JUSTICE LEAGUE

57

All Fall Down
 

Violet leaned her head against the cold window. Her backpack was resting at her feet, and she played with the cell phone Pinzz had given her, switching it from one hand to the other. The farther they disappeared from the city, the more her stomach ached with anxiety. Outside, snow fell lightly.

“Hi!”

Violet looked up over the rim of her glasses. A kid, 16 or 17, stood in the aisle, a large shoulder bag grasped in one hand. Violet put the phone in her pocket and took off the sunglasses. She sat up straight and waited for the girl to say something else.

“Um, is anyone sitting here?”

“No,” Violet answered. The kid pushed her bag under the seat and sat down. She tugged a pink scrunchi off her wrist and pulled her blonde dreadlocks into a ponytail.

“You looked about my age, so I thought, maybe, you’d be someone nice to sit next to. I was sitting next to this really fat man, and he kept looking at me. I think he thought I was a porkchop or something. Anyway, you look friendly. I’m Christy.”

Violet smiled at the thought of telling the kid that she might be a murderer, and Christy couldn’t know if she was lying. “Vicky.”

“Um, am I annoying you? I mean, I don’t know. I talk a lot. I can go away.”

Violet shrugged. “No, it’s okay. Usually I’m the one talking to someone-nevermind. I wouldn’t mind listening for a change.”

“So, how old are you?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Really? I thought you were sixteen or something. With the purple hair and all. Mum won’t let me dye my hair, and she says there are prolly spiders living in my hair or something.”

“Where are you going?”

“Home, I think. Spent winter break at my dad’s, so I’m going home now. My parents are divorced, you know. Don’t really know where home is.” For a moment, Christy looked woeful. She reached in her bag and pulled out a small, flat box. “Gum?” she asked, popping a white square in her mouth.

“Sure.” Violet took a piece. “I’m going home, too. I need a vacation from,” the heroine paused to think of the right words, “from my roommates. Namely this one guy.”

“Your boyfriend?” Christy asked, her eyes twinkling. “Is he cute?”

“Yea, he’s cute. Not my boyfriend, not really anything-as a friend so gently pointed out today. We, we had something. But it’s gone now. If it was there to begin with. You ever see this play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? My friend X-Alex, he took a group of us to see it once.”

“No, sorry. Why?”

“There’s this one part where the two characters talk about unicorns. They go on and on about how something can only exist if everyone has seen it. A unicorn can only exist if loads of people have seen it. So that’s all reality is, a shared experience.”

“Okay, that makes sense. I think.”

“So, what if there are only two people who see a unicorn, and one goes off and shouts it to the world while the other keeps it to himself. Everyone else, they don’t see anything. So this one person is alone, and she wonders if she even saw the unicorn in the first place if no one else admits to have seen it.”

“That sucks.”

“Yea, now add this to the equation: This person, she could make them see the unicorn too, but if she did, then she would know it wasn’t reality. It was all fake,” Violet mumbled. She hadn’t realized she spoke out loud until she saw the puzzled look on Christy’s face.

“I don’t really follow. So, like, do you mean that you could expose this guy’s love for you, but if you did, then it would just be an act? Like, it would be forced?”

“Something like that.” No, not at all.

“Oh. Wow, so dating doesn’t get any better after high school?”

“Nope.”

“If he loves you, why doesn’t he-“

“I don’t know that,” Violet interjected. “And I really don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Christy looked hurt, her mouth hung open in slight shock. Violet continued, “Are you a sophomore in high school?”

“A junior. I’m getting ready to take the SAT’s this month. They’re so gross, especially since now we have to write essays, too. I just want to get into an art school, but apparently my grades need to be good, too.”

“Are you an artist?”

“Oh, yea!” Christy leaned forward and pulled a notebook out of her bag. The book was thick with pages and paperclips. Christy turned the pages to a sketch of (Violet was mildly amused) Studmuffin. “I’m taking, like, four art classes in school. What did you study in college?”

“Oh, I didn’t go to college. I got a job after high school,” Violet answered quickly. “But you’re amazing! Is that--?”

“Yea. I had the biggest crush on Studmuffin for a while. But, I don’t know, I heard he was real nasty in person. Only a superhero for the money.”

Violet’s face fell. “Yea, I heard that rumor, too. I don’t believe it.” She smirked. “Personally, I have a crush on Isomorphix.”

“Ooh! The one who looks like Keanu Reeves?”

“He does not!”

“Yea, he does! Look!” Christy flipped to another portrait. Isomorphix stood in a very Neo pose and, to Violet’s disdain, looked very much the part.

I bet the other guys would get a kick out of that, Violet thought. Looking at Christy for approval, the heroine pulled the sketchbook onto her lap and paged through the remaining pictures. “These are really good.”

“Thanks.” Christy blushed. “Oh, wow, look how dark it is outside. Think we’ll be in New York soon?”

Violet glanced at the clock on the cell phone. “Not for another two hours.”

***

The sun was just starting to rise when Julian, limbs numb and eyes heavy, slouched into the Hall of Justice. He must have been all over the City in the past few hours, driven by rage, paranoia, and an odd feeling of adventurousness. At about two o’ clock, he’d been driving through Lowell County, and pulled over next to a large, empty field. He’d walked as far out into as he could, and then just sat there, sat there alone in the dark, and waited to see what would happen.

The entire night had been like that, really. And now all he could think of was that stupid couch, that stupid, soft, warm, cushioned couch, and sleeping until after noon.

He stepped dazedly through the door, quietly closing it behind him, and took a step towards the couch.

Pinzz was waiting. She sat in one of the La-Z-Boys, legs crossed, arms folded, her expression made even more grim by the gray light of dawn.

“Where have you been?” She asked.

“Out,” he mumbled.

“Where?”

“I don’t know-everywhere. I’ve been driving around. I needed some fresh air, all right? Not like I’m particularly loved and adored here…”

“That’s right,” Pinzz said. “You’re not. And even though I can’t kick you off myself, not yet at least, if you try to run away, I swear to God I will hunt you down.”

Julian let his lips settle in a hard, neutral line. “Well… like you said, I’m not off the team yet. And last time I checked, no one else on the team needed a permission slip to leave the Hall.”

“Yeah, well, that’s because no one else on the team has ever tried to rape someone.” She stood up. “Don’t leave again.” And then turned and walked up the stairs.

Julian sighed, and flopped down on the couch. He knew they weren’t going to let him sleep in, probably more out of spite than anything else (Like none of them ever f***ing made a mistake, he thought), so he’d have to get as much shut-eye as he could.

Today was going to be a bitch.

***

November 19, 2004

“That’s him,” Detective Sarah Tyler said. The mortician nodded, and pulled the cover back over Price’s face.

