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"You're nuts if you go on this thing, Greg," says Gearbox. "It's obviously a set-up."
That's my pal, Gearbox. He's a shapeshifting robot superhero, he's always pissed-off about something, and he thinks this is obviously a set-up.
"Why on earth would someone be setting me up?" I ask. "If someone's gonna set a trap for someone, it'd be for the Cobra or Atlas or Defender. No one wants to kill me."
And I'm Greg Brachemann. I'm the Wheelman. I'm the Greatest Driver in the World. No one wants to kill me.
"Who said anything about killing you?" says Gearbox. "I just mean they're setting you up to be the punching bag so they can make the real demigods look good."
Yeah, sometimes Gearbox is an ass.
See, I received an invitation from Benedict Alexander, Metro City's richest and most-likely evilest lawyer, to participate in a tourney to determine who's the Greatest Demigod in the Corporeal Realm. So of course I said yeah, I'll do that. I like winning stuff.
Right now, Gearbox and me are hanging out in Kurtzman Park waiting on a bunch of Metro City's other superheroes to show up. It's impossibly early -- like 7 a.m. -- and it can't possibly help that I'm nursing a hell of a hangover. Gearbox and I had to go hit the clubs last night for a pre-tourney celebration, and I did enough shots to put the hammer on even my demigodly constitution.
"Gearbox, man, don't diss me this early in the morning," I say. "I'll never think of any decent comebacks until I've woken up."
"You haven't even gone to sleep yet," he says, sounding even more bored and irritated than usual. "I was hoping you'd at least pass out at some point so I could stop watching you swill ethanol."
"No one was making you stick around," I say. "Seems like you were having a good time."
"Only reason I was there was because the Chrome Cobra wanted to make sure you'd be here this morning, instead of sleeping it off on some random partygirl's living room floor."
"Aw, that's nice of you guys," I say, mostly insincerely. "Where is she anyway? Wasn't she gonna be here to see me off?"
"Yeah, tracking the communicators," he says. "Should be here in approximately 38.442 seconds."
Like I'm gonna count the seconds down to see if he's right? That's hard work. But less than a minute later, the Cobra shows up, along with Silver Protector Kumiko, Squid Kid, Miss Mega, Piledriver, Gamma Girl, Defender, Hybrid, Jonni Rotten, Express, and Iota.
"Hey, it's all my favorite babes!" I say. "And also Express and Iota. And Jonni. Hey, guys."
Actually, it's not all my favorite babes. It's all my favorite superhero babes, but there's a few club girls I know who are a lot of fun, too.
"So it looks like I'm gonna have an even bigger entourage than I expected, huh?" I say. "We're all gonna be on TV, guys, ain't it awesome?"
"Greg, for god's sake," says the Cobra. "You haven't even read the rules they sent, have you?"
"I scanned 'em. Rulebooks are boring. I got the gist of it."
"I doubt you got anywhere in the vicinity of the gist," she says. "And you're getting teleported to the site of this so-called contest in about ten minutes, so you'd better pay some attention to all of this before it's too late. First of all, none of the competition is going to be televised. No TV, no streaming, no nothing."
"What? How are they gonna publicize this stuff?"
"Don't know," she says. "Don’t care. This is obviously a set-up. I don't know who's running the scam, but Benedict Alexander has something to do with it, and that's more than enough reason not to go along with the swindle."
"If it's a set-up, it's a stupid set-up," I say. "The only thing really dumb about it is not putting it on TV, because it'd be ratings gold. It'd be the best audience I've had in years. Something like that could even relaunch daredevil acts as a national craze."
"Dream on," says Jonni. "That stuff was unpopular even when it was popular."
"Last thing I ever want to do is take your advice on popularity," I say. "What are you even doing here, Jonni? I didn't invite you to be part of my entourage."
"I go wherever I want, dickhead," she snarls. "And I figure if you don't want me there, I should definitely show up."
"Listen, man, you realize this entourage thing just isn't gonna happen, right?" says Express. "There's just no way I'm ever gonna be willing to be anyone's sidekick."
"And this is why you shouldn't just scan their rulebooks, Greg," the Cobra says. "You wouldn't be able to take along as many people as you invited for your entourage. They've got a limit of five people. And it's not really accurate to call them an entourage -- they're supposed to be your worshipers."
