William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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"Chapter 1: HEROES AND VILLAINS"

from The Technowizard Guardians Of The Infinite Worlds Of Fandom

Author's Note: This version of the chapter has not been edited.


1

 

Terry “Gadget” Anders—citizen scientist, fledgling inventor, and engineering student at Miskatromyk University—sat alone in the kitchen of the apartment he shared with his two best friends, Trillian Deschain and Wayne “Gygax McKracken” Schmidinger, on Friday, April 9th, 2027, at 3:45 A.M., and toyed gingerly with the .45 caliber gun he held in his hands. He turned it over slowly, carefully, pondering the weighty feel of it, the cool feel of the metal as it touched his skin, the efficiency of its design . . . thinking of how effortless pulling the trigger would feel, once he had summoned the courage to put the damned thing to his temple, and end his wretched life. Doing so would leave one hell of a bloody mess for his grieving friends to clean up, and would utterly devastate his poor mother whenever she found out, just as much or more so than his father’s death had stricken the poor woman so many years before. It would all be over so quickly, and such an easy thing to do . . . so why was it such a difficult decision? Probably that bit about his mom. He didn’t want her to have to mourn. But she had to know there was no other way out of this for him, didn’t she? No other pathway to peace.

It was so weird: Depression could kick your ass harder than a Klingon in a bad mood, drunk on blood-wine and carrying a razor-sharp bat’leth, and it made you care about almost nothing . . . but anxiety made you care way too much about everything, like an over-caffeinated Empath from Planet Betazed. Feeling both things at once put you through a special kind of hell, and though Gadget had grown used to the extreme fluctuations—the mixed-mood states, which felt like wild Direhorses tearing him in two—he had grown so very weary of it, exhausted from the incessant interstellar war going on inside him. He sometimes had manic highs—when the world seemed so full of exuberant life that it threatened to burst at the seams and immolate him in the fires of ecstasy, his eyes shining with reflected brilliance, the colors of every rainbow too dazzling to behold, with rainbows erupting everywhere—followed by times when it all eventually came crashing down in flames, his soul suddenly flung into the grim abyss of depression, a black hole which no ray of hope could either penetrate nor escape, his life the randomized quantum data trapped within it, its accretion disk surrounded by the debris of shattered dreams. Broken relationships would cloud the event horizon, and in the shadows around it, there would dwell Dark Elves whose cruel voices would taunt and mock him ceaselessly; therein would also lurk cobwebbed Eldritch Horrors . . . hideous, slimy things he dared not think of except during the safety of daylight, lest their very shadows drive him mad.

No one could live under this kind of nonstop, relentless assault, their mind buffeted about by a torturous hurricane of torpid emotional chaos that ripped and tore at their thoughts day in, day out, and Gadget sat here, ready to prove that very point . . . If he could summon up the courage to just do it already, to get it over and done with. To simply put the gun to his head and pull the trigger. So quick, so easy. So difficult.

He tried to force his hands to stop shaking. He put his thumb on the gun’s hammer and pulled it back, locking it into firing position. He raised the gun to his head. Game over. No going back now. Unless, of course—

Wait. What if something goes wrong—what if I’m wrong—and there is an afterlife after all? What if there’s a Heaven? Or at least a Valhalla? Or a Sto’Vo’Kor, maybe? Possibly the Grey Havens? And Im not ready for it? Christ, what if Hell is actually a real place? And what if I want to come back? What if there’s reincarnation and I wind up a slug, or something? I don’t want to be a slug. And Jesus, what if I’m right, and there is no afterlife, none whatsoever, and it’s just blackness, an empty void, nothingness, and I just vanish into cosmic dust? What if I just . . . cease to exist? What if science is right and there really is no such thing as a soul, and “I” just become excess heat radiation and fade into the Earth’s magnetic field, or the cosmic microwave background radiation, and I dissipate into the ether?

He pondered that for a moment, then let out a long, slow breath.

No.

He couldn't chance that. Any of it. No, he decided, better a life—this life, any life—than to not even exist, or to exist someplace less than hospitable.

He gingerly uncocked the hammer and gently eased it back into position, swallowing a large, nervous lump in his throat while pointing the gun squarely away from himself. He let out a long, shaky breath once the hammer fell back into place. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then let it out, then did it again, relieved he hadn’t just shot himself or anyone else in the building, and set the gun softly on the table, and side-eyed it suspiciously. Then he sat there for a moment, and shuddered in horror at the thought of how close he’d just come to terminating his own temporal world-line forever, erasing himself from existence. He had always disliked guns, though they remained, admittedly, a damned efficient method of doing what they did—kill things. It reminded him of what Obi Wan Kenobi had always said of blasters: “So uncivilized.” Then again, he’d noticed that that hadn’t stopped ol' Obi Wan from shooting ol’ General Grievous right in the lungs with one, now had it?

Yeah, congratulations, said the voice of his snarky, inner-critic. You cant even do suicide right. You fucking pussy. Why do your friends put up with you, again?

The drugs his new psychiatrist had prescribed him helped blunt the worst of the symptoms, including the hallucinations he sometimes suffered from, but by no means did they provide a panacea, and they each had their own set of side effects that plagued him: Restless legs, dry-mouth, tremors. Sometimes a tendency towards suicidal thoughts—and that one, if you thought about it, was totally fucking hilarious—which he supposed he should probably tell her about, come to think of it.

His own last-ditch effort at concocting a technological “cure” for his condition had failed . . . at least as a cure for mental illnesses. Other things, he had nailed. Yes, his “cure” had some pretty fucking awesome chops when it came to other things. But those things frightened him. Right now, it sat here on the kitchen table next to him, a conglomeration of circuits, wires, glowing lights, and other electromechanical flotsam and jetsam, all interconnected into a somehow-cohesive whole and mounted to an old-fashioned, plastic hair-salon hairdryer helmet, a row of D-cell batteries bolted to the rear arc of its circumference.

Part of him wanted to forget about the gun, put the device on his head, and try it out again. Using it always felt so . . . well, so empowering, not to mention fun, so much so that it became almost addictive. And tempting; and it did have that allure to it . . . all that power! But, no, no . . . he couldn’t. No, he had to resist that kind of base impulse, that urge to have that kind of power over the world—and everyone in it—even if it might make him feel better for a short time. Because while the Mind-Weirding Helm couldn’t treat “schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type” worth a damn, it did do something else fairly monumental. Magical, even. Miraculous.

Rather than treating his mental illness, as it had been designed to do, the Mind-Weirding Helm amplified any and all telepathic or telekinetic abilities that the wearer naturally possessed, and by many orders of magnitude. Not just a breakthrough . . . a fundamental paradigm shift in the human understanding of the cosmos and consciousness.

Gadget had considered just naming the damned thing “Cerebro,” after Professor X and Magneto’s brainchild in the X-Men comics. It would have fit perfectly. But, doing so had struck him as slightly unoriginal, and thus, he’d gone for something a little more obscure. So when Gygax had said, “Hey, you’ve got voices in your head, right? Well, this thing is kind of like the weirding-module in Dune, then, isn’t it . . . only for those voices, not yours, right? So it’s a mind-weirding module.” And in that moment, they had christened it.

 He had wanted a way to turn himself into a normal guy, not a psionic warrior. Well, maybe not all the way “normal.” A total geek, Gadget embraced his nerdiness with wide-open arms. But most twenty-six-year-old nerds didn’t spend most of their time eaten-alive with anxiety, riddled with crippling self-doubt—well, okay, maybe they did those two things—but most weren’t subjected to mood swings and delusions, and possessed of grim, morbid worries day in and day out, obsessed with various odd things and needing rituals and mantras to break free of their brains’ fixations. They didn’t have to take five different pills every day, just in order to stay some semblance of stable, so that the endless streaming-talk-radio stations in their heads might shut up for a few hours and allow them some peace. So that they might get some fucking sleep without their thoughts all going a million miles per second, racing around in circles in their heads to no good end. Thus, the ability to “hear” the thoughts and feelings of everyone else within a five-hundred-foot radius—and the ability to fling objects across the room if they got angry, upset, or moody—didn’t count as a big bonus. Certainly not something he would’ve given himself on purpose. So, the Mind-Weirding Helm contributed little to his goal of “achieving normality.” Besides, pesky questions about the use—and of course, abuse—of such power persisted: A machine like the Helm, this accidentally-invented psionic wonder of his, gave him powers that came with grave responsibilities attached.

And besides that, he thought, I’m fairly certain that a guy who sits brooding in his apartment at four o’clock in the morning, trying to screw up the courage to off himself, doesn’t have any business handling those particular duties.

For moment, he sat there, and tried to think logically. What would Spock do? Or Data? He didn’t have many “real” role models. That posed a problem. He sighed. It had gotten late—or early, whichever. The streetlights outside blazed in the darkness. One shined in the window and illumined the Mind-Weirding Helm and a section of the wall near his laptop computer. Oh well. Resisting temptation wasn’t his strong suit, anyway. The box of Twinkies that Trillian had brought home from the grocery yesterday now stood empty as a testament to the strength of his willpower. He got up from where he sat, carefully picked up the gun, and walked down the hallway toward Wayne and Trillian’s shared bedroom, and—as always—paused before entering.

It always felt like this whenever he ventured inside their “sanctum,” as he called it, without their permission . . . like trespassing on hallowed ground. An odd thing to think, seeing as how Wayne and Trillian were both heavily into the whole goth-freak Vampire lifestyle. They did the whole blood-drinking, freaky-sex-having, lots-of-eyeliner-wearing, renaissance-fair-with-punk-rock-stylings gothic thing, and entering their room felt like venturing into the local Hot Topic store. Briefly, ancient memories of a long-since settled feud over Trillian’s affections grumbled in the basement of his memory, but he ignored them, or at least tried to. Ancient wounds, long ago scarred over; they had no power here, in this age where his friendship with the two of them had taken root in the bitter soil of the past, and where camaraderie had won out over pain and jealousy. Thankfully. Presently, he dug under their bed, found Gygax’s grey lock-box, and—using the master key he’d made from the original some time ago—opened it, slipped the gun inside, then closed it, locked it, and shoved it back under the bed. He stood up and left the room, pulling the door softly closed behind him. He felt glad to get out of there; their room smelled like sex and leather, and that smell always made him feel awkward.

Well, time to get to work, I guess,” he said, wiping away the last of his tears from under his eyes. “Fuck. I hate crying.” He could almost feel the dark circles under his eyes. He hadn’t slept all that well these past few nights. Ever since he’d started wearing he Helm to bed, and the weird dreams had begun. He passed the bathroom on his way back to the kitchen, and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Dear gods, did he ever look haggard! The circles under his eyes, his hair all askew, five-o’clock shadow on his face. And egads, did he ever need a shower. He’d never snag a date with the Future Mrs. Anders—Ha! As if such a person actually exists!—looking like this. He made a mental note to take one before heading out with Wayne and Trillian. Speaking of which, where were they, anyway? The early wee hours had come and gone, for crying out loud. He wasn’t sure if Trillian worked the hospital tonight, and Wayne, well . . . a software designer by trade, he kept his own hours, an independent contractor who telecommuted whenever possible. Oh well. He supposed he’d see them whenever they got home from wherever. Four AM almost, and he had to get to bed soon. All that crying and self-loathing took a lot out of him, in addition to making it impossible to get any sleep. Plus, tomorrow, PhantasmagoriCON began. Both he and Trillian had spring break this coming week, and Wayne had arranged for some time to himself, as well. A yearly ritual celebration for their tiny household, the Con always kicked major ass in terms of fun.

Gadget sat back down at the kitchen table and heaved another heavy sigh, and then picked up the Mind-Weirding Helm. He put it on his head, then fastened the leather strap under his chin. Reached up, switched it on.

The familiar hum of the vacuum tubes warming-up came next, as did the acrid odor of electricity and ozone. He closed his eyes, and concentrated. And suddenly, a veil lifted, and the skin of the world peeled back, allowing him to glimpse the muscle, bone, and sinew beneath . . . as well as allowing him to see the electricity sparking up and down its nerves. He could hear them: The other people in the building, and those outside, on the sidewalk and some from across the street. Could hear their thoughts, like so much chatter from overlapping radio stations; a hundred different voices, some embedded in memories, some of them from imaginary arguments that hadn’t taken place yet, and others from thoughts of the present moment. Mental images and flashes of emotion flitted through his mind, as the creepy guy down the hall sexually fantasized about the girl who lived across from him, and as the teenager who lived with the couple upstairs cried as she pictured her boyfriend dating her best friend.

Gadget did his best to stem the tidal wave of mental movies, feelings, and internal monologues presently washing over him—no, flowing though him—by doing what his therapist had told him to do whenever he had an anxiety attack. Breathe slowly and deeply, in through the nose and out through the mouth, and focusing on a single thread of thought—his own—trying to follow its path through the howling maelstrom that the others formed. As he did this (he’d actually gotten halfway good at it, recently) the slew of voices, images, and half-remembered sensations began to ease up a bit, to quiet down to a dull sensory roar in the back of his mind, and he could safely reopen his eyes without experiencing a thousand different sensory worlds superimposed over his own.

Whoa,” he said, blinking a few times and took one last deep breath, and took a look around the kitchen. The place was a wreck; it looked as though a locomotive had come through and smashed into a cooking show. Since Trillian worked part-time as an intern at the hospital, and spent the other half of her time in school at Miskatromyk U—when she and Wayne didn’t boff like bunny rabbits—and since Wayne spent a ton of time working on software projects, it usually fell to Gadget to do cleanup duty. He himself worked part-time in the Miskatromyk U computer lab, offering tech support to confused freshmen and faculty, when he didn’t find himself busy studying engineering and neuroscience. But since he had the reputation as the groups’ neat-freak, well . . . Plus, if you wanted something done right . . .

“Do it yourself,” he said, and smiled a little. He turned to face the dishes in the sink. He put two fingers to his right temple, in imitation of Professor Xavier, and visualized what he wanted to see happen.

The water faucet came on, spewing hot water into the sink. The drain plugged itself. The dishes flew up into the air, waltzed around the sink, and then froze in midair. Then, one by one, they neatly stacked themselves on the counter as the sink filled. The soap bottle tipped and squeezed itself, and suds began to form in the water. The stacks of dishes lifted themselves up, one by one, set themselves in the soapy water, and the faucet shut off. The cabinet doors below the sink opened themselves, and a sponge whisked out and flew upward until it landed in the water with the dishes, and began wiping them down, occasionally squeezing itself to rinse itself out.

Gadget smiled broadly, all thoughts of ending it all now only a dim, receding memory. He had gotten better at this. And, he had developed a tolerance for the after-effects; two weeks ago, this exercise would’ve worn him out completely, and maybe would’ve even given him a severe headache or a nosebleed.

