GL’s ‘help’ was a small car repair shop that looked like any other small car repair shop. Behind the building was a walled off area, made of unremarkable looking concrete bricks. A bright neon sign proclaimed the business ‘The Forge’, and that it was open twenty-four hours a day. Convenient, as it was like four in the morning right now.
Less convenient, they neglected to put up a sign explaining what they actually did here. Then again, that might not have been useful information anyway.
I hesitated, still on edge from the fight with Flux and all the stuff he said. Part of me hoped he was lying, and not for the obvious reason. It was horrible and terrifying and I would be happier if it wasn’t true, but worse: it meant Muwth was lying to me. Three murdered supervillains could not have gone unnoticed, no matter how much I wished.
I could believe Kitten’s powers letting her avoid me. I could even believe my future-other-something self not reporting a bad fight with Kitten so… uh… did I mention I hate time travel? Whatever, I could imagine that-me keeping this-me from fighting her. Especially now that I knew her… interests. That was stuff I could accept, though not comprehend.
What I did understand, and could not believe, was Muwth’s huge amounts of money, political contacts, and paranoia somehow missed the murder of multiple supervillains. If Flux was telling the truth, she had to know, and she chose to say nothing.
Still, that was a problem for later. Hopefully GL didn’t mind the minute or two I wasted in silence. “So, what kind of situation am I expecting here?”
“Nothing sinister,” GL answered. “But he is… well, you know that one extra weird kid in school? The one who’s militantly proud of how weird he is and wants everyone to know he’s a special snowflake and smarter than everyone else?”
I immediately thought of David. “Yeah, I know that kid.”
“Well, Mike’s what happens when you give that kid powers that make him smarter than everyone else, and wait thirty years. Expect uncomfortable conversations about his personal life and political beliefs.”
“Oh, that sounds wonderful.” If my sarcasm was any thicker, I could have swam in it.
“He’s not as bad as I just made him sound,” GL added. “He is very smart, the nicest guy I know, and goes all out to help his friends. He even hires me to do sound effects when he’s DMing for his gaming group. If he likes you, he might even give you free stuff.”
Considering free was about all I could afford right now, I walked up to the business. “Well, at least my life isn’t boring.” And at this point, the night has nowhere to go but up.
The door chimed as I walked in. Inside also looked an awful lot like a car repair shop, with a lift and everything.
“May I help you, sir?” the guy at the counter asked. He was east Asian, and looked only a bit older than me. Skinny, skinnier than I’d been before my powers. I guessed he wasn’t the owner, unless he was like Muwth and didn’t age.
“We’re here to see Mike about a custom order,” GL spoke for me.
The guy jumped, looking around for the source of the voice. “Umm, Smith’s not going to be in for a couple hours. I can give you the number and-”
“He says he’ll be out in about five minutes,” GL interrupted. “Seems he’s excited you’re here, but I don’t know why.”
Probably another jerk who wants to use me for his own purposes, I thought. What’ll it hurt to add more to the collection? “It’s good to be wanted.” I sat down in a chair next to the kid and peeled my mask off. “So, what do you do here?”
“Me?” he seemed surprised I’d ask. “Well, I work nights here while going to college. The job’s pretty mindless, but the pay’s good and Smith lets me study and do homework at work.”
“Well, that’s cool of him,” I said as I picked a catalogue off the endtable. In it were items ranging from ‘perfect scale replicas’ of famous places to high quality tools, most of which ran for hundreds of dollars. If he actually had enough customers to keep the shop running all hours, I could see why this guy was so willing to throw money around.
“Hey, Glen, how’s the single life treatin’ ya?” I looked up at the new voice. I don’t know what I was expecting this guy to look like, maybe David, only older. All I know is it wasn’t what I got. Mike was tall burly black man with a salt and pepper beard that ZZ Top would have been proud of. He wore sandals with khakis, an extra-extra large metallica shirt, and a cubs hat on his otherwise bare scalp.
“Forecast is clear for the time being,” GL answered easily. “Saw this cute stratonimbus the other day, but then she started raining on everyone’s parade.”
Mike nodded sagely. “That’s just how it goes. They’re all storms waiting to happen.”
Somewhere, deep in my soul, I now have cancer. I stood and extended my hand. “Good to meet you, Smith.” I hoped I didn’t make a bad impression.
