This wasn’t supposed to happen. Someone of my stature bringing down the Red Ray. But here I am, frozen over the body, hand outstretched, still expecting him to spring up and punch me before uttering some stupid one-liner.
“He’s dead,” I say again. The other Acolytes step out from their hiding positions in the warehouse. People emerge from behind crates and columns; the two with broken bones on the floor stop moaning and sit up.
“Holy hell, old-Freddy-o, I didn’t know you had it in you!” Jimmy Derman says, slapping me on the back so hard I almost fall onto the Red Ray’s corpse.
“I . . . I can’t believe I . . .”
The last time one of the Super Powers died, it was because he flew too close to the sun while diverting the trajectory of an atomic bomb.
“Don’t you just feel like a blister on a cow’s butt now, Mr. Red Ray?” Jimmy says, either hamming up his Texas accent for us or just finding it impossible to avoid. I’m supposed to call him Acolyte Krrsnal, but no one calls him anything but Jimmy. “Let’s see who he is for real.”
Here’s his second chance to come back. The hero never lets his mask come off. Once, in Rome, Blind Sniper shot Red Ray in the face with a corrosive substance to dissolve the mask. Within two minutes, Red Ray was punching people wearing a plastic bag over his head.
Jimmy must think that, too, because he pauses as he reaches for the mask. But there’s no movement, except for the blood from the neck wound. And the latex hood slips right off, to reveal . . .
Actually, I don’t recognize him. So much for the reveal.
“Who’s this asshat?” Jimmy asks. Before we can guess, there’s a screeching voice from behind us: the Black Skull.
“What the hell happened here?!” he yells. We stop and turn. He’s almost as horrifying as the Red Ray, and he shoots ornery henchmen. Then again, the Red Ray once dropped Acolyte I’oree off a crane, paralyzing him, so maybe bullets aren’t so bad. ‘I never kill,’ the Red Ray used to say. Well screw him.
I kneel reverentially next to the Ray’s corpse and say, “I killed him, Master. Your hated enemy is dead.”
“You . . . what?!”
“I killed the Red Ray!” I hold out my palms upturned, the way we’re supposed to before the Black Skull.
“You?! You’re not worthy!”
“What?” I say, fear thick in my quavering voice. To be honest, I kind of thought he’d be like this, but I’d hoped not.
“I said he wasn’t for you to kill. He was mine! I was supposed to unravel his mind and destroy all he cared about before murdering him myself! Don’t you understand?”
Looks like a bullet for me.
“You . . . you told us to kill him if he broke into your lair . . .”
“I meant figuratively! I needed him for the Apocalypse, you fool.”
“I’m sorry, I thought — ”
The Black Skull places his hand upon his forehead, or I guess his frontal bone since ‘forehead’ makes me think of someone with flesh.
“Get out of here, Fred.”
“I’m Acolyte Tu’ — ”
“Fred, just leave,” he says, not looking up or anything. No pistol and evil laughter; no pit with dogs as he rips up my contract; he’s not even threatening me. This isn’t fair.
“But sir, what about the Ascension?”
“I’ll email you.”
“But I swore — ”
“When the stars are right, I’ll send you an email. Until then, get out of my sight.”
And just like that, I’m walking to the warehouse door with my chin on my chest, leaving the cult I consider my family. Not even a chance to collect my things from my locker.
I wouldn’t wish killing a superhero on my worst enemy.
Normal people shouldn’t have to do great things. It’s not fair. That should be for the prepared, the initiated. I was prepared to play a part, but it was supposed to be small. I’m just a dude. My creation story is that I met some weird people after switching majors from kinesiology to comparative religions. I’m not ready for this.
I’m at the funeral. It’s raining like it always does at funerals. Why is that?
This time it’s because of the Rain Maker. That’s his power. He’s standing by the coffin crying and gesturing to the clouds. So I guess that’s the answer to that question.
I’m just some dude, and I’m standing in a crowd ten people deep as they talk about Michael Johnston, the Red Ray. Turns out the guy we didn’t recognize was some kind of famous journalist. I don’t read the newspapers. Kind of hard to when you spend most of your days underground planting explosives. Read lots of Reddit, though. Great stuff on there.
