It’s a bad time to be a superhero.
When the world turned its back on metahumans, the golden age of superheroes came crashing down. But now a mysterious supercriminal is making one final bid for power, and with no one else left to protect the world, ex-hero Spook must risk everything to take him down. There will be no reprieve, no negotiation. War is coming.
Put on the mask. There’s work to be done.
Chris Strange, author of THE MAN WHO CROSSED WORLDS, presents a stunning, no-holds-barred superhero adventure that will lure you in and knock you out. This is the novel superhero fans have been waiting for.
“…everything this comic book geek could ever want in a novel.” –Council of Peacocks
“…it captured me and held me in its grip…” –The Akamai Reader
Read on for a sneak preview of the first chapter of Don’t Be a Hero.
No One Can Stop Me Now
Somewhere over Northern Russia, October 1969
Morgan Shepherd leaned against the airship’s expansive windows, drinking in the light from the sun. Below, the powdered Siberian tundra rolled past. Pine trees and brown grasses dotted the landscape, clinging to patches of exposed earth. The airship’s heating system kept out the cold, but when he pressed his forehead against the glass, he could almost smell the dry air outside.
“I saw him once, you know,” Morgan said without taking his eyes from the landscape. “Dr Atomic. The Americans brought him to London to show him off to Parliament. I must’ve been about ten at the time. They had a parade through the streets, all confetti and flags. Mum brought me and my brothers to see. We lived in a little town outside Birmingham. Did I tell you this?”
“Yes, sir.” John’s voice quavered a little. He seemed a nervous man.
Morgan smiled out the window at the past. “I spent all my pocket money on Dr Atomic comics. I liked the ones about his real adventures the most, the ones where he and the rest of the Manhattan Eight were fighting for freedom, fighting the Nazis, pushing them through Belgium and all the way back to the Fatherland. I knew every story by heart, every little bit of trivia. But there was nothing like seeing him in real life.”
He rubbed a white-gloved hand across the tan and pale patches on his cheek. He’d shaved an hour ago. It was important to make good impressions. He wore a white suit and tie as pure as the snow. A series of gold buckles ran up the jacket, and a pair of cuff-links engraved with starbursts clung to his cuffs. The black domino mask he wore over his eyes wouldn’t do a thing to hide his identity, but that didn’t matter. He wanted them to see his face. If he had his way, he wouldn’t wear a mask at all. But traditions had their place.
“At the parade I snuck away from Mum and my brothers to get to the front. I was tall for my age, but skinny, so I easily slipped through the crowds. I got to the front just as Dr Atomic came past.” He closed his eyes to picture it better. “He was magnificent. That yellow suit was a hundred times brighter than in the comics. And his royal blue cape, blowing behind him in the London wind….” He tried to find the right word. “Remarkable. The Americans were never afraid to use colour. Not like we English. We were always obsessed with browns and greys, treating metahumans like soldiers to be camouflaged. But soldiers are just boys who point rifles at other boys because their government tells them to. No, the Americans understood. Those men weren’t soldiers. They were heroes.”
The airship hummed and started a slow bank to starboard. Morgan glanced behind him, where Navigatron’s skeletal, half-naked body sat hunched over in the pilot’s chair. His eyes glowed with green light and his mouth hung half-open, tongue twitching within. If Morgan concentrated, he’d be able to sense the packets of information travelling from the airship’s control panel into Navigatron’s palms. That particular metahuman had been a good find. Morgan had picked him up just eighteen months ago in New Delhi. He couldn’t walk or talk without assistance, but the improvements he’d made to the airship’s rocket engines alone were enough to speed up Morgan’s plan by months. Morgan’s father had worked developing electronic appliances during the Depression. It would boggle his mind to see what Navigatron could do when he made friends with a machine.
“You’re awfully quiet, John,” Morgan said, returning his gaze to the wastelands below. “Can I get you something to drink? Eat?”
“No,” John said quickly. “Thank you.”
“Did you eat before you came aboard?” He turned without waiting for an answer. “Obsidian,” he called.
Obsidian glanced up from the map she was studying. Or at least it seemed she did. With her eyes, it was sometimes difficult to tell where she was looking. Her black body shone and glinted as she drew herself upright, sunlight reflecting off the crags of her shoulders. She wore no clothes, and he had no reason to think someone made of rock even had any genitalia to cover. Her chest certainly had no hint of bosom. It reminded him more of a cliff face.
