Death from above was inevitable. Frozen in a split second I traced the path of debris to the fallen railway car. Things were going to get bloodier if someone didn’t act, and fast.
Casting off the panic I lashed out at the oncoming destruction. Wide, unfocused blasts swatted chunks and beams onto a new course away from the passengers and onto the front lines of the barricade. Every piece struck without forgiveness, and sent tremors through the crowd; as though they weren’t shaken enough.
It was only then as the dust began to settle that I realised what had happened, as well as the cost of being too slow. Fear drove everything around, from the paramedics checking on the immediate bystanders, to the gridlocked drivers abandoning their vehicles for cover.
And then there was me, floating in the middle of it all, trying to reign the pounding in my chest. Was this what it meant to be a superhero?
Whatever followed my ruminating was cut short by a chrome wall slamming into my side. I fell upward and fought for control while an empty car tumbled to the asphalt, and it wasn’t alone. They flew by the dozen at breakneck speed, faster than even I could dodge. My only way through was by slicing with a fine laser, and leaving vehicle remnants to fall like hail.
“Everybody take cover!” I screamed, like I was in somehow charge.
A shadow flew across the evening sky, followed by an eighteen wheeler crashing from above. Too dense to cut or even to move, the vehicle collected me in mid-air with all the force of its mass in freefall. The world turned with barely time enough to face the street.
Light burned across oblivion, and set us down in a fresh crater between abandoned traffic. It was a miracle I was alive, let alone able to stand. My sense of balance, however, was still in the air.
“Look at you. You’ve barely any idea of what you’re doing,” Dr. Vortex mused.
He strolled like a man in a park on a summer day, utterly unfazed by his surroundings. No amount of blood would throw him from his path, no matter how unpalatable he claimed it to be.
I scanned the surroundings for signs of life. Gods above, I couldn’t stand for anyone to hurt on my behalf. Emergency crews scuttled like bugs behind the doctor’s line of sight toward the upturned train. They needed time.
“Is this supposed to convince me to help you?” I asked.
Dr. Vortex turned up his nose, and inhaled. “I’ve spent quite enough energy in one career trying to persuade those with no interest. Had you been willing to meet halfway you’d have found I’m more than reasonable. Things being as they are, however...”
The EMTs scrambled in the periphery. They didn’t have much time; a minute, perhaps, before Dr. Vortex turned back.
Like prey in a corner I locked eyes with the hunter. All I had left was talk. “You know I’m not who you think I am.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” he said.
My balance remained askew, tilting with the planet. I propped myself upright, and held as best I could. The things he would do if he saw me vulnerable snapped their teeth in the back of my thoughts.
“What do you want with me anyway?”
His lips tightened. “We were present at the same grand cosmic event,” he said. “It changed you, just as it changed me. I’ve spent my whole adult life in pursuit of this phenomenon. I must have your cooperation if I’m to further study the results.”
“And then what?”
Dr. Vortex frowned. “That power belongs to me.”
Suddenly the air exploded with the unrounding of a pistol clip. Bullets pinged mid-flight, as though resisting their target in the villain’s back. One by one they dropped to the ground, leaving one grizzled cop without an explanation. He clutched his weapon, and kept it trained on the enemy.
“This stops now,” he said. What authority he had in the face of an adept was formality at best, but he was damned if he didn’t use it.
Dr. Vortex tensed, and held his breath. The police may have been helpless, but remained frustrating all the same. Then, with a wave of his hand the cop blinked out of sight, and to the villain out of mind.
“Now that’s out of the way-”
“No!” I shot into the air, high above the scene, and searched out shapes against the sky. Nobody just disappeared into nothingness. The cop had been moved, same as the tons of material Dr. Vortex had strewn about.
A muffled shriek pulled me to the horizon, where arms and legs flapped impotently against the fall. At the speed of sound I arced into a loop, and snatched the cop from certain death.
“Are you alright?”
He nodded. Terror had stolen his words.
The moment we came down he toppled from my arms, and embraced the earth. I stumbled, barely holding my own against gravity. EMTs and evac teams were at work pulling the injured from the train wreck, but Dr. Vortex was nowhere to be seen.
All around was devastation, and it only took one man to set it in motion. My gut churned knowing our next encounter would be more difficult.
* * * *
On a cobbled rooftop by a row of pigeon cages, the bemused genius found refuge. For a fleeting moment he dwelt on his chosen nom de guerre, and whether ‘Dr. Vortex’ was too impulsive a choice. In the end it mattered little.
He sauntered to the ledge, and peered over Milestone. The city screamed because of his actions, but would quickly recover. Those unaffected would not allow them to dwell for long. Such, he supposed, was the nature of human beings; they would go to great lengths to ignore another’s suffering.
