Golden Boy Diary #7
(transcribed from video log)
How are my favorite backers doing? I have so much to tell you guys about today. So much happened. We had our first mission! I flew the Dogfighter! I made quesadillas! I met a new Backer!
The day didn’t start off all that great. I asked Alpha Dog again if (REDACTED) could come and visit me. I told him we were engaged because I thought that might make him change his mind. No luck though. I can’t even leave the Barn to go see her because he won’t let me tell her what state we’re in. It’ll cost so much to (REDACTED) out to see her that I think we’re stuck doing long distance for now. I can’t spend any money on trips because we’ll need it for the wedding. You guys are doing a great job donating, but the leftovers don’t make for very big salaries. Not that I’m complaining! Alpha Dog says that people ask if they can donate to a single Backer all the time and that me and Monkey Girl are the ones that get mentioned the most. You guys must really like me!
We’re a team though, and everyone gets their fair share. Except for the one I haven’t told you about yet, but it’s okay because she doesn’t need it.
After we had breakfast (I made ham omelets), Alpha Dog went to work on his dogs in his workshop while Impala introduced us to a few people who dropped by the Barn. She said they get consulting fees for working with us and keeping our secrets but they’re not official Backers.
The first one we met was this lady about Impala’s age with bright blonde hair. She had a lab coat, but it was much cooler than a regular one. I think it was made by the same designer who made all our costumes. We’re supposed to call her Doc Donor. (I guess a hero name comes free with the costume.) Impala told us she had powers too. She was born with hers. You can’t really tell but she’s got extras of a lot of stuff. She let me use her stethoscope on both sides of her chest so I could hear her two hearts. She said that she’s got mini organs all branching off her regular ones and if they get removed they just grow back.
She led us into part of the basement separate from the workshop where Alpha Dog had started setting up a little operating room. There was a bunch of medical equipment still in boxes. All the boxes were white, which I guess you’d expect. Who wants their surgery tools coming out of brown cardboard like it’s a shipment of socks or something? Doc Donor explained that she was a universal blood and organ donor as well as a licensed surgeon. Alpha Dog hired her so that if one of us gets injured she can come in and take care of us without us going to a hospital and risking our identities or getting arrested.
She said that if an organ needed to be transplanted she couldn’t be the donor and the surgeon, so someone else would have to do those operations. It took me a minute to realize Impala was looking at me.
“Who me?” I said. I was flabbergasted. I dissected a baby pig once, but that was about it. (It was for school.) The doctor told me that she had videos of a lot of different major surgeries and she wanted me to try and mimic them.
Before I knew it she pulled out this big dummy made of some kind of gel that had fake organs in it. Impala wheeled in a TV and put the surgery DVD in. The doctor gave me a real scalpel and told me to just copy what I saw. Normally people ask me to do weird stuff all the time, but I was nervous around my new friends. Pawn, Monkey Girl, Archive, and Transplant were all watching. I think Wallflower was watching too but she pulled a Houdini as soon as the scalpel came out.
For a second I felt like I was going to cut into a real person. I thought I could hear their pulse and feel the heat coming off of them. I poked the dummy though and it was just weird gel the color of cheap beer. I looked at the video. The doctor in it was already twenty seconds ahead of me, carving like he was just making Thanksgiving dinner. As soon as my knife touched the gel the knack flooded in again.
If any of you are new I think I’ll go ahead and explain it again really quick for you. The knack is what I call one of my powers. It lets me learn how to do things I’ve never done before. A lot of the time I don’t even need a video like the one they were showing me; I can just get a feel for something by touching the tools for it. My parents and I first noticed it when I was little and they signed me up for tennis lessons. I beat the instructor after about fifteen minutes. He was really sore about it. Lots of people get sore about it because they work really hard for that stuff but it just comes naturally to me.
What really gets them is that I can’t even give them a reason. I don’t know what was done to me when I was just an itty bitty embryo. I don’t know who my biological parents are. I just got mixed up like the wrong orders at a barbecue joint. My parents thought they were getting their kid and instead they got me. They’ve been nothing but loving though. I’ll never be half as good at anything as they are at being my Mom and Dad.
Anyway, I think Doc Donor liked the way it was going. I was pulling out a fake lung when I noticed her mouth was just kind of hanging open. She told me I could stop. Then she and Impala took me aside and asked if I would take the time to watch those surgeries and commit them to memory so I could help anybody who got hurt. I said yes, but how could I say no? I’m really just hoping that day never comes. As soon as this diary is over I’m going to watch some of them. I’ve just got to pretend it’s a season of shows on my Showbuffet queue so I can binge-watch them and get it out of the way.
The others were looking at me kind of funny when we came back in. I’d rather they didn’t see me when the knack is kicking in. When people see that I’m good at stuff they just expect me to do it whether I want to or not. How are they going to see me as their friend if they already see me as their chef and their doctor? Nobody’s friends with their doctor.
Doc Donor pulled us aside one at a time to ask a few medical history questions. Then she took blood and skin samples. I guess she wants to study them a little to make sure medicines don’t react badly with any of our powers. Monkey Girl and Archive looked a little uncomfortable with the sampling; maybe they wanted to keep that stuff private. They didn’t say anything. I think that’s because we all saw the fridge with the clear door in the back that was full of blood bags. Doc Donor had already stocked the place with her own blood to help us, so how could we say no? She’d committed more to the cause than any of us already. I don’t know how Wallflower felt about it because I couldn’t see her face. Nothing but her arm appeared when Doc Donor drew blood. It looked like a horror movie prop just hanging in the air like that.
After Doc Donor left Impala took us back upstairs and we met two more people in the Barn’s little reception are. There was a young (REDACTED) girl and a middle-aged guy who looked like a truck driver.
Monkey Girl kind of squealed and ran over to hug the girl. It was really cute. She said they knew each other from the internet. We’re supposed to call her the Unfridgable Girl. She’s like a blogger or a moderator or something online. She handles a lot of our web stuff and looks for contacts to help with financing or maybe even join the team. She was the one Monkey Girl first got in touch with a couple months ago when the Coinhat campaign was still getting figured out. She didn’t have a mask or anything.
