JUSTICE LEAGUE

40

Fate
 

The crowd seethed and churned, moving and sounding like a giant waking up to find a big thorn in his foot - like in the stories when a mouse came along, won his trust, and soothed his discomfort. Except usually that was a lion, and if the Justice Leaguers were the mice, they were more likely to be squashed at this point in time.

Of course, Swift didn't know the details of why everyone was so disgruntled. The fact that they were a large seething crowd was completely preventing her from getting her fingers onto a copy of The Sentinel. They didn't pose a problem for long, though.

A blink, and where once a rather garishly-dressed, Shirley Temple-esque girl had loitered, there was nothing to the uncareful eye. The crowd seemed to shift a bit, though - flashes here and there of rapid movement, though no one to have made it.

Helen Cuthbert had no time to notice flashes, or much else. She was too caught up in vehemently explaining to a rather meek man with the misfortune of being caught next to her just how worthless the current administration was when it let "masked vagabonds" dictate the safety of the citizens of "this proud country". The newspaper she had purchased flew back and forth as she added body language to her already-impressive tirade, flapping it noisily in the thick air of too many angry people.

Helen, the thin air of her soap-box induced altitude dimming her perception, never noticed when the newspaper suddenly disappeared from her grasp, and it was several hours before she noticed the contents of her wallet - down to thirteen cents and an expired Visa card - were missing as well.

* * *

Swift had long ago decided that park benches were the worst part of being a runaway.

She supposed that a good deal of it had to do with how vulnerable she looked. Barely over five feet, she was something of a runt - and her shoulder length curly blonde hair, thin face, and penchant for wearing a glaring combination of neon pink and bright blue didn't exactly make her look mature or particularly dangerous.

Not that she couldn't be. Swift had long ago learned the advantages to being able to melt into the background by tweaking the light around her, and among them were a) sneaking away from potentially dangerous people and b) sneaking up behind potentially dangerous people and (literally and figuratively) kicking their a##'s.

Besides that, she was the best pick-pocket the city had ever seen. No one had quicker fingers than Swift, and it was another talent she used well, whether it was filching a few candy bars from 7-Eleven or wiping over-opinionated old ladies clean.

Despite everything, though, she hated the park benches the worst. There was no where else to sit, and invariably some pigeon-feeder came along, saw what they considered to be a prime wild-life taming spot and plunked themselves down next to Swift just as she was reaching a particularly exciting part in a novel or dozing off to take a nap.

If the old people didn't bother her, (Swift had developed a nasty case of gerontophobia the past three years - they were everywhere) invariably some unsavory character did. One would think that pedophiles would know better than to offer ice cream to seeming young children and the muggers would learn to walk more softly when they tried to sneak up on her. It was almost worth the looks on their faces when she "disappeared" and then dropped their (empty) wallets on the ground next to them.

The truth was that "fighting crime" didn’t particularly appeal to Swift. Ethics weren't - and never really had been - her strong point. She was more concerned with staying alive and having a good time than saving other people's butts. After all, look how far it got the Justice League. She'd watch them fly around day after day (and night after night) doing so-called "good deeds", and what did they have to show for it? A lynch mob.

Unfortunately, Swift lacked any ability to stay out of trouble. Sometimes, reflecting on her past, she wondered if that was what her camouflage had sprung out of - tormenting nannies and blaming the mostly-destroyed designer-kitchen (Mother's pride and joy) on the cat. At any rate, she became bored very quickly, and three years of swiping purses and wallets and being alone had gotten old fast. That's when she decided she'd see how "swiftly" she could get the Justice League to move.

It would begin slowly, a little after the literature hit the fan and the citizens had developed a grudge as healthy as a cavity against the League. A Robin Hood deal was what she had in mind - A dishonest CEO's bank card is stolen, several thousand dollars appear in the account of the local homeless shelter. A small time crime boss's shipment of "clean" handguns is intercepted by police bearing an "anonymous" tip-off oddly covered in the fingerprints of two other small-time crime bosses. The drug dealer down the street lands into serious trouble when his cocaine turns out to be powdered aspirin, and his customers can't feel their noses for several weeks.

At least, those were the sorts of things she planned. It would take time, she decided as she pulled the pilfered newspaper over her face and stretched out on her bench, and it would take work, but after all: Who was going to make life fun if you didn't do it yourself?

***

It was late when Violet decided it was safe to move from her bed. She made her way to the kitchen, hoping to find some leftover dinner. Instead she found a small crowd in the common room, their eyes glued on the TV-screen.

“What’s wr-“

“Shh!” someone scolded. Violet closed her mouth and stepped into the room.

“They hate us. All of us. Even me,” Drew finally answered. There was a strange look on her face. “I’m not like you-I’m normal! And they hate me just as much as they hate you!”

***

Balancing precariously on the tree branch, Oreo Avenger tried to lever open her bedroom window with her good arm. She couldn’t sleep, not with her shoulder waking her every time she rolled over. She could barely fly. She had to take a cab here.

The Hall of Justice, with all its marvelous medical equipment, was off limits to her. The police had to be watching it. The Apartment of Solitude had nothing useful, just some old Oreos whose purpose was lost in the past. And so it was back home with her.

