William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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Chapter THREE: HEROES & VILLAINS

Note: This Material Has Been Proofread, But Has Not Been Professionally Edited For Content

 

It was all Iron Man’s fault. Okay, well, Tony Stark’s fault. Well, okay, technically it was Stan Lee’s fault for creating Iron Man, and Marvel Studios’ fault for producing the Iron Man movie back in 2008,  which Dizzy’s father Walter had taken her to see when she’d been just twelve years old, right after her mother Amelia had died in that car wreck that had taken the use of her legs from her. So really, it was all her father’s fault, wasn’t it? Yeah. It was. In more ways than one. Because the movie had begot the idea for the Exosuit—which, while it had given her back her legs, and thank the gods for that!—had also later helped give birth to Ravenkroft . . . and her father, a year earlier, had—unbeknownst to Dizzy—begot the serum, also known as Mutagenesis X119. And that had been where all the trouble had started.

Thunder rolled and lighting flashed in the clouds above the alleyway, drawing Desirée "Dizzy" Weatherspark’s attention for a split second, which gave Ravenkroft Evolutior all the time he needed to strike and strike hard. His fist hit her Exosuit’s helmet like a train hitting a car, and her teeth rattled; the bone in her nose rang out with pain, as did her cheekbone. Contrary to popular belief and comic book movies, an external metal contraption of clockwork and metal around one’s body did not cushion one from the impact of blows sustained thereto; in fact, it made them worse. She stumbled backward on the boots of her Cybermechazoid Exosuit, almost losing her balance. She managed to fire the electrogravitic Repulsivators in her suit just hard enough to right herself, and then she shook off the blow a little at a time, and got back on her feet. The suits were made of alluzinium—a metal alloy of Dizzy’s own creation; ten times the strength and toughness of steel, but only a third the weight of aluminum—and could take the punishment. The question was, could she?

She got herself into position, and then launched herself back at him, bringing her leg up into a snap-kick—her purple bob-cut hair whirled around her eyes at the edges of her helmet as she moved; she blew it out of her vision with a breath—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 several paces. She had barely missed hitting the Zero-Point Energy Reactor in his chest-piece, and she had meant to; as with her suit, the reactor was the power source, and had she hit it, the resulting explosion would have leveled half of Cambridge. The Reactor was a bulbous globe implanted in the suit’s chest-piece that glowed with ethereal, blue-and-purple arcs of plasma that curled and writhed out from an electrode in the center. A large ring of metal wrapped in a tight coil of wire ran around the edges of the globe; all in all, the Reactor was only eight inches in diameter . . . such a small thing to be the potential solution to all of Earth’s energy problems. Dizzy planned on gifting it to the world someday. When it was ready and didn’t possess the potential to blow the entire planet to kingdom come.

She followed up her snap-kick with a roundhouse kick to the head, the hydraulics in her suit expanding and contracting rapidly with a loud whacking noise. Ravenkroft cried out and stumbled to the side like an oaf, crashed 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 the wall, helping him recover. Well, at least she had managed to get in a couple of solid hits. The bastard had gotten in too many on her already.

Ravenkroft had crossed a line this time. You so did not frak with the people she loved, by gods. You especially did not kidnap them. She hoped Misto was still alive—wherever this evil sack of buttholes had stashed him. And he of course desperately wanted something from her. That was the whole reason he had kidnapped Misto in the first place. But Dizzy intended to find out where Misto was . . . and Ravenkroft wasn’t getting crap.

He raised the right gauntlet of his Exosuit. Luckily he had telegraphed the move, so when he fired his writs-mounted Disruptophazer at her, Dizzy was able to dodge out of the way just in time. The purple-glowing pulse-blast from the weapon hit the wall of the alley behind her, destabilizing the molecular structure of the bricks there; a blackened, burnt-out hole appeared where they had just been. He fired at her again. Luckily—again—the force-field her Exosuit generated kicked in and deflected the blast, a soap-bubble-like glimmer flashing around her body as it hit. 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 or kicks. The madman made to fire at her a third time, and this time, she surprised him by running at him—the force-field again deflected the shot—and tackled him. Their Exosuited-bodies collided, and they hit the ground . . . the armor and wheels of the Exosuits banging and clattering, the motors and armatures whirring as his tentacles dug into the pavement with their pincers and held them both aloft for a moment. They grappled one another with Dizzy on top. She yanked back a mechanized fist and drove it into his faceplate. A hollow ringing sound answered her, and his helmeted head jerked to the side. He managed to heavy over, his tentacles buoying him up like spiders’ legs. He toppled her off of him, and she went rolling over, onto the pavement. She rolled once more and landed on her back.

They both scrambled to their feet—He beat her to the mark by a few seconds, the tentacles helping him up—and stood facing one another, circling each other like wrestlers in the ring, Ravenkroft’s tentacles writhing behind him, their segmented metal pieces clicking against each other. The faceplates of their Exosuits allowed them to see each others’ eyes . . . and Ravenkroft’s burned with a white-hot hatred for her, the split in Dr. Viktor Fearneurovolt’s soul gleaming in them darkly. Silence, save for the whir, tick, and hum of their Exosuits. Dizzy could hear the bones in Ravenkroft’s face crunching as they rapidly healed from the impact of her blows, thanks to the nanotech in his Exosuit. Which he wore thanks to the degeneration caused by his addiction to Mutagenesis X-119, her father’s Worst—Idea—Ever. Dammit, brilliant though he was, Walter Weatherspark simply hadn’t foreseen any of the chaos his serum would cause when he’d thought it up those thirteen years ago. But then again, of course dad hadn’t seen that. Pure research scientists never saw the light at the end of the tunnel as the oncoming headlamp of a locomotive made of pure evil, did they? Nope, they most certainly didn’t.

In a flash, Ravenkroft activated the Repulsivators in his suit; the pavement beneath him shattered, and he leaped through the air, tackled her, and threw her up against the brick wall of the alleyway. He pinned her there by the arms with two of his tentacles, the pincer-claws grappling her, and shoved a motorized knee into the ridged, flexible metal segment-plates that protected her abdomen. He brought his face close to hers, and aimed his left-wrist’s Disruptophazer at her head. The coils inside in the barrel glowed with purple-white light.

“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 your precious ‘adopted uncle,’ Michaelson is, in return. Tell me now, or you die. And of course, he dies, too. Pity. I rather liked him. Or rather, Viktor did, once upon a time.”

Up close, even through the translucent, safety-glass face-plate of his Exosuit, Dizzy could see what twelve years of exposure to the serum had done to him, and it wasn’t pretty . . . was barely even human anymore. Almost all of his hair had fallen out; what remained were but a few white wisps. His face had grown narrow and taller, thinner, and his whole cranium had become engorged to encompass a much larger brain. His skin had turned a soft green color, the arteries and veins all visible beneath. His eyes were sunken and enlarged, their pupils yellow slits. His nose had all but disappeared entirely, now barely two reptilian slits in his face. He had small fangs instead of teeth. Ugh. Is this what it had done to Anastasia, all those years ago? No wonder he hated her father . . .

Dizzy swallowed her fear—of him, of what he had become, and of what would happen to Misto if she failed here tonight—and managed a tough, snarky grin instead of a grimace of pain. The position he held her in wasn’t comfortable. “Y’know,” she managed, through panting breaths, “you’re a lot shorter . . . up close. And you know . . . what they say about a man’s height . . . right? And I can’t help but think . . . about those big guns you carry . . . And besides. You kill me . . . the secrets of the Reactor die with me. So there . . . Neener-neener!” She stuck out her tongue at him. “Plblblbt.

“AHH-AAAGGGHHH!” he screamed in frustration. “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 at him on the “stun” setting. His force-field deflected the blast. Dang. How could she forget? He had one of those, too.

He had stolen the design for the suit from her private servers six years ago, and had modified it to include the force-fields, along with a few . . . other enhancements, such as the tentacles. (She in turn had stolen the design back from him and incorporated the force-fields into her design. The tentacles were just a tad too much for her taste.) One of the results of this—partially due to the fact that he had become addicted to the serum—was that he could no longer live outside the Exosuit for long periods of time, since his design also incorporated life-sustaining, cell-repairing nanotech. Without his suit, he was a dead man walking. Dizzy had thought about simply finding his hideout and stealing it from him. Thus, killing him. But that would not do. Killing Viktor was not in her game plan, because while Ravenkroft was an evil bastard who had maimed and jeopardized innocents again and again, Viktor, Ravenkroft’s mild-mannered alter-ego, was one of those innocents . . . He had done nothing wrong. And besides that, Viktor was a link to her father, Walter . . . She didn’t much like Viktor—he had always treated her poorly; he had been a right butthead to her, in fact—but he was still part of the “extended family,” so to speak. And you didn’t hurt your extended friend-family. Period. Well, no more than necessary. For their own good, you see. Besides, he was also fen. Part of the fandom family, as well. A fellow geek. And you didn’t hurt your fellow geeks, nerds, and dorks. It just wasn’t done. End of story.

