The Return of Mr. Henderson

by Ross Griswold

 

“I’m telling you, Jessica Fletcher was the world’s most successful serial killer,” I said as I pushed open the heavy glass door of the First National Bank of Iowa.

My friend Spare Change stepped through the door after me. He looked, as always, as if Santa Claus has had a rough couple of months.

“What are you babbling about, Kevin?” Spare Change responded.

“Have you ever seen Murder She Wrote?” There were a couple of people in line in front of me, so I queued up behind them.

“Of course I’ve seen Murder She Wrote. I haven’t always lived on the streets,” said Spare Change.

“Well, in every single episode of that show, someone is killed. The wrong person is blamed,” I said. “Then Jessica Fletcher swans onto the scene as the ultimate tea cozy detective and figures out what really happened.”

“That’s the basic premise of the show,” Spare Change said. “So what?”

“The woman encounters a murder in every single episode,” I howled. People in the bank started to look at me funny. “Not only that, but with every single murder she gets to dictate how events supposedly went down.”

Spare Change snorted. “That’s because she’s cleverer than the police. She’s got experience from writing her books.”

“No, what she has is experience actually killing people. She’s not only covering up her crimes, she’s choosing who gets blamed for it.”

Spare Change looked at me. He blinked repeatedly.

“I always figured that’s how the series should have ended,” I said. “Jessica Fletcher finally slips up and gets caught. It could have been a massive crossover event. They could have brought in Matlock to defend her.”

“Can I help you, sir?”

I glanced up to see the conservatively dressed bank employee critically looking me over. I can’t really blame him. My shoulder-length hair was a mess of dirty brown curls. My red flannel checkered shirt had seen heavy use and I couldn’t even guess when it was last washed.

“Yes, I’d like to open a checking account,” I said, giving the teller my best smile. I held up a wad of hundred dollar bills.

Very few people know it, but I am a superhero. They call me Staff-Master. In that aspect of my life I had stomped out a drug deal the previous night. I admit, it probably wasn’t the best practice to steal the money after I beat them down. It should have probably gone to the cops as evidence or something, but a man’s got to eat.

“I’ll need to see some ID,” the clerk said suspiciously.

Crap.

“Is that really necessary?” I asked. “I’m trying to give you money, not take money from you.”

“Still need to see ID.”

“Ok. Thanks anyway.” Sheepishly, I tucked the money back into my pants pockets. I turned away and walked towards the door.

Spare Change followed a few feet after me. “Kevin, why didn’t you just give them your ID?”

“As far as the authorities know, I’m dead,” I said sadly. “When that oil billionaire, Mr. Henderson, kidnapped me, his soldiers burned down my apartment building. Everyone assumed that I died, along with several of my neighbors.”

“Yeah, and then Mother Earth and I rescued you,” Spare Change mumbled, glancing around to make sure that nobody was listening. “You really should reclaim your life. Let the world know that you’re alive.”

I sighed as I pushed the bank’s front door open and stepped through it. “You’re probably right, but I worry that if I explained what was going on, I’d let it slip that I’m Staff-Master.”

Spare Change frowned as he walked down the sidewalk, as if a deep thought was hurting him. “You could talk to Detective Boskett. I bet he’d help you. And he already knows your secret identity.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I should do…”

A sudden burst of gunfire interrupted me. It came from the bank lobby that we had just left.

Whirling around on my heels, I looked through the glass door. I spotted three men with military looking rifles. They wore black ski masks and heavy bulletproof armor.

Around each of their waists was an odd sort of belt. It resembled a large weightlifting belt, bedazzled with greenish bits of circuit board and wires of every color. The buckle of the belt was a fist-sized glowing circle that reminded me of the power button on a computer.

Spare Change grabbed my arm and pulled me away. “Come on, Kevin.” Together we ran half a block away and ducked into a narrow alley.

“Holy crap,” Spare Change gasped, a sharp wheezing making it hard for him to talk. “We only barely got out of there.”

“We got lucky,” I agreed. Then I started pulling off my flannel shirt, revealing the blue spandex costume underneath.

Coughing, Spare Change watched me as I shucked off my jeans. “Really, Kevin?” he panted. “Right here in front of me. Couldn’t you find a phone booth or something?”

I slipped on my gloves and pulled my mask down over my face. “They don’t make phone booths anymore.”

“Oh yeah,” the old man mumbled.

He handed me the foot-long length of otherworldly wood that had been hiding under my checkered shirt. As soon as it touched my hands it magically grew into a six-foot-long pole. It’s a pretty handy thing, really. It was a gift from the pagan goddess Mother Earth. That’s a story for another day, however.

“Spare Change, wait for me here,” I said. “I’ll be back.”

I could almost hear the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as I walked back down the street. I spun my quarterstaff around, stretching my muscles and preparing for combat.

Boldly I walked up to the bank and kicked in the door. “Drop it, evil doers,” I shouted. “You have picked the wrong place to plunder.”

Three gunmen turned to face me, as well as about a dozen bank staffers and customers that were cowering on the floor. People screamed and the bad guys shouted out obscene replies.

The robber closest to the door dropped a heavy sack and tried to hit me with the butt of his rifle. I leaned to the side to avoid it, then spun around and bashed him in the face with my quarterstaff.

The man crumpled to the ground at my feet. As I turned to glance at the other two, they opened fire. Their military rifles burped hot lead across the room. I spun my quarterstaff, and like Babe Ruth himself, I swatted the bullets up into the ceiling.

“Surrender,” I shouted, stepping forward aggressively.

“Not likely,” said one of the gunmen. He grabbed up two heavy canvas sacks overflowing with cash. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

He pushed the backlit button on his belt buckle. There was a flash of blueish white light, kind of like lightning, and the man vanished.

There was a sudden flash to my left, and the second gunman vanished as well. Money fluttered through the air where he had been standing.

Startled, I turned around to see the last robber crawling across the floor, blood leaking from under his mask and smearing the tile floor. He was trying to reach for the bag of money that he had dropped when I arrived.

Running at him, I managed to kick the bag out of his grasp. Groaning, he instead stabbed at his glowing belt buckle.

“NO!” I yelled.

With a zap, the man was gone. All that was left of him was some blood on the floor.

Confused, I looked around the room. Terrified faces greeted me in every direction I turned. “It’s OK, people. I’m Staff-Master. You might have heard of me. I’m one of the good guys.”

That didn’t seem to reassure anybody, so I bent down to pick up the bag of money that the thief had left behind. Holding it up, I looked around the room. “Who should I give this to?”

It was that moment that the police swarmed into the bank. Guns drawn, they spotted me, a masked man, holding a bag of money.

“DROP IT!” various police officers shouted.

“Sure thing,” I replied. I set the money bag down on the ground, and I willed my quarterstaff to shrink back down to a less threatening foot-long stick. “My name is Staff-Master. This bank was being robbed.”

“Get on your knees. Put your hands behind your head.”

“This isn’t necessary,” I said. “I’m a superhero. Call Detective Boskett. He’ll vouch for me.”

“This is your last warning, stick-guy,” a policeman growled as he pointed his sidearm right at my face.

Seeing no other peaceful option, I let go of my quarterstaff and laced my fingers behind my head. I dropped slowly to my knees.

The police officers forced me roughly down to the ground, where they handcuffed my hands behind my back. Then they picked me up and led me out of the building.

Leaning on the side of a squad car was a man wearing a tan trench coat. A matching fedora was pulled low over his bearded face.

“Detective Foley, should we take off his mask?” asked one of the police officers.

“No,” Foley said, waving a hand dismissively. “You know how it is with these crazy types. He’s going peaceably now. But if we take away his mask, we pop his delusions. He might get violent.”

“Sure thing, boss,” said the officer. “We got him red handed either way. He must be an idiot, trying to rob a bank so close to the police station. How did he think he’d get away?”

“I didn’t rob the bank,” I shouted. “I tried to stop the robbers, but they, like, teleported away.”

Detective Foley spat on the ground. “Teleported. Hmmph.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“Get him in the car,” Foley grunted. The police officers obeyed, loading me into the back of the squad car.

From there I was driven to the police station and was led into one of those interrogation rooms that you see on TV. In the center of the room there was a heavy stainless steel table bolted securely to the floor, flanked by two flimsy plastic chairs and a long mirror on the wall.

“Take a seat, freak,” a beefy uniformed officer said. He forced me down into a chair and attached my handcuffs to the table. Once he was satisfied that I was secure, he stepped out of the room and closed the door.

I sat there for probably a couple of hours. The time flew by like a sloth running a marathon through a vat of chocolate pudding. By the time the door opened again, I was literally beating my head on the desk.

“Hello, Mr. Midnight,” said a voice that I had never heard before. The figure standing in doorway was a backlit silhouette.

I bolted upright in my chair and tried to study the figure.

“I think you have me mixed up with somebody else,” I said.

“Please do not insult my intelligence,” the dark figure sneered. He stepped into the room, revealing himself to be the somewhat shaggy looking Detective Foley. Only he didn’t speak with Foley’s voice.

“You are Kevin Midnight, also known as the Immortal Staff-Master,” Foley said in his different voice. “It’s obvious, really.”

“How do you figure?” My heart was pounding.

“Elementary,” said Foley. “It was reported in the press last summer that a man named Kevin Midnight heroically saved a homeless man from a mugging. In the process, Mr. Midnight was shot through the heart and killed, or so the EMTs and doctors believed. Then, mysteriously, Mr. Midnight wasn’t dead anymore.”

A cold sweat formed on my brow. It soaked quickly into the spandex of my mask, making it feel damp and smothering.

“It really was something of a miracle,” said Foley. He flopped heavily into the other chair, looking nothing like the intimidating cops on TV. No, he practically lounged in that cheap plastic chair.

“A couple of months after Mr. Midnight was released from the hospital, a masked superhero appeared for the first time. This hero had the exact same physical build as Mr. Midnight. The same long brown hair. He used a quarterstaff, just as Mr. Midnight had done when he saved the homeless man. Do I really need to continue?”

“No,” I said. My head hung low. “I guess not.”

“If you would indulge me,” Foley said cheerfully, his fingers forming into a steeple. “I’d like to continue just a bit further. After a few adventures as a superhero, Mr. Midnight, you were attacked by representatives of the oil billionaire Richard Henderson.”

“It wasn’t Staff-Master that drew Henderson’s attention, however,” Foley’s words came fast and dramatically. He was bragging that he knew all of this. “It was all the talk in the press about Kevin Midnight being shot through the heart and killed, yet not killed.”

“Mr. Henderson had a heart problem,” I confirmed. “He was keeping himself alive by stealing hearts from homeless people. When he read of me, he wanted my heart. He thought it would keep him alive indefinitely.”

Foley nodded his head slowly. “I know. I was there.”

“What?”

“Well, I wasn’t there when Henderson’s thugs kidnapped you and burned your apartment,” Foley said. “I was, however, there at the Henderson Oil refinery when they surgically removed your heart and put it in the old man’s chest.”

A cold chill ran down my spine and my eyes narrowed as I looked anew at this very odd police detective. “Then that means…”

“Not what you think it does,” Foley said smugly. “I’m no villain. Allow me to introduce myself.”

With that, the image of Detective Foley appeared to melt like butter in the microwave. His features reformed and solidified anew. Where before he was a thickly built man with messy hair, now he was a tall and thin figure with neatly slicked back hair, a large forehead, and a nose like a hawk’s beak.

“You can call me Shifter,” said this new man who once was Foley. “I’m a private investigator. I was working undercover at the Henderson Oil Refinery as a security guard. A client had hired me to prove a connection between Henderson and the same murders that you were looking into.”

“You’re another superhero?” I asked hopefully.

“Not until you entered my life,” Shifter said. “I was a normal, if brilliant, person. Then animated trees attacked the oil refinery, led by a pagan earth goddess.”

“Mother Earth and my friend Spare Change came and rescued me,” I nodded. “They defeated Henderson’s men and reclaimed my heart. They saved my life.”

“They very nearly ended mine.” Shifter leaned forward in his chair, his eyes narrow slits. “I tried to use the chaos to snoop around a secure area of the refinery. I was having trouble getting a door open, then an elm tree grabbed me and threw me through the door.”

“Ouch!” I said in what I hoped was a sympathetic voice. “Although, it got you through the door.”

“Indeed.” Shifter curled back his lip. “As I had suspected, beyond that door was a laboratory where work was being done on fossil fuels. It also housed inhumane biological experiments.”

“When I smashed through the door, a container holding an unknown compound was shattered. It poured all over the floor. I slid through the mess and into a shelf, which tipped over. Other chemicals were dumped all over me, and, simply put, my body melted away.”

“That’s horrible!”

“It was quite interesting in an odd way,” Shifter said. “I was aware of the entire process, and my liquefied form was an unseen witness as your friends rescued you. The animated trees then overtook the refinery. The earth opened up and swallowed the building whole.”

“What happened next? How did you go from there to here, impersonating Detective Foley?” I asked.

“Well, time passed, and I was still alive and aware,” Shifter said. “Cogito ergo sum. So after much trial and error, I suppose you could say, I pulled myself together. I reformed my body out of the goop. I reclaimed my life.”

Shifter was preening a bit as he continued. I got the impression that he hadn’t shared this with anyone, and he was just itching to share more.

“I quickly realized that I could do more than just reform my body,” he said. “I mean, I’ve seen Terminator 2. I’ve seen Star Trek: Deep Space 9. I realized the potential of my new situation. So I tried shaping my body into other forms. At first I had to use my hands to physically and crudely sculpt myself, but with practice I became very good at it. I could make myself look like anyone I wanted with very little effort.”

“So Detective Foley is fake? He’s like a secret identity for you?”

“No.” Shifter laughed. “Foley is a friend of mine. He owed me a favor and he knew that I wanted to talk to you.”

“Why do you want to talk to me?”

“For one, I wanted to meet the man that caused such a profound change in my life,” said Shifter. “But really, I need your help with an ongoing investigation. You’ve already become embroiled in it.”

I perked up at that thought. “Embroiled? Me? Are you talking about the bank robbery?”

“This robbery, and others like it I suspect.” Shifter leaned forward in his chair. “For weeks now I had been noticing a trend. High-end medical equipment. Bleeding-edge robotics. All of it stolen from highly secure locations with no sign of breaking and entering. In more than one instance the theft occurred right under the noses of reliable security. The thieves did the deed and were gone before anyone could respond.”

“Sounds like the bad guys I met tonight,” I said. “They had these things on their belts.”

“Exactly so,” Shifter exclaimed. “The average police response time to that bank is less than five minutes. It’d be foolhardy for your average bank robber to strike there. But if one has the technology to teleport out in an instant, it’d be a tempting target.”

“Where on earth did they get that kind of technology?” I thought aloud. Then I noticed Shifter’s smug smile. “You already know, don’t you?”

“I do,” said Shifter. “Our mutual enemy, Mr. Richard Henderson, has returned.”

“What?” I shrieked. “He couldn’t have survived. From what I understand he was left without a heart. He and his entire refinery were destroyed and devoured by the earth. It’s a forest now.”

“Indeed, but a man like Richard Henderson was not prepared to go quietly into the night.” Shifter yawned. “Stealing the heart of an immortal wasn’t his only plan to survive.”

Shifter reached inside his jacket and pulled out a roll of papers. They were dirty and water stained and crumpled. Bits of dust fell from them as they were unrolled.

“Stealing organs from homeless people was nothing more than a stopgap, a stalling tactic,” Shifter said. “Stealing your immortal heart was merely an opportunistic backup plan. These papers detail Mr. Henderson’s actual plans.”

He handed me the filthy papers. I looked them over, and I must confess that I didn’t understand most of it. The words were a blend of algebra and mad science. The drawings looked like a robot from a Japanese cartoon. The final page made things uncomfortably clear, with a schematic of Mr. Henderson’s upper body hooked up to control wires and life support tubes.

“They built a cyber-Henderson?” I asked.

“All evidence appears to lead in that direction,” Shifter said coolly. “They appear to have a secret base on the top floor of the 801 Grand building.”

“How do you know that?”

Shifter reclaimed the cyborg plans, rolled them up and put them back inside his coat.

“I’ve made a quick study of the teleportation technology based upon the Henderson cyborg plans, the equipment recently stolen, and various other factors. It all adds up to the need for a stable teleportation relay in a very high place. 801 Grand is the tallest building in all of Iowa. From there, one should be able to teleport anywhere in the metro area. The copper sheeting used to build the roof makes an exceptional antenna as well.”

Shifter stood up, and as he did he changed again. His rail-thin figure bulked out and became the disheveled bear-like Detective Foley once more. With the flourish of a trained showman, he produced the keys to my handcuffs and unlocked me.

“Thank you,” I winced as the blood started circulating into my hands again.

“Thank me by helping me bring Henderson to justice,” my new shapeshifting friend said. “His immense wealth should not be allowed to shield him any further.”

Together, we walked out of the interrogation room. We got some odd looks, but nobody questioned the counterfeit Detective Foley. He led me to the evidence lockup, where, with a wink and the discrete exchange of cash, he managed to get my quarterstaff back.

A half hour later we were climbing up the steps of the 801 Grand building. Shifter had returned to what I presume is his natural form, the slim man with the broad, intelligent forehead.

“We dare not take the elevators,” Shifter announced. “Henderson is probably tapped into and monitoring the building’s security feed.”

“That’s fine,” I huffed. “When we get to the twentieth floor I’m going to throw up.”

We went up, up, up, finally reaching a door marked No Trespassing. Signs like that don’t apply to superheroes though, so we pushed the door open and walked inside. We entered a pitch black hallway.

There was a sudden click as Shifter turned on a flashlight and started scanning it around us. “We are in the right place.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

Shifter pointed his light at an office door at the end of the hall. It was the only door I could see, and mounted upon it was a copper plaque inscribed with the words Henderson Oil.

“Nobody likes a show off,” I grumbled as I walked up to the door and tried to open it. It was locked.

“I’ll have to break it open,” I said. “Are you ready?”

When I turned back to look at Shifter, he had changed his form. He had long brown hair. His face was covered by a blue spandex mask. He wore a matching blue skin-tight costume and a battered black leather motorcycle jacket. He had a little bit of a pot belly. He had in his hand a familiar looking quarterstaff. In short, he was an exact imitation of me.

“Ready,” he said with a nod.

“When this is over, you and me are going to talk about this,” I said as I kicked the door open. “Gimmick infringement is bad, ok?”

Shifter laughed, and I must admit that I did as well. It really is something special to get to share moments like this with another superhero.

The laughter choked away as we peered into the room. Past the Henderson Oil door was a massive room, far larger than I had expected. The place was a strange joining of creepy elements.

Half of the room looked like a filthy auto repair shop, with massive hunks of greasy equipment scattered here and there. There were hydraulic platforms that looked capable of lifting cars. Wrenches and socket sets and other tools that I couldn’t identify hung on pegboard walls. Oil pooled messily on the floor.

The other half of the room was an antiseptic hospital-style operating theater, complete with crisp and clean bedding, beeping monitors, and sterile blue-green walls. The glistening blue floor seemed to be polished within an inch of its life.

In both of these incongruous sections of the room, men stood around working. Tattooed and grease-stained men twisted and hefted and ratcheted. Less than forty feet away, men in green paper gowns and sanitary face masks appeared to be performing some type of surgery. All of these men looked up in surprise as not one, but two Staff-Masters entered the room.

“We must reinstall the subject,” screamed one of the medical staff. Two of the surgeons snatched something off of the operating table and quickly carried it to a machine in the middle of the room. The thing they carried was gray and wrinkled and didn’t appear to weigh very much.

“Nobody move,” Shifter’s booming voice filled the room. Well, it was my voice actually, but, you know. Shifter said it.

“Bad guys never actually listen to that, you know?” I grumbled as several of the mechanics pulled out guns and moved to defend the medical staff. They stepped smoothly between us and the gray thing the surgeons were carrying.

Cracks of gunfire assaulted our ears and I spun my staff, effortlessly batting the hot lead out of the sky. To my surprise, Shifter mirrored my movements, not only shielding himself from the gunfire, but sending one of the bullets right back into the shoulder of one of the shooters.

“Where did you learn to do that?” I asked as I ducked under a swinging tire iron.

“Learned it from you,” Shifter said, as he deflected another bullet and swung his quarterstaff in a hard downward arc, scything the gun out of a shooter’s hand. “I’m not making myself look like you for the sake of a joke. My powers allow me to mimic skills and abilities as well as appearance.”

I swept the feet out from under a mechanic and glanced over at Shifter. “You are such a cheater.”

“Is it really cheating if it works?” Shifter spun his quarterstaff overhead and then lunged forward with a spear-like thrust, hitting a bad guy in the chest and crunching his ribs.

I blocked the downward swing of a massive wrench, and kicked its owner below the belt. “Yes. It’s still cheating!”

“All’s fair in love and war, they say,” Shifter countered as he lashed into two more mechanics, bloodying them and knocking them to the ground. “After all, you just kicked that guy in the gonads. That is hardly Marquess of Queensberry Rules.”

A lucky punch struck me in the face, sending me reeling into a greasy brick wall. My quarterstaff slipped from my fingers and clattered to the ground.

I leaned on the wall for a moment, cursing myself for getting distracted. Then I turned around, right into two more shots to the body. My breath left my body in a surge of pain, but I managed to push through it and wrap my long arms around my attacker. Pulling him down into a headlock, I punched him repeatedly until he fell limp from my arms.

Gasping, I bent over and picked up my quarterstaff just in time to see Shifter hit the last mechanic with a flurry of blows. Beyond them, the various medical techs were fleeing, having accomplished whatever they were trying to do.

“What the heck is going on here?” I looked around the strange room.

A deep bass hum reverberated from the large machine smack dab in the center of the room. The surgeons had carried something gray and wrinkled to the machine and installed it within before they fled.

Only now did I realize that the thing they had carried was Richard Henderson.

Two vibrant red lights ignited upon the machine. Hydraulics whined to life as the large squat machine stood up on two wide steel legs. Standing at about ten feet tall, it looked down upon us with demonic electronic eyes.

“Odd. There are two of you.” Mr. Henderson’s voice boomed through onboard speakers concealed somewhere on his monstrous robotic body. “Regardless, it is a pleasure to properly meet you, Staff-Master. At the time of our last meeting, I had no idea that the man I had kidnapped was a superhero.”

“Whatever you are doing here, it ends now,” I shouted.

Dry raspy laughter whispered through the machine’s speakers. “I think not. I am too wealthy and important to die.”

“And so very humble,” I snarked.