A beam of gold tore across the sky. Even from afar the presence of Glimmer Girl could be felt. Some might see her as a good omen, and children may yet cast wishes upon her passing, but to Theodore Fellows she was so much more.
“What was meant for me will soon be mine again,” he mused. With such power there was no limit to what he might do.
Sirens filled the street in a frenzy, and grated across the genius’ nerve. Though they no longer posed a challenge to his safety, those who acted in the name of law remained an undue complication in Dr. Vortex’s life, and one he preferred not to waste time upon.
In a blink he was gone, leaving Milestone and its inhabitants to lick their wounds.
* * * *
The battle was over, so I made a tactical retreat. Dr. Vortex had made his point loud and clear that he was the one in control. Not even my anonymity was safe, making my crash in Tanya’s bedroom all the more of a risk.
I lay in my costume, and sat the cold press over my eyes. Muscles ached like the end of a decathlon after a week without sleep. All things considered, it was better than being roadkill.
Rolling in bed I reached to flip the pillow to the cool side. “My head is killing me,” I whined.
“Well, you did just get your ass handed to you,” Tanya said.
She perched to one side with water, bandages, and iodine. For as many scrapes and beatings she’d seen me through this was by far the worst, but like always she kept a cool head, and tended to the wounds.
“Did you see?”
I could hear her smirk. “Everybody with a TV saw. They’re all talking about Dr. Vortex, and everything they think happened at InfiniTech. Some people are calling him a terrorist, but the news channels won’t say that about a white guy.”
My body sank into the sheets, and into a whirlpool of nausea. Behind my eyes was a ghastly vision of all I had seen; the suffering caused by Dr. Vortex, and what he might do yet. Was there a limit to the horrors he could inflict?
Tanya placed her hand in mine, and squeezed. Her tone became heavy. “Kaira, I know you probably don’t want to hear this-”
I pulled the cold press from my eyes and looked to her. “What is it?”
She arched her shoulders, and drew a resolute breath. “We need to call the cops,” she said. “It was cool playing superhero at first, but this is serious. And as much as I don’t like them, they have more resources than we do.”
Of all the things to come from her mouth that was the least likely. Tanya Truman, the screaming queer liberal, was ready to call on the police for help, despite all the criticism. After all I’d seen, could I really blame her?
“No,” I said.
“Because…” My mouth hung open. I shook my head, but no answer came loose.
“Dr. Vortex has no problem attacking strangers,” she said. “He knows who you are. What’s to stop him from coming after your parents next? Or-”
Tanya caught herself, and nodded. Her veneer of strength waned, but only for a moment. I squeezed her hand tight. Even if she didn’t know how to be helpless I was there, ready to return the favour she’d paid a thousand times over.
“We’re going to get through this,” I said, “but no cops. This is something I need to handle without dragging anybody else into it.”
She smirked, tearily. “You’re being stubborn.”
“It’s what I have to do,” I said.
From the nightstand my cell phone danced with a muted buzz, as it had every minute for the last hour. A slew of text messages ran down the screen, and all from the one other person who ever wanted to talk.
“She’s worried about you,” Tanya said.
“I know, but... just a few more minutes, please?”
“You don’t have to convince me. You’re a partially grown woman. That’s your own business.”
Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Tanya and I glared at each other, and in a flash my costume was replaced with my clothes from the day. We scrambled to hide any signs of injury, or anything a parent might suspect.
Tanya chirped. “Come in.”
Her mother, Tracy, opened the door and looked past her daughter to where I lay. She leaned against the frame and opened her mouth as if she were about to apologize. “Sweetheart, your Mom is here,” she said. “She’s waiting for you downstairs.”
“Tell her we’ll be down in a few minutes,” Tanya said.
I steeled myself. “How does she look?”
Tracy tightened her lips and drew back from the door. “Like she’s about to start World War Three. I hope you have a good story.” She looked to her daughter and shook her head. “I’ll put on some tea.”
The door closed, and we were alone again. Tanya gave the same pitiful look you’d give a death row inmate. Dr. Vortex didn’t hold a candle to my Mom.
* * * *
Both parents gave me the chewing out of a lifetime, which I probably deserved. If it were my kid I’d have have done the same, but there was no other way without telling them about Glimmer Girl.
I managed to hide the cuts and bruises. The rest of the night was a blur, save for screaming in my face “grounded until college” along with some other choice words. I endured them quietly, if only to get some sleep.
The next day Mom insisted on driving to school along with our police escort. It was the last day of year, and a waste of time. There was no point in arguing; all energy went into feigning health. From first period to last I was under guard, then my father would come to take me home for lockdown.
It took every ounce of effort to stay awake through first period. The fight had taken more out of me than I thought. I stifled yawn after another, and shook myself to alertness. There was time to sleep later, assuming Dr. Vortex didn’t come after me first.
