Archive for the 'The Part-Timer' Category

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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23
Nov
09

The Part-Timer – Part 4

Welcome back!  This week is the penultimate chapter of The Part-Timer.  Next week is the conclusion, and in the following weeks we will be returning to the OneStop Mart for more mayhem with Caleb and Gloria.  For anyone who has missed the previous installments of this one, you can find them here:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

And if you want to see more from the Apocalypse Shift universe, you can purchase The Apocalypse Shift novel from Amazon.

I hope you enjoy! 

Derek J. Goodman

The Part-Timer – Part 4

He caught the last bus of the night going back to Gabrielle’s apartment, but all his thinking along the way about what to tell her turned out to be for nothing.  True to the Balance’s word, his severance check had arrived before he did, and Gabrielle had opened it.

Right as Toby walked through the door, an unfinished painting flew at him.  He dodged it in time for it to just miss his head and leave a gouge in the plaster wall next to him.

“Thirty-seven dash six-b!?” Gabrielle screamed.  She had the open envelope with his check in one hand as she grabbed for another of the paintings stacked against the wall with the other.  “You motherfucker!  I can’t believe you violated thirty-seven dash six-b!”

“Hey, Gabrielle, don’t…”  He tried to duck the next painting but it ended up clipping his shoulder.  “Ow!  Cut it out!  How did you even know which rule I broke?”

“It says so in a letter with your severance check!  And don’t you dare try to fucking say that means you did something like blow up a moon of Mars or some shit.  I looked it up in the handbook.  It was that bitch from the Outback, wasn’t it?”

Toby stood still and said nothing for a few moments.  How was he supposed to answer?  He had never seen Gabrielle like this before.  His sweet little spacey girlfriend was looking like a paint-spattered tornado ready to rip through the entire room.  He sighed.  There was no point in lying.  He didn’t want to be the kind of person who lied anymore, anyway.

“Yes.”

That one word seemed to hit her harder than any of her paintings could hit him.  The rage on her face was replaced by a sad, devastated look.  That look was even tougher on Toby than the painting had been.  “Oh.  Oh god.  Did you screw her?”

“No!”  He went towards her.  At first she took a step away from him, but when he reached out to hold her arms she didn’t resist.  “I would never do that!  I love you.  I would never cheat on you.”

“But you did something.”

“I… she kissed me.”

“Wait.  She kissed you or you kissed her?”

“She… I guessed she kissed me, but I didn’t stop her.”

“Ah.  Aha.  I see.”  She looked down at her feet and seemed to think for a second, then broke from his grip and backed away.  “You need to leave right now.  Go to your mother’s for the night or something.”

“What?  Can’t I just sleep on the couch?”

“No, I’m sorry, but I need some space.  I love you very much, but right now I’m not sure if I actually like you.  If you really love me like you say you do then you’ll respect what I need right now.”  As she turned away he thought he could see her trying to hide the tears in her eyes.  “I’ve got to pee.  Please, could you just be gone when I get out?  We can talk more about everything tomorrow but for now I really just need the rest of the night to think.”

She left for the bathroom, leaving Toby alone in the living room.  He wasn’t sure how he would get to his mother’s place with the buses in this area done for the night, but before he even worried about that he had to change clothes.  Not only did he not want anyone else to see him in his spandex, but he wanted to get rid of any last reminder of what he had screwed up tonight.  He wasn’t sure if the Alphomega Corporation would want it and the rest of his supplies back, but he certainly didn’t want to keep it.  Although he might just keep the belt.  That was just a damn cool thing with many possibilities for…

The front door flew open with enough force that the hinges broke as it slammed into the wall.  The cat lady robot stood on the other side, her foot still coming down from kicking the door open, with the fat robot in the Star Wars t-shirt standing right behind her.

“What the fuck?” Toby said.  He started cautiously towards the door as the robots stepped inside.  “I told you, I’m not a defender anymore.  What the hell are you doing here?”

“Toby?” Gabrielle said from behind the bathroom door.  “What was that?  What’s going on?”

He didn’t have a chance to answer before the little old lady picked him up and threw him across the room.  He hit the wall just above the TV and fell on top of it.  He cried out in pain, and his vision started to grow fuzzy around the edges. He could hear Gabrielle screaming as the fat robot busted down the bathroom door, coming out immediately afterwards with her over his shoulder.  Toby tried to stand and run to them, but he couldn’t even get to his knees.  A pain ripped through his back as he tried to move, and his entire world went black.

*          *          *

When he came to the clock on the wall said it was almost two.  The pain in his back was still enormous, but this time he was able to make it to his feet.  The apartment was quiet but the entire place was a mess.  In addition to the front door, the bathroom door was also off its hinges.  All the paintings Gabrielle had kept in the living room were gone, and a quick check of the other rooms showed that every painting in the entire apartment was missing.

Why would they take the paintings? Toby wondered, then realized that wasn’t even the most obvious question.  Why would they take Gabrielle?  They might not have tried to finish him off because they hadn’t thought of him as a threat anymore, but then why bother coming after him at all?  None of this was making any sense.

And why for the love of all that was holy had the neighbors not bothered to call the cops when they’d heard doors banging and people screaming in Gabrielle’s apartment?  Toby thought he could hear sirens from outside, but if the robots had attacked almost an hour ago then why were the police only showing up now?  As he listened, though, the sirens faded away as the cops continued on past the building.  Then there were more sirens, this time from a fire truck and an ambulance and maybe even another cop car, that rose in pitch and then faded. 

The impact of what had happened finally hit him.  Gabrielle was in danger.  He had no idea what or why they wanted her, but he had to get her back before anything happened.  Especially not with the last words they had said to each other.  He didn’t want her to die thinking he didn’t love her enough…

No, he couldn’t let himself think about that.  If he had still been a defender he would have been able to take this in stride as though it were routine.  Hell, for a defender this was routine.  And whether the Balance said he was a Defender of the Human Race or not, he was damned well going to act like one now.

He didn’t have the slightest clue where to start, though, so he had to get the help of someone who would.  He checked the pockets of his belt and found his cell phone, then had it redial the last number.  After several rings it went to voice mail.  He tried again, and this time Mandy picked up after the third ring.

“If this is about what happened,” Mandy said, “then now is really not a good time.”  There was a loud noise from her end of the phone.

“Was that an explosion?” Toby asked.

“Look, I have to call you back later…”

“No, don’t hang up!  They kidnapped Gabrielle!”

“What?  Who did?”

“The robots that were following me around.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense.  Why would they do that?  And why now?  And if they were going after her, why not just kill you and her like they did everyone else?”

“What?  What do you mean ‘everyone else?’”

“All the other defenders are dead.  I’m the only one left.”

“Mandy, what the fuck is going on?”

“Turn on your TV.”

Toby looked at the TV he had landed on and the massive crack running across the screen.  “That might result in electrocution right now.”

“Huh?  Look, just go to the door of your apartment building.  I’ll be there in less than a minute, but don’t go outside until I get there, got me?”

