Zach reached over and kicked on the stereo and sat back down on the bed. He turned the volume up not enough to require investigation, but enough to cover his sobs… in a very short time he was going to be crying.
As the sounds of Candiria began to echo through his bedroom he held the handwritten note paper just between his knees tightly so that it wrinkled and tore in small places.
The rest was covered by his quivering fists. Slowly and carefully, Zach released the page and began to carefully smooth it back out. He took a deep breath and he looked again. He had read the page at least six times already, but he must have missed something. Something. God!
You wouldn’t believe how remarkable this place is… I mean, to stand in a doorway that’s a thousand or more years old… It makes you feel like you’re really a part of something huge.
I got to see
Oh, come on for Christ’s Sake! He thought. Send me this newsy email and bury the sledgehammer in the middle? Were you hoping I wouldn’t get this far? He should have known… her uneasiness was soaked in the paper. There was a soul residue there that next to no one on the planet but him might detect. He decided to skip the remainder of the next paragraph.
Zach, I wanted to tell you something big! I wanted to make sure you heard it from me, instead of someone else…
Heard it? That’s a laugh!
… and I hope you can be happy for me. I’m happy!
Anyway… I’ve met a wonderful man and I’m getting married! That’s right… me!
Zach dropped the letter and stood up. The music swelled to obnoxious, unintelligible crescendos and in its random polyrhythmic inaccessibility he identified with it strongly. He paced two steps at a time, like a lost rat in a maze, not knowing what path to take… He balled his fists into tight knots! He wasn’t going to cry again. Not this time. She’d gotten so many of his tears already that it was almost getting old. It had lost all novelty! Fuck it… who is worth it?
He sat down again and before picking the letter back up he caught his reflection in the full dressing mirror. He saw how twisted and morose his face looked, almost humorous in its lined caricature of human sorrow. He had passed Pathos and headed for Bathos. The laugh didn’t come, but the tears did. Picked the wrong place to sit… Wrong fucking place… My face? Why did I have to see that?
He breathed in shotgun blasts taking in all of the air in the room, it seemed, and exhaling nothing but cold exhaust. Worth it or not… Janie Gray was getting his tears. He was reading again, and twisting the knife, before he knew the letter was back in his hands.
I never thought it would happen, but Mike and I met and fell in love. You’d really like him! He’s really smart and cool, and shares my love for Restoration Lit… He’s so cool! I feel like I can tell him anything! (I won’t tell him everything though, so don’t worry, Mr. Night Life).
“Night Life” was Janie’s lame inside joke for his playing superhero at night. Even when they were together Janie still never took him seriously as Scanner… he was still always “Playing Superhero!”
Anyway, we’re setting the date around July 28th of this year, so if you could come that would be just awesome! I mean, you and I have been through so much together I can’t imagine having this special day without you around! Please plan on being there!
Yeah, I didn’t think you’d have this special day without me around either… I just didn’t expect to be a spectator. The thought shook him a little deeper. His chest literally felt cold and he wasn’t even really sure if his heart was beating. He heard some dull, light thumps and realized his tears were splashing on the page and smearing her words. He wiped his face and carefully dabbed the page with his bed sheet. He still wasn’t sure whether he should tear this page to pieces or have it framed.
Well, I wanted to make sure you were the first to know… Well, he proposed, I accepted… I guess that makes you the third to know! You get the idea. I would have called, but, you know… I thought this might be easier for both of us!
One of us, maybe.
Either way, just rest assured he’s a great guy… and you’d like him! I really did fall in love… it surprised me too, but it happened, and it’s great. In short… I’m not pregnant!
Zach guessed that was supposed to be funny! The only time Zach and Janie ever discussed marriage was during “the big scare!” He idly wondered why it was never a serious discussion when the “have to” part wasn’t involved.
Of course the letter went on like that. She sounded really happy and almost completely oblivious to what Zach’s reaction might have been. Almost.
It had been over a year since she flew away to the East coast. Over a year since the sleepless night in which he had driven to see her off. It had been months before that that they had broken up for what Zach now knew was the final time. Somehow though, he had carried a hope he wasn’t aware he still harbored all this time, believing somehow that one day they were simply going to end up together.
He hadn’t expected her to live like a nun in a cloister, but somehow he was taken off guard by this letter. He felt like a fool, as if all his plans no longer equaled reality anymore. He didn’t know where to turn or what to do. He felt ridiculous… overreacting to his ex-girlfriend’s continued unavailability. But his future, a future he didn’t know he had planned, being pulled from him… that was crushing him.
Dealt with worse! Faced worse! He thought. How much worse was this than the Arena? Hell, was this even worse than him losing her in the first place?
Please write me back to let me know what you think about all this. I can’t wait to hear from you and hear what’s going on in your life! I’m sure it’s more exciting than mine is…
Zach fingered a new scar near his left temple, still pink as it healed. More exciting? In some ways. He almost laughed, which caused a second, more brief rain of tears to come. Sappy! He thought. Dealt with worse! Faced worse!
He remembered the time he watched her plane take off into the brightening morning over a year ago. He had asked Janie’s sister not to tell her he had cried. It sounded hilarious and weak in hindsight… but the mood was the same. Same game, different Sunday.
Zach pulled out a notebook from his backpack and placed it in his lap. Perforated edges… neat, like she’d like it.
Married! Wow! Congratulations! You’d better bet I’m going to be there! Wouldn’t miss it for the whole world.
So, tell me more about this Mike! He sounds like quite a guy! Can’t wait to shake his hand! He’d better know what a lucky guy he is… Ah! Of course he does!
Where’d you meet him?
Of course the letter went on like that.
