Baen books by mercedes lackey



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I can do this. I can keep the lid on it. And…He had to be honest with himself, finally…I have to. Nothing less is going to stop them.

John emerged more cautiously, sticking close to the wall. He took a deep breath, concentrating for a moment, remembering his training from years ago—

A feeling inside of something lurching awake, and a nanosecond of pain, a worse moment of uncertainty, of teetering right on the brink of control and there it was. Fire cascaded down his hands. It’d been a long time since he’d used his powers; getting them started was the hard part, the worst was to try to control them. Now, all he needed to do was…relax. The fire coalesced at his palm, concentrating and building upon itself; a moment later, it leapt from his outstretched hand, lancing out at the centermost Nazi. The fire washed over his armor, turning it red-hot after mere seconds. Before John could get off another wave of flame, one of the troopers on the outside of their skirmish line raised his arm cannon, and fired.

The shot went wide and down; not very well aimed. Concrete erupted where the beam struck, jagged holes gouged out of the street.

John dodged anyway, as the kid screamed something his mother would have blanched to hear and lunged for the trooper’s arm, letting go of the one he’d grappled with.

Or, more precisely, letting go of what was left of the one he’d grappled with. The rest abruptly realized they had something more immediate to worry about than John.

John displaced, running in a diagonal arc to the skirmish line; the human eye followed horizontal and straight-line movement best, so this move would give him an extra half second, hopefully. He relaxed his internal guard more; the fire collecting at his hands surged, setting the elements in the air around it ablaze. A twitch, and a solid beam of fire cut into his original target. The trooper staggered, then fell backwards. His chest had been melted through, almost to the back of his armor. The man inside was instantly cooked. Three troopers were left; the kid was dealing with the one that had shot at John, and the other two were just now coordinating. Both were leveling their weapons at the kid.

Reflexively, John snapped off a wave of plasma; it blazed forth at phenomenal speed, glancing off of the asphalt a meter in front of the two unoccupied troopers. It arced up at just the right angle to catch both of them at one knee each. The plasma wave sheared through metal and flesh, instantly throwing both of them off-balance even before their brains registered the pain. They both toppled in a heap, their weapons discharging harmlessly into the air. At least I hope it was harmless. They were still threats, though, even though their mobility was gone. John rushed them, gouts of flame shooting forth ahead of him. The downed troopers both writhed as their armor turned into twin furnaces, immolating them. The one furthest to the left managed to fire off a shot of actinic energy before he succumbed to the fire; the bolt of blue-white energy struck a car that John was running by, crushing it and detonating its fuel tank. The blast threw John to the ground, skidding him across the street.

Once again, as his head impacted the street, John saw stars. This was getting old.

When his vision cleared, he looked up in time to see the kid shoving his burning hand through the chest of the trooper he’d grappled with, fire now so hot there was only the faintest hint of yellow at the edges of his flames. The hand emerged out the back of the armor. The kid pulled his fist back then. All the joints in the armor must have fused; it still stood upright.

John picked himself up off of the ground, almost dragging himself up. He could feel a few new cuts, as well as a nice bit of road rash from where he slid on his right arm. By all rights, he should have been numb by now, but…no. No such luck. This was just pain on top of earlier pain, even as his own metahuman body started the recovery and healing process. Resting his scraped and bruised palms on his knees, he looked up to see the carnage that he and the kid had wrought: four troopers lay smoldering on the asphalt, with one still upright in a caricature of life. A long time ago, he might have felt sick to his stomach. But that was—before. When he was just a little older than this kid. When he was plain old John Murdock, and no one wanted to kill him. The kid was taking a step back from the last trooper that he had killed. It was getting hard to look at him straight on.

“Kid,” John managed to wheeze between his teeth. “You gotta shut it off.”

“I—can’t—” came the voice from the core of the fire. Then, more panicked, as the core went from white to blue-white, “I can’t! I can’t! How do you turn this off? You got fire. Tell me how to turn it off!”




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