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My name is Kumiko Takahashi, and something really weird is going on around here.
I was out live-tweeting for a freelance web gig at a drunken basketball riot earlier tonight when the cops unleashed a bunch of transforming police car robots at the same time as some of the rioters cast a spell that summoned a huge golem. I joined the other Metro City superheroes as Silver Protector Kumiko to try to stop the chaos, and the tide turned when the Express showed up with some hyper-tech rayguns he'd just invented, while Daphne Diller discovered she was able to cast magic spells, too.
With the robots and the golem down, I'm expecting more trouble from the rioters, but most of them pull a fast fade. Most of them got their fill of booze-filled violence after throwing some bottles, flipping some cars, and watching magic and high-tech monsters shoot up the neighborhood, so they're all going home to pass out in peace.
Of course, something that chaotic ends up getting all of us back together for another non-team team meeting. It's really a lot more chaotic than the previous one, because almost everyone's freaking out a little.
"How the hell did you build these guns, Express," says Iota. "I know a thing or two about rayguns, and this should be well beyond the capabilities of anyone who's not a scientist!"
"You think I'm not a scientist?" Express says. "I've probably got more degrees than you do."
"No offense, Derek," says Hypothermia. "But the closest you've got to a science degree is counseling, and psychology isn't the type of thing that'll let you build a raygun, even at superspeed."
"Can we discuss something important, darlings?" asks Defender. "Our little Daffodil has started casting magic spells, so she's either been hiding secret knowledge, or something really strange is going on."
"Don't call me Daffodil, dammit," says Daphne. "And I don't have a real explanation. The basic blueprints of those spells had been rumbling along in the back of my mind all day. I didn't have any idea what they were until all the cop cars turned into robots. Then it was like everything just clicked into place."
"Yeah, about those robots," says the Chrome Cobra. "Do we have any idea how long the Metro City PD has been using transforming robots for their squad cars? I'm really not comfortable with that. Also, could we see how much of those cars we can salvage? I'd really love to see if I can study some of it and use it to make some alterations for my own armor."
"To hell with studying them, Cobra," says Squid Kid. "We should be tearing 'em down into tiny, tiny pieces and throwing 'em all in the ocean. They're unnatural and creepy, and besides, they shot me with lasers!"
"I wanna know what was up with that monster that came up out of the street," says the Star. "Do we have to worry about more of those things climbing up and attacking us?"
"It was an asphalt golem," I say. "It's a relatively simple golem, except instead of being made of clay, it was built out of whatever material was at hand -- in this case, concrete, asphalt, and bricks. A bunch of the rioters were using a group magic casting to summon and control it. If there's some sort of cabal of spellcasters running around the city, I should be able to track them down."
"Hey, folks -- Laura Quinn, Metro City Metropolitan -- can I ask the obvious question?" says Piledriver, who's uncharacteristically dressed in a tacky sportcoat and an incredibly garish necktie, and armed with a notepad and pen. "What the hell is going on? I came out here half-expecting to find out a bunch of cops had shot a bunch of rioters. Instead, we got Express doing raygun science, we got Daphne shooting magic around, we got cops building robots and rioters building golems. Can I get an official statement from you guys?"
"Wait, wait, are you writing an article about us?" asks the Star. "Aren't you a sports reporter?"
"I was asked to cover the riots for the paper," Laura says. "I'm perfectly capable of writing straight news, and I want to get your side on this before I go bother the Metro City Hammers about why they sent their players out into a likely riot zone. So how 'bout it? Any thoughts on what's going on?"
"Are you recording us, Quinn?" asks the Cobra.
"Yes -- strictly to make sure I'm quoting you accurately."
"Shut it down," the Cobra says. "You do not have our permission to record, everything we say is off the record, and also take a hike as long as you're wearing your journalist hat."
"Fine, but I have just one question before I go," says Laura. "Do any of you have any comment on Miss Mega triggering the riot?"
"Miss Mega what now?" says Wheelman.
"Do you want me to play back the recording of the woman who shouted 'You fucking losers' just before the riots started?" Laura asks. "Voiceprint is a dead-solid lock for my eight-foot-tall sweetie-boo over there."
Everyone turns and looks at Miss Mega, who appears to wish she was a lot smaller and easier to hide.
"Okay, I can explain," she says nervously. "The Hammers suck!"
"Shut it," growls the Cobra, and Megs shuts up as awkwardly as she can.
"We have no comment," the Cobra tells Laura. "Please go away now."
"Is that an official team statement from the official team leader?" Laura asks, just barely keeping a straight face. "Does that mean I can report that there's finally a Metro City superteam?"
"Go away now, Quinn," says the Cobra. I think I can hear her grinding her teeth through her mask.
