1. a woman of distinguished courage and skill, admired for her bravery and various noble qualities.
2. the main female character in a novel, play, film, etc.
Dawn's light woke her, rather than her clock radio.
It was an ancient artifact, a classic design of plastic and light emitting diodes -- something familiar, something comforting. Of course, it didn't pull WNNV 99.5's "The Morning Asylum With Stevie and Jo-Jo" from the airwaves; the very concept of airwave broadcast was charmingly archaic, apparently. Instead, it used a wireless internet feed to tap into the wacky hijinks and sound board gags. Still, the manufacturer had put an extensible steel antenna on the unit, for aesthetic reasons.
But it didn't wake her. It was the light from her bedroom window that did. In fact, glancing over, the glowing green blocky numbers weren't glowing at all. A power outage.
Still, it wasn't worth worrying about. It was a Sunday; no school. She had appointments to keep, but they were hours away. No sense getting nervous about a slipping schedule. About silence in the morning. Totally reasonable, easy to deal with.
Hit the closet. Pick out a pair of pants, and a shirt. The one with the pink kitty on it, for today. That one was cute and cheerful. You could just peek down and see it smiling up at you and know everything was going to be okay.
Off to the bathroom, lights on. Lights not working. No bother; plenty of light from the window. Brush teeth, wash face. Check for zits. No zits, of course. She hadn't had any since being bombarded by high doses of unknowable cosmic radiation in high earth orbit. But it was good to check for zits, anyway. Zits were normal for a girl her age, even if she was technically two hundred and fifty three years old. She even had a tube of zit cream, just in case.
Head downstairs. Don't float downstairs; walk downstairs. The little things are important.
"Una, Nel, I'm up," she announced, while heading to the kitchen for some breakfast.
No sign of Nel; usually she'd be there working on some recipe, or tidying up, or such. No sign of Una in the reading room. She usually read on the weekends, when it was quiet. Maybe there was an emergency meeting at #A076, outside the town? Or maybe Queen Emily called them. Or they could be visiting with Auntie Elisa. Or working in the garden, Nel did love working in the garden. Nobody was in the garden, when she glanced out the window. That was fine. That was okay. Everything was going to be okay.
Jam on toast. Delicious.
Nobody home, may as well head out, say hello to the neighbors. It was a sleepy little suburb, the New Ninth Ward, but it was home. She could wave hello to Mrs. Yvell. Ask if her back's still acting up, offer to gather some herbs for a Fae remedy. That was something she could do. She could still be useful, she could have a purpose...
But no Mrs. Yvell. The cu-de-sac was quiet. Mrs. Yvell should be on her porch rocking chair. Or humming in her garden. Or something.
The birds should be singing. Or maybe crickets. Or frogs. Or something.
Everybody was gone.
They'd gone away again. Forever.
Cautiously the heroine crept around the creepy cu-de-sac, looking for signs of life. Clearly, this was the work of a nefarious supervillain -- one that had absconded with the entire population of New Orleans! Curses, she thought! That cur will oh god no I'm not narrating again this is in my head I'm not saying this aloud please don't
Straw people. All around her, straw people. Straw dummy shaped like Mrs. Yvell, in a hand-made rocking chair. Straw copies of Una and Nel, propped up against her front porch. All with goofy painted on smiles. Good citizens of the city, happy to see their resident heroine, ready to be saved from imaginary perils again and again and again and
please not again please help me--
Darkness, save for the light of the moon. Even through tears, she could see it clearly. She could see every nook and cranny, and could even see the outlines of Arcology Luna #01, constructed four years ago. Super Vision had a habit of kicking in whether she needed it or not, after all.
Awake, now. And with Una and Nel, who had been roused from sleep by her screaming, whispering gently, assuring her. She wasn't alone. Everything was okay, now. It was just a nightmare.
Carrie Lane, formerly known as Astro Gal, fell asleep again minutes later. She had no further dreams, good or bad, which seemed to be as good as she could ever hope for.
the second age
by stefan gagne
Tick, tock. The wooden clack of the clock was quite reassuring; it measured time in a steady, organic sort of way. A fine contrast to the rest of the office, too. Like many of her kind, Doc had decorated her office with a strange mix of Orbital aesthetics and what Eastusa assumed to be Orbital aesthetics.
The population of #A076 started to migrate outward four years ago, after Arcology Luna #01 was established and the Orbital Infrastructure Improvement Cooperation Act was signed into law by newly elected President Waller. An industry had immediately popped up, to sell things to these new Orbital immigrants. After all, if you were going to live in an Eastusa city, you needed to blend in... even if you had no idea exactly what you needed to blend in, being a complete foreigner. All manners of cheaply made junk had been exchanged for the newly earned salaries of working Orbitals, in the name of going native. Trinkets, doo-dads, decorations, knick-knacks. Junk.
For instance, the cuckoo clock. It was supposedly an authentic Jersey replica of a Chinese knockoff of a Swiss clock. The ornate wooden carvings had been decorated with silver edges, because everybody knew Orbitals loved shiny things. The bird had been replaced with a tiny robotic bird which went Chir-Beep, Chir-Beep. Like it was doing now. 2pm.
"Time's up, huh?" Carrie asked. "I mean, you charge Una by the hour, right...?"
Doc glanced up from her tablet of thumbnail-scratched holographic notes, with a smile.
"You can keep going, if you like," she offered. "Time is a relative concept, as you approach the speed of light. We'll just pretend we're falling into the event horizon of a black hole or some such. You were talking about your nightmare, yes...?"
This is why Carrie liked Doc. Doc really cared about people.
She'd seen other therapists, since being rescued from the noble city of the Hawaii -- from Hawaii. The first year had been an intensive round of analysis, of psychological tests, and of basic adult occupational training... re-learning how to communicate, how to tie your own shoes, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They poked and prodded at her psyche, they drilled her for details on her personal Pandora Event experience, they noted with professional interest whenever she burst into tears...
Doc wasn't like that. She had her techie toys and her strange practices, but she looked past the "feral child patient" and talked to Carrie Lane instead. She wanted to help, not just take advantage of this amazing research opportunity. Extraordinary, isn't it; a teenager, age-locked and invulnerable, left on her own for two centuries. It's amazing she's even the slightest bit sane after all that time...
"I'm worried I'm backsliding," Carrie admitted, lying back on the obligatory comfy couch. "I used to have the nightmare every night, after I was rescued. I know it's just a dream. Even in the dream, I know it's a dream. But it feels so real... back in the city, with the dummies I made out of straw, pretending they were really people. ...it sounds so completely stupid, now."
"You did what you needed in order to survive. A coping mechanism exists to help you cope," Doc explained. "There's nothing stupid about it. Without a coping mechanism, there is a lack of coping. I think you know that it could've been a lot worse..."
"But it's an irrational fear. The world isn't going to go away. I'm not going to wake up and find that my loved ones are just gone, erased from existence," Carrie reasoned. "So why do I still worry about an impossible thing?"
"We worry about what we worry about. There's no shame in it."
"I need to be stronger than that, though. Braver. I need to be--"
"A hero?" Doc filled.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
"I just need to feel okay again," Carrie continued.
"And in time, you will. I promise you that, Carrie," Doc said. "You've come a long way since your rescue. You've even come a long way since leaving the Arcology and moving in with Una and Nel. These twice-weekly follow up visits are just to help you sort through what's left... and there's not nearly as much baggage left as it seems, believe me. Just give it time."
"Can't you... just, you know..."
Doc shook her head, already knowing the question.
"The memory dampener I designed can't be used to erase the last two hundred years. Only compress it," she said. "It's too dangerous to wipe away that traumatic period completely. Pain can serve a purpose, Carrie. ...besides, I thought you disliked anything tangential to psionics, after what your father did...?"
Blood pressure increase. Heart rate acceleration. Carrie's super senses picked up on and noted every physiological change in herself, directly related to hearing that word. Father.
"I... I'm generally not in favor of mindmelt... of any brain modification, no," she agreed. "But the dampener did me a lot of good, once I calmed down enough to agree to it. Two centuries of crazy-time, and it feels like a hazy, distant memory. That's what got me over the hump, so I could start to recover. I can't thank you enough for that, doc."
"You're welcome, Carrie. I'd do anything to help you self-realize," Doc promised. "In fact... with your permission, I'd like to try a new therapy..."
The woman set her tablet aside... opening a small metal box on her desk, and withdrawing a sphere. Aside from a line down the center, where the two halves joined, it was featureless silver, like all Orbital technology.
"This is something I've been developing for a few months now," she explained. "I'm calling it the 'Relax-o-Tron.' From my research into Eastusa culture, that seems like it would have a comforting and familiar cadence to it, yes?"
"Uh... maybe," Carrie said, not wanting to break the Doc's smiling idealism. "What's it do?"
"It manipulates brainwaves, altering fight-or-flight reactions. In short, it can induce a relaxed state. It's a meditative tool," Doc explained. "I've used it a few times myself. I find it helps me push all my cares and worries aside, for a few minutes, so I can think properly about what my life goals are. I think it could help you sort through your problems without feeling the pressure of their implications. Like your nightmares... you can't address them objectively, because you feel simultaneous fear and guilt over them. Would you like to try it?"
No mindmelting. No. Never hurt again...
This isn't father. This isn't the self-declared Doctor Mindmelter. Doc isn't going to tear down your self-esteem and make you into Daddy's Good Little Girl again. Daddy's Pure Little Girl, safe from dangerous boys, safe from evil-minded women, safe from the world. This is Doc -- she wants to help, it's all she's ever wanted. She wouldn't hurt me. It's not mindmelting.
"Just... for a minute," Carrie agreed. "And if I say stop, we'll stop, right?"
"Absolutely," Doc agreed. "Okay. Just lie back, and relax. Think about your nightmares. Think about what you want to do about them..."
Carrie had been sedated before. Even though she was invulnerable, and her metabolism processed drugs with ruthless efficiency, the doctors found a way to quell her panic attacks in those first weeks she was back in civilization. When you had super strength, a panic attack was a dangerous thing; they were right to sedate her, even if she sank into that chemical haze with fear and terror, each time.
This haze wasn't terrifying. It was quiet, but she wasn't alone, not left alone. Doc was here. It simply told all the little whispers of panic and doubt and terror to hush up for a moment, so she could have a proper think.
Carrie, why do you fear something that'll never happen again?
Because it still hurts. It's not the future that's scary, it's the past. I'm just gazing backwards.
I'll stop doing that. Maybe not tonight, but eventually. New memories, to replace the old. New family. New friends. New city. New purpose.
And then the little voices rushed in with a clamor. The haze faded.
"...was that really just a minute?" Carrie asked, as she came out of the trance.
"I don't recommend more than a minute a session," Doc said... returning the sphere to its container. "It's called a moment of reflection for a reason. But... tell me. Did it help, Carrie?"
Sitting up on the couch felt like getting up from a really good nap. One with good dreams.
"I think it did," she said, with a smile. "I think I'll be okay today."
She was okay that day.
Monday was another story.
With the start of a new week came the start of the school week. Another five glorious days in the glass and concrete walls of Chester Lee Arthur High School, home of the Chester Lee Arthur Patriots (Battle cry: "Go Patriots!" or, when nobody capable of handing out detention was in earshot, "Give 'em the CLAP!"). Monday, like all weekdays, would consist of:
This was her second year at Chester Lee Arthur... but her third go-around in high school in her life time. There was the first, at Urbantropolis Public High School #214, at the start of which she had her cosmic radiation incident. Mother insisted she finish off her four year run through school, in her secret identity as Carrie Lane. At the time, it seemed like a complete pain, especially with the superhero role she had to squeeze in on the side... but compared to run-ins with Deadly Mantis, Mister Unknowable, and the Hand of Corrosion, high school was a daily stress relief.
Then she graduated, and went on to college, at the University of Paragon State. Which was a mistake. She could barely keep her secret identity intact, being stuck at fifteen years of age. They tried to pass her off as a child prodigy, but by the time she double-majored in criminology and sociology, people were getting suspicious to the point where her thick glasses weren't fooling anyone.
On top of all that, college life was rough on her... her mind unable to mature properly due to locked brain chemistry, even while her intellect was expanding. It only took one weekend of very bad decisions followed by a nice visit to the local precinct for her mother to nearly consider pulling her out of there. She finished off her run on probation.
So, they moved, changed secret identities, and sent Carrie back to high school. Which was incredibly boring on the second go-around, and was just as complicated for her emotionally as college. With the divorce proceedings followed by gaining a new archnemesis in the form of Doctor Mindmelter, honestly, Carrie was going a bit nuts even BEFORE Pandora dumped her in two centuries of isolation...
And now... Chester Lee Arthur. Her third run through high school.
After spending so long cooped up in the Arcology, followed by just loitering around the house back in New Orleans when they finally decided maybe keeping her cooped up in the arcology wasn't good for her mental recovery, high school was both horrible and a complete relief. Horrible, because all the same problems she faced being an age-locked superbeing were popping up again. A complete relief, because it gave her what she desperately needed: Normalcy. Structure. Routine.
A twelve step program, from Breakfast to Sleep, with School in the middle. Walking the streets of a big Eastusa city, just like the Urbantropolis she knew and loved. It was Doc's idea, and it was a good one -- surround herself with normalcy and an ordinary teenage lifestyle. Complications would arise, but better that than bouncing off the walls of Una and Nel's cottage, with nothing to do with herself. It was worth the complications, just to have that wonderfully mundane life back, to put aside the feral-survivor syndrome for another twenty or so hours...
Complications, like Guido.
That wasn't really his name. He called himself that because he fancied himself a mobster, a racketeer, like you'd see in an old mafia movie. Unfortunately, he'd gotten his ancient cultural history wires crossed, and had apparently learned how to be a member of the Sopranos by way of the Jersey Shore. It's hard to be intimidating with orange skin and radially spiky haircut, but he had enough backup boys with him at all times to make it work.
They were waiting by the bike racks for Carrie. Well, not just for her; they had a few other marks they shook down each day. She was just their 8:45 appointment.
Her backpack felt a bit heavier, despite being able to lift five metric tons on a bad day. Her feet dragged as she approached the inevitable...
In a practiced gesture, she handed over her lunch money.
"You know, I really appreciate the workin' relationship we got goin' here," Guido said, pocketing Carrie's meager funds. "I remember when you first got here, all full of spunk, tattling to the principal. Now look at you; cash on the barrel, easy as ya please. You gotta admit, it works out cleaner. As long as you keep it friendly. Comprende?"
"Whatever, Guido," Carrie didn't agree.
He mimed drawing his fist back for a punch. Carrie pretended to flinch. He had his laugh, and she went on her way. Transaction complete.
Long ago in days of yore (two years ago) she'd regarded his playground bullying as preposterous. It was the kind of thing you saw in primary school, not high school, she figured. So, she informed the authorities of his illegal intimidation tactics, like a good citizen. Surely, justice would be done, and his corruption would torment the student body no more!
Once Guido and his boys got back from their three day suspension, they jumped her and beat her into the ground.
Well, not really. Honestly, they would've broken their hands trying to punch her, if she didn't do her darndest to pretend they were hurting her, to shift away at the last second from each blow, minimizing the impacts for their own safety's sake... and for the sake of her secret identity.
This was a hard lesson learned way back at Middlegrove. If she stood up to bullies, one of three outcomes would happen:
Unacceptable outcomes. So, she went with a fourth option... to just go with it, and pretend to be defeated.
She didn't want to hurt them. And she couldn't get hurt, anyway. They couldn't hurt her. Nothing hurt her. Nothing could stop Astro Gal.
Despite her pockets being lighter, her backpack felt heavier and heavier, as she marched into the building. Go to the locker, stow belongings, get books, go to class, re-learn things you learned twice before, get through the day. Routine was the key. It'd wash everything else away.
Bringing extra money for lunch meant that no matter how much Guido took away, she could still eat. Eating was very important. Decades spent in crippling malnutrition, weakened and suffering but never dying, was proof of that. Dampened memories or not, that one stood out... and made her lunch, no matter how meager, a thing to be treasured.
Carrie typically ate alone. She sort of had friends, through her various clubs, but... she was never much of a social butterfly before Pandora, and was hardly one now. Which was fine, Doc explained -- she was brave just for going to school, for reclaiming that part of her life. She was brave for taking on after school activities, for working in groups. Everything else would follow, in time.
After lunch, it was time for math class. And that's where everything started falling askew...
Pop quizzes were nothing too surprising. Mrs. Wendell was a pretty brutal teacher, gleefully assigning piles and piles of homework, or dropping spontaneous tests on them and using a nice, thick red pen for the F-'s, bleeding through the paper and making it clear to everybody what grade you got. Doc talked a lot about personal comfort zones, states of being that people gravitated towards... Mrs. Wendell clearly gravitated towards triumphing over her students.
And she hadn't triumphed over Carrie, yet. Going through high school multiple times and a double-degree stampede through college meant that math at this level was trivial. Just because her mind was a perpetual emotional, teenagery, traumatized mess didn't mean Carrie wasn't sharp as a tack when it came to raw intellect.
When she snapped her fingers, to signify the start of the quizzing period, Carrie turned over her paper. And jotted down the answers, one after another. Really, really basic algebra, nothing particularly impressive. Solve for X. When you used to routinely solve puzzles by the Jigsaw Master, this stuff was child's play, honestly...
In fact, Carrie felt quite pleased with herself when she finished the 30th question, and signed her name to the bottom.
Except she'd finished in five minutes. And looking up at the clock, after setting down her pen... she may have well announced to the entire class "I am a nerd, and I think I'm better than you all, suck it."
A series of angry glances from nearby classmates, and Carrie ducked her head back down again. Should've left a few unsolved, pretended to ponder them. Dragged it out some. Her social standing was somewhere between "Who?" and "Ugh, her?" and this wasn't going to help... nor would it help her standing with Mrs. Wendell who had been just itching for Carrie to slip up...
As her mind raced to figure out how to downplay this all, instinctively thinking about secret identities even though it didn't quite apply... she happened to notice the fleeting glances from the student one row back and one column to the left.
She'd seen the boy before. Dark hair, dark eyes, unassuming looking guy. He was in history class with her... sitting in the back row, usually with a few snickering friends, passing notes as they ignored the teacher. ...but he didn't. He was listening. That's what stood out, to Carrie, the few times she looked his way. Not that he had the same attention in math class, though, or he wouldn't need to copy her quiz.
What made him and his friends stand out were the leather WWII style replica bomber jackets they wore. Military patches haphazardly sewn into them, mostly imaginary ones, quite ragged and handmade.
Stars and stripes. Confederate flags. Eagles clutching machine guns. Lynched elves. Gang symbols. Federalist-wannabe gang symbols.
And now, the miscreant was copying her answers. It was easy to tell, using her super senses, to triangulate his line of sight and the lines it formed between his eyes and her paper. Her hearing could detect him scratching out the same numbers she did, the swoops and stops and snaps of graphite being ground against paper...
A responsible citizen would raise her hand, call for Mrs. Wendell, and turn this cheater into the authorities. Criminals should be punished for their crimes; it's why laws existed, to ensure a fair and orderly society. It might even make Mrs. Wendell happy with her, to side with teacher against the horrible students... if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, after all.
And it'd sour her classmates even further. Digging a nice, deep social grave for Carrie Lane.
For the second time that day, justice gave way to practical considerations. Instead, she mock-yawned, and covered her paper with one arm to block his view. Resting her head low, to completely shut off his access to her intellect. He wouldn't be punished for his transgression, but he'd have to make do on his own. That would be justice enough.
Not that Carrie really needed to take a nap. She was alert. Well... mostly alert. Night terrors didn't do great things for her alertness during the day. And, resting here against her desk, she thought back to Doc's office the day before, and the spherical Relax-o-Tron... the way she felt, so calm, so carefree... letting everything go and...
--the snap of fingers right next to her ears snapped her awake. Her hands clutched the desk in shock...
The clock. Twenty minutes had passed.
"Sleeping in my class, are we, Miss Lane?" Mrs. Wendell accused... with a nicely predatory smile. A gotcha smile. "How inattentive. How disrespectful! You have detention today. Report to the detention hall immediately after classes and tell them I sent you."
Stifled giggling, from around the room. Normally teacher would quash any signs of joyful noise in her presence, but she allowed it, to deepen Carrie's punishment. To further dig that social grave...
Slowly... she looked down, to her desk. Which had been slightly bent around the frame, from her grip, on the rude awakening.
And, in one brief moment of despair, wondered why she felt she had any right to a normal, routine life.
She loitered by her locker, waiting for the halls to clear out a little. Most of the school was headed towards the main doors, laughing, chatting, moving in small social circles towards their afternoon fun. The only people going the other way, deeper into the school, were club members... and kids with detention. Like Carrie.
This wasn't her first detention. Despite her best efforts to avoid trouble... to avoid being noticed, really, as a good superhero should do to protect her identity... trouble had a habit of finding her. It wasn't a frequent habit, thankfully, but enough of one that she knew where to go when given a slap on the wrists.
Detention was held in Mr. Cash's lecture hall, the largest single classroom in the building. Not that it was usually jam packed with juvenile delinquents, but detentionees usually wanted to sit apart from others, to avoid contact. Less shame for those unlucky enough to get caught despite being essentially good students... and it discouraged intermingling of the others, people who were likely already hostile in some way and unhappy to be there.
Mr. Cash didn't want or need an explanation for why Carrie was there. The poor bachelor didn't want to be here any more than Carrie did; they had an unspoken "Let's just get this over with" relationship, as a result. There was already a dictionary waiting for her, for recopying... a staple draconian punishment. Pointless busywork, designed to annoy, but mostly designed to occupy your time before being sent on your way. It couldn't really be called justice... but was the best the school could manage. Or wanted to manage.
She took a moment to survey today's offenders, before taking her seat.
The boy was there. The gang-jacket wearing boy, who tried to copy her test. He looked perfectly miserable, as he copied away, and didn't even glance up to see her.
And... Guido was here. He was a regular, in the detention hall. By this point, Mr. Cash tended to just ignore the boy; no amount of punishment was dissuading him, and if anything, he seemed happy to be here. Like it was a badge of honor.
Carrie made sure to pick a seat far, far away from both of them. Cracked open her dictionary, got to work. No sense using her enhanced reflexes to speed-copy... this was about time wasted, not about a task to finish. She wouldn't get to leave early if she really worked at it. So, she copied at a leisurely pace, unfocusing on the task, trying to make the best of this time to just relax... without taking another nap, of course.
When you let your guard down... superpowers tend to slip into play. Like super senses.
"Ain't you a lonely sight?"
The hairs on her neck stood at attention, when Guido's voice rang true in her ears. Was he right behind her? Was he going to harass her again? Wasn't it enough that she had to deal with him nearly every morning...?
No. He was still across the room, and technically out of human earshot. He was talking to someone else.
"Aren't you usually in here with your running buddies, Van Buren?" Guido was saying. "I look left, I look right, but I don't see them around. Were you the fall guy today, taking one for the team?"
"Screw off." (That would be this 'Van Buren.' The test copying boy...)
