In one fell swoop a home had its soul carved out, leaving only a husk and old furniture. The wind blew cold through the ghosts of my family, who on better days might have been found streaming movies on the flat screen. There would be no more picking apart the special effects if Dr. Vortex has his way.
Poring over the shelves I pulled a photograph behind a black, wooden frame. In it was a boy with my parents crouched and smiling on either side. I remembered that Summer, and being jealous of the other girls. Instead of a bikini I wore a t-shirt and swimming shorts.
Still, the vacation wasn’t a whole wash. There were jet skis, dive bombs, and a whole lot of other fun had by mistake; you know, the stuff that actually matters. A life lived, and an experience shared.
Suddenly those memories seemed so distant, along with the people in them. Despair bubbled into my fists and flew into the wall, leaving a furious hole beneath the stairs. It wasn’t fair! It didn’t have to be this way!
Tanya sprinted through the front door, and to where I curled under the kitchen counter. She stopped when she saw I was still in costume.
“Oh my god. Are you okay?”
I stared at the tiles, lost and confused. Not even these new powers could fix things.
“It’s pandemonium at the school,” she said. “They said there was some kind of explosion, and they found a gun.” Tanya searched my vacant expression, and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, KC. Talk to me. Was it Dr. Vortex again?”
My mouth hung open. “Adrian…”
“Adrian, as in Adrian Dempsey?” she said. “He did all that?”
I shook my head. Dry words caught on the back of my throat. “Adrian’s dead. Dr. Vortex… he- oh, gods. This can’t be happening!”
Tanya froze with her arms around me. “I don’t understand. How can Adrian be dead? He was at the school today. I-I saw his car parked on the sidewalk!”
The horror remained fresh behind my eyes, and every time I closed them I saw; one minute Adrian was there, and in a blink Dr. Vortex was behind him. A wave of the villain’s hand was all it took to extinguish a human life; worse than just killing him, but leaving nothing behind, like he never existed. Once it would have been a dream come true, but not like that.
“Vortex took my folks,” I said. After all the tears my voice was like sandpaper. “Their cars are here, so are their cell phones. I checked Mom’s office, nothing.”
Tanya was stupefied. “What does he want?”
“I don’t know. Me, I guess. The answer to some great cosmic mystery he was working to crack. It’s the same way I got these.” I threw up my hands. The power they held meant nothing anymore.
Mom’s cell rang to the tune of an old timey phone, which only she thought was cute. The touch screen lit up with ‘unknown’, and didn’t stop the longer I left it. I reached over when it rang a second time, and slowly pressed the answer button.
Dr. Vortex fizzled over the speaker. He did not wait for a greeting. “Are you there, Mr. Cade?”
I drew a sharp breath. “Yeah, it’s me.”
Tanya squeezed her hand in mine. I was already shaking apart. That voice would haunt me for the rest of time.
“Your parents are safe in my care,” he said. “Not very comfortable I’m afraid, but that’s to be expected. If you wish for them to be released then-”
“Give me proof of life,” I said.
Dr. Vortex paused. “That can be arranged. That is to say if you don’t object to revealing your dual identity.”
It should have been a simple choice to make, but I hesitated. Would they blame me if they knew? Could Glimmer Girl live with their concern, or their scrutiny? It seemed so selfish, but I couldn’t help myself.
The doctor continued. “I’ve always been on the level with you, Glimmer Girl, and if you don’t trust my word you can trust my ambition. Give yourself to me, and nobody else need be harmed.”
The choice was clear, if you could even call it that. Tanya nodded, and squeezed tighter.
“Alright. What do you need me to do?”
* * * *
With each day a new facet of my powers revealed themselves, and I was especially thankful for the latest. Easing through the sky allowed the photons to wash around my shape, continuing on their journey into space while removing Glimmer Girl’s sheen from the naked eye. In other words I could turn invisible, and would hopefully stay that way until Dr. Vortex was out of the way.
His instructions were simple: travel to the northernmost area of the docks, alone, and “prostrate” myself in the middle of the yard, face down, and with hands behind my head. Only when I was isolated, vulnerable, and unable to see him coming would he release the hostages. I had to be crazy to agree, or desperate.
The first slivers of night crawled along the horizon. Things might have been easier under cover of darkness, but I wouldn’t chance the wrath of an impatient Dr. Vortex. Lives were on the line; this time of people I cared about.
I circled the crates like a looming spectre. There was no warmth from inside of them, or at least that I could sense through solid steel. The search continued while I scaled up and down the levels hunting for signs of life.
For all I knew my parents were on the other side of the world, or already dead. No, I couldn’t think that way; I had to act like there was still hope.