"Good enough," Laura says, putting her notepad in her jacket pocket and turning away from us. "In the interest of superhero camaraderie, I'll classify all the stuff you said as off-the-record, even though a lot of it was actually on-the-record. But the voiceprint data is going in the paper, sorry. Hey, I won't be on the Metropolitan's time-clock forever, dudes and dudettes. I'll be available to help out in another few hours."
"Goddamn," Atlas says quietly as she walks away. "Is she in any way trustworthy? Is she writing a book about us right now?"
"I'll talk to her later," the Cobra says. "We'll get that question cleared up, I promise. But for now, let's focus on the matter at hand. This situation was insane, and we should try to figure out if all of that was connected somehow."
"I don't know," says the Wheelman. "Weird stuff happens all the time in this city. It wouldn't be the first time more than one bizarre criminal scheme went off at the same time, right?"
"Yeah, the cops are always looking for an edge," says Atlas. "They can't turn themselves into mutants, but they can hire someone to build them a bunch of robot cars. Didn't do much good, and probably cost the city a fortune, but that's what cops seem to do best."
"I'll allow that it's all a bit of a steep coincidence," I say. "But there are more than enough low-grade wizards around, thanks to the Church of Sorrow, the Disciples of Thoth, and the like. Sometimes, some of them get disgruntled with being minions, so they go off on their own. And I've seen pretty low-power, low-skill magicians pull off some impressive stunts when you get a few allies to help do group magic. So I guess it's plausible."
"It seems odd that Express would be able to put together rayguns like that," says Iota. "But the human mind is an amazing thing -- and working at superspeed, it's capable of seemingly miraculous intellectual leaps. Derek may not be trained as a scientist, but that doesn't mean he's incapable of teaching himself science..."
"As for Daphne," says the Cobra. She pauses for a moment. "I have no explanation for her whatsoever. Have you started studying magic, Diller? Did you get cursed by some sorcerer or anything?"
"You know, actually, I did bust up Cosmo the Astounding last week while he was trying to rob a credit union downtown," Daphne says. "You don't think he put some kind of magic whammy on me, do you?"
"Closest thing we've got to an explanation," says Penitente. "Knowing Cosmo, he won't be able to keep his attention focused on a curse for long, so I bet it'll wear off before long. Just try not to open a portal to Hell before then, Diller."
"Okay, in that case, we're clear," says the Cobra. "Iota, Express, Hypothermia, you guys get together, see if you need to share any science know-how -- and keep me apprised of any good stuff I can add to my suit. Defender, you're the space cop here -- see if you can get the local police to give you some hints about how much high-tech gear they're using now. Kumiko, see if you can track down any rogue spellcasters in the city. And Daphne -- don't open any portals to Hell, okay?"
"Do you think we're completely safe assuming everything's cool?" I ask. "Do we need to at least entertain the possibility that this wasn't just random coincidence, just in case?"
"Not without actual evidence," the Cobra says. "You find something suspicious, let me know. Otherwise, don't bother me. I'm getting jealous of Express building rayguns, so I want to spend some time in my lab trying to build some new toys."
And that is apparently that. Everyone seems to have other things on their minds -- mostly patrolling or doing their own investigating into the latest crisis.
And I can't say I actually disagree with the Cobra's opinion on tonight's attack. Weird coincidences like this happen all the time when you're a superhero -- of course, sometimes the weird coincidences happen because supervillains are engineering them behind the scenes. If I had a very strong belief that there was something more to this than bad luck, I'd start my own investigation immediately.
But right now, I'm actually a bit more concerned about my evening's paycheck. I didn't do very much live-tweeting after all the robots and golems started shooting. I've got my fingers crossed that Dean took a few photos of the fight before he left -- if I can post some of those, that might help salvage tonight's chaos.
So I head for another empty alleyway, reverse my transformation, and hurry back to the apartment.
The streets are quieter than I expect -- although I'm not sure what I'd expect in the aftermath of a weird techno-magic riot, since I haven't been in that many of them. But most people are hurrying to locations away from tonight's incident -- either hurrying home or hurrying to different stores. There's some degree of anger and fear, but also a sense that everyone has other things occupying their attention.
So I hit the front door of our building, jog up the three flights of stairs (elevators are boring), and head into Dean's and my apartment.
"Hey, Keen Dean," I yell. "Did you make it home okay?"
"No problems at all!" he calls from the kitchen. "Not sure if your fancy quarter helped out, but I made sure to save it for you."
"You better have saved it for me," I say as I head into the kitchen. "I did mention that I got that from the Seventh Son, right?"
"Ehh, you mentioned it," he says. He's busy typing on his laptop but tosses me the quarter as I come in. "You and your silly superstitions."
"Whatcha working on?" I ask as I put the quarter into my pocket. "Oh, and did you happen to get any photos I could borrow? I didn't get very much live-tweeting done once the robots and golem started messing things up. I'd like to see if I can salvage something extra for my report."
