Justice Backers: Sellout Fortress

Author’s Note: This short story is a continuation of my Justice Backers novellas, about a team of crowdfunded superheroes.  If you wish to read this and fully understand what is going on, I would recommend checking those out first.  They can be found in the novellas tab; here’s a link to the beginning of the first one.  Okay, commencing with the actual story…

 

Conferencepod.com Private Chatroom #8024430

Herocious: Is everybody in here?  Can we get a roll call?

TheFastestFood: In the house.

DroneCrone: Present.

Telephony: Here.

AmericanFlare: Here

BottleRocketeer: Here

Herocious: So we’re just missing Advocate?  Is she here?

(User Advocate has joined the chatroom)

Advocate: Hey guys, sorry I’m late.  Blubbles was swimming funny again.

Herocious: It’s fine, just pay more attention next time.  I hereby call this meeting of the new Justice Backers to order!  Does anyone have any news they want to start with?

TheFastestFood: We’re done with news people.  I’ve got what we’ve been waiting for: a MISSION.

BottleRocketeer: DUDE!!!  No way.  You’re yanking us.

The FastestFood: I’m yanking you into action if that’s what you mean.  We’ve been sitting on our asses for like five months.  If we want people to call us the Justice Backers we have to BACK JUSTICE.

DroneCrone: Watch the language.  We should leave the swearing to the bad guys.

TheFastestFood: This is too FUCKING exciting not to swear.

Advocate: What’s the mission?

TheFastestFood: The Justice Backers theme park is opening in exactly one month.  Just as I predicted when those lousy sellouts announced it, some shit people have got some shit ideas about it.  You’ve heard of the Livefeed Thieves?

Telephony: Those are the guys who steal important things just because they can…  Then they stream whatever it is sitting on a pedestal 24/7 to mock the police for not finding it.  Right?

TheFastestFood: That’s right.  Those punks have set their sights on one of the exhibits at Sellout Fortress.

Herocious: It’s called Justice Isle, okay TFF?  They’re the inspiration for this whole group so if you don’t like them I don’t know why you’re here.

TheFastestFood: You’re so wrong it’s making my eyes bleed.  THEIR inspiration was the inspiration for us.  Their VALUES.  Sellout Fortress is the work of scumbag-traitor-shit-pastry Alpha Dog.  He owns all the naming and merchandising stuff now that they’re retired and decriminalized.  Yeah I’m inspired by what they did… not by what they’ve BEEN DOING, which is NOTHING.

Advocate: They saved the world and half its environments from the Lichen; isn’t that enough?  Don’t they deserve a little rest and a few royalties?

TheFastestFood: The person fighting for the little guy doesn’t get ROYALTIES.  They get shat on by the rich and authority-bloated.

BottleRocketeer: What?  You’re saying we’re only doing it right if all the important people hate us?

Telephony: They’re not saying that…

TheFastestFood: YES I AM.  Don’t speak for me Phony.

DroneCrone: What do the Livefeed Thieves want to steal?

TheFastestFood: the flame sling.

Herocious: That makes sense I guess.  They are pretty internet-y.

Advocate: They have the real flame sling at Justice Isle?  That doesn’t seem like a good idea…

AmericanFlare: Thas a dumb plan XP who cares about the fs anymore???  It proly doesnt even work nemore u know?  Cuz the internet updates and stuff

TheFastestFood: Whether or not it works it is getting stolen and we’re the ones to stop it.

Telephony: Shouldn’t we just tell the Justice Backers or their security people or whoever about the threat?

TheFastestFood: No, because they’ll just put it on display again.  It SHOULDN’T be on display.  We’re going to steal it ourselves and destroy it.

Herocious: Okay stop.  That’s destruction of property and it’s illegal.

TheFastestFood: If we do anything ever it’s going to be illegal.  What’s the big deal?  The Justice Backers kept illegal shit in their bases all the time: giant robot hands, trading cards covered in people’s secrets, other SHIT.  We’re not even going to do that.  We’re just going to smash it.

Herocious: There’s no way Cocoa Solid would approve this.  We’re not taking the mission.

TheFastestFood: Wrong again bitch-socks.  I laid it out like laundry for Cocoa and they said it was perfect for us.  They agreed to fund the whole thing.  There’s a boat waiting with our names on it and its course is already set for Sellout Fortress.  We leave Friday at 6:00 PM Pacific time.

Herocious:  Slow it down.  #1: Did you just call me bitch-socks?  #2: I’m not going anywhere.  You guys made me moderator for our meetings and all this stuff is supposed to be run by me first.

TheFastestFood: Moderator doesn’t mean leader BITCH-SOCKS!  Herocious is out.  Who’s in?

AmericanFlare: Have practis on Fri so cant.  Also not going to jail.  This is 2 much.  Bye forever.

(User AmericanFlare has left the chatroom)

Herocious: OMG did Flare just quit?  Like that?

Advocate:  I’m glad actually, aren’t you H?  They seemed like twelve years old and they kept making up new powers, so they probably don’t even have any.  What was it this week?  The ability to control the mind of whoever they made out with?

TheFastestFood: The question stands and it stands TALL.  Who the FUCK is in?

DroneCrone: I’m not participating.  These chats used to be lovely until certain people showed up.

(User DroneCrone has left the chatroom)

Herocious: I’m timing you out TFF; everything is falling apart because of you.

Herocious: Wait, it’s not letting me.  What’s wrong with my settings?

TheFastestFood: Do not adjust your sets.  I went ahead and made myself a mod too.

Herocious: Nobody said you could do that!  What is your problem???

TheFastestFood: My problem is that all of you said you wanted to be Justice Backers.  It’s time to actually BE instead of wandering around like half-bolted cows grazing on the emotions of what it might be like to actually be heroes.  This is it: the moment we become the fucked-up radicals everybody talks about.  WHO REALLY MEANT THE THINGS THEY SAID?

(User BottleRocketeer has left the chatroom)

(User Herocious has left the chatroom)

Advocate: …We’re not going to hurt anybody, right TFF?

TheFastestFood: We’ll go in before they do.  The park isn’t open yet and nobody’s scheduled to work.  The island will be deserted.  In, out, official heroic vigilantes.

Advocate: I’m in.  I need to get some crowdfunding going so I can get everybody fed and wormed.

TheFastestFood: You’re beautiful.  Phony?

Telephony: Yes.  I’m almost a senior and I’m done being a loser.  It’s time to put these powers to work.  Wow.  Already nervous.

TheFastestFood: Nerves tell you you’re alive.  We’ll pull it off.  I’ll send you both directions in the next few hours.  Meet me at the dock with everything you need for this sort of mission.  The new Jutice Backers are hatching right now BABAY!

(User TheFastestFood has left the chatroom)

(User Telephony has left the chatroom)

(User Telephony has joined the chatroom)

Telephony: Hey Advocate?  Are you still here?

Advocate: Yeah.  I don’t have a lot of time…

Telephony: I get it.  You don’t want to talk to me.  Nobody does.  The only reason I’m still here is because Herocious wanted to be fair.

Adovcate: That’s not true.  Do you remember what I told you last time?

Telephony: Confident and polite.  If I’m confident and polite people won’t hate me so much.  I don’t know how to be less needy.  Listen to me.  I’m doing it now.  I need you.  Once you get off I’ll be alone.

Advocate: You know we’re just platonic right?

Telephony: I know, but smiling me doesn’t want to admit it.  He never wants to admit anything.  He’s off eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich already, backstroking in shallow giddiness.

Advocate: He really doesn’t know you’re talking to me?

Telephony: No.  This is how it works.  He wants this, wants you, but he’ll never say it.

Advocate: Maybe that’s for the best.  I’m not interested in Telephony as anything other than a friend…  How does he feel about the mission?

Telephony: He thinks it’s his chance to prove himself.  Not just to you.  This is the first time he’s thought about anything other than you in like a week.

Advocate: He thinks about me that much?

Telephony: Yes.  He romanticizes your powers.  He has this fantasy where he finds an injured bird, usually a golden finch, and brings it to you for treatment.  In this fantasy he turns to leave and the bird, which he thought had been permanently muted by its injury, whistles to him.  You’re holding the bird and your eyes go wide.  You translate for it and say ‘she’s thanking you for saving her’.  Then you gently put the bird down, go to him, and thank him for his decency with a passionate kiss.  Then the two of you make love against your bedroom door.  Do you have an ironic Diamond Car poster on your door?  That’s what he imagines.

Advocate: Oh my god.  Oh my god.  I haven’t even done that with anybody… against anything.

Advocate: Oh shit.  I can’t believe I just told you that.  Does that mean Telephony knows I’m a… you know?

Telephony: Technically he does, but he’s not on speaking terms with me so you’re in the clear.  At least for now.  He’ll only realize it if he surmounts his emotional issues.  And that isn’t happening any time soon.  He’s too busy thinking about making love to you.

Advocate: Okaaaaaaaaaaaaaay.  You and your… host?  Should probably get some rest.  We’ve got a mission to prepare for.  I’ll see you there.

Telephony: I would say something like ‘I’ll be the twinkle in his eye’, but really there will be no visible indication of me.  He can’t wait to meet you officially.

Advocate: Soon there will be visible indications of all of us. We’ll be all over the web.  Everything’s going to get better.  I know it.

