Project 7 has nice headquarters. The Great Hall has a real cathedral feel to it: vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows, fancy marble floors, the works. The colors on the wall are rich and warm. The whole place feels very peaceful. I’ve read rumors this feeling is “enriched” by sub-sonic bombardment, but I can’t say for sure.
Right now, I’m standing before a long wooden table on high dais, from which five star-caliber heroes look down impassively. I’m getting a distinct Judgment Day vibe.
“Name,” says the woman in a silver spandex jumpsuit packed with interesting curves. She’s Sparkle, P7’s leader.
“Dreadnaught,” I reply.
“Nice name,” comments Magnetar. He looks over to Sparkle. “Is it copyrighted?”
She shakes her head, causing her silvery hair to, well, sparkle, in the light. “Powers?”
I hear a snort from one end of the table. It’s Ox, who is predictably big, strong, and stupid-looking. “How invulnerable?”
My mother the English teacher would have cringed. I know this is splitting hairs, but you can’t be more or less invulnerable. It’s like being pregnant: you’re either invulnerable, or you’re not. Most metas who say they’re invulnerable may be very resistant to harm, but they’re not, strictly speaking, invulnerable to harm.
But arguing this point with a guy like Ox wouldn’t just be counterproductive to my application, it would be pointless. So, “Completely,” I say.
“How do you know that?” Psi-pod is this one’s name. It’s an intelligent question, which is not surprising, because he’s one of the smartest people in the world. Except when it comes to picking a code name. Maybe he was angling for an endorsement deal with Apple or something.
“Well, I’ve set off mines, fallen off an 80-story building, been hit by a freight train, shot with an anti-tank weapon, shoved into high-tension power lines, doused with acid, thrown into a vat of molten steel, shot with a pulse laser weapon, and hit by several guys who can punch through mountains – all without any physical harm at all. Let’s call it an educated guess.”
“Ever been in a nuclear explosion?” he counters.
“Attacked with a gamma ray laser? Sonic weapon? Microwaves?”
“No, yes and it did nothing to me or my hearing, and no.”
There’s a moment of silence, as several of them scribble in their folders.
“What’s the source of your invulnerability?” Psi-pod asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Haven’t you had tests run?”
“Well, some medical tests are out of the question, because they can’t draw my blood,” I explain. “I also don’t shed hair or skin cells, so I haven’t had any DNA testing.”
“What about fluid samples?”
“None of my bodily fluids contain testable cells.” This is a bit embarrassing, not to mention depressing. Sorry ladies, but there’s no chance of bringing up Baby Dreadnaught.
“They don’t penetrate. Neither do X-ray machines. And I’ve never had the opportunity to get one of those full-spectrum scans.”
Sparkle nods and smiles. Her smile is sparkly too, but in a different way. No wonder she gets so many magazine covers. “That shouldn’t be a problem. If we call you back for a second interview, we can do a scan then.”
Psi-pod is tapping his lips with his thumb, indicating that the gears in his big weird brain are turning. “Do you think you’re immortal?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I haven’t had my powers long enough to tell if I’ve stopped aging.”
He scribbles in his folder.
Then Ox says “Can we have a demonstration of your invulnerability?”
Shit, I think. All these hypertrophied beefcake guys are the same. “Is that necessary?”
Sparkle answers. “If your entry was accepted, we would have to test your capabilities anyway.”
Ox raises his ponderous bulk from his reinforced chair and steps down from the dais. “Let’s do this the simple way,” he rumbles, and I want to say that’s probably how he does everything, but this is a job interview, so I don’t.
“I mean, if you’re invulnerable, I should be able to bounce you off the wall without it hurtin’ you, right? Think you can take my best shot?” He looks like he’s hoping I can’t.
“I know that I can. It’s just…” I trail off.
“What?” He asks challengingly.
I try not to roll my eyes. God, I hate bullies. “Nothing. Let me have it, tough guy.”
He winds up so far back that his knuckles are dragging the ground behind his heels. I fold my arms and wait.
I bounce off the far wall before I even realize I’ve been flying through the air. There’s an interval of about five seconds when I’m on my hands and knees – I won’t bother recounting the litany of profanity I spit out. It hurts. A lot.
