“Don’t be late, Pilgrim. I need you here at midnight, not one second later.”
The face of Adam Conroy, a.k.a. the Black Templar, filled the giant screen dominating the workshop of Ray Hooper, a.k.a. The Pilgrim.
“No problem. Got a few errands to run late afternoon, but I’ll be there on time. Well, maybe a couple of seconds late. Maybe ten seconds? Yeah, let’s live dangerously!”
Ray realized that the Templar had just let a trace of actual human emotion creep into his voice. That was…unsettling.
“Okay! Just joking, I’ll be there. You know I will.” Ray frowned at the screen. “Hey, er, is everything alright?”
“No. No, it isn’t.”
Black Templar looked down for a long moment. Wait, was he…shaking?
“What? What is it?” Ray was worried now.
“I‘m not confident that this line is secure. I’ll fill you in when you get here.”
Black Templar leaned into the camera.
“I’m counting on you. We’re all counting on you. Don‘t be late.”
The shape-memory alloy of the Pilgrim’s amour shimmered under the street lights as his motorbike howled through the streets. He was running late – of all the nights for King Condor and his henchmen to try and knock over a bank, they had to pick this one. Stupid Condor, lame damn villain; what kind of useless mechanical wings only let you glide? Yeesh. Still, seven minutes to go, only five minutes away from the Black Catacomb – a full two minutes to spare, even the Templar couldn’t grumble about that. Much.
The bike slowed, rounding the corner, and Ray spotted something. Twenty yards away, four big men were grouped together and kicking the hell out of another guy on the sidewalk. Ray had taken the quieter back streets to avoid traffic, so there was no-one else around. Nobody else to come to the rescue.
“Don’t be late, Pilgrim. I need you here at midnight, not one second later.”
Damn it. Yeah, he could be on time. He’d just have to let someone get beaten into a coma to do it. Well, that just wasn’t the Templar way, was it? One button touch turned the headlight to full beam, another press linked Ray to the bike’s P.A. system.
“STOP. BACK AWAY FROM THAT MAN. NOW!”
They ignored him. A bad sign. Ray was hoping they’d run when they realized they’d been seen, but only two of them even looked around. So doing this the hard way, then. Ray mounted the curb, tearing towards them. He slammed on the breaks barely four yards away, for maximum intimidation. Within a second, he was off the bike and charging into the fray.
The first man took a taser in the neck before he’d finished turning round. The second managed to throw a right hook. Ray blocked it easily with a strike of his left forearm, while driving the taser up into the big man’s chin. The third and fourth men closed in. One of them swatted the taser from Ray’s hand. The other charged straight at him, trying to tackle him to the ground. Ray side-stepped to the left and let the guy’s momentum carry him sprawling into the street. With only one attacker still standing, Ray met him head on: a jab with his left hand to gauge the distance, a knife-hand strike to the solar plexus with his right, a stomp kick to the chest and the big man hit the ground hard.
In the couple of seconds this had taken, the final attacker had scrambled back to his feet. Ray turned to face the man and saw a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes, the momentary hesitation as he registered his three buddies laying prone and groaning on the sidewalk. A moment was enough. Ray flicked the weighted hem of his cloak at the man’s eyes as a distraction, as he pivoted on the spot to send his left leg arcing round: his heel connected with his opponent’s temple, and the fight was done.
Ray watched the four men for a long moment, making damn sure they weren’t about to get back up, before slapping on the handcuffs. Then he slowly crouched down by the wild-eyed young man who’d been the target of the attack, trying his best not to spook the guy.
“You got a name, buddy?”
“Hey, Jimmy,“ Ray smiled, in what he hoped was a reassuring way. “I’m the Pilgrim. You okay? Where’d they get you?”
“I think, Jesus, I think they broke my arm!”
“Just sit tight, stay calm, there’s an ambulance on the way.”
