Authors: Preston Norton
Worst night’s sleep of my life. Ever.
I crashed on the couch, which I discovered had a spring sticking up somewhere underneath the middle cushion. I tried to sleep around it, but that only resulted in me shifting my position a million and a half times. When I finally awoke to daylight, I had a crick in my neck and an ache in my shoulder. I felt like I was a hundred and fifty-two years old.
It took several long seconds for my senses to register the dramatic music in the background. The grunts and smacks of fake punches and kicks. Buttons being mashed repeatedly.
I rolled over to find Flex playing a video game.
Not just playing. Like . . . he was seriously into it. His eyes were fixated, and his thumbs were moving faster than an army of texting teenage girls. He sat cross-legged, hunched over, with his face way too close to the TV screen, like a little kid on Saturday morning. But at least he had clothes on—sweat pants, a ratty old cutoff t-shirt, and a beanie pulled tight over his dreadlocks.
Okay, so video games were hardly the pinnacle of ambition, but at least this was a step up from yesterday. And it was nice to actually see him passionate about something.
“Whatcha playing?” I asked, forcing perhaps a tad too much enthusiasm in my tone in an attempt to compensate for yesterday. It was then that I glanced past the back of his head and noticed a certain caped crusader stringing punches through a group of thugs. “Batman?”
“Arkham Origins,” said Flex in a half-trance.
He removed one hand from the controller only to reach for his can of Mountain Dew Code Red. He took a quick sip and returned to the fight.
I blinked incredulously and glanced back and forth between Flex and the TV screen. I didn’t know if he could see the horrible irony here, but it was almost too much for me to take.
“You’re a Superhero . . . and you’re playing a Superhero video game?” I said
“Uh . . . yeah. It’s Batman,” he said.
“But you’re a
,” I said, putting extra emphasis on the “super” part. “I mean . . . Batman doesn’t even have a superpower!”
“Batman doesn’t need a superpower,” said Flex. “He’s Batman.”
Someone desperately needed to inform Flex that Batman’s name alone was not the ultimate justification of the universe. I sighed. But maybe I could use this to my advantage.
“What’s so great about Batman?” I asked.
Flex stumbled with the controls. Batman fell as two clowns simultaneously pummeled him into the ground. Flex seemed to take the defeat reasonably well as his attention shifted to me.
“Are you kidding me?” said Flex. “He’s Batman. Everything’s great about him.”
I officially felt like I was having a conversation with a seven-year-old.
“I mean . . . Batman is like a symbol of justice,” he said. “He always sacrifices for the greater good. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a superpower. If he sees something that needs to be done, he does it. If that’s not a hero, I don’t know what is.”
Okay, now we were getting somewhere.
“So . . . does Batman inspire you to be a better Superhero?” I asked. It was a stupid question, I’ll admit. But right now, it seemed like the only way of getting through Flex’s rubber skull.
Flex had already started navigating through the menu to start a new game. He halted the moment the word “Superhero” came out of my mouth. Setting his controller down, he scooted around on his butt to face me.
“Let me tell you something about Superheroes,” he said. His tone was dead serious. “They don’t believe in fighting for justice. They believe in getting famous. Once they make it big and score a big advertising deal, it’s just a job to them. They’re celebrities. They save the world so they can maintain their popularity so they can make more money.”
“Well . . . I mean . . . they have to support themselves somehow,” I said.
“It’s not about supporting themselves,” said Flex. “They’re greedy. And they’re corruptible. Did you know that forty-two percent of every Superhero ever recorded has gone bad? Forty-two percent! That’s almost half of us! And thirty-nine percent of those are FIST graduates. Why do you think that is, Minnow?”
My expression went flat. “It’s Marrow.”
I pushed my pride aside, wanting desperately to respond back with something smart. I had nothing. Forty-two percent? I didn’t realize the percentage was that high. Especially the thirty-nine percent that were FIST graduates. I mean . . . FIST
justice into our heads. It wasn’t just about fighting. It was about morals. And if we ever joked about it, then Havoc would, in the immortal words of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “layeth the smacketh down.”
“You know what it is?” asked Flex. “It’s power. Power makes people go bad. You give someone a little bit of it, and all they want is more.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but I had nothing. Every word pierced like a needle. Not because this was suddenly some big epiphany. Not because I suddenly believed every word he said.
It was because I personally knew a Superhero-gone-bad. One that many referred to as the most infamous Supervillain of all time.
