There are few things so adored as a hero. It was, he supposed, the nature of people to look to those greater than themselves, as though a mirror for their own potential; and though he was not human, Simon was the same.
In a cavern paved with century old brick supported by steel and rust, the brilliant beast had erected a shrine. He’d collected scraps from newspapers and magazines, bookmarked blog posts and articles, saved pictures in dozens of folders, both digital and in print, held to every second of footage he could capture; and in every one she was perfect.
“Not like those other so-called ‘heroes’,” he grunted to the void. “She doesn’t- she doesn’t flee with fear, nor does she revel in accolade! She simply does what she must with quiet dignity, and allows the work to speak for itself.”
Simon accepted the room’s acknowledgement, and reached with meaty digits toward a nearby trolley. Tools with differing degrees of finery, some of his own invention, most of which had marked his leather paws at some time, lay strewn upon the flat top. He grabbed for this and that, barely looking as he buried himself in the person-sized tray fixed to a platform.
The echoes of his thoughts vanished, and as he did during those moments, sunk his shoulders and leaned into the wall. All he had was pictures of the heroine, and soundbites; neither of which substituted for a warm body.
His eyes met the pixels of her image; a favourite stretched to life size, as close as he could manage to the real thing. Simon ran a paw down her cheek, curling his touch in defiance of the brick.
“I promise, you will never be alone,” he whispered, to whom even he wasn’t certain.
Simon returned to his work, driven by the weight pressing in his chest. Soon things would be different.
* * * *
My ribs were killing me, and it showed. Not a day went by without a show of concern, from friends and strangers alike. I put on a brave front, but there was no denying that the Carbon Man had done a real number.
Two weeks had passed; one spent in bed, and the other making up for lost time in class. At least it offered an excuse to sleep which, for a student with a full-time workload and whatever passed for a social life, was a luxury. It almost made the pain worth it.
I pressed into the dorm, but stopped when I saw a girl shaking on Tanya’s bed. She was alone, clutching a pillow, and struggling to chew her words. What did I walk in on, and where was Tanya?
She waved back, before her hand retreated under her arm. Eye contact collapsed under the weight of her trembling; she rocked back and forth, clutching the hem of her long skirt, and hummed between gasps.
“Are you okay?” Silly question.
She didn’t answer, at least not in words. Her eyes shot to the door, and groaned until it was shut again.
I was an alien in my own room, tip-toeing for fear it would make things worse. Whoever she was she clearly needed help, and maybe a friend. That seemed bigger than a stranger in my space, or the ribs draining what little strength I had left.
“My name’s Kaira,” I said. “Are you a friend of Tanya’s?”
She looked up, but not at me, and nodded.
I lowered myself to the bed opposite her. “What’s your name?”
The girl continued to hum, and shook her head as though the words would fall out. She rocked with more force until I hushed her and whispered that it was okay. Maybe, I thought, she just needed to be left alone.
I pulled out my phone and hammered out a text: ‘Strange girl in our room. Friend of yours?’
Tanya’s reply was near instant. ‘Sorry. Her name is Ashley. Keep her calm ‘til I get back.’
She didn’t need to say it twice. Even if it wasn’t the right thing I owed Tanya a lifetime of favors. I only hoped I could help in the right way.
Ashley didn’t dress like the others at Milestone Academy; her ponytail was a frazzled mess like the end of an old rope, and even her sandals looked like hand-me-downs. Was she even a student? She seemed young enough.
“Tanya will be back soon,” I said. “Don’t worry, Ashley. You’re safe.”
She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. Rocking and humming was a better way to pass the time than most things I could think of.
We spent a half hour in relative silence, broken only by the odd bleat of “sorry” from the other side of the room. I told her it was okay, but not much else. What was I supposed to do? I thought about reaching to her, physically, but thought twice; it was intimate, and I was just as much a stranger to her.
When Tanya came back she shot to her bedside with a capsule of tablets and a bottle of water. She was dripping with sweat, as though she’d just run a marathon; she hadn’t even stopped to lace up her sneakers. Ashley swallowed the medication like a woman on the verge of drowning, and when she was done rolled onto her side and sobbed.
“KC?” Tanya tilted her head in the direction of the door.
