Here’s a tantalizing tidbit:
(Warning: Not Suitable for People with Sense)
She had tits like watermelons, with a toddler or two constantly threatening to suck ‘em dry. A toe-headed tot dangled from each flabby forearm, while Miles—her youngest, at eight weeks—was strapped neatly between cascades of back fat. Miles ahead. Miles behind. A half dozen young’uns were quickly fading to memory, craving a coddling from splintering cribs. One question was branded across their uniformly cleft palates: “Where’s mama?” But they were outta sight, so never you mind.]]>
The massive mound barreled through three streetlights — tearing steel from concrete, shattering glass, severing wire — before rolling to a stop.
Black and blue and gray burbled beneath a translucent tan shell. A shell that had cracked, leaving a streak of slime across the evening pavement to mark its trail.
Fastened to the fissured hide with gelatinous ribbon was a parcel. Black and white and cooing a lullaby. A soothing sonnet to pacify. The parcel slipped to the sidewalk, landing on two battered feet. She rested a gentle hand across the shell. “You saved me.”
But, the mound was unresponsive.
His emotional display was fractured and vacant.
“Dammit!” The Ten-Second Rule, decked in his AFTA Black uniform, killed his call with the snap of his cell. “Mr. Popular’s line is still busy.”
“And, Grasshopper 1’s homing device is offline.” Deadlift, wearing the same, twisted the dials next to the air conditioning vent with her left hand and steered with her right. “I can’t find a signal.”
“Set a course for Adams’ Orchard.” Gregor perched himself atop the dashboard, his glowing eyes scanning the night sky. “And call Caduceus.”
The torpedo skidded across asphalt. Face first.
Skin peeled back. Cartilage ground down. Muscle melted. Bone scraped.
Until all that remained was a solid scab.
“And, just what is so important that I had to interrupt my replenishing ritual?” The girl with strawberry blonde hair in a messy bun wiped avocado from her cheeks with a damp cloth, as she joined the crowd convened outside the garage.
“Only matters of life and death, TouchUp.” The black bearded physician pocketed his phone in the red-and-white coat of his medical mission uniform. “There’s a blaze in progress in the heart of downtown and a car crash to the north. Which means we’re stretched to the breaking point. ColdPress–” He threw a set of keys at the shivering boy with the blue lips in the center of the gathered students. “You’re lead on the fire. Take Suture, Tourniquet, and Butterfly Needle to Manly Boulevard and King’s Crossing.”
The goose-bumped teen raced into the carport, followed closely by the girl with footlong eyelashes, the boy with ropey skin, and the girl with spiky hair of an unnatural sheen.
“Little Blue Pill, TouchUp, 10-Blade — you’re with me.” Caduceus headed for the entrance.
The strawberry blonde glanced at the ogre to her left and the nervous wreck to her right, turned up her nose, and stomped toward the garage.
“Save the holier-than-thou routine for the pageant stage.” The doctor tweaked his half-oval glasses, while using his back to prop open the door for his pupils. “We don’t have time for tantrums.”
Twin vines snaked through broken glass to ensnare the hood of the overturned vehicle.
With a guttural moan, the stalk pulled his trunk over the engine block that sat where his lap should be. Twisting to his stomach, he crawled to the street.
And left his stems behind.
The overweight girl — a ball of lard, sweat, and warts — was the last one into the cabin of the white van with red pluses on its flanks. She spied the nearest available chair — next to the snooty strawberry blonde — and waddled toward it.
TouchUp threw her med-kit on the cushion. “This seat is reserved for someone who doesn’t resemble living flatulence.”
The Little Blue Pill sat down anyway.
The pretzel untwisted. One unnatural loop at a time.
Shoulders and hips popped back into sockets. Knees and elbows straightened. The spine elongated to sit upright. On the unforgiving road. Below stalactite seats that threatened to drop at any moment.
Safety belts swung freely, ripped from their roof mounts. He reached for an undulating strap, to pull himself up, but his wrists were bent backwards, his hands paralyzed against the tops of his muscular forearms.
His fingers were pudding.
Mr. Popular dislodged the helmet from the underside of the Postal Service’s drop-box. The visor was still intact, but the black stripes and white finish had been sanded off in erratic strips, displaying the hard plastic dome undereath.
He lowered his hood and slipped the mask over his head. A hint of lilac gave way to citrus. Spatter over DeathGrip.
Engaging night vision, he headed toward the wreckage.
“Arson?” Deadlift was taken aback by the blistering heat of the ferocious flames, as they poured out and over the apartment complex.
“Gas leak on a romantic evening.” The chief of the local fire company stood beside the second of five trucks, walky-talky in hand. “My guys found damn near a dozen votive candles in a third floor apartment. Surrounded by rose petals. But, that ain’t love in the air. We’ve still got four floors to evacuate, and the flames aren’t abating. No matter how much water we pour on. Any manpower you can spare would be mighty appreciated.”
“Turn the hose on me.” Gregor darted between the gym instructor and the head of the fire company to address the probie controlling the nozzle. “I need to get wet.”
Skepticism smacked the new recruit’s face. A cat asking to get blasted? A cat asking anything at all? “Boss…?”
The chief gave a protracted shrug. “Do what the man says.”
“And hurry.” The Ten-Second Rule screwed a portable oxygen tank onto the front of his mask. “We’ve got about eight minutes ’til that building collapses.”
“All right…” The probie spun the hose and nailed the talking feline. Black fur flew off in sheets. Pink skin grayed and cracked. Claws retracted. Fangs dulled. Bones doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size. Eyes dimmed.
Gregor stood. A golem.
The kite was caught in a verdant prison. Quizzical branches poked an prodded her tender sides. Her gloved hands busted through prickly restraints. Patted her uniformed body. Found everything in place. In one piece.
Her helmeted head, aching from impact, arched to search for an exit. The arms of her captor were rigid and densely woven, but, with a little luck and a lot of shimmying, she could make it to the grass below.
The final branch gave way under the weight of her boot, and she tumbled ten feet into sod. Spinning onto her back, she found a lump. An arm’s length away. Imbedded in the earth. Black and white and wide.
She stumbled to her feet and examined her peer. His knees were bent. His ass in the air. His head in the dirt. Bracing his neck with both hands, she slowly, carefully, painstakingly rolled him over.
His visor jutted from his face at a dozen different angles. His forehead was a gushing gash, blanketing his eyes in a crimson waterfall.
Ripping off her mask, she leaned toward his parted mouth. His breathing was shallow but audible. A soft pant. She unzipped his jacket and slid two fingers over his neck, hoping to feel a pulse through the fabric of her gloves. A gentle throb contented her.
The gaping head wound did not. She laced one hand over the other and applied pressure directly to his forehead, attempting to stem the tide. What she felt was foreign. Soft. Supple. Wet. Waxy.
Blood gurgled, as it sifted through her fingers. Skin puckered and bloated beneath her touch.
Her gloves were split.
A stone fist turned a pinewood door into kindling that the fire was all too eager to consume. Granite digits swung through flames and crumbled into vapor. Gregor pulled back the hand of a ghost. “Can’t hold this shape much longer…”
“Prop up the ceiling.” The Ten-Second Rule dashed past the twelve-foot-tall founder and into the open, seventh story apartment. “We’ll make this quick.”
Golden rays blackened. From root to tip. Onyx locks cascaded down her back. To skim the street.
Her irises inverted. White saucers in pools of midnight.
Her pale skin faded further. Until clear.
She stepped through her clothes. And out of the world.
She was a silhouette. She was nothingness.
“Unggh!” The Ten-Second Rule doubled over on the stairs, nearly losing his grasp on the toddlers that clung to his chest.
In one swift motion, Deadlift flipped a grandfather onto her shoulder and grabbed her lover by the back of his coat, before he could tumble down the steps. “All you all right? Ten…? Ten?!”
Wavelength rested his head against the pavement. His blue eyes welled.
“Give me your hand.” The voice was filtered but familiar. The hoodied arm he recognized immediately.
“Wish I had one to give, Pop.” The muscular teen flung his arm past his masked face, toward the origin of the voice. His liquid hand flopped against the road where the roof should’ve resided.
Mr. Popular gripped the boy by the bicep and pulled him through the busted window of the overturned van.
“Thanks, man.” Wavelength got to his knees, then his feet. “Appreciate it.”
“I’m not sure you should be standing.” The media sensation kept his hands at the ready, in case his fellow student toppled.
“We’ll let them decide.” The faux-hawked teen nodded his helmet toward the white van that dove from the sky.
“No. God. No. Please. No.” LiveFeed dragged himself, one arm at a time, across the street. Over flayed skin and powdered bone. To the motionless body.
He turned over her torso and saw the scab where her face should be.
He clawed at the cauterized wound. But, his fingers were useless. It was too tough. Too thick.
A med-kit clinked to the ground next to Spatter’s limp legs. A boy — his face covered in flop sweat, his body in a red-and-white reflection of the seniors’ uniforms — knelt beside LiveFeed and rested a bare hand on the lanky teen’s shoulder. “I think I can secure an airway.”
“Do whatever you can,” the French-Creole teen implored through his mask.
10-Blade flipped open his kit, retrieved a valve, and unzipped the girl’s collar to her bust. “Here goes…” The fore and middle fingers of his left hand merged into a metallic edge. He spun open a bottle of alcohol with his free digits, dipped the manmade scalpel to sanitize, and sliced open Spatter’s trachea. The valve dropped into the slit, right as it began to cicatrize.
The med student fastened a hand pump onto the port and handed it to the legless teen to his left. “Field intubator. Squeeze and release every couple of seconds.” 10-Blade studied the dense crust above the girl’s neck, then the blade that comprised a quarter of his shaky hand. “That’s the best I can do for now.”
“Sorry. I’m so sorry.” DeathGrip continued to press against Tantric’s spurting forehead. If she moved her hands, he could bleed out. If she didn’t, he would contract melanoma, leukemia, osteosarcoma.
“You did the right thing,” Caduceus assured, as he rested his kit beside the girl. He placed a hand on both of hers and gently removed them. “I’ll take it from here. You go get checked out.”
The Argentinean stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jacket. “No. I’ll stay. I — I need to make sure he survives.”
“Fine, then. Step back.” The doctor unfastened his coat and lifted his hirsute chin to reveal a surprisingly bare neck. That began to bulge. Until slits formed along either side of his Adam’s apple. The heads of two snakes — one copper, one gold — shot forth. Hissing.
“This one will provide local anesthetic,” the physician felt the need to explain, before the gold adder sunk its fangs into the unconscious teen’s brow.
“This one will provide suction.” The copper reptile clamped down on the wound.
DeathGrip could only stare. Wide eyed.
“This is repugnant.” TouchUp was armpit deep in Cortex’s perineal port. Her manicured fingers grazed his bruised gray matter and immediately reduced the swelling.
“This is a human being.” Wireframe, helmet resting against her hip, glared at the girl with the strawberry blonde bun. “And, you will treat him with respect.”
“Looks pretty bad.” The Little Blue Pill flexed the floppy phalanges of Wavelength’s right hand.
“No kidding.” The patient peered at the night sky, so the plump girl examining his hand couldn’t see the tears once again clouding his vision.
“I’m going to have to set both wrists.” She gripped the sides of his palm and forced the bones back into place with a slick crack.
The Little Blue Pill kissed her left index finger and slid it up her patient’s arm. An indigo bubble sprouted along the path and swallowed the appendage, from nail to elbow.
“The hell…?” Mr. Popular strained to delineate the form from the darkness around it. He tapped the side of the helmet he recovered, flipping through every available spectrum. But, the results were always the same. An outline. A contour line drawing. Devoid of features. Devoid of bone. Devoid of heat. Filled with only darkness.
A human-shaped hole in the world.
He inched closer, kicking up gravel, until his feet met resistance. He looked down to find a pile of clothes. Shifting the items with his boot, he found a jacket and picked it up. A long, blonde hair was coiled below the tag. “DoubleVision?”
He grabbed the closest pebble he could find and chucked it at the human-shaped hole. The student-shaped hole. Instead of ricocheting off the surface, the rock sailed inside.
Doffing his hoodie, Mr. Popular slid on the girl’s jacket and scanned his surroundings. For a case. Long and lean and durable.
He fished it from a bush and flipped it open. Along the lining of the lid was an array of maglites, each one larger than the last. Nestled in the bottom of the container were canisters marked “02″. He grabbed one of each.
Affixing the oxygen to his mask, he took a deep breath to steel his nerves. Turned on the flashlight.
And stepped into the void.
The limousine steered a narrow path between makeshift medical stations and automotive carnage, coming to a stop next to the bushy bearded man hunched on a thatch of grass. The tinted window on the driver’s side rolled down, and Selina stuck her head out. “I can take anyone who’s not on a stretcher.”
Caduceus turned his head to address the woman, his hands still busy wrapping bandages around the nubs that were all that remained of LiveFeed’s legs. “That would be a great help. As would high beams.”
“Whatever you need.” The chauffeur boosted her lights, offering nearly double the output of the white van half a block behind.
Harsh light flooded the subbasement, as Micah finally found the desired feed.
“My thanks to you, Madam Governor,” he spoke into the phone in his left hand.
“I just hope they’re all okay,” Hazel’s voice filtered through the speaker, her concern sounding genuine to the founder’s ears.
“As do I.” Micah leaned forward, his eyes scrutinizing the screens. He zoomed in as far as the limousine’s mirror-mounted camera would allow and focused on the northern most edge. Where light was sucked into a seeming abyss. “I must let you go.” He hung up before the governor had a chance to reply.
Striking his cane against cement, he struggled to his feet and hobbled toward the viewing wall.
His eyes were orbs of fear. Dismay. And recognition.
His thumb held down “0″ on his phone, and the line picked up without ringing.
Micah cleared his throat. “This is the Voice of the Nation.”
The tip of his cane traced the silhouette on the monitors above. “Pinnacle Project, Batch One-Nine-Nine-One, is corrupt.”]]>
I’m actually keeping a promise?
“Are…are you going to drink?” Wireframe laid on the bottom bunk of the dorm, her head propped on a hand as she watched the giant brain across the room.
“Hm?” Cortex studied the bottle of tequila in his massive mitts. “Ah, yes. I was merely calculating how much of this elixir I would need to imbibe to achieve a satisfactory buzz, based on the equation I established last year — during a particularly dry lecture on the history of spandex — to ascertain the effects of absinthe on my psyche.”
“And?” the inventor inquired.
“And, this should suffice,” the enlarged encephalon intoned. “I’m afraid the process by which I drink — for want of a better term — is rather unseemly, however.”
“It can’t be that off-putting.” Wireframe sat up slowly, slightly dazed from hitting the bottle. “Not if it’s part of you.”
Cortex ran a gelatinous hand across the fine print of the label. “There is a port at the base of my torso, where a perineum should be. I use it to flush and replenish my cytoplasm and plasma every six months. It is my only means of taking on liquid.”
“That…that’s not unseemly at all.” The diminutive machine-smith perched herself on the edge of the bed, ready to close the gap between herself and her peer in an instant.” “Everyone has orifices.”
“Yet, no one else need execute an inverted keg-stand to experience the pleasures of alcohol.” The weary wetware attempted to twist open the bottle, only for his grip to slip and his fingers to fail. “Oh, these damnable digits…”
“May I take a look?” Wireframe was on her feet and at the intellect’s side before the question had fully escaped her mouth.
“As you wish.” Cortex slid his left hand, palm up, toward her.
She clasped it in both of hers and immediately started testing. “Can you feel this?” Her tiny phalanges bent his index finger, as far as it would go.
“Only just.” The brain tried to avert his gaze, as not to let what he saw influence what he thought he felt, but found his optical sensors drawn to the girl conducting the experiments.
“And this?” Wireframe hefted the hand and brushed it gently across her cheek.
“A slight tingle.” Cortex succumbed to temptation and fixed his attention on her features, consuming her visage.
“Perhaps something with more pressure, then.” She wrapped her lips around his middle digit and suckled.