Oreo finally got the window open. She tumbled through, landing on the bed and the person sleeping in it.

“Ow!”

“Claire?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the graceful one in the family?” Oreo Avenger’s sister rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.

“Aren’t you supposed to know I was going to do that?”

“I don’t know everything. My psychic eye has been fogged of late.”

Oreo laughed. “I can’t believe you just said that. All you need is a phony Jamaican accent!”

“Yeah, well, I can’t believe you still have these Spider-Man sheets.”

“Do you always sleep in my bed when I’m not here?”

“Please. Your sheets creep me out.” Claire yawned. “I wanted to talk to you.”

Oreo wavered to her feet. “First, tell me where dad keeps the Get Better syrup.”

“The one that dad claims cures all your ills?”

“That’s the one.”

“The one mom made him promise to throw out after it grew out hair to our toes.”

“The very thing.”

“He keeps it in his secret fridge in the china cabinet.”

“Thanks.” Oreo tottered toward the door.

“He doesn’t know.”

Oreo paused. “What?”

“About you. With the bank robbing and getting shot. By the way, good job doing that on national TV.”

“I didn’t rob any banks.”

“I know. He hasn’t turned on the TV for days.”

“I’m glad. He worries too much.” Oreo opened the door. The sounds of a sleeping house met her ears.

“Anne?”

Oreo looked back. Her sister looked so young.

“Just…just be careful, okay?”

“I’ll be fine. This-“ she gestured to her shoulder. “This is only a flesh wound. You know I’ll be all right.”

“I don’t know,” Claire said in a small voice. “I don’t. The future is so murky.”

Oreo sat on the edge of the bed. “Everything’s going to be okay,” she said. “I’ll make sure of it. That’s my job.”

Claire settled herself back down. Oreo tucked her in like she used to when they were younger.

“You need to get to sleep. Don’t you have school tomorrow?”

“Nothing important.”

“Goodnight.”

“’Night.”

Oreo made her way down the stairs, stepping lightly. The last thing she needed was their housekeeper screaming about midnight intruders again.

The china cabinet at the end of the stairs held the secret fridge. Everyone in the house knew where it was. Oreo and Claire used to hide ice cream in it when their cousins came to visit. It continued to baffle Dr. Evans who, though he made it, couldn’t seem to get it open.

Oreo pressed the hidden button. The bottom drawer popped out, revealing the blue-lit icebox. Contrary to all convention, it did not have steam pouring down the sides. Oreo quickly found the Get Better syrup in a bottle labeled “Prune Juice.” Though he was a genius in many other ways, naming his inventions was always a sore spot. He named his earliest invention, a motorized pogo stick, the Fast Bouncing thing.

She quickly took a gulp. The syrup tasted just as she remembered, like moldy insulation.

“Oh good, you got it open.”

Oreo whirled around. Her father stood there, thumping towards her in his old bathrobe and slippers.

“Anne! What a pleasant surprise!” He gave her a hug, his cane pressing her injured shoulder. Oreo grimaced.

“Hi, dad.”

He reached behind her to grab something out of the fridge. “I had Maria hide the cheesecake in here, but the blasted thing wouldn’t open for me.” He took a fork out of his pocket. “Now that’s some good cheesecake.”

He peered at Oreo, lit from beneath by the secret fridge. “So what are you doing here? There’s not more trouble with that Charles Hunter now, is there?”

Oreo slipped the Get Better syrup in her satchel. “No, I just had to pick something up.”

Dr. Evans took another plate from the fridge before closing it. “Have some leftover pizza, then, and tell me what you’ve been up to.”

***

“Well, at least they aren’t talking about Janet Jackson anymore,” Eric said. No one responded.

“And welcome back, once again, to a special, all-day episode of the Ronny Rosewater Show!”

“Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen,” Ronny Rosewater said, beaming. “For those of you just tuning in, we’re coming to you all day today with live coverage of what just might be the biggest controversy of the century: the Just-us League has finally been exposed for what they really are. We’ll be talking too members of our studio audience and taking your calls live on the air. But first, we have a very special guest who’s going to come out and talk with us in a few minutes. This young lady has opposed the League for a good while now, and has become a great voice in the City’s anti-mask movement. She’s a junior at the University, going for her political science major, but I’m sure you all know her best as the girl who gave us the phrase ‘Just-us League,’”

The audience began to applaud loudly.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to Margo Westfall!”

A girl- or young woman, technically- with distinctly orange hair walked onstage and shook Ronny’s hand.

“Hey!” Netic said. She had been leaning against the wall, but now she walked up and stood behind the couch. “Hey, I know her. She was at the Oscars, up in the balcony.”

“And?” Crystal Freeze said.

“And she was a total bitch,” Netic said. “She was one of the ones yelling that ‘Badges, not masks’ stuff.”

“ ‘Just-us League,’” Pinzz muttered. “That’s real original. Real clever. So we make more money than we need. So what? So does the entire frickin’ NFL.”

“Well, while traditionally the routing of their opponents and the sheer dominant masculinity of the victorious team, along with a christening of blood, sweat, and mud, would be enough of a reward for athletes,” Right Wing Man said. “We live in a Capitalist nation, and therefore, our divine blessings find manifestation in stacks of government-approved bills.”