“The internet provides all the anonymity I need,” she said. We all talked about computer stuff for a little while: safety measures and other things. We’re supposed to come up with new better passwords for all our stuff and shut down any social media accounts we have that aren’t absolutely necessary. The Unfridgable Girl said I should keep my Connectera page though, since I’m really active on it. “There’s nothing more suspicious than someone shutting down a big digital part of their life,” she said. It’s a good thing she said that because I have (REDACTED) friends on Connectera.
The man’s name was (REDACTED) and nobody had given him a heroic one. He didn’t look like he needed one. I guess I’ll just call him Truck here so you don’t have to hear that computer voice say redacted so many times. He gets the groceries and the things we need from the pharmacy, hardware store, or anywhere else. He’s also the one who’ll drive us anywhere we might need to go since we can’t keep cars at the Barn.
Impala explained that we shouldn’t go into town together much because people will be looking for a group with certain kinds of people in it.
“It’d be best if I only took two of ya’ at a time,” Truck said. “Aside from the reason just mentioned, (REDACTED)’s usually only got three seats. Fourth one’s where I put the big ol’ bag a (REDACTED) I need fer my regular job.”
It’s really great that Alpha Dog got all this technical stuff out of the way so we don’t have to worry about it. I don’t get angry much, but paperwork makes me fume. He did all the pencil pushing and you guys gave us the money. That’s why I hope I remember to thank you for it at least once in every one of these diaries. Don’t let me forget. We finished going over all the important stuff with Truck and the Unfridgable Girl just in time. Alpha Dog came sliding towards us with five of his dogs scrambling right behind him.
“We’ve got a mission!” He yelled. “We’re needed!” Everyone got really excited, but Alpha Dog yelled over everybody and calmed us down. “It’s not for all of us,” he said. “Only those of us most effective for the situation are going. Impala will stay here with the rest of you in case anything else comes up.” Suddenly I felt like I was lined up in gym class and people were picking kickball teams. I always got picked first, but I still got nervous anyway. “Transplant,” Alpha Dog said. He walked forward. I didn’t get picked first. That was new. Now I really know why people don’t like it. He said my name next though.
It turns out the mission only needed the three of us. It was a wildfire getting out of control just outside a national park. Everyone else looked real disappointed, but we couldn’t stick around to console them. Alpha Dog, Transplant, and I went out back to where the Dogfighter is hidden in the (REDACTED). Alpha pressed a button on his arm thingy and the jet’s ramp automatically opened.
“Alright let’s move,” he said, but I think he was talking mostly to the dogs. They ran in two at a time, barking the whole way. Crispy, the firefighting one, was bossing the others around. Alpha said that was because he’d designated it the beta for that mission. That meant if the dogs got separated from him and then from the other Backers, they would gather around Crispy and listen to him. He’d put some kind of red metal tanks on the backs of the dogs. I found out when we got there that they were all full of extinguishing foam.
Transplant and I got on the plane next. We went to strap ourselves into the side seats, but Alpha Dog said I was flying. First a surgeon… and now a pilot! I hopped into the captain’s chair and sank into its thick leather cushions. A bunch of crazy little switches and dials stretched out in front of me like a bunch of gaudy necklaces on a display rack. I didn’t have a clue what any of them did. I told Alpha Dog I’d only flown a helicopter once before.
“I believe in you,” he said. He didn’t sound nervous at all. “Besides, I suck at flying it.” I wrapped my hands around the main controls and moved all my fingers individually. I felt the little bumps in the plastic. I didn’t quite feel the knack, but that’s because I’d gotten ahead of myself.
“Safety first,” I whispered under my breath. I buckled the safety belts across my chest. Seriously guys, don’t ever forget to do this. It doesn’t matter if it’s an advanced stealth jet or a little punch buggy. Those things save lives.
“How’s it going?” Alpha asked.
“I think these clean the windshield,” I said and pointed to a pair of unmarked little metal switches. I flicked them. Two streams of fluid sprayed out onto the glass and washed away the dust. “Oh yeah,” I said. I was really feeling the knack. I picked up driving in a second, but flying felt totally different. It felt more… around me, you know? I felt like I could fly even if there wasn’t a pair of jet engines behind me. I flicked a few more switches and pulled on the controls.
The Dogfighter can do vertical take-offs and landings, which I didn’t know until the tiniest moment before I pulled it up. We lifted off the ground and barely rocked. I took us higher and higher until clouds obscured the Barn. I don’t know how I can describe it to you guys… the knack I mean. It’s not like somebody is pulling my strings like a puppet. It’s like everything anybody ever invented is just a leaf floating in a river and I know how to push the leaves so they don’t get stuck on the rocks that are jutting up out of the water. Does that make sense?
Anyway, I put in the coordinates Alpha gave me and I let the autopilot do most of it for the next (REDACTED) or so. Then he passed me and Transplant these little gray boxes with clips on the back of them. They were cameras. He told us to attach them to the collars of our costumes. When I snapped mine in place I noticed there was a square little pocket for it. I guess he’d planned on us filming the missions since before we started. He clipped his own on and explained that the videos are for people who have donated five hundred dollars or more. I guess if people back us that much they do deserve a few free action movies every now and then.
He went over the plan with us. I was supposed to drop him and Transplant off near the edge of the fire so they could fight it. Apparently Transplant can do this thing where he can connect a bunch of tree roots and then lift them out of the ground so they stir up big piles of dust. He was going to throw the dust and dirt onto the fire to smother it.
Alpha wanted me to follow all the helicopters that would already be there fighting the blaze. He put some kind of deployable bucket on the Dogfighter that I could fill up in whatever lake or river the helicopters were using. I was a little bummed that I’d be in the plane the whole time, but a mission’s a mission right?
It might sound kind of dull, but we made it super heroic. Transplant. That guy is crazy wild. He had me slow the Dogfighter to a hover way above the trees and then told me to open the ramp. Then he just walked out and started falling. It freaked us both out. I turned the plane to watch him go. It seriously looked like he was about to smash against the ground and die. I saw him tuck in his knees though. His costume has bare patches there so his skin can touch plants. When his knees hit the canopy this circle of trees just sort of bent in around him like he’d jumped on a trampoline.
A few seconds later this big snaking tree trunk grew above the rest and I could see Transplant sticking out of the top of it with his arms and legs sunk into the wood. He didn’t waste any time. The big tree pulled itself across the ground towards the fire like a broom sweeping across the floor. I could barely see the reddish fire through the plumes of smoke, but it still looked intimidating. I could practically hear it crackling and popping as it ate up tons of dry grass and shrubs.