Then I’m on my feet, and walking back over to the dais. I take some solace in the look of dumbfounded pain on Ox’s face as he rubs his knuckles. “Next question,” I deadpan. Sparkle hides a smile with her hand. Maybe she’s not a big Ox fan either.
“That looked like it hurt.” This from Evenflow.
“So you’re not completely invulnerable.”
“You’re not immune to pain.”
Damn it. “No,” I concede, “I do feel pain. But I have a high tolerance for pain, because it’s just pain.”
Sparkle scribbles something in her folder. “What other powers do you have?”
“Well, my invulnerability includes not having to eat or sleep, or wear mittens or sunscreen. But basically, that’s my only power.” Here we go, I think.
“That’s it?” Ox is squatting over his chair, frozen in the act of sitting down. “You can take a punch? That’s your only power?”
“Isn’t that like saying your only power is that you’re strong?” I know – you’re not supposed to be confrontational during an interview. Thankfully, Sparkle intervenes.
“We are aware that how one uses his power can be as important as what that power is. What skills would you add to the team?”
I tell her. Good with computers, well-trained in martial arts, strong mechanical background, excellent tactical improvisational skills, good at public relations, and I make a mean martini. (I get a guffaw from Evenflow with that one.) We talk for awhile about what I can bring to the table and all that good job interview stuff. I tell a few anecdotes about my battles with other metas. I don’t have many good stories. For one, I haven’t been doing this for that long, and for another, most of my fights with serious metas have been stalemates. I steer away from those.
“Anything else you’d like to add?” Sparkle asks.
“Yes. I’m a pacifist.”
“WHAT?!” Ox throws his hands up in the air, and the rest of the team looks incredulous.
Sparkle stays calm, though, and asks “What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t believe in using violence to resolve conflict. There are other ways to do that. Violence should be a last resort.” I direct that last part in Ox’s direction.
Evenflow looks up from his folder. “Are you telling me you took down the Crickets gang without using violence?”
I meet the doubtful gaze from behind his dark purple mask. “That’s what I’m telling you, “ I shrug. “Check the police reports and security footage if you don’t believe me.”
Scribble scribble. Sparkle looks up, and her smile is friendly but unencouraging. “I think we have all we need for now. We’ll contact you within the week regarding a second interview.”
I get a wild hair and wink at her. To my surprise, her smile widens a bit and she looks away. Was that a little shimmer of sparkling energy around her head? Did we just have a little moment?
“Thank you for your time, folks,” I say, and then I walk out of the cathedral and back into the cold cruel world.
It’s near sunset, five days later. I’m squatting on a fire escape, fidgeting with my surujin (basically a length of rope with a big knot tied at each end). Down below, a couple of goons who recently jimmied open a second-story window are about to climb out with ill-gotten loot of some sort. I’m just waiting for them to finish the crime so I can nab them.
And my cell phone vibrates in my pocket.
Normally, I’d ignore it. OK, normally, my cell would be turned off, but I’m waiting for the Project 7 people to call me. In case you’re wondering: no, it’s not my civilian phone, it’s a “disposable” phone. Call me paranoid, but I just don’t want any hero team to have potential access to my cell records.
So I answer the phone with a crisp and professional “Dreadnaught here.”
“Good afternoon, Dreadnaught, this is Sparkle from Project 7.”
“Oh, uh, hello,” I say brightly. “I was hoping to get a chance to talk to you again."
“Well, um, I, it's my pleasure,” she replies. Did she just stumble over her words? “I just wish it was under better circumstances.”
“I’m guessing that means I’m not getting a second interview.”
“Well, no. The majority of the team felt there were more viable candidates.”
“Well, that’s the way it goes. But it would make my day if you told me that you weren’t part of the majority.”
“Consider my day made.”
“I’m glad I could help.” I can hear the smile in her voice.
And of course this has to be the moment when Thug One and Thug Two climb out of the window.
“Listen, Sparkle,” I murmur, “I'd love to talk some more, but I have to let you go. I’m in the middle of some heroic crime fighting right now. But I was wondering if I could, uh, call you or something later?”
Only a moment’s hesitation. “Why, yes. That’d be great. Here’s my number…”
I didn’t really expect to get a place in P7. It was a long shot, but I was running out of groups to try out for. But if I wind up scoring a date with Sparkle, it was worth getting punched in the face by Dumb-as-an-Ox. I slip the phone into my pocket with a smile.