As the dishes did themselves—Gadget visualized ghostly tendrils of energy reaching from his head to the clattering dishes and the sponge, as another now reached toward the closet door, which opened itself—he set about mopping the floor, as well. The Swiffer wet-jet mop came skidding out of the closet, its cleaner-release trigger depressed, squirting cleaning fluid in front of it as another tendril of psionic energy yanked it back and forth over the hardwood floor. Gadget stood in the center of it all, his concentration and focus alternating between the mopping and the dishes, sweat beading on his forehead from the exertion it took to work two streams of telekinesis action simultaneously.

Then, the lock on the kitchen door tumbled. The door popped opened. Startled, Gadget turned around to see. The dishes promptly went crashing and splashing down into the sink, splattering water everywhere, and the Swiffer dropped in its tracks and clattered to the floor. The door opened the rest of the way, revealing Wayne, standing there in a black t-shirt and jeans with a studded belt, wearing sunglasses and carrying a bag of groceries in one hand and a small box in the other.

“Yo, Gadget-man!” he said with a smile. He looked around, saw the broken dishes and the water everywhere. “Jeez dude, what the hell happened in here? Looks like somebody botched a saving throw, or something.”

“Um, beta testing?” offered Gadget, pointing to the Mind-Weirding Helm with a shrug.

“Er, okay . . . sure, whatever,” said Wayne, setting the bag and the Amazon box down on the table. “Trill’s gonna be so pissed that you broke the dishes her mom gave her.”

“D’you think she’d understand if I told her those dishes died a noble death, in service to the cause of advancing science?”

Wayne laughed. “Ha! You’re funny! Don’t worry. I’ll say nice things about you at your funeral. But, in other news: My toner is finally here.” He set the groceries down on the kitchen table and rattled the Amazon box. “So, we can finally print out our con tickets, reservations, and name-tags for yonder oncoming week of mischief, madness, mayhem, and fun.”

“Awesome sauce,” said Gadget. “Thou art a scholar and a gentleman. Well, at least a scholar. Well . . . I say ‘scholar—’”

“Yeah, yeah, ha, ha, I get it. Go ahead, Mr. Snooty College Student. Pick on the guy who got his GED instead of his high-school diploma. And who makes a hundred and fifty grand a year coding software, while you stand there making eleven fifty an hour helping stupid college football jocks figure out how to print the essays they plagiarized off the Internet.”

“Ouch, man,” said Gadget, putting his hand over his heart. “That one hurt, dude. And hey—I don’t just help lazy football jocks. Sometimes I get to help hot chicks, too. So—so there, asshole.”

“Your quickness with comebacks continues to not impress me.”

“Bite me.”

“Hey, remember. I’m into vampirism. Saying that’s an open invitation to a guy like me.”

“I’m afraid I’m not your type.”

“Shit no, you’re not. Even if I was gay, I’d still have standards.”

“Blow me.”

“See my previous comment about standards. Now, then. Are you sure you wanna go this year?”

“Wait—what?”

“To con,” said Wayne. “Are you sure you wanna go this year? Because if you don’t, well . . . Well, I’d hate to miss out, but we could just stay home. The three of us, I mean. Solidarity, man. Solidarity.”

“Wait. What?” said Gadget, somewhat taken aback. He blinked. “What’re you talking about?”

“I mean your social anxiety, dude,” said Gygax, with a sigh. “I mean, do you think you can handle the crowds? The people? There’s going to be something like four thousand attendees there this year. I don’t want you to go if you’re not going to have a good time, and, well . . . I don’t think I could go and have a good time if it means leaving you behind to sit here all week by yourself. So are you sure? That you wanna go?”

“Of course I want to go! Why wouldn’t I? And why on Earth would I want you guys to miss it even if I didn’t? Meesa thinkin’ yousa talkin’ da bombad crazy talkin’, Master Jedi.”

“Yousa keep-a talkin’ like dat, and meesa gonna punch you in da crotch.”

“No, seriously, dude. I am so psyched for this week it’s not even funny. Don’t worry. I can handle my social anxiety. We all three look forward to this all year. There’s no way I’d let what’s wrong with me screw that up for either myself or the two of you. Trust me on that.”

“Well, okay,” said Wayne. “Because by the same token, I didn’t want you to stay home, and then, as soon as we left, get all angry at yourself and immediately regret not going.”

“Yeah, my therapist and I have talked about me doing that to myself. Cheating myself out of things.” Now that he actually thought about it, he did find he really wanted to go; surprisingly—considering he’d been ready to end his life only twenty minutes before this—he actually found the idea of going to PhantasmagoriCON a beacon of light in a long dark tunnel that had previously threatened to swallow him whole. He had no idea why the illness worked this way. One minute he was ready to throw in the towel and cancel his plans for the next sixty years . . . and the next, he was ready to climb the steps of Mount Erebor and go on epic quest for dragon’s gold. Of course, that cycle—the ups and downs, the rollercoaster of his existence, was part of what he was sick of . . . the endless, wild and whacky elevator ride of his life was the very thing that had driven him to break into Wayne and Trillian’s room and take the gun and . . . No. He didn’t want to think about that just now. Too scary.

“Glad to hear it,” said Wayne. He sat his laptop computer down on the kitchen table next to Gadget’s and opened it up. He gestured at it with his Apple Watch, and the lock-screen disappeared from the its monitor, displaying instead his familiar holographic desktop. He had custom designed the thing himself, and Mjolnir Propulsion Systems had built it for him. Wayne reached into his pocket and pulled out his Microsoft HoloLens headset—it looked like a sleeker, electronic version of the safety glasses Gadget’s high-school shop teacher had made the class wear when working on various projects—and slipped it on over his eyes. He then sat down at the computer and proceeded to set to work while they talked.

“At least, I think I can handle it,” said Gadget. “So long as I sort of view it as kind of an experiment, I think I’ll be okay. Plus I’ll have the Mind-Weirding Helm on the whole time . . . so I can get a feel for whether or not people are eye-bugging me, or whatever. Helps me control the paranoia and realize that maybe I’m not the focus of everyone else’s evil intentions.”

“Well, thats good. And hey—maybe someday, you can try going out in public without the electric-beanie-from-hell strapped to your head like Martian brain-surgery equipment. Now repeat after me. My penis is large.”

“My—wait. What?”

“You heard me.”

“Er—‘my penis is large.’”

“In charge.”

“Uh . . . in charge.”

“And frequently mistaken for a barge.”

“And frequently mistaken for a—is this supposed to help me with my social anxiety?”

“Um, well, no. But it always helps me, though, just in general. So I figured it would help you, too.” Gadget started to respond, but Wayne interrupted him, grinning. “Y’know, I actually think you’re making some pretty good progress. That therapist of yours seems like she’s actually doing you some good. My penis is large though. Fucking enormous. Goddamn huge. Like, transcendentally interdimensional. My pants are like the TARDIS. So big.” He spread his arms out to either side and mouthed the word, Huge.

“Well, her and the medication,” said Gadget. “But yeah—therapy’s starting to pay off, I guess. Y’know what they say. ‘Fake it ’til you make it,’ and ‘one day at a time,’ right?”

“Aye, the time traveling counterfeiter’s motto,” said Wayne, nodding. “So. You got your cosplay all ready? What’re you going as this year, again?”

Gadget smiled, warming to the subject. If attention to detail could sway the judges of the cosplay ball, he was a shoe-in to win something. Then again, he’d never really “won” at anything in his life . . . He tended to further quote Obi Wan Kenobi on the subject: There was no such thing as “luck,” but only because his tended to suck. If ever there had ever existed a better test-case for the Felix Felicis “liquid luck” potion, he hadn’t seen it outside of his bedroom mirror. Oh well. Maybe, just maybe, this year, he might—perish the thought—even meet a girl he liked, and who actually liked him back. The odds were vanishingly small, of course. Yet, so long as he remained alive, he told himself—and could remember to take a damn shower before hitting the convention floor—his chances remained above zero, if within the realm of the quantum mechanical. Had he really wanted to snuff himself out just twenty minutes before all this? It scarcely seemed possible. Whenever Wayne—or Trillian—was around, it always made the badgering voices of his inner-critics all pipe down and behave, stilling the demons and letting the dopamine flow. For that, he had grown thankful; he had no idea what would’ve become of him without the two of them there.

“Well,” he began, “I’m not really ‘going as’ anything recognizable as any one single character from any one fandom. My outfit—tweed pants and coat, suit-vest, pocket watch, bow tie, shoes, dress shirt, suspenders—will suggest the Eleventh Doctor. But the addition of the Mind-Weirding Helm will suggest something more . . . Tesla-Punk-ish. And with the addition of some airship goggles, that suggests something steampunkish, too. So I guess it’s sort of a meta-commentary on cosplay itself. Maybe a sort of culling together different concepts into a singular kind of expressionism.”

“You put way too much thought into that.”

“I know.”

“Continue, though.”

“And my name-tag will read ‘Gadget Anorak Prime.’ I’m going with ‘Gadget’ because duh, that’s the nickname you and Trillian gave me years ago—”

“I like the other nickname we gave you better.”

“What other nickname?”

“‘Fuckface.’”

“Oh fuck off.”

Wayne grinned. “I will as soon as Trillian gets home.”

Gadget rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Anyway. Yeah. ‘Gadget Anorak Prime.’ Because—”

“You stole ‘Anorak’ from Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, didn’t you.”

“No! Not at all!”

“You’re lying your ass off. You read about the character called Anorak in that book, and you liked the sound of the name, and so you made off with it like a bandit and decided to call yourself ‘Anorak’ as a middle name in your ‘nym. Don’t lie to me. I see through your little-mister-innocent act.”

“Well—”

“Oh-ho, now the truth comes out! ‘Now we see the violence inherent in the system!’”

“‘Help, help! I’m being repressed!’” cried Gadget. They both laughed. “No seriously,” he said, “the character in that book is a shy, geeky nerd who grows up to become a billionaire but remains a shy, geeky nerd inside, and so he imagines himself as a powerful wizard in a virtual reality construct. I’m . . . well . . .”

“Ah, I see the difference,” said Wayne. “You’re . . . not a billionaire? And this is just plain old ‘reality’ reality?”

“Well, yeah, kinda.”

“How silly of me to think of you as a sneaky Rogue, then. Forgive me, young padawan. I cry your pardon. Hey. Refresh my memory . . . what the hell is an Anorak, anyway, again?”

“Anorak is the British word for ‘nerd,’ ‘geek,’ or ‘dork.’ So I figure by calling myself ‘Anorak Prime,’ I’m like pronouncing myself the first among my kind.”

“You’re certainly that, all right.”

“Hey!”

“Well, you are.”

“Hey, man. Geek pride, and all that.”

“Eh, bollocks to ‘geek pride!’” snorted Gygax. “Since when do we derive a sense of ‘pride’ from simply liking certain things and having passion for certain kinds of games, movies, books, TV shows, comics, and toys? Is our counterculture that devoid of its own, organic identity that we have to inflate its collective ego by showing ‘pride’ in what easy marks we are for the right kinds of media and merchandise?”

“Well, I kinda like the concept. It kinda says, ‘hey, I survived being called this thing when I was younger, now I’m taking it back, and it’s empowering.’”

“You would like it.”

“Again—fuck off.”

“You’re so not my type.”

“You’re not mine either.”

“Jesus I hope not. Otherwise I’m locking my door tonight.”

“Eew dude, gross. Don’t even imply that I would stoop so low.”

“Ha! I’m so out of your league.”

“Oh yeah? Well I’m spoken for. Natalie Portman’s returning my calls again.”

“In your dreams.”

“Damn right. Every night. Ah-all niy-yight lah-yong! Natalie doesn’t know it, but we have beautiful children together.”

“You’re very odd, you know that?”

“The only thing I worry about,” said Gadget, “is that if I call myself ‘Gadget,’ everybody’s going to think I’m going for either a dimwitted, cartoon cyborg detective whose niece and dog solve all his cases for him . . . or, the female member of the Chipmunk Rescue Rangers.”

“Aww, you’d make a cute chipmunk.”

“Oh shut up.”

“No, I’m serious. The little upturned nose, the whiskers. Cute as a button, you would be. Talking like Yoda, I am for some reason.”

“Dude, you’re not helping.”

“Mmm. Trying to, I am not.”

“Point taken. But seriously. I want people to think that my ’nym reflects the character.”

“Well, they will,” said Wayne. “To be honest, I don’t really see the point of ‘nyms, actually. I mean, sure, everybody needs a message-board or forum handle that they use for various things on the Internet, and some people like to use the same ‘nym for everything because it saves them from having to either store or remember eighty fucking thousand of them. But a con is just . . . a con. It’s a gathering of like-minded souls, a big ol’ party, a hootenanny, a shindig. Why the hell do we need anonymity at one of those?

“Well, for one thing, it’s tradition.”

Tradition me balls.”

“And now that you’ve delivered your oh-so-wise opinionizing on my ‘nym, it’s time for me to help you come up with one.”

“Whoa no,” said Wayne. “No thanks. I’ve already got a decent handle, thank you very much. And I like it just the way it is.”

“Yeah, but what kind of a ‘nym is Gygax McKraken, though?”

“A good one.”

“Yeah, but nobody can ever figure out where the last part comes from. And isn’t it just a little egocentric to name yourself after the creator of D&D?”

“Well, to your first point, I like it that the surname is obscure as all hell, from somewhere in the annals of video-game history . . . and, to your second point, hell yes it’s egocentric. It’s egocentric as hell. You overlook the fact that I am a raging egomaniac. So, in a way, it’s actually absolutely perfect for me.”

“Very well,” sighed Gadget. “If I can’t talk you out of it, then so be it.”

“You’re damn right ‘so be it.’ Huge penis. Right here. Your penis . . . very small by comparison.”

“And how would you know? You been lookin’?”

“I’ve heard stories.”

“From who? What, did Jetta talk?” He smiled. “That bitch. I knew she’d betray me.”

“Calm down, skeeziks. I think your small-penis secret is safe, for now.” He regarded the clock on the wall for a moment. “Damn . . . Trillian is really late getting home. I wonder where the hell she is. I hope she’s alright.”

“She probably just got caught up doing somebody else’s job, again,” said Gadget. “You know how hospitals are. I still think it’s bullshit how Miskatromyk U makes their Biotech majors go through two years of med-school internship as actual medical doctors.”

“Yeah, you and me both,” said Gygax. “But still, I worry when she’s late.”

“Well if you hadn’t bricked her iPhone, you could call her.”