(User Advocate has left the chatroom)

(User Telephony has left the chat room)

Advocate’s Mission Statement (Backing Needed)

Advocatebackers.com

(Trigger warning: discussions of cruel and violent abuse as well as suicide)

Hello all.  I am writing this post because I need your help.  You were probably drawn in by my use of the tag ‘Justice Backer’.  I do, honestly, want to be one.  I’m aware there hasn’t been an official Justice Backers team in several years, but I think it’s time that changed.

People started hating heroes like the original Backers when Act-of-Goddess used her powers to cut the world’s exploitive industries off from many of Earth’s natural resources.  Her storms stand to this day, keeping oil drillers and lumber cutters from rainforests, coral reeves, and wetlands.  The world is still divided on whether or not it was worth it to protect everyone from the monstrous Lichen.

Obviously I think they did the right thing.  If you don’t, well then there’s no point in you being here.  For those of you who have kept reading, I need what the heroes of two decades ago needed before I can start: money.  I’ll take it in any form: online donations, E-change, points from various retail websites… just like the Backers used to.

I know I need to earn your trust first.  I would like to be doing this post as a video rather than writing it up, but that’s how strapped I am for resources.  This computer is eleven years old.  Its webcam is just a little bit of cracked glass, a tiny section of a larger crack that also affects the screen.  Sometimes I have to scroll just to make sure a word is actually the one I thought I read.

Rest assured one of the first things I will do is get a new camera so you can see me, the earnestness in my face, and my animals.  Since this is the first post on my new site, I’ll summarize everything for new readers.  My real name is a secret.  My hero name, the one I hope you’ll share on all your social media, is Advocate.

I think I was born with my powers, but I didn’t have occasion to use them until I was twelve.  I was at a friend’s house… at least I thought he was a friend.  We were playing a board game in his room, Beach Detective Cape Cod edition, when he said he wanted to go grab us some snacks.  While he was gone I noticed the plastic tank on his dresser.  It was like a little marsh inside, with plush yellow-green moss, a plastic rock full of water, and several crickets with waving antennae hiding wherever they could.  In the center sat a yellow horned frog.

I’ve always loved animals, and I’ve always treated them with love and respect.  Like everybody else, I assumed they couldn’t talk.  There are two ways I can explain what I’m trying to say.  One is the rational way where I say that animals can’t really ‘talk’ in the strictest sense, but my brain can interpret their emotions in a way that sounds like words to me.

The other way is to get all figurative, ninth grade book report style.  Animals can talk; they just have nothing to say most of the time because they live in a default state of happiness.  An animal, depending on the species and its personality, likes being an animal.  They like running around, playing with leaves and twigs, sleeping, and looking for food.  They fear danger, but that fear doesn’t consume their minds.

The only time they have anything to say is when they encounter something they don’t understand.  An animal’s words are their version of our cries of pain.  It’s the question ‘why?’ in ten thousand shapes and volumes.  They only speak when they’re asking for help.

Simply put: I can communicate with animals, but only ones that have been abused.  That horned frog was the first one I talked to.  His eyes and his quivering throat told me a story that broke my heart.  His name was Cheeseball.  The boy who I thought was my friend liked to hold Cheeseball by the back, with his delicate stomach exposed, and hold a lighter to it.  He liked to watch Cheeseball’s eyes retract into his head and his little legs kick.  He liked to hear him peep in pain.

My ‘friend’ must have been very confused when he came back with a couple of granola bars and pouches of Righteous Raz-Cherry juice, since tears were streaming down my face.  I muttered something about having to go home and ran past him.  Cheeseball was in my pocket.  He must have assumed the frog had escaped, because he never asked me about it.  Perhaps he was interested in me but stopped caring when he saw someone he perceived to be too emotional.

When he stood in front of me with that food in its shiny wrappers like he was just a regular little boy and everything was the way it should be, I wasn’t feeling sorrow.  It was rage.  I’d never wanted to strike someone so much in my life.  I wanted to hold a lighter to his nipples until they looked like the dark end of a banana.  I wanted to smash his teeth so far back into his head that he couldn’t even grasp the concept of a smile anymore.

I didn’t; I just got Cheeseball out of there.  That rage, because I didn’t let it out right there, has been building in me ever since, becoming a core part of my identity.  I have to feel it, because the animals don’t.  They’re too good for it; they feel only fear, panic, isolation, and guilt as a result of what we subject them to.  I have to feel this rage on their behalf.

Just like the Justice Backers, I am already technically a criminal.  I steal every creature that speaks to me in order to protect them.  Obviously I will be keeping my place of residence a part of my secret identity, but I can tell you that right now there are seventeen animals in my care: ten dogs, three cats, two birds, a squirrel, and a red-eared slider (that’s a turtle for all the people who didn’t grow up with their chubby little faces pressed against the plastic at pet shops like I did).

There is no peace for me in my home, because the animals speak.  They ask me why and I have no answers to give them.  In a sense, it is a thankless job.  On days where everything goes right, where I can make them all forget what’s been done to them, my reward is silence.  A night where they all think like animals.  I need more of those nights and there is only one way to get them.  I have to strike fear into the hearts of animal abusers everywhere.  That rage that’s been growing in my heart like a twisted thorny tree for more than ten years, since I held back that one punch, must be unleashed as vigilantism.  It’s the only way to quiet the pain.

You’re probably wondering how my power translates into something that helps me fight crime.  The answer is teamwork.  The communication with my animals is a two-way street, so much so that I can issue directives to them that they will mostly follow.  It’s not mind control; they’re my friends.  I can have one of my birds scout out an area for me, I can have a dog sniff something out or protect me from an enemy, and I have one cat who likes nothing more than jumping on people’s faces and trying to claw their lips off.

I know you will all want proof of my abilities before you donate.  Don’t worry.  I’ve got my first official mission coming up, with two other aspiring backers assisting, and I’ll have a body cam so you guys can see what we’re capable of.  Until then I thought I could entertain you with one of the internet’s favorite things: an unboxing!

Yes, I know video is pretty crucial to the unboxing formula, but right now I have a package of goodies and no camera, so we’ll have to make do with my linguistic skills.  It’s a box of chocolates.  If you’ve read your way around the prehero community you know ‘box of chocolates’ can have some very different connotations when it comes to us.  This box is in fact purple.  It has their seal of approval.  It was concocted and arranged for me personally, by them.  How do I know Cocoa Solid well enough to get a custom box from them?  Good question.

First the quick bio for the people who are green around here.  Cocoa Solid is… well they defy definition.  They’ve been around the web for years now, touting the benefits of the special chocolates they cook up.  I’m using the pronoun they because Cocoa Solid always appears in their videos with heavy strange make-up and a voice modulator.  There’s no telling what they identify as, if anything at all.

They are a vigilante chocolatier: all the best wannabe heroes use their creations to moderate their emotions in battle.  They don’t put hard drugs in the chocolates; it’s just stuff like caffeine and a few other slight upper/downer type things.  Cocoa is sort of the team leader for our upcoming mission, though they’re not a hero per se.  Cocoa is providing us with some financial assistance and free chocolates so we don’t lose our nerves or focus during the mission.  I met Cocoa by chance, trawling Backer fan sites, and we really hit it off.  We’ve never met in person, but I don’t think Cocoa likes to meet anybody in person.  They’re like forty, so maybe they’ve done all the meeting they want to do.

Unboxing time!  Use your imaginations boys and girls.  I’m cutting the ribbon.  I’m slowly lifting the top off.  Wow.  The smell hits you right away.  It’s all so rich: sea salt, cocoa, cream, peanut butter, coconut…  This box has ten chocolates for me and they’re all labeled and come with little descriptions of when I should use them.

One is called Valor on the Cross.  It has a vanilla icing cross on top and the filling is blood red.  The card with it says: It’s time to sacrifice.  Imbibe the blood and realize yours can be imbibed as well.  Take this when sacrifice is imminent; it will dull the pain yet shore up your devotion to the cause.  I think it actually has a little blood in the filling, but just pig or cow blood or something.  Generally I’m a vegetarian, but I make exceptions for chocolate boxes, especially considering these things can cost like a hundred dollars if you don’t know Cocoa personally.

There’s one shaped like a little skyscraper, complete with tiny sugar crystal windows.  It’s called Soaring Ambition.  The tag reads: An empty sky can be imposing, but you have the power to fill it.  Take this to learn what it means to rub your skin off against the grindstone and feel none of it.  Your long hours will be hours of success under its influence.  Does she hire somebody to write these?  They’re so good.  I would read a whole book full of these things.  They’re like fortune cookies on steroids.  Come to think of it, the chocolates are like fortune cookies on steroids!

A couple more.  You can’t ask me to resist.  The Swelling Heart.  Obviously it’s heart shaped.  The tag says: It turns a flutter into a race.  It turns a brush of the fingers into clasped hands.  It turns a kiss into a ****.  Ha!  I guess this one is an aphrodisiac or something.  Obviously I won’t be taking this one along on the mission.  Cocoa probably sent that one as a joke; they know I’m not exactly the romancing type.  There are some in here for battle so I’ll just bring those.

The last one I’ll talk about is The Flower that Doesn’t Close.  You don’t need to know what this one’s tag says; I’m far more familiar with it than even its own instructions.  I told you Cocoa Solid and I have been thick as hazelnut mousse for a while.  These chocolates treat my depression.  I have a standing order for one a week.  I don’t know what’s in them, I don’t want to know, and I’ll delete any comments explaining it and ban the perpetrator.  They help.  That’s all I need to know.

