September 20th, 1990
“Soon, we’ll be invincible!” Fred and his partner Tim pronounce simultaneously while the devise they’re monitoring hums to life. Betty and Wilma happen to be walking past the lab at the same time, and they pause to roll their eyes at their coworkers.
“If anybody is going to be made invincible,” says Wilma, “it’s going to be Jessica. Unless you two are wasting Dr. B.’s resources on your own stuff again? You know what happened last time…”
“No,” Betty says with a sigh while the two young men turn to each other with maniacal grins. “They’re on task; they’re just dricking around a little. Come on, let’s-”
“Soon,” shout Fred and Tim in unison, “Jessie will be invincible!” They descend into mad cackling as a green indicator light flashes. Tim disconnects the test equipment from the power converter they’ve just finished while Fred rolls a hydraulic lift into position under the devise.
Betty and Wilma shake their heads and continue down the hall, and Fred’s slightly deranged gaze follows them while he absentmindedly activates the lift. His laughter and leering, however, are shortly interrupted by the sound of his own scream. He snaps his head around to determine what has interfaced with his pain receptors and sees that he’s negligently left his right arm in the way of the lift. Now that he’s focused, he can even hear the sickening sound of snapping bones as the devise and his forearm rise into the air. He quickly reverses the lift and frees himself.
Once his arm is out of the way, he pushes the lever to resume lifting the magnificent devise off the workbench, ignoring his own cursing while carefully aligning the devise with the large scanning unit that Tim is already preparing to bolt it into. Fortunately, there isn’t anything particularly sensitive along the bottom of the devise, so the splatter of blood and snagged bits of flesh won’t interfere with the glorious conversion of power. Still, he reaches enthusiastically for a roll of paper towel to start cleaning it off. Won’t do to leave it there and attract flies to mar their triumphant success, after all. Though now that he thinks about it, snagging flies would be within the power of that pathetically weak tractor beam he’d cooked up last week. Maybe it isn’t useless after all! A part of him salivates at the thought; Fred’s inner gecko has always been jealous of frogs and their marvelous tongues. His attention wavers between continuing the installation of the power converter and mentally sketching out the schematics for a head-mounted tractor-tongue of doom.
Fred’s attention is split a third way when he feels his real tongue slow in its cursing of his arm while a strange peace settles over him. He realizes that an attractive redhead with rainbow earrings is trying to tug him away from his cleaning, and this encourages more of his attention to swivel her way. The increased focus brings with it a recognition of Wilma and an understanding that she’s using her empathy to calm him. He starts to tell her about his amazing tractor-tongue idea, but his explanation is interrupted when an annoyed brunette slaps him across the face. The impertinent wench is shouting something at him, but he can’t hear it over the sound of the rushing blood pulsing through his mind in time with his throbbing arm. He’s bristling, attention now split four ways. That’s too many ways. He reallocates the quarter that was trying to clean the devise and focuses it on the angry cretin. Finding his only good hand occupied by a roll of paper towel that he no longer needs, he hurls it at her face. “Begone, filth!”
Fred’s movement causes the pretty redhead to stumble against him, as she’s still tugging on that arm. Attention is juggled and he recognizes Wilma again, just before she slams him with so much peace that his legs give out. He falls to the ground, resulting in the meddling brunette’s ruthless kick narrowly missing its intended target of his gonads to strike his more expendable gut region instead. His head cracks loudly against the ground, so he languidly rolls over to apologize to the floor. He really hadn’t intended to hurt it, and fortunately it appears to have suffered no real damage. Just a spot of blood, which he rubs off with his sleeve. The texture of the concrete is just sublime, and he’s so relaxed that he feels like he could almost seep through the pores and become one with the floor.
The suffocating peace lifts, and the sharp assault of pain from Fred’s body snaps him into clarity. He slaps a hand against the cool, smooth side of a metal cabinet and uses his gecko-grip to pull himself shakily to his feet. A sweeping glance around the room finds Wilma and Betty staring down Tim, who has a blaster in one hand and a buzzing helmet covered in blinkenlights upon his head. Apparently it’s an anti-psi helmet, because he seems unaffected by the empath and telepath both glaring daggers at him. Tim is just ranting along unimpeded and waving the blaster theatrically. Fred smirks; they’d just been testing that blaster a few hours earlier, and he knows for a fact that it burned out already. He ignores it completely and ushers Betty and Wilma out the door, nodding politely at his best friend as they go. “Yes, Tim! We’re fleeing before your terrible might! You have bested us!”
In the hallway, with the door firmly shut behind them, Wilma turns to look Fred over. That reminds him that he’s injured, so he looks himself over too. Yep, his right forearm is mangled, and the hair at the back of his head is damp with blood. It feels like it isn’t bleeding anymore, though, and when he raps his knuckles against his skull he doesn’t feel anything abnormal, so he figures his head can’t be damaged too severely. Unlike his arm. He prods it with his good hand and it flops in ways arms were not meant to flop. It also hurts like a sunovabitch, though it still seems oddly dull for an injury of this magnitude. Maybe he hasn’t fully come off the drick-high yet. He pushes on his arm a few more times, mostly just because it isn’t every day he gets to watch it bend like that and he finds it morbidly fascinating.
Wilma turns a bit green watching him. “Can you- Can you not do that?” she says with a shudder. “It’s disgusting.” This just makes Fred grin and do it again, suppressing a wince as he feels the ends of the bone fragments moving about. Wilma clamps her hand to her mouth for a moment as she tries not to heave, then glares at him. Suddenly the pain sharpens enough to make him stagger and grimace. “I’m serious Fred!” she yells. “I’m not going to dampen your pain if you’re just going to play with it!”
Betty smirks at him. “It’s an injury, not a fucking toy, Fred. See how it’s attached to your shoulder instead of your groin?”
Fred nods and grunts through his clenched teeth. Another wave of peace washes over him, melting away his grimace. He doesn’t catch the look of relief on Wilma’s face as he stops screaming inside, but Betty smiles knowingly at her empathic friend. Wilma glares back, and Betty makes a zipping motion across her lips. This Fred notices, but before he can say anything Betty has him by the right shoulder and is marching him down the hall toward the medical office, chattering inanely with Wilma about some blow-drier she plans to buy.
Fred carefully keeps his mouth closed; the last time he got himself involved with a girl’s beauty-tech was back at Whateley, and it ended with Jessica’s hair on fire and a hairpin rammed through his left eye. And that was how he finally lost his first and only girlfriend, who’s now less than a week away from being put into danger yet again, but Fred’s trying not to think about that right now. He focuses on the less painful memory of pulling Jessie’s hairpin out of his eye instead. He eventually managed to incorporate that thing into the most amazing death ray before the range guys confiscated it and banned him from the ranges forever. How was he supposed to have known that snake was a student? Well, part of a student. Okay, maybe he should have known, given that Brianna was Jessica’s roommate the entire time they were dating, but it wasn’t like she’d made a habit of turning her limbs into detachable snakes while he was around, and he’d always been distracted by Jessie…
His thoughts are interrupted when some sandy-haired guy in a smock takes hold of his ruined arm. Fred starts to freak out a little and raises a fist, but Wilma grabs his wrist and hits him with some calm.
“Take a chill pill, Fred,” says Betty. “This is Barney. He’s going to make your Humpty all Dumpty again.”
Fred turns to this Barney guy and smiles apologetically. “Sorry, man. Still a little out of it I guess. I just had a Diedrick’s episode a little while ago.”
Barney nods. “Sure. What happened to your arm?”
“Oh. I was lifting a power converter into place on the Imbunator, but I, uh, got distracted and my arm got in there too. I was already dricking out a little, and things got, uh, messy.”
“They said you hit your head as well? I can see it was bleeding.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. Regen-2, courtesy of my gecko spirit.”
Barney rolls his eyes and takes a look anyway. “Well, it’s definitely healing, and your skull looks intact. You might still have a concussion, though, and that could also explain the lack of focus.”
Fred shrugs. “If I do, Bruno will have it fixed by dinnertime. Took a small laser right through my head once; healed up no problem, except I can’t remember that week, and I think he made me eat my roommate’s pet roaches. It’s just my arm I’m worried about. If the bones fuse wrong, it could take a week or two for Bruno to fix it. He’s thorough but slow.”
“Slow, huh?” Barney shakes his head while visually inspecting Fred’s arm. “You have no idea how much I’ve heard people complain about their gifts. ‘My regen isn’t fast enough,’ or ‘my psi gives me headaches if I use it for sixteen hours straight,’ or ‘the fires I make are too hot when I burn my clothes off, and my date gets blisters that totally ruin the mood.’ When I was doing work-study at Doyle, there was this energizer girl trying to complain to me about how much food she had to eat to maintain a figure, and the whole while a morbidly obese girl in the next room over was literally dying because her body wouldn’t stop absorbing and storing every single bit of energy that it could, and her heart wasn’t keeping up. And I’m looking at this skinny girl, whose skin has color and visible texture because the light is actually reflecting off it instead of being sucked in, and she can touch people without giving them frostbite, and she can hear properly because her ear canals don’t absorb all the vibrations before they reach her cochlea. And I just want to tell this airhead to shut the fuck up because we’re busy keeping this other girl alive and you just want some kind of magic pills to give you bigger boobs? Here’s a prescription for McDonald’s; go away.”
Barney trails off and continues peering at Fred’s arm from different angles while Fred blinks in surprise. Okay, so that’s a button. Let’s not press it again. He clears his throat. “So anyway, are we going to go do an x-ray or what?”
Barney looks up with a start. “Oh, right. No, that won’t be necessary. God blessed me with integral x-ray goggles when I turned fourteen.”
Fred and Wilma process this for a second, then both move to cover various body parts. Betty laughs. “No, you dorks. He sees your bones, not your naughty bits.”
Barney raises an eyebrow at her. “Bones can be naughty. Those ribs, and that curve of your spine, mmmmm. And the way your ulna twines around your radius….”
“OKAY,” bursts Betty with a distinct blush. “Fred, get your hands off your dick and let the nice man perv on your ulna. I am going to go eat on the other side of the facility where I can’t see his creepy skeleton fantasies dancing inside my head. You too, Wilma.” Wilma hesitates, and Betty frowns at her. “Wilma, I can see how he looks at your femurs, and I do not like it. Move those bones, girl!” She pushes her friend out of the office.
The door closes and Fred clears his throat again. “So, Doc, you two know each other?”
Barney has returned his attention to Fred’s arm and doesn’t look up this time. He’s progressed beyond passive examination and is now poking and prodding at various points. “A little. We were both in the Alphas. I was a year ahead.”
“Hmm. What about Wilma?”
Just then, the door opens and Wilma walks back in. “What about me?”
Fred starts a little. “Oh, um, nothing really. I thought you were going to eat?”
She smiles sheepishly. “Well, I was going to let Betty drag me off to the cafeteria, but then I remembered that I’m your anesthetic right now, and I know you regens have trouble with real pain killers, so…”
“Awesome,” Fred says with a grin. “His drugs probably could have knocked me out long enough to get things taken care of, but hey, this way I don’t have to worry about my bones giving him a bone while I’m unconscious.”
“No worries,” says Barney from a position well below Fred’s arm as he gazes up at the break. “Your skeleton is much too heavy and male for my tastes.”
“If you say so, Barney. They all look the same to me.”
Barney shakes his head. “Sounds like you’ve contracted a case of Bigotry Skeletonosis.”
“Hey man, shut up. Some of my best friends have skeletons.”
Barney snorts and turns away from Fred to type some commands into a computer. “Just let me pull up your information, and we’ll begin. You forwarded your info from Whateley, right? Haven’t had any changes to your regen since then?”
“Just graduated. No changes.”
“Good.” He skims his eyes over the data, then snaps his fingers. “Oh, hey, I remember you now!”
“Yeah! Hairpin through the eye right at the start of winter break, two and a half years ago, right? Nicked your orbital plate? I missed a flight because of you.”
Fred shrugs. “I’d have gone to mope in the Crystal Hall and let Bruno heal it, but security had other thoughts. If it makes you feel better, I missed that whole break. Carson revoked it, made me stay on campus to help rebuild the wall I destroyed.”
Barney nods. “She’s one of the good ones, no bones about it. They should make her a fixture.”
“They did,” says Wilma. “They announced it last year at the commencement ceremony.”
Fred and Wilma share a glance, then shake their heads. “No.”
“Uh uh,” says Wilma.
“Nope,” says Fred.
“Oh, come on. Throw a doc a bone, here.”
Wilma smiles and pats Barney’s shoulder. “Sorry, but you’re just not hip, and trying to force it makes it worse.”
“Hey now. I assure you I know all about hips.” He glances down at Wilma’s and waggles his eyebrows.
“That’s well and good, Romeo,” says Fred with a slight frown, “but I’m here about an arm. You know anything about those?”
Wilma gives Fred a wink while Barney rolls his eyes. He double-checks Fred’s medical records and then directs him to an operating table while he gets his tools in order. Finally, with Wilma keeping Fred very calm and peaceful, Barney operates on Fred’s arm to get all the salvageable bone fragments into place. He fills the gaps where bone was crushed beyond recovery with an experimental calcium paste he’s been working on that Fred’s regen should absorb and convert to bone over the next week, then locks it all into place with a cast for the next couple days. It’s not the most sophisticated treatment Barney’s ever administered, but it’s plenty sufficient for the likes of Fred.
“You know this is going to fail, right?” It’s four days later, the Imbunator has been completed, and Fred is sitting in the cafeteria trying to convince Jessica that the whole thing is a bad idea. “People have tried this before. Multiple times. It never works.”
Jessica rolls her slightly too circular eyes. “Why did you spend the last two months helping to build it, then?”
Fred shrugs. “I need the money, and I didn’t know it was going to be you when we started. Anyway, I just get paid to build it. I’ll get my paycheck whether you get yourself killed or not, so I’d just as well you didn’t.”
“Since when have you cared about my safety?”
“Those were accidents! And they should just go to show how bad of an idea this is!”
“Dr. Blitzlekov thinks it will work, and he’s been at this for longer than you have.”
Fred snorts. “Dr. B. is a lunatic. An incredibly lucky lunatic, but-”
“Like you’re any better, Fred? How many times have you blown yourself up?”
“I’m doing this. You’re an Avatar-1, so maybe you’re happy with your little gecko and a lab coat, but I’m not. I need more than this lame fish spirit. I’m an Avatar-4, but all it’s ever done for me was give me yellow hair, a tan, and these funky eyes.”
“Don’t forget the splashes. Those are cool.” Whenever Jessie interacts with water, it overreacts. She can calmly step into a puddle, and it splashes as though she jumped in hard with both feet. She never figured out how to control it or make it useful, though. It just made people yell at her for getting them wet. The first time Fred noticed her had been when she’d done a cannonball into a pool at Whateley and damned near emptied it.
Jessica shakes her head in frustration. “I’ve been useless my whole life. I couldn’t do anything when my parents died. When my hair started changing color and I realized I was a mutant, I swore I’d make a difference. But I haven’t been able to do anything. Tomorrow I turn twenty. It will be a new decade, and a new me. One that isn’t useless. I have to do this, Fred.”
Jessica takes hold of her tray and stands. “I appreciate your concern, but I am doing this.” She walks away.
Fred frowns at his country fried stake, halfheartedly mixing his rice into the gravy. Guilt. That’s the biggest emotion he associates with Jessie nowadays, and she seems determined to just make it worse. Why the hell did he agree to this project, anyway? It sounded fun at first, but that was before he knew who the candidate for the artificial Force would be. Helping to build a devise that would likely kill some anonymous volunteer who knew the risks had been one thing, but Jessica was his… well, friend might be a strong word for Jessica these days, but Fred’s never held her anger and disappointment against her. He feels genuinely bad for all the accidents she’s been involved in. He was so sloppy those first years as a devisor, even after Jessica dumped him. It ultimately got his grandpa killed.
Fred slams his fist against the table, rattling his cutlery. That had been the wakeup call, and his devises have been dead stable ever since, if less inspired. Trouble is, this project involves more devises than just Fred’s, and they’re meddling with forces nobody truly understands. No one’s ever discovered what made Champion special, what let him mash spirits together into the Champion Force. Or even if that’s what he did at all. It’s only the leading hypothesis.
Fred is startled out of his thoughts when Gator Dude drops his tray down beside Fred’s. A tall guy with tan, slightly green skin and the look of a surfer, Jake is the avatar of an alligator spirit and Fred’s old roommate at Whateley. He’s got a thick hide, a pair of ridges running down the back of his neck, and too many sharp teeth in his slightly elongated mouth. “Don’t worry about Jessie, bro. Ain’t your fault. I tried talking to her too, but she ain’t listening to nobody.”
Jake is one of the donors in the project, along with Wilma, Betty, and a few others. The idea is that the Imbunator will analyze the donors to identify the patterns defining their powers and Jake’s spirit, then apply an aggregate pattern over a freshly created energy construct of enormous proportions. If all goes according to plan, Jessie will be able to absorb that construct as though it were a real spirit, and then she’ll finally have powers fitting of her rating. The donors themselves won’t lose anything; they’ll just serve as templates for the energy, which will be supplied by the nuclear reactor in the basement. Blitzlekov’s theory is that by creating a faux spirit in this way rather than using a genuine spirit with a will of its own, Jessica should be able to absorb it without resistance. Well, absorb may no be the best word; really the devise will ram the energy into her in what Fred expects to be a pretty painful process. The hope is that her body will cope long enough for her fish spirit to synchronize with the power. Otherwise she’ll combust.
Fred sighs at Jake. “You didn’t help build this machine. You’ll just be strapped in, trying to decide whether you should laugh at the tickly scanning feeling, or cry as Jessie burns. Me? I made this.”
Jake snorts. “Put your ego away, dude. You aren’t critical here. You built what, some fancy connectors? Most of the gnarly stuff is Roland’s and Tim’s work, and I’m sure they could have done the bits you did just as well. It just would have taken longer.” He pauses and Fred remains silent. Jake shakes his head. “You know Jessie at least as well as I do, bro. Even if we convinced Blitzlekov to shut the whole project down, she’d totally just look elsewhere. Probably somewhere even riskier. I know it sucks to the max, but at least this way you know you had a hand in trying to save her, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Fred says with a heavy sigh. “When it all blows up in our faces, it damn well won’t be because of my tech.”
Jake nods. “And cut the pessimism, bro. So what if nobody’s ever made this work before? Once upon a time, nobody’d flown before either, but we sure didn’t ride a wave into Des Moines International.”
They eat in peace for a while. When Fred finishes, he pats Jake on the shoulder gruffly. “Thanks, Gator Dude. You’re right. Defeatism gets us nowhere.” Jake gives him a very toothy grin, and Fred ambles off to bus his tray. He spends the rest of the afternoon pouring over the Imbunator, double and triple checking as much of it as he’s able to understand.
Fred works through dinner and finally retires to the break room in the evening. Tim, Jared, and some of the other techs invite him over to their game of cards, but Fred declines. He still remembers what Jake said about most of the work being Tim’s and Roland’s. He’s not sure whether it’s jealousy or blame that he’s feeling toward his friends, but it isn’t pretty and he doesn’t want to deal with it right now. Instead, he grabs a snack from the vending machine and plops down on the couch where a couple more of the donors are watching a shark movie. The blond girl is an energizer who’d been a senior at Whateley during his first year. She’s named Sadie or Mindi or something like that. The guy lounging next to her with his feet resting on an ethereal footstool is a manifestor named… Gerald? He didn’t attended Whateley at all, and Fred’s pretty sure Gerald or Gerard or whatever is just an alias.
“Oh, hey Fred,” the girl says cheerfully. “Excited about tomorrow?”
Fred hesitates, then shrugs. “Essentially, yes.”
Gerald smirks knowingly. “Always the way, isn’t it? All fun and games while you’re planning, getting the logistics together. Then it’s go time, and the worry sets in. Regrets about corners cut, compromises made. Is this the round it all comes crashing down around your ears? Will you still be alive and free this time tomorrow? But the wheels are already in motion; there’s no stopping it. ‘Never again!’, you think. Then, when it’s all over…” His smirk shifts to a feral grin. “You lather, you rinse, and you repeat.”
Possibly-Sadie gives Gerald a strange look, but Fred nods. “That about sums it up, except I’m worried about Jessie, not me. I’m not the one who’s going to be strapped into the thing. All I have to do is monitor gauges.”
Gerald smiles. “Right, you’re a team player. Never had that particular flaw myself.”
The girl punches him in the shoulder. “You’re terrible, Harold.” Fred blinks and tries to convince his brain to remember that Gerald’s name is Harold.
“Ah, my friendly Cindi, your way is not for everyone. Insisting that I actually worry myself over everybody I meet would be like insisting Fred over there puts on a tutu and dances. Nobody wants to see that. But for what it’s worth, I do hope this works out. Not obsessing over the welfare others isn’t the same as wishing them ill, you know.”
“I’ll drink to that!” says a new voice. Fred turns to find Henry standing behind the couch, somehow gripping three beers in one hand while drinking from a fourth with the other. The teleporting warper passes them out before vaulting over the couch and inserting himself between Cindi and Harold. There hadn’t been any appreciable room between the two, but the couch expands to accommodate him. “What’s on the tube?”
Harold grins sardonically. “The Bigger Fish, a thriller about a scientist who decides to thin the shark population by experimenting on his pet goldfish and turning it into a shark-eater the size of an orca. It somehow seemed… appropriate, given dear Jessica’s nature.”
Fred eyes his unopened can while Cindi berates Harold. Normally he prefers stimulants over depressants for reasons of productivity, but he’s done all he can for now. He cracks it open and takes a swig, glancing calculatingly at Henry. If this Imbunator thing works out, or at least doesn’t totally explode, Fred intends to get a copy of the data it generates about Henry. He took a stab at a teleportation devise at Whateley, but it didn’t work. He hopes that if he studies Henry’s data he’ll be able to determine how to fix it.
As he sips his beer and starts imagining applications for teleportation tech, Fred is pleasantly reminded of one of the double-edged swords of devising. An oft quoted drawback is that devises cannot be patented, since they can’t be replicated by others. That is a major annoyance, to be sure, but the inability to patent has a benefit. Many employers of inventive types like to insert clauses in their contracts asserting ownership of any technology their employees develop. Since the actual inventor doesn’t own the patent, when he leaves the company he is no longer legally allowed to make use of his own technology without paying royalties. As a devisor, Fred doesn’t have to deal with that sort of bullshit. Of course, there is Blitzlekov’s poor sanity to contend with. Legal or not, if the doctor feels he’s been wronged, Fred will have troubles.
In case it hasn’t become clear yet, this is not the most upstanding of facilities that Fred is working in. One could even call it shady. It pays well, however, and it’s all tax-free. Fred never agreed with the idea of an income tax anyway. Besides, while not everybody might agree with the ethics of the Science of Mutation: Blitzlekov Rapid Experimental Research Organization, it’s not like the SoM:BRERO is just abducting people off the street. Everybody involved is here of their own free will and signed whatever waivers were relevant, legally enforceable or otherwise.
Fred sighs to himself as he returns to his room an hour later. Whatever happens, it will be over within fourteen hours or so, and then he can move on to the next project. Dr. B. has been talking about exploring the Earth’s mantle lately, and that sounds interesting. He climbs into bed and dreams of building a life-size replica of the Technodrome. Its eye pierces him with a glare of accusation.
Fred finishes strapping Jake into his pillar-like scanning unit. Five more identical units are arrayed around the room, forming the corners of a hexagon around Jessica’s much larger imbution chamber. Large conduits extend from the top of the cylindrical chamber to the scanning units like spokes in a wheel. The other technicians are finishing up with the other donors. Jessie is already in place within her chamber, her body wrapped in cooling tubes and studded with electrodes and monitoring equipment. Fred shoots her a grim smile, and then throws the switch to power up the scanning unit he’s in charge of. The gauges and monitors projecting out of the side flicker to life, and Fred turns to watch them.
They’ve already done test runs with each donor to ensure nobody’s power will interact oddly with the scanning devises. Ideally, they would have scanned everybody individually ahead of time so they wouldn’t need to be present at the same time at all. Unfortunately, the energy used to scan the donors acquires a necessary mystical component that nobody has been able to store or recreate. The donors therefor need to be present and scanned simultaneously during the actual imbution procedure. Fred’s job is to monitor Jake’s unit, ensuring nothing deviant happens. There’s always the possibility of random problems, especially with devises, and the imbution process itself could interfere with the scanning somehow. Fred eyes the red emergency cutoff button, then glances nervously around the room while the rest of the techs step back from their charges and assume positions at their own monitoring stations.
Through the observation window in the side of the room, Fred watches the silhouettes of Doctor Blitzlekov and his senior engineer Roland going through their checklist. Finally, the PA crackles to life and Blitzlekov’s heavily Minnesotan accent pervades the room. “Men, women, reptiles. Today, we witness something which has never been done. But we will do it, yah? But before we do… well, you might not all know this, but today is Jessica’s birthday!”