It was by blind luck that I caught a whisper; a woman, my Mom. Her rasps bounced from the inside of a container. I couldn’t make out the words, but it was her. My father told her it was going to be okay, same as he told me the day of the disaster.
There were no wires leading from the container door, or even a lock to hold it shut. A classic phrase about things appearing too easy sprung to mind, but it was an opportunity I had to take.
The doors opened with a rusty groan, allowing light to flood in. Both parents sat back to back tied to chairs on the far end. They winced as their eyes adjusted, and tried to make sense of the shape approaching them; they never would have imagined it was their own child behind the mask loosening their binds.
Mom shook herself. “You’re Glimmer Girl,” she said. “Oh my goodness. I didn’t think that…” Her wrists came loose. Words failed her.
My Dad nodded fervently and stretched his arms. “Thank you!”
“Yes,” Mom agreed. “Thank you.”
I whispered to disguise my voice, and hoped the mask helped. “Both of you need to move. Stay by the water’s edge, and I’ll give you cover. Find a phone, and call for help. Got it?”
Even stranger than giving orders was watching them follow, like I was some kind of expert in life and death situations. Someone had to be, I guess. What mattered most was that they were safe.
They huddled together, and kept their heads low. Soon they reached the fence, and after sprinting for the gate made their break. Finally, I could exhale.
Suddenly a voice appeared from the back of the container. “You can see that I’m not a monster,” Dr. Vortex said. “Now perhaps it’s time to fulfil your half of the agreement.”
There was no reason to hold back. Fantastic power exploded behind me, throwing me like a rocket toward my foe. A photon charged fist shot toward him at the speed of light, with force enough to rip through steel walls.
Metal groaned under the weight on top, and collapsed onto itself. I shielded my body as the containers rolled and struck the earth, pulling me with them. My power charged form absorbed the blows until the wreckage settled, and I was able to tear free.
Adrenaline bubbled to a giddy high. Blasting through walls felt god-like, but was it enough to stop Dr. Vortex?
Blue, red, and green containers vanished by the dozen, and catapulted from every direction; not only from the sky, but from back and forth, left and right. Flying through them was a dance with death in the middle of armageddon. The earth trembled and roared, ever falling as I climbed.
Between the twisted metal I could make his face, cold and indifferent, searching for the next blow to land. His arm swished every which way, guiding projectiles pulled from all around, until he was slapping the wind.
Pushing and twisting I broke the carnage, and threw myself across the gap. The mad engineer blinked away, a second a set of knuckles snapped across his jaw. Its recoil resonated in my bones more than any blast before it, while containers hit the ground without a will to direct them.
I found a place in the dirt where a once flat plane lay in ruin. The air had become heavy with dust. Iron bars jutted from the foundation, daring anyone to cross them and live.
The wind turned to unveil the doctor leaning for support. Blood stained the beard around the corners of his mouth, which he then spat onto the asphalt. He was shaken, barely able to hold his balance, and more vulnerable than I’d seen him, all from a single shot.
Without hesitation my fist launched into another blow. The numbness between my bones was satisfying, but it was still hungry. Like an atom bomb I fell on him, ready to explode. In those final moments he turned to face the end. His eyes flashed with realization, leaving panic to act in his defense.
Dr. Vortex threw his arm high, and with it sent the world into a tailspin. Stars flashed as I flew through the brick, and back into the churning void with red sand waiting on the other side. Day blinked into night blinked into day again on a world tour of pain with Dr. Vortex determining the stops. From one side of the planet to the other he seemed omnipresent, and sure footed while gravity twisted on its head.
“I am anywhere and everywhere,” he said. “You know, I never believed in a god before. I suppose I had yet to realize myself.”
Bouncing from one continent to the next there was no time to wonder just how far his power reached; far enough at least that my costume was caked in three colors of sand. Strange trees, buildings and people vanished as soon as they appeared, remaining just long enough for a heavy object to fall into my path.
After thousands of miles I crashed into the dirt, rolled into a crowd, and finally stopped when a mud hut broke my fall. Dozens shrieked scattered from my path. Wherever I’d landed was far from home, and lacked the kind of resources that were usually taken for granted.
A woman with a colorful shawl set down her basket, and pulled close. I couldn’t understand or even recognize her language, but her intention was clear. In the end it was going to get her in trouble, or worse.
With my waning strength I swatted at her. “Please… get away… get away…”
It was only when Dr. Vortex blinked into reality that they listened, and screamed as they ran for shelter. Maybe they thought he was a kind of demon, which wasn’t far from the truth. Their fear almost appeared to satiate him.
“I’m smarter than you,” he said. “Certainly more formidable.”