Transplant pulled a giant coil of roots out of the ground and tossed a chunk of earth onto the flames. He kept his tree leaned back out of the smoke and tossed a few more giant dirt clods at it. I could talk about how cool it was all night, but some of you will get to see it through his eyes when the video goes up. I think Alpha Dog’s editing the footage right now.
He had me swing the plane down low, close to the edge of the blaze where all the firefighters on the ground were trying to contain it. He didn’t want me to land though; I think he wanted to try and make an entrance as cool as Transplant’s. I hovered about ten feet off the ground and opened the ramp. Alpha Dog pressed a few buttons on his arm thing and the dogs lined up with Crispy in the lead and the other four standing in pairs behind him. Little pieces of metal lifted off Crispy’s shoulders. The same thing happened on the other dogs’ inside shoulders. Then all the pieces sort of shot backward and released a bunch of metal wire. Alpha caught one of the pieces in mid-air and all the other ones started to snap together and create a shape in front of him. When it was done all the wire tightened and I could see they’d built an instant dog sled!
“Hyah!” Alpha Dog yelled and they all took off running. They pulled him out of the jet, onto the ground, and towards the fire. I watched him for another minute. He dismounted and separated the dogs so they could go out into the flames and start covering everything with foam. He started speaking to the lady who looked like the head firefighter, but then he looked up at me and waved me away. I forgot I was supposed to be doing something too! I’m so used to being an observer. I guess when you’re watching a super hero your brain just assumes you’re sitting in a theater seat and you don’t need to do anything.
I took the dogfighter higher and searched for the helicopters. They weren’t too difficult to find on account of their bright orange color and all the waterfalls they were dropping on the fire. I followed one of them back to this really pretty lake they were taking the water from. Then I deployed the bucket and dipped it in just like they did. I couldn’t quite see it but I think the bucket has a big Justice Backers logo on the side.
After a few hours it seemed like the fire was getting under control. A lot of the land was black and smoking but I tried to think about how much more of it would’ve gone if we weren’t there. It only got about an acre into the national park. I must’ve made fifty trips to that lake and back; that’s a lot more than any of those helicopters thanks to the jet being so fast. If all our missions are this flying-intense we might have to take a pay cut so we can buy enough fuel for this thing. And I hope I didn’t grab any poor fish out of that lake just to drop them into the frying pan.
Since the firefighters were mopping up the last of it, Alpha Dog sent me a signal to drop down and grab him. After that I’d go pick up Transplant, who was back where I first dropped him off doing his best to correct the damage he’d done to the forest. As far as I can tell he was trying to put all the trees, bushes, and roots back where they started. It’s nice of him to do that; nobody told him he had to or anything. People will definitely appreciate a hero who cleans up after himself.
I was going to actually land next to Alpha Dog this time, but something happened. He was shaking hands with that firefighter lady, she didn’t look unhappy or anything, but then they turned their heads. I couldn’t hear the sirens from inside the Dogfighter, but I saw the blue and red flashing lights. I guess one of the firefighters or an onlooker called the cops on us. Technically we weren’t cleared to be there, but it sure looked like the fire-chief-lady was glad to have us.
There was only a dirt road out there and those cop cars looked super uncomfortable rocking and hitching over the grass towards Alpha Dog. All his dogs came running out of the brush in unison and formed the sled again. Alpha hopped on and rode them towards me. I dropped the ramp open and did my best to hold it about a foot off the ground so the dogs could jump into it. The robots got in smoothly but the sled hit the edge of the ramp and tossed Alpha forward into the plane. One of the dogs scrambled to catch him and they both slammed into the back of the seat.
“We’re fine,” he said. “Not the most graceful exit, but fine. Go get Transplant before the cops catch up to him.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I booked it. It wasn’t hard finding him; he was still connected to a tree that was higher than the rest and swaying a lot. He did have a few cops pestering him though. Two squad cars were parked around the base of the tree and I think they were yelling for him to come down. We don’t answer to them though. We answer to our backers.
I hovered at the top of his tree with the ramp open and he suavely stepped out of the wood and onto the metal platform like it was no big deal. What did I say? Crazy wild. He’s going to make me look like a sidekick if he keeps this stuff up.
We just left those silly cops barking up that tree and headed home. At least they didn’t try to shoot us or anything. If you guys can’t afford the videos we took, you can look up that super weird tree Transplant left behind in a search engine or something. We’re already on the news so there are a lot of pictures of it up. I heard some people are calling it the Justice Juniper already. Maybe we should put it on the logo or something.
Anyway… yeah. That was mission number one. The beginning. I think it went really well. When we got back everybody, except Loved One obviously, joined us in the kitchen and we all hung out. The Unfridgable Girl was still there too since she and Monkey Girl were catching up while we were gone. I kind of wanted to tell everybody about it, but Alpha Dog suggested I should make some food for us all to celebrate; it was getting close to dinner time.
“Quesadillas?” I suggested, since I’m not good at saying no. It was kind of nice though. Slinging cheese and peppers and sliced chicken while my super hero buddies talk and brag and laugh behind me. Next time though, I’m going to get you guys a video that’s worth watching.
I just sort of stayed in the kitchen area when people started peeling away for bed. We do have training scheduled after all. Alpha Dog wants us to learn some commands for his dogs and how to work with them since they’re everybody’s support. Should be fun. I waited up just long enough for Loved One to come out and grab his dinner. I tried not to yawn even though it was late. I might be the only one he gets to hang out with since I’ve never lost anybody really. Still got all four of the grandparents. My pet fish died, but he doesn’t look like animals so it’s not a problem. I just see him for what he is. I talked to him about what I’ll tell you guys about now: Dreamweaver.
Remember I said I met a new Backer? I didn’t mean Doc Donor, the Unfridgable Girl, or Truck. They’re on staff but they’re not full Backers. I actually met Dreamweaver the night before the first mission, while I slept.
I was in my dream place. You guys are probably used to all sorts of crazy dreams, but mine aren’t like that. They’re all in the same place. It’s just this sort of gray room. Maybe it’s a room. I never really see any corners but it also doesn’t feel very open. Dreams don’t have to make sense so I’ll just say the room is spherical but not curved. It usually has some furniture. This time there was a gray couch and a gray armchair, but sometimes there’s a coffee table and a lamp too. Then there’s the television. It’s little and it looks like an antique: square with wooden sides and two rabbit-ear antennas.
