4-8

Exposure: 4-8

Sovereign remained motionless; his plate armour made him look like a monolithic, watching statue. Even his chain wasn’t swaying in the wind, totally under his command. The only thing that moved on him were the spines that formed his wing-like ornaments on his back, and they floated gently to their own tempo. The helicopters in the sky began to lower and circle around, monitoring him with a fixated curiosity. When he spoke, it was deep and commanding, bolstered by a rumbling confidence.

“I came as soon as I heard what’d happened.” His armoured head turned left and right, between the unmasked Verus and Anthony. Both their eyes were upon him. “The situation looks diffused.”

Verus looked from Anthony to Sovereign, eyes tracing over the golden bindings around his hands and neck. “It’s under control. Anthony just surrendered.”

“I briefly saw what remains of the house you fought in. After all that, he surrendered here to you?” Sovereign turned his attention to Anthony, scrutinising him. “I have a hard time believing that he went down without some sort of fight.”

“He hit me with the best that he had. After that, I convinced him to give himself in.”

The chain in Sovereign’s open hand started to pull along his arm with unseen force, and Anthony was dragged forward a foot. “I’m not as trusting as he is, and you’re not the sort of person I’d believe right now. Are you up to anything, Anthony?”

“Do I look like I’m up to anything?”

Sovereign raised up his open palm, and the hard light around Anthony’s neck raised into the air. He was brought onto the balls of his feet, neck outstretched.

“You know the answer to that.”

Anthony grunted, strained by the force against his neck. Verus raised his hand, waving it to Sovereign.

“Hey, hey. I’m giving him a chance here. What’s done is done, yeah, and I get where you’re coming from, but what can he do right now? He can’t run, he can’t beat me. What can he do? He’s not dumb either, and he knows he’s got one good choice to make.”

“Surrender. Possibly try something later. What happens when you’re not here to babysit him?”

“I’ll stay with him if I have to, until he’s put away. I don’t need to sleep or eat, and he knows he’s got one chance not to mess it up.”

Sovereign paused. His hand relaxed, and Anthony dropped onto his feet properly. He let out an annoyed grumble.

“It’s not that I don’t believe you. You’re new to me, you’re new to all of this, right?”

Verus nodded.

“Experience, and my gut, tells me that he’s smart enough to lie in wait to try and escape. It’s not smart in the long term though. From what I’ve seen, you handled the situation well enough for me to trust you a little. You pulled him out when he could have hurt others and caused more collateral, and tried to reason with him. Not many would have given him that chance.”

“You being one of them, Sovereign. The news had told us that you’re becoming rougher to those you incarcerate, as of late-”

Anthony couldn’t continue speaking, as Sovereign’s fingers clenched. Anthony raised off the ground entirely, his feel dangling in the air from the motion of him trying to move his body. A noise escaped him as he struggled, not only physically but to continue breathing.

“Hey!” Verus said, sharply raising his voice. “Put him down. If you start treating him like this, he’s not gonna have much reason to be nice. And you’re proving him right, anyway.”

Sovereign kept his eyes locked onto Verus, until a second passed where his palm opened. Anthony landed on his feet and toppled backwards, landing onto the dirt below. He rolled over, managing to push himself back to his feet.

“I’ll give you that.” Sovereign said. “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you see things differently. I have to be tougher on people.”

“I guess. So you do your own thing, then? No NFU at all?”

“None at all. It’s a long story, more than we have time for right now. What were you going to do next?”

Verus looked over to Anthony, who was just watching between them. “Drag him to an NFU van and bring him into a cell, then they go through the usual deal, right?”

“This entire thing was brought to my attention from the NFU itself. It’s good that I was in the area, to be honest. It also means I have some jurisdiction in the matter with this.”

Verus nodded slowly. “So what would you do?”

Sovereign turned his armoured body to Anthony, pointing in his direction. “With your permission, I’d ask you to contact the NFU and request that Anthony be transferred directly to the Unit. He’s shown that his powers mean a conventional cell won’t hold him, and the Unit is prepared to deal with him. When he’s safely incarcerated, we’d begin to go through all the proper legal proceedings.”

“How civil of you.” Anthony responded. Sovereign shot him a stare, to which Anthony seem undaunted by.

“With my permission?” Verus asked, with meagre surprise in his voice. “What do you mean?”

“As I’m considered an independent operative, how I work with the NFU is complicated. It’s why I stick to my own thing. Less red tape, less walking on egg shells. As long as you’re here, even as a new Agent, I have to respect the call you make. If I work with the NFU, I’ve agreed that their authority on the matter is greater than mine.”

Verus processed it for a moment, then turned his head to Anthony.

