Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Today Pam asked; "I'm asking just to be polite: do you want a hot dog?"
I made a face and shook my head.
"Ok, cuz the one time I don't ask, you'll be all like 'why didn't you make me one?'"
I went back to my game. She came back a few minutes later and started writing on her computer. Then she said, "mmm, that's good."
"What's good?" I asked.
"Hog dog?? Why didn't you make me one?"
"Because I can't stab you with it."
Sunday, August 26, 2007
"Robe?" I asked.
"Well I got coffee on everything but my bra so I just figured 'the hell with it."
Which is a fine way to end a birthday weekend, afaic. Specially since that robe will be easy access later.
Monday, August 13, 2007
October 11, 1984
I tried to kill myself once. With a gun—you know, the way most men do, not with pills or anything peaceful—but the damn bullet rattled around in my mouth for a good sixty seconds before it finally shot out and put a hole in the bathroom mirror. My mouth stiffened up so much I couldn’t talk or breathe, and the not-breathing part is what scared me. Isn’t that crazy? I was in such a state of mind I wanted to put a bullet in my brain, but when the windpipe turned to steel and sealed itself off, then I got scared.
That was the lowest I’d ever been. I had failed at everything at that point. Couldn’t even off myself.
Annie reminds me of that day every time I see her. Eight years later, and I can still taste the gun oil when she walks into the room. I can smell the burning ozone and count the spider web cracks in the mirror where the bullet went through.
“So how have you been, Sam?” Annie asked, voice carefully neutral.
She had already come in and sat down. I was busy nursing a tiny bit of hate for my too-young reflection—hair as black and face as unlined as when I was eighteen—and hadn’t turned from the window when I heard her walk in.
“No better, no worse.” She didn’t know about the suicide attempt. No one did.
I turned and slid into the chair opposite her. We stared across the table for a moment. I felt a faint pull to try and start an argument with her, but she never let any emotion into her voice but pity, and that… well let’s just say I’d rather rattle a whole clip of nine millimeters around in my mug than hear that again.
“So what have you got?” I asked, nodding at her manila folder.
“Oh, something new this time,” she replied. She seemed relieved to be getting down to business. At least I think she was. Might have imagined it.
Annie was my government liaison. When she hung up her cape she landed a good job with Paranormal Affairs the very next day. It was minor news at the time—we were famous once, me and her—rating thirty seconds on the 5 o’clock news, front page on MSN and Yahoo, that kind of thing.
Her eyes narrowed just a bit, and the manila folder spun itself around, glided to my side of the table, and came to rest as if I was the one that had been waiting for her with a folder.
“Good to see you’re keeping your hand in,” I said, opening it. There was a personnel dossier inside—a big good lookin’ kid in his late teens, with his hair in one of them spiky mousse haircuts that are popular these days. “Eighties haircuts, bleh,” I muttered, thumbing through the pictures.
Annie snorted. “You should talk, Duck-Tail.”
Was she bantering with me? That hadn’t happened in a long time. Something must be wrong. “The fifties is still the coolest decade,” I said without looking up. “Birth of Rock n Roll. Elvis. The Beatles. Fast cars and American pride. Besides, you know I haven’t had a duck-tail since—“ I stopped. Memory Lane was not a road I wanted to ride on when there wasn’t a fifth of Jack Daniels around to do the driving.
I cleared my throat and skimmed through the dossier, making an effort to not look up at her. The kid was Jason Steib. Born June 8, 1965—Christ, nineteen years old—height six-two, weight two hundred two, valedictorian, Top3 graduate in the Academy, irritatingly healthy and handsome, and—
I flipped the folder shut and looked up at her. “What’s going on, Annie? This kid is Class 2 at least. He can fly, shoot plasma bolts, kick out a force field, and probably nail the prom queen all at the same time. He’ll have his own comic book inside two years. Me an’ him, we ain’t in the same zip code.”
She nodded. “He’s Class 1.”
She waited. I prodded, “and what’s wrong with him? Did he go rogue already? Fall in with bad types?” I stood and paced my side of the table, then smacked my palm to my forehead (skin ringing softly as the impact turned it to steel) in mock revelation. “They finally decided to get rid of me by assigning a Class 1 rogue for me to bring in.”
Annie just frowned and didn’t lift her gaze from the mahogany under the dossier.
I sighed sharply and scowled. “What then?”
My jaw dropped. “What?”
She finally met my gaze and for the first time ever, Annie looked old. She was thirty-six, but you never noticed the crow’s feet until she was in a bad mood. Her hair was still as black as the day I first saw her, and the body on her still made me think of buying condoms from old man Richens’ pharmacy when I was sixteen. She was fighting the realization that her job wasn’t what she thought it was, and it was starting to show. I got that funny feeling. That same feeling I got when I first heard kids talking about Kennedy getting shot like it was history, because it was. They had to teach it in schools so kids would know. Not remember, but know it ever happened.
Also, I needed a drink. I felt sick and it was more than just missing Ol’ Mister Daniels. I sat heavily and slowly in the chair. “You’ve lost it,” I said, staring at the dossier.
Her brow furrowed. “What?”
I met her eyes. “Your faith.” She looked away, and I knew—I knew I was right.
“You think somethin’ fishy is goin’ on,” I continued. “You don’t know why they want to mentor a One to a Five any more than I do, and you’re not buying the official line.”
Our eyes met and I tasted gun oil again. It hit me, hard, that Annie was going to wither and die and leave her grieving family behind like a normal person and I wouldn’t be able to follow her. Because hell, I’d already tried.
“What’s the official line?”
She looked down at the dossier and sighed. “Reallocating paranormal resources. Pairing up the younger generation with the old. Presenting a unified front.”
Which was all bullshit. That didn’t work for McCarthy and Uncle Sam (the government and me) knew it. That got the Fives killed and the Ones washed out. “What about Shecky? He get a Class One?”
