JUSTICE LEAGUE

26

Circles
 

“No…”

“AAAAAIIIEEEEE!!”

The Green Penguin, Cara tucked under his wing, sailed over the forest, moving swiftly towards the city, leaving X-Raytor watching helplessly on the roof.

Twenty minutes ago…

Robert “Bubba” Adamski stood in his office, staring out the wall/window. Down below, the lights of the city were just coming on as the sun slid down below the horizon. It would be dark soon, and then it would be time to pay his dear nephew a visit.

There was a knock at his office door. McPherson, of course.

“Come in.”

McPherson opened the door in his annoyingly careful way, and walked almost soundlessly- and probably ramrod straight- over to this employer.

McPherson was a good man to have, Bubba thought. He was loyal, hardworking, and he didn’t ask too many questions. But there was something about his cold, single-minded efficiency that bothered Bubba a little.

“I drove by the set again, sir,” McPherson said. “The girl wasn’t there. A man I spoke to- I believe his name was Steve Fulloschitz- said that she had gone to the hotel the cast was staying at, but I did not find her there, either. A woman there- Mackenzie Phillips- said that she’d gone out dri-“

“Mackenzie Phillips?” Bubba asked. “As in, the daughter of those people from the Mommas and the Poppas?”

“I believe so, sir.”

“Huh.”

A pause. Bubba wondered how long it would take for his butler to leave. The sky was rapidly darkening.

“Sir,” McPherson said. “Sir, if I may ask, why, exactly, do you need me to procure this girl?”

Bubba rolled his eyes. One of these. He turned and looked at his butler levelly.

“Mr. McPherson, you are paid handsomely for a specific service, and one of the main conditions is that you do not question my motives. Now, I have some business to attend to, so if you would please…”

“Yes sir.” McPherson said. “But-“

“That will be all, Mr. McPherson.” Bubba said.

McPherson hesitated slightly, and then turned and walked out of the office. Bubba waited until the door had shut, and then quickly strode over and locked it. He turned, hands twitching greedily, and walked quickly over to the cigar box on his desk.

He checked quickly out the window- nothing.

Of course, who would be watching him from up here? No one. Of course, that’s why it was the perfect place. And Jeff Sampson… Jeff Sampson could watch him from up here. Of course he could- there wasn’t much he couldn’t do. But no, no, there was no one.

He checked one more time. Better to be safe than sorry, right?

Right.

Okay.

Bubba opened the cigar box, and lifted a large hypodermic needle, filled with a luminescent green substance. Clutching the needle, and trying to suppress a giddy little smile, Bubba made his way up the private staircase and onto the roof.

The roof was, of course, deserted. Which is why it was the perfect place. He looked around, checking the skies, but there was nothing there except a far-off helicopter, and the white, crisscrossing lines of jetliners. It was relatively quiet up here, an oddity in this city. The sun was giving off some last, dying rays out under the skyline.

Bubba lifted the needle. He grinned, and shoved it into his jugular.

“Nnn- AAH!” Bubba fell onto his knees, head bowed, hands tightening compulsively into fists. But he could feel it, he could feel the extreme power building inside him, the absolute euphoria of the transition.

And transition… transition was far too plain a word. He wasn’t simply changing form- he was ascending to a higher state. From physical to celestial. From mortal to god.

He groaned as his muscles bulged and his organs rearranged, and it was then, as he crossed the line into absolute divinity, he began to hear the voices.

Get up, Robert.
Don’t let the clerks see you like this.


Yes, yes, he had to get up. But it wasn’t finished yet, his beak was still-

Fifteen for a small bag. Thirty for medium sized. Increase price by ten dollars for every repeat customer.

Bubba panted, but he wasn’t tired. His muscles, his abdomen and his glorious wings were pulsing with power. The world adjusted to his glowing God Eyes. He saw the Truth. He was the Green Penguin.

Mommy? Mommy? Where’s Mommy, kids? Cait is my Mommy! Mommy?
Get up.
Well isn’t Janey special special special special Janey. Always so smart and special and bright. Who’s special now, Janey?


The voices came into focus. They were like old friends, now. He didn’t know exactly what they were- he never saw them, although sometimes, if he turned fast enough, he saw a slivery, ghostly wisp slipping out of sight. But he suspected that they were some sort of breeze, leaking down from the On High, carrying the secret truths of heaven to his divine ears.

He got up.

My eyes are itching. A voice said.

Bubba shook his head absently, and looked out at the city, as it shifted under his heavenly perspective.

Melting rock.
Janey got married. Got married and had a little bastard kid. Who’s special? I am. He’ll make me. You’ll make me in the end, Janey.
I want to sleep.
Sleep is for the weak!
A voice roared.
The week!
Teak! Leak! Beak! Chic!


The buildings were warped, some rising thousands of feet into the sky, others turning in on themselves, others quivering like pillars of Jell-O. There was a fire somewhere, even though he couldn’t see it, and it would be a cleansing fire and they would all pass through it. The Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge loomed between two office buildings, which shifted, to give him a full view. A reminder.

My eyes itch.
You’re a god.
A percussive, monotone voice said. It was one of the few with character.
South Side.
You are death.
The voice-with-character said.
Drop off in the alley on Levin Street. See Jordan.

Bubba spread his mighty wings and took off into the night air. The city flashed by underneath. Thousands of people moving swiftly here and there with self-made import, never thinking to look up and see the embodiment of divine inspiration winging over them.

Bubba loved flying. And despite how impressive his wingspan was, he wished he could be airborne without the benefit of his wings. As he’d learned so long ago, in his first battle with X-Raytor, he could still remain airborne for awhile with something- or someone- shoved under one of his wings, but eventually he’d have to hit the ground and bounce back up again, sometimes having to scale buildings with his talons for altitude. But he still had his Herculean strength, his godly powers, and that’s what really mattered.

Death becomes you. The voice-with-character said.
Rat. Rat in the cellar.

Bubba winged his way over the Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge and a short stretch of trees. And then, there it was- the Hall of Justice, unmistakable from the air. Bubba circled, peering down at the large dome in the center of the building. The last time he’d been here, he’s simple crashed through the front door, and then rocketed up and out through the bedroom wing- whichever one that was. The one to the right, if you faced the building from the front, he guessed. Making the one nearest to him the hangar wing. And on that roof…

On that roof was his dear nephew’s little brooding spot. Bubba landed deftly on the roof, and waited.

Fire eyes.

Bubba stood. Waited. A few minutes passed, and then-

He’s here.

The knob of the door to the roof turned, and the door swung open. Bubba grinned.

He’s here.
Death eyes.
Janey.
Oh, now. Now.
The sky.


John- “X-Raytor”- took, a step, and then stopped. After a beat, he walked out onto the roof, trying to project some kind of bravado.

He’s still wearing the costume.

“I thought I told you to throw that costume away.” Bubba growled.

“I thought you drowned in the Ohnoee River,” X-Raytor said. “Guess we’re not as bright as we think we are, huh?”

Not a costume! That’s his skin! Alien mutagena!
He’s a mutant.
He’s your son.
His blood is your blood.
Symbiote!


The voices, and the ultimate, divine rush of his being swept over Bubba, strengthened him. His muscles almost bulged with the power. He grinned savagely. “So I take it you’re going to choose the road most bloody.”

First blood!
Congeal!!
Fortune 500!