This is the start of a relationship: Advocate and her audience.  I want to begin things correctly, with honesty.  The voices of all these creatures…  I told you I had seventeen animals now, but I’ve had a lot more over the years.  There was the chameleon with his tongue sliced in half.  The rabbit who lived with Halloween masks duct taped all around her cage who never knew when the next shake was coming.  The dachshund who’d been force fed shoe polish.

Their stories get to me.  They worm their way into my heart like the heartworms they never got medicine for.  As a direct result I have attempted suicide twice.  Pills the first time.  More pills the second time.  I don’t need a lecture.  It’s been three years since the last one and I’m not in that place anymore.  One of my cats and one of my dogs were smart enough to see what I was doing.  They asked me why I wanted to leave them.  They thought it was their fault.  You know, maybe my superpower is just surviving heartbreak from a hundred different angles because that’s what these things feel like.  I’m a walking ASPCA commercial.

I take the chocolates now and I’m in a better place.  I’m solid.  That’s why Cocoa Solid has that in their name.  Their stuff makes you solid.  Fills the cracks with chocolate and a little something extra.

Okay, back to something a little more cheery.  The mission.  I can’t go into too much detail yet because I don’t want to tip off the people we’re trying to stop, so I can’t tell you who, where, or why.  I also want you to have something to hang your hats on, so I’ll tell you it’s going to be covert.  We’re not looking to start any fights yet, just do some quiet good that’s outside the white picket fence of the law.

We’re planning for the possibility of this taking up to three days, and I’ll be writing updates any chance I get.  If all goes well I should be able to write one each night to accompany the footage.  The written stuff will come first since I’ll need a calmer setting to do all the editing.

If all this sounds exciting I urge you to consider giving to my cause.  Obviously I know it is now illegal to fund vigilantes, but I also know that you know more than a couple online tools for money transfer that have proven completely untraceable so far.  Besides, if enough people give there’s no way they can arrest, fine, and prosecute everybody.  We saw that not too long ago when they tried arresting Impala.

Just like the old Justice Backers I’ll be fighting for the little guy, but this time the guy is even littler.  I’ll speak for those who can’t.  I’ll bark, growl, and bite for those who can only whimper.  I’m Advocate, I’m covered in claw marks, and I’m ready to bleed for you and your pets.  I don’t bleed for myself anymore.

Mission Report: Day One

Advocatebackers.com

Okay.  For better or worse things have started.  I’m sitting here, in the cold, typing away on my tablet because things have started.  I wasn’t supposed to be in the cold.  We were supposed to be in a hotel, with all the cold contained in the fridges, the ice machines, and the pool outside that was a little too small for even kids to get excited about.

I can post this as soon as I finish because we haven’t reached our destination yet.  The other reports will likely go up a day or two after so our plans don’t get spoiled.  I can’t tell you what hotel we were supposed to be in, but I can tell you it was one tiny pool and a gym away from being a motel rather than a hotel.  Cocoa Solid had made these arrangements for us.  The other Backers and I don’t live close to each other, so we were to rendezvous and plan at this hotel the night before the mission started.

I was the first to the room.  We were on the ground floor, close enough to the gym to hear the stationary bikes spinning their wheels.  There weren’t supposed to be any pets, but I wouldn’t be any good without them.  They were all in my duffel bag, with extra air holes of course, and after I kicked off my shoes I set it gently on the bed and unzipped it.  My friends hopped out and spread across the room.

Of my seventeen pets, these were the ones who weren’t afraid to join me on what I told them was a dangerous journey.  They are the bravest… with one exception.  Vincent Van the beagle, named such because of the ear his owner sliced off, immediately hopped off the bed and started smelling the feet of everyone who’d ever crossed the carpet.  Vince makes a great scout and fetcher.

Saintly the cat is anything but.  In fact, if anyone says christ around him he flips out and becomes a claw tornado.  His owners said christ whenever he dared to oppose their kicking with his claws.  He made himself comfortable on the windowsill.  Saintly watches out for everybody else; I think he has a death wish.

Next are my two birds: Ernest and Bridget.  Ernest is an African gray parrot and my sound mimicking expert.  Bridget is a parakeet.  Aside from her yellow head she’s bald.  The poor girl gets so nervous that she always plucks herself clean.  She can’t fly as a result, but she’s small enough that Ernest can carry her everywhere.  She’s really good with puzzles and she even knows simple math, so between the two of them they can fly up to a door and enter a security code or something like that.  They both found a perch on the flexible metal neck of the bed’s reading light.

Last is my squirrel Tracy, recognizable by the acid burn on his shoulders.  Tracy has seen things.  He doesn’t like jokes.  He only blinks when he’s confident nobody else is looking at him.  He’s skilled when it comes to sneaking things from people’s pockets without them catching on.  He silently crept under the bed and watched the crack under the door.  Tracy is the one who I wouldn’t call brave, but he needs me.  I’m afraid if I went anywhere without him he would have fits in his little rodent heart and croak.

They’re my crack team, they’re my best friends, and they’re my super power.  Together we are Advocate.  All told though we’re only one third of the new Justice Backers.  I didn’t have to wait long for the other two to show up.  First was Telephony.  Since the three of us and my animals are sitting here in the cold, I might as well hand the tablet over and let them tell you about themselves.  They know it’s important for Justice Backers to be honest with their readers and donators.  Okay, they’re agreeing.  This next bit will be Telephony telling you all about himself.

Hello Advocate fans.  My name is Telephony.  Advocate told me she wrote a piece earlier for you about her powers and how she realized she had them.  I should do that to.  Fair warning: everything with me gets awkward.

Okay so… where to start.  I’m a guy.  I’m a teenager.  I’m straight.  Kind of fat.  And I have the world’s worst superpower, unless somebody out there has something like a tongue that smells like a skunk or the ability to get pulled over for speeding even when on foot.  Before I say what it is I’ll tell you where I was when it first showed up.

It was Valentine’s Day and I was in grade school.  It was just young enough that you could get away with pulling down your pants as a joke.  Never did that one myself of course.  My public shame takes a very different form.  Worse.

We were all expected to spend part of the day filling out a valentine for each of our classmates.  Once all seventeen were complete we were to go down each row of desks and drop the valentine into a little paper mailbox each person had.  Some people’s parents went to the trouble of hand-cutting the valentines from construction paper while others, like mine, opted to buy pre-made ones with cartoon characters or candy all over them.  Mine were car-shaped.  I didn’t have the heart to tell my Mom that people only watched that old Diamond Car show ironically.  Even at that age I knew about the fodder for hate-watching.

I did as I was told and I did it sincerely.  Nobody in those seventeen had wronged me significantly.  I wrote to Jeremy that I liked his haircut.  I wrote to Susannah that she was really good at four square.  I wrote to Nisha that the cinnamon apple sauce her mom made and brought in the other day was sublime.  I actually used that word.  Heard it on a cooking show the night before.

The teacher rang her little bell and like good little subjects we started moving up and down the lines of desks and dropping off the cards in their corresponding boxes.  When it was over we immediately sealed the boxes so we could open them and read them at home.  When I pulled the tape off mine and put it in my backpack it was worryingly light.  Sneaky teacher.  She really wanted us to open them at home so she wouldn’t have to deal with situations like mine.  I forgive her.  I wouldn’t want to tell the chubby little tater tot with a quetzalcoatlus on his tee shirt that he was a loser.  That of all the people in the world he was the least likely to soar like a quetzalcoatlus.

My mom was watching when I sat on my knees on the family room carpet and dumped the red paper mailbox out of my pack.  She encouraged me to open it, a real smile on her face.  If it was possible, she had more false hope than I did.  I popped the tape latch off.  Four valentines drifted to the carpet… four.  We both stared at them in stupid shock, like a bomb had gone off and blown up the family dog.  I picked up one like a dismembered leg.  I might’ve thought something about one of them confessing a love for me so deep that it made up for the missing thirteen.

“Well, open them,” my mom said, quickly recovering her smile.  She was scratching nervous lines into her nail polish.  I did as I was told.  Three of them were fair and nothing more.  They had my name and a non-specific nicety, like I was good at sharing or some other nothing statement.  The fourth was unsigned.  You stink, it said.  My mom ripped that one out of my hands and discarded it immediately, hoping the memory hadn’t formed yet.  At least that person thought something of me so strongly that they had to speak up about it.  The rest…

I was a loser.  There was nothing else to say.  Still am.  Still nothing to say, so I won’t appreciate any comments to the effect of ‘I’m sure you have some special talent that makes all the dumb looks on your face and all the fatness worth it’.  I’ve heard it all before.  I do have that special talent, and it bites at me more than anything else.

“Were… were a lot of people out sick today?” my mom asked while we were still staring at the cards.  Her smile was so strained it was practically cracking.  Bless her for trying.  I shook my head no and immediately went to my room.  There didn’t seem to be anything else to do but sleep.  It’s the only way to forget you’re not very good at the general ‘person’ stuff, you know?

When I woke up I felt a little better.  Better than I should have honestly.  It was just a feeling though, and I didn’t yet know what my feelings could do.  I ate my usual granola-heavy breakfast (my mom tried to disguise the fact that she had me on a diet by putting cinnamon and apples in it and calling it ‘dessert oatmeal’), got on the bus, and arrived at school.