Pity touched her eyes. “Sam, Shecky died last year. Cancer. You’re the oldest Class Five.” She spread her hands. “Well, the Russians might have one, but…” she shrugged.
“Ya old clawed kike bastard,” I whispered. “Why you gotta die and leave me with these spikey-headed moppets?”
I shook my head and shrugged. “We had some good times, me an’ that Jew bastard.”
Her face softened. The pity was still there. She reached out a hand. “Sam—“
“So who we got that’s my age at all?” I interrupted. “Crimson Creeper? Captain Hex? Agent Indigo?”
She withdrew her hand and searched her memory, eyes looking up and left. “Hex retired years ago. Creeper resigned and joined Greenpeace. Indigo is teaching now, at the Academy.”
I couldn’t thing of any more Fours or Fives, and she knew ‘em all better than I did—part of her job. “Well who’s around that’s my age, and is getting one of these wet-ears?”
My eyes nearly bugged outta my goddamn head. “You gotta to be kidding me! What happened to this kid?” I stabbed the dossier with a finger hard enough to put a hole through it. “Did he lose a bet?” I had a good belly shaker of a laughing fit going. “Who gets Miss P—ha, haha—and who gets ol’ broke-down, washed-up Class Five rummy Steelhand?”
Miss Patriot was the first superhero, ever. They say she busted down a Nazi bunker just in time to watch Hitler put a bullet through his own brainpan. She was ageless, super fast, super strong, and invincible. Every girl wanted to be her and every boy wanted to do her. And she hadn’t taken a sidekick in thirty years.
I quit laughing. Hell. She was the only one I knew of near my age, and she was eleven years older. Miss Patriot. Hell. Except for—
“What about Doc Neutron?”
She cocked her head. “What about him? He quit the cape in ‘58.”
“Yeah, but what’s he up to these days?”
“Who says he’s up to anything?”
Her eyes had gone flat. I clenched both fists—hands chiming as metal grated on metal—and stifled a fit of rage. She knew they were lying to her and she still—still—kept me in the dark. Toe the line. Neutron is strictly private sector. Don’t ask questions. Be a good boy.
I thought of twenty-two dead school kids in a grain silo and grit my teeth.
I snatched up the dossier. “So when do I meet this punk?”
March 8, 1957
“Hey punk. You don’t have any hubcaps stuck under that leather jacket, do you?” Doctor Neutron didn’t take his head out of the engine compartment of his hovercraft. It made his voice sound tinny. I could hear wrenching and clanking noises from under there too.
I looked around his lab, just as much in awe as I’d been when I first walked into it. “With alla this you think I’d bother with hubcaps? Heck, the computer alone would make me a rich man. Dames would be crawlin’ all over me.”
The government gave Doc a whole mess of buildings and tech gadgety stuff to play with, but he liked his own space. Kinda silly to be makin’ the future in some old rundown warehouse, but I guess Uncle Sam cut him slack, what with him being a supra-genius and all. The place was packed—and I mean packed—to the rafters with circuitry, electronics, welding equipment, at least two Studebakers, and Almighty knew what all other kinda science stuff. I loved it. Almost as much as gettin’ laid.
Neutron’s voice welled up from the engine compartment again. “Since when do you need a computer to attract the girls, Sam?”
I laughed. “Well I coulda used it before I got my leather jacket I guess. And the new job.” I couldn’t help but grin like a fool. Uncle Sam paid me to beat up scum, and girls that never woulda talked to me in high school couldn’t wait to get me up under their skirts. Plus I got to pal around with the smartest guy in the world. I felt sorry for the poor saps that weren’t me.
Neutron pulled his head out from under the hood, revealing his goofy-looking magnifying eyeglass headgear that made his eyes look half the size of his head. It was even more goofy when you got a full on look at the guy; he was half Scarecrow and half Tin Man, what with all the gadgets on his head and belt. He waved a tool at me (it was half wrench, half something else) and asked, “You’re being… careful, right Sam?”
Man, I could talk with Doc about things I’d never let Pop hear. “It’s cool, Daddy-O,” I said. Doc cocked an eyebrow that disappeared under his magna-eye and didn’t change the look on his face.
“Doc, come on. I got lots of girlfriends but I’m a gentleman with all of ‘em. And I use the—you know, the thing. Even if ol’ Richens scowls at me like I’m the devil when I buy ‘em.”
He left it at that and disappeared under the hood again. “How’s the hover bike working?”
Doc let me test drive all kinds of gadgets. I think because if they explode or send me off a cliff I don’t get hurt. Much. I’d never complain if I did, anyway. “Ah, it’s gonna take some more time, Doc. It ain’t like riding a Harley at all. I wanna practice with it after karate class, if that’s OK with you.” The truth was that the first thing I did with the crazy thing was open it up full throttle, lose control, and fling myself darn near a half a mile. Took me all day to find where it crashed. We were both fine—me and the bike—but if that hadda happened in the city I woulda taken out a couple of buildings.
“Sure kid. You are enjoying it, though?”
“Oh, man, Daddy-O, it’s like flying.”
“You wouldn’t mind it as an early birthday present then?”
Would I mind fighting crime on a hover bike?! “Gosh, that’d be the neatest, Doc! Thanks!”
He pulled his head out from under the hood again and sat on a nearby stool. He flipped his magna goggles up and propped his elbow on his knee. “You’re a good kid, Sam. You have your right from wrong all sewn up.”
That was kind of a funny thing to say. “Well, uh, thanks?”
He smiled a bit, one corner of his mouth turning up. “What I’m saying is; one day you’ll wake up and it won’t be so easy to pick the good guys from the bad.”
I thought a bit. “You mean… like the Russians? Our friends in the war, but now they’re communist?”
“They were communist before the war. But yes, something like that.”
“Aw come on, Doc. There ain’t no Russians here.” I held up a hand. “And I know that ain’t what you meant. But my bad guys are real easy to pick out. A guy robbin’ a bank, muggin’ an ol’ lady, that’s a bad guy. That’s what I get. Not the world-savin’ stuff.”
