William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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Chapter One: Who KNows What Evil Kurks In The Hearts OF Men?

 

Author's Note: The following text is as it appears in the manuscript; it has not been professionally edited.

 

Thunder rolled in the clouds above the alleyway and lighting flashed, distracting Desirée “Dizzy” Weatherspark for only a second or two . . . but that was all the time Ravenkroft Evolutior needed in order to strike and strike hard. His fist hit her Exosuit’s headgear—a repurposed motorcycle helmet that now served as the suit’s metasynaptic interface—like a train hitting a car parked on the tracks. Her teeth rattled and she stumbled backward on the boots of her Cybertronian Exosuit—so named for the home-planet of her favorite cartoon heroes, the Transformers—and she almost lost her balance. Contrary to popular belief and comic book movies, an external metal contraption of clockwork and metal did not cushion one from the impact of blows sustained thereto;  in fact, it made them worse. She managed to fire her suit’s Tony Stark-inspired Repulsivators, just hard enough to right herself. She shook off the blow and got back to the fight within seconds. The Exosuits she and Ravenkroft battled in were both made of alluzinium, an alloy of Dizzy’s own creation, based on the metallurgy of the alien saucer she had safely stored away at the Mjölnir Dynamics research facility up in Boston. Alluzinium had ten times the strength and toughness of steel, but only a third the weight of aluminum. So the suits could take the punishment. The question was, could she?

 “And now, Weatherspark,” said Ravenkroft, with a sneer, “You will meet your doom.”

“Y’know, funny, I’ve always wanted to meet my Doom,” she retorted, as she up her metal-gauntleted fists one more time and they circled one another. “I wonder if he likes cheese. Buffy liked cheese. She’s my idol. Her and Iron Man. But of course you knew that already. Viktor.”

“Your dated pop culture references won’t save you from what I have in store for you, Weatherspark. Nothing can save you now.”

“Yeah, about that. You’re right. Nothing can save me now. Except—wait, I know—killing you.”

“Ha!” he said. “You can no more kill me than you can walk without that suit, little Dizzy. Remember . . . you kill me, you kill your ‘Unca Victor,’ as you used to call him. We are one and the same.”

“You’re about as much the same as Viktor as my cat is a honey badger on meth,” she said. “Now are we going to fight, or are we going to just orbit one another until my state of being reflects my oh-so-quirkily-chosen gamertag?”

“Gah! Enough with your attempts at being hip! Have at thee!” He came at her in a flash, but she brought her leg up into a snap-kick—her purple bob-cut hair whirled around her round, emerald-green eyes at the edges of her helmet—and the actuators in the Exosuit’s leg let loose with a springing sound as her foot connected with the chest-piece of his Exosuit, knocking him back. She had barely missed hitting his Zero-Point Energy Reactor, and it was a damn good thing she had; just as with her suit, the reactor was the power source, and had she hit it, the resulting explosion would have blown half of Cambridge to smithereens with an Earth-shattering kaboom. The Reactor was a bulbous globe that glowed with ethereal, blue-and-purple arcs of plasma that curled and writhed from an electrode in the center. A large ring of metal wrapped in a tight coil of wire ran around the edges. It measured just eight inches in diameter . . . such a small thing to be a potential solution to the entire world’s energy problems. Yet another miracle mined from the alien saucer. Dizzy planned on gifting it to the world someday . . . maybe when it didn’t possess the power to blow an entire city to Fantasia and back if somebody sneezed the wrong way.

“Oh-ho,” he said, snickering, backing away from her as she advanced on him. “I see we’ve been practicing our martial arts. Very good, young Desirée. But ah, what a poor substitute for the art of dance, eh? I remember, seeing you in your ballet shoes, when you were but yea-high to a grasshopper. You were quite talented, once upon a time. It is a pity your once-lofty ambitions were tragically laid low by fate, by chance, by chaos unbound . . . Tsk, tsk.” 

The heat of anger flared in her chest. The frakker had struck a raw nerve with that one. She simply stood there for a moment, fuming, staring at him as he smirked at her. Gods-damn this metal suit. It was great for kicking bad guys in the snout, but it could never, ever help her rock an under-twenty-one dance-club floor to a phat new-wave techno beat, the way she could’ve before that accident when she had been sixteen, the accident that had killed her mother Amelia, and that had taken away her dance scholarship to Miskatromyk U. No, the suit could never serve up any hot, fresh, funky, in-your-face-and-you-got-served moves. And the agony that caused her seeped into every move she did make with it, even now. Ungainly, clunky, too slow. No matter what improvements she made. Always would be. But rather than stand there and cry about it, she momentarily channeled her rage into a sudden surprise lunge, a roundhouse kick, and a yell of fury, the hydraulics in her suit expanding and contracting with a loud whacking sound. Ravenkroft cried out as her Repulsivator boot crashed into his helmet, and he stumbled into the wall of the alleyway. The three-meter mechanical tentacles built onto the spine of his Exosuit grabbed at the wall with their claw-like pincers, dug into the brickwork, and thrust him back away from it, helping him recover.

“Sit on that, buttplug,” she said with a decisive nod. “You deserved that. You’ve crossed a line this time. You so do not frak with the people I love. You especially do not kidnap them.”

She silently prayed to a god she didn’t believe in that Misto was still alive—wherever this evil nutball had stashed him.

“Is it really kidnapping when your prey leaves their doors unlocked?” he said. “More like securing an insurance policy with an unwitting volunteer.”

He raised his right gauntlet. Luckily, he had telegraphed the move just before firing his wrist-mounted Disruptophazer and she dodged out of the way just in time. The purple-glowing pulse-blast hit the wall behind her, destabilizing the molecular structure of the brickwork; a blackened, burnt-out hole appeared there. He fired again. Lucky for her—damn, apparently this was her night; well, knock on wood—the force-field surrounding her Exosuit kicked in and deflected the blast; a soap-bubble-like glimmer flashed around her as it hit. The wise words of Han Solo echoed in her head: Don’t get cocky, kid. Right. Because the force-field only worked for electromagnetic and nuclear forces—and it was horribly unstable, and only worked half the frakking time—so it worked peachy-keen for pulse-blasts—well, sometimes—but it did frak-all for punches, kicks, bullets, or falling pianos. He made to fire a third time. Would her luck hold out?

Best not to find out. She ran at him—and hallelujah, the force-field held up against that shot!—and tackled him. They collided and hit the pavement; Dizzy felt the armor, gears, pistons, and wheels of her Exosuit bang and clatter against it, the motors and armatures whirring. His tentacles dug into the pavement—gods-damned things—with their pincers and bouyed them up, holding them both aloft. Desperate to maintain control of the fight, she grappled with him, and yanked back a mechanized fist and then drove it into his faceplate. His head jerked to one side. He managed to heave over, his tentacles holding him up like spiders’ legs, and—whoa shit, woman overboard!—she toppled off of him and went rolling over, onto the pavement, and landed on her back, hitting hard. The force translated up through the metal of the Exosuit and straight into her actual back, the shock of the pain making her wince.

“Okay, ow,” she said. “That’s gonna leave a mark.”

“Pity you and I aren’t allies, Weatherspark,” he said, as he sprang to his feet with the aid of his tentacles. “I could help you with that old spinal cord inury. Why, with just a dose of my serum—”

“Ha!” she said, as she scrambled back to her feet, and put up her fists once more—they circled one another like pro wrestlers about to start a match—“‘Your’ serum! Yeah right! You know as well as I do that Mutagenesis X-119 was dad’s worst. Idea. Ever. Not yours. Pure research scientists never see the light at the end of the tunnel as the oncoming headlamp of a locomotive made of pure frakkin’ evil.”

“Indeed. It was,” he said, practically hissing the words, a grimace of malice on his face. “And it was that which took Anastasia from Viktor. From us. And so now I carry on her work. Driving humanity toward its evolutionary apotheosis!”

“Driving me up a wall frakkin’ sideways, is more like it,” muttered Dizzy.