Jessica grimaces with dawning realization. “No. Hell no. Don’t you dare. Don’t you-”
Blitzlekov continues as though he doesn’t hear her. “Now, I want all yous guys to join in here, and we’re gonna sing ‘er a happy birthday song, yah? Come on now guys. You know the one!” He pauses for breath, and everybody takes the cue.
Oh, happy birthday… (grunt)
Happy birthday… (grunt)
Doom and gloom and dark despair
People dying everywhere
On your birthday… (grunt)
Happy birthday… (grunt)
May the candles on your cake
Burn like cities in your wake
‘Cause it’s your birthday… (grunt)
Happy birthday… (grunt)
Burn the castle, storm the keep
Kill the women, save the sheep
For your birthday… (grunt)
Happy birthday… (grunt)
This dirge drags on for a depressing number of verses, which all of Blitzlekov’s employees were contractually obligated to memorize within their first week on the job. Finally they finish and Dr. B. continues.
“All right guys, now that we got the formalities outta the way, let’s go ahead and give ‘er her gift then, yah?” His silhouette throws the switch, and the lights flicker. Several more bits of equipment whine to life, and a couple of the donors giggle nervously at the tickly static sensation that runs over their bodies. The floor starts to vibrate slightly as a low hum fills the room. Jake’s heart-rate increases, but that’s expected and it remains within safe parameters. A sort of slow whop-whop-whop sound starts radiating out from the conduits, and a few moments later a higher pitched buzzing is added to the mix – the sound of very large amounts of power building up.
This is the dangerous part. A very light trickle of energy is flowing through each of the donors as though they’re stencils before pouring into the energy construct forming in the machinery above the imbution chamber. The donors are all connected together, in a way, and in moments Jessica will join the fray. That is the one part that they haven’t been able to test. Fred’s got his regen as primed as he’s able, having eaten a few different nutritional supplements and a large protein shake in advance to ensure his body will have plenty of raw materials when things inevitably go wrong and he gets blown up again. A lesson learned the hard way in his early days at Whateley.
With a sharp click, the relays switch and the energy construct begins rushing into Jessica. She gasps and then screams for a few seconds until she runs out of breath. Her muscles are too busy clenching to allow her to draw in more air, but this is expected, if unpleasant to observe. Fred keeps his attention locked on Jake’s vitals. They’re all in unknown territory now, and anything could happen.
He almost hits the red button when he hears Cindi start screaming. That isn’t in the script. A glance to the side shows that Jared, the tech assigned to Cindi’s scanner, is hyperfocused on Cindi’s vitals and has one hand hovering over his button. The other hand makes a slow thumbs-up gesture as Cindi’s screams die down. Fred can hear her sob for a few moments before she grits out an affirmation that she’s fine.
Fred is getting nervous, though. He’s severely tempted to hit the button and kill this experiment, but the process is far enough along now that stopping is also dangerous. According to the gauges, only about half of the energy has entered Jessie so far. If they can hold out another minute or so-
A sudden flickering of the lights cuts off his line of thought. Cindi screams again, and now she’s arcing. Bolts of electricity lash out and caress anything metallic, as well as Jared. Fred slams his button, but nothing happens. He hits it a few more times to no avail. Shit. He should run.
Instead, he pulls the hard cut-off for Jake’s scanning unit, which does work, and helps get him free. Fred glances around the room and sees that the rest of the techs beside Tim and Jared have fled. Jared is down, and Tim is doing something inside an access panel. While Fred and Jake dash toward Wilma and Betty’s units, they notice Henry vanish out of his and appear next to Jared. The warper tries to grab him and port out, but he gets struck by another bolt and collapses. The bolts are definitely getting larger, Fred notices. He helps Wilma finish extracting herself from her scanner and then shoves her roughly toward the exit. Jake does the same for Betty. All of them but Jake have by now acquired at least minor burn wounds from stray electrical arcs.
Fred glances over the room again. Harold has manifested a large pair of shears and cut himself free. He manifests a shield against the arcing electricity as he runs toward Cindi, but a single bolt dissipates it instantly. He changes his mind about heroics just as instantly and dashes right out the door, manifested stilts lengthening his stride. He’d been closer to begin with and makes it out ahead of Wilma and Betty. A translucent lasso flies back into the room, loops around them both, and yanks them out. The door slams shut behind them.
Meanwhile, Fred makes his way to Tim and slides under the console he’s working on. “What’ve we got?” Fred shouts. There’s a mess of cables hanging free that Tim’s disconnected, and some improvised diagnostic circuitry is patched into the system and blinking red. As far as Fred can see, what Tim’s done should have disrupted the imbution process, but it’s clearly failed. Which makes no sense. He gulps as he watches Gator Dude wading through the lightning toward Cindi, Jared, and Henry. His tough skin seems to be an effective defense for now, but the bolts are getting more frequent and energetic by the second. They seem heavier in the direction of Jessie’s chamber. Jessie, during all of this, has been writhing silently. Fred notes that she’s starting to glow a little, too.
Tim bangs his fist on the side of the console. “I can’t make it stop, Fred. This isn’t supposed to happen! It’s almost as though all the safeties were simply removed! The only thing I can think of is if Cindi’s power is bridging the gaps, but even then I should have been able to shift the resonance out of bounds by disconnecting the Blitz Capacitor! There’d have to be an entire redundant resonator to explain this, and I know there was nothing of the sort in the design!”
Fred shakes his head. “It’s too late, man. We’ve done all we can. Let’s go!”
Tim ignores him and runs around to behind Jessica’s chamber, on the side opposite of Cindi. He starts struggling to pry open an access panel, then flinches away from it as an arc skips along the surface. Fred curses, then runs after his friend and yanks the panel open. His strength is well within human bounds, but it’s still a fair bit higher than a complete pencil neck like Tim. Plus, his gecko grip lets him apply it much more effectively, which makes a bigger difference than many people realize.
The two of them root around inside for a bit without coming up with any sort of solution that wouldn’t just blow everything up. The air is beginning to feel very charged, and the metal keeps shocking them. Fred pulls out and looks around. Oh hell. Jake is crawling away from Cindi’s unit, dragging a severely charred Henry by the arm with his teeth because his legs aren’t working and he needs the hands to move. Meanwhile and more worrying, glowing energy is now swirling through the air around Jessie. It was a valiant effort, but they’ve made zero progress. It’s time to leave. Fred yanks Tim out and starts shoving him around the edge of the room toward the door, giving Cindi a wide berth.
A deafening crack makes all of them freeze in their tracks; the third most massive arc Fred has ever witnessed in person just connected between Cindi and Jessie. The swirling energy halts, then starts drawing inward toward the center of the room along with all the arcs of electricity, glowing brighter as the concentration rises. “Ohhh shit-lickers!” Fred cries in apprehension, though he doesn’t actually hear himself with his ruined ears.
A second later the room goes black, then a shock wave knocks Fred off his feet. The room is glowing again, even more brightly. He sits up and looks around. The energy is approaching Jessica again, who is is glowing softly blue and now emitting fish vibes. Her hair is sort of wafting around like it’s underwater, instead of sticking directly out like it ought to with all that charge hitting it. Then he notices that her glow is getting brighter and brighter. Within a second he can’t look directly at her. And then the room goes dark for a moment and another shock wave blasts through the chamber. Ambient energy fills the room again and Jessie is barely glowing but growing steadily brighter. The fish vibes are stronger now.
“This is bad,” Fred mutters. “This is very bad.” He struggles to his feet and tries to make it to the door, but the next shock wave slams him into the wall. He stands up and staggers, disoriented. It almost feels like somebody is inside his head, nagging him.
“I am inside your head, you moron!” resounds Betty’s incorporeal voice. “You need to get the FUCK out of there! It’s going to kill you! You too, Tim and Jake. And wake up already, Henry! Henry! You’re not at the beach, Henry, that’s a dream. WAKE UP!”
Fred gets his balance back and sees that Jake and Tim are both moving, or at least crawling in Jake’s case. Henry is in a shuddering heap, having been knocked away from Jake, so Fred moves in his direction. Cindi seems a lot safer now, with her electricity focused on Jessica like this. Fred gets knocked off his feet again, but he starts feeling a lot more confident.
“Guys, that’s Wilma. She’s giving you as much mojo as she can. Now get your asses in gear and get out of there!” says Betty’s voice in his head.
After the next shock wave Fred decides standing is a bad idea – more distance to fall. Staying on hands and knees so he can grip the ground should let him resist the knock-back as well. He ignores Betty, hoists up his pant legs to get some sticky knee action going, and scrambles toward Cindi. His strategy works, and he recovers from the next shock wave much faster. Shoving his sleeve up, he grabs Jared with an adhesive elbow and starts dragging him toward the door. Fred snags a befuddled Henry along the way with the other elbow. He wishes he had time to remove his socks and shoes so he could bring his toes into the game. Forward progress is slow.
Tim and Jake are helping each other along ahead of him and just reaching for the door when the next shock wave hits. But this one is different. It’s so forceful that it rips Fred off the ground and throws him and the two men he’s been dragging into the others. It also leaves Fred feeling like he’s charged with a enough static electricity to stick to a wall without even using gecko powers, and the flickering in the light coming from Cindi and Jessica has changed.
“Oh. Oh fuck.”
Betty starts screaming in his mind, but Fred doesn’t hear the words. The confidence boost from Wilma is turning to panic, but that’s not why he’s terrified. The feeling of charge is building rapidly, and the flickering is becoming more and more frenetic. He’s seen more than his fair share of explosions over the last four years, and he knows in his bones that poor Jessica is about to make her final splash.
Fred scrambles over the pile of struggling bodies and reaches for the door. Before he can open it, the world ignites. All he knows is pain, and then darkness.
Fred wakes up in the lab’s hospital with a massive stomachache, a fever, and what he can only describe as hot, itchy blood vessels. It kind of reminds him of some of the stims he tried out in Whateley. It feels pretty weird, but it’s the hunger that’s really bugging him. He hasn’t felt this hungry since the first time he overburdened his regen, and maybe not even then. He’s not sure why he’s in the hospital, either. Maybe he passed out from hunger? He yanks the tube out of his arm and heads for the door. Some machine beeps and reminds him of the low-health sound from Gauntlet. “Fred needs food, badly.”
A doctorly-type tries to stop him near the foot of his bed. He’s the dude with the x-ray vision from before. Fred doesn’t remember his name. Starts with a ‘B’ though. Barty? Barry? Barney? One of them or something similar. Fred doesn’t care. He needs food, so he shoves past the guy and keeps going.
He pauses for a second when he inadvertently rips the doorknob off, but he shrugs and drops it on the ground as he enters the hall. Wondering about shoddy building quality is less important than food.
The doctor guy follows him to the cafeteria and is probably saying annoying things about needing rest and what-not, but Fred doesn’t hear any of it. He only has ears for the sizzling sounds of succulent sausage and bacon beckoning from the bustling breakfast line. He grabs a tray and waits his turn as patiently as he can manage. It takes some willpower, but he’s able to make it through the line and reach a table without shoving anybody out of his way. Fighting in the meal line would waste precious food, and that would be unacceptable.
Soon he is back in line again for seconds when he notices the doctor dude is still behind him, waiting silently now. Fred turns and looks at him with confusion. “You need something? Sorry, don’t remember your name. I’m so hungry I can barely think.”
“I noticed. My name’s Barney, Fred. I set your arm, remember?”
“Yeah, I know who you are, I just couldn’t remember your name. Knew it was a ‘B’ name though. You wouldn’t happen to know why I woke up in your care, wouldja?” He turns his attention back to food for a moment as he heaps oatmeal directly onto his messy tray, making sure to leave room for more waffles and bacon. He is far too hungry to bother with such restrictive trivialities as plates. “Also, where are my clothes?” He’s wearing a medical gown, and his chilly backside has been attracting several different types of stares from the various early-risers in the cafeteria this morning.
“So you don’t remember? The test, it went bad.”
“Cindi. Do you remember her?”
“Blonde, pretty… in fact downright electrifying.” Fred snickers. Then he stops, all amusement gone. “Oh. Yeah, now it’s coming back. Fuck. Is everybody okay? For that matter, is anybody okay? B'sides me, obviously.”
“Um, let’s get back to the table first and sit down for this.”
“Right, right. Fuck.” Fred finishes loading up his tray and follows Barney back to the table. “Alright Barty, so what happened? I remember Cindi spazzed and zapped a bunch of us and fried the ever-loving crap out of Jessie, and I think the last thing I remember is… is Jessie exploding. What’s the aftermath?”
Barney looks grim. “Those who escaped got away with relatively little damage. Some burns, mostly external but a few minor internal ones. Of those who did not escape before the explosion, I’m sorry to say that only you survived. Henry, Cindi, Jake, Jessica, Tim, and Jared all died.”
“Damn!” He hadn’t really known Henry and Cindi very well, and he’d been prepared for the possibility of Jessie dying, but he’d gotten to know Jared since working here, and he’d been good friends with Tim and Jake since his first year at Whateley. “How the fuck did I survive something Gator Dude couldn’t?”
“We don’t know. When things finally calmed down and we pulled you out, we thought you were dead too. You were all burned and charred like the rest. But we found a pulse so we brought you to the infirmary and patched you up as best we could. Mostly we just stood back and let your regen take care of things for the last couple days. It’s definitely gotten stronger, because you recovered more like a Regen-3 than a Regen-2. Dr. Blitzlekov thinks your spirit might have absorbed some of the energy that was meant for Jessica.”
“Hmm…” Fred feels his connection with Bruno. It does seem stronger than before, and more than a little raw and frayed. “Might be right. Guess I’ll have to get tested again?”
“Afraid so. The boss-man is real interested in you now, buddy. It looks like you might have just gotten promoted to Lab Rat.”
Fred doesn’t like the sound of that. And then he hears a chuckle coming from behind him, followed by a voice with a strong accent.
“Speak of the Devil and he’ll appear, you know.” It is Dr. Blitzlekov himself, wearing a black top-hat over a green turban, with a monocle in one eye and a patch over the other, his face decorated by friendly mutton chops. The man’s maroon eye stares into Fred’s for a moment, then his mouth smiles. “Oh, come now Freddo, don’t look so down! We need to find out what the Fredtacular Force can do!”
“The… the what, sir?”
“Our experiment may have gone sideways, but it worked! You have been imbued with the Fredtacular Force!”
“Do we have to call it that? It just sounds…” Fred stops and moderates himself. It won’t do to insult Blitzlekov; the man has a temper like a shaken beverage. “It doesn’t really sound very me, you know?”
“Hmm… Oh, I know. The ‘InFredible Force!’ Much better, eh?”
“Look, just… just call it the Fred Force, okay?”
“Oh, but that’s so bland, you know? Maybe we could call it the Frederrific Force?”
Fred can’t help it; a growl slips into his voice. “Six people died to make it. It shouldn’t be ostentatious.”
Blitzlekov winces at that. “Right. Subdued. …Like the Alfredo Force? Get it?”
Fred shakes his head. “No. We’ll just call it the Fred Force. Short and sweet. Besides, I don’t feel any Force in me. I just feel Bruno.”
“Oh yah? Hmmm, sounds to me like Bruno got upgraded then, eh?”
“Then we should be calling it the Bruno Force.”
“No no no, that lacks alliteration. Now anyways, let’s get you down to the testing area! I want to see how much change it made. I betcha you’ve got room to grow! We could probably double it if we pump in some more juice! Or maybe square it! In fact, how do ya feel about hypercubes?”
Fred stands up amicably at first, but he starts edging back at the suggestion of being the subject of experimentation. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s a very good idea, Dr. B. Remember how Jessica just died? I don’t want to die. It didn’t look fun.” Fred’s fever feels like it’s thickening, and the itchy pulsing of his blood quickens. Bruno is in agreement, he decides.
“She didn’t just die. That was a whole two days ago. Ancient history, yah? And hey, you gotta break a few eggs to make a pancake, you know.”
“I would really rather not make pancakes at all.”
“Oh yah, oh yah, you’re a waffle man aren’t-cha? But those use eggs too you know.”
Fred takes a deep breath and says in the most diplomatic voice he possesses, “I am sorry, Dr. Blitzlekov, but I really don’t want to be a Lab Rat. I’ll do the powers testing, but I won’t do any experiments.”
“Now see here, young man! Yooouuu signed a contract. That contract says,” he pauses as he pulls a copy out from inside his top hat, “it says right here, it says that if you become empowered by any company asset, even by accident, that you agree to join the Lab Rats for at least six months so that the phenomena can be studied. Eh? Eh?”
Fred scoffs. “You and I both know that contract is meaningless. This whole operation is illegal, and that contract would never stand up in court. It’s…” Fred trails to a stop and his eyes widen. Why did he say that? Is he starting to drick out? He tries to focus.
Dr. Blitzlekov puts on a confused and slightly hurt look. “Meaningless? I don’t do meaningless things, you know. Everything I do, meaning it has. When I make a contract, when I sing a song, even when I pick my nose, there is meaning!” He is starting to get angry now, starting to shout. “And you say that it has no meaning?! Well, it does! And who said anything about a court? Why would I care about a court? I do not! I have these!” He snaps his fingers, and Fred hears the sounds of rounds being chambered behind him, as well as the whirs of more than a few ray-guns powering up.
Fred has stepped in it now. He feels his back straighten as his voice takes on a slightly smug tone. “You know Doc, if they shoot me from behind, they’ll hit you too.”
“Oh, I know more than you think, boy!” Blitzlekov steps through a chair and flickers, demonstrating that he is merely a hologram. “Now you need to settle down or I’m gonna have these guys shoot you down.”
Shit. Fred clamps down on his desire to rant and thinks furiously. Meanwhile, Barney and the other people in the cafeteria are busy scrambling out of the way. Fred figures he may as well stall a little to buy them time to get out of the crossfire. “So, let’s say, hypothetically, that I agreed. If I were going to be a Lab Rat, well that’s really risky work. I’d need a raise. A big one. Fitting my magnificence!” Fred blinks and then clamps down a little harder.
“Of course you would! That’s right here in the contract. A 300% increase upon becoming a Lab Rat.”
“Hmm… that’s not bad, actually. What about holidays?”
“No official holidays, but any time between tests is free time.”
“I don’t know. I think I might want to have Christmas off like I do now.”
“Oh, no, that’s no problem. Lab Rats don’t have official holidays, but the rest of us do. And like I said, if we’re not testing you, you get free time. It’s all there in clause thirty-six.”
“Ah, I see.” Fred is starting to sweat now. The room is just about cleared out, so he’ll have to take action soon. He’s starting to think about just agreeing to go along with Dr. B’s plan for now and then trying to escape later, after calming down and saving up a few more paychecks. He doesn’t think Blitzlekov would do any really dangerous experiments right off the bat. He could stick around, make some money, and then run once their guard is down…
But then he remembers how the safety cutouts didn’t work, and he thinks of what Tim said about that, and about what the consequences were. His control begins slipping, so he embraces his connection with Bruno, which normally helps to stabilize him. But not this time. Bruno feels cocky and aggressive today, like he’s the most powerful goddamned gecko on the planet. Hot, itchy blood is pulsing in his ears like a war drum as sweat beads on his fevered forehead, and he can feel a brand new ability welling up inside him. He smiles.
“Okay Blitzlekov. You’ve got yourself…” Fred pauses for a moment and lets his smile drop. “…A problem.” He ducks down and kicks his new power with everything he has.
Blitzlekov starts ranting about something or other, but Fred isn’t listening. He feels a little weak or light-headed. There’s a brief rushing in his ears, and his vision tints purple. His body suddenly feels refreshingly cool, as though he’s been dipped into a swimming pool on a hot day, despite being dry. He sees something fall and looks up to see that a bunch of drooling mouths have appeared in the ceiling tiles; he won’t be dry for long. More movement catches his eye, so he looks back down at his current eye-level to see one of the tables scuttling around the floor like a spider as the trays and glasses atop it cling to it with suction-cup arms. He turns to look at the gunmen to see why they haven’t tried to kill him yet, and he finds that most of them have been crushed underneath a purple brontosaurus fifteen feet tall at the shoulder with a small hut strapped to its back, reins extending out toward the beast’s unbridled head and vanishing somewhere along the way.
The rest of the gunmen open fire on the beast, totally ignoring Fred. The bullets splash as they pass into its flank, and Fred feels a sense of amusement through his connection to Bruno… Wait, is that Bruno? He senses a smug feeling in response to the thought.
“Fucking win!” he shouts out loud.
Oops, that gets some attention to shift his way. He takes a bullet in the shoulder and falls down screaming. He rolls around on the ground for a while while people continue shooting at Bruno, and his situation doesn’t improve. If anything it gets worse. Eventually he feels something close around his foot and haul him up into the air. Bruno is lifting him toward the hut on his back. Fred uses his good arm to pull himself in. His wound stops bleeding the moment it passes into the cab, and he’s fully healed by the time he settles into place on the bench.
“Outstanding!” He sees the reins looped over a prong, so he grabs them and immediately feels a much tighter, clearer connection between himself and Bruno than he’s ever had before. “None will withstand our wrath!” They both grin, and Bruno starts stomping and tail-whipping mooks into paste. Some of them try to shoot Fred out of the driver’s seat, but the wounds heal almost instantly. One shot even hits Fred’s head. That causes a total loss of his train of thought along with some disorientation as his view shifts to see out of Bruno’s eyes until his face finishes regenerating.
Curious, Fred tries consciously shifting his viewpoint back to Bruno’s eyes, and it works. They twist their long neck around, and Fred can see himself sitting there in the cab on their back, a maniacal grin beneath glowing violet eyes. He returns to his own mind and lets Bruno continue doing his thing.
Just as they’re finishing off the last of them and Fred is coming back to his senses, a fresh wave shows up packing heavier weaponry. He eyes the gore coating the walls of the cafeteria and his stomach twists a little. “I think we oughta get out of here, Bruno.” And just like that, they are gone.
* * *
Fred blinks, trying to figure out how they suddenly appeared outside in the fresh, cool air of dawn. They’re a couple hundred meters from the secluded facility and surrounded by babbling candy-canes with daisies on their ends. “You can teleport?” he asks. Bruno nods. “You can understand English?” Bruno shakes his head, and Fred sees a cartoony mental image of his head with brain-waves pulsing around it. “Oh, cool. Nice to finally meet you properly, Bruno.” Bruno reaches his head around to the cab and licks him in the face.
Fred is wiping off on his smock and about to have Bruno port them farther away when he hears Betty’s voice in his head. “Hey Fred, got room for three more?”
He looks looks around the cramped space in the hut. “Depends how pretty they are!”
“Ha ha. Wilma, Barney, and I want to come with you. Blitzelkov is clearly insane and we-”
“Yeah yeah, I get it. Where are you? And Gerald’s not coming with?”
“Break room, and Harold is long gone.”
“Figures. I’ll be there in a second.”
Fred tries to have Bruno teleport to just outside the break room, but he gets a fatigued feeling instead. “Well, how long until you recharge?” he asks. Bruno sort of bobs his head in a way Fred interprets as a shrug. “We’ll have to go the old fashioned way, then. Mush!”
Bruno snorts and starts swaggering back to the building, crunching candy beneath his feet. He starts off slow but quickly builds up a rumbling speed. He doesn’t quite gallop, but he’s got some real momentum going on. Fred feels giddy. If there was an 18 wheeler in front of him, he’s certain they’d just go right through it. Unfortunately there isn’t, but he does see a troop carrier heading their way. Fred feels a yearning from Bruno. “Go for it, bud!” Bruno veers to intercept the carrier, which is swerving to a halt with dudes jumping out and rolling into firing positions. The brontosaurus ignores them, skips up onto one leg and hops, spinning 360 degrees and whipping the vehicle with his tail so hard that the tail disintegrates and the carrier arcs up and lands a hundred feet away. Fred has no words.
They arrive outside the break room half a minute later, complete with a freshly manifested tail for Bruno. “We’re here, Betts,” Fred calls out loud, hoping Betty is still ‘listening’ inside his head. “Come on out and… oh crap, no, stay back from the walls!”
Bruno rears his head back and slams it through the window, then hooks it around and pulls, tearing down the wall. Then he looks at the three humans standing mouths agape between the foosball and pool tables, the red-haired one holding a bundle of clothes. He makes a chirping sound and jerks his head toward the cab, then swishes his tail over near them so they can climb in.
Fred slides to the side to make room for Wilma and her duffel bag, but somehow as each person enters, the hut seems to have the same amount of empty space left over as it had when it only contained Fred. For that matter, when he first entered the hut there was only one bench. Now there’s a second one behind his own that Betty and Barney are stuffing their bags under, and he doesn’t remember seeing it appear.
Fred doesn’t have time to ponder this, however. Once everybody is aboard, Bruno turns back the way they came, where a line of men are now set up with some Really Big Guns and a forcefield projector. “Oh hell,” Fred says quietly as he feels his skin start to prickle and Bruno tenses. “They’ve done it now.”
