In a time, once ago there was a farm. It sat at the bottom of a mountain that was topped with crisp white snow, nestled at the edge of field of shallow greens and fertile browns, and beneath a sky of crystal clear blue. In this farm there dwelt five brothers and one sister.

Hitotsu was the eldest brother and the strongest. Futatsu and Mittsu were twins and the funniest of the brothers. Yottsu was the next brother and the smartest of the boys. Then finally, there was Itsutsu, the youngest brother. He could not till the fields as fast as Hitotsu, or tell time by looking at the sun like Yottsu, or even make the others laugh till they spit forth their rice like Futatsu and Mittsu. No, Itsutsu was disturbingly average in every single way, except for one. He was a dreamer.

The youngest child of the family was Rei, the only sister. She had the biggest heart of the family, but most of her attention was often reserved only for Itsutsu, and the two siblings would spend their days together playing in the field and pretending to be great warriors or wealthy daimyo.

Their farm was small, yet it was also one without want. Life was hard, but the siblings were kind and generous with their time and provisions. The children were respectful of their elders and the soil was unstinting with its bounty. The brothers and their sister often went to bed with bellies full of rice and pork, and heads full of song and story.

For living on the farm with the siblings was an old man named Grandfather. He was neither bound to the siblings by marriage or blood, but they treated him as such. He was simply a kind old man who had no family and no place to go. In return for their hospitality, he told the most magnificent tales. In these stories heroes vanquished great creatures made of wind and magic; beautiful maidens fell in love with dashing ronin; and bravery was always rewarded while cowardice was always punished. Yet, the most often and whispered stories the old man told were of the Aerials.

“They can take the form of any beast or man they perceive, and yet mischief is so often their common shape. When not stealing your lost trinkets or tripping the prideful, they dance on the rays of the moon, and make love on the tips of stars,” said Grandfather. “To look upon them is to know bliss and to leave their presence is to know longing.” The old man often became sad after he spoke of the Aerials, but the brothers and their sisters had too much honor for him to ask more.

That is until one night, when Itsutsu’s courage outpaced his sense of respect. With great reluctance, but a burning in his heart, did the youngest brother press the subject. He did not want to show dishonor to the man who had been more than a father to him, and so he waited until that night’s tale had come to a close. Then he said, “Grandfather, why do you look so sad?”

The old man simply smiled and waved away the impish question, but after enough prodding from Itsutsu and his brothers he finally relented. “I have seen the Aerials,” he admitted. “I have danced to their songs, and laughed at their merriment. I can still recall how they shone, like the light of joy itself. I do not know how long I kept their company, but one morning I awoke and their great feast had disappeared. Their village was turned to stardust and their light was lost to my eyes forever.”

“Can we ever see them, Grandfather?” said Futatsu and Mittsu with one voice.

“Please, Grandfather,” pleaded Itsutsu, his appetite whet from the stories of the old man. For he had always felt he was destined with a glorious life beyond the farm and the familiarity of his siblings. He ached for the sort of existence he had heard in Grandfather’s stories: adventure, love, and honor.

“Mortals, such as yourselves, can only behold the realm of the Aerials for one night, the night of your fifteenth birthday.” The generous old man smiled a distant and faraway smile as if meant for another person in another time.

“Why is that grandfather?” asked Yottsu. “How is it that we are only permitted one night?”

“Hardly seems fair,” said Itsutsu who sank down in sorrow for the boy would not turn fifteen for another four harvests.

“Aerials are unlike mortals such as you. They are wandering sprites, creatures of pure nature and emotion, like the trees or the dragonflies. They do not have souls and are left to exist for eternity, and yet time has no meaning to them. They have no beginning and no ending. Thus, you may only see them on the night you make the journey from childhood to adulthood, for it is a time of transition when you are old enough to be honorable but still young enough to be playful.”

“I will be fifteen with the new moon,” said Hitotsu the eldest. He had remained silent throughout the story as his siblings had whispered and wondered aloud to each other at the prospect of meeting the Aerials. “Where might I find them?”

“If you truly wish to see them,” said Grandfather. “They will find you and guide you to their meadow, and there you will behold their glowing presence.”

“I cannot wait until I am fifteen,” said Itsutsu as he trembled with anticipation.

“Itsutsu,” said Rei, for she was never far from her big brother. “I want to go to bed. I’m tired.”

“Soon, sister, soon,” said the boy with a shooing motion.

“One more thing, children,” said the old man. “This is important. If you ever do find yourself in the company of the Aerials you must remember not to eat of their fruit. Can you remember that?”

“Itsutsu,” complained Rei. “Please, can we go to sleep now?”

“We understand, Grandfather,” said Hitotsu, though his two youngest siblings had not heard the man at all. Instead, Itsutsu was still trying to quiet the complaints of his sister.

“Can’t we go to sleep?” said Rei again as only little sisters can.

“I think your sister is wise beyond her years,” joked Grandfather. “Now off to bed with all of you and no more about such things.”

That night Hitotsu slept fitfully, rolling and turning in his slumber. When asked about his disturbance the next day he simply exclaimed, “It was nothing, just unusual dreams.” Yet, the eldest boy’s fits continued for many nights until the rising of the new moon, for on that night Hitotsu’s mat was empty.

The siblings searched for him, but they could not find where he had gone. It was unlike their brother who was the most responsible of them. They sought high and they sought far. Even little Rei looked behind each blade of grass, and yet no one could find Hitotsu. The only one who did not seem concerned was Grandfather who only smiled at the apprehension of the siblings.

For the old man was wise and when the sun rose the next day their brother had returned and was waiting for them at morning meal with the most magnificent tales. “Brothers and sister,” he said. “I have been with the Aerials, just as Grandfather said I would.”

“You have,” said Itsutsu with great curiosity. “What was it like? Tell us, please?”

“It is like a barely remembered dream now,” said Hitotsu, “but one that was sweet and pleasant. We tested our strength and ate a feast redolent with succulent fragrance. Bowls of rice and soya, sweet donburi, dishes topped with tonkatsu and kare. Plates of udon, soba, and somen cooled in the night air beside crisp yakitori and honeyed nikujaga that would put any other to shame. I ate without ever growing full or fat. It was truly magnificent.”

The eldest brother smiled and spoke no more. He appeared older and much more like Grandfather, for the old man seemed to share Hitotsu’s silence as he too became lost in memories. The other siblings, however, whispered excitedly to one another, imagining what wonders they might see when they visited the Aerials.

The twins, Futatsu and Mittsu, were the next to turn fifteen. They too slept fitfully leading up to the night of their birthday, and on the night of the crescent moon they could not be found. They returned the next morning looking as their eldest brother had and telling tales of the tricks and the games they played among the Aerials.

“It is like a barely remembered dream now, “said Futatsu. “But one that was sweet and pleasant,” said Mittsu. Then they both spoke together, “We played great games and laughed with unabashed merriment.”

“My cards were triumphant in Daifugō and Butanoshippo. My skill was sharpest with Menko and Irensei. I surpassed all my opponents while playing Sudoku and Oicho-Kabu,” said Futatsu with a great laugh.

“Well my dice was swiftest in Chō-Han and Kitsune Bakuchi. My words were cleverest with Dajare and Shiritori. I was victorious over all my opponents while playing Pente and Shogi,” said Mittsu with genuine pride.

“We played without ever growing tired or defeated. It was truly magnificent,” they said together, and then both twins spoke no more that day. Each seemed older than the night before just as their brother had after his night.

The next to turn fifteen was Yottsu, and just as his brothers had before him he slept in fits until the night of the half-moon when he disappeared. He returned the next day to tell the tale of what he had seen.

“It is like a barely remembered dream now,” said Yottsu, “but one that was sweet and pleasant. We talked on topics of great literature and poetry, and together we sang great tales on instruments of varnished pine and cypress. Rich notes sprang from the Koto and Kugo accompanied by the decisive beat of a Taiko and Ikko. Harmonious notes flowed from a Hocchiku and a distant Hichiriki. Their chords mingled with a chorus of Kokyū, and the clear ringing of a thousand voices. I listened without ever growing bored or stale. It was truly magnificent.”

Most of the brothers were silent that day, all except for Itsutsu, for he waited with mounting anticipation for his own birthday when he too could see the Aerials and play and feast and sing among their great realm. So he waited through the cool breeze of the harvest, the harsh winds of the winter, the gentle caress of spring, until finally he came to the airless swelter of the summer season.

One night as he laid down, Rei nestled beside him, he began to dream. In his dreams he saw them, creatures of light and beauty dancing beneath the moon. They feasted and laughed as only their kind could and in those dreams his provincial life was gone and he too was beside them, twirling in the shimmer of night.

Thus, did Itsutsu dream for nine nights, and thus did each night his visions grow stronger. While awake he became restless with his work, and agitated with his sister. Even the words of Grandfather failed to fill the empty bowl of his heart. He became impatient with the mundane and intolerant of the routine of life, until the night of the full moon.

Like the call of a distant wolf he head music. He followed it to a shining meadow far beyond where he had ever gone before. Upon entering he believed that he was alone, yet he had not been alone. For the Aerials were all around him, invisible at first to his eye, but as the light of the moon fell upon the glade Itsutsu’s senses became swallowed by the sights, smells, and music of the wondrous creatures he beheld. Truly, the stories of his slumber had come to life in the glow of the night.

“Aren’t you a brave, boy,” said the soft voice of a beautiful woman. So pale as to almost be made of silver, her flaxen hair fell wildly to her waist. Round eyes and sharp features gave her a tempting and mischievous look. Every movement was full of promise and every word an unspoken vow that no man or boy could resist. Adorned in nothing but twinkling silks and a small jade tiara, she was powerful to behold.

“Who are you?” said Itsutsu after stepping into the realm.

“I am Nyotei, Queen of the Aerial and Keeper of the Unseen.” The queen gestured behind her and the world became a dream. The youngest brother feasted and frolicked among crystal dells. He ate his fill and drank his weight in rice wine and oolong. In that one night he lived a thousand lives, floating above clouds, moving unseen through villages near and far, racing the wind and speaking with the trees. It was the life he had always knew he’d been born to live.

As light began to rise in the east, Nyotei put a warm and inviting hand around his shoulder and offered him one last treat, a ripe cherry. The boy held the fruit, admiring its rich amethyst skin. His mouth watered for a taste, but something within him held his hand.

“One last treat, for my brave boy,” said Nyotei. Her words were as cloying as her hips. “If you eat this fruit, than you will be able to stay here forever, with us. You could live the life you have always wanted.”

In the Realm of the Aerials the land of the living felt like a barely remembered reverie. The words and warnings of Grandfather swam up to him as if from the depths of a great and dark ocean, but he could not hear them. They were ill-defined and lost to time and memory, and as the moon began to set in the west Itsutsu found himself forgetting his farm, his brothers, and even Rei as one forgets the colors of a distant dream.

The boy thought only of the adventure and excitement of the night and so he closed his teeth upon the succulent cherry, and Nyotei smiled as sweetly as the fruit she had offered.

It was then that the sun rose and the saccharine juice turned to ash in Itsutsu’s mouth, and the Realm of the Aerials turned to sunder. The boy’s skin burned as the rays of the lights fell upon it until he too faded from sight along with Nyotei and her kin. The world around him became as empty as his own heart, no fear, no joy, and no love could touch Itsutsu, for his soul was gone and he became one of the Aerial.

Thus, did the siblings awaken the next morning and Itsutsu was nowhere to be found. Their youngest brother was not waiting for them to tell the tales of his nocturnal adventures, nor did he appear the next day or the next day after that. Rei and her four brothers grew sad and life on the farm became as grey as rain and twice as cold.

For even though Itsutsu had not been as strong or as smart or as funny as his brothers, he had been the soul of them all, and without him life became dull. In his depression, Hitotsu grew weak and thoughtless in his farm work. Yottsu became disinterested in his books and mathematics, preferring to instead sit alone. Even Futatsu and Mittsu refused to laugh or joke after that day. Rei would often disappear and none of her brothers could be sure of where she went.

Grandfather seeing the well of melancholy that grew in the siblings became disturbed. He thought of them as family and so he went off in search of answers. On the night of a full moon he traveled once again to a familiar meadow in hopes of seeing the shining faces of old friends.

“Nyotei,” Grandfather called into the darkness. “Do not do this. You may never forgive me my transgression, but I beg of you to release the boy. I beg of you, great and terrible empress.” Yet, all the old man found were the songs of night birds and the admonishing whisper of the winds. Grandfather wept as he had wept after the first time he found himself in that meadow.

Unbeknownst to the old man, Itsutsu was nearby, unseen by any mortal eye. As he watched Grandfather cry softly into his wrinkled hands, the Aerial who had once been a boy began to remember. He remembered the tenderness in those kindly old hands. He remembered his brothers and his sister. He remembered laugher and family, and he remembered that he missed them all.

Then Itsutsu wept too. Grandfather was blind to the boy’s presence but they cried their shared their sorrow as only family could. That was when Nyotei, Queen of the Aerial and Keeper of the Unseen took notice of the boy. He was one of her subjects now, and yet she did not understand his sorrow.

“Why do you cry, little one?” asked the queen.

“I cry because I miss my family. I cry because I can no longer feel the sun, or touch the grass, or laugh as heartily as I once had,” said the creature that had been Itsutsu.

Nyotei nodded slowly and a smile spread across her face. “What if I could give you back your mortal life and return to you your eternal soul?”

“How?” said Itsutsu, seizing upon the question as a starving skylark seizes upon scraps of food. “I will do anything to breath fresh air again.”

“It will require that one takes your place, one of your own flesh and ancestry,” Nyotei’s smiles became like that of a viper’s, cold and serene, and Itsutsu nodded his understanding.

Two harvests passed and Rei finally entered her fifteenth year. She never gave up looking for her lost brother, and when the full moon rose on the night of her birth she found herself standing in a moonlit dell surrounded by mist and vague figures. As the haze cleared her surroundings glistened to life and her search finally came to an end.

Standing before her was her brother, Itsutsu, though he no longer appeared as he once had. His skin sparkled with silver and his eyes were the deep black of two endless pits. His hair was longer and it shimmered like light dancing on water, but it was him. Rei recognized her brother the same as if she had seen him that morning.

Rei on the other hand had grown from a child into a woman. Her smile was as lovely as bird song and her cheeks were the color of roses. Life had filled the once small girl and blossomed her into vibrant womanhood. Itsutsu hesitated. He was unsure if the image he beheld was his sister, but Rei embraced him immediately with tears falling from her eyes with love.

“I have sought you far and near, brother,” she said. “I just knew I would find you tonight, just as my dreams foretold I would.”

Rei, unlike her brothers did not feast or frolic, or sing or play. Instead, she spent the night with Itsutsu and together they walked through distant fields, talking of life. They talked about what had transpired in the youngest brother’s absence, and of Rei and her hopes and dreams for the future. She told him how she had recently fallen in love with a young merchant from a local village.

“He is good, and kind, and though he is not wealthy we will be well taken care of,” she said and smiled as Itsutsu had never seen before.

“I wish I could be there for the wedding,” said her brother.

“I do as well.” A tear fell from Rei’s eye. As it fell it caught the light of the rising sun in the east. “I wish that more than anything.”

“I was foolish,” admitted Itsutsu as he understood that his time with his sister was running short. “I miss the world. I miss our home.”

“But, your brother could be restored,” chimed in Nyotei as she appeared as if from nothingness. In her hand she held a plump shining cherry.

“How?” said Rei. “I will do anything to make it so.”

“I know, my child,” said Nyotei, her tone as smooth as silk. “All you have to do to help your brother is eat this fruit.” She held out the cherry. It glowed in the soft light of approaching dawn.

“I will do it. I will help you, Itsutsu.” Rei snatched the fruit and raised it to her mouth.

“No,” exclaimed the Aerial who has once been her brother, for he could not let his only sister sacrifice herself for him. She was too full of vitality, too full of promise. Her life was just beginning. In that moment he saw her as she would appear through the years.

Itsutsu saw her as a bride, as a mother, and even as a grandmother. He saw her take her last breath at a tender old age surrounded by loved ones who had yet to exist. He saw her smile her last smile as her soul ascended to bliss and peace. He could not rob her of that promise. He could not destroy the children she had yet to birth.

Itsutsu grabbed the cherry from her hand and crushed it beneath his fist. Nyotei screeched a horrible noise. “That was your last chance,” she bellowed. “You will remain here forever. You will never know the feeling of love again.” As the sun began to rise she disappeared, leaving the two siblings to embrace for the last time.

“She is wrong, Itsutsu,” said Rei as he too began to fade from sight. “I will always love you. Remember that.”

“And I will always be with you, sister,” said her brother.

She reached for him one last time, but he was gone and the morning light now basked the empty meadow in the promise of a new day, the promise of new life yet to come. Rei walked home to tell her siblings of what she had beheld on her night with the Aerials. It was a story she hoped would heal the wounds of her family and give hope for the world ahead.

Rei nor her brothers would ever see Itsutsu again, but he would watch them from time to time, concealed from their vision by the magic of the Aerials. He was there when Grandfather took his last dying breath and for a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to find him.

He watched his siblings as they all grew older and started families even as he himself never aged. So, when the time came for their children and their children’s children to come of age, he was there to greet them and play with them and sing for them. Yet, mostly he was there to make sure that none of them ever forgot the importance of family or the thrill of living a humble mortal life.


The air smelled clean, like the vapil plants after a Gorgarian rainstorm. Humans mulled about, waiting in line to enter the gymnasium of one of the district’s local public institutions. The people mostly ignored him, being unable to see him, but the man smiled at them regardless.

“So who is winning? The corrupt one or the crazy one?” said the second man -shorter than the first- as he appeared beside him.

“The democratic process,” said the first indicating the humans.

“Humans…” replied the second looking over the shoulder of one of the men waiting in line. “They are such children. Democracy is system doomed to failure, and worst of all they know it. Yet, they turn a blind eye and continue on with their belief in elections and representative ruling bodies. How quaint, but it is simply tyranny by majority.”

“I disagree. It is a belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is faith in the collective power of humanity itself, that the wisdom of no one person’s lone decision is better than the rest; whether they be rich or poor, noble or common, male or female.”

“A fairy tale, which they themselves cannot even seem to accomplish. The very system that they uphold does not -in practical terms- even judge every man equally. Despite all their high ideals, there are those among them with greater influence than the rest: those with power, money, the right skin pigmentation, the right genitalia, the right sexual orientation, and the list goes on. You speak of a perfect system, but I see nothing but a flawed race of people playing at moral superiority. Concepts, such as democracy and elections do nothing but give the powerless the illusion of choice while keeping them blind to the truth of power.”

“It is an imperfect system to be sure, made all the more imperfect by the hubris and prejudices of the species, but it is not without its beauty. Democracy is a social contract that puts actual power at the doorstep of the masses. Sure, the single common person may never see their whim or wishes enacted into law, but as a people -as voting demographics- they cannot be ignored. The elected must keep the electors content or they are removed in a non-violent and non-chaotic manner. Even you must see the brilliance of that.”

“Brilliance?” said the second man. “I would hardly agree, brother. It is a convoluted and slow system built solely upon the ignorance of the people.”

“Once again you are too harsh by far. What you see as ignorance, I see as hope.” The first man smiled at a young human in a wheeled carriage. The small creature smiled back at him with a giggle.

“Hope,” the second harrumphed. “Another foolish notion. Cast your vote for hope and all you get is disappointment.”

“What would you have them do then?” said the first. “Would you have them return to monarchism, or theocratic rule? What other options do they have at this juncture in their development?”

“I always found dictatorships to be quite effective,” said the second with a smile.

“That is true enough for the dictator,” said the first with a knowing look. “But for humans -at least the humans of this nation-state- they would never oblige it. They value their freedoms too much.”

“They certainly do have freedom,” said the other with a laugh. “Freedom to cause poverty; freedom to pollute the planet and their bodies; freedom to justify war and justify murder and justify every sin and hardship that humans can inflict upon one another. As they say, freedom is never free, except what they don’t understand is that it is the free that rarely pay the bulk sum.”

“Your cynical attitude once again betrays your own pessimism. Where you see anarchy, I see choice. Where you see a planet heading toward a cliff, I see a planet that believes it can fly.”

“Most cannot,” said the second. “How often have we seen it, time and time again, on a thousand other worlds? They all have high hopes. They all have lofty goals. The basser’babal people even had wings and they couldn’t fly, at least in the proverbial sense. For them it ended the same: ruin, chaos, war, and eventually extinction. This planet and its people will be no different.”

“You ascribe a lot of importance to one single election,” said the first man.

“It is the not just one election,” said the second. “In fact, despite their mewling, this election is fairly insignificant, but elections lean toward partisanship, which leans toward infighting, and stubbornness. Eventually nothing can get accomplished because people are too concerned about winning to see the galaxy through the stars. It does not matter if there are two or twenty candidates or parties or districts or regions or parishes or whatever. In the end, it always comes down to us versus them. It’s not about voting for what you care about but about voting against the person you see as the embodiment of evil, at least for the current election cycle. That is anything but a healthy system.

“I mean, look at these people,” continued the second man. “You talk of common power and choice, -and even if that is true- how many of these common people have carefully researched the issues or the candidates? How many of these people are going to go into those small curtained booths to press a button for the option that would make a true benefit for them? I would wager, very few of them. Elections are not about the issues, they become about the candidates. That is how demagogues and egotists and all manner of corrupt officials get the common people to vote against themselves. Holding elections doesn’t give the powerless a voice. It only ensures that the power-hungry have to be more charismatic than your average strongman despot.”

“Well, you would know a thing or two about that,” said the first man, “but what you fail to see is the potential of the system.”

“Potential for ruin…”

“Potential for change. Human lives are short, less than a 100 orbits of their planet. Elections allow for the relinquishment of old ideas and the coronation of new principals. Sure, they are not all going to be winners, but the system and the people are robust enough to absorb the good and the bad, and to learn from them. As you said, this one election will not change much on its own. Yet, on the whole there is an empowerment found in the election process. It forces a race of people to constantly think and reevaluate itself and its place on the planet. Mistakes and missteps can be just as powerful as the right decisions. Yes, it is a riskier road, but the power to vote means that humans are forced to be more independent and more proactive in their views and ideas.

“Look at these people,” continued the first man. “They aren’t waiting in line for food or material wealth or even momentary joys. They are waiting in line to cast a vote for an idea. That is more important than all the security and comforts that come from blind obedience to some emperor or theocratic dogma. Maybe they will vote with their passions instead of their heads, but there is something to be said for that too. It’s a physical act of hope that does give voice to the common person. So, you see that you are wrong, my brother. The call of democracy may be frustratingly slow to be heard, but it is there. Maybe it is anything but singular, but it is powerful. It is rarely the sound of a lone voice in a crowd, but instead a chorus of voices, some singing off key, and some signing different words, but in the end it becomes a song that can’t be ignored. It becomes a melody that changes the course of this people and the course of this planet.”

“Naïve as usual,” said the second. “You talk in metaphor and high minded rhetoric, while my arguments are based in the reality of this planet. Yet, to counter them you give me nothing but poetry about hopes and dreams. I judge your argument as invalid.”

“And I disagree. My argument could not be more valid, at least where humans are concerned. They are a people of hopes and dreams. They need them as much as they do food or oxygen, and I give you poetry because it contains wisdom. In fact, it was one of their poets that once said, A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. I think that sums up the human race very nicely.”

“Careful, brother. It almost sounds as if you care about these insects.”

“What can I say?” said the first man. “I am guilty of having a fondness for them.”

“You always did enjoy lost causes.” The second man smiled and disappeared in a flash of light.

“Maybe,” said the first man again watching the line of humans. “But we’ll see.”

“Get your behind in here.” I hold open the door and wait, like a polecat eyeing down its dinner. I make sure to leave no room for argument. “Now,” I say, and Gill finally gets the hint. He don’t look none too happy about it, but he marches into the backroom of Friday’s Bar all the same. We’re both drenched from the rain, but the only difference is that he’s dressed in some ridiculous getup, with black paint ringing his eyes and a cape of feathers. I think he looks more raccoon than bird, but there ain’t much using in telling him that.

“What the hell were you thinking, boy?” I turn on the lights and slam the door shut to keep the rain out, feeling like a drowned river rat, and none to happy for it either.

“I was being true to myself.” There was a summer’s heat to his voice. It had been the first thing he had said since I picked him up at the police station. “And I would have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for that star spangled bastard.” He slammed his fist down, powerfully, on the kitchen island.

“You had best watch your tone, boy.” I put a sharp finger in his chest and for a moment there was fear in his eye. He needs to learn a little fear if he’s going to go around dressed like a giant bird. “Patriot Missile could have skewered your innards from five-hundred paces. That red, white, and blue Robin Hood is the best damn shot from here to the Mississippi.”

“He humiliated me, and defeated my minions in combat.” Gill throws his cape back like he’s making some grand gesture of villainy, but the poor soaked fool just looks as awkward as a sow in a prom dress.

“The way I heard it from the boys in blue, he bought a pretzel and put it on his arrow. Then he went and shot it out into the harbor. Your little birdies followed it like a dinner bell.” My hands found my hips and I gave him my best stare. My shirt was wet and I was showing off more of my assets than I normally cared to, but for the moment I didn’t give a lick. If Gill wasn’t going to listen to JJ and stop all of his super-villain nonsense than I would just have to beat it out of him the good old fashioned way.

“Those cops. They thought it was all such a joke. They couldn’t even stop laughing long enough to take my fingerprints.” Normally Gill would be struck near dumb by the sight of me in a wet t-shirt, but something was different, tonight. He seemed to barely notice or even care, instead being all worked over his little escapade. “I’ll show them. I’ll show them all. Then I’ll be the one laughing.” Suddenly, it was my turn to lose my composure. His maniacal laughter was almost convincing, at least it would have been if he didn’t start hacking up a coughing fit about midway through.

