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My name is Cecil Tarin, and
I'm a superhero.
16 years old, I'm an only child, and my parents are divorced, so I end up
moving to one or the other's house every two weeks. And neither place is a
whole lot of fun, 'cause my folks are kinda fucked up. Mom drinks and yells.
Dad spends money on his car and yells. No, it's not a lot of fun, but on the
bright side, neither seems to care if I spend all hours of the night running
around town, which means I can do all the superhero stuff I want to.
As for that superhero stuff? Here's how it got
started. A few years ago, I was riding my bike down the street, and I got hit
by a car. I went flying, smacked into a telephone pole, and went into a coma. I
don't remember any of this, of course. I had swelling in the brain and all
kinds of nasty stuff. I apparently died a couple of times on the operating
table, and I guess I was pretty lucky to survive.
Once I woke up, I learned something weird. For
whatever reason -- brain alteration, psychic awakening, dumb luck, whatever --
I could see dead people. And the dead people thought I was really, really, really cool.
Everyone thought I was having hallucinations
'til I got better at hiding the fact that I was seeing ghosts all over the
place. Once I was able to get somewhere private, I was able to talk to them and
figure out that I really didn't have to be afraid about there being spectral
corpses hanging out in my bedroom wanting to talk about stuff.
The Chrome Cobra calls it "Undead
Charisma," and I guess it's a pretty good description. Ghosts, specters,
and wraiths like to hang around me. Vampires and barrow wights upnod me. The
only mummy I've ever met appointed himself as my guardian for the few days he
was in town, and I really had to work hard to persuade him not to follow me
home or to school. Every time we have a zombie incursion, I'm the only guy who
doesn't get attacked. Even undead supervillains like the Damned Yankee, Lady
Nocturne, and Keelhaul Killian generally seem to like me, even while I'm
fighting them. Undead Charisma means a lot of weird, kinda scary stuff goes on
around me all the time, but it definitely means some good stuff, too.
are a lot of ghosts in Metro City. Most of them are pretty nice people. They're
not all that lonely -- they have each other to talk to, of course -- but they
really like getting to hang out with me. And I've had to lay down some serious
ground rules for them, 'cause sometimes they appear -- like appear visibly -- at home or at school or
somewhere else, and people really freak out when that happens.
So I've had to tell them they had to stay
invisible and quiet, and they can't move stuff around. They've been cool with
that, but they can't stay out of the way all the time. Sometimes they really
want to talk to me. Well, it helps that I have, like, a mental rapport with
them -- I can talk to them telepathically and vice versa. But still, sometimes,
they want to be audible and visible and want to stack chairs on the table.
Well, I couldn't let them run wild at home, and
I couldn't let them run wild at school. So I finally decided I'd take them out
and let them run wild around town. The first night, I carted 'em downtown, they
found a mugger, and put the serious terror into him. And I realized I could use
these guys to do some good. And to be a superhero. Which seemed like a really good thing, 'cause
I figured superheroes got all the chicks.
So now I call myself el Phantasmo. I still don't
have the kind of build that'll let me look good in spandex, so I wear black
pants, a black T-shirt with a cartoon ghost on it, a black jacket, and a
colorful luchador mask. It totally covers my head -- no mouth hole, no nose
hole, and covered eye holes. I can see out just fine, but it looks like one
All the stuff I do, it's all because of the
ghosts. They carry me to let me fly. They pick stuff up, they see and hear
things I can't, they deflect bullets for me. It's really pretty cool. I try not
to take every ghost in town out with me, 'cause that's a lot of ghosts, ya know?
Also, I try to make sure that at least some of
them get to move on to whatever afterlife they're heading towards. Sometimes
ghosts hang around because they like Earth, and sometimes, they need help
getting their unfinished business done. Sometimes I can help with that, and
that always feels good.
Right now, I'm hanging out on
top of the Evanier Tower, which is a funny thing to call a building that's just
four stories high. This was going to be one of my off-duty nights, and I was
looking forward to hanging out with some friends from school and watching old
"Star Trek" episodes, but the Chrome Cobra called me and said there's
another new superhero in town, and I'm supposed to do a meet-and-greet with her
I'm kinda tired of new
superheroes in this town.
See, I remember back when we
were a pretty small group -- just an unlucky 13 of us, like we were all outlaws
doing our own thing. Squid Kid came along and bumped us out of that cool 13
number, but she was pretty cool, and we were still a small, close-knit, cool
bunch of people for a while. Then all of a sudden, there was Atlas and the
Star, then Gamma Girl came along, and then, bam, bam, bam -- Calypso, Silver
Protector Kumiko, and Polyphemus, and we're all the way up to 20.
It's not like I dislike any
of the new superheroes -- I mean, Polyphemus is a huge asshole, and the Star
sorta switches from cool, understanding guy to overconfident lecturer at a
moment's notice, but even then, I don't mind 'em, and we all get along, and
we're really better than we ever have been before.
But still, ya know? So many
changes. We're not the same group we used to be, and in a way, I don't really
So I'm hanging out up on top
of this building, listening to my ghosts chatter to each other and kick
aluminum cans all over the rooftop, when I start hearing this loud, fast
thunking noise, getting rapidly closer and closer to me. I see a woman running
down the street toward the building -- running really fast, too. Not
superspeed, but much, much faster than a person should be able to go.
