When the time came to make a decision, Alejandro knew it in his heart. For years, he had worried about the Protectors having to make the decision for him, to have to come to him and gently let him know that he wasn’t making the cut. In retrospect, Alejandro wished that they had come to him instead of it being made abundantly clear that Hacot City could no longer afford to have him as one of their Protectors.
In the end, it didn’t really matter how the decision had been made, other than that Alejandro formally announced that Master Mechanical was retiring from the Protectors. For the last twenty years, since Alejandro had found that he could communicate with technology, he had served with the Protectors, the group of super-powered individuals who had taken it upon themselves to protect Hacot City from the threats that faced it, internal and external.
For most of that time, it had been an exhilarating privilege—to be entrusted with the city’s defense and to know that he, Alejandro Gonzalez, was capable of meeting any challenge head-on. But as he’d gotten older and his reflexes and response times had gotten slower, the adage that there were no old superheroes rang clearer and clearer, like a bell heralding his end.
But Alejandro would have went to his death to protect his city—that was what it meant to be a superhero. He would not, however, let someone else die for him to do so.
Alejandro checked his watch—it was ten p.m., two hours past when he was supposed to have left the Department of Water and Power’s latest construction site. Right now, the DWP building looked like it was on the cusp of being completed, but unfortunately, the general contractor had failed to notice a major issue with the building’s wiring until recently. Before Alejandro had been able to do a site walk through, he and the contractor had spent far more time than Alejandro wanted going through the steps that would be needed to remedy it.
Alejandro wanted nothing more than to go home, but Tyler, a squat and pale guy with more facial hair than anyone knew what to do with, was looking at him expectantly to do a walk-through, so Alejandro sighed, put on his best smile and headed out of Tyler’s office.
They entered through the front of the building, Alejandro’s notebook out as he jotted down notes for items that would need to be discussed with the DWP later in the week or would need to be revisited with Tyler at their next meeting.
Alejandro caught a glimpse of himself in a reflective piece of aluminum—even now, months after his retirement, seeing his face bare, just his dark skin, brown eyes and graying temples staring back at him, made him feel naked despite the light green button down shirt, black tie and dark brown pants that he wore. He hadn’t put on his mask in months—he should be used to this, he reminded himself.
“Everything ok?” Tyler asked.
Alejandro smiled again and shook his head. “Just caught a glimpse of my reflection and I couldn’t resist.”
Tyler rolled his eyes and laughed as Alejandro had intended.
“Did you hear that?” Alejandro asked, a small vibration in the building catching his attention and then wished that he hadn’t said anything. He was so eager to be back in the action, to be patrolling a building like this in the night, that he was willing to jump at the slightest noise.
Tyler cocked his head and then shook it and they kept walking. But the vibration continued and even though Alejandro knew he was being ridiculous—this was a construction site, if something wasn’t moving slightly, that would have been more surprising—he carefully reached out, letting his hand rest against some of the trailing wiring that they were integrating into the walls.
He sent out a quick query of awareness and faster-than-lightning, got a response. Someone was putting in new wiring. Construction stopped every day at 8 p.m. and as far as Alejandro knew, all of the construction guys headed home by 9 p.m. with only security remaining overnight.
“Is there anyone onsite other than security?” Alejandro asked.
Tyler gave him a weird look. “No.” Alejandro gave another push towards the wiring—he could see a map in his mind’s eye of the current wiring in this building. Although the wiring was being laid in now to assist with the security system needed for the DWP’s central coordination requirements, none of that technology had yet been added in, leaving Alejandro, frustratingly, with little more than the knowledge that someone was currently trying to do something to it and that it was coming from the north end of the building.
He reached instead for his phone, looking to get access to the security cameras—those were more helpful—and he could almost certainly access a feed through the wifi connection. Alejandro surreptitiously pulled out his cellphone, feeling a twinge of guilt at his rudeness, and directed his phone to connect into the security’s internet connection to get access to what the security cameras could tell him.
Shit. Clear as daylight, Alejandro could see a man—no, an alien—pressed close to the building, his skin a faint grey shimmer that his black clothes couldn’t entirely hide and his face entirely hidden by a dark green mask. The Callistan Crusader.
As far as Alejandro knew, the Callistan Crusader mainly relied upon telekinesis, although he had an affinity for metal and magnetic fields. They’d met in fights in the past, but that had been when Alejandro had had a team. When he’d been Master Mechanical. Alejandro wrapped his hand around his phone, asking it to contact the Protectors.
Immediately, as if he could sense Alejandro’s power, the Callistan Crusader looked up, directly into the nearest security camera and then it went dark.
