Island in the Sun (a Uni7erse Short)

AUTHOR’S NOTE] This is a short set in the Unlucky Seven universe (or Uni7erse as was recently suggested to me). If you like what you read here and you’re not familiar with the source material, check the links on the sidebar to buy/borrow Unlucky Seven and the Obligatory Sequel. You won’t regret it!

At this moment, everything in her world was ambient.

The waves crashed softly on the beach. The ocean breeze caused a hiss as palm fronds collided in the canopy.

The smell of sunblock mixed with sweat, the heat of the sun shining out of a clear sky, the hot grit of the sand under her bare feet – all these things were secondary. She was concentrating on one thing only.

Her opponent lifted off, causing a puff of sand to rise up from beneath his feet. The ridiculous unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt he was wearing flapped in the wind like a cape. His bare bald head was as pale as the beach on which they stood.

He led with his shoulder, faster than he had before, so fast that it was nearly unbelievable, even after all these weeks. Every one of these bouts increased gradually in speed over time. Pushed her. Forced her to react quickly and without thought. Taught her to rely on reflex alone.

She dropped to her knees, arching her back. As he flew over her, a brief moment of breathlessness in his wake changed the composure of the environment. No smells, no sounds, a strong cool wind. She ignored them all in favor of springing to her feet and turning to face him as he hovered a few inches above the sand. She stood at the ready, waiting for him to take another pass.

The world rushed back to her as he landed. She immediately blocked it all out again, waiting for his next move.

“Good,” Johnny said, “Now try to hit me.”

His posture was relaxed. Jess took no comfort in this.

She charged and leapt into a kick. Faster than she could see, he dodged and was now standing next to her as she landed.

She swung upward for his face with her left fist, the difference in their height two full feet. When he dodged that, as quickly as she could, she swung with the right. It was not fast enough. He swept the legs out from under her, putting her back in the sand. The impact was enough to disorient her temporarily and, before she had time to realize what was happening, she was in the shade of his wide shoulders as he was over top of her, his face close enough to exchange her winded breath.

He was looking into her eyes. She allowed her body to catch up with what had just happened. She took a deep breath through her nose, the coconut of the unnecessary sunblock on his invulnerable skin mixed with the ocean. Her eyes closed as her left hand reached inside his shirt to touch his back. She was trying to stay serious but could not help smiling.

“You ok?” he whispered, his mouth next to her ear.

She nodded. She was too breathy and overwhelmed to come up with an audible response.

His lips brushed her forehead. She curled her arms under his and lifted herself up to kiss him, the taste salty from an earlier swim and the sweat of training in the sun. They were both sticky and sandy from the day but she didn’t care. He was surprisingly gentle in moments like this, certainly not the person who she had first met on the other side of a fight she would rather forget.

Right now, there were no bad blood memories. Not here. Not in this place. There was only the feeling of his smooth skin beneath the tips of her fingers. The pressure of his hand pulling her close as it cradled to support her. Their lips nearly magnetic, not wanting to part.

As wonderful as this all was, Jess pulled away with a realization.

“We have to get back to work,” she said.

“Can’t we work on this instead?” he whispered.

“Come on,” she said. “There’s plenty of time for that later. We said we were putting aside this time every day to work and we always wind up distracted.”

“It’s a little more than just a distraction, ain’t it, darlin’?”

“We need to be ready,” she said, sliding out from under him and sitting up. “We have no idea what could be coming for us.”

“We know exactly what is coming. Not that they’re ever gonna find us.”

She stared at him, her brow furrowed. She silently waited until he turned to look at her.

“What?” he asked.

“You know they’re going to come eventually,” Jess said, “We’re wasting time.”

She stood up and took a few steps away from him, taking her ready stance.

He stood up slowly, sighing first, then smiling.

“Ok,” he said, speading his arms wide, “Have at it.”

She sprinted in again, swinging for his face. She telegraphed the blow and realized it just as he stepped aside. Her shin contacted with his extended foot and her momentum planted her face first in the sand.

Jess rolled onto her back.

Johnny chuckled. She narrowed her eyes at him, then widened them in shock.

“Johnny, look out!” she cried, pointing.

He turned to look just before he was set upon by a large shadowy form.

He fell to the ground, blindsided by the beast which was almost as big as he was – a large cat, resembling a panther but about three times the size. It appeared as though it were made from shadows. Wisps of black curled off its back like smoke and dissipated into the bright daylight. Its eyes glowed an angry red and, when it roared, it exposed a jagged maw lit by the same crimson. It turned to face him, a deep and rumbling growl now dominating the ambient sound of wind and wave.

“What the hell is that?” Johnny asked, standing up.

The beast slinked toward them, paying particular attention to Jess’ prone position.

Johnny appeared between creature and potential victim, readying himself.

The beast crouched down, preparing to pounce, which it did with incredible speed.

Johnny punched it in the side of the face as hard as he could just before it reached him. He looked surprised as the thing was not immediately launched several miles into the open ocean by this blow but instead had landed on its feet a few yards away near the tideline. It was now much angrier than it had been before.

So quickly that Johnny didn’t have time to perceive, the beast lunged again. It caught him and pinned him to the ground. He managed to get his right forearm up to stall its gnashing jaws and screamed as it bit down. His own blood spurted into his face as he managed to get his left hand free from the thing’s weight.

He swung his fist at the creature’s eye but did not connect. In fact, there was no creature. There was no wound and there was no weight holding him down.

Jess was standing over him. “Is it funny now?”

“You did that?” Johnny asked.

“You act like you’re surprised,” Jess said.

“Why?”

“You tripped me. Only fair that I trip you back. You’re supposed to be training, too, you know. Your lack of mental security is what brought us here in the first place.”

“Hey now,” he said, “Remember that you got infiltrated, too.”

“It was a special circumstance,” Jess said. “Psychic feedback or whatever. Joey tried to get into my head while I was trying to get into yours. I had the same trainer as she did, more or less. I’m good. You, though, need to learn what’s real and what’s in your head.”

“That’s much easier said than done. Can’t we just go back to you trying to punch me?”

“No. We’ve been ignoring this for too long. Joey is going to be one of their main weapons and you are going to need to be ready for her.”

“They know I’m with you,” he said. “Joey’s got the power to negate any other psychics in the area, but she can’t use her powers while she’s doing it. That was part of the plan when we fought you at the mill site. It takes her out of the game but it also removes you. Those hyper-realistic illusions are your specialty and, if you pushed it, they could take out an entire army. They want that contained.”

“I get that,” Jess replied. “But, it’s not like we’re always right next to each other. If I’m not there to be removed, she’s going to focus on you.”

“Then I knock her into next week,” Johnny said.

“Have you learned nothing, Agent Moorsblade?” said a stern voice from behind him.

Johnny turned to see Agent Williams standing on the beach: his suit crisp, his look clean, company issued sunglasses on his face, the XIII pin on his lapel glinting in the sun.

“Physicality does not always solve a problem,” Williams said, “Which is why you were partnered with Agent Phalanx and, later, given a team. You were engineered to be a one-man army but the war isn’t always being fought on an open battlefield.”

Johnny turned back to Jess. “Are you doin’ this?”

“You tell me,” she shrugged.

He leapt at Williams with a growl, fist extended for a devastating blow.

His fist was intercepted by Williams’ hand. He was stopped dead, unable to push forward even at the height of his strength. Veins bulged in his neck and arm. His skin began to redden with effort.

“Were you listening to what I just said, Agent Moorsblade?” Williams asked.

Johnny swung his other fist at Williams’ face. It was blocked effortlessly. Williams began to squeeze his hand. The pain shot through him, fast and hot. He grimaced. It was not a tempered response. He yelped and did not stay composed. This was still not something he was used to.

“Jess, stop it!” he cried.

“You stop it,” she said calmly. “You’re letting it happen.”

“She’s right, Agent Moorsblade,” said Williams.

“Shut up,” Johnny spat at Williams. “You’re not real.”

“I’m not?” Williams smiled. “Then who is doing this?”

He twisted, and Johnny screamed and dropped to his knees in the sand.

“You’re not real,” he muttered. “This isn’t happening and you’re not real.”

He repeated this as a chant, slowly standing up. His back was to Jess and, when he turned around, she noticed his eyes were closed and he was still mumbling to himself. He was taking long, deep breaths. The Williams illusion was still present for her. She could see that she was projecting it into his mind. She moved Williams nearer to him. Had him scream in Johnny’s ear and, when this produced no reaction, he took a few swings, his fists passing through their target.

She stopped the illusion.

“Good job,” she said.

“You don’t have to hurt me every time, you know,” he said, his eyes still closed, his voice calm.

“I think it’s good for you,” Jess said, “Keeps you human.”

“It doesn’t feel good,” he said.

“It’s not supposed to,” she laughed, “It’s pain. It’s not permanent. I can’t actually permanently hurt you.”

He sighed.

“I can make it better,” she said, walking up to him and putting her hand on his face, “Why don’t we call it for the day?”

He nodded, almost childlike, and they turned and started back up the beach.

***

A breeze blew over the deck.

Her airy skirt was caught and flapped in the wind. Her hair, still damp from the shower, blew around her face.

Jess placed her hand on the blank piece of paper in front of her on the table to prevent it from blowing away. She was lost in thought.

“Trying to write the letter again?” Johnny asked, wrapping his arms around her from behind.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Just tell them everything,” he suggested, “Don’t leave anything out.”

“Absolutely not,” she said, “Stop suggesting that.”

“Why?” he asked.

“I just,” she paused, “I just can’t. I can’t even begin to tell them everything: How it looked like you kidnapped me, but we were really running away together. The part where we dropped our communications devices to the bottom of Lake Eufaula, went off the map and found a private island where I promptly… convinced… the residents to leave forever. It’s too much.”

“Don’t seem like too much,” Johnny said, “You just said it all right there.”

“I neglected to explain how I wound up falling in love with someone we thought to be a gigantic indestructible murder machine who was trying to kill us,” Jess said, “No matter how I try to explain that away, they’re going to think I’m writing under duress. They’re going to think the Project has me as a prisoner or something and they’ll likely do something stupid.”

“You think they’re gonna come after you?” Johnny asked.

“Yes,” she said, “They would have done it for Kurt if I hadn’t stopped them. They’ll do it for me.”

“They’ll get themselves killed,” he said. “You know that, right?”

She twirled the pen between her fingers, thinking. “You’ll make sure this gets to them, right?”

“Of course, darlin’.”

