Here’s a little gift for all my friends and family. This is a short story I wrote earlier this year. Yeah, there are superhero-ish things going on in it, but aren’t there always? Of course this is all copyright H.G. Martin, 2009, yadda yadda, etc. etc.
Best wishes to you all. May 2010 be the best year yet.
“Hoppy, my friend, it’ll be a piece of cake,” said General Power. His heroic baritone echoed throughout the mostly empty space station cocktail lounge.
Hoppwell Grant drew a ragged breath and gripped his beer bottle tighter. “Why is it when you say things like that I get visions of me dying in horrible ways?”
Power laughed and absently blew in his Whiskey Sour to cool it down. The ice had melted, so he used a touch of freeze breath. “You’re such a card, Hoppy. That’s one of the reasons I chose you for this assignment. You’re a clever guy. I’m sure you can pull it off.”
Grant raised the bottle to his lips and took a long swig. “Pull what off, exactly?” he said. “All you’ve told me so far is that I’ll need to travel. You do remember that I’m just a technician on this space bucket, right? You guys are the muscle.”
That’s why you’re perfect for this mission. You have no discernible super powers. They won’t find a thing when they scan you.”
Grant shuddered and accidentally knocked over his half-empty beer bottle. Power’s hand grabbed it before a drop could spill. “Who’s going to be scanning me? And why are they going to be doing that?”
“Alright, here it is,” said Power, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial level. “When the Galactic Gumshoe brought in Malevolento last week he picked up some very interesting Intel. We now know the location of the Brotherhood of Bad Intent’s headquarters. They’re operating out of an office building on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. That’s the heart of the city’s financial district.”
“I know what it is, Power. I grew up there.”
“Really?” said Power. “I didn’t know you were a California boy.”
“Born and raised. So great, you’ve got the bad guys’ address. So what?”
“We need a civilian to infiltrate the place, find out what they’re up to and transmit the information back to us.”
“Are you insane, Power?” he said with quiet urgency. “I’m no super-guy. I’m a computer guy. Those Bad Intent creeps are powerful, deadly and, from what I’ve heard, generally crazy as bed bugs. They’ll eat me alive–literally.”
“Calm down,” said Power. “It won’t be that bad. They have civilian employees doing their day-to-day stuff, just like we do. They won’t even notice you. We’ve got blueprints of the building. We’ll just beam you into a broom closet or something, then beam you back up here when you get the Intel we need.”
“There’s something screwy going on here,” said Grant. “I don’t know what it is, but it smells worse than what’s-his-name, the fish guy.”
“King Aquatic doesn’t smell that bad.”
“Why me, Power? Huh? You’ve got the address. Why don’t you just round up the team, swoop on down there, and kick the crap out of the whole gang? You can do it. I’ve seen you do it before. Hell, you could probably take most of them out by yourself.”
“Because it’s a trap.”
“It was too easy, Hoppy. Malevolento would never have given up that kind of information under anything less than intense torture. And you know the Gumshoe, he’s a tough interrogator, but he’s not sadistic. They wanted us to have that address.”
“So what?” said Grant, taking another drink. “It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve tried setting a trap for you guys. Now that you know, you’ll be prepared. What the hell could they throw at you that you couldn’t handle anyway?”
Power turned his empty glass upside down and slid it around the tabletop in a circular pattern. “That’s just it. We think they’ve developed something new, something that could hurt even me.”
Grant whistled. “That’d have to be some big gun. Any idea what it is?”
“We don’t know, specifically. We had Telepathy-Teen scan Malevolento’s mind, but all she picked up was smug self-absorption and an image of the entire United Heroes team lying slaughtered in a field. Anyway, that’s why we need you to infiltrate the place. Once you identify their new weapon, you let me know and we’ll take care of the rest.”
“So, I just sashay in there, mingle with all the mutated freaks and bloodthirsty killers, find their super weapon, and report back?”
Grant pointed his now empty beer bottle at Power. “Look Power, this is a stupid plan. I’m not a spy, or a secret agent, or a super-guy. How am I supposed to walk into the Brotherhood’s headquarters without somebody getting suspicious?”
“You’ll have a uniform and employee badge, just like any of their worker bees. Plus, we’ll give you a communication bud. It goes in your ear. I’ll be in constant contact with you. Believe me; they won’t even notice your existence.”
“Great. It’ll be just like coming to work here.”
“That’s not fair. I’m always nice to you.”