“Oh, lovely.” Mr. Popular stood outside RT’s Eats, a diner in the classic mold, down to the kitschy neon lights arcing over the entrance. “No drive-thru.”
Blowing hair out of his face, he pushed through the polished chrome doors. Two dozen sets of eyes trained on him at once, as he made his way to the counter.
A waitress with graying hair at her temples — who would’ve been called “Madge” or “Flo” in another era but was identified by her name-tag as “Jillian” in this one — flopped a laminated menu in front of the teen. While he steadied himself on a stool, she pulled a pen from behind her ear and a pad from her white apron. “Can I get you anything to–”
“Coffee. Black.” The media sensation lowered his head and raised his shoulders, his only defense against the incessant stares from customers and staff alike.
A dish — full of congealed fruit and crispy crumbs, under a mountain of whipped cream — and a spoon plopped in front of him. “Peach cobbler.” Jillian grabbed a mug from under the counter. “You seemed like a cobbler kind of guy.” She winked.
Mr. Popular stated blankly at the desert. “I didn’t… I don’t…”
“Don’t worry.” The waitress picked up a pot from the industrial percolator and poured. “It’s on the house. Compliments of the great state of Wyoming.” She placed the steaming mug next to the cobbler dish and leaned into the counter. “It’s not every day an honest-to-god hero walks through those doors. I had my doubts at first, but Shelly over there knew it was you right away. Didn’t you, Shel?” Jillian waved at the overweight server filling a napkin dispenser at the far end of the counter. The overweight server who promptly flashed her signed chest.
The teen idol emptied his mug into two swift gulps. “Refill.” He passed the cup to his waitress. “To go.”
“Ung. Uhh.” The moaning echoed through the hallway and collected in the commons.
“Um.” DoubleVision shifted uneasily in her seat.
“Uh.” DeathGrip stared at her feet.
“Unn. Unn. Unng!”
“Wow.” Spatter slurped her beer.
“Pow,” LiveFeed corrected. “Chikka wowwow.”
“Aah. Aah. Ooh.”
“Ah, nerd love is the best love.” Wavelength grinned.
“I’ll drink to that.” Tantric raised his bottle.
Sixty-four screens flashed red-white-red, as an automated voice announced: “Priority alert. Five alarm fire at the Adams Orchard apartment complex on the corner of Manly and King’s Crossing. Additional units requested.”
Micah toggled the controls on the end table, terminating the broadcast and refocusing the screens on the senior class. “Then, it’s come to this.” The old man retrieved the cellphone from the interior pocket of his silk-lined jacket.
“Don’t even consider it,” Gregor hissed, baring his fangs.
“You would prefer countless lives be lost in conflagration?” The arthritic retiree raised an accusatory eyebrow.
“I’d prefer the juniors be sent.” The cat leapt to the arm of his chair. “They’re more than capable of handling this call.”
“As are the sophomores. As are the freshmen.” Micah clutched his cane. “As are the seniors, regardless of their level of inebriation.”
“This isn’t what we agreed to.” Gregor moved his front paws to the table and inched forward.
“What we agreed to, my dear friend, was impartial assessment.” The aged hero flipped open his phone. “To properly gauge the abilities of our wards, we must monitor them under all conditions — at their best, their worst, and their most compromised.”
“You’re putting lives at risk.” The feline crouched.
“Lives are already at risk. The blaze has seen to that.” Perennially bent fingers began typing. “Anyone we send in will be in danger, so why not send in our best?”
“Because our best aren’t at their best.” Pointed ears slicked back, giving way to a snarl.
Micah shook his head. “How can you know that withou–”
Gregor lunged at the old man’s phone, his paws wide, his claws primed. The head of the cane crashed into the feline’s side, swatting him across the room. He landed, a whimpering ball, on the hard concrete.
The old man hit “send”.
The teen idol, sitting beside a styrofoam box on the loading dock behind the diner, sipped his coffee contentedly. It was an acrid brew, dark and bitter. But, he didn’t mind, so long as he was able to drink it alone. Without the stares and the questions. Without the gushing confessions and body parts to sign. Without the attention.
The pocket of his hoodie buzzed, and he fished out the phone. A glance at the screen revealed the message was from the AFTA alert service. He hung up and pocketed the cell. “Not tonight.”
Mr. Popular took another contented sip.
The moaning had been replaced by a shrill humming. Half a dozen digital locusts cried out in unison from their compartmentalized cages.
“Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit…” Tantric was stuck on repeat.
“The hell are we going to do?” Wavelength fumbled to find his phone.
“We could all call in sick,” LiveFeed suggested, pulling his cell from his back pocket.
“I don’t think they’ll buy that.” DeathGrip studied her screen.
“What is wrong with you people?!” Spatter snapped open her phone and checked the message. “People are burning alive, and you’re not willing to rescue them? Fuck you. Danger doesn’t disappear just because you’re a little tipsy. You think Bullet Magnet ever passed on saving the world because he tied one off? Hell, no. When duty calls, you pick up the fucking phone. Now, get suited up. We leave in five.”
“Guess that makes me the designated driver,” DoubleVision surmised.
Wireframe, completely naked save the goggles spiking up her bangs, laid atop Cortex, straddling his protruding brainstem. Her phone droned below hastily discarded clothes, strewn about on the floor, while his cell skidded across the desk of its own volition. She attempted to get back in the mood by kissing his artificial hide above his LCD and thrusting her hips, but the buzz — and what it indicated — was too distracting. “What I wouldn’t give to spend all night with you.”
“I share that sentiment.” The big brain traced circles on the small of the inventor’s back with an index finger. “But, we are honor bound. And, there will be other nights.”
“I will stop them.” Gregor got to his feet and began pacing the perimeter of the subbasement.
“And, how, pray tell, do you plan on reaching them?” Micah remained in his mesh recliner, watching the teens on screen and his associate in the flesh scurry alike. “This bunker was built to withstand nuclear winter. The only means of escape is through the lavatory.”
“Or the dumbwaiter.” The feline leapt onto the tray resting on the ledge of a recess adjacent to the wall of screens. Deftly dodging dirty dishes, he scampered further into the makeshift escape route, until it dead-ended at a set of doors. Digging his claws into the seam, Gregor pried the doors open and climbed inside.
“Clever cat,” the old man admired.
“Fuck.” Spatter flicked through the clothes in her closet, rummaging through an array of skirts of every length, fabric, and color. “Fuck.”
“What?” DeathGrip shimmied into her black-and-white jodhpurs.
“I don’t have a helmet.” The Chinese teen threw her boots onto the floor.
“Where’s your spare?” The Argentine slipped on her uniform jacket.
“Getting repaired.” Spatter unzipped the back of her sundress and stepped out of it. “That jackass broke it this morning. And, my other one’s getting re-lined after my hairpins got snagged in it.”
“Use my spare, then.” DeathGrip chucked the bucket at her feet to her roommate. “My original isn’t too funky from this morning.”
The Asian girl examined her reflection in the helmet’s faceplate. “God, I’m going to look like a bobble-head.”
The dishwasher plodded toward the sink, an eight gallon pot of starchy water skidding on the linoleum between his feet. His grip on the handles was steady, but his arms were noodles after fourteen hours of lugging and scrubbing. With what little might he had left, he hefted the pot and tipped its lip into the basin. The drain slurped up the murky liquid, potato skins and all, lightening his load. He flipped the empty pot into the sink and leaned on the nearest counter he could find.
The sigh of relief that escaped his lips was quickly followed by a “huh?” as something chimed behind him. He turned to see the doors of the dumbwaiter fly open. A black blur bounced off his face.
The dishwasher fell to the floor, shouting “gaaaaaah!” all the way.
“My apologies,” the cat offered, as he raced through the kitchen.
“Good hustle, folks. Good hustle.” DeathGrip clapped her gloved hands in encouragement, as the team bolted into the garage. “Ten-Sec would be proud.”
“Where is he anyway?” DoubleVision led the pack, the car keys dangling from the keychain around her thumb.
“Guess he’s sitting this one out.” Spatter kept pace to the blonde’s left.
“Maybe he’s got the right idea.” LiveFeed stumbled behind, nursing his stomach.
“Are you gonna be all right?” DoubleVision gave the tall teen a worried glance over her shoulder.
“I’ll be okay, I think,” the beanstalk reassured. “As long as I sit up front with the window cracked.”
“An old home remedy?” The Chinese teen didn’t bother to look back at her French-Creole compatriot. “Adorable.”
“Eat me,” LiveFeed barked.
“Why?” Spatter shot back. “You never–”
“Shut up and get in,” the not-so-bubbly blonde ordered, as she yanked open the driver’s side door of the blinking van.
Neon eyes narrowed. Paws plowed through dirt and upended gravel. Whiskers undulated. Gregor galloped toward the garage.
“Everybody buckled?” DoubleVision checked her rearview mirror but could only see the top of Cortex’s semi-human casing in the backseat.
DeathGrip patted the back of the blonde’s headrest from directly behind. “We’re good to go.”
“Initiating launch sequence.” The driver flipped a switch on the dash, and a new set of gauges were projected along the bottom of the windshield.
“Intracels up. Dynatherms connected.” LiveFeed’s knees nearly hit his chest in the tight space, but he was stuck. If he moved his seat back, he’d be in Wavelength’s lap. And, neither teen wanted that.
The blonde grabbed the transceiver above the air conditioning controls. “Grasshopper 1 to control tower. This is — ugh — DoubleVision, requesting permission to launch.”
“Destination?” the automated voice quizzed through the cabin’s speakers.
“Manly and King’s Crossing.” The driver hovered a hand over the shifter. “Fire in progress.”
“Permission granted.” With that, the garage door ascended. “Fly safely.”
DoubleVision hit the gas and peeled out. The second the tires moved from cement to asphalt, she crossed her self and shifted from ‘D’ to ‘F’. Wings sprouted from the roof, and the van took off into the evening air, narrowly avoiding a black blur speeding up the runway. The driver peered out her side window, at the tarmac below, and blinked. “Did a black cat just cross our path?”
The tall teen to her right rested his head between his knees, the wind from his cracked window playing havoc with his afro. “You sure you didn’t have anything to drink?”
On the ground, Gregor cursed his own bad luck.
Mr. Popular emptied his to-go cup and savored the last bitter sip. It went down as harshly as the rest, but the teen idol didn’t mind the burn. His distressed stomach — craving something solid — groaned, as acid mixed with acid, yet the styrofoam container to his side remained unopened.
As a distraction from his hunger, the media sensation flipped the spent cup into his left hand and, spying a dumpster no more than ten feet away, took aim. The cup ricocheted off the container’s lip and bounced across the ground.
The teen idol shrugged and leaned back on his elbows. His green eyes strained to see the first stars of the night. A bright yellow light obstructed his view, as it washed over him.
Mr. Popular sat up with a start, throwing an arm over his eyes to block the approaching beams. Tires rolled to a stop, crushing the coffee cup.
Wireframe rested her head on Cortex’s ample, uniformed lap. The big brain wrapped an arm around her prostrate body, but the gesture couldn’t defend her from the blather the pudgy teen in front of her unleashed.
“So, you’re an Eskimo, right?” Tantric positioned himself to peer over the back of his seat, to address the inventor directly. “Or, right, it’s Inuit now, right?”
“Uh…” Wireframe was baffled by the intoxicated ignorance. “I’m Indian…not Native American. My parents are from Mumbai.”
“But, you live in an igloo, right?” The new kid was relentless.
“Minneapolis can get quite cold, but…no.” Bemusement played on the machine-smith’s face. “No igloos.”
“Huh.” Tantric sat back. “So, what does whale blubber taste like?”
“I interrupt this nattering inanity for the following random interjection.” Cortex threw his fists into the air — and into the roof, denting it. “Hot butter loving! ‘Popcorn’ is ‘porn’ with too many letters.”
“Was that outburst part of your epiphany about having more fun?” DeathGrip inquired from two rows forward.
“Indubitably.” The intellect’s emotional display read: “^_^”. “It was also fueled by seven-eighths of a bottle of tequila.”
“Could you guys keep it down back there?” DoubleVision focused on the sky, what little of it the van’s high beams managed to illuminate. “I’m trying to concentrate.”
“Don’t hurt yourself.” Spatter tossed her oversized, loaner helmet on the seat between herself and the chatty new kid.
The feline sprinted down the carpeted hall and pounced on the door marked “86D”. “Open!”
“Authorization declined,” the same asexual, unsympathetic voice that dispatched the Grasshopper informed. “Voice unrecognized.”
Gregor scratched frantically at the oak door, dusting up a storm of splinters. “Open!”
The knob, six inches out of the founder’s reach, finally twisted, and the door parted enough for the Ten-Second Rule’s head to dart out. The Home Ec instructor checked the corridor to the left, then the right. “Hello?”
“Hey!” The cat waved his silver and white paws.
The teacher glanced down at the talking feline and cocked an eyebrow. “Am I asleep…?”
“This is all too real, I’m afraid.” Gregor lowered his attention-grabbing appendages.
“Liferaft?” The Ten-Second Rule’s brow was fully furrowed now. “You look like–”
“A Japanimation character,” the feline finished. “I’m aware.”
“It’s called ‘anime’ now, man.” The instructor ran a hand through his fiery red hair.
“I’ve been out of the loop,” the founder admitted. “But, so have you.”
“Do what?” The Home Ec instructor gripped both sides of the doorknob and twisted.
“The senior class threw themselves a party, got very drunk, and responded to an emergency alert,” Gregor briskly summarized. “They’re heading into a five-alarm fire.”
“What…?” The Ten-Second Rule tensed. “I…I didn’t get a call.”
“You weren’t meant to,” the cat revealed. “Get dressed. I’ll explain on the way.”
The door swung open, and Deadlift — fastening a lacy bra behind her back, her hair loose about her shoulders — stepped into view. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
The founder averted his gaze down the hall, to give the Phys Ed teacher a modicum of privacy as she got dressed. “You can drive.”
DoubleVision toggled the van’s lights and squinted, but nothing came into view. Blackness ate away her peripheral vision, leaving an ever-shrinking circle of haze in the center of her sightline. “Oh, no…”
“Do we have a flat?” Spatter slumped in her seat, her knees jutting into the back of DeathGrip’s chair. “‘Cause we can always use Tantric’s spare tire.”
“Hey!” the pudgy teen shouted, from two feet away.
“Uncool, lady,” Wavelength chimed in. “Uncool.”
“I’m dizzy.” The blonde bobbled behind the wheel.
“‘Fair-haired’ and ‘light-headed’ are not synonymous.” Cortex’s emotional display read: “-_-”.
“Stay with us.” The Argentinean teen held the driver’s shoulders. “Autopilot, engage.”
“Engaged,” the digital voice chimed.
DoubleVision relinquished the wheel, and the van auto-corrected — by taking a sharp straight up, arcing right, and jostling ninety degrees left.
“Ugg” flew out of LiveFeed’s mouth, followed by a steady stream of fluid. Booze and bile splashed the dash, shorting the controls.
“Disengaged,” the automated voice announced.
“Fuck! Engage! Engage!” DeathGrip released the limp blonde, who landed on the wheel, and tightened her seatbelt. “Emergency landing protocols!” She threw on her helmet and braced for impact.
The van clipped the edge of an office building and spiraled. Down.
New lovers embraced. Prayers crossed lips. In five languages. Hands gripped upholstery. Eyes clasped tightly.
The front bumper dented the roadway, sending five hundred pounds of gray matter directly into the roof. Busting it wide open.
And, the Grasshopper flipped.
End over end.
Micah hung his head. The audio feed was a hiss, and the video screens offered only static.
The limousine pushed ninety through the alley and swerved onto the street, sliding on two tires. Selina spun the wheel, fishtailing to land on all four.
Paint and parts — auto and otherwise — littered the buckled road ahead.
The backdoor swung open before the driver had a chance to stop. The departing passenger threw his phone at the vagrant in the backseat. “Hold down ‘2′. Tell the operator: ‘triage’.”