“I think we need to get out of here,” Alejandro said, gently pushing Tyler back towards the way that they’d come. The beams in the building start creaking precariously and Alejandro pushed Tyler into a run. “We need to get out of here now.”
Tyler didn’t need any further motivation, bursting into a sprint, but a long piece of temporary fencing flew in front of them, stopping them in their tracks just as a piece of rubber tubing wrapped around the two of them, pulling them together. Tyler immediately began hyperventilating, while Alejandro reviewed what he could use onsite. The CATs were too far—while he could use his phone to link into their computers, they’d take too long to arrive. This wasn’t a fully operational building, with security protocols that he could get into—although, he mused, he could probably do something from the security center.
With that thought, he reached out through his phone to the security center. While he frantically tried to parse through for something useful, the Callistan Crusader himself showed up, walking briskly, a whole set of unrecognizable objects floating behind him. Alejandro mentally reached out for them, although there was nothing that he even could have done with them unless he was either touching them or had an internet connection to them. But when he reached out to them with his power, they fritzed slightly, uncomfortable and strange, and rebuffed him. They must have been Callistan as well—from the little that Alejandro had dealt with their technology, it responded sluggishly to him, some crucial difference that Alejandro couldn’t seem to uncover.
Alejandro couldn’t help a glance over to the Callistan Crusader, seeing if he’d noticed anyone trying to get through to his technology. Although Alejandro couldn’t see the Callistan Crusader’s face, Alejandro could feel the disapproval radiating off of him. Not a great way to start off an interaction with a supervillain, but not a surprising one.
“What are you doing here?” the Callistan Crusader asked and Alejandro thought through everything that he knew about him before answering. He was originally from Callisto and Jupiter’s strong magnetic fields gave him an affinity for metal. Somewhere along the way he’d picked up telekinesis.
He wasn’t especially blood-thirsty, but he was hell-bent on carving out his own territory to rule on Earth. Apparently, that was the way that things were done on Callisto. By and large, he operated on his own, although that was not a guarantee. Alejandro concluded his evaluation with the thought that the Callistan Crusader was unlikely to kill Alejandro and Tyler for the sake of killing them, but rather to stop them from informing anyone of what he’d been trying to do, which Alejandro was still murky on. The upside was, if Alejandro could keep him talking long enough for the Protectors to get there, they’d have a decent chance of surviving.
“You could have picked better timing,” Alejandro called out.
“What does that mean?” the Callistan Crusader asked harshly, his mask contracting.
“It’s a little early to try and sabotage the DWP if you’re not looking to run into people,” Alejandro said. “The middle of the night seems like it might yield better results.”
“Are you giving me advice?” the Callistan Crusader asked.
“I am just pointing out that there are probably better times where you’re less likely to run into someone,” Alejandro said.
The Callistan Crusader looked up, his ears seeming to vibrate slightly. “Which of you two men called the Protectors?” the Callistan Crusader asked. Great—his sleek-looking pieces of technology had probably spoiled that surprise. “It would have been so much nicer for me and easier for you if you’d exercised the slightest bit of prudence.”
Alejandro looked at the Callistan Crusader in the eye. “That was me."
“Brave,” the Callistan Crusader said, with no small amount of mockery. Alejandro didn’t look away and eventually the Callistan Crusader frowned and looked away. After a minute, he looked up and met Alejandro’s gaze and frowned. “It seems they’re coming even faster than I had anticipated.” Dread settled in the pit of Alejandro’s stomach as the Callistan Crusader said, “You must have made that call very early.”
Alejandro didn’t say that he had a direct line to the Protectors. He didn’t say that he could call anyone in the world with little more than a simple touch and a thought. He kept his eyes fixed on the alien in front of him, trying to anticipate his next move and hoping that it wasn’t to kill Alejandro and Tyler.
“Until we meet again,” the Callistan Crusader said and then turned, one of the objects behind him flattening out into a platform and whisking him up and into the air.
Alejandro didn’t let out a sigh of relief until after Jaya, also known as the Diamond Knuckles, and Dark Ibis showed up. Jaya gave Alejandro a sardonic look as she pulled apart the tubing. She also took his statement after Dark Ibis took Tyler and the security guards, who’d thankfully missed all of the action, off for their own statements.
“What did he want, Alejo?” Jaya asked, keeping her voice low. Jaya was a six-foot tall woman a few years younger than Alejandro with dark skin and purple hair. She was one of the few powered people that Alejandro actually knew in real life. Alejandro shook his head.
“No clue,” he said. “Best guess is that he was trying to get a line in now and gain access to the DWP’s controls before anyone thought to look.”