Ravenkroft fired his Disruptophazer at her in return, and her force-field blocked the blast. He came at her like a runaway freight-train, blasting at her and yelling with fury; the blasts all ricochetted off the force-field—or rather, most of them did. Dizzy leaped out of the way as he came at her, and one of the blasts got through as the force-field flickered out of existence momentarily; the blast 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 wound with her right gauntlet. Ravenkroft laughed, and punched her in the head as he closed the distance between them.

She 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, in other words—that reached up her back and connected the various pieces of the Exosuit together; it moved sinuously now to absorb the blow she’d sustained and distribute the force to the rest of the suit and refocus the tension in it so that she could spring back from it faster.

Her left arm sputtered and quirked as she lifted it, moving jerkily, the motors making unhealthy noises as she tried to move it. It worked—but just barely. She ticked and jerked it up into a fist and pulled it back with great effort, and then she whirled it around and socked him in the back of the head with it. Her fist made contact with his helmet, and he went stumbling forward and into the wall of the alleyway. He spun around, facing her. Dizzy pressed her advantage. She activated her suit’s Repulsivators; the pavement below her cracked open from the antigravity force slamming into it, and she soared toward 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 at her, dragging 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 fell upon them and drizzled down over the metal of their helmets and 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 grabbed at her and slithered around her body, grasping her like pythons. She looked into his eyes with grim determination. Maybe she couldn’t kill him . . . but he didn’t have to know that, now did he?

“Put me down, Weatherspark!” screamed Ravenkroft. “Release me at once! Or be crushed to death in a tin-can coffin!”

“Oh I don’t think you want me to do that,” said Dizzy. “You really don’t. Not from this height, at least. You go splat.”

She used her free hand to aim her left-wrist’s Disruptophazer at the left mechanical boot of his Exosuit, and fired. He was so bust concentrating on being held this high in the air that he didn’t mentally activate the force-field, and the shot went right through and hit its target. Sparks flew from the electromechanics mounted to the boot, and Ravenkroft screamed in protest. Dizzy fired at the other boot; the force-field kicked in this time. No matter; she had accomplished what she had aimed for. He couldn’t fly worth a crap, now. Not without both Repulsivator boots. Momentarily she shot out the Repulsivators under his arms, too . . . that took care of his suit’s main flight capabilities.

“Damn you, Weatherspark!” cried Ravenkroft, as he struggled. “Damn you Hell!” His tentacles, which had curled around her Exosuit and had tightened, bending and denting some of the metal superstructure here and there, relaxed their iron grip and slithered away from her.

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 just doesn’t sit well with me. Not well at all. 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’, songbird. ‘Cause I’m all ears.”

“Fine! No matter!” cried Ravenkroft. He laughed. “I’ll tell you. But it won’t make any difference, and I’ll tell you why, too. Dr. Joseph Michaelson is, currently, tied up—heh, get it? ‘Tied up?’ Heh!—waiting for you to rescue him—in the High Energy Laser Acceleration Lab at Miskatromyk University. But in thirty or so minutes, he won’t be.” He tittered laughter.

Uh, oh. That did not sound good. Dizzy knew this creature of darkness well enough to know an ominous overtone in his voice. Well enough to know a veiled threat from him when she heard one.

“What do you mean . . . ‘he won’t be,’’ she said, cautiously.

“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 through the cell-phone network of this city . . . which will be intercepted by the receiver I’ve set up in the Laser Lab, 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 worth of laser-power!” He broke into peels of laughter, throwing back his head and cackling, letting the rain fall onto his face and catching it in his mouth. “So you see, Weatherspark? It doesn’t matter. Even if I get what I want from you, he still dies. Now, be a good girl and tell me—where is the Tesseract Reactor?”

“You do realize,” she said, “that you’re not exactly in a position to be the one demanding the 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.

Dizzy hesitated. Could he be telling the truth? That laugh—it sounded just a little too sincerely mean and yet a little too carefree. As though he certainly had nothing to lose . . . but as though she did not.

“Then give it to me. Now, compadre,” she said.

“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.

“I’m warning you. I’m not interested in more of your ‘secrets,’” she said, shaking him. “I already know enough of them to give me the creeps for the next couple of centuries, thanks for playing.” She gave a mock shudder. “Yeesh.”

I know you won’t kill me, he whispered as he leaned even closer, and smiled wickedly. “I’ve known it for years. And also—this suit can still fly!

Before Dizzy could react, he engaged what had to be hidden, backup Repulsivators. He flipped sideways and tumbled through the air, taking Dizzy with him. She let go in an instant, and righted herself in the air using her own Repulsivators. He attempted to stabilize his flight and flew (mostly) straight at her, disengaging the remaining Repulsivator in his boot and just using those in his palms and elsewhere in his suit, and crashed into her mid-air in a giant bear-hug and 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.

Thinking quickly, before they spun out of all control and crashed into the building beneath, Dizzy concentrated for a brief few seconds, and mentally activated the magnetism sensors in her chest-piece, and determined the magnetic polarization of the large electromagnet surrounding Ravenkroft’s Zero-Point Energy Reactor in his suit’s chest-piece. Once discovered, she activated the neodymium electromagnet in her suit’s chest-piece—a large metal ring with wire coiled around it, surrounding the Zero-Point Energy Reactor there—and sent a massive amount of current flooding into its 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 in the air 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 feet-first. A moment later, Ravenkroft crashed to the ground in front of her. His tentacles and their pincers caught the force of the impact as he hit the pavement; sparks flew from the pincers.

Dizzy pressed the advantage. She strode up to where he lay, and 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 Energy 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. Or at least the part of you that sees yourself as one. So, I win by default. 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.

“Ye gods, 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 four tentacles, and rushed toward her, firing both his Disruptophazers at her; five of his shots missed because he fired in such blind fury and did so while running at her. Her force-field held through the three shots that hit home. Dizzy aimed her Disruptophazers at him and though she knew it was hopeless, fired on stun anyway, three times—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. The bastard knew how to fight, dammit. When in 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 at her. “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.

Then again . . . no, that was too dangerous: Beam mode was highly unstable, and could backfire on her and cause a chain reaction that could destabilize all the atomic bonds in her body, a chain reaction stretching out for as wide as a radius as the charge in the Repulsivator would allow it to cover. So no, that really wasn’t an option, at this point.

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 . . . and take photos of them and do the same with those . . . 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 danged odd, considering that Ravenkroft’s primary beef was with her father, and what had happened thirteen years ago between the two of them and Misto . . . Those events were Misto and her father’s deepest, darkest secret from a chapter in their lives that both of them would’ve rather forgotten. She had only learned of them when Ravenkroft had first attacked her, six years ago. How dare they not tell her about it; how could they keep something like that from her? How could they let her idolize them, lionize them, with a dark shadow like that looming over their past? Well. No matter now. Bloody water under the bridge. What mattered now—right now—was stopping Ravenkroft from hurting a bunch of innocent people, and of course, stopping that countdown. (How many minutes had elapsed by now? Could he be trusted to have told the truth about the countdown?) Even if that meant exposing the secret of his existence to the public and the police . . . and exposing her own identity as a  vigilante superhero . . . and therefore, jeopardizing the public image of her father’s company, and—of course—her job status there. Right. No pressure.

She dove through the air after Ravenkroft, and they landed right in the middle of the crooked intersection between Broadway and Third. The pavement beneath her boots cracked 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 the two of them, the flow of traffic parting around them 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. “Don’t you frakking dare!

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 slobberknocker we’re engaged in, you and I. You could join me, for instance. 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 at them 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 dull and 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 to deal with. 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 schwanz, simply 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 sounded its horn at him. 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—I get that, I do. There is such wonderful symmetry in that. You see yourself as the hero, serving the forces of justice that the moral arc of the universe always supposedly bends toward. 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 fill you with righteousness to see yourself as the kind of caped crusader whose four-color adventures you grew up idolizing? 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 that respect, we’re not so different, you and I. 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. Now. One last time. Give me that countdown timer.”