“What’s wrong?” Wilma asks, worried about the apprehension boiling off of Fred and a little unnerved by his glowing purple eyes.
Betty squints at Fred and then Bruno. Her own eyes widen and she starts cursing under her breath.
“Betty? Fred? What’s going on?” Wilma tries again. Barney just looks confused.
Fred ignores them and leans out the side of the cab, waving frantically at the men with the force field. “Hey! Hey you! Yeah, shut that thing off! I’m fucking serious, turn it off now! Bruno hates forcefields! This will not end well! Turn! It! Off!”
They ignore him, of course. Bruno is stomping the ground and snorting, so Fred pulls himself back inside and braces himself. “I don’t know what exactly Bruno’s about to do, but you guys are probably gonna wanna grab onto something tight.” Barney grabs the cab’s frame, Betty grabs Barney, and Wilma grabs Fred. “That works,” says Fred with a grim grin.
Bruno rears back and stomps the ground hard when he comes down, then thrusts his head and neck out straight, aimed right at the forcefield generator, eyes blazing with white-purple light. The pine-scented wind that has been rustling through the trees with increasing vigor suddenly sounds like ominous Latin chanting and smells like copper. Bruno opens his maw and the sun peeking over the horizon dims a little. The blades of grass along the path Bruno is pointing suddenly fold down to cower in fear. There is a rippling in the air, and Fred sees thin bright streaks of light streaming into Bruno’s open mouth, as though he’s sucking in a swarm of high-speed fireflies.
“I don’t know what it is, but here it comes!” Fred shouts, tightening his grip and ducking his head.
The chanting reaches a crescendo, and Bruno snaps his mouth shut, then immediately opens it again even wider, his jaw completely unhinged. A blinding stream of energy as thick as a man’s waist rips forth from his mouth, lancing straight into the center of the forcefield. A geometric pattern starts to glow, originating from the point of contact and spreading over the entire field. Then the pattern subdivides again and again until the entire field is glowing solid white. A huge wind has kicked up, and Bruno is sliding backwards, gouging long tracks in the dirt. Then he clamps his mouth shut and jerks his head back, cutting off the stream. The entire forcefield explodes in a terrible flash, followed by a shock wave that fills his riders' eardrums with impenetrable ringing.
The blast knocks Bruno himself up onto his hind legs and almost tips him over, but he’s able to steady himself with his tail. He comes thumping back to the ground a few moments later, jostling his stunned riders. The wind dies down and stops chanting, now smelling of ozone, and a bunch of glowing mushrooms sprout in the tracks Bruno left. A chunk of the roof behind them falls to the ground and disintegrates into rainbow colored ants that quickly burrow out of view. Bruno snorts and swings his head over to the nearest tree to take a bite, then swaggers off into the rising sun. There are no enemies remaining in front of him, and those behind have decided to find something more friendly to shoot at, like maybe a demon.
“Holy shit, Fred! What the fuck was that?” Barney asks once he’s regained the power of speech. He’s speaking very loudly, but only Fred notices because the others are still suffering from tinnitus. By this point they’re riding Bruno through the peaceful forest on the other side of the field surrounding the SoM:BRERO, mottled sunlight filtering through the leaves. It’s only been a minute or so, and the birds are just starting to break the silence with tentative tweets.
“Bruno doesn’t like forcefields,” Fred says with a shrug.
“Ever read Dune? He really doesn’t like forcefields.”
“But brontosauruses don’t shoot lasers!” says Barney through gritted teeth.
Fred just shakes his head. “Wasn’t really a laser though, was it? Besides,” he says as he leans out of the cab and pats Bruno’s neck, “this guy here isn’t a real brontosaurus anyway. He looks like more like he’s modeled after a cartoon brontosaurus; specifically a Bronto Crane. I reckon he just thought to himself, ‘If I could be a big old badass, what would I be?’ and came up with this. Probably sucked it right outta my childhood memories.” Bruno sends him a sense of confirmation through their link. “Bruno says, ‘Yep, 'bout right.’”
“You mean you can talk to him now?” Wilma interjects before Barney can continue.
“Not with words,” says Fred. “Our brains are just sorta connected. Especially while I’m holding the reins here.” Bruno nods his head and then takes a bite out of a bush as he passes.
Barney makes a dismissive motion of his hands. “No no, I get that. But I mean, you’re an avatar, right? And Bruno is a gecko spirit who… is pretending to be a brontosaurus? But what does that have to do with firing beams out of his mouth?”
“Hell if I know. Don’t got nothing in common with teleporting, neither.”
“Henry could teleport,” says Wilma. “The whole point of that experiment was to copy and merge our powers together into poor Jessie. Maybe you got them instead?”
“Yeah, that’s the working hypothesis,” says Fred, “but who had the laser-mouth? Henry wasn’t a blaster, and Cindi just did electricity.”
Barney tilts his head back in thought. “What sort of fish was Jessica supposed to have? Or was it fish in general?” Everybody just shrugs. “Well, some fish can spit out a jet of water to knock down bugs. Maybe he got some of that from Jessie, except with energizer effects from Cindi.”
Fred squints his still-glowing eyes at Bruno. “Hmm…” He sends a few thoughts across to the beast, who pauses in his chewing and turns his head to watch a squirrel that is sitting on a branch ahead of them.
Bruno’s neck convulses and a mushy green and brown wad of chewed leaves knocks the varmint to the ground where it is pinned beneath the sticky, minty-smelling blob. Fred’s laughter quickly turns to grunts as Wilma and Betty start punching him and simultaneously cooing over the poor widdle squirrel. Their concern turns to disgust when Bruno ambles over and starts nibbling at the mess. A few moments later the squirrel manages to wiggle free and darts off into the brush. Bruno snaps up the rest of his ABC leaves and continues on his way.
They ride in silence for a while, but eventually Betty breaks the quiet by nudging Wilma impatiently and gesturing at the bundle she’s carrying. “Oh!” Wilma says, “Right, I forgot. Here, Fred, I brought you these.” She hands him a set of clothes. “Not that I mind, myself, but Betty is getting tired of your hairy back.”
Fred holds the clothes out and recognizes them as his own. “Ooo, thankee!” He quickly pulls the familiar cargo pants on under his hospital gown, then rips it off, crumples it into a ball, and stuffs it into the corner of the cab before pulling on the shirt. “Hey, is that a calculator in my pocket, or are my pants just glad to see me?”
“Yeah,” Barney says with a smirk. “I noticed you usually have one in your pocket, so I grabbed it off your desk while Wilma was rooting through your closet. We didn’t have time to pack the rest of your stuff. Sorry.”
Fred slides a hand in and feels it, then frowns. “Yeah. This is my second favoritest calculator. I guess the one I’d had with me during the… during the incident-”
Barney shakes his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Fred. It, too, was a casualty.”
Bruno stomps along steadily as they all stare off into the woods, thinking glumly of those who have passed on.
“So,” says Betty eventually, “I’m going to just go ahead and voice the question we’ve all been avoiding: What next?”
“Well, Betts,” says Barney after a moment, “I don’t know about you, but I could use a new job.”
“Yeah,” says Wilma, “and a safer one. We weren’t supposed to be the ones in danger in there. I mean, we all knew the process would probably be painful, whatever the techies claimed, but Jessie was supposed to be the only one risking real harm.”
“I’ve got a theory on that,” says Fred with a scowl. “See, we had these emergency buttons that were supposed to shut everything down if anything went wrong. They didn’t work. I went through the schematics pretty thoroughly when we were building the thing, and the way it’s all wired up, hitting any of those buttons should have cut the power to one of a series of relays, which would have interrupted the power to the main unit. That’s just basic electric engineering. No computers or devises or anything fancy at all. And there were six of those just in that room, plus another one up in the control room. There’s no way they could have all failed legitimately.”
“So you think somebody sabotaged it?” Wilma frowns.
“Well, I-” Fred starts to clarify, but Betty interrupts with a shout.
“Blitzlekov you motherfucking cum stain! I’m gonna run you through a fucking meat grinder and feed you to the drain flies! Fred, turn this overgrown frog around!”
Fred clears his throat and glares at Betty as Bruno whimpers. “What I was going to say, before Miss I-Read-Minds over there interrupted, was that I think Blitzlekov himself had the safety cutoffs bypassed. So I don’t think that counts as sabotage exactly since it was his own property… but yeah, I think it’s his fault. And no, Betty, I’m not going back.”
“Fine, coward, but I am. We signed up for risky experiments, not fucking murder. I’ll-”
“You’ll what?” interrupts Barney. “Violate his privacy to death? Tell what’s left of his guards to shoot him or you’ll tell their wives who’s cheatin' who?”
Betty pauses halfway out the window of the cab to sneer at Barney. “I should have known you’d chicken out too. Fucking useless doctors and devisors. Come on Wilma, we don’t need these heartless pieces of shit.”
Barney reaches for Betty. “Stop being stupid, he’ll- AARRGG! Stop! No, Jeezus…” He grabs his head with both hands and curls up until Wilma slaps Betty so hard that Betty loses her footing and nearly falls off the dinosaur. Fred tries to haul her back in, but she slips through his grip. She turns to glare at Wilma from outside the cab while Fred stares at his hand in confusion.
“That’s enough, Betty!” shouts Wilma. “I know how terrible you feel-” Betty starts to protest but Wilma talks over her. “I’m an empath, dickhead, remember? So yes, I do know. And I feel just as bad. They do too. As for useless? Cowardly? Did you forget how we had to physically hold Barney back from trying to work on anybody until after they were extinguished? And then he spent hours trying to keep Jake alive! Even after you said it was hopeless.” Wilma pauses for breath and sniffles a little, then points at Fred. “And him, useless? Cowardly? After he kept trying to drag people out of there even with you screaming at him to run? Look, we get it, Betty. You’re mad. But killing Blitzlekov isn’t going to solve anything. Killing more of his guards to get to him isn’t going to solve anything, and what’s so different between those guys and us?”
As Wilma winds down, Barney carefully raises his tender head to peer at Betty’s surly hand-imprinted face. “Look Betts, I just don’t want you getting hurt too, okay? Or any of us. If you need to vent, vent. I don’t mind. But don’t go back there and get yourself killed for people who are already dead, when there are people still alive who care about you.”
Betty’s face reflects inner argument for a few moments before she slowly climbs back inside. “Fine,” she mutters, then turns to stare pointedly at the passing trees.
Barney looks questioningly at Wilma, who gives him a reassuring nod and a pat on the shoulder. He mouths “thanks” and lets some of the tension seep out of his face.
Fred lets the silence drag on for a few more minutes. When he feels there has been enough time for everybody to cool down, he clears his throat. “So, uh, Bruno feels like he’s ready to teleport again. We got any particular destination in mind?”
Nobody answers, so he prompts again. “Any of you got homes or family you want to go back to or anything?”
More silence. Fred doesn’t know about the rest, but he doesn’t really have much family left. His parents died in a car crash while he was seven. He was at school when it happened, and he didn’t find out until the next day why they hadn’t come home. His paternal grandparents raised him the rest of the way. Nobody ever mentions his maternal grandparents for some reason, and he’s never gotten a straight answer about them.
Unfortunately, Grandpa Fred died of a heart attack two years ago, during Teen-Fred’s second summer home from Whateley. Fred blames himself for that – he’d been showing his grandpa a robot he’d just finished building, when the elder Fred prodded it with his walking stick to test its balance. It exploded. Not a big explosion, but it knocked Grandpa Fred down and he never got back up.
Teen-Fred got to spend some quality time with the shrinks after that one. For a good six months he was unable to build anything more complicated than a sandwich, even after his emotions had returned to a semblance of normality. He still has trouble with robotics.
As for Grandma Helen, she’s still alive, but Fred hasn’t really felt comfortable around her since that summer. He went home on the breaks and put on a smile, but it just wasn’t the same. He doesn’t think she blames him or anything, even though she should, and he knows she still loves him, but he just can’t stand being there anymore.
“What about you, Bruno? Anywhere you wanna go?”
Bruno just chews some more foliage, content where he is.
“Well, we can’t stay here or Dr. B. will come for us. We can all make real plans later, I guess, but we should at least get out of Iowa for now. Who’s up for a visit to the Smokies?”
When nobody answers, Fred shrugs, grips the reins, and gives them a snap. The next thing he knows, he’s blasting upwards through unfamiliar treetops and howling wind to see a very different landscape shrinking below him and his dinosaur. Later he’ll crunch the numbers and estimate a vertical velocity of about 140 mph, but right now he’s too busy screaming like everybody else. Five seconds later they’re rapidly slowing down and Fred’s brain is scrambling for an explanation. He suddenly understands – Bruno must not compensate for the Earth’s spin. Mother f-
The lurch in his stomach reminds him that now is the time for staying alive, not cussing. He starts shoving thoughts through his connection with Bruno as fast as he can. A lengthier English translation would be, “Teleport to the ground now while we’re at the peak, before we speed back up! I know you’re tired but DO IT!”
The airborne brontosaurus stops flailing and tenses for a few moments, but all that happens is a pair of slinkies spring out of the sides of his head and tumble away to the sides, free-falling through the same arc as Bruno. His eyes are wide and he’s making a quiet, high-pitched warbling that Fred can barely hear over the others' more energetic screams.
“Well, then… then… SPROUT WINGS AND FLY!”
So he does.
Fred blinks in disbelief at the large leathery wings now flapping on either side of his big purple mount, wind humming past the membranes. “You are just one great big beautiful bag of ass-pulls today, Bruno!” The dinosaur snorts and wiggles his head smugly, and Fred begins giggling uncontrollably as their mutual sense of relief washes over him.
After a time, Fred allows his focus to widen to encompass more than just Bruno and the ground five hundred feet below, and he becomes aware that Wilma has him in a death grip. He doesn’t really mind, except that Barney is also clinging to him, and that’s just a little awkward. “Hey, uh, we’re okay now, sorry about that. You can relax. Um, especially you, Betty. I think Barney and Wilma will want to breathe soon.”
Betty removes her arms from around Barney and Wilma’s necks and grasps at words for a few moments, gesturing futilely. Meanwhile Wilma takes a deep breath and loosens her grip on Fred. Barney, on the other hand, opts to put off the breathing for a little while longer and prioritizes the tossing of his cookies to the assorted birds below.
Ultimately, Betty fails to find any words and chooses to express her displeasure with Fred by punching him in his concerned face. There is a crunching sound and she starts to apologize, but she stops when his broken nose snaps back into place before her eyes. Her apologetic look fades into a cruel grin and she punches him again.
Wilma grabs Betty’s arm as she draws back for a third blow. “That’s enough!”
“Oh, you’re no fun, Wilma!”
Fred wipes the blood off his face with his discarded smock and rolls his eyes. “Yeah, she’s a real party-pooper.”
“Well I’m sorry Betty, but it’s my turn!”
“Wait, wha-” is all Fred manages to get out before Wilma cuts loose.
Meanwhile, Barney wipes his mouth off with a handkerchief and turns to see one of Fred’s teeth fly past his face. “Whoa, girls, calm down! We are supposed to be civilized people!” He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a scalpel, while his placating expression turns feral. “We use tools!”
“Hey hey hey,” says Fred, blanching. “Look, I get it. I screwed up. I’m sorry. But you guys need to settle down! Don’t think for a moment that I won’t pull this dinosaur over on the side of the road and give y'all a lickin!”
“Hmm, a licking, huh? Maybe we should keep it up,” says Wilma with a wink at Betty, who rolls her eyes.
Barney sighs and shakes his head as he puts away his scalpel. “Why are we in the sky, Fred?”
Fred hesitates to answer, so Betty gives a snort. “Because dick-breath didn’t read the fucking manual for his pet dinosaur. It can teleport, but it can’t adjust its momentum. So of course Mr. Caveman here tries to teleport us almost a thousand miles away! That’s a goddamn textbook error, Fred! What, did you zone out that day in Powers Theory to dream of creepy gecko shit?” He tries to remember the lesson she’s referring to, but all his memory comes up with is the sketchy week after the laser incident, a satisfying crunch, and Jake staring at him in disapproval over his empty terrarium. Betty’s eyes widen. “You did!”
Fred glares at Betty. “Regardless, he isn’t an it. His name is Bruno, and he doesn’t like the feel of your language, so could you please rein it in? And aren’t you supposed to have some kind of ethical code about psychic powers?”
“Aren’t you supposed to have a sense of self preservation?”
Wilma sighs with exasperation. “Okay, so the planet is spinning, we moved too far, and we got launched into the air. We were all terrified, Fred and Bruno included. We got our catharsis, and Fred is genuinely sorry. Can we move on now?”
“Sorry to bring this up again, Fred,” says Barney, “but uh, since when do brontosauruses have wings?”
“None of us had wings or flight,” mutters Betty, still giving Fred the stink eye.
Wilma snaps her fingers. “Harold.”
“Makes sense,” says Fred. “Probably explains how Bruno can manifest outside my body at all. That’s not normal. Most spirits stay inside their avatar. It’s sort of the point.”
Wilma squints at him. “Fred. What avatar rating did you say you have? A two?”
“Um, I’m an Av-1, actually,” he replies, rubbing the back of his head.
“Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but how are you even alive? Shouldn’t you be in burnout or something?”
“Hell if I know. I’m no doctor.” He looks at Barney, who just shrugs. “What about you, Bruno? Ideas?” Fred’s mind is filled with a confusing jumble of images. A doll ripping apart at the seams as a monster grows within it. A construction crew desperately trying to repair a shop while a bull actively smashes around inside. A shower losing pressure when a toilet flushes. The same shower, but now the toilet is a firetruck putting out a burning doll. “That… that made no sense at all.”
Bruno shrugs with his head again.
“Well, anyway, now we’re above the Great Smoky Mountains. Specifically, the Cherokee National Forest. Gaze in wonder, etcetera, etcetera.” Fred spreads his arms to encompass the view of the surrounding Appalachia.
“Eh, the Rockies are way more impressive,” says Barney. “These aren’t much different from those cute little hills around Whateley. There probably aren’t even any Class-X critters lurking about in these ones.”
Betty gives him a horrified look. “You call that a drawback?”
He shrugs. “Well, no, but it would make them more impressive.”
Wilma waves the discussion away. “So, it’s a bunch of pretty mountains and forest. But what’s your plan? You feel like you picked this place for a reason.”
Fred nods. “Yeah. Since we don’t know where we want to go and what we want to do just yet, I figure we need somewhere to lie low while we figure it out. What better place than this? We can camp here while we do that.”
“Is that legal?” asks Wilma. “To just pop in out of nowhere and set up camp? Won’t we need to register for a campsite or something?”
“Nah! National Forests are public land, and they’re a lot more laid back than National Parks. You usually don’t need a permit or anything.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” says Barney. “We don’t have any food though. I don’t remember if you can just hunt small game willy-nilly in a National Forest; you might need permits for that. When I was in the Scouts we always just brought in our own food.”
“Um, if I remember right, it’s fine as long as we eat anything we kill and don’t try to take it home with us. You know anything about snares? I can probably…” Fred trails off when he notices the face Wilma is making.
“No way,” she says. “I’m not eating Bambi.”
Barney chuckles. “Oh, we’re not talking about deer, Wilma. Those are large game. We’d definitely need a hunting permit for them, and deer aren’t even in season yet. We’re talking about small game. Rabbits, partridge, squirrels, stuff like that.”
Her expression only turns darker. “Weren’t you the one just telling us to be civilized? Now you want us to eat rodents?”
“Meat is meat, Wilma,” Fred tries to explain.
“I am not eating squirrel! And why should we? We’re not outlaws! We haven’t done anything wrong!”
Barney winces. “Well, technically…”
Betty waves him silent. “But we’re not fugitives. As far as the Law knows, we haven’t done anything wrong, so why should we be hiding in the woods like criminals? There’s no reason we can’t just sleep at a hotel and eat at a restaurant like human beings.”
“Well, sure,” says Fred, “if you want to blow a bunch of money. But why do that when we could go camping for free?”
“Yeah!” says Barney. “I mean, it’s camping, and it’s free! What’s not to like?”
Fred and Barney high-five, but the girls just aren’t having it. Eventually they settle on finding the nearest city and getting a hotel.
Bruno doesn’t fly particularly fast, what with being a brontosaurus and all, so to pass the time Fred pulls out his trusty second-favorite and only-remaining graphing calculator and crunches some numbers. He wants to find out how far he can safely teleport with Bruno before problems arise. He consults with Bruno to try to find out how much of a drop he can handle by trying to imagine the dinosaur falling from various heights. It turns out Bruno isn’t really happy with the idea of falling from more than a couple meters or so (and for that matter, the owners of whatever property he falls on probably wouldn’t be any happier about it). This works out to a range of about 40 miles before the velocity difference becomes too high.
Of course, that’s all assuming the destination is at ground-level. Clearly, much further distances are possible by taking advantage of flight at the cost of convenience, safety, and stealth. Particular care will need to be taken when traveling west – teleporting against the Earth’s rotation results in a downward velocity, necessitating that they use a sufficiently high entry point to provide space for Bruno’s wings to slow his fall to a safe speed. Complicating this is the fact that neither of them is sure just how much speed Bruno’s wings can handle before the drag will cause a rapid unscheduled demanifestation. Fred makes a mental note to find a wind-tunnel sometime where they can safely test Bruno’s limits.
Long eastward hops are safer, since gravity will shed the upward momentum for them as long as there’s sufficient vertical clearance, allowing Bruno to deploy his wings at the peak of his trajectory and then glide down at his leisure. As for north and south, those directions will result in lateral velocities rather than vertical ones. Specifically, going away from the equator will result in eastward velocity, while going toward the equator will result in westward velocity.
Fred wonders what Bruno’s actual range is. He supposes the safest way to test will be to teleport directly north or south across the equator to the opposite latitude, which avoids any velocity discrepancies. It could be a slow process though, to incrementally move farther from the equator each time before swapping hemispheres. He decides to put that off until after wind-tunnel tests so that they can take maximum advantage of flight for faster repositioning between tests.
Anyway, he has no intention of making such long teleportations again until he knows how much endurance Bruno has. It would be a shame to find out 500 feet up that he was out of energy or ectoplasm. Do they need to actually harvest ectoplasm somehow, or is it automatically collected or generated? What rate does it replenish? Or get expended, for that matter? Damn, Fred is almost considering seeing if he can return to Whateley somehow; maybe if he could get a job in the maintenance or tech departments they’d let him sit in on some lectures and stuff. If nothing else, he needs to do some research on ectoplasm manifestors, teleporters, flyers, blasters of both energizer and warper varieties just to be sure, and maybe a few species of fish. He should probably talk to the FAA about all this flying business too.
Wilma interrupts his thoughts with a nudge. “Hey, does that look like a town to you?”
He peers at the greyish patch coming into view from behind a mountain. “Hmm… I think so.” Fred steers Bruno toward it. He idly wonders if he can manifest some binoculars or a telescope, but quashes the thought as he really doesn’t want to accidentally overtax his aerial steed. He can pull more stuff outta Bruno’s ass tomorrow when they’re both rested and safely grounded.
Betty yawns. “Are we there yet? I really need to use a bathroom.”
“You need to equip this place with a bottle for emergencies, Fred!” suggests Barney.
Fred rolls his eyes. “Well, if you’re in a hurry Betty, I guess we can teleport the rest of the way over. Bruno is recharged again, and that’s close enough that it will be plenty safe.”
She squints at him suspiciously and bites her lip in indecision. He just stares her right in the eye as he recalls the equations and kind of tries to push them her way. Finally she lets out a sigh. “Okay, go for it.”
“Are the rest of you cool with that?” Fred is very determined not to freak them out any more today if he can help it. Wilma and Barney give their assent, so he nods and picks out a patch of sky above the distant town, then gives the reins a snap.
* * *
A man is leaning against the side of a vacant building having a toke and watching the cars pass by. He frowns a bit when the sun is blotted out, and he glances up to see what looks like some kind of cartoonish dragon drifting lazily overhead. The man watches in awe as it starts to waft away, only to curve back around and glide down into a graceful landing in the parking lot of a gas station across the street. A group of four college aged kids climbs out of a sort of hut perched on the beast’s back. He’s not sure how they fit in there; it looks hardly big enough for one. The kids slide down the dragon’s back and go inside the convenience store, leaving the oddly peaceful looking monster to munch on the hedge dividing the parking lot from that of the neighboring pawn shop.
The man gazes for a few moments as the dragon idly chews, and then he removes his joint from his mouth and nods at it appreciatively. His dealer sure hadn’t been kidding about this being the good stuff.
* * *
Inside the store, Fred and Barney are looking over a large wall-map of the local area while Wilma peruses a brochure focused on Johnson City itself. Fred wants to know what geographical features and towns are available within Bruno’s safe teleportation range, and Wilma wants to find a decent hotel. Barney is just admiring the aesthetics, as he quite enjoys a good map.
