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The Red Rook - Chapter 1 - Alert! — Robot Invasion! or Sorry, But I Can’t Go to the Dance with You

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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)

Chapter 1: Alert! — Robot Invasion! or Sorry, But I Can’t Go to the Dance with You

Friday, December 7th, 1984

I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how the Greek hero Achilles was dipped in the River Styx by his nymph-mother silver-footed Thetis. Sometimes I think I know how Achilles must have felt. My mother Diana (coincidentally, the superhero Silver Archer) didn’t ask me if I wanted to be “invulnerable,” or if I wanted to be a hero. But the Fates pulled on their threads and I followed.

“I’ll pick you up at six thirty,” Dave said. “That way we’ll have plenty of time at Chez Pierre’s and we can be fashionably late for the dance.”

“Fine,” I said, juggling my cellphone from one ear to the other as I sprinkled Parmesan cheese on the salad, hoping he didn’t pick up on my lack enthusiasm about going to the Winter Wonderland Dance. “I’ll be ready—”

I stopped talking as the kitchen TV switched itself on at full volume. “We interrupt this newscast to take you live to the Nova Genesis Memorial Plaza where Doctor M’s Robotic Horde are attacking the Nova League’s headquarters.”

Before the announcer’s artificially calm voice made it to “take you live,” the bellow of my younger sib Achilles echoed down the hall from the den. “Nooooooo! I was winning!”

It was overlapped by a cry from my other sib, Achilles’ twin sister, Andy, “I was winning!”

“What is going on over there, Penny?” Dave said.

I snatched up the remote and muted the kitchen TV wishing I could use it on the twins. I covered the cellphone mic and yelled back down the hall. “Would you two keep it down! I’m on the phone!”

“It’s not our fault!” Achilles said. “We just lost our place in Galactic Bounty Hunter thanks to that stupid alert system and Diana isn’t even here!”

“I told you to save,” Andy said.

I took my thumb off the mic hole. “Sorry about that. It was the twins.” Then lied, “They left the TV on full volume. Again.”

“How are the evil little darlings?” He sounded amused, probably because he didn’t have to deal with them himself.

“Only twice as irritating as your typical twelve-year olds. Look, Dave,” I said, watching the sleek black VTOL jet bearing the red nova burst of the League coming in to land directly in the path of the marching phalanx of invading robots. Is tonight the night? I thought as I watched the events unfold in Nova Genesis Plaza. I had to choose between Dave, who I had been dating since the beginning of sophomore year—had it been two months already?—and Michael, who I have known almost as long as I can remember. Dave, the coolest geek in the class of 1987, and Michael, the boy next door whose nose I broke for being a know-it-all when we were four. Dave, whose parents had gone through an ugly divorce, and Michael whose father had been killed by supervillains.

Beyond the row upon row of robots, something huge and glisteningly metallic was rising from Lake Michigan.

Oh yeah, I thought. Tonight is the night for Michael to dispense a little justice. The Nova League was going to be busy stopping this latest attack by the Robotic Horde. While the League’s attention was fixed on Doctor M’s minions, other supervillains would be out and about taking advantage of the confusion. Naturally, the killers of Michael’s father, the Demolition Squad would be among the those exploiting the evening’s confusion.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in Michael’s shoes, out for justice or maybe even revenge, working to bring down the killers of my superhero father. I knew I had to help him do it. No matter how much I wanted to smash the grinning face of Chainsaw, it was Michael who had to be the one throwing punches. All the prep he had done, the practice flights, and the hours I had spent running him through combat simulations.

“Something’s come up, Dave, and I’m going to have to cancel tonight.” I was having trouble keeping the excitement out of my voice, so I took a breath before I finished, “I’m sorry.”

“But I was looking forward to the dance.”

He wasn’t helping his cause by sounding whiny, but that had become par for the course. Not for the first time I reminded myself that my preference for brains over brawn had its own set of problems.

“I know it might be lame, but you could go by yourself.” I didn’t wait for his response. “I’m really sorry, but I have to go.”

“All right.” He sounded genuinely disappointed. Problem was, I couldn’t tell if he wanted to be with me or be seen with me.

“Thanks. I’ll see you later.”

“Okay. See you later,” Dave said.

I caught the bitterness in his voice, but he knew better than to push. Like every other Centurion High School student, he was well aware what had happened to Drumlin’s ’64 Mustang last June after the prom. Not that I had meant it to be a warning to boyfriends, potential or not, but unsurprisingly, it had been taken that way. I didn’t mind. Having a reputation for taking no nonsense had its advantages.

