A home had its soul carved out. All that remained was the husk and old furniture. A cold wind blew through the ghosts of my family. On better days they could be found streaming movies on the flat screen. There would be no more picking apart the special effects if Dr. Vortex had his way.
I pulled a photograph from the shelf. It rested in a black wooden frame. In it was a boy. My parents crouched on either side, smiling. I remembered that Summer, and being jealous of the other girls. Instead of a one piece I wore a t-shirt and swimming shorts. But there were jet skis, dive bombs, and a whole lot of other fun had by mistake. You know, the stuff that mattered. A life lived, and experiences shared. Those memories grew distant with the people in them. Despair bubbled into my fists. It wasn’t fair!
Tanya sprinted through the front door. She found me curled under the kitchen counter. “Oh my god. Are you okay?”
I stared at the tiles. My powers couldn’t fix anything.
“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. She grabbed my shoulder and shook me. “Come on, KC. Talk to me. Was it Dr. Vortex?”
My mouth hung open. “Adrian…”
The name made her balk. “Adrian! 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 threw her arms around me and gripped for dear life. She didn’t understand; she didn’t watch a human life blink from existence. “How can Adrian be dead? He was at the school today. I-I saw his car parked on the sidewalk!”
Whenever I closed my eyes I saw it. All it took was the wave of a hand. Worse than killing him he left nothing behind, like he never existed. Dr. Vortex was a god. What was once the dream to be free of a bully congealed into guilt.
“Vortex took my parents,” I said. My voice was like sandpaper. “Their cars are here, so are their cell phones. I checked Mom’s office, and nothing.”
Tanya blinked. “W-what does he want with them?”
“I don’t know. Leverage, I guess. The answer to some great cosmic mystery. It’s the same way I got these.” I held up my hands. The power meant nothing anymore. Fresh tears rolled down the mask. “I didn’t want this, Tanya…”
Mom’s cell rang to the tune of an old timey phone. Only she thought that was cute. The touch screen lit up with ‘unknown’, and didn’t stop. I reached when it rang a second time, and pressed answer. Dr. Vortex fizzled over the speaker. “Are you there, Mr. Cade?”
I drew a sharp breath. Tanya squeezed her hand in mine. I started shaking. “Yeah, I’m here.”
“Your parents are safe in my care,” he said. “Not in comfortable quarters I’m afraid, but that’s expected. If you wish for their release then-”
“Give me proof of life,” I said.
Dr. Vortex paused. “I can arrange that. That is to say if you don’t object to revealing your dual identity.”
It should have been a simple choice to make. Would they blame me if they knew? Could Glimmer Girl live with their scrutiny? I said nothing.
The doctor continued. “I’ve always been on the level with you, Glimmer Girl. If you don’t trust my word you can trust my ambition. Give yourself to me, and no-one else need come to harm.”
It was a choice without choice, but the path remained clear. I steeled myself for action.
“Okay. What do I need to do?”
* * * *
With each day a new facet of my powers revealed themselves. I was thankful for the latest. Photons washed around my body from head to toe. They continued their journey into space. Glimmer Girl’s sheen faded from the naked eye. I was invisible, and planned to stay that way.
His instructions were simple. Travel to the northernmost area of the docks, alone. Then I would “prostrate” myself in the middle of the yard, face down, 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 on the horizon. Things would be easier under cover of darkness, but I couldn’t chance his patience. Lives were on the line; lives of people I cared about most.
I circled the crates like a specter. There were no warm shapes inside, at least that I could sense through steel. The search continued. I scaled up and down the levels hunting for signs of life. They could have been anywhere in the thousands of boxes stacked along the yard.
A muted voice bounced from inside a container; a woman, my Mom, screaming. It was by dumb luck I found her. I couldn’t make out the words, but she was pissed. My Dad tried to comfort her, same as he once did me.
I scoured the area. No wires ran from the container door. There wasn’t even a lock. It was too easy, but I had to seize the opportunity. The doors opened with a rusty groan. Light flooded to the back. Both parents were tied to each other on the far end. They winced as their eyes adjusted.
Mom shook herself. “You’re Glimmer Girl,” she said. Weird that she didn’t recognize her own son. “Oh my goodness. I didn’t think that…” I loosened her binds to free her. Words failed the moment.
My Dad stretched his arms and pulled me into a hug. “Thank you!”
“Yes,” Mom said. “Thank you.”
“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?” It was weird that they followed my orders. I wasn’t some expert, but someone had to say something. Any plan was better than none. They huddled together, and kept their heads low. Soon they reached the fence and made their break.
A voice resonated through the container. “You see that I’m not a monster,” Dr. Vortex said from the ether. “Now it’s time to fulfill your half of the agreement.”
