Sometime late in 2004...
Hamlet blinked. "Mrow meow," he said aloud, which translated roughly to "Man, that was one bizarre dream." He stood up, stretched, and looked around; he still had all his fur, and he was in some kind of a tent.
It took only a few seconds for everything to start flooding back to memory: how he'd lost track of Saph and changed his hunt to one for Ewan McGregor; how he'd finally caught up with Ewan in the middle of his Long Way 'Round motorcycle cross-country film documentary; how Ewan had convinced him he had nothing to do with what had happened, and proved he'd been on the set of Big Fish in Europe, working on post-production reshoots. It had taken Hamlet almost a year to get to where he was now: at a dead end.
Ewan McGregor stepped into the tent. "Auch, Hamlet, are you comin' with us or no?"
"Well, Hamlet, if you miss Scarlett so much, why doan't you go back teh her?"
"Of course it's a good idea. Now go."
And so Hamlet left, bounding off in the direction of the nearest airport, which was a good 2,000 miles away.
After yet another swim, Scarlett sat at the edge of the pool humming softly. It was cold, freezing actually, but it felt good to shiver for once. Her feet dangled over, kicking lightly in the water as she mulled over the past few days. Amnesiac Iso. Dr. Phil. Violet disappearing. The riots. Llama boy, who she'd just started getting along with, dead. Julian and all the crap that came with him. Phabio's suicide. Boyd Billeh. And had Saph really been at the Dr. Phil show, or was it a set-up to make Scarlett lose her temper like Boyd Billeh had assured her?
Scarlett didn't trust PR guys. When it boiled down to it, she didn't trust many guys period. Ewan McGregor sprang to mind.
"You've got to get a grip, Scarlett," she said. "He was at the Oscars, and immediately after that he was in Europe finishing up Big Fish." She knew it was true; what bothered her was how the real villain had disappeared, and no one cared. The Hot Scottish Guy wasn't a US citizen, and according to General Jeff Sampson, Eli Woods had been released from M.O.R.P.H.Z. surveillance years prior to his death. No one else was interested in the murder of a guy who turned into a mouse every night. Well, except the tabloids. The Inside View had carried versions of that story for nearly a month.
Scarlett pulled her feet out of the pool. She grabbed the towel she had set on a pool chair, wrapped it loosely around her waist, and started walking back to the Hall of Justice. She took each barefoot step slowly, and then she stopped altogether, having heard a faint cry in the distance. She whirled around, but there was no one in sight.
"No, Scarlett. Wishful thinking." She walked faster, starting up the steps to the porch. Then she heard it again, clearly this time.
She turned. There, at the edge of what was left of the forest behind the Hall, stood a small black figure.
"Hamlet!" Scarlett shrieked, and she tore off running for the small black cat. The red towel dropped to the ground halfway to the pool, but Scarlett didn't notice; she practically flew around the pool and Hamlet, who had started running in Scarlett's direction, reached her at the edge of the concrete beyond the pool.
Scarlett scooped Hamlet up into her arms, her wet hair slinging around, sloshing water all over him, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was that after a year and half, one thing in this messed up world was finally the way it should be.
November 25, 2004
With his nose bleeding, his burnt shoulder throbbing, every physical inch of him aching, and every emotional inch exhausted, X-Raytor collapsed, face-first, onto his bed.
It was too much, far, far too much. In the most literal sense, an entire universe of pain and regrets. His spirit was already broken, and he was sure his brain wasn’t far behind.
Amber. Stephen. Kane, C.J., Cinque, Jim, and John. The barricade, the gleaming white hallways of the Arizona, the flash of lasers and the crackle of divine lightning; they all surrounded him, plunging in and out of his consciousness, a hellish collage of his adventure.
He just wanted to sleep, sleep or die, whatever it would take to make the memories go away, for even the briefest amount of time.
X-Raytor lay on his stomach, his right cheek touching the pillow through a hole in his mask (when had he gotten that-while fighting Kane?), and closed his eyes. There was no sound other than his own heavy breathing, and the soft buzz of a fly.
He was too tired to think now, too tired to even curl up like a fetus and weep. He just wanted to go away.
