Greetings From FLYOVER CITY!

Hello, Chicago (the original Flyover City)!

About the Author

Ted Campbell is a freelance writer, blogger, corporate drone, parent to two wonderful children, and ex-slacker from Denver, Colorado who would totally be your friend on Facebook.

If Flyover City! was a movie, this song would be playing over the end credits right now.


Please send all correspondence, million-dollar book deal offers, and bids for film rights to caffeinator_x@yahoo.com

41. The End (dot dot dot, Question Mark)

I got a hair up my ass on the way into work today. I swung by Pablo's Coffee to try out their new "Danger Monkey Blend".

(Of everyone involved, I guess it's not that surprising that he's the one the hipsters have all embraced.)

I was bent over, unlocking my bike, when somebody asked me if I had any spare change.

That glint of emerald was long gone. There wasn't a hint of recognition in his eyes - just the yellow that comes from nicotine and too much moonlight.

I asked what happened to him, after the explosion. Had he followed me in, or did he know about the tunnels, himself?

He just stared at me, impatiently. "You got any change, or not?"

I asked him about the war, the Allied Force, about his time in the monastery. He turned away from me, mumbling.

As I rode off, I heard him calling out behind me: "Crazy fucker! I don't believe in ghosts, either!"

I guess some people's "ultimate sacrifice" is more ultimate than others.

----------------------------

The new job is going pretty well - writing press releases is a pretty sweet gig. I could do without the calls from the media, though. Answering questions about Alton Vaig's whereabouts is almost as much fun as explaining to somebody why their cable's been shut off, even though they swear they sent the check last week.

But you know those late night infomercials? For The Greyraven Diet Plan and Workout DVDs? I got my copy today - gratis. (minus the shipping and handling, of course)

I'm even getting along better with AVI. Put a couple Pez dispensers on his hard-drive, to give him a little flair. Still no good for happy hours, though. That's what I've got Spliff for, I suppose. I don't mind floating him 'til he gets a new job and all - but seriously, he's gotta stop with the questions.

Not that they let me in on any of the real important stuff. Who's the new Greyraven? Please. I will say, however - and this is strictly my own speculation, mind you - he does seem to have an abundance of archery-themed weapons in his arsenal, lately. Just sayin'.

I did find this pretty interesting, though: after Darkstreak took that sword to the spine, a few years back? Apparently, Greyraven injected him with Dr. Fang's meta-genetic SimStem compound, to help him heal. The same highly illegal substance the mad doctor used to create the Manitou Springs kaiju, and grow Deacon Struck to even more improbable proportions.

Which would explain the new, metamorphic-superhero who's been showing up on the news. Maybe.

Or maybe it's just like he told me once: "Dumb luck". Which isn't such a bad superpower to have, if you think about it.

--------------------------

On the home front, Gwen picked out a dress today. She won't tell me how much it was, but she swears she didn't put it on a card - so the argument wasn't too bad.

We're cool, though. Really, really, good. I can't explain it... but it just feels right, you know? The way I see it, "alternate realities" and "possible futures" are just that.

But hey, who knows?

Ask me again in ten years.

40. One Week Later...

Questions Remain in Destruction of Hyperconverter

From the Associated Press:

Issued just one week after the destruction of the Vaig Hyperconverter, the official Agency report released on Wednesday is bringing up more questions than it answers.

At issue is whether the explosive arrow that was fired by the superhero known as Sureshot would have been able to cause the level of damage that the multi-billion dollar device sustained.

Now, an engineer who was involved in the creation of the device has issued a statement which challenges the official account.

In an interview with ABC News on Thursday, Dr. Richard Patel said, "With the amount of radiation that was released (from the Hyperconverter), anything that came within ten feet would've been disintegrated in a matter of seconds." Patel went on to say that he had no knowledge of any malicious intent on the part of Vaig Communications founder and CEO, Alton Vaig.

Agency officials have gone on record, saying that the arrow's effectiveness just illustrates the strange, random nature of malphysics overall.

Asked about reports of the "Green Man", a mysterious figure which several witnesses claim to have seen jumping into the Hyperconverter's energy conductor, Patel added, "It's no less likely than a guy destroying seven billion dollars worth of high tech equipment with a bow and arrow. I don't care how much cyber-armor he was wearing."

Next Ish: The End (dot dot dot, Question Mark)!

39. Showdown at 5280 Feet (Part 3)

I squirmed out from under Gwen, supporting myself against the sofa that had tipped over when she threw herself on top of me. I could hear her and Spliff both, shouting for me to "get down", "take cover"... but of course I couldn't. Any more than I could close my eyes in a dream.

For a moment they seemed to just hang there: five silhouettes floating among the twinkling shards of glass, like pieces of a mobile above an infant's crib.

Then, with a thunderclap of boots slamming against the floor - the offices at 1700 Lincoln erupted into a war zone.

Like charmed snakes, Lilywatt's whips lashed out from her hands, wrapping tight coils around their prey. With a snap of her wrists, the sniper's rifles were thrown off their mark, sending a violent stutter of gunfire into the rafters.

The other guards took aim, but they were distracted by the stocky, hairy figure that was walking directly over them, gripping their heads with disturbingly large, prehensile toes. Realizing that Danger Monkey was intending to draw their fire up, two of the guards scoured the room for other targets - but the half-simian avenger leaped at them, drawing their heads together with a dull thud.

The left-flank sniper kept a tenuous grasp on his weapon, struggling against Lilywatt in a game of tug-of-war. She kicked her leg high, catching the middle of her whip with a boot heel. When she brought it down again, the gunman was yanked directly into the path of her fist, his gun flying out of his grasp...

