Sotto Voce and I stood in my bedroom. I couldn’t even believe we were having this conversation.
“I have to tell my teammates. They’re, you know, they’re my teammates!”
“What if one of them has been hired to kill you?” she asked.
“None of them have it in them.”
“You all work for Sum Industries, don’t you?” she asked.
“I thought you said you’d stopped following me.”
“I did,” she said. “You’ve got a welcome letter from them on your desk.”
I turned around to look at my desk. She was right.
“So, not creepy,” she said. “But I’m not blind, either.”
“I don’t think you get to decide whether or not you’re creepy,” I said.
“Call Agent 09. Confirm my story,” she said. She got up and walked towards the window.
“How will I find you?” I asked.
“You won’t,” she said, opening my window. “I’ll find you,” she said, crawling onto the windowsill. “Stay safe,” she said. She jumped.
“Wait,” I said, but it was too late. I ran over to my window, but she was gone. Gone with the night wind. “Running out in the middle of a conversation?” I muttered. “Douche move.”
— — —
“You ready for today?” Blue asked, as the four of us walked towards Sum Industries.
“Define ‘you,’” I said. “And ‘ready’. And ‘today.’”
“Should I take that as a no?” Blue said.
“Yeah,” I said. “But how could I be ready? We have absolutely no idea what Marquez wants us to do.”
“Yesterday we dealt with body-transferring white ninja babies. How bad could today be?” Cathect asked.
“I really wish you’d stop bringing that up,” I said. “The more we talk about it, the less I can pretend it was just some weird fever dream.”
“Maybe we’re all just some big fever dream,” Cathect said, which would have been funny if it wasn’t terrifying.
“You’re awful and I hate you,” I said.
“I’ve come to learn the hard way that that’s just your way of saying that you love me,” Cathect said.
“By which you mean a genius,” Cathect said.
“When you say things my ears bleed.”
“By which you mean I have the voice of an angel,” Cathect said.
“We’re here,” Hellfire said. “Time to kick down the door.”
“Don’t kick down the door,” Blue said.
“I was being cool,” Hellfire said.
“Were you, though?” I asked.
“I was, right?” Hellfire said, looking over at Cathect.
“Sure,” Cathect said. “That one was pretty alright on the cool scale.”
The four of us walked through the revolving door, one by one. We walked to the front desk, where the 12-inch gargoyle was looking at some papers.
“Hi, guys,” the gargoyle said. “Good to see you again. Glad I didn’t scare ya! Haha!”
“Hi, Gargoyle,” I said. “Hi, Invisible Raccoon.”
I looked at the front desk’s empty chair, trying to see some movement–just any sort of clue that would tell me whether or not the Invisible Raccoon actually existed.
The gargoyle laughed, looking at the chair. Then he looked back at me.
“That’s not his name,” the gargoyle said.
“Then what’s his name?” I asked.
“I’d tell you,” he said. “But you don’t speak raccoon. Take the elevator up to the top floor. Marquez wants to see you guys.”
“Do you know why she wants to see us?” Blue asked.
“No clue. Destroy any buildings recently?” the gargoyle asked, wings fluttering. He let out a bit of a laugh, the hoarse, breathless sort of laugh old men often gave out when they’d cracked themselves up and couldn’t get any air. Then he said, “Metahumans can be such assholes sometimes.”
We all looked at each other for a second, unsure what to do.
Blue said, “Let’s go.”
The four of us made our way to the elevator. As soon as the doors shut, I asked, “So is the Invisible Raccoon real, or is he just messing with us?”
“I don’t know,” Hellfire said.
“I don’t really think it matters,” Blue said.
“I wouldn’t trust anything that guy says,” Cathect said. “Seems to me like he’s really stoned.” Cathect snapped his fingers, turning them into finger guns with his mouth opened wide. The rest of the elevator ride was spent in silence, Cathect pointing his finger guns at each of us and trying to get someone to laugh.
We got off the elevator, which directly faced another front desk. The lady sitting there seemed pretty normal: no extra limbs, no wings, no glowing eyes. Honestly, normal seemed kind of weird in this building.
