JUSTICE LEAGUE

51

Aftermath
 

Eyes groggily opened to a hazed view. He was breathing sluggishly, yet he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. The cool air only made the cold sweat on his skin seem clammier than it actually was. Something cold and hard supported his back. The man squeezed his eyes shut for a moment to relieve the disorientation and then opened them again.

An old, disheveled brick wall stared back at him. A rusty, green “No Parking” sign looked like it was about ready to fall off. To his right, a sickly-brown dumpster loomed above. To his left was a pair of steel-gray trashcans and a boarded up wooden fence blocking the way beyond. Below, loose sheets of magazines and copies of The Sentinel were strewn about in puddles of stagnant water that had accumulated in the broken chunks of asphalt. Empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts had also taken up residence on the tarmac. He was slumped against a wall similar to the one in front of him. He smelled filthy and he had no clue where he was.

Was I drunk?

The man carefully picked himself off the ground, a steady pounding in his head threatening to make him stumble. Looking up over the dumpster, he saw that he was in a dark alley. Streetlight was pooling in from the road beyond the narrow corridor. The light caught on something familiar next to him. It looked like a…

Moped. It was propped up against the wall. And a sheathed sword.

Ugh, he thought, as it suddenly all came back to him.

For the last few weeks since he had pulled himself out of a ditch with nothing but a small motorbike and a Japanese sword, he had no idea of who he was. No identification on himself - nothing. It was like he was some sort of hermit.

And so he had spent the last few weeks wandering aimlessly in an effort to remember. So far, it had been in vain. He had only learned that he was in a place called Lowell County on the eastern side of New Jersey. The little loose cash he had in his pockets was spent on food… there wasn’t enough to pay for a place to stay. Thus, his current predicament.

He shook his head as if to will the headache away, and moved to grab the sword. He wrapped it up in his trenchcoat; as such a thing was better left out of sight - especially since he himself didn’t know what he was doing with it. Securing the baggage to the moped, he slowly ushered the dysfunctional vehicle out into the street.

The man continued down the street in the dark of the night, without any real idea of where to go. A few shops had their lights on, but other than that, there was little traffic outside.

“… recent outbreak of violence, dozens have been reported wounded - several in critical condition. Law enforcement officials… “

One of shops along the sidewalk featured a number of TV’s in a glass display, all broadcasting the same news report. On the screens, police in riot gear were attempting to hold back a sea of protesters with their shields while others shot canisters of tear gas into the thick mob. Another shot caught a woman being loaded onto a stretcher, blood staining her forehead.

The man was just about to pass by when the camera shot switched angles again. He wasn’t exactly sure what caught his eye, but he stopped for a moment longer to take a look. In the center of the screen, hastily zoomed from a distant location, was what looked like a llama. It dangled in midair, a noose barely visible around its furry neck. A figure with a large stick appeared to be beating the animal again and again, amid the cheers of a large horde of people. He was pretty sure the creature’s belly had burst, the intestines dangling from its ruptured abdomen.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the grotesque center scene that had taken his notice. In fact, it was a subtle figure at the edge of the crowd, barely discernable by the camera. He - or she - was completely blue save for a head of wavy brown hair. There was something familiar about that person… he was pretty sure…

He was standing in a grassy meadow. The sun was shining brightly overhead, the leaves in the breeze causing patterns of light to sway over the tall grass. Across from him, stood his opponent.

She was dressed in tight, black leather with long boots and gloves to match. The only visible part of her body was her face, where the tanned olive skin peeked out from underneath the body-glove. Her eyes had an exotic quality to them, and she wore her hair up in a tight ponytail that fell down her back and still made it to her waist.

She also had a large claymore slung across her back.

Suddenly, it was off her back and slicing through the air towards him. She moved very fast for a woman wielding such a large weapon. Just as quickly, he saw his own familiar blade intercept the claymore and hold it at bay, sparks issuing forth from the grinding edges.

There was a kick somewhere. A push, and then more clashes of swords. It was starting to get blurry. Then there was someone asking if they were going to tango all day or join the picnic.

She was blue. She had wavy brown hair. Sarcasm written all over her face. There were others…


The man found himself staring at the TV display, which now boasted a PowersCo logo, promising to bring tomorrow, today.

Whoever that person was at City Hall in the news report was someone he remembered. The only clue he had gotten was weeks ago, in which he remembered some disembodied voice telling him to practice harder. This one was far more informative. Whoever that person was, he needed to find her.

***

Ewan McGregor woke up in a coal-black room, his arms and legs lashed to an expensive leather chair, the sort of chair one can always find behind a CEO's polished hardwood desk. He wasn't blind-folded, but without even a crack of light shining through the door, he didn't need to be.

