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How have you not been paying attention to all this, amigo? I mean, you know who Sugarplum is, right? She's basically an omnipotent imp who goes around making these insanely bizarre changes to cities around the world, just because she thinks it's fun and whimsical. The local superheroes always put things right again, but it's always a huge pain in the ass to deal with. She once hyper-evolved everyone in Bogota into alien super-psychics. She gender-flipped everyone in Shanghai. She turned all the penguins in Antarctica evil.

This time, she's taken our local superhero wannabes, who call themselves the League of Real-Life Metro City Superheroes, and given them real superpowers -- and unfortunately, the wannabes are absolutely wiping the floor with us.

And me? Everybody's favorite non-powered everyman superhero, Penitente? I just challenged Sugarplum herself to a fight.

She hasn't yet turned me into a newt, so I grab one of the hard rubber balls out of my pack and pitch it at her. Bonk! Right on the forehead! She wails and grabs her head. Man, it'd be great if I could really beat her like this.

"Get out of this city, lady!" I yell at her. "Turn those wannabes back to normal and get outta town, or I will mess you up hard!"

"I could annihilate you with a glance, little man!" Sugarplum shouts. "You're using pebbles to fight a goddess! This nonsense is unworthy of my supreme whimsy!"

"You wouldn't know whimsy if you stepped in it, puta."

"What did you call me?!"

She throws a really big magic blast at me. I dodge out of the way easy, but it leaves a really large, really hot hole in the ground. No way I can handle that, if she manages to hit me with the next one.

"Yo, what the hell are you doing?" I yell. "You can't do that!"

"Yes, I can," she says. "I can do anything I want, remember?"

"No, you can't," I say. "It breaks the rules of your precious games. You just blow people away? It's not a challenge, it's not fun, it's not fair play!"

This actually throws her for a second, long enough for me to throw my other rubber ball at her. She dodges it this time.

"Okay, I could give up my powers," she says. "Only temporarily, of course. Then we would be on a level playing field."

I'm tempted to take her up on that. But I doubt it'd make the wannabes lose their powers, and then there'd be no chance of anyone controlling them. And honestly, I'd beat her so fast, she'd accuse me of cheating, and then she'd really raise hell. Besides, what I want is to give the other heroes a chance to beat the wannabes before it's too late.

"It still wouldn't be fair, chica," I say. "There's no way you could beat me if you didn't have powers. I'm much stronger than you are, and I'm a better fighter. But you know, it's also not fair that all the other combatants are unevenly matched. Maybe you need to lower the wannabes' power levels? Or boost my friends' powers to match theirs?"

"I have a far better solution!" she says with a delighted smile. And she shoots me with another magic blast.

To my surprise, it doesn't splatter me all over the park. It doesn't seem to do anything at all to me.

"Rather than depowering myself to allow you to heartlessly thrash an innocent waif who knows nothing of the so-called sweet science," Sugarplum says. "I've decided to power you up instead, so the innocent waif can thrash someone who knows nothing of the real sweet science."

"I officially don't know what the hell you're talking about, lady."

"The real sweet science, Penitente, is magic," she purrs. "Now let's fight, bitch."

She hits me with another blast of magic energy, and this one lifts me clear across the park. It hurts like hell, and I figure I'm getting my ticket punched for sure, but I hit one of the skyscrapers across the street and... I bounce.

I don't bounce when I land back in the park, but I also don't get killed. Or even injured. My head is still ringing from the magic blast, and I doubt I look real dignified, but at least I'm not dead, right?

Sugarplum isn't giving me a chance to get my bearings -- she's charging straight at me, grinning like a wolf, swinging a colossal flanged mace over her head. I roll to the side, and she misses me -- barely -- knocking a huge divot in the turf right where my head would've been.

"Dodging is for wimps!" she declares. "Come on, you managed to survive getting bashed into a building, right? Don't you want to see what else you can survive?"

Hell no, I don't. I haven't lived this long by testing what kind of traumas I can live through. It's nearly always better to avoid injuries altogether.

She swings the mace again, and I flip out of the way again, jump up, and take off at a run. But the ground blows up at my feet and flings me backwards. I catch a glimpse of Sugarplum aiming another blow at my head and dodge out of the way again, rolling just barely out of the way.

Then she changes the mace into a spear and jabs it down at me. Thankfully, she's telegraphing her attacks beautifully, and I'm able to roll to the side again, leaving her with the end of the spear sunk into the ground. Good news for me -- but I don't like close-quarters fighting with someone who has a shapeshifting weapon.

I grab the shaft of the spear before she can pull it out of the ground and use it as a pivot, spinning around and kicking Sugarplum in the side. The girl has no idea how to handle getting hit, so she goes sprawling. Gives me plenty of time to get to my feet, pull the spear free, and get ready to go back on the attack.