The sun beat down without forgiveness. Somewhere in the haze I found my feet. “Then why… do you even need… me?”
With a backhand he slapped me to the ground. “There’s always room for growth.”
No matter how many times I lashed out, with fists or blasts, he was always out of reach, like trying to hit a shadow. He had to have a weakness somewhere, but I was damned if I could find it. All I could do until then was absorb the blows.
In a snap the sand vanished, replaced with painted lines and asphalt. Neon signs stretched skyward and drowned the stars, and in place of villagers was the steady flow of traffic whose horns whined in chorus. I lingered by the crosswalk where countless pedestrians ogled my appearance.
“Where did she come from?”
“Is that cosplay?”
“Who’s she supposed to be?”
The scale of Times Square didn’t compare to the images on TV, and neither did the dense sea of humanity washing through. City smells churned with smog, sweat, and something acrid from the corners. Milestone seemed like a country town in comparison.
I stumbled in search of escape. Wherever I was became a target.
Dr. Vortex boomed over the streets. “Do I have your attention now? Are you starting to get the picture?”
Above the intersection, overlooking the heart of the square, the villain’s face broadcast across dozens of monitors. His widow’s peak reached new heights, over which even the most minute blemishes were blown up in horrifying detail.
His goggles sharpened over the masses. “Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention please. Standing among you is a pest, who for her own selfish reasons is already responsible for a great deal of pain and death. This will continue up to such time as she honors her agreement, and submits. Until then, you are all my hostages.”
An eerie silence fell over the crowd. There were whispers of confusion, like it was some kind of joke.
I choked out the words. “Run… now!”
Still, nothing. They stood like lost sheep.
“Allow me to give you a demonstration of my power,” Dr. Vortex said.
Tires skidded to a halt on all three corners as vehicles appeared in rows across the street. They packed together, running up the back of one another from thin air, and soon climbing on top. A manic crowd screamed and alarms blared as the wall of glass and metal compounded together, sealing hundreds inside.
I looked to the monitor and to Dr. Vortex’s mad grimace, where like a homicidal conductor he guided the sections together. The sounds of suffering failed to register on his features.
How was I going to stop him?
After gruelling minutes the piling traffic stopped. Twisted steel forced together compounded into a barricade, as well as a warning against those in Dr. Vortex’s path. Strangers huddled together, drawing whatever comfort they could. What they experienced would be shared for a lifetime, however long that was.
“Now that you understand what’s at stake you know it’s best to follow instruction,” he said. “Bring me Glimmer Girl. Don’t worry. You’ll know her when you see her.”
The crowd turned. Once curious bystanders became rabid, and grabbed for my limbs, hair, and anything else they could. Could I blame them? They’d been shown a power they couldn’t understand, and would fight to have control of their lives again.
I soared to the tops of the buildings, and into the path of a wheel-mounted video camera. Both the machine and I smacked the pavement, where Dr. Vortex waited in the center of a terrified mass.
“When I put you down, you stay down,” he said. Irritation cracked his tone.
Hysteria blew through the crowd like a tornado pushing them to the walls. Some squeezed through shop doors, or attempted to, dozens at a time; anything to get away from the maniac who started it all.
I pulled my arm from the sidewalk and took careful aim. The doctor paused, ready to blink to a new vantage. So long as he saw me coming he had me on the ropes. How was I going to surprise an enemy who was on the verge of being omnipresent? My arm lowered, heavy with exhaustion, along with my head.
“Are you ready to submit?” His steps inched closer; one, two, three, four…
Dr. Vortex was looming over me when I lashed out one last time. He sidestepped the blasts as though they were nothing, as though they were set on him. It didn’t occur until the blow hit that I was aiming the lasers at the mirrored windows above the street.
White hot energy lanced his arm, forcing the doctor to buckle. His device undulated at a deeper resonance, and sparked where delicate circuits had been seared.
“What have you do-”
The world turned again, upsetting the course of gravity as it made sense of up and down. When it finally took hold it was with a lazy reach that lacked any real force. I rolled into the darkness, and onto the thick, grey dirt of an endless plain. In my holographic form it was neither hot or cold, nor was I struggling for air that was absent in the void.
It was only as I looked down that I remembered to be afraid, where under the glow of my powers I came upon a human shape curled up by a rock. Whatever words I had were lost, and failed to match the frozen agony etched onto Adrian’s face.
I turned to face the horizon, and to the blue and green of my home planet peering from the dark. Only a few had ever been so far from home, and there was no way back.
* * * *
The hour was growing restless, and Tanya Truman was wracked with guilt. She sat idle in the driver’s seat of the beetle for countless minutes before turning the key.