Wilma feels Fred shift from inquisitiveness to satisfaction, and she decides that now would be a good time to bring up something that’s been bugging her. “Fred, when we’re done in here, do you think you’ll be able to… um, absorb Bruno?”
“I think so. He’s starting to feel pretty tired, and I’ve got kind of a hollow feeling now, so I think that means he needs to come back in and recharge.”
“Okay, good. Because it probably isn’t a good idea to have him following us around town and attracting attention. Your eyes are bad enough.”
Fred glances toward the nervous kid behind the counter, who quickly averts his gaze. “Yeah, you might be right.”
“Besides,” adds Barney, “you’ll probably get us in trouble if he keeps eating every plant he sees.”
Betty comes out of the single-occupant bathroom looking much less stressed, and Wilma scoots in before the door even manages to close. Barney, who’s started moving toward it, pauses mid-step and grumbles.
Fred, bored now, starts wandering the aisles, pausing to snag an atlas and a bag of jerky from the shelves. Betty follows, giving him the impression of a babysitter as she keeps a judgemental eye on him. Fred snorts, then looks at his reflection in a glass door for a few seconds as his stomach rumbles. The jerky isn’t going to be enough. He grabs some cheap sunglasses off a nearby rack and tries them on. “How’s that look? Think they’d get me into an all-you-can-eat buffet?”
Betty opens her mouth to answer, but then Wilma comes up from behind them and turns him by the shoulder to see for herself. “Hmmm… nope. Here, try these mirrored ones. The black ones look weird with the purple shining through.” He swaps them out for the iridescent pair, and she smiles. “Yeah, that’s better. It almost blends in.”
“Sweet,” says Fred as he heads to the counter. The kid manning the register visibly holds his breath and only relaxes once Fred pulls out his wallet and fishes out some bills. Right, because if they’d been intending to rob him, they’d have really hung around chit-chatting all this time. Whatever. Though come to think of it, it’s lucky he even has his wallet. He hadn’t worn it into the test chamber (he learned that lesson the hard way back at Whateley), so Wilma must have found it in his room when she was grabbing his clothes.
Barney comes up at the last moment and adds a bottle of multivitamins while Fred’s still counting his money, then Betty drops in a pile of hygiene products. Fred sighs and pays for it all. When he tries to hand the vitamins back to Barney after paying, Barney pushes them back. “No Fred, those are for you. You hadn’t finished your IV when you woke up, and your breakfast wasn’t exactly rounded.”
Fred shrugs and opens it to swallow a handful as he shoulders through the door. A family of what look like tourists skirt around him, dragging a toddler along behind them who insists that he wants to pet the dinosaur.
“Right, Bruno. Let’s go see if I can…” Fred trails off when he sees a seedy sort of guy talking and gesturing near the brontosaurus. “The hell?” Fred walks over curiously.
“Naw man, lissen,” the guy says to Bruno. “I know that hedge be nice and all, but you really need some o' this grass I got here. It be so much better, dawg! You’ll be flyin' you’ll be so high!”
Fred, quite bemused, clears his throat to get the dealer’s attention. “Actually, Bruno here can already fly just fine.”
“Dawg, what the hell you be smokin? Cuz I know I didn’t sell you nothin' yet. Look here, boy. This fine fellow here be a brontosaurus. He ain’t no pterodactyl, son. You see any wings here? No? That’s what I’m tellin' ya! So I’m sayin, I’ll sell ya some o' dis here grass, real cheap like, get ya started. Get ya up in them clouds yonder, way better'n this ghetto-ass hedge.”
Fred looks at Bruno and sees that he is indeed wingless at the moment. He also notices that the dirt, pebbles, cigarette butts, and other debris on the ground all seem to be organized in some sort of undulating grid pattern, and the air smells of popcorn rather than gasoline. “Sorry, but we’re going to have to decline. Bruno is surreal enough sober.” He ignores the dealer’s attempt to dissuade him and reaches a hand out to pat Bruno’s foreleg. “Bruno, buddy, you done good today. Come on back and rest now, okay?”
The dealer jumps backward and trips when the dinosaur in front of him vanishes. Barney helps him back up while Fred sort of shudders and then rubs at his arms uncomfortably. Fiery itchiness is surging through his veins again and his stomach is rumbling loudly. Almost everything around him returns to normal, except that it’s all tinted yellow. He experimentally makes a finger sticky and lifts his sunglasses with it. The yellow tint diminishes, but everything is still overly-warm looking for some reason. And warm feeling, but he’s pretty sure that’s something else.
“Oh, Fred, your eyes aren’t glowing anymore!” observes Wilma.
“Ah, that explains it.” He lets the sunglasses drop into place and futilely scratches his chest for a moment before heading toward the sidewalk. The itching and burning aren’t really fading, and Bruno feels apologetic for some reason. Fred’s too hungry to worry about it, though Betty and Wilma are giving him an odd look. “So, where do you guys want to eat? I’m leaning toward Golden Corral, myself.”
“Yeah, sounds good,” says Wilma. Betty nods her agreement. Barney… Where’s Barney gotten to?
Fred looks behind them to see Barney moving to catch up as he puts his wallet away. “Hey Barns, Golden Corral sound good to you?”
“Awesome. I think I saw a billboard for them over that way when we flew in,” he says, pointing up the road.
“…Fred?” says Wilma as they hit the sidewalk. “Where’d our bags go?”
“This really hit the spot,” says Fred. “You guys tried the turkey yet? It’s-”
“Ahem,” says a voice behind Fred. He turns to see an old guy in a suit. “Sorry to interrupt, sir. I’m Murry, the manager here, and I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying our food, but I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve eaten as much as your three friends put together…”
Fred sighs. “Busted. Good timing though; I was only gonna make one more trip for dessert. Let me snag a cookie for the road and we’ll get out of your hair.”
“About time,” mutters Betty. She’s been finished for a while, now.
Murry shakes his head. “I’m not kicking you out. Actually, I was wondering if I might trouble you for a favor?”
He pulls a chair from a nearby table and sits down. “My daughter-in-law runs a diner in Unicoi called Phil’s Grill. A biker gang has been giving them trouble. The Sons of Mitch. She’s talked to the police, but all they give her is excuses.” He takes several bills out of his pocket and places them on the table. “I’m refunding your meal, and if you can do something about those bikers, I’ll write you a lifetime pass to eat here for free.”
“Oh. Heroics.” Fred closes his eyes for a moment and shakes his head, trying to dispel the images of Jessie, Jake, and Tim. He can still smell the ozone and charred flesh. Or maybe that last bit’s the meat at the buffet. His stomach twists a little, and he pushes the money back toward Murry. “I’m not much of a hero. Not a merc either. Just… just an escaped lab experiment trying to figure out what comes next, you know?”
Murry pushes the money back toward Fred. “That’s fine, because this isn’t payment or a reward. This here is just remuneration for the time I’ve taken.” He looks over his shoulder at the sound of shouting. “Help or don’t help. It’s your choice. Have a good afternoon.” He stands and rushes off to resolve a conflict between an irritated man and one of the custodians.
Inhaling deeply, Fred takes in the smells of turkey, bread, pizza, and burritos. He is both homeless and jobless right now, and food isn’t cheap. It would be one less thing to worry about. He glances at the money still sitting on the table. Awful nice of… Morty? Maurice? Whatever. Nice guy, and it’s not like Fred should have much trouble chasing off some piddly little bikers…
Betty tsks as Fred pockets the money. “You know what he’s doing, right Fred? No, of course you don’t. It’s manipulation, baseline style. He gives us a gift, no strings attached, but asks for help. We have no obligation, but by taking the gift, we feel like we owe him something in return. And yes, that old fucker knew exactly what he was doing.” She groans. “And you’re buying into it anyway. Don’t be such a sap, Fred.”
He shrugs. “I’m not saying we need to fight a bunch of bikers, but we’ll have to eat dinner somewhere, right? Unicoi is just on the other side of the mountain. I saw it on the map. Bruno can port us over there, no problem.”
“Do you think bringing him out again is a good idea?” says Barney. “He’s not exactly low profile.”
“That much is out of my hands, Barns. The girls are going to want their bags tonight, either way.”
“This is true,” says Wilma solemnly.
“And if they’re not still in the cab?”
“Then I’ll need Bruno out so I can escape their wrath!”
“Also true,” says Betty.
* * *
While Fred’s off loading his plate with desserts, Barney stacks the dirty plates from earlier. “I don’t know about this.”
“Yeah, I can think of about a dozen things I’d rather be doing,” says Betty. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to talk him out of it, though.”
“Nope,” says Wilma. “Besides, Mr. Murry was telling the truth. He’s really worried about his daughter-in-law’s situation. I think we should help.”
“I like helping people,” says Barney. “That’s why I’m studying medicine, not fighting. I’m not a fighter.”
Betty snorts. “Don’t worry about it.”
“How am I supposed to not worry? He almost got me shot this morning. I don’t have regen, Betty.”
“Nobody’s going to get shot.”
“What, you think they won’t be armed? A biker gang? In Tennessee?”
“I’m sure they will be. So what?” She laughs at Barney’s look of disbelief. “Relax, Barns. We have something better than guns.”
Wilma adjusts her straw and slurps the remains of her drink.
* * *
Silent as a cat, Fred stalks his prey. They stand oblivious at the end of the lane. Pinheads, the lot of them. Fred smirks and hefts his weapon of choice. Twenty pounds, marbled orange and black, and stuck like glue to the palm of his hand. He breathes in quietly through his nose, takes aim, then springs into action. His movement is dancelike as he glides toward the opening of the lane, every motion centered around imparting an exact momentum to his projectile. His shimmering shoes slide softly on the waxed wood floor, and he releases his gecko grip. The ball rolls smoothly down the lane and collides with the center pin. The other nine collapse in the cascading clatter of victory. “Stee-rike!” shouts Fred.
“Wow,” says Wilma under her breath.
Barney grins and leans over. “You don’t know the half of it. His skin’s in the way. We need to get him to build you and Betty a set of x-ray goggles so that you can really see the articulation happening here. Then you will know what true majesty is.”
Betty rolls her eyes. “There’s something wrong with you. Both of you.”
“So, what’s the final score?” asks Fred as he returns to the group. Barney and Wilma share a look, then Barney crumples up the score sheet and tosses it into the trash bin. “That bad, huh? Tell you what, dinner’s on me. Speaking of which…”
They turn in their rented shoes and head out into the dark parking lot behind the bowling alley. Fred clears his throat. “And the Fred said, ‘Let there be Bruno!’”
Wilma waves aside the indigo fireflies that now fill the air and climbs Bruno’s tail. She sighs in relief when she reaches the cab and sees all three duffel bags still safely tucked beneath the bench. The others take their seats and Fred snaps the reins, then the alley surrounding them is replaced by lollipop trees. Wilma pauses midway down Bruno to pluck a particularly colorful one from its bough, but it reverts to a leafy twig along with the rest when Fred demanifests Bruno. She drops it and follows the group out of the woods and across the street to Phil’s Grill.
The parking lot is certainly filled with enough bikes, and a plethora of noisy men and women in leathers fills the diner. A waitress points them to an open table. “Sorry it’s so rowdy tonight,” she says. “Can I get you some drinks?”
“Coffee,” say Barney, Betty, and Fred in unison.
“Do you have Fanta?” asks Wilma.
“I’m afraid we’re all out. We have SunKist?”
“Oh hell no,” says Betty.
Wilma smiles. “You hush.” She glances around the room, and her eyes settle on a particularly hairy guy drinking what looks like a very colorful milkshake. “What’s in that?” she asks, pointing at the drink.
“Hmm? That’s the Lucky Shake. Strawberry, banana, vanilla, mint, blueberry, and raspberry ice cream, milk, sprinkles, and a dash of coffee.”
“Sounds good, but hold the coffee, please.” She flexes her empathy a bit just to be sure.
“I’ll handle it myself, honey. Be right back.”
“What’s wrong with SunKist and coffee?” asks Fred. “Or better yet,” he says as his eyes widen with excitement, “SunKist in coffee!”
Betty sighs. “Caffeine, and as hilarious as that would be, now’s not the time.”
Wilma’s smile is forced now. “I said hush, Betty.”
Betty mimes zipping her lips closed, then her gaze flicks past Wilma and her lips purse tighter as the waitress yelps. Wilma can’t see what’s going on back there, but she doesn’t need to. She can feel the lust and arrogance in the biker and the brief pain, indignation, and fear in their waitress. That same bundle of lust approaches their booth. “Ah, I see you boys done brought us an offerin'! These are very acceptable specimens, yes indeedy. Y'all two can leave now. Tha’s right, go on home, boys. Uncle Mitch has things well in hand.” He winks at Wilma and starts hauling Fred out of the booth. Wilma’s forced smile relaxes into a comfortable grin as she lowers her barriers and gets to work.
* * *
Mitch sniffles and points at the second photo in his wallet. “An' this one here, this is my little girl, Missy. I ain’t seen her in goin' on ten years now, ever since Judge Peterson took her away from me. Day after this here photo was taken, matter o' fact. Reckon she’d be ‘bout your age now.”
Wilma raises an eyebrow at the six on the little girl’s birthday cake. She ignores her own creeped out feelings and focuses instead on feeling the man’s pain and loss. “That’s so sad,” she says. “But you know why he had to do that.”
“Yeah,” Mitch sighs. “I jus' ain’t cut out to be a pa.”
“Don’t say that! Nobody here believes that.”
“Uh, actually…” says a bald guy sitting in a corner.
“Except Daryl, obviously, but as we’ve already established, Daryl is a big meanie.”
“Yes’m,” says Daryl. He slouches down a little and turns back to his corner.
“She’s right,” says Yancy, the hairy guy with good taste in drinks. “‘Bout Daryl, and 'bout you. You didn’t lose them kids because o’ who you are, brother. You done lost ‘em 'cause o’ what you do. And what you do is in your control. You can change it.”
“Amen,” says Bertha. “Why, just look at Yancy here. He done been sober, what, seven years now?”
“Three,” says Yancy.
“Right. They thought they was gonna get to take his bike away. One more time, they said. Said he was an alcoholic, that he wouldn’t be able to help it. It was all inevitable, like. Now look at him. Seven years later an' they still ain’t been able t' lay a finger on his bike.”
Yancy scowls at her. “Now, I just done told you it was only-” He stops himself short and takes a breath, then nods at Wilma. “Sorry, ma'am. I ain’t forgot your advice ‘bout my temper. I’m reinin’ it in.”
Wilma nods. “Good job, Yancy. Mitch?”
The biker sighs. “I guess y'all might be right, but I don’t see how. I’m just so mad and lonely, all the time. Homesick, you know? An' doin' my thing out here? Carousing, gettin' in fights? It’s the only thing seems to help any.”
Yancy shakes his head but doesn’t speak up. Wilma gives him another subtle nudge, right in the duty. He takes a breath and steels himself. “Brother, that’s the same way I used to think ‘bout drinkin’. After Debbie an' Junior died, I jus'… Like you said, it was the only thing seemed to work. But it wasn’t. I… I found…”
“Go on,” Wilma says as he begins to flounder. “What did you find, Yancy?”
Yancy takes a big sniff and blinks away some tears. “I done found you guys, man. Y'all was there the whole time, but I jus' didn’t see it. All y'all. Even Daryl. You was there. You had my back. You said, you said that if'n it came right down to it, you’d fight the cops off, keep ‘em from takin’ my bike. An' when I said I wanted to quit drinkin', y'all backed me, man. Y'all backed me up. Kept me dry. I… I couldn’t have done it without you, brothers. And Mitch, we’re here for you too. We got you, brother. We got you.”
More than a few people sniffle, and Mitch wipes his nose on his sleeve. “I love y'all. Y'all know that, right?”
Wilma smiles at the group as a whole, making eye contact with each of them, then she focuses on their leader. “It’s gonna be hard work, Mitch. Real hard work. But if you try, I know you can turn your life around. Do it for Missy, to be the kind of man she can be proud of in adulthood, even if the state won’t let you be there for her now. Do it for your brothers and sisters here, to be the leader they need and deserve. And most of all, do it for yourself. I’m confident you can become somebody you can be proud of being.”
Mitch looks deeply into Wilma’s brown eyes. “You really think I can do it, ma'am?”
“I really do. I believe in you, Mitch. So do they. Remember, you aren’t in this alone.”
Mitch smiles sadly. “Thank you, ma'am. You don’t know how much this means to me. And speakin' of not bein' alone… you really think y'all can deal with them Klansman what runned us off our mountain all by yerselves?”
Wilma glances over at the scheming merriment coming from the spot at the bar Fred, Betty, and Barney have commandeered. “Oh yes. I think we’ve got a solution to that little problem.
He sighs. “That’s a relief. Believe it or not, I don’t think the staff here are too fond o' us. We need t' get back where we belong.”
‘Tis midnight, and the pointed hoods
Do gyre and gimble ev'ry way.
All toasty are the mountain woods
Around the KKK.
“Beware the ignorant, Bruno!
The hearts that hate, the hands that lynch!
Beware the Nazi trash, and shun
The pasty Übermensch!”
He takes his dinosaur in hand:
Much paint the stocky man does buy –
With bright white wings beneath gold ring,
They stand awhile to dry.
Then in chaotic song they ride
The dinosaur out of the fire!
Dire embers ignite white Klan hides;
White wings fan them higher!
“Hear me! Hear me! Listen to me!”
Calls his rider, talking smack.
“Your souls are dead, and God has said,
He’d like them promptly back!”
And so they flee all through the woods,
Fast shucking off their burning robes!
“It’s Judgement Day! Callooh! Callay!”
Sings Fred from his abode.
‘Tis midnight, and the pointed hoods
Do gyre and gimble ev'ry way.
All toasty are the mountain woods
Around the KKK.
* * *
Fred slides down Bruno’s side and takes Wilma’s hands as his eyes pulse between orange and purple. “We were magnificent!” He pulls her into a dance, and his mind opens to a whole universe of wondrous new possibilities. With Wilma and Bruno beside him, the world will be theirs for the picking! None will stand in their way!
Barney pauses in stomping out flames and frowns at them. “You just set a bunch of people on fire, Fred. That’s not something to dance about.”
Fred gives Wilma a twirl. “That’s the least they deserve! It’s not like the wretched worms were hurt. We only put the Fear of Bruno into them! They’re fleeing our Holy Wrath!”
“Except this guy,” says Betty as she crouches over a man who fainted. She rolls him over and roots around under his robes, which are a bit fancier and more colorful than the other ones. “Aha!” She waves a wallet. “Here’s hoping these people are loaded.”
Fred scoffs. “Klansmen aren’t people.”
Wilma’s smile wavers a little. “They’re people, Fred. Bad or severely misguided people, but still people.”
Fred shrugs, though he does feel a sense of guilt stirring. His vision seems to even out as he gives Wilma another spin, then he calls to Betty. “What’s the take?”
“Couple hundred,” says Betty.
“We’re really going to rob him?” asks Barney.
“Why not?” says Fred. “If we’re going to be heroes, we’ll have operating expenses. Take tonight. Paint and hula hoops ain’t free.” He feels Bruno smugly flexing his tail through their shared connection, and he smiles. “Not that money really matters anymore, I s'pose.” Possibilities are still blooming, unfolding over the landscape like an infinite fractal flower of world domination. His vision is pulsing again, and zesty crickets leap between the trees of probability space within his mind’s eye as savory spiders swing through the boughs sketching schematics in their webs.
“Oh my fucking god,” Betty groans. “Wilma, can you please tamp down on that shit already? He’s giving me a headache.”
“I dunno, it feels kinda good,” says Wilma with a silly grin.
“Wilma, Betty growls.
Fred’s eyes stop oscillating between colors and compromise on salmon as he becomes fully aware of his surroundings again. “…I was dricking out on you guys, wasn’t I?”
Wilma winks at him. “Little bit.”
“Sorry.” He blinks, then drops Wilma’s hands abruptly when he realizes that several sets of discarded robes are still alight and the flames are spreading to the surrounding foliage. “Shit!” He and Wilma join Barney in smothering the flames while Betty secures their prisoner.
* * *
“So,” asks Wilma later as they roast pilfered marshmallows over the mound of burning Klostumes. “Were you serious about forming a hero team? Or was that the Diedrick’s talking?”
Fred frowns. “While you were working on those bikers, I was thinking about this morning. About Tim, and Jake, and Jessie. Their lives were cut short, and here I am, the beneficiary of their sacrifice. Jessie wanted to be a hero. It was the whole point, the reason she was there. Tim gave his life trying to save her. Jake and Henry were trying to rescue people. They all died, and I…” He looks at Bruno.
To his surprise, Betty puts her hand on his arm. “It wasn’t your damned fault, Fred. You didn’t recruit us. You didn’t even fuck up the Imbunator. That shit’s on Blitzlecunt.”
Fred looks at the ground. “Doesn’t matter. I cared about them, but now they’re gone, and I played a role in that, however you slice it.” He returns his eyes to Bruno. “What Wilma was telling those bikers about being a man you can be proud of being… I’m kind of a fuckup, I know that. But me and Bruno, we want to use this gift our friends died to give us. We want to help people with it.” The dinosaur nods. “I’m not… I’m not good at heroics, I don’t think. Diedrick’s is a bitch like that. But after tonight, I’m going to give it a shot, at least for a while. It doesn’t have to be a lifelong career, but me and Bruno are going to try it out.” He looks at Betty, Barney, and Wilma in turn. “Y'all are welcome to join us, if you want.”
Wilma holds his gaze. “I want.”
“Big surprise there,” mutters Betty to Barney, and Wilma blushes a little.
“I dunno, Fred,” says Barney. “Sure, you can shoot villains with your dino-death-ray, but what am I gonna do? Stare them to death? My power works with passive sensing, so it’s not even like I’d be irradiating them.”
“Actually, I think the Bruno-Beam only works on force-fields. It didn’t feel like a death ray. A disruption ray, maybe.”
“Whatever. Point is, I’d be useless. Honestly, I was thinking about just getting a loan and heading to medical school like I should’ve done in the first place.”
Wilma frowns. “Don’t sell yourself short, Barney. Remember, just because you have a power doesn’t mean that’s all you have. Or did Ito not beat that into you?”
“Yeah, I actually just took the survival course.”
“Okay, but still. Do you need super powers to fire a rifle? To lob a grenade? To run somebody over with a truck?” She pauses as he winces. “Oh, give it a rest. Don’t think Betty and I have forgotten your enthusiasm for hunting. You’re no pacifist.”
“There’s a difference between shooting an animal for food and shooting a man.”
“True,” says Fred. “When you shoot the animal for food, you’re being selfish. When you shoot the bad guy to save poor innocent victims, you’re being altruistic.” He grins. “Huge difference!”
“Doesn’t have to be a difference,” says Betty as she pats the wad of money in her pocket. “We can beat up the bad guys and take their lunch money too.” She stretches, then leans back against a tree. “Also, you know you cannot deny the power of my super-suit.” She winks at Barney. “It’s legless.”
“Besides,” says Wilma, “it’s not all about violence. I talked down those bikers earlier, and we mostly just scared these Klansmen away. Between Fred and Bruno’s performance and my nudges, I don’t think they’ll be giving anybody any grief for a long time.”
Betty nods. “They totally bought it. Especially him.” She jerks her head toward the murmuring straggler they’ve tied to a tree and fitted with an improvised blindfold, gag, and earplugs. “Thinks he’s in literal hell right now.” She grins wickedly. “And not all the whispers in his head are coming from me anymore. His imagination is taking over.”
“…Anyway,” says Wilma, looking slightly green, “you’d bring useful skills to the table. Betty and I don’t exactly have regen, after all. You could be the team medic.”
Barney looks from person to person, then settles on Betty, who is waggling her eyebrows and gesturing at her denim-clad legs. He rolls his eyes. “Fine, we’ll give it a try.” He pauses while the others cheer, then raises a hand to forestall comment. “But I have a condition.”
“What’s that?” asks Fred.
“If we’re going to do this, then we’re each going to carry a first-aid kit. That goes for you too, Fred.”
“Barney, I don’t think you understand the extent of my souped up regen. They shot me this morning. You missed it while you were evacuating, but I was fine.”
“No, I saw that. It was right after Bruno came out. So your regen got boosted a little. That’s not even what I’m-”
“Not that first shot. A headshot, Barney. They’re probably still scraping Fred-brains off the cafeteria wall. But I got better. One moment the side of my head was exploding out, and the next I was rocking a shiny new cranium, courtesy of Bruno.”
“Jeezus,” says Betty. “That sounds like Regen-6, or maybe a fucking seven.”
Fred chortles. “Fucking-7, can you imagine that?”
Wilma smirks. “Isn’t that what that Corporal Courageous kid claimed to have?”
“Captain Courage,” corrects Betty. “And yeah, that’s what he claims, but it’s more like a middling four if you ask me.”
Barney blinks, then he closes his mouth and takes a breath. “Anyway, what I was trying to say before you interrupted me is that your kit isn’t for you, it’s for the people around you. Us, innocent bystanders, a villain you might want to keep alive for questioning…”
“Oh. Makes sense.”