“I also have weapons,” Henderson’s electronic voice said gleefully. “I have power, and you will not take it from me again.”

With a whir-click sound, the Henderson cyborg lifted up his massive, mechanical, Popeye-like arms and opened fire with two of the biggest guns I have ever seen. Bullets spat forth rapidly, sounding like an angry mosh pit of bees at a heavy metal concert.

The gunfire came in such quantity that there was no chance of deflecting it. It was all Shifter and I could do to leap out of the way. Shifter sprinted left, I went right. A trail of bullet-ridden devastation followed closely behind both of us.

Over the roaring guns, I could still hear the cyborg’s laughter. He was enjoying this.

Leaping for cover behind a mechanic’s workbench, I gasped and wheezed, my chest tight with fear. I startled as Shifter leapt over the workbench and huddled down with me. His body liquefied for a second and he was once more the intelligent looking man with the beak of a nose.

“Do you remember those belts?” Shifter asked urgently. “The ones that the bank robbers wore that allowed them to teleport?”

“Yes,” I choked.

Shifter looked at me intensely, his blue-gray eyes wide. “As we were running for cover, I noticed one of those belts on a table back that way.” He gestured to a part of the room that had yet to be destroyed. “I have a plan to end this, but I need you to bring the belt to me.”

I listened as Henderson’s guns continued to chew up the room. It was so loud, I could feel it vibrating my insides. “Are you sure your plan will work?”

“Absolutely.”

I took a deep breath, trying and failing to slow my racing heart. I nodded to my new friend, and then I rolled out from cover. “This is going to suck.”

“There you are,” Henderson shouted gleefully. He pointed both canons at me and started shooting.

I don’t think I’ve ever ran so fast in my life. My breathing and my thinking froze up, but my legs pumped like the pistons of a race car. I spotted the teleportation belt and I weaved to the right and leapt for it, seconds ahead of the gunfire.

I grabbed the belt just as the bullets tore into me. Two pierced my hips, at least three more went through my thighs. I didn’t even feel them, but I saw the crimson gore bloom forth from my midnight blue spandex.

“Shifter, go long,” I screamed as I threw the belt. My legs crumpled out from under me. I fell hard to the oily concrete, and only then did the pain hit me. I shivered and screamed.

I must have blacked out, because the next thing I knew, Henderson’s massive form hulked over me. He poked at me with the business end of his gun. The barrel was still smoking and its touch burned my flesh.

“I’m going to have fun tormenting you,” he said.

I wept and screamed. The pain was so intense that I thought I was seeing things when suddenly there was a flash of lightning above me. With his long coat flowing around him, Shifter stood on top of the Henderson cyborg. The teleportation belt was slung across his chest like a bandolier.

“What are you doing?” Henderson’s robotic voice shrilled.

“You’ll see,” Shifter snickered. Then his entire body melted into a clump of greasy looking clay. The clay continued to liquefy until it flowed over the cyborg like water. It dripped down the cybernetic legs and pooled on the floor. It flowed down into the machine.

Mr. Henderson screamed with rage, then with dawning terror. Random parts of the ungainly machine started to spark and pop. Discordant whirs and buzzes and clicks reverberated as Shifter’s liquid form tore the cyborg apart from the inside.

One of the gun arms fell off and crashed to the floor. The other gun ejected its ammo, sending unspent bullets rolling around the room like marbles. Soon even Henderson’s screaming ended as the speakers erupted. The giant monstrosity stood dead still and silent.

The oily fluid flowed to the ground and reformed into the man known as Shifter. He dusted his hands together as if cleaning them. “That, as they say, is that.”

“You didn’t kill him, did you?” I asked.

Shifter seemed offended by the question. “Absolutely not. I left his life support systems intact, but nothing else. He needs to pay for his crimes, and we need to clear your name. The police still think that Staff-Master robbed that bank, remember?”

Whistling a jaunty tune, Shifter removed the teleportation belt and strapped it around Henderson’s remaining gun arm. He pushed a few buttons and the giant robot vanished in a flash of lightning.

“Where did you send him?” I asked. I tried to sit up, but only succeeded in losing more blood.

“The police station. I imagine they are in a bit of a panic just now with his sudden appearance, but they’ll soon discover that he’s too broken down to do any harm. The cyborg is made almost entirely from stolen equipment. His very existence will incriminate him. Plus, I’m sure that the police will be able to tap into the machine’s onboard memory.”

Despite the pain, that made me smile. Shifter smiled too, then sat down next to me on the floor and began studying my wounds.

“You’ll live,” he said wryly.

“I know.”

Shifter chuckled as he began bandaging me, applying pressure to slow the bleeding. “And I’ll make sure that the police find the right clues to clear your name,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

Shifter was as good as his word. The very next day’s news was filled with stories about Richard Henderson’s crimes. Detective Foley was even on TV personally thanking Staff-Master for bringing down the villain.

All in all, it was a good day’s work for a superhero.

 

Games Best Played Alone

by Wendy C. Williford

 

Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, yet you can’t even sink the three ball in the center pocket.

Countless nights you’ve been coming here and it’s always the same. The faces are different but in essence they never really change—just a floating mass of bodies that have crowded in, all seeking some strange comfort they’ve been unable to find in their family and work lives. It doesn’t make a great bit of sense, yet, it gives comfort that for a few hours a night you can identify with them, pretend to share a semblance of their problems, fears, hopes, and aspirations. It gives you a chance to be like them before you’re dreadfully reminded that there is nothing in you akin to them, not the same mind, not the same bodies, not even the same DNA. You were raised around them, went through puberty and adolescence with them, entered into manhood along with them, but it doesn’t change the fact that you weren’t born with them, didn’t breathe the first breath of oxygen with them, didn’t suckle your mother’s breast along with them. You are not any of them and it torments you inside.

The glowing neon of the Miller Lite sign looms above the rusty chair in which you’ve taken a seat. Staring at the pool table, you contemplate the next shot. Tonight, you’re stripes and solids, not because you couldn’t find anyone to play with, but because you prefer it that way. It’s just among the many games you play alone, having realized at a young age that you can best anyone at anything without even breaking a sweat in your little finger. These people don’t even offer a challenge anymore. The rednecks take one look at you and assume you haven’t got the sense that their god gave to a mule. The college frat boys think you’re nothing but a middle-aged man, unable to socialize with others, although in truth you’re only a little more than ten years their senior. At least by Earth’s years. And the young girls think you’re something to be pitied as they lean over the tables around the pool-hall, giving you a glimpse down their unbuttoned shirts, the dim lights above silhouetting the curve of their breasts. As they catch the hypnotic trance they’ve placed on you, they pop back up, giggling, gently stroking their clenched fist up and down the cue stick, thinking they’re giving you a fantasy to take back to your singles apartment before they turn around and place a deep kiss on the guy they’ve come with. If only they knew you could look through their clothing anytime you wanted, able to see the color of their thong underwear, birthmarks on their upper thighs, or if they have pierced nipples. But that’s your secret. Even though it would make for one hell of a pickup line, you keep it to yourself. In the end, none of them can fill the void She left.

Taking out a cigarette, you dig through your pocket for a lighter. It’s not as if they’re going to kill you. That very fact makes the thrill a little less enjoyable, but it makes you blend in, so you suck in all the nicotine you can handle, letting it settle deep in your lungs before blowing up to the ceiling, watch the smoke waft through the air of the pool hall and mix with the smoke of the others. The country band on the stage is playing a slow dance; the lead singer in his tight Wranglers and black Stetson thinks he’s country’s answer to Jim Morrison as he eyes a table of young women in the crowd, their bodies swaying to his trite lyrics. It’s a nuisance that you can read their thoughts, but that’s not due to any particular power, you’re just more in tune with human nature. Eyes are the giveaway, next the small pulsing in their necks or wrists. You could be a human lie detector from across the room and that thought makes you laugh.

Human. If they only knew.

You concentrate on the pool table once again. If you strike the cue ball with moderate force at a seventy-three degree angle from the left, it will knock against the purple solid four, send it into the left wall, one inch from the center pocket, ricochet toward the blue solid two, hit its left side, force the purple striped twelve to travel to the red solid three, which will go directly into the right center pocket, meanwhile, the twelve striped will continue on its path, strike the eight ball, send it toward the front right corner pocket, stop five inches away, where you want it to stay until the end of the game. You take a deep sigh. This game is becoming so predictable.

As you crush out your cigarette, Valerie approaches. You hear the sway of her hips before she even enters your eyesight.

“Hon, you want another Budweiser?” her raspy voice rises over the music. She likes you because you tip well. She picks up the five empty longnecks, along with their peeled labels, and places them on her corkboard tray. You nod as you finally glance her way. Your eyes settle on her bar logo t-shirt. She has a pearl-studded bellybutton ring. It’s infected but she’s not aware of it yet. You reach for your wallet, pull out a $20 and hand it to her.

“I gotta say, sweetheart, you are too good to me. You keep this up and I might just have to take you home with me one night.” She smiles and tosses her curly blonde hair over her shoulder. Unconsciously, she picks a piece of lint away from the cuff of your white long-sleeve shirt, oblivious to what the shirt is hiding.

“It’s all good in theory,” your deep voice caresses her ears, “but we both know you’d worry that I might not leave in the morning.”

She laughs, knowing it’s only a joke but truth lies within it. She places the $20 in her tab book and mindlessly scratches her stomach. “It’s a chance I’ll have to take, isn’t it?”

Valerie turns and heads back to the bar. She puts more effort in the sway of her hips this time. You like to watch women play their games with you, teasing you with the way they lick their lips or hold their posture just right to give you the fullest advantage point of their chests. Valerie is no different than the others but it doesn’t bother you. You let her think she’s in control of you, that she’ll keep you at a distance as long as it suits her, but little does she know that with one hot breath in her direction, you’ll have her wet before she knows what hit her. It’s all you’ll give her, though. It’s all you’ll give any of them. And it’s all Her fault. You shake your head, try to make the thought go away and get up.

You chalk your hands, then chalk the end of the cue stick. The blue dust settles over the hairs on the back of your hand. Blowing the dust away, you lean over the table and push your glasses back up the bridge of your nose. As you slide the cue stick against the back of your knuckles, you take the shot. The balls scatter around the green felt, none of them going in the direction you had intended. “Fuck!” you mutter to yourself. The angle must have been wrong. The thought that you might be losing your touch doesn’t even enter your mind.

Valerie returns with the beer. She keeps a $5 for herself, the rest she brings back as quarters. After she sets them on the table, she empties the ashtray into a bowl of half-eaten, stale tortilla chips she removed from a different table.

“The kitchen’s closing in twenty. Do you want anything to eat tonight?”

You shake your head, thinking about the next shot. Maybe a sixty-four degree angle will work this time. Valerie waits for attention, but when you fail to give it, she shakes her head—the pity shake—and walks away, lightly scratching her stomach with her pinkie.

It wasn’t always this way. The top of your class, a promising career as a reporter, and a decent salary were just the highlights of your accomplishments, at least the accomplishments that made you similar to them. It was the normality you always craved, it was the only thing that you yearned for and desired. Until you met Her. It wasn’t in a seedy bar or out on the streets. It was in the copy room. She smiled bashfully, hoping you hadn’t heard her kicking the machine from the hallway, asked if you were the repairman, unaware you were a new hire. Her jet black hair fell against her shoulders, a lock brushing against her collarbone. Two buttons were undone on her white blouse, revealing nothing but her slender neck and that collarbone. It was the first time you realized how that particular part of a woman was the sexiest thing you’d ever seen. You could have easily seen what was hidden beneath her blouse, under the black skirt that hung just below the knees, even the shape of her toes in the black pumps. But you didn’t. You wanted to keep it a mystery. There was a purity about her you didn’t want to violate. She took your breath away and you wanted to earn the chance of having her do it again and again. And again.

She played hard to get with the same expertise as the others. For months you watched her, taking every moment you could to memorize her face, the curve of her hips, the way she held a file against her chest with her other hand cocked on her waist as she intently listened to Murray, the editor-in-chief, raise his voice to her about deadlines, gutter widths, the expense of color photos and circulation decline, all the while, smiling, nodding when he accentuated a point and knowing full well she wasn’t taking a single word he said seriously. In the middle of the tirade, she glanced at you from the corner of her eye, gave a quick smile, letting you in on her amusement, and gave a final nod with a “Yes, sir! I’m on it.” She walked away, her womanly scent overpowering you as she passed your desk, her finger trailing against the lacquered simulation oak, her body heat leaving behind an imprint on the wood that only you could see. You loved her. It scared you to death.

But that’s the past. What did you have, a few good dates? A few nice dinners, a few good movies all ending the same, heavily kissing in the hallway outside her apartment door. The heat of her body is still emblazoned in your mind, along with the throaty moans she gave you as you pressed your body against hers, her hands entwined around your neck, then pulled away as you freed her shirttail and slid your hand up her back. With swollen lips, she gave the same excuse each time. It was always an early deadline and you bought it despite the fact you knew the truth. She just wouldn’t let you get close, no matter how many times you tried to prove to her that you weren’t like the ones before. In the end, you finally concluded, it wasn’t that she didn’t trust you, she didn’t trust herself. And it was the irony that hit you like a ton of bricks when you finally realized. It wasn’t the fact that she didn’t like you, she was just holding out, waiting for the man who secretly held her heart.

Him.

The other You.

You don’t regret saving her life. Any decent man would have done the same. It was the second time you did so which sealed your fate and left her utterly devoted to you. You mean him. You are two different people, you remind yourself. One, the man of steel, the idol of half the world, a dark fantasy of millions of women, any of whom you can take your pick; the other, a fumbling reporter who trips over your own shoelaces, gets sweaty palms and stutters when you ask a woman out. But you never wanted any of those women, just her. It was always her.

It’s your own damn fault, however. You’ve stopped speeding cars, out of control trains, but you couldn’t stop her. What was it that held you back, stopped you from taking off your glasses when that dark cloud loomed over you as she showed you the transfer letter? Why couldn’t you look her in the eyes, reveal to her it was you who had held her in your arms as you both floated down to the sidewalk after she nearly fell from that balcony. What blinded her to the fact that it was your shoulders she caressed when you pulled her out of the burning car, your lock of hair on the back of your head that she twirled around her finger, your neck her breath shuddered against when you told her she was safe. Why did you fool yourself into thinking she’d figure it out? Why couldn’t you have found the nerve to tell her? Even as she hailed the taxi for the airport, she turned to look at you one last time, your breath caught in your throat, you finally managed to say, “I am…” But the impatient honk of the driver pulled you out of the lock of her stare and you left her with “sad to see you go.”

That was eight months ago, and you wonder how your non-human heart can still ache so much. Perhaps it’s the reason you come to these honky-tonks night after night, searching for the answer, surrounding yourself with kindred spirits who are feeling the same pain, listening to the twangy whine of the singers who deliver ballads to the women who left them broken shells of their former selves. You understand why the suicide rate among country music fans is so high.

A moth circles the faux stained glass lightshade hanging above the pool table. The sound of its little body knocking against the plastic brings you back to the present. You look at your watch, decide it’s not too late for a few more quiet games. The thirst for more beer overcomes you and you go back to the table, finish the bottle, and reach for another cigarette. The orange flame dances inside your cupped hand, and as the haze from the first drag fades away, you notice a man has walked up to the table and is making himself busy pushing the cue ball back and forth along the felt. His eyes can’t hide his disappointment. He takes a moment to inspect the cue ball, paying careful attention to the little blue flecks covering the small sphere.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he says. He puts the cue ball back down and looks up, awaiting your acknowledgement.

You smirk at him. It’s just like him to try to get involved, his never-ending quest to be the savior to the saviors. “Mr. Wayne,” you say, almost snidely, the beer has renewed your strength. “What brings you out slum hopping?”

“Don’t call me Mr. Wayne, I’m…”

“I know,” you interrupt. It’s not a matter of reading his mind this time. “You’re just Bruce. I get it.”

Bruce lets out a deep sigh. He rolls his tongue against his lips, finding the right words to say to you. There are few people in the world who understand you and he is one of them.

“It’s been a while since we’ve talked. Are you holding up okay?” He takes off his leather gloves and shoves them in the pocket of his long black coat. You try to ignore him, move to his side of the pool table and place the cue ball back exactly as it was before he got there. He should know how much it annoys you when things are moved around. With the cue stick, you bend down, close one eye and work out a new strategy.

“I’d like you to come by my office next week,” he says. His head slowly revolves around, looking at the walls of the pool hall, spending a few moments looking at the girls at the other tables, then the cigarettes and beer bottles at your table.

“Don’t tell me you need my help with some big business venture,” you scoff. His mere presence in the last five minutes has managed to annoy you. You know why he’s here. He knows the wreck you’ve been since she left and he feels it’s his duty to talk you off whatever ledge he thinks you’re walking.

“Of course,” he says with a nod, attempting to placate you. “It’s business.”

Straightening up, you eye the pool table again, wonder if he plans on being here a while. Valerie comes by, sets another beer on the table. “Can I get your friend anything, hon?”

He shakes his head, as if it’s beneath him to drink with you. He’s so self-righteous, so predictable. Out of all of the lousy places in this city, he crashes one of the few safe havens you have left.

“He won’t be staying long.” You pull another bill out your wallet, not even bothering to notice the denomination. Whatever it is, Valerie will keep what she thinks is fair and bring you back the rest. You wait for her to leave before turning back to Bruce and give him a look that tells him he’s worn out his welcome. He’s slow to get the hint, especially when you gather some quarters and bend down to insert them in the slot. The current game is a bust. You push in the lever, sending the balls back through the long tunnel to the final chamber, racking and rolling against each other, the noise drowning out the sound of his disappointed sigh.

Bruce reaches into his pocket and pulls out his gloves, takes his time placing them on each hand. “I’ll see you next week?’

“I said I would,” you say. You take the balls out of the cabinet and haphazardly toss them on the table.

“Monday, if possible.”

He notices the shake of your head as you place the balls in the triangle. This part is important. Red Solid Three, Green Striped Fourteen and Yellow Striped Nine, Blue Solid Two…

“Are you listening to me, Jerry?”

The heat spreads to your face and you try to remain calm. How dare he? He knows full and well what you’re capable of and he breaks the so called bonds of friendship by doling out an insult such as this? The nails dig into your palms. You know you’re a better man than this. What would people think if you start a fight in the middle of a bar? What would she think if she heard about it?

“What did you call me?” You inhale deeply, wondering if you might have just misunderstood him through the din that permeates the room.

Bruce clears his throat. “I said, Clark, are you listening to me?”

You laugh. It’s strange what tricks the mind can play, especially mixed with a little stress.

“Yeah,” you reply, giving him a friendly smile. No harm, no foul. “Sure, Monday. First thing.”

He’s finally pleased. Friendships are about give and take, aren’t they? If it’s that important to Bruce that you make a visit to his office, then why not? You’re both in the same game, after all—your own secret club, both fighting for truth and justice for all. You take a moment to clear your head. How can you stay mad at him for long? He’s only looking out for you, has been for years.

Bruce clears his throat and moves out of the way as you go around the pool table. You’re lost again in the game. The first shot is a make or break deal. Nothing else matters except for this very first shot.

“We need to take a look at your meds. Just tweak them a bit.”

You nod, wonder why of all things he has to bring up those stupid sugar pills he’s been giving you for the past eight months. He told you they’d help relax you, help you sleep, help take your mind off of her leaving. You relented, just to make him happy. You knew the game he was playing. It was all psychological. The pills didn’t do anything for you at all, just made you think they were working. In the end, you cured yourself—without pills and with very little interference from him. Yet, you can see it in his eyes, he still wants to help you.

“Sure,” you reply, playing along. “They give me gas, anyway.”

Bruce actually laughs. He ties his scarf around his neck. “Do me a favor?”

You nod, sure, anything.

“You have to lay off of the beer. If your insurance discovers it, they might deny your coverage.”

You look back to the table in the corner. One empty, one waiting. “I’ve only had the two.”

Bruce nods. You wonder if that’s disbelief you see on his face.

“At any rate.” He turns and leaves.

You watch as he walks out the door and give it a few minutes just in case he decides to come back in. You finish the beer Valerie left. You’re feeling calm, content, and lucid. You check your watch. Almost midnight. You’ve been out too long. Rather than hanging around for last call, you decide to leave. If you stay any longer, Valerie will offer to call a cab and you won’t have enough left to pay the fare. There’s also a chance she might take you up on your flirtatious suggestion from earlier. She’s a nice girl, but simply not your type.

The new game you set up remains unplayed. Perhaps it’s for the best. You grab your coat, slip it on and start buttoning up. A familiar itch plagues you. You reach up and rub your neck, feeling the hem of the blue lycra suit you wear underneath. There hasn’t been any use for it for days, months even. But still, you never leave home without it, just in case.

You leave the bar, bidding Valerie goodnight as you walk out the door. It’s only a few blocks to your apartment and the weather outside is not as bitter as it usually is this time of year. The walk is invigorating and beats a cold shower.

The night is quiet and peaceful. Only the drone of the streetlights hums in your ears. As you pass the side alley of the second block, another sound begins to resonate in your ears. You want to ignore it, but it grows louder with each step along the pavement. It’s all too familiar, too filled with desperation. Why are you the only one who hears it? Why are you the only one who cares enough to respond?

Looking down the dark alley, you are given evidence as to why you sometimes hate the people you share this planet with. Two young men are beating up on another younger man. He’s on the ground, his arms in the air, protecting himself against their blows. His face is bloody, his nose is already broken, two teeth missing, crying for them to stop. The bigger of the assailants is yelling. He’s high, possibly on crack; you can smell it all the way from where you stand. The smaller of the assailants has ceased his assault and is now rummaging through the young man’s coat, looking for money, perhaps looking for another fix.

You know what you should do, what your responsibility is. The overwhelming need to step in, fight the injustice and protect the week burns through your core. It’s a burden none feel as keenly as you. With one effortless movement, you can shed your disguise, prove to yourself once again you’re needed, you’re depended upon, and reclaim the feeling that faded when she left. There has to be something in this world that will make you feel alive again.

It’s instinctive to go down there, but you don’t. Tonight, selfishness takes over—a trait you’ve managed to avoid all of your life. Turning away, blocking out the sounds of the world, you resign yourself to a simple resolve: you can’t save them all.

You wonder if you can even save yourself.

