30
Nov
09

The Part-Timer – Conclusion

Hello again, and welcome to the final chapter of “The Part-Timer”.  Next week will see the return of some more familiar characters from the novel as Caleb and Gloria return.  In the mean time, if you’ve missed any chapters of “The Part-Timer” you can find them here:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

As always, if you want to see more of the Apocalypse Shift universe, you can purchase The Apocalypse Shift novel at Amazon.

I hope you enjoy!

Derek J. Goodman

 

The Part-Timer – Conclusion

            The Hello Kitty strip mall was gone.  Toby pulled the severely dented and damaged car he had found up to the block where the strip mall had been and got out of the car.  In the strip mall’s place was simply an empty lot with a single rose growing in the center.  Next to the rose was a single door in a frame just standing there in the open and not leading to anything.  Toby didn’t even hesitate in opening it.  He had seen plenty more bizarre things than this in the last few weeks.  One of those things had already reached Downtown and was lazily trying to knock down the skyscrapers in its path.  A door to nowhere was nothing in comparison.

            The door shut as soon as he stepped through, and just like the last time everything around him was pitch black.  He didn’t wait for any of the Balance to speak to him.  “Give me my job back,” Toby called into the darkness.

            A single light turned on over the semi-circular stand, illuminating the man in black at the end.  “You were fired, Mister Sullard.  You can’t just come barking orders at us.”

            “I made a mistake.  It was wrong to do that to Gabrielle, but it has nothing to do with any of you or the job.”

            “But it does, Mister Sullard.”  Another light came on at the other end over the woman in white.  “You are supposed to be an example of what is good and decent.  Even if you don’t believe thirty-seven dash six-b would be an appropriate rule if you were single, you cannot deny that you knew what would probably happen and let it occur anyway.  That is not good or decent at all.”

            “She’s the one that kissed me, though.”

            Next to the man in black the light came on over the ten-year old girl in dark gray.  “And now you lay all the blame on her?  Doesn’t sound good or decent either.”

            “And the kiss is not the issue to begin with.”  A light over the seat just left of center, showing a very skinny man whose clothes looked ready to slip off of him as though they were surrounding a hat rack.  “Perhaps we were wrong in giving you the job in the first place.”

            “No, you weren’t wrong!  I can do it!”

            A light just right of center over an immensely overweight woman.  “What makes you worthy?

            A light over Scraggly Beard.  “What makes you somebody who should have this job instead of us giving it to the next applicant who walks through that door?”

            “Because I’m the one who came back here to beg!  I’m the one who wants to stop what’s happening!”

            A light over the eighty-year old man on the dark side with the raspy voice.  “You mean you want the great pay and benefits.”

            “No.  You don’t even have to pay me.  Just give me my powers back so I can save the city.”

            The light came on over Middle Gray, and he/she leaned forward expectantly.  “You mean you want to do something that might kill you without getting anything in return?”

            “Yes.”

            Middle Gray smiled.  It still looked painful for him/her.  “Why?  You must say it out loud.  You must say it for all the Balance to hear.”

            Toby took a deep breath.  “Because I just want to be a good person.  I want to do what’s right.”

            Only a single seat at the stand remained un-illuminated.  Every single member of the Balance turned to look at that one seat.  “Well, what do you think?” Middle Gray asked.

            The last light came on.  “I think it’s not a matter of whether you’re a good person,” Mandy said.  “It’s just a matter of who you are.  And who you are has definitely changed.”

            Toby put a hand to his mouth.  His eyes had to be playing tricks on him.  He didn’t remember who had been sitting there the first time he had come, but it had been a woman, he thought.  Maybe this person only looked like Mandy and wasn’t actually her.  But he knew what he was seeing couldn’t be his imagination.  She looked pale and she wore a light gray suit, but it was her.

            “Mandy!  You’re alive!”

            All nine of them responded at once.  “We are neither alive nor dead.  We are the Balance.”

            “But… I don’t understand.  I saw your dead body.”