That TV is the only thing that ever does anything in my dreams. Sometimes things I saw earlier that day play on it like they’re just a rerun. They even have commercials, but instead of selling products they’re just sort of little promo pieces for the people I know. Like, if there was one about Monkey Girl an excited voice would just say things like this: Monkey Girl the amazing! Watch her flip and twirl through the air! One of the original Justice Backers! Order now and she can be your friend too! Like that. Usually the shows and commercials aren’t even on anyway. Most of the time the TV screen is just static.
I was sitting on the couch waiting for a show to come on. It feels like I’m waiting the entire time I’m sleeping. I wish I could sleep without going there because it’s so boring. I looked over and saw someone else was sitting in the armchair. I freaked out and stood up. I’d never seen another person in my dreams who wasn’t on the little screen.
It was a tall woman in her fifties with long black hair. She was wearing a long, gray, modest dress. When she noticed me noticing her she stood up and tried to calm me down. She looked surprised that I could even see her.
“Normally I’m like Wallflower in people’s dreams,” she said with a little smile. “They can only see me if I want them to.”
“You know Wallflower?” I asked dumbly. I didn’t know what else to say. If she was part of my brain of course she would know Wallflower.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said. “Normally I can find something to hide behind in a dream, but this place is nearly empty.”
“Yeah, sorry,” I said. I felt like I needed to apologize for some reason, even though she was the one who didn’t knock. Of course there wasn’t a door to knock on in my spherical but not curved room. “Who are you? And why did you… stop by?”
“My name is Dreamweaver. I joined the Justice Backers shortly after its inception. I applied in Alpha Dog’s dream and he accepted me.”
“Wait… you’re saying you’re a real person? I thought I was dreaming you.”
“I get the impression that you don’t dream people.”
“Well not normally. Sometimes people show up on that TV. A weird dream is more believable than another real person showing up inside one. If you’re real, how did you get into my head?”
“I can transfer my consciousness between people whenever I want to as long as they are within a certain distance of each other. I move via resting brain waves.”
“You don’t have a body? You’re not just the dream you; you’re the only you?”
“That’s right. I used to have a body. I was a powerful telepath until my death in 1975. I never revealed my gifts to anyone and, I’m sorry to admit, only used them selfishly. I influenced men to fall in love with me. I convinced people to change the direction of their lives to something I found more appropriate. Sometimes it helped and sometimes it hurt them. It was one of the people I hurt, a very intelligent mentalist himself, who eventually deduced my abilities and shot me in the back with a revolver.”
“Oh… I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright. I awoke when he dreamed that night and realized my powers had moved my mind into his. I instantly understood why he’d done everything he ever did. I knew that I deserved to die and I knew that it was a great injustice for me to stay in his head any longer than I had to. So now I hop between minds and wake when my host dreams.”
“Can you still change people? You’re not trying to change me are you?”
“No, don’t be alarmed. I made a vow to never change anyone ever again. I only use my powers now to grant insight and gather information. Minds are not my property; I’m just a hitchhiker. I apologize for my drab appearance; normally I can gather some fantastical dream colors around me and this dress looks like a dazzling aurora.”
“My dreams don’t have any color really,” I said. I felt my cheeks get a little warm and I wondered if my real-life face was reddening.
“Why do you suppose that is?” she asked.
“I think it’s because I’m not creative.” I’ve never told you guys this… and I haven’t really explained it to the other Backers either. I’m literally not creative. My brain never makes anything new. I’m good at most things because I can feel how people before me have done them, but my brain turns into a brick wall whenever I try to think of something new. I failed art class when I was a kid because I could never think of anything to draw.
I can draw anything so well that it looks like a photograph, but only if I’m looking at it. Otherwise trying to put pencil to paper kind of hurts. It feels like my brain is trying to pull itself down to my wrist through my chest and arm.
Alpha Dog said I could build trust with you guys, so don’t tell the other Backers okay? A lot of the people I’ve told before start to look at me like I’m some kind of robot. They wonder if whatever was done to my embryo back at that fertility clinic somehow sucked out my soul. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that. My dream place might as well be a desert.
“Does this place trouble you?” she asked me.
“I’m usually just waiting for it to be over. It’s nice to have a visitor, but you probably won’t want to stay. I couldn’t imagine not being able to wake up from this.”
“The other Backers do dream more… traditionally.”
“What are theirs like?” I could barely contain the excitement in my voice. I must’ve sounded like some stupid little kid. Super heroes probably have super dreams rather than my sterilized waiting room.
“Monkey Girl’s are very lush. Tropical. Her new DNA brings a certain instinctual bend to everything.” I could tell she was picking her words carefully. I forgot for a moment that dreams are extremely private things. After that I just assumed she was leaving out the most telling details. “Pawn is a calm dreamer, as if he sleeps within his sleep. Wallflower uses hers to explore situations she can’t help but shy away from in the waking world.”
“Wow,” I said. Those all sounded great. The TV crackled to life and started playing a recording of my fiancé and me kayaking from a few years back. “Uhm, this is the show,” I said awkwardly. “It’s pretty much the only thing that happens in here. Do you want to watch?”
She nodded politely and we sat down to enjoy it. I tried to will a bowl of popcorn into existence for us to share, but I couldn’t. I did manage to make one of the commercials about Transplant using his powers in a cornfield. That’s slightly related I guess. Dreamweaver was very polite, but I’m pretty sure she left this morning as soon as I was around somebody else. There’s not much for her to enjoy in my head. There isn’t even enough for me.
This morning I was half-convinced she was just a figment of my imagination so I mentioned her to Monkey Girl. She smiled with those pointy little monkey fangs of hers and snickered.
“So she say hello to you too,” she said. “Dreamweaver is real! Pawn and I speak about her the other day. We cannot all dream the same thing. Did you like her dress? I never see anything as beautiful. Our costumes are like rags if you compare them.”
“Uh yeah,” I stammered. That astonishing, beautiful, spectacular… gray dress. I’m pretty tired guys. It was a really long day. I’ll snag a couple questions from the list here before I head back to my dream place for another eight-hour block.
Darthasthmatic: Why do you guys give special benefits to people who pay more? Would you offer personal protection to someone who paid you enough; and if so, isn’t that justice for the rich by the rich? What about the people who can’t afford to back you? Just playing devil’s advocate ;), totally love my Backer bros and sistahs.
