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I'm not much of an investigator. When I was with the Assembly of Order, we had computers we could use to track down clues. We had actual detectives who lived for solving mysteries. I've never really thought of myself as a criminologist. I'm a blaster. I blast things.
Still, it doesn't take but a little casual conversation around my legal firm's break room to find out that the senior partners don't trust Benedict Alexander -- or anyone else at Severn, Alexander & Burke -- at all. Their clientele consists of the worst of the worst -- corporate criminals of various stripes, mobsters, socialites with DWIs, some supervillains -- if they have enough money, Alexander's firm will take the case, and they'll probably help the perps go free.
That doesn't explain why he'd represent a bunch of lowlifes robbing a toy store.
Not a lot more I can find out on that front. I don't want to inquire too deeply about Alexander -- that kind of person usually has ways of finding out about people who are too interested in their affairs. And the store burglars have, upon advice of counsel, clammed up, so the police have little info they'd be able to share.
All the thieves were employees of Astrotech Optics, but I've got enough experience with large corporations to know that they're never forthcoming about employees caught operating outside the law.
So I take my lunch break the next afternoon and drop by the toy store -- Geppetto Toys and Games. No use questioning the checkout clerk -- the news reports about my debut in Metro City has caused a customer boom for the store, and the clerk is buried under curiosity-seekers quizzing him about the Star, and whether they have souvenirs. Poor guy -- looks like the owner never anticipated superhero fans showing up and pestering him. Still, it makes it easier for me to browse the store freely.
It's a nice store, one of those upper-crust toy stores that specializes in hand-carved pull-toys, overpriced crystal radio kits, and dolls that are primarily designed to boost the parents' egos and drain their pocketbooks. Sorry, but my mom got all my toys from places like this when I was a kid, and I hated them. All I really wanted were video games, and all the ant farms and butterfly gardens in the world couldn't make up for the fact that I couldn't play Mario.
Anyway, I naturally get drawn to the science and astronomy toys. The usual glow-in-the-dark stars, some nice toys that project the constellations on your ceiling, a motorized model of the solar system...
...and the Nebula-9000. Astrotech Optics Company's worst-designed telescope prototype ever. But it's not a prototype anymore. It's got bright, happy packaging: "See the stars up close and personal! Perfect for ages 9 to 99!"
I buy it, of course. I sleepwalk through the rest of the work day, race home, and take it apart in the middle of the living room floor. I used to take telescopes apart and rebuild 'em when I was in elementary school, so I know everything that's supposed to be in a telescope and everything that isn't.
Hector gets in from his office while I'm taking the scope apart. He starts in on his usual astronomy puns, but quits when I don't throw any back at him. And he notices the packaging next. He always says he can't tell astronomy from astrology, but he knows what the Nebula-9000 means to me.
"Oh my god, is that what I think it is?"
"Yeah," I reply, terse and tense.
"Does it have...?"
I finally pop the innermost sealed compartment open, with a little help from a low-power cosmic blowtorch, and fish out a linked series of hyper-focusing lenses made from what looks like meteor-forged glass.
I hold it up for Hector to see. "The Astrotech Optics Stellar-Concentrating Magni-Lenses," I tell him. "The most compact and most powerful lenses ever made. Cleared only for use in deep-space satellite scopes, and supposedly banned from use in commercial or civilian telescopes."
Hector takes a step away from it. "The thing that gave you your powers, isn't it?"
"And killed another dozen people who thought it was just a top-of-the-line telescope," I add. "The lawsuits and government fines almost bankrupted the company."
"But how'd they come back?" Hector asks. "What's their connection to Benedict Alexander and those burglars? Why are they selling something they know is unsafe?"
"All good questions," I replied. "The feds will have a lot of fun finding the answers, won't they?"
"Wait, you're not going to go down to Astrotech yourself? You're not going to try to find out what's up?"
"What do you want me to do? Fly into the local Astrotech office, shoot some cosmic bolts at the secretaries and accountants, and make accusations? No, I'm gonna take the telescope to the local FBI office, tell 'em I recognized it in the toy store, bought it to see if it was the same device, then brought it to them. Let the federales handle it -- they know how to conduct a real investigation. I don't."
"Well, fine," said Hector. "But I think you'd have more fun if you do it yourself instead of letting other people do all the exciting stuff."
And about that moment, there was a pop of gray smoke, and a birthday-party magician stepped into the room. He was wearing a tuxedo and top hat, and he had an impossibly cheesy mustache. He waved a wand at us, and we both went still as statues.
I remembered his face from the Assembly of Order databases -- Cosmo the Astounding, low-rent criminal wizard for hire.