The priest says he wrote about himself. He won all kinds of awards for his coverage of the Red Ray. What a jerk. I could write an expose about Acolyte Tu’yarath. Well . . . I could have, before the Black Skull took away my name and sent me out into the normal world where if you cut a coworker’s finger off for screwing up they sue you.
I can’t stop looking at Ray’s family. There are three: his wife and two children. The girl looks almost exactly like him. She has his obnoxious forehead, that’s obvious. She’s a little JFK Jr., composed and straight-faced, her red eyes giving away the morning’s tears.
And the boy has the super jaw. He’s probably going to grow up to don the Red Ray costume. His jaw is perfect for the mask. You don’t need powers to shoot ray guns, just a strong jaw line. Maybe he’s looking around the crowd, wondering which of us did it, thinking, “Vengeance will be mine!” I guess that’s something villains say. But he might be thinking it.
Seeing his wife is what hurts the most. I had a girlfriend before the Acolyte vows. But she wouldn’t have cared if I’d died, I don’t think. Not like this. Ray’s wife’s lips are curled; she’s grimacing so hard you could mistake it for revulsion.
But I know it’s sadness. Even from here, through the Rain Maker’s gray, noisy curtain, I can hear her sobs, like she’s choking, even dry-heaving. I ruined her life. Forever and ever. She’ll be someone new when she leaves this cemetery, and it won’t be someone brimming with joie de vivre.
“Hey, Fred, what are you doing here?” someone whispers.
I don’t need to look behind me to recognize Jimmy’s accent, but I turn anyway. There’s a whole group of the Acolytes here, all in black suits instead of their robes. Only one is wearing his Acolyte ring; I guess people figured it was a little gaudy. Or conspicuous.
As I turn to my colleagues, I notice something. Half the people in suits or black skirts are surprisingly . . . muscular. The tight, bulging muscles of the men are almost ripping through their button-down shirts. I swear there’s a guy whose muscles are jiggling gently under the fabric, causing his shirt to flow like an American flag in the wind. As for the women, their dresses present a sea of cleavage and most of them have almost identical, cheerleaderesque faces. My god. I’m surrounded by Powers.
“I just came to . . .” I start. I don’t know why I came, so I trail off. I look into Jimmy’s eyes. I’m giving him some crazy, desperate stare, I realize. My eyes ask him to take me away from here, from everywhere.
And so he does. He says, “Hey, I’m fixing to get a cup of coffee. You want to join me?”
“Sure, Jimmy,” I say. “That’d be great.”
He puts his hand on my back. Good guy, Jimmy. Together, we leave the cemetery. No one says goodbye or interrupts the sermon to ask how we’re doing. Not that they should. I’m sure the Powers know we’re just goons.
Across the street, it’s a sunny day; the Rain Maker’s powers stop just outside the cemetery fence.
“Dude, this is too heavy,” I say as we approach the coffee shop we used to get drinks at after our plans were foiled or fell through due to mismanagement. “I’m done. I’m done being a villain.”
“What are you going to do?” Jimmy asks.
I shrug, but I do have one strange idea.
“When I was a kid, my parents made these porcelain horsies,” I say. “Maybe I’ll do that.”
“Are you seriously saying you’re going to quit the cult and paint horses?”
“I’m not quitting,” I say. “The boss doesn’t me around anymore. Anyway, it’s not just painting. It’s a whole process. You’ve got to make the mold, fire them . . .”
“Yeah. The horsies.”
“Look, man, this villainy stuff, maybe it’s not my destiny. I thought killing a superhero would be good — ”
“You!” a woman’s voice shouts. “You’re the one who killed the Red Ray?!”
I twist around and don’t see the speaker. There’s no one around us. Jimmy’s twisting, too. Then we see her. The Incredible Stretching Woman. All we can see are her head and elongated neck peeking around a fencepost. Her body’s back at the funeral.
You know, I understand super strength and being able to jump high, but I never understood her. Does she have bones? If not, where’s her bone marrow? Does it just float around inside of her? How does she produce blood cells? Or does she, like, have a totally different immune system than us? If so, did she gain not only elastic skin but a completely new immune system and way of storing nutrients all from some stupid experiment with rubber?
Anyway, this is bad.
“Uh oh,” Jimmy says. The head disappears as quickly as it appeared, snapping back to its body no doubt, starting the game of whisper-down-the-alley.