She wrote quickly. There was no salutation, no signature, no indication of the note’s origin except for potentially the smell of the sea and an errant few grains of sand that they would never notice.

She folded it and handed it to Johnny. He nodded to her, walked off the deck and down to the sand, launched into the air and disappeared with a sonic boom.

She sighed with relief. A huge weight had lifted from her with just a few simple words:

Whatever you are thinking… Don’t.

Long Time Coming (a Uni7erse Short)

The cell was harsh treatment.

He couldn’t remember how many people he’d sent here in his long tenure.

On the other side of the bars, he retained control. Things on the inside appeared bright and clean and Spartan. The accommodations were well in line with a standard prison. This was not cruel or unusual in any way. He followed the rules.

From this side of the bars, every day was torture.

He felt disgusting. His white hair grew wild. He was not permitted to shave and a beard still bearing traces of his platinum blonde past emerged from his wrinkled face.

With nothing but constant artificial light, his circadian rhythm faded. He lost track of the days. How long had it been? Was this really what he put all of those others through when he’d held them? Did they still remember this even though it was psychically removed from their memories?

He wouldn’t have that option if he was ever set free. He was naturally immune to psychic abilities.

That young woman, the one who commanded him to come in here, the one whose orders he couldn’t disobey, she could simply tell him to forget. Maybe she would show him mercy.

What had they done to him, he wondered. Why, with everything he’d ever been through, was he in the back of his mind contemplating begging for relief? He had been alive and fighting for almost a hundred years and he would have at least a hundred more to go from here. This was temporary. He would be free and he would exact his revenge before getting back on track with his long term plans. He had to hold on to that.

Strange thing was, he didn’t really want to. Every time he tried to concentrate on his hatred or his goals, his feelings would subside and he would return to staring at the wall, wishing that he would get out of here. That he would be shown mercy.

It had to have something to do with that young woman. He would have to kill her first. She visited every week to reinforce whatever she was doing to him. Next time she came through he would…

…what? What was he thinking about again? The walls. The walls were so grey and featureless. He couldn’t sleep right. The lights were always on. Those draining fluorescent lights.

The door at the edge of the small cell block opened. Through the bars, he could see a stocky figure. Smoke trailed from the corner of its mouth, acrid and sweet.

“Hello, Douglas,” he said. “I could smell you coming.”

“Williams,” the humanoid bulldog answered.

In his right hand he carried a metal folding chair. With a flick, he set it down on four legs. He sat backwards in the chair, facing the cell, folding his arms across the back and blowing a heavy cloud of cigar smoke through the bars, directly into his face. Williams did not flinch.

“I assume this visit is not meant to be cordial, Agent D’Angelo,” he said.

“Decidedly not,” Doug answered, restoring the cigar to the corner of his wide mouth.

“Why are you here?” Williams asked.

Doug took a long, thoughtful pull on his cigar, grinning as he exhaled.

“I want you to guess.”

“I do not have time for games, Agent D’Angelo,” said Williams.

“Au contraire,” Doug replied, “You’ve got all the time in the world.”

Williams stepped away from the bars in frustration. He paced, his bare feet audibly slapping against the finished concrete floor, his hands behind his back.

“It seems apparent,” Williams began, “That you have been somehow enticed down here to torment me.”

“If that ain’t the most obvious statement I heard all day,” Doug chuckled, “Why do you think I came down here?”

He stopped pacing.

“She has given your back your memories,” Williams said without hesitation, “Josephine has given you back your memories and now you are here to take some sort of revenge on me.”

Doug grinned. “Bingo.”

Williams sat down against the far wall and buried his face in his hands.

The only sound was Doug exhaling.

“Do you know how many times we have been here, Douglas?” asked Williams, “Do you know the number of these conversations we have had? Before Agent Gorsky’s… failure… we were having this exact dialogue at least bi-monthly. Agent Briggs’ memory blocks are much more effective. There has not been an incident between us in years.”

“She mentioned that,” Doug said, “This time, though, these memories are for keeps.”

“Shame, that,” said Williams, “You will likely go and do something foolish because of them.”

“Foolish like what,” Doug said, his volume increasing, “Foolish like seeing the daughter you’ve kept hidden from me for the last thirteen years?”

“Yes,” Williams said, “Exactly that foolish.”

“Why did you do it?” Doug shouted, “Why did you take me away from her?”

Williams chuckled.

“Obviously they did not restore all of your memories,” he said, smiling.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You asked for this,” Williams said, “You volunteered.”

“I didn’t ask to be taken away from my family,” Doug shouted.

Williams laughed.

“Au contraire,” he said.

Doug threw his cigar to the floor, unlocked the door with a press of his security card, and rushed into the room, kicking the seated Williams in the face.

Williams was still laughing as he hit the ground. He was still laughing as Doug let fly punch after punch into his head, his body, his abdomen. The kick was swift and strong and had caught him off guard enough to knock him over. He felt no pain and took no damage from Doug’s flurry of blows.

“Is it that hard to believe?” Williams shouted over Doug’s animalistic snarls, “Did they give you back nothing of value but the memories of your family? Did they give you no context, only rage?”

Tears streamed down Doug’s face. He stopped, slumping along the wall, his face buried in his paws.

“During our previous chats,” Williams said, propping himself up, “You were able to be restrained before your anger took hold. The blocks would be redone and things would quickly return to normal. Fortunately, with Agent Briggs, memory repression was substantially more effective. You have not had an incident such as this since and you likely would have continued on without one if she had not raised those memories to the surface.”

Doug caught his breath.

“You did volunteer, Agent D’Angelo,” Williams reassured. “We removed it from your memory along with other details in order to make your transition to this life easier. There is a video record of your statement. It is a precaution we take with everyone in the event that something like this happens.”

“Why did I do it?” Doug asked. “Do you even remember? Is that on your video record?”

“No it is not,” Williams said. “We did not include context in the videos, again, for ease of understanding if things ever came to this. I, however, remember quite well.”

He stopped.

“Well?” Doug growled, “Are you gonna tell me or do I have to put a gun to your head or something?”

“Are you sure?” Williams asked, “It seems likely that there will be no going back after this. I don’t believe Agent Briggs will be willing to remove this from your memory. She and 81623 seem quite intent on voiding any lingering loyalties you may still possess.”

“Tell me,” Doug said, producing his Project sidearm, “Or I will put a gun to your head.”

“Gun or no gun, I will tell you what you want to know,” Williams shrugged.

He took a deep breath.

“You were a soldier,” Williams started, “A Marine. Your primary MOS was small arms technician. You were a Staff Sergeant. You were quite gifted at your job.”

“I know all of this,” Doug said, waving the barrel of his sidearm in an impatient circle, signaling Williams to go on.

“The DNA profile on your record indicated that you possessed a certain genetic marker which was the primary catalyst for the experiments conducted by Project XII. We also saw that you had a family. A wife and a young daughter, two years old at the time, I believe. I approached you personally, described what this would mean, told you that you would gain extra-normal abilities and serve your country on the absolute highest level.”

“Extra-normal,” Doug scoffed, “Yeah, incredibly extra and absolutely not normal.”

“You have heightened strength and agility,” Williams said, “You possess very acute senses of smell, taste, and hearing. You are tougher than a regular human. You may not exactly be Agent Moorsblade, but you are still enhanced from your previous state, are you not?”

“What about my family?” Doug asked.

“Your family was presented with an irrefutable cover story,” Williams said, “You received new orders after September Eleventh and you rotated into the field. You told your family this yourself. You packed your bags and said goodbye. Later, you were killed after leaping onto an improvised explosive device to shield your compatriots. You were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and later the Medal of Honor. Your family was granted your full military pension and benefits as well as a significant donation from a private foundation who wished to remain anonymous.”

“Meanwhile,” Doug said, “That anonymous foundation was turning me into a bulldog.”

“You were never upset about what you had become previously,” Williams said, scratching his beard, “I wonder if that resentment has not been planted by Agent Briggs. Regardless, I ‘robbed’ you of nothing. I came to recruit you and you agreed because it would mean serving the greater good. You agreed because we were and still are in the middle of a very dark cold war. Without your contributions to the Project – without your sacrifice – we would be ten steps behind and that does not even speak for the technological advancements you have created in our labs.

“You may have become a bulldog and you may have left your old life behind, but you have been absolutely vital to this organization. You should be proud of what you have accomplished, not upset with what you have left behind.”

“Don’t,” Doug growled. “Don’t try to turn this around on me. I have a wife. I have a daughter.”

“And what do you think would happen if they saw you as you are now?” Williams asked, “Their long-dead husband and father – decorated war hero, killed in action and given a closed casket funeral – appears from nowhere in your current physical state? They would never believe it was you no matter how you presented it.”

Doug swatted Williams in the face with the heavy pistol opening a small cut on the bridge of his nose. Williams didn’t flinch.

“You did this to me,” Doug shouted. “You made me this way.”

“I am not sure how else to explain it to you,” Williams said, “You did this to yourself. You volunteered for Project XII. We have video evidence. We have signed documentation scanned and saved in multiple remote locations with every detail explained clearly in writing. You gave us the right to perform our experiments. We had no idea what the side-effects might be.”

Doug hit him again. This time, it hurt Williams a bit more. It had been a long time since he’d seen his own blood.

“No matter how much you believe I am in the wrong,” Williams started, his voice remaining its usual calm monotone.

The pistol made contact again. The blood flowed a bit more freely.

“81623 is using you worse than I ever have,” he continued, taking another blow to the face, “Right now, in fact. Do you really think you are here of your own accord? Do you really think this physical action is something you are doing spontaneously? This was planned, Douglas. You were led here. That Phalanx is controlling you worse than I could even imagine! You are a puppet now! You are all puppets!”

As Williams laughed, Doug continued to swing the heavy sidearm into his face. Williams’ eyes watered and his vision began to blur. He could taste blood in his mouth and feel it dribbling from his undoubtedly broken nose. He had not been beaten like this since The War.

Doug pressed the barrel of the gun hard against Williams’ temple.

“Shoot me if you like,” Williams slurred, “It will make no difference. You are what you are, Douglas. You will never be anything else.”

Williams looked out of the corner of his eye, barely able to see Doug’s face.

“Do not play their game,” Williams grunted, “You are better than this.”

The trigger had been pulled. Williams squinted, waiting for whatever came next. He was not prepared for it to be the hollow reverberation of an unloaded weapon. Doug continued to pull the trigger offering click after click of inaction. Williams smiled as his vision faded.

