked, sensing her dismay.
“The concert attack,” Zoey said, handing him the sheets as he stood up. “This is the list of casualties.” Warren began scanning the names, halting three-quarters of the way down the second page and slowly looking up at Zoey. “I’m sorry, Warren.” A silent numbness overtook him, and Warren immediately began compiling the video feeds from the battletanks that had been deployed to the concert.
For four days he spent almost all of his waking hours in the Zapper’s base viewing the video footage, cross-referencing and slow motion capturing stills from the event. On the fifth day, he stalked into the primary barracks like a shadow, approached a lone young woman among the foot soldiers, and thrust his sidearm against her forehead.
“You should have left,” was all he said before pulling the trigger, the hammer dry-clicking on the empty chamber. He’d briefly considered killing the woman, but decided against it before leaving his private quarters on base. What he had done to Big Fist had been in the heat of battle, a matter of survival. Shooting this henchman would have just been cold-blooded murder. “Pack up your shit, and get the fuck out of here. You’re done,” he snarled at her, stalking away.
Nobody had made a move on Warren, or raised any protest; he not only had size and rank on them all, but the common soldiery of the base had noticed his quiet intensity over the course of the previous few days.
Warren shook himself free of this memory, spotting the prison in the distance as Roger and he approached. “Couple of minutes now. You ready for this?”
“Not sure,” said Warren. “I only ever personally met the man a couple of times, and only once for any length of time. It was when there was an opening in the upper command structure. I submitted my name as a candidate, but I didn’t end up getting it. I can’t remember who did now.”
“He ever explain why you didn’t get it?”
“Not really,” Warren said. “It’d been a couple of years into my time working for him, so maybe I just didn’t have enough experience yet. What about you? You were pretty high up the chain for Cyclonus’s outfit.”
“Yeah, but that was more to do with results,” Roger offered. “He gave out an open assignment, I was the first one to jump on it. Never dropped the ball, never lost an asset. Got a couple of folks wounded on my watch, but no fatalities, not until the end of things, after I flipped on him.” Roger slowed the El Camino to a crawl and turned onto the dirt road that lead to the outer gates to the prison, halting the car at a striped barricade bar as a heavily armed guard approached his window. “Here, give me the order.”
Warren passed the folded paperwork over to Roger, who cranked his window down once the corrections officer stood beside his door and leaned down to fill the space with his helmeted head. “State your name and purpose, sir,” the guard barked.
“Roger Malik and Warren Voss,” Roger said, offering the guard the court order. “I have a signed order here for Mr. Voss, allowing him to visit a prisoner, Jacob Lesinski. I’m just his transport, sir, and will be waiting in the entry vestibule for the duration, or wherever it is you folks decide I should wait it out.” The guard took the papers and straightened up, out of view for a long minute. When he leaned down once more, handing the papers back to Roger, he nodded.
“Checks out. When the gate opens, you’re going to pull into the lot on your right and park your vehicle in the first available space furthest from the interior gate, sir. You will be monitored from this point forward.” The guard rose once more and slapped the roof, the barbed-wire gate sliding open to the left slowly. Once there was clearance, Roger crawled the El Camino through the gap and immediately headed to the right-hand lot, which was largely unoccupied.
Following the guard’s directions, he parked as far from the main entrance to the prison as he could, killing the engine and stretching widely as he clambered out of the car. Warren followed suit, taking a deep, steadying breath as he tucked the papers into his inner jacket pocket. “This place is fucking huge,” Warren commented. “How come I’ve never seen it on any maps of the state?”
“Bill that went through about five years back,” said Roger. “Any facility that houses recognized HAC captures gets wiped from public records of all sorts. Even Google wipes them from their maps and search engine.”
“I never heard about that,” Warren said. “And I keep pretty close watch on Congress.”
“Never a lot of hubbub about it. The HAC wanted it kept quiet and swift, so it was,” said Roger. “Come on, let’s get you inside.” The pair of former henchmen approached the prison’s main entrance, a trio of guards checking their IDs before letting them through the doors into a large open entry chamber. Three rows of plastic chairs stood off to their right, and an enclosed security booth dominated the way ahead and to the left, several more guards behind a bulletproof glass window with a slender slit along the bottom.