Everything that Zach had… or that
Scanner, rather, had… that could be considered extrasensory was emotion
based. He could read emotions and tap
into the subconscious of just about anything… therefore the closest thing to a
precognitive power he had was the feeling of an old emotion just before similar
feelings came to the surface. Not much
It was over a year since the letter, and several months since the wedding (it hadn’t taken “the world” for him to politely miss it). For some reason he couldn’t keep that letter out of his mind.
When the phone rang he was sure who it was with or without caller ID. Still when he heard the words “Zach? Zach, it’s Janie!” it still felt like a sucker punch.
“Janie… hi… why are you… it’s late!” he grumbled, strangely off his guard! It was actually almost morning, but he was still awake.
“I know it’s late! Listen, I need your help!”
Right button, first try! “I need your help” was always the magic word for Zach Stafford and his costumed alter ego, Scanner!
“It’s Mike!” she said. “He’s been taken… they… they tuh-took him! Can you-“
“Where are you?” he was Scanner now.
“Muh-Mom’s house!” She said. Her voice was tense, pained, and somehow still as beautiful as ever.
“Five minutes!” he said sharply and hung up. He was in costume and flying over the city in two minutes.
The Haughton Underground was in these days what amounted to a Mensa Militia! By no means was this secret society the equivalent of some survivalist camp in Montana with redneck racists and future Tim McVeighs, but was rather the crème de la crème of the smartest and most subversive men and women in the state (and now, branching out to much of the world) essentially setting out to actually be “that man behind the curtain!” They employed former police and military personnel making un-refusable offers to people used to keeping secrets. They also experimented with the best of weapons and armaments, while keeping their eyes on the financial and political prize.
What they couldn’t control they set out to break, and what they couldn’t break… God knew. One of Zach’s original motivations for the formation of the Bastion was to be a solid opponent to the Haughton Underground’s machinations. Now, a Post-Scanner Bastion had forged an unofficial peace with the Underground, aiming for similar goals. This was bad news for Scanner himself, as he had no way to take on both groups alone.
The Haughton Underground had captured him once, kidnapped Janie once and actually tried to kill him by bombing an apartment complex they believed he was living in. Luckily they didn’t know who Zach Stafford was (yet), but Scanner had himself one nasty enemy… and his former friends in the Bastion were offering little beyond apathy. He knew he would have to deal with them sometime, but there was little he could do as it currently stood. He was only one!
Now they had Janie’s… husband. Husband.
Janie’s husband! Part of him still couldn’t think the words without great pain. She hadn’t chosen him, and that hurt… but she was happy, and this guy did it, so Zach, in some sick way, had to applaud that. And now that her husband had been captured he was going to have to deal with the Haughton Underground… like it or hate it.
Her smile was worth more than he
could imagine… and this guy did it for her.
What a hell of a fucked up predicament this was for him. Damnable pain. He needed to focus. Rubberface Smith
had found for him that the Haughton Underground’s main compound was across the
Therefore the only way in (that wouldn’t positively kill him) was the front door (though mortality rates there must have been high). The element of surprise? Not going to happen!
Scanner descended vertically from
the sky, his leg jets tapering off in their well-trained way to allow him to
land softly on the brown, gravel drive leading up to the large iron-gray
building amid the rusted corpses of
There were two human-sized doors along the front of the building, and one enormous opening large enough to drive an Ore Carrier through. Lord knew what they were going to haul in through there, but it was big enough for a James Cameron movie!
It was this door that slowly opened with a low pitched rumble and a series of armored guards walked out in a triangle formation carrying some of the largest, most complicated guns he had ever seen. Their armor was a dark grey, a shade deeper than the building they were guarding, and their weapons, large rifles with multiple barrels and pipe-like extensions, held just about every ominous gun-metal tone you could expect, from gold to black. Zach was pretty familiar with guns, and honestly had no idea what half of these weapons would even be used for. He felt more than a little out of his league.
They approached slowly, probably not expecting much without recognizing who they were dealing with. Scanner’s now-recognizable costume was covered by a long brown cape and cowl, looking like the robe a military monk might wear if there was such a thing. His head was completely covered by the hood, and a strip of the stiff fabric stretched across his lower face. Only his black, wraparound goggles remained visible of what could be considered Scanner-like. While it appeared to be effective as a disguise this robe was, Rubberface claimed, the latest in projectile deflection technology and could repel bullets that Kevlar opened up and said aaaaaaaah for. Zach, beneath the layers, hoped the mysterious Mr. Smith was right.
The front guard lowered his gun and propped it on a swing down tripod aimed at Scanner. “Hands up… slowly lay down, face down on the ground.”
If he was some ordinary kid who wandered onto this place (which must have been just this side of impossible), he wouldn’t make it out with his marbles intact… if at all!
Scanner did put his hands up and allowed gravity to pull the sleeves of his robe down just past the fingerless gloves and the rectangular silver blasters he kept mounted on his forearms. He then pushed both fists forward and began to fire golden stun-blasts into his would-be jailers.
He had gotten no more than two of them (and it was hard to tell the level of damage done with the armor on) when the melee of bullets began to rain sideways at him.
Zach jumped up and immediately fell backward at the hail storm of lead. He lay flat on his back in pain! But the robe had worked… he might have been bruised, but he was very much alive.
“Sound dampeners a check!” said one of them as they approached him.
“Subject is down and appears to be incapacitated!” said another. “Checking identity and vital signs.”
Zach caught his breath and rolled forward taking some legs out from under his armored foes.
He regained his feet and smiled invisibly behind the cowl… Didn’t expect me did you? He thought.
A second maelstrom of bullets flew toward him. Scanner jumped up and spun around, his robe flowing outward to net several bullets as they impacted and flattened in a strange impression of a Susan B.