"And were you here with your jolly pirate fun club, Van, maybe I would, maybe I would. Don't see much reason to right now, though. Y'know... I don't think I've seen hide nor hair of the Dead Presidents all day. Funny, the whole gang playing hooky but you. What's the matter, Van Buren? Did they decide Atlanta wasn't cool enough, and day trip down to Florida to go kill some pointyears?"
"I don't need this now," Van mumbled, almost low enough not to be heard by Carrie. Almost. "I don't need this now..."
"Y'know, I kinda like elves," Guido was continuing. "Elf bitches are hot. Elf bros are cool in my book. I bet there's a lot of moneymaking opportunities out there, in the Faerie Court. I'm not the kind of guy who bombs them and shoots them--"
"I don't shoot anyone," Van snapped. A hiss, through his teeth, the S very sharp. "Now leave me the hell alone."
"Heyyy, don't get so hot under the collar. This is me, leaving you alone, like you nicely asked," Guido insisted. "Besides... can't do much with sad-sack up there watching. Giving me the evil eye. ...but watch your back, Vannie. Because looks like you don't got anyone watching it for you, huh--"
Mr. Cash slammed the book he was reading against his desk hard enough to blast Carrie's mind to bits, with her ears tuned so finely.
"Whatever you two are yammering about back there, knock it off," Mr. Cash warned. "Or it's detention all week. And I really, really don't want either of you two in here any more than you usually are. Got it?"
A little laugh, and Guido was back in his seat, a few rows away.
But Carrie could still hear Van Buren's breath. Sharp, and rapid. His heart rate, pumping. Fear and terror...
It was the same sound she heard in her own heart, every time she woke up screaming. Every time she remembered the hell she'd been through.
Una and Nel would want to know why Carrie wasn't home on time. They gave her a lot of leeway -- part of the therapy was to integrate and enjoy the "big city" experience, in her comfort zone. New Orleans was nice, but nothing made Carrie at ease like the living, breathing concrete fabric of an Urbantropolis-like city. It was why she commuted to Atlanta each day for school, after all. But being so far away did make her guardians worry, especially when her routine deviated...
Carrie was busy pondering if she was going to tell the truth, that she got into trouble, as she walked out of school. Nice and semi-quiet out here, now. The smell of car exhaust, the distant sound of traffic, people moving about... oddly comforting. Even if nobody was visible, the sounds meant that they were here, they were alive.
They were in danger.
Her ear perked. The sounds of fist-on-flesh were well known to her; it was a crime fighter's instinct to trace those sounds to their source. Just around the building, out of sight, near the trash bins. All she had to do was walk a hundred feet and take a peek...
Or she could turn and go home. Not get involved, not potentially end up tangled in a violent situation. Not blow her cover. That would be the smart thing to do.
Instead she got an eyeful of Guido and his buddies beating the tar out of Van Buren. Just as he'd promised would happen.
Carrie didn't have to interfere directly. She already knew what the potential outcomes were, after all, of getting into a fight. Maybe she could go summon a teacher instead, or something. Maybe they'd actually get here before things got too bad. Despite things being very, very bad now, from the hint of blood in the air. The smart thing to do was to realize this wasn't her problem to solve.
She wasn't a superhero, anymore. She was just trying to get what was left of her life back in order. Trying to be normal, trying to feel like everything was going to be okay. New family. New friends. New city. New purpose.
Her schoolbag hit the sidewalk, as she swung around the corner, into view. Steeling herself, trying to remember what sort of voice she used to use when announcing herself to the likes of the evil Megalord Deathfist.
"Leave him alone!"
Okay, that worked, she thought. Not much quality banter, but it was right and to the point. This'll work if I'm careful...
The beatdown turned into a freeze frame from a bad television sitcom, as the boys looked up mid-punching. Rather than cowering before a champion of justice, they seemed to be... confused.
Until Guido decided to be Amused rather than Confused. He shoved the woozy form of Van Buren to his boys, the three of them catching him, holding him in place until the boss wanted another turn.
"Yer kiddin' me, right?" Guido asked. "Carrie Lane to the rescue? That's adorable. Kid, this racist piece of crap doesn't deserve your pity--"
"Leave him alone," Carrie repeated. "Or... or..."
...or what? Or I'll punch him, shattering his skull and liquefying his brain? He's just an ordinary kid! I need to be careful, careful...
"That's a sentence that needs finishin', I think," Guido decided, walking right up to the girl he had a head and a half of height on. "Indulge me. Leave him alone, or... what...?"
Slowly, carefully... Carrie raised her fingers. Tucking index finger behind thumb, applying some pressure.
And then flicked him in the chest.
Guido flew back seven feet, skidding painfully but ultimately harmlessly against the asphalt of the parking lot.
Horrified, the boys dumped their designated victim, to rush to their leader's aid.
...a leader who was no longer Amused.
"GET HER!" he shouted, as the four charged...
Carrie dropped into a combat stance. The lessons of mother flowed back to her, things not even two hundred years in isolation could wipe away.
When fighting unpowered humans, Carrie, the key is to use their own momentum against them and nothing more. You risk doing too much damage to the suspect if you apply direct force; they will do the work for you, if you are clever, and skilled. The goal is to render them incapable of further violence, and nothing more. Now then, for your first lesson...
The first boy went down, when Carrie went low, using her shoulder to block his charge. He doubled over the immovable object, tumbling head over heels behind her.
The second one, she grasped his incoming punching arm, whirling around him, applying just enough force to send him spinning into the nearby brick wall -- not hard enough to do any serious damage, although if he had a preexisting undiagnosed brain aneurysm, that would be a problem. From the sound of the blood vessels in his brain, though, he was healthy enough to take the impact.
Third boy, he managed to land a punch when Carrie wasn't looking. That was sloppy of her; she barely noticed it, but he certainly did, as it was like punching the side of a tank. That would take him out of the fight for awhile, at least, as he boggled in horror and pain at what happened... leaving only Guido.
This one, she needed to handle with something personal. She slipped around him, neatly grabbing him around the midsection, and raising him into the air. Loosely enough to avoid cracking any ribs, tightly enough to keep him from worming away...
"You're done bullying him," she declared. And then added more. "You're done bullying me. You're done bullying, period. After all, nobody's going to believe little Carrie Lane took your entire gang down in ten seconds--"
She paused to give the boy behind her a sharp look, as he broke a bottle from the trash bins over her head. Ineffectively, although she had to turn her head a bit, to keep the shrapnel from hitting Guido. Dumbfounded, the assailant stepped away from her, hands raised in surrender.
"--and unless you want me to do this again, and again, you're going to find a new hobby," she continued. "Understood?"
"--stupid little bitch I swear I'll kill you I'll--"
A light squeeze. Again, careful not to crack any ribs; she could feel each individual one, could make sure she didn't apply pressure directly above them. Barely any bruising, just enough to squeeze the rest of the air out of him. A job already half done by his angered ranting. They will do the work for you, if you are clever, and skilled.
"No more bullying," she repeated. "Comprende?"
The telltale limpness. Good.
"C-Comprende," Guido repeated.
Carrie dropped him, making sure he landed on his rear. Plenty of soft tissue there.
"Honestly, Guido, didn't you get bored of this kind of thing in junior high?" she asked, ignoring the boys back pedaling away, as she made a nice, showy gesture of dusting off her hands. "I mean, what's the point? You can't seriously make good money shaking down kids for pocket change--"
They weren't back pedaling away from her. They were getting away from him.
Van Buren held the gun in shaking hands. The revolver's nickel plated barrel glinting in the afternoon sun... as it was aimed roughly at Guido.
Through the bruising and the blood... he was crying. It was a detail only Carrie could notice. A wide-eyed stare of terror and despair...
In a blur, she was standing in front of Guido. Blocking line of sight completely, arms wide, making sure she was a big and welcoming target.
"Get out of here!" she shouted over her shoulder -- to the screaming, running boys, who were already in the process of getting out of here.
She watched them go... some part of herself smug and satisfied at a job well done. They weren't going to jail, probably weren't even going to be suspended, but enough justice had been done.
...sloppy. Taking your eyes off the target. She could take a bullet, for that. Not that it'd do much, but if her secret identity wasn't already blown from absorbing the broken bottle and lifting Guido like a rag doll, being shot would certainly do the trick.
Except the gunman was gone. He'd run for his life, as well.
If she had her costume on...
Well, no. Even if she had it on, she wouldn't take to the skies to get a clear acoustic / visual position, and zero in on the target. Because that's what Astro Gal would do. And Astro Gal was arguably retired. Carrie Lane could do it, but flying teenagers in a city the size of Atlanta tended to be noticed...
She zipped around the building, trying to move at a brisk but human pace, just in case anybody spotted her. Bad enough she used superstrength and invulnerability while in the dumpster side parking lot; isolated, sure, but there were at LEAST four witnesses. Adding to the tally would make things even worse. Better to move with a purpose, but without any funny business... while keeping her ears open, for any telltale noises, amidst the distant hustle of the city.
He couldn't have gotten far. No sounds of running feet, no familiar sounds of an escaping suspect. No gunshots, certainly. What else could she listen for...?
Heart rate. Rapid breathing. Maybe crying. He was distressed, and it took awhile to calm down from that state. This was a narrow window, but if she could hone in on his vital signs in the white noise of city ambiance, that would do it...
She had a clear line of sight to the sounds. Well... clear for HER, anyway. Between the slats of the bleachers, hiding underneath them, in the empty school football field. Good thing there wasn't any practice scheduled today--
Wait. Sobbing. And that click.
Camera zoom using only your eyes is harder than it sounds. It's like doing the magic eye trick and making a bunch of dots look like a sailboat; sometimes it happens automatically, like staring at the moon after waking from a nightmare. The rest of the time, you have to force it...
The gun was pressed underneath his chin. The hammer was drawing back, the chamber was ticking around...
For less than a fraction of a split second, Carrie considered doing nothing. What she was about to do was VERY high profile, and she had a secret identity to protect, after all.
If she let someone die just so she could have a more convenient life, however, that would go against everything she still stood for.
Super speed is actually incredibly dangerous. Objects that break the sound barrier at ground level raise hell in the process; even running at subsonic speed did crazy things to the air around you. It also had a tendency to ruin your clothes, which were never designed to be blasted by insane levels of air resistance. That was half the reason for the skintight costumes... that special fabric blend, handed down from heroes long past, wasn't much for armored survival but it could at least keep itself together under extreme conditions.
On top of that... super speed meant burning your metabolism at an accelerated rate. Even in her prime, Carrie never did more than a few bursts of it a day, to avoid wearing herself out. This little trick alone was going to have her looking for a snack machine shortly after, no doubt.
She kicked off with her left foot. Normally she used her right foot, but this was her first shot at speeding in... well, centuries. It wasn't quite as unforgettable as riding a bike, unless that bike was fitted with retro rocket boosters.
In less than a fraction of a percentage of a split second, she was under the bleachers, and had her hand around the gun, to pull it away from the boy before he could shoot himself.
The bullet was inevitable, at that point -- she gripped the chamber tightly, trying not to crush the gun, to avoid a misfire. But it was through the rotation cycle, and the moment she let go, it was going to fire.
Van, who less than a fraction of a percentage of a split second ago was alone and ready to die, suddenly found a girl kneeling next to him in the dirt. With her hand on the gun, pulling it away...
And once it was safely pointed away... she slacked her grip just enough to let it fire.
It seemed... quieter, than a heavy revolver of its caliber should've sounded. It was a gunshot, sure, but hardly the resonating blast she was used to hearing from similar weapons. Fortunately, the bullet hit nothing of importance.
...strange. It hit nothing. She thought she'd aimed it at one of the distant goalposts, since the soft padding around the post would absorb the impact with less chance of a ricochet. But there wasn't actually a goalpost there. Come to think of it, there never were two goalposts out here, right...?
"Let... go...!" Van demanded, trying to pull the gun away from Carrie's iron lock of a grip. "Screw off! Leave me alone!"
"Are you going to shoot yourself if I let go?" Carrie asked. "If so, no way. If not... well... I don't believe you, so no way. YOU let go."
Van's next insult was blue enough to actually tint Carrie's ears red.
"Okay, now I'm definitely not letting go," she warned. "I can sit right here all day, in fact, so you may as well give up. C'mon. ...Van. Just... let it go. It's gonna be okay. I promise."
He made a few more tries at pulling the weapon away... and it refused to budge, even a millimeter. Carrie wasn't even pretending to be normally strong, at this point, to avoid any further risk. Let him try, but he wouldn't get anywhere in this... better to prove her point about the futility of it.
Eventually... his fingers slacked, pulling away. Leaving the gun hovering firmly in the air, with Carrie the victor.
Quickly, she snapped out the revolver's six-shooter chamber, emptying out all the bullets. Safe. She could crush the gun later, when she had a moment of privacy--
"It's gonna end up right back in my backpack or my pockets soon enough, anyway," Van Buren warned. His voice... defeated, resigned to this situation. "Doesn't matter. None of it matters. Call the principal on me, call the cops, whatever. You can't really stop it. --you don't get it at all, whoever you are. I figured it out. The only way out of this mess is..."
He mimicked a finger pistol at his head. Flicked the thumb. Although... there was a wince, at the action. Carrie didn't need supersenses to spot that.
"I don't think Guido's going to bully you anymore, Van," Carrie promised. "It's going to be okay, now. You don't have to be afraid of him. I ran his boys off pretty good. ...frankly, if he's going to pick a fight again, it'll be with me, not you--"
"You think I care about that? You think I'm all weepy because the Oompah Loompah beat me up?" Van Buren asked. "Hell, my gang was bullying HIS gang, until... GOD. Whatever. Keep the gun, if you like. For however long you manage to keep it. I'm going."
He got up, keeping his head low to avoid banging it on the bleacher rows above. Ready to leave.
"Wait--!" Carrie protested.
"What happened to your gang?"
His back may have been turned, ready to go... but Van wasn't moving. She'd given him pause. Take advantage of any drop in your opponent's defenses, mother taught...
"The Dead Presidents," she continued. "Your gang. Guido said they weren't in school today. You said they'd been picking on Guido, until... something. What happened to them? ...if you... shot them, I'm sure it was by accident, I'm sure that--"
"I wish I HAD shot them, frankly," Van offered, looking over his shoulder. "I mean... I don't want to, but... maybe that would've fixed this. Maybe then we wouldn't have gone on that job, because they wouldn't be around anymore, and everything would just close itself up nice and neat, and... and you know what? It's none of your business. ...you wouldn't believe me, anyway."
"You'd be surprised what I can believe," Carrie suggested. "Come on... talk to me. My name's Carrie Lane. I'm in history and math class with you, remember? You copied off my test earlier? I could've turned you in, but I didn't. So, uh... you owe me, I think."
With a grumble... the boy turned, and sat down on the dirt, in front of her.
"You know what? Fine. It's not going to change anything, so fine," he decided. "Once I'm done, I'm going to leave, and Oblivion's going to end up right back in my hands soon enough. So I may as well tell you, before I put a stop to this."
He pointed to the gun, still held firmly in her hands.
Carefully... she uncurled her fingers, turning the gun around, to study it.
It was quite shiny. Almost Orbital-shiny, but the alloy felt like the basic nickel plating some gangsters put on their weapons to make them look impressive. Curly designs had been engraved down the barrel, swirling around, all the way to the grip... which had an ivory plate embedded in it. The word "OBLIVION" had been carved in delicate cursive letters into the plate.
She squinted, focusing her sight on the lines, the curls. Studying the edges of the engravings. The edges of the edges. Of the edges of the edges of the edges of the edges, down and down, spiraling...
Fractals. Microscopic. Beyond the microscopic...
"This isn't any normal gun," she recognized.
"What was your first clue?" Van asked. "The fancy-pants design, or the way it made the goalpost disappear when you shot it?"
"What goalpost...?" she asked, looking over her shoulder...
...she HAD aimed it at a football goalpost. That made sense; the padding would absorb the bullet. There's no way she'd let the thing fire off into open air, where the bullet could go on to hit someone, through the distant fencing. That wouldn't be how a superhero handled the situation, and she clearly had the situation in enough control to make the smart decision...
Plus, the football field felt... off balance. Carrie had never heard of a field with only one end zone, for instance. Maybe they wanted to make sure the visiting team never scored? After all, obviously there was only one end zone, there had only been one end zone, in the two years she'd been here. That stood to reason, even if it made no sense...
"There were two, in case you're wondering," Van said. "I was holding the handle, so I can remember. ...I'm the only one who CAN remember, now. For everyone else... it's just gone. Vanished. Into Oblivion."
Can't say I like the way that boy is looking at you. I'll just make him forget you exist. Nice and neat.
The chill went up her spine, hearing that voice in her head, panicking for a moment that maybe father was back. But... no. Just a memory. Of another boy, in another place, on another world.
"So... it makes things... never have existed," she realized. "It's a bit clumsy, though. I mean, it makes no sense, having only one goalpost, even if that's how it's always been..."
"Welcome to the Twilight Zone," Van said... pulling out a cigarette and a lighter, flicking it bright in the darkness. "Welcome to my life for the last few days. That's not even the best part. Like I said... even if you hang onto the gun, or turn it in to the cops, or chuck it into a sewer... it's going to end up back with me. I'll open my backpack, and there it'll be. Or I'll reach in my pocket for a smoke and there it'll be. I stole Oblivion in the first place, and apparently it's really taken a shine to me. So, once I leave here, I'll get it back. And then I'm going to shoot myself. And everything that I've done will be undone. Nice and neat. You probably won't even remember this conversation."
"I... I could destroy it," Carrie suggested, gripping the weapon in two hands now. Seriously tempted it crush it right in front of his eyes, despite her secret identity...
"Yeah, good luck with that," he said. "Not possible. Don't you think I tried? Threw it in a fire, tossed it in traffic to be run over by trucks, nothing works. Don't you think I WANTED to destroy it? I don't want to shoot anyone! I never did! It was just... it was..."
His heart rate began to rise. The aura of cool sarcasm and annoyance had served well for body armor... but not in the face of this. He pretended to cough on the smoke, to look away... to flush down the reaction before Carrie could see it.
I have to be careful, Carrie recognized. If he runs for it, I can chase him down, but I risk exposing myself. I'll do it if I must, but... if I can save his life AND keep mine safe, that'd be best... just need to figure this out. Understand what it is he's so scared of...
She'd seen a haunted and desperate look in his eyes, before. Felt the way his heart raced. Not just from fear of shooting Guido. His terror was... familiar, somehow. He had a gun that made things go away. Make people go away. Make everybody you've ever loved go away...
"Van... did something happen to your parents?" Carrie guessed.
His fist slammed into the ground. Pain was a good way to stay angry, to avoid caving to sorrow.
"It was an accident, okay!? An accident!" he protested. "I was freaked out, after those two guys chased us out of the shop we'd robbed on Saturday. I thought maybe... maybe they'd followed me home. It was all dark, I could hear voices, how was I to know? They were gonna kill us! I had just grabbed Oblivion, and, and I didn't know what it really did, and I was just trying to survive that stupid, stupid day, and... and..."
A sick little laugh escaped, as he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep the tears in. He ground out his cigarette in the dirt, forcefully.
"It was a surprise birthday party," he said, giggling at the irony of it. "They were going to pop out, and go, surprise! And... and I shot them. Both of them. They just... vanished. I made my parents not exist. --I thought they were the two guys from the shop! I didn't know! Christ, I can't believe it, I shot them, I didn't want to, I never hated them, we didn't always get along but I loved them, and... dammit... dammit...!"
With a lunge... Van tried to grab for the gun. Carrie almost didn't react fast enough, almost lost control of it -- she had to tighten her grip, well past the point where it'd have been crushed, to keep his clawing hands away...
"Don't you get it? I have to do this!" Van insisted, attempting to pull the weapon free. "If I shoot myself, then I won't have existed, so I couldn't have shot them! It'll work. I know it'll work!"
With a wrenching motion, Carrie pulled the gun free -- hoping not to hurt his fingers in the process. "There has to be another way...!" she declared. "There's always another way. ...there has to be. Look, I can... I'll help you. I can help you find out how to reverse everything this stupid gun's done!"
The sick laughter resumed. "Really? You? The meek little bookworm?" he asked. "You happen to learn how to destroy magic guns while studying for all those pop quizzes--?"
"I live with an Orbital and an elf. They're close to Queen Emily," Carrie admitted. "It's not really something I trumpet, I'm trying to be an ordinary girl, but... well, have you heard of Una zero point one and Nelliwyn Myfanwy? From the old Welcome Wagon program? If anybody can figure this mess out, it'd be them!"
His laughter ceased. Fear snapped into place -- but with her senses, she could tell it hit right after she said 'Orbital,' not 'elf.' Odd, considering his Federalist leanings...
"It's... it won't be a problem, I swear," Carrie promised. "They're good people. They'll help anyone in need... it doesn't matter what their, um... political beliefs are--"
"I'm not-- I mean, not really-- look, I'm not a terrorist, okay?" Van promised. "None of us are. They talk big, but we don't kill people. --I didn't want to be a killer. And the whole 'down with elves and race traitors' thing, that's more Garfield's bag, anyway. ...that goddamn bastard. It was his 'hot tip' that led us to Oblivion, you know. To that stupid little shop in Chinatown, and those weird objects, and... okay. Look. The two guys I mentioned? The ones that tried to kill us when we robbed their shop? They were Orbitals."
"Wait, what? Orbitals tried to kill you?"
"Well... I mean, they shot at us," he clarified. "They had those space gun things Orbitals have. They had white hair. I thought they were just two old farts, until out came the rayguns..."
Carrie considered it. "And... did they actually kill any of your gang?" she asked. "I mean, did anybody get shot?"
"I just grabbed the gun and ran for it, I didn't see, but... I don't think so. I mean, I haven't seen any of the Dead Presidents since then, but I didn't hear any screaming. --maybe they got vaporized!"
"Van... Orbital blasters are stun weapons," Carrie explained. "They can't vaporize people. Those two were probably basically trying to taze you because you stole a dangerous artifact, not kill you dead. ...look. I don't think Orbitals are out to kill you, in general. And besides, Una's one of the good guys. You'll never meet a friendlier Orbital. You don't have to be afraid... alright?"
Keeping the gun at her side... she used her other hand to extend outward, in a friendly gesture. Offering him her hand, with a gentle smile.
"...why do you care, anyway?" Van asked... glancing at her outstretched palm, suspiciously. "I'm just some gang-banger punk who sits behind you and copies off your tests. You don't know me from Adam."
"I'm a superheroine," Carrie said, automatically. And then couldn't take it back.
After a tense pause... Van laughed. And not a horrified, mocking laugh, like before.
He accepted her hand, getting back up. Well. Crouching, as he was a bit taller, and the bleachers weren't roomy.
"What the hell," he decided. "At worst, nothing comes of it, and I shoot myself. Problem solved, either way. Take me to your leader."
They got off the public bus transit line two blocks away from their destination. The school was closer to the edges of Atlanta, out near the residential sections -- her route home was nestled deep in the commercial districts. It suited Carrie just fine; walking the pavement of a big city, weaving around pedestrians, soaking in the smells and sounds of a busy urban metropolis... for country folk, for most elves, it'd be unsettling. For her, it was very... settling, perhaps.