            Mandy looked down at herself as though this was the first time she had seen herself like this, but no expression showed on her face.  “I’m not… I’m not sure what happened.  I died.  I remember dying, and there was this weirdest sensation, like I was being stuffed in a fridge or something.”

            “And the rest of that would like to apologize for that,” Middle Gray said.  “There was… interference from a nearby source in trying to bring you back to us.  It’s an issue that I think someone will need to deal with in the near future.”

            Mandy didn’t look like she had been listening.  “And then…  I don’t know what I am now.”  She looked at Toby, and although her face didn’t seem capable of it anymore, like the very action gave her pain, he could tell that she was trying to smile.  “Actually, maybe I do know what I am.  I’m promoted.”

            Toby wanted to cry again, this time tears of joy, but he didn’t have time.  “Then give me my job back.  Every moment we wait has that thing still destroying the city.”

            “Perhaps we might be persuaded,” Skinny Hat Rack said.  “But there would be certain provisos.”

            “What?” Toby asked.  “Anything.”

            “Gabrielle,” Mandy said.  “You must insure her safety first.”

            “What does she have to do with any of this?”

            Mandy’s eyes moved as though she were looking at something in front of her that only she could see, and whatever it was both shocked and amazed her.  “She has everything to do with this.  Your connection with her is the reason the Balance hired you.  She has arcane knowledge inside her head, secrets of the universe that she tries to show the world.”

            Toby blinked.  “Her paintings.  You mean to tell me her paintings aren’t just pretty gibberish?”

            “But they are.  The paintings are clues to things the human race isn’t ready to know, but she can’t truly express what is trapped in her head.  But even she isn’t the one who’s really important.  Toby, the one you really need to protect is your daughter.”

            “But I don’t have…”  Toby felt his knees go weak.  This was too much information at once.  It was one thing to find out your girlfriend had all the secrets of the cosmos keeping her from thinking straight.  But that didn’t feel like the real news here at all now.  “She’s pregnant.  Oh God, I’m going to be a daddy?”

            “Your daughter is not going to be just anybody,” Middle Gray said.  “Your daughter will be the key to a new way of keeping equilibrium in your small corner of the universe.  The knowledge she will inherit from her mother and the power you had at the moment of conception will make her something we have never had before.  When she reaches puberty she will be the first ever full-time Defender of the Human Race.  She will be a shining white light to balance out many shades of gray and one very dark shadow.  But she cannot be that if she is taken by Dan now.  You must insure that your girlfriend is out of harm’s way.  Only when you are certain of that may you attempt to stop Dan.  Is this completely understood?”

            No, in truth it wasn’t.  This was so much for Toby to take in.  But he didn’t have time to sit and contemplate it all.  “Yes,” Toby said. 

            “Very well then,” Middle Gray said.  “It is therefore the decision of the Balance that you are to be reinstated to your duties for a brief trial period.”

            “How long?”

            “We can only give you your powers back for a period of two hours,” Eighty-Year Old Man said.

            “That’s it?”

            “It is only a test,” Fat Woman said.  “You must prove yourself.  Two hours to insure Gabrielle’s safety and defeat Dan.”

            “If you succeed in that time,” Woman in White said, “you will be hired back on to part-time status with full pay and benefits.”

            “If you don’t succeed,” Man in Black said, “you will probably be too dead to care.”

            The door opened behind Toby, and he backed towards it.  “Thank you.  Thank you so much.  I won’t let you down.”  He started to turn, but Mandy spoke up. 

            “Toby?”

            He turned to look at her.  Every light at the stand had gone out except for the one over her.  She looked like she was struggling, like there were so many things she wanted to say.  Maybe she didn’t know how to say them.  Maybe, in whatever this new form of hers was, she simply couldn’t say them.

            “Never mind.  Go.  Make me proud.”

            The door closed behind him as he left.  The scenery around him had changed again.  After the single rose earlier Toby had expected the new shape to be something profound and mysterious.  Profound it was not, but a Chuck E. Cheese balanced on a tower of orange traffic pylons was definitely mysterious.