He spun around again, and dove forward to his nearest enemy. He realized that most of the group were still standing, proving their armor’s worth against his tech.
Scanner ripped the gasmask from the guard and threw it at that clown's nearest ally. He then punched three times, anesthetizing the man and letting him fall. He held the guard’s gun aloft and aimed it at the three closest gunmen and let off a flurry of black projectiles which floored the masked baddies with ease before they could squeeze off a shot. Smart… their armor is resistant to their own weapons. The guards appeared down, but living.
Scanner detected one of the guards from behind him and spun quickly about, throwing the brace of the rifle into the facemask, but resisting a wise crack. He then upped the intensity of his stun blasts to keep the others at bay. Five down, and seven to go!
He wasn’t sure who these people were under the masks and armor. He wondered what training they must have had to actually work security for the Underground. All he knew for sure was they weren’t giving ground easily… and hopefully they weren’t radioing for reinforcements.
Seeing their fallen comrades the remaining seven kept their distance and began to fire again. Zach was knocked to the ground, gasping for breath! The robe was great, but it didn’t keep him from feeling the impact… Hopefully no broken ribs. Of all the honorable deaths that he could think of, dying for Mike wasn’t one of them.
Mike! Shit! Time was wasting while he played with these kids, and he had a life to save. Forlornly in the back of his mind he wondered if he was procrastinating intentionally. No… I’m better than that! Still every second was one more second of danger for Mike. It was time to stop assign around and start getting clever. He was a superhero not a brawler.
Zach kicked to a kneeling position and fired seven stun blasts that did little good. Any higher he might have killed someone, and he wasn’t about to be that guy… easier, but more guilt inspiring.
He mentally commanded his thigh-mounted jets to carry him to the left, aiming for the cab of the magnetic crane. He hoped both that it wasn’t locked and that it was operational. Seven identical sprays of bullets followed him, and those that didn’t impact into his back shattered the glass of the cab, making his first hope moot. A low level stun blast pushed the crane magnet control to the on position and a hum confirmed that it was indeed operational. Now let’s hope these assholes aren’t wearing aluminum!
Zach flew back to catch the cable the flat magnet hung from and spirited it along above the seven, close enough to kiss them. Two made it far enough back that they weren’t pulled forward and upward, but five succumbed and were grabbed, gun-first, by the electric magnet.
Zach released it and let the five captured guards swing uncomfortably back and forth. Fate humorously dictated a sixth (one of the unconscious) would be captured as well on one swing.
The two who remained had stopped running, but were instead focusing their attention on some small weapon they each had. They fired once each and small black objects shot in slow arcs toward him. He was in full excitement mode now and his powers were at their height of perception, yet also at their height of difficulty to read, wasted like a high definition television on an ADHD kid. Still what the emotions of his assailants suggested he read as GRENADE!
He dove back quickly as first one, and then two pillars of rotten dust erupted around him. These were small. He was shaken, but living. Zach was starting to guess that the Haughton Underground hadn’t expected their main complex to be found, and hadn’t planned for an approach like this. Interesting. He had to investigate later… should he live.
Two more blasts hit and threw him back, one actually blowing his cowl back and exposing his chest. Fucking Velcro, he thought, but had no time for a laugh.
He realized that the guards’ weapons were arcing up and away and might not be any good up close (he hoped). He therefore rocketed up and then back down as quickly as possible and landed to one side of the gunmen.
He then tossed off his robe and wrapped it around the helmet and face mask of the closest guard, pulling him (or her) tightly to his chest, and grabbing the business end of the grenade gun (a model he’d never seen before). He then darted a hand back to push the launch command, firing at the last remaining guard. The guard was blown to the side of the building with a bang and a thud and fell back unconscious.
Scanner then head-locked the blinded guard he held and gave three swift punches to where he guessed the chin must have been and he felt the guard go limp.
Zach took three seconds to breathe, his muscles and bones burning from the beatings they had taken. He was happy to be alive, but thought he should have taken a few Advil before coming to Mike’s rescue. He then dragged both twitching bodies away from the compound toward the magnet. He pulled off both mask and helmet from his quarry and casually tossed them under the magnet (which eagerly attached them to the sparking armor of its nest).
He then went to their four remaining comrades and stripped them too of their masks and helmets. He rolled two under the magnet (careful not to get beneath it himself), then dragged the other two the same way as they awakened.
“No… don’t… don’t!” said one.
“Why not?” he spat.
He rolled the silent one in and up to hug his hanging colleagues!
“I can huh-help you find what you’re looking for!” the beat up man, not much more than a kid, said.
Scanner could tell the kid meant it, but didn’t trust him either way. Scanner laughed a little, and it hurt. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Yeah… yuh… you’re Scanner!” said the kid.
“Scanner… so what makes you think I can’t detect every living thing in that building?”
“I…” was all the other man could get out before he was pulled up to an uncomfortable position at the bottom of the reverse pile-up!
Scanner allowed a quip, saying “I hope your resumes are up to date, kiddies!”
Whoever was in control of this embarrassment must have just woken up because he heard the low rumble of the big doors closing again, and two of the supposed gun turrets opened. Shit! He thought and let his leg jets take him closer to the building.
A hot beam of light crackled the air to his left, and then again to his right before he made it to the relative safety of the doorway. He retrieved his now dusty robe and threw it back on. With about a foot to spare he squeezed through the rumbling doors and into a large, clean two story antechamber with what appeared to be offices up top and a flat, imperfect circle cut into the floor below (presumably an elevator for vehicles to be taken in for storage or repairs).
Zach cocked his head and allowed his mind to surf the area like Locke had taught him to do. There were one hundred and twenty people in this building, not counting the twelve, newly magnetic friends he had made outside. This was an entire office building, wasn’t it… I wonder if they carpool here or if they really all drive to work to some scrap yard! Wonder what they tell their little girls on “Take your daughter to work day!”