I flew into action. There was no reason to hold back. Fantastic power propelled me like a rocket toward my foe. A photon charged fist shot toward the void at the speed of light. Its force ripped through the steel walls. Metal groaned under the weight on top and collapsed onto itself. The containers rolled and struck the earth, pulling me with them. My power charged form absorbed the blows.
When the wreckage settled I tore free. Adrenaline bubbled to a giddy high. Blasting through walls was god-tier badass, but was it enough to stop Dr. Vortex? For a moment I was convinced.
Blue, red, and green containers vanished by the dozen. They catapulted from every direction; back and forth, left and right. Flying through them was a dance with death. The earth trembled, ever falling as I climbed. Between the twisted metal I could make his face; cold, indifferent, searching for the next blow. His arm swished every which way, guiding projectiles.
Pushing and twisting I broke the rhythm and shot through the clearing. The mad engineer blinked away. A second a set of knuckles snapped across his jaw. The recoil resonated in my bones more than any blast. Containers hit the ground without a will to direct them.
I found a place in the dirt. The once flat plane lay in ruin. The air was heavy with dust. Iron bars jutted from the foundation. They dare for anyone to cross them and live. The wind turned to unveil the doctor leaning for support. Blood stained the corners of his beard. He was more vulnerable than I’d seen him.
I launched into another blow and landed like an atom bomb. The ache in my knuckles was still hungry. I fell on him, ready to explode. Through the swelling he turned to face the end. Panic acted in his defense.
The world flew into a tailspin. Stars flashed when I collided with a brick wall. Then it was back into the churning void. Red sand waited on the other side. Day blinked into night blinked into day again. It was a world tour of pain with Dr. Vortex choosing the stops. He became omnipresent, and remained sure footed while gravity twisted on its head.
“I am anywhere and everywhere,” he said. “I never believed in a god before now. I suppose I had yet to realize myself.”
Bouncing from one continent to the next left no time to wonder how far this power reached. It was far enough that my costume gathered three colors of sand. Strange trees, buildings and people vanished as soon as they appeared. Heavy object fell into my path to smack like a truck.
After thousands of miles I crashed to the dirt and rolled into a crowd. A mud hut broke my fall, and maybe some ribs. Dozens scattered from my path. Wherever I landed was far from home. The occupants lacked the kind of resources taken for granted at home.
A woman with a colorful shawl set down her basket. I didn’t understand or even recognize her language, but her intention was clear. She was in trouble if she didn’t move.
I swatted at her. “Please… you have to… go…”
It was only when Dr. Vortex blinked into reality that they listened. The villagers screamed as they ran for shelter through the bushes. They might have thought he was a demon, which wasn’t far from the truth. Their fear amused 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?”
A backland slap put 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. It was like trying to hit a shadow. He had to have a weakness. All I could do was absorb the blows.
The sand vanished and was replaced with painted lines and asphalt. Neon signs stretched skyward and drowned the stars. In place of villagers was the steady flow of traffic. Horns whined in off chorus. 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. Neither did the dense sea of humanity washing across the sidewalk. City smells churned with smog, sweat, and something acrid. Milestone was a country town in contrast.
Dr. Vortex boomed over the square. “Do I have your attention now? Are you getting the picture?” His face broadcast over dozens of monitors. His widow’s peak reached new heights. 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. For her own selfish reasons she is already responsible for a great deal of pain and death. Your fate will be the same until such time as she honors her agreement and submits. Until then you are my hostages.”
An eerie silence fell over the crowd. Confusion whipped through them, like it was some kind of joke. He couldn’t be serious, they thought. Reality shows got worse every year, and prank shows more depraved.
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. Vehicles appeared in rows across the street. They packed together, running into the back of one another from thin air. A second layer materialized on top of them, then a third. A manic crowd screamed. Alarms blared. The massive walls of glass and metal compounded together. Hundreds stood sealed together in a box. Dr. Vortex appeared as a homicidal conductor guiding the assembly. The sounds of suffering failed to register in his world.
After gruelling minutes the piling stopped. Twisted steel and sharp edges formed a barricade. It served as warning to those working against Dr. Vortex’s ambition. Strangers huddled together to draw whatever comfort they could. They would share this experience for a lifetime.
“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. Bystanders became rabid. They grabbed for limbs, hair, anything they could. They saw a power they couldn’t understand. It stole their autonomy. They would fight for control of their lives.
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.
Hysteria blew through the crowd like a tornado. They pressed to the walls and the ones pinned at the back. Some squeezed through shop doors, or attempted to, dozens at a time. They’d do 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. He was ready to blink to a new vantage. So long as he saw me coming he had me on the ropes. How could I surprise an enemy on the verge of omnipresence? My arm lowered, heavy with exhaustion.
