Ascendant/Season Of Hope
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
I. Season of Hope
It was a typical mid-December day everywhere else in New England, but it was unseasonably warm in Paragon City, where the sickly green energies of the War Walls kept even the elements at bay. The staff of Chiron Hospital had tried to compensate for the lack of snow as best as they could, stringing holiday decorations across seemingly every surface that didn't require access by medical personnel or equipment.
Even here, in one of the hospital's many private suites, a festive banner entreated the two occupants to have a Merry Christmas, despite the fact that one didn't celebrate Christmas and the other had no reason to be merry. The man was young, blond haired, and exceptionally muscular. To most of the residents of Paragon City, he was instantly recognizable as the super hero, Ascendant, even if he was wearing a Santa Claus outfit instead of his typical blue, white and gold uniform.
The woman was old, frail, and unconscious. She looked as if she was buried under an avalanche of medical equipment. Tubes and wires snaked possessively over her, each performing some life-sustaining function which her body was no longer willing or able to provide.
Edith West was dying, not by inches; not by the feeble trickle of time had previously marked her passage.
Edith West was dying in leaps and bounds.
He folded his hand around hers, his skin titanium-hard, hers like autumn leaves.
The door opened, and he snatched his hand back quickly.
"Oh! There you are!" A young nurse beamed, sticking her head in the door. She was probably in her early twenties, with short dark hair and a pretty smile. He had met her several times before, but never as Ascendant.
He shrugged and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry… They gave me an empty room to set up in somewhere around here, but I guess I got a bit lost-"
The nurse smiled and gestured towards the unconscious woman, "I don't think Mrs. West is going to mind if a famous superhero visits her. I think she could use the company."
"Her family does visit her, right?"
"She has a brother who comes by a few times a week, but he's only in slightly better shape than she is. She also has a son who shows up from time to time, but it seems like as soon as he gets here, he's rushing off again."
"Yeah, I know that feeling." He said glumly.
The nurse smiled, "Well, it's different for you. I mean you're a superhero. You're out there saving lives every day, making a difference. Her son works part time as a computer tech for PCNN-TV. I mean, how pressing could that really be?"
Ascendant didn't say anything for a few moments as he looked down at the old woman, "So, is she a good patient?"
The nurse gave out a snort, "Well, now, she's no trouble at all, but before she lapsed into the coma, she…. Well, she was quite a handful. Nothing was ever good enough or done correctly for her. Still… it's kinda odd, but now I sort of miss her complaining, you know?"
Ascendant nodded, "Yeah... I know."
"The thing is... well, I shouldn't be telling you this," The nurse leaned in conspiratorially, "... she'd probably make a full recovery if she could get a transplant."
"I take it that there's a pretty slim chance of finding a donor?"
The nurse nodded, "From just a general donor, it's very unlikely, unfortunately. Ideally, a transplant should come from immediate family. We've already ruled out her brother; frankly, he's in no shape for surgery. Her son would probably be her best bet, but… well, he won't even take a blood test."
"Have you ever thought that maybe… maybe he has a good reason?" Ascendant ventured hopefully.
"Reason? What reason? All he needs to do is take a blood test to find out if he could save her life!" The nurse stopped and got control of her temper, "I'm sorry. It's just I see so much death here that it really gets to me when there's a situation where it can be prevented and isn't."
"I'm sure if he thought he could help, he would." Ascendant said curtly.
The nurse said nothing, but looked unconvinced. Ascendant smiled weakly and changed the subject, "Um… Look, I really shouldn't keep those kids waiting any longer."
"Oh, right!" The nurse opened the door and ushered him out into the hallway, "By the way, I think it's really great that you volunteered to be Santa for the Children's Ward this year. The kids really are thrilled. You really give them a lot of hope."
"Sometimes hope is all we have," He smiled tightly and shot a glance back to the elderly woman in the bed before the door closed. "Besides, I was going to be in the neighborhood anyway."
II. Second Opinions
The Liberty League Headquarters smelled of Corn Dogs and Pine Sol. Or maybe it was Pine Sol and Corn dogs; Ascendant couldn't really tell which odor had the upper hand today. The olfactory battle was so commonplace within the HQ that he had come to think of Corn Dogs and Pine Sol as arch enemies, forever locked in a struggle neither could win.
Man, I've got to get some sleep, he thought.
It wasn't that he slept all that much under the best conditions; he only needed a few hours a week, really, but even that meager amount had been ignored recently.