Just before passing out, he heard a female voice from the cell door utter a single word:

Stop.

He wasn’t sure how many days had passed when he woke up again.

Visitors had been scarce. For all the pain in his face, he found that it had been nice just to talk to someone.

He would take his revenge on those who had done this to him. He would do it for himself and now Agent D’Angelo, who was somehow wrapped up in all this. He could feel his hatred bubbling to the surface and then…

What was he thinking about again?

How Santa Works Now – A Brief History

There is a man who lives in the frozen arctic north.

Despite all reports regarding shrinking polar ice, his home remains standing in one of the most remote places on Earth.  Literally, no one – aside from he and his immediate associates – have ever traveled there.  It exists in a place which is scientifically proven to be the farthest point from civilization, above water, on the planet.

Originally, this man lived in a village far south of his current domicile.  During the early winter – the darkest days of the year – he would cheer people up by bringing hand-fashioned toys for the children and necessities for those with more responsibilities.  His tradition was beloved by the public and he was a very giving man.  His philosophy was that he should share the warmth in his heart with others in order to make the winter that much more bearable.

Seeing his success in the small snowy village, he thought about expanding his operation.  He used his sleigh and some of the indigenous reindeer to deliver his heart-warming goods to other nearby areas to help them through those dark, cold times.  As his delivery radius grew year after year, he found himself in need of help.  He recruited the people of his home village to help him fashion toys and gifts, enough that everyone in his region would get one thing they needed or wanted to help cure the winter blues.  He was himself a jack-of-all-trades but, by teaching his workers the basics, they became masters of their own.

As his workforce grew and his range continued to expand, he found himself creating a grand design.  If he could bring this kind of cheer to one region of the world, why not bring it to the entire world?  It remained a pipe dream until one night he spoke of his ambitions to one of the village elders.  The elder revealed that he was familiar with the Ars Arcanum of the older world and that there were ancient incantations which could help him achieve his goals.

Through the use of forgotten ley lines, the elder and the man cast a spell found in a dusty grimoire which would re-position their village to a hidden place of power – this most remote part of the world, away from the prying eyes of the ever-advancing world of man.  A place where their use of this magic could remain secret.  Their intentions were noble and they knew if any of these powers got into the wrong hands, they would be misused.

They enchanted his sleigh next.  As the distance was now vast between his home and those to whom he brought cheer, it made sense that his conveyance should fly.  The trick to the spell, however, was that the sleigh would need constant forward momentum in order to stay aloft, which meant the work of his already famous reindeer would continue.

With his village and workforce now operating in secret and the ability to range further than ever, he began to visit every village he could on the night of December 25th.  The cheer he brought helped to retain the magic he had been granted.  His gift giving was close to a holiday mentioned in the grimoire but far enough away to allay suspicion of any true magic being used.  It wasn’t until much later during the Reformation that this would, coincidentally, be officially recognized as the birthday of Jesus and therefore named Christmas.  That is another story altogether.

Though his range was larger than it had ever been, he still felt it wasn’t enough.  There were people out there who were in need.  There were those who required something to sustain them through the frigid winter to come.

He and the elder enchanted more sleighs.  They gathered more reindeer.  They trained some of the burlier men in his employ (he being a mountain of one himself) in his gifting procedures.  They broke the world up into regions for his self-made doppelgangers.

Over time, these gift-givers grew their own style, name, and reputation based on their region.  None of them would ever top the original who, despite having accrued quite an burgeoning empire over the years, still made his own rounds personally.  The idea of gift-giving grew so much that people began giving each other gifts and creating their own winter cheer.  His idea was spreading.  The time of year became the season for giving.

He liked this so much that he decided to add a bit more mystique to his routine and that of his compatriots.  They would only come while people were sleeping.  They could continue to give gifts, but their visits would no longer be the center of attention.  The holiday he had fashioned would become about celebration with family and friends – togetherness in the face of the bleak season to come – rather than concentrating on the arrival of him or one of his lieutenants.

Time pressed on and population expanded.  Considering the workload and the facts, he decided that adults were providing their own cheer through togetherness and the gifts they gave to each other.  He decided to turn his efforts fully to children and the village, which had now become nearly a factory, switched exclusively to toy production.

This was done for a secondary reason, as described by the grimoire.  While the magical energies of a younger world put the spells in place, belief in those magics was what kept them empowered.  Adults, with a more concrete and cynical view on the world, had no time for what came to be told as legends or fairy tales.  If he could retain the belief of at least the children – more powerful in its nature due to their innocence – he could continue his operation indefinitely.

This was important as he came to rely on magic.  An enchantment kept his camp hidden.  Spells kept himself, his workers, and his lieutenants from aging.  He possessed flying sleighs and what would become known by fantasy gamers everywhere as the original bag of holding.  Unless he was able to pay the upkeep through belief, everything he treasured would fall apart.

The legends used to spread belief in he and his cause began to homogenize and pool together.  He was starting to be recognized as one man with different names who circled the globe in one night, giving presents to all who deserved them.  Building on this, he decided to make his lieutenants a bit more uniform.  Belief would remain strong if it was in one entity.  He had no personal thirst for power or worship, it was done only to retain a strong belief in what he and his compatriots were doing.

As the centuries pushed on, things grew more difficult.  More lieutenants were required.  Different magics were scavenged from the grimoire allowing the gift-givers to enter through tight open spaces, mostly chimneys or other ventilation systems, to get where they needed to be.  These were feats of individual magic, however, and tended to exhaust the user.  Rumor was spread of this (and it spread fast), sparking a tradition of milk and cookies being left as a snack along with the occasional carrot for the well-known reindeer.

The legends continued to unify and eventually the most recognized name given to what was still believed to be the solitary gift-giver was Santa Claus.  The visage of the original had been seen and passed down through the ages for so long that, in the early decades of the 20th century, it was brought into prominence by a rather ambitious soft drink company via their advertisements.  This put belief at an all-time high.

This was both a blessing and a curse for the gift-givers.  They were now busier than ever.  Consumerism was kicking in.  Children were no longer happy with handcrafted toys and they wanted things which, logistically, couldn’t be made at Santa’s factory.  Things made from plastic and cardboard.  Things with motorization and circuitry and, eventually, advanced electronics.  Much to the dismay of the big man, if he wanted to maintain belief, he would have to buy into it.

He sent some of his best off to college to learn about marketing techniques and trend tracking among other business acumen.  His staff, once expert craftsmen, were being moved from manufacturing to import/export.  The icy village in the middle of nowhere became a business hub, the grimoire continuing to provide all the magic they needed to gain access to phone lines and internet connections without the need of bringing in people from the outside.  They would buy the toys they needed to meet demand.

Santa himself became less like the foreman of the holiday and more like the CEO of an idea.

He had since given up his personal sleigh route.  Mechanical forms of propulsion were now powering technologically upgraded sleighs bearing his trusted lieutenant.  They flew out at Christmas in droves of thousands, continuing his legacy.  His job was now an executive position.

Years prior, he had taken advantage of part of his legend created by his adoring public: the naughty/nice theorem.  While he originally felt that everyone should get something at Christmas, he could see the point parents were making by invoking his name to bring their children to order.  As all the other work was being done by his subordinates, he decided to make it a real thing and started a new department of his operation.

He didn’t use the ancient magics to accomplish this.  Instead, he created a spy network which rivals any currently in the world today.  His representatives are everywhere.  They watch the entire year.  A report is eventually given off to the Naughty/Nice Department for evaluation with Santa himself handling the cases under heaviest dispute.  The NND tends to keep their paperwork off his desk as much as possible, but there are some cases which require his personal touch.  He trusts his staff to make the right decisions most of the time.  After all, they’ve been with him for centuries thanks to magic.

He also trusts his marketing staff to do the right thing.  They’ve not been wrong once in targeting the hot toy of the season.  They use a combination of trend analytics and department store Santas (their ear to the ground) to make their determination.  They give an annual presentation to the big man himself, send the results to acquisitions, and they order as many units as they can,  To this day, this is how children wind up getting that impossible gift – the one that is constantly out of stock.

Sure, sometimes their parents battle it out with other people to get the last one on the shelf and lose yet, somehow, one still winds up under the tree.  This is thanks to the NND.  Upon naughty/nice determination, the NND can inform the warehouse who then places an item and contacts the parents regarding a pickup.

Strangely, these “it-toys” can be recursive.  Once acquisitions places a huge order before the season, it can cause a massive shortage in that particular item and, through media – both traditional and social – can cause a run on the market making Santa first the cause and then the solution of the big toy rush.  This is easily overlooked and forgiven as the warehouse is always emptied of the “it-toys” by the end of the season and the manufacturing backlash always guarantees that the kids who didn’t get a pass from the NND will get one after the holidays.

Perhaps the most interesting transition that has occurred within the last thirty or so years is that neither Santa nor his lieutenants make personal deliveries anymore.  With the advent of security devices and the rise in home defense, it was safer to allow himself to become a legend rather than remain a fact.  He and his staff continue to reinforce the myth with random acts of holiday magic here and there, just to let the world know that he is still around.  He leaves the spread of belief and the true perpetuation of his legacy up to parents.  Sometimes they don’t realize how real he actually is.  Still, every year he mounts up on his old-fashioned reindeer-driven sleigh and makes a few laps around the world.  You might spot him if you look closely.  When you’re the figurehead of an operation this big that has been going on for as long as it has, you have to make at least one real appearance.

In closing, remember the big man this Christmas.  He may have ancient magic at his disposal, but he can’t give you world peace or any other conceptual gift, as much as he would like to.  Ask him for something tactile, though, and chances are he’ll either make one available to someone you know or he’ll find a way to get you one himself.  Belief is down more and more every year and he needs that to keep things going so he’s willing to overlook the fact that you are a 35 year-old looking for a NES Retro (please help, Santa!) in exchange for a little extra help in the magic department.

You may not see him in person, kids, but that’s just because he has a pretty big corporation to run.

Also, if you’re looking for a couple of signed first editions under your tree, I know a guy.

The Multi-versal League of Jerks Part 3 (a Uni7erse Short)

[AUTHOR’S NOTE] This is a short set in the Unlucky Seven universe (or Uni7erse). If you like what you read here and you’re not familiar with the source material, check the links on the sidebar to buy/borrow Unlucky Seven and the Obligatory Sequel. You won’t regret it!

“No,” Justin shouted, “No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am,” he shouted back at himself, “I am the Firestarter of Earth-One.”