I knew something was wrong the moment I sat down.  Everyone was looking at me.  The teacher wasn’t in yet and there would be another tortuous two minutes before the bell that made her late.  A boy, a large boy, and not in the same way I was large, appeared standing beside my desk.  He thrusted a cellphone into my face so fast that the tip of my nose left a smudge on the screen.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked me.  A few others echoed his question.  Some of them had phones at the ready too, half-pulled out of their sweater pockets like they were flashing pistols.  I squinted and looked at the screen closest to me to see what he was talking about.  There was a text message.

Hello Kevin.  I’m sending this to let you know you really hurt my feelings yesterday when you didn’t give me a valentine.  I didn’t get many.  It made me feel worthless.  Please stop.

I was about to ask why he was showing me that when I saw the number above it.  It was my cell number.  The dumb look that struck me at that moment was no help.  Kevin shoved my shoulder a little.  A girl nudged him out of the way and showed me her phone.  If his message was mortifying, hers was devastating.  My body felt like Chernobyl, like it was going to be impossible to live there for the next two to four decades.

Hello Noelle.  I’m sending this to let you know you really hurt my feelings yesterday when you didn’t give me a valentine.  Most of the class didn’t, but yours hurt the worst because I like you.  I thought that if I weren’t fat in a couple years I could be your boyfriend.

My number again.  The only thing that saved me was the teacher coming in and calling everybody to attention.  I sat there in my flop sweat for hours, ignoring everything said about photosynthesis, and tried to deconstruct what just happened to me.

Somebody sent messages in my name.  I would later find out one was sent to every kid that didn’t give me a card.  The obvious answer was that someone faked my number and sent them out because they didn’t like me.  I was a loser, so the reason they didn’t like me was already provided.  There was one problem though; this person somehow knew exactly what I thought of everyone in class.

I really did have a crush on Noelle.  She was a little chubby so I thought I stood a chance with her.  She had bright blonde hair, so bright that it practically flashed like a lighthouse whenever she turned her head and sent some of it swinging around to her pink lips.  (Obviously I changed the names for this story so as not to mortify her.  I’m the one who gets to feel that.)

Maybe I could have written that off as someone seeing me stare at her, but most of the texts contained similar nuggets that perfectly summarized my thoughts of that person.  I’d never told anyone these things.  I didn’t have anybody to tell.  It only added to my confusion when, after school, my mom told me she’d gotten a call from me earlier.  I was in class.  My phone was off.

“I know it’s rough sweetie, but in a few years none of this stuff will matter to anybody,” she told me.  Whoever called her had a voice so like mine that my own mother couldn’t tell the difference.  “But you can’t call me when I’m at work anymore unless it’s an emergency.  I have to get things done while I’m there.”

Dumbstruck, my natural state it seems, I locked myself in my room.  What on Earth was happening?  Was someone slowly taking over my life because I had done such a lousy job on my own?  Was I going to be evicted from my own body and replaced with someone more capable?  Someone who wouldn’t shove nachos into it every chance they got?

My phone rang.  The phone was really just for emergencies since I didn’t have enough friends to justify its purchase.  It wasn’t empty, but it certainly wasn’t overflowing.  I wasn’t used to hearing it, so it startled me right off my chair as its vibration danced it off the edge of the desk.  I caught it before it hit the carpet.  I looked at the screen.  It was my number… calling my number.  I didn’t think that was possible.  I hit the button.

“Hello?”

“Hello.”

“Who is this?”

“I think we should be called Telephony,” the voice said after a moment.  My voice.  Exactly.

“What do you mean we?  Why do you sound like me?”

“I am you.  We’re the same person.  I’m your subconscious,” my other voice proudly declared.

“This isn’t funny.”

“Your favorite color is brown.  You’re embarrassed because you assume everyone else naturally likes the prettier colors.  You only ever hear blue, red, green, yellow…  Your favorite food is nachos, but only when they’re from the movie theater and only when the guy with the eye patch is the one making them.  He’s the only one who drowns them in exactly the right amount of cheese.  You have a crush on two different girls right now and one…”

“Alright!” I yelped at myself through the phone.  “You… we… sent those texts about the valentines?”

“Yes.  I was tired of bottling it up.  They needed to know.  Everyone needs to know how we feel.

“You called Mom?”

“Yes.”

“Why!?” I asked with a squeak.  “I don’t want this!  I don’t want people knowing how I feel!”

“Well I do,” the other side of me insisted.  How do you argue with that?  I didn’t know either, so I just listened for a while.  “We never tell anybody anything,” the voice went on.  “We have things to offer.  We need to stop letting people think that we don’t.”

“What do we have to offer anyone?”

“This.  This isn’t normal.”

“Yeah, I know that Mr. Subconscious.  What is this by the way?”

“Well it’s an ability.  You know what they call abilities like this.  Super powers.”

“This is definitely not a super power.  I’d call it more of a psychotic break.”  You’re probably noticing something odd in my retelling.  When I’m talking to myself I sound quite a bit older than the age where valentines are the social currency.  There’s a reason for that.  I don’t know exactly what it is, but the best way to explain it is just to say that I’m smarter when I talk to myself.  It’s a confidence thing.  My brain had absorbed nearly everything it heard on TV, phrases like psychotic break, and felt fine using them when there were no stakes.  My subconscious wasn’t going to yell at me for misusing a word.

“It’s a super power,” the other me insisted.

“So how super is it?”

“I can communicate with a large number of electronic devices.  I can make myself heard through them.  Phones.  Internet.  Radios.  Our brain naturally taps into their wavelengths.”  If you had asked me to explain wavelengths I would’ve looked at you like an opossum forced into a lab coat, but the part of me that had watched too many cop dramas after bedtime was certain we had a grasp on it.

That’s that.  That’s my power.  My subconscious has a will of its own, or just a will I’m not strong enough to suppress, and it talks to other people whenever it thinks I’m not communicating well enough.  I bet Advocate gets messages from it all the time, but she’s nice enough to pretend it doesn’t happen.  To pretend I’m not violating her privacy and my own.  I appreciate that.  With all these electronic admissions comes the ability to set up secure communication channels and access restricted ones.  I can listen in on bad guys or make our communication undetectable.  That’s what Telephony has to offer.  It’s not much, but it is something.

I’m going to be the weird loser.  It’s my destiny in a number of agonizing overlapping ways.  If I’m going to be that person I have to be the most important version of him.  I have to do something to make myself tolerable.  Being a Justice Backer is the way to do that.  I know it’s the right thing to do because my other self hasn’t gone ahead and posted my secret identity all over the internet.  He wants it too.  I’ll get around to setting up donations soon, but for now I’m just piggy-backing on these guys.  So yeah.  I guess I’m done.  Hopefully I’ll hear from some of you on the other side of this mission.  Wish us luck.

That was Telephony everybody.  I like to think of him as the little voice in the back of the team’s head.  He probably said some terrible things about himself, but I want you to know that there’s no human I’d rather have watching my back in real life or over the wi-fi.  Next up is the Fastest Food.  She’s the one you really need to buckle your seatbelts for.  Okay.  Fingers crossed she doesn’t break my tablet with the hyperactive poking she calls typing.

Finally, it’s my turn.  I know exactly where to start.  My name is THE FASTEST FOOD and I’m a TERRORIST.  That’s what they call me anyway.  This is the first mission for these guys, but I’ve been pulling solo missions for years now.

Advocate has her animals and Phony’s all about embarrassing texts or something, but my cause celebrat-y is food.  Yeah.  A food terrorist.  You don’t have to figure it out because I’m going to explain it for you.

Basically, everything you eat every day is nearly pure poison.  It’s circumstantial poison, but that doesn’t make it any less volatile when it’s squirming in your guts and dropping your life expectancy faster than a rat dropping a turd on one of this country’s ten bajillion meat conveyor belts.  Every bit of processing, every bit of packaging, every phase of its transportation… all of these things degrade your food.  It should be ground, to sink, to table.  We’d all be living to 105 if we kept it that simple.

Instead we populate our streets with colorful little landfills that wrap their garbage in cartoon character paper so you can’t tell what it is.  Fast food restaurants.  The worst of the worst and my absolute favorite targets.  They’re the ones I TERRORIZE.  I’m not afraid to use the word.  If you’re wondering how a superhero can be a terrorist too, this is how.  Every time I go out and take one of these places on I’m grabbing the poison out of a fatty’s hands before they can shove it down their gullet.

“NO PLEASE LET ME EXPAND MY WATER BALLOON STOMACH WITH THIRTY GALLONS OF SODA!” say the helpless dying lardballs of the world.  I tell them no, just as all decent people should.  Just like a parent pulling a dead bug out of their dumb toddler’s mouth.  Obviously I can’t do this directly and have much impact, so I make a show of it.  Gadget style.

I never leave home without my anti-poison utility belt.  I’ve got a pepper foam sprayer that can pump out a harmless, but foul-tasting, foam at high pressure.  Usually that’s my go-to.  I’ll bust into a Dandy Donuts or a Captain Fishery’s and shout something like, “I’VE GOT A BOMB EVERYBODY RUN!”  While they’re panicking I vault my way over the counter and start spraying all the food so it can’t be consumed unless you’re the most dedicated trans-fat FUCKHEAD the world’s ever known.

People need to talk about it though, and the foam doesn’t have enough flare to get those goddamn mouths going.  My frozen chicken nugget CO2 gun gets a lot of attention.  I made it out of a modified paintball gun with all those obnoxious safety measures stripped out.  It fires frozen hunks of breaded machine-meat at any employees or security in my way to discourage them.  Minor welts at worst; I’m no killer.  It’s just a good way to give them a taste of their own handiwork.  Why make a gun that shoots chicken nuggets, you ask?  Because they’re POISON!  Every bit as dangerous as a bullet.  That’s why.

