Loose Cannons (Chapter 1)
A Perfect Storm over California
A Whateley Story
by Bek D Corbin
They’re gonna clean up your looks
With all the lies in the books
to make a citizen out of you.
Because they sleep with a gun
and keep an eye on you, son
so they can watch all the things you do.
Because the drugs never work
They're gonna give you a smirk,
Cause they got methods of keeping you clean
They gonna rip up your heads
Your aspirations to shreds
Another cog in the murder machine
They said all Teenagers scare
the living shit out of me
they could care less
as long as someone'll bleed
So darken your clothes
or strike a violent pose
Maybe they'll leave you alone
But not me.
The boys and girls in the clique
The awful names that they stick
Your never gonna fit in much, kid
But if your troubled and hurt
What you got under your shirt
Will make them pay for the things that they did.
- ‘Teenagers’, My Chemical Romance
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
It was your average morning, at least for me. I was up at the crack of dawn, and had the place cleaned up for inspection. I was dressed for school when ‘Major Dad’ (actually, he was a lieutenant colonel, but hey) came down and we had breakfast. He gave me some shit about the length of my hair, and launched into the ‘a firm hand is needed’ speech, to excuse our ‘homework session’ last night. Oh please! That’s so lame, even Dr. Phil could see right through it! He just needs someone to vent on, and I was the only one still stuck with him. If anything, his ‘tutoring’ sessions are only fucking with me wrapping my head around calculus. But the Dadinator was still trying to pass it off as ‘bonding time’ - I wondered when he was going to break out the handcuffs and leather. Sometimes I still wonder if we really were happier as a family before Mom lit out, or if she was taking all of his crap for us back then.
Finally, breakfast time ended, and I was allowed to leave for school. Dad left for his job as a USAF liaison officer to the California State government in Sacramento. I walked carefully, making sure that no one from school saw me. I don’t think that any one in the sophomore class lives near me, but hey, you never know. As soon as I was out of the immediate neighborhood, and I was sure that Major Dad wasn’t coming back, I ducked into a Gap and used their changing booth. They knew me, and I did occasionally buy stuff there, so they were cool with it. I slipped out of the white linen shirt and blue slacks nerd suit that He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed insists is appropriate schoolwear, and into something a little less ‘Richie Cunningham’. A black ‘ribcage’ T-shirt, black jeans, sneaks, a belt with a Biohazard trefoil buckle and a kicking black denim jacket with a ‘My Chemical Romance’ patch on the back. I mussed up my hair, and I might not be the most stylin’ guy at Martin Sammish High, but at least I didn’t have ‘victim, amuse yourself’ tattooed on my forehead.
One of the really great things about walking to school through affluent neighborhoods is that you would not believe the stuff that people throw out, especially in terms of electronics. I mean, JEEZ, don’t people understand ‘repair’ anymore? But that just meant that with a little ingenuity, the parts costs for my electronics projects were minimal. I picked up a few things here and there, and… get this! Someone threw away an iPhone knockoff! KEWL! Just what I needed!
Marty Sam is one of the larger, but certainly not the largest, high schools in Sacto with somewhere between 1400 and 1500 students, depending on the current class. Which means that there’s a pretty high level of anonymity, especially if you’re an Air Farce brat who didn’t go to Middle School with any of those feebs. Which is not to say that I didn’t know people - or that people don’t know me. There was some disagreement as to which label to stick on me. Some people think that I’m a Goth or an Emo, ‘cause of the way that I dress. Gimme a break! Okay, I occasionally get a little depressed - I got my reasons - but I don’t make out like I’m some horribly oppressed minority or something, just ‘cause I think that it’s cool to be an oppressed minority or anything. Okay, a couple of the Gothlings at school are cool, but as for most of them, if I were bigger, I’d probably kick their ass just to pop their heads out of it. Or not. Don’t have a lot of use for jocks or thugs. Mostly because they seem to have a vested interest in ‘proving’ that I’m gay. Okay, I’m a little ‘curious’ - and I definitely have a few gender issues. I’m not really sure, just ‘curious’. Dunno what it means, but I can’t really get into either the ‘kick the fags asses’ or the ‘pink power’ mindsets. A few people seem to think that I’m a doper, ‘cause I sort of zone out in class now and again. I’m not. Okay, I’ve been known to take a drag from a joint now and again, but walking around in a haze isn’t my idea of a good time.
Mostly, I’d say that I’m BORED. Like, outta my skull. Now, I am not some uber-genius or anything. Okay, I took the test to get into Mensa and passed it, but DUDE! That’s Mensa! They’ll take in anyone willing to pay the dues and cop the ‘tood! No, what it is, is that I’m a reasonably smart kid whose parents rode him with spurs. I’m a soph, and the Dadinator is cramming Advanced Calculus down my throat. I read at a college level in History, Philosophy, Psychology, Chemistry, Physics, and World Affairs. I get straight A’s - again, not because I’m a super-brain, but because Major Dad won’t settle for less. BUT, despite the fact that I could get into freaking HARVARD with my test scores, I’m slogging through sophomore level classes in a school system that’s not exactly world-famous for its high standards. This is nothing new; I’ve been bored stupid in most of my classes in most of my schools. But at my last school, I learned that it wasn’t cool to hog class time having involved discussions with the teacher about whatever, showing off how smart and well read I was. Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa, people. Hey, I learned better.
Fortunately, I do have ways of amusing myself and blowing off some of the pressure that Dadimus Prime keeps sloughing off on me. I started my first bit of performance art by buying a cup of primo java from one of the concession carts out in front of the school. Now, while I enjoy a cup of joe as much as the next pervert, I’m not a huge coffee snob. But Peyton Harrison, one of the local big shot wiseass types who’s decided that I’m his property, IS a huge coffee snob. As I walked to the front door, he sashayed up smiling his ‘I’m bigger and meaner than you are, wimp, and I got backup’ smirk. “HEY! Evan, m’man! Nice of you to buy me a cup of that great Jamaican Blue!” He took the cup from my hand in a ‘give me an ounce of lip and I’ll pour this hot coffee down your ass’ way. He was having such a good time that he never noticed that I had already poured in a clear liquid into the coffee from a phial that I had palmed. And strong coffee covers up so many odd tastes.
No, he didn’t throw up right there from what I poured into the coffee! I mean, how lame is THAT? I would never be that obvious.
The morning session was the usual grind, with the tedium barely broken by a surprise mandatory drug testing for all students. Oh, and a bit of ‘Mission Impossible’ where I managed to switch the perfume of Peyton’s bimbo girlfriend Linda for a compound that neither she nor her pack of bitches noticed.
Lunch was reasonably amusing. I foisted off the phony iPhone that I got the casing for that morning onto Kenny ‘Krazy K’ Loomis, another thugizoid who seemed to think that I existed purely for his pleasure. He thought that he picked up an uber-kewl new iPhone for freezies. But instead of a state-of-the-art multi-communications device, he got a nifty little ultrasonic tone emitter that broadcast a ‘yodel’ of tones that dogs find particularly irritating. It doesn’t repel them, it just pisses them off, major. Good luck walking home, Homey!
But the real fun took more timing. I insinuated myself with the geek table, and was able to put up with them long enough for the other pieces to get into place. I’d managed to steer the conversation to RPGs and from there to the subject of magic in the real world. I saw Peyton go back for seconds, and Linda ‘refresh’ her perfume. Perfect. “Y’know, while scientists really don’t like to admit it, magic does exist in the world.”
“Yeah,” grumped Gary Parsan, who practically lived for Good & Evil Online™. “But it’s real hard to learn, and real mages are hella picky about who they teach.”
“True,” I admitted, being very careful about the timing, “but I have managed to learn a bit or two of the Dark Arts.”
The expected guffaws of skepticism ensued. Naturally - I pick my pigeons carefully - Larry Dover said, “Yeah! PROVE it!”
“Make it worth my while,” I said.
“What do you want to bet?”
“Let’s keep it simple: a favor for a favor. If I can cause Linda Valdez over there to get covered with vomit, you do me a favor. If she gets out of lunch period without getting upchucked on, I owe you a favor.”
“You’re ON, Dude!” I knew that one of them would go for it. It was a win-win deal for them. If I didn’t pull it off, I looked like a punk and owed Larry a favor. If I did, all that he was out was a favor, and he got back at Linda Valdez. While she’s not the prettiest girl in school, or the most popular girl, or a cheerleader, Linda IS the vilest, nastiest, worst nerd-baiting cock-teasing bitch in school, and everyone at that table owed her some serious grief. Like I said, I pick my pigeons carefully.
I pulled out a slip of red paper covered in weird faux-Asian writing in gold paint. I waited until Peyton was on his way back to Linda’s table. I lit the slip of paper and muttered a few things as it burned. Peyton got to the table, leaned over to nuzzle at Linda, and got a whiff of her new ‘perfume’. The compound in her perfume triggered an olfactory response, which in combination with the compound that I’d slipped into that cup of Jamaican Blue, triggered an immediate and irresistible regurgitation reflex.
Short form: Peyton blew chunks all over Linda.
As Linda screamed bloody murder, the guys at the nerd table regarded me with owl-wide eyes. And that, class, is how you get back at two screaming assholes, get a computer whiz to delete all the notices to send to my father regarding all those detentions I keep getting, and develop a reputation as someone you DON’T fuck with, all in one stroke.
* * * * *
I was enjoying the afterglow of my little lunchtime dinner theatre piece, when karma did a hit and run on me. I was standing by my locker doing a little work on something that I intended to pull tomorrow, when a security guard handed me a red detention slip. “What’s THIS?” I asked.
“I was given orders that you were to get detention,” the pudgy, middle-aged non-entity answered me. “Ask Mr. Spader. At detention.”
Now, I didn’t really think much of it at the time. Weird stuff happens to me all the time. No, I’m not a jinx or anything, it’s just that weird stuff happens. And not always to ME (for which blessings, I am duly grateful Lord) it’s just that every so often, something a little off the hinge happens while I’m around. I suspect that it may be part of the reason why the Dadinator holds such a grudge on me. Or, maybe, it’s just that he’s an asshole.
At the duly appointed time, I showed up at detention hall. Hey, if I didn’t show up, they’d call my dad, and I’d rather sit through a thousand detentions than give him any more ammunition. All the regulars were there, and there were a few fresh faces among the froshes. Heck, it was pretty packed in there. But we all knew the drill. We sat down and thought about what we’d done wrong. Or at least wondered about it. Whatever it was. I did some of my homework, and got the usual ration of shit for it. Hey, I figured, get it out of the way, so my time would be my own when I got out of there.
An hour later, Miss Kisskillya dismissed the ‘class’. “Except for-” absently, I started ticking off who she called and wondered what they did to get THIS busted. “- Wendy Blocker-” your basic stone-cold high school uber-bitch, only she didn’t have the weasely cunning to suck up to the teachers. “- Billy Cord-” the local sneak thief. Had a thing about ninjas, and didn’t have the common sense to not broadcast it. “-Ramon Gugleamo-” Your basic banger wannabe. No big shocker there. “-Suzy Kim-” A cute little Korean prankster slash troublemaker. I was only surprised that they’d actually gotten something on her. “-Roxanne Lockhart-” One of the local dopers. Nods off in class every so often. Can’t really blame her. When she’s straight, she’s sharp as a whip. WAY too smart for this school. “-Darcel MacArthur-” Okay, ‘Big Mac’ was a surprise. Mac is a ‘Big Brother’ type, y’know the guy who tries to get close to girls but finds out that they regard him as ‘safe’. Has a real ‘Sir Galahad’ complex, and he’s sent a couple of real assholes to the infirmary and one to the hospital. But, he was protecting a girl at the time, so no charges were pressed. I wondered what he did to get them to drop the hammer on him. “-Isaac Montgomery-” Your basic high school thug. Hangs with Krazy K. No big shocker there. “-Chris Polk-” Okay now I was surprised. Polk was one of the school’s ‘guerilla capitalists’, the guys who buy and sell stuff like scalped tickets, knockoff fashions and like that. Chris sold a little weed, but he wasn’t one of the local pushers. He bought from one of the local pushers, but he didn’t sell anything harder than weed. I’d bought from him a couple of time, just to take the edge off, y’know. Not a bad guy. Good weed. “-Evan Ramsey-”
WHAT? That’s ME!