"Nah, didn't get much of anything," he says. "Had an idea for a great program about the time I got in the door. Wanna see?"
He turns the laptop toward me and grins that surfer-boy smile at me. "Go ahead," he says. "Pick any program on the desktop and open it."
I start to reach for the laptop, and he pulls it away slightly. "No, no, don't touch," he says. "Just pick a program."
"Dean, let's not do weird games," I say. "It's been a long night."
"Humor me, Kumi."
"What, don't touch the computer, but open a program?" I take a good hard look at the monitor. "Am I supposed to use magic on it? Is this a new app or something?"
And then the monitor flashes, and the Start Game screen for Team Fortress opens.
"How did that --? Dean, what did you do?"
"Telepathic interface," he says proudly. "The code's a little rough, but gimme a day or two, and I can get it cleaned up beautifully."
The first thing I think, I'm wondering if he's pranking me. The second is realizing he isn't pranking me and has somehow created an impossible computer program on his three-year-old laptop. The third thing is realizing that I could easily take his code and convert it into a mind-reading social media network -- the code is right there in front of me, just perfectly clear. The fourth thing is realizing I could make a spellbook with a telepathic interface, give it a read-write function, and copy every eldritch tome in the Council of Thaumaturges' Forbidden Library just by carrying it along the shelves. I could become the most powerful sorceress in the world. It would be easy.
The fifth thing I realize is how much trouble we're all in right now.
"Keen Dean," I say, trying to keep my voice level. "Would you mind if I check to see if you've got any internal parasites on your soul?"
"You're going to take your magic form, aren't you?" he says. "You don't need that nonsense, Kumi. You're a programmer at heart. You've got enough science in your brain to make this code do tricks I haven't even thought of. Just look at the code, and you'll see."
"Don't think I can do that," I say. "Really need to see if some kind of harmful magic has gotten into you, okay?"
"Don't be ridiculous!" he screams at me. "Do you think I'd let magic in me? I hate magic. I'm trying to make the world better through computers, technology, coding, not uncontrollable crap like magic!"
"Hey, let's be cool," I say. I definitely wasn't expecting any reaction like this. "You know I'd never do anything to hurt you."
"To hell with this," he says, turning away. "I made something else to take care of you." He opens up the kitchen cabinet and pulls out a meat thermometer wrapped up in electric wires and a couple D batteries. "Just need to make sure you're not gonna -- hey, wait, where are you, Kumi?"
Where am I? I'm standing right in front of him, but I'm already humming the Rockford Files while holding my lucky quarter again. So he never manages to perceive that I'm there, even while I'm going through my transformation, even when I'm putting him to sleep with a Tranquil Dolphin NAPTIME. And once he's sawing logs on the kitchen floor, I grab his laptop and check what he's been working on.
After a moment of admiring Dean's telepathic interface program and thinking of ways I could adapt it to every piece of technology in the kitchen (Blenders that start themselves! An oven that preheats while you're planning dinner! A fridge that orders more food whenever you run low!), I decide to see if I could really adapt it to work magically.
And what's weird is as soon as I look at it while thinking of magic, the code completely stops making sense. It's a mixture of C++ and BASIC and outdated HTML and something that looks like FermaT and a bunch of honest-to-god Wingding characters and some stuff I don't even recognize. There's no way it should do anything at all.
Then I look at it like a coder again, and the whole thing makes perfect sense.
It's mad science. My boyfriend is a mad scientist. And half the time, I seem to be a mad scientist, too.
None of this makes any sense, and I need to get out of here before Dean wakes up and shoots me with his mad science meat thermometer death-ray.
I leave the apartment once I've got Dean levitated into bed. I bring the lucky quarter with me, too -- I don't want anyone seeing Silver Protector Kumiko leaving our apartment and figuring out too many connections.
I head straight for the elevator -- it's already occupied with a couple girls I recognize from a floor or two upstairs. Luckily, with the quarter in my hand and the Rockford Files in my head, they won't even realize I'm here, then I can get out of here and ring up the Chrome Cobra to see if she has any idea what's going on.
"I swear to god, Madison," says the redhead in the ready-for-the-afterparty dress. "I do not get the appeal of this stupid rioting."
"Tell me about it!" says Madison, the blonde in the oversized sunglasses. "It's all Zack wanted to do. 'Come on, Maddy, you can watch me flip a car!' Seriously, Wendy, it's like he never got past 12 years old."
"At least you don't have him hanging out and getting in the way, right?" says Wendy.
"Thank god for that!" says Madison. "I was able to devote all my time to converting the old espresso machine into a plasma induction engine. Can't figure out whether to install it in my car or shoot it at bitches in the club, though. What've you got on your To-Do list?"
"Well, you know how Mr. Popsy has been getting on in years, right? My mom says he's at least 16, and that's old for a pug."