His name was Spine. He was the only Supervillain ever to have eluded Fantom. For this reason, many considered him Fantom’s arch nemesis. Even though he had disappeared, it was likely that he was still out there. Somewhere.
“What about Fantom?” I asked. The confidence in my argument had become notably hollow.
“Fantom doesn’t believe in justice,” said Flex. “What’s the point of a judicial system if he kills every villain he fights?”
“But . . . but they’re evil, aren’t they?” I said.
Flex didn’t respond. Instead, he stood up and chugged the remainder of his Mountain Dew and then crushed the aluminum can against his head. It looked like he was about to toss it on the floor when his wandering gaze suddenly scoured the living area.
“You cleaned up?” asked Flex.
I sincerely hoped that he wasn’t just now noticing it. “Yeah,” I said.
“Why’d you do that? I had everything where I wanted it.”
He threw the crushed can at the waste bin; instead of going in the bin, it bounced off the side and hit the floor. Flex sighed and started for his bedroom. I perked up at this familiar sight.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Flex stretched out his lanky arms, tilted his head back, and yawned. “Going to bed.”
“Again?” I said. “How much do you sleep?”
“Not nearly enough,” said Flex. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or serious.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked.
“I don’t care. Go knit a sweater or something.”
“You should care,” I said. “I’m your sidekick. You’re supposed to be my mentor.”
“Go play Batman.”
“I’m not playing freaking Batman.”
“Your loss,” said Flex with a shrug. He stepped into his bedroom and shut the door.
I wasn’t about to let a door stop me this time. I burst through, slamming the door against the wall in the process.
Flex whipped around, daggers in his glare. “The heck do you think you’re doing?”
“You know, Whisp had all these good things to say about you,” I said “And for a second, I almost believed him. I thought, ‘You know, maybe—just maybe—I have some super cool mentor that nobody knew about.’ But no . . . you’re just a washed up nobody who doesn’t want to be anybody. I don’t know what the heck he sees in you.”
“Well Whisp always has nice things to say about everybody,” said Flex, rolling his eyes. “I’m sure he’d say something nice about you even though you’re a self-inflated, annoying little buttmonkey. Now get lost.”
“I’m not leaving here until you start training me,” I said.
“If you don’t get out of my room, I’ll kick your butt inside out!” Flex snapped.
“Good!” I said. “Fighting you is better training than sitting around your crappy apartment.”
Flex’s nostrils flared. After standing rigid for several long seconds, he marched around his bed and retrieved a letter from the nightstand—the same letter that Havoc had given him. He then threw it at me like a Chinese throwing star. I managed to catch it before it could veer off course and flutter to the floor. I was surprised to find that the envelope had already been torn open.
“There,” said Flex. He tossed himself on the bed in exasperation. “Go knock yourself out.”
I raised the envelope from the corner like some dead creature. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Our first mission assignment is in there,” Flex grumbled. “Go without me. It’s a one-man job anyway.”
I stared absently at the envelope in my hands. Blinking myself back to reality, I fumbled to remove the letter inside. “They already assigned us a mission?”
“Uh . . . yeah. Duh. Every newly-teamed Superhero and sidekick get assigned their first mission in advance. Didn’t you go to the Teaming Ceremony?”
Ah. That explained it. I was probably puking my guts out during that important tidbit of information.
“And we’re responding to this mission a day late?” I don’t know why I even bothered pointing this out. It was obvious Flex didn’t care either way.
“Yeah, well on a scale of one to ten, I’d say the urgency of this mission ranks a negative eleven. You know Oracle?”
“Yeah, who doesn’t?”
“Well apparently she
someone is snooping outside her place,” said Flex. His assurance was underwhelming. “She reported it to the Guild, and now they want us to check it out.”
I removed two folded up sheets of paper from the envelope. The first was a corny congratulatory letter informing Flex that he would be training a sidekick. This included a list of qualities expected in a Superhero trainer. (Basically a list of everything Flex wasn’t. I refrained from pointing this out.) The second page outlined a mission that was labeled as “Top Secret.” It then proceeded to retell the mission exactly as Flex had explained, but managed to stretch it into four long paragraphs, ending with Oracle’s address and basic directions to her house.
“You happy?” said Flex. “Will you leave me alone now?”
I could definitely see why Flex didn’t want to go. It was a belittling excuse for a mission. Like asking the Crocodile Hunter to help get a cat out of a tree because he’s good with animals. But what else was there to do?
Still, it felt weird going by myself.