Police, too: the bike’s onboard computer had already sent out the appropriate distress calls. Ray kept talking, to keep Jimmy from slipping into shock. This was using up precious time, but he knew that the Templar would approve. Besides, seriously, what kind of problem could there possibly be that the great and mighty Black Templar couldn’t handle by himself.
“I’m here! I’m late, I know – couldn’t be helped! A guy would have died otherwise!”
No answer. Where was the Templar? Ray had been expecting the standard stern rebuke the instant he’d switched off the ignition.
“Never mind, tell you about it later! So, what‘s the big problem?”
Ray’s voice echoed through the tunnels of the Catacomb as he left the parking bay and headed for the central chamber. There was still no reply.
“Hey, can you hear me? Where are you?”
Ray was three steps from the doorway of the main cavern, the Templar’s inner sanctum. Ray stifled a grin: here we go, he thought, grim faced dressing-down from the Black Templar in three…two…one!
There was no-one there. Ray looked around, his confusion edging towards worry. The huge whiteboard that took up one wall of the central chamber was usually covered with crime reports, mug shots, witness accounts and all the other raw evidence that the Black Templar liked to pin up to stimulate his subconscious when working a case. Now it was almost bare; just one note was stuck to the very centre. Ray moved closer, craning to read the Templar’s obsessively neat handwriting. There was only one word: Ragnarok.
Now what was that supposed to mean?
The Law Legion hadn’t answered any of his calls. He’d tried each member individually: the Transhuman, Maiden Miracle, the Crimson Candle, Overtaker and the Sub-Human were all out of contact. Even Judge Jovian couldn‘t be reached, and Ray was pretty sure that guy actually lived in the team headquarters. He’d tried the other heroes that he knew – the Equity Collective, the Off Landers and Fight Squad. He’d even gotten desperate enough to attempt calling the Hegemony, Arctic Action and the Super Tweens, and still no luck. No-one was responding. The heroes were all just…gone.
Villains, too. Ray had been bracing himself for an onslaught of super-crime, but there was nothing. Five days had passed and still nobody had tried to vaporize city hall or stampede dinosaurs down Main Street. Even the villains that were supposed to be in jail or safely contained in Sackwell Sanatorium had disappeared.
Ray was alone.
Ray met his first ‘base raiders’ four days later. He’d been searching through one of the Crimson Candle’s spell book libraries, trying to find some clue as to the whereabouts of the members of the super community, when the raiders had walked in on him.
Three of them, barely out of their teens. They looked surprised to see him; they clearly hadn’t stopped to consider why the front door was unlocked. The largest of them slowly reached for his belt and the gun hanging there…
Ray was on them in a second, a blur of fists and knees and elbows: all three of them were on the ground in a panicked heap before they’d had to time to think. A lucky break, as it turned out that they’d been packing some pretty nasty hardware. Ray had recognized some of it immediately: Commander Conquer’s rail guns were built with a pretty distinctive design.
Ray had used the minimum of effort just as he’d been taught, but the trio of intruders were screaming with terror, all of them curled up in the fetal position and hoping that the scary, armored man wasn’t going to kill and eat them.
Ray had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. He put on his best intimidating growl and demanded answers. It turned out that the ringleader of the three was the Crimson Candle’s cousin. Apparently, he’d followed the Candle here in secret a few weeks ago and, after hearing the rumor that all the heroes were gone, had decided to help himself to everything that wasn’t nailed down. So much for familial loyalty.
But now, other than putting the fear of God in them, what could Ray do with these guys? He couldn’t really have them charged with breaking and entering: technically, he was the one who’d broken in. Plus, did he really want the police swarming through Candle’s secret library, drawing public attention to what was essentially a supernatural weapons dump?
There wouldn’t be a problem if the heroes were here; Templar said he was counting on me, maybe if I hadn’t been late they’d still be –
Okay, that thinking – not helpful. Focus on the problem at hand, just like the Templar would: how to stop opportunists who wanted to get rich quick, or get powerful even quicker, from getting their hands on artifacts and technology beyond their control. All those death rays and dark grimoires and mutagenic potions. And if anybody ever got their hands on Doctor Deviant’s Kink-O-Tron…
This was going to be a problem.