She hung up before he could ask anything more.  He ran out the door and down the hall, but he couldn’t resist stepping out the front door to see what was happening.  Another cop car passed in the street on its way to some other emergency, although there seemed to be plenty emergencies right here that the police could contend with.  A small record store just down the street was in the beginning stages of a fire, and several cars that had been parked nearby were flipped over.  Over the tops of the buildings Toby thought he could see the flicker of more fires in the night and smoke rising up in thick columns from multiple distant locations.

“I told you to stay inside,” Mandy said as she dropped down next to him.  “There’s no telling what’s roaming around out here right now.”

“What in God’s name happened?  This wasn’t the way it looked when I came home an hour ago.  Is this going on through the entire city?”

“Yeah.  But all this around here is just from the riots.  This isn’t even the main event.  The CHUDs were nothing.  This…”  She shook her head, and for the first time Toby actually saw her worried.  “This is like Armageddon or something.  Come on.  We’ll find someplace safer to talk.”

*          *          *

They ended up on top of the Qwark Building again.  Mandy said they wouldn’t be safe down at street level, and from what Toby saw as Mandy flew him over the Hill and Downtown and a few other areas of the city, she was definitely right.  There weren’t many of the robot minions roaming the street compared to the CHUD invasion, but the CHUDs had been pretty much brainless.  Even their queen had only had a vague plan of what to do when reaching the surface world.  The robots roaming the streets, each and every one looking completely human except for the glowing eyes, were more tactical in their targets and more destructive in their brutality.  They went after civilian targets only long enough to attract the police or rescue services, then they went to work on beating the crap out of the poor schmucks.  Toby saw a few units from the National Guard in firefights with some of the robots, but despite being able to take some of them down the remaining robots were too fast and were able to break all the Guard’s defensive lines.

“Aren’t you going down there to help?” Toby said as Mandy sat him down on the Qwark Building’s roof.

“What the hell do you think I’ve been doing for the last hour?  For every robot I destroy four more suddenly show up.  I have to find some different strategy, especially since I’m the only defender left.”

“What happened to the others?”

“I got a call from the Balance earlier saying I could stay on for overtime, and I of course asked them if I could bring in anyone else.  But whoops, guess what?  Those bastards just said all polite-like, ‘All the other defenders are deceased, but we’re confident you can play your part in all this.’  So I went to all their homes just to be sure.”

“And they were really all dead?”

“It doesn’t look like you were the only one Dan’s robots visited tonight.  But none of them were on the clock, so they didn’t have their powers and all three of them got torn into little pieces.  I don’t get why they left you, though.”

“I just figured they didn’t think I was a threat anymore.”

“But they took your girlfriend?  That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know.  It’s like they were there for her, didn’t even care about me.  And you know the really weird thing?  They took all her paintings, too.”

Mandy started at that.  “You’re girlfriend’s a painter?”

“Yeah.  Why, does that mean something?”

“Maybe.  It was one of the hunches I had, like there was some painter I was supposed to protect at all costs.  It was one of the last hunches I had, actually…”  Her voice trailed off and her eyes got a distant look.  “Oh.  Oh, I see.”

“What?  You see what?”

“Nothing,” she said, but Toby could see she was lying.  Her breathing became shallow like she was about to panic, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why.  “Nothing at all.  Just don’t… holy crap, what’s that?”  She pointed off into the distance, but Toby wasn’t going to be swayed that easily.

“Are you kidding me? That trick doesn’t actually work to distract anybody anymore.  Tell me what’s wrong.”

“It’s not a trick.  Look!”

Reluctantly, Toby turned.  At first he thought that she was lying, that she was just trying to avoid whatever revelation had occurred to her, because he didn’t know what he was supposed to be looking for.  With fires burning throughout the city he almost didn’t notice one more cloud of dust rising into the air.  There was a more industrialized area of the city to the northeast full of factories and warehouses.  It was awfully close to where Toby had gone to apply for the DHR job, he realized, but that wasn’t what caught his eye now.  One of the warehouses was collapsing.  Considering some of the destruction elsewhere, that didn’t mean much.  What was significant, however, was the thing rising up from inside where the warehouse had once been.

“Good lord,” Toby said.  “What the hell is that?”

“That,” Mandy said, “is Dan.”

“Um, that is most definitely not what he looked like when I saw him.”  Actually, the resemblance was close.  The thing Toby saw now still had the boxy limbs with a thick chest full of glowing lights.  Toby couldn’t see the head anymore though, probably because the head was still normal size while the rest of the robot body was seven stories tall.

“What you saw was just one of Dan’s many bodies.  He has to use robot bodies because he doesn’t have one of his own.  He’s just a disembodied head.  A diabolical super-genius head that can be reattached to any one of his creations.  I guess this is his latest creation.” 

With a mechanical whir that echoed all the way back to the Qwark Building, the giant robotic monstrosity took a step out of the rubble pile that had been its storage place.  Although he was careful to avoid damaging the warehouse that had been right next to it, Dan didn’t seem to have any qualms about destroying anything else around him and, with deliberate steps that shook the earth, he began plowing right through all the other buildings as he started towards Downtown.

“Stay here,” Mandy said, and she started to lift off the roof before Toby grabbed her arm and stopped her.

“Take me closer,” he said.

“You’re safer here.”

“Are you retarded much?  He’s headed right this way!”

“Fine, but I’m putting you on a rooftop out of his path, and you better stay there.  I won’t be able to fight this thing if I have to keep wondering if you’re safe.”

Mandy grabbed him around the waist and flew him to the top of a three story apartment building close enough for Toby to see everything that happened, but far enough out of Dan’s path.

“Good luck,” Toby said, but she didn’t fly off right away.  She stood there staring at him for several seconds before she spoke.

“I really am sorry for everything that’s happened.”  She kissed him before he could respond and then pulled away just as quickly.  “But maybe not as sorry as I should be.”

Then she flew off, and Toby could do nothing more than watch her battle from afar.

She flew straight for the thing’s chest.  The billboard-sized nametag with the word “Dan” in cursive lettering must have made a tempting target, because that was where she aimed her energy blasts first.  The robot saw her coming and immediately swatted in her direction with its giant vice-like claws.  She dodged the claw easily enough, but several of the glowing places on Dan’s chest suddenly shot energy beams of their own in all directions.  Mandy zipped between them, but one beam clipped her leg and sent her spinning out of control.  Toby worried for a second that she wouldn’t regain herself before she fell, but she pulled out of the spin and fired off a blast at Dan’s head.  Toby cheered from his perch on the edge of the roof.  Mandy seemed to have missed, but the robot jerked to one side to avoid the blast and for a moment looked like it would lose its balance.  That was all the assurance Mandy needed that it was time to go in for the kill, and she flew directly toward the head.

The robot abruptly regained its balance, and Toby felt sick as he understood that it had never lost its balance to begin with.  Mandy appeared to realize this too, but too late.  As she started to veer off she was already too close to the thing’s arm, and the robot smashed her with a backhand.  As she flew end over end backwards, all the energy beams on the robot’s chest trained themselves on her and fired at once.  The flash was bright enough that Toby had to look away, and when he turned back he saw Mandy as she dropped from the sky to land directly in front of Dan.

“No!” Toby screamed.  He was too far away for either Dan or Mandy to hear him.  She wouldn’t be dead, Toby realized.  Her invulnerability, while not perfect, would have been enough to shield her from the worst of the blast.  Then Dan raised a foot the size of pickup truck and slammed it directly down on where Mandy had landed.