“Yes, my lord?”
“John is hungry. Do we have any more of that mashed potato?”
“I believe so, my lord.”
“Excellent,” Morgan said. “Do you like mashed potato, John? We’ve got some in tubes, like toothpaste. I’m told it’s what the cosmonauts eat.”
John Bishop sat huddled in the corner of the command deck, a notebook open on the wooden table in front of him and a stub of a pencil in his hand. He was a portly fellow, in his mid-twenties if Morgan remembered correctly. The man was supposed to be a rising star in investigative journalism, and he was pegged to get one of the lead jobs at the BBC in the next couple of years if he played his cards right. Morgan hadn’t expected to find a fellow Englishman in Moscow, but it had been a serendipitous meeting.
“Please,” John said, “I’m fine.”
“Nonsense.” Morgan straightened his jacket and waved to Obsidian. “Fetch Longtooth and tell him to bring John something to eat after we disembark. And a glass of wine.” The man needed his nerves calmed.
Obsidian bent her neck and stomped out the rear hatch. The airship shook a little with every step.
Morgan shot John a toothy smile. “There, no problem. Are you getting everything you need?”
John looked puzzled, so Morgan pointed at his notebook.
“Oh, yes, sir,” he said. “Very good, sir.”
“Excellent.” Morgan turned his attention back to the window as a rectangular black blotch on the landscape appeared from behind a snow-covered hill. “Ah, here we are. Good work, Navigatron.”
The husk of a man didn’t give any indication that he’d heard. Morgan knew his ears worked fine, but his mind would be occupied with the running of the ship. Still, Morgan believed in giving credit where it was due.
“Yes, those were the days,” he said, watching the compound slide slowly closer. “The days when a hero knew who he was, what he stood for. Where men and women all across the world could go about their business without fear. Because they knew that no matter how dark the world got, no matter who was threatening nuclear annihilation or genocide, there were heroes to stand against the darkness. The Manhattan Eight. The Light Brigade. Liberty Corps. Mr October. Kingfisher. Future Girl. Battle Jack. Dr Atomic.” He touched his mask. “People who knew what the costume stood for.”
As the airship floated closer, he could make out the twenty-foot high walls surrounding the compound, with guard towers set in every corner. A windowless concrete building dominated the centre. The compound had started its life as one of Stalin’s gulags, before he was toppled. Now it served a different purpose.
“Navigatron, disable the cloak. They’ll be able to hear us by now anyway. We may as well give them a fighting chance.”
The cripple said nothing, but a throbbing noise faded away, leaving only the sound of the rocket engines. A few moments later, a low wail echoed across the tundra from the prison. He squinted and made out dozens of tiny figures scrambling across the snow-covered yards. On the walls, a pair of huge black anti-aircraft guns began to swivel into position.
“You’re probably too young,” he said to John. “You don’t remember. You don’t understand. You’re not alone. Most people have forgotten. But it’s time they remembered.”
He took a breath and adjusted his white suit one last time. Clothes didn’t make the man, they just magnified him. His father taught him that.
“Arm the cannons,” he said.
A high-pitched whine, just on the threshold of perception, went through the airship. He thought he heard John whisper a prayer to himself. He didn’t understand yet, but that didn’t matter. It only mattered that he saw what happened here. “Come, John,” Morgan said.
There was a pause, then the rattle of metal as John got to his feet and shuffled over. Morgan had chained John’s ankles together as a precaution, but he’d left the man’s hands unbound. He would need them to record what he saw.
John stood next to him at the window and stared down at the prison, clutching his notebook in thick hands. His cheeks quivered. Morgan could smell sweat on him. He put a hand on the small of the man’s back to keep him from backing away.
Last chance to back out, Morgan told himself. No. It was too late for that. Some things just had to be done. “Give them a volley,” he said.
Yellow light bright enough to make Morgan squint cut through the air, accompanied by a screech like a boiling kettle. An instant later, the first anti-aircraft gun exploded into a cloud of molten metal. The laser’s ray swept along in an arc from the airship, making the concrete crack and crumble wherever it touched. John pressed his hands to his ears and his eyes narrowed into slits, but Morgan could tell he was still watching. Good. Steam rose from the compound as ice and snow sublimed, turning to vapour instantly.
