A single cloud, the only one visible in a bright blue sky, passed its shadow over the assembly of supers. I was the only one still standing in the center of the assembly area. Immediately after it had been described how the teams would be chosen, it was clear where I would end up.
Did I think a new suit and four days practice would gain me any acceptance?
I shook my head slightly. No, I was fairly sure that I hadn’t believed I would be welcomed into the super community on the basis of a new suit. I certainly wasn’t going to fool the mentalists, and hadn’t even tried to pretend I wasn’t Strangest. The suit was for my own convenience, to allow me to do at least a few things without the risk of turning into a pit of hate.
Without turning into the soul well.
I corrected myself, remembering what Ali said about perception and reality. Looking around, I saw that Rubberman was still walking towards Obstacle’s group. It was hard to take my eyes off him. His gait was riveting, just wrong in a way that was difficult to put into words. Saying someone moved bonelessly was one thing. Seeing someone actually move bonelessly was something else entirely.
The team captains looked at me. I started to grit my teeth a bit, looking from one to the other.
Why the farce?
I searched for a good memory. I had actually stopped a convenience store robbery yesterday. That had felt surprisingly good. A bit of a rush, actually. Being thanked by the owner for helping them felt like winning a footrace. How many heroes were heroes for the rush, the sense of accomplishment, the feeling of victory? How many really did it just because it was the right thing to do, or a sense of responsibility?
Does it really matter to me why they do it?
Octagon spoke while looking at me. “Counterassault team is complete.” He shrugged.
Blindside followed up. He didn’t look at me. It was clear that he was avoiding looking at me. “Scouting team is complete.”
Then it was Gorgon’s turn. “No, we don’t want him either. Skirmish team complete.” He looked at me and smiled.
Obstacle was the last team captain. “I guess that means you’re on the defensive team then, Strangest.”
“Guess so,” I replied while walking towards him, looking around for Ali. I hadn’t seen Ali since the teleport belt brought me to the emergence point, but he said he’d be around, watching.
As I walked up, the heroes and villains standing behind Obstacle did not look particularly impressed. Badger hissed and spat, then turned his back on me. The rail-thin woman in a black bodysuit with silver gridlines that had been standing in front of him looked startled, glanced over her right shoulder, and saw Badger. She then quickly moved away from him with a clearly disgusted look on her face, visible even through her mask, while wiping wetness off her shoulder and then combing her fingers through her hair with jerky movements. Several supers I didn’t recognize looked at Badger with irritation or disgust, but nobody made a move to do anything to him, thankfully. Two people converged on the distraught spittee with clearly supportive body language.
Octagon spoke up. “OK everyone. FourD says we have somewhere around two hours before emergence, and the emergence will be somewhere within a mile of this beacon. She will let us know where emergence will occur with more precision as the event gets closer. Break up. Team leads figure out your talents and synergies. Figure out who can work well together, and try to keep problems separated.” Octagon clapped his hands, very loudly. “Let’s knock out this emergence point, so we can help the Columbia team. They have the second biggest emergence point, based on what FourD’s been saying. They also have one of the smaller super communities, and few heavy hitters, so they are going to be stressed. New York sent a couple of their recently retired heroes to help Columbia. There are also some US Army supers training at Fort Jackson right now who will assist, but it might still get ugly up there.”
I had to smile as I watched Gorgon reacting to Octagon. As Octagon was talking, Gorgon was gesturing to his team with simple hand signals, and moving them away from the rest of the gathered supers, while at the same time audibly saying “blah blah blah.” Most of the Skirmish team, even Jumping Jack, Octagon’s teammate, were grinning as they followed Gorgon away from Octagon.
At the conclusion of his statements, Octagon raised himself off the ground while saying “Counterassault team follow me!” Then he flew about two hundred feet or so away from the projected emergence point. His people, most of them flyers, were quick to follow him.
Blindside didn’t say anything out loud; his team simply moved, eerily synchronized. They didn’t all do exactly the same thing, but it was clear that they were receiving orders mentally. Seeing them all act in unison with no audible or visible cue was just unnerving.
