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I sprint down the nearest corridor, take a left at the first intersection, a right at the next one, always moving, putting more distance between me and my enemies. I can run for a hell of a long time -- do you have any idea the wonders that superheroing does for your athleticism and stamina? -- and when I finally slow down, I don't hear anyone else in pursuit. They're probably still beating each other up back there.

My name is Silver Protector Kumiko, and everyone is against me.

Everything seemed fine just a few hours ago, and then someone started up a nanite generator right next to rift into a magical dimension -- and all of a sudden, everyone in Metro City was going crazy and learning how to do mad science and mad sorcery, and I was able to do magic and high tech stuff at the same time. And I thought Atlas and Jonni Rotten were helping me, but when every other superhero and supervillain in town is trying to tear my head off, I figure it's a safe bet that they want to kill me, too. So I've run away from everyone, down deep into the sewer system, somewhere close to the magi-tech anomaly that's started all the problems.

I take a moment to look around and find my bearings, and I realize that I can see just fine, despite being in what should be a completely lightless tunnel. I no longer have Atlas' glowing tattoos or Jonni's high-tech tablet to provide illumination, and even as borderline crazy as I surely am by now, I would know if I'd cast a spell on myself to let me see in the dark.

But it has a relatively simple explanation. Down here, the magic particles and nanites are reacting together and causing a swirling green glow that lights up the entire tunnel. And it looks like it's even brighter up ahead. That means I'm probably getting pretty close to where the anomaly is located -- and I might be able to take care of this crisis all by myself.

I've got a straight shot to the phenomenon, there's no one in front of me, and I'm about to save the whole world. I'll finally get to leave this backwards burg. I'll be welcomed back into the Council of Thaumaturges as a full member. I'll be the greatest hero the world has ever seen. They'll put me in charge of the Council, and I'll start a campaign against diabolic magic, expand it to take out evil on a dimensional level, and before you know it, I'll be running an empire of order that'll encompass our entire plane of existence! It'll be absolutely fantastic!

"You're even more delusional than I would've expected," says a voice next to me.

It's me. I mean, it's me wearing normal clothes and a pair of glasses I don't actually wear. I'm sitting at a table with a vanilla latte with cream and nutmeg, typing on my laptop. I'm peering at myself over the glasses I don't actually wear.

"Ten minutes ago, you were borderline sane," she says. "Now you're ready to become a dimensional overlord. I always knew your sanity wasn't properly shackled down."

"I don't wear any glasses at all," I say. "And I'm not going to become an overlord. I just have a plan to take over everything. That doesn't make me an overlord. Or overlady. Or whatever."

"There really should be a better name for women overlords," she says. "Dark mistress is too kinky. Dark empress is perhaps a bit better. Still too gendered for my preferences, though."

"Who are you supposed to be?" I ask. "You're not me. Tell me or I'll eat your skin."

"I'm a hallucination, obviously," she says. "I'm the logical blogger you wish you could be. The one who never reads the comments, who doesn't worry about rivalries with other bloggers, who never bothered with any silly powers or cheesy costumes, who's already written three best-selling political books. I was on 'Meet the Press' last weekend. Did you see me?"

"I think I'll call you Boring Kumiko," I say. "I'm still going to eat your skin, somehow. And 'Meet the Press' is such a mainstream status-quo program. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"That's no way to talk to your friends!" says another voice behind me. "Friends are the best magic there is!"

And it's me again. This time, it's the anime version of me from the "Adventures of Silver Protector Kumiko" series. Fourteen years old, immense blue eyes, a joyful smile, and Golden Fluffy, the magical talking cat sidekick they invented for my character.

"You!" I shout. "My greatest foe!"

"Greatest foe?" says Cartoon Kumiko. "What about Lady Lifeblood? What about the Ravenous Ones? What about the Devilcore?"

"What about the Dogstar and Evil Eve?" says Golden Fluffy. "What about Mrs. Gooseswitch the home room teacher?"

"Cartoon supervillains don't count!" I say.

"If a cartoon is your greatest foe, you really have had it easy," says Boring Kumiko, who has somehow moved to the opposite side of the corridor, desk, latte, laptop, and all. "Of course, it's obvious from these hallucinations that your greatest foes are actually your secret loathing of your powers and your media celebrity, and your fears that you're not perceived of as a serious person."

"I have no interest in listening to this nonsense," I tell them. "Both of you shut up or else!"