“You’ve got to go, Jimmy,” I say. He shakes his head ‘no,’ but his eyes are darting around and he can’t make eye contact with me. I’m sure he’s thinking, You’re right. I say, “No use getting your ass kicked for an idiot like me.”
“Fred, I respect that you killed — ” Jimmy starts. But the air’s filled with a low rumbling, as though the Rain Maker decided to add some thunder and lightning to the mix. We turn to the cemetery . . . and it isn’t lightning we see. Through the gray rain, we see a gray shape moving our way. Stone Brute. When he changes, his skin becomes stone. I think part of his brain turns, too, because he becomes angry, unreasonable, and sometimes murderous. And he’s charging at us.
The thunder grows louder. Jimmy and I are too terrified to move. I keep thinking, The fence’ll slow him down. We’ll have time to escape.
But he doesn’t pause at the fence. Like, I’m not sure if he notices there is a fence. It bends before his weight as if on its own free will, and he keeps rushing us.
“Go!” I say, but before Jimmy can move, Stone Brute’s arm connects with Jimmy’s chest. Jimmy moans and is airborne in a moment. I don’t know if he’s okay or not, because he ends up on the roof of the coffee shop and I can’t see him. I can’t see him because Stone Brute is lifting me into the air by my tie. I’m being hanged by my tie.
Two feet off the pavement, I swing my legs and clutch at my throat. My last words are, “Gack, ack, gack.”
“Stoney,” someone says. “Put him down.”
It’s Admiral Atlantis from the League! He’d never let Stone Brute kill a human. But Stoney’s not listening, and I’m still hanging here, choking.
I slip my fingers between the tie and my neck. It’s so taught I feel like my fingernails are ripping off. I jerk outward, and the tie falls off. I land on my ass.
As my vision clears, I see Stoney’s lips jammed outward in a pouty face and Admiral Atlantis shaking his finger at him. There are a few other super types around him. Not sure who. Too rainy. Eyes too foggy. Thank God Admiral Atlantis showed up.
“You can’t kill him here,” Atlantis says. I shake my head. Of course not. The League doesn’t kill. “Too many witnesses. Let’s take him to the Red Ray’s cave. We can bury him there. That’s what Johnston would have wanted.”
“Wait,” I say. “What?”
The last thing I see is the blue, gloved fist of Admiral Atlantis heading for me.
I can’t see anything. Well, I can see one thing. It’s Atlantis’s blue chest, pressed up against my face. He’s reaching above me. He’s handcuffing me to a pipe or something a few feet overhead. He smells like brine.
“He’s awake,” a voice says. It seems to happen in my head. It must be Eternity Ghost; he projects his thoughts into your brain. I used to be scared of him, but it’s hard to be scared of someone you’ve worked alongside, or against, for so long. Once, he had some kind of disease from the Seventh World and he couldn’t control which thoughts he projected into your brain. Hard to take someone seriously after you know he’s afraid of getting an erection in his tights.
Atlantis jerks back and stares at me. His face is still so close to mine I can’t tell who else is in the room. But I know we’re not alone.
“Who are you?” he asks, his voice raw, like he’s been screaming in anguish and mourning for days. Like if Ben Affleck played some kind of character who spent the whole movie yelling at people about his dead mother. Like, I don’t know, if Christian Bale played a dude who got trained by monks, then had to kill the monks. That kind of raw voice.
“I’m Acolyte — I mean Fred Tully.”
“He said he’s an Acolyte,” Eternity Ghost says in my head. Somehow his voice sounds raw and gravely too. But how can someone who isn’t actually speaking hurt their voice? “Are you one of the Black Skull’s people? Did he put you up to this?”
I try to answer, but Admiral Atlantis is choking me too hard. Finally, he releases me. I drop to my knees, almost tugging my arms out of the sockets. Now I’m dangling here, and I’m not going to cry in front of the assholes who are going to kill me even though they always swear they don’t kill humans. Not going to cry, not going to cry.
Ah, screw it.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to but it just happened look I’ve tried to hit him a thousand times with my Acolyte Dagger and he always blocks it or melts it or catches it and throws it back into my leg and I didn’t expect to kill him and Black Skull told me to but I didn’t want to and Black Skull was mad at me even though he told me to do it and seriously like I didn’t mean to do it I mean I saw his wife and kids dude and they were crying and all kinds of stuff I mean I don’t even want to be a villain anymore I just want to paint h — I mean I’m so sorry I’m so so so so sorry,” I say. Something like that. I’m saying it through sobs; even I miss some of what I say.
