310 - Dark Stars

A chance meeting and the conversation that followed had interested Maury Jones in the superhero work of Daphne Palin, now calling herself “Equity” as a code name.

Daph was waiting when Maury pulled up on a fancy high-tech motorcycle. The journalist waved from her bike, but didn’t dismount.

Daph raised an eyebrow. “You afforded a rig like that on a vlogger’s income? I’m in the wrong business.”

Maury laughed. “The benefits of networking. My cousin dated one of Otto Newman’s family, I got introduced, and the Garage built this thing for me gratis. I’m kinda like a war correspondent, but for supervillain battles, so I need to be able to get into danger zones and stay alive.”

Daph nodded. “Roger. If you need protection, I expect you to call for it then.”

“Will do. You need a lift, or you have your own ways of patrolling the city for danger?”

“I’m good,” Daph smiled. “Hope you can keep up.”

“Try me,” grinned Maury.


Both women surprised each other.

Daph was able to sprint at vehicle speeds, with a runner’s versatility and flexibility. She could leap dividers and cross barriers it would take cars minutes to circumvent via the roads, but she could match even a bank robber’s getaway vehicle - and did. If she couldn’t go over or around a wall, she’d go through it, without stopping. But every time she damaged something, Maury could see her snap a quick photo of it, with a camera-phone sewn into her jacket. Equity was not a hero that would just damage the city thoughtlessly.

Maury’s new toy, on the other hand, had multiple transformations. Daph watched it seamlessly move from motorcycle to some kind of centaur-type harness to a pair of huge gorilla-like arms that let Maury climb up a fire escape in record time, and it even had its own rockets for flight mode. The reporter was fearless in getting into range of trouble, navigating her peculiar vehicle and operating multiple flying camera drones at the same time, and in general staying close to the action without once interfering with Daph’s own work.

The first three days of their collaboration yielded fruitful outcomes. One bank robbery was interrupted, with all cash accounted for and nobody seriously injured. A lab that was quarantining animals who’d been infected by an alien virus had been broken into by extremists, and all the animals were safely returned. Two home break-ins and one kidnapping were thwarted.

It was the incidents Equity didn’t respond to in time that interested Maury the most, however. For example, there was an incident where a couple of joyriding car thieves had insisted on returning someone’s prescription from the stolen car, and local hero Kinetica had handled it. Tyran’s robot enforcers, on the other hand, had shot up several buildings in vain pursuit of the vehicle, and endangered numerous civilians.

Other cases where Tyran’s forces were involved had a similar track record. Villains would wreck buildings - including residences - and the forces sent against them would do just as much damage in an attempt to apprehend them.

“I researched, and it turns out Tyran Enterprises always pays to rebuild,” Maury explained to Daph, one day over lunch. “Problem is, they rebuild exclusively through Tyran subsidiary companies, according to their own designs. Tyran doesn’t need legal shenanigans to own the city. He just needs to let villains knock it down, like a demolition crew he doesn’t have to pay. Then he swoops in and builds things back his way. That includes more security cameras that feed into his network. And it includes contracts that let his security robots come ‘protect your interests’ if anyone else attacks the place.”

Daph stabbed her salad with a fork and took a bite. “The whole point of the Equity identity is to break the cycle of revenge,” she explained. “Part of that is dealing with property damage before grievances build up. So I should be a happy camper that they’re doing all this. But the way you say it, makes it sound like Tyran’s pocketing the money as well as pirating the city.”

“Yes. Exactly.” Maury drove home her point with her own fork, waving it about as she talked. “The way things used to be, you’d go apply for villain insurance, get a payout, and use that to rebuild. Until then, social services would make sure you stayed warm and fed. It feels equitable if you don’t scratch the surface, but once you look at it closely, it’s all about removing the self-determination of citizens on how they contribute to the city’s culture. You don’t get to build back your way, you get Tyran’s New Tomorrow. It’s fair at the individual level, grotesque at larger scales.”

“And you’re documenting all this? That’s your goal?” Daph asked.

“Yeah, I want to get the word out about this.” Maury took an aggressive bite of cucumber. “That’s why I’m so interested in your perspective about this. See, here’s the thing. It’s usually the heroes that defend the status quo, right? People rob a bank, you stop the robbers, you give the money back. Why? Because people want to feel secure in the institutions they use. The FDIC means the bank isn’t gonna be seriously hurt by losing a few grand, even a hundred grand. They cover two hundred and fifty grand, per depositor. If someone robbed a bank to put food on the table, that’s huge. So there’s arguments that some vigilantes and villains let some crimes happen because it helps the little guy. But what happens when it’s that status quo itself that’s hurting them? What’s fair when the actual crime is just, I dunno, a side effect of a very legal and very immoral process?”

