Warning: Adult Subject Matter and Language. Reader discretion is advised.
 

What's Love Got to Do With It?
by Scott Bennie


Let's make this quick, gentlemen," I say, stepping into the boardroom with my lawyers and marketing staff - welcome to Tommy Champion - and I sit my muscle bound ass into a leather chair that's so big they must've killed three cows to make it. "Let's start with the lawsuits."

The lawyers look at me oddly; I've just come back from a fight with the Final Cut and Thunderstroke (who was formerly known as "Lord Thunderstroke" until Autocrat ruined the whole royalty motif) and I've still got blood on my face. Dammit, why doesn't anyone ever mention these things before they become an embarrassment? I calmly wipe away the splatter (it's not mine - it takes guys like Hack or Autocrat to make me bleed) and gesture to start the meeting. The room gives a collective gulp, so I imagine they've got more than their share of bad news.

"We've settled the Pringle case," one of my lawyers tells me. Pringle was one of a long list of generic thugs who took a licking and wasn't ticking that great after I got my hands on him. "We're covering his medical bills, and adding six grand to the pot."

"That sucks," I say, debating whether I should pink slip his pin-striped ass. "What about Marvel?"

"They want to settle the copyright suit," another lawyer says. "In fact, they want to license you."

"Find out who they're offering for a creative team. If they guarantee Busiek and Perez for a year, we've got a deal," I say, referring to two of the more competent comic book creators in their stable. "Next?"

"In contrast to nearly every other meta, your Q numbers are way up," one marketing person tells me. "It was the Autocrat fight, of course, it really turned things around. And vanishing for ten weeks didn't hurt either." So people actually worried about me? I guess I should be glad that something good came out of that time I spent in the Zero Prison. "So we should devising strategies to capitalize on this, build positive momentum."

"The bump's temporary," I say, watching the smile vanish from his face. "Any scandals on the horizon?"

"There's the Munoz case, you know, the guy you stripped naked and sunburned..."

"You mean the Latino mouthbreather who tried to rob a bank, and I tattooed 'property of Tommy Champion' on his buttocks?" I ask. "Yeah, that was great shit. What about him?"

"Plastic surgery hasn't been able to remove the inscription. He's claiming he's been scarred for life," the lawyer tells me.

"He's actually gonna take that story to the press?" I wonder with a chuckle. "Those shitheads really have no shame. Next?" I turn to another lawyer.

This man, a nameless squinting law factory product with bad eyewear, pushes his glasses up his nose as he talks. "I've learned that Dangerous has sold a tell-all biography to Random House, and it's not very flattering."

"I'll bet." I smile, still remembering the asskicking that I gave him when I first came to town with great fondness. After awhile, those early scraps start taking on a certain sentimental value.

"Should we try to squash it?" Squintface Jones asks.

"What's our chance of shutting it down?" I reply.

"Low. Extremely low, I'm afraid."

"Then go for it," I say. "It'll generate press, it'll get Danger-'roid some long term sales, and it's always good to remind people that I'm an asshole." They look at me like I just shat on their dinner table after they've laid out the good china. "If people want a muscle-bound teddy bear in tights, they can buy merchandise for Alamo Joe or whatever-his-name-is down in Texas. I'm an asshole. The people who buy my shit want me to be an asshole, because assholes are all that stand between them and the corporate fucks who sodomize them twenty-four hours a day." Of course I'm an accomplice to these corporate rapists, but no one here has the balls to take me to task for it. You know, it's getting so that supervillains like Harbinger and Orchid are the only people who'll give you the straight shit. That's sad. "Any other comments?" I ask.

"Have you really thought this injunction through, Mr. Omega?" one marketing person tells me. "It'll really annoy your libertarian fan base. The Internet really hates these types of lawsuits."

"Those self-absorbed little pissants hate everything." I smile broadly. "And I'm a Democrat, and I thought Clinton was a great president, so those liber-retardians can kiss my fucking ass." At least I don't try to hide being an asshole behind a sanctimonious front.

Fuck, it must be fun for a Harvard type to have a meeting with me. "Anything else?" I ask, as I lean back in my chair and smile as obnoxiously as possible. C'mon guys, can't at least one of you be a supervillain in disguise? Show me some balls.

"I left the report on merchandising profits on your chair," one of the lawyers finally says. "It was lower than expected, given everything you donated to the Ireland war orphans. You should've done a lot more to get publicity for it, given how much you gave them..."

"That would make it look like a bribe, moron," I snap back. "And it would make me feel like shit if I started using the people who died at my side in Ireland for some bullshit props. I'm Omega, not Dr. Neurotic or Captain Insecurity. I know you boys get a hard-on when my Q-numbers go up, but I don't have a sexual relationship with my press, and occasionally I like to do the right thing. Now is there anything else?"

The room falls silent - going once, going twice, sold - so I adjourn the meeting and watch the straggling pack of lawyers as they leave the room, their tails between their legs. It's a sight you gotta love. I spend a few minutes checking email - Michael wants to go to Belize for the weekend, Michelle says Nike is actually happy with the new "Omega" line - and I decide to delete the other messages and go flying. It's hot weather time again in Los Angeles, and that always makes me want to fly around in the buff, so that's what I do: fly naked and invisible. As long as no one's got a camera that can photograph invisible people, it's great fun, especially when I fly up to the windows of some of the most powerful CEOs in the world, and leave behind my butt print.