"...And the motion to move the scheduling meetings to after 5 pm fails to pass. Again." Weevil said after counting raised hands.
Ascendant sighed. It was getting harder and harder to explain to his boss why he had to take a late lunch every Monday.
"Sorry, Ascendant," Boscoe apologized in a whisper, "Boscoe's favorite show is on at 5 o'clock."
"What show is that, Boscoe?"
"The Ascendant Action Power Hour." Boscoe smiled.
"But Boscoe, you work with me!" He tapped the starburst on his chest, "I'm Ascendant! The real one!"
"You don't have a laser sword or a rapping leprechaun like the Ascendant on the show." Boscoe countered.
Ascendant was about to reply when his pager went off. He looked at the number on the tiny LCD screen; it was one he had seen frequently over the past months, and the string of 10 digits instilled fear and dread in him every time he saw them. Weevil caught the look on his face.
"Trouble, Big A?"
Ascendant looked up at the gathered assemblage of heroes, feeling momentarily exposed before enacting what he hoped was a nonchalant shrug. "Um... No... It's just Chiron Medical Center again... You know, I've been doing a lot of volunteer work there lately." At least that much was true, he thought to himself. "I should really go see what they want. Can you excuse me a moment?"
Weevil nodded, "Sure thing, Jack. Now, moving on to patrol scheduling..."
Ascendant left the conference room and found an empty office, dialing the number by heart.
"Chiron Medical Center," a bored operator said, "How may I direct your call?"
"Extension 4412, please." Ascendant said automatically. A few moments later, an older man with a northeastern accent answered.
"This is Dr. Edwards."
"Doctor, it's Asc-er... It's Eric West. You paged me?"
The doctor took a sharp inhale of breath. He had made little attempt to hide his growing dislike of Eric West over the past months, and it was now seemingly evident in every action the older man took around Eric.
"Mr. West, I'm sorry to tell you this, but your mother has taken a turn for the worse. I know we've discussed this before, but I still believe her best chance--"
"Dr. Edwards, for the last time, I can't be a donor."
"You don't know that, Mr. West. You stand an excellent chance of being a compati-"
Eric sighed, "It's simply not an option, Doctor."
"Mr. West, this may be your mother's ONLY option."
"Mr. West, it is not my place to tell you your business--"
"Then don't." He said brusquely.
The doctor continued unabated, "--but when you were hospitalized here in a coma a few years ago, your mother never left your side. She saw you every day, and never gave up hope on you. She did that for over a year. The least you could do is take a blood test if it means you could save her life. Why won't you even try?"
There were multiple answers he could have made: Because we can't pierce my skin. Because I'm not even sure I still HAVE blood, let alone whatever else is necessary to save her. Because our best science indicates I'm not even technically human anymore. In the end, though, he opted for silence.
"You need to find another way, Doctor." He said finally, sounding every bit as tired as he felt, "I'm counting on you. She's counting on you."
"I suppose she'll have to, Mr. West," Edwards said icily, "It seems you haven't left her much choice. Although frankly, her prognosis doesn't look very good. I've exhausted all of my treatment options. Without a transplant, I'm afraid it's only a matter of time."
"What about a second opinion? Some other doctor might-"
"Mr. West, I'm considered one of the finest transplant physicians in the country. If you know of someone with more experience in this field than I have, by all means-"
Ascendant's eyes went wide, "I'll have to call you back, Doctor."
The doctor was still sputtering in mid-protest when Ascendant hung up the phone.
"... And finally, Captain Karate and 'Mazing Monkey, you guys have got Independence Port." Weevil was saying as Ascendant returned to the conference room.
"Everything OK, A-man?" Weevil asked after Monkey had "ook"ed a confirmation.
"Yeah. Everything's fine," he lied, "But I was wondering if I could switch my patrol route from Atlas to Brickstown for today."
Weevil shrugged, "Sure thing, Jack. Me and Boscoe haven't been to Atlas in a while anyhow."
Ascendant looked at the gathered heroes. They were his co-workers, teammates, and most importantly, his friends. He knew that if carried to fruition, the plan he was contemplating might very well pit every single one of them against him by the end of the day, but he simply couldn't think of any other options.
"Are you sure you're alright?" Weevil asked.
Ascendant nodded, "Yeah. I just have to pay a visit to an old friend."
The skies above Brickstown were pregnant with the promise of rain, and had he not been in this particular place for this particular reason, Ascendant would have been thankful for the shelter. Instead, he just felt empty and numb.