“Marquez is waiting for you, Hellfire,” the secretary said. Hellfire nodded his head and went into Marquez’s office.
I walked up to her and asked, “Do you have any powers?”
“No,” she said.
“Is that scary?”
“I’m more afraid of how much more boring this conversation could get,” she said. “Do you enjoy boring people? Is that your superpower, or something?”
I didn’t say anything else, but simply moved over to the chairs in the waiting room. Cathect and Blue were both sitting there. Neither really looked like what they knew what to say.
“I almost forgot what the word ‘bitch’ meant,” Cathect whispered. “Really glad she could clear that up for me.”
“I’ll fight her,” Blue said. “If you want me to fight her, I will.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I shouldn’t have asked. I was just curious, you know?”
“Yeah,” Blue said. “I know.”
I guess I wanted to know how she felt about not having superpowers. Because really, I didn’t have any superpowers either. I had the suit, which was a nice enough replacement, but if I didn’t wear it, I would basically be helpless. And the thing was so inconspicuous, I still hadn’t actually worn it on a mission. Which was frustrating.
Hellfire walked out of the office, wearing a blank expression.
“Nano, you’re next,” the secretary said.
I gulped hard, walking to Marquez’s office. The second I crossed the threshold, I felt super intimidated. The office was super huge, and there were all sorts of cool things in it. On the right wall there were four turtle shells lined up in a row. Each had a word spraypainted on. Taken together, they said, “We Will Never Forget.”
The floor was actually made of glass. Underneath the glass there was water, and a whole bunch of fish.
“No sharks?” I asked, too nervous to even look at Marquez.
“No sharks,” she said.
“That’s good,” I said. “Because if there were sharks in there, you’d definitely be a supervillain.”
She laughed. “I promise you I’m not. But that’s enough about me. It sounds like you had an interesting day yesterday.”
“I did.” As I said that, I finally reached the desk where Marquez was sitting. I sat in the comfy rolly chair across from her.
“Body-swapping ninjas. I imagine it’s a lot to handle on your first day.”
“It definitely was,” I said. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“Can I be candid with you?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Definitely.”
“You’re being followed,” Marquez said. She opened one of the drawer desks and took out a folder. She slid it my way and said, “Open it.”
I did. The folder was a dossier on Sotto Voce, showing a bunch of the places she had probably followed me to. Some of them I’d known she was there for, others not so much.
“Wow,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Was it safe to tell Marquez that I knew about Sotto Voce? Was it safe to tell anyone?
“You know her?” she asked.
“I’ve seen her around,” I said. “But I didn’t know she was following me.” A little white lie couldn’t hurt, right?
“Well she is.”
“How’d you get this?” I asked.
“As you’ll quickly come to realize, I have my ways,” she said. “To tell you the truth, this is one of the reasons why I want your team to come and work for me. We’re interested in Sotto Voce.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Many reasons,” she said. “I was hoping I could get you and your team to track her down–turn the tables and figure out who she is, where she lives. All of that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “We can do that.”
“I don’t know how familiar you are with Sotto Voce’s place in history?”
“I know a little bit,” I said. “Queer female spirit, Bloody whisper. You know. The highlights.”
“That should be enough,” she said. “You already have her interest. You just need to capture her.” She grabbed a pen and some papers on her desk, as if she’d completely forgotten about me for a moment. “Oh,” she said. “You can go now.”
Walking back out, I saw that Cathect actually looked pretty nervous. Blue didn’t, though. I wondered if she actually wasn’t nervous, or if she didn’t want her nervousness to show. I mean, I guess she’d been here longer than the rest of us, but still. There was something very intimidating about being a superhero in a building so well known for supervillain-y.
“Blue, you’re next,” the secretary said.
Blue got up and walked to the office. I swear to God, I thought I saw her smile.
“Did she feed you to the sharks?” Cathect asked. “Hellfire said there was a fish tank under the floor.”
“No,” I said. “PS, you’re stupid. Anyway, Hellfire. What’d Marquez want to talk to you about?”
“Demon stuff,” he said.
“Like?” I asked.
“The CFO here is a demon,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember.”
“He wants to apologize,” Hellfire said. “For everything. Marquez wanted to know if I could meet with him.”