After a half hour, I get bored, so I begin a patrol of the West Coast, moving between police bands and the NSA. I learn there's some trouble in Seattle, so I quickly dart over the Pacific and go supersonic above the coast. I could probably get there faster if I went straight up, rose above Earth's atmosphere, hit lightspeed, and then came back down directly over my target. But that requires a lot more finesse than I'm capable of without a lot of practice (it's nice to know that option's open to me though - once I master it, I'll be about ten minutes from any trouble spot on Earth).

The FBI sends a message over my frequency, and I'm told that four unknown metas are smuggling pot from British Columbia into Washington State, and that they've opened a teleportation corridor between the Fraser River Valley and the Port of Seattle to facilitate easy transport. I'm really tempted to blow this one off - pot isn't as life destroying as alcohol or cigarettes - but who knows what they'll try smuggling next time? And I could use a good scrap, so I head in.

The teleportal is being generated onboard a ship that's docked on the north side of the port. I contact local authorities for an assessment of the situation. The bad guys still haven't been identified. They have no known hostages; the only people whom they've messed with were a pair of policemen who went into the ship, who came quivering and staggering, their hair having suddenly turned snow white. One of the metas has fear powers. I guess I'm the wrong meta for them to try that trick on, although the fact that they haven't physically threatened people indicates that I shouldn't go too hard on the assholes.

I scan above the ship, and find four people - all guys in their late teens to mid-20s - in matching leather outfits and no recognizable motif. An energy portal glows in a huge ten foot sphere about six inches above the floor, and in the center of the image I can see what looks like somebody's rundown bad yard: lower middle class suburbia, one step above white trash. The villains' outfits really look shitty, and I'm tempted to hand them the phone number of a good marketing hack so they can have a long discussion about "brand identity". I try to think of the worst goddamn intro line I can possibly say. "Your pot luck has just run out, children!" I quip. But these guys are too scared to even groan, even the scary guy.

One of the villains, a Caucasian male of average height and build who's controlling the big glowing corridor, shouts "Holy shit, it's Omega!" in a Chihuahua like yelp, then jumps through the tunnel and closes it behind him.

"Brian!" one of them protests. "Shit!" another villain curses. Their getaway just got up and got away...

"Well?" I say, waiting for the fight to start. The villains look nervously at each other, and the leader, a Vietnamese guy who's my height and has a build only slightly smaller than the Brickyard, sticks up his still shaking hands. Shit, that's a disappointment. A second villain, Fear Boy, a scary looking Caucasian with white hair who looks like a ponytailed albino goth, throws up his hands, albeit a little more reluctantly.

"Guys, it's three against one! We can take him!" the last remaining villain whines loudly. He's a skinny dark-skinned kid (Pakistani, I think) who's clearly the youngest of the four.

"Don't be an idiot, Juggy," the second villain snaps. "This is Omega. The Omega."

They're sticking an article in front of my goddamn name? I guess I'm not just in the big leagues anymore, I've reached the fucking pinnacle. Shit, you'd think that fighting Avatar, Echelon, and Autocrat should pound that realization into my skull (or being treated with respect by Old Glory, or meeting with the Protectorate). But it isn't until you see the criminals shit their drawers at the very thought of facing me on a bad day, or watching little boys' mouths go all moon-shaped in awe, that you truly understand just what a fucking big man you've become. It's more than enough to give you an ego complex. The weird thing about it is that I think it's made me more humble.

Juggy (I find out later it's an actual Hindu name) decides to stand and fight; his form gets blurry, and he takes on this weird strobe effect, blinking in and out of reality. "So what do you Four Potheads call yourselves?" I smile back at him, taking a fighting stance. "You got names, or are you motards gonna go untraditional on me?"

"I'm 'Transit'..." the blinking guy says. He dances around me at a speed that's considerably faster than a normal human, though not quite in Blur's league. "The guy who took off is 'Corridor', Mr. Vietnam over there says he's 'Hoodlum', and that's 'Samhain'." He points at the freaky looking white-haired guy.

"After the God of Halloween?"

Transit nods. "We call ourselves the Opportunity."

"I'm Omega..." I say. The Opportunity? Yeah, I know "the Authority's" a shit-hot comic book right now, but sometimes the homage just doesn't work. Although as long as they don't get bugged by the bloodthirsty pricks in some comic book company's legal department, I ain't saying nothing. As names go, 'The Opportunity' definitely beats the 'The Badass Five', so maybe I should keep the mocking level down.

"Omega," Transit says. "Yeah, we know."

"And thanks for sharing the whole name bullshit with me," I tell him. "I knows it's embarrassing when you say them for the first time, but it makes the paperwork easier when we process the arrest."