The third night in a row without sleep. There’d been no time, too much work to do. Ray had used the teleporter in the Catacomb to relocate to the Mirador, the space-based headquarters of the Law Legion which flew around the Earth in high orbit, its advanced cloaking system rendering it invisible to all below. The alien technology onboard made it easier to follow everything that was going on: the artificial intelligence that ran the place could filter out extraneous information from the news and police reports that Ray had playing constantly on the monitors in the Mirador control centre.
The media had started referring to the disappearance of the Capes and Cowls as ‘Ragnarok’. Coincidence?
“I’m counting on you. We’re all counting on you. Don‘t be late.”
No, none of that – no brooding, no time. Ray had discreetly positioned spy cameras at the entrances to all of the secret hideouts that he knew about. Apparently he’d not put enough of a scare into Crimson Candle’s cousin and his dumb buddies when they‘d first met: just yesterday, Ray had caught the little idiots trying to loot the vault of Professor Panik, luckily just before they‘d opened the door that would have released a designer plague into the city.
But Ray could only safeguard the bases that he knew about. Not all of the heroes had shared their addresses as freely with their allies as the members of the Legion had (and Ray was starting to suspect that even they had a few secrets between them). And then there was the villains. Some of their old bases, like those of Professor Panik, had been found by the Templar or other heroes during the course of previous investigations, but most of the bad guys had hidden their lairs well; they wouldn’t have lasted long in their line of work if they hadn‘t.
So Ray scoured the news and the transmissions of the emergency services and the base raider chat rooms that had sprung up and all of the old Legion reports, trying to spot the clues and patterns that would let him stay one step ahead and find the hideouts before anyone else.
At the same time, he was continuing his investigation into the missing superhuman community, trying to find some lead, any lead, that might point to what had happened to them all. Except the damn base raiders weren’t giving him the time he needed to –
Another attempted break-in at the Steel Centurion’s subterranean manor. The A.I. brought up the corresponding video feed: there were four raiders and it looked like at least one of them had a neural disruptor.
It looked like he wasn’t getting any sleep tonight, either.
Two months on. The sick bay A.I. had recommended three weeks bed rest, Ray told the machine that it had exactly two hours to get him back on his feet. As a result, the computer informed him that he now had a hydroxyapatite ceramic plate where the fractured part of his skull had been. So, add that to the list: a plate in the head, a Seidel nail in his right humerus and the condylar blade plate holding his left femur together.
The base raiders had gotten tougher. By now, those vultures were working out how to properly utilize what they’d stolen. One of the guys that Ray had fought last night had spat acid at him. The night before, he’d gone up against a woman who’d tried to club him to death with a Volkswagen. Ray realized that he needed an edge.
It felt wrong to just help himself to the Legion’s left-over gear – the irony of looting their property for the power to fight the base raiders was not lost on him – but it would be necessary if he was going to be fighting alone.
– I wouldn’t be fighting alone if I hadn’t let them down, if I’d just been there on time to –
No. Ray shoved that thought to the back of his mind and focused on the task at hand. The Crimson Candle’s spare Ring of Fire would help. Combine that with one of the Overtaker’s energy deflecting, superfluid jumpsuits and Maiden Miracle’s extra shield gauntlet, and he was good to go.
Now Ray had to upgrade his attitude. Putting a scare into the raiders clearly hadn’t worked. Putting them in a hospital bed for six months would. That would send the right message. Better that than some idiot getting his hands on a wrist-mounted atom bomb or control of a zombie army or some damn thing, right?
Twelve days later. Ray stared at the mechanical prosthesis that had replaced most of his left arm. He replayed in his mind the events leading up to his most recent mission to Earth and how it had all gone so catastrophically wrong.