There was no audible alarm but he could feel that there were several souls approaching him from dead ahead. He refastened the Robe in all the places that counted, hoping against more lasers.
Not knowing where to go he began culling his detection based on emotions, he concentrated on the one most scared. Surely many in the building might be concerned being that the impenetrable compound had been penetrated (proud of himself he was), but he reasoned the most frightened soul inside these walls must be Mike. That soul appeared to be on one of the floors below. Hoping he was right, he looked for the elevator control and spied a cabinet of steel along the wall. Scratches in the beige paint suggested it was used often and it could be what he was looking for.
As he approached it twin doors before him opened and five armed soldiers, dressed much like those outside approached and began to fire!
“Oh, you people have got to stop shooting at me!” Scanner screamed as he dodged and ducked. He waved his arms, birdlike before him as the bullets knocked him back once again. This was getting old and annoying. Being shot he hated!
One ran out hoping to “make the arrest”, his rifle swung to his back, and brandishing a steel-blue pistol as the others took point in the relative safety of the doorways, firing only calculated bursts, which were painful and annoying when they hit.
Scanner eyed the lone soldier approaching him and hissed “I really don’t have time for this!” Before the soldier could fire (a smaller, probably electric gun) Scanner shot forward on leg jet power and grabbed the man’s shoulders, slamming his helmet into the cabinet knocking him out and bending open the control box.
Scanner hit the green button marked with a down arrow and saw the majority of the floor descending slowly. He grabbed the machine gun rifle from the unconscious man’s back and rolled rapidly into the hole in the floor! Remaining on his back he began to fire a spray of bullets upward, hoping to keep his enemies back as he descended further and further into the Earth.
The cold, greenish metal floor was strangely comfortable to lie on compared to what he had been through. His throat was parched, his ears rang, and his muscles and bones felt like they’d been skewered! He needed a nap and an aspirin! However he felt Mike’s signature growing closer. Why don’t I ever get a break? He mused.
Janie followed Zach’s instructions
to the letter and had contacted the police.
With any luck she’d be hooked up with some pair besides Pops and Junior,
Naturally she got his Scanner persona instead… the one Zach had always aped to separate his own personality from that of his costumed alter-ego. She had never been able to think of them as two separate people, Scanner was just her ex-boyfriend, Zach Stafford, “playing superhero” and making news. Around her, costume and goggles or not, he was still Zach, as long as no one else was around.
This night he was all Scanner and not Zach at all! He was still hurting, and covering it up in the only way that he knew how. It was the way Zach always covered up Zach. They weren’t two people… Scanner was merely Zach’s mask that he pulled over his own emotions… the ones he couldn’t deal with… The irony was that Zach could read anyone else’s emotions but couldn’t deal with his own. It would have been funny on paper, but managed not to be in real life.
Zach, or Scanner, rather, had
arrived to help. He asked her to contact
the police and to tell them that she had received an anonymous tip that Mike
was being offered up near the levee of
Janie had always been more of a lover than a fighter. She had always been more of a book-worm pacifist than… well, whatever it was that Zach was. Somehow she always imagined that Zach would settle down with someone more like him… that Vixen girl or someone. It wasn’t as if Janie was some damsel in distress who needed any sort of rescuing, but neither was she necessarily cut out to be the girlfriend of a superhero. How many nights had she wondered if he was going to come home alive, and how many nights had he come home, exhausted, saying “they needed me!” when she wondered where he had been.
He often joked that it was the bad guys… the super-villains, if she would, that were the smart ones in this game. They were in it for money, or power or something. The good guys generally got their asses kicked and never even got a thank you, much less a check to pay for ripped costumes, or burned electrical wires.
Zach’s full time job was Scanner, and Scanner wasn’t a paying profession. As smart as Zach was he had difficulty staying awake in classes, because of his “night life,” and just might never be much more than he was now. Ostensibly he had a future as a psychiatrist, but in truth, he was a career college student and vigilante, she knew. Oh, she loved him… but was it enough?
Mike was enough! When Janie had
She had met Mike at a renaissance fair, and they had shared some interests and became fast friends. Then they became much more than that. On a trip to Great Britain right in front of Buckingham Palace he had proposed… down on one knee and everything. It was a whole day before she even thought of Zach, whom Mike had simply known as “Janie’s Ex” a former love and now just “a good friend!” “Scanner” he knew only from the news and never considered them related in anyway but home town.
Zach appeared fine with the situation, but still wasn’t able to make the wedding. She realized now the whole thing was another mask of his… he had never been okay with it, and this friendship she had assumed she shared with Zach was pretty well nonexistent.
She had had so many ideas of how they might all get along, after having been in each others lives for so long. She had imagined Zach asking what Mike’s last name was and she responding that it was Cheney.
“Janie Cheney?” he might laugh before being told she was keeping her maiden name.
She’d imagined the friendly visits,
maybe even the occasional Christmas together after he got married, but things
had gotten so distant that this time, this visit from
She felt vaguely guilty, relying on Zach to clean up her life when she had left him, but her feelings of pain surrounding the disappearance of the man she loved were so much greater. She only hoped she hadn’t sent one love in to die with another.
Scanner waited until the floor above had just passed, grabbed the strap of the stolen rifle and rolled from the platform, narrowly missing a yellow ring of iron railing. Makes sense, he though as he bounced to a halt on his feet, If the lift is usually all the way up they need to keep these morons from falling in! He wondered idly how the aforementioned morons upstairs kept from falling into this hole.
