The skirmishing was over and war had come at last to the Handy Pavilion. Employees that had once arrived by bus or on foot were now in mandatory car pools. Safety in numbers. Every effort had been made to conceal from the public all the preparations for battle. Still, an observant customer might have noticed how the theft-prevention people on the door now focused their attention on the outside rather than inside; how the skylights all suddenly sported heavy iron grilles; how the woodwork demonstrations now seemed to produce nothing but baseball bats.
Axel Platzoff sat alone in the cramped little break room, building a matchstick model of the Riechstag and wondering about the role he would play in the coming conflict. He'd been involved in wars before. He was a veteran of wars of secrets, wars of infinities, invasions, civil wars and a seeming endless array of world crises. They were always hard. Hard on survivors, harder on the dead.
A face floated up before his mind's eye. A kid of nineteen in a domino mask and a bad haircut. What had his name been? The Ghost something? Or the something Ghost? No one special. Just another cheap hoodlum with a weather controller and a limited understanding of bank security. Caught a piece of shrapnel when Baron Marianas' destructobot had detonated, back during the struggle over the Eclipse Glove in '94.
Sometimes, when he was sleeping badly, Axel could remember that look on the poor boy's face, the moment the penny dropped that he wasn't going to make it. The point where mocking villainous sneer had vanished, and there was nothing left but a scared boy who was going to die over a fucking glove.
Axel breathed deeply to calm himself. Ms Shan should call head office, advise them just to close down the Pavilion. They'd do it. Do it in a second. They'd been looking for an opportunity. It would hurt the people who depended on the place for a job, but it wasn't like it mattered. The coming war was just the first catastrophe on the horizon. Even if the Pavilion got through that, there was a bigger disaster in the offing. Why not just let the poor, battered, bruised folk of the Pavilion go home? Enjoy their last months in peace.
Why did thinking that leave such a bitter taste in his mouth?
The door opened. It was Wellsey, but he didn't seem to be on his break. "Axel," he said. "There's someone here to see you."
Axel knew who would be there, so looked back at his work. "Captain Stellar," he said.
"Hey Axel," Stellar said. His voice was quiet, awkward. "I saw your Etsy store. A friend pointed it out to me. Don't think I ever saw a crocheted Henry Kissinger mask before."
The door closed, signalling the departure of Wellsey. Axel looked up. Stellar looked thinner than he had. His face was narrower and he sported a neat beard, the extra hair almost making up for the visible bald patch.
"What happened?" Axel said. "Cancer?"
Stellar laughed. "No. Just stopped working out and using that hair regrowth formula that Dr Wizardry made for me. I've quit, Axel. Quit for good. No more being a superhero. I meant… I meant to go back to it, you know? When I had my life sorted out... But I guess people with sorted-out lives don't make great superheroes. Don't even want to be superheroes."
Axel looked at Stellar, as if seeing him for the first time. It struck him that of all the people in his life, he'd known Captain Stellar the longest. When had they first fought? Back in the '90s, some time. An attempt to sell Lord Howe Island to North Korea… God it seemed so silly now. The things you do when you're young.
"And please, call me Vincent," Stellar said. "Vincent Pizano. I'm a lawyer. I'm working for a LGBT community body now. It was a bit of a pay cut, but its important work."
"Always the do-gooder," Axel smiled.
"Can't help myself," Vincent said. "Anyway, your friend Wellsey... He figured out what was going on. Figured out my secret identity. He's smarter than he looks, is what I'm saying. He told me that... Anyway, I came to say I'm sorry for messing with your head like that. It was… Look, you were being an arse, letting me take the blame for that explosion, but my being passive aggressive didn't help anything."
Axel grimaced. Stellar was probably being sincere. He was a hero, so sincerity was basically what he did. He just seemed so... so ordinary, now. Standing there in his shirtsleeves in white-walled break-room.
When Axel had come to work at the Pavilion, that had what he'd wanted. To walk away from the nonsense world of heroes and villains and just be a real person. And here was Stellar, who'd made it back to the real world before Axel had.
The Captain had beaten him again.
"How do you do it?" Axel said.
"Do…" Axel's mighty brain struggled to find the next word, but eventually he found it. "Do good. How do you do the right thing?"
Vincent seemed to consider the question. "Are you asking me as a superhero or a lawyer?"
Vincent scratched his beard. "Hm. Well, the lawyer in me would like you to be more specific. But, ah, not so specific you incriminate yourself."
"There's a conflict coming," Axel said. "Who it's between doesn't matter. I've chosen my side, and I think it's the right one. But after that… Vincent, I was shown the future. Voyager showed me, future Voyager. It's… I made a mistake, a huge mistake and now we're doomed. The world is doomed. What does a little fight matter if there's something worse coming right behind it?"
"That's one way of looking at it," Vincent said. The door behind him opened, briefly. Someone looked in and quickly closed the door. A red-headed figure. Sadie MacGregor or Angela? Axel couldn't tell from the short glimpse.
"But look at it another way," Vincent continued. "If the world is doomed anyway, then there's nothing to be lost by fighting now."
Axel rubbed his head. "Sounds like a villain way of looking at things."
"Yeah, I was pandering," Vincent said. "Look, you're not going to like this, but here's how it is: you already know what you're going to do. I can see that. You're worried about whether its' the right thing. Well you should worry. Worrying about doing the right thing is the only way to make sure you do the right thing. But don't let that paralyse you. My advice: keep doing what you're doing, but just don't stop worrying."
"Isn't that a little pat?" Axel said.
"Extremely pat," Vincent laughed. For just a moment, he looked like his old self – the laughing, cocksure hero who had thwarted so many of Axel's plans. But then his smile faded, and there was no-one there but a middle-aged lawyer. "Monumentally pat. Simplistic, bordering on the facile. But hey, you're new at this. Got to start you on the basics, you know? So what are you going to do?"
"Do? I'm going to build some super-weapons," Axel said.
"Officially no longer my problem," Vincent said. "Take care. Be good."
"Take care," Axel said.
Vincent left, closing the door behind him. Axel pulled the plastic garbage bin over to the table and pushed his building in, then the matches, then the glue and his craft knife. He breathed in deeply, his skinny chest puffing up like an angry toad.
"All right," he said to himself. "Enough hobbies. Time for work."