Shortcircuit V1 C8

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Wilbur poked the innards of the defibrillator gloves with a soldering iron, one earbud keeping him focused with electronic tunes. Fritz had guilted him into helping replace the prototype he’d taken, with so many municipal governments looking to purchase the devices when they were ready for production. At least it gave him something productive to do until his next board meeting.

 

He’d always been more like his grandfather than his father. Hans Scholz had started the company from nothing, starting in his garage shed after having moved from the fatherland after the war. His father, Joshua, was more of a hard bargaining salesman, the public face needed to expand Hans’ legacy. Dad never really understood while he prefered dealing with machines to people.

 

Fritz walked over and sat a bottle of water on the workbench. “I really do appreciate it Wilbur. Between this, that armor Ryan’s working on and of course my magic toaster, we’re going to be looking at a really solid couple of quarters coming up.”

 

“Seriously, what’s with you and that toaster?”

 

“Listen. Jesus told us to pray for our daily bread. I’m just doing God’s will here.”

 

“You’re Jewish, why would you listen to Jesus?”

 

“He gives good advice sometimes, like Buddha, or Abe Lincoln, or a fortune cookie.”

 

Wilbur rolled his eyes and took a swig.

 

“Speaking of God’s will, you surviving must be part of it. Did you really meet Skinnyman face to face?”

 

Wilbur spun around to make sure no one else was in the room. Fritz and his freaking mouth. “Yes, really.”

 

Fritz slowly scratched his chin. “Huh. What did he look like? Was he scary?”

 

“Hell yeah! Guy was like six feet of skin and bones, and he was wearing gray robes like the reaper. He wore a freakish mask with yellow eyes, ulgh, those eyes…”

 

“Didya zap him one?”

 

Wilbur shrugged. “I tried. Why are you asking though? I thought you said I was an idiot for going there.”

 

“Oh don’t worry, you still are. But you’re a stubborn prick and I know I can’t stop you when you’re dead set on something…” Fritz paused, looked straight forward and pointed at nothing. “Hey wait a second, how did you even know where to find him anyways?”

 

“Oh, I uh.” Wilbur rubbed the back of his neck. “Got kinda hammered and asked this. Girl I know.”

 

Scoffing, Fritz raised an eyebrow. “This girl you know? And she didn’t delete your number after the second date?”

 

“We’re not dating. I saved her friend from some thugs.”

 

“Well maybe you should ask for some pointers rather than getting chased off by little old asian men.”

 

Wilbur felt the blood rush from his face. “Hooooow do you know about that?”

 

Fritz rolled his eyes and put a fist to his hips. “Wilbur, buddy, it’s 2023. Everyone has a camera in their pocket and ten social media accounts. If it makes you feel any better, the video only has thirty-two views.”

 

Wilbur groaned and put a hand to his face. “Ugh. Fine. I’ll see what else I can get from her.”

 

When the gloves were done and Fritz had left to supervise his peers, Wilbur gave Mouse a call. This time, fortunately, she answered.

 

“Who’s calling?”

 

“It’s me. Wilbur. So you’ve probably seen the news lately…”

 

She didn’t seem to know what to say for a moment. “You went right after Skinnyman, didn’t you?”

 

“You’re not with anyone are you?”

 

“No, I’m alone. Christ dude, hope you cured your boredom… Heard the cops only recovered a few goons of his, some captives and Detective Higgins. Guess that means Skinnyman got away.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

She sighed. “Figures.”

 

“Why do you hate that guy so much anyways?” he asked.

 

“That’s confidential. So what’d you call about Scholz?”

 

“Do you uh. Have any more information on criminal happenings? I’m willing to pay you.”

 

She laughed. “You had me at pay. Yeah. I’ll think of something. Meet you outside the Brew at five?”

 

Wilbur got up from his seat. “Works for me.”

 

***

 

A few things happened before Wilbur went out. First, the pieces of his hero outfit had been delivered, so he wouldn’t look like a hood Jason Voorhees. Bless express mail. He’d also swapped said Voorhees mask out for one of Ryan’s experimental designs, a full faced, featureless black helmet he’d left to collect dust.

 

Second, he called Jeff, to make sure he hadn’t pissed off the cops too much. Turns out they were grateful enough to ‘Shortcircuit’ – the nickname they were now using internally and with the press – not to put out a BOLO on him. In the future, though, he’d need to cut out the ninja shit and work with them or else their patience would run out. He was fine with that.

 

He decided to just walk to the Witch’s Brew. It didn’t seem intuitive for a masked crimefighter but it worked in the real world. Sure, he had to deal with a few hecklers and new fans trying to take pictures, but for the most part, folks didn’t really care. The novelty of it probably wore off long, long ago, even in a town not known for superheroes.

 

Mouse was standing by the street corner, hands in her black leather jacket. Jessica was there too, smoking a cigarette. Wilbur strolled up to her, crossing his arms in that typical hero pose.

 

“Don’t you know those things will kill you, young lady?”

 

Unimpressed, she blew smoke in his face. He could smell that junk even through the helmet. “I’m more likely to be killed by one of your products,” she said in a hushed tone, smirking. Wilbur grimaced and glanced around.

 

“Is everyone intent on blowing my identity?”

 

“Trust me, with the way you carry yourself the beans will get spilled sooner or later.”

 

He decided to ignore her. Turning to Mouse he asked “So what do you have for me?”

 

“You remember those meatheads who were assaulting Jessica? Those were Vitelli goons.”

 

“The Vitelli Family?” Wilbur repeated. “The Italian Mafia? I thought they’d gone extinct in Blackburn.”

 

“Yeah, that’s what they want you to think. They all claim they’ve gone legit but they’re still into money laundering, fraud, and of course good old drugs. There are just more mouths feeding from the same trough these days.”

 

She retrieved a small, folded piece of paper from her coat and handed it to him. He opened it up, revealing a written address.

 

“Wash Rush. That’s one of their main fronts. If you catch them in an illegal act, well, I guess the city’s new guardian will have to execute a few citizen’s arrests, won’t he? Go ahead and give Higgins a call if all goes well, I know him.”