The lift descended past the floor level revealing a cabal of security forces on the other side waiting to put a bullet in his heart. He blasted four times, then a fifth leveling the troops with stun blasts. Scanner always worried about overusing stun blasts. His blasters were capable of dishing out a lot more pain and death than the stun blasts he favored, but Scanner was one of those bleeding-heart, sanctimonious superheroes with a no-kill policy… he had thought about the man he had killed with his blasters when he had been “Dark Scanner,” when the emotions he had absorbed from others had taken over in a black parody of himself. It had probably been Dark Scanner more than anything else that had driven Janie away for good. The things that Dark Scanner had said and had done, like it or hate it, were painful to remember.
Hanging the rifle over his shoulder, Scanner paused and breathed in, feeling the soul residue along the walls and reaching out for every consciousness within this enormity. He did an about face and ran toward the most likely area where Mike might have been, and hoped he was right. It was a lingering thought to either screw this up, or just take too long and let the man die. Zach hated himself for having such thoughts… more than usual even. He remembered Janie’s smile… that lip over lip, head to one side, eye sparkling grin that was so uniquely Janie. He hated himself a half step more thinking of taking that smile away.
He approached the end of the corridor and was faced with a battleship steel wall before him. There was no door
His unfocused and confused powers still told him there was something behind this wall that he was positive was Mike Cheney. Scanner focused as best he could and considered what he was dealing with. He had gotten farther into the Haughton Underground compound than he had had any business getting in spit of the fact that these guys were beacons of intelligence. Would a small security force keep him out ordinarily? How had they underestimated him?
Or was the idea that you could get in, but not out? The reason he was there was to rescue Mike for Janie, and this was here… there were more questions than answers.
Footsteps rang down the hallway behind him. Three uniformed, but not armored guards held pistols aimed at him as they slowed to a halt. “Nice of you to join us!” said one with a sneer.
The idea at this point, Zach felt, was to be more scary than honest. “I’ll make you a deal, kids. You open this door for me and walk away nicely… I’ll actually let you live.”
Sneer-boy, Murphy from his name plate, laughed. “Gee that sounds like a great deal!” he said, “but here’s a better one!”
The pistol (a make Scanner was unfamiliar with, but matching the design of the guard on the lift above) leveled at his chest. While he didn’t want to be shot again, he thought these people would have gotten the message that bullets weren’t working on him.
Apparently they had gotten that message loud and clear. A small disc with spider-legs shot out and hit him in the chest like a punch, and the little legs took a pinch-hold in the fabric of not just the robe but the costume beneath.
“What the fu-“ was all he could manage before the electric current hit him in immobilizing waves. He fell jerking to his knees and twitched until the shocks ceased. He then, as quickly as he could, reached for the face of his assailant.
“You want more? Okay, Oliver!” laughed the uniformed thug as he pulled the trigger again. The disc emitted more liquid pain as Zach jerked and grasped feebly for his reverse parasite. “Ah, ah ah!” admonished the man as his counterparts laughed. Another blast bolted out, damaging the operating system of his weapons unit and dispersing his bioelectric powers as blue and green sparks danced across his limbs. Even through his insulated costume he was hurting, and the jerks weren’t doing much for his inflamed joints.
Catatonia, he thought, and went limp. Slowly he pulled his arms into his robe and rested.
“That’s it!” said another of the men (Brock if his worn and barely legible nametag was to be read correctly). “Let’s get him in!” and produced a short wand and pointed it toward the steel wall.
Remote control. Got it! He thought and jerked both arms forward pulling the robe away from his chest and taking the spider-disc with it. Ordinary fabric might have ripped, but the robe couldn’t be torn or pierced. In that the legs had clamped the fabric like a clothes pin removing the disc was difficult, not impossible.
Surprised, Murphy was reaching for the trigger again, and some small shocks danced about Zach’s fingerless gloves as he threw off the robe.
“Scanner!” Davis, the third man, said! Zach felt like the villain in the last 78 seconds of a Scooby Doo mystery being unmasked by those meddling kids.
Confused, the guard pulled his
trigger into what amounted to a pile of laundry until Scanner grabbed him by
the face and slammed his head into the face of
He reached over and plucked the identical pistol from Brock, and drove a disorienting fist up into his chin. He kept Brock conscious though because of Brock’s well worn name plate.
He launched the gun’s shock disc at
Murphy’s chest and laughed as Murphy did the horizontal bop on the floor,
sharing sparks with
He triggered until both men were unconscious but living.
Brock was beginning to stand and shake his head, reaching for any weapon he had left.
“Remote Control… give it to me!” Scanner said in a commanding tone!
“Blow me! I’m too well trained for this shit!” Brock hit back.
Scanner sneered. Even that ached after the punishment he had taken today! “Oh, I was so hoping you would say that!”
Scanner pushed Brock against the
wall and jerked the control from the man!
Naturally there was no button marked “
“What’s the combination?” he demanded, secretively.
“Fuck you!” replied Brock.
That’s it! Bury it in your mind… Not a word… yeah…
Zach had noted over the years how humans and other animals take repetitive tasks like passwords or reciting a name and store them as an almost instinctive event. Like being unable to “remember” a commonly used phone number without a keypad before you! If your nametag’s wear and tear is any indication of how long you’ve been here your codes have long since been relegated into the realm of the subconscious! Zach thought. And that realm… is mine!
Slowly, surely, he began to pull forth the needed codes from the man’s inner mind, the only part he could touch. He moved his thumb over Brock’s and together they typed out a short progression of data. He got no alphanumeric indications, just a feel of which keys to tap and in what sequence until all twelve were entered and the door opened with a whoosh much quieter than expected for a door of this size.
Scanner smiled. “Thanks, Brock! That’s the first time I’ve ever done that, man! I’m going to let you stay awake!”
