“Before we go in there, I got somethin’ to say,” I said to a group of nearby Master Academy trainees and heros. Many heads turned toward me, though a few gazes remained transfixed on the building ablaze before us. Venus preemptively facepalmed. “It’s better to burn out, then fade away!” Most of the rest followed Venus’s lead.
“What do we call her?” asked one of the others. Ball Boy, it looked like. Back in action and black in eye.
“You don’t,” said Venus.
At the same time, I answered, “Whirligig.”
“Alright. No one goes it alone. We get everyone out. We got lucky we were all out.” Seriously. As part of my “heroic internship” they made me do some of the heavy lifting while shopping for decorations and party essentials as a sort of in-costume public appearance to make people feel safe. They even stuck me in a re-colored version of the Master Academy outfit modified for what I had been going for in my latest disguise. They gave it a cheap “circuit board” coloring in spots; otherwise it was grey. We happened to be passing by an apartment on our way back when someone ran out smelling of smoke and asked for help with a fire.
“Let’s get in there and be heroes,” Venus said. I cringed. Strange thing was, the others were generally a little slower getting into the burning building. You’d think they’d never gone into one before. I, on the other hand, have spent so much time in fires that I might as well carry marshmallows with me everywhere I go.
I didn’t know who they assigned to be my teammate, but they maybe should have known to climb. I turned my run into a handstand that allowed my hoverboard drones to catch up and slide into place on my feet. They flew me upside down to the top of the building. I don’t normally work to get keep people from being set on fire, so it was a little bit of a new situation. On the other hand, my extensive experience saving my own ass came in handy. It was just a matter of throwing a person over my shoulder and then saving my own ass.
The difficulty came when I got out one last time and had to catch a girl who tried to run in. “Easy there. Hold on. Take this one.” I tossed the person I was carrying, a rather rotund man in boxers, on top of the kid.
That stopped the pre-teen from heading in any further, for a moment. The guy was conscious, after all. He stood up, apologizing to her. I had to grab her to keep her from running in. “You’re not supposed to go in there right now.”
“My grandpa and grandma are in there still!” she shouted at me. She pointed up, around the 13th floor. Or maybe it was the 14th. They can go to the moon, but they’re still afraid of magical numbers. As if simply not calling it the 13th floor will stop whatever evil spirits magically attach to it. Booga booga booga booga!
I had missed the floor, and it looked like most of the Academy supers were busy. I jumped up, the mechanical extra arms gripping the wall and propelling me up. They reached into the window ahead of me, knocking out any remaining glass in the frame before I slid through. I was in a kitchen. I pulled in the drones behind me and let them split apart to search. This apartment didn’t have anything. I made my way down the hallway like that, splitting up into three groups, all the while trying to keep myself low. Without my armor’s seals, I was as vulnerable to asphyxiation as anyone else.
On the other hand, it was getting pretty damn hot in there. Shoving myself in a metal can wasn’t the best way to deal with that. It looked like I may not get to gramps and gam-gam before the smoke killed them. I’m a hell of a lot healthier than any old coot and his old cootchie, and I was starting to have trouble.
Per-fucking-usual for my luck, I found them on the rear of the building, where the building had some tiny shared backyard with a building behind it. The old man held his wife closed with clenching, wrinkled hands. The woman held her hands clasped in prayer. I could tell her husband was mouthing something about love and her that sounded less like a prayer and more like a goodbye.
“Up and at’em, molden oldies. A little less conversation, a little more action.” I brought in the drones and raised the mechanical arms. They all fired lasers that cut a big hole in the wall of the apartment so I could get clear access to the fire escape. Someone hadn’t kept things up to code, though. The weight of that wall and brick caused it to fall down. I thought it was only going to fall that one floor, but, nope, they all went down. “That’s inconvenient,” I said as I looked down at it.
The building shifted a bit. Something weakened from the rising heat and a support fell, taking one of my drones with it. “Real damn inconvenient,” I added. That one wasn’t responding. I wrapped the mechanical arms around the two now-standing old people and called out the drone I did have. It couldn’t hold all that weight on its own, but it could at least slow the fall. Probably would have worked until a window blew out two floors down and threw us across the yard. There was much screaming and gnashing of teeth from the old folks. It only lasted until their teeth plummeted, but they weren’t still in the mouths of their owners.