“You look absolutely nothing like him,” Justin said, “I mean, me. I mean, you look exactly like him. I mean, me, but that costume… you have got to be kidding.”

Justin motioned up and down at the bright red spandex body suit, black vinyl boots, matching gloves and domino mask accompanying the cross-dimensional standard goatee and smoke hair. A stylized black flame logo was emblazoned across his chest.

“You got a better one?” asked his tightly-clothed clone.

“Everyone has a better one,” Justin said, “Look, I’ve already dealt with the Firestarter of Earth-One – a name which I wholly disagree with – and you are most certainly not him.”

“I have been to so many dimensions and, like, nine times out of ten I get into this argument,” said Firestarter, “This is Earth-Two-Fifty-Six and I am the Firestarter of Earth-One, so let’s just leave it at that and get down to business.”

“Is this the part where you ask me to join your merry warband of other us-es?” Justin asked, “Are we off to fight some kind of multi-dimensional threat in a limbo-like dimension between realities?”

“Uh,” he started, taken aback, “Yes?”

“Then no,” Justin said, “I already said no to the first us that came knocking. Twice. He at least looked cool. You are… well, in light of everything I’ve seen, you’re a straight up fashion victim. You disappoint me.”

“We all dress like superheroes on my Earth,” said Firestarter, “Don’t tell me your guys go out fighting crime in civvies.”

“I mean, kinda?” Justin said, “It’s more comfortable that way. Plus, there are cooler ways to obscure your identity than a domino mask, boy wonder.”

“Boy wonder?” he shouted back, “I’m all man!”

“Well, at least they have Kevin Smith movies in your universe,” Justin said, sighing, “Ok, so is there a sales pitch? Did you bring your cadre of Justins you’ve gathered over the last however many realities?”

“Two-hundred and fifty-six,” said Firestarter, “And yes.”

He motioned to the shadowy area behind LENNY and three additional figures emerged. One stayed behind, obscured. Justin’s eyes grew wide as he looked the visible ones over. He threw his hands up in frustration and sat down on the couch.

“Ok,” he said, “Y’know what? I’m gonna need everyone to give me a full explanation of where exactly the hell you are from and why the hell you are dressed or appear the way you are because this is way more ridiculous than the last bunch.”

“The last bunch?” asked Firestarter.

“I told you, man,” Justin said, “I met the Firestarter of Earth-One. Another other us on the same kind of ridiculous quest that you are on.”

“You weren’t just being a jerk about it,” Firestarter said, “You were serious. Someone really came to recruit you.”

“Twice,” Justin said again, “The second time, he had his little band of AU troops with him, just like you do.”

“How didn’t we run into them?” Firestarter asked his people.

“He was going in a different direction,” Justin said, rolling his eyes, “He said this was his Earth-Two. If this is your Earth-Two-Fifty-Six, then you probably just missed him one Earth ago. He was ahead of you trying to stop this dimensional catastrophe or whatever. Guess that means I should be your last stop. He went forward from here and got all the us-es he could. Maybe you should try going to your Earth-Negative-One once you get back home.”

The group of his counterparts buzzed in muttering conversation.

“Well, come on,” Justin said, “Line up, show me what you’ve got. I’m starting to like this multi-dimensional me thing. Soothes the ego.”

The first one to step forward was wearing a grey pin-striped suit with a black canvas trench-coat and fedora. He wore a full gasmask to obscure his identity. Smoke billowed out from beneath the brim of his hat.

“Ok, Sandman,” Justin said, “What’s your story?”

“I am… the Flame,” he said with a sweeping gesture of his arm, his voice sounding rather like an old radio show announcer, “Member of the Society of Seven on what Firestarter here refers to as Earth-Thirty-Nine.”

He lifted his lapel revealing a pin bearing a very familiar logo with the Roman numeral VII.

“Does that mask come off,” Justin asked, “Or are you my mummy?”

“Why does every one of us ask me that?” the Flame asked.

“Inside joke,” Firestarter chuckled.

“So, what’s your deal?” Justin asked, “Nazis win the war or something? Alternate history?”

“Nothing alternate about it,” the Flame said, “Just history. The Nazis lost, but there are a few other – whaddayacallem – divergences from what seems to be the common timeline. Y’see…”

“Yep,” Justin said, holding his hand up, “Interested, really, but not right now. Earth-Thirty-Nine. Film Noir-verse. Got it. What’s with you in the renn faire costume?”

The next version stepped forward, wearing dark brown leather armor banded with metal plates. He wore a red cloth mask over his face with dark black circles painted around his eyes. Smoke, of course, rose from the top of his head. Two jagged swords were tucked into the leather belt which held the red tabard bearing a black roman numeral VII tight to his waist.

He was larger, more physically fit than any of the others present. Taller, wider and more defined. What was visible of his face was heavily scarred, noticeable even through his war paint.

“Lord Pyre,” he said, continuing in a rough and wandering sort of British accent, “Of the Seven Lords of Inguohall, Protector of the Eastern Plains, Harbinger of the Blaze.”

Justin squinted at him, pursing his lips before leaning in to Firestarter.

“Is this guy serious?” he muttered, slightly motioning at Lord Pyre.

“You have no idea,” Firestarter whispered, “Crazy medieval fantasy world. Don’t even understand how there was one of us there.”

“Will you join the quest, doppelganger?” asked Pyre, “You don’t look quite as seasoned as some of my other duplicates, however, you burn as the rest of us do. You should fare well in the battle yet to come. As well as any of these… lesser… versions.”

“What do you mean, ‘lesser’?” piped up the next Justin in line. He was a very pale-skinned version, same face and body type as Justin himself, but with piercing blue eyes instead of the original’s camouflage green. He wore a stocking cap on his head and regular modern street clothes.

“You heard what I said, abomination,” sneered Lord Pyre, drawing one of his blades, “I shall not speak well of one of our number who does not burn.”

The blade of the sword became red hot, as did Lord Pyre’s clenched hand around its hilt.

“Whoa there, Jahaerys Targaryan,” Justin said, “What’s the deal? Why is he an abomination?”

“He burns not,” said Lord Pyre, shrugging, as if it were a common thing.

“You burn not?” Justin asked.

“I burn not,” the pale Justin said with an exasperated sigh.

“How did you get here then?” Justin asked, “I thought we could only do this reality-hopping thing by changing into smoke and sneaking through cracks in the dimensional fabric?”

The pale Justin removed his stocking cap, revealing spikes of ice in place of his hair.

“Whoa,” Justin said, “I got Zoey’s powers?”

“And Zoey, on my world, is the ‘one who burns’,” said pale Justin, waggling quote fingers in Lord Pyre’s direction.

“But you can still change into smoke?” Justin asked.

“Water vapor,” pale Justin said, his exposed body suddenly turning into a solid form of ice, “It takes a lot more concentration than just this, but I can manage it when I need to. Most of the Zoeys I’ve heard of haven’t explored this part of their power set yet, but, it’s there.”

“How?” Justin asked, “I know my Zoey would probably love to know.”

“She’ll get there,” pale Justin said, “Better if she does it on their own. It’s not really something you can teach.”

“If Zoey’s got our powers on your Earth, why didn’t they just bring her instead?” Justin asked.

“He could do the water vapor thing,” Firestarter said, “Plus, he’s one of us. Not that having her along would be a bad thing but we could use the variety in talents.”

“Abomination,” growled Lord Pyre.

“Shut up, Sauron,” said pale Justin, “Or I’ll feed you to the hobbits.”

“Stop,” said a telepathic voice which seemed to pierce all of their minds simultaneously, “We have discussed this infighting before. Let’s channel that aggression into the larger fight to come.”

“Who the hell is that?” Justin asked, looking to Firestarter, “Don’t tell me there’s one where we got Jess’s powers too.”

“Uh, no,” Firestarter said, “But this one is usually a bit of a… shock… to our other-dimensional counterparts, so we leave him until last.”

“Try me,” Justin scoffed, “We’ve got ice boy, Conan, and the Silver Shroud over here… I’ve seen steampunk, gender bent… even Rule Thirty-Four us! Oh, and the Anthro-verse! Can you believe there’s an eight-foot-tall TIGER version of us with smoke for stripes? Like, how do we get more shocking than that?”

“Like this,” said the voice piercing his mind.

The figure which emerged from the shadows was as distinctly inhuman as anything you would see on documentaries about life near volcanic vents of the Marianas Trench.

It stood on approximations of spindly limbs and was nearly eight feet tall. Its skin was a translucent blue. The long ovular head (at least, it was probably a head) bore no features. No eyes, nose, or mouth were apparent. The outline of its brain (presumably) pulsed when it spoke in telepathy. It wore a toga-like cloth from its narrow faux shoulders to its imitation of thighs.

Justin’s jaw dropped.

“This is one of us?” he asked.

“Yep,” Firestarter said, “Earth-Fifty-One. Meet Alien us.”

“You may call me Blue,” it said, moving in a fluidic fashion to extend his hand.

Justin reached to shake it and felt a sensation as he had in the past with Jess.

“You just read my mind,” Justin said, “Like the whole thing.”

“Yes,” said Blue, “You are quite astute. I see this world’s Jess has… interacted with you in depth.”

“What are you?” Justin asked.

“Much like the Anthro-verse version you have seen, life in my dimension evolved differently than the common strain,” Blue said, “Consciousness often inhabits a similar physical body on most planes. This is why our versions always exist in one form or another. Life is not about the physical shell in which you dwell, but it is about the soul and intellect – the true undeniable energy of being – which persists through infinity.”

“Cool,” Justin said, casually, “So, what exactly are you again?”

“I am an amorphous life form,” it said, “Again, possessing our same consciousness, making me one of you. We are a completely different species evolving from different genetic ancestors than humans. I don’t want to go into the history of it for fear of boring you to death. Let it suffice to say that we are able to mildly shapeshift and have natural psionic abilities. My natural form is much different from this. I am currently shapeshifted to the approximation of a humanoid to make other humanoids feel comfortable.”

“Do you… uh… ‘burn’?” Justin asked, glancing at Lord Pyre.

“Yes,” answered Blue, “Though, unlike most of us, I am able to alter the entirety of my physical structure into a more plasma-based fire, which is how I am able to slip through the ‘dimensional cracks’ as you call them.”

“Ok, but I’m curious,” Justin started, “In your dimension do you…”

“Please don’t ask me the same sort of questions you asked the tiger,” Blue interrupted, “From what I have seen in your mind, you have many and to answer some of them aloud may be unsettling to the rest of the group.”