In a flash, Ravenkroft activated the Repulsivators in his suit; the pavement beneath him shattered, and—too late to react; frak!—he leaped through the air, and tackled her.

She hit the brick wall behind her. Her back screamed in pain again as he pinned her there by the arms with two of his tentacles, their pincer-claws grappling her forearms. A sharp twinge in her abdomen as he shoved a motorized knee into the ridged, flexible metal segments that protected it. He brought his faceplate close to hers, and aimed his left-wrist’s Disruptophazer right at her head. The coils inside in the barrel glowed with purple-white light. Gulp. Well frak. This didn’t look good at all, ladies and gentlemen.

“Allow me . . . to be clear,” he said, his voice like brittle ice. “I want the Tesseract Reactor, Weatherspark. And I want it now. Give me its location, and all will be well. I might even tell you where I’m holding your precious ‘adopted uncle,’ Michaelson, or ‘Misto’ as your so affectionately call him, in return. Tell me now, or you die. And of course, he dies, too. Pity. I rather liked him. Or rather, Viktor did, once . . . Yes, once upon a time . . . long ago . . .”

Jeebus Creepers . . . she had seen him up close before, but the sight never failed to unnerve her. Through the twin translucent, safety-glass face-plates of their Exosuits, Dizzy looked across at him and into his eyes. Twelve years. That’s how long he had been juicing with the serum. Or so she hypothesized. And ye gods, what it had done to him! His eyes had grown larger, and his irises cat-like . . . His nose had almost all but disappeared, becoming little more than two reptilian slits . . . His cranium had become slightly enlarged, to contain his enlarged brain . . . His skin had changed, too; it was now a pale, almost alabaster color, and slightly greenish. His hair had become white as snow, and he had lost too much of it for a man not even fifty-five. Ugh. Is this what the serum had done to Anastasia before that fateful night those thirteen years ago? No wonder he hated her father . . .

“You do realize just how butt-ugly you’ve gotten, right?” she said. “I mean, sure, with the right Mary Kay, and a little elbow grease, I’m sure I could pull a Montgomery Scott or a Geordi La Forge and work a minor miracle here. But even my considerable talents have their limits. Sorry. They just do. And besides. You kill me and you kill the secret to where the Reactor is. So, there you are. As my good and dear friend Captain Sheridan might say—stick it.” She winked at him and grinned.

  “AHH-AAAGGGHHH!” he roared. “Tell me where it’s hidden!” He grabbed her by the segmented, flexible metal throat of her Exosuit with one of his tentacles, and used it to throw her to one side. She stumbled off to the right, her Exosuit’s Repulsivator boots clanking on the concrete as she caught her balance and steadied herself, then whirled around and fired her left-wrist Disruptophazer on the “stun” setting. His force-field deflected the blast. Crap. She’d forgotten his Exosuit had those too. How the hell could she forget a thing like that? Heat of battle, maybe. Whatever. Had it really been six years since he’d hacked her private servers and stolen the design for the suit from her? Six years since she’d hacked his servers and stolen the design back, and incorporated the force-fields into her design? (The tentacles were just too frakkin’ hentai for her taste, if ya smelled what the Diz was cookin’.) And that wasn’t all . . . he’d also incorporated cell-repairing nanotech into his suit, which was the reason he couldn’t live outside of it for more than six hours at a time. Poor bastard. She’d thought several times about locating his hideout, breaking in, and simply stealing or destroying his suit, and letting nature take its course. But, no. Viktor was part of her extended family, even though they hadn’t spoken in years. And ya didn’t hurt—let alone kill—your extended family. Well, not much. At least no more than was good for them. Right?

“Y’know,” she said as she fired at him—his force-field deflected the shot—“what’s the point of shooting at each other if only one out of every ten shots gets through the force-fields?” They exchanged fire again. “You’d think that knowing only one out of every ten shots gets through, we’d each build ray guns that fire hundreds of shots a second”—and again—“like machine guns do, instead of slow, single shots that we have to fire-off individually.” Once more,  they fired on one another. “It makes no sense!”

He fired at her twice; her force-field absorbed both bolts. “Perhaps you should have thought of that when you designed them! Once again, your incompetence shows itself!”

She fired back at him and he fired at her; her force-field blocked the blast and so, frustrated, he came at her, blasting at her again and again and yelling with fury. The blasts ricochetted off the force-field one by one—or at least most of them did. Dizzy tried to leap out of the way as her force-field flickered and one of the blasts got through; the shot tagged her in the left shoulder-piece of her Exosuit. She cried out as sparks flew from the mechanism and sent an electrical jolt into the synaptic interface inside her helmet. She stumbled to the side and clutched at the broken shoulder-piece with her right gauntlet. Ravenkroft laughed, and punched her in the head as he closed the distance. Dizzy staggered back and saw bright splotches of color as her Exosuit tried to absorb the shock of the blow, her head reeling back and then forward again, her back arching. The Exosuit’s spinal column was a large, alluzinium centipede of metal discs interspersed with electro-active polymers—artificial muscles—that reached up her back and connected the various pieces of the Exosuit; it moved sinuously to absorb the blow and distribute the force to the rest of the suit and refocus the tension so she could spring back faster.

“I’m hit!” she cried out. “Medic! Medic! Oh wait. Just me here. Frak.”

Her left arm sputtered, moving jerkily, the motors making noises. It worked—but just barely. Her gauntlet ticked and jerked into a fist; she pulled it back and then socked him in the back of the head. Her fist made contact and he went stumbling forward and into the wall of the alleyway.

“Tag, you’re It!” she said. “Don’t know why you’d be a gigantic, interdimensional spider monster living under the sewers in a small town in Maine, but you’re It anyway.”

He spun around to face her, and Dizzy pressed the advantage. She activated her suit’s Repulsivators; the pavement below her cracked from the antigravity force slamming into it, and she soared at him in a flying leap. She grabbed him by his Exosuit’s metal collar with her right hand, and then rocketed straight upward as his tentacles grabbed for her. They snaked around her as she dragged him up the brick wall of the alleyway wall—bright yellow sparks flew between the metal of his suit and the brickwork—and then up, up, into the night air above the buildings below. Rain drizzled down over the metal of their Exosuits as Dizzy let Ravenkroft dangle from her gauntleted fist in the air, the Repulsivators in her boots, her free hand, and the micro-Repulsivators elsewhere in her suit all holding her steady. His tentacles slithered around her body, grasping her like pythons. She looked down into his eyes with grim determination.

“Put me down, Weatherspark!” screamed Ravenkroft. “Let me go at once! Or be crushed to death in my embrace!” The tentacles wrapped around her grew tighter, grasping the metal and clockwork of her Exosuit tighter, denting and damaging some of the exterior mechanisms. Sparks flew from some of the servo motors in her spinal assembly; she couldn’t do this forever. She aimed her left-wrist’s Disruptophazer at the left mechanical boot of his Exosuit, and fired. He was so busy concentrating on crushing her with his tentacles that he didn’t mentally activate the force-field, and the shot hit its target. Sparks flew from the electromechanics mounted to the boot, and Ravenkroft cried out. Dizzy quickly fired at the other boot, but the force-field kicked in this time. She fired again and again, rapidly; on the fifth shot, his force-field flickered and the boot exploded in a shower of sparks. Good. He couldn’t fly worth a crap, now. And without flight capabilities . . .

Now then,” she said, in a loud voice, so she could be heard over the rain, the thunder, and the general noise of the city below, as she held him by the collar. “Hows about we have ourselves a little chat, here, Rave? About life, the universe, and everything. See, I have this little problem. See, somebody went and kidnapped my dear adopted uncle, Misto. And y’know, call me crazy, but that sits about as well with me as knitting needles up my anus in a rocking chair. Now, if, perchance, someone were to know something about this kidnapping—say, where Misto was being held?—and they wanted to, say, come forward with that information? Like, right now? Mmm, yeah, that’d be great. So start singin’, Satine. ‘Cause I’m all ears.”