Settling enough to ignore the unpleasant weight of Oblivion, which had been tucked away deep in her backpack. Van claimed it wouldn't help, that the gun would transfer back to him when they weren't looking, but Carrie insisted on carrying it anyway. For safety's sake. What she didn't tell him was that she'd be able to detect the minute shift in weight instantly, and know when it hopped back. She'd have to explain her "hunch" that it relocated when that happened, so she could get it back.
For all the comfort the city brought her, it didn't bring much to Van. Nor did walking along like a puppy dog behind his classmate.
"Damn good thing I don't know anybody out this far or my rep would be wrecked," Van complained, hands jammed in the pockets of his bomber jacket, shoulders hunched as if trying to hide inside it. "Why'd we get off the bus, anyway? You can't live out here. ...I mean, I've been living in a crappy little hotel since my family's house mysteriously went up for sale hours after I... but I don't see you living in squalor. You smell too nice for that."
"I use a strawberry shampoo, thanks," Carrie offered, with a smile. (And cut the smile short, when she saw how awkward it was making things.) "Anyway... the route back home is just ahead. I told you... I live with an elf and an Orbital. The way back is kinda... odd. --promise me you won't freak in there, okay?"
"Seriously, no freaking," she pleaded. "You wanna keep looking cool in front of people you know, well... I wanna keep looking cool in front of people I know. --here we are."
He nearly bumped into her, when she stopped dead in front of the shop.
Van peered at the colorful window displays, confused. Weird cartoons of people in colorful costumes... tiny toy figures... big colorful books of some kind, like a baby's chewable bath book...
"What the heck is this place?"
"Comic book store," Carrie stated.
"What's a comic book?"
Carrie boggled so hard she could've jotted down thirty seven words before the timer ran out.
"Seriously?" she asked. "I mean... I know they've lost some popularity over the last two hundred years, but... seriously?"
"If it's not on the net, I don't pay attention, okay?" Van asked, as he studied the guys wearing full body underwear. "Is this like webcomics? I like the ones with the fart jokes. But why the hell would you print out a book of webcomics? Paper books are for old people and nerds. ...well, you are kind of a nerd, so I guess--"
Carrie pushed past him, grumbling, as she entered the shop. For lack of a better option, Van followed... walking into a four color nightmare.
All around him, dudes in underwear punching each other, or posing dramatically. Apparently, comics were all about guys stripping down to their long johns and punching each other in the jaw. Although, there were a few chicks, and at least on THEM the underwear-only look kind of worked...
The tubby guy with the goatee behind the counter nodded in acknowledgement. "Carrie."
"Milton," she recognized, walking up to the counter. "Hey. Soo, found a buyer yet?"
Had to be some sort of weird inside joke, because Milton's groaning sounded a bit too practiced and melodramatic.
"The answer remains: No," the comic book proprietor complained. "I tried using Benny's CGC bar code last night on one of the top flight collector sites, but nobody's buying that an original Action Comics #1 could be this well preserved..."
"I still say you should hang onto it. You deserve it, for all the hard work you've put in keeping comics alive. I mean... it's an icon of the genre. And since the store's practically a museum already, where better to show it off...?"
"Icons don't put food on the table," Milton noted, knocking on the counter for emphasis. "Sales do. And speaking of which, nothing in the pull box today for you. Astounding folded up shop last night and cancelled their shipments. Sorry."
"What?! But... they're one of the big four! They've been publishing for seventy five years! How can they just..."
"Because icons don't put food on the table. Sorry, Carrie. Hey, I got some unauth repros of Brightest Day, if you want... new remastered color jobs. Really well done."
"Yes, and it's still Brightest Day, so thanks but no thanks," she said, wrinkling her nose. "I... Van, don't poke that, it's priceless."
"How can she punch a guy with her boobs hanging out like that?" Van asked, peering closely at the statue.
"Because she's Power Girl. That's just how it works. Anyway, we need to get going. C'mon..."
Tugging at his jacket sleeve, Carrie dragged the confused lad past the longboxes, past the mass-market action figures, through a curtain and into the back room.
Which had... more longboxes, more mass-market action figures, and more statuettes with boobs hanging out.
"I'm not seeing where this is going. Unless all these little figures are going to come to life using elven magic. And if that's the case please tell me right now because that I would definitely freak out over," Van warned, to be fair.
"It's all about ley lines, and... well, I don't know the science behind it. Err, the magic behind it," she clarified... grasping one edge of a throw square rug, which occupied much of the open floor space. "But..."
With a tug, she yanked it away... revealing an ordinary concrete floor. Except, strangely, for a series of lumpy looking rectangular rocks, arranged in a circle, embedded in the floor...
"You ever remember those pictures of Stonehenge from history class?" Carrie asked. "This is kinda like that, but boiled down to the bare essentials. It's a Faerie teleportation henge. The leyline running underneath this comic shop connects it to a similar circle in my backyard. That's how I commute from New Orleans to Atlanta every day, for school, and for... other appointments."
"Sooo... you live hundreds of miles away, in the Faerie Court, but... you go to school in America?" Van asked, not getting it. "I don't get it. Why the hell would you go through all this just to go to that crappy little school? Don't the grimms-- don't the elves have schools?"
"I was born in a city. I like cities," she explained, dusting off the top of the embedded henge, with her foot. "I just... I wanted to go to a normal, ordinary school. That's all. --anyway, here, step inside the circle with me, and we'll get going..."
...which showed an amazing lack of foresight, as it wasn't a circle designed for two. It took some futzing around to make sure they both fit within the radius of the henge... uncomfortable, teenagery futzing. Fortunately, Van was weirded out for other reasons, and completely failed to notice the weirding out Carrie was getting for more standardized reasons.
"R-Right," she said, trying to press against him as little as possible. "So, activation word, and we're off. 'Applesauce.'"
Minutes later, Milton showed up to move the rug back into place. One of the disadvantages of having a hidden Faerie entrance in your back room... but worth it, to have a girl with an uncanny encyclopedic knowledge of comic lore constantly spending money in your shop.
Tension was not a common thing around the Casa de Una. If there was a warm and cozy little center to the universe, her cottage was it. She'd overseen the construction herself, the day after they returned from the Forsaken Shores, to carve out a little niche in which the two of them could rest and relax after their daily travails.
It had everything they ever wanted in a home... a fine kitchen, well stocked for Nel's splendid cooking and fireproofed for Una's well-intentioned cooking. A vast library, lined ceiling to floor on all walls with bookshelves, loaded up with ancient faerie texts and custom reprints of classic American literature from the net. A fireplace, to curl up in front of. A media center, for enjoying movies and music. A highly optimized bathroom. A lovely garden out back, for growing herbs and vegetables. And so on, and so on..
But it didn't have a science facility. Not even a standard Orbital workstation, to tap into nearby Arcology #A076's networks. When Una came home from her duties at the Arcology or meetings at Emily's palace, she didn't want to bring her work with her. The cottage was for together time... originally as a couple, and later, as a family.
That meant that Pel had to haul a workstation with him, when he dropped in as a personal favor to Una, in order to study Van and his amazing magical doom gun.
The golden beams of the setting sun filtering through kitchen windows weren't having their relaxing effect today. Not for the boy, hooked up to various wireless sensor boxes. Not for the happy couple, unsure about this newcomer in their midst. And not for Carrie, who was really hoping this would solve all his problems, only to realize they couldn't even locate the tip of the iceberg...
Pel was an expert Biologist, specializing in brainwave analysis, but generalizing in just about everything else. He was on the team that studied Carrie, when she was retrieved from isolation. A Pragmatist with absolutely zero bedside manner... but also a highly skilled expert, whose talents Carrie could at least respect, even if he made her skin crawl at times.
"There's absolutely nothing unusual about him," Pel reported, after glancing up from his workstation readouts. "Elevated stress levels and mild biochemical depression, which I'd recommend supplements to treat--"
"I'm not taking crazy pills," Van warned. "I'd say I'm coping pretty well without them, for a guy who shot his parents two days ago."
"--and a rebellious streak, but I suppose he'd have to have one of those to join an Eastusa terrorist group--"
"Also? Not a terrorist. Thanks."
"--but otherwise, absolutely nothing wrong," Pel stated. "As for the gun... the detail in the decorative etchings goes beyond what should be possible using Eastusa science, but beyond that, there's absolutely nothing unusual about it. Except, of course, how its primitive chemical propelled kinetic rounds seem to reappear back in the spinner every time we empty them. But WHY that's happening, or how it's capable of editing reality... I can't tell. Strangely, its shift spectrum is native to this Earth, so I can't even claim it was imported during Pandora. I'd need months of close study just to start to understand what this is."
"Which means months of close study with me nearby, since if you take it away, it pops back in my pocket," Van filled in. "Months away from school. ...I could be okay with that."
"Van, you've got to go to school," Carrie stated. "If you don't learn, you can't graduate, and you can't get a good job and be a productive member of society."
...the boy gave her a look which implied the lack of caring about this chain of consequences. He ignored Pel, who was busy pulling the small boxes off his skin, packing them away.
"This is the best I can offer with the tools I have here," Pel said. "If you want more, run it through your father for approval, and we can set up an official coded concern and task force. Understanding how this history editing ability works could further Orbital science considerably. As far as we know, retroactive temporal manipulation effects outside of an incredibly massive shift-sequence like Pandora should be impossible... and even that's just a theory Mr. Gearhaus cooked up. This may be the evidence we need to explore that theory."
"And if I push the left pedal, do I get shocked, or do I get a cheese pellet?" Van asked, crossing his arms.
Una, who had been quiet throughout this examination, stepped in to shake Pel's hand.
"Thank you, Pel. I appreciate the help you've given us over the years," she said, with a smile. "We have some family decisions to make, and some things to discuss. We'll let you know if we're going to request an official concern or not. Give my best to your partner and your son. ...Carrie? Why don't your show Van your room, while Nel and I talk?"
An elven elbow in her side.
"I mean, why don't you show Van to his room," Una corrected. "There's no reason for him to live in a hotel; until we can reverse what the gun did to his parents, he can stay here. In the guest room at the end of the hall. Away from yours. Thanks."
"Okay, but... why aren't we in on this discussion?" Carrie asked. "I mean, this concerns Van's future, after all--"
"It's getting pretty late, and Van really should get settled in, if he's going to be staying with us for awhile," Una continued. "Best to take care of that now. Van, I hope you'll find the room comfortable; we don't often have guests, but we do our best to make them feel at home in our happy home. If you please...?"
Grown-ups! Carrie groaned, inwardly. I'm two hundred plus years older than them and they still treat us teens like toddlers...
Waving for the glum-and-irritated boy to follow her, the glum-and-irritated girl led him upstairs.
...and eavesdropped, while showing him around, pointing out where the bathrooms were, where he could hang up his jacket, and so on.
"...don't like this at all. Did you see the patches on his coat? Hanged elves?"
"It's just childish misappropriation of adult icons. Even Orbital teenagers do it; I used nanopaints to put imaginary numbers on my school workstation, as a youngling. He doesn't seem like a bad sort, at heart."
"He's barely said anything since he got here! How can you understand his heart, Una? He has a soulbound weapon! He's a danger to us... and young Carrie's already so confused, trying to get her life together..."
"We need faith in Optimism, love. People essentially want to be decent, at the core. It's only their fears that tell them to do otherwise. If we show him love, giving him nothing to fear, I think we can reach him. ...besides. Speaking from a Pragmatic level... this could lead us to uncover more about the conspiracy."
"You heard his story. Someone led his friends to what seems very much to be a Gatherer cache of artifacts. If the conspiracy is targeting the Gatherers, we could end up learning more about both secret societies! And beyond espionage, frankly... if anyone can help Van, it's the Gatherers. They already know everything we do not about this weapon, and -- Carrie, if you're hearing this, quit using your superhearing! Emily says this is supposed to be top secret!"
"Ghhk," Carrie exclaimed.
"What?" Van asked, pausing in the middle of unpacking his schoolbag on his guest bed.
"N-nothing," she said. "Soo, anyway, you can hang your jacket up there, and... um... did I miss anything?"
"No. And you told me where to hang my jacket twice already," Van said. "...soo. I'm going to be living in the middle of Elf Central, with your... mothers?"
"Oh, no no, they're my legal guardians. Aunties, kinda. My... my mother died a long time ago," Carrie explained. "And my father, too. Una and Nel have cared for me ever since then. They pulled me out of a really bad situation, and made me a part of their family... gave me a home. I know they can do the same for you, until we can bring your parents back! They're really, really great, such nice people, and so in love! ...uh, I hope they don't make you uncomfortable, being, um..."
Van flopped backwards on the bed, leaving his legs dangling off the side.
"Let me just get this clear, okay...? So you don't think the wrong thing about me," he said. "The whole Heather-Has-Two-Mommies thing? Whatever, you know? My mom always says God has enough love for all of us, and doesn't play favorites. Nobody in the Freedom Walls gives a crap about it. Hell, Garfield's dads are okay guys, even if they've got a complete jackass for a son. It's only out in the sticks that anybody still clings to the idea that gays shouldn't get married. I mean, what the hell? It was a hundred and thirty one years ago, people, deal with it..."
Carrie grinned, having a seat upright on the bed, looking back to him. "I knew you paid attention in history class."
"Hey, I like history. You can take your formulas and chemicals and poems and jam them up your ass -- history's got weight to it," Van continued. "The founding fathers. The civil war. The emancipation proclamation. The greatest generation. The Kennedy era. ...you know, the one elf I really, really dig? Kanthi F. Kennedy. He GETS it. He gets America. ...but, uh, if you ever run into my gang, don't tell them I said that. As far as Garfield thinks, elves are to blame for everything from Pandora to the New Hampshire blackouts."
"Sooo... if you admire Kanthi... why are you in a Federalist gang?"
"It's not really much of a Federalist gang," he explained. "After the bombing in Atlanta a few years back -- you know, the Wallflower Bombing? Garfield thought it'd be totally badass if we were Federalists. He's too much of a chicken to actually try to hook up with a cell, though. He just likes to talk. ...I've known him since before I can remember. Without me, he'd have gotten himself killed like eighty times by now. I wish I'd spoken up more about the Chinatown robbery, but we'd knocked over places before, I didn't think it'd be... it sucked. Sucked bad. ...my parents would be around today if I'd just smacked Gar and got him under control. Christ. I wish I knew where he was. I bet one bullet from Oblivion would... y'know..."
"You... you shouldn't think like that," Carrie said, not liking the line of thought. "Shooting anyone isn't going to solve this. Just... have some faith in Optimism. Una knows the smartest people in the world! She helped open up Westusa, she helped open up the world in the Welcome Wagon, and... and she knows everyone, too! Everyone who can do anything. They'll figure it out a way to save your parents..."
Van propped himself up on his elbows, to look at her.
"Don't you think that's kind of sucky?" he asked.
"Eh? What's sucky?"
"That all those great and important people... none of them are Eastusa folks," he said. "I mean, you go to school in Atlanta because you feel at home in Eastusa, right? You've got some patriotism. ...I'm not a racist. They're amazing people, history makers, all of them. But I wish we had those geniuses and explorers and really powerful guys, too. We've got nothing. Even the Scout's more Faerie Court than Frontliner."
"But... it's Eastusa. It's America. That's a pretty huge deal already, right?"
"Not anymore. Back before Pandora, sure, but now? The world got bigger, and we stayed small. President Waller's shut down all ex-prez Petersen's outreach efforts," Van explained. "The Federalists love The Wall's shiny bald head, but I sure don't. United Nations reopens for business, and are we there, proudly representing? Barely. Front and center are the Brits, thanks to that smooth talker diplomat that's always on the talk shows. The freaking Redcoats are the most influential nation, then the elves, then the spacers, and THEN Merkins. ...what's left of America? What do we really have anymore, what makes us unique? Nothing. No national pride to stand up and shine. As long as everybody's fed and entertained, that's as far as they care to reach for. It's... it's just sucky, is all."
"How are you flunking all your classes?!"
The topic change threw Van's gear box out of whack. He'd been cruising along at a steady pace, until that.
"Wut?" he offered.
"You're a smart guy. You think about stuff," Carrie said. "You really do think about stuff. I had no idea, because this is... well, I've never heard you really talk until now! I bet you could be pulling down A's in everything if you tried. Why not?"
The boy lie there, motionless, for a few moments. ...until he shrugged it off.
"I dunno. I don't care, I guess," he said. "I won't amount to much. My wheezy old grandpa, the teachers, the cops, everybody says as much. What's to reach for?"
"Um... I think you answered that question already," Carrie offered. "When you said you were sick of people who didn't reach to make America great again."
"Uh-huh. And what can I, one self-declared punk, possibly do to make THAT happen?"
"All those history makers were punks! Loners against the biggest challenges. But individually, yeah, each was just one," Carrie suggested. "Like Una, and Nel. But they took chances, they reached, and they did amazing stuff together. Individual folks who work together can get a heck of a lot done. But if Una or Nel decided, meh, I can't do it, or it's not worth it... where'd we be? No Westusa expansion. No United Nations. Nothing."
This time, the motionless pause was a bit more thoughtful. No shrug, to wash away the rising notions, at the end.
"I guess there's one thing I can do for this nation that nobody else can," Van suggested.
"Great! What's that?"
"I can hunt down and shoot all my so-called friends," he said. "To keep them from hurting anyone, like I've done."
Carrie's encouraging smile dropped immediately. "That's... not really what I had in mind--"
Van pushed off from the bed, sitting up next to her... turning, to look at her seriously. The same hunted, desperate look... muted, compared to the blank terror he had earlier that day, but it was there...
"You think anybody else can do it?" he asked. "Seriously? Carrie... remember what I said. We got tipped off. We robbed the place with all the weird junk. Oblivion was not the only thing that got stolen that day. Everybody in the gang grabbed something. And I haven't seen them all weekend, since everything went down. So either they're dead... or they're out there. And just as dangerous as I am. They could all have Oblivions, for all I know."
It was a logical jump she hadn't made. Multiple artifacts. Multiple weapons, all out there in the wind...
"The police... I mean, the cops can handle it, right?" she suggested. "Or the FBI. I mean. Sure, President Waller shut down the FBI's Anachronism Task Force and fired Auntie Elisa, but it's not like the FBI doesn't exist anymore--"
"And by the time some FBI specialist gets to Atlanta, how many people are gonna be dead?" Van asked. "I know my friends. They're not like me; they ENJOY being thugs, they get off on it. Not just to be rebel spirits, but to kick people over, to steal, to go nuts. I'm shocked they haven't started rampaging across the city already with Christ knows what kind of abilities from those damn things... it's going to take a hell of a force to stop them if their artifacts are anything like what I've got. Like... I dunno, some... super strong, invulnerable, immortal badass, or something..."
A terrifying thought. Which wasn't terrifying at all, except in that it didn't terrify her. It should have. She was just a normal schoolgirl, after all. Someone trying to put together the broken pieces of her life, and nothing more complicated than that...
"...out of curiosity," she said, "What exactly did your friends take? Did you see...?"
Van closed his eyes, trying to think back.
"Garfield nabbed the Magic Eight Ball. Seriously, just a toy, a black plastic Eight Ball," he said. "That's what we were sent there to steal, although he never said who told him to grab it or why. While we were in there... let's see... Madison, she stole a pinwheel. You know, paper spinny thing on a stick. Thought it looked cute. Jackson, that scrawny little douchebag, stole some old chinese comb. Jade, I think. Said he was gonna give it to his sister."
His laugh snapped Carrie out of her intense concentration.
"I guess I'm worried for nothing, huh?" he asked, with a grin. "I'm the idiot who picked up a freaking revolver. They grabbed toys and beauty products. What could those do? Make your hair pretty, or tell you that your outlook isn't so good? Big deal. ...nevermind. I'm sure those idiots just got themselves killed or ran for the hills. Forget I said it."
"Right, right," she agreed.
Without saying another word.
One in the morning. No night terrors to wake from -- she hadn't fallen asleep yet. Just... lying in bed. In her pajamas. Thinking.
She wasn't the least bit tired. Today's events had been like winding up a jack in the box... a sequence of implausible events, encounters she never expected to have, conversations she couldn't have predicted. Her nice, normal life being thrown a curve ball. Turning the crank, over and over, the normal life she'd been working towards feeling like it was about to pop and come apart at the seams...
That should have her on edge with worry. It should be a disaster, this much superpowered weirdness flowing in through the cracks of her tightly organized little existence.
Instead, she was on edge with excitement. Unable to sleep, because now, things were actually feeling... normal. Super-normal.
True, back home she also went to school in her secret identity, hiding away who and what she was. She did her best to enjoy the mundane things in life; high school was, eventually, a sweet relief and an escape from the more hectic life of a superheroine. But... for all the benefit it gave her, an ordinary life was only half of her life.
The other half was something she hadn't even considered seeking out -- after being rescued from the madness of isolation, desperately playing hero to imaginary citizens, it seemed like regression to even consider it... so, she wasn't considering it. Just... thinking about it. Pondering. Totally harmless.
Pulling herself out of bed, Carrie turned on the Fae lantern at her bedside. Its dim but comforting glow was enough, as she stepped in front of her dressing mirror... looking at the yellow star on her chest. The familiar yellow star, on a deep blue background...
Months ago, Carrie had given the time-honored 'costume cloth' formula to Una, to produce her sleeping clothes. It stood to reason; if the house ever caught on fire, if she ever had to take to the skies or move at superspeed in an emergency, having indestructible undergarments would be helpful. A basic blue top, a bit short and midriffy (very 1990s heroine) which she'd added her traditional crest to on a whim. Bicycle shorts, for modesty and simplicity. Comfy, functional, familiar. Plus, they were stellar for her morning workouts, as the spandex-esque cloth was well suited to aerobics.
The fact that they were nearly identical to her superhero costume was entirely coincidental, she'd told herself. Just a little taste of home, to help her get through the unpleasant nights. Nothing more.
If she took the remaining cloth, still in her closet...
If she used the pair of nano-shears in her desk drawer...
It didn't mean she HAD to do anything, afterwards. Carrie was just curious about what it'd look like, what it'd feel like.
With practiced ease, she trimmed out the shape. Held it in her hands, turned it over, made sure it was nice and symmetric. And... taking a deep breath, she affixed it in place. The cloth would stick to her skin, until she chose to pull it off; it was coded to only be removable with her touch. Great to avoid any secret-identity risking incidents.
In the mirror, the simple dark blue domino mask looked... perfect.
I had a purpose, once. The thought clear and true, in Carrie's normally cluttered mind. I was able to help people. I was able to be a beacon of hope. Van needs one of those so badly now, to keep from feeling that he's lost everything... and for that matter, Eastusa needs a champion. Someone to stand for them, to stand by them. A hero...
...add a pair of gloves, maybe the belt she took on a nature hike a few weeks ago with the pouches, even heroines carry some cash and mini-flashlights and other things in case of emergencies, oh, and her best pair of sneakers should be able to hold up at least for one night's outing before she could find something better, and yes, yes, that extra sheet of cloth would work great, after all, it wasn't complete without the CAPE...
When Una peeked in to check on her, she found Carrie's room empty, with the window open and the curtains blowing in the breeze.
Two in the morning. Another hot Atlanta night. Another chance to score.
