16
Nov
09

The Part-Timer – Part 3

Welcome back to another week.  My apologies for the extra length of this week’s post, since I couldn’t find a comfortable spot to break this section apart.  If you missed any of the previous installments of this story, then:

Part 1 is here, and

Part 2 is here

And don’t forget, if you want more of the AS universe, then you can purchase The Apocalypse Shift at Amazon.

Enjoy!

-Derek J. Goodman

 

The Part-Timer – Part 3

Gabrielle was asleep by the time he got home (although from the smell of paint on her he guessed that she had to have been up until only recently) and Toby was spared having to make up stories of how his first day went.  By the next morning at breakfast, however, he had concocted a thrilling tale of diaper storage gone amuck for when she asked, and it had the desired effect of boring her short attention span into other topics.  He still didn’t like lying to her, but at least it didn’t appear she was going to make him work at it.

Surprisingly enough, he didn’t give his new job much thought for the rest of the day.  The Balance, bless whatever souls they might have, had scheduled his shifts around the days he DJed at the club, and he spent the rest of the day dwelling on his real passion while someone else was in charge of keeping the human race safe.  He didn’t believe he would have to even think about being a DHR tonight, but in the end that wasn’t the way it would be.  He didn’t count on getting the first of his “hunches,” and he most certainly didn’t expect the extra visitors he had at the club that night.

It was early in the night when he got his first visitor.  Tonight was a Thursday, so it wouldn’t be nearly as packed as it would be on a Friday or Saturday, and even then the largest portions of the crowds wouldn’t start coming in until around eleven-ish.  He wasn’t spinning his best stuff yet, just trying to get what few people were on the dance floor to start loosening up, when a small group of women came in dressed for club hopping.  He looked them all over the best he could from his position in the DJ booth (he always looked, since he couldn’t really help it the way women showed skin around here, but he never touched no matter how much anyone might come on to him.  He just couldn’t do something like that to Gabrielle) and at first none of them seemed at all familiar.  Most of them were already well on their way to being drunk, although one seemed less so than the others.  It wasn’t until most of them were on the dance floor leaving only one at the bar that Toby realized the one who had been left behind looked vaguely like someone he knew.  Her skinny form was dressed in tight jeans and a tank top that, despite the way it clung to her body, did nothing to show off her tiny breasts.  When she turned with a drink in her hand to watch her friends on the dance floor Toby finally saw her face.  She hadn’t been kidding.  Mandy really did look different without her powers.  She looked plain.  If she was here looking to pick someone up her friends were going to get all the good looking guys first.

Toby waited until he had a long song going and then came down from his booth to approach her at the bar.  She didn’t see him coming at first.  She didn’t even look like she was enjoying herself that much.  Then she saw Toby and her face brightened.

“Well, hey there, newbie,” she said.  “What are you doing here?”

“I work here.”  He pointed at the DJ booth.  “This is what I do when I’m not beating up sasquatches.”

“It was a yeti.  Don’t get them confused.  Sasquatches are much more civilized.”

“Right.  I’ll try to remember that.  What about you?  Don’t you work later tonight?”

Her smile disappeared and she waved a dismissive hand at her friends on the dance floor.  “I do, but it’s not like I can explain to them that I can’t come out with them because I have to be sober enough to fight off alien hordes or something.  It’s not even like I like them much.”

“Alien hordes?  What’s to like?”

“No, my friends.”  She made air quotes with her fingers at the word “friends.”  “They’re just a few terminally single women who live in the same building as me.  I can’t actually tell them what I do for a living, so they think I just don’t have a life.”

“But your life isn’t quite the same as your job,” Toby said.

“It is for me, I guess.  It sucks, because I can’t talk about it with anyone.  The other defenders all have their own things going on.”

Toby wasn’t quite sure what to think of this.  This certainly didn’t seem like the self-assured super-organized woman who had trained him last night.  If anything she looked rather sad, and maybe a little lost. 

“Well, now you know where to find me when I’m not at the other job,” Toby said.  “Don’t really have to hide what you do around me.”

“No, I guess I don’t.”  She smiled at him, and something about that smile didn’t seem entirely innocent.  It looked like the smile of someone who had suddenly found something she hadn’t been allowed to have before.

“Right,” Toby said, not completely sure why the situation suddenly felt so awkward.  “I better get back up to the booth before the music stops.”

Mandy didn’t stay for much longer after he left her.  She made some excuse to one of the women she had come with and then headed off to work.  Toby couldn’t help but notice, though, that she stared at him for most of the time that she was at the club.  The reason he had to notice, he realized later, was because he had been staring at her as well.

