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My name is Alfred Dominguez, and I'm in over my head.
You may know me better as Penitente, one of Metro City's superheroes. I got a loose-fitting, homemade blue and gray costume with a cowl that covers most of my face. I'm good looking, I work out, I keep my hair buzzcut, and I got an awesome close-trimmed beard that everyone makes fun of because they're so damn jealous.
I don't have superpowers like the rest of the heroes in Metro City. I'm an excellent athlete and acrobat, I've got extensive martial arts skills, I'm pretty good with a bullwhip, and I'm an expert at turning anything and everything into a weapon. Brooms, trash cans, beer bottles, fence posts, shovels, fire extinguishers, softballs -- you name it, I can probably figure out a way to hurt bad guys with it.
Doesn't make things easy, though. I can handle as many normal guys as you want to throw at me. But actual supervillains are always a problem. It's no fun at all when Splatter or Princess Nebula or Maximillian Mortis are gunning for you, and your only real strategy is "Try to survive long enough for someone else to haul your fat outta the fire or for you to get impossibly lucky." I got better luck than lots of people out there. But dios mio, it's just not smart to expect luck to save you every time.
Still, sometimes things work out pretty well. Gumming up Giggletron's visual sensors with a bucket of glue and then throwing him onto high tension wires? Win. Knocking out Blackheart with a six-pack of grapefruit soda? Win. Beating down Janus, an actual Roman god, with a sledgehammer? Definite win.
Most days aren't too bad. Most days, there aren't any serious threats, and if there are serious threats, they're focused on someone else. I like fighting crime as much as any other hero, but I'd always prefer it if the guys with electrolasers are pointing them at Atlas and Miss Mega instead of me.
And ya know, this evening's patrol starts out looking pretty good. Word comes up about a jewelry store robbery, and I show up at the same time as Atlas, Defender, and Hybrid. And then Wheelman pulls up in a nice new Maserati. All five of us to take on Torque and Devil Wasp? Nice going, Penitente -- they'll both be focused on almost-seven-foot-tall Atlas, leaving the rest of us clear to beat 'em up without getting shot. Hell, Atlas is stronger than Torque, and he could probably peel Devil Wasp's armor off by himself. I'll be lucky to even get a punch in.
Torque and Devil Wasp are both local villains. Torque is your standard superstrong metal man, thick as a brick, in every sense of the phrase. Devil Wasp has his hornet-themed powered armor. They don't normally team up with anyone -- sometimes they'll sign on with some visiting villain team, just for the sake of getting a cut of the pie. But teaming up with each other is a pretty rare occurrence.
Oh, did I imply things were going to be easy? I'm a fool for even mentioning it. You can't ever tempt karma. Karma hates us.
Torque and Devil Wasp come out of the jewelers -- and they're followed by Defiant and the Candyman. Again, another couple of local villains who nearly never team up with anyone.
Defiant is, like me, unpowered. She used to be the sidekick of Professor Liberty from the Liberty Squadron until she went from upbeat kid hero to teenaged rebel to all-around bad egg. None of us know why she's picked Metro City as her home base, and we kinda wish she'd spend more of her time targeting the Liberty Squadron.
And the Candyman has the bad luck to have candy powers. He can shoot peppermint sticks and chocolate bars out of his hands, tie you up with taffy, bury you under mounds of cotton candy. This -- combined with his garish Sgt.-Pepper-meets-the-Oompa-Loompas costume and a lack of foresight into how bad the jokes about his name would be -- completely short-circuited his fledgling superhero career back in Boston after he killed two stand-up comedians, a newspaper columnist, and several cops.
Oh, man, but things got worse, if you can believe it, 'cause the Damned Yankee shows up next. I hate the Damned Yankee. Big creepy demonic undead top-hat-wearing monster. Nobody likes him. He's scary and mean and way too tough.
And even then, we could've handled all of them. I'm a better fighter than Defiant is. Atlas could've taken Torque to pieces. Defender could withstand anything Devil Wasp tried to do to her, and she could pacify him right to sleep besides. Wheelman could get back in his Maserati and ignore all the giant gumdrops and bubble gum Candyman could throw at him. And Hybrid could hold her own against the Yankee long enough for the rest of us to mop him up. It would've been a tough fight, but we could've handled 'em.
If only Vertigo Man hadn't been part of their team, too.
Boom. All five of us go down. Hard to do anything when your inner ear is spinning and you're trying to keep from puking your guts up.