Wait a minute! What did I do? I didn’t DO anything! At least not that I know I got caught at! I tried to complain, but the security guard just shoved me back down into my chair. They called off the names of Eddie Ramos, Shawn Turner and Rachel Watkins, and told the rest of the losers that they could go. Once the others were out of detention hall, those of us who were still stuck in detention started burbling about how we hadn’t done anything, and what were we supposed to have done? Kisskillya just smirked self-righteously and told us that we’d failed that surprise drug test in the morning. That shut us up. Or at least we were trying to remember whether we’d done any weed in the past few days - or had a poppy seed bagel for breakfast. She told us that we could talk to Principal Spader on a one on one basis, and we’d be taken singly to see him to argue our cases. Damn STRAIGHT I was gonna argue my case! Detention’s one thing, but I sure as HELL didn’t need giving He Who Must Be Insane anything like a drug charge to bust my chops with! Or see me in these clothes, for that matter!
There was a lot of angry muttering as we waited, except for Roxanne Lockhart, who seemed pretty fatalistic about it. Or maybe she was just trying to remember what it felt like to be really stoned. They took us in alphabetical order again, which meant that I spent way more time with Eddie Ramos, Shawn Turner and Rachel Watkins than I’d rather.
Eddie Ramos is your basic meathead. He’s sort of a bully, but it’s not so much that he’s mean, as it is that he has poor impulse control (as the shrinks would say). He just does things without really thinking. He tends to think more with his body than his brain, and since he’s 5’11 and 260 lbs. at least, people tend to get trampled when he gets going.
Shawn Turner is almost Eddie’s polar opposite. Shawn’s one of those scrawny ‘bantam’ black kids, and he’s the type that sandbags all his anger until he can’t hack it anymore, and then he blows up at whoever’s ticking him off at the moment. So, of course, the assholes use him like a jack-in-the-box to amuse themselves. Poor little putz. Hadda feel for him. I was headed in that direction myself, until I learned that you could get the assholes to back off if you showed them that you could get back at them and get away with it.
And Rachel Watkins? Rae’s one of those large angry black girls. And I do mean LARGE. She was in a weight class with Eddie Ramos and Big Mac. She got mistaken for a boy. A LOT. Very thuggy. Hung with Zac Montgomery and Krazy K. Had a few run-ins with her, but nothing major. I got no beef with the Rae-gun. Or, at least, I HOPE that I got no beef with her. She can be scary mean. Godzilla in Mo Def mean.
Anyway, after another 25 minutes of ‘enjoying’ Shawn and Rae’s scintillating company, they finally called my name. I walked into Spader’s office. There were two guys in black suits with red ties and mirror shades standing there. I started to say something but one of them immediately grabbed me and the other one tasered me. It took all of 15 seconds, tops. I hit the floor and that inky pool of blackness that Raymond Chandler was always yakking about swallowed me up.
When I finally woke up, they had me tied up in Hannibal Lecter drag. Straightjacket and anti-bite mask, and propped up on a hand truck so they could move me around. I could just make out through the mask that they had all the other kids jacked up in similar rigs. One of the black suits stepped up and addressed us. “Now that you are all awake, let’s get this out of the way. I am Field Operative Lasker of the Mutant Commission Office. The drug tests that you took this morning show that you are immediately pre-emergent mutants. Pursuant to the Protection of Baseline Children Act of 2004, we are empowered to remove you from the general population of this school for the safety and wellbeing of the baseline students. You will be quarantined for 48 hours, or until it can be established that you are not a threat to the general public, whichever comes first. Safe, painless, and reasonable tests will be performed to determine your mutant traits and your general threat rating. The harder you make this on us, the harder it will be on you. Your parents, guardians or caregivers will be informed of this arrest and your whereabouts and condition. If you try to attack any of the guards or to escape, that will immediately be regarded as an ‘A’ class felony, and you will be treated as a criminal. That is all that we are required by statute to inform you of.”
Lasker (if that really IS his name) had Spader sign a document, handed him a duplicate, and that was that. Janitors wheeled us into a long van, and we drove off.
“This is total BULLSHIT!” I heard one of the boys managed to get out through the mask. I think that it was Chris Polk. “They can’t DO this!”
“Gee,” I managed to sneer, “then this just must be some really incredible simulation, hunh?”
“Don’t they havta wait until we actually, y’know, become mutants before they can do anything?” I think that that was Ramon Gugleamo.
“They’re the MCO,” Rae said fatalistically. “They kin do whateva’ they WANT to, as long’s they keep mutants from tearin’ shit up.”
“But how could they know that we’re mutants before we manifested an overt mutant trait?” That was Roxanne Lockhart. She sounded like she was more puzzled than angry.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “You’re right!” I remembered a few things that I’d heard my dad talking about. “There’s no way to positively identify a mutant, even an active mutant, unless they display an actual mutant power or are deformed or something!”
“That drug test, remember?” Rae said wearily.
“No, he’s right!” That was Billy ‘Stickyfingers’ Cord.
“What do YOU know about it, Naru-turd?” demanded Zac Montgomery.
“You ever see his locker?” Gugleamo asked, “He’s into comic books and superheroes and all that shit, like HUGE. Whaddya know, Turtle-brain?”
“There’s NO WAY to test to see if anyone’s a mutant!” Stickyfingers backed me up. “It’s like this HUGE deal! They can’t spot a mutant, not even by checking their DNA! Leastways, not unless it’s like this huge difference, and they know exactly what to look for!”
“And there’s no way they could do anything like that with a normal drug test,” Roxanne Lockhart droned.
“What about that thing that they held up against our heads?” Big Mac asked. “I got this shock from it.”
“So did I,” went around the van.
“No, wait a minute,” Cord objected. “If they found a way of positively spotting mutants, it would be all over the news! Especially if it was something that you could hold in your HAND!”
“He’s right,” Lockhart sighed.
“Oh, NO…” Rae Watkins groaned.
“Don’t you fucktards GET IT?” she snapped, “If the MCO doesn’t have a way of telling mutants, then these guys ain’t MCO! If they ain’t the fucking MCO, then who ARE they? That fucking idiot Spader just fucking handed us over to a bunch of fucking SCAM ARTISTS! What the fuck do they want with us? What the fuck are they gonna DO with us?” She spent the rest of the (surprisingly short) trip cussing out Spader and spelling out with liberal use of the F-bomb what she’d do to him when she got her hands on him.
The van pulled into something, and we felt the entire van go up for a while. The van stopped, and we were carted off one at a time. They set us up in an unpolished concrete corridor that had a sort of ‘loading dock’ vibe, and wheeled us one at a time through some doors. When I was taken, there were two very large goons in riot gear with truncheons waiting for me. They got me off the handcart and out of the straight jacket, and then they told me to strip. A little lip and a lot of beating later, I was in the buff. They bagged my clothing and told me to put on this white nylon thing that covered my torso and groin, but left my arms and legs bare. It was studded with disks that I think were sensor pads. Once I had that on, they wrestled me out the next door to this weird looking rolling rack. They strapped me into it, in the most awkward of positions, tilted forward looking down, with arms spread and legs wide. I had absolutely NO leverage whatsoever - which was probably the idea. They hooked cables up to the sensors and stuck a few more to various parts of my body. Then I was catheterized and they stuck IV needles in my arms and thighs.
I had a distinct impression that I wasn’t there for a quickie physical.
Then they rolled me into another room, where the kids who had gone before me were strung up like hams, just like me. Some were just hanging there, not bothering to put up a struggle. Others were fighting with everything that they had. Not that it did them any good. Me, I was trying, but I was a lot subtler about it than Big Mac or Zac Montgomery were. I was trying to figure out how we were strapped in, and maybe find a way out when the goon squad wasn’t looking. I actually had a few ideas by the time that they rolled Rae Watkins in, last.
Someone stepped forward and cleared his throat. I craned my neck to see him and got a look at a guy in a lab coat that looked like he could have been cast as ‘the bored obstructive bureaucrat’ in almost any movie. He stuck his hands in his lab coat, and when all of us were paying attention, he spoke. “Listen up, I’m only saying this once, and the only reason that I’m even bothering to tell you, is that it’s been proven that we get better results when the subjects understand what’s going on. What we’re doing is perfectly legal, and utterly ethical. Your parents or guardians and the Sacramento School Board have all signed waivers. They have written you off, as has the rest of the world. You are damaged goods. You have wasted enough of our time, money and effort that would have been better spent elsewhere, and now it appears that you have gone from being mere wastes to active threats. So, you are finally going to be of some use to someone.
“We are researching the formation of a phenomenon known as ‘dynamorphs’. Those of you who wasted your time and money on comic books may be familiar with the concept. If not, I don’t really have time. We have obtained equipment from a rogue researcher popularly known as ‘Doctor Pygmalion’. Besides researching the manifestation of mutant traits, Dr. Pygmalion was also a leader in dynamorph research. He determined that dynamorphs are originally energy forms that he called ‘proto-dynamorphs’, which required a living human host to mature into a full dynamorph. He constructed this device,” Mister Bland indicated this big thing that looked like a prop from an old Star Trek episode, “which combined activating nascent mutant traits with merging the proto-dynamorphs into the subject. He theorized that the conversion process would nurture the proto-dynamorphs to full maturity. And given his rate of success, there may have been something to it.
“You will be loaded one at a time into this device. First, you will undergo the transformation process. If you survive, a proto-dynamorph will be integrated into your body. Please, TRY to survive; we only have so many proto-dynamorphs, we can’t rely on getting any more, and recovering them is very troublesome.”
And that seemed to be that. He looked at us, strung hanging face down in those damn harness things, and seemed like he was deciding which to pick first. Zac Montgomery was struggling like a motherfucker against his restraints, so Mr. Bland picked him first. Zac was wheeled into position into a niche at one end of the dingus, out of our sight. Then some guys in coveralls wheeled in a couple of carts. They carefully attached this thing made of dull yellow metal that looked like a cross between an inside TV antenna and a fancy piece of op art sculpture, to the projecting part that they’d shoved Zac into. There wasn’t any dramatic throwing of the switch, or any big power buildup or anything. The only way that you could tell that anything was happening at all was the way that the tenor of the noises that Zac made changed. He started off mad, got scared, and after a while, you could tell that he was in some serious pain.
After a bit, Zac quieted down and it seemed - from what little I could tell from my awkward position - that he was finishing up. Mr. Bland looked at his watch and gestured. The guys in coveralls inserted a cylindrical cartridge into a hole in the dingus’ side. This time, Mr. Bland did actually throw a switch. It was a lot more dramatic this time. There was a big flare of energy, and this time Zac screamed like he was on fire. Hell, he may have been - there was a sound like meat on the grill and a smell of the worst of burnt hair and charred ham. The scream rattled around for a bit and then died off. Mr. Bland and the coverall-guys scrambled around a bit, and seemed pleased when they were finished. “There! Managed to recover it. Well, he’s done. Remove the body. Let’s see if the next one does any better.” They wheeled out the rack that Zac had been on, and what was dangling there was a charred ruined mess that didn’t really look like anything human.
He looked around for a minute, and there was that icy-cold moment when you’d give up your very best friend in all the world, as long as it wasn’t YOU next. He settled on Wanda Blocker. Wanda screamed like a banshee as they came for her. That was all that Big Mack needed for one of his ‘Sir Galahad’ moments, and he yelled that if they came anywhere near her, he’d rip their heads off. So Mr. Bland said, “Oh. A hero. Take him first, then.”
They wheeled Mack into the dingus and did the same thing again. Only this time, when the big energy flash thing happened, Mack yelled, but there wasn’t any smell of burning… whatever. When they wheeled out his rack, Mack was still… Mack. Twitching and unconscious, but alive.
Then they went for Wanda again. And, surprise, surprise, no new gallant young champion rose to defend the unfair maiden. They put her in and it was pretty much the same, only in a higher pitch. They put in a new cartridge, and Wanda got roasted, same as Zac got. They wheeled her out, and put Suzy Kim in. Suzy came out alive, and so did Eddie Ramos. When they came for Rae Watkins, she started singing ‘Yes, Jesus loves me’ in this hushed scared little girl voice. That was even creepier than the screaming.