“You’re . . . you’re nothing more than a goon,” the Incredible Stretching Woman says. “A minion.”
“Yeah, goon,” I say.
“Someone like you wasn’t supposed to kill the Red Ray,” she says, her face stretching into a goblin-like snarl on the emphasized words.
“Words hurt too, you know?” I say as the tears fade.
“Shut up,” Stoney says. And when that big brute speaks, you listen.
“So it really was just an accident,” Admiral Atlantis says. “No greater plan. Not the beginning of the Black Skull’s Ascension, or the ghost of the murderer who killed the Red Ray’s parents back for one last crime. Just a stupid accident where some stupid little minion killed one of the best of us.”
“Dude, I’m right here,” I say.
Admiral Atlantis steps away and I see the incredible array of machinery in the Red Ray’s lair. I know I’m supposed to say “Ray Cave.” But how come only villains have lairs? It’s like a dirty word or something.
The Red Ray wasn’t kidding around; he’s got some of the most impressive computers I’ve ever seen. Things I didn’t know existed. Holograms of heroes and villains scattered around the cave like icons on a desktop, hundreds of monitors, and ray guns of all sizes and shapes.
“Stoney, Eternity Ghost, find a room in this cave to dispose of our guest,” Admiral Atlantis says. “Far from the equipment, and far from the entrance. Cherokee Scout, wait here with the goon while Stretch and I charge up the Red Ray’s red ray and have a heart-to-heart about grief.”
“Yes sir,” a chorus of voices says, and I hear hurried footsteps around me. I’m left with the awkward Cherokee Scout, his bow slung over his shoulders, his feathers . . . I mean, he’s wearing feathers. What the hell with this guy.
In college, my roommate and I used to smoke pot and talk about the Supers. My roommate was half Caddo, half some other tribe I’ve taken too many blows to the head to remember. And he hated Cherokee Scout. Said he gave American Indians a bad name. ‘Why can’t a native have just like normal superpowers? Why does he have to have Super-Indian powers? I bet that dude’s not even Cherokee.’
Yeah, Cherokee Scout. I may be a white dude, but I can still be pissed for my friend.
So as soon as I’m alone with him, I ask, “Cherokee Scout? What’s up with you, anyway? Are you actually Cherokee?”
He doesn’t look, but he says, “My grandfather was a Cherokee princess.”
“Uh . . . okay. So what’s your power? Like you’re just really good at being American Indian, or what?”
“Shut up. What do you know about me?”
He’s ready to punch me. And you know what? Why not let it go down this way? It’ll be faster than whatever torture they’re planning.
“I know there are some American Indians who know things besides whether deer poop is fresh or not. My college roommate was half Caddo, and he rocked kinesiology.”
“What the hell are you implying?!”
“Hey, relax,” I say. “I’m just saying, it’s a surprise you made it through the Continuity Crisis in the 1990s, that’s all I’m saying.”
He punches me, and I feel a tooth break loose. But he’s no Red Ray. That was a guy who could punch.
We studied a lot about superheroes in college, about how obnoxious they are, how racist, how problematic. Bunch of big establishment jerks in tights. In the old days, they wouldn’t even hire a superhero who was ethnic unless his power was being, like, really ethnic. In fact, turns out a lot of those supposed ‘ethnic’ superheroes were European . . .
“You ever hear of Ancestry.com?” I ask. “Maybe you should try it; in a couple of weeks maybe you’ll be calling yourself the Polish Scout or something.”
Cherokee Scout punches me again, and this time something breaks. But not something in me. His punch pushes me so far backward the pipe I’m tied to breaks. It collapses and water pours into the cave and I’m on the floor.
“What the — ” Cherokee Scout starts. Asshole. I bet his grandfather was a Polish princess. I’ve got a little bit of momentum, and though I’m too weak to fight, a minion is never too weak to run.
I push myself to my feet. I’m standing, standing after a beating from half the League. And I’m running, running about four feet before Stone Brute appears in front of me. The other League members stand behind him.