We stood in the hallway down from the room, and huddled together. Tanya looked every bit a wreck of a human, with a research assignment due on top of everything. That, however, was the furthest from her mind.
“Sorry for not texting,” she said.
“Some warning would've been nice.” I was more tired than angry.
“Ashley’s usually on top of everything, until I found her wandering the humanities block like that. I don’t know where she’s staying, and needed to take her somewhere safe, so…”
“How do you know her?”
Tanya shrugged. “She’s in my study group. We’ve never been ‘friends’ exactly, but she needed the help.”
“Just like you to save the day,” I grinned.
She smirked, and held herself tighter. “Listen, I know it’s a lot to ask, but do you think we could have the room for a while?” That’s when she pulled the puppy dog eyes, only made wider by her glasses. “Just until she calms down. I’m worried about overstimulating her.”
My chest ached, but Ashley’s world was falling apart. Besides, I had a lot of work to finish.
“You’re the best, KC.” Tanya jumped back to the room, and knocked gently before turning the knob. Her guest was in capable hands.
* * * *
Simon’s first memory was not that of a fortunate child, though he did not know it at the time. Between the bars was the fabric into which he pressed, rubbing himself until his fur was at odd ends. The tighter he held it, the warmer it became. Sounds of rushing, like the ebb and flow of ocean waves, lulled him into a dreamlike state; there was nowhere else he would have rather been.
It was only when he hungered that he would dare to leave his nest, and climb to the nipple dripping with sustenance. Tiny hands clasped against steel, some of which had sharp edges, but no amount of crying alone brought the sweet liquid closer. Sometimes the cries would carry into night, well into the next day, and the next after that.
Only a handful of his brothers learned the futility of crying; those who did not would starve. Simon was determined to carry on.
He remembered his father, a great and terrible beast, nursing a sense of authority more than his own children. The famed Congo Khan, lord of the apes, master of the Guerilla Gorillas, would wander by their cages, still wearing his armor and robes, as he bestowed upon the infants wisdom they could not yet grasp.
Simon imagined his speeches to be like the others of his youth. ‘My sons,’ his father would say; ‘though you are not now but fragile things you will soon be mighty.’ He would bare his canines, and roar into the sky. ‘We have been kissed by fate! The forces of the universe hath provided what evolution denied. It is our burden, children, to realise our strength!’
Twenty years had passed, and though he had no more a father or mother he was still the architect of his destiny; to do that he would have to tear down the old. That meant planting a string of explosives along the tunnels beneath Milestone City.
Perhaps it was the musty air that summoned his childhood; the stale odor of the underground was the same as his father’s compound, the place he once called ‘home.’ Vivid though the memory was, it did not give him cause to smile.
It was a long, slow walk back to his station. Once clear of the blast zone, Simon re-checked his equipment and pulled down his vizor. Would Congo Khan have been proud of him? It hardly seemed to matter. There were more important things at work than the dreams of a fallen conqueror.
He pressed the button that would tear the city asunder.
“If you destroy it, she will come,” he said. The photograph in his paw smiled as it flapped in the rush of dust and flame.
* * * *
There are no rules against sleeping in the library, per se; so long as you don’t sprawl across the aisle using your backpack as a pillow nobody will pay any mind. I found a desk behind the engineering manuals, and set my head down. It didn’t begin to compare with a bed, but it was better than nothing.
Of all the nights to be kicked out of my room, not that it was anybody’s fault; it was just bad timing. The universe had no consideration for the needs of others, no matter how much my ribs complained. All I could hope was that Ashley would pull through, and that I wouldn’t wake up feeling worse.
Any chance of rest evaporated the moment I heard muttering. I peered my head over a nearby balcony, down to the ground floor. All through the building students, professors, and librarians gathered around monitors and watched with muted horror. My ribs groaned, and a weight plummeted in my gut; people don’t come together like that for cat videos.
I checked my phone and scrolled the news feed. ‘ROAD COLLAPSE,’ it said; ‘between Seventh St and Main-’ during peak hour. Drivers, commuters, and passersby were all potential collateral.
Forget nap time; I had work to do.
* * * *
The view from above was worse than I’d imagined, with traffic stacked for miles around a sunken intersection. Barricades had been erected, though emergency vehicles were still fighting to move through the chaos. The hole itself gaped so wide as to swallow parts of the sidewalk, and the front steps of nearby buildings.