Scanner handcuffed Brock’s right
“I’m going to need these though!” Scanner said as he ripped the com-link from each of the three uniforms. “Now you be good, boy chick, or ah’ll be Bach!” he laughed.
Zach grabbed the robe-heap, penetrated the door of the detention block and scanned the circular area that smelled of cigarette smoke, paper and possibly a little feces. There were windowed doors about seven feet apart each. Each small window had the crisscrossed rebar wire-glass therein, making it effectively unbreakable. Under each window was a short slot presumable for meals. This wasn’t exactly Oswald Federal Penitentiary, but it would be difficult to escape from for sure.
The Haughton Underground was full of Mysteries, and just what this was used for was another. What they might do in the case of a breach was still another. He didn’t know if they had a hand in the local Marine Reserves, using neutrals to fight for them. There was little that wasn’t possible at this point… including just cutting their losses and flooding this place with gas.
In the center of the white room beneath a buzzing and sickly flashing florescent was an unattended desk. Scanner threw the robe into the seat, sat down and felt around for a listing of detainees. There wasn’t one to be found. The computer might take forever to search through, and he was sure the next wave was about to happen. Seeing the computer prompted him to reboot the operating system on his weapons unit. A familiar mental command kicked off the process. Not that this would help him find Janie’s… damn it!
“Brock, old boy!” He shouted down the short hallway distance to his humiliated would-be sparring partner. “How do I get these doors open?”
From Brock’s hunched and locked position he was still able to upturn a single finger in Scanner’s direction.
“Real mature Brockie! I really don’t have time for this. At least tell me which room has Michael Cheney in it.”
Before Brock could flip him off again, a small voice from behind Scanner said “I’m Michael Cheney!”
That’s one way! Scanner thought.
He approached the door and hunkered down to meet Mike’s eyes through the narrow food slot. “Say that again!”
“I am Michael Cheney!” the man repeated to Scanner’s goggles.
He wasn’t lying.
Scanner stood and regarded Mike through the crisscrossed glass. He wasn’t a terribly impressive man. He clearly hadn’t been shaving since kidnapped, but just as clearly went into this with a pretentious little beard. He wore roundish glasses and had a short, sensible haircut. He wasn’t fat, but was maybe a little soft around the middle. He wore what appeared to be Hospital scrubs (probably the closest thing to a “prison uniform” the Underground had). Zach had heard that Mike was a Junior Editor for one of the more respected DC-based magazines. He had a face that would go well in black and white next to a byline… the kind with the stupid, knowing grins that screamed “take it from me, I know more!” Zach was conflicted between finding this guy completely worthless and almost idolizing him. In more ways than ten, this guy had a life that Zach might have had (or at least wanted) if there was no Scanner… no powers.
“Okay, I’m getting you out of here. Have you seen any way to…”
But Mike was shaking his head.
“I’m not going anywhere! They have my wife, and they told me that if…”
“They don’t have your wife! Janie’s the one who sent me. I assure you, she’s with the police right now! She’s quite safe and just… um… worried about you!”
Mike bowed his head slightly and said “Janie sent a superhero? How did she get in touch with-“
“You know I really don’t think this matters! We have to get out of here but fast! Janie’s safe, she misses you, let’s go, kid!” Scanner resisted the deep urge to add “and besides, I’m only ‘playing superhero!’”
Mike nodded. “Okay, I’m with you!”
Act of Congress came through! “Have you seen any way that they open these doors… a switch, a key?”
“Well…” and Mike paused as if there was plenty of time! Was Mike Drugged? “They all carry keys. I don’t know what else to tell you, they have them with them.”
“Okay, stand back!” Scanner barked… “Get as far back as you can!”
Mike retreated to the wall-mounted cot and sensibly pulled the blue-lined mattress up to protect himself.
The reboot was complete, and Zach pointed his left wrist-mounted blaster at the silver knob and let out a controlled, hot burst. He balled his fist , covering his bare fingers beneath the protection of the fingerless glove. The knob melted and the door itself buckled sickly and dribbled molten metal to the floor reaffirming Zach’s decision never to use such a setting against a human.
He then kicked open the door (splashing one or two dime-sized metal dots onto Mike’s floor).
Mike stepped down from the cot and took Scanner in. He may have seen pictures for the magazine of Scanner, but an over six foot man in a Kevlar reinforced black and burgundy costume must have set Mike’s head reeling. Scanner’s silver weapons unit consisting of rectangular blasters at each wrist, and jets at each thigh, connected by flexible conduits to a CPU on his back didn’t help, Zach was sure, and the great-grand-mammie of all assault rifles strapped to his back was just gravy.
Mike’s glasses had slid down his nose and he had bent his head back to clearly see Scanner through them. Zach might have laughed if he wasn’t sure he did the same thing sometimes. Still it wasn’t getting them out any faster! “Please… Pretty please… let’s go!” said Scanner.
You’d really like him!
Luckily Mike was already wearing a pair of Nikes, so they could simply jog the hell out of there.
“Scanner!” yelled a voice from another cell!
Now what? This was getting incredible.
“In here!” came the voice again. It was a familiar voice, but one Zach couldn’t quite place.
“Won’t be a minute!” Scanner said to Mike, who followed him closely anyway.
The face behind the rebar glass came into focus. It was… “Sidewinder!” Scanner said in confusion.
“Sidewinder?” Mike said. “He was in the news a lot last year.”
This was true. Sidewinder was a gun slinging member of the Bastion looking a lot more like the Outlaw Josie Wales than a mild mannered reporter in spandex.
Of course just now he looked like a recently hired orderly for the VA.
“You… you have to get me the hell out of here!” the Sidewinder drawled.
“I thought the Underground and the Bastion were best buddies now!”
“Clearly not all of us. Can I leave now?”
