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I'm the Chrome Cobra, and I pretty much run Metro City.

On Saturday, I made my first return to work at the Lieber Arts Center since the Thrug invasion. I was completely wiped, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and I needed several days of rest and recuperation. I called Veronica Dubczyk, the art director at the Lieber, and told her I'd been slightly injured during the invasion, and she told me to take a week off. I really didn't need a week off, and I'd hate to fall too far behind on setwork for the next production.

But before I go in, I promised Mega I'd go meet her for breakfast. She doesn't mention it, but I know she's worried that I was more seriously injured and not ready to go back to work, either at the Lieber or doing superhero stuff.

No school on Saturday, so Mega always tries to sleep in as long as she can on the weekends, and we didn't meet up at Corben's on 54th until almost 10.

Corben's is always crowded as hell, which is why I kinda like meeting her here -- no one's even going to notice, much less question, why a short, mousy schoolteacher is eating with a slouching, shabbily-dressed weirdo. Anywhere else, they'd either assume I was homeless or that we were mismatched lesbians. Here, we're just part of the crowd.

Mega got an omelet, biscuits, and as much fruit as she could fit on her plate. I got my usual bowl of Cocoa Puffs and a stack of bacon.

"Are you sure you're going to be good to go?" she asked. "I know you hate to be slowed down by anything, but being subjected to alien torture devices is a bit different than getting into a fistfight with Johnny Staccato."

"Ehh, things was pretty touch and go, Megs," I said. "Ain't gonna tell ya it was a party, but I've had worse. Remember when Lady Nocturne brought her vampire buddies through town?"

"Well, I wasn't aware that was considered worse than alien torture devices, but I'll file it away for future reference," she said. "Still, I just want to make sure you're really feeling healthy enough for your, ahem, usual activities."

"Am strong like bull and fit like fiddle," I said. "Come on, I know my limits. Mainly that I don't have any."

"I'd like you to be serious about this, Stef," she said.

"Barf," I interrupted. "The name's Barf."

She pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. "Okay, Barf," she said. "I want you to be serious about your health. The city can survive for a few more days without you, if you need some more rest time."

"Don't need no more rest," I said. "I need to go to work and do some painting. I got sets to build and art to create, sistah."

"Alright, I know better than to try to argue at you when you've made up your mind," she said. "I'm surprised you'd be more concerned with set-painting than you'd be about rebuilding your suit. It got a little trashed, didn't it?"

"I keep extras," I shrug. "I spend enough time building that stuff anyway. Art is life, Malloy. Everything else is hobbies."

"Uh-huh," she said. "How many hobbies are you keeping up with these days?"

"Well, school's a hobby, right?" I said. "Except for the parts where they let me paint. Mechanical technology and engineering are hobbies. Gaming, rock climbing, and beating up shitheads. Martial arts is a hobby. Collecting gimme caps. Combat acrobatics. I'm trying to learn dancing, yo. I'm gonna be, like, Lady Gaga. Oh, and music's a good hobby."

"How many instruments do you play now, Barf?" Megs asked.

"Violin, piano, clarinet, bass guitar, and drums," I said. "And I'm learning harmonica. Gonna be a blues mama. You laughin' at me?"

"A little," she said, grinning. "One of this week's vocabulary words was 'polymath,' and I almost used you as an example. You wanna come into the class sometime and show the kids how to take an engine apart? We're supposed to be encouraging the girls to study science and engineering."

"Fuck, no, I wanna show 'em how to bake a cake and give a boy a hummer."

"Oh, yes, that's why I don't let you into the school," she said. "Because I'd hate getting fired."

"Yo, do me a favor, will ya, Megan?" I said.

"Oh, you called me by my actual name," she said. "This must be important."

I took a small iron bar out of my pocket -- four inches long, an inch-and-a-half wide, and an inch thick. I put it on the table in front of her.

"No, Barf," she said. "Not out here. Anyone could see from here."

"No one's paying attention," I said. "A ritzy joint like Corben's, they're all watching to see if maybe movie stars are gonna come in. Just, ya know, bend it. Please."

She grabbed the bar off the table, looking more irritated than embarrassed.