*          *          *

            It didn’t occur to Toby until he was flying back towards Downtown that he should have stayed with the Balance long enough to ask them where he should begin looking for Gabrielle.  The least they could have done was call him on his cell and give him a hint.  Even a hint in the form of a riddle would have been more helpful than just flying around blind.  What’s pregnant, covered in paint, and currently being hidden in an abandoned Starbucks?  But the cell remained silent, and Toby had a feeling he wouldn’t get anything if he went back, either. 

            Toby landed on a street not far from where Mandy had died and tried to think.  He didn’t have much time.  He’d checked his real cell just before flying off to make sure he knew when his deadline was, and he’d figured he had until just before sunrise.  When he checked the cell now he saw that half an hour had already passed. 

            This was very bad.  He had to think of something.  He could still hear gunshots from nearby, and Dan was still doing his thing somewhere close, if the continual shaking of the ground was any indication.  There were so many threats he had to deal with, and that wasn’t until after he found Gabrielle.

            “Come on,” he muttered to himself as he went to lean against the wall of the nearest building.  “Think.  Think!  If I were a giant robotic psychopath where would I hide a pregnant painter with hidden knowledge of the cosmos?”  It was a good, specific question, so by Toby’s reasoning it should have had an obvious answer.  But none came to mind.
            “Dammit, think!”  In his frustration he punched the wall and regretted it instantly.  Invulnerability and above-average strength were enough to send chunks of brick crumbling to his feet, but that didn’t keep brick dust from flying back and showering his face.  He stepped away and wiped at his eyes.

            “Aw, come on here!”  As he blinked away the dust he looked down at the mess of broken brick he’d created at the base of the wall.  “Just give me a… break… already…”  Anybody else who looked as the crumbled brick probably would have just seen crumbled brick.  Toby, however, saw it formed a perfect map of the city, complete with the Qwark Building and the crumbled warehouse where Dan had risen.  Right next to the destroyed warehouse was another warehouse, one much more intact, and a pattern of rubble that looked suspiciously like it read She’s right here, you idiot.

            He blinked again, and the map and words were gone.  But he had no doubt that the hunch was right.  He remembered the way Dan had sidestepped the warehouse yet hadn’t cared about destroying anything else.  If he’d kept his giant super-body in one place before the mayhem, it only made sense that he would keep Gabrielle nearby.

            He shot up into the air and streaked towards where Dan had come from.  The warehouse in question looked like it hadn’t been used in years.  Christ, Toby thought, are there any warehouses in this city that aren’t abandoned?  At least this one had a very clearly marked front entrance.  Toby stood in front of the door and prepared himself for whatever he might find inside.  There was no telling what sort of hell Dan’s robot minions had put Gabrielle through.  She wouldn’t be dead, and they wouldn’t have done anything to harm the baby, but there were other ways they could be torturing her right now.  With a deep breath he kicked down the door and jumped through.

            He had been prepared for some horrible scene of carnage.  What he hadn’t been prepared for was Gabrielle standing and grinning at him with the broken robotic bodies of the Star Wars guy and the cat-urine lady lying at her feet.  The severed and still-sparking head of the cat lady was in one hand and a broken mop handle was in the other.

            “About freaking time you showed up,” Gabrielle said.

            Toby’s jaw worked as he tried to think of something to say, but nothing came out.  Instead of being in the warehouse proper they were in a small office.  There was a chair in the middle of the room with a coil of rope sitting around the legs and library card sitting next to it.  Over to one side, looking like they had just been used for something, were a fire-extinguisher, an old grease covered hanky, and an open stapler.

            “What… how did… I don’t get it,” Toby finally managed.

            “All those old MacGyver reruns finally paid off,” Gabrielle said.  “It’s too bad you didn’t show up a few minutes earlier.  I bet what I did looked really cool.”  She tossed the robot head and mop handle off to the side and answered his shocked silence with a big, toothy grin.  “What, you expected to find me tied up and about to be dropped off the top of a bridge?  Please, that kind of shit only happens in the movies.  Real women can take care of themselves.”