Dan lifted the foot, and although Toby couldn’t see Mandy from this vantage point he could still clearly see the energy blast she fired up towards the head again.  The blast was feeble, and it didn’t even come close to hitting its target.

Dan slammed his foot down again.  And again.  And again.  The last time he ground his foot down into the pavement as though crushing out a cigarette butt.  Then, without any more pause, Dan resumed his trudge towards Downtown. 

Even moving at his top speed it took Toby five minutes to get down the stairs of the building he had been on and to the place where Mandy had fallen.  The pavement was cracked in all the places where Dan had taken a step, but one place was worse off than the rest.  It was the center of the street, and the pavement there was nothing more than rubble sunk five feet down into the ground.  Toby had held out some hope that maybe Mandy’s invulnerability had been stronger than he had thought.  He had at least thought he would be able to see her body.  But there was no body.  There was just a bloody splattered mess that had once been a lonely but dedicated young woman.

Toby threw up, followed promptly by falling to his knees and bawling. 

Not only was she dead, Toby realized, but the entire city’s hope was dead along with her.  Dan’s robot minions still roamed the streets, Gabrielle was still missing, a giant killer construct was on the warpath, and there was no longer a Defender of the Human Race to stop any of it.  Toby wanted to crawl into the hole and die alongside Mandy’s mangled remains.  There was nothing anyone could possibly do now.

Toby’s cell phone beeped as it turned on.  His special cell phone.

Toby sniffed and looked down at his belt.  Maybe he hadn’t heard that right.  He couldn’t have heard that right.  But the display glowed.  It was on, all right.  It didn’t ring, but there was phone number that already appeared to be programmed in.

Toby pulled the cell phone off his belt, tentatively raised it to his ear, and hit the dial button.  There wasn’t even a ring on the other end.  A voice spoke into his ear immediately.

“Mr. Sullard,” Middle Gray said.  “The Balance feels that now would be a good time for us to speak with you.  We will be waiting at the same place as last time.  And do please try to be quick.”  The phone shut off.  Toby stared at it for a few seconds, then got to his feet and started running around the street looking for an abandoned car that might still have the keys in it.

To Be Concluded

(c)2009 Derek J. Goodman

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

09
Nov
09

The Part-Timer – Part 2

Welcome back!

Before this weeks chapter of the story, I wanted to point all fans of the blog in the direction of Library of Horror’s newest anthology Wolves of War.  This book contains a BRAND NEW Apocalypse Shift story, “And the Streets Will Run Red With the Blood of Bunnies.”  I’ve had several people ask for more info and stories on the were-bunnies that were mentioned in the novel, and if you were one of them then this is the story you want to check out.  It tells the tale of how Gloria originally met the Senator Park Lunatics and shows exactly why everyone is so afraid of were-bunnies, but this story will NEVER be appearing here on the blog.  It also will not be showing up in the first volume of the Tales From the Apocalypse Shift book, so the only way you can read it for now is by getting the anthology.

And now on to part 2 of “The Part-Timer.”  If you missed last week’s installment, you can find part 1 here.  And as always, if you would like to see more of the Apocalypse Shift universe, you can purchase the novel at Amazon.

Enjoy!

-Derek J. Goodman

The Part-Timer – Part 2

Simply because he didn’t know what else to do right now, Toby took the bus back to Gabrielle’s apartment.  For the whole ride he slouched in silence between an old lady who smelled like cat urine and a fat guy in a Star Wars t-shirt.  He didn’t pay either of them any mind, however.  He was too busy trying to figure out what had just happened.

He had a job.  That part was easy enough to wrap his brain around.  And unless this was all some elaborate prank, it was the best-paying part-time job he had ever heard of.  But there was no way he had heard the rest of that right.  Maybe they had said he was a Depends and Huggies Representative.  Yeah, that was it- he worked for a diaper company.  Or else he was a Damned Huge Rodent, maybe, walking around dressed as a mouse in some theme park?  The acronym DHR could have stood for so many things, things that actually made a little sense.  It didn’t seem likely that he was now a Defender of the Human Race.

Or maybe he just misunderstood what that meant.  Surely it could have meant many things.  Perhaps he was to be a bodyguard at some marathon.  He actually sat a little straighter in his seat at that thought.  That had to be it.  Apparently the term wasn’t as self explanatory as those weirdoes had thought if he could go thinking it meant he had to actually defend all humans on earth.

He thought back to all the other oddities of the meeting, and he slouched again.  This was all crazy, but he wasn’t going to be stupid about it.  He had to admit the truth.  The job title meant exactly what it sounded like.  And what it sounded like was something that should have paid a whole hell of a lot more than fifty dollars an hour.

He perked up as he got off near Gabrielle’s apartment.  No matter how hard the job sounded, he at least had a job.  That had to be enough to appease Gabrielle.  She was such a sweet girl, and Toby knew from experience that he might never find anyone else like her again.  If this was what it took to keep her in his life, then that was fine.

She answered her door in her painting clothes, and she crossed her arms and gave him an annoyed look when she saw him.  “Toby, I already told you I don’t want to see you again until you get a job, so whatever it is you think you’re doing…”

“But I did get a job.”

She bit her lip and her eyebrows furrowed.  “Toby, I’m tired of you lying about this kind of thing.  If you don’t want our relationship to be completely obliterated then I suggest you…”

“But I’m not lying.  Honest.  I start tomorrow.”

Her eyes widened but her arms stayed crossed.  He could tell that she wanted to believe him, and it hurt him inside that she couldn’t just accept what he said as fact anymore.  Had he really gotten that bad?

“What’s the job?” Gabrielle asked.

 Toby tried not to show his sudden hesitation.  If she saw him hesitate she would think he was lying, but he couldn’t very well tell her what he was really going to be.  If he couldn’t get himself to believe it, then she wouldn’t believe it either.  He hadn’t thought about what he would tell her instead, though.  He just said the first thing that popped into his mind.  “Diapers.”

Gabrielle raised her eyebrows.  “Diapers?”

He had to keep going.  He was committed to the lie now, stupid as it was.  “Yeah, I work in a diaper warehouse.”

Gabrielle didn’t say anything at first, and Toby was afraid she was about to call him out on his lie.  Instead she smiled and jumped to give him a hug.  “That’s great!  I mean, I know it’s not anything you would have wanted to do, but that’s got to pay well, right?”

“Yeah.  I guess it really does.”

“Then we can just go ahead and put all those stupid money arguments behind us.”  She grinned mischievously and reached down to toy with his belt buckle.  “Why don’t we go inside and find a way to celebrate.”

It sounded like a great idea to Toby, but when they went for the door they found it had closed behind her and Gabrielle had locked them out.

*          *          *

Thankfully, Gabrielle’s apartment was on the first floor, and Toby was able to crawl in from a window and unlock the door.  Then, after an afternoon of celebrating and making up in Gabrielle’s bed, Gabrielle dressed herself in something that wasn’t splattered in paint and left for work.  She worked as a receptionist at a chain beauty parlor, and although she hated the customers she rarely complained.  Toby had always felt it was a crime she had to surround herself with such shallow and insipid people all day long.  There was so much more to her than any of them could appreciate.

