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The question of whether Vance was dead or not became more than academic when he found himself in a bathtub up to his chin in ice water like some forgotten cocktail garnish, a demonic woman standing over him, and no memory of how he got there.
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The Red Rook - Chapter 3 - The Lab

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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 2

Chapter 3: The Lab

The intermittent sounds of pumps grew stronger as I approached the Lab. I started picking up the echo of voices over the throb of the pumps as I approached the Lab’s eastern entrance. I slowed my pace.

Michael’s mother’s voice drifted across the circular expanse of the Lab floor, so I stopped without entering. The only lights in the domed space came from the curving bank of monitors on the western wall and the conference table glowing faintly in its shallow well at the center. The rest of the cylindrical room was shrouded in darkness.

“But you’re going to need a ride, though?” Liz was saying. Her voice had that distinctive echo of a cellphone in hands-free speaker mode.

I could only see Michael’s feet and calves. The rest of him was concealed by the high-backed chair that fronted the bank of monitors that made up the Lab’s command center. The monitors showed half-a-dozen news feeds, as well as an ever switching flow of street scenes from around Galacticity. The Superhero News Network feed had the prominent central monitor. A masked SNN anchor was silently reporting on the attack of the Robotic Horde.

“No, we won’t,” he said, sounding more than a little frustrated.

“You seem awfully certain of that. Is Penny—”

“Cleo,” he interjected.

Cleo, my other best friend, is Second Generation powered like Michael and me. She wasn’t a brick like I was, or a genius like Michael. Instead, she had a three dimensional sense of perception better than a terahertz spy-ray, which more than made up for being blind.

“—standing you up?” Liz finished.

I understand Michael’s frustration with Liz. Michael had been dating Cleo Fox since shortly after joining the Black Lagoon Dojo six months ago when he said he needed to “learn how to fight”—which had more to do with his father’s killing than with the thumping he had taken from three members of the varsity football squad. I’ve been going to the Black Lagoon since I was five, which was when I met Cleo. Cleo’s father, Sensei Fox, is a retired superhero who runs the Dojo and secretly trains supers.

I had the vaguely uncomfortable feeling of listening in on a private conversation, but I was curious as to how Michael and his mother were getting along. Liz had been suffering from memory issues brought on by PTSD. I could only begin to imagine what it must be like for her. Six months ago, she watched her husband and crime fighting partner, Mike, decapitated on the live video feed from the Dispenser’s battlesuit. My attitude towards the Demolition Squad had undergone even more serious adjustment after I personally witnessed Dragline break Achilles neck, and one of Bang Galore’s ‘butterfly bombs’ attach itself and explode in the middle of Silver Archer’s back. Diana walked away afterward, and Achilles was his irritating self within a few days—we Riggs-Armstrongs are brick tough. I wanted the Squad to go under the Lake, that is, to the Galacticity Powered Detention Center, for a very long time; so, I was helping Michael out with his plan to dispense some justice.

Seeing his father Mike killed had affected Michael too. He seemed to be handling it pretty well, even if he was bottling up his emotions, channeling them into his preparations to put on Mike’s battlesuit and become the second incarnation of the Dispenser.

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Michael said. “Besides, we wouldn’t need a ride, even if we were going. We have Transit passes.”

“Of course you do, dear,” Liz said.

“But, thank you for offering to drive us.”

“Why not go with Penny, then? As friends, of course.”

For some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, my discomfort with eavesdropping increased.

“She’s going with someone else.”

“Oh? What about Kim? Is he going to the dance? If not, you two could go to the movies. Isn’t that new Eddie Murphy movie opening this weekend? Beverly Hills Super-Detective isn’t it?”

Beverly Hills Super-Cop. Kinnison—Kim told me that he wasn’t feeling well. Honestly, Mom I’d rather just hang out and watch a little SNN.”

Odd. Kim had seemed his bubbling self when I last saw him at the end of 6th hour. But then, he was vulnerable to odd mental influences.

There was a moment of silence, then Liz continued in an almost plaintive tone, “You will tell me if you go out, though, won’t you dear?”

Why wasn’t Michael picking up on Liz’s distress? For being a genius, he could be cruelly stupid sometimes.

“I’ll keep you informed if I go out with anyone,” Michael said.

I suppressed a sign of exasperation. He couldn’t just tell people things, he kept them “informed.”

“Good. Good. Well, goodbye,” Liz said.

“Bye,” Michael said.

There was a faint metallic clap as he shut the phone. His hand appeared as he reached out and set the cellphone down next to the work tray on the console.

“When do you plan on telling Liz?” I said, loud enough to carry across the seventy-five feet of open lab floor and the murmur of the pumps.

Continued in

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