* * * *
Recess rolled around by the time I saw Tanya again. She was waiting inside the cafeteria entrance, standing on the tips of her toes to peer over the other students, and swooped the moment I came into view. Her arm propped me upright, and pressed into my back for additional support.
“Tell me everything,” she said.
I swallowed the sick welling in the back of my throat. Noise tumbled through my head, more than I could make sense of. Every muscle screamed for rest that would only be denied until school’s end.
“Well, for starters, you’re on the black list, and we’re not to be seen together,” I muttered.
“Right, so your Mom still hates my guts. That’s normal.”
Guiding me against the flow of people, Tanya pulled me toward a vending machine, and loaded it with quarters. She removed a soda from the slot, opened it, and forced it into my hand. The caffeine surge was like an elixir of the gods.
“She also says I’m under house arrest. Once school is done she’s going to call the house to make sure I haven’t wandered off,” I whispered into the can. “Oh, and I’ve lost cell phone and TV privileges. There was some other stuff, but I can’t remember.”
Tanya leaned against the wall, and snorted. “She’ll enforce it for all of a week, and realize discipline is too much of a hassle.”
My thoughts were elsewhere, rooted in the night before and my futile attempts at resistance. Every blow remained crisp in my memory, and snapped with pain as the cars fell.
“I’m more worried about the killer Carl Sagan who wants to lock me in his basement,” I said.
He could have been anywhere, even right under our noses. Every moment was dipped in paranoia. Nowhere was safe with Dr. Vortex in the world.
* * * *
Fifth period was science class, and the teacher was late. Our assigned work benches didn’t make for a comfortable pillow, but I was determined to snatch whatever rest I could. No sooner had I closed my eyes that the world faded, and I was gone.
It was minutes, maybe longer, before I was roused by the sound of laughter. There was a voice calling “Earth to Mr. Cade.” I blinked through the haze, suddenly aware of the circle of eyes centred on where I lay at my most vulnerable.
My heart stopped when I turned to the board. At first I thought it was a trick of the light, but no; Dr. Vortex was stood behind a desk at the front of the class. His coat and side arm were replaced with a brown suit jacket and a knitted tie, but there was no mistaking him.
He smirked from atop his widow’s peak. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
It had to be some kind of nightmare; worse than the kind where I walked through study hall in just my bra and undies. Everybody laughed, completely unaware of the danger right in front of them. They couldn’t know the obsession in his eyes, or the lengths he would go to meet his goals.
“This may be your last day, but you’re still expected to pay attention,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be a shame if I had to keep you after class.”
My feet snapped for the door through gasps and bewilderment. The substitute teacher made no effort to follow, at least for the moment. I had to get away, far from where he could hurt anyone. Foot power alone wasn’t going to cut it.
Hard steps echoed across the linoleum floor, through the empty hall, and toward my destination. I cut the corners and slammed through the boy’s restroom door, and to the row of vacant stalls opposite the urinals. Catching my breath I pulled panic back, and made myself still. I was alone, and ready.
Light erupted from my pores. Gravity loosened its hold. An incandescent costume peeled over my form. No longer a mild-mannered closet case, Glimmer Girl was reborn anew.
Suddenly there was a click.
My heart stopped. I turned to face the weapon as it rattled. The owner lacked Dr. Vortex’s composure, regardless of shared intent. Of all the people to face down in the boy’s room that day, I didn’t think it would be him.
Adrian’s finger flirted with the trigger long before he could steady his aim. He stood, wide eyed between terror and wonder, lost in the golden aura that bathed the room. Perhaps he too thought it was a dream.
His breathing was shallow. His words were barely a whisper. “Y-you’re… you’re Glimmer Girl?”
It was the nightmare that had haunted me since childhood; my lifelong tormentor, my worst enemy, finally working up the gall to finish things for good. Yet I was somehow unfazed. There were bigger things in the world than bullies or bullets.
I paused, unsure of my next steps. Adrian knew my secret identity, meaning that soon everyone would know. He was also armed with a six chamber pistol, rearing to unleash hot death into his favourite victim. More than that, he was another potential obstacle for a bigger threat.
“You have to get out of here,” I said.
Adrian steadied his hold with another hand, and kept the barrel trained toward me. “All this time you’ve been prancing around and playing superhero,” he seethed, “while you break my car, humiliate me, and spread your queer germs wherever you go! You make me sick!”
“None of that matters now,” I said. “You need to leave. Trust me.”
“Trust you!” His skin burned at fever pitch, and wound him tight. Even he was taken back by the explosion through the barrel, and the ounce of lead that buried itself in the tile.