He grabbed my hand, and my power kicked in with all the usual information that I tried desperately not to think about. I focused instead on the metal bolt in his knee and how painful his handshake was. If not for all the training I’d been doing, he might have caused me to duplicate with that squeeze. “All my friends call me Mike. After what you did in that fire, you’ve earned friend status.”
“Thanks, Mike.” I smiled, genuinely this time. “My name’s Zach. The title of my autobiography will be ‘How to make friends by dying in a fire’.”
“Sounds like a good way to get sued by stupid people.” Mike laughed and finally released his grip on my hand. “So, what can I do for you?”
“We’re looking to level up his equipment; epic encounter on the horizon.” I was glad GL answered, because I had no idea.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Mike giggled in his excitement. “Then you’ve come to the best shop in the land! Let’s go to The Forge!”
I followed along, not knowing what to say. That a grown man giggling wasn’t even the third weirdest thing I’d heard tonight was not lost on me. Mike’s ‘forge’ was almost bare, containing only a raised platform, some machine, and a large mural of the Confederate flag on the wall. I looked over at Mike, then back to the flag.
“It wasn’t about slavery, you know,” Mike stated. “There are people on both sides of the issue who’d have you believe it was, but that’s just propoganda. It’s about state rights and fighting against Federal tyranny.”
Please get me out of this conversation. “I guess some things just never change.”
“Besides, that ain’t even the real confederate flag,” Mike added. “It’s a modified variant of a naval battle flag that didn’t exist until after the war. So joke’s on everyone who makes a scene about it.”
Somehow, GL managed to imitate a sigh. “He gives the same lecture to everyone who comes back here.”
Mike laughed, then clapped a hand on my shoulder. I braced myself on instinct and didn’t go stumbling forward. “Yeah, it’s true. I just like to know everyone who comes to my store learned something. I had it out in the lobby, but my husband was afraid of gang retaliation and made me move it. You don’t have any problems with that, do you?”
He must have sensed me tense up. What was it Ferne told me about never trying to lie to another Imbued? “Sorry, it’s just I’ve only ever met two Gadgeteers, and it turns out both of them are gay. Just think it’s a weird coincidence, is all.”
“It’s true,” Genius Loci backed me up. “He’s the one who warned us about the epic encounter.”
Mike laughed, and at least I knew I wasn’t about to get kicked out of the building. “Don’t be so sure it’s a coincidence, boys. Powers base themselves on your desires, what your subconscious feels you want or need. You got powers to change your bodies, because you needed to change yourselves. Others get powers to change their environments or the people around them. Gadgeteers are the ones who Manifest because they want to change the whole world. Homosexuals gravitate to us for the same reasons they gravitate to the arts.”
That seemed overly simplistic. I could see how it applied to me, but Anima or Ferne or Muwth? I just wasn’t seeing how they fit into his beliefs. Their powers didn’t change themselves and they didn’t seem interested in changing the world or anything else. Well, Ferne did, in a way. And if he was right, terrorists and other hate groups should have thousands of Gadgets.
“So, what kind of upgrades are you thinking?” I asked, hoping to get the subject back on track. “I mean, I thought only Gadgeteers could use Gadgets properly, and never as good as the maker.”
Mike raised his hand and pointed up. “True! But that’s where my brilliant power comes in!” He rushed over to the machine and started typing on the keyboard built into it. “I don’t make Gadgets, I made a single Gadget that builds anything I want it to build! My Gluon Waveform Manipulator alters the very fabric of space and reassembles atoms to my exact specifications, letting me create anything I desire. Even if it can’t build Gadgets yet.”
I understood exactly ‘build anything except gadgets’, but that was all that mattered.
“We need something that can hit hard without slowing him down any,” GL requested. “It’s an encounter of the rogue variety.”
I wondered if they thought that code of theirs would fool anyone, or if they were just having fun. “And I’d kinda like to know what I’ll need to do to pay for everything.”
“Both of those are easy! We’ll start with the payment: I just need you to climb onto the platform and use your power.”
I eyed the thing suspiciously. “Umm, why? What will that do?”
“It’s just a scanner that’ll let me find your soul.”
“The soul!” Mike repeated like it made sense. “Life force, prana, ki, give it any name you like! The spark that allows dead matter to become living tissue. It’s the one thing I’ve never been able find with my machines!”