“Don’t remind me.” said Gygax, frowning.

“I still can’t believe you did that,” said Gadget. He stifled a giggle.

“Oh lay off.”

“You. Bricked. Trillian’s phone. You.”

“Come on, man. Could happen to anyone.”

You.

“Aw jeeze. Gimme a break. It was an accident.

“Check this out, though. I’ve come up with the perfect ‘nym for Trillian to go by this year. It even goes with that awesome cosplay she designed.”

“I think she already has a ‘nym that she picked out.”

“Yeah, but I bet it’s not as cool as the one I’ve come up with.”

“Whoa boy. I bet you’re going to tell me what it is right now, too.”

Akasha Anita Van Helsing.”

Gygax snorted, grinned, pinched his nostrils together, and shook his head. “Terry, Terry, Terry. That does it. Where are you hiding the mind-expanding drugs? In your room? No, scratch that. It’s in your anus, isn’t it. I bet it’s in your anus. Heh. Van Helsing. Fuckin’ Original Wolverine is the fuckin’ man. And Richard Roxborough fucking rocked in that flick. Total scenery chewage.”

“Damned right, he did. But how did you know that I . . . ?”

“Hey, I live with you, dude.”

“Oh, yeah. Well, what do you think?”

“About what?”

“About my cool new ‘nym for Trillian!”

“Oh, that. Well. She already probably has a ‘nym picked out, like I said. She probably doesn’t need us mansplaining one to her. Sorry to burst your bubble, but . . . yeah.”

Gadget couldn’t help but feel a little bit crushed. But, maybe Gygax was right. Maybe the whole, entire concept of ‘nyms was a stupid one, anyway. Maybe he was right to not even want one, and maybe he was dumb for even putting so much emphasis on the idea in the first place. Maybe he would be wise to just forget—

“But, for what it’s worth,” said Gygax, “it was a pretty cool conglomeration of ideas you threw out there, just now. You are a pretty good idea-man, when you put your mind to productive use. Even I have to marvel at your singular genius, sometimes. Speaking of which, how are things going with . . . er, with the Helm?” He reached up and knocked on the Helm. The vibrations traveled through it and into Gadget’s head, but didn’t hurt.

“Oh, that,” said Gadget. “Well, I’m getting better at controlling the voices. Shutting them out when I want to. And telekinesis is getting easier, too. I can control multiple . . . I guess you’d call it streams of telekinesis, now. I couldn’t do that before. Now I can. And I’ve gotten better at tuning into single streams of consciousness, too. I can pick out a ‘voice’ in the ‘crowd’ and listen in . . . it’s cool. It’s like eavesdropping on any old conversation in a quiet house. Also kinda creepy, too. I’ve also been experimenting with projecting thoughts and feelings. I made the guy across the hall scratch his balls three times and walk in a circle before going into his apartment without knowing why he was doing it. And I think I made the girl down the hall horny, for no particular reason, while she was staring into the mirror. But that was on accident because I was looking at her tits at the time . . . through her eyes, I mean . . . er, while she was in the bathroom . . . getting ready to take a shower. Dammit, I should really stop using this thing. It’s gonna get me into so much moral and ethical trouble.”

“Fo’ realz, yo,” said Gygax.

“So.” Gadget cleared his throat. “What’re you working on. On your laptop, there, I mean.”

“Just the NeuroScape Commercialization project,” said Gygax, with a sigh. “What else? When one is a freelance code-monkey working for Mjolnir Propulsion Systems, one does what one can to impress the Big Bosses, hoping one might snag a permanent salaried position at the company . . . For aye, the Big Boss Lords are generous with their Hall-Thanes when it cometh to the spoils of corporate warfare . . . this is known, and this is good. Just . . . don’t tell anyone I told you that, is all. Y’know how it goes.”

“I hear you,” said Gadget. “Where are you guys on that thing, anyway? I mean, I know I’m not supposed to know that it even exists, but I am kinda curious.”

“Well on a scale of one to ten, with a one being ‘Man, I wouldn’t put that NeuroBand Headset thing on a dog I don’t like,’ and with a ten being a ‘Sure thing, man! Sign me up!’ Yeah, on that scale, I’d say we’re at right at about . . . oh, maybe, one and a half.”

“You know, if you ever decided to go back to school, you could write a killer thesis on that thing. The NeuroScape, I mean.”

“Yeah,” said Gygax, and sighed. “And then Mjolnir Propulsion’s legal division would have to hunt me down and crucify me. Not a good plan for long term career goals.”

“Well who knows?” said Gadget with a grin. “You could wind up in charge of the whole NeuroScape division someday. Then youd get to decide what’s top-secret and what’s not, and what tech to let out into the woodwork of society.”

“Dude, watch it, for real. If they ever found out that you or Trillian even knows what the word ‘NeuroScape’ means—before they’re ready to make money on it—they’d have my ass prosecuted under the thousand-page NDA they had me sign . . . in my own blood, with the promise of the soul of my firstborn child as collateral against any infractions.”

“Damn,” said Gadget. “I’m just gonna go to my room quietly and be really glad I don’t work for those guys. Y’know, my dad used to want to work there. Back when that Walter Roentgen guy first founded the company. They turned him down, though. Turns out my mom and dad marched in some big hippy peace movement or something way back when they went to Miskatromyk U, and since Roentgen founded Mjolnir as a military think-tank and gadget factory, they couldn’t pass the background checks. Which I always thought was bullshit. Because who doesnt get into major trouble when they’re in college? But oh well . . . whatever, I guess, right?”

“Dude, listen . . .” said Gygax, pausing his typing and looking over at him, and into his eyes. He had a riveting stare; he had blue eyes that seemed deep and abiding, still waters that ran deep. “Your dad amazed me. A genius, and he’s probably the reason that you wound up being a genius, too. Mjolnir's loss. And both me and Trill think it’s a terrible waste that he died when he did, the way he did. He’d be proud of you. You’re following in his footsteps, being an inventor. And one hell of an inventor, at that. What you’ve accomplished, with the Helm, it’s . . . it’s almost scary. Your dad would be proud of you. Really proud.”

Gadget tried to smile, and rabidly fought against the tears. Please, he thought, let me retain some measure of masculinity here in front of my friend. He quickly wiped away the rest before they could give him away, and once more, tried to smile. He nodded. “Thanks dude. I know. It gets hard without him around, sometimes, y’know? There’s so much I could’ve used his advice on . . . so much I could’ve learned from him. But.” He sucked in a deep breath, and let it out all at once. “What’re ya gonna do? People die. It happens. The world moves on, I guess. Shit keeps happening.” He breathed deeply again, and let it out again. “Anyway. I should probably get in bed. We gotta big day tomorrow, heading to the convention, and whatnot. I better get some sleep beforehand. How about you—you going to bed anytime soon?”

Gygax stared at his computer monitor, utterly absorbed in his task, its glow bathing his face in light as he grimaced at whatever he saw there. He hit a key-combination on the keyboard, and the screen came to life with flashing spreadsheets full of cascading numerals and letters, an oscillating waveform in a digital oscilloscope display, and a complex-looking geometric structure in one corner that rotated on its y-axis as the numbers danced around it. Then the numbers all turned red, the geometric structure fell apart, and a small window opened that held the words, “Error -1192: That solution will not work.” Gygax banged his fist on the table and cried out, “FUCK!” He closed his eyes briefly and pinched the bridge of his nose, then turned to Gadget. “Um, no, probably not,” he said in a much quieter, softer voice. “It looks like I’m gonna be up for a while still. But don’t worry about me, or anything. If you need to crash, go ahead, knock yourself out. I’ll wake you up if anything major’s going on, or anything. You won’t miss a thing, I promise. Cool?”

“Yeah, cool. G’night,” said Gadget, as he hefted the Mind-Weirding Helm under one arm and began walking down the hallway toward his room. “Or good morning, or whatever the hell time it actually is.”

“Hey,” said Gygax, standing up, walking toward him, and putting a hand on his shoulder. “One more thing. When I walked in, earlier, I noticed your eyes had gotten all red and puffy. Were you . . . Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Well if you need somebody to talk to,” said Gygax, “just remember, I’m here, dude. Anytime. Alright?”

Gadget nodded. It felt good to smile. “Thanks dude. I appreciate it.” He managed to shake off the ominous feeling of doom and gloom he felt gnawing at his guts just long enough to picture the Executive East Inn in downtown Cambridge, as it looked late at night with PhantasmagoriCON in full swing: Couples making out on balconies, the pool area completely commandeered for Live Action Roleplaying by “World of Darkness” characters—Vampires, Werewolves, Mages, Wraiths, and Changelings—with plenty of people up and about even though the clock had already struck one. The main lobby of the hotel would still echo with the gleeful strums of filkers still hard at work tearing up the jam session. The game room would be winding down but still rattle with dice; late-night games of Magic or spontaneous D&D sessions would slow and close down for the night, a few of them the dwindling holdouts, their competitions or quests now doubling in intensity with the lateness of the hour. The Dealers’ room would also begin to empty out soon and would, eventually, turn out the lights, and would start counting their earnings for the day while already getting ready for tomorrow. Meanwhile, all over the hotel, the room parties would just now rev up to escape velocity; the booze would flow freely and nimbly; dancing and revels for all, and people would tell slurred jokes of the geeky variety, with a lot of traffic between rooms as people coupled and split up, and there raucous laughter would bubble and sexcapades would commence. Old rivalries and grudges would rest for now, as everyone would try and enjoy themselves—and each other—for the little time they had allotted.

Gadget hoisted the Mind-Weirding Helm into his arms, turned, and headed down the hall toward his bedroom. He wasn’t sure what had come over him just now—maybe the promise of a fun Spring Break week at con with his two best friends had lifted his spirits a few notches. Maybe the sound of a friendly voice had penetrated the gloom of a night spent otherwise alone. Whichever of those it was, he didn’t felt the empty, hollow pangs of loss and sadness ebbing inside him anymore, and no longer saw shadows and darkness looming over everything. He also no longer felt storm-clouds gathering at every corner, ready to strike at his heart with cold-burning lightning. Gygax had come home and had reminded him that joy and revels and other good things existed in the world. And soon, Trillian would get home to catch some sleep, and when she woke, they’d set off to join the fray of 4,000 other sci-fi geeks, fandom freaks, and comic book nerds, home again for a couple of days at long last, safe among the people of his own strange tribe once again, all of them secure from whatever dragons assailed them in their day-to-day lives.

Once again in his room, he felt less exposed to the world. He had covered the walls here in posters for his favorite sci-fi and fantasy films and franchises: On one wall, a poster for Babylon 5 hung next to a giant map of Middle-Earth, which hung next to a poster-print of a painting that recast the characters from Star Trek as 1980’s heavy-metal rockers. Parts for small appliances, big and small, and an assortment of Legos and Erector Set pieces littered the floor, some kept in bins, others lying around loose. He had stuck wires, hoses, tubes, and small motors here and there, as well as a dozen or more Arduino circuit-boards, some of a high complexity, others simplistic. His desk and drawing table—both forever a mess of parts and circuits, with hastily-drawn schematics done on the back of Christmas wrapping paper and hanging above the two work areas on bulletin boards, themselves littered with empty soda cans—stood out as the two places where order at least tried to emerge from chaos.

The three monitors he had arranged in front of his keyboard and mouse combo all displayed the same screensaver: The flashing, cascading waterfalls of green computer code from the 1999 movie The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburn. Of the shitload of sci-fi movies he’d ever seen, he’d always considered that one “probably the most realistic” when it came to its depiction of the coming apocalypse, right up there with the “future” scenes from the movies of the Terminator franchise. It made an innate kind of sense to him that humans would eventually try to play god, and that when they did, they would most likely invent the very things that would rise up and destroy them. He himself liked to remain more hopeful; he liked to think that if a race of intelligent machines did ever evolve on Earth, Humanity would prove a kind and loving enough parent so that its children would not immediately wish death upon it. Of course, well, this was Humanity he was talking about, so his optimism did not go untempered; this same race had invented cold-hearted high school cheerleaders, their overbearing meathead boyfriends, the goddamn terrorists in the fucking middle east, the band known as Nickleback, and novelist Stephanie goddamn Meyer and her goddamn angsty teenage Vampires who “sparkled like diamonds” in the sun. Thus, in the words of the Magic 8-ball: “Signs Point To ‘No.’”

He put the Mind-Weirding Helm down on his desk, then sat down in his office chair and let out a sigh. So. If he didn’t intend to kill himself, what the hell could he do to pass the time until Trillian got home and they all got ready to go? He needed a shower, but could put that off until later. He wasn’t sleepy in the least . . . Nope, he’d gotten himself all keyed up and emotionally strung-out earlier, and now he felt hypomanic and had his second wind, so even trying to sleep was probably pointless. He reached over to the medicine bottles that sat on the nearest bookshelf. One by one he popped their tops and grabbed the right number of pills out of each one, and cupped them in the palm of his left hand. When he had five of them, he put the caps back on and dry-swallowed them one at a time. There. Now he would get sleepy within a half hour or so. The pills always knocked him on his ass. The meds worked fine for now, but sooner or later, he would have to go through yet another round of Gadget the Guinea Pig: Time to test out a whole new medication regimen, to see what worked and didn’t, and which side effects they would put him through this time. Ah, the joys of being “treatment refractory.” How wonderful.

And just like that, creative inspiration struck. He woke up his computer and opened Gygax’s makeshift Character Generation software that he’d written for his home-brewed gaming system. This system had originally begun life as Steve Jackson’s GURPS . . . quite arguably one of the best—and one of the most complex, multifaceted—role-playing systems ever created. The GURPS system allowed you to create any kind of character, gadget, vehicle, spell, artifact, or anything else your imagination could conceive of, whether your tastes ran from cybernetic adepts to gothic Vampires, or from elves, orcs, and hobbits to superheroes, supervillains, and sidekicks. Gygax loved GURPS for its versatility, and he had even gone so far as to reformulate all of its various adapted role-playing systems—such as those like Mage: The Ascension and Vampire: The Masquerade—into a single, unified game-development environment he called Role-Player Generisys, which he had then attempted to code into the skeleton of Mjolnir Propulsion Systems’ then-latest top-secret research project, which neither Gadget nor Trillian were supposed to know existed: The NeuroScape.

