October 18th, 2007
It’s a Thursday evening like any other in the small town of Vinita, Oklahoma. Fred is standing in line at the Walmart buying milk so he can cook some off-brand mac ‘n cheese for his two kids. Used to be Wilma would cook, and boy did she cook, but she’s been dead for more than eight years now. The kids aren’t suffering from malnutrition yet, so Fred figures he’s doing something right.
Anyway, he’s standing there waiting for his turn at the counter. It’s the express lane, so you’d think he’d be done by now, but nope. The idiot who’s two spots ahead in line is arguing with the cashier about some coupon. Fred just wants to pay for his milk and get home so he can finish dinner before his sitcom of choice comes on.
And that’s when the asshole starts throwing the racial slurs. He’s got Fred’s attention now. And… oh damn, he’s pulling out a gun. What. Hell no. Fred doesn’t have time for this crap. He calls on the Force. No, not the police force. The Fred Force.
Fred’s eyes glow orange as the lights dim. The AC craps out and the radio plays dubstep. The cash register drawer pops open of its own accord. The asshole with the gun reaches nervously for the money, but he hesitates when the bills within start folding themselves into hexaflexagons. Then he’s yanked off his feet and thrown into a wall by the large purple brontosaurus that has just appeared behind him, crushing several checkout lanes beneath its four massive legs. A stack of grocery baskets is scattered when it flexes its tail.
Fred shoves his way past the stunned old lady in front of him, makes eye contact with the panicking cashier, and hands her a five dollar bill. “Keep the change, sweetie,” he says while sliding his gallon of milk over the scanner. The poor woman just gapes at his glowing eyes until he turns to the brontosaurus, then she gapes at that as it swishes its tail over to her aisle. Fred climbs up the tail into the small hut wedged between the beast’s tall curving back and the ceiling. The lights go even dimmer for a moment, and suddenly Fred and the dinosaur are gone. The lights regain their normal glare, the fans in the climate control system shudder back into motion, and the radio resumes the same tired rock it has been drilling into the employees' ears for a decade. A young man with a mop stares forlornly at the steaming bronto-pie left behind.
* * *
Inside a large garage in a peaceful neighborhood, the lights glow to life, washing away the black with a flood of neon green seasoned by flecks of purple. A score of venus fly traps sprout out of a crack in the pavement and bob their heads to an unheard rhythm. In the space between instants, a purple brontosaurus appears, with the hut strapped to its back occupied by a sturdy average-sized man with short black hair and glowing eyes. Fred hops out and slides down his steed’s back, slapping a light-switch as he steps off the dinosaur’s tail. The lights flip over to red speckled with yellow. The fly traps take no notice until Fred walks up to the door in the side of the garage and releases his grip on the Fred Force. As the glow fades out of his eyes, the light turns to a generic sickly fluorescent white color and the fly traps retreat back into the ground. The brontosaurus is the last to go, carefully twisting its neck around to lick Fred before blinking out of existence.
Fred smiles and shifts uncomfortably in response to his now damp shirt and face, then fishes his keys out of a pocket and lets himself into the house proper. The garage-lights go dark when he slaps the switch again before closing the door.
Now inside the kitchen, he announces his presence while putting the milk in the fridge and wiping off with a towel. He hears a welcoming shout over the sound of crappy pop music spilling out of his daughter’s room, followed by bedsprings groaning and the pitter-patter of feet on hardwood.
“Hey Daddy. Tim went to Joey’s house. I told him he wasn’t s'posed to but he wouldn’t listen!” A short eleven-year-old girl with dark brown armpit-length hair walks into the kitchen where Fred is putting some water on the stove and notes the damp spot on his shirt. “Daaaaaad, did you call Bruno again? You’re gonna get us in trouble!”
Fred sighs at his youngest. “Susie, a man was going to shoot the cashier. Do you want me to just stand there and watch something like that?” Susan purses her lips. “Look Susan, I know you’re worried they’ll find us, but we’ll be fine. What are they gonna do, follow me home? Anyway, we can always move again.”
“I hate moving, Dad. You know that!”
“Yes, but I hate people dying, and I hate being late for dinner. That’s two things, so I win.” Fred changes the subject as Susan pouts. “Did Tim say when he’s coming back?”
“You know he didn’t.”
He rubs his temple. “Dinner will be done in about ten minutes. Did you finish your homework?”
“Yes, but I don’t see why. It’s so stupid. Compound interest? What do they think I am, eleven?” She notices Fred smirking at her. “You know what I mean, Dad! This is such a waste of time!”
“Honey, you’re the one who insisted on attending a normal school, remember? I told you I’ll home-school you, or find the money to send you to private school, or something, anything.”
“But you can’t, Daddy! You need to work, remember? And you can’t work hard because they’ll find us. And you can’t steal because, because it’s Wrong!”
“So you keep telling me. But don’t you think I’m bored, too? I’m making websites for people who don’t know the difference between bandwidth and a belt size! Do you ever hear me complain?”
Susan adopts a defeated look. “Only when I do,” she mumbles.
“Exactly. Now fetch me the phone, will you?”
“…Kay.” Susan tosses the handset to him.
“Alright. Go clean up your room for me, okay? Oh don’t even try, I know you haven’t done that yet.” Susan’s protest dies on her lips. “And turn down your music so I can hear the phone?”
“Oh okay, you old fart.”
Fred just snorts as she returns to her room. He checks the water and then starts some vegetables cooking before he hits the speed dial for Joey’s place. He gets a busy tone, so he sets the phone down and focuses on cooking for a while. When the food is ready, he calls Susan in to eat and tries calling Joey’s house again while she washes her hands. Still busy. Huh.
They finish dinner, and over a dessert of Jello they have an entertaining discussion about the class bully’s latest attempts to mock Susan. Apparently she’d managed to trick him into yelling loudly during lunch that he’d messed his pants. She must have gotten that from Wilma, because the best Fred had managed against the bullies in his day was to stoically ignore them, secure in the knowledge that he’d be the one signing their paychecks one day. Of course, that was before the dinoshit hit the fan.
Having finished their wriggly dessert, Fred tries calling Joey’s house one more time. For the life of him he can’t recall the boy’s last name, other than that it’s too generic to gain traction in his mind, like Johnson or Brown. Whatever it is, he gets yet another busy signal. Maybe they left the phone off the hook or something. He’ll have to walk over and speak to Timothy in person, which means missing his show after all. He really needs to get a new VCR, or maybe one of those DVRs they’ve been coming out with lately. He supposes he’ll just make that Tim’s punishment and take the funds for DVR parts out of the boy’s allowance. That kid has had it coming, and it’ll be better if Fred scratches his devisor itch with a homebrew DVR system rather than waiting until he can’t take it anymore and building something more incriminating, like a laser lawnmower. He lets Susan know where he’s going and heads out.
Five minutes later, Fred is turning the corner onto Joey’s block when he stops in his tracks. There are flashing lights everywhere. Not like Christmas lights or even Halloween lights (which would be more appropriate to the season anyway, what with it being early October). No, these are emergency vehicle lights. There are a firetruck, a fire pickup truck, an ambulance, and several police cars parked up and down the street. There are smouldering remains of fires in a number of yards, some broken windows, and even a flipped car. To top it all off, the side of Joey’s house is now resting on the front lawn in many shattered pieces.
Fred’s stomach lurches as he inhales a lungful of smoke-scented air, and before he knows what he’s doing he is running full-tilt toward the scene. An authoritative policeman steps out as if to block him, so Fred veers over and comes to a stop at a respectable distance, but within conversational range, careful to keep his hands in plain view. “Officer, what’s going on here? I think my son was in that building!” he blurts out before the man can wave him away.
The officer blinks. “Your son? One Timothy Fredson?” At Fred’s nodding, the police officer squints at him and asks to see some identification, which Fred readily provides. The ID is fake, of course, as is the last name. Fred had figured it would be easier for his children to remember their new last name if it was just his own first name. While Susan is a good bit ahead of the grade, Tim seems pretty normal at the best of times, and they were both a few years younger back then anyway.
The officer sees nothing suspicious in the ID and returns it to Fred, then motions him toward some other officers and EMTs grouped near the firetruck and talking to what looks like Joey’s father, disgruntled and covered in dust. As they draw near, Joey’s dad (Fred really is terrible at names) recognizes him.
“Fred! What the FUCK are you trying to pull with that goddamned mutie son of yours he almost killed my wife NOW LET GO OF ME SO I CAN KICK THIS MAN’S ASS!” That last bit is directed at the EMT and police officer who have just seized his shaking body on either side.
The officer escorting Fred speaks up before Fred has even finished processing the outburst. “Sir, please calm down. You are safe now, and making blatant threats in front of police officers really isn’t going to help the situation for anybody.” Joey’s dad pales when he realizes what he’s just done. Or maybe he’s just that pissed, Fred can’t tell. The officer continues speaking. “Now, I’m sure Mr. Fredson here is just as surprised as you are, so let’s just talk this out and try to figure out where the poor boy has gone before anybody else gets hurt.”
By now Fred is putting the pieces together. “You mean to tell me, officer, that my son is a mutant? He manifested and did all this?”
“I’m afraid so, Mr. Fredson. From the reports given by the Smiths and some of their neighbors, it sounds like he’s a gravity warper or a telekinetic, and possibly an energizer or pyrokinetic. Apparently he got into an argument over a video game with Mrs. Smith-”
Mr. Smith interrupts, “Yeah, that little snot wanted Joey to install some violent shit about killing people on his computer, and Janice told them ‘No.’ So your little brat tried to blow her up! Fucking goddamned…” He carries on like this for a while, while the officers keep him a healthy distance away from Fred.
Finally, the officer continues- it suddenly occurs to Fred that the man has a name-tag. Officer Kennison continues, “So, like I said, there was a dispute, which seems to have triggered his manifestation. As best I can tell, he caused quite a bit of harm to Mrs. Smith and the hallway they were in. Then he panicked and fled the building, taking the wall with him.” He removes a pen from his pocket and jabs it at the rubble decorating the yard for emphasis, then withdraws a notepad. “He fled down the street, tipped over a car as he passed, and apparently chucked small fireballs around at random for about half a block. And that’s the last we’ve heard of him. I actually had just called in to the station to have them look you up and ring your home a couple minutes before you showed up here, but of course your daughter answered and said you weren’t available. She was very uncooperative and wouldn’t say where you were or when you’d be back, so I’m glad I’ve got you here. We need to know if you have any ideas as to where Timothy might have gone.”
Fred is about to make a few suggestions when another officer walks up. “Sir, dispatch says the MCO are en-route. Apparently they already had a team over at the Walmart investigating the Barney sighting, so they’ll be here in just a couple minutes.”
And there’s the last straw. Fred ain’t gonna deal with no Mutant Control Office. Fuck that noise.
“It’s Bruno,” he says. When the officers look at him funny, he clarifies. “His name. Bruno, not Barney.” And with that, he seizes the Fred Force. Eyes glow turquoise, street lamps start shining in plaid, the lines on the road rearrange into something reminiscent of Escher, etc. And then Bruno is simply there, standing next to Fred and drooling on Mr. Smith’s head.
Mr. Smith releases his bladder, so one of the EMTs helpfully reminds him that the brontosaurus was an herbivorous creature. The rest are speechless.
Fred just climbs up to his seat, grasps the reins, and vanishes.
* * *
Reappearing outside his house along with the typical burst of chaos, Fred directs Bruno to tap his head against the living room wall. The resounding thump quickly brings Susan to the window, which she hastily opens. “You didn’t…” she moans, ignoring the tap-dancing trash can and the stream of glitter pouring out of the yard’s sprinkler system, focusing instead on Fred’s face.
“Hush. Tim is in trouble. He’s a mutant. Had a noisy manifestation at Joey’s. MCO are en-route, already in town from earlier. You were right.” He puts on a rueful grin. “Jig is up, news is out, they’ve finally found me.”
Susan is speechless for a few moments before her face takes on a remorseful look. “So we’re leaving?”
Fred nods. “You coming with Bruno and me, or you takin' the ‘porter?”
“I’ll come with, Daddy. Somebody has to keep a doof like you from doing anything stupid.”
“That’s what I figured. Hop in.”
Bruno places his head below the window, and Susan climbs out and up to the cab-like hut to join her dad. Fred pulls a pretty stereotypical looking single-button remote from inside his jacket and presses the red button. Then he belts out a few more Styx lyrics and waits for the device to vibrate as acknowledgment that the voice analysis and passphrase have been accepted. The teleportation hardware in the basement begins transporting the Fredsons' more important possessions to a safe location before self-destructing.
Satisfied, he turns to Susan. “Right. Let’s find your brother. He apparently got into a fight with Joey’s mom, manifested, and then accidentally blew her up a little, knocked down the side of their house, and fled. You think he went to the park?”
“Omigawd, is she okay? How do you only blow somebody up a little? That fucking punk!”
“Susan Diane Fredson! What did I tell you about cussing around Bruno?! And heck if I know, you’ll have to ask him. She’s alive, but pretty hurt. I didn’t exactly have time to ask about details. Now focus. Tim. Park? Or you think he would’ve gone to the forest?”
“I don’t know. The park is smaller; try there first.”
“Right, that’s my girl!” Fred pats her on the head as they wink out of their yard and appear in the park. Bruno takes a bite out of a purple tree, and a bunch of hooligans who’d been milling about on and around the swings fall on their rears in surprise when the chains become snakes, but otherwise nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. No debris, no fires, no power armor response forces. “I don’t see him, Susie. You?”
Susan looks around from their high perch but doesn’t see him either. “No, he must have gone to the forest.”
“I sure hope so. Let’s go, Bruno!” And with that they vanish, leaving nothing but four big footprints and a pile of fertilizer to mark their passage.
