Authors: Preston Norton
“Your babies tried eating us,” I said with a casual shrug.
“They are ever so hungry,” said Arachnis, sighing.
She scraped a long gangly arm across the floor, brushing the small animal skeletons. My stomach churned.
“Then again, so am I,” said Arachnis, glancing back at her enormous pulsating abdomen. “Eating for two hundred makes you especially hungry.”
Nero eyed her with obvious disgust but held his ground.
As she turned back to us, her gaze suddenly became fierce. “Have you come to kill me too?”
“We came to tell you something,” I said. I allowed a long pause, hoping that Nero would know where I was going with this.
“Oh? And what would that be?” asked Arachnis.
Mentally tapping into my skeletal structure, I minimized my bone density. Just standing there, I felt like I could fly at any second.
“Havoc,” I said.
Arachnis raised a confused eyebrow. “Wh—?”
Nero and I simultaneously sprang into action before a word could escape her mouth. Nero summoned several large, sharp rib bones from the floor causing them to hover at his side like missiles. Meanwhile, I leapt into the air, careful not to hit the sticky, white canopy above me.
I started channeling as much density into my fist as possible, but before gravity could bring me down I was slapped against the sticky surface of the ceiling. Arachnis’s lanky arms had shot out, grazing the webbed walls with her fingers. As a result, the ceiling had caved slightly. I was left there, dangling, my heavy fist weighing me down. I was like a fly on flypaper.
From that perspective, I was left to watch as Nero’s bone projectiles shot forward but then halted in midair. Not only that, but they wavered, as if they had struck some rubbery invisible force.
No. It was another web. She had somehow pulled it in front of her as a shield.
Arachnis’s lips twisted into a sick smile. As she raised both pairs of hands, I noticed something glistening from each of her fingertips: strands of webbing. Like strings.
The realization hit me like a fist. Everything was connected. She had this entire nest on strings. Arachnis was controlling the entire web like a puppeteer.
And we had walked right into her trap.
“Nero!” I screamed. “Stay away from the walls! She’s controlling—!”
It was too late. Arachnis twisted a hand with her index finger curled in. A practically invisible strand gleamed as it was triggered. A section of webbing dropped like a net.
Nero sensed it coming. His hands flew up—a natural reflex when he was channeling his telekinesis. The sticky net halted mid-air, levitating only inches from his head. His usual cockiness was lost in wide-eyed shock.
That was all the distraction Arachnis needed. With an impressive heave of strength, she twisted the enormous tail-end of her abdomen. The bulbous blob pulsed and then launched a powerful string of web at Nero. Already preoccupied, it hit him directly in the face. Nero toppled backward and the net fell over him. His face was swallowed in thick, suffocating webbing. As he squirmed and fought, the sticky net bound him tighter.
“You’ll find that it’s rather difficult to concentrate on your telekinesis when you can’t breathe,” said Arachnis, sneering. “And now . . . it’s lunchtime.”
I watched in horror as Arachnis crawled toward Nero. And here I was, a helpless observer.
Of course, Havoc and his team of onlookers wouldn’t let this artificial Defeated suck Nero dry. But the moment she reached him, it would be game over. Nero and I would both be eliminated from the Sidekick Internship Program.
Over my dead body.
I glanced from Arachnis, dragging her massive abdomen across the skeleton-laden floor, to my heavy fist, still hanging lower than the rest of my body. I had yet to normalize my bone density after my failed super punch. And then the most obvious idea came to me.
I tapped into my skeletal structure, building as much density as possible into every last bone in my body. The sticky webbed canopy drooped with my sudden explosion in weight. I could feel the sticky fibers straining to hold me.
Arachnis was only a yard away from being directly below me. My body dipped lower as the web tore slightly. She took another long dragging step.
The web snapped. I dropped like a bomb.
I missed her head. What I hit instead was her bulbous spider-abdomen, and that exploded on impact. Literally. Exploded.
I was momentarily blinded, submerged in bug guts. Fake bug guts, I had to remind myself. Arachnis wasn’t real. Nevertheless, she screamed in an inhuman screech.
The smell was awful, like road kill and vomit and Brussels sprouts, blended together into a smoothie. When I finally managed to open my eyes, the entire nest was sprayed in yellow.