Oh. That is a surprise. Yeah, maybe I should've read that little rules booklet.
"Well, hey, you guys know I don't want people to worship me," I say. "Unless they're gonna worship me for being an awesome guy. Really, who actually worships demigods? We're not actual gods, you know?"
"Doesn't matter," says the Cobra. "You have to trim down the members of your so-called entourage to five --"
"That's if anyone even wants to go along on an obvious trap," says Gamma Girl.
"Or get teleported to a completely undisclosed location by an unknown teleporter," says Iota.
"Or be classified in any way as one of your worshipers," says Kumiko.
"Okay, fine," I say. "Obviously, Gearbox has been my bud for ages, so I'd love to bring him along."
"Forget it," he says. "We're not actually particularly close friends. Watching you act like an idiot in dance clubs doesn't count. And I don't trust the whole setup. If it's a government or corporate operation, it'd be too easy for them to capture me and start taking me apart."
"I'm not coming either," says Iota. "I have some really interesting prototypes I'm working on. I can't afford to leave the city and delay production on any of these projects."
"I'm gonna pass on the trip, too," says Express. "I don't like the idea of taking too many of the city's defenders somewhere else. Sorry, Greg."
"And I'm not going," says Kumiko. "Because you're a pig."
"Actually, she's not going because the rules say no spellcasters allowed," says the Cobra. "Not that she's wrong about you being a pig, though."
"Thanks a lot," I say. "Am I going to have to go to this thing by myself?"
"Actually, I've got that worked out," says the Cobra. "I picked out an entourage for you. You're getting Squid Kid, Miss Mega, Piledriver, Hybrid, and Gamma Girl. Everyone's already packed suitcases and everything."
"Aw, that's awesome," I say. "Thanks, you guys, I really appreciate you coming."
"Stuff it," says Gamma Girl. "I'll be able to take the time off from work as a short vacation, but I never wanted a three-day weekend where I'd have to babysit you."
"At least you have a public identity," says Hybrid. "Miss Mega and me are probably going to have to sleep in our damn costumes."
"You don't have to sleep in your costume for me, Mega," says Piledriver dreamily.
Miss Mega doesn't say anything, and to my surprise, she also doesn't punch anyone.
"Ah, you guys, it won't be that bad," says Lenore. "We're gonna get to go to some exotic locale and do touristy stuff and go set fire to shopping malls. It'll be fun for everyone, guaranteed."
"Hey, you're not coming along, Cobra?" I ask. "If you're so sure it's a trap, you could take the whole swindle to pieces in about two minutes, right?"
Cobra snorts in a way that I can't tell if it's laughter or pure derision.
"We're shipping six superheroes out of the city for three days," she says. "I'm going to need to pick up the slack you guys are leaving behind."
With that, she gives me one of my suitcases -- which means I get to tell everyone the Chrome Cobra has touched my underwear -- and the six of us end up getting teleported out of the city about five minutes later.
I gotta admit, I'd hoped for a welcoming reception, something with appreciative crowds to cheer for me. But man, there's nothing like that. There's almost less than nothing. As soon as I get my vision back after we're teleported, I look around, and we're just in some bare rocky cavern, standing on a high tech transport pad. Some guy wearing goggles and a fancy quasi-military uniform is running the control panel. He looks up at us and smirks.
"The Wheelman's worshipers are all superchicks?" he says. "No wonder Metro City sucks so hard."
That gets all of us yelling, for various reasons -- that Metro City is cool, that they're not my worshipers, that no one sensible calls superheroines "superchicks" when they're standing right in front of you... and he just ignores us and walks out of the room, still smirking.
As soon as the door slides shut behind him, another door slides open, and a blonde-haired woman in a suit-and-skirt combo and stylish glasses comes in, shakes my hand briskly, and says, "Mr. Brachemann, I'm Cindy Tyrienne. We're so pleased you could join us for this event. May I show all of you to your quarters?"
Cindy leads us all down a long rocky corridor, populated only by a few people wearing uniforms similar to the hockey puck running the teleporter.
"So where are we anyway?" Lenore asks. "I kinda promised my mom I'd get some nice touristy photos."
"Sorry, but this is a completely undisclosed location," Cindy says. "Our sponsor wants as little publicity as possible. And I'm afraid the only photos you'll be able to get will be of a lot of rock walls. There are no plans to send anyone aboveground until after the tournament."