He'd finally found a supplier he could trust, after having to deal with the guy who nearly sold him out. It was a rough business, especially when you tended to divide what you get between your customers and yourself. Hadn't started out that way; this was just something to fill the void left by his paycheck when the crap job he got from the halfway house buckled under. Soon, using took the edge off the nerves he got from the business. Soon after that, using was more than half the reason to go cruising for new product...
In the end, none of the particulars mattered. What mattered was money. And the best way to get it was to roll the best-dressed, most-vulnerable people in the least-patrolled part of the city. Dead of night. Nobody around to notice, and the few that would, sure as hell wouldn't care. Easy money, and nobody gets hurt. Unless the money doesn't come easily.
The heat may have been driving the potential income sources away, but one had promise -- some woman, walking home after getting off the bus. Fine threads for living in this part of town. Might be a story behind that, but he didn't care about the particulars. The money was the key. And she probably had enough on her for at least one fix...
Ambushing was simple enough. Wait until they were on opposite sides of the alleyway entrance. Move to intercept, press the gun to her ribs, keep the instructions short and simple. Into the alley. Honestly, the imagined threat was more than enough; even on his shakiest night he wasn't the sort to visit unpleasantness on a woman, but hey, if they WANTED to think he would, that'd make things smoother.
Tonight, things were going smooth. Until they suddenly weren't.
She was getting her money out, nice and twitchy and nervous (proof she wasn't going for a weapon) when a blue and white blur interspersed itself between him and his profit.
"Halt, evildoer!" the voice called out.
Opening fire was a knee-jerk response. If he wasn't so long between fixes, maybe he could've kept his cool.
The blur resolved itself when it crumpled to his feet, dead.
For a moment, mugger and muggee froze, as their working relationship had been shattered in an instant. Both were reduced to horrified bystander, now.
A teenager. A teenager in a silly costume, playing hero. He'd shot a kid. After a life of petty crimes, substance abuse, and basic theft -- all nasty things, but hardly unforgivable sins -- he'd murdered a little girl.
"Oh," he said. "Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus what the hell just... what--?"
The dead girl then popped back up, groaning and rubbing at her bare midriff. The bullet had flattened itself there, right next to her belly button... and fell out, clattering to the ground.
"Sorry, sorry, I'm a bit out of practice," she admitted. "I forgot that it stings a little to get shot point blank. Where was I? Oh, okay. Ahem. HALT, EVILDOER!"
And then he was placed gently against the brick wall of a Chinese laundromat. Not slammed there with force, simply... lifted, and pressed there, pinned by someone who apparently had twenty times his strength.
"... what?" he repeated, albeit with a different sort of confusion.
"Fear not, citizen! I have defeated the foul villain!" the heroine declared. "Ah, I would've gotten here sooner, but I forgot it takes awhile to fly at subsonic speeds all the way to Atlanta. Sorry."
The working woman started to say something. Stopped. Looked around, suspiciously. "Is this a movie? Did I walk on set?" she asked. "Um. What's going on? Do I need to sign a waiver?"
"Oh, sorry, I should explain more," the kid said. "I'm a superhero. A defender of freedom and justice! A champion for those in need of a champion! --um, except I'm kinda busy keeping him secure, so... can you call 911 for me? Ask the cops to swing by and pick him up. I can't reach my phone right now. With his prints on the gun and your witness testimony, combined with his telltale blood pressure and pupil dilation, it should be enough to put him away on drug and assault charges."
"What?" the mugger asked, again. Wondering if maybe he wasn't as far away from a fix as he thought he was.
"It'd help if you dropped the gun," the heroine suggested, turning her attention to the criminal scum, while the victim fumbled phone buttons. "I mean, you're not going to be able to shoot me again like this, and even if you did, I'm bulletproof. Actually, at this range, I'm lucky it didn't ricochet and hit you. Sorry about that. I'm out of practice. I think I mentioned that already."
"I... I don't know how to react to this," the mugger said, honestly. "I'm not hallucinating, right?"
"I don't think so, sir."
"You're not dead, right? I'm not dead? I didn't just kill some crazy kid, and end up in Hell and this is all a nightmare, right?"
"I'm okay, sir. You're not dead, sir. The gun, please...? I mean, the alternative is I have to pull it from your fingers, and that could go really badly for you," she warned. "Err, not that I'm threatening to hurt you, that's not really how I do things, but it WOULD hurt if I had to pry your fingers loose and it might go off accidentally, and... and... just drop the gun for now, okay? Please?"
For lack of a better option, the gun fell to the pavement.
Moving swiftly, the heroine lowered him -- but in a blur, pulled a zip-tie from her belt pouch (freshly pilfered from the storage shed behind the cottage) and fixed his wrists to the handle of a large portable dumpster.
"And the day is saved!" the heroine announced, with an exaggerated show of dusting off her hands. "You're safe now, ma'am. Did you call the police?"
"Y-yes, I did," the woman said, putting her phone away. "Can I go home now...?"
"It'd be best if you stayed to at least make a statement to the arresting officer," the heroine suggested. "Otherwise all they'll have is my word on it, and right now, I don't know if they'd believe a kid in a mask. There's a process of proper police protocols and procedures to proceed with. Don't worry; I'll keep watch over you while we wait."
With that settled, and completely oblivious to the dumbfounded stares of the innocent and the evildoing alike, she pulled a Granola Crunchie bar from her belt and started to chow down.
She paused about halfway through.
"Flying for an hour takes a lot out of me," she explained. "I need my carbs."
By the time two squad cars had arrived, red and white lights a-flashin' in the heat of the night, the situation had calmed somewhat. That left only the cops to be completely weirded out, as one took the woman's statement, and the other kept an eye on the hero and villain.
"I mean, I'm not TRYING to hurt anyone. But what else can I do? Gotta eat. Gotta make it. But no schooling, no nothing," the man zip tied to a dumpster was explaining.
"There's always alternatives," the heroine suggested, trying to keep his spirits up. "For instance, the Fringe territories. A lot of them are expanding, now that they don't have to worry about constant Fae attacks. Unskilled labor can go for a premium up there, and enough of it can turn you into skilled labor through practice. I know one guy who visited my home town of... um... Unspecified Hometown, and he was telling me all about how he went from village to village, doing odd work. They pay in money, food, and shelter. It's not much, but it could be enough to get you started right. Help you get back on your feet."
"Don't sound like a particularly pleasant life..."
"Hard work is the foundation of a good life," she said, with a smile. "And eventually, it gets better. I promise, it does get better. A wise woman once said to me that all people essentially want to be decent, at the core. It's only their fears that tell them to do otherwise. I know you can be a decent person, Dennis."
"...kid, who the hell ARE you, anyway?" Dennis the Formerly Menacing asked.
"Me? I'm Astro Gal," the heroine said, with pride. "I'm a superhero!"
"You're also under arrest for assault and vigilantism," the cop watching over them said, putting his official communicator away. "Uh. Sorry, kid. Chief's orders."
"That's okay, sir," Astro Gal said. "I had a feeling that was going to happen. I respect the decisions of our noble law bringers. Besides, I really should talk to your commanding officer before doing more good deeds, to make sure we have an understanding. Plus, I'd like to put in a good word on Dennis's behalf."
Without hesitation, she put out her wrists, to be cuffed.
The officer hesitated. "Kid... you took a slug point blank to your stomach, and bent the barrel of that gun ninety degrees," he pointed out. "I don't think handcuffs are gonna hold you..."
"It's okay, I promise I won't break them," she offered. "Just... please don't pull off the mask, okay? Secret identity, and all."
"Uh... no problem. Right this way," he said, showing her to the back of her own personal squad car. "You have the right to remain silent..."
This really wasn't how Barbara O'Dare wanted to spend her Monday night. She'd finished getting the kids to bed, and had crawled in next to her sleeping husband for a long rest when a few hours later, code 404 came in over her communicator. The code for Possible Fae / Unknown Supernatural Incident.
It wasn't a common enough code for there to be an established procedure, beyond "Go call the FBI and let them deal with it." But since the elite Anachronism Task Force was disbanded by The Wall, the station house had no idea what to do, and that meant pulling the Chief of Police out of her bed and into the office to deal with... whatever it was. Presumably since the station wasn't on fire and half the city wasn't engulfed in tentacular horrors or spectral wraiths, the situation was under control, and all she had to do was sort out the aftermath.
Honestly, it was a relief to hear that today's 404 was a teenage superhero, who was sitting calmly in her office waiting to be interrogated. The only incident in the arrest was her asking for a soda, with the station's vending machine on the blink. Lt. Darryl had been nice enough to hit the corner store to grab her a doughnut and a Pepsi.
Of course, the arrest report said she apparently could take point blank bullets without harm (backed up by the on-site ballistics analysis) and had, with the strength of twenty men, bent a perfectly good piece of evidence in half. Apparently the girl did apologize for that after, saying it was 'an old habit' and that 'lately she didn't like guns very much.'
Since whoever -- or whatever -- this was had declined to tear up the precinct in a superhuman rampage, Chief O'Dare decided to give her the benefit of the doubt with a polite sit down interview.
She finished leafing through the arrest report for the third time, as "Astro Gal" was slurping noisily at her soda.
"Soooo..." Barb began, after setting the folder down. "A superhero."
"Yes, ma'am," Astro Gal greeted. With a little salute. "Here to defend the good men and women of Atlanta from the forces of evil."
"This is the part where I explain that reality is not like one of those old comics books, and that you can get seriously hurt out there. Except according to this, you apparently are immune to bullets," the chief said. "Not that I intend to test that theory. So, I can't appeal to you on that level. But I can say that you aren't an authorized officer of the law, and shouldn't be acting as such."
"It's okay, ma'am. I've done this before," Astro Gal explained. "I've been trained by the world's best crime fighters. I understand that my role is to deal with threats, defusing situations and preventing loss of life and property -- and that's all. After that, it's up to your dedicated officers and the courts to see to it that justice is done. I'm trained to stop the immediate threat only, and to restrain suspects while maintaining the chain of evidence. ...um. Sorry about breaking Dennis's gun."
"...'Dennis,'" the chief repeated, incredulous.
"He's had a bad run of things lately, turning to villainy and all, but I think he can be redeemed. I hope the judge takes that into account."
"Let's assume that you're on the level and not completely insane," Chief O'Dare suggested. "For the sake of argument. Let's assume that you know how to stop a bad situation without causing more problems than you solve. Still won't work. In many cases, you'll end up a witness to a crime. You'd still need to testify in a court of law, and I'm sorry missy, you can't do that while wearing a mask and playing dress up games. Someone would have to know who you really are--"
The black domino mask hit her desk.
"My name is Carrie Lane, legal ward of Una zero point one of Arcology #A076 and Nelliwyn Myfanwy of the Faerie Court," Carrie stated. "Like I said, ma'am... I'm a servant of the people. If I can't trust an official government representative of your standing to protect my secret identity, who can I trust? With my identity known to the court, if not the jury and the reporters, that should be enough under current Eastusa trial law for me to testify in situations where you don't have enough material witnesses to make a conviction. Similar to people in witness protection programs testifying while having a secret identity. ...see, if the bad guys know who I really am, my family would be in danger of being kidnapped and slowly lowered into a volcano. I can't allow that to happen."
Any hopes of laughing this off and crawling back into bed shriveled and died before Barb's very eyes. Not that she knew who 'Carrie Lane' was... but Una and Nel, those names had some weight. Daughter of the Orbital leader. Part of the original Welcome Wagon team. Close personal friends of Queen Emily Moonthistle of the Faerie Court...
Why did I vote for The Wall? Barb groaned, inwardly. If he hadn't disbanded the ATF, I could drop this steaming pile right in their laps and call it a night...
"I understand your doubts, ma'am," Carrie assured. "Superheroes aren't as common on your world as they were on mine. But I assure you that I know the difference between the fun of a comic book hero and the reality of law enforcement. I can be a great asset to this fine city, if you let me."
"If I let you...? I'm failing to see how I could stop you, 'Astro Gal', if this report is even half true."
Carrie picked up her mask, smoothing the cloth back onto her skin. Its snug fit, adhering to her skin, was comforting.
"I can't save the day very effectively if I have to hide in the shadows all the time. I'm not really much of a Batman," Astro Gal explained. "I don't do dark and gritty vigilante real well. I'd rather work directly with the local men and women of law enforcement, to ensure criminals get their due, properly and legally. Please... let me help you. I have a degree in criminology. I have the skills to do this. Give me a chance..."
The file was on her desk. This was her problem to deal with; Chief Barbara O'Dare, not the ATF, not the FBI. Granted, someone from that bunch would want to have their say... but it technically was HER city that this would-be heroine was helping out in. Her decision.
Which she was not going to make at three in the morning.
"I need time to think about this," she said. "And to call your parents. And... just... to call people who I need to call who I'm not thinking clearly enough to name right now. You've had enough of an adventure for tonight, Astro Gal. Head on home, and we'll--"
A rapping on the plastic of her door window, followed immediately by Lt. Darryl bursting into the office.
"Scrambling units, ma'am," he said, quickly. "Out of control municipal bus headed into the center of the city. We're clearing the streets and preparing a roadblock."
Her internal narrator let out a string of expletives, as the Chief got up from behind her desk.
"Anyone on the bus?" she asked. "Any demands made? Explosives on board?"
"It was moving too fast to tell, but... very likely it's got passengers, at least. Estimates aren't good if it runs the roadblock, at the speed it's averaging. We can't raise the driver on his communicator, either--"
A small hand, on her arm.
"Let me help with this," Astro Gal asked.
O'Dare paused. Not sure what to say.
"Please," the young heroine whispered. "This is something I can do. I can save those people. Give me a chance. ...if I fail, you'll still have the roadblock."
It's my neck on the line if this kid screws things up and we lose lives.
It's their necks on the line if I don't let this kid make a go at it and possibly save lives.
"If you can't stop it, get out of there," O'Dare said. "Go."
Quickly, Astro Gal bounded to the window, flinging it open -- an impressive feat, considering it had been painted shut years ago in an office refinishing incident, much to the Chief's annoyance -- and jumping out.
Barbara O'Dare rushed to the window, looking down... and saw no body on the pavement. Instead, the girl was soaring through the sky, headed towards the distant sound of car horns.
Even in the dead of night, it was hard to miss the sight and sound of a giant metal box hurtling down the city streets. Unless you happened to be in a car in its direct path, in which case, you were lucky to be missed by it.
The bus was careening, but not completely out of control -- whoever was driving it was trying to avoid smashing into other cars, but accidents were inevitable. All Astro Gal had to do was follow the trail of rear-ended automobiles behind it. She kept her ears sharp, listening for heartbeats, hoping the late-night drivers were going to be okay... but her job, first and foremost, was to stop the bus. Before anyone else could get hurt in its rampage.
She couldn't fly at top speed, no without a sonic blast knocking out the windows for blocks around. She also had to be careful not to crash into low hanging street lamps, signs, and overpasses -- the faster you go, the worse your stopping distance, the less likely you can make sharp turns. Physics could be ignored in SOME respects, but not all...
Soon enough, she'd caught up to the bus.
It had seen better days. The front end was smashed quite a bit, engine parts exposed but still ticking away. Solid Eastusa engineering. Sideswipes and scrapes had done a number on the bus, including buckling the automatic doors, locking them shut. Through the windows...
People. All they wanted to do was go home, and instead, they were on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. A woman, rocking in her seat with her hands over her head, obviously praying. A man who was on the edge of a heart attack, from the sound of his pulse. Assorted others, including one laid flat out on his back, with a concussion...
The bus driver, in his fine official Atlanta Transit Services uniform, was holding a bent tire iron in one hand with the other on the wheel. And he was smiling and whistling, as he pushed the gas pedal through the floor. Looking like he was enjoying a pleasant sunday drive.
She could pull the door open, but with the bus already in motion, that could alarm the driver. There wasn't any reason to try to reason with an unreasonable, likely-on-drugs man behind the wheel. The bus could simply be stopped. She'd done it plenty of times before... although, she'd also taken plenty of bullets before, and the sting of that shot earlier was enough to put her off her game...
Either I do this right or they get hurt, Astro Gal realized. So, she'd have to do it right.
Cruising low alongside the bus, to avoid being seen, she slipped around in front of the bus. The air currents threatened to unsettle and already tricky flight path -- she accelerated with them, compensating. Keeping pace, as she twisted in midair... and planted her hands against the load bearing structure of the front bumper.
Two palms against a giant metal beast wasn't going to be enough, of course. And if she pushed too hard, she'd just punch right through the metal and get stuck. Instead, she gradually flattened herself against the front of the bus, applying the force over a wider space... and began to fly in reverse. Counter thrust against the roar of the engines...
Gradually, very gradually and carefully... the bus went from burning rubber to squealing rubber. The driver was still flooring it, even as the bus deaccelerated, fighting against Carrie tooth and nail. She had to adjust the angle of her 'flight' constantly, to keep it from wriggling away from her, to keep it as an equal and opposite force...
Once she was satisfied the bus was under control... she reared back a fist, and slammed it straight through the engine block.
The cylinders hit harder than Barry Blockface on a bad day. Her arm by all rights should be a mangled and bloody mess. Even with invulnerability... it hurt. It hurt a LOT. But it only hurt for a little while, before the engine gave up the ghost.
It took her twenty seconds to pull her hand free, jerking scrap metal along with it.
It took her three seconds to tear the door off its hinges, storm the bus, and pull the driver away from the wheel.
The portly bus driver gave her a hazy, half-lidded little look and smiled away, even as he was hauled off his feet.
"Why...?" Astro Gal had to ask. "WHY would you...?"
"It's simple enough," the man mumbled. "I was just sitting here doing my usual route, all relaxed-like, and thinking... if I drive fast, really fast, faster than the speed of light, my bus can occupy every point in space and time simultaneously. And that'd mean my passengers could get where they wanted to go in an instant. Makes perfect sense, right?"
It made such little sense that Astro Gal couldn't even find a sensible way to explain how nonsensical it was. So... she slowly, carefully, set him back down in his seat. Suspect unharmed and apprehended, crisis averted. Day saved.
...in fact, those who she had just saved were staring at her now, instead of staring at him. As were the people outside the bus.
The police had managed to catch up, patrol cars circling around the scene. Blue lights flashing. A van with the unmistakable News Local 8 logo on it had rolled up behind them -- likely the sound of helicopter rotors high above was also a sign the media had been covering the entire incident.
Straightening out her cape and wiping engine oil off her punching arm, Astro Gal disembarked. She turned to help the shaken passengers off the bus, suggesting they mind the gap, and watch their step. Emergency medical technicians were there to receive them, ready to treat the injured...
And there was Chief O'Dare.
But before the police chief could step forward... Astro Gal found herself momentarily blinded. Someone was holding a flood light attached to a video camera in her face.
A microphone followed.
"Miss! Miss, please, a moment!" aspiring local reporter Dan Brown called out. "Are you the one who stopped the bus? Were you... were you really flying, back there?"
"Um... yes?" Astro Gal said, trying to focus despite the light in her eyes.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Astro Gal. Defender of truth, justice, and the American way," she replied automatically.
...then realized she'd just revealed herself before the entire city. The entire world, once this report hit the net.
"I... I need to go now," she stated. "It's WAY past my bedtime."
In a blue streak, the teenage heroine leapt into the sky, and shot away towards the horizon.
"...and then I said it was way past my bedtime," Carrie continued. "I can't believe I said that. And... ugh, have you SEEN the online remix videos? I look so silly...!"
Doc tapped her stylus on her pad, closing a video window.
"I think you look very heroic," she assured. "There's some very impressive action shots in these videos of you stopping the bus. And that's a great singing voice you have!"
"It's called autotuning, Doc. I wasn't singing, that's a machine doing it for me."
"Oh. Well, learn something new every day," Doc said. "So, continue. How did you feel after an evening of heroing?"
Carrie tried to relax, tried to stretch out on Doc's nice couch. To put aside the anxieties, the worries...
"Well... at the TIME, I felt great," Carrie admitted. "It's like... all the mess in my life, the things I'm trying to put back together, it brought some order to that chaos. I had a real a purpose, for a change, beyond just 'don't go nuts.' It's only when I got back in my room and found Una and Nel waiting for me, that, uh... it all hit me. How utterly crazy this was..."
"Do you regret your outing in hindsight, then?"
"N-No. Yes. Somewhat," she said, unsure. "If I wasn't there, that driver who lost his mind might've gotten people killed, so... I can't regret helping. A hero helps save the day. A hero is a beacon of hope. ...but I didn't want to worry Una and Nel the way I did. I should've talked to them... should've talked to you, too, to help me find my way through this safely. I can't believe I just up and decided to go heroing in the middle of the night... such an important decision and I made it on impulse. That's what I regret."
"Decision making is a critical process," Doc agreed. "But being paralyzed by indecision can be hazardous to a superhero, yes? Impulsive decisions aren't always wrong. Sometimes, they make the most sense, once you jettison your worry. Don't you agree?"
Strange. Carrie sat up on the couch, turning that thought over in her head.
"Uh... that's not really how it works, Doc," she said. "If anything... a hero has to be fast AND incredibly careful when she makes decisions. Make the wrong move, punch the wrong guy, use too much or too little force... and it can all go wrong. Mom taught me to think on my feet, but to think. Impulse isn't the way to go."
"I see. A very interesting perspective," Doc said absentmindedly, as she continued tapping her stylus. "So. You were pleased with your work, but the aftermath isn't what you hoped for. And now, Una and Nel are having a chat with the police, about the future of your superheroing career..."
"Right. While they're doing that, I'm... kinda taking a fake sick day from school," Carrie admitted. "I was out so late, there was no way I could stay awake in class. ...I really messed up, Doc. I'm lucky Van didn't spot me flying in and out of my window--"
"Um... Van Buren. A boy who's staying with us for awhile," she said. "He's... well, that's not important. Anyway, he's at the Arcology today, as they do some tests, and later on I'm going to help him get his stuff from the hotel he was staying at, and... and... can we focus on my family situation?"
"Oh? Does talking about a new boy in your life make you uncomfortable?" Doc asked. "I know we've comfortably discussed your concerns regarding dating before..."
"I'm not dating Van!" Carrie protested. "He's just... staying at my house. In another room. He's not a bad guy, I mean, he's KIND of a bad guy in a villain sense, but not a BAD guy, and... look, I'm not dating him. We barely know each other. I'm just being his hero, I guess. Helping him through a rough patch. --I don't go for bad guys, anyway!"
"Really? And who did you tell me was your first real boyfriend?"
"Kid Kaos, but I don't see what that has to do with... uh..."
Doc giggled, slightly. ...almost mocking.
The girl on the couch wasn't sure she liked that, but Doc was an Orbital, and they often had trouble using local social norms correctly. Doc didn't mean to sound mocking; Doc was just trying to help out. Doc could be trusted...
"Carrie... please, don't misunderstand," she said. "I'm here to help you question yourself, to understand yourself. I'm merely pointing out similarities that may help you find your own path. I know you're uncomfortable with the age gap issue... being both too old and too young for anyone you meet. Having to abandon them, before they can notice you aren't growing up alongside them. Carrie, I'm not suggesting you date the boy. Just... be honest with yourself. Explore your feelings. Understand them. Okay?"