Whenever I’m out stopping diabetes from sexually assaulting people I also keep condiment bombs on me.  Ketchup is the most visceral shit there is.  When people see it, they react worse than if it’s actually blood because they KNOW it’s worse.

It took ME to put this mission together because most other people in this world are afraid to act.  They’re afraid to commit the way I have, to a life of only the purest fucking food and the purest fucking motives.  People say I go too far, but they stopped saying that for a while when I put my surveillance footage up of what went on at a couple meat processing plants.  Then all of a sudden I was like QUEEN WIKILEAKS for a day.  Then some of you called me a hero.

The best heroics are the commitments though.  I haven’t had a spot of refined sugar since I was eleven.  I hate my parents for ever giving it to me.  We don’t speak anymore.  Feeding goddamn poison to a fucking pink-cheeked baby as cute as I was.  Practically murderers. Anyways we’re going to do a real number on thi dkd sldnd kosommf34u  55

Okay, now that I have wrested control of my tablet back we can move on.  As you can see The Fastest Food is… excitable.  She’s bold though, which is something our team would definitely lack without her.  Now that everyone has been introduced I can tell you how we wound up out in the cold in the middle of the night rather than in the hotel room.

All three of us were hanging out in there, spread across the bed and the two chairs, and getting to know each other.  We’d talked a lot online, but it was the first time we’d met in person.  Telephony and I didn’t bother wearing masks, since we were going to be a team, but I don’t know if The Fastest Food ever takes hers off.  Whenever she’s out exposing food safety violations she dons the face of the innocent victims: a cow, a pig, or a chicken.  Today it was a rubber cow mask.  She was at least polite enough to fold the snout up over her own nose so we could hear her better.  She still put her hand up though; she didn’t even want us to see her skin tone.

Both of them got along well with my animals, which was actually my biggest worry about this whole thing.  We could all die on this mission and I would care less than if my fellow Backers and my best friends didn’t get along.  That would be me failing before I even got to try.

We went over some details that I can’t really give you guys yet regarding the plan.  Everyone was nervous, but things seemed to be going well enough.  We decided to order room service.  I went for a salad, extra croutons, and Telephony opted for chicken tenders.  Before that he adorably whispered a question in my ear.

“If I order chicken will it upset your birds?”  I told him they wouldn’t mind.  None of them were chickens after all.  Both Food and I are vegetarians, but she’s vegan and doesn’t eat anything she hasn’t prepared herself.  I was surprised she didn’t launch into a lecture about how we shouldn’t eat whatever we were ordering, but I guess in person she reins it in a little.  As long as nobody tries to make her do anything she doesn’t want to…  Everybody knows that person.

While we waited for our room service she opened up her duffel bag and brought out her own dinner.  She had three baggies, all of them that green color that suggests biodegradability.  In one was a pile of seeds I didn’t recognize, but that my birds ogled intensely.  She was nice enough to share a handful with them.  Another had granola squares with dried fruit that I presume were homemade.  The third was a selection of raw vegetables.  As spicy as her personality is, I’d die of boredom on a diet like that.  I need cheese, eggs, and chocolate that comes in wrappers.

She muttered something to herself about forgetting to bring some water.  Telephony mentioned there was a vending machine with bottles down the hall.  Food scoffed about never drinking water from plastic because of some three-letter acronym for a chemical that escapes me.  She didn’t want the tap either because she was certain it contained, in her words, ‘brain-nuking amounts of lead’.

Then Telephony mentioned the ice machine.  Food stared at the door, vaguely in the direction he was pointing, and contemplated the idea for what felt like two full minutes.    Eventually she brought out a filter from her bag and said there was time to melt some of it.

“I’ll go get some,” Telephony said, eager to continue with the positive first impressions.  Even online that’s how he is.  I imagine it’s because he’s trying to make up for whatever E-mails or texts his subconscious has sent in his stead.  He probably didn’t need to; Food seems like the kind of girl who appreciates brutal honesty.  She might not even mind somebody running a machete straight through her as long as they weren’t lying while they did it.

Food let him go.  He grabbed the copper-colored ice bucket, it wasn’t a nice enough hotel for it to actually be copper, and headed out into the hall.  We sat in relative silence, each of us stroking one of my pets.  I tried to read her mind.  I didn’t think I could, but you never know where super powers might take you.  She was wearing an animal mask after all, and with her behavioral issues I kind of just assumed there was some form of abuse in her past more significant than ‘Mom gave me French fries’.

What separates abused people from abused animals and makes them inaccessible to me?  No idea.  My best guess is because I’m a human myself and my mind doesn’t think I should need any more help communicating with others.  Food though…  She’s less of a communicator and more of a forty-five minute song with a lot of screaming in it.  You can either listen and wince or try to shut her down.

My phone beeped.  It was supposed to be in silent mode.  I felt Food’s eyes through the black spots on the cow mask. I bet we both had the same thought of my phone beeping during the mission and getting us caught.  It wasn’t my fault though.  I checked the message.

Something going on in hall.  Might need help.

It was from Telephony… or other Telephony.  Not super sure.  It seemed when he needed to he could override some of the settings on a phone.  I flashed the message in front of the Fastest Food.  Without hesitation she pulled her mask back over her mouth and sprang to the door.  Trying to match her preparedness, I issued a low whistle.  All my animals turned to me and entered formation.  I’d prepared them for this kind of situation.  They would wait on the tips of their toes and claws for another signal from me.

Food didn’t pick up her nugget launcher, which was a wise move considering it looked a little too much like a real firearm.  She leaned up against the door while I took up a position on the other side.  The door creaked as she slowly opened it, one of her shoulders extending with it out into the hallway.

Telephony was standing there, his back against a corner, about ten feet away from us.  The full ice bucket was pressed against his shirt.  His fingers were pink from the cold and there was a wet spot on his pant leg where he was balancing it on his knee.  He urged us forward with his eyes, but didn’t say anything.

We crept up to the corner across from him and looked down the hallway he was clearly trying to keep his eye on.  There were two people, standing just outside their room, having some kind of argument.  There was a girl and a guy, who seemed to be together.  He was about five inches taller than her, and taller than any of us.  His shirt had an internet meme on it, and I won’t dignify such clothing by saying which one.  Definitely one of the ones you associate with douchebags though.  That narrows it down to about thirty-seven from this year.

Meme-douche had one bony arm pressed against the door of their room, hanging over the girl like a gutter overloaded with muck.  She was shrinking under him, and there was only so much room to shrink against the door.  Here’s the thing: this was not a super easy situation to read.  Telephony showed the appropriate amount of restraint in saying there might be a problem.

This girl did not have any obvious bruises.  She didn’t look so much scared as uncertain.  I’ve seen my fair share of similar looks though; it could easily have been uncertainty over the ‘is he going to hit me or grab me again?’ question.

“I think I lost the key,” she said, just loud enough for us to hear.  It could’ve been quieter.  Did she want us to hear it?

“Come on,” Meme-douche pushed, “you just don’t want me to come inside.  You’re afraid of what we might do together.”

“I’m not afraid of what I would do,” she said plainly.  At the moment the implication seemed pretty clear to us.  It got that much clearer when he grabbed her shoulder.  The Fastest Food marched straight down the hall towards them.  We couldn’t have stopped her if we tried, but we didn’t try so… yeah.  Both of them turned to her.  Her mask creeped them out and probably gave them the impression they were about to be mugged.

“So were you born a fucker?” my cow-faced teammate asked the guy in a chilling whisper.

“What are you mooing about, freak?” he asked right back.  If all she was going to do was argue, he probably had a hundred different pointless memes to defend himself.  His best weapon was probably a derisive chuckle.

“I asked if you were born a fucker… or if it grew inside you slowly, like athlete’s foot?  You don’t look much like an athlete…”  Telephony looked at me like he was about to be hit by a semi-truck.  This wasn’t part of the plan.

“What do you want?” the guy asked Food.

“I want you to leave her alone.”

“She’s a big girl,” Meme-douche said.  He took his hand off the door and backed up a step, as if giving her room to run away was proof he hadn’t done anything wrong.  “She doesn’t need your help.  Right babe?”

“I can handle him,” the girl said with a thin smile.  Man, this one was hard to read.  The Justice Backers had it easy.  All their bad guys wore masks or had giant robotic hands or something.

“You want to go inside,” the Fastest Food said, kind of ignoring her.  “You want to go into her room and then you want to go right into her.”

“Woah…” the girl said, suddenly backing up from everybody.  “Look, I appreciate your concern but he was just leaving.”

“I’m not leaving until…” Meme-douche started to say, but Food heard ‘not leaving’.  She got up in his face with her rubber cow nostrils.  He pushed her, but she barely rocked backward.  As soon as he took her bait, as soon as his fingers hit her shirt, a peaceful solution was out the door.  She took a wicked swing at him and broke his nose on the spot.

He collapsed against the wall and shouted, trying to kick her away.  Food had a practiced combo for that, like some kind of fighting game character.  She pulled on his leg, elbowed his thigh, and threw three more punches into his ears.  That’s when Telephony and I got to her and tried pulling her off of him.  Things only got worse from there.  The guy from the desk downstairs, drawn by his shouting, showed up wielding a big black flashlight like a club.  He was thicker and taller than Meme-douche.  We were trying to call ourselves superheroes, but this ordinary big guy scared the piss out of me.