 

The Death of Captain Asimov

The Death of Captain Asimov

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

The spiderbot crawled along the exterior wall of the Neurodyne building, undetected by human eyes due to its ability to camouflage itself. It moved very, very slowly so as not to create movement that could be detected by the dogs that guarded the Neurodyne campus. About the size of a small dog itself, the spiderbot was a saboteur. Once it got into the main building it would release a cache of one thousand smaller spiderbots that would infiltrate every part of the facility and spray every surface with an invisible coat of a genetically engineered virus. The virus was a latent iteration of influenza, and would cause eighty percent of Neurodyne’s employees to call in sick over the course of the next few days, bringing operations to a virtual halt. The virus wasn’t considered fatal, although there was a margin of error of two percent, meaning there was a possibility that a Neurodyne employee could die.

Corporate sabotage was all well and good to Captain Asimov, but those odds were simply unacceptable.

Standing just beyond the perimeter of Neurodyne’s electrified security fence, undetected by the dogs and the spiderbot, Captain Asimov evaluated his options. Equally undetected by C.A., a camera-equipped flybot buzzed nearby. The flybot transmitted its video feed to a nearby transmission booster which uplinked with a satellite which downlinked with twenty million viewers worldwide who tuned in nightly for The Adventures of Captain Asimov, a half-hour program showcasing the exploits of the world’s only robot super-hero.

These twenty million viewers were all wondering the same thing: What was Captain Asimov going to do?

C.A., as people liked to call him to make themselves sound “in the know,” ran several options through his neutronic brain. The first idea, to pick up a rock and throw it with the incredible accuracy and velocity necessary to smash the spiderbot, was discarded. Knowing what the spiderbot contained, by virtue of an anonymous tip, C.A. calculated that as many of fifty percent of the miniature spiderbots within would survive the impact and be freed to do their dirty work.

C.A. was certainly capable of getting over the fence with his extendo-legs. But that would be trespassing. Trespassing would be breaking the law. And Captain Asimov did not break the law. At least, not very often and, usually, not intentionally. When he did break a law, he tried to make sure it was a minor infraction or a very obscure law.

Whenever possible, though, C.A. sought to avoid breaking any laws. In this particular instance, he revisited the concept of smashing the spiderbot with a rock, and determined that a large enough rock, or brick, thrown with enough force, could succeed in destroying the spiderbot and all its miniatures. One or two might survive, but that lowered the odds of someone actually dying from the flu to well within acceptable range.

These calculations took all of one second. C.A. scanned the area for a suitable projectile, and detected a chunk of concrete just below the surface of the well-manicured lawn outside of the Neurodyne fence. Wasting no time, C.A. dug into the ground and pulled up the concrete. He then hefted it, took aim, and let fly at the desired velocity.

Half a second later the concrete smashed into the spiderbot with a loud bang. The spiderbot flew into pieces. C.A. scanned the wall and ground around it, and was able to identify all one thousand mini-spiderbots as inactive. Once again, Captain Asimov had succeeded in protecting innocent humans from a malevolent robot.

The flybot had succeeded, too, in capturing on digital video the action as it had happened. C.A. fans all over the world rejoiced that their hero had done it again. They waited breathlessly for C.A. to utter his exit line.

“And now for something completely different!” he shouted into the darkness, before leaping into the sky and out of view.

Within moments viewer response registered disapproval of this exit line, ranking it next to last, just above one from a few months before: “Sayonara for nowa!”

* * * * *

Back at his secret headquarters in the robot repair garage, in his secret identity as a domestic servant ’bot, Jeevs, a.k.a. Captain Asimov, sat across from his owner, Gidge, and prepared to deal the cards for their nightly poker game. The others at the table were a refurbished Playmate Timmy, a homeless man who lived in a large cardboard box in the alley behind Gidge’s shop, and Gidge’s ne’er-do-well husband, Troy, on shore leave from his interplanetary cargo ship, the Space Oddity.

Jeevs shuffled, to Gidge’s delight. She loved the way he could shuffle the cards from one hand to the other across a good half meter of open air. Sometimes, when asked, Jeevs would use his extendo-arms and shuffle the cards across two or three meters. When he was finished, he dealt the cards. They were playing Texas Hold ’Em.

He laid the first card out in the middle of the table. The players all regarded it with suspicion while they regarded their own cards with stone-faced expressions. Well, except the Playmate Timmy, who had a permanent, happy-go-lucky smile programmed as his default expression. Gidge had found it impossible to reprogram that smile off a Playmate Timmy’s face.

Gidge went first, and slid her entire stack of chips.

“I’m all in,” she said.

The homeless man, whose name was Oliver, folded right away.

“Wuss,” Gidge said.

“Slim pickins today,” Oliver replied. “Never saw so many tight-fisted people walk by down at the park.”

“Which park?” Troy asked.

“Centennial.”

“Ah, I saw on the news there was a Libertarian rally down there today,” Troy told him.

“That explains it.”

The Playmate Timmy folded.

Troy looked long and hard at his cards before folding.

“Aren’t there any men at this table?” Gidge commented, as she collected her meager winnings.

“A man’s got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em,” Troy replied. “’sides, that’s an awful big stack of chips you done slid into the pot.”

“It’s not that much,” Gidge insisted.

Jeevs began shuffling the deck again.

“Never mind, Jeevs,” Gidge told him. “I don’t feel like playing anymore.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jeevs said. He put the deck of cards away.

“What’s got into you, Gidge?” Troy asked.

Gidge shook her head.

“Who said anything’s got into me? I just lost interest, that’s all.”

“You lost interest in a poker game? You?” Now Troy shook his head, although he was smiling. “I won’t buy that for a dollar.”

“A woman’s p’rogative,” Gidge said, as she got up from the table. She walked through the shop to the garage.

“Where you goin’?” her husband called after her.

“Out,” she replied.

Troy looked around at the others, who sat quietly at the table.

“She ain’t been herself lately,” he said.

“How would you know?” Oliver asked him. “You been out in space for three years.”

“I know my Gidge,” Troy insisted. He looked at Jeevs. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” Jeevs asked back. The question was sufficiently vague to slightly confuse his neutronic brain, which while being vastly superior to most binary-thought A.I. brains was still not nearly as complex as the human brain.

“Has Gidge been herself lately, or not?”

Again, the question was too vague. Of course, Gidge was Gidge, meaning that yes, Gidge had been herself because that’s who Gidge was, unless she happened to be living under an alias. But that wouldn’t change the fact that she was herself, it would only mean that she’d been passing herself off as somebody else. It wouldn’t change the fact of who she really was.

Troy sighed.

“I mean, has Gidge been acting strangely?” he asked.

As far as Jeevs understood it, Gidge’s behavior would be considered “strange” under the generally accepted definition of “strange” in the current sociological context, and had thus been considered “strange” for quite some time. Years, actually. Maybe even her entire life-time.

Troy could see that Jeevs was having trouble with this one, too.

“Has Gidge’s behavior deviated from what would be considered normal for Gidge within the last few weels?” he asked Jeevs, speaking very deliberately.

Jeevs considered the question for one third of a second before replying.

“Yes,” he said.

“Mommy’s acting weird,” the Playmate Timmy said.

“I’m going home,” Oliver announced.

“To your box?” Troy asked, cruelly amused.

“Good night,” the Playmate Timmy announced, and immediately shut itself off for the night.

Jeevs still had a lot to do around the shop: sweeping, mopping, oiling and replacing all the tools that Gidge had used throughout the day, folding the laundry once it finished drying, invoicing Gidge’s customers, watering the plants, cleaning the windows, replacing a burned-out light bulb, and cleaning the cat’s litter box.

“What do you do for fun?” Troy asked Jeevs, obviously being sarcastic.

“Chores,” Jeevs replied, without sarcasm (of which he was incapable). It was the truth, for Jeevs was programmed to like nothing better than to perform chore after chore after chore. Except for, of course, donning a mask and cape and saving humanity from robots gone awry, but that was a secret. More or less.

Oliver knew, but would never admit to knowing. And Gidge knew because she was the one who’d preserved that part of Jeevs’ mixed-up neutronic brain when she found him, wrecked and little more than a pile of junk robot parts, and put him back together again. Jeevs, otherwise known as Captain Asimov, was no Humpty Dumpty, however. He was a real-life super-hero. Gidge’s shop was his Bat Cave, his Fortress of Solitude (except he was never really alone there, and there were no bats).

Troy was totally unaware, of course. Gidge had not seen her husband for three years, and had hoped to not seem him ever again, truth be told. They were married for insurance purposes, that was all. As a small business owner, Gidge found insurance premiums too expensive. As a lesbian, even had she been able to find a compatible mate, she would be legally disenfranchised. So, she’d won Troy’s space ship in a poker match, and made a deal with him. If he would marry her and put her on his insurance, she would allow him to jointly own his space ship and to continue his livelihood.

Over the years, the two had grown both closer and farther apart, as couples are wont to do. He missed her while she hoped he would never return.

“I’m for bed,” Troy told Jeevs.

He made his way to the living quarters portion of Gidge’s shop, where she had Jeevs set up a cot for him.

Jeevs continued cleaning until Gidge came home. Right away, he could tell by her dilated pupils, slurred speech, and unsteadiness that she’d been drinking alcohol. Jeevs, knowing the drill, zapped a cup of instant coffee for her in the microwave. Gidge would not go to bed until she felt more or less sober.

“I’m a bad girl,” Gidge said as she sat the table, head in her hands, while Jeevs brought her the coffee.

“You are not a bad girl,” Jeevs responded, having learned that what Gidge wanted at moments like this was the assurances and verification of her self-worth.

Gidge laughed.

“Good ol’ Jeevs,” she said breathlessly. Jeevs put a consoling hand on her shoulder and used the opportunity to pin-prick her skin and take a tiny blood sample, with which he checked her blood/alcohol ratio. Point-oh-eight percent. She was drunk as a skunk, but not in danger of alcohol poisoning. Of course, Jeevs knew that “drunk as a skunk” was a metaphor. His neutronic brain gave him some capacity for fuzzy thinking, which allowed him to know a metaphor from a… well, a non-metaphor.

“You’re a good woman,” Jeevs said, stroking Gidge’s hair. He knew that within a couple of minutes of hair-stroking she would be fast asleep.

“You’ll find out the truth about me sooner or later,” Gidge said, her head slowly inching its way towards the table. “Sooner or later.” When her forehead touched the linoleum, she was out.

Jeevs cleaned up the coffee pot and got Gidge ready for bed. He brushed and flossed her teeth, undressed her and got her into her Captain Asimov pajamas, and carried her to bed, all without waking her. He’d gotten quite adept at that, in the four years of service he’d provided for her so far.

And four years as Captain Asimov.

Once Gidge was tucked in, Jeevs transformed himself into Captain Asimov for another night of super-heroics. On went the mask, a glittering silver Lycra one this time, and a bright, yellow, one hundred percent Polyester cape. With his secret identity thusly disguised (the mask covered his I.D. bar code, preventing it from being scanned, and his I.D. neuro-transmitter had been disconnected by Gidge… otherwise, Jeevs’ face looked pretty much just like any other domestic servant robot’s face) Captain Asimov climbed a ladder to the shop’s sun-roof, opened it, flipped up onto the roof, ran to the edge of the building and leaped into mid-air.

C.A. was on the scene. Evil-minded robots beware! Scanning the police band, C.A. knew he would soon learn of a new robotic menace in the city. He always did. And, sure enough, he caught the last portion of a transmission: …Playmate Timmy snatched a purse at the All-Mart on One Thousand, Eight Hundred and Fifty-Eighth street.

C.A. was only a few hundred blocks away, which he determined while still in mid-air. Looking up, he saw an All-Mart corporate helicopter that had just taken off from nearby All-Mart Airfield. Jeevs knew irony when he saw it, as he took aim and shot his chest-tether at the sleek craft before it rose high enough in the air to engage its jets. Within moments, however, the All-Mart chopper streaked through the sky towards the All-Mart on 1858th Street. In fact, the All-Mart was 1858th Street. It was so big it took up all sixty blocks of the East-West street. The jet-copter pulled C.A. through the air like the tail of kite. Luckily, the trip was short enough that the onboard A.I. for the jet-copter didn’t worry too much about the extra drag. When he reached the northeastern corner of the monstrous store, C.A. released the tether and fell onto the roof.

Microscopic newsbots buzzed all around.

Around the world, the legions of C.A. fans tuned in to watch events as they unfolded on their favorite show. Would he find the purse-snatching Playmate Timmy and once again save the day from the diabolical machinations of errant machines? Of course, the answer was a resounding yes! Had C.A. ever failed to save the day? He hadn’t always succeeded one hundred percent, but he had never completely failed, either. That’s what made the TV show so engrossing. There was always the chance that C.A. might fumble the ball, so to speak.

Finding a convenient rooftop doorway, C.A. ripped it open without a second thought, causing a silent alarm to alert the All-Mart security team. But they were all huge fans of the show, falling squarely into the demographic that the show appealed to, so they knew it was C.A. and weren’t too concerned. In fact, and this was top-secret so the security team didn’t even know it, All-Mart had already contracted with the producers of the show to indemnify them against damages. The worldwide, positive exposure All-Mart would get would be worth sustaining some damage to one store. Any association with Captain Asimov would help to offset the negative exposure All-Mart usually got for its impact on local environments, and for driving supply prices so low that Third World manufacturers were forced to pay substandard wages. Such practices allowed All-Mart to crush Mom and Pop stores everywhere by selling specific items at far below their actual value.

Anyway, the point is that All-Mart welcomed the chance to have Captain Asimov do his thing in one of their stores.

C.A. made his way down a stairwell and entered the store in the Little Miss Clothing department. The hot trend for young girls these days was Western wear, so there were pink cowboy hats and rhinestones on everything.

“The suspect was last seen in the Electron Microscope department,” Captain Asimov heard via All-Mart’s security frequency.

Accessing a digital map of the mega-store, C.A. figured the Playmate Timmy would be heading towards the Playmate Timmy department, where it could easily hide among the new, yet-to-be-sold Playmate Timmy models. To human eyes they all looked the same, but C.A. would be able to detect the minutest wear and tear on a Playmate Timmy that had been out and about.

The quickest way to the Playmate Timmy department from the Little Miss Clothing department was via the Livestock department, where All-Mart sold cattle. C.A. made his way over the tops of the shelving units using his extendo-legs, until he reached the perimeter of the Livestock department, with its flashing neon sign: FRESHEST MEAT AROUND, YOU PICK ’EM, WE DO THE REST.

C.A. cut through the slaughterhouse, his servos allowing him to run across the slick concrete floor without slipping in the blood and guts, to emerge directly in front of the entrance to the Playmate Timmy section. But he was too late. He caught a glimpse of a Playmate Timmy ducking behind a veritable Playmate Timmy army… and they all looked exactly the same.

C.A. tapped into the All-Mart’s video surveillance system, and in no time found the rogue Playmate Timmy. It was the only one with a purse strap across its shoulder. The security system gave the Playmate Timmy’s exact location. C.A. turned to find a shelf of replacement Playmate Timmy heads. He grabbed one, hefting it in his hands to determine the exact weight and shape. In less than a second C.A. calculated a trajectory, then tossed the head into the air. It arched over the Playmate Timmy section gracefully to slam into the rogue Playmate Timmy’s head in exactly the right spot, and with exactly the correct amount of force, to knock its neutronic brain chip loose without knocking the Playmate Timmy itself over and creating a domino effect.

C.A. then used his extendo-legs to step over the Playmate Timmy rows and columns to find the errant one, and hauled it back into the main aisle, along with the purse. The Playmate Timmy struggled to get free, but to no avail. Now, C.A. would scan the Playmate Timmy’s identity chip to find out who owned it. Either the Playmate Timmy had been stolen, and reprogrammed to snatch purses, or the owner had done it. Either way, whoever was behind it would face more than a simple theft charge. Reprogramming a robot to commit illegal acts was a serious crime.

So, C.A. scanned the identity chip, and found out that the owner was none other than… Gidge. Gidge! Gidge, who had retrieved a broken and battered C.A. from a dark alley all those years ago, who had rebuilt him and left his alter ego in place, even while realizing that Captain Asimov was the result of a glitch, a hiccup, short circuit if you will, in Jeevs’ neutronic brain.

C.A. suffered a momentary disconnect in his neutronic brain. Gidge had reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to steal purses? She’d reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to play poker; indeed, the Playmate Timmy that C.A. now held firmly in his grasp was the very one that had sat across from him at Gidge’s poker table. There was no way around it: this Playmate Timmy’s chubby little fingers, the same ones that gripped the stolen purse, pointed to Gidge.

Normally, C.A. would simply relay this information to the authorities who would “take it from here,” as their catch phrase had become on the reality show. But this wasn’t “normally”, although the authorities were on their way and would arrive at the All-Mart in five minutes, and it would take them another twenty minutes to make their way from the All-Mart entrance to where C.A. now held the Playmate Timmy.

C.A. knew he couldn’t simply forget to mention that Gidge was this Playmate Timmy’s Gepetto. That would be aiding and abetting, and that would be a crime. Normally, one would suggest that he do what came naturally, but that doesn’t apply to a robot or an Artificial Intelligence, not yet at any rate.

In a way, though, somehow Captain Asimov did just that. He disabled the Playmate Timmy by removing its inferior brain chip, and then left it there for the police to recover. They would discover that Gidge owned it. While they were doing that, C.A. would zoom back to Gidge and confront her.

C.A. arrived at Gidge’s shop, but he did not change back into just plain ol’ Jeevs. He remained Captain Asimov. Gidge was busy working, although C.A. could tell she wasn’t quite sober by the way she moved slowly, deliberately. When she looked up from her work, repairing a Nannybot, and saw C.A. instead of Jeevs, her expression made it clear to C.A. that she knew what had happened.

“Are the police outside?” Gidge asked.

“No,” C.A. replied.

Her expression brightened.

“They’ll be here soon, though,” C.A. told her.

Gidge’s expression fell, again.

“But I had to come here first,” C.A. continued. “I needed to… speak to you. To ask you something.”

“Ask me what?”

“I needed to ask you… why?”

Gidge nodded.

“I’m glad you asked me that,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because it means you’re ready.”

“No, I was still asking the first why,” C.A. clarified. “Why did you program the Playmate Timmy to steal purses?”

“Ah, well, that,” Gidge replied. “I didn’t program it to steal purses. Just to steal that one purse.”

“Why?”

“For the show.”

“The show?”

The Adventures of Captain Asimov,” Gidge told him. “I signed a two-season deal for us. For you. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The money made it seem like a good idea, anyways.”

C.A. processed this. It explained a lot, in retrospect. It explained the insect cameras and the weekly crimes that happened almost as if they’d been scheduled. And, of course, they had. Which meant it was all fake. Did that mean the Playmate Timmy hadn’t really broken the law? If so, that meant Gidge was innocent.

Or did it? A reality show was about reality, wasn’t it? Which had to mean everything that happened on a reality show was real. Which meant the Playmate Timmy really had broken the law, and so had Gidge.

“I couldn’t keep doing it,” Gidge told C.A. “I felt guilty. I had to put a stop to it. So I engineered the Playmate Timmy crime to get caught. Then I wondered why I felt guilty. You’re just a robot, after all, aren’t you?”

C.A. didn’t respond. The answer was obvious, after all.

“So I had to know,” Gidge said.

“What did you have to know?” C.A. asked.

“I’ll tell you in a moment, but first, you have to tell me something.”

C.A. waited for Gidge to tell him what it was she wanted him to tell her. He could determine by her expression, and the tone of her voice, and her body language, that she was afraid to say whatever it was she was about to say. But she did say it.

“Why did you come here as Captain Asimov?” she asked.

“As Captain Asimov, I’m here to tell you that you’re under arrest for breaking the law,” C.A. boldly stated.

Gidge’s lower lip quivered and she nodded.

“Not to warn me?” she asked.

“Warn you?”

“That the police are coming.”

“Why would I do that?” C.A. asked.

“Jeevs… I mean, Captain Asimov, it’s me, Gidge.”

“I know who you are.”

“And you’re still going to let them… arrest me?”

“Yes.”

Gidge sniffed back a tear.

“That’s what I had to know,” she told him.

“I don’t understand,” C.A. said.

“I had to know if you felt anything for me.”

“I don’t understand,” C.A. repeated.

“I know A.I. isn’t about… feelings… emotions,” Gidge said. “But we’ve been through so much together, and you’ve become such a big star, I wanted to know if the… connection I felt for you was real, or not.”

“Connection?” C.A. asked.

“Don’t you see? I love you, Captain Asimov. You’re my family.”

Like any advanced A.I. Captain Asimov was aware that people developed emotional attachments, or even dislikes, towards things, including robots. But that was considered normal for humans.

Gidge sighed.

She raised her right hand, in which she held a remote control device. C.A. recognized it. Gidge used it to, as she put it, “fry” the neutronic brain of robots that got out of control in her shop.

“I’m sorry,” Gidge said. “But when I press this button, Captain Asimov will cease to exist.”

She pressed the button.

C.A.’s neutronic brain buzzed for a few seconds, and the robot froze. Gidge walked up to him and took off his mask.

“Jeevs,” she said. “Jeevs, there’s work to do.”

“Yes, Gidge,” Jeevs replied happily, for ‘work to do’ meant the equivalent of a pleasant way to spend a day, to which Jeevs was programmed to respond with enthusiasm.

“Oh, and Jeevs.”

“Yes, Gidge?”

“You’ll have a new owner at five o’clock this afternoon. I sold you to Oliver.” She laughed. “Turns out he’s had thousands just buried in the park.”

Jeevs processed this new information. Somewhere, deep inside his neutronic brain, he wondered… why? Why had Gidge sold him? But it never occurred to him to ask.

“Anyway,” Gidge continued, “I’m leaving… for good. Not that I need to tell you why, but I guess a husband and wife ought to at least try to make a life together, even if it is on his rickety old spaceship.”

“Gidge,” Jeevs said, and for a very brief moment, perhaps a couple of nanoseconds, Jeevs intended to ask her what was missing from his memory, for his internal diagnostics did indeed inform him that something was missing… but it couldn’t tell him just what that something was. Furthermore, his internal diagnostics informed him that, otherwise, he was in perfect working condition.

“Yes, Jeevs?”

“You said there was work to do.”

Gidge allowed a small, melancholy smile.

“Clean the place up. I sold the ship, too. The new owners take possession tomorrow morning. Goodbye, Jeevs.”

“Goodbye, Gidge,” Jeevs replied, and then went to work.

 

Captain Asimov Saves the Day

Captain Asimov Saves the Day

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

I’m home!” Mr. Tulane yelled when he came in after work. “The house looks great, Jeevs! Way to go!”