“Whatever you say, hoss,” the bindlestiff managed through bites of cobbler.
Mr. Popular flipped up his hood. “Time to save the fucking day.”]]>
Yeah, make that Tuesday this week (hopefully) and Wednesday next.
That should prove sufficient for my slow ass.]]>
But, better late than cliched.
The skyscraper jutted from the ground, a twisted spire intent on stabbing the sky. Adolescent eyes drank in every sinuous curve, growing wider with each gulp. The teen’s throat kept pace.
He would have scarcely noticed the door to his right swing open, if the motion hadn’t also moved the window through which he peered. His boots dug into the carpeted floor, his fingers into the leather cushions.
“Take my hand.” The driver extended an open palm into the cabin of her limousine.
Mr. Popular, his body sculpture still, studied the seams of the woman’s glove. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to take my hand.” Selina flared her fingers like a peacock in search of a mate.
“I don’t think so.” Green eyes followed the contour of the hand up the arm, across the shoulder, and to the face of the Dominican woman. “Not until I get some answers.
The driver squatted on the curb to come face-to-face with her wary passenger. “I can tell you’re scared, and you have every right to be. But, there’s nothing I can say or do to assuage your fears. Not when you’re mind’s already run through every possible horror lurking inside that building. So, just know this: if your safety wasn’t a concern, wouldn’t I have harmed you already?”
Mr. Popular sat in quiet contemplation, mulling her words and his potions, as Selina retracted her hand.
“Look, you either come inside with me, or I have to take you back to the academy.” The driver rested her hands on her bent knees. “And, anywhere’s better than there, right?”
The teen idol gave a slow nod, and his body eased. With an uncertain sigh, he stretched a foot to the sidewalk.
Selina stood and side-stepped to hold the door open for the student. “Has anyone ever told you you have serious trust issues?” She pushed the door shut behind him, careful not to slam it. “Don’t they have team building exercises at your school?”
“Who needs?” was Tantric’s means of announcing his return, as he placed his bag of booze onto the coffee table in the senior commons with a thick clank.
“‘m good.” DeathGrip pulled the matte black flask from the interior pocket of the jacket draped across the back of the love seat.
DoubleVision waved a dismissive hand. “My body is a temple.”
Under his breath, the pudgy teen corrected her: “Your body is a wonderland.”
The busty blonde titled an ear toward her peer. “Sorry? I didn’t hear you.”
“Oh, I, uh, I said I’d drink yours, then.” Tantric fumbled to pull a bottle of Corona Extra free.
DoubleVision shrugged. “Your funeral.”
“And mine.” Wavelength accepted a beer with all the delicacy of holding a newborn. “Many thanks, good sir.”
“I’ll take one.” Spatter approached, with a hand outstretched.
“Ditto that.” LiveFeed stepped into the lounge, his undercover jersey replaced by his white polo (collar still popped, of course).
“Are we going to have an issue?” The Chinese teen’s sepia eyes locked onto the French-Creole’s bark ones.
“Only if you start making out with other guys.” The beanstalk snatched a bottle from the bag.
“I was tutoring that kid in history.” Spatter yanked the paper bag toward her. “He was from France. Kissing on the cheek is part of their customary greeting, you uncultured ass.”
“I know what I saw.” LiveFeed twisted off the cap of his beer. “And, so does everybody else.”
“Oh, so you were broadcasting, huh?” The girl in the sundress tore open the side of the bag. “Just like you were every time we fooled around. Admit it.”
The boy in the polo drank defiantly, a smile playing behind his eyes.
“Coward.” Spatter ripped a bottle free from its cardboard container. “You get to act all smug, like the fucking big man on campus, while every guy here thinks I went down on them. Thanks a lot. I can’t even sit through English without Professor Inkwell giving me bedroom eyes.”
“You sure you didn’t suck ‘em all off?” LiveFeed wiped his bottom lip with a thumb. “I hear that’s a customary greeting now.”
“You know, I honestly thought you loved me once.” The Asian girl snapped open her Corona. “But, all you ever did was fuck me over.”
“All right, separate corners, you two.” DeathGrip stepped between the feuding exes and gave them a slight push in opposite directions with her gloved hands. “Now, watch closely as I demonstrate how to have a civil conversation.” She cleared her throat. “Good game this morning, Tantric.”
“Oh, thanks.” The pudgy teen swilled his beer.
“Was that your first time playing battle ball?” the Argentinean annunciated.
“Why, yes, it was.” The Polish teen matched her cadence. “But, we had something similar at my old school.”
“I’m beginning to have misgivings about our latest admission.” The feline founder toggled the joystick on the control panel ensconced in the end table between the recliners. A four-by-four square of screens in the center of the viewing wall shifted to focus on the pudgy pupil, as the auxiliary camera mounted in the recessed lighting of the commons snaked to find its target. The audio feed from the lounge area pumped into the subbasement all the while.
“You never were one for puerile humor.” The elderly man arched his stiff back and attempted to crack it, to no avail.
“I don’t see what he adds to this class.” The cat twitched his onyx tail, impatiently. “We already have a handful of students who think they’re far more clever than they actually are. And, tactically, he’s worthless. We should have chosen someone with long range offensive capabilities — an area where this particular team remains sorely lacking.”
“We spent weeks sifting through potential recruits, Gregor. Had we found a single blaster of the same caliber we expect from our seniors, he or she would have been our annual late arrival.” The man called Micah tapped the concrete floor with his cane. “We didn’t. So, we were forced to settle.”
“Luckily for him, mastering enhanced stamina clearly takes no effort.” The feline folded his limbs and nestled atop them. “These eleventh hour additions never prove worthwhile.”
“You say that, yet tonight marks the first time in nearly two years that these students have been willing to interact socially as a whole — or at least the majority of one.” The aged founder watched the teen on screen take a sloppy swig from a beer bottle. “This boy may not be the leader — or the blaster — this team needs, but he may be the glue.”
Gregor squinted his neon eyes. “Where you see glue, all I see is a lame horse.”
The elevator opened its stainless maw and spat Mr. Popular onto the hardwood of the tenth floor. The media sensation peered over his shoulder, at the driver still lodged in the mechanism’s throat.
“This is as far as I go,” Selina explained, as the jaws clamped in front of her.
“Great…” The teen idol took a tentative step forward, triggering the motion sensor that cued the overhead lights. Blistering fluorescents blinded the boy with a blanket of blanc.
“I’d like to think so.” The voice was crisp. Feminine. Direct. Familiar.
Mr. Popular blinked furiously, attempting to acclimate. An elongated oval produced itself from the overwhelming whiteness. A table. Then, the chairs around it. A conference room. Finally her. Pantsuit first. Mauve this time. She’d changed. Her fingers were the same, though. Red, white, and blue. The governor. The adolescent media darling slumped. “Oh, hell.”
“Less than twelve hours in, and our partnership is already opening new doors for you.” Her smile was equal parts warm and imitation. Botox paralyzed her forehead from revealing any true emotion.
“‘Our partnership’?” Mr. Popular scoffed, shoving his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. “You think forcing a key on me in front of a rabid press line makes me a tool of your administration? Is that how politicians do their gang initiations?”
“I suppose a formal invitation was never extended. I apologize.” Harriette Hazel took long, confident strides toward her guest, her two-inch heels clicking like a metronome across the maple floor boards. “I am in a position to offer you the opportunity to achieve your potential. You have a unique gift, and–”
“And, I shouldn’t let it go to waste, right?” Mr. Popular glared at the governor. “Because I could do great things? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Because I have. Every damn day since I was six. And, it never gets new. Or convincing. Christ, the more I hear how fucking special I am, the less I want to use my ‘unique gift’. I could give a shit about doing ‘great things’.”
“Ah, the folly of youth in full display.” The elected official perched herself on the edge of the conference table, in front of the teen idol. “I don’t know who harmed you in the past, causing you to build this defensive attitude, but I do know that pushing people away only closes doors around you. If you continue down this path, before you know it, your prospects will dry up, and you’ll be all alone.”
“I look forward to the silence.” The Lebanese teen spotted a stairwell exit and took it.
“He refused the offer?” Micah held the cellphone in front of his thin, cracked lips.
“He refused to hear the offer,” the governor’s voiced blared through the phone’s speaker. “I didn’t even get a chance to put it on the table. He has no interest in this life.”
“A shame.” A taut hand raked the patch of wispy, white hair that clung to the top of the retiree’s scalp. “Thank you for the prompt call, in any case.”
“It’s always a pleasure hearing your voice.” Hazel’s blushing was all too obvious in her tone.
The former hero smirked at the thought of the governor having a fangirl moment. “Goodbye, my dear.” He hung up the call and addressed his in-house associate. “It seems we can cross politician and PR representative off the potential career trajectories for our Mr. Popular.”
“Fair enough.” Gregor was unmoved by the news.
“I suppose he’ll have to settle for being a tastemaker now.” Micah shook his head in palpable disappointment. “Or one of those dreadful people famous for being famous.”
“Let him be a recluse, living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere,” the cat advocated. “It’s obviously what he wants.”
“Would that I could, my friend.” The old man leaned forward, resting his chest atop his hands, his hands atop his cane. “But, society will always be nipping at his heels. Anywhere he settles, no matter how remote, a city will spring up. The more powerful he gets, the more moths and gadflies will be attracted to his flame. They’ll build a sky-rise on his grave, so people can always be close to him — so he can never escape.”
“Are — are you okay?” Wireframe poked her head into the bedroom to address the enlarged encephalon sitting at the desk.
“My functions appear optimal, yes.” Cortex’s emotional display read: “-_-”. “Thank you.”
“Oh. Good.” The diminutive inventor stepped inside the room. “Be…because the party started, and, well, it didn’t feel right without you.”
“I fear, after my earlier outburst, I may be persona non grata.” The big brain folded his gelatinous hands into the lap of his drawstring pants.
“I — I don’t think anyone thinks that.” Wireframe moved closer, her arms tucked behind her back. “I’d miss your presence.”
“What if I am this team’s token loose cannon?” Cortex balled his fists. “What if I explode in juvenile rage again after perceiving some slight? You shouldn’t have to be subject to that display. No one should.”
“You…you may not see it anymore, but you’re still human.” Wireframe rested a delicate hand on the shoulder of his casing. “We all do things we regret. We all let our emotions get the better — the best — of us, sometimes. It’s — it’s okay. I promise.”
A ten-pound paw engulfed the miniature one that rubbed the intellect’s arm. “I appreciate your appeal to logic, but, until I ascertain how to properly apologize for my uncharacteristic demolition and ranting, I think it best that I stay out of sight and mind.”
“I thought you might say something like that, so…” The Indian inventor revealed her other hand — and the bottle of Patrón in it.
“I’m afraid I must decline.” Cortex’s emotional display switched to: “/_\”. “I don’t believe it wise to drink alone with my mood so melancholy.”
“Then, I guess I’ll have to stay.” Wireframe unscrewed the lid.
Tantric took a gulp of tequila and immediately grimaced. One eyelid clenched, while the other spasmed. “Oof.” He put the bottle back on the coffee table. “That’ll put testicles on your chest.”
“You wish.” Wavelength took a slug himself and merely set his jaw as a result.
“The last time we all hung out like this was — what — like, two years ago?” DoubleVision nursed a bottle of Evian.
“Yeah, my first day.” LiveFeed killed his Corona. “The beginning of sophomore year.”
“Christ, and we played Trump It.” DeathGrip took a swig of her flask.
“I love that game!” The bubbly blonde sat up straight on the love seat.
“You would.” Spatter, sharing the chair, thumbed the rim of her beer.
“‘Trump It’?” The pudgy teen, seated on the floor, cocked an eyebrow. “Tell me that doesn’t involve bad toupees or shitty comb-overs.”
“Heh, no. You just try and top each other’s stories,” DoubleVision explained. “Like, the first time your powers emerged or how you got recruited or whatever.”
“Huh.” Tantric eyed the bottle of tequila back on the table. “Sounds pretty ideal for a drinking game.”
Mr. Popular kept is shoulders hunched, his head down, and his hood up, as he pushed through the emergency exit and into the alley that was cursed to forever remain in the shadow of the skyscraper. A styrofoam cup, gnarled about the rim, thrust into his chest. The media sensation could smell its owner — dog damp and sickly sweet, the perfume of the street — before he could see the bindlestiff.
But what a sight, all the same. Wooly gloves with every other finger missing. A dingy duster over a skintight catsuit, unzipped to the navel to reveal a hairy, heavily tattooed chest. Stringy hair held at bay by a black headband, the kind a little girl might wear to a ballet recital. Blood red eyes and sunken cheeks. A beard that cascaded from the chin like a waterfall. He looked like every ’90s hero gone to pot. And, he sounded like a broken record: “I said, ‘Brother, can you spare / Can you spare a dime? / See, I’m down to my last dollar’.”
“There’s twenty bucks and a limo in it for you, if you never butcher a Candlebox song again.” The Lebanese teen fished the brown, beaten leather wallet out of his black-and-white pants.
“Whatever you say, hoss.” The homeless man licked his dirty lips, as the boy sifted through a handful of small bills.
The media darling dropped a folded Jackson into the hobo’s cup. “The car’s around the corner. Tell the driver Mr. Popular said to take you wherever you want to go.”
The vagrant clamped his hand over the top of his cup and galloped toward the street. “You’re a saint, man!”
“And, hey!” Mr. Popular called after the hobo. “Where can I get a decent cup of coffee at this hour?”
“I’ll judge,” DoubleVision volunteered, raising her hand and wiggling her fingers. “Secret origins. Who’s first?”
Wavelength plucked the tequila off the birch table and threw back a mouthful. “Banged an alien.”
“Way to set the bar high.” Spatter rolled her eyes.
“I liked it.” Tantric shrugged.
“So did the alien.” The faux-hawked storyteller smirked.
“Gimme the bottle.” The Chinese girl stretched out a hand, and Wavelength filled it. Spatter wiped the lip of the bottle clean with the now-dry cloth wrapped around her right forearm, then took a sip. “I was born with aplastic anemia. Low white blood cells. Low red blood cells. Low platelets. My bone marrow was severely underperforming. To survive, I needed a transplant and fast. My uncle was a match — and a masked vigilante. You might know him: China White.”
“Well, he was pretty famous in Seattle at the time, anyway. He’s a hemokinetic. He controls blood. Thanks to him, mine now hardens into super-dense scabs, and I hold the distinction of being the youngest successful bone marrow recipient on the West Coast.” The girl in the sundress held out the bottle. “Who can trump that?”
“Wavelength already did.” LiveFeed sat at the opposite end of the room, pulling on the loose threads of the throw rug. “Alien sex beats family bonding every time.”
“What?” Spatter slammed the bottle into the arm of the love seat. “His origin was three words long!”
“Quality over quantity,” the afro’d teen defended.
“Can I get a verdict?” The Chinese teen turned to the blonde beside her.
“Having sex with an alien sounds disgusting, but it is a better story,” DoubleVision ruled. “Take another sip. Sorry.”
“Fine.” Spatter pounded the Patrón. “Happy?”
“Who’s next?” the judge inquired.
“I’ll take a shot,” the pudgy teen, cross-legged diagonally across from the love seat, offered. The youngest successful bone marrow recipient on the West Coast passed him the bottle, and he chugged it. “Do any of you remember PowerCore? It was a Gatorade/Powerade kinda thing.”
“Sure,” DeathGrip piped up. “‘PowerCore powers your core’.”
“Right, yeah. Not the best slogan ever, which is probably why they ran a contest to find a better one a couple summers back,” Tantric recalled. “My brother bet me that I wouldn’t enter, so, you know, I had to. Turned out, I was one of only, like, ten people who did. And…I won.”
“What was your slogan?” the Argentine teen wondered.