"Sure," Transit says, not even protesting the idea I'm going to complete the arrest. Suddenly he closes with me, still more a strobe light than a human being, and throws twelve jabs and roundhouses, all of which land in my face. But I barely feel them. I try to connect with a counterpunch, but he's not there when my punch should connect. Some superpowers are just fucking obnoxious.

After about eight misses (on my part), I decide to fight him zen style, so I stop relying on my physical senses and just use my mystical ones. I close my eyes, and my first punch hits paydirt, catching Transit square in the bread basket. The guy doubles over, coughing and puking on the deck. The other members of the Opportunity are shaking their heads.

"I surrender..." Transit squeaks. I smile like a fucking shark. The cowed guy, no longer blinking, turns to his teammates with an accusatory stare. They're smirking and trying to suppress tittering. "What are you laughing at? Now I can tell chicks that I got beat up by Omega. It's bankable, man." His still-queasy gaze narrows on Hoodlum. "And didn't you say you could kick Omega's ass?"

"Hey, we were all wasted at the time," Hoodlum says with a smile. "And you said you could outrun Blur."

"Fat fucking chance of that," I inform him. I call in the police, listen as they read them their Mirandas, and inform the police that one of them escaped, presumably to Canada. They inform the local cops (although there's more pot being grown in that part of British Columbia than cocaine in Columbia, and the locals have their hands full with non-meta grow-ops). I spend the next twenty minutes doing paperwork, and then fly back to California.

It's late afternoon, so I indulge in my latest hobby, using my powers to go skin diving. There are a few places along the coast that are just perfect for viewing dolphins and seals, and other places rich in plant life. I particularly enjoy using my powers to talk with the dolphins - they're simple, and they're defensive, but there's something about talking with marine life that really turns my crank. I sometimes put philosophical questions to dolphins like "why are we here?" and their typical response is "because there's some tasty fish in the ocean." Sometimes, they try to hump me. There's one for Jerry Springer: "I was raped by a dolphin."

Nah, the dolphin would have to be my cousin before I made it onto Springer. He's got standards.

But it is cool, given how uneasy I've been about my powers lately, that I'm actually having fun with them. That they're good for something other than kicking someone's ass, or getting my ass kicked by one of the big leaguers. I get a sudden urge to call Sarah and talk, and I do it, but her line's busy. I suppose I could pop over to New York and see her. I had a rather strange (if passionate) encounter a few days before I was trapped in the Zero Prison, and I've been trying to get in touch with her ever since I got back. However, every attempt's encountered some sort of snag and I'm beginning to think it's more than just the fact that her momma hates my guts.

So I decide to visit her in person. I shoot up into the sky, and attempt the light speed trick - a fraction of a second light speed burst as soon as I'm out of the atmosphere, then come straight down at Mach V over the intended destination. Unfortunately, two seconds later I find myself halfway between the Earth and the Moon. Tom Hanks would love it up here, but I'm pissed that I was too clever for my own good. So I recalibrate and try the trick again. And again. And again. On the eighth try, I collide with the earth, end up having to become intangible to keep myself from splattering, and I finally stop my trajectory somewhere deep in the earth's mantle. Where's Core when you fucking need him?

It takes me a six-hour flight to reach the surface, somewhere (according to the GPS) in the middle of the South Pacific. Fine. Fuck New York City, at least tonight; I travel at Mach V back to Los Angeles, another two and a half-hour journey. I'll have to get hold of Sarah later.

It's about two in the morning by the time I hit Los Angeles, and I'm feeling pissed as Hell, so I head to the Jaguar Grill to unwind. The club's the same as ever, except more so. It's gotten a lot of notoriety because of me, and they're more picky about their clientele. Everyone knows my name, and I'm treated like fucking Princess Di. It's "Hi, Omega," and "How's it going, Omega?" and awesome babes leaning over me to kiss me. I check for drag queens first, although once in awhile they're good enough to get past my defenses. Hey, if they're that good, I ain't gonna fucking kick myself, as long as I don't end up sleeping with them. Perception is everything in Los Angeles, and even Omega can't change that.

I wade through the crowd like Mike Tyson without the entourage (especially the fat fucking crook with the bad hair who destroyed the sport) and inch my way to the bar. People cycle through the crowd to talk with me. I have a nice (if short) chat with "Dusk", the woman who got me in so much shit on my first night on the town - I don't fucking hold a grudge, especially since she's gone through withdrawal hell to clean up her act. There are a few club regulars who have become marginal acquaintances, and we have short, pleasant conversations, more smiling and nodding than talking, given that the music's as loud as ever.

"Excuse me, Omega." It's a man I don't recognize; medium height and build, dark hair, brown dress shirt and tailored Italian pants, slightly tinted glasses. He's a little older than the other patrons here, older and (despite the wardrobe) not trying so hard to be one of the beautiful people - he's actually got a small ridge of flab around the middle.

"Let me guess," I say. "Either you want an autograph for your kid, or an interview for NBC or MNN."

"Both," he says. "Russ Huizinga, MNN." I produce an autograph, something I don't normally do. I should charge the fucker for it. "You haven't given any interviews since your fight with Avatar."