“Oh I don’t think so,” he said, and fired his Disruptophazer into a red Toyota Sienna minivan on full power. The minivan exploded into an enormous raging fireball. Metal, wheels, engine parts, and plastic went everywhere—and so did the people inside it. The doors went flying off, the windshield shattering, the bodies of the people inside on fire and screaming as they went flying out of the vehicle, catapulted into the air in five different directions . . . two of the flaming, flailing bodies those of just children. Dizzy clenched her fists in raw anger. The 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 driver; people getting out of their cars; people staring at them; people screaming at the fiery, charred bodies that had crashed down onto the initial crashed cars; fire and chaos; and the remains of the minivan scattered all over, the smoldering metal carcass still on fire where it had stopped dead in its tracks . . . and Ravenkroft, still standing there, smiling at her, daring her to act in front of all these people.

It was hard to contrast the previous “lightness”—if it could be called that—of their encounter so far with the hideous grimdark of the present moment, the terrible gruesomeness of the crime he had just committed. The horrifying darkness that he had just unleashed on both of them. She couldn’t cope with this. She doubled over and vomited. Those kids . . . their faces. Their screams . . .

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, now. People were filming them on their cell-phones. Dammit—this was just what she had wanted to avoid!

“Do you want to know the real problem with people like you, Weatherspark?” cried Ravenkroft, clearly unnerved by the fact that she now had a fan club. “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 things to stay just as they are, the status to remain quo. You fight to uphold the slave morality of the weak, and in doing so, you cripple the central mechanism of evolution, which arises from conflict between paragons of noble virtue. You want a humankind that is soft . . . sympathetic . . . timid, made weak by its dependence on technology, just as you are! Without your suit, you are but a crippled girl in a wheelchair, and without its technology, the humankind you wish to create is just as helpless and servile. 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 choose to 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 like volcanic fire, the lava spilling through her veins and rushing outward from her heart, the forge at her core, the sparks flying from it and catching everything else inside of her on fire. By contrast, the hatred was like ice; but it did not cool the flames. Instead, it burned as well . . . a biting, searing cold that bit and gnawed, a chilling freeze that enveloped her and snow-blinded her to all other thoughts but one: Killing him would feel so damned good. She didn’t care about Viktor. Or about his ties to her father. Or anything else. Run at him, the fire and ice commanded. Put the Disruptophazer to his throat, the volcanic lava boiled. Blow his gods-danged brains out, burned the ice. End him for good, screamed the frost and the forge in unison, an unholy choir singing to her, beckoning her to action.

She screamed, a primal yell of fury, and ran at him, full speed, her head down, her fists clenched. He fired his Disruptophazers at her; the force-field absorbed the shots, dissipating them, and she made contact, tackling him to the pavement; his tentacles caught the two of them and buoyed them up like a spider’s legs. She wailed on him—punching him right in the face-plate of his helmet repeatedly as the tentacles heaved and tossed them over onto the pavement; 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 from it. She continued to scream, and scream, and punch, and punch as they slammed into the pavement together, then 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 help of the tentacles to steady him. Dizzy scrambled to her feet and fired her Disruptophazers at him rapid-fire, one then the other, 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; some of the shots, however, got through. 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?”

“I must say,” he said, curling his lips into a smile, his eyes glancing into hers, “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.”

Dizzy was on the verge of sending the mental command to the Disruptophazer—telling the suit’s onboard computer to fire—but she stopped.

Could she do this?

Really?

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

No.

She did not.

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

Maybe that made her weak. Maybe that made her incapable of doing what needed to be done. Maybe that made her a lesser hero. Maybe that made her a lot of things. Oh well . . . she didn’t care. There would be no premeditated murder here tonight. Dizzy 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, longing to be free and to rampage. To kill. But, no. No. Even if that fact did slightly annoy her.

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

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

“No,” she said. “You think you know where it is. For now.”

“Heh,” he said. “Right.”

“You want the Tesseract Reactor?” she said, glowering at him, her fists clenched. “Fine. Come and 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 and saw those two poor children, their bodies on fire; heard their screams; saw them landing on those cars. 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 sky. He would follow her. Because of course he would.

The “Tesseract Reactor”—or so she herself had dubbed it, based on experiments she had conducted upon it—was among the most intriguing things her father’s company had discovered aboard the alien ship they had found buried in the Arctic ice. How had Ravenkroft  found out about it? Perhaps he had been doing some clever hacking, or, perhaps the company had an internal security leak. She would have to do some investigating. The ship in the ice carbon-dated to thirty-thousand years, and it had sent the research teams into a frenzy of mad curiosity. The Tesseract Reactor itself looked something like a larger version of the old-style Apple Mac Pro computer circa 2013—a shiny obsidian cylinder with rounded corners on the top and bottom, but with no visible controls. Or if you wanted a more prosaic description—a large, shiny black trash can with rounded corners on it, but solid, with no openings, and with a glass screen on one end. However, it responded positively to electricity and electromagnetic fields. It also responded to people who had tested positive for psychokinetic, telepathic, and precognitive abilities. (Mjölnir Dynamics had always taken the paranormal sciences seriously, unlike their competitors and many other scientific research firms.) And, when exposed to an electromagnetic field of the right frequency—and this remained a closely-guarded secret (though obviously not too well-guarded, if Ravenkroft knew about it)—the Reactor could slow down or accelerate the flow of time in a given area, and could open portals through space over short distances. Still, those were mere “side functions”; they still hadn’t hit upon the Reactor’s true purpose, or its actual, main function. Nope, that remained a mystery. One she intended to solve, one day. But for now, she had to pick a landing spot, somewhere she could fight Ravenkroft where civilians wouldn’t be harmed or in danger; or at least, where they would be in less danger . . .

Ah, that looked like a 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 in the air, the electrogravitic thrust from her palm-Repulsivators slowing her descent, and landed feet-first. The Repulsivators in her boots positively murdered the cracked 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 . . . own 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 that she risked killing him in the process. She could probably wound him, by first getting through the Exosuit, but not without doing enough damage to—again—risk killing him. Frak. 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, yes, but it was the only weapon she had left that stood a chance of taking him down. That was that, then. She sent the Exosuit the mental commands necessary to reconfigure the Repulsivator via the synaptic interface in her helmet. She momentarily—and  somewhat painfully—remembered how it had taken her over a year to master the psychic gymnastics and “command code structure” necessary to mentally “talk” to the suit’s onboard computer.

“What can I say, she said. “I’m like Lieutenant Saavik in Star Trek II. 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.

A radiant, purple-white shaft of brilliant light erupted from out of her palm-mounted Repulsivators and launched itself at Ravenkroft. It cut through the night air like a glowing razor 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 on the pavement, yellow sparks erupting between his Exosuit and the pavement. He lay there, motionless, his tentacles also not moving.

Dizzy could hardly believe it. It had worked. And she was still standing there, alive. The Repulsivators smoked. They might still work after this . . . she would have to see in a minute or two. But first, the countdown timer. Dear gods, was she too late? She ran toward Ravenkroft’s unconscious form. When she reached him, she saw that he was, indeed, knocked out. His suit was inactive; all the status-indicator lights inside his glass face-plate were off; the tentacles were dormant; no humming, whirring, clicking, or ticking sounds came from the suit, and none of its gears or wheels moved. He was out of commission. For the moment, at least.

She hurriedly 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 the wrist of her gauntlet, there popped a long Phillips head screwdriver. She stuck it into the first of the screws holding the abdominal section in place; it began whirring and spinning. One by one she quickly removed the thirty-two tiny screws there and let them roll wherever they wanted to go. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She removed the abdominal section of his Exosuit, dragging wires and sensors along with it, and then dug beneath it, 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, when she had been just a teenager—into the countdown timer. She grabbed it, and yanked it free of his waistcoat, breaking the golden chain that attached it to it. She let out a long, slow breath. Had she been holding it? She hadn’t realized.

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 hour and minute hands and the clock face. The hands whirled around quickly, the minute hand whooshing by, obviously counting off seconds . . . while the hour hand crept by, counting minutes. If she interpreted what she was seeing 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?” she thought. 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. But, I could do this all day and second-guess myself into madness, and Misto into oblivion. So there’s only one logical choice, one logical thing to do . . .

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

He blinked his eyes behind his inactive face-plate. “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. It weighed him down, and he remained stuck on the pavement like a shelled 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 and pressed down. “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 though I would ever tell you!” he cried. “Ha! Figure it out on your own!”