            Toby rushed towards her to give her a hug, but she backed away.  “Hold on,” she said.  “You can’t just rush in late to save me and then expect everything to just be fine.  How do you know I’m not still mad at you?”

            “Are you still mad at me?”

            She thought about that for a few seconds and then shrugged.  “Huh.  I guess not.  Come here, you cosmic-powered lug.”  She wrapped her arms around him and gave him a deep, heartfelt kiss.  “So it looks like you’re un-fired?”

            “Yeah.  Look, I’m so sorry.  Not just for kissing Mandy, but for the way I was before.  I don’t ever want to be that person again.”

            “Really?  You don’t want to be a DJ anymore?”

            “No, I do, but I don’t want to be…  I don’t want to be a mooch anymore.  Ever.  I want to do my part.  And I want you to know I’m going to be the best damn father ever to our baby.”

            “Baby?  Who said anything about a baby?”

            “You mean you don’t even know yet?”

            “Well, no.  I’m not pregnant.  Although I have had to piss a lot all of a sudden.  And my breasts have started to feel real tender.  And I haven’t had my period… Oh holy shit!  I’m pregnant!  How the hell could you possibly know that before I did?”

            “Long story.  Trust me, we have a lot to discuss later.  But we have to get going now.  I want to make sure you’re safe first, and I only have, like, an hour and fifteen minutes to stop all those robots before my powers cut off.  You see, this living head named Dan has created an army of…”

            “I already know all that.  He monologued to me for half a freaking hour about his evil plans and all that.  It was actually kind of boring.”

            They both went outside, but they had to stop just beyond the doorway.  Down the street several of the glowing-eyed robots, a few with damage showing the metal under their fake skin while most looked completely unharmed, blocked off the street.  As they watched, even more of the robots joined them from behind or out of side streets.  There had to be over fifty of them standing in the way with more still coming.

            “How’d they even know to come here?” Toby asked.

            “Maybe I tripped some sort of signal or hidden alarm when I beat the two that were holding me.  Sorry.”

            “No sweat,” Toby said.  “Keep out of the way, but you may want to watch.  I’m sure this is about to be as cool-looking as whatever you did.”  He took a step forward and cracked his knuckles.

            The robots scattered and disappeared down the side streets.

            “Wow,” Gabriel said.  “That was impressive.”

            “But I didn’t actually do anything,” Toby said.  He looked down at his hands.  “Unless that was just one scary-ass knuckle-cracking.”

            The ground shook slightly, followed a few moments later by another shake, and then another.  Each shake was a little stronger than the last.

            “No, I don’t think that was it.”  Gabrielle pointed down the street.  “I think you’re just going to be blowing the warp whistle and skipping right to the final boss.”

            Dan came into view over the tops of the buildings farther down the street.  It was still impossible to see his tiny head from this distance, but from the robot’s body language (could a giant robot even be said to have body language?) Toby could tell that Dan had seen them, and he was headed this way.

            “Get out of here,” Toby said.  “Get as far away as you can.  Be careful of all the other robots, because they will still be looking for you and they might…”

            “Um, hello?  I think I’ve already proved that I can take care of myself.”

            “Right.”  He kissed her, then put a hand on her stomach.  “I love you.  And if I don’t make it, promise me something.  Promise me you’ll name our daughter Mandy.”

            Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at that, but she seemed to realize there wasn’t any time to explain.  “Just go kick his ass, already.”

            Gabrielle turned and ran.  Toby couldn’t afford to watch her go.  Dan was already moving down the street towards him, and he was picking up speed.  Even if he wasn’t moving at a full out run, the length of his stride still had him moving at a faster pace than any normal sized person.

            Without any more thoughts for Gabrielle, his child, or anything else, Toby held one fist straight out in front of him and launched himself at Dan.

            In the air, over the nearest rooftops, and heading straight for a giant metal construct heading towards him with the speed of a freight train.  There were only a few hundred yards between them when Toby fired his first energy blast at the human head on top.  Dan fired, too, twenty blasts at once.  Neither Dan nor Toby hit their intended targets.  What Toby did hit, with his entire body, was the giant glowing nametag on Dan’s chest.