“‘High octane for your brain’ or something like that? I kinda just slapped it together in the web form and hit ’send’,” the new kid admitted. “Anyway, the grand prize was a tour of their headquarters in Chicago. I got to see their bottling plant and sit in on a rebranding meeting and sample their newest experimental energy drink: Fallout. I dunno what was in it exactly — I’m still waiting on the report — but it tasted like ass and bonded with my cells, hyper-charging them. So, I feel like I’m constantly hopped up on caffeine.”
“That’s some Willy Wonka type shit right there,” LiveFeed interjected.
“No doubt.” Tantric nodded. “I’m in the midst of suing them for all their worth, but they filed for Chapter 11 as a counter measure. So, we have to wait for an independent accounting firm to come in and check their books before proceeding to trial.”
“What are you going to do with your winnings?” Spatter was working her way through another bottle of Corona. “Lipo?”
“You’re a mean drunk,” Wavelength observed. “Damn.”
“It’s cool, man,” the pudgy teen placated. “She’s not wrong. My body’s pretty much locked in this form. No matter how much I exercise, I can’t lose weight. If I want to look as fit as I feel, I’m gonna have to go under the knife.”
“That sucks.” The beanstalk popped open a new beer. “But, it still doesn’t trump tapping an E.T.”
“I have to agree,” DoubleVision stated, and so she did: “Take another sip.”
Tantric gulped tequila and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his lime green windbreaker. “Any takers?”
DeathGrip plucked the Patrón from her peer’s fingers and downed a quarter of it, before settling on the arm of the love seat beside the judge. “My grandfather was a Nazi war criminal.” There was a slight shake to her voice. “He fled to South America to evade prosecution during the Nuremberg trials, like so many of them did. He settled in Argentina and pretended to be Swiss. My grandmother didn’t know any better. He just seemed worldly to her. A European doctor. He took a job at the local hospital as an obstetrician, and the number of miscarriages immediately tripled. He blamed a virus that spread through the drinking water and targeted the weakened immune systems of the pregnant women. The townspeople — they believed him.”
She stared into the mouth of the bottle in her hands. “Why wouldn’t they? He was a doctor, right? He was there to help them, to save them. My grandmother miscarried twice before having my father. My grandfather kept practicing for fifteen years until he decided to spend time with his son before he became his own man. The following year, the number of miscarriages dropped.”
Her gloved fingers traced the neck of the bottle. “My parents were high school sweethearts. They were married at seventeen and pregnant by eighteen. My grandfather consulted on the pregnancy and was constantly at my mother’s side. Her own private doctor, administering shots and pills as he saw fit.”
DeathGrip took another sip. “My mother was a suspicious woman. She never trusted anything that was free, even from family. And, she felt worse with each passing month, after each treatment. Her older sister was a chemist a the time, working in a lab in America. My mother — my skeptical mother — sent her a bottle of the prenatal vitamins my grandfather advised her to take every morning. My aunt called her the next day, frantic and screaming. Those weren’t vitamins at all. They were sugar pills…laced with carcinogens.
“My mother — eight months pregnant with a twenty pound belly — confronted my grandfather, who denied all wrongdoing. He blamed the hospital and the pharmacy, the drug company and the couriers. But, my grandmother wasn’t convinced. She could always spot a lie. Secretly, she emptied her bank account and gave my father the money to get out of the country. My mother was too pregnant to fly, so they took a boat that only went as far as Mexico. Then, they had to hire a coyote to get them across the border, to my aunt in America.”
She set down the tequila and picked up her flask. “A day later, outside of Waco, Texas, my grandfather’s first success came into this world. Since his time in Germany, he’d been trying to weaponize cancer, and I was his patient zero, his toxic carrier. Everything organic that I touch — everything that grazes even grazes my fingers — is riddled with tumors and polyps, malignancies that always end in death.”
The faux-hawked teen picked up the Patrón and glugged. “You win.”
“What happened to your grandfather?” The pudgy, Polish Jewish boy kept his eyes averted, staring at the afghan rug. “I hope nothing good.”
“My grandmother kicked him out of the house after my parents left.” The Latina sipped her flask. “He was found dead in a hotel room in Brazil a few years ago. Robbed and shot through the heart. I was surprised he even had one.”
“And your parents?” Tantric lifted his gaze to catch DeathGrip’s hazel eyes. “They didn’t get deported, did they?”
“No, my aunt kept them pretty well hidden. And, my parents were determined to pass the citizenship test as quickly as possible, so they wouldn’t ever be separated from me. My dad passed in a little over two months. My mom never got to take it.” The Argentinean rubbed the skull and crossbones on the front of her flask. “She died. Uterine cancer.”
Spatter lifted her head in realization. “Because you–”
“Yeah.” DeathGrip bit her lip.
“No wonder you carry a flask.” The Chinese girl had lost her filter to too much drinking.
“This?” The Latina flipped the capped container in her hands. “This is shark’s blood.”
DoubleVision cocked her head. “You’re a vampire, too?”
“Cortex read an article a while ago online about shark’s blood being used to retard the spread of cancer and postulated that it might have the same effect on my powers, keeping the locus in the tips of my extremities.” DeathGrip unscrewed the lid of her flask, pilfered the blonde’s empty water bottle, and poured a stream of crimson into the plastic container with practiced precision. “So far, so good.” The Argentine teen tipped the one-time water bottle to her lips and drank.
“Gross” was the judge’s verdict.]]>
I’m determined to stick the landing on this series, and the extra day should allot me that opportunity.
The initial plan was to provide content on the internet’s typically dead Sundays, but that doesn’t seem feasible any more, sadly.
Weathered hands, bulbous at the joints, clasped the polished head of an aluminum cane, as an aged frame creaked forward in a mesh recliner. Wispy, white brows shot upward in unison, while bulimic eyes — cataract blue behind bifocals — gorged on the sixty-four screens that comprised the wall ahead. Pleated flesh parted into a smile. “The boy’s finally done it.”
“Gone off the deep end?” A white paw swatted the control panel on the end table between the identical recliners, hushing the audio feed from Friedrich Hall, Room 4D.
A deformed digit pushed wayward glasses back into place. “Two minutes into his stay here, he bypassed our firewalls and security protocols, so his peers could access the pornography they craved–”
“How else can an socially award genius befriend a group of teenage boys?” The ball of black fur nestled into the second seat, unimpressed. “I’m sure he anonymously penned all of their essays that year, as well.”
“Yet, he waited three and a half years to tamper with the headmistress’ programming.” The old man sat back. “The horse finally took the carrot that we dangled in front of him for so long, and he handled it with aplomb. The time code on the footage our mouthpiece is funneling is accurate; the visuals, however — they’re remixed from hours, weeks, months of carefully culled shots.”
“Remarkable.” The feline yawned.
“He’s forcing SuZ2 to experience deja vu,” the retiree clucked like a proud papa.
“Frankly, I’m more concerned with his recent outburst.” The black cat stretched his fore-paws — one white, one silver — plucking at the mesh of his seat. “We may need to reassign rooms, so tempers don’t continue to flare.”
“Pish.” The old timer dismissed the thought with the wave of an arthritic hand. “We all had our share of heated debates back in the day. We got over them. Emotions always run hot after missions; you know that as well as anyone.”
“That they do,” the feline agreed. “Especially when you manipulate events to coerce a reaction.”
“So, I may have made a phone call to an old friend, who happens to work at the governor’s office. And, I may have let slip a few choice details from this morning’s dustup.” His voice was as innocent as a hoarse rasp could be. “Is it wrong to cultivate interest in the institution we founded?”
“We agreed to act as passive observers, Micah. We’re here to monitor the progress of a rarified breed of students and pass along their statistical information to potential recruiters.” The cat leapt onto the end table and glared, with glowing chartreuse eyes, at the old man. “That’s it.”
“You don’t believe that for a second.” The elderly gentleman wiped the lenses of his glasses with the silk pocket square from his three-button jacket. “We’ve been reduced to voyeurs, spying on adolescents in their locker- and bedrooms. Not by choice but by powers beyond our control. I lost my abilities long ago–” He traced the scar across his neck with an overgrown nail. “–and, now, my joints threaten to lock me in place, while your ongoing metamorphoses make you a wild card in society. We may be resigned to lives as statisticians, locked away in a subbasement no one else even knows exists, but passive we are not. If our goal is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the ultra-abled, then we need to apply pressure until their capabilities are clear. Not everyone is cut out for life in the public eye.”
“And, not everyone wants it.” The untagged feline stood his ground. “Your meddling is forcing these kids into uncomfortable situations — where there’s no give and take, no opportunity to safely screw up and learn from their mistakes. You’re throwing them into the deep end and unleashing the sharks.”
“You have a very twisted view of the media, my friend.”
“We witnessed a feeding frenzy today. Don’t kid yourself.”
“I’m not the deluded one here.” The retiree returned his hands to the top of his cane. “There are no opportunities to safely screw up in the real world. Life doesn’t come with parent-teacher conferences or progress reports with letter grades. No, life is pass/fail.”
“Wha was tha noise?” Double vision managed to utter through a yawn.
“A hissy fit.” Spatter, still half-sitting, still waiting, had her arms crossed.
“Ahh. The news always puts me to sleep.” The petite blonde dabbed spittle from her chin with the back of a hand. “I should’ve never turned it back on.”
“I can’t ever sleep after watching the news.” DeathGrip slipped off her jacket and tossed it onto the love seat beside DoubleVision’s barely awake body. “I always have nightmares about politicians going on crime sprees after losing funding.”
“I can’t sit through any of that shit. Even The Daily Show is too dry for me.” The Chinese teen twisted the frayed end of the damp cloth on her left arm. “I’d rather be making the news than watching it.”
“Erm, sorry for the delay,” Wireframe chirped, toting what seemed to be the world’s longest water-gun into the commons. “It took me a while to find all the pieces to this.”
“What’s it do?” was the question on everyone’s lips, but DoubleVision managed to spit it out first.
“Oh, um, it’s just a shrink-ray.” The indian inventor set the tank-end of the device down on the floor. “When I was six or seven, I…I thought bird houses should have furniture, so I kind of threw this together from stuff around the house. The, um, the first time I fired it, a table imploded.”
“And, the last time…?” Spatter stared at her peer in amazement.
“I…only tried it the once.” Wireframe tapped a sequence of digits into the keypad on the side of the elongated barrel. “But, I — I’m pretty sure I calibrated correctly this time.”
“Maybe we should be standing behind you.” DeathGrip was off the split sofa and on her feat in a flash. The other girls scrambled to follow her lead.
“Okay. Stand back.” The inventor dropped to one knee and slid the tank over her right shoulder. “This has an intense recoil, if I recall correctly. And, well, I think I do, anyway.”
The trio of taller teens took a giant step back, in unison, into the hallway, as the diminutive shooter fired.
Cold water slapped Mr. Popular across the face, and his hands went back to the basin of the bathroom sink for more. Another splash assaulted his youthful features, and his palms slicked back his hair, pulling stray stands into place. His back found a wall and slumped against it. His fingers pinched and massaged the soft skin between his black eyebrows.
A buzz pulsed through his body, shaking the off-white tile that supported his shoulders and spine. Fishing the cellphone from the pants of his uniform, he flipped open the display to check the new text sent from the school’s alert service.
“‘Your ride has arrived’,” the teen idol read aloud. “What ride?”
“So, I know you and Spatter had a thing.” Tantric, riding shotgun, gazed out the side window, at road after identical, tree-lined road, hoping for a change in scenery.
“She’s a total trampoline. Everybody’s jumped on that.” LiveFeed kept his eyes on the street ahead and his head tilted far to the left, trying in vain to avoid the camera mounted under the rearview mirror — a camera that may or may not have been pumping live footage back to the headmistress.
“Then, she’s definitely off limits as per The Bro Code.” The new kid cracked his tinted window to get some fresh air into the stuffy cabin.
“Wavelength prefers to call it ‘The Brotocols’.” The lanky teen slowed the van to a halt at the sight of the yellowing light ahead. “But, yeah.”
“And, Deadlift’s off the board ’cause I don’t like trannies.”
“But, what about, like, that neurotic blonde chick? The one who wants a name-change?” Tantric stuffed his hands back into the pockets of his lime green windbreaker and rested his head against the window. “Is she taken?”
“DoubleVision? Just say no, man.” LiveFeed turned to look at his passenger. “Dare to be drama free.”
“She can’t be that much of a handful. Although…” The pudgy teen shifted his hands — and jacket — upward, creating an imitation bust, and admired his handiwork.
“Her Facebook says she’s in a relationship…with God.” The beanpole punched the gas, as the light turned green.
“You’re shitting me.”
“Well, there are two ways to look at that, though, right?” Tantric sat up in his seat, his mind racing. “I mean, she could be joking, or–”
“Or, you could have spoken to her before, yeah.” LiveFeed took a sharp right, into a cramped parking lot.
“Damn.” The new kid slumped back into his seat.
“Don’t get too comfy.” The tall teen shifted gears to park. “We’re here.”
Tantric rolled down his window all the way and peered up at the dilapidated storefront, its flickering sign reading ‘The Spirits Within’. Unbuckling his seatbelt, he popped open the door. “All right. Give me a two minute head-start.”
The driver, in the cap and gloves of her profession, waited stoically beside the backdoor of the black limousine in front of the Friederich Hall. A young man — with hunched shoulders, a black hoodie, and boots you couldn’t find in any store — pushed through the glass doors of the building and gave the woman a look of astute curiosity before approaching.
“Mr. Popular, I presume?” She pulled the handle of the limo door.
“Yeah…” The Lebanese teen sized up the driver, a slinky but strong 5′9″ with mocha skin, covered in all black, save the burgundy button-up (that wasn’t so buttoned) under her half-zipped jacket. “You?”
“Selina.” The Dominican driver opened the door and gestured for the boy to enter. “How are you this evening, sir?”
“Confused” was the teen idol’s reply, as he ducked inside the vehicle.
“Is there anything you’d like me to clarify?” Selina held the door open, awaiting an answer.
“No. I think I’ll just try and enjoy the ride.” Mr. Popular pulled the back of his hoodie free from under his seated self, as the driver shut the door. “Anywhere’s better than here.”
Spatter bent over to scoop up half of the leather couch — which, although now the size of her palm, was no lighter than before — when the lights cut out. “Oh, what now?”
“Attention, K-Mart shoppers: We are currently experiencing a Charlie Brownout,” Wavelength droned in a deadpan, announcer voice from the entrance of the commons, his hand over the light switch. “Do not be alarmed if you suffer a momentary lapse of crippling depression. A floor-worker will be with you momentarily to draw a Jack O’Lantern on the back of your head.”
“Good grief…” The Chinese teen stood up, marched toward the location of the voice, and slammed her hand into his, flicking the lights back on. “One of these days, your mouth is gonna bite you in the ass.”
“I knew all that yoga would payoff.” The quarter-Cherokee teen smirked.
“Douche.” Spatter picked up where she left off — or, at least, tried to pick up what she couldn’t lift before.
Wavelength watched the senior girls pick over the carpet like they were on a microscopic scavenger hunt. “Should I even ask?”
“Only if you want to get punched.” The girl in the sundress clutched the shrunken soda-half with two hands and hefted into the air.
“Need a hand with that?” The boy in the argyle sweater vest and white t-shirt took an uncertain step forward.
“Need a trash can.” Spatter wobbled, as Wavelength retrieved the plastic bin from the corner of the room.
“A guy hits the sauna, and the whole world changes.” The muscular teen shuffled backward, while the girl with the hourglass figure released the miniature wreckage into the waste basket. “Who’s next?”
All three of the other seniors raised their hands at once.
“Oh…kay, then.” Wavelength grabbed the trash can with both hands and dragged it behind him.
“Don’t even think about it, peach fuzz.” The white 20-something cashier with dreadlocks and bloodshot eyes — Dwight, if his nametag could be believed — waved off the pudgy teen, carrying every shade of alcohol he could manage.
“You’re not even going to check my I.D.?!” Tantric protested, with mock outrage.
“You can’t fool a fooler, bro.” Dwight leaned against the checkout counter. “There’s no way you’re twenty-one.”