The fly landed on the side of his head, did a little pivot-walk, and then took off again, the buzzing slightly louder this close to X-Raytor’s ear. And then, finally, silence. He pressed his drained body deeper into the bed’s mattress, and prepared to slip off to sleep.
And then, a new sound. A small sound, yes, but insistent and strong, and coming quite obviously from his floor. It was a sort of wet crackling sound, a sound oddly like Rice Krispies-a strange, squishy snap, crackle, and pop.
X-Raytor sat up, energized briefly by annoyance, and froze. There was a light beneath his bedroom window-one of those big, white ones that were set around the perimeter of the building to keep it lit throughout the night. It touched his room with a light glow, a gray half-light that was just bright enough for him to see. And what he did see drove the weariness right out of him.
On the floor was a growing, twisting horror; a misshapen monster with an enormous head and way, way too many limbs, some sprouting fingers. Its skin was a mix of hard, black, spine-studded armor and pale corpse-skin. One of the long, black arms cracked, rearranged, and suddenly became pale, smooth. Its bulbous eyes, which took up most of its face, began to break, tiny segments vanishing back into the skin.
“GAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!” X-Raytor sprang back, and hopped clear onto his bed’s headboard. If he could have, he would have climbed straight up the @#%$ wall.
< Calm down, I’m not going to hurt you, > a voice said, and X-Raytor knew, immediately, that it came from the creature.
He would have responded but, no, he was too busy trying not to blow chunks in his mask.
As he watched, horrified, the monster became paler, and within the span of a few seconds, a human form emerged. In the end, there was no trace of the black-plated monster, just a guy, a young guy, sitting on the floor in a pair of workout clothes.
“Hey,” the guy said. “Remember me?”
X-Raytor peered forwards, and then recoiled. “Jake Berenson?”
“In the flesh,” he said, but there was no humor in his voice, just a flat, sardonic note.
X-Raytor blinked, and climbed down from the headboard, dropping onto the bed. “What in the name of f*** was that?”
“I was a fly,” Jake said. “I was demorphing. I guess it’s a little unnerving if you haven’t seen it before.”
“Oh, I’ve seen it before. It’s just that usually Scarlett morphs… nicer. That was, honestly, the most disgusting thing I have ever seen.”
All thoughts of that strange, parallel universe were pushed momentarily from X-Raytor’s mind. More important questions occurred to him, such as:
“What the hell are you doing in my room?”
“Well, remember the first time we met? When was that… a year ago?”
“About,” X-Raytor said. He had met Jake accidentally while visiting the M.O.R.P.H.Z. Main Base, following his final confrontation with the Green Penguin.
“What we talked about-you remember that? Well, with what we talked about, I figured that I… could talk to you about something.”
“Um… okay. Is this…”
“There’s some things I need to talk about that have to do with me, and there’s some things I need to talk about that have to do with you. You up for that?”
“… Sure, I guess. Just… what’s going on?”
Jake sighed, and coughed into his fist. “It’s all of this. All of this…bulls***. I’ve done stuff… f***, I’ve done stuff that would make your blood run cold. Stuff I did to other people, to aliens, to my own family… I figured you’d understand that. You went through something like that, right?”
“It’s essentially the same things. You mutated your entire family and I-“
“How do you know all of this?” X-Raytor asked, the weariness welling up again.
“I looked you up. You’ve got a clearance file bigger than my house.”
“It’s big,” Jake said.
“I got it. But-what are you talking about? You guys were totally… you guys didn’t do anything wrong. You were fighting a war. You saved the world.”
“Didn’t do anything?” Jake asked. “Didn’t do anything?! I killed people, and I sacrificed people, and I did it all for-“
“Look, you can’t blame yourself for other people…”
“No! They didn’t sacrifice themselves. I sacrificed them! I’ve sacrificed so many people for-“
“Who?” X-Raytor demanded, his head aching from the combination of fatigue and confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“Like the auxiliary Animorphs!! Like that whole bunch of handicapped kids who I let be burned to death so that we could get a few more seconds! Like those Yeerks on the Pool Ship. Like when I sent my cousin to kill my brother!!”
X-Raytor stared, his jaw dropping.