“You’re telepathically communicating to me,” Justin said, “Can’t you just tell me? Like, just me?”

Blue sighed telepathically. This was accompanied by a brightening of his glowing brain and a slow dim as the sound of a loud exhale went through everyone’s head. Blue turned its blank face area toward Firestarter, who nodded.

“You’re not coming with us, then?” Firestarter asked.

“No,” Justin chuckled, “No. I told the other guys the same. I’ve been mostly avoiding putting my life on the line in my own reality. I’m not going to go dimension-hopping for the sake of a team-up storyline. I’ll tell you what I told the other Firestarter of Earth-One.”

Justin motioned for his spandex-clad counterpart to come close. He opened his mouth to whisper.

“I can extrapolate,” Blue interrupted, “That you mean to say we may not all survive.”

“Likely won’t,” said Pale Justin, “Been saying that from the beginning.”

“You seem the most like me,” Justin said, turning to his ice-haired iteration, “Why the hell did you decide to leave your home and run with these guys?”

Pale Justin shrugged.

“The cause sounded desperate and they needed my help,” he said.

“Bunch of crap,” Justin said, “Lies. Why did you join up with them?”

“Because if you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?” he followed up.

“No,” Justin shouted, “Come on. Give me something good.”

Pale Justin sighed and closed his eyes.

“Because the narrative said I should,” he revealed, “We can all see it, to some extent. It goes along with Blue’s whole ‘same consciousness’ spiel. You say another group of us was here before. So we weren’t the first and we probably won’t be the last. This is the fourth group that tried to recruit me. One of them even went for my version of Zoey as well. I figured with as many of us coming through dimensions I couldn’t ignore it anymore. The narrative pushed me to go so I finally relented and went.”

“Four times?” Justin asked, “The original Firestarter I talked to said the Multi-verse is linear; how did four groups come through your reality without picking up any of the others?”

“Don’t be so naïve,” said Pale Justin, “The Multi-verse is whatever it wants to be. Just know that someday you’ll feel the narrative finally tug at you and pull you along for the ride.”

“Yes, small pudgy duplicate,” said Lord Pyre, “And when your testicles have finally descended into manhood, you may join us in the fight. I would be happy to have you by our side. Wars require fodder, after all, to help the real warriors reach the objective.”

“Thanks, big guy,” said Justin, “That means a lot. Oh, and Flame, please stop back if you can. I’d like to hear about that alternate history bit.”

“Eh, I won’t have to,” said the Flame, straightening his suit, “You’re getting the farewell package. So, farewell.”

Justin turned to look toward Firestarter and was met with the squishy mass of one of Blue’s appendages and his vision went black.

He woke up on the couch, unsure of how long he had been asleep. His mind ran over with memories of each of their worlds and he ran to one of LENNY’s workstations to begin writing it down.

He couldn’t type fast enough. He didn’t want to lose any of the details.

Suddenly, in the middle of all of his new data, he caught the memory of what exactly they were going after in the center of the Multi-verse.

He sat, his eyes unfocused, looking catatonic in the chair as he processed exactly what all of these groups had been doing.

Pale Justin was right. The narrative would pull him in eventually.

Cold (a Uni7erse Short)

[AUTHOR’S NOTE] This is a short set in the Unlucky Seven universe (or Uni7erse). If you like what you read here and you’re not familiar with the source material, check the links on the sidebar to buy/borrow Unlucky Seven and the Obligatory Sequel. You won’t regret it!

She had destroyed two cars in a matter of weeks.

Two identical cars, to be precise.  Down to the fade of the stickers on the bumper.

For all the faults of that tiny, white, imported hatchback, she loved that car.  It brought her freedom from everything happening in her house.  It was an escape vehicle from a terrible situation.  It didn’t have to be anything flashy.  It rolled her away from it all, which was the most important thing.

Both times it died, she had been paying attention to something other than the road.  She was lucky that she had survived the accidents.  She felt a certain amount of guilt over it, like she’d murdered her trusty steed.

She had spent enough time in mourning for that vehicle and had finally used some of her large government settlement to replace it with another unremarkable, but much newer, car: a mid-sized sedan in silver with a few nicer bells and whistles.  Nothing that would stand out, just something of her own again; a new vehicle to escape new pressures from time to time – superheroing, government agencies, traitorous friends and their armies of android ninjas.

That all seemed easier than escaping the place she had been staring at for the last three hours from her front seat.

It was strange to stakeout the house that was once her home.

There was no car in the driveway.  She didn’t know if this was because the car that used to be there was now a burnt out wreck in the middle of the woods after Zoey had smashed into an immovable giant rock person or if no one was home.

She didn’t want to go up and knock.  She didn’t want to face her abuser.  The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she had no idea why she was here in the first place.  Did she want to check up on him?  Make sure that he was still the horrible alcoholic ball of anger and depression she’d run away from?  Did she want to find out if he’d moved?  Died?  Changed?  Had her departure had any effect on what was left of his life?

Her stomach churned as memories came flooding back.  She swallowed hard and clenched her fists and tried to push all of that down.  She was just here to look, she told herself.  She wasn’t here out of revenge or spite or anger.  She wasn’t here to confront him.  She was here because he was her father and she felt some sort of obligation to see if he was still breathing.  Once she had proof of life – or even death – she could go and she would never have to come back again.

Something was different about the old place: it looked clean.  Someone was doing upkeep beyond the level she had to do when she was here.  The lawn was maintained.  The roof had been fixed.  The exterior had been pressure washed.  It made her wonder if he still lived here.  It made her wonder if he still lived at all.  This was the kind of clean that realtors used to sell houses.

A car pulled into the driveway.  A middle-of-the-road silver four-door of a different make and model than hers, but still surprisingly similar.  She waited, her heart dropping only slightly when she realized that the current resident of this place was likely no relation to her.

The car door opened.  A man in business casual attire stepped out and approached the house.  It took her a moment to focus, but she realized it was, indeed, her father.

Her jaw dropped.  This was not the sloppy drunk she’d knocked out and left tied up with an extension cord and gagged with a pillowcase.  He was clean.  His car was clean.  He looked sober and normal, like some sitcom father.

He stopped at the door to check the mail.  Zoey removed her seatbelt and readied herself to jump out of the car.  She had to talk to him now.  She had to find out what exactly was going on here.  Was it a front?  Did he suddenly change his ways now that he didn’t have a daughter to abuse?

He was inside and the front door was closed by the time she stepped out.  She slowly approached the house, feeling like this was some kind of trap.  Fear burned in her guts and crept up her throat.  She pulled a bottle of water from her purse and clutched it behind her back, the bottle crinkling in her grasp, ready to defend herself if need be.  She changed her ice hair into something smoother and less spiky, as close to the last hairstyle he’d seen as possible.

She took a deep breath and pressed the doorbell.  To her surprise, it actually worked.  It never had before.

The door opened.  He stood for a moment in silence, his face stern but not angry.  Her eyes widened.  She was anticipating the worst.  What she got was:

“Can I help you?”

Her head canted.  Her right eyebrow raised.  This was her father, for sure, and she didn’t look that different than the last time he saw her.

“I’m… I’m sorry?” she muttered, her voice dry and raspy due to nerves.

“Is there something I can help you with, young lady?” he asked.  His look remained serious but with a true glint of curiosity.

“Dad,” she said, her face contorting with confusion, “Dad, it’s me.”

“Dad?” he said, his befuddled look mirroring hers in an eerily familial way, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Are you sure you have the right house?”

“Daniel Howlett,” she said, plainly.

“Yes, that’s me,” he said.

“Zoey Howlett,” she said, tapping on her chest, “Your daughter, remember?”

“Daughter?” he said, his expression going blank, “Daughter.  Daughter.  Daughter.”

His right eye twitched and he cocked his neck quickly before returning his eyes to her.

“Yes, come in,” he said, his voice calm.

Zoey clenched all over and kept a tight hold on her bottle of water.  She had been hanging around Justin too long and was now going over all the narrative possibilities in her head as her dad’s blank face ushered her in the front door.

The house was pristine.  She barely recognized it.  She had done her best to clean the place when she lived here but often fell behind due to lack of time or motivation.  Besides, her dad barely noticed the mess back then.  She was lucky for that.

“Please, sit down,” he said, motioning to the couch.  It was not the same furniture she’d left behind.  Most of the stuff had been replaced.

She did as he asked, still keeping the water bottle hidden behind her back.

He sat opposite her on a love seat, his back straight and his hands on his knees.  They were separated by a coffee table which contained a few large books full of fine art illustrations based on their spines.

“I suppose you’re wondering why things have changed so much around here,” he said, his voice a very different tone and pace than she was used to.

“Y… yeah,” she said, her eyes narrow.

“I should probably let you know,” he said, “This isn’t really your father talking.”

The water bottle crinkled under her grip.  It began to freeze.

“Who are you, then?” she asked, “One of Kurt’s?  Someone from the Project?  I’m getting tired of all of this crap.”

“It’s Jess, Zoey,” said her father, “Not, like, real-time, though.  I left an echo in your father’s brain in case you ever came to find him.”

“Wait, what?” Zoey asked.

“I know,” he said, “Confusing right?  It’s another part of my abilities I discovered.  I coded him to the words ‘Zoey’ and ‘Daughter’ in your voice.  I instructed him to go into this… ‘mode’… for lack of a better term if he ever heard those two words from  you.  I knew you would want an explanation.”

“Jess?” Zoey asked.

“That’s right,” he said, “Just a temporary version of me here to explain this little gift to you.”

“Gift?” Zoey scoffed.

“You’re being a bit more monosyllabic about this than I’d hoped,” he said, a frown that wasn’t his crossing his mouth.

“How exactly is this a gift?” she asked.

“I read your mind,” he said, standing and pacing, “I read it about a million times, same as everyone else in our little group.  I knew you were having trouble feeling like you belonged.  You have always been kind of an outsider and you, like the rest of us, had recently acquired another reason to feel othered and live in secrecy.  You had a long history of abuse with this man and I wanted to make sure you wouldn’t wind up in your old life again.  People who are under a great deal of social anxiety often go back to their routine, even if it is unhealthy, just to feel safe.  I didn’t want that to happen to you.”

“So, what,” Zoey said, throwing one arm up in disbelief while maintaining a grip on her water bottle with the other, “You came here and screwed with my dad’s head?”