With all the urgency of man waving to a neighbor on the way to his car, Greyraven raised his arm, snatching the rifle from the air. It spun around in his hand only once - but something he did caused the magazine to slide out and drop to the floor. He caught the muzzle-end and charged toward the reinforcements who were bursting out of the stairwell.

The Deacon caught a few stray bullets in the chest, but he kept obidiently to his post. From the console behind him, Vaig shouted, "Control Room...?!"

"The Hyperconverter is now online, Mr. Vaig..." came the response.

Just then, an unconscious guard dropped onto the control panel, tossed there by the Deacon after Danger Monkey had thrown the body at him. DM climbed over the Deacon's body, swinging around his limbs like a jungle gym. He sceeched madly, punching and scratching his face.

Attempting to shove the body aside, Vaig yelled, "Pick up that gun, you idiot!"

From the base of the console - where he had presumably been curled up in the fetal position - Tim stood up, dangling the fallen guard's firearm from his finger.

"Now shoot somebody!" Vaig yelled.

Tim blanched, dropping the gun like it was something that could be used to kill somebody.

Stray bullets were flying just overhead, but I couldn't turn away from the spectacle: Greyraven and Lilywatt, battling against the fresh onslaught of guards; Danger Monkey, his fur matted with blood, tossed aside by the scruff of his neck; Vaig pushing the body from the console. Gwen and Spliff were still shouting at me from under the coffee table, but I wouldn't move until that last voice roared from behind me...

"Joel! Duck!"

I dove to my side, narrowly avoiding the low-flying object that was darting through the room like a predatory bird. It cut a sharp turn around the Deacon - only a second before it would've clocked him in the jaw. When it landed, sinking one of its arms into the top panel of the console - I realized that it hadn't come from a wild throw. The explosion threw Vaig back against his desk...

Spliff crawled out from under the table. "Fuck yeah... I knew he'd come back!"

Have you ever looked at those domino masks, that little strip of cloth that so many heroes have worn over the years, and thought to yourself - Seriously? I mean, this is somebody's brother, or mother, or dentist - and nobody has ever recognized them? That's what's protecting their family from retribution?

But watching him there, standing not ten feet away from me - I understood. That was Darkstreak - no one else. Everything we had ever known was hidden away behind that mask.

He ran to where we were huddled on the floor. "Are you all okay?"

Spliff was the first to answer. "Yeah, we're alright. But how did you...?"

Darkstreak followed his gaze to the  "live" speech airing on a TV across the room. "We've got a man downstairs... he told us Vaig was nowhere to be found."

"Darkstreak! Get those civilians out of here!" - Greyraven.

"Yes, please..." called another voice.

The cables that had lowered them in were still hanging through the roof. The injured Danger Monkey pried Tim from Greyraven's boot, and the two of them were reeled up into the hovering Argojet.

Greyraven and Lilywatt stepped over the bodies of the unconscious security guards, approaching Deacon Struck. The massive preacher ignored them, moving slowly - almost casually - away from his post. Towards us...

"Darkstreak-er,"  he chuckled, "haven't seen you on the TV lately. Thought you might'a seen the light. Moved away from this life'a sin..."

Suddenly, at the far edge of the room, an orange-and-gold android stepped out from the shadows.

"Vsshrt! Strrrth shhhl MRRRAAAT!" it coughed, sounding like it was repeating an order at Jack in the Box.

Not looking especially confident, Darkstreak turned back to us. "Alright. Just follow me, close to the ground. I'll get you to the ship."

In an impressive display of speed (granted), Sureshot - modeling his brand-new, taxpayer-funded Cyber-Armor ® - unsheathed his bow, and fired off three of his trick arrows. The first two - tipped with explosive boxing gloves - were laying on the ground by the time the third blew a sad-looking net out its ass - five full seconds after the Deacon grabbed it from the air. The Deacon threw it like a javelin, back at Sureshot, tangling the archer in its sticky mesh.

Lilywatt sprung into action, snapping her whips at the Deacon. The end of one spun around his wrist; the other he caught in his hand. Except for the smoke rising from his jacket, the curls of electricity licking across her weapons didn't seem to bother him at all.

"You... stupid... redneck! Get back to your post!" Vaig had managed to crawl back to the console, and was furiously punching at the controls in order to tame the sparks.

Realizing he left an open path to Vaig, the Deacon jerked his arms, lifting Lilywatt into the air. Before she could think to let go, he brought her crashing down on top of Greyraven.

Seconds passed, with neither of the them moving.  It took a few more for Vaig to register his triumph. "The fools! Did they honestly think -"

Just then, the console whirred back to life, illuminating his face like a camp counselor telling a ghost story.  With an almost erotic relish, he slapped his open palm against the glowing red button...

Nothing happened. I opened my eyes.

Spliff turned to Darkstreak. "What the hell? Did it not work?"

Just as I realized that my phone - or something deep inside my phone - was pulsating - the room shook from a series of explosions. Sureshot was back in action, firing an endless array of arrows at the Deacon, one after another. At long last, the giant dropped to the ground.

From behind a thick veil of smoke, Vaig called, "You're too late. The Hyperconverter is already re-configuring the network... mapping the temporal fault..."

A look of grim determination washed over Darkstreak's face. "I have to get downstairs..." he said hitting a button on his belt.

I was about to ask him what he could do, when the metal rescue platform lowered in through the ceiling.

We loaded everyone on as quickly as possible. Sureshot climbed up to where the platform met the cable, to ensure that the connection was secure. After we got him on, I saw Spliff run a fingertip over Greyraven's utility belt; he snapped his hand back when Darkstreak shot him a look. He had probably been trained to look out for that sort of thing.