“You cannot win against a will as iron as my own,” he replied. “You won’t get Michaelson back. At least, not all in one piece. Rather, in several billion pieces, I should think.

Uh oh. That didn’t sound good. “Okay, fine. I’ll bite. What do you mean, ‘in several billion pieces?’”

“Because,” said Ravenkroft, grinning at her, “in thirty minutes, the timer in my waistcoat pocket will extinguish its remaining time, and send a radio signal which will be intercepted by the receiver I’ve set up in the High-Energy Laser Lab at Miskatromyk U, connected to the firing mechanism of the Laser Accelerator Chamber. And then we get to see if your precious ‘Misto’ can withstand the force of ten quadrillion electron volts!” He broke into peels of laughter, throwing back his head and cackling, letting the rain fall onto his face. “Now, be a good girl and tell me—where is the Tesseract Reactor?”

“You do realize that you’re not exactly in a position to be demanding answers, here, right?”

He snickered at her. “You kill me, you kill Michaelson. The trigger is connected to my heartbeat . . . a simple sensor on my chest . . . as well as to the countdown timer.” He laughed again.

Damn. Could he be telling the truth? That laugh—just a little too sincerely mean and yet just a little too carefree. As though he certainly had nothing to lose . . . and as though she did not. A vision of Misto tied up in the Laser Accelerator Chamber at Miskatromyk U appeared in her head. Fresh, hot anger pulsing through her veins. Misto was the fun-loving, free-wheeling, cool-beans adopted uncle that everybody else always wished they had; he had the whimsical heart of a ten-year-old boy beating in the body of a fifty-four-year-old African-American physics professor originally from Harlem . . . a rockin’, partyin’ physics professor who had grown up in the eighties, and who loved comic books, superheroes, practical jokes, and weird shit just as much as she did. He was a big, dorky sci-fi and fantasy geek by hook or by crook who fancied himself a pirate sailing the high-seas of fandom. A misfit, like her who adored fantastical fiction from every era, so long as it promised a cracking good story and daring feats of imagineering and invention. And when it came to the sciences, he was a true genius, a visionary; there was no scientific mystery that Misto could not apply his brilliant mind to unlocking. They had enjoyed endless debates upon topics ranging from the role of the mass media in society, to whether or not a Jedi could beat Superman in a fight, to whether or not the universe was indeed made up of nothing but mathematics and was a giant Platonic construct. They were peas in a body-snatcher pod, and Misto had promised her that they would one day clink glasses of grape soda whilst watching the robot apocalypse together from atop a Bond villain’s hideaway in the Alps. And goddammit, she was not going to let this asshole kill him. She tightened her grip. The tentacles around her tightened theirs.

“Then give it to me,” she said. “Give me the countdown timer, right now. Now, compadre.”

“Tell me where the Reactor is, and I’ll consider it!” he said. He paused and cast his eyes downward, as though calculating his odds of survival if she were to let him go. “I will find it anyway, you know. And by the way, I know a secret or two.” He leaned his head closer, and said in a low, conspiratorial voice, “Want to know what they are?”

Dizzy hesitated. She knew better than to take his bait. Yet something in the way that he said it unnerved her.

“Oh,” she said, “like the secret that you like to dress up in a frilly French Maid costume and roll around in a kiddy pool full of pancake syrup?”

“No,” he said.

“Funny,” she said, “that you didn’t exactly deny having that secret; you just said that wasn’t the one. But go on.”

“No the secret is . . .” he said, leaning closer, “that I know you won’t kill me.” He smiled wickedly. “I’ve known it for years. And also—this suit can still fly!

Before she could react, he engaged what had to be hidden, backup Repulsivators. He flipped sideways and tumbled through the air, taking her with him. She let go, and righted herself using her own flight controls. He crashed into her mid-air in a tackle, causing both of them to tumble toward the Earth. Dizzy refocused the intensity of her Repulsivators, attempting to propel them away from the ground, and instead made them fly in a great, swooping arc just above the tops of the buildings below. Their two sets of Repulsivators acted against one another, and together they spun like a crazed top through the air, whizzing around like figurines mounted on a music box or a cuckoo clock. Jeez. This was making her . . . well, dizzy. Scrambling, before they spun out of all control and crashed into the building beneath, Dizzy concentrated, and mentally activated the magnetism sensors in her chest-piece. They determined the magnetic polarization of the large electromagnet surroundingthe Zero-Point Energy Reactor in Ravenkroft’s suit’s chest-piece. Once that was done, she activated the neodymium electromagnet in her suit’s chest-piece—a large metal ring with wire coiled around it, surrounding her own Zero-Point Reactor—and sent a massive amount of current flooding into the multiplier circuits. The electromagnet lit up with blue-white fire; lightning bolts arced between their suits, and—

The resulting pulse of oppositely-polarized magnetism sent Ravenkroft hurtling away from her, catapulting him off of her and shunting him through the air like an invisible hand whisking him away. He managed to right himself and come flying back after her—though at a reduced speed, due to his lacking the boot Repulsivators—as Dizzy headed back toward the ground and landed, the electrogravitic pulse from the Repulsivators cracking the pavement as she landed on it. A moment later, Ravenkroft crashed to the ground in front of her. Sparks flew from the pincers on his tentacles and as they caught the force of his impact with the pavement.

“And zing!” Dizzy cried out, laughing. “Napoleon goes sliding down the bowling lane yelling merde! Merde! Merde! Merde!”

Dizzy ran up to where he lay, before he could right himself, and quickly gave him a mighty kick to the flexible abdominal section of his Exosuit. He cried out and the tentacles pushed him upright and dropped him onto his feet. He whirled around and threw a robotically-enhanced punch at Dizzy’s chest, and his gauntleted fist smashed through the protective glass casing of the Zero-Point Reactor there. Blue-white and yellow sparks flew from the coils surrounding it as Dizzy stumbled backward and hit the wall of the alleyway back-first.

“Gods-dammit man!” she cried, looking down at her chest, her eyes agog. “Are you out of your frakking mind? You’ll blow both of us up and half the city with us if you crack that thing!”

“I should think,” he said as he approached her, “that the answer to your first query should be rather obvious!”

“Well, yeah, kinda,” she admitted with a shrug.

He hauled back a fist and rammed it straight at her head; she dodged the blow and his gauntleted fist pile-drove into the bricks of the wall instead; rubble and debris scattered everywhere. His tentacles rushed at her and pinned her in place, latching onto her arms and her legs and forcing her back against the wall.

“You see, you are your own undoing,” he said, and snickered. “You just can’t do it. Kill me, that is. You haven’t got it in you. It’s the sentimentalist in you, the moralist. The would-be superhero. I win because I live. Always.”

He yanked back his arm and made ready to punch her again. She hit him with the electromagnetic pulse again, and blew him off his feet; he went flying backward through the air a good fifty feet, and went skidding on his metal hindquarters across the pavement another ten, yellow sparks bursting between his Exosuit, its segmented metal tentacles, and the pavement.

“You really love to hear yourself jibber-jabber, don’t you!” she yelled, walking toward him. “Now give me that countdown timer, Ravenkroft!

Ravenkroft scrambled to his feet with the help of his tentacles, and rushed toward her, firing both his Disruptophazers; five of his shots missed because he fired in such a blind fury. Her force-field held through three of the shots. Dizzy aimed her Disruptophazers at him and though she knew it was hopeless, fired on stun anyway—once from the left, two from the right. His force-field absorbed the first two shots, but the third one got through and hit the left arm of his Exosuit. Sparks flew. He cursed in frustration as that arm went limp at his side. He tried to use his right arm to move it; he could, but for the most part the left arm of his Exosuit remained immobile, heavy, and useless. Dizzy allowed herself a small smile; you savored the little victories, right? He continued to come at her, though; as soon as he got within punching range Dizzy raised her gauntleted fists and they engaged once more; he managed to hold her off one handed. Gods-dammit, the bastard sure knew how to fight. When the hell had he had the time to take up martial arts training? Between frakking mutations?

