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The sunlight does not creep past my eyelids because I no longer have eyelids.

Nevertheless, I become aware of the sunlight, realize I have awakened, and wonder why I slept outside.

Ahh, no. It was... yesterday? Today? I had to help fight a giant monster, I had to teach a class, I had to accompany Jonni Rotten on a trip underground to fight the cultists and demons of the Church of Sorrow. Then I got back to the surface and saw a vision. And then I went to sleep.

I sit up and look around. I'm surrounded by superheroes, and I wish I'd stayed asleep.

"What the hell, Doc?" asks the Chrome Cobra.

"Not that I have any particular medical expertise when it comes to nonhuman biology," says Hypothermia. "But I think we should all back up and give him a little air."

In addition to Hypothermia and the Chrome Cobra, the other heroes on the scene include Jonni Rotten, Silver Protector Kumiko, Piledriver, Calypso, el Phantasmo, and the Express. Calypso is the only one I feel I'm on good terms with, but perhaps this is a time for diplomacy.

"What is going on?" I say. "And what are all you horrible people doing here?"

"Duh," says Jonni. "You fainted."

"I didn't faint, you classless cadaver," I reply.

"We'll call it 'losing consciousness,' okay?" says Hypothermia. "You got spacey, had some sort of hallucination, and lost consciousness."

"What about the woman in the white robe?" I ask. "With the flames on her head? You saw her, didn't you?"

"I would've remembered a woman with a burning head," says Hypothermia. "I think that's the point where you were hallucinating something."

"I don't think we need to assume anyone's hallucinating," says Calypso.

"Alright, everyone chill out," says the Cobra. "Dr. McKenzie, give us some details -- what did you see and what happened?"

"Very well, this was after Jonni and I got out of the temple and returned here. I saw a woman with flames on her head, and then I saw a vision of myself as a young man, along with my wife and my daughters."

"Could you describe the woman?" the Cobra says. "If she's a known metahuman, I should be able to identify her."

"She was wearing a white robe, like I said, and had flames on her head. Very bright flames -- the flames and the robe were quite startlingly bright. I can't tell you her age -- she looked simultaneously young and old. And she was quite androgynous -- I suppose she could have been a man. Oh, and she carried a large metal cone in one hand."

"A cone?" asks Express. "What kind of a -- wait, you mean like one of those candle snuffers from a church?"

"It was significantly larger than a candle snuffer," I say. "It was at least two to three feet tall."

"Dr. McKenzie, please don't take this as a flippant question," he says. "But did you see the Ghost of Christmas Past?"

"What? Don't be ridiculous."

"It's just that I've read 'A Christmas Carol' several times," he says. "And what you're describing is very close to the way Charles Dickens described the Ghost of Christmas Past."

"I'm aware of Mr. Dickens' hackwork," I say. "And I refuse to accept any suggestion that I'm seeing fictional characters."

"I'm not suggesting that the Ghost of Christmas Past actually exists," says Express. "Just that what you saw matches what's in the novel. It's not unheard of for people to have hallucinations that coincide with topics they're interested in."

"If I were going to see any ghosts," I say, "I would more likely see the ghost of Hamlet's father, not that sentimental Victorian hokum."

"Hokum is another word for humbug, isn't it?" says Kumiko.

"You be quiet. And as for the rest of you, I'll not stand for anyone suggesting I'm losing my mind and hallucinating anything."

"Okay, everyone settle down," says the Cobra. "Turns out we can get to the bottom of this right now. Phantasmo, any ghosts in the area?"

"No, ma'am," he says. "No leftover spectral residue I can detect. I'm not sure the ghosts in that story counted as spirits of the dead, though."

"I can tell you there's plenty of magical energy around, Cobra," says Kumiko. "But that's pretty much limited to emanations from myself, Phantasmo and his ghosts, Jonni, and the Church of Sorrow. If he saw anything, it wasn't magical."

"Right," says the Cobra. "Now this doesn't necessarily rule out some sort of natural or technological origin for whatever happened here..."