"O.. kay," Carrie agreed. "You're right. Okay."
"Now, then. Una and Nel said they'd be by soon to pick you up, so let's move on," Doc suggested...
Reaching over to her desk, opening a box. Retrieving the metal sphere. The Relax-o-Tron.
"This helped you considerably during our last session, so let's see where it takes you today," Doc suggested. "One minute only, of course. Ready?"
An idle memory tickled at the back of Carrie's mind. But her bundled up anxiety, only made worse as Doc dragged Van into her thoughts, that cried out for some sort of relief. Some way to detangle the mess...
She offered a brief nod, and focused, closing her eyes.
The haze was familiar, now. Just as it was the last time she was here -- it dampened down the noise, the What If, What If, the constant self doubting. The panic that kept her from figuring anything out properly.
I'm meant to be a hero, and I WANT to be a hero, she understood. This is where I was always going, once I felt stable enough to embrace it again. Maybe I was clumsy getting back into the cape and the mask, but I'm there now. I'll just have to find a way to make it all work.
Una and Nel love me; they'll understand. The Chief seems like a sensible woman; she'll understand. I'm going to stop Van's friends from hurting anyone, and then I'm going to save Van from his despair. Bad guys aren't always bad guys. Van's a bad boy but not a bad guy.
But it's not like I'm INTO bad boys. That's just a coincidence. Heroes CAN be danger junkies, but unlike them I'm always so very, very careful.
Can't I be careless in my own time, when the only one who can get hurt is me?
Besides, Daddy positively HATES it. That's how I can rebel against him. He always calls me a dirty girl, anyway, so I guess I am one. I should be Van's bad girl. Makes perfect sense, right--?
Carrie snapped back to her senses -- and was apparently hovering in mid-air. Because the couch that previously was underneath her was now halfway across the room, with a sizeable imprint in the leather, from where her flailing arm impacted against it.
Without much grace, she floated back to her feet, beating down the instinct to fight gravity. Stand up, and stand up strong. Like a normal girl... a normal girl who probably just spooked Doc, with that outburst of superpower.
"I'm, uh... sorry 'bout the couch," Carrie mumbled. "It's okay. I'm fine now."
"Quite alright, quite alright," Doc said, taking it completely in stride. She was busy putting away her Relax-o-Tron sphere, not the least bit concerned about ruined furniture. "I think that's enough for today. Clearly you need some peaceful time to reflect; we'll resume discussing how you feel about heroing next time we meet."
Of course, peaceful reflection time wasn't in the cards. Carrie had a full day ahead of her; find out if she was going to jail or just being grounded, meet up with Van after the Biologists were done poking at him, go grab his luggage, maybe hit the town in cape and mask to look for the Dead Presidents... a full slate. No time to sit around and think about... that.
I'm NOT like that, Carrie thought, anyway. I don't know where that came from. That's not what I want from Van. And it's not like father's around anymore. Doctor Mindmelter is NOT coming back...
She was still shaking her head as she left the office. Unable to shake loose the anxieties that her session with Doc had done nothing to clear up.
Doc's office was on the fifth floor of a generic pile of offices, lumped together in a rectangle of steel and glass in downtown Atlanta. It also housed dentists, accountants, and a game development company. That meant it had a rather spacious lobby, with plenty of couches and fountains and potted plants... simple business elegance. A fine place for meetings and discussions beyond the doors of each lump of offices.
Carrie had to wait, nervously twiddling her thumbs for eight and a half minutes, next to a fountain full of pennies. Her session had ended a bit early when she rearranged Doc's furniture. Again, not something she really wanted to sit around and think about, not when bigger issues were at stake...
Three women entered the building. One was fairly incognito, wearing a long overcoat, hat, and shades... which was a good sign. If Chief O'Dare was trying to avoid notice during this meeting, maybe it meant she was now dedicated to preserving Carrie's secret identity. Otherwise, she'd probably have shown up with a few arresting officers and the kind of iron restraints they use on rampaging ogres.
She moved to greet them. Gave both Una and Nel a big hug, bigger than she usually did. The comfort of their touch was something she seriously needed that afternoon.
Una, being the usual spokesperson for the family... glanced at Nel for confirmation, then cleared her throat, to begin.
"We've decided that you can keep heroing, on a very limited basis," Una announced. "Mrs. O'Dare is... concerned that if you were allowed to freely pick and choose what crimes to intervene in, without any oversight, it could be problematic..."
"I'd like to run a few test cases by the courts before I let you go hog wild on the scourge of villainy," the Chief pointed out. "You say you've done this before, and you know how to handle yourself, but I put my faith in results rather than promises. If you handle yourself well, we can loosen the leash a bit. But if this doesn't work... it'd be better off if it didn't work under my direct orders. That way, I can soak some of the blame."
Carrie listened, attentively... if confusedly. "But... that means you'd take the heat for me messing up," she said. "I don't want you to have to do that, ma'am..."
"This is my city, and my call," Barbara O'Dare declared. "And that means it's my heat whether you like it or not. Better that than you ending up in jail for a life sentence which, as your guardians tell me, would be very long indeed. So. I'm going to tie your phone into the municipal infrastructure -- it's all Orbital tech in the backbone, so it should work fine -- and signal you with a 404 if we have an incident that needs your special skills."
"Possible Fae / Unknown Supernatural Incident," Carrie immediately recognized. (Although at the time she was intensely studying local law enforcement practices, she'd told herself it was just an idle curiosity, and not planning for the future.)
"Atlanta is on the southwestern edge of Eastusa. We're flanked by the Fringe, with the Faerie Court and the Transitional State of Florida none too far away," Chief O'Dare said. "Four-oh-fours pop up more often than we'd like, and without the ATF, we don't have a handle on them like we used to. Beyond that we'll call you in for rescue work, where invulnerability and superstrength can be best applied. And... that's it, for now. No hostage situations, no bank vault heists, nothing too delicate until you prove yourself. And that's my final decision. Are you in?"
This time, she hugged the chief of police. Who clearly was not a hugging sort of lady... her arms up, as the teenager adhered to her midsection. Looking at the others, puzzled...
Carrie let go, coming up smiles.
"I'm in," she agreed. "I'm definitely in. Especially since there's three dangerous supernatural artifacts loose in the city right now."
Left to right, Barbara / Una / Nel. Flat stare / confused look / palm to face.
"Uh. Maybe I should've mentioned that last night...?" Carrie guessed. Just another thing she'd rushed into without telling anyone...
Nel decided to fill in, to take the harsh spotlight off Carrie. "We're working with a citizen of your domain right now, who's unfortunately tied up with a supernatural weapon," she explained. "The science lords of Arcology #A076 are working to disarm the weapon, but... apparently there are more out there..."
"In my, um, defense, I only found out about it late last night," Carrie said. "Apparently Van's friends each stole an item. A jade comb, a toy magic eight ball, and a pinwheel. Um. I'm just saying, you may have a few more four-oh-fours really soon, sooo... keep an eye out for them, right...?"
Now, Barbara was the one facepalming. "I see. Alright. Well, then," she grumbled. "Una? Nel? I think we're going to need to extend our little meeting. I want to know everything you know about this 'supernatural weapon' currently in Orbital hands, if I can expect a rash of crazy people armed with crazy objects in my city. ...I'll make this easier. Takeout dinner on me, and we'll all discuss it discreetly at the station."
"Ahhh... as you like, but... Carrie has other errands to attend to," Una said. "She's meeting the boy in question at the comic book shop we mentioned earlier. You won't need her for this; right now, #A076 knows more than she does about it. I can access my people's files from your municipal workstation. And, um, I need to find out exactly how much of this I'm allowed to talk about. Need to make some calls. --Carrie? How about if you take Van to dinner after getting his luggage, then take him home? Our treat, of course. We'll be along after we're done with Mrs. O'Dare."
A legion of tiny little hairs stood up on the back of Carrie's neck. Any other day, that suggestion would have been fairly mundane. But... after the strange twist in her mind under the effect of the Relax-o-Tron...
"S-Sure, no problem," she agreed, quickly. "I don't want to get in the way of cracking the case. You can count on me!"
Minutes later, and she was on a city bus, headed to the comic store. And, apparently, soon to be headed out on a date with Van Buren.
It wasn't advisable, for her to carry the heavy suitcase slung over one shoulder like it was a school backpack. It was very show-offy, in a superstrength sort of sense. But it was an affirmation she needed right now, amidst all the craziness of the last twenty four hours. (And she felt just slightly smug lofting the bag around easily, while Van was dragging the second suitcase around on squeaky wheels.)
"I'm a firm believer in aerobics, of course," Carrie was explaining. "And jogging. Other light impact stuff, just to keep your cardio tip-top. I don't really do much strength training; overall health is better than overly focusing on any one thing..."
"Either that or you've got dumbbells in your backpack and nobody's noticed," Van grumbled, hauling his bag along, one wheel stuck in a skewed position and refusing to cooperate. "So. You apparently study like a bookworm, given your grades, AND you're at the top in P.E. You're in the journalism and yearbook clubs. Is there any aspect of stereotypical teenage school life at which you AREN'T perfection incarnate?"
"... um... I fall asleep in class sometimes," she offered, in her defense. "I get bullied a lot because I don't like fighting..."
"Really. This from the one woman hit squad who took down Guido's entire gang."
"It's... just, you know, weekend judo classes, that's all. It's more leverage than strength, nothing special, anybody can do it. Totally normal. --and I don't like fighting, even if I can fight."
"Which explains why you let a punk-ass bitch like Guido walk all over you for so long. That's just sad," Van stated. "He's lower middle tier on the delinquent ladder. He'd be eaten alive if he went after the big fish, so he hassles you. But clearly you CAN stand up to him. Why not just swallow your morals and put the jackass down?"
"That's not how things work. It only leads to more fighting. I'm honestly hoping he never comes for a round two," Carrie admitted, even if she declined to say exactly why. "You can't get someone like that to change their ways for good just by scaring them off. You've got to change their minds about why they do what they do or they keep coming back."
"Very noble. Impossible, but noble. Please tell me we're nearly there, because my arm is falling off," Van begged, yanking hard on his suitcase handle, to free the dinky wheels from a sidewalk crack...
Like the previous day, he nearly ran into Carrie, when she stopped dead.
"We're here," she said, with a grin.
Looking up at a sign reading SINGH'S THERMONUCLEAR CURRY INFERNO.
As a customer walked out through the swinging doors, Van caught a whiff of the air, and it nearly liquefied his eyeballs.
"You? You love spicy food?" he asked. "Seriously? I always figured you for a mayo-on-white kind of gal..."
"I like strong flavors. S'matter? Not up to the challenge?" she asked, poking him lightly in the side.
By the way Van staggered, maaaaybe she'd poked too hard.
"You're appealing to my obvious punkish desire to self-righteously prove my manhood in the stupidest ways possible, aren't you," Van recognized. "Well... it's working. Jeez. I hate having such an easy button to push. Gar gets it all the time. Fine -- let's go annihilate our taste buds."
After the second plate, Van's self-righteous manhood was a flaccid puddle of agony.
By now, Carrie was feeling quite iffy about this outing. (Not a date. An outing.) In an effort to wrest control over the weirdness... she'd shown off her luggage-hauling abilities, shown off her iron stomach, and now reduced her houseguest to a quivering wreck. A quivering, annoyed wreck. But given Van's default reaction to the world around him was depressive annoyance, it was hard to tell if this was normal or some deeper level of dejection...
Either way, he'd drank enough water to slosh ever so slightly as he shifted in his seat. And was now turning to attack mode, likely in retaliation for these various offenses.
"I call B.S. on that. You're not a normal, ordinary, everyday girl," he protested, pointing a plastic fork at her from across the booth. "You're exceptional at everything you try, you wipe the floor with bad guys, you live with space fairy lesbians, and your bus to school is a circle of magical rocks in the basement of a comic book store. NOTHING about you is normal and ordinary."
"B-But I'm totally ordinary!" Carrie protested. "Lots of kids are good in classes. Lots of kids live with... um... well, and plenty go to school... okay, look, aspects around my life are a bit unusual. But! But, I'm normal. I'm shy! I can barely talk to people! Even the people in my after school clubs sometimes forget my name...!"
"You talk to me just fine," Van pointed out. "And for someone claiming to be shy, you marched right up to me at my nadir and decided to invite me into your cozy and stable life despite me being a thuggish jackass. That's not shy, that's outright heroism."
The food must've been the reason Carrie felt so hot and uncomfortable right now. Iron stomach or not, it was four times more spice than normal people-- NO. She was normal. Just--
"And thank God for that, because I am sick to death of the boring and ordinary," Van said, prepping his next fork load of the massively spicy dish. "Every day, I'm completely surrounded by the predictable, the lame, the annoying. The dusty textbooks that haven't changed in decades, the teachers who label and file you away the moment they meet you, the jocks trying so hard to prove superiority, the nerds assuming the only people they can deal with are other nerds, the cheerleaders... it'd take me days to list their problems. Hell, even my own gang. Predictably jackassy. The ennui of it all is utterly crushing. But you're the least boring person I've met in a long, long time. I think that's why I haven't done the sensible thing and shot myself yet. I want to see where this is going."
He managed two more forkfuls while Carrie sat there, jaw semi-slack, unable to think of a proper response to that.
"I'm going to pay for this later, but I'll admit, it's good stuff," he said, poking at the food. "Carrie? Are you having a stroke or something?"
"This isn't a date," she blurted out.
Van's turn to pause, in confusion.
"I'm going to assume you weren't talking about the small fruit," Van Buren decided. "Uh. In that case... where'd that come from? Who said this was a date?"
"My therapist," Carrie clarified, in a fit of honesty. "I saw her today and she thinks I'm interested in you because I've had a string of bad boyfriends due to my daddy issues but I don't think she's right no matter what her stupid gizmo says and I think I'm just trying to help out someone in need and you're not really a horrible person no matter what you think you just can't see past what you think people should be and in turn what you think they think you should be and oh no I've said too much."
It took him a few moments to detangle that mess, swirling his fork in his rice. Carrie spent a good chunk of that time staring at the table and turning as red as the sauce on her curry.
"You... think you need a punk for a boyfriend because your daddy was a jerk?" he asked, making sure.
"...I don't want that to be true," she mumbled.
"Okay. So, screw it. It's true, says who? A shrink working from a cheat sheet of personality problems? Just be whoever you want," he suggested, with a shrug inside his jacket. "Be someone who helps out just 'cause, not out of some twisted self-abuse motive. Your choice. It's not rocket surgery; you don't have to be what people say you are."
"And does a smart guy like you have to be a gangster just because your teachers say you should be one?"
--which wasn't intended to be an attack. It was just the first thing that popped into her head, a simple question. And yet...
Carrie's face beamed with absolute embarrassment, guilt, regret at her words. She could be read like an open book. Whereas Van... remained utterly expressionless. Which was saying something, when his mouth was normally affixed with a scowl of stone.
Slowly... he got up from the table.
"I gotta go do something really horrible to one of the toilets in the men's room," he announced. "Be back in a bit."
With that said, he was through the chintzy beaded curtain leading to the lavatories, and gone.
This can't get worse, Carrie thought. Unless--
Her default ring tone was set to some online remix of a meme that was popular a year and a half ago. Nobody ever called her other than Una, Nel, and Milton... they had personalized ring tones. This was...
It was a simple coded message, routed from the Atlanta municipal communication network. 404.
Ignoring the summons was out of the question. No matter how horrible she felt, and how much more horrible she'd feel for walking out at this exact moment... lives could be at stake. That's just the nature of the thing.
When Van got back to the table, he found an empty chair, and a napkin with a hastily scrawled message.
Had to go. I'm so sorry. Money on table for food and a taxi to the comic shop. SO SORRY. <3 Carrie.
As he sat down to the table, slumped in the cheap plastic chair, he ignored the hubbub around the lunch counter. Ignored the television, playing a breaking news update, something about a monster and someone named Astro Gal. He had a thermonuclear dinner to finish, if only out of sheer stubbornness, with a side order of atonement.
Carrie slunk away into the rush hour crowd of Atlanta, with her metaphorical tail between her legs, mind awash in both typical teenage troubles and atypical secret identity struggles.
Astro Gal soared high above the city once Carrie could get out of sight and get changed. Astro Gal didn't have time for Carrie's problems; there was a crisis afoot, and she had to give herself to it one hundred percent, or people could get hurt. Everything else could wait. ...and in a way, that was a relief. As noted in the text message on her phone, "giant monster on rampage" was a problem that was easily solved, in comparison.
The heroine caught the attention of those below. Which wasn't part of the plan, since the more people who followed her to the disaster zone, the more people she'd have to protect... but right now, making a direct beeline took priority over being sneaky. Hopefully, people would do the sensible thing and resume heading home after a long day at work, instead of rubbernecking around a monster brawl. Hopefully...
And hopefully, the Action News 8 chopper wouldn't have spotted her. Unfortunately, it did, and was actually flying alongside her now.
Sure enough, aspiring reporter Dan Brown was on the case, knocking on the window of the helicopter. Holding up a microphone, and to Carrie's sensitive ears, clearly begging for an interview.
She accelerated just enough to pull away without causing any aerodynamic issues for the helicopter in her wake. The extra burst of speed meant getting there sooner, anyway, which was the goal...
It was almost a relief to turn a corner, and see a thirty foot tall monster made of pastel green rock gradually smashing its way through a two story suburban home near the edge of the city's Freedom Wall.
The beast reminded her a bit of the Granite Gargantuan; a generally shapeless mass of marbled stone, replete with stubby looking arms and legs. Terrible for taking swings or running around, but with plenty of power behind the strikes and a low center of gravity, making it difficult to knock down. Still... very standard. A very, very standard superheroine scenario, and one Carrie felt renewed confidence with. This wouldn't be difficult at all.
Seeing that the police had already set up barricades, evacuating the residents to a safe radius away from the rampaging monster, Carrie ignored the beast (for the time being) to swoop down, and land near Chief O'Dare.
--and immediately be blinded by flashbulbs. Astro Gal blinked a few dozen times, surprised at the cheerful greeting from the crowd behind the barricade... cheerful and loading up on media to splash all over the Internet in a matter of minutes.
"Ah... what's the situation, sir?" Astro Gal asked, turning away from the masses, to regain her focus.
"Thought I was concise and accurate when I texted you with 'giant monster on rampage,'" the Chief suggested. "What're you waiting for? Go clobber it. Zap, biff, pow, that kind of thing."
"I can clobber more effectively if I know where it came from," Astro Gal pointed out. "Something like that doesn't pop out of nowhere. Were there any witnesses? Where did the rampage start?"
The Chief tucked her megaphone under one arm, pulling out her Orbital-designed communicator / recorder / information wrangler / phone / solitaire game. She thumbed the notepad icon.
"Local police say they got a report of some strange crystal growth over the windows of the Smith family home," she read. "Nobody had seen the Smiths in awhile, figured they were on vacation. I don't kid around with 404s, so I sent in a unit with a Frontliner Scout. Apparently they woke that thing up, because it burst out of the basement and promptly began tearing up the suburb. ...it's worth noting that it seems the growths in the house and the monster itself seem to be made of jade. You mentioned a jade comb..."
"Yeah, guessing this is related to Jackson Smith, who stole the comb. Did anyone see a boy in a bomber jacket with Federalist patches? Or his family?"
"No, no sign of them. Wait -- you knew his name and didn't tell us? Bleh. This was all moving too fast for that, I guess. Don't mean to rush you, kid, but speaking of moving fast, it's coming this way..."
"Right, right. I'm on it," Carrie said, bracing for takeoff. "I've got enough. Thanks, ma'am. Up, up, and--! No, wait, that's trademarked. Hmm. I never thought of a good catch phase. 'Have at them?' Or--"
"Please go punch the monster," the Chief politely requested.
Without another word, Carrie pushed off with her braced foot, and launched into the air.
This time, instead of ascent, she focused on linear velocity. She became the stone from a slingshot, fist forward, arm firm but not so firm as to jam when the impact occurs. Beelining right for the midsection of the monster, the huge ambulatory lump of jade, closer by the second, closer, and--
--bouncing harmlessly off its 'belly', knocked back a dozen feet in the effort. She hovered in place.
Quite intentional, actually. She had used a lighter punch than her best, since her best would probably shatter the thing into a huge cloud of high speed shrapnel, which would be unhealthy for anyone in the area.
The key when fighting an invulnerable foe, her mother had taught, is not to slam them immediately with everything you have. You'd think finishing the fight as quickly as possible is a great idea, but there are two major drawbacks. For starters, this telegraphs the limit of your abilities -- if you are unable to take down the enemy in a single hit, they'll realize you've already lost, and that's not a lever you want to give them.
But most importantly... the hardest you can hit, Carrie, would kill most of your enemies. We are not murderers. You need to find what level of force is needed to end the crisis, and apply no more than that. It's a hard road, but it is the right road.
She was already circling around for a second hit, this time building more velocity, as the lesson echoed in her head. Astro Gal was invulnerable, or at least invulnerable enough for something like this. The more important metric was how invulnerable the enemy was...
The second impact caused the jade giant to stumble. A rousing cheer went up from the assembled crowd; this is what they wanted to see, after all. Good guy beating the living hell out of the bad guy.
Astro Gal allowed herself a little smile. Having the crowd behind her, having a problem in front of her she could solve... it felt good. Like a whole scenario, something without flaws and cracks, without worries and doubts. Perfect.
In fact, one more punch, if she ramped it up, would likely be enough to blast a hole straight through the thing's torso and put it down for good. She circled around again, both fists forward now, ready to take down the villain head-on...
An ear perked.
And her flight wobbled. She tried to put on the brakes, to reduce her speed... wouldn't be enough. So, she risked changing her flight path, skewing to avoid the monster...
Astro Gal ended up smashing into the side of someone's garage. Did a number on the aluminum siding, too, which she regretted. Sure, loss of property was less important than loss of life, but you smash up too many buildings and cars in a fight, people start to think about their insurance premiums being driven up by those horrible superhumans.
Briefly, she hovered in place, pondering what to do. It was a tiny crack in the perfect little hero brawl... a worry, a doubt...
Crackle, skree. "What's wrong?!" Barbara O'Dare called out on her megaphone.
"Heartbeats!" Astro Gal called back -- her own voice loud enough, even without an amplifier. "There's... one, two... four people trapped inside that thing! If I smash it, they could die!"
"Can you restrain it? We can call in a team to cut through and save them-- GET DOWN, PEOPLE!"
Incoming car. Being thrown through the air by the monster. Carrie shook off the nerves, and refocused -- intercepting, to redirect the car.
CATCHING a thrown car isn't really possible; there are so few safe grab areas where a human grip, even a superhuman grip, can snag something like that without ending up yanking off some of the car while the rest continues on its merry way. Much like slowing a bus, it was more about redirecting force... swooping in underneath the car, blocking it, pushing it off so it comes crashing down somewhere safe. Such as fifty feet away from the gathering crowd of civilians. That'd do nicely, even if it unfortunately wrecked someone's front lawn...
