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“I’m sorry? Are my eardrums filled with wax? What was that?”
“Oh, screw you, you heard what I said.” Jessica hated to admit it, and maybe it was just because of how jarring it was, but Wilbur sounding genuinely angry was unnerving. She wondered if he understood this, because he took a moment to calm himself before continuing. “Look, we can’t sit here and argue while Nisa is being held by that maniac. I need your help because she needs both of us. Okay?”
“Hmph.” Jessica hung up and squeezed her phone. Her instinct was to just walk away, but Wilbur was right. Nisa needed them both. And if Nisa’s life wasn’t in danger, she realized, she would have just been pissy because she was petty. That just made her madder.
“Nice to see you again Jeff,” she spat behind her as she stormed out of the building. Wilbur was leaning on a red BMW 3-series, certainly a nice car but it didn’t scream multi-millionaire. Neither did his t-shirt and jeans. “Going for the Zuckerberg look?”
“Going for the drooling toddler look?” he batted back. She looked down and oh God she had made a mess of her shirt. Feeling the blood rush to her face, she got into the passenger’s seat as fast she could. As Wilbur started to drive, she picked at the skin she’d half-chewed off her lower lip.
“I, uh. I guess should say I’m. You know. Sorry for the way I’ve been treating you.”
For a just moment, Wilbur took his eyes off the road to look at her. “Wow, you really must not be feeling good.”
Jessica winced and bit her tongue. You deserved that one. “I mean it. Ever since you saved my ass from those loan sharks I’ve done been nothing but a bitch to you. You’re a little – okay, maybe a lot weird, but you’re a nice guy. I just hate depending on people.”
“Then I guess it’s fine that I’ll be paying Nisa’s rent. But thank you.” He waited until pulling up to a red light to speak again, drumming the steering wheel. “When I first started the vigilante thing, I got beaten up. A lot. Shot, stabbed, kicked the crap out of. If it weren’t for Jeff I’d be in jail, and if it weren’t for Fritz I’d be dead. Where would you be without Nisa?”
A litany of unpleasant images paraded through her mind’s eye. How easily she could have ended up a junkie, whoring herself out, or dead in some gutter. Or maybe in one of Skinnyman’s labs with Martha poking a needle in her eye.
“Nowhere good,” she mumbled.
“We all need people, Jessica. We’re social animals. Just because you came out of a test tube doesn’t make you any different. Er, at least in that regard.”
“Wow, thanks,” Jessica snorted. When Wilbur frown, she put a hand out. “Relax, I meant it. Thanks.”
Mercifully Wilbur said nothing else the rest of the trip, allowing her to slump in her seat and steal a couple dozen minutes of peace she probably didn’t deserve. Wilbur nudged her out of a half-doze when they reached their destination – the lowest level of a public parking garage.
“Hmph.” It was a question more than a statement. He jumped out of the car and led her to a foreboding sign on a concrete wall next to a steel door – three upside-down yellow triangles inside a black circle with the words ‘fallout shelter’ below.
“My grandfather had this built in the 70s in case the bomb ever went off. Didn’t feel like Blackburn had enough shelters to protect its citizens. To be fair, most of us would die in the event of thermonuclear war, but-” noticing her raised brow, he smiled. “Eh, don’t worry, I’d be able to open it remotely in that event. At least some people would make it.” He glanced around before punching a code into the keypad next to the door. There was a soft click, then the door retreated much faster than anything built in the 70s could.
The interior looked more like a luxury condo than something the unwashed masses would cower in during the end of the world. A spacious center room made of steel and glass branched off half a dozen times into rooms unseen. A ladder, some paint buckets and many empty water bottles were strewn about, but whoever was renovating had had time to paint something on the ceiling depression – Blackburn Mavericks, est. 2023, certified National Association of Volunteer Crimefighters organization.
“Still working on a logo. Thought a horse would be cool but I don’t want to get a cease and desist letter from the NBA… Hey, where are you going?”
Jessica turned from the door. “Whatever Don Quixote shit you have planned, count me out.”
Wilbur crossed his arms. “Okay, and what’s your plan? Get arrested for aimlessly beating the crap out of people, or get killed by Skinnyman’s goons first?”
“Oh come on, that’s a low blow.”
“No, really. What’s your plan?”
She looked away. “… I’ll think of something.”
Wilbur rolled his eyes. Impotent anger and shame grounded her in place. “Call me melodramatic, but this is your chance. You can work with me, under the auspices of the police, or you can get yourself killed. But hey, at least you’d prove how much of a badass loner you are.”
Jessica scrunched her nose. “I’m not a badass. Badasses don’t let their friends get kidnapped. Badasses actually contribute something to society. Why do you want me?”