It seemed only yesterday she was in freshman year, where she and Kaira, then using a different name, jumped off their bikes and chased them down the street. ‘Ghosting’ they called it, and chalked up a dozen near accidents before Summer’s end. Somehow their bored games became the best things to remember.
No matter the costume or powers Tanya could never forget the nervous kid sharing her candy, and parts of herself that nobody had ever seen. Suddenly there was Glimmer Girl, and everything changed. Special people were so few in her world; what good was Tanya if she couldn’t protect them?
There was an ill wind blowing through Milestone Heights, and it followed her around every bend. A small neighborhood had no basis for comparison when faced with that kind of power, that kind of evil, and would be feeling the chill for a long time to come.
Tanya stopped, and bashed the wheel. She screamed, and she flailed, and she threw herself against the chair, as though all her impotent strength was set to explode. There had to be something she could do, more than waiting and hoping that Kaira could save the day on her own.
Her memory flashed with bruises and bloody noses, all acquired the moment she turned her back on Kaira. Adrian was bad enough; that Dr. Vortex guy was a thousand times worse, with or without powers.
“I’m not usually a praying woman,” she whispered to the ceiling, “but Krishna, Buddha, anybody, I could use your help. Even you, Jesus. Do me a solid this one time, and I’ll hang out with your jerk friends.” For once she was only sort of joking.
Driving past the school was like coming on a warzone, with houses on one side of the barricade and armed guards on the other. Police cars flashing sirens sat spaced across the block, with teams still moving in and out of buildings. It was weird to think Mr. Fletcher’s science class had gone from a figurative crime scene to a literal one.
Her heart sank. The world was ending one piece at a time, and it seemed like all she could do was watch.
Tanya gripped the wheel. “Screw this,” she said, and turned back the way she came. No bully was too big for her. Underneath the mask her platonic soulmate was calling for help, whether she knew it or not.
* * * *
There’s roughly two hundred and forty thousand miles of space between the moon and home, almost ten times the circumference of Earth. Those numbers were unfathomable during my grade school science presentation, and only more fantastic the longer I made sense of them.
I tensed and gasped for air. Though I didn’t need to breathe when charged the realisation of the void was enough to reach down my throat. Doom circled in the nothingness; the moment I let go would be my last.
A sliver of light waned over the far corner of the Earth. Maybe if I flew with all the speed I could muster, not daring to let up for all that way, I could see home again. Even another showdown with Dr. Vortex was better than the abyss.
Adrian’s husk lifted into my arms like a stack of pillows. If I was going home, then so was he. What remained of him seemed more plastic than person; that thought alone kept me from losing my lunch. I murmured words to him, but there was no sound. Like Adrian, space had no forgiveness.
Jutting from the dirt we shot toward the Earth. The shadow of the moon was soon behind us, and there was no going back.
The minutes stretched further than the unseen miles, and home was just as far as it was when we started. My chest grew tight; I held the body close. For all my powers, did I have the strength to make it so far? There was no room for doubt. We had to make it; for Tanya, for my family, and even for Adrian.
Suddenly, an invisible hand reached from the dark, and latched on with gravity’s pull. A gale wind flew against us from the remains of the shipyard, where night had well and truly fallen. We tumbled through the cool air on a direct path with the asphalt.
When all I wanted was to kiss the Earth, smacking it was just as sweet. Agony grated on my back until we will rolled to a stop. Still, with what little was left, I laughed. No matter the pain, no matter the exhaustion, the ability to breathe freely was something I would never take for granted again. Were Adrian still moving I’m sure he’d have said the same.
“We made it,” I said.
The body said nothing. At least he was home for his family to bury. The rest I would have to live with, and so would Dr. Vortex.
A boot flew across my jaw. Pain snapped in a rain of stars with the taste of copper dripping down my throat. No sooner had I shaken the daze than I saw my attacker, with sparks flying from the makeshift repairs on his brace. He came down with the full force of a god made man, relying on his own strength over invention.
“You could have gotten yourself killed,” he said. “Then you would have been useless to me!” Kick after kick landed in agonizing rhythm, first with sharp toes, then with cracking heels. If he wanted me in one piece he would have to restrain himself.
It took all I had left to blast him from his feet. Golden light with the punch of a heavyweight boxer threw the doctor across the yard and into the wall of a mobile office. It was enough to leave him winded, and crawling along the ground.
We lay sprawled on the asphalt in a desperate race. Who would be first to stand? They would be the one to finish the fight.
I was propped on my elbows and up on one knee when he delivered the final blow. One flick of his hand brought a container down, landing with an almighty crunch. It was the last thing I remembered before going dark.
To be continued…