“You sure you don’t want to go?” I asked, hopeful.
“I would rather glue acorns to my naked body and be eaten alive by an army of rabid squirrels.” With that said, he rolled over face-first into his pillow, emphasizing that the conversation was over.
“Okay,” I said, nodding. “I’ll take that as a no.”
Oracle’s house was only a twenty-minute walk from Flex’s place. And I use the term “house” loosely. It was wedged awkwardly between two apartment buildings, standing slightly crooked, as if it had been transported mysteriously off the set of a Tim Burton film. It looked like it might collapse without the support of the neighboring structures. However, it did surprisingly have a front lawn, encompassed by a rickety picket fence. The fence had once been white, but the paint was now cracked and peeling like dead skin after a sunburn. It might have seemed like a peaceful place were it not for the construction site across the street. Bulldozers groaned and rumbled across the dirt clearing while jackhammers rattled against shattered concrete. As equally troublesome were the picketing signs surrounding Oracle’s house that had been left after months of protesting. Signs like “Stay out of my brain,” or “Only God should read minds,” or my personal favorite, “I already have enough voices inside my head.”
For the most part, Supers have been extremely welcomed by society. However, Telepaths (as well as Omnipotents before they went extinct) were the glaring exception. Though the Guild pushed for equality among all Supers, people in general didn’t like the idea of someone who could go inside your head. They claimed it was “unconstitutional.” The Anti-Telepathy Movement had been going on for ages, and Oracle—being the most powerful living Telepath—was the centerpiece of their protesting. Unfortunately for the protesters, Oracle had been nothing but helpful whenever the government requested her assistance. Her services had been requested during multiple national security threats. For that reason alone, I seriously doubted that Telepaths were going anywhere.
I unhooked the rusty gate latch and pushed it open. The hinges groaned in protest. The floorboards of the porch were no less disagreeable, squealing under my weight. I barely had time to knock as the door was swiftly opened. There stood Oracle, hunched ever so slightly, wearing a knitted purple shawl and an ugly gray dress that looked more like a parachute than a piece of clothing. Her frizzy gray hair billowed out, outlining her wrinkled features. And then there were those eyes—pure white like milky marbles. Those eyes seemed to see nowhere and everywhere all at once.
“I knew you would be coming,” said Oracle in her warm, grandmotherly tone. “Come in, Marrow. I’ve just made tea.”
What did I expect paying a surprise visit to a Telepath?
I followed Oracle into her cramped cottage. Just as I remembered, she smelled like mothballs and boiled cabbage. This time, however, I detected a hint of garlic as well.
It had been five years since my last (and only) visit to Oracle. I was eight years old when she summoned me to her home, spoke to me of my surfacing power and helped me understand my potential. This was a typical ritual for most Super children. Oracle’s matriarchal one-on-one meeting with each child had become a staple of Super culture.
The inside of her home was exactly as I had remembered it. To one side, the wall was lined with bookshelves and a vast library of dusty hardbacks. On the opposite side, newspaper articles were pinned to a wall-encompassing map of Cosmo City with connecting lines drawn and notes written in red ink. It was the sort of conspiracy theory décor I would expect to see in the home of a paranoid schizophrenic. It appeared especially out of place with the flowery throw blankets draped over the nearby armchair and sofa and the lacy doilies on the coffee table and nightstand.
Eight-year-old, not-so-prodigious Marrow had once asked why she decorated the place—and
she decorated it!—if she was blind. Oracle had merely smiled and replied, “You don’t always need eyes to see. Some of the blindest people I know have both eyes and can see just perfectly.” From that point on, I decided to take the precious opportunity to shut my food hole. The conspiracy diagram still didn’t make sense for a blind person, but I could only assume that her telepathic power somehow gave her a sixth sense in that regard.
I approached the eerie wall. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was outlining several Supervillains still on the loose and their recent crime scenes.
Spine was the oldest villain on the map, and his face was plastered all over it. I hastily redirected my attention.
Of course, scattered all over the place, Oracle’s two dozen cats were lounging on nearly every flat surface. One particular gray tabby arched its back and hissed at me from the carpet.
“Maximus, you know better than to hiss at our guests,” said Oracle, waving a scolding finger.
Maximus slouched his shoulders and seemed to shrug indifferently as he wandered off.
“Have a seat, Marrow.”