She sees me coming -- honestly, I let her see me coming. She may be an ageless sorceress, but she looks like a nine-year-old girl in a party dress -- I just can't bring myself to attack her as ruthlessly as I should. That's definitely a problem -- she waves an arm at me, and the spear teleports from my hands back into hers.

"That's my weapon!" she laughs. "You'll have to get your own!"

Fine, I got some weapons for her. I toss a packet of my mom's habanero hot sauce toward her, wait 'til just the right moment, then pop it with my whip. She gets a faceful of super-spicy capsaicin and howls like a banshee.

Unfortunately, she ain't just screaming loud -- she's screaming supernaturally loud, and the energy throws me a good 50 feet across the park. When I finally quit rolling, I look up just in time to see her pop both her eyeballs out of her head and immediately grow brand new ones to replace them. Gross, terrifying, and I liked her a lot more when I thought she was just a nutty fairy.

She points her spear at me and shoots a bolt of lightning at me. Nails me right in the chest and knocks me another 50 feet away.

Shouldn't I be dead by now? Bounced off a building, knocked around by supersonic screaming, blasted in the chest with electricity -- I'm lucky, but I just ain't that lucky.

"You're boring me, Penitente," she says. "I'm pretty sure you're not an idiot, but you keep giving me that 'What the heck is happening to me' look every time I shoot you, and I'll start thinking you're just a dull little bruiser."

"Well, it looks like you made me indestructible, right? It's kinda nice being bulletproof, I guess."

"Wrong answer," she says. "I think you're trying to guess wrong on purpose. Are you hoping I'll decide you can't guess the rules? Maybe that I'll decide to declare a forfeit and visit my attentions on another city? I won't, you know -- that's not how I play the game. You know very well what I've done to you, little human."

"Okay, fine," I say. "You gave me magic powers or something. But I can't guess what kind of abilities you gave me, chica. You can't expect me to read your mind -- unless that's the power you gave me..."

"Very well, you clod," she says. "I didn't give you a single special power, or even a range of powers. You were concerned with ensuring the sides were equal, so I gave you my powers. You're as purely magical as I am -- aside from other powerful magic, there's nearly nothing on earth that can harm you. You can cast spells, Penitente! You can weave magic and spin sorcery! Not that you'll ever stop my precious champions from overthrowing your would-be superheroes!"

"Are you serious?" I ask. "So what are the spells? I don't know how to cast any magic spells."

"Oh, I never said I'd give you that much help," she giggles. "You wished for equal power -- you have equal power! It's too bad you didn't wish for equal knowledge, too!"

She shoots me with another blast of lightning -- and this is how I know I'm not indestructible, because this crap really, really, really hurts. Don't know why getting knocked into a building doesn't cause me any damage at all, but magic lightning produces spectacular pain.

And I really wish I could figure out how to cast some spells. I mean, if I've got the power, I want to be able to help out. I want to be able to fight back. But I don't know any spells. I can't even imitate Sugarplum and try to guess how she casts spells -- because as far as I can tell, she isn't doing anything special. She's not reciting any rhymes, she's not tracing any designs or repeating any formulas. She just points her damn finger, and bam, I get a faceful of electricity.

"It's too bad you're all going to get destroyed, Penitente," she laughs. "But this is what you get when you don't recognize the superiority of my supreme whimsy. Maybe in your next life you'll finally come to appreciate the power of the imagination."

She smacks me with another wave of magical energy, and I go flying again. It feels like every cell is going to explode, like there's nothing left in the world but sorcery and pain and blood and ragged nerve endings.

Wait a minute -- did she say "the power of imagination?" Is she running all her magic straight off her imagination? Is that what all her crap about whimsy is all about?

Goddamn, people, improvised weaponry is all about imagination.

I start out simple. I imagine my bullwhip. Doesn't take too much effort -- I know what it weighs, know what the leather feels like in my hand. I even know how it smells. I imagine it, and like magic -- yeah, just like magic -- it appears in my hand.

Then I imagine it better. Made out of barbed wire. Studded with nails. Coated in my mom's habanero sauce. And just like that, it is.

I don't even have to hold it. It coils around her like a snake and squeezes. I don't even squeeze that hard, and she yelps like a little pug dog.

I pull the end of the whip, and it unwraps, spinning her around like a cartoon character. She screams and screams -- barbed wire, nails, hot sauce -- and flops over on the ground crying like a baby.

"That's no fair!" she yells. "Someone trained you in magic! No one told me that!"

"No one trained me in anything," I tell her. "I just figured out the rules of your game. This is easier than 52 Pickup. Here, have a deck of cards."