Then, the axe dropped, and they came for me. They put me in the niche, adjusted a few probe type things at my head, chest and abdomen from above, the sides and below. Then, after suffering through the anticipation of them doing all their recalibrating crap, they turned the dingus on me.
Once, when I was 13, I went to the dentist and the Novocain died on me before the other painkillers kicked in. Worst 20 minutes of my life, waiting for that codeine to work. And y’know what? I’d have a root canal done on every tooth in my head without any anesthetic, all in one sitting, sitting on a hot plate, listening to new age music, rather than go through what happened when Mr. Bland threw the switch on me again. Yeah, it was THAT bad.
And that’s all I’m gonna say about it. I don’t like thinking about it.
* * * * *
I snapped to complete full awareness, instead of crawling through muddleheaded-ness, like you usually do when you’re coming out after being under for a while. I was blindfolded, facing upside down and in some kind of restraints. I could feel some kind of burning deep inside me. Not like I had acid indigestion, but some sort of energy, like I had a fusion reactor or something inside me, only I couldn’t really place it in any one place in my body. I started to struggle, but the restraints were too strong and I couldn’t get any leverage. Don’t ask me how I knew to do it, I sort of grabbed at the energy and tried to use it to get free. Then this horrible, ear-splitting, head-rattling scream went off in my ear. I struggled to try to get it out of my head, but it only got worse and worse. I lashed out with the energy, but I couldn’t find the source of the shriek. It just got worse and worse, and I just started thrashing around mindlessly and then-
-and then, I moved. When I say that I moved, I don’t mean that I broke out of the restraints, or walked away or ran or anything. I just moved. It was sort of like suddenly falling and then landing somewhere. I fell face down on the floor from maybe a foot or two. The screaming was gone, and I could move my arms and legs again. I still couldn’t see. I groped at my face and felt a mask or helmet over my head. I pulled the helmet off, and I could see again. There was a slight smell of ozone in the air. I looked around, and I found that I was in some sort of small ‘mission control’ room, with lots of monitors that were all showing snow. I looked at the helmet, which appeared to have large headphones built in. The wires from the headphone units looked like some massive force had pulled them out.
I looked around and tried to remember where the fuck I was and what the fuck was going on. I rewound to that morning, followed what happened, all the way to getting tasered. I half convinced myself that everything that happened up to then was some sort of hallucination or dream. There wasn’t anyone around to explain anything, so I went looking for someone to tell me what happened. Though, I gotta say the big weapon looking things that were stored in a rack near the door didn’t exactly give me a lot of confidence in that direction. I snagged one of them, just in case.
There was a hall beyond the door, and another door just beyond that. I carefully peeked in the door, and saw five guys in what looked like combat BDUs, all kicking back sleeping. The room didn’t look like a bedroom, it looked more like a ready room, with books, video games, a snack machine, coffee and like that. The sleeping guys were all in ‘I’m just getting in a few winks while on the job’ positions. Oh yeah - and there was another rack of weapons by their door as well. I gingerly lifted the weapons from the rack and snuck down the hall with them.
I was gently settling them down when I heard something that startled me. I was so fucking tense that I almost dropped them. I got them down without a sound, whirled around and-
-and there was a sword in my hand. Not a real sword, but this pale purple glowing sword-shaped thing. Sort of like a lightsaber would be, if George Lucas had stolen from the Three Musketeers, instead of Samurai movies. I poked it at the wall of the hall, and it went through the wall like it was red hot and the wall was soft butter. I waved it around, and it didn’t make that ‘vrrrnhhh…’ sound that lightsabers make. Somehow, I knew how to ‘sheath’ it, and it just… went away…
The weirdness just keeps happening.
Then I heard again what had startled me in the first place. “jesusloves methisIknowforthebibletellsmeso-” sung slightly off-key and very muffled. Flashing on what had happened before I got thrown on the barbecue, I knew that it just HAD to be Rae Watkins. Hey, the Rae-gun and I may not exactly be tight, but I’m betting that my odds against those guards would be a lot better with that 100-gallon high-pressure tank of barely contained rage on my side. The hall was lined with open doorways, and they all were rigged out like a hospital ward for keeping the Incredible Hulk sedated - big reinforced (massively reinforced in some cases) racks with ICU gear watching the ‘patients’. Most of the ‘patients’ had helmets on like I’d had. I followed the sound of ‘Yes, Jesus Loves Me’ to one room. A large figure was hanging from one of those massively reinforced racks, and the song was coming hollowly from within the helmet.
The helmet had the headphone things, and from the ‘buzz’, I guessed that Rae was having her eardrums shattered, probably as a punishment for trying to escape from the shackles. Which suggested that they thought that her doing just that was a real possibility. I switched off the machine that was monitoring her, but the buzz was still going. So I called forth that sword thing and trimmed the wires from the helmet. She reacted slightly to the stop in the buzz. At least it hasn’t scrambled her brains. Hopefully, she’ll be sane enough that she won’t try to rip me apart when I get her out of that thing. Still, better safe than sorry. I removed the speaker unit from one of the headphones.
“Rae? Rae, you still with us?”
“Wha?” came muffled through the helmet. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Evan Ramsey.” All I got was a confused noise back. Suppressing an annoyed grunt, I said, “We were in detention together, just before that ratsass Spader called us in and got us tasered? Tall, thin, good-lookin’ white guy, black jeans, skeleton T-shirt?” Nothing. “I was the guy you and Zic-zac was givin’ a hard time for doing his homework in detention, remember?”
NOW she placed me. “Yeah? How’d you get loose?”
“T’tell the truth, I’m still tryin’ to figure that part out. Now be quiet. I’m gonna cut you loose, but you can’t be thrashing around. There are guards sleepin’ on the job just down the hall. We make too much noise, and I’ll be lucky if they just put me back in traction.” Figuring that I’d get more cooperation if she could see, I pulled the helmet off her.
She shook her head and looked up at me. “Hey! Who’re YOU?”
“I just TOLD you - Evan Ramsey.”
“That’s a GUY.”
“What are you - omigawd…” I looked down at my body, which was shown off by the white nylon ‘bathing suit’. My perspective was a little off, but there was no mistaking the two bumps up front. I poked them experimentally. Yep, I felt it. Nobody’d stuck a couple of joke breast forms on me. I reached down to where my right hand’s best friend and his two little round buddies should be and - nothing. I admit it, ‘gender and sexuality issues’ or not, I spaced for a second.
Rae snapped at me to get me out of it. “Now get me OUT of this thing!” she struggled in her harness. I ‘unsheathed’ my sword. “HEY! What the FUCK is that?”
I shushed her. “Let’s just say that these,” I hefted one breast with my off hand, “are the least of the weirdness that’s happened to me. Remember they threw us in that weirdness machine? Now keep still, I haven’t exactly had a lot of practice with this thing.” I started to cut her hands free, but thought better of it and started with her feet. She caught on and got her footing so she didn’t stumble when I hacked off the main body support. When I had her hands free, I very carefully sliced off the very wide and very thick shackles on her ankles and wrists.
But the second that she was completely free, she snarled, “Okay, what the fuck is-” She grabbed me with both hands by the ‘bathing suit’ and hefted me up. She was expecting to have to put some effort into it, but she lifted me like I was a balloon animal. She raised and lowered me a couple of times. “What the HELL?” she asked in amazement.
“Ah… So, Rae… any new developments on YOUR end?” I asked lightly.
She put me down gently and looked at me. “Is that YOU, White Boy?”
“Sorta,” I agreed. “The ‘white boy’ part looks like it’s gonna need some updating though.” Rae picked up the monitoring machine, which looked like it was at least 400 pounds and lifted it like it was an empty cardboard box. “Yo! Rae! Focus here!” I slapped her on the biceps. “We got guards down the hall? We need to take them out?”
“What about Zac? He’s here, right?” she asked.
“Um, Rae?” I said gently. “Zac ain’t with us anymore, remember? He was the first one they shoved in the machine.”
Rae flinched with the memory, but she nodded. “Okay, what about Darcel?”
Darcel? Oh, right - Big Mack. I nodded in appreciation. “Right! Good call, Rae.” Then I saw something on Rae’s face, a look that somehow managed to blend anticipation with embarrassment. Rae was warm for Big Mack? “Okay, but how do we find him? If we get the wrong kid off the rack, they might wake up the guards.”
Rae gave me a ‘don’t be stupid’ look. “All we gotta do is look for a big black guy. How hard can that be?”
“Uhm, Rae? Just in case… You do realize that if THIS,” I gestured at my new body, “is anything to go by, Darcel might be ‘Darcy’ now?” Rae started to say something nasty, but before it was out of her mouth, my point drove home. She nodded, and we carefully stepped out into the hall. She carefully asked about the weapons on the floor. I told her, and she gave me a respectful thumbs-up.
My worries about *ahem!* ‘Darcy’ turned out to be groundless. We found Big Mack trussed up in pretty much the same way that Rae had been. We got him out, with Rae giving him a whispered lowdown as I trimmed the shackles from him. He did the double take when he heard who I was, but he still got right down to brass tacks. “Okay, you say there are five of them. There are only three of us. Who do we get to even out the odds?”
I shook my head. “We can’t take that chance. We’ve been lucky so far, but those guys aren’t going to sleep forever, and if one of the other guys got turned into a girl, like I was, what are the chances that he’ll have a very LOUD meltdown?”
“Besides, we got an edge-” Rae pointed out. “Evan and me got super powers, AND we got guns.”
I explained about raiding the gun racks. We examined the weapons. They weren’t normal guns, like with bullets. We figured that one that had several cylindrical canisters and a pressurized air can squirted a sedative laced with DMSO at the targets. Others I took to be wireless tasers that used masers to deliver a nasty jolt. And one was basically a really powerful flashbulb that probably blinded anyone in front of it. I guessed that they wanted us alive for something. And the fact that the weapons were pretty much silent argued that these people didn’t want the neighbors complaining.
We decided that we’d go in. I’d use the drug-gun on as many of them as I could, Mack and Rae would use the taser-guns on any who were awake and that I’d hang back with the flasher. “And what about that sword thing of yours?” Rae asked me.
“Ah, I don’t really know that much about it, and I don’t wanna kill anyone. Not even these assholes. Besides, I think that we’re in enough trouble as it is, and we don’t need any dead bodies around to make it worse.”
Mack said that it was a good point, and we started down the hall. “Ah, man, I just had a really bad feeling,” I said quietly. Rae was about to say something (probably ‘shut the fuck UP’) when a guard came casually strolling out of the watch room, sipping at a cup of coffee. He saw us, froze for the barest moment. Mack let off a shot with the taser gun and missed. The guard dropped his cup of coffee with a squawk and dived back into the watch room. With a curse, we charged to the watch room. Mr. Awake was screaming and clawing at the empty weapons rack. The other ones were just waking up and one was going for a pile of something. I squirted him, but the problem with a drug gun is that even one with DMSO takes time for the drug to take effect. Mack and Rae let off a couple of shots with the taser guns, but they only hit one of the guys. The other guards came at us with metallic tonfa (sort of Japanese billy clubs with a gripping handle off the side). Mack and Rae put themselves between the goons and me, and I dropped the drug-gun and flashed the goons. Like, with the gun.
Y’know, despite the 5-to-2 disadvantage, Mack and Rae kicked some serious ASS. I swear, blinded or not, those goons didn’t last five seconds. Rae let out a victorious whoop and then stopped dead. She goggled at Mack. “Darcel…” she said, “you’re glowing.” Yep, Big Mack was sort of limned with this pale blue glow that you could see around his edges.
“Rae…” he said right back, “You’re metallic.” And sure enough, Rae looked like some statue made of segmented black metal, with glowing lights where her eyes should be. She held up her hand and flexed it, checking it out, mesmerized.
“Ah, Rae?” I said in a very sick voice, really not wanting to be the one to tell her this. I mean, I’d hate to give her this sort of news at any time, but really not when she’s a frickin’ living robot. “You’re a GUY.”