 

Wilbur immediately began plugging the address into his phone’s GPS. “Thanks Nisa.” He looked up and handed her a couple hundred dollars. “Uh, should I call you that?”

 

She smiled. “I guess you’ve done enough for me to get away with it.”

 

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C7

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Charlie shifted painfully in his hospital bed, wishing he’d just been hit with a crowbar instead. That electric motherfucker’s gloves felt like a licking a battery, except all over and you woke up handcuffed to a gurney with the nurses laughing about how you’d pissed yourself. Even worse, that Detective Higgins pig was back with his twenty questions. Why hadn’t Skinnyman just shot him when they caught him?

 

“I told you I want my lawyer.”

 

“It’s been two hours, I can start questioning you again. Blame the Supreme Court. And you’ll be going away for two decades if we have you convicted of human trafficking – life if anyone died because of it. If you give me some actionable intel on your boss though, well, I’ll see to it the judge bumps it down to kidnapping.”

 

That got a good laugh out of him. “You want me to squeal on Skinnyman? Wow, that fedora must be too tight on your head blues brother.”

 

Higgins frowned and adjusted his hat. “You fear he’ll kill you? Why is this suddenly occurring to you now? You’re a henchman for a supervillain, he’ll toss you aside like a used rag the second you become a liability. I’m giving you an out.”

 

Charlie shook his head. Cops always thought they had it all figured out. “This is bigger than you, me or even Skinnyman. But you’ll see one day.”

 

“I see.” Higgins began to pace. “And I assume the abandoned chemical factory your friends captured me outside of has something to do with it?”

 

“I’m done talking.”

 

“Abandoned chemical factory.” Higgins paused and stroked his chin. “Huh. I could’ve sworn Mouse describing escaping a similar building when she first started informing for me.”

 

Charlie felt his gut jump into his throat. “You wouldn’t.”

 

“No, I wouldn’t, but I don’t control her do I? If you’re not in protective custody before a little birdy gets to her, there’s nothing I can do.”

 

“Fuck!” He jabbed a finger at Higgins impotently. “Fuck you man!”

 

Higgins shrugged. “I’ll leave you to your thoughts. If you happen to remember what’s in those warehouses though, I’ll bring you a waiver.”

 

Charlie turned to his side, hating himself for how pathetic and powerless he was. The whole reason he joined Skinnyman was so he’d never feel like this again. He wanted nothing more than turn the hospital into the scene of slasher movie and go free. But having low-level water powers wouldn’t get him very far, especially without a large, pre-existing source.

 

He noticed somebody outside his window in a black ski mask, fiddling with device. Had the boss sent someone to bust him out? The man looked directly at him and put a finger to his mouth in a shushing motion. A few seconds later he got the window loose and climbed inside.

 

“You guys came back for me,” Charlie said, keeping a low tone.

 

“Yeah, yeah.” The man moved a chair under the security camera, stood on top of it and turned the camera towards the wall. Then he stuck the chair beneath the door handle.

 

“Now, if you make too much noise…” He walked over to the bed before pointing a revolver at his forehead. “I’ll blow your fucking head open. Now, you’re going to tell me what I want to know about Skinnyman, capiche?”

 

Charlie bit back a bitter laugh. “You know you’re the second one today to tell me that. Who are you?”

 

“The guy holding the gun here. Your boss recently lost a warehouse, the cops are crawling all over it. Where does he move his test subjects after processing?”

 

Charlie put his free hand up. “Listen dude, I’m just a peon. I don’t know who or what you’re looking for and I couldn’t tell you where to look.”

 

“Figure you’d say something like that.” The man put his gun away and walked over to Charlie’s IV drip.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

The man opened the top of the bag. He pulled a small plastic bottle from his pockets and squeezed a few drops of – something into it.

 

“That’s an emetic,” the man explained. “In a few minutes you’re going to start emptying your stomach contents like Regan MacNeil. A higher dosage and all that will happen twice as bad, you’ll dehydrate, then you’ll die.”

 

“Oh, fuck.” Charlie swallowed hard. “Alright alright, we’ve got several locations throughout Olympic City and the rest of town but you’re going to need to write this down.”

 

The man snatched the nurse’s notes and pen. Charlie rattled off half a dozen locations off the top of his head, going slow to make sure the crazy son of a bitch wouldn’t get any angrier. “But full disclosure? You ain’t gonna get any further than that electrokinetic with just a ski mask and revolver.”

 

He looked at him and nodded. “Yeah, don’t you worry about that.”

 

“Hey? Who are you talking to?” The patrolman that was posted outside Charlie’s door began to struggle with the handle. “The hell?”

 

The cop began to alert hospital security over the radio and the masked man took that as his cue to leave. As he squeezed out the window his revolver’s handle caught on the ledge, clattering to the ground. Charlie waited a few moments to see if he would come back for it. When he didn’t, he got to his feet, moving as far forward as the handcuffs would allow. Sliding down, he was able to just get a few toes on it. He brought it into his hands and fired at the cuffs.

 

He startled himself so much with the gunshot it felt like he kicked off World War III in his stomach. The cop managed to force the door open. Charlie clambered out the window, praying they wouldn’t be able to track him by a mile long trail of his last few meals.

 

 

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C6

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Wilbur wasn’t sure how long he’d been in the shower for – he lost track at two hours. The adrenaline high had long since crashed down and the alcohol had flushed from his system. That wasn’t the first time he’d been in serious danger before, but no one had actively tried to murder him. He felt the bruise on his chest again. If that round had hit his neck…

 

Fritz pounded the bathroom door. “You can’t hide in there forever, dude.” He’d gone to question him about his missing defibrillator gloves, and it didn’t take him long to piece things together.

 

Wilbur groaned. “Says who?”

 

“Get ooooout.”

 

Reluctantly, he got dressed and went outside. Fritz was waiting with folded arms.

 

“What the hell were you thinking, Willie?”