“Would you like to know another secret?” he said, laughing, as he blocked her next punch by grappling her fist mid-swing with his right gauntlet. He grabbed it and held it there, crunching her metal fingers in a fist of his own. Dizzy grimaced in pain; ow, that hurt, gods-dammit. The metal dug into the leather gloves she wore beneath the gauntlets and pierced the skin below. He grinned maliciously. “Do you really think this Exosuit only repairs me? Do you not think I’d not improved it since our last bout . . . so that it also now repairs . . . itself?

He popped her in the face-plate with his left fist suddenly, his arm good as new. Dizzy staggered backwards, stunned for the moment, and he rocketed upward and away—all the Repulsivators in his suit, including both boots, now in working order again. 

Dizzy cursed under her breath. Dammit, why hadn’t she seen that coming? Maybe she could incapacitate him if she switched the Repulsivators to “beam” mode. The beam would collide with his force-field, but unlike the Disruptophazer blasts, which were plasmic in nature, this wouldn’t just dissipate into the field; rather, it would hit the field with kinetic force locked inside of it, and the field would unlock that force and translate it into momentum . . .  throwing him back like a gigantic punch. Yeah, maybe that would work. She’d have to catch him first, though. Shit.

She blasted off from where she stood, the pavement buckling and shattering beneath the output of her Repulsivators, and took off after him through the rain and the cold air of the night that whipped around her as she flew through the sky. She could see him ahead of her—the purple-white output of his suit’s Repulsivators glowed in the dark—as he flew and then descended toward Broadway. Uh oh. That meant civilians. Lots and lots of civilians in the way between them, and not only that: Plenty of civilians to see them, take videos of them on their cell-phones and share them on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter . . . Ugh, she couldn’t let that happen. Not if she valued the safety of the public, Viktor’s life, her father’s company, her job there . . .

So far their private little war had remained a closely-guarded secret; no one but Misto—not even her father—knew about it. Which was odd, considering that Ravenkroft’s primary beef was with her father, and what had happened those thirteen long years ago between the two of them and Misto . . . Events she had been witness to—though as an outside observer on the sidelines, and at that, only from a great distance—and wished she didn’t know about. It darkened her father’s image in her eyes, took away from his greatness. But that didn’t matter just now. What mattered now—right now—was stopping Ravenkroft from hurting a bunch of innocent people, and of course, stopping that countdown—if there even was one. Even if that meant exposing the secret of his existence to the public and the police . . . and exposing her own identity as a superhero . . . and therefore, jeopardizing the public image of her father’s company, and—of course—her job status there. No pressure.

She dove after Ravenkroft, and they landed right in the middle of the crooked intersection between Broadway and Third. The pavement shattered as she landed and sure enough, she had to squint int the glare as two cars blared their horns and headlights lit her up. Two vehicles—a red Kia minivan and a black Mercedes Benz sedan—swerved around them just in time to avoid hitting them. More cars honked and swerved around them, the flow of traffic parting as Dizzy set her eyes on and prepared to re-engage the grinning Ravenkroft, who stood a few feet from her, daring her to fight him here among the civilian traffic. He raised his right arm and aimed his Disruptophazer not at her, but at the swerving cars going around him.

“No!” cried Dizzy.

A blue Volkswagen Beetle and a green SUV raced around Dizzy, and a black Mustang convertible whooshed around behind Ravenkroft. His tentacles reacted to the cars as though they had a life of their own, as though they “watched” the passing traffic with mild annoyance.

“You know,” he said, “There are . . . Other options than this pointless little slobberknocker we’re currently engaged in, you and I. You could join me. Think of it. Join my cause of forcing the Human race to evolve. Our two genius minds, collaborating! Think of the breakthroughs in science and technology we could achieve if we but shared a laboratory! Think of how far we could take the Human race!”

A Corvette sped past Ravenkroft and its driver yelled something vulgar at them both as he passed. A violet Ford Taurus flashed its headlights and honked as it swerved around Dizzy.

“I’d sooner collaborate with . . .” She truly couldn’t come up with anything worse or more horrifying than that thought. “Er, uh . . . with Supreme Leader Snoke or . . . or a Demogorgon from the Upside Down!”

It wasn’t the best comeback. A yellow minivan and a Chevrolet Silverado sped past behind her, blaring their horns and yelling obscenities at her.

“Oh look! More pop-culture references!” he said, as a Nissan Leaf and a Toyota Pris raced around him, honking madly. His tentacles writhed in the air menacingly behind him. “Face it, Weatherspark. You’re as unimaginative as the people you set yourself above when you disparagingly call them ‘Mundanes.’”

“The only person I actually set myself above,” she said, a Ford F-150 swerving to avoid her and almost crashing into a swerving Nissan Altima, “is you, you six-demon-bag full of buttholes. Because you’re cruel. And a thief. And a liar. And just in general a total bastard. Not to mention a huge pain in the ass. Y’know, it’s not fair, the things you supervillains get away with, while the rest of us are forbidden from being such giant schwanzes, because we’re decent people.”

“You do me too great an honor, Weatherspark!” he said through his chortles, as a Honda Civic wheeled around him and honked. His tentacles continued to slowly undulate in the air behind him, now turning their pincers toward her. “I know I’m the bad guy, in your view. There is such wonderful symmetry in that. You see yourself as the hero, serving the forces of justice. But to elevate me to the status of supervillain? Well, that is quite a promotion! Tell me . . . Does it do your ego justice to imagine this as a fight between a comic-book heroine and her patriarchal arch-nemesis? Does it help you sleep knowing that your cause is a Just one? Or, does all that smell . . . well . . . just a smidgeon like so much poppycock to ever be the truth? Wouldn’t it be truer to say that you enjoy wielding power . . . over me, over everything . . . in fact, over the world? Perhaps, in many ways, we are the same. I say to you again—join me! Let us rule over this Earth as two mad scientists. Let our science triumph over their puny gods and . . . ‘morals.’”

“Okay, just for that little speech,” she replied, a Buick barely missing her as it zigzagged to avoid hitting her, “I’m gonna kick your ass extra hard this time. Now. One last chance. Give me that countdown timer, or else.”

“Oh I don’t think so,” he said. “You want to see real consequences? Watch this.”

He fired his Disruptophazer—on full power—into a red Toyota Sienna minivan. The minivan exploded into an enormous raging fireball. Metal, wheels, engine parts, plastic, and fiber-glass went everywhere—and so did the people inside of it. The doors went flying off, the windshield shattered; the bodies of the people inside—on fire and screaming—went flying out, catapulted into the air in five different directions . . . two of the flaming, flailing bodies were those of children. Dizzy clenched her fists in raw anger as their bodies landed on five other cars that suddenly zigzagged out of control and crashed into other cars, which crashed into still others. Broadway became a mess of crashing cars coming to a halt; honking horns; smoking engines; bashed in windshields; hollering drivers; people getting out of their vehicles and getting into fights, arguments, some staring in horror at the flaming bodies on the original two cars that had crashed; people staring at them, as well, at the two people in mech-suits who had caused all this trouble; people screaming at the fiery, charred bodies; fire and chaos; the remains of the minivan scattered all over, the smoldering metal carcass still on fire . . . and in the middle of it all, Ravenkroft, still standing there, smiling at her, daring her to act in front of all these people.

And Ravenkroft laughed. He laughed.

Bastard was going to pay.

His four tentacles shot out and each grabbed a hunk of the flaming car-wreckage in their pincers—one grabbed a piece of the minivan’s broken door; another grabbed the pulverized windshield; the third grabbed the tire and wheel; the fourth grabbed part of the metal frame—and then all four launched the debris at her.

Dizzy dodged the door as it came skipping across the pavement at her; she ducked to avoid the flying tire and wheel; she spun in a half-turn to avoid the whirling bit of metal frame, and then leapt up in the air as the remains of the windshield came skidding across the pavement toward her legs. She landed back on her feet to the sounds of . . . applause?