“You’ve known me since high school; the rest of these supers think I’m a self-propelled office plant.”
“Oh boy, here comes the drama king.”
“Forget it, Power. I’m not doing it!”
Power leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. He exhaled slowly. “Hoppy,” he said. “You’re the only guy I know I can trust.”
“Then once they kill me, chop up my pieces, and mail them back to you, you won’t have anybody you can trust. Maybe you should rethink your plan.”
“We’ll make it worth your while.”
“Make you an official member of the team. I know you’ve always wanted to be a hero.”
“You can’t do that. I don’t have any powers.”
“We’ll give you some.”
“That’s impossible. I thought you all got your powers through accidents, freaky mutations or coming from other planets, stuff like that.”
“It’s a new process. Doctor Thinkiac just came up with it a week ago. Very hush hush.”
“Thinkiac, huh? What can he give me?”
“The basics: great strength, resistance to harm, speed–like that.”
“Hey, can he give me the power to fly? I’ve always wanted to fly.”
“Yeah, maybe. I’ll have to check. I think it has to do with your innate potential; latent abilities or something.”
“I was always good at social studies.”
“There you go! So, will you do it?”
Grant stared at his bottle, began picking the label off then looked back at Power. “Aw, what the hell,” he said. “Nobody lives forever, especially hanging around you people.”
“You should be in a hallway on the tenth floor,” said Power’s voice from the small flesh-colored device in Grant’s ear. Grant had just stepped out of a janitor’s closet of the Market Street office building that fronted for the headquarters of the Brotherhood of Bad Intent, where he had been teleported seconds before. “There should be restrooms and a drinking fountain across the hall, a break room to your left, and an elevator to your right,” said the voice.
“Good guess, Power,” said Grant quietly.
“I’m not guessing, Hoppy. I told you, we have blueprints of the building—and lots of other intelligence.”
“Not sure I’d go that far.”
“Are you alone, Hoppy? It’s 7:00 AM in San Francisco right now, so the building should be pretty quiet. Bad guys never get up early.”
“Yeah, I’m alone. Past the elevator this floor opens up into a huge, high-ceilinged bay full of offices and cubicles. Everything’s quiet.”
“How are you doing?” said Power. “Is your disguise comfortable? We had the coveralls made special. How about the earpiece? It’s designed to look just like a hearing aid. I’m hearing you fine. How are you hearing me?”
“Like a broken record. I’m fine, Power. Now what’s next?”
“Well, you’re on the tenth floor, as I think I’ve already mentioned. It was the R&D floor for the previous company that leased the building. We believe the Bad Intents are using it for the same purpose. Grab one of those rolling garbage can setups that janitors use and take a walk. Start looking for a door marked Special Projects or something.”
“Yeah, okay. There were a couple of those janitor’s carts in the closet you beamed me into. I’ll get one.” Grant turned and walked back to the storage room. “Hey, what do I do if someone asks me a question?”
“Unless the question is ‘How ya doing?’ play dumb. Janitors aren’t expected to know the inner workings of the companies they contract to. Nobody’s going to be asking you anything tough. Remember, you’re just there to clean—and look for super weapons that could destroy us.”
Grant opened the closet door and pulled out what amounted to a mobile, all-purpose, janitorial equipment device. It had mops, brooms, liquid cleaning compounds in squirt bottles, garbage can liners; all attached to a large garbage can on wheels with a handle to push it. Grant pushed the cart along the wide central hallway keeping his head low, ready to avoid eye contact. On either side of the main hallway, hives of cubicles, meeting rooms and laboratories stretched from one end of the building to the other. Periodically Grant took a detour down one of the narrow side corridors leading through these cubicle ghettos, just to make sure he wasn’t missing anything that might not be visible from the main hallway. In the meantime, as the morning rolled on, people began showing up to start their workday. They all looked surprisingly non-threatening, business-like, and human.
“Hey, Power” whispered Grant. “Are you sure you geniuses didn’t beam me into the wrong building? Everyone I’ve seen here so far looks pretty normal, high-tech nerds mostly. It’s like looking in a mirror.”
“You’re in the right place, Hoppy. And don’t be fooled by appearances. Some of the people you’re seeing are undoubtedly cloaked. Didn’t you read the briefing Thinkiac emailed to you?”
“I didn’t get around to it, Power. I was busy last night, updating my will and kissing my ass goodbye.”
