I woke with my arms shackled over my head to a large steel conductor. The weight of my body wrenched them down, and ached with every movement. Whatever Dr. Vortex had planned was going to be worse than the BDSM nightmare I found myself.
Through the uneven panels of corrugated iron I could make the slivers of his coat as he moved between workstations. He moved in slow motion as though trudging through a swamp; or maybe it was the haze looming from above.
Get it together, I chided. Escape required every ounce of wit.
Dr. Vortex rounded the wall and strolled toward my prison. With little care he raised my chin and shone a penlight into each of my eyes. Resisting him earned a firmer grip in which he yanked my gaze to meet his. Once the examination was over he left my face to drop.
“This next portion requires you to be conscious,” he said. “It will be very painful, but if it brings you any comfort try to remember that it’s for a good cause.”
I wheezed more than I spoke. “What’re you… going… to do?”
He circled the ring to inspect the couplings, and then my shackles. Of course he anticipated an escape attempt. “More than your pedestrian mind could ever comprehend,” he said, his attention on finer things.
The makeshift laboratory was a scene from DIY hell with sharp edges and bolts strewn across the dusty floor. Near the center was a gaping hole torn into the concrete and cables thicker than my arm snaking into various panels, along with the stocks encased around my limbs.
His grimace remained neutral as he turned to a console and transcribed code from one monitor to another. How long did it take for him to piece all this together? There was no mistaking his intellect; a shame he spent it in ego dollars.
My fists crunched the faux leather gloves of my costume. “All those people you hurt… you don’t… deserve… power…”
Dr. Vortex flinched, but allowed the insult to wash past him. “Human suffering is temporary,” he said. “Yours and mine included. Why concern myself with the pain of others? History certainly won’t remember.” The words had come from his mouth, but were still hard to swallow. How could one person be so cold?
I shook the dizziness. “Is that why you’re… doing this; for some kind… of ‘greater good’?”
He said nothing at first, and doted on the numeric sequence that danced across the screen. Once satisfied he turned away, and hummed as he moved to another station. “If I have an obligation to humanity as a whole it will be better served with the power you currently possess. In the meantime, my only interest lies in taking what’s mine; not for any selfish purpose, mind you, but for further study.”
“Who do you… think you are? God?”
His chuckling echoed across the cavernous space. “Not a god; merely his protégé. If there is such thing as a celestial watchmaker then I am the repair man. I have seen his creation, and surely even you agree that it is in need of adjusting.”
“Your… head… needs adjusting,” I spat.
My torso contorted this way and that in attempts to pull free. My shoulders ached with the proverbial knives driving into them. Worse, no matter how hard I struggled there was no tapping my powers. Just when I’d gotten used to them, they were gone.
“You’ll find it no use to access your primatter abilities,” the doctor called.
He peered back to explain. “The extradimensional force that fuels your holographic form. It is powered by the building blocks of reality itself, and currently being syphoned for my own designs. Without them you are but a helpless child.” With that he turned back to his work, as though the statement was simple fact.
Suddenly the interconnected rings started to grind against each other in garish rhythm. A pale hue flickered from its heart, and pulled sparks from my skin. The machine was bleeding me; I could feel it, prickling through my veins.
For as long as I had strength I fought against it, however long that was. My screams did nothing to blanket the pain; my eyes strained out of my head. I was blind to everything but the agony of having my powers ripped away, like tearing off strips of skin. Every drop lost to him left a hollow corner that would never be whole again.
Dr. Vortex stood before me and considered what he’d done. It was with the same indifference that was his tradement.
“If it’s any consolation you won’t have to live with the pain much longer,” he said.
My words were the kind you don’t make a habit of repeating, and they spilled from my mouth with delirium.
* * * *
Something snapped across my face and left ringing in my ears. I was still in a haze, thicker than before, and on the other side was a man’s voice roaring through the fog.