The door behind him wooshed shut, then made a whirring sound as pressurized locking clamps slid smoothly into place. There was a faint trace of ozone as the force fields re-established themselves. The man Ascendant came to see was sitting calmly, with his hands and feet chained to a steel chair with just enough slack to give him some freedom of movement, but to restrict him from gaining any momentum. Another chair faced it from the opposite end of a badly scratched and dented table. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit, the same type all other inmates at the Ziggurat were issued.
"To what do I owe the pleasure of such a distinguished visitor?" The man asked with carefully measured sarcasm. There was the barest trace of a Russian accent, carefully worn away by years of study in the finest medical schools in the Western world.
Ascendant placed a folder on the table and slid it across to the man. "These are the medical records for a terminally ill patient at Chiron Medical Center. Can you save her?"
"What is in it for me?"
"Maybe your freedom."
The man grinned. It was not a pleasant sight. "I have dozens of back-to-back life sentences. I hardly think I'm eligible for time off for good behavior even if I was to start performing charity work."
Ascendant said nothing, and suddenly it dawned on the prisoner the kind of freedom the hero was offering. Then, realizing that his visitor was absolutely serious, he opened the folder and began reading, the faintest trace of a smile etched across his face. After all, it had been quite some time since Dr. Vazhilok had received a new patient.
III. Every Hour Wounds
"I can assume that she has no immediate family, yes?" Vazhilok asked. He had peppered his reading of the file with occasional questions, requesting clarifications or more information whenever he attempted to pursue an overlooked avenue of treatment.
"None that qualify for a transplant, no." Ascendant said.
Vazhilok's eyes left the folder for the first time in an hour to stare at Ascendant. A smile slowly crawled onto his face. It was, Ascendant thought, nothing short of ghastly.
"That wasn't the question I asked, was it?" He pursed his lips and thought for a moment, "But that was a very telling answer none the less.” He paused again, “You know, I think it is rather interesting that you have blacked out the patient's name on all these records."
Ascendant ignored him, "Can you save her without a donor?"
The archvillian shrugged, "Possibly, but unlikely. It would certainly be easier with healthy tissue from which to draw."
"I told you, there's no one in the family-"
"Ascendant, you might know a lot about..." Vazhilok waved his hand dismissively, at least as far as the chain would permit, "Well, whatever it is that you do..."
"I believe the technical term is 'kicking the collective asses of monsters like you'" Ascendant supplied.
"... but I am the greatest surgeon this world has ever known. I've pioneered techniques generations advanced from the pitiful tribal remedies the so-called Medical Community inflicts on the populace at large. As long as the donor is human, or even near human, it needn't come from the family. I'm certain that suitable donors could be found in, say, King's Row."
Ascendant recoiled in horror. "Absolutely not."
Vazhilok snorted, "Typical. I have spent my life pursuing the single most noble goal in the history of mankind: the defeat of Death itself, and yet, here you are, asking for my help and still having the audacity to call me a monster in the next breath." He pointed an accusatory finger at Ascendant, "People like you are the ones who shackle science to morality, then blame science for failing you. The real truth is that your dogged resolve to hold to some outdated moral code is always what ultimately betrays you and those like you. Your foolish determination to 'do the right thing' is killing this woman with every moment that passes."
The room was silent for several heartbeats.
"You're absolutely correct," Ascendant said finally, collecting the folder.
"Excellent," Vazhilok leaned back in his chair, content. "Shall we be going then?"
"I'm the one going. You, well, you're going back to..." Ascendant waved his hand dismissively "...Well, whatever it is you do," he said in a mock Russian accent.
Vazhilok's face went slack from shock. "But-but-"
Ascendant thumbed the intercom buzzer. "I'm ready to come out now," he told the guard on the other side. The door's pressurized seal opened.
"You're condemning her to death, you know." Vazhilok said evenly.
Ascendant looked back at the doctor, eyes heavy with resignation, "Probably. But if there's one thing I know about her, it's that she has always had complete faith that, if given a choice, I'll do the good and right thing."
"And in that respect, Doctor, I know for a fact she'd rather be dead than wrong."
A light drizzle had begun by the time Ascendant left the Ziggurat. He walked across the bridge that straddled the prison's somewhat antiquated moat, so lost in thought that he almost didn't see the two figures standing in the afternoon's gathering gloom.
