The time for recrimination was over. He had a major decision before him. No one on the team knew it, but Defender was about to walk away. He had a pregnant wife. He had a child on the way. He had a company to run. People depended upon him. His staff was small, less than a hundred employees. Each one of them depended upon Alden for a steady job.
The decision was the hardest thing he had faced. On the one hand, Port Alexander could use the Defender. On the other, Alden Bryce had a life that needed him. Drifting in the ocean, waiting for his death, he had sworn to the universe that he would never allow himself to get into that position. There was one way to do that. It would not take but a few seconds to feed the Defender costume through the shredder. He could download his personal database to the Fortress computer from home.
After that, it would be a simple matter to tell the rest of the team. They would not take it well, but would eventually understand. Even Sting would understand, though he would be the most vocal about Alden's decision. He would have to understand. There was an unborn little girl or boy who would need a father. Alden now had that responsibility.
Mara would support him in the decision. He knew that she wanted to move closer to her relatives. Without Defender getting in the way, they could move to Falcon's Bluff. The new research facility was almost complete there. Moving his office would be easy. The only hard part would be replacing Karen.
She was the best assistant he had ever had. In just weeks she had the entire office running so smoothly. She was really his office manager, but he did not want to spook her with such a grandiose title. He had simply given her a raise to match her value. Alden was convinced that she had not even noticed.
It would be months before he could move, so he concentrated instead on whether to retire Defender. He knew it was the right thing to do. And it was the right time. He would burn the costume this evening after everyone had gone home. Slipped off to the lab for a burn box. He placed the costume in the box and taped the lid closed. A part of him would miss it.
He turned back to his projects. There was still a weight on his shoulders, but he felt good that he had made a decision. By the time his cell phone rang a few hours later, he had completely let it go. Mara was feeling ill and wanted him to come home to help her. He wrapped up his calculations and turned all his electronics off. He paused on the way out of the office to speak with Karen.
"Mara is not feeling well, so I'm going home. Call me if you need anything."
"Sure. Want me to clean and file for you?" She asked and he nodded. It had become pretty standard for her to put away all the paperwork he would spread out over a day. She insisted that Alden did not understand the simple elegance of a proper filing system, so she was forced to take care of it all.
After a few minutes of work, she had everything put away. That is when she noticed the burn box sitting on the table. It was taped closed, so he was ready for it to go. The day was practically over. It would be a nice diversion to slip off to the incinerator for a few minutes. It was late on Thursday afternoon and she was alone. She fired the beast, pretending it was some dragon-golem her wizard was about to send against an army of infidels. When the thermostat registered the required 451 for paper, she cracked the lid of the box.
For the second time in a month, she was staring at the Defender costume.
* * * *Hours later, Alden had put his poor wife to bed. In his study, he began the download from the wristcomp. He knew the files would not draw any attention alone, so he would have to tell the team about them when he resigned. With his costume destroyed... His costume was not destroyed, he suddenly remembered. What if the janitors found it?
He had no choice but to return to the office. Sure that Mara would be okay now that she was sleeping, he headed out. In no time, he was back at the office. He noted the extra cars in the parking lot. Several he recognized as friends of Karen. It was not unusual. They occasionally used one of the conference rooms. It amazed Alden how much he had grown to trust the girl; and by default, he had grown to trust her friends.
He took a deep breath as he walked into the building. Maintaining his composure was the first order of business. Down the hall, he heard the hushed voices of the kids. He would pop in for a moment, just for appearances. He slide the door open. Several of the group looked up in a panic. Karen was sitting at the head of the table, her back to the door.
"Hey, guys. Are you playing one of your role-playing games?" Alden asked.
"No sir, Mr. Bryce, sir." They answered.
"Al-Alden? Can you spare us a minute?" Karen called. Alden had never heard such trepidation in her voice. In fact, everyone in the room was acting nervous. Every instinct in Alden's mind screamed that something was very wrong, but he maintained his smile hoping the situation would play out gently. They had probably broken something by accident.