Ray had gotten desperate. Magic was not his forte, especially not demonology, but he was out of options. From what he’d cobbled together from Crimson Candle’s grimoires and the tomes he’d taken from the mansions of Baron Bile and The Pyromancer, the ritual should work. The pentagram was correctly inscribed, the stars were in alignment, all of the apparatus was in place. He had one shot at this: the components involved would be completely consumed by the summoning, and it wasn’t as if dragon’s blood or the cremated ashes of a vampire lord were easy to find. So just one shot to summon a demon and force it to use it’s powers of clairvoyance to find the heroes. It was Ray’s last hope.
This would require absolute concentration. Ray picked up the ancient codex and began the chant. It was tricky, switching from Latin to Sumerian to Enochian and back again, but Ray was a hundred verses into the summoning and so far everything was going –
Damn it! Ray had switched off all the monitors but had forgotten the alarm! The A.I. automatically activated the screen closest to him: Ray saw an image of the war bunker of Colonel Canker, with five base raiders attempting to break in through a side door. The Colonel was notorious for his automated germ drones and Ebola golems and –
A roaring pressure wave hit Ray like a sledgehammer, flinging him across the room. As the pentagram burned away in a sizzle of black fire, Ray lay against the wall in a daze. He’d lost focus, just for a second, but that was long enough. He shakily dragged himself up, the realization of what he’d done sinking in. It was a sloppy and stupid loss of control and if the Templar had been there, he would have said –
-“I need you here at midnight, not one second later.”-
Enough! No more! No more raiders screwing things up! If some pack of jackals wanted to see super technology up close, Ray thought, they could start with the amour that was wrapped around his fist.
Ray crept in through the side door, listening out for any sign of the raiders. He turned the first corner and found one. She was lying on the concrete floor in a pool of blood, her face and torso mostly melted away. Colonel Canker’s security measures, no doubt. Still, that was one less raider to fight.
Ray found the rest of them in the main hall, busily picking through the trinkets on display in rows of tall glass cases. He managed to get the drop on one of them, a tall Asian man with a bionic arm, while the others were distracted by some shiny new ray gun. Ray dragged the raider into the shadows with barely a sound, keeping his arm locked around the guy’s throat until he slumped unconscious to the floor.
Two left. Ray boldly walked up behind them and jabbed his taser into the neck of the nearest one, who dropped like a rock, before turning his attention to the final raider. This one was something new: the man had rough, gray skin, jet black eyes and an inhumanly wide mouth accommodating several layers of wickedly sharp teeth. Some kind of transgenic experimentation with shark DNA? Had this raider found some of the Sub-Human’s biotech? Ray delivered a stunning roundhouse kick to the freak’s head that sent him flying through a pair of the glass cases, and resolved to interrogate the guy when he woke up.
Hold it, wasn’t there supposed to be five of them? So, where –
Ray hadn’t seen him until it was too late. Had he used a personal cloaking device? Some kind of innate invisibility? Irrelevant now.
A skinny man with red hair had lunged at him, wielding some kind of advanced energy blade. The weapon had sliced down at Ray before he’d had time to activate Maiden Miracle‘s shield gauntlet. The raider managed to catch Ray on the left arm, right in between the gauntlet and his elbow, slicing through amour and shearing his forearm clean off. The blade was so impossibly thin that Ray hadn’t even felt it; he’d only noticed that the arm was gone when he heard it hit the floor. For a long second, both men had frozen, staring at the ground; the raider seemed as shocked as Ray over what had just happened. But then the man pulled back for another swing and with no time to think about it, Ray discharged the Ring of Fire right in his face. The skinny guy lit up like a torch and flailed around, shrieking in pain.
A noise from behind him made Ray jerk round. Shark man was back on his feet, as was the guy with the bionic arm; Ray had underestimated both of them. They were reaching for weapons while Ray was hemorrhaging blood from his arm. He couldn’t win this, only escape. With his remaining hand, he unloaded everything he had in his weapon belt: flash bangs, gas pellets, smoke bombs and caltrops. He threw the lot, made a grab for his severed arm and ran like hell.