“You may get tapped to do some world-saving sooner than you think. Just make sure you know your friends from your employers at that point.”
Wham! Something big and heavy hit me on the right side. I turned to metal from elbow to eyeball and spun across the room, crashing into a pile of gizmos and tools. Electronics and bits of metal and junk went ping, ping off me as my superpower went off. Paralyzed on the right side and blind in my metal right eye, I struggled to get to my feet and see if I could find Doc.
I heard a rough voice call out, “This oughtta teach you to tow the line, Neutron!” There was a loud hum and a flash of green light, and a great shower of sparks to my left. The lights in Doc’s warehouse went out.
“Darn it!” I whispered. My arm and eye were loose, and I fumbled for my riding goggles in my jacket pocket.
“I suppose it was only a matter of time until Joseph sent one of his knuckle-draggers after me,” I heard Doc say. Whew! He sounded OK. But who was the knuckle-dragger?
I got my goggles on, and the warehouse went from dark to silvery. Doc made these goggles for me and man, were they handy. They let me see in the dark, and they’d darken up to black if the light suddenly got to bright—great for surprise headlights when driving the bike at night, eh? Not to mention; they kept stuff outta my eyes, which is handier than you think when you realize that when things hit my eyes, they turn to metal and I go blind.
Doc was lit up like a black and white Christmas tree in my goggle-vision, plus he had a glow around him that wasn’t coming from any of his belt gadgets. He was holding up a glowy something front of him—couldn’t see exactly what it was ‘cause it was too small.
Twenty feet from Doc and forty from me was the knuckle-dragger. He was a big bull-necked guy in a metal and leather suit that looked like one of those old-fashioned diver suits without the helmet. He had a giant cannon-lookin’ thing damn near big as me in one hand, with the handle sticking out the top. Right then he hit a button on the top of the handle with his thumb, and a lumpy glob of force soundlessly shot out—right at Doc.
I shouted “NO!” (and if it was kinda girly-sounding, I’ll never admit it) and started at the guy, but the glob hit the glow around Doc and disappeared with a big fsssshhh sound.
“You scream like a girl, kid,” Knuckle-dragger said. He pointed the cannon at me and hit the button again, but I was ready this time. I dodged outta the way and the globby stuff blasted a furrow through a ton of Doc’s equipment.
“Well you shoot like one!” I did a roll and ducked behind a Studebaker. “Do you take that gun to the PTA?”
“Bah, nice try, kid.” I started creeping towards his voice and heard the bacon-sizzle sound of Doc’s glow shield again. “Where you think you’re goin’ Neutron? Were you gonna let the girly-voice kid fight your battle for ya?”
“It’s his fight too you know,” Doc said. “But I wasn’t going anywhere.”
I peeked out from behind the Interocitron to see Doc brandishing a big leather gauntlet with electrodes and cathode ray tubes on it. “I knew one of you apes was coming for a visit, so I made you a present!” A bolt of lightning shot from the gauntlet and hit Knuckle-dragger high on the chest.
The thug staggered and took a step back. “Nnnngg,” he grunted. “N-nice try, egghead. But they said you would try something like—“
I heard enough. I leapt from behind the Interocitron and hit his gun arm at the elbow with a hammer fist that had all my weight behind it. My right arm turned to metal from fist to elbow, just like in practice, and there was a whanng sound when I hit his armor suit. The cannon sagged but he didn’t drop it like I wanted. He hissed in pain and snarled at me. “I—“
I socked him right in the teeth with my left hand. Ever hear a metal karate fist break a dozen teeth? I sure liked the sound right then. I whipped my still-metal right hand around and caught him with a downward hit on the nose, and heard that break too.
Knuckle-dragger finally dropped his cannon and sagged to his knees with his hands to his face. My right hand was fleshy again, so I curled it into a reverse-punch—
“Easy Sam,” Doc called. “Don’t kill him.”
I pulled my punch, but getting socked in the jaw with a metal fist was still enough to put Knuckle-dragger down for the count.
I grinned. “That was great, Doc! I didn’t know you had a lightning gun!”
Doc wasn’t smiling. “I have to go now, Sam.” He wasn’t talking about ‘for a minute’ either.
“What? Why? We have to call the police and P.A. and—“
“It won’t do any good, Sam,” he said quietly. He sighed. “This was going to happen sooner or later.”
I shook my head. “I don’t get any of this.”
He put his other hand—the one without the lightning gun—on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “Sam, go out and do good things. Remember that the public opinion matters.”
What the… hell was he talking about? That stuff was my job.
He wouldn’t explain anything more either. He wouldn’t let me call PA—which was also my job—and sent me home with an armload of gadgets. He never gave me so much stuff before, and I found out why the next day. When I went back to his warehouse it was a smoking ruin.
October 13, 1984
The Paranormal Affairs building was the tallest building in the world until they put up the
I pulled into the PA parking structure only slightly hung over, glad to be out of the bright sunlight. I slouched over to the security kiosk and clanked a hand off the transparent aluminum a few times. Inside was a fat man with glossy black orbs where his eyes should be. I only knew that from experience, because he didn’t look up from his newspaper when I knocked. He didn’t have to. He probably saw me coming from a mile away—literally.
“Putcher finger inna hole for blood sample,” he muttered through the audio pickup. The kiosk boasted a dozen ports and interface points with little labels over them. The most worn label read “blood ample.”
I scowled and my head throbbed a bit harder. “You know I can’t give a blood sample, jackass. Push the lick out.”
He looked up at me then—at least I think he did, hard to tell with the eyes—and huffed like I was inconveniencing him. “Fuckin’ A Sam, you know I gotta ask.” He reached out of my sight underneath his desk and plucked out a thumb-sized lozenge wrapped in sterile plastic. “Who pissed in your Cheerios?” He pressed the lozenge into a slot on his side and it popped out under the label “saliva sample” on my side. I unwrapped it and put it in my mouth.