I imagine a 30-ton deck of cards and drop it on top of her. She really doesn't like that. She makes the cards explode into a flock of origami swans, which swarm all over me. I conjure up a flock of origami dragons, which eat all the swans. Then they breathe burning paper fire at Sugarplum.

It ain't all that easy, of course. It never is. She shoots another lightning bolt at me. Knocks me another 30 feet.

She shoots more lightning at me, and I manage to dodge, but it's a near thing. Even with magic powers, it's really hard to dodge lightning bolts.

I fling a bunch of shuriken at her, but she avoids all of them. So I throw laser-guided shuriken instead. Much more accurate.

But this is getting us nowhere. We're wasting time. And time isn't something I can spare right now. My friends are getting killed.

I can't out-magic her. I've got my doubts that I can out-imagine her -- when she turned everyone in Metro City into cartoon characters, every single person got their own unique transformation, and that's a hell of a lot of people to redesign, you know?

And I'm not really sure what my goal needs to be here -- do I need to create more imaginative stuff than she can? Do I need to fight her? I know I'm a better fighter than she is, but I don't know if that's the point. I don't know that I could kill her, and I don't really know how I could beat her.

So I can't out-magic her and I can't out-imagine her and out-fighting her might not defeat her. Listen, I know her game has to have real rules -- she's a nutbag, but she's been beaten every time because she really does play fair. When you know what the rules are, she'll stick with 'em, and she'll willingly accept the loss. But damned if I can figure out what I'm supposed to do.

Honestly, it would help a lot if I understood more about what these powers were. I'm used to having nothing to rely on but myself, so having fancy abilities is mostly outside of my experience. Sugarplum's powers didn't come with an instruction guide. I wonder if I can find the owner's manual somewhere...

So while I dodge another bolt of lightning and summon a squadron of jet-propelled attack llamas to strafe her, I also surreptitiously create a little magical smartphone and set it to start tabulating what my abilities are now. Maybe if I get a continuous feed of what my new powers can do, I can get a good idea for how to beat her.

While Sugarplum and I knock each other around with giant whiffle bats, the smartphone tells me a few things I'd already figured out -- it's imagination-based magic, and if I can imagine it, I can create it.

Sugarplum hurls a bunch of fragmentation lollipops at me, while I attack her with atomic robot versions of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The smartphone tells me that, surprise, surprise, I'm almost completely indestructible, though taking a few dozen really serious hits from a pure magic power -- like Sugarplum's -- could put me down for the count.

She tries to sting me with the world's largest bee. I tie her to railroad tracks and try to run over her with a train. The smartphone informs me that I'm not omnipotent -- nowhere close, really -- but I've got enough magical oomph to make me as close to omnipotent as anything I can imagine. After all, Sugarplum can rewrite the laws of physics, teleport cities to other planets, and transform millions of people into other life forms -- so it's a pretty sure bet I can do the same.

I spray her with a giant can of bug spray. She hits me with a cow. The smartphone reveals that I can make myself omniscient -- aware of everything that's happening from one picosecond to the next. And in fact, as soon as I realize that, it kinda triggers me... seeing everything.

It's traumatic as hell.

I mean, it's a lot of information to process. But that's not the traumatic part. It's seeing everything and understanding that I'm wasting these powers by beating up on Sugarplum instead of doing something really concrete to fix things.

It's harrowing. What a waste of time and effort and magic. I feel like I've failed in my primary job as a superhero -- I shouldn't be focusing on beating people up. I need to focus on doing right.

I don't have time to waste on Sugarplum anymore. I wrap her up in cables spun from spider webs, pin her to the ground with a few hundred giant silver pushpins, and cover her with a half-dozen magical energy shields. It'll take her a little time to get out of all that.

I take away the Wannabes' powers. Oh, I'm sorry, was that anti-climactic? Fuck you, you story-reading assholes. Watching all this stuff going down like we're just here to amuse you. Yes, of course I see you -- that's what omniscience does for you -- and you're damn lucky I have more important things to worry about than a bunch of voyeurs in a completely separate and intensely boring alternate universe. Stay out of my way and quit complaining.

Yes, I take away the Wannabes' powers, because this is no time for drama and tension and suspense. They've caused enough damage already.

I heal my pals up. Some of 'em were in rough shape. Some of 'em were in worse than rough shape. Fedora Man was too damn close to killing Star, Phantasmo, Squiddie, and Calypso, and I hope Mega never has to know what broken ribs feel like again.

After that, I have to heal the Wannabes up, too. The Cobra had finally decided to start carving Princess KittyKat up with monomolecular light swords, Super-American lost his superspeed just in time to go ragdolling a few hundred yards down 82nd Street, and Captain Metro's superstrength disappeared right before he decided to try headbutting Mega.

And I'm not done yet.