After she left, Toby found himself alone in her apartment, and he went into the spare bedroom she used as a studio to see her latest work.  She rarely actually finished anything, but what she did finish was bizarre and brilliant in its own way.  One piece was nothing but pi calculated out to a hundred decimal places as it swirled and was sucked down into a black hole.  The one she was working on now, although Toby couldn’t understand it himself, was supposedly a model of the gravity wells of Uranus and Neptune if they were moons of each other.  Toby wasn’t sure how many of these things she actually understood and how much of it she was just making up off the top of her head, but the very idea that she would want to paint such things had always fascinated him.  It also insured that no one would probably ever appreciate her work.

He was so into studying the paintings that he jumped half a foot in the air at the sudden knocking on the front door.  The knocking was persistent, continuing all the way up until he opened the door, but no one stood on the other side.  Instead he found a box sitting on the welcome mat.  He picked it up and saw a note taped to the top and written in a delicate feminine hand:

The Balance wanted me to come by and drop this off for you.  Inside is everything you’ll need for your first day as a DHR.  Your first shift will be tomorrow night between 10pm and 2am.  I’ll be the one training you, so meet me at the top of the Qwark Building, and make sure you’re in uniform!  I look forward to meeting you.

                                                                                                -Mandy

Toby reread the note several times.  He supposed he should have just been grateful for the job, but there were so many things about this that annoyed him.  Ten until two?  No one had ever said anything about this job being a night shift.  And the top of the Qwark Building?  That was the tallest building in the city!  What was he supposed to do, just go up to the building’s security guards and tell them he needed to get to the top to start his job protecting all of humanity?  That was a good way to get a boot in his ass.

And then there was the uniform.  He hadn’t given it much thought earlier, but now that he did this didn’t seem like the kind of job that would require a uniform.  What was a Defender of the Human Race supposed to wear, a blue work shirt with his name stitched into it?  A stupid smock like they had to wear at the convenience store?  With a grimace at the thought of what he might find inside, Toby opened the box.

There were four different items, each one individually wrapped in tissue paper.  Toby took out the smallest thing first and unwrapped it.  It was a cell phone, not really any different than any other model currently on the market except it didn’t seem to be made out of plain old plastic.  The material was spongier, almost rubbery.  When he tried turning it on nothing happened.

Well, that’s useless, he thought.  The phone had a belt clip attachment, but that wouldn’t be of any use either if his uniform didn’t have a belt.  Sure enough, the second thing he unwrapped was a utility belt. 

“Oh, sweet!” he said.  All around it the belt had little pouches, and he immediately opened the first one to see what kind of cool gadgets might be inside.  It was empty.  Same with all the others.  All together his belt had thirty pockets and he had nothing to put inside them except for the phone, which didn’t need to go into a pocket anyway.

The third item was his uniform.  It was made of green and red spandex.

“Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Toby said.  The thing looked like it would be tight, especially around the middle.  He wasn’t exactly out of shape, but even the tiniest paunch would be accentuated by this thing.  A patch on the right breast of the suit said “Alphomega Corporation.”  His name was stitched right under it.

Toby wasn’t even sure if he wanted to open the last item, but there was no way it could be any worse than a broken phone, a useless belt, and the single greatest crime ever committed against fashion in the history of the world.  And it wasn’t, thankfully.  The last item was a book, a very thick one.  The cover was a simple white with black letters that said “The Alphomega Corporation Employee Handbook.”

He put everything else back into the box, then looked at the book.  The damned thing was thick, almost a thousand pages.  He sure hoped he wasn’t expected to read the entire thing.  He flipped to the table of contents to find three-hundred and seventy six chapters.  Damn, there was no way in hell he was going to read all that.  But now that he had the thing in front of him, it occurred to Toby that, although he knew how much he was going to be making, he didn’t have the slightest clue what all his “excellent benefits” were.  He found the benefits section in the table of contents and then turned to the right page. 

After only a minute of looking through the chapter Toby already knew two things: one, the benefits were amazing indeed.  And two, there was no way he was going to understand what half of them actually were.  One benefit was listed as “fourth dimensional quantum time-rip protection.”  Another was called the “temporal employee karma-matching plan.”  The ones he did understand, however, were just insane in how great they were.  He got time and a half for working holidays, and there was chart showing him which days were considered holidays.  Apparently, somewhere throughout time and the galaxy, almost every day was a holiday.  Today, for example, was Saturnian Independence Day, while tomorrow marked the 1,087th anniversary of the Serpent Mother’s Descent, whatever that meant.  His health care covered every possible injury, and it was universal.  Literally.  It was good at any medical facility throughout the entire universe.

Toby wasn’t sure whether he should be happy or wary of all this information.  It was obvious now that he was going to be well compensated for his work, but all this implied that his work was going to be something completely beyond what he had already imagined.  It was apparent that, if he wanted to be prepared for this at all, he was going to have to read the entire handbook.

He grabbed a bag of potato chips from the cupboard, sat on the sofa, and prepared himself for a marathon reading session.  He fell asleep halfway through the first paragraph.

*          *          *

At some point, at least, he managed to finish the first paragraph before he had to go to work the next night.  That one paragraph had to prepare him somewhat, right?  But even he couldn’t convince himself of that.  There was a good chance that on tonight, his first night, he might just be screwed.

Toby had had to find a place to hide his uniform and handbook where Gabrielle wouldn’t find it, so in the end he just shoved them under the couch.  He had trouble, however, when he had to put his uniform on before leaving without her knowing.  She was in the living room right in front of her couch and playing her Wii, and he had to wait until she was completely engrossed in pretending to bowl before he could carefully slip his uniform out.  Getting out without her seeing it was easier, at least.  Being spandex it was the only uniform he had ever been able to wear under his normal clothes.  That was good, too, for the bus ride, as he didn’t really want any of the other commuters staring at him in his bright tights.  He had to scratch himself a lot, though, when no one else was looking.  No one had ever told him that spandex was so damned itchy.

He made it downtown to the Qwark Building with a half hour to spare.  He used the bathroom of a nearby McDonald’s to take his street clothes off and stuffed them into a duffel bag he had brought, then put on the belt with the cell phone clipped to it.  Before he left the bathroom he took a good long look at himself in the mirror.  It was kind of a toss-up, he decided, as to whether he actually looked heroic or if he just looked like a colossal tool.  He ran out of the Mickey D’s before any of the staff could see him in his get-up.

After that, though, he hit a snag.  The Qwark Building was locked up for the night, and he had been right in assuming that there would be security guards roaming the grounds.  As he stood outside trying to keep to the shadows, he dug through his duffel bag to find his other cell phone, the one that actually worked, and checked the time.  His half-hour lead time had already dwindled to one minute.  Great.  He was going to be late on his first day.  That sure as hell wouldn’t be a great way to impress the creepy Balance people.  But there had to be a way to get up there.  They wouldn’t have told him to be here, otherwise.

He watched as the clock on his phone changed to ten o’clock.  Crap, he thought.  I have to get up there now!

He shot straight up into the air, screaming like a little girl all the way. 