“You!” said Arachnis, howling. Though she staggered around with a slight limp, she appeared much more agile without having to drag her big, fat spider-butt around. Her four arms were tense, all twenty long fingers curled into fists. As she turned, however, I couldn’t help but notice the slight gleam of a metal frame where Arachnis’s abdomen had been.
She’s just an artificial recreation, I reminded myself, straining to calm my nerves. A robot. She’s not real.
Arachnis brought a massive leg up over me and then thrust it down, fully intending to crush me.
Sucking the density from my leg, I kicked out with inhuman speed. I didn’t pump the weight back in until the very last second.
With a sickening crunch, the spider leg snapped back. Arachnis screamed, and her entire body toppled towards me. This was it. My arm went light as I readied myself for a final punch. One swift move, and then my fist would become a wrecking ball, right through her robotic face.
I prepared to deliver the punch, but my entire body went rigid. Every muscle had suddenly seized.
The force of Arachnis’s falling body hit me hard. I was defenseless. I cried out as one of her heavy legs smashed into my shin like a baseball bat. Fiery pain exploded and seared every nerve.
Arachnis pushed herself up off of me with her four pairs of arms, her horrifying scowl only inches from my face.
“You disgusting little insect!” she snarled. “I will eat the skin off your face!”
As she reared her head back, rows of needle-like teeth erupted from her gums.
Why couldn’t I move? I was officially panicking now. It was as if some invisible force was gripping me. As if . . .
Nero exploded from the sticky net that had seemed to permanently bind him. He levitated there for only a brief moment as Arachnis whipped around in surprise.
“Wha—!” she started to say, her black eyes wide.
Nero shot forward like a human bullet. Arachnis released me, her arms lashing out in defense, but it was too late. Headfirst, Nero blasted right through her. Sparks exploded.
The next thing I knew, Arachnis’s lifeless body was rolling off of me. At least half of it. The broken robotic inner-workings were still sparking from the severed midsection. The other half was partway across the room. Even from that distance, lying on the floor, I could see her blank eyes staring back at me. Smoke smoldered from both halves.
Nero was facing away from me, his daunting silhouette slowly drifting to the ground like something from a nightmare.
Nero . . . Did he use his telekinesis to stop me from delivering the final blow?
Did he just stab me in the back?
A doorway appeared in midair, and out stepped Havoc. He was clapping. And smiling! Remember that part when I said that Havoc never smiles? Well this was going against all the laws of nature.
“Great job, Nero,” said Havoc, clapping the skinny little traitor on the shoulder. “I’m not gonna lie. That was possibly the most impressive takedown I’ve ever seen in my entire career. I know you had a rough start in there, but believe me . . . you can expect a near-perfect score.”
Several other members of the FIST training team appeared on the other side of the two-dimensional doorway, clapping as well. All eyes were on Nero. I was as invisible as Arachnis’s obliterated robotic corpse.
Nero seemed to be deliberately avoiding my gaze.
I staggered to my feet, shaking with rage. My hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. I couldn’t even form words, I was so furious. At last, the only hint of coherence exploded out of me in two words:
“He cheated!” I screamed.
The clapping stopped. I was no longer invisible. Every pair of eyes turned to me. Nero included—wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Was he really shocked that I would actually call him out? What the heck did he take me for?
Havoc, meanwhile, was scathing me with a look one would give a fly before swatting it.
“I beg your pardon?” said Havoc. There was less question in his tone and more accusation.
I didn’t like that nobody was giving Nero a disbelieving stare.
“I was about to take Arachnis out!” I erupted in my own defense. “And then Nero stopped me! I couldn’t move!”
Havoc continued to stare at me for several long seconds, his thick arms folded and his shaved head lowered slightly. “You’re saying that Nero used his telekinesis on you,” said Havoc. “After it very clearly appears that he saved your butt from getting disqualified. Is that what you’re telling me?”
He didn’t sound convinced. Not even a little bit.
“Yes,” I said, struggling desperately to maintain my cool. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“That’s a very serious accusation you’re making, Marrow,” said Havoc.
I took a deep breath, biting my tongue. “I realize that,” I said through gritted teeth.
It was several long seconds before Havoc tore his gaze away from me. At last, he turned to Nero. “What do you have to say about all of this?”
Nero was still wide-eyed and appeared much more confused than guilty. This only irritated me further.
“I didn’t do anything to Marrow,” he said in the most disgustingly earnest tone I had ever heard.