“Are you ready to submit?” He inched closer; one, two, three, four…
Blasts lashed out. Dr. Vortex sidestepped the blasts as though they were nothing. Then they hit him. While his eyes rested on me lasers bounced from the mirrored windows above the street. White hot beams lanced his arm. The doctor buckled. His device undulated at a deeper resonance. It sparked where delicate circuits were seared.
The world turned again and upset the course of gravity. It took hold with a reach that lacked any real force. I rolled into the darkness and to the thick, grey dirt of an endless plain. In my holographic form it was neither hot or cold. The air was absent in the void. I looked down and remembered to be afraid. Under the glow of my was a human shape curled up by a rock. Agony was etched onto Adrian’s face.
I turned to face the horizon, and to the blue and green of my home planet. Only a few had been so far from home, and there was no way back.
* * * *
The hour grew restless, and Tanya Truman was wracked with guilt. She sat idle in the driver’s seat of the beetle for minutes before turning the key.
It seemed only yesterday she was in freshman year. Back then she and Kaira by a different name jumped from 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 boredom-inspired games became the best things to remember.
No matter the costume or powers Tanya could never forget the nervous kid sharing her candy. Kaira gave parts of herself that nobody had ever seen. Then came Glimmer Girl, and things were changing. Special people were so few in her world; what good was Tanya if she couldn’t protect them?
An ill wind blew through Milestone Heights. It followed her around every bend. A small neighborhood had no metric when faced with that kind of power, that kind of evil. They would feel the chill for a long time.
Tanya bashed the wheel. She threw herself against the chair. Her impotent strength set to explode. There had to be something she could do; more than hoping that Kaira could save the day on her own. The wait was killing her.
Memory flashed with bruises and bloody noses. All came the moment she turned her back on Kaira. Adrian was bad enough. Dr. Vortex was a thousand times worse, with or without powers.
“I’m not usually a praying woman,” she said, “but Krishna, Buddha, anybody, I could use your help. Even you, Jesus. Do me a solid this one time and I’ll hang with your jerk friends.” For once she was only sort of joking.
She came upon the school. It was a war-zone with houses on one side of a barricade and armed guards on the other. Police cars flashing sirens sat spaced across the block. Teams moved in and out of buildings. It was weird to think Mr. Fletcher’s science class had become a literal crime scene.
Her heart sank. The world was coming to an end piece at a time. All she could do was watch. Or she could do something. Tanya gripped the wheel. “Screw this.” She turned back the way she came. No bully was too big for her. Underneath the mask her platonic soulmate called for help whether she knew it or not.
* * * *
There’s two hundred and forty thousand miles between the moon and home. That’s ten times the circumference of Earth. Those numbers were unfathomable during a grade school science presentation. They became more fantastic the further I traveled.
I gasped for air. Even if I didn’t need to breathe the void was reached down my throat. Doom circled the nothingness; the moment I let go would be my last.
Light waned over the far corner of Earth. I soared across the vacuum with all the speed I could muster. If I held on long enough could see home again. Another showdown with Dr. Vortex was better than the abyss.
Adrian’s husk fit in my arms like a stack of pillows. What remained of him seemed more plastic than person. The thought kept me from losing my lunch. I offered words to him, but there was no sound. Like Adrian, space had no forgiveness.
The shadow of the moon was behind us. It was too late to turn back.
The minutes stretched further than the unseen miles. Home was as far as it was when we started. My chest grew tight. I held the body close. For all my powers I doubted the strength to go so far. But we had to make it; for Tanya, for my family, and even for Adrian.
An invisible hand reached from the dark. It latched with gravity’s pull. A gale wind flew against us from the remains of the shipyard. Night had fallen. We tumbled through the cool air onto the asphalt. When all I wanted was to kiss the Earth smacking it was as sweet. Agony grated until we will rolled to a stop. Still, with what little remained, I laughed. I would never take the ability to breathe for granted again. Were Adrian moving he’d have said the same.
“We made it,” I said.
The body was silent. 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 drip. I shook the daze and glared at my attacker. Sparks flew 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 been killed,” he said. “Then you would be 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 hold back.
It took all I had left to blast him from his feet. Golden light with the punch of a heavyweight boxer knocked Dr. Vortex across the yard. His body impacted the wall of a mobile office. It was enough to leave him winded and crawling.
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 rose to my elbows and lifted on one knee. Then he delivered the final blow. One flick of his hand brought a container down. It landed with an almighty crunch. I only remembered pain before going dark.
To be continued…