"Hey, 'scuse me, Ms. Cobra,  I got a pretty wide sensory suite stored up here," Piledriver says as she taps her head. "I got infrared, night vision, magnifiers, telescopic, broad spectrum detectors, thermographs, parabolic hearing, infrasonic and ultrasonic, radar, ladar, xadar, you name it. And there definitely wasn't a Ghost of Christmas Past around here, or anything that looked like her. Sorry, big guy," she says to me. "Gotta call 'em like I see 'em."

"Well, I suppose that's it, then," I say. "Everyone has decided I'm a lunatic. May I go back to my office now?"

"No one said you were a lunatic," says Phantasmo. "Anyone can hallucinate without being crazy."

"Yeah, perfesser," adds Jonni. "You got your bell rung a few times down in that temple. Maybe you got a concussion is all. Not that real superheroes ever get serious concussions..."

"I've had enough of all of you," I say. "You've spent most of the day tormenting me and sending me off to fight monsters and demons, and now you all want to insult me and disrespect me. I've entirely had my fill. Why don't you all leave my campus and let me get back to my work in peace?"

"It's not really your campus," says Hypothermia.

"JUST GET OUT!" I yell. I don't even wait to see if they leave. I turn and start making my way back to the English Building.

Just before I get to my building's front door, I feel someone hit me low on my back. It's not a particularly hard strike -- more something to get my attention. I turn to find Calypso standing behind me, clearly furious, her eyes damp.

"Calypso?" I say. "Please don't strike me that way."

"Stop being such an asshole!" she shouts.

"I'm not --"

"Just shut up!" she interrupts. "Everyone was there to help, and you just shoved them away like it was all nothing."

"I don't --"

"Stop being such an asshole!"

And without another word, she flies straight up and away from me. She's out of sight in only a second or two.

Poor girl. I go back upstairs to my office and change into one of the spare suits I keep there. I take down one of my books of John Donne's poetry and start taking notes for my next monograph.

My mind is not fully focused on the task at hand, however. If I may be completely honest, I am a bit concerned about my own sanity, even if the other superheroes are not. I know what I saw, and though I didn't realize it at the time, Express was right -- it definitely was the Ghost of Christmas Past. It's a mad thing to see -- and I certainly don't believe that Charles Dickens fictions were based on anything true. Everything he wrote, from Ebenezer Scrooge to Oliver Twist to Miss Havisham to Wilkins Micawber, was invented, and fiction is not the real world.

But I saw what I saw. And the only explanation I have for seeing something that doesn't exist is that I'm losing my mind.

And I don't even know if this is connected to my being transformed into this monstrous form or if it's simply a symptom of my advancing age. I had hoped that being reborn in a new, powerful, energetic body would mean that my mind would be similarly strengthened. But perhaps nothing can save a brain that has simply gotten too old.

I'm also disturbed by my vision of my family. Not because it was unpleasant -- it certainly was a joy to see and remember. But after I'd passed out, I'd continued to dream of them, reliving several years' worth of memories. And it bothered me to mark the changes in my own attitudes through the decades as my academic career progressed. Such things never bothered me before -- I've never been a particularly sentimental man. But it bothered me this time.

I don't regret the choices I've made. I'm a respected academician, published author, expert in my field. The money I earned in my youth helped support my family and bring them success and prosperity. In time, some of them did not value the gift of that prosperity properly, and we grew apart. There is no reason for me to feel bad about that. I do not believe it was my fault.

Nevertheless, seeing how I used to be -- it bothered me more than I expected. It bothers me all through the evening hours and after I finally go to bed.

If I had hoped for a more relaxing day after all that, it was simply not to be. I receive a call in the late morning requesting assistance with an incident quite close to campus, and I foolishly choose to go out to help. What I find is a band of leather-clad hellions causing random mayhem outside a shopping mall. Luckily, there are other heroes arriving on the scene.

"Who are these lunatics?" I ask as I bound onto the scene.

"Good morning, professor," says Gamma Girl as she soars overhead. "I'm not familiar with them. Hope it's just a publicity stunt for some rock band."

"No such luck," says the Star as he flies up to us. "These guys are called the Metal Militia. Not too ambitious, but they do love to make a mess."