Every moment this fight went on, those civilians were at risk. But putting a swift and violent end to it would result in the death of Jackson Smith and his family, who were likely in the belly of the beast...
New plan, Carrie decided, desperately clawing through her memory, back to her college days. Past two hundred years of dampened-memory isolation, past the pain, past the poor decisions she made with boys and the troubles of being unable to fit in socially... right to the Geology class she took as a science elective. Right to the specific bit of information she needed...
With speed, Astro Gal swooped in... and rather than punching the beast, she hovered behind it, and began drumming her fists rapidly between its shoulder blades.
The creature with no mouth screamed in pain, twisting, trying to take a swipe at her. But stubby arms were good for smashing, not for precision targeting. She twisted around in the air, recovering and repositioning... and began pounding again, this time at a higher frequency. Dodge, drum. Dodge, drum...
And... crack. There.
She'd hit the resonant frequency needed to shatter the jade. Quickly, she began applying it lower, spreading it out, her fists moving in a blur... metabolism screaming at her, demanding some calories to compensate for this application of superspeed. Hunger could be ignored. The hostages mattered more.
Soon... she saw hair. Blonde hair, in curls. A rapid heartbeat, a smaller body... the little sister, that Van said would likely be recipient of a gift, one jade comb. Odds were, Jackson had no idea what he was dooming his family to when he gave it to her, the monster slowly growing and consuming them all...
The comb itself was exposed with some more precision excavation. Astro Gal took a few hits from the stony fists, and ignored them, desperately clinging to its midsection and trying to get her hands on... that. The comb, buried in those golden tresses...
With a savage yank, which took a few curls with it, the comb was free.
Despite having no vocal chords, the death wail of the creature rocked the suburbs. Glass windows rattled in their frames, as it came crashing down.
Bit by bit, the jade crumbled away. Large chunks, at first. Then those broke into smaller chunks. Within seconds, nothing remained but dust.
At the edge of the nightmare, Chief O'Dare waved SWAT officers in, to guard emergency paramedics as they moved past the barricades. Astro Gal pulled the four hostages out of the pile of jade crumble... mother and father. Son, in his Federalist themed jacket. Daughter, in her pajamas; she'd been asleep when it all went down...
Minutes later, all four were up and breathing properly. None of them remembered what had happened, and that was for the best.
By now, the crowd had doubled in size. Bloggers with various recording devices, already proofing and uploading their amateur journalism efforts. Locals with damaged houses, already phoning up lawyers and insurance representatives. And the media...
Apparently, Dan Brown had landed his chopper somewhere, because he was shoving his way to the forefront and waving his arms madly, trying to get Astro Gal's attention. He had to keep behind the police barricades, but was pushing that thin blue line as far as he could.
"Astro Gal! Astro Gal, hey! Over here!" he called. "A word, please? Just a few words...?"
Briefly... she considered responding. She'd saved the day; she was a hero. She tackled one of life's many problems, this time one right up her alley, and defeated it. Why not march right over there and give an interview? Bask in the adoration of the fans, declare how Eastusa had a new champion, how evil must beware, et cetera, et cetera. After all, she was Astro Gal, and she could do no wrong today!
Which felt exactly like the rush she had before, the night she set out prematurely to go heroing. Without warning her parents, without thinking about the consequences. Acting on impulse instead of like a proper hero, always careful in word and deed. Only using as much force as was needed, and no more.
No. Not this time.
She offered a polite wave.
"Sorry, gotta go!" she called back. "Just glad I could help!"
And in a bolt of blue, Astro Gal launched skywards. Gone.
A few minutes of speed to lose anyone following her. A few minutes to find a secluded spot in the city to change back.
A few minutes to scarf down a few bags of honey roasted peanuts from a vending machine, to quell the agony in her stomach from burning up so much energy in superspeed.
Bit longer for a taxi to the comic shop; it cost more money, but she didn't want to waste time making a bus route back.
Walk in, say hello to Milton, pick up a few issues right off the rack. Hit the teleportation henge. Home again.
Una and Nel weren't back yet. For all Carrie knew, they were in the massive crowd when she was fighting that monster -- after all, they were with Chief O'Dare when she last saw them.
But Van was back. She caught him with his hand literally in the cookie jar, the one that Nel kept on the top shelf, with a sign reading NO COOKIES BEFORE DINNER! next to a sign reading YES THAT MEANS YOU, UNA. From the crumbs on his cheeks, apparently he'd helped himself to a quite a few.
"Um," he greeted.
"Er," she greeted.
"Sorry," they said simultaneously.
A simultaneous pause of confusion followed.
"Wait. What? What're you sorry for?" Carrie asked. "I'm the one who ran out on our... who ran out in the middle of dinner and left you holding your bags. I'm sorry about that, and if I could've avoided it--"
"You had to see a thing about a thing. It happens," Van said. ...while putting the cookie he was about to eat back in the jar, trying to downplay the theft of snack. "I'm the one who pushed you on the whole dating and daddy issues thing, being the blunt-talking jackass I am. Standard issue Van foot-in-mouth disease."
"No, no, that's fine, I mean... I wasn't offended!" Carrie insisted. "I thought I offended you when I called you out on the peer pressure thing. I mean. That I was being too blunt about it, and... and... --what happened to your jacket?"
All the teenage melodrama had clouded even her supersenses. It wasn't until that moment that she noticed Van's olive drab bomber jacket was considerably less colorful than usual... because it was missing nearly every single rebel-icon patch he'd sewn onto it. All except for a single, simple American flag on the shoulder.
"Ah... I did some alterations," Van explained, tugging on the lapels. "I was headed to my room, and I saw your door was open, and you had a sewing kit on your desk, and I had been mulling over what you said, so I borrowed your seam ripper, and... uh, sorry for going into your room. I didn't mess with whatever it was you were working on."
Oh god I left out a fabric sheet with a neat little mask trimmed out of the center I just know I did, she panicked inwardly.
"Anyway, I'm the one who stitched these things on, and I figured I should be the one to make an effort to get rid of them. ...you were right. Blunt, but I'm blunt, I like blunt, and you were right. Being a punk was just... easy. My friends were punks, so I was one. My teachers said I'd never amount to anything, so I didn't bother doing anything. Hell, my first girlfriend, Madison, up and declared that I loved her and we were going to date... and I just went along with it. I'm passive. You're right."
"I... I didn't mean it as an insult, or anything..."
"I know. It's cool. Maybe I'm just being passive again, going along with you calling me out, but... whatever, you know?" he said, plucking a stray thread from his jacket. "At least I'm making a change. Screw the gang. Forget my friends, who indirectly made me erase my parents. I'm done with being anyone's lackey. I know I'm not the nicest guy, but I'm tired of being a chump, and it's high time I made a stand for what I know's right. ...but, uh, this is a damn comfortable jacket, so I'm going to hang onto it now that it's 100% less racist. So. Sound okay...?"
Could've been her mind riding high on a superheroine's victory. Could've been relief that she could see a bright future for Van. Could've been a lot of things, but regardless, this timid little declaration of righteousness clicked perfectly for her. Made her feel like all her recent worries weren't worth worrying about...
"That's great! Seriously, that's totally great!" she declared, all smiles. "It's a step in the right direction, Van! I know you can turn your life around now!"
"You're smart, you're witty, you're not the nicest guy but certainly not the worst, and once we get your parents back from wherever Oblivion sent them, everything's going to be a lot easier for you. I promise!"
"R... ight. ...not that I don't appreciate it, but... you can let go now."
Apparently, Carrie was hugging him. Not just a light friendly squeeze, a humanitarian act of bonding. She'd damn near adhered to the perplexed young lad. And couldn't recall when she'd started.
Less than a second later, she was on the other side of the room. Away from him. It was enough to stir a light wind through the room, which fortunately went unnoticed.
"I... think that brings this around back to you," Van said. "I've said my peace. What about what you were freaked out about? --if you don't wanna talk about it, though, that's cool, I understand--"
"No, no... no. It's okay," she replied. Arms around herself, this time, covering... until she slowly lowered them. "You were honest just now. I mean... really, really honest just now. It's only fair I open up a bit, too. A bit."
"Seriously, Carrie, I know what it's like to be all wound up over your problems, and if you're not ready, don't feel you gotta--"
"My dad was abusive," she said, quickly. "He never... physically touched me. But he was a control freak. He treated me like a child, constantly telling how to live my life, demanding I be neat and pretty and pure. Not to be a dirty wh-- dirty girl, like my mother. He hated when I got close to anyone. He'd... hurt them, claiming he was protecting me, when really he just wanted me all to himself. So I liked to rebel, to stand up to him in little ways. My... my therapist thinks I go after 'bad boys' to get back at him, but I don't think that's true. And you were right... I don't HAVE to live up to that analysis. He's gone. I can like someone just because I like them, not because of a dad who's never, ever coming back wouldn't be happy about it."
Van took the time to swallow that, before deciding what to say. He had a few snap "Ah, screw him!" type responses ready to go, but... a snap response was what he worried had driven Carrie off, earlier that night...
"I meant what I said. You can be whoever you wanna be. Like I'm trying to do, now," he said. "So... you're right. Your freak dad doesn't even have to be a part of the equation. Date whoever you want, because you want to. Or, y'know... don't. If you don't want to. Point is, it's what you want, either way, not him."
"Right! Exactly!" Carrie agreed, smiling again. "I'm strong enough to decide on my own!"
"Sooo... what's your decision, then?"
"To ignore the memories of my dad, of course!"
"No, no, I mean about... dating. And who you like."
For a moment, she wasn't sure what he was getting at. Van usually rammed his opinion right down your throat, after all. Wasn't like him to dance around an issue...
Unless he was trying not to push her. To avoid directing her around, like his friends directed him around. Like, apparently, Madison once did when he ended up in his first relationship.
And... that's when the OTHER worries jumped in, the ones loitering around the edges, trying to fit in around the giant lump of Daddy Issues she had to resolve. I'm immortal. He's not. I'm older than him. He'll end up older than me. It can't work. It's not right, subjecting him to a fleeting thing, just because I'm lonely. It never worked before; I've made mistakes and gotten hurt and hurt people in turn. It's better to be alone. Safer...
"Nel's not going to like that the cookie jar's off the shelf," she stated instead.
With a slow nod... Van picked up the ceramic jar, and put it back in its appropriate place.
"It's fine," he decided. "Not a yes or a no, and that's okay. We're both having a hell of time of it lately, so... take your time. I'm cool."
Offering a brief, un-Van-like smile... he wandered off, towards the stairs.
"I've still got to get unpacked, then I've got math to do," he declared. "Plenty of makeup homework crap to deal with, having missed a day. See you in the morning."
He seemed genuinely at peace with things, as he departed. It wasn't a state Carrie had ever seen him in before. Resigned to things, giving in to things, sure... not at peace with them.
She couldn't say the feeling was mutual.
Back to school again.
Carrie and Van teleported-then-walked to school together that day. Pel wanted another day to run tests, and nobody was happy with the idea of Van taking Oblivion to school with him... but Van shouted the idea right down. After being poked and prodded and scanned endlessly the previous day, the idea of going back to being the outcast punk at school was appealing in comparison.
For her part, Carrie desperately wanted to resume her normal life; two days of superheroic antics and huge life decisions was a bit much to take at once. Decompression time in the ordinary setting of school would do the job. There, nobody knew she was Astro Gal. Nobody knew she was alive, for that matter. Once again she blended into the crowd, becoming just another "Who's That Again?" in a sea of Who's That Agains...
Although a good portion of the school was abuzz with news about Astro Gal. The online 'verse had already propagated plenty of professional and amateur videos of her, developed various manipulations and memes, and written up blog posts speculating on who or what she was. Thankfully, there were a number of crazy potential origins that seemed less crazy in this world, which kept them distracted from the truth... if they were looking for someone who stole Orbital technology, or a glamour-packing Fae with a comic book fantasy, they wouldn't notice the totally normal Eastusa kid in their midst.
...even so, Carrie decided to braid her hair that morning. Nobody noticed her in the first place, so they wouldn't notice the style change, and it'd be just enough to keep from being recognized.
"Pippi Longstockings," Van announced aloud, as they were walking to school.
"That's who you remind me of. Remember I said I couldn't remember who you reminded me of during breakfast? Well, now I remember, and it's Pippi Longstockings," he explained. "What's up with the new 'do, anyway? Your old one looked fine."
"Just... I wanted to change things around a little," she said. "That's all. Nothing else. Why does there have to be anything else?"
"Eeesh, just asking. ...oh, hey, um. I'm not sure how to ask this, sooo, gonna just ask it..." he began. "If anybody sees me with you, just pretend that--"
"Pretend you don't know me. I get it," she finished. Adding a little sigh to the end. "You've got a rep to maintain and I'm a nerdy nobody. I understand how it is."
"Uh. No, actually, I was gonna ask that you pretend you've never heard of the Dead Presidents before," he corrected. "And I'm gonna do the same. It's time to excise that chapter from my life. If Oblivion's taught me one thing, it's that if you try hard enough, you can change history. I don't fly their colors anymore and I'm done with them. Completely."
"Weren't they your friends, though? I mean, I know you were just going with the flow, but... turning your back TOTALLY on them..."
Van paused. The other students headed into the school campus flowed around them, ignoring them. Probably because they were more used to ignoring Carrie than ignoring Van.
"If any of them are going through the hell I'm going through... then I'm sympathetic. But I say they deserve it," he decided. "All of us made bad decisions. Myself included. And I'm paying for it... I might never see my parents again. I came damn close to killing myself. If I let myself forgive and forget, to take them back as my friends... I'll probably fall right into line again. They aren't completely terrible people, and that's what makes it so easy to ride with them. You start to ignore the bad, because of the good, and just end up soaked in the bad. So. No more. Cold turkey. Best way."
He hiked his backpack (loaded with schoolbooks, pencils, a lunch, and a reality editing revolver) higher on his shoulder, and continued on.
"Besides, I've got a new friend now, even if I'm just soaking her in my problems," he said. "And also, it looks like Astro Gal's sorting their problems out, so they're not my problem anymore."
"Wh-what? I mean, who? What?" she stumbled (figuratively and literally, nearly tripping as she moved to keep pace). "Oh. Right. You... must've seen the same news reports, right?"
"She's on damn near every channel, hard to miss. I put two and two together; that giant jade golem she beat down? I saw the survivors. That was Jackson in there," Van Buren recognized. "Jade golem, jade comb. We're probably the only ones who know what's really going on... but Astro Gal will probably get to the others, sooner or later. If they've all got powers like Oblivion and that comb, things are about to get messy. Madison's pinwheel, and Garfield... man. He's the nastiest one of them all. I hate to think what he's up to with the eight ball..."
"I... guess Astro Gal has her work cut out for her, huh," Carrie suggested.
"You don't think she's gonna beat the hell out of me, do you?"
"What? No! Of course not! You're a good person! ... a reasonably good person!"
"Right. And I'm the one with Oblivion. I'm the one who..."
He mimicked a pistol motion.
"I've looked through enough of those silly comics you loaned me to know that makes me a supervillain," Van said. "All a killer like me needs is a mask and a cape and a stupid name to become superfisting fodder..."
"You didn't kill anyone," she emphasized. "They're just... it's not like that. We're going to bring them back. Everything's going to be fine! You're no villain -- Astro Gal would never hurt you! She... um..."
Carrie did have other things to add, there; to emphasize how Van was redeemable, how he'd taken great strides in the right direction, how it was always darkest before the dawn. Problem was, they were no longer anonymous faces lost in the shuffle. They were facing a very familiar face.
Guido and his boys glanced over, from mid-shakedown of a freshman.
Students flowed around them, walking between the couple, and their previous tormentor. Nobody took notice of the tension, the look being exchanged between the two groups...
Slowly... Guido set down the young boy he was literally shaking down. Let go. And sharply motioned for his boys to turn and walk away.
Soon, the crowd consumed them, as the bell rang and students picked up the pace to make it to homeroom.
"Guess he knows there's a new sheriff in town," Van guessed, with a smirk. "Who needs Astro Gal when you've got Carrie Lane, Campus Crusader?"
She shared a laugh with him. Although hers was a bit more nervous, a bit more jittery.
Once upon a time, all you needed to be a cop was a notepad, a revolver, and a keen set of instincts. Oh, and a very nice hat. Barbara was a fan of those old crime dramas... beat cops and detectives, crooks and gangsters, cat burglars and insurance fraud. Chase the bad guy across rooftops, through alleys. Work 'em over under the hot lights, get the confession, save the day...
Of course, police work hadn't been that simple for nearly three hundred years, if it was ever that simple. Now, she had Orbital designed information pads, able to call up any bit of intel she could possibly need out in the field. She had a team trained to counter magic users and the weapons to do it with. She had a cramped and walled city, miles and miles away from any friendly territory, with its own food, power, and transport systems that were prime targets for any criminal activity. And now, she had a genuine superhero on call.
Which was handy when some rowdy teen with cosmic power was holed up in the shopping mall and none of your resources were doing a damn bit of good against her.
Some of those resources, in the form of her best men, were currently being stretchered out of a big box department store at the southern end of the mall. Each was pale and waxy looking, from intensive nausea and disorientation. That was the last straw; she'd held off on relying on the kid this long, to avoid causing her problems during school hours, but they were running out of acceptable options...
Astro Gal touched down at their impromptu base camp, in the department store parking lot.
The media went wild, of course. Used to be people AVOIDED an active crime scene tagged 404; today, it seemed there was a teeming horde waiting for first sign of one, in hopes of catching a look at the young heroine. Fortunately, once Chief Barbara O'Dare realized this was one of the Dead Presidents in action, she made sure barricades were up for when the public arrived. Having a third of her men on crowd control and a third being tended to by EMTs was not ideal, but it kept things stable.
"I'm ready to help, chief," Astro Gal declared, hands on hips. An adorably heroic pose. "So! ... um, what's up?"
The Chief keyed up the file she'd been assembling on her pad, showing the map layout.
"One of your little buddies is holed up in there," she explained, tapping the fountain at the intersection of each wing of the mall. "Madison Jacobs, current owner of the pinwheel artifact. Apparently she's able to use it to distort perception; if you look in her direction you get an eyeful of complete sensory mayhem. She's currently enjoying a no-expenses paid shopping spree in the Twin Pines Mall."
"Strange. That's pretty high profile. Why did she wait this long?"
"Don't think she did. From reports, she's been robbing a few stores around town over the weekend, too. But all the victims could tell us was that they lost their balance and got violently ill; when they came to, they were missing stock. For some reason, today she decided to scale up and hit the mall. Most of the staff and customers ran for it, but some are stuck inside. She's been wandering from store to store, stealing things, all morning. We can't get a clear shot at her due to the perception problem."
"Have you tried tear gas?" Astro Gal asked.
"First thing I tried. We can't directly look at her, but indirect grenade fire made sense. We think she's using a gas mask; there was a Frontliner Surplus Outlet in the mall, where she could've picked one up. All it did was... well."
She nodded towards the triage camp, and the men. The ones who hadn't passed out were busy throwing up and passing out.
"She smacked us with a focused blast of whatever-the-hell-it-is after that. It was enough to give them concussions," the Chief said. "Don't think she's happy. I tried negotiation by megaphone, after that; promising I'd hear her terms if she released the hostages. Even tried calling her by name... I took a guess it was our Madison in there. Apparently I struck a nerve, because we got hit with another wave after that. Then... she said she wanted to meet with you. Hasn't moved since."
And the girl froze. "She... she knew my name?" Astro Gal asked. "How could she, I mean, Van hasn't talked to any of them and--"
"Yes, she knows your name, Astro Gal, because it's been all over the news," Chief O'Dare said, quickly stopping the girl before she said too much. "Now. I don't know if you'll be impervious to her power, but... you're Option C. And I'd like to give that a go before Option D comes into play."
"Frontliner assault unit. Atlanta's reserve mobilizes, they go in with grenades that do more than make your eyes water, and they blow her to kingdom come," Chief O'Dare said. "Since I have no solid proof it's just some teenage brat rather than a Keter-scale 404 in there, the higher ups are recommending we escalate. ...give me an Option C, please. Nobody's died yet. I want to keep it that way."
Astro Gal gave the briefest of nods. No worry, no panic. She studied the map, hovering in holographic form over Barbara's information tablet... and pointed.
"I'll go in through the Fürni outlet, on the Western wing," she decided.
"The western wing? If you have to fall back, you won't have any support. Wouldn't it be better to come in from the south, where we are?"
"No, because while I'm coming in from a perpendicular angle... you're going in the southern department store, with sharpshooters."
"I believe I just explained I don't want the suspect killed, Astro Gal."
"Then make sure they're your best shots," she suggested. "They're going to be targeting something considerably smaller than a suspect."
The mall was mecca for a teenage suburbanite. This was a lesson handed down through ancient media, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s... wacky comedies and dramadies about how adolescence was spent in a shared consumer frenzy, solidifying friendships while browsing for jeans jackets and dining at the food courts. Apparently, malls went on a decline for a few decades after that... but after Pandora, with spotty internet coverage, zero cheap shipping due to contested territories, and scarce resources, the shopping mall concept saw a resurgence. Even Post-Pandora, having a centralized commercial zone within the Freedom Walls was key to getting the things your family needed. Or just wanted.
Carrie had meant to visit the mall more often. It seemed like the thing to do... but it was a thing you did with friends. Carrie Lane had no friends worth note, just acquaintances. Nobody you could share a milkshake with, or go and get makeovers with. Nobody to say how those shoes looked cute. (Technically, now she had Van in her corner, but he probably wasn't the sort to weigh in on the critical issue of shoes, cute vs. non-cute.)
Today, Astro Gal was visiting the mall not for the curly fries, but to do battle. With only half a plan. That was working on some serious assumptions. But no matter how important mother stressed preplanning to be, no matter what she told her therapist... having half a plan was better than doing nothing when time was running out.
The wide walkways, lined with little shops and boutiques, were deathly silent today. Carrie could hear muffled sobs, and retching noises... from those trying to hide and avoid trouble, and those who had found trouble. People struck down with wracking illness, like the cops outside. All so that Madison Jones could get a cute sweater. So she could get all the cute sweaters...
One turn down the hallway and she could see it and immediately wished she hadn't.
Presumably, the vague blur ahead was Madison. But the blur itself... it was anywhere between five and fifty feet wide. It fluctuated wildly, like a blob of video distortion, going all runny and twisted around the edges. It screamed white noise across her brain if she tried to look at it for more than a second... white noise, pink noise, brown noise. Swirls of color and madness...
Astro Gal had to raise a hand, to try and look at it through her fingers. It was hitting her with less force than it hit the police officers, probably due to her mother's training to steel herself against psychic attacks... but she wasn't going to be able to stand it full-force for very long. ...and yet, that was exactly what she had in mind...
No point in taking Madison by surprise. This was a negotiation, of sorts.
"I'm here!" Astro Gal announced, keeping her fingers as tight as possible, looking at the psychedelic swirl as little as possible.
The giggle echoed around her fifty seven times, from all directions, at varying pitches. Even audio from within that zone of denial had been distorted.