“What did I do to you, exactly?” X-Raytor demanded, but his words twisted and warped into themselves. It happened a lot when mortals said something idiotic. “Why are you in my life?”

“What did you do to me?!” Bubba laughed.

HE MADE YOU A GOD!
HE MADE YOU A DOG.
He made you a king.


“Okay, okay, fine, the first time it was my fault. I know that. But I’m not the one who turned you back into this thing. I’m not the one who told you to- to inject yourself and turn into a- a penguin! I had nothing to do with this, and I have nothing to do with you.”

His words were warping again. Bubba was doing him a great favor by listening to this.

“If anybody should be mad at anybody, I think I should be mad at you. You’re the one who tried to kill me! You’re the one who chose- chose- to come back into my life and threaten my friends!”

Bubba grinned.

I love him.
Kill him.
Kiss him.
Skin him.
Hate him.
Hug him.
Burn him.


“I don’t want any part of this!” X-Raytor yelled. “I don’t want to be a part of whatever it is you’re up to.”

Hate him.

“Do you even know what it is you’re up to? Do you even know why you’re picking on me?”

I want to scratch my eyes out of my head.
First blood. Scratch his eyes.
Don’t tell him who you really are!
Tell him of the shapes.
The parallelograms!


“Parallelograms!!” Bubba intoned. “Parallelograms of- no, no, wait, that won’t work. Um…”

Not parallelograms! Rhombuses!
Don’t tell him you’re a god. Don’t- there is trouble.


“Rhombuses!! Rhombuses of- or… or is it rhombi? Uh… oh, screw it…”

Rhombuses!
It’s rhombi.
Trouble is going to come.


“Smooth.” X-Raytor said.

“How do you expect me to explain it to a mortal?!” Bubba raged. “How do you expect me to describe the geometry of the-”

Don’t tell him who you really are! The voice-with-character warned.

Bubba cut off, and scowled at X-Raytor, almost daring him to ask Bubba to finish his sentence. Instead, X-Raytor threw his arms in the air in exasperation.

“Oh man, whatever! You’re such a jackass. All that crap you’ve injected into yourself has made you nuttier than a fruitcake!”

The circles!
Rhombi.
Dodecahedrons!


Bubba heard a car pull up down below.

Girl. A voice said.
You are a god!!

“You will do whatever I need.” Bubba snapped. “We share the same genetic codes. I own your genetics!! I own you!! You’re responsibilities are to me!!”

Circles!! Circles!! Circles!!
Watching!


“Oh, that’s all I need,” X-Raytor spat. “A lecture in responsibility from you!”

CIRCLES!!
Girl!


Bubba turned away, and lumbered over to the edge of the roof, looking down. Yes, there was the girl, getting out of her car. A perfect demonstration.

“You will learn…” He murmured. “You will learn what responsibility means!”

BLOOD WAR!
CIRCLES!


“Let me make this clear!” X-Raytor roared. “I don’t work with you. I won’t get on your team! I won’t kill for you! It’s not going to happen!”

Jeff Sampson!

Bubba frowned.

“And so we are perfectly clear, I’m not scared of you and if you come near my friends, I will fight you until one of us isn’t able to fight anymore. I’m serious!”

Bubba ignored his nephew. He had no time for this insolence- time for a long overdue lesson in servitude.

“I have lost more people in this life than- than one person should!” X-Raytor said. “I didn’t ask for any of this. But I won’t let you do this. I won’t!! Leave me alone!”

Jeff Sampson is coming!
Girl!
Blood!


Bubba finally looked up, and glanced at X-Raytor. “So be it. The same genes run through your blood as mine! You must learn your responsibilities to me. You will learn what responsibility means!”

Girl!
Sampson.
Blood!


“What are you talking about?” X-Raytor said. “I don’t even know you.”

“You will learn…” Bubba said, and then he spread his wings and dived off the roof.

The ground rushed up at him, and he stretched out his mighty talons-

WHAM! His muscled legs took the impact! He rippled magnificently with the shock! HE WAS A GOD!!!

The girl turned, eyes wide-

Bubba scooped her up under one powerful wing, and took off again, rushing airborne towards the city.

“AAAAAIIIEEEEE!!

“Somebody!! Somebody help me!!” X-Raytor yelled, standing at the edge of the roof. “Please!! Somebody help!!!”

The Green Penguin was halfway to the city, and Cara’s screams were starting to fade away.

“Jeff Sampson!! Sampson!! Please!!!” X-Raytor screamed, frantic now. “ARE YOU OUT THERE?! HELP HER!!”

“X-Raytor!”

X-Raytor whipped around, and saw Oreo Avenger, sticking her head out of a window below him.

“Go get help!” Oreo said. “I’ll follow them!”

“No!” X-Raytor said. “I need to do this!”

“Don’t be an idiot! Go get help!”

“You get help!”

Oreo Avenger cursed, but X-Raytor couldn’t make out the words. “Fine! But hurry! And I’m getting help anyway!”

X-Raytor turned and dashed through the roof door. He flew down the stairs, towards the hangar. He’d get the Jet, and then-

X-Raytor blew into the hangar, and stopped dead.

“WHERE THE HELL IS THE JUSTICE JET?!” He yelled. No one answered.

“F***!” What was he going to do now?! How could he follow the Green Penguin if he couldn’t-

X-Raytor’s eyes widened.

“Oh man… I can’t believe I’m even thinking of this…”

A minute later, with a backpack clutched in one hand, X-Raytor ripped open the supply room door. There, on the far side of the room, were shelves, stacked high with blurbs.

Blurbs were special pieces of Justice League equipment which, when attached to one’s foot, allowed the wearer to run at extremely high speeds in midair. Superdude- when he was alive- had been practically a blur when wearing them.

But X-Raytor, ever since the night when… that night, he’d never worn them. Not because of any painful associations or anything- just that being on them was the scariest thirty seconds of his life. He’d sworn that he would never, ever get on one of them again.

Well, until now…

X-Raytor attached a pair to his feet, and then shoved as many pairs as he could into the backpack. When he was ready, he ran out into the quiet July night.

He should have just let Oreo Avenger go. Cara might be dead by now, and it would- no. No. He had to do this himself. And Bubba wouldn’t just kill Cara, not without X-Raytor there to see it…

X-Raytor took a breath, reached down, and activated his blurbs.

UP!

X-Raytor suddenly jerked upwards, at least five feet off the ground, and stopped. Okay, okay. This wasn’t too bad. Now, he just needed to get started, just needed to-

Time limit! There was a time limit! The blurbs would lose their charge in fifteen minutes. He had to move now!

And how did he do that, exactly? By running, right? Okay, he’d just try to run-

WHOOSH!

And it was suddenly like X-Raytor had rockets attached to his feet, like he was standing on the roof of a car going fifty miles an hour. He was off!

“AAAAAAAAAH-AH-AH-AH-AH-AAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!!” X-Raytor was running straight towards the forest, straight towards the trees!

“TREE! TREE!!!!”

And just as he was about to act out “George of the Jungle,” X-Raytor instinctively adjusted course and speeded upwards, over the treetops, and again towards the city. His legs seemed to be moving entirely on their own accord.

“Uh… wow…” X-Raytor said. He could barely hear himself as the wind whipped by his head.

Okay, okay, now to find Bubba and Cara. Where would he go? His penthouse? Some other hideaway?

No. No, X-Raytor knew exactly where he’d go. The only place he would go.

The Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge.

X-Raytor could see the bridge in the distance, lights running up and down the arching super structure. Not too far, definitely not by blurbs. X-Raytor started running upwards again, trying to get high enough to be able to land on the bridge once he-

X-Raytor stopped. Just stopped. His legs continued to kick uselessly in the air.

Time was up.

“Oh sh- AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!”

Fifteen minutes weren’t up yet! What was- oh, right. They’d passed that memo along last week… about the blurbs being defective and only lasting five minutes…

“OhcrapohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrapOHCRAP!!!!!!”

He was going to die, he was going to be a dark stain on the forest floor, and he’d never be able to save Cara-

Cara.

X-Raytor reached down, undid the straps, and whipped his legs out- sending the now-useless blurbs flying off his feet. He whipped his backpack around, tore it open.

Fifty feet from the ground! Fifty feet and falling very, very fast!!!

X-Raytor pulled out a new blurb and shoved it onto his right foot. Let go! X-Raytor scrambled and grabbed the blurb in midair, shoved it back onto his foot and strapped it on.

Only about thirty feet now.

X-Raytor pulled out the second blurb, got it on his foot on the first try.

Twenty- eighteen feet!

X-Raytor hastily zipped his backpack closed, and slung it over his back.

The tree tops were right in front of him!!

X-Raytor activated his blurbs and shot back up into the air.

“Damn I’m good!” He said, and then he was off running again.

The Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge loomed in front of him- he was too low!

X-Raytor tried to pull up, but his feet hit the arching part of the super structure. And suddenly, it was like he was skating up the metal arc, his blurbs still propelling him, but he was unable to get off of it.

“Whoa-oa-oa-oa-oa-oa-oa-oa!”

And now he was moving up the arc, arms flailing, not even running anymore. The blurbs were moving entirely on their own. If he survived this, he was never ever ever ever ever going to-

The top of the towering, center bridge support rushed at him! If he didn’t stop, he was going to-

About an inch from hitting the center support, the blurbs sparked, and gave a final, upwards burst. X-Raytor shot upwards, involuntarily back flipped, and landed on his feet on top of the center support.

“Wow.” X-Raytor said. “How do you like… them… apples… oh God…”

The Green Penguin stood at the edge of the center support, on the side over the river. In the prehensile tip of one wing, he held Cara around the back of her neck. She was pale and shaking and tears were streaming down her face, but she was alive.

“You’ve got to stop this.” X-Raytor pleaded. “You’ve got to stop! Why- why are you doing this? C-Cara, are you okay?”

The Green Penguin grinned savagely.

“X-Raytor, please…” Cara said. “Please, help me…”

“Circles, John!” The Green Penguin cried. He swept a hand out to the side and pointed, as two black helicopters came speeding towards the bridge, silhouetted against the moon. X-Raytor could already make out the word “M.O.R.P.H.Z.” on the sides.

“There they are!” The Green Penguin said. “They would choose to destroy us both so my secrets die. Choose now, little Johnny. Choose!”

“Just let the girl- just- I’ll do whatever you want…” X-Raytor said. The helicopters stopped and hovered a few feet from the bridge, hesitating.

“Choose now, John!!” Bubba roared.

“Just-just give me the girl…”

Bubba thrashed his wing to the side- and threw Cara off the bridge.

“NO!!” X-Raytor screamed.

Cara toppled out of sight, plummeting towards the river, hundreds of feet below.

Without a second thought, X-Raytor ran and dove over the side of the center support, after her.

The Green Penguin turned his attention on the two M.O.R.P.H.Z. helicopters, and a slightly glowing snowball appeared at the tip of each of his wings.

X-Raytor tried to straighten himself out, streamline himself, so that he fell faster. Cara was tumbling, screaming, arms and legs flailing furiously. If he could just get to her in time-

X-Raytor was catching up with her, he reached out desperately-

Cara’s scream was forced into silence by the air pressure-

“GHH!” X-Raytor grabbed Cara’s foot and pulled her upwards. He caught her in his arms and- they both continued to plummet.

Crap. Forgot about that.

The river-

X-Raytor’s blurbs sparked again, and he jolted upwards. Instead of continuing, though, they continued to fall, slower than before. Like going down a slightly out of control elevator. They came to a stop right above the water, hovering.

“Wow.” X-Raytor said. “Isn’t it convenient that I was wearing a pair of sporadic blurbs! Whew!”

Cara didn’t say anything. She was limp in his arms.

“Oh God…”

X-Raytor ran towards the shore on his low powered blurbs, reaching the nearest shore just as they gave out. He laid Cara down carefully on the ground. Her head lolled backwards, silhouetted palely against a pool of brown hair.

“Cara?” X-Raytor whispered. “Cara? I-I caught you- I got you. Cara, I-“

Cara didn’t say anything. Her eyes didn’t open.

“Oh no…”

X-Raytor pulled her limp body to him, and buried his masked face in the top of her head.

And all he could think was that he’d done it again. He’d failed.

Again.

***

Fred was, hard as it was to admit it, a bit gleeful. After all, with Xiao clinging on to Typho at every second, it'd mean one less person to be watching him. Two less, if you counted Typho as a person.

Meanwhile, everyone was unaware of his gloriously evil plans! Mwahahahahahahhahahahahahahhahahahahaha---


Fred cut his mental evil laughter short. After all, he still needed to tweak out the details of his plan. The more he edited it, focused on it, worked things out in his mind, the less apt things were to go wrong. Or so he hoped. He wasn't one of those naive villains, who figured nothing could mess with their plans-- he was taking "unlikely chance" into account, and allowing for the fact he might accidentally let slip a vital clue to Xiao, or leave some incriminating evidence around. After all, fate was not kind to evil masterminds, and Fred had failed once before. He'd been close enough to taste victory, until that blasted hero had come out of nowhere, and he'd lost his body, becoming a demon-king. For three hundred years, he'd waited, biding his time....Until the right sucker came along.

He was ready. And he knew that not much stood in his way for ultimate power, he could smell it, wafting through the air. Tantalizingly close....... He just had to play it safe. Wait for the exact moment, the perfect window of opportunity. At the Oscars, he'd almost achieved that window, almost gotten back more of his evil powers. Just a few more souls.... A few more lives.....He'd suck the evil juices from them, and then add their strength to his. He imagined the moment when he finally had his body back, all his strength......perhaps he would fulfill his deal with Xiao. After all, she'd helped so much, in ways she'd probably never realize. Joining the Justice League, for one. Nursing grudges and jealousy in her soul. Xiao was slowly leaking wisps of emotion into Fred. It was part of the whole shadow/possession thing. He might not be able to read her mind, exactly, but her feelings....emotions.... That was another story. And he could use them, too.

Power was close, very close. Fred was ready. He was willing, and he would wait another hundred years if he had to. A few weeks, a couple months, a year? That was nothing.

***

The M.O.R.P.H.Z. MB-
M.O.R.P.H.Z.’s underwater headquarters, five miles outside the city


The M.O.R.P.H.Z. MB- Main Base, of course- seemed to be a large cylindrical building poking out of the surface of the ocean, with a system of intricate steel docks and one or two squat buildings. But beneath the waves, it extended down to the ocean floor, where the highest security areas of the facility were located, in a system of buildings extending for half a mile. It was nestled in the center of an artificial coral reef (actually cloaking device and defensive shield generators), and was totally not a rip off of the underwater Yeerk base from Animorphs #15: The Escape. Totally not.