I hope you've never met Vertigo Man. Sure, I hate his powers -- nearly none of us here in Metro City have any kind of defense against him. Gearbox and Hypothermia don't have inner ears, so they manage fine. But he can take down Miss Mega, Express, Kumiko, even the Cobra without a shred of trouble. And so of course, he's a completely arrogant asshole about it. He just about twirls his stupid pointy mustache, he gets so happy about it.
So we're all lying around too dizzy to stand up, and V-Man is strolling around laughing and posting our photos on Instagram. And the rest of them are debating how they want to kill us. Candyman wants to force melted chocolate into our lungs, Defiant favors dragging us away to torture at her leisure, Devil Wasp is arguing for either shooting us in the head or running for their hideout before anyone else shows up, and Torque just wants to stomp on us 'til we're bloody paste. The Damned Yankee wants to suck our souls out, and because everyone's terrified of the Damned Yankee, that's probably what they'll go with.
If Vertigo Man was paying attention to anything but his taunting and his camera phone, he'd probably be pretty unhappy about the discussion. He's never murdered anyone, and I think he'd prefer to keep his record clean in that regard.
He's still laughing and taking pictures when the Yankee scoops up Wheelman in his telekinetic grip, hits him with his Death Glare, and starts trying to extract his soul.
"H-Hey, Yankee, what are you doing?" Vertigo Man asks. "I wasn't done making fun of them yet!"
"Silence, fool!" the Yankee rasps. "Your thoughtless capering is delaying my vengeance on these mortal do-gooders!"
"Listen, guys, let's just get the jewelry and get out of here," V-Man says nervously. "Stuff like this brings in so much heat. Better to get gone and keep the money, you know?"
"Shut it, dumbass," rumbles Torque in his grinding basso profundo. "Let the ghost do his job so he can get down to killing Atlas next. Last thing we need is some superstrong jerk denting my hide again."
"Why is it taking you so long to kill that prettyboy anyway?" says Defiant. "We don't have all day."
It actually is taking him a while to finish Wheelman off. The Yankee keeps almost tearing Greg's soul out, then he keeps losing his grip so it snaps back in. Greg isn't having a lot of fun, and the Yankee is definitely getting angry about it.
Not that there's much of anything we can do about it. I doubt I'd be able to stand up without falling right back down. And if I could get my whip off my belt, I don't think I'd be able to aim it at anyone.
Luckily, we get our bacon saved by one ghost-wielding teenager and a possibly-incompetent cyborg luchador.
El Phantasmo almost gives them too much warning that he's coming. He comes hovering down from a nearby building, ghosts whirling all around him, and shouts, "Give up while you still can, people!"
Of course, Vertigo Man hits him with his -- dizziness ray? Vertigo beam? Inner ear disruption effect? Whatever, he hits Phan with his powers. The kid gets visibly dizzy and woozy, but the ghosts hold him up, and he says, "Tear 'em up, guys," and a good half-dozen spirits fly down to start raising hell with the villains.
And then the Piledriver jumps off the top of the same building and lands in the middle of the street with a loud "THOOM!" She kicks Torque in his solid-steel balls and punches Devil Wasp hard enough to leave a dent in his armor.
Vertigo Man waves his arm at her, and she spins around, fixes him with a contemptuous glare, and says, "No inner ear, moron." Then she ratchets one of her extend-o-arms out, grabs V-Man by the face, and slams him through the Damned Yankee and into both Defiant and Candyman.
After that, it's a big ol' fight.
The Damned Yankee tosses Phantasmo's ghosts aside and starts to fly up toward him. But he gets brought down to earth when Wheelman punches him in his spectral kidneys.
"What?!" the Yankee gasps. "How did you --?"
"How did I touch you?" asks Greg. "Why did you have so much trouble taking my soul out? 'Cause it ain't smart to piss off a demigod, you overconfident pilgrim dork."
Then Greg kicks him in the head and starts going to work on him.
But Piledriver is the most obvious target for the rest of them right now, and she doesn't get a chance to do more than drop a People's Elbow on Torque before Devil Wasp, Defiant, Vertigo Man, and Candyman dogpile her. She still doesn't do too bad -- Candyman gets a punch in the gut, and Devil Wasp's mini-missiles do more damage to Vertigo Man than they do to Laura. But Torque is still stronger than she is, and Defiant has electroshock gloves that keep her stunned, and they start beating the crap out of her.