"͡This i҉s͜ ͡so͘ ͝aweso̡m̷e,"̸ ̀the girl's voice carried. "̷E̷V҉E̢R҉YBOD̶Y ̨is͏ ̴t͠a͞l̛k͠i͡ņg ̛ab̡o͡ut̛ y͠ơu ͘n͏ow̨.͢ A͏s̛t̕r̢o͡ G͠al҉,͠ the͠ ̵co̶mi҉c̕ ̸b̨oo̷k hero͝in̢e! A͏nd you a̵ct͠u̡a̷l̨ly̶ c͟a̡me to̢ s̴ee͠ ͢me̸,͟ ҉jus̢t͝ ͠bec̕aus̨e ̶I̸ a̶şked͜ ̵you̶ ͝t͡ò? G̢u͠ęss ͡I͡'̀m̀ g̨oing̀ up ̵i̷n ̀t̢hé w͠o͡r̷lḑ.̡.."̶
"I'm here to negotiate the release of the hostages," Astro Gal declared. "I'll stay here, in exchange for them--"
"Hos҉t҉a̴g̢és? I̵ nèv͜er ͏t͡oo͘ķ h̕o͢s̵t͢ag͡e̵s͜. ̨S̷ome̢ fo̢l͠ks j̧us̢t got́ st̶uck h̶ér͠e̴ ͟whi͡ĺe̸ I҉ w̨ent s҉hopp̸in̨g.̵ ̛I͞ c̷o̧uld ̨l͠ęave whe͏n͜ever ͢I͟ ͡wanted̡ ţo, ańd it'̡s̀ ̛n̛o̕t͝ l͠i̴k͏e ͠t͢h̨e ͡còp̶ş ̷c̡an ̶st҉op m͟e. ̴The̶y̨ ca҉n'̕t̢ e͘ven LO̵OK̨ at͟ ͟me̕! How̶ co͟ol̴ is͏ ͠t́h͝a͢t͡?̀"
"I'm being honest with you, Madison--"
"Ho̷w ̢ḑo yo͜u̵ ͠peopl͜e kņow ̢ḿy͏ ńam͞e, a͟n̸yw̧ày? ͢I n̶e̡v̷er͜ lef̧t̷ ̡a͏n̨y̛ ̛wit̵nęsses̡.̀ ͠We̷ll͜, ̕nơb̛o͟dy̢ ̢wh͘o͏ C͘O͝UL͜D be͟ ̢a ́w͡it͟nęss͘.̛ ͞The̶ ̸pin͢whe҉e̷l͞ ̀even w͠or̕k҉s͞ ͞o͡ǹ ͜c͜a҉m̴e̢r͞às̶.̀.̶."
"Madison, if you don't turn off the pinwheel and surrender... the cops are ready to send in the Frontliners," Astro Gal said. "They're going to come in shooting. Able to see you or not, they could kill you. But you can stop this now, if you just walk away from it all."
"I͏ ͟know Gar ͘wơul͝d͘n̸'̶t̀ ha̡ve̢ t̷álk͠e͢d," Madison reasoned. The space around her began to swirl in an almost ponderous fashion, in tune with her musings. "He'̸s ҉t̷oǫ ̷hardc͡ore͘ t̶o̷ gi͜ve ́my ͜nam̵e up̡ ̡to͟ th̢e͘ ̷p̧i̴g͜s.͞ A͏n̢d ̀Vąņ ́w͝o̧u͘l҉d ̕neve͠r ̴g͢i͡ve̢ ̴m͠e̕ ͝u͝p͘, he'̨s̢ ̛my ͠spe̡c͡i̴al͘ swe̸ęt̕ie̛. G̸ue̸şs J͢ąc̛kśon ̢w͘as͘ t̀h͏e͠ ̴weakes̡t̡ l͜i̡nk̸.́ ́Ýo͝u ̵he҉a͘r̵d̛ my ͏n̛a̶ḿe fr̨om̀ ́J͘ac͠k̵són̷,͞ d̶įdn't ̢yo͜u͘?̸"
Astro Gal's blocking hand wavered in frustration -- and immediately, her inner ear began to spin. She nearly lost control, staggering in place; the more exposure she got, the worse this would get...
"It's... it's not important how we know, okay? I'm trying to save you! Please listen to me!"
"Yo̧u̡ ́thįn͠k I'm̛ s̨c͡a̢r͟e̷d ͢of t͢hè pig̨s? Yo͡u thin̨k͝ ̀I̶'͏m s̷ca͡r͝e͡d òf͘ ̨Y̨OU̕?!!"
This time, that voice came at Astro Gal from all sides, all angles. Slamming into her ears hard enough to knock her already unstable balance out of balance. The floor was on her cheek. Her cheek was on the floor...
"D̡ón't̷ ͡you ̴get i̵t? ́N̡ot͝híng̛ ̀ca̵n ́sto͜p͘ ̛me!͝ W҉h̨y sh͡ou͜l͘d̶ I ͢c̡o͝ńtent̷ ͠m͘y̸s͡el͝f̷ ́w͢i͞t͏h ͘sn҉eák̀i̛n͝g ͝ar̕ouņḑ w̷h̡eņ I ͟can̶ ̡have e͏v͘ery͞t̵hi͝ng̀ I͞'ve͞ e͞ver ̛w͠a͠n̸t͏e͞d̶?̡ Ì knęw̧, se̴e̸iǹg̸ ̵yo̶u̵,̧ ͢that ̨it wa̧s ́ti̕m̸e ́t̀o̧ j̨u̴st͞ go ̴out͡ ţh̨e͡r͞e ̀an̶d ̨M͟AK̢E̛ ̡IT HAP̸PE͟N͜. Lȩt ͢the͝ w̕orl͜d̶ kņow̶ t̕hat͜ M̵ad̕íso̴n's ǹo҉t ̴sc̨r̛ewin͘g͏ ̸a̶roun͟d.̶ ͠If̀ th͝ere a̛r͏e supèrher͞oes..̸.̀ t̷h͝en̢ ҉Ì'ḿ ͜g̴onna b͟e͟ the ̕worl͘d's̨ c̵òo̶lest͜ ͘s͏u̶perv́ìlla҉i͜n̵.̛"
The distortion was all around her, now. Focused on her, just as it was when Madison gave the police both barrels of the pinwheel's effects. Worse, even, as she was giving Astro Gal the full force of it, constantly, rather than a single blast...
Screaming. Astro Gal wanted to be screaming, to curl up in a ball, to make everything go away. Up was down and left was right and red was blue and black was three and this was another and hand was car and...
"Y͞ou d̴on'̵t̷ ge͝t ̛it͠. ̵T͝h͢i͠s i͠s̕n͟'t ̵a̢ ho̡st͘a͟gé ̢ne̵go͡t͟i͡at̨i̡o̸n.̷ ͘I͠ c͘alled̸ ́y̵o̶u͜ ͞here̷ śo͝ ͏I ̛c̀o̡u͞ld k͜ick͜ ̕you̸r a̵s̕s͠,̴" Madison explained... from somewhere outside the morass of sensory jamming. "I͢f I͝'m goińǵ ̢to͞ deb̸ut, I'́m ͢d͝oing͞ i͜t̸ ͝bi͠g. ́I'̧m ̨g͘o̡i̛n͞g ͜t͞o ta̢ke o̴ut th̕e w͞orld҉'s͜ f̕i̴r͟s̶t̕ ͏su̕p͟erh̸ero͏i̵ne.͟ ̸And ͡then͏,͜ n̵ob̸o͘d̶y w͘il̷l̴ ̢e͢ver͞ ̧m͡ess with me again. I can have it all. Everything..."
...she had to open her eyes. Had to use the super senses, to make sure her hunch was correct.
A single moment of sharp focus, through the chaos around her. Because it was around her, now... and only slightly around Madison.
One more push would be enough. She gritted her teeth, and forced the words out.
"Van n-n̵ever̸ love̕d͘ you," Astro Gal truthfully told, through the displaced haze. "He just w-ẃe͢nt҉ ̕a͟lo͝ng̕ ͡wi͘th it. He never loved you. He's not your special sweet--"
Reality bent at an angle that shouldn't have existed in any sane sense around her.
Now, Astro Gal could scream. Partly in sheer agony, as she felt herself contort in ways even an invulnerable body shouldn't contort. But mostly because that was the agreed upon signal.
In testament to the quality of the men under her command, the bullet didn't puncture Madison's heart. It didn't hit her at all.
It hit the battery operated hair dryer attached to her shopping cart. The one that was constantly blowing air into the pinwheel, keeping it spinning. A sharp judgment call, made correctly, once Madison had fully shifted her focus to Astro Gal, leaving nothing for her own defenses.
Madison Jones didn't even realize the power of the pinwheel was no longer hers to command, until Astro Gal finally collapsed. Then, she noticed that the high pitched whine that had accompanied her through her shopping trip was no longer whining. The pinwheel was no longer spinning.
In a panic, she turned to it, trying to blow some air into the wheel -- but was surrounded by SWAT before it could rotate more than once or twice.
Chief O'Dare ignored the girl, letting her men read rights and cuff her. She was moving with the EMTs, to the fallen superheroine.
"I... I think I'm gonna be okay," Astro Gal said. "I'm invulnerable. I'll be fine."
And then she began to throw up. And kept going. And going, until she was vomiting up blood.
The downside of massive media coverage, for a superheroine, is that your failings come under very large microscope. Fortunately, the news reports that evening reported that the culprit had been apprehended with the help of Astro Gal... but news of Atlanta's newest would-be supervillain was steeply overshadowed by footage of a pale and sickly Astro Gal being hauled away in an ambulance.
Atlanta General Hospital now was under siege, with news trucks ringing the parking lots, waiting for any word on the young heroine's condition. A few news outlets had gone ahead with editing together retrospective video pieces in case of her death; a difficult job, when only a few minutes of footage and less than a dozen spoken words existed.
Reporters weren't being let into the building, much less given access to Astro Gal's room in the emergency care ward. Armed policemen were watching the door, and at the moment, the only official representation the girl had was Chief Barbara O'Dare. Who was not taking questions, and had a few unkind gestures to flash out of the hospital room window at the reporters below.
Eventually, to placate the crowds, hospital administration sent a spokesperson out for a brief interview -- her attending doctor.
What's Astro Gal's condition right now?
"She is in recovery from injuries sustained during the incident at Twin Pines Mall, after exposure to an unknown artifact by the armed robbery suspect in custody. Given the other police officers we're treating are on the road to recovery after similar exposure, and with assistance from Biologist Pel from Arcology #A076, we feel chances are good that she will make a full recovery as well. At this time, don't know how long the effects will last, given her exposure was more extreme."
Is the Faerie Court responsible for this attack?
"I'll need to defer to the chief of police for that, but to my understanding, the artifact is not Fae in origin."
You mentioned an Orbital named Pel. Is he the girl's father?
"Pel is a man of medicine and specializes in unusual cases such as this. He's consulted for the hospital before, and was brought in as an outside specialist to help with this case. Nothing more. Before you ask, no, I don't know Astro Gal's true identity. Out of respect to the girl and at the request of the police department, we have not removed her mask during treatment.""
So is the police chief related to her?
"Chief O'Dare is Astro Gal's liaison to Atlanta law enforcement, nothing more. Can we please focus on the patient, now...?"
Does she have any next of kin? Have they been informed of her critical condition?
"First, I wouldn't say she's in critical condition. She is in recovery. It's a difficult recovery, as the officers injured today can testify to, but Biologist Pel is optimistic about the outcome. Second, as noted, we are preserving her anonymity. I am not going to disclose any details on her family at this time."
So she does have family? Are they native to Atlanta?
"Please focus your questions on her health. That's all I can speak to at this time."
Is Atlanta's first superheroine able to take questions at this time?
"No. The patient is resting comfortably, and is not to be disturbed. Thank you for your time, I'll return if I have new information for you."
The metal bed rail twisted and warped in her grasp.
Her brain was on fire. Her skin was cold as ice. Every five seconds, that would shift around; her mind deadlocked while her flesh burned. She was dying. She was in a volcano. They'd thrown her in after her father, two freaks, outcasts, too dangerous to keep around. Everyone had gone away and everything was wrong...
How many times do I have to tell you? You're not human anymore.
You don't need a boyfriend. How childish. You're above those petty concerns.
Besides, none of these mortals could ever love something like you.
They can't truly understand what you are. You're too perfect for the likes of them.
The world around you is imperfect, but I'll fix that -- because I love you, kiddo.
"She's broken the restraints again. That's the sixth set; it's taking three orderlies to keep her held down every time we restrain her. Don't you have any sedatives that will work?"
"I assure you, doctor, her body is capable of hypermetabolism and will absorb any drugs you offer her with zero effect. I've studied her long enough to know that much."
"We can't even rehydrate her! Every IV needle we've tried breaks against her skin!"
The world went away. Everybody left. She was alone again, stranded. There were distant voices, scratchy and distorted, but those were probably imaginary. Strawmen citizens, to be saved from make-believe threats. All over again, again and again, again and...
It's a sacrifice, I know. I worry it asks too much of you, this life.
But you came to me, wanting to do this. Wanting to help, like I do.
You've come so far in so little time, despite hardship. Despite doubt.
I'm proud of you for that, Carrie. You're brave, and your heart is strong.
I know you'll fight to protect the ones you love.
"Interesting. A hallucinogenic effect strong enough to persist after exposure, inducing a state of psychosis. I'd love to study the artifact that caused this. By any chance--"
"Over my dead body, Pel. That thing nearly killed my men. It's staying in lockup at the station."
There were people; she remembered people. Una. Nel. So kind, so accepting of this stranger in their home. A daughter they'd never had. Where did they go? Where were they now, when she was so lost and confused, with light and sound and noise everywhere...?
"Carrie! We're here. We're right here... Nel, your stealth glamour is tuned down, right?"
"I shut it off the instant Miss O'Dare snuck us into the room. She should be able to see us."
"Why does she keep calling out, then?"
He'd never done this to her. Not directly, anyway. Even as he started slipping into paranoid obsession, started driving a wedge in the heart of their family, father had never assaulted her mind. But she'd seen him peel away the layers of the psyche in others. Heard their screams. Her own scream was similar, now. Her mind was melting. The screams were hers, this time...
Mayday! Mayday! NASA, do you read me? We're coming apart! Marvin, hold on!
Cosmic storm off the port bow! We're being bombarded by unknown particles!
I'm sorry, Carrie, I should've never have brought you with us--
"The windows--! Get away from the broken glass, hurry!"
"Nel, quick, mute her! We can't have another supersonic scream getting to the reporters..."
Someone. Anyone. Please.
He understood, on some level. He'd been through hell, just as she had. More than any of the kids from her own world, more than the boyfriends she had before. He was broken and strange and trying to figure out life, just like she was. More than anything else, she wished he was here, right now. Some tiny sympathetic echo to her own, to lead the way out of the murk and the mire...
I think that's why I haven't done the sensible thing and shot myself yet. I want to see where this is going.
...squeezing her hand.
Moonlight and fluorescent tubes. She'd been at the mall only a few minutes ago, in the middle of the school day. Now it was the dead of night. How did that happen...?
She followed that word, that tiny squeezing sensation, through the mess around her eyes and ears. It was still there... but more bearable, now. Like seeing stars after being socked in the head by Kilohuge.
In the time it took her to climb out of the mess, he was already asleep in the chair next to her bed. His ragged snores became her personal heroic beacon of hope, weird as that sounded, and brought her out the rest of the way.
Carrie focused her eyes, trying to make out details.
"Snnnhrklwha--?" he replied, snapping awake with a jolt. "Oh. Oh, uh. Hey. Shh, Una and Nel are still sleeping. They've had a rough one. Feeling better now?"
"Yes. No. Fish. I think," she replied, playing hunt and peck on her mental keyboard. "Never been good against mentalists. Should've. Should've remembered that. Just wanted to keep her safe, to stop... I... the... wait. Van?"
"That would be me, yes."
"What is the going on? Where? Wh..."
"Easy, now. Madison upsided your head with a lot of bad mojo. You puked on national television. Uh. You're not gonna like the memes, so I suggest staying offline for a few days," he noted. "But for what it's worth, you've got a horde of fans out there praying for your recovery. Nel had to slap a cloaking field over me to get me in here. Apparently you kept asking where I was, and since they were having trouble keeping you from breaking the hospital in half in your delirium, well... here I am. Hi."
Her hands flew to her face, feeling around. And finding the cloth shape of her domino mask.
"Oh no. Oh no oh..."
"Whoa, hey, s'cool. I promise," Van said. "You being Astro Gal, I mean. The secret. Feh, like I'd tell anydamnbody. I'm just glad things are starting to make sense now."
"You slipping away during dinner, and during class, for unspecified emergencies. You looking for the Dead Presidents right after I told you about them. You hauling luggage and eating ridiculous curry like it's nothing. And, um, the big tip off was you leaving a mask shaped hole in your sewing project, which I wasn't sure I should even ask about. Stuff like that. ...and why every time we talk, it's all about me, and never about you. I didn't wanna push, but I was wondering, and I guess... I know why, now..."
Secret identity, blown.
And yet... past the initial shock, there was some relief. Maybe because he was reacting like it wasn't any huge deal. Maybe because Carrie was tired of having to guard it from him. Maybe...
Maybe she was just exhausted. Delirious sleep was hardly real sleep, after all.
"You look like living death," Van said, with a little smile. "And it's three in the morning. Just crash out a bit. Cope with it tomorrow. I'll be around; not like I've got anywhere else to be..."
The pillow WAS rather welcoming, as Carrie settled back against it. With her fever broken, her inner ear no longer spinning, down felt like the right direction to go.
"Sorry 'bout all this," she mumbled, drifting. "About dragging you into my messes. And not even telling you what those messes were..."
"Eh, I'm used to mess, by now. What's more for the pile?" he offered, settling back into his own chair. "Don't apologize. We're cool. And we'll deal with 'em later."
Her sleep was mercifully free of nightmares, for a change. No empty cities, no straw people, no fathers, no supervillains. Nothing.
Having special dispensation from the chief of police meant having guests well past visiting hours. It also meant having cafeteria chow for four delivered right to your door, no questions asked.
Pel was back, bright and early, and extremely disappointed to find that all of Carrie's vitals had returned to normal. There was nothing left in her medical data for him to study. As he'd given up and declared her perfectly normal (for her particular value of "normal") it was time to be discharged from the hospital.
Una packed up the overnight bag she'd brought along -- a proper nylon one, rather than a silvery jetpack with a compressed dimensional compartment like she had as a teenager. Recycled or not, conserving Mass Capacitors was just good practice. Nel prepped to smuggle them out of the building under illusion magic. Time to go...
A knock at the door interrupted them.
"I thought you'd like to know we found the last of the gang," Chief O'Dare announced. "And if you want to accompany me to visit him, now would be a good time. He's three floors down and in the eastern wing of the hospital."
Five of them moved with a police escort through the hallways. Of course, four of the five were invisible and inaudible, to avoid making a scene. Barbara O'Dare had insisted they drag their plus-one, Van Buren, with them -- as a former member of the gang, he might have valuable input on the situation, after all.
Nel left a tunnel in her spell, so the chief could discreetly communicate with them, without anyone noticing.
"Garfield Bartholomew Tanner, which hands down is the least fortunate name I've heard in a long time," the Chief explained, passing her information pad back to Carrie. "Brought in two days ago by his parents due to an extreme eating disorder."
"You mean he finally ate enough burgers to physically explode?" Van asked, peering at the holographic display in Carrie's hands. "Beefy bastard tended to pack as much muscle as fat. I don't think he ever got the hang of bodybuilding; drank too many of those high-carb shakes, but didn't work out enough..."
When they reached his hospital room, the figure in the bed hardly resembled the word 'beefy' in any conceivable way.
Truthfully, he looked like Carrie felt, yesterday. Pale, sickly, with encrusted vomit around the edges of his mouth. He'd dropped some pounds the hard way, judging from the forced feeding tube they had going up his nose, and the terrible smell...
His wobbly eyes had trouble focusing, but eventually fell on the face of his former gang member.
"Oh, hey, Van," Garfield greeted, waving weakly. "How's it going? Good to see you again."
"Tell them what you told me," the Chief requested.
"What, about my plan? It's genius!" Garfield declared. "See, I finally figured out how to drop the pounds -- I just stop eating anything! My body eats the fat instead. In fact, if I keep it going, I'll drop all the way to zero pounds and out the other side, weighing a negative amount. Then, I'll be able to absorb and destroy the fat in anyone around me. Van, can you imagine how much the chicks will dig me, then? The chubbos'll get hotter and hotter just hanging around me! Makes perfect sense, right?"
Four words. She'd heard them before, Carrie realized. A few times. The bus driver, the one who was going to drive as fast as light...
Van had his own opinion on the subject.
"Gar, that's the stupidest thing you've ever said in your entire life, and I've known you your entire life, so I feel I am an accurate judge of these things," Van declared, frowning. "And... and... jesus. You look horrible, man..."
"I know we've had a setback after that heist, but trust me, this is gonna work great," 'Gar' promised. "We're going to ride my negative mass all the way to the top. Think about it! The Dead Presidents, the most popular gang in school. You and me, buddy. I promised you we'd be going places--"
His hacking, wet coughs interrupted the prideful declaration.
"...you bastard. That stupid heist, and my parents, you... they...!" Van growled, starting to shake...
Until he felt a squeeze, to his hand. Much as he'd done for her, the night before.
"You're an idiot. But even idiots don't deserve this," he decided. "Gar... snap out of it. And get well soon, okay? I don't know where'd you be without me to bail you out of the messes you get into."
"Take a chill pill, Van. It's gonna be fine. Everything's perfect. We scored big, just like the nice lady promised..."
The Chief's attention was neatly snagged. "You didn't tell the officer anything about a 'nice lady,'" she said. "Who are you talking about?"
"The one who told me where to find the ball," Garfield said. "Told me the door code to get into the shop in Chinatown. Told me when was the best time to break in. She said if we stole the eight ball for her, we could have any other loot we could grab. With that stuff, we'd all get anything we ever wanted. She was right! I gave her the ball, and she showed me how to lose the weight with it, and now it's all going off like clockwork. It's gonna be awesome..."
"Garfield. Focus. Who is the nice lady...?"
"Some lady. I forget. Tall? Thin? I dunno," he said, starting to waver, weak from the hunger. "She took the ball. She said it'd help me make decisions, and it did. And then she left. She was right. Left? Right? I think... can't really recall..."
Beyond that, his mumblings were about hot chicks, how great the future would be, and how much sense it all made. Without making any sense at all.
"I wouldn't say we're back to square one," Chief O'Dare said, once they were out in the hall. "His contact knew how and when to hit the shop, and knew the artifacts were inside. From what Una and Nel tell me, this sounds like internal strife within the Gatherers--"
"The what?" Van asked.
Una spoke up, quickly. "Ahh, need to know basis, sorry, sorry... you're better off not knowing."
"Right. Anyway, whatever the eight ball does... it did that to him," the Chief explained. "Doctors say he's suffered brain damage in the cerebral cortex. It might be temporary, like the pinwheel's effects, but if he took a sustained dose from it, this could be around for a long time. It's ruined his ability to make decisions, to control his impulses. Now that power's in the hands of an adult, from the sounds of it... one who won't be too splashy and public when using it, like Madison was..."