Toby didn’t give her much further thought once more people were in the club and the dance floor became packed with people.  The real reason Toby loved being a DJ was the music, just as any DJ would say, but he got a special high whenever the crowd really got going.  With the lights flashing multi-colored over the sweating bodies gyrating to the rhythm, he always had a special feel of control over them all, like a puppeteer that could make them all dance and shimmy however he wished.  It was nice to feel like he had control once in while.  With so little in the world that he could actually call his own, it felt amazing to be able to claim these moments as his when no one else ever could.

He was just as into the music as any of the dancers, and it took a long time before it occurred to him that anything was strange out among the crowd.  None of the dancers seemed to notice.  After a while, though, Toby finally looked out over them all and saw that there were two spots within that writhing river of human bodies that just did not blend in.

The two people were standing about ten feet apart.  Neither of them were dancing, neither of them were dressed for clubbing, and both of them were just standing in the middle of the dance floor and staring at Toby.  After staring at them for a few seconds Toby realized he’d seen them before on the bus ride home from his interview.  It was the fat guy in the Star Wars shirt and the cat-smelling granny.  They were even wearing the same clothes.  There was only one thing that was different about them, and that was their glowing red eyes.

Most of the dancers around them were too drunk to realize there was anything odd going on, even if they did give the two a wide berth.  After a few more moments of them staring at him they turned and walked towards the exit.  Toby made sure the music was set to continue without him and then came down from his booth, trying to make his way through the dancers to the strange couple.  He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he was pretty sure that, whether he was on the clock as a DHR or not, mysterious reoccurring strangers with glowing eyes were something he should keep an eye on.

He was able to keep them in his view until they made it to an exit, but by the time he was outside the club they had disappeared.  The streets were fairly quiet at the moment, and Toby glanced all around looking for any clue as to where they had gone.  Then he looked up towards the roofs of the nearest buildings.  He didn’t know why he did that.  He certainly wouldn’t have bothered looking up before yesterday, so maybe it was just one of the hunches Mandy had been talking about.  Whatever the reason, he still didn’t see the mystery duo.  What he did see was a man in a mechanical suit.

Of the man himself, Toby could only see his head.  He had black hair and a neatly trimmed black beard, and an otherwise average face.  It was impossible to tell how tall he might be, however, because the suit must have given him a few extra feet.  The suit was made out a flat-gray metal with boxy limbs and several glowing lights on the chest, one of which might have even been a nametag.  He was only there looking down at Toby for a second, then he turned and, with a mechanical clatter that probably woke up the whole neighborhood, ran away across the rooftop.

There’s no way I’m going after him, Toby thought, not if I’m not going to get paid for it.  He supposed he couldn’t even if he wanted to, not without his powers on.  And what had the mechanical guy been doing wrong, anyway?  For all Toby knew he was one of the good guys.  He hadn’t been wearing the spandex like he and Mandy did, though, so if he was a defender then he was from somewhere other than the Alphomega Corporation.  Or else he was one of the part-time bad guys Mandy had been talking about.

Toby turned around and walked back into the club.  Before returning to the DJ booth he went over to the bar and ordered a soda from Manny the bartender.

“Hey, Manny,” Toby asked as the bartender filled his glass.  “Did you just notice a couple of strange people on the dance floor?”

“We always get strange people in here,” Manny said, “and they get even stranger when they’re drunk.  This place is getting to be almost as bad as when I worked at the Club McPhisto.”

“No, I mean strange like… ah, never mind.”  It had probably been nothing, anyway.  Just another new element into his increasingly bizarre life.

Manny went to put Toby’s soda on the bar, but it slipped from his fingers and most of it spilled.  “Oh, shit.  Sorry, Toby.”  He grabbed a rag to wipe the spill up, but Toby stopped him for a moment as stared at it.

“Hey, does that spill look like anything to you?” Toby asked.

“Yeah.  Spilled soda.  What else is it supposed to look like?”

“I mean, does it look like a picture or anything to you?”

“You mean like a Horse-act test or something?  Uh, I guess.  Kind of looks like a puppy.  Why?  What do you see?”

“I see a plane crashing in Portugal tomorrow.”

“Wow.  Morbid.  I wouldn’t go spreading that around, if that’s the kind of thing you see all the time.”

Manny refilled his soda and Toby took it back with him up to the booth.  No, he didn’t think he would be sharing those things anymore.  Because if Mandy was right, he was going to be seeing them a lot from now on.  At least he knew what he was going to be doing at work tomorrow.

It still seemed like something for which he should be getting more than fifty dollars an hour, though.