“Nah, can’t do that,” she said. 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.

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

“My morality,” she said, the anger rising in her again and practically dripping from her tongue, her heart beginning to beat faster and faster as she glanced at the hands of the pocket-watch again—less than a minute left now—“won’t let Misto die in that laser accelerator. You, compared to him, are totally expendable, Viktor. Now tell me. Which fucking button.

He appeared to think for a moment, his eyes growing larger as he stared at her, looking her in the eye, perhaps truly understanding that she dang well meant what she said. She clenched her left fist, and held the Disruptophazer steady, aimed right at his face-plate. She swallowed. Could she do it? Could she really carry out her threat? Ravenkroft licked his lips, opened his mouth, then closed it.

“Green,” he said at last. “Green deactivates the countdown.”

Dizzy nodded, hesitated for a brief second, then made her decision. She pushed the red button, and the hands of the pocket-watch froze in place with only seconds left in the countdown. 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. Thank the gods. Every god. Oh, sweet Jesus, Shiva, Buddha, Allah, whoever, wherever, whatever . . . thank you.

She had been right; he had lied to her. She turned her eyes to Ravenkroft, glared at him balefully, and grinned a savage grin. She stood up, taking her knee off of his chest-piece, and threw the pocket-watch at him. It hit his chest-piece and broke, the glass in the watch-face shattering, the circuit-board cracking as it bounced off of him and hit the pavement beside him, clattering away.

“I-za win, you-za lose!” she said in a bright, chipper tone, and walked away. She turned to face him, and put her gauntleted fingers to her forehead in the shape of an L, the motors of her Exosuit whirring as she did so. “Lah-hoo, zah-hurr! She laughed, and pointed at him.Giant, freaking, big-time lah-hoo, zah-hurr! Ha! Ha-ha! You actually thought I was going to shoot you!

Her conscience stung her like a wasp. She had just lied, in a way . . . because she had been ready to shoot him. But what difference would one more dead body have made? Had he not (inadvertently) told her which button was which, and Misto had been lasered into oblivion, would his death have brought Misto back? Would his death have solved anything? Would it, really, have assuaged her grief in any way? Or would it have only added additional feelings of guilt and remorse, to be dealt with later on, after the initial feelings of grief and sadness had passed through her and torn her to pieces? Yeah, it would have. Definitely. And yeah, she had been ready to kill him. For a moment, she had been just. Like. Him. And yeah, that would probably stick with her for a while. Maybe for the rest of her days on this Earth. Dammit.

“I did indeed,” 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?”

“My Reactor is now back online.” 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 at her, three shots each. Dizzy tried to leap out of the way, but they came too quickly; two zoomed past her, but four of them slammed home—two hit her force-field and dissipated. But the other two got through. One hit her left leg and sparks flew from the mechanisms there. She fell to the ground with a cry of pain—the metal on her leg was suddenly very hot, the wires, tubing, and gears there utterly mangled by his blast. She could still move it—miracle of miracles—but the motors twitched and sputtered. The other shot hit her shoulder-piece, and blew off the armor there, exposing the Exosuit’s mechanisms. As he fired the shots at her, he also ran at her, closing the fifteen feet of distance between them quickly, and threw a hard, robotically-augmented punch right at her chest-piece, hitting her just above her Zero-Point Energy Reactor. She went flailing backwards, stumbling, tripped over the cracks in the concrete her Repulsivators had caused when she had landed, and fell backwards, her Exosuit’s spinal assembly hitting the pavement hard.

“Well now,” she managed, wincing in pain—the force of the impact of her back hitting the pavement 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 pavement. 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 to me that he has no knowledge of the Reactor’s whereabouts. So for now I will bid you ‘adieu,’ Weatherspark. We will meet again. And soon. Oh—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. Good evening, Weatherspark.”

He stepped off of her chest, and walked a few paces away. Dizzy clambered to her feet as he engaged his Repulsivators, and blasted off into the night sky, rocketing into the clouds. She started to blast off as well, to follow him, but then realized—Misto. He was still tied up, in the Laser Accelerator chamber at Miskatromyk U. She had to see to him, had to see that he was okay. Gods only knew what else Ravenkroft had done to him: Maybe injected him with something to make him docile? Maybe beaten him up? Maybe otherwise hurt him somehow? Crippled him? No, she couldn’t follow Ravenkroft. She had to attend to Misto, first.

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 still did Misto. Ravenkroft wouldn’t have taken it off hi, because he wouldn’t understand its significance; he would’ve mistaken it for just a piece of fandom-related junk.

She glanced down. Luckily, Ravenkroft hadn’t damaged the communicator pin during the fight. 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. In response, it twittered a loud electronic chirping sound. Good, it still worked.

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. 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 probably 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 changed.

“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,’ even though we both know it’s a lie.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She looked up in the sky 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 vigilant and eternal watch over the city. It would’ve looked cool with a Bat Signal projected across its surface, but maybe that was just her. No wonder Misto had changed; he changed almost every time there was a full moon, but not exactly every time, thanks to the antidote Dizzy had managed to synthesize. One of the disadvantages of being a werewolf . . . and one of the numerous reasons why Mutagenesis X-119 needed to be destroyed forever. One injection thirteen years ago had done this to him. She spoke again to the empty air. “Looks like we’ll have to step up the treatments of the antidote potion to three times a day, then, instead of just two.”

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

“Aye, indeed, ’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 get there and put it in manually. But I need you to dress a few wounds . . . and we gotta hurry, because there’s that potential recruit for that special team I’m—well, we’re—assembling—who I plan on meeting when she gets—”

The alleyway flooded with the blinding radiance of a bright floodlight—not to mention the pulsating red, white, and blue lights that adorned the tops of the two police cruisers that now pulled into it—and then came the whoop and wail of their sirens. Dizzy raised a gauntlet to shield her eyes from the brilliance of the light. She backed up a few paces. Cops. 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!” said another voice. 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 other 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 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 at this!”

She quickly stuck out the palms of her hands. The electromagnetic pulse came swiftly, blowing up the dashboards in their cars, frying their radios and dash-cams, and melting their cars’ electrical systems. The strobe lights mounted in her fingertips went off like electrical firecrackers and blinded the two officers as the Repulsivators all over her suit—and those in her boots—all fired in the same general direction at the same time and she blasted off into the night sky like a bullet shot from a gun, destroying the pavement beneath her. Actual gunshots rang out beneath her as the cops—poor hapless creatures that they were—fired at her. Dang but she loved making a dramatic exit! There was a slight possibility that the cops would try to identify her. But so what? Even if they did, who were people going to believe—two run-of-the-mill beat cops on patrol on a Friday night, with positively zero evidence to speak of, or the Head of the Special Projects Division of the largest tech conglomerate this side of Google? Heh, right . . . she was voting for her, in that situation.

She cruised along through the clouds, the wind and rain against her face-plate, and quickly formed a plan. First, get to Miskatromyk U. Get to Misto. Untie him, see that he’s okay. 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 that person to get off work . . . if her observations of this person turned out to hold up. Right. And, this coming week was PhantasmagoriCON XVIII . . . her and Misto's absolute favorite time of year, when they got to dress up in costume—though really, she was already in costume, wasn’t she?—and go and 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 the case, 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 . . . just children . . . )

But, first things first . . . she had see to Misto. Dang but she was glad he was okay! Thank the gods for that! 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 kid beating in the body of a fifty-four-year-old African-American man 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 in general just as much as Dizzy did. He was a big, dorky sci-fi and fantasy geek by hook or by crook, and fancied himself a pirate sailing the high-seas of fandom. A misfit, just like her, who adored fantastical fiction from every era, from the forties on up to the aughts, 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 and figure out eventually, given enough time to think carefully and cleverly. The two of them had enjoyed endless debates on topics ranging from the proper 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 in fact a giant Platonic construct. They were two peas in the same 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.

Dear, dear Misto. Thank the gods and the heavens he was safe. Well, for now at least. Until Ravenkroft attacked again.

Ravenkroft. Seven years ago, she hadn’t even known he existed. Now he threatened her life, and Misto’s life. And her father’s life, too . . . though he was way out in Nevada, working at Area 51, theoretically the most well-guarded military installation in the entire world; there was no way Ravenkroft was getting in there. So her dad was safe, at least. For now. But her and Misto? Not so much. Where had Ravenkroft come from, she had wondered? Well, after questioning her father and Misto—though savagely grilling them was probably a better way of putting it—Dizzy had gotten the answers she needed.