            Toby curled himself up into a ball on impact.  Glass tubing from the nametag rained around him and the electronics inside it sparked furiously.  Toby didn’t feel any of that.  He did, however, feel intense pain throughout his entire body like he had just flown at full speed straight into a brick wall, which, he supposed, was kind of what he had done.  The metal of Dan’s body at least had some give to it, and Toby caused a huge dent in the thing as the force from Toby’s impact lifted Dan off the ground, spun his body around in mid-air, and sent him crashing on his back against the side of a building.

            Toby ricocheted off Dan and went spinning out of control until he hit a nearby rooftop.  The pain was far worse than what he had felt when the robots had thrown him against the wall of the apartment, but his invulnerability seemed to keep him conscious this time.  He was not entirely sure that was a good thing.

            “Okay,” Toby mumbled to himself.  “Now that we know how well that works out let’s not try it again.”  He got to his feet and looked over the side of the roof in time to see Dan kick his legs into the air and, with a dexterity more suited to a martial artist than a multi-hundred ton steel monstrosity, jump straight to his feet.  The robot held out one of its arms towards Toby and used its claw in a close approximation of a “come and get me” gesture, then started to run away back in the general direction of the skyscrapers downtown.

            Toby took a deep breath.  He was going to have to play this much smarter.  Here he was only a minute into the fight and he was already a walking bruise.  And he couldn’t ignore that most of these buildings, some of which were residential, probably had people in them yet.  These were people that could have been hurt when Dan had crashed into that building.  As much as he didn’t like the way Dan was leading this dance and drawing him to God knew where, the downtown area was mostly commercial, and at the very least there would be fewer people there at this time of the morning.  One more deep breath and Toby took off down the street after Dan.

            Dan was keeping a pretty fast pace, but Toby was much faster and he caught up with the robot quickly.  Just as Toby was looking for a sensitive spot at which to aim his next energy blast, however, Dan’s entire torso rotated one hundred and eighty degrees.  The legs were still propelling him towards Downtown, but everything else was lined up to attack Toby.

            “Shit!” Toby yelled, and he swooped downward to avoid several energy blasts.  Those energy blasters on Dan’s chest were what were giving him the most trouble, Toby realized.  He couldn’t get close enough to Dan to get any decent hits in as long as the twenty or so blasters were still working.  He needed to do something about that.

            Toby flew off down a side street, and he could hear the pounding of Dan’s footsteps slow as he wondered what Toby was up to.  Toby didn’t have to go very far to find what he needed.  Several National Guardsmen, all looking tired and very much worse for wear, were still engaged in a firefight with two of Dan’s smaller robots.  Toby must have looked like nothing more than a blur to the Guardsmen as he swooped down, grabbed the robots by their now tattered and bullet-ridden clothes, and yanked them up into the air.  The robots tried to struggle and hit Toby, but they couldn’t get a good angle on him before he was back on the same street as Dan.  As though he were simply throwing a baseball Toby hurled one of the robots at Dan, then quickly shifted to a different position in the air and tossed the second.  Dan was too confused by the quick succession of movements, and half the energy blasts honed in on and evaporated the first robot while the other half went after the second.  Toby flew down the open alley between the blasts and, using both hands in quick succession, fired six blasts of his own.  One simply impacted the metal of Dan’s chest and left a darkened dent but the other five found their marks, destroying five of Dan’s energy cannons.  Toby pulled away and disappeared down another street before Dan could adjust his aim and fire again.

            Toby followed Dan down a parallel street and tried to think.  That had worked better than he had hoped, but there was no way Dan would fall for it again.  He didn’t think he would have the time, anyways.  The skyscrapers of Downtown loomed right ahead of them with the Qwark Building right in the middle.  Toby rose up in the air for a better vantage point and saw Dan’s torso twist back around to the right position.  The robot’s speed increased even more before its legs bent and then launched it towards the nearest skyscraper.  It hit the building about ten stories up, shattering ever single window in the entire tower with the impact, and punched one of its claws through the side, lodging it in the building just long enough for the robot to brace its legs against the building and push off towards the Qwark building.  It hit the Qwark building at about the twenty-fifth story and prepared to press off again.