“Well, fuck you, then.” The kid in the windbreaker sounded so hurt it was almost believable. “You’re part of the establishment, man, you know that? Harshin’ everybody’s good time.”
“Just leave the bottles and go, dude, before I call the cops on your underage ass,” the cashier instructed, less than impressed by anything the kid had to say.
Tantric opened his arms over the checkout counter and let the bottles fall where they may.
Dwight watched the pudgy teen exit the store in a huff. “Fuckin’ pituitary case.”
“Kids these days, man.” Long, thin fingers placed two bottles of Patron and three six-packs of Corona Extra on the counter next to the assortment of discarded alcohol.
“Sayin’.” The cashier turned his head back to come-face-to-face with a UCONN jersey. He craned his neck to catch a glimpse of his 7′7″ customer. “You headed to a match or something?”
“Huh?” LiveFeed glanced down at what he was wearing and recalled his cover. “Oh. Right. Yeah, yeah.”
“We’ve got a scrimmage in Oregon on Sunday. We’re just passing through.” The words echoed through the ears of the old man and the black cat, their heads encased in aviator-style helmets that descended from the ceiling of their subterranean screening room.
“This feels so morally reprehensible.” The feline could only watch in disbelief through the viewfinder — through the teen’s own eyes — as the student handed the cashier two crisp twenties.
“Our brochure clearly states that students will be under constant surveillance,” the retiree defended. “We never specified how, exactly, they would be surveilled.”
The limousine pulled to a stop outside an imposing, ten-story, glass-and-steel structure. The partition between driver and passenger, front seat and back, lowered.
“Here we are, sir.” Selina killed the engine and removed her key. “I’ll be around to open your door in a moment. Sit tight.”
“Wait.” Mr. Popular reached toward her. “Maybe there is something you could clarify.”
“Heh.” The Dominican driver smiled warmly at the suddenly curious boy. “I’m afraid that window has expired.”
“Man…” LiveFeed revved the engine of the van and threw it in reverse. “Why does everybody automatically assume I’m an athlete?”
Tantric clutched the brown bag, full of booze, on his lap. “Because you look like the love-child of Gigantor and the Fifty Foot Woman.”]]>
Spatter, clad in a sundress with a floral print almost graphic enough to distract from the damp cloths wrapped around each of her forearms, carried her dirty uniform in a wound wad through the senior commons, en route to the laundry shoot at the other end of the hall. DeathGrip, leaning against a severely slanted cushion, offered a polite wave as she passed. The Chinese teen smiled her reply and took another step, only for her head to jerk back, discombobulated.
She cocked her cranium, then a brow, and tried to understand what she viewed. DoubleVision — in a pink halter and white shorts — dozed on a leather love seat. Wireframe — in a cable knit sweater over a white tank top, with a pair of tattered, oil-stained corduroys — sat on the afghan rug in the middle of the room, crocheting a new piece of apparel. And, DeathGrip… DeathGrip in her black gloves and skinny jeans. DeanGrip in her CBGB’s t-shirt and red racing jacket, looking like an extra from “Thriller.” DeathGrip was propped up against…a snapped sofa? A moment of studious silence for Spatter, and then: “What the hell happened here?”
“Don’t ask.” The Argentinean stood up, between the halves of the cleaved couch. “Just lift.”
“You waited to clean this crap up until I got here?” The Chinese girl was plainly mystified.
“You are the muscle of this outfit,” DeathGrip explained.
“Such flattery.” Spatter threw her bundle of clothes down the corridor and didn’t bother to check where the articles landed. Tightening the moist wraps around her arms, she sized up the nearer half of the broken piece of furniture. “Of all the days to wear a dress…”
The Latina tossed a seat cushion off the splintered frame. “As opposed to the skirts you usually wear?”
“I am a rare and delicate flower.” The Chinese teen felt along the underside of the arm rest, trying to find a decent hold. “At least that’s what my dad used to say when we were still speaking. Like, ten years ago.”
“Must’ve made an impression on the seven year-old you.” DeathGrip removed the seat-back. “I’d welcome a little quiet. My dad just figured out texting.”
“Is that who’s been sending you messages at five in the morning every damn day?” Spatter stepped back and took a look at the space between the legs of the chair and the floor.
“Yeah, the first one’s always some nonsense about the sunshine racing to spread across the sky to show the word how beautiful and smart I am.”
“And, then he harps on me for not replying in Spanish.” The girl in the red racing jacket grabbed the exposed frame on her end.
“Lucky you. I don’t know any Cantonese.” The girl with in the sundress wedged her hands, palms up, under the arm rest. “So, where are we taking this stuff?”
“Uh…huh. And, after that?”
“There has to be a dumpster outside somewhere.” DeathGrip shrugged.
“So glad you thought this through.” Spatter glared.
“Erm, sorry to interrupt.” Wireframe placed her crocheting needles on her lap. “But, I…I might be able to save you a few trips — and spare you some back strain.”
“Do tell.” The Latina dropped the frame.
“Do show.” The Chinese teen slid her hands free.
“One moment.” The diminutive, Indian inventor hurried into the hall, toward her dorm, her arms straight at her sides as she power-walked.
“She’s going to make all of us redundant.” Spatter propped a leg up on the arm of the couch, to half-sit as she waited.
“I hope so.” DeathGrip went back to leaning.
Deadlift ensnared her hair — streaked with butterscotch highlights and dark chocolate lows — in a ponytail, smoothed the sides of the purple polo tucked into her khakis, and rapped the ajar mahogany door in front of her with the manilla folder she clenched in her right hand.
“Please come in,” a sing-song voice called from inside the office.
The Physical Education instructor pushed open the door and held the folder tightly to her abdomen. Behind a cherrywood desk sat the quintessential schoolmarm in a black blazer emblazoned with the AFTA logo, a calf-length skirt of the same midnight hue, a pressed white button-up with a ruffled collar, and a string of pearls. A silver hoop dangled from each ear. Her hair, though, gave the headmistress’ true nature away. Rather than strands pulled taut into an authoritative bun, fiber optic cables surged from her scalp. A closer look revealed skin with too glossy a sheen, eyes too crystalline a blue, and two shimmering white trays indented to resemble teeth where real ones should reside. When the android smiled her eerie, emotionless greeting, Deadlift found herself fox-holed in the Uncanny Valley and wanted desperately to fight her way out.
“Grasshopper 3 is in the garage, awaiting refueling.” The gym teacher rushed the words, her eyes nervously tracing the ground around her running shoes.
“Excellent.” The honeysuckle voice dripped from the headmistress’ pristine lips, the only feature on her artificial face to move as she spoke. “And, what do you have there, my dear?”
“Oh. This.” Deadlift’s sweat-slicked fingers passed the folder to the android’s plasticine palm, a mold devoid of lines, wrinkles, and humanity. “It’s, uh, it’s the write-up you requested about the morning class.”
The robot flipped open the folder and scanned the first page. Retrieving a red pen from the cup on her desk, she began making corrections. “Our newest student made quite the showing, did he?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The instructor gulped, as she watched the headmistress strike through an entire paragraph. “He was the last man standing.”
“But not the final female, I take it?” The android flipped the page.
“Er, no.” Deadlift swiftly wiped sweat from her beaded brow, hoping her employer wouldn’t notice. “No, DeathGrip bested him in the end.”
“She is quite the athlete, isn’t she?” That smile again. So hollow.
The gym teacher fought back a shiver. “She is. I was hoping, since enrollment doubled this year, we could start a team sport — something for her to captain, so she could truly excel. Maybe volleyball or track…?”
The headmistress closed the folder and rested her hands atop it. “And, with whom might such a team compete? Even against collegiate athletes, our students would possess an unfair — and, some would say, unnatural — advantage.”
Deadlift ran a palm across the top of her hair, before summoning the courage to look her boss in the eye. “There are two other schools for the gifted, in Maine and Florida.”
“Yes, and there is a reason our academy is located on the other side of the country.” The android capped her pen. “Their existence may be common knowledge — too common, I would argue — but their reputations, evidently, are not. The quality of their respective education systems is — to put it delicately — substandard. To that end, the academy in Maine is currently at risk of losing its accreditation.”
“Oh.” The Phys Ed instructor sunk.
“Still, should either make the improvement necessary to achieve the status of this institution, I would consider engaging in an athletic rivalry.” The headmistress opened the bottom drawer of her desk and filed the folder inside.
“Thanks.” Deadlift, defeated, turned toward the door.
“There is one more item to discuss.” The sing-song voice froze the instructor in place.
“Oh?” The gym teacher turned back to her boss, although her eyes remained averted.
The headmistress, however, stared, unblinking, at her faculty member. “The senior boys believe you to be a male-to-female transgender.”
“Christ, it’s the 2000 Summer Olympics all over again…” Deadlift rocked her head back, exasperated. Her eyes traced the ceiling tiles. “Do I have to wear lace and ruffles to convince people I’m a real woman?”
“I do.” The android retrieved a tissue box from the top drawer of her desk and extended it toward the emotional instructor.
The Phys Ed teacher waved it off. “I’m fine.”
“That you are.” The Ten-Second Rule wrapped an arm around Deadift’s tense shoulders and pecked her cheek.
The gym instructor let out a soft “hey.”
The Home Ec teacher winked back. “You want me to talk to those guys? I do have intimate knowledge of your particular physiology.”
“No, no, it’s all right. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal,” Deadlift tried to convince herself more than anyone else. “Boys will be boys, right?”
“Most will be dicks, but close enough.” The Ten-Second Rule slid a pair of folders across the desk, to the headmistress. “These are for you, by the way. Write-ups from this morning’s bout and the press conference after. Short version? Total cluster-hump. Long version? Read on.”
“Thank you.” The android arranged the files in a neat stack. “And, is there anything I should be mindful of as I reboot?”
“Only that you need to upgrade to a stabler platform.” The Home Ec instructor smirked. “Otherwise, nada. I scanned ahead in space-time, and you’re golden for the next hour.”
“Well, then, I shall see you two on the other side.” With that, the headmistress of the Academy of the Advanced powered down.
“So, wait.” Tantric had to take two strides to match each of LiveFeed’s, as they rushed across campus. “You’re telling me you’ve got access to a car twenty-four/seven, and you never leave?”
“We’re in the middle of Bumfuck, Wyoming, man.” The taller teen pulled the keychain from the back pocket of his sagging Levi’s. Everything that wasn’t too small to fit his wiry frame was entirely too wide. “Deep in Deliverance territory. The only thing that passes for civilization on a Friday night around here is a hillbilly bar at the edge of town. And, this badonkadonk sure as shit don’t honky tonk.”
“I feel you.” The pudgy teen looked all the more plump in the oversized, lime green windbreaker he had hiked to his waistline. His hands remained firmly in the pockets of his jacket, almost cradling his extended stomach.
“Don’t say crap like that.” LiveFeed stopped abruptly at the corner of a stone school building. “This is it.” Tilting his head, he peered around the corner to the closed bay doors of the garage, just a stone’s throw away. “Coast is clear.”
Tantric peered over both his shoulders. “Shouldn’t you be projecting something right now? Laying some cover?”
The beanpole shot a look of pure perturbation. “The only shit in my line of sight right now is the garage and you. The hell do you want me to project?”
“I, yeah, good call.” The new kid removed a hand from his jacket just long enough to rub the scruff of his neck.
“Let’s go.” It took LiveFeed a mere ten steps to arrive at the entrance to the garage. Tantric hustled behind. The 7′7″ stalk held up a hand, halting his 5′6″ accomplice. “Be cool.” As the tall teen’s long, lean fingers reached for the knob of the entry door, it swung open. LiveFeed gulped and snapped his eyes shut. Tantric jumped back. And, Mr. Popular walked past them, shaking his head.
“Mother of fuck.” The afro’d teen inhaled deeply, catching his breath. “Scared the shit outta me.”
The new kid watched the teen in the black hoodie head back toward the dorms. “Is it wrong that I want to wear his skin?”
“You kidding?” LiveFeed stepped inside the dimly lit garage. “I want his hair.”
“What ethnicity do you think he is?” Tantric followed, his eyes still stealing glances back at Mr. Popular’s path. “Turkish?”
“Lebanese.” The beanpole pressed the ‘unlock’ icon on the keychain, and one of sixteen identical vans in the fleet blinked its lights.
“Huh. Those are some good genes.” The pudgy teen closed the entry door behind him. “If I let my hair grow out, I’d have an afro rivaling yours, man.”
“You Jewish?” LiveFeed tapped the icon again, as the duo drew nearer the van.
“Yep. Polish Jew through and through.” Tantric nodded, not that the taller teen was looking. “You?”
“French-Creole.” The lanky teen opened the driver’s side door of the unlocked van. “I was designed with deliciousness in mind.”
“Hold up.” The new kid unzipped his windbreaker and pulled free the folded University of Connecticut jersey he’d been carrying all along. “Put this on.”
LiveFeed looked at the blue and white basketball jersey, blinked, looked down at his own white polo (collar popped, of course), blinked, and looked back at his teammate. “You aren’t serious.”
“Trust me, man.” Tantric shoved the XXL shirt into his peer’s reluctant hands. “It’s all part of the plan.”
Cortex scanned the code he had uploaded to the headmistress’ CPU moments before. He knew it would be flawless — and it was — but it never hurt to double check, especially when the mind was clouded with unruly emotion, as his certainly was. Contented, he closed his MacBook Pro and slid the seventeen inch laptop across the pinewood desk, until it butted against the taupe wall of the dorm room.
The door to the big brain’s right was shoved open, and Mr. Popular took no time in climbing into the top of the two bunk beds across from the desk.
“Ah, our valiant leader returns to slum with the commoners.” Cortex swiveled the reinforced chair that still barely supported his weight, to address the media sensation properly. “Shall I genuflect, or would you prefer me prostrate? What is the proper posture when in the presence of unparalleled divinity? Surely, you are a god amongst mortals. A darling hero destined to be canonized, lionized, immortalized.”
The teen idol stuck a set of buds into his ears, flipped up his hood, and rolled over, his back to his roommate.
“Pray tell, my liege — my savior! — what can I — your humble servant but not so humble as you — do to properly praise you? Shall I act the claque and applaud your arrival to draw my fellow plebs, that we might bask in your shining righteousness?” The enlarged encephalon moved to the doorway and crashed his hands together. “Yes! Yes! Come, all ye sullied by sin and soot! Let your spirits be cleansed, for we are blessed — truly blessed — to be in the proximity of a saint! Virtue washes over him like so much Polo Double Black! Repent now! Repent!”
“Fuck you,” Mr. Popular spat, his back still turned.
“My base mind struggles to comprehend your sage suggestion, oh son of Solomon.” Cortex lasped his hands together and rested them at the side of his roommate’s bed. “Am I to posit that you seek to implant me with your sanctified seed? If true, this is truly a momentous occasion! Tomes will be written of this day!”
“Go fuck yourself.” The Lebanese teen maxed out the volume on his iPod, attempting to drown his teammate out. “Jesus Christ…”
“Clarity, at last!” The big brain fell backwards into his chair, arms outstretched in a hallelujah moment. “Our Anthropocene prophet promotes self-pleasure and refers to himself in the third person!”
“Enough.” Mr. Popular, ripping out his earbuds, spun to face his relentless roommate. “What the hell has gotten into you?”
“Am I not allowed to be in awe of my lauded leader?” Cortex inquired, as innocently as his automated voice would allow.
“I am not your leader.”
“Ah-ha, so the truth does not elude you.”
“Is this about that bullshit PR stunt the governor pulled?” The teen idol sat upright. “Because I wanted no part of that.”
“This is about credit being given where credit is due.” The mind’s emotional display read “>_<”.
“What did you want me to do?!” Mr. Popular tore off his hood, sending his long, dark locks flying with it. “I had a hundred people breathing down my neck for a fucking sound-bite and a smile.”
“I wanted you to use the platform provided to promote the efforts of those actually involved in the planning and execution of the takedown and evacuation,” Cortex informed.