I shivered briefly inside my armor. The display monitor indicating status started a temperature sensor test, which passed.
Four days experience in this thing.
I hope I don’t fall flat on my face in the armor, again.
Ali and Valsom must have laughed for two hours straight the first day.
Obstacle looked at me. “Simplest thing first. Strangest, I already know exactly what I’m going to do with you. Octagon, Blindside, Gorgon and I all agreed that you are ideally suited for first contact. If the first thing they drop through is a bomb or weapon, you will almost certainly survive it. If they try to communicate instead, you seem cool-headed enough to avoid getting us into an avoidable fight before we can get one of the mentalists close enough to initiate communications.”
“Why was it necessary to humiliate me by picking me last, if you all knew what you wanted me to do?”
Obstacle looked me in the eye. “Gorgon said he’d pick you for his team if we didn’t. We weren’t sure if he was bluffing. We wanted you here. Gorgon even said he wanted you here, but he wanted to piss you off more than he wanted you here. And he wanted me to tell you in front of the rest of the team here too. Apparently you two have a history.” I nodded at that. “The rest of us agreed because we figured you were a big boy and could deal with a little rejection and a childish insult. We know Gorgon is quite often perfectly willing to throw a plan out the window on a whim.”
I nodded my head as an acknowledgement of his point. “Understood.”
Fuck you too, Gorgon.
“Do you understand what we want you to do, Strangest?” Obstacle asked.
The plan seemed simple enough, at least for me. “Activate powers and plug the gap if they come in violently. Stay in human form and delay if they come in peacefully. Why don’t we know what they are doing, Obstacle? FourD is a precog, right?”
Obstacle paused, blinked a couple times, then spoke. “That’s right; you’ve never been in a dimensional defense event. FourD and others like her can see where the breaches will occur with fair accuracy, but until the breaches actually open, she can’t see the future events involving anything from the other side. Cross-dimensional precogs don’t stay sane much more than a week after their powers develop. They are, usually, mental vegetables within a month. We don’t have any in an active, communicative state right now, so we’re stuck with precogs that can only see our dimension.”
Ow. At least my power didn’t destroy my mind.
I nodded my understanding. “Sounds simple enough. I’ll head over there to the emergence point and play some solitaire.” I didn’t wait for a response as I turned on my heel and walked to the beacon indicating the emergence point. I directed the suit to pick up the audio from the defense team planning session. They would be more comfortable with me away from them, but I wanted to know the plans anyway, in case things went wrong.
When things go wrong.
Badger and Levadora would demolish buildings and create a bowl-like crater and simple defensive structures. L33T, Whizzard, Majestic Mind, and several other tinkers would be provided with a small crew of supers with minor powers to assist them while they erected prefabricated weapon systems inside the defensive structures. Welder, Adonis, Crowfoot, and a bunch of other names I didn’t recognize were called out as assistants. They had never joined the main group to be chosen for the four main teams.
That’s a ridiculous way to choose teams.
Is it? The local supers know what each other can do.
Obstacle started speaking with the local National Guard commanders about long range weapons. The Air Guard commander was complaining about firing into a position with a known friendly.
Nice to know someone gives a damn.
“You aren’t going to kill Strangest with high explosives or napalm.” Obstacle explained, and they went on to discuss timing and signals.
All of a sudden, Obstacle went silent. “What are you doing here? You’ve never come to a defense event before.”
I heard a chuckle. “Old dogs can learn new tricks. Are you saying you don’t want my help, Obstacle?”
I had the suit adjust one of its remotes to a higher elevation to get a look at the newcomer that had confused Obstacle. He looked to be about six feet tall, and slender, but definitely not human. There was an extra joint in his legs, and he had a canine snout. As he spoke, I could see carnivore’s teeth. Someone with animal based powers then, apparently. The costume was really out of place for an animal based super though. They normally went for high durability clothes like rawhide, metal mesh, or light armor. This fellow was looking like he came straight off the set of Lassie meets Saturday Night Fever. Brilliant white bellbottom pants and shiny black open toed boots. A neon yellow shirt under a wide-cuffed white jacket just as bright as the pants. I saw a single huge gold chain around his neck, hanging barely below the six inches of hair cascading out of the top of his yellow shirt. He was wearing round-lensed, reflective gold sunglasses. I recognized him from my childhood.