“Here ta pick up muh sidekick,” I mumbled around the plastic.
Even with the eyes, there was no mistaking the look on his face. “The hell…?”
The plastic lozenge made a little snap noise. I spat it into my hand and shoved it into the port with more force than was necessary. “Fucking monkey-shitball goddamn hellifiknow.”
The lick got vacuum-sucked into wherever it was supposed to go and he started tapping a keyboard. “Can I be frank with you, Sam?”
Which was an old joke. His name was Frank.
“God no. Please be someone else.”
He looked down at his screen. Tappity tap tap tap. “I’d be Micheal fucking
“I prefer blondes.”
“Heh.” He finished his typing and a seamless door whooshed open a few feet away. “Gonna be at Mike’s tomorrow?”
“So long as you ain’t playing,” I said, heading for the door.
He put on a hurt look. “What? What?”
That was an old joke too. Frank could see through the cards so he was always the dealer. Part of the game was to try and read his face so we could get a clue what the other guy had, or what was coming up next in the deck.
Feeling better for the banter, I walked into Paranormal Affairs to pick up my sidekick.
The Liason section had been remodeled since I was here last. Everything was all tasteful mahogany and other earth tones, with decorative fountains here and there in alcoves. Kinda silly if you asked me… when you put that much money into PA you’re just asking for a supervillain to attack it.
My motorcycle boots echoed on the hardwood floors and my leathers creaked. I passed not a soul on the way to room 315. The place was a lot quieter than I remember too. I shoved my hands into my pockets and slowed my pace a bit, thinking on this Class 5 sidekick thing. This had got to be some kind of bureaucratic fuckup. I wasn’t much trouble anymore, not since ’78. They had me right where they wanted me. What were they doing with the other paranorms? Were Class 2s being paired up with 4s? Annie would know of course. Too bad I got a seething red rage whenever I talked to her for more than twenty minutes.
“I said; ‘hello, sailor.’ Or don’t you have time for old friends anymore?”
I had been so busy gnawing at the sidekick thing I didn’t even see Miss fucking Patriot walk down the hall at me. She was stunning like always; sun-gold hair, sky-blue eyes, and a smile that would lighten Satan’s black heart. She wore a business suit that artfully did nothing to conceal her D-cup figure and sported a PA logo pin on the lapel.
I grinned down at her. “Oh, you know how it is, Martha. You never call, you never write,” I declared, waving both hands around. “It’s a dose of your own swill.”
She gave me a playful slap on the bicep, but it was forceful enough to steel up my arm damn near down to my fingers. “Hey, easy Marth.”
“Whoops! Sorry tiger, I forget sometimes.” She stood on her toes to give me a peck on the cheek. “What brings you to HQ?”
“Picking up my sidekick.” My arm was still metal, and held in an awkward hand-waving position.
“Oh? Is he as cute as mine?”
“I’m gonna enter him in the county fair. I’ll get free chili for the whole day if he takes first.”
She laughed. “Save some for me. I’ll see you around, Sam.”
“Sure Marth.” She flounced around me and I caught a whiff of her jasmine perfume.
My arm unstiffened when it struck me to turn around and ask her “hey Martha! Did you get a Class 5 sidekick?”
She turned and cocked her head. “I believe he’s a 3,” she replied.
“Huh. Well, see ya.”
Hm. Did this one-slash-five thing not apply to Miss P? What does—oh wait, room 315. I opened the black panel door and before I even stepped in, heard a voice that put me into fight-or-flight mode. “Sam. How are you? We’re fine of course. I see Martha delayed you.”
I didn’t trust myself to say anything just yet so I busied myself with stepping into the room and turning to shut the door. The voice belonged to Martin Joseph. I savagely buried the thought of a burning grain silo, took a breath and turned around.
Martin had gone completely bald a few years ago, but he surrendered the battle of the waistband years before that. He sat at the head of a small conference table in a sweat-stained, cheap brown suit, looking content. There are very few people I would beat to death just on principle and Martin is one of them. Too bad he would see me coming, what with being a precog and all. Also it was too bad for me that he was the head of the PA.
On Martin’s right was Jason Steib. He stood as I entered the room and came around the table to shake hands. He was in his superhero outfit; a powder blue and fire red tights monstrosity shackled with utility belts on the waist, arms, and thigh. His hair was shorter than in the dossier, but just as spiked. He topped my six foot height by three or four inches. His handshake was firm and quick. “Steelhand, glad to meet you,” he said earnestly. “Or should I call you Sam?”
“Sam’ll do fine.” I dropped his hand and turned to Joseph. “Heya Marty. How’s the back? You added more cushion to it since I saw you last.” Which was really the only ammunition I had for him; a reference to the time Black Spider got the drop on him and put him in the hospital with one swift kick to the spine. Turns out the Spider had some psychic ability of his own that let him get past Marty’s precognition.
He didn’t even blink before replying; “I’m fine Sam, thanks for asking. We thought you could give Jason a tour of the Underground.”
“What? And miss the chance to flaunt his pretty face on TV? Shouldn’t he be trading firebolts with the Russians?” The “Underground” was a catch-all term for the ruins of the Tesla Project north of
Marty smiled. He looked like a great fat dead toad. That sweats. “We’re killing them in the ratings. The Comrade got beat by Sister Smoke last week. So,” he spread his hands. “We can take it slow with the kid. Give him a ground-up education.”
You are full of shit and that is why your suit is brown. “Alright then. Got a secmap for us?”
The kid yanked a paper sheet out of one of his utility pockets. “Got it.”
“Right. Hey, what’s your comic name anyway?”
Good name, I had to admit. “OK Superflux. Think you can keep up with my Harley?”