            Toby flew in closer, aiming for the space between the two buildings Dan was hopping between.  Neither building would be able to take many more impacts like this.  If Dan was trying to get some height and an advantage on Toby then he was choosing the most destructive way possible to do it.  The joints, Toby thought.  Got to aim for the joints.  Can’t jump like that if he can’t use his limbs.  As Dan launched himself back off the Qwark Building Toby tried a combination of his previous attacks, flying straight at the shoulder joint on Dan’s right arm and firing energy from both hands.  The blast softened up the joint enough that this time wasn’t so painful as Toby crashed right through it.  There was a screech of twisting metal as the arm sheered off and fell to the ground.  Dan’s mid-air balance was thrown off, and he crashed into the next building at almost forty stories up with no grip to keep him from falling.  Dan managed to at least push off with his legs so he was in free fall away from the buildings, and Toby flew in for the head.

            “Gotcha now, bastard!” Toby yelled.  He flew straight down after the falling robot but crashed into its chest, inadvertently taking out two more energy cannons as Dan’s fall inexplicably stopped thirty stories up.  Toby bounced off Dan and began his own free-fall, and as he looked up at Dan above him he saw that Dan had some sort of thrusters attached to his back and feet.  As Toby brought himself out of the fall and back up, Dan’s thrusters all glowed white hot and shot him up into the sky beyond the top of the Qwark Building.

            “Dammit, why didn’t anybody tell me he had those?” Toby mumbled, then shot straight up after him. 

            The skyscrapers below already looked small when Toby caught up with Dan.  Dan readjusted his torso as he heard Toby coming and fired multiple energy blasts blindly.  Toby was able to dodge them easily enough, but there was no telling where those blasts might hit below.  And any damage Toby might do to the robot from this height would be catastrophic when the debris fell to the ground.  Whatever powered Dan’s thrusters didn’t seem to be strong enough to get him much higher, and Dan looked ready to have the final battle right here with the city below.

            “I don’t think so,” Toby whispered, and braced himself.  He hit Dan at full speed from below right in what would have been the crotch of a real person.  Dan shuddered and went back to flying upwards, Toby propelling him all the way.  Toby had to concentrate to keep the pain from the impact from blacking him out, invulnerability or no, and even though he knew he should be able to breath just fine he could feel his lungs burn as the air thinned.  If he looked down he was sure the city would be nothing more that a distant collection of lights in the night, and still he pushed himself and Dan higher.  Toby wasn’t sure if Dan’s head needed to breath.  If it did then that would be an advantage for Toby up here, but he doubted that would be the case.  He had to assume that even from this height Dan would still be able to fight.

            Toby finally risked a look down.  They had to be at the edge of the planet’s atmosphere by now.  He couldn’t really see the city anymore but he could look out and see the distinct curvature of the Earth.  This would be enough distance, the perfect place to finish this.

            But Toby didn’t have a chance to start the last leg of the fight.  Instead he was kicked by a leg.  He’d lost his concentration for one critical moment and Dan had been able to maneuver enough to swing his leg and connect solidly with Toby’s head.  Toby lost his grip on Dan’s body and started to fall away while Dan flew down after him.  Dan caught Toby in his claw and triumphantly held Toby out in front of him, either not realizing or not caring that they were both now in freefall and the air around them was heating up.

            No, Toby thought.  I can’t let it end like this.  I have to get back to Gabrielle.  I have to one day meet my daughter.  He struggled against the claw but Dan still held tight, and despite his limited invulnerability Toby could feel the metal heating up as they dropped.  Dan’s entire body started to glow red from the heat and, now that Toby was actually close enough to see Dan’s head, he could see that bearded face start to panic.  Whatever destruction Dan’s robot body had been designed for, Toby doubted part of that design included reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

            Come on! Toby thought, and he pushed harder at the metal digits pinning his arms to his side.  The super-heated metal started to give under the pressure, and Toby managed to bend them enough to slip out of the grip.

