Death spiraled toward the street. Frozen in a split second I traced the path of debris to the railway car. Things were going to get bloodier if someone didn’t act, and fast.
I cast off panic and lashed out at the oncoming destruction. Wide, unfocused blasts swatted chunks onto a new course. They veered away from the passengers and onto the front lines of the barricade. Every piece struck without forgiveness. They sent tremors through the crowd, as though they weren’t shaken enough.
It was only as the dust settled that I realized what happened. Fear saturated the surrounded area. Paramedics scrambled to check on bystanders. Gridlocked drivers abandoning their vehicles for cover. There I was, floating in the middle, trying to rein the pounding in my chest.
A chrome wall slammed into my side. I fell upward and fought for control over an empty car tumbling to the asphalt. It wasn’t alone. They flew by the dozen at breakneck speed, faster than I could dodge. I sliced through them with pinpoint lasers. Vehicle remnants fell like boulders.
“Everybody take cover!”
A shadow flew across the sky, followed by a crashing eighteen wheeler. Too dense to cut or even to move, the vehicle collected me in mid-air with all its mass.
Light burned across oblivion and planted us in a fresh crater. The twisted chassis sat between the abandoned traffic. It was a miracle I was alive, let alone able to stand, even if my sense of balance was still in the air.
“Look at you. You’ve no idea what you’re doing,” Dr. Vortex said.
He strolled like a man through a park, unfazed by his surroundings. No amount of blood would throw him from his path, no matter how unpalatable he claimed to find it.
I scanned for signs of life. Gods above, the hurt was too much. Emergency crews scuttled like bugs behind the doctor’s line of sight. They moved toward the upturned train. They needed time.
“Is this supposed to convince me to help you?” I asked.
Dr. Vortex turned up his nose. “I’ve spent enough energy in a career trying to persuade those with no interest. Had you been willing to meet halfway you’d have found I’m more than reasonable. Things being as they are, however…”
The EMTs scrambled in the periphery. They didn’t have time; a minute, less, before he turned back.
I locked eyes with the villain. “I’m not who you think I am.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” he said.
My balance remained askew, tilting with the planet. I propped myself up as best I could. There was no room for weakness; not in the face of that kind of monster.
“What do you want with me?”
His lips tightened. “We were present at the same grand cosmic event,” he said. “It changed you as it changed me. I’ve spent my whole adult life in pursuit of this phenomenon. I must have your cooperation if I’m to further study the results.”
“And then what?”
Dr. Vortex frowned. “That power belongs to me.”
The air exploded and a pistol clip unloaded on him. Bullets pinged mid-flight, as though resisting the villain’s back. One by one they dropped to the asphalt. It left one grizzled cop without explanation. He clutched his weapon, empty as it was, and kept it trained on the enemy.
“Turn yourself in,” he said. What authority he had in the face of an adept was formality at best, but damn if he didn’t use it.
Dr. Vortex tensed. The police were helpless, but remained frustrating. With a wave of his hand the cop blinked out of sight. For the villain he was also out of mind.
“Now that’s out of the way-”
“No!” I shot into the air and searched the shapes in the sky. Nobody disappeared into nothingness. Dr. Vortex moved the cop moved like the tons of material strewn across the scene.
A shriek drove me to the horizon. Arms and legs flapped in freefall. At the speed of sound I arced into a loop, and snatched the cop from death.
“Are you alright?”
He nodded. The near-death experience stole his words.
The moment we came down he toppled from my arms and embraced the earth. I stumbled in the fight against gravity. EMTs and evac teams pulled the injured from the train wreck. Meanwhile, Dr. Vortex was gone.
All around was devastation. It took one man to set it in motion. At least we managed to save people, I told myself. My gut churned. It knew our next encounter would be bloodier still.
* * * *
On a cobbled rooftop by a row of pigeon cages the bemused genius found refuge. For a fleeting moment he dwelt on his nom de guerre, and whether ‘Dr. Vortex’ was too impulsive a choice. In the end it mattered little.