 

“I wasn’t.” He pointedly avoided eye contact as he made his way to his office chair.

 

“Obviously! That was Skinnyman! You’re lucky he didn’t turn you inside out like a used sock!”

 

“You’re the one who made me feel bad about Ryan’s sister.”

 

“I didn’t think you’d run into his lair and pick a fight with him! You could have just fired a professional. Or, you know, called the cops? You could have died Wilbur. What would have become of the company then? Jumping in there thinking you’re some goddamn superhero…”

 

Wilbur pounded the desk. “Alright, I get it already! It was probably pretty stupid of me, but you know what? I’m tired of being treated like a goddamn child, or immature spoiled brat. Sorry for wanting to do something important for once.”

 

Fritz, now sullen, just shook his head. “Jesus, you just haven’t been the same since your parents passed. What do you think they’d feel if they saw you like this?”

 

“Man.” Wilbur inhaled deeply and jabbed a finger. “Don’t even go there.”

 

Someone knocked on the door.

 

“Hey boss? A police detective is here to see you.”

 

A police detective? The man in the suit?

 

With trepidation Wilbur said “Let him in.”

 

Between the detective’s clean new suit and eerily calm demeanor, there was no obvious sign of him having been the captive of a very twisted man a few hours prior.

 

“Wilbur, my name is Detective Jefferson Higgins. But you can call me Jeff. I owe you my life. The least I could do is tell my co-workers I couldn’t get a good look at your face.”

 

Wilbur and Fritz sighed in unison.

 

“That’s good,” Wilbur said. “You uh, you seem well. What were you doing in there anyways?”

 

“Gonna be riding the desk a few weeks,” he replied with a bit of a frown. “Investigating the Skinnyman kidnappings, of course. It’s not a case most of the office wants to touch.”

 

He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets before retrieving his business card, sliding it across the desk.

 

“Skinnyman is gonna want your head on a pike. For your sake Wilbur, stay low, I’ll handle it from here. But if anything comes up, don’t hesitate to give me a call. Good night now.”

 

Wilbur stuck his hand up. “Hold up. Aren’t you going to ask me what was I thinking?”

 

Jeff laughed. “You don’t read the news a lot, do you Mr. Scholz? There’s a lot of crazy reasons people do the hero thing.”

 

As Jeff left, Wilbur gave the card a once over. Then he turned to Fritz. “Good night now.”

 

“Alright, alright.” Fritz threw his hands up. “I guess we’ll talk later.”

 

***

 

“Come on, come on… whoa!”

 

Wilbur tumbled over the chain link fence and onto his face. Ouch. They made it look so much easier in the movies. Fortunately, he was wearing his mask.

 

Yeah, he knew he shouldn’t have. He’d tried to talk himself out of going out again, to put the cape shit to bed, but it didn’t work. It wouldn’t work so long as Skinnyman was still out there, or those thousands of other criminals that were endlessly victimizing people. What else was he supposed to be doing on a Friday night, getting hammered again? This was way more exciting, and less likely to have him vomiting over the toilet.

 

Thursday had seen him up til two in the morning ordering the rest of his ‘costume’, if one would call it that. He’d be swapping out the hoodie for a kevlar-lined leather jacket, black with red accents. A red tee shirt would disguise a lightweight bulletproof vest – couldn’t be safe enough, right? He’d also ordered black jeans and black and red sneakers, the former of which were, of course, kevlar-lined. Bless the internet.

 

His unceremonious entrance into the Cauldron was fitting. While it hadn’t been written off by the local government like Olympic City had, it was still a fairly rough neighborhood, with a fair bit of drug dealing and prostitution. Sooner or later someone would act up, and when they did, he’d be there.

 

Wilbur climbed up the roof of a Chinese restaurant, crouched by a ventilation shaft, and watched the traffic. Most of it in this area was by foot, and mostly in groups. That’s why it didn’t take him long to become suspicious of a man in a hoodie approaching another man who had been smoking on the street corner. Wilbur gripped the roof’s edge and leaned in to listen.

 

“Yo man, I’m uh, sorry to ask, but can I bum a cig?”

 

“Sure, I bought an extra pack.”

 

Dammit. He slunk back and sat up against the AC. A group of kids passed by, intoxicated and laughing, but not doing anything suspicious. Some jackass rolled by with his subwoofers so loud all the nearby windows were rattling. Wilbur threw his hands to his ears, tapping with his foot until the driver was gone.

 

“Hey!”

 

Wilbur poked his head over the ledge. Some old asian guy, probably the manager, was standing in the alley.

 

“Why you on my roof? Get down from there before I call cops!”

 

Wilbur stuck his finger out. “Actually, sir, I’m just keeping an eye out for criminals. It’s community service you know.”

 

“Oh, you’re that electro guy from the news?” Had the details of Jeff’s rescue leaked already? “Well unless you plan on powering my restaurant, you’re trespassing. Get down.”

 

He grumbled under his breath the whole way, but complied, sliding down the ladder and skulking down the alley. The area was surprisingly devoid of people, other than a few taking out trash. He paced for a good while, sticking to the shadows until he found a guy struggling with a car door in a parking lot. In his hands was something that didn’t look like keys, and didn’t appear to be working.

 

“Goddammit it all.” He pocketed the device and picked up a metal rod, thrusting the sharp end forward. The thief reached in and unlocked the door.

 

Finally! Wilbur charged his glove, vaulted the hood, and pounded the thief’s chest with a fistful of lightning. The thief dropped like a sack of potatoes. Wilbur put his hands on his hips, laughing.

 

“Ulgh…” The thief assumed a fetal position, grasping his stomach. “Who the hell are you?” he wheezed. “Captain Goodwill?”

 

“Very funny.” Shit, what was he supposed to do now? He supposed he had to call the cops. Before he could reach for his phone, several squad cars rolled up. Half a dozen officers jumped out, hands over their sidearms.

 

“You there, in the mask! Hands where we can see them!”