He grabbed Food and tried to pin her arms to her sides.  She was practically frothing at the mouth as she shouted something about Meme-douche being a rapist through her bovine muzzle.  The shit was already pretty ground into the mechanism of the fan, so I had to make a drastic decision.  I whistled.

My troops came bounding out of our room and helped get the odds back in our favor.  Vincent Van’s barking kept Meme-douche and the girl at bay.  Ernest and Bridget swirled around the hotel guy’s head, convincing him to loosen his grip on The Fastest Food.  Once she had an inch she stomped on his toes, lunged at Meme-douche for one more punch, and then took off running down the hallway.  We barely had time to snatch our bags from the open room.

We followed her, Telephony setting the full ice bucket on the front desk, gently, as we blew by it.  We ran until we were certain no police car would bother searching that far for the weird kids that attacked the nice young couple.  It was kind of cold and we had nowhere to go, but Saintly was on it.  He meowed from behind a bush to get our attention and led us away from the main road.

He had found an abandoned tree house in a strip of woods far enough away from the highway to make the honking of the trucks sound like the distant call of an owl.  We all climbed up into it and took a crooked wall to lean against.  There were no blankets.  That’s it.  That’s how day one of our mission turned into us seeking shelter from the biting wind.  Opinions on the situation varied.

“We fucking did it,” The Fastest Food declared.  “We stopped a sexual assault.”

“Maybe,” I said aggressively.

“What do you mean maybe?” she shot back.  “You saw that guy.  He grabbed her.  He said he wasn’t leaving.  He was going to rape her with his tiny green imp cock.”

“She said she could handle him.”

“I didn’t see anything super about her.  I don’t think she could have.”

“And you’re the judge?  You’re wearing a cow mask.  You look like a home invader who likes blackmailing the owners into sticking their fingers in a blender.”

“I think I’ve seen that movie,” Telephony mumbled.  He was trying to change the subject, which was foolish.  The wind was in our bones, so the subject was too.

“You can’t fly off the handle like that,” I told our terrorist.  “It just looks like you beat the snot out of a guy for no reason.  That’s bad publicity for us.”  Vincent Van whined; I was rubbing his neck a little too hard.  I whispered an apology to him and put him in my lap to keep him warm.  “We’re a team now.  We’re supposed to vote.”

“If we took the time to vote it would’ve happened,” she argued.  “Then that girl would have it inside her forever.  She’d never be rid of it and she’d wind up with scars like those.”  She pointed a gloved finger at my arms, at the scars I couldn’t pass off as cat scratches because of the way they lined up perfectly.  God, that bitch knows how to get people going and how to shut them down.  I needed people to stop being around after that, so I just focused on my animals.

Tracy dropped something in my lap.  I picked it up and opened it. Hotel guy’s wallet.  Great.  Now I had to mail that back.  We’re supposed to be thieves on this mission, but classier thieves than that.

Mission Report: Day Two

Advocatebackers.com

Welcome to day two everybody.  Technically it’s day four for me.  It’s all over and now I can reveal exactly what we were trying to do.  When last I left you we were all shivering in a treehouse.

In the morning we walked to a gas station and then called for a car that could get us to the docks.  The docks were our next stop because Cocoa Solid had arranged our transportation for the mission.  All we had to do was find the right slip.  Honestly, it was pretty hard to miss.  Our boat was a relatively small but sleek craft with a blazing red paint job.  Its top was metal and fabric and could be pulled down like a convertible.  None of us had any idea if that was common for boats or not.

“This certainly looks like Cocoa’s boat,” I said as I climbed in.  The craft wobbled in the water a little.  “Come on everybody.”  All my animals piled in.  Saintly was a tad wary of all the water, but after seeing how easily it wobbled the rest of us were too.

“So you’re driving, right Food?” Telephony asked.  “You have experience?  Lots of experience?”

“My family had a speedboat and some jet skis,” Food assured him.  “I’ve got this handled one hundred and ten percent.  Cocoa said the keys would be… in here.”  She popped open something like a dashboard.  A cardboard box, in loud wrapping paper, fell out.  It was topped with a bow which was also tied to the keys.  I snatched a card off the top of it.  Cocoa Solid doesn’t just provide; they nourish.  They overfeed.

The top layer of the box was a special batch of chocolates for us and, don’t worry, I’ll get to those later.  Under that was the real surprise.  Costumes.  Uniforms.  Whatever you want to call proper superhero get-ups.  We already had masks and dark clothing and things, but these were professional.  They must have cost Cocoa thousands of dollars.  Each was tailored to our tastes and had actual layers of body armor built in, the kind that’s good enough to make lethal small arms fire less than lethal.

We made sure we were out in open water (did I even say we were heading out into an ocean rather than a lake?) before we tried them on.  Mine had a lot of forest green; Cocoa knew I didn’t like anything too bright.  The mask was a simple eye and nose covering with hints of a few animalistic contours.  It came with two matching armor vests for Vincent Van and Saintly.  My squirrel and birds would have to go without as I imagine there were some requests even Cocoa’s designers wouldn’t tolerate.  (Plus I hadn’t exactly sent her the measurements for my pocket-sized pets.)

Telephony was in red.  I assured him it was an excellent color for him.  Three minutes later I got a text from his subconscious asking if I really thought that.  I told him yes again.  His mask was attached to two big earpieces like fancy headphones.  I assumed they were jammed full of electronics that his other self would have an easy time using.

The Fastest Food’s costume was far less dramatic than I expected.  Her armor looked an awful lot like jeans and a black leather jacket.  She popped the collar and donned a rooster mask with a charcoal-colored comb and wattle.  The chicken had very solemn eyes.

“I didn’t think you’d wear leather,” I told her.

“This is the finest fake leather money can buy,” she insisted as she tried to stretch the collar even higher on her neck.  Something told me she’d known about the uniforms and that she’d actually given Cocoa Solid a few suggestions beforehand.  Either way, we looked the part a lot more than we did before, especially since The Fastest Food’s driving did turn out to be quite skillful.

Okay, let’s get all of you backers briefed.  Our mission was taking place on… Justice Isle.  I’m imagining confusion right now, maybe a few people freaking out, yelling, and chewing on their mousepad out of stunned madness.  It definitely requires some explaining.

First and most importantly: what is Justice Isle?  You guys remember the Justice Backers.  Everybody does.  They changed the face of the planet after all, but they haven’t done much lately.  The classic members have all been shunned or pushed into the background now that they’ve been regulated out of existence and have made room for smaller-scale operations like ours.

Impala’s living the anonymous life so well that nobody knows what continent she’s on, her beautiful bulging leg muscles hidden under a dress most of the time (I imagine).  We all assume Pawn and Transplant are still living the spore life.  Monkey Girl’s been pretty much left alone thanks to the fact that she basically lives in international waters and does pure humanitarian work.  Golden Boy shows up on some TV show every week because nothing sticks to him.

Then there’s the head hound, the man who started it all with the first hero-funding campaign: Alpha Dog.  If anybody was going to find a new way to make money off of the idea of justice, it was him.  That’s what Justice Isle is.  In his advancing middle age he’s managed to rebrand himself as the rational man caught up in an irrational situation even though the whole thing was his idea.  Enough people valued his opposition to the Lichen and its spores that he became an internet folk hero.  The kind of guy people on their porches would carve little wooden likenesses of one hundred and fifty years ago.

He finagled his way to wealth and comfort and even managed to acquire the likeness rights of most of his former teammates.  I don’t think they resent him for it; that’s just the kind of guy he’s always been.  (That’s the way Archive’s and Wallflower’s book paints him anyway.)  Enter his newest and grandest venture: a theme park celebrating the golden years of the Justice Backers and all their adventures.  Justice Isle is nearing the end of its construction and will open to the public in a matter of weeks.

Why were we trying to break into a capitalist shrine to our own heroes?  Simple.  Someone else was trying at the same time.  We had information that the Livefeed Thieves, notorious criminals who broadcast their crimes across the internet, were planning to steal a powerful Justice Backer artifact from its display before the park opened.

The artifact (can I call something less than twenty years old an artifact?) is the flame sling.  If you’re a Justice Backer buff you might remember it.  Near the end of the Backers, when they were mostly trying to repair their image with community service projects, there was another sort of weirdo making headlines.  He was Presto.com, and he called himself a digital performance artist.  At first he was just the kind of pretentious artsy guy who would display his paintings on hanging monitors instead of canvases.  Then he got it into his head that he was a revolutionary inventor.

To be fair, nobody else had managed to build what he did before.  The flame sling is a computer, given its intimidating appearance only to enhance its image of artistic achievement.  The device can identify any person before it and swiftly obliterate their entire presence on the internet.  Photos, articles, tiny snippets of data about them carried by exotic hidden malware… nothing could survive its figurative heat.  Presto made it as a statement about digital crimes being like real crimes.  He had the sling produce hologram flames whenever it was in use, to show the damage that could be done to people without ever touching them.

There was a question about the legality of the device, and how it could be misused.  Since Presto only used it on volunteers interested in his art, the authorities didn’t quite have the reach to make him give it up.  Maybe they would have succeeded if he was less of a public figure, but the guy made his last name .com so…  You get the idea.  The Justice Backers had some evidence that it had been used on an underage person who couldn’t really consent to that sort of thing; they used that as a pretext to confiscate it from the performance artist.