“What the fuck kind of crack is THAT?” she - or not quite obviously HE - snapped. He reacted at the deep baritone of his voice. He clutched first at his chest and then at his package. The white nylon suit made it abundantly clear that Rae was male now, with a stocky muscular ‘front lineman’ physique. His robot-like face clenched up, and it looked like Rae was about to break down. Mack rushed in and wrapped his arms around the new boy, and did his level best to keep Rae from going around the bend. It took a minute, but Rae managed to pull out of it.
“Give hi- HER some hot soup or cocoa out of that vending machine,” I suggested softly as I rummaged through the pockets of the goons.
“You REALLY want her more stimulated?”
“Good point. Any change in there?” I threw him a few quarters. “And what ARE you doing?”
“Looking for keys. They’d give the security guys the keys to the locks on the shackles, so the regular researchers wouldn’t be in risk of getting captured and having the keys taken from them.” I found keys, money, a few sundries, and something very disturbing. “Key card. There must be more sophisticated security on the way out of here.” I looked at a watch. “And this explains why there aren’t more people here. Look. It’s 2:20. Must be early morning. Only the graveyard shift on duty.”
“Nice to get a break for a change,” Mack said.
“Then let’s get the fuck OUT of here!” Rae said, getting some of his old fire back.
“NO, Rae,” Mack held strong. “We gotta get everyone out of here.”
“NO, we gotta get the hell out of here while we CAN!”
“RAE,” said, trying to use what authority I had, “he’s right. This key card means that there’s more security on the way out. These guys were just the babysitters. From the looks of those racks they had us on, they were expecting us to get super powers or SOMETHING. They’d have to be stupid not to have nastier stuff waiting, in case one or more of us got out of hand. If it’s just us three, there’s a chance they could take us down. If we’re gonna get out of here, we may need everyone.”
“Besides, you know that it’s the right thing to do,” Mack added.
Rae softened a bit, so I added a little more logic to help it along. “Also, once we get out of here, we’re still not free and clear.”
“What do you mean?”
“Hello?” I waved at my face. “I don’t look like ME anymore! Neither do you, Rae- er, Rachel! What are we supposed to do? Go home and say, ‘Hey, Mom, Dad! Yeah, I know that I’m out way late, but I got a real good excuse’? They’ll call the freaking COPS on us! And then they’ll probably call the real MCO! We need someone who looks enough like they used to, so their parents LISTEN to us long enough for us to prove what happened here!”
“What about me?” Mack asked.
“Rachel, you wanna tell him?”
Rae gave a grimace. “Ehh, Darcel… You don’t really look like you used to. You’re more buff and, well, you’re sorta prettier than you used to be. Not that you was ugly or anything, but y’know, now you’re…”
“You look like the Hollywood actor that they’d cast to play you if they ever made a movie of this,” I finished. “Point being, you don’t really look like YOU.”
Mack touched his face, like he really wanted to go find a mirror. Didn’t blame him. I was dying to see what I look like now. But Rae saw the sense in what I was saying, and we went to spring the others.
The first one we sprung was Billy Cord, the school thief. He was out cold, and instead of the helmet, he had this sort of headset on. The second that we cut the power to it, he started to wake up. As we unlocked his shackles, Rae said in a martyred tone, “Are you sure that we have to let HIM out?”
“Remember, we need someone who looks like they used to? And he does. Sort of. Okay, he’s a LOT better looking. But at least he looks enough like he did that we have a shot.”
Billy’s immediate reaction to seeing us was “KEWL!” Rae shot me a nasty look, which I acknowledged with a penitent shrug. He was totally psyched about seeing a ‘real live robot’ (Rae snarled) and he was giving me the sort of looks that suggest that I don’t have to worry about being the ‘ugly chick’. And he was totally jazzed about the idea of having super powers. But his reaction to hearing our plan about getting to our parents was, “SO WHAT? We got super powers! Who NEEDS the ‘rents? We can go out and kick some serious ASS and take whatever we want!”
Rae reached out with a metallic hand and tapped him on the forehead with a powerful finger. “Yo, Stickyfingers,” he/she said in that calm ‘voice of reason’ that black chicks do so well. “Do you even KNOW what ‘super powers’ you GOT?” Billy deflated when he realized that he didn’t, and quietly went along with us as we went to liberate the rest.
In the second room was Chris Polk. At least, that’s who the blonde chick on the racks said she was. And, from the way that she reacted when she was finally able to look down at her body, I’d say that she was telling the truth. She wasn’t showing any immediate weird powers, but from the major league cables that were attached to her, it was a good bet that we’d find out pretty soon. Billy made a move to ‘comfort’ her with a sleazy grin on his face, but Rae held him back by his suit, and I slipped in to help her cope. On one hand, it might be dangerous being this close to her; on the other hand, she WAS a smokin’ hot blonde chick. Not the ‘barbie doll’ plastic kind of blonde, but the teenage version of the sleek, with-it blonde who never has ‘blonde jokes’ made about her. Damn well put together for a sixteen-something, too.
The next one wasn’t anywhere near as puzzling. They had Eddie Ramos on a rack, and besides the reinforcements, the only protective measure that they had was a U-bolt around his neck. But the U-bolt was three inches thick, solid tool steel (if not some exotic alloy), and welded to the yoke of the rack. He was awake, and really hurting. “Just. Get. Me. OUT. Of Here.” He grunted.
“Why?” Billy asked. “You can’t need to go to the john, we were all entubed.” Billy Cord, folks, Mister Empathy.
Mack and Rae unlocked his shackles as I carefully sliced through the choke collar. I can slice through tool steel; y’know, that’s not as comforting to know as you’d think. Once I got the hasp cut off, Eddie pulled forward and took the bend from around his throat like it was a boa constrictor. He took a few rasping breaths and then he started to grow. Yes, GROW. He grew until he filled the room and was starting to buckle the roof and walls. Don’t ask me how come his suit didn’t rip, ‘cause I don’t know. Then he relaxed and started to shrink. When he got back down to normal size, he slumped and sighed. “Thanks guys - I have needed to do that for the longest time!” Then he got a look at Chris and me. “Hey! Who’re the babes?”
Getting Suzy Kim out was easy. What was hard was keeping her in one place, once we got her out of the fricking harness. The second that her feet hit the floor, she was out the door like a summer wind. She zipped up and down the corridor with a ‘Whee!’
Chris snapped, “Will you STOP already?” and reached out with a sort of rainbow colored beam of light. The light wrapped Suzy up in a bubble of light.
“Whoa!” Suzy said from inside the bubble, “That is SO KEWL! How’d you DO that?”
Chris looked at her hand in as much amazement as the rest of us. “DAMN good question,” was all that Chris could say.
Suzy started asking all sorts of fool questions at about a thousand words a minute. Rae leaned over and said in a quiet voice, “Any chance you can change that thing so it shuts her the fuck up?”
Chris fiddled with her hand for a bit, until the bubble burst, dropping Suzy. Suzy was still female, but she’d definitely gotten an upgrade in the looks department. I said before that she was a cute Korean chick, but to be honest, that’s mostly because I sort of have a thing for Asian girls. Suzy had been one of those ‘rabbity’ looking girls who are sort of cute. Now, she was a genuine hottie, complete with the kicking bod.
Mack spelled out the situation for Suzy and told her to look around the place, check out the layout but not leave the floor. “Why’d you do that?” Chris whined, “Now we’ll have to track her down when we actually need her for anything.”
“Hey, YOU wanna listen to her yammer away while we take care of the rest?”
The next cell really worried me. There were four heavy insulated overcoats, with matching sets of insulated boots, gloves and welder-type masks on the wall near the door. I recognized heavy electrical transformers in the corner of the room, and there were heavy power cables attached to the shackles. “Hold it a second, I gotta look at something,” I said. I may not have a degree in Electrical Engineering, but I can read a power usage monitor. According to the monitor, it wasn’t siphoning off any energy. I managed to find a power history chart, and according to it, the guy they had in there was generating KILOWATT charges that lasted for as long as two hours, the most recent, three hours ago. Then I noticed something. “Oh, SHIT!”
“What’s the matter?”
“If I’m reading this right, we’ve been here for at least FIVE DAYS!”
“No wonder I’m hungry,” Eddie grumped. “Is there any chow around here?”
“Hey, there’s no clipboard with this one; maybe he’s not one of ours,” Rae suggested. “I mean, why would they build a big secret base, just to hold US, huh?”
“H-she’s got a point, Evan,” Chris said. “I mean he might be Ramon Gugleamo, but there’s no way that he’s either Roxie Lockhart or Shawn Turner.”
“So? In this crew, what could that mean? Maybe Roxie got some of what we got, or Shawn got a Michael Jackson job.”
Mack sighed. “The only way that we’re gonna know is if we ask him who he is. Somebody’s gotta take out that headphone thing and ask him. Billy, you know-”
“NO WAY, JOSE!” Billy backed off. Apparently he was afraid of electricity, the first sign of anything even remotely resembling common sense that I’d seen coming out of the little weasel. There was some looking around, everyone waiting for someone else to volunteer.
“Okay, OKAY!” I caved in, “I’ll do it! But I’m keeping this!” I grabbed one of the insulated overcoats from the rack and boots and gloves as well. I carefully undid the speaker. It took a while - it turned out that he was asleep, and I hadda wake him up. He said that he was Roxanne Lockhart without me prompting, and how would he know to lie about that?
When we got him - or her - out of the frame, Roxanne looked like an anime bishonen prettyboy, with delicate features, large hazel eyes, bushy blonde hair and the classic slender swimmer’s build. Roxanne’s first reaction looking down her new body was to check out the package. “Aaawww… Nooo…” Rae groaned, “Why you gotta be gross like that?”
Roxy - or Rox, or whatever the hell we were gonna call him, was understandably withdrawn and uncommunicative as we spelled out the sitch, while we went for the last room. Eddie said, “Okay, this is the last room. That means that that’s either Ramon or Shawn. Either way, he’s gonna be PISSED.” The figure on the rack was definitely female. She had a rack that was at least as good as Chris’, which was saying something.
“Well, unless Ramon suddenly got hisself a REAL GOOD tan, I’d say that it’s Shawn,” Rae drawled.
“Aw, shiiiit…” was the general reaction. Shawn going through one of his meltdowns was bad enough. Shawn going through the kind of meltdown that this would kick off, with super powers no less, while we were trying to figure a way out of this place, was the last thing that we needed.
“Leave him to me,” Mack said, “The timebomb and I go way back.”
We lucked out big time. They had another one of those headsets on Shawn, like they had on Billy. Shawn woke up slowly, and Mack was able to break it to him slowly, and got him to keep his temper under check, while he brought the kid up to speed. I must say, Shawn made one damn fine looking chick, with café au lait skin, Holly Robinson features, large sea-green eyes, and long fine curling hair. Still, it did help when we draped one of the other insulated overcoats over him, so he didn’t have to cope with the guys leering at him.
Suzy had returned and was dancing with eagerness. “MAN, I am SO AMPED!” She nattered, “I looked around like you said and-”
“Where’d you find those clothes?” Rae interrupted her. Suzy was dressed in a set of coveralls with the legs and sleeves rolled up.
“That’s what I was trying to TELL you!” Suzy blurted, “I was looking around and I found an office and a lab and some tables - dude, you would not BELIEVE what they did to Zac and Wendy and Ramon! - and I found a kind of locker room and kitchen and-”
“KITCHEN?” We made her show us where it was and stampeded to get some food. Eddie had eaten everything in the vending machine, and he was still hungry. There was another vending machine, but there were also a couple of refrigerators, with the usual ‘office’ assortment of foods. We nuked some microwave dinners and bolted down all the cold food as quickly as we could. Suzy showed us the locker room, which had some coveralls on a rack and a few regular suits. We dressed ourselves as best we could, with Rox still wearing that insulated overcoat for everyone’s protection. And one by one, we each went into the bathroom to check out the mirror.