"How are you, Breakfast-san?" The woman asked. She was petite, exquisitely beautiful and so ghostly pale that she might as well have been made of ivory. She moved rarely, and when she did, each gesture and nuance was executed with a grace and poise that suggested they had been carefully choreographed long in advance.
Her companion was a little taller than Ascendant and just as muscular. His rugged good looks and raw presence alone would have won him fame even if he had not been one of Earth's premier heroes for over six decades.
"White Geisha? Capt. Valor? What are you two doing here?" Ascendant asked, then, just as quickly, he realized the answer: White Geisha was a precognitive. She probably had a vision of what he was planning and went to stop him.
"This one saw what you were contemplating." Geisha confirmed. Her voice held the faintest trace of a melody in it. Her large, dark eyes were sad, disappointed.
Ascendant closed his eyes in shame. "I'm sorry... Look, I didn't know where else to go, but I realized that if I entered into a deal with that... thing in there... I'd just be validating every atrocity he's ever committed. I couldn't do that, not for any price."
"That's good to hear, son." Valor said slowly, still wary. Ascendant realized the older man was still gauging his tactical options in case the situation somehow deteriorated. Schoolyard speculations aside, Ascendant guessed that the two of them were probably more or less evenly matched physically, but Capt. Valor's vast experience made it obvious who the winner would be if it came to blows.
"Wait... Geisha, if you knew I was thinking of breaking Vazhilok out of jail, why didn't you stop me before I went in?"
"This one knew what the result would be, Breakfast-san," White Geisha calmly explained, "You did not. It was important that you arrive at the realization on your own. One who is shown the path is more likely to wander off of it than one who discovers the path for himself."
"Then why did you bring Capt. Valor?" Ascendant asked.
"Seeing the future is not always... ex-act science?" She said, head tilting slightly.
"Besides, Maddy just called me from the hospital." Capt. Valor informed him, "Your mother's condition is deteriorating."
"Maddy's there now?" Ascendant knew that Capt. Valor's granddaughter, Ms Independence, had formed a friendship with his mother over the past year, but he hadn't expected the superheroine to be at his mother's bedside.
Valor nodded in confirmation, "You should be there, too."
Ascendant shook his head, "No. Look, I think I have another way--"
Valor cut him off, "You need to make your peace with her, Eric. She's not going to be around much longer."
"I'm NOT giving up on her, Valor!" Ascendant said, suddenly angry, "You can turn your back if you want, but she's my mother, and I'm going to find a way to save her!"
"Eric," Valor said evenly, "She doesn't have time to wait for you to save the day.” Valor paused momentarily, choosing his next words carefully, “Maddy told me once that your father died while you were in your coma, and you always regretted not having the chance to say goodbye to him. Don't let that happen with your mother. Don't squander the time she has left and wind up with nothing but more regrets."
Ascendant started to say something, stopped, and took a deep breath. He suddenly looked very tired, as if the weight of the past months had just hit him all at once. His head drooped, and he focused on the ground. White Geisha placed a delicate hand on his arm to comfort him.
"You know, it's the damnedest thing," he said quietly, "I can do all of these amazing things. I save total strangers every day. And the one person I need to save most of all is the only one I can't. The very things that make me... This..." He tapped the starburst symbol on his chest, "Is the thing that keeps me from helping her." He paused, then laughed bitterly, "Did you know that since I got my powers, I haven't been able to shed tears? I'm not even going to be able to cry at her funeral."
Geisha and Valor exchanged looks. "Go to her, Breakfast-san." Geisha said finally, her voice barely more than a whisper.
Ascendant nodded, and, shoulders slumped, vaulted into the air, flying towards Atlas Park. The two remaining heroes watched him disappear into the distance.
"Come on," Valor said at last, "We've got some calls to make."
IV. Heroic Measures
Valor's calls went out, and across the city, beepers went off, comlinks buzzed, and phones were answered. Holiday plans were put on hold, unfinished dinners carefully wrapped for later, and loved ones were told that once again, duty had called. One of their own needed help, and they would answer, even if it was Christmas Eve. Or, perhaps, especially because it was Christmas Eve.
At any other time, in any other place, there would not have been so fervent a response, but, after all, this was the Season of Hope, and this was the City of Heroes.