"Or else what?" asks Cartoon Kumiko.

"Or else I'll fight you!" I yell. "I'll fight you and I'll destroy you!"

"You're going to fight your own hallucinations?" asks Boring Kumiko. "You've gone entirely bonkers by now."

"You'd just make a huge amount of noise," says Golden Fluffy. "And someone would hear you and come after you, and you'd be unable to defend yourself because you'd be shooting magic energy at people who aren't there."

"You may be crazy, Old Kumiko, but you're not an idiot," says Cartoon Kumiko. "You need to start thinking and using your brain or you'll be in serious trouble. And I'm not talking about your superhero friends either!"

"Don't you dare call me Old Kumiko," I say. "And who in the world do you think could give me more trouble than those backstabbing superheroes?"

There's a grinding rumble that groans through the corridor, like something colossal pushing down a brick wall or crawling up from Hell. It sounds a lot closer than I want it to be. Golden Fluffy ducks behind Cartoon Kumiko's ankles. And a dark figure steps out of a shadowy corner that wasn't there a minute ago.

She's six feet tall, wearing an ornate silver and black costume with a short, frilled skirt, puffy sleeves, a high collar, and a large black bow at the neck. She has black gloves and boots and a silver and black headband that looks more like a set of devil's horns. And she has long pink and black hair styled into twintails.

She has glowing red eyes, too much black makeup, and a terribly happy smile. And she has my face.

"So good to finally meet you in person," she says in a rasping whisper. "I'm Onyx Destroyer Kumiko, and you're going to help me destroy the world."

"Don't listen to her," says Boring Kumiko. "She's a hallucination, just like us. She's not real. Don't let her influence you."

"Yes, I am a hallucination," says Onyx Destroyer Kumiko. "But only for a little while. We're going to team up, aren't we, Silver Protector? We're going to team up. And then I'll be the only one left."

"Ignore her," says Cartoon Kumiko. "You can't let her control you. You can't let her into your head."

"She has no choice," says the Onyx Destroyer. "As she grows more insane, she'll become more like me. She'll get more insane as she moves closer to the anomaly. And she has no choice but to move closer to the anomaly, because she's a hero, and she has to try to save the world."

"So maybe I'll just turn around and walk away," I say. "I'm nuts, but I don't want an evil hallucination to take over my mind."

"But if you walk away, the anomaly explodes and destroys the world," says Evil Kumiko. "You're the only person who can save everyone. But who knows, maybe you're special. Maybe you won't go crazy. You've held out this long, after all. Everyone else who's gotten this close has been overwhelmed by their own scientific or magical genius and just hovered around doing equations. Maybe you're the exception, and you can hold out against my evil."

"You've got to ignore her," says Boring Kumiko. "I can't emphasize this enough. Do not let her mess with your head."

"I understand," I say. "But I don't really have a choice, do I? Run away and destroy the world. Move forward -- and possibly find a way to save it. There's only one path I can take."

"Hurray, hurray, come along, follow me," says Onyx Destroyer Kumiko, dancing ahead of us into the shadows. She turns to look back at us, and her smile glows in the dark. "Don't hesitate. Who knows how long it'll take before the big bad anomaly blows up?"

Again, no real choice in the matter. I'm the only real hero in a city of jealous morons, and that means I have to fix everything, no matter what. I just need to keep my wits about me. I have no interest in turning evil. Being the hero is the best gig in the world.

I move forward down the corridor, with Boring Kumiko, Cartoon Kumiko, and Golden Fluffy trailing behind.

"Be careful, Kumiko," says Boring Kumiko, drifting along behind me with her desk and laptop. "I don't know if you realize how much trouble you're in here."

"The Onyx Destroyer could end everything," says Cartoon Kumiko. "Especially if she manages to seize full control of your mind."

"No one's seizing control of my mind," I say. "I'm in charge here, and the rest of you are just my imagination."

"You're in the most danger when the enemies are in your imagination," says Golden Fluffy. "They know the most about you, and they've already got a toehold inside your brain."

"Oh, shut up," I say. "You and your kitschy aphorisms were the worst part of that damn show."

"It was a children's show," says Cartoon Kumiko. "Having a moral for every episode was expected. And probably not a bad idea anyway."

"The moral of this story is: shut up, stupid cartoon show, adults are talking."

"Are any adults talking?" asks Boring Kumiko. "All I see here is someone who's focused much of her attention this past decade on hating an old TV show."