Then I drop down from the fire escape and blissfully beat the snot of Thug One and Thug Two.
Yeah, I lied about being a pacifist. I already knew most of the P7 guys had written me off, and I just wanted something to throw in Ox’s face.
With the thug brothers soon in plastic restraints, I make a quick call to the police and am on my way across the rooftops.
It’s later in the evening, and I’m doing a little patrolling around the city at rooftop level.
Skipping around on rooftops is not the cool and romantic activity it’s often portrayed as being. They’re usually filthy, covered with a combination of bird droppings, old puddles, oil, soot, and a few other unidentifiable substances that always wind up staining your costume. The ambience is post industrial and miserable. Occasionally, you’ll stumble across some homeless guy who somehow sneaked up an unlocked stairwell, or a couple of co-workers desperate for a private hanky-panky spot.
There are nice rooftops – private penthouse gardens and occasional executive patios, for example – but they tend to have all kinds of security measures that dissuade most roof top heroes from dropping in. But for the most part, the roofs are lifeless, ugly, and neglected. All of which makes them ideal for moving around without being seen, which is why fools like me are up here in the first place.
I’ve come to a halt on the edge of the roof of the Warren Building, keeping a vigilant eye out for murderers, rapists, robbers, and jaywalkers. While I watch, I fish a PB&J out of my minipack and have dinner.
It’s one of those weird quiet nights. The weather is nice, which usually brings out the nice people and the cruds who prey on them in equal measure. Tonight, though, there’s not a lot happening.
Suddenly, the sandwich is knocked out of my hands, and goes tumbling 30 stories to give some barfly a great story to tell later on.
“What kind of hero eats peanut butter and jelly?” A man’s voice behind me, low and rough, sandpapered by a thousand cigarettes and a thousand glasses of whiskey.
“A frugal one. And who says I’m a hero?”
I turn to look at the guy. I can just see his outline in the gloom, about twenty feet away. Evidently, he shot or threw something to knock the sandwich out of my hands.
“Oh, you’re a hero, all right,” he replies, taking a step or two closer. “A half-assed hero with a half-assed attitude.” His voice drips with contempt, but I stay put. He’s obviously trying to start something, and I refuse to be baited.
“Whatever. Why don’t you go knock an ice cream cone out of some school girl’s hand? Seems like you have a knack for that sort of thing.”
He chuckles, low and deep. “So you do have a backbone. Too bad you didn’t show much of one during your tryout today.”
This gets me to my feet. I start going through the possibilities. He doesn’t sound like any of P7. He’s not Sparkle, obviously. He’s too small to be Ox, and too big to be Psi-pod. That would leave Evenflow and Magnetar, or the other two members who weren’t there, Overlord and Whip.
He sees what I’m thinking. “No, I ain’t one of those Project 7 glory hounds. Think they’d care to track down small fry like you?”
I shrug. “Then how do you know about that interview? Who are you?”
“You’d be surprised at what I know. As to who I am, you don’t get to know that. But you can call me ‘Momos.’”
And he steps into a shaft of flood light that’s made its way through the maze of air conditioning units and billboard supports. The black bodysuit he’s wearing serves as contrast to his bright golden mask, which is disturbing to look at. It’s like someone took a set of Greek comedy/tragedy masks and melted them together – left side comedy, right side tragedy, both sides exaggerated grotesquely.
“’Momos,’” I repeat, recovering. “Isn’t that from Aesop’s Fables or something?”
The mask tilts sideways at me. “Among other places. Not bad, hero. They teach you that in those night classes you’ve been taking, College Boy?”
“What are you, stalking me or something?” Now I’m nervous. I have been taking college classes, but as Michael Deacon, not Dreadnaught. He knows who I am? Not good. At all.
He ignores me. “Momos is the god of writers and poets, not to mention satire, mockery, and criticism.”
“You don't say.”
“Don’t interrupt me, College Boy, I’m on a roll. See, Momos was the first critic, someone not afraid to point out the flaws in the status quo. He was bold enough to face up to the big shots – Zeus, Aphrodite, Hephaestus – and tell it like it was. He pissed off the other gods so much he got kicked out of Olympus.”
“Sounds like quite a role model. Why are you bothering me?”