And both Hector and I were stuck in his paralysis spell. Magic is -- weird. Irritating. Most heroes and even villains hate having to deal with it, because there are so few effective ways to deal with it. It breaks the laws of science in ways that even regular superpowers can't. Sure, there are lots of ways to counter it. Wreck the wizard's concentration. Break a spell component. Have willpower strong enough to break free. Heck, my cosmic forcefield will block some magical effects, but turning it on now would tip Cosmo off about my real identity. So there wasn't anything we could do but wait the spell out.
It could've been worse -- could've been a necromancer with plans to sacrifice us to some dark god. Actually, maybe we'd prefer being sacrifices. Cosmo loves having a captive audience.
"Good evening, gentlemen!" he starts off. "Welcome to this special free demonstration of the mystical powers of the amazing, the incredible, the fantastical Cosmo the Astounding, master of the supernatural arts! You may ask yourself, to what do we owe this extraordinary honor of a performance by the great Cosmo himself? Why have we been gifted with this uncommon opportunity to witness the staggering abilities of the greatest criminal mind in the supernatural community? Well, my friends, I'll tell you -- you bought something my employers wanted back, and you were dumb enough to pay for it with a credit card."
He bent over and picked up the Magni-Lenses from the dismantled telescope. "If you'd paid for this little beauty with cash, it would've taken weeks to track you down. Credit card? You can look that up in two minutes if you know the right websites. Wow, these really are a piece of work -- I've gotta ask 'em how they cooked this up."
Cosmo took off his top hat, dropped the Magni-Lenses inside, and put it back on his head. "Sorry to depart so soon after the beginning of the show, but we're taking the curtain call a bit early tonight. The folks paying my fees for the evening would prefer to have their property back sooner rather than later. So au revoir, and tell the papers you were robbed by the one, the only, the stupendous... Cosmo the Astounding!"
Cosmo disappeared in a puff of smoke, and Hector and I were both able to move again. We didn't have much time to make plans, but we decided -- I decided, I guess, but I've got experience in this stuff -- that we wouldn't bring the cops in, at least not yet. I didn't want them snooping around the house, I didn't want them asking inconvenient questions, and I didn't want them taking what's left of the telescope as evidence. Nobody comes into my house and stirs up shit. Not without getting me after them.
I got into my costume as fast as I could and took off, bringing the part of the telescope that held the Magni-Lenses with me. I called Atlas on my cell, filled him in on the details, asked him to contact anyone he could. The problem was that he, like me, hadn't been collecting contact info for the other Metro City heroes. We'd just barely started meeting these people -- we hadn't had time to start trading phone numbers.
We decided we'd go meet the heroes who were first on our lists for tonight, see if they could contact anyone else, then take whoever we could and target the local Astrotech HQ. It was obvious that they were somehow behind all this -- maybe we could catch Cosmo and get him to talk.
I'd hung up the phone and was on the way to the Plastino Factory on the edge of town when I got another call -- and damn if it wasn't the Chrome Cobra. "Apologies in advance, sir," she said. "I have a security program running that alerts me any time the local superheroes contact each other. I assure you, my intention isn't to spy or to monitor your calls -- just to make sure I can help with any emergencies. In fact, I'd assume this was one of the social calls you and Mr. Atlas make to each other periodically, if the signal hadn't indicated that you were flying over the city."
Well, frankly, this did piss me off a bit -- how closely does she monitor us? But I didn't have time to argue, so I just told her what was up and what our plans were.
"Alright, tell you what," she said. "Go ahead to the Plastino Factory -- I'll get word to a few people who can help out, and I'll get you all a rendezvous point. And I'll have you and Atlas added to the phone list ASAP."
Good enough for me -- the more help, the better. So I flew on out to the Plastino Factory, an old toy factory that shut down in the early '80s. I saw my contact waiting for me on a rusted bench by the plant's front door. Green skin, spiky hairdo, skinny, heavy-metal T-shirt, a quarterstaff strapped to her back and a pair of tonfa on her belt.
Jonni Rotten, zombie weapons-master.
I'd never met her, just knew her by her reputation, which was, frankly, awful. She's considered one of the rudest, angriest, most aggressively unpleasant superheroes in the country. Berzerker was the Assembly's resident offensive thug, and his one meeting with Jonni unsettled him so badly, he went on a neat-freak kick for a week.
She got up off the bench as I came in for a landing. Probably better to get this over with quickly. I gave her a handshake and said, "Ms. Rotten, how are you? I'm the Star. We've got a bit of a situation..."
"The Star," she interrupted, with a thoroughly nasty grin. "The motherfucking Star. You may be absolutely assured that I'm completely impressed as hell."
"Uh, right." I took my hand away and realized there was something on it. A sticky, flaky green residue. The palm of her hand.