“That sounds like a good idea. Probably for the best. We’re out of comm range though, so I can’t call it in.”

“I’ll get you back there.” Sovereign said, turning his head to the spot between Verus and Shaun. With his outstretched hand, he began to shape and form a large platform made of hard light. Barriers began to stretch upwards; metal posts that were connected by individual panels, reaching waist height. A set of chains began to convalesce in the middle, no more than a few thick links long. The front and back panels parted like a set of swinging doors, and a small staircase appeared beneath them.

In a gesture, Sovereign motioned for Verus to get on. He gave Anthony no such pleasantries, his bindings forcefully making him walk forward until they were all stood on the level.

The doors, if they could be called that, closed. Verus put his hands on the platform, tapping with his fingers; feeling the surface of the hard light, and how it responded to his tactile enquiries. He could also feel how tough it was, and was surprised that the walls weren’t as durable as the posts. It kept him idle for the next few moment.

Sovereign brought Anthony to the chains, dragging his hands down until he was on his knees. Holding the hard light around his hands, he made the chain link and keep his hands bound to the platform. Just to be safe, he made his hands bind to his neck as well, so his movement altogether was thoroughly restricted.

“It won’t be as quick as you hulk jumping your way back here. A few minutes will help calm everything down.”

Verus glanced over his shoulder to Sovereign. The sight of a helicopter in the near distance caught his eye. “I’m fairly calm. Is that the news?”

Sovereign nodded, as the platform began to raise. Slowly it started to levitate into the sky, with little effort on Sovereign’s behalf, until it was well above the buildings and telephone lines. It curved in direction, moving forward in the same upwards lift, starting to build up speed and guiding them towards the direction in which they came.

“I have some benefits from working with the NFU. They let me listen to reports that come in through the radio, and I can tell them if I’m going to attend so they don’t have to. I’m independent, but I’m not a competitor. You know what I mean?”

Verus nodded, watching as the roads and traffic below him. His eyes were drawn to a roundabout.

“We’re in this together. We fight the same fight.”

“Why aren’t you with the NFU, then?”

Verus turned around to face Sovereign. It was difficult to gauge any expression beneath that suit of fabricated armour, but the pause between them speaking said something.

“It’s a long story.”

“How long until we make it back?”

Sovereign turned his head and looked to the path they were taking. The platform sped up, and whilst Anthony jerked from the increase in speed, neither Sovereign nor Verus flinched from the movement.

“Long enough. Good point.”

Sovereign let out a sigh, almost inaudible beneath his armour.

“Cliché as it is to say, I work better alone. The NFU is a police force and they have the same restrictions as any police force; organisation, red tape, paperwork. Everything that slows you down from actually getting out there and dragging the criminals to jail yourself. I’m not an office worker. I’m a crime fighter. Everything would hold me back, when I can be doing much more.”

“That’s all there for a reason. I didn’t think so either, but it’s to make sure we’re doing it properly.”

“I can do it properly without the red tape. I’ve proven time and time again that I can, and I know I’ll have to prove it until the day I die. I’m happy with that.”

“The public doesn’t always know that, though. Nobody knows you can trust yourself. It just takes one thing, and like, just to make my point here, who watches you?”

I watch me.”

A pause lingered in the air.

“I’ve got a lot of names over the years. Sovereign, the Golden Wonder, Britain’s First. The news calls me a Superhero, but, that’s more about image than it is what I think about myself. I’m a guy with gifts, and I found out I can use them to make a difference. I didn’t hesitate. But, here’s how I see it at the end of the day.”

“When people watch the news and they see me, I want them to think that this guy is actually larger than life. This man can save us, and put away the bad guys, and he looks out for the little man. There’s no government to get in my way, no corporation with their own motives. One man like everyone else, making a difference. And that’s how I want it. I want them to see me like that. People need a hero. They need somebody larger than life, and they want to see that hero between them and what they consider ‘evil’.”

“I don’t think there’s evil, in that whole good versus evil crap you get in comic books. There’s bad people maybe, but I don’t think the universe has like, a force of good and evil.” Verus stated.

“I don’t either. I agree.” Sovereign shook his head. “But there might be somebody who is, maybe. If there’s somebody like you or I on the side of ‘good’, somebody may use that as an excuse to be on the side of ‘evil’. And I’ll be there to knock him down and show him why that’s the wrong idea. And I’m sure you’ll be there, too.”

Verus nodded slowly.

“I feel you lack confidence in what you do.” Sovereign said. “You’ve got the ideas but something makes you unsure, Verus?”