“Because you deserve criticism, College Boy. You deserve mockery. You ain’t living up to your potential, and it’s time you did.”
Each time he calls me “College Boy” increases my desire to punch him in the face. “Wonderful,” I reply. “They cloned my father and gave him a dime store Halloween mask.”
“Hah!” His laugh was a grunt. “There’s that backbone again. Maybe if you had a little more of that, you’d be doing something more important than helping little old ladies across the street.”
“Stopping criminals isn’t important?”
“No. It ain’t.” He crouches down, so that only the upturned corners of his mask gleam in the light, like horns. “Leave that Good Samaritan crap for the lamers. There’ll always be robbers, rapists, gang bangers, and drug dealers. And there’ll always be helpless proles for them to prey on. Knock one down, another takes his place. It’s a zero-sum game, College Boy. It’s for suckers.”
“Well, if you’ve been stalking me for any length of time, you know that I can knock them down faster than they get up – and that I haven’t done quite as well taking on the heavy hitters.”
“Thought you was invulnerable.” He piles so much contempt onto the word that it threatens to collapse.
“That’s not the point. The point is that while I technically can’t get beat up by guys like Ram or Redzone, I can’t beat them either. A surujin doesn’t do much to a guy who can bend I-beams between his pinkies.”
The mask cocks sideways again, so one horn disappears. “Thought you beat that Ironjack dude.”
“Sort of. I threw a handful of molten metal at his head. It covered the visor and melted the electronics in his helmet.”
“And then you threatened to kick him into the smelter.”
“So you beat him. What’s the problem?”
“The problem is that I can’t arrange every fight to take place in a steel mill.”
“Half-assed. Just like I thought.”
“It’s not half-assed! Every man has his limits.”
He stands up suddenly, and I take an involuntary step back, dammit. He’s not a huge guy, but he has a presence that’s… commanding, somehow. But I don’t like being intimidated, and this guy was pissing me off.
“Every man has only one limit, College Boy, and that’s the size of his own balls. And you got yourself a shrinkage problem.”
That’s it. As I charge forward, I know I’m doing what he wants me to do. It’s been obvious the whole time he’s pushing at me to find my limits. But I don’t care. I just want to shove my fist through his mask and down his throat.
I’m pretty fast, but he’s fast, too. He throws a punch, and I brush it aside. My forearm’s just as invulnerable as the rest of me, and I know it can hurt a guy when I block with it, so I stand there and block his punches for a moment. I see an opening, and catch him with a left that sends him bouncing off an air conditioning unit. He ducks my incoming kick, and then dodges my follow up, spinning and catching me with a weird kick that comes from an impossible angle.
I don’t even recognize that kick, or the one that follows it. OK, I think he's better than me. That means I have to choose my shots carefully, and rely on the fact that he can't hurt me. A little voice in the back of my head asks why he picked a fight with a guy who can't be hurt, but I'm too busy trying to figure out his off-balance, cavorting fighting style.
He kicks me again, knocking me backwards, so I roll with it and pop up with a spin kick as he approaches. He dodges that, too, and I follow my momentum into another spin. He jumps up high – real high -- as I bring my fist around, and before I can adjust, he’s kicked me in the small of my back -- and sent me flailing over the edge of the roof.
I look down as I accelerate earthward, and I see a knot of people right where I’m plummeting. It won’t injure me – like I said, I’ve done 80 stories before – but the people down there are dead meat. There’s no time to yell at them: they wouldn’t figure out what was going on before I squashed them like caterpillars. I stretch out in a dive, hoping to somehow fall between them, knowing that I’m going to kill someone and suffer only a momentary ache in my arms…
And then my fall is violently arrested, and I’m slingshotting upwards. Some kind of cable is wrapped around my foot. My ankle and hamstring blaze up with pain as I rocket skywards.
The slingshot action takes me all the way back up to roof top level. Momos grabs me as I hang at the apex of my ascent, and slings me hard across the gravelly roof top. I don’t get the road rash, but I feel it.
I roll to face him, but he's sitting on the edge of an air conditioning unit. He holds up both hands in a non-threatening gesture.
“Dick,” I mutter, unwinding the metal cable from around my ankle. It's weird stuff, very lightweight and flexible, and it doesn't crimp when I bend it between my fingers. It retracts in his direction and disappears.