She gets about a half-block
away, then makes this amazing leap, hits the building about three-quarters of
the way up, grabs hold of the building somehow, and scrambles her way on top of
Well, she's tall. Not as tall as Miss Mega or
Polyphemus, obviously. Not as tall as Atlas or Hypothermia or Star or Kumiko or
-- ya know what, we've got a lot of tall superheroes in this town. I guess she's
about five foot ten, which puts her about on Jonni Rotten's level. She's got
shoulder-length brown hair and really green eyes. There are small metal ridges
at her temples, blending into her hairline, and more metal ridges along the
sides of her neck. She's wearing a red bodysuit with silver trim and a dull red
leather jacket. There are stylized "P" logos on her chest and on the
shoulder and back of the jacket.
She snaps to her feet, looks
skyward, and theatrically raises her arms in the air.
Oh my god, I recognize her.
gentlemen!" she shouts. "Children of all ages! You stand in the
presence of a goddess! The peak of 21st century
technology! The maximum in physical
achievement! The ultimate in
punishment and pain! The final defeat
for all who oppose me! You stand in the presence of... the Piiiiiiiledriver!"
Oh. My. Fucking. God. This is
so much better than "Star Trek." Even my ghosts are agog.
I'm going to have to assume
you watch wrestling, because otherwise, you suck. And I'm going to have to
assume you watch the American Super
Wrestling Association, which is the best all-metahuman wrestling organization
on the planet. And the Piledriver was just amazing.
She was the ASWA's near-unstoppable cyborg, and her matches against the Liberty
Belles and Captain Justice were absolutely legendary.
she lowers her arms and glares at me, those scary green eyes literally glowing.
notice you wear a mask of the luchadors," she says dangerously. "So
are you a rudo? Or a technico?"
a technico, ma'am," I squeak.
God, I hope that was the right answer. The Cobra said there was a new hero in
town, but Piledriver was always a heel.
she relaxes, smiles, and sticks out a hand.
answer, man," she says. "You must be el Phantasmo. Great to meet
you, ma'am," I say. "You are
the new hero in town, right? I mean, you were always one of the bad guys in the
do know we were acting, right?" she says, crooking an eyebrow at me.
"I would've made a great babyface, too, you know, but I had a talent for
monologuing, and you could tear a cyborg villain's arm off while keeping your
okay, that makes sense," I say. "And yes, I knew it wasn't real, it's
worry, baby, I understand," she says. "I made a hell of a heel, and I
take it as a compliment when people expect me to be the bad guy. It's all cool
-- but I'm definitely a real-life face now."
that's good to hear, obviously."
"Anyway, I already did a
little online research on you, thanks to the in-brain internet connection,"
she says, tapping her forehead. "Ghost control, supernatural powers, all
that good stuff. My primary thing is high strength. I can pick up 750 tons.
Ain't the best, but ain't that bad either, right? Plus I can run about 50 miles
per hour, jump about 300 feet, I got extendable wrists, of all damn things, and
I can shoot lasers outta my fingertips. Oh, and crazy-awesome senses, too. How
'bout it, man, go ahead and tell me how much I rule."
"Your ID is public,
right?" I ask. "I know they used your name on TV all the time."
"Well, yes and no,"
she says. "Cyberelle Doomtronika was definitely an alias. But my real name
is basically public knowledge. I'm Laura Quinn. You can call me Laura or Quinn
or Piledriver or the Mighty Quinn or Quinn the Eskimo or whatever you want to.
What about you?"
"Nah, sorry," I
say. "Secret ID."
"Hence the amazing
mask," she says. "If I ever defeat you in battle, I'm taking that
mask for myself, and you'll have to leave town, know what I'm saying?"
Seriously, it's taking all my
willpower to keep from nerding out so incredibly hard. The Piledriver herself
thinks my mask is cool. And about the only thing that keeps me from collapsing
into nervous gigglefits is getting a buzz on my communicator.
"Oh, just a
second," I say, tapping the earpiece and turning away slightly. "Got
a call coming in."
going alright tonight?" says the Chrome Cobra.
"Yes, ma'am, not much
going on so far."
"You still got the Piledriver
there, don't you?" she says.
"What do you
think?" she asks. "Got a minute for first impressions?"
"Umm, no, not right
now," I say. Like I'm going to totally geek out right in front of both the
Cobra and Piledriver? Not a chance.
"Ahh, go ahead and tell
her," says Piledriver. Wait, her voice is coming in through the
communicator? Person-to-person messages on these are supposed to be secure...
the Cobra. "I haven't given you a communicator yet, have I?"
"Already hacked the
signal," she says. Wait a minute, she's not moving her lips! She's just
talking through the communicator?
"How are you doing
that?" I ask. I probably have a completely idiotic expression on my face.
Good thing I wear a mask.
"Internal cell phone,
man," she says. "All I gotta do is think the words, and it's just
like I'm doing the talking. I can hold two phone conversations at the same
time. It's pretty impressive, man."
"What do you mean, you
hacked my signal?!" says the Cobra angrily. "I'm not going to let
anyone fuck with my communicators, Quinn! Including you!"
"Keep your panties on,
hotshot," Piledriver says. "I can hear all kinds of radio signals,
including this one. You've had me running around superpeople all night who got
these signals going on all around 'em -- it was just a matter of time before I
got bored and cracked into the communicators' backdoor. Just get me one of
these fancy earpieces, and you won't have to worry about me fiddling with your
secret communications anymore."
"Fine!" says Cobra.
"I'll get you one by tomorrow night. All you had to do was ask,
"It's more fun this
way," Piledriver says. She grins and winks at me. Holy crap, an actual
celebrity is flirting with me. My brain is going to explode.
Cobra says. It's always weird to hear her get frustrated at us, even though it
happens almost all the time. "Listen, Phantasmo, I just learned an old
friend of yours is in town again."