"Is the Cobra on the way?" asks Hybrid. "I'd love to get some pointers on these guys."

"Haven't heard from her," replies Star. "Best to assume we're on our own. We've got a manpower advantage for now..."

"Nice change from usual," says Squid Kid. "So tired of getting outnumbered."

"Sorry I'm late," says Express as he rockets onto the scene. "Had to clear up a car accident on the freeway. Oh, hell, the Star's here."

"Shut up, Express," says Star. "I want you and Hybrid to focus on Twisted Sister."

"Whatever," says Express. "Don't get used to giving orders."

"Gamma Girl, think you can handle Celtic Frost?" the Star continues. "Squiddie, I want you taking care of Iron Maiden -- watch out for those swords of hers."

"Swords and metalheads?" says Squid Kid. "Jonni should be here for this one."

"Polyphemus, go get Motorhead -- he's the big robot. Iota, see what you can do with Slayer."

"Me taking on Slayer solo?" asks Iota. "It's about time you guys started taking me more seriously."

"Daphne, go see if you -- wait a minute, what are you doing out here?"

"Come on, Star," says Daphne Diller. "I was in the neighborhood, figured I'd help out. Besides, there's a reward for these guys."

"Fine, why don't you take out Pantera?"

"Which one's Pantera?" Daphne asks.

"The panther woman," says Hybrid. "I think I need to be up against her, Star."

"The last thing we need is both of you losing control and trying to kill each other," says Star. "We'll never get you separated. Gearbox, you and me are on Black Sabbath."

"The magic user?" asks Gearbox. "You insufferable dick. I hate magic users."

And from there, everyone gets down to the fighting.

I've noticed that one of the good things about having bizarre inhuman senses is my new ability to keep track of a wide array of different occurrences at the same time.

Iota charges into the fray first, shrinking down to less than an inch tall in less than a second as he rockets up to Slayer, a burly man wrapped in leather and chains and wearing a shiny metal skull mask. He wields some sort of weapons that seems to combine the least aesthetic qualities of a battle axe and an electrified guitar. Unusually fast, Slayer manages to raise the axe quickly enough to deflect Iota, who bounces off the flat end of the weapon.

Still, the tiny scientist still manages to arc around behind Slayer, and while the villain is still raising his axe, Iota shoots the metal weapon with his so-called neural stunner. Slayer yelps and drops the axe as the energy shocks him.

And then Iota does the strangest thing imaginable. He grows to his normal size, still almost a foot shorter than the metal-clad villain, and says, "Let's go, loser. I'm armored, you're armored. Let's see who lasts longer."

And they start trading punches, like common roughhousers.

The Express actually waits for Hybrid so they can attack Twisted Sister together. She's a painfully gaunt woman with long black hair and a black-and-white makeup job. She has at least six arms and four legs, some uselessly short, some several yards long, all coming out of seemingly random parts of her body, continually melting back into her body and then reforming.

It doesn't seem like a very good superpower, but it seems to be effective enough, as both Hybrid and Express are having a great deal of trouble getting past her defenses. They grab an arm, only to have it vanish -- while another one emerges from her body to throw a punch. It looks like she's studied some form of martial arts, which likely makes her even more capable in a fight.

Honestly, I suspect that she won't be able to hold out against both of them -- Express really is terrifically fast, and Hybrid, for all her apparent savagery, remains a devastating combatant. But for now, Twisted Sister seems to have both of them stymied.

Gamma Girl, meanwhile, is hurling fiery radiation blasts at Celtic Frost, the only member of the Metal Militia wearing white leather instead of black. He is a tall, handsome man with long silver hair and a bizarrely serene expression on his face. As you might expect from his name, he has ice and cold powers and is holding off Gamma Girl's attacks with his own frozen ice beams.

"You must surrender before the pure sonic thunder of the Metal Militia," Celtic Frost says calmly. "None can withstand our heavy metal might."

"Oh, you guys are so totally metal, aren't you?" Gamma Girl snorts. "You're going to totally freak out if I start calling you 'Flock of Seagulls,' won't you?"