I caught myself, but it was an awkward affair. I had to jam my arm in between a pair of the vertical struts of the other building’s escape’s rail. It broke my arm and left me hanging there. The man slipped from my arm and I had to catch him on my foot. It was not a fun situation.
I reluctantly turned on my comms in time to hear someone ask after me. “Any word from Whirligig yet?”
“No. Keep your eye out. That should be all of them,” answered Venus.
“We got a girl here talking about her grandparents,” another voice piped in.
“Shit, what floor are they on?” the first voice asked.
That was as good a cue as any. “Whirligig here. I got ’em. I must regretfully ask for a tiny bit of assistance here.”
The heroes were nice enough not to laugh at the sight of me hanging by a broken arm jammed in a railing with a pair of geriatrics weighing me down. They had flyers take the old people, and a last one brought up a first aid kid. “Let’s see to that arm.”
I held up a hand and reached to my belt, pulling out a syringe. A broken syringe. “Well, fuck.”
“Let’s see to that,” said the medic.
I waved him off. “I don’t need you sitting around here laughing. Just go and deal with the old folks or something. They were coughing real bad when I got to them.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
I shooed him away. “Go. Off with you.” I gave him the stink eye until he left. He’s lucky I didn’t use a laser eye instead. So while he went off, I was stuck pulling myself free with the help of my mechanical arms. I finally got up and over the railing so I could try and set the arm.
In my ear, I heard, “Good job. That’s everyone.” But, upon looking up, that turned out to not quite be accurate. I saw rodents staring back at me through the window. Hamsters, I think. Or gerbils.
“This day,” I muttered to myself. I brought up the drone as a stepping stone and jumped across and through the window, pulling my good arm up to without thinking. That was bad, because that’s the arm that caught the remnants of the window glass and got cut up pretty good. But, hey, at least I had my mechanical arms. Grab each of the furry little assholes in one, ride the drone down. Easy. I called the drone over, which worked pretty good until falling bricks knocked it down.
But at least I had the pockets on this uniform. Of course, that’s when the ceiling collapsed on me.
When the found me crawling out of there, I was wearing tatters, barely enough to cover all my pink bits and keep this operation Safe For Work with all the kids around. I focused on something past the heroes to keep from looking any of them in the eye. I didn’t hear too much of what they said. Something about getting me into the ambulance.
Then I heard the crying. “What about Butterscotch and Werewolf?” asked child’s voice.
“I’m sorry, honey,” said a consoling mother.
“Don’t lay me on my back,” I told the heroes. “Lay me on my front. Trust me. And close these damn doors.”
“What are you talking about? You need to lay where you can get air,” said Venus. When did she get over here?
I coughed a bit. “Trust me, I want to be on my belly for this next part. I think I saved Butterscotch and Werewolf. Damn well better be them. They’re nibbling on my colon.” There was some hacking. Ah yes, the famous black loogie. Haven’t seen one of those in awhile.
At least they were understanding about keeping the door closed so I didn’t have to see the reactions of everyone to the reappearance of the two gerbils.
Good news, they sprung for some nanites to help me recover more quickly from all the internal organ problems. It was a weight off my mind to know the kidney failure was going to be fixed, what with the giant splinter through it. Just wish they would have left me alone in my recovery.
It wasn’t so bad having Qiang snuggled up to me in the TV room, which is as far as I got after escaping the infirmary. But then that one super who played medic stopped by to check on me. Another one brought me a plate of food. “That was kickass,” that guy said. Teenager, had some muscles on him.
I noticed some other hanger-ons, too. A fat guy sitting in a corner, pretending to focus on a tablet instead of on me. “Fuck off,” I said, then laid my head down.
I woke up an hour later, according to my eye clock. Qiang was passed out beside me.
“Ugh, she was the worst,” said this one tiny guy with way too feathery hair. “She had this big mole thing.”
“What’s all this then?” I asked.
“Hey sleepyhead,” said a guy with three eyes on his head. “These jokers were talking about teachers they remember most. Sorry if we woke you. Nice hair, by the way.”