Since Rachel's funeral, actually, but I don't correct him. "After Dyment was murdered, it seemed like it'd be in poor taste to talk with you folks," I explain. "And I was pissed that you guys appeared to swallow the whole bullshit line about me being responsible for Dyment."

"I don't think we did, Omega," Huizinga argues. "I thought we maintained extraordinary objectivity under the circumstances."

That's a load of bullshit. You'd think they'd learn to be more cautious about accusations these days, especially with the power of some of those telepaths who go around manipulating shit. I'll bet that whenever Mindshadow thinks about the stupidity of the American press, it makes her want to touch herself.

"We live in a world where free will's a joke," I spit back, suddenly realizing how drunk I am. "Just ask Avatar. Who can say who's guilty or innocent anymore?"

"I hope it hasn't come to that." Huizinga shakes his head. "How about coming to the truck for an interview?"

"Sure," I say, standing to my feet. "Why the fuck not?"

I'm not so pissed drunk that I'm staggering when I walk out of the Grill, but it's close, way too close. Huizinga leads me toward a large truck filled with all the trappings of modern investigational journalism: cameras, logos, and satellite gear. It certainly looks authentic, in fact, it's so fucking professional that I feel like leaving a copy of Hustler behind just to give Huizinga a chance to be a normal human being. Of course, it could be a trap too. One of the biggest nightmares of my life is that even mundane things can kill you. A cute little pooch that's walking down the street could be a bomb; the copy of the L.A. Times that arrives on my doorstep every morning may have micro-sized recording devices that will broadcast my darkest secrets to my enemies, there are so many ways for someone with half a brain to screw over your life that it isn't fucking funny.

I used to think it was good to be challenged, and to be questioned, and to have our secrets threatened because it forces us to appreciate them more. When I was in high school, I thought I was smarter than the entire fucking world, and that no one could outwit me. Now I'm so scared of the brainiacs that I feel like shitting when I give them half a thought. Since I've had a chance to see the super-cerebrums in action (I still cringe when I remember the Autocrat fight), there are times when I feel as dumb as one of those animals that I use telepathy to talk with. No wonder the general public's so scared of us these days.

I ask to see Huizinga's ID, quickly give MNN a call to check it, and five minutes later, we sit ourselves in the back of a large van that's got a small studio in it. I also secretly contact the police and the FBI to verify this guy's legit - it's nice to be able to broadcast radio waves - and those check out. "Okay," I say after the verification's done. "I think we can skip the cavity search. First question."

"Uh... what was it like fighting Avatar?"

"Really, really painful," I answer, and we both laugh. "I hated losing that fight, with so much on the line. I suppose people can say I'll be a better superhero because of it."

"So you think of yourself as a superhero?"

"It's only a job title. It doesn't mean we're he-roes," I reply, immodestly. "As to whether I am a hero, I do think I'm braver than most folks, and I don't hesitate to go into danger, so I guess I deserve the title."

"Do you think you're better than most people?" Huizinga asks.

"In many ways, yeah," I say, knowing that this remark is going to come back to haunt me. God help me if I become some other nutcase's poster boy for abusive arrogance. But I can't be a fake or keep my mouth shut. Fuck, I should never talk to the press when I'm drunk.

"You're physically better."

"Not just physically. But being 'better' doesn't make other people bad, or me perfect. Being 'better than most people' and being 'superior to humanity' are two very different things." I take in a deep breath, and thank God I never read Nietzsche, otherwise the pseudo-intellectual bullshit would rise to intolerable levels. "One's about recognizing reality, the other's about having delusions of godhood. Realistically, I don't have the experiences of many folks in getting a degree or raising a family or keeping a marriage together, so I can't blame anyone if they think I'm an arrogant bastard. I'm just 19."

"And nineteen is too young for a role model?"

"Not again," I moan. Huizinga laughs. "That's so unrealistic. To be a role model is to be like... a statue, unmoving, perfectly defined. Who the hell wants to live like that? Who wants to make other people live like that?"

"Maybe desperate parents?" Huizinga suggests.

"If the reason for role models is to people's alleviate fears, I don't want to be one. Fear sucks. It's up to us to make ourselves less afraid, not somebody else. And I'm not the one raising your kids, I'm too busy trying to beat up the people who can really mess them up. You do your job, I'll do mine."

"What about the drugs?" Huizinga asks.

"What about them?" I shrug.

"I think people would like to know that you're clean."

"That shit was never an issue for me!" I snap. "Yeah, I tried them a few times. I could get really righteous and tell you I haven't touched drugs since that incident, and I wouldn't be lying. But I'm a meta, and when it comes right down to it, I can do such incredible things with my powers that I'd be an idiot if I needed to touch that shit... stuff again."

"So you're promising never to touch the stuff?"

Now he's starting to piss me off. "No fucking way," I insist. "Look, I came a few seconds from dying twice in the last year, first with Hack and then with Autocrat. A very good friend of mine died, another had his mind stolen, and that's not including all those people in Europe. For all I know, sometime in the next ten seconds, some nutcase I've never heard of will drop a nuke at my feet and blow it up."

"That's a happy thought."

"Ain't it though? So screw people's expectations - every minute I get a chance to be happy, I am going to goddamn seize it. I will screw who I want, drink what I want..."