Tyler shook her head as she walked up the stairs, back to the office. That idiot. He’d gone off on his own and gotten himself killed. And not just that, but they had found a mini-dampener in his hand-he’d been doing something stupid with a super. Knowing Price, it was probably a confrontation-he had that weird thing about powers, after all-but the big question remained, what was he doing there? He didn’t like super heroes, yeah, but it wasn’t like he went around hunting them or whatever. And if his killer was a super, then why had he or she used a gun?

Idiot!!

She dropped into her desk chair, rubbing her forehead. This was not how she wanted to start her day. And now what? All of these cases she’d have to do on her own, until she got assigned a new partner-some rookie, probably. And Price’s kids-the idiot had kids! What was he thinking?

It was then that Sarah saw the envelope next to her computer. Her last name was written on the front, in Price’s handwriting.

“Oh, motherf***er,” she mumbled. “This had better be good…”

***

Bob Sprague, Division Leader of the Deliverymen, almost collapsed on the elevator ride up. He was struck suddenly with vertigo, or something like it, and his brain and stomach seemed to flip ninety degrees. He had been able to steady himself against the faded beige wall of the elevator, and the sickness passed after a few minutes. It was his nerves, he was sure. The very knowledge that he could, in all likelihood, be killed the moment he stepped out of the elevator was not doing him much good.

At least he was relatively sure no one had followed him here. He could never be absolutely sure, because there was little that Bo Powers and his associates didn’t see in this city, but he was pretty sure.

However, he was also pretty sure that Mr. Yubari would kill him before any of Powers’ people had the chance.

The elevator stopped. Twentieth floor. Susano Corp had their executive offices in this building, the Dreiberg Building, from the twentieth floor to the twenty-fifth. Bob guessed that if you were as rich as they were, you could afford to have your executive offices in a completely separate building. Of course, Susano Corp had also had major contracts in building the Dreiberg Building, as they had in several other buildings throughout the City and New York. In fact, Bob had read recently where they had government contracts to build some sort of weird, gigantic habitation domes for New York, in the event of a devastating biochemical attack. Their only major competitor was, of course, Atlas Building Co., a PowersCo subsidiary. It made sense-both companies lived strange, double-lives as participants in both legitimate business and criminal activity; why wouldn’t they be rivals in both?

At least PowersCo is run by Americans; I knew what to expect, Bob thought. But these Yakuza guys… as long as they don’t make me strip down so they can eat sushi off of my naked body. He considered the alternatives, and then added: … Or cut my head off.

He stepped off of the elevator, and turned to his right, entering the dark-marble plaza that prefaced the executive office. It was a large space-if one looked at the Dreiberg Building from the sky and quartered the roof of its rectangular main tower, the plaza would take up the entire area of one of those four squares. There was a fountain right in the center, around a gold-painted Susano Corp logo. To the far side of the plaza was the receptionist’s desk and the metal detector (as well as a pair of guards, Uzis only half-hidden beneath their suit jackets. He told the receptionist his business, let the guards pat him down, stepped through the metal detector, and then headed down the hallway. The aesthetics were more traditionally Japanese now-framed parchment paintings on the walls, sliding doors of thick, opaque paper. He stopped at the door at the end of the hall, complimented by a bronze plaque on the wall:

MR. ICHIRO YUBARI
CEO

Bob sighed, and slid the door open.

Mr. Yubari sat on the floor, behind a low, wide blue table, paperwork spread out in front of him. The room was dark, the shades pulled, letting only white slats of light through. A black suit of authentic samurai armor stood menacingly against one wall, its toothy, wide-mouthed mask in silhouette. On the opposite wall, several katanas sat balanced on wooden pegs. Mr. Yubari was a much more modern symbol of Japan than either the swords or the armor, and yet, in Bob’s mind, he was more threatening than both. He was a tall, silver-haired man, eyes small and sunken in an otherwise handsome face; he was in his late fifties, a fact betrayed only by his hair and the faintest hint of wrinkles around his eyes and mouth.

He glanced up at Bob, and held his gaze for a moment, before Bob remembered.

With an awkward grunt, he bowed from his waist, bringing his head as low as he could.

“Mr. Sprague,” Yubari said. “Take a seat.”

Bob hastily sat down on the nearest cushion, folding his legs under his body.

“Now, what business do you have today?”

Bob cleared his throat. “I, um, I needed to tell you, Mr. Sprague, that I don’t think I- er, well, the Deliverymen will be able to perform the, uh, services that we’ve been performing for you.”

Yubari nodded, shadows masking his expression. “And why is this?”

“Well, um, a little while ago I received a visit from some, um, thugs of one of your rivals, the ones who, um, got me and my guys out of jail.”

“Mm hmm.”

“And, well, because of that, they say that we’re in debt to them, and if we don’t work for them they’re going to, um…”

“They threatened you, I’m assuming,” Yubari said.

“Yeah. Yes. They sent three guys to rough me up, and they almost killed me, but then three Ju-“

“I heard. The Encouragers, right? Travis Myer, alias Sixtus; Clayton Macduff, alias Goat; and ‘Tricky Vic’ Victor Hoenikker.”

“Y- yes.”

Yubari folded his hands on the table, his tanned skin caught in a line of light from the shades, and he leaned back slightly.

“Mr. Sprague, are you aware of the situation in Tokyo?”

Bob was silent for a moment, and then slowly shook his head.

“As you may know, several years ago a woman named O-Ren Ishii became vice queen of Tokyo and chief of all the Yakuza clans. As you may also know, she was murdered in 2002. The clan bosses maintained order for a while in a unified crime council, but as of late matters have become more complicated. Tokyo is in a state of war, Mr. Sprague-the clans have fallen to battle, each trying to claim O-Ren Ishii’s throne. The city’s underworld is in absolute chaos-the Japanese government has even temporarily banned the use of super powers, because of the use of super humans in the battle. Have you heard of the new STNJ? No, surely you haven’t. A police force designed to hunt down and capture super humans.

“This is of particular concern to my associates and I because our clan boss, Boss Ozawah, could well become the next vice king of Tokyo. This, as I don’t have to tell you, would be extremely profitable for my business. The only disadvantage Boss Ozawah has is that he does not have any super humans in his employ. Which is why, of course, I have been having your colleagues transport power enhancement implants to our Pacific gateway.”

Bob blinked. “P-power enhancement implants?”

Yubari laughed. “Right, right, I had forgotten. What did we tell you they were? Obsolete construction parts that we were trying to make a cheap buck off of? Well, now you know the truth.”

Bob felt sick. All this time they had been… that wasn’t just a crime, it was a federal crime! It was a breach of the Super Human Test Ban Treaty! If anyone found out, Bob’s ass would be in Guantanamo Bay or somewhere!

“I- I- I-“

“Oh, come now, Mr. Sprague,” Yubari said. “Don’t tell me you’re intimidated? Do you see, now, why the Deliverymen are such important assets to us? Not only will this help the Ozawah clan gain control of Tokyo, but it is an almost unbelievable profit for Susano Corp. Well worth the risk, believe me.”