Everyone was having some variation on the ‘that’s not my face’ reaction. What I saw was a Goth minx, with a mop of midnight black hair framing a kittenish face with large eerie sloe lavender eyes. Pale skin, great body, and a general overall NICE package. I really could stand next to heartbreakers like Chris and Shawn and not have to feel inferior. Not that Chris or Shawn were thinking in those terms.
That done, we sort of settled back in the kitchen and tried to figure out what we were gonna do. I clapped my hands for attention. “Okay, listen up people!” I spelled out the situation, just for foundation, y’understand. “So, it comes down to this - we can’t just all go off and do our own things. We’re in this together, if we wanna stay alive. We gotta make a plan and make that plan happen. And that means that we gotta have a leader, someone who can make decisions and make them stick.”
“And I suppose that YOU think that you should be the leader?” Shawn said with a barely suppressed growl. And I was getting some pretty sharp ‘who the fuck do you think YOU are?’ vibes from the rest.
“NOPE! I think that HE should be the leader.” I pointed at Big Mack.
“ME?” Mack yelped.
“Dude,” I said, feeling the mood of suspicion that had been aimed at me lifting, “you got the touch. You’re big, you’re strong, and people listen to you. We all know that you’re a right guy, and you won’t pull any ‘sacrifices must be made’ crap on us when it gets hinky. You got guts, and you keep your head in a crisis. If I try to be leader, you all will be back-talking me every second of the way. But if YOU are the leader, then things will actually get DONE.” Besides, he was still a guy, which meant that Eddie and Billy wouldn’t have to deal with taking orders from a chick, and he was black, which not to be Politically Correct or anything, was actually an asset at the moment. Rae and Shawn were already sort of closing ranks behind him, daring any of the others to challenge him. But best of all, I’d already established a connection with him, so I knew that he’d listen to me.
Mack looked around, and a sort of silent consensus was formed. He was the leader now. And I got brownie points for making the nomination. Yay me. “Okay, I’ll do it,” he said finally. “But I’m gonna need help. Evan, you’re the one with the ideas; any ideas how we get out of here?”
Bingo, just what I wanted. Mack was our King Arthur, and I’d just been named his Merlin. I shook my head. “Getting out of here isn’t the problem. What we do after we get out of here IS. Our big problem is that we don’t look like US. Hell, we look like the cast of one of those ‘high school’ movies where the ‘kids’ are all played by 20-somethings. We gotta prove that we’re US, and that we didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Why would we have to prove that?” Suzy asked, “We didn’t DO anything wrong!”
“We have super powers, and we’ve been pegged as mutants - we can forget about ‘innocent until proven guilty’.”
“Welcome to MY world,” Rae said smugly.
I nodded, acknowledging Rae’s point. “The thing is, we NEED for the authorities to believe us. The guys who did this to us aren’t just gonna say ‘oh well, there’s more where that came from’. We’re the successful experiments; they’ll come get their stray property BACK, unless the cops put us under protective custody.”
“Okay, I can see that,” Billy said. “The problem is, how do we get protective custody, instead of just thrown into a hole, with some dirt thrown over us. Cops don’t like trouble, and let’s face it - all we ARE is trouble. Hey, I just got OUT of a cage, I don’t like the idea of going right back into one.”
“So, we cut them a deal, like turning state’s witness,” Chris said.
“Yeah? And who we gonna rat OUT?” Shawn snarled. “We don’t even know who the scumbags who did this to us ARE!”
“Hey, we got all THIS!” Chris waved her arms around. “We got an entire weird science LAB! That’s gotta be worth something!”
“The information they got would be worth a lot more,” Rox said as s/he chewed. “It would prove who we are, give clues as to who THEY are, and it could be used as evidence against them.”
“GOOD ONE!” Mack enthused. “Now, all we gotta do is find-” even before he could finish the sentence, Suzy had zipped out of the room and was back with both arms full of laptop computers, disk cases and print outs.
“Like I TOLD you, I found the lab and where they had all their gear and stuff! Jeez, you’d think they’d have it under lock and key!” She plopped all the stuff on the table and looked like she wanted a cookie. Chris threw her a malomar, which she chewed on happily.
“This entire place is under lock and key, including US!” Shawn snarled. Then a beam of hope broke across the stormy sky of his pretty face. “HEY! You said that they have their gear: do you mean that that freaky machine they shoved us into is here?”
“YES!” Shawn exulted. “All we have to do is put it in reverse, and we can go back to normal!”
Chris brightened considerably, and I hated to burst their bubble. “HOW?” I asked in a flat voice.
“Well… why would they build a machine that did something that they couldn’t undo?”
“Because they weren’t gonna do it to themselves?” I strummed my fingers in annoyance.
Shawn’s face went stormy again. “Well… we could at least TRY!”
“Hey, if you wanna get in that thing and wing it, go ahead. But the only way they’re getting’ ME back in that is if I’m dead!”
“YO! Evan! Chill!” Mack said with a comforting arm around Shawn. “You could at least LOOK at the stuff we got? Maybe there’s something in there.”
“HEY!” I snapped, “in case you people have forgotten it, we’re not in Study Hall! This is a secret lab with people with guns! We gotta find a way OUT of here, remember?”
“Oh, not a prawb, babe!” Suzy gushed, “I checked down on the next floor, and there’s, like, nobody there!”
“I told you to stay on this floor,” Mack said very seriously.
“Yeah, but you weren’t the boss then!” Suzy chirped back.
Mack let out his first ‘aggrieved boss’ sigh. “What-EVA. Anyway, Ev, just take a look at it. What could it hurt? ‘Sides, I wanna tuck away another two or three of these before we do anything.” He was in the middle of his second ‘Hungry Guy’ microwave dinner.
“Why are you asking the gurl?” Rox snarked with a snide grin.
“HEY!” I shouted, shooting out of my seat, ‘unsheathing’ my sword, “You don’t like being a boy? Maybe you’d like being a eunuch instead?” Eddie shot up to twelve feet tall and held me back.
Rox jumped back out of her/his seat and yelled, “KIDDING! I was just KIDDING! Jeez, why are the practical jokers always the ones who don’t have a sense of humor?”
“EVAN!” Mack thundered, “CHILL!” I let Eddie hold me back, but I glared at Rox. “I said Chill!” Mack repeated with more emphasis.
“You’re the boss,” I grumped and sheathed my sword. Eddie let me go.
“You got that right,” Mack continued. “Evan, Roxie - you two rock in Science class. Just take a look at what we got, hunh?”
“Hey, this isn’t High School science crap!” I objected, “This isn’t even College level stuff! This is bleeding edge, ‘get-two-Ph.D.s before you even START’ stuff! Dr. Amazing or Professor Reaper might be able be to figure it out - in a YEAR or two!”
“Yeah,” Rox surprisingly backed me up. “This is Next Level and Beyond’ crap.”
“Just… look at it.” Mack sighed. “Maybe at least we’ll get an idea what was really goin’ on here, ‘cause it don’t mean shit to me.”
I sighed and took one of the laptops. Rox did likewise, but the second that he opened it and touched the keyboard, there was an arcing and the magic blue smoke wafted up from the motherboard. “Ummm… Rox, why don’t you look through the hard copy?” I shoved the stack of printouts at him. Chris and Suzy also took laptops and started looking through them.
I threw myself at the data for what seemed like hours. Like I thought, the actual data was WAY too thick for me to make anything of, so I concentrated more on how the information was arranged, for some sort of context. Then, suddenly, a pattern sort of jumped out at me, and as I looked at it that way, an explanation sort of hove into view. “I got something.”
When I looked up, Rox, Chris and Suzy were looking around surprised, and the rest were looking at us like we’d suddenly sprouted second heads. “WHAT?”
Billy looked at me owl-eyed. “Gaw-DAMN! You all went at that like hungry dogs at a T-bone steak! It didn’t even take you a minute!”
“Two minutes, tops!” Shawn agreed. “What did you find?”
“YEAH!” Rox asked excitedly from where he had pages of the printout spread out and covered with hundreds of notes and comments. “What did you get?”
I turned the screen around so they could see it. “This is how their research notes are arranged, both by topic - how the test subject is doing, integration notes, environmental comments, manifestation of effects, and ‘physical cohesion’ and by test subject - that would be US. Check it out: the notes on ‘physical cohesion’ - which I think are notes about how the dynamorphs inside us are doing and developing - there are, like HUNDREDS of pages on how those little boogers are doing. Almost as many notes on ‘integration notes’, which I think is they’re studying how we manage to bond with the dynamorphs. There are dozens of pages on ‘environmental comments’ and ‘manifestation of effects’. But, check it out! There are, like, only ten or twelve pages on ‘Test Subject Status’.”
“Yeah.” Eddie grunted. “AND?”
“It means, they don’t give a shit about how we’re doing.”
“Ooo… Big shock…” Eddie and Shawn said in chorus.
I glared at them. “Don’t you see? The big unanswered question here was, ‘why would they go through all this crap to give us super powers?’ Simple! They DIDN’T! They did it to create the dynamorphs! Giving us these powers was a total side effect! It’s like wasps and spiders!”
“Wasps?” Shawn asked not getting it.
“Yeah!” Suzy cut in, “That makes sense! Some wasps will jump a spider and lay eggs inside it, without killing it! The eggs hatch, and the wasp larvae eat the spider to get out!”
“Sounds just like wasps,” Rae muttered. I don’t think she meant the insects.
“Well, DUH!” Billy let out a disgusted noise. “We already KNOW that! That stupid asshole who talked to us just before we got shoved into the oven said, ‘We have obtained equipment from a rogue researcher popularly known as ‘Dr. Pygmalion’. Besides researching the manifestation of mutant traits, Dr. Pygmalion was also a leader in dynamorph research. He determined that dynamorphs are originally energy forms that he called ‘proto-dynamorphs’, which required a living human host to mature into a full dynamorph. He constructed this device, which combined activating nascent mutant traits with merging the proto-dynamorphs into the subject. He theorized that the conversion process would nurture the proto-dynamorphs to full maturity.’ REMEMBER?”
It was my turn to turn to Billy open-mouthed. “Yeah, now that you remind me, I do remember. I remember that that’s EXACTLY what he said. Word for word. How’d you remember that, Billy?”
Billy blinked and looked agog. “I… just… remembered…”
Suzy started jumping up and down in her seat. “Oooh! Ooh, ooh! I just remembered something! Doctor Pygmalion! There was something in the news about him?”
Mack shook his head. “Not lately, I don’t think.”
“No, it was two or three years ago! Yeah, down in Silicon Valley! Yeah!”
“Yeah!” Billy gushed. “It was down in Silicon Valley, he got busted by the Golden Gate Guardians, him and his totally awesome pack of Super-Babes! They were, like SO TOTALLY HAWT!”
“Hold it!” I said, “I got something, let me remember…” Actually, I knew precisely what it was, I’d researched this asshole. On the other hand, with this crew, it struck me as a good idea to make a production out of tracking down the memory. “Got it! Dr. Pygmalion! There was a big noise about him, ‘cause he not only gave his flunkies super powers, but he made them these bodacious super babes, and brainwashed them into being, like, super-loyal to him. And he made it so that they’d gladly put out for him anytime he wanted them to!”
“GO, Doctor P!” Eddie exulted.
“Oh, and all his flunkies were transsexuals. Male-to-Female transsexuals.”
“Ew,” Eddie wilted.
Rox said, “Well, that would explain the sex changes. And maybe why we all turned out so good looking. Sort of.” He crossed his eyes. “No, it doesn’t! It’s totally ridiculous! I mean… They can’t DO that!”
“So…” Shawn asked, his voice filled with equal parts hope and fear. “Did they ever change any of this Pig-mellon guy’s flunkies BACK?”
Billy, Suzy, and I all looked at each other, each hoping that one of the others might have some good news. “Ah. No. Not that I heard.”
Shawn slumped down onto the tabletop and tried very hard not to cry.
“What about the people who did this to us in the first place?” Rox asked.
We all looked at him with disdainful glares. “We’re damaged goods to them, remember?” Mack said gently. “There is NO WAY that they’d ever just let us go, let alone turn us BACK. If anything, they’re gonna bust their asses to get our asses back into those cages, ASAP.”
“Yeah,” Billy grunted in agreement. “And they’re gonna want their dynamorphs back.”