"Where am I?" he asked, unable to use the Force to sense anyone's presence since he wasn't in a Star Wars movie at the moment.

A door creaked open briefly, but he heard nothing beyond that.

"Who are you?" Almost immediately, something landed on his lap, and started to walk on him. Ewan instinctively tried to back away, and the chair tilted. For a second, he thought it was going to tip over, but it held him in a strange limbo, the thing still on his chest. "Wha..."

"Meow."

Ewan could hear the accusing tone, and the voice was familiar, but he couldn't place it, not yet. "Who are you? What do you want?"

"Merrrooow."

"Hamlet? Where's Scarlett? She's not trying to save me, is she? Do you know who's got me trapped in here?"

"Meow! Myow mrow meeow."

"No, I didn't! I've been working on movies non-stop since the fiasco at the Oscars! I didn't even have time for that part in Harry Potter!" He tried to tilt the chair back up, but with Hamlet sitting on top of him, he couldn't.

"Mrrreow!"

"A Jedi uses his knowledge for defense, never for attack! All you need is love!"

"Meow?"

"There comes a point when any reasonable man will swallow his pride and admit he made a mistake. The truth is... I was never a reasonable man!"

"Meeryow."

"I'm not just quoting from my movies! I swear I didn't kill those people, and I haven't seen Scarlett in over a year and a half! Not since before the Oscars!"

"Mrryow," Hamlet said, swiping his claws. Ewan yelped in surprise.

"Aaaargh! I have a wife and two kids, I can't remember everyone's birthdays! My secretary was supposed to send a card!"

Blood steeped up from the thin lines Hamlet had slashed on Ewan's cheek. "Myoww," Hamlet said with satisfaction.

"Look, what do you want with me? I'm sorry I haven't had anything to do with Scarlett for so long, but if you want the truth, when she didn't show up at the Oscars I assumed she was tired of me."

"Meoww."

He sighed. Bloody drops had begun to run down his cheek. "If I'd thought any different, I wouldn't have buried myself in my work. I wouldn't have hidden from her."

"Meeyow," Hamlet said, jumping back onto the floor.

"You can't keep me in here! You have to believe me, I didn't do anything!"

The door creaked shut, and Ewan was left in caliginosity.

******Back in the City******

"No, I don't feel like coming in to the station," Saph said to the woman on the other end of the phone. "I don't see how it would do any good--no, I didn't have any contact with him since I returned from overseas. No." She sighed, and, still holding the phone, got up out of the tub and wrapped herself in a towel as she padded over to her closet.

Blue dresses, blue skirts, blue shirts and jackets and shoes, all in a variety of shades, from sky blue to indigos and navys. At the far end, though, hung several deep red dresses, a couple of violet ones, and even a black one. She reached for something blue first, but thought better of it and went for the red.

"To be honest, Phabio and I didn't part on such good terms when I left for Europe, Detective Quick," she said as she rummaged through her drawers for underwear, finally deciding on light blue silk.

Now would come the interesting part: getting a bra on while maintaining the conversation. Normally she'd just wait until she was done with the call, but she didn't have time tonight.

"That's right, Detective. No, he probably tried to call me, but I never spoke to him." She snapped the back straps of the bra together so she could put it on more like a t-shirt, instead of having to twist it around. She lifted it over her head, pulling it down to her chest; now all she had to do was get her arms through the straps. Cradling the phone to her ear with her right shoulder, she slid the left strap over her left arm, and then swapped the phone to the other side and repeated the process.

"Well, we had an argument. I found out he was seeing my twin sist--yes, I told him we were through and I didn't want to talk to him...well. I don't know. But I hope he didn't kill himself because I broke things off with him. That'd be horrible." She grabbed a brush and began brushing out her hair, finally its natural corn color once more.

"Of course, Detective. If I think of anything I'll call you immediately. Give my regards to his family." She hung up, and hurried to finish getting ready.

Ten minutes later, hair dry and clothes on, Saph put on a pair of red heels and started out the door. She made it halfway down the hall of the apartment before she realized she'd forgotten her cloak. She threw open the closet and grabbed the floor length hooded cloak, donning it so she was now enveloped in dark blue.

***

"Go fish," Oreo Avenger said, holding her cards close.

Elisabeth Hawkins, mother of two and self-proclaimed card shark, gave her a raptor smile and picked the top card off the pile.

"Ha!" she said, laying down her last cards. "I win."

Jim Buyers, Elisabeth's current boyfriend and the reason he was out tonight, started shuffling the cards. "Should we play again?"

The three of them sat outside Dr. Pratchett's office, waiting for news of William's hand. Those two were the last of the mob, the others wandering off home as the night progressed. Right-Wing Man stood to the side, watching the streets for trouble. The streets in this part of the city were quiet, but they could hear the roar of the riot in the city beyond.