Inside the cylindrical central building, General Jeff Sampson stood in the middle of a bustling control center, leaning anxiously over a computer screen.

“Agent Raley, this is Wyrmlock, over.”

“I read you, General Sampson.” Raley said over the computer. Raley was piloting Copter One of the two sent to deal with Robert Adamski. Sampson should have been getting a visual on the computer screen by now, but something seemed to be wrong.

“I said I want constant updates on the Adamski situation and what am I getting?”

“Sir, as you can see,” Raley said. “Adamski has taken his hostage to the Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge. The DeLizia girl is being held out by her neck.”

“Is she still alive?”

“I think- yes.”

“What’s the X-Raytor kid doing?”

“He- it looks like he is pleading with Adamski. As you can see sir, he…”

“Aaah!! I can’t see s***!” Sampson said, slamming his fists down on the console.”

“Um, are you wearing your eye patches, sir?”

Silence.

Sampson quickly reached up and lifted his eye patches. Things instantly became clearer.

“Soldier, this moment never happened.” Sampson said.

“Yes sir.”

“Now,” Sampson said, peering at the dark live-feed image on the computer screen. “Can you take the shot?”

“Not without risking the girl.”

Sampson cursed under his breath.

“Adamski is holding her out by the head.” Raley continued. “Your call, General.”

Sampson sighed, squeezed his eyes shut. Tonight was going to be another migraine, he could feel it…

“Raley-“

“Wait- oh- oh my God!” Raley cried. “He dropped her!! The scum dropped her off the bridge and X-Rator is diving after her.”

“Take the shot!!” Sampson snapped.

Atop the Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge, the two helicopters opened fire on the now-solitary Green Penguin. The night erupted into fire, and in the brightness of the muzzle flashes, Raley saw yellowish circles appear all over the Penguin’s chest. The Green Penguin roared in rage and pain, and then collapsed.

“Copter One, confirm hit?” The pilot of the second helicopter demanded over the radio.

“Hit confirmed!” Raley said.

“Second round?”

“Hold your fire,” She ordered. “Suspect is down.”

Bubba pushed himself off of the ground with one wing, and on the other formed a glowing snowball. He lifted his head, yellowish blood dribbling from his beak, and grinned dangerously at the helicopters.

“SAMPSON!!” He crowed. “It’ll take a lot more than that!!”

***

“Pointy stick, pointy stick,” Oreo Avenger murmured frantically as she tore through the Hall’s supply room. “Don’t we have any pointy sticks around here?!”

“Ah, solitude at last!” She heard Drew say from the hallway. “Now I can run some diagnostics on these sticks and see what exactly makes that wonder product known as ‘wood!’”

Oreo Avenger whipped around. Sticks. Yes, that’s what she needed.

“I need a stick!” She shouted, running out into the hallway.

“GAH!” Drew replied, jumping back and dropping a large bundle of sticks. Oreo Avenger pounced on them, and finally stood up, holding one about three feet long.

“Perfect!”

“What are you doing?!” Drew demanded.

“Gah, but it isn’t pointy!” Oreo said, looking at the end of the stick in dismay.

“What is this?” Drew asked again, eyes narrowing.

“Do you have anything I could sharpen this with?” Oreo Avenger asked, turning to her.

Drew was about to tell Oreo where exactly she could put the stick, when Eric walked into the hall.

“Hey, look! I bought a gigantic pencil sharpener for those gigantic souvenir pencils! What a lucky fine!”

“There!” Oreo cried, and snatched the gigantic pencil sharpener from him. She shoved the stick into it, and immediately began to crank.

Eric glanced at Drew. “What that all about?”

“I’m chalking it up to post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

Eric stared.

“She’s been driven insane by years of fighting crime and living with you.” Drew said.

“Oooooooh. Well, I agree, then!”

“There!” Oreo said, pulling a newly sharpened stick from the sharpener. “Now, all I need is some melted chocolate…”

“What the hell is going on?!” Drew demanded.

“Sorry, X-Raytor, big penguin, battle to the death, ‘So Weird’ ending earlier than we’d all hoped, gotta get chocolate, no time to explain!” She took off and flew out of the hallway.

Drew and Eric stared after her.

“Huh,” Eric said. “And I thought it was something important.”

***

“Cara?” X-Raytor said. “Cara? I- I caught you- I got you.”

Still no movement. X-Raytor sighed, and tried to fight down the wave and grief and self-hatred rising up his throat.

“Cara, I…”

X-Raytor cut off, and jerked back. Cara’s eyes had opened, and now she looked up at him, confused and a little freaked out.

“Oh, thank God…” X-Raytor murmured. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Cara sat up and rubbed her head. “What’s fff- what’s going on?”

“You- you fainted?”

“Where am I?”

They both looked up, as the two helicopters overhead riddled the top of the bridge with bullets. Even from down here, X-Raytor was sure he heard Bubba yell defiantly back at his attackers. Commuters going either way across the bridge craned their necks to see what was going on, while simultaneously trying to get the hell away from there.

“What is that?” Cara asked groggily.

“You’ve got to get out of here!” X-Raytor said, standing up. “Do you have any money?”

Cara mumbled something, tried to get to her feet, and then sat back down quickly. X-Raytor bent down and scooped her up.

“Hey!” Cara said. “No, no. I don’t have any money. Oh God, what’s going on?”

X-Raytor waved down a cab. The driver stared at him, awestruck, and climbed out of the driver’s seat.

“Listen, get in the cab and get out of here. Go to the Hall. No, not the Hall. Or the set. Go to- to the remains of the Norton Amphitheater! Go there and hide. Go and hide until I come to get you. You hear me? Do not go anywhere near the Hall or any limos or giant penguins. You hide-“

“Okay,” Cara said. “But, I…”

“Promise me!”

“I promise, but…”

“Yo! X-Raytor! You rock!” The cab driver said, hurrying over to them.

“Take her!” X-Raytor said, setting Cara down on her feet. “Will you take her?”

The driver beamed. “Oh yeah… for you? Anything!”

“Okay, take her to- to the Amphitheater. Where they had the Oscars. Get her there!”

“Done! You da man!” He grinned. “Oh, and that’ll be twenty bucks,”

“Huh?”

“Dude… you’re, like, my hero and all, but that’s the fare.”

“Uh… could you put it on my tab?”

“…Tab?”

“Just- just send the check to the Hall! I’ll send you an autographed photo, too!”

“Awesome!” The cab driver said. “Come on,” He opened the back door and Cara climbed in. She glanced back at X-Raytor through the window, and then the cab was off, down the street and around a corner.

X-Raytor pressed his hands into either side of his head. It felt like it was going to crack.

So lucky. He thought. So freaking lucky. Oh man! Oh man! I can’t catch my breath. I- I almost lost her. Can’t catch my-

X-Raytor’s head suddenly snapped up, towards the top of the Bridge. His eyes narrowed.

Bubba!

He pulled the last pair of blurbs out of his backpack, attached, and activated them. He bunched his leg muscles-

FWOOSH!

The bridge whipped by him, and the ground seemed to shrink away as he shot up. The blurb would lose its charge faster this way, but he didn’t intend on anymore mid-air chases tonight. This ended here.

***

“Sampson!!” Bubba roared, brandishing twin snowballs on his wing tips. “Come face me!!”

