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The Red Rook - Chapter 4 - Six Months of Preparation

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You don't get to choose what piece you are, only how you play the game...

You'd think that being stronger and tougher than everyone else at Centurion High would go down in the plus column. And it had, as far as the athletic crowd was concerned. Enough that the jocks forgave Penny for her preference to hang out with a small clique notorious for being hardcore board-gamers and role-playing eggheads. But it seemed like a small consolation.

Maybe it's because Penny just wants to be appreciated for her brains rather than her brawn. Or maybe she hangs out with the nerds because of Michael. Michael—her childhood best friend and the boy-next-door—certainly appreciates Penny for her smarts—and maybe, sometimes, she wants him to appreciate her for more than that. Penny's been spending a lot of time with Michael recently, helping him to take up his dead father's superhero identity. Besides, despite Michael being a straight up genius, he's "common sense" challenged.

If that wasn't enough, Penny's superhero mother has ramped up her passive-aggressive campaign to convince Penny to take up the mask and start crime fighting; her two younger sibs—almost as strong and tough as Penny—are superhero crazy; a series of mysterious attacks seems to be targeting Penny directly; and her other best friend is dating Michael. (e)

Back to Chapter 3

Chapter 4: The Lab

Michael’s hand stopped an inch or so above the faintly glowing console. The icons covering its surface gave his hand a pulsing, garish multicolored hue. The tall-backed chair swiveled slowly around. Michael’s blue eyes seemed to flash under his light blond hair. He was dressed in black denim jeans and a “I’ll be back.” t-shirt, the dyes animated to slowly cycle between the face of a normal looking T-800 to the glowing red-eyed burned version and back. His black high-tops were scuffed and velcroed tight.

I started across the expanse of plastic floor, detouring around the steps leading down to the large circular conference table, light shimmering in an opalescent gleam from its surface.

Michael silently watched me as I crossed the Lab, a slight smile on his otherwise impassive face. But I knew his mind must be churning. He had complained to me about never being able to not think, frequently about more than one thing at a time. He was probably trying to figure out what I was going to say. At least he wasn’t trying to distract me with what he called his “evil mastermind schtick,” which was typically amusing, if you didn’t think about the fact that he was more than capable of formulating and carrying out any number of truly diabolical plots.

I stopped in front of him.

His smile broadened and shifted towards the inane. “Ah, so you got stood up, too.”

His foot snagged one of the wheeled stools from under the command console and whirled it in my direction. It rolled to a stop next to me on the dense, non-slip-textured plastic of the floor. “No, I stood Dave up.”

Another smile started to form on his lips, but it disappeared as he said, “Sweets won’t like that.”

“Let me worry about him. Look, Michael, I know it’s been a hard six months, but you have to tell Liz some time. The sooner, the better.”

He sighed in frustration. “My mom isn’t ready to talk about it yet.”

“You mean you aren’t ready.” For a second, my gaze shifted to the chess set sitting on the command counsel not far from the work tray with its neatly arranged miniature pumps and parts. The blue and red chess pieces, which as far as I could tell (and given Michael’s eidetic memory and reluctance to let anything go), occupied the same positions that they had the day Mike had died. In a way, it was confirmation that Liz hadn’t been down to the Lab since that horrible day back in May.

He uncoiled from the high-back chair, coming up on the balls of his feet for a moment, making him almost my height, before rocking back down to his normal five-eight. “Yes—No! Okay, neither of us are really ready to confront Dad’s death, particularly together. It didn’t help that she didn’t trust me enough to give me the straight story last spring. She just played along with Agent Sellers when he showed up and oh-so-smoothly took Dad’s place.”

I’m not sure I could have played along with having a shape-shifting government agent take Hank’s place, but I doubt it would have been all polite and nicey-nice. “I sympathize, Michael, I really do—”

“Yeah, I know you do,” he said, his tone pitched somewhere between petulant and contrite.

“—But you have to get over this.” Time to remind him that some paranoid fantasies were just that. “Sellers was just doing his job, and you know that your mom didn’t want to hurt you.”

“So instead, she was going to wait to tell me until after Sellers’ faked his own death? Making it look like my father was killed in a car crash or something? Yeah, that wouldn’t have hurt.”