I leaned against the mostly-intact wall of Lab 3 and took a pull from my flask. The kid flew his patrol about a hundred feet up. Here in the shade of the spotlight I could see mutants skittering away from him like cockroaches when the kitchen light is turned on. Half a mile away I could see a one of them ending his pathetic existence courtesy of laser-guided machine guns.
My headset belched static. I heard the last half of the kid going “…one a friend of yours too?”
“They’re all my friends, kid. They’re all my friends kid.” The kid still hadn’t picked up the habit of saying everything twice over the radio. They didn’t work too well near the Underground. “Friends in low places, you know. Friends in—“
There was a fwoosh noise and a sense of impact, then there was the kid, standing right next to me, making me nearly shit my pants from surprise. Musta rocketed straight down. Showoff. “Hey, knock that shit off unless we’re in a fight,” I groused.
He still had his force field on too. Sounded like a cross between a campfire and electric razor. “You mean, like if I tried to take your Jack Daniels away? That kind of fight?”
I glared at him and tucked the flask away in my jacket pocket. “How do you know its Jack, kid? You ain’t old enough to drink.”
He rolled his eyes. “Dude, whatever.” He pulled the secmap out of his pocket and unfolded it. “We’re about done for tonight.” He gave me the fish-eye over the edge of the map. “Or I am, anyway. Since I’m the one flying the patrol.”
I shrugged. “Not my fault they gave me a flyer to kick with. You can run the patrol in half the time. Saves us both the effort, lets us knock off early.”
“You have an urgent need to be somewhere? Do you have some mutant moonshine scrounging to do?”
His good attitude had lasted about half a day. We’d been at this for a week. I’m sure he was reporting my horrible behavior to the PA, but they already knew about it. Must be frustrating for him. Heh.
“Hey, don’t knock it ‘til you try it. Get some mutant moonshine in you, and you might lose that legendary virginity you got.”
He flushed red from his neckline up to his silly haircut. Score! I knew from experience he wouldn’t say anything for the next ten minutes, no matter where I went with the ribbing. Ah, blessed silence, broken only by occasional distant machine gun fire.
We leaned against the wall, the kid fuming, me as content as I was likely to get. My eye fell on one of the mutants moving toward us in a weird pattern; skitter-hop-skitter. I gave the kid a sideways glance. He had seen it too. It was odd, mutants coming to us, especially since the kid had fried a few before I could stop him.
I could hear the kid’s force field again. “Easy, killer,” I muttered.
“Don’t worry, I wont vaporize any more of your drinking buddies,” he snarked. Where could he have picked up that attitude?
The mutant scuttled between the searchlights and finally met my eyes. “Spotty?” I called. Spotty was an apelike guy with an extra right arm growing out of his armpit and a super-large left leg to balance him out. When he was in a hurry he would slouch his right side down and run with the help of his lower right arm, like a drunken gorilla. He had filthy shiny black hair on his head and a pelt that started at his belly button and ended at his ankles, concealing his privates (which I was pretty damn grateful for, lemme tell ya). His skin was yellow like a four day old bruise, covered with fist-sized black spots. When I first started the Underground, he would follow me around, sniffing with his big flat nose, looking for scraps. He scared the hell out of me until I found out he liked Ritz crackers. He’d let you pet him like a dog after you threw him a packet or two. Not that you’d wanna touch him with him smelling like shit and wet dog, but still.
He froze when I called out to him, then gave the kid the fisheye and sidled to his left until I was directly between them. Then he held out his upper right arm, palm up. There was something shiny in it.
“Whatcha got there boy?”
“Probably an engagement ring,” the kid muttered behind me. “You two: perfect for each other.”
“Shut up,” I whispered. “Sometimes they pick up things the PA is interested in. Back up some. He’s afraid of you, what with you slaughtering his helpless litter mates.”
He made a sound suspiciously close to a muffled “fuck off” but I heard him back away. I didn’t want to take my eyes off Spotty in case he decided to spook and run off. I pulled a packet of crackers out of my jacket pocket. “This is all I got,” I said, dangling the packet so that it made crinkly noises. “Only a couple left. Wanna trade?”
Spotty started to sway back and forth when he heard the packet rattling (his eyesight ain’t so good, but the noise got his attention) and then bobbed his head up and down in an exaggerated nod. He leapt the ten feet between us, catching the crackers on the way down with his left hand and landing on his big ass with a thud. I heard the kid’s force field jazz up again. Spotty sniffed the packet hard enough to inhale it, then held up his right hand and opened it while staring at me with them big moony eyes.
It was a ring in his hand. I picked it out of his palm and he used all three hands to press the crackers to his nose. Then he popped the whole thing in his mouth, wrapper and all. “Rrrzz,” he sighed.
“That’s right buddy. Ritz like you like em…” I muttered absently, turning the ring over and over.
“What is it?” the kid stage-whispered. Spotty froze in mid-chomp, then loped off.
“Security ring,” I breathed. This really was a find. The Tesla security rings were one of Doctor Neutron’s most fantastic inventions. They were made of single molecule chains that could be written to. I don’t know what the hell that means but the gist of it is; they hold tons of electronic information. This one was gold with a flat wide space on it as big as my thumbnail.
“Dude, no way.” Surprise had erased his attitude. He came close and peered at the ring. “I bet it’s filled with awesome.”
Filled with what? I scowled. “Filled with—“ I stopped. The earth had shuddered. I met the kid’s eyes. They were wide with thrill. “If there’s another—“
“It’s the real deal, dude!” he whispered.
I ignored that he had used the word “dude” again and waited, heart hammering in my chest.
I slipped the security ring on and we waited. And waited. The kid met my eyes again and I could see him getting disappointed. I shrugged. “Looks like—“
And the ground rolled like it was water, a big earthy wave of it that launched us into the air and collapsed the remaining wall of Lab 3 with a great crashing roar. I flailed through the air in a way that a comic artist could never draw and the back of my head met concrete rubble. I blacked out as my skull turned to steel.