“Yeah,” Jake said, with a sickly smile. “That’s right. Rachel’s death, that was all me.”
“B-but the movie…”
“F*** THAT HORSES*** MOVIE!!” Jake roared. “That movie-that movie was glorified BULLS*** that was made to continue the constant stream of F***ING BULLS*** that is fed to the-“
“Jake!” X-Raytor snapped. “Listen to me. I do not have the energy for this. Either calm down, or get out.”
“And the sickest thing is, the sickest thing about it? I thought it was mercy. I knew she could never survive in a post-war world, I knew that this is exactly the sort of twisted s*** that she would want…” He was on his feet now, pacing. He stopped suddenly and punched the wall. “F***!!!”
“Jake…” X-Raytor said.
“F***! I killed her! I killed all of them!!”
“Jake. Get out of my house.”
“I’m- I’m-“ He punched the wall again, feebly, and then dropped to the floor, weeping faintly.
“Are you drunk?” X-Raytor asked.
“N-no,” Jake mumbled.
“Look… just calm down, and say what you wanted to say.”
Jake was silent for a long moment, and then turned around, his eyes puffy. “No. I’m done with-I don’t even know what I want to say about myself. Doesn’t matter anyway. You need to know some things.”
X-Raytor nodded. “Okay.”
“There’s stuff going on within the government, within M.O.R.P.H.Z., specifically, that you really don’t want to be involved in. I would recommend staying as far away from General Sampson as possible.”
“I think it’s a little too late for that,” X-Raytor said. He knew that Sampson would be able to find him no matter what, and even if X-Raytor could escape, Sampson was the only lead he had as to where his family might be. “I actually got mixed up in one of his stupid experiments today.”
Jake’s eyebrows narrowed suddenly. “What? What do you mean?”
“Well, it was-do you know what a Sario Rip is?”
Jake’s mouth closed so suddenly that X-Raytor heard his teeth clack together. “Sario Rips? What are they doing with Sario Rips?”
“Well, they had a Sario Rip generator, and…”
“A generator?!” Jake slapped his forehead. “Those idiots! I should’ve-- the idiots!! Of course! The f***ing Wilson expedition, the f***ing JRAMOA… they were trying to breach the fourth dimension as well, you know that?! Just like the goddamn Johnston experiments, just like Molly f***ing Dougherty! Th- the f***ing Universal Gateway! F***ERS!!”
“I have no idea what you just said.”
“Good. Keep it that way. In fact, forget everything you just heard me say, or they’ll probably kill you. They might… well, no, I’m sure they haven’t replaced the bugs in this room yet, not that quickly…”
“They- wait, they bugged my room?!”
“There’s little they don’t have bugged,” Jake muttered. “Besides, how is that surprising? It’s not like they wouldn’t stoop to it. They- they spy on teenage girls because of some crackpot theory about aliens and the paranormal and… and they’ve got labs everywhere. They’re doing… you don’t want to know, honestly. You’ll find out, maybe, but the later the better, believe me. It’s not just them, either. They’ve got… they have contracts in just about… f***…”
“What’s… going on?” X-Raytor asked. He suddenly felt as if his room were full of invisible eyes and ears, as if there were enormous things moving around in the shadows.
“I- I can’t. I can’t talk about… but I thought I should warn you. I think… I feel like something big is going to happen. Something really, really bad. I feel like… like everything that’s come before has been connected somehow, all coming together in this… God…”
“Listen, you said they can’t hear us,” X-Raytor said. “You have to tell me everything you can. At least tell me what this has to do with me.”
Jake shook his head and stood. “I… can’t.”
“Tell me if this has anything to do with my family.”
Jake shook his head again.
“Tell me! You can’t just not tell me!!”
“I can’t” Jake roared. He wiped his face and then repeated, in a calmer tone, “I can’t. I’m sorry. I… I probably shouldn’t even have come here. I don’t even… I’m not even sure what I’m saying. I… just, forget it. Forget everything I said. I’m not… I’m not in my right mind right now.”
He walked over to X-Raytor’s window and opened it. Then he began to shrink and, a few nausea-inducing moments later, Jake was replaced by a peregrine falcon. He fluttered up onto the windowsill, illuminated by the ground light.