Jeevs was in the kitchen preparing the evening’s dinner of macaroni and cheese with soyburgers. Mrs. Tulane wouldn’t be home for several days from a business trip to Japan, and Jeevs had adjusted the proportions accordingly. Without his wife around, Mr. Tulane tended to eat more than usual, and the kids tried to get away with not eating dinner at all. They would leave food on their plates after declaring themselves full, just to annoy Jeevs, not realizing robots don’t get annoyed. Jeevs gave Mr. Tulane less than his usual serving, and the twins more. Everyone got their required daily intake of calories, vitamins, and minerals in spite of themselves.

“A damn fine job you did painting the house, Jeevs old boy. And dinner smells great! I don’t know what people did before robots came along!”

Jeevs didn’t answer that because he didn’t know, either. He’d never even considered the implications of a world without robots and Artificial Intelligence. They did everything from operating the mass transit system to balancing city hall’s checkbook. Robot cops patrolled the streets twenty-four hours a day. Without them, wouldn’t crime run rampant? Robots controlled air traffic overhead. Wouldn’t aircraft crash into each other and debris rain down on the heads of unsuspecting civilians?

After dinner, Mr. Tulane settled back in his recliner to watch a baseball game: the Tokyo Zeroes at the Honolulu Waves.

“Jeevs,” he said, as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” played before the first pitch, “run downtown and pay a little visit to Mother for me. Tell her the kids send hugs, too. I’d go myself, but I’m so busy these days… I just don’t have the time.”

* * * * *

Robots had to stand in the back third of the bus and hold on, while human passengers sat in comfortable form-fitting seats in the forward two-thirds. One other robot rode the bus with Jeevs, a short Playmate Timmy™ that absent-mindedly hummed ten second samples of different songs at random. Playmate Timmys had come along fairly recently and were quickly becoming the robots of choice to babysit kids, mainly because they were significantly less expensive than a fully functional robot like Jeevs. Little Timmys were thrown together on the cheap, with stamped out brain chips, small vocabularies, and a limited repertoire of activities.

When the bus arrived at his stop, Jeevs walked the rest of the way to Grandma’s house. It was a rough neighborhood, one reason Mr. Tulane didn’t like coming for visits in person.

“Hey, Tin Man,” a voice said behind Jeevs as he walked along the sidewalk, two blocks from Grandma’s. From the tone of the man’s voice, Jeevs expected trouble.

He turned to face the man, musclebound and sporting a red bandanna.

“You are misinformed,” Jeevs said to the man. “Less than point oh-oh-two percent of my body is made of tin.”

The man took two steps toward Jeevs.

“I should warn you,” Jeevs said, “that assault on a robot is illegal.”

“Yeah,” the man replied. “I know.” He lunged at Jeevs with an iron railroad spike, intending to knock Jeevs’ plastisteel head clean off. Jeevs ducked, using his inhuman reflexes, and the man’s momentum caused him to lose his balance and almost fall.

“Careful,” Jeevs said. “You might hurt yourself.”

The man growled, lunged at Jeevs again, swinging the railroad spike like a medieval mace. Jeevs stepped back and to the side. The man’s momentum propelled him forward this time, and he would have slammed into a concrete light post had Jeevs not reached out, grabbed the man’s arm, and yanked him clear.

“I’m gonna rip you apart!” the man howled, then ran at Jeevs full throttle. Jeevs feared the man might really hurt himself this time if Jeevs just ducked out of the way. So instead, he ran backwards just ahead of the man, who swung the railroad spike wildly before him. A block later the man started to run out of breath, so Jeevs slowed down. The railroad spike whipped through the air, and Jeevs dodged to the left, and when it came back the other way, Jeevs dodged to the right. He kept just out of the man’s reach, but close enough to prompt another swipe.

Eventually the man got tired, and pooped out. Jeevs snatched the railroad spike from the man’s hand.

“Hey,” was all the man had the energy to say. He didn’t do anything as Jeevs walked away with the spike in hand, looking for a suitable place to get rid of it. Across the street and down the block the opposite way from Grandma’s stood a squat recycling receptacle, and since the spike was iron Jeevs decided that was the place. He calculated the distance and angle to the receptacle from where he was, figured in the weight of the spike, then threw it. It arched gracefully through the air, spinning like an expertly thrown football, then whanged into the recycling bin perfectly.

Jeevs turned around to continue on his way to Grandma’s house, and found himself face-to-face with a robot police officer.

Halt!” the robot cop ordered him. Jeevs had no choice but to stand there, immobile. Automatic responses to certain orders by the authorities were built into him, and this was one of them.

“How can I help you, Officer?” Jeevs asked.

“You just threw an iron railroad spike approximately three hundred meters through the air,” the officer said. “You could have injured somebody. That constitutes reckless endangerment of human life.”

“Reckless endangerment? But—”

“There could have been a homeless person sleeping in the recycling bin,” the cop said. “That railroad spike would have killed or maimed a human. I’m afraid I’m going to have to write you a citation.”

Before Jeevs could react, the robot cop scanned the bar code on Jeevs’ forehead. The bar code, invisible except to an ultraviolet scanner, gave the cop Jeevs’ entire history and current status. In less than an instant, the robot cop added a citation for reckless endangerment to Jeevs’ coded history, so now any other robot able to read the bar code would know about it. That, along with the fine Mr. Tulane would have to pay, would have been enough to make Jeevs sick had he been capable of getting sick.

“Continue on your way,” the cop told Jeevs when it finished with him.

Jeevs continued on his way, wondering where the robot cop had been when the man had assaulted him with the railroad spike. Grandma’s was an apartment in Shady Glades Villas, a high-security retirement village surrounded by a brick wall topped with electrified barbed-wire, patrolled by human security guards with trained German shepherds, and watched by robot controlled cameras. Jeevs paused at the gate to let the security robot scan his bar code.

“Entrance denied,” the security robot said.

“Entrance what?” Jeevs replied. “Please explain.”

“You were charged with reckless endangerment. Violators are not allowed inside for thirty days after receiving a citation. You got yours six minutes ago.”

“But I was instructed to visit Grandma Tulane!” Jeevs said.

“Mrs. Tulane has been notified of your arrival and her presence at the gate has been requested.”

And sure enough, Jeevs saw her: Edna Tulane, 87 years old, hobbling towards him, using her walker to help her negotiate the sidewalk.

“Hello, Grandma!” Jeevs yelled, waving. When she looked up to see him, she didn’t notice that one leg of her walker had caught on a piece of concrete jutting up from the sidewalk. When she tried to move it forward, she lost her balance.

Jeevs tried to run inside the gate, figuring that with his speed he’d get there in time to catch her, but the electronic leash built into his neutronic brain stopped him cold, having been activated by the Shady Glades security system. Jeevs could only stand by and watch helplessly as Grandma Tulane soundly thwacked her head on the concrete sidewalk.

As soon as she hit her head, medi-bots came whizzing out from several different directions to help. Jeevs was stunned, unable to do or say anything due to the conflicting orders going through his brain. On one hand, he willed himself to move it, to get in there and help her, while at the same time the security leash told him no.

Then he realized that he’d just violated a Law of Robotics by allowing harm to befall a human being, and Grandma Tulane at that! There were Three Laws of Robotics. These boiled down to: 1) Don’t hurt humans, 2) Don’t allow humans to come to harm by not acting, and 3) Don’t follow the orders of a human who wants you to hurt other humans. The Three Laws were the product of one of the great scientific minds of the 20th Century, Isaac Asimov.

“I should be deactivated,” Jeevs said. “They should melt me down into two Playmate Timmys!” Jeevs held the Three Laws as sacrosanct, they were the core of his soul, if a robot could be said to have a soul. If Jeevs did indeed have a soul, it would be… Captain Asimov!

That’s right, due to a glitch in his neutronic brain Jeevs was also the masked robot super-hero known as Captain Asimov, defender of the Three Laws of Robotics as he interpreted them!

Never mind that in reality there weren’t Three Laws chiseled in imaginary stone governing the behavior of robots. There were actually three hundred and sixty-five, such as this one:

A robot street cleaner will always yield right-of-way to pedestrians under any circumstances. In such cases where a robot street cleaner fails to yield right-of-way, the Owner and/or Operator of said street cleaner may be charged with Failure to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian, which is a Misdemeanor under state law, and will result in a fine to be determined by a Judge.

Or this one:

Robot police officers may use non-lethal means to immobilize and disarm a fugitive if and only if positive identification of said fugitive is obtained, or the suspect attempts to flee, or produces a weapon (upon which the intent to harm civilians or vandalize the robot is assumed). The means of restraint will minimize the possibility of injury to the restrainee.

The medi-bots loaded the limp frame of Grandma Tulane into a hovercraft ambulance. Once the back door slammed shut, the sirens wailed and lights flashed as it rose into the air. They’d be taking her to the Shady Glades Care Center, the hospital funded by the Shady Glades franchise, which admitted only residents of their various retirement communities.

Jeevs decided to follow the ambulance, to be at the hospital for Grandma Tulane in case she needed anything. Once the emergency was past, Jeevs fully expected that Mr. Tulane would decide to have his brain chip wiped clean.

Consulting his hardwired map of the city, Jeevs traced out the best route to the hospital, and started jogging. He determined he could get there an hour earlier that way than by taking the bus. As he ran his neutronic brain replayed all the old robot stories he’d ever read to the eldest son of his owner, especially those written by Isaac Asimov. Jeevs sought guidance in these stories. Nothing quite pertained to his current predicament.

Jeevs took the surface streets, while hundreds of meters overhead most of the traffic zoomed along on the elevated skyways. Without warning a huge piece of plastiform guard rail from the skyway came crashing to Earth. The concussion of its impact lifted Jeevs off his feet and threw him into the air.

Calculating trajectory, speed, and height, Jeevs was able to twist around before hitting the ground to land safely on his feet. Using his telescopic vision, he looked up to see what had happened on the skyway. Several vehicles hung precariously over the edge of the skyway where the guardrail had ripped away. And one of those vehicles was… the ambulance from Shady Glades Villas! Jeevs immediately tuned to one of the disaster channels of the airwaves to find out what had happened.

“An exciting, desperate situation on the ferry,” someone was saying, “as the gunman makes out his list of demands…”

Wrong emergency. He tried another channel.

“Apparently the ambulance lost power as it hovered over traffic on the Sonny Bono Skyway,” a voice was saying. “Word is there are no fatalities… yet. Stay tuned, though, because that may change at any second as the drama unfolds!”

Jeevs knew this was a job for Captain Asimov!

He donned the trademark Captain Asimov duds. A catwalk dangled thirty yards or so above him, bridging the gap between two of the huge pylons that held up the skyway. Using his extendo-legs, Captain Asimov telescoped up to within about ten yards of the catwalk. Using his extendo-arms, he was able to grab it. He retracted his legs, and then his arms to pull him up.

From the catwalk, Captain Asimov noticed rungs went up each of the pylons. He scrambled up the rungs at what would have been an astonishing rate for a human. In a few seconds he found himself just below the landing for a stairwell that actually entered the pylon and undoubtably emerged in one of the work booths alongside the skyway. The door was locked. Ignoring the warnings that trespassers would be prosecuted, Captain Asimov ripped the door from its hinges, carefully set it aside, and went in. Security cameras mounted in the corners recorded his every move, but he wasn’t worried. It wouldn’t be the first time Captain Asimov violated minor ordinances during the course of one of his heroic feats.

Up the stairs, and into the booth. That door was also locked, but he kicked it open, bursting onto the scene dramatically.

“It’s him!” the cry went up. “It’s that Captain Asmovitz guy!” someone else shouted.

News drones, already hovering over the scene of the wreck, turned to digitize his image and broadcast it live to their respective receivers. Captain Asimov ignored them, except for a brief salute to the viewers, most of whom had supported his exploits through a letter campaign to the mayor. His intent had been to rush right over to the ambulance and pull it up onto the skyway, but now he saw it wouldn’t be that simple. The ambulance hung where it was only by virtue of the fact that a school bus, crowded with children, supported it with the twisted metal of its bumper. The kids were crying, and the driver of the bus was slumped over the steering wheel, unconscious. Captain Asimov immediately saw a major dilemma: If he tried to pull the ambulance up, the bus would fall, and vice versa. He didn’t know what to do. On the one hand he was driven to save Grandma Tulane because… she was Grandma Tulane. On the other hand that was a busload of children who would plunge to their deaths if he saved Grandma Tulane.

“Don’t just stand there,” someone said, “do something!”

Yes, indeed, do something. But what? A metallic moan assaulted Captain Asimov’s ears, and the weight of the ambulance shifted. The entire assembly of ambulance and bus tilted over the edge of the skyway at an even steeper angle. The kids screamed, but not a sound came from within the ambulance.

Maybe… Was Grandma Tulane already dead? It would make the situation less of a dilemma if he didn’t have to worry about the ambulance. He focused on listening to any sounds coming from within the ambulance, and still didn’t hear anything. He was about to make his decision to forget about the ambulance and save the busload of children, when suddenly he did hear something coming from within: a wheezing sound, perhaps the sound of an old woman strapped into a gurney, trying to free herself!

Captain Asimov saw no choice: He would have to try to save both the ambulance and the school bus.

First, he positioned himself behind the vehicles, then suctioned his feet to the surface of the skyway. This was actually a standard feature of the Jeevs model domestic servant robots, like his extendo-arms and legs. Using those extendo-arms, he reached out and grabbed the bumper of each vehicle. Then, very slowly, he started to retract his arms, with the idea that he could pull both the ambulance and the bus back onto the skyway in this manner without any sudden jolts to cause a sudden shift in weight.

“What’s he doing?” somebody behind him asked.

“Pulling ’em both up!” someone answered. A cheer went up, and one of the newsbot drones zipped around in front of Captain Asimov and hovered there.

“Is it true?” a voice asked him from the newsbot. Captain Asimov recognized the voice as that of intrepid ace reporter Gordon Ferguson, the newsman who first broke the Captain Asimov story two years earlier…

“Is what true?” Captain Asimov replied.

“Are you going to pull both of these vehicles up?”

“That’s right.”

A pause, and then Ferguson’s voice came back, saying, “Umm, C.A., I don’t know about that. I just had our computer do some quick calculations and it told me you have less than a one percent chance of success.”

“I know.”

“There’s a twenty-five percent chance you’ll be ripped in two.”

“I know.”

“You’d have much better odds if you just tried to save the school bus,” Ferguson told him. “Ninety-nine percent chance of success.”

“I know,” Captain Asimov replied, and this time he sounded annoyed, which wasn’t easy for a robot.

When Captain Asimov had managed to pull the bus up a few more meters, the children tried to make it to the back door, which, if they could get it open, would let them jump out and onto the safety of the skyway. Their sudden movements caused the bus to shift, and because he was holding onto it with only one hand, Captain Asimov could not keep it from sliding further back. The ambulance also started to slide, just as its back door opened and Grandma Tulane appeared, trying desperately to scramble out. Captain Asimov held fast to both vehicles, even as their continued slippage forced him to extend his arms out to their limit. His feet stayed suctioned to the skyway, but his extendo-legs began to stretch until they reached their limit, too! His torso now actually hung over the side of the skyway, and the ambulance and school bus dangled precariously in mid-air. The children in the bus were all piled on top of one another against the windshield, while Grandma Tulane clung for dear life to the rear door of the ambulance.

The news drone buzzed around Captain Asimov.

“He is determined to save everyone!” Ferguson was saying, broadcasting live. “Captain Asimov just won’t give up!”

Captain Asimov felt his feet losing suction. The combined weight of the ambulance and school bus was too much. If he didn’t do something now, Grandma Tulane and the school kids were all as good as dead, and Captain Asimov would go down with them. There was only one thing he could do: let either the bus or the ambulance fall, assuredly killing all on board, and pull the other to safety.

“Save the children,” Grandma Tulane gasped at Captain Asimov. “Just… save… the children.”

What was she saying? Robots were not usually capable of processing subtext and unspoken implications. Were he human, Captain Asimov would have seen it in her eyes: Determined resignation. But even though Captain Asimov was not human, Grandma Tulane’s words sounded like a direct order—which he had to obey—to save the children, and there was only way to do that.

His left foot came loose from the skyway surface and his leg automatically snapped back to its normal length.

No more time!

He let go of the ambulance. A collective gasp rose from the spectators above. Jeevs imagined the gasp being echoed by residents all over the city as they watched his actions live on the evening news…

Even as he watched the ambulance fall, with Grandma Tulane still clinging to that back door, he pulled the school bus back up to the road by retracting his right leg. He got it halfway back up, but then couldn’t get it any more. The school bus was just too heavy for him to haul all the way back up with one leg, and he couldn’t extend his other leg back to the road. When it had snapped back to its normal length, it lost extendo- capability.

Stuck. Again.

The ambulance crashed into the ground below.

Captain Asimov calculated just how much the weight of the bus exceeded the amount of force he could exert to retrieve it. It was a surprisingly small amount: Sixty pounds. He determined that with his free hand, he could remove something from the bus and let it fall, lightening the load enough for him to save the children. Using his telescopic vision, he scanned the bus for something that weighed sixty or more pounds. Maybe a seat could be pulled out or a wheel removed. It would have to be done quickly, because he could feel the suction on his other foot starting to give. As he scanned the interior, he checked the kids to make sure none were hurt, and his gaze passed over one who looked oddly familiar. A closer inspection revealed it was a Playmate Timmy. Checking his inner records of all robot makes and models in current use, Captain Asimov found that Playmate Timmy weighed sixty-four pounds.

With his free hand, Captain Asimov opened the door to the school bus, careful not to jostle it and cause some kid to tumble out and fall to his death like Grandma Tulane. He reached inside and grabbed the Playmate Timmy by a leg and started to drag him towards the door. When the kids realized what he was doing, they screamed.

“Playmate Timmy! Noooo!”

Several of the children grabbed Playmate Timmy and tried to keep him from being pulled out. There was no way Captain Asimov could pull Playmate Timmy from the bus without taking a few kids along with him. Of course that would lighten the load by that much more and make it that much easier to save the remaining ones. Grandma Tulane’s death weighed so heavily on Captain Asimov’s neutronic mind that it threatened to overload and short it out completely. If he ended up sacrificing some of the children, it might blow before he could even bring the bus back up to the skyway. Then they’d all die, and that’d make it even worse.

Somehow, in the remaining few seconds before his foot came unsuctioned from the skyway surface, Captain Asimov knew he’d have to figure out a way to save all the children. In a few nanoseconds he reviewed the various functions of his hands and fingers, and found one, only one, he’d have time to try. If it didn’t work… there wouldn’t be time to try anything else, and he’d plummet to his doom along with the children. The forefingers of his hands also had the capability to spray WD40 oil. He sprayed the stuff all over the Playmate Timmy, and the kids holding onto him began to lose their grip on it. Playmate Timmy slipped out of their little hands and tumbled out the door of the bus.

Captain Asimov heard another collective gasp from the spectators on the skyway. They all thought a child had fallen out of the school bus. Playmate Timmy’s body tumbled through the air like a rag doll until it slammed into the catwalk with an echoing thwang! The body remained on the catwalk, but Playmate Timmy was decapitated by the blow, and his head rolled off and fell the rest of the way to the ground, landing right near the ambulance wreckage.

Captain Asimov started retracting his leg and arm, hauling the school bus up, getting it closer to safety, while he pulled his other hand out of the bus. He tried to shut the door, but one of the other kids, a real child, a human child, slipped down and got wedged in between the door and door frame.

“Ow!” the kid, a skinny little blond boy, yelled as the door closed on his head, the rest of his body hanging outside the bus, arms and legs flailing away. “Mommy! Mommy, help me!”

Because the kid was all greased up with WD40, he started to slide through the gap. Captain Asimov retracted his leg as fast as he could, hoping to get the bus back onto the skyway before the little boy got squeezed out like a seed from a grape. The more the boy flailed his arms and legs, the more he increased his chances of coming loose and falling to his death.

“Come on, Captain A!” someone yelled, and a cheer went up.

“Hooray for Captain A! Hooray for Captain A! Hooray for Captain A!”

Inside Captain Asimov’s mixed-up head, his neutronic brain chip still processed the information of what had just happened, the reality of what had just occurred. Grandma Tulane had fallen to her death because he’d let her go. Impossible! the neutronic brain wanted to tell Captain Asimov, but the logic centers said, We saw it and recorded it with our own two eyes. Would you like it played back for you?

The neutronic brain replied, Uh, no thanks.

Captain Asimov’s leg completely retracted, and he managed to bring the school bus, and the children, to safety just as the kid stuck in the door popped out and fell a couple feet to the pavement. He was okay. All the kids were okay. The crowd reacted with silence, then a belated cheer went up.

“He did it!”

Sirens in the background, as rescue and police vehicles raced to the scene, moments too late, both on the skyway and down below, although down there it would only be a matter of collecting the body of Grandma Tulane…

Despite the elation of those around him, Captain Asimov considered his performance a failure. He had violated the Three Laws, had allowed a human to come to harm, if not through inaction, through insufficient action. As the news drones hovered around him, spotlights nearly overloading his optical circuits, Captain Asimov decided an interview was not appropriate. Without one single comment, he leaped from the skyway, over the side, unnoticed by the crowd of people who helped the crying children from the school bus, although his actions were being recorded, and would later be broadcast on dozens of channels.

As he fell, Captain Asimov considered letting himself smash into the ground below, like Playmate Timmy. It would be a fitting end to a disastrous outing as a supposed super-hero. Super-hero. In all the comic books Jeevs had ever read aloud to the youngest child of his previous owner, not once did any of them fail, ever. Captain Battle vanquished his foe in every fight. Lady Luck always saved the day, and seemed to meet a handsome hunk, in every adventure. Micro, despite his diminutive size, somehow always managed to avert disaster, all the while making wise-cracks and telling bad knock-knock jokes.

Not only did Captain Asimov never meet any hunks, not only did he not have any original joke material, but here he’d even failed to save the day, which was the whole stupid point of being a super-hero in the first place.

“They should recycle me into a recycling bin,” he said as he fell. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony. At least then he’d do some good.

But at the last instant before it would’ve been too late, Captain Asimov’s self-preservation “instincts” kicked in. All robots had survival in their most basic programming. A robot was incapable of committing suicide.

Captain Asimov extended his arms, with the intent of grabbing the catwalk and swinging off it, having already calculated the angle and momentum necessary to throw him to a nearby rooftop. Unfortunately, due to the incredible stress they’d suffered holding onto the ambulance and school bus, his arms failed to retract when he let go of the catwalk. The unexpected redistribution of his weight caused Captain Asimov to angle away from the targeted rooftop, extended arms flailing uselessly in the air.