“The whole place is a cover for the Brotherhood. I think they really do provide IT solutions for some of the larger Market Street law firms and brokerage houses. My guess is that only about 10% of the people working in that building are even aware of the company’s true purpose. Now try to stay focused. Have you seen any rooms that could be research and development laboratories? Any doors with restricted access locks?”
“Power, I’ve been over practically this whole floor and haven’t seen… Oh.”
“What? What is it?”
“Well, I just noticed a row of larger rooms I hadn’t seen before. They all have card key and keypad access and they all look like they were thrown up in a hurry. They have that tacked-on look. Hey, they’re all marked Laboratory, too. Laboratory 1-A, Laboratory 1-B, Project Ragnarok Laboratory…”
“Whoa, boy,” said Power. “That’s it, Hoppy. You’re on to something. Ragnarok was the mythological Twilight of the Norse gods. You need to gain access to that room. Try the card-key we gave you.”
“No good,” said Grant, flicking the card key with his finger so Power could hear it. “I already tried. The card didn’t work. Then there’s the little problem of the keypad for which I don’t know the code.”
“Okay, no worries. This happens all the time here on the space station. The janitors need to clean all the rooms, even the top-secret ones that they don’t have access to, right? So what do they do?”
“Come on, Grant. Use that keen, engineer’s mind.”
“Okay, they stand by the door and look imploringly at everyone that walks by. Most people keep walking because they know if they let them in they have to watch them the whole time, but they also know that somebody will eventually show some pity and open the door.”
“Right. Do that.”
Grant parked the cart next to the door marked Project Raganarok Laboratory and waited. He smiled at every person who walked by. Ten minutes and fourteen human-looking employees, who apparently thought he had the power of invisibility, later Grant gave up and simply knocked. The door opened almost immediately. A large man wearing a white lab coat and glasses filled the doorway. He had white, freckled skin and military-cut orange hair. Grant figured he was at least six-five and three hundred pounds. A large percentage of that appeared to be muscle. He didn’t look happy.
“Oh, hi. I’m here to clean the laboratory and dump the garbage cans. You know; basura?”
“Yes, I do know the Spanish word for garbage, thank you. Now, how long is this going to take? We’re working on crucial projects in here. Projects with tight deadlines, and we have to put a halt to all of them while you dump our garbage.”
“Oh, uh, sorry about that. It’ll just take a few minutes. I’ll move as fast as I can, okay?”
“Fine,” said the man. “Please be quick.” He moved his massive body aside so that Grant could wheel the cart in.
“That was so much easier than I thought it would be,” mumbled Grant as he stopped the cart inside the doorway and stared at a room full of stainless steel operating tables, implements of torture, handcuffs on chains hanging from the walls, and a dark-stained concrete floor sloping down to a gore-clogged drain at its center.
“Aw crap!” he said.
“Indeed,” said the voice of the man that had let Grant in. The slamming door punctuated the word.
“What’s going on, Hoppy?” said the voice in Grant’s ear. Grant ignored it and turned slowly around but the man was gone. In his place stood a being of roughly the same height, weight, and size, wearing the same lab coat. There the similarities ended. The monstrous thing that now faced Grant had a head like a komodo dragon, long, gray teeth and claws and a body that was covered from head to foot in what appeared to be dark red metal plates that didn’t quite connect to each other but allowed thin lines of orange light to peer through between them.
“Yes, you mentioned that,” said the lizard man. “Allow me to introduce myself, my unlucky friend. I am known as Fire Dragon. This is partly due to my appearance and partly…to what I can do.
“What is it, man?” said Power again. “Talk to me.”
“Wha-what do you want with me?” said Grant, once again ignoring Power. “I’m just a…”
Fire Dragon lunged forward suddenly and slashed at Grant’s face with his right hand. Grant narrowly avoided the blow by stumbling against the janitorial cart and falling backwards to the ground. Grant rolled away from the mess and dove behind one of the operating tables.
“No matter, spy! I don’t need to touch you to kill you,” said the monster. He pointed a claw-like right hand at Grant’s hiding place. A blob of what looked like molten lava shot from Fire Dragon’s hand. The blob smacked into the polished metal surface of the operating table and instantly began burning through it. Grant kicked backwards just in time to avoid being hit by the blob as it fell to the floor after burning completely through the table.
“Help!” said Grant. His eyes darted from one end of the laboratory to the other. He was looking for a shield or, better still, something sharp.