"You want to own a cat," says Golden Fluffy. "You have for years. But you refuse because of me. That's hardly mature thinking."

"And you've over-emphasized me because of your reaction to the cartoon," says Boring Kumiko. "I can't entirely object, but such an outright rejection of that part of your life can't be healthy."

"I don't want to hear this," I say. "And I don't have time anyway. I should be worrying about the anomaly and not about this nonsense from the rest of you."

"We're hallucinations," says Cartoon Kumiko. "The only reason we're still taking is because you want us to keep talking."

"If you weren't so damn crazy, you could probably figure out how to ignore us," says Boring Kumiko. "If you can't control your tendencies toward mad science and mad sorcery, you should at least try to control your impulse to get into pointless arguments with everyone who disagrees with you."

"I don't do that!" I yell. "If I get into an argument, you can bet there's a very good point! It's not my fault everyone keeps doing stupid things! It's not my fault no one listens to me when I'm trying to tell them how they've ruined everything!"

"Please, this isn't the time," says Golden Fluffy. "Let's worry about this after the crisis is averted."

"If you're even capable of averting a crisis without the Council of Thaumaturges to bail you out," says Cartoon Kumiko.

"Or the other superheroes in Metro City," says Boring Kumiko. "Doesn't matter how long ago you got your powers, because everyone else in this town is a better superhero than you are."

"You thought you were going to be saving them all the time," laughs Cartoon Kumiko. "But they've had to pull your fat out of the fire way too often."

"They're probably talking about you right now," says Boring Kumiko. "They'll throw you out of town, and the Council will revoke your membership. They're just waiting for the right time to come to the rescue again."

"Oh my god, even you guys are plotting against me," I say. "Fine, everyone thinks I'm such a bad superhero? Maybe Onyx Destroyer Kumiko had the right idea. Maybe I need to blow everyone up so they'll stop trying to get rid of me. That'll show you, won't it!"

"And I think this is where I come back in, isn't it?" asks Onyx Destroyer Kumiko as she again steps out of the shadows. "Ready for the last team-up of your life?"

"Actually, believe it or not, I think I am," I say. "Let's team up with a Murderous Painful BRAINSPIKE!"

Onyx Destroyer Kumiko gets a lot less mouthy and a lot less arrogant when she's got a magical iron railroad spike driven into the top of her head. And even better, it gives me a good place to start peeling her skin off and eating it. The other two Kumikos protest, but they shut up once I give them a Screaming Lavender HEARTRIP and Tranquil Celestial TEARING YOUR THROAT OUT. I eat their skin a little bit, but I quit when I realize I have much more important things to do right now.

Golden Fluffy runs away. I consider chasing him down, but again, I've got much more important things to worry about for now.

It's a short walk. One room, followed by a narrow corridor, and one more room. I step over the threshold, over the pair of withered corpses lying in the doorway -- and there they are. A rippling gash in reality, floating in the air, coruscating in preternatural colors and shrieking in unrealities. A small machine, wonderfully simple and perfectly complex, emitting a stream of shimmering microscopic nanites. And between them, where magical energy meets transforming technology, a rattling, yammering storm of chaos and beautifully destructive power.

And hovering over all that: gnarled like barbed wire and choking vines and twitching ganglia, glowing in purple and black and green and agony, the wrought-iron glory of the Final Crown, the ghastly apocalyptic diadem destined to be worn by the one monstrous soul capable of snuffing out the Earth once and for all.

I can't quite hold it in my hands, and I can't quite get it to settle onto my head, but the Final Crown is mine, all mine, to do with whatever I may.

I believe this is where you came in before, right?

My name is Kumiko Takahashi, and I'm ready to destroy the entire planet.

Maybe you think I'm supposed to be a superhero. Too bad. From my current vantage point, I've gone completely insane, amassed levels of power that outmatch every deity on the planet, and am currently trying to decide whether I'd prefer to destroy the Earth by blasting it out of its orbit and flinging it into the sun or just by eating the souls and skins of every human alive.

But we've already discussed all this, haven't we? Time to put an end to everything. I hold out my hands, feel the science and the magic flowing through my brain, bask in the endless, destructive energies, and --


I spin. No one could've followed me here. No one else has a brain as perfectly attuned to both science and magic -- anyone else would be completely lost in madness long before they got here. No one's going to stop me when I'm so close to my final triumph!