They arrive in front of a small forest a few miles outside the neighborhood they’ve lived in for the past year and immediately notice a plume of smoke about half a mile back.
“Bruno, announce our presence, will ya?” Fred says.
Bruno swallows his mouth-full of leaves, tilts his head back, and lets out a mighty “Yip yip yip yehrawwrr!” A few scattered fireballs and a tree fly up into the air in the vicinity of the plume of smoke.
Fred nudges Susan. “I think we startled him, eh?” She responds with a nervous laugh.
Continuing to watch the plume, they see a young man launch into the air in their general direction, only to promptly fall back into the woods along a parabolic arc. This process repeats as he draws steadily nearer to Bruno, continuing to loose the occasional fireball.
“What did he manifest as, a Mario-2?” Susan quips.
“Mario-3 I think. The second one didn’t have the fire flowers, remember? And it doesn’t look like he’s throwing vegetables around.” About this time, Tim makes another hop, this time with a tree and a bush traveling alongside him. “Well, okay, maybe you have a point.”
Two hops more and Tim does a nasty face-plant about twelve feet away. “Um, you alright, Son?” Fred hollers, while clambering down from his saurian transport. When Susan moves to follow, he quickly motions her back. “Please stay up there Susie, and keep a lookout. Bruno, you help her. We might have to make a quick escape.” She pouts, and it is a rather good pout, but Fred has been at this game for a while and knows the perfect counter – he simply shifts his gaze away to size up his battered son. An unseen pout has no clout.
Meanwhile, Tim groans and throws himself back up out of the iridescent grass (which is engaging in some kind of massive synchronized dance) and manages a wobbly landing on his toes. The process causes the stomachs of everybody present to wobble as well, and some stones float up into the air alongside the boy. Fred trips off Bruno’s tail, but he rolls to his feet unharmed.
“Do I LOOK okay to you, Pop?” shouts Tim.
Fred brushes some of the hovering pebbles out of the way and looks him over. Tim’s clothes are in tatters, he’s bleeding from a dozen places, and a patch of his short brown hair is on fire. “Well, you’re rough around the edges, but you’re standing so it can’t be all that bad.”
“No, I’m not standing. I’m floating. I think I broke both my legs getting here.” Fred winces and looks closer, and sure enough, the kid’s toes are only dragging on the ground, not supporting any weight.
“Here as in right here, or-”
“Here as in the forest. Landing on the concrete along the way hurt.”
“Oh, I know it does,” says Fred. “I’ve fallen off Bruno a few times, you know, not to mention the occasional building, bridge, airplane-”
“Yeah, but you’re a regen.”
“So are you, looks like. See how those cuts are already healing up?”
“But the bones aren’t!”
“Bones take longer, Son. And we’ll want to get an actual doctor to set them so they heal right, or to at least look them over if they’ve already fused by that point, just to be sure. If it’s just plain regen, it might not correct any misalignment automatically.”
“So they’d have to like, break them again?” his son asks apprehensively.
“I guess. I don’t know how else they’d deal with it. I’ve never been in that situation. But maybe you’re an avatar now like me, or maybe even an exemplar! If that’s the case, they should eventually shift to fit your BIT even if they heal wrong at first.” Fred squints at Tim’s face. “Your face doesn’t look any different than it did this morning, except it’s scruffy and your nose is crooked.” Fred adjusts Tim’s nose and holds it in place while the cartilage stitches back together, ignoring his son’s muttered curses. “Of course, the BIT transformations usually kick in slowly anyway, so that doesn’t really tell us anything yet. Nice eyes, by the way.”
“Your eyes Tim. They’ve got sort of a molten orange thing going on now instead of your old brown.”
“Like lava?” Tim asks excitedly.
“More like wax. They aren’t glowing or anything. Sorry, kiddo.” Tim scowls. “Um, Son, were you planning to put out that fire in your hair?”
“I can’t. It doesn’t go out.”
Fred brings his palm near the flame and confirms that it is definitely giving off heat. It doesn’t seem to be spreading to the rest of his hair though, nor is it consuming the hair it’s touching. He picks up a twig and sticks the end into the fire. It ignites, so he drops it on the ground and stomps out the flame. “You’re a fire hazard, Son.”
“I know. It was worse earlier.”
“Oh, it changes?” asks Fred. “When you’re agitated, right?” Tim nods. “Okay, so just try to relax.”
“No crap, Pop. You try relaxing with two broken legs!”
“Oh, right. Okay, um, lay down on the ground there, but keep your head tilted so you don’t start a forest fire, mmkay? I’ll get the bones back where they’re supposed to be and make you some splints to keep ‘em there.”
As Tim complies and Fred starts looking for suitable sticks, Susan leans over the edge of Bruno’s cab. “Hey Dad, Mario, you two better hurry it up before the MCO show up.”
“Oh God, the MCO,” Tim groans.
“Yep,” Fred says. “Sorry to break it to you, but you… well, we blew our cover today.” He turns to shout over his shoulder. “Hey Susie, toss me the first-aid kit, will you? It’s under the chair.”
Tim remains silent for a while while Fred splints his legs, and Fred neglects to comment on the way the boy’s hair flares up any time he adjusts the legs' positions. It scorches a patch in the dancing grass, but the rain they’d had the day before seems to have left things damp enough that it doesn’t spread. Once the task is complete, he starts picking his son up, but Tim objects. “No, I got it, Pop. I can’t fly for real yet, but I can hover pretty well.”
“Alright, if you’re sure,” says Fred.
“Yeah, I just can’t really move around very well. I lose my balance and the next thing I know I’m flying through the sky and breaking things. But if you just pull me, I can float my weight.”
“Oh, alright then. Float up over here, and put your arms up.”
“What, like this? Why? What are you… AAHHHHHHH!”
Fred has just grabbed Tim under the shoulders and hurled him up toward Bruno’s cab. He starts to tell the boy to calm down, but stops short when Tim completely fails to grab the cab and instead whizzes right past it. Fortunately, Bruno is on the ball and quickly plucks Tim out of the air with his mouth, then gently tugs him over to the window where Susan pulls him inside. Fred shrugs and climbs up Bruno’s tail to thump his now violently cursing son on the head before he agitates Bruno.
A couple minutes later, an MCO chopper flies over the area but finds nothing but another smelly patch of fertilizer and some scorched but otherwise normal grass. They pay no notice to the angry squirrels.
The scene is a secluded desert home in Nevada, an hour later. A dust devil suddenly becomes triangular, and the sound of wind ringing the chime hanging next to the door becomes the sound of popcorn popping. Moments later a big purple brontosaurus appears, with the riders in the middle of an animated conversation.
“-don’t think this is a good idea, Daddy!”
“Look Susan, Barney is our friend, and Tim needs the medical attention. It’s not like we can just bring him to a hospital now.” Tim nods his head vigorously at that, wincing as the motion causes his legs to wiggle. “And it will only be for a few hours, tops. We’ll be fine.”
Susan just glares at him, so he shrugs and climbs down, then looks back to see if Tim needs any help lowing himself. Tim just grabs onto the frame of the cab, aims himself, and pushes off with his arms. As he drifts he starts to flail. Probably trying to rotate around so he can catch himself with his arms, Fred supposes. It isn’t exactly working.
“Whoa, ease up there, Son, I got ya!” He reaches up and lightly snags Tim’s arm as he drifts past, easing him into an upright position about half a foot up from the ground, placing the boy’s head level with his own. “Now you just hold onto my shoulders and I’ll pull you around, okay?”
“Susan, are you coming along or not?” he calls back to his daughter in the cab.
“Oh fine,” she huffs, “But when this goes wrong, just remember that I’m not leavin' ‘Santa’ any milk and cookies at Christmas time!” With that, she hops out of the cab and slides down Bruno’s back. He flicks his tail as she reaches its end, tossing her into the air so she can do a somersault before landing.
Tim ignores her performance, looking confused. “What does Santa have to do with any of this?” He looks back and forth between his bowing sister and his clapping dad. “Wait, you don’t mean-”
His musings are interrupted by a shout from behind them. They all turn to see a dusty blond man standing in the doorway waving. He starts walking their way and meets them about the same time Susan has reached their side.
“Fred, old buddy, what brings you guys out here?” Barney smiles when Bruno swings his head over to sniff at him. “Oh, and don’t think I forgot you, Bruno! Who’s a good dino? You are, oh yes you are!” He sort of hugs the side of Bruno’s head and pats the brontosaurus’s snout.
“Barney, my friend,” says Fred, “I need your help. See, we kind of, um, got ourselves into a bind here, and, uh…”
“Oh, don’t tell me you’re on the run again, Fred!”
“Yeah, see, uh, Tim here manifested tonight and has been having a rough time of it. He’s got some regen, but we don’t know if he’s an exemplar or anything, so I’m worried about his broken legs healing wrong.”
Barney looks over to Tim skeptically. “Tim, you’ve gotten tall! Stop hiding behind your dad and come out here where I can see you. And, um, you’ve got a little, uh, fire in your hair?” He taps his own to point out the positioning.
“Yeah, it does that now, Unc,” Tim says as he he carefully pushes himself sideways to float alongside his father. “And I wasn’t hiding.”
Barney makes a silent “Oh” of understanding as he looks at the boy’s legs and notices that his feet aren’t touching the ground. “So, how’d you break ‘em?” he asks, as he crouches down to inspect the splint-work.
Seeing Tim hesitate, Susan volunteers to answer for him. “He was playing Mario.”
Barney glances at her with a befuddled expression. “I know video games have gotten a bit violent lately, but really?”
Fred clears his throat. “He’s a gravity warper, Barney. He can hover alright, but he hasn’t worked out the knack of flight yet.”
Barney nods in sudden understanding. “So you were power-hopping around, eh? Yeah, that’ll do it. Well, let’s get you inside so we can take a look, alright?”
Fred looks over his shoulder as Barney leads them into his house. “Thanks, Bruno. You rest up now, mmkay?” Bruno gives a happy little trumpet as Fred releases the Force, allowing the brontosaurus to return to his home inside Fred’s cramped hallow.
Susan looks around as they enter the house. “Where’s Aunt Betty?” Barney and Betty aren’t actually family with the Fredsons, but they are very good friends. “Did she finish that quilt she was making last time?”
Barney gives kind of a sad chuckle. “Oh yeah, that and half a dozen others. She’s out having a meeting right now with her Girl Scout troop.” He opens a door. “Tim, if you can kind of waft over to this table and lie down, I’ll take a look at those legs.” At this, Susan starts blowing and fanning at Tim as if he is a balloon. Her brother rolls his eyes, pushes off from the door frame, and drifts into the room after Barney.
Fred spots some dust bunnies following his son, but he hasn’t felt any of those stomach flutters in a while, so he supposes the boy must be getting better at localizing the effect. That’s good, because it’s been nauseating Bruno and they still have a long way to travel tonight. While the brontosaurus can teleport nearly instantly to just about anywhere, long undercover trips still take a while because he can’t compensate for the planet’s spin and has to make a bunch of tiring little hops. That’s miserable enough without the nausea Tim’s been causing, and the last thing they need is to leave a trail of ectoplasmic dino-vomit for the MCO to follow.
Once Tim is relaxed on the table, Barney starts examining his legs. “The nice thing about doing this off the record is I can cheat a little,” he says with a grin. “I can use my powers in the hospital, but I still have to give people normal x-rays for liability reasons.”
“That’s dumb,” says Tim. “Waste of money.”
“For the patient, yes. It’s a win-win for the hospital. They get to charge for the x-ray, and they don’t have to spend as much on lawsuits. Besides, patients get nervous when they know I have x-ray vision.”
Susan frowns. “You said you see mineral concentrations, not x-rays.”
“Mineral-concentration-vision is a mouthful. I do introduce it that way, but then the patients go, ‘What does that mean?’ and I either end up having to explain it as x-ray vision, or I tell them I can see their bones and they jump to x-ray vision on their own. And then the normal dumb ones freak out because they think I’m raping them with my eyes, and the dumb ones who think they’re smart freak out because they think I’m irradiating them with my eyes. So I usually just keep my mouth shut and admire their skeletons in peace.”
“Sounds like a pain,” says Tim through clenched teeth.
“Eh. Sometimes I wish I’d become a geologist instead, but frustration aside, helping people is more satisfying than studying rocks. Besides, being a doctor pays a lot better!” He continues on like this as he works, telling anecdotes about how he ended up becoming a doctor. “That was how I met your pop, you know. I was interning as a medic at a research lab when this guy walked in with his forearm flopping around in the middle. He’d pinched it in some devise he’d been tinkering with.”
“Well,” says Fred, “actually it was the hydraulic lift I was using to raise the devise, but yeah. Hurt like hell all day, that one did.” He waggles his eyebrows at his kids and adds, “Except when your mom distracted me.”
“Eww!” says Susan and Tim.
Barney snorts. “Regens. You know, that’s something you’ll need to watch out for, Tim. Don’t get cocky just because you’ve got that regen. It only works while you’re alive, and it can only do so much. Get too severely wounded, and you’ll bleed out faster than you can heal. Also, don’t forget that regenerating depletes your body’s resources rapidly. Even if the enemy can’t hit you with enough burst damage to overwhelm your regen, they might be able to keep whittling you down until your body starts cannibalizing itself. You are not invincible.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured that out already, Unc.”
“Sure, but don’t forget it. You don’t want to know how many mutants I’ve had to treat for severe malnutrition.” Barney finishes up the second cast and stands back. “And that’s it. You just keep doing that floaty thing to keep the pressure off your legs. As for how long they’ll take to heal, I don’t have a very good feel for your level of regen yet, but I’m going to ballpark it at a couple days. Your superficial wounds have all healed already, which puts you up around level three, or maybe a high level two since there’s still some inflammation. It could take as little as a day or as long as a week. Just to be sure though, give it at least a day past when your legs stop hurting before you try putting any weight on them, and then take it slow for another day, because they won’t finish bulking up until they’re stressed a little. And drink lots of milk; you’ll need the calcium.”