But by then, the rest of us have recovered from Vertigo Man's powers, and we're more than ready to help out. I wish we could've done a better job of picking our opponents, but we were focused more on getting all the bad guys to stop beating on Piledriver. So for the most part, we're all stuck fighting whichever villain was closest to us.
And really, I would love to match myself against Defiant or Devil Wasp or Candyman, because I could take down Devil Wasp or Candyman so easy, and Defiant would at least give me a good fight. What about Torque? No way, I really don't want to fight Torque. Steel-skinned superstrong cabróns suck when all you've got are your fists and a bullwhip.
So of course, I'm stuck fighting Torque.
I am glad I'm not matched against the Damned Yankee. And I'm really kinda amazed that Wheelman is doing so well against him. Sure, I knew Greg was a demigod, the half-human son of Hermes, Greek god of travel, but he normally does his ass-kicking from inside a car. I don't guess I ever really considered that demigodhood would translate into the ability to beat up a supernatural monster like the Yankee.
Granted, at this point, Greg isn't actually connecting with many of the punches he's throwing -- but that's because the Yankee is trying to avoid him, and the Yankee isn't normally a guy who backs away from a fight. It's hard to read expressions on that desiccated face of his, but he looks nervous. And Greg looks like he's really, really enjoying this.
Defender hits Devil Wasp with one of her energy nets -- unfortunately, that doesn't prevent him from flying. The jets on his armor light up, and he soars into the air. Defender swears and rockets after him.
Hybrid orients herself on Candyman, shifts into her fangs-and-claws monstergirl form, and gives him a nice intimidating roar -- and for once, he doesn't take off running. Instead, he clobbers her with a gumball the size of your fist, then tries to bury her in cotton candy.
Probably a bad decision on his part. Hybrid wasn't actually angry before -- just trying to throw a scare into him. But she's definitely pissed now, and he'd better pray she can get herself back under control before she puts him in the hospital.
Atlas actually starts after Torque, but Defiant jumps on his back, jams her electrical gloves on either side of his head, and blasts the hell out of him.
You ever noticed that the big brick superheroes never seem to like electricity? Well, Atlas don't like electricity either. He hollers good and loud, drops to his knees, and then hollers again when Defiant kicks him in the ass with her electro-boot.
Then she whips out a couple police batons, hits a switch, and makes 'em spark with even more electricity. She grins like it's the happiest day of her life.
El Phantasmo and Piledriver started out handling Vertigo Man, and they remain focused on keeping him down. When your only power makes people dizzy, it probably sucks to run into people who are pretty much immune to getting dizzy. So Phan and Laura spend a while trashing the hell out of V-Man. Phan and his ghosts hold the guy up, and Piledriver clotheslines him over and over. I'd feel sorry for him, but he's an asshole, and he deserves all the pain anyone can give him.
Oh, hey, amigos, don't forget about that great guy Penitente. It's just me all by myself trying to fight Torque. And I don't got no electric batons to take out the big metal son-of-a-bitch either.
He swings one of those giant fists at me, and I sure can't handle actually letting that punch connect, so I don't got any choice but to just dodge out of the way. He's pretty damn slow, but I don't want to give him a chance to get a lucky shot in. Besides, dodging punches is just boring. Time to figure out how to go on the offensive.
I go for the obvious first. Torque is as impervious to harm as any other brick, at least as far as I'm concerned. I can't punch him into submission. But there are parts of his body that are a bit less impervious than others. No, I'm not going to try to kick him in the balls. That might work fine for Atlas or Miss Mega, but I'm just plain not strong enough. But there are ways I could hurt him worse.
So after he swings and misses with another punch, I take the opportunity to get behind him, jump on his back, and jam my fingers into his eyes. No, not hard enough to blind him -- again, I'm not that strong. But it hurts him, and he hollers and shakes me off. But he's even less likely to hit me now -- he can't see clearly, he's furious -- and he's a little scared, too. No one wants some loco freak messing with their eyes, you know?
So he's angry and a little nervous and not seeing too good and swinging wilder than before -- but still not close enough to hit me. So I bring out the chemical weaponry -- a little plastic packet of habanero hot sauce. I can't stand the stuff myself, but my mom makes a big bottle of it for me three or four times a year. So I get some plastic packaging -- like ketchup packets and stuff like that -- fill 'em up with the hot sauce, and reseal 'em with some heated pliers. I carry a few with me for occasions just like this.