"Do you mean an old
friend, like someone I'll be glad to see?" I ask. "Or is this the
other kind of old friend?"
"Well, let's just say
there's a Canaanite death god crawling out of the sewers near Hewlett Park who
you were instrumental in sending back to the underworld a while back."
"Oh, not Mot
again!" I groan.
"What, wait, you guys
got a supervillain named after apple sauce?" asks Piledriver.
"Mot with one T,"
Cobra says. "You've got an internal wireless net connection -- look him
up. I want you guys to scramble down there to help out. Atlas is on site, along
with Gamma Girl, Kumiko, and Express."
"Just the seven of
us?" I ask.
"No, just the six of
you," she says. "I can't come along this time. I'm stuck at a...
family function I can't leave without causing a scene."
"Six of us versus a
death god?" I say. "That's not enough, Cobra. You sure you can't get
"If I thought it was a
real emergency, I would," she says. "But even I need an occasional
night off to tend to my secret ID. And you guys can handle Mot just fine. He
was a cakewalk last time, remember?"
"He was not a cakewalk, Cobra. And we had more
people fighting him last time."
sorceress," she says. "She'll have all kinds of ways to stomp him.
Gotta go -- dinner's on. You guys have fun with Mot."
"Okay, so six of us
against a death god, huh?" says Piledriver. "Think you can give me a
lift to Hewlett Park, Phantasmo?"
So we go off flying. Hewlett
Park is clear on the other side of the city, and Piledriver actually weighs
about 400 pounds, so it takes a few extra ghosts to carry her. And we all have
to fly slower, so it's gonna take longer than I'd like to get across town.
"So do I need to know
these ghosty dudes' names?" she asks. "There are so many people to
"Well, they're Felix
Kellerman, Janelle Ridge, Dawn Hernandez, Michael Fulcher, and Garry Canne,"
I say. "But I kinda cycle the ghosts in and out a lot. There are an awful
lot of spirits in the city, and they don't follow me everywhere I go. You might
not end up seeing these particular ghosts again but every few weeks. Besides,
right now, they're mostly invisible."
"Ah, okay," she
says. "Thanks for the lift anyway, Felix, Janelle, Dawn, Michael, and
Garry. Wave next time you see me, and we'll see if I can remember your names,
I won't make too many bets on
her being able to remember their names. There are a few thousand ghosts in the
city, and I try not to use too many of them at once -- they're easier to
control and keep track of if there are fewer than 20 of them hanging around me
at a time. And really, the only reason I'm able to remember all of their names
is because I've got a weird supernatural affinity for them. There are times I
can't even tell them apart visually -- a lot of them don't manifest in much
more detail than wisps of smoke or shadow -- but I somehow always know their
names. Still, I also know that they usually like being recognized, so if she's
willing to make some effort in that direction, I bet they'll love her.
"So did you just move to
the city?" I ask. "And where did you move from?"
"I've actually been here
about six months," she says. "Moved here from Los Angeles after the
ASWA fired me."
"No way!" I say.
"Why on earth would they fire you?
You were so awesome!"
"Kid, you are going to
be so damn good for my ego," she grins. "Nah, the thing is, I was
really, really expensive. All those arms and legs that people tore off me --
they weren't my standard limbs, of course, 'cause those were too strong to be
yanked off so easy. So I'd have to be fitted with temporary tear-away limbs,
and even though they were flimsier than the real things, they still cost the
ASWA quite a bit of cash. So they decided to let me go and keep from going
broke for another few years."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear
that," I say. "I bet it was a great job, too."
"It was an alright
job," she says. "It got me back on my feet and making some money
after a really bad period of my life. But I was really kinda glad to get out of
L.A. Lotsa bad memories crowding the place up, ya know? I'd gotten my degree in
journalism and done a little sports reporting for ESPN, so I got a job here as
a sportswriter for the Metro City Metropolitan. Anyway, I guess the Cobra just
found out I'd moved into town in the last week or so. Comes tearing into the
house one night, going on about what the heck me and my uncle are planning on
doing to the city."
"What's your uncle have
to do with the story?" I ask.
"Yeah, I guess Uncle
Aggy's what you'd call a mad scientist," she says. "Not a bad mad scientist. He just likes science
that sometimes blows up on him. He's a good guy, I mean -- he rebuilt me after
my accident. And he moved to Metro City after I did, 'cause he wanted to live
nearby in case I needed serious repairs. Anyway, Cobra got it into her head
that he was gonna do something crazy, I guess."
"Wait a minute," I
say. "You mean Agamemnon Quinn? Your uncle is Agamemnon Xerxes Quinn?"
"Ohh, you've heard of
him," she says. "Yeah, okay, he went through a period where he did
some bad stuff. I mean, hell, you figure out how to build a giant robot, and
you might wanna take it for a test drive, too, right? The thing with the Capitol Records Building was an accident, he did his time -- minimum security
facility, got four years off for good behavior -- and he's been a model citizen
"We have so many mad
scientists living in this town."
"Again, Uncle Aggy
hasn't caused anyone the slightest bit of trouble in over 20 years. Only reason
he's here is 'cause he doesn't want his favorite niece to get in trouble and
not have anyone around to weld her back into shape, that's all. He's cool as a
"Okay, fine," I
say. "I guess we'll take your word for it."
"Yeah, that's what I
told Cobra, too," she says. "So she goes, hey, if you're gonna live
here, I want you doing the superhero thing. And I start thinking, I'm probably
game to try it out. I never much wanted anything to do with the superhero scene
in Los Angeles. There are too many out there anyway, and most of them are
angling for a shot on reality TV anyway. But the Chrome Cobra shows up and tells
you it's time to be a superhero? Who am I to argue? So I dug my old costume out
of storage, doctored it up a bit, added the jacket, and here I am, in the
living or at least realistically synthetic flesh."