“Also, we’re going to need other equipment. You’re a devisor. Can you build us power armor?”
Fred rolls his eyes. “You think I’d’ve been working for Dr. B. if I was any good at that?” He shakes his head. “It’s too close to robotics, and me and robots don’t get along anymore. Don’t wanna talk about it.”
“How about force fields?”
Bruno hisses at Barney, and Fred snorts. “I’m not sure he’d even let me build one, and if he did, he’d blow it up and you with it as soon as you switched it on.”
“So what can you build us,” asks Wilma.
“Ray guns of various flavors, automatic lock picks, a few kinds of exotic armor, stain removers, fabric removers, floor removers… oh, and rocket pens.”
“Rocket pens?” asks Barney, and Betty groans preemptively.
“Yeah,” says Fred with a grin. “It’s a pen on one side, but has a rocket on the other. You aim and twist, then it launches off to poke your target and maybe set them on fire a little. Or you, if you forget to hold it offset from your body.”
“I never realized I needed one of those, but I most certainly do. But could you make it run on compressed air so we can skip the fire part?”
“But that’s half the fun!”
* * *
And so forms the team who will become known across the Americas as the Bronto-Raiders. For the next four years they strike bewilderment into the hearts of villains, appearing out of nowhere in a poof of chaos to wreak havoc only to disappear just as suddenly and turn up thousands of miles away to harass another villain entirely. In this time they make several allies, acquire more than a few enemies, and annoy the bejeezus out of the MCO, border control, and Hanna-Barbera alike.
To everyone’s immense relief, these raids finally begin to peter out around the mid-nineties. What they fail to realize is that the main reason for their welcome respite is the arrival of a far worse menace to society: Fred and Wilma’s first spawn, a demon of a babe they name Tim. Two years later, Tim is joined by a future bundle of snark named Susan, and the Bronto-Raiders are not heard from again for another two and a half years…
December 24, 1998
“Aw,” coos Barney. “She’s so cute!”
Susan giggles, then tries to draw on Barney with a crayon. “Unca Barn Barn is a zebra!” she proclaims.
Wilma reaches over to take the crayon away, but Betty stops her. “Leave the kid be,” she says. “Barney doesn’t mind.”
“I know he doesn’t mind. I mind. I don’t want her getting into bad habits.”
On cue, Fred walks into the room hanging from the ceiling by his bare feet, giving Tim an upside-down piggy back ride while they both sing Feliz Navidad.
“Fred!” Wilma scolds. “Get down from there! You’re getting footprints on the ceiling!”
The stocky young man smiles as he flips Tim upright and sets him on the floor, then releases the ceiling to fall into a handstand on the ground. Susan jumps out of her chair and tackle-hugs him to the floor. “Daddy Daddy! Unca Barn Barn and Auntie Bee are here!”
Fred chuckles. “Yes, I see that!” He looks up at Barney. “I thought you guys weren’t getting here ‘til tomorrow?”
“That was the plan, but somebody got into a disagreement with the hotel staff last night and got us kicked out, then decided she wanted to get it out of her system by driving way too fast all night long. So here we are!”
“Oh hush, Barney,” Betty says. “I was barely over the limit during most of that.”
“You shouldn’t even go the limit at night! In the winter! You’re a madwoman.”
“And I know you love me for it.”
“That’s not the point!”
Susan frowns. “You don’t look mad to me, Auntie Bee!”
“No, dummy,” says Tim. “He means she’s crazy.”
“Tim!” scolds Wilma. “Don’t talk to your sister like that.”
Betty moves so that Wilma can’t see her face and then sticks her tongue out at Tim.
The small brown-haired boy gives a humph and then turns to Barney. “Uncle Barney, can we go camping tonight?”
The sandy-haired medic turns to Wilma with a grin. “Can we? Can we?”
“It’s Christmas Eve, Barney. Of course not. You can do that tomorrow night.”
“Yeah,” throws in Betty while aiming a concerned look at Tim. “You don’t want to be outside tonight, squirt. A reindeer might get you.”
“What?” says Tim with a confused expression.
“She’s right,” says Fred with a completely straight face. “Santa’s reindeer ain’t no joke. They murdered your grandma and grandpa, you know. That’s why your Great Grandma Helen had to raise me.”
Tim’s eyes are wide open.
“Fred-” starts Wilma, but he isn’t done yet.
“It was all over the news back then,” Fred says as he climbs to his feet and slides a disk into the stereo. “They even made a song about it. Check it out.”
All of the adults, even Wilma, begin to crack up as Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer starts playing. “When did you get that?” Wilma asks.
“Another guy at work got sick of his kids playing this on loop all the time, so he gave it to me the other day as thanks for helping him with this wave stabilization issue he was having.”
“You’re still working on that off-brand Zamboni, right?” asks Barney.
“No, we finished that a few months ago. They’re still hashing out the legality in the courts, but the engineering’s done. Now they’ve got me building a better bumper car for some new attraction down in the Dells. This one can be a devise, so it’s pretty fun.”
Wilma snaps her fingers. “Speaking of the Dells, have you heard from Dellswitch lately?” She waits for Betty to shake her head and then continues. “She’s been really bummed out since the Mighty Muskies disbanded. I know she gets on your nerves, Betty, but Fred and I are going down to visit for New Year’s Eve and we’d really appreciate it if you and Barney accompanied us. It would mean a lot to her.”
As the grownups get drawn deeper into discussions of boring grownup things, Susan walks over to Tim. It takes her a little while because she carefully follows a curve in the pattern on the carpet rather than going in a straight line. She falls down a lot because she’s treating it like a tight-rope and keeping her feet on the line, which makes her less stable. She doesn’t know the word stable yet, but she knows that holding her arms out helps.
She’s going to Tim because she noticed that his eyes are misting up. “Tim Tim what’s wrong?”
Tim sniffles but doesn’t say anything, staring vacantly at the stereo.
“What’s wrong Tim Tim?”
When he still doesn’t answer, Susan climbs up onto the couch and crawls over that to the stereo, then stands on the couch’s arm and tips forward until she can reach the controls. She changes it to the next track, which happens to be Christmas at Ground Zero and flies entirely over the two children’s heads. Besides, Susan is now distracted by the fact that she’s leaned so far forward across the gap between the couch and the stereo that she can’t right herself, and her arms are getting tired. “Mommy,” she calls. “Mommy help! I’m stuck!”
Wilma looks up and sighs. “Susan, I’ve told you not to climb on things. This is why. Tim, help her down, will you?” Her son wipes his nose on his sleeve, then stomps over to his sister and pushes her back upright and then over backwards onto the couch. Wilma massages her temples as they start wrestling. “I never realized how much worse empathy would make raising kids, Betty.”
Barney cocks his head. “How do you mean? I would have thought it would make things easier. No guessing why the baby’s crying, and easier to calm everybody down when they’re upset.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” said Wilma. “But what is the point of childhood?”
“Oh. Learning. Right.”
“Yeah. I have to be really careful not to smother them. I have to let them feel the bad emotions, and I have to feel them feeling those emotions. I can’t just show up and help every time I feel them being upset or they’d be stunted. So I have to figure out when to intervene and when to sit here intentionally ignoring the emotions I can feel boiling off them. Fred nearly traumatized Tim with that song. But Tim doesn’t feel dismay very often, so it was important to let him experience that. Of course, Santa isn’t going to get to spend as much quality time with Mrs. Claus tonight as he might like, because that wasn’t nice.” She glares at Fred, who winces.
Betty snorts. “And you’re really going to let them camp out in the woods tomorrow night? In the snow?”
Wilma nods. “Tim really loves camping, and it’s really not much more dangerous than it is in the summer. It’s right by the yard, he has a good warm bag, and Fred makes him wear a thermometer bracelet that sets off an alarm on the bracelet itself and both our comm units if Tim’s temperature gets too low or his heart-rate changes too much.”
“If you two ever have kids,” Fred says, “I highly recommend a quality comm system. Sure, you’ve got Betty, but the BettyComm can’t be patched into all the nifty monitors you could set up. If our carbon monoxide sensor goes off, I’ll know about it even if I’m at work. I can hop on Bruno and get home immediately to smash a hole in the wall and let fresh air in.”
“Or,” says Wilma deliberately, “you could run into the house and carry them outside, through a window if necessary, without demolishing my walls.”
“You say that now, Wilma, but you’ll be singing another tune when the alarm goes off.”
She sighs again and puts an arm around his shoulders. “I know.”
“Actually,” says Betty, looking uncomfortable for a change. “We, um, we…”
“We can’t,” Barney says flatly. “Have kids, I mean.”
“I’m… I’m not…”
Barney reaches out and holds Betty’s hand. “It’s okay, dear.”
“I’m barren, damn it,” she spits.
“That’s horrible, Betty,” says Wilma. “I’m so sorry.”
“At least I won’t have to listen to a bunch of psychic baby whining,” Betty says, but even Fred can tell she’s faking the sentiment. He gets up and pours everyone a glass of the good eggnog.
It’s now early morning on January 2nd, and the Reubens are getting ready to leave. Despite the melancholy turn on Christmas Eve, it has been a good visit overall. Both Tim and Susan love the horrible sweaters Betty made them, and Tim especially loves the cape she sewed into his. Susan, meanwhile, is inseparable from her butterfly wings. Literally, because Barney forgot to put his bag where the small ones couldn’t reach, and they found the superglue.
Speaking of inseparable, at the moment both children are clinging tightly to Barney’s legs. He’s stomping through the fresh snow as he loads Betty’s suitcase into their Jeep, but they don’t seem to mind how soaked they and their beloved new clothes are getting as the snow melts on them. Barney walks them back into the house and then looks down at them with a mock frown. “Oh dear,” he says. “I seem to have grown a pair of tumors. I suppose I’ll have to amputate!” He pulls out a pair of shiny toy daggers and both the kids' eyes go wide. He starts moving them toward his legs and they both release him and scoot away. “Aha! I’m cured!” He lightly tosses the daggers to Susan and Tim, then scoops them both up into a big goodbye hug.
Wilma, Fred, and Betty come down the stairs, laughing at some joke, and the goodbye process is completed. As the Reubens pull out of the drive, Wilma wraps her soggy kids in towels and gets them started on breakfast while Fred flops down into a recliner with a book and a plate of Wilma’s prize-winning omelettes. With the company gone, it is now a peaceful Saturday morning.
“Hey!” shouts Tim. “You forgot to turn on cartoons, Daddy!”
Fred flips on the TV for the kids and says a eulogy for the peaceful Saturday morning.
* * *
Barney frowns at the traffic. He’s been driving south through Wisconsin for a couple hours now and has finally reached the freeway, only to end up stuck amongst a ridiculous number of slow moving semis. As he glares at the one illegally hogging the left lane so that he can’t get over, Betty’s head jerks up and then she grabs the wheel. “Barney, you’re driving, remember?”
“It’s full of people.”
“I realize that, honey, but I also realize you’re driving right now. You need to focus on the driving.”
“Why is it full of people?”
“Hmm, I don’t know, Barney. But I have an idea! How about if the person who only has x-ray vision gets back to driving so the person who is actually psychic can focus on finding out?”
“Right,” he says as he turns back to the road. “But I don’t like this.”
“Of course not. It’s obviously a trap of some sort. Hmm, clever. They’re being directed remotely; none of the men in these trucks knows that we’re their target. That’s why I didn’t notice them until you did. They aren’t thinking about us at all, other than the drivers who are just driving.”
“Who are they working for?”
“They don’t know; they were hired out anonymously through the Syndicate. But they do know that wide brimmed hats are a mandatory part of their uniform for this job.”
“So, Blitzlekov is back?”
Blitzlekov had been a recurring thorn in the Bronto-Raiders' side while they’d been active. Unlike most villains they’ve fought, he was actively targeting them. Specifically, he wanted to capture and study Fred, as all his attempts to replicate the procedure that created the Fred Force have failed. Those failures caused him increasing levels of frustration – frustration compounded by his continued inability to actually keep Fred in captivity despite being the most successful by far of those crazy enough to actually try such a feat. His knowledge of their powers and personalities is unrivaled, and every failed attempt has left him with still more information, leading to a steady rise in the difficulty of defeating him.
Betty frowns. “We should have just killed him in the first place, like I wanted then.”
Barney shakes his head. “He’s too slippery. Even back then he probably would have gotten away. Especially then, in fact – we didn’t know his tricks yet.” He taps on their cellular phone. “Call Fred and let them know.”
Betty sighs. “You know he’s just waiting for us to do that, right?” Blitzlekov hasn’t been the only one to learn from their fights. There are very few things the man is afraid of, but it turns out that one of them is really provoking Fred. He has been perfectly willing to taunt and anger Fred, but he is deathly afraid of anything that would truly enrage their friend. Barney doesn’t blame him after some of the things he’s seen Fred and Bruno do when Wilma wasn’t there to damp their emotions. In their last encounter, Blitzlekov even went so far as to personally rescue Wilma from one of his own death traps, waving off the loss of his left hand as inconsequential compared to the alternative of provoking Fred into a rage that Blitzlekov wouldn’t be able to stop without killing the very test subject he’s been chasing after for so long.
Barney shakes his head again. “Sure, Fred and Wilma are safe as long as they stay home with the kids. But they won’t – that’s what he’s targeting us for. To draw them out where it’s safe for him to fight them. It’s going to happen one way or another. We need to let them know what’s going on so they…”
His explanation trails off as the lines in the road begin glowing through the slush and the falling snowflakes sprout tiny wings. “Did you already-”
“Nope. I think-”
“HHHHEEEEERRREEEESSSS BRUNO!” bellow the radio, billboards, and snowflakes as the large brontosaurus appears above the two trucks at the front of the convoy and lands gently on their roofs.
“-that he bugged our car,” she finishes.
“Like I was telling you guys,” says Fred’s voice in their heads, relayed through Betty. “You can patch so many fun things into a comm system. How’s it feel to be the one getting spied on, Betts?”
“Don’t test me, Fred.”
Barney swerves around a stray tire Bruno’s knocked loose. “Looks like Bruno’s in a good mood.”
“Yup! He’s wanted to try figure-skating for years.”
Betty grabs the Jesus handle with a grin as Barney goes off-road to avoid the mess Fred’s causing. “I hope you don’t think you’re racking up mook-kills here, Fred,” she says. “They were prepared for this. The insides of those trailers have inertial dampeners and the shells are hardened.”
“Good. Disposable mooks are lame.”
“Also,” adds Wilma, “not killing people is nice.”
“Sure,” Fred says. “But I mean, they did literally sign up to be bad guys. Anyway, let’s make this quick, eh? We didn’t have time to call a sitter, and the kids aren’t used to being home alone. I don’t trust ‘em not to turn the house into giant ball-pen made of M&Ms while we’re gone.”
“Where would they even get that many?” Barney says through gritted teeth as he bounces and skids to an eventual stop.
“That’s what scares me.”
“Is Bruno still carrying our spare costumes?” Betty asks. “Not that we have time to suit up right now.”
“Sure. He likes how they smell, so I just leave them up here.”
“Okay, that’s just creepy. You hear that Bruno? You’re a dino-creep.”
“Bruno says, and I quote: ‘Yip yip rawgr. Ourargh!”
“If that means what you think it means, he’s getting a jug of bleach for Christmas next year.”
“Heh. Oh, by the way, you should probably-”
Betty grabs Barney and pulls him down as a red beam of light removes the top half of their vehicle and all of their nice warm air wisely flees the premises. They peek back out in time to see Bruno skating over what used to be a suit of powered armor. “I suppose we should go help them, Barns.”
“Yeah.” He unbuckles as Betty opens the glove compartment. They each use one of the stim-tubes he’d stocked within, and Betty grabs a sidearm and a small first-aid kit that she clips to her belt. Barney meanwhile retrieves a long beam-weapon from the back along with his own larger first-aid kit, then they begin wading through the snow back to the road where most of the fighting is happening. “Look at ‘em all.”
Betty frowns at the dozens of mooks wearing various sorts of wide-brimmed hats over their helmets. Most are kitted out in normal winter armor, but at least a fifth wear power armor instead. “That’s way more people than there should be. I only feel about a third of them. Illusions?”
“They have skeletons, and their gear looks right. Must have wards.”
“I hate when they think of that.”
“You also hate being ignored or forgotten, dear.”
“Damn right.” She tugs him down behind a snowbank. “My juice is kicking in. Let’s see if I can crack their wards.”
Barney nods and places his fingers on her neck to watch her pulse as she closes her eyes and concentrates. Betty’s heart is already beating at a rate that would scare him if he didn’t know what was going on, and it gets faster as she strains against the barriers keeping her out of the mooks' minds. He closes his own eyes shortly as psychic backlash washes against him, but then he forces them open again to keep watch. After a few more seconds the headache abates and Betty opens her eyes with a frown.
“It’s not impenetrable, but I was spread too thin. I’ll have to rest a moment and then focus on them a few at a time.” She starts removing her coat and Barney helps her out of it. “No fault of your stim, though. This thing packs some real kick, and I’m holding my focus a lot better than the last mix.”
Barney smiles grimly. He’s starting to get uncomfortably warm himself, but his own mix isn’t as aggressive as the one Betty uses, and while his coat isn’t armored, it does offer padding. He’ll keep it on for now. “Hey Fred,” he says, “Wanna pick us up? We’re not kitted out for running across a battlefield today, remember.”
“Give us a second,” replies Wilma. “We’re sort of busy over here. You know, fighting all of the baddies?”
Betty rolls her eyes and stands up. “Come on, Barney. I’ll clear a path and we’ll go to them. Just keep me upright.” She starts running before he can object, forcing him to follow in her steaming wake. These stims were his idea, but he kicks himself every time she uses them. At least the weather is conducive this time around. Last time was the dead of summer and she’d been severely dehydrated by the time the fight was over. He grabs her hand and feels its heat even through his driving-gloves as he pulls her forward through the snow.
Betty stumbles and a swath of enemies ahead of them crumple to their knees clutching their heads. Then she’s up and running smoothly again as Barney guns down the few who didn’t collapse. The second time she does this she comes back up with a bloody nose and a savage grin. “There was a mage in that group.” Her grin falters when she notices something red dripping out of Barney’s side, but he insistently pulls her forward before she can question him. He doesn’t even realize he’s been hit yet, between the stims and good old fashioned adrenalin. She decides not to say anything just now. They’re making good progress, and they take out another group of mooks before they reach Bruno.
Bruno, meanwhile, is doing some sort of acrobatic pirouette off an overpass as he swats several suits of flying power armor out of the sky with his tail. He lands with a shudder and then begins charging toward the Reubens. Suddenly there is a ripple in the air around him and then he and all of the combatants within a dozen yards of him vanish in a burst of iridescent bubbles.
Barney turns to Betty, dumbstruck. “I know Bruno’s gotten stronger with time, but Fred didn’t mention him learning how to do wide-area jumps!”
Betty shakes her head. “That wasn’t his doing. Fuck.” They dive into a loose snowdrift and bury themselves under a thin layer of snow to buy a few moments to think and give Betty time to gather her strength. Barney uses his power to watch the remaining henchmen as they scan the field and begin searching for wounded compatriots and the hidden Reubens.
“It’s times like this I wish I was good at subtle things like compulsions,” Betty complains quietly. She can read people’s thoughts, speak to them, give them headaches, and little else. But she listens to those she’s able, and through them to their comms chatter, until she has a feel for their structure, cadence, and tone. Then she begins speaking in their minds, doing her best to impersonate their commander. The density of henchmen in the immediate vicinity begins to thin as most of the unwarded third are tricked into giving undue attention to the opposite side of the overpass, and one of the ones in non-flying power armor wanders off into the woods.
When she’s ready, she incapacitates all of the unwarded henchmen who’ve clustered beyond the overpass. This draws a lot of attention from the rest, distracting them from her snowbank. She and Barney burst out and bolt toward the woods, gasping in exertion and pain. Betty’s breathing increases even more and then she collapses as she knocks herself out in the process of overcoming the group of warded henchmen standing in their way. Barney – thoroughly stimmed out by this point – scoops her up before she hits the ground, and with Betty over his shoulder he plows through the snow, past the writhing bodies, and into the woods.
A little ways in he reaches a clearing with a suit of power armor just standing there. It takes a minute, but Barney opens the hatch, drags out the unconscious pilot, and stuffs in Betty. Once he’s got her strapped in and the hatch closed, he slumps down alongside it next to the former pilot and begins finally tending to his bullet wound. He’s lost a lot of blood and probably won’t be good for much in the near future, but that’s alright. He’ll be fine once they get back to their wrecked Jeep so that he can get some of the blood substitute he keeps in the back. The interstate is a dangerous place, so Barney likes to be prepared for these sorts of things.
Meanwhile, Betty wakes up inside her new suit of power armor and begins to cackle.
“Oh for Pete’s sake!” shouts a monocled man with a fedora perched at a jaunty angle atop a bowler hat, standing in the middle of a room full of monitors, two other men, a woman, and a few strategically placed hat racks. His mutton chops do not seem very friendly as he thumps one of his officers on the head with his pipe. “What was that supposed to be, eh? Didn’t I tell you guys to use wards?”
“She appears to be able to penetrate the wards, Doctor.”
“Yah, you bet she can penetrate those wards. But not that many, no. She should be able to do eight at a whack. Clearly Barney has improved his formula, because she’s been hitting closer to ten, yah? But now look at all those guys! That was thirty. Not all of your men are warded, are they now, Henderson?”
Henderson winces. “You wanted too many. Our mages couldn’t-”
Henderson stops talking because Blitzlekov’s left fist is now occupying the space where Henderson’s face had been. As the clang of metal meeting skull rings out and the body flies away in a spray of blood, Blitzlekov’s other hand snatches Henderson’s straw hat out of the air and tosses it gently to the other man in the room. “Mr. Vogel, you are now in command of Wide Brim Company. I don’t think you’ll be able to recover from Mr. Henderson’s error and I won’t hold that against you, but do your best, eh? Miss Upnor, you are authorized to redline; they started the fight farther north than we planned, and I want Feather Platoon backing up Wide Brim as soon as possible.”
“What about my Fur Platoon?” asks Vogel as he sets his new straw hat upon his extremely warm ushanka.
“Oh, don’t you worry about them, Mr. Vogel. I’ll take direct charge once they arrive, hopefully just after Feather. I’m much more worried about what’s left of Wide Brim.” He reaches out to the map display and points at a lone dot in the forest with his pipe. “I mean, what’s up with that guy? He’s not moving. I betcha that’s where you find ‘em. Hijacked your power armor. You’re gonna have fun taking that one out, lemme tell you.”
As Vogel starts directing Wide Brim to wrap around and pincer in on the compromised suit, Blitzlekov claps him and Upnor on their shoulders, wishes them good luck, and walks out. He whistles the theme from Airwolf as he takes the elevator up to the hanger and gets into his personal rocket powered biplane.
* * *
Psychics are a pain to fight, but at least they’re squishy. But this, this is an abomination. Or so Grunt #48 tells himself as he fires round after round at #35’s hijacked armor to no avail. He’s just unpowered infantry and there is absolutely no chance of his bullets damaging the thing, but that isn’t the point. The armor is carrying another squishy in one arm. Unfortunately, any time he thinks he has a shot lined up, the thing moves. It took depressingly long before he realized the bitch piloting it is reading their minds and dodging any time somebody starts to fire at her passenger. So now he’s firing more wildly, figuring that if he doesn’t know whether he’s going to hit the man, she won’t be able to selectively dodge so easily. Of course, as soon as he had this realization, she started cussing him out inside his head. He wonders briefly why she doesn’t just incapacitate him like she did his friend #21, then realizes she must be too tired. The cussing increases and the light glaring off the snow begins to hurt his eyes even through the tinted goggles he’s wearing beneath his sturdy cowboy hat.
It’s a good thing #40 is on an intercept course with her, so her actual weapons fire is focused on the other armored unit instead of on him. He can barely even hear his own weapon over her psychic profanity. His comm is drowned out completely, but he doesn’t trust it anymore anyway. Too many of the orders he’s received haven’t made sense. Her doing, probably.
With her now dodging #40’s missiles, #48 begins moving in the direction she’s been headed, traveling south parallel to the interstate. He can’t think of a good reason she’d be heading this direction. The terrain is the same, so she won’t gain any advantage from it. Escape isn’t an option at all; that armor isn’t made for travel and she’ll already know from their minds that airborne reinforcements are en route. Her best bet is to kill them all before the reinforcements arrive, ditch the armor, and vanish into the woods… and since he knows that, she must too. Yet she’s been heading steadily south along the freeway. The only conclusion he can reach is that there must be something she wants in this direction. Maybe he can reach it first and-
Sometime later, #48 wakes up to find himself face down in the snow, barely two steps from where he’d started. Perhaps she hadn’t been so tired after all. He nods. She must be pacing herself, only knocking out the biggest threats. He rolls over and stands; the battle has moved a good ways south of him. He stumbles forward and begins trying to reach it. Then a blinking light inside his goggles catches his attention. Fuck. The time displacement is about to wear off. The psychic bitch is only a minor objective; he puts her out of his mind and begins running clumsily back toward the overpass where the trap had been sprung. There are more bodies strewn about the ground than there had been. This is very bad, so bad that he almost misses the drone of incoming aircraft.