A pair of figures on the ground tried to run from the laser. They sprinted from the wall to the central building, throwing their rifles to the ground in a desperate bid to gain more speed. It didn’t help. Morgan forced himself to watch as the beam swept across them, burning the flesh from their bones. Their blackened skeletons toppled onto the snow.
God forgive him.
A low moan escaped John’s throat. He’d turned pale, as pale as the patches that covered Morgan’s skin.
“Remember this,” Morgan said. “Remember what I did here. And write your story.” He swept away from the window, leaving John to stare at the carnage. “Obsidian,” he shouted as the stone woman reappeared in the command deck doorway. “Prepare to disembark.”
He could swear he saw a smile on her expressionless face. “Yes, my lord.” Her voice was smooth, like water over polished stones.
The screech of the ray gun became a pulse as it started picking off targets. The weapon he and Navigatron had designed would punch them a hole, but the real prize was deep inside. To get to it, he’d have to do the butcher’s work, up close and personal.
He followed Obsidian’s jerky, clockwork movements through the spartan corridors and down a narrow spiral staircase, stooping to avoid the low ceiling. A low throbbing started in the base of his skull. It always happened these days whenever the adrenaline started flowing. The ache was comforting, somehow. Familiar. As he walked, he pulled his medicine bottle from his pocket and swallowed a couple of white pills.
The two of them emerged into a wide loading bay with bare metal grating for a floor. Amongst the equipment crates lashed to the floor and walls, a dozen metahumans milled. They were dressed eclectically; Sand Fury was in full-body desert camouflage while Tinderbox wore nothing but the flame that licked across his bare skin.
They grew silent and still the instant Morgan stepped through the door. This was no military group. No one came to attention or saluted when he came on deck. He’d already briefed them on the building’s layout and what they’d find. But they all straightened and turned towards him, waiting for him to speak.
He drew up before them and cleared his throat. “It’s time. Ground defences are down, but expect heavy resistance. Each of you is here of your own free will. You have no obligation to fight today. If you have no wish to face death, I suggest you return to your quarters.”
No one moved.
Morgan nodded, heart swelling. Of all of them, Obsidian and Morgan were the only ones who had the ability to sustain serious small arms fire. Even then, an anti-tank round or a rocket-propelled grenade would do them serious damage. But still they stood here.
Courage. Loyalty. These things still existed. “Open the bay doors.”
Obsidian punched a button on the control panel, and the floor at the rear of the cargo bay began to slide away. Cold air rushed in, and goose bumps spread across his skin. The pulses of the ray gun became deafening. The ship vibrated with each shot.
He led the way to the open bay doors and took hold of one of the ropes hanging on a winch from the ceiling. He tossed the other end of the coiled rope out and watched as it dropped to the ground.
“With me,” he shouted over the noise, taking hold of a pair of handles on the electric motor connected to the rope. And then he stepped out over the abyss. With his thumb he pressed the red button, and the motor kicked into gear, wheels spinning.
His stomach lurched with sudden weightlessness as he plunged out of the airship. He wrapped his feet around the rope as the motorized wheels drove him down along the line. Icy wind cut through his clothes, freezing him to the core. The speckled plains spread around him in all directions, not a city or town in sight. It was almost peaceful, aside from the hiss of stone cracking and the screams of the ray gun.
Ropes dropped down beside him, cutting through his view. He could just make out the sound of a dozen more little motors whizzing to life. The ray gun finally fell silent. The risk of hitting his own people was too great. But the exterior of the prison was already shattered and stripped of life. The walls were cracked, the anti-aircraft guns were disabled, the guards were dead.
As the ground rushed to meet him, Morgan released the speed control and applied the brakes. Another lurch of his stomach as he slowed, and then his white leather loafers crunched on the rocky courtyard made slippery with melted snow. He was inside the compound.
He was already moving by the time the other metahumans touched down behind him. The single windowless building stood like a huge black monument in the centre of the compound, gleaming in the sun. A well-placed ray gun blast had cracked open the sole door. Figures moved in the shadows. As he sprinted across the courtyard towards the soldiers, he drank in the harsh Siberian sunlight. He seemed to recall a song about a flower clinging to life in the snow, but the words escaped him.