Gate Facility 2B
Peregrine Island, Paragon City
"Ok, listen up," Xanatos said to the crowd of gathered heroes, "Everyone here has offworld experience, so I don't need to tell you how dangerous it is or how careful you need to be. Our primary goal is to find an Edith West in one of these alternate dimensions and convince her to come back here as a tissue donor. Failing that, locate a Saul Rubenstien, Max Rubenstien, or Eric West and try to convince them. You've each been given packets containing photos and possible alternate names for these people. When you gate in, find a phone book or public library, check off the names on the list. If you don't find them, return here so we can gate you off to the next target. Time is of the essence; I can't stress that enough. Any questions?"
Xanatos surveyed the throng of heroes. A few looked a little apprehensive or nervous, but by and large, most of them just stared back at him with calm determination. These were people who had been asked to do a job, and they were going to do it, come Hell or high water. Xanatos couldn't help but smile beneath his mask. You know, with a group like this, this just might work, he thought to himself.
"Alright. We'll be breaking into six teams of eight. Super-Shock, your team is first up."
"Thanks for that update, Tina." Lance Baxington said, then turned his perfectly coifed head to the camera and gave the trademark grin that had made him Paragon City's top anchorman for three years running. "Our very own Jacob Winthrop has been tracking Santa on our exclusive WeatherTrack radar, and he'll have an update on where he is shortly. And you kids don't have to worry about Santa running into Sky Raiders tonight; Statesman himself has volunteered to fly escort this Christmas Eve. Speaking of volunteering this Christmas Eve, we now have Rebecca Wong reporting from Chiron Medical Center with a special holiday request by one of the city's most famous heroes."
The scene changed to Chiron Medical Center's parking lot, where a series of booths had been hastily erected and manned by several volunteers in bulky jackets. Rebecca Wong stood next to the instantly recognizable figure of Ms. Independence, who stared into the camera with the calm demeanor of someone long since accustomed to the glare of the spotlight.
"Thank you, Lance," Wong said with practiced ease, "Everyone knows the importance of family this holiday season. With me now is one of Paragon City's luminaries, Ms. Independence, who has a request to our viewers on behalf of other families this Christmas Eve."
Ms Independence smiled and gratefully accepted the microphone from the reporter. "Thank you, Rebecca.
"There are those who say people like me have the greatest jobs in the world; I don't disagree. But it's not the fame or the excitement that makes it great, it's the fact that every day I have the opportunity to save lives. Every day I can make a difference. However, you don't need superpowers to do this. You can make a difference right now.
"There are people who desperately need your help this holiday season. The White Knights, in participation with several other supergroups and the city's medical community, have set up areas in all of the city's major hospitals where you and your family can have yourself tested for tissue compatibility for terminally ill patients around the world. All it takes is a simple blood test, and you may find out that you alone are capable of letting someone else live to see another Christmas. This is your chance to be a hero, to make a difference.
"Please, if you value the tradition of spending time with your family this Christmas, make a new tradition and give the gift of letting someone else stay with their family, too. Thank you."
The segment ended and Jacob Winthrop told the breathless children of Paragon City where Santa was along the Eastern seaboard before Kyle McAllister followed up with sports. Maddy watched the news crew disassemble their equipment. She wasn't sure if anyone would care about her announcement, but she had known that she had to do something other than sit in that hospital room and watch Edith die. It felt good to be doing something, even if her plea went unheard. Nobody's going to care, she thought morosely, People aren't come out of their homes on Christmas Eve just because I ask them to. They have more important things to do.
However, she was later amazed at how wrong she was. Within the hour, the parking lot was full. Apparently, on this night, this was the most important thing for them to do.
Paragon Police Force, 8th Precinct
Brickstown, Paragon City
"Alright, that's shift change!" Sergeant Tim O'Malley whooped with glee as the clock hit six, "I've been pulling so much overtime lately that my little girl thinks her daddy is the milkman."
"That's because he is, Sarge" Tibro quipped as he walked by the Sarge's desk
O'Malley waggled a finger at the other officer as the entire precinct erupted in laughter. Holiday or no holiday, any shift where Paragon City's police officers returned to their loved ones unharmed and in one piece was cause for celebration.
They were met at the door by Officer Celara, the commander of the Force's Elite Division. The muscular woman stood there as if she was rooted to the floor, openly daring anyone to try to pass her and ignore the upturned officer's hat in her hand.
"Another donation?" O'Malley rolled his eyes, "Give us a break, already, Celara!" He protested, "We've done toy drives, blood drives, collected money for diseases I never even heard of. You know me and the boys are all for charity, but we're all working on a cop's salary here. At this rate, I'm not going to be able to get my kids toys for Christmas!"