 

“Whoa!” Wilbur did as he was told. “Everything’s cool here officers, I was just showing butterfingers the error of his ways.”

 

“Very funny. You got some form of identification?”

 

“Uh. No?”

 

The cops looked at each other. One officer leaned towards another and said in a hushed tone, “Shit, since when did we have vigilantes in town? What are we supposed to do?”

 

The other officer shrugged and leaned out.

 

“You just interrupted a sting. We’re going to have to take you down to the station.”

 

“I see.” He pointed frantically behind them. “Hey, what’s that?!”

 

They turned to check, and he shot a bolt of electricity into the streetlight. He dashed to the nearest ladder, climbed it and began to building hop. Either they didn’t feel he was a priority or they didn’t feel the effort of a chase was worth it, because no one pursued. He jumped as many roofs as he could manage, until he was out of sight, but he was starting to get tuckered out, so he parked himself and caught his breath.

 
This… This is not going very well, he thought. A sudden frustration gripped him. What am I doing wrong? Why do I feel like a colossal fucking idiot? He wanted to just sit down for a while, but oh right, that was trespassing. He slid down the ladder and decided to call it a night.

 

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C5

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Just gonna scout three more warehouses then get the hell out for the night, Wilbur repeated to himself, glancing over his shoulder every few seconds. He’d switched out his suit for baggy sweatpants, a hoodie and one of Ryan’s ballistic masks he’d taken. It wasn’t embezzlement if you were the boss, right?

 

Hidden by the hoodie was the belt that held the main components of the defibrillator gloves. It only took a few tweaks for Wilbur to turn them into tasers, launching electricity at whatever he made a specific gesture towards, or when he pressed a button on the glove. The amperage wasn’t enough to kill anyone, Wilbur made sure of that, but the blasts would sure as hell sting. Way cooler than a gun. Speaking of which, he was also wearing a bulletproof vest beneath the hoodie. Not cool, and it was starting to make his back hurt.

 

As he drew near the next warehouse, he caught a glimpse of several figures moving in and out of the streetlights. One of them came to a halt, so he dropped behind a dumpster. The man didn’t look much different than the other hoods in the area, wearing a black jacket and jeans, but he wore a ski mask over his face and was gripping an M4. A little too heavily armed to be a pusher, to say the least.

 

Wilbur considered skipping that place. Then he heard the faint sound of screaming.  Through a side window he could make out the faint glimmer of a single light source. Against his better judgement he waited until the sentry was facing forward before crouch-walking to the wall. Pressing against the side and looking down at an angle, he was able to see the interior. More of the same masked men were patrolling the building. On the far side, a sentry stood guarding a lone rusty door.

 

The realization hit him like a gut punch: he’d stumbled upon Skinnyman’s turf.

 

Another voice now. Banging. The screaming fell silent. Luckily for Wilbur, it wasn’t before he’d managed to worm through the window and duck behind some crates.

 

The guards inside the warehouse seemed less alert than those outside. That was good, because Wilbur had no intention of getting into a fight with these guys. They weren’t carrying rifles, just sidearms. A pair strolled by, chatting idly about baseball, so Wilbur used the opportunity to grab a nicely sized rock. He lobbed it a few yards to the doorman’s left.

 

“You throw one more rock at me and I’ll come up there and fuck your shit up.”

 

“You’ll come up here and kiss my ass, Charlie.”

 

While the doorman continued his exchange with someone on the balcony, Wilbur glanced left, right and up. Clear. Sprinting forward, he caught the doorman off guard. I remember how to chokehold someone… I hope. Just sweep the legs, use the crook of the arm and apply a hefty electric charge to the chest.

 

Well, he got a little creative with the last part, but it worked. He checked again. Clear again. He glanced down at the unconscious guard. He was going to have to dump him somewhere. He fumbled for the down handle and began the trek downstairs.

 

The corridor to the basement was uncomfortably silent and cramped. He couldn’t hear a thing over his labored breathing and thoughts.

 

This must be where Skinnyman takes his victims. Jesus, what is this place? All the human traffickers I’ve ever heard of press their victims into prostitution or hard labor, but this doesn’t look like either…

 

Wilbur dropped the doorman halfway down the stairs, partially because there wasn’t anywhere better, and partially out of shock. Several cages were set against the walls of the barely lit room. A hunched figure, almost swallowed by his splotchy charcoal robe, was hushing a group of captives huddled in a cage. He had a finger up to his mask, a yellow-lensed rebreather that was metallic around the jaw. “I promise you won’t feel a thing.”

 

That wasn’t good – only his gang was supposed to be here. Wilbur shuddered, causing the stairs to creek below his feet. Skinnyman straightened out. One of his goons gestured with a piece of pipe.

 

“If we have to come back this way, you’re not gonna like it!”

 

Skinnyman raised his hand. His underling’s eyes became wide with fear, before he made a fist and shoved it into his mouth. The fist wobbled, but remained in place until he fell to his knees, gagging and eyes watered. Satisfied that his point was made, Skinnyman dropped the gesture.

 

“Mind your manners.”

 

“Yes sir… I’m sorry sir.”

 

A waving hand, coming from an otherwise empty cage near the stairs, drew Wilbur out of his trance. A black guy in a suit was signalling towards a key rack in the corner. He was oddly calm looking given the situation. Wilbur hurried down the stairs as quietly as he could, avoiding the light and keeping his eyes on Skinnyman all the while. Yanking a bundle of keys off the rack, he began to sort through them until Higgins gave a thumbs up. He stuck the key in the lock and began to wiggle, having a devil of time trying to open it. Damned thing must have been forty years old.

 

“Boss?! Intruder!”

 

“Shit!”

 

Wilbur tumbled onto his rear, the door flinging open as the man charged with his shoulder. He scrambled to his feet, but the opposite door slammed into his back, sending him sprawling. Skinnyman’s thug reached for his sidearm.

 

“SHIT!”

 

An explosive pop rocked Wilbur’s ears. Was he dead? Only if death meant the suited man standing over him with a smoking gun. Where’d he get that from?