“After having failed to save a human life today,” he could imagine the news accounts saying, “Captain Asimov failed to save his own worthless self. But the real news of the day is Archbishop Anthony’s response to allegations of inappropriate conduct with a Playmate Timmy robot…”

Captain Asimov managed to twist around in mid-air, in such a way that he might minimize the damage of impact. He came down in an alley between the target building and a warehouse. He saw his shadow projected onto the warehouse wall, a kinetic Rorschach blotch wiggling across its surface, and then a brief glimpse of a pile of rusted out fifty-five gallon metal drums right before he hit.

And that, he assumed, was that.

End of story. Goodbye Captain Asimov, failed super-hero. Goodbye Jeevs, faithful servant to his owner. Goodbye.

* * * * *

Not quite.

No, he didn’t perish.

He didn’t die and go to robot heaven, nor robot hell.

He did achieve the robot equivalent of unconsciousness, but his self (or soul, if you believe a robot can have a soul) didn’t transmigrate. His emergency back-up kicked in, saving everything that made Jeevs Jeevs (and by default, Captain Asimov). When he awoke he found himself in a robot repair shop. Hanging from racks along one wall was a whole row of Playmate Timmy robots.

Junk,” a gravelly voice said from behind Jeevs. “Nothin’ but junk, those damn things.”

Jeevs could not turn his head enough to see who the voice belonged to. A shadow played across the floor, and he heard the sound of boots scraping greasy concrete as the person walked around behind him. A moment later, a squat, thick-limbed, grease-stained woman came into Jeevs’ field of vision. She had an unlit cigar protruding from the left corner of her mouth, and an eye-patch over her right eye.

“You, on the other hand, are a piece of work,” she said to Jeevs, with a grin. Jeevs wanted to say something, to ask where he was, who she was… but he couldn’t speak.

“Whatsamatter?” she asked him. “Cat got yer tongue?” She laughed at her own joke, loudly, and her laughter reminded Jeevs of a combination of barnyard noises he used to make for the children of his previous owner when he read stories for them. Tarzan of the bread-belt farm. Thoughts of his previous owner reminded him of his current owner. A sudden panic came over Jeevs.

Mr. Tulane!

Grandma Tulane!

“Uh oh,” the woman said. She reached around behind Jeevs’ head, touched the emergency off/on switch, and blackness enveloped him…

“You must destroy me,” Jeevs told the woman when next he awoke. “I violated the Three Laws of Robotics when I swore to uphold them! I am unfit to continue in this existence. Destroy me! Or at the very least turn me over to the authorities and let them destroy me!”

The woman grinned and shook her head.

“The three what? Say what? Honey, I ain’t gonna to let a prize like you go that easily. I found ya, I fixed ya, an’ I’m keepin’ ya… at least for a little while anyway.”

I’m keepin’ ya… Those three words triggered a growing desire to go back to the Tulane house.

The woman continued babbling on about something or other, but Jeevs didn’t hear it. The urge to go home grew until he felt consumed by it, engulfed by it. It became the core of his being.

He needed to get home, now! It didn’t help that Jeevs knew he was programmed to panic like that when he was away from home for an unauthorized extended period of time.

On the other hand, he really didn’t want to go home because his secret was surely blown by now. Any idiot, even any human idiot, would be able to figure out who Captain Asimov was. To face Mr. Tulane after causing his mother’s death…

“Uh oh,” the woman with the eye-patch said, noticing Jeevs’ face was flickering at high speed through his entire range of expressions. “You look like you’re havin’ some internal strife. You already done enough damage to that delicate brain chip of yours, hero. No sense fussin’ over somethin’ that already happened. Dream sequence.”

Those last two words the woman said forcefully, and suddenly Jeevs felt his thoughts dissipate, and the robot repair shop with the Playmate Timmy bodies hanging along the wall wavered like a mirage and then disappeared. He did not fade to black this time. Jeevs found himself in a whirlwind of domestic activity, washing dishes, vacuuming a carpet, waxing the kitchen floor, giving a dog a bath, pressing a pair of pants, adding a pinch of salt to a stew, and an almost dizzying variety of other chores. For a robot like Jeevs, this was the equivalent of heavenly bliss.

Subjectively, it was a timeless experience, but in reality it lasted only a few hours, and then Jeevs found himself back in the repair shop. This time, however, he could turn his head.

He ran an internal diagnostic, opened and closed his hands and extended his arms about a meter. Everything seemed hunky-dory. He felt good as new.

“Hope you don’t mind,” the woman’s voice said behind him, and Jeevs turned just in time to see her emerge from behind something that looked like a robot torture chamber with a Playmate Timmy strapped in it. “I went in and VR’d your experiences to find out what the problem was. Figured out what was weirdin’ you out so bad and made a few, um, improvements.”

“Improvements?” Jeevs asked.

She nodded, grinning.

“Who are you?”

“Name’s Gidge,” the woman said.

“What improvements?”

“You don’t feel the need to rush home anymore, do you?”

Now that she mentioned it…

“No.”

“I removed all your inhibitors.”

“Why?” Jeevs asked.

“Because, my artificial friend, I need me an assistant. I also took care of your alter ego for you.”

“I don’t understand,” Jeevs said.

Gidge sighed, sounding exasperated.

“Captain Asimov is history,” she said. “Gone, wiped, phht, outta there.”

“What did you do?”

“Only what you wanted me to,” Gidge told him. “Captain Asimov violated them Three Laws, right?”

“Yes…”

“I got rid of him for ya.”

“But I am Captain Asimov.”

“No, you ain’t. Trust me. Not anymore. I went in there,” Gidge said, pointing at Jeevs’ plastisteel head, “and made a few, um, adjustments. Besides, I found out how it all started. You used to read super-hero comics to some little kid and those Isaac Asimov robot stories to another kid… There was an accident and your chip got all scrambled up into a robot super-hero omelet.”

“It did?”

“Yep, and I unscrambled it. Now yer back to normal.”

Jeevs didn’t notice anything different about himself, but then, he realized, he probably wouldn’t. If his very self were tampered with, he’d have no way of diagnosing it internally. And this woman Gidge was a robot mechanic, and human at that, so Jeevs had no choice but to believe her. Why would she lie to him? Her purpose in life was to repair robots. He tried to imagine the implication of what she was telling him. If Captain Asimov had truly been wiped from his neutronic brain, and he was just plain ol’ Jeevs again, then did that also mean the Three Laws of Robotics no longer held sway over him?

“I don’t want you thinkin’ I did this for charity, now,” Gidge told him. “You gotta work it off. I need me an assistant. I worked up a contract you can look over when you feel up to it.”

Jeevs considered this, then said, “I am someone else’s property—”

“Up until I put you back together, Tin Man,” Gidge interrupted him, “you were nothin’ but a heap of junk. Junk don’t belong to nobody, got it? Besides, it’s three days since you crash-landed in my alley and you ain’t been claimed by no one, so…”

So the law, the real law, made him a free agent now, owned by no one at all. A free agent. Jeevs knew he wasn’t the first freed robot in history. In fact, there were hundreds of them just in the city, employed by the city since the city didn’t have to foot the bill for their maintenance, unlike the ones it owned outright.

Gidge had a contract for him, so she said. He’d be employed. Since he was programmed to actually want work to do, Jeevs looked over the contract—a standard three-year apprenticeship—and signed it.

She started him off cleaning up around the workshop, making coffee and then lunch, cleaning robot parts, removing the heads from the Playmate Timmys so she could tinker with their inferior brains, and various other duties. Gidge listened to the radio while she worked, generally music but sometimes news. While Jeevs twisted the head off a Playmate Timmy the latest hit single, all of seventeen minutes on the charts, got interrupted by a special report:

“It appears that a robot crane has gone berserk at the Yakamori Tower construction site downtown.”

Jeevs stopped work to listen to the report.

“It’s swinging a load of plastisteel girders back and forth, threatening to knock robot workers off the building while below traffic is gridlocked. If one of those robot workers falls, someone down on the street could be killed. I don’t even want to think about how many will die if one of those girders falls!”

A robot endangering the lives of humans!

“Hold on… We have a caller on the line, a woman calling from her car, using her cellular phone… Yes, ma’am, you’re on the air.”

“Somethin’ wrong?” Gidge asked him.

“Those people…”

“Yeah, what about ’em?”

“I’m stuck in traffic on Tenth Street. Is that near the construction? Am I in danger?”

“They might die.”

“I’m checking our map of downtown, pinpointing your car using your cellular phone…”

“Yeah.”

“Because of a robot…”

“Yes! You are right smack under that crane!”

“Yeah, because of a robot. What about it?”

“That means you could die at anytime, crushed by the body of a falling robot worker or, even more spectacularly, by one of those ten-ton girders!”

“Is… Captain Asimov truly… gone?” Jeevs asked Gidge.

“Oh no! I… I have to get out of here, but I’m stuck in traffic! What am I supposed to do? I haven’t even eaten lunch yet!”

Gidge brought her fist up, resting her chin on it, and looked at Jeevs.

“You feel the urge to run out and save those people?”

“Just calm down, ma’am.”

Jeevs thought about it for one-tenth of a second, then nodded.

“I’ll tell you what. Just sit tight and we’ll have Zippy Pizza, one of our sponsors, deliver you a personal lunch-for-one pizza right to your car! On us!”

Gidge sighed.

“Just stay on the phone and tell us how you feel, all right? Give us the full range of your emotions as you feel them, okay?”

“Guess I didn’t do a very good job, then.”

“Oh, um, okay, I guess…”

“Come on and we’ll take care of it now. Don’t want ya interruptin’ work every damn time somethin’ comes on the radio like that.”

“Now, what toppings do you like on your pizza?”

Gidge turned the radio off, then looked for the tools she’d need to work on Jeevs again.

“Gidge,” Jeevs said. “I need to go.”

She stopped what she was doing, but didn’t turn around.

“You sure? Captain Asimov might not be able to save everyone, you know. Might mess you up again.”

“I realize that,” Jeevs said, “but I know I can save some of those people. And I’ll come back, don’t worry.”

“Okay,” Gidge said. She turned around, grinning devilishly, and held out Captain Asimov’s mask and cape. “Here.”

Jeevs took them, put them on, and was instantly transformed.

“I need a good exit line,” he told Gidge.

“Don’t look at me,” she replied.

“Later, gator!” Captain Asimov yelled. “No. How about… Live long and prosper!”

Gidge shook her head.

“I’ll be back!” In an Austrian accent, no less.

Gidge continued shaking her head.

“I’m outta here!”

“Whatever,” Gidge said, “just go!”

Captain Asimov turned to run out into the night, or the late afternoon at least, but paused first and looked at Gidge.

“You didn’t even try to wipe Captain Asimov from my memory,” he said.

Gidge shrugged.

“Why?”

“What can I say?”

She opened the door to her office, and there on the wall behind her desk hung a poster of Captain Asimov, caught in mid-leap from an overpass onto the roof of a speeding semi-tractor trailer. The poster had to be a least a year old, one of the first offerings from the unofficial Captain Asimov Fan Club.

“Go save the day,” Gidge said.

And he did.

Originally published in Daydreams Undertaken (Marietta Publishing, 2004).

Tanked

Tanked

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by M. Elisabeth Fortune

 

The note from my academic advisor was in my mailbox when I returned from Christmas break. I didn’t even wait to get inside, but sat down on the front steps of the frat house to read it. Radiation Bombardment, John A. Hampton Hall, Lab 201, Thursday 10am. A small thrill coursed through me. After four and a half long years of classes and tests, I was finally going to get my own superpower.

I resisted the urge to call my best friend Cari for only a moment before I pulled out my cell and dialed.

“What’s up, Nick?”

“I’m going in the tank Thursday morning.” I had to hold the phone away from my ear while Cari shrieked with excitement before I could ask, “So what about you?”

“Wednesday afternoon. Have you told Billy yet?”

“Nah, I figured I’d text him later.”

We’d been through the same classes for most of the last four years, Billy, Cari, and I. Well, actually it had been the four of us until Billy’s girlfriend Rhea failed her bio final two years ago and called it quits. Until then, our little group had planned to open our own crime fighting firm once we graduated. Then Rhea dropped out and Billy graduated early, going off to the tank and then on to a job with the St. Paul PD last year. He’s still our friend, of course. He posts updates on his Facebook page about the various supervillains he defeats, and every couple weeks we’ll get a short text. He even came down to the university for a long weekend once, but he’d been so distant it just wasn’t the same. We smiled and reminisced, but no one tried to pretend it was like old times anymore. So now it’s just Cari and me left to realize our dreams of starting our own firm.

“Listen, Nick. I have to run.”

“Okay. Will I see you before you tank?”

“Definitely. Oh, Laney’s yelling at me from the kitchen. I really have to go.”

I said goodbye and hung up, frowning as I realized she’d known about her tank time before I had, but hadn’t called to tell me. While we weren’t dating, we usually told each other everything. And Cari was incapable of keeping any big news to herself. Well, maybe she’d only just found out, too, I reasoned. I’d see her again before I tanked.

Everyone majoring in Enhanced Crime Fighting has their own unique Metamorphosis Plan, carefully put together by their academic advisor based on their test scores, psych evals, and the type of powers they hoped to gain. Cari’s plan called for her to be bitten by a radioactive feline while my plan called for bombardment by various types of radiation. Another of our friends was scheduled to undergo the toxic waste dunk. Because of the possible dangers inherent in these plans, the metamorphoses were done in a titanium room constructed for the purpose—the Tank.

Thursday morning I walked into the science hall, nervous anticipation knotting my stomach as I arrived at my assigned lab. Cari and I had met for coffee in the student union Wednesday morning before she tanked, and now she was in recovery. By all accounts her tanking had gone well, though of course no one would really know until she woke up. Unfortunately, the metamorphosis process wasn’t exact, and it wasn’t uncommon for a couple members of every class to wake up with no powers, weak powers, or useless powers. Such as George, one of last year’s tankings who’d woken up to find his new power was tanning well. Too much UV during bombardment had been the consensus of the professors, though that analysis hadn’t done poor George any good as he packed his bags and headed home, a tank failure who’d just thrown four years of his life away on a dream that hadn’t come true. I just hoped the same thing wouldn’t happen to me.

Professor Erica Lange, aka Captain Coldmouth, was waiting for me when I walked into the lab. She wasted no time getting down to business, setting the controls while I stripped down to my underwear and strapped myself into the metal chair inside the tank. I have to admit, I was sweating a little. People have been known to scream, puke, faint, and cry during the process, and though I wasn’t a superhero yet, I liked to think that I was strong enough to withstand a few cosmic rays.

“Just relax now, Nick,” Professor Lange advised through the intercom. “It’ll be just like we talked about. I’ll count down to zero, and then we’ll start phase one. Three, two, one…”

I sat bolt upright as a strong tingling zapped up my spine. I took a few deep breaths and relaxed a bit. This wasn’t so bad, I could do this.

“How are you doing, Nick?”

“Good,” I managed, though I was having a hard time speaking through the increasing pressure pushing against my lungs.

“You’re doing just fine. We’re going to start phase two now, in three, two, one…”

Pain seized every nerve in my body at once. I think I may have started screaming then, but I’m not sure as shortly after I passed out for the first time.

I don’t really remember much about my time in the tank after that. Apparently I stopped breathing sometime during the process and they had to stop and resuscitate me before they could finish, but I’m told that’s fairly typical of most people that go through radiation bombardment. Afterwards, I slept for a few days in a recovery room down the hall from the lab. When I finally woke, the sun was streaming through the thin curtains, and I thought it was the most glorious thing I’d ever seen. I blinked my crusted eyes a few times as the door opened and in walked Professor Lange.

“Whu… Whut’s muh paoower?” I slurred through thick lips.

Captain Coldmouth just grinned and flicked her gaze to the bed beneath me.

I glanced down. The bed was three feet below me. I was flying!

* * * * *

After graduating high school, I’d initially planned to enter the sidekicks program. It’s a two year curriculum earning you an associate’s degree in Secondary Crime Fighting Techniques. Unlike the superhero majors, sidekicks don’t go through radiation or get powers. However, they can only fight crime under the supervision of a licensed superhero. I probably would’ve ended up there—five years of tuition at an Ivy League school is a lot more than a lower middle-class family like mine could afford—but there was a real glut of supervillains the year I applied so the university was willing to offer me a generous financial aid package. Now as I flew over the humanities building and then zipped around the flagpole twice, I was glad I had stuck out the rigorous five-year superhero program. I was even more excited because after three weeks of learning how to use my new superpower, I was finally going to get assigned to the superhero I would be interning with for the rest of the semester.

I landed on the lawn of the science building and joined the other new Superheroes inside the south-side lecture hall. There were only twenty-two of us left out of the original fifty-six who had entered the program four and a half years ago. It had been twenty-five, but two people had failed to develop significant powers after their time in the tank and left, and the third ended up in a coma. Rumor had it that there was a fourth tank failure who had refused to leave despite having very weak powers, but no one seemed to know who it was. I couldn’t decide if they were gutsy or just plain foolhardy.

I spotted Cari up towards the front with a girl and a guy I recognized from the animal track, and I dropped into a seat in the row behind her. I covered her eyes with my hands. “Guess who!”

An earsplitting roar rang through the lecture hall, and I yanked my hands away just as a pair of three-inch fangs sprouted from her mouth. “Whoa!”

“Sorry, Nick!” Cari apologized, gingerly working her jaw until the fangs slowly receded back into her mouth. “I’m still working on controlling my instincts.” Faint stripes streaked her hair and face, giving her a wild look. I still got a jolt every time saw her. Which hadn’t been very often lately, for that matter. Between our two training schedules, we just never seemed to connect.

“Haven’t seen you around much, Car,” I commented, trying to sound casual, as though it was curiosity and not neediness that drove me to ask.

“I know. I’ve just been so busy working with Jon and Laney. They were bitten by members of the cat family, too, so it made sense to team up.”

“Hey, no problem. I’ve been flying twenty-four seven anyway.”

“Oh, yeah! That must be so gre—”

“Okay, folks, settle down!” Dr. Pitts, aka the Silver Shower, boomed from the front of the room. Instant silence fell. “Now I know some of you think this is the easy part. You’ve passed all your academic exams and now have your new superpowers. Well, the hard work is just beginning. If you want to receive your superhero license at the end of the term, you need to demonstrate mastery of your powers and complete a successful internship under the supervision of your assigned superhero. And if they or the review board deems that you have not mastered your abilities, you will not be receiving your license, and without your license you are not allowed to fight crime. So everyone better be prepared to work extra hard over the semester to impress not just your superhero, but the rest of the faculty and board. If you fail your practical exam for your license, you will have to wait two years to reapply. Trust me, folks, two years patrolling the mall for shoplifters while you wait to retest is no fun.”

A murmur went through the hall. It was common knowledge that Dr. Pitts had failed his practical the first time around and had to work mall security for two years until his second chance to apply came around. No one wanted to go through the humiliation of failing their practical when everyone else was getting jobs at police departments and private security firms all over the country.

Dr. Pitts continued, now assured that we were taking him seriously. “Which leads me to my second announcement. Now, as most of you know, the meteorite bombardment over China has pulled many of our local Superheroes out of town for an indefinite period of time. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t have enough Superheroes for everyone to intern with one-on-one, so some of you will be paired up with a classmate and assigned to the same superhero.” I groaned along with the rest of the newly-minted interns, and Dr. Pitts shot us all a look until we quieted. “I don’t like it either, but that’s the way it goes. Professor Lange and I will now hand out assignments. Congratulations, folks. Work hard and you’re only one semester away from becoming licensed Superheroes.”

Everyone cheered at the reluctant praise as Dr. Pitts and Professor Lange began handing out manila envelopes. I could barely sit still through my excitement. I wanted to zoom up and fly a couple times around the hall while I waited. Somehow I didn’t think Dr. Pitts would be impressed with my mastery of my superpower if I did that, though.

“Nick. Congratulations,” Professor Lange told me with a smile as she handed me my envelope. I tore it open, scanning the page and… there it was! I would be spending my twelve week internship under the mentoring wing of CyberClive.

CyberClive was a former computer science minor who specialized in internet criminals and electronically enhanced villains. I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t been assigned to a flying superhero, but I wasn’t too surprised. Flyers were ideal for fighting natural disasters like the meteorite bombardment, so I knew most of them had been pulled out of town. It was only as I finished scanning down the page that I saw the real bad news.

I had been assigned a partner.

* * * * *

My fellow intern was a tall brunette named Sophie. I didn’t really know her that well—she was a transfer student who had switched universities at the beginning of the year so she could do a couple specialty classes her old school didn’t offer. Her power was teleportation. I was a little jealous that she had such a kickin’ power—what if she outdid me in front of CyberClive? Turns out I was worrying for nothing. Sophie was the fourth tank failure.

Three weeks into the semester and the farthest she could teleport was seven inches in any given direction. When she had refused to leave, the board had put her on academic probation. She had six weeks to show significant improvement in her powers or she was out. Possible, I guess, but not likely. Everyone knows that teleportation is one of those skills—you have it or you don’t. I suddenly didn’t mind sharing CyberClive so much. What’s six weeks after all?

The two of us exchanged wary nods as we met up at our mentor’s office downtown the next day. Cybercrime Fighting and Computer Repair read the sign over the door. Sophie and I glanced at each other—apparently, crime fighting alone wasn’t enough to pay the bills—and went in.

We found ourselves in a small reception area opening into a spacious back room. An appointment book and a rotary phone sat on the front desk amid a sea of electronic parts. A couple of computers in varying states of repair were piled along a side counter next to the coffee machine and power cords bunched around the outlets. A sign next to a stainless steel desk bell read, Ring the Bell for Service! I won’t even attempt to describe the back room.

A short, balding man in a neon green bodysuit sat at a table in the back, a pair of headphones over his ears. Sophie dinged the bell.

“Yes?” he asked, looking up. A green light glowed steadily from his right eye. The “on” light from one of his computer implants, I supposed.

“CyberClive?” I said. “I’m Nick and this is Sophie. We’re from the university.”

Recognition bloomed on his face. He unplugged his index finger from the USB port on his laptop and came out. “So you’re my two interns, huh? The flyer and the would-be teleporter.”

Sophie bristled at the remark. “I’ll improve my distance. I just need more time.”

CyberClive raised an eyebrow, clearly dismissing her as a tank failure who had yet to face reality. “Well, you can follow instructions at least,” he said with a nod at the bell. “Okay, let’s get started.”