"Okay, fine," she said. "You watching? I don't want to do this more than once."

"Yeah, I'm ready," I said. Actually concentrating really hard. She's 5' 3". She's got mousy brown hair and glasses. She's 5' 3". She's 5' 3".

She took the bar between her forefinger and thumb, held it a second, and squeezed. It didn't even really bend so much as squish, like a stick of modeling clay. She crushed it into her palm, then slipped it between her fingers, twisting it around each finger 'til it looked like a piece of taffy.

And at the same time, I focused on her as hard as I could. She's 5' 3". She's 5' 3". She's a mousy little schoolteacher. She's 5' 3". She's 8' 2". She's a fucking Amazon. She's 8' 2". She's 5' 3". She's 8' 2". She's --

"I'm stopping right there," she said. "You're about to fall out of your chair, Barf."

"Okay, okay, just... a little dizzy," I said. Okay, I was more than dizzy. I felt like I'd had a seizure.

I just can't figure out why I perceive her as a short, skinny nobody when I know, intellectually, that she's really over eight feet tall. Don't know why the only thing that breaks the illusion is seeing her in costume or seeing her do something with her powers. Don't know why my brain starts to freak out when my perceptions start clashing like that.

It's not really an illusion. It's not really a psychic trick. She doesn't do it on purpose. I just can't figure it out, but I will someday, swear to god.

"I wish you'd stop worrying about what I look like," she said. "I got over it ages ago."

"Ya can't stop scientific inquiry, Megs," I said. "Nothing can stop my endless quest to know all I can about the universe. Nothing except bacon." I stuffed a handful of bacon in my mouth. "Oh god, bacon, I love you forever!"

"You are mentally unsound, Barf," she said dryly.

"Whatevs, shorty," I said. "When you headin' out for patrols?"

"Probably 10:30," Mega said. "Maybe earlier, if I'm bored or if I hear about anything I need to take care of. How 'bout you?"

"Ain't decided yet," I said. "Ten sounds like a good start. But it's the weekend, and I might wanna party, so maybe 8 or 9. How you spendin' the rest of the day?"

"Shopping, reading, cleaning the kitchen," she said. "My endlessly awesome life."

"Whatcha shoppin' for?" I asked. "Buncha girly clothes?"

"I wish I could, you know," she said. "Nothing in my size at the mall. So I'll probably go hunting for new books. What's on your to-do list?"

"Seriously?" I said. "I'm gonna spend as long as I can at the Lieber, painting stuff and annoying people. It's heaven on earth, Megs."

"Yeah, I'll bet," Mega said. "Sometimes I wonder which of us has the worse social life..."

"I know tons of people," I said.

"Tons of people who have either never seen your face or think you're just a professional irritant," she said. "You go to classes, you go paint at the Lieber, and after that, you go build things in your workshop and then hit the streets to beat up criminals. I at least eat lunch with my coworkers and hang out at Maura's parties."

"Yeah, anyone ever talk to you at those parties unless your sis makes 'em?" I said.

"Actually, they do," she said calmly. "Not too frequently, I'll grant you. I'm not trying to one-up you, Barf. I'm completely aware of how pathetic my life is sometimes. I just think it wouldn't hurt you to learn a few simple social skills."

"Whatevs," I said. "Ain't got time to go to parties. I got art to create. You gonna finish that last biscuit?"

We got our bills paid and took off, Megs heading for an indie bookshop on 59th and me heading for the Lieber. I stop off in the grocery a couple blocks from the arts center and pick up a pack of candy cigs before heading in the Zane and Zelda Lieber Art Center's front doors.

I tracked down Veronica in the art design studio on the second floor. "Yo, Ms. Dubczyk," I said. "How's stuff goin'?"

"Well, hello, Barf," she said. "I thought you were going to be out 'til Tuesday or Wednesday."

"Wasn't feelin' that bad, ya know?" I shrugged. "Took a few extra naps, got over the aches, got stir-crazy in the apartment. Figured I'd come on down and help out."

"Well, it's great that you're feeling back up to par," Veronica said. "Dr. Cameron actually ended up in the hospital, thanks to those Thrug invaders."

