“Excuse me!” Sam Shepard apologized as he slipped his way into the back of the crowd. “Media coming through!”
“Media” was a bit of a stretch, but being a twenty-one-year-old beat writer for the city’s number one newspaper had its perks. Namely, being able to ignore the dirty looks people gave him as he shoved his way through the crowd of civilian onlookers and first responders.
In the distance, the thunderous booms of explosions going off one after the other rang in his ears, drowning out the police sirens and terrified screams. A horrific shriek shook him to his core, threatening to turn his legs to jelly.
“This isn’t how my first day at the Herald was supposed to go...” he sighed.
Soon enough, Sam managed to push his way into the very front of the crowd which was pressed tight together like a can of sardines right at the edge of the police line. He nearly choked at the sight before him, chilled to the bone by the jaw-dropping destruction.
Ruined buildings on either side of a torn-up street gave one the impression that an earthquake had just struck this unfortunate part of New York City. There were fires everywhere, so many in fact that the night sky glowed with a fierce orange tinge.
Sam gulped. “Holy Zeus...”
Focus, Sam. He reminded himself. You have a job to do.
Blinking away his shock, the young reporter pulled out his smartphone from his pants pocket and started recording the view.
“What in Hades are you doing, Shepard?” came a growl right behind him.
Sam sighed, then pocketed his smartphone and turned to confront the police officer who he imagined had a stick perpetually rammed up his butt.
“Just doing my job, Sarge,” Sam replied.
Police Sergeant Andrew Graham glowered at him, his eyes like headlights pinning Sam in place. The glower was the thickset, black man’s most defining feature, and one Sam didn’t enjoy being aimed at him.
“You know the rules, dumbass,” Sergeant Graham snarled. “No unauthorized video recordings of extermination zones!”
Extermination zones, Sam sighed.
He didn’t think he would hear that phrase again so soon after he’d left his old job. It was a designation given to a location where a mission to suppress a horror outbreak was underway.
Sam flashed his press badge at the sergeant. “You know you’re impeding freedom of the press, right?”
Graham spared it the barest glance. He seemed unimpressed.
“I work for the Herald, man!” Sam complained.
This declaration only worsened Graham’s glower.
“I don’t have time for the whining of a little shit stain who was too cowardly to stick to doing the thing that really matters,” Sergeant Graham scoffed. “And as if you couldn’t go low enough, now you’ve joined the yahoos who put up headlines that make our heroes look bad!”
Sam couldn’t blame the sergeant for thinking poorly of him, because he had a point.
“I didn’t do anybody any good on the front lines, Sarge…” Sam knew he deserved the ridicule, but he couldn’t help but repeat the lines he’d used to defend his actions for months now. “I was a crappy heal—”
A scream cut through the clamor, shocking most of those watching into silence.
“H-healer!” a woman cried, desperation and pain stuttering her words. “I n-need a healer!”
The first responders standing just on the other side of the police line glanced nervously at each other. It was obvious to Sam that they could hear her, too, but none of them jumped at the chance to go out there and help. Then one officer stepped up to Sergeant Graham, looking like he was ready to do his job.
“I think we can get to her, Sarge,” a young, brown-haired, gray-eyed police officer told Sergeant Graham. “She might not be too far from the line. The scream sounded close and I—”
“Officer Nolan.” Sergeant Graham turned his scowl on this policeman, cutting him off. “Are you a healer?”
“N-no, sir,” Nolan frowned. “But—”
“So what are you gonna do, Officer Nolan? Drag her through the rubble and fire?”
“Did you just suddenly get super strength or flight? Is that how you were going to save her?”
“Then we follow protocol!” the Sergeant barked. “And protocol says wait for more heroes. They’ll handle rescue operations.”
At the word “hero,” Officer Nolan glanced in Sam’s direction. The implication was clear: what are you doing? Sam scratched at the mess of dark brown hair atop his head.
What am I doing? he wondered. I can help, but that might finally kill me.
“That woman needs our help,” Nolan began, but his sergeant quickly cut him off.
“You think I enjoy hanging out here doing nothing but preventing idiots like Shepard here”—he pointed a thumb at Sam—“from wandering into an extermination zone and getting themselves killed?”
After a brief pause, Officer Nolan shook his head.
“That’s right,” Sergeant Graham huffed. “But I do it because I have to. I got a wife at home, you know? Besides, I’m not a gifted like Shepard...not that he’s been any use tonight.”
Sam was just about to reiterate that not being of any use was exactly the reason he’d quit his old job, but then the horrific screeching started up again. The sound of it was like sharp nails raking across a chalkboard, leaving Sam and everyone around him feeling more unnerved than they were a second ago.
“P-please!” the woman yelled. “S-someone, please! Help me!”
Through the scattered fires and widespread destruction of the extermination zone, Sam thought he could see a pale hand rising mere inches off the ground. It could have just been his imagination, but...
“Sarge...I think I see her,” Sam reported. “Officer Nolan’s right. She’s not too far.”
Nolan nodded, but Sergeant Graham ignored him, pointedly turning his back on the reporter.
“Sarge.” Sam’s tone was insistent now. “I really think—”
“I don’t care what you think, Shepard,” Sergeant Graham snapped. “You stand there and wait for the real heroes to come.”
Startled by the agitation in his tone, Sam looked his way.
Graham’s wide-eyed stare was glued to the carnage, sweat dripping down his forehead. Like most of the non-gifted around him, the destruction beyond the police line was too much for him to bear. It was a lot to take in, even for Sam. And yet, he still found himself stepping forward, his legs trembling only slightly.
Styx, he thought. I can’t do this. I can’t risk my life that way again.
Contrary to Graham’s view of him, Sam was no coward. In fact, he was built to do the brave thing. All gifted were, as it was one of the requirements for becoming a chosen of the gods. Sam’s problem wasn’t fear. Something graver held him back. But hearing that woman and her desperate plea for help, it awakened something in him that he thought he’d sufficiently suppressed by now—and that was the will to answer the call.
Don’t do it, Sam. You’ve already quit the hero life, you useless punk, he chided himself. You’d only make things worse for her and you!
A shrill cry sounded once more before abruptly cutting off. Throwing logic out the window, Sam ducked under the police line and jumped headlong into the heart of danger.
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