So I uncoil my whip and throw one of the sauce packets in the air in front of Torque's face. And right as it reaches the top of its arc, I let loose with the whip and blow it apart. A fine mist of super-spicy chili sauce sprays into his face -- including his eyes. And I don't care how indestructible you are -- getting a hundred thousand Scoville units in the eyes is going to hurt like hell.
So he plants his big metal mitts over his eyes and squawls, and while he's grinding the hot sauce deeper into his eye sockets, I turn around, punch Defiant in the back of the head, and take away her shock batons.
Then I switch 'em on and drop 'em down Torque's pants.
Things start wrapping up after that. Defender manages to drive Devil Wasp back down to earth and crash him face first into the ground. Candyman finally realizes that Hybrid's fang-baring, snarling, wild-eyed fury isn't just an act -- and he flies away as fast as he can on conjured helicopter rotors made out of Red Vines. Defiant bugs out before Atlas can recover enough to press any kind of attack. Vertigo Man gets kicked into unconsciousness by Piledriver, Phantasmo, and a bunch of ghosts. Torque passes out from pants-based electrical trauma. And the Damned Yankee flees with his diabolical tail between his legs -- something that the Wheelman will probably never let any of us ever forget.
So three of six supervillains captured. Actually a pretty bad percentage, made even worse by the fact that Defiant got away with the loot from the jewelry store robbery. And Atlas just really doesn't feel good about getting smacked around by Defiant.
Still, most of us consider it a mark in the win column. The cops can get V-Man, Devil Wasp, and Torque to spill on where their accomplices are hiding. They may not be able to apprehend the Damned Yankee, but Candyman will probably be in jail tomorrow, and if Defiant doesn't go on the lam, either the Cobra or Professor Liberty will nab her soon. And even better, I beat the crap out of a superstrong metal-skinned guy, and stuff like that is always really good for my ego.
And Greg is feeling really, really happy with himself. Do you know how many people have ever managed to beat up the Damned Yankee? I mean, plenty of wizards have done it. Phantasmo has managed it a few times. But delivering actual physical punches? No one does that. So Wheelman is probably justifiably over the moon about it. And he offers to take us all out for late-night pancakes at Wunder Waffles to celebrate.
Who's gonna say no to free late-night pancakes? No one's gonna say no to free late-night pancakes.
Atlas and Phantasmo head out to Wunder's flying under their own power, but the rest of us take Greg's car. He could probably fit all of us in there, his powers being the way they are, but Phan's ghosts get grabby when they're in enclosed spaces, and Atlas says he always feels cramped riding in sports cars.
So the rest of us climb in Greg's Maserati. Greg's driving, of course. Defender calls shotgun. (Yeah, she could fly, but she loves expensive cars and likes the way Wheelman drives.) Hybrid, Piledriver, and I take the back seat. I'm in the middle, right between two pretty superheroes -- damn nice, amigos. We actually gotta argue Piledriver into the car -- she says she'd rather run to the restaurant, but we drag her into the car, 'cause everyone should get to experience Greg's driving at least once.
"This Wunder Waffles place isn't that far away, guys," Piledriver says as Greg starts the engine. "If Phantasmo and Atlas are flying, I don't see any reason why I shouldn't just run there. I don't mind showing up after everyone else."
"Forget it, Laura," Wheelman says. "We're taking the long way around town anyway."
"Gregory has taken every new hero in town on a tour around the city in his own special way, darling," says Defender. "We figure everyone deserves to see Metro City in proper style, don't you think?"
"I'm not a big fan of cars," she says.
"Maseratis are different," Greg says, accelerating down Gerber Avenue. "It barely counts as a car -- more like the world's smoothest riding rocketship. Especially the way I drive it."
"Doesn't fill me with a whole lot of confidence," Piledriver mumbles.
"Don't worry, chica," I say. "This is the safest ride in the city. Greg could drive this car off a cliff, and it'd come through without a scratch."
"You guys do realize I occasionally have to wreck up a car, right?" Wheelman laughs.
"No way!" Hybrid says. "The great Greg Brachemann crashing a car? Do we get to revoke your demigod status now?"
"Are we talking about a car you've just gotten out of?" I ask. "Or one you're about to get into? Those don't count, man."
"Clearly, I will need to explain," he says, grinning as he turns onto 97th. "So a few months back, I was hanging out in St. Louis and --"
"What the hell were you doing in St. Louis?" asks Hybrid.
"Partying," he says. "What else? Anyway, everything was going great, the clubs were pretty cool, there were all these seriously hot babes begging to ride stick."