“That’s a lot to think about,” Daph conceded with a smile. “Alright. Say we look at this just from the perspective of people. You’re saying I lose faith in powerful people if I know my bank is being robbed, whether or not I’m actually out any cash. But powerful people aren’t looking out for my interests, so sometimes I do the robbing because that’s how I get by.”

“Yeah, you got it so far.”

Daph smiled. “Right. The ABCs at my old school might say the right move is redistribution. More money to ordinary people, so there’s less temptation to rob banks to begin with. Only we can’t just unilaterally declare that’s how it’s gonna be, because that’ll cause more people to lose faith in the institutions that are supposed to protect them, because look what just happened - someone with power pushed their agenda out. Even if that agenda helps those self-same people, they’ll resist it, because they don’t feel like they had a say. And they didn’t.”

“There is that,” Maury said.

“And to take that further, if we did what those people might want - left it up to them - they might resist redistribution. ‘What about me?’ ‘Those bums should work for their money.’ Stuff like that. The self-interest instinct kicks in when you talk about societal changes whose scope they can’t intuitively grasp, even if you explained it. And while that whole situation wobbles back and forth, you have people like Rex Tyran, who do operate up at this societal level, taking and taking.”

“Yeah. That’s part of the problem.” Maury smiled. “So what’s someone like Equity to do here?”

“In terms of like, I dunno, an radical vs. progressive, aggressive vs. milquetoast approach to solving social issues?” Daph shrugged. “I think all I can really do is try and set an example, shore up the dam before it all gives way, and buy time for smarter people than either of us to find a way to effectively sell social progress to society. And while I’m at it, open eyes to the alternatives to how things are now. People can’t agitate for social changes they don’t realize are even on the table.”

A fleet of police cars rolled past the restaurant, sirens blaring. Both women looked at each other and smiled.

“Hey, gimme the check, right now!” called Maury to the waiter. “We gotta roll!”

Maury was in her mid-20s. Daph hadn’t thought the difference of a few years would mean much, but apparently it did. The two were in conversation, Maury on her bike and parked in a grocery store parking lot, Daph perched on one rail of the cart return station nearby.

“So you file taxes every year. The IRS knows how much you owe, because they get copies of all the official paperwork. But you have to figure it out yourself. And if you fuck up, they dock you?” Daph asked in disbelief.

“Yep. Now someone like me, who is making a living independently, can write off a bunch of stuff as business expenses,” Maury explained.

“Problem is, some things you can’t put a price on. Say I bought a car. I know how much I paid, we all know roughly how much the car is worth, so the IRS and I can agree that I spent that much keeping myself afloat and it’s not really ‘income’. But what about my Maurymobile?” She patted the side of her transforming motorcycle with affection. “I could buy 30 cars if I sold this thing. But I didn’t pay for it. So I fill out Form 2160, Extraordinary Appraisal Waiver, which basically says I got a thing that’s effectively priceless and if I ever sell it, I’m in deep tax trouble.”

Daph exhaled wearily. “Well what about someone like me? Do I need to, like, get hero insurance or something? Is there anything special I have to file? I just fill out a 1099-EZ or whatever.”

Maury smiled reassuringly. “Nope. The IRS doesn’t care what you do unless you’re making or spending money doing it, basically. As for insurance, some professional heroes have tried that, but the city, state, and national governments have bent over backwards to accommodate heroes. It’s that whole American exceptionalism thing. We lionize people doing things by the sweat of their brow, so when the real thing comes along, people who actually can change the world, the burden of paying for the consequences falls on the taxpayer. Fortunately the top marginal tax rate is high - not as high as it was in the 1950s, but still high enough to cover all this kind of thing. Thankfully the people making bank these days are all hyper-geniuses and industrialists and stuff, people for whom money is secondary to technical achievement. If all our billionaires were financiers and investors and stuff, we’d be in trouble.”

Daph glanced down at her phone. The ASIST app was blowing up with an incident in progress.

“Speak of the devil,” she said and flashed the device at Maury. “There’s an attack going on at some high society gala event right now.”


“It’s the Scurrilous Hullabaloo and their Babble Rabble!” announced a henchperson over the microphone, wearing headphones to block out the effect. They directed their pronouncement to the security cameras. Nobody else in the room would have understood.

The gala event had been held on the top floor of a swanky high-rise apartment, the sort of place the rich would mingle with the beautiful. Jewelry, designer clothing, and the numerous hyper-tech knick-knacks only the rich would commission were on full display. But now the attendees were wildly ranting, shouting nonsensical phrases, performing weirdly synchronized and jerky dances, and otherwise defying all social conventions. The Hullabaloo held sway, and this was their power.