He had to reach the entrance. He could get away, send the signal to activate the Mirador teleporter with a single button push, but not from within the walls of a reinforced concrete bunker. He was ten yards from the door when his back started burning. Someone had shot him. The ray gun? And again; this time his amour failed and the force nearly knocked him off his feet. Ray could smell his flesh cooking.
Ray remembered little else after that. Disjointed images of the night sky, the characteristic tingle of teleportation and a strange sense of being very small, the walls of the Mirador reaching up high above him. This, he realized later upon finding the trail of blood, was because he’d had to drag himself along the floor to reach the sick bay.
He’d woken up two days later, wondering aloud why he couldn’t feel his arm. The A.I. calmly informed him that the limb had not been available for reattachment, as it was currently located on the teleporter pad where he had dropped it. By then the flesh had necrotized and it was useless.
Ray continued to stare at his new mechanical arm. He’d discovered that Maiden Miracle’s shield gauntlet was still functioning and could be welded directly to the metal limb. On reflection, this wasn’t much of a comfort.
Ray realized what he had to do now. He was one against many and the raiders were getting more powerful and better organized as each day went by: Ray knew that he couldn’t carry on like this. He’d been saving something as a last resort. He had hoped that the heroes would return long before he’d ever have to consider using this, but, well – they weren’t coming back, were they? It was all on him now; there was no-one else he could trust to safeguard the legacy of his friends or to keep hidden the weapons of the villains. No-one else to save the world.
“I’m counting on you. We’re all counting on you.”
“Computer,” Ray swallowed, “Begin genetic splicing sequence, using the supplied samples of Xenonian and Jovian DNA. ”
The top half of the Pilgrim amour no longer fit around Ray’s torso. No matter; his new skin was tougher than that useless old shell anyway. He was adjusting well to his new powers after only a few days and feeling better than he had in months. The air tasted strange though, like tin. Is that what it had tasted like to the Transhuman? Or would it have been Judge Jovian? Perhaps both.
More raiders, always more raiders. Trying to crack open the weapon silo of Professor Paradox, it seemed. Four of them, against one of him. But they were only human.
Ray threw the first raider against a wall with bone breaking force. He sliced his talons along the face of the second and slammed his gauntlet into the jaw of the third. As they lay groaning and weeping on the floor, Ray pounced on the final raider, leaping the twenty feet across the room to where the man sat quivering in the corner.
The last raider was wearing a mask. Just a stupid, cheap ski mask. Not a proper mask, like a hero. Ray tore it loose with his talons and contemptuously flicked it aside.
He had some kind of cybernetic eyepiece now, but there was no mistaking it. This was the man that Ray had saved from a beating on that night long months ago, the last night before Ragnarok. And now he was a base raider. A filthy, little, base raiding rat. The man who had made Ray late.
Not one second later
I’m counting on you
We’re counting on you
Fire lanced from Ray’s hand, setting the man ablaze. Everything after was just motion and screaming and blood. When Ray was done, he was the only thing alive in that room.
He breathed deeply in that eternity of stillness. He smiled for the first time in months.
Now that would send the right message.
Ray understands now. He sees it all very clearly. The base raiders are to blame for everything that has befallen him. Clearly, they are the ones behind Ragnarok. They stopped him from saving the heroes, took his arm, tried to kill him night after night after night. And why? Pathetic human jealously, of course. Envious of their betters, the raiders destroyed the heroes and now slither like maggots over their remains. They are vermin, nothing more, and he will make them pay for their betrayal.
Six months later. Wherever base raiders gather, the more superstitious of their number tell tales of the monster who hunts their kind, an urban legend handed along by those rare and lucky few who claim to have met him and survived.
He’s a demon, they say, mad science gone wrong, they say, the restless soul of a mad man that built itself a body out of scraps!
The fear pleases him. It is one more weapon in his arsenal. He has welcomed the new name that the raiders have given him, embraced it, taken it as his own.
Now there is no more Ray Hooper. No more Pilgrim.
There is only the Scrap Man.