“I’ll be over there,” Roger said, pointing toward the chairs. “Good luck, War.” Absent his sponsor, Warren approached the booth silently and slid the papers through the slot as an officer raised an eyebrow at him. The guard nodded, slid the papers back, and picked up a handset, talking quietly into it.
Warren mentally prepared himself to once more come face-to-face with the Zapper.
“The rules are pretty simple,” said the officer escorting Warren through the flat concrete corridors on the ground floor of the prison’s west wing, which was eerily quiet and devoid of cells or rooms. “You get one hour to visit Lesinski. Two guards will be posted right outside the room, and they’ll be watching on an attached monitor. The camera in the room is set up for video only, so we won’t hear any audio or capture anything said between yourself and the prisoner during your visit. You are not to have any more contact with the prisoner than a handshake, if you so chose. Now, do you have any questions for me,” asked the guard, guiding Warren around yet another corner in the corridor.
“Has he had any other visitors aside from his attorney?”
“Negative,” the officer responded. “His lawyer’s only been here once, so this is only his second visitation. The prisoner is a smoker. Is this a problem for you?”
“No, that’s fine. I indulge occasionally myself,” Warren said. The guard reached into one of his pockets and offered him a wrapped pack of cigarettes and a book of matches.
“You are to light the prisoner’s cigarettes for him. Do not let him have the matches, or the smokes. If you let him have either, you will be removed forcibly from the prison. The ashtray provided is a safety glass piece, which will break evenly into three dull fragments if slammed or thrown against any surface hard enough.”
“Kind of like the ones they use in the Navy?”
“Precisely. This is to avoid the use of any improvised weaponry by the prisoner. Here we are,” said the guard, approaching a single door against the right wall of the hallway, on either side of which stood a heavily armed guard. The officer swiped his keycard through a reader beside the door, and an audible ‘click’ sounded from the door itself. “Remember, you have one hour.”
Warren nodded and stepped through the doorway into a squat, blocky room. In the center of the chamber stood a long, narrow table, on the opposite side of which sat a dark-eyed man in his mid-to-upper 40’s, a single stream of flaxen, purple hair down the center of his otherwise shaven head. He wore a flat orange jumper with numbers over the left breast pocket, and had the gaunt, narrowed feature of one who has not been eating properly for an extended period of time. The man grinned at him as the door shut behind Warren.
“Well hello there, Mr. Voss,” said the Zapper. “I’m Jacob Lesinski. Please, have a seat,” he said, motioning to the chair across from him. Warren sat down, pulled out two cigarettes after unwrapping the pack the guard had given him, and stuck them both in his mouth. He lit both with one of the matches, then handed one across to Lesinski, who nodded his appreciation. “Thanks, man.”
“Sure thing. So, Jacob Lesinski, is it?” Warren let out a snort of a laugh. “Man, I’ll never get used to that. I just think of you as ‘the boss’, or ‘Zapper’. I was never big on putting the ‘The’ in front of it like a title, you know?”
“Oh, it was never supposed to be there. That was the newspapers and the goddamn Internet did that,” Lesinski replied. “I tried to correct the record a couple of times early on, but you know how it is with cops. The moment a newspaper or blog gets a personal correspondence from a supervillain, they swoop in and squash the whole thing.”
“I’ve got Netflix, seen the Marvel shows,” Warren said by way of agreement. He took a drag of his smoke, held it for only a moment before exhaling. “So, how are you holding up in here?”
“Meh,” said Lesinski with a shrug of his narrow shoulders. “I’m mostly in solitary for the time being, have been since I got here. The warden seems to think it’s a bad idea if I’m with the general population, that I’ll organize all the other prisoners and start a ruckus.”
“Well, given your history, sir,” said Warren. Lesinski shook his head and pointed the fingers around his cigarette at Warren warningly.