"Whoa, no kidding?" I said. Dr. Trevor Cameron is the director of the center. I haven't had much contact with him, but I've got no complaints -- anyone willing to let a notoriously eccentric college sophomore like yours truly perform an art manager's duties is alright by me. "What the hell happened to him?"

"Nothing too serious, thank goodness," said Veronica. "The Thrugs crashed one of their ships into his building, and the impact knocked him through one of the ground floor windows. He caught quite a bit of broken glass, but nothing that hit a vein or artery. He'll probably be in the hospital for another day or two while the doctors make sure he's properly stitched up."

"Damn, that's rough," I said. "He gonna have some scars now?"

"I've not a clue, Barf," she said. "And please don't ask him whenever he comes back, okay? What happened to you, by the way?"

"Oh, hell, it was more my own fault than the Thrugs, ya know?" I lied to her. "I fell down a flight of stairs when all that stuff got started. I was lucky I just got some cuts and bruises. Wanna see?"

I started to pull up my shirt to show some of the bruises I'd legitimately gotten from the Thrugs' shockripper.

"Barf, not everyone wants to see injuries as much as you do," Veronica said. "I'll take your word for it."

"Fine, your loss," I said.

"You've heard we'll be doing Copland's 'Rodeo' in a few months?" she asked.

"Yeah, that Western thing," I said. "They used the music for that 'Beef, it's what's for dinner' ad years ago, right?"

"Yes, unfortunately," Veronica said. "I've been trying to think of some set designs for it, but have been a bit blocked. Did you know the Lieber had a performance of the ballet back in the early '70s?"

"Hey, Ms. Dubczyk, you know I can't keep track of that stuff," I said. "I just throw paint at canvases, ya know?"

"I wouldn't call what you do 'throwing paint,' Barf," she said. "But what I'd like you to do, Art Manager Bolino, is to track down some of the designs for the first performance. Whatever we've got in the archive library in the basement should do -- old programs, reviews, cast photos, you name it. I can't remember what year it was performed, so you'll have to do some searching, I expect."

"Ah, jeez, Ms. Dubczyk, I was hoping to get some painting done," I said. "Digging in the archives is boring."

"Well, I'm sorry, but art research is one of the duties of the art manager," she said. "And it's not like you could do any painting when I haven't even created any designs yet."

Damn, no way out of it. It'd be so much easier if they had the archive digitized or at least decently catalogued. Maybe someday, crimefighting will ease up enough that I could categorize all that stuff myself. But for now, the sooner I find some designs for an unspecified 1970s production of "Rodeo," the sooner I'll get to start painting something.

So it's down to the basement. Sub-basement, actually. It's perfectly clean and well-lit, for the record -- the arts center is a professionally-run business, and it's not like they leave the place all that grungy. It's still pretty deserted most of the time, because almost no one ever needs to go down to the sub-basement.

I'd just started digging through the archive's filing cabinets when the door was kicked open, and a completely monstered-out Darcy Sandoval storms into the room.

I hate to say it, but I almost swallowed my candy cigarette. Serves me right for re-using that crack about Van Damme movies all the time.

"Heya, Darcy," I said as steadily as I could. "Ya look different. Didja get a haircut?"

"Heya, Barrrf," she said, her fangs bared. "Where'shh your masshhk, bitchhh?"

"Why don'tcha close the door so we can have some privacy?" I said. "And also make yer face less, ya know, fangsy?"

"No," she said, flicking her claws together. "I'm shhhtill mad."

"Come in anyway," I said. "There's a janitor's closet two doors down, and they walk by here every once in a while, yo."

Darcy came in and closed the door behind her. She still had her fangs and claws and yellow eyes out. I suspected part of this was just an act, but I don't doubt for a moment that she was still plenty angry at me.

"So..." I said. "Whassup, yo?"

She launched herself at me, shoved me against a wall, and grabbed me around the throat. Okay, so maybe she was a lot angrier than I really expected.

"Whasshhhup?" she snarled. "I'll tell you what'shhh up. You've been lying to me for a long time, and I'm fucking pisshhhed!"

"It's called a secret identity, Sandoval," I said. "If that's lyin', then most of the superheroes in this town are lying to you. Getcha hands offa me already."