“Sugah, you had best count your lucky stars the police found it so damn amusing. It’s the reason they released you into my custody and dropped the charges of villainous menacing in the 3rd degree. You could have found yourself in super-max for the next six months, and I promise you that the men in there wouldn’t find your little eagle costume as amusing.”

“It’s a seagull. I’m the Seaguller.” The boy started sneezing up a storm.

“Really?” I say. “Why didn’t you pick something more menacing… like maybe a hawk… or even a sparrow.”

“I am the Seaguller, master of all seagulls,” he said in-between sneezes. “Everyone will soon fear the name.”

“Well, if I was you, I had best start learning to fear me. Do you know what its like trying to find a sitter at three in the morning. You were just lucky Ms. Parsons across the way was able to watch Owen, so I could come down and bail your sorry hide out of jail.” The boy at least had the decency to look muddled about the whole damn thing, but I weren’t done with my anger. “And another thing, JJ, ain’t going to be none too happy, either, when he hears about all this foolery of yours. I can guarantee you that.”

“You don’t get it. JJ doesn’t get it. You’re both so old. You have no idea what its like to be me,” he railed.

“I’m not…” It was a silly old thing but suddenly I felt painfully aware that I was standing there looking drenched without a lick of makeup on. I caught sight of my own reflection in one of the steel cabinets, its scratched shiny finish showed every wrinkle and crease. My eyes had bags so big I could have used them to pick up groceries. “Gill, darling,” the fire gone from my voice. “We’re only worried about you, that’s all.”

“Well don’t. This is what I want. This is what I want to be.” His own fire had died and as he talked his shuffled his feat like my Little Buford Heck, the first kid I ever danced with. “I don’t care if you tell JJ. I… I don’t care if he fires me.”

I tipped his chin up till he was looking me in the eyes. “Sugah, you need to tell JJ.”

He swallows hard like a man facing the hangman. “He’s going to be real mad at me.”

“Gill, darling, I’m real mad at you. JJ, is going to be damn near furious, but that don’t change what you have to do. A real man takes responsibility for his actions.” I let go of his chin and leave him looking like my Owen when I tell he needs to eat his greens.

I notice my hands, they’re wrinkled from the rain and they’re a pain in my joints like a dull fire when I bend them. They’re the hands of an old woman, a sow past her prime. When did I get old? Where did all the time go? I look again at Gil and the boy seems so young. How long ago had it been since I was his age?

The boy lets out another hacking cough and my own aches are momentarily forgotten, I put my hand to his forehead only to discover he’s burning up worse than one of my Sunday pot roasts. “Sugah, you ain’t looking so good. I think we’d best get you home.”

I lead him out the door and back into the pounding rain of the night. “What about JJ?” he asks as I put my coat around him.

“You ain’t getting out of bed tomorrow, you hear? You’ll just have to face the music on Thursday. I’ll tell him you were feeling under the weather.” Before I hit the lights I give one last look at my reflection, and part of me wonders who the old woman is that’s staring back at me.

The rest of my night was not really what you might call restful. After all the commotion with Gill my sleep was hardly steady. So, come morning I weren’t in no mood for one of JJ’s moods.

“What do you mean under the weather?” says JJ leaning against the bar top looking as surly as ever.

“That boy was sicker than all tarnation. I told him to stay home.” I fumble with my apron strings, but with my fingers aching something awful I can barely get them knotted.

“I guess we’ll have to make do,” says JJ. “He’ll just have to clean out that ice machine next week.” Then, the man does something I rarely see him do, he hesitates. At last he picks up a rolled up newspaper and hands it to me, as if it were a coiled water snake. “Did you see the news?”

I snatch the paper from JJ’s paw, and unroll it carefully, unsure of what I will find. Maybe Gill’s little run-in with Patriot Missile made the headlines, but what I discover is not exactly what I was anticipating. “This ain’t me,” I hear myself say.

In big bold letters the paper reads, Southern Bedlam Strikes. So I keep reading, The villainess known as Southern Bedlam killed four men last night. Police linked the dead men to the Scorpio Drug Cartel, but authorities are not amused at the latest murder spree attributed to the famous assassin…

“You are looking more tired today, than usual. Late night?” There is no malice in his voice. Just feline curiosity.

“Owen was being fussy all night,” I lie. “JJ, this ain’t me, not no-more.” I slam the paper down and I notice that Friar Freeze and The Robber Ducky look up from their conversation. I give them a stare, like Lucifer himself, and suddenly they both find better things to busy themselves with. “I swear I put that life behind me a long time ago.”

“I know.” As crusty as my boss can sometimes be, he has a way of making even two words seem more precious than all the diamonds in the Carolinas. “It’s not you, but someone out there is using your old moniker, and I don’t want you going out there to do something stupid.”

“Stupid?” I say with enough fire to flash fry a catfish.

“Now, Georgia. You know what I mean. Running around like this is a young person’s game and you’re too…”

“Too what? I’m too what, JJ? Old?” I take a step toward him, the newspaper rolled dup in my hand.

“…too, smart for that,” he says holding his ground. “Everyone in this bar has or had a villainous handle, or a codename, or whatever. Some of us hate our names, and some of us were given them, but whatever the case it’s a very personal thing. It’s how we present ourselves to the world. If someone is out there using yours without permission… Well I know how that might drive someone to do something stu… unnecessary.” JJ eases himself off the countertop with a groan. “Just promise you won’t go out and try to find this person, whoever they are.”

As my boss limps away to talk with some customers down at the other end of the bar, I straighten my hair. In all the commotion some of it had come lose from the ponytail and a I smooth it back I can’t help but notice the gray strands that I come away with.

I did my best to go about my usual business, serving drinks but something seemed off. Usually, I found myself  dodging lecherous hands, claws, or whatever, but for some reason none of the usual trash even gave me a second glance. It was a Wednesday, one of our lighter days. After all, the Cerberus Super-Max don’t out-process prisoners till Thursday. Still, that’s not to say there wasn’t  enough death stares and death rays to keep a girl busy, but other than that no one seemed to take much notice of me. My afternoon I could not recall one inappropriate comment or one person’s hand I had to bust for trying to squeeze the eggs, if you know what I mean. This is not to say that I enjoyed those things, but they were always there, like fur on a dog. I suppose I had never considered the possibility that they wouldn’t be around one day.

By happy hour -half price drinks are always a problem- I was forced to remove my first client of the night.

“You had best get before I get angry.” I stare down Malus Maximus, his little helmet dented where my steel-toed high-heels connected with his head.

“How dare you speak to me in such a manner. I shall return with my legion at my back, and then…”He draws his little sword, but I’m faster. I usually am. I strike again, right square in his arrogant Roman eye.

“Darling I don’t care if you have one or one-thousand men, you hear? You ain’t got no right to call a lady that word, not in my presence. Now, if you ever want to come back to this here bar, you had best learn some manners, or did they not have those back where you came from?” I wipe my hands on my apron, if only to mask the ache in my joints. “I swear, you Italian men are all the same.”

Then I hear it, a low signing whistle and something inside me reacts, like a snake striking at a threat. My apron is still in my hands so I rip it clean off and use it like a rag to bat aside the incoming weapon. A five-pointed throwing star throwing star clatters to the pavement, sounding like a steel dinner plate hitting the floor. I have more time with the next two. I dodge to the side, while grabbing discarded weapon and throw it before I am even full on my feet. The weight feels good in my hand, the heft of old memories long left behind.

It flies, straight, like a hawk diving for a field mouse, but my shadowy opponent was ready. With one swift movement she goes and plucks it out of the air, as if it were nothing. Then she steps forward and it’s like looking in a mirror, well a mirror that is twenty years younger.

“Mighty impressive,” she says. It ain’t my old costume she’s wearing, but close enough all the same. Mine was all tight black leather and plunging neck lines, where as I can tell the girl before me is not quite as endowed as I was at her age, but no less striking. Her uniform is less revealing, a red leather jumpsuit closed up to her neck. Two dark blue bandoliers criss-cross her chest, each holding six or seven of them throwing stars. Black leather straps accent the costume, and holding a series of small weapons, daggers, darts, and even a stylized sai. She looks as dangerous as she does beautiful. A black balaclava masks her face, but her long red hair falls across both shoulders looking more like silk.

“Did you ever wonder why there are so many redheads in our line of work?” I say as I stand back up, feeling a bit too aware of the brown straw that is currently held back by a common rubber band at the back of my head.

Then I notice Malus Maximus. The Roman general sits transfixed by what he just witnessed, one hand still holding the swollen eye where I struck him. “Didn’t I tell you to get?” I say and that’s all the excuse the man needs. He disappears out the alleyway as if his very tunic were on fire.

“Well, don’t you just have a way with men?” says the girl as she walks toward me.

“It’s a gift, darling. I am sure you have had to drive off more than a few suitors in your day.” I make my voice all sugar and spice. “I mean look at you, aren’t you just pretty as a picture.”

“Oh, I could never be as stunning as you. I mean even at your age you have managed to keep your skin looking so pearly white.” She smiles under her mask. Even through the black cloth I can see that smug little mouth turning up at her words.

“Well, moisturizing is key, honey, but I’m sure you know that by now, what with all those health classes they give you in high school. You must have all the boys wanting to ask you to prom. I mean, being so flexible and all.” Then it was my turn to smile.

“Oh, I do alright, don’t you know, but I’m sure it was nothing compared to you back in the day, what with all your tremendous… advantages. Even now you still have such wonderful resources at your disposal. You’ll have to tell me what kind of elastic support you use, because it is doing wonders. It’s just a cruel fact of life that with age we all lose a bit of our perk.” I watch her hand reach into one of the pouches on her belt. For most, the gesture would have seemed as natural as a growing grass, but I haven’t lost as much of my step as she might think.

“Aren’t you just the sweetest little thing for noticing. Now, honey, whatever can I do for you? Maybe some tips on wardrobe?”

That signaled the end of the conversation. “I’m sure I’ll get along quite all right on my own,” she said and threw the smoke pellets hard to the pavement. A mighty cloud of thick grey smoke filled the alleyway like a Tennessee rain storm, but I was ready.

I tied my apron around my mouth to keep from choking even as I dodged two more throwing stars. I didn’t see them so much as hear them coming. Then she was on me. The girl was as light as she was fast, but strong too. That fancy sai stopped mere inches from my throat, before I could get her off me again. When I turned to find her, she was gone, like a ghost in swamp mist.

“I’ll admit it, darling, you got some skill,” I say to the smoke, “that don’t give you no right to be wearing that getup and calling yourself Southern Bedlam, though. That ain’t your name to use, you hear?”

I duck the roundhouse right before it connects, and I block the follow up punch that I knew was coming. “Why?” says the unseen voice of the storm. “It ain’t like you’re getting anymore use out of it? You’re out of the game, content to live your life kicking out bar flies and playing house. What right do you have to it, anymore, darling?”

I use the voice to track where she is. Speaking like that was a damn rookie mistake for an assassin. “You’re young so you don’t get it yet, but you can’t go around taking people’s identities unless you have permission. That’s just not how things are done.” I lunge like a bobcat, claws out, but what I find is nothing but more smoke and empty pavement. I realize my mistake, but too late.

Her first kick drives me to my knees. Thank the Lord she didn’t aim for the head and knock me senseless, another rookie mistake. So, I recover quick enough to catch her downward strike and I use that momentum to throw her to the ground, but she don’t stay down for long. In one swift spin she kicks out knocking me down as well. I’m usually faster, but not this time. Then she’s on me again, like yellow on corn, her sai back in hand.

“You betrayed everything you stood for,” said the girl. “It is my sworn duty to end your treachery once and for all.”

“Who in the name of all tarnation told you that load of horse manure?” I flip around and kick her off. When I find my feet again I notice that I’m bleeding like a leaky pale, but I ignore it. My lip is cracked and so are my nails, and one of those two things just makes me madder than all hell.

“Master Cletus,” says the girl and she throws two more stars from her bandolier.

I duck them and kick forward connecting with her chest, but she catches the follow up and this time uses my momentum to throw me against the brick wall of the nearby building. “I should have known that old coot was still alive.” The impact dislocates my shoulder, but I don’t scream out. If my old master was the one who taught her how to fight than I damn well know what to expect next.

So, I reverse her hold and kick again with my high heels. The girl’s knee crumples and she falls to the ground in a heap. It’s a move I learned on the streets not in some damn dojo. “You listen to me girl, that old man is crazier than a dog in heat. He’s still convinced that the South Will Rise Again. You had best forget him and quick, just like I did, because his one man war will only lead you to ruin, you hear?”

“You betrayed the cause.” The girl takes one of her knives and swings for my leg, but I was expecting that and her attack meets only my kick. I feel something give and the blade goes skittering away as the smoke begins to clear the alley.

“I never believed in Cletus’ war. The first moment I could, I left him flat on his behind and went solo. Take it from me, honey, there is a lot more money in freelance work than in dying for some long lost cause.” With the smoke clearing and the fight all but over I reach down and yank her balaclava away and then I stop.

“Annah?” I say as I look into the face of my own niece, Savannah Atlanta. “Your pa told me that you were in college. What the hell are you doing here, dressed like that, girl?”

“Pa, don’t know nothing about this.” At least the girl has the decency to look ashamed. “Master Cletus found me and trained me. I don’t belong in no fancy school. This is what I want to do. This is who I am. I wanted to be like you, Auntie Gee.”

“Oh, sugah, bless your little heart, but why would you want to be like me?”

“Your beautiful, your powerful and independent, and nobody tells you what to do.”

“Then why in the name of all that’s holy were you trying to kill me?”

“Master Cletus said it was my final test. I’m sorry. I really am.”

My anger dies like a sunflower in wintertime.” I pull myself up and sit myself down next to her. “Oh, don’t you fret about it. You ain’t the first person who ever wanted to kill me, but, honey this ain’t you.”

“Yes, it is,” she says crossing her arms. “Being Southern Bedlam is exciting. Nothing I learned in college ever taught me what I wanted to be. This is what I want, Auntie Gee. Can’t you understand that?

I see myself when I look into her eyes, an impressionable young thing who can’t stand to be tied down to nobody or nothing. It had been so long since I had been that girl, maybe I had forgot what it felt like. It was like being in love for the first time, but without none of the uncertainty or heartache. Villainy is like fire, it burns hot and bright, and it draws you in, but until you get properly burned by it, ain’t no one going to get you to listen to reason.

“Lord, help me,” I say and let out a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding. “Listen, honey, If you’re going to be Southern Bedlam, I got a few conditions.” I put my arm around my kin.

“You’re not going to tell pa, are you?” She looks up at me and I see a baby girl who I bounced on my knee when I was not much older than her, nor dressed that much differently.

“You’re going to tell him, but when you’re good and ready. Second, you’re done with Master Cletus. That old bigot can’t do anything to touch you, not no more, not as long as you’re living under my roof.” I stand up and help Annah to her feet.

“Your roof?”

“That’s my last condition. You’re going to come live with me and Owen, at least till you find your own place here in Titan City. I want you around so I can keep an eye on you. You’re still young and new to all this. Maybe I can give you a few pointers from time to time, and help you avoid some of the mistakes I did.”

“Oh, thank you, Auntie Gee. Thank you.” Then the girl lunges for me and I almost let my old instincts kick in but I stop myself. She wraps me in a great big hug and I wince a little as my dislocated arm pops back into place.

“Also,” I say when she lets go. “I’ve decided you can keep the name. It suits you.”

“Thanks,” she says as we limp toward the door of Friday’s together, “but I was thinking about what you said. You’re right, that name is yours. So, maybe something new. What do you think of Bedlam?”

“I like it.” I open the door. “C’mon, let’s get patched up, and I’ll introduce you to my boss. He’s a good man.” I hold the door open as Annah goes in ahead of me, but I stop when I hear running.

I turn and out of the last dregs of smoke comes Gill. He’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, his seagull costume nowhere in sight. “Miss Atlanta,” he calls. “Miss Atlanta, I’m feeling better, and I wanted to say thank you for bailing me out last night.”

“Gill, you’re welcome, and how many times do I have to tell you to call me Georgia?” I can hear the jukebox playing some mournful tune inside the bar.

“Sorry,” he says. “Also, I’m here to tell JJ, like you said. I didn’t want to wait till tomorrow. I want to get it over with. After he fires me I’ll clean out my stuff and you’ll never have to see me again.” Gill starts to walk into the bar, but I stop him.

“Wait,” I say and let go of the open door. “Now listen here, because I’m only going to say this once. I realized I have no right to tell you how you should live your life. If you want to go around dressed as a giant seagull… or whatever, well who am I to make you do otherwise, and who is JJ? I know I told you that you need to tell him about what happened, and as much as I still believe that, it should be your decision. I won’t tell him, I swear. This is between you and him, and between you and yourself.

“You need to figure out what makes you happy and understand that whatever path you choose will have consequences, but I can’t make that choice for you. And, that is all I have to say on the matter, except that whatever path you choose I promise I’ll be there for you, as best I can.” Without words the boy hugs me and for the second time in so many minutes I have to worry about my injuries.

“Thank you. Thank you,” says Gill before suddenly realizing what he were doing. He jumps back like a cat from a hot roof and looks as embarrassed as anyone could be. “Are you bleeding?”

“It’s a long tale,” but before I can say more the door behind me pops back open.

“Auntie Gee,” says Annah, coming back out into the alleyway. “Are you coming inside?”

At the sight of her, I did not think it possible, but Gill turns an even dark shade of red. His mouth opens and closes like a catfish caught on a fishing line, and I smile to myself. “Gill Laridae, this is my niece, Savannah Atlanta.”

“Hi,” he squeaks.

“Annah, this is Gill. He’s also trying to be a villain.” I whisper the last part in a conspiratorial tone and immediately my niece perks up at the sight of the boy.

“Really?” she says and takes him by the arm back into the bar. “What’s your name? What kind of fighting styles do you know?” “What…” I don’t hear the rest as the door swings close behind them. For the first time that day I smile like a mother fox and realize maybe there are some benefits to getting older. After all, we all can’t stay young forever.

Read all the stories about Friday’s Bar for Super-villains

“Look alive, squad. Contact, 30-k and closing, 9-low.” The voice brought Kyle Mason out of his own thoughts. The targeting computer on the HUD in his flight helmet immediately registered the enemy aircraft as they came into LR sensors range, appearing as red triangles against a green background.

“9 o’clock?” responded a disembodied voice from the other end of his earpiece. “Hell, I don’t get up before 11.”

“Cut the talk, two-two,” came the clipped British response. “Two-six, control your flight.”

“Aye, command,” said Mason.

“Assigning targets.”

Mason watched as a red circle flared to life around one of the small triangles on the heads up display. Simultaneously, a double red circle appeared on the main display of his helmet, outlining a firing corridor that led to his assigned hostile. Visually he could not see the craft, but he could tell where it was. He held down the confirm switch on his flight stick and double blinked his eyes on the radar target to set the lock. A satisfying deep baritone hum sang in his ear as the computer acknowledged the command. “Lima,” he called out.

The phrase was repeated ten more times across the board as the men and women in the formation around him found their own targets.

“Breach,” the single word floated to him through his headset as if spoken by some voice of his own imagining.

For a surreal moment the most distant part of his mind registered that the speaker of the word was not American. Too little emphasis was put on the “ea” sound. Mason had always been fascinated how by different people could look at even a single word and come up with so many ways of saying it.

The more active part of his mind only registered the command and the implied action. “Fox 3,” he called out as he slammed home the firing button on his stick. The cockpit below his feet rumbled as the launch doors opened. The delay between pressing the button and the rewarding ignition of the missile had always irked him. Realistically, he knew that his payload had to stay concealed below the airframe to maintain the craft’s stealth profile, but instinctually Mason had always wanted more of a one-to-one response, like how it was in the video games he grew up playing. Maybe that’s why pilots had come to jokingly to call the delay Server Lag.

The time between trigger and ignition was, in actuality, less than a second, and finally Mason heard the ALRAAM roar to life. The seeker streaked away trailing a brilliant blue jet of flame and joined a flock of its brethren as they emerged from the bellies of the craft around him.

Their targets, Dragon-24 Hōshō aircraft, didn’t stand a chance. They were more than ten years out of date and could barely be called Gen-7 fighters. Their sensors had no way of warning their pilots of the danger they were in until it was too late. Mason’s own craft, the MF-52 Archangel, was top of the line Gen-7 tech. It was never going to be a fair fight. You almost never saw a Ho in the air anymore, except in training simulations.

All eight hostiles scrambled. Their signals blurring momentarily on the HUD as the craft activated their SHIELD systems to try and fool the locks, but their pilots might as well have been warding off the missiles with fly swatters. Five craft vaporized under the salvo, one was clipped but maintained and two managed to evade. Mason’s own target was left as nothing but scrap and ash.

He wondered if the pilot had managed to eject. He always wondered that. Mason never thought of himself as a killer, but that was only because air combat was so impersonal. It was easy to blow up a piece of technology, it was hard to remember that there was a person inside it. He hoped that the pilot had managed to bail, he always did.

The three remaining enemies turned tail and lit out, one limping away on his only working engine.

“Lima,” said a voice in his head.

“Stand down,” Mason said. “Two-five, stand down.”

“I’m not going to just let them get away.” The voice was female and had a hard edge to it. He found no noticeable accent to her voice, most likely American. He could barely place her face, with only a vague memory of dark long hair drawn tightly into a pony-tail.

“Stand-down, two-five.” Mason put an edge to his own voice. He had been put in charge of Bravo Flight and he wasn’t about to let some pilot’s frantic ambition endanger the parameters of the mission. He knew the commander was listening. “You’re not cleared to fire.”

“Aye, sir.” The response was terse, spoken through gritted teeth. He could almost hear her thumb ease up off the firing switch.

He let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. The reprieve was brief.

The cockpit suddenly went wild. A screaming tone wailed inside his head, and the HUD flashed red. The main display began a quick succession of calculations that ended in a growing red dot at the edge of his peripheral. As he turned his head to track it, the cockpit around him seemed to disappear beneath his gaze. The digital overlays in his helmet transmitted directly from the Angel’s sensor skin, giving him an unobstructed view of the pearlescent sky and the small crimson pixel that was growing to become a discernible digital circle.

“I’m painted red!”

“Ghosts, bloody piss.”

“Missile lock. Missile lock. ”

“I’m red!”

The in-line channel was full of chatter as pilots around him started coming to the same conclusion he had. They were caught in an ambush, and time was running out.

The clipped British instructions of air command were lost among the chaos of the other ILC transmissions. The words came so fast that the calls began stepping on each other, like a frantic crowd of people clawing over one another to escape a fire, but there was no escape. So there was just panic.

“Scatter!” someone called, and Mason watched as the neat, orderly formation began to break up. Aircraft banked and dove, trying everything they could to shake their lock. It was every man for himself, every woman for herself. The terror was contagious and the more hysterical some of the pilots became the more the group as a whole began felt the effects.

Waves of electromagnetic energy washed over Mason’s instruments, momentarily darkening them, as one or two of his more panicked squadron mates began to prematurely activate their SHIELDs.

All the while the small circle of his own incoming seeker had grown to the size of a shirt button, 25 klicks and closing. Mason fought to keep his sense of fear in check, with the memory of a plan swimming up out of the murky depths of his mind. “Cease alarm.” The insistent blaring tone instantly died.

“Bravo flight on me,” he said switching from squadron channel to flight channel. He could do nothing for the full group, but calming three voices as opposed to eleven was a lot easier.

“On your six,” came the immediate and surprisingly calm American female voice.

“On your wing,” said another voice, with barely a hint of any accent. Mason had not recalled hearing it before.

“If we’re going to die, we might as well do it together,” said two-two, his distinct Aussie accent clear, even over the ILC. The last craft tucked itself almost effortlessly behind his right wing.

“We’re not going to die,” said Mason in a voice that radiated a calm he did not feel. His own hand was shaking so hard on the flight stick it was a surprise that his craft wasn’t swaying wildly back and forth.

20-k and closing fast, read his display and the circle was now the size of an egg. The details of the missile were just visible beneath the digital outline.

“Follow the leader,” called Mason and he swung his Angel around, pulling hard on the stick. For a moment the world was sideways, the growing red circle on his helmet swung toward the metal flooring of the cockpit. Slamming the stick forward he put his craft into a steep dive toward the deck, his fellow pilots only a few hundred meters behind him, the world was plummeting up to meet them.

He risked a quick glance at his sensor readouts. It showed all four missiles bearing down on them. They had crossed the 10 kilometer barrier. All around him the blue marks that had once represented the other members of his squadron were winking out of existence, their cries of help silenced one by one on the squadron-wide ILC frequency. With his tail to the chaos he could only imagine the sight of their fiery defeat.

He put the images from his mind. “Climb and SHIELD, only on my mark.” His voice was strained from the G’s pushing him back in his flight cushion. The inertial compensators were practically screaming, but he wasn’t done yet.

The forests of the Pacific Northwest filled the view of his windscreen, but a quick glance behind him showed that the red circle had grown to grapefruit proportions. It was less than 4-k and still coming. Mason waited only another second, daring not to hesitate any longer.

“Mark,” he screamed and pulled back hard. His vision blurred only slightly before his flight suit constricted, stemming the blood loss from his head. The warning lights flared to life again. The Angel’s onboard LAI smart computer was compensating his maneuver, easing the sudden jerking movement out over a softer arc to protect the integrity of the airframe, but even with the unwanted interference it was less than a second before blue sky once again replaced his view of the deep green forest.

He locked his eyeballs on a switch in the forward controls of the cockpit. The flight stick was still fighting him, he couldn’t risk moving his hands for even a second. Instead, he dub-blinked on the switch, watching as it lit up blue, as the computer acknowledge his selection. “SHIELD,” he said, and the node went from turquoise to emerald.

Over the rushing sound of wind and air friction against his cockpit he never heard the modified electromagnetic pulse activate, but he felt its effects as they rocked his plane and sent static across his instruments. A countdown timer appeared on the side of his helmet. Two minutes to recharge before the System to Hull Integrated Electromagnetic Lock Defense could be used again. That could be overridden, but a pilot ran the risk of frying his own circuitry along with any missile in a 700 meter area.