Verus looked out to the distance again. “I’m not even twenty yet. I don’t know what I want to do with my life, let alone who I want to be. Feels like a lot to take on, y’know?”

Sovereign nodded. “It’ll come. It’ll take time, but don’t rush it.”

“You’re the first person that hasn’t told me I need to know right now. You know that?”

“I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. A lot of people just gel and find out what they want to know, and they’ll never know what it’s like to be lost with yourself. But it’s not a bad thing.”

Verus nodded. A noise came from behind them, as Anthony finally spoke.

“That’s quite touching, Sovereign. You could always moonlight as a guidance counsellor.”

Sovereign raised his hand, pointing a finger to Anthony. “I will gag you.”

“I’ll decline. It’s rude not to buy me a drink before you do th-”

The collar around Anthony’s neck tightened, constricting his neck. He grunted as he felt the force exert against him, wheezing in a strained breath. Verus tapped on Sovereign’s armour, to which he looked at him and released the tension around Anthony’s throat.

Sovereign.

Sovereign didn’t respond. He turned back to watch the view, and after a second Verus did the same.

“I found it easier to know what I wanted after I saw what happened when I helped people. There’s kids and parents thanking you for saving them. People who remember you, and know you’re there for them. These days, I see kids with my action figures, wearing Sovereign hoodies that look like my armour. Do you think I want to lose everything like that, just so I can be bad for a few minutes? Do you think that’s worth even a second of not being Sovereign?”

“When you look into a kid’s eyes and see hope and see a spark that they could be just like you, that’s everything I need to see. And I hope one day, you see that as well. Because it’s the best damn feeling in the world, and it gives me that inner strength.”

“Why did you join the NFU, Verus?”

Verus turned to Sovereign, looking surprised. “I… to be honest? It’s a job, it pays. I can actually do something to help people.”

“You can do better than that.” Sovereign added. “I’m not trying to recruit you into anything. I’m saying, you could do a lot more if you weren’t restricted by the NFU.”

“It does sound like you’re trying to recruit me.”

It was the first time Shaun heard Sovereign laugh; short and under his breath, shaking his head as he did.

“As long as you’re doing the right thing and fighting the good fight. That’s what matters, isn’t it?”

Verus nodded, watching down below again. They travelled over sprawling country fields, of wheat and grass, those not filled with crops were sprinkled with livestock; cows, sheep, the occasional pigs.

“Yeah. I mean, I get you, and I’ve been with the NFU for a little while now, but honestly? I still don’t know if this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. What if I’m thirty and I’m still asking myself what I want to do?”

“Then perhaps, you shall have to wait longer.”

Soverein and Verus turned round, as Anthony spoke to them.

“I can’t say we have reason to see eye to eye right now, but Sovereign is correct. I wouldn’t concern yourself too much on how long it took. Let it take it’s time. Your generation has it a little more difficult than mine, that much I do know. From what little I’ve gathered, from meeting with youth groups as part of my campaigns, is that many of the youth of today aren’t quite sure where they fit, as well as the numerous other problems. The economy and all that.”

The armoured man and the hooded teenager shared a glance.

“See? He’s not all that bad.” Verus said, motioning with a flat palm to Anthony.

“People who are lost turn to people like them, or people who sound like they know what they’ve been through, for guidance. Farborn and Fartouched have asked me things like this. Maybe you should think about it. They’ll need somebody to look up to, somebody who’s still unsure, just to tell them it’s okay and they can do it.”

“I don’t know. Maybe? I don’t see what they’d find in common with me, though. There’s not much to look up to.”

“You’ve got a job that’ll be a career. A happy family?”

Verus nodded. “Yeah, I’ve got a nice life, but there’s not much hardship there, is there? It’s not like I’ve had to overcome anything in the past that makes people think ‘this guy’s been through what we’ve been through’. There’s people out there who’re much worse off than me. Much, much worse.”

Sovereign remained silent for a moment. Verus watched him and for that brief interlude, he felt that he was being looked through instead of at.

“I don’t think I’m something people could look up to. That’s all.”

“Then give them a reason. Be the person you think they’d want to look up to.”

Arms outstretched, Verus folded them and leaned on them as they flew over the countryside, the only telltale sign of Sovereign from the world below was the view of a hard light box darting through the sky.

“I didn’t realise I’d signed up to a mentoring session today.”

“Help can come from surprising places.”

Verus kept scanning the distance until the roads had a vague familiarity to them. He began to recognise the paths, the scenery and background surrounding roads that he felt like he knew from a journey, and then he started to see the roads he’d travelled down on the way to Anthony’s house. He turned around, pointing down and into the distance.

“I think we’re nearly there. Anthony, are we close?”