I sank into the couch. Oracle disappeared into the kitchen and, sure enough, returned with a tray of tea cups. I generally didn’t drink tea, and she didn’t bother asking me what I liked. She already knew. Handing me my cup, I sipped a rich, icy ting of peppermint. Meanwhile, she set the tray down, leaned back in her plush armchair, and sipped from her own cup with a look of utter euphoria.
“Ah, honey vanilla chamomile,” she sighed her satisfaction.
I took another sip from my cup, unsure of how to proceed. How do you ask a question to someone who most likely already knows what you’re going to ask?
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Oracle. “You’re wondering why a renowned telepath such as myself would need help dealing with someone snooping around my place. Why I can’t just report the person directly to the police.”
See? Didn’t even need to ask. Not only was it exactly what I was wondering, but in a lot less words. I nodded and only afterward realized how pointless this acknowledgment was.
“The answer is really quite simple,” she said, “and yet perplexing at the same time. This person that’s snooping around my place is invisible to me.”
“But . . . you’re blind,” I said. “I mean . . . I thought you sensed this person telepathically. What does it matter if they can go invisible?”
“I don’t mean physically invisible,” said Oracle, shaking her frizzy head. “I mean invisible to the mind’s eye.”
I blinked, confused more than ever now.
“I heard someone walking outside the house,” she said in response to my silence. “Whoever it was didn’t feel the need to be especially quiet about it. Not that they needed to. This person, as far as I can tell, is completely immune to my telepathy.”
I raised a disconcerted eyebrow. “Immune? Is that even possible?”
“In very few instances, yes. A Telepath more powerful than myself would have the ability to block me. However, I have my doubts that a telepath could have accumulated so much power and gone unnoticed until now.”
“How else can someone be immune to telepathy?” I asked.
Oracle shrugged beneath her shawl. “It depends. Certain powers have unexpected side-effects when it comes to mind powers. For example, I think you’d be interested to know that your trainer is immune to my power.”
“My trainer?” I repeated questioningly. “Flex?”
Oracle simply smiled and nodded.
“But . . . how?” I asked. “He’s rubber. How does that make him immune?”
“Well, saying he’s rubber is not quite accurate,” she said. “Flex’s body is composed of purely-biological particles that have a natural elasticity. Not just his flesh and bones, but his organs as well. That includes his brain. Somehow, because his brain is made of a different material than ours, my telepathic senses literally bounce right off it. I couldn’t read his mind any more than I could read an animal’s. And heaven knows I would pay big money to read Maximus’s mind.”
Oracle chuckled to herself. I was having a difficult time sharing her sense of humor.
“What if it’s Flex?” I asked.
“Flex?” Oracle repeated. “Snooping around my place? Oh, I highly doubt that.”
“But he fits the description, right? And he only lives like ten blocks away.”
“He fits the qualifications, I suppose. But heaven help that boy if he had a single motivation left in the world. He has no reason to spy on me. He may be a bit of a bum, but he has a good heart.”
I snorted my irritation at this response. “Well he sure seems to have a thing against Superheroes.”
“Flex wasn’t always like that,” said Oracle. “Once upon a time, he was one of the best. His grades at FIST were some of the highest the school had ever seen. He achieved top scores in the Sidekick Internship Program as well. And when he became a full-fledged Superhero, he was one of the best.”
I rolled my eyes. “Right.”
“Oh, you don’t believe me?” asked Oracle. “I’ll have you know that Flex single-handedly intercepted twenty-nine armed robberies. He defeated seven powerful Supervillains. He even saved one hundred and thirty-one passengers from a train on an elevated railway that nearly derailed, stretching across the front like a bungee cord. In all my days, I’ve never ever heard of anything like that.”
I couldn’t tell if Oracle was telling the truth, or if she was just senile. The Flex she was describing certainly wasn’t the sorry excuse for a hero that I was teamed up with.
“So what happened?” I asked, almost challengingly.
Oracle’s expression became solemn. “Someone he cared for turned on him.”
“Turned on him?”
“Went evil,” said Oracle. “Became a full-fledged villain.”
I was speechless. “Oh,” was the only word that escaped my mouth. Suddenly, Flex’s Superheroes-gone-bad rant made a lot more sense. He had seen it happen firsthand. I didn’t want to know who it was. I knew too much already.
Flex was not so different than me.
“So if it’s not Flex, do you have any other idea who the snoop might be?” I asked.
I detected the slightest hint of fear in her wavering milky eyes. “There’s only one other living being I know who had a natural immunity to my telepathy.”
Oracle pursed her lips in a straight line. “Your father. Spine.”