“… But isn’t that run by the states?” Raven asked.

“As it should be!” Right Wing Man said.

Silence.

“Thanks for that,” Pinzz said.

“- to be here,” Margo Westfall was saying. “I’m so happy with the way things are going, Ronny, seriously. The people of this city, they just immediately took up arms against the Just-us League and told them that they weren’t going to take their crap anymore. No fear, nothing- I guess they don’t have us as scared as they’d like to think. Of course, I’d like to point out how we haven’t heard any conservatives protesting.”

Ronny laughed. “Friends helping friends, in other words.”

“Fascists helping fascists,” Margo said. “Can’t wait to hear what kind of crap the White House comes out with.”

“Ugh, can’t we watch something else?” Raven asked.

“The news?” Pinzz suggested.

“Preferably something that isn’t about how much we suck,” Raven said.

“Disney?”

“Fine, the news.”

Just then, X-Raytor burst in the front door. He was carrying a copy of Dr. Lansky’s book.

“Oh man, have you guys-“

“Yeah, we have.” Pinzz said.

“Hey! Bring the book over! We haven’t seen it yet.” Midnight Chatter said. X-Raytor tossed it to him.

“Have you all finished ranting about Typho yet?” X-Raytor asked.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Pinzz said.

“Well, too bad, that f***ing piece of wigger s***!!”

“And how about his real name,” Twisk said. “ ‘George White.’”

“Great name!” Right Wing Man said to himself.

“I never would have-“ X-Raytor said, bringing his hands to his forehead. “Typho?! I mean- what the f***?! Did hell freeze over while I was out?!”

“Uh, quick question,” Jo Surf said. “Does this sorta thing happen, uh, often?”

They ignored him.

“How’s Xiao taking it?” X-Raytor asked.

“Guess.” Pinzz said.

“Oy…” He dropped into one of the La-Z-Boys, since his usual spot on the couch was occupied. “And Oreo and Scarlett are still out there?”

“Yep.” Raven said.

“What do you think that’s all about?”

“That fake Oreo Avenger thing,” Raven said. “We keep watching the news to see if they’ll show anything else, but I guess there’s nothing yet. I guess she got out.”

“F***.” X-Raytor said. He’d seen Oreo’s little skirmish with the police on TV the night before. And then Raven and Jo Surf and Twisk had run into Scarlett at the hospital. X-Raytor guessed that Oreo was off trying to figure out what was going on and, somehow, Scarlett was helping. It was sort of like a buddy movie, only, well, hotter.

“Iso’s still out too.” Violet said.

“Man, f*** Iso,” X-Raytor said. “F*** him. He’s been out moping or whatever this whole time… f*** him. Not like this is even his problem. He doesn’t have powers.”

“Yeah, well, us powerless people aren’t exactly getting off free,” Drew snapped.

“Hey, everybody shut up,” Pinzz said, and turned up the volume on the TV. Channel Five’s anchor, Bill Freidman, was introducing a clip.

“And now, investigative reporter Deborah Thomp- er, Walters with a special report.”

Deborah Walters appeared on screen. “Thanks, Bill. I’ve been out all day, talking to members of the super powered community about today’s events. Here’s those clips.” She looked at the camera and smiled for five seconds, and then exhaled. “Man, you’d think that lazy yutz couldn’t introduce the clips himself. What the hell do they pay him for, anyway? How- what is it, Grant?”

Her face suddenly went pale, and then broke into a nervous grin. “Er, uh, heh heh, just a little joke there, folks! Roll the clips, Bill. The clips, Bill!”

The shot changed to Deborah standing in a diner, somewhere downtown. “Hi there, I’m Deborah Walters, and I’m here with Charles Manos, formerly ‘the Magic Finger.’”

The shot widened to reveal Magic Finger- or Charles Manos, now- wearing casual clothes and smiling brightly. Even on TV, his right hand looked a little pale- a prosthetic.

“Charlie, please,” he said.

“Okay, Charlie,” Deborah said. “What is your opinion on today’s events?”

“Well, I personally think it’s great to see Dr. Lansky in print,” he said. “He was my therapist back when I was being rehabilitated, you know, and there is no one else in- in the world who knows more about… super psychology, I guess you could call it.”

“Are you surprised at the apparent corruption of the Justice League?” Deborah asked.

“Well, I think that any sort of dual ‘super’ identity is dangerous,” Manos said. “Mine certainly didn’t help me. When you have powers, and you wear a costume and make up a new name and all that, well, you can start to think that you’re, like, maybe more than human. Super human, yeah. I think the entire League would benefit from a nice, long break.”

“F*** off.” Raven said.

The shot changed again, and now Deborah Walters was standing in an alley (X-Raytor recognized it- it was on West Moore Street). On the wall next to her was a girl in her late teens, who was on the wall upside down, head below her feet, her back facing the camera, but her head craned up to look into it. Sort of like a spider… man. She was holding onto the wall with steel claws at the fingertips of her gloves, and thousands of tiny suction cups on the bottoms of her shoes (not that you could see this- but the Justice League had encountered this girl before). The rest of her costume was skintight and black, with purple and yellow trim. She wore a pair of stylized goggles with amber-colored lenses, the straps of which kept her blond hair out of her eyes.