I came to lying on my back a few seconds later, to see the damn kid hovering in the air. When the ground shook him off he had just stayed airborne. Little prick. The back of my head and neck were still stiff metal so all I could do was ask him; “Can you see it?”
“Dude are you OK?” he asked. He sounded nervous.
“For fuck’s sake rookie, give me a sitrep!” I shouted, feeling around for my headset.
“Oh! Yessir!” He rocketed another fifty feet in the air and came to a complete halt in less than a second. The kid would be good if I could break him of his gawking habit.
My neck loosened up just as I jammed my headset back over my ear. “…only at our location,” the kid was yammering. “Like maybe it was aimed at us.” Excitement and fear flittered through his voice. “All the other buildings are intact.” Static. “…any mutants in sight. There’s a—look out! It’s starting again!”
I was off my ass and sprinting away from the slag heap as well as I could. “Where’s it coming from? Where’s it coming from?”
I took a look behind to see the wave starting again fifty feet away. “Goddammit kid, say the shit twice!” The earth-wave was moving a lot faster than I was, but I was ready this time. I waited ‘til it was nearly at me and launched with it, somersaulting, controlling the momentum, landing with a roll that caused only a little of my arms and legs to steel up.
Static. “…coming at you—“ Static.
“To hell with this! Come get me! Come get me!”
“What? Say again?”
I spotted the next wave coming at me from the right, and started running again. I was huffing air hard after the first one and in no shape to keep this up all night. “Grab me by the armpits and fly me outta here! Grab me by the armpits and—flouph!”
Fuckdamn the kid was fast. We were two hundred feet in the air before I had a chance to bitch about steel armpits. I could see the whole compound below us. The earth-wave was questing about like a giant sightless snake, shaking off tons of concrete from the remains of Lab 3 like so much cereal dust.
“What is it?” the kid asked.
“The fuck should I know?!”
“Because you know everything, like you keep telling me!” Bitching; good sign. Means he was keeping it together when the shit caught fire.
“If I knew everything I’d be running the goddamn PA and your pretty-boy ass would be fighting goddamn Russians! Keep your eyes open! Set us down on—“ I craned my neck to look around—“Tower Five.”
We glided towards the tower, but not as fast as the kid could go. “We’re running?”
“Kid if you can figure out how to fight a multi-ton sentient wave of dirt, lemme know. Otherwise set us down on the tower and let’s get a different perspective.”
He landed us on the tower and we watched the earth move around the remains of Lab 3. It looked like a giant version of someone with their hand under a blanket, like you would do to play with a toddler or a cat. It seemed to get frustrated after a minute, then it erupted in a great tower of angry earth and stone and grass, jackknifed, and dove back into the ground with an impact that shook all the buildings in the compound.
“Christ,” I whispered.
“What was it?” the kid asked.
I rolled my eyes but didn’t look at him. “The fuck should I know?”
He sighed sharply, the way that teenagers do when adults are being stupid. “Well like, what do you think it was?”
“Mutant with telekinesis.”
“The brief said mutants don’t have—“
The earth had gone still under Lab 3. “Kid if the shit-ridden monkey-fucking brief told you everything you needed to know they wouldn’t have saddled your newbie ass with me.”
“Dude you don’t have to call me ‘kid’ all the time.”
“Sure thing, boy.”
His force field got loud and I wondered if I had finally pushed him far enough to take a swing at me. It was kind of a goal of mine, I had to admit. If the punk attacked me with powers they would have to break up our little duo, right?
His self-control won the debate. If there was a debate. I hadn’t looked at him the whole time. I watched Lab 3 a minute more and listened to the kid’s force field power down.
“OK kid, listen close,” I said, eyes on the compound. “Zip over to the comm relay and give em a brief on what just happened, then get your ass back here lickity-split. And remember to goddamn say it twice over the radio when you talk to me.”
I turned to look him in the face. He looked pale in the searchlight glow. Pale and pissed, but he was keeping it together. Maybe I was losing my touch. “Got it?”
His expression didn’t change. “Yeah. What are you going to do?”
“Keep watch and hope it hasn’t grown eyes before you come back.”
“And then what?”
I looked back out at the ruins of Lab 3. “Then, if we’re lucky, we pull a long, tense, boring all-nighter where I make nasty cracks about virginity and you try not to melt my face with a plasma bolt.” I looked back at him. “If we’re not lucky, we get to figure out how to stop a pissed mutant from smashing
He glanced at the ruins and back. “How—“
He looked at me for a split second more, then the tower shook as he sprung off it with meteor speed.
He had just disappeared from sight when the first searchlight tower toppled over and crashed into the ground like a giant oak tree with a Japanese lantern on top. One by one they fell. One looked like a giant hand grabbed it from underneath—it gave one jerk down, its bottom half disappeared into the earth, and its light winked out. One tilted at a crazy angle and got spat out of its foundation like a spear, impaling itself in the north wall of Lab 6. On it went, until the compound was light by stars and moonlight.
I couldn’t do much but fish my goggles out of my pocket and hope he didn’t start on towers next. Oh, and tell Jason; “Bring a flashlight kid. Copy? Bring a flashlight.” There was no reply. I didn’t expect one until he was passed the gun emplacements.
I noticed it was a cold October night. I don’t much feel the cold, but I know when it scratches my ass. Like now, when I was trying to be quiet and still like a bunny. All the searchlights were gone and the ground was still. I could see the kid’s force field rising above the line of gun emplacements to the south.
“He took out all the lights,” I whispered into the headset. “Copy? He took out all the lights, kid.”
“I see—“ Static. “…ground shaking? Is the ground shaking?”
“Quiet so far. Quiet so… oh. Shit.”
The line of plasma-steel and concrete mounted gun emplacements shook like so many kid’s toys. Some went off as their sensors picked up movements in the ground, but gunfire didn’t stop it from yanking them into the ground in a line of ruptured earth a half a mile long.
“Get me to my bike, get me to my bike, get me to my bike.”