And then, one final time, he looked back at X-Raytor.
< D- do you know anyone named Shannon? >
X-Raytor thought for a moment, his brain moving around sluggishly, and then said, “No.”
< You’re sure? Shannon? >
“No. I don’t know anyone named Shannon.”
< Hm. >
And with that, he flew away. Confused, sick, and developing a major headache, X-Raytor’s head dropped back onto his pillow, and in a few merciful moments he was asleep.
Claire straightened the papers in front of her and smiled. "I think the letters of recommendation speak for themselves. Furthermore, I'm already familiar with the inner workings of your organization, so I can get started right away and cut training time to a minimum. As your intern, I will do my best at any task set before me." Claire looked at her audience. "Are there any questions?"
Rosma, Scarlett, and Eric sat at the kitchen table across from her, looking stunned.
"I just came in here for a cup of coffee," Scarlett said.
"And interns make coffee," Claire pointed out.
"Since when do we get interns?" Eric whispered.
Rosma looked down at Claire's resume. "So why do you want to work here."
"That's a good question," Claire said. "I believe the Justice League is poised on the verge--" Claire pause a moment. "Honestly, I need an internship to graduate and the head of my major's a huge Justice League fan. So do I have the job?"
"We can't pay you," Rosma said.
"I don't need you to. What you have to offer is more valuable than money: experience. I already manage the Justice League stock portfolio--"
"We have stock?" Eric whispered.
"--which has consistently exceeded expectations. As your intern, I will take over managing the household finances, as well as managing the household staff, which I will hire. I've created a budget and there is room in it for the hiring of three full-time employees. I have taken the liberty of seeking out three individuals who will work out wonderfully in the Hall of Justice's...unique environment.
"For the position of Chief Cook and Librarian--"
"We have a library?"
"--there's Miss Cimorene Linderwall. Her specialty is cherries jubilee. Miss Morwen Jasper will be in charge of laundry and housekeeping and is excellent at getting blood out of Spandex. And finally the gardening will be handled by Mister Modo Brightside. His previous employer was the Unseen University, which makes him very good in odd situations."
"How do you know they're not evil?" Scarlett asked. "We've had that kind of problem in the past."
"I've checked out every aspect of their lives," Claire said. "These three have some interesting hobbies, but they are in no way evil and would rather die than betray you."
"Well," Rosma said. "We have to discuss this with our colleagues."
"But we'll let you know in the morning," Rosma finished.
Claire smiled. "Thank you."
The bus depot was loud and smelled vaguely of french fries and cigarettes. Violet wrinkled her nose. “New York, New York,” she sung softly to herself. Violet had lived in the Empire State for 12 years, and she had never really been in the city. Yea, she had driven through it one or twice, but not really. Adjusting her backpack, Violet walked over to a large map on the wall. Her train didn’t leave for another couple hour, so she might as well find something to do.
Blake Mercier stepped off the subway car, a smile on her face and a very heavy briefcase in one hand. Her boss was going to be very pleased. Blake used her free hand to adjust her hat before ascending the stairs to the street. She walked two blocks before coming to a coffee shop and sitting down. She set the briefcase at her feet.
“Mercy,” a man dressed in a heavy, brown coat took a seat at the table behind her.
“He knows I have it. Take the seven o’ clock.” Out of the corner of her eye, Black saw the man nod her head. She kicked the briefcase back before gathering herself and standing up. “Daniel, don’t be late. The boss doesn’t appreciate tardiness.”
The final comment was a warning. She knew the man’s identity. Pleased with herself, Blake walked from the coffee shop and onto the sidewalk. Then, she froze.
Across the street ordering a pretzel from a street vender stood a woman Blake knew. She was bundled under a winter coat with her hair pulled under a scarf-but her identity was unmistakable.
Blake’s phone rang, and she looked down. Her attention pulled from the young woman, when Blake looked up again, the woman was gone.
“What are you doing?”
“Eyes everywhere, sir?”
“Don’t be smart. Answer my question.”
“I saw a woman I recognized. You know her as the Violet Princess. With your permission-“
“Take care of it.”