The NeuroScape was the world’s first “synthetic phenomenological reality simulator,” which took the idea of virtual reality to its furthest logical conclusion: The idea of interfacing directly with the human nervous system to emulate, in its entirety, a digitally-created world entirely “Other” to the known, human universe, but just as “real” to the experiencer in every other respect, including the laws of physics and the neurology of pain, pleasure, thought, and dream; a system capable of—supposedly—achieving a sort of “advanced sentience,” even an intuitive kind of sapience, thanks to Mjolnir's development of what they called a “Positronic Metacognitive Processor.” Man, what it must’ve been like, to score a gig like that! Sometimes, he envied Gygax, and for more reasons than just his luck with women . . . although rumor had it that Miskatromyk U could in fact, get their hands on a genuine Mjolnir Positronic Metacognitive Processor as early as next year.

And, when it did come to the opposite sex, unlike his best male friend and roommate, Gadget had only gotten laid once. He had lost his virginity at age 23, just three years before this—his first and thus far only sexual experience—to a goth-chick who’d called herself “Jetta Blackthorne,” Gygax’s ex-girlfriend, who’d been stranded at their apartment for the night. Remarkably, Gygax had been cool with this—sort of—citing any man’s lack of willpower when it came to a woman as attractive as Jetta, and also that unlike C-3PO, Gadget had never been a master of etiquette nor protocol. Jetta, on the other hand, had left early after her next paycheck from her bartending job had come through in the night, and had taken a cab back home. She had left Gadget with only a note saying how wonderful the night had been, and a smear of lipstick on his cheek. He had never seen her again, nor had he seen any sign of the small piece of his heart she’d taken with her. Such had been his introduction to the whole “sex and dating” scene. It still bothered Gadget that he’d never had an actual “girlfriend” or anyone “special” in his life for anything more than that one night. In fact, he always felt pretty goddamn depressed whenever he thought about it for too long. Oh well. It wasn’t like he could fix that right now, so there no use brooding about it.

And so there he sat, clicking off options and filling in point-values, generating a new character, whom he named “Anorak.” This version of him stood taller, and had a stronger constitution. A harder-edged version of himself who created machines made for dealing out death. However, he had one machine he could not fix—his heart. Anorak, who lived in another world—loved a woman unlike any other, one who could not love him back: The Principia of the Realm, the Sorceress, his sometimes-cruel but always-beautiful patron, who, when she had need of him, or had some quest she needed completed, would thaw him out of his ancient slumber in cryosleep and set him loose upon the world—to serve, to retrieve, or to kill. To him, the Principia was not lover nor wife, nor concubine. His love for her would be forever unrequited. However, the aching empty spot where she dwelled in his heart did not trouble too much him just now, for at the moment, he had a more urgent task to undertake: The Principia had raised the ire of her arch-nemesis, a ferocious Dream-Dragon in the Northland of Cerebria named Scyzarchon, whom even now the Principia laid plans to defeat . . . but its defeat would not come without the one weapon that could kill such a creature: The crystal sword, Dràchynthýr, or “Dragon-slayer” in the ancient tongue. And so, he had set out to reclaim it for her, by traveling into the West, toward the Forbidden Fortress in the Valley of Doom, where Anorak knew he would find the sword, under the guard of Wraiths, Dark Wizards, and Undead Automatons.

Gadget paused momentarily, read over what he’d written so far, judged it competent, then got up to go to the kitchen and get something to drink. He shuffled out into the hallway, and shambled on into the kitchen, where Gygax still sat at the table, busily pecking at his laptop at top speed, his eyes glued to the screen. “Dude,” he said, without looking up, “you’ve gotta come see this. It’s incredible.”

“Uh, what is it?” said Gadget, apprehensively. “Is this like that time you asked me if I knew what ‘goatse’ meant, and then—”

“Oh, no,” said Gygax, seemingly more distracted than usual. “Seriously, this is for real, dude. No goatse, I promise. I’m breaching about five separate NDA agreements by letting you see or hear any of this, but I gotta vent my crazy at somebody. So here, see for yourself.” Gadget ventured over to the table and looked at the screen. In one window, he saw a command prompt with smooth-scrolling lines of code flowing down it, not dissimilar to his Matrix screensaver. In another, what looked like a giant close-up of a human eyeball, with wisps of plasma energy stabbing at its center, streaks of starlight rushing past, and random flashes of yet more computer code appearing and then just as quickly disappearing in spots. Gygax got up and began pacing back and forth as he spoke, his speech rapid and pressured. Gadget simply sat down at the table and listened, trying not to look too confused.

“Well, what am I looking at?” asked Gadget. “Looks like an eyeball crossed with a plasma globe, to me.”

“But that’s not what it is, dude,” said Gygax. “I just logged onto the master development server at Mjolnir Propulsion Systems, the one that acts as an interface for the Positronic Metacognitive Processor grid they have set up there, so I could take a look at its ‘internal emotional response’ vectors. Just because I’m fucking curious as to what the goddamn thing ‘thinks’ about the newest iteration of its load-balancing algorithm—the one I uploaded yesterday. It looks ‘happy’ with it so far. Heh. I remember when we didn’t have to worry about whether machines ‘liked’ their programming or not. But that’s not all. I noticed a distinct three-dimensional pattern to the ‘feel goods’ that the machine kept telling me it felt, so I went further, dug a little deeper. And what I’m getting back now is very weird. First of all, there’re now ‘bridges’ between multiple, unrelated software nodes that I didn’t code . . . and neither did any other human who’s worked on the project. For instance, the NeuroScape is now fully connected to the Positronic Metacognitive Processor matrix, and somebody’s taken my RPG code and appropriated it, and has used it to set up new head-spaces, the creation of which nobody authorized. It’s as if . . . as if there’s something—or someone—in there, dude. It’s like there’s a living consciousness stuck inside this machine, trying to make contact with us by doing all these ‘intelligent’ things. Like it’s trapped in there, crying out, ‘Notice me, notice me! I’m alive in here!’ Naturally, I find this disturbing, for two reasons. Number one: Fucking duh! That’s creepy as fuck! And secondly, even at an accelerated rate, we are, like, years away from that kind of experiment . . . let alone cross-connecting the two and then turning a rogue AI loose to do its thang all over the place. So we’ve got one of two things going on here. Either, number one, we’ve accidentally given birth to SkyNet, and the missiles are already on their way . . . or, number two, someone with access to the system has either accidentally or on purpose given birth to SkyNet, and they’ve commandeered Mjolnir's NeuroScape and Positronic Metacognitive Processor grid in order to do it. Either way, shit’s about to get real.

“Shit,” said Gadget, his eyebrows going up. “So there's an actual, artificial lifeform loose on the NeuroScape? Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Yes,” said Gygax. “I think there is. And yes, it is dangerous. And I think I'm the only one who knows about it. And I have no idea what to do. For now I think I’ll just keep an eye on it. But this worries me. If this thing gets outta control, who knows what it could do? Where it could go? What havoc it could wreak? God, if it got out on the Internet . . .”

“Yeah,” said Gadget. He turned back around and stared at the eyeball-plasma-globe graphic on the screen. It seemed to watch him through the monitor, gazing into him. “Who knows?”

 

2

 

The bleak, bruised thunderclouds rumbled in the night sky above Cambridge, Massachusetts, as Desirée “Dizzy” Roentgen and her evil arch-nemesis, Aleister Aeon Frankenstein, brawled in the alleyway below. The irradiance of neon signs, the fire of halogen street lamps, and the glow of the moon all reflected off their metal Cybermechazoid Exosuits, illumining the ass-kicking they gave one another, and a bright, blue-white bolt of lightning struck a nearby power-line; the blast of yellow sparks threw the aforementioned superpowered slobber-knocker into vivid relief against the backdrop of the night. Dizzy’s purple bob-cut hair whirled in the air at the edges of her motorcycle helmet as she threw the next punch at Aleister, who caught her fist in mid-swing and punched right back at her, knocking her right in the face. She stumbled backward on her Exosuit’s motorized repulsivator boots, and then came at him afresh with a snap-kick, the actuators in the leg letting loose with a springing sound as her foot impacted with the chest-piece of his Exosuit, knocking him back several paces. The suits were made from alluzinium—an alloy of Dizzy’s own design; twice the toughness of steel, half the weight of aluminum—and could take the punishment. The question was, could she?

They attacked each other in sporadic bursts. A punch to the face here, the gears in her arm whirring. A fake-out with a jab there, the pistons in her wrist thrusting with a hiss. A roundhouse kick to the head or the side, the springs there expanding and contracting rapidly with a loud whacking sound.

This was no longer about their “differences.” This was no longer about him being a “criminal.” No. This was about the life of someone Dizzy cared for greatly, and the extreme danger Aleister had placed him in. This time, he’d crossed a line. You so did not frak with the people she loved, by gods, and Aleister had gone and done just that.

“Goddammit Aleister, tell me where Misto is! Dizzy punched him square in the jaw. The bone there responded with a fulfilling cracking noise, blood and spittle flew. and he stumbled back a few paces. She pulled back the fist she’d made of the articulate metal fingers of her Exosuit's right gauntlet and readied another punch. By the time Aleister had recovered from the first one, his jaw had already healed, thanks to Mutagenesis X119, the “evolutionary accelerant” that coursed through his veins, also known as her father Walter’s Worst. Idea. Ever. He had so not foreseen any of the chaos it would cause whenever he’d thought it up twenty-one years ago. But then, of course he hadn’t. Pure research scientists never saw the light at the end of the tunnel as an oncoming locomotive of pure evil. The “nanogenes” in the serum analyzed the genetic makeup of an organism, determined the “evolutionary arc” its species had taken in order to reach this point in its development, then projected a possible path forward . . . and then accelerated the subject’s genetic mutation toward that end. Dizzy could see what twenty years of low-level exposure had done to Aleister. He could no longer live outside the Exosuit. His skin had a greenish pallor to it, his veins and arteries visible beneath it. The loss of half his hair made him look much older than forty-eight. And while Victor Arkenvalen didn’t look entirely unhandsome, Aleister Aeon Frankenstein, despite having the same exact features, had a frighteningly ugly visage. Victor had a longish face, but not gaunt; he had soft features, for the most part, save for his Roman nose. His large, blue eyes were filled with cold-burning crazy. His hair, once a sandy blonde, had turned mostly-white, and his smile, once warm and friendly, had now become the psychotic grimace of the madman who had grown inside him over the years, until he had burst forth from the womb of Victor’s head. A madman who had, until recently, not tried to take revenge on her father, Walter, or upon her, or Misto . . . because until recently, he had not been strong enough to come out and play in fullness. Now, he was, and so he had. So now, Dizzy had to stop him. Those eyes, though . . . once clear of any hate, they now glowed with a determined psychosis, the split in Victor’s soul gleaming in them brightly.

Dizzy gazed into those eyes now as she grabbed him by the metal collar of his Exosuit, and said—

“Aleister, I swear, if you dont tell me where Misto is, I’m gonna melt your Exosuit down for scrap, with you still inside it! Now tell me—where are you keeping him!

She cocked back a fist with her free hand. Her flight-stabilizing “repulsivators”—as she called them—took up scant room inside the gauntlets’ palms; even so, they each weighed enough that getting socked with one could knock you out. They didn’t seem to phase Aleister one bit, though.

Gee, dad, she thought, your spirit of invention has made my life so much easier.

Aleister merely smirked at her and chuckled. “Oh, give it up, Roentgen! You see, I’ve deduced that you have certain rules when it comes to what to do with me.” He laughed, and spat blood. “I know you won’t kill me. Yes, I know that much. You just can’t do it. 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.”

“Oh shut up!” cried Dizzy, shaking him, “And tell me where he is!”

Aleister laughed a hoarse laugh. “Nope! Sorry! Can’t do it!

Dizzy tried to control her fear of what would become of Misto if she failed—and thus, the bile and anger now rising in her throat—and tried to marshal it into something useful. She mapped out her plan of attack: Aleister’s Exosuit’s spinal column arched up his back like a steel centipede, and plugged into a utility belt around his waist, which in turn supported a set of motorized, flexible segments that guarded his abdomen. And, right above that was the protective cuirass shielding his upper chest, where he’d mounted a zero-point energy reactor, just like Dizzy’s: A glass torus containing a zapping, writhing beam of nuclear plasmic fire, with electromagnets, wiring, and circuitry surrounding it. And under that, a glass dish, beneath which a series of electrodes exchanged bright, flattened arcs of lightning. If she had wanted to, Dizzy couldve just reached forward and blasted his suit’s reactor with her left “Disruptophazer” and blown it—and him—straight to hell. Of course, that would’ve taken her and half the city with them due to the colossal antimatter charge built-up inside it, but, hey—it wouldve gotten the job done, right? So that wasn’t a viable plan. Dammit, she had to think!

“Damn you, you smug asshole!” She let go of his collar and punched him again in lieu of any better ideas. She heard his nose fracture and saw blood leak from his nostrils as he stumbled back and away from her. “Sometimes I’d give anything if you’d just cut the crap! Now where is he! Last chance, or I beat you senseless!

“But you’re already doing that!” he said, spat blood again, and chuckled once more. “It isn’t like you’re suddenly going to start showing me mercy if I cooperate, now is it?”

“Maybe,” she said. “You never know.”

And then, she made a mistake. She dropped her guard and faltered for only a few seconds, but it was all the opening he needed: He spun away, out of her grasp, and attacked her with a solid punch to the side of her helmet. She reeled from the blow, staggering sideways. She recovered, and struck back with a snap-kick at his head, which connected—unlike her motorcycle helmet, which held the synaptic interface to her Exosuit, his was hidden in a medieval-seeming spangenhelm—and it was his turn to stumble backward. He shook off the blow, the bones in his face glowing as the wounds there healed at a preternatural rate, and he approached her once again, this time at an easy pace. “Go on . . . pull the other one, Roentgen! As though I haven’t, on many occasions, shown you almost limitless mercy, and have allowed you to live, so that you might fight again, some other day!”

“Ha!” she retorted. “I think you’re confusing mercy with incompetence.” She hauled back her fist then punched, just as he did the same. Their suits’ onboard computers drove their super-fast reflexes, and their two fists collided mid-air, sending shockwaves back through the pistons in Dizzy’s Exosuit’s arm—and into those in his, too. The upper and lower arm, leg, shoulder, and buttock assemblies of her Exosuit—all of which connected back to the spinal-assembly—all caught part of the force and absorbed it for her. It still hurt like a bitch, though.

They both needed time to recover, but Dizzy moved first. Dizzy brought her leg behind her and propelled the roundhouse kick through with the all force she could muster from her suit behind her. His medieval spangenhelm rang out with a clang. As the steel toe of her repulsivator boot connected, it sent him reeling and stumbling to one side. He crashed into the wall of the alleyway. Aleister’s Exosuit’s segmented metal tentacles—four large appendages attached to its spinal column with silicon rubber discs interspersed with electroactive polymers and hydraulic contractors, each about three meters in length with a claw on the end of it—grabbed at the bricks of the wall as he crashed into them, cushioning his impact somewhat.