A crowd had formed around them. eople were filming them on their cell-phones. Dammit!

“Do you want to know the real problem with people like you, Weatherspark?” cried Ravenkroft. “It’s that you want to save humanity, but you don’t want it to change. You want—or at least, you say you want—mankind to evolve, but in reality, you don’t. You want the status to remain quo. You fight to uphold the slave morality of the weak, and thus you cripple the central mechanism of evolution, which arises from conflict between paragons of noble virtue. You want a humankind that is soft . . . timid, made weak, just as you are! Without your suit, you are a crippled girl in a wheelchair, and the humankind you wish to create is just as helpless. I, on the other hand . . . I want a humankind that is strong, powerful, and capable, a humankind that endures, and that science ennobles. You could choose to be like me. You could join me in my crusade to take humanity out of this Age of Weakness it finds itself succumbing to, its head down and skinning its knees in supplication. But, you won’t. Just like your curséd father, you lack the courage needed to see your convictions carried through to their natural, logical conclusions. I, on the other hand . . . do not.

Dizzy could only glare at him. The rage burned in her chest like volcanic fire, the lava spilling through her veins, catching everything inside of her on fire. And the hatred felt cold, like ice, though it did not cool the flames; instead, it burned, too . . . a biting, searing cold, a freeze that enveloped her soul and blinded her to all other thoughts but one: Killing him would feel so goddamned good. To hell with “extended family.” To hell with Viktor. To hell with everything. Run at him, the fire and ice commanded. Put the Disruptophazer to his throat. Blow his goddamned brains out. End him for good, screamed the frost and the forge in unison, a holy choir singing to her, beckoning her to righteous action at last. A searing blast of “fuck this guy” shot through her arteries and into her brain.

Dizzy screamed, a primal yell of fury, and ran at him, her fists clenched. He fired his Disruptophazers; the force-field absorbed the shots, and she made contact, tackling him; his tentacles caught the two of them. She wailed on him—punching him right in the face-plate of his helmet repeatedly as the tentacles heaved and tossed them over. A crack in the glass appeared, then another crack. She slammed her fist into the side of his helmet. A cable came loose, and sparks flew. She continued to scream, and punch, as they rolled, him on top, then her on top. The tentacles caught them again, and then launched them upward; Dizzy went flying backward and Ravenkroft landed on his feet with the tentacles steadying him. Dizzy scrambled to her feet and fired her Disruptophazers at him, one then the other, walking toward him steadily as she fired, approaching point-blank range. He fired back. Most of the their shots hit one another’s force-fields; one of his shots blasted off the armor plating over her left shoulder in an explosion of white light; one of hers zapped off the plating over his left bicep in a shower of yellow sparks. They reached each other, within punching range, but Dizzy did not punch. Instead she shoved her Disruptophazer up under his face-plate and put it to his throat, and grabbed the back of his head with her other gauntlet, forcing him closer.

“You want this?” she asked him through clenched teeth, pushing the Disruptophazer up into his jaw. “Huh? You want death? You deserve it, for what you just did! You realize that? Do you?”

And then, an image flash-burned through her mind: Viktor’s face . . . though not as hideous as it was now . . . but as it had been when she had been but ten years old, and—

 . . .  and there was Viktor, in her room with her and her father, smiling at her at her tenth birthday party . . . his then-long and then-brown hair falling down in tousles over his shoulders, his reading glasses perched on his nose as he grinned, helping her assemble her chemistry set . . . but not just any chemistry set, no . . . this one, he and her father and Misto had built for her, at Miskatromyk U; from out of glassware and advanced parts, real bunsen burners and real tubing and piping, real flasks and chemical packets . . . 

“I must say,” said Ravenkroft, curling his lips into a smile, gazing into her eyes, “that you’re coming along nicely, Weatherspark. A little closer . . . just a little closer to the line . . . and you’ll be just like me. Ready and willing to do anything to impose your moral code upon the world at large. Willing to impose your brand of justice on anyone and everyone who crosses you, or displeases you, or does something you don’t like. Ready to reshape the world in your image. Go on. Do it. I want to see you fall from grace. I live for it. I can’t wait to see the ‘hero’ in your die as you pull that trigger with your mind.”

She was right on the verge of sending the mental command to the Disruptophazer—

. . . and Viktor was helping her sort everything and set the metal racks up on her desk in her room . . . laughing with her as she tried on her safety goggles and made faces at him. She had been wearing the lab coat her father had gotten for her, and Viktor had been wearing a bow-tie, and his smile . . . so bright, and cheerful, his eyes twinkling in the sunlight as it streamed through the window; such happiness . . .

—right on the verge of telling the suit’s onboard computer to fire—

. . . and her father said, “Always remember who your friends are, Dizzy. Always remember. Your friends are the family that you choose for yourself. No matter how far apart you may drift, a connection is always there, and will always guide you back toward each other. Like a beacon in the night . . .”

—but she stopped.

Could she do this?

Really?

She hesitated. Was she a cold-blooded killer, like him? Or was he right, gods-damn him? Was he right about her? Did she just not have it within her?

No, she decided just then.

She did not.

She truly didn’t have the wherewithal to take another life on calculated purpose. Even a life as wretched as his.

Dizzy let him go, and backed up a few paces. He snickered at her.

Gods damn it. She was weak. Incapable of doing what needed to be done. A lesser hero. She thought briefly about the families of those Ravenkroft had just murdered. Where was their justice? Where was their satisfaction? What would they do, now, that their killer had been pardoned on behalf of a warm and fuzzy childhood memory? Gods dammit, she was weak. Insufficient. 

Crippled.

She closed her eyes and tried to marshal the anger within her. Tried to force it down into her core, though it raged inside of her and clawed at her chest like the hot talons of some ancient dragon. Anger at Ravenkroft. And at herself. Think of something soothing. Soothing. Fandom. Think of the things you love, the things that bring you joy. Okay. right. This must’ve been exactly how Angel felt when he was unable to save Darla and redeem her soul. How Batman felt when he failed to save Rachel.

“I knew you didn’t have it in you,” said Ravenkroft. “I knew it. And now I know where exactly your line is, Weatherspark. Don’t think I won’t use it against you.”

“N—no,” she stammered. “You—you only think you know where it is, and that’s only where it is for now.”

“Heh,” he said. “Right.”

“You want the Tesseract Reactor?” she said, glowering at him, her fists clenched. “Fine. Come get it. Asshole.

She engaged her Repulsivators and launched herself into the air. Oohs and ahhs came from the crowd of people. She had to get him away from the civilians, get them out of danger. And get the two of them away from all those cameras, all those witnesses. She closed her eyes. Those dead children, their bodies on fire; their screams echoed, the image of them landing on those cars replayed itself over and over. She tried to shake it off, tried to focus; she couldn’t beat him if she didn’t focus. She flew upwards, and into the night. He would follow her. Because of course he would.

The “Tesseract Reactor”—or so she had dubbed it, based on the experiments she had conducted—was the most intriguing things her father’s company had discovered aboard the alien ship they had found buried in the Arctic ice twenty-six years ago. The ship in the ice carbon-dated to thirty-thousand years, and it had sent the research teams into a frenzy. The Reactor itself looked something like a shiny obsidian cylinder with rounded corners on the top and bottom, but no visible controls, and with a glass screen on both ends. However, it responded positively to electromagnetic energy. It also responded to people who had tested positive for psionic abilities. (Mjölnir Dynamics had always taken the paranormal seriously, unlike many other research firms.) And, when exposed to an electromagnetic field of the right frequency, the Reactor could slow down or accelerate the flow of time around it, and could open portals through space over short distances. Still, those were mere “side functions”; they still hadn’t cracked the Reactor’s true purpose, its actual, main function yet. Nope, that remained a mystery. One she intended to solve. But for now, she had to pick a landing spot, somewhere she could finish this, someplace close by, but where civilians wouldn’t be harmed or in danger; or at least, where they would be in less danger . . . 