Grunt #48 of Wide Brim Company smiles. Backup is nearly here, and he’s survived. He may just make it through this idiocy in one piece. Fucking mad scientists. He arrives at the trap and his smile slides off. There is no trap. The technicians who’d been tasked with setting it up are sprawled on their backs, some moaning incomprehensibly and others dead silent.
The blinking in his goggles is speeding up. He sprints to the nearest set of equipment and almost knocks it over as he skids to a halt on the slippery ground. He doesn’t know how the thing works, but there are laminated diagrams affixed to it showing what to do. He quickly aims it and begins what looks like a calibration sequence, muttering to himself about there not being enough time.
Damnable psychics. They could have practiced this in advance, but no, they couldn’t risk the fucking psychic pulling the information from their heads. So much of this mission had been explained on the fly, much of it during battle. He still doesn’t really know what the hell is going on. And there is no more time. The other six equipment stations are still unmanned, but there is no way he could possibly do anything about that. He’s barely going to finish with this one before-
Huge iridescent bubbles that hadn’t existed a moment ago pop, and a massive, spinning dinosaur screams into existence surrounded by a halo of men and women decked out in armor and witch hats, who are tumbling through the air away from the dinosaur as though they’ve been thrown by an explosion. Grunt #48 slaps a big red button even as the spinning dinosaur comes to a halt facing him and waves of terror crash through his body. He’d run screaming and gibbering in the other direction, but his feet literally cannot move. A circle he hadn’t noticed is glowing around him in an indescribable color that he feels more than sees. All of the heat drains from his body as the circle extrudes arcs that swiftly extend out to surround the dinosaur, branching into six more small circles evenly spaced around the perimeter.
A glowing webbing seems to be creeping over the moaning dinosaur, but Grunt #48’s is the only circle that actually has any equipment set up in it, and he’s continuing to get colder. He can’t feel this happening; he can’t feel anything. But he can hear shattering noises from his toes moving upwards along his legs. The webbing halts and the opposite side of the large circle of circles begins dimming. By the time the shattering sound has passed his knees, the glowing has retracted entirely. He falls over forwards, thoroughly unconscious.
Now free once more, the dinosaur roars in defiance. Then it roars in confusion as a biplane trailing a tail of fire crashes into its side.
Wilma blinks. Something just changed. They’re in the same spot, but the sun is higher and she doesn’t feel so many people nearby anymore. She flicks some fear at the nearest mooks while trying to figure out what’s happening. Fred and Bruno are confused too. They seem to be in some kind of magic circle, but it’s fading out already. What is going-
Wilma swiftly clamps down own Bruno and Fred’s emotions to keep them from going berserk. She glances out the cab’s window and sees the wreckage of a biplane wrapped around the absence of emotion – it is actually less emotional than the background radiation. Whoever is in there must be heavily shielded to totally resist her influence and reception at this close of a distance; it’s either Blitzlekov himself or one of his lieutenants.
“Betty?” she thinks loudly. “Are you and Barney still here? I think we just time-skipped?” There is no response, and she doesn’t feel anybody like Betty or Barney nearby. She sighs. “No sign of the others, Fred. I think we’re out of Betty’s range.”
Bruno and Fred nod in lockstep, not pausing in their attempts to stomp the remnants of the plane into dust. They’re not feeling any recognition, so the Reubens are outside Bruno’s sensing range as well. Wilma leans slightly out the window and scans the sky. There are more planes, but most are too high for her to feel. The ones she can are not so well protected as the one that crashed into Bruno, but she’s pretty sure they’re not feeling much of the terror she’s projecting. She smirks, then switches to projecting smug invincibility. She’ll help them become overconfident, and perhaps pull the rug out from under them later. Meanwhile, she unracks a devisor bazooka from the overhead storage, suddenly glad Fred hadn’t gotten around to removing it like she’d been nagging him to. The bazooka’s targeting system links with her helmet’s visor and displays colorful lines. Using it is pretty easy: move the circle roughly around the square she wants to explode, check that the square changes color, then squeeze the trigger. There’s no silly lock delay or any nonsense like that. This isn’t a video game.
Feeling frustration from Fred, she nudges him aside, leans the bazooka out the window, and fires down into the wreckage. Bruno teleports them across the freeway just before the explosion happens, but Wilma frowns. The emotional void is still clinging to Bruno, even though she doesn’t see it. “Tick season!” she yells while diving out the opposite window. Bruno teleports high into the air and is lost within a blinding explosion as Fred hits the self destruct button, detonating a large bomb Bruno had been carrying in his stomach. Wilma ignores this, focused on keeping moving and tracking the invisible emotional void as it falls to the ground and bounces. She doesn’t bother firing the bazooka at it; if it survived the self destruct, the bazooka won’t help. She absentmindedly shoots down another plane instead without taking her mind off the void. The planes have been shooting the whole time, but she’s thoroughly bulletproof within her suit, and it’s projecting a scintillating multi-spectrum hologram around her to obstruct her precise position. Her gear is bulky, tiring, and not at all flattering, but it can handle just about anything short of a tank. Fred values her a lot, so he’s put a lot of time into improving it over the years. It can’t stop her from being knocked over when a plane manages to successfully strafe her, but she just rolls back to her feet and keeps going.
One of the other things it’s not good at dealing with are density warpers. Wilma isn’t exactly surprised when a Phase-Knife materializes in her thigh; there are good odds the void is Blitzlekov himself, and he’s shown an affinity for those in the past. Fred will be disappointed to learn that his countermeasures still aren’t good enough, but Wilma isn’t bothered. This injury is actually just what she needs. She embraces the pain and for a few seconds focuses the entirety of her power on the void she’s been tracking as it zigzags across the interstate. The next three knives he throws miss her by wide margins as she stomps purposefully toward him. Another flaw with her suit is that it isn’t terribly graceful, and having a knife in her thigh isn’t helping matters.
The void backs away as she nears. Judging by the movement pattern, she’s now certain this really is Blitzlekov, and he seems to be out of Phase-Knives. She pulls the one in her thigh out and presses the button to power it back up as her armor’s blood-sensitive lining constricts tightly around her injury. It’s a shame Blitzlekov can’t see her expression through her tinted faceplate, but he’s not stupid. He continues backing away anxiously.
* * *
“Yee-haw!” Fred screams as he clings to the hull of one of the biplanes with his legs. He’s completely naked, lightly toasted, and having the time of his life. The pilot isn’t faring so well, what with one of Fred’s arms cutting off her air and the other fumbling at her harness. Eventually she passes out, after which Fred takes her feathered hat for himself, chucks her out into the sky, and settles into the cockpit. From up here he can see where Betty’s gotten to – she’s rampaging around in a suit of power armor near the wreckage of that Jeep she and Barney loved so much. She’s guarding Barney, who’s slumped against the side of the vehicle and looking worse for wear. Most of the planes are heading in that direction. Fred gets his plane leveled out and then turns it toward the party. He isn’t what you’d call skilled at flying, but it’s not hard to do a mediocre job of it. It also helps to have absolutely no fear of crashing.
Since he can’t fly well enough to do any good by shooting, he aims the plane toward what looks like the main cluster of infantry harassing Betty, gets close enough, then bails while squeezing out a fresh body for Bruno. Fred mind-melds with Bruno and they teleport to higher up almost before he’s finished forming. Then they crash down on top of another plane in a flurry of pulsing green snowflakes. Fruno considers taking down the rest of the planes in similar fashion, but they don’t want to tire themselves out with so many rapid hops. There must be a dozen more planes flying around. Instead, they sprout wings and glide down toward Betty. She starts chewing them out in their heads for taking so long, but they just ignore her, grab her in their mouth, and fling her up toward the biplanes where she can be more productive.
With Betty out of the way, the remaining land-grunts change focus to Fruno. Fred disengages from the meld, grabs some gear for Barney, then jumps out the back window while Bruno charges in to play Whack A Monkey.
* * *
“Oh, you think you have me under control?” says Blitzlekov nervously as Wilma marches toward him with one of his own knives in her fist. In truth, it is a good plan given what little she knows. His own quite durable armor will do no better against such a weapon than her own has. But he knows she can’t feel his emotions, even if her pain is amping up her projective powers enough to penetrate his shielding. He’s fought her enough to know that pain has the reverse effect on her receptive powers. She has no way to know how smug he is right now, in the corner of his mind. A lesser opponent would have given it away to somebody of her skill, even without the empathy. Wilma has taken the time to actually study emotions and how people behave while experiencing them, unlike those empaths who just rely blindly on their power. She can read body language like he can read math. But Blitzlekov planned for this and intentionally took drugs beforehand to alter his brain chemistry. He should be feeling completely confident and in control right now, logically speaking, but physically he’s wracked with anxiety. The pain-fueled fear she’s projecting onto him helps, too. His body has given away nothing of his plans. “You think you’ve cornered me?!” he shouts. Even to his own ears, his protests feel weak and defensive, as though he is in denial. He almost worries that-
The ground shakes and pillars of snow blast into the air as twenty sets of very heavy power armor with oversized ushankas covering their helmets crash to the ground around them, dropped from a carrier well above Wilma’s and Betty’s sensing range. Fur Platoon has arrived. One of them staggers back in response to Wilma firing the last rocket from her bazooka, but the rest calmly bury her in capture foam, fuzzy in the cold.
* * *
“Bad news, dino-fucker! Bigger badder bots just dropped in and foamed Wilma!”
Fred scowls from where he’s been helping Barney suit up, seemingly oblivious to the cold. “You gonna be fine from here, Barns?”
Barney nods. “Yeah, my body just hasn’t realized it has blood in it again and can calm down. The stims aren’t helping with that. Go on, save Wilma. And put some damn clothes on!”
Fred grins. “I don’t need clothes. I have a dinosaur!”
Before Barney can respond, Bruno runs past in a cloud of singing tinsel and grabs Fred by the arm. A moment later they are gone, appearing a mile to the north inside the circle of twenty huge suits of mechanized armor. The twenty ushankas upon their heads now have googly eyes and tiny twitching mustaches.
“Oh, for cute!” shouts an invisible Blitzlekov from near the fuzzy green lump Fred assumes is holding Wilma. Wherever she is, she feels frustrated and annoyed, because those emotions certainly aren’t coming from Fred. Blitzlekov must have been monologuing while he waited for Fred to jump into his trap. Yeah, this was definitely another trap, but Fred doesn’t care. Fred eats Traps for breakfast. Or are those Trix? Whatever. Twenty sizzling, golden beams of some sort blast out at where Bruno was a moment ago, but now Fred is just sitting in the air holding a pogo stick as they crisscross below him. Fred and Bruno normally enjoy absorbing a good energy attack, but they also know that Blitzlekov is well aware of which sorts they can and cannot handle.
The beams lance through empty space below him, pass between the gaps in the circle, and dissipate harmlessly in the terrain around them. That trick never quite seems to work the way Fred wants it to, but no matter. He hits the frozen ground and bounces directly at the nearest suit of armor. Capture foam billows out around Fred, but for just a moment Bruno appears behind him, and then Fred, Bruno, and the capture foam crash into the back of the suit of armor opposite the one he’d aimed at. Bruno swallows Fred’s foam-covered body and leaps into the air, narrowly dodging another barrage of the golden beams. Bruno seems to clench, and then a perfectly clean Fred bursts out of his bottom at a blistering speed. Bruno vanishes instantly so that Fred can go sticky before slapping his hands on the head of the next suit of armor. He feels his tendons ripping as it topples over backwards with him, its bulk protecting him as the remaining suits fire the golden beams again. Even so, he feels energy being ripped out of his system at a startling rate, slowing his healing. He kicks off the armor and rolls away, then suddenly spawns Bruno beside him. Bruno lifts him into the cab for a quick refresher, but a moment later Fred dives out, grabs the dinosaur’s tail, and is flung into the air above the suits of armor. He’s grinning maniacally now, holding what looks like a small metal keg.
Everybody initially focuses on Fred, expecting Bruno to despawn again. Instead, the dinosaur barrels through into the center of the circle, swallowing Wilma and her foam encasement whole. Meanwhile, Fred takes advantage of the distraction to arm and drop his large EMP devise right into the middle of the circle. Bruno appears above him, wings raised. Fred grabs his tail just as the wings thrust downward hard, driving the dinosaur further into the air while Fred climbs up to the cab. The devise activates and they glide toward Betty’s group unmolested.
Wilma bursts through Bruno’s back into the cab as they land, now foam-free. She rolls her eyes at Fred and starts rummaging beneath the seat while the angry BettyComm makes itself known in their heads once more. Betty still hasn’t calmed down by the time Wilma straightens up with a leopard-print robe, so she throws some calm at her while she forces her husband into the robe. Barney climbs in shortly, takes one look at Wilma’s leg, and gets to work before the fight catches up with them again.
Thirty minutes later everybody is feeling pretty exhausted, but Blitzlekov is down to just three of the Fur Platoon and the few members of the Feather Platoon who survived their planes being downed and are flitting about in the trees with sniper rifles. Wide Brim Company has been flattened for quite some time now; they’d really pissed off Betty.
Or so they’ve thought. One of the remnants of Feather Platoon does some finger waggling, then ten of the smaller sets of Wide Brim power armor get back up, straighten their cowboy hats, and rejoin the fight.
“Oh yeah!?” shouts Betty as she storms directly toward them.
Wilma shakes her head. “You’re going to have to get something bigger when you replace your Jeep, Barney, because I don’t think you’re ever going to get her out of that armor.”
“Nah. She’ll come out on her own. She’s going to be horny as hell when this is all over.”
“Too much information, Barns,” grumbles Fred.
“Incoming!” shouts Betty in their heads. At the same time, a droning fills the air, then a bunch of powder-blue sets of power armor thump down around them. These have no hats, and the logos on their shoulders are MCO.
“Be nice,” Wilma says as Fred starts muttering under his breath. “They’re here to help. Let’s try to work with them for a change.”
An angry voice blares out of the lead suit. “EVERYBODY FREEZE. YOU ARE ALL UNDER ARREST. ANYBODY WHO MOVES WILL BE SHOT.”
“Help, huh?” Fred snorts. Wilma glares at him, so he shrugs and tugs on the reins. Bruno skids to a halt and stares at all the power armor while wagging his tail. Fred chuckles. “Bruno thinks they look crunchy.”
Half the suits move to surround Bruno while the other half engage with Blitzlekov’s forces. The one that seems to be in charge gestures at Fred. “DISMOUNT THE DINOSAUR IMMEDIATELY!”
Fred leans out the window and cups his hands around his mouth. “No! Actually, what I’m going to do is go help your boys up there before Blitzlekov kills them all!”
“NEGATIVE! DISMOUNT THE DINOSAUR OR YOU WILL BE FIRED UPON.”
“Have fun with that, buddy!” Fred pulls back inside and snaps the reins, ignoring the bullets and tasty plasma the blue suits send ripping harmlessly through or into Bruno. As they stomp up toward the fight, he glances sideways at Wilma. “Are you sure we can’t just crack open their shells? Just a little bit? Maybe drop them off in the middle of the Lake too? No? Okay.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m with Fred on this one,” says Betty.
“The MCO are on our side,” insists Barney. “They might have trouble understanding that, but they are.”
“They got a weird way of showing it,” mutters Fred as Bruno pulls open a hole in his middle so that a rocket can pass through without detonating. It’s easier to play nice with people who don’t make them explode, even with Wilma there to keep the Dino Duo sane.
As the fight drags on, the MCO eventually realize that their energy is better spent fighting Blitzlekov than the Bronto-Raiders. Of course, that’s when Blitzlekov decides he’s had enough. His invisibility field is stuttering at this point, so Fred can see him deploying his jet-pack in stop-motion. Bruno quickly snags the grabbiest seeming member of the MCO and hurls him at Blitzlekov, but he passes right though the demented villain. His displacement projector is still online, then. “Dammit!” says Fred.
With their commander leaving, the remainder of Blitzlekov’s forces drop their weapons and surrender. So of course, the MCO turn on the Bronto-Raiders, demanding them to surrender too.
Fred leans out of the cab. “Look, dipshits. We’re fucking heroes, get it? And that asshole-” he points at the quickly fading exhaust from Blitzlekov’s pack “-is the villain. The bad guy, right? And he’s getting away. You chuckleheads are too slow to follow him, but I’m not. So I’m going to go stop him-”
Fred stops talking for a moment because one of them has blown off his head. He shakes his new head in confusion as Bruno growls. “Bah. Honey, where was I?”
“‘You’re incompetent, we’re not, so we’re going to go save the day for you.’ Right at the end.”
“Thanks, Wilma.” He leans back out the window. “Yeah, so you knuckleheads can either toss me a homing beacon so you can follow us to the party, or you can piss off. I’m leaving in five sec-” Another headshot. “Damn that’s confusing. Was I counting down yet? Can we leave already?”
Wilma sighs. “Fine, go ahead. They’re not-”
“HOLD!” shouts the lead MCO dweeb. “WE WILL RIDE ALONG WITH YOU AND ACCEPT YOUR SURRENDER AT A MORE OPPORTUNE MOMENT.”
Fred massages his forehead and looks at Wilma. “Do we have to?”
Wilma smiles. “Yes. We’re making progress!”
Fred sighs and leans back out the window. “Fine, but hurry it up, and behave yourselves or I will pull this dinosaur over and dump you in the Lake.”
“Are you guys sure they’re trustworthy?” Fred asks via BettyComm as Bruno glides swiftly through the air above the city of Oshkosh.
“They want Blitzlekov more than us,” says Betty. “They don’t intend to let us walk away after the fight’s over, but we’re not planning to walk, are we? Until then we’re fine.”
“I don’t like this. Not at all. Neither does Bruno. He feels bloated.”
Barney chuckles nervously, his face looking a little green. The way nine sets of power armor have managed to climb in and find seating without the small cab seeming to change size is bothering him a lot more than the others.
“This is another trap,” says Wilma. “He wants us to follow him.”
“Of course it’s a trap. Everything’s a damn trap with this guy.”
Barney snorts but doesn’t share the joke. Betty chuckles a moment later. Fred rolls his eyes.
“YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY?” blares one of the other MCO guys.
Barney shakes his head, then leans over the side to void his stomach into the sky.
When Barney’s finished, Bruno rears back and flaps to kill his forward motion, then Fred snaps the reins and they appear on the roof of a large building. “We’re here.” Suddenly the floor of the cab beneath the MCO guys opens and they slide down with grunts of surprise. “You want a quick ride down too, Betts, or do you want to stick with us for a bit?”
“Actually, I was thinking you should load me into the Cannon.”
“Righteo.” Bruno’s back swallows Betty, but he doesn’t disgorge her onto the roof like the other suits. “Alright, you MCOgres!” Fred says out loud. “Hang onto your helmets! I’m making a door!” The armor jocks scramble back as Bruno crouches then jumps up and crashes down through the roof and multiple floors. The dinosaur comes to a halt a few seconds later with his feet in the crawlspace of a large chamber below ground level, debris raining down around him as he takes aim at the largest bank of equipment in sight. He drops his head, opens his mouth wide, and convulses. Betty armored form climbs out of the fresh wreckage a moment later with a triumphant shout, her suit looking slightly more battered than before.
Eight thumps herald the arrival of the MCO, and then a cacophony of much larger clangs heralds the arrival of two twenty-foot-tall gorilla-like battle mechs, exhaust ports snorting at the idea that such large turban-clad machines might be impractical. Bruno launches himself at the nearest one, and the MCO grunts take aim at the second, screaming at it to surrender even as they do their best to ruin its paint job. One manages to blow a chunk out of the machine’s turban and gets himself blasted through a wall for his trouble.
“I think these are remote controlled,” says Betty. Wilma grunts in agreement, her attention mostly directed at keeping the MCO focused on the mech instead of her friends. Betty frowns. “I don’t feel Blitzlekov or the lack thereof anywhere.”
Suddenly the room is full of Blitzlekovs. Holograms, of course. “Attention!” shout all of the Blitzlegrams in a commanding voice. “As you guys will have by now realized, these are remotely controlled battle units, and we are holograms! Thank you, by the way, for focusing on me while my trap-”
Fred misses the rest of the monologue because he and Bruno are busy screaming as a bunch of those golden rays shoot them from all around the room. They can’t summon the energy to teleport out of it, either.
Wilma scowls as she hunkers down and focuses on keeping Fred and Bruno sane and the MCO compliant, while Betty tries to direct the MCO to ignore the mechs and focus on shooting the beam emitters instead. Meanwhile, Barney is already taking aim with his own weapon and methodically picking off the many emitters. Bruno’s thrashing makes this a slow process.
While that’s going on, Bruno and Fred are attempting to funnel their pain and rage into destroying the mechs and the room around them. Normally Fred scoffs at attempts to drain his power like this, but if anybody knows how to do it right, it’s Blitzlekov.
Oh. Fred is being stupid; must be the fatigue building up. He grabs his pogo stick and despawns Bruno. His veins surge with itchy power now that most of the beams are no longer hitting him, and he grins at the sound of the mech fruitlessly striking the floor where Bruno had been standing. He can think more clearly now, what with not having most of his energy being ripped out of him. Wilma is also a huge help; her calming effect barely even flickers as she falls through the empty space once occupied by Bruno. Barney is caught more by surprise, totally missing his shot and landing awkwardly.
As the others dart away toward cover, Fred bounces directly toward the mech he’s been fighting. It seems to be designed for fighting something Bruno-sized and simply surviving anything smaller. Fred doesn’t really care. He’s mainly just using it as a massive shield as he scampers along its hull with his pogo stick slung over his back, dodging as many of the golden beams as he can. The ones that hit the mech itself do still drain some of his energy, but nowhere near as strongly as when they’d been hitting him directly. Although, he is going to need to do something about the damn thing; the others probably aren’t going to survive being the sole focus of two large mechs for long enough to shoot out all the beam emitters. Without manifesting Bruno, however, Fred isn’t strong enough to fight anything this heavily armored. Not conventional fighting, anyway. But this is precisely what ass-pulls are for. Fred reaches under his robe and extracts his emergency grenade, peels the protective film off the adhesive pad, removes the pin, then plants it in what seems to be the mech’s least armored nook before scampering around to the opposite side. He takes aim at the second mech and jumps as the shock wave blasts through the hull, adding just a little extra spring to his leap and sting to his feet.
It’s still too far away to reach in the one jump, but his pogo stick breaks his fall a fraction of a second after the clank of the first mech’s arm falling off, and the rebound closes the remaining distance. He’s out of ass-pulls now, but he has more tricks up his sleeves. When he reaches the mech’s sensor array, he bites his forearm hard and then smears blood over the cameras.
The blood slides right off. “Damn RainX!” Fred grumbles. He wishes he hadn’t had to self destruct earlier, because before that he’d had literal tricks up his sleeves, including a goop devise that probably would have done the job, but it was all lost in the explosion. Another beam hits him and in the moment of rage he has before Wilma can tamp down on his emotions, he summons Bruno immediately above him.
* * *
Bruno is upside down and extremely unhappy, despite Friend Wilma’s soothing. He has just squished Friend Fred into a paste, again. Bruno hates it when that happens. And the walls in this place are eating him. The lumpy floor isn’t very comfortable either. Probably because it’s not a floor. Floors don’t have metal fists, usually. Bruno tries to leave, but the hungry walls are eating him too hard. Snorting in anger, he rolls off the lump in the floor and gets back on his feet, careful not to hit any more of his friends. He does knock over some of the crunchy not-so-friends who are helping shoot at the wall’s teeth, but their shells don’t crack so they are probably okay. Then the big metal guy he’s just rolled off of punches him.
Bruno isn’t used to being punched by things as big as he is, and he’s getting really tired of all this. If Friend Wilma wasn’t helping him, he would probably just explode into a goopy, spiky mess, he is so mad. At least Friend Fred was squished by the cab, not his belly. He’s almost okay again, but it’s taking longer because of the walls eating all his energy. Bruno snarls and spins around to face the other direction, destroying his tail against the mean punchy metal guy in the process.
This direction doesn’t look much better. The other metal guy is over here, but one of its arms fell off and the hole is sparky. Bruno is too mad to care about his modesty anymore. His mouth grows and his neck stretches as he reaches out and picks up the severed arm and then starts trying to punch its fist into the sparky hole. The metal guy doesn’t like that and starts shooting teeth at him, but Bruno doesn’t care. Bruno doesn’t like being eaten, and he’s going to keep breaking these metal guys until their wall-friends stop.