His electromagnetic burst was followed closely by three more as his flight mimicked his maneuver almost perfectly. The missiles, on the other hand, had a harder time. Even against less sophisticated ALRAAMs activating a craft’s SHIELD was no sure defense, but coupled with the hard maneuver and the force of gravity they were dead in the air.

The seekers were nearly on top of them when the EM wave disrupted their systems and fogged their SatNav guidance. Unfortunately an armed but targetless missile was a still an armed missile, and as the four long slender cylinders plummeted past Mason’s Angel two collided. The explosion fell away, but the shockwave rattled the airframe of his craft, to say nothing of the teeth in his head.

Not all his pilots were so lucky. At the tail end of the formation two-five screamed as the explosion engulfed her. “Fu… ” The line died.

Mason turned his head just in time to see the trailing Archangel lose altitude. It tumbled wildly, burnt and sheared. Blue flames poured from the now exposed engines. Then it was gone, blocked by cloud cover as the three remaining Angels ascended back toward the ceiling.

“She’s going to be spewing mad,” said his Aussie wingman.

“Keep your head in the clouds,” said Mason. “This isn’t over.” As if to illustrate his point the HUD picked up six new contacts closing on them fast. It was the ghosts. They had come into active SR sensors range, which only meant one thing, they’d depleted their long-range ALRAAMs and were coming in to finish off their prey.

Mason leveled off and took a quick assessment of the situation. They were the only three Angels still in the sky. The rest of the squadron was destroyed or had lit-out of the arena. They were facing two to one odds against craft they had not even known existed two minutes before. Running was out of the question. There was only one thing left to do.

His Angel roared as the afterburner kicked in, and even now a familiar thrill wrenched at his gut as the craft below him rocketed forward. “Break formation and engage.” He smiled despite himself. “Time for a little payback.”

The air cracked as his craft broke the mach-2 barrier and the gap between him and his two targets melted away. Mason could see the silhouettes of the approaching aircraft against the backdrop of the white-blue sky. They were Dragon-32 Haneul-nim fighters. He, like most of the Allied pilots, had only ever heard rumors of them. They were said to be the first Gen-8 fighters ever built. Not many who encountered them had ever lived long enough to tell anyone about what they saw.

With a flick of a switch he cycled to his four AIM-14L Sidewinder missiles. A tone began to beep with increasing rapidity till it became a hollow single long sound. Almost before he heard the noise his finger was depressing the firing button on his flight stick. “Fox 2.”

The blue tail of the missile was momentarily blinding as it sped away, locking onto the heat signature of the closest of his approaching targets. At the same time a new sound vied for his attention as the Dragons fired their own heaters.

Instinct took over and Mason pulled back hard on the flight stick. “Chaff,” he called out and the computer responded be releasing a trail of glowing hot metallic embers. The sparking superheated metals shavings fell away from his craft like a comet’s tail, existing for only the briefest moment in time. The first missile slammed home and exploded amidst the glowing field of red-hot debris. The shockwave rattled his craft and sent him spinning.

The cockpit rang with grunts and curses as he fought to regain control of his ballistic Angel, but even when the horizon returned to its proper orientation he wasn’t out of danger. The second heater came screaming in on him, only having been momentarily diverted by the death of its comrade.

Mason rolled his craft over, the missile passing within meters of his right wing. He watched it soar out for several full klicks before wheeling back for its next pass. He heeled his own craft back around and scanned the arena for the ghosts.

They weren’t hard to find. After easily avoiding his initial salvo the two wingmen had reformed and were streaking back toward, intent to catch him between a rocket and hard place. There was nowhere to run with the missile closing behind him and his enemy ahead, but running was never his plan.

The heater was back on him in seconds, 500-m, then 300-m, and then 100 meters away. Mason made sure to dub-blink the control switch before throwing his Angel into a wild barrel roll. “SHIELD,” he yelled and this time heard the hum of the electromagnetic turbines as they spun to life, making the hairs on his neck stand at attention.

It was called a Drescher Maneuver, named after some German pilot Mason could never remember. The heater shot past him, it’s guidance and electrical systems momentarily scrambled by the pulse. Most missiles had pretty sturdy shielding against even modern EM waves, and were programmed to reset to their default directive. For SatNav seekers that meant regaining a lock on the assigned target, but for heaters, which weren’t controlled by satellite guidance, that meant locking onto the first available heat source. In this case, that was the lead dragon.

“Fox 2,” for good measure Mason fired one of his own, and even as the enemy pilot dodged the re-aimed missile the second one took the Ghost almost completely unaware. The sky lit up with the explosion.

His HUD went red, as the Angel shook around him. The second dragon strafed right past him, its guns blazing a molten hot trail of cannon fire down his fuselage. His helmet display highlighted parts of the Angel that were damaged or inoperable, as the craft’s eternally placid female voice rattled off the critically damaged systems, including his SHIELD system, self-repair systems, and a worrisome coolant leak in his right engine. Without the coolant his hydrogen-shockwave fuel cells were going to start reaching critical temperatures, but only if he lived long enough for that to happen.

He threw his craft into a half-loop to get behind the second dragon, but the LAI screamed at him to stop. Thanks to the damage, the stress on the airframe was too great. The sheer force of air-friction was threatening to tear skin panels from his plane.

The dragon started a similar move and for a crazy moment the two craft looped around each other like a carnival fun ride.

“I need a little help here, mate,” said two-two. Mason’s HUD showed two dragons chasing down the Aussie’s already damaged Angel. Then, one of the chasing enemies exploded as two-one, the last remaining Angel, appeared on scene, even as he was being chased by two more dragons. To Mason’s naked eyes the event looked like nothing more than a distant flash in the sky, like a small firework exploding.

He stopped his loop and kicked in the afterburners heading for his wingmates. His own pursuing dragon seemed caught off-guard by the change in tactics and was slow in coming after him.

The computer chirped as Mason switched his firing back over from HeatSeek to SatNav and barely waited for the lock tone before letting loose his last ALRAAM at one of the two enemy craft trailing the fourth and most silent member of his squadron. Immediately the dragon peeled off to escape the incoming seeker.

He pulled a wide wheel and switched his missiles again back to HeatSeek. “Fox 2,” he fired a wild one at the second dragon still in pursuit of two-one. From his distance the missile was easily avoidable, but Mason hoped it would be enough to distract the pilot.

“Two-two, two-two,” he called over the ILC. “Light out of the arena. I’ll cover your six.”

“No worries, Tw…” Two-two exploded in a blue ball of flame and shrapnel.

“Shit,” cursed Mason as he finished his slow maneuver toward where the Aussie pilot had been moments before. The wide arc brought him directly behind the dragon that had been shadowing his now dead wingmate. He was so close he never bothered waiting for a lock signal. He dumb-fired his AIM-14L. Without the standard lock warning his target had no idea what was coming till the missile slammed into his engine and exploded. Flaming pieces plummeting after two-two, but despite the satisfaction of the kill it didn’t bring back the downed Aussie.

A familiar warning tone began blaring, signaling that Mason’s forgotten pursuer had finally caught up and unleashed another heater.

On the HUD he saw the last Angel begin to wheel around and come back toward him.

“Belay, two-one. Light out.”

The fighter kept coming.

“That’s an order, pilot. Get the hell out of here.” Mason, flicked his wrist forward and dove toward the Earth, releasing the last of his chaff. This time the shockwave of the missile explosion knocked something loose. The HUD highlighted his flight control systems, and the stick was sluggish in his hands.

“Acknowledged,” came the response from the remaining member of his flight. He watched as the Angel looped back around and headed out of sight. One of the dragons fell into pursuit, but Mason locked on and fired his last heater. It was enough to deter the dragon and within seconds two-one was beyond his sensors range.

The heat-level in his right engine was reaching critical. His onboard computer was doing all it could to bleed the engine compartment, opening vents and filtering in additional coolant, but the fuel-cell was beyond help.

“Recommend, engine one shut-down,” said the calm female voice in his head.

“Override, Betty” he responded, just as the cockpit warning started up again with not one but two incoming missiles.

Mason kicked the craft upward in the opposite direction of where two-one had disappeared. He wanted to get the dragons as far away from his wingmate as possible. The force of acceleration pushed him back into the flight couch, but the missiles and remaining dragons were still gaining.

The blue of the sky parted and faded to darker shades. Despite the fact that it was still midday, Mason opened his eyes and, for a moment, saw the stars against a dark cerulean field. Then, everything exploded.

He probably screamed though he couldn’t remember if he had. He instinctively braced himself as his vision went dark. He didn’t relax until the simulator cockpit began to rise around him and light from the outside world flooded into his small black cocoon. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the glare of the steel gray room and government issued LED ceiling lights of the training center.

He took off his helmet, slick with sweat, and let out a deep breath.

“G’day, mate,” said the voice of a figure standing over his open cockpit. The man reached in a hand and helped Mason from the simulator. “Xavier Given, but you can call me Bogan, all my mates do.”

“First Lieutenant Kyle Mason. Pleased to meet you.”

“What do you say to a pint?” said the sandy-haired Aussie with a wink.

Mason gave the man a weak smile as he steadied his shaking legs. “Yeah, I can use one.”

“Geez, you look like hell,” I  put out the cigarette I had been smoking on the nearby wall. The early morning sun was barely peeking through the alleyway, but its rays still managed to find the tangled mess of colorful rags and body armor. The man looked up at me, three distinct scars raked across his face. They’re old wounds, but no less shocking, much like his sadistic grin. I noticed he was sporting some fresh ones as well, a bruised eye, a few open cuts, and a welt the size of Ohio.

“Well, you of all people should know how it is, Joe. It’s going to be one of those days.” Happy Strife was his name, and the minute I unlocked the door to the bar he broke out in laughter. Tears welled up in his one blackened eye, but he didn’t seem to notice. I can only figure he had a late night run in with some costumed hero. I don’t ask. It ain’t none of my business, and it wouldn’t be the first time someone had gone a few bad rounds with a cape and been left with nowhere to go. So they come to me. They come to Friday’s.

When I switched on the lights to the bar the place went from pitch black to a comforting dingy. The old fluorescent lights hummed to life around me. One day I’m going to replace them with some of those new flashy LED’s, but for now they’re like me, past their prime but still kicking. The chairs were stacked on the tables, the floor was mopped, and the taps were all still washed from the previous night. So, I just stood there and took in my bar. It’s the only real private moment we ever get to share together, like an old married couple waking up in the morning, before the day begins.

I suppressed a groan as I walked to the bar top. My leg was bothering me bad so I leaned hard on the cane. Happy Strife followed me in, humming a nonsense tune as he found a table near the door. “First one’s on the house,” I said and I poured him a beer from the taps, but by the time I brought it over he was already passed out, head down on the table. “…one of those days,” I heard him mutter manically as I placed the drink next to him.

He was a mental patient who had an unhealthy obsession with knives, but I have to admit he was right about one thing. It was going to be one of those days. Same as it was every year.

I tried going about my normal routine, tapping a fresh keg, setting the glasses, and getting ready for the day, but I felt slow. I felt weighted down. So, when I couldn’t resist the urge anymore I finally reached into my breast pocket and found the old Polaroid. The smiling face that greeted me still makes my heart jump, even after all these years. A lively nest of red hair and two startling violet eyes stand out even through the stains and worn edges of the old photograph.

To My Guy Friday, XOXO, it read at the bottom. That was what she used to call me. God, I was so much younger back then, and so much… more.

Her name was Charlotte Magne, at least that was what they called her. I never knew if it was her real name or not and never thought to ask. She was a conqueror in every sense of the world, but also much… more. She was skilled in hand-to-hand combat, swordsmanship, and Two-Card Monty. She knew everything there was to know about tactics, philosophy, and old 1940’s black and white movies. She commanded armies of loyal warriors, but she hated sleeping with the covers on her. She wanted to rule the world, but when she was sad she liked brownies with chocolate ice cream. Word on the street always had it that she was some immortal or a Greek goddess or something, but I never paid much attention to that.

To me she wasn’t none of those things. She was just Charly, and I loved her. God knows why she ever gave me the time of day. We met during our stint together in the Atrocious Eight. It was the group’s fifth or sixth incarnation, I can never remember. I had been a member of the previous group, but she was new to the cause. Villain alliances never tend to last long and this one was no exception. Charly was not what you would call a “team player,” but our goals matched up for a time, so we all swallowed our pride and worked together.

We got off to a real rocky start, me and her. She even tried to kill me once or twice, but I still remember the first time I saw her. Her hair, those piercing eyes, and a uniform that hugged every curve, modest but intoxicating. She didn’t dress in those low cut numbers that other villainesses favored. No, she was real classy. Her elite guards batted me aside like I was nothing, but even if they hadn’t hit me, I still would have hit the floor at the sight of her. I had it bad.

The Eight used to meet in this old pizza parlor on Gorgon and 9th. It had belonged to The Pizza-Man, before he lost his mind and started committing pizza themed murders. He was dead by that time, so we figured he wouldn’t mind if we crashed there. It wasn’t exactly a luxury condo, but you couldn’t beat the food. So one night I stole a bottle of wine from a nearby liquor store and invited Charly up to the roof with the promise of pepperoni and pineapple. I knew it was her favorite. We spent the time drinking and talking about movies till the sun came up. That was when I met the real her.

To others she was tough and hard, but never with me, not after that night. She had fears and doubts and hopes, but she was also more alive than anyone I had ever met before. She saw the world with a clarity I could never match. I still don’t get why she loved me back. I was just some moron dressed like a day planner, but when she inevitably betrayed the Atrocious Eight, she didn’t betray me. We both watched from the back of her escaping speed boat as the rest of our group was hauled off by the cops, while we stood there safe, our hands entwined and her violet eyes staring up at me.

Yet, nothing lasts forever. There always comes a day when everything ends, and the downside of being a former calendar-themed super-villain is that I never forget an anniversary, even when sometimes I rather wish I had.

We had taken over the Asteria Observatory. Charly had a scheme to use this force field generator to make a dome over Titan City. She figured after that it would be a simple matter for her army to overwhelm the TCPD and take over the joint. We needed the lens from the observatory’s telescope to help focus the generator, and since the dome was also going to block out the sun she even arranged so that we committed the crime on a Sunday, because she knew it was important to me. Then, everything went sideways.

When it happened, our henchmen were busy securing the place and setting up the device. I saw the smoke before I saw the flames. The force field generator had malfunctioned somehow, and when I came rushing into the telescope room, I found Charly and her personal guards doing battle with Shining Templar. I’m still not sure how that medieval moron even found us. I did what I could to help, but Templar was always a bit out of my league. Then the generator exploded and my world just went black.

I woke up a few seconds later. I was outside the main room and the entire place was engulfed in flames. I had assumed the blast had knocked me backwards through the doorway, but when I looked up Shining Templar was standing over me. He had saved my life, but I couldn’t find Charly. I screamed something, I don’t remember what. It could have been her name or it could have been complete nonsense. I do know that I went charging back toward the heart of the inferno with some fool rescue plan in mind, or least I tried.

Templar stopped me, his massive gauntlet held me back like I was nothing, but I wasn’t about to be stopped. On instinct, I grabbed a sharp piece of debris and drove it into the soft part under his armor, something Charly had taught me. He yelled in pain and let go. I turned to run but then I screamed again, this time in pain. I looked down and my leg was bent in the wrong direction with his massive armored foot pressing down on it. My bones must have been near shattered, and before I passed out the last thing I remember seeing was a burnt body. It was clutching Charly’s favorite sword in its right hand.

Twenty-eight years to the day… I ran my thumb over the cheek of the photograph and felt the worn away groove, smooth beneath my calloused hand. I knew that if I tried hard enough I might be able to feel her warm cheek again. I might be able to picture her blush at the touch and smell her in my nostrils. To My Guy Friday. XOXO.

The door to the bar opened and I turned away from it. I wasn’t crying or anything, but I was never keen to have Georgia or Edward see me when I get like that.

“Excuse me, sir.” The voice made me stop. It didn’t belong to one of my employees or even one of my customers. It was like pineapple and wine and it made me freeze where I stood.

“Excuse me, are you Mr. Friday?”

Finally, I turned back, putting the picture in my pocket. Happy Strife was still passed out on his table and there was no one else in the bar but a small woman, wrapped in a modest cardigan jacket. A messenger bag was slung over her shoulder, sporting patches from music bands I had never heard of before. The girl had a piercing through her nose and several in each ear, and her hair was short, straight, and platinum blonde, not long, curly, or red at all. Her eyes were blue, not violet, but everything else was the same. Everything else made my heart jump, and I couldn’t speak.

She smiled almost like she recognized me, but it flattened as if she was unsure about something. “You are Mr. Friday, aren’t you?”

“Charly?” I said when I found my voice again.

She shook her head. It was a slight movement, confident but not brusque. It was familiar and very foreign all at once. “Helen. My name is Helen, Mr. Friday.”

“JJ,” I said, and the moment had passed. I was starting to remember where I was. Of course it wasn’t Charly. The girl was too young, maybe even as young as Charly had been when she… the night of the fire. “What do you want?”

She seemed hurt by my words. I hadn’t meant to sound harsh, but there it was. At least she shook it off well enough. “Charlotte Troy… ehh… Magne. She was my mother.”

“Your… No, sorry kid. I don’t buy that. She died. I saw it.”

“She told me once that leaving you was the hardest thing she ever had to do. After the fire she thought it would just be easier for everyone if they believed her dead. I think she just wanted a fresh start.”

“No. She died. I know she did.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Friday. She didn’t.”

“No,” I slammed my hand hard on the bar. It came away pounding, even Happy Strife muttered something before going back to sleep. “She died.”

The girl just stood there, as if not knowing what else to say, but her look said enough. This Helen, was not lying, at least not as far as I could tell. I wanted to rail against her, but something in her look took the wind from my gut. “I went to prison for her…”

“She knew that too, and she was always real sorry about it. It was probably the thing she regretted the most. It was never her plan to leave you in there. More than once she thought about getting you out, but I guess after a while there were other things to worry about.”

My hand was still throbbing, but it was more than the pain that made me regret my outburst. My world felt like it was spinning. “You? She had a baby… Wait, am I?”

“No,” said the girl. “You’re not my father. That’s not what this is about.”

“What is it about?”

“Making amends. My mother wanted to apologize.” She was twisting her hand on her shoulder bag. It was the same sort of nervous habit as Charly.

“Then she can damn well do it herself.” I started wiping down a nearby glass, even though it was still clean.

“She’s gone… About two months ago, now.” Here eyes followed me. They seemed as clear as her mother’s even if they were the wrong color.

“She’s been alive this whole time?”

“I’m sorry.”

“It ain’t your fault, kid. None of us get a choice of who we’re born to. My old man used to slap me around depending on what day of the week it was, and now it turns out your mother was just as no-good.”

“My mother was a great woman.” Now it was her turn to get mad. She spread her stance and dropped her arms, just like Charly used to do, like she was preparing for a fight.

“You’re mother was a super-villain. She wanted to take over the world and hurt plenty of people to do it.”

“I know what my mother was.”

“There are more ways to hurt people than with swords and explosives, kid. She was also a coward. She ran from her life when she couldn’t bear it anymore. She ran from her responsibilities, the people who depended on her, and the people who loved her. She thought it better to pretend to be dead than to face them, than to face me. I would call that being no-good.”

The girl, Helen, dropped her hands and clutched her bag again. The anger died, fading away like a rainstorm in the summer, just like her mother. “You’re right. I can’t defend those actions. She should have told you the truth.” She turned to leave. “I’m sorry. It was a mistake to come.”

“Wait.” I made my voice soft, maybe for the first time since the conversation began. “Was she happy?”

Helen was almost to the door, but she turned back around. “She was. She moved to Florida… Sun City. She changed her name and got a real estate license. She had a happy life, but I think she always felt as if she was missing something. Like she had unfinished business.” The girl let out a breath, composing herself. She reached into her bag and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “I need to…”

“Don’t move, my tasty doll,” said Happy Strife with a cackle. He moved faster than I thought he could. Maybe I hadn’t really noticed. Maybe I had been too distracted, but suddenly he was behind her. The bells on his costume jingled as he grabbed Helen tighter, the knife in his hand cutting a clean red mark down her cheek. “Sweet sweet blood, like finger paint on my new little dolly.”

“Don’t you touch her.” I moved faster than I had in a long time, brandishing my cane like a weapon as I raced out from behind the bar. I was too slow.

The table shook hard and shuttered under the weight as Happy Strife slammed down into it. I couldn’t be sure if the cracking I heard was the wood or a few of the bones in the maniac’s nose. He laughed in surprise and pain as Helen stood over him, a cold steel look in her eye. One of Strife’s arms was twisted behind him, possibly broken. “The dolly has a kung-fu grip,” he spat out blood and a tooth as he spoke. I made a note that I would have to have Gill wash down the table.

The knife clattered away. He tried reaching for it with his non-broken hand, but again the girl was faster. Like a trained warrior she effortlessly scooped it up and plunged it hard into the laughing man’s hand. This time his mad chuckle seemed to have more pain than glee in it. The knife dug deep into the wood, pinning him to the table. “…one of those days,” he mumbled madly before passing out.

“You have your mother’s reflexes,” I said.

“How dare he touch me.” There was still blood on her cheek from where Strife had cut her.

“Let me see that,” I said as I turned her head toward me. We were closer than I meant to get and the girl just seemed to freeze under my touch. I took my thumb and gently wiped away the blood to get a better look, but the wound was small, smaller than it should have been. Even as I watched, the shallow cut finished healing, the skin coming together like new. There wasn’t even a scar.

“How did you…” I looked down at the blood on my thumb and froze. There was something else there too. I held it up close under the flickering florescent lights so I could examine it. It was a contact lens, a blue-colored contact lens. Then, it was my turn to freeze.

She looked at me like a someone might look at an approaching train. It wasn’t fear, just shock and maybe even a bit of embarrassment. All I really saw were her eyes, wide and watery. Her left was blue and her right was now a piercing violet, like the eyes I sometimes see in my dreams.

“Charly?” I barely spoke it, barely dared to let it be heard.

That single word was enough to break whatever spell had come over her. It was enough to bring her to herself. In one swift motion she pulled out of my grip and was gone. The front door swinging slowly open, the morning light engulfing her face as she backed out the bar.

“Wait,” I started after her, but I didn’t get two steps before my damn cane broke in half and I found myself on the floor. By the time I looked back up the light was gone. The door swung shut and I was alone.

There was a folded piece of paper nearby and I grabbed it before hauling my ass back to my feet. I opened it up carefully, like one might open a coffin. There was a picture inside, not a ratty old Polaroid but a proper glossy. It showed me and Charly on the beach. I remembered the day. We had gone to meet one of her agents, but we took a few hours to enjoy the sun and the sand. It had been one of those rare moments of normalcy for both of us. Then I turned to the paper itself.

To My Guy Friday,

I don’t even know if I can send this letter. I have sat down to write it so many times. What is there really left to say between us? Maybe, I love you. I never said that very often when I had the chance. Now that I’m gone it’s all I can think to say, but I know you, Friday. You want more, and right now you’re angry and confused, and you want to stay angry and confused. That will pass. It always did with you.

I’m not dead, obviously, but I am gone. There are things about me you will never know, things you never asked about. I was always grateful for that. More than your love I knew I had your respect and that meant something. I think you always wondered why I loved you in return, and I think because you always wondered was why I loved you. I want to say thank you. I felt something for you that I had not felt for anyone in a very long time, and maybe that’s why I had to leave.

Friday, don’t hold onto the anger. You love remembering anniversaries, but grant me one request. Don’t hold on to the day it all ended. I included a picture with this letter. It’s of that day we spent in Morocco. It was a perfect day, and if you need to hold onto an anniversary, hold onto that day. I do.

Charly XOXO

I turned the picture over in my hand. There was a date written on the back in pen with a circle around it. I could almost see her hand making the marks, writing the numbers with care.

The front door swung open and I looked up expectantly, but it wasn’t her.

“Lord in tarnation, JJ. What in the name of Hell’s boondocks happened here?” My table waitress motioned to the bleeding and unconscious Happy Strife.

I folded the letter up and tucked the new glossy and the old Polaroid inside of it. Then I gently put it all back in my breast pocket. I turned and hobbled toward the bar, leaving my broken cane where it lay. “You know how it is, Georgia. It’s just another day.”

Read all the stories about Friday’s Bar for Super-villains

The backdoor latches with a heavy click, reinforced steel with a tritium lining, triple locked, durable enough to hold off any villain or hero who might try getting in. My breath comes in gasps but I don’t care. I feel alive, maybe for the first time in my life. Mom and dad never understood, neither did my teachers or even the professors I now have at the college. When I came out to the city my parents said I would find friends, people like me, and that I would find my place in the world. It was probably the only thing they had ever been right about in my entire life.

I move to wipe the sweat from my face only to discover that the mask is still there. Quickly I rip it off before anyone can see. It is a crude black and white thing with wingtips on either side, but it’s only a start. When I get more money, I’ll be able to afford something better, something sexier. Maybe leather or Kevlar, maybe I’ll even try it without a mask. Yeah, I could paint my face and style my hair, white with black tips. I fumble for the small notepad I keep in my pocket so I can jot down the idea for alterations. How amazing would that look?

A tapping makes me jump, but I realize I am alone in the back room of Friday’s Bar. I move quickly to the window, or what used to be the window. Now it is just a large metal slat with double locks. I quickly undo them and slide it up to find my friend, Icarus.

The small black and white seagull is jerking his head back and forth, looking as paranoid as I suddenly feel. When he sees me he perks up, happy to see his master. I raised the bird and his brothers and sisters from eggs. I have been teaching them how to follow orders and now they are almost ready. I am almost ready. I can taste the anticipation, the bitter sweetness of power.