“I- I don’t know if I can…” Bob swallowed. “Don’t… don’t you have people within your company who could…”

“I don’t have people in my corporation who can teleport, no. And it is far, far too risky for our own transportation services to take these… products to the West Coast. Now, perhaps, if you and your associates were willing to reveal your teleportation to us I’m sure we could let you go, but I believe that would rather limit the… uniqueness of your franchise, hm? We would pay you handsomely, yes, but not nearly as handsomely as the income you would receive as continued employees.”

Bob breathed slowly, trying to fight back the nausea. His eyes were watering. “I- I guess that makes sense…”

“My thoughts exactly,” Yubari said. “Now, as for the ‘thugs’ that you mentioned; I can certainly give you a personal security force, if you insist on continuing to operate from your current base, though they would receive a certain percentage of your salary. However, if you would rather work within Susano Corp offices, which would be much more fitting since you are Susano Corp employees, then we could set that up without any additional-“

He was cut off by the sound of automatic fire down the hall. A few moments later, the metal detector began to shriek.

Yubari stayed in his seat, his hands dropping under the table. Bob saw the barrel of an Uzi peek up over the edge of the table.

He was going to die. He knew it.

A moment later, the door burst open behind them. Of course, since it was a sliding door, and made of paper, it didn’t so much burst open as it just burst.

Goat, Sixtus, and Tricky Vic stood in the doorway.

“Hey there, Bob. Nice to see you again. And, hey, drop the gun, bigshot,” Vic said.

Yubari’s face tightened slightly, and Bob squeezed his eyes shut.

But then the CEO seemed to reconsider his odds of survival, and slid the Uzi onto the tabletop, pushing it into the center.

“Good,” Vic said, sneering. “Now, how about you two join us in the plaza. We’re going to have a little… office party.”

***

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, X-Raytor had spent the flight home converting his anger at Cara and himself into the verbal ass-kicking he was going to give Julian. When he thought of Ben, he thought that maybe he’d give Julian a literal ass-kicking as well. The little bastard deserved it, after all.

And X-Raytor had brought him there! He’d taken him away from that crime scene and to the Hall. If he had just left him there, or handed him over to the police for… whatever, none of this would have happened.

When they landed in the hangar that morning, he was the first off of the Justice Jet, striding down the hallway towards the common room, Boyd keeping an anxious pace behind him, ready to intervene.

Julian was asleep on the couch, sprawled on his back, mouth open, one arm lying on his chest, the other hanging off of the couch, his wrist resting limply on the floor. He was snoring lightly.

X-Raytor stood over him, arms folded, and waited for his eyes to open. Julian snorted slightly, and a tiny rivulet of saliva running from the corner of his mouth.

“Ahem,” X-Raytor said.

Julian didn’t stir.

X-Raytor stood there for a few moments, and then turned around, growling, and walked into the kitchen. He poured himself a bowl of Kaboom Flakes, and offered some to Boyd, who shook his head and went about peeling a banana. The others joined them a few moments later, and soon the kitchen was filled with the smells of toast and Pop Tarts.

“So,” Scarlett said, after they had all sat down, “what are we supposed to do about him?”

Boyd sighed, and leaned back in his chair. “Well, this is what I told Pinzz when she called me last night: we can’t just kick him off the team for sexual assault, considering the current PR situation. It’s not just your overall image, but yesterday Quake became a certified celebrity. It’s clichéd, but I can only really describe that as ‘meteoric.’ The press loves him, the people love him and, tell the truth, he did more for your approval ratings in a day than any of you have done all week. But, be that as it may, we can’t just let him stay on the team, because the fact remains that he attempted to sexually assault Netic.”

“Then let’s do that,” X-Raytor said. “We don’t have to tell them exactly why we kicked him off, right? We could say it was due to ‘personal reasons,’ or whatever?”

“Well, that’s what I’m trying to say: at this moment we wouldn’t be able to do that and get away with it. He’s a big star now, so they’re not just going to let us kick him off without a good explanation. Besides, he’ll take his popularity with him-if he starts a solo career, that just makes us look worse. He’ll probably make more money that way, as well. And he’ll be able to get away with the sexual assault because he won’t admit to it and destroy his own career.”

“This is just stupid,” X-Raytor said. “Who cares if he’s a big star? Won’t we look better for not tolerating that kind of bulls***?”

Boyd shrugged. “People don’t like having their heroes destroyed. It would be easier for them to just see you as being petty and jealous of his popularity, or to just slip into disillusionment again, and see all of you as shams. And, let’s face it, we just do not need a scandal right now.”

“So… what do we do?”

“We don’t do anything.”

An angry murmur went around the table, but no one specifically objected.

“We keep him around until his popularity dies down,” Boyd said, “and during that time, we send him to therapy. And then, if it is still uncomfortable for him to be on the team-which I think it will be-then we just quietly get rid of him, and maybe persuade him to move to another city if he really wants to have a solo career. He could go to New York, maybe-there’s no super heroes in New York. How does that sound?”

A long, long silence.

“This sucks,” Scarlett said finally, standing up and washing her plate off in the sink.

“You’re sure this is the only way?” Rosma asked.

“Yes. At least, it’s the best way,” Boyd said.

“Then I guess that’s what we’ll do. Pinzz won’t like it, but, you know…”

It was then that Julian, who had been outside of the kitchen’s doorway for some indeterminable amount of time, stepped in, gave them all a coldly triumphant look, and took a Pop Tart from the cabinet, before returning to the common room.

X-Raytor stood up, and followed him out. “Hey, asshole!”

Julian turned around, eyes burning, ready for a fight.

Good, so am I, X-Raytor thought, his muscles tightening.

It was then that the phone rang.

***

Sarah Tyler opened the envelope and pulled out a torn half of loose leaf. There was a single line written on it:

Julian Firestone is Quake. He’s our guy. FIND PROOF!! -DP

Sarah crumpled the paper up in her hand, as the memory of a news report yesterday flashed through her mind. Exploding powers. “Oh, f*** me…”

A few moments later, she was back in the crime lab, standing behind one of the technicians at his desk.

“Statler,” she said, “did you trace the gun yet?”

“Yeah,” he said, minimizing the finger print analysis he was working on, and bringing up the read out. “Glock, Model 19, nine millimeter. Registered in 1998 to an Aaron Alston of Worgate, Lowell County.”

“Aaron Alston,” Sarah repeated. “Why does that sound familiar?”

“It should. Guy used to be a super villain, with the handle ‘the Buccaneer.’ He retired in 2002, and then a week later was found swinging from the ceiling of a hotel room closet. You and Price investigated it.”

“Right, right, I remember that. But there’s no records on who owned the gun after him?”

Statler shook his head. “Nope.”

Sarah frowned, and turned away. She’d have to find another lead, something that could connect Quake and Julian F-

She stopped, and turned around.