As it turns out, he does, and Gamma Girl gets frozen in a block of ice -- quite temporarily, thanks to how much heat she can throw off. But she doesn't try to call him "Flock of Seagulls" again, I note to myself.

Iron Maiden, a thoroughly angry woman wearing impractical and not-very-protective metal armor, is trying to get close enough to Squid Kid to cut her with her two iron swords. She's hampered by the fact that Squid Kid's tentacle arms give her a much greater reach than the villain.

"I'm going to cut into bite-sized chunks, you goth skank!" Iron Maiden screams. "I'm going to carve my name into your brain!"

"Gonna have a hard time doing that without this," Squid Kid laughs, plucking one of the swords from her hand.

"Give that back!"

"Ooh, now I have the other one, too," says Squid Kid, pulling the other sword away from her. "Do you have any more hidden in that bustier? Please don't make me go digging around inside that thing -- I don't think you've been washing it."

"I'll kill you!" Iron Maiden screams as Lenore starts tying her up with the rest of her tentacles. "I'll kill you, I'll kill you, I'll kill you!"

"Not unless I get an infection from this armor," says Squid Kid. "Or from you! Gross!"

Daphne Diller is having a much more difficult time with Pantera, who resembles a humanoid mountain lion wearing shredded black leather. The problem seems to be that Pantera is at least a foot taller than Diller, significantly stronger, and quite a bit faster. And while Diller remains entirely indestructible, that simply isn't enough to keep the villain from batting her all over the landscape. Diller is vocally and profanely furious about this, but it doesn't make Pantera stop flinging her about

The Star and Gearbox square off against Black Sabbath, who is some sort of wizard. He certainly looks the part, wearing a black, hooded robe, though the jeans and black T-shirt he wears underneath throw off the image a bit. As does the long, greasy hair. And the obviously fake British accent.

"Oy, guvs, Oi'm goin' to turn you lot into froggies!" he cackles. He waves his arms, there's a crackle of purple-hued energy, and Star and Gearbox are both wearing plush frog costumes. Neither of them looks amused by this.

"You're a moron, Black Sabbath," says the Star. He blows the oversized webbed frog gloves off his hands with a couple of cosmic blasts, knocking the magician to the ground. "Let's see how you like it when I go full cosmic on you."

Gearbox grabs him by the shoulder. "Star, let's not do that full-cosmic crap, okay?" he says. "Like any time I'm within a kilometer or two of you. I really hate it when you do that."

"You got a better way to shut down a magic-user fast?" asks Star.

"Beating him into a coma works for me," says Gearbox as a dozen miniature buzzsaws cut his frog costume away from the inside.

"You bloody wankers won't get the chance!" Black Sabbath shouts as he jumps to his feet. He throws more magical energy about, and Star and Gearbox answer him with cosmic blasts and spring-loaded metal fists.

And that leaves me against Motorhead.

He (or it? Gearbox has me accustomed to calling him a "him," but I have no idea if this monster has any gender) is a black metal robot almost as tall as I am. He is covered in thick metal plating, spikes, sparking circuit boards, and all other varieties of robotic adornments. His face looks like a toaster with bolted-on eyes.

"I've no patience for fighting with any of you ruffians," I say. "Please go away and don't annoy me."

I'll admit there is not much hope of a speech like that doing any good. He hits me, so I hit him back.

I've been learning as much as I can about fighting ever since I got shanghaied into becoming a superhero, but quite honestly, I don't think I'm particularly good at it yet. I suppose I would be called a very straightforward brawler, which offends me on an intellectual level because of the implication that a lowly brawler must be a foolish person. Nevertheless, there is very little sophistication about what I do. I'm strong, and I hit things very, very hard until they break or stop moving.

Motorhead has approximately the same skill level and strategy as I do. So we spend an extended period hitting each other. I don't know that either of us is doing a bit of damage to the other.

We are all finally interrupted by the shadow of a giant bird passing overhead and a loud, electronically-generated "QUAAACK."

Ahh, I suppose I'd actually been looking forward to meeting up with Professor Quackers. Yes, I know he's yet another ridiculous supervillain, but at least he has more style than these rock-and-roll hooligans.