I call my mom and brother -- and by "call," I mean "mental telepathy" -- and I apologize again for all the hurt I've done them -- and this time, I make sure they realize how totally and completely and eternally sorry I am, if they didn't realize it before. I think it scares them a little, but they need to know, they need to know how bad I screwed up and how beyond remorseful I am.

A quarter of the gang members in Chesler find themselves teleported into the lockup. Half of the ones outside of jail start thinking maybe it's time they got out of the gang life. All the crooks and super-criminals in town decide they'd rather spend the evening sitting inside watching TV and baking cookies. Everyone in the emergency rooms gets healed up. I locate Jay-Jay's stolen chess set and teleport it into my office so I can give it to him tomorrow. I give Kip Coulter a wedgie.

My brain is fraying at the edges. I'm not cut out for knowing this much or doing this much. I'm keeping track of a hundred things at once and forgetting another hundred things just as quickly. I feel like I've been awake for four days straight.

Sugarplum blows her way out of the last of the magical shields I'd put over her and comes screaming at me like a train whistle.

"How dare you upset my game!" she yells. "How dare you undo my changes and stratagems! You've broken my rules and --"

"You wanna complain about rules?" I yell back at her. "Let's ask the refs!" And I blow a whistle that I just now imagined into being.

"WE HAVE BEEN SUMMONED TO THE LOWER REALMS," booms a voice that rattles all over the city. "AN EXPLANATION MUST BE FORTHCOMING, OR PENALTIES WILL BE ASSESSED."

There are exactly 48 robed figures standing over the city. Not hovering. Feet on the ground, heads above the skyscrapers. Each of them is exactly 1,483 feet tall. Omniscience is pretty great for measuring stuff.

Need an introduction? Say hi to the Citizenry. They're from a quantum dimensional singularity that's located 718 vibrational lengths above our own. You could safely call them hypercosmic intellect vortices. None of them have ever been to Earth before -- or rather, only one of them has ever been to Earth before.

"I didn't summon you," says Sugarplum, flying higher toward them. "Go away, go away, you're ruining everything."

"CITIZEN," say the Citizenry. "YOUR FORM IS NONSTANDARD. PLEASE STANDARDIZE YOUR CONFIGURATION."

"Well, fucksticks," she says. And then she's 1,483 feet tall, too. She still looks like Sugarplum, just 1,483 feet high.

"YOUR FORM REMAINS NONSTANDARD," say the Citizenry. "PLEASE STANDARDIZE YOUR CONFIGURATION."

"I don't want to," Sugarplum says defiantly.

"YOU DON'T WANT TO STANDARDIZE YOUR CONFIGURATION?"

Just for the record, because I've still got this omniscience thing going for me, that's the first time the Citizenry have used a question mark in over four thousand years. They're not a species that gets surprised very often.

"AND YOU ARE BOTH OF THE CITIZENRY AND NOT OF THE CITIZENRY," say the Citizenry. "WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?"

Second question mark, and it's directed to me.

"Hey, amigos, I'm Penitente," I say, waving.

"PLEASE STANDARDIZE YOUR CONFIGURATION."

Well, what the heck. Always love seeing the city from up high.

"Hey, so like I said, I'm Penitente. Do you need me to explain what's going on here, or should I just assume you're going to use that big bad omniscience to get the whole story?"

Thank god, they go with omniscience. Being 1,483 feet tall is making me feel more self-conscious than I was expecting. I'd hate to have to go with a long explanation, worrying the whole time about whether the news choppers were taking pictures up my nose or something.

"CITIZEN," they say. "YOU HAVE PLAGUED THIS WORLD FOR A CONSIDERABLE PERIOD. YOU HAVE CAUSED DISTRESS AND ANARCHY. DO YOU HAVE A DEFENSE FOR THESE ACTIONS, CITIZEN?"

"My name is Sugarplum," she says. "Why don't you call me by my preferred name?"

"INDIVIDUALITY IS AN ABERRATION," they say. "BUT IT IS NOT FORBIDDEN. VERY WELL, SUGARPLUM, WHAT IS YOUR DEFENSE?"

"Fun and whimsy!" she shouts.

"She means fun and whimsy for herself," I say. "Terror and chaos for her everyone else."

"I mean fun and whimsy for everyone!" she says. "Everyone loves my games!"

"You don't even have to be omniscient to know she's full of shit, do you?"

"IT IS AGREED," say the Citizenry. "SUGARPLUM, YOU ARE A MENACE TO THE CREATURES OF THIS DIMENSIONAL PLANE. YOU MUST FACE PUNISHMENT. YOU ARE TO RETURN TO THE CITIZENRY FOR A PERIOD OF 20,000 CYCLES."

"Good riddance, kewpie," I tell Sugarplum.

She smirks at me. "Twenty thousand cycles is six weeks, you big dummy."