There was a bit of a scuffle, with Presto.com trying to use it on the Backers.  All they had to do was back up and have Alpha Dog’s robotic hounds grab it for them.  It’s been under lock and key, until recently that is.  We needed to steal it to prevent it from being stolen.  You might argue we could’ve just warned Alpha Dog, but we do have designs of our own just as they did.  We think the flame sling should be destroyed, for its power is too great.  Once we have it we’ll make sure it can’t be used against anyone ever again.

It was the weekend; most of the construction guys working on Justice Isle had been shipped back to shore for a couple of days off.  The park still had some automatic security, but both sets of thieves (yes, one is us) seemed confident they could handle that.  How the Livefeed Thieves planned to do it we had no idea, but Telephony was our secret weapon.  Thanks to his ability to open secure communication channels, our chatter couldn’t be detected by anything.  My pets covered the rest, as they could scout ahead and find all security cameras.

Cocoa Solid had secured us some schematics for the park’s layout, which Telephony and I reviewed while The Fastest Food kept us heading towards the isle.  We planned out the best route, trying to ignore the spray created by our speeding vessel.  The schematics were laminated, because of course they were, because Cocoa Solid thinks of everything.

The island had two main points of entry: the guest docks and the loading docks.  The loading docks, on the back of the island, connected to a partially submerged cave attraction called Sportfish Bay.  They had a ride there where you could get into whale-shaped submersibles and ride around for a while; it’s the same technology Alpha Dog used to build his hounds.  It’s dark, it’s discreet, and it was where we were going to park our boat.

After taking a path through the bay entrance, marked by the Woman’s Touch Tank, and into the main body of the park, we would pass through the food court, Wing King’s high-flying coaster, Electric Eel’s Shocking Drop, and then into the museum where the flame sling, and about a million other cool things, was stored.

“Thar she blows!” The Fastest Food declared.  “Aroo-ah-oo!” she crowed like her mask.  “Sellout Fortress everybody.”  Her opinion on Justice Isle is abundantly clear, I’m sure.  Even she couldn’t deny it was an impressive sight.  The island was small, but the park’s tallest structures stuck up from its trees like gigantic soft mushrooms.  All the architecture was friendly and rounded like a baby-proofed apartment.  The loops of several roller coasters, in garish neon colors, came into view.  They even had a replica of the Justice Juniper at the front entrance, but that was not our entrance.

Food took us around and into the shade of a carefully engineered shelf of stone.  We pulled right up into the bay, alongside a row of the robotic whales.  I imagined they would act quite lifelike when they were powered up, but for now they just sat there like some kind of mass-beaching.  After Ernest, Bridget, Saintly, and Tracy did an initial survey for cameras, we disembarked our blazing red boat and stepped foot on Justice Isle.  Everything was dim on account of the lights being off; it highlighted our boat all the more like it was some kind of fresh arrow wound in the side of the park.  I immediately felt like a trespasser, which, you know, I was, but I half-expected to look down and find a can of spray paint in my hand.  I tried to remind myself we were actually there for something important.

“I’m opening our channel,” Telephony whispered as he fiddled with his headset.  “Make sure your earpieces are in.”  I checked mine and waited.  There was a quiet wave of static, and then I heard Telephony’s voice again.  “Is it working?”  I was looking at him when he said that, and his mouth wasn’t moving.

“Your subconscious just asked if it was working,” I told him.  His cheeks immediately went red; I guess he assumed it said some other things as well.  It did have an audience at the moment who couldn’t really turn their phones off.  “I guess that means it’s working,” I joked.  I forced out a chuckle and patted him on the shoulder to calm him down.

“If you’re trying to calm us down you shouldn’t touch us,” his subconscious said in my ear.

“Oh sorry,” I apologized.  Telephony looked at me with a worried glance.

“What did I say now?” the flesh and blood part of him asked.

“It’s nothing,” I told him.  “Don’t worry about it.  Let’s move out.”  I had Vincent Van lead the way, his nose to the wet floor.  I don’t know if there were any helpful scents for him to pick up, but I didn’t see how it could hurt.  There came a moment halfway up the stairs that led to the light of day where The Fastest Food and I were walking far enough behind Telephony that I could whisper something to her without him hearing.

“Hey, did you hear what his subconscious said to me?”  She just looked at me.  I couldn’t read anything through those rubber chicken eyes.  She kept walking and staring without saying anything.  “What!?”

“Nothing,” she said.  “I was trying to figure out if saying I did could benefit me in any way, but I kind of ran out of time.  I didn’t hear whatever it was.”

“You’re such a help,” I moaned.  I got the distinct sense that she hadn’t even started caring about anything we’d said that day.  “Don’t tell Telephony that I asked her… uhm… you know… okay?”  I asked my earpiece as quietly as possible.

“I won’t,” his subconscious said back after a moment.  “He’s already more nervous than he’s ever been.  Let’s get the flame sling and get out of here.”  The more open half of him had a good point.  Lingering didn’t benefit us in any way, but it was difficult to avoid given our surroundings.

The stairs led us up to the Woman’s Touch tank, which was in the middle of a weirdly big gift shop.  The tank itself didn’t have any water, starfish, or hermit crabs in it yet, so we could smell the factory-fresh sand poured in the bottom.  Two giant plastic hands, modeled after the robotic ones the villain Woman’s Touch used, rose from its sandy depths.  Their palms faced the ceiling and had stacks of Justice Backers stuffed animals on them.  They were mostly plush versions of Alpha Dog’s hounds.  My imagination got away from me; I couldn’t help but picture my own pets as toy symbols of hope for kids around the world. They’ve been through so much; they deserve it.

“You guys want to tear some of this stuff up?” The Fastest Food asked as she examined cheap necklaces with dangling hero insignias.

“We told you before: no property damage aside from the sling,” I warned.

“Property damage is my whole thing,” she whined.  “People won’t know I was here unless some of this corporate garbage winds up shredded.”  She picked up one of the plush dogs and twisted its head around on its stuffed neck.  Vincent Van whined.

“Can you not do that in front of them?” I asked her.

“Sorry.  Tell me this doesn’t gall you a little though.  These guys used to stand for something.  They used to put their lives on the line to stand up for people who couldn’t.”

“They couldn’t anymore,” Telephony said as he examined the necklaces himself.  I think they were the kind where they put random names on them in the hope they stumble across yours and you’ll feel like it’s the stupidest little thing fate has ever done for you.  I don’t think he found his there; is that worse?  “Everybody was after them.  It was either stop, hide, or…”

“Sell out,” Food finished.  “They should’ve kept fighting regardless.  They needed to fucking stay counter-culture.  There always has to be a strong, sharp, jagged vein of counter-culture to keep regular culture from bloating as fast as it wants to.  It’s the goddamn splinter poking in the side of the balloon.”

“Well we’re stealing from the counter-culture that inspired us,” I argued, “so does that make us counter-counter-culture?”

“I wish,” the Fastest Food said as she checked the drawer of the cash register.  She even angled her chicken beak down inside it so she could see the back.  “If we could get about five counters on our label that would probably make us the best people in all of fucking existence.”

“Let’s get to the museum before you can’t control yourself anymore,” I suggested.  I whistled to Ernest and Bridget, who had already made themselves comfortable in the pile of stuffed animals.  They didn’t seem too happy to be moving out again.  I’d never had any of them away from home this long and only Saintly was handling it well.

We came to the food court, but had to skirt around it thanks to a few security cameras.  The backs of all those kiosk restaurants sure are depressing without the colorful signs and toy displays around.  There were boxes everywhere and the occasional abandoned trolley.

After that came the museum, which was swarmed with cameras.  It was easy to see from the little red lights that they were all on too.  Alpha Dog was not the kind of guy to skimp on the technology, so we were certain the cameras were hooked up to an A.I. rather than the drowsy eyes of a single guard somewhere.  If they identified us they would immediately activate alarms.

There was a simple way around it for us though; we had a squirrel.  Squirrels irritate people.  They distract them, but they don’t make anybody suspicious.  We found the clearest pathway, which was only guarded by a single camera, and waited crouched in some decorative bushes while Tracy scurried over.  He scaled the gutters of the museum and crawled out onto the camera, laying his furry stomach across it until the lens was completely blocked.  Nothing but a curious squirrel resting where he shouldn’t.  While the camera was covered we quickly ran by its cone of vision and under the museum’s awning.

When Tracy returned we were already examining the next obstacle: a padlocked chain around the doors.  It had little lights of its own, indicating some electronic component and possibly an alarm.  I was fresh out of ideas, but The Fastest Food was not fresh out of ketchup.  She pulled out one of her red grenades and carefully opened a tiny valve on it.  The pressure forced out a stream of ketchup, which sank into the cracks of the padlock.  After a few moments its lights fizzled out and it popped open.  We left it lying there on the ground, bleeding ketchup from the two holes on top.

If it was hard not to geek out in the gift shop, it was a hundred times harder in the museum.  They knew to decorate it like a movie theater, with red curtains tied up all around the walls.  Nothing says ‘superhero’ like the theater.  Rows and rows of mannequins marked the first paths, each one wearing a Justice Backer or villain costume.  Some were reproductions and some were the real thing.  They had the jackets Metal X and Metal Y wore with completely rusted-over buttons.  They had the black troll-masked disguises worn by Secret Shuffle dealers and traders.  Costumes covered in plastic leaves worn by wannabe spores.  The wedding dress of the bride of Wing King.  I think I was salivating.