Raising his hands. Anthony shook them lightly. Hard light rattling together had an unusual sound, like amalgamated glass and metal, but sounding like neither once you tried to compare it.

“I would tell you, but alas. The view from being chained to the floor is not quite telling, I assure you.”

Sovereign glanced his way for a moment, before swatting some air away with his hand gently. One of the lower links to the chains that bound him in place vanished, and Sovereign’s voice lacked any amusement when he spoke.

“Nothing funny.”

Anthony raised both his hands up, showing his palms as he slowly rose up. The chains were willed closer to Sovereign, which made Anthony balk and stagger forward, much to the frustrated look on his face.

“I’m perfectly capable of walking, thank you.”

He walked over and took a second to appreciate the view, before raising both hands up, pointing with a lean to the right.

“That direction, not far from here. A minute from here, if that.”

For a split second as Anthony looked out, feeling the wind tug and fray at his hair, feeling the wind buffet his face, a solemness draped across his face. It hadn’t lasted for long, as the chains around his neck began to pull him back.

“That’s enough. Back to the middle.”

Anthony sighed, then started walking meticulous steps backwards, until the chain began to move on it’s own accord and meet in the spot it linked again, dragging him down in the process. Another link formed, without Sovereign even motioning for it to exist. He tugged upwards to see if it was binding him, and found his hands could get no further than where they were just then.

Agent Verus, this is back-up C-Team One. is that you? Do you read? Over.”

Verus raised his head up and looked around, before realising where the voice had come from. He put his finger against the comm in his hood, and heard the voice as clear as he could have done when he was on the ground.

“This is Agent Verus. Loud and clear, over. ”

After a brief pause, he got a response. “What the hell happened out there? Are you okay?”

Verus blinked. “Breaking character? I’m fine. I’ve managed to negotiate with Anthony to get him to come willingly. Listen, this might sound weird, but Sovereign is here as well.”

We’re aware of Sovereign. What does he have to say on the matter?”

“Sovereign is okay with it as long as I’m with Anthony. I said I would be, I mean, nothing else can really keep him in check. We’ve had a talk, and we think it’s best if Anthony is taken straight to the Unit. When he’s there, he’ll be safe and we can get on with him being properly arrested. I can’t stay with him in a holding cell all the time. So, can that happen?”

Sovereign began to guide the platform in the direction indicated, his speed not slowing down until Verus could see Anthony’s house from here. Large billows of smoke had plumed into the air, though all that was left from here was the aftermath; greyish clouds of ash and roasted building, with a clearer view of a house, minus a third of it that had been destroyed as collateral. A fire engine and two ambulances had arrived as well and in the distance, an odd few people had emerged to witness the calamity for themselves. More NFU vehicles had made their way to the location also; some agents on the ground trying to calm the public, whilst others are assessing the damage and the surroundings.

Bare… with me on that.” The voice on the comm didn’t speak for another half a minute before responding. “We shouldn’t have any trouble with that. We’ll try to get it sorted, if you can take him there directly.”

“Are you coming with us?” Verus said, turning to Sovereign.

Sovereign shook his head. “No, but I’ll follow behind you to make sure everything is fine. As a precaution.”

The platform landed softly, and the front panels parted open. Sovereign and Verus began to walk down the steps, whilst Sovereign extended his arm behind him. The chains that bound Anthony’s neck and wrists pulled forward, as he was dragged forward until he started to walk. Sovereign made him walk quickly, until the chain began to coil around his wrist and Anthony was by his side, between him and Verus. Verus nodded to Anthony, and he put his finger to his ear again.

“All containment squads and… everyone else, this is Agent Verus. Suspect is currently under arrest, under the condition that I accompany him. We require transportation to take us directly to the Unit, where he’ll be incarcerated there to await legal proceedings. Suspect will be unbound, but I will be present with him at all times. Sovereign will be following as a safety measure, as well. Suspect is not hostile and presently with me. Do not engage. Over.”

Fishing a pair of handcuffs out of his belt, Verus turned to Anthony and then, Sovereign. He nodded to the armoured figure, who reluctantly waved a hand. The restraints binding Anthony faded into nothingness, and he spent a moment rolling his neck and wrists about.

“I know you can get out of these, but it’s a show of faith. Okay?”

Turning to Verus, Anthony nodded with a calm expression. “Very well.”

As Verus began to fasten the handcuffs onto Anthony, a response came over the comms.

Agent Verus, this is back-up C-Team One. Our vehicle will escort you to the Unit. It should be the first van to your right.”