"Shhhut up," Darcy growled. "The baddesssht shhhuperhero on the planet mashhhqueradesshh ash a demented flake?! I don't buy that for a shhhecond!"

I broke her hold on my neck, got a leg up, and kicked her backwards -- not a hard kick, just enough to push her away. I turned my cap backwards and adopted a fighting stance. I didn't even drop my candy cig.

"I don't give a rat's patootie whatchoo believe, Darcy," I said. "All I gotta say is you better drop the 'tude fast, 'cause if anyone hears a ruckus in here and finds us fightin', we're both gonna get our asses fired. And this is a pretty nice gig, ya know? So do your damn pirouettes and calm yer ass down, a'ight?"

She glared at me furiously, but she stopped, spread her arms, closed her eyes, and after a couple of seconds, shifted herself into her normal form.

"No dance moves?" I asked. "They ain't started ya on the choreography for the Copland yet?"

"I don't have to do dance moves," she said, still angry. "I do dance moves because I like them."

"Well, la-de-dah, ain't you fancy?" I said. I didn't relax my stance yet -- I was still a bit irritated at myself for letting her get the drop on me, and I don't want to make the same mistake twice.

"Quid pro quo, Cobra," she said. "Drop the Barf act."

"Ain't a goddamn act," I said. "I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam."

Her jaw dropped. "Oh my god, you've got multiple personalities!"

"What? No, it ain't multiple --" I sighed. "Awright, hold on." I take a deep breath. "Darcy, it ain't -- it isn't really multiple personalities. I'm the Chrome Cobra. I'm Barf Bolino. I'm the same person. I just... carry myself differently sometimes."

"That's the craziest thing I ever heard," she said suspiciously. "You really need to explain that a hell of a lot better."

"Fine," I said. "Can I at least relax a little bit?"

"Sure, I guess so," she said. She sat down cross-legged on the floor.

I sat on the edge of a nearby desk and grabbed one of the folders out of the filing cabinets, so if Veronica came to check on us, I'd at least look like I was working.

"Awright, this is how it is," I said. "I can't make no apologies for the kind of person I am. I love art, I like to fuck with people's heads, I hate having to be a fashion-plate girly-girl, I hate it when the status quo says I gotta follow rules and act normal. At the same time, I guess I'm what you could call a genius. I can build all kinds of cool stuff, and I learn new things like crazy, and I can organize stuff fast, and I love exercise and training myself and learning how to do martial arts and acrobatics and all that stuff. Gimme a 'Woo' if this all makes sense, a'ight?"

"I get it, Barf," Darcy said.

"Right, but ya know, being a crimefighter's pretty hard work," I said. "Ya gotta think different than what you're used to. I couldn't be good ol' slouchy Barf and get any work done. I had to be more controlled and careful, more deliberate, more daunting and authoritative. I had to make sure I'd get respect from criminals, civilians, and other heroes. I know Lenore and Jonni can make the casual attitude work for them, but it ain't my style.

"So I build me a nice powersuit, decorate it in nice snakey details -- mainly because the Chrome Cobra alliteration was off-the-hook, yo -- and here we are today."

"No, that didn't explain anything," Darcy said. "All I know is, you act normal when you wear your mask, and you act crazy when you don't. You don't make one bit of sense."

I wasn't able to keep from rolling my eyes at her. "You should listen to yourself, girl," I said. "Do you act like a prissy little ballerina when you're fighting bad guys? Do you act like an angry monster just before they raise the curtain for a performance? Does acting different in different parts of your life make you crazy or just make you a normal person like the rest of us?"

"Okay, fine," she said. "You have a point, or at least part of one. But it doesn't change the fact that you are an incredibly irritating freak when you're Barf Bolino, and I wish like hell you could be more like the Chrome Cobra all the time."

"Whatevs, Sandoval," I said. "I got the greatest secret identity in history. Ain't nobody ever gonna believe Barf Bolino's the Chrome Cobra. Hell, you can barely believe it yerself, can ya?"

"No, I -- I think I believe it," Darcy said. "There are parts of it that make sense. Or something kinda like sense. What I still don't understand is --"

She was interrupted by a rumble that shook the entire room.

