There’s no actual SeX in this chapter, but there’s a new team member (of sorts) introduced and a few little surprises, along with some of the o_O humor that I think helps give this story its distinctive style. Please lemme know how you feel about it in the comments or by email.
“My name is Europa Evers and for those of you who don’t know me—” the CEO of the Superhero League of America gave me a significant look. “—I’ve been the steward of this organization since its inception…”
I was sitting at a table along with the rest of The Checkers smelling like the hand soap I’d used to rub the huge stain out of my pants from my semi-consensual dalliance with an empath a little earlier. An empath who happened to be the nephew of one of the most powerful women in the country. Hell, maybe even the world. And I got caught lying on the floor with her nephew, covered in jizz.
How do these things happen to me?
“…I have done my utmost to ensure that only the finest, most qualified, and talented individuals become part of this organization —” She didn’t even need to look at me that time to make my face turn red. “— and furthermore, I have tried to ensure that it was never in any doubt that the SLA was fighting on the side of righteousness.
“And…therein lies my problem,” she said sadly. “I’d have liked this assignment to go to a team with a little more experience under their belts, one who had been vetted and were beyond reproach, but your little run-in this weekend has complicated that. I assume I don’t have to tell you that whatever we discuss here is completely and utterly classified.”
She tapped what I assumed was a regular wristwatch and the game room darkened, a screen descended from the back wall and within a few seconds it was illuminated with footage from a projector hidden in the wall. The video was of the team fighting the twins at the construction site.
As the video ran silently, Europa spoke over it. “Those…people you fought are in part a product of an SLA laboratory test. A team of our scientists were trying to synthesize a genetic modification therapy that might have been able to assist those with extreme or uncontrollable powers. The twins you fought are part of a quartet, now down to a trio thanks to your intervention. They manifest a unique set of powers that we’re still plumbing the depths of. One or perhaps all of those powers working in concert has created a profoundly unstable psychology within their collective which has warped our efforts to help them into a personal crusade against them. The other three need to be apprehended, but I hesitate to bring anyone else into this. The possibility for embarrassment grows exponentially with every new soul that hears about this. We need to handle this and I think you are capable of doing it.”
She paused. “I don’t need to tell you how useful it would be to have my gratitude. Nor, I hope, how detrimental it would be to earn my displeasure. My nephew has offered to assist you in locating the other three by tapping into the quartet’s empathic link. He will contact you tomorrow and you will begin. Please contact my assistant, Exeter, with any updates on the matter. You are dismissed.”
We all got up to leave and I almost managed to make it to the door before Europa stopped me.
“A moment, Mr. Palavin.”
It might have been my imagination, but I could swear that my teammates walked out of the room extra quickly once Europa called me. Akma waved goodbye before closing the door behind her leaving me trapped in the game room with Europa. Suddenly the stuffed animal heads on the wall seemed all the more menacing. I started to wonder if she’d shot them herself. I walked over to her.
“I apologize, Ms. Evers, I never —”
She raised a hand to stop me. “First of all, it’s Director Evers. Secondly, I’ve read your dossier, Mr. Palavin. Thoroughly. Because I needed to be sure that you weren’t going to be a weak link in this team’s chain. I advise you to keep your head down and to improve quickly. And be careful, this organization is not what it once was and there are people within it who will use any leverage they can to get what they want. Don’t give away anything you can afford to lose. Especially trust. Remember that.”
“I will. Thank you, Director.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Palavin. Now you should probably go and have those pants dry cleaned.”
I had no words for that so I just pressed my lips together and nodded. Then I walked away as quickly as I could without giving the impression that I was racing away from her. Once I was out in the hall, I slumped against the wall, closed my eyes, and willed my knees not to give out.
“When I said that we should be on our best behavior, I didn’t mean you should fuck the boss’s nephew,” I heard Zashir say from somewhere to my left. I didn’t open my eyes to answer. “It’s a good thing I just dry humped him then.”
“It didn’t look all that dry to me,” he responded.
A bit of silence passed. “My second week as a hero I was fighting a guy who could become intangible. I tried to punch him with all this force I had stored up and he just became like this fine mist so I punched through him. I hit an ice cream truck and sent it flying into a fourth-grade classroom. Thankfully the kids were at recess, but the ice cream man suffered a concussion and two broken legs. I can neither eat ice cream nor hear the ice cream truck jingle without cringing.”
I opened one eye and looked over at him. “That’s rough.”
“Dev tried to get a little girl’s cat down from a tree as a kid and accidentally drowned it. It made the local news.”
“And Akma…well, she’d kill me if I told you her story, but she’s legally banned from entering or going within seventy-five feet of a certain home and gardening chain.”
“And no, none of us have ever been caught in our own bodily fluids in the Director’s house. As my grandmother used to say, ‘shame is short and life is long.’ Who knows—”
“Zashir,” I said again, most insistent this time. I looked at him straight on. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you or the team. I appreciate your pep talk, but I shouldn’t have gotten myself in that situation. Period. So I’m sorry.”