"So gross, Greg," says Hybrid.
"So thoroughly gross, Greg," agrees Defender.
"Yeah, so gross," says Piledriver. "And you just ran that light so please slow down."
"Penitente knows what I'm talking about," Greg says. "Gimme a high five, homie."
"No way," I say. "You shift gears with that hand."
"Man, you guys are just no fun," he says. "Anyway, great clubs, great fun, everything's cool. And then the Fiend shows up."
"Oh my word," says Defender. "I do not like that man."
"Ugh, the Fiend," says Hybrid. "Such a complete creep."
"Never heard of him," says Piledriver. "Don't much care right now."
"Never met him," I say. "But I've heard stories."
"For Laura's edification then," says Greg (prompting Hybrid to whisper, "Edification? Faaaancy."). "The Fiend is short, green-skinned, at least partially demonic, superstrong, very difficult to injure, and even ruder than Jonni Rotten. As far as I can tell, he was just there to stir up trouble, maybe kill a few people. No real scheme he was working on. And frankly, St. Louis doesn't have any superheroes who'd be able to stop him."
"And so you batted the horrible little monster about with a Mini-Cooper, I expect, right?" says Defender.
"Hey, sister, I'm good," says Wheelman. "But I'm not that good. I did mention how hard he is to hurt, right?"
"Wait, hold on," says Hybrid. "You going all the way down Cowan Street? And you can make all the lights?"
"You know I can," says Greg.
"Awesome," she says, rolling down the window. "I'm gonna car surf."
"No, you can't let her do that," says Laura. "That is so seriously not cool."
"Like I could stop her," says Wheelman. "If I make her mad, she'll pop claws and tear the upholstery."
Sure enough, Hybrid has already hauled herself out the window and onto the roof of the car. Defender rolls her window down, too, mostly so she can yell encouragement at Hybrid.
I'm never going to be crazy enough to try it, but I really wish I could watch from the outside. We really need to get Express to run alongside and film this sometime. It's gotta be epic to see one of these car-surf things all the way through.
Greg starts accelerating down Cowan Street, picking up to 40, 50, 60, 70 miles per hour. And of course, he's got it timed so he's got nothing but green lights all the way down the street.
Hybrid isn't really doing anything that looks like surfing. From what I can tell, she's crouched low over the roof of the car, one hand touching the roof and the other held in the air. I don't think this is any sort of requirement for car surfing -- it's more about style points. Stay on top of the car, but don't look like you're clinging to the roof in a screaming panic.
"So anyway, back to St. Louis," Greg says casually, like he wasn't speeding down a major street downtown with a semi-feral superheroine hanging onto his roof. "The Fiend is running around Grand Center throwing cars around and doing that nasty acidic spit thing. I can get a car to hit someone pretty damn hard, but I figure the Fiend can shrug off just about anything I can do to him."
By now, Greg is starting to accelerate even faster as he gets closer to the Infantino Building. He hits 90, 100, 110...
"What are you doing?" shouts Piledriver. "Slow down! Slow down!"
You know he doesn't slow down. He hits the Infantino Building and... something happens I can't really perceive... and then we're driving straight up the side of the building. We're going straight over the office windows -- but none of them are breaking because Greg doesn't want them to break -- and looking straight up at the night sky.
Of course, Hybrid can't stay on top of the car anymore. She slides right down and grabs onto the spoiler on the back, howling with laughter.
"So how do you hurt someone as tough as the Fiend?" says Greg. "I do the only thing I can think of. I jump into a nice, big panel truck, drive down the street as fast as I can... and I set the vehicle on fire."
Defender spins around in her seat, laughing almost as loudly as Hybrid, so she can look out the back window to see if she can hold onto the spoiler or not.
"Is she going to be able to hold on?!" she yells. "Do we need to get Express on the phone now?"
"She can hold on," I say, not even looking behind us. "This car didn't even have a spoiler 'til we hit the side of the building, remember? Even if she lets go, she's used to jumps way crazier than this."
Defender shifts her gaze away from Hybrid.
"Laura, dear, are you alright?"
And then, bam, Greg's Maserati is short one door, and there's no one sitting next to me anymore.
"Did -- Did she just kick my door off?" asks Greg. He's turned around in his seat, too, looking totally shocked.
"Watch the road, man!" I yell. We gotta be almost at the top of the building by now. I spare a glance behind us, and there goes Piledriver, falling like a big metal rock.