Obstacle had just been staring at Disco Wolf, thinking for a moment. “No, I’m definitely not saying that. Gorgon’s group would probably be better for your powers though.”
“Gorgon’s a dick. I won’t work with him. I damn well won’t take orders from him.”
I like him already.
“Will you take orders from me?” Obstacle asked, carefully enunciating the words.
“I’ll listen to what you have to say.” Disco Wolf and Obstacle stared at each other for a few seconds before Disco Wolf growled. “Stop playing games. I’m going to do what I want to do, and it’ll work for me. Get over it. If you let me know what you’re going to have the others do, I’ll work around them, support them, and protect them. You know damn well there are going to be at least a few leakers from your killzone if things get hot. There always are. I’ve never helped at one of these events, but I’ve been prepared to.”
Obstacle frowned and looked at me. “I’m not sure there will be leakers this time. There’s a new super over there, Strangest. He’s got a very potent power set that’s just about useless for anything but being a barrier to a dimensional assault.”
Disco Wolf looked straight at me. His ears twitched and rotated to face me as his nose flared. His face wasn’t just wolf-like, it looked like a real wolf. I could see his glasses were more like goggles held on with straps rather than normal glasses with earpieces. “He’s wearing armor now? How did he jam himself into a suit that small?”
Obstacle laughed and dropped his voice. “He’s in his human form in the suit. He wants to be useful. I think he’s hoping to get on a super team still, as a guy in a suit. It’ll never happen. You know how his powers work?”
“Human bug zapper, right?”
“We’re hoping it’s more than humans. Could make this a lot easier.”
They both laughed.
I gritted my teeth.
I can understand why no team would want me.
I initiated an internet search for articles on Disco Wolf. I remembered him from when I was a kid. He looked a bit greyer around the edges now, but as he moved, he didn’t appear to be having any difficulty. As I watched, I noticed that his ears were constantly in motion, flicking from one place to another extremely rapidly, and mostly independent from each other. He was also constantly turning his head from side to side.
Obstacle smiled. “He might even be able to catch you if you get close enough to him.”
“Care to bet on that?” Disco Wolf said after his face turned to Obstacle in an instant, his muzzle disappearing from where the position it had been in, and reappearing pointed towards Obstacle. As he pinned Obstacle with his stare, Disco Wolf slowly licked his own nose.
The suit said that Disco Wolf’s head had occupied the space along the path between its two positions, but it had moved incredibly fast. Somehow without creating a shockwave.
Obstacle’s head jerked back, startled as Disco Wolf’s head appeared to simply blink into a new position, and he stopped smiling. “No. Not a bet. Just an observation.”
Disco Wolf chuckled. “Ah well. People are no fun these days. Nobody will bet me any longer.”
Obstacle shook his head. “It’s not a bet when you always win, Disco Wolf; it’s just agreeing to lose. I know better. I don’t need a scar from losing a bet. I’ve got enough from real fights.”
I scanned articles on Disco Wolf for keyword ‘scar.’ Apparently he put a clean, straight, vertical line red scar on the forehead of anyone who lost a bet with him. Even people who were normally invulnerable to most physical damage. Even suited people. He would find them and scar them. If they had the scar fixed, he’d come scar them again. Three supers had been outed after the scar appeared on their secret identities. As far as the record went, he had never lost a bet. He was erratic, sometimes seeming to work to help heroes, and sometimes villains. Usually, he worked alone. No arrest record. Eleven hundred and three recorded crimes, mostly grand theft. Eight hundred twenty recorded encounters with supers. Forty-six scarred supers. There were only three recorded deaths associated with him, and in all three cases, the coroners and witnesses agreed that he hadn’t caused the deaths directly. Two people claimed to have beaten him in a bet, but he had never admitted it, and the rest of the super community seemed to believe the two claimants were lying. For that matter he had offered them the chance to bet again, the same bet they claimed they won, and they both turned it down.