The helicopters hovered, one moving over slightly to his right flank-

How dare they?! Did they think he wouldn’t notice?! Sampson’s lackeys were more foolish than he was.

“GRRRRAAAAAAAAH!!” Bubba hurled the snowballs, one at each helicopter.

The snowballs smashed into the helicopters dead on- directly in the noses. But instead of the explosion that Bubba had hoped for, the snowballs evaporated a few inches from the helicopters, briefly revealing what seemed to be a gigantic smiley face, adorned in a feathered hat and sunglasses, smoking a cigarette. The helicopters barely wavered.

“Emoticon fields!” Bubba muttered. “Hmm, I didn’t think they were ready for combat yet…”

“That’s the least of your problems…”

X-Raytor’s clasped fists struck Bubba in the side of his feathered head, and sent him sprawling.

“Hold your fire!!” Agent Raley roared over her microphone. “All personnel! Hold your fire until I give the word.”

Bubba’s eyes flared with rage. He struggled off the ground. “How DARE you, John?! I will have your head! I will eat your-“

Bubba stood, and looked savagely around. X-Raytor was nowhere to be seen. The helicopters hovered, hesitant. So, he wanted to play games? Fine, then.

“John!!” Bubba called, the mocking in his voice edged slightly with rage. “JOHN!!”

Feet smashed Bubba under the beak.

“Oh, don’t worry, slappy, I’m not going anywhere!”

X-Raytor flipped so that he was right side up again, and landed as his uncle fell.

“You bastard!! You- you monster!! You think I was just going to sit there and let you do this to me?!! To the people I love?!!”

X-Raytor swung and punched Bubba hard in the beak, ramming his head back into the ground.

“I won’t let you hurt anyone anymore!!”

He punched him again, yellowish blood splattering onto his glove. And again. And again.

And suddenly he was in the deep backstage of the Norton Amphitheater, holding a bleeding Tony Norgate by the collar.

“You little s***!” He screamed. He could feel the murderous power surging through his biceps, into his fists. He could see Superdude bleeding from the side, and DragonGirl twisting in the air in a serpentine ballet of death. “Why shouldn’t I just kill you, huh? Why the f*** shouldn’t I snap your f***ing neck?!”

“I-“

“Two Justice Leaguers, two good people, died tonight because of you! Two of them, and maybe more before this is over. And what are you? What are you?!” Before Tony could respond, X-Raytor drew back and punched him in the face as hard as possible, sending the small man sprawling to the floor.


“Not gonna hurt anyone…” X-Raytor mumbled, looking down at Bubba’s dazed face. And even through the clouds in his mind, the rage burned straight through. “You HEAR ME?! You’re NOT! GOING! TO! HURT! ANYONE! ANY! MORE!!!”

At the M.O.R.P.H.Z. MB, Sampson squinted at the computer screen. “Raley, what’s going on?”

“He’s beating the crap out of him!” Raley exclaimed.

“Who is?”

“X-Raytor!” Raley said. “X-Raytor’s beating the living crap out of him.”

Sampson grinned.

“Bastard!!” X-Raytor snapped, and punched Bubba again. “There’s nothing to you, Bubba, but hate and-and- selfishgkk!”

Bubba’s right wing shot up and wrapped its tip around X-Raytor’s neck. His yellow eyes burned furiously.

“There is more to me, boy, than man has the imagination to dream of…”

X-Raytor gasped, struggled for breath-

With a final growl, Bubba hurled him off the bridge. X-Raytor plummeted.

Bubba rolled over, and tried to get to his feet again, choking through the blood coursing down his face. The M.O.R.P.H.Z. helicopters loomed behind him.

“Take the shot!” Sampson roared in Raley’s headphones, and she held down the firing button.

Two machine guns erupted, and Bubba roared as the bullets pierced him, tearing him apart.

The river rushed up at X-Raytor, and somehow, through the terror and subsiding rage, he was able to activate his blurb. It sputtered, and jerked him towards the side of the center support.

A badly bleeding Bubba leapt off the support with bullets riddling the ground behind him. He came down on the top of a passing eighteen-wheeler, and pushed himself up into the air again, wings spread. The helicopters turned and sped after him.

X-Raytor tried to get some control over his blurb, but it was sparking erratically, and clumsily propelling him towards the wires of the bridge. He grabbed onto one and wrapped his legs around it, just as the M.O.R.P.H.Z. helicopters passed overhead.

“AAAH! Ow! Oh man, do I need a nap.”

He looked up and saw the helicopters, and the smaller form of Bubba, moving off towards the city.

Oh, no… Bubba’s hurt- heading back towards his penthouse. Gotta get there before he hurts someone...

“Hey, where’s everybody going?”

X-Raytor looked up, just as Oreo Avenger swooped down next to him. She was carrying a long, sharpened stick with what looked like chocolate on the end.

“I told you I could handle this on my own,” X-Raytor said.

“I’ll take that as meaning that you’re happy to see me.”

“Sure.” He glanced at the stick. “Uh, what’s that?”

***

The Green Penguin- Bubba- smashed through the window of his penthouse, and crash landed on the floor. Blood pooled around him.

“Guhhh…” He pushed himself to his feet. “Solution is wearing off… burning…”

YOU ARE A GOD!!! The voice-with-character roared. But it was starting to fade, and so was his godly perception. The walls of his office were becoming more rigid, more physical. The green light from the octopus tank was becoming less dazzling.

“Can’t-can’t-can’t- Can’t let them win. Can’t let them…” He stumbled towards the large safe in the dark corner of the office. The door was titanium, with a lock that could only be unlocked through a combination of a password, a spun combination, fingerprints, and retina scans. Bubba shoved his shoulder into it, and tore the door free with his wing. He ignored the alarms, and stepped into the shallow chamber.

Before him, arranged neatly on wire racks, were rows and rows of hypodermic needles, each filled with the glowing green solution that would turn him into the Green Penguin. Too his right, another set of shelves, lined with the needles that would change him back. Bubba ignored them, and went right for the needles across the room. He picked one up clumsily, almost letting it slip through his wingtip, before getting a good grip.

He eyed it with a mix of greed and apprehension. He’d never injected himself with the transformation fluid while still in penguin form. If all went well, it would just repair his body. But- but what if it caused him to mutate further? What if he overdosed? There were a lot of “what if”s, that was for sure, but if he didn’t…

There was a click, and his office doors swung open. McPherson stepped gingerly inside.

“Sir? I heard…” He paused, when he saw the giant, bleeding Green Penguin staring at him from inside the safe.

McPherson tried to pull off his usual rigid posturing, but failed. “Wh-what have you done with my employer?” He demanded shrilly.

Bubba’s eyes narrowed. “McPherson…” He rumbled.

McPherson’s eyes widened. “S-sir?”

A snowball appeared in Bubba’s wing, and he lobbed it. The glowing sphere hit McPherson in the midsection, and carried him into the far wall, pinning him there. Immediately, it began to constrict, and McPherson gasped. The butler’s eyes bulged once before he passed out.

Bubba came back to business. With a low grunt, he slammed the syringe into his thick, feathery neck, and then pushed it back in until all of the solution had been injected into his jugular. Bubba jerked, his wingtips twitching furiously, and stumbled back. Burning. BURNING! He staggered wildly out of the safe, into the main office, and somehow avoided collapsing. The pain was so intense-

And then it was done. He looked down and saw that his body was intact once again, no blood, no bullet holes. And he was still most certainly the Green Penguin. The voices became clearer, and the world warped under his God Eyes.