Oreo glanced at Right-Wing Man's tapping foot. "It sounds bad out there. We'd better go. Let us know about Willie's hand."

"We'll do that," Jim said.

Elisabeth waved. "Goodbye, Anne!"

***

An hour later, Violet was dealing with the last of the museum perpetrators. She had managed to calm several; others she threatened with illusions. Most of them, fortunately were uninjured-although one man had attempted to lift a mace in the Medieval Weaponry exhibit and promptly failed; the heavy weapon landed on his foot.

“I hope you are proud of yourself,” Violet said, lugging a teenager toward the group of protestors she had trapped in the Kiddy Museum behind the illusion of a fence. “That was a priceless Tiki.”

The teen mumbled an apology. Violet sighed and pushed him into the Kiddy Museum. Several of the other protestors were nursing wounds, or rather, whining about scrapes and bruises. Someone muttered something about calling his lawyer. Violet stood with her arms crossed at the entrance, a wide doorway with a planet mobile hanging overhead.

“So, um, are you going to beat us up or something?” someone in the back said.

“No.” Violet rolled her eyes.

“Are you going to arrest us?”

“No.”

“But we broke into a Museum and trashed valuable art.”

“You ruined three paintings, one of which was a fake. Luckily, none of the statues were broken. Anything that was broken will be paid for with your tax money. Do you want me to arrest you, too? Because I can drop you off at the police station right now.”

There were various, ‘No’s.

“Good. Now go home. Don’t cause any more trouble or my partner and I will arrest you, regardless as to what your lawyer says.” Violet glared pointedly at the guy on his cell phone who had claimed to be calling his lawyer.

For a moment, no one moved.

“You’re not arresting us because the police officers would rather arrest you,” a young woman standing near Violet spat. She had bright green hair and wore a dog collar around her neck. “You can’t even do anything beside magic tricks. Where’s the other zero, huh?”

Violet seethed. Slowly, the illusions she had been holding dissolved. There was a trail of blood across the tile where the injured man had limped. Violet had intended on taking him to the hospital once the crowd had disbanded. He was lying on a marble bench, moaning. Only now, Violet realized just how much blood he had lost-the protestors noticed the same thing.

“She’s letting him bleed to death!” the green-haired woman shouted.

“I’m not!” The illusion snapped back into place.

“She’s hiding the truth from us! She tried to prevent us from seeing what a monster she is!” a second woman shouted.

“I didn’t want you to panic!” Violet faltered. The crowd was gaining gall. They didn’t fear her any longer. In any moment, they’d-

“HRRRRRMMMMPPP!” Scarlett trumpeted as she joined Violet in the Kiddy Museum. Violet heaved a sigh of relief and let the mirages go. There was no use in keeping them up, anyway.

< Looks like you could use some help. >

“What took you so long?” Violet whispered. “I thought they were going to attack me.”

< I had to see a man about a book. > the elephant said as she moved in front of the crowd. < Alright, you guys, listen up! You, > Scarlett said for everyone to hear. She pointed her trunk at the guy with the cell phone, < Stop talking to your lawyer and call an ambulance. > Shaking, he did as he was told. The rest of the crowd backed away from the elephant.

***

Studmuffin unceremoniously dumped Fred/Xiao in a heap on the Justice Hall front steps, and pulled open the door.

"There doesn't appear to be any criminal activity afoot," he reported, turning back to them, after a momentary sweep.

"Oh good," Fred said, standing and massaging his sore muscles. Having a body was so...demanding. "Can I go puke now?"

"Sure, go ahead," Studmuffin stood aside and Fred went to the Justice John. He wasn't really sick, per se, but there was a certain enslaved slave that needed to be taught a lesson or four. Not to mention he had a part to play to keep up appearances: the nauseous ninny. He shut the door carefully, and locked it. Then he turned inwards for a conversation with his inner chi-er, slave.

Behavior of this sort is the kind that brought you to this point, Slave, Fred growled. Ari said nothing, and Fred bristled more, at her insolence. The more you act like this, the less likely your freedom...

That got a rise out of her. Freedom? That's a laugh! You shadowing me all the time-pun not intended-and, and, controlling me, and hogging my body! Even when I wasn't a prisoner in my own mind you were unbearable!

Hogging? Hogging? You had it long enough before I came along! Fred reasoned. We had an agreement-

Some agreement. "Join me or suffer terribly then die" isn't much of a choice, is it? Ari grouched.

I thought it worked quite nicely. Fred paused. I've been more than reasonable with you…of course, I could break your puny, inferior soul into teeny weeny pieces-

“Teeny weeny?” That’s the kind of phrases they teach you?