Friend Fred is back now, and so is Bruno’s tail. This time his tail has big sharp spikes. That’s how mad Bruno is. Friend Fred grabs the reins sitting backwards, and now Fruno can see everything all the time. This is good. Their Fred half starts directing their tail to fight the punchy one, while their Bruno half keeps hitting the sparky one. There aren’t as many wall-teeth now, and this encourages Fruno to hit the metal guys harder. The sooner they stop being, the better.
* * *
Cam Shelly of the MCO is having a bad day. Aside from the Bronto-Raiders crawling out of whatever slimy rocks they’d been hiding under these last years, this Blitzlekov freak and his mechs have ruined Cam’s power armor. His teammates cover him while he extracts himself, then he stumbles to his knees as the ground shakes. He turns and thumbs his radio. “Control, there is now a third mech.” This one is smaller than the other two, but more durable looking with stubby limbs and a roundish body. Cross a black, fifteen foot tall robot gorilla with a fat Buddha, slap a bowler hat with a buzzing chainsaw brim on it, and give it an appropriately sized sparking and glowing ray gun; that’s what Cam is looking at right now. His voice cracks a little. “We’re going to need some backup.”
“Say hello to my…” booms Blitzlekov’s voice from the Blitzlebot, but then he hesitates and raises the enormous ray gun as though pondering it. “Well, ya know, it’s not very little, now, is it? Oh, but what the hey! It’s my friend and ya’d better be polite and say hello to it, you dirty contract breakers!”
“Negative,” says Cam’s radio. “A situation has developed here in Appleton.”
“Control, I am dealing with three large battle mechs, half a dozen mutants, and a fucking dinosaur! I don’t care what’s happening in Appleton! We need that backup!”
“I realize that, Shelly, but we’re dealing with a three-way fight between the Winnebago Wendigo, Culto del Queso, and Folle Fromage. We cannot spare you those reinforcements.”
A golden beam leaps from the gun’s emitter to wrest a scream from the wretched purple beast, and Cam doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Maybe he should just order a retreat. The rest of the team’s armor isn’t doing much better than his, and they’re nearly out of juice anyway. He cannot fathom how Blitzlekov is powering those mechs. Mutant bullshit. He turns to his team to make the order, but then hesitates. No. No, the MCO does not back down! How could he have even considered running from these freaks? No, they will fight to their last breath! Brimming with sudden confidence, he raises a fist. “What are you mouth-breathers standing around for? Stop worrying about me and get back in the fight!”
* * *
Wilma sighs. “Thanks for the warning, Betts. Got them under control again.”
“No problem.” Another wall turret explodes and Betty shifts her aim. Her hijacked power armor has finally run out of fuel, so now she’s using it for cover as she helps Barney with the turrets.
“Is it just me,” says Barney, “or does it seem like we’re not making progress here?”
“SHIT!” yells Betty out loud. “You’re right! It’s an endurance trap! He’s replacing the turrets as we go, dragging this out on purpose.”
“Of course!” says Barney. “If he brought all his force to bear at once, we’d just leave. This way he keeps us around, whittles us down.”
“You hear that, Fred? Let’s not play his game! Get us out of here!”
“In a minute, Betts. I’ve almost got this. Stupid fucking slippery-ass Teflon hide…”
“No, not in a minute, Fred. Now!”
“Wait,” says Wilma. “We can’t just leave the MCO to die. I just rallied them to keep fighting. Let me… let me undo… uhg…”
Barney drops his gun and rolls Wilma off her knees onto her back, then unseals her helmet. “Come on, Wilma, take some slow, deep breaths. You’re just exhausted.” He rummages in his gear and comes out with a sturdy, rubberized bottle. “Drink this.” She glances at the bottle and then her eyes close, head tipping back. As it does, he feels his anxiety well up and hears Bruno and Fred start their synchronized laughing. Not good! “Fred! Calm down! Wilma’s fainted! We need to get out of here!”
“As though I would run from the likes of Blitzlekov? Hah! Take care of her, Barns! I will destroy him for this!”
“We are too magnificent to lose!”
Betty misses a turret because her gun is shaking in anger. “Dammit, we’ve lost him. Just fucking stim her already, because that idiot’s not going to leave unless she makes him! Fucking goddamn Diedricks!”
Barney curses under his breath as he pulls out a needle. “Sorry about this, Wilma, but she’s right.” He injects it into her neck, since that’s about all that’s available, then picks up his gun and helps Betty try to keep up with the gradually increasing number of turrets popping out of the walls as Fred and Bruno step up their rampage.
* * *
SOUND! LIGHT! EXPLOSIONS!
Wilma is AWAKE and ALIVE and WOW does she feel GOOD!
“Whahappenedguys? Wowit'shotinhere! Woo,superwild! Heyisthatachainsawhat? Wow!”
“Deep breaths, Wilma,” Barney says, holding back against the sudden giddiness pouring over him. There’s a reason Wilma doesn’t normally partake of the stims. “You fainted, and Fred started losing it. I need you to focus, now. Focus on Fred.”
“FredisMAGNIFICENT! AndBRUNOissoBRUNO! WOO HOO! GO BRUNO!!”
“Yes, Wilma. But that’s mostly his Diedricks talking. We need you to stay calm and focus and get them to focus and be calm. Calm. Can you do that for us?”
“Wilma,” says Betty dryly, “You are literally doing jumping jacks right now.”
“No… you’re jumping.”
“Hey!” says Barney. “I know a fun game! Wanna play? Wanna play?”
“It’s called holding your breath for a super long time! I bet I can last longer than you I bet I can!”
“Nowayever! I'llsuperwin! Icanholdmybreathforyears!”
“Oh wow, gee whiz! Let’s go then! One, two, three, BREATH HOLDING TIME!”
“Whee!” Wilma says, before gulping down a huge amount of air, clamping her mouth shut, and inflating her cheeks. Barney does the same thing, eyes locked on hers. After a moment her pupils stop vibrating and her eyebrows settle down. She lets out the breath. “Okay, okay, I’m under control now. Wow, whattarushthatwasamazing-” She holds up her finger and takes a few more breaths. “Yeah, okay. Now what were yousayingBarnbarnbarney? Whoa, hey, we’re still in a fight? He he he he.”
“Yes, Wilma. And we need to calm Fred down and get out of the fight.”
“Oh, that rambunctious hubby hubby hubby of mine I love him so!”
Betty snorts. “We know, dear. But put the reins back on him now, okay?”
“Okay, yeah. Wow, he’s really going down there. So wild, so magnificent, so gloriously indomitably unfathomably-”
Barney sighs and jambs the butt of his weapon into Wilma’s injured leg.
“OW! HEY! Oh, sorry. I was riding the drick wave again, wasn’t I?”
“You were surfing right along. Please focus, Wilma?”
“Yeah, I got it, I got it. But that stim, woo! No, focusing, got it. Calm times. Yes. Calm times. I can… I can… nopenocalmtimeshere hahahahaha!” She takes a few breaths. “Oh oh oh I know! Betty Betts Betts! Sing sing singsingsing me a song! Calm sing-song songs! With words that are calmandsongy!”
Betty rolls her eyes, then yanks everybody down as a severed robot leg sails over their heads. “Fine, Wilma. I will-” She giggles and then reinforces her mental barriers. “I’ll sing a damn song.” She shakes her head and clears her throat, then starts humming a lullaby.
“No no no no nonononono! I can’t engage with that! Too slow; I’m too fast. Slamming clutch is bad! Startveryfast and then slow… down! Matchmy emotion then lead me back to calm! Calm calm! So jazzed right now, Barns! How do you guys do this?”
“It’s n-n-not as bad when you'renotanempath,” Barney says, trying hard not to giggle.
Betty grumbles and then hums the beginning of the Star Spangled Banner. “Yeah, that’ll work. Okay then, with a one, and a two, and a three four fivesixseveneightnineten! Ohsaycanyouseebytheblurrylipsonmyface, thatthissongistoodamnfast, soyou’d better fucking slow it down right now, and as our hearts' fast beating, slows down to be sloooow, you can heearrr just how sloowww, how slowww our hearts beat nowwww. We’re now alll calm and shiiiiit, we’re sooo fucking calm. We are caaaaaaalm ri-hight nooowwww, yes we’re ve-ery damn caaaalllmmmm…”
Betty sinks to her knees as Wilma creates a positive feedback calmness loop between them. It builds and builds until Betty thinks she might just stop existing, and then it’s gone and the ground shakes as Bruno trips and rolls a few times. Betty blinks and shakes her head, then stands up. “I think that did it, Wilma. I’ll start relaying him again.”
“-rry about that, guys,” says Fred’s voice in their heads. “Hey, what time is it? I’m exhausted.”
“Ease back on the calmness there, girl,” says Betty. “Just keep him from dricking out anymore while we get out of here.”
“Nobody is going anywhere!” shouts a vaguely familiar voice from behind them. Betty facepalms while the other two turn to see a bruised, singed, and bloody MCO agent glaring at them. “My men are out there killing themselves fighting and you freaks are just going to run and evade arrest? Fuck no! Hands in the… in the…” He shakes his head and stifles a yawn. Then he starts perking up, staring past them at the Blitzlebot as it and multiple golden beams chase Bruno up a wall. “We have to stop him,” the MCO agent mutters before grinning and running off toward the blue suits of power armor that are firing on one of the mechs.
Barney frowns. “I thought you wanted them to leave, Wilma?”
“We don’t need to leave! We’ve got this!”
Barney glances at Fred, who is riding a mech’s severed arm along a ballistic trajectory towards the Blitzlebot, but Betty shakes her head. “He’s not dricking out anymore, that’s just her stims talking.”
“Very good stims! I should use these more often!”
“Vetoed,” says Barney. “Look, Blitzlekov is just toying with us, trying to wear Bruno down so that… so that he- Wilma, what are you doing?”
“Staying conscious!” Wilma says as she removes her armor. “It’s getting really hot in here!”
“You won’t need to keep the armor on much longer if you just get the MCO to retreat so we can hop on Bruno and leave.”
“Too late all done!” She stretches out in the sweat-soaked fireproof full-body leotard she’d been wearing underneath, rolls her shoulders, then ducks some shrapnel. “This party’s jumping!”
Barney rubs his temples while Betty gives him a quick side-hug. She shoots another turret and then grins at him. “It’s like that time we got her smashed on Irish coffee, remember?”
“Thus my headache.” He sighs. “Yo, Fred, screw the MCO. Let’s just get out of here before Wilma asks Blitzlekov to square dance or something.”
“Um, yeah, about that…”
“FUCK!” yells Betty. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck…”
Fred continues over her cursing. “See, a little while ago me and Bruno were going to pop up into the sky a bit, to pick up some speed, but we couldn’t, even when we got away from those beams for a while. We’re kinda stuck in this room right now.”
Barney tosses his gun to the ground in frustration. “Of course! Of course he thought of that! Probably has three entirely different things blocking your teleports besides those beams.”
“Yeah, at least one is magic. Bruno can taste it. And each time we try to jump out, he gets a certain itchy feeling…”
Barney freezes and pales for a moment. “You mean he’s using a-”
“Not continuously. I think he figured out how to detect Bruno revving up for a jump, activate a force field, and then kill it a moment later when the jump fizzles.”
“Should have killed him way back then,” Betty mutters.
Wilma tosses Barney’s gun back to him. “Chin up, chin up! We’ll just keep breaking things until we can leave the old fashioned way, and everything will be fine fine fine!”
* * *
Cam crawls out of a fallen mech’s wreckage with a wild look on his face. “Alright, Jack, plug ‘er in!”
Jack holds his breath and connects the cable from the mech to the charging port on Wanda’s armor. There’s a crackle and then fresh smoke starts rising from the mech as Wanda’s armor hums back to life. The suit’s damaged loudspeaker crackles. “Oka- -nk it- work- -re awes-!”
Something about what they just did feels off to Jack, but he can’t put his finger on why. The expression Cam’s wearing… something isn’t right there, either, but what? He shakes his head. Nothing matters. Nothing but stopping Blitzlekov. That is the only thing in the world, and it is wonderful. A wonderful wonderful world!
* * *
“Damn you, Roy Plunkett!” Fred yells as he falls off the Blitzlebot’s dented Teflon head and tumbles to the ground. He’s able to gain traction on that, at least, and hurls himself between the mech’s legs before manifesting Bruno.
Betty frowns. The Blitzlebot is the only mech left, but although it’s looking battered, none of the damage is more than superficial. Meanwhile, the MCO are down to half their armor, and even that much seems to be a miracle of MacGyvering. Barney’s weapon ran out of juice a while ago, so he’s been using hers, but it’s nearly empty too. And the turrets just keep coming. Not as many as before, finally, but still too many. “Come on, Barney! We need an exit vector!”
Barney ignores the Blitzlebot’s clumsy attempt to remain astride the bucking bronto and the massive thud when it slides off, instead focusing his attention through the walls. “There,” he says, pointing toward the upper part of the wall above the consoles Betty smashed earlier. “That’s where we’ll have the most direct route to the surface. The rest of the walls lead to heavily reinforced dead ends.”
“Alrighty right-rights, Fred,” says Wilma, “if you can make them a door and cover their exit, I’ll get the MCO moving out, then we can follow.”
“Sure thing, dear!” Bruno scurries up the adjacent wall and then twists, smashing his tail through the wall to reveal a corridor. He releases his grip at the same time, allowing the impact to throw him forward out of the path of another golden beam to belly flop on the Blitzlebot, who then cuts his way out from under Bruno using his buzzing hat-saw.
The MCO slow to a stop, staring at the stream of ectoplasm being strewn around the room by the spinning blade on the Blitzlebot even as Wilma cuts their confidence to shreds. One of them retches while the others begin backing toward the broken wall. The suit of armor with the fewest sparks and smoke streams coming out of it hefts the nauseated guy up into its arms and follows the others. The squishy members of the Bronto-Raiders also make their way in that direction, pausing from time to time to continue firing at the unending supply of turrets to keep Fred from being pinned down.
“Hey now,” says the Blitzlebot. “You guys haven’t been excused, have you?” Even before he’s finished talking, the floor of the corridor the MCO were climbing toward begins to rise, finally grinding to a stop against the corridor’s ceiling. “Yah, we aren’t finished here, guys. You aren’t going nowhere.”
* * *
“Control,” says Cam as the Raiders turn back to the mech, which is now evading the dinosaur and charging the three startled squishies. “W- We have a problem. We’ve been sealed in.”
“Sorry to hear that, Shelly, but we remain unable to spare anyone to help you at this time. The Green Bayesian is en route to Appleton to lend assistance here. If you can just hang in there for another ten, fifteen minutes, we’ll be able to send a squad to get you out.”
Ten to fifteen minutes? Cam swallows hard and struggles to keep his panic in check. They aren’t going to last more than another couple minutes without help. They’re going to die. Well, crying won’t help anything, only waste the few moments they have left. Moments that could- no, must be put to good use for the sake of humanity.
He watches the Raiders frantically dodging and then turns to his trembling team, forcing himself to project confidence. “We all hoped it would never come to this, but it has. I wish I had profound words for you, but I do not. I will tell you this: if we’re going down anyway, we may as well take as many of these mutants with us as we can! Death to mutants!”
Cam Shelly of the MCO turns around, and in one smooth movement he fires his sidearm at the bitch in the leotard.
* * *
Fred feels Wilma’s projected emotions twist and surge as the bullet tears through her body, and then they cease. He and Bruno pause in their rampage, turn in horror, and fall to their knees as Wilma’s soothing love and confidence become pain and fear and confusion, then become nothing, nothing at all. A horrible echoing emptiness; a vacuum ripping at their heart; the black hole at the center of a violently accelerating accretion disk of raw emotion.
Bruno returns to Fred, searing through his friend’s veins, and this time he does not dedicate the main part of his power to continuously repairing the perpetual burnout he causes Fred. Blood boiling as more energy than his body can handle surges through him, Fred grasps the true, undiluted power of the Fred Force for the first time. His bubbling eyes shine like spotlights, his skin bursts into flame, his very bones glow and scream in pain-
And there is slaughter.
That is how long it’s taken Dread Fred to end the fight. He hovers in the air next to Wilma’s floating body as ectoplasmic tendrils burst from his chest to force her wounds closed while others pump her full of manifested blood, squeeze her heart, and flex her diaphragm. His power is still waxing as arcs of electricity roar through the air between him and the conduits leading to the storage array the late Blitzlekov was draining Bruno into. Now all of that crackling energy is pouring back into its rightful owner in a thunderous torrent, echoing Fred’s howl of fury and despair as Wilma remains dead. He’s done a crude repair of her shell, but it’s not enough. Her empty body gasps and pulses in a mockery of life, but there is no Wilma inside. It is Fred operating a puppet. A futile effort. Her spirit is gone. He can smell the gaping absen- wait.
He breathes more deeply, then his eyes blaze with with rainbows of light. Not a complete absence after all. A trail. He smells her trail!
In an act of desperation, Fred tears the last dregs of his power from Blitzlekov’s reservoirs, marshals it, and thrusts his perceptions beyond reality, following the scent of Wilma’s errant soul across dimensions he’s never fathomed. There! She’s right there. The flames consuming him flash and writhe as he strains to cram Wilma’s slippery spirit back into her body, but he cannot grip her. He commands the ferocious, unbridled entirety of a Force, and it is inadequate. Wilma slides through his grasp and fades into the depths of time.
Fred’s focus dissolves, and his wife’s useless body catches fire from the light ripping out of him. Electricity crawls across his skin like maggots on a corpse, and a nearby computer bank explodes in a shower of sparks. He lifts the remains of a palm toward the computers and destroys them. He destroys the file cabinets in the room beyond, the wall behind that, and an eight foot diameter cylinder of earth two miles long behind the wall. The light of the blast glares off a chunk of metal to his side, answered by another swath of destruction from his other palm. The wall above collapses and reveals the facility’s parking lot, where Fred appears floating amid a tornado of shredded cars. Milliseconds later the lot is a typhoon of molten rock and metal whirling above a wide crater.
The blinding hot slurry splashes to the ground below and pools in the crater’s center, shining almost as brilliantly as Fred himself. It has now been nine seconds since Wilma’s murder, and his body is perhaps two seconds from disintegration. He wouldn’t care, but two seconds is not enough time to exact the vengeance demanded by Wilma’s murder. Purpose crystallizes Fred’s mind once more, Bruno billows out around the scraps of his rapidly healing friend, and they vanish with a shared scream of pure rage.
* * *
“Whawazzat?” mumbles Barney as he wakes up amid smoke, blood, and scattered flames. The only answer is Betty’s sobs. He rubs his eyes and looks around to find her kneeling over Wilma’s charred and crumpled body. “Shit! Is she breathing?” Betty doesn’t answer, so he scrambles over with the intent of checking Wilma’s vitals. He now remembers turning to see Wilma fall, red blood pouring out of her back and chest, and an MCO agent glaring at them with an expression of terror and hate, gun still raised. Then the world exploded. He pushes his wife aside and places his fingers on Wilma’s pale, lukewarm neck, then slumps in disbelief.
“S- Sh- Sh- She’s dead, Barney! We- I- Distracted just for a- A- A- And n- now-”
She certainly is dead; there is no doubt about that. Barney crawls away and wraps Betty in a tight hug as he averts his eyes from the lifeless body of his friend.
* * *
Trees gnash their teeth and windows stare in horror as Bruno and Fred appear upon the writhing steps of the Appleton, Wisconsin branch of the Mutant Commission Office. Bruno snarls and screams as he paws the snowy ground, and then they’re barreling through the building, trampling everything in their path. Walls crumble, ceilings collapse, and humans splatter before their wrath. Within a minute, nothing is left but a smoking, gore-ridden pile of rubble. But this was too easy. Far too easy.
Bruno appears in the air above Appleton. There, in the parking lot of a mall. Smoke billows from several burning vehicles, and blue sets of power armor stomp through molten yellow goop as they fight a large, gaunt creature, a wand wielding woman with a huge yellow afro, and a variety of other miscreants. He spreads his wings and angles toward them while Fred quivers with rage.
As Bruno beats the Winnebago Wendigo to death with one of the suits of MCO power armor, a loud voice echoes around the parking lot. “This fight is over, Fred! Stand down or face the implacable justice of the Green Bayesian!”
Fred’s head snaps around and he glares at the scrawny man in the jet pack belching green fire. “They murdered Wilma! We’ll kill them! We’ll kill them all!”
“These backstabbing power hungry goat-fucking piles of trash killed my wife! Do you not feel the ground shuddering before my vengeance? Join me in wiping their taint from this godforsaken mud-ball!”
The Green Bayesian scowls at the carnage littering the parking lot and shakes his head. “I cannot let you do that, Fred. I am no friend of the MCO, but given the fear and mistrust already lurking amid the baseline populace, what you’re doing is only going to make things worse.”
“You’d defend them?” roars Fred. “Them?”
“I am defending us, Fred. Your actions will only fuel more hate. That much is a near certainty, and hate breeds positive feedback loops of destruction. But if you calm yourself now and leave this irrationality behind, we can still salvage the situation and your reputation both!”
“NO! I will destroy the MCO and ALL who support them!”
The Green Bayesian ducks under a thrown set of power armor and then realizes that Fred is gone. His eyes unfocus for an instant as he weighs the probabilities and then he darts forward, narrowly vacating his position before a falling Bruno plunges through it and disappears once more. The Green Bayesian tries dodging again, but there isn’t enough time.
Bruno picks himself up from the splattered “hero” and turns to face the mall as Fred scowls. “This rotten excuse for a city housed those evil piles of shit! We will cleanse the world of its filth!” Bruno breaks into a gallop, screaming a challenge at the Fox River Mall.
* * *
The mall is long gone as Fred and Bruno smash through a school, kick a bus into oncoming traffic, and then charge through a dozen houses, an insurance office, and a credit union to emerge on West College Avenue. The scream of a pediatrician on her way home cuts off abruptly when Bruno stomps through the roof of her car with a sharply clawed foot. Three more such cessations later and he’s skating up the road, kicking cars and trucks out of the way and firing his spikes into the crowd of humans fleeing their vehicles on foot as Fred rants about their impending demise.
Police cars skid to a halt between Bruno and the Appleton City Center. He turns sideways and uses his head and tail as hands to hurl the cruisers through the building, ignoring the humans' harmless little guns entirely. Suddenly he is no longer there, but he reappears moments later in the air above to heave a fuel truck off his back. It crashes through the ceiling and bursts into flames as Bruno glides onto and through the roof of the tall building across the street, which soon becomes a hollow shell crumbling in upon itself to entomb those who’ve died within.
* * *
There is a lot of city and only one Fruno. This is suboptimal, especially with the imminent arrival of the National Guard. Fruno uses a city bus to turn a group of cops into paste, then claws at a maintenance hatch in the street to unearth transmission lines. They snake their head down and bite them while continuing to paint the snow pink above-ground with their main tail and the extra tails growing out of their sides. Some of them have mouths that chew on anything that gets too close, while others shoot spikes at the things that aren’t too close. The two mouths on Fruno’s back that have been helping Fred’s body scream obscenities are joined by a third and fourth as the city’s power pours into them. It’s not as good as trees or bugs, but it’s a lot faster than eating. Their pebbly skin begins to buzz with energy and their various eyes glow more brightly, pulsing in time with the high pitched chanting coming from the city’s icicles. A rocket propelled grenade splashes into Fruno’s hindquarters, and they smile.
* * *
“God,” says Barney as they finally climb out of the ruined building Blitzlekov had used for his trap. “What happened to this place?” He carefully approaches the crater that used to be a parking lot and peers down into it. “I couldn’t have been out that long.”
Betty shakes her head and hugs herself against the cold. “Fred’s completely fucking lost it. I thought he was going to explode. Remember Jessie? How she was glowing near the end?”
Barney shudders, then he eyes the crater and starts backing away. “Is that what…”
“No. Right at the end, he did something to get it under control and then teleported north somewhere. I’m not sure where. His thoughts were too damn fast and muddled. Something about apples and vengeance?”
“Could be. Yeah, if they’re the nearest MCO branch, it would fit.”
Barney sighs. “We have to stop him, Betty.” He eyes the cracked and warped street across from the crater. Several wrecked cars block the middle of it, no drivers in sight. There are more cars parked by the warehouse on the other side. Some have been damaged by rubble, but several look functional.
She nods and starts leading him around the crater. “The nearest people are this way. It’ll be faster to carjack them than to hot-wire one of those.”
“Or we could just ask for a ride.”
“Maybe. But do you want to get them to drive us toward danger? Safer for them if we just take their car and do the driving ourselves.”
“Borrow, not take.”
* * *
Bruno snorts amid the flames that now wreathe Appleton. The tangy scent of burning ectoplasm wafts off Bruno’s bubbling flesh into Fred’s nose, but neither seems to mind. A green and purple striped eye on Bruno’s back flicks upward and spots a plane pouring water into the blaze. That will not do. They appear above the plane and rip off one of the wings before leaping away to study the burning city below them. The Fox River cuts a thin swath of wet, hypothermic safety through the blaze, but it’s no matter. Both halves of the city are alight, burning with all the colors of the rainbow. Wilma loved rainbows.