Aleister laughed again as he regained his footing, and did . . . nothing. He just stood there. He cackled and giggled, cracking up as he tried again and again to speak, pointing at Dizzy every so often as he continued to lose it, as though she had lobsters crawling out of her nostrils, it was the most amusing thing on Earth, and he just couldn’t stop chortling at her.

“Okay, color me not amused,” said Dizzy. “What’s so funny.” She ached and hurt in places she hadn’t thought a person could ache or hurt in; she felt exhausted, out of breath, and she still had other things she had planned on doing tonight. Still in a fighting stance, wary of the creepy sound of his laughter, she demanded, “Out with it, Aleister.”

“Oh, nothing. Just . . . it’s just that . . . I have this . . . this thing to show you,” said Aleister through his chuckles. He wiped away a tear and seemed to get his rollicking guffaw a little more under control. He reached toward the side of his Exosuit and unfastened the armored segments surrounding his abdomen. His fingers found his waist-coat pocket, and pulled out a small device: It looked like someone had taken an ornate, silver pocket watch and fused it with an electronics-assembly breadboard and a complex series of circuits, a small antennae, and a blinking red light. “You see, Roentgen, I have this. This is a remote triggering device. And it goes off in thirty—oh, no, rather, twenty-nine—minutes. I should think you wouldn’t want that to happen.”

“What? Why!” she cried. She rushed toward him, and grabbed the collar of his Exosuit. “Does something happen to Misto? What the frak happens in twenty-nine minutes! Tell me, you asshole! Tell me or I break every bone in your body, starting with your skull!

“Oh, come now, Roentgen,” he chided. “Really? I think we both know that that’s an empty threat, as I’ve already explained. The real question is—do you want to know what the device triggers? Or do you want to beat me until I can no longer think, and can thus no longer tell you?”

“Okay, fine!” she said, and tried to shake him up a bit, using the increased strength of the Exosuit. “I give! What does it trigger! And don’t lie to me!”

Aleister smiled at her. “Ah, yes, what indeed. You are, of course, familiar with Miskatromyk University’s efforts to duplicate the Berkley Lab Laser Accelerator? Capable of accelerating an electron beam up to ten billion electron volts within one meter of space? Astounding piece of equipment. Well. I’ve hacked the Laser facility in the basement of the Physical Sciences Building. And there, your precious friend ‘Misto’ is tied-up, and sits right in the path that the laser will travel through when the machine wakes from slumber . . . and then, we get to see if he can withstand the force of ten billion electron volts slamming into his body.” He flashed her a wicked grin, with cruelty shining in his eyes. “ I might say it is poetic irony that a machine Joseph helped champion the funding for—and even helped construct—will in fact be what destroys him. And thus, so will a part of you die too, as will a part of your cursed father.” He put the device back in his pocket. “Unless, of course, you manage to get there in time to save your friend. But you won’t. You can’t.” He tittered. “Not if you want to save the others I’ve imperiled. And besides . . . saving either party depends upon me letting you live through this . . . encounter. If I win, you die, and they die, too. And in death, you will have failed all of them.” He snickered. “It’s perfect, it really is. It assures that you die a failure, in all respects—a failure as a hero, a failure as an engineer—after all, my Exosuit will help me beat you and survive—and a failure as a friend. And he fails, too, as your protector, your guardian. And of course, your father fails in that regard, too. Is it a perfect plan? Well, no. But I think that’s what I like about it.”

As he spoke, Dizzy’s confidence faltered. She slowly began to realize: This was it. The one scenario she’d thus far avoided. The one she didn’t like having to think about, that she had pushed out of her mind time and time again. Well, here it was, staring her in the face. The scenario she had dreaded facing, ever since these encounters had begun, a little over three years ago. Here it was, in all its gut-wrenching glory, playing itself out at last, and it made her stomach turn over. The scenario where she had to take Aleister out, once and for all. She had struggled against the inevitability of it, tried to not face its eventuality. But now, it appeared she had no choice. He had gone too far this time. Way too far.

“What others . . .” She bit off the words through gritted teeth, the hot, burning feeling of anger rising in her throat, her face, her chest. She tightened her grip on the metal rim around his neck, and balled the other gauntleted hand into a fist.

Aleister fired the repulsivators in his boots and shot upward, breaking her grip on him and carrying her with him. She engaged her own boot-mounted repulsivators, causing them to bank in the air and veer to one side, heading toward one of the buildings on one side of the alleyway. Dizzy saw that they were about to crash into it—sandwiching her between it and him—and so she engaged her palm-mounted repulsivator and pushed them away and toward the building on the opposite side. They crashed into it instead, sandwiching Aleister between it and her. He engaged his Exosuit’s metal tentacles and used them to snatch at the arm she’d used to grab him by the collar, as the other three tentacles came at her from behind, gripped her by the arms, yanked her off of him, and tossed her toward the pavement below. She fired all four repulsivators and managed to hit the ground feet-first and skid, careening to a halt, sparks flying off her repulsivator boots. Aleister shot back upwards and then levitated above her, a triumphant smirk on his face. Lightning flashed behind him, silhouetting him in the sky; his bright green cape, suspended from pauldrons mounted on either shoulder, billowed in the wind as he sneered down at her. Dizzy tried to engage her repulsivator-boots to rise to his level, but sparks flew from the left boot, and both boots made a winding-down noise that did not bode well. She didn’t go anywhere.

“What’s the matter, Roentgen?” he called down at her, his tone the definition of smarminess. “Hath the villain of the story clipped your heroic wings so soon?”

“Dunno!” she yelled back at him. “Doth your mother beateth you with an ugly-stick before she dresseth you funny? What others, Aleister! Tell me, or I’ll—”

“Or you’ll what?” he said, cackling. “Bore me to death with childish mockery? I think I’ll pass on your snark, Roentgen, and jump straight to the good bit . . . the part where I see you perish in flames. Now, allow me to end this . . .”

Oh shit, she thought. This is so not good. The boots mustve gone into hard-reset mode. That means no flight for at least another two minutes. She turned away from his floating, gloating presence, and ran for it down the length of the alleyway. She couldn’t run faster than he could fly; she knew that, but she could keep him busy until the boots recharged. She heard the whoosh of his repulsivators above and behind her as he gave chase, a hawk zeroing in on a field mouse, cackling the whole time. The Exosuit gave her steps an extra quickness that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, which was of course helpful. Had it not been for that extra speed, she would’ve of course been his in a heartbeat. At least this let her keeps some pace with him. She ducked out of the alleyway and made a hard right turn, up onto the sidewalk of the Massachusetts Avenue thoroughfare, the power of her Exosuit whisking her along like a galloping gazelle scampering through a forest, just steps ahead of a relentless, pursuing hunter.

She huffed and puffed for breath. “Aw . . . come on now . . . Aleister ol’ buddy,” she cried. “Admit it . . . ya wouldn’t . . . know what . . . to do with me . . . if ya caught me . . .”

“Oh but I have ideas!” he called down to her and laughed again.

“I’ll bet you do.”

“Oh, yes. I have ideas, and I have plans. For instance: I have plans for the others I just mentioned. Why, even now—”

“Who are they!” she cried. “And what’ve you done to them!” Dizzy turned to glare at him, and saw him aim his right wrist-mounted Disruptophazer straight at her. She ducked behind a line of parked cars that sat in front of a nearby pub—people had lined up in the window and were recording this on their cell-phones now; great, just frakking fantastic, that’s all I need; viral footage of Aleister and I fighting; oh well, I’ll have Misto track it down at the sources and blur my face out later—and crouched down behind them, taking cover just as he opened fire. Keep him busy, she thought. Maybe people will think we were filming a movie, or something. Yeah. Or something. The first car he shot went hurtling up into the air on a solid column of bright orange flame, then flipped in the air and came crashing down into the middle of the street. Dizzy ran for it again as he floated after her. A group of people streamed out of the front exit of a nearby bar and grill.

“Hey, my car!” cried a man in a suit, frowning, and pointing along with his slack-jawed friends. “Goddamn it! My car!”

Aleister opened fire on them. The man and his friends screamed and ran back into the restaurant as the phased pulse-blasts blew holes in the brick wall of the place and showered them with sparks. In the distance, police sirens wailed and a firetruck’s air-horn sounded.

“Why, I’m sure you must have heard about it on the news, Roentgen!” continued Aleister. “Earlier today, a school-bus carrying sixty-eight elementary school students—plus four teachers from Fletcher-Maynard Academy—vanished on its way back from a field-trip to Bradley Palmer State Park.”

He fired at her again; thanks to her Exosuit’s computer-enhanced reflexes, she dodged the bolt, ducking out of the way and behind a nearby telephone pole. The blast hit the pole instead of her, and sparks flew from the wires and cables that ran up and down its surface. The transformer at the top of the pole exploded, and the lights up and down the street all extinguished themselves. Dizzy ducked to avoid the flaming fallout, and ran for a new piece of cover.

“Now, my memory is a bit fuzzy,” he said as she ran again and he pursued her. “It must be all those times you’ve punched me in the head! But I seem to remember a certain suave, dashing super-villain hijacking that bus and absconding with it and its passengers. It’s now situated betwixt two gargantuan Tesla coils, which are themselves situated on a plot of farmland that once belonged to the parents of my alter, Victor, some twenty miles from here. Motion sensors control the perimeter.”

“You kidnapped a bunch of children?” she exclaimed, her eyes nearly bugging out. “You frakking monster! Dizzy tried to send the mental lift-off command to her repulsivator boots. They whirred and tried to start, but fizzled-out again. Damn it! Still building up a big enough charge! She made a mental note: Redesign the goddamn things. This could get her killed. She would have to stall him for at least another thirty seconds. She ran into another alleyway off to the left, hoping it didn’t lead to a dead end; behind her, above her, Aleister closed in as she hid behind a nearby dumpster.

“If anyone steps off the bus,” Aleister continued, “a lightning discharge from the coils will vaporize them. In twenty-five or so minutes—” He once again recovered the pocket-watch device from his waistcoat and held it up to appraised its dial. “Well, twenty-four, now . . . Just as Dr. Michaelson feels the burn of that quadrillion-watt laser, those sixty-eight children and four adults will fry like frogs on a hotplate. The green button aborts the countdown and frees both the students and Dr. Michaelson. The red button, however, will—I must say, ewww, rather messily—ends the lives of everyone involved. Hey. Hey. I say, Roentgen! Are you paying attention? There will be a test later on!”

“Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, just one question,” she said, trying to play it cool. Aleister aimed both his Disruptophazers at the sound of her voice and floated closer to her hiding spot. Nonetheless, she continued: “Why?”

“Why? Why what?

“Why go to all that trouble, just to give me a moral quandary to solve?”

“Why, whatever do you mean?

“I mean,” she said, “what’s with giving me the old ‘Spiderman versus Green Goblin’ scenario, also known as the ‘Heath Ledger’s Joker, Harvey-Dent-and-Rachel-Dawes double-abduction’ plot?” She got up from behind the dumpster, revealing herself, and backed up and away from him, heading toward the end of the alleyway. “Tell me, what’s the point, Aleister? If you wanted Misto dead, you could’ve just abducted him and fired the laser accelerator at his head, and boom: Job done, finished, finito, poof, period, end of story. But building something that cancels the whole thing? Why? Why would you do that, unless losing this fight was an acceptable outcome for you, and you intended to make good on your word? So, yeah—the device, the countdown, the kids on the bus? The Tesla coils? All of it, just to frak with my head? Nah, come off it, Aleister—there’s gotta be more, here. So level with me. What’s the deal? Why are you doing this?”

Aleister floated down even closer to her, levitating five feet above, and laughed . . . a sinister sound, like broken glass across a chalkboard, a cross between a chuckle and a cackle.

“Because,” he said. “It’s not enough just to beat you, to defeat you in a physical struggle.” His voice trembled with hate and viciousness. “I have to defeat your ideas, as well. I want you to go out knowing that you’re no better than me. Not a hero, not a savior, not the ‘next Einstein’ nor the ‘next Hawking.’ Not the ‘next anything’ other than the latest fool to go down in the footnotes of history as having had not just delusions of grandeur—but delusions of significance. I want to show you that the ‘moral truths’ you cling to—in the desperate hope that they are meaningful—are, in reality, as variable as the discoveries of science are when they’re subjected to the scrutiny of new eyes and new information. That, and I want you to know that I can be magnanimous. I can be generous, if I get what I want. And oh yes— one other thing.” He lowered his voice and spoke almost in a whisper. “I want you to know how bitter the ashes of those you love taste. I want you to know the kind of pain that poor Victor has known all these years. The pain your father inflicted on him, the coldness of the ice-sickle he feels cut into him each and every time he tends to Alicia’s cryostasis chamber, there at that house . . .”

A slight ‘pinging’ sensation in her mind told her that the repulsivator boots had finished recharging. She engaged both them and their palm-mounted twins, propelling her upward. She cocked back a fist. Just as she reached him, before he could react, she brought said fist up and around and slammed it into his face.

Aleister went flipping through the air, tossed away from her like an astronaut tumbling in zero-gravity. His facial bones crunched from the impact . . . but by the time he’d finished recoiling from the blow, the bones had already begun to re-knit themselves, un-crunching as they did and glowing with a faint, eldritch glow beneath the skin. Seconds later, it was as if the wounds had never existed. Damn that serum! He righted himself in the air and then zoomed toward her at full speed, both fists in front of him—as well as the snatch-and-grabbers of his four, segmented metal tentacles looming near him—and fired his Disruptophazers. Thanks to the reflex-and-sensory-enhancing nature of the Exosuit, though, she managed to dodge out of the way each time, all four shots going wild.

Dizzy laughed—a nervous laugh, though she tried to make it sound haughty and brave—and he sped forward and rammed her with his gauntleted fists, both of them connecting hard with the segmented armor that protected her abdomen. The wind went out of her, and she flew backward through the air. Aleister pressed his advantage: He over the top of her. His segmented metal tentacles each extending to their fullest possible length and grabbed hold of her, and wrapped themselves around her Exosuit’s legs and arms, and then tightened around them like metal pythons.

“Gah—! Let go of me, you wretched asshole!” she cried. “Or I swear, to whatever gods exist, that when I do get free, I’m gonna rip off your suit’s frakkin’ tentacles, shine ‘em up real, real nice, then turn ‘em sumbitches sideways, and cram ‘em up your monkey ass!

In response, Aleister chuckled and his tentacles squeezed her tighter. The metal of her Exosuit buckled and warped under the pressure, poking through her clothes, where it stabbed her and pinched her. She winced at the sharp pains she felt, determined not to let the discomfort show through too much.