After that, there were police statements to give and Tyler to reassure which meant that Alejandro didn’t get home until after midnight. As he set his bag down in his apartment, he felt old in a way that felt particularly depressing. He was forty-five, with no husband, no kids and no pets. He didn’t even have any plants. His phone gave a sympathetic beep which made Alejandro laugh. “Yes, I do have you,” he said to it.
Despite the Callistan Crusader’s nebulous threat, he seemed to stay under the radar for the next month or two.
By the time that Alejandro showed up at the partially rebuilt state capitol at nine a.m. on the dot for another Monday and another work week, he’d pretty much lumped the DWP late night adventure in with most of his other Protector experiences.
His mind certainly wasn’t on anything except the capitol as the previous iteration of the building had been irreversibly damaged in a confrontation the previous winter between the Protectors and Dr. Emile Destruction. While Dr. Destruction’s name was unlikely to be his original one, it was certainly accurate as he’d tried to destroy the city with his recently-developed tornado machine before the Protectors had taken him into custody. Most of the damage hadn’t been too bad, but the state capitol building, where he’d made his final stand, had taken the brunt of it.
Today, Alejandro was here in his civilian capacity.
“Are you from Gonzalez Keene?” a harried young woman with deep tan skin and a hastily placed bun asked as Alejandro approached the entrance to the construction site.
“Yes, Alejandro Gonzalez,” Alejandro said, holding out a hand. The woman shook it and then gestured for Alejandro to follow her.
“Yes—and sorry that Jen couldn’t be here today. She had to fly to a different site for an emergency, so I’m stepping in for her for a few days. I’m Chris,” the woman said.
Chris took Alejandro into her field office and went through that week’s latest reports and proposed change orders. The biggest issue that they currently had was the piping—Dr. Destruction’s actions had severely damaged the piping for miles and they weren’t making fast enough progress for Alejandro’s liking.
In the middle of their walk through, someone screamed and both Alejandro and Chris immediately stopped what they were doing. Alejandro went towards the entrance of the building, instinct guiding him.
Alejandro heard a creaking sound in the air and he sped up, coming out of the hallway and into what would be the round entryway the size of a school gymnasium. He emerged into a cacophony of shouting and screaming as the Callistan Crusader stood suspended in the air, his skin that same faint grey shimmer under his black, form-fitting clothes. Even though Alejandro knew what to expect, the sheer power coming off of the man gave Alejandro pause. All of the metal in the building gently leaned towards the man as the entrance of the building and each of its windows sealed themselves shut with steel beams.
“Anyone who does not wish to be slowly and painfully crushed to death should come out here now,” the Callistan Crusader said.
Alejandro reached into his pocket and wrapped his hand around his phone. His phone responded eagerly, immediately sending an email and an alert directly to the Protectors headquarters where whomever was on duty would be able to respond.
Even if Alejandro had wanted to take on the situation, which as a retired Protector, was reserved for the most dire situations, in a building this unfinished and without any of his equipment, there was little for him. On a practical level, all that he could really do was try to redirect the Callistan Crusader’s focus and keep everyone else from doing anything stupid until the Protectors arrived.
Alejandro calmly strolled through the panicked crowd until he stood in the Callistan Crusader’s eyeline. “What do you want?” he asked, using one of the sound systems to give his voice just a little extra amplification, nothing that pointed to a power but enough to get the Callistan Crusader’s attention. Sure enough, the Callistan Crusader looked down at him.
The Callistan Crusader looked at him for a long second—Alejandro couldn’t see behind his dark green mask, but he got the sense that the Callistan Crusader had recognized him, unsurprisingly so, and was now evaluating him. Alejandro didn’t look away.
“Tell me your name,” the Callistan Crusader said, his voice low.
“My name is Alejandro Gonzalez,” Alejandro said. “What do you want?”
“Well, Mr. Gonzalez, I suggest that you make sure that everyone is accounted for,” the Callistan Crusader said as he moved his hands and a handful of workers were spat out of the second floor onto the first, landing hard enough that one of them screamed with pain, although no one appeared to be irreversibly injured. “Or I will do significantly worse.”
“What do you want?” Alejandro asked again, his eyes not leaving the Callistan Crusader.
“My birthright,” the Callistan Crusader said. After a pause, he said, “You will be my hostage negotiator. If you would like everyone to get out of here alive, you will call the police and give them my demands.”
Alejandro broke contact and looked down at his hands. He sighed. At least if he did it, this minimized the risk of someone else getting injured and getting to use his phone openly would allow him to tap into anything that could be of use in or around the capitol. Although if the Callistan Crusader figured out what Alejandro could do, there could be real problems. But that was a problem for a different day.
