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.

 

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