He sauntered to the ledge, and peered over Milestone. The city screamed by his actions, but would recover. Those unaffected would not allow them to dwell. Such, he supposed, was the nature of human beings. They went to great lengths to ignore the suffering others.
A beam of gold tore across the sky. Even from afar he could feel her presence. Some saw her as an omen. Children may cast wishes upon her. To Theodore Fellows she was so much more.
“What was meant for me will soon be mine,” he said.
Sirens filled the street in a frenzy, and grated across the genius’ nerve. They no longer posed a challenge. Regardless, those who acted in the name of law remained an undue complication in Dr. Vortex’s life. He preferred not to waste his time with them.
In a blink he was gone, leaving Milestone and its inhabitants to lick their wounds.
* * * *
The battle was over. Dr. Vortex had made his point loud and clear that he was the one in control. Not even my anonymity was safe, making my crashing in Tanya’s bedroom more of a risk. I lay in costume with a cold press over my eyes. Muscles ached like the end of a decathlon.
Rolling in bed I flipped the pillow to the cool side. “My head’s killing me,” I whined.
“Well you did get your ass handed to you,” Tanya said.
She perched to one side with water, bandages, and iodine. As many scrapes and beatings she’d seen me through this was the worst. She kept a cool head, and tended the wounds.
“Did you see?”
I could hear her smirk. “Everybody with a TV saw. They’re all talking about Dr. Vortex, and InfiniTech conspiracy theories. Some people are calling him a terrorist, but the news channels won’t say that about a white guy.”
My body sank into the sheets. I was a whirlpool of nausea. A vision burned behind my eyes. I couldn’t shake the suffering caused by Dr. Vortex, and what he planned moving forward.
Tanya squeezed my hand. “Kaira, I know you don’t want to hear this-”
I pulled the cold press from my eyes. “What is it?”
She drew a resolute breath. “We need to call the cops,” she said. “It’s cool to play hero when it’s couples arguing and kittens in trees, but this is serious. And as much as I don’t like them, they have more resources.”
Of all the things to come from her mouth that was the least likely. Tanya Truman, the raging queer leftist, was ready to call on the police for help. After all we survived I understood.
“No,” I said.
“Because…” My mouth hung open. I shook my head, but no answer came loose.
“Dr. Vortex has no problem attacking strangers,” she said. “He knows who you are. What’s to stop him from coming after your parents? Or-”
Tanya caught herself. Her veneer of strength waned, but only for a moment. I squeezed her hand. She didn’t know how to be helpless, but I was there. It was the same favor she’d paid a thousand times.
“We’re going to get through this,” I said, “but no cops. This is something I need to handle without dragging anybody else into it.”
“You’re being stubborn.”
“It’s what I have to do,” I said.
My cell phone danced on the night table with a muted buzz. It did the same dance every minute for the last hour. A slew of text messages ran down the screen, and all from the one other person who ever wanted to talk.
“She’s worried about you,” Tanya said.
“A few more minutes, please?”
“You don’t have to convince me. You’re a semi-grown woman. That’s your own business.”
There was a knock on the door. Tanya and I glared at each other. A flash replaced my costume with clothes from the day. We scrambled to hide any signs of injury, or anything else a parent might suspect.
Tanya chirped. “Come in.”
Her mother, Tracy, opened the door and looked past her daughter. She leaned against the frame and opened her mouth like she was about to apologize. “Sweetheart, your Mom is here,” she said. “She’s waiting for you downstairs.”
“Tell her we’ll be down in a few minutes,” Tanya said.
I steeled myself. “How does she look?”
Tracy drew back from the door. “Like she’s about to start World War Three. I hope you have a good story.” She looked to her daughter and shook her head. “I’ll make some tea.”
The door closed. Tanya offered the same pitiful look you saved for a death row inmate. Dr. Vortex didn’t hold a candle to my Mom.
* * * *
Both parents gave the chewing out of a lifetime, which I deserved. If it were my kid I’d have have done the same, but there was no other way without telling them about Glimmer Girl.
I hid the cuts and bruises. The rest of the night was a blur. Mom said something like “grounded until college” with some other choice words. I endured, if only to rush to bed.