“Hey, Statler,” she said, “does the Justice League keep trophies?”

***

X-Raytor picked up the phone, still glaring at Julian.

“Hall of Justice, X-Raytor speaking. How can-“

“X-Raytor? Perfecto. Just the f*** I was looking for.”

He sighed. “Right. Okay. I’m going to hang up now.”

“Do you know who this is?”

“No, and I don’t really care, either.”

“This is ‘Tricky’ Vic Hoenikker, of the Encouragers. Remember me?”

X-Raytor gritted his teeth. “Please, please make my day better and tell me that you’re calling from prison.”

“Sorry about that, f***o, but I’m about to make your day a whole lot worse. I want you, Violet Princess, and what’s ‘is name, Quake to come up to the twentieth floor of the Dreiberg Building. Just you three, and I want you here within the next twenty minutes.”

“Why?”

He could almost feel Vic’s smirk over the phone. “Taking me seriously now, huh? Well, turn on the news.”

X-Raytor picked up a remote control, and turned on the TV. The screen snapped on, already tuned to Channel Five news.

“-is Carly Tomita, Channel Five, and I’m live outside of the Dreiberg Building where three men are holding over a dozen Susano Corp executives hostage. One of the men, tentatively identified as mob enforcer ‘Tricky’ Vic Hoenikker told a police negotiator that…”

“See that?” Vic asked.

“I see it.”

“Good. Than get over here, the three of you and only the three of you. And if I see that f***ing Justice Jet, Sixtus is gonna blow pieces of this guy’s head all over the window for the cops to see.”

“We’ll-“

The phone clicked, and then the hum of a dial tone.

X-Raytor hung up. “Motherf***er.”

“What?” Julian asked, his voice edged with suspicion.

He walked back into the kitchen, where the others had been joined by Pinzz and Drew. Pinzz’s expression revealed that she had, indeed, heard Boyd’s decision.

“Where’s Violet?” X-Raytor asked.

“What?” Pinzz asked.

“Violet. Where’s Violet? We need her down here now.”

“Why, what’s going on?”

“Remember those Encourager guys? They’re holding a bunch of people hostage in the Dreiberg Building and they want me, Violet, and Julian to come and negotiate with them or whatever. I think this is some sort of payback thing for messing with them before…”

“Violet’s not here,” Pinzz said.

“Well… well where is she?”

Pinzz was silent for a moment. “Kinda… on sabbatical.”

Silence.

“Well- well tell her to get back here! We’ve got a goddamn hostage situation and…”

“Send someone else.”

“No! They only want me, Violet, and Julian or they’re going to start killing people.”

“Julian can’t leave.“

“He has to. Now, come on! Where’s Violet? We need to hurry.”

Oreo stood up. “Okay, okay, I’ll be Violet.”

Silence.

“With an Oreo.”

Silence.

“Oh, come on, like that’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever done…”

“Well, let’s go, then!” X-Raytor said. He almost ran into Julian as he hurried through the kitchen doorway. “Looks like you get one more chance to be a super hero, Tex. Get your stupid helmet.”

Oreo stood and headed for the door, but Drew grabbed her arm, and pressed something heavy and metal into her hand.

“Er…”

“Mini-EMP generator,” Drew said. “Just in case… in case Julian does anything. It’ll disrupt his powers temporarily.”

Oreo took the gadget and slipped it into her Oreo satchel. “Um… thanks.”

***

Several minutes later, the Justice Van screeched to a stop outside of the Dreiberg Building. It was one of the taller buildings in Central Building, dwarfed only by Metropolis Tower and a few others. A police blockade was set up, holding back the crowd of onlookers and reporters, and there was something of a command center set up right inside the blockade, a tarp pulled over four metal legs, where several police officers were crowded around a steel table.

X-Raytor, Violet/Oreo, and Quake made their way over to the command center. One of the officers saw them coming and immediately picked up a large, yellow phone sitting on the table. X-Raytor heard her say:

“All right, here they are. What d-“ She listened for a few moments, and then put the phone down.

“Good to see you,” she said, nodding at the three super heroes. “They said they want the three of you to take the elevator up to the twentieth floor.”

“Just… up the elevator?” Violet/Oreo asked.

“Yes.” The officer did her best to keep her face neutral, but it was clear that she didn’t have a good feeling about this. “They said they’ll start sending hostages down once you three are up there.”

“This is totally a trap,” Quake said. “We should try to, like, go in through the vents or something.”

The officer stared at Quake, and then looked slowly at X-Raytor and Violet/Oreo, trying to gauge if he was serious, or just stupid.

“Oh, yeah, like you guys have a better plan,” Quake said. “There is no way we are just riding up that elevator.”

Ten seconds later, they were just riding up that elevator.

“You guys are idiots.”

“Hey, Oreo, do you think I should smack him across the head, or should we let Pinzz do that?”

“I think Pinzz would be angry if you went before her.”

“Oh, come on! Don’t tell me you guys think…” He shook his head. “No, dudes, dudes, listen. What happened with Netic… that was a total misunderstanding, and Pinzz just…”

“No, no, I’m sure it was,” X-Raytor said. “I mean, I’m sure you were being totally innocent when you held her down on the floor and tried to screw her. Man, I really can’t see what Pinzz was so pissed about.”

“Yeah, I know,” Violet/Oreo said. “Then again, she’s always overreacting about these things. Remember how upset she got about Sticky after what she did?”

“Oh, yeah. I mean, she wants to beat the crap out of you, smash your face into the wall, and castrate you? That’s totally unnecessary.”

“Exactly. A castration would be more than satisfactory.”

“I agree.”

Quake remained silent, but every muscle in his body tightened.

The elevator stopped, and rang. The doors opened. They stepped gingerly out into the corridor, and then turned to their left…

The Susano Corp plaza was filled with people, most of whom were lying on their faces. Tricky Vic, Sixtus, and Goat stood in different areas of the room, keeping watch over every hostage-Vic with his magenta-glowing energy spades, Sixtus with his rifle, Goat with his fists.

“Glad you could come,” Tricky Vic said, twirling one of his spades. “I was about to cut off this f***er’s finger and add it to my necklace.” He gave Bob Sprague, who lay prone at his feet, hands clasped behind his head, a savage kick.

“All right, we’re here,” X-Raytor said. “Let the hostages leave.”

“Slow down there, cowboy; we’re just getting started!”

***

When Pinzz opened the door, she found herself staring directly into a badge. Behind the badge was a short, black woman in a long, dark coat, her eyes hard.

“Detective Sarah Tyler,” she said. “I’m investigating the Cargo Hold murders, and the death of homicide detective David Price. Mind if I take a look around?”

Pinzz frowned. “Well, uh, yeah, I do mind. Any particular reason why you-“

“Read,” Tyler said, shoving a piece of paper into Pinzz’s hand, and pushing into the Hall. Pinzz read the paper and frowned. It was a warrant.