Morgan shifted his energy inside himself, just like he did every day during his personal training. Flashes went off in his head, like a horde of over-eager cameramen, and he brought his hands together in front of him. Light bloomed around him, oozing out of every pore as though it were liquid. To other men, it would be almost blinding. But to him, it was like opening the curtain onto a beautiful summers’ day.
Russian shouts reached him, and nine or ten men poured out of the building’s doorway. The soldiers dropped into crouches and aimed their Kalashnikov rifles at him. Some glanced up nervously as his airship, Hyperion, passed over them, its rocket engines idling. It had cost him a fortune, but money was easy to come by. And no one could say it didn’t have a touch of class.
Then the soldiers returned their attention to him. Muzzles flashed and the clatter of automatic fire burst through the air. Morgan didn’t stop. The light around him hardened in response to his thought, and an instant later he was peppered with a dozen rounds. Sparks flew around him. Bullets ricocheted off the solidified light he’d drawn up. Each round set his teeth chattering, sending little ripples of force through him.
But his shield of light held. His own heavy breathing echoed inside his head, loud enough to drown out even the gunfire. His footfalls crunched across the courtyard, and bullets kicked up fragments of snow and packed soil all around him. The shouts became desperate. He was close enough to see how young these soldiers were.
And then he was amongst them. He leapt, slamming his shield of light into one and kicking the rifle out of another’s hands. With another switch of energy, the light changed shape again. A sword bloomed into life in his hand. A sword with an edge the size of an electron.
He swung in a wide arc, and blood flew. He’d learned fencing at university, but there was no art to what he did now. He slashed out again and again, relying on speed and the protection of his shield. He wasn’t cold anymore.
The stink of death was everywhere. The three surviving soldiers pulled back into the doorway. They abandoned their rifles for their handguns in the tight quarters. He swept in after them, stepping over the bodies of their comrades and using his shield to keep the blood from staining the white fabric of his trousers.
Tinderbox was the first of Morgan’s people to arrive. He skated in on feet of flame and projected a narrow jet of fire at a soldier. The flesh of the man’s face bubbled where it hit him. He fell, screaming. Morgan forced himself to listen. No blocking out the screams. He would live with them. He had to.
Morgan and Tinderbox had secured the doorway by the time the others caught up. Obsidian observed the carnage with the only face she was capable of making, and said nothing, like the rest.
“Sand Fury will cover our exit. Screecher, take B team to the upper floors and crush anyone you find. The rest of you, with me.”
They were two floors underground, fighting one minor skirmish after another in the cramped concrete corridors, when the Russians launched a full counterattack. Morgan got his light shield up just in time to deflect a hail of bullets from a machine gun mounted behind a thick concrete wall. Rounds hammered him, sending ricochets sparking into the walls.
“Scramble!” he ordered, and the rest of the metas scattered behind him. Obsidian kicked open a door and led the rest of his metahumans into an intersecting corridor.
Morgan planted his feet and gritted his teeth against the oncoming barrage. The machine gun was perhaps sixty feet away, with a clear line of sight down his corridor. Behind it he could make out groups of soldiers massing, and behind them, the static purple glow of Unity Corporation shielding systems. The prison cells.
He ducked back into the doorway Obsidian and the others had retreated into. The colourful array of metahumans crouched or stood, poised like jungle cats.
“This is it,” he yelled, struggling to make himself heard over the gunfire echoing through the corridor. “Obsidian, a little help would be very much appreciated.”
“As my lord says.” She jerked a nod and turned her diamond eyes on Haze. “Cover.”
The thick-set Haze unzipped the mouth area of his full-face mask and showed his teeth. “About fuckin’ time.” Smoke trickled from his lips as he spoke.
Morgan moved aside and made room for Haze to step up to the doorway. Tracer rounds from the machine gun flew past, tearing the corridor to shreds. Haze took a few deep breaths in and out, waiting.
The gunfire suddenly stopped, leaving Morgan’s ears ringing. The machine gunner swore in Russian. He needed to reload.
Haze’s eyes rolled back in his head. The meta took one last breath in, held it for a moment. Morgan could hear boots stomping on concrete and a few bursts of suppressive fire as the soldiers moved to support the machine gunner.