"Ascendant's mother is in the hospital." She said in the no-nonsense, businesslike tone that they had all come to associate with her, "They aren't sure if she's going to make it through the night. I'm collecting to help with her bills."
O'Malley face became deadly serious as he nodded solemnly and reached for his wallet, dropping a handful of bills into the overturned cap. The other officers were crowding to do the same. Within moments, they needed another hat.
O'Malley looked Celara in the eyes, "You make sure and tell him the 8th is pulling for her, Ok?"
Pacified Urban Sector 87K
Paragon City Dimensional Variant Delta Omicron 128B
The Nemesis soldiers surged forward following the Lieutenant's order to charge, unleashing a fusillade of deadly projectiles from their rifles as they did so. The majority of these clanged off of the metal shell of the single clockwork hovering a half block away. The automaton's eyes glowed red briefly before a wave of electricity leapt out of it, striking the group of soldiers and casting brilliant blue arcs between them at jumped across their metal armor.
A slightly winded redhead skidded to a halt next to the hovering robot, giving a cursory glance over the machine's chassis for serious damage.
"I'm surry, Cog. I dinnea have time ta get out ma decoys." Ireland Love explained.
Cog Sprocket's eyes returned to their normal, reassuring green glow, and the clockwork's head whirred to face its friend.
"Cog is undamaged, Maggie," It informed her, then, in a slightly louder voice, it added, "However, perhaps on the next world, Cog can examine the phonebook and let Yegeny deal with the locals?"
"Bah," Comrade Smersh grunted in response to the jab. He snubbed out his cigarette in a rare display of frustration, then waved his hand around in the hopes that he could dispel the telltale smell of smoke. None of the people they were looking for were in the listed in the phonebook for this Paragon City, either, which meant they'd have to return to Portal Corp and try again. He closed the phonebook and went to join his compatriots. They had spent enough time with the armored Russian to read the bad news from his face.
"Santa will still come if Cog is not present in its home dimension?" Cog asked.
Smersh and Maggie shared a quick, knowing glance, then Smersh nodded, "Da, Santa will be there, Cog."
Cog straightened itself up. "Then Cog will continue the search as long as it takes."
The trio headed back towards the portal's retrieval coordinates, Maggie stifling a giggle as they did.
Chiron Medical Center
Suite 1032 A
Atlas Park, Paragon City
The Vagabond watched the people in the room carefully. He was phased to the betweenworld that stood on the barrier of the World of Three Dimensions and the other planes, and thus he was confident that he would remain undetected long enough to accomplish his mission.
Remaining hidden was necessary, not because his was a malevolent cause-- quite the contrary, in fact-- but because he knew Ascendant and his mother were fiercely proud, and would probably disapprove of the extravagance of what he was about to do. Assuming they could understand it, anyhow.
Even shifted as he was, he could feel the life force ebbing out of the old woman in the bed, and knew that her time was short. He opened his hands and stared at the two grains of sand that waited there.
To call them old would be inaccurate, for old didn't apply to a concept like Time, which was what they were. They were sands from the Hourglass of Chronos himself, the only two the Vagabond could spare. His eyes burned with silver fire, and he blew on the twin grains. They glowed like embers in a dying fire before vanishing.
Satisfied that the sands had forestalled the woman's passage for a while longer, Vagabond departed. He had done all he could do and more. Now it was up to the others.
"It's no good," Silver Streak said into his comlink as he surveyed the garbage-strewn apartment, "It doesn't look like anyone has lived here for years."
"Well, it was a long shot at best." Dwarf Star said from the other side of the link. He was still in Paragon City, trying to use Freedom Factor's supercomputer to crack a case that had gone cold four decades earlier. Ascendant had mentioned several times that he had an Uncle Max, a conman and a cheat that nobody had seen since the mid sixties. If there still was a Max Rubenstien still alive, he wasn't any of the Max Rubenstiens on the eastern seaboard. Silver Streak had spent the past several hours tracking them down face-to-face.
Now Dwarf Star was using his access to government mainframes to trace likely aliases and cross-reference them against projected psychological profiles, but with every dead end, the possibility of finding the long-lost relative was becoming increasingly unlikely.
"I've got a good feeling about the next one." Dwarf Star said, hoping he sounded more optimistic than he felt. "It's about two miles south of you."