“Wait one second for me…” Wilbur retreated into one of the rooms for a few seconds and returned with his gauntlets. “This is where my ‘powers’ come from. Break my belt and I’m nothing but a bulletproof Zuckerberg. You’re the clone of one of the most powerful photokinetics I’ve ever heard of.” He shrugged. “Besides, fighting crime is just a more… extreme form of altruism. Think of it as paying back your debt to society.”
Christ, the entire thing was stupid, her standing in that overdone man-cave with Wilbur and his toy gloves. The fact that he was making sense made it even worse. He put his hands on his hips, waiting expectantly.
“What am I supposed to say?! Up, up and away?” She slammed the door shut. “Okay. Fine. Let’s do this. But I swear if you try and make me wear a cape I’ll strangle you with it.”
“Great!” He clapped his hands together. “A few things before we begin our Eye of the Tiger montage. In addition to paying Nisa’s rent, I’m also getting a few guys to swing by there and upgrade your security. A steel-reinforced front door, bulletproof videos, a security camera, gotta make it Skinnyman-proof. It’s something I should have done months ago. Second, you know how I bought the Witch’s Brew? We need some people, and I know you need a job.” Seeing the look on her face, he put a finger out. “Ah ah, don’t feel like you owe me anything. It’s just what friends do.”
Well. I guess we’re friends now. “Thanks. Guess that saves me the trouble of buying a gun.”
“Yeeeeeah, let’s not do that.” He walked over to a door and gestured with his head for her to follow. “Now I know that your technique is pretty rusty, but you still have a lot of latent potential. I think we should test your range first.” Pushing the steel door revealed what looked like a gym in the back, complete with your standard assortment of exercise machines, and a range to the left. Wooden targets dotted the back of the room, but Wilbur hurried over to the closet and dragged out a gel dummy.
“Ugh, does it really need all the fake organs and everything?” Jessica asked.
Laughing, Wilbur hoisted it upright. “I watched too much Mythbusters as a kid. So from what Nisa told me, you can only control light when the amount of photons is low enough?”
She nodded. “Anything too intense, I can’t make sense of.”
Wilbur went back into the closet and rummaged for a tape measure. He extended it back as far as it could stretch from the dummy before dimming the lights. “Could you stand ten feet back? Good. Alright, let him have it.”
Well, that was vague. Guess he just wants to see it in action. Using her powers in a clinical setting rather than a street fight was making her feel dirty and nervous. Her powers were intense, but far from elegant. She had to get creative. The mental image of a monster taking the dummy into its maw came to mind. Running with it, she attempted to weave the shape from photons. The result was what looked like an invisible hand holding up and molding a dark clay statue of a venus fly trap. The two foot construct clamped down on the dummy, shook it around, and tossed it a good five feet.
“Whoa!” Wilbur gave a round of applause. “That was awesome!” She tucked a hair behind her ear and shrugged. Wilbur hauled the dummy back to its original spot. “Think you can do it at fifteen feet?”
She repeated the process at fifteen and twenty feet, both times the construct getting smaller and the toss becoming shorter. By the time she backed up to twenty-five feet, she was sweating from the mental exertion.
“Come on, come on…” The monster image had burned into her synapses, but trying to manipulate particles at this distance was like a toddler trying to steer a probe onto an asteroid. A pitiful four-inch Pac-Man was all she could muster before letting out her breath. “I can’t. I think my range is somewhere a little north of twenty feet…”
“Hey, that’s plenty good. The range on my gloves is only ten.” Wilbur was also sweating from carrying the dummy around, but that didn’t stop him from dragging out a wooden barrier. “I also wanted to test your range when your vision is blocked. Can you really move light you can’t see?”
Jessica took a breath as she sized up the barrier. “If I have a good idea of what’s behind it.” That she did, but like a fatigued muscle, that part of her brain didn’t want to work anymore. Wilbur put a hand to his chin as he watched the transient shapes flicker in and out of existence. She spat out a bead of sweat. “Fuck, I can’t…”
It’s always excuses with you, Jessica. If she hadn’t remembered her mother’s clinical sneer, she would have thought that voice was her own. Had it been that cold in there? Why can’t you be strong, like your sister? She grit her teeth like a wolf, an angry wolf staring down its prey. Oh God brain hurts keep pushing rip it to shreds-
“Whoa!” Wilbur lept back as the dummy barrelled into the board. It didn’t do any damage but toppled it with ease. Jessica fell into a squat, pressing against the veins in her head so they wouldn’t explode. Wilbur took his time approaching.
“If Rebecca didn’t see the potential in you, then she didn’t know what she was missing.”
“Argh, can I go kick Martha’s ass now?” she wheezed, stretching her neck. Wilbur laughed.
“Love the enthusiasm but we have to actually find her first. In the meantime, Fritz can hook you up with some mean threads. I’ve got something I need to take care of first…”
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