“Thought you was invulnerable.”
“Shut the fuck up. I could have fallen on and killed a whole group of people down there.”
“Yeah. Guess you should’ve been more careful. Maybe the solo hero gig ain’t for you.”
“You know, you’re right,” I say with exaggerated enthusiasm. “I should go audition for all the hero groups in the area and – oh, wait. I did that already. Didn’t go quite so well.”
“Hah.” That grunting, coughing laugh again. Like he found what I said funny, but still held me in contempt for it.
I get to my feet. “Anyway, thanks for the tussle and the advice, Aesop, but it’s getting late, and I’ve run out of hero teams to audition for.”
“There’s one more you haven’t tried yet, College Boy.”
Something clicks in my mind, and then it’s my turn to laugh derisively. “Oh, God! Don’t tell me you’re part of some underground team or something. You’re recruiting! Well, forget it. There’s no way I’d tryout for any team you were a part of.”
“Maybe you already are.”
“Look, Momos, for a minute there I was worried because you’ve been snooping in my private life. But since you’re obviously a whacked-out moron, I’m not so worried any more. I’m leaving now – but if I ever catch you following me, I’ll stomp both sides of that mask into sad faces.”
“Backbone!” He barks. “I love it.” He jumps down from the metal cabinet and lands almost soundlessly on the gravel. “Tell you what, College Boy,” he grates, “I’ll sweeten the deal. You meet me tomorrow night for a little second audition, and I’ll give you a hint about where your powers come from.”
“What do you mean? My powers come from – I mean, I just developed them. One of those mutation things.” To be honest, I’d not thought much about why I had this power. I was straight with P7: I’d never been tested, and had never really cared to.
“That right? Maybe that amnesia hit you harder than anyone thought.”
Before I can reply, he flips something at me, fast and shiny. I refuse to flinch, so I stand there and wait for the impact. It rips into my shirt and hangs up in a mass of threads.
“My card. Be there, tomorrow, ten o’clock p.m. That’s at night, College Boy. Hasta luego.” And over the edge he goes.
By the time I run over there, he’s vanished. I yank the card out of my shirt. It’s some kind of shiny gold metal, with nasty serrated edges. One side is an image of his creepy mask. On the other is an address, in a crappy part of town.
I climb down off the roof, finding my favorite kind of private place – a disused fire escape – and try to figure out what the hell just happened. It wasn’t disturbing enough that Momos had been snooping around my life enough to discover my identity: he also knew about my past. Granted, he might just have run across some news article or file about the car accident I was in, and decided to use the information to bait me for whatever reason.
But why reference the amnesia? I mean, it was no big deal. I got blindsided by a drunk, and got tossed around pretty good. But I was driving a big, gas-guzzling SUV with lots of safety features, so instead of being road kill, I survived with a concussion and some cuts and bruises. I also lost about a week’s worth of memories. But so what? How much can you remember about any given week in your life? My mom filled me in on what little I’d forgotten (mostly sports scores), and that was that.
And not too long after, I realize, I had discovered I’d become invulnerable.
Was Momos hinting that there’s some kind of relationship between the accident and the development of my powers? And what difference would it make if there was some connection?
I spend the next hour trying to talk myself out of meeting Momos. He’s a crazy bastard, I tell myself. God knows what he could have set up out there, some kind of deathtrap or something. Who knows who he’s in league with? His arguments are ridiculous. He’s dangerous and unpredictable. And he's a dick.
But he says he has a team. Maybe they’re a team of two-bit heroes; maybe the whole thing would be pathetic. But somehow, I don’t think Momos would tolerate a pathetic hero team. Maybe they’re up-and-comers like me, looking for a chance to make something happen in their lives. Whichever – it would still be a team. I can at least meet the crazy bastard and see what’s what.
And I can’t help but be a little curious as to what the hell he’s talking about where my powers are concerned.
There’s a shout of pain from below, coupled with the unmistakable sound of someone getting shoved against a metal trash can. Thoughts of Momos vanish as I peer over the edge of the fire escape. Yep, three stories down in the gloom: three guys getting ready to beat up on one. Surujin in hand, I balance on the railing, preparing to dive bomb the nearest thug.
Excuse me while I even the odds a bit.