Wrapping her arms around me, Gwen asked, "Are you okay?"

No. "Yes. Yeah, I think so..."

The phone in my pocket kept throbbing, like a nasty bruise. "Network re-configuration", apparently. It didn't hurt at all, it was just... distracting.

"Hold on, everyone," Darkstreak called, as the platform lurched upwards.

We were ten feet in the air when the massive, grey-tinged hand reached out of the smoke, swatting the side of the platform.

It occurred to me, even then: Deacon Struck is big, but...

"C'mon, 'Streaker," his voice bellowed, "let's you and me have a little have a little 'come to Jesus'..."

The hand reached and grabbed, reached and grabbed - until finally, he caught a hold of Darkstreak's leg.

He hung from the edge of the platform. With every yank, we nearly fell off the side.

Realizing the danger, Darkstreak yelled up to Sureshot, "Just go! Get those people to safety!"

When he let go, the platform jerked, swinging wildly.

"Joel!"

Gwen had lost her footing, and was rolling toward the edge of the platform. I dove onto my stomach, catching her wrist right as she fell off the side.

The Argojet bobbed for a second, its autopilot compensating for any further resistance. "Just hold on," I called to Gwen, "I've got you!"

And I did, too. Another couple of seconds, and I would have pulled her to safety. But that's when the bullets pinged off the side of the platform...

The Mullet, aiming directly for me... I think don't think she even cared who else was on there, much less why she was assigned the job of stopping us in the first place.

The Argojet was ascending quickly. If I hadn't jumped when I had, I never would've made it without breaking my legs.

------------------------

I grabbed Gwen, tackling her back behind the same couch that we had just escaped from. Bullets skimmed the edge, tearing through the upholstery. The Mullet was a pretty fair shot, considering the smoke, and the fact that she had Greyraven and the Deacon as obstacles.

The Deacon hovered above him. He flexed his muscles, sending a ripple of fresh, hard mass rolling across his body, ripping his suit like Kleenex. All along his neck and torso, his veins bulged like thick purple lightning bolts. He was growing, right before our very eyes.

"Never understand why a nice, normal boy like you goes and gets himself all mixed up with these sinners..."

"I don't have time for this, Struck..."

"Awww... now 'Streaker, you turn away from redemption, you gonna have to pay the price. Just like your little girlfriend did..."

He waited for a response, but Darkstreak kept his rage buried. Deep. Behind the mask...

The Deacon roared, a strand of saliva clinging from the top to the bottom of his cavernous mouth.

Darkstreak rolled to his feet, seconds before the Deacon's fists smashed into the floor. He faked punches, only to pull back, kicking the giant's shins and throat, instead. But the Deacon had gone against the likes of Ultraphenomenon, even Alphamale himself. When Darkstreak planted his heel in the Deacon's solar plexus, using the momentum to launch himself out of reach - the Deacon grabbed his calf right out of the air.

Gwen screamed when he crashed into Vaig's console.

Two more bullets sent shock waves through the couch. Thing must have cost a fortune.

The Deacon was laughing, stalking towards his motionless opponent - when suddenly, Darkstreak sprung to his feet. He was bloodied, but I couldn't see a sign of any actual wounds.

He ripped the console from the ground, throwing it at the Deacon. Then, punctuating his words with fists slamming against the floor, he yelled -

"I - don't - have - time - for - THIS!"

The ground beneath him collapsed, dropping him and the Deacon to the next floor.

Gwen looked at me, confused. "He can do that...?"

I was about to answer when I heard the distinct sound of clip sliding from the butt of a gun.

"Go! Quick!"

As we ran for the stairwell, a heavy sense of vertigo draped over my body, sinking into my bones with every pulse of my phone...

The Mullet was close enough now that when she raised her gun, I could make out the tattoo peeking from the tear in her shirt. Something like a flaming skull, probably carved there with a burning-hot ballpoint pen. I thought of my own tattoo: a telephone headset with devil-horns coming out the top. Stupid twenty year-old Joel...

"I don't understand," I called out to her, "what do you have against me? Why...?"

"Because, you little prick -" she shouted as she finished loading her weapon, "it my job. And I take my job seriously..."

More shots rang out. I grabbed Gwen by the forearm and took cover behind a pillar. Bullets cut through the plaster, just inches away from my left ear. And then - just like I'd always heard about - my life began to flash before my eyes.

But I realized - this cluster of memories running through my head... they were things that I had never actually experienced...
The throbbing from my phone was getting faster - turning into a smooth, steady hum.

And then... something weird happened.

I mean, it was all weird... but this was different. This was personal...

-------------

...I was sitting on a couch, watching television with a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream in my lap. Across the room, Gwen was curled up in a chair with her laptop. Normally, that much distance would have indicated there had been a fight - but the space was more like a vacuum... one we'd been in for a long time.

On the television, a battle was being waged between the forces of good and evil. Something not entirely unlike the last nine or so minutes of my life. But a movie. Play-acting. Fiction.

I called out to Gwen, indicating the screen. She grunted in agreement, without looking up. When I insisted, she watched for only a second before rolling her eyes.

As the show went on, it occurred to me how absurd it really was. Ridiculous. Comical, even.

I broke into a fit of hysterical laughter...

------------

The ground shook violently, jolting me back into the room. I barely had time to focus, before squeezing my eyes shut, awaiting the kill-shot...

Off in the distance, Deacon Struck roared. Not rage. Pain.

Something burst through the floor; something that looked, for all the world, like a giant pincer...