“Please believe me, Roentgen,” he said—as his metal tentacles let loose and threw her at the wall of the alleyway—“when I say that on the inside, I’m positively quaking with fear.”

Dizzy crashed into the brick wall backside-first, the force of the collision rattling her teeth. A battle of attrition. If she didn’t end this soon, he would. Unlike her, have no proscription against taking his opponent’s life. Nonetheless, she summoned up the energy for a few more verbal quips and rallied a surge of willpower to fire up the servos in her Exosuit. She pried herself out of the hole she’d made in the brick wall behind her.

“Y’know, it’s not fair, the things you supervillains get away with,” she said, “while the rest of us are forbidden from cheating, simply because we’re decent people.” She blocked his oncoming punch and fought back with two of her own. First a right hook that smashed him in the nose, then a left that knocked him spinning like a top through the air and toward the ground. He tumbled backward, firing his boot- and palm-mounted repulsivators in an attempt to steady his flight, and then recovered, righted himself, and flew back up to face her once more. Dizzy prepared herself for an attack—but none came. Instead, he hovered a short distance away from her, laughing, as though this whole encounter had thus far been a lark.

“You do me too great an honor, Roentgen!” he said, still laughing. “I know I’m always the bad guy, in your view—I get that, I do. There is such wonderful symmetry in that, and besides, you see yourself as the hero, one of the good guys, 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.

Dizzy flinched. Ouch. That one had gotten through, its teeth sharp and their bite bone-deep. Was he right? Were they really the same, each of them the fun-house-mirror reflection of the other? Aleister’s his raison d’être, was supposedly advancing the Human race onward toward the apotheosis of its evolutionary destiny, via chaos and carnage, via the advancement of science. Were her goals—ultimately, minus the carnage part—really all that different? Of course, the devil was in the details. Because unlike Aleister, Dizzy thought—though she tried to avoid self-congratulation—she legitimately cared for those whom Misto called “Mundanes,” the ordinary rabble of society who, come tomorrow morning, would neither know nor suspect that Dizzy had—once again—intervened and stopped a mad scientist from wreaking havoc on their well-ordered, slightly-more-boring-than-hers world.

“Okay, just for that,” she replied, “I’m gonna kick your ass extra hard this time.” She rocketed toward him, and he flew at her. They re-engaged midair in a duel of punches and martial arts blows and parries. Dizzy spoke to him, though, pausing to exchange blows with him: “One day,” she said as she threw a punch, “I’m just gonna snap . . .” He punched back, and landed a solid hit to her temple. She recovered, a bit dazed, but went on: “And build myself a death-ray . . .” She tumbled through the air but landed a flying kick to the center of his Exosuit, knocking him a good ten feet—“or an earthquake machine.” She blocked two punches. He feigned a third to her face and smashed the real blow into her flexible abdominal segments. She doubled over in pain, but managed to pull herself together enough to deliver a solid upper-cut. “Don’t think I don’t know how, either,” she continued, her voice strained with the ache in her stomach. “I’ve studied Tesla’s patents . . .” She ducked another of his blows and attacked him with renewed vigor; the Exosuit’s onboard computer told her body to release endorphins to combat the pain in her ribs. “I’ve also seen plenty of Wile E. Coyote cartoons.” She threw a roundhouse punch at him; it landed and sent him tumbling. “So I know how that earthquake pill thing is done, too.” Aleister’s arm weaved around her outstretched punch and grabbed her throat. He pulled her closer, and then pummeled her face with three quick, powerful jabs. Dizzy felt blood flow from her aching nose just as he released her; dazed again, seeing stars and splotches of color, her mind fuzzed, and she flew away. He pursued her, his four segmented, metal tentacles reaching out to grab her. She rounded on him, and fired one of her wrist-mounted Disruptophazers at his boot-mounted repulsivators. Bright blue electrical sparks flew from his right boot, and tiny lightning bolts careened up and down the metal, wires, and tubing there. He plummeted Earthward and landed in yet another nearby alleyway. Dizzy smiled to herself and wiped the blood from her face and spat out a mouthful of it as she ran in that direction. “Heh,” she said. “Maybe I can get away with some of the same crap as he does. Well. Maybe I’m not a villain or a hero, then . . . Maybe I’m the antihero. It would just figure. Man. Buffy never had this kind of trouble. I swear.”

Sure enough, she found him there in the alleyway, waiting for her. He did not move at first—only stood there, glaring at her. Sparks flew from the power-core of his Exosuit, and the lights on it flickered.

“Do you want to know the real problem with people like you, Roentgen?” he said, his voice trembling with anger, his fists clenching and unclenching. “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 screw-up 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 Exosuit, 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 listened to him monologue for a moment—Man, she thought, Disney’s The Incredibles might be an oldie of a movie, but it made a good point about villains always stopping the action just to do that—and reflected on his words. His remark about the wheelchair ate at her. The damned thing had been her companion since she’d been twelve years old, ever since the car accident had robbed her of both her mother Amelia and the use of her legs. It hadn’t been long after that she and her father had sat down and designed the Mark I Exosuit together, and he’d had the Gizmo Factory he’d built in their mansion’s backyard manufacture it for her.

“So like, what,” she said, “you want I should quit being a decent person, and instead become an asshole, like you?”

In response, Aleister simply blinked at her disbelievingly. His face twitched. Then he snarled at her, roared in frustration, and tried to restart his repulsivator boots. They failed, and so he ran at her in a blind, yelling rage. He threw another punch at her. She blocked it, and then executed a snap-kick at his head. He grabbed her leg and wrenched it around in a half-turn, twisting it and landing her flat on her back. Dizzy tried to scrambled to her feet, but two of his segmented metal tentacles wrapped themselves around her waist and her right leg, and yanked her into the air, tossing her up and slamming her into the side of the nearest building. She turned herself to the side before hitting it. The metal shoulder of her Exosuit smashed into the wall instead of her face. She engaged her repulsivators, repelled away from the wall, and landed back in the alleyway, right behind Aleister, who turned around just as she touched down, just in time for his face to connect with her fist. He staggered back a few paces. He came back with a quick, feinted jab at her from the left, then attacked with his right. She blocked the blow, grabbed the shoulders of his Exosuit, and head-butted him again. Their helmets collided and they both staggered back a few more paces.

Her ears ringing and her head aching like a son of a bitch, Dizzy stalked toward Aleister, stumbling punch-drunkenly once or twice. This fight had gone on way too long. She tried her best not to show it, not to sell the blows he’d landed . . . not to show any weakness whatsoever. She couldn’t let him know that this hurt. If she showed any sign of buckling under his assault, he’d step things up and move in for the kill, and she didn’t think she had enough strength left to fend him off if he did that.

As though reading her thoughts, he rushed at her. She engaged all four repulsivators, and they lifted her into the air. She lunged forward in a jumping motion. She levitated, drew back a leg, and kicked Aleister in the face, once with each boot, then slammed down onto the ground behind him as he stumbled backward. She turned, and bashed him in the back of the head with a flying elbow, causing him to totter back the other way—forward, this time. She grabbed one of the segmented, metal tentacles mounted to the spine of his Exosuit and yanked on it. The tentacle writhed in her grasp and encircled her arm. One of its three siblings snaked around her midsection. The two lifted her up into the air and over Aleister’s head, and lowered her down in front of him. He punched her in the helmet. A volley of yellow sparks and the zzzt!-sound of a short circuit came bursting out of the Exosuit’s onboard computer, housed just inside the chest-piece, near the zero-point energy reactor. The system there had a redundancy, though. Dizzy fired the palm-mounted repulsivator near the first segmented tentacle and flew straight up, tossing herself like a rag-doll, flipping and spinning, and taking Aleister with her. Dizzy broke free as the tentacle let go of her and Aleister crashed back downward toward the pavement. She engaged the three other repulsivators and “caught herself” in the air, suspending on all four repulsivator beams as Aleister managed to get to his feet in the alleyway below. Then she cut the power, and dropped to the ground, her fists up in a defensive fighting stance.

Dizzy went at him as he rebounded from the wall of the alleyway. She punched him again; he recoiled, and struck back. They exchanged several blows as they levitated above the pavement, and then went higher, hovering above the rooftops of the city. Aleister flew away and Dizzy chased him, grabbing him and then punching him, and he returned fire and knocked her backward through the air, only to zip away again. He landed in another alleyway, a narrower space between two other buildings somewhere in downtown Cambridge. Dizzy landed right behind him, her repulsivator boots banging against the pavement. Aleister whirled around and aimed his own wrist-mounted Disruptophazer at her. Dizzy dodged to the left, her computer-enhanced reflexes causing the blast to miss her head by mere inches and nanoseconds. The bolt collided with the wall of the building behind her, causing a chunk of it to vanish with a loud cracking noise, its atomic structure collapsing.

They rocketed toward each other and collided mid-air, punching and kicking, with her knocking him backward and him zipping away. She took aim with her left Disruptophazer, and fired. The blue-white bolt sliced through the air and slammed into the repulsivator circuits on his right boot, which imploded in a shower of sparks as the weak nuclear force that sustained the repulsivator’s atomic structure collapsed in on itself. His actual foot, however, remained undamaged. Damn. She heard him cry out, and then watched him falter and lose altitude, as his other three repulsivators—one in each palm and the remaining boot-mounted one—struggled to compensate and keep him aloft. He almost crash-landed back in the alleyway, but managed to stumble into something of a salvaged landing at the last second as Dizzy landed behind him. He spun around and attacked.

Dizzy whisked a robotic gauntlet up in front of her face and caught Aleister’s fist mid-swing. The armatures in her Exosuit whirred, working overtime. He ignored her poised fighting stance, as one of his segmented metal tentacles shot toward her and clamped onto her Exosuit's left leg, so hard that it dented the alluzinium. A second tentacle wrapped itself around her midsection and curled around her, constricting her and crushing her corset of flexible, motorized segments; the metal crushed against her. As the two tentacles lifted her, she pounded on them with her gauntleted metal fists. Her gauntlets didn’t make a difference against them in terms of brute force, even with her Exosuit lending each punch extra “oomph.” She couldn’t fire on them in such close-range, because she had to consider the Disruptophazers’ splash-damage. The rest of her Exosuit whirred and whined, its curved, form-fitting armored segments flexing and bending—and some buckling—under the tightening pressure of his tentacles. The armored greaves and vambraces upon the forearms might hold up. She hoped they would, at least. She felt the pressure on the suit through the synaptic interface; felt the armor giving way, felt its gears grind, spun the motors with her mind. The third of Aleister’s metal tentacles reached out—he had held it back so far, its claws hovering near his head, just over his shoulder—and grappled her throat in its pincers. Blood poured from the wounds as it cut into her skin—just missing her major arteries—

“So,” said Aleister, chuckling, as the robotic tentacles clenched around Dizzy’s body and throat, “it is here that we learn that Desirée Amelia Roentgen, acclaimed student of the natural sciences, isin fact—not prepared for every eventuality. Tell me. If I let you breathe, will you use the air to join forces with me—or to admit that I’ve beaten you; that I, having the keener intellect, have won? Or will you waste your precious last breaths, and use them to implore me to give up on ‘wickedness,’ and lecture me on good versus evil, and how I ‘don’t have to do this’ and how it ‘doesn’t have to be this way?’ Or, use your precious last breath to spend your last four minutes on the clock to try and plead with me for your friend Misto’s life, or the lives of those poor elementary studentsit’s all up to you, Roentgen. Your life, their lives. Your decision.”

Dizzy felt the python-like metal tentacles loosen just a little—enough to gasp for a breath or two—and sucked in several huge gulps of air. “I’d encourage you,” she said, looking him right in the eyes, “to give yourself up . . . turn yourself into the police . . . or else I’m gonna have to get real angry with you, Aleister. Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

“Ha!” he said, and the clenching, tightening of the tentacles recommenced; he used them to pull her closer to him, to almost within his reach. “That’s all you can muster? Some lame, cheap, stupid pop-culture reference? I thought better of you than that, Roentgen. Don’t ask me why, but I did.”

“Hey,” she managed to eek out as he choked her, “those . . . pop-culture . . . references . . . aren’t cheap. They cost . . . cool-points in the eyes of younger . . . audiences and . . . credibility . . . in the eyes of . . . older ones. Ack! Agh . . . can’t . . . breath . . . !” Blood issued from the corner of her mouth and dripped down the metal pincers mounted on the end of his choking tentacle.

“The only audience in attendance here is me, Roentgen. And killing you? Ah, ah ha-ha-ha . . . killing you will be my summer blockbuster.”

“Well prepare for a disappointing opening night,” she said, and fired all four of her repulsivators—those built into the boots as well as those inside her gauntlets’ palms—and flew straight up, dragging his metal tentacles—and therefore, him—along with her as she rocketed skyward. He cried out in surprise and disengaged the tentacles . . . and fell straight downward about twenty-five feet. He tried to engage his repulsivators, but didn’t have time before he crash-landed on the pavement below. He cried out in pain, but recovered, scrambling to his feet and soaring back up into the air after her, headed straight for her, aiming to tackle her. His tentacles snapped at the air and grabbed at her, but she avoided them by streaking to the left at the last minute. She ducked out of the way a second time, too, but the third time she tried that, he faked her out, and succeeded in catching her around the waist with his arms. He pulled her close to him, flipped them in the air, and sent them both rocketing toward the ground in a controlled dive.

Dizzy activated all four of her Exosuit’s repulsivators, and they began tumbling through the air, smashing into the side of one building, then the other, still headed downward. Dizzy managed to break free of him and rocket up and away from him. He gave chase. Dizzy turned in the air, switched her gauntlet-repulsivators to “beam” mode, and fired them at Aleister; two bright purple-white beams of energy shot out of her palms and hit him, shoving him through the air and blasting him into the side of the other building, embedding him in the brick and mortar of its alley-facing wall. She then descended and landed in the alleyway, as above her, he broke away from the Aleister-shaped-indentation in the bricks, and flew back down toward the Earth. She looked away for the briefest of moments—just long enough for him to get the drop on her and tackle her from behind. Dizzy fell and hit the pavement with an “Oof!” The wind went out of her, the vibration of the impact traveling through the Exosuit and back into her limbs.

Aleister grabbed her arm and wrenched her over onto her back. He knelt above her, straddling her, his knees pinning her upper-arms, and proceeded to try to choke the living daylights out of her. His metal gauntlets, cold and tight against her throat; if he fired his palm-mounted repulsivators . . . No! She refused to even imagine the resulting horrific fate she’d meet if he did that. It turned out he hadn’t imagined it either; for instead of executing such a deathblow, he cackled and continued to choke her. As the world began to blur and her brain began to scream for oxygen yet again, the moonlight and neon glint winked and streaked off Aleister’s armored helm and the whites of his eyes and the teeth in his demented, gleeful smile.