“Worked!” He mumbled, as he tore the syringe from his neck and crushed it in his wingtip. “Yes, worked!!”

Of course it worked. Of course. He was Robert Adamski! He was the Green Penguin! He was a God!

“More!” He cried, reaching out and grabbing another syringe. “Mmmmore!!”

He jammed it into his neck, injected.

Everything was relatively numb at first, numb and dull, and there was a slight buzzing…

“GRA- GRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGHHHH!!!!!”

Bubba twisted, arced his back, and screamed in primal agony. His muscles bulged and his beak itched, and his eyes, and his wings-

His heart stopped beating. Started again. Backwards! His heart was still again.

The voices were moving too quickly now, melding together, rambling and screaming and laughing all at once. He smelled yeast-

His heart was still. His heart was still!

MY HEART ISN’T BEATING IN MY CHEST!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Fire and water and buildings twisting and Janey and John and his wings his beautiful wings, and Sampson, and he wanted to tear his chest open and make his heart work and the voices had lied and now he would purge them and purge them all- !

And it was done. Bubba’s heart started beating again.

But Bubba wasn’t Bubba anymore. He was barely even the Green Penguin.

His muscles were enormous, rippling from under his feathers. And his feathers were more like quills now, a ragged green covering that ran over his entire body. His wings- his wings were enormous, bigger than ever before, and muscles bulged at his shoulders. At the end of each wing, a small, bony hand had grown- three knobby, clawed fingers that grasped at nothing. His beak was lined with green, saw-like teeth, and two bony crests had formed at the base of his neck, followed by increasing smaller pairs of bony protrusions, running down his back. His tail was slightly longer, and writhed like a serpent. His once-flat, tridactyl feet were now brutal, ripping talons, and his stubbly legs had grown at least three inches, and were pure, green sinew. Everything had grown- he was a monster, eight feet tall at the very least.

He breathed heavily. The voices said nothing, but he didn’t care. None of that made sense anyway, nothing-

What was his name?

No matter. Didn’t matter. He could feel the adrenaline, the raw killing power of his new body (had he ever had another?). The euphoria, the absolute certainty of his strength, and the insanity, yes, yes, the wonderful, gleeful insanity that gripped his mind like delicious acid. He felt the roiling hatred.

He was a colossus. He was invincible. He was God.

“I hope you don’t think I’m going to let you drive home like that…”

X-Raytor stood in front of the broken office window. His legs were set defiantly apart, and he pointed at Bubba. Through the window, Bubba thought he saw a girl wearing a purple cape fly upwards, away from the building.

“You still in there, Bubba? Can you even hear me, you junkie freak? This ends tonight! I’m not scared of you. One way or another.” X-Raytor let his hand fall, and become a fist. “Tonight.”

Bubba coiled his powerful legs and pounced.

“QUACK!!!”

X-Raytor shot his fist upwards, dealt Super Bubba a painful blow under the beak. The monstrous penguin roared, but X-Raytor simply nailed him with another upper-cut.

Bubba fell back, dropping onto the tiny hands on his wings and going on all fours. He rested a few feet from X-Raytor, growling furiously. A beast preparing for its next attack.

“Well, come on!” X-Raytor snapped. “You wanted me, well I’m right here! What? What, can’t fight me when you’re not holding my girlfriend hostage? You sick f***ing maniac!!”

It briefly occurred to X-Raytor that maybe, just maybe, he didn’t want to really piss off this Green-Penguin-on-steroids, but, frankly, he didn’t care right now. He had to do this, he had to end this, right here, right now. One way or another, he would end this.

Suddenly, Bubba was on his legs, his massive wings spread out. Twin snowballs appeared in his skeletal hands. They were a bit smaller than the originals, but a pale green vapor wafted off of them. X-Raytor had the feeling that they were bad news.

Bubba roared, and hurled the snowballs. X-Raytor dropped, rolled, and turned around in time to see them hit the opposite wall. The snowballs exploded in green flashes, and left smoking holes on the wall.

“Uh… wow.” X-Raytor said. “Well, that’s-“

Bubba lunged!

X-Raytor rolled again, avoided the thundering mass of muscle and feathers, and got to his feet. He kicked up the power in his eyes, and delivered an optic blast to Bubba’s flank. He roared viciously, but the lasers only made a small mark in his feathery hide.

Crap.

Bubba hurled another snowball, and it exploded way too close to X-Raytor. The world was a green glare, and even though he blinked furiously, his eyesight was clearing slowly. How long was it going to take Oreo to circle around and get back here?!

His vision cleared enough for him to see Bubba bearing down on him. X-Raytor fired two quick eye lasers, and dodged. The lasers had no effect, of course, but he was out of Bubba’s path, for now. Bubba cut off his charge, and whirled to face X-Raytor, panting. His yellow eyes burned.

“To tell you the truth, Robbie- can I call you Robbie? Well, Robbie, to tell you the truth, I kinda like you more like this.”

Bubba bellowed, fell on his belly, and slid across the floor at X-Raytor, like a green and black train. X-Raytor stood his ground, but prepared to jump out of the way. Just like when he’d sent Bubba plummeting off the bridge so long ago-

“At least I don’t have to listen to you arrogant ram-“

X-Raytor leapt, but instead of sliding past, Bubba dug his talons into the ground, stopped, and grabbed X-Raytor’s ankle with a clawed hand. Bubba stood, and hurled X-Raytor savagely.

X-Raytor saw a green light, and a transparent reflection of himself-

SMASH!!!

He plowed into the glass octopus chamber, and out the other side. Glass cut him, tore his costume, lacerated his skin. His masked ripped completely apart.

X-Raytor landed, soaking and sliced, on the floor. One of the octopi, free of the tank, landed on his head and held on.

“Gah!! Hey! Get off!”

The octopus tightened its grip, clearly refusing.

“Stupid- cephalopod- get- off- my-“

The octopus suddenly loosened its grip, and let go. X-Raytor felt it being plucked off of his head. He looked up.

Oh no…

Bubba stood over him, that familiar grin on his curved beak. His face was lit up eerily in the red lights of the newly-arrived M.O.R.P.H.Z helicopters outside.

“I-“

Bubba lunged, grabbed him around the neck, and squeezed. It took about half a second for X-Raytor’s windpipe to close. He struggled, choked, tried to cry out, but nothing came. Bubba’s horrible grin filled his vision, and the monster that had once been his uncle began to bend him backwards. It was over, all over. He was dead.

No.

No! No, I can’t give up. He- he’ll hurt someone- he’ll kill- oh God! Too big! Too- my spine is bending. The floor- the floor is wet- I can’t get a footing. He’s too big now!!

X-Raytor let out a low choking noise, and Bubba tightened his grip. X-Raytor felt like his head was going to pop off of his neck.

I can’t catch my breath- he’s killing me!! This really- aggh! Somebody help me! He’s laughing and- No! Please!!

X-Raytor felt himself slipping, and then, with one final, desperate burst of energy, kicked Bubba in the face.

Stop laughing!

X-Raytor simultaneously swallowed air, and opened fire with his eyes. The bolts were more ragged, more intense without the protective eyepieces. Bubba was getting hit with the whole radioactive effect. But would that help?

No time to be fancy. No time to be cute. Just hit him with everything, just win!