“Are you comfortable doing that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”
“I wonder what she wants to talk to me about,” Cathect said. “Do they have a porn division at Sum Industries?”
“We know your clone is a porn star, Cathect,” I said. “You don’t have to keep bringing it up all the time.”
“Isn’t it impressive, though?” Cathect asked. “I mean, someone with my body became a porn star. There’s my body, there’s the porn star’s body, and they’re the same. I’m thinking about getting business cards made. I’ll say my position is ‘Porn Star Creator’.”
“I thought your position was, ‘Professional Jack-ass’,” I said.
“That’s a little kinky for my tastes,” Cathect said.
“One man in Hell gets fucked by a donkey, every day,” Hellfire said.
I looked at him. “What?”
“I thought that was a joke,” he said.
“You were trying to be funny?” I asked. “Please Dear God tell me that the man getting fucked by a donkey isn’t real?”
“I was trying to be funny,” he said. “And it’s real.”
“Why,” I said.
Blue walked out of Marquez’s office.
“Did you get eaten by a shark?” Cathect asked.
“That wasn’t funny the first time,” I said.
“I’m sorry you don’t understand the art of humor,” he said. “Which, I’ll admit, is complex and multi-faceted. But I assure you that joke was very funny.”
“Yeah,” I said. “So funny.”
“What’d she want to talk to you about?” I asked.
“Nothing interesting,” Blue said. “She just said ‘Hi’ and hoped that everything was going well. I didn’t even get to sit down. How about you?”
“Nothing interesting,” I said. “I guess.”
“What about me?” Cathect asked. “Is it my turn? Is it my turn to go in now?”
The secretary glanced up at Cathect, seemingly surprised by his very existence. She glanced at her computer screen for a second, then turned right back towards him.
“No,” she said. “Marquez didn’t want to see you.”
“It’s because I’m really cool and don’t cause her any problems, right?” Cathect asked.
The secretary laughed for a moment. “Hun, she doesn’t even know your name. How could you cause problems for her? No, the truth is that she just doesn’t care.”
Cathect looked at her, surprised and disappointed. Then he said, “Let’s get out of here.”
“Yeah,” Blue said. “Let’s go.”
I felt kind of bad as the four of us got into the elevator. Cathect actually looked dejected. It was almost as if he had feelings or something.
“Sorry the secretary made fun of you like that,” I said. “I don’t know why she was being so weird.” I leaned over and patted him on the back as awkwardly as possible. Awkward but genuine. It was my way.
“Yeah. Maybe she’s been talking to you,” Cathect said.
“Aw, I don’t mean it,” I said.
He looked at me, disbelieving.
“Well, okay,” I said. “I believe some of the things I say. But even though you’re annoying, you can be kind of cool sometimes, too.”
— — —
Agent 09 was totally unreachable, which was really unfortunate. Without her, I couldn’t figure out what to do about Marquez and Sotto Voce.
On the one hand you had Sotto Voce, who had definitely been stalking me. She was honest about stalking me, which was nice, but she’d still stalked me. Also, she was from a long line of spirits, several of them murderers, which, all things considered, doesn’t weigh in her favor. Even then, they were homicidal maniacs who fought for lesbians and queer people in general, which was pretty cool. But I really was less than one hundred percent cool with the whole murder thing.
Then of course there was Marquez. She was really cool and really seemed to care about what I had to say. But she was also the CEO of a somewhat villain-y corporation. That said, she hadn’t stalked me personally. She’d maybe had Sotto Voce followed, but she hadn’t done it herself, so it was different. And if Sotto Voce was dangerous, wouldn’t it be a good thing to follow her? Wouldn’t that make Marquez one of the good guys?
Then there was the fact that I wasn’t able to tell any of my teammates about this. But was that right? Should I really hide all this from them? Teams were all about helping each other, after all. And I could really use some help right now. If only I could be certain nobody on the team was trying to kill me.
Actually, thinking about it, the number of people in my life who might have been trying to kill me was alarmingly high. Or was I just paranoid? Is it called paranoia if everyone’s after you?
The window behind me opened, and I jumped in my seat a little.