“Oh shit oh shit oh shit!”  He only barely kept a hold of his duffel bag and cell phone as he flew twenty, fifty, a hundred feet in the air.  He went right up past the light of the Qwark sign glowing in the dark and zoomed past the roof.  “Oh shit oh shit oh shit what’s happening!?”

“Stop panicking!” a voice called from below him.  “Just think to yourself ‘I want to land on the roof.’”

Actually what he was thinking to himself was Oh god I’m to shoot right into space and die, but that didn’t seem at all productive, so he tried to take a deep breath and then thought about the roof.  Immediately his upward progress stopped, and he slowly descended back to the roof.

When he landed he wasn’t alone.  A young woman about the same age as Toby sat on the roof ledge and shook her head at him with a grin.  “You didn’t read the handbook, did you?”

Toby was too busy trying to catch his breath to say anything.  She was wearing a spandex suit just like his, except hers was blue and yellow and had a cape.  She also looked a whole hell of a lot more attractive in hers than he did.  The patch on her right breast identified her as Mandy.

“Don’t worry about it,” Mandy said.  “I never read that damned thing either.  I use it to hold down the lid on my hamster’s cage at home.  Everything I know about being a defender I ended up learning from experience.”

“What the hell just happened to me?” Toby asked.

“You flew.  What else did you think it was?”

“But how did I fly?”

Mandy shook her head.  “Man, you didn’t just not read the handbook, you didn’t even get to the second paragraph, did you?  You flew because you have superpowers.”

“I do?”

“Well, yeah.  How do you expect to be a Defender of the Human Race without superpowers?”

“Uh, I don’t know.  I guess I just didn’t think about it.”

She smiled.  “You still don’t have the slightest clue what you’ve gotten yourself into here, do you?”  She stood up and then hovered a foot above the rooftop.  “Come on, I’ll fill you in on a few details on our way.”

“Where are we going?” Toby asked.

“We’re going somewhere where you can learn about what you can do now.”

“And where is that?”

“Nepal.  The Abominable Snowman is about to attack a village.  I hope you’re prepared, because this is going to be a long night.  The first one always is.”

*          *          *

After Mandy gave him a few brief tips, Toby was able to figure out how to hover in the air and then did a few quick circuits around the top of the Qwark Building.  Once he had that much down they both took off in the general direction of Tibet.

“First thing’s first, I guess.  I’m Mandy.”

“Toby.  Nice to meet you.”

 They were flying side by side at a speed beyond anything Toby would have thought the human body could stand, but he only felt the slightest pressure.  The only wind resistance came from the duffel bag still in his hand.  He would have left it on the roof but Mandy had said it would be useful for training purposes or something, so he desperately tried to keep a grip on it.  He looked over at Mandy and saw the way her cape whipped behind her, but otherwise the force from their speed didn’t seem to be affecting her, either.  It wasn’t even causing her breasts to…

Mandy looked over at him and raised an eyebrow.  “My eyes are over here, newbie.”

Toby blushed.  “Right.  Sorry.  It’s just your suit kind of accents, uh… you know.  Things.”

Mandy smirked.  “Yeah.  Actually I do.  Just like it accents your rock hard body.”

“Hey, I know I look ridiculous, but that’s no reason to make fun of…”  He stopped as he looked down at himself.  His paunch was gone.  In fact, for the first time ever he could actually see his abs.  He even had pecs!  “Whoa.  I did not look like that before.”

“Yeah, looking good is one of the powers all defenders have.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep.  When was the last time you saw an ugly hero in spandex?  It’s just one of our many powers that turn on when we’re on the clock.  You should see me when I’m off.  I’m not ugly, but let’s just say you wouldn’t have been staring at my breasts.  You would have had to find them first.”

“So our powers just turn themselves on and off whenever we’re working?”

“Yeah.  More than one Defender of the Human Race at a time is uncommon, but the Balance is making an exception tonight so I can show you the ropes.  I wouldn’t need to if you had just read the damn manual, but no one ever reads it.  I don’t think the Balance has ever even read it and they’re the ones that wrote the damn thing.”  She rolled over in the air so that she was flying on her side facing him.  She put her head on her hand as though supporting it even though there was nothing to support her arm.  Toby tried to mimic the motion and instead dropped a few feet.

“So let’s start with the basics,” Mandy said.  “You are a DHR.  I’m sure you can guess what that basically means.  We were hired to basically keep things from getting too out of control when strange things happen in our section of the cosmos.  And yes, that means that at some point you will probably be going into space for whatever reason.”

Toby had a brief mental image of flying at amazing speeds to the moon only to blow up from explosive decompression halfway there.  Great, he thought.  This job is just getting crappier and crappier.

“Your uniform is made of a lightweight spandex-like fabric, but it’s specially tailored that no matter how much damage it takes it will still somehow manage to cover your nether regions.  Don’t ask me how it does this ‘cuz I don’t know, but trust me, it’s helpful.  Prevents a lot of embarrassing situations.  You also have your belt and cell phone…”

“Actually I think my cell phone’s already broken.”

“No it’s not.  It’s indestructible.  It’s just not working because you don’t need it yet.  It’s the only way to contact the Balance if you need to, but it won’t even turn on unless your need is exceedingly great.  Always keep it handy, and keep it clipped to the outside of the belt.  Don’t put it into one of the pockets.  You might not be able to find it again.”

“What’s even the point of the pockets, anyway?  Seems like way too many.”

“Don’t ask me.  Whatever idiot designed the things must have just liked pockets, I guess.  You only really need one.”

“What for?”

 Mandy gestured at his duffel bag.  “To put things in.  Go ahead and test one out.”

 Toby snorted.  “There’s no way in hell this is going to fit into one of those tiny things.”

 “Just try.  Each pocket carries its own time/space anomaly, so you can hall around practically anything.”

Toby raised his eyebrow, then opened one of the front pouches and tried to shove the whole duffel bag in.  He wasn’t surprised when it didn’t fit.

Mandy smiled and shook her head.  “There’s a ridiculous amount of space on the inside, but the actual opening is exactly the size it looks like.  Try taking everything out of the bag and then put them in the pocket one by one.”

He took out his cell phone, managed to catch it when he almost dropped it into the ocean (holy crap, he thought, we’re over the ocean already?), and then put it in the pouch.  Then he grabbed his t-shirt and started to feed it in, figuring it wouldn’t go in very far.  To his surprise it fit in completely, and so did his pants afterwards.  He finished by wadding the duffel bag up and stuffing it in with the rest.  When he closed the pouch it bulged a little, but he thought maybe he could still fit in a lot more.

They only had to fly for another minute before Toby could see the snow-covered mountains of Nepal beneath them.  The mountains were all far enough down that they looked pretty small, although Toby was sure one of them had to be Everest.

“Hey, how come my lungs aren’t burning?  Shouldn’t we not be able to breathe this far up?”

“Another one of our powers,” Mandy said.  “We’ve an almost imperceptible field surrounding us for as long as we’re on the clock.  It allows us to breath where we normally wouldn’t, like up here or in space, but always be sure you’re back in a safe place by the time your shift is over.  Your powers automatically switch off no matter where you are or what you’re doing.  The same field makes us kind of invulnerable.”

“Isn’t invulnerable an absolute?  Either you are or you aren’t.  How can you be ‘kind of?’”