“Alright,” Alejandro said. “What are your demands?”
For the next several hours, Alejandro spent his time going between the scared group of people now collected in the entrance area to the capitol. While it would someday be a very impressive and welcoming place, right now, with the lack of proper ventilation, it was over-warm and there was limited water available for people, which necessitated other negotiations.
It turned out that what the Callistan Crusader really wanted was one hundred pounds of astatine steel. Alejandro stopped and stared at him. Astatine steel was a very dangerous type of metal that could be used in electro-magnetic bombs. Unsurprising, but also incredibly unlikely that the police would just hand it over. Even assuming that the Protectors would likely be able to take him immediately into custody didn’t offset the potential risk of having that much astatine steel out there.
Alejandro called back the police and relayed the message. They were displeased to say the least. As he ended the call with them and waited for their response, messages from Jaya with the Protectors came in, and his phone passed him the message. The Callistan Crusader had enough leverage with the hostages that the Protectors needed to be careful about coming in. But they would eventually do so if the Callistan Crusader forced their hands. Astatine steel was likely to be that force.
“Are you sure that you need this?” Alejandro asked the Callistan Crusader—they were off to the side and somewhat secluded but where the Callistan Crusader had a full vantage point of the entire room so that no one tried to escape.
“Do they need proof of my sincerity?” the Callistan Crusader asked. Alejandro was certain that he wouldn’t like the proof that the Callistan Crusader felt compelled to give. “But I will be honorable. If they agree to the exchange, I will release a group of hostages for each bar that you bring to me.”
And that’s when Alejandro got a good idea. “Get the metal,” he told his phone to send to Jaya.
A baffled response came back from Jaya.
“Trust me,” Alejandro’s phone sent back. A minute later, he got a slight vibration that signaled confirmation.
“The astatine steel will be here shortly,” Alejandro told the Callistan Crusader when he got off the phone with the police. The two of them were still decamped to the side of the entryway, near one of the entrances that would ultimately lead to offices for the representatives. The various construction workers and on-site staff were all sitting down on the floor. “Can I start preparing people to leave?”
The Callistan Crusader didn’t say anything for a second. “You will leave the building out through the front and retrieve one bar of astatine steel at a time. If you do not come back, I will start killing people. When you return each time, two people may leave. At the last, we will both trust each other enough to make the final hand-off.”
Alejandro couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at that and the Callistan Crusader laughed lightly at that, which was odd. It made him seem…almost human. “Yes, I know that will be difficult for both of us, but something tells me that we will achieve it.”
Alejandro trusted the Callistan Crusader no farther than he could through him. “I think we will too,” he said, lying through his teeth.
Professor Sweet, a young man with blue skin and green teeth whose name was utterly unrelated to his incredible strength, managed the handoff. “Are sure that you know what you’re doing?” he asked as he handed Alejandro the first bar of astatine steel. It was cool and smooth in Alejandro’s hands and felt welcoming, albeit in its own way as each metal had an individual signature feel to it.
Alejandro shrugged, eyeing the bar. “I guess we’ll find out.”
The first exchange was tense—the first two hostages, pale and white-eyed near the door, seemed on the verge of passing out but the handoff went off picture-perfect, the Callistan Crusader taking the bar and his mask betraying nothing as he ran his hands over the metal. Alejandro held his breath, his heart beating painfully loud.
After an interminable wait, the Callistan Crusader nodded once in approval and then opened a small hole for the man and woman to go out of. They bolted as soon as they were through it and the Callistan Crusader motioned Alejandro back outside.
Each exchange after that went slightly easier, the adrenaline easing up as they got near the last of the astatine steel to be transferred.
For the last bar and the last two hostages, the Callistan Crusader stopped Alejandro at the entrance, gently taking hold of one end of the bar. “You may go,” he told the last two men waiting who quickly walked through, out of Alejandro’s sight.
“I think that it’s best that we separate here,” the Callistan Crusader said. Alejandro felt an urge to say thank you, but instead he nodded once and let go of the bar, stepping backwards through the opening. He caught one last glimpse of the Callistan Crusader, motionless, before the steel seamless closed and Alejandro turned around.
Immediately, first responders took him away from the opening, beginning to measure vitals. Alejandro could have laughed—this had by no means been the worst situation he’d been involved in.
Of course, once his health was deemed fine, everyone else descended on him, first the police to get a full accounting and statement and then, the Protectors.
“He got away,” Professor Sweet said and something fluttered in Alejandro’s chest. “Did you see where he went—we lost track of him as soon as you handed him the bar. He’s never teleported in the past—did he give an indication where he was going?”