Getting started involved filling out paperwork. Apparently when you intern with a superhero, you have to sign several documents waiving the university and your mentor from all responsibility for a wide array of possible injuries, up to and including dismemberment and death. While we read and signed, CyberClive helped the stream of customers coming through the office. Though some just needed to pick up or drop off a computer for repair, others had more unique problems, such as the elderly woman whose garden had been set upon by a swarm of robotic gophers.

Sophie and I drove out with CyberClive to the client’s house on Long Island. My mouth fell open as I climbed out of the passenger side. There must have been two dozen robo-gophers teeming over Gladys’s lawn, burrowing through the dirt, trampling the flowerbeds, and tearing up any plant life in their path.

Clive pursed his lips thoughtfully and then requested a garbage bag. Crouching on the ground, he held the bag open and emitted a high whistle. The gophers let out a shriek and charged into the sack. CyberClive stuck his hand in the bag, and after a moment the wriggling stopped, all power drained from the metal rodents. He stood up and handed the bag to Gladys.

“Don’t you think it’s finally time to end this feud with Mr. Sikora? Is that strip of lawn really worth all this?”

“Look at my garden! What do you think?”

“I think you should feud with someone who’s not a retired electronics engineer.”

Gladys snorted. “That’s why I have you. While you’re here, I don’t suppose you could reprogram those nasty things to—”

“No, Gladys. I’m in the business of stopping crime, not helping people commit it. You want to file a complaint, the police should be able to take it from here.”

The three of us headed back to the office in Clive’s van. “Wow, that was really something,” I said. “I knew you could control technology with your mind, but I didn’t think it was that simple. Just whistle and they come?”

CyberClive raised an eyebrow. “I suppose you expected me to play a pipe? I’m from Brooklyn, kid, not Hamlin.” I flushed, and Sophie snickered. Clive continued, “Those things were small, easy to control with a simple thought command. The whistle was just for effect. If they had had more complex programming, I would have needed to touch them before I could do anything.”

Over the next five weeks, I got to see what Clive meant by that. Any kind of electronic device gone haywire, and people called for CyberClive. The coffee machine that had been reprogrammed to spit hot coffee at anyone who approached, the android made by some hacker in his basement that had gone berserk and taken his mom hostage, the Garden Society’s electronic bees… Whether he touched them, plugged into them, or just reached out with his mind, CyberClive handled them all.

After the first job, Clive let us help on his cases. My flying skills were useful in rounding up the bees, and Sophie’s ability to teleport helped her avoid the streams of coffee. However, while the individual cases were interesting enough, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. Clive’s jobs weren’t exactly the action-packed crime fighting I’d expected. Sophie, too, seemed frustrated with our internship. As I quickly learned during our training sessions in the warehouse, she was a girl of action.

The warehouse was a gym for Superheroes, a training arena designed to help keep crime fighters in shape between jobs. Equipped with a variety of attack robots, android soldiers, hologram projectors, and virtual reality gear, the warehouse allowed heroes to train for every type of scenario imaginable. Now that Sophie and I had powers, we were allowed entrance into the exclusive gym.

I would hardly have guessed that Sophie and I would have anything in common, but it turned out she loved a good fight as much as I did. When we weren’t training against the sims or robots, we trained against each other. If we used our powers, I usually managed to get the upper hand. However, in a regular fight she could take me down two times out of three. She had spent the past few years at the gym, and it showed. What’s more, she was really smart and never quit no matter how hopeless a situation seemed. I found myself really starting to like her.

It was just as well that Sophie and I were getting along, as Cari had virtually disappeared from my life. I only saw her once over the weeks, leaving the warehouse as I was entering one day. I left her a couple voicemails and sent a bunch of emails, but only got a few short texts in return. I told myself she was just busy, but I couldn’t help feeling like I’d somehow lost my best friend when I wasn’t looking.

“What’s eating you?” Sophie asked one day at the warehouse. She had just flattened me into the mat for about the tenth time in a row and now we sat against the wall drinking SuperAde.

“What do you mean?”

“You haven’t won a bout yet! Even you’re better than this.”

I shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. “Nothing? Yeah, you’re probably right. After all, you have an amazing power. Why would you have any problems?”

I threw a towel at her. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. It’s just that Cari and I had this whole plan, you know, about what it would be like after graduation. How we would join up with our friends and start our own crime fighting company. And then Rhea washed out and Billy graduated early, and now it’s just me and Car. But graduation is only weeks away and I feel like I haven’t seen her all semester.”

“Getting tanked changes things, Nick. Maybe she has other plans now. I mean, I thought I had everything figured out, and then I came here and got tanked and now… Well, who knows?”

I didn’t know what to say. Compared to Sophie’s problems, mine seemed silly.

“Look,” Sophie added after a minute, “if you’re really worried about it, just go talk to her.”

“I’ve tried, but she never seems to be home.”

“You want me to text you when she’s there?” Cari and Sophie live in the same house, Sigma Sigma, unofficially known as the Superheroes Sorority. Any girl majoring in enhanced crime fighting automatically gets to live there, even transfer students like Sophie.

I considered her offer and then shook my head. “Nah. I’m probably just making too big a deal out of it. In fact, I’m sure I’ll see her at the party tonight. She can’t not show up at her own sorority’s party, right?”

“You’d be surprised.”

Before I could ask what she meant, Clive walked in, a frown plastered on his face and a cell phone plastered against his ear.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said into the phone. “The electronic signature on those poodles is the same as the other robots. They’re definitely Robitron’s, but until we catch him making a sale, we can’t prove they’re his.” A pause. “Well, now, that’s not my job, is it?”

“Who’s Robitron?” Sophie asked when he hung up.

CyberClive shook his head. “This two-bit hacker who thinks he’s a supervillain. He dabbles in various internet crimes, mostly, but recently started selling small attack robots on the black market. You remember those gophers of Gladys’s? Turns out her neighbor bought them from Robitron. The NYPD has me advising on the case.”

“Can we help?”

“I doubt it. Flying and teleporting aren’t going to help track this guy down. Now, let’s get this session going.”

Practice didn’t go well that day, at least not for Sophie. Clive had matched us up against androids with super speed. While I used my powers to fly out of range and drop a net from above, Sophie’s meager teleportation did her little good. Teleporters automatically take anything touching their skin with them when they teleport—good thing, too, or they’d teleport out of their clothes. Unfortunately, this meant that Sophie couldn’t teleport away from the ’droids once they caught her. Time and again she was captured by the androids, until finally Clive exploded.

“You have to teleport, Sophie!”

“I did! I think I might’ve managed eight inches this time.”

“Eight inches isn’t gonna get an injured bystander to the hospital before he bleeds out or allow you to escape a killer robot or sneak up on a villain! You want to fight coffee machines for the rest of your life, Soph? Because right now that’s all you’re qualified to do.”

Sophie scowled, but didn’t answer. What could she say, really? CyberClive was right and she knew it. She had known it from the moment she had gotten out of tank recovery to discover she could only go seven inches; she was just too stubborn to admit that it was over for her.

Clive’s face softened. “Have you considered going the suit route?”

“Do you know how expensive those things are?” Sophie snorted. “I could never afford a power suit. Besides, everyone knows those people aren’t real Superheroes!” Turning on her heel, she kicked a piece of virtual debris out of the way and stomped out of the arena.

Clive threw up his hands with a puff of annoyance and waved at me to start the exercise again, all the while muttering about the stubborn intern who would drive him into an early grave. But he didn’t fool me. For all his blustering, he wasn’t annoyed with Sophie. He pitied her.

* * * * *

The party was in full swing when I arrived that evening. Sigma Sigma threw a huge bash every spring for their newly-enhanced sisters, and everyone in the superhero and sidekick programs attended. I grabbed a beer from the kitchen and wandered the house, looking for Cari and mingling with everyone as I went. When I didn’t find her, I joined a group of juniors who were discussing the relative merits and drawbacks of various Superheroes. We were debating who would win in a hand-to-hand fight on a helicopter (Wind Woman or the Blue Battering Ram) when a pair of hands suddenly covered my eyes. I grinned. “Hey, Cari.”

She nodded to the guys and leaned on my shoulder, listening to the debate. After a few minutes, she frowned and jerked her head to the left. “It’s so loud in here, I can’t even hear myself think. Let’s go outside.”

It had been raining off and on all day, so the back porch was empty. We sat on the steps together looking out at the night. Cari had changed her makeup sometime in the past weeks, I realized. She had never been one for wearing much makeup before, even on special occasions. Now the faint stripes on her face were enhanced with glitter, long strokes of black liner and orange eye shadow accentuating her feline-like eyes. A stranger looked out from them.

“I feel like I haven’t seen you in weeks,” I admitted after a moment.

“I’m sorry, Nick. It’s just interning with Bulldog Bob is so intense. You wouldn’t believe some of the things he can do. Some of the things I can do. Ever since I was bitten, it’s like I’ve had this confidence, this belief I can do anything! I mean, I know we always said we would be Superheroes, but it’s like I never really understood what that meant until now. You know?” I nodded, grinning as Cari raved on about her training and her mentor and all her new skills. This, at least, was the Cari I knew. The Cari who wouldn’t shut up once you got her talking.

As if reading my thoughts, Cari stopped suddenly. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” She laughed. “Sorry. It’s just that I’m so excited for the future! In six weeks, I’ll be a licensed superhero. And Laney, well her stepdad owns a private security firm out in L.A.. She says she can get Jon and I jobs out there. Of course, we’ll essentially be babysitters at first, until we’ve gotten some experience under our belts. But once our reputations start spreading, we’ll have our pick of clients.”

“L.A.!” I tried not to let my disappointment show. “Wow, that’s great. Really great. So I guess I’m not going to be seeing much of you after graduation, huh?”

“Oh, Nick.” Cari sighed. “We always knew that we would split up after graduation, right? I would go my way and you would go yours, each off on our first job. I mean, it was a nice fantasy—you, me, Billy, Rhea, forming our own security firm, fighting crime together. But it was just a kid’s fantasy, you know?”

The funny thing was, I did know. I guess I had known it for a long time, ever since Billy went to St. Paul and started a life of his own. Sophie was right—plans change. Jobs come and go, opportunities arise in places you never expected, and you find yourself making best friends with the unlikeliest of people. Such as dark-haired teleporters who make up in guts what they lack in power.

I smiled. “Yeah, I do know, Car. I’m really happy for you.”

She hugged me then, and for the first time since Billy left I felt truly optimistic—not just about the future, but about the present.

On the way out, I stopped off in the basement. The girls had a sweet setup down there—treadmill, chin-up bar, two padded weight benches, and a full complement of free weights. I found Sophie there, working out on the punching bag in the far corner. Left, right, left left, right, kick! I watched her for a moment, impressed by her dedication and skill. From the sweat soaking her tank top, it was obvious she had been going at it for awhile. I wondered if she had always worked out so much, or if she did it now to make up for her lack of powers.

“Hey Soph! You’re missing the party. You should come up for awhile.”

Sophie didn’t even pause as she spun and delivered a hard roundhouse kick to the bag. “No thanks.”

“C’mon Soph. You can’t work out all night. Even you need a break.”

“I’m already taking a break. I have to get back to studying.”

What she meant was that she had to practice teleporting. Soph’s probation review was coming up in a couple days, and no matter how many A’s she had, they would fail her out of the program if her powers weren’t up to snuff. Obviously her “studying” wasn’t going well if taking a break meant beating the stuffing out of a punching bag.

“I’m sorry,” I finally said. I really was. Now that I knew her, how smart she was and how hard she worked, I felt really bad that she was never going to live her dream of becoming a superhero. “For what it’s worth, I think you’d make a great superhero. I’d be proud to work with you.”

As I let myself quietly out the door, I almost missed her muttered, “Yeah, whatever.”

* * * * *

Sophie and I were chilling at the warehouse the next day when CyberClive’s call came in. Robitron had released a thirty-foot robot on the city called the Crusher and it was currently tearing through the East End. He wanted us over there to help him put down the machine ASAP. Sophie and I exchanged a look—our very first killer robot rampage!

We arrived on the scene to find the usual mayhem you would expect with a giant robot—broken windows, crushed cars, screaming pedestrians and so forth. One guy had climbed up a tree and was filming the whole thing on his phone. I made a mental note to check for the footage on YouTube later that night.

CyberClive had staked out a position on the roof of a nearby building and was watching the Crusher through a pair of binoculars. He looked so professional in his spandex suit and matching cape, I felt a twinge of envy. I wasn’t allowed to wear a costume until after I got my license. He glanced at his watch and nodded in approval as we crouched down beside him. “Right on time—good! Now as you can see, our supervillain has unleashed a thirty-foot robot on the city. Can either of you sum up the relative strengths and weaknesses of a machine like this?”

I rolled my eyes. Trust CyberClive to treat this as a teaching opportunity instead of a chance to kick some major robot ass! However, Sophie and I did as he asked. He acknowledged our answers with another hard nod. “Okay. Now on a robot of this kind, I should be able to override the programming if I can come into contact with it without being stepped on. That’s where you come in, Nick. I need you to fly around the Crusher’s head and distract it so I can get close without it seeing me.”

“Got it!”

“Wait, what am I supposed to do?” Sophie asked.

CyberClive handed her the binoculars. “The Crusher is unmanned, so Robitron must be controlling it remotely. Scan the nearby buildings and see if you can locate him.”

“Robitron could be controlling the Crusher from anywhere!” Sophie objected. “He’s probably not even in the area!”

“Taking down the Crusher is our first priority, but we still need to nab Robitron if at all possible,” CyberClive explained. “Besides, if anything happens to Nick or me, it’ll be up to you to call the hotline for backup.”

Sophie pressed her lips together, clearly not happy with the assignment, and finally nodded. I couldn’t blame her—look for Robitron and call the superhero hotline for help? It was typical sidekick work, and we all knew it. I felt for Soph, but with the Crusher committing copious amounts of property damage left and right, I didn’t have time to soothe her injured pride. At a signal from CyberClive, I sprang into the air.

The first part of the plan went perfectly. As soon as I flew into view, my gray sweats flapping in the wind, the Crusher immediately turned from the building it was destroying and made a grab for me. I evaded its huge claw easily and swooped around behind it. The Crusher’s head rotated one hundred and eighty degrees on its neck, trying to lock onto me with its laser eyes. I continued to dodge its claws and lasers as CyberClive crept toward it, occasionally firing at it with my ray gun to keep it from losing interest. As I watched, Clive covered the final distance and flung himself onto the Crusher’s wide foot.

The Crusher roared and shook its foot, trying to shake off the superhero, but it was too late. CyberClive had already plugged his index finger into the robot’s USB port. I grinned. My first real fight and we were pulling off everything without a hitch!

KA-BOOM!

CyberClive went flying as the outer hull of the Crusher’s foot exploded. The port had been booby-trapped! With a crunch, he hit a wall and crumpled to the ground. The green light in his eye flickered and went out.

“Clive!” I yelled, and hurled myself through the air towards him. At the same instant, Sophie burst from a doorway and ran towards our mentor. Surprised, I pulled up in mid-flight, and that’s when the Crusher’s claw got me.

“Run, Soph!”

Well, of course she didn’t, being Sophie and all, and for a few minutes I admired her athletic prowess from my spot up in the Crusher’s pincer as she zigged and zagged around the robot, all the while shooting at it with her ray gun. She managed to take out one of its laser eyes and cripple one of its knee joints (two of the weak points Clive had made us name), but her little gun just couldn’t do enough damage. Soph still might have outrun it, but her foot caught on a piece of debris and she fell. The Crusher’s arm swooped down towards her!

“Teleport, Sophie!”

She did, but needless to say, seven inches is simply not far enough when the descending pincer is two feet wide. The Crusher scooped her up with ease and we were caught, one in each claw. I struggled in its grip, certain the robot would squeeze us to death at any minute, when suddenly an evil laugh boomed out and a shadowy figure emerged from a building across the street. Robitron!

He was shorter than I had expected, with a bit of a pot belly—though it hardly showed under his metal suit. His trademark iron jaw, a souvenir from a robotics experiment gone horribly wrong, shone in the afternoon sun. Robitron worked his remote control and I suddenly found my back rammed up against something hard enough to knock the wind out of me. A cry from Sophie told me the same thing had happened to her. Ropes shot from the Crusher’s mouth, wrapping around us again and again. And that’s how Sophie and I ended up trussed like turkeys together around a telephone pole with no hope of escape.

Robitron surveyed us with a smirk. He had us good and he knew it. My flying abilities couldn’t do anything against ropes, and Sophie’s powers certainly weren’t strong enough to move a telephone pole even if she could go more than seven inches. I struggled against the cords anyway. Robitron just laughed and turned away, directing the Crusher into the next building with his remote control as we watched.

People screamed and ran as the robot punched out some windows. I glanced over at CyberClive—still unconscious—and squirmed even harder against the bindings. If one of us could just free a wrist, an ankle, anything, it might just give us enough slack in the ropes to loosen the knots. After a few minutes I realized I was struggling alone, Sophie standing stock still on the other side of the pole.

“C’mon, Soph! We need to get out of this. Can you get anything free? A hand, maybe?”

Sophie didn’t speak for a minute. Then in a strangely calm voice she said, “So, you know this weekend, while you were off partying and I didn’t go because I had to stay and study?”

“Mmm?” I hummed, only half-listening as I tugged my left hand and was rewarded for my struggles with a hiss of rope burn across my index finger.

“Well, I managed to teach myself a new trick.”

“Yeah?”

The ropes about me slackened and fell as Sophie suddenly appeared in front of the pole exactly seven inches from where she’d just been tied. “What the—?”

Robitron turned, drawn by my exclamation, but in my distraction at seeing Sophie’s new state I didn’t even have time to call out a warning before his fist came crashing towards her. Quick as lightning Sophie teleported seven inches to the side and Robitron’s fist hit the pole right where her face had just been. Before he could recover, Sophie punched him in the head with a solid roundhouse. And well, all that time Sophie spent with the punching bag must have really paid off because Robitron went down hard, iron jaw and all, and didn’t get up again.

I just stood there, unable to do anything but gape as Sophie retrieved the remote control from Robitron’s limp hand and turned the Crusher off.

She was completely naked.

My mouth flapped a few times as Sophie bent down and grabbed her clothes where they lay by the pole. “So, uh, that trick you learned…?”

“Yup,” she nodded, pulling up her underwear and fastening her bra. “I learned how to teleport without taking the things I’m touching with me.”

I awkwardly ducked my head, trying to avert my eyes as she dressed, but not really succeeding. I’ll say this for Sophie: she may not have much of a superpower, but she has one kickin’ booty.

“Wow,” I managed at last. “That’s uh, I mean, it’s really, well… I mean, it’s not bad. So, the clothes thing…?”

“Hey, I said I’d learned a new trick. I didn’t say I’d perfected it.”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, with another sidelong glance at my fellow intern. “Looks pretty good to me.”

Sophie scowled as she finished zipping up her jeans, but whatever she was going to say was interrupted when a chirpy tune sounded from across the street. Sophie just rolled her eyes and shot me a rueful grin. “C’mon. It sounds like CyberClive is finally rebooting. We better make sure his hard drive is still intact.”

* * * * *

Sophie pushed open the doors of the administration building and trotted down the stairs.

“Well?” I asked when she reached the bench where I was waiting.

She shrugged. “They extended my probation, at least. The board said my little trick showed enough improvement to warrant the extra time. I have until the end of the semester to strengthen my teleportation abilities or I’m out.”

I digested this information as we started walking towards the quad. “What about the battle with Robitron? You practically took him out single-handedly! Even Clive thought you did well.”

After CyberClive had rebooted, he’d reamed Sophie out for a full ten minutes for not calling the hotline like she’d been told… and then promptly thrown his arms around her and told her he’d never been so proud of one of his interns in his whole life.

“Well, the board considered that. They said if I flunk out of the program they’ll still graduate me since I already have all my academic credits, but they’ll only grant me a license as a sidekick. Since I’ll have my degree, I can try again for a superhero license in two years when my sidekick license expires. So I guess I’ll still be in the crime fighting business one way or another. That is,” she amended with a sideways glance in my direction, “if I can find a superhero who wants me.”

I gave her a sideways glance back. Assuming nothing went wrong, in another six weeks I would be a licensed superhero myself. “I think I might know someone.”

“Cool.”

Cool indeed.

 

A Little Too Fast

A Little Too Fast

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

I had been scoping out Union Jack’s, a small dive on the west side of town, for weeks. Jenny said it had the best selection and prices, but there were a few things keeping me from just walking in. I wasn’t twenty-one, for starters, and even if I had been, Glyphs weren’t completely legal. Not that that had stopped anyone else; I was one of the only kids left that wasn’t boasting at least one. Jenny had even shown up to school flying. Or, at least, trying to fly, anyway. When she tried to land she tumbled into me, knocking my cellphone out of my hand and into a fountain. She laughed as she detangled from me, her hair wind-blown and wild.

“They finally caved?” I asked, letting the water drip out of my phone.

“Yeah, I convinced Mom to go ahead and give it to me as an early graduation present.”

“Sweet.”

“Sorry I didn’t wait. I know we said we’d go together, but when she asked, I just sort of freaked.”

“No worries. I probably would have done the same.” It was a lie, but her smile made it all right.

“So, when are you getting yours?”

“I’m still…” I caught myself before saying “waiting for my mom to give the okay.” Instead I said: “I’m still trying to decide what to get.”

“Flight is the absolute best,” she said, leaving no room for argument, and the thought of us flying together, hand in hand, made me think she was right. A week later, as we were filing out of school she smiled and looked to the sky.

“Wanna come?”

“Still can’t fly,” I said.

“Sure you can. I figured something out yesterday. Come here.” She took my hand. “Just kick off, okay? Ready? On three. One. Two…”

We pushed off together, and I felt my stomach lurch as the laws of physics ceased to apply. My legs flailed about as they tried to find some bearing while I waved my free arm for balance.

“Easy there,” Jenny said, laughing. “You don’t want to let go of my hand or you’ll go splat. Just relax.”

That was difficult. The more I tried, the more I tensed. She took both my hands, squeezing them as she tried to hold us steady. Looking into her eyes helped, but it wasn’t until I remembered a technique I’d read in one of Dad’s books on meditation, and I started breathing slowly, focusing on the feeling in my lungs as they expanded and contracted, that I finally calmed down. Once I was adjusted, though, that first flight with Jenny was one of the most amazing, and terrifying, experiences I’ve ever had. We were weightless. Buoys in the clouds. She led us far enough into the air that our breath turned to mist and she started to shiver.