“Don’t be a smart ass.  What I mean is we can take a lot more damage than we would normally.  I’ve taken bullets before and all they leave is a nasty bruise.  I’ve never tested how much it would protect me and I don’t want to test it, so doing stupid crap like flying into the sun?  Don’t even.”

Toby squinted as he looked down over the snow reflecting the sunshine into his eyes.  Despite the glare he thought he could see smoke nearby.

“Oh.  We’re here,” Mandy said.  As they got closer and began to slow down Toby could see the smoke was coming from some burning buildings, and a nine-foot blur of white fur ran between the carnage, roaring as it looked up and saw them descending. 

“I’ll take care of this one.  You just watch,” Mandy said.  And Toby did.  He watched as she swooped down towards the creature, and he watched as she fired bright blue energy bursts from her hands, and he watched as she threw punches that knocked the creature down on its ass.  He watched it all, and for the first time it occurred to him that earning his fifty dollars an hour might not be a chore after all.  If this was the kind of stuff he was capable of doing, it might actually be fun.

*          *          *

Toby and Mandy had to keep close track of the time, as their hours were being counted according to the time of their home city even though they spent most of the next several hours in different time zones.  After defeating the yeti they zipped over to Hawaii where Mandy had Toby test out his invulnerability by walking around inside an active volcano, and while it did hurt he at least didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger of burning up.  In Ecuador they stopped the attempted rape of a young girl.  In Moscow they thwarted the illegal sale of leftover Cold War nuclear missiles.  In New York they stopped a bank robbery.  They stopped by the moon (without any of the explosive decompression he had worried about), and Toby put a moon rock in one of his pouches.  On their way back they saved a man caught in an avalanche in Switzerland.  By one-thirty they were back in their home city, and they found a quiet park where they could sit in a tree and talk shop until the end of their shift.

“How come we don’t wear masks to conceal our identities?” Toby asked.

“Have you ever worn a mask at any other job?”

“No.”

“Then why would you wear a mask at this one?”

“Well, I’ve never worn a cape at any other job, either.”

“And you’re still not wearing a cape.”

“So why do you have a cape and I don’t?”

“Because you’re still in training.  You can wear a cape after you’re done with your probationary period.”

Somewhere in that conversation Toby had lost the point he had been trying to get at, but he was too tired to try finding it again.  She had been right earlier.  This had been a long night.  But it had been a satisfying one, too.  Maybe this was a job he could get used to.

“So how exactly did you know where we needed to go tonight?” Toby asked.  “Like that guy in the Alps.  How did you know he would be there?  It’s not like we have super-hearing where we knew he was in trouble.”

“That’s the one thing that doesn’t shut off when we’re not on the clock,” Mandy said.  “I know you don’t work again tonight, but you’ll start to feel it throughout the day.  You’ll just have hunches.  Like you’ll see things you can do to help the world be a little better.  They can get a little jumbled in your head if you’re not careful.  That’s why I keep track of them.”  She reached into one of her own pouches and pulled out a notebook.  She opened it up to show Toby row on row of hunches and premonitions, each one numbered and cross referenced with each other.

“Wow,” Toby said.  “I don’t know if I could be that organized.”

Mandy shrugged.  “That’s just the way I am.”

“Most people I hang around aren’t that analytical.”  He thought of Gabrielle and her paintings.  “Or at least not analytical in that way.”

Mandy shrugged again and fidgeted with the notebook in her hands.  “I’m just more comfortable being able to put things into order.  You should see my apartment.  Absolutely spic and span.”

Toby swung his legs from the tree limb they sat on.  If he wanted to he could just stand up and walk out into the air right now without falling.  That was definitely something he had never been able to do at the factory, although he did notice that he still smelled strange.  Except instead of oil and burning metal he smelled like burning rock and yeti musk.  He would have to make sure he took a very thorough shower before climbing into bed with Gabrielle.

“How long have you been doing this?” Toby asked.

“About a year,” Mandy said.

“You planning on sticking with it for a while longer?”

“Maybe.  The pay’s awesome and everything, but it’s not like you have much of an option to climb the ladder.  You can’t just go from being a part-time defender to becoming one of the Balance.”

“What’s the deal with them, anyway?  They gave me the heebie-jeebies.”

“Not much of a deal to begin with.  They are what they are.”  She dropped all expression from her face and adopted a mocking monotone.  “’We are the Balance.’ Not going to get much more in the way of explanation, or at least not from them.  I’ve got my own thoughts, though.”

She looked at Toby, seemed to think for a second, then opened up her notebook.  “You see, I’ve noticed they take this balance thing really seriously.  They pretty much hire us defenders to be the good guys, but what if there’s too much good?  That’s when they actually hire on bad guys, too, a nemesis.  You know?  Just to keep the universe from getting too light or too dark.”

That didn’t sound quite right to Toby.  “You mean they actually hire us to fight guys that they’ve hired to fight us?”

“No, not always, and that’s probably not something they would do after what happened with the last nemesis, but… well, look here.”  She opened up the notebook to the latest page.  “See all these notations here?  These were all the random little things I’ve picked up just in the last twenty-four hours.  And then see here?”  She flipped back a couple pages.  “These are how many I was getting in a day a week ago.”

“That’s, like, triple the earlier amount.”

“Right.  And now here you are.”

“What do you mean by that?” 

“I mean there’s usually only four defenders at a time, all of us working only part-time.  That’s why you don’t hear about us in the newspapers or anything.  Other than the fact that we keep a low profile and this whole city has a way of keeping its secrets, there just aren’t that many around.  Except now you make five.  There may even occasionally be overlapping shifts.”

“I still don’t quite understand what you’re getting at.”

“They intentionally put another one in the light side column.  Which must mean that the dark side column was too full.  They wouldn’t put you here if it would tip the scales too much in favor of the good guys.”  She closed the notebook and put it back in her pouch.  “Which means something big is going on that we’re going to have to deal with.  Something that would require more hunches and more people.  And I’m not sure that I like it.”

She slipped off the branch and floated to the ground.  “Better come down now.  If you’re still up there when your powers shut off we’ll have to get whoever’s on the next shift to come get you down on your first day.  Now that would be embarrassing.”

To Be Continued

(c) 2009 Derek J. Goodman

01
Nov
09

The Part-Timer- Part 1

Welcome to another week at Tales From the Apocalypse Shift.  Just in case anyone missed the news earlier in the week, I’ve worked a deal with my publisher Library of Horror Press to publish this blog as a book!  The full title will be All Hell’s A-Buying Froztees: Tales From the Apocalyspe Shift, Vol. 1, and you will likely be able to find it some time early next year.  Not only will it include all the stories from the blog, but there will also be one other story that will be exclusive to the book, so keep an eye out for it.

And don’t forget, if you really want more of the Apocalypse Shift universe, the novel The Apocalypse Shift is available from Amazon.  If you’re not at all familiar with the universe and are looking for a good place to start, the first part of the first story can be found here.

This week marks the first never-before published content on the blog.  While this one does not involve Caleb, Gloria, the OneStop Mart, or any of the characters from the novel, the eagle-eyed reader will notice several references throughout it that mark it as existing in the Apocalypse Shift universe.  Someone paying very close attention might even find clues to important plot-lines in upcoming Apocalypse Shift books.  It’s also not really a horror-comedy like most of the other stories in the AS universe.  Instead this one is my humerous take on… well, you’ll see.  This story will be a long one, probably consisting of five or six parts.