“Um,” Alejandro tried to think. “I didn’t know that he could teleport. It seems inconsistent with what he’s done so far. Maybe he already had an escape route planned?”
Professor Sweet looked at Alejandro oddly and Alejandro remembered that he was supposed to be a hapless architect pulled into the Callistan Crusader’s plans.
“Um, about the astatine steel?” he asked.
“Thankfully, it’s been rendered inert.” Professor Sweet asked. “It seemed fine and then as soon as he touched it, it fritzed out, perhaps his magnetic abilities interfering with the lattice structure of the steel into something far less useful.” Professor Sweet didn’t expound on what would have happened if the astatine steel hadn’t self-destructed and Alejandro tried to suppress a grin at his success. His forte was technology itself and although metal was an important component, he couldn’t speak to it in the same way. It was like trying to communicate with fudge if he could manage to get the fudge just a little worked up, nothing too noticeable, but enough to make it a little different.
“We’ll follow up with you if we have any questions,” Professor Sweet said, as the last representative of the Protectors. He was whisked away by the Molecule Mover who was waiting for him just outside of the crush of first responder and law enforcement agents. For a moment, sitting there, by himself, on the outside of everyone, Alejandro couldn’t help the deep and painful pang in his chest.
Two days later, after picking up some sushi for dinner from the Japanese place across the street from his apartment building, there was a slight change in pressure in the air around Alejandro as his phone beeped a warning that someone was approaching. He paused, his senses on alert, but before he could even so much as reach for his phone, two pieces of steel wrapped around his wrists and dragged him up and backwards until he was pressed against the rough stucco on the side of his apartment building.
It was almost a relief and not that much of a surprise to see the Callistan Crusader emerge from the darkness, stalking over to Alejandro.
“The architect,” he said.
“The Callistan Crusader,” Alejandro acknowledged.
“You did something to the astatine steel,” the Callistan Crusader said. Well, no one could argue that he wasn’t direct. “It was very subtle, subtle enough that I could only figure it out when I tried to use it. Impressive.”
“It could have been any one of the Protectors,” Alejandro said, quite reasonably he felt.
“But it wasn’t,” the Callistan Crusader said.
“Are you always this to the point?” Alejandro asked, trying to buy himself some time. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much he could do—his phone was firmly protected in his pocket, and his hands could only feel the plaster that they were pressed against.
“I thought that it was an impressively fast reaction time between seeing me and when you contacted the Protectors at the Department of Water and Power,” the Callistan Crusader said. “But it wasn’t, was it?”
“I don’t talk about secrets with strangers,” Alejandro said, his voice surprisingly clear and steady.
“By all means, let us rectify that situation,” the Callistan Crusader said. “You may call me Tajuc. I am second to the throne of the ruling family of Callisto. You are an architect, a designer of buildings. Your name is Alejandro Gonzalez and you are from here, Hacot City. You own an architectural firm called Gonzalez Keane. And if I am not mistaken, which I rarely am, you were formerly a Protector. Master Mechanical.”
There was a pause and Tajuc examined Alejandro’s face.
“I at first assumed that you had some amount of telepathy,” Tajuc said. “It was only after the capitol building that I realized you affected metal. Can you move it?”
Alejandro didn’t say anything—although even if he didn’t, Tajuc knew that he was right, perhaps not in the way that he thought.
“What do you want?” Alejandro asked. He wondered what he would do if Tajuc intended to kill him.
“At the moment, I seek to understand you better,” Tajuc said.
“I’m not sure that pushing me up against a wall is going to give you much insight,” Alejandro said.
“I could torture you,” Tajuc said. Torture wasn’t the Callistan Crusader’s style, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t become it.
“You could,” Alejandro acknowledged.
“Can you not escape from these?” Tajuc asked softly, moving in closer and Alejandro watched him step in, his heart beating faster with fear or adrenaline or some mix thereof. Up close, Tajuc was beautiful—his silver skin emanating a soft glow and his eyes were a gentle version of gray, beaming out from the behind the mask. Alejandro wasn’t sure if all Callistans had the same biology as Earthlings or this was some form or disguise that Tajuc had taken to better fit in on earth. Either way, aside from the skin and mask, he could have been any other adult human man.
Alejandro realized that he was checking the bad guy out and immediately pulled his eyes back up to Tajuc’s face. “What do you want with me?” Alejandro gritted out.
Tajuc brought his hands up and placed them over the strips holding Alejandro’s arms in place. For a long moment, neither one of them moved, the distance between them minute. A chilliness emanated from Tajuc, almost soothing against the warm evening.
“Don’t mess with my plans again,” Tajuc said.