The room shook again - harder this time. Gwen slipped away from me, out from behind the pillar. I scurried out after her, but she had already sprung at the Mullet, who had lost her footing when the building rattled.

Gwen pinned her down with her knees, and smashed the side of her fist against her ear. She punched like a girl, but it was enough to knock the Mullet out cold.

I wasn't sure whether I was really back, or if this was just a peek at some other alternate universe. When I pulled the phone out of my pocket, I realized that it had stopped throbbing. On the screen, it read: "Searching for Service..."

Panting, Gwen asked me "What's happening?"

I shrugged. Then it occurred to me that I should probably say something more.

"Hey... uh, thanks." I nodded towards the Mullet.

"Thank you for coming to save me."

"Sure."

With tears welling up in her eyes, she smiled at me. "I guess we make a pretty good team, huh?"

Next Ish: One Week Later!

38. Showdown at 5280 Feet (Part 2)

Like Spliff, the guards downstairs were all newbies. Cannon fodder, more or less. The last line of defense, in case anyone made it through the front entrance - where the big guns were stationed.

Spliff told them that my call had come from the Mullet, so they didn't question it when he told them they were being reassigned to the second floor, even though the second floor has been vacant for the last year and a half, awaiting remodel. The lab coats, for their part, were too absorbed in running the final tests on the converter to notice one more security guard stepping out of the shadows.

Once we were on the elevator, Spliff told me, "Luckily, we still had your retina on file. Dude, did you know about this 'optical scrambler' we've got? It can fry an intruder's synapses right inside their brain pan..."

"How's that, now?" I coughed.

"No, you're cool, man... I swapped our profile stats with a couple of bigwigs who're on a plane to Atlanta as we speak. We've got access anywhere in the building."

"So I'm trusting my synapses to your data entry skills," I mused, "well, that’s okay, I guess. Did you find anything out about Gwen?"

"Check it out: I was looking through the security logs for last night: no assignments for the top floor. Pretty weird, seeing as that's Vaig's executive suite, right?"

"We're going to his office? Are you sure that's where...?"

"Makes sense, doesn't it?"

No. But what does, these days? "What about Vaig?"

"Won't be here 'til eight. And he's going straight downstairs to make a statement to the press before activating the converter, himself." he said, rubbing the palm of his hand against his holster. Maybe it comforted him. "What do you wanna bet she's conscious, too. You know how Vaig likes his witnesses. Everybody's off the phones to watch the closed-circuit feed they're sending out to the news stations."

Innocent bystanders; added insurance, in case the Agency actually sent someone to try and stop Vaig. All those people, oblivious to the fact that history was about to change - retroactively.

But not Spliff and me. We knew exactly what was at stake. And we had convinced ourselves that somehow, that made us different from the rest of them.

--------------

Vaig's lair was a cross between a luxury hotel suite, and the lobby for a hotel that offered nothing but luxury suites. The top three floors of building had been gutted to make a single, open space. Mirrored windows curved elegantly into the high ceiling, creating a half-cylinder of one-way glass that looked out onto the Denver skyline. The view was wasted on Vaig: throughout the room, membrane-thin monitors hung from the ceiling.

In the far corner, above a well used wet bar, the largest screen was completely horizontal, pointing at the ground. On couch beneath it, we found Gwen bound-and-gagged with duct tape.

It maybe wouldn't have been the worst idea if we removed the tape from her mouth last. It was hard enough, just cutting her loose with a paring knife and corkscrew.

"Are you guys crazy? When will the Agency be -"

Admittedly, this probably wasn't the most opportune moment for me to plant a passionate, chock-full-of-tongue kiss on her mouth, but I was just so relieved to find her unharmed. Plus, I had sort of failed to mention to Spliff about my less than helpful conversation with AVI.

When her arms were finally free, she shoved me off the arm of the couch. "Wait! What's happening?"

Spliff pulled a clump of lint-y tape from her skirt. "We're going to pull the fire alarm, and get everybody out of here before the Agency strike force shows up."

"They better get here soon. I found an email from Vaig saying he's going to activate the Hyperconverter today."

"Yeah, we know," Spliff said, "they announced it on the news last night."

My hands were on her shoulders, directing her toward the elevator... but she wouldn't budge. "Wait, though... that doesn't make any sense. If the Agency knows what's going on, why aren't they already here?"

Spliff turned his head to me, tilting his head like a cocker spaniel. Busted.

I threw my arms up. "Okay, look - they'll be here, all right? I contacted them. I'm just not entirely sure whether or not they believed me." I said, looking at Gwen. "I just - even if they don't come - I couldn't leave you here."

The day before, she learned that not only was the hypercollider completed, but that Vaig was actually planning to use it, as well. And here I am, telling her that I'm the last thing she's gonna see before the end of the world. Honestly, that's the reason for the glaze over her eyes, regardless of what she says.

Spliff broke in, "Lets just hope they do show, and get this place cleared out."

"Exactly," I said, looking up at one of the news reports. Vaig was expected to arrive at any minute. "That's exactly what you need to do. Get down to one of the lower floors, somewhere there won't be too many guards, and... wait a few minutes before you pull the alarm."

"Joel...?" I had never noticed how much she could sound like my mother.

"I'm going to find Vaig." I answered, moving behind a lounge chair, so it would maybe block my way, if they managed to change my mind. "Confront him, man to man. Not fight. At least I hope not. I think I can reason with him. I think I understand him."

They started to protest, but I pushed my way to the elevator. "Just go, all right? I know what I'm doing..."

It seemed to be taking a long time, but then I realized that the doors had already opened, and I was facing a barrier within. A living, breathing slab of concrete that smelled like Old Spice and brimstone.