“Now,” Tyler said, “where do you people keep your trophies?”

***

Meanwhile, back at the Dreiberg Building… DANGER!!

Silence. The fountain in the center of the plaza ran quietly, and X-Raytor tried not to think about the fact that he hadn’t gone to the bathroom before leaving the Hall.

“So…” he said, “are you going to do something to us, or…”

“Oh, we’re gonna do something!” Tricky Vic said. “You better believe we’re gonna do something!”

“Man, you won’t even know what hit you!” Sixtus said.

X-Raytor held up his hands defensively. “All right! All right, just asking.”

Another long silence. Violet/Oreo coughed.

“Uh, are you sure you couldn’t just let the hostages go and then we could…”

“No! If we did that, then there would be no one to humiliate you in front of! And you will be humiliated. Ooooh yeah!”

“Yeah,” Goat said. “Humiliated.”

“Humiliated big time,” said Sixtus.

Silence.

“Do you even have a plan?” Quake asked.

“Of course we do!” Tricky Vic said. “We have you up here now, don’t we? And now we’re going to, um, beat the crap out of you in front of all these people!”

“Yeah!”

“Yeah!”

“And, uh, then I’m going to cut off your fingers and add the bones to my necklace!!!” Tricky Vic hooked his index finger around his necklace of finger bones, and made sure they got a good look at it.

“Are those even real finger bones?” Violet/Oreo asked.

“Of course they are!” Tricky Vic said, at the same time that Goat snorted and said, “No. Jeez, are ya stupid?”

Tricky Vic glared at Goat.

“What? They’re not. You get the bones from boxes of KFC wings.”

“Way to ruin my rep, meathead! How would you like it if I told them that your name isn’t really Goat?!”

“Er… we kind of assumed that,” X-Raytor said.

Goat gasped. “You did?!”

X-Raytor sighed. “Okay, you guys obviously don’t have a plan, and if you try to hurt the hostages, they’ve probably got, like, six SWAT snipers ready to blow you away, so how about you all just… surrender?”

“I guess that’s reasonable. But it would be even more reasonable if you would… DIEEEEEEE!!!” Tricky Vic leapt at them, energy spades flashing.

“ ‘DIEEEEEE’?” X-Raytor repeated, a moment before Violet/Oreo shoved him out of the way and intercepted Tricky Vic, knocking him to the ground.

Goat moved immediately to help his fallen teammate, but Sixtus remained where he was, rifle poised, eyes swift and calculating.

X-Raytor headed off Goat before he could reach Violet/Oreo and Tricky Vic (who was now up and slashing with his spades).

“Hey, there, Galoot! We’ve got a score to settle, don’t you think?”

Goat looked down at him dully, and then brushed him to the side. X-Raytor went flying into the thick, office window, and bounced off.

“Ow…”

He rolled out of the way just as Goat’s fists, fingers interlocked, came down, denting the floor. X-Raytor fired a pair of lasers that would stun an ordinary man into Goat’s side. The giant looked dazed for a moment, but then his face flushed with rage and he attacked again. Goat, obviously, wasn’t an ordinary man.

“What’s wrong?” Tricky Vic asked, sweat beading on his wrinkled brow. “Not using yer little magic tricks this time?”

“I use my powers when fighting super villains,” Violet/Oreo said. “Not garden gnomes.”

“Hey! That’s derog-“

Violet/Oreo spun and kicked Tricky Vic’s left wrist. He grunted, and the energy spade dropped to the floor. Violet/Oreo dove, retrieved it, and blocked his next swing. She parried several more blows, and then kicked him again, this time in the gut, sending him into a half-spin. Her energy spade blazed, and the top of Tricky Vic’s snowcap dropped to the floor, sizzling. Tricky Vic tore the hat off, and looked through the hole.

“You bitch!”

“Okay, Neo, how about you put the gun down and fight me like a man,” Quake said.

Sixtus kept his rifle aimed at the old man’s head. “Not a chance.”

“If you let me up,” the old man said, “I will pay you double what your employers are paying you. My name is Ichiro Yubari, and I am the CEO of-“

“Shut up,” Sixtus growled.

“Well, we can either do this the easy way or the hard way,” Quake said.

Sixtus thought for a moment. “Hard way.”

And that stopped Quake dead in his tracks… because he wasn’t exactly sure what the hard way was.

“Fall down!” X-Raytor said, punching Goat in the stomach. His muscles were like iron, but X-Raytor hit him again. “Fall down!”

Goat swatted at him, and X-Raytor jumped back. He looked up and fired a low-power blast directly into Goat’s face. He cried out, one mammoth hand coming up to clutch his eyes, and that was all the opening X-Raytor needed. He kicked upwards, slamming his lower leg into Goat’s groin.

“OW!!” X-Raytor cried, jumping back. “OW OW OW!!!”

“I wear a cup,” Goat said, his eyes still watering from the blast. He lunged at X-Raytor, grabbed him around the neck, literally around the neck with his elephantine fingers, and pressed him into the floor. “You are really startin’ to get on my nerves.”

X-Raytor tried to say: “Yeah, well, I wasn’t about to invite you to prom, either,” but it came out: “GAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGLLKK!!!”

His mind was swimming now, dark blots beginning to form behind his eyes. No, no, this is not how it ended. The last thing he saw was not going to be Goat’s sneering face. Sneering, and really, really ugly-nostrils flared, chin hair greasy, eyes bloodshot and still watering…

A light bulb went off in X-Raytor’s head. Well, “if at first you don’t succeed…”

Goat’s head was suddenly engulfed in a spotlight beam of red. He paused, mouth wide, hand still around X-Raytor’s throat, as everything became ruby light. X-Raytor held the blast out for thirty seconds, and then stopped, blinking furiously to moisturize his eyes.

Goat’s face was ruddy with heat, eyebrows and facial hair singed, mouth in a tiny, confused O. He stood up slowly, looking absolutely baffled, and then rocked on his enormous feet.

X-Raytor looked up. “FALL!! DOWN!!”

Goat dropped thunderously onto his back and groaned.

“Thank you!” X-Raytor said, before letting his own head drop onto the floor.

Violet/Oreo got an opening, and sliced downwards, severing Tricky Vic’s chicken bone necklace. Of course, because her name was neither Diego de la Vega nor Inigo Montoya, she also cut a shallow, vertical groove in his neck.

“Ow! Ow! Ow!” Tricky Vic cried, hopping backwards and slapping at his neck. Violet/Oreo sighed, and jammed her energy spade into the nearest wall. As Tricky Vic seemed to recover from the superficial wound, she kicked his remaining energy spade away, and then punched him across the face. Tricky Vic’s right cheek swelled like a balloon, and he charged, enraged-

Violet/Oreo grabbed him by the neck with one hand, and with the other removed the energy spade from the wall, turned off its deadly purple glow, and whacked Tricky Vic over the head with the flat triangular blade. The lead Encourager sank to the ground.