 

About thirteen years ago, Misto—or as they knew him, Dr. Joseph Michaelson—her father, Dr. Walter Weatherspark, and Dr. Viktor Fearneurovolt, along with Dr. Fearneurovolt’s then-wife, Dr. Anastasia Arkenvalen, had been messing around with the idea of accelerated evolution, or enhanced predictive genetic adaptiveness. In other words, they had wanted to use artificial intelligence and generative algorithms to predict which changes might happen next in a species’ genomic development, based on which changes had occurred in its evolutionary history, and which changes might happen after that, and so on, with the probabilistic decision-tree growing ever more random the further out from the present generation one extrapolated, while controlling for that randomness using advanced neural networks and possibly even using quantum computing. And then, they wanted to apply those mutations now, in the present generation, to a living, fully-grown organism, instead of waiting for the species to evolve naturally, or even waiting for one to grown in-utero.

What was more, they figured out a way to “program” the probabilistic decision-tree so that the mutations that occurred did so along a prescribed trajectory “towards” a privileged set of outcomes, or at least adhered as closely as possible to a prescribed “outcome-template” In other words, they had found a way to bend the curve of evolution so that mere apes could become semi-sentient para-humans . . . or quasi-sentient cat-people, thanks to their distant relationship with felines . . . or almost-sentient rat-people, thanks to the fact that apes did in fact have DNA in common with rats . . . or, could come as close as possible to something in-between all of the above. Or—and this was where the trouble had really started—the serum could possibly even turn ordinary Humans into Superhumans, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men and women. Nietzsche’s most fevered dreams come true at long last.

At least, theoretically. It had turned out to be dangerously unstable, its results wildly unpredictable. Which had been why Misto, her father, and Viktor had all warned Anastasia not to jump the gun and inject herself with it. But she had. And, she had done so without specifying an outcome scenario. She had told the supercomputing grid in charge of the “nanonic genobots” in the serum to simply “evolve her” toward some distant “apotheosis” of Human “perfection” without really specifying what that meant. And the computers had obeyed—or had tried to, at least.

What Anastasia had ended up as had been . . . hideous, terrifying. Now a powerful psionic—the serum had granted her telepathic and telekinetic powers—as well as driven insane, and given dramatically increased strength, speed, dexterity, agility, and healing powers, Anastasia had fled the laboratory, and had gone on a murder spree across the city of Cambridge, and then across Boston, and then back to Cambridge again.

Viktor had railed at Walter, blaming him for his influence on Anastasia, blaming him for all of it, telling him it was his fault this had happened . . . that he had led them down this path. Poor Viktor worried himself to death over Anastasia’s fate, not eating, not sleeping, fearing more for her life than for those of her victims. The police had been baffled at the grisly nature—and strange methodology—of the murders, but Viktor, Walter, and Misto had known right away who had been the culprit. They had embarked on their own investigation, and had carefully tracked her movements, hoping to capture her. Viktor became terrified of what would happen when they finally had to face her. With Misto’s help, Walter built a set of weapons designed to take Anastasia down—a specialized electromagnetic pulse-blaster that would disrupt her neurophysics; special helmets they could wear that would shield them from her ability to read their thoughts—just in case they came face-to-face with her again. Viktor refused to be armed with one of the blasters, saying it could kill her. Misto did what he could to comfort his friend. They continued to track her, but as always, she eluded them.

Six months later, with no luck in locating her, the disappearances started. Children at first. Then adults. Then primates from zoos and labs—chimps, apes, monkeys, baboons, gorillas—and equipment from laboratories, lab supply companies, and hardware stores. The threesome became convinced it was all Anastasia’s doing; the events fit within the areas she had frequented for victims, and the events all had the same strange, unexplained elements in common. But everywhere they turned, Anastasia was one step ahead, and they were one step behind. According to Misto, Viktor grew desperate, despondent, and began to grow distant from his friends . . .

Also, suffering in all of this, was Viktor’s relationship with his stepdaughter, Rojetta. When he had married Anastasia, Rojetta, then only five years old in 2002, had come along for the ride. By the time all this had happened, in 2014, she had been a rebellious sixteen year old in high school, and had railed at her father for “losing mom to some fucked up mad science experiment.” She turned against Walter, according to what Misto had told her, hating the man so thoroughly that the looks she gave him could have melted iron; but she reserved her deepest scorn for Viktor, who had—to quote what her father had overheard one night—“dragged mom into your world of screwed-up shit,” and had “turned her into some kind of messed-up freak of nature,” and who “now wanted to fucking go after and or kill my goddamn mother, the woman you swore in front of God and me to love, honor, and protect! Fuck you, asshole!” And then she had slammed her bedroom door, and cried herself to sleep. Two years later, at age eighteen, she would leave for college, to live in the dorms at Miskatromyk U, where Viktor still taught at the time (though his teaching career, by that time, was on its last legs and its last shallow breath, because by then, according to Misto, his sanity had reached its breaking point). She would return home, but would not stay there. Rumor had it there was abuse involved once she came back from Miskatromyk U. She had died three years ago, according to her father; her boyfriend at the time, a man named Krycek, was the chief suspect. They had never found her body.

Just when things had appeared their bleakest, and Anastasia had appeared a lost cause, they had a breakthrough: Misto had happened to notice, one night, that high up on the craggy, forested hilltop across from Miskatromyk University’s campus, in the old abandoned mental institution—Saint Mungojerry’s Hospital For The Mentally Infirm—a light burned in the gothic, arched windows. He would later say that he knew at that moment—knew, in his gut—that they would find Anastasia there. So they had investigated, gone up there . . . and sure enough, she had been there, and had set up a laboratory of her own there. Viktor had protested about wearing one of the blasters, but Walter had forced him into it.

They had confronted Anastasia at the old mental institution. There had been a fight; she had had her two gorilla henchmen—whom she had evolved toward semi-sentience—take them into custody and had held them at gunpoint while she had monologued about her plans for the Human Race, which she saw now saw as inferior and needing to evolve to her level . . . and which she planned on “helping achieve her heights of ascension” by releasing large quantities of the serum into the city’s drinking water. At the last, Misto had managed to overpower one of the gorilla henchmen, and had created a diversion . . . during which there had been a struggle . . . and something had happened. A blaster had been fired, and Anastasia had been gravely wounded, knocked out, nearly killed, her mind scrambled by the beam. As she lay there, near death on the floor, Viktor had cradled her unconscious form, and had screamed curses at his friends, wishing them to Hell and back for what “they” had done to his wife.

They had taken her back to town. The only solution—in order to save what rapidly-fading life she had left in her—had been to put her into a state of advanced suspended animation, and there was only one way to do that: The cryo-animastasis chamber that Walter had developed at Mjölnir Dynamics. And there she had stayed, for the last twelve years, kept in Viktor’s custody, Dizzy’s father had told her—where, neither he nor Misto knew.

Two other things of note had happened that night. During the battle with Anastasia, she had injected Misto with a vial of the serum. The effects hadn’t been noticeable at first, but that month, during the first full moon, that was when Misto had changed for the first time, and had gone on a rampage across the campus. No one had been hurt—just some coeds frightened out of their wits, that was all—but Misto had been worse for the wear. Ever since, Walter had been working on an antidote. And now she worked on one, as well. The boys in the pharmaceutical division at Mjölnir didn’t exactly know what it was she had them concocting under her careful supervision, but they knew it was weird, and they were starting to ask pesky questions . . .

The other thing that had happened that night was that after Anastasia had been shot, and had fallen into her coma—and after he had cursed them to the pits of Hell—a strange but subtle change had overtaken Viktor. He seemed to startle easily for a few moments, and to suddenly “wake up” as though from a dream, and to not know where he was. Or when he was. It was as though for a couple of hours, the entire confrontation with Anastasia had, for him, not happened at all. As though it had been somehow wiped from his memory, and that only bits and pieces now remained. That night, when Rojetta had found out what had happened, she had screamed at him through her tears for an hour, screamed at Walter and Misto as well, and had generally just had a nervous breakdown. Misto said he had tried to comfort her, but little could be done . . . she had just lost her mother, after all, and now, worse yet, her mother’s lifeless—well, for the most part—body had just been brought home to her in a glass sarcophagus, to remain there in her father’s personal laboratory until a way could be found to revive her. Rojetta had packed her bags haphazardly and, adding to Viktor’s trauma, had run away from home that very night, stalking off into the rain crying with only fifty dollars in her pocket and one of Viktor’s credit cards. He had been so distraught he hadn’t tried to stop her. She would not return for a year, and Viktor would cry himself to sleep every night worried about her.