“Thank you, Boss.”
“If you screw up, I won’t waste my people on a rescue mission.”
There were three beeps and the connection was lost. Blake put her phone away and hailed a taxi. There could have been several reasons why Victoria was in New York, but Blake had a definite idea what it was.
Scarlett looked up from her cup of coffee as she sat in the kitchen flipping through the newspaper; Hamlet was curled up in her lap, so sound asleep that the racket Claire made as she entered the kitchen with a half dozen grocery bags didn't wake him up. Scarlett raised an eyebrow. "What's all that?"
"Food. Snack food, to be exact. Boyd Billeh is leaving for the weekend, and I'm organizing a party."
"But you're an intern."
"Which means I'll do all the grunt work and the rest of you can just enjoy the party."
Scarlett pondered this for a few minutes. She took another sip of her coffee, then set both it and the newspaper down on the kitchen table. "Claire, you're one of the best things that ever happened to the Justice League."
"So what time is the party? I'll go tell the others." Scarlett lifted the still sleeping Hamlet from her lap and stood up, then placed him back onto the chair.
"It's what, 3 o'clock? Let's say it starts at six."
"I'll spread the word."
At precisely 5:47pm, Claire pulled out a huge bowl of white dip covered with saran wrap and a note saying "I SPIT IN THIS--OREO" from the fridge. Certain that Oreo wouldn't be dumb enough to put her unfinished Oreo ingredients into the fridge, Claire reasoned that Oreo must have taken a liking to the fruit dip Claire had started buying.
She took off the saran wrap and threw it away, but the one bowl was too big for the table. Besides, she had found some cute little bowls for fruit dip hiding in the back of one of the kitchen cabinets. "Hmm..." she hmmed, and got out a spoon.
Claire filled the first bowl without incident, but the second ran slightly over her fingers as she tipped the last of it into the bowl; Claire put the big bowl in the sink and washed her hands, and went on setting out the rest of the food.
Xiao came down the stairs and walked into the common room. "Don't think I'm going to let you have a good time, slave," Fred whispered to her.
"I just want to get some food, okay?" Xiao said as she grabbed a clear plastic plate. "I have to eat."
"So do I, slave."
Xiao used a strawberry to put some dip onto her plate, decided it wasn't enough, and used the strawberry to dip some more; on the second dip, her fingers brushed the dip on the inside of the bowl. Xiao ate the strawberry, then licked the rest of the dip off of her fingers.
"Such a messy slave."
"What?" Netic had just walked up to Xiao.
"Uh...the fruit dip's great. You should try it," Xiao said.
Netic shrugged. "Okay."
At the other end of the room, RWM had just dipped a pretzel into the other bowl of fruit dip when Drew approached him. "Not a bad party," Drew observed. She dipped a tortilla chip into the dip.
Small talk. Right Wing Man could make small talk with a woman, even one so callous and unconventional as Drew. "Yes, our intern is quite skilled in the kitchen, as all women should by necessity be."
Drew opened her mouth to say something as Raven strode over to the table. "So what are we celebrating?" Raven asked, sparing Right Wing Man a verbal thrashing from Drew.
"I'm not sure," Drew said, and then she saw the still-amnesiac Iso walk cautiously into the common room. "I'm going to go check on Iso," she said, leaving Raven with Right Wing Man.
Raven raised an eyebrow. "What did you say to her? No, nevermind, I don't want to know." Raven dipped a piece of pineapple into the fruit dip, just as Oreo entered the room; Right Wing Man sauntered off in Oreo's direction, leaving Raven alone. Seconds later, just after Raven double-dipped the pineapple into the fruit dip, Rosma appeared beside her.
"I saw that."
Rosma sighed. "Oh, fine. It's not a big deal."
"Does that mean you'll have some of the fruit dip?"
Rosma stared back at Raven. "It's not sanitary!"
"I'm not sick. It's fine."
Rosma looked at the fruit dip. "It does look good."
"It tastes good, too," Raven assured her.
"Okay! I'll try it!" Rosma said, and dipped a pretzel into the dip. "Mmm. That is tasty, even with all your germs in it."