There are 200 women behind me. I have no idea how they snuck up on me. I have no idea why they're all dressed like me. I have no idea why they're all translucent and shimmery. I have no idea why they're smiling so pleasantly at me.

"Get back!" I shout. "Get back! You won't stop me from destroying everything! It's my destiny!"

"Shush, child," one of them says. "You've nothing to fear from us."

"Fear?" I scoff. "You're the ones who should know fear! You should fear the Thousand Venomous THUNDERBOLTS!"

The room roars with crashing thunder -- and then it harmlessly disperses, turned aside and banished with simple handwaves from the interlopers. They do the same thing with the Auspicious Devouring HELLFIRE and the Invincible Anti-Matter REBUKE.

"I'll never let you stop me, you monsters!" I scream at them. "I don't know who you are, but you have no right to come here and interfere with my plans!"

"We have all the right in the world," says one of them. "Don't you know who we are?"

"We're the Silver Protectors," says another. "We're all the Silver Protectors."

"That's impossibleI'm the Silver Protector! I'm Silver Protector Kumiko!"

"You're the current Silver Protector, my dearest heart," says another. "And we're the spirits of the Silver Protectors who came before you."

I take a closer look at her. "Gramma Hanako?" I gasp.

"That's me!" she says with a smile. She looks younger than I am.

"But that isn't possible," I say. "All these others have been dead for decades, centuries. Oh god, Gramma, don't tell me you're --"

"No, no, I'm fine," she says. "I didn't give up all my magical abilities just because I passed the Protector's Staff on to you. And it's not that difficult to manifest a spirit form, especially when all the other Silver Protectors have been called to emergency service."

"Okay, I get that you guys are going to try to stop me, but you have no reason to, and I have so many good reasons to blow everything up."

"Simple madness isn't reason enough for destruction," says one of the Silver Protectors.

"Simple genius isn't reason enough either," says another.

"It's all the reason for anything," I tell them. "And I'm fully entitled to it as well. After all, I'm wearing the Final Crown, and that means it's time to pull the curtain down on the universe."

"You're not actually wearing the crown," says the first of the Silver Protectors. "It won't settle fully on your brow. You possess power, yes, but you do not wear the Final Crown, so you'll not be destroying the world today."

"The Final Crown belongs fully to another," says another of the Silver Protectors. "And you cannot wield the sovereignty that the true God of Death will hold."

"Are you really going to stand there and tell me that -- just because the Final Crown is only hovering over my head and not actually touching my skin -- that I'm somehow not gonna be able to reach right over there, grab those two anomalies by their twisties and sparklies, bash them together like a pair of oversized rocks, and blast the goddamn planet into the sun?"

"Well, you can, Kumiko," says Gramma Hanako. "But you won't. Because bashing techno-magical anomalies together is easy. Anyone could do it. But you're not just anyone. You're a genius in all things magical and scientific. You're smarter than anyone else on the planet right now, and you know, deep inside, that destruction is easy and stupid, and protection and creation are much more difficult and much smarter. You're not just anyone. You're Kumiko Takahashi, you're the Silver Protector, you're my dearest heart, and you're the only person who can save the world."

Okay, I'm a higher-level intelligence who can see through the emotional manipulation, and I'm much too crazy for logic to have any effect on me -- but dammit, she's right. Where's the challenge in blowing up something that's going to blow up anyway in another four minutes and 18 seconds? And it'll be much cooler to have living people around to praise my genius.

Little time to waste now, so I'd better get busy. From the looks of it, this is really a three-part problem: I need to get the nanite generator shut down, I need to close the magical rift, and I need to deal with the anomaly. These all have their own unique difficulties. I've closed dimensional rifts before, but it can be time-consuming to cast the right rituals. The nanite generator looks like it's running on an extremely advanced perpetual motion engine -- and of course, those are notoriously unstable. If you wait too long to get to it, it's almost certain to explode on you. As for the anomaly -- I hope I've mentioned before that it could blow the Earth out of orbit, right?

It's lots of fun to numerate all the problems I have in front of me. But meditating on the challenges won't actually get the challenges solved.

So: four minutes and 16 seconds. Let's go.

I have to be careful with both the nanite generator and the magical rift. Ideally, I'd complete work on both of them at the same time, or very nearly so. They're feeding off of one another to a degree, so one will grow more volatile once its partner is neutralized. So I'll need some very precise timing to pull this off.