By now, we've made it over to
Hewlett Park, where Atlas, Gamma Girl, Express, and Silver Protector Kumiko are
keeping a careful distance behind an extremely thin figure wearing black armor
stalking across the park.
As Piledriver and I land, I
say, "Hey, everyone. What's the situation? Everyone met Piledriver
Everyone upnods each other,
which I take to be an affirmative -- but honestly, all of them look a little
doubtful about her presence here.
"Awright, people, what's
the haps?" she says, smacking a fist into her palm. "We gonna go
fight evil or sit around here and have a picnic?"
"Yeah, what's the
situation?" I ask. "Something must be up, or you guys would already
be kicking Mot's butt, right?"
adapted since the last time he was in the city," says Atlas.
"He has a very powerful
magic defense shield," says Kumiko. "The glowing aura around him is
basically a life-destroying forcefield. Any living creature that gets within
ten feet of him gets juiced. He's killed a couple stray cats, some squirrels, a
flock of birds. He seems to be harvesting their spirits."
"Barely avoided him
myself," says Express. "Thanks again for the warning, Kumiko."
"No worries, E,"
she says. "He's shrugging off my spells, too. And I'm leery of what'll
happen if he decides to actively target us."
"Or if he starts finding
some people to tear apart," adds Atlas. "I'm not a fan of letting
this guy roam around free, but I sure don't want him unleashing on us
"If it's an anti-life
field, we were thinking you might send some ghosts after him, Phan," says
Gamma Girl. "At least he wouldn't be able to kill them, right?"
"I don't know," I
say. "Last time he came through town, the ghosts pretty much treated him
like he was Elvis."
"Yeah, but they
distracted him, and they pulled some good info off him," says Atlas.
"Probably the only thing that let us beat him before."
"I'll give it a
shot," I say, mentally sending a half-dozen over toward Mot to do some
quick surveillance. They circle him a few times, probably just on the outer
edge of his forcefield.
And then his field visibly
ripples, and all of the ghosts get sucked straight into him.
"That didn't look good,
Phantasmo," says Express. "That looked very, very not good."
"That... was very, very not good," I say. I'm kinda in
shock. I've never seen anything like that before. And I can't sense any of
those ghosts anymore.
Then Mot turns around and
looks at us. He smiles in a really unwholesome way, and then I'm yanked off my
feet as the rest of my ghosts get
sucked into him from clear across the park.
"Crap, crap, crap,"
I say, probably a lot more calmly than I should've. "He just pulled all my
ghosts off me. I can't feel them anymore. I don't even know what the hell
"He stole them,"
says Kumiko. "Damn, Phantasmo, we should've kept you away. It's like we
gave him a loaded gun."
Sure enough, all my ghosts
are orbiting Mot now, spinning around him backwards. And they're screaming,
even. Nothing hurts those guys, but they're all screaming.
"And we got his attention
now, too," says Atlas. Mot is walking toward us now, grinning like a
nightmare, ghosts orbiting him. "We need to keep our distance."
"If that'll even
help," says Gamma Girl. "Sparky Isotope says Mot almost snared him,
too. What if he can do that to any of us, even from that distance?"
"Okay, hang on,"
says Piledriver. "Ms. Kumiko, I got a fast question."
"Out with it,
then," Kumiko says. "I'll try to give a fast answer."
"Is that guy a god -- like a deity walking the earth,
incarnate spirit of untold power and all that -- or is he just a guy channeling a god?"
Kumiko pauses a moment.
"It's a guy," she says.
"Probably the same guy
who was channeling him last time," says Atlas. "You guys remember his
Ravenhurst," says Express. "But that was his new age name. Real name
was Raul Blatz. Just a moron with a Ouija board who managed to contact an
"Right, but he's still
functioning as an avatar," says Kumiko. "And even with a minor deity
like Mot, that makes him really scary powerful."
"But he's still just a guy," says Piledriver.
"Listen, I need a distraction right now. Gimme magical illusions, illusory
people, lots of 'em, all around him. Right now,
And she takes off running at
FIGMENTS!" Kumiko yells, and the whole park is seemingly full of
picnickers and people throwing baseballs and kids playing tag. Mot looks
surprised, looking around at all the sudden activity around him.
Express runs up next to
Piledriver and puts a hand on her shoulder. "Laura, what are you
doing?" he says. "That shield will blow you apart. Come on, let's
But she grabs him with one
hand, and there's a pop and an electrical flash. He falls to the ground
stunned, probably for just a few seconds, and she keeps running at the monster
who stole all my ghosts.
Mot shoots a few magic rays
at the illusions around him, and they dissolve in a way which seems to amuse
him, because he laughs and keeps shooting at them. He's not paying any
attention to Piledriver, which isn't going to help her a bit when she hits his
forcefield and gets torn to pieces.
Well, she hits his forcefield
-- and she doesn't get torn apart at all. She runs right through it unharmed,
and she jams her fist into Mot's jaw and knocks him 20 feet away. The
forcefield shatters and falls apart, and he starts to get to his feet. But
Piledriver's on top of him already. She kicks him like a football, and he
bounces another 20 feet away.
She bounds over to him and
drops her fist on him once, twice, three times. Then she stands up straight,
strikes a pose, and says, "Beware, Applesauce! You thought to rise against
the good people of this fair city? You thought to oppose the causes of justice
and truth? Then you must face the unstoppable might of the Piiiiiiii..."