Nero’s words grated against every last nerve in my body. I couldn’t take it anymore. Something snapped—as if the white hot rage boiling inside of me had disintegrated any hint of rationality left in me.
With Havoc’s back turned to me, I marched right up to Nero. Of course everyone in the room noticed, but before anyone could react, it was too late.
I punched Nero in the face. He hit the floor louder and faster than you could say, ‘Marrow, get yo’ lily-white butt to my office right now!’
And Havoc can say that pretty loud and fast.
Havoc’s office was about as warm and inviting as an interrogation room. Although such a comparison probably gives interrogation rooms a bad name. My seat was cold and metal, opposite a magnificent mahogany desk with a plush red velvet throne-like chair. Behind this chair was an elaborate painting of Havoc posing in a skin-tight costume—back when he was a full-time Superhero. Not a pretty sight. The side walls were adorned with past portraits of leading FIST faculty in their Superhero days—the Flaming Phlegm, Gertrude the Great, the Black Blob, etc . . .
Ask me if any of these people should have ever been allowed to wear spandex. Go on. Ask me.
The answer is HECK NO! For the love of all that is holy!
The worst part, however, were the three caged parrots in the corner of the room. Their names were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Of course, in a school of supernaturally-gifted students, Havoc had to have an obsession with supernaturally-gifted birds. Unlike parrots who simply repeated words and phrases, these three pets were every bit as communicative as human beings.
And every bit as obnoxious as Nero.
“I wonder when Havoc will be here,” said Aristotle, ruffling his red feathers. He flexed the colorful tips of his wings and yawned. “It’s taking an awful long time, isn’t it?”
Plato—covered in blue feathers with a yellow belly—shrugged his wings. “Deliberating on a suitable punishment, no doubt.”
“What punishment is there to deliberate?” asked the snowy gray-feathered Socrates. “The lad is going to get his bum kicked out of school.”
I bit my lip, resisting the ever-growing urge to smash the birds into the wall. My academic career was already on a thread.
“Or perhaps they’ll hold a formal execution,” said Plato.
“Ooh,” said Aristotle. “I like executions. Perhaps they’ll make him walk the plank?”
“You idiot,” said Socrates, rolling his eyes. “They’d need a pirate ship in order for him to walk the plank. If any sort of execution is in order, they’ll probably have his body disintegrated with laser beams and ship his remains into outer space.”
Being communicative obviously didn’t make the birds intelligent.
The door creaked open behind me. All three parrots perked up simultaneously. I reluctantly glanced back as Havoc entered. Good news and bad news. The good news was that the birds always shut up when Havoc was in the room. The bad news was that Havoc didn’t look happy. And I had generally come to associate Havoc’s “happy face” as a very stern expression.
Havoc’s not-so-happy face was one you would expect Satan to have while experiencing a violent bowel movement.
Havoc seated himself and slapped a folder on his desk. The veins in his forearms pulsed and his thick fingers interlocked as he glared at me. No words. Just your average, soul-penetrating glare.
“So . . . did you find anything?” I asked, perhaps a bit too casually.
Havoc’s clenched jaw shifted from one side to the other. “Oh, we found stuff alright,” he said. “Where would you like me to start?”
I responded with a blank stare. “Uh . . .”
“How about we start with the lie detector?” Havoc suggested. “We hooked Nero up to it and asked him if he used his power against you in any way.”
“And . . . ?”
“He passed, Marrow,” said Havoc. “He passed with flying colors.”
I blinked. How was that possible? There was no way. No stinkin’ way! Unless . . .
“What if he used his telekinesis?” I asked. “That could’ve tweaked the machine, couldn’t it?”
“We were monitoring his telekinesis,” said Havoc in a flat tone.
“But aren’t there people who are trained to pass lie detectors?” I asked. “I mean . . . If he has mind powers, wouldn’t that make it so he—?”
“He’s a Telekinetic, not a Telepath,” said Havoc, cutting me off sharply. “Besides, we monitored his brain at all times. He didn’t
the test. Don’t insult my intelligence.”
I shook my head slowly. This didn’t make any sense at all. But if they monitored his brain at all times . . .
“Did you monitor his power during the Final Challenge?” I asked.
“Of course we did.”
I hated that Havoc was making me ask the questions he already knew I would ask. “And . . . ?”