His hand flew across my other cheek and left a burning mark. I opened my eyes to the snarling teeth of Dr. Vortex as he grabbed my shoulder and held me in place. He slapped me again for good measure, and seethed in such a way that spittle landed on my chin.
“How dare you! Of all the unmitigated gall, to pass out in the middle of the process! I told you that you had to be conscious, and you, you pathetic… thing! You ridiculous little transvestite! You succumb to the pain like some fragile little lamb! Do you really expect me to work under these conditions?”
It was weird that I should be blamed for the consequences of his invention, and weirder still to watch him lose his cool. What happened to the distant, studious figure he prided himself on being? That man was gone, and in his place was someone made desperate. Maybe that was worse; or maybe it was a way out.
“Maybe… if… you used a surge regulator… or something,” I choked rather than giggled.
Dr. Vortex marched back to his station. “What would you know of it, boy?”
“Only that… maybe… you shouldn’t be so… greedy! Ha!” The words were like sandpaper in my throat, but still I pushed.
Driven by rage the doctor flew back and clasped my throat. His other hand drew back, and paused. The boiling red rising up his brow eased some as reason pulled him back. His grip loosened.
“You will not goad me,” he said. “I need you awake and able to withstand the rest of the procedure.” Dr. Vortex marched back toward one of the consoles, unable to look back lest anger get the best of him.
Maybe it was the stale air that was uncooked by sun-beaten panels, or the rodents daring to move through the open, but the room held the sense of night. The boards over the windows made it impossible to know for sure. Who knows how long I’d been hanging there, stretched until my limbs froze in place.
It was minutes, maybe more when I heard sirens. Dr. Vortex turned to follow my ear, and caught them soon after. His response was immediate.
“You brought them here!”
“No,” I wheezed. “You said… no cops…”
Torn between his goal and the oncoming squad Dr. Vortex was forced to make a rash decision. He leaned close, grabbed a fistful of hair and twisted it until our eyes met. “Know that whatever happens is on your head!”
Maybe I should have been thankful that he blinked out of sight. There were only a few minutes to make my escape. Cold iron clasped to my wrists, and the machine continued to drain my power; that wasn’t going to stop me from trying. I pulled my arms until the joints were about to pop, and pulled some more. Come on, Glimmer Girl. This is your chance!
The clang of metal from the darkness, followed by the sound of grinding. Something stirred, though I couldn’t make out what. Was it the police? I pricked my ears to listen, but their sirens were still too far.
“Who’s there?” I said. “I’ve got… finger guns, and I’m not afraid to use them!”
The stranger poked her head into the light, and nursed a bright red fire axe she had no idea how to use. Of all the people willing to come to my rescue I should have known it would be Tanya Truman at the front of the line. Peering from the dark to scan the laboratory she was cautious to get too close. “He’s gone, right?”
I shook my head to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. Life had become a series of improbable events, one after the other, but my best friend since grade school sneaking into a supervillain’s hideout took the cake. She placed the weapon down, and combed over my wounds. The shackles were no less a mystery to her.
“Jeez, KC. What the hell did he do to you?”
It hurt to smile, but so did everything else. “Don’t… worry. I’m only… bleeding… on the inside…”
“Yeah, yeah. Great time for gallows humor,” she said. “We don’t have much time. How do I get you out of this thing?”
Before I could answer Tanya was scouring the benches in search of something, anything; a key, maybe? Not that there were any locks on Dr. Vortex’s machine. Letting me out alive was never on the cards for him.
“Can you use your powers?” she asked.
I shook my head. “The… machine-”
“Machine, right.” She followed the cable leading from the hole in the ground to the device I was shackled to, and back again. Her expression tightened as she reclaimed the axe. “Does this thing have an off switch?”
“I… don’t know…”
A mighty boom roared in the distance, and the siren sounds died like a bird of prey plucked from the top of the food chain. Neither of us had to be told to know what was happening.