No, of course she doesn't get
to finish the speech. Mot pops her with a magical shockwave that hits her like
a bomb and blows her a good 200 feet back behind us.
But by then, Mot has already
lost any advantage or momentum he used to have.
Kumiko nails him to the
ground with a "Righteous Lightning JAVELIN!"
Gamma Girl scorches him with
a super-heated blast of radioactive fire.
Express hammers him with a
couple hundred high-speed punches.
Atlas hits him with an
overhand smash that leaves a crater in the middle of the park and sets off
every car alarm in a half-dozen blocks.
I don't get to do much, but
I'm right in there peeling ghosts off him as fast as I can.
It's all over in less than 30
seconds. Mot vanishes -- or at least the "Mot" aspect, with the
skeletal frame, black armor, and horrible grin -- and leaves behind a chubby
guy with dyed black hair, a black T-shirt, silver jewelry, and a bunch of
shouts. "Go find the Piledriver -- see if she needs to go to the
"Cool your jets, man!"
says Laura as she strolls up to us. "Most of what he hit me with was
straight kinetic energy. Didn't hurt me a bit."
Well, I don't know about that. It looks like someone tried to
feed her through a wood chipper. Her costume is torn, her arm looks like
someone's tried to cut her skin off with knives, and half her face has been
torn off -- and all I can see underneath is a gleaming metal skeleton.
"That," says Gamma
Girl, "is one million percent
"Yeah, no kidding,"
says Kumiko. "That's horror-movie
gross. The guy hurt you more than you think."
"Ahh, this is nothing,"
she says. "He just sent me flying. It was the trees I landed in that did
all the damage. Besides, this is all just cosmetic damage. I've got a few
gallons of synthetic skin solution at home -- I can get all this fixed up
myself in a jiffy."
"I wanna know what the
hell you were trying to do," says Atlas. "You had him on the ropes,
and you stop to make a damn speech?"
"Seemed like a good time
for a monologue," she says with a shrug. "Gotta roll with your
instincts, and the crowds usually love that stuff."
"There weren't any
crowds," says Kumiko. "And wrestling has absolutely nothing to do
with crimefighting. If you're going to keep trying to treat this like a game,
you're never going to be any kind of worthwhile superhero."
"Listen, I'm not
worried," Laura says. "I'm new to the biz, I know. I'm learning the
tricks and schticks. I'll be fine, soon as I can get the feel of the canvas.
And don't try to tell me not to speechify, sister. Nothing wrong with bringing
a little style to the
"You are goddamn hopeless, Quinn," says Kumiko.
"Playing dumb is no way to win fights."
which," says the Express. "That stunt you pulled was too much of a
risk. Mot's shield still could've killed the biological parts you have left.
You can't rely on dumb luck in situations like these."
"It was not dumb, it was
not luck, and it was a safe gamble," Piledriver says. "Any living
thing that touched the forcefield got torn to shreds, right? Well, I'm a
scoopjob, you know? A total conversion model. My living bits -- brain, spine,
spleen, appendix, you name it -- are all buried under synthetic skin and a
metal endoskeleton. Even my two remaining toes are coated in titanium. The
shield wasn't gonna touch anything but the non-living cybernetic parts."
She turns and jabs a finger
at Kumiko. "And don't call me dumb," she says. "I've got a
bachelor's degree in journalism, with a minor in statistics. I graduated cum laude. I'm certified in first aid
and lifesaving. And the owners of both the Falcons and the Mustangs already hate my guts because I've asked them too
many questions they didn't want to answer. So don't even dream of treating me like a dumb jock, just 'cause I used to
says Kumiko. "You're a genius, and when you screw up, it'll be because
you're just too damn smart to use tactics."
"I don't care,
sister," Piledriver says. "My uncle's a genius. I hear the Cobra and
Iota and that iceberg guy are geniuses. I'm just here to punch bad guys in the
face, sometimes by figuring out how to get through their magical
"Both of you settle
down, please," says Gamma Girl. "I'm not in the mood for this kind of
Express. "And at any rate, Laura, I think I'd ask that the next time
you're punching your way through a forcefield, please do it without tasering
me. That's no fun with a superspeed nervous system."
"Ehh, fair enough,"
she says. "Like I said, I'm learning the ropes, and I'll try to get
"Listen, guys, I want to
package this guy up for the Council of Thaumaturges," says Kumiko.
"If he's channeled Mot more than once, I think we'd be better off letting
the Council keep watch over him. They might be able to block him off as an
avatar for good, but I'll have to transport him to a Council safehouse. Need
anything else from me tonight?"
Kumiko," says Atlas. "Thanks for your help."
As Kumiko teleports herself
and the ex-Mot away in a flash of light, Gamma Girl says, "Phantasmo,
where are your ghosts? Have they all gone invisible on us?"
"No, not really," I
say. "They're basically traumatized. They all went home for the
It's really very freaky. I
understand that getting forcibly and painfully torn away and used as a power
source by a death god would be pretty devastating, but I think I expected all
of them to be a little more resilient than that. There are various technologies
and magics that can temporarily discorporate them, but they always bounce right
back from that. But this time, they were hurt and scared, and they all begged
to go rest up in their graves. What could I do? I told 'em to go and let me
know when they feel better.
"So you essentially
don't have any powers right now?" Gamma Girl asks. "If you don't have
any ghosts, you can't even get yourself back home, can you?"
"Well, I'll pick up a
few fresh ghosts as time goes by," I say. "You know, there are enough
roaming spirits in the city, and a lot of them kinda seek me out anyway. But
it'll probably take at least 30 minutes, maybe a whole hour to get enough of
them to let me do much of anything."