The more complex problem first -- the nanite generator. You can't just shut off a perpetual motion engine -- no matter how advanced it is, clicking the off button after it's been running this long will only release all that built up energy explosively. What you need is a way to slow it down and burn off that excess power -- which is essentially impossible. Good thing my brain is so good at cooking up impossible things now.

Let's try a perpetual anti-motion battery. Oh, I know, it makes no sense at all. It starts out running incredibly fast, but fueled by its own velocity, runs more and more slowly as time goes by. You've never heard of it because I just invented it. Yes, I know -- mad genius.

I don't have time to actually build it, so I cast a spell ("Heavenly Tranquil PERPETUAL ANTI-MOTION BATTERY!") to create it. It looks like every other perpetual motion battery you've ever seen, just reversed, painted in negative colors, and decorated with flame decals. I plug it into the nanite generator, and it looks like it's working perfectly -- the two engines synch up almost immediately, and they're running slower and slower as the anti-motion battery drags them both down.

While the nanite generator is getting slowed down, I start work on the dimensional rift. These aren't actually too difficult to deal with -- sealing them up is a piece of cake with the right spell. But to be honest, I think I'm in a mood to finesse this one a bit. I used magic to take care of the technological problem -- it'd be really cool to use science to solve the magical problem.

I don't have access to any manufacturing facilities right now, but luckily, I am surrounded by clouds of nanites. A quick scan with my cell phone lets me determine their programming language -- and it's BASIC. Well, of course it's BASIC. Only a mad scientist would program their IQ-boosting nano-bot swarms with BASIC. But that's good for me, because BASIC was the very first programming language I ever learned.

Now it is a much more advanced version of BASIC than I learned. But I've got an incredibly advanced genius brain. So I reprogram a few hundred thousand nanites so they'll function as monomolecular quantum stitches, pull the dimensional rip back together, and hold it all in place long enough for normal space-time to re-establish itself.

And because I've got such a fantastically awesome brain, I get it timed perfectly so the dimensional rip is sealed up at the same time as the nanobot generator shuts down.

And that leaves me with a whole two minutes and eight seconds to deal with the potentially-planet-destroying anomaly.

Aaaaand I don't have a clue. Seriously, no idea how to deal with this.

Conjure a grounding wire and let it vent itself into the earth? Probably the same thing as letting it blow up -- you'd still get a planet in fragments.

Put it all into a giant battery? It'd have to be a seriously gigantic battery, and it'd probably still be incredibly unstable and dangerous.

Teleport it into space? Even with all this magical power, I'm not sure I could teleport it far enough to keep from damaging the planet or the moon or something else vital.

Tear open another dimensional rift and throw it inside? Probably not a good idea to cause a planet-destroying explosion inside a magical sub-dimension, plus I probably couldn't re-seal it in time.

Build a giant EZ-Bake Oven and use the anomaly's energy to create millions and millions of tiny, yummy cakes? I'd solve world hunger, but everyone would die of yummy cake overdose.

Well, I've tried magic. I've tried science. What other advantages do I have right now?

"Hey, Gramma Hanako?"

"Yes, dear?"

"I think maybe all you guys should run away now."

"Run away?" she asks. "Why should we run away?"

"Because I think I'm going to try going crazy," I say. "I mean really crazy. Really, really crazy."

"Oh, Kumiko, no!" she says. "You can't --"

"Don't worry," I say. "I'm not gonna destroy the world -- at least I don't think I'm going to -- but magic and science and sanity and rational thinking aren't doing anything for me right now. And if I'm really the smartest person on the planet right now, maybe I should try being the craziest, too."

And she and the rest of the Silver Protectors look really unhappy about this, but they go ahead and pull a vanishing act. Good thing -- I don't think I'd want them or anyone else getting caught in the backlash of -- whatever it is I'm about to do.

So I gather every last bit of magical knowledge and power I have, plus every last bit of scientific data and skill, and I compress it all into a ball smaller than my fist. Is it a real thing? Can information and intellect glow like this, like strawberries and diamonds and nuclear waste? Maybe this is just another hallucination. But who cares? I jam the whole glowy thing into my forehead. I see the whole universe spread out like a smorgasbord. I can do anything with it that I want. This is going to be so much fun.

I laugh. And I laugh some more. I laugh and I laugh and I laugh.




And that's the last thing I remember for two days.