“Okay, are we done here?” X-Raytor asked, standing up. He stumbled, but then caught his balance. “Whoo, head spin.”

“Not quite yet,” a cold voice said.

X-Raytor and Violet/Oreo turned to see Sixtus, standing over a kneeling and helmet-less Quake. His rifle was pressed into the back of Quake’s skull.

“Stay right where you are, and maybe I don’t paint the floor with him.”

“Don’t move,” Quake hissed. “For f***’s sake, don’t move.”

“It’s over,” Violet/Oreo said. “If you just give up, you’ll probably get off pretty easily.”

“Kiss my ass,” Sixtus said.

“Yeah, that’s what she said,” Violet/Oreo said.

“Who?”

“Yo momma!”

“Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaymn!!” X-Raytor said, slapping his knee. “You suckers got served!”

Violet/Oreo nodded grimly. “With a side of hash browns.”

“Oh no you just didn’t!” Sixtus said.

“Yes she did! Yes she did!” X-Raytor crowed.

“I know you ain’t be talkin’ smack ‘bout my momma!”

“Boy, ev’rybody be talkin’ smack ‘bout yo momma!” Violet/Oreo said.

Quake gaped at them with absolute horror. “Are you people insane?! He’s going to kill me!!”

“Uh, right!” Sixtus said. “I will!”

“Let’s just calm down, huh?” X-Raytor said. “Let’s just calm down and…”

“F*** this,” Quake said. “Hey, Sixtus. That’s your name, right? Sixtus?”

“Yeah.”

“Look, you don’t want to kill me. I don’t have anything to do with them!”

“You’re on the Justice League. You’ve got plenty to do with them.”

“Uh, Quake…?” Violet/Oreo said.

“Man, f*** the Justice League!” Quake said. “They’re-they’re all against me, anyway. You should have heard the way they talked to me in the elevator on the way up here. I- I was gonna quit anyway!”

“Just shut up. I’m not fallin’ for it.”

“No, really! I don’t care what happens to them! Look, look-they came here planning to screw you over, see? That’s not even really Violet Princess…”

“Quake!” Violet/Oreo snapped.

“It’s Oreo Avenger, only she’s disguised as Violet, an-“

“Julian!!” X-Raytor said.

“That so?” Sixtus asked, and looked up at the other two Justice Leaguers. For once, his dark eyes flashed with emotion-cold anger.

“This was all a set up, huh? You came here planning to screw us?”

X-Raytor said, “Uh, well, you kinda called us here planning to kill us, so I think we’re ent-“

“Shut the f*** up! You tried to screw me, huh? You’re trying to f*** with me?” His eyes were suddenly desperate. “Well, bad f***ing idea, motherf***ers, because I do NOT like being screwed with!!”

He swung his rifle to the side, aiming at the nearest hostage, eyes wild-

A pair of lasers struck him in the side of the head, followed a nanosecond later by an Oreo, which flew straight into his mouth. Sixtus hit the floor as an unconscious chinchilla.

Julian stood up. “Whew! Close one, huh?”

“What was that?!” X-Raytor demanded.

“What was what?”

“That?!”

“Oh, I- dude, weren’t you paying attention? I was fooling him so that you guys could-“

“Bulls*** you were! You just made him go nuts!” Violet/Oreo said.

“Well- well, you took him down, didn’t you?” Julian’s face was twisted with helpless anger, and for a moment X-Raytor thought he was going to cry.

“Still, you went and… how can we even trust you? I mean, well, we know we can’t trust you, but this…”

“You’re always getting on my case!” Julian said. “What is that, anyway? It’s because I’m the new guy, huh? Because I’m not in your big, cool oldbie Justice League club? Like I’m any worse than Eric or Right Wing Man or- or you!” He pointed at X-Raytor.

“Let’s just go back to the Hall,” X-Raytor said.

“No! I’m trying to talk here! I’ve got-there’s some things that I have been waiting for the longest f***ing time to tell you assholes, and--“

“And we’re not listening,” X-Raytor said. “Now, come on. Before these idiots wake up.”

“You better f***ing listen,” Julian mumbled.

“What was that?”

He hesitated for only a moment, and then said, “You better f***ing listen to me, because I could blow up this entire f***ing building if I wanted to!”

***

Detective Sarah Tyler stalked into the Hall of Justice’s Trophy Room, walking through the jungle of glass cases and display stands until she reached the section devoted to past foes. She walked down the line of glass cubes on granite pillars, glancing into each case as she went, the visages of long-forgotten villains staring out at her.

Sister Sinister… the long-retired Spelunker… the long-deceased Mosnar… Black Coal… Paper Kut…

Finally she stopped, and her face twisted with fresh anger. Pinzz caught up with her and looked over her shoulder.

The glass cube that usually protected these trophies had been removed, and lay on the floor. Exposed on the display pillar were a costume, a bandana, a mechanized eye-patch, and a dusty robot parrot. These all sat on a sort of red velvet carpet, protecting them from the pillar’s granite surface. On this red velvet was the dusty outline of a pistol.

“There, see?” Detective Tyler said. “That’s where he got the gun that killed my partner.”

Pinzz stared in disbelief, and then hit the communicator in her ear. “X-y, we’ve got a problem.”

***

“Ever since I came here, all you guys have done is pick on me. I didn’t know why for a little, and you know what? I thought there was something wrong with me. How do you like that, you assholes? But I’ve realized that there’s nothing wrong with me; it’s you guys who have the problem. And it’s a really simple problem, too: you’re all pussies.

“Pussies! You pretend your all big and tough, especially when you’re bossing a kid around, but you’re totally whipped by City Hall and the press and the media, and you need a f***ing PR guy to tell you what to do or, boo hoo, the people won’t like you anymore! F***ing cry about it, why don’t you? Who cares what they think? Because as long as we have super powers and they don’t, we’re on top!

“And, see, this is where you’re really pussies. You’re all too scared to use your own powers because- because I don’t know why, because you think you’re freaks or something. But me, I’m not scared to use my powers at all, and that scares you! Like- like when you wouldn’t let me use them during the riots! You were just intimidated that my powers are so much better than your faggy laser vision. A-and I’m more innovative with them, too! Drew said so! And not just that, but you’re jealous too! You’re scared, and you’re jealous!”

Julian was the only one in the plaza moving. The hostages hadn’t dared get up, even after their original captors were defeated. Now, with Julian pacing back and forth and ranting like a nutjob, they weren’t sure if they were any better off. X-Raytor and Violet/Oreo hadn’t moved since he’d made his threat, hoping to calm him down.