Ah, that looked like a good place: An empty parking lot on a small side street, next to a bar and grill with only a couple of cars parked out front. Perfect. She dove through the air, knowing he was only seconds behind her. She flipped upward, the electrogravitic thrust from her palm-Repulsivators slowing her descent, and landed feet-first. The Repulsivators crushed the pavement beneath her as she made contact with the ground and whirled around to face Ravenkroft, who landed right behind her.

“Well?” he said. “The Reactor?”

“Ha!” she responded. “So you actually thought I was going to make good on that? Time. Time, asshole!”

In response, he only smiled and shook his head. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Only a few minutes left, now, I’m afraid. Poor Michaelson will soon meet a most grisly, lasery fate. And all because you wouldn't cooperate and give me the technology I desire. All because you had to play the moralist. You must realize by now that there’s no way you can disable me, no way you can win if you stick to your . . . rules.

Dizzy clenched her fists. Nothing brought him down. She could damage his Exosuit, but the dang thing would just repair itself . . . unless, of course, she did enough damage she’d kill him. But maybe she shouldn’t worry about that. Maybe she should just let the blast damage do its work . . . And if not kill him, she could probably at least wound him pretty severely, by first getting through his “self-repairing” Exosuit. At any rate, she was out of options that didn’t rely on lethal levels of damage.

Maybe I could just knock him out. But how? The magnetic beam in her chest had thrown him fifty feet and he had skidded on his backside, his tentacles rescuing him from impact at the last. She needed to hit him with something harder.

Repulsivators in beam mode. It was the only way. Dangerous, yeah, but the only weapon she had left that stood a chance of taking him down. She sent the Exosuit the mental commands necessary to reconfigure the Repulsivators in her palms via the synaptic interface in her helmet. Man, what a long strange trip it had been; it seemed like only yesterday she had been teaching herself the psychic gymnastics necessary to command the suit, to control its onboard computer via the helmet. Good times. Well, no, not really. Rough times. Times she’d rather forget. But they had made her who she was. 

“Well what can I say, she said to him. “I’m like Lieutenant Saavik. I’ve always done things by the book.” She thrust out her gauntlets in front of her, palms upraised in a “stop” gesture, both aimed straight at Ravenkroft, and sent the mental command to fire. Twin radiant, purple-white shafts of brilliant light erupted from out of her palm-mounted Repulsivators and launched themselves at Ravenkroft. They cut through the night air like glowing razors and collided with the force-field bubble surrounding him, which itself lit up with a rainbow-hued glow . . . and Ravenkroft was propelled off his feet hard and launched into the air. He went flying, tentacles and all, sparks and wild, blue-white arcs of electrical overload lightning flying off of his Exosuit. He crash-landed on his back a hundred feet away in a neighboring parking lot, skidding to a halt, yellow sparks erupting between his Exosuit and the pavement. He lay there, motionless, his Exosuit and its tentacles seemingly dead.

Dizzy could hardly believe it. It had worked. And she was still standing there, alive. Tendrils of smoke rose from the Repulsivators. They might still work. But first, the countdown. Dear gods—what if she she too late? She ran toward Ravenkroft’s unconscious form. Yep, he was, indeed, knocked the frak out! His suit was inactive; all the status-indicator lights inside his glass face-plate were off; the tentacles were dormant; no humming or whirring sounds came from the suit, and none of its gears or wheels moved. He was out of commission. For the moment, at least. Hoo-ah!

She reached around to the side of his Exosuit. A series of flexible armored segments made up the abdominal section. She extended her right arm, and from out of her gauntlet, there popped a Phillips head screwdriver. She stuck it into the first of the screws holding the abdominal section in place; it began whirring. One by one she removed the tiny screws and let them roll wherever. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She removed the abdominal section of his Exosuit, dragging wires and sensors along with it, and then dug beneath, and found what she was looking for: His waistcoat watch-pocket. She had guessed right: He had converted his golden, mechanical pocket-watch—which her father had given him as a gift when they had still been friends, fifteen years ago—into the countdown timer. She grabbed it, and yanked it free of his waistcoat. She let out a long, slow breath. Had she been holding it? Yeah, she had. Damn, the things you did you didn’t realize.

Dizzy held up the watch and examined it. An Arduino circuit board, a few sensors and wires leading into the main mechanism, a small battery pack, and two small buttons—red, and green. She clicked the golden knob at the top. The watch popped open, revealing the clock face. The hands whirled around, the minute hand whooshing by, counting off seconds . . . while the hour hand crept by, counting minutes. If she interpreted what she saw correctly, she had less than five minutes before the hands reached midnight . . . and the clock ran out.

The question was—which of the two buttons, red or green, stopped the dang countdown? Obviously, one of the buttons was the “instant death” button . . . the one that subverted the countdown, and killed Misto instantly. The other one was the button that stopped it from happening at all.

If I were Ravenkroft, which button would I assign to “instant death?” Hmm. I would know that there was a chance that I would get ahold of this thing, somehow. So I wouldn’t go with the obvious choices, which would be “red” for stopping the countdown, and “green” for “go ahead and kill Misto.” But I also wouldn’t go with the obvious choice of “red” means “Masque of the Red Death” and “green” means “life and growth and hippy shit.” However. I also wouldn’t go with “red” means “no,” as in “no, don’t kill Misto,” and “green” means “yes,” as in “yes, do kill Misto,” because again, there’s a chance that I could get ahold of this thing and a chance that I could figure that out easily. “Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool. You would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.” Shit. I could do this all day and second-guess myself into madness, and Misto into oblivion. So there’s only one logical thing to do . . .

“Hey!” she yelled at Ravenkroft. She stood up, and lightly kicked him in the helmet. “Wake up asshole!”

He blinked his eyes. “Eh? Wha—?” he groaned. He opened his eyes . . . then they practically bugged out of his head. “Weatherspark! I’ll—I’ll kill you for this!” He tried to move, but of course the Exosuit, with its colossal weight and no power flowing to it, didn’t respond. He remained stuck on the pavement like a turtle that someone had stuck an enormous, invisible rock upon. “Damn you, Weatherspark! Curse you to Hell!

Dizzy put her boot on his chest-piece. “Hey babe, don’t worry,” she said. “Your Zero-Point Energy Reactor will come back online in just a few shakes of a dragon’s tail, so I’ll make this brief. Believe me, I don’t like talking to you, either. But help me out here, would ya? Which of these two buttons—” She brandished the pocket-watch, “deactivates the countdown? Red, or green?”

“As if I would ever tell you!” he cried.

She looked at the watch again. Less than two minutes, now. “Now tell me,” she said, a little more forcefully. “Which button. Ends. The countdown. Tell me, right now.” She knelt down, putting the knee-joint of her Exosuit on his chest-piece, and aimed her left Disruptophazer at his face.

“Ah-ah,” he said. “Aren’t we forgetting the rules? You won’t—perhaps can’t—kill me. Your morality . . .”

She pictured Misto, tied up in the Laser Accelerator Chamber. Pictured herself at his graveside, pictured her father there, but Misto gone; imagined herself lonely, without him there next to her to guide her, help her along. And once again, she pictured those children, their bodies flying through the air, on fire . . . pictured grandparents, crying over little graves . . . pictured the kids in a morgue, their twisted corpses charred and scorched, even the blood dried from the flames; pictured the whites of their teeth, unblemished by the fire; she pictured Misto screaming for help as the laser generators cycled up to full power, and the Chamber grew hot . . .

He appeared to think, his eyes growing larger, looking her in the eye, perhaps truly understanding that she meant every word of it. She clenched her left fist, and held the Disruptophazer steady, aimed right at his face-plate. She swallowed. Could she really carry out her threat?  

avenkroft licked his lips. “Green,” he said at last. “Green deactivates the countdown.”