“Exactly,” he said, “I chose to alter his mind rather than eliminating him from yours.  Your memories of this – that anger, the rage inside you… Phalanx and I thought it made you better for the team.  I figured it would be best if I left it intact.”

“Eliminate him from my…” Zoey shouted, stopping to adjust, “What the hell gives you the right to go messing around with people’s minds?”

“Look at him!” he responded, “Look at me? Him… me?  Whatever.  Look.  Your father is clean and sober.  He has a job now.  I took all that tragedy from him – everything about your mom leaving, his abusive behavior toward you… well, all I really had to do was remove her and you from the equation completely, pop in some false memories and boom.  New man.”

“New man?” Zoey shouted, “He should be the same man!  He should have to live with what he’s done!”

“He didn’t really have any remorse,” he said, “I mean, you should have known that before, but I can confirm it now.  He blamed you for a lot of his issues, including your mother leaving him.  He was convinced.  There would have been no talking him out of that.”

“Then why not just remove that part?” Zoey asked, “Why not give him remorse?”

“He would have just sat around all day and moped,” Jess said, “It would have worsened his alcoholism.  Trust me, I know.  I could see his line of thinking.  He would have drank himself to death or just outright committed suicide if he didn’t feel justified in what he did, so I just took it all.  Trust me, it is better this way.”

“Spare me your self-righteousness,” Zoey said, standing up, “Why?  Just, why in general?  Why do you think it’s your place to alter the minds of people to suit your needs?  And, Phalanx?  Was this really his idea?”

“It was an idea we shared,” he said, still seated, “But it wasn’t one he wanted to implement.  I kinda went out on my own for this one.”

“How dare you,” Zoey said, narrowing her eyes, “My father may have been an alcoholic abuser, but it should have been up to him to get the help he needed after I left.  It should have been his decision, not yours.”

“His decision,” he pleaded, “Would have been the wrong one.  Can’t you see that?  He would have gone on staggering around, barely able to help himself with anything but getting to and from the liquor store.  He would have been a stain on the carpet of an abandoned house, Zoey.  I saved his life.”

“You took it from him,” Zoey said, “Put it back.”

“How can you be so blind?” he said, “Acknowledge that this is a good thing.  This is what you wished for in any prayers you could muster; for your dad to be sober and normal.  You can’t lie to me, I’ve been inside your head enough times to know.  I gave you what you always wanted.  You should appreciate this.”

“I don’t appreciate you violating someone’s humanity,” Zoey said, getting into her father’s face as it spoke in a different voice, “Have you done stuff like this to the rest of us?  To me?  To the people you call your friends?  Your family?”

There was a brief moment of thought.  Her father’s face was pensive.

“I mean,” he said, “Maybe?”

“You’re disgusting,” Zoey said, turning away.

“I think you’re still missing the point,” he said, “I haven’t done anything that didn’t improve a situation.”

“In your opinion,” Zoey shouted, “And your opinion alone.  That’s megalomaniacal, Jess.”

“Ok, I can see where you’re coming from there,” he said, “But, seriously, how was making your dad a better person the wrong thing to do?”

“Because you robbed me of my closure,” Zoey screamed, “You took from me something that could have healed me inside; something that could have helped me to move on with my life and shed at least some of my negative emotions.  Put him back the way he was.  You give me what I need or so help me…”

“So help you what?” he asked, sneering.

The water bottle burst open, freezing and transfiguring itself into her ice katana in an instant.  The blade was at the neck of her father’s body as tears streamed down her face, freezing to her cheeks.  Her face was resolute.  Her watery eyes wild.

“I don’t think that’s something you want to do,” he said, not moving, “You’re upset.  I anticipated this.  Why don’t you come meet the real me and I’ll take him out of your head, too.  That should solve everything.”

“We don’t know where the real you is,” Zoey said, “Or else I would find you and put this sword to your throat in person.”

“Oh,” he said, looking a bit confused, “Didn’t anticipate that outcome.  What happened?”

“I’m not having that conversation with whatever you are,” Zoey said.

“Psychic ghost echo inhabiting your father’s mind,” he spat out quickly.

“Whatever, don’t try to change the subject,” Zoey said, through tears, “Why did you do it?  Just because you could?  Didn’t you ever think to just ask me?”

“You would have said no,” he said, his eyes looking down at the blade, “You should really get this away from your father’s neck before you hurt him.  If you want to be mad at me, that’s fine, be mad at me.  There’s no reason your father should suffer any more for your mistakes.”

“My mistakes,” Zoey said, the room growing cold, “You did this.  You brought this on.  I promise you, I will find you and I will end you.  Who knows what else you’ve done?  What kind of damage.  To all of us.”

“I promise,” he said, throwing his hands up innocently, “Whatever I’ve done, it was for the greater good.”

“I’m getting really tired of people saying that,” Zoey grumbled, the glass of the coffee table frosting over from where she stood.

“There’s no reason to be this angry,” he said, his hands starting to shiver, “If you don’t accept this, if you want him back the way he was, you’re just as selfish as he ever was!”

The cold stopped.  Zoey moved the sword away from her father’s neck.

“You’re right,” she said, collapsing back into the couch, “My fight isn’t here.”

She stood up and started walking toward the door.

Her father sighed in relief and put his hands down.

“I’m glad you’re finally seeing things my way,” he said.

“Oh, I’m not,” Zoey said, “I am going to leave my father with this better life because, you’re right, Jess, it’s what I always wanted for him.  I’m not going to continue to be mad about losing my opportunity for closure because, really, I got that the minute I walked out this door the first time.  But, rest assured, you have stepped over the line with me.  You’ve stepped over the line with the all of us.  I have the confession of your little psychic ghost to confirm that.  So, when I see you – when we see you – next, don’t expect it to be a happy reunion.

“Now get your gross little ghost out of my father,” she said, opening the front door, “And don’t ever come back.”

The screen door swung closed behind her.  She would never see her father again.

Room 2011 (a Uni7erse Short)

[AUTHOR’S NOTE] This is a short set in the Unlucky Seven universe (or Uni7erse). If you like what you read here and you’re not familiar with the source material, check the links on the sidebar to buy/borrow Unlucky Seven and the Obligatory Sequel. You won’t regret it!

[AUTHOR’S NOTE II] This short is dedicated to my late Grandfather on the anniversary of his death. 11/11/08.

 

A buzz broke the silence of the hallway in the intensive care unit.  One of the patients on the ward was hitting their call button.

The overnight nurse and her aide looked at each other.

“Room 2011,” the nurse said, “Guy in there is comatose and terminal.  He must have shifted onto his button somehow.”

“I’ll get it,” said the aide as he stood up and walked to the end of the hall.

He reached the door and turned in.  He jumped nearly a foot in the air when the man who he was just told was comatose and terminal was sitting up in his bed, trying to remove the respirator tube from his mouth.

“Helk ne,” the old man gargled past the hose in his throat.

The aide’s eyes grew wide and he sprinted down the hallway back toward the nurse’s station.

“We’ve got another one,” shouted the nurse’s aide as he skidded to a stop and turned back toward the room.

The nurse sprang out of her chair and ran with the aide back to room 2011.

The attending physician exited into the hallway from another room, watching the pair sprint by.

“What’s going on?” he asked, “Is someone coding?”

“No,” the aide answered, not breaking stride, “Someone is better!”

The doctor watched as they reached the door.  The aide entered.  The on-duty nurse stood in the doorway with her hand over her mouth.

“Better?” the doctor asked as he approached.

 

Rose woke up in the dark.

There was a heavy smell of bleach.  Her wings were cramped against narrow walls.

She shook her head violently, trying to bring herself back to her senses.  She remembered stumbling into this closet after healing the old man in Room 2011 just before she passed out.

She had seen him through the window of his room while flying outside.  She hovered there, watching his small family say their goodbyes after receiving what was the worst possible news from the attending doctor.  She decided from the look of depression on the face of the eldest woman, likely his wife, that he would be the next one.

Her stomach hurt.  She clutched at it.  Her hooded sweatshirt was soaked through, wet and sticky.  He must have had something removed, she realized.  She glanced quickly at his chart before she healed him and only saw something about terminal cancer.  She didn’t realize until she lifted her shirt to look at the wound that his maladies included a major abdominal procedure.

The wound was healed, now a fading scar from her naval to below the waist of her jeans.  She knew her body would eliminate the cancer within a few hours.  She had proven that the night before.  This, however, was a different feeling.  Her insides hurt and churned as if her guts had been shuffled and were now being put back in their proper order.  She felt things growing as her organs rebuilt themselves.

She fumbled for the door knob and found it.  She took a deep breath, composed herself as best she could, and cracked the door to look around.

Her vision was blurred.  The old man must have had some serious eye problems, she thought.  She saw some objects that could have been people, but they didn’t move.  She presumed the hallway was empty.  She felt an urge to escape quickly.  She had to make it out.  She knew what came next in her healing process.

 

“Stage IV colon cancer,” the doctor read aloud from the patient’s chart, “Metastasized to the lungs, heart, kidneys, and brain.  Septic infection due to a complication during a colostomy.  Patient diagnosed terminal.  Family signed a DNR per patient’s living will.”

The doctor looked at the patient, now calm enough to allow the aide to remove his breathing apparatus.  He turned back to the nurse, still standing at the threshold, both hands now covering her mouth.

“What did the aide mean when he said ‘another one’?” the doctor asked.

“Same thing happened last night,” the nurse muttered, “Woman with lung cancer on the fifth floor.  She was scheduled for a lobectomy.  They came to get her in the morning and she was sitting up, watching tv, breathing free and easy like nothing ever happened.  At least that’s what I heard.”

The doctor shook his head.

“That’s impossible,” he said, “Patients with that degree of cancer don’t just suddenly get better.”

“Normally, I’d agree,” said the nurse, “But, we’re seeing it with our own eyes.”

The aide removed the tube and was now trying to feed the patient water.  The old man with short white hair grabbed the cup from him and drank on his own, coughing briefly.

“Mr. Franklin?” said the doctor, glancing at the chart, “I’m Dr. Kalsmith.  How… how are you feeling?”

“Pretty good, actually,” rasped Mr. Franklin, “Except for having this tube down my throat.”

“Um,” Dr. Kalsmith started, pausing and searching for any kind of response before blurting, “Sorry about that.  Patients don’t typically come back from the dead.”

“I was dead?” asked Mr. Franklin.