-teeny weeny pieces, if that would please you, Fred continued, nonplussed, but it would rather wreck my schemes. A body needs a soul- a real soul, not just a…copy of one- to function. If I destroyed you I would have to start all over again.

Oh, goody. At least I would manage to inconvenience you a bit.

So, I must be…lenient…with you. Fred changed his tone, realizing that, unfortunately, torture was out of the question for once. Perhaps...a gift would be in order...

Say what? Ari asked, suddenly alert.

You remember the Oscars, don't you, Slave? Fred purred.

She was unaware if the sudden visions she was seeing of herself were from Fred or merely her imagination. The rush, the euphoria that came...losing yourself, even like this, was nothing, for that. Unconsciously, she was reliving the moment at the Oscars, the instant she had allowed Fred to boost her with his supernatural abilities. It was like some sort of super insane caffeine high. God, she would give herself up to Fred for a week for that again! The intense power...

Of course you remember, Fred said, and she could almost sense the wicked smile that would be crossing his lips, if she could see him. In the bathroom mirror, she could see a slightly less eerie version of his smirk on her own face.

But still.... Fred had control of her regardless. What could surrendering hurt? Things couldn't get any worse. She might as well give in to him.... There was no reason to hold on, to fight. Giving in was the only solution.

Fred...can't we...go back to the way things were? She pleaded again, and then added hurriedly You could take over whenever you wanted--I won't resist! I can't go on like this!

Fred was silent, whether stubbornly or thinking, she didn't know. For a moment she was quiet, too, and then she began imploring him, hysterically, for her freedom. Please...I won't mess up, Fred. I...I can follow your orders, I can, Fred. You call the shots, I follow them, right? Right? Ari repeated several times, wondering if her cries were falling on indifferent ears. Evil Kings were like that sometimes. But he surprised her when he answered. He sounded pleased with himself. Normally, she would be suspicious, but now...she was going insane, stuck in a dungeon in her mind.

Very well, Slave. I will allow you your freedom once more. Now you know what awaits you if you disappoint me. From now on, perhaps I won't have to repeat myself twice when I want something done? Ari was silent. Good...Now then, Slave. There is something important that you need to do for me...

There was a knock on the door. "Hey, Xiao, I was just talking to Drew, and I thought I'd see if you were okay." Studmuffin called.

"I'm fine," She answered, exercising her jaws, vocal cords, and all the wonderful muscles that went into making sounds, hoping that the garbling of her words would go unnoticed. "Really... I'm fine."

***

That was the problem with aliens-you never knew when you found one.

It was their own damn fault, really. Always changing shapes, always “morphing,” always doing that weird alien s***, and then not giving any sign that they weren’t just an animal.

She winced. Somewhere in her memory was a dim voice, speaking in her mind, louder than her own thoughts. No, no, she was imagining things. The alien hadn’t said anything, he’d just let himself be killed.

A llama. Damn it, a llama. Hurting an animal, that would have made her feel guilty, like that time she’d run over a stray cat, just because the stupid thing wouldn’t get out of the damn road. So if it had been a real llama, yeah, she would be feeling a bit guilty now, a little sorry that a stupid animal needed to be sacrificed to the overall cause.

But now that she knew that it was an alien-and she did remember when that alien had joined the Justice League, and the conspiracy theories (always from the real psychos, her friends who thought that Andalites were controlling the government)-it wasn’t guilt, but an absolute and total feeling of oh-f***-itude. An alien. A sentient being. She could get the death penalty for this, with the f***ing Jolphimee Celpik Law (which, yeah, she’d supported back until she’d been guilty of it-Hork-Bajir have rights too; US citizenship for resident Hork-Bajir, damn it). She was so royally and unbelievably f***ed…

She slowed down when she realized that they alley was a dead end. Breathing heavily, she bent over, clutching her knees.

“Okay, okay, all right,” she said. “Okay. You f***ed up. You f***ed up real bad. But you’re not f***ed just yet. You’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna get out of this. You’re not gonna get the death penalty. That- no, that doesn’t happen. No. Just gotta calm down and- and think about this.”

The hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention, and it was then that she realized she wasn’t alone. There was someone in the shadows ahead, at the dead end.

“Wh- who’s there?” She called. “Come on, I’m done, okay? I just- I don’t want any trouble.”

“Oh, believe me, you’re done.”

A single blue tendril shot from the shadows and wrapped around her neck. Her windpipe snapped shut, an unarticulated scream running up against the closed passage. She clawed at the tendril, but it held firm.

“Did you think you could just run away? Did you think we’d just let this go?” The voice from the shadows asked.

There were black stars exploding behind her eyes now, and a dull, but insistent, ache began in the center of her skull. She felt her knees buckle.