"...eat double fudge ice cream when you want?" Huizinga suggests.

"It'd be mint chocolate chip," I smile. "In short, I will do whatever is fucking necessary to live my life the way I want to live it..." I pause to take a deep breath - something I don't do very often. "...and anyone who feels different can kiss my fine young Nebraska ass."

Huizinga seems pleased enough by the answer, despite my lapse into Tommyism. But he changes the subject. "Have you spoken to Avatar since Ireland?"

"Yeah. A couple of times," I admit.

"What'd he say?"

"That he hurt his fist on my face?" I smile. "They were private conversations, okay?"

"Did he apologize?" Huizinga won't let the matter drop. "Did he say when he was coming back?"

I sigh, heavily. "He's been a superhero for over twenty years without one vacation," I say. "I think he's earned one. He went through hell in Ireland, y'know, and there are still some idiots out there who think he should shoulder some of the blame." Including himself, that's the problem.

"Some people have speculated that you're going to be his replacement in the Protectorate."

I shake my head. I'm getting a little sick of hearing about Avatar. "People speculate on a lot of things, and the earth still isn't flat, Neil Armstrong did land on the moon, and Clinton wasn't mind controlled by a vast right-wing telepathic conspiracy to fool around with Lewinsky. The Protectorate and I haven't spoken on the subject of membership. Given my 'winning personality', I think it'll probably be years before any major superhero team displays enough balls to ask me to join, and that's fine with me."

"Are you worried that public approval for the Protectorate has plummeted since Ireland?"

"I don't give a damn about that PR bullshit," I reply. People may blame them for Autocrat and the mess in Europe, but everyone knows the bad rep won't last. "I have thought of creating my own superhero team: me, Blur, Knock-out, maybe we can get Trinity, Sylph, and Nereid to join too." Shit, I hope they don't take this the wrong way!

"And Permafrost?"

"I suppose we could fit him in somewhere," I smile. "Although seriously, they're all good people, and I'm honored to work with them. I owe Knock-out a lot, she stood by me when a lot of people wanted to crap on me until they flushed me into a sewer. Blur too. All things considered, I'm pretty happy with how I'm getting along...."

"The love affair between metahumans and the public seems to be over," Huizinga states, using a tone that intimates I should be deeply troubled by this turn of events. "Does this bother you?"

"The only polls that get my attention are the college football polls, and that's only because the Cornhuskers are on top," I say. Even though my own numbers have been pretty good since Ireland - it's everyone else who's in the shitter. "Superheroes do a thankless job, and if some asshole wants to whine about us because he's too lazy to use his brain cells to consider what we're fucking putting on the line when we're saving his ass, fine."

"Do you think that's a little simplistic?"

I ignore the interjection. "In fact, since our critics think they're so goddamn perfect, I'm willing to make a deal with them. If anybody out there thinks superheroes suck, make sure you wear a red armband whenever you're in public. That way, when I have to make a choice between saving your life and the life of somebody who gives a damn, I'll make the right choice..."

"That may not go over well with the public, Omega," Huizinga says.

"I'm not somebody who bends over and takes it in the ass from public opinion, or from anyone for that matter," I reply. "Humility sucks, and if you don't agree, you can kiss my..."

But just when I'm about to add to my repertoire of "how not to speak to the press" tidbits, there's a merciful interruption. I overhear a police transmission on their metahuman emergency band - some big guy, identity unknown, wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans, has just tore off a vault door at a commercial bank in the corporate district of Los Angeles. I fly away without saying good-bye and head directly for Chase-Manhattan.

Maybe if I can stop the robbery, they'll stop sending me those stupid fucking credit card applications.

Downtown Los Angeles is beautiful at night. I take off the costume for a few seconds, let the wind catch me in the buff (which somehow feels even better when you're drunk, even though I'm rapidly getting sober), then get back into costume the moment I get in visual range of the bank. By this time I hit the scene, the police have hooked me into someone in security, who give me directions to the target: Mr. T-Shirt pretty much kicked the crap out of five security guards, and bullets bounced off his manly chest like they were jelly beans. He also didn't kill the guards, which tells me he was pulling his punches.

Becoming intangible, I fly through the building, pass through three underground floors in a second, and arrive in the sub-sub-basement. Sure enough, I spot a big guy rummaging through the vault. I go down the checklist: Caucasian male, mid to late 20s, an inch shorter than me but just as well-muscled and tanned, short blond hair in a crew cut, green eyes, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans.

"Need a hand, asshole?" I say with a smile.

The man's combat trained; he throws a perfect backfist that connects with me square in the jaw, and I do more flying flips than the Blue Angels as I'm sent hurtling backward into a wall. Man, that hurt. Shit, Avatar didn't hit me that much harder. Who the fuck is this guy?