Another shot rang out, and glided by as if through water. With newfound speed I danced around the bullet, and threw myself at Adrian. My weight pinned him to the wall as I wrested the gun from his hand, and threw it to the ground. He didn’t resist.
My hand clasped his wrist, and trembled. “I don’t have time for this!” Staring him down I saw him for what he was; afraid, pathetic, and ready to bend at the first sign of resistance. Suddenly it was hard to imagine him as anything more.
He shook like a small animal. “I-I… I’m sorry!”
All strength had left his body, so when I pulled away he collapsed to his knees. It was enough to make a girl laugh, or at least scoff.
“Run,” I said.
Maybe he would tell everyone who I was, but it hardly seemed to matter. I picked up the gun, and emptied the remaining shells into a toilet. So long as everyone was safe; that was the important thing.
Adrian had barely made the exit when a second figure snatched him up. Dr. Vortex made little work of the jock’s mass as he lifted him by the scruff of the neck and pressed him to the wall. No matter how much he kicked, he couldn’t free himself of the villain’s hold.
I dropped the gun and charged my fists. Laser energy poised to explode the moment I had the shot. Gods, of all the people I had to save, why did it have to be Adrian Dempsey?
“Let him go!” I roared.
The doctor considered his hostage. “I know you,” he said. “You’re Mr. Cade’s childhood tormentor, are you not? To think, all that strength, all that potential, and you waste it on acting the bully.”
I inched closer. “Drop him, Vortex! Or I drop you!”
He knew an empty threat when he heard one, and pressed closer into his prey. Adrian writhed and struggled for oxygen. His kicks grew weaker by the moment, while he fought to pull the hand from his neck. Tears were strewn down his cheeks; he’d never been so close to death.
“While I hold no affection for Mr. Cade, I find your prejudices against him repugnant,” Dr. Vortex said. “It’s individuals such as yourself and your lack of sensibility that human progress becomes stagnate. Shame on you.”
Adrian pleaded through the tears, but I could do nothing. One false move and he was a dead man.
Dr. Vortex turned to face me. “What do you say, Glimmer Girl? What is a deserving fate for this kind of filth?”
Countless revenge fantasies over as many nights crumbled into dust. Faced with actual death I wanted no part of it. Even if he deserved it every cell of my being screamed that it wasn’t meant to be.
“Let him go,” I said. Burning photons jumped from my fingertips, ready to fire.
Then he was gone. In an instant Adrian Dempsey blinked from the room as if he never existed. The doctor lowered his arm and stretched as though it were not a human life he was playing with.
“What did you do with him?”
“This is better for the human gene pool,” he said.
A wide laser slash cut the air Dr. Vortex filled a moment before. “I said where is he!”
The villain appeared on the opposite side of the room by the stalls. He sneered. “Would you believe I put a man on the moon?”
My chest seized at the thought of Adrian gasping for air, while freezing or burning, or both. In less than a minute he would be gone forever. Blind desperation saw blasts fly in every direction, always managing to miss the target by milliseconds. Time whittled away, second after another, until Adrian’s fate was sealed.
He was gone, never to return, and it was all my fault.
Dr. Vortex stood by the obliterated sinks, and frowned. “Are you quite done, Mr. Cade?”
Rage twisted my knuckles into bombs. I grit my teeth, poised to land them in the villain’s face as many times as it took to stop him.
“Don’t waste your time mourning someone so vile,” he said. “Save your emotions for those who matter, such as your parents.” Dr. Vortex curled his lip as he blinked, leaving me alone amongst the splinters and settling dust of the bathroom.
I shot through the window, and refracted through the glass. At top flight speed I crossed the suburbs in the direction of home.
* * * *
Milestone Heights raced by in seconds until our house was in sight. Regardless of costume or who might see I burst through the door, obliterating it into toothpicks, and took a hard landing on the living room floor.
“Mom! Dad!” There was no response.
I sprinted through the kitchen and into the garage, then up the stairs and into the bedrooms. Cars belonging to both parents sat outside, and keys sat in the bowl on the marble counter. Mom’s cell phone sat idle on the coffee table; she would never go anywhere without it.
Growing desperate I ran to the yard, to where an unmarked police car sat empty by the curb. I peeked through the tinted windows hoping to catch a glimpse of whoever was stationed there, but they were gone, just like everybody else.
A second, third, and fourth search failed to reveal anything. Soon I was throwing myself through the motions, trying to burn energy to keep from collapsing. Why was this happening? What did this lunatic even want from us?
I screamed until my throat was raw. Gods, I’d never been so helpless!
No matter how much I resisted Adrian pressed into my thoughts. His fate rolled across my mind’s eye in vivid detail. Was the same thing in store for my Mom and Dad? There had to be some way to stop Dr. Vortex, but first he had to show himself. Until then, I wept.
To be continued...
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