*          *          *

Surprisingly, it was easy for Toby to get the hang of being a defender.  Just as surprising was that it got very repetitive very quickly.  For every plane crash he prevented or every book of dark and evil magic he kept out of the wrong hands, he ended up stopping fifty muggings.  On average he thwarted five convenience store robberies a night.  And suicide bombings in the Mid-East?  Holy crap, he had no idea how many of those there were.  He supposed that was what he deserved for not paying enough attention to the news.

After those first two nights Toby didn’t see much of Mandy.  Occasionally, when he wasn’t working, he would hear a sonic boom in the distance and look up expecting to see her flying towards some crisis or another, but she was always gone by the time he looked.  Or maybe it wasn’t even her.  She had said there were others, so maybe it was them.  Either way, he wished he had gotten her phone number the night she had been at the club.  He just wanted to talk shop with her, or at least that was what he kept telling himself.

Exactly two weeks after his first day as a DHR, his first paycheck came in the mail.  He hadn’t bothered to do the math beforehand, so he hadn’t been prepared for the number of zeroes on his paycheck.  He almost whooped with delight and did a funky dance where Gabrielle could see, but he couldn’t let her realize what he actually made.  Diaper warehouse workers weren’t supposed to get things like hazard pay for working at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.  But he could at least finally pay both her and his mother back, and for the first time since they had been dating Toby was even able to take her out to a nice dinner.

Or at least nicer than normal.  Neither Toby nor Gabrielle was the type to want to dress ridiculous just to get tiny portions of bland food.  They were happy just going to an Outback Steakhouse.

They both sat in a booth near a window and looked over the menus, and for the first time in months Toby realized he was actually satisfied with the status of his life.  He had told Gabrielle he’d been happy before his new job, but that hadn’t been entirely true.  He’d liked being able to DJ and he had loved being with Gabrielle, but he had started to hate himself for mooching off her.  He might not always like the work he was doing, but he could treat Gabrielle right now just by working four or five hours a day.  And even though he would still rather just work at the club, it felt good sometimes to make a little bit of a difference in the world.  Maybe he would even earn a cape soon.

“Are you sure you can afford this?” Gabrielle said as she looked from him to the menu.  She must have been paying a lot more attention to him, because she was holding the menu upside down.  “I mean, I know you get paid well and you want to celebrate, but you did have to pay me a lot of money back.  Maybe I could just cover the bill tonight, and then next time…”

“No,” Toby said.  “Please.  Let me do this.  I never get to do this for you.  At least this once.”

Gabrielle smiled, then put all her concentration back on her menu.  She blinked at it several times, then realized the problem and flipped it around.

Their waitress came up to the table with a big smile and a pad and pen in hand.  “Would you like to hear our specials tonight before you order?”

“Sure,” Gabrielle said.

“Tonight we have grilled mahi mahi and we also have… flying woman.”  Toby looked up at the waitress to see her smile had been replaced by a dropped jaw.  Both he and Gabrielle followed her stare out the window.  Mandy floated in the air outside in full uniform, her arms crossed as she looked in at Toby.

“Um, excuse me a second.”  Toby stood up from the booth before Gabrielle or the waitress could say anything more, and he ran for the front door.  The Outback was located close to downtown, so Toby would have expected more traffic in the streets, but everything was quiet.  The only noise Toby could hear was a strange marching sound that seemed to be coming from underneath the streets.

Mandy had flown around to the front to meet him.  Before she could say anything Gabrielle came through the door behind him.  There went all his attempts at keeping his job a secret.

“What’s going on?” Gabrielle asked.

Mandy gave her a look that Toby couldn’t quite read, then looked back at Toby.  “We need you to pull an extra shift tonight.  The Balance is activating your powers now for the next three hours.”

“Mandy, I can’t.  This is my day off and I’m on a date.”

“You don’t have a choice,” Mandy said.  “All the defenders are being activated at once right now.  This is a big one, and it’s not even in some remote corner of the world.  An army of cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers has mobilized right here beneath this city and is preparing to declare war on the surface world.  Time is of the essence.”

“CHUDs,” Toby said.  “On my day off you want me to drop everything to fight CHUDs?”

“You’ll be making triple pay,” Mandy said.

Toby sighed, then turned to Gabrielle.  “Sorry, but I really can’t argue with that.”

“I don’t understand,” Gabrielle said.  “Who is this woman, what is she talking about, and how the hell is she floating two feet off the ground?”

“You should take her home first,” Mandy said.  “I’m sure you don’t want her around when they rise up and start trying to eat people.  You need to go put on your uniform anyway.”