Apparently, he hadn’t gone completely into retirement; he’d just slowed the pace, like an older athlete that still had the moves, but needed more rest between games to heal.
Still, he must be in his sixties, maybe even seventies by now.
Does he really think he’s immune to my power?
Disco Wolf was staring directly at the remote suit pickup; both ears apparently pointed directly at me from the pickup camera’s point of view. He then turned to look a little down and right, apparently directly at me, and licked his nose.
He knows I’m watching him.
I noticed then that he had a short staff, maybe a long cane. What were they called, swagger sticks?
No, swagger sticks are the size of riding crops.
Whatever it was called, it was about chest tall on him, bright white except for a black tip that hit the ground, and a disco ball at the top.
He certainly looks the part.
If the suit wasn’t filtering light, it might be hard to look directly at him in this full sun.
Almost like he came straight out of the movies. At least two movies. A cross between a classic werewolf and a stylized disco dancer.
I chuckled to myself and he grinned at me, then started to walk my way.
Was that a human grin, or a wolf grin?
Obstacle stepped a little to his right and rotated his shoulder to get out of Disco Wolf’s way. Disco Wolf never gave any indication he was going to even try to avoid bumping shoulders with Obstacle. This was despite the fact that Obstacle’s power, above and beyond his strength and durability, was the ability to become immobile, unmoved by even things he shouldn’t have the raw strength to stop.
This guy’s been a super for a very long time.
I decided to not try to pretend I wasn’t watching him. It was pretty clear he knew I was watching him anyway, from his expressions when he was talking to Obstacle and watching my remote.
He’d detected a hovering remote with holographic cloaking the size of a marble from more than two hundred feet away too, so his senses were better than most electronics.
He was definitely not a typical savage type, though that’s what he was classified as, based on the powers he had that seemed consistent.
“Why is it that every tin can hero stares at me with their arms crossed and their head tilted the first time we meet?” Disco Wolf’s voice was smooth, mellow, a deep voice that didn’t match his body type. Almost a rumble.
I almost said I was trying to figure out if he was going to piss on my leg, but decided against it. No need to make an enemy right off. I wasn’t irritated with him right now; I was irritated with other people. “They were probably all doing exactly what I’m doing right now, trying to figure you out.”
“Indeed.” He paused, then licked his nose. “So, have you figured me out?”
I was trying to figure out if that licking of his nose, was some sort of tell, or is was just him keeping his nose clean?
A healthy dog’s nose is wet, or dry?
“No. Seems like people have been trying to figure you out for over forty years. Since you’ve never been caught or even seriously injured, smarter people than me have apparently failed.” I thought about it for a moment, and left it like that.
One of my probes brought a flying figure to my attention. Octagon was suspended in the air about fifty feet from the two of us. As I turned towards him, he spoke. “Disco Wolf, this really isn’t the time to test yourself.”
I mentally slapped myself in the head.
“If all you’re here for is to see if my power effects you, we can settle that real quick and let you get back to your business or whatever, Disco Wolf.” I looked at Octagon. “You wouldn’t take him into custody if he goes unconscious here, would you? That’s against the Agreement, isn’t it?”
“We can take him into custody here, if he starts a fight.”
“Like all the other times, right?” Disco Wolf’s mouth opened wide, his tongue hanging out a little to the left.
So that’s a smile, I guess.
“Are we allowed to spar, Octagon? I’m sure that there are times when two supers need to understand each other’s abilities better. Can we say this is one of them, if Disco Wolf wants?”
“You don’t need to know, Strangest, because nobody’s going to be working with you.”
“Care to bet on that, Octagon?”
“Don’t you dare say yes!” came a very loud, clearly female voice from over in the food preparation area. Cupcake, with her pink apron and white chef’s hat was standing on one of the folding tables and had a megaphone in her hand. From the body language of the camouflaged figure beside her, she had taken it from them without permission, but they settled back to watch as they realized, apparently, that the plump woman wasn’t going far with the device.