"Hush. Let's get the others to try it."
"How disgusting, you double-dipper."
"Here comes Eric!" Eric walked up to the table Rosma and Raven were standing at. "Have some dip, Eric," Raven said.
Eric had some fruit dip, and walked away.
"Hah! Cwahahaha!" Raven laughed. "Hey, Hamlet," she said as Hamlet strode by the two of them. "Have some fruit dip."
"Meow," he said, and started to walk away.
"No, it's okay, it's not messy. Just use your paw to dip a little out."
Rosma looked at Raven. "Okay, I'm not having any more fruit dip tonight."
"And I'm taking away your PM2."
The party slowly wound down as it got later, mostly because HBO was doing a special on the making of Animorph, and most of the JLers were sitting on the couch watching that. As the show finished and various members began making their way to their bed, Claire looked on, smiling proudly at the generally happy looks on the JLers' faces.
Oreo walked up to Claire just as she used a strawberry to scoop out the last of the fruit dip in the second bowl. "Our first party with no major problems," Oreo said. "Thank God."
Scarlett strode over from the other side of the room, two strawberries in hand. She ate the first, and handed the other to Oreo. "You have to try out this fruit dip Claire got, Oreo. It's the best stuff I've ever tasted."
Oreo took a bite, and her eyes went wide. "Claire...where did you get this dip?"
"It had a sign on it! You weren't supposed to touch it!"
"Look, just because you're stingy with your food--"
"It was for my Oreos!"
Claire and Scarlett exchanged a glance.
"F*ck," Scarlett swore. "What's it going to do to us?"
Oreo shook her head. "I don't know. I mean, it was an experimental batch. After turning myself into Violet, I thought it might be a good idea to have a way turn into other Justice Leaguers, too..."
"Should we tell the others?"
"Maybe it won't do anything," Scarlett suggested hopefully. "We don't want to worry anyone unnecessarily."
"...sure," Oreo said. "Maybe it won't do anything."
Scarlett turned over in her bed and looked up at the ceiling. Her clothes felt tight all over her body. Why had she gone to bed in her exercise clothes? She stumbled out of bed and looked over at the dresser, where X-y was staring calmly back.
"Ahhh!" she screamed. "X-y! What the f..." she trailed off as she realized it was just a reflection in the mirror.
"AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!" she shrieked as she realized it was her reflection. She approached Violet's bed, where Claire was sleeping until Violet came back, and shook the figure under the sheets. "CLAIRE!!!"
A muscular arm lifted the sheets away, revealing a groggy Jo Surf. He started screaming. "X-Raytor? What the...you're not a girl! You pervert, watching me in my sleep! Get out!"
"Claire! It's me!"
"No @#%$, Sherlock! It's hard to miss the bondage outfit!"
"It's Scarlett. Claire, get a grip. Look in the mirror. You don't look like you, either." Claire looked at the mirror hanging over the dresser.
And then she proceeded to scream like a banshee.
Thirty minutes later, the entire JL had assembled downstairs in the common room, all of them in various states of confusion and abject horror.
"So let me get this straight," Rosma...or rather, Eric in Rosma's body said. "That Oreo fruit dip turned us into whoever ate from it last?"
Oreo-in-Scarlett's-body nodded. "Yes."
"Midnight" looked at "Pinzz." "Can I just ask one more question here?"
"X-y, can you stop groping me--yourself!?"
"Pinzz" dropped her hands.
"Wait...X-y got turned into Pinzz?" asked Jo Surf-in-Swift's-body.
"Neary Issues!" half of them shouted.
"Pinzz" made a rude hand gesture to all of them.
"They're more alike than they want to admit," Raven (Rosma) muttered to Xiao(Netic).
"...why am I wearing a collar?" Rosma (Eric) asked.
"Eric" turned to look at Rosma (Eric). "I feel naked without a collar."
"...Hamlet?" X-y (Scarlett) asked.
"It's me, X--er, Scarlett," Eric (Hamlet) said.
"Meow," Hamlet (Iso) contributed from the corner he was sharing with Iso (Midnight).
"See, this is why we need to stop having parties," Scarlett (Oreo) said. "Something bad always happens."