That’s a hard question. I’m not really in charge, so maybe you should ask Alpha Dog or Impala. I don’t think we would do that. We’re not bodyguards. The Coinhat thing is so we can pay for everything, but we’re supposed to help anybody who needs it, rich or poor. My parents spent everything they had just trying to have a kid, so I know what it’s like to not have a lot of cash lying around. I can tell you that I don’t do this for money. I hope that’s good enough!
Swagglerock69: wich gril backer r u gonna bang? u could get any peace of ass with that pretty arian face of your’s! also rate them 4 me. hottest 2 nastiest. ill put it on the JB thread on Thinkitch 4 u so evry1 can c it. i no a mod over there.
Impala told me I’m allowed to ban people who ask inappropriate questions. Don’t come back. Sorry to end on a sour note backers, but there’s always tomorrow. Good night!
Coinhat Cease and Desist Notice
Subject: canceling of all services
To those it may concern,
Coinhat has been subpoenaed by the federal government and the governments of ten different states to turn over any and all information regarding the Justice Backers crowdfunding campaign. Your campaign was a violation of several provisions of our terms of service and as a result has been terminated entirely. Any transactions that were not completed have been fully refunded. We will be beginning legal actions against the individuals Eben Erenthall, Omara Toso, and the incorporated entity called Justice Backers. We have attached several important documents that you are expected to reply to as quickly as possible, but not before turning yourselves into the proper authorities.
Coinhat was started as a way to put resources in the hands of artists, inventors, and enterprising small business owners. You have violated that open trust and permanently damaged our public image and reputation with our clients and users.
On a more personal note: several individuals on our small but dedicated staff want it clearly stated that if your mission was to bring justice to everyone, you have clearly failed already. We did nothing to wrong you or anyone else, yet you’ve rained chaos, libel, and legal expenses down on us for no discernable reason other than your selfish desires to put on capes and masks purchased for you by others and pretend that you are heroes. Shame on you. True justice will only be served when the Justice Backers are wearing handcuffs.
the Coinhat staff
Backer Update #11 (Welcome to our New Home)
Finally, everything has been fixed! Hello again internet, this is Alpha Dog with your first backer update at the new home of our crowdfunding campaigns: justicebackers.com. I know it feels like I’ve been out of touch for an age, but setting up code like this is a real hassle. We’re not an ordinary site now; everything needs to be encrypted and obscured so the authorities can’t access anything other than what we release. If you think it’s hard finding a decent programmer, try finding one you can trust with millions of dollars of technically-illegal donations! Not to mention a secret identity or two. A quick thanks to the Unfridgable Girl for some of her contacts. You guys might recognize her from the forums; she keeps everything friendly and frosty.
To anyone who was afraid that Coinhat shutting us down would end our efforts: do not worry! This was just a minor setback and honestly… I saw it coming. The only reason I launched our campaign through them in the first place was for the traffic. It would have been extremely difficult to drum up the coverage we needed on a site nobody had ever heard of.
I also want to make it clear that nothing has changed for you guys. All donation tiers and rewards are exactly the same. If you think your donation did not go through because of the site transfer we can check it for you; just head over to our FAQ or the customer service tab and somebody should get back to you in a few days. Make sure you give us your E-mail so we can send you our virtual donation forms and any other updates. Now that we’ve been kicked off the civilized web, you guys will need to be our advertising. We need you to keep those gums flapping about how great it is to be a backer! We’re still about twenty K away from this month’s goal and there’s only seven days left. If we can’t make the goal each month I’ll have to start downsizing and cutting people. We don’t want this to turn into some TV show where you guys have to vote people off. Right?
I hope you’ve heard good things about our five hundred dollar rewards. You get an HD digital download of everyone’s body camera feed from all our missions. We’re doing a special promotion this month where if you give just two hundred and fifty you can have the all the videos from any individual Backer for the next six months, so feel free to pick your favorite and put their name in the comments section of the donation form.
There are a couple other quick things I need to address before we get to the mahi-mahi of this meal. Bans. Some of you aren’t happy about them. If you look at the fine print in the E-mails you’ll find that we do have a list of banning offenses for when you’re using our comments sections or submitting questions to the Backers. They clearly state there is to be no racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, religious discrimination, or any other bigoted thing along those lines period! You got that? We do not do refunds for people who get themselves banned! You are all adults and should be able to tell what questions are appropriate or not. If you wouldn’t ask it to their face in front of your mother, don’t ask it.
Some of you have also expressed concern about our ethics. Maybe you got your hands on a copy of that E-mail Coinhat sent us and feel like we screwed them a little bit. What can I say? I did not know the damage to them would be that bad. If I could go back and do it a little differently I probably would. Honestly though, I think they’re being a tad dramatic. I don’t see this damaging their bottom line all that much. Once the government realizes they don’t have anything useful on us they’ll let them off the hook. If they don’t I’m sure some of you keyboard crusaders will spam your congressmen with so many E-mails that they’re forced to drop it.
Our other supposed ethical breach is the theft of the Dogfighter. Many of you are wondering how I justified taking the plane when I really only had claim to my pups. If you’re looking for an excuse, I don’t have one. I saw the plane as a way out. A tool to rebuild my life bigger and better. So I flew with it. I can assure you that situations like that will not rise again. If the Dogfighter were to be severely damaged I would try and raise funds for a more reasonably priced plane. Barring that: a helicopter. Barring that: maybe Transplant can carry us all underground in roots like it’s the subway. Barring that: I’ll power walk to the next bank robbery if I have to.
The last thing is that a few people have been complaining that our missions aren’t very exciting. We take the crimes that come to us guys! We won’t go out of our way to stir up any trouble. That means we’re going to be doing a lot of things like putting out fires. We’ll pull cats out of trees if that’s the only thing that shows up. Believe me; I’d like to stop the next mass shooting as much as the next guy who prefers his body not be turned into Swiss cheese, but those things are over before we can get the Dogfighter’s wheels off the ground. We’re not faster than bullets.
I think you’ll find that the excitement level is actually going up pretty dramatically right now. We had two missions this week and you will not believe the second one. It involves a familiar face… not one you’ve seen, but you’ve heard about them. Both sets of videos are in the process of being edited, but I can give you guys a summary right now so you can stop salivating at the thought of us in action. I know you are. Hearing about our training sessions and how everyone is learning to coordinate is probably like the smell of barbecue to our loyal funders.