Octagon pivoted in the air to face his wife.
“Don’t even start. He’s never lost a bet. Never. He’ll scar you.”
“It’s not important. They are grown men. Stay out of it. Sparring is fine. You know it.”
“Don’t make me threaten you with the couch!”
A lot of people were paying attention now. Most of them were laughing at Octagon. I noticed that Gorgon was holding up a phone, doubtlessly recording the event.
“Fine. Spar. Let me get out of your radius, Strangest.”
“Sure thing, Octagon!” I called out as he zipped away towards his team. I somehow managed to avoid laughing. “You sure you want to do this, Disco Wolf? If my power works on you it might be a pretty heavy hit to your image. Chances are pretty good it’ll work on you. It worked on Weasel, or was it Ferret?”
“Badger! Badger! Badger!” There was some incoherent snarling. “Not call Badger anything else or I chop you up like before!”
Yup, he was listening.
I wonder if he knows he lost the last fight.
“Sorry, Badger.” I wasn’t sorry at all. I looked over in his direction and saw four people restraining him. He wasn’t looking at them though; he was looking straight at Gorgon, who was staring and pointing a finger straight at Badger. As I watched, the wrist and finger crooked down pointing towards the ground. Badger shook briefly, relaxed, then looked at the people holding him and said a couple words I couldn’t hear. They let him go.
That felt good.
It was unnecessary and mean.
I thought about it for a minute.
It still felt good.
“That was unnecessary.” Disco Wolf looked at Badger, then back at me. After a moment his mouth opened a bit and the tongue rolled out the left side a bit. “But I understand the pleasure of the act. Back to your point before, I am nothing like Badger.”
Everyone was watching now. “You sure you want to do this with witnesses?”
“If your power does affect me, I’d rather it be here with witnesses, than somewhere else, without.” He licked his nose. “I’m getting long in the tooth. Finding someone who can stop me would be a novelty.”
“If I activate my power for you to see if it works on you, will you agree to stay and help us fight until the dimensional portal is closed?”
He twisted his head slightly, like a dog waiting for a stick to be thrown.
“No. You will turn on your power either way. I can just wait for the fight to start, then test myself.”
“No deal then. You will have to test yourself after the battle starts, and hope that we can get you out safely if my power knocks you unconscious.”
“Oh, I was planning on staying through the fight in either case. I’m just not letting anyone else dictate terms to me.” His mouth was open, tongue hanging left. Lots of teeth. He was laughing at me.
Nobody else was in range that I could see, so I shifted without warning him.
Immediately after I turned the power on, I could feel Disco Wolf’s presence as a mind in the field. He immediately started a continuous growl, a deep sonorous tone that I could literally feel through my feet. The deep growl went on for about fifteen seconds, during which time, Disco Wolf was completely motionless. Then, abruptly, I stopped being able to sense his presence.
The growl stopped. Disco Wolf spoke. “That was fun. You can turn it off now.”
He was right, I could turn it off, even though I had never been able to with someone near me before. Apparently someone not affected by my power would also not prevent me from turning it off.
Other than Ali, Ahmed, and Valsom.
But he made himself not be affected by my power. He started off being affected, I could feel him.
I eyed the monitors on the inside of my helmet as my suit rebooted, watching for errors. Sending the suit with my body, wherever is was than my body went, made the electronics shut down. The power storage wasn’t affected, but all active electronics simply stopped. They didn’t pick up where they left off either, so it wasn’t any normal sort of stasis. Valsom seemed to understand it, but couldn’t explain it to me. Something about intense magical fields. He had been required to make some modifications to keep the power storage from draining as well. He said doing the same for all the electronics systems would triple the volume and increase the mass of the suit almost tenfold, but give it no additional functions. Not worth fifteen seconds of reboot. The suit was a tool, not something I would live or die by.