“Hey, none of that ‘sir’ nonsense in here, son,” he warned. “I’m not your boss anymore, probably never will be again. I’m just a prisoner now.”
“Well, until you figure a way out of here,” Warren said with a wry grin, but the Zapper was shaking his head. “You don’t intend to put up a fight?”
“Can’t, kid,” said Lesinski. He took a long drag on his cigarette, blowing a thin, narrow stream of smoke from the corner of his mouth. “I haven’t got any powers, Voss. Powers were in the suit.” Warren blinked mutely at him, stunned. He, along with everyone else in the organization and the general public, had assumed The Zapper was a superpowered human, controlling the forces of electricity. “Yup. I’m not a powered human, Voss. I’m an engineer.”
“But, I’ve seen you use your powers without the suit,” Warren said softly.
“The bracers,” Lesinski said, rubbing his left wrist. “That’s where the conduits terminated. I maintained a certain amount of charge in them, in case the generator panel in the main suit got damaged.” He stubbed out his cigarette butt and leaned forward, locking eyes with Warren. “You see, about twenty-five years back, when I was twenty, I started hunching for this other villain, Dr. Tyrant. You remember him?” Warren nodded; everybody had known Dr. Tyrant, one of the most prolific supervillains of his era. He’d been famous not only for the scope of his crimes, but for the fact that he was a normal human being, a mad scientist run amok. “Well, I was a henchman in his engineering division, worked on building some of the wild designs he came up with.
“One of those designs was a combat suit for his foot soldiers, a membrane armor that could generate and channel electrical energy. He was going to call his people who used them ‘shock troops’, kind of a play on words, you know? Only, his design was flawed somehow, and the prototype never worked properly. He ended up scrapping the program.”
“Clearly you kept it going,” said Warren, lighting another smoke for Lesinski and one for himself.
“Thanks. Yeah, on my own time and my own dime, I kept working on it, for four more years. Tyrannus was getting on in years, and he’d been snagged a couple of times, forcing a lot of us to go underground until he broke out the next time around. When I got the suit fully operational, I left, came back to Spiral City. I’m from here originally, you see,” Lesinski said. Warren leaned back in his chair, trying to process what he was hearing.
“So, the battletanks,” he said.
“Another design I took from Tyrannus, modified for my own people. I started off going solo, but reached out to some of my old buddies from his forces, convinced them to come on board with me to get a fresh start. The HAC and Captain Righteous were constantly on Tyrannus’s movements, so a lot of my own first people were transplants who didn’t want to hang around until the final hammer dropped on him.”
Warren scoffed, grinning despite himself. It made a perverse kind of sense, he supposed. Since the Hero Action Committee’s expansion and increased influence in the world, supervillains had started spreading out, keeping their organizations relatively small and mobile, to stay a step ahead of the government forces. The HAC had ultimately put down dozens of villains, as well as an international organization that used to recruit, train and employ men and women specifically for the purposes of having ready-for-hire henchmen. That outfit had been gone for a couple of years when Warren signed on with the Zapper. Had they still been around, he might not have stayed close to home.
But that wouldn’t have changed much.
“So, did you ever consider turning face,” Warren asked, stubbing out his second smoke.
“What, being a hero? Not really,” the Zapper said. “I mean, I thought about it for a couple of days before hitting my first bank job, but the HAC treats unsanctioned heroes almost as badly as villains. I mean, who would want to risk their neck every day for garbage pay, no appreciation, and enough oversight to choke a mule, just to be called a piece of crap by everybody and their cousin?”
“You’ve just described about seventy-five percent of all people in the field of law enforcement,” Warren quipped. Lesinski grinned despite himself with a cocked eyebrow.
“Thank you. Four years of college, I’ve got some good ones in my back pocket.”
“Yeah, I’ve got a Bachelor’s in Communication Science. Not that it’s doing me much good now,” Warren said with a sigh. “I can’t seem to land any decent jobs. The bigger companies I could work for all do deep background checks, and I come up with a blue flag on my history on the federal level.”
“What’s that mean,” Lesinski asked.