“Got it. Thanks Unc.”
Barney claps his hands. “Alright, who’s hungry? Betty made some great stuff yesterday and there are still leftovers!”
Fred pulls away from the wall he’s been leaning against. “Actually Barney, we should probably be going now, what with the whole fugitive thing… We had dinner already anyway. Timezones, remember?”
Tim sits up quickly, wincing at his legs. “What? You had dinner without me? What gives?!”
Susan and Fred just stare at him unimpressed.
Barney breaks the stalemate. “Hey, uh, like I just said, he’s going to be needing raw materials. If you two aren’t hungry, that’s fine, but as a doctor I really have to insist that Tim here gets his dinner. Besides recovering, the manifestation and floating around probably burned a lot of calories.”
Fred snorts and shakes his head. “Floating around as a form of exercise.” Barney just shrugs. “Alright Barns, we’ll stay for dinner. I’ll just have a half portion. Susie, you don’t have to eat if you don’t want to. I’m sure Barney here would let you fire up his TV or something.”
“Sure,” says Barney, “or she can hop on the computer if she wants.”
Susan’s eyes finally light up for the first time since hearing Betty isn’t around. “Yeah, that sounds good, Uncle Barney. I’m not hungry at all.”
Barney eyes her critically for just a moment, concludes that she’s only healthy-thin, not anorexic-thin, and nods happily. “It’s right down the hall, just turn left and take the first door on the right. The password is ‘quartzz’; that’s lowercase with an extra ‘z’.”
“Um, no offense Uncle Barney,” she says, “but that is a terrible password.”
Barney chuckles. “Don’t worry, that’s just the guest computer. It only has a password at all to keep the illiterate off it.” He tilts his head in Fred’s general direction.
Fred rolls his eyes and mutters. “One time. Mistype a command and reformat the wrong drive one time, and he remembers for decades.”
“Just one decade, so far. Come on, let’s go eat!”
Fred wakes up to the sound of muffled arguing. He opens his eyes and sees nothing. He can feel a blindfold over his eyes and a gag in his mouth. He tests his limbs and finds that they’re bound with his arms behind his back and ankles together, but he isn’t hogtied. He stretches his toes and notices that he’s barefoot. He mentally prods Bruno and gets only a faint feedback from the spirit. He must be warded or something; nothing short of magic has ever suppressed the Fred Force for more than a couple minutes. He tries to hear what the people are arguing about, but he can’t really make it out; it sounds like maybe they’re in a different room. He contents himself to watching the lazily drifting blobs of fake color the brain perceives when given no real optical stimulus.
The argument eventually stops and he feels vibrations through the floor that are surprisingly close. Oh, he’s wearing earplugs and the two arguers were probably nearby the whole time. Somebody kicks him in the gut and he tries not to vomit, which is really no fun at all while gagged. Knowing there will be no permanent damage helps him to ignore the pain, though. In the days before Bruno, the idea that something was damaged was what had always bothered him about injury, not the pain itself. Of course, with Bruno currently suppressed Fred will have to be less cavalier than normal; wounds will probably barely heal faster than for a baseline.
Fortunately, it seems that whoever has him doesn’t have as much experience with the “capture the Fred” game as he does. As the holder of a Force, Fred has been captured by a wide variety of people and always strives to learn from each incident. The fact that he’s warded and that the ward is mostly working shows that they aren’t total newbs. They must have at least an inkling of who and what they’re dealing with. And they did take the time to plug his ears. A lot of people forget that and then reveal all kinds of useful information to their captive. Not these guys.
But then they ruined that good first impression by kicking him. Jeeze. That’s almost as stupid as putting a gun to somebody’s head. This is something Fred can work with. And they shackled his limbs, but didn’t connect his arms and legs together or tie his body down; another mistake. But now isn’t quite the time for resistance, so he doubles up and groans on cue.
On the plus side, the pain is clearing his head a little. Or maybe it’s just that he’s been awake for more than a few seconds now. Whatever. Now he’s thinking and remembering. The last thing he remembers is laughing with Barney about how fast Tim was eating, and then telling some stories about the stereotypical energizer eating habits at Whateley Academy. He doesn’t remember actually finishing the meal. So, apparently Barney’s place got raided or something during the meal and he was knocked out. Impressive; Fred doesn’t go down easily. Regen is a wonderful thing.
Shit, that means the kids are probably captured too. Okay, now Fred decides he really does need to escape right away, even if the moment isn’t ideal. He attempts to raise himself to a kneeling position and struggles in an intentionally helpless looking way. This inspires the idiot guarding him to kick him again, which is exactly what Fred’s hoping for. He manages to swivel and hook the guy’s boot in the gap between his elbow and torso while raising himself up as best he can, which knocks the guard to the ground. Fred has little balance himself in this state, so he allows himself to fall as well, driving his knees into the man’s gut on the way down.
If Fred hasn’t gotten too disoriented so far, he believes he knows where the wall he was originally slumped against is. He releases the first guy’s boot and lunges toward the wall. This causes the second guy to miss, judging by the vibrations behind him. Awesome.
Not many are aware of it, but before he became the Fred Force, Bruno was just a low-level gecko spirit. Not even the Gecko Spirit, just a random passing gecko who happened to climb into one of Fred’s devises during his first term at Whateley. It had been Fred’s first and only semi-successful attempt at creating a personal forcefield generator, and Bruno blew it and himself up, and he took a set of Fred’s eyebrows with him. (Fred has lost so many eyebrows over the years…) To add insult to injury, Fred accidentally absorbed the annoying gecko’s spirit during the explosion. They didn’t get along at first, and in fact Fred named him Bruno to make fun of how weak the thing was. Plus it made him salivate when he saw bugs, and that was just gross.
But eventually the regen Fred got from Bruno saved his life, and they got along much better afterward. It was a good thing, too, or they wouldn’t have survived the Incident that later upgraded Bruno to the Force he is now. But that’s beside the point. The point is that Bruno is really a gecko spirit way deep down inside. Most of the other times somebody has managed to suppress Bruno, his innate gecko abilities still leaked through. Those abilities include slow but thorough regeneration, greater flexibility, faster reflexes, and (of course) stickiness – a magical grip that he can apply to any area of exposed skin at will.
That stickiness is what Fred is banking on now as he plants his face firmly on the wall and uses the grip to pull himself to his feet. Just as he’s completing the maneuver, he feels somebody try to yank him back down. That’s not happening. He can be very sticky when he needs to be. It certainly hurts his face and neck though, so he pulls his legs up and kicks back hard with both of them. He can’t see, but it feels like he got the guy square in the chest and sent him bouncing across the room. Sweet.
Fred decides his next priority is the blindfold, so he stands quickly and releases the wall, making his chin sticky instead. This he uses to tug the collar of his shirt just off his left shoulder. Then he tilts his head to press the blindfold against his now bare upper-shoulder and makes the shoulder sticky to hold it in place. He takes a punch to the face just as he’s twisting his head out into freedom. The blow drops him on his back, but at least he can see now. He takes advantage of being on the floor to kick out the guy’s legs.
Now able to see what’s going on, he rolls out of the way of an attack by the downed man’s mustachioed companion and looks for a way to free his limbs or escape the warding. He doesn’t see anything magic-looking in the room, so he guesses the wards are on his clothes or something. Oh well.
When Mr. Mustache tries again to kick him in the face, Fred dodges just out of the way and then presses his sticky cheek to thug’s boot before it can be pulled back. The attacker falls over and Fred manages to roll on top of him and remove the man’s key from his belt. His hands can’t maneuver enough to free themselves with it, but he uses it to get his legs free. The other thug slams a stool or something into Fred’s hands as he works, which, while painful, is too late to stop him. It also fails to make Fred drop the key despite reflexively opening his hand. Gecko powers are great.
His feet now free, Fred quickly rolls off of the squirming mustache-thug and tries to stand. He sees the clean-shaven guard swinging the stool toward his head, so he dodges sideways. This ruins his balance but results in a more glancing blow to his face than he would have taken. Fred grunts his pain into the gag while allowing the combination of his own momentum and that of the stool now stuck to his forehead to drag Mr. Smooth-face to the ground.
Fred abandons the stool and scrambles back to his feet, successfully this time. Mr. Stache is already up and swinging a fist at him, so Fred ducks under it and then jumps up, catching the arm briefly with his shoulder and following it quickly with a kick to the man’s chest, knocking him down onto his back. Not wanting him to get back up this time, Fred sidesteps a punch from Mr. Smooth and jumps on Mr. Stache’s neck, landing with one foot for better concentration of force on the windpipe. Then he quickly backs into Mr. Smooth with the key out, poking him in the abdomen. It’s not exactly sharp, but it gets the guy’s attention long enough for Fred to hook his leg. Fred then quickly shoves backward, tripping Mr. Smooth. He finishes with another neck stomp.
Now free to work for a moment, Fred gets his arms around in front of him and uses his feet to insert the key and unlock the shackles. Much better. He looks around the room again while he removes the earplugs and gag. It’s maybe 15' by 20' and empty except for the bodies, a small table, and the stool. There is one closed door. The cinder block walls are opaque. The ceiling is solid, not tiled. There’s a security camera in the corner, so he’ll probably have visitors soon. He checks the door and verifies that he’s locked in. Okay, he’ll need to prepare.
Since he doesn’t see anything magical in the room, he strips off the jumpsuit they’d given him in case it’s enchanted. He still barely feels Bruno. Weird. Maybe they just cast a spell on him instead of a proper ward. Those would be more temporary, but harder for him to disrupt at random without Bruno’s help. He considers putting the garment back on, but he doesn’t trust it, so he swipes the clothes from one of the guards instead. The pants are a little too wide and too long, but they’ll do. And now he has a utility belt. Flashlight, multi-tool, radio, cuffs, sedatives, and some kind of spray. No gun, so they must care more about keeping him alive than keeping their minions alive. Typical. No taser or other fancy electronic weaponry either. That’s halfway intelligent: Fred has a history of absorbing energy attacks. In fact…
He takes the stool over to the camera and rips it off the wall, but it’s battery powered. He hoped to find a power outlet he could use to try to disrupt the Bruno-suppression effect, but a pair of batteries isn’t going to cut it. He pockets them anyway; never know when a few extra volts could come in handy. Might need them for the flashlight or an IED or something.
He looks back at the bodies. Their uniforms have no logos on them, nor do the walls, and neither man had any ID. The first one he killed looks familiar though. Fred has been keeping tabs on certain groups of the MCO from a distance, and this guy looks like a member of the branch in Barney’s district. He has the same annoying mustache. Damn. Fred has been hoping he wouldn’t have to deal with the MCO in person for another eight years. Oh, he wants to deal with them… but not until the kids are grown. The kids. He needs to stay focused. He needs to escape and rescue the kids.
Fred examines the door. It’s code-based so that inmates can’t kill the guards and steal a key from them. Oops.
If only he could free up Bruno, this would be easy. It’s possible, though unlikely, that a ward is set up outside the room, applying to the whole thing. It takes a mighty strong one to hold back something like Bruno, though, and the difficulty increases exponentially the more volume you want it to apply to. The MCO aren’t very fond of mages. Oh, they’ll use them, especially non-mutant ones, but they don’t like it.
Of course, they don’t like him very much either. The feeling is mutual: They killed Wilma, and he took out his copious anger on them afterward in a manner that the Law, the general public, most heroes, and even many villains deemed grossly excessive (whether this is an insult or a complement tends to vary…).
Fred and Wilma had been heroes before that day, despite the Mutant Commission Office continuously griping about their “reckless vigilante tactics.” Yet for all the grief they gave him and all the bad rumors he’d heard, he’d still considered them fellow “good guys,” if a bit bigoted. Okay, a lot bigoted, but they hadn’t started out that way. So when his old nemesis Blitzlekov had showed up again more powerful and demented than ever, Wilma convinced him that they should cooperate with the MCO this time around, at least a little. And then they fucking shot her in the back. Oh, they had their excuses afterward. They even had a doctored video showing it to be a “clear accident.” But Fred was there. Fred saw and felt the real untampered-with reality firsthand, and he completely lost his shit. Fred and Bruno had declared war and wiped out half a damn county before Barney and Betty had broken through their rage and reminded them of his children.
So he’d left the MCO with an ultimatum: leave him and his friends and family alone and clean up their act within the next sixteen years, or he’d destroy them and anything in his way. Then he took his children into hiding. He’s now considered a super villain by pretty much everybody, himself included. He had not only gone over the line, but run laps around it. Tens of thousands of innocents had died, that he knew of. When they finally stopped him, he had been on his way to nuke the state capitol. Literally. He had obtained a nuclear warhead from somewhere, and was riding Bruno down the fucking interstate with it. He still can’t remember enough of that day to figure out where and how he even got the damned thing.
Well, by this point he’s pacing around the cell, the door completely forgotten, ranting and raving with enough gusto to make Diedrick himself swell with pride. He doesn’t even notice when the door opens and a team of guards with heavy armor and dart guns peeks into the room. They do get his attention when they chuck a gas canister in and slam the door loudly.
“Oh, you puny fleshbags think something this childish can stop the likes of me? Ha!” Fred quickly scoops up the canister, uses the knife of the multitool to slit open the gut of the guard whose clothes he took, and stuffs the hissing canister inside. Then he quietly climbs up the wall to lurk just above the door. He observes happily that most of the gas leaking out is wafting about on the lower half of the room. Through a great exercise of will, he temporarily suppresses the urge to gloat.
