As was explained by the woman we rescued, the not-so-utopian future I saw is one where superheroes and villains never existed. Where Teddy Roosevelt and Nikola Tesla never adventured through time. Where Captain Lightning never gave Hitler a wedgie. Where there is no Psycho Gecko or Darklight or Mobian. And while some of those people could definitely make the universe a little better by not existing, Jaguar Slayer’s real goal appears to be wiping out all of us in the name of order and perfection.
Our charge, Keiyona, told us a bit about her experiences. “Superpowers are from comic books or blockbuster movies. Maybe half-decent TV shows that networks cancel before their time.”
“Your military doesn’t have exoskeletons and rocket packs and so on?” I asked. Even our guys in the present have that stuff.
Keiyona shook her head. “There is no military.”
Alexander raised his hand. “What do you do about other countries?”
Keiyona thought about it a bit. “I don’t know. We never hear about them. Jaguar Slayer controls the government and the internet. I think there are other countries, but it’s hard to get news from place to place short of physically moving it, and travel has to be approved by an Ingram. Since the robots do all the work for us”
I think we all pretty quickly picked up some signals on our Shit’s Wrong-o-meters. I mean, on paper it sounds pretty nice. No cops, no military, no work. Probably cuts down on carbon emissions, too. Too bad the way the world got there was by the control of a killer computer program. I can’t really blame it on the people picking this, not when this computer started pulling this shit.
She continued, “My brother liked to tinker. It was his hobby. He had little kits that let you build simple robots and inventions, but then he told me he met some backdoor hobbyists. People who sneak around where the system is blind and do things it doesn’t approve of. They’re harmless and they’re everywhere. This time, the backdoor club was found. The last I saw of my brother, one of the Vigilants, those big robots, had scooped him up and was taking him to processing. I kept waiting to hear he had gotten some sentence or restriction, but I didn’t hear anything. I kept checking, but the system refused to tell me. Then another backdoor group found me and showed me video proof of the graves. Pits of bodies, for anyone who inconveniences the system too much.”
Heavy shit. And not, as some might guess, due to a problem with the Earth’s gravitational field in the future.
“Alright, what’s the plan?” I asked, wondering if they’d finally let me in on something ahead of time.
“My armor’s on the fritz. Want to take a look?” Qiang asked.
Oh, so that’s how this is going to be. I went with her down to my basement lab to take a look at the armor. The pseudomuscles were so compact and worked so smoothly, but it held interlocking armor plating that worked like scales. “Interesting, what seems to be the problem?”
“The problem is that no one’s being all that honest with you, but I know you hate that and are just as likely to take it out on us when you find out the truth. The others don’t personally know how that works with you.”
And then, she told me why. And it was indeed something that should stay just between us girls. What I can relay is when she went to a different subject. “But if you could take down Darklight, that would be a big help to us.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about her,” I said. “She reminds me of someone from my past.”
“Could be,” Qiang said. “Slayer might have known you’d get involved, or he grabbed someone who hated you to fight us. It’s dark, but there are people who would do that.”
“If it’s the person who I think it is, she has every reason. And it sounds like if I go after her, that’s something I have to do alone. Is there a way the Long Hall can get me somewhere on its own?”
The grown up version of my daughter affirmed there was and led me to the Long Hall, a really long hallway in the House of Shadows and Spires where every door can lead to a different point in time, including alternate timestreams. Last time, pun not intended, it allowed me to see what Jaguar Slayer was going for. A World War II devoid of superheroes. A future with his robot minions in control and where superpowers are considered fantasy.
“Say please,” Qiang told me.
“That’s it?” I asked.
She patted the wall. “The House is alive. If it wants to help, it will help.”
I nodded. “Ok, then, House. I have some ideas. Will you please help me?”
A painting appeared on the wall that wasn’t there before. It looked like a children’s drawing of a smiling sun. I gave it a thumbs-up. “Ok, good. I need a few things. First, I have to go steal something that shouldn’t be that tough to do. It’ll be so easy, I won’t even recount it until it’s critically important to make myself look clever while creating a sense of narrative tension that wouldn’t be there if they knew the whole story. Besides, it won’t come up for awhile.
Next, I decided I’d go punch that Darklight person. Keep it simple after all that. I figured we’d try one of those places I’ve never been to before. The picture in the Long Hall was an old-timey black and white photo of a skyline under construction, kind of like old Empyreal City. I asked for part of the Golden Timeline that Jaguar Slayer was trying to build.
I stepped out of a building to see plenty of dirty streets and mildly-leaned up passerby. Also some horses and old-fashioned cars. People looked at me like I was completely foreign of a being. Which I am. I set down a case that’ll become important later. A bunch of them scattered away from me. I held out a gloved hand. “A newspaper, if you please.”
The crowd pushed a paperboy forward who stepped up and handed me a newspaper. I handed him a gold coin. Real, by the way. With time at my disposal, a little gold is such a trivial thing to give away. Money is no object. Head into the future far enough, and there is no lack of resources. Perhaps Jaguar Slayer’s decision to destroy other timelines isn’t such a bad idea. Otherwise, I can see too many people like me using it for temporal colonialism. Oh yeah, I’m tempted to use and abuse this situation.