 

“I owe you one,” he made out. The suited man snatched his fedora from the cage before helping Wilbur to his feet. Skinnyman, unperturbed, brought his fallen minion’s gun into hand.

 

“If only bravery made you bulletproof.”

 

The suited man tugged Wilbur by the hood.

 

“We have to go!”

 

Wilbur shot one last look at Skinnyman before the doctor squeezed off several shots. Wilbur sprinted up the stairs, bullets whizzing below him. A few steps from the frame, the suited man had pressed against the wall. “Waterfront’s to our right, behind the fence. We’re gonna suppress fire on these guys and make a run for it.”

 

Wilbur’s eyes fleeted around the room. Half a dozen guards were standing around, murmuring about the gunfire. One wandered in and out of the light. Raising his hand, Wilbur curled his arm and fingers just right. A bolt jumped forward and shattered the bulb.

 

“Oh. That works too.”

 

The chain link fence was only about fifty yards out, but felt much, much further. When Wilbur hit the moonlight, his feet were taken out from under him, planting him right in the dirt. Had he been shot? His head was spinning so much he wondered if he’d know. He turned onto his back. Two yellow eyes leered from the dark. Wilbur shot a hand forward, and to his surprise hit his mark.

 

Skinnyman seized up, struggling for footing, but remained standing. One by one the bolts were peeled away until Wilbur was shooting into space. That was definitely not normal! Skinnyman stuck a hand out, caught a trash can lid from nowhere and hurled it into his jaw. Wilbur definitely felt it, but the mask saved him from the brunt of the damage.

 

One of the sentries rounded the building, leveling his rifle. The glove worked to disable him fairly quickly, but not before a round pinged him in the chest, sucking the wind out of him. He managed to fire off one more quick blast, distracting Skinnyman enough for him to regain his footing. He scaled the fence, dove into the lake and began swimming as fast as his limbs would move.

 

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C4

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Whoever named the stress test knew what they were doing, because Ryan was stressed as hell and really needed to shoot something. He put on his safety goggles, slid on his earmuffs, leveled his revolver and opened fire. There was something oddly relaxing about the kick of a .357 and filling a mannequin with holes. He landed four shots at ten yards, three on the torso and one to the leg.

 

The first bullet collided with the first layer of the rubber-like material and stopped short of penetrating the buckypaper bilayer. The following bullets did the same. A single layer would be more than enough to be considered type II body armor, and there shouldn’t be trouble with higher calibers provided he could add more layers. He was sure he could produce a higher quality prototype in no time – and he’d be needing it.

 

That Skinnyman son of a bitch, part of him hoped he’d get a crack at him. He was just another shitbag blackburner like Wilbur, or Phantasm, or Ryan’s father, who thought they could do whatever they want without consequence.

 

“Hey Ryan?” Fritz poked his head into the range. Ryan removed his earmuffs. “Have you seen anyone take my defibrillator gloves?”

 

“No, why?”

 

“Someone’s taken them. Probably Wilbur.” He checked his watch. “It’s almost six dude, why don’t you get out of here?”

 

Ryan gave him a wave, waiting until he was gone before putting his revolver in its case, grabbing a bulletproof vest from the closet and walking to his car. The drive to get from downtown to the seedier parts of Blackburn didn’t take as long as one might expect, perhaps twenty minutes.

 

The hollowed out husk of what was once a booming manufacturing industry, Olympic City was an endless assembly of warehouses that stretched to the horizon, running across Lake Erie. Criminals of all stripes romped about carelessly – cops almost never went in with anything less than a SWAT team. Ryan popped his trunk, grabbed his vest and began his search.

 

Being located in the heart of the Rust Belt didn’t help Blackburn in recovering from economic lows, but it sure as hell helped the local crime lords. They always had a racket to run or a bridge to sell stupid, greedy fools. Ryan’s father had been one during the 90s and 2000s, running with a two bit ‘supervillain’ called the Red Dragon, and then Phantasm when the former’s gang got absorbed by the latter’s. He thought it put hair on his chest, that it made him a big man. Well, he wasn’t such a big man when he embezzled from Phantasm and had his legs sawed off. Ryan’s only regret was that he didn’t do something to protect his sister and do the deed himself.

 

He hoped that when he rescued Lisa from Skinnyman’s clutches, she’d forgive him for that and they could get the hell out of Blackburn. Maybe move to New York City, or Seattle, maybe Phoenix, somewhere where the local costumed crimefighters kept the villains largely at bay.

 

Ryan stuck to the shadows, weaving in and out of narrow sidewalks and alleys, avoiding the few streetlights there were. It was early in March, still cold enough outside for there not to be as many hoods prowling about. Those that were out were generally working for the big boys. There were some guys taking apart a car, probably stolen, in a chop shop. Some shady looking dudes unloading crates of God-knew-what. A couple of dumbass teens tagging gang signs. None of them obviously worked for Skinnyman, which had been the story of his previous two trips. He squeezed the handle of his gun in frustration.

 

“Yo.” The cock of a gun – an amateur move. “Wallet, now.”

 

The alley to his right stretched to an intersection, with the victim having been southbound and the assailant having come from the east. The victim, a teenage boy who clearly didn’t know where he was stepping and looked like he had just pissed himself, threw his wallet to the ground.

 

Ryan primed the hammer of his revolver. It would have been trivially easy to cap the robber then and there. But it would also be messy and create a scene, and he had his own business to attend to. The robber scooped up the wallet and sprinted past him, giving him an elbow to the chest.

 

“Fuck you lookin’ at?” He caught the idiot saying. Ryan glanced back at the victim, who looked shellshocked. He retrieved the backup handgun from his vest, holding it by the barrel.

 

“Hey kid.”

 

The boy looked up as Ryan approached, handing him the gun. “I think you need it more than me.”

 

“I, uh.” He seemed a little surprised by its weight before he stuck the gun in his waistband. “Thanks…?”

 

Ryan went back to his search, feeling like he was walking in circles. No one out tonight struck him as the type who worked for Skinnyman. He did, however, catch a glimpse of some guy in a hoodie and ballistic face mask. What was up with that?