Over the next two years, Viktor’s relationship with Walter and Misto would grow more and more tenuous as Viktor gradually withdrew from society, and eventually quit teaching and quit going out altogether. The trust fund his parents had left him when they had died would more than sustain him, but still, his old friends worried about him. Rojetta came back home. She stayed for a year, then went off to Miskatromyk U. She avoided her father until he finally left the University in disgrace; something about “illegal experiments.” He shut himself away, and closed the doors on his friendships. All in all, it was a sad story.

And then, from out of nowhere, Ravenkroft had appeared. Viktor’s evil “alter.” Ravenkroft, who had it in for Dizzy’s father, and for Misto. And apparently, for Dizzy as well, because she was an extension of her father. Or perhaps because he knew that by hurting her, and Misto, he could do even greater, more tortuous damage to Walter than he could by simply hurting the man himself. Ravenkroft was far trickier, nastier, darker, and more violent than Viktor had ever even thought about being. He was one evil son of a bitch. But he had other motives other than just hurting the three of them . . .

Ravenkroft wanted Humanity to “evolve.” And he wanted to be the one pulling the evolutionary strings. He wanted to control Humanity’s destiny, and wanted to guide Humanity toward its “evolutionary apotheosis,” whatever that meant. And he wanted to see Humanity struggle in the course of it; he wanted to see fighting, and suffering . . . presumably because Viktor had struggled, and suffered. He wanted the world to revert to a realm of pure social, economic, and biological Darwinism, where paragon fought paragon for dominance . . . but with him being the god on high who chose the paragons, him being the one who programmed the fights, him being the one who set up the rules of engagement and set the stage for the struggle. In short, he wanted the world to be his personal genetic playground, his personal laboratory, and he wanted the Human Race to be reborn in his image, according to his design. The guy was frakkin’ looney tunes, all right.

 

“Thanks Diz,” said Misto, as she fired her Disruptophazer at the handcuffs on his wrists, at point-blank range. A flash of purple-white light, and the chain melted, as did the mechanisms. Misto winced and shook his hands. “Ow shit! I’m gonna need some burn cream, now!”

“Oh come on, ya big galoot,” she said, smiling at him. The motors in her helmet whirred and her face-plate lifted up and away from her face. “They’re just first-degree burns. You can deal with ‘em. We’ve both had worse. In fact, I’ve had worse, tonight. Look at what he did to my frakkin’ Exosuit! It’s trashed!”

“Yeah,” said Misto, “sad to say, but it is. Look, can we get the hell outta here? This place is givin’ me the creeps. Funny, to think I helped champion the funding to get this thing built, and now all I wanna do is get as far away from it as possible.” A kindly-looking African-American man in his fifties, Misto was nearly bald, with curly, white hair at the edges of his scalp and dwindling toward his ears and neck. His face was crinkled with crow’s feet near his eyes, but smile-lines around his mouth and at the edges of them; kind eyes, eyes that exuded the glow of a caring and abiding soul, placed in a face used to laughing and telling jokes. He wore round, wire-rim spectacles—Dizzy retrieved them for him from where Ravenkroft had thrown them on the floor—that he had worn since age eleven.

“Oh? I rather like it,” she said, taking a look around. “Sorta reminds me of Cerebro from the X-Men movies. A few throw-pillows, some flowers . . . it’d be very homey in here.”

They were inside the fusion-ignition chamber of the Laser Accelerator at Miskatromyk University, a gigantic spherical room, its round walls made of bright, blue, metallic sectional panels, with the actual laser-ports—large, funnel-like nozzles about a foot in diameter, wrapped in coils of metal coolant tubing—punctuating the round sectional pieces at sixty-degree angles, and all of them aimed at the exact center of the chamber. The wooden chair that Misto had been tied to sat near one of the funnel-nozzles, with the laser aimed exactly where his face would have been had he remained seated. The chamber was dimly lit, and had a large, metal blast door that matched the curvature of the walls leading into it. Presently it stood open, leading out into the brick and mortar hallway that wound back underground, and eventually led to the basement of the Electrical Engineering building on the Miskatromyk University campus . . . which was where, oddly enough, Misto’s office was located. Office hours were from two to four, Mondays and Wednesdays, though he usually had to extend those. Misto was the most popular physics professor the campus had ever hosted. His students loved him—almost as much as she loved him. And dang . . . that was saying something.

“Well you weren’t almost cooked to death by it,” said Misto. “C’mon. Let’s blow this popsicle stand, Diz.”

“Y’know, I’ve always found that expression troubling and perverse,” said Dizzy, as they filed out through the blast door. Once they were on the other side, Dizzy flipped the circuit breaker that extinguished the lights in the chamber, and shut and locked the blast door. She didn’t want undergrads or frat boys messing around in there. They could get hurt. But ah, the good old Laser Accelerator. She smiled. She had done many experiments with it during her time here as a doctoral student. Good times. Sure, it had almost just fried her best friend, but . . . the technology itself was innocent. It was the asshole who had misused it with whom she had a beef.

“Yeah, well,” he said, “me too. So how about this one—let’s make like Ents, and leave.”

“Okay, I like that hella better; it’s more fannish,” she said, as they walked down the hall. Dizzy limped along beside him, favoring the leg Ravenkroft had shot her in. She winced at a sudden pain in her neck and cricked it to the side, trying to work it out. “I need to get back to Mjölnir, to the "Dizzy" Factory. So I can take this thing off, Misto. It hurts to move in it right now. Funny, I spend most of my time so glad that I don’t have to be in that gods-danged wheelchair, but now all I can think of is how good it will feel to sit down for an hour or so before I have to put on Mark XIII and go back out again.”

“You’re going back out again? Tonight? But it’s four-thirty in the morning!”

“I know,” she said, and sighed again, “but I have to meet her. I have to find her, and meet her, Misto. It’s quite important. I need to get this new team together, and soon, and this girl—I don’t quite know how yet—but she is the key. This Trillian Deschain girl; she’s important. Or will be. I just know it, somehow. Something’s going to happen soon, and we have to be ready for it. I can feel it. Like Obi Wan Kenobi, I feel a great disturbance in the Force.”

“Oh come off it,” he said. “There’s no such thing as the Force.”

“Oh no?” she said, raising an eyebrow. “Don’t be such a Mundane. Mjölnir Dynamics has pumped zillions of dollars into paranormal research, Misto. And then there’s the way the Tesseract Reactor acts in the presence of people who’ve tested positive for paranormal abilities. You’ve seen the data. Heckin’, you’ve written the equations that explain the frakkin’ data. So if I say I feel a disturbance in the motherfrakkin’ Force, you best shut yo motherfrakkin’ mouth and motherfrakkin’ listen . . . Motherfrakker. Yo.”

“You’ve got quite a mouth on you tonight. And don’t ever call me a Mundane.”

“Yeah, well gettin’ the holy livin’ dog-snot beaten out of you will do that to you, I guess. And sorry I implied you were a Mundane.”

“You didn’t imply it. You said it.”

“Oh, well, yeah. Guess I did. Sorry ‘bout that.”

“It’s . . . okay. You’re . . . under a lot of stress. I’d rub your shoulders for you, but you’re wearing three hundred pounds of alluzinium.”

“Yeah, it kinda gets in the way of personal contact. I kinda like it that way, to be honest.” She smiled at him, and put a mechanical arm around him and grasped his shoulder with the fingers of her gauntlet, as she continued to limp along beside him. The motors in her bad leg twitched. “What would I do without you, though. Like I said earlier, I do have some wounds that need dressing. Like one on this arm that hurts like a son of a bitch. He shot me. He shot me, can you believe it?”

“Well, he is the villain. That’s what villains do.”

“No, no, I mean the force-field still needs work. Can we check the math again? Maybe we could check over the field dynamics tensor equations? See if that funky Russian calculus you use threw off the—?”

“Hey, my math is perfect, soul-sistah, he said to her, somewhat defensively. “It’s your implementation of it that’s wonky. First of all, we reverse-engineered the force-fields from circuits that Ravenkroft designed . . . so there’s that. And his design was freaking weird. And then you went and reinforced that with alien technology that we don’t fully understand yet. I mean sure, you say you’ve figured out the ship’s electrogravitic thrusters . . . that’s where you got the Repulsivators from. And they work great. Well, I mean, beam mode is still being a bitch, but other than that, they work pretty well. But the force-fields . . . that’s another leap. You’re going too fast, Diz. You need to slow down.