When the door opens after a minute or so and the guards peek inside, he scampers down and through it, climbing back up the other side of the wall to crawl very quickly across the ceiling. Of course, he doesn’t manage to accomplish this without drawing a lot of attention and dart-fire, so he allows himself to gloat as he goes. “Fools! You pale in comparison to the minions of Blitzlkov! They would have remembered my sticky origins! They would have been prepared! They would have had better hats! Muah ha ha ha, you will never catch me with those tawdry helmets and your ineffectual horizontally-inclined dart launchers! Have you cretins never practiced at shooting those above you? Clearly not, for you are minions still! Haw! And here I take my leave!”
Reaching an area of the building with a drop-ceiling, Fred passes up into the dark and cluttered space above the tiles. He absentmindedly pulls a dart out of his back as he scurries away in search of a safe place to spend a few minutes napping off the sedative effects. Assuming whatever drug they’re trying today even works. Few do even when Bruno is suppressed, though he does think he might feel a little groggy already. A nap will be good, and maybe he can find some spiders to munch on along the way.
Susan wakes up in an unfamiliar bed. It’s too soft. She doesn’t like soft mattresses; she feels smothered. She looks around groggily. There are five other beds, but they’re empty. A clock says 8:18 AM, and there’s light filtering in from a shaded window. She climbs out of bed and moves the pink curtains aside. It’s light out, and it doesn’t look like the desert. Why would it have looked like a desert?
She ponders this while observing that the window sash is blocked so that it can’t be opened more than a couple inches. Not that she tries, because opening other people’s windows can set off alarms. She’s learned that the hard way.
Her neck itches and she fiddles with her collar absentmindedly. Then she realizes that these are not her pajamas. Why is she wearing somebody else’s clothes? She looks back at the bed she woke up in and sees that somebody laid out a set of folded clothes at the foot. She unfolds them and recognizes her favorite shirt: the one with the cute Pi symbol on the front and three pretty butterflies fluttering around it with a pair of antennae from a fourth peeking out from behind the symbol. The jeans are hers too, and she finds her shoes on the floor in front of the bed.
She quickly looks around the unfamiliar room and decides to change in the closet, just in case somebody walks in on her. As she dresses, Susan’s memory finally catches up with her. She just wore these clothes yesterday, though they seem freshly cleaned. She went to school, played that prank on Henry, and checked out a new book from the library. And then… and then she yelled at Daddy for using Bruno, and then Tim was Mario, and they went to Uncle Barney’s house, and she read about the Hohmann transfer orbit on Wikipedia, and then…
And then something had sounded wrong. She hadn’t noticed at first because orbital mechanics are just so interesting, but it was quieter than a couple minutes before. Did everybody go outside? If they already went home and forgot her again, she was going to put itching powder in Daddy’s toothpaste. She really was!
Just as she had been opening the door to the hallway, she remembered that they couldn’t have gone home and that they really needed to get moving before somebody tried to find them here. Even if Uncle Barney said that everybody else thought that he hated Daddy now, they might check just in case. So she stopped opening the door when it was still only cracked, and she ducked when somebody shoved it the rest of the way open.
It was Uncle Barney! And, and he said something, sounding really sad. What was it? Oh!
“I’m so sorry Susie, but they have Betty. You’ll be okay though. They don’t want you.”
Or something like that, more or less. She’s smart, but she doesn’t remember everything, especially not when she’s ducking under somebody with one of those… gas-spray-you-to-sleep things. She doesn’t know what they’re called, okay? Her daddy mostly just punches people in the face or sics Bruno on them instead of using fancy stuff like Uncle Barney.
And he tried to gas her! But she was ducking and ran down the hall to the kitchen. Her dad and stupid brother were already asleep without even finishing their food. Both looked happy. Uncle Barney must have put something in the food instead of gassing them, otherwise at least one of them would have noticed and not been as happy-looking.
She tried not to cry as she ran to the front door. Uncle Barney sounded scared now instead of sad, but she wasn’t listening to what he was shouting at her. Before she could open the door, the handle turned. “Aunt Betty?” she asked hopefully, even though she knew she should run. She just didn’t know where, because Uncle Barney was coming up behind her. The door flew open, and there was a scary guy wearing armor pointing a big triple-barreled gun at her.
“Yes, I do call her Betty Lou! Now get on the ground, brat!”
The man moved like he was going to hit her, but Uncle Barney yanked her out of the way and sprayed his sleepy-gas in her face. The last thing she remembers is seeing Uncle Barney yelling at the scary man and getting shoved into the wall with a gun in his face while a bunch of other scary people ran into the house without even taking off their dusty boots.
As Susan remembers all this, she sinks to her knees in the closet and starts sniffling.
After a while she gets up and wipes her eyes. Crying isn’t going to solve this any more than it solved the mystery of who took her notebook in Second Grade (it had been Bobby in the art-room with a candy-cane). So she decides to look around the bedroom, since she doesn’t even know where she is.
Some of the beds are made very neatly, but some are sloppy. There are a couple socks on the ground by one of the sloppy ones. Another bed has a necklace hanging from a post. One has an old, faded picture of a man and a woman at a park. There are some crayon drawings hanging on the walls. The carpet is thick and pink, and the walls are a pale yellow. There are those glow-in-the-dark stars and planets stuck on the ceiling like she had at home, except they aren’t set up to match any constellations that Susan can recognize. Maybe she’s in the southern hemisphere? She hasn’t started learning those ones yet.
Anyway, it doesn’t look like the kind of place those scary guys would hang out, but Susan is unsure. The witch from Hansel and Gretel had a candy house, for Wonka’s sake! So Susan decides to enter full-sneaky-mode. She grabs a sharp pencil she sees lying on a bedside table and uses it to put her hair up in a bun, and she finds a thin, drab sweater from the closet to wear over her bright, colorful shirt. This is partly to stand out less, and partly because the air is a little chilly. Then she tiptoes up to the door and listens. She can hear a TV faintly, but nothing else.
Susan opens the door carefully and finds herself looking across a wood-paneled hallway with short, hard carpeting at another door. It has a big brown sign painted to say “Boy’s ONLY” in sloppy black letters. She tsks at the punctuation error before remembering that she’s supposed to be being sneaky. She pokes her head into the hallway and looks around to make sure nobody is near.
The two bedrooms are at the end of the hallway, on opposite sides. Down the hall to the left she sees the signs for boys' and girls' restrooms. She realizes she needs to go, but decides knowing whether she’s safe is more important. She looks further down the hall to where it opens up on the left to some kind of common area. To the right of that is an opening in the wall with a counter and clipboard. Then there’s a door to the outside straight ahead. Between the bathrooms and the common room are two doors labeled “Janitor” and “Staff.”
Susan decides she’s in some kind of orphanage or boarding school, both of which sound like Bad News to her. Not as bad as having a gun in her face, but how often has she read a book where an orphanage was depicted in a good light? Only one time, and it was very cursory. She knows of course that those are books, and orphanages can’t all be bad, but one that has scary armored thugs kidnap people is probably bad by default. So it’s probably okay if she has to stab somebody with the pencil in her hair while she escapes.
As she stalks down the hall, she hears what sounds like an elderly woman’s voice speak over the TV. “I’m going to go check on Jane.”
“Oh, don’t you go wakin' that poor girl up, Hilda. Barry said she had a rough night. Let ‘er sleep.” That voice was definitely an old man.
“Hubert! I wouldn’t wake her. I just want to make sure she’s okay.”
“Sure you do. I know you, old woman. You’re probably going to fiddle with the drapes so the sun can glare in her face, and then you’ll go all sweet with the ‘Oh, dear, are you awake now? I hope I didn’t bother you.’ Just like you do to me!” Wow, he does a good falsetto.
“Hmmph, well I never. I just want to make sure the other girls didn’t leave a mess for her to wake up to. First impressions.”
“Sure, sure, change that story!”
Susan darts back up the hall and into the boy’s bathroom, just in case Hilda decides to use the facilities along the way. As the woman passes by, Susan realizes that as soon as Hilda enters the bedroom she’ll know something is afoot, so she’d better drop the sneaky act and make a break for it. She waits until she hears Hilda opening the bedroom door, and then runs out and down the hall toward the outside as fast as her eleven-year-old legs can carry her, all subtlety gone.
Hubert has apparently been around the block a few times, though, because he’s already blocking the door by the time she reaches the opening to the common area. He seems very chipper and sprightly for somebody who looks to be in his seventies. His hair is grey but thick, and he has a pretty cool looking goatee. He’d look like a sinister count or something, except that he’s wearing a happy, friendly expression and a cardigan instead of a cape.
Well, Susan doesn’t buy it. Now that she’s moving she isn’t stopping. She stopped last night, and it got her kidnapped and put into somebody else’s pajamas. No thanks. Besides, her daddy is always talking about momentum and using it to your own benefit. But there’s no way she’s getting past Hubert and through that door. He’s clearly an old-hand at catching hyperactive hooligans, judging by the comfortable way he settles into a ready stance. No, she’ll have to do something unexpected.
She swerves to the left into the common room, looking it over with a gymnast’s eye that sees nothing but obstacles and routes, not furniture and decorations. Choosing her course, she bounces off the back of a couch, rocking it backward and redirecting her motion toward the nearest window. She kicks off of a coffee table and vaults over the back of an easy chair, striking the window heels-first while mentally preparing herself to ignore the inevitable cuts and roll to her feat on the ground.
She bounces off the window as Hubert lets out a humongous whoop of laughter and slaps his knees. Susan lands upside down in the easy chair and lies there stunned. Glass is not supposed to flex like that!
Hilda rushes back into the common room. “Hubert! What happened? Did you get her? What was all that crashing?”
“She went for the windows, Hilly! Bounced right off ‘em too! Hoo boy she’s a spunky one. I told you them things would pay for themselves! Forget baseball-proof, they’re human-cannonball proof! Bwah ha ha ha!”
“Oh, that poor thing! She must have been scared half to death to take off like that. Why did you scare her, Hubert! I told you to shave that creepy goatee!”
“Wasn’t me she was running from, was it now? Looked to me like she was running from you, old hag! I just got in the way.”
Through all this, Susan just lies there. She resolves to get some metal cleats the next time she gets new shoes. Might as well get the steel-toe option while she’s at it. Her daddy is always going on about how many toes they’ve saved him from regrowing so far. He has an actual tally he keeps right there on his boots. It was up to around thirty-five the last time she’d checked. The problem is that steel toed shoes usually aren’t very pretty. She’ll think of something, though. Worst case, Aunt Betty could help adjust them.
Susan flips herself out of the chair and spins to face the old couple, who stop their nattering and move to block both the door and the hallway. What about that counter area? There’s a door behind it. Maybe it leads to staff rooms and a back-door…
“Oh no you don’t, girlie,” says Hubert. “I see you eyeing the back rooms. There’s no exit back there, and you wouldn’t get past me anyway.”
She sizes up the old man and notes that both he and Hilda are slowly approaching, converging on her. It will only be more difficult the longer she hesitates, so she launches into motion again. She’s halfway to them before they react. A split second later she’s passing them and preparing to jump at the counter, but suddenly she finds herself dangling upside-down in midair. Hubert has her by the ankle.
“My, but she is a fast one, Hubert,” says Hilda. “I thought she was going to make it! I was even rooting for her a little. I don’t know how you do it!”
“Well, the trick is to know where they’re going before they do, so you can get there first. And she isn’t the first person I’ve met who got confused and thought she was a pinball instead of a human. Why, back in my day-”
“Yes yes, you can tell us those tired old stories later. Right now we need to get her fed. Maybe she’ll calm down once there’s food in her belly. Hmm… do you think we’ll need the straight-jacket?” Susan tenses up at this.
“Oh, I think she’ll behave without you making nasty threats, Hilda. And don’t you mind one bit, little Jane, she’s all bark and no bite. Why, we haven’t even had a straight-jacket ‘round here since little Jango chewed his way out of our last one back in '84. Now Jango, that boy could give me a run for my money! Hey Hilda, did I ever tell you about-”
“Would you please put me down?” demands Susan indignantly.
“Oh, right. Yes ma'am. Down we go.” He sets her down gently, and then snatches the pencil from her hair faster than she can blink. “Oh yes, I knew that was your next move. Jango never tried that one on me, but his sister now, she made him look like the cutest, most harmless little bounty hunter you ever did see. Isn’t she still in prison, Hilda?”
“Hmm, I think so. It’s only been, what, fifteen years since they caught her?” says Hilda.
“Right. So don’t you go stabbing people, Missy! We’ve only had one of our charges end up in prison so far-”
“That we know of,” adds Hilda.
“That we know of. Yes. And we don’t want you to be the second. Even Jango straightened up once he got out of the hospital. Let me tell you, Jane,” says Hubert with a waggling finger, “the human digestive tract was not designed to deal with straight-jackets!”
Well, Susan will just have to bide-
“You’ll bide your time and wait, yes, I know,” says Hubert. “No no, I’m not psychic. I’ve just been doing this for a very long time. I grew up in one of these places, you know.”
“That’s how we met!” chimes in Hilda. “I was an only child, and my parents always wanted a second. They never managed to have one though, so eventually they adopted.”
Susan processes that for a moment. “Wait, you mean he’s your brother?”
“Oh good heavens no!” says Hubert. “They didn’t pick me, they picked my best friend Giovanni. But it’s how we met. Nobody ever did pick me… Um, but I think you’ll have a lot more luck than me, don’t you worry!”
“Well, I picked you,” says Hilda with a lilt to her voice.
“Alright alright alright,” interrupts Susan before things can get mushy. “Where’s this food you mentioned? And do you mind if I use the restroom first?”
Hilda smiles. “Well of course not, dear. You go right ahead. And remember to wash your hands!”
Susan gives her a disgusted look. “Well of course I’m going to wash my hands. I’m not some disgusting slob like the rest of my family. Duh.”