Dizzy nodded, hesitated for a second, then made her decision. She pushed the red button, and the hands of the watch froze with only seconds left. Dizzy let out a long, slow breath she had been holding, a great shudder of relief passing through her entire body. 

A silent moment of solace passed over her. 

She sucked in a deep breath, and let it out slowly.  She closed her eyes, and a tear ran down her cheek. Misto was safe. He was safe. She had been right; Ravenkroft had lied. She turned her eyes toward him and glared at him balefully, and then grinned a savage grin. She threw the watch at him. It hit his chest-piece and broke, the glass in shattering, the circuit-board cracking as it bounced off and hit the pavement beside him, clattering away.

“I-za win, you-za lose!” she said in a bright, chipper tone. She put her gauntleted fingers to her forehead in the shape of an L, the motors of her Exosuit whirring, and pressed down harder on his chest with her Repulsivator boot. “Lah-hoo, zah-hurr! She laughed, and pointed at him.Giant, freaking, big-time lah-hoo, zah-hurr! Ha! Ha-ha! Yeah you lied to me . . . but thanks for inadvertently telling me which was the right one! La-hooo-zaaah-hurrr! And for second there, you thought I was actually gonna shoot you!

“I did indeed think that,” he replied, his voice level and calm. “You really had me going there, as they say, Weatherspark.”

“Oh man,” she said, projecting an air of toughness, as ever, trying not to let her true feelings show through, “Yeah, I did, didn’t I. Y’know, this is just like that TNG episode where Commander Data tricks the sentient Moriarty hologram into thinking he has control of the Enterprise, even though he really doesn’t, and you have no idea what I’m talking about, because you’re not a Trekker like me, are you, Ravenkroft.”

“No,” said Ravenkroft. Then he smiled and leered at her. “But Viktor is. And I happen to know . . . that he loves the ‘Data’ stories of that particular Star Trek show. Data, being a cybernetic creation, an android, and thus deterministic in nature, reminds him of the biological determinism of the Human condition. And I must say . . . I see his point. It’s pleasant to know that even your ‘sci-fi’ delusions acknowledge the . . . inevitability . . . of Humanity’s ascension to godhood. And by the way. There’s something you ought to know.”

“Oh yeah?” she said, arching an eyebrow, “and what’s that, sweetie-muffinkins? Because I’ve got something you ought to know first.

“Well then you go first, by all means,” he said.

“Well, okay,” she said, and her smile disappeared. She steeled herself for what came next. She raised her right gauntlet and aimed the Disruptophazer at his faceplate. “I’m still going to shoot you and kill you, dearheart. It’s the only way that those kids you killed will ever get any justice.” 

Her arm trembled, though she tried to force it to stop. She breathed deeply, into her belly and abdomen, in through the nose, out through the mouth. But not so he could see her. She kept her gaze riveted and locked onto his, her face steely.

His Reactor lit back up, as did his face-plate, and his suit powered-up. His tentacles came back to life, their pincers grabbing onto the pavement around him. They lifted him back up and he was on his feet in seconds.

Then, everything happened at once. He fired both his Disruptophazers, though they sparked and arced with electricity and smoke rose from them as he did. Dizzy tried to leap out of the way, but the shots came too quickly; two zoomed past her, but four of them slammed home—two hit her force-field. But the other two got through. One hit her left leg and sparks flew from the mechanisms. She fell to the ground with a cry of pain—the metal on her leg was suddenly very hot, the wires and gears there utterly mangled. She could still move it—miracle of miracles—but the motors twitched and sputtered. The other shot hit her right shoulder-piece, and blew off the armor there, exposing the mechanisms beneath. As he fired at her, he also used his Repulsivators to rocket toward her at full speed, though those sputtered as well and sparks blew from the one in his right boot. She herself flew upward, but he mimicked her move, flew upwards as well, got altitude on her, flew in close and threw a hard, robotically-augmented punch right at her chest-piece, hitting her just above her Zero-Point Energy Reactor; the motors in his Exosuit moaned in protest as he drove the punch home. She went flailing downwards, and he then delivered another punch—this time to her helmet, the motors again grinding frustratedly. The sensors and readouts on her faceplate flickered and fritzed, and her Repulsivators cut in and out suddenly . . . and she lost altitude.

She landed, tripped over the cracks in the pavement her Repulsivators caused, and fell, her Exosuit’s spinal assembly hitting the asphalt hard. Goddamn Exosuit. Goddamn ungainly contraption.

“Well now,” she managed, wincing in pain—the force of the impact had translated through the suit—“this is some anus.”

Ravenkroft put his Repulsivator boot on her chest-piece and pressed down, holding her on the ground. She tried to get up, tried to force him off, but couldn’t. He must’ve been pressing down with the entire weight of his Exosuit, and with all the extra power it offered him.

“I’ve decided,” he said, looming over her, “to let you live. For now. You still know where the Tesseract Reactor is, and that makes you valuable. But you’ve taken away my bargaining chip, which I’m afraid just isn’t fair. And I’m afraid I don’t know the ‘secret’ of how you did . . . whatever it was you just did to me with your Repulsivators. I will have to . . . explore the suit’s capabilities further to see if I can replicate that trick. I will even let you have the life of your colleague, Michaelson. He is of no further use to me, as he has proven that he has no knowledge of the Reactor’s whereabouts. Now, thanks to that last blow you landed, my Exosuit is in no condition to continue this battle here tonight . . . and thanks to the beating I’ve given you, neither is yours in any condition for you to come chasing after me once I depart these premises. I would take you back to my lair and apply a belt sander to your skin and drip icy cold vinegar into the wounds until you told me where the Tesseract Reactor was located . . . but then again, I doubt that in its current condition, my Exosuit would take the additional weight it would require to carry you back there. Besides. I am late for a very important . . . appointment. An appointment that is key to the fate of the entire Human Race. So for now, I will simply bid you ‘adieu,’ Weatherspark. We will meet again.”

He stepped off of her chest and began to walk away.

Dizzy immediately sat up and scrambled to her feet and began a run at his back, but he blasted off into the air and hovered about ten feet off the ground. She tried to start up her Repulsivators, but they refused to cooperate. Sparks flew from the one on her left boot.

“Dammit!” she cursed.

“Oh,” he called down to her, “and do consider my offer of a partnership. Join me, and let us rule as mad scientists together over these puny mortals, these ‘Mundanes,’ as you call them. These Muggles. For their own good. For the greater good. I’m sure you’ll see that it’s for the best, in time. But just in case you don’t, know this, and know it well: I’ve tricked you twice and overpowered you several times here, tonight. And I can do so again. I will do so, again. I will win, every time. And you will lose. Every time. So either join me in my crusade to elevate the Human race to its apex of evolutionary triumph . . . or be one of those who becomes extinct as evolution progresses toward its apotheosis, with me as its driving force and the master of its ultimate destiny. Depending upon how my appointment goes, that may happen sooner than you think. Good evening, Weatherspark.”

He engaged his Repulsivators, and blasted off into the night sky. Dizzy’s Repulsivators suddenly leapt back into life and she rose off the ground, and into the air. She began to follow him, her Exosuit’s computer tracking his movements as he arced up into the clouds, her faceplate showing a readout of his trajectory for her to follow.

But—Misto. He was still tied up, in the Laser Accelerator chamber at Miskatromyk U. She had to see that he was okay. Gods only knew what else Ravenkroft had done to him: Injected him with something to make him docile? Beaten him up? Otherwise hurt him? Crippled him? No, she couldn’t follow Ravenkroft. She had to attend to Misto. But what had he meant with that “appointment” nonsense . . . ? An appointment with whom . . . ?