"Yo, what the hell was that?" I asked. "They testing the new sound system on the main stage?"

"No, that's not it," Darcy said, head up, eyes alert, nose twitching. "That was -- something hit the building. Something big hit the building."

"What, you sure?" I asked. Definitely one of those times I was jealous of people with superhuman senses.

"Yeah, the vibrations went all the way through the building," she said, her ears lengthening and her canine teeth getting slightly sharper. "Something seriously huge. Meet you outside in three?"

"Let's try to make it two," I said.

And so two minutes and nine seconds later, I flew out of my secret exit from the Lieber just a few seconds ahead of Hybrid leaping out of her secret hideout in the building's top floor.

There was a 70-foot-tall yellow rubber duckie trying to knock down the front of the building.

It wasn't actually rubber, of course. It was a unique titanium steel alloy able to absorb a vast amount of damage. The entire vehicle was packed full of highly destructive weaponry and was capable of land, sea, and air travel.

I had no idea what Professor Quackers had against the Lieber Arts Center, but it was clear he'd developed a grudge about dance theaters.

But for the moment, it was important to get his attention away from the Lieber and onto someone else. So when my shouted "Stop right there, Professor Quackers!" finally got him to turn away from the building, Hybrid and I were carefully posed on top of a billboard across the street.

I was standing legs apart, arms crossed, head slightly back in a standard superhero stance. Hybrid was slightly in front of me, completely monstered out, down on all fours, snarling and drooling like a rabid badger, in a standard feral animalistic hero posture. Just two of us, but the right pose is vital for getting the bad guy to focus on us instead of the building.

"What do you think you're up to, Professor?" I shouted at him.

"Leave me alone, Chrome Cobra," his amplified voice crackled out from his giant duckie. "This is none of your concern!"

"Wrecking a ballet theater is outside of your usual activity, isn't it, Professor?" I said. "If you were looking for the nearest bank, it's four blocks southwest of here."

"This is a personal matter!" he shouted up at us. "Leave me alone to take care of my own business!"

"Shhho hungrrrrry," Hybrid snarled as loudly as she could. "Rrready to peel duck open to find shhhoft, chewy inshhhidesshh!"

"Keep that savage away from me, Cobra!" Quackers shouted. "I'll not be held responsible for what happens otherwise!"

I catch a glimpse of someone blue hovering near us out of the corner of my eye.

"Sorry I'm late to the party, ladies," said Gamma Girl, floating a bit above us. "I've been looking forward to making the acquaintance of the infamous Professor Quackers."

"And I'd advise you to keep your distance," Quackers said. "Unless you want to be used as a power source for my next QuackTank!"

"Enough of the snappy patter, Professor," I said. "What's your problem with the Lieber?"

"Discrimination, pure and simple!" he shouted.

"Discrimination?" I said. "Since when did you care about discrimination?"

"I'm not surprised you wouldn't know!" Quackers replied angrily. "But ask yourself -- Why so many years of 'Swan Lake' with no performances of anything like 'Duck Lake' as a counterpart?"

Hybrid put her face down and started shaking. Gamma Girl was trying to suppress the giggles and doing a poor job of it. It always sets Quackers off when people laugh at his obsessions, but it was really difficult to blame them for this.

"Silence, you fools!" he bellowed. Panels popped open on the sides of the duckie, and a couple of sets of rocket launcher pods slid out. The pods flashed, and six mini-rockets fired at us.

I fired up my boot-rockets and flew out of the way, dragging Hybrid behind me because she was still laughing too hard to pay attention. Two of the rockets destroyed the billboard we were just standing on, but Gamma Girl threw out a burst of blue radioactive fire and blew up the other four before they could do any damage.

I flew at the giant duckie and tossed Hybrid toward it. She did an acrobatic flip and landed on its back, scratching her claws over its metallic surface as she scrambled for the rocket pods. Gamma Girl was right behind us, firing off a radiation blast at the duck's face.

The Professor's duck tank shrugged off the radiation blasts, but the distraction gave Hybrid the chance she needed to slash one of the rocket pods loose. I landed on its back, summoned a hard-light broadsword out of my weapon-gauntlets and started working on cutting my way through the armor. Didn't look like I'd have very much success, though -- the skin was tougher than battleship plating. There was a loud whir as the duck's mechanical mouth opened and a metal nozzle extended out of its bill.