 

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C3

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So this is how it feels to be a sardine, thought Wilbur, resisting the urge to retreat to a nice secluded corner. The lobby of one of Edward Hamilton’s fancy hotels was packed full of politicians, businessmen, philanthropists and other high society types, all there for a benefit.

 

Edward had a certain kinetic energy about him that could capture your attention during the most boring of conversations. It was hard to dislike the charismatic, always happy black guy. Wilbur did question his sense of style, though. A black pinstripe suit with an orange tie? Yeesh.

 

“Thank you all for coming,” he began, standing on a balcony above the crowd. “Always nice to gather Blackburn’s finest in one room. Speaking of which.” He smiled, raising his champagne glass in Wilbur’s direction. “I’d like to give a shout-out to my largest backer. Say hi, Wilbur!”

 

“Hi, Wilbur.”

 

There was a mix of groans and light laughs in response, but Edward just rolled with it.

 

“You’re welcome for the lob.” He finished his chuckle. Then, his expression turned more solemn. “You know, it really is a blessing to be able to give back to this city. I didn’t always have all this, the money, the real estate, the high class booze. I basically lived in a shoe box, drinking dirty tap water before my momma helped put my ass through college. And you know how we did it? The good people of this city. My teachers, my church, the folks at the library. Good role models every kid should have. Good role models that turn boys into men like me. So please, when the Martin Salazar Community Center opens next year, you’re all cordially invited. Don’t expect to be drinking my booze though.”

 

That got the crowd giggling, but it just made Wilbur really thirsty. What was there to drink around here? He slipped into the dining room, finding a towering stack of champagne glasses on a table in the center. Snatching one, he went for a sip but almost bumped into two ladies.

 

“Hi Mr. Scholz,” began the one in the nice yellow dress. “My friend and I were just wondering – did you visit Southern France at all? My father’s side of the family comes from there.”

 

“Actually I did. Check this out.” Wilbur whipped out his phone and pulled up his gallery. “Rome, St. Petersburg, London… Here it is, Toulouse.”

 

The woman laughed and pointed. “Hey, I’ve been there! Cité de l’espace, right?”

 

“Oui.”

 

“I have to take you one of these days Megan. So what else did you do there?”

 

Wilbur shrugged and dug further through the gallery. “Rented a couple Renaults, definitely inferior to German engineering. Some old guy taught me savate. Tried all the restaurants, of course. Let’s see, what else do we have here…” He flipped to the next image: him taking a selfie with himself on the news channel. “Ha! Good times.”

 

He turned to his female company, but alas they were already gone. He sat down at an empty table and watched Edward move from person to person, seemingly entertaining the whole crowd at once. How did people like Edward, or his father, make navigating these events look so easy? It was always the same story with Wilbur: people gravitated towards his wealth like moths to a fire, but when they got too close to him, burnt up and dropped away. Were people that shallow, or did his personality just suck that bad? Or both?

 

Eventually Edward made his way towards him. “Nice to see you again Wilbur. I wanted to thank you for your donation personally.” He gave him a half hug before pulling away. “Damn dude, you got strong! Those snails you been eating got a lot of protein?”

 

“Ulch, escargot. Couldn’t stand the texture. You look pretty well yourself.”

 

“Business is booming! I guess it’s karma at work – I bought a decent stake in Cerberus Security. We’re doing some good work around the city. Hopefully some will come around to you brother.” He patted him on the shoulder. “Take care now.”

 

Wilbur raised his glass in salute before resuming his drink. Karma. The world probably did owe him something for kicking that guy’s ass earlier and helping that Jessica chick. It felt pretty damn good, he had to say, better than this lousy party. He went for another sip, but his glass was empty already. He toyed with going for another, but then he remembered something – that pale woman, Mouse, didn’t it have a bar listed on her card? The gears grinding in his brain, he gave her number a call.

 

“You dialed the wrong number. Fuck off.”

 

“Wait, hold up. It’s me, Wilbur.”

 

“Scholz? What’s up?”

 

“I really need a drink and champagne isn’t doing it for me. Meet you at the Witch’s Brew?”

 

“Already here. Feel free to drop in.” Click.

 

That suited him just fine.

 

***

 

A quick drive later and he found himself in the Cauldron neighborhood, outside the Witch’s Brew. The building was lit a dazzling mix of purple and green, a stark contrast to the drab, haze-choked Blackburn sky. The place was largely wood and glass but he didn’t recall it being in this part of town five years back. Boorishly loud electronic music blared from inside. He liked the tune, but couldn’t they turn it down a little?

 

As he walked in, he was surprised with the place being as well polished as it was. At least as far as he could see. The place was dim, with most of the patrons gathered around televisions and the jukebox and a few quietly hidden in corners. Many of them began to stare. He had to admit, he probably looked out of place, a sharp-faced blonde white guy in a suit.

 

“Hey! Don’t just stand there like a deer in headlights, come sit down.”

 

Mouse, who was sitting at the end of the bar with Jessica, motioned him over. Now that he got a chance to examine Jessica, she definitely looked distinctive. Torn jeans, a band t-shirt and a rolled-up army jacket – talk about three decades behind the times. At least she had a nice face, with high cheekbones, a pointed chin and freckles. He took an empty seat and called the bartender over.

 

“I’ll take that Absinth King and a few shot glasses.”

 

Mouse smirked and tapped her fingers on the bar. “Alright hot shot, what’d you come here for? Trying to get me to be an organ donor?”

 

“Just to talk.” He poured her a shot first. “You scared those goons off like they were stray cats. What’s your story?”

 

“Me? I’ll show you. You care much about that watch?”

 

He wriggled it off his wrist. “Not really.” That was a lie, but he had a few to spare and his curiosity was getting the better of him. Mouse knocked back her shot, sloshed it around her mouth, then to his horror, spat it back in her glass. The liquid turned clear. She dropped the watch into the glass. It began to rapidly corrode, the liquid popping and fizzing.