“No, not,” Dr. Kalsmith stuttered, “Not yet.  You were pronounced terminal just a few hours ago.  Your family signed a Do Not Resuscitate order according to your…”

“Yeah, I know,” Mr. Franklin interrupted, “They were here earlier.  I could hear them talking.  They all said goodbye.  I knew it was the end.  When I saw that angel, I thought for sure God was taking me home.  Guess there’s other plans for me yet.”

“Angel?” Dr. Kalsmith asked..

“I know,” said Mr. Franklin, his voice raising in excitement and causing him to cough.  He took another drink of water before he continued. “She laid her hands on me and healed me!  I feel great now!  Everything except for this thing jammed into my neck.”

Mr. Franklin pointed at the port currently connected to an IV stand.

“We should probably get you off of that,” Dr. Kalsmith said, nodding to the aide who got the process started.

“This angel,” Dr. Kalsmith continued after a moment, “What did she look like?”

“An angel,” Mr. Franklin shrugged, “Just like you hear about.  Young, beautiful woman with giant wings.  She was wearing a hood.  Looked like an angel you’d see in those old paintings, y’know?  She touched me and everything was ok.  I can even see better now.  She must have got rid of my cataracts, too.”

“You do realize,” Dr. Kalsmith started, pausing again, “A portion of your colon was removed.  You have cancer with has spread to most of your major organs.  You were septic.”

“I heard you reading my chart,” Mr. Franklin said, “I heard one of the other docs telling my family all about it when they signed the DNR.  I know how bad off I was.”

“Would you mind lifting up your gown?” Dr. Kalsmith asked, “Let’s take a look at your…”

He was cut short as Mr. Franklin did what he said.  The incision from the colostomy as well as the stoma for the colostomy bag weren’t there.  The bag itself was lying on the floor, unsoiled.  Every piece of evidence that Mr. Franklin underwent a major procedure was gone.

Dr. Kalsmith looked down at the chart again.

“They had to do exploratory surgery to find the problem,” he said, “There should be a large wound.”

“What can I say, doc?” Mr. Franklin smiled, “It’s a miracle.”

The room was silent.  As the aide finished removing the IV port and placed a bandage, Dr. Kalsmith grabbed him by the elbow.

“Excuse us for a minute, sir,” said Dr. Kalsmith.  Mr. Franklin nodded.

As he walked out the door, dragging the aide, Dr. Kalsmith also collected the nurse who was still standing and hiding her gaping jaw with her hands.

“Is this some kind of prank?” Dr. Kalsmith shout-whispered as they got out of eyeshot from the front door.  His face was folded into a scowl.

“No way,” said the nurse, “No.  The chart was correct.  Everything on there was the truth.  This guy has been in here for the last five days fighting that infection, it was only a matter of time.  He even had his last rites delivered.  We told the family that he would probably pass overnight.”

“Angels,” Dr. Kalsmith muttered shaking his head, “No one came in or out of that room, did they?”

“Couldn’t have,” said the aide, “The doors are locked and secured after visiting hours are over and that was four hours ago.”

“I’m ordering a full battery on that man,” Dr. Kalsmith said, “I want him under every microscope in this hospital.  We have to make sure that he is who he says he is before we alert the family.”

“Seriously?” asked the aide, “It’s not like someone could have just rolled in here and replaced a terminal patient.”

“It’s also not like someone could have healed a man who was practically dead four hours ago, is it?” Dr. Kalsmith scowled, “Get the tests done and don’t breathe a word of this to anyone.  Not yet.”

 

Rose exited the closet, her wings folded behind her.  Shortly down the hallway was the emergency exit leading to the stairway with roof access.  It was conveniently located at the corner of the ICU hallway.  She pulled her hood up and moved toward the door.

Looking down at herself in the light, she saw the blood from the stomach wound covering the lower half of her hoodie and the entire front of her jeans down to her bare feet.  She panicked and looked back, realizing that a trail of bloody bare footprints was following her from a puddle of half-congealed blood now seeping slowly out of the janitor’s closet.

She sprinted for the door.  She felt her blood-soaked feet gripping to the floor with every step.

She made sure to close the emergency exit silently behind her and looked up the stairwell.  There would be just enough room between the stairs for her to thread the needle.  With one great push of her wings before pulling them tight to her body, she leapt up six floors and landed in front of the roof access door, barreling through it.  She stumbled and fell, skittering a few feet along the smooth flat roof.

She propped herself up on all fours, her face peppered with soot and ash.  Crawling slowly, with her wings pressed tight against her back, she peeked over the edge of the roof.

The parking lot was nearly empty.  It was too late for visitors and too early for a shift change.  She crawled toward the middle of the roof and slumped against a vent.

Her insides were still churning and twisting, working out whatever surgical damage had been done to the man in 2011.

She leaned forward and puked.  Gobs of yellow and brown slime came pouring from her mouth.

Pneumonia.  Infection.  Cancer.  All of it was being purged by her powers.  This happened the night before, but substantially less.  She continued, barely able to catch her breath in between.  She knew he was terminal but she was now convinced she had healed the most dire case on the ward.

It hurt.  All of it.  The entirety of her being was pain.  She clenched her fists, squeezing them until her nails dug into her palms.  Tears streamed down her face as she did her best not to make a sound.  More than a whisper could destroy the entire hospital and she wanted to scream at the top of her lungs.  Her body burned on the inside, her cells engaged in a hidden war.  The throb of her rapid heartbeat filled her ear.

She slid down the vent, curling into the fetal position on the rooftop.  She trembled and her entire body went limp before she blacked out.

When her eyes opened again, she was staring up at the sky.  The black of the night was becoming the deep purple of the morning.  Her wings had folded into a cradle beneath her as she lay flat on her back.

She was drained.  She needed to sleep.  She hoped she would have the energy to get back to the church before Chaucer and Benny were awake.  She didn’t tell them she was leaving and they would definitely be suspicious if they saw her walking in with these blood-soaked clothes.

She rolled over onto her stomach and tried to push herself up.

“Hello,” said a man’s voice, startling her.  She looked up and saw a man in his mid-thirties, rather handsome, wearing a white labcoat and blue scrubs.  He was sitting with his back against the roof access door, staring at her.

She leapt to her feet, adrenaline kicking in.  Her wings spread and she started to run.

“Wait!” called the man, standing up himself, “Wait, I just want to talk to you!”

She stopped.  Her wings lowered and she looked back at him over her shoulder.

“My name is Dr. Kalsmith,” he said, “I round down in the ICU.  I saw your footprints in the hallway and I came up here.  Don’t worry, I cleaned everything up after I found you here unconscious.  No one knows you’re here except me.”

Rose turned around, walking slowly toward him.  Her expression was very confused and tentative and she hoped her face was communicating that.

“Mr. Franklin,” he started, “The man in Room 2011.  You healed him.”

She nodded, still cautious.

“It’s,” he stammered, “It’s… amazing.  He wasn’t lying.  You really are an angel.”

She shook her head, her face betraying her desire to remain on guard as she blushed.

“Did God send you?” he asked softly, staring at her in awe.

She shook her head solemnly.

The silence was palpable, thick and full of unasked questions.  He shook his head as if waking himself up.

“Look,” he said, “I came here to see if you were real, but I also came here to tell you something very important.”

She canted her head at him.

“You can’t do this again,” he said, very plainly.

Her brow furrowed.

“You healed a man who was supposed to die tonight,” he said, “Healed him from a list of problems a mile long.  The kind of problems you don’t just get over or brush off.  Tests are showing him as negative for anything.  There isn’t even proof that logged surgical procedures were performed on him.  The hospital is going to do everything they can to keep this under wraps because if anyone ever found out about this it could cause a wave of religious hysteria!”

She looked down, her face saddened.  She turned to walk away.

“No, wait,” he called after her again, causing her to stop.  He approached her.

“You’re not a real angel?” he asked.

She shook her head, her eyes welling up with tears.  She took the notepad and pen resting in the breast pocket of his labcoat.

Something else, she wrote.  Just trying to help.

“I can’t even pretend to understand what you mean by ‘something else’,” he said, “But, people – normal people – aren’t ready for this.  They’re more apt to comprehend a death than they are to understand an unbelievable miracle that instantly brings someone back from the very brink.  I’m still having trouble believing it myself and you’re standing right in front of me, confirming everything.”

Power and responsibility, she scribbled quickly, like in the comics.

“I get that,” he said, “But not here.  There are too many people watching.  If they knew about you they would exploit you.  Try to trap you.  Pick you apart.  Use you in any way they could.  I understand your intentions, I really do.  It’s what I do for a living – trying to save lives – but this is too much.  It’s too public.  It can only bring trouble.”

She nodded thoughtfully, tears running down her cheeks.

“Whatever you are,” he said, “You are truly a miracle.  I hope you go on to help many more people beyond Mr. Franklin.  But, don’t come back here.  It’s too dangerous.”

She lowered her head and sighed soundlessly.  She looked in his eyes and they stared at each other for a moment.

“You should go,” he said, “Before someone sees you.”

She grabbed and hugged him close.  He reluctantly returned the embrace, briefly touching her wings.

She smiled at him through tears before running to the edge of the roof and leaping into the sky, getting high above the ground before taking off toward home.

She could feel a headache coming on.  She wasn’t sure if Dr. Kalsmith knew about it or not.  Regardless, she was sure he would live a much longer life now than he would have before they met.

Power Corrupts (a Uni7erse Short)

[AUTHOR’S NOTE] This is a short set in the Unlucky Seven universe (or Uni7erse as was recently suggested to me). If you like what you read here and you’re not familiar with the source material, check the links on the sidebar to buy/borrow Unlucky Seven and the Obligatory Sequel. You won’t regret it!

 

The power coursed through his arm and settled at the back of his neck.  A tingling sensation.  Bottle blonde hairs stood on end. A burst of energy shot through his entire body.  Every muscle tensed ever so slightly – woke up, gained strength.

 

It was fleeting, though, and Josh knew it.  The spent double-A he held between his thumb and first finger wouldn’t carry him more than an hour or so before he would need another.  And that was only to keep him awake.  If he wanted to do anything else he would need more.  A lot more.  Need being the operative word there.

 

Despite warnings to the contrary, he had not slept in nine days.  The clock on the dashboard was mocking him.  His circadian rhythms were completely shot to hell and he wasn’t really sure it should be daytime.  This was his first time out of the cave and the sunlight wasn’t as much bothersome as it was confusing.

 

The real mystery to him was his motive.  He had spent nine (was it really nine?) days awake, aware, and able to do whatever he wanted.  He had done precisely nothing of merit with any of that time.