I flew down over the crowd, and ignored their cheers. Up close and personal the collapse was more foreboding, stretching to the corners of my vision, and still yawning for more. Beneath the asphalt were people who were trapped, or worse. They needed help from anywhere they could get it, and there were still several blocks dividing the sirens from their rescue.
It was a short drop to the bottom. Below the street was miles of darkness into which the settling dust vanished. What was once a system designed to keep Milestone from flooding had become a trap for those caught above.
“Hello!” The echo carried into the abyss.
There were cries from every direction, more than I could take care of right away. Some crawled over the rubble nursing broken limbs and concussions, while others had been caught by the layers of debris. All that suffering; I had to pick one and work from there.
Laser cut through stone, and made room for the body wedged beneath it. He crawled out wearing what was probably a nice suit, but had since been torn and caked with mud. The important thing was that he was alive, and moving back to the light of day.
“Jimmy,” he coughed.
I carried him over my shoulder. “Who’s Jimmy?”
“One of the interns,” he groaned. “We were… ngh… carpooling-”
There had to be dozens, maybe even a hundred people caught; all had names, all had lives, and people waiting for them to come home. The few with minor injuries crawled over the wreckage and helped where they could. Their panic was mine, but I had the power to do something more.
Between the groans and distant sirens was another sound; a whine mingled with fire, growing closer by the moment. I looked to the shadow where eyes like a dragon opened, and from them sprung a ravenous beast.
“Everybody get down!”
He shot by like a rocket, and snatched me into his paws. In an explosion of light I launched from him, and wound beneath the concrete pillars of the underground. With every zig and zag he followed, until I finally ground to a halt on the dusty floor.
My attacker followed in kind, and killed the ignition in his boots. It was only then that I could make the size of him, dwarfing my own six feet. He shifted on his haunches, and circled like an apex predator. Beady eyes glowed against my incandescence, like marbles; even in the dark there was no mistaking his intensity. He snarled, and as he moved closer I finally saw him.
“Wait, you’re a gorilla?”
“And you are a human,” he said. “My name is Simon, and I am not your enemy.”
It was then as the adrenaline scaled back that my ribs remembered what pain they should have been in, and what being tackled by a primate should have felt like. “Funny, but that didn’t feel so friendly,” I winced. “Did you do this? A lot of people are hurt.”
“Those people are inconsequential,” he said. His voice was deep, like Barry White multiplied by a subwoofer, times a hundred. Every syllable resonated in my chest, shaking an already fragile cage.
“Nobody is inconsequential,” I said, ready to fly.
The beast softened, and laughed; not the laugh of a cartoon megalomaniac, but a gentle chuckle. “What noble sentiment. You’ve always had such a kind heart. That is precisely the reason that I fell in love with you.”
There was no way I heard that right.
“You mean in a platonic way… right?”
He snarled. “I didn’t expect you to have such a wicked tongue. No matter. That can be conditioned out of you.”
The conversation ended with a punch to the head. I didn’t hold back; laser fists, projectile force, enough that should take down a killer primate with no mind for consent. Knowing how many people he hurt was just icing on the cake.
Simon raised his gauntlets and swatted back. From the head down he was muscle, but held back to keep from hurting me. His mistake.
He bellowed to the very depths of the cave, “is this how you want to start a marriage?”
Like a comet I dashed, around and around, too fast to touch. “I don’t know what kind of pedestal you put me on, but I’m nobody’s bride, Dr. Zaius!”
Whatever patience he had blew with the vein on his forehead, as he threw his arms down like a pair of crashing pillars. His strength cracked the pavement, amplified by the tech mounted to his torso.
“If you will just listen-!”
Twist, squat, pounce; I bounded from the wall like a shooting star, shining with every blast. This was going to end in the flash.
Simon stepped back and pressed a button on his bracelet. Suddenly, plumes of smoke billowed from the ceiling, and swallowed the ape into obscurity. How long had those been there? This creep came prepared.
No matter how bright I shone I couldn’t make out his shape. I flew into a clearing and waited him out, but nothing happened. The smoke settled, and Simon was gone.
I called into the darkness, “and stay out!”