The first mission was kind of small, but Impala and I agreed that everyone should go along just so we could all roll out together. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, so it couldn’t hurt to have every ability in our arsenal at the ready. It went down in New Mexico. You guys didn’t see it on the news because there weren’t any choppers around. When they did cover it they didn’t mention that we were the ones who caught the guy, but that’s to be expected.
We don’t have a giant bank of police scanners and satellites to monitor the nation, as you probably thought we did. What we do have is people on our side. We have a network of growing contacts in hundreds of police departments across America. There are even officers in lots of foreign countries who give us a call when something strange happens. We’ve got backers in Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Sweden, and a couple places I won’t even try to pronounce. Obviously as a U.S. based organization we have to stay out of certain places that are even less open to the idea of American vigilantes than the average. Russia and China are no-go areas along with most of the Middle East.
I am getting off-topic. I should have somebody sit next to me when I write these so they can slap when I start to veer off. We got a tip from an officer in New Mexico that a guy had shot and killed his ex-wife, her new boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s sister while they were all playing board games. He just shot the lock off the door, marched in, and mercilessly ended their lives. Instead of putting the barrel of his automatic rifle in his own mouth, he stole the sister’s blue pick-up and started leading the police on a chase across the state.
“How did he get such a powerful weapon?” Monkey Girl asked the rest of the team while we were flying down. Golden Boy was flying and I was seated next to him. I was on the radio with the officer who was sending us constant updates as to the truck’s location. I was getting more and more certain that we were needed when he said the guy had struck two pedestrians already and was showing no sign of slowing down.
“It’s not hard in this country,” Archive answered her. “You can order them online or get them at gun shows without even needing a background check.”
“Is that not… stupid?” Monkey Girl asked.
“It’s not our job to rewrite the laws,” I said over my shoulder. “We only take the guns away after the fact.” I didn’t mean it to sound so dark, but everything sounds more callous in a humming tin can like that.
“I learned to shoot when I was a teenager,” Golden Boy said. “It can be loads of fun.”
“So is paintball,” Transplant quipped. “Much healthier way to paint the town red.”
I leaned over again to check on my team. It was hard to tell from the front if something was turning into an argument. Everyone seemed alright though. Wallflower had stuck herself to the ceiling and was dangling a coil of copper wire for all my pups. They were in play mode so they loved every minute of it.
We found the truck, and the six cop cars chasing it, on a pretty barren road in an industrial district. As Golden Boy slowed the jet and settled it over the truck we started to smell all the runoff and greasy steam. I gave the signal for everyone to either strap in or grab their hand-holds. Golden Boy opened the ramp and the air started whistling around us. Archive moved her hand-hold as close to the ramp as she could and looked out onto the truck. Using those piercing peepers of hers she discerned that the gun was resting on the passenger seat. She also saw into his head and told us he was still unaware we were right above him.
As luck would have it we’d practiced the perfect maneuver for this already. Golden Boy slowed the jet just enough to be over the truck’s bed. Then I passed the orders for my dogs to slide off the ramp and onto the road. They looked so cute letting their little metal butts screech along the ramp like that. I was able to see their maneuvers through a set of tiny screens on my gauntlet. They immediately started running when they hit the ground and kept themselves hidden behind the truck.
Golden Boy moved the plane back up and Impala hung herself out over the edge, directly above the passenger seat. The dogs silently moved to the truck’s sides and pressed up against them. Impala took a moment to calculate her momentum and then leapt from the plane. She bent her legs and then kicked them out as she reached the truck, tearing through the metal roof like tissue paper. Her mighty feet, together like a hammer, snapped the assault rifle in half and tore through most of the passenger seat.
The scumbag freaked out and turned the wheel wildly. My dogs were in position though and they forced the truck to maintain a mostly straight path. Impala wasted no time; she lifted one leg and brought it down on the brake pedal so hard that she broke the murderer’s foot. The car screeched to a halt. The scum reached down to his belt and brought out a concealed pistol Archive had missed. He was about to aim it at Impala’s head when a pair of furry feet punched through his window! Monkey Girl had leapt from the plane as well and latched onto the side when it had stopped. She grabbed the pistol with her tail and tossed it across the road.
My dogs cleaned up the rest. They ripped his door away with their pneumatic jaws, sliced through his seatbelt, and dragged him onto the pavement. Then they rolled him over onto his back. Lebron put his mouth around the guy’s wrists, where they were bound together with restraining wire.
For the last ten seconds or so all the cop cars had been coming to a stop. Officers were shouting at us to get down on the ground. Good luck getting your tickets under the Dogfighter’s wipers boys. The girls hopped back in and the dogs followed. We blasted off. One of the boys in blue even took a cheap shot at one of our wings. I have to redo some of the paint now.
That’s the power of the Justice Backers guys. One murderer captured with no injuries once we were on the scene. That’s what you’re paying our salaries for. I know you’ll be proud once you see those videos. Anyway, I had to talk about our successful mission first to soften the blow… we failed our second mission. There’s a very good reason for that though. We encountered our first super villain. While I would argue that we were prepared for one, what we were not prepared for was the trio of super-powered baddies we ran into. We took some serious hits and they got away. They even killed one of us… relax! It was Pawn. Sometimes he just goes out and gets killed when he’s bored. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.
Anyway, here’s how it went down. We were having a pretty average day at the Barn. Impala and I were discussing trying to purchase a cheap helicopter so we could have teams on missions simultaneously. Everyone else was training with the dogs out in the field. The communicator on my gauntlet rang. I answered it and heard the voice of (REDACTED). He’s a buddy of mine who’s still in the private sector. He tipped me off about a string of robberies that was hitting high-end tech companies like MFU. As far as he could tell it seemed like they were stealing vehicle parts mostly. He said that in the process of researching whether or not his company was at risk, he found a pattern. All the parts being stolen were integral to a new jet engine design that was still patent pending. He said that the companies hadn’t spotted the pattern because they rabidly hoard information and never share with each other.
The thing is, there was only one unit of the last part for the design in the U.S. It was a laboratory in Michigan. The crimes were all about two days apart, so it meant that facility was already slightly overdue. (REDACTED) said he’d called the cops and the FBI but they didn’t give a rat’s ass about something that hadn’t been stolen yet. So he called me. I think he’s hoping to get an ‘in’ with us so his company can count on our protection. He’ll most likely be disappointed, but his information seemed accurate. Theft is a crime after all, so Impala and I hashed it out for a few minutes and then sent an order through the dogs’ communicators for the other Backers to get back for a mission.