Tanya stared at the thickest cable, and steeled her nerve. “I’m going to get you out of here,” she said.
“No, it’s… it’s live!”
Her grip throttled the axes handle.
“Tanya, remember… who the superhero is… in this relationship!”
She bit her lip, and raised her weapon high. “I’ve been watching out for you since grade school, and I’m not about to stop now!”
With all of her strength she brought the blade down. It sliced through the cable like the body of a snake, and sent sparks flying into every corner. The rest was over in a split second, switching the circuit breakers and stripping the room of light.
I hung in the machine, still wrenching my arms with dead weight. Even with no power its hold was relentless. Then inside my chest there was stirring, and the power denied was back in reach.
As a hologram it was a cinch to snap free, pulling semi-substantial hands from out of the shackles. My luminescence cast gold hues on the cluttered room, and to the corner where Tanya lay. In an instant I was by her side.
The weight in my chest sunk when I saw her arm bloody and burnt up to the shoulder. It was worse than the time Adrian suckerpunched her in sixth grade, and gave her a concussion. At best, there would be scars.
“That… hurt,” Tanya said. She was shaking, but still laughing, even with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Damn right it hurt! How could you do something so stupid? Even for me! That was so beyond dangerous, I can’t even!”
“We all know I’m the real superhero in this relationship,” she said, and she was right.
I tore the already shredded leg of my costume and wrapped it around her arm. There were better bandages out there, but it managed to stop the bleeding. Hopefully it would last until she could get proper care.
By that time I was crying as well. “How did you even find me?”
She smiled a painful smile. “You know you’re internet famous, right? People have been posting sightings since you started. All it took was a search engine, registering accounts to some networking sites I’d usually never touch, and voila!”
I beamed at her from the corners of my mouth. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Stupider than swinging a fire axe at a live cable?”
The room was silent enough to hear from miles away gunfire and heavy objects colliding with the earth. It was like sitting on the edge of a warzone, which it most certainly was, and traditional force didn’t stand a chance.
“I have to stop him.”
“You’re in no shape to fight,” Tanya said.
“He won’t stop until he has me, and until then everyone’s at risk. I don’t have a choice.”
Sliding to the wall Tanya pulled herself upright, and beckoned me closer. “Just promise me something,” she said, and threw the full weight of her good arm around my neck. “Come back alive, okay? No matter what. You don’t let him win.” Her voice cracked with more emotion than even she was comfortable with.
I squeezed her all the strength that was left, and smirked. “You’re not going to try and make out with me now, are you?”
“Maybe,” she said, “if you weren’t like my freaking sister.”
Throwing myself back to the fight was crazy, but my conscience wouldn’t let me go any other way. In a burst of light I shattered the boards and flew into the sky, directly into Dr. Vortex’s sights.
* * * *
It was a scene of absolute mayhem. Cars and SWAT vans had been thrown from the asphalt strip and into the long grass, only recently abandoned by their drivers. They sat upturned like forgotten toys, and were cast away with similar ease.
Further down the road were plumes of smoke, thick enough for someone to get lost. There was yelling, but no gunshots; the police learned quickly that bullets wouldn’t help them.
I skirted along the ground and looped around before plunging into the cloud. My heart beat like a jackhammer; there was danger within, and all of it unseen. What kind of an idiot bet on those odds?
The smoke was dense as it was oppressive, and concealed everything more than two steps ahead. After a few feet I came across a pair of cruisers with windscreens cracked and chassis twisted. In the driver’s seat there was a bloody figure with a handkerchief pressed to his mouth. He didn’t look up as I glided past his door.
My only guide were the echoes flying across the ether. Their fear chilled the atmosphere. Who was in control of the situation? The answer stirred the dread in my gut.
Dr. Vortex’s voice cut through the smoke, and my nerve, as articulately as ever. “Allow me to make this simple. You and your people double back and allow for me to conclude my work. In exchange you may collect your wounded, and continue your to live your lives ad nauseam.”