“Don’t mess with my buildings again,” Alejandro said and then Tajuc pressed in once and then pulled away so quickly that it took a minute for Alejandro to realize that his arms were free. He glanced down at his hands and when he looked up Tajuc was gone.
Alejandro reached for his phone, the inclination to report it to the Protectors at the tips of his fingers, but he stopped himself. No need to report it.
A week later, right before a consult on a new waste processing plant, a familiar silhouette appeared at the end of the drying beds as Alejandro looked around the site. “Really?” Alejandro asked himself plaintively. “What could you possibly want from here?”
He reached into his pocket for his phone just as the Callistan Crusader—Tajuc—made a flicking motion and Alejandro’s phone ripped through his pocket and towards Tajuc and Alejandro was pushed up into the air by a sheet of glass. The universe was certainly laughing at him now.
And that was how Alejandro found himself zip-tied to a railing on the top of the waste processing plant. Unfortunately, anything that he might have found useful to his predicament—like any of the thermal hydraulics or tank monitors—were floors away.
“Someone might think that you’re following them,” Alejandro said while Tajuc fiddled with a digital holographic interface, which was so interesting and foreign that Alejandro felt embarrassingly envious of Tajuc getting to use it. It gave off the same oddness as the previous devices that Tajuc had used and Alejandro would have given his right arm to be able to spend an hour with it.
“Maybe someone just happens to do work at places that I need to be at,” Tajuc said absently. “Or someone’s theory could be right. I suppose only the future will tell.”
It almost sounded flirtatious but really? Alejandro looked around them—they were surrounded by enough sewage to fill a football field—and Tajuc decided that now was the time to flirt. Not to mention that he had Alejandro tied to a railing that he couldn’t escape from.
“Do you need to tie up all of your potential dates to get them to go out with you?” Alejandro asked.
“Ha ha,” Tajuc said. “On Callisto, we don’t really do dating. At least not like how it is here on Earth. On Callisto, couples mainly marry for scent receptor compatibility. Or ruling lineage.”
“Well, that’s, frankly, horrifying,” Alejandro said.
“I always thought it was a little romantic that your partner would smell just right,” Tajuc said, still in the same absent-minded voice. “So why aren’t you still a Protector?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Alejandro said, for form’s sake. “Can I see that interface?” he asked, giving in to weakness. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. “You don’t even have to let me touch it.”
Tajuc looked up, his eyes focused on Alejandro, oddly making Alejandro want to shiver. “No,” he said after a long minute and then went back to his extremely cool-looking display.
“What if, hypothetically, you had been a Protector?” Tajuc asked, like a dog with a bone.
Alejandro sighed. It wasn’t like he was going anywhere soon. “If I had, hypothetically, been a Protector, I would have stopped because I was no longer at the top of my game. I was just a little slower, a little less powerful. But when people’s lives are riding on your reflexes, any weakness can put them at risk.”
“And they callously asked you to leave after you had given them your resources. For years,” Tajuc said angrily, as if he was affronted on Alejandro’s behalf.
Alejandro shook his head and looked down at his feet. He couldn’t help but think of the young man who had died in the cooling tower of the Hacot nuclear processing plant. “My teammates had relied on me to shut something down and, while I did, I wasn’t able to do it in time. If I hadn’t been there, they would have addressed the situation differently. They had trusted me, they still do trust me, but being a Protector is a coveted position—it was time to let someone new in who can bring their A-game.”
Tajuc stopped what he was doing and focused on Alejandro. “You gave up power? Willingly? You chose to stop being Master Mechanical?”
“It wasn’t really my power—aside from my actual power. That’s always mine. It wasn’t about power—I had been entrusted with a great responsibility. It was time for it to pass to the next person.”
“Foolish. And idiotic,” Tajuc said angrily again—as if Alejandro’s retirement had been designed to hurt him specifically. With a snap, the display in his hand folded up and then disappeared. “You will be released in ten minutes,” Tajuc said and then turned and stalked off, his skin and clothing blending in after a few minutes with the gleaming metal pipes and thermal hydraulics.
Alejandro sighed and resisted the urge to bang his head against the railing.
After that, it seemed like Alejandro couldn’t go a week without the Callistan Crusader seeming to appear on one of Alejandro’s project sites. Unlike the capitol building incident, Tajuc always managed to time his attack when there were few people onsite—and generally when Alejandro was by himself, as rare as that was on a building site with dozens to hundreds of people around.
Nothing was as audacious as the capitol building incident. At one high rise building site, it looked Tajuc was trying to just get access to the security system. At an apartment building, it looked like he was trying to build something into the sewage system around the building. He was clearly leading up to something, something related to trying to take over Hacot City, but Alejandro seemed to subtly defuse the situation each time, even without the Protectors assistance.