 

“Well. That’s not normal. You must be one of those…”

 

“Anomalies is the PC term. But it’s okay, we’re freaks, we get it.”

 

Her words, not his. He carefully took his shot.

 

“So uh. Your superpower is… acid?”

 

She shrugged. “If someone’s pissed me off. It’s complete control of my physiology. I can turn a substance into other substances.”

 

“Shit, I need to hire you,” he said. “Screw Ryan’s vacuums, just have you spit out non-newtonian fluids. Or gold coins.”

 

Jessica snorted as she sipped her whiskey. “Hmph. Blowhard…” As she raised her glass, he got a better look at her right arm in the light. It was covered from the wrist up in a green tattoo sleeve, celtic knots, shamrocks and other assorted Irish symbols.

 

“And what’s her story?” Wilbur asked, pointing. “Is she the daughter of Oscar the Grouch?”

 

“Actually yeah, kinda,” Mouse answered. That managed to get a brief grin out of Jessica. “What about you? The hell’s a suit and tie guy like you doing with goons like us?”

 

“Isn’t that the million dollar question?” Wilbur knocked back another shot. “I don’t know. I guess I’m… I guess I’m bored. That’s crazy right? I have my own conglomerate, millions of dollars, all this material wealth and I’m so fucking bored. I’ve tried everything. My brain’s like a, a scrambled egg.” He laughed, but this time there was no humor in it. “You know the most fun I’ve had recently is beating that guy’s ass… Do you think I’m just messed up?”

 

Mouse spun her drink in circles. “I don’t think you’re bored, Wilbur, I think you’re rudderless. What’s money got to do with purpose?”

 

“So what you’re saying is I should sell all my earthly possessions and join a Tibetan monastery?”

 

“God, no! Money’s great. Money buys expensive booze. But you should be making money doing what you love. Works well for me.”

 

He had to admit, he did like his expensive booze. Taking another shot, he squinted at her. “And what is it you do for a living?”

 

She smirked. “Let’s just say freelance chemist.”

 

He knocked back another, hoping for some liquid courage. “Hey, uh. How much do you know about Skinnyman?”

 

Mouse nearly began to choke. “The hell?”

 

“Um, well, you see… Guy’s a fucking dickhead right? And he probably took one of my employee’s sister and someone should really stand up to the guy, right?”

 

Mouse calmly sat her glass down. “Wilbur. Are you thinking of picking a fight with the devil?”

 

“Nooooooo!” Wilbur waved dismissively. “Of course not… I could just hire a PI and a bunch of Cerberus mercs or something.”

 

Mouse looked over at Jessica, who was shaking her head. “Might as well throw your money in a blender,” she said.

 

Mouse didn’t seem to be in the mood for drinking anymore. “I know a lot about Skinnyman. That ‘man’ is the worst kind of sick, sadistic sociopath. He experiments on human test subjects like some kind of supervillain Joseph Mengele. If someone has a death wish they can find his gang in the shadows of Olympic City. I’d wish them the best but expect the worst.”

 

Wilbur was beginning to feel somewhat ill, so he stopped drinking. Maybe some of it was fear, or nervousness, or even excitement. Whatever it was, he needed to head home and work it off.

 

“Thanks Mouse.” He got up and began dialing a taxi. She began to hand him the bottle.

 

“No no, keep it.”

 

She shrugged. “Sweet. Good luck with, everything I guess.”

 

Wilbur pointed at Jessica as he got up. “Get that one a Snickers or something.”

 

She raised her pint. “Bite me.”

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C2

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The Scholz Enterprises building in downtown Blackburn was a brilliant piece of modernist architecture, a forty story steel and glass reminder of better times past. Wilbur had forgotten just how damn big it was, at least in comparison to its neighbors. Blackburn wasn’t as vertical as New York or Chicago, with only a handful of buildings that met the definition of a skyscraper, but Wilbur liked it that way – better to be a big fish in a small pond.

 

“Willie!”

 

Oh no. He had called for one of the interns to help with his bags. Why was he hearing that shrill voice? It belonged to Friedrich Kravitz, the man he’d appointed head of Creative Sciences according to his father’s will. He wasn’t particularly terrifying, a scrawny blonde man with a ponytail who wasn’t much larger than that Mouse woman, but he could badger you. He was also his best friend. Laughing awkwardly, Wilbur popped the trunk and picked up both suitcases.

 

“I’m standing right here buddy.”

 

“You, you evasive motherfucker. You’re a terrible human being. I hate you. I should probably punch you in the face.”

 

“I’m shaking.” He dropped his suitcases, paid the taxi driver, and turned back around. Fritz was still pouting. He sighed. “Let’s talk more in my office.”

 

The guts of the headquarters building stood in stark contrast to its exterior. Renovated every couple decades, the current style was a sleek contemporary, with an emphasis on polished white where possible. Wilbur had made sure all the furniture had been replaced before he’d left.

 

“Mr. Scholz!” The receptionist, who looked to be a college kid young enough to make Wilbur feel old, hopped out of his chair. “Oh wow, we weren’t expecting you back so suddenly! I can totally help you with those.”

 

“It’s alright, he can carry them himself,” Fritz answered, putting his hands on his hips. Resisting the urge to sigh, Wilbur smiled at the intern.

 

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

 

An uncomfortable elevator ride later and the two arrived outside Wilbur’s penthouse suite. His nose was assaulted when he opened the door. Right, he’d almost forgotten dust was a thing. Everything remained as barren as the day he’d left. The grand portraits of his father and grandfather remained on the far wall, but the rest of his stuff remained packed away. Only the sheer square footage of the office room and the windows’ eagle’s eye view of the city revealed a wealthy person owned it. A lone oak desk with a computer sat in the center. Wilbur plopped his bag on top.

 

“So.” He unzipped the bag and began to sort. “Glad to know the street food’s still deliciously terrible.”