Soon Gill Laridae will only be a name on paper and the people of Titan City will come to know me and fear me by my true name, The Seaguller. My winged minions will spread across the city like a cancer, doing my bidding and enacting revenge against those who ever laughed or ridiculed me.

Icarus squawks as he drops a ring of keys on the windowsill. They land with a metallic clunk and I snatch them up to examine my latest prize. They look to belong to a luxury sedan, complete with one of those new electronic sensors. Idly, I again picture the poor idiot who was stupid enough to leave the keys to his expensive car just lying around. He put them down on the park bench, just for a moment as he readjusted his latte, just long enough for an unnoticed angel of villainy to come swooping down to snatch them up.

No one ever notices seagulls. They are everywhere, especially near the wharf district. Most people think they are a nuisance, flying pests with wings, but that is where they are mistaken. For it is the unseen, the unnoticed, and the ridiculed, who often have the last laugh. Seagulls are scavengers and survivors. They adapted when stronger birds of prey failed to do so and now their numbers are plentiful, while the eagle and the hawk are endangered. Yes, ignore them at your peril, Titan City, for your doom will one day come from the sky, and that day is drawing near.

“Gill, is that you, sugah?” I hear Georgia’s voice come from the other side of the swinging door. I stuff the mask, notepad and keys into my jacket, and before she comes through I shoo away Icarus, slamming the window shut behind my loyal minion. When she finally walks in all she finds is me taking off my jacket to replace it with the old and soiled apron that I have come to both love and loathe.

“I thought that was you, honey, what is all the racket going on back here?” Georgia Atlanta is as beautiful in a ratty old concert t-shirt and jeans as she ever was in the assassin’s leather she had worn in younger days. Her hair, tied up in haste, is spilling out of the rubber band she used to secure it. Her eyes are a deep blue, like the nighttime sky. I just want to sit underneath them and gaze up for the rest of my life.

“I was just… just trying to find my…” I reach for a nearby tray and drop it with an obnoxious bang. I hate being such a klutz, especially in front of her. I don’t know if I should reach down to grab it or stand there coolly as if nothing happened, so instead I freeze in a half crouching posture that just makes it look I’m waiting for a proctology exam. Stupid, Gill.

Georgia just laughs, like the light tingling of a bell in summer. The sound makes me want to laugh and hide my head all at the same time. “It’s alright, sugah. I’ll tell JJ you’re here. You just come on out when you’re nice and ready.” The door swings shut behind her and I realize my pulse is racing, even faster than it had in the park that morning. Again, I relive the moment as I sat perched above my unsuspecting victim, like a god staring down at an ant. I wish Georgia could have seen me then, I was powerful and unafraid.

I couldn’t tell her though. Maybe I never could. There was too much risk of JJ finding out, and that would ruin everything. I admire JJ, I really do, but he has grown soft in his old age. He forgot what it means to be a true villain, to be a super-villain.

The backroom of Friday’s Bar is an old kitchen. Whatever had existed before JJ bought the place used to serve food along with their drinks, but whenever anyone suggested reopening it JJ only grumbled that he was, too old to learn how to cook and there was no reason to ruin a good drink with rotten food. That was his philosophy on most things, if it ain’t broke then he saw no reason to try and fix it.

He was so stuck in his ways he could never see the potential in anything. Sometimes I wonder how he ever became a villain in the first place. At least this time his stubbornness suites my purposes.

I pull open the door to the old walk in freezer to find the box, labeled “Fresh Tomatoes,” buried under all the rest. Underneath that old corrugated lid is my own special place. First, I pull out my scrapbook, a rust color leather bound keepsake. My grandmother had given it to me many years ago thinking I would use it for card collecting or whatever it is old people expect young people to do. I found a use for it, just not the one my Nana ever expected.

Newspaper clippings and a smattering of old and new photos line every page, “Doctor Mentor Escapes From Authorities;” “The Atomic Clock Holds City in Grip of Panic;” “Mandroid Terrorizes Mayoral Elections;” “The Crimson Shark Raises Ancient Creature: Shipping Drop by 5%;” along with a hundred other keepsakes. I can’t help but rifle through the pages, my fingers knowing the way instinctively, until I find the old picture of Joe Friday. The black and white shot shows a young JJ defiantly being led away by police. Next to it is a picture of an old wanted poster for Southern Bedlam, “Wanted for questioning by the US Government on charges of treason, murder, counterfeiting, and identity theft.” Her face is younger and sterner, but no prettier than the one I see almost everyday.

Reluctantly, I close the worn cover of the book and set it aside. I quickly glance at my phone and curse my idiocy. I am late for the start of my shift. I toss the stolen car keys in a pile with a dozen or so others that I have acquired over the last few weeks and close the lid. I shut the freezer door with a thud, sealing the small space with all my prized possessions inside.

Within minutes I am out in the bar, refilling the ice, restocking beer bottles, and cleaning the tap lines. It isn’t exactly a glamorous job, but there are perks. I get to work with living legends, men and women I have admired since the first time I watched a live a standoff on the news. I can still remember it.

Sitting in the living room with my parents, it was close to my bed time. I begged my mother to let me stay up and for once she relented. It was on every news channel. The Scarlet Flacon was standing toe to toe with Holocaust, the baddest of the bad versus the strongest hero alive, in the heart of Paradigm City. News cameras and helicopters were everywhere. They caught every blow, and every hamfisted line Scarlet Falcon could spew. My parents ate it up, cheering for the moron in the red and white cape. I, on the other hand, could not tear my gaze away from his nemesis.

Holocaust was a creature of living and breathing eternal hellfire. Dark flames spewing from gleaming obsidian armor. Where Scarlet Falcon wore a ragged and limp piece of cloth on his back, Holocaust’s wore a mantle of pure death, a cloak so black it sucked in all light around it. As long as I live I will never forget that cape or its owner. He radiated power, and when he spoke in his deep and rumbling voice, the very foundations of the buildings shook around him. People cowered in fear from his burning gaze, and no one doubted him or pushed him around, even Scarlet Falcon, not for a moment.

That was when I knew what I wanted. That was when I knew what I was, what I wanted to be. Of course, Scarlet Falcon won in the end, but even in defeat Holocaust was still the better of the two. Losing did nothing to diminish his power or the respect that people showed him. Even as they struggled to arrest the barely conscious super-villain the police gave him a wide berth, showing deference  to his power.

“You, niño.” The voice makes me stop what I am doing, a full garbage bag forgotten in its pail as I turn a half circle. The bar is dead except for a few regulars, Quiz Master, Mayday Mayhem, and the Green Beret are sitting at the far end of the bar. None of them even look in my direction. No, the voice comes from someone a lot closer.

A man dressed in unmistakable reds and blacks is staring at me with intense eyes behind a dark mask. His hair is greased back, as sharp as his Latin smile.

“El CaMeano,” I say with more awe and reverence than I meant to show. I approach his table and his eyes follow me.

“What is your name, niño?” He looks as if he is staring through me, seeing something that no one else can see.

“Gill,” I say after I get past the lump in my throat.

“No, niño.” He shakes his head like a knowing father. “What is your true nombre? Your true name?”

I look around afraid of who might be watching. Georgia is talking with the Liger, while JJ and Ed are no where to be seen. Still, I hesitate.

“Niño,” says El CaMeano, drawing my attention back to the older gentleman. “You know who I am. You know my powers.” It is not a question. It never is for a mind-reader like El CaMeano. “Your name?”

“The Seaguller.” I say it soft and quickly, ashamed at myself for being ashamed of saying it.

“Again. Louder, and with pride.”

“I am… I am the Seaguller,” I say and something changes inside of me. I can feel it, and it is like something I never felt before. Something true and real. Once again, I am perched on high, gazing down at my prey on his park bench. If he knew I was there, he would cower at the thought. I could pluck his life, his happiness, like a fish from the sea, but I hold back. I restrain myself, because it is not his life I need only his respect, his fear. All those who oppose me will rue the day they ever crossed my gaze.

“It is confidence, Hombre de Las Gaviotas. Wear your name proud, no matter what else anyone may think.” He inclines his head toward the bar just as JJ hobbles from the back room. He has a box in his hands, labeled “Fresh Tomatoes.” I recognize it instantly and curse under my own breath. I had been in such a rush that I forgot to hide the box back under the stack.

I know I should have left my keepsakes in my dorm room at the college, but my roommate, Jeremy, was always snooping around looking for snacks or weed or whatever. Also campus security has been watching me like hawk ever since I almost burned down the engineering building. Apparently, the college frowns on building death rays for your senior seminar project.

“Gill,” JJ’s voice leaves no room for doubt about what he found inside the old walk-in freezer. “What is this?” Everyone in the bar stops and watches. I want to slink off, bury my head in my pillow, but I don’t. The only eyes I really feel on me are those of El CaMeano, so I raise my shoulders and walk toward JJ, his mustache ruffled in the way it gets when he is angry at a customer.

“Fresh tomatoes?” I offer, but only Quiz Master laughs at the joke. JJ is not in the mood.

“This,” JJ holds up the red leather scrapbook.

“It’s mine. It’s personal.”

“It’s garbage.” He yells and before I can stop him he throws it into the trashcan I had been moments away from emptying. “You know how I feel about this obsession of yours.”

“Who cares what…” I say it softly, trailing off at the end. JJ has this way of making me nervous like no one else I know.

“What did you say?”

“I said, who cares what you think. You’re not my father.”

“If I was I would rap you upside the head to try and knock some damn sense in you, boy.” For a moment he looks like he might just hit me but then the look passes and he relaxes his hand. “What am I going to do with you?”

“How about leave me alone.” I start to walk off, but he slams his hand down hard on the bar with a metallic thud. Stolen car keys scatter across the polished wood like water down the back of a seabird.

“And how do you explain these?” This time I am almost certain he will hit me. His normally placid face is turning red and his lip is starting to twitch.

“What is this? What are these/You little piss, you stole my keys.” Quiz Master is up from his bar stool and scoops up a set of keys with a small purple keychain in the shape of a question mark. “I looked for a week, I looked low and high/You damn little geek, so now you die.” He raises his quiz staff, the weapon expanding in his hand, but JJ is quicker.

Quiz Master goes flying off his feet as JJ’s fist connects with his face. The man stumbles over his stool and crashes unceremoniously to the ground. His cheap sports coat opens up and a few puzzle games scatter over the dirty barroom floor. He never gets a chance to get back up, because Georgia is there now, and Quiz Master quickly finds himself in a vice grip of a head lock.

“You have your keys back, Quizzy,” says JJ. “So as a responsible bartender I have to tell you that you shouldn’t be drinking and driving, but right now you better get the hell out of this bar.”

Georgia finally lets go of Quiz Master, and the man breaks away with a harrumph. “I will not be treated this way, not by you/I will bid you good day, and adieu.” Ed holds open the front door and Quiz Master marches right by, as if he didn’t even notice him.

Suddenly, everyone else in the bar has something better to do. Each goes back to sipping their drinks or looking anywhere else but at JJ. Unfortunately, I do not have that option. Now the old man’s gaze locks firmly on me, and I try not to panic.

“JJ… I… I…” Any confidence I had before is now gone.

“How many times, do I have to tell you. This is going to get you killed.” His voice is surprisingly gentle. “Gill, you can’t see where this road leads, but I do.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out my makeshift black and white mask. “I found this in you jacket.”

“You went snooping?”

“Its a good thing I did. How long has this been going on?” His fist tightens around the cloth mask as if he is trying to strangle the life out of it with his powerful hands.

I don’t know what to say. So I just stand in silence, lost somewhere between shame, anger, and fear.

“Tell me.” The heat is starting to return to his voice.

“A couple weeks.”

“A couple weeks! You have been working under my roof and moonlighting as a costumed villain on the side?”

“It’s only the mask. I only have a mask.”

“Boy, don’t you know that’s all it takes to get shot or vaporized.” He takes a visible breath before continuing. “Gill, you’re in college for heaven’s sake. You’re going to graduate next year with a degree in engineering. Your life is on the right path. Why the hell do you want to go and throw it away now?”

“What if that’s not the path for me? What if I was meant to do something more, be something more?” I don’t know how to make him understand. I don’t even know why I try so hard in the first place.

“Like what, Gill? Something more, like what?”

“Like Holocaust, or even Quiz Master, or like you…”

“Damnit, boy. Holocaust is dead. Quiz Master is a two-but loser with an inconsistent rhyme scheme, and I’m… I’m not someone you should ever try to be like. What is it going to take to get that through your thick skull.” He taps my head with his meaty finger.

“Are you going to fire me?”

“I should. I should call the police and have you arrested. Maybe that will put the fear of God or Eternal Vigilance in you.”

“You… you aren’t really going to do that, are you?” I feel weak in the knees. I can’t go to prison. My parents would kill me. My seagulls would die without me there to feed them. I would get kicked out of school. My villainous plans would unravel before they even began…

“No,” he says after a moment. I must have gone pale because he reaches over to the faucet and pours me a glass of water. “No, I’m not going to do that. You just stole some car keys. It’s not like you even stole the cars. By the way, what the hell kind of plot is that?”

“I don’t know what to do with a stolen car.” I say after finishing my water.

“That’s because your a good kid at heart. I know it. You just need to realize that too,” JJ steps back and I feel as if I can breathe again, “but there needs to be consequences to this. I’m docking your pay for the day and I’m suspending you from work for the rest of the week.”

“The rest of… of the week?” I stutter. “But I like working here.”

“I know, but I think you need a break from this place, from everything. Go home, Gill.” JJ hobbles around the bar and picks up Quiz Master’s fallen stool. “We can get along without you for a few days.”

“But where do I go? What do I do?”

“Go to the library. Go study. Use your damn brains for something other than scheming.

I don’t know what else to do. Georgia is watching me. I can’t read her expression but in her eyes I see pity. She pities me and that make me more angry than anything else. How dare she pity me. I am the… Maybe I am just Gill Laridae, college student. All I want to do is go back to my room and sleep for days. Hopefully Jeremy is not high again.

It takes a few moments to gather up my coat, but soon enough I am once again in the slanting sunlight of an autumn day in Titan City. I get to the end of the alley and let my back slide down the nearest wall. I always promise myself I won’t cry, but a few tears still leak out, and it is through my wet and watery gaze that I see him.

Icarus is sitting perched on a nearby dumpster, cooing to me. Reluctantly, I get up and walk over to my friend, and beside him I find my scrapbook. “How did you…? What did you…?” I ask the bird as if I expect him to answer me.

I run my fingers across the rough leather cover. It is still wet from discarded beer and peanut shells are stuck to one corner. I brush them off and open the book. On the first page there is a note written in a stylish handscript. The ends of each word flare off like fire burning toward the night sky.

“We all have días malos, every now and then. Never forget your true name, Hombre de Las Gaviotas. Never forget.” It was not signed, but it was obvious who the note was from. He must’ve fished the scrapbook from the trash when no one was looking.

I looked down at Icarus and smile. “Come on, we need to go shopping.”

The bird squawks a question at me. “I’m not sure, maybe leather this time, and how do you feel about capes?”

Read all the stories about Friday’s Bar for Super-villains

Carl Jung once said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” I don’t know how true that is, chemistry is not my strongest field of expertise, but for me it started simply, as such things commonly do. It was a chance meeting, but mine was not on a bus or in line at the grocery store. No, my chance meeting was in the laboratory as I experimented on the nature of vibrational harmonics of strings across quantum dimensions. You know the usual sort of thing, at least for a theoretical physicist.

You have to understand, my work never allowed me time for a personal life. I never much minded the lonely dinners or the empty beds. My work was all that mattered. It was important, you see. I was working on a way to test the very fabric of reality itself. I had the potential to prove the existence of a quantum multiverse, a theory even Einstein only ever guessed at. The university was more skeptical, of course. They always are, and every year I found myself with less and less funding, and less and less help. I have been reduced to one graduate student, Callie.

She is a pleasant enough sort of girl, but I have seen lab rats with a more developed mental capacity. Mostly, I had to resort to making her stand in a corner and hand me things. I once tried to trust her to analyze the results of a particle collision experiment I was conducting, but the only particles she managed to find were the bits of potato chips she had left on her hands from lunch. She ruined the results.

Sufficed to say I often sent Callie home early so that I could concentrate on the real work. It was during one of those late hour tests when I first noticed the smell, lilacs. They had been my mother’s favorite and always reminded me of the good times I had as a child. As you can imagine, I was startled, at first. I mean my lab is a completely clean room, barring any sort of Callie-related mishap, and that is precisely what I thought I had encountered.

The smell was faint and died away almost immediately before I could find its source. I also ruled out any involvement by my wayward graduate student as her preferred scents tended to be pizza and a rather pungent narcotic substance. All I could do was chalk the sensory experience up to some sort of olfactory recall. I convinced myself that it was nothing more than the hours of work and toil that had caused the sensation, and that they were nothing more than errant memories of carefree days.

I cataloged the next incident while running the same experiment. I was testing sub-atomic string harmonic pitches to try and find a convergent point between dimensions. It is all in the paper I published several years ago, if you care to invest the time to look into the subject. Most people do not. The scent of lilacs again, this time stronger and lasting a whole fifty-seven point two seconds. Over the next week I recorded three more instances while attempting the same experiment. It was no coincidence or suppressed memory. I found that the more I increased the power of my experiment the longer the scent remained.

Finally, after a week of detecting the faint odor I resolved to increase my resonance to full power, and that was when I heard it, Springsteen, or more specifically, Thunder Road. I was certain of it. I had loved that entire album growing up. It was what helped me survive the lonely days of high school. I used to listen to it as an undergraduate at MIT as I lay in my bed contemplating the majesty of the forces that governed the world.

Much like the odor it only lasted for a few seconds, and was faint enough that it could have been nothing more than the echoes of a radio from down the hall. Still, I recorded it. However this phenomena proved harder to duplicate. Unlike the lilac scent it was not present every time, and sometimes it would be a different song entirely, still just as memorable.

Over the next three weeks I continued my experiments, this time meticulously adjusting the harmonics and the levels of their intensity. More often than not, there would be no change, but more than once I caught new sounds, even what could have been garbled conversation. I felt gusts of air movement that should not have been and made no sense with the airflow setup of my own lab. Once I saw a flash of orange and red. I mistook it for fire at the moment of its appearance, but quickly realized that it was color, shimmering color, like a reflection seen through a foggy mirror.

By the fifth week of my experimenting I had isolated the data of my most successful attempts. I took everything I learned and put it into the fabrication of a specialized box, no more than the size of a toaster. Callie was on hand to witness as I placed an apple inside and when I activated the device the apple was completely atomized.

I was disheartened, to say the least, All my careful planning led to disappointment. I had expected something more, but all I got was a machine that destroyed objects. Perhaps I can sell it as a solution to waste management, I thought, but then something miraculous happened. The next morning the box was full. There was not an apple inside, but a small piece of paper. It read “Thanks for the apple.”

Immediately, I accused Callie of some sort of practical joke. I tossed her from the laboratory for the day and contemplated what I believed could only be a hoax. Yet, the next day another note appeared. This time it read, “Day 61: No reply yet from the box. Received apple appeared in pieces. Hypothesis: letter was similarly broken down upon transport. I must conduct further tests.” The note ended with a mathematical formula similar to the one I had been constructing.

Callie could not have created that note. There was no way my assistant had the creativity or brain capacity to perpetrate such an elaborate hoax. The letter was authentic. I quickly scribbled my own note, “Received research notes. I concur with your analysis.” I added the last part more as a joke. I still had my doubts as to what was going on.

Yet, the next day I received a response, more mathematical formulas, as well as an elaborated theory on special dimensions as it applies to string theory. I combined the miraculous research with my own and was able to refine some of the techniques I had used in constructing the box. At the bottom of my next note I added an addendum: ”Who are you? Where are you?”

The response I got back was equally astounding. The only name she gave was Clara, but she was more descriptive on her physical location. She gave longitudinal coordinates that matched almost exactly with my own. If the coordinates were to be believed my new pen pal was almost exactly in the same place as myself. The implications of this were astounding, multiple dimensions occupying the same physical space. Clara also agreed with my findings and my hypothesis.

This was the start of our collaboration. Over the next four months we shared all our findings with one another as we continued to refine the process of sending objects through the dimensional barrier. We also talked about our lives and our homes. It was inevitable, I suppose. We were each both curious about the other’s world. Clara lived in a place much similar to our own, with one difference. There seemed to be less hostility and war. Humanity embraced a better way of life, science and altruism.

Reading the descriptions of her world made me feel ashamed of my own and I am afraid to admit that in my representation of our world I may have omitted a few of the nastier facts of the human experience. It was a selfish act. I did not want her to think less of me, as if I was some barbarian from some unevolved world.

In the time of our correspondence Clara sent exactly two pictures. One was of her in a field, obviously during some outing or picnic. It had no description. I was struck by her beauty, like a model found in some magazine. Her hair was light lavender her eyes were the color of the sky. She had freckles on her nose and small dimples that showed when she smiled. I, of course, returned a picture.

It took me hours to find the right one with the best lighting and at just the right angle to accent my features. I was never very photogenic. I am not homely, but I am also not the most handsome male of my species. I took several photos of myself, making sure to take off my glasses and smile with just enough teeth so as not to expose my overbite, and of course I kept my mole concealed on the side pointing away from the camera. It took most of the day. Callie even helped to give me tips on grooming.

The second picture was a more private affair. This one I will not describe, but I assure you that the contents were as much for science as for any other reasoning. After all we had to compare the biologies of the people of Clara’s world with our own. This picture you will not find with my research materials. It is a personal memento.

After this our relationship took on a decidedly personal nature. We still compared research notes, but most of our correspondence was resigned to personal letters. We learned that we had much in common. Our upbringing, our interests, and even our beliefs seemed almost perfectly aligned. I had never met a girl like her before, and I suppose I still have not. Yet, it was like she could tell what I was thinking. It was like she knew exactly what I needed to hear. It was on day one hundred and six that I told Clara that I loved her. It was a sentiment she did not return until day one hundred and eight.

On a personal level I found that my days seemed suddenly less empty. I was happier. I often whistled while I worked. I even found my tolerance of Callie growing. She often helped me construct my letters, giving me advice on how best to express what I was thinking. Sometimes we would sit for hours, polishing a letter so it sounded just right. I was always eager to impress my new transdimensional love. Also, I found that I had underestimated my assistant. When it came to matters of the heart she was rather insightful.

Yet, as happy as I was my loneliness also festered, like a cancer. It was a weed slowly overtaking my field of lilacs. I wanted more than just letters and pictures. So together, Clara and I built an even larger messenger box. Expanding the dimensions of the device proved trickier than I had suspected, as the larger the area within so did the number of atoms the device contained. I found that it was harder to affect larger fields of atoms, especially complex ones. It was one of the reasons why only paper and graphite had so little trouble passing through the dimensional wall.

It took Callie and I six more months of work to complete and test the larger transport device on our end. Even then experimentation produced mixed results. The box was able to transport simple organism with little problems, but with anything more complex than a field mouse the results were less than enthusiastic. Finally, on day three hundred and twenty-two I entered my lab to find a live chicken with a note explaining how Clara was able to stabilize the arrival process of the chamber. I was overjoyed, and with help of Callie I went about implementing the changes to our own device. I even successfully managed to send the chicken back through to other side of the rift, as we were now calling it.

It was then that I knew I would be united with my Clara, the love of my life. I made preparations to leave. It took another week before we could refine the process for what we anticipated were the needs of human test subjects. Seeing as I could ask not anyone else to test the process, not Callie, and certainly not Clara, I wrote to her to tell her that I would enter the chamber and we could live our lives together on her world of peace. Nothing else mattered.

It was on day three hundred and thirty-eight that Callie became suddenly reluctant to help. She raised complaints about my safety. She said that the machine was nothing more than an incinerator. It could only destroy objects, not transport them anywhere. She said I was tilting at windmills.

As a last resort she lied and said she had written the notes. She claimed that at first it was a prank, but then it got out of hand. She claimed that she was Clara and she had fabricated the whole affair. Then, if that was not ridiculous enough, she also claimed that  through working together and sharing notes she had come to love me, as if that was possible. No. I know her words to be nothing but lies. She is not the woman of my dreams, just merely a girl, jealous of the love I share with Clara. She is just trying to keep me, whether out of misplaced concern or for her own jealous reasons. I do not know which, nor do I care. I have no future with Callie. My future is with Clara.

Even as I write this she has gone to fetch security and others who will try and stop me. So I must hurry. My hour grows late. As I sit here and scribble this note I know it will be the last remaining record of my words on this world, but have no fear. I will be in a better place with the woman I love. I have endured my lonely prison long enough, and if you are reading this account than I have already stepped into my machine. I am already happy. I bid this world and this life good-bye.

To Callie, I do not blame you. You were a loyal and good assistant. Perhaps in another life things could have worked out between us. I hope you find your happiness as I have found my own. Thank you for trying to help me, but what I do now I do on faith, guided by love.

For as Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything can be counted counts.”

“I don’t know,” said the big doorman. “Are you sure you’re a villain?” he squinted, his face bent down to scrutinize me.

“I am wearing a mask,” I said pointing to the black domino mask on my face, “and I have this black trench-coat and hat.”

“JJ gets mad when I let the wrong people in, and I don’t know you?” The giant muscular man leaned back and scrunched up his forehead, looking more and more like one of my students at the community college after a particularly hard question.

“Well, would a superhero be carrying one of these?” My hand plunged into the depths of my coat, as a chill shot up my arm. It was always the same sensation, but putting your appendage into a limitless pocket dimension was bound to have some side effects.

When I pulled my hand back I was clutching a raccoon by the tail. It was swinging frantically, hissing and spitting. “Damnit, how do these things always manage to get in…” The rest of my words were cut off by my scream as the creature bit me square on the wrist. I dropped the animal and it scurried off down the alley. My magic pockets allows me to find almost anything imaginable inside my coat. Unfortunately, I am never quite sure what will come out.

The man named Edward laughed. “You’re funny. Okay, you can go in.”