“You’ve done this before?” My stomach clenched a little. There were history books dedicated to Gadgeteers attempting to toy with life and death. Frankenstein came to mind.
“I would never attempt to clone a human,” Mike insisted. “I’ve used animals, and then only to harmlessly scan them. Dead tissue comes out fine, in fact I often clone steaks this way. I’m vegan, but my husband’s a total carnivore. He says he can’t tell the difference, and I have to admit he knows how to use a grill. But any live animal I’ve tested on, the copy is dead on creation and unable to be revived. Same thing happened when I got legal permission to attempt to copy donor tissues. Imagine the lives we could save if viable hearts and kidneys were a button’s press away.”
Well, as far as ‘insane abominations against god and nature’ go, that doesn’t sound bad at all. “Where do you get the power to make stuff? Matter doesn’t come from nowhere, right?” Dumb statement, my power proved that. “At least not permanently.”
“Again true, to the best of what I can tell!” Mike agreed. “But matter itself is cheap. My tech doesn’t split or build atoms, it just realigns them. Steel is just iron, carbon and traces of other elements. What determines its properties is how it’s aligned on the atomic level. Ninety-six percent of the body is made of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. Some of the most common elements on the planet. I get everything I need from landfills. Saving the world, one hundred kilos of trash at a time.”
Well, there goes my appetite for clone-steaks. “And you’re just hoping that because my power builds me alive, watching it will let you do the same? For organ creation.”
“It’s possible it might also be used to bring back animals facing, or even past, extinction from human destruction of the environment,” Mike added.
Somehow, Mike managed to be both the craziest and least horrific mad scientist I’d ever heard of.
“You don’t have to answer right now!” Mike pressed a button, and a silver object appeared on the pad. It didn’t assemble itself like Star Trek did. It wasn’t there, then a moment later it was. “Behold the prototype concussion gauntlet!” He grabbed it and tossed it to me.
I caught it on reflex, and mentally thanked The Bastard for constantly throwing deadly weapons at me. It wasn’t too heavy, more than five pounds but not quite ten. It looked a bit like the the ribs and spine of a snake.
“It’s a gauntlet, just put it on and grap the handle in the middle.” I followed his instructions.
It was an uncomfortable fit, but the metal spine extended far enough to be used kinda like brass knuckles. I patted the metal, which was as hard as you’d expect metal to be. “I can see this working.” I didn’t want to sound ungrateful, but I wasn’t impressed. “But the, umm, epic encounter is-”
“That’s just the prototype,” Mike dismissed. “The final version will contain a special recipe of plastic explosives and a mechanism similar to a car piston, concentrating the explosive energy into a metal cylinder. With customizable settings letting you designate multiple yields of power ranging from approximately three times a punch, to something closer to a cannon ball. Enough power to break concrete. Think of it as a light arm mounted sledge hammer.”
And the fucks given grew ten sizes that day. “Christ on a cracker.”
“He was black, you know,” Mike informed. “Now, there are some weaknesses. Even with my tech, the materials must obey conventional physics. To control the impact force, the machine is specially crafted to shape the explosive charge, a process that will destroy such a lightweight piece of metal. On all but the maximum setting, energy will direct inward, with power enough to destroy the arm of whomever wears it.
“Problems that aren’t problems, as long as it’s in my hands.” I just stared at the bracer, seeing it in a whole new light. It had gone from a neat trick to the kind of weapon that would let me be a real threat against almost any enemy. “You’ve put a lot of thought into this, haven’t you?”
“Ever since I saw what you did on the news,” Mike confirmed. “It’s more than you simply restoring yourself, lots of powers do that. You’re the first one I’ve ever met that could do it to other people. You could be a holy grail to a whole new generation of medical science, if you want.”
I looked at the device on my arm. I could already think of ways to improve on this prototype, past the obvious need for a better fit. Done right, it might even be a propulsion system to keep up with faster enemies. No matter what happened, it was a weapon that could kill Kitten.
Even if Mike was using me, he was using me for good reasons. Besides, what could he really do with cloning tech that was more deadly than, say, an infinite supply of sarin gas or super-bombs that he could already make?
I smiled as I walked toward the platform. “Just remember to thank me in your Nobel Prize speech.” It felt good to make a deal with something other than devils for once.