 

“Man.” Fritz brought a hand up to his mouth. “I hope you’ve had a good time smoking weed and banging broads in Amsterdam. I’ve only been stuck in this dump, with the board up my ass for ‘wasting money’. Hell, did you know the last time you gave me a call was two years ago?”

 

“You never asked. And I’ve been placating them by courting investors. I’m probably keeping Blackburn’s economy afloat singlehandedly you know.”

 

“God you’re hopeless. Would you at least like to see what I’ve been up to?”

 

Wilbur turned and smiled. “Would love to.”

 

***

 

The Creative Sciences division occupied a floor of its own a few stories below ground. It didn’t resemble what one might expect engineers to work in, being an open air, sleek communal space with rolling chairs and whiteboards that must have been erased ten thousand times. Too unstructured for Wilbur’s taste, but Fritz and company got good work done.

 

Creatives Sciences was Scholz Enterprise’s in-home house of ideas, where dozens of prototypes for a wide array of devices were drafted and tested. Most were never put into commercial production, but those that did generally made a return on investment of ridiculous proportions.

 

Such as, apparently, some sort of military armor. An engineer was currently scribbling on a whiteboard in front of a group of half a dozen of his peers. Tall, kinda lanky, black haired white guy… his name was on the tip of his tongue. Wilbur stuck his hands in his suit pockets and watched.

 

“-but the problem with the material is that movement is severely restricted if the armor is too thick, which obviously is troublesome if we want to go over handgun caliber. Not a big deal if you want to coat your car or house with it, but for a full-body suit it’s quite ineffective. So in order to overcome this obstacle, we layer the armor into thinner parts and overlap them on top of each other in between a layer of buckypaper, dilatant fluid, and a second layer of buckypaper in order to allow for full moveme-”

 

Wilbur, getting impatient, cleared his throat. “Sorry to interrupt everyone! I just got back and I already feel like I need a break. Can someone show us around?”

 

Fritz gestured at the guy at the whiteboard. “You look like you’ve been busy Ryan, go ahead and let James present.”

 

Ryan visibly flinched before putting a cap on his marker. He led Wilbur and Fritz to a door. Everyone affectionately called the next room the gallery, where the blueprints, sales plans and prototypes for the gadgets recently cooked up were put on display.

 

Wilbur brought a finger to his chin, then pointed.“Ryan. Wallace, right? I remember you. One of my dad’s final picks.”

 

“Yeah. He was a good man. We could use more like him.” He went over to a glass case in the center of the room. A lone light source shone down on the armor set, an almost rubber looking black synthetic material over digital camouflage fatigues. The helmet piece resembled that of a racecar driver’s.

 

“The Department of Defense is interested in contracting us to mass produce the stuff. They’re starting to take their exoskeleton program more seriously.”

 

“That’s great and all Ryan, but the Department of Defense has a budget,” Fritz interjected, slapping his palm on another display case. “You know who doesn’t have a budget? The American consumer! Check this bad boy out!”

 

“Bad boy?” Wilbur squinted and looked closer. “It’s a… toaster.”

 

“Not just any toaster! So like, it uses infrared right? Smaller wavelengths, so it heats up your bread quicker. Fifty percent so over the average toaster on the marketplace, actually, and believe me, I bought a lot of friggin toasters to test.”

 

Wilbur just shook his head. “You’re fired. Ryan, continue the tour.”

 

“Aw,” Fritz whined.

 

Ryan didn’t look very amused. Who crapped in his corn flakes? “Right,” he grumbled. Next on the slate was some sort of two foot tall robot.

 

“Looks like a vacuum with an arm,” Wilbur remarked.

 

“Well, it’s exactly that,” Ryan answered. He took a look at the blueprints. “It’s a cleaning robot. Self-guided AI with motion sensors, able to take its immediate surroundings into account, smarter than anything else on the market. Should be put into production within a few years.”

 

“Then we can finally replace the women in our lives,” Wilbur said with a chuckle.

 

For some reason, that really ticked Ryan off. His face scrunched up and he shot back a nasty look. “Alright funny guy, keep joking. One of these days someone’s not going to deal with your shit anymore.”

 

“Whoa, whoa.” Wilbur put his hands up. “What’s your deal pal?”

 

“My deal is that you do whatever you want, however you want, and think you can get away with it. Actually, no, you do get away with it!”

 

“Alright, that’s enough of that.” Fritz slipped between the two and pushed Wilbur back. “I get it, everyone’s stressed, things have been rough lately, let’s just cool it.” He gestured Ryan away. “I’ll take it from here, you just finish your presentation.”

 

“Things rough for rich boy, yeah right,” Ryan muttered as he stormed away. Wilbur turned to Fritz, bewildered.

 

“Why are you protecting him?”

 

“I’m not – I’m protecting you. You have no idea why that guy’s so tightly wound.”

 

Wilbur put his hands in his pockets. “If he’s so tightly wound, why’d you ask him to tag along?”

 

“I was hoping a leave of absence would help your people skills, and a pat on the back from the CEO would cheer him up.” Fritz sighed and leaned against a display case. “Obviously, it hasn’t. His sister got taken by Skinnyman.”

 

That got Wilbur to stop grinding his shoe. A lot of out-of-towners thought Skinnyman was an urban legend due to the lack of real information on the web, but locals knew better. Every few months, a handful of young adults would simply vanish, never to be seen again. The disappearances had been going on for a while, since Wilbur was a kid. Whenever the cops squeezed perps for information, no one admitted to seeing anything, not even guys facing decades behind bars.

 

“Damn. How was I supposed to know?”

 

“I didn’t expect you to, but you could have at least said hi, shaken his hand, not cracked edgy jokes with strangers you know nothing about.”

 

Wilbur frowned. “I’ve lost a woman in my life too.”

 

“Well I really wish you hadn’t, because I feel like your mother sometimes. Look, just. Don’t fire the guy, alright?”

 

“Alright, alright. But I thought I’d already fired you.”

 

“Yeah right. You wouldn’t last a day by yourself.” Fritz straightened out. “Now come on, I wanna show this really cool optic camouflage.”

 

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