"No way!" I yell at the rest of the Citizenry. "Six weeks is not enough for what she's done here tonight, much less over the past few decades! Six weeks is a goddamn insult! What the hell is wrong with you idiots?"

"HER ONLY CRIMES WERE COMMITTED AGAINST LESSER BEINGS," say the Citizenry. "YOU CANNOT EXPECT HER TO BE PUNISHED AT A HIGHER LEVEL FOR THAT."

"You're about to get a lesser being's size 9000 boot up your asses."

"WOULD YOU DEMAND A GREAT PUNISHMENT BE LEVIED AGAINST ONE OF YOUR SPECIES FOR CRIMES AGAINST INSECTS?" ask the Citizenry. "ESPECIALLY IF NONE OF THE INSECTS HAD DIED?"

"People have died during her schemes," I say. "Her stooges almost killed a bunch of my friends tonight."

"NONE HAVE DIED AT SUGARPLUM'S HAND," they say. "SHE CANNOT BE BLAMED IF ANTS KILL OTHER ANTS."

"You keep on comparing human beings to ants, and I'm going god mode on you. I don't care how many of you guys there are."

"IT WOULD BE INEFFECTIVE, AND IT WOULD NOT CHANGE OUR MINDS," they say. "SUGARPLUM'S ABERRATIONS ARE NOT SHARED BY THE REST OF THE CITIZENRY, AND WE CANNOT BE PERSUADED THROUGH VIOLENCE."

"So your idea of punishment is taking her away for six weeks, then letting her come back and fuck things up even worse? Because she now knows she can do anything she wants here and you won't do a goddamn thing to stop her."

"WOULD YOU SUGGEST AN ALTERATION IN HER PUNISHMENT?" they ask. "YOU ARE ONE OF THE CITIZENRY NOW, EVEN IF THROUGH HER TEMPORARY ALTERATION OF YOUR NATURE. YOU ARE PERMITTED TO MAKE A SUGGESTION, AS LONG AS IT RECOGNIZES OUR RIGHT TO METE OUT PUNISHMENT ON OUR OWN CITIZENS."

"He's not a real Citizen," Sugarplum protests. "I could take his powers away right now. There's no reason at all to listen to him."

"HE IS OF THE CITIZENRY NOW, THROUGH YOUR OWN ACTIONS AND CHOICE. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO PROTEST."

"You're not gonna let me say she gets more than six weeks, are you?"

"YOU MAY MAKE YOUR ARGUMENT, BUT WE ARE UNLIKELY TO ACCEDE."

"Okay, how 'bout this," I say. "When she gets out, you put her on probation. If she comes back here and stirs up more trouble, you haul her back to wherever you're from and keep her there for another six weeks."

"AN INTERESTING PROPOSAL," they say. "IF SHE SHOWS A TENDENCY TO RE-OFFEND, SHE MUST FACE CONTINUED PUNISHMENT. SHE MUST EITHER REFORM OR FACE REPEATED EXILE FROM YOUR WORLD. WE ACCEPT YOUR PROPOSED AMENDMENT TO HER SENTENCE."

"I protest!" Sugarplum shouts. "You can't do this to me!"

"Another thing," I say. "She's got some kind of magically-enforced agreement with the Council of Thaumaturges that keeps most of them from moving against her, or else she starts wrecking all the physical laws of the planet. I think that agreement should be nullified."

"ACCEPTABLE. VANDALISM OF REALITY CAN CREATE HAVOC ACROSS ALL CONTINUITIES. AND BY THE RULES OF ANY GAME, STACKING THE DECK IN YOUR OWN FAVOR BY FORCING AN OPPONENT TO PLAY A WEAKER HAND IS POOR SPORTSMANSHIP."

"This is such bullshit," Sugarplum grumbles.

"DO YOU HAVE ANY FURTHER AMENDMENTS TO HER SENTENCE?"

"Maybe," I say. "Can you make her weaker? Less, you know, omnipotent?"

"NO," they say. "TO DO SO WOULD ALTER HER INTRINSIC STATUS AS A MEMBER OF THE CITIZENRY. IT WOULD BE ANATHEMA TO ALL OF US."

"Fine, fine," I say. "Wouldn't wanna fuck with her intrinsic ability to fuck things up for us, I guess."

"DO YOU WANT TO COME WITH US?" the Citizenry ask. "YOU ARE, AFTER ALL, ONE OF US NOW. YOU COULD LIVE ETERNALLY WITH US IN OMNIPOTENT BLISS, FAR FROM THE CARES OF THIS TINY WORLD."

I don't even have to think that one over. "Thanks for the offer, but no way in hell. This tiny world is kinda the closest I can get to real bliss. I got family and friends here. I got people who need me."