“What are you in here for?”
The Sidewinder looked annoyed. “This isn’t the county jail. Does it matter?”
Scanner decided that it didn’t and
prepared to melt Sidewinder out of his hole.
He also elected to not inform Sidewinder that in
“Okay, get back… let’s make this fast!” Scanner said!
“And use the mattress as a shield!” added Mike in a rather irritating addendum.
Again, Zach aimed at the doorknob and balled his fist. Mike, however was staring intently, as if there was no danger at all on the business end of a blaster!
“Well, get back, idiot!” Scanner said, in spite of himself. Mike looked surprised, but got back to a safe distance.
Scanner repeated his melt and kick routine and Sidewinder walked out.
“Thanks!” said Sidewinder, a man of few words.
Scanner upturned his face to the ceiling for maximum echo… “Anybody else want to get the hell out of here?”
Silence indicated the other rooms must have been empty!
“Listen, I’ve wasted enough time here… can you get your own ass out of here?”
Sidewinder grinned his green eyed grin over a stubble chin. “I insist on it. All I need is a gun. Any gun, then I find the storage locker for my shit, and I am out of here.” The Sidewinder’s weapon of choice was the revolver, but had a propensity for making any weapon his own.
Scanner grabbed the gun strap from his shoulder and held the stolen uber-rifle diagonally out to Sidewinder, but wouldn’t release it. “I want you to listen to me very carefully!” Scanner said. “What ever you do with this, under no circumstances are you to shoot at me! You understand?”
Sidewinder nodded and Scanner pushed the gun onto him, nearly tipping the man over.
Mike looked at the gun curiously and said “What the hell is that thing?”
“A really big gun.” Scanner replied matter-of-factly.
“Damn!” said Mike. “What ever happened to the M-16?”
Scanner shoved a finger at Mike’s face. “Don’t make fun!”
Mike shut up.
“I’d cover you,” said the Sidewinder, gaining his balance, “but I have some unfinished business here internally!”
“Give ‘em hell!” Scanner said as the Sidewinder ran off in the opposite direction.
Scanner pointed to the desk chair and said “Put that on, it’s a bullet-proof robe. It’s going to keep you alive until I get you back to your… um, wife! Make no mistake, if you get hit it will hurt like hell, but it will keep you very much alive and kicking.”
Mike did as he was told, fastening the robe in all the right places. Scanner placed the strip of fabric around Mike’s mouth as much to protect him as to shut him up.
“My costume isn’t going to be as protective as this is, but it’s been known to flatten most bullets.”
“But what id you get shot in the head?” asked Mike.
Scanner waved a fingerless glove into Mike’s view. “Don’t forget the fingers. If I get shot in any way that matters, you run like hell into the pines and flag down the nearest car with a cell phone antenna. Got it?”
Mike nodded a barely visible nod under the pointed hood.
“Do me another favor… and run, fast! Please!”
They did just that, the way Scanner had come, dodging past Brock who was bent over pulling both Murphy and Davis down the hallway in a weak attempt to get help. Murphy and Davis weren’t the thinnest fellows in the world.
“Guess you never heard about me, Brock-o! Kisses!” Scanner said to the infuriated guard on the floor. He wasn’t sure why his mood had gotten so playful, but it had. Must have been an absorption of someone’s nearby glee… though what was so happy about today was a spinal tap to Zach.
They approached the yellow guard rails that marked the elevator shaft. The rumble from below them indicated the elevator’s ascension, which would block their way. And it appeared to be coming up very fast for that very purpose
“Are we waiting for the-“
“Shit no!” Said Scanner. “Now I want you to wrap your arms around my neck! Don’t let go because I need my hands free, and don’t even think about getting homophobic, you grok?”
Mike indicated that he did, and hugged Scanner’s neck.
Together with his dead weight, Scanner took off through the elevator’s path, barely missing the platform’s rise, and fighting to outrun it.
Scanner punched both fists upward and let out a barrage of stun blasts, hoping only to push back the snipers so that he could get himself and his sack of potatoes the eff you see kay out of there.
The top floor loomed and Scanner jumped above the lip of it. The lift didn’t stop as Scanner expected it to, but instead rose on its telescoping pipeline to tap against the ceiling. Clearly they either wanted to keep their prey inside or squash them like water bugs on a windshield. Scanner spun around in the air and the robed Mike swung like a pendulum, hurting Zach’s neck. He fired yellow bolts downward to keep from getting hit in the back by these reserve troops. To his misfortune the huge doors were now closed, and getting out wasn’t going to be cake and pie.
Zach floated over to the second story walkway and plopped Mike down, admonishing him to “Keep your skin covered!” He then darted over to one of the gun turrets in which one of the laser guns was housed and bent the mount (with a little blaster heat) toward the Underground security forces. He then disconnected the control cable and let her rip.
“That should give us some cover fire… come on!” he shouted and ushered Mike toward the front wall. Fortunately for the guards, the blasts more commonly slammed into the telescoping pipeline of the lift than anything else.
Scanner regarded different potential methods of escape. The protected windows looked different from the inside, but also appeared more vulnerable.
A spray of bullets passed the railing and knocked Mike over. “They’re shooting at us!” he screamed.
“What do you do for a living, and does it require a college education?!” Zach spat back, completely out of his Scanner character for the moment.
The laser fire continued in a haphazard, loose cannon fashion, which the guards ducked and parried against still firing upwards at the pair. Some had taken to the stairs to ambush them from behind. The laser fire had done its work though and the lift-pipe reddened and buckled causing the stem of the elevator platform to begin to fall. Several more blasts pushed it over the edge and the platform crashed backwards cutting off the running troops from Scanner and Mike Cheney. Had Zach a chance to laugh he would have. Yet another reason to stick with stun blasts.