"Attention, bipedal assholes!" he bellows through his in-duck microphone as his gigantic QuackTank lands in our midst.

"Ducks are bipeds, too," shouts Gearbox.

"Shut up!" Quackers shouts back. "I just found out that duck stamps are used by duck hunters. I am going to kick so much mammal ass."

And things get quite chaotic for a time as he starts shooting us all with lasers and rockets.

Most of the Metal Militia end up fighting Professor Quackers alongside the rest of us. Celtic Frost freezes the QuackTank's surface while Gamma Girl melts the asphalt at its feet. Twisted Sister and Daphne distract him while Hybrid and Pantera try to claw its eyes out. Motorhead starts to pry the QuackTank's armor off before Quackers blows a hole through it with a laser. I pry some more of the armor off -- and unfortunately, that's about where I get taken out of the fight. Quackers hits me with some sort of hypersonic signal that painfully paralyzes my senses.

By the time I recover, everything is all over. The QuackTank has been torn open, and Professor Quackers, quacking in absolute fury, has been taken into custody by Squid Kid, who apparently crawled into the wreckage of the tank to retrieve him and then engaged in her own epic, or at least fairly epic, one-on-one battle against him. It seems he bit her, struck her numerous times with his wings, and then, ahem, defecated on her. Lenore is no more happy with him than he is with her, and Hybrid has to keep warning her not to squeeze him too tightly with her tentacles.

Of the Metal Militia, we captured only Iron Maiden, Pantera, and Motorhead. Quite honestly, it looks like we got the worse end of things in the battle. Iota's gamble with fighting Slayer hand-to-hand ended with him getting entirely thrashed.

And the only reason we aren't all getting another tedious lecture from the Star is because Black Sabbath used his magic to turn him to stone. Gearbox, meanwhile, was transformed into a chihuahua -- a robotic chihuahua who is able to think, speak, and use his powers normally, so it could've been worse. Still, Silver Protector Kumiko has been notified and is trying to research a method to break the curses.

Once the Special Operations Squad takes Professor Quackers and the trio of Metal Militiamen into custody, most of us stay in the area, primarily to make sure nothing happens to the Star while he is incapacitated. Gearbox stays nearby, too, waiting for Kumiko to come around with a spell to return him to normal. Squid Kid and Hybrid entertain themselves by asking Gearbox to perform dog tricks. Iota has lost two teeth in his altercation with Slayer (and was probably lucky that was all that happened to him -- even I know better than to underestimate someone who calls himself "Slayer"), so Express whisks him off to a dentist to see if the teeth can be replaced or repaired.

It is only minutes later that we all have to deal with the only thing more irritating than supervillains. No, not other superheroes -- superhero wannabes.

My first glimpse of them is six people in costume, walking in a "V" formation toward us. Squid Kid makes an exaggerated gagging noise, and Gamma Girl shushes her before making her own slightly quieter gagging noise.

"I don't know these people," I say when the group stops before us and no one offers to explain who they are. "I thought I'd met all of you superheroes by now."

"They're not superheroes," says Diller.

"We are too superheroes," says one of the newcomers, a girl wearing a pink princess dress and a cat mask.

"They're wannabes," says Hybrid.

"We're real-life superheroes," says another newcomer, a man wearing a trenchcoat, suit, and fedora.

"You're wannabes," says Gearbox, scratching behind his ear with one of his back legs. "And you can all go lick yourselves."

"Whatever," says the young man with the highly ornate red and gold costume. "League of Real-Life Metro City Superheroes, sound off!"

One of them steps forward and snaps off a crisp salute. He has carefully styled black hair and is wearing an extremely star-spangled, red-white-and-blue uniform and has an actual American flag tied around his neck as a cape. I don't mind patriotism at all, but hasn't anyone ever told him that's not the right way to respect the flag?

"Super-American, reporting for duty!" he shouts. "Busting crime, litter, and America's enemies is my specialty!"