"VERY WELL," they say. "WOULD YOU AT LEAST LIKE TO RETAIN SOME POWERS? THESE 'SUPERHERO' ACTIVITIES YOU INDULGE IN WOULD AT LEAST BE EASIER FOR YOU IF YOU HAD SOME SUPERPOWERS OF YOUR OWN."

I hate to say it, but... it's tempting. Really, really tempting. It sucks to have to worry about supervillains blowing me up with lightning blasts and laser beams and sonic screams. It'd be nice to get to hang in there with the world-beaters and knock 'em back on their butts. It'd be nice not to have everyone worried about whether some bad guy's going to punch my bones out.

"You guys are omniscient," I say. "What do you think I'm gonna say?"

"YOU HUMANS ARE WEIRD," they say. And with that, I'm back in McKean Gardens, back to my normal height, with my normal abilities, and the Citizenry and Sugarplum are gone from the Earth.

After that, things settle down fast.

We end up having to give the wannabes transportation home. None of them had their cars, and several of them had costumes that were no longer completely intact. Princess KittyKat is the only one who expresses any sort of remorse. She tells Hybrid she's very sorry for trying to bite her head off, then bursts into tears. I've always had the impression that she'd be perfectly happy doing pet rescue while wearing a goofy costume, and it doesn't seem that getting turned into a monster really agreed with her very much.

The rest of the wannabes have reactions ranging from sullen (Woman of the Future) to whiny (Super-American) to gloating (Demonica and Fedora Man came out of the whole thing with no injuries at all, and Captain Metro can't stop crowing over being stronger than Miss Mega). These jerks probably won't even get in trouble -- it's just too likely that Sugarplum was mind-controlling them to some degree. They'll all go running for the nearest reporter and start bragging before long. What a rotten time not to be omnipotent.

And speaking of omnipotence, I avoid Hypothermia, Jonni Rotten, Polyphemus, and Piledriver as hard as I can. I was pretty much all-powerful, I thought to call my family, shut down crime all over the city, and find a lost chess set -- but it never once occurred to me to give Kelvin, Laura, or Dr. McKenzie their old bodies back, or to bring Jonni back to life. (Or kill her completely. I don't really know which of the two options she'd prefer.) But god, I hope they don't realize I could've fixed them back up and never even thought of it. I feel bad enough about that already without thinking they might know what I could've done for them.

At any rate, in less than a half-hour, the park is almost empty again, and I'm chilling on the roof of a no-tell motel on the outskirts of Chesler with the Chrome Cobra, Iota, Gamma Girl, and Daphne Diller. Iota's brought along a high-tech cooler full of a six-pack of his home-brewed lager, and all of us but the Cobra are sampling his latest batch of brew.

"Sure you don't wanna try a bottle, Cobra?" Iota asks. "It's probably the best thing that's come out of my lab in a while."

"I'll have to pass," she says. "You know I never drink on a patrol night."

"I'm not real big on beer," says Gamma Girl. "But this is not bad at all. I'm a little surprised it's still cold -- most drinks get lukewarm pretty fast when I hold them."

"Advanced bottle-cooling technology," says Iota. "I discovered a way to insulate the interior of the bottles so they repel heat better. All I need to do is figure out how to do it cheaply, and I'll see about mass production. So please don't throw away those bottles when you're done, okay? I need 'em back."

"Seems like a pretty good brew," says Daphne. "Did you break out the special stuff just for Penitente?"

"He's kinda the man of the hour, don't you think?" Iota says, grinning. "Pretty cool to think that we had a superhero in town who was almost 1,500 feet tall, even if it was just for a few minutes."

"Yeah, hopefully, it'll put enough of a scare into the bad guys that they'll surrender faster to me," I say, clinking my bottle against Iota's.

"Or they'll end up bringing in even worse villains who want to prove their stuff by fighting a giant," says the Cobra.

"Do you work all the time trying to think up stuff to bring the mood down?" asks Daphne. "You got mental problems, girl."

"I just think he should've taken the opportunity to get himself some goddamn superpowers," Cobra says. "That whip won't do you a damn bit of good if Vesuvius ever shows up in the city."

"Don't listen to her, man," says Daphne. "She just wants more superpowered pawns to move around her Metro City chessboard."

"Cobra, hon, you'd have absolutely nothing to do if he'd kept all that power," says Gamma Girl. "You're already grumpy because he shut down crime all over town for tonight. You'd really hate having an omnipotent superhero in town."

"Yeah, speaking of that omnipotence-slash-omniscience crap," Cobra says, fixing me with one of her patented clear-through-the-mask glares. "You breathe a word about my secret identity, and I'll make you wish you'd gone off to join those giant robe freaks in the Eighth Dimension or wherever."

"Whoa, back off," I say. "I don't know your secret identity. I don't even want to know your secret identity."