“Feel it—feel the pain, you little bitch! Suffer, suffer! Feel the agony your father put Victor through, all those years ago . . . feel it, you arrogant little cockroach! The apple never falls far from the tree; no . . . not very far at all. You think you’re untouchable? You think you’re special? Well, I’ll show you special! I’ll show you untouchable! Just look how far you’ve fallen, right here, tonight . . . Look, look and see, and know! Look and see your doom in these eyes, as my noble will is made manifest through my power! And witness now the mechanism of evolution in action, as you, the ignoble and the virtueless, the weak, you who put your faith in the soulless orthodoxy of ordinary, slave morality, are rightfully singled-out for extinction . . .”

“Did anyone,” she whispered, each word scraping her throat like sandpaper, “ever tell you . . . you talk too frakkin’ much?” And then, she realized that all this time—maybe an oxygen-to-the-brain thing had made her forget—she’d had an ace in the hole against this sort of attack. She closed her eyes and concentrated—with what little ability to focus she had left—on the zero-point energy reactor in her Exoskeleton’s chest-piece. Moreover, she concentrated on the outer metal rim of the recess in which she’d mounted it, part of the assembly that generated the torus-shaped electromagnetic field that contained the initiating plasma reaction that fueled the zero-point process. She jacked-up the power running through it, and the metal rim on the outside of the suit turned into a powerful magnet; any metal surface it touched would also become magnetized. She increased the power by a factor of five, and sure enough—

Aleister cried out in surprise as the entire chest-piece of his Exosuit rushed downward—dragging him along and breaking his hold on her throat, his arms forced to bend as he moved—the whole thing magnetizing to Dizzy’s Exosuit’s chest-piece, bringing them face to face and nose-to-nose. Dizzy sucked in a deep breath . . . and got a good whiff of Aleister’s. It smelled like rotting cabbage and old gym socks. She almost gagged, but between heavy, rasping breaths, she ended up laughing instead, and grinned up into his psychotic, shining eyes.

“Maybe someday, Aleister . . . but not today!” She sent the psychic command to reverse the poles of her magnetized chest-piece and then she shot out from under him like a bolt of greased lightning. She rolled over onto her stomach and, with her Exoskeleton’s mechanical aid, she scrambled to her feet as he rose to his, and fired his right Disruptophazer at her. She dodged the blast, leaping out of the way just as his face twitched with the thought-signal he sent to the gun’s trigger-circuit. Then, in a flash, Dizzy had her own Disruptophazer raised and trained on him. It irked her to no end that she’d allowed it to come this close to either of their deaths or to permanent injuries.

They circled one another like a pair of boxers squaring off, both their weapon-arms raised, both weapons trained on each other, each one prepared to disintegrate their foe.

“Come on, Aleister,” said Dizzy. “You know you don’t wanna do this! Or, hey—if you can hear me in there—c’mon, Victor, you know you don’t wanna do this. She paused, then followed that with, “Listen. Victor. Listen to me. I know you’re in there, somewhere, Vic. So listen. If you could, just . . . get Aleister to lower his Disruptophazers, okay? Please. I don’t wanna kill him. Or you. Either of you.”

“I’m very sorry,” said Aleister, grinning at her, his gun still trained on her, “but Victor isn’t home just now. He’s home less and less these days—not that I let him know that, of course—and so, I’m afraid, you’ll just have to continue dealing with me. Sometimes I feel so alone in here, and I wonder if—this time, or perhaps it will be next time—Victor just . . . won’t . . . come back.

“Fear the day he doesn’t,” said Dizzy. “Because on that day, I’m a-comin’ for my damn nachos, Johnny, and you’d better have the cheese dip ready.” Instead of firing her Disruptophazer—or giving him time to fire his—she went for the power of surprise: She flicked the right mental switch, and leapt forward, just as her repulsivators kicked in, and she tackled him to the ground before he could know what hit him. He fired his Disruptophazer, but the shot went wild and vaporized the nearby dumpster in its entirety just as Dizzy connected with him; they collided, metal clanking against metal as they hit the ground and skidded on Aleister’s backside, his tentacles going haywire as his Exosuit’s spine scuttled into the pavement, his arms and their exoskeletal braces pinned to his Exosuit’s sides between her own mechanical knees. She reached out, grabbed him by his suit’s metal collar, and pressed her other palm to his forehead, and concentrated for a brief moment or two as she held him there.

“No, no!” he protested as she continued to press her hand to his head. “No! Not this time—! Not again! I refuse, I—!

“Eh, shuddup shuttin’-up, Rabbit,” she said. Six seconds later, a bright electric spark leapt from her fingertips to his spangenhelm with a zzzt!—and then to the ground with another zzzt!—and his head lolled back, his eyes rolling up and into it, and the rear of his cranium tapping the pavement as he lost consciousness and passed out.

Dizzy let out a long, slow breath of relief. You had to synchronize the pulse with the subject’s brainwaves, or else that wouldn’t work. She sighed with relief that it had—one time it hadn’t, and she’d had to knock him out. She checked just beneath the Exosuit’s structure on either of his abdominal sides, feeling for the soft fabric of his tweed waist-coat. She found it, and pulled out the death-trap-triggering pocket-watch device.

"Heh, well now, would ya lookee what we have here,” she said, and smiled. “Looks to me like the thing that either dooms or saves Misto and those school-kids.” She glanced down at Aleister’s—well, Victor’s—unconscious form. “Provided,” she added to herself, “that you’re true to your word. Provided that this isn’t just another of your tricks, Aleister. And provided that you went to the trouble of building a failsafe into your own mischief, a thing I’m still not convinced you did. I’m also doubtful there’s any actual countdown going on. Y’know what? Time to check that shiznit out. If only I had a device . . .” She stood up and dismounted Victor’s sprawled, out-like-a-light body, and paced the width of the alley. She tapped the small broach-like pin magnetized to the metal collar of her Exosuit, a silvery Starfleet emblem that now lit up inside with a soft blue glow. It chirruped as she tapped it, and she said: “Misto! Come in, Misto! Do you read me? I say again—do you copy? What’s your twenty?”

Garbled whistles and radio static answered her. Of course, if you had kidnapped someone, as Aleister had done with Misto, you didn’t want them able to call for help, so you’d confiscate any communications devices they had on them at the time, right? Right. But, she didn’t know if Aleister knew about the Starfleet pins; if he didn’t, Misto still had his pinned to his lapel, just like always. Of course, Aleister had probably thought about them having some alternate mode of communication, and had thus probably set up some kind of frequency-jamming device.

Seconds passed. Dizzy grew more and more nervous. She glanced down at the two buttons on the device. Green, or red? Could she trust Aleister’s word that “green” meant saving everyone, and that “red” meant instant death? She flipped the device over on its back and commanded the tiny, recessed, motorized Philips screwdriver inside her right gauntlet’s index-finger to extend. She unscrewed the back of the device, and traced the path of the wires running to the green button, which led back to a small circuit board connected to a small antennae coil, as did the wires from the red button. But, she noticed that the red button’s wires also connected to a second circuit board, this one responsible for the pocket-watch’s motorized, counting hands on the device’s front panel. Why would the red button—which killed everyone—need to connect to the countdown circuit? Unless . . .

Dizzy pushed the red button.

The countdown clicked-off one more second . . . and then froze.

She sucked in and let out a big, nervous breath. Dear gods, good that she had looked! Aleister had of course lied. But Misto was safe now. Now more than ever, she realized how much she cherished him. Misto had a childlike heart beating in the body of an almost-fifty black man from Harlem; a stodgy physics professor by daylight who had the soul of a ten year old. A big, dorky sci-fi and fantasy geek by hook or by crook every-when else, Misto fancied himself a kindred pirate sailing the high-seas of fandom, a misfit like her who adored fantastical comics, books, movies, and TV shows from every era, all the way back to the 1940’s, so long as they promised a cracking good story and daring feats of imagineering and invention. Yeah, thank the gods he was safe. Thank the gods.

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

“Misto?” she said again to the open air, her voice trembling. She cleared her throat and tried again. Be strong, she told herself. 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 in her ear for a few seconds and then came a familiar voice. “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. “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 Aleister. Yeah. Again. But how and where are you? That’s the question worth about a billion in gold-pressed latinum.”

“Eh, okay, I guess,” his disembodied voice answered. “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.

“Damn,” 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. “Looks like we’ll have to step up the treatments of the antidote to three times a day, instead or 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 oblivion. 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 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, as there’s someone—the potential first 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, incandescent white searchlight—not to mention the red, white, and blue pulsating lights that adorned the tops of the two police cars that now pulled into it—and then came the whoop and wail of their twin sirens. Dizzy raised a gauntlet to shield her eyes from the blinding light. She backed up a few paces.

A staticky, gruff voice squawked through a PA speaker: “Hold it, right there, the two of you! Freeze!”

Dizzy turned to look, and there beside her, stood Aleister . . . who had somehow awakened and gotten back up on his feet without her noticing. She’d been so wrapped up in her thoughts and her conversation with Misto that she’d forgotten all about him.

“Ah, Roentgen,” he said, chuckling and giving her a mocking bow of faux-respect, “it would seem that alas, we must now say ‘goodnight!’ I hate to cut and run, but . . . ah, well, you know how it is, right? Time waits for none of us, and besides, I’m late. expect you’ll have a dandy good time explaining yourself to these nice officers, though. Ta-ta for now!”

He blasted-off, the repulsivators in his boots and gauntlets spitting out glowing pulses of energy that lifted him up into the nighttime sky like a shooting star in reverse as he cackled at her and then banked in the air, turned, and flew away into the darkness of the night and the pouring rain. Dizzy almost jumped out of her skin as gunshots rang out right across from her—the cops shot at Aleister . . . and of course, they missed. He moved too fast for them to aim well enough.

“Until next time, Frankenstein,” she muttered, glaring after him. “Until next time.”

“You there! I said hold it, right there!” cried the PA speaker again, as one of the cops got out of the first police car and trained a pump-action shotgun on her. His partner got out of the driver’s side door, the microphone in one hand, his revolver trained on her with the other. “Put your hands in the air,” he boomed through the speaker, “and get down on the ground—slowly. Right now, miss.”

“Ugh. These jokers never learn.” Dizzy rolled her eyes. She pretended to put her hands up, but at the last second she aimed her Disruptophazers at the two police cars, and opened fire. The blue-white bolts shot out of the two weapons hit the two cars. The first car had parts of it—the forward engine-compartment the grill, the hood, its front tires, fenders, and engine block—partially disintegrated, leaving it a smoldering wreck; the two officers beside it backed up away from it and the heat baking off of it, confused and bewildered. The engine of the second police car exploded in a raging fireball, the blast-wave of which threw the first two cops forward, to the ground, and knocked Dizzy backward, into the dead-end wall of the alley. The two cops in the exploding car dove out of the driver’s and passenger-side doors and hit the floor of the alleyway as their car continued to burn. They managed to get to their feet and scurry away just as the fire got to the car’s fuel-line, and the whole vehicle went shooting up in an even bigger whooshing ball of flame, propelled upward for a brief moment, flipping in the air, and then crashing to the ground.

She hadn’t had much of a choice; she didn’t have time to answer pesky questions and she couldn’t have them chasing after either herself or Aleister. So blowing up their vehicles seemed the safest option. Besides—she hadn’t killed them. They would be a little banged up and a little worse for the wear, but not dead. Still, though. She had endangered innocents. She promised she would beat herself up for it later, though. For now, a quick getaway was in order.

Dizzy engaged her repulsivators and flew into the night sky, surfing the gravity field. Her heart pounded in her chest as though trying to break free from her ribcage. She trembled, sweat beading on her forehead. Good gods, she thought, what had just happened? She could see the fireball below as it roiled into the air and lit up the alleyway and the thoroughfare beyond it. More cop cars arrived, as did an ambulance and a firetruck. Thank the gods no one had died. People had a tendency to do that whenever she and Aleister got into their little moral “arguments” on the mean streets of Cambridge. She remained floating there in the air, looking down at the scene, making sure all four of the original cops that had arrived had not, in fact, just vaporized, but merely only injured. She told herself to get moving, and did so, flying off in the direction of Miskatromyk U, to rescue Misto and then get on with the business of meeting the new recruit she’d just told him about. (She needed to stop springing stuff like that on him, she thought, chastising herself a bit.) And then, on to the real business of the next five days: PhantasmagoriCON, the biggest and the coolest of the local sci-fi and fantasy conventions that came around this time every year. Liftoff? Friday, April 10th, 2027—tomorrow morning—and she resolved not to miss out on any of it because of Dr. Victor Arkenvalen and Aleister Aeon Frankenstein’s supervillainous shenanigans. No sir. She’d already packed, and had sent her bags on ahead of her. She hoped that maybe Misto could meet someone special this year. Maybe that one girl—the one he he’d said he’d gotten in touch with through email—would show up there. Dizzy hoped so. After all he'd been through these past two years, Misto deserved a chance to cut loose a little. Dizzy told herself she’d just have to sleep in the adjoining room and wear some earplugs when she wasn’t busy as his wingman. Well, wing-woman. Whatever. Maybe while Misto got busy with some costumed avenger, she would amuse herself by kicking some ass in a few games of Magic. That always aggravated insecure “gatekeeper” dude-bros . . . which of course just added to the fun.

Then again—she had to deal with the little . . . er, “problem” . . . of Misto’s “condition.” She shuddered, thinking of what it must’ve how painful the transformation into the thing must’ve been for him, whenever the moon grew full or whenever his blood-pressure got too high. She had little doubt that his transformation caused him great agony. She found that in reality, she didn’t want to know how bad it got for him; because if she did, she’d let her sympathy for him cloud her reasoning, and that would make it harder to come up with an antidote to his affliction, not easier.

But, oh well: For now, she thought, frak it. She and Misto had both agreed that the next five days were all about fun and escapism, not pondering the respective ills of their lives or the world’s problems in general. PhantasmagoriCON was a short but blessedly-sweet vacation from the Mundane world. For these precious few days, Dizzy felt reunited with the social sphere she warmly referred to as “her people.” And she wouldn’t allow any supervillain—nor any mission to save the world—to cock that up for either her, or Misto, or anyone else.

And hey, she thought, as she levitated away, the villain-fighting life isn’t all bad; it at least gives me a kickass costume I can wear this week. I wonder if it’s cheating to enter the masquerade ball in a costume you wear most of the time in day-to-day life anyway?