As she stomps off toward the bathroom, Hilda beams at Hubert. “Oh, she is just a keeper! Do you know how much work I have to go through to impart basic elements of hygiene in these kids?”
“Of course I do, woman! I listen to you nagging them day in and day out. A couple germs ain’t gonna kill them, you know. Immune system is like a muscle. You gotta flex it or it goes to pot on ya.”
“Hmmph. Do you think she’ll give up?”
“Of course not. Speaking of which, you go ahead and get her breakfast going. I’m going to go wait outside to catch her when she jumps out that bathroom window once she realizes I haven’t put the block back on it. I don’t want her landing in my flowers and trampling them like an over-caffeinated rhino.”
Hilda shakes her head in amusement and heads into the kitchen, then stops. “Wait a second, Hubert. What do you think? Waffles or pancakes?”
“She’s a waffle for sure.”
“Okay, that’s what I thought. Now you go save those poor plants.”
* * *
Hilda sets the syrup on the table and settles into her seat. “So, Jane, we haven’t been properly introduced yet. I’m Hilda Flinkshuh, and this lout is my husband Hubert. This fine establishment is the Flinkshuh Home, which we obviously run together. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume your name isn’t really Jane Doe. You don’t have to tell us your real name for now, if you don’t want to. Just tell us what you want us to call you.”
Susan thinks for a bit as she chews a waffle. “Well, how ‘bout if you tell me what’s goin’ on, first? Why am I here? This is an orphanage, right? My dad is still alive!”
“Oh, sweetie! I’m so sorry, but the man who dropped you off last night said that your father had died during a mutant attack. He said you got hit with some kind of gas, but had already been treated and just needed some sleep.”
“And he didn’t give you my name? What about his?”
“Well,” says Hubert around a mouthful of sausage and waffle, “we call him Barry and he said that you were Jane, but it’s always been clear that Barry is just a handle.”
“Was he kind of blond and dusty?” asks Susan.
“Yes, and he had a western accent.”
“Okay, I know him, and until last night I trusted him. If he thinks I shouldn’t use my name, I shouldn’t use my name. Let’s stick with Jane, but not Doe, that’s just silly. How about, um…”
“How about Miller?” asks Hilda.
“Okay,” says Susan, “Jane Miller it is. But how can you just take me in like this? Isn’t there a buncha paperwork and stuff to prove nobody just kidnapped me and dropped me off here? ‘Cause that’s basically what happened.”
“Oh dear, I’m sorry to hear that. But like Hubert was saying, we’ve been doing this for a long time. You aren’t the first special case we’ve taken care of for Barry. So don’t you worry about the government.”
“You… you mean this is an orphanage of kids that Bar- Barry kidnapped?!”
Hubert looks at her with a shocked expression. “What? No! Most of the kids here are just normal orphans, so you’ll want to keep all this jazz on the down-low when they get back from school, you dig?”
“Ahem,” Hubert clears his throat, “But what we mean is that we have, over the years, taken in a number of children who were in hiding for whatever reason. But you say Barry kidnapped you?”
“Well, sorta. He gassed me and drugged my dad and brother, and I think he handed them over to the MCO or something. I think they have Aun- his wife hostage, though. But he shoulda told us! Daddy could have rescued her or something.”
“Hmm…” says Hubert. “So it sounds to me like he probably kept them from taking you, too. That would explain his bruises.”
“Bruises? Omigawd, you mean they hurt him? Is he okay?”
Hilda laughs. “Yes, child, he was fine. That was hardly the worst shape we’ve seen him in. Anyway, it sounds like the people you need to be mad at are the MCO, not us or Barry.”
“Hmph. Maybe. Where are they, anyway?”
“Who? The MCO?” asks Hilda.
“Yes. I must stab them. Lots and lots.” Susan is gripping her fork with white knuckles.
Hubert perks up. “Well, the local Omaha branch is-” He stops himself when Hilda glares. He rolls his eyes. “Young lady, I am appalled! You let the grownups do the stabbing, alright? You should be worrying about not getting stabbed. Those MCO folks are nasty.”
“But somebody needs to-”
“You’re what, ten?” asks Hilda.
“No,” says Hilda. “You stay here where it’s safe. And eat your sausage. You need the protein.”
“Ma'am, I am sorry, but I am not going to stay here. You literally can’t make me.”
Hubert chuckles. “You sure about that, Missy? So far the evidence has shown otherwise.”
“Certain. This is because I know something you do not.”
“Oh, and what’s that?”
Susan pulls out the TV remote. “There was a TV schedule in the bathroom. The Price is Right starts right about… now!” She tosses the control to Hubert, who grabs it and runs into the common room with a fire to his step. “As for you, Mrs. Hilda, your waffles were really great.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“I know. I just wanted to thank you and apologize for what I’m about to do.” Susan then immediately throws the open container of maple syrup at Hilda and starts running.
She makes it out the door and two blocks down the road before Hubert jumps out from behind a bush. She expects this, however, and leaps toward the bush so that he overshoots. “Come on, Mr. Hubert, I know you want to take these punks down too. Come with!” She doesn’t stop running to wait for a response. She doesn’t need to.
Tim wakes up to a world of black. It must not be time for school yet. He goes back to sleep.
He wakes up again, probably a few minutes later, when he feels a stabbing pain in his arm. Probably his stupid sister trying to play a prank on him. He tries to yell and swat at her, but he can’t move and his mouth is gagged. And… wait, it’s too dark. His room is never this dark. His phosphorescent mushroom collection works like a night-light. Did she hide his shrooms? And why can’t he move? This seems a little extreme.
His jumbled thoughts are interrupted by another sharp pain, this time in his other arm. No, this isn’t right. This isn’t Susie’s style; her pranks are surreal, not painful. What the hell is going on? He’s trying to get some damned sleep here! He starts to feel warm. Very warm. It feels like it should be painfully warm, but actually it feels pretty good. And familiar, somehow.
He doesn’t have long to think about it, though, before he jolts in shock as somebody dumps a bucket of ice-water over him. In fact, he thinks he feels a few ice-cubes bounce of his head. He feels a weird bubbling on his skin and the heat quickly subsides. The confusion replacing his anger only increases when he feels something tugging at his ear followed by a cool emptiness and an assortment of whirring and beeping sounds.
“Listen up you, little freak,” says an angry male voice. “If you try to start me on fire again, I’m not just going to douse you. I’ll start taking off fingers. Capisce?”
Tim tilts his head and emits a confused murmur, unsure what the man is talking about.
“I said, you no make fire, I no cut fingers!” To demonstrate, he jabs Tim’s finger with something sharp. “Now do we have an understanding?”
Tim nods as best he’s able with the restraint around his neck. He’s finally waking up and realizing that he must be strapped to some whack-job’s table. His neck, wrists, torso, and feet are strapped down.
“Good, now hold still while I put this back in- hey! I said no fire! Cool your damned ears off!”
Tim murmurs in confusion and sort of half-nods half-waggles his head.
Tim nods and tries unsuccessfully to relax.
“Look, I don’t have all day, punk. Do I need to start with the fingers?”
Tim murmurs frantically while shaking his head.
“Then cool your ears!”
Tim stops moving his head but makes the most plaintive murmurs he can manage.
A female voice sighs. “I don’t think it knows how, Donald. The reports said it just manifested last night. The little runt probably hasn’t figured out how to control its powers yet.”
“Hmph. Well, that can’t be helped, I suppose. We certainly aren’t going to alter that situation. Now let’s stop running our mouths and get back to work.”
Tim hears some rattling near the foot of the table, and then feels another sharp pain – in his leg this time – along with a painful twinge from his shin. The bastards must have removed his casts earlier.
Casts. That reminds him about the previous night. Now he remembers. He can make fire and warp gravity. Awesome! Except for – ow! – the psychopaths who are performing some kind of experiment on him. Not so awesome. How the hell did he get here? The last thing he can remember is stuffing his face with one of the most satisfying meals he’d ever eaten.
“Okay Beats, throw the switch!” says the man.
“I told you not to call me that,” says the woman. This is punctuated by a door opening and a heavy click followed by a quiet humming. “There,” her voice says from farther away. “Now how do its readings look?”
“About the same since it woke up. Oh, there, now they’re picking up. We should leave now.”
Tim hears the door close. The humming grows louder. His arms and legs start to tingle where they poked him or whatever. Then he starts to feel tingly pathways between them. Oh, this can’t be good.
Soon the tingling increases to a fiery burn. Tim gnaws at his gag while jerking at his restraints, but they all hold. The burning doesn’t stop; it only gets worse. He starts getting weird flashes in his mind. He can’t really describe them other than to say that they are… turtle-ish? And now he’s getting a headache on top of everything else.
Suddenly the heat returns with a fury, and this time he recognizes it for what it is: his fire power. Tim isn’t worried about his fingers anymore since it feels like they’re burning thumb-sized tunnels through his body anyway, so he goes ahead and cranks it up as hot as he can. He tries to use his gravity warping too, but isn’t sure how it could help or even whether he’s doing anything with it. He feels too much pain to notice the tug of gravity or lack thereof.
Within a few seconds his gag starts to feel mushy and sticky, and then it melts in his mouth. He hacks and coughs as he tries to spit out the molten plastic. That’s probably not healthy at all. Doesn’t plastic release a bunch of nasty fumes when you burn it? Does regen cover that? Can it fix brain-damage? Too late to worry about it. At least he can scream properly now. Oh, and he can see too, sort of, if a bright yellow and orange glow speckled with flashy stars of pain counts as seeing.
His restraints feel just a little more loose, but also a lot harder. Tim guesses he burned or melted the padding out from metal restraints or something. He still can’t get out. Can he melt the restraints themselves? They feel like metal and he’s already running as hot as he can manage, but maybe the heat can be focused into a smaller area…
No matter how much he focuses his mind, however, the flames don’t focus and the shackles remain solid. Maybe if he wasn’t in so much pain he could concentrate better. If only he could pull inside his shell and hide until it was over. Wait, what shell? Oh, yeah… no wait, what? Of course he… does he? Did he? Why would- er, that is why wouldn’t- but…
Suddenly there is a subtle change in the lighting and the blinding pain reduces to just searing levels. The stars in his eyes fade, and the headache goes with it. He can think clearly now but feels exhausted. His flames flicker out and he sees nothing but black again. At least for a minute or so, but then his eyes adjust to the darkness and he’s able to make out the faint outline of the room in the dim light. He isn’t sure where the light is coming from because he can’t move his head very far.
He’s about to pass out when the lights click back on and an intercom buzzes, followed by the man’s voice. “You. Mutant. Our monitors suggest that you burned through most of your energy stores with that display, but just to be on the safe side, I’m going to warn you once. That room is equipped with a potent gas system. If you try to burn us when we come through the door, it will trigger, and we’ll all get knocked out. Then the security guards will come in and kill you before you resume consciousness. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a live specimen to work with. But Beats here is into that whole necrophilia thing, so don’t think-”
“Shut UP Donald!” says the woman. “So I do autopsies sometimes. That doesn’t make me a necrophile. Keep your sick fantasies to your own goddamned self.”
“Look, Beats, I’m just trying to-”
“I don’t care! And my name is Beatrice. I’m not Beats. I’m not a vegetable, I’m not a drummer, and I don’t beat people! So quit calling me that!”
“Can we not do this in front of the mutant?”
“What the fuck does it care? We’re just going to torture and kill it anyway!”
“Now, you don’t know-”
“Yes, I do, Donald! Even if it survives this retarded synthetic-avatar experiment the director is set on, how likely is your mind-wiper to actually work? It has never worked!”
“I keep telling you, that was before I corrected the calibration of the hippocampal-stim to properly broadcast the appropriate Simon-key waves. And the last specimen-”
“The last specimen tried to grope me!”
“And that’s exactly- …um, yes, you’re right, that was a complete failure.”
There is an awkward pause, and then Beatrice’s voice comes through in a crackling hiss. “That’s it. I’m done with this shit. Your shit. The director’s shit. All of it! Goodkind Research tried to poach me a couple months ago. Did you know that? And fuck it, I’m taking their offer. You play with your damned mutant. I’m cleaning out my office.”
A slamming door thuds through the intercom, followed by another awkward silence. Finally, Donald clears his throat. “Right. By now, you’ve probably gathered that I am no longer in a good mood. I suggest that you become very cooperative, because if you thought that last bit was painful, you have no idea what I can do to make these last days of your pitiful disgusting little mutie life hell. So unless you want to find out what it’s like to have rat faces growing out of your eye sockets, you’d best not try to fry me when I step through that door.”
Tim croaks an incomprehensible reply, clears his throat, and tries again. “Yes sir, Dr. Donald, sir.”
“Good, now shut the fuck up. I have more cables to attach, since the last set proved insufficient.”
Tim lets out the quietest whimper he can mange.
Throughout the MCO Dunebunker Covert Test Facility, security patrols and paranoid researchers scurry through hallways, generally in groups of three or more. Some have thermal imaging headsets. Others wield an ultrasonic sensor akin to a stud-finder. One or two have set up baited traps. Nothing seems to work, however, as drinks and meals continue to disappear from desks and lockers at random, following no discernible pattern in location, timing, or causality. Meanwhile, through the dropped ceilings and raised floors, between the walls and through the ducts, under the desks and inside the hampers, travels a certain sticky-handed man on quest for knowledge. His true thirst will be slaked only when he has located his children; his true hunger when he has rent the throats from those who would do them harm. But until then, borrowed coffees and burgers must suffice.