“So, you.” The Lebanese teen swung his legs, still clad in the pants of his uniform, over the side of his bed. “You’re suck a fucking glory whore, man. Quit acting all butt-hurt just because you didn’t get name-dropped.”
“If seeking the accolades I rightly deserve makes me a so-called ‘glory whore’, then so be it.” The massive mind crossed his arms over his emotional display. “But, what does accepting the awards of others make you?”
“A stooge.” Mr. Popular slid from his bed and landed on the floor, in front of the incensed intellect. “You want that key to the city so badly? That trumped up symbol signifying fuck all? Go get it. I dumped it in the garbage can in the garage. Have fun digging it out.” The teen idol flipped his hood back up and stepped out the door.]]>
The black van, its windows tinted to match its complexion, skipped across gravel like flattened flint across a placid pond. Its outstretched wings folded atop its canopy, a beetle at rest, as it came to stop in front of the three-story loft that functioned as the junior/senior residence hall of the Academy for the Advanced. The van’s side door slid open, and out trickled a stream of students, helmets in hand, each more tired than the last.
The final member of the lot had been sleeping soundly throughout the ride home. He awoke only when hit by a swinging satchel — and, even then, he barely stirred. His bleary eyes were of little use in helping to gather the heroic habiliments he’d discarded long before his snooze. As his fingers fumbled to find the top half of his uniform, something tugged on the hood of his black sweatshirt. He jerked his head around, catching a glimpse of his Home Economics instructor holding his hood.
“Seat-backs and tray-tables in the upright position.” The Ten-Second Rule dropped the cowl. “Buckle up, bucko. We got elsewhere to be.”
“What — are you gonna make me the main attraction at a people petting zoo next?” Mr. Popular flopped back into his seat. “Five-ninety-nine to cop a feel?”
“You wish.” The teacher shuffled back into his seat in the front of the cabin, to the right of the driving Deadlift. “You’re gonna be center ring at a 21st Century circus. Hope you brought your top hat.”
“Where’re they going?” DoubleVision wondered, as the van sprouted wings again and flew off.
“Does it matter?” Spatter pushed the door to the dormitory open with a scabbed-over forearm. “He’s probably off to talk a bi-polar baby down from a ledge or some shit.”
“If our abilities are required, I’m certain we will be informed.” Cortex held the door open for the remainder of his team to pass through.
“So, what do you guys do to celebrate around here?” Tantric spun his helmet around his fist mindlessly.
“Maybe watch a little TV?” The blonde shrugged.
“I”ve got a paper to polish for Architecture of Myth,” DeathGrip offered.
“And, I’ve got a hot date with a hot bath.” The blood-soaked teen headed for the nearest stairwell.
“That’s it? Television, homework, and a soak?” The new student gripped his helmet. “Unless LiveFeed’s been putting images in my head, I’m pretty sure we just kicked the shit out of nine artificial assholes. We need to party.”
“What’re you thinking?” The aforementioned projectionist fluffed his afro back into shape with a black hair-pick.
Tantric scanned the quizzical faces of his peers. “Anybody got access to one of those vans?”
“We all do.” Wavelength slung his jacket over one shoulder, barely covering the burn on his back. “There’s an emergency key on every floor.”
“I am not one to impede upon well-deserved revelry. Quite the opposite, I should think,” the engorged encephalon prefaced. “However, if your aim is to acquire anything illicit, may I suggest a slight postponement? Our esteemed headmistress reboots her internal hard-drive at six-oh-five every evening. If you wish to sneak out undetected, that would be the ideal time. In the interim, I shall see to editing and looping footage to ensure the evening’s festivities do not come to a premature end.”
“You feeling all right, Cee?” The Latina’s brow was deeply furrowed. “This…this doesn’t sound anything like you.”
“Whilst plummeting forty-three feet through the air to incapacitate a duo of getaway drivers, I came to an epiphany.” The brain’s emotional display was a steady “o_o”. “I need to have more fun.”
“Time to suit up.” Deadlift slowed the van to a stop and unlocked its doors with the flick of a finger. “This is it.”
A weary Mr. Popular pulled on his helmet and zipped up his uniform jacket, then opened the side door. The press pounced before he had a foot on the ground. Microphones pounded at his faceplate, rocking his head back. Strobes flared, limiting his vision. Hounds, hungry for a scoop, barked questions. Tongues lapped saliva from freshly whitened fangs. Their eyes ate him alive.
A hand gripped his shoulder, startling him from his shocked stupor.
“This way.” The Ten-Second Rule pushed a path through the crowd of camera-ready reporters and their leering lensmen, through a cacophony of queries so slight he couldn’t believe they actually existed. “Your audience awaits.”
The Chinese teen shimmied out of her black-striped jodhpurs, her stiff thumbs peeling the fabric from her sweaty thighs. With a limp kick, she sent the pants to rest atop the boots she left in front of the sink. Her teeth dug into the tip of a glove where white fibers were still visible and tore. The crimson-coated fabric barely budged. She sank her incisors into the crust that connected cuff with skin and gnawed until all she could taste was copper. Her gums bled before the scabby seal broke. Her lips snapped shut, her tongue darting to slurp at the new wounds.
She dropped to her knees and plunged her arms into the smoldering water in the tub beside her feet. Scab scraped against scab, as she scrubbed. The water grew an ever-deepening pink with each scrape. Her gloved fingers, barely free their once-congealed fists, scratched at her forearms, hoping to hit fabric or flesh. Digging her digits deeper into the coagulated crags, she ripped at the scabs — and felt four nails from her right hand snap clean off.
Her jaw clenched. Her fists pumped. A sharp gust of air breached her flared nostrils. Her eyelids fought back tears. And, she slammed her balled hands against the bottom of the tub in frustration. Bloody, sizzling water splashed up her jacket, assailing her exposed face. Panting, she hoisted her hands from the bath and shakily searched her pockets for her box cutter.
She clicked the blade forward and plunged it into the edge of the scab that encased her right sleeve. She pried, wrenched, tweaked, torqued. Finally, a dark flake fell free.
The Latina laid on her back, her reddened torso clad only in a black sports bra that kept her modest bust modest. A bald man with a bushy black beard moved a scanner across the girl’s bare midriff and examined the screen that accompanied the device. His eyes squinted behind half-oval frames. “Looks like you’ve got a bad case of rug burn.” The doctor shoved the machine out of the way. “No internal bleeding. Not much in the way of outward bruising. The new impact suits seem to be doing their job.” He offered the girl a hand, and she accepted with a gloved one of her own.
DeathGrip sat forward on the examining table and winced slightly, a hiss escaping her lips, as her abs folded in on her dermal abrasion.
“Here.” The physician tossed her a tube of benzocaine from the counter to his left. “Apply that twice a day to the irritated area. It’ll help with the pain.”
The teen rubbed a liberal glob of the medicine on her abdomen. “Am I good to go, then?”
He flipped open the file on the counter and scanned the top sheet, then lifted the page to check the next. “Have you noticed any new mole growth since last we met?”
“No.” DeathGrip shook her head. “No new mole growth.”
“Good.” The doctor pulled a pen from the chest pocket of his white coat and marked the second page of the file. “And, you’re checking regularly?”
“Every Tuesday and Thursday morning.” She capped the tube of medicine and shoved it in the pocket on the left side of her pants.
“Good, good.” The physician clicked his pen and flipped through another set of sheets in the pronged folder. “Looks like you’re do for some blood work, but–” He glanced at his patient, who was impatiently tapping the back of her feet against the step to his table. “–you’re probably too dehydrated for me to find a vein.”
“Later, doc.” DeathGrip was already off the table and in the doorway by the time the doctor looked up again.
The physician turned back to his paperwork. “See you in two weeks.”
Reporters hushed, and cameras refocussed, as a forty-two year-old woman in a periwinkle pantsuit crossed the stage in front of a row of seated figures, including the admired adolescent and his instructor.
The woman wiped her salt-streaked bangs away from her black horn-rims and placed her palms on the podium. “Today, our great state witnessed tragedy and triumph. Eighty-two lives were lost, and countless more were impacted by the explosion that all but destroyed Gavin Industrial Park. Nearly one hundred more, however, were spared thanks to the valiant, heroic efforts of the students from the Academy for the Advanced.”
DoubleVision, sitting cross-legged on an overstuffed sofa in the center of the senior commons, snatched the remote from between the leather-covered cushions and thumbed the volume. “Hey!” she shouted at anyone in earshot.
“Hrm?” A passing Cortex removed the web of earbuds latched to his gelatinous hide. “Apologies. I was listening to a mash-up of Mozart and Modest Mouse.”
“Look! Listen!” The bubbly blonde motioned with the remote at the fifty-inch flat-screen mounted on the wall directly across from her bouncing body. “The governor’s talking about us!”
“–ademy had its detractors. Admittedly, I was initially one.” Below the speaker, in the bottom third of the screen, appeared a bar, identifying her as Governor Harriette Hazel (D). “But, the brave young men and women of the school have more than proven themselves an asset to this community. The lengths to which these youthful heroes are willing to go to safeguard our humble hometowns from tyranny are nothing short of inspiring and should be rewarded at every opportunity.”
The enormous mind couldn’t find a suitable emoticon to encompass his beaming pride, so he settled for listening intently, his hands perched on the back of the couch. Wireframe hesitantly crept into the room behind him, not wanting to interfere with the broadcast.
“So,” the governor continued. “It is with great pleasure that I present the key to the city of Glendo to the aptly-named Mr. Popular, the leader of the Academy for the Advanced’s black squad, for unparalleled valor in executing an evacuation that saved nearly a hundred lives and for orchestrating the takedown of gang of thieves who cut a swath of terror through the heart of our homeland.”
There was an emoticon that perfectly encompassed Cortex’s current emotional state: “>.<". His fingers clenched the back of the couch, penetrating cushion behind DoubleVision's head.
"Careful...!" The diminutive inventor reached a hesitant hand toward the furious genius, but her gesture was too little to make a difference. The sofa frame snapped neatly in two, a leather and foam wishbone.
The blonde, remote still firmly in hand, leapt off the couch, just in time for it to cave in on itself.
DeathGrip rushed into the room at the sound of the thud and surveyed the scene. "Jesus, Dee! Turn that shit off before Cortex has an aneurism."
"Sorry," DoubleVision offered meekly, before killing the cable box.
The Latina held the big brain's shoulders for a moment, calming him, then helped him uncurl his fingers from the cleaved couch. "That's it. One at a time. Nice and easy."
"Is...is he all right?" Wireframe asked DeathGrip, who shrugged her response.
"Excuse me." Cortex raised his hands and backed out of the communal area. "I must go exhaust the extent of expletives in my lexicon, then learn Farsi."
“Mr. Popular, please accept this key on behalf of the citizens of Glendo and its neighboring towns.” Governor Hazel hefted an oversized, golden key from beneath the podium, for all the cameras — and viewers at home — to see. “Mr. Popular…?”
The Ten-Second Rule gave his sought-after student a shove out of his seat, to his feet, and toward the podium. “Fuck,” the pupil mumbled behind his mask.
The governor turned to see the boy’s stumbling approach. “There he is, ladies and gentlemen!” She clapped as best she could while still holding the key. “Care to say a few words?”
“Uh…” Mr. Popular glanced at the woman he barely recognized from local campaign ads the summer before; at the ridiculous key in her red-, white-, and blue-tipped fingers; at the pressgang; at the crowd of onlookers gathered behind them; and, finally, at his instructor, who arched a brow.
“I…” the much-touted teen faltered. “I wish I could accept this, but–”
“Humble and brave!” Governor Hazel interjected. “The mark of a true hero!” She pressed the key against the boy’s uniformed chest and held it there, a smile plastered on her face for the photo op. “Thank you for all you have done and continue to do.”
The Ten-Second Rule stood behind his student and waved to the cameras. “Smooth, man. Very smooth.”
Cortex threw open the door to the dorm shared by LiveFeed and Tantric and flung a keychain at the new kid’s head.
“Half an hour ’til your window opens,” the enlarged intellect informed, more dispassionately than ever. “Get me Guinness.”]]>
Call it a compromise.
The cart squealed, its rusty wheel aggravated by the sharp turn. The disc spun awkwardly and jammed. The girl behind it — her name-tag identifying her as “Ashlynn” — shoved harder, forcing her weight into the handlebar. Lifting the cartful of bathroom products, the shelver kicked the wheel back into place with the generic black sneaker the dress code required. She gave the basket another push. Another squeal. Another awkward spin. She shoved the handlebar again, forcing the cart down the aisle. And tripped behind it, landing on her hands on the tile floor. Getting to her knees with a huff, she moved her palms to find…a footprint. A red so deep it was nearly black. She peered down the hall and saw another. And another.
She gulped and grabbed the walkie-talkie from her belt. “Hey, Josie…?”
“What’s up?” a voice, vaguely feminine through all the static, responded.
“We’re gonna need a clean up on aisle eight.” Ashlynn got to her shaky feet and followed the footsteps. “God, this is stupid. Why am I doing this?”
“What was that?” the voice of Josie, still more static than person, inquired.
“Nothing.” The shelver turned a corner, into the next lane. “I was just…uh…” And stopped dead.
A three hundred pound Hawaiian in a tattered, blood- and paint-spattered jumpsuit, perused the shelves, examining bandage brands and sizes. The hood of his unzipped sweatshirt covered his oddly shaped head. He kept a forefinger in his mouth.
“Uh, sir?” Ashlynn approached cautiously, her eyes still following the tracks that led directly to the customer. “Sir, do you need assistance?”
“Nah.” He pulled the finger from his mouth, revealing a stump, and turned to address the girl, his forehead protrusions visible under his hood. “‘m just browsing.”
“Oh. Okay.” The shelver stepped backwards, cautiously. “Let me know if you need anything.”
“Thanks.” Bo Peep picked up an ace bandage box and checked its contents, as Ashlynn exited the aisle and pulled out her pink RAZR phone.
The nine students, dressed in identical black-and-white uniforms, spread across a the dozen booth-benches in the cabin. Tantric ran his hand along his name, stenciled on the back of the helmet that rested on his lap. He filliped the head protector over and stared at himself in the reflective full-face covering.
“We’re gonna look like a fucking motocross team,” the newest addition to the Academy for the Advanced stated, to himself more than anyone.
“A motocross team with their heads intact, yeah.” DeathGrip stacked her gloved fists on the back of Tantric’s seat and rested her chin on the pile.
“Meh.” The new kid shuffled in his seat to look at the Latina. “Heads are meant for butting. Gimme a domino mask any day.”
“Domino masks are past passe.” The Argentine teen’s head bobbed on top of her fists, as she spoke. “They’re not even retro-chic.”
“They’re classic,” her pudgy peer defended. “They’re superhero iconography at its finest.”
“They’re outdated relics of bygone era,” the Latina countered. “An era when you could tell the difference between good and evil by the hat a person wore. An era when every hero was a doctor or an archeologist or a wealthy industrialist. An era before DNA could be collected off a loose hair that you dropped during a battle because your domino mask didn’t cover your scalp. An era–”
“Pfft,” Tantric interrupted. “If they’re good enough for Bruce Lee, they’re good enough for me.”
“Cortex?” DeathGrip turned in her seat to address the giant brain at the back of the vehicle. “Could you school this fool?”
“Empirical evidence should suffice.” The massive mind’s emotional LCD display read: “._.”. “A study conducted seventeen months ago at Brown University found that full-face masks engender more fear response in first-time offenders than domino masks do by a factor of fifteen and more fear response than the lack of any facial covering by a factor of fifty-three. Further, the ability to discern a masked person’s identity, when presented a series of photographs of likely candidates, is reduced to virtually nil when said person’s mask includes a full-facial covering. Additionally, the ease with which air purifiers, intercoms, and night vision, among other technologies, can be installed into such a helmet is invaluable.”
“You’re not wearing one,” the new kid pointed out.