“I’m here with notorious cat burglar, Penny Lane, who has agreed to share her thoughts with us,” Deborah said.

Penny Lane smirked at the camera. “ ‘Notorious.’ I like that. But, hey, I’m not worried about all this. No one’s been able to catch me yet, I doubt a buncha protesters will. But, yeah, I think it’d be good if the JL got put away. They all have these weird sexual fetishes, did you know that? Yeah. Especially X-Raytor.”

“I hate that girl,” X-Raytor growled.

Pinzz laughed.

“And when I say hate,” X-Raytor said. “I don’t mean ‘I really have a crush on her.’ I mean, ‘I want to force feed her those stupid f***ing goggles.’ How old is she, anyway?”

“She’s probably legal, X-y,” Crystal said, and snorted.

“Oh, shut up…” X-Raytor muttered.

“Really?” Deborah Walters said on the TV.

“Yep.” Penny Lane said. “I can’t divulge all of the- you know, the details, but let me just say- llamas. It’s all about llamas. Anyway, I’ve gotta get out of here before somebody tries to burn me at the stake. Lata!”

She turned and scurried up the wall almost faster than X-Raytor could register. The camera jerked up just in time to see her swing onto a rooftop and out of sight. There were holes in the wall where her climbing claws had been.

“How’d she get so damn fast, anyway?” X-Raytor asked. “Doesn’t she have some kind of, like, potion or something?”

“I think so,” Raven said. “A serum.”

“Hate her.’

The shot changed to a somewhat chubby man, with large, watery eyes, who looked at the camera nervously. On the bottom of the screen, these words appeared: DANIEL TURGEON, FORMERLY “THE SPELUNKER.”

“Wow.” Violet Princess said. “Talk about old school.”

“Who?” Jo Surf asked.

“Ooooold villain,” Raven said. “Way before your time.”

“Uh, that- that’s really not part of my life anymore,” Daniel Turgeon said on the TV. “I gave up being the- the Spelunker a long time ago. I’m, uh, I’m a surveyor, now. But, if it helps, I, um, I think everyone’s overreacting. I think we all need to just, like, calm down and- and try to find a more organized way to solve this problem.”

“Well, the moron agrees with us,” Pinzz said.

“Maybe everyone’s forgotten how much of an idiot he is,” X-Raytor said.

“I doubt it,” Pinzz said.

The shot changed again, to show a teenage boy in a somewhat beat up costume. Another stood behind him. The name “CAIT-DOG” appeared under the first boy.

“I think it’s just plain stupid,” Cait-Dog said. “I mean, the Justice League may be rich, but they’ve done a lot of good for the City. They’ve done things, that, like, a lot of other people wouldn’t be able to do. I think they’re okay guys. And girls.”

“Totally!” Said the other boy, stepping in front of Cait-Dog. His name appeared: “TAS-MAN.”

“The Justice League is A-Okay!” TAS-man said. “You have my word as a fellow super hero!”

“Thank you.” Deborah Walters said. “By the way, while we’re here, do you mind if I ask- what exactly is the nature of your involvement with the Tri-Leaders?”

TAS-man and Cait-Dog stared at the camera for a moment. Then, something that looked an awful lot like a duck hit the lens and the camera dropped. In the background, X-Raytor could hear TAS-man yelling, “RUN!! RUN!!”

The shot changed once again to Deborah Walters, standing in the street. “Oh, that crazy cape and mask crowd! Back to you in the studio,” she said.

Pinzz turned off the TV. Everyone was silent for a moment.

“We are so royally screwed.” Netic said.

“This is such a load,” X-Raytor said. “I can’t f***ing believe that-“

Suddenly, he sat up, and then hopped out of his seat.

“Uh, X-y…?”

“If anyone calls and says they want to have sex with me, take a message,” he said, heading for the door. “I’ve got work to do.”

***

BAMM!!

X-Raytor kicked the door open and stepped into the waiting room.

“Okay, now where the hell is Lansky?! I’ve got a few things to say to him!”

The receptionist, the young brunette whose name X-Raytor could never remember, looked up. “Sorry, Dr. Lansky has a patient right now.”

X-Raytor blinked. “Oh. Uh… when will he be free?”

“The session just started,” she said. “He should be done in about an hour.”

“Oh, okay,” X-Raytor said. “Should I come back then?”

“Sure,” the receptionist said. “But you might want to make an appointment, there’ve been a lot of people coming in today.”

“Um, all right,” X-Raytor said. He walked up to the counter and just sort of stood there, arms at his side. “Uh… do I just…”

“I’ll put you down in the computer, Mr. …”

“X-Raytor,” he said.

“Ah, right, sorry,” she said. “Okay, he should be free in an hour.”

“Okay, thanks,” X-Raytor said. “I’ll just go, uh, catch up on my reading or something.”

***

One hour later…

BAMM!!

X-Raytor kicked the door open and stepped into the waiting room.

“Okay, now where the hell is Lansky?! I’ve got a few things to say to him!”

“Ah, there you are,” the receptionist said. “He just got finished could you come sign in, please?”

“Oh, sure,” X-Raytor said. He walked over, and signed his name.

“And he’s just in his office?”

“Yep,” the receptionist said.

“By the way, what was your name again?” X-Raytor asked.