"Poison gas!" I yelled. "Stay back from that nozzle!"

Of course, neither of them paid any attention. Hybrid started to climb up the duck's neck, but she wasn't as fast as Gamma Girl, who flew right up to the nozzle, closed both hands over it, and started pouring out maximum heat. There was a loud sizzling sound as the nozzle was soldered shut. All the extra heat burned the paint off of most of the duckie's head, but the damage was all cosmetic -- the armor itself was still solid and undamaged.

Suddenly, there was a crackling noise all along the duck's hull, then with a loud whump, all three of us were bounced away from it. Quackers had wired the armor's surface to deliver an electrical jolt, and we all got a painful shock from it. My suit is shielded from electrical attacks, but the feedback had fried one of my gauntlets. Gamma Girl and Hybrid were both stunned by the shock, but recovering fast. But the duck's eyes were glowing bright red -- it was about to discharge a laser attack, and neither one was going to be ready for it.

"Incoming!" came a shout from above. Miss Mega landed on the duckie's back with enough force to stagger it.

"Surrender, Professor Quackers!" I yelled at him. "Try to salvage a little dignity for once!"

"To hell with you all!" he yelled. "This is my moment of triumph!"

He triggered another electrical shock along the duck tank's armor, and Megs yelped -- but that was about all the effect it had on her.

"You prick!" she yelled. "That stings! Cut it out!"

She stomped one foot down on the duck's back with a thunderous "KROOOM!" The duck teetered to the left for a second before recovering its balance. Its head rotated 180 degrees, its eyes glowing red-hot, and blasted her with eye-lasers. Mega got her hand up in front of her and blocked the blast with the palm of her hand.

Gamma Girl tossed her the rear-view mirror broken off a wrecked semi. Miss Mega caught it with her free hand and moved it in the way of the laser, reflecting it back and blowing out the duckie's plastic-and-metal eyes.

"I think you've caused enough trouble today, Professor," Miss Mega said. "Time to get your wings clipped."

She lifted a fist up and dropped it, hard, fast, into the metal on the back of the duck. It completely lost its footing this time, smacking onto the pavement with a shower of sparks. It struggled back to his webbed mechanical feet accompanied by the whine of protesting hydraulics and servos.

Miss Mega hit it another three times in quick succession, again knocking it off its feet. There was a loud metallic scraping sound with the third punch, and she knelt down, dug her fingers into the crack she'd punched open, and pulled, peeling a large strip of the duckie's titanium armor off.

There was a burst of motion as something came flying out of the hole Mega had torn into the vehicle, but Hybrid leaped out quick as a wink, grabbed it out of the air, and made a rolling landing before popping back to her feet holding her prize.

"I got him, I got him!" she sang.

"Release me, you moronic mammalian marauder!" Professor Quackers shouted, flapping his wings desperately and trying in vain to bite her.

"Cobra, you got a net on you?" asked Miss Mega as she hopped off the wrecked duckie vehicle. "It's not easy to hold onto an angry, pooping duck supervillain, is it, Hybrid?"

"Oh no, he's gonna start pooping?" Hybrid asked in distress. She held him out at arm's length as Quackers started flapping even harder.

"I'll do worse than that, you semi-intelligent simian simpleton!" Quackers yelled. "I'm going to build orbital proton cannons and pound you all into radioactive smithereens!"

"Hang on, hang on," I said, pulling a nylon net out of one of compartments in my armor. I flung it over Quackers, and Gamma Girl and I wrapped it around him so Hybrid could let go.

"He didn't poop on me, did he?" asked Hybrid, nervously checking her costume. "Last thing I need is to get supervillain shit on me."

"I think you're okay, Hybrid," said Gamma Girl. "I didn't see him, you know, do anything. Oh god, is that something I'm going to have to worry about more? If that's something supervillains do a lot, maybe I should find another line of work."

"Don't tempt me, you blue-skinned bitch!" shouted Quackers.

"Professor, tone that language down," said Miss Mega, taking the net from me. "I expect better behavior from someone so adorably cute."