Zashir nodded. “You want to make it up to us?”
“Yes. I do. I really fucking do.”
“Alright, well I think I have something that might do the trick.”
We took the limo back down out of the fabulous hills above the city and into, of all places, the parking lot of a bowling alley.
“You want to go bowling?” I asked.
Devon and Akma laughed, but Zashir managed to scrape by with just a smile. None of them corrected my assumption.
“Just follow us, Wetspot,” Devon said as he got out of the car.
I rolled my eyes at the nickname and prayed that it would blow over. I couldn’t imagine my parents seeing that plastered on the evening news if we managed to stop a power plant from melting down or something.
We walked into the bowling alley and the attendant by the door saw Zashir and waved him in. I just stared, waiting for him to tell us that we needed bowling shoes, but it never happened. He didn’t even comment on Akma’s wedges. I just assumed that he was kind of scared of her. We walked on through the alley where several people were actually bowling and into a door marked ‘Employees Only.’ From there we went down a set of stairs into the basement and through another door. Here there was just a huge empty space and a kid sitting in the center.
“The fuck?” I muttered under my breath.
Zashir took off his jacket and hung it up on a hook by the door, Akma kicked off her shoes and grew a vine around her hair to tie it back into a high ponytail, Devon hung up his vest and his hat then rolled up his pant legs and took off his socks.
“Ok, seriously, what the fuck is this?” I asked.
Zashir took me by the shoulder and walked me over to the kid in the center of the room. “Nick, this is Shugo. He’s our — let’s call him a mentor.”
“He’s a kid,” I whispered, slightly loudly.
The kid looked up and cocked his head to the side. He looked at Zashir. “Where’d you find this one? He’s not too sharp.”
Zashir shrugged. “Give him some credit, you look like a kid today.”
“We’re living in a world where there are a people who can fly and a non-significant section of the population can throw lightning, he’s amazed that there’s a kid who might have some knowledge worth sharing.” Shugo gave me a disdainful look. “Does it speak?”
“It does,” I said.
Shugo sniffed. “Well, if monkeys can learn sign language…”
“That’s a little —” I started, but Zashir cut me off. “He’s new to all this, give him a break. Seriously.”
Shugo crossed his arms and allowed himself to look put out and then suddenly transformed into a busty blonde woman sitting on a huge pig, angry looking pig. Shugo, in his woman form, wore a toga and held a long, worn looking scroll in one hand. His fingers were perfectly manicured and his legs crossed all ladylike. My mouth hung open.
“Are you familiar with the Walkers, new guy?” Shugo asked.
“There are a few of us. A very few. We move through space and time a little differently. It’s a lot to explain, but the cliff notes version is: I exist here, but it’s only an aspect of the whole, which is elsewhere. Elsewheres. I’m only here, in this here, because of Zashir. I look out for him when I can and I run this machine.”
“Machine?” I asked.
Shugo gave Zashir an irritated look from the top of his giant pig and Zashir gave him a stern one in reply. The pig snorted, Shugo continued.
“This room is a multi-million dollar piece of tech, kid. It can basically hijack your sensory modality and trigger highly realistic…”
I looked around. There was nothing in the room but a couple mops and brooms pressed against the far wall.
“You’re losing him, Shugo,” Zashir opined.
“I’m not sure —” I started.
“No one gets it at first,” Akma chimed in. “But once you experience it first-hand, I think… Once you’ve been in it, I mean, then you get it.”
“Ok. So how does it work,” I asked. “What do we have to do?”
“Shugo: run a basic combat training sim…something easy. How about protect the princess?” Zashir said.
Akma groaned. “Can we do protect the Prince instead? I think I’m proof that the one with the vagina doesn’t always need saving.”
“Point taken,” Zashir said. “Protect the Prince it is. Akma, you’re with Nick, walk him through it for me? Dev, you’re with me. We’ll be the advance team, you two buy us time.”
Before I could ask any other questions or express even a hint of uncertainty, things started getting very weird, very quickly. The spacious white basement room started to warp and shift, the anonymous smell of cleaning supplies bloomed into fresh grass. I could feel the wind on my arms through my…
“Holy fucking shit.”
“Weird, right?” Akma replied.
My arms were covered with cloth sleeves bound with long, defined plates of iron. The rest of me was armored too. I was dressed in full armor and I slowly became aware of how heavy it was, pressing in on me. I looked up and out at the town around us, large swathes of it were on fire and there were people fleeing in every direction. They looked real. Everything looked real. I could feel the heat of the flames and the the smoke stung my eyes and tightened my chest. It was dizzying, the sensation of it all bearing down on me. But whatever the simulation was and however it was being generated, my team would be relying on me and I was determined not to make them regret it this time.
“So where are we and what do we do now?”
Akma, in her own highly ornamented getup, which I was noticing now seemed to be some kind of samurai armor — scratched her head. “We’re in Sengoku era Japan…mostly. I’m sure Shugo’s made some adjustments, but this is Japan as it would have been for the most part at that time. As for what we do —” she patted a wooden sword at her side. “—we buy the alpha team some time to abduct the prince.”