“I lack a cranium.” Cortex’s emotional display read: “-_-”. “And an identity in need of protect–”
“All units. All units,” a dispatcher squawked from the speaker embedded in the console in the front of the cabin. “Be advised: a large man missing a fingertip is tracking what may be blood through the aisles of the Kmart on East 6th. A witness described him as having horns sprouting from his forehead.”
The Ten-Second Rule, steering the vehicle, grabbed the transceiver from the dash. “This is AFTA Black. We are en route.” He pressed the red button on the side of the gear-shifter. A jet engine came to life in a burst of thrust. And, the modified short bus tore through the clouds on a set of extended wings. “ETA: five minutes.”
The man with the mutton chops flipped through a rack of plaid shirts, his eyes barely glancing at the apparel. Thick saliva escaped his thin lips and raced down his naked chin, as he spoke. “How long’s this layover gonna be, boss-man?”
A still-jumpsuited Kickstand, checking the sizes on a rack of polos, kept his back turned to the jeep driver. “Three hours, give or take, Dogshow. Let the trail get cold a touch. Then, we procure a couple of vehicles — maybe a delivery truck — and make our way north, with rush hour running interference.” He plucked a shirt marked “L” from the line. “But, first, I really need to change.”
At the edge of the parking lot, under a shade-providing tree, the man with the synthetic skin struck a match across the mutilated bumper of the bullet-riddled van and sparked up the tightly wound joint that dangled from his artificial lips. He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with smoke until they gave, releasing twin streams from his nostrils.
“‘Torch,’ he commanded.” The pot-smoker bellowed with all the gusto of a televangelist, as he pulled a fresh rocket from a box in the back of the topless jeep. “So, torch I shall.”
He loaded the rocket launcher that had become his signature weapon over the past twelve hours and hefted it over his shoulder. With another long, slow, deep drag, he marched a good ten yards from his target, locked onto it with his sights, and fired.
“Fuck the heck!” Spatter spouted, eyeing the explosion from two miles away (and closing) through the window beside her seat. “What was that!?”
“Trouble.” The Ten-Second Rule spun the steering wheel, his eyes locked on the location of the smoke. “Time to cowboy up, ladies and gentiles. Cortex, you’re on.”
The big brain’s emotional display read: “o_o”. “Slow your approach and circle the parking lot. DoubleVision, keep an eye out for anything unusual.”
“You mean like a half-naked guy with glow-y skin carrying a bazooka?” The perky blonde inquired innocently.
“Precisely.” Cortex would have nodded, had he had a head.
“‘Cause…” DoubleVision pointed out her window.
“Ah.” The enlarged encephalon followed her finger. “Wireframe, if you could disarm and subdue him.”
“I’ll, um, see what I can do.” The diminutive wallflower pulled a stuffed satchel onto her seat and began sifting through its contents, arranging her arsenal on the cushion beside her. “Mr. Ten-Second Rule, could you please halt the vehicle, so I can get a steady shot?”
“No trouble.” The Home Ec instructor switched gears, from “Flight” to “Hover,” and the bus obliged.
“Thank you.” Wireframe retrieved a tiny gun, barely the length of her petite hand, from the bottom of the bag.
Tantric, rapt, was practically on the edge of his seat, leaning across the walkway, to get a closer look at the latest device in the bizarre inventory. “What is that thing?”
“I call it a ‘portable pin-point projectile pistol’.” The inventor pulled a handful of mini-missiles from the satchel’s front pocket.
“You made a pocket rocket launcher?”
“It was supposed to be a precise nozzle attachment for a garden hose, but…I got a little carried away.” She cocked the pistol. “As, um, I usually do.”
He sat back in his seat. “I see that.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me…” Wireframe lowered her window, got up on her knees, and aimed her weapon at the man with the spurious skin, who shrugged off his bazooka. Her pea-sized projectile tore right through the hull of his much larger launcher.
“What the what?” The smoker spun, his mouth agape, his joint dropping to the ground. The hovering craft was in plain view. “Who the fuck invited the Magic School Bus?”
“Disarmed.” The 4′11″ machinesmith loaded another round and fired. The man with the faux dermis stood his ground, taking the opportunity to spark up a fresh joint. The pellet lodged into his sternum and released a concussive pulse. His hide shattered in ripples, a placid lake disrupted. A hard-boiled egg shell cracked and clinging to to the internal membrane.
“Surfin’ on a sound wave.” He took a drag, filtering smoke through his nose again. “Swingin’ through the stars.” He yanked the pellet out of his chest and flicked it away. “Take a left at your intestine.” He peeled a piece of pectoral. “Take your second right past Mars.” And flung it. The shard sliced open the right wing of the bus.
“Emergency landing protocols, kids.” The Ten-Second Rule jerked left, trying to stabilize. “This is about to get bumpy.”
“What emergency landing protocols?!” Tantric’s face displayed more than a mild case of panic.
“Put your helmet on.” DeathGrip was cool and collected. “We’re only dropping, like, twenty feet. Jesus.”
“Navigate a nostril.” Another shard pierced the hull, slicing between seats. “Spank a plankton, too.” Yet another crashed through a window, scraping paint off Wireframe’s helmet. “Raft a river of lava!” Still another took out the right front tire. “Such a fine thing to do!” The rear tire blew.
“Shit.” The pilot-slash-bus driver slowed his descent as much as possible. “There goes the landing gear.” He braced for impact. The front bumper scratched pavement. The left front tire touched down. The right wheel, sans tire, hit the ground with a thunder of sparks. The front axel twisted. The back tires landed with a thud. The chassis slid forward, grinding across asphalt. “Fuuuuck…!”
The smoker doled out substitute skin fragments like playing cards. Left to right and back again. Slicing through steel and stuffing. Piercing glass and plastic.
“So, strap your bones right to the seat.” He dislodged a chunk from his shoulder. “C’mon in and don’t be shy.” He tossed it in the air once, twice, getting the feel for the weight. “Just to make your day complete–” He twisted his torso and launched the massive shard like a shotput. “You might get baked into a pie!” The spiraling shard cleaved the roof.
“That’s it.” Spatter unzipped her left sleeve to the elbow, pulled a box cutter out of her jacket, and sliced up her forearm. Shoving the blade into her pants, she rubbed the thick blanket of blood up both hands, between digits, and down again. She clenched her drenched fingers into fists. The fluid scabbed over just in time for her to punch through the compromised side of the bus. “Today’s the day the music died.”
The smoker shrugged at the bus busting open. “No skin off my nose. Oh, wait.” With that, he shoved two fingers up his nostrils and tore, breaking free a shard that terminated at his hairline. With expert precision, he whipped the deadly dermis at the scabbed-over teen’s heart. It struck her chest…and slid right off.
“Impact resistant. Heat resistant. Cold resistant. Cut resistant. It’s the latest in microfiber technology.” Spatter charged. “Have a taste.”
The man with the synthetic skin, pulling a cellphone from his sagging pants, darted between vehicles, as he dialed. “Kickstand, this is Skinflint. I need back–” The phone got Gallagher’d, thanks to another miniature missile. “–up.” By the time he remembered to start running, Spatter was on his heels. She plowed into his knees, knocking him to the ground. He chin slapped pavement. He tried to flip onto his back. And, she let him. He gasped for air and got a mouthful of craggy fist instead.
“Where does the resin stop and the man begin?” The teen sat on his diaphragm, keeping the wind knocked out of his lungs and pinning his arms with her feet. “The eye, maybe? Let’s find out.” She cracked a jagged thumb free from a coagulated fist. And jabbed it at his eye. He kicked wildly, drawing knees into her back. She stopped just shy of his lash line. “Give up?” She flicked at his lashes playfully.
“Yes,” he wheezed. “Yes… Please… Jee…zus… Just…get off…of me…”
She stood up and moved a booted foot to his chest, holding him in place. He coughed hoarsely, while drawing in air.
Wireframe approached with deliberate caution. “Uh, hey?”
“Hey.” Spatter shook her forearm to wave. “Thanks for the cover fire.”
“You’re welcome.” The diminutive teen stopped at Skinflint’s feet. “Is…is he still breathing?”
The scabbed-over girl nodded. “Barely.”
“Good.” The inventor whipped out a set of restraints with one hand and a taser with the other. “Because we’ve got questions.”
Claptrap, still dressed in his jumpsuit, settled into a plastic seat. His tray had barely touched the table, when he flipped open the lid of the cardboard box atop it and carefully went about folding half of his large ultimate supreme, slice over slice, into a stacked sandwich. With a click, his jaw unhinged and snapped shut, taking a two inch deep bite from the heap. A delicate sip of Mountain Dew followed. Then another bite, this one larger than the first.
“Swallow.” Kickstand, decked out in a polo and khakis, passed the former competitive eater’s table and kept walking. “We’ve been compromised.”
Claptrap chugged the rest of his drink, choking down the un-chewed mass of dough, cheese, and toppings. “All right.” He pushed out his chair and stood. “But, I’m bringing the crazy bread.”
“Eight, okay? Eight!” Skinflint, seated and cuffed, puffed manically at the remainder of his second joint. “There are eight other guys. I don’t know where they are inside, all right? I’d call ‘em again, but you shot my fucking phone. You lunatics. You bi–”
Spatter, with a cocked head, shot her thumb in his direction.
“-utiful young women,” the captured con quickly corrected. “Such pretty ladies. Or girls. Girls, yes. Teenaged girls. You’ll be gorgeous when you’re of age. I wouldn’t think of thinking you in that way, that other way, that less than legal way, until you’re eighteen. I promise. I sw–”
“God, shut your broken face.” The bloodied teen pocketed her fists. “You get that, C? The pertinent bit, anyway?”
“Affirmative.” Cortex’s voice sounded all the more manufactured when heard via helmet com-link. “DoubleVision, Wavelength, scale the Big & Tall. LiveFeed, Tantric, there’s a PetSmart at the–”
“Where do you think we should put skinjob over there?” Spatter motioned her helmeted head toward Skinflint.
“Shhh.” Wireframe held up a finger to pause her peer. “I’m trying to listen to what Cortex has to say.”
“Yeah, ’cause that’s utterly riveting.” The 5′7″ teen scraped gravel off one boot with the other.
“I found his presentation on the parallels between Temujin and the archetypal modern hero fascinating in History of Icons: East & West yesterday,” the 4′11″ teen defended. “‘The Ironworker and the Iron Man’ — it was quite clever.”
“Oh, my god…!” Spatter killed her com-link and lifted her face mask, just enough to reveal her smiling face. “You–you are so smitten! You totally want to give him something to think about!”
Wireframe followed suit, although she tried to keep her smile subdued. “I…wouldn’t mind stimulating his frontal lobe.”
“You want to be on his mind!” The Chinese girl’s voice was full of joy. “You little brain teaser!”
Monkeybrain scrunched and flexed his long, hairy toes in a pair of tan flip-flops. He pulled at his vandyck beard with the thumb, index, and middle finger of his left hand. “Do I like these…? For seven-fifty?”
“Take them.” Kickstand passed, never slowing. “For free.”
“So, that’s what’s up.” The tall juggler glanced around, looking for employees, before tearing the tag off the footwear.
“And put on something reasonable.” The leader of the thieves-turned-killers was already out of sight by the time his words registered.
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” Monkeybrain looked down at his ensemble: a baby blue terrycloth bathrobe, an “Assassins Do It from Behind” t-shirt, a pair of extra-large Pac-Man pajama pants, and, of course, those flip-flops.
Claptrap shrugged. “Breadstick?”
Cortex would be huffing if he had lungs. Or had a mouth. Or didn’t regulate his oxygen intake mathematically. Or wanted to further emulate the humanoid physique. So, instead, his emotional display merely read: “>.<", as he ascended the ladder to the rooftop of the Big & Tall that towered over the Kmart to its left.
"'Vantage' is the root of 'advantage', is it not?" The oversized mind, carrying Wireframe's satchel, plodded toward the ledge where his peers awaited.
"Uh, sure." DoubleVision shrugged.
"Yeah-huh." Wavelength was equally oblivious.
"From this height, we should be able to ascertain the locations of the elusive looters." Cortex placed his palms on the ledge and peered over, his ocular nodes scanning the building. "0_0" was displayed on his LCD. "Indeed, no areas of obfuscation."
"So, pick your poison: infrared, x-ray, gamma, ultraviolet..?" the muscular teen rattled off, while peeling off his protective jacket.
"Ah, x-ray should suffice." The big brain pulled a weapon, the size of a Luger 908, out of the bag and attempted to grip its handle. "These damnable digits... I'm afraid I don't possess the dexterity to trigger this mechanism. DoubleVision, would you be so kind?"
"No prob." The helmeted blonde took the gun in both hands and steadied it, aiming squarely at Wavelength's back.
"On my mark." Cortex took a step back. "Three, two, one, mark.”
DoubleVision squeezed the trigger — and her eyes shut — and released a steady stream of laser beam. The brawny boy winced on impact, his torso shoved forward, his body acting as a prism, shifting the energy through the electromagnetic spectrum. Radiation shot from the flat of his outstretched hands, coating the rooftop of the adjacent building.
“Jesus fuck, I’m gonna go sterile,” Wavelength muttered through gritted teeth.
“I thought you were immune to the effects of your abilities.” The massive intellect took a mental note. “DoubleVision, if you could change your mask setting to PSL and take a gander at the patrons of this establishment.”
“Should I stop firing?” The girl’s eyes were still clamped tight.
“Yes!” The athletic teen shuffled on his feet, fighting against the force of the blast. “I’m good. I’ll be juiced for a while.”
DoubleVision gingerly placed the laser blaster back in the satchel and shuffled through the visual modes in her helmet until she hit “PSL”. “What am I looking for?”
“Hollow limbs, I would surmise from the intel gathered.” Cortex watched, as she got on the ledge and started pacing back and forth.
“Huh.” The blonde closed her right eye and focused with her left, attempting to telescope her vision. But, all she got…was a blur. Her footing faltered. Her arms circled. Her waist was grabbed.
“Gotcha.” Wavelength steadied her midsection, as DoubleVision found new footholds.
“Thanks.” She smoothed her jacket and crouched on the ledge, keeping a hand on the ground. “Guess I’m not used to heights.” Once again, the right eye shut, while the left one focused. This time, she got the desired results. “There’s a guy with clear swirls around his head in the southwest corner. That could be our bleeder. And, a guy with a fake leg just passed him. He’s walking briskly. A guy with a transparent jaw — maybe that chewer from the van? — is following close behind. And…oh, nasty. There’s another guy — why are they all guys? — with something coiled in his pants. I don’t want to play this game anymore.”
“Only four should remain, if their dermatologically enhanced associate is to be believed,” was the rotund brain’s way of saying “you’re halfway.”
With a sigh, the blonde went back to scanning the crowd. “There’s a different guy, a couple aisles away, walking in the same direction. He’s got something going on with his neck. Some kind of orbs implanted or something. Another one with a spring in his step — or maybe his heels? — is coming from the northwest. He’s with a guy who’s got clear hands. Looks like they’re all converging near a guy with a distended belly. In the produce section?”
“A superlative performance,” Cortex congratulated, offering the girl a hand down from the ledge.
“Thanks.” DoubleVision took the hand and hopped back down to the rooftop.
The big brain’s LCD switched to “^_^”.
“When do I get to punch something?” Wavelength pulled his jacket over the scorch mark on his back.
Cortex’s emotional display returned to “._.”. “When your hands are no longer the locus of your abilities.”
Kickstand picked a honeydew front the pyramid and sniffed the stem-end. “Shithouse, do you still have the specimen?”
The man with the distended belly tapped his gut. “Right here.”
“Good man.” The ex-soldier surveyed the surroundings, noting the arrangement of short shelves that turned the walkway into a maze. “If push comes to shove, this is where we make our stand.”
The man with the fabricated fingers raised a handful. “Shouldn’t we be focusing on finding a way out of here?”