 

Finally, some action cropped up and he was on his way to the scene to meet his friends and, even with a fresh battery in his hand, he didn’t trust himself to drive.  He was far too twitchy.

 

Everyone else was already on the scene.  They had left him behind because it wasn’t going to be a big deal – just some more android ninja problems.  Apparently they now needed his expertise and he didn’t trust himself to drive.

 

Luckily, Lisa happened to be in the cave and, after a lengthy argument, she agreed to drive him to the fight.

 

These batteries weren’t going to cut it.  No matter how many of them he absorbed, simple double-As wouldn’t let him throw lightning or anything cool.  He would need to power up.

 

He didn’t have his cell phone with him.  That worked last time.  Maybe Lisa had one.  He turned to the space between the front seats and started to search for it in her bag.

 

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Lisa asked, a look of astonishment on her face.

 

“Huh?” asked Josh, not looking up from digging around in her personal space, “Oh, I was just looking for something.”

 

“Whatever it is,” Lisa said sternly, “It’s definitely not in my purse.  Get out of there now.”

 

“Ok,” Josh said, not wanting to fight.  He sat up in the passenger seat.

 

The car battery.  He could totally draw power from the car battery before they got there.  He had done that bit before and it felt amazing.

 

He popped open the glove compartment and started digging out a solid year’s worth of drive-thru napkins in order to get to the light in the back.  He could either pull it out or break the glass and grab on to the filament.  That would work.

 

“Seriously,” Lisa said, “Whatever it is, it’s also not in my glove compartment.  Can you please just sit still until we get to the location.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Josh said, quickly, “Sorry.”

 

The radio, he thought.  He could probably rip off one of the knobs and use that to start pulling power from the car battery.

 

He made a reach for it and she slapped his hand.

 

He tried again, and she slapped his hand.

 

She looked really frustrated.

 

The power outlet!  Of course!

 

He popped the plastic cover from the lighter adapter and jammed his finger into it before she could make any moves to stop him.

 

The power in the car started to flicker and the engine was beginning to stall.  The feeling of electricity flowing through him at this degree had him almost paralyzed with joy.

 

Lisa took her eyes off the road and turned to look at him.

 

“Stop what you’re doing,” she said, clearly, something strange in her eyes, powerful, “Sit down and don’t touch anything or do anything until we get to the location.”

 

He felt a strange sort of light impact on his face, like a puff of air.  Without another thought, Josh removed his finger from the outlet, cutting short his blissful recharging and felt a desire to sit perfectly still which he realized wasn’t his own.

 

Lisa sighed – with relief, Josh assumed – and put her eyes back on the road just in time to see a black android land on the hood of her car with a loud thud.

 

She screamed in surprise.  Josh wanted to join her chorus but couldn’t.  He couldn’t open his mouth at all.  He thought about reaching his hand up and blasting the thing off its feet with a bolt of lightning but couldn’t raise his arms.  Was it that he couldn’t or that he didn’t want to?  He wasn’t sure.  He was just doing as he was told and didn’t really feel like doing anything else.

 

Lisa swerved the car drastically.  The ninja did not budge from the hood as Josh hoped it might.  Its feet were planted firmly – probably with some sort of magnet – enough that it struck downward with both hands, grabbing into the windshield and looking as though it was going to tear the roof off.

 

She continued to shout unintelligible noises of frustration.  Josh really didn’t want to do anything else aside from sitting in his seat and waiting until they arrived at the location.

 

She jerked the wheel again, unable to shake their attacker as the metal of the roof groaned and began to separate from the rest of the car.

 

She turned to him and shouted in the same commanding voice:

 

“Do something!  Help me!”

 

That soft impact his his face again and, without hesitation, he pulled all the power he had just extracted from the car’s battery and channeled it into a blast of electricity that destroyed and threw most of the ninja from the front of the car.  Its hands were stuck digging into the roof and its magnetized feet and half of its left leg still remained stuck to the hood.

 

Lisa pulled the car over and stopped.  Her deep red hair was frazzled and she was breathing heavily.  Josh was tense as well but for other reasons entirely.  It took him a moment to gather himself and break what felt like a very lengthy silence.

 

“What the hell was that?” he shouted.

 

“What was what?” Lisa asked in return.

 

“That,” Josh continued shouting, “Back there.  You asked me to not do anything until we got to our destination and I literally couldn’t do anything else until you asked me to and, even then, it didn’t feel like it was me doing it.  Were you… were you controlling me?  Do you have powers?”

 

There was another silence.  She stared forward as Josh believed she was contemplating some kind of next move.

 

“Ok, I’ll come clean,” Lisa said, “Remember when you told me about how jealous Emma was of the group’s powers?  How she was so jealous that she betrayed your trust and downed that vial of the chemical stuff?”

 

“I never told you about that,” Josh said.

 

“You did,” Lisa said, “You just don’t remember.”

 

“What the hell do you mean?” Josh asked, “What’s going on here?”

 

“Emma wasn’t the only one who was jealous,” Lisa said, “The Project recruited me.  They gave me powers.  Specifically, the power to control people.  I tell someone to do something, they have to do it.”

 

“Wait,” Josh said, “You’ve been working with the Project the whole time?  You betrayed us?”

 

“No one betrayed anyone,” Lisa said, sighing, “It’s not like that at all.”

 

“You are working for the bad guys,” Josh said, “How is that not a bad thing?”

 

“You really need to stop looking at things in terms of good guys and bad guys,” Lisa said, “This isn’t an 80s cartoon.  Nothing in the real world is that black and white, superpowers or no.”

 

In the course of looking her over and trying to get an ounce of guilt out of her, Josh spotted something glinting under the lapel of her coat.  Lifting it up, he saw the circular red pin with a black XIV logo.

 

“Wow,” Josh said, slumping into his seat, “Hail Hydra.”

 

“Oh, shut up,” Lisa said, “It’s nothing like that.”

 

“It’s exactly like that!” Josh protested, “You’re a freaking double agent!”

 

“I am not,” Lisa argued, “Being a double agent means that you have two affiliations.  I’m only working for the Project.”

 

“Are you saying you’re not affiliated with your friends?” Josh asked, “With us?”

 

“I am not about to sit around and play Jarvis to a bunch of superpowered people who left me in the dust the minute things started to get more interesting than normal life.  You guys used to be my best friends and it took an attempt on my life for you to even contemplate letting me into your little clubhouse.  You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t consider myself truly ‘affiliated’.”

 

“That’s just insulting,” Josh said.

 

“I don’t care if it is, it’s true,” Lisa said, “The Project apparently saw something in me that you guys didn’t.”

 

“Yeah,” Josh said, “Apparently they saw the unbridled ability to control people against their will.”

 

“I didn’t ask for this power,” Lisa said, “Joey told me it would be random.”

 

“Some of us get cooler powers than others, I guess,” Josh said, “How long have you been spying for them?  What kind of stuff have you been telling them?”

 

“It’s really not that severe,” Lisa said, “I’m just supposed to keep you out of their way.  Make sure you don’t interfere with what they’re doing.  They really don’t care much about you guys ‘fighting crime’ or going after Kurt and his androids as long as you don’t get in their way.  They are not the boogeymen you think they are.”

 

Josh felt his eyes getting heavy.  He reached into his pocket and drained another double A, casually tossing it out the window.

 

“And, what’s the deal with that?” Lisa asked, “Did I have to drive you because you’re on the nod?”

 

“What the hell do you care?” Josh asked, “You’re not affiliated with us, right?  Is this more information you’re going to carry back to your bosses?  Part of your research?”

 

“Please don’t take it like that,” Lisa said, “I might be jealous, I might be angry, but I’m still concerned for my friends.”

 

“Don’t hand me that,” Josh said, casually drawing from another battery in his pocket to keep his strength up for the argument, “I don’t need anyone’s help, especially not some turncoat who dropped her loyalty the minute she was offered powers.”

 

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Lisa lead off, just before Josh felt the puff of air in his face again, “But what is up with you and these batteries?”

 

“I like the way they make me feel,” Josh volunteered against his will, “I feel powerful when I have electricity in me.  I don’t need to eat or sleep.  I keep doing it to maintain that feeling.  I’m addicted.”

 

“I can help you with that, you know,” Lisa said in her normal speaking voice, “I can just tell you to not be addicted.”

 

“I don’t want your help,” Josh said, “Not now.”

 

He turned away.  As an uncomfortable silence settled in, he opened the car door and stepped onto the sidewalk.  He walked, not sure where he was going, just away from the sense of betrayal and the fear of control emanating from the person he thought was his friend.  He drew from two more batteries to help him cope with what he had just discovered.

 

“Stop,” he heard from behind him before feeling the light impact.

 

He stopped without wanting to do so.

 

“Come back to the car,” he heard, complying even though he very much wanted to continue walking away.

 

When he returned, he opened the door and obediently sat down.  He realized as he did that he felt when her control broke.  It was like being released from a coil of rope in his mind.  The task she requested had been completed and this freed him.

 

“How many other commands have you given me?” he asked, “How many of us are sleepers for the Project?  How many things have you told us to do that we won’t know about until the situation gets really dire?  Are we going to, like, switch off in the middle of a fight or something?”

 

“Nothing like that,” Lisa said, not looking at him, “At least not yet.”

 

“Why am I even asking you these questions?” Josh shouted, “Everything you say is probably a lie.”

 

“Look,” Lisa said, “All you need to know is that Phalanx has plans and I am supposed to keep you out of the way of those plans.”

 

“Phalanx?” Josh said, “I knew it.  Phalanx was working the inside angle all along.”

 

“Not your Phalanx,” Lisa said, “Our Phalanx.”

 

“Your Phalanx?” Josh asked.

 

“Yeah,” Lisa said, “She’s a severe badass.”

 

“She?” Josh asked.

 

Lisa laughed.

 

“This conversation gets more entertaining every time we have it,” she said, smiling, “Look, just forget everything we talked about.  Forget about my powers, forget anything I said about the Project or Phalanx, and let’s just get you to the rest of the group.  You can drain my cell phone when we get there if it helps.  Sound good?”

 

Josh was in a stupor.  He shook his head rapidly.

 

“Does what sound good?” Josh asked, “Did I nod off back there?”

 

“I think taking out that ninja on the hood wiped you a bit,” Lisa said, “We need to get back on the road if we’re going to get to everyone in time.  Rest up.  You’re going to need it.”