"Alright then, you guys
know what I'm thinking?" Piledriver says. "Phantasmo needs a little
time to get back into the swing of things. So who's up for taking a break and
getting some nosh? I'm buying!"
"I'm gonna go ahead and
take a pass," says Atlas. "As long as the rest of you guys can make
sure Phan's going to be okay."
Express, Gamma Girl, and
Piledriver all promise to keep watch over me, which on one hand makes me
completely embarrassed, 'cause I can take care of myself. But on the other
hand, it's been a really long time since I didn't have a horde of ghosts
hanging around to protect me, so I guess I'm a little nervous about that.
So we head on over to
DeCarlo's Diner over on 76th, which is always open late. And for
once, they almost don't let us in,
because seriously, half of Laura's face is torn away, and she looks really weird. It probably doesn't help
when she glares at the counterman and says, "Your clothes... give them to
me now" in a near-perfect Schwarzenegger accent.
I'm really kinda starving, so
I order a double cheeseburger and soda. Express gets the enchilada platter and
one of DeCarlo's signature chocolate-peanut butter milkshakes, and Gamma Girl
goes with an order of pancakes, a small orange juice, and a large coffee.
Piledriver doesn't actually order anything.
"Nothing for me, babe,"
she tells the waitress, tipping her head toward her -- I think she's trying to
wink, even though that half of her face is gone. "I run on batteries --
any grub down my gullet just has to get manually flushed out later."
Once we get our food, Gamma
Girl says, "Listen, Laura, I hope I'm not prying, but what kind of
accident could you have had that destroyed almost your entire body?"
"Not prying at all, GG,"
she says. "Wasn't even anything too unusual -- just a really bad car
accident. We were driving out on the PCH, and this out-of-control semi jumps
the median and plows into us. I broke almost everything and ruptured the stuff
that couldn't break. The docs weren't making any progress on keeping me going,
so Uncle Aggy brings in his homemade stasis chamber and tells the hospital
he'll let them have it for free if they'll put me in and then let him work on
fixing me up. A month later, I wake up in something that looks a hell of a lot
worse than this current model, but hey, I was alive. And he's kept working on
improving me ever since."
"You said 'we' were in the
accident," says Express.
Piledriver says, growing more serious. "That was my Delilah. She died on
impact. I missed her funeral and everything."
Express says slowly. "Wait, you mean the actress Delilah Lockhart? You
were the secret girlfriend the tabloids kept talking about?"
"Yeah, well, if Prop 8
had been overturned, she was gonna come out of the closet," she says.
"And the tabloids can, as I have said a few billion times over the last few years, completely eat my goddamn ass."
"Wow," I say.
"So you're our first gay superhero as well as the second celebrity
superhero to move to Metro City."
"No, the Star's gay,
Phan," says Express.
"I'm a little surprised
you didn't know," he says. "I know you're young, but I thought your
gaydar was more developed than that."
"Keep it under your hat,
please," says Gamma Girl. "I don't think he's aware that any of us
know, and he certainly doesn't want any
of the local radio wingnuts finding out."
"Consider my lip zipped,"
Piledriver says. "I'm no fan of the closet, but it's not my decision
"My mind is still kinda
blown by this," I say. "I didn't have a single clue."
"Okay, listen, here's
the thing," Laura says. "Don't start acting like it's a big thing to the
guy, alright? I mean, you were friends with him before, weren't you?"
"Well, kinda sorta, I
"Alright, then keep
things on that same kinda sorta level, ya know? Freaking out and treating him
like a total stranger is a major party foul."
"Wait a minute,"
says Gamma Girl. "Derek, this better
not be why you're always feuding with the Star."
"No, Renee, it
isn't," Express says. "I didn't like him before I found out he was gay. Stupid Assembly of Tokens punk..."
"Hold on," I say.
"I don't have to worry about, you know..."
There's a bit of a pause.
"Worry about what?" asks Express.
"You know, if he's going
to... hit on me?"
"Phantasmo, what the
hell!" Piledriver shouts.
"Ohhhh my god,
man," Express says, putting his head in his hands.
Gamma Girl snorts suddenly with laughter.
"Sparky!" she says, jabbing a finger at her invisible spirit friend.
"Very funny, smart guy, but don't say anything
like that again!"
"Okay, fine, if I knew
you were all going to react like this, I would've stayed quiet," I say.
God, sometimes superheroes are such assholes.
"No, no," says
Gamma Girl. "Me laughing was not
directed at you, not at all!"
Express says. "But no, you don't
have to worry about that, okay? Gay people are no more or less likely to hit on
anyone than straight people are. And I may not like the Star, but he's not the
kind of guy who goes hitting on other people. Just put your mind at ease, okay?"
"This is a learning
moment, Phantasmo," says Gamma Girl. "Let's all learn from it, and I
promise it'll never get mentioned again."
"Take it from someone
who knows," Piledriver says. "There are definitely fewer gay guys who hit on other guys than there are
straight guys who hit on every woman
they meet. I mean, why would you go making that kind of trouble for yourself?
It would just be so rude and awkward."
The bell over the entrance
jingles, and Miss Mega squeezes through the door into the diner. "Hey, you
guys, took forever to find you!"
"Hey, Megs," says
Express. "How's the weather up there?"
"Wanna grab a
seat?" asks Gamma Girl. "We're almost done with the food, but I bet
we've got a little time left for more coffee."
"No thanks, guys,"
she says. "I was supposed to meet up with the Piledriver over at Ormes
Park, and Atlas mentioned that you all stopped off over here."