"Ok, give me a few moments to get there." He was getting tired, but there was no way he was giving up, "You know, this kinda give a whole new meaning to 'last minute holiday rush'."
By the time Dwarf Star finished chuckling, Silver Streak was already at the next spot.
The Shadow Shard
La Pucelle drew her sword and waded into the thick of battle, her blade slicing the phantoms before her in half. After a few more slashes, she was satisfied that she was out of danger for the near future, and she quickly inventoried the rest of her team.
"Quickshot! We need fire support on that ridge! Now!" She pointed with her sword, where a few dozen yards away more specters were gathering in numbers. She knew they weren't really ghosts; they were some sort of psychic phenomena that manifested itself through the properties of the Shadow Shard itself. La Pucelle didn't really care so long as they could be taken down with the edge of a sword, and they seemed willing to oblige her.
The ridge erupted in a fiery explosion as Quickshot laid down a staccato of short blasts, tearing up the odd rock formation and anything foolish enough to be near it. Another group of the phantoms were gathering, interposing themselves between the band of heroes and their goal: a grove of Kora Fruit. The bizarre fruit was reported to have astounding healing properties, which was, as far as Pucelle was concerned, exactly the sort of thing they were looking for.
"Lord Paladin, you're with me." She said grimly as the phantoms began to form into a serviceable combat formation, "We're going right down the middle."
Dayn looked at the assemblage of foes gathering before them, then whispered out of the corner of his mouth, "Are you sure that's the best strategy?"
Pucelle shook her head, "No, but it's the fastest, and we're on a tight deadline."
He nodded, she gave a battlecry, and together they charged forward.
And so it continued in much that way well into the night. Heroes from all over Paragon City fought apart and together, each aiming towards a common goal: to buy just a little more time for one old woman and the son that loved her so very much. Hidden Crey labs were raided for bio genetic research, 5th Column bunkers ransacked for super-soldier formulas, Rikti technology confiscated for gene therapies, and Oranbegan enclaves were scoured for rare herbs and medicines. No long shot was considered too extreme, because the heroes knew that sooner or later, one of them was bound to pay off. So, they strained, sacrificed, and shed blood, knowing that if they held together, a miracle was inevitable.
And, ultimately, one came.
Chiron Medical Center
Suite 1032 A
Atlas Park, Paragon City
Capt. Valor threw open the door to the hospital room in triumph, White Geisha following quietly in his wake. He was weary, and his uniform was torn, even burned in places, but he was too elated to care. The combined efforts of Paragon City's heroes had finally paid off, just as he knew they would.
"Great news!" He beamed, "They found--"
The words died in his throat as he took in the occupants of the room. A doctor was shaking his head dejectedly as he wrote something on a clipboard. A nurse was slowly rewinding the wires to a defibrillator. Maddy's eyes were red from crying as she sobbed into a tissue. There was a long, persistent tone that he instantly recognized as a heart monitor that was no longer tracking a pulse.
Most tellingly, though, Ascendant was not present. Instead, a skinny youth Capt. Valor knew instinctively was Eric West sat in the hospital room, shattered, holding his mother's hand.
"She… she just couldn't fight anymore," Eric said quietly. "She tried so damn hard… but… She just stopped…" He looked up at Valor, eyes sad and yet, somehow completely devoid of tears.
"She's gone." He managed finally.
V. Edith’s Miracle
According to her charts, Edith Rose West was pronounced dead at 12:16 AM, Christmas Day. Not everyone who was there fully agreed with that diagnosis, however.
"There is still time." White Geisha said quietly after the medical staff had left to afford them some privacy. All eyes in the crowded hospital room turned to her.
"What do you mean?" Eric asked. "Geisha, if you could save her, why didn't--"
The petite woman shook her head, "This one can not save her; that is beyond anyone's power now. But some of who she was yet remains here, and this one can let you say goodbye."
Her cool white hand folded over Eric's, and her other hand gently touched Edith's forehead.
"Trust." She whispered. “Believe.”
Her eyes closed in concentration, and for Eric, the room melted away.
It was summer in Atlas Park, and a calm wind, unfettered by the barriers of War Walls wafted by, carrying just a hint of sea air from Independence Port. Below him, at the foot of the hill, construction workers were building the statue of Prometheus, and a bit beyond that he could see the gleaming spires of Steel Canyon. Children ran by dragging kites, willing them into the air with all the power of youth and laughter. In the distance, he could make out the scent of hot dogs cooking on a grill.