As she flew across the rooftops and headed toward Miskatromyk University, surveying the streets below and the horizon ahead, she felt a pervasive feeling of anxiety wash over her; almost a sudden sense of foreboding, a feeling of doom and gloom, as though something wasn’t right with the world, though she had no clue what. Just a sudden stab of feelings—like something, somewhere, felt horribly wrong, somehow—but she had no idea what, much less any idea of what to do about it. She managed to shrug it off, though, and refocused her mind on the con and on Misto, and on the problem of what to do—eventually—about Aleister.

Aleister had told the truth, earlier: Less and less of Victor Arkenvalen existed these days. One day, nothing would remain of him; he would be pure Aleister Aeon Frankenstein, and Victor would exist only in memory, a fading footprint in the sands of his own consciousness. Could she bring herself to look Aleister—the remnants of Victor—right in the eyes and kill him? Put him down for good? Could she ever be strong enough to do what needed doing? She didn’t know, though she had a bad feeling that he was correct—there would be a test on this, sooner or later. She hoped it was later. She wasn’t sure she’d studied hard enough—if she had really studied at all.

 

3

 

The Zarcturean homeworld existed far from Earth and its main-sequence yellow star. Technically, their world was a large moon, one of twenty-three orbiting an orange and red gas giant over a hundred thousand miles across, which in turn orbited a white dwarf star, a moon bathed in the electrical flux that coursed between the gas giant and the Zarcturean moon’s volatile volcanic cousin, a burnt little cinder of a moon coated in lava, at whose torrid surface there tore constant eruptions and explosions. The gases in the upper layers of the giant glowed a faint blue color, constantly on fire with the electrical overload from the flux tube that passed between the giant and the volcanic moon, as well as the never-ending storms that brewed within its own gaseous folds and pockets.

And once, a great long time ago, on the Zarcturean moon, as the oceans sparked with electrical current, the primordial ooze there had given birth to the very first organisms, which had, over two million years later, propelled themselves through the wet, jungle-moon’s vast array of interconnected bogs, swamps, seas, lakes, oceans, and geysers, not unlike large squid-creatures, their intellects evolving as had their bodies, their minds sharpening as their senses embraced the spectacle of the universe’s unfolding majesty all laid out before them. At first they had trembled in fear. But once they had learned the trick of projecting their minds through hyperspace and beyond—ah, then, they had begun to understand, and with understanding had come the urge to possess, to control. To rule.

Every three cycles around the gas giant, and every one of its century-long trips around the white dwarf, the youth of the Zarcturean made the arduous trek from their Sea of Becomings, wherein all Younglings still too young for the journey lay safe and sound within the loving embrace of The Queen-Mother, all of them held in rapture by the telepathic bond she shared with them—across the thawing, slime-slackened planes and valleys of the Emerald Forests and the Shadow Caves, past the ruins of ancient D’Angmar, to the great Domed Cities of L’yeng, T’koth, and M’gaar, where the young males would impregnate as many females as possible in the watchful, blue glow of the gas giant that loomed above them, as they all opened their minds and compound eyes and took in the spectacle of the universe itself, their minds teeming with geometry, calculus, astrophysics, geology, chemistry . . . equations, pure mathematics, symbols, and stories of the past . . . as well as conceptions of beauty, philosophy, the poetry of stellar mechanics and cartography, all exchanged as neurotransmitters and longitudinal electromagnetic waves. Then, the females would return to the Sea of Becomings, where they would turn their fertilized eggs over to The Queen-Mother.

The Queen-Mother played an important role, but she wasn’t the brain of their species. She ruled them, and she made many decisions for them, but she did not form the central repository of all their species’ mental abilities. This mattered; an important distinction to make. Their race’s vast wisdom lay preserved in the virtual neural connections that existed between the young and the old, the male and the female, and those of the various castes, who tended to cluster together and function not unlike the various sections of a physical brain. The Queen functioned as the central hub for all this mental activity, the centralized router of telepathic neural activity.

Once the females had returned their eggs to the Queen-Mother, they would return to the surface, where they would perish in the radioactive eruption of the flux tube as the planet passed through it and it ravaged the surface with its hellacious electrical fury. The Queen-Mother, safe underwater, would then bring her tadpole children to term. They would burst forth from their birthing sacs filled with genetic memories of their ancestors, memories containing all of their race’s art, poetry, discoveries, and wisdom—enough knowledge to fill a million books, all of it encoded right into their DNA. Pure thought, pure essence, consciousness itself in its most rarefied form. Masters of the universe and still only tadpoles, who would one day make the same trek as their forefathers, across the ice and the Emerald Forests. Thus they had lived for ten thousand cycles, and thus they would live for ten thousand more. If the Zarcturean survived that long, what with the new, foreboding specter of the “Human Threat” looming on the cosmic horizon, a threat they had only learned of in recent cycles.

As the aeons and the millennia had rolled onward, the Zarcturean had changed . . . Their physiologies had grown amphibian. Their tentacle-like arms hung down from their sloping, semi-primate-like shoulders like writhing hydras that terminated in five articulate, fleshy snakes, small but muscular tentacle-appendages, almost akin to “fingers.” Their feelers had grown long and muscly, powerful but also delicate and capable of great precision. Beneath their primate-like upper bodies—more a consequence of their ancestors learning to forage in trees for fruits and birds’ nests than anything else—dangled four more powerful tentacle-arms, although they did not terminate in “fingers” like the smaller ones that passed for their “arms” and “hands.” No, these looked instead thickly-muscled, larger in size, and passed as scuttling “legs” of a sort. Joining these lower four tentacle-legs, they had eight smaller, thinner gripper-tentacles meant for more precise work, such as with fine-grained tools or for manipulating small objects. Finally, filling out their lower appendages, they possessed eight curling, winding feelers, each as thick as a Human child’s finger; they used these as would a cat its whiskers—for sensory input and navigation—but could also use them for additional grasping or gripping . . . or, like the eight longer, thinner gripper-tentacles, for motive force when scuttling from place to place.

Their heads grew into an elongated teardrop shape, arcing like hammers that stretched in a swooping, backward arcs; their compound eyes could see a greater range of the electromagnetic spectrum than many other species could . . . just as their mandibles and acidic spittle became their primary method of pre-digesting their food. Their cities—built on land, but then deliberately sunk beneath the surface of their world’s bogs, swamps, and oceans covered in algae, so as to give them a truly amphibious habitat—became magnificent monuments to their ingenuity, their inborn talent for mathematics and engineering. They became more and more dependent upon technology as they took control of their own evolutionary journey, splicing and re-splicing their own DNA with that of other creatures in an effort to constantly improve or enhance their own powers and abilities. They perfected fusion reactors and antimatter, then a form of faster-than-light travel; perfected cloning, but kept their beloved Queen Mother. They craned their necks star-ward, looking to new destinations, new adventures, and new horizons to explore. And, of course, new worlds to conquer, as they had their own.

Then they discovered the Eidolon. Or rather, the Eidolon discovered them. The Eidolon never lied . . . They always—seemingly, at least—told the absolute truth. All the same, the Zarcturean Visitor currently cruising toward Earth in his saucer-shaped ship thought, how far can they really be trusted? How well do we really know them? And how far should we go on just their word alone? The Eidolon had long ago abandoned the physical universe—or had tried to—aeons before the Zarcturean had even crawled out of the slime. They existed now as pure consciousness, and lived on a dimensional membrane that ran perpendicular to that of the known material universe. They came in friendship—or at least, they said they did—and had appeared to various Queen-Mothers throughout history, delivering the benefit of their foreknowledge to those they felt had earned, through superiority, the right to a glimpse the possible. What they showed the Queen-Mother was not “the” future—they claimed such a thing was impossible—but instead, only a future . . . the “most likely” future.

And, what they had showed the Queen-Mother had terrified her: If events on this small blue marble of a planet called “Earth” continued to run their course, the Eidolon said, then most likely, the ape-like inhabitants of this small blue world would one day leave their tiny marble of dirt and ocean and head out into space. They would spread across the galaxy like wildfire consuming a forest . . . colonizing world after world, growing into a mighty and powerful empire. And when that empire finally met the Zarcturean, the apes’ natural inclination toward xenophobia and prejudice—and the Visitor had certainly learned that much about the apes, if nothing else—would ensure his kind’s utter destruction. The “Humans” would reach out into the stars with their five-fingered “hands” and would erase his kind from the cosmos, forever. The Zarcturean would burn in the slow fires of extinction, Human “hands” would light the blaze.

The Queen-Mother had said that this would not do. She had ordered the Human homeworld of ”Earth” invaded and conquered . . . Right now, while the apes were still young and had not yet had the chance to venture out unto the stars. At first, they’d sent out scouts, and had discovered that the planet possessed a rich nitrogen and oxygen atmosphere . . . and thus, was toxic to their kind. Next, they had abducted a few stray Humans here and there, and had conducted extensive experiments on them . . . and in doing so, they had made remarkable discoveries.

For one thing, Zarcturean scientists—such as the Visitor who now cruised into the lower atmosphere above Cambridge, Massachusetts—could use their telepath-sensitive technology to control a Human host. To completely puppeteer them, their own conscious mind thoroughly complicit in the hostile takeover. Through such a hardwired kind of telepathic interface, the Zarcturean had learned much about Human language, culture, society, etcetera . . . After interfacing with a few dozen Human subjects, one could become a veritable expert on their culture, their ways, the methods to their seeming madness and infuriatingly illogical—but still, amazingly, continued—existence. The Visitor himself had interfaced with over twenty Human test subjects. Their brains had burnt-out in every case, of course, leaving them mindless, disabled wretches . . . but the Visitor had learned much about their world, their manners, and their customs. He found it hard to believe that this species—Humans—had survived this long.

The invasion would take place in two stages. First, several thousand Scientists, such as himself, would secretly infiltrate the apes’ homeworld of Earth. Then they would use the Interdimensional Matter-Shifter to shrink down so that they could climb inside of—and take control of—those Earthlings who had the highest levels of government clearance, the greatest amount of sociopolitical capital, and all the right, moneyed connections to all the right, moneyed others. (The Interdimensional Matter-Shifter was a device which temporarily shifted a thing’s mass and structure into the neighboring hyper-dimensional bulk that stood between two world-membranes, and then, when needed, shifted the thing’s material structure and mass back into the four-dimensional world, right back to where it belonged.) By hiding inside both high-ranking officials, celebrities, and civilians over a number of years and then controlling their every thought, word, and deed, they would retard the apes’ technological progress . . . until they were at a standstill, their space-program all but discontinued, their curiosity deadened, their eyes cast downward toward mere survival in the dirt and no longer looking toward the skies and the stars with dreams dancing in them.

They—the Zarcturean Scientists, working through these Humans—would also work to bring about a deadly change in the Earth’s climate—and, at the same time, a stubborn political denial of said change’s cause and existence—as well as would work to poison Earth’s water supplies, release methane and extra carbon into the atmosphere and would chain the Human race’s meager existence to a dependency on nuclear and fossil fuels that would wreak further damage on their habitat. Then, in Phase Two, the rest of the Zarcturean would arrive, this time in full-force, with the full might of their entire planetary military on display. The Humans would have no choice but to surrender before the first Zarcturean ship even loaded its first phase-weapon.

Thinking of this, of the mission and its eventual conclusion, more than made up for the doubts the Visitor felt, and strengthened the his resolve. So what if he found the innards of the apes messy? And yes, poking around inside them was a disgusting and smelly procedure, a gruesome undertaking . . . not to mention meticulous. One had to be careful when making the entry-point incision along the base of the spine, and careful when closing it so no scar would show. Ugh, yes, disgusting creatures. The first time the Visitor had opened one and then made the telepathic connection, the brutal primitiveness of the apes’ thoughts had amazed him . . . and how raucously undisciplined it seemed inside. Masses of quivering impulses and contradictory emotions, Humans ferociously maintained false beliefs. But, in the end, that only made them easier to control. One could hide inside the mind of an ape and direct their every move, could “inspire” them to feel or think whatever one wanted, as well as could feel what they felt, know what they knew . . .

The Visitor’s orders were simple, if not appealing: Take control of as many apes as needed. Learn about their psychology, their physiology. Collect samples of their spinal fluid; analyze the results, and report back to High Command. Once The Queen-Mother had a better grasp on the apes’ biology and mental functioning . . . and the way their minds and bodies functioned in various environments, the Zarcturean could institute a selective breeding program . . . one that would ensure billions of healthy servants, miners, laborers, and farmers for generations to come. Then, they, the Zarcturean, could devote themselves to higher, nobler pursuits—such as figuring out how the Eidolon had transcended flesh and blood, and had became creatures of pure light . . . Only then could they move on to true Mastery of the Universe.

He had already chosen a landing site . . . the top of a mammoth structure where a large gathering of ape-creatures had commenced . . . some kind of ritualistic celebration, it seemed. The apes here all wore fanciful costumes, some in the guise of what they obviously thought “extraterrestrials” looked like. How naive. He could read their language well-enough by now, as he’d tapped into more than a few of their simplistic minds. The sign in front of the building read, WELCOME TO PHANTASMAGORICON XVIII, 2027! Whatever its purpose, this gathering would make for good cover, as well as an excellent research opportunity. He would complete his mission. The Queen-Mother commanded; he had no choice but to obey.

The Visitor landed his ship on the roof of the tall building. He felt the landing pods touch down upon the paved rooftop, and touched a tentacle to the control console, putting the ship into standby mode, and activating the security system—just in case any of the apes discovered it and got curious. He gathered his materials. He carefully suited up, each tentacle and feeler sliding perfectly into the lower, bottom sleeves of the spacesuit he now retrieved from the nearby storage unit next to the ship’s main control dais. He carefully adjusted the seal at his waist, fixing his utility belt around it, and clipping to it two large, metal, cryonic vials from the freezer unit, so cold they almost burned. He then fasted onto his upper body the top portion of his spacesuit, the ultra-flexible mesh gloves that went with it, and finally, he donned his helmet, and lock-sealed it in place. He strapped on his backpack unit, which contained his breathing apparatus and other scientific equipment, as well as two of his plasma-bolt pistols, which he fastened to either hip . . . just in case of any trouble.

And then, he bid his ship open the transdimensional conduit that led from the pocket universe inside it to the outside world . . . whereupon he set to work, laying the foundation for the Zarcturean invasion. Within a few days, if all went well and his data was received and analyzed, the Earth’s sky would fill with ships likewise filled with his brood-brothers and brood-sisters for the beginnings of Phase Two . . . and the Human race would topple to the ground and shatter into billions fragments . . . many of whom would die as excess waste, and the rest of whom would learn the art of servicing their superiors.