"Bah!" he growled. "You oversized ogre, you demolished my best QuackTank yet! I'll make you pay for that one day, you and the rest of you horrific homicidal hominids!"

He kept on insulting us like that 'til the cops finally showed up to take him into custody.

I should dislike the Professor a hell of a lot more than I do. He causes more than enough property damage throughout the city. But there's just something you gotta love about a hyper-intelligent duck named Squeegee Quackers who keeps building duck-themed weaponry and utterly fails every time he tries to take over Metro City. It's just so endearingly weird.

Once we got free of the cops, I headed back into the Lieber and got changed back into my civvies, only to find out that they were shutting down the building for a few days to make sure there was no serious structural damage. Immensely frustrating. Bad enough that I had to spend more time digging in the historical archive, but this was just going to add even more delays on me getting to do any painting.

Darcy wanted to talk more, but I told her to save it. Everyone knows Darcy Sandoval can't stand Barf Bolino, and people would think it was weird if we started hanging out now. I told her we could talk more during patrol hours.

I wasn't really ready to head back to my apartment yet, so I went for a roam around the city, partly so I could stop off at a couple of electronics stores, a machine shop, and my favorite arts supply store -- all located a few miles apart -- and partly just so I could enjoy wandering around town.

I can't really tell you how I feel about Metro City itself. It's a nice enough city -- but it isn't as though I've ever lived anywhere else, so how can I judge. It has all the stuff I need -- art, engineering, music, computers, martial arts training, a nice job, you name it.

But like Megan said, I don't really socialize, and I've never felt I had a good grasp of the city's character, aside from the folks at the Lieber, classmates at McCloud College (and ever since I learned Squid Kid has X-ray vision and knows what I look like under the mask, I've been extremely relieved I go to school at McCloud instead of at Metro City University -- imagine how much trouble it would be to avoid ever letting Lenore meet me as Barf), and of course, the city's heroes and villains.

If I've got any real complaint, it's that the local heroes don't get better publicity, and that's probably mostly the fault of Metro City not having an organized superteam. Big teams tend to have professional public relations teams to help spin their news, and without that, we have to rely on whether or not the city's reporters and pundits have had their daily donuts. If they're well-fed and happy, we'll get good publicity. Otherwise, we'll either get ignored or trashed. A small thing to complain about, but I know it's no fun for the heroes with public identities to deal with talk-radio assholes.

I'm not even immune to it within my own family. My big brother Bruno is Kip Coulter's agent, and he loves to parrot whatever crap Coulter is running with on his show. He gives me Coulter's books every Christmas, and every January, I cut them up and use them for art projects. Ma and Pa aren't any help, 'cause they see Bruno as the normal, successful sibling. So they listen to his show  every damn day.

And Kip Coulter hates metahumans as much as he hates anyone.

Not that he's got any damn reason to. Do you know how many times superheroes have saved his life? An even half-dozen. And he still bitches about us, usually that we didn't kiss his ass enough after pulling him out of one of Dr. Uranium's deathtraps, or catching him after the Anarcho-Syndicalist throws him off a building, or saving him when Toxic Trixie tries to blow up his studio, or diving down Flytrap's gullet to drag his hatemongering ass out of its chlorophyll-powered digestive tract.

The only heroes he hasn't ranted about on-the-air are Atlas (because Lamont's extremely likeable and probably because those kinds of talk-radio guys idolize superstrong, super-buff males), Hybrid (he's probably afraid Darcy would go after him), and Wheelman (because Greg's a douche, and Kip Coulter respects other douches).

The ones who've gotten it the worst are Express (scary black man), Gearbox (non-human who megacorps want to disassemble), Iota (Kip likes to make short jokes), Jonni (he's not alone -- every media outfit in town hates her guts), the Star (another scary black man -- and I'm not looking forward to the day he finds out Michael is gay), Penitente (scary Hispanic man who's idolized in the poorer sections of town), and Miss Mega (Kip likes to make her his focus for either really smutty jokes or panicked rants about man-hating feminists who think they're as good as Paladin, Captain Valiant, or Professor Liberty).