After about (REDACTED) in the Dogfighter, we landed in the laboratory’s courtyard. We kind of crushed an ornamental tree, but Transplant said he would fix it before we left. There were a couple of people running around and panicking, some of them carrying lunch trays or briefcases. I think they thought we were with the bad guys. They haven’t heard of us yet. Get on it internet! You can’t let the Justice Juniper do all of our rallying!
We disembarked the craft and spotted a few gaping jagged holes in the glass wall that separated the cafeteria from the courtyard. The robbery was in progress! There were some other really strange marks too. Crispy sniffed at a trail of black steaming rocks. His temperature sensor told me they were hot enough to give you second-degree burns. There were leaves and scraps of paper everywhere like a tornado had blown through. A bench was tossed onto its side and covered in snow. You heard me. Snow. I know it was a Michigan November but trust me; there was no snow for a hundred miles in any direction.
Impala leapt on top of the Dogfighter to survey what she could. Transplant built himself a suit of armor, complete with spiraling wooden lance, out of that tree we crushed. There wasn’t much else for him to work with aside from the grass. Wallflower gave me a hand signal that she would scout ahead and vanished.
“We’ve got company,” Archive said as she stared through one of the brick walls next to the cafeteria. “It looks like they’re coming back out through the hole they made.” We lined up in front of the Dogfighter to present a united front. I had three of the dogs get up front to protect us while I put Lebron and Ventura on Archive. She’s been doing well with the self-defense training but she’s the one most likely to get injured. Seeing something coming doesn’t always mean you can dodge it. “Three people,” she said. “It… it looks like one of them is flying.” I think we all got chills. As powerful as the team is, none of us can outright fly.
“Pawn,” I said, “We might need you to test the waters.”
“Got it,” he said and stepped in front of the dogs. Ten seconds later the trio emerged into the cafeteria. There was a sudden gust of air and all the remaining glass shattered outward towards us. Pawn took a couple huge cuts but he doesn’t bleed. Nothing but a little bit of white sand poured from the wounds. I don’t think he even feels things like that.
I thought the flying one would catch my eye the most, but no, the leader stopped me cold. Nance Pilton! The woman I left to get caught back at MFU. I thought if I ever saw her again she’d be furious with me, but she was smiling like an upside down bat.
“Eben! I thought you might show up one of these days,” she said. I gave her the once-over. She’d gone and gotten herself an armored costume just like us. She didn’t even try to avoid looking evil. She was covered in a malicious purple and vicious black dress thing with gigantic boots. It even had pauldrons! Four thick metal bars over the shoulder and one under the arm. She looked like she should’ve been on the cover of a cyberpunk paperback circa 1991.
As amazing (I have to give that costume what it deserves) as it was, her companions were just as crazy. One of them was this pathetic looking bald guy. The kind of schlub who might be my age but takes such lousy care of himself that his stomach looks like a water balloon and his neck looks like a sweaty tube sock full of cookie dough. He was wearing regular clothes with a bulletproof vest, but that wasn’t the crazy part. He had that damn hostage robot skeleton thing wrapped around him. I guess when Nance escaped she used it somehow. It didn’t look like he was trapped inside so I assumed he was wearing it as some kind of power armor. I knew that thing could operate on its own though. It was a good thing I’d warned the team about it when I was telling them how our little group got started.
The third one had us quaking in our boots. Literally. She was making the earth quake. I guess technically she was just transferring a quake from somewhere else, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Her costume looked just as professional as Nance’s. (I think they got referred to the same designer we did. That guy’s probably making more money than our Coinhat!). She was a young woman, mid-twenties probably, with reddish-brown hair. She was wearing a tight blue and gold thing with one cape over her shoulder and one trailing off her opposite hip. There were splashes of different colors all over: some brown boulders, red fire, and white icicles. To top it all off she had some kind of tiara on. There was even something topping that: a weird glowing halo effect just above her head. She had a second weird halo thing beneath her feet. I could see and feel the churning winds coming out of it. That’s how she was hovering six feet in the air.
“Are you going to stand there slack-jawed or are you going to say hi?” Nance asked.
“You thought I might show up?” I asked dumbly. What else could I say?
“Of course. I’ve been keeping an eye on you lot. I even backed you enough to get those nice HD videos you’re always pitching like a peanut vendor.”
“What are you doing here Nance?” I ordered. “Who are these two?”
“I’m just picking up a few things. I don’t go by Nance anymore. You can call me Woman’s Touch.” She tossed the part they’d taken and caught it in her other hand. I looked, but there was no sign of her other hands.
“That doesn’t belong to you.”
“Just as the Dogfighter didn’t belong to you. Just as your dogs didn’t. just as my own two hands were chopped off me.”
“That was a one-time thing Nance. We’re not breaking the law so much as we’re covering its breaks. What are you doing?”
“Taking! Specifically: increasing my capacity to take. We had it all wrong Eben. We spent our lives giving. Researching, designing, building, just so our ideas could be handled by neanderthals that want everything to be the latest and greatest bomb-tosser. We gave them our time and our passion and we got nothing in return. It’s time to make our own returns. I won’t be told to wait for another promotion. I won’t follow the rules just to file a five-year discrimination lawsuit somewhere down the line so I can claim the job I should’ve had ten years ago. You were an inspiration Eben. All of these structures: law, education, medicine, business… barely ever doing what they’re supposed to. We all need to do as you have done and just cut to the chase. Do what’s best for us.”
“The Justice Backers do what’s best for everyone,” Impala countered.
“Everyone as defined by your virtual panhandling,” Nance scoffed.
“Are these more titan spawn come to claim my world?” the hovering tiara weirdo asked.
“Yes they are. Just look at those toy dogs. I’m sure the real things would attack such foul creatures on sight,” the bald guy said through the metal bars of his robotic muzzle.
“Titan spawn?” Archive questioned.
“You’ll find she’s no fan of beasts like you,” Nance said. “I did a little recruiting of my own. After you left me behind I needed to find someone who had a reason to watch my back.”
“What reason is that?” I asked.
“Handsome pay,” the bald man squealed through his grin.