I clutched my wrist. It was not the first time I’d been bitten by something from my pockets and it probably wouldn’t be the last. My name is The Answer and, despite what I told the mound of muscle guarding the door, I am a superhero. I just needed to get inside Friday’s Bar if I had any hope of finding what I was looking for.

The door banged open to a dim and dingy drinking establishment. There was a faint odor of something musky. I would not have called it dark, it was better lit than some places I have been, but with all the wood paneling, small windows, and burnt green trimming Friday’s radiated a certain claustrophobic feeling. Of course, the sensation wasn’t helped by knowing that the walls were probably lined in lead, tritium, and a whole slew of other materials meant to render the place near invulnerable and undetectable by any passing hero with super sight, hearing, smelling, or even telepathy. Not that the place was exactly a secret in the superhero community, but it was also not the kind of bar any one hero stumbled into blindly, well unless you had some kind of death wish.

I coughed as a cloud of smoke wafted into my face but I couldn’t be sure if it was from a cigarette or just fumes rising off of Monsieur Blight. Pollution centered villains were always some of the most inconsiderate people, especially when they were French. A mustached man stood behind the bar filling glasses from a tap. He was talking to a guy dressed as a crocodile, whom I didn’t recognize. The bartender, on the other hand, had to be Joe Friday, a B-list villain from the old days. I had read about some of his crimes in the archived news database at the public library.

“Take a seat wherever ya find one, sugah,” said the shapely bar maid as she passed me with a tray full of beer and bubbling drinks. I realized I was standing in the middle of the room and people were starting to notice. I retreated to a table in the far corner and opened a tab with a credit card that only took an impressive two tries for me to fish from my coat pocket. It wasn’t mine but it seemed to work all the same. The beer was tasteless, but passable so I settled in for a long stakeout.

Despite it only being mid-day Friday’s was crowded. I saw a few familiar faces, Friar Freeze, Dr. Zirconium, The Marginalizer, Band Stand, Womanslaughter, as well a half-dozen or so I couldn’t name. Thankfully, I had never had any direct conflict with any of them so there was little danger of being identified. It was just one of the benefits of being a relatively unknown hero who doesn’t have his own social media following. Half-Life or Ionic Storm could never just waltz into a bar and go unnoticed. The latter especially. He had more than 1.2 million followers, but then again he had always been addicted to the limelight.

I was nursing my second drink about an hour later when the front door swung open to reveal a man made of metal and flesh, covered in a garish yellow and maroon costume. A small robot assistant floated next to him. I had to pull my hat down over my eyes and slump back into the shadows before he looked my way. Mandroid and I had a history. I once hit him with a bucket of paint during a bank robbery, and he’s never let it go.

Thankfully the man had always been more than oblivious. As he walked past, blathering on to the ball-shaped robot that hovered alongside him, he never once glanced my way. I watched as he took a bar stool and started regaling those around him with a story about the time he nearly convinced the city to replace all the police with robots, which he had created through a shell corporation.

The story was before my time, but I knew it all the same, just as I knew he was conveniently omitting the part where he spent three hours cowering in a dumpster before the police found him. I almost chimed in to remind him, but then the door opened again and in walked Quetzalcoatl. If I hadn’t already been trying to hide my face he would have spotted me. Dressed in snake skin and feathers he strolled into Friday’s surveying it with a hawk-like stare. Unlike Mandroid there was no talk or foolish bravado. He simply took a booth in the far corner and ordered a steaming drink of something I couldn’t identify.

One of the most powerful villains I had ever faced, old Quet was an expert on ancient magic, and I had the bruises to prove it. He stole an artifact from the Coeus Museum of Antiquities. I would have stopped him in the act, but instead of pulling out a rocket launcher I instead pulled out an old shoe. When I finally woke up from my daze there were police lights blaring through the window and I thought it best not be caught at the scene of a crime. So I fled.

The trail went cold until one of my contacts told me that Quet enjoyed the mage’s brew on Wednesdays at Friday’s Bar, but now that I was faced with the villain himself I wasn’t quite sure of my next move. In truth, I was beginning to question why I had come at all. What was I going to do, fight him right then and there? I was surrounded by more costumed weirdos than a Halloween party, and none of them would hesitate to put me in the ground.

Panic began to well up inside. It was only a matter of time before his bronze-aged gaze found me. I reached into my pocket, as deep as I could. Half my arm disappeared before pulling out a rubber ducky, then a can of hairspray, a flash bulb, a kitchen knife, and then finally a rubber mask. It was the kind of scary molded-head mask that you would find in a bad monster movie, but I didn’t hesitate. Taking off my hat I yanked the sweaty rubber facade over my face. It was surprisingly snug, and I could even continue to drink my beer through the small mouth hole.

No one in the bar looked at me twice. I even watched the gaze of the Mesoamerican sorcerer pass right by. I breathed a sigh of relief, or at least as much of a breath as I could exhale inside the suffocating and bad-smelling mask. The eye holes limited my vision but I could see well enough to keep my attention on Quet. He was nursing his steaming drink while examining something small in his hands. I couldn’t make it out, but I bet dollars to dinosaur fossils that it was the Coatlicue Statue.

A small headless wood carving that was made to resemble the Aztec’s mother goddess, the statue was said to hold the power to control the moon. More practically, and after some research, it seemed more plausible that the artifact actually harnessed lunar light for a variety of uses, all of which in Quetzalcoatl’s hands would be nefarious. The man had enough natural magic at his disposal, but he was always looking for more. Both as a hero and an adjunct professor of archaeology -and sometimes freshman history 101- I knew I had to stop him, but how?

After my third beer I resolved to wait till he he left Friday’s Bar and was well away from the other villains that populated it. Unfortunately, by my fourth beer I had lost my nerve again, and by my fifth beer I realized that not only was my mask beginning to chafe, but that my quarry had no intention of leaving till was it dark, till he could use the statue for whatever plot he had cooked up in his feathered-serpentine head. That meant if I waited, it could be too late. He’d be able to use the artifact.

While drinking my sixth beer, I started watching Mandroid talk up a C-list villainess called Honey Badger, and the beginnings of a plan started to come together. Quet was busy tinkering with the statue, his drink barely touched. The big guy at the door, Edward, was staring at his hands as if trying to understand how such meaty paws could ever have come to be. The southern waitress was chatting up a sharp smiling wolfman in a dark red suit. JJ, was pouring out drinks and the kid he had running around cleaning tables had disappeared out the side door. No one was paying attention to me. It was then or never.

I pictured the object I was trying to find in my mind, it doesn’t always work, but sometimes I could control what I pulled from my coat. I reached into the pocket, the tingling sensations making the hairs on my arm stand straight up. It was a long moment before I came back with a hissing, snapping snake, and for once I had the creature’s head. It could do nothing to bite me, even as I released it onto the ground. The five foot snake quietly slipped from my jacket, slithering its way across the floor.

Honey Badger was the first to see the creature, and she lost it. In her mad dash to stomp it dead Mandroid went flailing backward landing awkwardly in the lap of Jacqueline Ripper, the British hitwoman. She was not happy with the man who was suddenly looking up at her from her thighs, and she expressed that anger by doing her damn best to try and rip his appendages free from his torso.

I stood up and “accidentally,” bumped into Honey Badger as she was trying to stomp out the now frantic serpent. She tripped into the southern speaking waitress who dumped her tray onto Dr. Zirconium. Dr. Zee never being one for level headed discussion started swinging. “The snake came from that guy,” I yelled while trying to disguise my voice and pointing at Quet.

By that time the bar was quickly breaking down into disarray as three separate melees erupted around the room. Tables were overturned, beer bottles were broken, a laser blast exploded against the back wall, doing surprisingly little damage, and for some reason a few of the patrons were being pinned to the ceiling by, what I could only guess, was telekinesis or magic. I caught a glimpse of Friar Freeze trying to ice over the giant bouncer, which proved to be a mistake on his part. Amid all the confusion, I made my way to Quetzalcoatl. He was engaged in a shouting match with Band Stand, well at least Quet was shouting. The other man was blaring a trumpet at him.

My mask felt like a sauna. I don’t know how heroes who wear helmets or full face coverings could do it all day. I was barely able to see in the confusion and I wanted nothing more than to rip it off, but I resisted. Then I saw it, the Coatlicue Statue. It was just sitting on the table, forgotten in the heat of the yelling/trumpet argument that was going on not more than two feet away. All I had to do was reach out and grab it.

A hand with the surprising strength of a vice grip locked around my wrist as I started for the artifact. When it spun me around I was face to face with none other than Joe Friday himself. Despite his age and his walking cane, I worried for a moment that he was going to break my arm with his bare hands, but I was wrong. The next thing I knew he was dragging me out the side door, my back slamming against the alley wall.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, boy?” Before I could respond he ripped the mask from my head. “Do you think I am blind, dumb, or just senile?”

“I… don’t…” I felt at a loss for words. It was like I had become one of my students that had been caught cheating, and I felt just as guilty.

“It was a rhetorical question.” JJ finally let go of my wrist and hobbled back a few steps, his cane clicking on the uneven pavement. “It’s always the same. You upstart young heroes come wandering into my bar looking for the evil Dr. So-And-So or your sworn arch-nemesis or whatever, but more than not I am the one that has to pull your butts out of trouble, or scrape your remains off the wall. This isn’t some fool game, you know, and you’re not the first masked moron to try something like this. Those men and women in there will kill you if they find out who you are, absurd mask or not.”

“Wait. You run a bar for villains and you’re going to lecture me?” I said finding some of my courage.

JJ looked me dead in the eye. “That lot is full of thieves, murderers, psychopaths, and would be tinpot-dictators, but everyone needs a place where they feel accepted, where they can be themselves. Can you imagine what would happen to this city if they didn’t have this place? How much worse would things be if the men and women in there, some with powers that could level a city block, didn’t have a place where they could unwind?”

“So you’re doing a civil service?” I said rubbing my wrist.

“Hell no. I’m trying to run a business, son. Saving your sorry hide is my only good deed for the day, but didn’t it ever occur to you why my joint is allowed to stay open?” As he spoke Edward emerged from the door behind him and tossed out two men dressed in matching crisscross patterned outfits. The owner of Friday’s Bar never once looked back, he kept his gaze on me.

“I guess I never really considered it.” I put my eyes down, suddenly feeling as if the man towered over me, even though he was more than a foot shorter.

“I pay the cops to stay away. I scare the mafia off, but groups like Eternal Vigilance and other heroes usually know enough to let me run my bar in peace, because they know it does more good than harm. That little riot you started in there, could you imagine if that was happening right now in the Iron Sides district, or at the corner of Apollo and 4th? They’d be ripping up half of downtown. My bar can take it and no innocent bystander has to get hurt.”

“If you care about innocents than you would have let me get that statue back from Quetzalcoatl. He’s going to use it tonight and a lot of people are going to get hurt. I have to stop him.”

The old man’s mouth was a hard-set line. He watched me for another moment before muttering “Wait here.” With an uneven gait he disappeared back into the bar, the sound of the fray momentarily escaping the sealed environment of the bar before the door slammed shut again.

I was unsure of what to do. Part of my mind was screaming at me to run for my life. The game was up. It was the part of me that was certain that JJ was about to come back with a brute squad of villains, all more powerful than me and my magic coat by any stretch of the imagination. Still, I couldn’t move. The old man had an authority about him. A strange power to inspire and simultaneously make me feel like a five-year old boy again. So I waited, because what else could I have done?

The door swung open and JJ hobbled out. The faint odor of sulfur followed him, but the bar fight sounded like it was quieting down. “Here.” He handed over my hat and inside it was the small wooden Coatlicue Statue. “I got your Mayan whats-it.”

“Actually it’s Aztec,” I said, but trailed off as he gave me another look. “I mean, thank you. How did you get it?”

“That wizard of a snake-bird hasn’t paid his bar tab in a few weeks. I gave him two choices. He either handed over the Mayan thing… excuse me, the Aztec thing as payment, or he’d be banned from the bar. He chose the first option, they usually do.

I took the statue out of the hat along with a small paper card. “And what’s this?”

“It’s my number. The next time you plan on doing something this stupid just call first, like the other heroes do, and maybe we can avoid more unpleasantness.” He put a thumb back toward the bar just as Jacqueline Ripper came running out, blood streaming from a broken nose.

The southern waitress watched her as she ran. “Yeah you best be gettin’ gone, ya hear?”

“Sorry about that.” My eyes fell to the pavement.

JJ waved his hands as if to say forget it. “Like I said, my bar is built to take it, and Edward will have them calmed down soon enough. That’s why I pay him, but it would be best if you don’t show your face around here again, understood?”

I nodded, unsure of what to say.

Finally, JJ turned back to his bar and walked slowly toward the door as if it was just another day for him. Maybe it was. I have to admit I went in not knowing what to expect, but I don’t think I could ever have expected what I found in Joe Friday. I tucked the statue close to my body and headed out down the alley to find the first bus to the museum.

As I walked, I looked again at the small white card he had handed me before slipping it into my pocket, not my magic one, but my ordinary pants’ pocket. Something told me this was a number I was going to want to have handy.

Read all the stories about Friday’s Bar for Super-villains

Zak woke with a start, sweat beading his forehead. He might have screamed but he couldn’t be sure. Some people were looking at him as if he might have. He ignored their stares and reached for the small woven rope that encircled his wrist, as if to reassure himself it still existed. Goose bumps rippled his arm and neck as he shivered despite the crush of human bodies around him. Almost every inch of the cold metal floor was occupied by men, women, and children. Families huddled close while strangers eyed each other from across the room. He ignored them all and tried to find sleep again.

The small blanket was barely enough to cover his body, but along with the bracelet it was all he had left, except for maybe his dreams. Sleep was the one place he could escape, and in those dreams he was back home, a small town in Iowa with his family. They had been lucky, most of the war hadn’t touched their part of the world. The big cities like New York and Chicago had felt the brunt of the destruction, but not their small rural community. No, for them it was more about the drought.

He still remembered when his father had announced that they couldn’t stay. “Earth is dying. The powerful and the demagogues are fighting over what’s left and it’s people like us who are going to get caught in between,” said his father to his mother when he didn’t think Zak was listening. “I know this guy from the dockyards. He says there’s a ship leaving and we can get on it.”

“Leave Earth?” Zak’s mother began to cry. She tried to hide it like she did some times, but Zak knew. He always knew when his mother cried. “Where will we go?”

“The ship is bound for the Laan Consortium. Once we get into their space they have to take us. It’s their code or something, at least that’s what some of the guys were saying.” He put a comforting hand on his sobbing wife’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay. We can start a new life there, a new home.”

“But this is our home. I grew up here. I thought Zak would…” The tears cut short her words.

At the mention of his name their son ducked behind the corner before they noticed him, but not before he heard his father say “Maybe we can come back someday, once the war is over and the famine…”

That little house seemed so far away now. He tried to find sleep again, but it wouldn’t come. Zak’s eyes slid to the media players that were mounted on the walls beyond the energy shield, which separated the humans from the rest of the spaceport. The video feed itself was in Standard Laanish, but the media player translated it into all spoken languages including Terran English. Two creatures, one a dark hairy muscular beast and the other a hairless smooth pale creature with giant eyes sat talking as footage played in the background.

“These humans are scum,” said big eyes. “Their planet is a mess of war and pollution, and now they expect to come here? We don’t want their burden or their problems. We have enough of our own.”

“They are a sentient species, like every person in the Consortium,” said his hairy opponent.

“No, not at all like us. They are primitive and savage. They can’t even stop from killing one another, and now they are bringing their violence here. There are billions of them on that planet. Do you expect us to accept every single one?”

“There are plenty of worlds in the consortium that have already opened their doors to these poor creatures…”

“And look what happened to them. Look at the violence taking place in F’rag’hul’ja? Thirty Consortium citizens are dead because a few humans decided to build a bomb. Why? Because their god told them to?”

“Those were human extremists. Most of them were let into the Consortium on temporary passes. There was only one asylum seeker among them.”

“Isn’t one enough? Even if less than 1% of humans are criminals, isn’t that enough reason to condemn them all, especially if it keeps our people safe. They don’t deserve to come here and just take opportunities away from citizens of this Consortium. We built our worlds, and we can’t let savages like them tear them down.”

“You can’t judge all human on the actions of a few.

“They are either criminals or will be criminals. They can’t help it. Look at human history, look at their world. They can’t control themselves, they are all killers and deviants. They don’t even celebrate Shad’lat or speak Laanish, like any decent sentient being…” Zak had heard enough. When he turned his head away the sound automatically stopped .

He realized he was playing with his bracelet again, feeling every bump and scratch of the coarse braid against his skin.The colors were fading and the small strands of rope were fraying from time and wear, but it still held together. If only barely, in some spots. He moved his hand away for fear of stressing it more and walked toward the energy fence that encircled the small human enclave.

Running a dry tongue over cracked lips he held out his hands and uttered the Graakic word for water. It had been a while since his last drink, but two soldiers beyond the fence just growled something to one another in their guttural language before cackling in what he recognized as laughter. Then the lizard creatures walked away, never once looking back at him or his outstretched hands.

“I don’t think they’re going to help you, boy,” said a kindly older man sitting near the perimeter of the energy field.

“What did they say?” said Zak.

The man hesitated for a moment but translated. “Something about how we all smell so bad of dirt and piss that they could smell it even through the fence.” He shook his head and spoke into his chest. “Why did I ever leave Earth?”

No one had meant to land on Graak, a small planetoid on the outskirts of the Laan Consortium. They had always meant to keep going to Trimble IV or even Deshdo where humans were being welcomed, like the promised land. It hadn’t worked out. Their ship had never been very space worthy to begin with, and in the end it just couldn’t take the journey. They had spent two weeks adrift in the void before a Laan patrol had found them.

The first time Zak saw the ship that his father had called the SS Alban, all he could think of was how gray it looked. It wasn’t like some of the cool looking military craft he had seen a few times, or even like one of the luxury spaceships that only the rich people could afford. No, the Alban was slate gray, as if it was still waiting to be painted something more exciting. It also wasn’t very big.

He was told the ship had been designed to hold fourteen people. They packed in twenty-seven and two babies. There had barely been a place to sit, let alone lie down. Even worse, the journey was slow. The FTL engine only did about .8 past the speed of light, and they felt every bump and whine as the Alban cruised through warped space.

More than a few people got sick from the motion of the trip, including Zak. He remembered retching up his small meals of bread and water. That was when his mother had made him the bracelet. She put it together from different pieces of rope and string she had collected from others on the Alban. He could still remember watching her as she wove each piece together, humming softly, a small smile turning up her lips.

“What if I don’t get better?” he had asked her as she tied the token around his wrist.

“Sometimes, you just need to have hope.” She kissed him on his head and it was true. Days later he recovered. It had only ever been nausea and space sickness. Unfortunately, others were not so lucky.

Zak and his family were fortunate enough to be closer to the front of the Alban. A few in the rear compartments had gotten very sick from a radiation leak in the engine. The crew eventually managed to fix it, but not before three people, including one of the infants died of FTL poisoning. The bodies had to be ejected into space, not just because of the radiation, but also because the ship had no place to store them. They had held what little ceremony they could for the dead, but it didn’t feel like enough, at least not to Zak.

Every fews day after those deaths his mother would take back his bracelet and add another strand of some piece of string or cloth that she collected from the ship. Maybe it was her way of reminding him that he was alive and every new moment should be cherished. Maybe it was her way of saying how they were all connected; they lived interwoven, like the braids on the bracelet; or maybe she just did it to keep busy, a way to keep her mind off the tragedies they had all witnessed. Unfortunately, the Alban was not done with tragedies.

Three weeks into the journey a small electrical fire broke out in one of the cargo compartments that housed some of the passengers. The doors on the ship sealed automatically and the people inside were trapped. Those that didn’t burn were killed by oxygen starvation. Five people died in a matter of minutes, including his mother. She had been in the compartment chatting with one of their old neighbors, possibly trying to get more strands to add to the bracelet. He was never certain. All he knew was that she would never see Earth again, dead or alive. As before, all the bodies had to be ejected into space. The Alban limped on, and so did Zak.

He could remember the sound when the engines finally died. He had thought they had already crossed into Consortium space, but he found out later that they were barely on the border. The FTL had been slowly growing fainter for more than two weeks, their speed ebbing away like a tired old man losing his fight against time. When the engines stopped completely all he had heard was quiet. It was like there was something missing, a familiar hum in the background that they had all grown accustomed to. It was like a mother’s touch, you never really noticed it till it was gone, and afterwards the world seem much lonelier and crueler.

That had been almost a year before. Zak was thirteen now, his birthday had come and gone, at least he thought it had. It was hard to keep track of the time of the year on a planetoid with a thirty-one hour day and only three quarters gravity. Everything was so alien, so different. He had grown up in the tundras of the American Midwest with wide expanses and fresh air. Now he was being held in the corner of a spaceport where the air was staler than the bowls of pudding-like substance they gave them to eat. It all happened while other beings, hundreds of thousands of light years away, debated if he and his people deserved the right to be free and happy, as if debating whether they were animals or people.

A small girl, with three eyes and a pretty face smiled at Zak from the distant side of the energy fence. He smiled back at her and she started to walk toward him before a restraining hand grabbed her and yanked her away. Her mother or father -Zak couldn’t really tell- was pulling her along and scolding her in a flute-like language. She looked back at him once more, this time in shock and with a new hint of fear. He couldn’t understand what her parent was saying but he had heard similar things enough times to make an educated guess. Fear and suspicion were higher than ever, especially after the attacks on F’rag’hul’ja. Everyone was on nerves and no one seemed to need look far for reasons to hate humans.

In the first camp they brought him to, Zak had met another boy, Peter. He had seemed nice enough, but pretty soon he started talking about everything he wanted to do to the people of the Laan Consortium. “Abominations against God,” he had called them and started reciting all these Bible verses. “It is the duty of humans to exterminate any creature that was not created in God’s image. The aliens of Laan are an affront to Jesus Christ.”

Zak didn’t see much of Peter again after that. There were never a lot of human extremists, but you found them here and there. Mostly it was just talk, old men venting about how it was in a world that they no longer walked on. His father had made sure to keep his son clear of people like that, but sometimes it was inevitable, and sometimes it was more than just talk. Sometimes it was far worse than just talk.

A Graakic month after they arrived a few humans attacked a Graak humanitarian worker. There was a fight and the Graak died along with one of the humans. It was Peter. Most people just shook their head and said how sad it was, or that Peter had been a hothead and he got what he deserved. Most of the people he knew in the camp felt bad over what had happened. “That’s no way for a human to behave,” said Mr. Glenrose. “That’s no way to repay the hospitality of these people.”

Unfortunately, the Graak weren’t satisfied with the remorse of humans, or maybe they didn’t believe it. A group of armed and angry Graakic citizen attacked the camp. They burned down tents and the make-shift barrack houses. They beat anyone they found near to death, calling them all “dirtlings,” and yelling how humans should go home. Mr. Glenrose and four other people died in the attack, and hundreds more were badly injured, including Zak’s father.

He had stood up to some of the Graak when they came, protecting his son. Zak could still remember his screams as they kicked him and beat him with clubs, but he refused to move. He refused to leave his son at the mercy of the mob. After that they took him to a hospital somewhere, but that was the last Zak saw of him. A few weeks later they transferred all the humans to different camps, and no Graak, Desh, Trim, or any alien who spoke Terran seemed to be able to tell him what had happened to his only parent.

He looked again at the fading braid on his wrist. The night of the attacks it had been nearly torn off, but it had held. Zak examined the bracelet and picked at the fraying ends of the weaker parts. It was as if he could not stop digging at it, like touching at a raw nerve in hope or disbelief. His memories were like that too. Sometimes, no matter how much he tried not to, he found himself seeing his mother’s body; hearing the cries of his father; or feeling the raw gut pain that came when he thought of the poor baby that did not make it to Graak. Part of him wanted to forget, but part of him also wanted to know why it was all happening to them. So he picked at his memories, at his pain, and at the small memento that sat on his arm.

“We are receiving word now,” said the blue-skinned newscaster on the media player, “that because of the attacks on F’rag’hul’ja,” the Consortium council has been forced to deport several hundred refugees back to Earth, for their own safety.” The video changed to show footage of attacks on human aid centers all across the Consortium. Fires burned and people of all types were fighting with fists, weapons, claws, and tentacles. “Officials have told us that those being moved are currently in the highest risk zones for anti-migrant violence. This decision also comes after the leaders of many worlds have begun openly refusing to accept any humans, saying that they pose too high of a risk to their native populations.”

A mummer went up from the people around Zak as more and more people were suddenly paying attention to the news feed.

“Humans in detention centers on parts of F’rag’hul’ja, Rangul, and Yulide are already being put onto ships for the return trip to their own homeworld of Earth. Consortium officials believed it was best to keep this secret for fear of further reprisals against the human migrants as they were transported to launch sites.” The video feed changed again to show lines of humans with armed guards surrounding them. Men, women, and children shuffled forward as they were loaded back onto waiting ships that seemed no sturdier than the Alban.

“That’s a death sentence,” said the older gentleman sitting beside him. “Half the warring factions on Earth will shoot any approaching ship out of orbit, and the other half will take them hostage to try and use as leverage.”

Zak just looked at him and twisted his braid nervously on his wrist, before returning his attention back to the distant media player. That was when he saw it. One of the shuffling figures. His shoulders were back and his head was down. He looked at the camera only once, but that was enough. It was enough for Zak to recognize his own father. He looked older and thinner than his son could remember. It was as if something had broken inside of him, as if he no longer cared.

“The Consortium Council is still trying to decide what they will do with the rest of the humans still currently being held in temporary detention centers, but more deportations could be expected. Experts are trying to determine how much of a threat the humans are to the the security of Laan and its member worlds. There is also a debate among many people of the Consortium of how deserving these creatures are of the same rights as every citizen of Laan, with many polls showing that a majority of Laan now believe that humans are less than sentient.