Express, Gamma Girl, and I
all point exaggeratedly at Piledriver. "There she is," I say.
"As if you probably couldn't tell..."
"Hi, Piledriver, how are
you?" she says, extending her hand. "I'm Miss Mega."
"Oh my god," Laura
says, her remaining eye as big as a saucer. "Where have you been all my life?"
"Say again?" Mega
Laura says. "The things I could do
to that body. I mean, babe, I'm a cyborg, and my tongue absolutely never gets tired."
"What." Oh, man,
that's the tone of voice she uses when she's about to hit someone with a bus.
"I mean, I knew you were
scrumptious from seeing you on
TV," says Piledriver. "But oh my god, woman, you are completely beyond
belief! You doin' anything after patrol?"
Miss Mega puts her hand back
down. She twists her head a little, and the muscles in her neck crack like a
redwood forest exploding.
"Please don't hit her,
Megs," Express says. "You'll knock a hole clear through the
"I have to go make a phone
call," Miss Mega says. "Also, I have to go find something I can
And she walks out. She even
leaves the door attached to the diner, which is a little surprising, 'cause I
was expecting her to tear that entire wall down.
"Oh my god, I think I'm
in love," Piledriver says.
"I cannot believe you," Renee says.
"After what you just said a minute ago!"
"Rude and awkward,"
Express says. "Goddamn, woman, were you even listening to yourself?"
"Come on, everyone here
was thinking the same thing," Piledriver says. "I can't be blamed
anyway -- I've been in a booty drought for so
"Okay, I'm getting out
of here," I say. "That was scarier than Mot."
"Have you picked up
enough ghosts, Phan?" Express asks. "I can give you a lift at least
part way home if you need it."
"I've got a half-dozen
who've drifted over," I say, heading for the door. "I'll be fine.
Thanks for the dinner break, Laura, but please don't almost get us killed again,
"Hasta la pasta, Phan!"
Piledriver waves. As I get into the parking lot, I can still hear Derek and
Renee yelling at her.
Well, I don't know what to
think of her. I mean, I'm a huge fan, obviously, because I loved watching her
kick ass in the ring. But does she have what it takes to be any good as a
superhero? She's kinda taking all of this like it's no different than running a
faked-up match in the pro leagues. And there's a big difference between having
a wrestler pull off an arm that's been gimmicked to be pulled off and having to
fight Painkiller when she's trying to slice your stomach open, or Beelzebambi
when she's trying to burn your face off, or Mishmash when he's trying to chop
up a bunch of second-graders.
And the bit with Miss Mega --
I don't even know if that can be classified as flirting -- was really not cool.
Yes, sure, Miss Mega is kinda mind-bendingly sexy, but she already gets that
really aggressive catcalling from cops, reporters, construction workers, random
people on the street. Not so much from supervillains, because they all remember
how hard she hit Rageface that one time. But she still gets such an awful lot
of that crap.
So the rest of us superheroes
have basically decided not to do that to her. I mean, there are a few
exceptions, mainly Wheelman, 'cause no one can really shut him up and he's not
too sleazy, and Squid Kid, 'cause she keeps stuff light and pretty funny. The
rest of us pretty much stay dignified and professional and think about baseball
a lot. We don't want her getting as irritated at us as she does at the city's
cops -- and not just because she's terrifyingly strong. I guess we just want
her to have a group of people she can hang out with who aren't going to be
assholes to her.
Anyway, I've only got six
ghosts with me right now, which is a lot less than usual, so I decide not to
have them fly me around. Carrying a human, even a pretty lightweight human like
me, takes a little work, and I don't want them distracted with holding me up in
the air if there's something more important I need them to do. So I start
walking for home.
It's a nice night for a walk
anyway. Not too much crime going on, the streets are pretty deserted, and the
weather is pretty nice. The ghosts and I run off a couple of muggers, and
that's about as busy as things get. I figure once I get about a quarter-mile from
Dad's house, I'll have the ghosts turn me invisible until I can get in the back
door of the house.
I'm taking a short cut
through an alley when I run into another of Metro City's superheroes.
"Oh, hey, Jonni," I
say, dreading what's about to happen. "How are you doing?"
says happily. "Man, it's so great to see you again!"
She gives me a hug. And I'm
lucky she's currently in one of her dry-and-crumbly phases instead of a
squishy-and-leaking phase, or my suit would be completely soaked in rancid corpse
Oh, yeah, Jonni Rotten hugs
people. You didn't know that, did you? You thought she was strictly a vengeful,
enraged, foul-tempered zombie ass-kicker, didn't you? Yeah, Jonni hugs people.
Well, not so much people. More like just one person.
This is the main reason why
Undead Charisma sucks.
"I know I just saw you
the other day, when we were all beating up on the Psychotronics," she
says. "But it still feels like it's been so long. I don't know if that
makes any sense, but... it's just so good to see you again."
She's not releasing the hug
yet. And damn me, I'm too polite to stop hugging her back.
Jonni," I say. What else can I say? "It's nice to see you, too."
nice," she replies, smiling at me. "Do you wanna... patrol together a
"Well, I would, but we
had a run-in with Mot," I tell her. "And it kinda wore me down. So I
thought I'd turn in early, try to get some extra sleep."
"Mot again," she
says, quietly but vehemently. She frowns -- not hard, just... lightly angry. And
her hug tightens a little bit, just a slight squeeze. If it were anyone but
Jonni, it would be really, really cute. "I hate him so much. I don't even
know why, but there's just something about him that makes me so angry."
"He's a pretty rough
customer," I say. "He stole all my ghosts away, at least for a while."