Bubba snarled, and swept out his wing, knocking X-Raytor away. He rounded on him, bleeding.

“JOOOOOHN!!” He roared. “I toldssh you I will makesh you--!!!”

Something small and round hit Bubba in the side of the head. He whipped around, just as Oreo Avenger flew through the window. She brandished the pointy stick, and Bubba saw the chocolate coating, registered its significance-

Oreo Avenger charged, stick held out in front of her!

Bubba sidestepped, and brought a wing down on the stick, snapping it in half. Oreo stared at the broken half still in her hand, and then Bubba knocked her away. Oreo hit his large, curved desk and grunted.

Bubba turned back to where X-Raytor had been- he was gone! Lasers struck Bubba in the back, and he whirled around.

“Like that?!” X-Raytor demanded. He briefly noted how strange it was to yell without his mask covering his face.

A glowing, green orb-

The snowball hit X-Raytor in the chest, and exploded into green. X-Raytor cried out, and then flew into the column behind him, hitting it heavily and slumping to the floor. He was blind! Blinded by green light! His chest was on fire!

Bubba lumbered over towards X-Raytor, and Oreo Avenger struggled to her feet. She checked quickly- nothing broken, and reached into her Oreo satchel. She needed something that would make her stronger, something like-

Vin Diesel! A Vin Diesel Oreo!

But wait, if she turned completely into Vin Diesel, she’d get his instincts too, and that might make her do something reckless and stupid.

His arms! She needed his arms!

Oreo Avenger pulled out an Oreo, and ate it. Immediately, her arms bulged, and became covered with tattoos. She actually looked sort of stupid, with just the huge arms on her body, but, hey, X-Raytor was probably too blind to see her now anyway, and there were more important things to do. Oreo turned, and began to lift Bubba’s massive desk.

In Copter One, Raley watched the battle apprehensively.

“Agent Raley, this is Sampson,” Sampson said over her headset.

“I read you, sir.”

“If you have the shot- take the shot, Raley!”

“Sir,” Raley said. “The X-Raytor kid’s in the way. Your call…”

Oreo Avenger succeeded in lifting Bubba’s desk, and leapt into the air. The desk was weighing her down, but she was able to hover, get a little closer to the Green Penguin-

Bubba leaned over X-Raytor, who was still rubbing his eyes desperately. His bony claws reached-

Oreo hurled the desk! It landed on Bubba and broke in half, the desk drawed spilling out onto the floor.

“Gah!” X-Raytor said, and backed blindly away from the impact.

Bubba roared something that sounded vaguely R-rated, and then, with one wing, threw half of the desk off of him. The enormous block smashed through the nearest window, out into the night air.

Oreo Avenger realized- the people on the street below-

She flew out the window, and grabbed the plummeting desk with her enormous hands. But she knew immediately that she wouldn’t be able to hold on for long. She flew slowly back towards the shattered window, holding on as tightly as possible.

She finally landed back in the office, her arms still clutching the desk outside- when Bubba’s clawed hands closed on her had.

“Aaagghh! No! The people below… just let me…”

Bubba opened his serrated beak, and pulled Oreo Avenger’s head towards it.

“Please, let me- No!! The people-“

X-Raytor’s sight had returned, but he was in a world of hurt. He got shakily to his feet, and saw Bubba and Oreo, struggling at the window.

“Bubba, stop…” He mumbled.

“No! The people below, you’ll kill them!” Oreo said.

“Bubba! …Uncle Bubba!” X-Raytor stumbled, slipped on the wet floor… and saw the pointed half of Oreo Avenger’s stick lying at his feet.

Bubba gripped Oreo’s head harder, and she felt the desk slipping.

“Just let me-“

Bubba’s beak curled into his trademark smirk-

“UNCLE BUBBA!!”

X-Raytor jammed the stick’s chocolate-coated point into Bubba’s back, and pushed until he couldn’t push it anymore. Yellowish blood poured onto his hands.

“Oh my…” Agent Raley said.

Bubba let go of Oreo Avenger, and whipped around. Blood poured from his beak, and his yellow eyes took on a look of hatred and something a lot like he’d been betrayed.

X-Raytor hung his head, and spread his arms out, giving Bubba a clean shot.

And Bubba stopped. His yellow eyes bulged-

“YAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHH!!!!!”

Bubba twisted, writhed suddenly, his back arching and his wings flailing madly. His eyes darted around in a panic and then-

And then what looked like boils- giant, yellow boils- began to pop up all over his body, spreading out from the wound in his back, over his chest and his wings and his neck and his face and his eyes. His hands grasped vainly at the unyielding air.

X-Raytor leapt back. Oreo Avenger finally succeeded in pulling the desk back through the window, and then tried to back as far away from the flailing monster as possible.

And some of the boils burst, and the same yellowish liquid that was his blood poured out, and all through it Bubba was convulsing and writhing and screaming. And X-Raytor knew that he would never, ever be able to forget the sound.

“AaiiggGAAyygghh!! Heellpp yyaaagghhhmeeeee!!!”

“Oh my God…” X-Raytor moaned. “Oh my God…”

“AAAAAAAAGGGGAAAGHHHH!!” Bubba screamed, but his writhing was slowing down, his hands were grasping more limply.

“Aaaaiiiiyyyyyggaahhh… aaaahh… Aaaaagh!!”

And suddenly, Bubba stopped, lurched forwards, and fell. For a moment, he was still. And then, slowly, his body shrank, his feathers sunk into his skin, and his beak softened… until it was only Robert Adamski, lying naked on the floor with a stick jutting from his back. A pool of yellowish blood surrounded him, and red trickled from his nostrils and back.

“Oh man…” Oreo Avenger said, standing up and walking over. X-Raytor was silent.

Oreo Avenger touched Bubba’s body gingerly with a foot. Nothing.

“I knew it,” X-Raytor mumbled. “I knew it would end like this.”

“What?” Oreo Avenger asked, as her Vin Diesel arms shrank back into her own.

“I knew I was going to have to kill him. Kill- kill my uncle. And, I mean, I thought I did it before… I just- didn’t know it would…”

He pulled off the remains of his mask, and dropped it on the floor.

“I-“ Oreo started to say.

There was a low buzzing, and half a dozen green-and-blue body suit-wearing people floated through the window, each wearing a strange, arcing sort of jetpack.

“It’s okay, guys.” Agent Raley, at the head of the group, said. “We’re M.O.R.P.H.Z. agents under the command of General Jeff Sampson. You all right?”

Oreo Avenger cocked an eyebrow at X-Raytor.

“Oh, um, did I mention that I’ve been contacted on two occasions by a covert government organization?” X-Raytor asked, grinning sheepishly.

“No,” Oreo said. “I think you forgot to mention that.”

“Ah. Uh, silly me?”

The four M.O.R.P.H.Z. agents surrounded Bubba’s prone form, and produced strange, boxy guns.

“Sir, the floor is secure.” Raley said.

“Secure that area and start clean-up ASAP,” A voice said. X-Raytor turned to see Sampson walking- through the air- through the shattered window. His eye patches were down, but the heads-up displays seemed to be working for once. “Don’t make me say it twice. And get Jackson up here to deal with local authorities.”

He landed in the office, and detached a pair of blurbs from his feet. He held them up for X-Raytor to see. “You dropped these.”

“Uh…”

“Well, how is he?” Sampson asked, walking over towards Bubba’s body.