“Jealous, see? You all wish you had my powers instead of- of stupid x-ray vision or cookies or- or whatever the f*** Eric has, and you’re jealous that I’m smarter and stronger and- and- and more of a man than any of you, and you,” he said, pointing at X-Raytor. “You don’t like me because you just want Pinzz for yourself!”

X-Raytor had to restrain a laugh, knowing that it would just piss Julian off even more. “Hey, listen, if that’s what this is all about… I don’t even have a thing for Pinzz anymore. Really. That was just a, um, one-time thing. So how about we…”

“And don’t even get me started on how you girls act! God, I have never been surrounded by a worse group of hypocritical cunts in my life! You all… you dress like that, you wear these tight costumes, and then you won’t even…”

X-Raytor’s communicator beeped inside his ear, and he inconspicuously reached up and turned it on.

It was Pinzz. “X-y, we’ve got a problem.”

She explained the entire situation to him, the Cargo Hold, the murder of Detective Price, how Detective Tyler was there at the Hall right now.

“Don’t do anything stupid, okay?” She said. “Just… get whacko boy downstairs, and we’ll try to figure out what to do then, all right?”

But X-Raytor’s mind had gone elsewhere. His eyes narrowed, and he interrupted Julian’s tirade.

“Julian,” he said, “what were you doing in the ocean the night I found you?”

Julian cut off immediately, and glared. “What?”

“Why were you there?”

“This isn’t about me,” Julian said. “This is about how you guys have been-“

“Will you just cut the bulls***?! Why were you there? Why did you blow up the Cargo Hold?”

Violet/Oreo started, and gaped at X-Raytor.

Julian was silent for a moment, and then grinned. “Because my father was there.”

“You pretended that you’d forgotten everything this whole time, didn’t you?” X-Raytor asked.

“Oh, very good, ‘X-y.’ F***, could it have taken you a little longer?”

“Why?”

“Don’t you know? I thought you’d like that sort of thing-I mean, you mutated your entire family, right? Mutated your entire family and killed your uncle?”

“This isn’t about-“

“No! No, f*** you!” Julian shouted. “This is about me, motherf***er! I have always been better than you, and you’re just trying to drag me down because you can’t handle it! Admit it!”

“You know, I really should have said this a long, long time ago,” X-Raytor said, “but you, kid, are an obnoxious little douchebag.”

Julian’s eyes flashed, and his mouth settled into a hard line. “Well, I’m getting the last laugh in the end, asshole. Deal with it.”

He closed his eyes, and felt the ball of energy form in his midsection. He squeezed, felt the energy compress and build, and continued to squeeze, tighter than he ever had before, squeezing and squeezing past his limits, feeling the power surge from every extremity.

“DEAL WITH IT!!!” He roared.

Hostages began to scream, and X-Raytor started to move forward, but it was only Violet/Oreo who did anything worthwhile.

She tore Drew’s mini-EMP generator from her satchel, aimed, and fired.

The air seemed to distort where the EMP blast touched it, as if reality itself was bending around the invisible beam.

It struck Julian squarely in the chest, and he roared in pain and frustration.

X-Raytor, who had been running forward previously, hit Julian in the chest and carried him ahead of him, pushing him towards the window. Even touching him X-Raytor could feel the raw energy inside of him, and knew that Oreo’s gadget wouldn’t be enough. As he ran, pushing Julian, he fired his eyes, at full power, at one of the wall-windows, burning a hole through the glass, disintegrating it, leaving a smooth-edged opening…

… Through which he pushed Julian. For a moment the kid held on, kicked at him, and their eyes met-Julian’s wild with rage and fear, X-Raytor’s hidden behind emotionless white triangles.

And then the suction kicked in, and Julian vanished through the window. The force of the room decompressing slammed X-Raytor against the remaining area of the window, his face pressed up against the glass, and his eyes were filled with the one image he did not want to see:

Julian, flailing, twenty stories up , falling through empty air.

***

Julian felt the air immediately crushed out of his lungs, and the world became a blur, an icy, stinging blur.

NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!

He twisted, trying to find some handhold, but there was nothing-nothing! He was falling, plummeting like a stone, his heart beating like it would burst…

The ball of energy burned inside him, literally burned. He felt as if it would tear him in half before he could even reach the street.

And it was then that he realized: the mini-EMP generator had been too late. It hadn’t killed the explosion he had stored up, and now that energy remained…

With a final, triumphant mental laugh, Julian let go.

***

From the street, it looked as if someone had punched the Dreiberg Building in its center, windows shattering, the actual structure denting inwards, and then the sound:

KA-BOOM!!!

Glass and steel rained down on the street below, as the police and onlookers rushed for cover. But it was too late for that, anyone looking up would know: the Dreiberg Building began to collapse.

On the twentieth floor, everything suddenly sagged to one side, and Violet/Oreo smashed into X-Raytor, as did about a dozen hostages.

“He blew us up!” someone screamed. “He blew us up!!”

Violet/Oreo cursed, and tried to get up, but the building shuddered again and she was pinned to the wall. Her elbow was jammed uncomfortably into X-Raytor’s stomach.

“Well, here we are, then,” X-Raytor said.

“Here we are.”

“You know, somehow I always knew I would die in this stupid costume.”

“And somehow,” Violet/Oreo said, “somehow I always knew… I’d die with purple hair.”

***

Back at the Hall, the majority of the Justice League and Sarah Tyler stood around the TV, watching in horror as the Dreiberg Building began to crumble.

“We need to get down there!” Right Wing Man said, leaping up. “I have strength, I can-“

“We’d never get down there in time,” Pinzz snapped. “Even if we took the Justice Jet. Besides, even you can’t stop a building from collapsing. None of us can!”

Studmuffin, sitting in his La-Z-Boy, thought: Hey, you know how you guys are always on my case to use my powers?

The Seekers in his head, who had been involved with their usual banter, suddenly fell silent.

Um, yes? Jarhead said.

Well, guys, today is your lucky day.

***

“It’s coming down!” Someone on the street yelled. The police were trying to direct the onlookers away, but everyone knew it was hopeless. The moment the building came down, they would all be dead, buried or crushed.

“I guess this is it,” X-Raytor said. “If it counts for anything, I’m glad you’re here.”

“Um… thanks?” Oreo said.

“Oh, you know what I m-“

And suddenly they were all on the ceiling, gravity flinging them upwards. A grinding, shrieking roar filled his ears, filled reality, and X-Raytor closed his eyes as the building-

Stopped.

He, Oreo, and the hostages fell onto the hard floor of the plaza.

“OW!”

“What the…”

Outside, the crowd gaped, deep in the shadow of the Dreiberg Building, which was no longer even swaying.

Studmuffin hovered in mid-air, his hands out, his eyes alight with blue fire. He slowly pushed his right hand forward, and the Dreiberg building moved in time, straightening out, resuming its original shape. And then his left hand was moving rapidly, and as it did, rubble and debris began to fly up from the streets, filling in gaps, mending holes and gashes; the Dreiberg Building seemed to be reassembling itself like an enormous jigsaw puzzle.