I open my eyes, the lights are too bright, and the Chrome Cobra and Daphne Diller are both standing over me.

"Girl, I am so sorry about trying to kill you," says Daphne. "In my defense, I was literally insane."

"Same here," says the Cobra. "Huge apologies, hope like hell it never happens again."

"Fine, fine, just turn the lights down a little, alright?" I take a second to look around. It's a very typical hospital room, boring, bright, sterile. The lights dim, and I notice Gearbox, Atlas, and the Seventh Son are here, too.

"Good to see you again," says Atlas with a grin. His magical tattoos have vanished, and he doesn't look like he misses them at all. "Hope you're feeling a little more stable now?"

"I guess so," I say. "Have I been here a while? The last thing I remember was, well, not a whole lot."

"Typical useless biological memory," says Gearbox. "We should've swapped her out for a nice paperweight."

"Aww, Gearbox, you were worried about me?" I say. "I love you, too, metal man."

He flips me off with both hands. He even sprouts extra hands so he can flip me off even harder.

"That's adorable, man."

"I know," he says. "There is no limit to my talents."

"Can I get out of this bed?" I ask. "And someone fill me in on what happened, please."

As Atlas helps me to my feet, the Seventh Son says, "Well, I reckon it's safe to say you saved the whole planet. Which is probably gonna do nothing to keep that overblown ego of yours under control."

"Yeah, you got rid of the nanobot machine, you sealed the magical rift, and you defused the unstable energy that was going to blow up the Earth," says Atlas. "And we still basically have no idea how you did it."

"It was at least a really entertaining show," says Gearbox. "There are a ton of videos of it. There was a light that shot straight up from the sewer tunnels, blew a huge hole in the middle of 46th Avenue, lit up the whole city, and burned up all the nanobots and magical particles and all that other stuff. All the craziness started reining itself in after just a few hours."

"Now we figure you used part of the energy from the anomaly to do that," says the Seventh Son. "But that wouldn't have used up all the energy, so it looks like you cast a really high-level transubstantiation spell."

"Which is something everyone is working really hard to keep secret," says the Cobra. "Because you transformed a really large chunk of the old abandoned sewer tunnels into gold. And if word gets out that there are 50,000 tons of gold buried under Metro City, everyone's going to try to dig it up."

"And if anyone actually does dig it up," says Daphne. "Well, you can kiss the global economy good-bye. Every financial market would crash overnight."

"Oh my god, I don't remember any of that," I say. "Wait, were there a couple of dead guys in there? I assumed I was hallucinating them."

"No, they were real," says the Cobra. "They were Professor Presto and Doctor Arkanis."

"Not gonna shed too many tears for those two," says Seven. "From what we can figure out from their notes, Presto had decided he wanted to crack open one of the primal demiplanes of magic and flood the city with excess mana. He knew he'd get a lot of insane sorcerers out of the bargain and planned on leading an army of spell-casting lunatics against the whole world."

"Right, and Arkanis found out about it," says Atlas. "He liked the idea, but he wanted to do the same thing with mad science. So he built the nanite machine."

"And they both overdosed on their own schemes and kicked the bucket," says Daphne. "I'd count that as a solid win if they hadn't hurt so many people in the process."

"Well, both the Council of Thaumaturges and the Science Alliance are working to remedy that," says Seven. "So many people tried to alter themselves with magic or science -- it'll take time, but we'll get it done."

"I'll be glad to help out," I say. "Soon as I can get checked out of here. I actually know of someone in my apartment building who probably needs some replacement eyes."

"No, Kumiko, you're getting some more time off," says Cobra. "Your family and your boyfriend have been waiting to see you for days."

"My family? They came all the way out here? Where are they?"

"Well, they couldn't come in here when you were transformed," says Seven. "We couldn't transform you back to normal while you were unconscious, and bringing them in would've jeopardized your secret identity."

"Wait, wait," I say. "How many of you guys know my secret identity? If you guys are blabbing my real name to each other..."

"No, don't worry," says Seven. "It's still just the Cobra and me."

"No, I know her ID," says Atlas.

"When did you learn her identity?" asks Cobra.

"She told Jonni and me when we were hiding her in the sewers," he says.

"See, I was hoping I'd hallucinated all of that," I say. "Jonni Rotten knows my real name. There's no way that's going to end well."