Zak felt the tension release before he heard the final snap. When he looked down his mother’s bracelet was in his hand. One of the ends had finally broken under his nervous tugging. Part of him wanted to cry,  but the rest of his body didn’t have enough water to allow it to happen. So he just stood there, watching the live feed as the ship holding his father blasted off into the dark violet skies of some alien world. The camera held for a second longer as the fast moving ship disappeared from sight, leaving only a small trail of smoke behind it.

In 75% Earth’s gravity the braided rope took longer to find the floor than Zak would have anticipated. He closed his hand around the nothingness that replaced it and watched the bracelet for a long moment, debating whether to pick it up again. Maybe it could be fixed. Maybe it could be made whole again. Instead, he just stepped over it and walked away finding that someone had already stolen his blanket. So he just laid down on the cold floor shivering, feeling suddenly less than who he had been, maybe even less than he would ever be again.

The small beams of light tickle as they hit me. I laugh, but the little man just keeps pointing his gun and firing like it’s going to do something. When I reach him, that’s when the fun begins. I grab the small space weapon and I feel it crunch under my fist along with his fingers.

I let go. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I never want to hurt anyone, but I always do. It’s just part of being who I am. You get used to it, I guess, but the guy just keeps crying and screaming about his broken hand. The rest of the bar is starting to look now and the tiny man is on his knees begging me not to kill him.

I don’t do that, at least not anymore.

I reach down and pick him up by his silvery backpack and toss him through the front door of the bar. I wouldn’t want JJ getting mad for annoying his other customers. Of course, JJ never gets mad at me. He just gets disappointed, and that’s always worse.

I walk outside and the spaceman is slumped up against the wall of the building across the alley. I hadn’t meant to throw him that hard. He doesn’t look like he’s moving.

I bend down next to him and I hear the door open behind me. “Leave him, sugah. He’ll be fine.”

“He’s not moving,” I say in that lumbering way that seems too slow, even to myself.

Georgia kneels down next to me. When she leans forward to unhook the man’s space helmet, I notice I can see down the front part of her shirt. I look away. I don’t want to be rude.

“He’s only stunned,” says Georgia. She has her fingers on the man’s neck. “He’s still breathing.” She stands up. “For heaven’s sake, Edward, you got to learn to worry less about good-for-nothing-scum like Retro Rocket, here. He deserves a lot worse than this.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt him…” I say, feeling frustrated.

“Don’t give me none of that bull. You used to run for the Atello crime family. I’m sure you hurt plenty of people worse than this back in the bygone days.”

“That was a long time ago. I was just doing what I was told to do.”

“Oh, now there, there, don’t get all defensive,” she pats me on the shoulder like a child, but it does feel nice. “I only meant we’ve all done things in the past we regret. Trust me I got enough regrets to fill a grain silo the size of Arkansas. Now, come back inside, sugah.”

I look back at the spaceman.

“He’ll be fine,” she leads me back into the bar by the hand. “He just needs to sleep it off.”

Georgia was right, because when I went out later to check on him, he was gone. He must have flown off using that stupid jetpack of his. She was always right, and she was always nice to me. I like Georgia, but she didn’t seem to like that spaceman. After we went back inside the bar, she said something about how he liked small boys a bit too much. That seemed strange to me. I mean, I like boys and girls and puppies, though they tend to not like me. I guess I am kind of scary looking.

Georgia was right about something else too. I did used to hurt people, a lot. That was when they called me Two-Ton. I hate that name, but my brother gave it to me. Well, he wasn’t really my brother but we grew up together in the orphanage. We stuck together because we were both born “different.” His real name was Carlos, but most people called him Stone, on account he could turn his body to rock.

Carlos was the smart one. He watched out for me, and told me what to do. We made a group together, that we called The Heavies. We worked for a lot of people and did a lot of bad things, but Carlos always said it was for the best. “We were just earning a living,” he’d tell me, but then he up and died. So, I had to go to work for the Atello family.

Mr. Atello -he liked it when people called him Don but that wasn’t his name- said Carlos was killed by a rival crime family because he was late. At the time I didn’t know what he meant, because I was always late to get to places, and Carlos was always the one waiting on me. I’m very slow. I understood later that Mr. Atello meant Carlos had been killed because he owed some very bad people a lot of money.

So, with my brother gone I had nowhere to go. Mr. Atello gave me a job, but it wasn’t like working with Carlos. The Atelloes didn’t treat me nicely at all. They always called me names, just like the kids in the orphanage used to do. They always wanted me to hurt people too, even to kill people. I did it, but I didn’t like it. Mr. Atello’s favorite was when he had me squeeze people till they didn’t move anymore.

It was the only life I knew till I met JJ. The Atello family wanted him to pay something called protection, for his bar, but JJ refused. Mr. Atello said I needed to teach him a lesson, but it was JJ who taught me the lesson. He showed me a better way. I know it sounds kind of sappy, but it’s true. Then he offered me a job. I still have to hurt people sometimes, but usually they deserve it.

I always thought that it’s kind of funny how you get reminded of a thing and then it keeps popping up over and over again in one day. It was like the time when I was telling JJ how much I liked peanut butter and on that same day I found half a peanut butter sandwich waiting for me in the backroom. JJ called it good luck, but today it wasn’t good at all. It was bad, very bad luck.

It happened when I was outside checking people waiting to get into the bar. I have a list of people I am supposed to watch out for. Most of the time I am looking for any villains that have been banned by JJ, but sometimes I have to make sure no one is a superhero or some kind of cop. JJ says letting them in will make the customers nervous, “and when these customers get nervous that’s when things go bad,” but I’ve messed up a few times. I’m fine with admitting that.

One time I let this gumshoe in because he was dressed up like a giant honey bee with a mask. He started taking pictures for some court case, and when the other customers figured out who he was, they almost killed him. I was able to stop them, but not before they had beat him up bad. I had to carry him to the hospital and leave him in the emergency room. I felt bad about just leaving him, but JJ said it was for the best.

Now the list JJ gives me has pictures of the people I am not supposed to let in. It helps. A lot of people try to disguise themselves to look like something else, but I’m really good at recognizing faces. I hardly ever let the wrong people in these days.

One of those people I’m not supposed to let in is Antonio “The Painter,” Atello. He’s Mr. Atello’s son and he’s a certifiable psychopath. Someone once told me they call him Painter because he likes to paint walls red.

“Well if it isn’t Too-Dumb,” says Painter as he walks up to the door. The two men standing behind him in suits start laughing as if it is the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. I hate that name even more than Two-Ton.

“I’m not supposed to let you in. JJ wouldn’t like it.”

“Forget that old has-been, Eddie. I’ve come to talk to you. My old man’s not feeling too well these days, you know.”

“Mr. Atello is sick?”

“Not sick enough,” says Painter. “I’m next in line to take over the family business…”

“Not if Vinnie the Octopus has anything to say about it,” says one of the men behind him.

“Would ya shut-up,” says Painter. It looks like he is going to hit the man, but instead he puts his arm around me, well as much as he can reach. “Listen, Eddie, I know you and me haven’t always been pals, but I could use a man like you in my new operation. You have a particular set of talents that I always valued. Who knows you might even become a made-man one day, if you play your cards right.”

“I work for JJ now,” I say proud of my new job, but Painter stills make me nervous. Most people call him unpredictable. Sometimes he’d be your best pal, then sometimes he’d be your worst nightmare. You never knew what mood he was going to be in.

“C’mon, it’ll be just you and me, Eddie, all the way to the top, once my old man is out of the picture. In fact, I was hoping you could help with that too. Dear old dad isn’t feeling quite himself, but the doctors say there is a chance he might recover. Now if a certain old disgruntled ex-employee were to pick this moment to exact his revenge…” he put his finger to my chest. “Such an occurrence might all but ensure my place at the top. Once I’m there, I’ll make sure you’ll be there right with me. I promise.”

“I’m done with that kind of work. I don’t hurt people like that anymore…”

“Suddenly you’re going soft on me? Who cares about the old man? Think about it, Eddie, my father’s not a very nice person. He deserves this. Then it’ll be just you and me.”

I hesitate. “I don’t know, Painter…”

“I thought I told you never to come around here.” The door to the bar swings shut and JJ is standing there looking angry. He’s using his cane today because he said the cold weather was making his leg stiffen up.

“Beat it, pops.” Painter laughs. “This is between me and my old friend, here.”

“Edward, I need your help bringing a new keg out from back. Gill broke the handcart again.” JJ looks at me as if he expects me to come inside with him.

I start to move, but Painter puts his arm in front of me. I obediently stop and put my head down. I can’t look at JJ.

“You want to spend the rest of your life working as some sort of glorified doorman in a dive bar that caters to lunatics in costumes or do you want to make something of yourself.” He rubs his fingers together. “I’m talking big cash, Eddie. Stick with me and you can afford the finer things in life.”

“There’s nothing fine about where that life leads. I’m not going to let you bring him back down this path again.”

“What’re you going to do about it, throw a calendar at me?” Painter shakes as if he’s scared, but I think he’s just pretending. Then he starts laughing at JJ. I want to say something, but I’ve never been able to stand up to Painter. He was always so scary.

“You’re a spoiled child who cares more about getting his own way then the consequences of his actions. One way or another that will catch up to you, and I won’t let you drag Edward down with you,” says JJ quietly. His eyes have this look like I’ve never seen before. It makes me feel cold inside.

“Choose your words carefully, old man. I don’t take no disrespect from anyone, especially senior citizens such as yourself. You don’t want to see what I do to guys who cross me. They say I’m crazy, you know.”

“I’ve known plenty of people like you in my day. You claim to like the mayhem, the chaos of it all, but it’s a cover. The truth is that you’d rather burn the world than face it. You’d rather kill your own father than confront him. When you come right down to it, you’re nothing but a coward.”

Painter is suddenly angry, so angry that he turns red. “Teach this has-been a lesson.”

One of Painter’s guys takes out a small club and laughs as he walks toward JJ, but he stops laughing when JJ’s cane breaks his teeth. Then even as he’s cursing, JJ uses his cane to knock him from his feet. He places the end of it on the man’s chest and presses some kind of button. Painter’s goon screams again, like he’s being shocked by electricity.

“I had this cane built special for…” The gunshot is so loud in the alley that it hurts my ears.

JJ falls to ground, and blood is starting to stain the sleeve of his flannel shirt. I move toward him to check if he is okay, but Painter’s voice stops me.

“Stay right where you are, Too-Dumb.” He’s still pointing his gun at JJ. “Actually take a few steps back.”

I don’t know what to do. I wish Georgia would come outside, she would know what to do, but she doesn’t. JJ once told me he had the walls of the bar soundproofed so no one outside would be able to hear what was going on inside. I guess it works the other way around too. No one inside heard the gun shot.

I look at Painter. Part of me want’s to rip his head from his shoulders. Instead, I step away from him and JJ. I can’t stand up to Painter. No one ever could.

“That’s a good monster,” he says. “Now here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to pay my father a visit, and afterwards I better hear that he ain’t breathing no more. I don’t care if you shoot him or hug him to death, but I want him dead, because if he ain’t…” Painter motions with his gun at JJ. “He will be. Coppice?”


“I’m not playing.” He takes a step toward JJ and cocks the gun. “That first bullet just grazed him. I won’t miss a second time. You know I don’t miss, or at least your old friend knows I don’t miss… What was his name, Juan?”


“That’s it. He was in some heavy debt to us. Normally we’d just break a guy’s legs if he owed us that much money, but with your buddy’s powers my father thought it was just better to cut our losses and make an example out of him.”

“You killed Carlos?” I look at JJ still lying on the pavement and I think about what it felt like to lose my brother. I don’t want to lose JJ too. They say I’m slow to do most things and that includes getting angry, but not this time. I feel my fists tighten so hard that they’re shaking. Suddenly, it starts to get hard to see anything else but Painter, and I don’t feel afraid of him anymore.

I don’t think he even noticed as he keeps talking. “My first shot took your friend in the head. He never even saw me. I couldn’t give him the chance to turn into that rock form of his, now could I? Now, I’m going to do the same to your new boss, unless…”

I run at Painter and now it’s his turn to be scared. He points his gun at me and starts firing. The bullets tickle as they hit me. I ignore them. I am usually so slow, but now I move faster than even I thought I could. I grab the gun and most of Painter’s hand. I squeeze till I hear something break and he starts screaming. It’s the second time I’ve broken someone’s hand today, but this time I don’t feel so bad. I toss him against the alley wall with a yell. Part of the brick crumbles when he hits.

His last goon in the suit drops his own gun and holds up his hands. “I weren’t thinking of doing nothing,” he says as he helps up the man JJ took down. Together they run off down the alley leaving Painter where he is.

“Are you okay, JJ?” I ask as he stands up.

“It’s a scratch.” He picks up his cane. “Take your friend over there and put him in the dumpster behind Constantine’s Bakery on the corner of 8th and Helios. It’s owned by Vinnie the Octopus. I’m sure he’ll be very interested in the discovery one of his employees makes tonight when they go out back to dump the stale bagels.”

“Okay, JJ.”

“And, Edward,” he hesitates as he opens the bar door, “hurry back. I still need help with that keg.”

Read all the stories about Friday’s Bar for Super-villains

How do I keep finding myself in these blooming situations? thought Egan as he stalked carefully through the darkened trees. What am I doing here? I’m not anyone special.  Silhouetted by the moonlight he looked back on the road he had come. It was too late to turn back, too dark to even see the way home. His fate lay only ahead of him now.

Nothing more than a figure of shadow and fear, he gazed at the woodland around him. Every tree limb, every animal, any and every movement played across the young man’s doubts. Each rustle and crack became an imagined beast capable of devouring a man whole. Of course, that could very likely be my true end before this night has run out

Leaving the safety of the path for the greater concealment of the forest, Egan moved through the trees silently, navigating the treacherous undergrowth as only a practiced Heroner could. Growing up in the woodland village of Heron’s Haven the youth had learned how to move through trees, quickly and quietly, when the situation was called for and this one most certainly did. As children he and his friends often played hiding games among the forest, but always close to the village itself. To journey further had always been a child’s dare. Maybe that’s all I am, a fool kid who never grew to see the reason of his elder years.

In the forest there was one place none would ever go, a place all knew for its dangers. Not even the most foolhardy of village boys would journey so deep into the nightmare wood. How could a mere boy step foot where even his father dared not travel? Dark and villainous, I had become to be known only as The King’s Lair, and it was this very place where Egan now found himself.

Around him the vibrant life of the forest had grown dim. The triproot was much denser underfoot as if not an animal or other had passed through within recent memory to trample down the thick litter of the forest floor. All had known better, which meant he was face with the reality that he truly was less intelligent than a squirrel or racmonk.

As the brush became denser so did the treetops. Only a few shafts of moonlight managed to pierce the heavy tree canopy, providing but a brief glimpse of light every few hundred steps. It was a long journey through the blackness, and perhaps, the Pits of Death were darker, but at least there one could be certain they were already dead. In this place, Egan had not even the comfort of that certainty.

Eventually, even the darkest of journeys must end, and his concluded in a small clearing, a break in the shadow, where the cloudless night was allowed to bring its gentle glow to the land. Set inside was a great cave opening emerging from an even greater mountain side. Along the outer edge was a small stream, pooling at the foot of the mountain, and continuing on into the forest and untold places. The moon reflected off the rippling water trickling down from its mountain origin. For a moment, Egan stood taking in this little utopia buried among the nightmare of the surrounding forest. To one who had not known better it would seem an oasis of hope in a desert of darkness, but he knew better. This moment of silent observation was brief, for in this angelic place there existed a greater demon then any that had been conceived of by the mind of a slumbering man.

No sooner was Egan out of sight then did he hear the sound of wings. They were not the feathery wings of a bird. The sound was much crisper, like the snap of leather, but neither were they the sound of a bat. It grew steadily to a near deafening roar as the creature approached. The beast was larger in size, than any bird, any bat, or any man could ever be.

Egan chanced a brief look, as the creature crossed the moon. It circled once before easing into the clearing, its arrival announced with one last flap of great wings, and a massive thud that shook the ground. The breezed gusted as the creature’s landing stirring up loose leaves and tree branches all around him. Mammoth in size, it towered over the very treetops themselves, a terrifying sight, yet compelling. Like a man mesmerized by fire, Egan could not look away from the beautifully frightening giant.

The beast’s crystalline scales flared brightly in the moonlight, with an almost unnatural shine. Its head was arrayed with a crown of sharp horns, and a no better or majestic cap was ever laid upon a king of man then what sat atop that great beast’s head. It folded wings behind its back, a royal robe of scarlet leather and green crystal. The creature’s noble gaze slowly scanned its domain, searching for anything that dared to disturb its realm.

Egan caught sight of the creature’s eyes. They burned like the flame of death, but there was something more that he could not place, a spark deep within the flame, a mere hint of something concealed. Awe struck by this impressive monster he could do only one thing, think only one thought, say only one whispered word, “Dragon.”

The word, barely audible, snapped the creature’s head to rigid attention. Stupid, boy, he cursed in him mind. Egan flattened himself among the underbrush which no longer seemed as thick as it had a moment earlier. The great beast lowered his razor snout to where he lay, sniffing the air with nostrils larger than a man’s head and absorbing the smells around him, like a village dog on the hunt of dinner scraps. Is that all I am, all I was ever meant to be?

The youth’s hand fell to his hip, a sweat-soaked palm coming to rest on the hilt of his sword. That familiar weight was always an odd sort of comfort, like man bare and naked suddenly remembering his trousers. A good sword could make a man feel invincible, as if he could stand against any foe mortal or otherwise.

Egan’s fingers tightened around the hilt. He knew that the dragon was sure to find him now. The time had come to be weighed and measured, to move or die, but he he could not move. Something in him was compelled to inaction as if his muscles were suddenly stone.

Yet, the beast did not kill him were he cowered. The dragon backed his head away slowly, almost cautiously. Once certain of no movement the creature retired to its cave with not a second glance. Egan found himself alone and freezing, shaking in his cold sweat.

Regaining a composure he never had he reprimanded himself for his near fatal mistake, but he still dared not move. The night was suddenly open to him, every sight, sound, and smell were tangible. The taste of the crisp early spring air, the very distant sound of night birds, the feeling of noiseless wind on his face, the slight smell of sulfur, and below it all like a deep heartbeat, he could hear the breath of the dragon within the cave. For a very long time Egan listened with no nerve to move as the great beast settled and slept. Thoughts whirled through his head as he lay among the dirt and undergrowth.

*  *  *  *  *

It had been an unseasonably cold night for spring, but not in the Spitting Pig, the local tavern. Draen having finished his seventh pint had boasted he could kill a bear with his hands, and demonstrated it on Ferris who moments earlier had boasted to take any man. The Blacksmith brothers, Hector and Dorvin looked on laughing. Rathel watched quietly as he always did, never having much to add but enjoying the company. Egan, always the leader, egged the two on boasting that he could best them all. That was where it had begun and with the eyes of the bar mistress, Evia, whom no man could ever seem to form a proper sentence around.

The trouble thus began where it usually starts with most young men, women and pride. That was the night, while Daen and Ferris wrestled like drunken bears, Egan approached her. Slowly at first the conversation began, but with well placed laughs and compliments it quickly picked up momentum, much like Draen’s meaty hand had before it hit him unexpectedly. The whole tavern, the whole village laughed, especially Evia.

The larger man, having finished with Ferris, wished to test the claims of Egan and had struck, not hard, but enough to make the other feel a fool. That was when the simple yet dreaded boast erupted from his mouth. “I could take you. I could take the King if I wanted.”

“Could you really?” asked Evia with her eyes as much as her lips.

“He’s just fooling,” said one of the Blacksmith brothers before they both fell over laughing.

“I will,” said Egan as he stood. “I will kill the dragon.” With no more to say to the stunned crowd he walked out.

Even after he sobered up Egan was never one to back down from a challenge. His friends knew him and the strength of his words. They tried to talk him out of fulfilling his claim, but there was nothing to be said. He had said the words and put his solemn vow to it. Others may have saw it as foolish pride, but to him it was a matter of honor, at least what small honor the son of tanner could have. Even if he died he planned to do so with his word unbroken.

*  *  *  *  *

What if I don’t die? The dragon had failed to pick up his scent. The feared and ferocious King, talked about in the legends of his small woodland village was perhaps less than the god he was believed to be.

The stories had stretched back for generations, told from grandparent to grandson, down the lines. A great beast, an efficient and deadly hunter, and a monster that would devour anything unfortunate enough to run across its path, these were the stories of King the Dragon.

Perhaps long ago, but what of now? Could it be true? Could King be as old as to be feeble? Some believed that dragons were immortal, but Egan had begun to hope that those beliefs were wrong. So it was, from that small thread of hope, a gilded suit of courage began to be forged in his mind. What if King is much older then most people understand?

Suddenly, he was already feasting at his own victory banquet. The beautiful Evia sat upon his arm, the arm of a hero. She listened intently as he told the daring story of how he slayed the dragon for the another countless time. His name would become legend. The great celebration of his mind’s eye played before him until eventually he succumbed to slumber.

It was from this dreamless sleep that Egan awoke with a start to find himself staring into a great fiery red pupil centered among a golden yellow orb. Immediately, he pulled his blade clear of its scabbard and dove into the clearing away from the mighty beast. He hit the ground and rolled into a low fighting stance.

The dragon gave the rolling, jumping, jittery man a dispassionate eye. The great creature lazily turned towards him as the little man waved his sword around, like a twig in a driving wind. Raising his head to the moon, it gave a powerful cry that rocked the trees, shook the ground, and turned Egan’s very bones to porridge. All his high talk of honor and pride fell short of the actual danger he now faced.

As Egan’s nerve drained so did his color. With one mighty swing of the beast’s talon the pale youth’s sword landed several paces away with a sharp metallic ping as it became wedged in the trunk of a near-by tree. With the loss of that last symbol of courage his nerve finally broke, but it was too late. Every attempt he made to run the dragon was there, around him, ahead of him, behind him. He soon realized that the surprisingly nimble giant was herding him into the cave, into his very den. With no choices left to him, the man ran desperately into the dark mountain hole in hopes of finding even the smallest exit. Clawing futilely at the walls to no avail, he understood with a grim determination that he was trapped.

King entered the blackened cave, his massive shape silhouetted by the moonlight, blocking all light momentarily as he moved through its entrance with a cat-like grace. Egan considered hiding in the darkness, but when he caught sight of those flaming red eyes, he knew it would make little difference. They followed him warily, always on him no matter how he moved in that blackened cave. Suddenly, a flash of light and flame burst forth from the creature’s mouth. He cringed and awaited the searing pain that never came.

Opening an eyelid he found the cave basked in the warm glow of a fire. In its center stood a large pile of kindling cracking and spewing forth a flame that illuminated the bleak darkness. The dragon, however, was still staring at him. King sat for a long time, his eyes upon the young man, and after the great beast seemed satisfied with whatever private sentence he passed upon the invader of his domain, he moved slowly into a lying position, those scarlet eyes never once leaving Egan.

How odd to see a dragon lying down. After the shock of his initial fright, his fear-stricken-mind seemed to wander toward odder thoughts. Lying down is the sort of thing that seems very much out of character for such a great beast. Dragons were havoc and destruction, they ravage towns and steal maidens, but surely they did not lie down. It looks more like my old dog than any great specter of death. Yet he needed no more reminder of what the creature truly was than to look to its scaled and talon wings, folded along his backside. It was no domesticated pet.

This was how each remained for several arduous moments, but after a time Egan’s nerves began to calm. Not even the tightest of cords can stay taught forever, and the now overwhelming cold he felt was beginning to demand more attention then his residing fear. Slowly he approached the fire and sat down opposite the dragon.

“Are you comfortable?”

Egan jumped looking for the voice’s source. “Who said that?” He had hoped his own voice was not quivering too much.

“I did.” The youth turned his head settling it upon the dragon. “Yes, that’s right. I was the one who spoke,” said King. To see words pass from the lips of the great beast was almost too much, akin to watching a fish leap from the water and fly like a bird. “I take from that look you never expected to see a dragon talk.”

“What black art makes this possible?” was all the dumb-struck man could mumble.

“I know many languages. I talk to many different animals, even humans.”

“But you’re a dragon?” Egan stammered.

“And you are a human. You think yourselves far superior to all other things, and yet you, young one, had no idea that dragons had the ability for speech. Perhaps that makes you just a dumb animal.”

His words were not harsh, but King’s voice had a velvety quality to it. Words of stone were draped in a layer of compassion and caring. The words spoken were ones of a teacher correcting his student for a simple mistake. They were not the words of a violent being.

“In all the stories I heard about the great King, I never once heard about his being able to talk.” It was a thought spoken aloud more for Egan’s sake, but King could only shake his massive head as he considered it. Even such a slight movement seemed so human that it threatened to overwhelm the poor youth’s threshold for understand.

“How foolish are humans and their assumptions?” King turned his head to the cave entrance where a small figure, about the size of a large dog, was entering. It came around the massive body of the intelligent beast, to lie down near the fire.

A small animal, its scales were a more vibrant green then that of its larger counterpart, but the same burning bright eyes marked its origins clear. The horns on its head were not as developed, and its wings still seemed more slender in the comparison, but no mistake could be made. It was a baby dragon.

“Are you female?” asked the bewildered Egan.

“All dragons are one gender,” responded the larger beast. “Though I suppose the closest a human could understand would be to see us as female, but such a mark is not accurate. How could something be called day without night? It is another arrogant judgment passed upon my kind by the race of man.”

“Then how do you have children?” Egan hoped the question was not inappropriate, but his curiosity was suddenly overwhelming.

King looked lovingly at her child as the small creature drifted asleep, warm and safe by the fire. “All dragons are born with-child. We, however, do not lay our egg until a certain age. It takes a dragon egg ten summers to hatch. My child was born three summers ago. She is still very young. She cannot fly, and her flame is yet small. You see, young one, my only have one offspring. Every dragon in the world is only capable of bearing one child.”