Gwen screamed as Deacon Struck ducked through the door.

"Lookee here... we got us a sheep that's lost its way," he grunted, the words dripping with a deep, southern drawl.

"What's going on?" From out of the man-mountain's shadow, Alton Vaig stepped into the room. It took him a second to recognize me, with the figures draped over my head. "Joel! Very nice," he was smiling, nodding his head, as if he was listening to a brand new U2 song on KBCO, "I am impressed, my friend. Please, have a seat. All of you."

When Vaig had crossed to his desk, the Deacon shoved me face-first into the ottoman that went with the couch that caught Gwen and Spliff when their knees buckled.

"Looks as though I'll have an audience, after all. All this acting in secret - it's not me. Know what I'm saying?" He called across the room. "Tim! Get your tubby ass in here and make me a drink!"

A few seconds later, Tim skulked into the room, white as a sheet. He walked to the bar, looking as shocked to see us as we were to see him.

"Yes sir," he stuttered, "you want...?"

"Scotch, neat,"  -then, before Tim could ask - "with no ice."

"But..." Gwen said, staring at the monitor overhead. 7news; showing an image of Vaig stepping behind the console downstairs.

"Pre-recorded. Alas. There'll be no revealing of my master plan this time. No speech." he sighed. Then he bounced his head a little, remembering something. "No chance of a last minute rescue. I'm learning."

"Did you kill him," Gwen asked, "Macguffin?"

"Of course not!" Vaig answered, clearly offended. "What I did was offer him a job. I learned of his unique employment history after acquiring a collection of Tesla's papers on the black market last year. Of course, human resources handles all the interviewing and that."

The Deacon didn't notice - or didn't care - that he was being talked about.

He stepped around his desk and touched something underneath. The floor opened, allowing a sleek console to rise up into the room, like the drum platform at a KISS concert. It was identical to the one on-screen.

Tim nervously handed Vaig his drink. He poured the contents of the glass down his throat, then called out, "Is everything ready?"

"We'll need another five minutes to calibrate the particle harmonics," a disembodied voice answered back.

"Fine. Loop the footage until then." He admired his image as it turned dials and pressed buttons. Then he looked over at us, as if remembering we were there.

"Oh, what the hell..." Walking around the console, he called out again, "Send a team of guards to my office, code red," With a wink to us, he added, "Just for old time's sake. My gift to you, Joel, for your effort here today. Pointless as it may be. But you put up a good show, and you deserve one in return."

I stood up out of my chair, surprised as anyone else in the room that I did so.

The Deacon looked to Vaig cautiously... but he was just watching me, an amused expression on his face.

"Wait," I said, "you can't do this. Look at what you've created here. There's no denying that you're one of - I mean, you're probably the greatest scientist of all time. If Alphamale or anyone else has kept you from achieving your goals in the past... whatever. Nobody can take what you have accomplished away from you. I know what it's like to feel like you're just some insignificant cluster of DNA, while gods are flying around overhead. But I'm learning to live with it. I'm learning to do what I can, when I can. You know, we really aren't so different, you and I."

The room was silent. Spliff and Gwen - maybe even the Deacon - they just watched me.

Vaig held his chin for a long time, deep in thought.
"Us, I mean." I added, helpfully.

Finally, he roared with explosive laughter. "Are you fucking kidding me? I am one of the ten wealthiest men in the world. I have an IQ of 286 - the same amount, in pounds, that I can curl, by the way. I've made love to 14 different women in a single night, their screams of ecstasy resulting in 14 separate calls to the authorities. And I am the greatest scientist of all time. If the cosmic fart that brought you into existence actually happens again, in my new timeline, you'll probably just... work for me! If you've learned nothing else in your pathetic life,  know this: we are absolutely, positively nothing alike. The only thing I've ever failed at in my life is ridding the world of the ridiculous 'heroes' who continue, over and over again, to overshadow the one who truly deserves the glory..."

"Amen."

Across the room, the Deacon looked solemn, his head bowed.

"Amen, indeed." Vaig responded, rolling his eyes for my benefit.

Just then, a team of fifteen security gaurds burst out of the elevator, surrounding us in a practiced formation. They kept their firearms close, except for the two men at either end of the line, who were poised on one knee, their rifles trained directly on us.

At the rear of the troops stood the commanding officer, her face the color of a bruised plum. The Mullet's burning glare was for me alone.

Vaig sighed. "Can you believe it? Nobody's coming. No Alphamale. No Ultraphenomenon. Not that I can blame them. I mean, this is flyover country. Nothing ever happens in Denver..." he called out to the ceiling again. "Control Room... go ahead and roll the speech. Everyone! Watch!"

The guards did as they were told, watching the monitors like they were guests at a Super Bowl party. Everyone except the Mullet; I could feel her eyes burrowing into me, as I watched Vaig's hand hover over a glowing red button, ready to drop...

And then: the sound of glass, shattering into a million pieces... and the entire world went horizontal.

Next Ish: Part 3!

37. Showdown at 5280 Feet (Part 1)

So everyone knows what happened next. At least, everyone seems to think that they do. But if I've learned one thing over the last couple of months, it's that you can't believe half the shit you read on those powerazzi sites.

If you want to hear the real story, you're only gonna get it from the people who were there. And not the players, either - the movers and shakers who've got an angle on the story and a horse in the race. You've got to talk to the regular people. The man on the street, who was just minding his own business, going about his day, when - POW! BIFF! BAM! - the whole world changed before his very eyes.

And if it seems like it's taking longer than it should for him to get to the point, with all the tangents and personal anecdotes? Well suck it up, baby - that's just what history is.