When everything was back in place, he swept his left hand upwards, his eyes flared, and for a moment the building was outlined in light. There was a great creak of settling, and then he let his hands drop easily to his side.

The Dreiberg Building stood, unmarred, as if nothing had happened.

“Did I mention how much I love Studmuffin?” X-Raytor asked.

***

A few moments later, X-Raytor, Oreo (now completely herself again), and the hostages stepped out of the front door of the Dreiberg Building, to find themselves facing a sea of faces and cameras. Studmuffin lowered down next to them, his eyes normal.

“And that,” he said, “is why they call me Studmuffin.”

The three Justice Leaguers stood there for a moment, Studmuffin beaming, X-Raytor and Oreo Avenger dazed, and then someone began to clap. The clap caught on, and soon everyone on the street was applauding and cheering and crying.

“We… we actually did something right?!” X-Raytor said.

“We saved the day?!” Oreo said.

Studmuffin laughed aloud, and gathered Oreo and X-Raytor up in an enormous hug.

“Kodak moment!” He yelled, and dozens of cameras flashed at once.

X-Raytor looked out over the cheering, ecstatic crowd, and couldn’t help but feel his spirits lift. Not even Boyd Billeh could have arranged something like this! Maybe, now, everything was going to be okay.

It was then that the Justice Jet landed across the street, and Pinzz stepped off, followed by Sarah Tyler. X-Raytor saw the look in her eye, even from across the street, and knew that things were far, far from all right.

***

“The word has come down from on high,” William Costello, chief of police, said. “Drop it.”

Tyler blinked, not sure she had heard correctly. “What?”

“Drop it,” Costello said. “The investigation is over. Case closed.”

“Sir, with all due respect, the Justice Leaguers are accomplices in the murder of a police officer. They aided a murderer, removed him from a crime scene, and, albeit unintentionally, gave him the means to kill Detective Price. You can’t just…”

“I can. I wish I didn’t have to, but I can, and I am. That’s just the way these things work. Politics, you know…”

“And because of City Hall politics, we’re just going to ignore the death of a police officer?”

“Of course not. If you believe that this Julian Firestone is still alive, then feel free to keep looking for him. But leave the Justice League out of it. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Tyler nodded stiffly, and stood.

“Maybe you should take some vacation time,” Costello said. “I’m sure the captain would agree with me.”

“No, sir. I’m fine.” She left the office with her fists clenched, and her jaw set in defiant, but resigned, anger.

***

Later that night, after the Encouragers were in jail, after the phone calls had stopped, and Boyd had scheduled TV appearances from now through Christmas (and some even into 2005), X-Raytor retired to his room. He had some unfinished business.

It wasn’t about Julian-Julian had all but been pushed from his mind. That mistake was too great, too horrendous for him to even think about. He didn’t want to deal with Julian again until he was forced too, and hopefully that day would never come.

He lay on the bed, and flip his cell open; dialed.

It rang a few times, and he got her voice mail. He breathed a sigh of relief, and said:

“Hey, Cara, this is James. I’m, uh, well, I was just calling to say that you’re probably right, and I don’t think I will be at the w- the, um, the ceremony. I think… I’m thinking it’s probably…” He sighed. “I’m sorry. I guess… I guess I’ll talk to you later.”

He hung up, and lay back. After a few moments of keeping his mind blissfully clear, he sat up and turned on the TV. He turned on the TiVo menu, and immediately a message came up:

“You have no space left on your TiVo! If you want to make new recordings, you must free up some space.”

He flipped down the list, eyes scanning over the names of shows he had yet to watch, series he was still catching up on. Soon he reached the bottom of the list:

“So Weird: Fourth Season.”

He exhaled deeply, and swallowed a few times. His chest felt leaden.

He pressed a button on the remote, and a new message appeared:

“Are you sure you want to delete ‘So Weird: Fourth Season’?”

He closed his eyes, and pressed “Yes.”

***

When he had let go of the explosion, the blast had blow Julian horizontally through the air, until he landed, with no small amount of pain, on a nearby roof. His ankle had been sprained on impact, and from the throbbing pain and that wet cracking noise he had heard, he was sure that something in his shoulder was broken.

He limped down the alleyway, mind racing, blood pumping through his face.

They had screwed him over. They’d tried to get rid of him; that had been the plan the whole time, he was sure. Lure him up there and then try to get rid of him, so that he could cause a scandal.

They’d all pay. Every single one of them. Netic, who had taken advantage of his friendship, that stupid bitch Pinzz, and especially that cow-f***ing piece of dog @#%$ X-Raytor. He’d bring their f***ing Hall of Justice down around their heads, he’d make Pinzz give him what she’d always teased him with, and then he’d bash their skulls in. Yes, this was just the beginning…

“Hey, there,” a voice said.

Julian looked up, and there were two people, a man and a woman, standing ahead of him down the alley. They both wore black trench coats and sunglasses, even on as dark a night as this.

“You’re Julian Firestone, right?” The woman said. “Well, we’d like a word with you, Mr. Firestone.”

“Who are you?” Julian demanded, trying to ignore the creeping feeling on the back of his neck.

The woman held up a badge. “I’m Agent Morgan-Wall, and this is Agent Ruskey, M.O.R.P.H.Z.”

“What do you want?” Julian asked.

Agent Morgan-Wall smiled, and said, just as Julian had that night at the Cargo Hold: “You.”

Growling with familiarity, Julian began to power up. Suddenly, Agent Ruskey moved, and a blast of orange light sliced through the dark alley, and sent Julian sprawling, unconscious, onto the ground. A miniscule puff of an explosion came from him, and he bounced slightly, but nothing more.

“Zap-gun, beeyatch!!” Agent Ruskey said, twirling his zap-gun and almost dropping it.

“Very professional,” Agent Morgan-Wall said. She walked over to Julian, nudged him with her foot, and then checked his pulse. “All right, he’s good to go. Call the van.”

As Ruskey made the call, Morgan-Wall produced a small, metal bracelet from her jacket pocket, and snapped it around Julian’s wrist.

“This should hold you until we get you back,” she whispered. “Don’t worry, kid, we’re taking you somewhere where you definitely won’t be alone.”

“Got him?” Agent Ruskey asked, as the black van pulled into the alley, headlights off.

Agent Morgan-Wall hefted Julian over her shoulder, and turned around. “Tag-and-bag. As easy as that.”

“Man. He’s pretty dangerous, isn’t he? I mean, did you see what he did to the Dreiberg Building?”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we’ll have to worry about him now.” The two agents turned and walked towards the van. “So, did you catch the Titans game on Sunday?”

“Oh, yeah! Can you believe Biloxi…?”

They loaded Julian in the back of the van, and the vehicle slipped away into the night, leaving only an echo as proof that it had ever been there.