“Barbara,” she said. “Wallace.”

“Barbara,” X-Raytor said. “So, uh, Barbara, when do you get off?”

“Dr. Lansky’s ready to see you now,” she said. X-Raytor imagined that there was the slightest hint of a smile, and then gave up. He walked over to Lansky’s office door and pointed. Barbara nodded.

BAMM!!

X-Raytor kicked the door open and stepped into Dr. Lansky’s office. He was sitting behind his desk, startled.

“Okay, Lansky, it’s talking time!” He slammed the door behind him.

“X-Raytor,” Dr. Lansky said. “I actually wasn’t surprised that you made this appointment. I guess you have quite a few things to say to me.”

“I think we both know what they are.” X-Raytor said.

“Listen, X-Raytor,” Dr. Lansky said. “You are seeing this in too much of a negative light. This is not an entirely bad thing.”

“You wrote a book about super hero psychology!!” X-Raytor said. “You analyzed us and then put it out there for the whole f***ing world!”

“I didn’t use any names,” Dr. Lansky said. “Everything is general, based on my experience.”

“And not just that, it’s really cheesy.”

“How so?” Dr. Lansky asked.

X-Raytor picked up a copy of Man and the Super Man, which was on the desk, and flipped to the table of contents. He read: “Chapter Six- ‘Ubermensch und Libido: Sex and the Super Hero.’”

“Okay, that was a little corny,” Dr. Lansky said. “But, I assure you, everything in that book is perfectly legal and ethical. I violated no set of laws or codes, including doctor-patient confidentiality.”

“But- but you even say in the intro here that putting on a mask and all- having powers and dressing up and doing what we do, you say that that can seriously mess someone up.”

“It breeds Ubermensch,” Dr. Lansky said. “Many costumed vigilantes begin to think that they’re above the law, and that it is their divine obligation to impose their moral views on the rest of the world. They start to see everything in black and white. Or four colors, if you prefer that metaphor.”

“You made us look like nuts!!” X-Raytor said.

“Did it occur to you that maybe that’s why you’re all in therapy?” Dr. Lansky asked.

X-Raytor’s mouth opened and then shut. He couldn’t think of anything even halfway intelligent to say.

“And I did not, in anyway, set out to harm your reputation or those of your friends. I am entirely neutral on the super hero debate, and even if I wasn’t, I’d be more likely to be on your side since I am, of course, your therapist. My findings showed that, in large part, super human powers and a dual identity involving a costume and another persona, can be extremely detrimental to the personality and, yes, even sanity of those who possess these things. It is not always true, but in this day and age, with the way you and your friends are doing things, it’s almost unavoidable. You’re trying to save the world with comic book morality and virtues, trying to see everything as clear cut, stubbornly holding onto the idea that fighting hookers and purse snatchers is enough to solve all of the world’s problems. And even though you are the most qualified to combat super crime and super terrorism, I have also seen- as your friend Typho pointed out in his article- that your existence encourages super crime and the like.

“Of course, the thing is that, like any warrior culture, you would most likely stabilize eventually, and become closer to the super human ideal that you all believe in so dearly. But as I know, and as all of those people out there know, that stability would most likely come at the price of our way of life, and lead us into one where only the super human can survive. Like some Nietzschean nightmare. And I do warn about that in the book. I do speculate about it. But I didn’t do it with any particular malice towards yourself or your friends, I hope you understand that.”

“This is a nice office,” X-Raytor said. “But, you know, I’ve been in nicer. This isn’t even your building, huh? Just this office and the waiting room. And you’ve done a lot of interesting work here, right? The book’s proof of that. And a book like that, that could probably make someone’s career, huh?”

“Say it clearly, please,” Dr. Lansky said.

“I’m saying: even if you didn’t do this to tear us down or something, the fact that this will make you a legend in the psychology community isn’t just a lucky break.”

“You’re right,” Dr. Lansky said. “This book will, indeed, make my career. But, really, with all of the ‘interesting work’ I’ve been doing, don’t you think I deserve it?”

X-Raytor didn’t say anything for a long time. Finally, he said, “Maybe everything you said is right. Maybe we are doing more harm then good. But these people you’re talking about, these future Ubermensch, I hang out with them everyday. You know, exactly, jacks***. You can spew your theories and your psychology speak all you want, but when you get right down to it, you don’t know s***. You’re trying to analyze us as a hive mind, you idiot. You’re trying to analyze behavioral patterns like we’re- I don’t know, animals or something. We’re people, you douche bag. What you say for me isn’t going to be true for, like, Twisk. What you say for Twisk isn’t going to be true for Oreo. And that is why your book, and you, are full of s***.”

“Is that all, X-Raytor?” Dr. Lansky asked.

“Yeah, I’d say it is.” X-Raytor said. “This is going to be my last session, Doc. I think that goes for my teammates as well.”

Dr. Lansky blinked. “What…? But, wait, I already told you, I didn’t break doctor-patient-“

“Oh yeah?” X-Raytor said. “Oh yeah?! Well listen to me, you little head-shrinking scrote: you royally f***ed us over so that you could get a bigger office and your face on the cover of Time. We are going to be dealing with this s*** for the next few months, probably the next few years because of you. And if you think that we’re going to keep coming here, and keep giving you material for whatever else you have planned in that little rat brain of yours, then you can go f*** yourself.”