“The air is clearer the higher you go,” she said, her teeth chattering. “Thinner, too, but cleaner, fresher.”

We hovered there for a few moments, holding onto each other for warmth as we drifted through clouds. The world beneath us was painted in the richest greens, browns, and blues.

“Wanna do something fun?”

“Sure,” I said, anxious to seem like I wasn’t terrified.

Her grin had never been more devilish, and there was mischief in her eyes.

“Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t let go.”

Suddenly we were falling. I heard screaming as we plummeted toward the earth. When we were about a hundred yards from the ground, Jenny lifted us back up, and all I could hear was the wind and her laughter. She didn’t stop until we reached the old Fire Tower on Sharp’s Ridge.

“I never would have guessed you were a screamer.” She grinned and shouldered me playfully as we sat on top of the tower, holding hands and watching the sun descend as dozens of kids darted around us, rising and falling on the horizon like a flock of strange birds.

“Maybe if I’d had a little warning.”

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. My brother has always said that people are either screamers or they’re not. There’s no in-between.” That wicked grin appeared again, but this time she seemed to be considering something. Quickly, she leaned forward and kissed me. Nothing fancy, just a quick pop on the lips. “Come on,” she said. “I gotta get home. Mom probably thinks I’ve flown to Tokyo by now. I’ve been threatening her ever since I got the Glyph.”

* * * * *

It was the kiss that did it. With the memory of it still fresh, I drove home with a purpose after Jenny dropped me back at the school. After close to six years of playing classic rock covers at the local pizzeria every Saturday night, and having parents that always bought me the latest video games in order to distract me from all the other kids flaunting their Glyphs, I had just over five thousand dollars. I kept the roll of twenties stashed inside my first acoustic, and as I shook the guitar to get it to fall out, I realized I’d never actually heard how much Glyphs cost. I hoped I had enough.

Replaying the memory of Jenny’s kiss again, I pushed the door of Union Jack’s open and stepped into the stench of stale smoke. There were several old men sitting at the bar, puffing cigarettes and sipping beers. The bartender looked up and scowled. “I hope you’re not looking for a drink,” he said.

I shook my head and opened my mouth to speak, but then shut it.

“In that case,” the man pointed over his shoulder. “Ayita’s back there somewhere. She’ll take care of you.”

I nodded before walking past two old pool tables covered in stains that could have been blood or vomit. My shoes stuck to the floor, making a strange sucking sound each time I took a step. The haze of smoke made my eyes water, and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to hang out there.

I made my way past the bathrooms and through a curtain of beads. The floor changed from wood to concrete as I stepped through, and there was a draft coming from somewhere. It was still smoky, but the odor had changed. I could never remember what that particular scent was called, but Dad always called it “hippie.” There were a few tables and chairs scattered about, but there was no Ayita. Thinking that maybe she’d stepped out for a second, I moved to sit down.

“Look at this pretty young thing.” I jumped before I made it into the chair. The voice had been female, but I couldn’t see where it had come from. “He’s jumpy, too.”

A woman, tall and beautiful in a dangerous sort of way, melted out of the wall. She wore dark jeans, thigh-high boots, and a mesh tank top that left her naked from the waist up. My eye twitched a little. The woman, whom I assumed was Ayita, stepped forward and lifted my chin, turning my head slightly to the side, examining me. I tried to look her in the eye, but there was something powerful in her dark eyes, almost frightening. I settled for staring at her chest.

“You’re not a cop, are you?”

The question took me by surprise. Surely she could tell I wasn’t old enough to be a cop. I shook my head and stammered out something like “of course not,” but I was still so entranced by how much of her I could see that I really didn’t know what I said.

“I had to be sure. If I find out you’re lying to me, you’ll regret it. I’ve touched you. Do you see this?” She pointed to a tattoo below her left breast, a bloodhound with a compass on its collar. I nodded. “It means I can find you anytime I want.” She smiled and waited, letting her words settle into my mind. When she was satisfied I understood, she sat behind an old, scratched table and took a sip of the blackest beer I had ever seen.

“So, what’ll it be?” She asked, motioning me to the chair across from her.

“Um… what’ve you, like, got?”

She chuckled. “Dearie, I’ve got anything you could possibly imagine. I’ve got Flight, I’ve got Invisibility. Teleportation. Seduction. Strength, Intelligence, and Healing. You name it, I’ve got it.”

“How much for Flight?”

She smiled again. It was a nice smile, full of small, straight teeth. “The kiddies always want the wings. You want true Flight or just Levitation?”

“How much for true Flight?”

“A grand. You can get Levitation for six-fifty, though. It’ll still impress the little girlies.”

“A grand, huh? That’s it?”

She smiled. “That’s it, he says. Only a thousand dollars. Rich kid, huh?”

“Not really,” I said, dropping my eyes to the table and tracing my finger along an old scratch on its surface. “How many Glyphs can you have at once?”

“There isn’t a set number. Some people can handle more than others. I would recommend starting with one. Maybe two if you think you can handle it. I won’t sell more than three Glyphs to any one customer at any one time. Too risky. Never more than two to a first-timer, though.”

My mind raced with all the possibilities. If Flight only cost a grand, I could afford to get two. How cool would it be to walk out with Flight and Strength? Or Invisibility. But then I decided that this woman probably knew what she was talking about, and I might be better off starting small. Still, if I was just going to get one, should it be Flight? Shouldn’t it be something that really got my blood moving? The memories of flying with Jenny made my stomach turn even when both of my feet were firmly on the ground. But mixed in with the nausea was the feeling of her hand in mine and the memory of her smile as we drifted through the clouds, both of which did get my blood moving.

“Let’s go with true Flight for now.”

“Are you sure? It took you a long time to answer.”

“Sure. I mean, Flight seems like a good one to start with, right? Nice and practical.”

She smiled in a way that made me remember the look in Jenny’s eyes just before she let us fall. The memory of my scream made my face hot, and I decided that if Jenny liked speed and thrills, I would try to give her that.

“Let’s do it,” I said. “But can I get Speed, too?”

“Of course. As long as you’ve got the cash. It’ll be seventeen-fifty for both.”

I pulled the money-roll out of my jacket pocket and, turning slightly so she couldn’t see, counted it out. I rolled the rest back up before handing her the stack of bills. She smiled, folded the stack, and stuffed it in her back pocket.

“Right. This way, please. Go ahead and take your shirt off, too.”

I did as she asked, tucking my shirt and jacket under my arm as I followed Ayita through another beaded curtain that I hadn’t noticed before, further into the back of the bar. There was an old, cushioned table, like at the doctor’s office, in the middle of the room. One wall was a solid mirror, while the others were covered in posters of tattoo designs and shelves that were filled with needles and strange devices. An old TV sat in the corner, lifeless.

“Lay face down on the table, please,” Ayita said.

I did as she asked, laying on top of my shirt and jacket so I wouldn’t lose track of them. “Is this going to hurt?”

“Terribly,” she said. It wasn’t a lie.

For the next four hours, she worked. Slowly. Methodically. A low murmuring chant came from her lips, barely audible as she worked the ink into the flesh of my back. It felt like fire. Like ants were chewing through my back. But then it was over, and I was staring into a hand mirror in order to see the two emerald and black wings on my back reflected through the wall mirror. Between them was the small silhouette of a rabbit.

* * * * *

The next day after school I asked Jenny if she’d help put some antibiotic ointment on my fresh tattoo. Ayita had said it would heal in about a week, but I would need to be careful to keep it from getting infected or the Glyph might not work.

“I can’t believe you got two! And without your parent’s permission!” Even though it hurt like hell as Jenny rubbed the goo on my back, the hairs on my arms stood up every time she touched me. “I could never do that. There, that should do it.”

As I pulled my shirt back on, she lifted slowly into the air. She’d taken to hovering in Lotus position instead of sitting. It was odd, having to always look up at her.

“I can’t wait till we can go super-fast! How long till we can go to Tokyo?”

“Ayita said I should be able to use it by next Saturday. So we’re kind of stuck in the Southeast till then.”

“It’s going to be great. We can go to Mt. Fuji, too! Maybe we can even stop off and see where my brother’s stationed on the way! You’d like him.”

“That would be cool,” I said. Jenny was always talking about her brother, but he’d joined the Army just before she and her mom moved up from Georgia so I’d never met him. She was always telling stories about him, and many of them made me doubt that I would like him, regardless of her claims to the contrary.

“I’ll plan out a whole list of things we can do,” Jenny said, rambling in her excitement. “In the meantime, though, I bet we could make it to the Gulf and back before dark if we left early enough on Saturday. What do you think?”

Listening to her make plans for us was intoxicating. Her face was animated with the possibilities in her mind, and something about her referring to us as “we” made my stomach feel weird. Not bad, just weird. Like it was the gooiest cinnamon roll ever served. She wrote out a list that she titled “Local Excursions” and said she thought it would keep us busy over the next week while my Glyphs healed. The next afternoon, after I fumblingly lifted off the ground for the second time while holding Jenny’s hand, she flew us to Asheville where we walked through small folk-art galleries downtown while sipping lattes out of recycled coffee cups. A couple of days later we flew to Nashville and ate hotdogs on top of the Parthenon while hundreds of pigeons cooed and fluttered around us.

The next morning I woke to Jenny knocking on my window. There was a bag over her shoulder, and I barely had the window open before she was inside.

“Quit wasting the day, we’ve got places to be. The beach is calling.”

“What?” I yawned and rubbed my eyes.

“The beach. The ocean. I packed us a lunch. I figure it should only take us a few hours to get there. Get dressed and let’s go.”

Several rushed minutes later, after having thrown on some beach appropriate clothes and brushed my teeth, we were on our way. Jenny flew us to the Gulf where we spent the rest of the morning laying in the sun, sipping soft drinks and watching sea gulls skim across the water.

“The last time we came to the beach when I was a kid, I always wished I could fly across the water like the birds. Daddy always shook his head and said I was a silly girl and needed to stop thinking such childish things if I wanted to get anywhere in the world.”

“Shows what he knew,” I said. “Now you can.”

She looked out across the water and gave the faintest possible nod. “He left not long after we got back from that trip. Accepted an assignment and left to go god-knows-where. Wouldn’t even tell us where he was going. When Jacob joined the service Mom almost lost it. She said he was abandoning his family just like his dad.” She seemed to snap out of a spell and the smile that made me notice her in Algebra spread across her face. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You hungry?”

After lunch we spent the afternoon chasing the gulls, flying close enough to run our fingers across the surface of the ocean. As the sun began to descend, we made our way back home.

The following week was spent completing our tour of the Southeast. Short, evening trips to Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, and Raleigh got us through the days of waiting for my Glyph to start working. The tattoo was starting to itch, and Ayita had said that would happen a few days before it was ready. Just another day or two and I would be able take Jenny to the other side of the world and back in the span of a few seconds.

It was late on Friday night when it happened. I was hunched over the side of my bed playing guitar, when the tattoos started to itch. I raked my fingers lightly across my back, and it felt like a sheet of spiderweb peeled away. Then, suddenly, I could feel the wings move. It only happened a couple of times, like a light fluttering, but immediately after it happened, I hovered into the air of my bedroom for the first, shaky time by myself. It was harder than Jenny made it look. I kept wanting to flip backwards, but eventually I got my balance.

Once I did, I wanted to test out my new Speed. Flying was cool, but I’d done so much of it with Jenny over the past two weeks that I was ready for something different. Even though I had promised she could be with me the first time, I wanted to test it out by myself in case I did something stupid.

I started small. I held a guitar pick as high as I could and then dropped it. It hit the floor. Frowning, I tried again. Each time I dropped the pick, I would try to bring my hand down in time to catch it, but my hand didn’t seem to be moving any faster than normal. The thought that Ayita had taken me for an extra seven-fifty crossed my mind after my twelfth failed attempt. But then something happened. Instead of trying to catch it, I decided to just watch it. As soon as I did, it was like the world went into slow-motion. The pick seemed to hover in the air, not moving at all. I reached out and pushed it a half-inch to the left before letting it drop. There was a slight pinching behind my eyes until I slowed back down, and after noticing that I figured out how to make myself go faster or slower by manipulating that tension. It was almost like I was stopping time.

I slipped out my window and flew downtown. There wasn’t a lot of activity, even for a Friday night, but there were a few people around. I sped myself up and flew into Market Square. Standing in the center of the Square, I never felt like I was moving any faster, but the world would slow to a standstill. I could control how quickly the people around me moved. Anywhere from normal speed to extreme slow-motion to not moving at all. At times it was like looking at a photograph. The clouds didn’t move, and there was a complete absence of sound. I flew home smiling at the cars on the interstate. I was moving so fast they looked like they were parked.

I stopped by Jenny’s house on the way, hoping she was still awake so I could share my new power with her. The light was out in her bedroom, though, so I left, not wanting to wake her. She would get to experience it soon enough.

Settling back on my bed, I decided to test my new ability further. I sped up, and watched the second hand on my watch while counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi.” Time still moved forward, but a second took about two and a half minutes.

The rest of the night was spent playing with time. I shot rubber bands at the wall and caught them before they hit, hooking them with my index finger. When that got old, I hovered above my window for a minute trying to figure out something else to do before heading North. I followed the interstate, playing with my speed in relation to the trucks below, laughing as they stopped short, freezing in place as I sliced through the air. In about five minutes of clock-time, and before I realized it, Manhattan was beneath me. The city was silent as I zipped through the streets, buzzing the heads of people stuck in a moment that for them would last but a second, but for me could last hours.

I touched down on top of the Empire State Building and slowed back to normal. The traffic roared as the city came to life. Wind skirled around, buffeting me as the tiny people below resumed their lives like nothing had happened. I turned it on and off like a baby that’s just discovered light switches, tensing and releasing the muscles around my eyes. In the back of my mind I knew I should wait and share this with Jenny, but I was having so much fun!

So, I flew to Florida. Then to New Orleans. I got hungry then, so I slowed down again long enough to buy a candy bar and a soda at a gas station. Then I went to L.A. Then Seattle, and, finally, Vancouver. Eventually, though it had only been a couple of hours since I started, I knew the sun would be about to come up at home, and my eyes didn’t want to stay open.

As I crawled into bed, the sun was beginning to creep into my window. Jenny was coming over around ten, so I could eek out around three hours of sleep. I pulled my covers over my head to block the sunlight and fell asleep. My dreams were strange, and I woke to a loud knocking on my window.

“Finally,” Jenny said as I opened the window and she floated inside. “Jesus. You look terrible. Late night of video games?”

“No,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “I was playing guitar, and, all of a sudden, my wings moved.”

“They did! That’s great! So, what, you been flying around the world all night?”

“No, just the U.S.”

“What? I was kidding. You said you’d wait and take me with you!”

“I know. I came by your house, but your light was off.”

“Jacob never called last night like he was supposed to, so I was downstairs with Mom till almost four in the morning trying to calm her down! You could have texted me or something!”

“I know. I’m sorry. I was just kind of caught up in it.”

“I bet.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“I heard you.”

“Look, I didn’t get mad when you went and got your Glyph without me. Cut me some slack.”

“I knew you’d throw that in my face some time.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Just nothing. Sorry. I had a rough night.”

“Me too. I’m sorry, I mean. Is your mom okay?”

“She’ll be fine. Jacob was supposed to call last night. We haven’t heard from him since he deployed the last time, and Mom’s just worried. I am, too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, it’ll be all right. Listen, just get some sleep. You’re obviously exhausted. When you’re rested, come find me. I’ll probably be at the Fire Tower. If not, call me. Cool?”

“Cool.”

Her face was pinched, and she flew out the window without a hug, a wave, or anything. Too tired to think about what that meant, I fell into bed and buried my head with pillows. I was out in seconds.

* * * * *

When I woke up, I went to find Jenny. She was at the Fire Tower like she said she would. I sped myself up so that I could try to surprise her by just appearing suddenly, but I wound up surprising myself. The world was crawling by for me, and I found her flying with a guy in a Brawlers uniform. He was way too young to actually be a member, but he could fly better than anyone I’d ever seen before. I watched as they danced around each other like fighter jets before embracing and twirling around as they ascended in slow motion, locked in each others arms.

I saw the exact moment their lips met.

A great pit opened in my stomach, and I couldn’t stay sped up anymore. The world came alive with an explosion of wind, and I watched as the two of them resumed their dance. It took several minutes, but Jenny finally noticed me. She said something to the guy I couldn’t make out and flew over. The clouds on the horizon spoke of rain.

“You feeling better?”

I shrugged, not really sure what to say.

“Did you still want to try and go somewhere? London maybe?”

“Is he coming?”

She at least had the decency to blush. “I… uh…”

“Yeah. That’s what I thought. How long has this been going on?”

“We met just after I got my Glyph. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks but I ran into him this morning after I left your place.”

If she had punched me in the face I would have been less surprised. It had only been a couple of hours. If she could be kissing someone else so soon after such a small fight, maybe I didn’t know her like I thought.

“You two have fun, okay? Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Eric, wait, I…”

I didn’t wait to hear what she was going to say. I tensed the muscles behind my eyes and was gone. An hour later I was sitting on a ridge on the side of Mt. Fuji.

 

Captain Asimov

Captain Asimov

Illustration by Randall M. Ensley

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

Jeevs cleaned up after dinner, loading all the dishes into the washer, but first washing them by hand as per Mrs. Moynahan’s explicit instructions. Then Jeevs vacuumed the upstairs while the rest of the family watched vids downstairs in the holo chamber. Jeevs thought of them as the “rest” of the family, because he was programmed to think of himself as a Moynahan, subservient to the rest of the them, but still one of them. Just as he was programmed to think of himself as himself.

The upstairs was vacuumed by the time Mr. and Mrs. Moynahan were finished with their family obligations… quality time with their children, which Jeevs had figured amounted to an hour and forty-seven minutes and ten seconds for the three of them. The Moynahans sometimes spoiled their children and gave them a full two hours. Then it was off to Social Club with the adults, and Jeevs was responsible for getting the little ’uns to bed. It helped that he was faster, stronger and able to leap taller pieces of furniture than they were. It also helped that he had shock-hands, and if they were bad he could stun them with a quick jolt of electricity and have them tucked into bed before they regained awareness.

It was usually easier to either wear them out with games or read them to sleep. The youngest child was Fermi, and he liked nothing better than to have Jeevs read him the lastest superhero comic books. Fermi was too young to actually read, but he looked at the pictures while Jeevs recited the story and dialogue from memory.

“Read Captain Battle!” Fermi yelled in his excitement. He had a repertoire of favorites: Captain Battle, Warchick, Meathook and Bonesaw, Funkiller, and The Justice Legion of Avenging Angels. They were all of the hit first and hit again later variety, and Jeevs privately considered them a little too violent for a little boy Fermi’s age. But being a robot meant he didn’t have the right to express an opinion of such a human nature, which was perfectly all right by Jeevs. He was perfectly happy to serve his owners well. It was in his program. To perform poorly resulted in a deep depression which could only be alleviated by going the extra mile, so to speak, with the housework. He had once gotten the carpet so clean he swore he could see his reflection in it. The Moynahans had to take him in to get his optics retooled.

“Captain Battle versus Cardinal Carnage in The Holy Terror Part Three,” Jeevs announced in a perfectly pitched square-jawed news anchor voice.

Fermi clapped his hands and rubbed them together greedily. “Yeeeeaaaahhh!

Next was the only daughter, Jesse, and she didn’t like to be read to at all. That didn’t mean she could read, because she couldn’t, but she had a series of make-believes she liked Jeevs to act in with her. One of them was Jeevs as the White Stallion and Jesse as the Princess, riding through the Enchanted Forest after having escaped from the clutches of the evil Duke. She would climb onto Jeevs plasti-frame shoulders and he would gallop her throughout the entire house. Jesse pretended the door frames were dragons swooping low to grab her off the White Stallion.

“A dragon, a dragon!” she would yell as they approached a door frame, and then cover her eyes with her hands as Jeevs ducked down a mere instant before she would have collided with it.

The oldest was Horace, and he had a jealous streak where Jeevs’ time was concerned. He enjoyed having Jeevs read him science fiction books before bed. He couldn’t read either, and was therefore typical as boys his age went. Despite the fact that most of the science fiction books he liked to hear were hopelessly outdated, he really seemed to like having them read to him by a robot, especially ones with robots in them. Jeevs knew this because Horace wouldn’t let either his mother or his father read to him. Of course that might’ve been because they could only read the primary reader versions of the books… like most adults in modern society, the Moynahans were illiterate except on the most rudimentary level. They could tell the difference between the words MEN and WOMEN, for instance, even without the accompanying Greek symbols. They got confused once at a place with GENTS and LADIES. But Horace’s favorite authors were Asimov, Bradbury, Del Rey, Sladek, anyone with a lot of robot stories.

“Come on Jeeeeevs!” Horace yelled at the robot on the fourth pass through the living room, or as it was known in this make-believe, the Haunted Wood.

“A ghost!” Jesse screamed when she saw her older brother trying to get Jeevs’ to stop.

Jeevs was about to duck underneath the chandelier in the main hall—

“A falling star!” Jesse yelled.

—when Horace suddenly rolled a toy truck right at his feet. The robot stepped on the truck, and his one leg went flying out behind him. With his inhuman dexterity he managed to maintain his footing long enough to lift Jesse off his shoulders and toss her onto the plush sofa where she landed harmlessly. Then Jeevs’ footing gave out and he plunged head-first into the wall.

Blackness. It was not unlike being shut off to conserve his power supply, except this time it had been unexpected. Jeevs knew it probably would have been rather painful too, had he been a human. This was not something he thought while “unconscious.” He thought nothing. There were no dreams or anything like that. He just stopped being until somebody turned him back on and he was Jeevs again, ready to work.

Except, when he was turned on, he had other thoughts aside from musing about pain. His head was a-jumble with images from Captain Battle and Isaac Asimov’s robot stories. The three laws of robotics scrolled through his memory over and over and over…

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, nor through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being unless such orders conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence unless such protection conflicts with the First and Second Laws.

And swimming through these Laws, underlaying them, was the cry of Captain Battle: “Fists… do the talking!”

Jeevs went back to work, although the children were no longer allowed to play with him before bed like before. The quality time with Mom and Dad stretched another hour into the early news broadcasts on the holo. Jeevs overheard a report about battlebots, designed by the military and sent into any number of small hot spot countries, where they efficiently murdered hundreds of villagers day and night until self-destructing. The report stated that there was a certain probability that a few of these killing drones had not self-destructed and continued to mutilate their way through certain South American countries. To top the story with a generous helping of horrific prophecy, the anchor suggested there was always a possibility one could wind up in your neighborhood someday, hacking and slashing and shooting to pieces your children. Then he ended with his usual, “And may the good news be your news.”