-------------------------------

There was no way I was just gonna stroll on through the front door. Not with all those hired guns on duty, every last one of them desperate to prove themselves worthy of "permanent placement". Not in this economy.

I was sucking down my ninth cup of coffee, listening to Spliff detail a plan that would've involved bribing a window washer and somehow breaking through the glass on one of the upper floors, when it finally came to me...

A couple of days before, there was a story on the news about the history of the Hyperconverter project; how the technology evolved from Tesla's original death ray, to the construction of the actual unit itself. Mostly just free publicity for Vaig Hyperspeed TV and Internet- but at one point, the attractive, Vaig-approved spokeswoman explained that they were so far ahead of schedule because a lot of the digging had already been done for them - over a century ago.

I knew a little bit about it, thanks to a sixth grade field trip to the Colorado History Museum. When were down on the lower level, our tour guide told us all about the intersecting network of tunnels that run beneath the city. Originally meant for transporting coal and wood when the snow was too deep on the roads, they were eventually utilized for more nefarious purposes: running booze during the prohibition, as a passageway for horny politicians who wanted to get from the Brown Palace to the brothel across the street. According to our guide, one of those tunnels was directly beneath our feet. Right there, under the museum.

The same Colorado History Museum that was leveled, just a few weeks earlier, so the city could build a brand new history museum not two blocks away. Because that's how we roll in Denver; always throwing a few more cranes up into the skyline, in order to make everything shiny and new again -- even our 'history'.

Maybe it's just the Freudian love affair for gaping, dark holes that's shared by all grown man-children, but I had been by that construction site a dozen times, to look through the fence at the giant crater where the building used to be. And there, along the sides of the sinkhole - burrowing into the earth, and even deeper, into the depths of my subconscious -was what remained of one of those old tunnels.

So I got to thinking: the construction site wasn't particularly secure... I could sneak into the tunnel first thing in the morning and make my way north. It was possible that they would've blocked off access to the converter itself, but I was working off the assumption that they may not have even bothered, considering most of the entrances were either already secured or forgotten a long time ago. And no matter what, it was better than sitting there, doing nothing at all to help Gwen. I would wear Spliff's spare uniform, and if I could at least get close enough - I'd call from my phone and have him help me find away in.

As he listened to my plan, Spliff's eyebrows started rolling across his forehead, like caterpillars on acid, the way they way they always do when he's deep in thought. "I don't know, man... those things are supposed to be a freakin' maze. Besides, you'd never be able to get a signal from down -" he stopped short, the caterpillar on the right making a sharp, inverted V, like it was yanked up by a fish hook. "Wait... you've got a company phone... right?"

Yeah, like I'm gonna pay for that shit when I can put it on the company dime.

--------------------------------

My spelunking gear consisted of a cheap Walmart flashlight, a compass (acquired during my two month stint as the World's Worst Boy Scout as a kid), and my cell phone.

The flashlight wasn't much of a help (the dusty grey walls were pretty much a given) and I think the compass was busted. The display on my phone showed the endlessly rolling dot dot dot..."Searching for Service".

Barely three blocks from the old museum site to the Vaig offices - but it took over an hour of wading through the blackness before I finally hit something. My first thought was that it was a dead end... but actually, the tunnel had veered, intersecting with another in a narrow X - which meant I had to make a choice.

I held my phone in front of me at arms length and walked down each passageways in turn: a few feet down and back, then the same thing with the other. Back and forth, going a little further each time.

According to Spliff, Hypeport-enhanced phone would be able to get some sort of signal (something about the standard cell signal being transmitted via "hyperspatial channels") - especially as I got closer to the mother-of-all cell towers. Which meant that I could use the signal strength to figure out just how close I was getting. "like looking for Easter baskets when you were a kid. You know, 'warmer... colder... coooolder... warmer...hotter..."

The display on my phone jumped. One bar. Two. Then back to just one...

It rang.

"Spliff...?"

"Where---? --- hurry --- we don't have m---"

"What? Are you there? Can you hear me?"

(dot dot dot...)

Fighting the urge to run, I moved carefully down the tunnel that the signal was coming from, navigating my way through two more forks-in-the-road and three more intersections - until finally, I had four full bars on my display.

When I tasted the hint of extra oxygen in the air, I was able to keep my cool - but when I finally saw a pin-prick of light hovering in the distance, I broke into a sprint.

Next thing I knew, I was face down in a pile of dirt - the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel" was in fact a small opening at the top of a pile of rubble blocking my way.

I clawed at the loose rock and dirt, each handful allowing more light to pour into the room, until  the opening was just wide enough for me to squeeze through.

On the other side, the paved floor I had been walking along grew uneven, as the mouth of the tunnel widened. Cracked tiles led me to where the old corridor had been ripped away altogether....

I found myself standing at the far corner of a massive chamber, solid ground a good 50 feet below me. Just a cave, really, with steel beams to keep the earth from falling in on itself.

I haven't picked up a copy of Popular Mechanics lately, but I'm guessing that Tesla coil technology has evolved quite a bit in the last hundred years: four enormous steel columns, the circumference of oak trees, reached up from the ground to a point just ten feet below me.

Without warning, the pillars roared to life, spitting violent arcs of lightning between them, throwing a searing wave of heat against my face. At first, I could see the stuttering light through my eyelids - but after a minute, the crackling din mellowed to a hum.

When I opened my eyes, the blinding zigzags had synchronized with with one another - straightened, like ends of a string pulled taught. Inside the glowing, silver frame, I thought I saw an image start to form, sort of like clouds floating together to make a bunny - but my sense of it sort of inverted after a minute... like I was the cloud, slowly breaking apart, to form something else...