“What did Marquez want to talk about?” Sotto Voce asked.
“Sorry I scared you,” Sotto Voce said. “What did Marquez want to talk about?”
“I said I would be, though you should really lock your window,” Sotto Voce said. “What did Marquez want to talk about?”
“You really like asking that question,” I said. “A ‘Hello’ would be nice, first. So you didn’t scare me half to death.”
“Hello,” she said. “What did–”
“Seriously,” I said. “You said you’d stop following me.”
“I did stop following you,” she said. “I’ve started looking at the other three, to see if they were hiding anything. Just so happened you were with them at Sum Industries.”
“Ugh, can you stop following people in general?”
“Following people’s my job,” Sotto Voce said. “A tiger doesn’t change its stripes.”
“How about we start simple, then,” I said. “How about you stop following me and the people around me.”
“Your life is in danger,” she said.
“Probably,” I said. “And I don’t know who’s endangering it. It could be you. It could be someone you work for.”
“It could,” she said, her voice growing softer. “I won’t follow you or your friends anymore. But first, tell me. What did Marquez want to talk to you about?”
“She wants me to help track someone down,” I said.
“Who?” she asked.
“The Operator,” I lied. Then I told the truth, “One of the supervillains who kidnapped me when I was little. One of Mom’s old enemies.”
“They think that you can help track down The Operator?”
“Well, yeah, I said. “I’m the best option they have, apparently.”
“But you only interacted with The Operator when you were a baby, right?” Sotto Voce asked. “You wouldn’t have any reason to talk to him again.”
Shit. All that lying had been hard. But telling the truth would be even harder.
“Not exactly,” I said. “No. Not really at all.”
“You kept in contact with him?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I–” It was hard to say. It was one of those things that felt so weird, you know? It was one of those things that made me feel alone when I tried to talk about it. Because how could anyone understand? “Plastique almost killed me when she found out that my parents were about to save me. But The Operator stopped that. It’s not like I feel grateful to him or anything. I mean he kidnapped me, which is pretty douchey. But I liked that he was good like that. I liked that he was good, even though he was a villain.”
“So you talked to him again?”
“Yeah,” I said. “A couple times.”
Actually, The Operator knew a lot of guys from Sum Industries.
— — —
“Nano,” The Operator said, sitting across from me behind a wall of glass. “It’s been a while.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. I’ve been busy.”
“That’s alright,” The Operator said. “I understand. You’re at that age.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve been really busy, actually.”
“Oh, yeah?” he asked. “With what?”
“Sum Industries,” I said.
“They said they were going straight,” he said. “They broke their word again?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“If you don’t think they’re doing anything evil, why would you be fighting them?”
“I’m not,” I said.
“You’re–” he paused, looking confused. “What are you doing with them, then?”
“Working for them,” I said.
“You’re–” he paused, looking less confused and more angry this time. “You’re telling me that you’re working for Sum Industries? This is what you’re telling me?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s actually why I wanted to talk to you.”
“To tell me you were taking up a life of crime? That’s what you wanted to tell me?”
“No,” I said. “That’s not what I’m doing at all.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” he said.
“You said they went straight.”
“I said that they said they went straight,” he said.
“You don’t think they did?”
“They never do. They’ll swear up and down they’re going straight. But every time, at the end of the day, they end up getting involved. You know, with the criminal element.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I was thinking about it, and I don’t know. I was thinking that Marquez didn’t seem so bad, you know? Maybe she’s actually trying to make Sum Industries a not villain-y thing?”
“Maybe,” he said. “But I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“I was wondering if you could, you know. Talk to some of your friends about it? See if Sum Industries was really trying to follow the law?”
“I’ll ask around,” he said. “But there are two things I can tell you about Marquez. Real easy–right off the bat.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “What?”
“One, none of the guys I talk to have heard of her. That doesn’t mean too much, since she could be from another dimension or something, but it’s still a helluva lot better than if they had heard of her.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s good to know.”
“Two,” he said. “She’s gay.”
“Oh,” I said.
That changed everything. It felt like it shouldn’t change everything. It felt wrong that it was changing everything, but still.
That changed everything.