I was fairly, well, I think the word my granddad used to use was, gobsmacked. I looked up at her, probably looking a little green myself, and just let myself see what she really looked like. At first glance, she's quite pretty, but after a moment, it just really sets in -- dried, flaking skin, a maggot chewing on her earlobe, a swarm of flies all around her, and the stench...
"What's the matter, Star?" she said, her widening smile setting off a spiderweb pattern of hairline cracks all over her face. "Never seen a dead body before?"
At that point, I knew I was about to set course on a week-long neat-freak binge as soon as I got home.
"I would really love to keep on like this," I said slowly, trying to keep my gorge under control. "I'm sure you can take your eyes out, show me your brain, puke worms in my face..."
"Ohh, that's a good one. I really ought to try that sometime."
"...But we don't really have the time right now. We have a major problem going on, and I need your help to invade Astrotech Optics."
I filled her in on the details -- well, most of the details. I leave out all I can to keep my secret identity protected. I don't think Hector would want her showing up on the doorstep to party any time soon.
"The multinational astrophysics megacorp?" she said. "They got crazy security, guards up the whazoo. Sounds like it'd be dangerous. I'm in."
About that time, Jonni got a beep on her cell. She checked the phone and said, "Hey, got a IM from the Cobra. We're supposed to rendezvous over at the Infantino Building downtown."
"Great," I said. "Meet you there?"
"Like hell," she replied.
"Wait, I thought you were willing to go along on this?"
"Yeah, but I got no powers that'll get me there," she said. "I don't fly, I don't jump, I don't do superspeed. I don't do swinglines, and jetpacks set my legs on fire. I don't even have a car, man. You're gonna have to carry me."
"C-Carry you?" All of a sudden, I was liking the idea of just letting Cosmo and Astrotech go free.
"Yeah, carry me, dumbass. You can probably afford the dry cleaning for that costume, I bet."
And yeah, there was no way around it. So I put an arm around her waist, she put an arm over my shoulders, and we took off. She squished alarmingly where I had my hand. I could almost feel rot stains soaking into my costume. And dear god in heaven, the stench. I was definitely going on a neat-freak kick for a month now.
"Don't you dare drop me," she growled. "If you're gonna get sick, you land first and then puke. But don't you dare drop me. You can't kill what's already dead. It'll take me a week to get all my pieces back together, but then I will come after you, and I will fuck you up bad."
I didn't drop her, and I didn't throw up. But goddamn, did I ever want to.
When we got to the Infantino Building, there was an unexpected horde of people there. A few I knew, but a bunch I wasn't so well acquainted with.
"I got good news," said the Cobra. "Everyone wanted in on the action tonight. You got the whole posse. Every superhero in the city."
That was certainly more than I was expecting, and it was definitely good news -- for one thing, it meant no matter what we ran into with Astrotech, we'd have enough people to take care of the problem. Even better, I'd get to meet all the other heroes in town all at once. Hope you don't mind, but for the sake of completeness, here's the list of everyone else who was there.
- Atlas: A friend of mine from the now-defunct Assembly of Order, he's superstrong and can fly and has a nice family he won't let me meet.
- The Chrome Cobra: The coolest, most badass superhero I've ever heard of. Powersuit, hard-light weapons, martial arts. Every superhero I know is just in awe of her.
- Daffodil: A metahuman private eye. She's African-American, and she's supposed to be completely indestructible.
- Defender: Another powersuit, mostly blue, white, and silver. Carries defensive and non-lethal weaponry.
- Express: African-American speedster. He doesn't like me a bit because he thinks I'm a sellout. Whatever.
- Gearbox: Shapeshifting robot superhero on the run from the authorities and corporate America.
- Hybrid: Semi-bestial brawler who cultivates a reputation as a terrifying monster.
- Hypothermia: A grim and mostly faceless man who seems to have been carved out of a block of ice.
- Iota: A genius inventor and mutant shrinker armed with some high-tech stunner weaponry.
- Miss Mega: An eight-foot-tall, superstrong brunette bombshell in a black and orange costume.
- Penitente: An unpowered Hispanic man in a blue and white costume. His gimmicks seem to be fistfights, acrobatics, and bullwhips.
- El Phantasmo: A skinny kid wearing a black costume and a bright luchadore mask. There's a constant swirling fog of ghosts and spirits surrounding him.
- Squid Kid: A goth kid who can grow a bunch of hyperelastic black tentacles out of her back.
- The Wheelman: A handsome blonde guy who's supposed to be the greatest driver in the world. I don't know how he managed to get his Miata to the top of the Infantino Building, unless they've got a really good freight elevator.
Turned out the key to this whole operation was going to be Daffodil. "Hey, Star, I'm a fan," she said as we shook hands. "I'm Daphne Diller. I'm a P.I."
"Oh, I've heard of you," I replied. "Daffodil, the indestructible detective, right?"