“If time is of the essence,” Toby said, “shouldn’t I just not bother with the uniform and just get to the fighting?”

“There’s always time to look professional.  Meet me in Civic Center Park.  We think they’re going to try taking the capitol building first.”

She flew off, leaving Gabrielle to stare at him.

“Toby?”

He sighed again.  “Sorry, but I don’t really have time to explain.  I promise I’ll tell you everything when I’m done later.  Right now I need to get you home.”

“Well, alright.  I’ll just take the bus…”

“My way’s quicker,” he said, and he picked her up in his arms.  “Hold on.  Tightly.”

“Why?  What are you…”

Her words turned into a scream of shock as he lifted off into the air and flew towards her apartment at seventy miles an hour.

*          *          *

Toby’s chest heaved as he fired one last energy blast.  He missed completely, but that didn’t matter so much.  The CHUD queen was already among the casualties piled high in the center of Civic Center Park, so he doubted this one lone CHUD disappearing down an open manhole would be much of a threat.  But maybe he was wrong.  Maybe CHUDs were like cockroaches; leave one alive and they can still restart the whole colony.  Or maybe CHUDs could split like amoebae.  He was resigning himself to the idea of crawling into the sewers after it when someone put a hand on his shoulder.  Toby turned to see the short but broad-shouldered man in purple and orange spandex that he had been fighting alongside for the last two hours.  “Don’t bother,” the man said.  “As long as there’s no more queen, a few CHUDs under the city are actually a good thing.  Keeps the rat population down.”

“Oh,” Toby said, still trying to catch his breath.  “I’m Toby, by the way.”

“Chad,” the DHR said, and they shook hands.  “Sorry we didn’t have the time to introduce ourselves earlier, but it’s not like us DHRs get a chance to really meet each other under normal circumstance.  Except at the Alphomega Corporation company picnic, but then we’re usually too drunk to even remember each other’s names.”

“There’s a company picnic?” Toby asked.

A young black woman in orange and yellow flew over Civic Center Park, dropped a few more dead CHUDs on the pile, and then landed next to them.  “Oh yeah,” she said.  “The Balance even came once, but that was really awkward.  The one in the middle where you can’t tell if it’s a guy or a girl?  You haven’t seen funny until you’ve seen that one try to grill a hotdog.  I’m Jeanette.”

“And I’m Paul.”  A scruffy-faced man with long hair pulled back into a ponytail landed beside Jeanette, with Mandy following just after him.  “Now that we’re all nice and acquainted could we skip over the rest of the small talk and get to figuring out what we’re going to do with the massive pile of subhuman bodies sitting in plain view of the frickin’ capitol building?”

“We could always dump them in New Jersey again,” Jeanette said.  “It’s not like anyone would notice.”

“Or we could throw them at the bottom of the ocean,” Chad said.

“No, we are definitely not doing that again,” Paul said.  “Don’t you remember what happened the last time?  If these things are radioactive mutants then they could cause the fish that eat them to mutate again.  What’s the point in bothering to clean up one threat to humanity if you’re only going to make another one?”

“What about the planet Mercury?” Mandy said.  “We haven’t used it as a dumping spot for a while now.  How about it?”

No one seemed to have any problem with that, so Jeanette, Chad, and Paul started grabbing as many of the CHUDs as they could before flying off into space.  Toby was about to grab a few himself and join them when Mandy put her hand on his shoulder and stopped him.

“Not you.  You need to go home.”

“But why?” Toby asked.  “I don’t want the others to think I’m not pulling my weight.”

“I’ll just explain to them that you had to go have the Talk.”

“What do you mean, the Talk?”

“We’ve all had to have it at some point,” she said, then seemed to reconsider and sighed.  “Maybe I haven’t.  The Talk is when someone significant in your life finds out that you don’t really pay the bills as a mild mannered photographer or billionaire philanthropist or whatever.”

“Or diaper warehouse worker.”

Mandy wrinkled her nose.  “Really?  That’s the lamest secret identity I’ve ever heard.”  She paused, staring anywhere but at Toby, and looked like she was trying to decide something in her mind.  Finally she said, “I didn’t realize you had a girlfriend.”

The awkward sensation Toby had felt with Mandy at the club came back.  “You never asked.”

“I guess I didn’t.  I just thought…  Never mind.  You better go.  The rest of us will have all this cleaned up before the rest of the city even pokes their heads out their windows and realizes they were almost Eloi.”

“They were almost what who now?”

“Never mind.  Just go.  She’s probably plenty angry by now, so you don’t want her waiting any longer.”