The chief considered the situation, leaving the others hanging on, waiting for her next word.
"We'll take it from here," she declared. "This is investigative work, and given the sensitive nature of the group involved, something we need to coordinate with the Queen's honor guard and representatives from #A076. ...go home, Carrie. Live your life. And as of today, you're off the leash."
"Err. The leash...?" Carrie asked.
"Remember, I said I didn't want you taking initiative in crime fighting until I was sure it wouldn't be disastrous? Well... you've handled yourself admirably. You put yourself on the line when you didn't have to, you did so with care and forethought, and proved to me that you've got the right stuff. Let me take over on this case; you go do what you do best. When I need you, I'll give you a call. Until then, frankly, purse snatchers and runaway buses will probably be a vacation compared to superpowered artifacts."
"Really...?" she asked. "I can go on patrol, and stop crimes again?"
"No sense in idle hands, while we do the legwork on this missing eight ball," Chief O'Dare said. "Go out and be a hero. Show the people that sometimes, the day can be saved. Now, if you'll excuse me... I've got my own work to do."
The police escort departed, with O'Dare already dialing up the station house on her communicator, to begin her investigation. Leaving the wide-eyed superheroine behind.
Quickly... she turned to face the others.
"Thank you so much for supporting me through this mess," she said, with a smile. "Una, Nel, Van... thank you. I did it! I'm a heroine again, really and truly! I know I can do this. I can do this thanks to you all!"
Van, who was not used to heartfelt speeches of gratitude and compassion, offered a weak "Er, you're welcome...?"
"If you don't mind... head home without me," Carrie requested. "There's something I want to do before I head back..."
Coffee and doughnuts were the order of the morning. The overnight vigil had been rough on the gathered masses -- the reporters busy complaining about being stuck on this going-nowhere story, the fans determined to stay awake in case Astro Gal emerged from the hospital, so that they could be there to greet her. And the full night had slid by, without a single word further than the last press conference. Even the most diehard were considering packing it in...
"Look...! In the sky!"
"Is it a bird? Is it a plane?"
"Don't be stupid, she doesn't look anything like a bird or a plane. It's Astro Gal."
The costumed heroine, who (thanks to a proper night's rest) looked just as pristine as she was prior to her run-in with a brain-screwing pinwheel, touched down lightly outside the circle of reporters. And offered a shy little smile and a wave that would echo across the Internet for days.
Immediately, microphones were thrust before her. One bumped her nose.
"Um, hi," she greeted. "Sorry I haven't said much yet, but I'm not great at doing interviews. I figured I owed you guys something, though, in thanks for sticking around out here while I was recovering... it meant a lot to me. Thank you. Um, would you mind if I just said a few words...?"
Briefly, a burst of reporter-y questions flared up -- before it was shouted down by the fan base, which outnumbered the media three to one. No sense scaring her off with a barrage of inquisitions.
"Right. So, um. Hello. I'm Astro Gal," the heroine said. "I'm a superheroine. And I'm here to do what I can to make Atlanta a little bit safer. I can't stop every crime, I can't save everyone, but I'm going to do my best to help whenever the city's in need. I grew up in America, I'm proud to call it my home, and I'm going to stand by it come what may. For as long as I can, no injustice shall escape my sight -- I'll bring justice to the unjust, I'll right wrongs, and I'll do my part. I hope you'll do your part, too. Because we're all in this together. ... um, that's all I planned to say, and I'm getting kind of hungry, so I think I'd better--"
A tug, at her cape.
A ten year old who had slipped through the crowd smiled up at her, wearing a home-made blue domino mask, offering up an uneaten jelly doughnut.
Astro Gal enjoyed the fruit filling of victory, as she soared off through the city of Atlanta, headed home.
The dastardly villains and monsters, defeated. The civilian populace, cheering and thankful. The heroine, triumphant.
That should have been the last page of the comic, with an uplifting tagline: See you next month for the continuing adventures of Astro Gal, champion of justice!.
But life continues on.
After all, with the police hot on the trail of the last artifact, that hopefully meant Carrie could have an uninterrupted day of school. The more of those she had, the less suspicious it'd get when she'd be called out of class to go deal with a supervillain... and the makeup homework, even for someone who'd been through high school repeatedly, was always annoying.
Classes carried on as if nothing interesting had happened recently. Some talk of Astro Gal in the halls, but there was just as much talk about the homecoming dance, and the upcoming football games, and the latest goodies stashed away in some student's media archives. Most of this talk happened around Carrie, not involving her... she was just another student, lost in a sea of students. And today, that felt totally great.
The morning classes slid by easily, a happy little haze of normality. The carrot at the end of that perfectly reasonable stick would be lunch with Van. Their first proper sit-down meal and chat since the curry restaurant.
She sat at a table in the corner of the cafeteria, her own tray loaded with dry sandwiches and suspicious looking pudding, as she waited for him.
Ten minutes in and she was seriously getting worried. Not that he'd abandon her; not after coming into her private little world just to pull her out of her hospital nightmare. Maybe he was just delayed. Maybe he mouthed off to a teacher, or something. Maybe--
Carrie was the first person in the cafeteria to know what was happening. Her ears picked up the cracking repeat of gunshots.
From the pitch and echo, it was definitely Oblivion's caliber. And it kept shooting. And shooting.
A wave of panic swept through the school. Slowly, radiating outward. At first, kids in the cafeteria were confused -- but when the alarms sounded, they knew the drill. Everybody knew the procedure for getting the hell out of dodge during a school shooting, after all.
Only one person was fighting against the stream of students, trying to push back through the crowd, towards the source of the noise. She had to duck low, to avoid being noticed by the teachers, who were hustling everybody towards the exits.
This wasn't the time to worry. This was hero time, even if she lacked time to dress the part. But she worried anyway.
Tracing the shots back to point of origin was easy enough. The sound of them was traceable, to her ears. The flow of the stampede, away from the incident, did the rest of the work. But she had to hold back, to duck around corners and out of sight, until she had a clear path towards her destination -- if a teacher caught her, that would be it, and the next people to deal with the shooter would be the police. There were no good outcomes in that situation. ...but if he'd shot anyone, there were no good outcomes anymore whatsoever, were there...?
Push through the worry. Slip through the halls. And into the library.
The distinct lack of carnage was horrifying.
All over, open books. Backpacks. Signs that kids were sitting there, reading... and then weren't there anymore. Clumsy reality edits, courtesy of Oblivion, which hacked holes in continuity and left strange gaps. A few chairs had been knocked over, which meant some may have escaped, thankfully... but there was no way of knowing how many were gone. They'd never been there in the first place, even if they had, even if they left traces behind...
Only one person remained in the library. And, for lack of any more live targets, now he was shooting at bookshelves. Making books vanish, one by one. Bullet by bullet. Carrie couldn't see them go, to her it always looked like he was firing at empty slots on the shelves, at time flowed from the past into the present and shuffled around in her memory...
Risky. But she announced herself. There was no real way to sneak up on him, after all. And she had to know.
The boy paused in his shooting spree... and tossed a lazy little smile towards Carrie.
"Oh, Carrie, hey," he greeted. "How's it going? --crap, I missed lunch, didn't I. Where does the time go...?"
"WHY are you doing this?!" she insisted. "I thought... after your parents, after everything... Van, I don't understand! Just... put the gun down, and let's talk about this, please..."
"No no, see, I have it all figured out," Van explained -- gesturing with Oblivion, causing Carrie to twitch a little, each time it generally waved in her direction. "I know how to reverse the effects! I just have to empty the chambers. Run out of ammo. Then, it'll wrap around to the beginning, and reset! Of course, each time you shoot, the chamber fills up again. So I need to keep shooting, again and again. Eventually it'll give up. Might take a few years, but it'll give up. And then I've won, I've beaten it, and I get my parents back!"
It was completely insane, of course. But some tiny, tiny part of Carrie clung to the idea that maybe he was right... because the alternative, what he'd just done, was too horrific.
"Did... was this Pel's idea?" she asked. "Did he figure it out?"
"Nope! Idea just sort of... came to me," he said. "I was sitting there, thinking about lunch, thinking about a lot of things. Nice and calm. And it came to me from out of the blue, this great idea. I mean... it makes perfect sense, right?"
The bus driver's light speed route. Garfield's weight loss program. Van's shooting spree.
NOW it made sense to her. Unfortunately... far too late to do anything about it.
"Van... give me the gun," she pleaded... stepping towards him, hand outstretched. "Something's wrong with your ability to make decisions. I think I know what's going on, and I can help, but I need the gun. Please... we can get through this. I'll figure something out--"
Aiming a gun at someone is not the same thing as offering it to them safely. Van was not offering it to her safely.
"I need to keep shooting it. It wants to shoot at people," he said. "This makes perfect sense. I have to shoot you. I need... I've got to..."
Even through his weird little grin, through the haze of a cloudy mind... she could see him. The same desperate panic that drove him, when he realized he'd erased his parents, when he was ready to die. Alone and desperate. Clawing at the walls of his own mind. Just as she was, ages ago, isolated on a little island chain...
The hammer clicked back.
"Carrie... are you faster than a speeding bullet?" he asked.
She'd missed lunch. The calories would've helped here. As is, she'd have to make do with the toaster pastry she'd snatched on her way out the door this morning. It might be enough for one quick and controlled burst... might be.
Carrie could've dodged the bullet, yes. But there was more going on here than that. Through the spinning blue polyhedron in his mind, Van had rolled up the right decision. His fingers had gone slack on the handle.
Kicking in the super speed, she stepped around the incoming bullet.
Grasped Oblivion by the barrel. Pulled it away from his loose fingers, just like he wanted her to. If he'd kept a firm grip, then she might've had to break his hand to get it away.
Walk back, along the trajectory of the shot. Walk quickly. Get ahead of the bullet, moving so fast, despite how much faster she was moving...
Interpose the gun in front of the bullet. And brace for impact.
When she dropped back to normal speed, completely exhausted from the effort, Oblivion had managed to shoot itself. Bullet fired from gun, gun moved in front of bullet, bullet striking gun.
Because Carrie was holding Oblivion at the time, she was aware of the edit of all edits, when nobody else was. She was at the center of the maelstrom, as Oblivion began editing itself from reality in the most awkward and implausible manner imaginable.
Everything came back. Everything. Books burst into existence all over the room, flying at all angles. Students landed back in their chairs, some toppling over, off balance. An entire football goal slammed itself through the periodical stacks, impaling six shelves as it came back into existence, and odds were good that everybody would remember it having always been in the middle of the library, for no sensible reason.
Finally, a man and a woman appeared.
Everybody took a moment for the confusion to settle in, and fade away. Students got back to work, shrugging off the weird feeling. In the halls, the light rumble of the student body returning to class, unsure of why they'd left in the first place. Probably some idiot pulled a fire alarm. Probably.
When the chaos faded... Carrie was holding an empty space where a gun used to be.
And Van was hugging his parents tight, at the risk of his tough-guy image.
"Ivan...?" his father asked. "Is something wrong?"
"I... there was... yes, I think?" he said, starting to realize what he was doing. He let the bear hug go. "Did you guys go somewhere, or...?"
His mother tried to think. "We... were attending some event, I think? Off in Philadelphia," she suggested. "For your father's work. I know it was short notice, so once we got back, we figured we'd drop in on you at school and make sure you were okay... miss? Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Carrie said, shaking out her tingling hands, offering a bright smile. Covering up. "Hi. My name's Carrie, I'm Van's friend. He's been staying over at my house while you folks were out of town. I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Buren."
"Right... right," Van (whose real name was apparently Ivan) (which Carrie was embarrassed to admit she never even thought to ask yet) agreed. "Staying with her folks. Some... stuff happened, and... man, I feel weird. Very relaxed, but weird..."
"That's what you get for skipping breakfast," she suggested. "You should really go home for the day, rest up until it passes. I'll call you later, and we can talk..."
A telltale click. Loud enough to be heard over her protesting stomach, which as far as it was concerned, had also skipped breakfast and the previous night's dinner.
"Sorry, I gotta go," she said. "Van? Seriously. We'll talk later."
She left the confused trio, heading to the back of the library. Where someone had just slipped out the emergency exit, unnoticed. Unless you had ears sensitive enough to pick up on the latch closing behind them.
The evildoer was making a getaway, when Astro Gal swooped in to save the day.
She'd taken a few moments to get into costume, anticipating her persona would be needed to deal with the aftermath of this. Also, it gave her enough confidence to face down the one she now knew was responsible. Responsible for this entire mess...
She hovered in front of the villain, arms crossed, blocking the way down the corridor to the door that would've led to the parking lot and freedom.
"Explain yourself," Astro Gal demanded. Because odds were the bad guy wanted to rant. They always did.
"I'll admit, I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing here," the criminal said. "I can only assume from the strange situation in the library that Oblivion was involved. I studied its file extensively in my time with the Gatherers, and it'd be perfect for what I wanted to do--"
"You were the one who twisted Van's mind, to get him to start shooting," Carrie recognized. "It's the eight ball's power: it screws with your decision making process. You did it to that bus driver. You did it to Garfield, when you got the magic eight ball from him, to cover your tracks. Soften his mind up so he couldn't tell anyone who masterminded the robbery -- who gave him the codes, who told him how to break into a Gatherer facility."
"They took away my research," she protested. "I wasn't done with the artifact. I needed to get it back. You don't understand; it helps the decision making process. It relaxes the mind and lets you focus on your life's problems, coming to perfect solutions for them!"
"You first researched it by using it on yourself, didn't you...?"
"And it made perfect sense!" Doc insisted, grinning the same manic grin that Van was sporting, that Garfield had permanently affixed. "It helped you, didn't it, Carrie? It helped you decide to become a superhero again!"
"It made me impulsively jump into superheroing without thinking about the consequences!" Astro Gal shouted back. "This is what I always wanted, yes, but I hurt my family's trust and I nearly blew it on my first night out thanks to that stupid... EIGHT BALL!"
She reached over, sharply rapping on the chrome sphere of the Relax-o-Matic... shattering the cheap metal casing, which Doc had been using to hide the plastic toy ball inside. Its blue polyhedron spun lazily in place, blurry words, declaring that the outlook wasn't so good.
"And yet, here you are -- a glorious superhero!" Doc insisted. "It helped you. It can help so many people, Carrie. I had to steal it back, without the Gatherers realizing I took it. I thought... if I hire some punks from your school, maybe they'll take some dangerous things. They'd become exactly what my favorite little patient needed!"
"A superheroine needs villains, doesn't she?" Doc asked. "I got what I needed, and you got what you needed -- enemies. Challenges. A way to regain what was once lost. I did it all for you, Carrie! It makes perfect sense... I'm a doctor, a healer, I care for your well being, and that's why I became the archenemy you needed to have! Don't you see? I'm the new Doctor Mindmelt--"
And Carrie broke her jaw.
Candy wrappers littered Chief Barbara O'Dare's desk. Along with an arrest report on Doc point six one, formerly of Arcology #A076, currently practicing psychotherapy in the city of Atlanta. Currently in a holding tank, being seen to by medical technicians, while they figured out what exactly to charge her with.
Her assailant, who may also end up arrested at the rate the investigation was going, sat glumly in the uncomfortable wooden chair across from the chief's desk. The chocolate smudges around her mouth, part of her emergency re-calorie-ing, gave her an adorably guilty little girl sort of aura.
"There is such a thing as reasonable force when making an arrest," Chief O'Dare explained.
"I know. I know," Astro Gal mumbled. "I'm sorry. It was wrong of me. Just... she really got to me, what she said..."
"So, you're saying she masterminded the distribution of the three artifacts--?"
"Comb, pinwheel, eight ball. Three artifacts."
"Um. The fourth one edited itself out of existence earlier."
The Chief felt a distinctly 404-flavored headache coming on.
"I'm going to be very frank with you," she said. "When I said you could go out and fight crime, it was because I trusted you not to cause a mess. This? This is a mess. Sure, we found the missing eight ball in the suspect's possession, but the chain of evidence is pretty sketchy. We can't even connect its effects to the attacks on Garfield and the bus driver -- both have made full recoveries in the time since then. The boy came to his senses a few hours ago, apparently. Ugh. The lawyers are going to have a field day trying to prove any wrongdoing..."
"Garfield's fine now? Um... does that mean that Doc is--"
"She's still raving about being somebody called Doctor Mindmelter, so I'm suspecting she won't be right as rain for quite awhile. If she ever recovers. Which makes it even worse, because I can't charge the mentally ill with a crime they didn't realize they were committing. This is a serious mess, Astro Gal--"
Which was odd, because the Chief gave the squad room orders not to bug her while she was interviewing the young heroine.
Before Barbara O'Dare could call out for whoever it was to enter, whoever it was went ahead and entered.
The anonymous and nondescript woman stepped in confidently, a manila folder tucked under one arm of her dark business suit.
"Are you in charge of this investigation?" she asked.
Chief O'Dare leaned back in her chair, as the annoyances piled up nicely. "It says 'Chief of Police' on my door you breezed on through, so, yes, I am in charge."
Smoothly, the woman pulled a single sheet of paper from her folder, and handed it over. Kept a light grip on it, even as Barbara O'Dare reached out to tug it away, before releasing.
"Not anymore you're not," the suit declared. "We'll be taking custody of the suspect calling herself Doctor Mindmelter, as well as the four artifacts in question. --three artifacts, sorry. We'll also back up Astro Gal's story and testify to an acceptable use of force; we suggest you release her on her own recognizance."
"Okay. Whoever you are, I don't know what you're playing at, but--"
"I think you'll find my authorization and orders to be in order, and if you'll please direct your attention to the signature...?" the woman said, pointing towards the paper in the Chief's hands.
Frowning, Chief O'Dare studied the paper.
She read it three times, just to be sure.
"This can't possibly be real," she decided. "What the hell would get that many joint chiefs of staff to sign off on... how did you POSSIBLY get the Director of the FBI's... I mean... what?"
"It's quite real, I assure you," the woman insisted. "Please make arrangements for the prisoner and artifact transfer. We have a van waiting at your loading dock. I'd like this done as smoothly and quickly as possible. Thank you for your time."
Without a further word, the woman in the dark sunglasses made her exit.
In frustration, the Chief slammed the authorization paper down on her desk.
"Go home, Astro Gal," she ordered. "I've apparently got to roll over and play fetch for a higher authority. I'm considering this matter closed. ...I'm sorry to jump down your throat like I did. It's been a strange day. But be careful in future arrests, please."
And then, Carrie was all alone in the office.
Morbid curiosity made her turn the official paperwork over, to study it.
It was blank. Completely and utterly, a flawless, blank piece of paper.
Astro Gal had to fly down the hall to catch up. It meant kicking up some papers on desks, and would probably get her a stern talking-to from the Chief once she got back, but this was important.
She intercepted the woman before she reached her destination. Which was, oddly, a supply closet. Sort of.
Through the open door... Carrie saw no mops, no buckets, no cardboard boxes of disinfectant. There were boxes, certainly... row after row of wooden crates. On shelves. Extending farther than she could see, in a room that could never have fit inside there...
The agent's palm was on the door handle, one foot already inside, when Carrie arrived.
"Nothing more to see here, citizen," the agent promised. "Better if you move along. You've done good work bringing back the four artifacts--"
"How did you know about Oblivion?" Carrie asked. "I destroyed it. Nobody should be able to remember it ever existed! --the Gatherers. You work with the Gatherers. And I know who you are, even through that disguise. I baby sit your daughter!"
The woman paused.
"Really wish you hadn't figured that out. I wanted to keep my cover identity long enough for Maria to get through school," Agent Elisa Morales said, with a sigh. "Carrie... there are things that you're not ready for yet. Not you, not Una, not Nel, not even Queen Emily. I cannot confirm or deny anything. But... for what it's worth... we're going to make sure Doc recovers from this. We take care of our own. And I'm sorry you and your friend Van got mixed up in our problems."
"Who are you people?" Carrie insisted. "I have to know--"
"You'll know. Una will know, Nel will know, Queen Emily will know. But in good time," Elisa promised. "We're going to need your help when the stars fall. Until then... sorry. I can't say anything. It's out of my hands."
Agent Morales was about to step through the door, when Carrie interrupted one last time.
"Maria should stay in school," she decided. "It's rough, losing your friends, and being all alone in a new city. ...I won't tell anyone it was you I saw. I promise."
A thankful smile. And then, she was through the door, and gone.
When Carrie opened the door again, all she saw were mops, buckets, and cardboard boxes of disinfectant.
The Dead Presidents were literally a tree fort gang, long before they became the Dead Presidents. The old, rickety wooden shack was surprisingly cozy, as Van stretched out on the floor, next to Carrie.
"That's the most insane story I've ever heard, and I'm not particularly comfortable with the idea that I shot my parents," Van pointed out.
"I know. I'm sorry. But... you deserve the truth. You've done so much to keep me going, that I wanted to return the favor..."
"I guess it makes sense. It explains all the weird and unsettling holes in my life, the last few days. Explains what happened to my friends. And how I somehow found out you were a superheroine. ...they seriously vanished from reality? Man. I don't always get along with my folks, but I'd never wanna hurt 'em..."
Van swallowed the idea that he was apparently a crazed gunman in a former life, and tucked it away for later thought. Another, more pressing thought was coming up in its place.
"You know, you never really gave me an answer," he pointed out.
"To... us. To dating. And so on. You voted to abstain, and that's totally reasonable -- especially knowing what I know now. But... that's the thing, isn't it. I know now why you didn't want to talk about it..."
Of all the paranormal, superpowered madness in her recent days... she'd almost take tangling with a giant jade golem or an inner ear twisting pinwheel than talk about that. But...
"I'm stuck at this age, Van," she said. "You figured that out already, right? I'm immortal, invincible, and on top of that, I've got to protect a secret identity. I can't... it's... there's just no possibility of something as silly as a 'boyfriend,' in the middle of all that. I've tried, before. It never ended well. They move on, they grow up, I don't, and it ends in either heartbreak or statutory charges. I'm just... way too much of a freak for it ever to work out--"
"I'm still game if you are."
Carrie glanced over to him, confused. He'd said it so simply, so directly. Not the least bit concerned.
"So maybe it doesn't work. So maybe we lose out," he suggested. "So what? The possibility of losing something doesn't make it not worth having at all. I lost my parents, and even if they stayed lost, I was ready to carry on thanks to you. And yeah, one day you'll probably lose me. Hell, on a long enough timeline, you'll lose Una and Nel too. You lost your mother, long ago. Does that change how much you love her? Does it change how meaningful your time was with her?"
"Of course not!"
"Then let's just roll with this and what happens, happens. How many high school sweeties are eternal soul mates, anyway? The whole point of adolescence is to go a little crazy and have fun and figure it out as you go. I'm not saying we have to be forever. I'm just saying... you're lonely. ...I'm lonely. I surrounded myself with idiots just so I could have friends. Let's aim a little higher, together. I think you're awesome. ...I... kinda love you."
Carrie Lane had forgotten how completely neat making out was.
"Does this mean I'm your sidekick?" Van asked.
"One thing at a time, please," she suggested, before resuming makeouts.
copyright 2011 stefan gagne