Defender throws her door open and starts out after her. At the same time, Greg spins the wheel -- the car goes into a hard skid across the side of the building. I hear office windows shattering underneath the wheels. The laws of physics are doing the illogic two-step around us -- friction and momentum are fighting with magic and divinity, gravity trying to decide whether to hold the car against the building, fling it out into space, or drag us into a terminal velocity plummet.
Hybrid can't hold on any longer. Her fingers slip off and she flips into the air. She bounces once against the building, then gravity starts pulling her earthward again -- but she's done this freefall stuff before. She angles herself back against the building, then kicks off towards another building she can jump off from -- but doing that means she slows her descent -- good for her survival, not so good with keeping up with us.
As for me, I'm bouncing around the back of a car with one missing door, so of course I end up falling out of the vehicle. I managed to grab hold of one of the seatbelts, but that still leaves me flapping in the air outside a $100,000 sports car speeding down the side of an 80-story building.
And Madre de dios, even from this vantage point, I can tell we're not going to make it. Defender flies faster than Wheelman can drive (at least on a short-run straightaway down a skyscraper -- get him out on the open road and I bet she couldn't keep up), and she's not going to make it either. It took us too long to react when Laura jumped out of the car. Maybe Atlas or Express or Calypso will just happen by and catch her?
They don't, of course.
By the time Greg gets the car parked on level ground (the seatbelt somehow pulled me back into the car and buckled me in before he hit the brakes), Defender is busy coating Piledriver in her regenerative first-aid goo. Don't know how much good that'll do for someone who's more robot than human.
Laura's a goddamn mess. Broken metal stabbing through her artificial skin, one arm and both legs off, jaw hanging off, both eyes shattered. She's just mangled.
Our communicators chirp, and the Chrome Cobra says, "What the hell just happened? Quinn's diagnostics just cratered."
Hybrid lands next to us and gasps, "Sweet Jesus, is she dead?"
"We were driving to get pancakes with Atlas and Phantasmo," says Defender, sounding a hell of a lot calmer than I am. "We were most of the way up the Infantino Building when Laura jumped out of the car. She looks like hell, Cobra. And I have no idea how to heal someone this extensively cyborged."
"Wait," the Cobra says. "Buzzing Atlas and Phan. Buzzing her uncle. Stay calm. Take pictures of her and upload them to me."
The communicators cut off, and we start fumbling for our phones. Defender waves us off.
"I've got camera functions in my helmet," she says. "I'm already taking some photos. Laura, if you can hear me, I'm just taking some photos so the Cobra can get some idea of how to, um, treat your condition. Please stay calm, dear -- you'll be fine."
The communicators switch back on. "Atlas and Phan are en route," the Cobra says. "Don't bother talking to her, Defender -- she's definitely unconscious. Photos are coming in. Good fucking god. This is -- good fucking god, people! Wheelman, you complete goddamn -- no, wait, I'm including the rest of you in this fucking rant now, because at least one of you should've considered that maybe someone who almost died in a car wreck and did lose a loved one in the accident might have some goddamn issues with traveling in an automobile. Especially an automobile that can drive up a fucking skyscraper!"
"I'm sorry, Cobra," says Wheelman. "I didn't realize she wouldn't know my cars are a million percent safe."
"Just shut up, Greg," the Cobra says. "You're all taking her to her uncle's lab."
"We can get her loaded into Greg's car," I say.
"Do you want her to wake back up and find herself back in a car?" asks the Cobra. "No, Phantasmo can transport her. The rest of you are tagging along, and god help you if her uncle wants to have a robot stomp on you, 'cause I'm not sure I could blame him."
"Not to worry, please," says an electronically amplified voice above us. "I've no intention of having any robots stomp on anyone."
There's a small flying saucer descending on us. Seriously, it looks like one of those UFOs in the old movies from the '50s. A door irises open in the bottom of the craft, and there's an older guy with wild hair and a hairbrush mustache looking down at us. He's wearing a crisp white lab coat and speaking into a handheld microphone.
"Ahh, sounds like you've got company," says the Cobra. "I assume that's Dr. Quinn?"
"Good evening, Ms. Cobra," the guy says. "And good evening, citizens. My name is Dr. Agamemnon Xerxes Quinn, and I'd like to retrieve my niece now."
Atlas and Phantasmo take that moment to fly up. Both of them look nervous about Quinn's flying saucer. Hell, I bet the rest of us look nervous about it, too.