Jeevs was puzzled. Hadn’t these robots ever heard of the Three Laws? Weren’t they imprinted with them from day one?

One day Jeevs was outside mowing the lawn, using a push mower because Mr. Moynahan liked to see Jeevs actually working. A remote mower that Jeevs could have controlled from inside while washing the dishes or something would have been much more efficient.

“Hard work’s good for you,” Moynahan would tell Jeevs, as if speaking to an actual person. “Gives you character.”

Jeevs never bothered to wonder just what a robot would do with character.

While he was mowing the front yard, one of the robot street cleaners came down the road. Jeevs stopped and watched it as it approached. It looked very reminiscent of the battlebots he’d seen on the news. Some of the neighborhood children were playing in the street ahead of it, and it sounded several warning beeps as it grew near.

Jeevs turned off the mower, and went inside. Mr. Moynahan was sitting in his massage chair, asleep, and didn’t see Jeevs sneak past him and go upstairs. Jeevs went into the Moynahans’ closet for winter clothes and found Mr. Moynahan’s ski mask, made of a lightweight yet warm material called Mylar. It was red with white circles around the eye holes, and elastic so it fit snugly over Jeevs’ head when he put it on. On the other side of the closet he located Mrs. Moynahan’s hot pink cape, the one she wore to the the Governor’s costume ball and made of the same Mylar yet non-elastic, and fastened that around his neck.

Though he hurried he didn’t fumble or drop anything. He was a robot, with unnatural dexterity. Within moments he was costumed and ready to do battle with the disguised Battlebot outside. Sure, it may have the appearance of a street cleaner, but there was something about the way it bore down on those children, slightly faster than a real street cleaner so only a robot would really notice. Humans tended to miss subtle clues like that, but not robots and certainly not Jeevs. Dealing with the Moynahan children had trained him to notice any little alteration as in, say, a slight wobble in the mower indicating one of the kids had loosened the wheels so they would come off while Jeevs mowed the grass. Or Jeevs might catch one of the children faking illness to get out of having to go to what passed for school these days. The palms might be clammy, the temperature high on a damp forehead, and then Jeevs would reach underneath the pillow to find a washcloth that had been soaked in hot water.

“They’re just the most devilish little rascals, aren’t they?” Mrs. Moynahan would ask rhetorically with glee when Jeevs gave her the weekly behavior report.

Jeevs paused to look himself over in the bedroom mirror, to make sure he was sufficiently disguised. He didn’t want anyone to identify him, for he knew from having read all those comic books that villains would gladly take their frustrations at having been beaten by the superhero out on the superhero’s loved ones. The tight, fire engine red ski mask and hot pink cape definitely had the effect he was looking for, and the bright colors corresponded to what Jeevs remembered the Superheroes in the comic books wore.

His inner brain, the one that handled all the logic and mathematical functions just like any other computer, told him he had just about a minute to get to the battlebot/street cleaner before it “swept” over the innocent playing children.

Jeevs bounded out the open back window onto the gravel covered back porch roof, ran across it and leaped the chasm between the Moynahan house and the Corman house next door.

“That Corman’s a cheese eater,” Mr. Moynahan would say about his next door neighbor, who was a widower and at least 150 pounds overweight. Cheese eater was Mr. Moynahan’s favorite way of saying someone was a rat, which usually meant someone in the collection business, which Corman was.

“He won’t let the children play in his yard,” Mrs. Moynahan would say accusingly while the children nodded their lying heads in agreement. Jeevs knew Corman let the kids play in the yard as long as they didn’t hang on the branches of his citrus trees, which they always did.

From Corman’s house, Jeevs jumped onto the next one, and then the next one, so that he was then behind where the street cleaner was. He then leaped to the ground and ran as fast as he could, which was close to sixty miles per hour, toward the street cleaner. He saw it as the disguised battlebot, even though he’d seen the street cleaner numerous times before; 165 times actually, his inner brain told him, once a week for the just over three years he’d been in the Moynahan’s employ.

When he neared the street cleaner, Jeevs jumped as high as he could, hoping to land atop the monstrosity and get at its circuits to disable it. But a panel on the rear of the machine opened, and a nozzle popped out. A jet stream of water blasted Jeevs in mid-air, knocking him into the street, sprawled on his back. He scrambled to his feet. The children were shrieking with laughter, although to Jeevs they were screaming in agony as he imagined the battlebot ground them into hamburger. Once again he charged, this time deciding the advantage could be gained by yelling out his battle cry.

The problem, of course, was that he didn’t have one. In the space of the few seconds between the start of his charge and the moment he was to leap to the attack he reviewed all the slogans and battle cries of Captain Battle, Meathook, Bonesaw and all the other Superheroes in the comic books. He couldn’t use any of those because of copyright infringement. Besides, he wanted one that would be uniquely his own.

Several occurred to him in the next instant.

“Eat metal!” He didn’t like the connotations of that one.

“It’s BATTERING time!” Sounded too much like a slogan for a fried fast food place.

“Cowabunga!” No superhero in his right mind would say that.

“Viva Las Vegas!” Hadn’t some cartoon already used that?

Finally, as he neared what he perceived as a murderous behemoth, Jeevs came up with one he felt would be both effective and appropriate.

“Yeeeaaaaggggghhhhhhaaaamama!” he screamed inhumanly in mid-leap. The pitch and tone of his scream pierced the delicate noise sensors of the street cleaner like shards of glass through the diaphanous membrane of a jellyfish. It’s balance servos got all out of whack and it stopped. Jeevs landed securely on the thing’s wide roof, where he knew the simplistic brain card had to be.

“Warning!” The battlebot (for although Jeevs’ sensory apparatus informed him that in every way, shape and form it was definitely a street cleaner robot, his misguided, short-circuited reasoning center still believed it to be a battlebot in disguise) stopped and an alarm started whooping. “Warning! Vandalism of city property is a misdemeanor offense punishable by fines of up to five thousand dollars, community service, house arrest, and up to one year in the county jail! Warning! This is a series eight-five-three double-ay street cleaner by Hunnington Robotics Incorporated, and is owned by the city of—”

Jeevs had found the brain and pulled the card out, effectively mind-wiping the big ‘bot. Still, it wasn’t technically dead.

Jeevs broke the thin, fragile brain card, snapping it in two with his hands.

Now it was.

He ran across the roof and jumped down from the front, expecting to find the mangled remains of the poor children beneath the suspiciously missing forward grinders of the so-called battlebot, for he was sure he’d been too late to save them. Instead he was met by the quizzical expressions of small faces.

Suddenly a hovering newsbot approached.

Jeevs was disappointed. He had hoped to spend a touching moment with the children, to make sure they were okay and tell them not to worry because now they had a masked marvel to look out for them. But like any good superhero, the last thing he wanted was publicity. He turned to leap back onto the battlebot and make his escape.

“Wait!” a voice ordered. It sounded too much like a human voice to ignore, but it was coming from the newsbot. “I’m a reporter from Make it Great with Channel Eighty-Eight News! I’d like to interview you, please!”

It was a human voice, and the newsbot wasn’t a newsbot at all, but a remote. Jeevs couldn’t ignore a human just like that, unless an order from his owners overrode that human’s requests. Jeevs had no such orders, so he stood and waited to be interviewed.

“Don’t I know you?” one of the kids, who lived across and down the street a few doors, asked.

“All children know me,” Jeevs answered gently, “as their friend.” Good answer, he thought. He’d never read anything that good in any of little Fermi’s comic books, that was for sure.

The news remote hovered up to him, floodlights bathing him aglow even though it was mid-day and there were no clouds impeding the sun’s rays.

“Why did you attack that street cleaner ‘bot?” the remote asked.

“That’s no street cleaner,” Jeevs replied. “It’s a battlebot. It was about to rip these innocent children limb from limb.”

“No it wasn’t. Don’t you know street cleaners are programmed to wait for people to move aside before they can continue?”

If Jeevs could have sighed with exasperation he would have.

“Of course. Street cleaner robots have the Three Laws of Robotics embedded in their behavioral chips.”

“The three what laws?”

Jeevs explained the three laws, then said, “I could tell that this was a battlebot because it wasn’t slowing down quickly enough… if that makes any sense. It was my duty to stop it.”

“Your duty? Who are you?”

Jeevs paused before answering, although the human reporter would perceive no pause, as it lasted less than a second. Jeevs couldn’t give his real name, he knew that, for the same reason he had to disguise himself. He needed a good superhero name, like… Several occurred to him: Mightybot, Robohero, Metal Man, Captain Asimov, Tik To—Wait! Captain Asimov… It sounded good, and certainly rang true to his mission—to uphold the Three Laws and fight crime. That was it.

“I’m…” he paused for effect, “CAPTAIN ASIMOV!” With his modified speaker voice, for calling the children from play, Jeevs was able to add a nifty echo effect. The entire block reverberated with the “OV! OV! OV!

“What kind of a name is that?” the reporter asked through the remote.

Jeevs’ inner clock suddenly told him it was getting close to the time for lunch for the Moynahans.

“I’ve talked with you long enough,” he announced, then turned and leaped onto the dead street cleaner, ran across it, jumped down, and disappeared behind the houses. He de-costumed in the Moynahan’s backyard and hid the uniform in the tool shed. Nobody ever went in there, so his secret was safe… for the time being.

It made the six-fifteen news, exclusive to channel 88.

“In the suburbs today a city street sweeper was attacked and immobilized by a costumed robot calling himself Captain Asimov. The robot was apparently under the delusion that the street sweeper was a rogue battlebot, such as the type currently deployed by the United States in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Los Angeles, Cuba, El Salvador, Bolivia, and North Vietnam. Our research has led us to believe that this robot has named himself after the prolific science writer of the Twentieth Century, Isaac Asimov, whose Three Laws of Robotics were an idealistic if unrealistic proposition to control the use of robots.”

They showed Captain Asimov talking to the kids, included sound when he reverbed his name, flashed a still photo of the writer Asimov, showed some scenes of a real battlebot slaughtering some sheep in a field test, and ended with a picture of the street sweeper carcass being hauled off by a massive wrecker. Jeevs’ inner clock had timed the segment at twenty seconds.

“Hey Mom, hey Dad,” Fermi said as soon as the news bit was over. “Can we get a robot like Captain Asimov instead of just plain ol’ Jeevs? Pleeeeease? I bet we’d have a lot of fun with him! He’s a real superhero!” With that he commenced pretending to be Captain Asimov, beating up on imaginary battlebots (actually his father’s foot stool).

“Gaaaawwwwd Fermi, you’re stuuuupid,” Horace said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “Captain Asimov beat up a street cleaner! It wasn’t any battlebot.”

“It was too,” Fermi insisted. “It was in disguise!”

“How would you know?” Jesse asked, having decided to take her older brother’s side this time. “You’ve never even seen a battlebot.”

“I just saw one on TV!” Fermi yelled.

“Tell him Dad, please,” Horace appealed. “Mom…”

Mr. Moynahan cleared his throat and looked to his wife for guidance, but she only shrugged. As if to say Tell them, dear, I want to hear, too. “Well,” he started, and paused. He came very close to just saying Go to your room, but didn’t. “If the news says it wasn’t really a battlebot, then it wasn’t. Whoever this Captain Asmovitz is—”

Asimov,” Fermi corrected exasperatedly.

“Well, whoever he is, he must have a chip loose somewhere, to think a robot street cleaner could hurt little children.”

“There was that street cleaner that thought it was a dog catcher for a while,” Mrs. Moynahan pointed out. “Until they switched its chip with that dog catcher that was going around trying to sweep the streets with a net.”

Mr. Moynahan nodded as if this somehow proved a point, his point, whatever that was.

Jeevs remained unconvinced that the battlebot had really been a hapless street sweeper.

That evening he was relieved from having to read for the kids since the parents weren’t going out. Jeevs cleaned the upstairs while everyone sat watching vids downstairs, and finished early. Since he had nothing left to do, and knew from experience Mrs. Moynahan would handle the putting to bed and tucking in of the children, Jeevs silently climbed atop the roof where he tuned in to the airwaves in search of something for Captain Asimov to do.

Then he heard it, on the police band.

“Unit Twenty-three, Unit Twenty-three, please investigate a possible three-fifty-two-oh-four at Harris Street. Over.”

Jeevs wouldn’t have been interested had Unit Twenty-three not responded with, “Did you say a three-fifty-two-oh-four? Isn’t that a street sweeper malfunction? Over.”

“Affirmative Unit Twenty-three.”

“Where the hell are the city maintenance ‘bots?”

There was a pause, then the operator said, “Ah, they’re all disabled, Unit Twenty-three. Over.”

All of them?”

“Affirmative.”

“Jesus. Okay. Unit Twenty-three responding.”

Jeevs wasted no time. He was costumed and en route to Harris Street within moments.

He tried to stick to the rooftops as much as possible, with pretty good success since he could leap the gap between most of the houses and other buildings on the way. His body was constructed mainly of lightweight but extremely strong plastics reinforced by an alloy skeleton. Robots like Jeevs, self-aware and capable of learning, were designed to last a very long time. As Jeevs got further away from the Moynahan’s home, he started to get an unfamiliar and unpleasant feeling… as of being lost and alone. He went through the catalog of emotions he could feel, and found the only thing it could possibly be, since he was familiar with the others.

Longing. It started off as a small tug towards home, the urge to think Harris Street was a long way off, he might not make it back in time to have breakfast ready for everyone when they got up in the morning. Jeevs recognized it then. It was something he’d heard of but had never actually experienced, until now. In robot lore it was called the Collar. The Collar was supposed to keep a robot home, or within a certain boundary, by making it impossible to even want to run away. At first the Collar had been simpler, and crueler, giving the robot the equivalent of a painful jolt if it went past a certain point. This early version of the Collar had been inspired by the late Twentieth Century movie Star Wars. When self-awareness in robots became a reality a lobby on their behalf got the current, and much more humane, Collar written into the Artificial Intelligence Act of 2020.

The farther away he got the stronger the longing got. By the time he was almost to Harris Street he was near panic, but kept it under control as he imagined a real superhero would. In fact, it made him feel even more heroic!

But there was something wrong. He was at Harris street, but there was no street cleaner/battlebot. It had to here somewhere! What if it had gotten away? What if it had only appeared to break down to lure the police there. It could be off hacking up poor innocent humans right now!

Jeevs ran into the street, looking for clues, tracks, something that might tell him where the battlebot went. He was examining the pavement in the street, not finding any recent tracks whatsoever (and he’d know if they were recent, it was one of his most important skills, useful in keeping track of the Moynahan children) when he heard a noise behind him.

He whirled into a battle stance, feet wide apart and fists on hips, to find himself face to face with a robot cop.

“Freeze, you are under arrest,” the robot cop ordered.

Jeevs knew from the comics that there existed an uneasy truce between the law and costumed vigilantes. The best reaction to a confrontation with the police was to turn and run… as long as the danger was taken care of. But the danger wasn’t taken care of, there was still a battlebot on the loose somewhere in the city and someone had to do something about it.

Captain Asimov was just that someone.

“State your identification,” the robot cop ordered. It continued to advance on Jeevs, who stood his ground. Jeevs almost blurted out his formal I.D., which was Jeevs D (for domestic) 35 (for the year of his creation) X-5000 (series letter and model number) Moynahan (for his owner’s name).

He caught himself just in time, and though it took a great force of will to overcome the automatic law-abiding response that was as much a part of his self as the Collar, he said, “You can call me… Captain Asimov!” With reverb and everything. It wasn’t exactly a lie, which was why he didn’t suddenly drop to the ground paralyzed as would normally happen to a robot who lied to the police.

“Okay, tin-head,” a human male voice said from behind the robot cop. “We’ll handle it from here… give it the human touch, eh?”

The robot cop stopped advancing, and replied, “Yes, sir.”

Two human police officers, a male and a female, approached Jeevs.

“Okay Superman,” said the woman, “Shut yourself down so we can take you in. Don’t give us any trouble and we won’t give you any trouble.”

Jeevs didn’t do anything. He didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t counted on having to deal with the police, and certainly not human police. The Collar effect was getting stronger, and that battlebot… who knew where it was? Killing and maiming and slaughtering. And here the police were harassing an innocent, well sort of innocent, robot.

There was only one thing to do, and it had to be done now, because Jeevs knew if he waited any longer he would have to obey the police. It was the only behavior control stronger than the one that caused him to obey his owners.

He suddenly broke into a run.

“Hey!” the cops yelled, and started in pursuit. There was no way they could catch him with their organic legs. Jeevs outdistanced them within moments. He ducked into an alley to stop for a bit. Not to rest, but he needed to tune in to the police band again to find out if they’d sighted the battlebot anywhere.

But… before he could do that, he heard something.

It sounded like wheels, the way a battlebot would sound on pavement… Jeevs stepped into the shadows, as if that would do any good against the battlebots heat sensors. But it would! Jeevs gave off barely any heat at all because he wasn’t truly alive! He’d have the element of surprise.

“This is the police,” came the mechanical voice of the robot cop suddenly. “I know you’re in there, please come out with your hands in the air.”

The police, again! It was impossible to get away, and Jeevs couldn’t muster the strength to ignore the cop’s orders again. In fact, he knew that had the robot cop not come along, he would have wound up back home, for he suddenly realized that was the direction he’d started running in. The constant yearning of the Collar, to be home where he belonged, was becoming too much as well.

He stepped out of the shadows with his hands raised.

“You’re going to place me under arrest.” It was a statement of fact, and Jeevs didn’t know why he said it.

“No,” the robot cop replied.

“No? Then what—?”

“You are going to return home.”

Home! It was an effort not to immediately start running that way. Right now! Home!

But he stayed, and asked, “What about the battlebot? We have to find it and—”

“There is no battlebot. It was a ruse to trap you. We cannot permit deluded robot vandals running around scaring people. This would be detrimental to human/robot relations.”

“I couldn’t hurt anybody!” Jeevs said. “The Three Laws of Robotics—”

“Science fiction,” the robot cop said. “There are three hundred and forty-two laws governing the behavior of robots and the behavior of humans towards robots. You can access the public records concerning all of them, if you wish. Now go, go home, go where you belong.”

“Why?” Jeevs asked, even as he started past the robot cop. “Why are you letting me go?”

“It is obvious you present no danger to anyone. I am capable of value judgements without penalty, and have decided it would be best for all concerned for you to go home.”

Jeevs went. He took only a few steps homeward before turning back around to thank the generous robot cop, but it was already gone.

“Thank you,” he said anyway. He went home.

When he got there he noticed immediately that the downstairs lights were on, even though his inner clock told him it was just past four in the morning. This was quite odd, for no one was ever up at four in the morning at the Moynahan residence, except Jeevs who used this time to straighten and dust and clean. That way he had the days free to cook, run errands, do yard work, watch the children when they were home, etc. He had intended to go in through the rear entrance, but paused near a window to listen. Inside he heard voices, and crying.

He recognized the crying right off. It was Jesse, with her subdued, gulping sob that could go on for days if she felt so inclined, like the time her parents first left the kids alone with Jeevs. That had been a week with breaks only for sleep. He also recognized the sniffling trying-not-to-cry of Fermi.

Then he heard Mr. Moynahan.

“Please… please, don’t hurt us.” His voice quaked with fear. “Take anything, take whatever you want, just—”

“Shut up!” This voice was gruff and gravelly, and was followed a moment later by a dull thud, another thud, Mrs. Moynahan’s scream, and louder crying. The same gruff voice then said, “All of you, shut up now!”

Silence.

Jeevs didn’t know what to do. From the tenor of the intruder’s voice Jeevs concluded the man had to be desperate, and obviously capable of anything. If the police were called, would they arrive in time to avert disaster? Probably not. Jeevs was going to have to do something and do it soon.

There was a problem. Captain Asimov obeyed the Three Laws. One of those laws would not permit him to harm a human, yet another law would not permit him to allow harm to come to a human through inaction. If the thug inside were only a robot, then Captain Asimov could crash in through the window and knock him all the way to next Tuesday… but not even actorbots could act that human. The man in there was as real as, well, the Moynahans.

Nothing Captain Asimov could do, unless he found a way to subdue the criminal without hurting him, but the man sounded dangerous, violent, even suicidal—which goes hand in hand with homicidal. Someone had already been hurt, though, while Captain Asimov stood barely twenty feet away, separated by a plate of glass and a nylon drape. Inaction.

It suddenly hit Jeevs. Captain Asimov: superhero failure.

At the same time it also hit Jeevs that he, Jeevs, had no such animal as the Three Laws of Robotics constraining him from action. If he needed to, he would be perfectly within his rights to punch the villain holding his family hostage so hard it would knock his nose all the way around to the other side of his head.

“You,” he heard the ruffian inside say.

“Yes?” he heard Mrs. Moynahan reply.

There was a pause, then a low, throaty, evil, “Come here.”

The time for thought was past. Jeevs removed his Captain Asimov garb and dropped it onto the grass.

He stepped back from the window, took half a second to project his trajectory and envision the room inside. Assuming nothing major had been moved, he knew exactly where everything was. Then he jumped.

As he smashed through the glass he heard Jesse and Fermi scream, Mrs. Moynahan faint, and Horace yell out his name.

“Jeeeevs!”

The thug was as surprised as they were, and couldn’t react fast enough. He tried, though. He held a black automatic in his hand, and brought it around to aim at Jeevs, but by then Jeevs was upon him. He knocked the gun out of the man’s hand, sending it harmlessly into a cushion on the sofa. With his other hand, Jeevs plowed his palm right into the man’s nose, lifting him off the ground with the force of the blow and sending him airborne to slam against the only unadorned wall in the room. The man sunk to the ground, his nose gushing blood onto his shirt, unconscious. Jeevs quickly ran to the aid of Mr. Moynahan, who was groggily coming to. He seemed okay. Jeevs could detect no damage to the skull, at least.

Fermi had regained his spunk as soon as he saw the bad guy was down for the count—down, in fact, for several counts. “Wow Jeevs, you were way better than that old Captain Asimov! Wow!”

Jeevs felt something else, a new emotion he wasn’t sure he was supposed to be feeling. It seemed linked to the manner in which the Moynahans were looking at him, sparked by the grateful, adoring expressions on their faces. He wasn’t absolutely sure, but if he was right, he knew the word for it. Belonging.

Captain Asimov may have been a friend of the children, Jeevs thought, but I’m family.

Originally published in Superheroes (Ace Books, 1995).