We were almost at Dad’s when my phone rang. I had it on and to my ear before the third beep. “Hello?”
“Is this Respawn?”
The voice on the line was flat and mechanical. I’d learned a few things since my first meetup with Ferne, like how there were much better voice disguisers out there. Either hers was twenty years old, or she chose an inhuman sounding model for style. “It is. Who am I speaking to?”
“I suppose I should pick a code name, shouldn’t I.” I could tell it wasn’t a question, even through the phone and the disguise. “But most mythological bringers of knowledge, especially female ones, come with some really ugly connotations. I think I’ll go with ‘Muse’ for now. I trust you’re free tonight?”
I glanced over at Cassie. Was it weird that this felt almost… disloyal, somehow? I dismissed that thought as just the sheer creepiness of the situation. “Yeah, I’ve got it worked out. Later is better. And how long should this take?”
“Five minutes at most. And midnight it is, then.” Ferne… uh, Muse, agreed. “In the interest of full disclosure, my power works better at night. I think it has to do with some subconscious factors in the human brain. Anyone can use magic at midnight, or something like that.”
Well that’s a thought. “Do you believe that powers come from magic?”
“I believe it doesn’t matter what I believe.” Muse answered after a moment. “The universe won’t change based on what I think, and no one’s managed to get past the guessing stage yet. So if anyone is right, it’s only through luck. And the way my power works, it’s your beliefs that determine how much I can help. Would you prefer mysticism?”
That is easily the wordiest way to say ‘don’t know, don’t care’ that I’ve ever heard. “No, I’d rather not. So, the Smithsonian Zoo a good place to meet up?” It was only a couple miles from Dad’s place, an easy run with my powers. Including the round trip, less than half an hour. Cassie gave me a suspicious look. Or maybe I was just being paranoid.
It took Muse about ten seconds to respond. “There’s a bridge just to the south, on Calvert street. We’ll meet under it.”
Compared to the park we met last time, under a bridge was at probably an upgrade. “You know all the best places to take a girl” to get mugged. “I’ll see you there.”
The phone clicked off before I had a chance to respond, so I closed mine and dropped it in my coat pocket.
Cassie was the one who broke the silence. “You’re acting like you just set up a drug deal.”
Close enough. “Welcome to the wonderful world of superheroes.” Where even the good guys where masks. “That was F-rom someone new to the scene. She’s calling herself Muse right now. A potential recruit, but her powers are only for support, so I’m trying to see how much she can contribute.”
Cassie smirked at me. “Another girl, huh? Is she cute?”
Only if you’ve got a thing for creepy little girls. “Well, maybe with the right publicist she could be called mysterious and quirky. Personally, she kinda weirds me out, but I’d rather be working with her than against her. You’re not jealous, are you?”
Cassie shifted a bit, then pulled the wheel sharply to avoid driving onto the sidewalk. “I guess, maybe a little? I mean, you get to do all these exciting things like clandestine meetings and beating up bad guys. What if you end up meeting someone who can share that with you?”
I run. I run so hard I go back in time and abduct myself to stop me from ever meeting this psycho. “Then I hook her up with Alex. They can spend hours talking about sports, exercise routines, and oddly specific ways to beat the shit out of people. Then he’ll walk her home and they’ll get attacked by ninjas.”
Cassie giggled. “Ninjas? You stole this from a movie didn’t you?”
“No, of course not!” I insisted. “I’m pretty sure it was a cartoon, actually.”
“Okay, that I believe.” Cassie went quiet a bit, dealing with traffic. “So then what happens?”
“After they’re done laughing and having a good time beating up mooks, he’ll lead her to her door. Then apologize that he can’t stay because he has practice in the morning. It’ll be the most romantic first date in the history of the universe.”
She glanced over at me and smiled. “So, what will we be doing while that’s going on?”
“Well, you’ll have the camera, because there’s no point in having a ninja fight without getting it on camera. And I’ll be playing the ninjas. All of them. Gotta look out for my bro, and what’s the point of fighting ninjas if they don’t explode into dust when you punch them?”
“Ninjas turn to dust? I thought that was for vampires.”
“Pretty much the same thing. The more of them in the room with you, the easier they are to kill. In fact, if this superhero job goes bust, maybe I’ll go to Hollywood and play all their ninjas and vampires. It’ll be great.”
“What if people start complaining that they all look the same?”
“That’s why we have masks. And CGI. We’re going to need it for my face anyway.”
“Aww,” Cassie cooed. “Your face isn’t quite that bad.”
“Oh, ouch.” I drooped my head, failing to act depressed. “So that’s why you said the mask made me look good.”
“Ooh!” She hopped a bit in her seat. “Speaking of masks, have you ordered parts to make a new one yet? I just saw this really cool set of goggles that I think you’ll love and we’ll have to redesign the whole face pattern.”
I smiled, that was Cassie for you. She was smarter than she acted, at least when it came to things she cared about. “No, I was holding off a bit, and now that I’m grounded, well, I don’t really need the costume. Plan to your heart’s content, it’ll be a while before it matters.” Unless Ferne’s boost turns out better than expected.