“You’re not being fair, Michael. It didn’t end that way. Besides, do you really think she had much choice? Liz was cooperating with the government in order to protect the two of you from your father’s enemies. It’s standard operating procedure for them to—”

“—Cover up superheroes’ deaths. I don’t care about their S.O.P. My father deserved a hero’s funeral!”

I had always envied Michael for his mother, her protectiveness, her being there for him. Liz’s recent mental breakdown hadn’t stopped me from occasionally wishing Liz was my mother instead of Diana. “That’s not what I was going to say. And yes, he did deserve a hero’s funeral.” But that rarely happened, and he knew it.

He didn’t seem to be listening, his face flushing with his rising anger, blue eyes practically sparking. “They must have thought, ‘oh, he’s only fourteen, he’ll be easy to fool.’ Well, I discovered Dad’s secret when I was eight! I’ve been sneaking down here since then. No shape-shifting government super-agent was going to fool me into believing my father was still alive, with or without Mom’s help!”

I started to reach out towards him, but let my hand fall back. It was complicated enough without him misinterpreting my touch. “Slow down, Michael. I’m with you on this—”

“It’s different for you, Penny, your family has always embraced its superness. I’ve had to grow up being lied to—”

I raised my hand, palm out as if to deflect the anger flowing out of him. “Michael. Remember? I’m on your side. I’m not the one who—” I stopped, my gaze drawn to one of the monitors behind Michael by its flashing yellow border. It showed a street and what looked like the rear end of an armored car sticking up out of a pit in the middle of road. There was no construction crew in orange safety vests, instead there were four figures in brightly colored armor. I instantly recognized them. The supervillains who had killed Michael’s father and escaped to brag about it. They were out and about with larceny in their cyborg hearts.

Time to channel Michael’s anger. “You better take a look at that, Michael. I think tonight might be the night.”

He dropped back into the command chair and whirled it. During the moment he stared at the screen little word balloons appeared to identify the armored figures.

“The Demolition Squad,” Michael said, his jaw muscles clenching.

“All of them,” I said. Wreckingbar, Bang Galore, Dragline, and the one who had killed the Dispenser, Michael’s father. I added, finishing my thought aloud, “Including Chainsaw.”

His hands balled into fists.

Michael needed to deal with the source of his anger before he did something stupid. “Okay, let’s get you suited up,” I said. But instead of moving away from the command console, we continued to watch the monitor with the sick fascination of watching a train wreck in progress. Wreckingbar, balancing for a moment on the truck’s bumper, slammed his bar down and pried open the armored car’s back door like he was opening a can of sardines with a screwdriver. From the dimly lit interior leaped a new supersuited figure. He was wearing a gold exoskeleton over a red-and-blue supersuit with a golden, full-face mask. The Lab’s computer system identified him a second later and a word balloon popped up over his head labeling him as Zircon Man.

“That looks like a Cyber City Strong Man Mark III,” I said, referring to Zircon Man’s gold power-assist exoskeleton.

“Or an upgraded Mark II,” Michael said.

We easily slipped into the comfortable rhythm that we had established over the past couple of months as Michael tested the modifications he had made to his father’s battlesuit, and I took up the role of communication and tactical combat adviser, the same role that Liz had played for Michael’s father.

“Could be,” I said. “He doesn’t stand a chance. He’s not even wearing the Tough Guy armor mods.”

“Definitely second string.”

“He’s got a cape,” we said in unison.

Zircon Man certainly was game. He jumped about, his red-and-blue cape flying, as he punched and kicked the four supervillains like a kung fu fiend.

“He won’t last more than thirty seconds against the Squad,” Michael said.

“Unless they decide to ‘play’ with him.”

“True. Corporate or rent-a-hero?” he asked.

“Who cares? The League is busy dealing with the Robotic Horde at the Plaza, so you’ve got your chance to do this without their intervention.”

Michael slapped a hand down on the console and the lights in the Lab came up to daylight brightness, leaving him blinking for a few moments as his vision adjusted. “I was wondering how I was going to arrange getting to the Squad before the League did.”



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