Releasing another wall of heat, the sides of the square ripped away into their component parts, then vanished completely.

---------------------------------------------

It occurred to me that we had never actually discussed how it was that I would get past the people in the chamber; a fact which, in and of itself, gave me the willies. The truth is, I don't think either one of us thought I'd make it as far as I did.

The chamber was lit by halogen lamps hovering a few feet above the work floor - which would at least keep me hidden in the shadows. My only option was to scramble down the jagged walls, onto the network of scaffolding that the construction crew had left behind. While I wasn't exactly happy about it, I have had some experience on a rock wall before. Though, at the gym they've got ropes, and personal trainers, and all these little pulley things. And nobody's going to try and shoot you in the back when you're splayed up against the wall.

From the platform, I made out two people in lab coats standing at a sleek computer console. Other than that, there was only three security guards standing around. They seemed to be avoiding eye contact with each other, as if their assault rifles would fire at whatever they looked at for too long. They all looked nervous, "green" - one of them in particular just kept fidgeting with his cell phone.

It nearly flew out of this hand when I dialed him.

Tomorrow: Part Two!

36. Help Wanted

It's three in the morning. In just a few more hours, the sun will rise on the most important day of my entire life. I have to be at my best. Better than that, better than I've ever been before. I'm searching for an analog; something out of my own life that I can compare it to - however remotely.

Last year, on an otherwise completely uneventful evening, I bowled the first, the only, 300 of my life. Spliff was late, because he agreed to help these two underage girls look for a rave that they ultimately never found. So it was just me and the early-rush drunks, who wouldn't have cared, even if I unzipped my pants to mow the pins down with a laser-precise stream of urine. No matter - and no 'mind' (see what I did there? The 'Lama - he'd appreciate that). The ball, the pins, the Joel - a unified symphony, calling one-perfect note into existence, as if...

(...)

Alright, yes. Yes, that really is all I could come up with.

I am So. Fucked.

------------------

Twelve hours, six vodka tonics and one-whole lifetime ago, I found Tim in his office, clutching his hands to the edge of his desk, the way you would a toilet seat at the end of a long, sad night.

"Oh - you're here already. Little early...." he squinted hard at his watch, like he was trying to stop the flow of time.

"Maybe a hundred and twenty seconds, I guess. Can I close this?"

"No!" he yelped, snapping up from his chair, "No, really busy today. Not a lot of time. To talk." He approached, edging me away from door. He glanced outside, then threw in another "Busy" for good measure.

"Alright, but there's some things I wanted to talk about, too."

"Well. Yes, we do have some things to talk about," He was cordial, but curt. Stern but apologetic. And staring out the door the whole time. "your sick day a couple weeks ago..."

"My vacation day. Yeah?"

"Your vacation day was Thursday... you called in sick on Friday."

"Yeah, right. Whew. Goin' around. Call centers, man... one big giant petri dish." Stupid Buddhist ritual that can only be performed with the rising sun. "Maybe I should start taking some vitamin C." I nodded at the pharmacy's-worth of bottles filling the cabinet above his monitor.

"Alright, " he said, hopping over my transparent segue, "the thing is, that's considered a 'no-call, no-show'. Plus a tardy last month. Together with your write-up..."

"Write-up? But that was forever ago -"

"I know," he said sympathetically, "I know it was. And you've been doing really well on your calls lately..."

"Thanks. I promise I'll - "

"...but I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go."

I was halfway through my next apology before it registered. "Wait, hold on... you're firing me?"

"I know. I'm really sorry, but it's not my decision..."

"Oh, really? Well who's 'decision' is it then? Huh? Let me guess... straight from the top?" I said, using my middle finger to indicate 'upstairs'.

There was a friendly knock - shave-and-a-haircut - from behind me. "Are we all set here?"

The Mullet leaned casually against the frame, a self-satisfied grin stretching across her jowls.

I was mere seconds from a display of full-on belligerence and righteous indignation, but I noticed her adjusting the newest feature of her uniform: a not-small holster, velcroed to her belt. The sight of it brought our meeting to an abrupt, unquestionable end.

------------------

I yanked a fistful of bic pens out of a coffee cup as I was marched to the elevator - 'clearing out your desk' being the corporate equivalent of a last meal. The baited breaths, being held for when I was out of ear-shot, were vacuumed from the room when the silver doors split open.There, with head bowed, eyes peeking out from beneath that craggy brow - stood Alton Vaig.

I watched my shoes. Then the Mullet's holster. Then my shoes again. But I could tell he was looking at me from the directness of his voice. "Taking an early day?"

"Yeah, sorta..." I stammered. Then we all just stood there in that box: a diorama of class warfare in contemporary society. Me, the downtrodden 'have not', beside Vaig, the all-powerful 'have'. I'm not sure what the Mullet represented. Something real bad.

"Ah, I see..." he said, getting it (assuming, that is, that he wasn't already aware of my fate). "Joel, did you go to your high school reunion? You really ought to, some day. As far as 'reality checks' go, it's pretty painless. Though, if you've only seen them in the movies, you're in for a shock: captain of the basketball team? Just as fit as he's ever been. Oh, the prom queen? Contrary to the gossip, she isn't, in fact, an alcoholic who had a kid right after graduation. And if anything, she's an even bigger bitch since she retired from modeling to finish her PhD in medieval literature." - the doors split open with a ding, but he was on a roll, now - "Not everyone in this world has a destiny. But the truly great men? Nothing the world throws at them can keep them from reaching their station in life." he considered this for a moment, then added, "of course, those other kids... drama club set-painters, and the school newspaper reporters -  "

The elevator began buzzing impatiently, as the doors bounced repeatedly against the Mullet's forearm.