She narrowed her eyes at me. "Please never use that name. My name's Daphne Diller."
The Cobra broke in. "Daphne's done a little low-key investigating of Astrotech over the last few months," she said. "She knows the blueprints of their local facilities and has checked into some of their finances and operations."
"Yeah, something about 'em smells fishy," Diller said. "Detective instincts. On paper, they're on the up-and-up, but they've got an unusual income stream coming in from overseas, plus a bunch of off-kilter employees and guests. The Cobra said you had part of the telescope that Cosmo tried to steal?"
"Right," I said, handing it over. "That's the telescope tube, where the Magni-Lenses were mounted."
"Probably don't have time for a proper forensic analysis of that," Diller said as she handed the tube to Hybrid. "Turn those super-senses loose on this, Hybrid," she said. "Tell me if there's anything unusual."
Hybrid transformed into her bestial form, stuck her snout in one end of the tube, and took a big sniff. She jerked her head out, sneezed twice, and said, "There'ssh blood in there. Dried. Not much of it, but the shhmell is definitely there."
"You don't think this is a murder weapon, do you?" asked Atlas. "Someone got their skull caved in with this, and now someone wants it to hide the evidence?"
"If that was the case, Cosmo would've taken the entire scope, not just the lenses," said Daffodil. "Here, Squiddie, see if you smell blood in there."
"Me? Why me?" said Squid Kid as she took the tube. "I got this teeny human nose." She stuck her nose in the tube anyway, then flinched away from it. "Ughh, not blood, more like... myrrh? Graveyard dirt? Black crepe paper? How come I can smell the color black?"
"Magic," said Diller as she took the telescope tube back. "You, Jonni, and Phantasmo have the most primal connections to magic. Anyone with magic-based powers or origins, I need y'all to give this tube a once-over. You last, Jonni, or no one will be able to smell anything else."
After a few minutes, Miss Mega and Wheelman hadn't smelled anything, and Jonni confirmed what Squid Kid had detected. Phantasmo didn't smell anything special, but one of his multitude of ghosts -- an elderly woman who he claimed was a former medium -- said it "reeeeked of necrooomancy most viiiiile."
"That's good enough for me," said Chrome Cobra. "We got confirmed magic here, folks. Likely spellcasting and possible human sacrifice. Not sure why someone's enchanting a telescope, but we can find that later after we bust up the magic users. Daphne, you got any ideas about which of Astrotech's local facilities we should investigate?"
"Yeah, they got a research lab on the north edge of the city," said Daphne. "Very isolated, very heavy security. That's probably the target you guys are going to want to hit."
"Aren't you coming with us?" asked Iota. "You know the blueprint on the facility, right?'
"Iota, baby, I'm a private detective," she laughed. "I'm not a superhero, and I don't do this stuff for free. You got enough to pay my fees?"
"Don't worry," said the Cobra. "We should be able to handle this. Of course, it'll suck to do all that investigative legwork and let the rest of us get all the credit and publicity, but sacrifices must be made."
Cue the jaw drop. Cue the enraged glare. "Fine, I'll come along," Diller spat. "I gotta quit answering my beeper when you call."
Ten minutes later, after a quick trip across town, Gearbox remotely deactivated the Astrotech security alarms, and Iota shrank underneath the front door and opened the lock. From the looks of the place, the lab was completely deserted, which meant we'd be able to look around all we wanted. Not really what we were looking forward to -- you get every superhero in Metro City together, and there's some expectation that we'd be up for some fighting. No one wants a big climactic crisis, of course -- but I felt guilty. I could've snooped around an empty lab all by myself. Everyone else could've been spending the evening taking down muggers and convenience store robbers and supervillains.
It didn't take long for us to find the main lab -- and it definitely wasn't what we were expecting. It was a huge circular room, with walls lined with crystals, lenses, and pentagrams, and ornate designs sprawled across the floor and ceiling. The place was jammed full of Nebula-9000 telescopes.
"These are the illegal scopes, right?" asked the Chrome Cobra as we entered the room. "We should get as many of these out of here as we can. We can drop 'em off with the feds and let them take care of the paperwork. Not the most exciting ending to the night, I guess..."
"Phantasmo, what's the matter?" asked Defender suddenly.
"What?" asked Phantasmo, looking puzzled even through his luchadore mask. "Is there something wrong?"
But I could see it now -- we all could. All night, El Phantasmo had been surrounded by wispy vapors and spirits, swirling around him like a spectral fog, sometimes formless, sometimes disturbingly solid and human-looking. There wasn't any fog around him at all now.
"Hey, where'd my ghosts go?" asked Phantasmo, right before his knees buckled and he fell to the floor.
I would've gone over to help him up, but I was already fast asleep.
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