“It means if they want to know, they only have to ask, and the HAC sends them my file,” Warren said. “I’m barred from any kind of federal or law enforcement jobs. I can’t even join the goddamn military.”
“That’s horseshit,” Lesinski grumbled. “You maybe weren’t one of my top people, but you could’ve done some serious good in the Army or Navy, kiddo. Hell, even the Air Force would’ve been a good fit, someone smart as you.”
“Thanks. Wish I’d have thought of that before signing on with your people,” Warren said, looking aside. An awkward silence hung between them for a minute while Warren tried to process how to ask his next question. Finally, he decided that a direct approach would work best. “Why did you pass me over? That second year I was with your outfit, a command position opened up. I was a candidate, had a sit-down with you and everything. But you gave the job to someone else, a guy named Hafley.”
Lesinski leaned back in his chair, folding his arms over his chest, chin tucked down as his eyes closed and he let out a deep sigh. Warren lit another cigarette and offered it to the supervillain, not taking one for himself this time. The Zapper sat forward, took it, and inhaled deeply on it, holding it for a good ten seconds before releasing it.
“At the time, Voss, I was pretty full of myself,” Lesinski began, eyes cast down at the table between them. “I’d pulled off about a dozen big jobs, taken out two or three supers sent by the HAC. One of them, I didn’t actually have to lift a finger, you guys took care of him. Big Fist, his name was,” said Lesinski. “I was really proud of you guys for that one. Hell, that’s the whole reason I even agreed to sit down with you, Voss. I’d read a couple reports said you were the one who personally put paid to him.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” Warren said. “He’d have killed all of us if I didn’t shoot him.”
“Exactly right,” said Lesinski. “And that’s what I saw in your eyes when we talked about the job. You see, I knew that you could kill, but only if you had absolutely no other options, no other way out of a situation. That’s not what I wanted at the time. Right then, right there, I wanted a cold-blooded killer, a real murderer, on the command level, somebody who wouldn’t blink when I gave an order. You had ethics, morals; I saw that as a hindrance, so I passed on you.”
“Given where Hafley ended up, I’m glad you did,” Warren said.
“Yeah, he was the first one down with a bullet in his head when the HAC guys ambushed me,” Lesinski said. “But enough about the good old days, Voss. This program you’re in, is it helping?” Warren thought about the group meetings he’d attended, the frustration and fury most of its members seemed to struggle with daily. He thought about the bottle of pills rattling around in his own pocket.
“A little,” he finally responded. “Some folks got it worse than others. Not everybody keeps at it very well.”
“Sure, sure. There’s always gonna be supers looking to recruit, and the kind of folks that hench, they’re apt to turn back to what they know. So, are there steps to this thing, like in AA?”
“Yeah, actually. Nine steps,” said Warren. “This is actually the fifth step, though not everybody can do it. Visit your former employer, and explain why you can never hench for them again, even if they get out of lockup.” The Zapper shook his head and laughed. “What’s so funny?”
“You think I’m ever gonna see the outside of these walls in this lifetime, Voss,” Lesinski asked, grinning like a demon. Warren just shrugged his shoulders and gave him a half-lidded glare.
“Wouldn’t matter. I’d have come seen you even if I never worked for you,” said the larger man, pulling out another cigarette and lighting it.
“Because you ruined my life, Lesinski,” Warren said evenly, blowing smoke right at the former supervillain. “Not because of the HAC and getting caught, no. That was my own damned fault, and I’ve got to suck it up and live with it.”
“Then what, kid? What’d I do to you that ruined your life,” Lesinski snarled, now leaning back in his seat and folding his arms over his chest. Classic defensive posture, Warren thought. But he’s listening.
“Two years ago, the Allen Gilbertson concert downtown,” Warren said, blowing another stream of smoke toward Lesinski. The villain looked side to side with his eyes, looked down, then back at Warren and nodded.
“I remember it. Turned into a real shit show,” said Lesinski evenly. “Couple of our people got spooked, trigger happy. Turned into a charnel ground.”