“Vermin.” Her attacker said, and the tendril tightened. She fell to her knees, and it was only then that she began to claw at it, tried to pry it from her throat. Already her fingertips were numb and ghostly. Her hands felt too heavy; her entire body felt too heavy. No. No. No. No.

“And this,” her attacker said, “this is just the beginning. Believe me, girly, you’re just the first in line. What I don’t get is why you insisted on jumping ahead.”

And now she knew that she was dead, and that just made the fear and desperation worse. It couldn’t end like this, it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, it couldn’t-

As her vision began to blur and fluctuate with dark spots, she finally saw her attacker. Her skin was blue and smooth. The tendril was her right index finger, stretched out like a rubber band. There was red hair growing from her blue scalp.

She knew who this blue girl was, knew her, knew the name was somewhere deep in her failing mind, somewhere, maybe, among the brain cells that had already gone dark from lack of oxygen. Was she one of them? Whoever they were. Or was she some sort of… was she an alien? Maybe, but that didn’t quite feel right…

But an alien made sense… right? Because she’d… an alien…

And as her heart pumped slower and slower, and black finally washed over her mind and eyes, she held onto one final thought:

That was the problem with aliens-you never knew when you found one…

***

By dawn, the riots were mostly under control. The violence and alcohol and adrenaline had run thin, and eventually most of the rioters-anti-Justice League or otherwise-had given up, and either gone home or to jail. The world seemed to be on hold-it was silently agreed throughout the City that today was going to be a universal day off.

X-Raytor was sitting on the sidewalk on South 73rd Street, a few blocks from where Central City became South Side, his back against one of a row of brownstone row houses. His eyes were closed, and he was slowly, secretly slipping off to sleep, pretending that he was remaining alert. He hadn’t slept in the past twenty-four hours, to tell the truth. Or something like that. He could calculate exactly how long it had been, if his brain didn’t keep slipping off into that dark, quiet place…

Julian, on the other hand, was fully awake. He’d gotten tired a few times earlier in the night, while they waited for a few mobs to do something.

“Why can’t we just jump ‘em now?” He’d asked.

“We can’t do anything until they do something illegal. Right now they’re just walking around and muttering.” X-Raytor had become much more talkative after their confrontation in the alley; like now he had to be Julian’s daddy just because he’d screwed up before (“screwed up” meaning he’d saved X-y’s ass and gotten no appreciation). The asshole.

Now he was just restless. The riots were pretty much over, from the looks of it. He’d only gotten to use his powers a few times, and only in small doses, so that he wouldn’t have to hear anymore of X-Raytor’s s***.

Can’t believe I ever respected that guy…

So it had been just little bursts, little shockwaves to send rioters flying. He’d broken a few windows, too, but f*** if he was going to pay for them. He hadn’t even gotten to do his jump thing-when he jumped and then set off a little blast, propelling him upwards (he could also use it to cushion a fall, which he actually did do, once, the goddamn blurbs crapped out). He’d used that all the time back in baseball.

Baseball. The absolute only thing he missed about high school. He didn’t miss classes, he certainly didn’t miss his f***ing teachers. He didn’t miss his idiot friends-and they were idiots; stupid neo-Nazi wannabes, who only had the balls to occasionally break the windows of some nigger’s car. Idiots. Pussies. He didn’t miss all the bitches and sluts all the stupid little f***-machines who wouldn’t even look at him, because they were too busy getting skewered by some other pricks. Yeah, how would they like him now? They’d all be on their f***ing knees now, he could guarantee that…

Julian slammed a hand into his mask’s visor. “Stop it, okay? Just- stop it. You’re being dirty. You’re dirty. They’re all cunts, but you’re being dirty. They’ll f***ing get theirs anyway. All of them, every one of those stupid bitches will get what’s coming to them. Just stop. Stop.”

You’re dirty and worthless and you can’t even control your own f***ing urges. You’re dirty. Dirty.

All the time, his erection was pressing against the fabric of his costume, pushing the triangular piece of metal he had over his groin. The second he got back to the Hall, the f***ing second, he was locking himself in the bathroom (because Right Wing Man was always hanging around their room) and he was jerking off. He needed to clear his head, as well as-

“X-y? Quake? You guys there?”

Julian jumped, and then remembered the communicator built into his helmet. He reached up and tapped it. “’Sup. Warhead here.”

He grinned. Yeah, that’s right, bitches, I choose my own name.

“Okay, good. This is Rosma. Where’s X-y?”

Julian glanced over to where X-Raytor was sleeping, propped up against the rowhouse. “He’s here.”

“Good. How is it over there? Where are you guys?”

“We’re…” Julian glanced up at a nearby street sign. “We’re on 73rd. I think we’re almost in South Side. Yeah, we’re at 73rd and Statler, so we’re a little above South Side.”