“That’s okay, I’ll just send a bunch of stuff to your email. You do have email at your dad’s, right?”
“Yeah, he has Internet.” Who didn’t these days?
“Okay, so first of all this company does custom shaping and properties depending on what you need. So the way your power works we can get the cheap material and focus on the extra features.”
The conversation focused on my costume for the rest of the drive. I kissed her goodbye, then went to the house to spend the next couple hours doing nothing waiting for Dad to get home.
I had considered inviting Cassie in for a makeout session, but I had too much on my mind. Besides, Dad’s house smelled like stale booze, fresh booze, and cigarettes. It wasn’t the kind of place I wanted to bring my girlfriend.
I noticed immediately that the door was unlocked. That wasn’t good, so I was on my guard when I stepped in. If someone broke in, they could still be here. Mom can’t really blame me for stopping a robbery of the house I’m in, right? Oh, who the fuck am I kidding, of course she can.
Some older guy I didn’t recognize stood in the kitchen, holding a steak knife. He was in a ratty looking camouflage jacket, and his hair had gone gray so long ago that it was almost white now. There were numerous scars on his hands and face, and he looked tough as nails for anyone, let alone an old man. He had a glint to his eyes, one I’d seen a couple times. Usually right before someone tried to kill me.
“So, yer Dusty’s whelp?”
Knows Dad well enough to use a nickname. That didn’t put me at ease. “Yeah, how do you know him?” As far as I knew, Dad didn’t have enemies. But I never met this man before, and wasn’t feeling trusting.
“Oh, Dusty and I go way back. I was his drill instructor in the army.” Wait, Dad stayed in contact with his drill instructor? “Kid, did you know your father was a putz?”
I relaxed a bit, anyone who called my dad a putz was in my good books. I almost didn’t see the knife coming before it caught me square in the neck. As the light of my power enveloped me, I reevaluated my opinion of Dad’s instructor. First, he was no longer in my good books. Second, I didn’t think a kitchen knife could be thrown that accurately.
“Apple didn’t fall far from the tree, it seems,” he shook his head. “You didn’t even try to dodge.”
“You can suck on my apples,” I crossed my arms. “I’m kinda immune to death, in case your senility-riddled brain missed that.”
He laughed at that. “Well, at least you got a mouth. I was afraid Dusty’s whole ‘sir, yes, sir’ shit rubbed off on you.”
I am so not in control of this situation. “And that’s why you tried to kill me?”
“Not trying to kill you, boy.” The old man walked around the counter, holding another knife. This one was clearly custom, the blade was a deep green. More like it was made of emerald than metal. “I wouldn’t have thrown it if I didn’t already know you could take it. But there are all kinds of powers out there. You gotta ask yourself, what happens when you find something you can’t take?”
He flicked the second knife at me, and this time I tried to move. But there wasn’t anywhere to move to, so it caught my shoulder. I respawned right in front of myself. The blade didn’t do anything more than the last one did. “Fuck!”
His laugher rang through the house. “That’s what I thought.”
“The fuck is wrong with you?!”
“Try to keep up, boy. You just failed the test.” He didn’t wait for me to speak before continuing “You either pass by dodging the knife, or you pass by being smart enough to see it was a bluff. I already told you I wasn’t going to try something I didn’t know you could take. Dusty asked me to train you, and now that I have your measure, I can.”
“Okay, first I’m going to kick my father’s ass.” I wasn’t, I didn’t have the… whatever… to do that. “And then I’m going to kick yours.”
“That’s the spirit!” He laughed again. “Now would you mind giving me back that knife? It wasn’t cheap.”
I knelt down and picked up both knives. Briefly, I considered throwing them both at this asshole. But I wasn’t exactly a knife thrower, so I’d probably miss and look stupid. Or, worse, I’d actually hit him through dumb luck. Instead, I set the steak knife on the counter and held the tip of the green knife so he could take the handle.
The moment he had a grip on it, I stepped forward, functionally impaling myself on the weapon. I respawned next to the guy and sucker punched him. One brief, confusing moment later I found myself slammed face first into the floor. My next copy was stabbed in the back.
“Cheap shot, kid,” he stated cheerfully, rubbing his jaw. “There may even be hope for you yet.”
“How?” Not even Kitten could follow my attacks in the middle of duplication. “Are you…”
“Imbued? Your ego wishes.” He slipped the knife into a sheath on his hip. “I’m all natural and damn proud of it. Well, except this hip.” He patted his side. “That’s titanium.”
Oh great, I got my ass kicked by a guy who needed a hip replacement. “Then how did you know what I was about to do?”
“Didn’t. I Just recognized that look in your eye, of someone about to try something crazy. After that, it’s easy. All you gotta do is something even crazier. Now come on, I saw a patch of grass out back that looks as good any to start beating the suck out of you.”
I didn’t even try to argue with him. This guy just did something the girl with combat instincts couldn’t do. And I wanted to know how. “So, uh, what’s your name?”
“My pals call me Jimmy, and your dad still calls me sir.” He stepped toward the door. “You haven’t earned either of those things yet. You will know me as ‘that bastard’ until you either beat me or enlist in the service.”
I smiled. “That sounds perfect.”