Every family dinner turns into a one-sided discussion about either what Kip Coulter said on his latest show or why I should try to be more like my super-successful brother, all while I sit there, grind my teeth, and try to resist punching Bruno's lights out and storming out of the house.

I've even considered outing myself as a superhero, just to get them to stop repeating Kip Coulter's metaphobic crap. Of course, if I did that, Bruno would end up revealing it to Coulter, entirely by accident and/or blind dumb trust in the rotten ratfucking son-of-a-bitch, and he'd blab it all over the airwaves.

But I could go off on the haters all damn day, and it wouldn't make me anything but a hater just like 'em. So fuck 'em.

I headed for my favorite military surplus store and started hassling them about getting a better class of generators in stock. They think I take 'em apart for multimedia projects, and I don't ever waste time correcting them.

I'm in the process of talking them into cutting me a deal on a nice fuel pump when I get a call from Iota. I didn't really need the fuel pump that bad -- I mainly like visiting these guys because they hate me so damn much -- so I headed outside so I could talk to him.

"Good afternoon, Dr. Denziger," I said once I was outside. "How can I assist you?"

"Cobra, I thought I'd better let you know I'm seeing some weird energy readings around the downtown area," he said.

"What kind of weird?" I asked. "Come to think of it, what kind of energy?"

"It's actually a bit hard to tell," Iota said. "My instruments have been a bit haywire for the last few hours -- I've finally got them adjusted so I can get some readings, but they're still wildly confused. One minute, they'll say nothing's going on, and the next, they act like we've got the storm of the century out there."

"Well, the weather's just fine right now," I said. "But I'd rather not assume there's anything wrong with your instruments."

"Same here," said Iota. "I'm fairly sure this is going to be either something magical or something other-dimensional. Maybe both, but I hope not."

"You and me both," I said. Either of those could be bad news, but both together was almost certain to be some variety of dimensional conqueror. "Do you have the Council of Thaumaturges on your speed-dial? I don't keep their number on my civilian phone."

"That's the other thing," he said. "I've had network outages all day -- telephone, satellite, and Internet. But just outside of the city -- calls within Metro City are clear as a bell. A suspicious mind would conjecture that we're being cut off."

"Crap," I said. I started heading for my apartment. No way was I going to change in an alley, especially during daylight hours.

"Should I hit the Panic Button?" Iota asked.

"No, not yet," I said. "Focus on trying to contact some heroes outside the city. Anyone, not just the Council of Thaumaturges -- maybe someone else has a direct line to them. I'll start the usual phone tree in motion from my end -- I don't want us activating the Panic Button on the little info we have right now. Sound okay to you?"

"Absolutely," Iota said. "I'll keep my fingers crossed that it's only an equipment malfunction."

"Thanks," I said. "And good luck."

I hung up and phoned Megan and the Star while I was walking back toward my apartment. Gave them a brief overview, warned them to be ready for possible trouble, and had them call the next heroes on their list.

The weather was actually starting to act up a little now -- a noticeable drop in temperature, gusty winds, and increased cloud cover, none of which were in this morning's forecast.

And it was getting worse the longer I walked. The wind was really blowing a gale. It could've still been a storm, but I wasn't feeling encouraged by this. I was at least 90% certain something bad was up, and other people around me were feeling it, too. Lots of people were heading for shelter inside buildings around me, and you wouldn't see that happening for a simple windstorm.

Then the wind completely stopped, the clouds started to drift away, and I knew something was up.

People started running past me, away from Ormes Park, about two blocks to the west. I fought my way through them -- it wasn't getting me any closer to my apartment, but I needed to find out what was going on.

Ormes Park isn't there anymore. It's all been replaced by a giant white fairy-tale Bavarian castle. There's a moat around it and everything.

There was a trumpet fanfare, and a voice from out of nowhere announced, "Rejoice, citizens of Metro City! You are now under the protection of this world's new master, the noble, handsome, and unconquerable Emperor Charming! The Emperor invites you to meet his Imperial Guard, who will be responsible for protecting and patrolling your city!"

I turned around and ran for home as the castle's drawbridge lowered and hordes of ogres, unicorns, big bad wolves, and flying monkeys started pouring out.

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