She grabbed a few bodies and flew off.  Toby wasn’t sure why he kept being so glad when she finally left, nor why he still wanted to follow her.

He didn’t remember until she was probably already half way to Venus that he had wanted to ask her about the man in the robotic suit, but that guy probably didn’t mean anything.  The question could wait until he saw her again, whenever that might be.

He took a moment to take stock of himself and make sure he hadn’t been hurt at all during the battle- the only thing even slightly off was that one of his pouches was open for some reason, and he closed that without even bothering to check inside- and then braced himself.  Mandy was right.  He had a lot of explaining to do to Gabrielle, and she was going to be royally pissed.

It took him a minute to get all the way across the city to the apartment, mostly because he was dawdling, and he took a deep breath before he opened the door.  He wasn’t quite sure where he was going to start here.

It turned out he didn’t have to start at all.  When he walked in he found Gabrielle lying on the couch reading his employee handbook.  She had to have seen it earlier when he had pulled out his uniform from under the couch, and she was already half way through it.

She sat up when he entered and looked him up and down in his uniform.  Then she pointed at the book.  “So… this is all true then?”

Toby held up his hands in a defensive gesture.  “Look, I can really explain…”

Gabrielle screeched and jumped up from the couch, then ran to him and wrapped her arms around him.  “This is so cool!  You’re a superhero!”

“I… well… wait.  You aren’t mad?”

“No.  Why would I be mad?”

“I lied to you about what my job was.”

“Oh.  Right.”  She slapped him across the cheek, although she smiled as she did it, and then wagged an accusing finger in his face.  “Don’t do that.”

Toby almost rubbed his cheek until he realized the slap hadn’t hurt much at all.  His invulnerability was still on.  “So you’re actually cool with this?”

“Of course!  Ooh!  Your handbook said you can go into space!  Have you gone into space yet?”

“Yeah.  Actually…”  He opened one of his pockets and reached in.  There was slip of paper inside the infinite space that he didn’t remember putting there, but that wasn’t what he was looking for.  Instead he pulled out the rock he had picked up on the moon.  “Here.  I wanted to give you this moon rock, but I didn’t know how to explain it to…”

She interrupted him with a long, passionate kiss.  When she finally came up for air she narrowed her eyes and smiled coyly at him.  “So are your powers still on right now?”

“Yeah, I guess for about another forty minutes or so.”

“Let’s say we go into my bedroom and see if you have any special super-secret powers you haven’t discovered yet.”

Forty minutes later, when Toby was finally off the clock and they both lay exhausted in her bed, Toby had to say that yes, he did indeed.

*          *          *

It was another week before Toby saw Mandy again, so he enjoyed seven last days of relative calm before everything went horribly wrong.

Gabrielle was fascinated with his new job and wouldn’t stop asking questions, and although Toby loved her deeply he became a little annoyed by her reaction.  She had never been this supportive of him being a DJ.  That had always just been an aspect of him that she had tolerated without noticing much, even though he still considered it a bigger part of his life than being a DHR.  She especially took an interest in the cosmic aspects of his job, which Toby couldn’t actually tell her about much yet.  Although Mandy had hinted that his job might require him to participate in some universe-spanning cosmic events at some point, most of his duties so far had kept him on Earth.  That didn’t stop Gabrielle from taking inspiration from the idea, though.  She not only started but actually finished three paintings in four days.  He didn’t understand any of them, of course.

“What do you think?” she said when she showed him her third one.

“What is it supposed to be?”

“It’s the fifth dimensional effects on a geranium after you’ve flown it to Jupiter at the speed of light.”

“Oh.  Well… I guess I can see that.  I just thought it looked more like…”

“Like what?”  

“Like robots.  Lots of them.  One of them is really big.  And their feet are covered in blood.”

“Oh.  Maybe it needs more green, then.”

The bad thing about that week was that, following the epic battle against the CHUDs, all the muggings and such felt more mundane and boring than normal.  He was getting tired more often, as well.  Being a DHR took a lot out of a person, and it became harder to focus when he was trying to do something else.  He was almost late to his gigs at the club, and he found it difficult to stay awake while he was spinning.

But life in general wasn’t bad.  Life could have continued on in this way and he would have been more or less happy.  He never would have expected that anything so simple as finding a piece of paper could make it all come crashing down.

It was about 11 p.m. in his home time zone, and after only an hour on duty he had stopped his third mugging of the night, this time in Chicago.  Really, he had to wonder, what was it with crooks and muggings?  They couldn’t think of any other way to make money?  Couldn’t some super-genius kidnap Madagascar and hold it for ransom or something?  That would have at least been interesting.