“Nope, can’t do it,” she said, and shook her head. “He’s out there, Misto. He’s got my tech, and he’s out there doing harm with it. I can’t stand by and let that happen. I have to escalate my defense in order to cope with his offense. It’s the only way. Do you get that? And if that means diving deeper into the ship and figuring out it’s mysteries quicker, then that’s what I’ll do, by all the gods.”

“Yeah, I get that,” said Misto. “But you need to be careful, is all I’m saying. Just . . . be careful.”

“And oh yeah, “ she said. “That’s another thing. The Reactor.”

“Yeah, he wanted to know where he could find it,” said Misto. He pointed to his blackened, bruised eye, and the cut on his forehead, and the one on his cheek. “That’s how I got these.” Dizzy immediately felt awful; she hadn’t even noticed his wounds until now. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I didn’t tell him anything.”

“Good,” she said, her voice quiet and soft, as she stopped to stare at him a moment. “That’s . . . Thank you, Misto. You didn’t . . . you didn’t have to put yourself through that, you know.”

“I know,” he said, and shrugged, and they continued walking, her limping, him supporting her. “I coulda saved my own skin, I guess. But where’s the nobility in that? Plus this way I get to hold it over your head for, like, the rest of both our natural lives, right?” He smiled at her and winked.

“Oh definitely,” she said, and grinned at him. “And me rescuing you, that . . . I supposed that doesn’t count, right? You ungrateful frak.”

“Oh of course not,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s just what superheroes do, right? That’s, like, your whole job description. Your gimmick.

“So I’m a superhero now. Huh. Een-teresting.”

“Well sure you are! Don’t you watch YouTube?”

“Ugh. Don’t remind me those videos exist! There’s probably three dozen more of them after tonight’s little scene on Broadway!” She suddenly felt a quiet come over her, and a chill went up her spine as she thought of the exploding minivan. She swallowed, not wanting to relive it, but spoke anyway. “He killed an entire family tonight. On Broadway. Right in front of me, Misto. He shot a minivan with kids in it, and blew it to flaming pieces. I saw their faces, Misto. They were screaming. They were on fire, and they were screaming . . . They flew through the air, and . . . God, Misto, they were just kids . . . And oh, shit.  Get me to the bathroom, dude. I think I have to puke—again.”

“It’s uh . . . it’s this way, remember?” he said, and they turned a corner. Sure enough, up ahead, they saw signs indicating restrooms. They were almost back in the Electrical Engineering building’s basement.

Dizzy quick-limped ahead and into the women’s bathroom, and into one of the stalls. She knelt down in front of the toilet, grabbed onto the sides of the bowl, closed her eyes, and retched; she felt and tasted more of her dinner from last night—tacos from Taco Bell, refried beans with cheese, and nachos—come rushing back up along with stomach acid and bile—and her stomach contracted, her lungs heaving, every muscle in her body tightening, flexing hard. Then, her body relaxed, and she knelt, breathing heavily. She simply sat still for a moment, and then she wiped her mouth with toilet paper, threw it in the toilet, and stood up, still shuddering. She sucked in a deep breath, and then let it out, slowly. Then, she turned around and left the restroom. Misto was waiting for her outside.

“Everything come out okay?” he asked her.

“Uh, yeah,” she said. “Yeah I’m doing fine.” She managed a half-smile. “I’m a superhero, remember? If I’m not fine, who’s gonna save the world? And believe me . . . after what I saw tonight . . . it needs saving. From him.”

“He did all of that just to get to you, y’know. To piss you off, to unnerve you.”

“Yeah, I know. And that’s the sick and twisted part,” she said. “That’s what’s so frakked up about it. It’s gone beyond revenge for Anastasia now, Misto. He no longer just wants to torture me, you, dad. Now he has a goal. We have something he wants. The Tesseract Reactor. And he won’t stop at killing a few civilians in order to get it. There’ll be more. He’ll keep on killing, and maiming, and destroying, until I finally break from the horror of it all, give in, and give it to him. Maybe I should just hand it over, and spare the world the terror he’ll unleash if I don’t. I can always steal it back, ya know.”

“Yeah, but is that before or after he uses it to do God-knows-what to the world?” asked Misto. “Is that before or after he comes and tries to hunt us both down right after you give it to him, and gets his other half—Viktor—killed trying to bust into Area 51 to get at your dad—because it really is still all about revenge for him underneath it all? And is that before or after he kills you and then gets hold of all the rest of your tech, and uses that to ill-purpose, as well? Think about it, Diz. You hand that thing over to him, you’re handing him the keys to a World-Domination Monster Truck and saying ‘Here, go take ‘er for a spin.’ No, Diz, no. You can’t do that. You cannot just ‘give him’ the Tesseract Reactor. No matter what.”

Dizzy heaved a sigh. He was right, of course. Perfectly right. Giving Evolutior the Tesseract Reactor was the coward’s way out. But what else could she do? Just address the Exosuit’s shortcomings? Make it more able to take him on? Maybe that was the key. Maybe work on the Repulsivators’ beam mode; see if she could make it more stable, more consistent, maybe more than just a one-shot deal in a fight. Or perhaps the problem lied with her. Maybe she would just have to get over her rule about not killing Viktor. Maybe it was time to put that particular notion to rest once and for all . . . Maybe Viktor was as good as dead. Perhaps killing him would be an act of mercy, for he would no longer live such a tortured existence, trapped in that body and at the mercy of the madman lodged in his head like a bloody dagger cleaved into his skull. Yes, perhaps indeed it was time to put aside the idea that Viktor could be saved; and seriously consider the notion that Ravenkroft deserved death for what he had done, the crimes he had committed . . . and that she was the only one equipped to be his executioner.

“You’re right,” she said, and swallowed, nodding to him. “You’re so right, dahlink. I think it’s time that Ravenkroft got what’s coming to him, don’t you? Let’s face it, Misto. Viktor . . . the man you knew . . . he’s el-gone-oh. Flown the coop. Zoom, ka-pow, outta here.”

Misto furrowed his brow, and appeared ready to cry. He nodded. “I know. I think I’ve known for a while.” Dizzy put a hand on his shoulder. A long silence passed between them as Misto tried to shut his eyes and hold back the tears. He managed to get hold of himself and choke back his feelings. “But y’know,” he said at last, “Viktor’s not the only one  who lost a wife. At least Anastasia’s still breathing. In cryo-stasis, but still breathing.

Dizzy nodded. “Yeah, I know, Misto, I know.”

Dizzy’s grip on his shoulder tightened as a tear leaked down his cheek. Two years previous, Misto had lost his wife, Coraline. Miskatromyk University, like Purdue University in Indiana, had a nuclear reactor, for teaching purposes in its Nuclear Engineering program. Purely by accident—and due to poor oversight—Coraline had been overexposed to uranium in the refinement lab and had died due to radiation poisoning. It had been a  slow and painful death, and Misto had been by her side the whole time, holding her hand, watching it happen. Her death had left a terrible mark on him. His trip to PhantasmagoriCON this year would be the first time he had really “gone out” and done anything social in over a year, and it had been like pulling teeth to get him to agree to go.

“Anyway,” he said, sniffling, and appearing to suck it up, “You’re right. Viktor is most likely gone. It is time to deal with Ravenkroft. To give him the hard goodbye, once and for all.”

Dizzy nodded. “Right. It is. After all he’s done . . . the horror he’s unleashed on innocent frakkin’ people . . . the horror he could unleash . . . It’s time we—time I—put a stop to his supervillainy antics. I’ll need your help fine-tuning the Repulsivators so that beam mode is hella more stable, though, and can be used multiple times in a fight. We need to perfect them. And I’ll need to upgrade the frakkin’ Disruptophazers so that they pack more of a punch. And, I’ll need to get the force-fields workin’ right so that they don’t fritz out on me and allow his shots to get through. Any of his shots. All this will require a lot of deep physics calculations. You up for it?”

“Ready and willing, as always,” said Misto. He shook his head. “God, if your dad ever found out what you’re up to here back East, and found out I was helping you do it, he’d put me back in that Laser Accelerator and push the ignition button himself.”