He had finished melting the reinforced plastics of the sill and casually popped out the safety glass and watched it fall to the gravel below. He then grabbed Mike and carried him out of the building the way a groom might carry his bride over the threshold.
Some of Scanner’s friends from the magnetic nest had apparently been freed and were firing skyward now, forcing Zach to dodge like a bat in the dimming light.
“You did it… I’m free. You’re amazing!” said Mike, clearly awestruck. “I’ve never seen anything like this… it’s incredible… they were eating out of your hand!”
Dealt with worse! Faced Worse! “This was their first major break in.” Scanner said. “I was prepared, they weren’t. This could have gone either way, and we got lucky. If there’s a next time it won’t be this easy by any means.”
Zach ticked off the lessons he was sure the Haughton Underground had already learned from this day. The armor would be replaced by a nonmagnetic ceramic blend; the layout would be altered; the security would be tightened; there would be new drills; a newer, more blast resistant lift (without fly swatting capabilities) would be built; and hopefully there would be an investigation into stun blasts, rather than melt-all lasers. They hadn’t counted on a flying man turning the guns around on them, had they?
They clearly hadn’t expected visitors and still almost beat him. If there was a next time, he might be dead.
“Do me a favor. Don’t ever get kidnapped again!” Zach said.
The entire battle and rescue had taken an hour or less, but night was falling again. The call, the visit and the trip to get intelligence from Rubberface had taken its toll and it was now about 14 hours since Janie’s call.
The short flight to the
Slowly and softly Scanner landed at the top of the levee and let Mike stand again, which was gracious because bone, muscle and joint alike felt like they had gone ten rounds with a sandblaster. He took the robe back from Mike and threw it casually over one shoulder!
Looking at the amount of dead bugs on the brown grass Mike said “I dwell in The House of Dead Crickets.”, which clearly was supposed to be witty.
“Dude, did you ever think anything that you didn’t say?” Zach asked. To hell with being in character.
“Janie’s going to be here?” Mike asked.
“I’m sure she’s already here, actually. They will have seen us land and will be on their way!”
“Oh, I can’t wait to see her again.” Mike sighed, sounding deeply in love. Not quite what Zach wanted to hear (or feel). He knew Mike was genuine from the scans. It would have been easy to hate him had he been a complete jackass! He missed Janie all the more at listening to this reverie.
Mike continued, “She’s really changed my life, you know. She’s really everything to me. The purest angel. True love! Oh, I was so afraid I was never going to see her again. I thought they had her.”
There were flashing lights approaching and footsteps coming up the levee.
“I am the luckiest man alive!” Mike said with a tear. “I can’t believe she’s with me! Have you ever experienced true love? Agape… you’d do anything for her?”
Zach paused from his melancholia and said back in a hoarse whisper. “Yeah, once!”
“Well what happened? What happened between you and her?” Mike asked turning to look at Scanner’s eyeless face.
“She married you!”
Mike’s half smile fell and his jaw dropped open. He turned fully and stood shakily before Scanner. “Zach Stafford!” Mike exclaimed.
Scanner looked away feeling incredibly foolish.
The footsteps drew closer and a familiar soul slapped his senses. Janie was approaching with overwhelming joy. She looked incredible… her blue eyes sparkling, her tears glowing on her cheeks and her smile wide. Her reddish blonde hair was accented by the flashing siren lights and he wished he could just snap a picture of her to keep forever. “There she is!” Scanner said and Mike turned around, forgetting the stupid, stupid revelation for a time and turning to greet his wife.
Mike Cheney and Janie Grey, Zach Stafford’s true love, ran to each other and embraced and kissed. Over his shoulder Janie mouthed the words “Thank You!” to Scanner as Scanner walked backward into the shadows. Janie again buried her face into Mike’s neck and cried and kissed. He felt their love, painfully it etched into him and made the impression he guessed it needed to.
Scanner vanished into the brush and eventually flew away before questions could be asked. Police didn’t usually give him the benefit of the doubt in that vigilantes didn’t have to go through the police academy to get the glory. Then again, being a vigilante didn’t come with a dental plan either.
He had a lot to think about, not the least of which was the fact that a major magazine editor knew who he was now… so fucking stupid... and the fact that the Haughton Underground would be doing just about anything to grind his bones to make their bread now.
Somehow outweighing all of that was the absorption of a piece of Janie’s joy at reuniting with Mike. She really loved him. It was strange and needed contemplation, but while part of him felt all the more hurt (hurt enough to banana peel his secret identity), another part of him was glad to know Mike wasn’t a wife-beating prick who would treat Janie like a whore. Cold comfort… but it was comfort.
The next attack Scanner was going to make was on Aspirin, a hot shower and a long, crime-be-fucking-damned nap!
The Haughton Underground had
multiple Compounds, and Scanner had attacked only one. Within the town of
“Did you get it?” a bespectacled, well dressed man asked.
Looking up from his computer a fat, slick haired man in a tee-shirt and sweat pants said “Every movement, every syllable, every second. It’s all captured.”
On a post-it sized window on the fat man’s screen were multiple views of Scanner’s fight in the main compound with CGI dots outlining his muscle movements.
The well dressed man smiled. “It’s going to take time and money to rebuild, retrain and re-outfit after an attack like that. Who knew this would turn out to be such good news. With this data… I think we’re way ahead of the game.”
“Very good sir!” the fat man laughed in a nasally, phony-butler voice.
The computer screen went through multiple images and runs of Scanner, gridding his face, mimicking the images and mapping the movements into a skeletonized image.
The well dressed man leaned in with a serious look on his face. The glow of the monitor danced across his face and glasses. “He’s ours now. It’s the beginning of the end.”
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