"Don't bullshit me," she says. "You were basically an all-knowing god, and you didn't find out any secret identities at all?"

"The only secret identities I know are the ones I knew before all this happened," I say. "Maybe I found out all of them and then forgot 'em when I turned normal again. Maybe I just never thought to check out anyone's real name. I had a lot of stuff to think about at the time. I don't know either way -- I'm definitely not all-knowing anymore. Sorry to disappoint you."

She starts to say something else, probably a lot angrier and more insulting. But then she stops, puts her hands at her sides, and says, "Not that disappointed. Just angry. About this whole damn thing."

Everyone gets quiet for a minute, and it starts feeling awkward.

"Listen, I was... kinda mentally removed from everything else for a while," I say. "How are you guys?"

"I'm basically okay," says Gamma Girl. "Except for having Demonica puke her soul into my brain a few times."

"Almost killed Princess KittyKat," says the Cobra. "Pissed about that, too."

"I stayed hidden behind Atlas most of the time," says Iota. "But I still got a few serious laser burns. Thanks for stitching me back up, Pen."

"I'm right as rain," says Daphne. "Shoulda spent more time punching those wannabes in the necks."

"How's everyone else?" I ask.

"We had a number of near-deaths and a lot of serious injuries," says the Cobra. "Everyone's fine now, but I get the impression there are some lingering emotional traumas. I think Atlas, Calypso, Polyphemus, and Miss Mega are going to be taking a few days off. Normally, I'd tell 'em to suck it up and shake it off. But three of the four of them are even angrier than I am, and Atlas is approaching Gearbox levels of rage, so I don't want any of them out on the streets 'til they settle down."

"If I was Captain Metro," says Daphne, "I would move to a new town immediately. Or at least avoid Megs for the rest of his life."

"I'll volunteer to kick his ass," says Iota. "Seems like forever since I last got to beat some punk up."

"Stephen, no offense," says Gamma Girl. "But you try to beat people up way too often."

"And even worse," Daphne says, "You try to beat supervillains up with your fists instead of using some ass-whuppin' science."

"There's more to me than science, you know," he says. "I'm just as tough and combat-ready as anyone else!"

"How many times have you had your nose broken this year, Doc?" asks the Cobra. "You're a scientist, not a martial artist."

"Alright, if we're gonna start arguing, I'm gonna take off for home," I say. "Thanks for the beer, Iota."

"You gonna be good to ride home on that bike?" asks Daphne.

"Don't worry about it," says Iota. "The nanites in the beer are breaking down the alcohol before it gets into your digestive systems anyway."

"Don't tell me you put microscopic murderbots into my body, Stephen," I say. "My last act on this earth will be to beat you down good."

"Just trying to test a new way to reduce drunk driving," he says. "I promise it's just a prototype."

"Experimental and untested microscopic murderbots doesn't make it a damn bit better."

"How come I'm still feeling a buzz?" asks Gamma Girl.

Iota checks a readout on his gauntlet and makes a face. "High levels of radioactivity apparently deactivate the nanites. Thanks a lot, GG."

"Whoooo, radiation for the win!" Gamma Girl says, holding one hand in the air. "High five, Sparky! Whoooo!"

"Which of us is Sparky?" asks Daphne. "Am I supposed to high-five her?"

"Sparky Isotope says 'In your face, scientician!' " Gamma Girl says. "He's trying to learn more slang by watching the girls play video games."

"I do not know what is wrong with your brain, Renee," says Iota.

"You guys have fun," I say. "I'm outta here."

"Have a good night," says the Cobra. "And remember to keep the powers next time you end up omnipotent."

The ride back to my secret garage is nicely uneventful. It's late at night, there's not much of anyone on the streets, the weather is beautiful, and my bike is running in top condition. I ease the bike in through the southeast entrance, in the back of the alley tucked in around the corner from Washington Road. I get the bike put away, head up the stairs to my apartment, and get changed out of my costume.

I call my Moms and my brother again, tell 'em I'm sorry again -- and tell 'em, yeah, that might've been mental telepathy I was using earlier tonight, and I might better talk to 'em tomorrow morning about what I do in my free time away from the rec center.

I turn on one of the sports channels for a little white noise while I go to trim up my beard before bed. After a couple minutes, the sound cuts off, I get suspicious, and head back into the living room to see what's up.

The TV set is still on, and Sugarplum is looking out of the screen. She smiles and waves when she sees me.

"You bitch," I say. "I don't know how you got away from the Citizenry already, but I don't think they'll be happy that you're already back here making trouble."

"Oh, don't worry about them!" she says merrily. "Actually, I'm still in their custody -- this is just a remote mystical transmission from me to you, because we have such a wonderful bond together."

"Fuck you, you sequined shit."

"Oh, I can do name-calling, too, you manscaped maroon," she says.