"Cobra, did you call this guy in?" Atlas asks.
"She didn't have to, sir," Quinn says. "My equipment notified me that Laura was in trouble several minutes ago. From what my sensors indicated, she must have fallen off a building, correct?"
"Well, off a building," says Defender. "Out of a flying car."
"Oh my," he says. "I think I'll have something to say about that later. For now, could you all stand clear of Laura? I have an anti-gravity beam I can use to collect her."
"Is she going to be alright?" asks Hybrid.
"She'll be right as rain," Quinn says as Laura begins to float off the pavement up into the saucer. "This isn't the first time she's suffered some sort of catastrophic damage. I keep a few spare bodies I can plug her brain into back at the lab. I expect she'll be back on duty tomorrow, looking none the worse for wear."
"Can I meet you at your lab?" the Cobra asks. "I'd like to get to see the process first-hand and to talk to Laura once she's awake again."
"I have no objection," Quinn says. "But if Laura says she doesn't want you around, you leave, no questions asked."
"That's fair," she says.
"And I want whoever was the driver of the car present, too," he says.
"What for?" asks Wheelman nervously.
"You're going to apologize to my niece, sir," Quinn says. "And you're going to promise her you won't try anything like that again. And you'll stand still if she decides she wants to hit you. Which, honestly, she probably won't."
Greg shrugs. "I would've done all that anyway, man," he says. "You want me in your ship, or should I drive there?"
"Step into the anti-grav beam," Quinn says. "You can ride with us."
Well, once that's over with and Quinn, Piledriver, and Wheelman have all flown off in the flying saucer, there's not a lot else for us to do. No one's much in the mood for pancakes anymore, and the party breaks up. Defender takes off to the north to resume her patrols, Hybrid heads eastward, and el Phantasmo heads for home -- he's close enough to his curfew anyway. Atlas is about to fly out, too, but I get him to carry me back to where I left my motorcycle.
So we fly along for a minute, and then I say, "This has really not been a very good night for us, has it?"
"Well, we caught three supervillains," Atlas says.
"And we let another three get away," I say.
"And we missed out on pancakes," he says.
"Don't even joke, man," I reply. "We lost three villains, and they got away with robbing a jewelry store. And Piledriver threw herself off a building because we never considered how much she might hate cars. And we pissed off her mad scientist uncle and the Chrome Cobra."
"Well, at least you took your bad guy down," Atlas says. "Defiant beat on me like it was her birthday."
"Anyone can take Torque," I say. "We should all be embarrassed that the Candyman got away."
"Okay, fine," Atlas says. "We didn't have the best night. They can't all be great. Hell, most of 'em aren't anywhere close to great. I know that, you know that, we all know that. What do you want to do about it? You gonna give it up?"
"Hell, no. Quitting is for quitters."
He gets me dropped off back in the alleyway where I stashed my motorcycle. It's a sweet little Triumph street bike. It'd cost a fortune to maintain if I didn't do all the work on it myself. I kick it to life and ask, "You gonna keep patrolling?"
"Yeah, I can handle another hour or two," he says. "How 'bout you?"
"Maybe a bit more," I say. "Probably gonna ride the bike around for a bit, then turn in. Gotta be at work early tomorrow."
"Sounds good," Atlas says. "Stay safe." And he flies off.
I put the bike into gear and drive off down the road. It's late, and there isn't a lot of traffic, so I have plenty of time to ride along and think. Not that I think about much, mainly just rewind the events of this evening and wonder if I could've done anything better. Maybe I could've fought Defiant instead of Torque -- Atlas could've handled Torque easy, and I'm pretty good at dodging her when Defiant brings out her shock-batons.
I don't know if I could've done anything to improve the situation at the Infantino Building. Probably recognize that Piledriver was distressed. I really should've paid better attention. I think I feel worse about that than anything else.
So I'm sitting there at the light, just preoccupied with my own thoughts, when a brown Buick station wagon pulls up next to me, and Fedora Man leans out and blows a spitwad at me.
I block it, of course. He looks pissed about it, and that's a good thing.
And he's got the rest of the members of the League of Real-Life Metro City Superheroes in the car with him -- Super-American, Demonica, Princess KittyKat, Captain Metro, and Woman of the Future. They like to call themselves superheroes, mostly because they made themselves costumes, and they're pissed at the other actual superheroes because they had the audacity to have real superpowers. And they're even more pissed-off at me because I don't have superpowers and can still do real superhero stuff.