He dropped the book on Dr. Lansky’s desk, and then turned and walked to the door.

“Enjoy your fifteen minutes, Doc.” He slammed the door behind him.

***

“Man, can you believe all of this?” Someone was saying.

“I know. This book- you know, I’m not even sure what half of this means.”

“I’ll sum it up for you: the Justice League is in deep, deep s***.”

“Who talked to this Lansky guy?”

“Jim.”

“Jim Miller?”

“Yeah.”

“That a**hole.”

“Jim’s not too bad.”

“He gets a few front pages and an opinion piece and suddenly he’s f***ing Ben Urich.”

“Who?”

“Never mind.”

Seraphina stopped listening, and looked back at her copy of today’s issue. George White’s face, shrouded in his Typho mask, beamed up from the picture.

It was a pretty solid article. Great quotes from important people, great information, and relative impartiality. But there was something off about it, something that Sera couldn’t pinpoint, exactly. Maybe she was just being petty and jealous that she hadn’t gotten the story- though, really, she wouldn’t have done this story to save her life, with the amount of trouble it was going to cause. It was just her journalistic sixth sense going off, telling her that something was wrong.

She frowned, and looked back at her computer. The final copy of her zoning story was still up, even though tomorrow’s issue had been sent to the presses an hour ago. She looked back down at today’s issue.

“Something is seriously not right here,” she mumbled.

***

*Tweet-Tweet Twitter Cheep*

The few morning sparrows chirp from their perches high in the evergreens.

Breathe… measured, deep, and silent.

Thoughts congeal, temper, and blend. Too many thoughts.

His chest rises and falls quietly, his body otherwise motionless.

*Gurgle Swish Sloosh*

The stream flows, frigid water slipping past and mixing among rocks in turbulent eddies.

Focus on everything… and yet nothing… at the same time.

Distant places. Far, far away.

The corner of his mouth twitches ever so slightly at the thought.

*Crunch… Crunch… Crunch*

The fresh snow betrays the nimble footfalls of deer hooves.

Seek a stillness of your mind. Find your center.

Nameless faces. Beckoning. Calling. Pleading. Accusing. Cursing… Condemning… Damning!

Eyelids remain closed, but under the veil eyes begin to flutter.



*Bloop… …Bloop*

Melting ice coalesces into a drop on the underside of a coniferous pine needle… then falls down the distance to a small puddle cupped in the hollow of a dead tree trunk.

Shun all mental distractions. Ignore…

A myriad of outstretched hands reach out, groping for their victim. ”You… you did this! You took everything away! Now… we will take YOU!”

Isomorphix’s eyes shot open instantly with a sharp intake of icy air.

In front of him, snowflakes still fell gently to the ground. Trees still surrounded him. He still sat cross-legged in the ashen blanket that had covered this small clearing of forest. Everything was as it should have been.

Iso dropped his head in defeat, closing his eyes and letting out the long breath he had held. His meditation had broken. For the fifth time in a row.

For the better part of morning since the sun had risen, the swordsman had tried to quell the oncoming tide of memories. Glimpses. Emotions. Things his meditations had kept in check for a very long time. Locked away someplace where even he wouldn’t remember them.

This time, however, the surging flood seemed to be higher, coming down with an increasing furiousness. Or perhaps his armor was finally beginning to crack at the seams?

Caged demons, it seemed, had a bad habit of breaking free.

Resettling himself, Iso began his quiet meditation once more.


***

The Hall of Justice
Geauga County

Pinzz slammed the tabletop.

“I cannot believe this s**t! How much more %$&#ed up can you get?”

Twisk gave Pinzz a foul look as some of her orange juice sloshed onto the table.

“I mean, we go and look out for every one of their ungrateful asses and this is the thanks we get?”

“I vote this is the last time we send Pinzz to do any grocery shopping,” Crystal interjected, munching on a cheeto. “Snacks are good and all, but this is ridiculous. Are you finished with those eggs yet, X-y?”

The Justice League, with the exception of Oreo Avenger, Scarlett Fyre, Studmuffin, and Isomorphix, were all waking up for breakfast. A good number were already crowded in the kitchen. X-Raytor stood over the stove, frying whatever he could salvage from the perpetually scarce fridge. The gas supply was still on the fritz since repairs thus far had neglected that minor detail. So the superhero was forced to stare laser beams into the frying pan. Not that it didn’t work.

Pinzz, Twisk, Crystal, Netic, Drew, Midnight, Eric, and Ari sat around the table, exchanging comments as they waited for X-Raytor to finish making their meager meal. Except for Ari… she didn’t say much of anything at all. Her face still registered shock - the way it had been the night before when she saw Typho’s picture on the Ronny Rosewater show.

Right-Wing Man sat in a chair at the far corner of the kitchen, a copy of Man and the Super Man that X-y had picked up from the Little Professor Book Shoppe in his hands. Whether or not that was advisable was another matter. Only Midnight Chatter could outclass the fanatical superhero’s banter when he got motivated.

“First, that Seppanen freak. Now the entire frikkin media!” Pinzz continued, despite the interruption. “You give in just a little, and look where it gets you! Here!”