"We don't know where we're at, and we're going to stay underground?" Lenore says. "I hope there's something to keep us entertained. I brought some books, but I'm a fast reader. I'll burn through these pretty fast if there's nothing else to do."
"Well, there's socializing," Cindy says. "You'll be meeting people from around the world here. There'll be a formal banquet tomorrow -- no, it wasn't announced, but we'll be providing formal attire for everyone. We have an excellent gym, a small library, and an extensive collection of films. But the primary entertainment is going to be the tournament itself. I'm sure you'll want to watch your champion do battle, right?"
"Oh my god, Greg," says Lenore. "This is going to be complete torture."
"It won't be that bad," I say. I don't believe it, though -- it doesn't sound real exciting. "I bet there'll be parties. Demigod parties."
"Not all of us care about parties," says Gamma Girl.
"And some of us have interests beyond just going to parties," says Lenore.
"Okay, but even then, it's just a few days," I say, "It won't be that bad."
Everyone's mood improves some once we get to our rooms. We get an incredibly nice set of three connected suites. I get one of my own, and the other two suites have two and three beds for the girls. They're just fantastically luxurious -- the beds look like someone stuck at least two king-size beds together, the bathrooms have gigantic showers and hot tubs, and an entire wall of each suite is dominated by an immense aquarium. The walls are still rock, but they're decorated with beautiful artwork. This is even ritzier than I'm used to.
"Alright, there we go," I say. "There's nothing this fancy anywhere in Metro City. This is going to be a fantastic weekend. Am I forgiven yet?"
"Definitely not," says Mega. "But this is a good start. Stay out of our suites, Wheels."
Miss Mega and Hybrid apparently know each other's secret identities, so they take the two-bed suite, leaving Squiddie, Piledriver, and Gamma Girl in the other one. Piledriver begs to switch rooms, and Mega threatens to remove her arms and legs. But they do have her do a bug sweep of all three rooms to look for any hidden recording equipment.
"There's nothing," she announces when she's done. "Not a single bug anywhere. That seems pretty crazy, know what I mean?"
"Maybe it means they're on the up-and-up," says Gamma Girl.
"I don't believe that," Laura says. "Secret teleporters, luxury hotels hidden underground, a demigod tournament they don't want anyone to know about, jackasses running around in military uniforms -- the entire thing is shady. So I don't get why these rooms aren't stuffed full of recording gadgets."
"Whoever they are, they're after something other than information or espionage," says Hybrid. "Also, Laura, I've got really good senses, and I can hear the bug you put in our bathroom."
Once Piledriver removes the bug in the showerhead, and once we all convince Mega not to dopeslap Laura's head completely off her shoulders, there's a knock at the door.
"Everyone settled in?" asks Cindy. "Come on, it's time to meet the other contestants."
We follow Cindy down a series of lengthy stone hallways until we come to a vast underground coliseum. It has way more audience seating than a hidden arena is ever going to actually need, and a single luxury suite high above everything else. The floor is filled up with people milling around, huddling around a few central figures, then circulating around each other, like some sort of weird combination of a cocktail party and the weigh-in before a boxing match.
So these are the 12 competitors, with their entourages circling around them.
Actually, I don't even recognize most of these people. I recognize Hercules, because who doesn't recognize Hercules? He's been a celebrity superhero for ages -- literally, for ages. I recognize Moonstar, who's a total babe of a superheroine based out of Hawaii. I recognize Windshear, a total babe of a supervillain who operates in Chicago. I recognize Hopeless, a total babe of a psychotic assassin who once came really close to murdering the Chrome Cobra. I recognize Pyroclasm, a total non-babe of a lava-spewing monster who periodically tries to blow up the volcanoes in the ring of fire in the Pacific. I don't recognize any of the rest.
I wasn't actually expecting to see quite so many supervillains. This bugs me more than I was expecting.
Introductions are made. I miss a lot of them -- there are a dozen demigods here, and only four of us are Americans. No, I didn't say I couldn't keep track of who people are if they aren't white -- but I've never even heard of a lot of these guys, and their names are in languages I don't know. Come on, it goes both ways -- the tree lady from Egypt looked so confused when they introduced me, and I'm pretty sure she thought tires were going to come out of my body.