“Who is it, Hoppy?” said Power again. “Who’s attacking you?” It was then, just as Power asked the question and a second blob of lava smacked against the surface of Grant’s hiding place, that he noticed a large…something, hidden by a white tarp, on the other side of the lab. Maybe it was nothing that could help. On the other hand, maybe it was the device Power had sent him to find. In any case, it was on the other side of the room from the lava-shooting lizard man and that was good enough. Grant front-rolled to his feet and darted off in the direction of the tarp. Another fiery, red blob just missed his left shoulder. Grant sprinted and dove, sailing over the covered device and landing painfully on his chest and chin.
“Your pathetic attempts at evasion would be humorous if they weren’t so tiresome,” said Fire Dragon, his voice now much closer. Grant ignored the pain in his chest and chin. He rolled into the tarpaulin-covered device. He grabbed the thick, coarse material in both hands and yanked as hard as he could. The tarp pulled free.
A glistening glass orb, about three feet in diameter, sat on a stainless steel tripod. Glowing red, purple, and orange liquids swirled around inside the orb and a large blue button marked Activate protruded from its steel base. Grant’s finger hit the button just as Fire Dragon pointed both hands directly at his chest.
“Aw, crap!” said the Fire Dragon.
“Ka-vash!” went the orb.
A blast of hot air threw Grant backwards. The back of his head hit the side of one of the surgical tables and he collapsed, unconscious. A wave of orange light that undulated like a living organism burst forth from the orb and expanded in all directions. It passed through the walls of the lab and was gone.
Grant awoke to the buzzing of Power’s voice in his ear. It could have been minutes or seconds later. “Are you there, Hoppy? I’ve got your coordinates in the transporter. Hang on, buddy, I’ll be down to get you in a minute!”
“Ow,” replied Grant.
Through the haze of cranial discomfort, Grant looked around but saw no sign of Fire Dragon. Then he noticed the body of a large human lying on the floor next to the orb.
“Who’s this now?” Grant said as he gingerly got to his feet while holding the back of his head with one hand and propping himself up against a surgical table with the other. The white lab coat and red hair tipped him off.
“Holy moley! It’s the Dragon. The thingamabob must have taken away his ability to become… whatever the hell he turns into.”
At that moment, the heavily armored lab security door developed a large dent in the shape of a fist, accompanied by a sound like a sledgehammer hitting a steel door. A second blow blasted the door off its hinges. There in the doorway, arms akimbo, looking pleased with himself, stood General Power.
“Well, I survived,” said Grant. “No thanks to you.”
“Ah, but you did much more than that my clever friend,” said Power.
“You single-handedly took out every super villain in this building.”
“How do you figure?”
“The weapon, buddy! You not only found the weapon The Brotherhood was developing, you activated it.”
“Well done, Hoppwell! You gave them all a taste of the medicine they were fixing up for me. Every Brotherhood member that was in the building when the device let go is currently powerless and comatose. You should see the rest of the place. It looks like some psychopath went on a shooting spree with all the bodies littering the floors. All that’s left to do is cuff ‘em and book ‘em—a job that is currently being handled by several members of the United Heroes, LLC. I’m proud of you, boy!”
“That’s great, Power. Glad I could save your ass for you, while risking my own. Now could you find me a handful of aspirin and a cold beer to choke them down with, please? My head feels like Ironfoot just got finished playing soccer with it.”
“I can do that and much more little buddy. Get ready to be the newest super-powered member of the UH!”
“Eh, I don’t think I want that now.”
Power’s jaw dropped in astonishment. “What are you saying, Hoppy? Are you delirious?”
“Well, look how easy it was to take out an entire building full of super people. Just flip the switch on the right frammastat and you all go soft and gooey! Who needs something like that happening at the wrong time? Like when you’re flying your girlfriend around town or something. What a mess that would make. You tell Doctor Thinkiac he can put his super juicer back in the closet. I’ll stay normal, thanks.”
“Well, okay. If that’s what you really want.”
“It is. But you can still make me a member of the UH. I think you guys need the average man’s POV once in awhile. Frankly, I’m amazed you haven’t all gotten yourselves killed by now.”
Power smiled as he walked over to Grant and supported his arm. The two men walked slowly out of the laboratory.
“And don’t forget to take the frammastat,” said Grant. “If you leave it, some other super nutcase will just use it on you later.”
“Good point, Hoppy,” said Power.
“And don’t forget my aspirin and cold beer.”
“It shall be done, little buddy.”