David Dare’s office was one of the smallest in The Black Room. Eight feet by eight feet, with no windows, bare walls, and a single door, it wasn’t the sort of office you’d expect one of the most powerful men on the planet to work from. The truth was, David Dare hardly ever used his office, preferring to walk the halls of The Black Room and exercise his uncanny ability to appear wherever he would be the most use, or could cause the most trouble. As the world’s only provider of support services for superheros, trouble was never hard to find and so most of the time the room was empty, and that was a good sign. When Dare did use the office, it was only for one of two things – a face to face meeting, which were rare, or the use The Telephone, which was rarer.
Everyone in The Black Room knew about The Telephone. An old fashioned set with a separate handle and mouthpiece, the dial had been removed sometime in the distant past. Some people said that Dare used the switchboard to place his calls, not that anybody had ever routed a call for him. Other people said that the phone dialed whatever number the person holding it thought of, and others said that it could only dial one number – but what number that was varied from one person to another. The most enduring legend about the phone, the one that everyone seemed to agree was true, was that it only rang when a superhero died.
Any hero summoned to Dare’s office arrived knowing that the meeting could end with that phone ringing, sooner or later.
Bloodfire was six feet eight inches tall and weighed in excess of three hundred pounds without his armour. He was wearing his armour today because if you were having a one to one meeting with David Dare, in the his office, in The Black Room, you wore any armour that you had. He’d expected the chair to buckle underneath him, but it didn’t.
“Weight of the world,” said Dare languidly.
Bloodfire looked up from the floor. Through the thin slit in his helmet Dare could see his eyes were bloodshot and rimmed in crimson.
“The chair,” continued Dare. “It was made to take the weight of the world. It won’t buckle… unlike you.”
The chair that wouldn’t buckle creaked as Bloodfire shifted his weight forward, his gauntleted hands gripping the arm rests.
“You weren’t there. You don’t understand. Your people screwed up, it wasn’t my fault.”
Dare rubbed sleep from the corner of his eye. As far as anyone knew he was human, and he slept, but nobody knew where, or when, or for how long at a time.
“Is that your superpower? Excuses?”
Bloodfire took a deep breath. Swallowed. “You know what my powers are. That’s the point, Dare. I do enforcement. I do combat. I do extractions. I don’t do rescues, and I don’t do fires. I never, ever, do fires.”
“Tell me what happened,” said Dare, his tone softening slightly. “And take off that damned helmet, your voice muffler is pissing me off.”
Bloodfire lifted his helmet off. Underneath, his face was covered in small burns and blisters. He was younger than most people thought, only twenty three, which explained why the techs had given him a muffler to deepen as well as disguise his voice.
“I have class eight super strength, class fourteen invulnerability,” began Bloodfire. “Three years combat training, thirty two successful assignments. All clean, all with zero civilian casualties.”
“I know your record, Bloodfire,” interrupted Dare. “Tell me what happened yesterday.”
“It was just a routine patrol. You know, ‘See and Be Seen’, like we cover in training. Not like any mugger or purse snatcher is going to try their luck with me, is it? Anyway, it was practically the end of my shift, when I got the call. Two blocks over, a fire in a six floor building. People trapped on the top floor.”
“And? You know ‘and’. My invulnerability doesn’t work against fire.”
“Your invulnerability doesn’t work against flames,” Dare corrected. “That’s why we gave you the armour. As long as the flames don’t touch your skin, you’re fine.”
Bloodfire leaned closer. “Do I look fine? Does my face look ‘fine’? The armour keeps the flames off, but it doesn’t keep out the heat. I burn, Dare, like anyone else.”
“You burn like someone with class fourteen invulnerability which, trust me, is not burning at all,” snapped Dare. “You’re not giving me anything, Bloodfire. All of this was in the report. Tell… me… what… happened.”
Bloodfire sat back, his eyes closed, his hands trembling. When he opened his eyes and looked at Dare again, there were tears at the corners of his eyes.
“I went. I took the call. Because we’re not allowed to turn one down, are we? The Black Room gives us the calls, and we answer. No exceptions, no excuses. No choices. So I went. When I got there, the firefighters had gotten everyone out except one family, still stuck on the top floor. So I went in. What did I have to worry about, eh? I had my stupid, goddamn armour on…”
“I made it to the top floor but the stairs, well the stairs were already burnt half away by then and with my weight on them they just… crumbled. I made it to the top floor but there was no way down for anyone except for me. I found them, family of three. The parents were already dead, smoke I guess. Only the kid was left, curled up in a ball, clutching some stupid soft toy. He’d stayed low enough to avoid the smoke, dumb luck really. He cheered when he saw me. He cheered.”