“All this time, you’re not a King, you’re a queen,” said the man momentarily lost in thought. “Wait, if that is true then the number of dragons in the world could never rise.” Understanding began to dawn on his face.

The great creature nodded. “A dragon lays her egg toward the end of life. Once hatched, a mother has only about a hundred summers left of life. In that time she must raise and teach her child all which it must know. When the parent dies the child will take her place in the world. If a dragon is killed, not only does she die, but so does her lineage. Thus, forever will there be one less dragon in this world.” King’s eyes wandered toward the fire as if lost in some distant memory.

“I was always taught the dragons were immortal?”

King’s eyes shifted toward Egan. “To the butterfly, a tree is immortal. My kind is long lived. I myself have existed for over a thousand summers.

“I can remember when there were no humans in these woods. When I was much younger I caught some of the best prey where you village now stands, long before your kind came to these lands.” King smiled a little at the memory as it faded from her eyes. “No more. Your people have over hunted this forest. I am lucky if I can find enough food for a season anymore. I have to keep going further from my home, and my child, to find even meager hunting. Sometimes I resort to stealing one of your sheep or cows, like a common wolf, just to get any food.”

The dragon’s gaze hardened as her anger flared. “Man thinks only of himself. This is not your forest. You did not create it and you were not the first ones to inhabit it. You should learn to respect it, as all others do. You should learn take only what you need.” King’s voice grew to a roar and Egan once again found himself fearing for his life.

However, the dragon upon seeing how afraid the youth had become pulled her temper under control. “I apologize. Sometimes I forget myself and my emotions.”

“I think it is I who must apologize. I can understand how you must feel.” Egan relaxed again, but remained wary. “Why me? How come you didn’t just kill me?”

“You humans have begun to grow bolder. I used to go many summers without seeing any of the race of man. Now it seems every time I leave my cave, there is one here in hopes of receiving a new trophy. Most are men, grizzled by warfare and years of hardship. None listen to reason, and I wonder if anyone in the world misses them. You, however, are a child. You must be no more then 20 summers old?”

“I am 19 years old. A man by all rights,” he said defensively.

“Of course, but in my experience, youth means idealism. You are young enough yet to have your mind changed. I need one, such as you, who can speak on my behalf. One who can convince your race to stay away from my home and my child. Everyday now, I fear to go out hunting for food, and leave my little one alone. Yet, I have no real choice. It is either hunt or starve and she is too little to fly.” Her gaze moved to the sleeping drake curled by the fire. “I do not know what you can do, but I ask that you try.”

“Why not go yourself and plead your case? You can come with me back to my village.”

“To go to your home, would be certain death. Most humans do not even know dragons have to ability to speak. Before I could even utter a single word your people would try to destroy me.”

“But you’re a dragon. Surely, you could force them to listen.”

“You yourself are bigger and stronger than a hornet. Would you willingly put your hand into a hive? No, I am too old. It would be my death.”

The pair sat in silence for awhile. Each lost in their own thoughts. The young man stared into the flaming fire, before returning his gaze to the flaming eyes of the dragon. “How come you’re kind has never tried to talk to humans before?”

“How come you’re kind has never tried to talk to dragons before?”

“Fear, I suppose.”

“We are different, and differences breed fear, and fear breeds violence. I have watched you humans for generations. You war with each other unending, over your own slight differences. Your people would not hesitate to kill me for mine.”

“I suppose you’re right.” He looked outside the cave. The sky was beginning to redden with the first rays of morning. “The sun is coming up. I should be going.”

“Yes and thank you for listening,” said King.

Egan got to his feet. Dusting himself off, he walked near the dragon. “Thank you. I will try to tell them what you have told me. Farewell.” He walked out of the cave into the rising sunlight.

“Farewell,” followed the voice from behind him.

As he left the clearing Egan looked back to see the outline of King standing in the cave’s entrance. She was glowing in the morning light. He smiled to himself and plunged into the lightening forest.

As the sun continued to rise, the nightmare forest of the previous night no longer seemed threatening. In fact Egan was surprised to find that he was actually happy. Picking his way through the thick underbrush he forged on toward home, excited by the new things he had learned he could not wait to tell his friends.

He was not far along on his journey when he heard the great cry pierce the morning air. It was some distance behind him, yet clear. It brought back to him the frightful memories of the night before. With no thought he turned and started back toward the cave,, running, charging, tripping several times in his mad rush.

He knew what he would find in that clearing. The sounds of a battle could be heard ringing through the trees. Egan slowed as he approached. Panting from exhaustion he observed the scene ahead of him.

A group of five men were circling King their naked swords catching the growing rays of sunlight, but not just any men, they were his friends.

“Stop!” Egan yelled between ragged breathes as he broke into the clearing. No one heard or no one cared. In desperation he threw himself at the closest man, the wiry Ferris. Both tumbled to the rocky dirt.

Ferris’s stern gaze turned quickly to bright smile as he saw who it was. “You’re alive!” he yelled. “When you didn’t come back last night we came here looking for you. Then when we got here we saw your sword,” he pointed to the blade lodged in the nearby tree. “We feared you dead, but now you’re here.”

“So you don’t need to kill anything,” Egan said desperately.

“No, now we can all do it together. Think of it, Egan, we’ll go home heroes with the greatest trophy anyone has ever seen.”

“No, I can’t let you!” shouted Egan as he came to his feet.

“What are you talking about? Think of it, we’d be the men who defeated the mighty King.”

“No you don’t understand…” The man stopped at the sound of a scream, a human scream. Both men looked to see one of the Blacksmith brothers lying on the grassy floor, a deep gash across chest and stomach. Dorvin lay on the ground crying out in pain.

“No!” yelled both men in unison. Ferris left his friend’s side, and charged back into the fight.

“Stop, you all have to stop!” pleaded Egan but his appeal went unheeded.

Then his heart stopped as the baby wandered from the safety of the cave. Draen was the first to reach it, threatening it with his sword. King lost control of her temper and charged the man. As she flew at him, Hector and Rathel drove their blades into the soft underbelly of the beast. The noble creature cried out in pain as her side ran red with little streams of blood.

With a single breath the dragon let loose a ball of fire that consumed the offending men. The heat created waves in the air, blasting the sand underfoot to glass. Two lifeless charred bodies were all that remained of Egan’s friends.

Draen abandoned the baby dragon in favor of her mother, and lunged with his sword. Impressively he managed two quick cuts in her vulnerable area, but that was the last thing he ever did. With another breath of fire he too fell dead, cooked where he stood.

Ferris taking up the fallen sword of the now motionless Dorvin struck with twin blades. King slowed from her injuries was only able to block one. It went spinning away into the forest but not before its twin found its mark. Moments later Ferris fell nearly sliced in two from King’s razor sharp claw.

The clearing was peaceful once again. Egan could even hear a songbird singing. The transition had been eerily quick, chaos to peace. He looked around at the bodies of his five friends. The five men he’d grown up with, joked with, and cared about. Next his gaze fell onto the fiery red eyes of the great beast.

King wavered as she stood there in the morning air. Her breath was ragged and quick. She was in great pain. “I am sorry,” was all she said before she fell to the battle marred floor. It shook with the impact of her massive body.

He watched the creature for a moment where she lay, her gut rose and fell rapidly. Each breath was short and accompanied by soft groans. Walking over to her he could only think of holding her head. “No, I’m sorry. This is my fault. They were my friends. They came here after me. If I hadn’t come…”

“Do not blame yourself,” said King softly. “The fish does not know where the stream may lead him. It must follow and do what it can when waters become troubled.” The man looked into those noble eyes again. He finally realized what the spark was. It was intelligence and compassion. They were the eyes of creature who wanted nothing more than a quite life for her and her child. They were so human, yet somehow so much more.

A small figure emerged from its place of hiding, crying out as she saw her mother. The drake fell against her parent with a howl that told of true sorrow and pain. King spoke to her in a strange language of ancient growls and throaty rumbles. Perhaps, she was trying to comfort the small defenseless creature or to tell her something more, Egan never knew.

Looking back up at him, she spoke softly, “They were your friends and I know how much it must hurt. Know that I only did what I had to, to protect myself and my child. They arrived only moments after you left. As I said before, most humans do not want to talk. They just want blood.”

Egan just nodded.

“Now she will be without a mother. She will die unless someone teaches her how to survive.” Her words were strained, coming much slower.

He looked down at the little creature that was clinging hopelessly to its parent. “I will raise her. I don’t know what I may be able to do, but I promise you, I will try.”

“I know you will. I am at peace knowing you will be here. You are a very rare person, I think.”

“Don’t die,” said Egan, as if his futile plea could stave off the inevitable. Tears fell steadily from his eyes landing soft against the dragon’s emerald scales.

“I will not, as long as my child lives. Through her part of me will always be alive.” Her eyes began to grow distant. They gazed past the young man to something beyond. The noble beast took one last breath and was still. Her stomach ceased to move, and that spark of life and spirit left her great scarlet eyes.

Sensing the loss the drake gave a loud cry. Egan’s heart broke at the sound of it and at the loss of such a creature. Soon however sorrow became resolve. I will not allow this death to mean death for another. I will raise her.

*  *  *  *  *

Egan never returned to his small woodland village. As far as the people of Heron’s Haven knew all six friends had died that day, but all were too afraid to make certain. That was how they left it.

After he had buried the dead men, he burned the body of King. The flame rose white hot, as the dragon’s own inner fire mingled with the pyre that consumed her remains. He spread the ashes among the wind from a place higher up in the mountain. Everything was done with the greatest reverence. Egan was not just burying a dead beast, but a queen among the forest.

Appropriately he named the little dragon, Princess. The two lived together in the cave in the clearing. Each grew and aged as time went on, as did their friendship. Princess grew up strong and beautiful. She had her mother’s eyes.

Egan lived up to his solemn vow. He taught Princess to hunt, and talk, and even to fly. He protected her, raised her, and cared for as if she was his own child. He lived to be ninety-five years old, as if by some magic, and when he finally died Princess burned his body and scattered it among the wind to join the soul of her mother.

After his death the young dragon left the clearing and the woodland in search of better hunting grounds and maybe even others of her kind. She never did return to that forest, but she never forgot the man and all the lessons he taught her. He truly was a specual type of person.

“Oxygen levels, seven percent,” said the tinny emotionless voice.

Two days since the accident. Two days, since the death of the crew. Sometimes I can almost see a face, soft and warm with red lips, like roses, and the greenest eyes of spring lawn. A man could lie in them for hours and forget the world. A man could almost feel the grass blades between bare toes, and the cool nighttime breeze across goose-pimpled skin, like when I was a kid, left to lay for hours gazing at the stars.

The stars, I could never get enough of them, sitting outside till I was dragged to bed. The irony has not escaped even my oxygen starved brain. I suppose the universe does have a sense of humor. Those stars will be the last thing I ever see. Still, they are beautiful.

The sky outside rotates slowly, an endless cycle of glittering diamonds. The explosion that kicked me clear must have sent me into a spin, slow enough to not be dizzying, but fast enough that I can trace the movements of constellations across my viewplate. I have become a world unto myself, small and alone, floating through the void and surrounded by billions of tiny reminders of light and possibility. Some are known to me and others still deeply unfamiliar. If only I had an eternity to unlock their secrets, but I am down to mere hours.

Hair as soft as silk and as dark as the endless void, it smelled of lunch meat, but that was only in the morning. The kids used to laugh as we played rocketship, while she made their lunch. I can almost see her face. James, I love you, come home to me. It floats before me, obscured and distorted, like a figure trapped under the ice, kicking and screaming for air, but it’s gone. Now, I am alone.

The only thing real is the groan of my stomach, louder than before. The only image I can hold is the tube of paste I ate for breakfast so many days ago. I think it was banana. It tasted like metal. They always tasted like metal. I’m thirsty, but not “I just ran five-miles thirsty,” just “I could use a drink” thirsty. A beer would be nice. The saline indicator on my helmet is below zero. The emergency supply ran out hours ago, or days ago. There is no difference anymore.

Saturn rises across my field of vision. Its rings are back-lit by the sun and the powdery blue dust that surrounds the god-planet’s rings are shining like a thin wire of razor, beautiful and bright. It gives the whole planet the illusion of a motion faster than any purported by science. The great orb is like a spinning top on a whirling axis. It was my obsession, my only religion for so many years. All I wanted to do was see it with my own eyes, and now my eyes turn beyond it. In the distance, sits a bright blue dot.

Home is not a place, it’s a feeling, it’s family. Whenever you think of us, you’ll be home. The words come distant and half-remembered. My father spoke them on the day I left for college or was it the academy. He is dead now, and when I think of his face I see nothing. I feel only the cold in my fingertips. I never made it home for the funeral, a six month mission made it an impossibility. Everyone said they understood, of course they did. Maybe I never could.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

Never say you’re sorry for that which is beyond your control. I am proud of you, son. Was it in my head? Was it my imagination? Did the suit’s communication system just come to life? It’s not possible. There is no one within a billion kilometers. I am the only human, the only thing alive out here. I am truly alone, and I am delusional.

“Oxygen levels, five percent.”

The flames, the rush of air, the silence. I come awake with a start from the half remembered dream, or was it a half-dreamt memory. Saturn is in full view. Even at this distance it dwarfs everything. Distantly, I hope I get to see it one more time, before I finally let go.

Hold on, son. Hold on to life. As long as you draw breath there is hope. I remember when he first said that me. His voice echoed from below, through the winter trees. We were camping and I had slipped from a tree limb. I had climbed too high. The limbs were too weak to support me. I have been trying to reach something, but the goal itself is beyond memory. Only the climb remains.

Hope is everything. Never lose it. This time the comm indicator sprang to life. The words weren’t imagined. They were real, spoken over the short distance channel.

“Dad?” my voice is raw and cracked. It hurts to speak, but it is maddening to stay silent. “Dad, is that you? Where are you?”

The only reply is my own breathing. I am beginning to slip. The isolation has taken its toll. Hypothermia is beginning to set in. The suit’s internal life support is slowly shutting down, like a deer succumbing to snow and frost, stumbling ignorantly towards its cold lonely end.

“Oxygen level, three percent.”

I wake. “Dad.” I don’t know if I screamed it. It’s hard to gauge how loud something is inside a helmet of plastic and metal. I struggle to get control of my flailing limbs. They no longer feel like part of my body. They no longer feel like flesh, just wood, nothing more than useless branches attached to a dying and forgotten tree.

I remember his eyes. They were bluer than the sky, bluer than the icicles that used to form on our garage.

I’m here, son. The LED indicators on my helmet are dead. There is no way of verifying the transmission source, but I am certain it is a transmission all the same. Saturn is gone now, replaced again with the endless ocean of stars.

“How is this possible?”

Moments fade, even memories die away, but love remains. Suddenly, there is light and color and I can see his face. It is a distant memory. I must have been very young. He still had his hair and that stupid mustache, but it was the same toothy grin.

“You’re not here. You’re dead. Gone.” I close my eyes and the light fades. Only the stars remain, eternal and fixed.

Everything must end. Even the stars are not forever. Their light is older than we can imagine. Most are dead even as they shine down on us. He is older now. His face shaded beneath the nighttime sky, only half facing me. His eyes sit transfixed on something above us.

“Dead.” I let the word hang there. Maybe for the first time I truly begin to question its meaning. Death, the concept seems almost beyond the scope of imagining, if not understanding. How can one word hold so much meaning and so much abstraction?

“Oxygen level, two percent,” says the computer as if in rebuttal to my musings, but even its voice of certainty is beginning to grow slow with the frost. I never considered what might happen to that voice. It will die with me, without ever having been alive. For some reason the thought saddens me. Man and machine will meet their end together.

But just because something ends, doesn’t mean it goes away. Look at the stars. Even after they have disappeared from the universe their light continues to shine. They continue to inspire and drive us. They are still beautiful. So why does death need to be any different? I could almost feel his hand on my shoulder as we stood before the casket of my mother. His face is blurry, but only because I watch him through tears.

“You’re not here. There is no life after death. No heaven or hell.” Such fantasies were sweet lies told to children to give comfort in times of grief. I know that. I’m a scientist and I know what happens to a person after death. Neural pathways shut down, the body stops pumping blood, cells starve for oxygen. They die, nothing less and nothing more. There is no light. Their isn’t even a tunnel.

My son, the scientist. You know so much. What do you know? Nothing. Quantum mechanics, string theory, dark energy? His face is angry, distorted somewhere between rage and pity. Fancy words to mean that for as much as you think you know, you still know nothing. Maybe God isn’t in the sky. Maybe he’s in us, tangled in the places between quarks, or unseen in the fifth, or sixth, or even thirteenth dimension? What if he is speaking to us now through the vibrations of a quantum string or calling to us through cosmic radiation?

“There is no God. We live. We die.” My mouth moves mechanically, rehashing the old argument, but the words just feel cold in my mouth, as if they too have been frozen by the void around me.

What good is your science if it only dashes hope? Hope is everything.

“We’re dead particles, brought to life for a brief second through a freak accident of nature. Dust to dust and ash to ash.”

Stardust and cosmic ash, perhaps. Those particles were forged in stars, created at the beginning of time itself. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. There is a spark of the cosmos in us and that is no accident. We are part of something greater. How can that mean nothing?

“I miss you, Dad.”

“Oxygen level, one percent.” The hum of the air filters quiets. I had grown so accustomed to them I didn’t even realize they were still on. Now there is no sound. All the suit’s systems are dead. I am not far behind. My eyes feel heavy. I close them to rest, if only for a moment

Death is nothing to fear. Take it from a dead man.

“I want to believe you. I wish you were here.”

I am always with you. If space and time are one, then do any of us truly ever exist, ever truly stop existing? Maybe we never really go away. Maybe we are always here, like faint echoes bouncing around the great vastness.

“Even after you’re dead you’re still lecturing me.” I try to put the joke to my voice, but it comes out flat especially in the lonely dome of my helmet.

Only trying to show you the way. Like a light from a long-gone star.

Could the voice be right? Time is an illusion tethered by gravity, and if there is one thing I am lacking, it’s gravity. Then why am I so short on time? I open my eyes. Saturn has returned and I can almost feel it smiling down on me, like an eternal deity. In that moment, I remember my mythology. My father would have laughed. Saturn is the god of time.

I wait, but the voice says no more. Real or imagined, it’s gone. The only sound is my shallow breathing. I know am breathing in my own CO2. Each slow gasp seems more unsatisfactory than the last, but those are distant sensations. My body seems suddenly unimportant, because my eyes are growing heavy and before they close the last thing I see is my god.

“Why don’t you let me take you away from here,” says the man as he rolls a coin across his fingers. His pressed suit is unbuttoned and it flaps open as he leans back in his chair. “You and me can be so happy together?”

“Com’on, sugah, you know that line ain’t never worked on me,” I say as I pick up the empty glass from his table and put it on my tray.

“And yet I am compelled by your beauty to say it every time,” he winks and the coin in his hand disappears in a flash of fire and sulfur.

“Zagan, darling, you may have been a king in hell, but up here ya just another bar fly, and this month’s tab is due.”

He smiles his wicked smile and for moment I get a glance at the demon underneath. One moment his hands are empty the next he is holding several hundred dollars of crisp green bills.

“Now, sugah, JJ done warned you about using that funny money in here. We don’t accept no bad bills.”

His face is suddenly all innocent as if he has no idea what I am talking about. “Georgia, darling,” he says with his best smile, which only serves to remind me of some of the men I’ve dated in my life. All of them were no good neither, just like Zagan. “You think I would dare swindle good Mr. Friday, or you, my delicious pomegranate?”

He takes my hand to kiss, but I’m faster than he thinks. In one swift jerk I not only manage to slap some sense into him but I come back with his money square in my grip. All I need do is squeeze and the bills turn to ash, like year-old burnt paper. I watch the little bits of them float to the ground, nothing more than soot and lies. I know what’s coming next. I’ve done this dance before.

“You dare strike me,” he thunders. He’s up faster than my old dog, Bush, when he used to hear the cats scratching around out back. His chair clatters to the ground and he has a sort of red glowing flame about him. “I am a Lord of Hell,” he continues. “I have killed scores of angels and men. Both the good and the wicked whisper my name in fear and awe. I am the Lord Zagan, and I will not be treated…”

He’s too busy doing the old monologue to really see my fist until its lands square in his jaw. He staggers back in surprise and that red glowing aura of his is no where to be seen. He’s cradling his mouth as if I’ve broken it. I haven’t. I know how to break a man’s jaw and what I gave him weren’t anything more than a friendly tap. In the background I see Edward perk up from his place near the front, but I shake my head at him. I don’t need no help with the likes of men like Zagan.

“Don’t give me that ol’ speech, sugah. Everyone knows you were thrown out of hell faster than a priest from a whore house. Now best git from here before I do the same.”

“You bitc…” He rounds on me his fist coming like he intends to do some harm. Its a big mistake. I’ve been trained by the best and even if Zagan is immortal he still bleeds like the rest us. His punch finds nothing but air, but my roundhouse on the other hand, connects squarely with his chest. He gives off a noise like a deflating balloon before he impacts with the wall a few feet behind him. He keeps his feet for a moment but soon enough collapses like a dog on a summer’s day.

Edward is already there, bless his simple heart. He doesn’t even say a word as he picks up the fallen demon and throws him into the side alley with the trash. The rest of the villains in the bar barely notice what happened. Things often get rough in here, but I don’t much mind. Back in my day I was one of the most feared martial artists in all of Dixie, back when I was known as Southern Bedlam, but those days were ages ago.

Now I’m just plain old Georgia Atlanta, bar waitress and mom. I smile at the thought of Owen, my son. He’s the only man in my life now and as much as I miss the thrill of it all, I would gladly give it all up again. I’d do anything for that boy. I already have.

“That was really great, Miss Atlanta,” says Gil. He’s whipping up the beer and blood from the floor as I finish clearing Zagan’s table.

“Sugah, how many times do I have to tell you, call me Georgia. Last time I was Miss Atlanta it was during my beauty pageant days, back when I was sixteen goin on thirty, and I haven’t been sixteen in… well a while.”

“Sure,” says Gil as he stands from up off the ground. “Whatever you say.”

I can tell the boy is sweet on me, but I try not to encourage it. He’s a nice enough kid, but as wet behind the ears as a tadpole. JJ took a special interest in him, but I don’t have time to be playing nursemaid to some wonder struck youngin’. I have my own concerns in life. Even as I think it, I glance at the dirty clock on the wall, and realize that I have to be at daycare to pick up Owen at quarter past.

“Gil, I gots to get going. You can finish up for me here, right?” I don’t even wait for an answer I just shove the tray and empty bottles into the boy’s hand. I turn toward the back of the bar and begin to undo my apron. “And tell JJ…”

“Hello, Southern,” the voice is strong yet scratchy. Like it hasn’t been used in a long while. I had not heard it in years, but all the same it is still unmistakable.

I never finish what I am about to say to Gil. I freeze mid-step, my hands still fumbling with the strings of my short apron. It takes a moment to find the fellow I am looking for, but sure enough he’s right there sitting at a table not three feet in front of me. He must have come in when I weren’t looking. The man was older than I remember, with a shaggy growth of hair that covers him chin to nose. One of those brimmed hats is covering his face, but as he talks he takes it off I see his once beautiful blonde hair is showing patches of gray.

“Albert,” I hear myself exclaim. I take a step back from him before I even know what I am doing.

The man stands and now the whole room is paying attention. His frame is thin, thinner than I can remember, but I know that his wiry body does not do justice to the power the man has. As he comes to his feet his brown coat comes open and I see the symbol adorning the tattered suit hidden beneath, it is the symbol of a fist orbited by four stars. Some of the other patrons see it too and suddenly I hear his name being whispered all about me like crickets on a spring night.

“General Relativity,” I hear them say. “I thought he was dead?” asks one man. “Nah, I heard he was doing time is some government max-pen,” responds another. All the voices are lost to me as I find myself falling back into old memories.

The world knows him and fears him as General Relativity, one of the most powerful super-villains to walk this here planet or any other for that matter, but I knew him as the man he was, Albert Issacs. To them he was destruction incarnate, to me he was the man who brought me flowers and fumbled over his words like a wide-eyed schoolboy. I suppose that for all his power, even old Albert was powerless when it came to love. For my part, I can’t be sure if it was love or just awe. The most powerful man in the world had fallen for pretty little me, who was I to refuse.

Our lives were fun at first. With my skills as an assassin and his power we were unstoppable. We did what we wanted, went where we wanted, and no one with a badge or cape could tell us otherwise, though they sure as hell tried. Yet, after a while it got to be too much. Albert was too destructive. He enjoyed killing too much, and he wanted it too much. All the things that had so attracted me to him in the first place were suddenly what scared me the most about him. After I found I was pregnant with Owen, I knew it had to stop, but how do you tell the most powerful man in the world no? Where could I even run that he couldn’t follow?

So I did the only thing I saw fit to do. I sold poor Albert out. I watched from the shadows as the Feds gassed the motel where we had been sleeping. My former lover never saw it coming. He was too busy, passed out from all the beers I had been feeding him all night long. I watched as they carried him out of the room, all unconscious, knowing that the next time he woke he would be staring up at the inside of some government holding facility. I hoped that would be the end of it.

“Five years,” says Albert bringing me back to the present. “The government kept me alive, but I couldn’t move, could barely think. They fed me through a tube, and I was kept in complete darkness, to keep me disoriented. I was alive, but everyday I wanted to die. I couldn’t feel, couldn’t hear, couldn’t see. I forgot the taste of food and the smell of fresh air.” As he’s talking he’s taking steps closer to me. I want to move, but my training has kicked in now and I refuse to show fear even in the face of him.