I could see Cupcake standing in front of Octagon. She was poking him in the stomach energetically for a few seconds until he wrapped her in a hug and then she started jabbing him in the side above his hips. He kissed her on top of her head and she stopped poking him before hugging him with both hands, and then shrugging out of his hug and heading back to the mobile kitchen.
As she walked back to the kitchen, Cupcake shouted “Last call for food before we pack it up and move away from the site!”
Half a dozen supers made their way to the mobile kitchen, which was really just a couple tables and a few metal plates with metal lids. Cupcake would listen to what someone wanted, put a metal lid over a metal container, then concentrate a second, and there would be food in the container. Good food. My stomach growled. I knew I wasn’t really hungry though, my power didn’t appear to be metabolism linked. Probably because it was magic. I had carb gel in the suit if I needed it anyway. It tasted terrible, but was extremely high in energy.
Disco Wolf, apparently, did want some food. He went to visit Cupcake and returned to me a couple minutes later with a pork shoulder, eating it like a giant drumstick.
“Is that the one from the straw house?” I asked.
He gave me his canine smile, and said “brick” then concentrated on the pork shoulder, rapidly demolishing it. The way he ate reminded me a bit of Arson, and the smell was similar too. I sicked up a little thinking about it and turned away from him, swallowing my gorge. My eyes tracked through the sequences to seal the suit and purge the air inside so I wouldn’t smell the pork. I no longer felt the slightest bit hungry.
I heard him sniff. “I saw video of what you did.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” I answered as I turned back around towards him again.
We shifted the position of the emergence point beacon two more times in the next hour. FourD finally declared that we were in the final position. Badger and Levadora were cleared to start the fortification and completed an amazing civil engineering project, moving thousands of cubic yards of dirt and rock in less than ten minutes, while disassembling buildings and reforming them into bunkers that the tinker teams rapidly moved heavy weapons into. Heavy weapons that would soon be trained on my location.
Badger was absolutely incredible when he was in his element. Levadora was mostly shifting the raw materials around, which was no small task, but Badger connected everything together, creating fortifications from leveled buildings and vehicles at a blinding pace. He was plodding on all fours and visibly much thinner by the time the football stadium sized project was done. Levadora, even though she was wearing full-body armor that was obviously powered based on the noises coming from it, was clearly close to falling flat on her face as well.
Disco Wolf had been watching them both, and gestured towards them with a swinging hand as they walked away from us. “Those two know how to work. That was impressive.”
Badger was still close enough to hear, apparently. He turned a little to look our way, grunted something unintelligible that didn’t sound like an insult, and then turned his head away without saying anything. A couple people ran up with a stretcher and I thought there was going to be a fight as Badger saw them coming. A third person with the two carrying the stretcher made a hand motion and the two stretcher bearers dropped what looked like a whole leg of beef off the stretcher. As the huge piece of meat fell to the ground, all three of them backed away. Badger pounced on the meat with a warning growl, staring at the nearby stretcher bearers and taking several huge bites before looking around self-consciously and standing up. He then picked up the huge slab of meat in both hands and followed the three medics, handlers, or whatever, taking huge bites out of the leg as he walked.
“Are you going to stay here in the crossfire, Disco Wolf? I’ve seen articles that say you have been hurt, you can bleed. You might be immune to my power, but there’s going to be a hell of a lot of firepower heading this way shortly. A lot of it’s going to be area effect energy weapons.”
Energy weapons. I’m going to regret this.
“Already said what I was going to be doing. You were listening in.” He gave me a sharp look.
“Then why stay here after you proved your point?”
He licked his nose and then there was the canine smile again.
How does he do that and never bite his tongue?
“Because I wanted to. I was expecting that someone who can’t work with most other supers might try to strike up a relationship with a super they could maybe work with.”
“Is that an offer?”
Could I work with this guy? He’s a thief.
I’m a killer.
“No, it’s an observation.” He pointed behind me. “I believe things are starting.”
I turned around, and saw a shimmer in the air, about the size of a small car. As the shimmer effect faded, it was clear that unless the other dimension was populated by machine intelligences that lived in featureless metallic shells, this wasn’t a diplomat.