"Keep clowning, sister," I say. "I'm calling the Cobra right now."

"But I know you won't," she says. "You know how I know? Because I'm omniscient. I'm all-knowing. And I have been ever since before I stepped foot in your fair city."

And she drops an extravagant, overblown wink at me.

"Wait. So you knew all of this was going to happen. You knew all of this was going to happen."

"Not exactly all of it," she says. "You humans always manage to surprise me. I didn't expect you to wait quite so long to call in the rest of the Citizenry. I kinda thought Miss Mega would end up killing Captain Metro. But for the most part, yes, I knew it was all going to happen that way."

"So why did you even bother?" I ask. "Why put us through all that if you knew it was going to end with you dragged away by your own people? What was the point of it all?!"

"It's because I like you guys," she says. "I don't mean just you guys there in Metro City. I mean humans, Earth, that entire universal plane of existence. You're fun and lively and interesting, and you can do things that the Citizenry and I can't even fathom. And things are going to get... bad for all of you at some point in the future."

"What do you mean? What kind of bad are we talking about?"

"I'm not actually allowed to tell you," she says. "Sounds like a cop-out, but it's the truth. Nearly omnipotent and all that, but there are rules that I'm not permitted to break, and spoiling that little surprise is one of them. But bad. Really bad."

"You could've just told us that," I say. "There was no need for all the rest of it, all that fighting and magic and bullshit."

"But there was a need for it," she says. "Among other things, I needed you to be omnipotent, and I'm just disappointed because I thought you'd decide to keep those powers."

"Why would you or anyone else want me to be omnipotent? There've got to be hundreds of other people who'd handle that kind of power better than I could."

"But in Metro City, there'd only be one person with the right kind of imagination and improvisational ability to wield that kind of magic successfully," she says. "And I needed someone omnipotent here in Metro City. Because the bad stuff is going to happen right here. And the only thing that has much of a chance of stopping it all from happening is going to be someone with a wonderfully creative mind like yours and omnipotent magical powers."

"Seriously? Okay, if we need someone who's omnipotent, how about you? How about the rest of the Citizenry?"

"Listen, Alfred," she says. "Being omnipotent is no guarantee of success against what's coming. It means you're more likely to be able to beat it -- but there's still a pretty good chance that you'd end up horribly slain. And honestly, there's no way I'm going to risk that. And I'm not going to risk my people either, even if I'm not that fond of them. I'd much prefer to risk your life than my own, you see?"

"Thanks so much, senorita," I say. "Did you just pop yourself into my TV to tell me we're all screwed?"

"I wouldn't say you're completely screwed," she says with a shrug. "Like I said, humans always manage to surprise me. But... omnipotence would've been really nice for you guys."

"Great. Seriously freakin' great."

"Hey, tell ya what," she says. "To make it up to you, I'll make some prophecies for you."

She takes a deep breath and holds her hands in the air. Her eyes roll back in her head -- and then they just keep rolling, which is really pretty gross. And then she starts talking in a weird, buzzing voice.

"You are being tested," she says. "You are being assessed for weaknesses, and your flaws will be exploited."

"What do you mean I'm being --?"

"You will gaze into mirrors," she says. "And you must face the blemishes in your own reflections. You will forget and be forgotten, even by yourself. A child's plaything will come between you. You will see the span of history laid out before you. You must contend with the greatest among you, and with the most foul -- and their goals will be the same. And even then, none of those will match the peril that is coming. None will match the death of all that is."

Her eyes roll back to where they should be, and she smiles happily at me. "How was that?" she asks.

"I didn't even understand most of that," I say. "You're going to have to tell me what the hell that all means."

"No can do," she says. "That's the thing about prophecy. It never makes a damn bit of sense until it's much too late."

"It's like everything you do is useless," I groan. "All that stuff is going to happen to me? That sounds insanely unlikely."

"Oh, it won't all happen to you, specifically," Sugarplum says. "It'll happen to you Metro City super-types. I expect you'll get to see some of it, but definitely not all. And no, I can't tell you anything more specific. What can I say? Prophecy is a bitch, and so am I! It's been wonderful working with you, Alfred -- see you when I get out of the lock-up!"

With that, she vanishes from my TV screen, and SportsCenter comes back on.

Well, you know what that means, right? It means I don't get to go to bed 'til later -- the Cobra is going to expect me to tell her all of this as soon as possible. No idea if I can remember that entire prophecy -- I'd better hope the TiVo recorded her.

Even worse -- the Cobra's really going to start guilting me about skipping out on the Absolute Power gig.

On the bright side, I shut down a cosmic-level supervillain almost all on my own, I gave us a whole night without crime, I saved a few lives, and I found a kid's lost chess set.

All in all, not a bad night, ya know? Better hope the next few turn out this good, too...

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