His mother was sitting on a park bench, waiting patiently. He sat down next to her. They sat in silence for a while, just watching the park.
"You know, you have some nerve, Eric Lewellyn West." She chided finally, "Calling all of those people out of their homes to save one old woman. And on Christmas Eve, too."
"You don't celebrate Christmas, remember, Mom?"
Edith chuckled and shook her head, "Things like that are so… Trivial now, Eric... The most important part is how people treat each other, regardless of what they believe or the time of year. I see that now."
"I'm starting to understand things, Eric," she said quietly, "Things are finally starting to make sense."
"What do you mean?"
She cocked her head, as if listening to a far off voice, then smiled at her son and ran a hand through his hair to straighten it out, as mothers were wont to do. "Things that are supposed to be secret. Answers to questions I've wondered my entire life. I'm starting to see it all... The whole Design, the reasons for everything... It's..." her voice dropped to a whisper, "It's so beautiful, Eric. And it's so simple… so… elegant…" She managed, her eyes awash with tears, "I wish you could see it."
"Don't worry..." He replied with a weak grin, "I will, eventually. Give me like another 60 years first, though, Ok?"
She turned to him, her eyes large and sad, "No, Eric, I don't think you will. This place is not for you, not anymore. You aren't supposed to be here...You aren’t ever supposed to be here."
"What are you talking about?"
She ignored him and looked around, exasperated. "He should be here by now. This is just like him, you know."
"Mom, where are we? I mean, I realize this is Atlas Park, but it's different. There's a lot missing, and a lot of other stuff I don't recognize."
His mother smiled gently, "No... You wouldn't. This was-- is-- my Atlas Park... The one from June 18, 1966."
Eric's eyes narrowed in concentration, then he realized the significance of the date and the place.
"This is where you and Dad--"
"This is where we first met, Kiddo." Jack West completed for him.
Eric turned to see his father striding up the hill towards the bench. He wasn't the broken old man Eric had known from their last encounter, a shattered husk clinging to life through an oxygen mask. The Jack West before him was the dynamic figure he recognized from his childhood, an energetic man with a tanned, weathered face and an easy smile, a man who walked with inherent strength and confidence.
"Dad? What are you doing here?"
"You think I'd miss this?" Jack smiled as he took his wife's hands in his, then extravagantly bent down to kiss her hand like he used to do long ago. The years seemed to wash off of her, until once again they were a young couple, glowing golden in the fading daylight of that perfect afternoon.
"We have to go now, son." Edith said finally after sharing a long glance at her husband, "There are bigger things awaiting us."
"Mom... Dad... I..."
"We're so proud of you, Eric." His mother said as she touched his cheek one more time, "So very proud of you."
"But I... I mean... There were so many who tried to.... Mom, we failed you."
Edith smiled gently and shook her head. "Eric, you and your friends didn't fail me. It was simply my time. They're amazing people in their own right. You make sure they know that."
She smiled one last time, then her face creased with mock severity, "Stop arguing with your mother, Eric. Miracles happen every day. They happened today. Maybe not the one you were hoping for, but the ones that needed to happen most. Whether or not you recognize them for what they are depends upon how you look at them."
His father nodded, then grinned, "Don’t worry, Kiddo. Your mother and I will be just fine. Go on and do Great Things. We’ll be there with you when you do."
And with that, his parents smiled at him, turned, and walked off together, bathed in the glow of an Atlas Park sunset.
The first rays of dawn were peeking through the window of the hospital room when Eric woke up. The other heroes-- his friends-- stood there in silent vigil, for there were no words that could be spoken now. Outside, snow was finally falling on Atlas Park.
Edith West had been right after all; miracles did happen in Paragon City that day. The Kora Fruit the heroes retrieved from the Shadow Shard turned out to possess an enzyme that was particularly useful in fighting certain types of Leukemia, especially in children. The money raised by Officer Celara, as well as private donations from heroes and countless others, established the Edith West Foundation, a non profit group that sought to pay medical bills for families in need. Ms. Independence's charity drive became a yearly tradition in Paragon City, matching donors with recipients and keeping entire families together. Through these and hundreds of other endeavors, the efforts of Paragon City's heroes that day changed lives in ways they could not begin to imagine. In that respect, the Season of Hope never truly ended.
In failing to save one life, they had instead saved the lives of thousands, even tens of thousands, and Edith West could not have asked for a better legacy.
Eric cried at his mother's funeral, which he considered to be a tiny miracle of his own.