The next one, a young woman with dyed red hair, wearing one of those too-revealing Halloween devil costumes with a "D" stitched inexpertly over the chest, steps out of their formation with an gleeful grin.

"Demonica's the name!" she says happily. "Sin with a smile, fighting for right -- and sometimes wrong!"

The girl wearing the cat costume is next, twirling forward and waving a brightly colored wand in the air. "I am Princess KittyKat, defender of homeless and feral kitties! Please support Metro City's no-kill animal shelters!"

Next is the man in the trenchcoat and fedora. "The name's Fedora Man -- here to make the world safe for goodness, decency, classic style, and encouraging kids to stay in school!"

A woman wearing an extravagantly silver costume, dyed blue hair, and extensive face paint steps up. "I'm the Woman of the Future! I've seen the shape of things to come, and I'm here to move the world in the right direction!"

Last is the man in the red and gold costume. "And I am Captain Metro, the greatest hero of Metro City, righteous and moral and upright!"

The six of them all stare at me as if waiting for my reaction.

I look over at my fellow superheroes. They all seem bored, if not irritated. They've apparently seen this eccentric performance before.

"What are their powers?" I ask Diller, who has started playing some program on her mobile phone.

"They don't have any," she replies, smiling slightly.

"Like Penitente?" I ask.

"Just like Penitente!" says Captain Metro.

"Nothing like Penitente," says Hybrid. "Penitente can actually fight, and these guys... definitely can't."

"We fight different battles!" says the Woman of the Future. "We fight for clean streets and drug-free neighborhoods and safe rides home and charitable giving and occasionally jumping on a bad guy from behind and hitting him with a wrench."

"Which is all just fine," says Gamma Girl. "Except for the stuff about hitting people with wrenches. But you should all just stay away from the crimefighting stuff. It's dangerous enough for police officers and real superheroes, much less civilians."

"We laugh in the face of danger!" said Super-American proudly. "We put criminals in danger!"

"Only because they could break their toes while they're kicking you in the ribs," says Squid Kid. "Stick to fundraisers and collecting food for homeless shelters, okay?"

"Yeah, those are legitimately good works, you know?" says Hybrid. "No need to put yourselves in harm's way."

"I think we had the situation well in hand before you all interfered," says Captain Metro. "In fact, I suspect that, if you'd kept your nose out of things, we would have  captured all these villains easily."

"Oh, you would've captured the Metal Militia?" says Diller, smiling, still playing with her phone. "All by yourselves?"

"I'm sure you have no idea what we're really capable of, do you?" asks Princess KittyKat. "A pure heart and good intentions are all you really need!"

"Oh, yeah, I bet," says Diller. "Don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I have a really tough time getting into all this superhero stuff. All these different spandex-jockeys in the world, and it's a chore for me to tell 'em all apart. So the Chrome Cobra gave me this phone." She holds it up briefly so everyone can see. "She programmed it with a database of info about all the supervillains she could. A lot of the heroes, too. It's got some pretty interesting stuff on here."

Squid Kid smiles broadly, and Gearbox sits back on his haunches and wags his tail.

"For instance, the Metal Militia generally commits heists, kidnappings, assaults, all the usual stuff," Diller continues. "They do plenty of property damage, but usually only while committing more serious crimes. You'd expect them to tear stuff up when they're doing one of their underground concerts, especially when they've been drinking, but they don't do that at all. They keep it under control -- when folks are giving you money, you wanna make sure they'll keep giving you money. See what I'm saying?"

"I guess so?" says Demonica. "You mean they're pretty hardcore, right?"

Diller snorts. "For everyone who's actually paying attention, there are only two incidents where the Militia is known to have committed straight up vandalism and property damage while not in the commission of other crimes. They were hired late last year to wreck a mall parking lot in Philadelphia to distract authorities from a plot by the Ophidian Union to steal artifacts from a museum. And about five months ago, they did the same thing to the cars parked at the Phoenix City Hall, this time to cover up a robbery by the Nowhere Men."

"And so here we are," she says with a smile. "The Metal Militia have committed random mayhem and property destruction in a shopping mall parking lot, for no real reason. And all six of Metro City's wannabes are, coincidentally, right here, waiting for their chance at stardom."