"Don't tell me!" gasps Madison. "Cellular regeneration?"
"You know it!" laughs Wendy. "He's the equivalent of ten months old now, so it's like having a brand new puppy again! But I kinda overclocked his pituitary gland, so he's got the musculature of a full-grown pit bull. How 'bout you, Miss Lady in the Corner? Should I assume you've got a stealth field generator?"
"What?" asks Madison, looking around at everything but me. "Who are you talking to?"
"Well, I can't see her all that clearly, but I can tell she's there." Wendy looks right at me, smiles, and lowers her sunglasses. Her eyes are solid black with bright red pinprick pupils. "I've already upgraded my eyes."
I'm startled so badly, I quit humming the Rockford Files.
"Silver Protector Kumiko!" they yell together.
"Oh my god, I've got your whole series on DVD!" yells Wendy.
"Oh god, there's not a demon invasion in the building, is there?" asks Madison.
"Do you know the Wheelman?" asks Wendy.
"Actually, if there's a demon invasion, I've got some ideas for dealing with that," says Madison.
"Absolutely," says Wendy. "Something technological would probably work better than magic anyway, right?"
"Yeah, magic is kinda tacky," says Madison.
Luckily, the elevator finally hits the ground floor, and I escape into the night. Good lord, it's everyone in my apartment building. They're all turning into mad scientists.
I hit my communicator as soon as I get out into the street in front of my apartment. "Cobra, it's Kumiko. Please tell me you've got your ears on."
"I'm here, Kumiko," she answers back. "What's the problem?"
"Okay, listen, I'm not completely sure what's happening, but there's been some kind of outbreak of mad scientist behavior in my apartment building. People are building weird machines and doing genetic experiments on themselves and stuff like that."
"Don't worry," she says. "We've been made aware of the issue."
"I hate to say it, but I think I've been affected, too," I tell her. "My boyfriend invented a telepathic interface for his laptop, and I was actually able to understand the code."
"Again, don't worry. We've commandeered the top floor of the Wieringo Tower to work on the problem. Come on by -- we'll see if we can help."
"Really?" I say. "You got permission to just take over the entire top floor of a skyscraper? How did you manage that without having the building's owners screaming bloody murder?"
"Oh, it's a really great story," she says. "See, I'm actually lying to you. I just needed a few extra seconds to triangulate your location."
I don't even have time to get out a "What?!" before the Cobra drops a massive smash-landing into the street in front of me, bashing a shallow crater into the street and setting off every car alarm for blocks.
"Do you want to give up, Kumiko?" she says in an electronically amplified rumble. "Or do I get to knock you around first?"
Hey, you know how everyone loves the Chrome Cobra's powered armor? Sleek, streamlined, compact, and powerful? Looks like she's decided to go with a new design. The new suit is almost ten feet tall and about six feet wide. She must weigh a ton. She looks like someone turned an anvil into a robot. I have no clue how strong she is, how fast she is, how tough she is. But just looking at her makes me want to quit the superhero biz and start working the sci-fi convention circuit where it's safe.
"Hi, Cobra," I say. I hate how terrified I sound. "What's with the... everything?"
"Had some ideas for some improvements," she says. "So many improvements. Had to sacrifice some speed and dexterity, but the strength is officially off the charts. Looking forward to running into Miss Mega now -- I figure there's a decent chance I can beat her down."
"Pretty sure you shouldn't fight other superheroes, right?"
"I don't care," she says. "She went all magic-user on me. Can't stand magic users, Kumiko. Magic and science are complete opposites. They're permanently opposed, entirely contradictory, never the twain shall meet, like the poles on a magnet, like oil and water. Can't have both of them in my city, Kumiko. I'm gonna make Metro City safe for science. Permanently safe."
"Good thing I've been having mad science thoughts, Cobra," I say. "Remember, I understood the computer coding on my boyfriend's mind-reading computer. We're on the same side, right?"
"Was that your best sales pitch, magic girl?" she sneers. "Just because I'm nuts doesn't mean you should assume I'm stupid."
There's a blast of light and sound from the center of her chest -- my mad-science brain tells me it's 125 decibels, right at the point where pain begins, with a frequency of 58 hertz. It hits me hard, blows me back, and honestly, hurts me pretty bad. My ears are ringing, my bones are vibrating, my teeth are cracked, my mouth is full of blood.
Then she shoots me again. And another time. I don't even know where I am at this point, but I'm covered in rocks and rubble, which I guess means I went through a wall. I don't think I'm supposed to be tough enough to get thrown through brick walls, and that's gotta be bad news. I'm pretty sure I've got a couple broken ribs and internal bleeding, and I can't even think of any words I can use for a spell. If she keeps shooting at me, I don't know how I can survive.
There's another flash of light and sonics from her chestplate. It's going to be a very long night -- or a very, very short one.
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