Susan and Hubert are running for their lives. They had snuck into the Omaha MCO Office by clinging to the underside of a Lays delivery truck. Once inside, they managed to find an office with somebody slacking off on his computer. They quickly knocked him out, locked the door, and did as much investigation as they could manage. It was almost completely fruitless. They did find an organizational chart and a building floor plan, so they used those to plan an infiltration of the regional manager’s office several floors up. It was a close thing, but they managed to get in and repeat the process. They still didn’t find anything pertaining to Fred, but they did find the location of a covert testing facility in Nevada called the “Dunebunker.” That was as good of a place to start as any. But in hindsight, they probably should have left quickly via the windows rather than trying to go stealthily the way they’d come in.
“Now what do we do?” shouts Susan as she ducks around a water-cooler, the prongs of a taser whizzing past to bounce harmlessly off a wall.
“Just keep moving!” comes Hubert’s reply as he leaps over a stack of paperwork dropped carelessly on the floor by a frightened intern.
Both of their voices are slightly muffled due to the bandannas they wear over their faces. Susan isn’t very worried about her own face being recognized since her appearance has already been compromised, but Hubert doesn’t want his own cover blown. He also pointed out that if things don’t work out and she has to stay at the Flinkshuh Home for a while, it would be best if she remained unrecognized.
“Take a right!” shouts Hubert, so Susan kicks off the wall of the T-intersection and heads left. They had agreed beforehand to use opposite directions to help confuse the enemy in a chase. He makes it around the corner himself just as a bullet lodges in the wall behind him. “We need to go faster!”
“Kay!” Susan leaps up and wall-runs to bypass a cart with an overhead projector that was left in the middle of the hallway, barely flinching as the lens is shattered by another bullet.
“Faster!” shouts Hubert.
They dive down a stairwell and spring off the backs of startled office-workers.
They are running along the tops of cubicles, oblivious to curses and screams as bullets drill new routes for inter-cube cabling.
They are riding office chairs down a hallway, wind and ammunition whistling through their hair.
Susan is bouncing off of walls and nearly flying through doorways as display cases shatter and motivational posters are riddled with holes, wondering how she could possibly go any faster, when she notices something odd about her vision. She’s seeing gaps in walls that don’t even exist. Glimpses of classrooms, streets, landscapes, none of which belong inside an MCO office building. It’s like they’re little cracks and bends and holes in the fabric of reality. What on Earth? Her musing is interrupted when a security officer darts out of a doorway at the rapidly approaching end of the hall.
“Faster!” shouts Hubert, mere steps behind her.
Susan does the only thing she can do. She dodges through a gap in empty space and finds herself in a completely different building, in a hall full of people. She’s going way too fast to stop, so she darts through another gap. Now she’s running along a crowded sidewalk. Another swerve and she’s in the path of an oncoming train. Running along the branch of a tree. Diving off the edge of a sailboat. Setting off metal detectors in an airport. Dodging Saguaros. The next thing she knows, she’s charging at the front doors of what looks like the Dunebunker. She slows in amazement. That was… that was over a thousand miles!
Suddenly Hubert is at her side. “Hot fiery damn, girl! I ain’t never seen nobody run like that! But don’t stop now, we’ve got your family to save!” He slaps her on the back and they disappear through another crack even as a startled guard attempts to bar the door.
“Aha!” says Fred to himself, “Lab B437. I think that’s just down the hall from where I nabbed that cheese-steak a few hours ago. Right, I’ll just go take a quick bio-break, and then-”
“And then you’re going to put your hands behind your head and your face on the ground, mutant scum!” shouts a deep voice from behind him.
Fred stands up and slowly steps away from the computer he’d been using. He turns to face the taser-wielding guard and says, “That sounds acceptable, sir. So you just wait here and I’ll be riiight back-”
“I said get on the ground!”
“You did say to do that, but with all due respect, you said to do it after taking my bio-break. So, just hold your horses for- HEY!”
The officer interrupts him with the taser. It kind of tickles, but Fred decides to ham it up a little and starts jerking around like he’s being electrocuted. He stutters out, “M-m-my o-one wea-weakn-ness!” while thrashing about. Then he flings a chair at the guard and proceeds to make him just as unconscious and/or dead as the administrative-type slumped in the corner. Fred doesn’t really care which anymore. Normally he does try to avoid killing people once they’re down, but he no longer has sympathy for these particular filth. Wilma wouldn’t like it, but thanks to them, she isn’t exactly here to chide him.
At least he’s discovered Tim’s location. He wishes he could locate Susan before he makes a move, though, because he’s worried that if he rescues Tim and gives them any time afterward, they might try to take it out on Susie. Unfortunately, Susan is proving hard to locate. He’s beginning to suspect that she isn’t even in this facility. She hasn’t manifested yet, so maybe they would have sent her to something more conventional, under the guise of protective custody due to her dangerous father. Whatever. He’ll work on that some more once he gets back from the bathroom.
Fred dons the wig he made earlier from the hair of some woman who’d been angrily and distractedly packing up an office. He’d just snuck in, knocked her out, and used some scissors and glue he found in her desk and some fabric from a lab-coat. She was a good bit smaller and thinner than his own stout frame, but he’d found a rather big-boned woman a few minutes later and taken her coat and that incredible cheese-steak she’d only just started eating. Add a bit of improvised padding, and now Fred looks like another largish woman waddling down the hall and humming Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.”
Once he finishes his business he walks up to the mirror in the ladies' room. He pulls out the compact he took from the hair-donor and uses its mirror with the bathroom mirror so that he can check the back of the wig to make sure it still looks right from behind. He very quickly forgets the wig, however, when he notices black markings peeking past his collar at the base of his neck. He pulls at his collar and sees that they go down his back. They look kind of cool, actually, but he has no idea how they got there. He shucks off the coat and flips up the back of his shirt for a better look. The marks make up a mystic sigil of some sort.
“Oh. So that’s where the ward has been this whole time. Hmmm…” He tries rubbing at it, but nothing happens. He uses a little soap and water, but it makes no difference. “Well, damn. I think the fuckers tattooed me!” He’ll have to remove all that skin to get rid of it. That isn’t going to be fun, but once Bruno is free he’ll heal right up. He considers the knife blade on his multi-tool, but decides he probably won’t be able to flay his own back. He’ll need somebody else to do it, preferably while he’s unconscious or something. But he doesn’t have anybody else to help him right now.
Then it hits him. He can go rescue Tim and get his son to quickly burn the marks off. Then Bruno can be summoned and the rest of this adventure will be easy-mode. He’d still prefer to know exactly where Susan is first, but it is looking like she’s probably at the main branch in Carson City instead of this hidden facility in the desert. Bruno would be the fastest way to get there. And if she’s in this facility, Bruno can probably home in on her. He can sense people he knows well enough if they’re within a few hundred meters.
Fred makes up his mind, puts his disguise back on, ensures the marks on his neck are hidden by the wig, and heads out the door. The wig itches, which is why he’d taken it off while on the computer, but so far it has proven to be the quickest way to move around in this dump.
He’s five levels higher than he needs to be right now, so he takes the elevator down to B4. He only has to knock out two overly-curious people on the way down, and one even drops a candy bar!
The hallway outside Lab B437 is deserted, so Fred sidles up next to the door and presses his ear to it. He only hears very faint screaming. Must be good sound-proofing. He slowly opens the door and peeks inside, wincing but unsurprised as the screams suddenly sound much louder.
“Eh?” says a beady-eyed little man with thick rubber gloves and a few red splatters and burn-marks on his white lab coat. “Ah, Beats, you changed your… mind? You’re not Beats!” The man reaches for something, but Fred moves too quickly and pins him against the wall by his neck.
“You tell me how to shut this shit off right now, or I’ll just kill you and then smash it all to bits with your dead body until it stops hurting my son.”
The man points at an obvious heavy switch with a standard power-on symbol next to it. Fred walks over and flips it, dragging the man along with him. Much of the humming and zapping stops, and the screams diminish in intensity and shortly dissolve into sobs. Fred kicks open the door to the test area to get a nose full of the familiar smell of smoke and ozone. Suppressing unpleasant memories, he drags the man in with him to the table Tim is strapped to. This time Fred looks around first and sees the release catch on his own. He presses it and hauls his tormented son off, propping him up next to the wall and ignoring his demented screams about turtles. He throws Mr. Beady-Eyes onto the table.
“Get in nicely or I’ll just kill you.”
The man complies, and Fred reactivates the restraints. The short man’s feet don’t actually reach the ankle restraints, but his arms are held down and that’s all Fred cares about, so he doesn’t bother to adjust it. He turns to his son.
“Hey, hey Tim, it’s me,” Fred says gently.
“EEEEK Roseanne, worse than turtles, worse than turtles!”
“What? Oh, hang on.” Fred ditches his disguise. “Look Son, it’s just me. Your pop. It’s okay now.”
“Yeah. Hang on, let’s get those cables out of you. Why the hell are these even here? You’re a pyro, not a lightning-chucker.”
“They were trying to-” Tim stops and gasps as Fred pulls out one of the cables. “Trying to force a spirit- …a spirit on me- …a turtle spirit.”
Fred pauses as he flashes back almost two decades to see two women strapped into malfunctioning machines that he’d helped build, screaming as massive bolts of electricity arced between them. Several of his friends strapped into more of the machines and getting hit by stray bolts. Other friends, by then charred husks lying on the ground. Himself futilely trying to drag people out to safety through the acrid smoke and ozone. The explosion.
He blinks his way back into the present and bites back the rage as he finishes removing the half dozen or so cables from his quaking son. He wipes his hands on his pants and gives Tim the candy bar, while checking that the bloody holes the cables made are starting to slowly heal. “Eat that, Tim, you’re probably literally starving to death by now. Meanwhile, my fists have an interpretive poem to tell to your beady-eyed friend.”
“It’s too late!” crows said man, as safety doors slam shut and gas starts spraying down from the ceiling. He continues in a sing-song voice, “I had a dead-man’s switch, and I couldn’t push the button!”
“TIM! Roast my back! NOW! Fry it all off!” Fred shouts while ripping off his shirt.
“But, but Pop-”
“Shuddup and DO IT, boy! Hold your damn breath and burn off the sigil. It’ll free Bruno. He’ll heal me and get us out. GO!”
“I- I can’t!”
“Well fuck you! I’m- cough I’m Santa Clause! That’s right, he ain’t real! cough And I’m giving you dogshit for Christmas!”
“cough What? But how-”
“And I’ll give- cough I’ll give Susan all your presents instead. She- cough She actually deser- cough cough She- cough You don’t- cough”
The air starts to shimmer around Tim as he finally gets pissed off. “WELL THEN FUCK YOU! cough You- cough You fucking want me to burn you?! THEN BURN, YOU BASTARD!”
Fred screams for a while as his back is bathed in fire, and then he starts gasping as the flames die out and his vision dims. All of the oxygen has been consumed and the gas is finally taking effect. He hears Tim fall to the ground behind him. The beady-eyed man is already solidly unconscious, lacking any regen to delay the effects of the gas. But Fred feels euphoric. Well, maybe that’s just the oxygen deprivation. But he can finally feel Bruno’s energy surging back into him, blistering its way through his inadequate system. Damn, he’d forgotten how much that stings. It always burns and itches a little, but it’s worse after Bruno’s been magically suppressed. Like having boiling water running through his blood vessels. It really isn’t advisable to house a Force when you’re only an Av-3 like Fred. But since it gives him such absurd levels of regen, the damage normally gets repaired as it happens, leaving Fred with the equivalent of Regen-4 to deal with additional injuries. But Regen-4 isn’t good enough right now, because Fred is mere seconds from blacking out. And so, finally, he seizes his Force and punts Bruno out into the physical world once again. “Your turn, old buddy,” he wheezes, then he slumps to the ground.
Bruno lets loose a trumpeting sequence of chirps and yips as he stretches his wonderful ectoplasmic body, and then snorts in disdain as he finds his surroundings much too cramped for a being of his magnificence. He twists his head to view the ceiling, squinting past the scintillating beams of color shining through the yellowish fog from the silly monkeys' pathetic fake suns. This obstruction will simply have to go. He draws back his head to bash it, but stops when he notices Friend Fred’s strength waning. Oh, that’s right. Bruno sometimes forgets that when he’s on the outside, Friend Fred is depowered, just a puny human who couldn’t even grow back his own tail if he had one. Poor humans. They must lose their tails as babies, because Bruno hardly ever sees a human who still has it.
Anyways, Bruno carefully picks up his fried Friend Fred with his mouth and tucks him into his cab so he can heal. He doesn’t bother to watch the injuries vanish; he can feel the healing happening through his connection to Friend Fred, which is always strongest inside the cab.
Oh, and Friend Fred had wanted Bruno to do something before he’d gone to the sleepy place. What was it? Bruno awkwardly twists his head around the cramped and foggy room, in case anything reminds him. Oh, there, in that corner behind him. Little Friend Tim. Bruno is supposed to keep Friend Tim safe. He tries to pick up the little monkey, but the angles are wrong and his neck won’t reach. Bruno glances around the room to see if anybody is watching him, but doesn’t see anything moving except the neon gingerbread men doing a conga line on the walls. He concentrates and stretches his neck out until it’s long enough for him to grab Friend Tim by the foot, then he flips him up into the cab. Friend Tim doesn’t quite look like he’s in a comfortable position in there, but that isn’t Bruno’s problem.
He observes that Friend Tim isn’t in danger of falling out, and smiles when he notices that Friend Tim is healing himself (Bruno can only heal Friend Fred). Maybe Friend Tim has his own Geckontosauradose spirit? Bruno licks him in the face, but Friend Tim doesn’t taste like an avatar. He does taste like a turtle, though. This confuses Bruno, so he licks Friend Tim a second time. Oh. That doesn’t belong there. He clamps his mouth over Friend Tim’s face and inhales, stripping the shreds of turtle spirit from where they’d been crudely grafted onto the little monkey’s own, and he swallows them with a big dino-grin.