"Oh no, not your
ghosts!" she gasps, finally breaking the hug so she can hold me at arms'
length. She looks like she's about to cry.
"No, don't worry, I got
'em back," I say. "We beat Mot down again. Have you met Piledriver
yet? She helped out a lot."
"No, I haven't met
her," Jonni says. "I'm supposed to see her tomorrow. Am I gonna have
to kick her ass?"
"No, no, I don't think
so. She seems nice enough. She used to be a pro wrestler, but she seems like
she knows what she's doing, for the most part. She kinda likes doing
"Ohh, I will have to fight her," she says,
scowling. "I hate
"Okay, please don't fight her. We should try to
make her feel welcome, ya know? I don't think we want to run her off. She'll be
doing monologues at the bad guys, not at us."
She looks me in the eye and
smiles again. "Oh, Phan, it's so great that you think of others that way.
You're so... so thoughtful. You're just such a great guy!"
She hugs me again. And, god
help me... she kisses me.
At least the mask is between
us. But the cloth isn't that thick, and I can basically feel her lips on mine.
Her cold, dry, dead lips. And I'm going to have a million nightmares, starting right now.
She suddenly jumps back,
looking possibly almost as horrified as I am.
"Oh god," she
gasps. "Ph-Phan, I'm sorry. I forgot myself. I'm so, so sorry."
I start to say something
back, but I can't really catch my breath yet. My lungs are kinda filled with
zombie stink. I try to say something reassuring, but all that comes out is a
"I know," Jonni
says, sounding almost panicked. "Phan, I know what I am, I know you can't
possibly feel anything for me. I'm so sorry, I am."
I finally manage to say. "This is -- This is --"
"No, please, don't say
anything else," she says. She sobs, she looks like she wants to cry -- but
she can't because her tear ducts don't work anymore. "I'm sorry, Phan, I
know I'm... I know I'm disgusting. I -- I'm going away, okay? I'm so, so
And she runs down the alley,
making those dry, gasping sobs all the way, and disappears into the street
beyond before I can say anything else.
And I kinda feel bad about
this, too. It's not her fault -- it's this damn Undead Charisma thing. I hate
that she thinks she's disgusting, even if she is kinda disgusting. I hate that I get grossed-out when she kisses
me -- even though I really am grossed
out. I really hate it that, for a few brief moments, she lets herself feel
normal emotions like a normal person -- and then gets her nose rubbed in the
fact that she isn't normal, and she
never will be normal.
And I swear, I hope she never
draws the connection between Undead Charisma and... how she feels about me.
Because I have no idea how she'll react. I just don't want her to kill me, you
I don't even know if there's
anything I could say to her to make her feel any better. "I'm so sorry
you're doomed to a loveless existence."
"Don't worry, there's a necrophiliac out there for you
somewhere." "I really do feel
bad that I want to vomit every time you touch me." God, if I ever said
anything like that, I'd let her kill
Nothing I can do about it. I
wish there was, but there just isn't. I have my ghosts turn me invisible, and I
walk the rest of the way to Dad's house.
I head for the back yard,
unlock the back door, and head inside. By now, Dad's gotta be asleep, but just
to be sure, I hide my mask and button up my jacket to hide the ghost logo on my
But weirdly, Dad is standing
in the middle of the kitchen waiting for me.
"Uh, hey, Dad," I
say. "Sorry I was out late -- we were watching Star Trek episodes, and I
lost track of time."
"One of your friends
came to see you, Cecil," Dad says slowly. "He's waiting for you in
the living room."
That sounds ominous and
weird. It doesn't help that Dad's eyes are glassy and unfocused, and that none
of the lights in the house are on. My internal danger alarm is ringing like a
Dad turns away without saying
anything else and goes to sit at the
kitchen table. He puts his head down in his arms and seemingly goes right to
I hit my communicator. I know
Cobra probably won't pick right up if she's doing some kind of family dinner
thing, so I leave a message. "Cobra, send anyone who knows my ID to my
house. Fast, please -- I might be in trouble."
Then I put my mask back on
and send all my ghosts into the living room to kick as much ass as possible.
By the time I follow them in,
they're already getting thrown back into my face. You know anyone who can beat
up ghosts? There aren't very many people who can do that.
Then someone grabs me by the
lapels of my jacket, picks me up, and slams me against a wall. It's dark as
pitch in here, and I can't get a good look at the guy. Tall, strong white guy
in a suit, that's all I can tell.
And I don't have a lot of
opportunity to examine him either. I get swung around again and slammed into
another wall. My dad's favorite photo (it's a picture of his first Corvette)
slides off the wall. Then I get swung around again and slammed into another
"I apologize for the
rough treatment, my young friend, but it's quite necessary to make sure you are
listening to me. Are you listening to
"I'm gonna stomp your
face in if you don't let me go!" Okay, maybe a bit of false bravado, but
it's one of the things that comes naturally when you fight supervillains all
"I'm sorry, Mr.
Tarin," he says. "But your spectral friends cannot harm me, and
without them, your offensive capabilities are limited. Now I hope you will calm
down. I need your assistance with a pressing problem."
"Coming into my house,
putting the mental zap on my dad, throwing my ghosts around, and bouncing me
off the walls is not a good way to get me to calm down," I yell. "Not
a good way to ask for help either, dumbass!"
"I won't tolerate
name-calling, Mr. Tarin," he says. "Common courtesy should require
you to address me by my name."
I yell at him. "Do I need to mention the wall-slamming again? And I don't
even know your name!"
"Ah, of course, my
apologies." He smiles, and in the dark room, his teeth are very, very
white and very, very sharp. "You may call me... Dracula."
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