Big Boy doesn't look like he wants to talk, and so we skip the pleasantries and go straight into the fight. We trade punches, he tries to take out my knee with a short leg kick, and then we go to close quarters. It's one of the most vicious fights of my life - we gouge, scratch, and bite each other, and I take more crotch shots than I've ever had in a single fight. Man, my balls are gonna be blue for a week. It's like fighting Mastiff, only he's smaller, denser (he weighs close to a ton), not quite as quick, a lot less drunk, and has a lot less body hair. The shirt and jeans aren't reinforced for metafighting, so he spends most of the scrap in his briefs. At least I'm not the one who got "Doc Savage'd" this time.

"Who the fuck are you?" I ask him when we lock up for a test of strength. He doesn't answer. The guy's even more of an anti-social fuck than I am. To my surprise, he manages to outmuscle me, wrapping my arms behind me and turning it into a chokehold. Once again, I'm too macho to use my powers when it's an honest hand-to-hand fight, so I brace against the chinlock, wrench it upward, and ignore several nasty kidney punches when I perform the escape, hook his arm and throw him hard to his back. I quickly follow up with a punch to his face, but he rolls out of the way, leaving a fist sized crater in the reinforced floor. Mister Testosterosa kicks me in the face, driving me backward into the steel vault; my body makes an inch thick impression.

"Army trained, right?" I ask, analyzing his style. I'll have to make sure I feed the security tapes to Glory; five minutes seeing him in action, and the geezer will probably figure out who trained him. But Macheste doesn't respond to the jibe. He's either mute, or he doesn't want his voiceprint recorded. Fine. We lock up again. From the look on the guy's game face, I'd guess it's more a dick-measuring contest than a fight for him, but that's fine with me.

He's got tricks too, at one point in the fight, he gets his hand on my face, and I can feel something try to transform my flesh into exposed nerve endings or something. I concentrate hard, and whatever he's trying to do to me stops. "Not cool, dude," I grunt, as an attempted throw turns into a mutual tumble to the ground.

Finally, after taking turns wrestling each other onto our backs, I get the upper hand and connect with a series of alternating head butts and knees to the groin. It's hard to block those suckers. The guy's game face suddenly goes down, and then he's my bitch - two right crosses, and you can chalk up another one in Tommy Champion's Win column. Shit, this was a good fight. My left eye's swollen shut, and the face must be a mess, but I won. Best fight I've had since Echelon. I was getting tired of scraps after Ireland - who could blame me - but I think I've finally overcome the burnout. Once that I'm sure No-Neck Ned won't be getting up for at least a minute, I give the crime scene the once over. We did a lot of structural damage to the vault, but there wasn't much here to damage - the drawers aren't labeled, and all but a handful are empty. Body by Jake wasn't looking for cash. I make a mental note to "do a background check if I have time." Maybe I should ask Blur if she's met this guy.

So another fight's over. I give in to a petty impulse and tattoo the word "loser" on his buttocks (heh!), check his pants for a wallet or any other ID, and find he's not carrying anything incriminating. I inspect him with my "mystical senses" (I should wear a turban when I try this trick), and immediately get a real mother of a headache. Fuck, this guy's got nanotech coming out of his ass. It's not quite as complex as Zodiac's, but it does have one unique property - weird even by nanotech standards - it seems to feed off magic. No wonder he was so tough around me. Who the hell did this shit to him?

The police van's coming. I maintain a careful vigil, and it pays off. I catch a radio signal, coming from pretty much directly above me, going directly into the nutcracker's skull. "Barnes, stand-by for retrieval. Barnes, report..." It's a woman's voice. The still unconscious Macho Man somehow transmits a reply: a message showing his point-of-view of the last ten seconds of our fight, with a big, flashing sign saying: SUBJECT UNCONSCIOUS. Suddenly I feel a surge of energy being sent through the link. Are they trying to make the grab? No way... no way I'm going to let them teleport this guy away to bash my gonads another day. I use my powers to block the link, and I insert my own message into the works.

Sorry lady, but Macho Boy is gonna bake in Alaska.

"Omega?" the voice addresses me. Interesting that she was able to recognize me.

I know everything, I bullshit. I may not be Mindshadow, but I can do the mental thing pretty good. Why don't you give up?

"If you knew who we are, you'd know why we don't give up," the voice answers, and suddenly the radio feedback grows into a respectable whine. I push myself, and hard, but the signal gets too strong. Barnes (or whoever he is) begins to stir, and he suddenly gets to his feet and delivers a solid right cross to my jaw that sends me tumbling back.

"I won't forget this," Barnes finally speaks, promising pain in a thick Southern accent (Mississippi, I'd guess - he sounds like that asshole Trent Lott) before he vanishes.

"Shit!" I say, sensing the radio signal's gone. There's no way I'll be able to track him. I hate bad guys who fucking teleport away at will. I immediately get on the phone to Washington, and bulldoze my way through several layers of bureaucracy to get Old Glory out of bed at eleven-thirty in the morning. "Hey, big man! I know you need extra time to sleep so the Geritol can kick in," I say, hearing an audible sigh. "But there's a new player in town, and I think you'll want to hear about this..."

******

Okay, I get to hear another lecture from Glory how I shouldn't make jokes about his age. It's all part of the ritual. He promises to send me pictures of every blond haired Caucasian serviceman with the last name of "Barnes". Glory also cautions me that the nanotechnology could potentially do a respectable job of rearranging his true features, and "Barnes" could be a code-name, and I could also be wrong about my guess on the origins of his fighting style. Welcome to the wonderful world of investigation.