"You be careful," says Captain Metro. "I could sue you for libel."

"Libel is written," Diller says. "Slander is spoken. And the discovery phase of that little trial might be a bitch for you, hon. You'd have to hope that your finances were very carefully in order, and that the Militia didn't keep records of financial transactions, right?"

"I don't know any of these people," I say. "And I hope I'm not being obtuse here. But what would be the motive for them to hire supervillains?"

"Pay 'em to take a dive?" says Hybrid.

"Hah!" Diller laughs, diving back into her mobile phone. "Man, I even remember this one! Remember the Seattle wannabes? They decided to hire the Legion of Malevolence to take a dive so they could get everyone to call them real superheroes, too. Who wants to see the post-mortem photos? Anyone?"

"Ooh!" says Squid Kid. "Are they gross?"

"You're too young," Diller says. She points at Hybrid and Gamma Girl. "You're too sensitive. You're too sheltered." She points at Star and me. "You're turned to stone. And you're old." She holds the phone out to Gearbox. "Hey, Gears, I bet you'll get a kick out of it."

Gearbox looks, but quickly flinches away. "Damn, Daphne, why would you think I'd ever want to see that?!"

"You just saw it for a second," Diller says while Gearbox slinks away behind Hybrid's feet.

"I have a literal photographic memory," says Gearbox. "I'll never have the option of forgetting that. Just show it to those dorks and let's get this over with, okay?"

"Fine," says Diller. She points the phone toward the wannabes. Princess KittyKat had already covered her eyes, but the others all get a short glance at the screen. They don't appear to enjoy the experience at all. It almost makes me wish I could've seen it, so I'd know if it were really so horrible.

"Did you kids like that?" Diller says as she puts the phone away. "Well, here's the good news: I got no plans to mention any of this to the cops. I've got my doubts there's even enough proof to do anything to you. Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and Pantera are all kinda dumb, and I doubt Black Sabbath and Celtic Frost tell them anything important. They'll take the rap for any damage done here, which is fine with me. Hell, you might even be completely innocent, for all I know. But damn sure I'm gonna keep my eye on you punks. And you better remember not to go fucking around with supervillains unless you wanna end up like the Seattle crew. Stick to charity and good deeds, and don't go looking for trouble you can't handle. Anything else you guys wanna say? Well?"

They're quiet for a second before Princess KittyKat says, "I don't guess so, ma'am."

"Then get the hell out of here!" Diller shouts, and they all scurry away.

"Damn, those guys are dumber than sticks," Diller says. "And can you believe that bitch called me 'ma'am'? Like they're just trying to piss me off."

"Daphne, are you sure about just letting them walk away?" says Gamma Girl. "We'd go after anyone else who hired people like the Metal Militia, wouldn't we?"

"Yeah, we should let 'em walk," Diller says. "I was bullshitting on at least 90 percent of that big speech. Nobody tell Star once Kumiko de-petrifies him. He's too straight-arrow for his own good, which is kinda funny when I say it out loud. Hey, quit it!"

Hybrid has just slapped her lightly on the side of the head. "Behave," she says. "And you don't even know that Star's unconscious, so seriously, behave."

This leads to a short slap-fight between the two, which is broken up when Squid Kid wraps them both up in tentacles and separates them. Then she tickles Hybrid. If this is youthful high spirits, I'm glad I'm old.

Eventually, Kumiko arrives on the scene, carrying a tablet computer and a plastic bag full of spice jars and chalk.

"Sorry about the improvised materials," she says. "This is what I get for using the Council of Thaumaturges' website."

After 15 minutes of drawing chalk circles around Star and Gearbox, sprinkling both of them with an assortment of powdered, dried plants, and reading rituals off the tablet, both of them are restored to their normal forms. Star complains that he missed the whole fight, then complains some more about the rest of the Militia not being captured. He doesn't mention the wannabes, so I suppose he was unconscious after all.

After that, we all go our separate ways again. I've already completed my courses for the day and don't have any office hours scheduled, so I head for my home to relax a bit before the evening's patrols.