"Well," Vaig digressed, "just something for you to think about."

He didn't get off with us. He wasn't quite where he wanted to be.

Yet.
-----------------

Where u at? COME DOWN HERE!! when you have a break. You won't BELIEVE the size of the gat there giving me! - Spliff

Sitting at the bar of the Lancer, I pecked out a response on my phone.

--------------------

"Dude, I can't believe they actually escorted you out. I hate that bitch. Hey, you know what? We're still lookin' for..." he caught my expression over the rim of my glass "...oh, yeah. Right. Sorry."

I glanced at my phone, annoyed. A call from Gwen's mom's house. I was supposed to go there for dinner tonight. I couldn't even face Gwen after my day today - much less her family.

Spliff continued on, raving about his firearm - and I was actually listening to it. Or at least, I didn't stop him. Because, what else is there? Girls, Guns, music. Tall tales of drunken exploits past. It's not like this is the first time that Vaig would hold the world hostage. In the end, some hero always rises up to save the day.

The truly great men... nothing the world throws at them can keep them from reaching their station in life - On some level, I thought maybe even Vaig knows it.

"-we had a crash course today in shooting. They've got a firing range and everything, right down by the 'collider."

"Wait," I interrupted, "the 'hypercollider', collider?"

He nodded.

"Seriously - you've actually seen it. And all you want to talk about is your stupid gun? Tell me! What does it look like?"

"Huh. Not like much. Totally old-school. Ancient. Glass beakers and tubes, zig-zagging around two huge tesla coils, if you can believe it. Arcs of energy crossing each other. Obviously, there is an alloy plated corridor circling the parameter under the building, or they'd never be able to isolate the particles that have been causing the anomalies."

I stared at him, amazed. "Dude, what do you do for a living?"

"Uh, hello?" he made gun with his hand, cocking his thumb up-and-down. "Anyway, they want us to feel confident with our weapons, at Vaig's news-thing tomorrow."

Press conference? That's new. And with a full-guard to protect the prize.

Sometimes - pretty much all the time - I think Spliff is full of shit on the whole 'knowledge of science' thing. But every now and then, it seems like he actually knows what it is he's going on about.
"So - let me ask you: you know the whole wormhole-theory of malphysics?"

"A'yup," he said, taking a swig of beer.

"Okay, well, let's say that there was another event, another wormhole created, with the same conditions of the -"

"Reboot metaphysics," he said, anticipating the rest of my question.

New one on me. "Like, another Big Bang, or what?" I shrugged.

He rolled his eyes at my ignorance. "No, man... a reboot... of the entire space-time continuum, starting from precisely the point of the original malphysical event. A do-over. Back to the 'original system configuration'. But the original, original... it would cancel out the first wormhole. No warping of the laws of physics."

"No more superheroes..." I mused - not a question.

"A'nope."

"But, is that the accepted theory? Like, the Theory of Relativity, or Macguffin's 8 Known Forces? Does everyone pretty much know it?"

He shrugged, "Everybody but you, looks like."

I focused, collapsing the double-image-Spliff back to a shaky almost-normal. "Wait, though. Wait -- why would anybody even want to do that?"

"Who says anybody did? But, whatever, its not like you can go to Home Depot and pick up everything you need to build a wormhole. And even if you could, nobody knows the specs of the original. Besides, it's not time travel, where you know what you're trying to change. It's right back to the start. I mean, if you were conceived after the original wormhole - well, who knows if you would be again, in the new timeline."

Slowly but surely, my universe was shifting back to normal again; meaning, I had the answer that Spliff was ignorant of.

- nothing the world throws at them can keep them from reaching their station in life -

Can that really be right, though? And how can he be so confident that his very existence is such a sure shot?

But then I realized - his statement wasn't some testable hypothesis. This was something that runs way deeper than that -

The gall. The balls. The grade-A, uncut megalomania.

Pure Alton Vaig.

----------------

When we left the bar, all I wanted was to sleep it off. Hell, first morning after getting fired? Most people wouldn't blink if they found out you slept right through to the next day. Wake me up when they save the world. Or don't, if its gonna end.

Spliff and I were just about to go our separate ways when I checked the time on my phone. One new voicemail.

It was Gwen's mom in an absolute panic. Gwen never made it there for dinner. I was about to call her myself, when I noticed a text from earlier that I missed.

J, will pick you up late. Think i'm getting really close to something here -- <3, G.

-------------------

Yeah - close.

Seriously, I don't know what I was thinking. I should have yanked her out of IT the second I found her. Or stayed with her. Or at least called her after I was out of the building to make sure she was okay. But now, I'm left watching the clock until go-time, wondering: if she was caught snooping around, would Vaig keep her on hand, to witness the execution of his master plan? Or would he not even bother, just-

-no. Nope. Not even gonna go there.

Twenty-four hours before the police will file a missing persons report. And they seem really annoyed when you ask, like you should have known better, for how many times it's been mentioned in the movies.

Spliff and I headed back to my place, where I filled him in - at long last - on everything. It took a couple of hours, but - we've come up with a plan. And we've got it down pat. And the plan is... good. I mean, its not one of those plans that's all based on 'split-second timing', or anything like that. We don't even know all the details of the press conference tomorrow.

But I do know this: Vaig won't do anything without the requisite speechifying. And threats. And the standard declaration of 'I've got the upper hand, all the cards, and the biggest wiener'.

So yeah. The plan makes sense to us, anyway.

Though, it is 4:30 in the morning.


Next Ish: Showdown at 5280 Feet!
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