Edward seeing that I was in trouble comes charging out of no where. Normally, people know to steer clear of the big galute. He’s near-indestructible and weighs more than a house full of mack trucks, but I know even that won’t be enough this time. With a wave of Albert’s hand, Edward just stops in place. He is suddenly under the pressure of a gravity more than thirty-times that of Earth, but the big moron keeps trying to move. He keeps trying to get at Albert. I try to tell him to stop but Edward always had more muscle than sense about him. General Relativity just laughs.

The bull of a man finally falls to his knees at about fifty-times normal gravity, and at a hundred-times he is laying flat on the ground. The wooden planks around him begin to shatter under the pressure and even the concrete foundation below groans and cracks with the weight of it all.

“Albert,” I call frantically, “stop this! Albert, stop!” Edward can’t even breath. Albert once explained it to me that with gravity that high even oxygen weighs as much as my old Chevy. “Albert!”

With another laugh he lowers his hand and I can see Edward’s chest begin to expand and collapse again. The big galute is passed out but at least he’s alive. Most of the patrons, I notice, have decided to do the smart thing and make themselves gone. A few still stand around caught between their head and some morbid curiosity which will probably be their death.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear JJ say as he hobbles out from the back. He had been doing inventory. “Nobody causes trouble in my bar…” He stops. I can tell he is taking in the destruction around him. JJ was always clever and cagey, but even he seems at a loss for what to do when he sees Edward passed out only a stone’s throw away.

“Stay out of this, old man,” says Albert. “This is between me and Southern here.” He rounds on me like a mountain cat. “You took a lot from me, Georgia. You took five years of my life. You took my heart, but most importantly, you took my son. Before I kill you for what you did, I want to know where he is.”

I begin to figure how long it would take for me to make a move, but as wild as Albert’s acting, he’s no one’s fool. He’s staying out of reach and anything I can think to do would take at least a second’s worth of time. Albert’s power works at the speed of thought and as fast as I am, I ain’t that fast.

“Now just calm down there, son,” I hear JJ say. “I know you think you have been wronged, but there is no need to do anything rash.”

“Rash?” says Albert and as he turns his head to stare at JJ all the tables around us begin to float up to the air as if they were balloons at a carnival.

“I just mean to say that you’re free now. There’s no reason to go and jeopardize that. You start throwing fits and you’ll have everyone from the FBI to every blasted member of Eternal Vigilance here. No one wants that.”

“I had to bust my way out of that government facility. They forgot I used to be military. They forgot that they were the ones who did this to me. I know how they think, and now they’re not thinking anymore. What I did to them, I’ll do to anyone who tries to stand between me and my son, including the woman I love.”

Suddenly, I get that feeling you get on roller coasters or when you are in a plane and even though I leave my stomach standing where I was I feel my back land hard against the far wall. I can see JJ is similarly pinned to the wall near the dartboard. Next, Albert starts in on the pressure and I can feel it build on my chest. At first it’s like a small stone but soon enough it’s the weight of a boulder.

“Where is my son? Where is Albert Junior?” He is screaming now. The tables are doing slow orbits around him and everything else in the bar is rattling like hell. Any straggling patrons are nowhere to be seen, which is good because Albert is losing it. I only ever saw him like that once before, and Lincoln City was never the same after that.

“His name is Owen,” I managed to squeeze the words out as the pressure on me doubles. Somewhere far off I register the sound of one of my ribs snapping, but I was trained to ignore such trifles.

Then suddenly its over. I fall to the floor like a sack of beans. JJ and the tables too come crashing down around me. The bar is strangely silent and when the bells in my head stop ringing long enough for me to pull myself upright all I can see is Albert in a heap. Standing over him is Gil a dented carrying tray in his hands. The boy’s eyes are popped open so wide I think they might fall out his head to land next to the unconscious Albert.

I’m not sure how the boy got close enough to him do it, but he just stopped one of the most feared super-villains of all time, and all he could do was stand there and try not to wet himself. If right then and there it hadn’t hurt so much to do so, I would have laughed. I guess even tadpoles grow up eventually.

Read all the stories about Friday’s Bar for Super-villains

The men and women jumped around the blazing fire like wind sprites dancing near the spray of some great ship. They leapt and trotted to the song of the flute and the beat of the drum. The stars glistened brightly down upon the little party as the shadows of men and elves shimmered across the tree line. The flickering silhouettes, like shades of some elseworld, foreboding in their contrast to the happy party they reflected. Laughter and drunken talk echoed throughout the modest forest village and the smell of roasted meats and assorted foods wafted upon the air. The children, glad for a night without curfew, burst through legs and past dancers, running and teasing as they played and chased one another.

Page looked around at the gathering and could find none without a smile, almost none. The young wizard was perched on a large log carved into a bench meant for a man of smaller stature, but he barely noticed. He sat around the fire laughing at some retelling of a story they had heard a dozen times before. Others gathered around him watched the dancers or chatted lightly about happier times. The darkness of what was to come seemed forgotten to all, except for one.

To his left sat Carmithius looking uncharacteristically melancholy. The only one to take no notice of any of the merrier tidings. “Carm?” Page nudged his friend jovially, “Cheer up. You should be having a greater time than all of us. You’re home.”

The touch seemed to startle the elf away from his thoughts. “Oh, I am happy to be home, do not misunderstand that,” he started.

“But Carm has always had a tendency to be too serious,” finished the round and sandy-haired human sitting to elf’s left. He took a draw from his flagon.

“Yeah, ol’ Carm could depress an imp, he’s so gloomy,” laughed a second, noticeably quick witted elf, sitting nearby on a large flat rock. His human nearly spit out his drink to join in on the laughter.

“Justin, Flaksus, that is enough. Why don’t you two go check on my wife and the other cooks? See how the feast is coming,” said an older looking elf from the ground. He sat near Carm, long dark hair framing a content smile.

“Yeah I’m starving,” said John. The thief was idly fingering one of his daggers, a habit he performed only when nervous or drunk. From a look at him, Page guessed that it was the latter instead of the former.

“Yes, Master Taphitus.” Both youths stood and walked toward the cooking area.

“What troubles you my former apprentice?” said the old master once the other two had left the circle of light.

“I am not unsettled, master,” replied Carm.

“Carmithius Huntsman, I helped raise you. You are always unsettled.”

The old elf known as Taph let his gaze wander the revelry that surrounded them before bringing his eyes back to the forlorn Carmithius. “Tomorrow will come, and it may bring the darkness we fear or only another sunrise. Worry does nothing to stop fear or sunrises. Tonight is for celebration.”

“I do not fear the sunrise,” said Carm an uncharacteristic touch of offense in his voice. “My companions and I are prepared to face what is to come. That is not the source of my mood.”

“Then it is worse than I feared.” Taphitus Huntsman nodded and sighed. “I know you miss her, but your sadness will do nothing to change what has come to pass.”

“She was my mother and the last time I was home was the last time I saw her alive. I watched her die, murdered before me,” Carm clenched his hands at the last words, “right here in this very village. How can I not think of that moment as I sit here among all this happiness?”

“If it is foolishness to worry over the coming sunrise, than it is utter madness to lament the passing sunset.”

Carmithius took out a silver token that hung from his neck by a leather thong. It caught the light of the fire and flickered like a diamond in the night. “This is all that remains of her.”

“Untrue,” said the master huntsman. “You have your memories. Take it from an old man, who watched both you and your mother within your birth cribs, she is among us. Everything you do, everything you are, I see your mother’s hand in it. Her presence is now within you, and me, and everyone who was lucky enough to have known her.”

“Thank you, master.” Carm tucked the pendant back into his shirt.

“She is proud of you. I am certain of that. You have done great good in the land, and you have true friends by your side. Now you are home, but for a brief time, surrounded by friends both old and new. She would not have you worry. She would want you to feast and dance and enjoy the time that is left to you, because that is what she always did.”

“I will endeavor to be happier,” said the younger golden haired elf.

“Ye damn well better,” growled the dwarf that sat across the fire. “Ye know how much blasted trouble tha’ damn wizard went through to set this up.”

“Thank you, Bowen,” said Page surprised by the other’s words.

“Shut up, ye damned wizard.” He finished off his tankard and tossed it away with a satisfied yell. “More ale.”

“I wish you had not arranged this,” said Carm ignoring the dwarf’s outburst.

“You’re welcome,” said Page with a small smile. He had his own fears, which he dared not show. Their enemy was growing and there were very few places left in Allion to hide. Even at that moment he could feel the dark power as it searched for them, but its search would be in vain, at least for that night. Carm’s village was a sanctuary protected by old magic. Their enemy would not find them. At least, that was his hope. Outwardly, he just kept smiling.

Taph laughed, a twinkle of mischief in the old man’s eyes, “It is not everyday that a group of heroes comes to…”

Thak burst into the fire light, stumbling as he moved. He was panting heavily, his silvery hair drenched with sweat. The half-elf collapsed as if all his bones had suddenly given way. He landed on the ground between Taph and Bowin, almost spilling the dwarf’s drink.”

“Watch where ya going, ye silvery haired half-wit. Ye nearly spilt me ale.” Grumbled the dwarf with no hint of anger. In a moment it was forgotten and Bowen resumed his happy drinking as he watched the nearby dancers cavort around the flame to the sound of flute and drum.

“You have to go and dance,” panted Thak. “Its bags of fun.”

“Yes, I think you should go and dance,” said Taph with a knowing smile. “There is a certain maiden who has not taken her pretty young eyes from you all night.”

Page looked over to a group of young ladies, both human and elven. An attractive mousey-haired elf maiden batted her eyes toward Carm before she noticed the wizard’s gaze. The maid turned away, and suddenly the huddled group of ladies erupted in high-pitched giggling.

“Aria?” Carm said. “How has she been?”

“She has grown, and ever since you left on your grand adventures you have become her favorite topic of conversation.”

“We used to play together, when we were kids.”

“Aye, I remember,” said the old elf. “She has blossomed, and I am sure she would not refuse a dance with the great hero.”

“C’mon, Carm,” chided John, “It’ll be fun. You remember fun? Even Bowen is having fun, and that only happens when there’s a chance we’re going to die.”

“Keep up that kind of talk, thief, and there’ll be a good chance that one of us might die tonight,” growled Bowin with a smile.

“Fine.” said Carm, but it was already too late.

“Carmithius Huntsman,” said Arai as she approached the group. “You have been home since before sunset and you still have yet to say a word to me. Do I mean so little to you?” Aria was standing behind them, her gaggle of friends only a few paces off, just outside the circle of light. They whispered together like darkhawks perched on a branch together, making secret plans.

“Of course not,” stammered Carm as he rose to meet her. “I do apologize. So many people have wanted to talk to me since I got home, I am sorry that I did not come and see you sooner.”

“Sooner?” she said.

“First,” he corrected. “I apologize that I did not see you first.”

“Dance with me and all is forgiven.” There was no chance to refuse. Suddenly Aria had his hand and they were gone. Carm disappeared from the warmth of their circle with very little protest.

Page and the rest of the men laughed as Carm was dragged away, but then the hawks descended on them like helpless field mice. The girls appeared, a war party emerging from the darkness. Before they could move Page, John, Thak, and even Bowen found themselves being dragged after Carm and Aria.

“I am not really a good dancer,” protested Page to the pretty red-haired human girl that held his arm in her abnormally strong grip.

“It’s alright,” she said, “Just follow me.” She took him in her surprisingly firm grip and he found himself spinning around the fire with all the others. The world was a blur of colors, blues, blacks, oranges, and the wild red of his dancing partner’s hair.

“Let go of me ye daft banshee,” Bowin yelled as he went spinning by. The dwarf was at the mercy of a tall dark haired human girl who had the usually fierce warrior trapped in a mad twirl.

They danced into the night pausing only to feast upon all sorts of meats, vegetables, fruits, and pastries. Taphitus was right, the sun would rise and their trials and tragedies would be waiting for them. This night was a night for mirth and friends. By the end night even Carm was smiling, and for a moment the darkness was forgotten.

“So the wall explodes and there is like plaster everywhere. The people in the inside are all like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ So as the dust settles I make my entrance and I do the maniacal laughter-thing, of course, and announce, I am the Mandroid, yadda yadda yadda… You know the typical speech. That’s when that douche, Half-Life, shows up. He trashes my robot minions and the next thing I know I’m getting a face full of his radiation blast… I mean come on, radiation blast. That doesn’t even sound safe. They call me a menace yet their hero is a walking Three-Mile Island. If I get cancer I am so suing his ass.”

I stood there wiping down a dirty beer mug as I listened to the man. Suddenly, he was silent and mumbled something into his glass of liquor.

“How’d you get away?” I finally asked as I finish cleaning the mug.

“Get this,” he said with a laugh. “I made him think one of my minions was wired with explosives. I gave him the ol’ ‘save them or catch me’ speech. What an idiot.”

“I didn’t think you were the bank robbery type, Mandroid?” I said as I poured the brightly colored-clad man another drink.

“You know how expensive it is to have robot minions? Enhanced neural processors don’t grow on trees you know.”

“Barkeep, I think I’ll take that kicker./Give me a drink of your best liquor,” called the man from at the far end of the bar.

“I think you have had enough, Quizzy,” I said as I hobbled down to him.

“Nonsense, for I am the Quiz Master,/and I won’t be ordered about by some drink caster.” The man stood up from his bar stool and brandished some kind of staff that extended in his hand. His purple and gold sports jacket hung off him like a cheap suit.

“Drink caster? Your rhyming is making less sense than usual. You’re cut off.” I motioned to Edward in the corner.

The big hulking brute of a man lumbered his way toward the bar and picked up the slender squirming drunk from where he stood. With very little effort he carried him to the front entrance of the bar and tossed him like a rag doll through the open door. In a past life, Edward had been known as Two-Ton, a third string villain in Titan City’s super-criminal underworld. That was before he got clean and I gave him a job. When you cater to the type of clientele I do it helps to have a seven-foot, super strong, near-indestructible bouncer at the ready.

Of course, there were still some mishaps. A year before some mercenary named Raymond Gunn shot up the place. He destroyed my prized pool table. Then there was the time Professor Nightmare started a brawl with Kid Cyanide because the kid was hitting on Nightmare’s girlfriend, The Couger. Still, for the most part everyone remained civil. They all knew my bar as a place they could wind down. Really super-villains are just like anyone else. All they want is a place where they can go and forget about the world for a while. I like to think I offer that. My name is James Joseph Friday but most people nowadays call me…

“JJ,” the voice called my name. I turned to find my newest employee, Gill Laridae backing away from the bar top with a gun pointed at his chest.

“What’s the problem, Gill?” I said as I hobbled my way toward him.

“I’ll tell you what the problem is,” said a small big headed man as he stood on top of his bar stool. His tiny child-like hands clutching the firearm with the steady grip of a professional killer. “This kid asked me for ID. Don’t you know who I am, kid?”

“Gill,” I said calmly, “this is Child Endangerment. He only looks like a kid. Really he’s 42 years old.”

“I’m 41,” said the big headed assassin as he put away his gun away and sat back down. “Now how about that drink?”

“Coming right up,” I motioned for Gill to pour his drink order and to his credit the kid snapped out of his stupor and got to work. It’s always a little disconcerting the first time you have a customer push a gun or a knife or a fully charged plasma cannon in your face, but in this business you learn to get over it fast, or you quit. I have gone through more than my fair share of employees. Most quit, but a few disappeared without much of a trace. No two ways around it, you had to be tough to work in this industry.

I watched my table waitress Georgia Atlanta as she slapped some guy who looked like he was half-octopus and half-human. I guess he was getting too touchy feely with her, as customer sometimes do. Georgia is one of those people who can handle herself. She used to be a villainess by the name of Southern Bedlam, but she gave it up when her son was born. She moved out west to Titan City to get a fresh start.

“What’s it like to be a villain?” asked Gill later on after he had calmed down. The kid had an abnormal fascination with super-villainy and I knew where that path led. I had hoped to dissuade him from it by hiring him on as my part-timer. I wanted to show him that it wasn’t all fun and grand larceny.

“Its not anything you want to be a part of kid,” I said as I tapped a new keg. I hefted the large metallic cylinder underneath the bar with a grunt. I was not as young as I used to be. I stood and wiped off my hands with a nearby dish towel. When I turned back around he was still looking at me expectantly.

“Listen, kid,” I said. “you don’t want to get mixed up in this world. It never ends well. Look at Dr. Zirconium over there.” I motioned to a large hulking monster sitting alone in the corner. Underneath his white torn lab coat his skin looked like it was made of jagged crystalline material.

“Dr. Zee used to be a Nobel-prizing winning metallurgist, until one of his experiments went horribly wrong. Sure, the accident gave him increased strength and skin almost as hard as diamond, but it also reduced his intelligence down to that of a twelve year old. Super-villainy always comes with a price. It ain’t worth it.”

“What about you?” said Gill. He reached into his pocket and he pulled out an old picture, and suddenly I was staring at a memory I hadn’t thought about in a long time. There I stood in a black and white jumpsuit. I had this great big mask covering my eyes and the days of the week were written all over my damn costume.

I took the picture from his hand. “God, look at this. I looked ridiculous. Look at my mustache. What was I thinking?”

“You used to be Joe Friday,” persisted Gill. “You used to run around with a calendar pinned to your chest. How can you tell me being a villain isn’t worth it?”

“First off, it was a weekly planner not a calendar. Second off, I was never much of a villain. It turns out planning your schemes based around a weekly schedule makes you a bit too predictable.”

“But everything turned out alright for you. You’re fine…”

I don’t usually get angry but all the questions along with the old photo had me riled up, “Kid, I was one of the lucky ones. Some of the guys I knew from the old days, King Carnivore, the Piper, Lady Gravity, they weren’t so lucky. Most of them are dead or in jail. Damn, the Emerald Hood has spent the last twenty years trapped in some kind of parallel hell-dimension. Is that what you want to happen to you?”

“No,” he said meekly.

“I was lucky. Shining Templar only broke my leg in four places when he captured me. I spent a few years in jail and now I got a bum leg to show for all of my troubles, but that’s when I decided to go legit. Take it from me. Make an honest living, its a lot less hazardous to your health.”

I shoved the old picture back in his trembling hands. “Watch the bar. I’m going out back for a smoke.” I left the poor dumbfounded kid alone inside. His shocked face the last thing I saw before the back door swung shut behind me. I fumbled for a cigarette and lit it with one of the matches I had in my back pocket. The first drag was like a warm blanket. All the tension and anger seemed to drain away as I stood there smoking and watching the sky over Titan City.

Its an old habit, I suppose, watching the skies. Its something most villains learn to do in their careers. You never know when some guy in a cape and long-johns is going to come swinging down and ruin your day. Even though I hadn’t committed a crime in over two decades I guess it was still a hard habit to let go of.

I knew there were still times when I felt the urge and the old excitement would start to kick up again. Friday the 13th’s were always the worse days for me, but I had been clean for too long to let myself fall back into bad habits. Besides, I was too old to play the game anyway. A man had to admit his limitations and I knew mine. Idly I stretched my bum leg.

I wasn’t a villain anymore. I was just a bartender, and that’s good enough.

Read all the stories about Friday’s Bar for Super-villains

“You excited?” asked Marc in front of me.

“Huh?” I replied articulately. My attention was rapt on a pudgy fingered woman who was scolding her child for crying. The boy could not have been any older than five or six years, and his mother’s anger was only making him cry louder.

“Are you excited about the trip?” asked Marc again as if he were the one talking to a six year old.

I brought my attention back to where I was and with it returned the sickening feeling I had been having all morning. “Yeah, it’ll be fun,” I said with less enthusiasm than he was expecting.

“Fun?” he looked at me as if I was from a different planet. “Craig, we’re going to Australia. This is going to be more than fun. I promise its going to be the trip of your lifetime. You’re going to love it. I know this great little spot on Bells Beach where the surf and the women are perfect.”

“It sounds fun.” I tried to muster up more excitement for the idea but I couldn’t quite get it past the lump that was forming in my throat.

“Trip of your lifetime.” Marc turned back to peer toward the front of the line. “I hate these security checks. What exactly do they think they’re going to find?” he muttered under his breath.

I was absentmindedly running the thin starched belt-like rope through the fingers of my left hand. It ran from one black pole to another being held together by nothing but small clasps. It separated the lines of people as they waited their turn to pass through the security check up ahead. It was such a small and flimsy obstacle, like the kind of thing you would see at a bank while you were waiting for the next teller. I could walk right over it and it would only prove to be a minor inconvenience. There was nothing holding me there, in that line, or in that place. I could just walk out and never look back.

“You okay, bud?” said Marc. His face was suddenly close to mine. “You’re looking a little pale.”

“I’m fine,” I lied.

We took another step forward with the line. Like a giant caterpillar the throng of people were slowly progressing forward and I could hear the minimum wage TSA agent speaking to a person not more than fifteen people in front of me.

“Step forward and raise your hands,” said the officer in a monotone voice as she waved a wand over the tall business man. “Are you carrying any firearms, restricted food, wood products or exotic metals with you today, sir?”

“We’ve been friends since the third grade, Craig,” said Marc drowning out the security officer. “I know when your lying. You’re nervous about the trip aren’t you?”

“Its not the trip itself,” I admitted, “it’s getting there.” My left hand was gripped around the snap that held together the belt-like barrier. As I talked I played with it, hooking and unhooking the simple plastic clasping mechanism.

“You’re worrying over nothing. You’re going to be perfectly fine.”

“Maybe we should have flown.” I looked ahead to the slow moving line, and wished it would move slower. We were now ten people from the front.

“Flown?” ejaculated Marc with a laugh, “and spend 25 hours couped up in a tin-can. No thank you.”

“I just mean, how safe is it, really?”

“You’re starting to sound like one of those nuts you see on the news.”

“No,” I quickly said, “I’m just a little nervous. I’ve never used a TTP before. I don’t know how comfortable I am with the idea of having my body atomized and transported to the other side of the world.”

“According to the statistics driving a car is more dangerous than trans-teleportation.”

“I heard that its not really you that comes out on the other side. They say that the machine really disintegrates the real you, copies all your information, and then uses it to create an exact replica of you at the other end of the machine.”

“If its an exact replica, doesn’t that mean it’s still you?” said Marc like I was crazy.

“What if its not?” There were four people ahead of us now in line. “What if it’s just some person with all your memories and your personality, but it’s not you. I’m me, what if the person you meet on the other side is me, but not me.”

“Philosophy was never my best class,” said Marc. “Besides, I use the TTP all the time when I travel for work. I’m still me,” he said with a laugh.

“How can you be sure?”

Marc was silent as if considering my thought and for a minute I thought I had got him. Instead, he just broke into a wide grin and clapped me on the back in the way that he always did when he was dismissing my ideas. “Its going to be fine, Craig. Trust me.”

I hated when he dismissed my ideas with his grin and back slap, like I was a child who needed comforting. Worst yet, he knew it annoyed me, but it also reminded me that it was my friend standing there in front of me. I never questioned that. He was Marc, right down to his idiosyncrasies. He was every bit the abrasive, loud, and sometimes dense man I had always known. He tapped his foot when he was nervous and showed off his big lop-sided smile to any woman who passed.

Maybe he was right, I told myself. I was just being ridiculous. The government never would have approved TTP travel if it wasn’t safe.

“Step forward,” said the squat mannish woman dressed in the blue TSA uniform. Marc put his bags on the machine and did as he was instructed. “Raise your arms. Are you carrying any firearms, restricted food, wood products, or exotic metals with you today, sir?”

“No, ma’am.” Marc gave the woman his biggest grin yet.

She never noticed as she finished waving the wand over his body. “Clear,” said the officer as Marc moved forward. She turned to me. “Step forward.”

By the time I got my bags and joined the line for the trans-teleportation booths I was calmer. I knew I was just over-analyzing. I always over-analyzed everything. Millions of people used the TTP a day. None of them ever came out different. None of them ever talked about dying in the machine. At most people said it was nothing more than a tickling sensation.

I held onto that reassuring thought as we made our way through the terminals and got in line for the NY to SYD TTP booth. I did some deep breathing and by the time I stepped onto the glossy metallic floor I was feeling much better about everything. After all, people had the same doubts about the airplane, the automobile, and the train when they were first put into use. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that people even had the same kind of doubts about the horse-drawn carriage.

My calm shattered like glass once the heavy plastic doors closed around us. They locked it with a final and deafening click. I realized that I didn’t even want to go to Australia. It had all been Marc’s idea. I was more than happy to sit at home. I was seized by the sudden urge to jump at the doors and throw my body against them until they crashed open, but I was sure I didn’t have the strength.

They looked like thin plastic but they were reinforced and coated with a special polymer that made them as hard as steel and able to withstand the force of the trans-teleportation field. There were stories of people so desperate to get out of TTP Booths they broke several bones in the attempt. They were of course promptly arrested afterwards for trying to damage government property.

I looked around at the dozen or so others standing in the booth with me. None of them were panicked or even seemed the slightest bit distressed. Most were chatting lightly or looking around with a disinterested glaze in their eyes. Marc saw me looking and mouthed the word, “relax,” which he followed promptly with a lop-sided grin, though it could have been directed at the pair of college girls behind me.

“Please stand still,” said a calming female voice. “Bioscans in process.”

Almost as one everyone in the booth stopped chatting or moving and stood stock still as the attendant had showed us in the instructional video. With my left hand, I clung to the slick plastic handle of my luggage as if it was a life raft. The grip was digging into my palm but I barely noticed as the bluish light of the bioscan passed over me. I felt a sort of tickling sensation.

“Bioscan complete,” said the automated voice again. “Transport initiated. Have a safe trip.”

My nerves were suddenly on fire and the world went white…

“See,” said Marc as we stepped out of the the retrieval booth in Kingsford Smith Terminal, ” and it didn’t even hurt.”

“I kind of tickled,” I said, the tension of the trip finally leaving me. “I guess you were right.”

“Of course,” he said laughing. “C’mon I know this great little place down in the harbor to get some lunch. I’m starving.”

“Right behind you,” I said as I grabbed my bags in my right hand. The stress of the trip was quickly being replaced by the excitement and euphoria of being halfway around the world. My worries suddenly seeming childish.