Bruno feels like there is still something else Friend Fred had wanted, though, so he looks around some more until he notices the table stuck underneath his belly. That’s right, there is something on that table that Friend Fred wants. Bruno sucks in his gut so he can peek into the gap, but he sees nothing on the table but a bloody smear. He looks at the floor next to the table to see if whatever it was Friend Fred wanted fell off, but nothing in the pool of blood and gore jogs his memory.
Bruno shrugs and returns his attention to the ceiling. He swishes the tip of his tail once through the yellowish haze and then flexes his neck. Concrete and rebar crumble and bend as he forces his head up through the ceiling and into the next floor. A huwoman screams and backs up to the wall as Bruno eyes her. She doesn’t smell like the one who had sealed him away with her monkey-scribble, so he turns to examine the room. Seeing a pot of food in the corner, he gradually uses his neck and chin to tear a path through the floor until he can reach it and get a tasty mouthful of leaves.
Bruno hears a thump and turns to see that the huwoman is now sleeping in a cloud of that yellow fog that followed him up through the hole in the floor. Bruno decides the yellow fog is bad for monkeys. He sneezes on her to blow it away, and then goes back under to the first floor. He needs to get his Friends outside the cloud, so he walks through the wall to go to another room. Some humans in it scream greetings at him, so Bruno gives them a cheerful “Yip!” and then looks over his shoulder. The fog is following him. He snorts and walks through another half dozen walls until it thins into ankle-deep irrelevance.
Friend Fred feels hungry, so Bruno turns around and grabs a food machine from the room before and puts it into the cab. The cab is always cozy, but always has more space. Bruno is proud of it.
He sees another nearby food-pot, so he munches on the leafy snack until something goes “BANG!” and tickles his hindquarters. He bends his neck around and sees some of those playful humans and huwomans with the big crunchy clothes and the noisy-tickle-sticks. Bruno smiles and turns to greet them, while a large turtle-shell helmet materializes atop his head.
Fred wakes up to sense an ecstatic feeling through his connection with Bruno. He carefully pulls himself out from underneath his unconscious son and a… is that a vending machine? Well, he pushes it upright on the starboard side of the cab, shoves Tim to port, and then squeezes into his own seat in the middle. Finally he looks around to see where they are.
His eyes pass over the wreckage of the three-story hole Bruno is sitting within, the rubble and bloodstained remains of enemy combatants, the scattered fires and sparking equipment, the flickering lights and intermittent spurts of water from burst pipes, and settles on the only thing out of the ordinary: an envelope stuck to the back of Bruno’s jawbone.
“Bruno, what’s that? Bring it over here.”
As he pries the envelope off his companion’s pebbly skin, Fred gets a first-person mental image of Barney hugging him on the nose and slapping something sticky to the back of his inhumanly-shaped head.
“Thanks, buddy. And where’d you get that helmet? Oh, so you took it from Tim? Cool.” He opens the envelope as Bruno returns to gnawing on the trunk of some kind of small indoor tree he’s found. The envelope contains a short letter in Barney’s handwriting.
Fred. I am so sorry. They have Betty and didn’t leave me enough time to think of a plan. But if you’re reading this, it means you got free enough to summon Bruno. Please, my friend, once Tim is safe, rescue Betty. Don’t worry about Susie. I’ll keep her out of this. –Barney
“Well, that’s a relief. And you stupid idiot, Barns, of course I’ll save Betty! Duh. Hey, Bruno, where’s Betty? Hmm? Hmm? Where is she? Where’s Betty?”
Bruno twists his head around to stare at Fred. He can only really communicate through emotion and mental images, but the feeling Fred is getting across their link can easily be translated as “We are not amused.”
“Oh come on, do you feel her or not?”
Bruno shakes his head.
“Hmm… well, in that case either she isn’t in this building, or she’s heavily warded. Well, she’s probably warded wherever she is, what with her telepathy. So, you smell any strong magic?”
Bruno squints at Fred for a moment, then hops up, spins a few dozen degrees, and goes rigid with his neck pointing forward, tail back, and front-right foot raised.
“Well alright then, fetch!”
Instead of moving, Bruno maintains the exact same pose and simply rotates a quarter turn in one swift spin. His tail knocks over a chunk of a wall and emits a comical twang as it vibrates.
“Oh, so there’s more than one?”
Bruno spins through another five positions.
“Cripes. Okay, hang on a second.” He smashes open the glass on the vending machine and snatches out a bag of Skittles and a bag of nuts. He downs a handful from each, sets them in his lap, and grabs the reins. “Alright, Bruno, it’s been a while since we really got to cut loose. You good and warmed up already?”
Bruno yanks the tree trunk out of the little patch of soil in the floor, sticks the end into a small patch of flames, and inhales as it bursts into a roaring fire like some kind of massive blazing dino-cigar doused in kerosene. He nods his mighty helmeted head.
“Right. Let’s wreck this place.” Fred snaps the reins and they vanish.
* * *
In B709, the floor tiles grow toothy mouths and begin to howl. The guards jump back and slip on the blood leaking out from the moulding along the bottoms of the walls. A magic circle on the ground flares in shades of green and purple, the interior a quiet area of mundane calm. The circle’s only inmate is a gaunt young woman with cherry-red hair, metallic teeth, and orange skin matching her jumpsuit. She looks with interest at the activity around her. Suddenly a purple dinosaur appears and does a pirouette while lashing out with its tail. Somehow the tail manages to thrash all the guards into a bloody paste while bending over and around the circle in ways that violate Euclidean geometry.
“Nope, not her,” says the man riding on the dinosaur’s back. “But let’s free her anyway!”
The dinosaur settles to his feet, swings his head off to the side, and then bashes the burning tree in his mouth into the edge of the circle on the floor. There is a burst of perfectly mundane sparks, and then the glowing circle flickers and explodes. When the woman’s eyes clear, the dinosaur is gone. She cautiously steps over the scorched ring on the floor that had contained her for the last two years. She begins to laugh and then turns to examine the lifeless remains of her captors. With a genuine smile she begins her feast.
* * *
The guards outside the B241 cell draw their weapons when they hear a faint melody. The volume increases and a bass line rumbles through the floor. They fire down the hallway at the rapidly approaching glow, adding the percussion the tune has lacked. Fred and Bruno frown as they trample their unwilling musical assistants, but they continue charging headlong into the magically sealed doors amid a cloud of tiny flying flutes and saxophones. The doors underfoot, they quickly ascertain that the dozen naga-looking chicks are not Betty and disappear. The instruments revert into the cutlery they began as and rain down on the bewildered snake-women.
* * *
Bruno and Fred appear upside down in A311, standing on the ceiling in a patch of belly-dancing flowers. The roof of the building groans and collapses just before they disappear, breaching the containment on a small group of vampires who shriek and turn to dust in the afternoon sunlight.
* * *
In B836 a group of mages are becoming frantic as they sense the rapid destruction of a series of protective wards around the facility. It must be that fugitive the incompetent muggles have been chasing all morning. They begin throwing up more defenses in case he comes for their charge. All six of them stumble when the floor jumps, as though something below has just whacked it with a giant hammer. The floor jumps again, but this time it’s off to the side. Another jump. It seems to be circling them, probably because it cannot get through their barrier… Then the floor starts to groan and sag. The mages look at each other in alarm as the floor their circles are drawn on tilts and crumbles, falling down into the level below and dispelling all of their enchantments. From the cage they’ve been guarding comes a maniacal laughter, and then the bars melt away. A rather cheerful looking man in a top hat and sharp suit emerges, beheads the mages with his sleeve, and then casually strolls away.
* * *
Down the hall from A121, Bruno and Fred pause as Tim begins to stir. “Hey Bruno, let’s let Tim handle this next one!”
“Wha?” mumbles Tim as he looks around with bleary eyes.
“We’re looking for Aunt Betty, Tim. We think she’s trapped in here somewhere, so we’re checking all the magical containment and freeing everything we find. We already got the first four while you were asleep, so now it’s your turn!”
“Your turn, your turn, your turn!” chant the portraits along the wall.
Bruno shifts his tree to the other side of his mouth, bends his neck around so he can grab Tim by the arm, and then flings him down the hall into the group of guards coming to investigate the noise. Tim panics and fucks up gravity, which spares him from getting shot long enough for him to flare up and roast everybody around him.
“Good job,” Fred hollers down the hall, “Now, it’s right through that door. Just disrupt the magic.” Fred’s face lights up and he points at a vending machine perched precariously at his side. “When you get back I’ll let you have some candy!”
Tim just shakes his head. His father has clearly lost it. His eyes don’t even match anymore. One is black with a blazing yellow iris, and the other is glowing a soft cyan with a pulsing green pupil and no iris to speak of. The man stuffs a fistful of Skittles into his mouth and mumbles something around them that sounds like “rainbows taste like victory!”
Tim takes a deep breath and floats over to the door. It’s locked, so he tries again to focus his fire. This time it works, and he burns slowly through the solid wood of the door, carefully staying off to the side in case anybody tries to shoot at him.
His caution pays off when a bullet zips through the burned-away portion of the door. He opts to just flood the inside of the room with fire, totally forgetting that this is a rescue operation. Fred notices and starts to shout, but then the entire room explodes, hurling Tim into the opposite wall of the hallway. Bruno gallops up and grabs Tim, and they all disappear. A now recharged energy-manipulator begins tunneling through the walls toward freedom, cackling all the while.
* * *
“Hey Tim, you know I was just trolling you earlier, right? I didn’t mean all that stuff. You’re a good kid, to not want to roast your dad!”
“Yeah, I know, Pop. The whole Santa thing kind of gives it away, in hindsight. You’re obviously not Santa.”
“Um, right…” Damn. Fred was hoping to kill two birds with one stone. Oh well, he can just bundle it in with the Birds and the Bees discussion he’ll have to have before sending Tim off to Whateley… No, wait. If they save Betty, he can totally rope Barney into handling that for him to return the favor. He’s like a doctor and shit, so Tim oughta take it more seriously. Yeah. So, best get on with the Betty-rescuing!
“Alright,” says Fred, “it’s either this one or the next one. I think we’ll let the grownups handle it from here. She’s gonna be mad enough without you singeing her hair.”
“Hey! I just got my powers yesterday, alright? I’m new at this!”
“So you’re saying you want to try it again?”
“Oh, uh, no. No, you go ahead, Pop.”
“Okay then. You just here in the cab and guard the vending machine while Bruno and I take care of business.” Fred starts to laugh maniacally.
Tim just rolls his eyes and munches on the trail mix he was given (potentially roasting their quarry downgraded his prize from candy to a healthy snack).
Bruno, who has been picking up speed while approaching a set of double-doors, suddenly screeches to a halt and starts to growl and twitch. The hair on the back of Fred’s neck rises and he mutters to himself. Tim looks around but doesn’t see anything wrong. He begins to ask a question but is interrupted when the doors slam open. A group of goons drag out a hooded and bound woman, who is doing everything she can to break their grip, but to no avail. Fred’s face goes pale as his eyes widen in recognition. Behind the goons comes a man in a suit pushing a cart with some kind of devise on it. Fred grips the reins tightly to hold back Bruno, who is beginning to foam at the mouth and stamp the ground.
“Ah, Fred,” says the suit in a calm and oily voice. “So I see the rumors are true. You and your beast really are afraid of forcefields.” Tim peers more closely and sees a slight shimmering in the air making a sphere about twenty feet across, centered on the devise. He silently agrees that his father looks about as terrified as he’s ever seen him, but he’s not sure that “afraid” is the right way to describe Bruno. The word “enraged” seems more appropriate to Tim.
Fred gulps and swallows his pride. “Yessir, Mr. Suit, Bruno here hates forcefields. Please for the love of cheese turn that thing off. Or just, you know, go somewhere else with it…”
“Oh no no no,” says the man. “In fact, I was thinking maybe we could get you your own forcefield, one to hold you two in while we figure out how to make you pay for all this damage you’ve done to my facility. Though I do accept part of the blame. I underestimated you. I should have briefed everybody on the proper procedures for handling the carrier of the Fred Force, instead of only those tasked with detaining you. No matter. It took some scrambling, but…” he pauses to listen to the wire in his ear. Fred and Bruno both flinch simultaneously, and Bruno’s tail starts thrashing behind them. “Ah, I see you’ve noticed. Yes, we’ve just enclosed this entire facility in a rather large field, projected from the outside so that there is no way you can disable the generator – yes, we know about how your brand of teleportation can’t pass through forcefields. It took some time to move the generators outside and tune them. Thank you so much for cooperatively remaining within the facility this whole time while we finished.”
“Sir,” Fred squeezes out through gritted teeth, “this is a terribly bad idea. You don’t understand. Bruno hates forcefields. He’s going to-”
“Well, then it sucks to be him,” interrupts the man. “Maybe he can burn off some of that nervous energy by fighting some of those fiends you folks have released today. You’re all trapped in here together, after all, like a big ‘ol death-match. Maybe I can sell it on pay-per-view! But for now you’ll have to excuse me. Betty and I have a plane to catch. She’s my insurance, by the way, in case you do find a way out of here. I recommend… not.”
Fred spits. “You have no idea how good that insurance is. Don’t invalidate it.”
“Have no fear of-” the man stops when he thinks he sees something moving down the hall, then jumps when it vanishes and a young girl appears out of nowhere, bouncing off a nearby wall to almost knock Fred out of his cab with a flying hug-tackle.
“Daddy!” she says. “You’re okay! And you found Tim! What’s goin' on? Why’s Bruno cranky?”
Fred swallows. “Bad news, Susie. They got Aunt Betty down there in that forcefield, and the whole building inside a bigger one.”
Susan’s eyes get huge. “But Daddy, Bruno hates forcefields!”