I arrive back at my place at about one in the morning; my fight with Badass Barnes has, unfortunately, left me thoroughly sober. My latest personal assistant, a big guy named Ralph Trout (I kid you not) is playing chess with Michael when I walk in. Trout immediately gets to his feet and turns to face me. Michael palms one of his pawns while he's not looking. Fucking cheat.

"You've seen combat, sir," Trout says in a Brooklyn accent that's a real poor fit for the butler role. "Do you require medical attention?"

"No, Ralph," I say. "Just get the hot tub ready. How's it hanging, Michael?"

"Your boy Friday plays a goddamn good game of chess," Michael complains. "Are you sure he's not a robot?"

"Hey Ralph, you a robot?"

"No, Mr. Champion, sir," Ralph replies, heading into the bathroom.

"He's not a robot," I smile. "He's an actor wannabe from New York City. Mike Muscleman asked me to give him room and board while he gets on his feet. And since I persuaded the Muscled One to take on the Zebra as a pet project, I owed him a favor."

"He's a meta?"

"Yeah. Not in my league as far as combat goes, but he's real smart," I sigh. "Which I haven't been lately. I haven't found any signs of the Priest on the West Coast lately. I think he used all that time I was trapped in the Zero Prison to cover his black-clad ass," I wince sharply. "Shit, the guy did a number on the 'nards tonight."

"So asking you for sex is out tonight?" Michael smiles.

"Fuck you," I reply. "And I don't mean that literally, asshole."

"Nice to see you're still living in denial, farmboy," Michael shoots back with a smirk, and I have to fight hard to resist the urge to jump him. It's amazing how easily I backslide into adolescence when I'm around Michael, and that impulse has gotten a lot stronger lately. God knows why. "By the way, speaking of the Priest, I think I know how he's been staying one step ahead of you lately." He hands me a piece of paper. I open it and stare at the photocopy of a business card.

"An oracle named Milton?" I wonder aloud as I read the card.

"Hey, if it was good enough for the poet," Michael smiles. "Unfortunately he's dead now - I think the Priest killed him before you could get on his trail - but he was feeding your enemy advance word on your targets and clearing them away before you could get to them." Michael lifts the black bishop from the chessboard and tosses it to me.

"Very funny," I say, crushing it in my fingers as I peel off the top of my costume. "I ain't really in the mood to think about the Priest tonight. Wanna stick around and do some guy shit?"

"Pizza, porn and beer?" Michael asks. "I don't have any other plans."

"PPB it is," I smile. "Stuff of life."

It was a long, good night, even better because I don't remember most of it. There's nothing like drunken camaraderie after a hard fight, except good sex. I awaken some time in the mid-morning; I guess my human form needed sleep in a bad way. Trout makes me a huge stack of blueberry pancakes, sausage, and eggs for breakfast. Looks like he's a keeper, at least until he finds a job reading badly written lines on a soap opera (which probably won't happen until he loses the Brooklyn accent).

"Mr. Champion?" Ralph says. "I don't mean to get involved in personal matters, but there was something odd going on with your buddy Michael last night."

"What, he actually told a good joke for once?"

"No, sir," Ralph says. Odd to hear a New Yorker treat you with respect. "I have the ability to sense Kirkilian auras... you know, people's life force... and last night after we dragged you to bed, he did something that was, well, draining yours."

"I don't feel any weaker."

"Well, your life force regenerates very quickly; I'd guess any damage he inflicted on you only lasted about thirty seconds," Ralph informs me. "It was more like he was milking you. But... a guy should know when someone's doing this sort of thing to him."

I consider the implications - I knew Michael was doing this sort of bullshit to me, but I wasn't exactly sure what he was doing, and I didn't have a clue about the consequences. Fuck, if he needs my life force and it ain't risky, why not just be a man and fucking ask me for it?

"Thanks Ralph," I say. "Don't mention this to Michael, okay?"

"Yes sir."

I turn on MNN. It's another edition of Metafight. Maury Calhoun, the anti-meta guy, has been really feeling his oats in recent months, and today's not going to be an exception. I know things are gonna be bad when I see him wearing a red armband.

"Omega's poll numbers skyrocket when he keeps his mouth shut," Calhoun says. "Then he has one interview and reminds everyone just what kind of a person he really is."

"Someone who's brave enough to fight Avatar and Autocrat, and go to Ireland while everyone was still twiddling their thumbs?" Sondra Leiberman replies, not trying to avoid waving her hands too much for emphasis. "Omega may not be a poster child for good manners, but he keeps bringing up legitimate points."

"Omega is a person who likes to get in his enemy's face." It's Gerald Chin, the slender Asian regular, the sarcastic one. He's one of the few turds I can actually stand on this show.

"He's a disgrace!"

"We applaud him when he does it to Autocrat," Chin notes. "He told Autocrat the things that everyone wanted to say to him. But when he uses the same sort of attitude against the people who attack him domestically, like you..."