“Okay. How is it?”

“All clear. Last time we saw anyone was, like, f***ing three hours ago.”

“Yeah, I think it’s mostly calmed down.” Pause. “Can I talk to X-y?”

“He’s, uh, he’s asleep.”

“He’s asleep?”

“Yeah.”

“… Good idea. Listen, I think we’re all going to head back to the Hall now. Do you guys need a lift?”

“Yeah, our blurbs died a while ago.”

“Okay, I’ll tell Drew to pick you guys up in the Van. 73rd and Statler?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Just hang tight ‘til then.”

“Sure. See you back there,” he said, and then pressed the communicator button. He had considered just saying “Whatever,” and then hanging up, but he had to stay cool, couldn’t lose his head. When they got back to the Hall, and X-Raytor started bitching about him in that completely indirect, non-confrontational way that X-Raytor bitched about anyone, Rosma would remember that Julian was awake and on top of things-and not at all acting like an immature little f***-- while X-Raytor was sleeping.

He tapped his foot, and looked around. How long would it take Drew to get here? Better not be too long, he had things to do (specifically spanking the monkey, but other stuff too). Why did Drew get to drive the Van, anyway? No one ever let him drive the Van. Drew. She was kind of annoying, mostly because she was always hanging around Netic. It made sense that cows would be in herds, yeah, but it still pissed him off. Netic wanted him so bad it wasn’t even funny-he could tell, he knew this sort of thing. He’d be in her pants right now, he was sure, if Drew wasn’t always there every time he tried to make a move. Actually, X-Raytor had messed him up the last time…

He looked over at X-Raytor and tried to keep his face neutral. No telling if the asshole was watching him with that weird x-ray vision, just so he could catch him making a mistake.

He’d dated Pinzz. He’d gone to the first social with her, and they’d been dating for a little before that. His f***ing hands had been on her, he was sure. He’d touched her. He’d-

Julian closed his eyes and felt the tiny ball underneath his chest compress and then explode outwards. The rowhouses shuddered as the shockwave smacked into them, and car alarms started to go off up and down the street. The blast was enough to make X-Raytor sit up suddenly, now fully awake.

Julian pretended not to notice that anything had happened, and remained turned away from X-Raytor. A grin spread across his face.

***

“Copy!”

“Somebody tell me what we decided the number of U’s is in John, Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!)’s name is?”

“Six. And the exclamation point goes inside the parentheses!”

“Anybody gotten through to Margo Westfall yet?”

“Get in line…”

Seraphina Braddock dropped her notebook on the desk. Carl Rosenberg glanced up. “Back?”

“I just spent eleven f***ing hours getting quotes from drunks, rowdies, and fat guys in costumes.”

“But you got the story?”

“I got the story,” she crossed over to one of the chairs against the office wall. “But I guess I’m a little late.”

“Not at all,” Carl said. “We don’t send this thing to press for another hour.”

“Are you serious?”

“It’s a weird situation all around. No one’s really going to notice if the paper’s late-especially if it gets them the full story. I bet there’s people out there that think it’s frigging World War III or something…”

Sera rolled her head, getting the kinks out of her neck. “Okay. I’ll write it the second my computer boots up.”

“Um, yeah, that’s the thing,” Carl said. “I gave the story to Jim.”

Sera cocked an eyebrow. “Jim Miller?”

“You know any other Jims here?”

“Yes.”

“But would I call any of them just ‘Jim’?”

“Okay. Can I ask why?”

“Because the last time I saw you was eleven hours ago.”

She sighed. “Okay, guess that makes sense. Want me to give him my quotes?”

“That would be great.”

She stood up and stretched. “Okay, so, what have I missed? Who’s hurt, who’s fine, who’s screwed?”

“Well, we haven’t gotten in touch with Margo Westfall yet-and believe me, I’ve had George White trying for the past six hours-but he talked to the mayor, and she was saying that Westfall acted ‘very irresponsibly’ or something, and there would be ‘legal repercussions.’ The guy who actually brought the dummy up on stage-“

“Tim Hall,” Sera said. “I talked to him a little before the demonstration started.”

“Excellent. Well, he’s in jail, they’ve got him on some sort of charge-inciting a riot or something. Turns out one of those anti-anti-Justice Leaguers beat him up real bad. Any chance you got to talk to any of them?”

“Yeah. They call themselves the ‘Justice League Support Army.’ I heard about someone called ‘the Leader,’ but from what I’ve heard she split after the riots. The police told me this guy named Mark- just Mark, they wouldn’t give me the last name- was cooperating with them and helping to calm down the JLSA people.”

“Okay. Did you hear about Neomatrix?”

“What about Neomatrix?”