She didn’t say it in so many words, but the comment was directed towards X-Raytor.

Before any chance for argument could arise, however, a brown-haired girl still clad in her pajamas walked into the kitchen through the cupboards.

“You know, I had the weirdest dream last night,” she said while suppressing a yawn. “I dreamt that instead of playing Princess Maker 2, I was watching TV. And everyone was…”

Raven’s voice trailed off as she looked at the book in Right-Wing Man’s hands.

“Oh.”

“I can’t believe they hate me. Why would they hate me? I don’t even have a super power! I mean, not like the rest of you do.” Drew whined.

“Oh, get over it. Your brain is too big for your own good.” Netic scolded.

Pinzz looked annoyed that her rant had been cut into again, but droned on just the same.

“Sometimes I wonder why the hell I even came back,” she started, slipping a cheeto under the table to Ferdy. But before the puppy could get at the cheesy morsel, a llama intercepted the bite and swallowed it whole.

“Goddamnit, Xiao! Get that stupid furball out of here or I’ll make him regret it!”

Ari didn’t seem to notice. Neomatrix/Fred Jr. only bleated in his defense.


*****************************

The Pentagon
District of Colombia

The clicking of polished boots echoed off of the linoleum.

“I just don’t believe it to be prudent to assume such data is inexorably irrelevant.”

“I do realize your concern, however the NSA has already ruled out the option of…”

The two men in military uniforms disappeared around the bend, their voices and clicking heels fading along with them.

Everything in the hallway was normal. Everything, except for the one ceiling tile slipping back over its neighbors.

TWACK!

The nearest security camera’s lens was suddenly masked by what appeared to be a glob of duct tape.

A stealthy figure dropped from above, crouching on the floor for a mere moment before running up and flattening itself against the wall. A head slowly peered into the next corridor.

No one. Swiveling to look down the other end of the hallway there was - no one.

The figure’s stance grew more relaxed, and it looked down at its wrist, making a few adjustments to the device strapped there.

Suddenly, the sound of rickety wheels against linoleum from behind! The profile immediately tensed up, looking behind. The sound was getting louder. Looking for escape, the figure glanced into the next hallway. The two officers now occupied the once empty corridor. And they were coming down in that very direction!

The intruder surveyed the surroundings. No windows!

The squeaking of un-greased wheels grew louder still. The conversation became more audible. They were closing in from both directions!

A hand quickly grabbed at the door handle to the nearest room. It didn’t budge. Locked. The next room… locked. No time! They would be here any...

“I’m not arguing with you there, it’s just that someone needed to say it.”

“Of course, Colonel.”

The two military officers and the janitor wheeling his cart walked right past each other. Soon, the officers were out of eyesight. The man in the gray coveralls stopped there, however. He wore a simple nameplate on the upper left corner of his chest that read “Costanza, Richard.” The janitor drew a ring of keys, and after thumbing through them for a moment, managed to get the right one. He unlocked the door and slipped inside with his cart full of cleaners.

The figure watched from overhead, where a body lay on the ceiling as if gravity didn’t differentiate it from the floor.


***


“Anyway, since I’m here I can share my unlimited wisdom, ‘cause the rest of you’d be hopeless without me,” Pinzz continued.

More than one pair of eyes rolled at that.

“So I say screw them. Screw them all. And especially screw that no-good double crossing little s**t, Typho!”

This time, Ari did flinch.

“If that slimy little f*** so much as comes within my sight, I swear I’ll… I’ll…”

Pinzz was fuming far too much for words, so the sentence hung.

“I always knew that Lansky was trouble,” Raven added, taking a seat. “Who is he to tell ME I have a problem??”

She had her own reasons for not liking Lansky. The last time she had a therapeutic session with the man, she had to break free with the help of her fellow inmates Yago, Holden, and Liesa.

X-Raytor flipped the eggs.

“Oh man, I’ve got a major case of the munchies. What’s cooking dudes and dudettes?”

Jo Surf came in through the doorway, patting his stomach. Violet wasn’t too far behind.

Although, the Violet Princess didn’t look much like a princess at the moment. In fact, she looked terrible. Her hair was in disarray and her eyes looked like the wrong side of bleary at best.

“You okay?” Twisk asked.

“Oh, um, yeah… I’m fine,” Violet stammered weakly. “Just... you know… couldn’t get any sleep.”

“Sleep? Why couldn’t you get any sleep? Is it because you didn’t go to bed? Well, I didn’t go to bed. I was watching TV all night. TV does that. But then so does tea. Like that herbal tea from the yacht. Good stuff. Especially to keep you up all night. But you don’t need that. What you need is…”

“… rip his throat out… stuff the llama up his…”

“… sure you’re okay…”

“… you seen Rosma around…”

“… not since she got that phone call…”

“… do too have a big brain…”

“… the hell, X-y, where are my EGGS?!”

The smell of charcoal had replaced that of simmering food. X-Raytor displayed the burnt contents of the frying pan with a sheepish shrug.

“Heh heh… Oops?”

A series of groans erupted from the table.

“That’s it! I’m going to IHOP for breakfast!” Crystal declared, getting up from her chair. “Twisk! Get the keys to the van; you’re coming with me! Anyone else who wants to get some real food, feel free to tag along!”