"Are you comparing me to Autocrat! How dare..."

Mercifully, the conversation ends, though not for a commercial break... the television set signal scrambles and a female voice comes out of it. Someone's overriding my cable signal. "Omega... Oh, Omega..." It sounds like the woman from last night.

"What?" Who knows whether she can hear me or not?

"The Proxy is very annoyed at you," she says. Is that the codename for the guy, or the organization? "So I'm going to take great pleasure in what I'm about to tell you."

"Macho Man wants a rematch?" I sneer.

"It's one thing to fight someone, another thing entirely to tattoo an insult on their buttocks," the woman says. "You've made it personal, Mr. Champion. It didn't have to be that way."

Fine, they can hear me. "You're breaking my heart. I beat No Neck like a redheaded stepchild, and he needed his woman to haul his ass to safety."

"Operative Barnes will redress the insult in due time," the voice tells me. "However, we've been hired for a different purpose. A very old, very dear friend wants you to know that the life of a five-month old boy stands in the balance. You need to go immediately to apartment #3, 182..."

I barely remember the address, and don't wait to hear the rest of the message. Once again, Omega heads into the wild blue yonder - except that it isn't all that blue in Smog Angeles, and it's more hither than yonder. But the wild part works. It's not too far from my place to the apartment, an old West Hollywood Spanish-styled four-plex nestled in Strip Mall land, so I'm there in about eighteen seconds.

I think the transmission would hold up in court as probable cause, so I use my shoulder to turn the front door into a pile of splinters. Damn. I've got an uneasy feeling about the situation; it's not a trap, but it's also not a good idea for me to go inside the place. But I ignore that feeling, rip the remainder of the door frame off its hinges, and hope the display of testosterone will settle myself down.

In contrast to the Spanish exterior, the apartment's interior is American, down to the earthy wood-grains, the leather saddle that's draped across a wooden banister, and the prints from Zane Grey novels on the walls. Along one wall, there's a stereo system, components stacked five-high, playing a country-and-western version of "What's Love Got to Do With It." The staging's deliberate, it's all staging - I'm the bad guy in a drama concocted by a cowgirl who's nervously sitting in a big leather chair, facing me with two Colt revolvers aimed at my chest.

It's Bandita, the self-styled Calamity Jane of Century 21. Fourteen months ago, I had sex with her on the floor of a museum she was trying to rob, then handed her over to the police. She initially cried rape, but no charges were ever laid. Last I'd heard, she was serving time in a minimum-security facility and getting psychiatric help. Not that a shrink has ever managed to persuaded one of these genre nutcases to give up their criminal careers. The apartment's small and rundown; I guess Bandita's career has been on a downward slump. I hadn't really paid attention, it's not like she was ever a serious threat.

Okay Tommy, don't call her a bitch... remember Orchid, don't call her a bitch...

"What do you want, Angelina?" I say. She's a lot prettier this time, make-up shading her face, her hair falling in ringlets around her shoulders, and her perfume is a powerful musk that I can smell from twenty feet away; she's both tomboy and woman.

"I wanted to see you." Her voice is almost a whisper and her eyes start to water. "To look into your face."

"Well you seen it," I reply, almost falling into a western drawl. "Now unless you plan on firing those pistols at me, you've done your prison time and I've got no reason to go after you. Though I'd choose a different messenger if I were you..."

"Omega..."

I ignore the throbbing in my balls, and the sudden urge to lick my lips. "I ain't doing the seduction bit, Angelina. Not after what you said about me last time. I'm leaving..."

"No!" Bandita says, her voice cracking with urgency. "Don't go Ome... Tommy. There's someone I want you to meet," Bandita smiles.

That's an ominous statement if I ever heard one. I immediately prepare myself for a fight, maybe a rematch with No-Neck and a few friends. "Do you really want to do this?" I ask.

"More than anything else in the world," she says.

I sigh and resolve myself to the brawl. "If you really have to, Bandita, bring them on. Just be warned - I don't do Alamos."

Bandita shakes her pretty head, places a finger in her mouth and whistles. I encase myself in a force field, and anticipate the arrival of my enemy, and someone comes - but it's not whom I'm expecting. My opponent's a middle-aged man in a three-piece business suit. "Omega..." he says in greeting, tugging on a line that's wrapped in his hand...

...and that's when he appears. Flying four feet off the ground: golden haired, wide blue eyes, a huge smile on his face, and barely six months old. The most beautiful baby I've ever seen.

The man hands me some papers, and suddenly a pair of young, skinny men, armed with cameras, rush out of several hiding places and begin shooting pictures of me like their cameras were automatic weapons.

"Wh - what the hell do you think you're doing, Bandita?" I stammer.

"Revenge," she mouths without giving the words breath.

"You have been served," the man who handed me the papers says. "For the paternity of Angel Jorges Christopher Tomas Villanova IV."

"What?" I object, barely able to manage to get out even one word. What the fuck! Paternity?!!

Bandita pulls the child into her arms and bounces him slightly. "Say hello to your daddy, Jorges," she says, taking his right, infant arm and waving it at me. "Hello daddy..."
 

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