“That’s what I keep telling people!” shouts Fred, white-knuckled and obviously frustrated.
“He’s a bad guy,” she says while reaching into a tool-pouch attached to the side of the cab. “Can I go stab him?”
“Well, I don’t see how you’re going to do that when he’s behind that… Susan?” Fred looks over his shoulder as his daughter jumps out the rear window with an ice-pick in her hand, skips off Bruno’s back, and leaps into midair.
“Friend Bruno’s gonna make me go faster!” she shouts in a singsong voice before grabbing Bruno’s tail with her free hand. He whips it into the wall in the blink of an eye, and Fred’s daughter is gone without a trace.
The man in the suit starts to say something, so Fred snaps his focus back in front. He completes his swivel just in time to witness a short blur appear from the side and rush past the man, felling him with a spray of red. Almost simultaneously, an old man drops from midair and knocks out the two thugs who have been manhandling Betty. He scoops her up just in time for the blur to bounce off the wall and into him, and all three vanish.
Susan and Hubert hit the ground running outside the facility, and Hubert turns to congratulate his young charge. Before he can get any words out, she screams “FASTER!,” eyes full of madness, and they duck through another seam in reality to roll out a mile away.
“What is it, child?”
“Bruno hates forcefields! Keep moving!”
Back in the hallway, Fred stares at the spot no longer occupied by his old friend. His fear and stress evaporate and he begins laughing uncontrollably as he stops holding Bruno back. For his part, Bruno spits out his abused treegar and starts settling into a solid crouch as little flickers of light appear all around and drift into his mouth. Tim has no idea what’s going on, but he ducks low in the cab and covers his head on general principles. Fred releases the reins and braces himself against the cab’s frame. A few moments later, all Hell breaks loose.
Hubert stares in horror at the column of smoke and raining embers as he drags himself back to his feet. “I cannot fathom any curses severe enough for what just happened.”
“Good!” says Hilda, who climbs off a motorcycle that has an odd bristly tail and walks up toward him from behind. He doesn’t acknowledge her, but she forgives him because she can see the blood dripping from his ears. She gives a small harrumph, claps her hands, and hits him with a healing spell to restore his eardrums to working order. She then does the same for Susan, who apparently tried to cover her ears when she saw the flash, judging by the bloody smears she’s wiping on her jeans.
“Hilda! You made it!” shouts Hubert. He tries to embrace her, but she pulls out a spoon and beats him away.
“You idiot! What did you think you were doing, dragging that little girl across the country, blowing up a government facility, and destroying her eardrums!”
“Dragging? Woman, I spent most of my time just trying to catch up with her! I must have just burned ten years of my life off with all that running. I feel so young now!”
Hilda rounds on Susan. “And you! What do you think you’re doing, blowing up a government test facility!”
“Um, three points, ma'am. One: The MCO is an NGO, not a part of the government, so that wasn’t a government facility. Two: It wasn’t me! I’m innocent! Three: I guess this is really a sub-point of point Two, but…” she points toward a growing dark spot at the bottom of the column of smoke in the distance. “He did it!” A big purple brontosaurus bursts out of the cloud, galloping their way and trailing glowing rainbow-colored footprints that float up into the air to hover a few seconds after being laid down.
Hilda’s confusion is interrupted by a groan as a bound woman wearing a hood covered in glowing marks stirs and starts murmuring angrily at them.
“That’s Aunt Betty,” says Susan. “We should prob'ly untie her. But um, be careful? She bites.”
Hubert moves to help, but Hilda kicks him out of the way and tends to Betty herself. A few contact-less finger-waggles later and Betty is up and pacing a hole in the desert, cussing out everything she can lay her eyes on and a few things she cannot. She rounds on Fred when he finally arrives, her straight black hair fanning out behind her from the breeze Bruno’s galumphing bulk causes.
“You!” Betty screams, “How dare you kill them for me! I am not some damsel in distress! That was my fight, and I was winning until you and your stupid pet showed up!”
“But Betts, you were-”
“I was on the verge of escape! Then everybody started going nuts looking for you, and so the director increased my security! And when you started tearing the building apart just as I was dealing with it, he showed up in person with a bunch of guards!”
Hubert tries to intercede. “Ma'am, I-”
“Oh no you don’t! Do you know how many fucking times I’ve had to rescue his punk ass? He is the one who gets captured, not me! And don’t think I’ve forgotten how you were copping a feel as you carried me, either! Yes you were, don’t even try to bullshit me. You’re pretty good, but unlike you I actually can tell what you’re thinking, and no I don’t give a flying fuck about your stupid fucking ethics complaints! I’m pissed! Damned right I’m even spunkier than the rugrat, and you were about thirty years too early so you’d better fucking turn around and go apologize to your wife before she kills you for me and pisses me off at her too! God what is wrong with you fucking people!”
Bruno backs away slowly, whimpering. Fred sighs and pulls out a trusty and heavily abused deck of cards from a small cubbyhole in the cab. He and Tim slide and float down to the ground, and the five sane humans settle in to play a few rounds while Betty vents at life in general. Bruno dejectedly builds a sandcastle during this time, but nobody is quite sure how.
Finally, as her voice starts going out, Betty plops down next to Fred with a sigh and gives him a friendly hug. “Thanks for caring, though,” she says in a much more conversational tone. “I really do appreciate it. That goes for you rugrats too. Yeah yeah, I know you didn’t even know I was in trouble for most of it, but still.”
“Don’t worry about it, Betts,” says Fred. “Besides, you’ve rescued me enough times already. I just kinda figured it was my turn, you know?”
“Heh, yeah. Remember that time down in Georgia?”
“Oh jeeze, yeah. Who’d have thought a pitfall trap filled with peanut butter would be so effective? After that, I couldn’t stomach anything with peanut butter in it for over a year. It drove Wilma up the wall.”
“She’d be proud of you, you know. Well, I think she’d be pissed about you blowing up that building because maybe there were other innocents in there…”
“Oh man, you’re right. But I really couldn’t help it. It was Bruno. He-”
“Yeah yeah, I know. I was there the first time, remember? Crazy-ass dinosaur is allergic to forcefields and thinks he’s a goddamned Pokemon.” She shakes her head and then turns to Bruno. “And I know you didn’t mean it, buddy. You were trying really hard not to blow me up, weren’t you?” He swings his head over to sniff at her and she gives it a hug. “Yeah, you’re a good dinosaur. A good friend. Sorry for yelling, earlier.”
Bruno licks her face happily and then returns to admiring his sandcastle. Somehow it has acquired a grove of tiny living orange trees inside the courtyard, and a little flag is flapping above a parapet.
“Anyway, Fred,” says Betty, “my point is Wilma would be proud of the job you’ve done with these kids. Them being all heroic and shit. Okay, maybe Tim didn’t do much-”
“Hey!” objects Tim.
Betty smiles. “Yeah I know, you started your dad on fire! Great going kiddo, wish I could have helped you! But seriously, you got tortured and you still tried to help save me, even if you kinda sorta unleashed some menace on the world again in the process and would have cooked me alive if I’d actually been in there…”
“Pop! Make Aunt Betty stay out of my head!”
Fred smirks. “Son, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do that since before you were born.”
Betty winks at Fred, then looks back at Tim. “Oh, you should ask Mrs. Flinkshuh here if she can fix up your legs, honey.”
“What’s wrong with his legs?” asks Hilda, who had noticed the floating boy moving oddly but has been too distracted by the overall situation to pay it much mind.
Tim grimaces. “I broke them last night when I fell trying to use my powers.”
“A few dozen times!” adds Susan helpfully.
Tim glares at her. “…Yeah. Uncle Barney put them in casts and stuff, but the MCO guys took them off, and they got messed up again during all the action.”
Hilda looks at Susan with a question in her eyes.
“Yeah, our Uncle Barney is your Barry. My real name is Susan, by the way. That’s my dumb brother Tim, my dad Fred, our friend Bruno, and Aunt Betty. Guys, these are the Flinkshuhs! They’re good people. They run an orphanage in Nebraska!”
Betty looks at Hilda and Hubert with dawning comprehension. “Oh hey, you’re that couple Barney’s been smuggling all those kids to? He did mention one of you was a mage.”
“Yup, that’s me,” says Hilda proudly as she starts examining Tim’s legs. “You can call me Hilda, and since we’re all sharing secrets at this little powwow, my husband Hubert here used to be a local superhero, back in our day.”
“Oh yeah,” says Hubert. “I used to be known as The Nebraskan Ninja. I’m what they call a paragon nowadays. Means I just know how to do stuff. It’s how I followed you through those gaps, Ja- Susan. I don’t think a normal person could follow you like that, and I sure can’t find those gaps on my own.”
“So you were cheating this whole time!” Susan says triumphantly.
“Heh, not at first. I really have been doing this stuff for a long time. But yeah, it didn’t take long before I didn’t have any other choice besides getting left behind. Reminds me of this French guy I knew once… ah, but that was decades ago. Who taught you to move like that, anyhow?” He looks at Fred, who just shrugs.
“Ahh, well, uh…” Susan blushes a little. “Well, I do gymnastics, and I play a lotta Sonic the Hedgehog games, and Daddy has the old cartoons on DVD…”
“Aha! I wondered if that was it. You do the Blue Blur justice, young lady! Why, when you were staring me down back at the Home, I half expected you to pull out a power-ring or something!”
Susan giggles. “I usedta have a toy one Daddy made me, but Principal Buttface confiscated it when I beat up a bully with it in First Grade.” Betty ruffles her hair.
Hilda finishes healing Tim’s legs, and he stands properly for the first time in almost a day. He whoops and stomps around a little, then returns to floating, only much more smugly now that he’s doing it by choice rather than necessity.
Meanwhile, Hilda joins back into the conversation. “So, Betty. Are you and Barry, I mean Barney, are you two going to be okay?”
Betty sighs. “Well, we’re going to have to go into hiding, I think. We knew we wouldn’t be able to maintain Operation Stork much longer without getting caught. Barney already has a plan for it.”
“I take it you don’t plan to come with us, then?” asks Fred.
“Not right away,” says Betty, “but we’d love to join up soon. If we’re gonna be outlaws too, we might as well take advantage of the chance to put the gang back together again.”
“Sounds good,” says Fred as he stands up and stretches. “Probably ought to get going.” He looks at the Flinkshuhs. “Are you two good to get home on your own? Bruno can drop you off closer, if you want.”
“Oh, we’re fine,” says Hilda.
“Hey, how’d you get here so fast, anyway?” asks Susan.
“Didn’t you see my motorcycle?” says Hilda.
“Yeah, but you were in Nebraska!” says Susan. “That’s over a thousand miles away!”
“I’m a mage, remember? It’s a flying motorcycle.”
“No way!” says Tim.
Susan looks at it more closely and realizes the bristly tail is the business end of a broom. “But how’d you find us?”
“That’s easy!” says Hubert. “She’s got an enchanted compass with a needle made out of one of my toenail clippings. It always points toward me. Makes all my sordid affairs with young women real tricky to pull off, I tell ya!”
Hilda rolls her eyes.
“Alright then,” says Fred. “Thanks for helping my daughter. If you ever need my help with anything, let me know. I’ll have Barney send you a secure way to contact me.”
They all say their goodbyes and climb aboard their respective steeds. As the Flinkshuhs silently lift off into the sky, Fred turns to Betty. “So, where should we drop you off? I’m guessing the Ranch is out.”
“Yeah. Let’s check the Grotto first. If Barney isn’t over there, he’ll at least have left me a message on how we can find him.”
Barney jumps out of his seat when the fibers all turn into little cat-tongues and start licking him. He turns to find the bulk of the open space in the cave now taken up by a large helmeted brontosaurus, its hide appearing black in the now green light shining from Barney’s desk-lamp. Barney’s eyes ignore the jump-roping goldfish and lock onto the eyes of his wife, who is sliding down Bruno’s side and already throwing her mind into his.
Sometime later they separate and Barney notices that Fred and the kids are also there, apparently watching some video Susan pulled up on his recently vacated computer. He clears his throat to get their attention. “Um, hey guys. I’m really sorry about all that.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it, Barns!” says Fred. He sends a sharp look at Betty though, who links the three of them psychically. “Uh, let’s cut this short. Tim doesn’t realize your part in this.”
“Susan remembers,” says Betty, “but I already asked her to leave Tim in the dark. He had a really rough time in there. The story is that they attacked all of you on their own, and you only barely escaped with Susan.”
“Okay, I guess that’s for the best.” Barney winces. “I’d, uh, invite you all to stay for dinner, but…”
“Heh, don’t sweat it,” says Fred. “Oh, and we owe the, um… the…”
“Flinkshuhs” says Betty.
“Right,” says Fred. “The Flinkshuhs. We owe them for keeping an eye on Susan and helping her rescue Betty. So could you forward them one of my contact addresses? I haven’t used them in so long I forgot what they are.”
“Yeah, sure,” says Barney. “Where are you guys going to be staying?”
“Summithold, I think. That base we captured from Sgt. Snowflake back in ‘93.”
“Alright. Well, you guys have fun and stay safe up there. And keep Bruno off the slopes this time.”
“Yeah yeah, I know. You’d think people had never seen a snowboarding dinosaur before.”
“Um, actually I was thinking more about the avalanches, but that’s a good point too. You need to be more covert now that you’ve kicked up a fire again.”
“Mmm,” assents Fred. “Well, anyway, I guess we’ll see you guys later.”
They wave goodbye and blink out. The goldfish return to pebbles and the lamp resumes its warm yellow-white glow.
“Finally!” Betty says exasperatedly. Barney moves in closer, but Betty shrugs him off. “No, not yet. I have to tell you something first. Brace yourself.” She looks him fiercely in the eyes and tells him what she discovered in the mind of one of the MCO officials.
Barney gapes in horror.