***


Richard Costanza whistled while he worked. It was a good way to pass the time, especially when mopping. Mopping always seemed to take forever. Then again, most janitorial work did. No, not janitorial work. He wasn’t just a janitor the man reminded himself. He was a Sanitary Control Specialist. Or at least that’s what it said on his paycheck.

The footsteps were too stealthy for normal ears, and the janitor continued to whistle and work obliviously.

And how many janitors have security clearance? Hah! he thought. He was, no doubt, the envy of Sanitary Control Specialists everywhere.

The footsteps had stopped now, and the janitor was beginning to feel as if something wasn’t quite right. He couldn’t place his finger on it, but…

Something tapped his shoulder. The man spun around and his eyes grew wide.

“Oh my God. You… you’re the… mmmpphhh!!!”

A few minutes later, a shadowy silhouette passed over the prone form of Mr. Costanza - pinned to the wall with a liberal amount of adhesive.

A figure in gray coveralls emerged from the room, locking the door behind. Pushing the cart along, the fake janitor made way towards the elevators.

Ding!

The doors slid open, and a secretary stepped out. The figure lowered its head and pulled the gray cap further down over its brow. Wheeling the cart into the elevator, a finger pressed the button for the appropriate floor.

Ding!

Stepping out, the impersonating janitor passed a gaggle of military personnel with impunity. The gray coverall-clad figure wheeled the cart for a few more minutes. When it stopped, a large set of double doors reading “RESTRICTED: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” stood in front.

TWACK! TWACK!

Two more security cameras were robbed of their sight.

Slipping a hand underneath the coveralls, the figure reached into the pocket of a utility belt before fishing out a small pouch of powder. The infiltrator poured some into the palm of the hand and gently blew the fine particles over the keypad. Slowly, fingerprints began to appear on selected keys. The figure made the appropriate keystrokes. There was an audible CLICK as the doors unlocked. Quickly, the silhouette slipped inside.

Inside, the corridor continued for a short distance and then came to a dead end. On either side, however, were a series of doors. The figure stepped forward and began to open the second door to the right when a voice rung out from behind.

“You! Stop right there! How did you get down here? This is a restricted area!”

The fake janitor slowly turned around. A security guard was standing with his hands on his hips. He must have came from one of the other rooms. Slowly, menacingly, the figure raised its head, allowing light to spill over its face. And just as menacingly, pulled the cap off - to reveal the visage completely. The security guards eyes grew wide, and he reached for his pistol.

Before the guard’s hands could even reach the holster, the silhouette extended a hand and a long ribbon shot out from the wrist. The sticky substance hit the man head on, slamming him into the wall. The gluey streamer kept pouring onto him until it enveloped his entire body - mummifying him. The outline of the guard struggled underneath, but to no avail. It wasn’t long until his movements stilled.

The figure quickly made its way into the room. It was only a matter of time before the janitor and the guard were discovered.

It was a small private office and in the far corner was a computer on a desk. Taking a seat behind the keyboard, the figure looked into the monitor. There was a royal blue background with an eagle holding an olive branch and a set of arrows. The words “Department of Defense” curved around the emblem. In the center was a login request for a username and password.

Reaching into the utility belt, the mysterious intruder pulled out a small electronic device and plugged it into the CPU. Pressing a button, characters began to whiz by on the display like a slot machine. One by one, another character came to a stop until the requested parameter was deciphered. The monitor flashed and an “ACCESS GRANTED” appeared on the screen.

Quickly, fingers flew over the keyboard in a flurry. A few folders popped up, and then the screen went black. Lime green text read:


M.O.R.P.H.Z.
Interactive Information System

Acquiring Network… Stand by.



Suddenly, a similar black-and-green themed desktop with a number of icons popped up. The mouse ran up over an icon and clicked. A list dropped down. Another click. A few windows opened. They held pictures, serial numbers, and vital information - profiles. The uppermost window read “Motorelli, Vinnie” in the top left corner. Another read “Sanchez, Stan.”

The dark silhouette felt a wicked grin spread across her face.


***


In the small clearing of forest, snowflakes fell to fill in the soft depression left by a visitor departed.

Audible footsteps in the snow made their way towards the vehicle propped against the coniferous tree. A hand brushed away the fluffy white material from the seat, and the sound of an engine gunned to life.

Somewhere further down the road, a driver sat behind the wheel of an eighteen-wheeler, listening to the strings of country music.

The small engine revved again and again, and then the bike jumped forward from the forested off-road back onto the asphalt. Isomorphix’s grip was relaxed, his eyes cold as flint once more.

The truck turned around a bend, entering the forested area of road.

The Moped of Justice sped forward.

Maybe it was the sharp turn in the icy road. Maybe it was because the truck’s headlights were off. Maybe the driver was too engrossed in the song on the radio. Or maybe it was just fate.

Either way, the truck sped around the bend, tapping his steering wheel in tune to the music - completely oblivious to the small vehicle in front of him. Isomorphix quickly swerved the moped away from the oncoming gargantuan, but it was too late. The bumper caught the rear wheel of the moped, flipping it end over end into the air.

The moped fell into the underbrush and Isomorphix slammed headfirst into a tree.

Everything went black.