On the TV, the jump-jet touched down on the red paving stones of Nova Genesis Plaza in a swirl of dust. You’d never have guessed that five months earlier there had been a sixty-foot-diameter crater at its center. I didn’t stick around to see if Diana, a.k.a. the Silver Archer, a.k.a. Mom, would be the first of the Nova League to emerge to do battle with the Robotic Horde. Instead, I pocketed the phone, reset the alarm timer on the lasagna to turn off the oven, and headed for the den, thankful that I was still in my CHS sweats having just come up from the exercise room. I looked in to find Achilles and Andromeda sitting on the floor in front of the big flat-screen TV, remote controllers busy in their hands. Without turning her head, Andy said, “I fixed it.”

“It fixed itself,” Achilles said, also keeping his eyes facing forward. His red hair was lengthening into a mullet, á la McGyver. He had started growing it last fall, the day he had watched the improvisational gadgeteer’s debut show. I figured it would last as long as Andy didn’t start to develop an interest in the mullet sporting boys of Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, and the Human League.

“No—” Andy started to say.

I cut her off. “I’m going out.”

Both of them continued to stare at the screen as their avatars worked their way through an alien landscape of crystalline trees and mercurial pools, occasionally blasting away at swooping perimeter defense drones with their plasma rifles. In a small, in-screen panel there was a news feed from Nova Plaza. The black body of a Nova League jump-jet stood in the path of the gleaming Robotic Horde. Tiny supersuited figures battled with a fury that threw plastic and metal bodies and body parts of the humanoid robots like some sort of demented threshing machine. The twins had seen this sort of thing a few too many times to be upset or even be really interested that Diana was the silver-armored figure at the middle of the melee. I tried to conjure some concern, but all I could think was, if the Robotic Horde was on the move, then it was almost certain the Demolition Squad was too.

“We know, Penny. With that creepy Sweets guy. You already told us,” Andy said, nodding. Her spiky red hair, gelled to within an inch of its life, stiffly bobbed with the motion. She waved her controller around for added emphasis.

“No, I’m going over to see Michael.”

“Oooh! Are you going to dump Sweets and start dating Michael? You should, you—”

“No,” I interrupted with a touch too much firmness in my voice. “Michael and I are friends. Now I want you to promise to behave.” I stopped myself before telling them not to leave the house on any adventures. It would just give them ideas.

“We promise,” they said in unison, gazes still fixed on the flashing screen that dominated that end of the den.

For some reason, I believed them. Maybe it was because after the events of the summer I saw an inkling of common sense beginning to emerge and take significant steps towards developing into something approaching a sense of responsibility. But they were twelve, almost twelve-and-a-half as they were want to point out, so how much progress could I expect?

“When the lasagna is ready, the oven alarm is going to go off,” I warned them. “Make sure you feed Hank.” I didn’t bother telling them to use hot mitts. It wasn’t as if they could burn themselves.

“Yeah, yeah,” Achilles said.

“Mmm, hmm,” Andy said.

“Okay, you’re the ones that are going to starve,” I muttered, and turned away.

My next stop was Hank’s office. Hank was our work-from-home dad. While both of Diana’s careers, the secret one as well as her public one, took her away from home at all hours, Hank was always here. Oh, just to clarify what you’ve probably already noticed, we’re one of those families that never use Mom or Dad.

As I approached his office there was a babble of voices, and I knew that his news team was reporting on the Plaza attack, too. I found Hank, dressed as he always was in slacks and a polo shirt, sitting at the focal point of three thirty-inch OLED monitors. Like everyone else in my family, his hair was red, but his was soft and fine, with threads of gray in it. He had it tied back in a long, thin pony-tail. The monitors were split into multiple windows, more than half of which showed tiny supersuited heroes battling tiny robots. Unlike the twins, he was intently watching the action. Seeing him there, I wouldn’t have blamed you if you thought we were a family of cape-tugging superfans.

I cleared my throat.

He pressed the mute button on his headset. “What is it, Penny? I’m a bit busy…”

“I’ll be quick. I just wanted to tell you that I’m not going to the dance with Dave tonight.”

“I didn’t think you’d be going in a sweatsuit.”

I glanced down at the Centurion mascot glowering out, plucked at its baggy shapelessness and shook my head. “No, of course not. I’ll be at Michael’s, in the Lab most likely.”

He raised his eyebrows and nodded. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately.” Before I could respond he unmuted the headset and said into the mic, “No, no. I’ve got the drone covering the lakeside approach to the Plaza.” He gestured me over and I leaned in and he gave me a kiss on the cheek and quick one-armed hug, his other hand busy with the joystick controlling a news drone. His reporter instincts must have been tingling, because he silently mouthed, “I want to hear all about it tomorrow.”

I nodded, then headed for the mudroom.

Continued in

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