Enjoy!

-Derek J. Goodman

 The Part-Timer – Part 1

Gabrielle clutched the sheets over her breasts and practically vaulted out of bed.  She wasn’t normally shy about showing off her body and she certainly didn’t have anything Toby hadn’t seen many times before.  She’d been known to prance around the house sometimes after sex if she still had the energy, dancing to music only she could hear in her head and humming out of tune.  Occasionally she might interrupt her mad shimmies to glance over her shoulder at him if he were watching and bat her eyes in mock innocence, all the while with a huge goofy grin on her face.  The act was somehow innocent and sexy at the same time, and without fail he wound up pulling her back into bed.

But Gabrielle wasn’t grinning now, and if she was actually making the effort to cover herself up, then Toby had to assume that he wouldn’t be in bed with her again any time soon. 

“You shithead,” she said.  Toby was barely able to hear her, partly because her words were little more than a mumble and partly because she was turned away and stooping to sort through their clothes.  She came up with her bra and started to put it on, not noticing until she tried to hook together the back that it was inside out.  “I can’t believe you would fucking ask me that again.”

He hadn’t realized it when the question had been coming out of his mouth, but now it occurred to him just how far he might have crossed the line.  He couldn’t take it back now, though, and he saw no other choice than to try pressing the issue through and hoping it came out the other side okay.  “Look, I’m sorry.  I know it’s been rough lately but it would only be for maybe a week or so, and then I should be able to pay you back.”

Gabrielle started to put on her pants, then stopped when she realized she hadn’t yet put her underwear back on.  “That’s what you said last week, and two weeks before that.  What, did you think that after a few orgasms I might forget about all the other promises to pay me back?”

It was a good thing her bedroom was mostly dark.  Otherwise she might see how badly he blushed.  That had been exactly what he had thought.  Gabrielle had the brain power to go toe-to-toe with any of the greatest thinkers in human history, but that would have first required her to come down to Earth from whatever world her head usually resided in.  She was brilliant, funny, and gorgeous, but sometimes she couldn’t remember how to tie her shoes.

“It’s not going to be much longer now,” he said.  He got out of bed and stopped her as she tried to put on her shirt backwards.  He gently cupped her chin in his hand and guided her gaze to his.  There was a wrath the likes of which Toby couldn’t ever remember seeing before in her eyes, and it made his heart hurt.  He’d felt plenty betrayed in the past by other girlfriends, and the thought that Gabrielle might be feeling that way made him almost want to slice open his wrists.  “I’ve got several applications I just turned in, so I should be hearing something within the next couple days.”  It was a lie, and Toby hated himself even more now that he saw that small glimmer of hope enter her eyes.  He’d meant to fill in all those applications.  He really had.  Things had just gotten in the way, important things like… well, okay, maybe they weren’t so important that he actually remembered what they were, but they had certainly seemed important enough at the time.  Some of these thoughts must have shown on Toby’s face, because Gabrielle’s glimmer of hope faded away and left only a resigned frown.

“I’m not giving you any more money,” she said.  Her words had the same tone his mother had always affected when she would punish him and then go on with the whole this hurts me more than it hurts you spiel, which of course was never true, just as it wasn’t true now.  Gabrielle might be starting to get disgusted at his sponging ways, but not as much as he hated himself for it.  “What you need to do is get a job.”

“I already have a job,” he said, but he didn’t put any conviction behind it.  He could barely even hear his own words.

“Another job, honey.  The club alone is just not going to cut it.”  Toby bristled at that.  Being a DJ had always been his dream job, and if he had his way that would be all he would ever do.  But the club only wanted him two nights a week, and although the pay was good it still wasn’t enough for his share of the bills.  He’d had a job at a factory until recently that had even had pretty good insurance, but he’d gotten sick of being treated like just another poorly oiled cog in the machine and walked out one day.  Gabrielle hadn’t been happy about that at all, and yet their sex life had become much better now that he didn’t permanently smell like grease and burning metal. 

“Look, I think I’ve almost got the owner worn down,” Toby said.  “If I can get her to give me just one more night a week then…”

A tear ran down Gabrielle’s cheek, and Toby stopped.  “If you keep making excuses like this then we’re not going to last,” she said.  “I’ve put up with that enough in my life, so I’ll be fucked if I put up with it from someone who claims he loves me.”  She was mostly clothed by now, and she sat down on the bed to put on her socks.  “It’s not like I’m asking you to give up what you want to do.  I would never ask that.  I’ve got things I want to do and be, too.”  She gestured across the room at the eight or nine partially finished paintings she had stacked against the wall.  “But I make sure I at least have a practical way of supporting myself.  And we both know I’m not typically the level-headed one in this relationship.”  As though unconsciously trying to make a point she put her socks on inside out and stood back up.  “So what does that say about you, Toby?”

It said plenty, but Toby didn’t know how to put it into words without it sounding like another excuse. 

“You’ve got to get some things straightened out in your head,” she said.  “And until you do maybe it would be a good idea if we didn’t see each other for a while.”  She stalked out of the bedroom.  Toby knew she would be back, but not because of any attempt to make up.  Sure enough, she popped her head back through the door a second later.

 “Um… this is sort of my apartment, so maybe you should be the one to stalk off instead?”

*          *          * 

Toby checked the address in the paper against the ones all around him one more time.  This had to be the correct building, since it was the only one on this side of the street on this block, but he couldn’t actually find the address displayed anywhere on the outside walls.  It didn’t look like the kind of place that might be hiring.  It didn’t even look like it had been open for any business at all in the last decade.  The building had probably been a warehouse at some point, but now all the windows were busted in and most of it was covered in graffiti.  The graffiti consisted mostly of gang tags, but some Rembrandt had taken a whole thirty-foot section of wall to write “With Great Power Comes a Great Many Groupies” followed by multiple crude attempts at depicting female anatomy.  Even if the building was still the home to some business, it didn’t look like the kind of place where he would want to work. 

Toby briefly entertained the idea of just tossing his want ads into the rest of the litter along the building’s walls and going back across the city for another attempt at pleading with Gabrielle, but that would probably be the emotional equivalent of pounding his own foot with a sledge hammer.  She had been absolutely right, he knew that, and going back to her without even trying to fix the problem was self-mutilation, an attempt at making himself even more pathetic than he already was.  All he really needed was something part-time, and for the rest of his time his world could be exactly as he wanted it.

He’d gone to his mom’s after Gabrielle had kicked him out and she had let him stay on the couch for the rest of the night.  She hadn’t appeared at all happy about it, but he had known she wouldn’t say no.  That might not end up being so true the next time, however, since he did owe her even more money than Gabrielle.

He’d started paging through the want ads over his bowl of Frosted Flakes, but nothing he had seen there had jumped out at him at first.  There were plenty of job openings similar to the one he had just quit, but there was no way in hell he was going back to one of those.  Even Gabrielle would have had to admit that was a bad idea.  She’d seen how unhappy he had been there.  Day in and day out at the same mindless repetitive work, dangerous crushing machines with only the minimum required safety functions (most of which were usually on the fritz anyway), and bosses so convinced they were your intellectual betters just because they wore a different colored uniform than you.  Toby would rather take a job where he was sometimes on fire than go back to one of those soul-crushing places.