I stumble backward and my arms reach out to brace my fall. But I’m at the main computer terminal; I’m not falling. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a big red button. It’s labeled ‘Alarm.’ It’ll go off and I can get away from these leotard-clad sociopaths. I slam my hand on it as hard as I can, which is unnecessary, because it’s not like it’s encased in glass. But where’s the fun in gently pressing a big red button?
“Initiating defense sequence,” the computer says in a silky, feminine voice. All sorts of lights and dials start flashing and buzzing; red sirens emerge from the top of the computer and wail like we’re in some kind of death camp.
“Analyzing threat,” the computer says. “Computer detects presence of League members without the Red Ray. Threat is League members turned rogue.”
“Huh,” Admiral Atlantis says. “I guess Red had a contingency plan for us.”
“Kill all League members,” the computer says.
“Huh,” Admiral Atlantis says. “That’s a problem.”
“Wait, the Red Ray is dead! We’re here to — ” the Incredible Stretching Woman starts. Then the rays start. The first ray fires from a massive cannon-like device beside the computer. It hits a mirror in the ceiling, bounces off, hits another mirror, bounces off . . . and it’s continuing around the room, so quickly anyone who tries to leave will be shredded. Every time it bounces, it triggers another blast of the ray, another deadly red dart.
A wicked hum fills the room, almost as loud as thunder, almost like Stoney’s howl at the cemetery. But this has the unwavering sound of the mechanical.
“Target acquired,” the computer says.
A pair of, I don’t know, like, clamps on a thick chain drops from the ceiling; they snare the Incredible Stretching Woman around her neck and jerk up again, stretching her fifteen feet tall. There’s the zap of a ray gun, and she splits in the middle. She’s so taught the separate halves bounce away from each other and end up rolled like Fruit Roll-Ups. And I can’t see any bones in there, so that answers that.
“Jane!” Admiral Atlantis shouts, reaching for her.
Oh God, I realize. I’m going to have to go to another funeral.
“Target acquired,” the computer says. Another ray, this one less focused and more like an animation of sound waves, radiates from the computer. It surrounds Admiral Atlantis. He puts his hands up to fight, but can’t do a thing. It’s – oh god, it’s draining the liquid out of his body. It’s desiccating him right in front of me!
I look away, to Eternity Ghost, who’s floating toward the computer. Stoney’s there too, smashing screens and ripping at wires, but none of it does anything.
“Rays can’t destroy me, Red Ray,” Eternity Ghost says.
“Target acquired,” the computer says. This time, there is no ray. Rather, one of the mirrors flips over, revealing a sheet of smooth obsidian on its other side. The obsidian begins glowing.
“No!” Eternity Ghost shouts. “Not the Eternity Trap!” He, too, lifts his hands to fight, but his hands are already being sucked away like dust towards a vacuum. The moment he’s gone, one of the bouncing rays slams into the obsidian, which shatters into a thousand pieces.
The loud humming stops. It’s quiet in the cave. Even Stone Brute has stopped smashing. Maybe he finally hit the right button.
“Stone-pulverizing ray charged,” the computer says. “Target acquired.”
Another red ray, thick as an oak tree, and Stoney explodes into thousands of shards. The rocks fly around the room, shattering more computers, cutting my arms and face, raining over the bodies.
I don’t expect to survive, but eventually, the rain stops, and there I am, bodies all around me. I’m the only one standing, though I’m not actually standing. I’m sitting with my knees pressed against my chest. I’m rocking back and forth. I don’t know when I got into this position. I didn’t even see Cherokee Scout die, but at some point the ray from some ray gun got him, and now they’re all dead.
“Analyzing threat,” the computer says. “League neutralized. One hostile remaining. Non-powered. Lethal force not authorized on non-powered targets. Escort from premises.”
By ‘escort,’ the machine apparently meant ‘gas and eject,’ because I wake up in soft, wet grass and the cave entrance is nowhere to be seen.
I’m bleeding, I’m sore, and in the last three days, I’ve killed like ten percent of the Super Powers on the planet. And I’m not happy about it. This was never supposed to happen. Slowly, I stand. Breathing hurts both my neck and chest. My mouth is throbbing. I’m missing more than six teeth. I’m going to go paint some damn horsies.
ISAAC TEILE lives in Austin and feeds lots of stray cats. Follow him on Facebook or Tumblr (arqueogato.tumblr.com).