            Toby risked a glimpse at the planet below them.  They were still far enough up that Toby could steer them away from any populated areas when they came down.  Toby’s uniform started to burn away in the heat and he had to try ignoring the horrible sensation of fire against his skin as he pushed Dan towards a target he saw below them.  Great Lakes, here we come, Toby thought.

            Dan’s head tried screaming something at him, probably some clichéd speech declaring that he would be back and would have his revenge against Toby and all his descendents, but what little of it that Toby could hear he just ignored.  With pieces of the robot breaking away and vaporizing as they hurtled toward Earth, Toby made his way to the top of the torso, ripped the still-screaming head from its socket, and tossed it to hopefully vaporize with everything else.

            Then Toby and the twisted remains of Dan’s robot body crashed into Lake Michigan.

*          *          *

            Toby found out later that the robot body’s impact caused a small tsunami to hit Milwaukee.  Lots of property damage, many people injured, thankfully no reported deaths.  Toby would have to remember avoiding such climactic conclusions to future battles.  Maybe the destruction he caused as a Defender of the Human Race was just considered part of the balance of the universe, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t at least try to leave less of a mess. 

            Dawn had already arrived in this time zone but Toby’s powers didn’t cut out until he made it ashore in Michigan.  He collapsed against the rocky shore and spit some disgusting and likely polluted water from his mouth as he took stock of himself.  His flight ability had allowed him to slow his impact, but he had still gone under with the robot for a few minutes.  His entire body was bruised and in a few small places his invulnerability had failed him enough to leave burns from his reentry.  His uniform was really nothing more that blackened rags and threads, but just as advertised it still managed to cover his crotch and butt.  His utility belt had only minor damage but his special cell was in perfect condition.  He was right in the middle of admiring it when it rang.

            Toby took a deep breath and answered it.  “Hello?”

            Toby expected to hear the voice of Middle Gray on the other end, but he was wrong.  “We can’t say that you handled that as well as you should have, Defender Sullard,” Mandy said, “but you did handle it.  Congratulations.  You are a Defender of the Human Race again.”

            Toby tried to speak but had to cough up a little more water first.  “That’s great.  Thanks, Mandy.”

            “We are not Mandy.  We are the Balance.”  Mandy paused, then said in something that sounded much closer to the voice he remembered, “Ugh.  I totally didn’t mean to say that.  It was sort of a reflex.  I can see how that might get really annoying really quickly.”

            “So I suppose we’re not going to be seeing much of each other anymore, what with your death and promotion and all.”

            “No, I really don’t think so.  I’m going to be way too busy.  Toby, you really have no idea what things are like now for me.  The Balance is… there’s just so much.  I couldn’t even begin to describe what I have to do now, what it all means.”

            “Then you probably shouldn’t try.  Gabrielle’s the one whose head doesn’t hurt when she thinks about those things.  I have trouble just contemplating what’s in my burger at McDonald’s.”

            “You take good care of her.  And congratulations.  I’m sure you’ll make a good dad.”

            “You think so?  I’m not sure if I’m a good enough person to pull this whole ‘raising humanity’s greatest hope’ thing off.”

            “And I’m sure I don’t even have to tell you what my response is to that.”

            “No, I guess you don’t.”

            The phone went dead.  Toby looked at it for a second and then muttered to himself.  “Crap.  Forgot to ask if I get a cape now.”

             He looked at the Michigan countryside around him, then put the phone back on his belt and dug around in his utility belt for his real phone.  Whatever time/space properties the belt had in its pockets had apparently protected his phone from the fall and the water.  Toby was already aware of the irony of what he had to ask before Gabrielle even answered.

            “Hi.  I’m alive.  No, yeah, more or less.  Say I don’t suppose I could borrow some money until I can cash my check?  Well, I need you to wire it to me or something so I can get a bus ticket.  You see, I’m sort of in Michigan…”

The End

(c)2009 Derek J. Goodman

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