Each time, Tajuc seemed to delight in baiting Alejandro and it was almost fun, detangling the problems that the Callistan Crusader created. But it was also worrisome—why was he only showing up when Alejandro was around. And what exactly was he planning? Should Alejandro be doing more? He seemed disinclined to hurt Alejandro, but what if that changed?
Thoughts of the Callistan Crusader kept Alejandro up at night and he wasn’t sure if it was because of his fears or the anticipation.
It seemed that this pattern would go on indefinitely. And then suddenly it changed—when Tajuc kidnapped Alejandro.
Alejandro had planned to head into the office early, stopping to pick up coffee. He had a second of warning from his phone as it vibrated an alert as he walked to his car before a sheet of plastic enclosed him and picked him, flying up to the top of a nearby building. It was an experience that he might have been more frightened by if he hadn’t had to get to and from locations by someone else dematerializing him upon occasion in his former life.
Unsurprisingly, Tajuc was waiting at the rooftop when the sheet of plastic gently deposited Alejandro. Although he wore a mask, Alejandro was fairly certain that there was a smug look behind it. Alejandro rolled his eyes and handed over the coffee that he’d picked up for his assistant. He’d get her another one later—this one was certain to go cold even if he held onto it. And Alejandro was sure as hell not giving up his own coffee—he needed it, especially for dealing with Tajuc.
“Here, take this,” Alejandro said and thrust the cup at Tajuc.
“What?” Tajuc asked.
“It’s coffee—technically a mocha latte, but coffee—it’s good.”
“I’ve had coffee before,” Tajuc said, in an insulted tone.
Alejandro looked down at the coffee cup. “Do you want it or not?”
Tajuc sighed, as if Alejandro was asking the world’s largest favor. “Fine,” he said and then his dark green mask seemed to melt down from his face revealing what could have been any other human’s face, if not for the metallic and shimmering gray tone.
Tajuc looked at Alejandro defiantly, as if Alejandro was going to insult his face, but Alejandro just handed over the coffee cup. Tajuc’s fingers brushed Alejandro’s as he took it and the coolness sent a shiver down Alejandro’s spine.
Tajuc took a sip and didn’t immediately spit it out, so Alejandro relaxed ever so slightly, and they both drank their coffee in silence.
“Is attempting to conquer or effect a coup a common thing on Callisto?” Alejandro asked eventually.
Tajuc startled at the question, and coughed for a few minutes. “Yes. Especially when your younger sister usurps your right to the throne.”
“That is a lot to unpack there,” Alejandro said and thought through it. “So let me see if I can connect the dots. If you can show your parents that you can conquer Earth or maybe just some portion of it, you’ll either get back your spot in line or you’ll at least have a nice consolation prize of your own in ruling Earth.”
“You don’t know anything,” Tajuc said, but his tone was surprisingly without malice.
“I probably don’t,” Alejandro said. Without warning, Tajuc whirled on him, but Alejandro let Tajuc stalk closer.
“All of you—all of the Protectors have so much power,” he said. “And you squander it, letting people squabble over petty differences. None of you live up to your potential. You protect people who are not worth protecting.”
“Maybe that’s because, to us, that is what power is. That is what we should use our power for,” Alejandro paused and tried to think how he could make Tajuc understand. “I want to help people, to let them make their own decisions. Undoubtably, we are all screwed up in our different ways and we make mistakes. But as a Protector, I fought for those who can’t fight for themselves. When you fight, what are you fighting for?”
“For my birthright,” Tajuc said.
“What is your birthright?” Alejandro asked gently and let himself reach out to rest his hand on Tajuc’s arm. His skin was cool but soft—for some reason, its silver color had always made Alejandro think that the Callistan Crusader’s skin would be hard and brittle—it was anything but.
“To rule,” Tajuc said. “Like my parents before me.”
Alejandro diplomatically didn’t say anything to that and when Tajuc leaned into Alejandro, letting himself take in the warmth that Alejandro provided, Alejandro let him. Alejandro felt cautious, like the wrong movement would send Tajuc fleeing, although the rational part of him kept yelling that he absolutely should try to make Tajuc flee! He had tried to steal astatine steel, he had broken into almost every building with sensitive governmental data in the area. Tajuc was very smart and Alejandro should be using this one-time advantage for good.
But Alejandro didn’t move—didn’t do anything to push Tajuc away.
With a sudden movement, Tajuc leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss against Alejandro’s lips. Alejandro stilled. At that, Tajuc immediately drew back, his mask flowing once again over his face seamlessly.