"What do you guys want?" I say as evenly as I can.
"Burn in hell, you sellout!" yells Super-American from the driver's seat.
"You and your superzero pals suck, Dumbetente," says Demonica.
"It's past your bedtime, kids," I say. "Pretty sure I heard you're supposed to be doing a call-in at Kip Coulter's radio broadcast tomorrow morning, right? Gotta get your rest so you'll be fresh for the show."
"We don't need sleep!" shouts Captain Metro. "We thrive on justice!"
"And kitten rescue!" says Princess KittyKat.
"That's great, guys. So go thrive on justice somewhere else, okay?"
"Why don't you go thrive on loserdom wherever losers lose?" yells Fedora Man. He blows another spitwad at me, and I block it again.
"You need to leave the city's protection to real heroes like us!" says Captain Metro.
"Come on, guys," I say. "None of you are really set up for real crimefighting. It's not the lack of powers -- your talents just lie elsewhere. I mean, who's the best at promoting pet adoption?"
"Pet adoption!" cries Princess KittyKat. "And halting animal abuse! And spaying and neutering your pets!"
"What about adult literacy?" I ask.
"Right here!" says Super-American.
"Advocacy for women and minorities studying science and engineering?"
"It's the only way to make sure my ideal future becomes a reality," says the Woman of the Future.
"No one does more for important causes than you guys do," I say, omitting, of course, that lots of people and organizations probably do more. But I'm trying to make friends here. "You should focus on your strengths and not on vigilantism. You guys could get seriously hurt, and then who'd save the lost kittens?"
"Don't listen to him, Princess," says Captain Metro. "He's trying to turn us against each other. To turn us against our true calling as heroes!"
"Right!" says Fedora Man. "Someday, we'll be acknowledged as Metro City's greatest heroes!"
"Fine, whatever," I say. "Have fun being Metro City's greatest heroes, but stay out of trouble. I'm going home, so I won't be able to pull your butts out of the fire."
"Screw you," says Super-American. "We'll follow you and completely ruin the rest of your night."
"You gonna follow me into Chesler?" I ask.
"Hell yeah!" says Captain Metro. "I mean, no, wait, we have to go home. Go in peace, citizen! Burn in hell!"
And they peel out, right through a red light. They're lucky there's so little traffic this late at night. Silly gringos, the Chesler Projects aren't that dangerous.
I'm just glad to be rid of 'em. I head for my secret garage (Not the fanciest hideout in the world, but I know it's secure. There are five hidden entrances scattered around an area of four blocks. No one's found any of them yet, and I'm pretty sure no one ever will.), stash the bike, change out of my costume, and take the staircase up to my apartment. So damn tired, and dealing with the wannabes didn't make me any more relaxed.
Honestly, there are times when I've got plenty of sympathy for the wannabes. I've got no more superpowers than they do. Is it fair that I'm considered an actual superhero while they aren't? Yes, I'm better in a fight. Yes, I managed to beat up a superstrong, metal-skinned supervillain tonight while they have to struggle to apprehend 14-year-old graffiti artists. Yes, I was able to hold onto a seatbelt outside a car driving down a skyscraper without ruining my pants -- and the wannabes definitely could never do that.
Nevertheless, is it fair? They want it so damn bad, and there are plenty of days I wish I could just go shoot hoops instead.
I do think I understand their resentment. There are a lot of times when I'm out there, ready to fight with all the other heroes, going up against Olympia or Powerblast or Demonstorm or someone else. And someone looks over at me and says, "You better sit this one out, Penitente."
It's one thing when Miss Mega says it, 'cause she tells Atlas and the Cobra and everyone else to go hide somewhere safe -- she thinks she has to protect anyone weaker than she is, and everyone's weaker than she is. But when it's Iota or Squid Kid or Phantasmo telling me to run away? Really gets my angry side running, ya know?
Of course, there are a lot of bad guys I wouldn't want to handle by myself. Demonstorm is definitely one of them. Same with Splatter and Ragnarok and Funnelweb and the Wyrd Sisters and anyone from the Legion of Malevolence -- okay, really, a lot of villains I wouldn't want to try to handle solo. I like having backup for all the times a lowly unpowered human would be in over his head.
And even then, I know I could handle any of those guys way better than any of the wannabes or just about any other unpowered human. I make a damn good superhero, and I'm proud of that.
Doesn't mean I don't have plenty of limits. And right now, one of them is that I'm exhausted. I'm asleep almost before I hit the pillow.
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