Mom insisted on driving to school the next day with police escort in tow. It was the last day of year, and a waste of time. Arguing was pointless. My energy channeled into feigning health. From first period to last I was under guard, then my father would take me home for lock-down.
I fought to stay awake through first period. The fight had taken more than I thought. I stifled yawns and shook myself. There was time to sleep when Dr. Vortex was no longer a problem.
* * * *
Recess rolled around by the time I saw Tanya again. She waited inside the cafeteria entrance and peered over the students. She swooped the moment I came into view. Her arm propped me up for support.
“Tell me everything,” she said.
I swallowed the sick in the back of my throat. More noise tumbled through my head than made sense. Every muscle demand rest.
“Well, for starters, you’re on the black list, and we’re not to be seen together,” I said.
“Right, so your Mom still hates my guts. That’s normal.”
Tanya slipped through the flow of people toward a vending machine. She loaded it with quarters. She removed a soda from the slot, opened it, and forced it into my hand. The caffeine surge was like ambrosia.
“She says I’m under house arrest. Once school’s out she’s calling the house. You know, just to make sure I haven’t wandered off.” I nursed the can like a lover. “Oh, and I’ve lost cell phone, internet and TV privileges. There was some other stuff, but I can’t remember.”
Tanya snorted. “She’ll enforce it for a week and realize discipline is too much hassle.”
My thoughts were rooted in the previous night, where attempts at resistance proved futile. Every blow stayed crisp in memory, and snapped with pain as the cars fell.
“I’m more worried about the killer Carl Sagan,” I said.
He could be anywhere, even right under our noses. Every moment marinated in paranoia. Nowhere was safe while Dr. Vortex roamed the world.
* * * *
Fifth period was science class, and the teacher was late. Our assigned work benches didn’t make for a comfortable pillow, but I needed the rest. No sooner had I closed my eyes than I was gone.
It was minutes, longer, before the laughter woke me. A voice called through the haze. “Earth to Mr. Cade.” I became aware of the circle of eyes surrounding me.
My heart stopped. At first I thought it was a trick of the light, but no. Dr. Vortex stood at the front of the class. His coat and side arm were replaced with a a knitted tie and jacket. Despite that he was the same maniac tearing my world apart.
His eyebrows smirked scaling down his widow’s peak. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
Everybody laughed, unaware of the danger in front of them. They couldn’t know his obsession; the lengths he would go to meet his goals. Life and death were trivial in his eyes, including theirs.
“This may be your last day, but you’re still expected to pay attention,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be a shame if I had to keep you after class.”
My feet snapped for the door. The substitute teacher made no effort to follow, at least for the moment. I had to get far from where he could hurt anyone. Foot power alone wasn’t going to cut it.
Hard steps echoed across the linoleum floor. I cut the corners and slammed through the boy’s bathroom door. I took refuge in the row of vacant stalls. Catching my breath I restrained the panic. I was alone, but not for long. Light erupted from my pores. Gravity loosened its hold. An incandescent costume peeled over my form. No longer a mild-mannered closet case, Glimmer Girl was born anew.
Something clicked. My heart stopped. I stepped out to face the weapon. Its owner lacked Dr. Vortex’s composure, though shared his intent. Of all the people to face in the boy’s room that day I didn’t think it would be him.
Adrian’s flirted with the trigger long before steadying his aim. He was wide eyed between terror and wonder, lost in the golden aura that bathed the room. His breathing was shallow. He whispered. “Y-you’re… you’re Glimmer Girl?”
It was the nightmare that haunted me since childhood. My worst enemy finally working up the gall to finish things. But I wasn’t fazed. There were bigger things in the world than bullies or bullets.
I paused. Adrian knew my secret identity. Soon everyone would know. He was also armed with a six chamber revolver and rearing to pump hot death into his favorite victim. More than that, he was an obstacle for a bigger threat.
“You have to get out of here,” I said.
Adrian steadied his hold. He kept the barrel trained on my chest. “All this time you’ve been prancing around and playing hero,” he said. “You break my car, humiliate me, and spread your queer germs wherever you go! You make me sick!”