“The more we divide, the easier we are to conquer, Lovetap. Skinflint should’ve never been left alone.” Kickstand pushed a California Raisins stand to the end of the aisle, blocking the entrance. “But, having a getaway plan is never a bad idea. Claptrap, Dogshow, head out the service entrance. See what you can hot wire. Monkeybrain, Hopscotch, secure the perimeter. Bo Peep, Lovetap, Shithouse, help me build a barricade.”
“Mr. Popular, come in. Mr. Popular, come in.” Cortex’s voice blared from the com-link inside the helmet that the teen in question should’ve been wearing. Instead, it rested on the seat across the aisle, giving the boy plenty of room to stretch out while sleeping. “Mr. Popular…?”
“Hey, Poppin’ Fresh.” The Ten-Second Rule poked the napper in the chest. “You’re at bat.”
“Muh?” The teen’s green eyes blinked rapidly, as he wiped a trail of spittle from his chin and cheek. He peered at the remnants of the bus around him and blinked again. “What’s goin’ on?”
“While you were waiting for your prince to come, the shit hit the fan.” The instructor threw the discarded helmet at its owner. “Get in the game.”
With a yawn, Mr. Popular held the bottom of his head protector to his mouth. “Cortex, what do you need?”
“Escort the innocent bystanders off the premises — without causing a scene,” the quarter-ton brain ordered. “And avoid fresh foods.”
Standing, the tired teen tossed his helmet onto the seat behind him, doffed his uniform jacket, and replaced it with the black hoodie he had been using as a blanket. He flipped up the hood, zipped the sweatshirt to his clavicle, and walked out the hole in the side of the bus. Yawning all along.
Claptrap — still in his jumpsuit, still scarfing carbs — and Dogshow — in a flannel shirt, faded jeans, and a trucker cap — pushed through the double doors, into the storage area/receiving center.
“Hey! You can’t come back here!” a scrawny guy with “Micah” on his name tag protested. “This area is for authorized personnel only!”
“Then, authorize us.” The mutton-chopped wheelman hocked a thick wad of spit at the assistant manager. It splashed on the floor, a centimeter from the thirty-two year-old’s generic black sneakers, and sizzled, eating through the concrete.
Micah smiled nervously. “May I assist you in finding anything in particular?”
Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Mr. Popular began pacing the aisles. “Time to play follow the fucking leader.”
Tweens pitched pop CDs. The elderly dropped denture cream. MILFs spilled milk (but held onto their tots). Single guys stopped eyeing MILFs. Cashiers abandoned registers. All to step in line behind the tantalizing teen.
The people magnet scoffed, “lemmings.”
“Thanks for the keys, kid.” The jumpsuited driver dangled the chain, as he waved to the scrawny assistant manager, who promptly locked the entrance to the loading dock behind the two artificially enhanced men. Claptrap clicked the unlock button on the keychain, and the lights on a tan Honda Odyssey in the employee parking lot flashed. “Looks like we’re taking the mom mobile.”
“Have fun with that.” Dogshow jumped down from the dock, landing in a crouch on the blacktop. “That Lincoln Navigator is calling my name.”
“I’ll rochambeau you for it.” The man with the faux jaw hustled down the steps.
“On three.” The would-be redneck held out his fist. The painter impostor did the same. “One… Two…”
“Allez-oop!” The sun disappeared above the wheelmen, as five hundred pounds of gray matter fell from the sky.
“Jesus, monkey, and Joseph!” Claptrap leapt forward, shoving the dumbfounded Dogshow out of the way. Too little. Too late. Cortex smashed through their legs, sending a ripple through the pavement. Car alarms blared, but their shrill whines couldn’t conceal the screaming.
“So…” Tantric rested his gloved hand in the plastic-encased warren. A curious rabbit sniffed the outstretched fingers and rubbed its chin across the tips. “What’re we looking for exactly?”
LiveFeed shrugged, drawing his towering shoulders even higher, while browsing the racks of rodents. “I’ll know it when I see it.”
“Right this way, folks.” The Ten-Second Rule, swirling strobing batons, swung his arms like a seasoned crossing guard, directing the herd that exited the department store behind Mr. Popular. “Single file — that’s right. Please make your way to your vehicles. If you need a ride, please wait at the end of the parking lot. Pay no mind to the smoldering wreckage. Just keep walking.”
“My work here is done,” the pubescent shepherd told his instructor, as he walked back toward the bus, intent on catching a few more z’s before the day was done.
The Home Ec teacher put a firm hand on his student’s shoulder and held him in place. “Mr. Popular has graciously agreed to sign autographs to apologize for the inconvenience of the evacuation.”
The heavy lidded eyes of the tired teen shot daggers at the former chef. “Hate you.”
The Ten-Second Rule grinned. A portly housewife, fifty-five or older, rushed at the boy. Her chipped nails pulled down the neck of her tie-dyed t-shirt, revealing the hair-spewing moles of her braless bust. “Me first!”
The instructor passed his pupil a sharpie. “Eat it up, kid.”
Mr. Popular tore off the cap and gritted his teeth. “Hate you so much.”
“I’m gonna get it tattooed on!” the plump parent squeaked with delight.
“Hey…” Bo Peep shoved a display full of Florida oranges forward, sliding it between assortments of apples and bananas. “Where’s everybody going?”
Lovetap forced his back into a shelf of potatoes, skidding it across the floor. “Guess we scared them off.”
“No.” Kickstand saw to moving the gourds. “They’re being escorted out, to lower the risk of casualties.”
“That’s a relief for my conscience.” The man with the false hands took a moment to rest.
“We just lost a bargaining chip.” The man with the fake leg never stopped.
As the last patrons and employees trickled out of the superstore, the Ten-Second Rule gave a curt nod to the trio of uniformed girls waiting impatiently behind the busted bus.
Spatter was the first to rush in, unconcerned by whether or not the automatic doors would open upon her approach. DeathGrip followed closely, taking wide strides with her long, lean legs. Wireframe pulled up the rear, focused on fitting the handful of weapons that previously sat on her seat into her pockets and the waistband of her pants. Noticing that the other girls were already inside, she hastened her pace.
“Our guests are here!” Monkeybrain hung upside down from the rafters, thanks to the tail that protruded from his pants. “Would you ladies care for an amuse-bouche? Something to whet the appetite?”
“Had a big lunch, thanks.” Spatter surveyed the section, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And drop it did. Cantaloupes slammed into the floor from above, splattering on impact. Hopscotch bounced between girls and hurled another batch from the net sack on his back. DeathGrip dove, sliding through the mushy, freshly liberated flesh. Spatter kept her scabbed over forearms in front of her mask. Wireframe crouched, drawing a footlong raygun. She took careful aim and blasted the beam from which Monkeybrain dangled. He laughed, flipping through the air to land in a crouch.
The bloodied brawler bum-rushed the acrobat. He hopped on his tensile tail, swinging his fists like an old timey prizefighter. “Put ‘em up. Put ‘em up,” he taunted. She threw a right jab at his midsection. He bobbed out of the way and landed a kick to her side. She slid across the slick tiles. And charged again. He sat on his coiled spring for a split second, before launching into the air and over her head. His feet slammed into her back, sending her careening into the barricade. Apples clobbered her helmet, but no eureka moment came.
“Motherfucker’s doing wire-fu without the wires.” The crimson coated youth got back to her feet, just in time for a watermelon to come sailing toward her head. A blast from her diminutive peer’s weapon ensured only pulp sullied her helmet.
“Dubs, lay cover fire.” DeathGrip pulled off a glove, revealing perfect french-tips. “Spat, toss me an apple.”
“That won’t keep the doctor away.” Monkeybrain, dodging a steady stream of white hot beams, flipped past the 6′2″ adolescent.
“Heads up.” Spatter batted a red delicious with her hardened fist. The Argentinean plucked it out of the air and gently tossed it in her exposed hand. The skin blistered. Pustules peppered the flesh and popped. Juice oozed from puckered polyps.
With the twist of DeathGrip’s wrist, the diseased fruit splashed to the ground, splitting into a fine mist on impact. In front of Monkeybrain’s tail. The acrobat jumped back, wiping his feet clean. “Get it off me! Get it off me!”
The Latina flicked fetid cider from her fingers. “Gimme something bigger!”
Hopscotch was more than happy to oblige, dropping a twenty pound pumpkin from directly above her head. She took a step back and caught it. With both hands bare. It bloated between her fingers, its flesh popping and hissing as she hefted it overhead. Monkeybrain leapt prematurely. The Argentine teen curled her torso, launching the gourd with extra force. It exploded against the ground. Right where his tail landed. The prehensile protrusion gave out, and the acrobat slid on the balls of his feet, his arms outstretched for balance he couldn’t achieve. DeathGrip closed the gap between them in two swift strides. And crashed her helmet into his face. His eyes swelled. His nose spurted. His head cracked against the filthy floor.
As the tallest of the trio saw to tying the unconscious taunter’s tail in knots around his legs, the smallest switched weapons, pulling out a portable flamethrower. A pair of pitched pomegranates were the first to get torched. The rind went ashen. The flesh liquified. The arils boiled, shooting seeds. The trail of flame lapped at the feet of the spring-heeled assailant. He bounced from one wall to another, off a shelf, and across the floor. Wireframe studied the hopper’s seemingly erratic jump pattern and cut a hot swath diagonally from the ceiling. The flame nipped Hopscotch’s rubber soles, but it was his pants that caught the conflagration. He patted frantically. Slapped polyester. Flapped his legs. Twisted through the air. Falling fast. His knees collided with tile. And cracked. Shrapnel exploded from his skin. Tears sprinted from his squinted eyes.
“Next time, sir, stop, drop, and roll.” Wireframe blasted the bouncer’s legs with a pocket-sized fire extinguisher.
Spatter threw her craggy fists into the air. “Aw, ye…agck!” Six feet of imitation intestine, berthed from the belly of Shithouse, wrapped around her neck from behind the barricade. Her fists pounded furiously, but the guts didn’t give.
“Watch closely, little girl.” Lovetap stepped from behind Shithouse and slid over the barrier. “This is how it’s done.” His artificial fist pounded the juvenile’s helmet, fissuring the faceplate.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” DeathGrip rushed forward, a Gala gurgling in each hand.
“Oh, yes, he do!” Bo Peep barreled through the barricade, horns first. The Argentinean turned on her heel. The Hawaiian rammed into her abs, lifting her off her feet. She smashed rotten fruit into his ears. He dug his head in harder. She gripped his horns. And bashed her knees into his chin. Her back slammed into the narrow ledge of a shelf. Her helmet ricocheted off a spooled garden hose. Her knees kept pounding. Blood oozed down her legs. He ground his horns into her diaphragm.
Wireframe, torn, pulled the flamethrower and raygun back out and started firing. Her aim was too divided to be effective, but maybe — just maybe — she could offer one of her teammates the distraction needed to get the upper hand. Instead, she got the backhand. Of Lovetap, who slapped the flamethrower away. And smacked her across the department.
Shithouse guffawed at the sight. A belly laugh that shook through his false digestive tract. Spatter, blue in the face, forced her other thumb free from its fist and threw her arms backwards, spiking her captor’s sunken cheeks. The rest of her fingers snapped free. And dug in. Unnatural nails clawed at jaundiced flesh. Pulling free new orifices. Extending old ones. She slipped her talons between his curled cord and her neck. And pulled forward. The intestines slackened. His torso flopped into a sullied pit of pears. His mind reeled. Trying to think past the pain. Trying to close his tattered mouth. Trying to breathe something that wasn’t blood. Failing.
Spatter dipped her head out of the strangling loops. Hunched over. Unzipped her jacket. And sucked in as much air as she could. Her gaze locked on the bastard backhanding the girl on the floor. Every device the inventor tried to pull from her person he swatted away. The bloodied teen was on Lovetap’s back before she realized she was in motion. Her congealed claws stabbed at scapulae, but Wireframe didn’t need the help. She already had a plan. And a boot. That found the man’s crotch. His legs buckled. He fell forward. Onto two awaiting feet. That shoved him right back. Spatter dropped to her soles, slicing down the length of his spine. And pushed him away. He landed in a patch of pumpkin pulp.
The wheezing thud caught Bo Peep’s attention. He spun his head to catch the cause. DeathGrip, knees weak from persistent pummeling, reached blindly above her head. Feeling. Grasping. Clasping. Garden shears. She pried the handles, snapping the plastic that kept the teeth together. And jammed the blades into her attacker’s neck. Slicing down either side. Missing the major arteries. Barely. He slid right. His hands fumbling to remove the oversized scissors. She stepped left. Her hands gripping her sore abdomen.
“Do you think we’ll have time to shop after this?” DoubleVision peered over the edge of the Big & Tall, waiting for something new to happen in the parking lot below. “‘Cause I’m running low on bronzer.”
“Why not grab a towel and lay outside like a normal person?” Wavelength sat next to her, his back against the ledge.
“Are you kidding?” The blonde shot her teammate a look that…he couldn’t see. “I’m Swedish. I go from zero to crispy in sixty seconds.”
The muscular male shrugged. “Pays to be a quarter Cherokee.”
“Everybody intact?” DeathGrip, still nursing her stomach, approached the other girls.
“Everybody who matters.” Spatter helped Wireframe to her feet.
“Thank you.” The shortest girl brushed what she could off her stained uniform. “These are going to require quite a lot of blea–”
An electric forklift swerved into view behind the barricade. Its tongs scooped up the collapsed body of Shithouse. Leaning over the controls, Kickstand yanked foot after foot of plastic polymer out of the semi-organic safe that was his accomplice’s abdomen. “Where is it? Where did you put it?!”
“Not another one.” The tallest girl sighed audibly.
“Dude, you are seriously a few Fruit Loops short of a complete breakfast.” The curviest of the trio shook her head.
“I’m gonna bust your hump and hump your bust!” the ex-soldier threatened, veins popping from his neck. Intestines flew like fake snakes from a gag gift.
“Get help,” Spatter admonished. “At least call for back-up.”
The leader of the felled felons gripped the gut and shook, hoping something would come loose.
“I believe sauces are in aisle three, if that’s what you’re after,” Wireframe offered in her most helpful tone.
“A sperm joke?” The scabbed-over turned her attention to the inventor. “Didn’t think you had that in you.”
“I didn’t either.” The diminutive machinesmith smirked, her dimpled cheek visible through her broken mask.
“Nice work.” DeathGrip patted the far shorter girl on the shoulder.
“Sayin’.” Spatter returned her attention to the maniac shuffling through another guy’s body cavity. A maniac who…was no longer there. “Aw, hell.”
Kickstand, thermos in hand, threw his augmented leg into the door to the loading dock. Snapping the lock. Blowing the hinges. Shattering the wood. He sprinted to the lip of the loading area. And long-jumped into the parking lot. Right over Cortex’s frame. Paying no mind to his crippled comrades.
“Halt!” the big brain ordered, although he knew it would prove a fruitless command.
The former Army Second Lieutenant kept moving. As usual. Until something obstructed his vision. He tried to swipe it away from his face with his empty hand. But missed. It crawled down his face. On eight hairy legs. Another followed the descent. A third slid down the bridge of his nose. He swatted desperately, as more poured over his flesh. But, all he hit was himself. He bashed the thermos against his forehead. He smacked an open palm against his cheeks. “Here!” He shoved the thermos out to anyone who’d take it. “Here! Just make them stop!”
Cortex retrieved the canister from behind and knocked Kickstand to his knees with a thwack to the back.
On the roof of the PetSmart at the end of the shopping center, Tantric placed the final spinybacked orb-weaver on LiveFeed’s exposed face. Then wiped his gloved hand on his pants. “This is creepy as fuck, man.”
“Peril of the power.” The visual projector, kneeling, held a bucket under his chin, collecting the arachnids as they crawled off his thin goatee.
The Ten-Second Rule leaned against the torn hood of the grounded bus, a cellphone pressed to his ear. “Hey, Deadlift?” His voice raised to combat approaching sirens. “Could you bring the big van? We’re a little…stranded at the moment.”]]>