And then Haze exhaled. Smoke and wind blew through the corridor. In an instant, Morgan was blinded by a wall of grey smog.
The ground shuddered as Obsidian dashed out into the clouded corridor. He could imagine her raising her fists into the air, poised above her head.
“Brace yourselves,” her smooth voice said.
Morgan pressed himself against the wall as she brought her fists down on the ground. The earth screamed and shook like a meteor had hit. He heard the concrete groaning as the wave of energy flowed through the ground ahead of her.
Haze braced himself against the doorway and sucked the smoke screen back towards his mouth. The rumbling of the earth slowly died away, leaving nothing but shouts and the tinkling of crumbling masonry.
Morgan was first out of the corridor, racing across the cracked ground before the last shakes had vanished. Obsidian came close behind him, breathing heavily, and the others followed, whooping and shouting.
Morgan drew up a blade of light and slashed at the machine gunner’s neck while he struggled to get back to his weapon. Without slowing, Morgan leapt over the chest-high wall. Thirty or forty Russian soldiers lay scattered across the main prison chamber, trying to regain their feet. His metahumans fanned out beside him, kicking and slashing and biting and burning the soldiers who tried to get to their guns. One soldier fell with swarms of insects crawling down his throat, choking him. Obsidian hurled another at the wall, and Morgan could hear the man’s neck crack. The throbbing in his skull grew as the soldiers died, but he pushed it aside. He couldn’t worry about that now. He wasn’t done yet.
Behind the dying soldiers, twenty prison cells sat nestled in the walls. Twenty prisoners for this prison in the middle of nowhere. Each cell was closed over not with bars, but with purple, half-transparent shields. Behind the shields, twenty sets of eyes watched their guards being butchered.
“Enough!” Morgan shouted. His people grew still. He glanced around the room and found a soldier still breathing in the corner, his arm broken and bleeding.
The man watched with a grimace painted across his face. He was older than the others, with a thick black moustache resting on his upper lip. An officer.
“Vy govorite po-angliyski?” Morgan asked.
The man sneered. “Yes,” he said in a thick accent. “I speak English, dog.”
Morgan crouched in front of him, careful not to get blood on his shoes. “The controls.”
The soldier spat. Morgan suppressed a flash of anger and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the saliva from his cheek.
“There are only two ways this ends,” Morgan said. “Both ways I get what I want. I’m trying to help you. Please. The controls.”
The soldier’s eyes were filled with fire. Then the light dimmed, and he jerked his head to his right. Morgan glanced up and found the panel the man indicated. He pointed it out to Obsidian, then turned his attention back to the soldier.
“Get word to your Premier. Tell him what happened here. Tell him I found your prison. Tell him I destroyed it. Tell him I took what he thought was so carefully hidden. And tell him it took me less than an hour. Vy panimayete?”
“Da. I understand, dog. Do you?”
Morgan stood and nodded to Obsidian. She pressed a series of buttons on the wall panel. A light blinked green, and Morgan smiled. It had been ten years since the last breakout attempt. The guards had grown complacent. They didn’t change the codes as often as they should.
The purple shields of every cell flickered and disappeared.
The prisoners slowly shuffled out of their cells. One man floated out a foot above the ground, his legs crossed beneath him. Another woman sniffed at the air before emerging and let a long, snake-like tongue dart from her mouth.
Morgan stepped in front of Obsidian and his other metas and studied the prisoners. They were malnourished, and some bore old, untreated injuries. But their eyes were strong. A few of them he would need to put down, but the rest….
“My name,” he said, “is Quanta.” He paused for a moment, letting his words echo around the chamber. “I’m looking for the one who calls himself Doll Face.”
Silence answered him. His head continued to throb, like the pulsations of a rocket engine. Despite his self-control, a crack of doubt appeared in his mind. No. It would work. It had to work.
Something sharp pricked his throat.
“What does the pretty man want with me, hmmm?” a voice whispered in his ear. It was girlish, yet obviously a man’s voice. Spindly fingers wrapped around Morgan’s shoulder. He froze, trying not to breathe. He could feel a drop of blood trickling down his neck where the jagged blade pressed. “Does it want to hurt Doll Face? Or does it just want to play?”
“Neither,” Morgan said, moving as little as possible. “I’m recruiting.”