“Yeah, it did. A month before that, I’d recommended in a report that all battletank pilots should be put through conditioning simulations, to better prepare them for field operation. I was your go-to guy on instruction and maintenance on those machines.”
“Yeah, I remember seeing your signature on a lot of work orders and parts purchases,” said Lesinski. “So what?”
“So you quashed my recommendation,” Warren snarled, pausing to take a long drag on his smoke. “You quashed it, and some numb bitch got spooked, and a bunch of people got slaughtered, including my mother,” he said, shouting this last bit and slamming his fist down on the table. The door flew open behind him, and a pair of guards rushed into the room, their weapons trained on Lesinski.
“We got a problem here,” one of the armored officers asked through his riot helmet shield. Warren withdrew into his chair and stubbed out his cigarette.
“No, no problem,” said Warren, taking out his bottle of medication and dry-swallowing a pill. “I’ll be fine.” The guards gave him an extended stare, then returned to their post in the hallway. Warren could feel their stares now through the camera mounted in the far right corner from where he sat.
“Listen, kid, you can’t pin that on me,” said Lesinski, his arms still folded over his chest. “Your report probably never made it to me. One of the lieutenants probably gave it the nix.”
“Bullshit,” Warren spat. “I compared the denial signature on that form to every other one you had approved, and it matched up. You personally denied my report and recommendation, Lesinski. You personally got my mother killed.” The Zapper’s eyes rolled down toward the floor, and his seemed to visibly deflate a little, his hands slipping from biceps down to forearms.
“Shit, kid,” he said after a few moments. “I’m sorry. I really am. I didn’t know it was that important, didn’t really care at the time.” He looked around the room, then up at the lone window letting natural sunlight into the room, high up on the wall and covered with a wire mesh. “I’ve had some time to think about things since being brought here, though, and I’ll have the rest of my life to think on them. How many people I hurt, or killed. How many people’s lives I impacted.”
Warren said nothing to any of this, trying to calm himself, to let go of the broiling rage building up inside of him. He had never dared go after the Zapper personally while working for him, believing at the time that he was a powered human, that he would char-broil Warren in his skin with a bolt of lightning. But now that he knew that the supervillain’s powers had been technological manipulation, he thought about all the nights he could have just strode into the Zapper’s personal quarters in the base and taken him out with a single bullet to the head.
Hindsight is 20/20, he mused.
“Voss?” Warren blinked, coming out of his momentary fugue. Lesinski was sitting forward, hands clutched together on the table. “Listen, there’s no way I can make up to you, or any number of other people, what I did. But I know something that might help.”
“What’s that,” Warren asked. “And this had better not be some ‘Come to Jesus’ horseshit, because if it is, I swear to Christ, I’ll ask one of those guards to come in, take his gun, shove it up your ass and pull the trigger until the chamber snaps dry.” Lesinski blinked rapidly at this violent sally for a moment, then shook his head.
“No, nothing like that,” he said. “Remember where the secondary tunnel entrance to the base was?” Warren nodded, still possessing a full recollection of the base’s layout. “There’s an old playground about a quarter of a mile west of that entrance. You ever notice it?”
“Yeah,” said Warren. “I marked it for command as a rendezvous point if we ever had to evacuate in a hurry.”
“Good, good. Look, under the rusted-out tilt-a-whirl wheel, there’s a fire safe, buried a couple of feet down. There’s money in it, some jewelry too. I want you to take those, Voss. It isn’t much, and it won’t bring your mother back, but it’s something.” Warren sat back, lit one more cigarette, and handed it across the table to Lesinski, who nodded in appreciation.
“All right, I’ll take it,” Warren said, standing up with a grunt. “I know it hasn’t been an hour, big Z, but I’m thinking I should go,” he said. Lesinski nodded and stood up, offering Warren one outstretched hand. In his mind’s eye, Warren could see himself taking the hand, pulling Lesinski across the table in a violent arm pull, turning him around as he dragged him across the table, and snapping his neck like a twig.
Yet what he did in reality was take the smaller hand in his, apply a bone-crushing amount of pressure to it, and pump it, once.