Toby landed on top of the Sears Tower and sat down with his feet dangling over the side.  Locally it was midnight, but in a city like Chicago there would still be a lot happening down below, probably lots of crimes he could stop.  But every once in a while he needed to take a moment where he could just stop and take everything in.  He had to remind himself that the sometimes repetitive nature of his work didn’t make it less important.  Often times when he was in this mood he would think about how much he made and try to decide whether it was all worth it, although sometimes, when he helped someone who really needed it, he thought just the idea that he was making a difference was enough.  He had to wonder, however, if he would still do this if he wasn’t being paid.  He didn’t want to think that it made him a bad person if he would rather be playing music than helping the helpless, but it took a special person to do the right thing just because it was the right thing.  Maybe he just wasn’t special enough.

As he sat thinking, he started fidgeting with his utility belt.  He’d only been on the job for three weeks, but he’d already shoved many things into those pockets.  Some were souvenirs of his adventures, others were things he had just stuffed in there because he had no other place for them.  He couldn’t even remember everything in there.  On a whim he opened a pouch (the only one he ever used.  Mandy had been right- one was enough and all the others were pretty much just to look cool) and rummaged around inside.  He had his normal cell phone in there as well as the duffel bag still.  Then his fingers found the piece of paper.  He remembered feeling it in there when he had given Gabrielle the moon rock, but it had slipped his mind since.  He pulled it out, unfolded it, and looked at what it said:

I hope you don’t mind that I put this here.  I just figured I should give you my phone number, just in case you ever wanted to talk.  You know, about the job or something.

                                                                                    -Mandy

Below the note was her phone number.  She must have slipped it into his pouch after the CHUD battle.  He stared at it for several minutes before pulling out his phone.  He did kind of want to talk right now.  This job had been wearing on him a little, and it would be nice to discuss it with someone.  He certainly couldn’t discuss it with Gabrielle, or at least not in the way he wanted.

He punched in the first three digits of her number, then stopped, put his cell down, and stared at the note again.  He couldn’t delude himself into thinking the only reason she had given him her number was to talk shop.  He would have been blind not to see how she had gotten nervous and awkward around him.  But she seemed like a good person.  She must be if she was a DHR, right?  So he thought he might be able to count on her to know where the line should be between them.  She knew that he had a girlfriend, too, so he could expect her to keep their relationship strictly as a professional friendship, couldn’t he?

He finished dialing the number, all the while trying to ignore the nagging feeling in his head that he was somehow doing something wrong.

She picked up on the second ring.  “Hello?”

“Hey.  It’s Toby.”

“Oh.  Oh!  Hey, how’s it going?”

“Fine, I guess.  Is something wrong?”

“No, why?”

“You sounded a little confused when you answered the phone, is all.”

“Oh, that.  I just don’t get many people calling me, so I couldn’t figure out who it might be.”

“Ah.  I just found your number, and I figured…”  Toby looked at his phone.  “Aw shit.”

“What?” she asked.

“I forgot I’m like seven hundred miles away.  My phone says I’m roaming.  Hold on, I can still talk while I’m flying back.”

“Well, if you’re coming back this way you might as well just save your minutes and stop by my apartment.”

“I don’t know about that.  I’m still on the clock, and…”

“It’ll only be for a few minutes.  I can give you some coffee or something.”

Toby bit his lip.  This was all just an innocent little thing, he thought to himself himself.  He had no interest in Mandy outside of work.  Really.

“Sure,” he said.  “Just give me a second.  Where’s your apartment?”

She gave him directions, and he was already flying back by the time he hung up the phone.  She lived in a small apartment not far from Downtown, one of those places that was kept in well enough condition but was still way too expensive for its size.  The window to her living room was open, and he flew right on through and landed gently in the middle of the room. 

“Toby?  That you?” she called from the kitchen.

“Kind of silly question, isn’t it?  How many people do you know who can just fly in through a second floor window?”

 She poked her head out through the kitchen door.  “Four.  Five if you count myself, six if you count that alternate reality version of me I teamed up with three months ago.  So no, not really a silly question at all.”  She disappeared back into the kitchen.

“Right.  Sorry,” he said.

“That’s alright.  You’re still getting the hang of things.  I’ll be out in a minute.  Make sure you wipe your feet.”

 He saw that she kept a welcome mat underneath the window, and he went and wiped his feet.  She hadn’t been kidding about keeping her place clean, he saw now.  The whole apartment looked like it had never known dust, and the furniture didn’t even appear as though it had ever been sat in.  There were no pictures on the wall or any knick-knacks on the built-in shelves.  The only thing about the apartment that showed any hint of personality was the hamster cage on a table in the corner.