“I have intruded,” he said and his voice was gruff.
“No, wait,” Alejandro said. “I want to kiss you back, but right now, what you’re doing, it’s not ok. As long as you’re causing suffering in this city—trying to destroy the place that I love—I can’t do that.” Alejandro took a deep breath. “What if you achieve your goal? You get to rule our city or maybe even the state. Or the country. That won’t change what your parents did to you or how they made you feel. And it definitely won’t change what you’ve done to the people here.”
Tajuc jerked out of Alejandro’s loose grasp and ran for the sides of the building, jumping off the edge before disappearing out of sight.
And then, Tajuc was gone—not just off of the roof, but from Alejandro’s life. There was no familiar cackle and fizziness in the electrical and security systems on any of Alejandro’s sites that he had come to expect from Tajuc. He didn’t show up and demand valuable materials or threaten anyone.
When Alejandro checked in with Jaya, with no small amount of trepidation, she told him that the Callistan Crusader hadn’t been found anywhere. That was even more alarming.
Alejandro wished that he had some way of contacting Tajuc—it felt silly to worry about him, to wonder if he’d been injured or decided to go back to Callisto. He was probably about to pull of his master plan to rule Hacot City. It was ridiculous to be concerned about one of the city’s terrors. The city would only be better off without him. And yet, still Alejandro worried.
It was late, Alejandro was tired—he had spent all day in unproductive meetings and his back hurt. He certainly wasn’t getting any younger. All he wanted to do was heat up some leftover pizza and lie on the couch to watch something trashy and satisfying. Which was why, when the knock came, Alejandro felt sincerely tempted to chuck something at the door and tell the person to go away.
Instead, he pulled up his front door camera and his stomach almost dropped out of his body out of shock at seeing Tajuc at his door, his usual skin-tight metallic suit exchanged for a soft, flowing dark green robe and his mask was completely gone.
Cautiously, Alejandro went to the door and opened it. Tajuc looked at him and neither one of them moved for a long minute. Eventually Alejandro swallowed and opened up the door wider.
“Would you like to come on in?” he asked.
Tajuc nodded and said, “Thank you.” Once inside, he took a few minutes examining Alejandro’s apartment, as if it imparted some deep and important secret. Maybe it did. But Tajuc looked almost nervous, so Alejandro headed to the kitchen to give Tajuc some time and space.
“Can I get you anything?” he asked.
Tajuc laughed softly. “You know, I’m not sure.”
“I meant something to drink,” Alejandro said, smiling. “But if there’s something else you’re looking for, we can start with that.”
Tajuc carefully walked over to the kitchen, as if he was memorizing the arrangement of Alejandro’s furniture, each step deliberate. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” he said. “When my parents declared my sister their heir, it seemed like everything could be made right if I showed them that I was not just capable of being a ruler, but capable of conquering my own territory. I had this entire plan set up—even with your sabotaging, I would have had access to every single state’s capital buildings as well as the White House. In one fell swoop, I would have thousands of people hostage. That’s how I would have done it on Callisto. That’s how it is done on Callisto. Find the weak points and crush them until there is no choice but your choice.”
He sighed and looked up at Alejandro. “But you were right—I get the governments of the United States in my hands. What do I do next?”
Alejandro shrugged. “I certainly wouldn’t know. Immediately give it all back.”
Tajuc looked down at his hands. “You know, I think I will take that water now.”
After Alejandro gave him a glass, Tajuc drank it all down. “This is harder than I expected it to be.”
“Well, I’m glad that you’re here,” Alejandro said.
“You are?” Tajuc said skeptically. “After everything that I’ve done.” It was a statement, not a question.
Alejandro shrugged. “I’m not going to say that I’m pleased about that—but still, I’m glad that you’re here.”
“What do I do now?” Tajuc asked. “If I stop being the Callistan Crusader?”
Alejandro reached out for Tajuc and carefully laid his palm open. After a moment, Tajuc put his hand in Alejandro’s and Alejandro let his fingers curl up over his. “When I stopped being a Protector,” Alejandro said, “It was hard. That was my underlying identity for so many years. It was hard to stop that part of myself even if it was the right decision. But my life isn’t over—I can still do good. I can still do things that I love and be with people that I love.”
“I don’t know if I would like to do that,” Tajuc said. “But I would like to try.”
Slowly, cautiously, Alejandro wrapped his arms around Tajuc, held him and let his body become accustomed to the feel of Tajuc’s. Minute by minute, Tajuc’s body began to relax, tension seeping out of him.
“You smell very nice,” Tajuc said against Alejandro’s neck. It turned out that Tajuc was right—it was pretty romantic.