Dark specks out on Lake Winnebago draw Fred’s attention. Most of Appleton’s residents are hemmed in by the fires, unable to escape justice, but many of those along the coast are attempting to flee out onto the ice. Fools. Fred twitches the reins and Bruno banks toward the south. This lake will not quench his rage.
Large amounts of broken ice and many screams later, Bruno swims to shore while Fred turns his head south-west toward Madison, the state capital. Appleton is done, but Appleton is only the beginning. They may have housed this branch of the MCO, but it was the State of Wisconsin that allowed them to operate upon her soil in the first place. Then there are the feds and the other forty-nine states. Not to mention whatever other shithole countries out there tolerate the MCO within their own borders. This is not merely a fight or a battle, a petty lashing out for revenge. This is war. The Wilma War. Fred lifts his gaze from the horizon to the sun, hovering near its low winter zenith. It’s been an hour since she died. Recharging via mains power helped, but it’s not enough to fight a war. More power will be required to end this in anything resembling a reasonable time frame. Fred nods at the sun, the big ball of fusion powering this pathetic crap-heap of a world, and plans unfurl their veined wings within his mind. “Time for a game of thermonuclear war, Bruno.”
* * *
The ground almost feels like it’s dropping out from under him as Barney navigates an aging pickup truck through the intensely burning wreckage of Appleton. He’s seen Fred lose control before. All four of them are still banned from California for the time Fred and Bruno got carried away after The Twill Tweedster’s boredom blast knocked Wilma out and they smashed a bunch of redwoods while apprehending him. Then there was the rampage in Oklahoma when Tinfoiler blocked her empathy from calming Fred until she was able to catch up and make physical contact. Nobody had moved into that subdivision yet, but Fred hadn’t known that beforehand. Barney still has nightmares sometimes of the night Tim was born. Only a few people had died. But this… From the level of destruction he’s seen so far, thousands of innocent people have already been lost. Maybe a lot more. That thick wall of fire they barreled through at the outskirts of town felt a lot like a perimeter. He wants to believe that this isn’t like Fred. That his friend is being framed, or possessed, or anything but this.
“But we know better,” Betty says quietly, though her voice raises as she continues. “This dricked out berserker shit is why we retired, dammit!”
Barney swerves around a pair of wrecked cars, fishtails around a corner, and then skids to a stop as he sees a monstrous rendition of Bruno ahead bathed in the purple light of a nearby fire. “There he is!” he yells as Bruno picks up a car in his primary mouth and seems to test its heft.
“Fred! Wait!” Betty shouts telepathically, but it’s too late. The colorful flames of Appleton have reverted to mainly orange and yellow, and Fred is gone. “Shit. Barney, he just jumped to fucking Russia. Fucking goddamn Russia!”
“Any idea why?”
Betty scowls grimly. “Pretty sure that fuckwit’s gone hunting for nukes. Barney, we need to get the fuck out of here.”
“Barney, I distinctly heard him think the words ‘nuclear hellfire’ before he left.”
“Shit. Now what?”
Betty sags back in her seat. “We go the fuck home, that’s what. Far, far away from Wisconsin. Maybe even move to Karedonia. He’s fixated on destroying Wisconsin and then anywhere else with MCO. No fucking MCO in Karedonia.”
“Share an island with Gizmatic?” Barney winces. “I’d rather be nuked.”
“Then it’s homeward to Nevada. Plenty of empty fucking space; we should be okay there.”
“No. We have to at least try to stop him.”
“Barney, what the fuck do you think we were just fucking doing?”
“Fine, fine. We’ll fucking try to stop him. But don’t come crying to me when we get ourselves nuked to fucking hell.”
“Sure.” He rubs at his side and groans. “But this is bigger than just us, and we’re running on fumes. We need help if we’re going to get there in time.”
“After we save the world, honey. Help me find somewhere with a cell signal.”
* * *
Normally Fred does not need keys, but a nuclear silo is not the sort of place one can simply teleport into, not without disabling the wards first. Fortunately, the Earth spins very fast, and supersonic cars make excellent skeleton keys. Of course, much like the situation with the silo, a thermonuclear warhead is not something one can simply walk up to, pull a pin, and toss at one’s enemies. Fred is fixing that now-
No matter. This will be a magnificent test! They grab the second warhead, then Bruno and Fred skip through space to a safe vantage point.
* * *
Верховный Медведь Справедливости вздыхает и протирает спину к дереву. Такова жизнь! Сохраните невинных, победить злодеев, выпить свою водку и закончить все это, потирая спину хорошо и забывая о заботах и раздорах. Это простая жизнь, с простые вещи, достаточными для того, чтобы поддерживать медведя комфортно. Его довольные мурлыки останавливаются с ослепительным светом. У Верховный Медведь Юстиции достаточно времени, чтобы заметить, что свет исходит из направления старой советской базы Воркуты. Волосатый человек исчезает, сведено к облученным золам, наряду с большинством из девяноста тысяч жителей Воркуты.
* * *
“Sir! We’re picking up seismic readings consistent with a nuclear detonation in Russia. Maybe thirty megatons.”
“Russia’s a big place, son. Where?”
“Komi Republic, in the vicinity of Vorkuta.”
* * *
“Hang on a sec,” Dellswitch says to Betty over the phone, and the air beside the truck sparkles briefly before being left behind as the truck continues down the road. “Hey, come back!”
Barney looks in the rear-view mirror to see Dellswitch standing beside the road with her hands on her hips and a rune-covered brick of a phone floating in the air beside her head. He pulls a u-turn and rolls up beside her while Betty scoots over to make space in the cab. “Sorry about that,” he says while she climbs in.
“I should have warned you. It’s just that it’ll be easier to talk in person. Besides, I’m not made of minutes, ya know.”
“Neither are we,” says Betty through gritted teeth.
“Right, you sounded distressed. So, Betty, dear, could you repeat what you were saying on the phone? The signal was pretty bad and it almost sounded like you said Fred’s gone off the rails and plans to nuke Wisconsin. Wouldn’t that be a trip!”
“That’s exactly what I fucking said!”
* * *
Fred and Bruno appear just above Oshkosh amid a swirl of heavily armed snowflakes. Oshkosh? More like Oshkaboom. People stagger and windows shatter as the shock wave of the dinosaur’s supersonic passage hits them. Bruno himself expends three sets of wings in his deceleration. Then as he settles to the ground, he stops existing inside Oshkosh and exists upon the interstate outside Madison instead. Vehicles skid and crash around him, their horns, tires, and crumpling frames reproducing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in heavy metal as the dinosaur stretches and begins marching toward the doomed city. They could have simply dropped the nuke out of the sky above Madison, but that would have been far quicker and less painful than these snow-blasted shit-lickers deserve! They need to see Fred and Bruno coming, in all their glory, and know that their time is nigh. They need to worry and tremble and suffer over their impending doom! They must be made to feel the same terror Wilma experienced as she saw and felt her precious blood gushing out of her body and the darkness closing in. They will pay for that transgression! They will-
Bruno sniffs and Fred squints as the air ahead of him sparkles with the smell of magic and disgorges a speeding pickup truck. He recognizes Dellswitch climbing out of the moving vehicle’s window, one hand supporting her weight on a gnarled broomstick that sprouts from a bangle as she extricates herself. She seems exhausted and looks to be panting for breath, her normally green hair nearly brown. She glances back at him with abject terror clear on her face, looks back into the truck briefly, and makes a show of tapping her trembling wrist. Then she shoots off toward Madison at a couple hundred miles per hour with a finger held to her temple, rumpled robes flapping furiously in her wake. Good. She’ll be his herald, informing them of his approach and initiating the panic. And she’ll gather the opposition. Those who would stand in the way and defend Wilma’s murderers. Dellswitch will summon them together into one convenient place, ripe for the nuking. Bruno trumpets his angry approval through his several snouts.
The truck, however, doesn’t flee. Instead, it meekly pulls off to the side to give Bruno plenty of space to march past. Clearly those peons inside know their place. Shame they’ll likely be caught in the fallout anyway, but one cannot make a nuclear omelette without irradiating most of one’s eggs. And this will be a massive omelette. Of vengeance. Wilma loved omelettes, and Fred will take care to make sure this one is made from all the bad eggs in Madison. All the politicians and bureaucrats and enablers who permitted those treacherous fucking ass-wipes in the Mutant Control Office to gain a foothold in-
“Fred! Fucking stop already, we’re here to help, you goddamned cock-brained fuckwit!”
Fred blinks and looks around. The pickup hasn’t sat still while he passed. It has the impertinence to drive alongside him, keeping pace as though it thinks itself his equal! Bruno flexes his tails but hesitates slightly at the familiar smells coming from inside.
“Dammit, Fred, that’s us in that truck!” Images flash into his mind, complete with helpful name-tags in bold letters identifying them as Betty and Barney.
Fred leans out of the cab and shouts down at the open driver’s window. “What took you assholes so long? This is war! There’s no time for dicking around while evil festers!”
“Fred!” shouts Barney. “You’re dricking the hell out! Calm down, man!”
“CALM DOWN?!” bellows Fred while Bruno bristles with even more spikes. “They murdered Wilma! Vengeance will be ours!”
“Not for long if you keep this up! Look, you already killed Blitzlekov, that MCO team, and probably most of Appleton! You’ve gotten your vengeance, and then some!”
“We are not satisfied! A broken city does not bring Wilma back from the dead. She’s gone. Gone forever! We can’t bring her back! We tried! But we can make the world suffer for her loss! We will ensure it! One by one, we will destroy those who took Wilma from us. There is no glory in this. No magnificence. Only righteous fury. Cleansing wrath! The purging pungence of-”
The truck’s horn interrupts his rant, then Barney leans out the window, trusting Betty to take the wheel. “What about Tim, Fred? What about Susan? Will you kill your children? Wilma’s children?”
He sneers at his friend. “We will kill all who stand in the way! If my children choose to interfere, we’ll…” Fred’s face twitches and some of Bruno’s spikes droop. “If they….” His eyes rapidly pulse between red, green, and cyan, the left out of sync with the right. “They would not dare interfere! None shall stand before our atomic cleansing!”
“They’re not going to interfere, you fucking idiot,” says Betty, “but they are going to get caught up in this!”
“We will destroy any who dare to involve my children!” Bruno trumpets in agreement, then lashes out with a pair of tails to destroy an overturned trailer blocking their way.
“Yeah? But that won’t fucking bring them back to life, will it, Fred? They’ll be as dead as Wilma, and-”
“WE’LL KILL THEM ALL!” Both of his eyes are plaid, now, but the patterns don’t match. He’s seen the inside of two nukes, and a schematic spreads through his mind, several spots fuzzier than the rest. Deploying this second one here in Madison will fill in the remaining blanks, and then he’ll be able to produce as many as he needs. “OUR WRATH KNOWS NO BOUNDS!”
“FRED!” yells Barney while slamming a hand against the side of the truck to get his attention. “Focus, Fred! We need to prevent anyone from getting your kids involved. Not retaliate. Prevent. Do you understand me?”
“Preemptive strikes…” mutters Fred.
“No! You’re not fucking listening! You’re going to turn the entire fucking world against your dumb ass!”
Bruno spears another car as Fred snorts. “They turned us against them, and we will scour this entire mud-ball of their filth!” Powder-blue cockroaches skitter through his mind and nudge the schematics into more optimal configurations. Yes, channeling the alpha particles into a Tesla Matrix will yield a more deadly quantum sudsing. The roaches writhe and burn as the radiation seeps between their joints, and Fred begins to laugh.
“You’ll die, Fred! And then what will Tim and Susan do?”
Fred’s laughing intensifies, and the stripes in his eyes flicker between orange and electric blue while the field pulses through shades of violet. His laughter halts abruptly and he glares at Barney. “Die? No.” Bruno smiles all over his body as Fred begins to scream toward Madison. “WE ARE THE UNKILLABLE MOUTHS OF FATE! OURS IS THE GNASHING OF TEETH THAT WILL CHEW THE WORLD INTO SUBMISSION! TREMBLE BEFORE OUR NUCLEAR MASTICATION!”
“That’s- Hey! Listen to me!” Barney jambs a knee into the horn for a few seconds until Fred makes eye contact. “That’s bullshit and you know it!” Barney shakes his head. “And even if you were unkillable, you can’t kill the whole world before they get to your children! How long has it already been, Fred? They’re home alone right now, aren’t they? Didn’t you say you hadn’t had time to find a sitter?”
“They’re fine, you dolt! We’re avenging their mother! This is they want!”
“Daddy where are you?” says a voice in his head, not unlike Susan’s. “Where’d you go, Daddy? I’m scared.”
“I know that’s you, Betty! They’re fine. Tim’s nearly five. He’s my son! He’s magnificent! Glorious! He can take care of himself and watch over Susan while I eliminate our enemies!”
“Daddy, what is ant- antifer- antifreeze?” asks a passable imitation of Tim’s voice. “It’s yummy!”
Bruno’s march falters and the pattern in Fred’s right eye flips over to greyscale.
“What was it Barney said, way back when?” asks Betty, her mental voice suddenly softer than normal. “Don’t get yourself killed over someone who’s dead when there are fucking live-ass people who still need you. Your kids need you, Fred. You. Not this dricked out vengeful rageball. They need you. They need their father. Their daddy.”
Bruno slows to a stop as Fred twists his head from side to side, neck taught. Then he blinks and the frenetic plaid glow of his eyes resolves into a solid violet. “What have we done?” he whispers. Bruno fizzles out with a whimper and Fred falls to the ground and his knees, all glowing extinguished. “What have we done?”
The truck screeches to a stop and Barney rushes out, followed closely by Betty. “It’s going to be okay, Fred,” says Barney as he crouches down to wrap his stunned friend in a hug. “It’s going to be okay.”
“No. No it isn’t. It’s too late.”
“It’s to late, Barns. I’ve ruined it. Once again, I’ve ruined everything!” He shoves free and begins to pace. “I’ve ruined my children’s lives. Not even a day on- on my own and I’ve already fucked it all straight to hell! What kind of fuckin' role model am I? I’m a mass murderer. A terrorist. I can’t do this. I can’t raise those kids. I’ll just fuck it up even more! All I am is a stupendous fuckup. And I’ll be hunted. We’ll be hunted. I’ve dragged them into a war. They’re not safe. I’ve fucked everything up! Every fucking goddamn thing! Those motherfuckers! I’ll kill them all! I’ll-”
Betty slaps him, and the glow that has starting to flicker back to life drains from his eyes. “Shut it, Fred. You fucked up. Fine. Panicking isn’t going to help. Dricking out isn’t going to help. Continuing your murder spree isn’t going to fucking help. So pull your goddamned dinoshit together and focus. Wilma’s not here to hold your fucking hand anymore, and we all know I can’t do that shit. So, the damned training wheels are off. Pull on your big boy panties and start fucking pedalling.”
Fred nods and resumes pacing. “Right. Right. So, what do I do? This isn’t something I can fix.”
“Well,” says Barney, scratching his head with a wince. “I see two options. You turn yourself in, apologize, and take your lumps…”
Fred laughs in derision. “No. My kids need me. That’s the only thing keeping me sane right now. ‘What would Wilma do?’ I am there for my kids. End of fucking story. Any option that doesn’t involve me being there for them means I go there,” he points sharply at Madison, “AND WIPE THEM OFF THE FUCKING MAP!” He shakes the purple out of his eyes and takes a deep breath. “I stay with my kids.”
Barney nods. “And that’s the other option. You take your kids and disappear.” He glances toward Madison. “Preferably before those guys get here and make things more complicated.”
Fred follows Barney’s gaze and sees several rapidly approaching figures in the sky. He nods and gives the Reubens a grim smile. “Right. Do you two need a lift back to Nevada?”
“No,” says Betty. “Dellswitch knows we weren’t a part of your rampage and that we’re the ones who just talked your dumb ass down. We’re clean right now, but if we leave with you, that’ll be fucking suspicious.”
Barney nods. “We’re going to stay here to give them a very thorough and lengthy explanation of what all happened today.”
“We’ll cover our own asses and buy you as much time as we can before they start hunting. Besides, they’ve got a pretty good healer here, right? Because we fucking need it.”
“Thank you,” says Fred. Then he sprouts a dinosaur out of his ass and vanishes.
Fred walks into his house apprehensively. He’s not sure how to tell his kids what happened to their mom. Susie is probably too young to even understand death yet. His face twitches and he slams the door, shattering the glass inlay and sending a picture frame crashing to the floor. He closes his eyes and takes a breath, then crouches to fish the photo out of the mess. It’s a family portrait from last fall. Susie and Tim are sitting in huge hollowed out pumpkins with Wilma between them, all three beaming at the camera as Fred sneaks up behind them wielding a meat cleaver. He stares at it and teeters between unbridled rage and forlorn hopelessness until a rapidly approaching scampering sound demands his attention. He sets the photo on a shelf and walks into the kitchen, then nearly falls over when Tim comes running up and jumps on him.
“Daddy Daddy, you’re home! Where were you guys we were hungry! I hadda cook!” Tim seems proud of cooking.
Fred hugs him tightly, then sets him down and glances around the kitchen. It is the messiest he has ever seen any kitchen, ever. Among other things, there are mustard smiley faces painted on the fridge, a puddle of what Fred hopes is vegetable oil on the floor, mayonnaise splattered everywhere, and a chair leg stuck in the garbage disposal. Then there’s the abstract expressionist ketchup art on the ceiling. And… “Tim! What happened?” Fred points at the scorched wall by the stove.
Tim’s enthusiasm fades a little, and he mumbles, “I tried to make pancakes. It didn’t work.”
“You caught the wall on fire! You could have burned the house down!”
“No, it’s okay Daddy! I used the water sprayer in the sink to put it out! I don’t think the stove likes baths though. It zapped me. I think it needs a time-out.”
Fred tries to keep his growing sense of horror under control. He doesn’t even ask about the shattered remains of the fire alarm. The meat tenderizer lying on the floor below next to an overturned chair is explanation enough, though the feathers nearby confuse him. He continues taking stock of his ransacked kitchen and notices something more worrying. “Why is that on the counter?” Fred asks, pointing to a box of Tide.
“Um, because I told you I was making pancakes? Pay attention, Daddy!”
Fred ignores the snotty tone for now. He notices a cake pan nearby with tinfoil over it. “You made a cake with Tide?”
“No silly! Pancake mix isn’t for cakes! I used the cake powder for that!” Tim points off toward the pantry, where Fred can see a tipped over Tupperware container with the top missing and flour all over the floor, a steak knife embedded in its side.
Hesitantly, Fred lifts the tinfoil cover off the cake pan. Underneath he finds a burnt and misshapen mess of half-eaten cake covered with uneven frosting, with what looks like slices of banana and carrots scattered over it. Desperate to distract himself from how close Betty’s prophesy came to reality, Fred tries to look on the bright side. Like Wilma would. His heart lurches. “Wow,” he says with forced cheer. “You made this all by yourself?” He eyes the flakes of what look like coconut; he thought they were out of coconut. Something looks off.
“Almost!” Tim says, beaming. “Susie helped a little. We even put in all the food groups! See, there are fruit and veggies and the cake counts as bread, and we didn’t know if the milk still counted since we couldn’t see it after it cooked, so we added pizza cheese!”
That explains the white flakes. “What about protein? Did you use peanut butter?”
“No! Peanut butter isn’t meat!” Fred starts to explain about protein, but then he sees something moving in the cake and freezes. Tim continues his explanation. “We were gonna use beef but Susie couldn’t catch a cow. She promised she would but she didn’t.” Fred stares at the cake in horror while an earthworm oozes out into the messy gap where a slice of cake had been clumsily removed. “So, we hadda use worms instead!” Tim moves the Tide out of the way and points at a crumpled carton from the Hanson and Sons Bait Shop down the road. “Smart, huh!”
Fred suppresses Bruno’s urge to lick their lips and slowly turns to face his son instead. “Tim, I appreciate your attempt, but you aren’t allowed to cook anymore. Ever.”
“Where’s your sister? Is she okay?”
“She’s in bed. She said her tummy didn’t feel good.”
“I wonder why,” Fred mutters as he carefully exits the kitchen into the hall. Fortunately, negotiating the pots and pans and boxes in his way means he is keeping his eyes on the ground, so he doesn’t step in the puddle of puke just outside Susie’s bedroom door. Stepping around it, he starts to take a deep breath before opening her door, fearing the worst. The breath is cut short when he gets a big whiff of the puke.
Inside, he finds Susan happily coloring away in her unicorn coloring book with her earphones on. She looks up and sees Fred, and the smile runs and hides, replaced by a look of fear. Fred is taken aback by this, his relief that she’s not lying in a puddle shaking and foaming at the mouth cut short. “What’s wrong, Susie? It’s just me!” Did he miss a spot when he had Bruno lick off his bloodstains before he came inside?
Susan tries to hide her boom-box behind her butterfly wings and puts on a fake smile. This isn’t very effective since she’s only two and a half years old and the boom-box is almost bigger than she is, even with the wings. “Daddy, hi!” she says. “I colored you a picture!” She hands the coloring book to him and wrings her hands.
Fred squints at her for a moment, then examines the coloring book. At first he thinks she did a really bad job of staying in the lines, but then he realizes that she was intentionally adding on to the picture. She colored the unicorn pink with a light blue mane, then she added in a black collar with massive silver spikes, and she put flames or sparkles around the unicorn’s horn, hooves, mane, and tail. He isn’t sure about the character she added to the background, but it looks like a demon playing a guitar, and it’s shooting eye-beams at… “Is that a monkey, Susan?”
“Sloth is what’s for dinner!”
“Ohh, I see.” He pauses for a moment at a loud Tim-sized thump from upstairs, then he looks at the picture again. “I didn’t know unicorns ate sloths.”
“That’s what her horn is for! But Bubbles is friends with Mr. Devil so she doesn’t hafta get blood on her pretty hair cuz he has look-no-hands rays!”
As Fred continues pondering her picture, she starts unconsciously humming along to her music. Suddenly Fred understands why she’s being so cagey with her boom-box – she’s listening to one of his heavy metal CDs, which are supposed to be off-limits to the kids. That probably explains the coloring book too. He flips back through a dozen pages. Yeah, it’s only the last few that are getting weird. Whatever, he’ll deal with that later. “Susie, Tim said you were sick earlier. Are you feeling better now?”
“Mmm hmm! All better!”
“That’s good.” He gives her a hug and feels her forehead. Seems normal.
Fred winces. “Um, well, let’s go get Tim and I’ll tell you both together, okay?” He hears another thump, this one hard enough that it rattles a picture frame. “What’s he doing up there, anyway?”
“He’s playing with Birdie!”
“She’s grey and silver and white and pretty and poops a lot! Can we keep her?”
Fred groans. He’d thought he already missed Wilma as much as he possibly could, but he’d been wrong. Raising these kids on his own, while on the run from the MCO and who knows who else? He is starting to feel just a little bit utterly terrified. Well, on the plus side, they won’t have to clean this place up since he’s planning to go into hiding immediately.
Fred gets up and snatches the headphones off Susan’s head, putting them on his own before she can react. He’s morose enough that he doesn’t even have to suppress a grin. He just aims a sharp look at Susan, who is frantically shutting off the boom-box. He takes the earphones off and scoops her up into his arms.
“Daddy, am I in trouble?” she asks, already starting to tear up.
Fred sighs. “You should be, but we’re all in trouble today, darling, so don’t worry about it. This is not a good day, and we’re going to break a lot more rules before we go to bed. In fact, I’m even gonna let you and Tim use as many bad words as you want today.” They venture out into the torn up house and follow the thumping upstairs to collect her partner in crime.
Four hours later finds them driving down an Alabama road in a stolen car with a pigeon riding shotgun. The kids have both cried themselves to sleep in the backseat. Fred doesn’t know where he’s going to go next or what he’s going to do, but he’ll figure something out. He has to.
* * *
“Hello, World,” says Fred with a grim, haggard expression. “I’m Fred. You probably know that already. What you may not know is that the MCO murdered my wife. Yes, I’ve seen the video they’ve been waving around. It’s fake. I was there. I know the truth. And honestly, I don’t give two shits if you believe me. You don’t need to believe me. It won’t bring back Wilma if you do. But what you do need to believe is that if the MCO fails to get their shit together over the next sixteen years, or worse, if they ever fuck with the people I love again, I will wage war against them, I will destroy them, and I will destroy every fucking person and thing that stands in my way. The only reason I’m not out there doing this right now is that I have children who need me. Don’t. Fuck. That. Up. That is all.”
Dr. Walters purses his lips and shuts off the television, then spends the next ten minutes drumming his fingers on his desk as he waits for the phone to ring. Finally the call comes. “The samples are viable? Excellent. You are a true asset to the MCO, Miss Sullivan. Meet me in Lab Seven in fifteen minutes. Operation Lozenge is to begin immediately.”