His ‘reasoning’ was anything but, and loomed like a dagger blaming its own victim. I followed the sound, making sure to keep the light down low. For the moment the element of surprise was on my side.
“You’ve seen what I can do,” he said. “It would be foolish to trust your eyes, let alone the path of your bullets in the face of one such as myself; he who bends space, who with a single step may cross untold reaches! You, pitiful apes that you are in comparison, only have your loud, violent tools. Why resist a force that you cannot distinguish from sorcery?”
Gods, did he need to shut up.
Suddenly there was a scream mingled with gunshots. Flashes through the smoke betrayed a man at his limit, who in his panic unloaded a whole clip into the nothingness. Just as quickly his primal cry was cut short by a gurgle, and a heavy thud on the asphalt.
It was the chance I’d been waiting for; that split second when Dr. Vortex looked the other way. Blazing at top speed I shot toward a human shape, and tackled it from the side. I gripped the mad engineer with every last ember of will, and pushed him through the cloud into the night.
My shriek was dulled by the beating wind. “This ends now!”
Our bodies blinked together from one side of the globe to the other, and all points in between. The sun and the moon flashed before us, and under them were buildings, jungles, huts, glaciers and endless sand. Nature itself was turned on its head so that the force he manipulated would rend us apart.
For all my life I clung to him with my grip fast around my wrists. Not upturned gravity or the blows wailing at my shoulders would sway me as my holographic body burned its brightest. Photon heat shredded through his coat, and to the man beneath it.
“Let go of me!” he roared. Like hell I would.
In a final, desperate act he turned to the void. We fell together, directionless, silent and unprotected in the infinite. It was the scale of it that loosened my grip, and the fear I would never make it back to Earth. That was all Dr. Vortex needed to push away and float out of reach.
Still burning like a miniature star I latched his arm, and the device strapped to it. He couldn’t wrestle me away, at least before my aura fried his circuitry.
The last I saw of Dr. Vortex was in the look of surprise cracking across his skin. Was it the look of a man whose life flashed before his eyes? Did he have any regrets? I reached out to him, but by then it was too late.
A moment later the universe blinked and I was standing on the road. The smoke cleared to reveal the extent of Dr. Vortex’s carnage, while I grabbed at my limbs to make sure they were still there. Soon the adrenaline ran cold, and fear had a chance to catch up.
“Kid, you okay?”
I looked to the man in the tactical vest, but couldn’t find any words for him. At that moment I was convinced we’d seen the last of Dr. Vortex, and in spite of the exhaustion and trauma, nothing could be sweeter.
* * * *
Home just wasn’t the same after Dr. Vortex had been through it, which prompted designs to sell the house and relocate. Dad made a pet project of it; something to occupy his time while in recovery. After all we’d endured he stopped trusting corners, and without powers to help him cope needed to find a new source of safety.
Before we knew it two weeks had past, and it was the day of graduation. There couldn’t have been a more perfect time to say goodbye to an old life, and start again.
I dwelled on my reflection despite the rush, and somehow forgot to hate the person staring back. Between sandy hair sweeping over my brow, glossy lips that just seemed to pop, and the patterned green skater dress with the split sleeves the world just made more sense. Still, the butterflies in my stomach churched, almost making me wish for another supervillain.
It was 9:35 when the mini-van pulled to the curb, and Tanya exited the panel door with her arm in a sling. Even from upstairs I could hear her chirp like everything was still normal. Thank the gods for that.
“He’s just upstairs,” my mother said. The pronoun grated on my nerves the closer I came to the precipice.
Before Tanya had even passed the threshold I was in the hall and making my way down. A smile cut through every instinct to run and hide, or to explain it away as some kind of game. I descended into their line of sight, running my hand down the banister for support, and once I had their attention, stopped. I didn’t have to do much to earn it; only stand there.
Mom and Dad shuffled and turned to one another while their expressions did backflips. It might have been funny if there wasn’t so much riding on their reaction.