“To be quite honest, the telekinetic power in that Challenge Chamber was off the charts at the end,” said Havoc. “Our computers couldn’t process it all.”
I perked up. “That’s it!” I exclaimed. “That’s—!”
“However . . . !” said Havoc, interrupting me once more, “we
monitor where Nero was directing his telekinetic energy. And his focus was solely on escaping that spider web and attacking Arachnis. Not you, Marrow. He didn’t direct a single telekinetic thought at you.”
“Then how come I couldn’t move?” I asked. “Why would I make this up?”
Havoc shrugged. “Sometimes, in the heat of battle, people just freeze. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Marrow. It just happens. Some of us just aren’t cut out for this line of work.”
I bolted up from my seat in a sudden rage. My arms were rigid at my sides and my fists were clenched.
“I did not freeze!” I snapped. My breath was ragged. I had never felt so insulted in my entire life.
Havoc responded just as rashly, flying up and towering over me from the other side of his desk. “I don’t care what you
happened or didn’t happen. I’ll tell you what
happen. You punched a fellow student in the face
the Final Challenge! Do you realize that those Challenges are filmed and broadcast live to all the top Superheroes? Even Fantom himself! You’ve made a complete and utter mockery of this entire institution! I have every right and reason to expel you, right here, right now.”
My breath stopped short in my throat. I had trained my entire life for this. To be expelled from FIST would be to throw away my entire life. Everything that I had worked for.
This had suddenly become a much bigger issue. This wasn’t about Nero cheating anymore. It was about me. About my entire future getting flushed down the toilet.
“You know, it blows my mind,” said Havoc. “You have the highest IQ of all the students here—even Whisp. You’re a prodigy by every definition of the term. So why do you go so far out of your miserable way to be a cocky little juvenile delinquent punk?”
My normal response to this question would have been, ‘Do you know what happens to “smart” Superheroes like Whisp? Superjerks give them superwedgies.’ But something told me that wouldn’t be the smartest answer to give at the moment.
“I know you are your father’s son,” said Havoc, “but that doesn’t mean you have to
My entire body went rigid. If there was one thing I hated—even more than I hated Nero, if that’s even possible—it was being compared to my father. If you could even
him a father, that is. Which I didn’t.
As much as I wanted to explode, however, I couldn’t. I dropped back into my seat. Nausea swept over me.
Whether or not he noticed my sudden dread, Havoc’s expression softened. With a sigh, he sat down as well.
“Fortunately for you, Marrow . . .” said Havoc, “you received the second highest scores out of all your fellow classmates.”
I glanced up as a sudden glimmer of hope ignited.
“Nero received a 9.6,” said Havoc. “You were right behind him with a 9.4. The only student to even come close was Whisp with an 8.9. And I’ll remind you that these scores come straight from the Heroes Guild. Every Superhero with a name, basically.”
Whisp got third place? Huh. Who’d a thunk?
“So here’s the deal,” said Havoc. “The good news is that the Guild recognizes your talent. However, none of them feel comfortable taking you on as a sidekick themselves.”
I blinked. How was this good news?
“However . . . there is one hero that several of the Guild members had in mind. A relatively new hero. I’m sure you’ve never heard of him. He’s not a Guild member himself. He actually lost his membership a year ago after an . . . er . . . incident.” Havoc cleared his throat as he continued. “He’s somewhat of a wild card. I don’t really know the details. But anyway, he’s shown a lot of promise in the past, and the Guild is willing to give him a second chance—both of you a second chance—working with each other.”
I was speechless. If I had been told this yesterday, I would have freaked out. The top of my class, and I was being teamed up with some no-name rogue rookie.
But what other choice did I have?
“Okay,” I said, maintaining a calm, cool tone. “Who is he?”
Havoc placed his thick fingers on the folder and slid it to my side of the desk. Taking a deep, nerve-wracking breath, I opened it.
Front and center was a professional photo of him. At least . . . it was supposed to be professional. The scraggly unshaven man appeared to be in his late twenties. His long hair was knotted in unkempt dreadlocks, and he was wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt with cutoff sleeves. He also had his fingers pulling the insides of his cheeks, stretching his mouth impossibly wide. I’m not kidding. His face was like elastic as he stretched his mouth open two or three feet. And, of course, he was sticking his tongue out.
Below the photo, his name was labeled in bold letters: Flex.
Who was I kidding? My future was already down the toilet.