"Sure. Always have time for you, Karen," he responded. As he walked into the room, his blood froze. Laid out on the conference table was the Defender costume. The burn box was by Karen's chair. Alden's smile fell. "Uh, can you believe the things my wife is into?"
"Mr. Bryce," Karen started. "You don't have to try and explain. We've figured it all out."
"You... you did?"
"Yes sir. You are Defender. You have been Defender since he appeared. Since you are going to become a father, you've decided to retire."
"I accidentally found your costume a month ago, sir. You shouldn't use your wife's birthday as a password or briefcase combination."
"Wha? What were you doing..."
"Please sir, let me finish before my nerve goes away." Karen took a moment to refocus. "It was an accident. I didn't mean to open that case. I meant to open your other one. Anyway, I didn't say anything to anyone until tonight."
"It's true, sir. She didn't even tell us until we'd sworn to keep it an eternal secret. She made us swear on the memory of Gene Roddenberry."
"I see," Alden said. His entire world had just fallen apart. He was suddenly at the mercy of a handful of college students. He found a seat. "What do you plan to do with this knowledge?"
They all looked shocked at his implications. "Nothing. Why would we?"
Karen motioned for Matt to put the costume away. "Alden. We are all geeks, nerds, and science fiction fans. We read comic books and play collectable card games. Each of us has our own obsession, but the one thing we agree upon is how important the Protectors are to us. Don't you remember the costumes?"
"I... I remember the costumes."
"Alden, we've come together to try and figure out how to talk you into staying Defender."
"But Karen, I..."
"I know that you have a lot on your mind. I won't try to pile on the guilt. I just want to say that we need you. Port Alexander needs you." Karen looked Alden in the eye. At that instant, he knew she would take his secret to her grave.
"But, I thought Defender was a dork?" He asked weakly, hoping for humor.
"Ah, no way!" Matt said. "You're the coolest member of the Protectors."
"Guys, I appreciate your concern, but I'm going to be a father. I run a company. I don't have time to be a superhero anymore."
"What if we helped?" Jill asked. Alden was surprised because it was the first time he had ever heard her speak. He looked at her curiously, but her shyness drew her back into her shell.
"No, Jill. What are you saying?" Alden asked.
"Well, we could do some of the work for you. Things like research and computer work and that sort of thing."
"Yeah, we could be Team Defender," Liam piped up. "Sort of your own Blue Blaze Irregulars. We could have patches and a secret handshake."
"Liam. Shut up." Karen sighed. This was a hard enough sale. "Sir... Alden. We can help you in a lot of ways. Ichi and Liam are big computer guys. Matt's an electrical engineering major. Jill's studying criminology. I'm already your Girl Friday. Stef is good with people and Hunter is a business guy. We can all sew, have no lives, and can even baby sit when Mara gives birth."
"Let me get this straight. You guys could hold me over a barrel with what you know. You could blackmail me or sell my secret to the highest bidder. But, you are offering to not only keep my secret but help me? Why?"
They all looked around at each other. For them, this was as simple as breathing or going to the next Matrix movie. They did not even have the words for it. Jill finally spoke up.
"It's the right thing to do. You know, because we have a responsibility."
Alden was suddenly ashamed of himself. Throughout everything he had been through over the last few weeks, he had forgotten something that was so obvious to a group of kids. He was forced to review his earlier assumptions.
The others would have understood, but he would have lost their respect. Sting would have been the vocal one, but only to try and bring Defender back to his senses. Ka-sador would not have understood, being very disappointed in Alden. Finally, Mara would have supported him, but she would spend the rest of her life hiding her own disappointment.
"How could I have been so selfish?" Alden asked the universe through choked tears. "Give me the costume. But we have to come up with a better name than Team Defender."
Team Defender let out cheer. Karen fought back her own tears; hers born of relief and joy. She jumped up and wrapped her arms around Alden's neck.
"I knew you couldn't do it. I knew it."
"Thank you, Karen. Thank you for believing in me." Alden hugged her back.
Ichiro solemnly presented Alden a list. "Sir, if I may. Don't thank us yet. Here is our shopping list. We have much to do."