“Well,” I asked, “what do you think?”
Tanya nodded. “Suits you,” she said. Of course, this was old news to her.
We stood, frozen, the very picture of awkwardness. There was no kind of manual for this situation, at least that we’d ever read. Finally, my father shook his head and forced a chuckle. “What’s with the getup, kiddo? You’re either very early or very late for Halloween.”
Mom bit her lip. In her eyes she knew; she’d always known, but could never bring herself to face it. Now she would have to, whether she wanted to or not. She was about to say something, but I beat her to it.
“It’s because I’m a girl,” I told them; just like that, like it wasn’t a big deal, like it didn’t shatter the illusion they had since the day I was born.
Mom swallowed the lump in her chest. “You’re not a girl. I have the baby photos to prove it.”
“No, Mom, I’m a girl,” I said. “My name is Kaira, and this isn’t just dress up. I’m not gay. This is just… me. I’m trans. I don’t want to pretend to be a guy anymore. That’s not who I am. This is.”
Silenced balanced on a point, ready to swing any which way. Tanya inched closer to take my hand, and was ready with the getaway van.
When my father spoke it was barely a mutter. “How long has this been going on?”
He didn’t need for me to answer, but I said so anyway. “Forever.”
Both parents gravitated toward each other in search of a solution. “And there’s no way we can talk you out of it?”
My heart wrenched to protect the girl inside, as though they could steal her away now she was revealed to them. I held to myself, determined to cast off any shame that was left. It didn’t belong to me anymore. Tears pricked my eyes. I smiled to keep from trembling.
“Why would you do that when I’m finally sort of happy?”
A million thoughts bounced across that tiny room with as many conversations spoken in a glance. This was the way of things from that moment forward.
Mom threw her arms around me, then my Dad. It was the only thing that made sense to any of us. We were connected in only a way that family could be, despite the confusion. To think I was scared of losing them over something that should have been so basic.
* * * *
It was a solemn graduation adorned with flowers for Adrian. Both principal and vice principal gave speeches in his honor, as well as the co-captain of the basketball team and one of the cheerleaders. He was remembered as a talented athlete, funny, and loyal to his friends. The way people spoke made me wish I knew that side of him; better that than the malignant bully that haunted my childhood.
Tanya clicked her tongue all through the ceremony. She leaned over to whisper in my ear. “You know the worst part? Now they get to canonise him, they can sweep all the horrible things he did under the rug. God, that pisses me off.”
She wasn’t wrong, but I couldn’t bring myself to agree. Nobody deserved to die like that; not even Adrian. Maybe that’s why I held my tongue, and let the people who actually cared to have their moment.
Only a handful of people clapped when my name was called on stage; my Mom and Dad, Tanya’s folks, and a handful of teachers. Whatever. I was a high school curiosity, never popular, and showing up in a dress set that reputation in stone. The sooner it was done, the sooner I could leave this place behind.
Soon it was over, and Tanya and I sat under the bleachers by the track field. We lay on the grass, and carved a goodbye message into the aging wood supports – ‘KC + TT 4EVA’ inside of a star. It was the last time we would take refuge there, and good riddance to it.
Tanya kicked her feet back, and stared at the day slipping through the panels. “So, we’ve just finished high school. What do we do now?”
I stopped and thought about it. Once upon a time there was no future, and suddenly I was out in the open with a world before me. I curled nearby with my knees pulled to my chest. “Go to college, get a job…”
“But first we have a kick-ass summer,” she said.
It was a nice idea, if we could pick up all the pieces before then.
Tanya groaned as she sat up, and positioned herself on her elbows. “What about… you know, her?”
The morning sun beamed down on top of us, washing the cosmos in its light, burning as if it would go on forever. That same force stirred in my chest. As long as it shone then so would I; whether as a Glimmer Girl, or an ordinary one.
The End of the Beginning