Verus turned his head, and saw a black van with an NFU logo on the back. The side door was slid open, and an agent was waving to him from inside. He raised a hand to acknowledge them, then pointed to the van for Anthony. He began to walk first, with Verus and Sovereign following afterwards. Verus made sure Anthony entered the van first, and Sovereign waited outside until Verus was in the vehicle himself, and watching to make sure Anthony was sat down and didn’t attempt to escape. Beside him sat the Agent that waved him over, still clad in full armour, a rifle sitting on their lap with both hands ready on the weapon. They had an uneasiness to their body language as they sat opposite Anthony, uncertain of how to respond. Anthony simply sat there and rolled his head back, staying motionless and breathing in deeply.

As Verus started to climb in, Sovereign spoke and caused him to turn, one foot on the interior of the van.

“I’ll follow you until he’s inside the Unit, then I’ll make my leave. We won’t speak unless something goes wrong, so I hope we don’t need to speak until another time.”

Extending his hand, Sovereign’s plated gauntlet loomed in front of Verus. He took hold of it, and though his face was obscured by his hood and mask, his eyes squinted in a way to show he was smiling beneath it all, and they shook firmly for a few seconds.

“Thanks for the help, Sovereign. Been a pleasure.”

“Likewise, Agent Verus. Until we meet again.”

With Verus climbing into the van, Sovereign began to lift himself up by his armour, and Verus didn’t see him as he slammed the door shut. Hunching over, he moved and sat next to the agent beside him, and pulled down his hood and mask, running a hand over his face to feel his skin against his bare fingers. He scratched down his chin and let out a deep breath, slumping slightly into the chair.

The journey itself was largely uneventful, with little conversation for the hours of driving it took to get to Rochdale, where the Unit was located. Neither Anthony nor Verus spoke, and the agent beside them gave little input into the aura of silence that donned over the van in their travels. Sovereign loomed in the sky ahead, watching them along motorways and roads with an unshakable vigilance, with only one goal in mind to stay firmly fixated to.

The only time Verus broke the silence was to ask the driver if he could get in touch over the radio to the control room . And he did, so Verus asked how the injured were. In his relief he was told that Visionary was not in a critical condition and injured, though they were still running tests on her and the others to make sure they were fine. Verus looked at Anthony afterwards, who was glancing away at the time; Verus could tell he was refusing to look at him upon hearing the news, but he hadn’t pushed the issue at all. He had hoped that it may make him aware of what he did, more than trying to make him feel guilty over the ordeal.

Once they had finally reached the Unit, Verus was the first person to leave, making sure Anthony was walking in front of him. They had parked right outside the convicted prisoner’s entrance, past a large series of metal fences and several security checks to allow them entry. From a frontal view, the Unit was an imposing building made of dark, almost black and grey bricks, with a large brick wall surrounding the front, and many layers surrounding the outside, from the in. The architecture looked more modern than other prisons Verus had seen, from studies in school to what he’d learned in the NFU, but the Unit looked more like a modern fortress than it did a conventional prison.

Verus made sure he was by Anthony’s side from the moment he stepped foot into the building, to the moment he was brought to a specifically prepared cell for his arrival. The room was barred with metal as usual but these bars were sandwiched with a clear, glass-like pair of walls, each with their own door. In the top corners of the room were an unusual device that Verus didn’t know about, as well as a security camera; he could only assume the boxes with a grill on them, and some sort of soothing light beneath them, were the Emotional Dampener Units that the Unit was famed for.

It took half an hour for the Emotional Dampener to fully work on Anthony. He was calm regardless, patient and waiting with no attempt to escape but over minutes any energy he had began to degrade away; from looking slightly more tired to eventually lacking the will to do more than to keep himself upright. There was little personality left to him staring absently through the nearby walls, only managing to drift his eyes from left to right to look between Verus and the guards nearby.

Satisfied, Verus said goodbye to both Anthony and the guards in the Unit before he made his leave. He didn’t take long to leave, content that he had done what he needed to do, to make sure everything was settled. The van was waiting for him outside, and he clambered into the passenger seat, slumping slightly into the chair as he put his seatbelt on.

“Ready to go?”

Verus nodded slowly, and as he did he glanced up into the sky. He made out a single drop of gold amongst the horizon of ashen clouds, glowing with a soft pink hue around the edges, just before it went out of sight, before he could focus to see if it really was him. With a slight smile, he ran a hand through his hair to neaten it some, and felt that it was a bit shorter than he had remembered.

The van began to pull away as Verus spoke; his voice filled with a tone of a gentle, if not slightly costly, victory.

“Yeah. I think we’re done here today.”

Verus gave one last glance to the Unit before the van turned around, and the journey home would give him the time he needed to think, and a moment’s peace at last.