After cooking four hams and a couple buckets of steamed vegetables (my appetite has become quite prodigious since my transformation), I watch the news on television. I'd never spent much time watching television before -- there is never anything on TV that is as good as reading a book -- but unfortunately, I'm no longer able to eat very neatly, and I would prefer not to ruin my books with food stains. So I watch a bit of television, usually just the news programs.

Once the usual grim national and international news is out of the way, the local broadcasters report a bit of Metro City news. The local politicians are corrupt, which is far from surprising. Everyone is rushing about doing Christmas shopping, which is depressingly predictable. There's even a report on our earlier battle. The wannabes give a short interview, claiming to be responsible for the capture of the villains, and even the reporters appear not to take them seriously. And they close their broadcast with the sort of idiotic feature that is much too common -- a banal feel-good story about handicapped children visiting Santa Claus.

I've nearly finished my meal, and the "Wheel of Fortune" program has just started. It's become a bit of a guilty pleasure, mostly because I enjoy seeing how much faster I can solve the puzzles than the brain-dead contestants. I usually need only five letters on the board before I've figured it out, though I've twice figured out the solution with only one letter.

The host has just started introducing the contestants when the television suddenly sparks and shuts off. I start to get up to check to see if the plug has fallen out of the wall (it's happened much too often -- I expect I should hire an electrician to make sure the sockets and wiring are safe) when the rest of the power in the house fails, leaving me standing in darkness.

Well, standing in near darkness.

There's an intensely bright light shining from behind my bedroom door. I can see the light streaming from around the door frame, cycling from left to right, top to bottom. And I can hear a man laughing from inside my bedroom.

I'm just about to tear my door down and charge in to administer an entirely justified beating to the burglar who has unwisely chosen to infiltrate my home when I hear words shouted to me -- impossibly loud words, even considering how loud I can shout now, and how good my hearing is now.

"Bertram McKenzie!" comes the shout. "Bertram Ira McKenzie! Come in! Come in and know me better, man!"

The door swings open, and my not-very-large bedroom has been replaced by a large hall, lavishly decorated with pine boughs, garlands of greenery, shining candles, and glittering tinsel. There's a large wooden table piled high with food. And there's a bearded man wearing a green robe and a crown of holly. He carries a golden torch and is at least three feet taller than I am.

"I am the Ghost of Christmas Present!" he says loudly. "Look upon me! You have not seen the like of me before!"

"I know who you are!" I shout. "Or at least who you say you are! I demand you cease this gaslighting nonsense immediately!"

"You have never walked forth with the younger members of my family born in these later years?"

"Shut up," I say. "I've read this book, and parroting it back to me will only serve to enrage me. Who are you, what do you want, and please get out of my house."

He laughs, loudly, delightedly, mockingly, like Errol Flynn in a swashbuckler movie.

"Bertram, your insistence on disbelief would be amusing in someone who wasn't an 12-foot-tall monster who associates with robots, zombies, demigods, and sorcerers," he says. "To borrow a phrase from a friend, what evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses? Why do you doubt your senses?"

"Senses are easily fooled," I counter. "And I see no reason to believe that fictional characters from a sentimental Victorian novel are springing to life in my bedroom. And why am I arguing with a hallucination anyway?"

I turn to the bedroom door only to find that it has completely vanished. Only a blank wall remains.

"You're being offered a chance at redemption, Bertram," says the spirit. 

"I would prefer to decline the offer."

"Then it is not an offer," he says, standing to his full height. "It is a requirement."

"I can tear this wall down," I say. "Or I can fight you."

"You cannot beat me," he says. "And that wall is made of stronger stuff than you suspect."

"This is a criminal act," I say. "I'm not sure if it's kidnapping or false imprisonment or something else. But you could get in tremendous trouble for it, and you could go to jail."

"Bertram, we know how this is going to go," he says with a smile. "Put your hand on my robe, and I'll show you how the rest of the city is celebrating the holiday."

I don't want to do it, honestly. But I find myself reaching out and holding onto his sleeve. At once, everything around me disappears, and I find myself somewhere else.

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