Raley, kneeling next to Bubba, gave Sampson a thumbs-up that neither X-Raytor nor Oreo saw. Even if they had, they wouldn’t have been able to tell what she meant.

“Take care of it.” Sampson said.

The office doors burst open and a team of M.O.R.P.H.Z. agents, wearing slightly different uniforms than the others, ran in. Two of them immediately began working on freeing McPherson from the snowball that trapped him against the wall. The others brought in a stretcher. They were medics, X-Raytor realized. They lifted Bubba’s body onto the stretcher, and rolled it away.

When they were gone, X-Raytor turned to Sampson. “You should arrest him,” He said, jerking his thumb at McPherson. “He didn’t know about the penguin stuff, but he was going to help him kidnap people…”

“We’ll hand him over to the authorities.” Sampson assured him. He grinned. “Told you we would be there when it came down.”

X-Raytor glared at him. Oreo Avenger glanced at them, and then went over to talk to the M.O.R.P.H.Z. agents.

“Think of it this way, kid,” Sampson said. “One less injection and Robert might have had enough wits about him to do something really horrible. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you dodged a bullet- and you did it with style.”

“I killed my uncle.” X-Raytor said.

“Yeah, but it was self-defense. And not only self-defense, but the defense of others as well. Adamski was a monster- no jury would ever convict you.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Trust me, it was necessary.” Sampson said. “He was a kidnapper, a murderer, and an illegal genetic mutant.”

“Yeah…” X-Raytor mumbled. And, in fact, he wasn’t really feeling all that guilty. His stomach turned over.

“Want some gum?” Sampson asked.

“No.”

“It helps with the nausea.”

“No.” X-Raytor repeated.

Sampson shoved the gum back in his pocket. “Buck up, kid. You saved the girl…” He turned to a passing agent. “Bloom, did the DeLizia girl make it out in one piece?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay. Pull recon out of there. All surveillance on her is done.”

“Yes, sir.” Bloom said, and walked off dialing a cell phone.

“Listen…” Sampson said. “I know, I know it helps, but the less you tell your girlfriend about all this… the better. I know it feels good to talk to a nice girl about all this crazy stuff you’re going through, but every time you confide in her, you’re inadvertently risking her life. There are just some things civilians aren’t meant to know.”

“Oh, yeah, not telling her anything really helped,” X-Raytor snapped. “Almost got her killed, that’s all.”

“Listen, I’d be saying the same thing if you were dating one of your fellow superheroes.”

X-Raytor was torn. He wasn’t sure if Sampson was actually giving him advice or just trying to cover his own ass.

“You did good, anyway,” Sampson said.

“Okay.”

“Seriously.”

X-Raytor stretched. He still ached, and he would have some nasty bruises in the morning. “So, is Cara still at the Amphitheater?”

Sampson repeated the question to Agent Bloom, who nodded.

“I guess I better go find her, then…” X-Raytor said.

“Go ahead,” Sampson said. “But remember what I said.

X-Raytor nodded, but didn’t say anything.

“Um, you might not want to go like that,” Oreo said. She pointed at his face.

X-Raytor blinked, and suddenly covered his eyes. “Oh- s***. Sorry, everyone! Um… crap. Does anyone have an extra mask they can lend me?”

“Here,” Oreo said, pulling an Oreo from her satchel. X-Raytor eyed it nervously. “Oh, calm down. It’s an X-Raytor Oreo.”

“Say what?”

“It’ll turn you into… well, you. Sort of.”

“Um… okay. Uh… what do you use them for, anyway?”

“People who I really, reeeeeally want to punish.”

“Ah.”

X-Raytor ate the Oreo, and it was, at the very least, strange. It was like he was his costume, not wearing it. Which meant, really, that he had no mouth, but he found himself able to speak anyway.

“Come back to me when you’re done,” Oreo said. “That one’s not on a timer, and I’ll have to give you the reverse one.”

X-Raytor considered maybe just staying like this, where his costume actually was his skin, and his mask was his face…

He said, “Okay.” He attached the pair of blurbs that Sampson had worn in, and sped out the window before anyone could say anything else.

After a moment, Oreo Avenger said, “So, uh, who are you people?”

“No one.” Sampson said, and turned back to his troops.

Oreo Avenger stared after him for a second, and then took off into the night, back towards the Hall.

***

The blurbs had burned out long before X-Raytor arrived at the ruins of the Norton Amphitheater. He stepped through the main entrance, into the dark, but mostly intact lobby. Now, where was Cara? Hopefully in here, somewhere. X-Raytor definitely didn’t want to go into the ruined theater and face the ghosts, not tonight.

“Cara?” He called.

Nothing. He took a few steps forwards. “Cara? Psst…”

Cara’s head poked up from behind a bar in the corner. She held a broken bottle in her hand, the jagged edge pointed forwards. When she saw him, she dropped it onto the bar.

“Oh, thank God…” X-Raytor ran, and hugged Cara from over the bar. She made a choked sobbing noise into his shoulder, and it was all X-Raytor could do to stop himself from bawling.

“Oh God…” She mumbled. “Oh Jesus oh God…”

“You okay?” X-Raytor asked, stepping back. She looked okay- a little pale, but not bruised or anything.

“N-no.” Cara said.

“Are you hurt.”

“No. It- it- it was just…” She sniffed. “What- what was that?”

X-Raytor glanced over the bar. “Um, did you throw up?”

“Yeah. Listen…”

“Why? Why were you there?” X-Raytor asked suddenly. “Why did you come to the Hall?”

“I- I thought you were going to be there.”

“But I told you about Bubba. I told you he was-“

“You didn’t tell me anything!!” Cara exploded. “You told me- you told me not to go anywhere with anyone! You told me something about Bubba, but aside from that you didn’t tell me squat! How- how am I supposed to know that was going to happen?!!”

“Okay…” X-Raytor said, looking down.

“I would have done whatever you told me, but you didn’t tell me any-“

“Okay…” X-Raytor said again. “I’m- I’m really sorry. I swear…”

“What about- what happened to that- that thing?”

“He’s gone.” X-Raytor said, lifting himself up to sit on the bar. Cara climbed up next to him.

“So…” She said. “Your real name is John?”

X-Raytor laughed. “Yeah. But, um, but I- people mostly called me James.”

“Can I call you James?” She asked, just a little mockingly.

“Sure.” X-Raytor said.

There was a moment of silence. Then Cara said, “What happened?”

X-Raytor looked down at the floor, and then back up at her. “I- I don’t want to talk about it just yet.”

“But…”

“Please…”

“But…”

X-Raytor looked back down at the floor. Soon, he’d walk with Cara back to the set across town, and then make the trek back to the Hall of Justice. He’d go on the roofs, so that no one would bother him- he just wanted to be alone right now. He’d get to the Hall, get the Oreo reversed, and then go up to his room and lock the door. Then he’d climb into bed and fall asleep and then the nightmares would come…

But until then, he would sit here, hard bar under his butt, with Cara sitting next to him, in the dark ruins of the Norton Amphitheater. He was mere yards from where Superdude and Dragon Girl and OMEGA and Violet had died, where he had killed Tony.

He should have been relieved. Bubba was gone, for good. M.O.R.P.H.Z. was off his back for a while. And Cara, even though he had lied to her, even though he had betrayed her and almost gotten her killed, was alive. He should have felt happy.

But the only thing he did feel, was empty.