But the ones I'm able to pick up names for include, again, Hercules, son of Zeus; Moonstar, daughter of Hina, Hawaiian goddess of the moon; Windshear, daughter of Njord, Norse god of the wind; Hopeless, daughter of Nujalik, Inuit goddess of hunting; Pyroclasm, son of Ruaumoko, Maori god of volcanoes. And there's also Thunderbird, son of, well, Thunderbird, one of the Native American spirits of thunder. He's another supervillain. And Blue Dragon, son of the Dragon King of the East Sea. I kid you not, man. He's a water-controlling supervillain from Hong Kong.
Like I said, way too many damned supervillains.
This puts us in a place I'm really not happy with. For one thing, Squiddie, Hybrid, Miss Mega, and I would really like to kick the crap out of Hopeless and throw her in the nearest jail. And we're not allowed to. The facility here is supposed to be neutral ground -- we don't arrest the villains, the villains don't attack the heroes. We're really not very happy about that, but we signed the release forms, and Cindy, our concierge, or whatever she is, pointed out that little bit in the fine print when we started sizing Hopeless up for a takedown.
Okay, fine, breaking the "neutral ground" bit would basically mean all bets would be off, it'd be a huge free-for-all, and probably a lot of people would get killed. Plus we'd get sued. So we just stew about the whole thing silently.
After all the introductions have been made, Cindy stands up and asks if anyone has any questions. I surprise myself by raising my hand and asking, "Who's inside the luxury box up there?"
Everyone looks up at the luxury suite at the top of the arena, and for a second, I imagine I see someone step away from the window.
"That's where our patron is staying," Cindy says.
"Are we going to get to meet him?" I ask. "I'd kinda like to shake his hand -- or her hand -- and thank him for the party."
"I believe we'll get to meet him at the end of the tournament," she says, smiling. "But he does value his privacy, so I doubt we'll see him prior to the awards ceremony."
No one else seems to have anything they want to ask, so Cindy says, "Well, it looks like this would be a good time to go ahead and begin the tournament." She consults a tablet computer. "The first match will feature Gregory Brachemann, known as the Wheelman, son of Hermes, demigod of travel vs. Ashok Bhaduri, known as Khanda, son of Kartikeya, demigod of war."
Already? I admit I was hoping there'd be a lot more vacation and a lot less of the actual tournament.
Everyone else clears out of the center of the arena. Squiddie and Miss Mega both tell me to watch my ass before they leave, and Khanda's entourage -- a bunch of Indian supermodels -- all coo over him before scampering away. Dude got a better entourage than I did.
Khanda's a big guy. At least seven feet tall, muscular, glowering, wearing ornate red and yellow armor. I wish I'd thought to wear fancy armor, you know? I'd probably look pretty awesome.
"Listen, man," I say. "I'm gonna try not to hold whatever you've done as a supervillain against you. But you think you could get me the digits of any of the girls in your entourage?"
He glares at me hard. "I am no villain, fool," he rumbles at me. "I am one of India's greatest heroes. I bring unending war against those who would oppose justice in my nation. I was unaware America had quite so many divine-powered jesters."
"Watch it, big guy," I say. "I'm a superhero, too."
"Are the combatants ready?" says Cindy. She's standing about 20 feet away, poised to blow on a whistle.
"Sure, just about," I say. "Where's my car?"
"You're not getting a car," she says.
"Be serious, kid," I say. "Where's my car?"
"There are no weapons allowed in the arena," she says. "You're competing demigod against demigod, not weapons against weapons."
"I need no weapons," says Khanda, lifting up his really distressingly large fists. "None but those I was born with."
"You are fucking kidding me, right?" I say.
Cindy blows her whistle.
Khanda hits me, and I go flying. Haven't even landed yet, but wow, I think he's actually broken every bone I have. Is it even possible to get your ribs punched into powder? They should have rules about hitting someone this hard.
Then the funny thing is -- and I use "funny" to mean "fuck you, that's not funny at all" -- I don't even get to land. He hits me a second time, and I go flying even farther. Okay, now I'm pretty sure he's broken all my bones because fuck, fuck, fuck, this hurts really a lot.
He hits me a third time, too. Asshole is just showing off at this point. Did I ever have bones? No, I've always had shards. That's all, just shards. Probably sticking out everywhere. Just a shard pincushion that sometimes drives cars.
I don't know if he hits me again. Not even sure it matters anymore, 'cause I'd bet money I'm already dead.
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