"Nah, Jonni's good people," says Daphne. "She knows how to keep secrets, and she won't bother you at home unless there's a serious emergency. And don't make jokes about her, okay? Her life's unhappy enough without any of us adding to the sorrow."

"Listen, folks, doesn't matter who knows her real name," says the Seventh Son. "Fact is, the Cobra and me need to chat with Kumiko about some confidential stuff, plus she needs to transform back so she can go see her folks. Give us some privacy?"

"No problem," says Atlas. "If what they say is true, and you're really magically unrecognizable in your regular form, you'll probably be able to walk out of here without anyone giving you any trouble."

"So we should all get going before one of the nurses comes back and tries to make her sign any forms," says the Cobra. "Atlas, Daphne, Gearbox, you guys all clear out."

"See you guys later, then," says Atlas as they all head out the door. "Great work on saving the world, Kumiko."

"And seriously, not kidding," says the Seventh Son. "Don't let this all go to your head, little lady."

"There's not much I enjoy more than telling Kumiko to get her ego under control," says the Cobra. "But she did save the world. And she woke up just five minutes ago. So I think I'm willing to give her some time to enjoy the moment. And more than that, to let her go see her family. They're down in the lobby."

"I'm all for it," I say. "They're used to not seeing me for a while during crisis situations like this, but I know they don't enjoy it. Do you guys need me for anything else?"

"Nah, I'll bug you about patrols in a few days," says the Cobra.

"The Council will want to do some simple tests pretty soon," says Seven. "Preferably before all of your excess magical energy drains away. I'm sure the Science Alliance will want to do the same. We'll try to persuade them not to dissect you, of course."

"Wow, how reassuring," I say. Then, unwilling to think about that any further, I de-transform, watching the world unravel and re-weave through a reverse explosion of lights and streamers.

When the universe reforms and I'm back in my normal form, the Seventh Son asks, "Need a teleport downstairs to the lobby?"

"Nah, after being cooped up for two days, I'm sure I could use some exercise," I say.

"In that case, I'm hittin' the road," he says. "I've been neglecting some duties back at the Council HQ for a few days. Y'all take it easy. Great work, Kumiko -- we'll chat later."

After the Seventh Son teleports out in a flash of cinnamon-scented smoke, the Cobra says, "Good god, I thought he'd never leave. Settle back a minute, kid. We gotta talk."

"Oh, come on, Cobra," I say. "Are you going to try to get me to keep more secrets from the Council?"

"Not at all," she says. "The fact is, this is something the Seventh Son suggested I not bring to your attention. But I think by now we all know how much I care about doing what people tell me to do, right?"

"Oh god, do you never tire of playing these control games? You don't have to manipulate everyone all the time."

"Let me finish what I'm saying before you object, okay?" she says. "This isn't about manipulation or control. Seven and I disagree about sharing this info with you, but he's not here now, and no one's gonna stop me from doing what I think is right."

"Alright, go ahead and tell me whatever this is all about." Really, you guys, I'm so tired of stuff like this, and all I want to do is go home.

"You did something else with all that extra energy from the anomaly," the Cobra says. "Blowing a hole in the street, making a light show, burning out all the science and magic particles, even changing thousands of tons of sewer bricks into gold -- that wouldn't even come close to draining down a cataclysmic energy abnormality with the power to blow the planet into the sun. Not even close."

"So -- So what did I do?"

"We're not sure," she says. "Seven thought you shouldn't know because you'd worry about it. I figure you're an adult and a superhero, and it won't kill you to worry about things sometimes."

"Well, okay, point for you," I say. "You said you guys weren't sure what I did. I take it you have some ideas?"

She shrugs. "Just vague speculation, really," she says. "I think you may have just moved it all off Earth somehow. Maybe teleportation, but that might be too simple for someone who was a mad scientist and mad sorcerer at the same time. I kinda like the idea that you teleported it in time but not in space -- sending it a couple minutes into the future while keeping it at the same location would mean it'd actually be millions of miles behind us when it blew up. I like that idea a lot, really."

"What's Seven think?"

"Ahh, he's a dreamer, like most of you magic users," she says. "He said if you'd already converted energy to matter, it wouldn't have been much harder to take all that power and use it to create life, even if it required vastly more energy than you'd used before. I told him there were hundreds of thousands of babies born every day, and none of them needed magic to get the job done. And of course, he gave this long, irritating, sentimental speech about magic and love and all that stuff."