Static. “…headed south…”
And then we were in the air and the kid had hit me so hard my upper arms turned metal. “It’s headed south,” he repeated.
“Yeah.” He dropped me at my hoverbike—I just called it a Harley and the kid could fly circles around it—from ten feet up and I didn’t bitch about my ass turning to steel as it hit the seat.
“Plan?” he asked.
“Piss him off and make him come out of the earth.”
I pressed my thumb to the ignition pad and the bike whirred to life. “I’m working on the theory that he’s in the middle of the mound or wave or whatever. Keep shooting it in the middle and I’ll let him know I’m following too.”
He shot into the night sky. “Like, that’s your plan? Ehh.”
I gunned the bike and shot off after the mutant. “Lemme know if you got a better one, Academy boy.”
He made a sound that was part growl and part grunt. Then he shot past me—little prick made my bike wobble with how close it was—towards the rippling terrain and shot it with a brilliant blue-white bolt of energy. He hit it a couple more times before I caught up.
“I don’t think he knows I’m here,” he said over the headset.
“I should be so lucky,” I said. “See if you can see a pattern to the earth moving. Maybe he’s at the head or tail of it.”
“Maybe your plan is lame,” he shot back. I heard his plasma bolt go zark over the headset as he shot the front end of the earth-wave.
“Come up with a better fucking plan goddammit!” I was letting the kid get to me. I was worried. What if we couldn’t stop this? It would be hours before backup got here from the PA. Half of
I ran the bike on top of the moving earth wave and stopped, planting my feet on the rippling ground.
The moving earth stopped.
I gunned the bike so hard I almost lost my seat and jarred my crotch. I heard the kid go “ooh” in the way all men do when they see another guy take a hit in the joy-sack. Let me tell you—it wasn’t the first time I literally had balls of steel and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
The ground erupted where I had stopped a moment before in the same tower of stone and dirt we saw back at Underground.
“I see him!” the kid shouted. There was a zark from my headset. A line of blue-white fire lanced out from the kid to the top of the earth tower and seared clean through it. The tower bent in half and the front of it dove into the earth.
“Dammit,” he said. “Missed him.”
I whirled the bike around and studied the spot where the mutant went under. There was a rumbling all around—I mean all around, maybe for a half mile—and then every piece of stone bigger than a golf ball shot out of the ground and filled the sky around the kid. He caught one the size of a basketball right in the chest and his force field flared like a nova in my goggle vision.
“Christ,” I swore. “You still with me kid?”
“Superflux. You still with me?”
“Shit.” I gunned the bike to the spot the mutant dove into the ground and stomped both feet on the earth. “Hey, shitbag!” I shouted into the torn landscape. “Come outta there!”
I took my feet off the ground and zipped a hundred feet away, but the giant tower of earth fell short by fifty feet—and there was our guy.
He couldn’t have been more than four feet high—it was hard to tell since he was covered in dirt to the waist—but he was just as wide. He was hairless, with gray-blue skin and tiny, piggy eyes. His mouth was a diagonal slash across his face filled with squarish yellow-brown teeth. He didn’t have a nose, just a great slobbery slit that ran from the middle of his eyes to the top of his upper lip.
“Missed me, bitch!” I called, gunning the Harley.
“Mmmmmuuuhhhhhnnnn,” was his comeback. He raised his right arm, waved it in my general direction and a line of earth a hundred feet long shot into the air.
Hm. Missed me by about twenty feet, and no giant boulders flung a mile into the air. Maybe our boy was running out of juice? I gunned the Harley and shot dead at him.
I learned how to use this hoverbike the hard way back when I was wet behind the ears. It hovers about a foot off the ground and has a sensor in front to detect slopes and inclines, so it keeps its one-foot height pretty much all the time. It has a top speed of about three hundred and fifty miles an hour, it makes as much noise as a desk fan, and oh yeah, it’s damn near indestructible.
Sometimes I really miss Doctor Neutron.
My plan was to hit the Dirt Mutant with an indestructible hoverbike at three hundred miles an hour. Sure the sudden impact would fling me for a half mile—no seat belts, you know—but this ugly motherfucker should be dead.
I was up to two hundred miles an hour when we both heard the chopper blades. We both looked up. He shot into the air on top of his column of dirt. The spot where his soft slobbery face was became a spot where there was a wall of earth and stone that I hit at two hundred miles an hour.
I must have been steel a long time, because when I came to, the Channel 8 news guy was doing a piece with me as his backdrop. He had cameras and lights set up that turned to pinpricks in my goggle vision.
“…have identified him as Sam Hannon, aka Steelhand, a Class 5 sanctioned government hero. The other man is a new Class 1 named Superflux—“
The camera guy noticed me moving and pointed at me with his chin. The talking head turned to look at me, then shot over the uneven ground like a cannonball, all the while talking backwards into the camera. “Thank goodness he’s awake!” he gushed.
I made sure to collect the Harley quick to give the camera a good shot. He got himself and his mic to me just as I plunked my ass onto the bike.
“Sam! Hank Mitchell here from Channel 8 News. What can you tell us about this new threat?”
I shook the dirt off my jacket by jerking the lapels. “Ugly as hell for one thing. Did ya see where he went with my new partner, Hank?”
He struck a pose that would look good on TV, pointing dramatically past his Channel 8 van. “Over that tree line. We think Superflux is pulling him away from
I did my Battered Warrior face. “It sure is Hank. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a dirt monster to bring in. Stay safe.”
He gave me a knowing look that wouldn’t show for the folks at home. I nodded. Looked like Hank was a pro at the supers biz. He was asking for an exclusive on the dirt monster with that look. If I was somebody famous, I might have told him to piss off, but I was Steelhand. I never had a comic book, my last sponsor skipped out on me in ’81, and I was tired as hell of living in a PA dorm house. I’d be his dancing monkey if it meant a shot at a new sponsor.