“And what the FUCK is a ‘dynamorph’, anyway?” Shawn snapped. “What the hell was that pinhead talking about?”
“What, you never heard of dynamorphs?” Billy shot back with a touch of derision.
Shawn snarled, and Rae looked like s/he was gonna do something, but Mack stepped in. “Evan, you wanna take this one?”
I shrugged. “Well, I’ve heard of ‘em, but it’s all like comic book stuff. I always thought that they were like Atlantis and Bigfoot and the Men in Black, shit that got blown WAY out of proportion. I mean, they sell things to catch those things in the back of fricking comic books!”
“Dynamorphs are real,” Roxanne said in a flat lecturing voice.
“What do YOU know about it, Crackhead?” Shawn snapped.
“Chill, dude!” Mack said. “I’ve been with her in class - when she ain’t wrecked, she knows her stuff. You know som’thin’ about dynamorphs, Roxie?”
Rox nodded. “Dynamorphs are self-perpetuating energy vortices - that is, patterns - that somehow integrate themselves with the bio-energy fields of people and animals, and sometimes they get ‘attuned’ to various inanimate objects. They’re the source of the powers of a lot of the non-mutant superheroes and supervillains. Nobody knows where they come from, or how they work. We think - and I stress think – that they first showed up sometime in the late 1940s, but they weren’t verified as a reality until the mid-1970s. We think that a lot of the crap with mad scientists giving people superpowers or taking away a superhero’s powers, are them messing with these dynamorph things. All that we really know about them, is that they somehow form this symbiotic link with people, and the people get these superpowers in return. And that’s ALL that we really know about them.”
“So, how did these guys know enough to put those things into US?” Eddie asked. “I mean, if they can do THAT, then they should be able to do a whole lot of other stuff!”
“YEAH!” Shawn thundered as best his new female voice would let him. “I don’t give a shit about any dyna-crap, I just want them to turn me back into a GUY!”
“And how are we gonna do that?” Chris asked, obviously just as interested in a positive answer, but not expecting one. “I mean, SOMEBODY’S got to know how to do it!”
Mack slapped his hand on the table. “YES! That’s it! That’s what we do! We take all this stuff, all the laptops and CDs and shit, and we find someone who can turn Shawn and the rest of you guys back to normal!”
“Hey, don’t volunteer me too quickly, big guy,” Eddie said. “I mean, aside from being in a fuckin’ CAGE, I’m kinda likin’ what happened t’me. I mean, check me OUT!” He flexed the muscles on an arm that had been pretty flabby before.
Shawn and Rae were starting to say something, when I held up my hand. “HOLD IT! Something’s-”
I was interrupted when a rain of heavy gunfire ripped through the walls. Nobody got hit, but I think that that was more that they were firing high to clear the partitions to get a clear shot at us than anything. We all reflexively dove to the floor, except for Shawn. S/he was still standing, but the air in the room was whipping around her in a sudden hurricane, throwing everything around and ripping the partitions apart, exposing the entirety of the floor. What we had taken for solid concrete walls were just dolled-up area dividers. The heavier equipment stayed put but the lighter stuff all blew away confusing things. Suzy and I were lifted up off our feet and thrown, and Billy almost got thrown, but he suddenly sprouted four tentacle-like appendages from his sides and managed to hold on. Even so, we got a good look at what was coming from the general direction of where the gunfire came from.
The ‘lab’ was actually a large open warehouse area with a freight elevator at one end and a stairwell off in one corner. The freight elevator door was open. A horde of low, flat, black metallic boxy looking things were advancing from the freight elevator. The ones in front had these prong things coming out their fronts, which had a real ‘hand shocker’ look to me. But just in front of the Shock-boxes were two very large, very hefty, very well armored and very dangerous looking power frames. One of which was packing a light machine gun, which had probably just cleared the room. There were four more of those power frames still in the freight elevator.
While we were focusing on the power frame with the machine gun, the other one aimed a point that looked very much like the taser-gun that we’d used earlier at Shawn. S/he went down, and the wind died.
Then the lights went out.
At least, except for Chris, who was glowing like a light bulb. Unfortunately, all she did was bring US into clear sight, while we couldn’t see shit.
“They must be using Starlight scopes!” Billy yelled.
“What?” Chris yelped.
“Light amplifying goggles! They can see us, but we can’t see them!”
“Light amplification?” Chris said, “Their mistake!” She sent blinding flares of light in their direction.
“Go for the stairs!” Eddie yelled as he stomped on the Shock Boxes as best he could.
“NO!” Mack thundered as he picked up Shawn, “They must have the stairs covered from below!” He glared at Suzy. “I thought you said there wasn’t anyone on the floor below!”
“Roxie!” I shouted as I used my sword to parry some kind of missile that seemed to be some kind of electrical tape snare (don’t ask), “Try to short out these things!”
“I did!” s/he shot back. “They’re insulated!”
“No SHIT!” Rae said, “They been studying us for days! They must know more about our powers than WE do! Not that that’s a lot,” s/he admitted in an afterthought.
“Yeah?” Rox flared with electric fire, and suddenly the Shock Boxes popped up off their treads, most flipping onto their backs. “But not as much as they thought they knew.”
Eddie and Rae were mixing it up with the power frames, and not getting the better of them. I think that the frames were electrified. Like Rae said, they knew a LOT about us. The power frames in the back started opening up once the front units gave them a clear shot. I reflexively jumped back and almost went a clear thirty feet, with a ten-foot high arc. I twisted and managed to land ready (I was on my old Middle School gymnastics team, and the only reason that I wasn’t on the Sammish gym team, is they didn’t have a squad for boys). Cool! I DO have powers besides this stupid sword!
I made an arcing leap forward, and let that inner sense that had been poking at me since I woke up guide me. I danced across the tops of the shock-boxes that had managed to right themselves, did a high jump and landed on top of one of the power frames, leading with my sword. I sank my sword in, and there were fizzes and pops and the smell of burning circuitry. It started thrashing about wildly and threw me. I slashed one of the shock-boxes in front of me, and checked out the scene as best I could by the uneven and flickering light that Chris was giving off.
Mack was floating in mid-air and still grappling with his power frame. I jumped over, landed on it and gouged out its back with my sword. Mack was able to get a better grip and literally disarmed the thing. But the frame with the LMG was still up and running, and it nailed Big Eddie, who was fool enough to grow until he was large enough that he had to hunch over against the ceiling, making himself a perfect target. The LMG stitched a row of bullets into his side starting at the lower leg and worked its way up to his shoulder. Eddie fell and screamed, “I’M HIT, I’M HIT!” There was an immediate gush of blood, but it seemed to stop when he shrunk down.
Then the light went even worse. One of the power frames had bagged both Rox and Chris with those snare things, and it was about to pick up Chris. S/he gave a loud scream as it reached for her, and I reacted on reflex - again. Just wanting to reach out to save her, not really knowing how I’d do it, I sort of reached out to hit the power frame. A bolt of pale purple energy jumped out of my eyes and hit the power frame, square in the chest. It not only stopped the power frame, but it knocked it back a good thirty feet and sent it crashing through one of walls.
As I sank down to one knee panting, Suzy zipped over to the hole that the power frame made in the wall. “HEY! SCORE! This opens out onto the street! We got a way OUT, people!”
“Okay, we got our out, people!” Mack yelled. “Everyone grab something - the laptops, the disks, whatever, and head for the wall! Evan, can you blast this thing?”
“No,” I gasped with exertion, “That blast took all the juice out of me.” I staggered over to Chris and Rox. I managed to ‘unsheath’ my sword. “Okay, not ALL of the juice, but I’m still runnin’ on fumes!” I used the sword to slice the wrapping off Chris and Rox. Chris helped me over to the hole while Rox kept the shock-boxes off us, and Rae lugged Eddie over as well.
There was a tense moment as we looked out the hole. We were eight stories up. On the upside, the streets were pretty much empty. Billy climbed down the hole with his new ‘octopus’ legs, and it turned out that Mack could fly. Chris used her light bubble power to lower a few of us down to the street. Then, for some bizarre reason, Suzy zipped off again and came back with a large case. “Where did you GO TO?” Mack demanded as he picked her up and lowered her down to the street.
“Oh, I remembered something that I saw in the labs, and I thought it would be a good idea to take along.” Mack tried to come up with something to let her know how bad an idea he thought that was, but there just weren’t the words.
Once we were on the street, Suzy zipped off again, and came back a few seconds later. “MAN, this is SO KEWL! I found a van parked just around the corner! I think that we just found our ride OUTTA here!”
“Okay, let’s roll, people!” Mack said, fully into his leader-guy role. “Billy, can you hotwire a car? Oh, what the hell am I talking about, of course you can hotwire a car!”
“Hey, what about Eddie?” Rae asked from where she was still holding him up. “He took at least eight bullets right in the - hey, what the fuck is this?” Rae held out what looked like a .30 caliber slug. She probed around in the side of Eddie’s outfit and found seven more. “The holes! They’re already all healed up!” She gave Eddie a harsh look. “Then WHY am I carrying you, fool?” She all but threw Eddie to the ground.
“HEY, it HURT!” was all that Eddie could say.
We made our way to a large panel truck for an electrician’s service. Billy reached into the crevice between the window and the van door, and not only managed to unlock it, but switched off the alarm and started up the ignition in less time than it takes to tell about it. As Billy drove the car off, he asked, “Okay, so now where do we go?”
“My place,” Mack said with certainty.
“Why your place?” Eddie asked. “You don’t look any more like you used to than I or Billy do.”
“ ‘Cause I know that I was raised right,” Mack said with pride. “I know that I can talk to my parents. We communicate, y’hear? We go to church like a real family, and I can go to my mom and dad, and they’ll listen. And since you all made me the leader, that means that I gotta go with what I know will work. We can go to them, and they’ll listen to us long enough that we can… well… we can have them take our fingerprints! Yeah, fingerprints!” Shawn nodded in agreement eagerly.
“How do you know that our fingerprints haven’t changed?” Rox asked.
“Good point,” Chris agreed. “They changed so much else, why not our fingerprints, too?”
Mack looked at me for help. Okay, Merlin time. “Well, there’s no reason why our prints would change - or wouldn’t change, either. And there’s no way to tell right at the moment. I mean, who goes around memorizing their fingerprints? On the other hand, if our prints changed, we’re royally screwed anyway; there’ll be no way of proving who we are. If our prints changed, then so would our retinal scans and everything else. BUT, it’s the only thing that we really have that will prove who we are. So, I say we gamble that our prints are the same. Okay, I’m a military dependent, so I was fingerprinted as SOP. Anyone else get printed?”
Billy and Rae raised their hands in ways that suggested that they’d been printed the hard way - in a cop shop, waiting to be processed for juvie. Mack, Chris and Suzy raised their hands, and agreed that their parents had had them printed as a safety measure against being kidnapped.
“Okay, it’s a plan,” Mack said. “But we can’t all go into my house in a mob, my ‘rents would freak. Especially with the way that YOU look, Rae.”
“Ooohh… that was sensitive,” Suzy snarked.
“Hello? How would YOU react if a teenage robot came busting in your door?” Mack shot back. “My parents know Shawn; if I can convince them that I’m me, he should be able to convince them too. Once they get that, selling the rest of you should be a snap.” Rae still didn’t look like she appreciated the crack, so Mack wisely changed the subject. “Suzy! What did you think you were doing, running off like that? You could’a got SHOT! What could have been so important?”
“Oh, I remembered that I found this when I was looking through the lab,” Suzy came back without a speck of remorse. She held up the case that she’d come back with. It seemed strangely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. She opened the case and pulled out a strange dull gold object that looked like several concentric irregular circles on an axis with a stand that had input jacks.
Don’t ask me how or why, but I recognized it immediately, and so did everyone else. “Isn’t that-”
“It’s that stupid dingus that that mad scientist asshole put on top of the thing that changed us!”
“GOOD WORK, Suze!” I enthused.
“So what?” Billy said from the driver’s seat. “So, we got one more piece of junk. Big deal.”
“You mean we can use this to change back?” Shawn asked hopefully.