I was a bit put out that didn’t have a sword, but it didn’t seem the right moment to mention it.
“Abduct? I thought we were protecting the prince.”
She shrugged. “Protect, abduct. Whatever. Anyway, we have a more pressing issue.”
She pointed at the similarly armored riders coming in our direction on horseback. Akma took a martial stance and a step forward.
“Can your pheromones rile those horses, Spot?”
“I’ve never used it on animals, and will it work if this is a simulation anyway?”
“It’s a simulation, but it follows real world rules,” she said shortly. “So I’d rather not take an arrow while you argue with me. Focus on the horses. Slow them down while I figure something out.”
Even though it was right in front of me and I was clearly experiencing it, I was having trouble processing the simulation as real. I mean, wouldn’t you balk if you went from the basement of a bowling alley to feudal Japan in the space of a thought? But either way, I didn’t want to get on Akma’s bad side, especially not while she was wearing a full suit of armor. I focused on the horses, tried to block out the smoke in the air and the terrifying, thundering noise of the wedge of ten or so riders coming in our direction.
The feeling, when I started generating the pheromones to spook the horses, felt different than those I’d used on humans. The closest experience I can compare it to is drawn from three semesters of Italian I’d taken in college. This was similar to speaking a different language, using a different set of expression, of knowledge, but imagine if that language had been sitting dormant in your consciousness. Imagine if your mind just kind of switched it on. That’s what it was like when I sent out the impulse of fear to the horses. They caught it in a wave. The riders at the forefront of the charge were thrown, regardless of their horsemanship, there was no way to prepare for the sudden, uncontrollable behavior of their animals. Most of those in the middle met a similar fate, but some of those further back who had a few moments to react managed to stay ahorse though they were having a devil of a time keeping control.
With the charge more or less broken, Akma, or should I say Thumb, went into action. She put her hands to the ground and closed her eyes. She spoke to me as she worked.
“I’m searching for local plant life, to see what I can use…Ah!”
No sooner had she made the noise than a small wooden shack a little way down the street exploded. Thick leafy vines started pouring into the street from the inside of the shack. The warriors went against it with their blades, but it was so fast growing that chopping off one portion meant that two more were already approaching. While the vines didn’t seem to have the sheer tensile strength of the version that I’d seen Thumb grow at the construction site, they were much quicker and far more numerous.
Later she explained that her power is based on the type of plant life in the area. Because that particular vine was native to that region, she was able to amplify its base properties (invasive, fast growing) in order to combat her opponents. However, the fundamental unreliability of finding perfectly suited plant life for combat in every situation landed her squarely in a support role. She was also able to bring in her own plants, but the difficulty of growing things outside of their natural habitat took a toll on her. As I would learn over the course of those early missions, there are few powers that don’t come without some serious caveats.
Though the vines were a good distraction, Thumb was still having trouble keeping all the riders occupied. At this point they had made the connection that she was controlling the vines and it was only a matter of seconds before they started targeting her specifically. A few of them were already snatching their bows back from the vines and struggling to nock them.
Akma’s brow was sweating underneath her helmet. “I can only go as fast as I can go here, Spot. Any ideas?”
Using the same trick I’d used on the horses was going to be difficult. Now that the warriors were aware that their horses had been afflicted somehow, pheromone pushing them was going to be twice as hard because they’d be expecting something like that. I didn’t know if I had it in me to override the senses of ten trained warriors.
“I’m —” I started, then something hit me. “Plants have pheromones, right? I mean, they use them?”
“What? Yes, I think so. What are you thinking?” Then she grunted. “Whatever you’re doing, do it now.”
I reached out to the plants under Thumb’s control and I full on blasted them with the impulse to grow faster. It was a longshot based on a hazy recollection of a half slept-through biology course, and the mixture of unfamiliarity with plant physiology and the brute force of the push left me wheezing on the ground. But…
Thumb just stared as the plants under her control doubled in growing speed and ferocity. The two bowmen who were taking aim had their weapons snapped in half by the suddenly vicious vines while a few warriors were completely covered over and disappeared under a mound of brush.
“Ok, fuck, Nick. Quit it now. Let go,” she said, as the vines wrenched a man’s arm so hard it was dislocated.
I was still catching my breath and my head seemed weirdly fuzzy, as if my thoughts weren’t completely my own.
“I’m not pushing anymore. I’m not in control of them.”
“I can’t,” Thumb said. She took her hands off of the ground and stood up. “I can’t contact them. It’s like they’re…”
The vines completely covered over the rest of the warriors. Some of the horses managed to escape, but some of them hadn’t. The instant the last man disappeared underneath the leaves, the vines stopped growing and it was over.
Thumb and I looked at each other. She shook her head.
“Yeah, we’re gonna’ have to work on that before it’s field ready.”
I thought I heard one of them call out from beneath the brush, but by then we were already heading to the castle looming over the burning town. There was nothing else we could do for the simulation warriors and we still had a prince to save…or abduct, whatever.