“How do you take your coffee?” she called.

“Lots of sugar,” he said.  A few moments later she came out with two mugs.

“Welcome to my humble abode,” she said as she handed him his mug.  “Go ahead.  Sit.”

There was a couch but nothing much else to sit on.  They both sat together, although Toby made sure he kept his distance.  He still wasn’t positive that this was completely innocent, and he’d rather not have that added temptation of being too close to her.

“For someone who makes pretty good money you don’t have much,” Toby said.

“I don’t do it for the money.  And I’m not a ‘things’ kind of person.  Most of my cash just goes into the bank and never gets touched.”

“So why do you do it, then?  Do you enjoy it?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.  It’s not really about whether I enjoy it either, though.  It just feels like where I should be in life.  Like this is my place in the balance of the world.  Or the Balance with a capital B, if you prefer.”

“So you’d do this full-time, if you could?”

“Yeah, but there is no such thing.  I asked the Balance if I could once, and they said only a person with certain genetic traits could ever pull it off or something like that.  I swear, I’d probably have to sacrifice my own blood to get a promotion with these guys.”

“I wish I could feel the way you do about all this,” Toby said.  “Sometimes I think I’m not a good enough person, doing this for the money.  I feel like it should mean more to me, you know?”

Toby thought he saw her shift slightly closer to him, but maybe he was just imagining it.  “It has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a good person,” she said.  “That’s just who you are, and I do this because of who I am.  I mean, sometimes I wish I was more like you.”

“Me?  Why?”

“Because you actually have other things going on for you.  You have hobbies, things in life you love,” she paused and took deep breath before she finished.  “Someone else to share it with.”

And there it was, plain as day for Toby to see.  No denying what she was thinking now.  Just because she hadn’t allowed herself to have anything more in life than her profession didn’t mean she didn’t want more.  She looked right into his eyes and moved closer, but she didn’t do anything else.

Toby moved his face closer to hers but stopped as well, and for several moments they just sat there.  He wanted to lean forward and kiss her, but he wasn’t completely sure why.  A large part of it was just how lonely and sad she looked.  Here was a woman who knew exactly what she wanted in life, had set aside everything for it, and it still wasn’t enough.  She wanted more, even though she wasn’t sure what more entailed.  But it wouldn’t be right to put all his reasons for this solely on her.  Toby wanted her drive, her wish to become more.  Here he had this monumental thing, a job that truly meant something and made a difference, and yet he didn’t really want it.

Neither of them actually wanted each other, Toby realized.  They just wanted what the other represented.

Mandy moved just as Toby had that epiphany.  If she had only waited a second longer Toby would have stood up, said good-bye, and left.  But she leaned forward and put her lips to his.  Toby didn’t pull back right away.  Part of him still didn’t want to.  When her tongue went to part his lips, though, he leaned away and the kiss broke.

“Gabrielle,” he said.  “I can’t do this.  I love her.”

“Oh.”  She leaned away quickly and her face turned bright red.  “Oh shit.  I’m sorry.  I can’t believe I just did that.  I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Toby said.  “I know how much you want someone to share in this whole DHR thing with you, but it can’t be me.  I just do if for…”

Both their cell phones rang at once.  Both their special cell phones.

“Wha… I don’t… has the Balance ever called you before?” Toby asked.

Mandy shook her head.  The red in her cheeks was already gone and her face had instead become white.  “Never.  They usually just text if they want me to cover an extra shift or something.”

The cells rang again and, with a great deal of hesitation, they both reached down to their belts at the same time, unclipped the phones, and answered.

“Defenders Sullard and Peterson,” a voice said over Toby’s phone.  It was the familiar male/female combo of Middle Gray.  “You have just violated section thirty-seven dash six-b of the DHR code.”

Middle Gray must have been on both their phones, because Mandy asked, “What’s section thirty-seven dash six-b?”

“As clearly stated in the Alphomega Corporation Employee Handbook, section thirty-seven dash six-b forbids any and all forms of romantic advances between corporation personnel.  We cannot have a professional humanity-defending workplace when employees engage in inappropriate fraternizing.  You both must be punished according to corporation rules.”

“Wait a second!” Toby said.  “I didn’t do anything!  She’s the one that kissed me.”

“It takes two to tango, Defender Sullard.  Defender Peterson, as this is your first offense you are to be written up and put on ninety-day probation.”

“Oh,” Toby said.  “I guess that’s not so bad.”