That got a snicker. Yeah, my hair would be a mess. I pulled my eye out real quick to make sure nobody had drawn on my face while I slept. Still clean. Popped it right back in and heard some “Ew”s from the crowd. I ignored them and checked to see how I was doing. Still soreness and internal bruising. They were rationining the nanites, stingy a-holes. I figured I should be able to get around on my own again, but I thought I might add something to the conversation. “The teacher I remember most was… actually, she wasn’t one of the ones from the program.”
Everyone shut up hearing me contribute. I noticed Psychsaur passing by and stop at the doorway. I tried to ignore her. “Eleseta,” I said, though it was with the Old Country’s accent. More like Old World at this point. It came out sounding more like “Elizabeth,” kinda. “If I had to make it sound like English, I guess Elisabeth. It all started when I was loaned out by the General to help this guy… something like a Senator. Not exactly. He was a big deal in the Pure Human Party, but he used members of this gang to help his goals. They were the Metalheads. They stayed so high all the time, they would replace body parts with crude cybernetics until they had almost nothing left. The worst ones couldn’t even feed themselves.”
“This is a weird teacher story,” said Triclops.
I held up a hand. “I’m getting there. I was sent in to find out why some of the Metalheads were cleaning up graffiti and helping people all of a sudden. They would beat up other gangs to return stolen goods. I found out there was an underground school going on. This was a bad part of the city and these guys were killers, so you don’t expect to find out some unarmed, unpowered woman with ovaries of steel is teaching them math or ethics. She was getting them real jobs, even. Imagine some big guy who looks like the front half of a car on metal legs serving you at a fast food place. The Senator wanted her caught, not killed. He was very specific on that. He wanted her broken as an example. Not killed. Alive, but…” I couldn’t really articulate it. “I caught her, no problem. She just wouldn’t stop talking.”
I stared off into space, remembering. She wasn’t mean, either. She was disappointed. She offered to help me. She saw, or thought she saw, someone in need of the same kind of help as those idiots with blenders for hands. “She insisted it was never too late. Irritated the hell out of me. Before the Senator’s people could do anything, Metalheads broker her out with the help of this other group. Not exactly mercenaries, but not a police force. They were an international agency to solve threats from extraordinary individuals. They got her out, but I was close after them. They were bringing in a stealth VTOL, but it was minutes away and they were just a small branch. The Peacekeepers and the Metalheads stood between me and her.”
Actually, I found her first. I could walk right past all of them without anyone finding me. I was more mission-oriented in those days. I was more precise. I could still remember the way she looked. Her beautiful defiance. That was the first time I ever thought of a human as beautiful. “She wouldn’t back down.” She kept saying that phrase over and over again. It rang in my ears like I was Grendel, seemed like. “Not even after what I did to everyone else in the building.”
I killed them all. I’d been more precise up to that point, but I had to show her. “She was wrong. There’s always someone like me.” Someone who will prove her wrong by murdering her students and allies around her. It’s not like I dragged them all over to her, but she heard plenty.
“So I had her there, cornered on the rooftop. No escape. And, that’s that.”
“Did you kill her?” asked Triclops.
I shook my head. “That wasn’t my mission. I shouldn’t have told this story. Not a good one.”
I got up, picking up Qiang. She hugged onto me as I started to walk away. Triclops called after me, “What happened?”
I stopped long enough to give an epilogue. I spoke proudly, “After that mission, I got a lot less precise. Unnecessary casualties. Enemies and allies both had a tendency to suffer collateral damage. That was the spark of my own fire, waiting to be stoked.” I walked out and kept my eyes straight, away from Psychsaur. I don’t know how much she could tell about me at that moment, but I didn’t want any of them to risk figuring it out for sure. Let them think I killed her if that makes them feel better.
I didn’t think I could go back there so easily when I started that story. When the VTOL plane landed on the rooftop, I just stood there. The pilot must have freaked when they lowered the ramp and Peacemakers trained their useless weapons on me. Elizabeth just stared into my eyes like my visor was clear. She turned and walked up the ramp. Just before it closed on me, she turned back. It looked like pity again, or maybe a deep sadness over everyone who died to get her away. Chances are I’m imagining things and romanticizing the past. But I made out the same sentence she’d told me when I first caught her, and then when I confronted her again. It had been at the bottom of every syllabus she’d passed around. Chances are it was on the new ones she had printed in the next city she showed up in, well away from the Senator and no longer disrupting his plans.
“It’s never too late.”
I need to kill someone.