If I didn’t get crushed by a dirt monster. I gunned the bike and shot off to help my partner. Even though the little shit is bound to get more airtime than me when this is all over.
Live feed is Camera 3. Wide angle safe shot. Superflux and tower of earth prominent, Steelhand visible but not prominent on hoverbike.
Voice Over by Hank Mitchell: The red bolts you can see here are shot from Superflux. It looks as if the heroes are fighting a holding action to keep the monster away from populated areas.
Live feed: Screen split; half of Camera 3 shot on the left. Right side is split top and bottom with zoom-in shots of Steelhand and Superflux. Both are shouting into their headset microphones and dodging man-sized boulders flung by the monster.
Voice Over by in-studio talent Debra Shustrom: Hank, there’s nothing about this earth-monster in the Paranormal Authority database. What can you tell us about this new threat?
Live feed: Camera 3 wide angle shot with Hank Mitchell inset. VO: Debra, the Paranormal Authority is recording information from the equipment that both heroes are wearing as we speak.
All government sanctioned heroes carry recording equipment in the event that tragedy strikes, so if the worst happens, their sacrifice will not be in vain.
Live feed: Hank Mitchell can be seen in the inset turning sharply to something off camera.
Live feed: Camera 3. The giant tower of earth is toppling. It’s nearly a hundred feet high, so it takes some screen time. Superflux can be seen landing out of view.
VO by Hank Mitchell: They’ve done it! It looks like Steelhand has run his fantastic hoverbike into the heart of the earth monster!
Live feed: Camera 2. Zoom shot of Steelhand and Superflux doing a high five. Shot of Steelhand conspicuously without hoverbike.
I knew once the adrenaline wore off I’d fall over in an alcoholic’s gasping heap, but it felt good to be back in action taking out the Bad Guy. Me and the kid gripped hands and slapped each other’s backs like brothers.
“I knew you had a plan!” the kid piped.
“All you man! All you!” was my afterglow-after-the-fight reply. “Come on, lets make sure he’s really out. It would suck to have our Hallmark moment ruined by some stinky not-dead mutant fucker.”
We walked a bit drunkenly to where my hoverbike was contentedly purring to itself, and spotted the mutant nearby. He was half-buried in dirt and his head was lying flush to his back. It was a pretty gruesome sight really. The hoverbike had caught him right in the jaw and damn near knocked his stinky head off. Mutants in general were tougher than they looked. A regular person would have had his head torn off by that kind of impact.
We looked down at the dead mutant for a moment, moods dampened by his now-pathetic state.
“Is it always like this?” the kid asked. “Super high one minute and sucked down the next?”
I pressed my lips together in a grim smile. “Yeah. Most of the time.”
We turned and caught each other in the same sideways look. “And if it doesn’t feel like that, get out of the business kid. Because if it doesn’t feel like it does right now, you’ve lost it and you don’t care enough.”
He watched me for a minute to make sure I wasn’t pulling his leg, and then looked back at the dead mutant. “You’re all right for a burnout,” he grunted.
“You don’t know the half—whoops.” Hank was bearing down on us over the torn ground at warp speed with his camera guy struggling to keep up. “Kid, they teach you how to handle the press in the Academy?”
His head swung around in surprise. “Huh? Press? No…”
“OK, your part’s easy. I’ll jump in first, and when he points the camera at you, just drop a bunch of ‘dudes’ and ‘gnarlys’ and a ‘totally awesome.’ They’ll eat that shit up. Just remember to talk to me before you pick a sponsor.”
His brow furrowed. “Sponsor?”
“Later. Get your public face on, here he comes.”
He stood up straight and stuck his chin out. Hank got to us a few steps before his camera guy did. He straightened up his jacket, then looked up at me and then the kid with a question on his face. I pointed my thumb at my chest and he nodded. I saw the kid looking at me sideways for a second then swing around to the camera.
Camera Guy was a pro. He had the light and camera rolling before he caught his breath. He held his fingers up; three, two, pointing at Hank—
“Ladies and gentlemen if you’re just joining us, I’m Hank Mitchell for Channel 8 News and I’m here with Steelhand and his new partner, Superflux. They’ve just defeated some sort of earth monster that came dangerously close to rampaging through the city of
“Hank, this is why the Tesla Project ruins are off-limits to civilians. All of this destruction—“ I waved a hand at the torn landscape—“is the work of one unlicensed and out of control mutant that worked up from the depths of the earth.” They’d love that back at PAHQ. A lot of Democrats have been making noise about opening up the Underground to public agencies and the PA has been scrabbling hard to squash that idea. This is one of the rare times I agreed with the PA one hundred percent. Sometimes you just gotta let the pros handle things, you know?
Hank looked past me to the corpse of the mutant and made a face that the camera wouldn’t see since he had his back to it. “Is that him there?”
“Yes—careful!” I held up a hand to Camera Guy, who had begun to point his camera at the mutant. “He’s… not something you want the kids at home to see.” Which guaranteed a line of Mutant Dirt Monster action figures coming out next month. Marketing: best left to the imagination!
“Hank, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce my new partner, Superflux,” I said, dropping a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “If it wasn’t for him I’d probably still be fighting that mutant.” I put on the Serious Eyebrows. “Or worse.”
Hank gave me a tiny nod before turning on the kid. I struggled to maintain my Hero face. He would remember the exclusive and return the favor.
“Superflux,” he launched. “Or should I call you Jason?”
The kid gave a dopey grin and looked at me sideways. I winked with the off-camera eye and nodded. “Ah, Jason is fine Hank.”
“How long have you been working with Steelhand, Jason?”
“Not much more than a week. We’ve been on patrol in the Tesla ruins.”
“Did you expect anything like this to happen?”
His eyes got wide and he did a half smile that would melt the panties of the prom queen. “Dude, no way!”
The kid launched into a Jimmy Olsen narrative that praised me, the PA,
I knew the little shit would get more airtime.