“None of that matters now,” I said. “You need to leave. Trust me.”
“Trust you!” He burned at fever pitch. The barrel exploded and startled us both. An ounce of lead rested buried in the tile.
Another shot rang out. It glided as if through water. With newfound speed I danced around the bullet. I threw myself at Adrian and him to the wall. I wrested the gun from his hand and threw it to the ground. He didn’t resist.
“We don’t have time for this!”
“I-I… I’m sorry!”
All strength left his body. He collapsed to his knees. He was afraid, pathetic. I didn’t know what to do. I’d never seen him powerless.
“Run,” I said.
He could tell everyone who I was, but it didn’t matter. I picked up the gun, and emptied the bullets into a toilet. So long as everyone was safe. Only that mattered.
Adrian had only made the exit when a second figure snatched him. Dr. Vortex made little work of the jock’s weight and lifted him by the scruff of the neck. He pressed him to the wall. No matter how much Adrian kicked he couldn’t free himself.
My fists charged with photon power. Gods, of all the people to save why did it have to be Adrian Dempsey?
“Let him go!”
The doctor considered his hostage. “I know you,” he said. “You’re Mr. Cade’s childhood tormentor, are you not? To think, all that strength, all that potential, and you waste it on acting the bully.”
I inched closer. “Drop him, Vortex! Or I drop you!”
He knew an empty threat when he heard one. Adrian writhed for oxygen. His kicks grew weak. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He’d never been so close to death.
“While I hold no affection for Mr. Cade, I find your prejudices repugnant,” Dr. Vortex said. “It’s for individuals such as yourself that human progress becomes stagnate. Shame on you.”
Adrian pleaded through the tears, but I could do nothing. One false move and he was a dead man.
Dr. Vortex turned to me. “What do you say, ‘Glimmer Girl’? What does this filth deserve?”
Countless revenge fantasies crumbled into dust. Even if he deserved it every cell screamed no.
“Let him go,” I said. Burning photons jumped from my fingertips.
Then he was gone. Adrian Dempsey blinked from the room as if he never existed. The doctor lowered his arm and stretched. It was as though the life he toyed with wasn’t human.
“What did you do?”
“This is better for the gene pool,” he said.
A laser slash cut the air. Dr. Vortex vanished from its path. “I said where is he!”
He appeared the stalls. “Would you believe I put a man on the moon?”
My chest seized. The thought of Adrian gasping for air, freezing, burning, or both was a nightmare. He had a minute, if that. My blasts scattered in every direction. They missed their target by milliseconds. Seconds whittled away until Adrian’s fate was sealed. He was gone, never to return. It was all my fault.
Dr. Vortex rested by the obliterated sinks. “Are you quite done, Mr. Cade?”
Rage twisted my knuckles into bombs. They poised to land them as many times as it took to stop him.
“Don’t waste your time mourning someone so vile,” he said. “Save your emotions for those who matter, such as your parents.” Dr. Vortex blinked from reality, leaving me alone in the settling dust.
I shot through the window and refracted through the glass. At top speed I crossed the suburbs in the direction of home.
* * * *
The door exploded into toothpicks. I made a hard landing on the living room floor, still in costume. Who cared what the neighbors thought?
“Mom! Dad!” No response.
I sprinted through the kitchen and into the garage, then up the stairs and into the bedrooms. Cars belonging to both parents sat outside. Their keys sat in a bowl on the marble counter. Mom’s cell phone rested on the coffee table. She would never go anywhere without it.
I ran to the front yard and to the unmarked police car sat by the curb. I peeked through the tinted windows, but there was nobody there. What chance did they have against a guy like Dr. Vortex?
The search continued a second, third, and fourth time. I found nothing, but couldn’t stop. Finally I collapsed over the sofa and into a ball. Why was this happening? What did this lunatic want? I screamed until my throat was raw.
When I stopped I thought about Adrian. His image haunted me, along with his fate. No detail was too small. Dr. Vortex would do the same to my Mom and Dad if I didn’t play his game. How could I stop him? First he had to show himself. Until then I collapsed on the floor and waited.
To be continued…