As the gala attendees lost themselves in revelry, the supervillain’s henchpeople were methodically robbing them. The technique was always the same. Steal anything of value, throw it into bags, toss the bags down a laundry chute or into the garbage or onto a waiting truck or something, while police and superheroes dealt with the risk of the Rabble hurting themselves.

Nobody really knew who or what the Hullabaloo was. They made a point of blending in with everyone else, acting as defiantly crazed as the rest, and they had ways of slipping away from, or through, the police presence that inevitably showed up.

Daph and Maury landed atop the building, and looked down through the glass roof to see the chaos unfolding below. Maury wasn’t about to distract Daph from doing her job, so she didn’t ask how she’d planned to deal with this. She had her camera drones out and ready. She’d see, in due course. And if Equity told her to do something, she’d do it, no questions asked.

For her part, Daph wasn’t sure how to proceed. The ASIST app had a few key tips for dealing with the Scurrilous Hullabaloo, but it was all theoretical for her. Intuitively, instinctively, dropping through the window would have been fast. But no - that would leave broken glass everywhere on the floor, and people would definitely hurt themselves.

As she hesitated, the lights went out inside.

A dozen gunshots rang out in quick succession.

Daph and Maury looked at each other in horror. Daph spotted the roof access door, kicked it open, and descended. Maury kept observing from above, but sent one of the camera drones after her.

The scene in the gala ballroom was comically peaceful. Two members of the Stellar Six were there - the gunslinger Never Miss, and the technologist Ellie Dee. The Babble Rabble had been gunned down - but by non-lethal low-impact rounds, expertly placed so that there was not even a chance of lasting injury or death. Many of the henchpeople had been similarly brought down. The Scurrilous Hullabaloo might be here, or gone, but it was safe to say their plan to rob the gala had been foiled.


Maury wasted no time interviewing Rex Tyran’s hero team. Both of them were in full costume, including identical face-concealing masks.

“Heroes are Magic, independent superhero vlogger,” she announced in rapid-fire. “Interviews are on the record and strictly opt-in. If you tell me off, I’ll bail. That said - can I get a statement?”

Maury did find it curious that the two heroes didn’t even look at each other, that sort of gesture where a couple of people silently read each other’s mood. They just… paused? Then Ellie Dee spoke up.

“First, how did you get here so quickly?” she asked.

“I’m shadowing another superhero, Equity, for a human interest piece. ASIST tipped us off about this thing.”

On cue, Equity made herself known, and waved agreeably.

Ellie nodded, and broke into a beautiful PR-friendly smile. “Wonderful. All we can say is that the Stellar Six reported for duty, and it looks like we got the job done with nobody getting hurt. That said, I’m glad we aren’t the only heroes that responded to citizens in trouble. That’s the sort of attitude that’ll make the New Tomorrow a place where everyone wants to live.”

“Yyyyeah. Great. Thank you both so much.” Maury rolled away, only letting the disgust show on her face after she was well out of range.

“Someone was teacher’s pet in Speech class,” Equity commented wryly.

“That was such a piece of PR fluff,” Maury said, gritting her teeth. “My God. Who are these people?”

Equity squatted down to look Maury dead in the eye. “Well, that’s something I’m wondering myself. See, I noticed something…”

She gestured back at the ballroom, full of people who’d been robbed and then shot.

“Lotta bad stuff happened in here. The folks who got hit? I’m willing to bet most or all of them have some major skeletons in their closets.”

She nodded then in the direction of the pair of Stellar Six heroes, now speaking with building security.

“But the people in this room whose souls are just screaming for righteous wrath to be done on their behalf? Is those two.”

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Equity was holding up a heavy metal shutter that provided access to the parking garage. People were rushing under it, escaping the smoke-filled building it was connected to. If she moved, the shutter would close and they’d be trapped. And destroying the shutter would damage the building’s integrity badly enough to risk a collapse.

Another hero, another super-strong girl named Diesel Jenny, was inside, escorting people out.

It was, as these things went, easy work.

But it was… boring?

All she had to do was just stand there and exert supernatural strength, and shift herself around from time to time so she didn’t wear out any one part. And Maury’s video drone was hovering right there, recording the rescue incident.

“Hey, uh… Heroes Are Magic? Is that what you call yourself on the job?”

Maury’s voice came over the speaker. “It is a mouthful. I started using it online, and typing’s fast. I see your point.”

“If I call you HAM for short, will you be upset?”