“Eeeehhh… sorry Shawn,” I tried to let her down easy. “Not immediately, no. But if we can get this thing to, say, Dr. Amazing or Dynamik down in San Francisco, they might be able to figure out what happened, and then… Maybe. I dunno. BUT, with this we have a TON more credibility than we did before!”
“What about the computers and stuff?” Eddie asked.
“All that’s good,” Chris said, picking up where I was coming from, “but when everything’s said and done, it’s all just… files… A bunch of stuff on computers, that can mean about anything, without any real proof. Just ‘cause we say that it means that those assholes changed us doesn’t really mean anything. We could have dummied up those files ourselves for some reason. But THIS? This is PROOF. I mean, LOOK at it! It’s obviously some kind of… weird… sumthin’ eruther. I mean, they take this to a lab, and the lab rats are gonna say that it’s big time weirdness, right off the bat!” She looked around, a little embarrassed. “Hey, it’s still more’n we had before.”
“Yeah, good point,” Mack nodded. “ ‘Sides, if they needed that thing to do this to us, then Dr. Amazing’d need it to UN-do it. Yo! Billy! Let’s get rolling!”
It took a while for Mack to get his bearings. For the capitol of a state famous for its weird and exciting culture (I’m talking California here, folks), Sacramento is a very white-bread kind of town. Even the superheroes (both of ‘em) are bland. The West Coast League is supposed to have its headquarters here, but let’s be honest, that’s just the office where their lawyers and lobbyists work. It’s THAT boring. My point being, that except for the state capitol building and the river, there ain’t a lot in the way of landmarks around there. So, at three in the ay-em, it took us a while to figure out where the hell we were, and from there to get to Mack’s place. Mack lived in one of those very bare stucco bungalow tracts, the type with the gravel front ‘yard’ and postcard bits of green in the back, in one of the more low-rent parts of the south side. A step or two above the projects, but we are not talking ‘Leave It to Beaver’ here.
Billy stopped the van, and Mack just sat there for a long moment. He looked at the house, and you could tell that he was scared. I wondered whether he was scared of what his parents would say. Then it hit me - he was scared stiff that they wouldn’t recognize him. And I suddenly started thinking about what would happen when I saw Dad again. I mean, I’d thought about running away - hell, I’d been playing with how I’d get from Sacramento to Delaware, where Mom had gone, and how I’d pay for it and all that - but what the hell was I gonna DO? I couldn’t just go back to living with Dad and going to Marty Sam, like nothing had happened! And that’s assuming that Dad even gets that I’m ME! And Dad has a hate-on for mutants that’s, like, a mile long and littered with broken glass!
Mack snapped out of his funk and started, “Look, if we all go in there, my parents are gonna freak-”
“We’ve already covered this, remember?” Rache said. “You and Shawn. Right. Just don’t leave us hangin’ too long, ‘kay?”
“Hold it!” Billie said, “The assholes who took us know who we are, right? I mean, they must’a gotten our names, addresses and all that from Spader, when they scammed him. What if they’re waiting for you?”
Mack gave him a disgusted look. “You’re just being paranoid.”
“Ah, no, Mack, I gotta side with the weasel on this one,” I said, surprising myself. “We wasted too much time fucking around getting here. All they’d have to do would be to send a few guys to our folks’ places and wait for us.”
“And if they did, I will KICK THEIR ASSES.” Mack said, starting to lose his patience.
“Even if they have a gun at your mother’s head?” I asked. That knocked some of the wind out of his sails. “Nope. You’d put your hands on your head, and then you’d do whatever they told you to, and odds are we’d be back in that stupid lab. Only this time, we don’t get out.”
Shawn looked at me, thought it over and said, “Darcel, she’s right. These people are slick; they know what they’re doing. We gotta guess that they’re one step ahead of us, all the way. If we just go in there, they’ll just have us call in the others, one at a time, so they can get the drop on them, or something like that.” Rae nodded her agreement.
Mack gave an annoyed grimace. Being the leader was already turning out harder than he’d thought it would be. “Okay. Then what do we do?”
We bounced a few ideas around for a few minutes and came up with this: Mack and Shawn would go in and see if he could get his ‘rents to listen to him. He’d take one of the cell phones that we took off the goons with him. If it was cool, he’d turn off the lights in the house and signal us with a flashlight from the front door. If anything hinky happened, he’d call us either with the cell phone or from the house phone. We hammered out a few code words to describe how sticky the situation was. That settled, we drove around the corner and let Mack and Shawn out.
Mack and Shawn walked carefully to the door and rang the bell. Almost immediately the lights went on, and the door opened. Without a sound, Mack and Shawn went inside.
* * * * *
Ida MacArthur clutched her bathrobe around her as she opened the door a crack and peeked out into the early morning gloom. “What IS it?” she asked fearfully.
A tall, handsome, well-built young man wearing an ill-fitting gray coverall peeked back. With a hopeful, fearful expression, he said, “Momma? It’s me. Darcel. Please, Momma, you gotta listen to me!”
“Come in,” she replied brusquely, and undid the chain on the lock, stepping back into the gloom of the unlit portion of the short hallway. Mack and Shawn stepped in.
“Momma, I know you don’t-”
Mack was cut short by the sound of gun bolts being drawn. A white man in a black suit was right behind his mother. He had her in a chokehold with his left forearm as he held a large caliber automatic pistol under the nock of her jaw with the other hand. Two other men in similar clothes had Mack and Shawn covered with very large bore guns that looked like they had automatic fire. The light in the kitchen turned on, and two men, similarly dressed, but carrying machine pistols, herded Mac’s father, brother and two sisters into the living room. “Bad move, asshole,” the man holding the gun on Mack sneered. “You should’a known better. We knew you’d come here. We know everything about you. There’s no place you can run, and no place for you to hide. And if either one’a you two freaks so much as bats an eye without my say-so, we’ll shoot yer family like dogs.”
Ida responded, even as she knew she couldn’t wriggle free. “Darcel? Darcel, is that YOU?”
“Yeah, Momma, it’s me,” Mack said fatalistically as he placed his hands on his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think they’d get here this quick.”
“Yeah, yeah, real touching,” one of the men said as he quickly patted down Mack and Shawn. He found the cell phone. “You need to keep in touch with someone maybe? Or were you just gonna keep this as a souvenir?”
“Go fuck yourself.”
The goon whipped Mack upside the head with the barrel of the shotgun-like weapon. Mack barely flinched. “Where are the others?”
One of the men standing by Mr. MacArthur and the other kids chambered a round into his machine pistol and pointed it at Libya’s head. “Where ARE they, punk?”
“I SAID, I dunno! Look, as soon as we busted out, this stupid white kid started making BULL-shit noise like he was in charge and we were gonna do this whole big escape routine. Shawn and I decided to screw them and come here.”
“What about the THIRD black kid?”
Mack set his jaw mulishly, but caved in when the gunman picked up Libya by her arm and set the machine pistol against her jaw. “Rae’s in a car, two blocks down the street. He’s waiting for me to call, and say that everything’s cool.”
“He’s using the other cell phone you took from the guards?”
“Yeah.” The man punched in the number and held the phone up for Mack. “Yo. Ray. It’s cool, man.” The man listened in as Rae asked how Mack’s parents were taking it. “It was a hard sell, man. Big time. They don’t really believe me yet, but they’re listening. I think if they see you, they’ll come ‘round.” Rae said that she’d be over in five minutes, and Mack said that that was cool.
The man shut the phone, and Ida asked in a strained voice, “Darcel, what the HELL is going on? They said that you were dead?”
“I dunno what they was tellin’ you, momma, but we haven’t done anything wrong. They dragged us out of school on some bu- ah, fake charge and threw us into this stupid machine that changed us. Momma, that’s Shawn Turner.” Mack jerked his head in Shawn’s direction.
“Shawn?” Ida asked aghast. “What did they DO to you?”
While this was going on, one of the goons with the machine pistols pulled out a cell phone and called in that they’d taken two, with a third on the line. It was a tense five-minute wait until there was a soft knock at the door. One of the men with the ‘shotguns’ set the end of the barrel against the back of Mack’s head and told him to answer the door. The man with the pistol pulled Ida back into the unlit living room, and the other man with a ‘shotgun’ forced Shawn to the floor and set the gun against the back of her head. Then the man with the gun at Mack’s head nodded for him to go ahead.
Mack opened the door. Rae peered in the door. “Is it cool?” Mack paused for a second or two before saying yes. Mack opened the door and Rae walked in. The shotgun man quickly shifted his gun from Mack to Rae, trusting that Mack wouldn’t do anything to endanger his family, saying, “Freeze, ass-”
In the fraction of a second when the ‘shotgun’ was tracking from his head to Rae’s, Mack lashed out, grabbed the gunman by his forearm and twisted upwards, shattering the man’s arm bones. In the same instant, there was a sudden flare of blinding light that filled the living room from outside. Even though they hadn’t been looking in the direction of the window, everyone in the room was blinded. Four tentacle-like arms whipped into the room through the window, grabbed the machine pistol-men, and pulled them away from the MacArthurs. A streak of electricity shot through another window, and pulled the large pistol away from Ida’s head. Shawn took advantage of the surprise to ‘blow’ the man with the shotgun against her ear up, smacking him up against the ceiling and letting him drop. Suzy zoomed into the house past Rae and Mack, with Evan as close on her heels as possible. Suzy pulled Ida off her feet and carried her through the kitchen, and out of the house into the backyard, where Eddie was waiting, at about twelve feet tall, but hunched over so he wouldn’t attract too much attention. Evan picked up Libya and Kenya and did the same. Mack and Rae charged the two men left standing, and put them down in less time than it takes to say it.
Mack drove his fists into one of them, snarling, “YOU. NEVER. TOUCH. MY. FAMILY!”
Dion MacArthur grabbed his son’s arm, saying, “Enough, ENOUGH! We got enough problems without you killing him!” Darcel looked at his father, and Dion nodded. “Enough.”
Rae stuck her head into the kitchen and yelled to the back, “It’s safe!”
* * * * *
When Rae gave us the all-clear, Mrs. MacArthur bustled into the living room with the girls behind her. She looked at Rae and Shawn, and turned to Mack. “Darcel, what the HELL is going on here?”
Mack gave them as quick an explanation as he could. “Now we got to get GOING! They called in for backup, we gotta get you all OUT of here!”
“So what?” Mack’s younger brother, asked. “You guys can just kick THEIR asses as well! And they think there are only THREE of you!”
“We can’t assume that we can take them by surprise a second time!” I snapped. “These guys are just the ones they could spare to watch this house. The ones they send for the pickup will be loaded for grizzly! We can’t fight them AND protect you all at the same time! At the very least, this entire house will get trashed!”
“Everyone!” Mack snapped, getting back into leader mode. “Go get dressed and get a couple of changes of clothes!” He turned to his father. “Dad, we gotta get out of town, at least until we can get the authorities to understand what happened. Remember that old Army buddy, down in San Diego? The one that said he’d put us up for summer vacation? I think that we’re gonna havta call in that favor a little early.” Mack turned to us. “Guys, I’m sorry. But I gotta stay with my family, to protect them. Yer gonna havta go on without me.”
“But DARCEL!” Rae pleaded, “We NEED you!”
“Mack,” Chris said in a much more reasonable tone, “I know you wanna do right by your fam, but consider this: do you really know everything about your powers? Are you really sure that you can control them? I’m not. And if they suddenly go off down in San Diego, you’ll blow your fam’s cover but good.”
“Yeah,” Roxie agreed. “Also, if you’re with them, it’ll make it that much easier for the opposition to pick you all out of a crowd. Black family, two sons of this and that age, two daughters of this and that ages? Real easy make, dude. Besides, if you’re with them, all you’re doing is making it more obvious - and a lot easier - for them to use as hostages against you. If you’re with us, then they’re focusing on US, not THEM.”
Mr. MacArthur laid a hand on Mack’s shoulder. “Son, I know how you feel. But she’s right. I don’t wanna let you go, but we both gotta do what’s right for the family. You remember Woody’s address, down in San Diego?” Mack nodded and rattled off an address in El Cajon. “Good. As soon as you get all this cleared up, you get word to Woody. He’ll know how to find us.” There were goodbye hugs all around, and then they broke to pack, only to find that Suzy had already packed their bags for them (and swiped some clothes from Kenya for herself).