“You, however, Defender Sullard, were still on your initial probationary period.  For that reason, we the Balance feel we have no other recourse than to terminate your employment effective immediately.  Your severance check will already be at your apartment by the time you get back.  Enjoy the rest of your night.”

“What?  Wait, no, hey!”  Toby continued speaking into his cell, but it had already cut off.  He continued staring at the phone for a few seconds then looked back at Mandy.  She had continued her Technicolor face changes, this time looking almost green like she was going to be sick.

“Oh Jesus,” Mandy said.  “I’m sorry.  Oh fuck, I am so sorry.”

He wanted to say that it was okay, that it wasn’t really her fault.  He’d had an idea of what might happen here but he hadn’t taken any steps to avoid it.  He hadn’t controlled his own impulses the way he should have.  But he couldn’t say any of that.  There was a sudden empty feeling in his gut that made it hard to speak.  He couldn’t say he didn’t care that he’d just lost the best paying job he’d ever had, because he did care.  He cared that he wouldn’t have his benefits and he cared that he wouldn’t be able to taste that same power again.  But more than anything else, much to his surprise, he cared that he could no longer call himself a defender.  Even just part-time, he was no longer anything special.  He was just another lazy mooch again.

He tried not to let any of this show on his face as he clipped the phone back to his belt.  After a swallow and a breath to compose himself, he said, “It’s okay, Mandy.  Not like I’ve never been fired before.  And I’m sure they can hire someone else who’d be better at the job anyway.  Maybe they can even get that mechanical suit guy.  Then they wouldn’t even have to give him as many extra powers.”

“Mechanical suit guy?  Who are you talking about?  You don’t mean Dan, do you?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.  I just saw him a couple weeks ago.  Him and some other weird people were watching me at the club one night.”

“Weird people with glowing eyes?”

“Yeah.  How did you…”

“Shit!” she screamed and stood up.  She shot up so quickly that she actually lifted off the floor and stayed in the air.  Apparently with Toby fired, Mandy had been assigned to take the rest of his shift.  Mandy was too agitated to notice she wasn’t even on the ground.  “Shit shit!  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I, uh… I was going to but things kept… why?  What’s wrong?”

“The man you saw was a nemesis named Dan.”

“Nemesis?  One of the people the Balance hires to be bad guys?”

“Yes, except he’s supposed to be dead.  The defenders killed him because he tipped the balance too far.  The glowing eyed people were his minions.  He created an army of robots and tried to have them pass themselves off as leaders of the world so he could take over.”

“Robots?  You know, I think I had a hunch about that the other day.”

“Yeah?  I’ve haven’t any hunches in the last day, and I haven’t seen this coming at all.  Are you sure about what you saw?  Did he have a beard?  A name tag?”

“Yep, that was him.”

“Shit.  Fuck.  I’m going to have to go tell all the others.  If he’s somehow still alive we’ll have to try finding him.”

“Do you need help at all?  Because I’m sure I can…”

“Go home, Toby.”  She lowered herself back to the ground and started walking towards her bedroom.  At no point did she allow herself to look at him.  “Thank you for the information, but you’re out of this now.  You don’t have to worry anymore.”  She stopped just in the doorway and turned back to him, although she still wouldn’t look him in the eye.  “And even if you don’t forgive me, I meant what I said.  I really am sorry.”

Leaving by the window was no longer an option, so Toby had to leave by the front door.  He didn’t relish the stares he would get on the bus thanks to his spandex uniform, but he didn’t have a change of clothes in his pouch today.  That wasn’t the worst of it all, though.  He was much more worried about having to tell Gabrielle that he had been fired.  Maybe he could make up a believable reason that didn’t involve kissing another woman.  Perhaps she would believe he’d been fired for accidently blowing up a moon of Jupiter.

When he left the building, cat-urine lady and Star Wars guy were standing on the sidewalk.  Their eyes weren’t glowing just now, but they didn’t move as he approached them.

“You don’t have to follow me anymore,” Toby said.  He felt strange talking to them as if they were just anybody now that he knew they were homicidal robots working for a maniac bent on world domination, but already they felt like they were a part of a world that wasn’t his.  If this was his final contact with things from the life of a Defender of the Human Race, then he at least wanted to appreciate it one last time in its strangeness.  “They fired me.  Whatever diabolical plan you have going on, I can’t get in your way anymore.  So I’d appreciate if you would just leave me alone to my patheticness.”

Their eyes flashed red, and then they turned and walked away without giving him any further notice.  Toby figured that was the last he would ever see of them or anything to do with being a defender.  He had no idea that he would see them again in only an hour.

To Be Continued

(c) 2009 Derek J. Goodman

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