“Now that I hear it, yeah,” Maury laughed. “How about just Maury?”

“Fair enough.”

Daph watched the people running past her, felt some bump into her from behind. Such a minor impact wouldn’t dislodge her from the door - it would take a car collision at top speed to do that - but it was distracting and annoying.

Maury spoke up over the link. “If you think about it, there’s names like ‘Scurrilous Hullabaloo’. But that’s not a name to have a conversation with. You announce yourself once and then people just say ‘the villain’.”

“Names are tough,” Daph mumbled.

Time passed. A thought occurred to her. “Hey, can I ask a seriously impertinent question? It’s about accessibility, specifically yours.”

“You mean the Maurymobile and my regular wheelchair?” Maury asked. “I’ll tell you if you cross a line. Until then, go ahead.”

“Thanks,” smiled Daph. “This is probably a question you hate too, but I promise I’m going somewhere non-offensive with it. You’ve got enough connections that getting you a working pair of legs was probably a possibility. You opted for anything but that. What influenced your thinking there?”

There was a pause, and Daph worried she’d given offense after all. But it became clear the journalist had only been thinking about it. “I spent a lifetime without using my legs. My brain, reflexes, whatever, aren’t set up to use them. People with working legs might think ‘we can fix her’, when what they mean is ‘make her work like us’. Instead, I asked the Garage to build a system that played to my strengths, and they did. That means using my arms, swinging, and navigating tough terrain.”

Maury’s voice turned interviewer immediately. “Your turn. What prompted this question?”

Daph wasn’t sure just how much she wanted to talk about this, now that she realized her surroundings. But in for a penny… “I’m sitting here holding up a heavy door, thanks to the power given to me by a guy, and I’ve told him to his face I want him to get lost. Just got me thinking, what if he takes me at my word, takes away the power at an inconvenient time, and I get crushed by this door or something? Just… I guess, how close we all are to being put in a situation where we adapt, and knowing we’d have to choose how to make that adaption.”

Maury ahhed over the radio. “There’s another consideration then. There’s a few people who have some fancy cybernetics or prosthetics. But those have to be maintained, because everything breaks down. What about those folks with the artificial eyes, where the company went out of business? What happens to them? So for me, personally, an external solution is always better. If it fails, I can always rely on my chair.”

Daph nodded. This made sense. The next part of her question came up.

“I’ve been thinking about those two members of the Stellar Six. How they acted kinda weird. Not robotic, just, I guess, ‘fake’ maybe? Inauthentic. And spiritually screaming for revenge. I got to wondering if they went through some kind of crisis of their own. Maybe Rex Tyran rebuilt a family into his own private army of killer cyborgs, or something like that.”

“That’s an interesting theory,” Maury conceded. “And it makes me wonder about the other four members of the Six. Have you met them, or are you making decisions about them based on only Ellie Dee and Never Miss?”

“Just those two,” Daph admitted. “I dunno. I want to help them, if they need it, but they’re connected to Tyran, and that guy and his New Tomorrow just screams evil to me.”

“So you want to know if the Stellar Six are villains or victims?” Maury asked.

“Yeah.”

“Sounds like a very important question to ask.”

Maury was able to cross paths with the Stellar Six two more times after their encounter at the gala. But Equity wasn’t along and couldn’t use her supernatural senses to confirm their only theory. And she wasn’t interested enough in the question to stop being a hero in places and at times where she was needed the most.

As Maury and Daph reconvened at Charlotte’s still-unopened coffee shop, Half & Half, the two compared notes. Vermillion would stop by on occasion to top off their drinks.

“Their powers seem authentic, but that doesn’t mean much,” Maury said, reading off her checklist. “So that includes natural mutants, induced evolutions, cyborgs, xenografts, alien experiments, nuclear accidents, divine or demonic pacts, spectral substitution, and uh… oh yeah, time displacement.” She wrote in the forgotten items on her notepad.

“You think they all have the same power origin?” Daph asked curiously.

Maury scratched at her head with the eraser end of the pencil. “Jeez, that’s a whole question in and of itself. But alright, setting origin aside, that brings us to recruitment and operations. Maybe they’ve been schooled in PR and extemporizing. It could be that they’re from a part of the world we’re just unfamiliar with, and they’re known under other names as heroes there, and Tyran hired them to come here. There could be a seventh member of the Six, a telepath that beams stuff into their heads, the way Switchboard did for Shadow Squad in WW2. Hell, they might just have earpieces and somebody is talking at them from a master control room.”

She sat up in excitement. “Oh! Hey, we got a couple people here who might know.”

“Excuse me! Mr. Vermillion!” she shouted into the back room.