Toby hadn’t been paying close attention to any of the ads he flipped through, so he couldn’t say later why this one in particular had caught his attention.  It wasn’t any bigger than any of the others yet Toby stopped to give it a second glance anyway:

Part-time DHR

20-25 hrs/week

Excellent pay and benefits

Applicants must have

flexible schedule and an

interest in truth and justice

Genetic mutations a plus

The ad was followed by an address where applicants could go to apply, along with a name, the Alphomega Corporation.  Toby had spent several minutes staring at it, but that didn’t help the ad make any more sense.

There was a door ajar not twenty feet away from him now, and although it didn’t look like it could possibly be the front entrance it was the only door he had found so far.  It didn’t sound like anyone was inside, but for all he knew someone could be hiding just beyond with a baseball bat.  Maybe the ad had been placed to lure unsuspecting dumbasses into a trap where they could get mugged or killed or turned into Soylent Green.  A crazed little voice in his head told him that was probably a more preferred fate than going back to Gabrielle without a new source of income.

Toby really didn’t want to go in there.  Maybe he could instead just go to that convenience store down at the corner of 13th and Pearl.  They almost always had a sign saying they needed someone for the night shift…

He looked at the ad again.  20-25 hours per week.  Excellent pay and benefits.

“Screw it,” he muttered, then went through the door.  He didn’t have the slightest clue what a DHR was, but as long as he only had to do it for twenty hours a week, he didn’t care.

He only had a brief impression of the room he was in before someone or something closed the door behind him and he was in darkness.  It took him several moments to realize it shouldn’t be this dark.  The glimpse he’d had of the interior had implied a massive, featureless room taking up the whole building, but what about the windows?  It was still the middle of the afternoon and they should have provided more than enough light.  He stumbled back to where the door should have been just behind him, but his hands touched nothing but empty space.

“Hello?” he said.  His voice carried quite a distance before it bounced back in an echo.  Whatever this place was, it was much larger than it had appeared from the outside.  “If this is a scam then let me just tell you right now that I don’t actually have any money to steal.  Unless you really want to steal my bus pass, but I would kind of like to keep that.”

“We have no intention of robbing you,” a female voice said from somewhere to Toby’s left.  It sounded close, maybe not even five feet away, and it lacked the echoing quality of his own voice.  The voice was very matter-of-fact, like the voice’s owner had actually contemplated mugging him at one point before discarding the idea.

“So it’s the Soylent Green then?”  He tried to make it sound like a joke, but as soon as it left his mouth it didn’t seem funny at all.

“We have no intention of eating you, either.”  It was a man’s voice, this time from somewhere to his right.  There was a note of regret in his voice that Toby didn’t want to analyze.  “We were afraid you would be late for your interview, Mr. Sullard.”

“But I didn’t set up any…”  Toby’s blood went cold.  “Wait.  How did you know my name?”

A voice spoke from somewhere in front of him.  It was calm and soothing, but Toby couldn’t for the life of him figure out if it belonged to a male or female.  “We at the Alphomega Corporation pride ourselves on an extensive knowledge network.  Please sit down.”

A pool of light shined down from somewhere above onto a padded metal chair directly in front of him.  He touched it first in the off chance that it might send 50,000 volts of electricity through him when he sat in it.  When he wasn’t fried like an egg, he sat down.  “You know,” he said, “this is a really creepy way to do business.”

“And yet it is our business and we will do it as we see fit.”  Whoever owned that particular voice sounded like he was about eighty and had been smoking since he was three.

“Can I at least see what you look like?” Toby asked.

There were a series of booming clicks from above, and Toby had to cover his eyes as the space in front of him was bathed in a pool of the brightest light.  There was a semi-circular stand in front of him like he would have expected to see in some government tribunal or something, a place for people to sit around some poor schmuck and generally act superior.  Nine people sat at the stand, each with his or her hands folded in front of them and faces completely lacking in expression.  The man furthest to Toby’s right wore pure black while the woman furthest to the left wore only white.  Everyone in between wore business suits of progressive shades of gray.  The person in the middle, whose physical features were as androgynous as his or her voice, wore a perfect middle gray tone.

“I trust this makes you more comfortable then?” Middle Gray said.  He/she even smiled a little, but not for too long.  Then there was twitch on his/her face that Toby thought might have been pain.

“Um, not really,” Toby said.  “So I guess you guys would be the supervisors or the human resources representatives or something?”

They all responded at once in a monotone.  “We are the Balance.”

“Ooookay.  Fine.  But if I wanted to call you something that didn’t make me think you were all nutjobs then I would refer to you as…?”

“We are the Balance.”

Okay, that was enough for Toby.  He started to glance around for any sign of the exit, but the majority of the building was still dark.

“Mr. Sullard, I have to apologize for my colleagues.”  The speaker was a youngish man in light gray sitting two seats from the end.  His hair was elegantly groomed in a professional style even though his scraggly beard stuck out in odd directions.  “They often seem to forget how disconcerting this process is for new employees.”

“Well, do you mind if we just get the process over with then?” Toby said.  Maybe the convenience store wouldn’t be that bad.  He could sell Twinkies to drunks, maybe mop up their messes.  And he sure as hell wouldn’t have to deal with anything as weird as this.  All he had to do now was make himself look like the worst worker ever and he could get out of here.

“Fine,” Scraggly Beard said.  “You’re hired.”

Toby blinked.  “Isn’t there supposed to be an interview first?  Or even an application?”

“We already have all the information we need regarding you,” a young woman in dark gray said, except maybe “young woman” wasn’t the right term.  She didn’t even look like she was ten years old yet.  “You possess all the qualities we are looking for in an employee at this time.”

“You will start tomorrow,” Middle Gray said.  “You will receive all the materials you need to begin later today.”

“Look, I don’t think I want to do this,” Toby said.  “I don’t even have the slightest clue what I would be doing, and you guys really aren’t…”

Scraggly Beard smiled.  It didn’t seem nearly as painful for him as it had been for Middle Gray.  “You will start at fifty dollars an hour.”

Toby didn’t say anything.  He just sat there with his jaw hanging open.

“We are glad you feel that is an adequate sum,” the man in pure black said.  “Now if you don’t mind we will need you to leave.  We have much more business to see to before the end of this planet’s revolution.”

There was a squeal from behind Toby, and he looked to see the door he had entered was open two feet behind him.  Because he couldn’t think of anything else to do or say he stood and walked towards it.  He turned back to look at them just as he set one foot out the door. 

“Thank you.  Thank you so much.  But I don’t suppose you could tell me what exactly it is that I’m going to be doing?”

“We feel that the title of DHR is self-explanatory,” Middle Gray said.

“And what does DHR stand for?”

“Defender of the Human Race.”

 Toby was able to get out of the way just in time to avoid being hit by the slamming door.  He was so dazed by the entire encounter that it almost didn’t strike him as odd that the outside of the warehouse had been replaced by a strip mall consisting entirely of Hello Kitty boutiques.

To Be Continued