“He got strung up and beaten to death outside of City Hall.”

Sera’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?”

“Yep.”

“Right outside of City Hall?”

“Apparently they restrained two of the security guards in the lobby. Like they weren’t in enough trouble.”

“They killed someone?”

“From what I heard, they thought he was a mascot. Guess they didn’t read… whoever’s piece that was.”

“So- what?”

“Most of them got arrested- I think it’s Twisk who got them-but the one who actually hung him, some girl who they won’t give the name to, she hasn’t shown up yet.”

“What are they being charged with?”

“Well, with the Jolphimee Celpik Law, it’s murder. The girl, if they ever find her, she’ll probably get the death penalty, but I don’t know about the rest of them. Usually they just hand these things off to the victim’s specie’s embassy, but this Neomatrix guy… I don’t know, he might have been the only one left.”

“So not only is it murder,” Sera said, “it’s causing an extinction.”

“Yeah.”

“This is, officially, the s***tiest situation I have ever seen.”

“Have you looked at the entire world lately?”

“How about the Justice League, what’s going on with them?”

“Well, Sera, that’s what I need you to find out.”

Sera stopped massaging her temples and stared at Carl.

“You’ve talked to them before,” he said. “You have a rapport.”

“I get to sleep first, right?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m sure if you go over there now, they’ll slam the door in your face.”

“Yeah. So… is this features?”

“Yeah, pretty much. I’ve got Rosalita doing the actual story for Neomatrix’s murder, so this is just reactions. And you know, you absolutely know that by tomorrow every rag in this city will be calling them fascists. So get some quotes about Neomatrix, about the riots, and just the overall climate. It’ll be the front page of the Life section tomorrow, guaranteed.”

“Okay, all right, I just need a nap first,” she said, standing up. “I’ll give Jim my quotes.”

“Thanks. Get some rest, and then try to get over there by early afternoon.”

“Can do.”

Sera left the office, heading across the newsroom towards Jim Miller’s cubicle. She couldn’t suppress a small, if somewhat cruel, smile.

Well, Mr. X-Raytor, looks like our paths are going to be crossing yet again…

***

BeeeeEEEEEEEEeeeeeepp!

The amnesia-ridden man felt a sigh go through him. That was the third car in a row! And it didn’t have to blow its horn as it sped past, either…

He was running out of options. There wasn’t a taxi in sight and no one seemed to want to give a hitchhiker a lift. He couldn’t just pedal the moped down to the City from here… the map made that painfully obvious. By the time he’d get there, everyone would be long gone. Heck, at this rate, they’d be long gone anyway.

He leaned back against a tree, the bark feeling rough through his clothes. It was getting lighter out, the sunrise penetrating the darkness above. His attention turned back to the young woman in the news report.

Who was she? And what was with that blue skin? Despite being an amnesiac, he knew that people did not have blue skin. Eyes? Sure. Hair? Dyed, of course. But skin?

Maybe it was body paint, he thought dully.

No, in the memory it didn’t look like paint at all. More like some liquid metallic… thing. But if he saw her before, he must have known her. Unless his mind was playing tricks on him.

Hmm… blue skin. Maybe she’s some kind of alien. Or superhero…

Superhero. The concept seemed to sit well with him for some reason, despite its absurdity.

The rumble of an engine snapped him out of his funk. Across the street, the morning bus came to a stop. Several people got off. The man quickly rummaged through the map, looking for the local bus routes.

M-25, Lowell County Park…

M-26, Bailey’s Circle…

M-27, DuPonte’s Crossing…

M-28, Liberty Square…

He quickly looked up at the bus. The digital display above the windshield read M-28 in bright lights.

“Thank God!” he cried half-exasperated. Finally, some luck! He quickly picked up his trenchcoat-packaged sword - he’d have to ditch the moped - and made for the bus. Stepping aboard, he rummaged through his pockets for some change. He pushed the quarters into the slot and quickly took a seat. There weren’t many people on the bus, just an elderly couple in the back and a guy in a business suit. Good… that meant that there would be less stops between here and the City.

The bus started moving again, and the man settled back into the cushioned seat. Even if he found the alien/monster/superhuman girl, what would he say? “Oh, hey, I don’t know who I am so I was kinda hoping you’d tell me?” He smirked at the thought. The gesture felt odd on his lips, as if it took effort to strain the muscles into a smile.

That’s when everything turned upside down. The bus lurched forward and then tipped over completely, glass shattering and sparks flying as the bus skidded across the road on its roof. The amnesiac was thrown from his seat. He caught a quick glimpse of the driver slumped over the steering wheel before he smashed straight through the windshield and out onto the asphalt. There was a stinging sensation as the glass cut him in several places before he finally stopped rolling.