The vampire languidly approached the table with the fakest of smiles on his face. “You called?”

“If it’s okay to ask, what’s the superhero situation in Russia?” Maury asked. “Like, do their heroes work like the ones in America and elsewhere?”

“The only heroes in Russia seem to come from fairy tales,” he replied. “Do not those with power serve their own interests here, as everywhere? Sometimes that interest is self-gratification. Sometimes that is to keep a treasured family, or a village, or an oblast, safe. There are those mortals who can hold power even over the superhuman, but I would not say that they serve the same social illusion as the Americans of their own free will.”

“Interesting.” Maury’s reporter instincts couldn’t be held back. “And what interests do you serve, if I may be so bold?”

“Why, those of my dear customers, first and always,” Vermillion smirked. But he left before anyone could comment on that, or for that matter order anything else.

“Good-looking boys get away with way too much,” Maury muttered to herself, but only after she was sure he was out of earshot.


Charlotte had joined in the conversation with permission. She listened to Maury sum up the topic of conversation, and their conclusions so far.

“So we think that Rex Tyran found some people around the world, people who wanted things badly enough to come here, whose powers couldn’t be used to get what they wanted - to have some kind of horrible wrongs righted. He put them through a crash course on American superheroing, hooked them up with a main office to direct their efforts - something like ASIST, but private. And now they’re stuck here doing his bidding, hoping that he’s gonna keep his part of the bargain.”

“That’s very interesting,” Charlotte smiled. “It sounds like your evidence is still circumstantial, and so this is all guesswork?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Maury admitted.

Daph held up a hand. “Quick tangential question. Well, it probably won’t be quick. But I think it’s important.”

She looked at both of the people sitting with her. “The law has a statute of limitations. After a certain amount of time, depending on what happened, you can’t go to court for relief. In ancient Greece, Demosthenes wrote about ‘sycophants’, or I guess we’d call them serial litigants or judicial trolls today, so it’s not like this concept is new. Debts die with the debtor.”

She looked now to Charlotte specifically. “But we also got ghosts and spirits and stuff, poltergeists and whatnot, that stay in the world because they have unfinished business - or rather, unresolved feelings. Revenge, for example, just to pick a totally random example.”

She snorted, and the others smiled.

“So what I’m getting at is, human beings feel like shit deserves to be settled properly. We feel it strongly enough that the impulse can survive even death. But on the other hand, we’ve built legal systems where you can’t legally resolve shit after a certain time. Sooo, which is it? As people, do we want business settled expediently, or do we want things settled however long it takes? What’s the most authentic human goal here?”

“Ma’am, this is a coffee shop,” Maury joked, and Daph was good enough to laugh at it.

Charlotte had a more serious answer. “I don’t know, I don’t know that anyone does know, but I like the question and I’m glad to know someone who can ask it. I should think that it’s a tension between our base desires, to have equity in our lives - as you already know - and our painfully accumulated knowledge that pursuing it can be socially destructive. Our individual moral vision is limited, but we can see through the lives and experiences of others. Perhaps if we had a long and broad enough viewpoint, we could truly see justice. Until then, we must do the best we can.”

Maury smiled in gratitude. “Makes sense. As Equity, I know I can’t perfectly balance the scales of justice. All I hope to do is work until they’re just wobbling, rather than being totally one-sided.”

Daph drew in breath, and composed herself. Finally she outlined her real plan.

“So listen. If this is all accurate, and if we’re all agreed Rex Tyran is bad news, I think this gives us a way to take the Stellar Six away from him.”

“How?” Maury asked.

“Ain’t it obvious? Find out what the Six really want, and do them justice. With their business resolved, that’d remove Tyran’s power over them.”

“That’s still founded on a mountain of assumptions,” Maury cautioned her, holding up a hand in a ‘stop’ gesture.

“I know, I know. I’m not saying, hey, give us our coffee to go, BRB saving the city,” Daph argued. “Just saying, it’s a valuable project to pursue.”

Charlotte smiled at her friends. “And the fact that we are having this conversation in Half & Half is very gratifying. I worried about why you two were able to find and enter so easily. Now I suspect it’s because you’re exactly the sort of people who belong here. Folks who want to help the city and its people, with the power and talent to do so.”

“What does that say about those two?” Maury asked quietly, nodding toward the back area where Vermillion and Bodark were at work.

“I think it says that my own vision is limited too, and justice needs time and friends to be seen clearly,” Charlotte grinned.

Half & Half is off to a good start, we’re asking some hopefully interesting questions, and the team has some stuff to investigate.
This concludes the Phase 3 prelude. We’ll be seeing regular stories coming this month. Excelsior!

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