"Sounds like him," I say. "He's always the guy who takes the apprentice wizards out on camping trips to tell them they need to appreciate nature more. Probably comes from growing up in the Appalachians like he did."

"Yeah, he's an incurable romantic," she says. "Always with the platitudes and poetry and Shambhalan fire lilies and all that crap when I'm trying to get him to attend to business."

Apparently, I snapped my mouth closed a little too loudly, because she turns, glares, and points a finger at me.

"Not a word about that to anyone, Kumiko," she says. "Especially not around the Council -- they'd react worse than anyone in this city would. I swear, I just get too damn comfortable around you guys sometimes. Doesn't help when you react like junior high kids to almost everything. I don't even know why I'm acting like I have to defend myself. Two rational, healthy adults -- never mind, I'm babbling, and I got no reason to babble."

"I -- I didn't say anything."

"You didn't have to say a word," she says. "And you don't have to say any further words about it either, you dig?"

"I totally dig," I say. "Sorry for, um --"

"No, you got nothing to apologize for," she says. "Just remember the Council doesn't need to hear about it. Buncha creepy gossips, if you ask me. Now head downstairs -- your family's waiting for you, alright?"

I get out of there as fast as I can. I like to tell myself I'm an adult with an adult life and an adult mind, and then sometimes, I'm freaking out about normal adult stuff like I'm 14 again.

I take the stairwell down to the lobby, because I want to be able to stop halfway down and compose myself. Then I'm down into the lobby, and I find my mom and dad and Grampa Shiro and Gramma Hanako and my boy Dean, and we all get the hell out of the hospital.

A few hours later, we've all eaten lunch -- Mom and Dad's treat, yay! -- and Gramma Hanako assured me that my vision of all the Silver Protectors wasn't another hallucination. She also told me that she was very proud of me and a little terrified of me, and asked me not to go insane again. Well, yeah, I'll do my best...

I also request a few hours to go home and rest up. I may have been unconscious for a couple days, but I need some time to relax and re-center myself. Dean comes along -- he's been sleeping in the hospital lobby and needed a shower.

"So what did they say you did with the extra energy?" Dean asks as we get into the apartment.

"Well, they say I burned up all the magic particles and nanites," I say. "Plus there was a light show. And some stuff I don't think I'm allowed to tell anyone."

"Not anyone?"

"Seriously, not anyone," I say. I don't think even Dean should know there's billions of dollars in gold buried under Metro City now, thanks to me.

"Doesn't sound like anything too tough," he says. "No offense -- I know there was more involved than that. But I'm impressed that's all it took to defuse a great big ball of explodium."

"There was more to it," I say. "But what I actually did is kinda in dispute. I either teleported it all through time, or I used it to create life."

"Aww, my little Kumiko Frankenstein," he says. "Playing god with the universe."

"Wait, you don't think I moved it through time?" I ask. "Isn't time travel cooler than Frankenstein?"

"Maybe, but we'd know if you'd mastered time travel," he says. "Every time traveler tries to kill Hitler, right? We would've noticed if you'd prevented World War II."

"I'm pretty sure I would've tried to save Abe Lincoln," I say. "Did he make it through his second term after all?"

"What do you mean, second term?" he says. "Cyber-Overlord Lincoln rules us all to this day!"

"Still a better candidate than Trump," I say.

"That joke will never stop being horrifying," he says. "I'm gonna hit the shower. Wanna come with?"

"Seriously?" I say. "I just got out of the hospital."

"But it's been two days," he says in a mock-whine. "And I need you to clean my back."

"Oh, poor baby, I have faith in you."

"And that's your eternal error," he says as he heads into the bathroom.

I take the carry-around bag Dean had packed for me into the bedroom. I never even got to use any of it -- a few changes of underwear, t-shirt and sweats, toothbrush, deodorant, and Fang the Lucky Zebra. I throw Fang back on the bed and start putting the clothes back in the dresser when I hear something patting against the window.

There's a cat sitting on the fire escape, golden-orange fur, feline-smug expression. He's batting one paw against the window, over and over.  He looks me in the eye and drops an incredibly cheesy wink.

I open the window, and he steps inside.

"Golden Fluffy?" I ask.

"In the fur, Kumiko," he says. "How's it feel to finally own a cat?"

You know, it feels pretty good. Creating a new life from my memories of an old cartoon is a pretty good trick. I wonder how I'll follow it up...?

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