It would have been nice if that was all it took, but it’s never that simple, especially when kids are involved. While the MacArthurs took care of all those last second details (and Mack and Rae got changes of clothes), Billy and I patted down the goons. They each had guns, handcuffs, what I took for sedative patches, things that looked like watches but were too complex for that, cell phones, envelopes that each contained $1,000 in used fifties and twenties, key cards and ID that said that they were MCO.
“You think they’re MCO?” Billy asked. “I mean, this is just like them. They pull this kind of ‘disappear into the night’ crap all the time.”
“Nah,” I shook my head. “If they were MCO, they’d have more ID than this: drivers license, credit cards, regular wallets, bogus warrants and writs, and like that. These guys expected to be stopped and maybe searched. Probably what the money’s for: payoffs. I’d say that a grand would buy off almost any street cop in this town, as long as there wasn’t massive property damage involved.” I held up the key card. “Hey, people! THIS look familiar?”
“Hey, who ELSE would it be?” Rae snarled.
“Nice to be sure,” I said blandly.
Then one of the cell phones rang, and before anyone could stop her, Kenya picked it up and said, “Hello?”
Rae reached - and I DO mean reached, like five feet beyond what she should have been able to - and snatched the phone away from her, but it was too late.
“SHIT!” I yelled, “SCREW everything, GET IN THE VAN, NOW!”
“The backup just called, to make sure that everything was okay! We just flunked the security test!” I yelled, heading for the backyard. I jumped up to the roof and scanned the night sky. Sure enough, when I scanned the horizon, I spotted six lights traveling in formation in our general direction. "Shit,” I whimpered. I ducked my head down from the roof and yelled, “INCOMING!”
Mr. MacArthur bustled out to the yard. “What are you talking about?”
“We have six lights in close formation approaching at ‘Haul Ass’ speeds. I dunno what they’re sending, but they’re sending their ass-kickers, that much I can tell you!”
“Maybe it’s a police helicopter.”
“Get real,” Rae said. “Do you honestly think that Sac PD would send a helicopter to check out a call in THIS neighborhood?”
“Grab everything and MOVE!” Mr. MacArthur yelled as he ran into the house.
Taking only the necessities, the MacArthurs were out of the house and in the family van in no time. Mack handed them three of the five envelopes for expenses, and they were out of there.
“Okay, so let’s HAUL!” Billy said, sprouting legs and heading for the van.
“NO!” Mack said, not taking his eyes from the approaching lights. “If they don’t find anyone at the house, they’ll follow the last vehicle to leave.”
“Heat trail,” Rox said. “It’s, like, fifty degrees out - just cold enough for a car to leave a heat trail on the asphalt, just warm enough that the cold won’t leach it away for a while.”
“Get to the van!” Mack said.
“What I said!” Billy bleated as he got into the driver’s seat.
“Now drive over to my house, and stop in the driveway for a minute.”
“WHAT?” Billy screamed.
“We gotta confuse that heat trail for my folks.”
“They’ll be here any second!”
“Better’n better! We can lead them away from my folks.”
“DO IT, Weasel!” Rae snarled.
“Why are we going through all of this for HIS folks?” Eddie whined.
“Because, if we do this for HIS folks, there’s that much less chance they’ll go after OUR folks!” Chris snapped. Billy did as told and then revved the engine to heat it up as much as possible and peeled out.
“Besides, there’s no way that ANY of this is legal!” Rox said. “So, they gotta keep it as quiet as they can. All we gotta do is take this into an area where there are lots of people and cameras and shit. They won’t dare do anything, if they think that the Cops will investigate.”
We followed the MacArthur’s (probable) path for about three blocks before a very bright spotlight from above pinned the van. I could just feel them targeting us. “Billy, get ready to make a hard right turn. Don’t do it yet, wait for my call, ready, ready…”
“Hey bitch, just remember that the big guy over there is the boss, not-”
“NOW! Turn NOW!” Billy made a hard right, and plowed through a chain link as the van rocked with the concussion of the near miss just behind us. “GUN IT, BILLY! Give ‘er everything you got!” Billy put the pedal to the metal, and we shot ahead.
“What happened to ‘they’ll never do anything way out in the open’?” Billy whined.
“The squid’s right,” Shawn said, “Riding and hidin’ ain’t gonna do us any good - we gotta take the fight to THEM!”
“Ah, that’s NOT what I said,” Billy muttered, horrified at the thought.
Every so often I told Billy to swerve, as I felt attacks coming in. We managed to avoid most of them, but it was pretty damned hard avoiding whatever it was that rattled the van like a maraca. Then, when I felt them getting into a formation where they’d hit us no matter how we jinked, I yelled, “BRAKES!”
The van came to a screeching halt, and they overshot us. “OUT! Scatter!”
We piled out of the van and spread out. Chris stopped for a second and pointed her hand at the points of light. She hit them with a wide beam of bright light, and we got an idea of what we were dealing with. They were seven guys in power armor all close together. But the power armor didn’t look like real power armor, like in the real world, which is big and bulky and has lots of large batteries hung all over it. It was more like the near-leotard ‘power armor’ that Iron Man uses in the comics, with bulky, rather hunchbacked torso units, but slender almost sweater-like cover for the arms and legs. Unfortunately, they weren’t conveniently color-coded, or with suggestive insignias. No, they were just a dark urban-cammy gray. At least they weren’t painted black and white, with ‘Police’ and ‘To Protect And Serve’ on them.
The armor jocks reacted to Chris’ spotlight by freezing just long enough for us to get a good look at them, and for Shawn to send a narrow but powerful ‘tornado’ of wind at them. They were unprepared for it and went flying off, crashing into buildings.
And that was the last real break that we got for a while. Basically, they got out a big ol’ can of whoop-ass and sprayed it all over us. One of them appeared to have gravity powers, and was able to screw with us by making large areas either a ton heavier or almost weightless. That really played hob with Eddie, Rae and me. Another one could create tons of ice, and he had Eddie on the ropes with that one. One of them was apparently super-strong, but in some way that required that he be standing on the ground instead of flying. He and Mack got into it pretty heavy. Another one could create bursts of light, like Chris could, and I spent way too much time chasing light-specks out of my eyes. Another one could create webbing or huge nets, but instead of trying to snare us with them he laid them out strategically around the place, and the others kept steering or knocking us into them. And they were doing a damn good job of it, too. They were consistently two if not three steps ahead of us all the way. Fortunately, for some reason, my ‘sword’ cut through the webs like they were cotton candy, and I was able to keep us free and in the fight.
UN-fortunately, that just made me a primo target for the most annoying one of them. He was able to create powerful ear splitting, nerve-rattling, nausea-inducing sonic barrages that just grabbed you by the head and shook you brain and bone. Worse - and don’t ask me how the hell he did this - he was able to narrow the effect into a beam, so his partners didn’t have to cope with it. He was really wiping up the place with us, but then he made the mistake of turning it on me.
Now, I’d love to say that it was intentional, but it wasn’t anything of the kind. He started shattering my eardrums, and the microwave dinner that I’d had only an hour or so before started coming up, and the asphalt was doing the hula like Tallulah. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I let him have it. The beam that I’d trashed that power frame with back at the warehouse lashed out again and caught the Shriek Jock square in the chest. His chest plate shattered and the blast knocked him into a building and clear through the wall.
The first shot wore me out like doing a 500-yard dash (and I’m not into track, folks). This shot wore like a marathon. It was all I could do to fall to my knees and not yark. On the upside (not that it seemed like an upside at the time), the other armor jocks were suddenly taking me a LOT more seriously. Typical, first time in my life anyone takes me seriously, and it’s a bunch of thugs in power armor. While the Net Jock tried to isolate me from the other kids, the rest of the jocks started circling around me. The Light Jock had me pinned with his spotlight, and I suddenly was aware of this sort of bluish energy that was dancing around my head, like it was trying to get in or something. It was trying to push into my head, but it couldn’t get in. Somehow I knew that it was this one armor jock who hadn’t seemed to really be doing anything, just flying around in the center of the pack, not attacking or anything.
But then again, maybe he’d been the busiest of the lot of them. I had the distinct impression that he’d been trying to read my mind. And if he could read our minds, well then, he’d know what we were planning to do, and he could inform the other jocks what to do. Now, if only I could stay alive to tell the others, before these assholes wiped me out on general principles.
I think that maybe I scared the armor jocks, ‘cause they made the stupid move of ignoring the other kids and concentrating on me. Or maybe they thought that the other kids would pack it in and run, leaving me holding the bag. Instead, Eddie grew up to forty feet tall, and ripped the netting that was keeping the other kids out of the fight. Mack and Rae came charging in, and Shawn was using her wind to keep the flying Jocks too busy to target me.
But the one who really pulled the prize move out of his ass was Billy. As Mack and Rae were mixing it up with the Brick Jock, Billy came up behind him and sank his tentacles into the Jock’s back armor. The Jock tried to shake him loose, but Billy hung tough and opened the back of the unit like it was a hatchback. "WAY TO GO, SQUID!” Eddie cheered.
The Jock stopped like someone had pulled his plug. Billy was still groping around in the back, and he pulled out something about the size and shape of a Frisbee. All the other Jocks immediately stopped paying attention to me, and focused entirely on Billy. True to his weasel nature, Billy scuttled away, and threw the ‘Frisbee’ to Mack.
Mack reflexively held up the ‘Frisbee’ in front of him, and the Ice Jock rather obviously held off trying to ice him. Eddie took advantage of that to pop up to what I think was his ultimate height and swatted the Ice Jock between his two hands. Mack looked at the disk for a second and then you could see the idea taking form on his face. “Okay people, we got our edge! Everyone, cover Billy! Squid, you the MAN! Go, take ‘em out!”
As everyone - kids and Jocks alike – reacted to that, Mack tossed the disk to me. “Take Five, Ev! If they try to blast you, use that as a shield!” This gave me a good look at it. The disk was about a foot or so across and maybe an inch or so thick. It was octagonal, made of a familiar dull gold material, and worked with lines that suggested - but weren’t - circuitry. There was a glassy ball about the size of a peach pit in the very center of the disk, and eight more glass balls studded near the ‘corners’ of the octagon. There were electronic connections, but I tell you, if this thing was electronic, then I’m Bill Gates.
Chris, Shawn and Rox (who apparently can fly) took to the air and kept the Jocks off balance as Mack and Rae threw stuff (like compact cars) at them. Eddie kept popping up, taking whacks at the Jocks and ‘disappearing’ down to his normal size. But the star of all this was Billy. Mack and Suzy kept getting him to one Jock after another. He’d ‘pop their trunk’ and pull out another of those plates. Then he’d drop and either Mack or Suzy would get him away before the other Jocks could react. My only contribution to all of this, once I got my wind (if not that juice that powers those blasts) back, was to cut away the goddamn webbing that the Net Jock was leaving all over the place. For protection, I held up that stupid disk every time I thought that one of the Jocks was targeting me.
Then Billy targeted the WRONG Jock. I’d been keeping tabs on the Psi Jock, and I’d tried to warn the others about him, but they were too busy to listen. Mack had thrown Rae at the Psi Jock, Rae got hold of his arms, and Billy hopped onto his back. But before Billy could ‘pop the hatch’ I spotted a halo of pale blue fire around his head. While the Psi Jock was most effective second-guessing us and directing the other Jocks, he was apparently pretty damned effective in his own right. I didn’t know what he was doing to Billy, but I doubted that he was teaching the Squid table manners.
I gave a warning shout and threw the disk I was holding in Mack’s general direction. Suzy caught it on the fly. I gave one of my weird super-leaps, ricocheted off a couple of things and came down with a perfect anime style ‘bounding sword strike’ on the Psi Jock’s back unit.
It must have looked rilly kewl, but to be honest, it wasn’t one of my best ideas.
My sword cut clean through the back unit, which erupted in a flare of pale blue energy, which swept over Rae, Billy and me. It burned through me, and Raymond Chandler’s inky pool of darkness washed over me again.
to be continued</p