“This is Act-of-Goddess,” Nance said, gesturing to the hovering nut bar. “Her mind is connected to the entirety of the planet. She feels all its natural forces when they’re at their strongest and when conditions are right she can open holes between two spots of that entirety and let the elements rage. If there is a rockslide happening somewhere in the world, it is hers to command. If there is a flood, it’s hers. Lahars! Eruptions! Avalanches! Lightning! Any natural disaster you can think of.”
“Only while they’re going on? That doesn’t seem very reliable,” Golden Boy commented. Act-of-Goddess held out her left hand. The air in front of it quivered like the air over a fire and then a geyser of boiling water shot out towards Golden Boy. Jaykay blocked it but was tossed across the courtyard. Poor little guy. The impact knocked out both his eyes and he was stuck triangulating his position in relation to the other dogs.
“The Earth is always expressing itself,” Act-of-Goddess declared. “At the very least I have Old Faithful every ninety-four minutes.”
“And this fellow is Dr. Moyne. He is the Goddess’s therapist,” Nance said.
“It’s a pleasure,” the bald creep practically cackled.
“I’m feeling generous today Wo- Nance,” I said. I had to stop myself from dignifying her efforts with her villain name. “If you drop that we’ll let you just go. So long as you don’t try to take anything else. You can go do your own Coinhat if you want.”
“You’re not listening Alpha Dog,” she said. “I will never be a beggar. I just take!” She held her arms out and something happened with her armored pauldrons. The four sections of metal split and lifted off. The one under her arm revealed itself to be a thumb. She’d gone and built her mitts into her costume. I was stunned by how cool it was. Then I was stunned by the mechanical hand that rocketed through the air and punched me in the sternum. I think I was out cold for about five seconds.
I blinked my way back into the chaos when Dr. Nick lifted me into a sitting position with his head. The other dogs were barking wildly, sending coded signals to all the Backers and each other. I had everyone memorize their sounds to add to our tactical awareness but I’ll confess that I couldn’t differentiate them that well through the ringing in my ears.
I saw Monkey Girl fighting Dr. Moyne. She knocked him onto his face. It looked like she was about to restrain him when the hostage suit jettisoned its schlubby cargo and popped back up. It snagged Monkey Girl and forced her into its cage of a body. Ventura just barked at them while it was happening; once it grabbed her his targeting software couldn’t distinguish between hostile and friendly. The robot’s yellow eyes (I could’ve sworn they would be red) lit up and dropped down over hers like a pair of goggles. After that it had complete control of her movements. Nance had modified Hostage and given it a wrist-mounted pistol. It lifted Monkey Girl’s arm and forced her to pull the trigger at her own teammates.
She shot Pawn twice in the chest. A few streams of sand came out of him but he pushed through the impacts towards her. He ripped the wrist-pistol off its thin metal frame but Hostage punched straight through his head. He crumbled into a pile of white ash. Monkey Girl shrieked. I think she could’ve handled seeing him come apart, but she had to watch her own hand do the deed and come back with bits of him under her nails. I wasn’t worried about Pawn though. That’s why we have him.
I’d only just gotten to my feet when one of Nance’s mitts came at me through the dust. It was wide open and ready to crush my head like a grape. Golden Boy stepped in and wrestled with it. He tore its thumb off and it retreated back the way it came. The dust got worse. Act-of-Goddess must’ve been bringing in a Sahara sandstorm or something.
Once my head came together enough for me to issue orders, I had Ventura and Dr. Nick use their jaws to carefully grab Hostage by the legs. They kept the pressure light so they didn’t so much as scratch Monkey Girl’s ankles. Impala saw what I was doing, jumped in, and delivered a perfect cannonball of a kick that shattered Hostage’s spine but glided past Monkey Girl’s back. The robotic cage collapsed around her and she flipped out of it.
A fire whirl blew through the courtyard, orange as a devil’s sunrise. Crispy sprayed his extinguishing foam at it, but that was like trying to piss out the burning man statue. The foam just got swept away in the wind. It was headed right for Archive, but the ground in front of her exploded and the shower of soil collapsed the flaming tornado. It was Transplant encased in a coil of roots and wood he’d used as a drill. My heart was in my throat. It wasn’t just the fear though. It was the adrenaline of watching everyone work together. Every penny dropped in the Coinhat was working out there guys. Every one of you was holding a shield in front of us.
Unfortunately it just wasn’t enough. I didn’t know exactly what happened until a few minutes later, but the dust dissipated and took our nemeses with it. Archive explained it to me after we all caught our breath; she’d been able to see them and their thoughts through their elemental smokescreen. Once we were sufficiently divided Nance, Dr. Moyne, and Act-of-Goddess strolled through a hole Goddess created in the air. Off to one of the places she was connected to. They took the part with them.
Our only victory was the shattered remnants of Hostage. I scooped them up. Parts are parts. I might need some of them for the dogs. We’ll put them to a just use this time. While I gathered them, Monkey Girl was also salvaging. She gently lifted a limp white arm off the ground.
“Where are his other pieces?” she asked. Her voice quaked a little.
“Most of him was dusted,” I said. “He probably got blown away in that sand storm.” Monkey Girl could barely hold back the tears. “Don’t worry! This is why he joined. He’ll be back in a few days max. Just as soon as all the little pieces find each other.”
“What do I do with this?” she asked, holding out his arm. “Do I leave it here?”
“Better take it with us,” Impala said. “Pawn told me that the smaller pieces always seek the largest complete one. We want him to reform at the Barn.” Monkey Girl nodded and carried it with her like a deceased pet as she climbed back into the Dogfighter. “That was a disaster,” Impala whispered to me as she passed.
“It’s not our fault; they brought a disaster generator,” I reasoned. It was our first taste of failure, but now we’re prepared for next time. We couldn’t do much to fix the courtyard thanks to the ruptured ground, broken glass, and scorch marks, but Transplant did his best to restore most of the vegetation. He even grew a new bench in the shade of the decorative tree to replace the one that looked like it’d had a giant snowball tossed at it.
They broke our Pawn and we smashed their robot. No civilians were injured thanks to Wallflower. She escorted the few stragglers out of the line of fire right after Nance threw the first punch. Nance isn’t going to go out of her way to keep the injuries to a minimum. She broke a few arms and collarbones during the first robberies. Whatever she’s doing with those parts can’t be good. While we are on alert for everything, Woman’s Touch is now our top priority.