“Ugghhh,” he moaned as he tried to pick himself up from the ground. He could taste blood at the edge of his mouth, the copperish tang somehow familiar. Several yards in front of him lay the bus, wheels in the air. He was beginning to think if he was experiencing some sort of twisted déjà vu when he heard a crunching sound. Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in his ribs and he was slammed over onto his back. The world exploded into stars and he could barely make out what he heard next.

“Two-Fourr… Da. Ees von Ismay. Job ees done.”

Whoever it was, they were talking in English. But the accent was all wrong. Sounded European. And the conversation made no sense. The man was speaking gibberish. Or maybe his hearing was off-kilter just like the rest of his senses?

The amnesiac struggled to look up, and through a hazy vision he could make out a tall, solid figure with a cell phone to his ear. It was hard to make out the finer details, but the figure was wearing combat boots (much like his own), military surplus pants, a utility belt, a flak jacket, and a ski mask. A pistol nested in a holster at his hip and a large rifle fitted with a scope was slung over his shoulder with a strap. All in all, he looked like some sort of terrorist.

“Poleece vil come soon.”

Pause.

“Da, ees him. Da… Da, I vil feenish the job.”

Memory loss or no, that didn’t sound like a good thing. Biting back the pain, the amnesiac struggled to his feet. The terrorist/hitman seemed to notice, because he suddenly cut short his conversation and aimed the rifle squarely at the forgetful man’s chest. There was a sharp ringing sound, shortly followed by a snap and something clattering to the ground.

For a second, the amnesiac thought he was dead. When he realized he was still breathing, he took notice of the situation. His right hand was outstretched to his side - wielding the sword. The terrorist-guy was holding only half of his rifle, the other end cut off cleanly at a 45-degree angle.

Wow, the amnesiac thought, temporarily dumbfounded. He must have been subconsciously holding onto the damn sword through the entire incident. And he didn’t even notice counterattacking!

He must have been taken aback for a few moments too long, because the next thing he knew it felt like his jaw had been smashed into his skull. He staggered backwards, losing his balance. He was still regaining his bearings when an arm reached around from nowhere and grabbed him around the neck. He felt his windpipe collapsing under the pressure and the sword fell to the ground as his hands thrashed desperately. The grip was solid, like a fleshy noose growing tighter and tighter. His mind began to get clouded.

Maybe it would be a good idea to get him off? he thought stupidly. Yes. That would be a very good idea. Why didn’t he think of that? Absent-mindedly he crouched, pivoted on his left foot, and abruptly shifted his weight while grabbing the massive arm that was choking him at the same time. The terrorist-guy let out an abrupt yell as he found himself being flung over his victim and smashed into the glass-strewn road.

The amnesiac stumbled madly; choking and wheezing for the precious air that burned as it filled his lungs. The sword! Where was the sword? The sun had risen above the horizon now, and the shards of glass began to gleam and glitter, obscuring the blade. Where was it?! It had to-

HIISSSSS! SH-PEWWW!!

A piece of tarmac erupted right beside him, and the man dived for cover behind the overturned bus.

Silencer on the 9mm, ricochet of the round off the asphalt. he calculated. Wait… how did I know that? But it felt right… like he should be able to identify the sound of a gun. He shook off his confusion. Now wasn’t the time.

The crunching sound started again - the assailant’s boots crushing the glass beneath them as he drew near. Quietly, the amnesiac slipped into the bus and hid behind the cracked door. Just as the hooded man passed by, he pounced, grabbing hold of the assailant. Feeling for the fabric of the mask, the amnesiac yanked it around so the gunman couldn’t see. They both fell, rolling away from each other. The gunman was firing madly now, trying to hit his unseen foe. The amnesiac looked up just in time to see the hitman/terrorist fire a round into the bus’ fuel tank.

“Oh shi-“

KA-BLOOM!!!

The bus erupted into a giant fireball, throwing the frame of the vehicle high into the air before it came crashing down on itself.

“Uggghhh…” the man grunted, and slowly picked himself up for what seemed like the hundredth time today. The idiot gunman had killed himself - and any meager hope of survival for those who might have still been alive on the bus.

Police sirens were wailing in the distance.

No! The police couldn’t find him… Something in his gut told him he had to get away.

Four shell casings, possibly four rounds of evidence. Blood found away from the crash site, but no body. Mixed DNA analysis at best; heat deformation. No evidence from the bus - fire burns all. Modified assault rifle cut in half.

His brain was spewing nonsense at him again. He couldn’t be bothered. No time… Had to get his sword, his trenchcoat. Had to leave. Gathering his belongings, the amnesiac half-limped away from the burning husk under cover of the trees.

Behind him, amidst the broken glass, lay the cell phone - charred, yet light still flashing…