“Which is why,” said Dizzy, “he’s not gonna find out. Is he. Look, he doesn’t know about Ravenkroft. He doesn’t know about the battles between us, or about the . . . ahem, upgrades we’ve done to the Exosuit. And he doesn’t know that Ravenkroft might try and come for him, too. Then again, he doesn’t need to know, because for one, he’s on the best-guarded military base in the world. Two, I’m going to defeat Ravenkroft. Up ’til now the plan was, ya know, to compromise the butthole and hand him over to the proper auth-or-itahs. But now the plan is a lot simpler. I’m gonna—” She paused, and blinked. The words didn’t quite want to come out. She forced them out anyway, forced herself to say them, acknowledge their realness at long last. She swallowed. “I’m simply going to kill the bastard.”

Misto nodded. “I think that’s wise, Diz.”

He helped her hobble up the staircase that led from the basement of the Electrical Engineering building up to the first floor, to the lobby of the building, where the large glass front doors awaited. The early morning darkness awaited beyond them, as did the rest of the Miskatromyk U campus. Stars shone in the night sky, obscured by bruised thunderclouds. Rain continued to pitter-patter down from them. The tall, ornate bronze lamp-posts that stood on either side of the glass doors outside, and held aloft two blazing globes of light, shined with an ethereal brilliance that lit up the stone steps leading up to the building. Together they pushed open the glass doors and went outside into the cool night air, the motors in Dizzy’s Exosuit whirring as they moved.

“So can we call for the Fangirl?” asked Dizzy. “I need a frakkin’ rest from flying just now. Besides, I think the Repulsivators in my boots might need some tuning. They sound sorta funny when I bring them up to full power.”

“Absolutely,” said Misto. He reached into the pocket of his tweed coat—Misto always dressed the part of the stereotypical college professor: Tweed coat and slacks; white, button-up tuxedo shirt; red bow-tie; dress shoes—and pulled out his iPhone. He launched an app, waited, then punched a few buttons on its touchscreen. Then he put the phone back in his pocket. “Okay. The Fangirl is on her way, Diz.”

Egg-salaaad,” said Dizzy. She sighed, and looked up at the stars for a long moment. Still looking at them, them, she said, idly, “Whatever happened to us, Misto?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“We’re supposed to be scientists,” she said, still stargazing. “We’re supposed to be exploring the frakkin’ unknown. Not fightin’ battles in Exosuits and preparing for the next attack from a psycho. And that psycho isn’t supposed to be attacking us. His other half—the part of him that’s still Human, that is—is supposed to be a scientist too . . . not suffering from an unexplainable split personality that drives him to do evil. We, the scientists, are supposed to bring light into this demon-haunted world . . . not constantly work our asses off just to stave off the darkness for another dang day. When did it become all about stopping bad guys, and less about time spent at the chalkboard and working in the lab?”

“I think,” said Misto, “that that happened when the bad guys decided it was time to take their villainy out of the lab, and field-test it in the world at large.”

“Hmm,” said Dizzy. She turned to him. The motors in her suit whined as she turned to him. “Could be, I guess. I dunno. Either way . . . it makes me sad.”

“Me too Diz,” said Misto, nodding, with a sigh. “Me too.” Another long silence passed between them, and then Misto said, "Well, at least we get to have fun for the next few days, right? Forget about our problems, and hope that Evolutior lies low for that time?"

"Yeah, let's hope so," she said. "With any luck, he won't know where we've gone or what we're doing. The last thing we want to do is endanger the con. I couldn't bear it if anybody there got hurt because of us."

"Yeah, me neither," said Misto. "I'll be bringing Jack. Y'know, for the jam session."

Dizzy grinned. "Good ol' Jack. Did you restring him yet?"

"Oh yeah, of course I did," said Misto. "Restrung him, tuned him, just the other day. Even broke him in by playing a few songs on him. He sounds just as good as ever. My trusty guitar."

"So Father Joe will be singing this year at the jam session." She smiled. "The greatest filker in all of Massachusetts rides again. Frakkin' awesome."

"Yep," said Misto, and he smiled too. "Father Joe, also the best damned maker of alcoholic elixirs and spirits that PhantasmagoriCON has ever seen. We'll arrive sometime around noon tomorrow and get the room all set up for guests, and set up the bar table and everything. I'll be bringing the booze with me, in my car. You'll bring the table, the cups, and the ice, like we talked about."

"Right, right," said Dizzy. It was hard to keep her mind on the con. She wanted to, though. Badly. But . . . again, those poor kids. Their bodies . . . on fire, flying through the air . . . the awful crashing noise they had made as they had landed on that car . . . the terrible sound of their screams . . .  the look on Ravenkroft's face right afterward . . . the lust for blood that had pumped through her as she'd seen him do it; the fact that she had failed to deliver justice when he had done that, right then and there. That she had let him get away with it. That she hadn't killed him when she'd had the chance. That now, there was no other option. She shuddered.

"Yo Diz, you okay?" said Misto. He waved a hand in front of her eyes, and she snapped back. Oh. That was right. Misto. The con. Room party prep.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm . . . I'm fine," she lied. "I'm okay. Ducky, even.“

The sound of a car's engine revving and gunning down the street just beyond the steps leading up to building—and the unmistakable whine of what sounded like (but Dizzy knew wasn’t) a pair of jet engines—took her attention away again. The Fangirl came roaring down the street, driving itself to their location. The car that sped toward them and then spun-out and squealed to a stop ahead of them had originally been a jet-black Cord 812. A product of the Auburn Automotive company in Indiana in the nearly-Mesozoic era of 1932, the Cord 812 had come equipped with a 4.9 centiliter, 125 horsepower Lycoming 8-cylinder engine, and had been famous for its long, narrow “coffin-shaped” nose and louvered, wraparound grill plating on the front. It had sleek, curvy, chrome-plated exhaust ports that lined the sides of the long-nosed front compartment, and its fenders had concealed, flip-out headlamps, which the onboard computer now switched off; they obediently retracted and folded into the car’s large, pontoon fenders. Dizzy and Misto had altered the area near the rear fenders so that it now sprouted two swooping, curving pylons that erupted from the chassis, and that terminated in two large, ellipsoid cylinders—twin Repulsivator engines—with all the wiring, hoses, and tubing all descending into a maze of esoteric tech that rested in the trunk area. The roof of the car sported a large laser, aimed forward, mounted next to a miniature particle accelerator covered in tubes and wires and circuit-boards. She had tinkered with the engine compartment, as well: She had taken the outer metal cover and swapped it out for a curvy piece of glass, under which sat a device that resembled the innards to an old tube-style television that flickered with eldritch sparks, coupled with what looked like a large sewing machine—but was actually the primary vacuum pump—that ticked and rocked furiously; a glowing Zero-Point Energy Reactor like the one in Dizzy’s Exosuit, mounted in a ring-shaped electromagnet; and a large electric motor that turned a set of gears that extended through the floor of the compartment and connected to the car’s front-wheel-drive system. The Fangirl was a delight to behold, and every time she looked at her, Dizzy filled with pride; she had taken four years to fully deck-out and construct, but she had been worth every minute of it.

“Welp, you coming?” said Dizzy, as she started to limp down the building’s steps toward the waiting vehicle by herself. She almost lost her balance, and nearly fell. Whoa shit.

“Hold on there,” said Misto, grabbing at her Exosuit and catching her just in time. He let her put a mechanical arm around his shoulders for support, and helped her down the steps to the car. He opened the rear passenger side door for her, and helped her in. It was a tight fit with her wearing the Exosuit—it made her almost six feet tall and three feet thick—and closed the door behind her. He went around and got into the driver’s seat. “Comfy?” he turned around and asked her.

“Peachy-keen,” she replied, and gave him a gauntleted thumbs-up, motors whirring, and she attempted a smile. “Let’s get to Mjölnir so I can take this frakking thing off for an hour or so. Then it’s back to work, and on to meet my new recruit. If she’ll even sign up. Which I reeeeally hope she will.”

“There’s always hope, Diz. Try to remember that,” said Misto. He winked at her, and smiled, then turned back toward the dashboard. “Righty-oh, then! Away we go!

The dashboard of the car was just as complex as its exterior might suggest; a hundred buttons, knobs, switches; an embedded touch screen console. Misto touched a button on the touchscreen, then several more. Then he flicked a few switches and turned a knob, and pulled back on the steering wheel. The Fangirl lurched, felt like it shifted down a notch, toward the ground, as though the tires had all flattened at once . . . and then they were suddenly going upward. The building outside fell beneath them, as did the lamp-posts and their twin globes of light, and the steps, and the road, too. They ascended toward the clouds, the stars coming into view more clearly, and then began to move forward through the air, the engines whining and roaring behind them as they sped on into the night.