Bloodfire stood up and walked to the door, turning his back on Dare. Dare watched in silence as the man’s huge, armour plated shoulders heaved up and down in time to his ragged breaths.
“There was no way that I could get him down. The firefighters had pulled back, they said the building was unstable. You know what they said when I got there? ‘Pull back’, they said. ‘Hero on scene’. Hero on scene… what a joke, right? I was there but there was nothing I could do. It was the stupid armour, you see? The armour keeps the flames off but it gets hot. It was too hot for me to touch him. If I could have touched him, I could have just picked him up and just jumped out the window. I could have taken the impact, no problem. But not in that heat, not with this armour. It would have been like throwing the kid into an oven.”
“The report said that they had to dig you out.”
“The firefighters were right. The whole place did come down, took me and the kid and his parents with it.”
“Sit down,” said Dare, snapping his fingers at the chair.
Bloodfire turned, his face pink and puffy now in the places between the burns, his cheeks damp with tears. He was shaking, his super strength barely bridled. He wanted to kill Dare, wanted to smash his sanctimonious face into the desk and just keep smashing until all that was left was a soft pulp of flesh and bone and brain and blood. He could do it. One hit would be enough, one punch and that would be it. No more David Dare. No more Black Room, maybe. But nobody had ever dared lay a finger on David Dare, not since he’d set this place up. There wasn’t a superhuman on the planet who didn’t owe Dare something and it made him untouchable.
“Did you know I’m missing three toes on my left foot?”
“No,” replied Bloodfire, confusion supplanting rage in his mind.
“It was back when I still wore a mask,” continued Dare. “The Marksman and I were just closing down a case. Mr. Chill had kidnapped seven police officers, was icing them one by one and delivering them to their families. Two were dead by the time we tracked him down. He’d had them for four days. They were exhausted, dehydrated. We were carrying them out of his hideout when I stepped on one of Chill’s ‘ice mines’. We had the right gear of course, Marksman always did, but by boot must have gotten damaged somehow. The cryo-gas got in, froze my foot inside my boot and welded it to the floor.”
“What did you do?”
“I waited. I got the officer I was carrying up onto my back and I waited for the Marksman to get the others clear and then come and cut us out of the ice. It was as far as my knee by the time he got us out.”
Dare sighed. “The point is, I did the job. I could feel the ice killing my flesh, I could feel my toes and foot dying by inches. It would have been so easy to put the guy down. Nobody would even have known. I could have said he stepped on it. I could have said we fell. I could even have blamed my god-damned boot, but I didn’t. I did the job. It cost me three toes, but I did the job.”
“You’re saying I should have picked the kid up, even with my armour? He would have…”
“No,” interrupted Dare. “I’m saying you should have taken off your armour.”
“I’m vulnerable to flame!” pleaded Bloodfire.
“And so was the boy!” Dare roared in response, slamming his hands down into the desk. “And that’s the problem with you, Bloodfire. You take the easy cases. You like to fight men with guns that you know can’t hurt you, you like to smash through walls and pull apart tanks and all of it’s easy because you know you’re invulnerable. You know your limits and you play deep inside them, every time. You know why your armour gets hot? Well think about it – we work with pyromancers, human rockets, elementals. You think we can’t make a suit of armour that doesn’t get hot? We made it that way on purpose, you idiot!”
“Why?” asked Bloodfire, his face creasing with confusion.
“Because you’re a coward, Bloodfire,” replied Dare. “A super strong, invulnerable coward. And so we made sure we had a way to take you down if we ever needed it. We built it right into your precious armour. You’re the type of person that gets people killed, and we don’t let that sort of person run around unchecked.”
Bloodfire lurched forward, one fist pulled back.
“I’ll show you how people get killed!”
But before Bloodfire could land a punch, something happened. Something happened that hadn’t happened in a long time. Something that stopped a class eight strength punch from a class fourteen invulnerable superhuman.
The Telephone rang.
Dare picked up casually, holding the ear piece up. “Dare. Yes. No. I see. As you wish.”
A subtle smile on his lips, Dare pushed the base of The Telephone across the desk and held the earpiece out for Bloodfire.
“It’s for you,” he said.