But that would have to come after I finished with this alternate Empyreal City, this New York City. This essential part of
Now comes the part of this story to save the multiverse that requires a villain. I threw the paper back at the whole crowd. Then I raised my hands, took a good horse stance like it mattered, and let out a paralyzing screech. It’s such a cheap trick. Probably why it was first used on me by prison guards. The thing about us supervillains though: we tend to be thieves.
Everyone in sound of me dropped, paralyzed. Didn’t stop their breathing. Caused some car accidents. Just small ones, and only into sidewalks… and people on sidewalks. Buildings. Other cars. Pretty sure this is one of those situations where I have to be at least a little bit as ruthless as the AI I’m hunting. I didn’t figure I’d have to do much before I got the result I expected.
It didn’t. A bright light appeared in the sky. From it flew the burned woman in black, Darklight. Or some version of Forcelight, I would guess. A version with a better name.
She came flying in, landing with a crater. I left a hologram nearby to at least attempt to talk things out. “Hey, whatever timeline you’re from… I probably deserve all the hate you have for me. But you’re helping someone who has killed way more people than me. Whatever that other me did to you, I’m not her. Or him. I realized some things about myself. But anyway, helping Jaguar Slayer means you’re doing to trillions what that me did to you. And in the end, you won’t even get whatever you want. It’s going to erase all superhumans.”
She pulled off her mask, showing off that burnt face. “I made those nanomachines to help the world and you used them to threaten everyone. Then you took control of me and left me to die in space. Jaguar Slayer saved me, but the deal was, I get to kill you. He even got you to be his spy on the inside, feeding him information through that stupid blog.”
By this point, I was sneaking up behind her. That’s why I didn’t see her eyes shimmer until she turned around and tried to put her fist through my chest. I blocked it with both arms, watching her watch me. She could see me. With a pulse of white light, she dispelled my holograms.
“New tricks?” I asked. I followed it with another paralyzing screech that didn’t do anything to her. Worth a try.
“Killing you will be a treat,” she said through a strained grin as she pushed back against me. Then she grabbed my wrists, flew up just enough, and pushed me down onto my back on the street. Both hands were right there in front of me, but then my nanite cape formed a pair of arms that wrenched them away. Blasts of dark light melted cars and concrete around us.
“I’m sorry and I was wrong. If you’ll let me, I can heal you. It won’t make up for it, but I want to be better,” I said.
She glared down at me and kicked me in the boob. Then another kick to make sure she got the second one. “You killed my father you fucking freak!”
Ok, I think I’ve established diplomacy is not an option. I kicked up into her gut with both feet, then formed the nanites into one arm to whip her against a nearby building. I deployed a trio of mini drones from my armor that zipped toward her, exploding uselessly. It was enough to cover up when I came running up with some old-timey Beetle car and smashed it into her.
Black light blasted it out of my hands, leaving me holding my hands above my head and ripe for a haymaker to the jaw that made it snap out of place. I gave her one right back. I caught her return punch, and she caught mine in turn. “You’re not stronger than me anymore. If I wanted you dead, you would be.”
She stomped on my foot, then uppercutted me. I slammed back onto the street. Then she dug her heel into my ankle. She flew up. Way up.
“Stop now, before I’m forced to hurt you,” I declared to Darklight before she flew down fist first. I didn’t say it loud. I lost so many teeth from that uppercut.
The nanites pulled me to the side and left us both crashing down into the sewers. She fell much harder than I did. I got my bearing more quickly in the rubble and extended the laser claw power I’d stolen and genetically modified into myself since I’d last encountered Forcelight. She groaned. I stood there and lifted her up by the hair, bringing the claws in close. Then I dissipated them. Instead, I tossed her up onto the street and hopped out.
Darklight’s boss wasn’t too happy. There was that big device with the red light that pulsed quicker and quicker. The thing he uses to annihilates rogue timestreams. I hit the remote activation sequence for that suitcase I’d dropped and was happy to see it responded after all that fighting nearby. I grabbed Darklight and carried her over my shoulder, making for the door as fast as I could.
The Time Annihilator neared its activation. Off down the street, next to a pile of metal and some dazed people the Jaguar Slayer would sacrifice anyway, a suitcase popped open to display a shrunken clockwork device that once stood in a clocktower in the mountains of Romania. A grief-stricken father tried to use it to stop time after his son died. I think I regretted that kill even then. I studied it then, but realized I could also just find something to shrink it down and abduct the original. Now, its imminent activation caused Darklight and I to rubberband back and forth. I was at the doorway with her over my shoulder, then I was back in the hole, then I was where I thought I was supposed to be and ran for the door.
The door slammed itself shut behind Darklight and I. A photo hung next to the door of the scene outside. It was smashed up from our fight, but it was still there, frozen in time and holding that device at bay.
Mobian Jr. was the first to arrive, followed quickly by Wattson. “I’ll get her to the stasis cell,” Wattson declared.
Mobian Jr. looked over to the door, looking at the photo. “You trapped it, you clever primitive.”
I waved it off goodnaturedly while still getting my breathing under control. “Maybe now… you can stop giving me the… what’s the phrase?”
“The reach around?” Mobian Jr. asked.
I pointed at him. “Yes, that’s it exactly. Keep using it that way.”