Soon the adrenaline wore down, and I was left with the tunnel. My hands were shaking, and ribs on the verge of a break. Maybe I should have left for home, but I couldn’t. There was a reason I’d came, and it was more important than any villain.
* * * *
It was closing on midnight by the time we’d completed the rescue. Main Street was still a wreck, and the buildings surrounding it closed until city inspectors deemed them safe. It wasn’t just the people hurt who were affected, but everyone whose job was in those offices; then there were the hours that would go back into rebuilding. At least there were no casualties; only cuts and broken bones.
When I arrived back through the dorm window it was with several boxes and enough pizza to live on for a week. A friendzoned gorilla may have been tying my stomach in knots, but at least there was food to fill it. That, and no way was a broke college student going to turn down a free meal.
The pain in my chest was incessant, but it kept me going past exhaustion. Then, as if tracking my progress, tiredness grabbed me and pulled toward the sheets. I was almost there.
“Hey, Tanya. You awake?”
I opened the fridge and played Tetris with the contents. Gods, when was the last time we cleaned that thing?
“There’s a place, Ernie’s,” I told the darkness. “It’s a pizza place in Metro, just off of Main Street. Expensive, but good. They were giving free slices to cops, EMTs, and victims. Then the owner gave me a whole stack, just for taking a selfie with him! He says it’ll be worth it for the business it generates.”
Nothing, not even a groan. I flicked the light to find that it was a stack of pillows on the bed in place of my friend. Strange; it was a school night, and Tanya was usually so serious about it.
It was only then that I checked my messages.
‘Got Ashley talking. She’s doing better, but still needs company. I’m heading to her room to watch movies, etc. Probably see you tomorrow. Good job saving the day out there. Call if you need me. XOXO.’
A chill ran over the space. It wasn’t often I got the room to myself; on any other day it was a treat. Instead it lacked the familiar intimacy of two people who shared everything short of romance.
I flopped onto the bed, and sighed. Sleep was just around the corner. “Oh, I’ve also got a stalker,” I muttered to the absence. “He’s tall, dark, and… not so handsome. Actually, he has a face like King Kong, literally. I told him I wasn’t interested, but you know how some guys can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
What would Tanya say to that? If only she was there; it might have been funny.
* * * *
The air cracked with a boom that rattled windows. Whatever thoughts of it being a dream evaporated with the sounds of panic in the hall and from the courtyard. Mayhem had come to campus, and landed in sight of my bed.
I snapped from the haze and Glimmer Girl burst to life. Like a bullet I shot from the third floor and toward the scene just short of the speed of light. The bright lights and buildings were the same as they were years ago, when everything changed. A dread sensation gripped my chest.
Suddenly I saw it; the cumbersome machine that shattered our peace, and dragged through the garden like a crab dancing on knives. A body-mounted blaster twisted and fired indiscriminately, not even stopping to take aim.
Taking cover between the trees I lashed out with intermittent rays. The machine teetered back and forth, as if unsure of what just happened. Who designed this thing? It was like something out of a TV show, and might have been pathetic if it weren’t deadly.
With a sharp turn along the path I rounded behind it, and let loose with two fists of burning photon power. Even at half-strength it was enough to break the shell and put the robot off balance.
It crashed into the lawn, upturning earth and pavement. The weapon on top flailed, helpless until put out of its misery.
I set foot on the ground and winced. My ribs were thankful for an easy win.
When all was quiet heads started to pop from corners, and shuffled toward the former circle of death. I mean, how often do you get to see a killer robot, let alone take a selfie with one? Others ignored the machine; they were interested in something else.
“We love you, Glimmer Girl!”
Fans started to gather, and phones clicked as they stole snaps. Traditionally they could be found anywhere, even among the people I went to class with. I smiled and waved, and lifted from the ground, before starting on the flight home; I’d have to take the scenic route to avoid suspicion.
Suddenly the machine burst open, and from it another device emerged. A gold plated screen blared at me with unknown, searing energy; and when it blinked I was somewhere else, trapped behind a tinted portal through which the world was round and distorted. Tried as I might, I could not refract through it.
A monstrous form appeared, sending the student body scattering like rats. It was Simon, marching like a lost centurion finding his way home. The grin in his eye was as captivating as it was terrifying, and didn’t waver from the surreal prison he’d trapped me in.