She landed back on the pavement and paced back and forth. What to do? Then she remembered . . . the communicator pins! She had made them as a curiosity, originally, a way to test her theories on quantum-entangled telecommunications. She was wore one on the Exosuit, magnetically attached just below her right collar, near to the Zero-Point Energy Reactor, close to her right breast area. And with any luck . . . so did Misto, still. Ravenkroft probably wouldn’t have taken it off of him, because he would’ve mistaken it for just a piece of fandom-related junk. She glanced down. Luckily, Ravenkroft hadn’t damaged the pin. It still sat there, silvery and shiny, in the shape of the emblem of the United Federation of Planets—a fat, round-edged triangular arrowhead about an inch in length and three-quarters of an inch wide. She raised her right gauntlet and gently tapped the pin with her middle finger. A loud electronic chirping sound erupted from it. Excellent!

She licked her lips, sucked in a breath, let it out again. “Misto,” she spoke into the air. “Misto, what’s your twenty. Over.”

No response. Just dead air. She waited twenty seconds or so. They ticked by like hours.

“Misto, I say again. What’s your twenty. Over.”

The channel would close after thirty seconds of inactivity, so she had to open it again if she wanted to try and raise him. Maybe when she’d shut off the countdown, she’d also shut-down any signal-jamming equipment, as well . . . If her guess had been right and she hadn’t just killed her best friend.

“Misto?” she said again to the open air, her voice trembling. She cleared her throat and tried again. Be strong. Or at least fake it. “Misto—come in, Misto. Do you read me? I say again—Yo, Blade. This is Entil’Zha. Ranger One. Do you copy?”

The static whistled and burbled for a few seconds and then there came a familiar voice at last: “Diz? That you? Hey!” Dizzy’s heart, stomach, and knotted-up entrails almost all melted at once with a palpable feeling of relief and relaxation, as the voice continued: “Holy shit, I was afraid he’d gotten to you too! He must’ve jammed our com-signals, though. How—where—the Seven Hells are you?”

“Uh, downtown Cambridge, at the momento,” she said, laughing, and the laughter felt so danged good. “Have definitely felt better, though. I just beat the holy livin’ dog-piss out of—and got the holy livin’ frak beaten outta me by—our man Ravenkroft. Yeah. Again. But how are you? That’s the question worth about a billion in gold-pressed latinum.”

“Eh, okay, I guess,” Misto’s disembodied voice continued. “Bastard knocked me out and dragged me to the Laser Lab at Miskatromyk U, so I’ve got a nasty bump on the head that needs attention. Bastard locked me in the fusion-ignition chamber, inside the magnetic field generator. You ever stare a quadrillion-watt laser in the face for hours, and silently wonder when it’s going to activate and disintegrate you?  I can’t recommend that as a good way to spend an evening. Especially when that sucker kicks on and starts power-cycling all of a sudden, like it did about ten minutes ago. I transformed, Diz. I shifted.”

“Dang,” she said. “He got you that mad?”

“No. I got that scared. But for the sake of my masculinity, I’m gonna go with ‘mad.’

“I’m sorry,” she said. She looked up at the moon. It hung full and glowing bright in the sky, round and ominous. A few bruised thunderclouds obscured it, but otherwise it seemed to keep a vigilant and eternal watch over the city. It would’ve looked cool with a Bat Signal projected across its surface. No wonder Misto had shifted; he shifted almost every full moon, thanks to the antidote Dizzy had synthesized. One of the disadvantages of being a werewolf . . . and one of the reasons why Mutagenesis X-119 needed to be destroyed. One injection thirteen years ago had done this to him. She spoke again. “Looks like we’ll have to step up the treatments of the antidote to three times a day, instead of just two.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t sound enthused. “I guess we will. I did shift back, though. After the laser shut itself down about a minute or two back. Can I assume that was you?

“Aye, ’twas me,” she replied, “saving you from getting laser-beamed into cosmic dust. You can thank me by—well, crap. You can’t drive here because you’re locked in the Laser Lab’s magnetic field generator inside the fusion-ignition chamber. I have an access code for that, but I’d have to put it in manually. I need you to dress a few wounds . . . and we gotta hurry, because there’s that potential recruit for that special team we’re assembling who I plan on meeting when she gets—”

The alleyway was suddenly flooded with the blinding radiance of a floodlight—and the pulsating lights atop two police cruisers—and then came the whoop of their sirens. Dizzy raised a gauntlet to shield her eyes from the light. She backed up a few paces. Quickly, she did some calculus in her head. Frak. Her helmet could not withstand a direct hit from a bullet. Shit. Design flaw.

A staticky, gruff voice squawked through a PA speaker: “Hold it, right there!”

“Ooh crap, gotta go, Misto,” she said. Then, as a car door opened on one of the cruisers, she said, in a louder voice, her hands upraised: “Hullo there, officers! Gee, y’know, it’s great that you’ve shown up. Just great. Unfortunately, the guy you’re looking for is g—g—g—gone. Flown off. Just, like, zip, ka-pow, and ka-zooooom! And there he went! Y’know, like Superman. Well, no . . . I guess technically, he’d be more like General Zod. Y’know, the bad guy. Well, half of him is the bad guy. The other half of him is actually rather—”

“Freeze!” The light was still in her eyes, so she couldn’t see worth a crap. “Hands on your head! Do it! Now!”

She put her hands on her head, and mentally adjusted the attitude of every Repulsivator in her suit.

“I’m-a doin’ it,” she said to the two police officers currently approaching her. “See? Hands on my cranium. Well, repurposed motorcycle helmet. But you get the idea.”

“So,” said one of the officers as he got within five feet of her. He was portly, had a neckbeard, and beady gimlet eyes the color of muddy seawater stuck in his fat, jowly face. “Been doin’ a little costume partyin’ tonight, have we? Been doin’ a little drinkin’?”

“Oh, oh yeah,” she said, nodding. “And the drugs. And let’s not forget the sex. I’ve been doing all the drugs, and having all the sex. I’ve even been taking pictures. Say, here, take a look!” 

She thrust out the palms of her hands. The electromagnetic pulse blew up their walkie-talkies, fried their car radios, computers, and dash-cams, and melted their cars’ electrical systems. The strobe lights mounted in her fingertips went off like electrical firecrackers and blinded the officers as the Repulsivators all over her suit all fired in the same direction, and she blasted off into the night, destroying the pavement beneath her. Gunshots rang out as the cops—poor hapless creatures—fired at her.

Damn but she loved a dramatic exit! Lucky for her, the Exosuit’s faceplate obscured her features just enough that it would be very hard for the cops to positively ID her, what with only having seen her for a few seconds, and having just had their sensory cortex overloaded with blinding, pulsed light tuned to mind-altering frequencies. Their sight would return in an hour or so, and when it did, they would find their memories of the encounter to be “less than perfect.” Like the Repulsivators, the memory-strobes were a technological gift from the “U.S.S. Antikythera, NCC-2001”—the Trekkie nickname she had given the alien ship.

She cruised along through the clouds, the wind and rain against her face-plate, and formed a plan. First, get to Miskatromyk U and to Misto. Then get the Exosuit off. See to these wounds. Then put the Exosuit back on. Then go meet the latest recruit for “the Team”—she hadn’t thought of a better name for it yet—when it was time for them to get off work . . . if her observations of them turned out to hold up. Right. This coming week was FantazmagoriCon XVIII . . . her and Misto's absolute favorite time of year, when they got to dress up—though really, she was already in costume, wasn’t she?—and go mingle with their fellow whacked-out fen and talk fandom talk, buy fandom merch, drink a little booze, party-hardy, and play a few games. Maybe some Magic, maybe a little D&D, maybe even join the Vampire LARP. Whatever. It was going to be fun, fun, fun. And she would not allow Ravenkroft Evolutior’s supervillain shenanigans to ruin it for her.

(Their flaming bodies . . . their faces, on fire, their crisping skin in the dancing yellow flame . . . just children . . . )

She shuddered, and forced the image back; down, down, down she pushed it. First things first . . . see to Misto. Damn but she was glad he was okay! Thank the gods he was safe. Well, for now at least. Until Ravenkroft attacked again. It was Friday, April the 9th, 2027, 9:37 P.M., and Dizzy had this horrible feeling that the beginning of the end of the world had somehow begun this night. And that only she could stop it before it arrived in full.