“You should have known I would find you,” he hummed, “just as you should have known this was a trap.” The gorilla chuckled and took great care to unmount the screen.
I screamed at the top of my lungs, but no sound came.
“You are currently being held in a negative photon prism,” Simon said. “Originally designed to capture and retain light particles so that information might be extracted from them, one hypothesised that it could contain a living hologram; case in point, my love, you.”
Even in abstract space I was going to be sick. There had to be some way to escape, but not before that ape jerk dropped a cover over the portal. Everything went dark, and I was alone.
* * * *
It was four in the morning before Tanya could sleep. The prequel to a remake of a beloved franchise from years ago, running a whole hour longer than any film should, along with the following installment, were the only things able to bring Ashley back to Earth. They were as long as they were predictable, but they worked.
She laid on a series of cushions spread out between the beds, and recoiled under the light slicing below the shades. It wasn’t restful by any stretch, but the sight of Ashley’s chest rising and falling under the duvet in time with her soft snore was worth it.
When the first explosion roared Tanya barely stirred; it was just a movie, after all. It wasn’t until she heard screaming that she jumped from under the sheet, and folded back the blind. There was fire in the sky, shooting over the tops of buildings, and people sprinting in the opposite direction.
“What’s going on?” Ashley curled into the wall and held her knees. Every sudden noise saw her flinch, as though being pelted with matches.
Tanya reached for her jeans, sneakers, satchel, and bra which she’d discarded before bed. Shoes and pants flew on; with no time for presentation, her bra could live in the bag.
“I need to make sure Kaira’s alright,” she said.
The poor woman was shaking like a leaf, clenching her jaw, and kept her stare fixed to her toes. One hand gripped the other, holding her still, as the internal conflict played out on her brow. Yelling from the yard prompted a sharp breath, and the sudden shaking of her head.
Tanya considered the door, and all that stood on the other side. It wasn’t the first conflict she’d witnessed, and she knew it wouldn’t be the last. Through all of them, however, there were constants; Kaira was there, and she always managed to survive. Why, she figured, would this time be any different?
“I’ll send her a text,” she said, and sat down on the mattress.
“A-are you sure?”
She shook her head and leaned closer. Her arm was a natural fit over Ashley’s shoulder, and was already delivering a world of calm. Just as one crisis ended another had begun; such was the way of things.
“It’s going to be fine,” Tanya said. “There’s nothing to worry about, I promise.”
* * * *
It must have been hours, but seemed longer before being zapped to reality. The next thing I knew I was laid out on a slab inside a transparent tube, with my hands, feet, and neck shackled down. My fists clenched, and I stilled my breath; this was a nightmare, like waking up in a morgue.
On the other side of the glass was Simon, this time stripped of his armour and wearing regular clothes; an oversized t-shirt that constricted his chest, ill-fitting cargo pants, and reading glasses with handles stretched to the limit. It was as normal as an ape-man could appear, even in an underground laboratory with notes, manuals, and reference books stacked to the ceiling.
I kicked against the restraints to no avail. The walls were closing in, or maybe that was my imagination. Fog collected on the screen with every gasp.
“You’re not going to get away with this,” I barked.
Simon gave pause, and drew a stool to the side of the chamber. Gone was his trademark wrath, replaced with a long-suffering sense of weariness. His paw pressed against the glass, and he inhaled, meditating on the situation.
He spoke gently in the way one might in a forbidden space. “You are angry, my love, but it is because you do not yet understand. My actions may seem selfish, but they are for your own good as well as my own.”
I laughed with terror. “I’m the prisoner of an evil gorilla!”
“Not evil,” he said, “and not a prisoner for much longer; only until the conversion is complete.” He slid from the seat and began to shift heavy, industrial cables. A scanner of some kind ran over my cell, and projected readings onto a monitor across the room.
“We will be the same,” Simon said. “You will evolve into ape-kind. Then, and only then, will you be worthy of my commitment.”
On the far wall were shapes in amber, gold, and white; pictures of me, Glimmer Girl, clipped together in a collage of demented passion. What Simon nurtured for months, maybe longer, was more than a crush; it may have been the end of me.
* * * *
To be continued...
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