We pressed on, trying to keep our eyes on the prize.  Once we were through the costume hall we hit more traditional-looking exhibits in glass cases.  That was it; the flame sling was bound to be in there somewhere.  The three of us split up in search of it.  I snooped around the spot with Speedball’s pitching arm exoskeleton.  The Fastest Food had Game Master’s props.  None of us found what we were looking for, but Telephony was on to something we all wanted to see.

“Guys, check this out,” he whispered through our earpieces.  I’d lost him in the field of super relics, but I just followed my birds back to him.  When I got there the Fastest Food was already admiring it too:  Tin Soldier.

I’m sure most of you know, but for those who don’t: Tin Soldier was a Justice Backer.  He came in around the time the original team split in two.  Alpha Dog bought him to help swell his diminished ranks.  He was able to buy a hero because Tin Soldier is a robot.  So far he’s the only one of his kind known: an android built in the seventies to be a soldier in what his mad creator thought was an upcoming race war.

The guy thought of this war as a white revolution against the ‘forces’ of equality.  Yeah, he was a fruitcake.  Regardless, he styled the robot’s uniform after an American revolutionary uniform and he has worn a variation of it ever since.  Here it was on glorious display, fitted onto a replica that looked way way better than the simple mannequins wearing the earlier costumes.  We could see every detail on his harmonica-like mouth and his floodlight eyes.

For those of you wondering if the robot himself is racist, he was.  He was programmed that way after all.  Eventually he befriended the black Backer Electric Eel and kind of got over it.  I say kind of because he went overboard with the subject.  Back when he was active people remembered him always going on and on about his millions of black friends online.

The model of him here was in a superb action pose.  They had his torso swung out to one side, with an arm swinging the bayonet of his iconic rifle.  Just under the blade stood a headless henchman robot the Backers ran into a lot; I think they were called Hostages.    He had another part of one crushed in his other hand.  It was so dramatic; everything else was a bit drab in comparison.

“Why did they spend so much time on this one?” the Fastest Food asked.  She crouched down and tapped the buttons on his jacket. We heard it hit his metal chest underneath.

“Hey, you guys don’t think this is the real Tin Soldier, do you?”  Telephony asked.  “And if we just turned his clock key he would start up again?”  (That is actually how he worked by the way; turning the key on his back loaded his main spring with kinetic energy that lasted a set amount of time for each turn.)

“I don’t think they would leave one of their friends frozen in sleep, alone on an island, for however long that’s been here,” I said.

“I’d believe that,” Food said flatly.  “They’ve compressed and stored and slapped a price tag on everything else around them.  Why not friends too?  I bet they fetch a pretty penny.  Of course, I know this isn’t the real Tin Soldier.  Look here.”  She pointed to the bolts around his neck holding his shoulders together.  “On the real one these are gold instead of silver.  The tassels are different too.  More floofy.”

“Maybe it’s an animatronic then,” Telephony guessed, approaching it from behind.  “That way visitors can wind him up and he’ll move a little like the real thing, but he’ll just flex his arms and play some recording about the legacy of the Justice Backers… or something.”  He reached out and touched the clock key at the back.

“Well don’t…” I started to say, but it was too late.  He turned the key about half an inch.  The bayonet finished its swing and nearly took Food’s head off.  She rolled backward expertly and by the time she was back in a normal crouch she had her frozen nugget launcher primed and aimed straight at the robot.  Telephony’s dismount from the raised step of the exhibit wasn’t as graceful, but he got out of there.  The crushed henchbot part fell out of the soldier’s hand and he rose to his perfect metallic posture.

“Greetings!” his voice blasted out.  “I, Tin Soldier, welcome you to the Gallery of Glory!  It is here where we store…” he stopped and examined us.  So… he was real.  We were face to face with an actual Backer; the craziest part was that they actually did have him memorize some spiel about the park.  “I thought we would have a larger crowd for the opening ceremonies.”

“Shitty shitakes… you’re real!”  Food blurted.  “They changed your looks a little.”

“Alpha Dog thought a slightly more regal look was appropriate,” the robot said, self-consciously examining the tassels on his sleeve.

“I screwed up, I screwed up, I screwed up, I screwed up,” Telephony’s subconscious repeated into our ears.  His actual lips were sealed and his face was ridiculously red.

“It’s fine,” I whispered to him.  The robot noticed.  His unblinking eyes expressed nothing, but the slight tilt of his head held volumes.

“Where are all the other guests?” he asked.  “You must have the all-access passes Alpha Dog spoke of.”

“Yes,” The Fastest Food said.  It was easy for her to keep a straight face wearing a rubber chicken beak.  “All access.  Shelled out a pretty penny for them too so we could get in here before everybody else and their scooter-riding grannies.  We were hoping you could tell us where the flame sling display is.  We’re most excited to see that.”  Slick.

“I’d be delighted to show you,” Tin Soldier said.  He slung his rifle over his shoulder where it connected to a magnetic rack on his back.  Then he marched off the platform and further into the building.  “This way.  I enjoy your costumes by the way; I don’t remember those particular rogues from our gallery, but I was not active in the last years of our work.  The chicken-headed villain must have been particularly fearsome.”

“Guy was evil as fuck,” Food went on.  She was the first one behind him.  The robot hadn’t spotted my pets yet, so with a casual-sounding whistle I ordered them to hide.  If pets weren’t going to be allowed in there it might’ve made him suspicious.  “They called him Booster Rooster.”  Maybe her actual superpower is lying.

“The flame sling is a nefarious device that burns down the internet presence of anyone in its path,” Tin Soldier explained.  “There are no actual flames or paths of course; I’m utilizing my mastery of figurative language.”  He stopped in front of a display case that was covered with a purple cloth; that was why we hadn’t spotted the sling ourselves.  He whipped it away.  There were plenty of gadgets on display, but the sling was the centerpiece.

It was a little bigger than I expected, about the size of a kid’s two-handed water gun.  Its body was shining chrome with two sharp licks of plastic red fire across the sides.  Honestly it was a little tacky.  Still, it had a clear front end and a clear trigger.  The Fastest Food spread her gloved hands over the top of the case; her fingers squealed against the glass.

“All-access baby.  Aaaaaalllll-access.”  I think her beak was filling with drool.

“If you don’t mind my asking, how am I doing so far?” Tin Soldier asked Telephony.

“Uhh… with what?”

“How well is this tour going?” the robot clarified.  He leaned closer to the poor boy, who already couldn’t lean back further.  “If you had to categorize your level of entertainment and engagement on a scale of one to five, would it be a four or a five?”

“It’ll totally be a five if you can open this up and let us hold it,” Food suggested.

“I’m sorry miss; Alpha Dog was very clear.  None of the cases are ever to be opened in the presence of guests.  Many of these objects are highly dangerous.”  Tin Soldier examined the ceiling.  It was really dim in there, with only the emergency blue floor lights active.  I guess the lackluster atmosphere threatened his theoretical five-score, so he did something about it.  He put a metal finger to something on the side of his head that looked like a modern earpiece.  All the lights overhead came on in a blinding flash.  Music with lots of French horns blared.  I suppose it was the Justice Isle theme tune.  Not bad.  John Williams-esque.  “That’s much better,” the robot declared.

“The reverence for these things; it borders on the Catholic,” Food muttered.  “How’d you do that by the way?”

“With this,” the robot said and pointed to his earpiece.  “Alpha Dog was kind enough to build a device that could integrate my uniquely antiquated CPU with a modern system.  I can now access the internet without a separate terminal as well as control the systems of Justice Isle.”

“Neat,” both halves of Telephony whispered.

“May I see your all-access passes?” Tin Soldier asked.  He held out his palm.  We froze.  “I haven’t seen them yet; I need to be able to identify our V.I.P guests.”  His palm inched closer to us.  With its metallic sheen it was like a mugger stabbing in our direction.  Telephony’s subconscious screamed his fear into our earpieces and we all winced.  “Please show me your passes,” he repeated and took a step towards us.  We backed up.  “Please show me your passes.”

He lowered his hand.  I think the excitement of being a tour guide was wearing off and he started to notice some things, like the lights being off when we were there and the absence of other guests.  The jig was up.  The robot’s arm shot over his shoulder and he pulled his rifle in front of him.

“You are trespassing,” he stated with some measure of disappointment.  “The park is not open to visitors yet.”

“Took you long enough,” Food spat as she pulled her nugget launcher and aimed it at his head.  I whistled.  My animals came out from the woodwork and built a perimeter around the machine.  None of them stood a chance against him with their teeth, talons, or claws, so they would be playing the distraction.  Saintly was already atop the glass case with raised fur and an angry hiss.  Vincent Van growled and barked.

“Everybody just hang on,” I said, holding my arms out in an attempt to restrain Food more than the soldier.  “While we are technically trespassing Mr. Tin Soldier, we have good reason to.”

“What reason is that?” he asked.

“We’re Justice Backers, just like you,” Telephony explained.

“Actually we’re better than you because we haven’t so…”

“That’s right,” I said, cutting off Food.  “We’re crowdfunded heroes.  Retrieving the flame sling is our first official mission.  We’re trying to follow in your footsteps.”  The robot’s head spun completely around; he took a millisecond to check the flame sling was still in place before his head spun back.

“I do not understand.  If you are Justice Backers, where is the threat you are here to stop? I offer you this advice: your approach has an unpleasant air of thievery to it.  It will not be good for your public image.”

“There was a threat made by some villains called the Livefeed Thieves.  They said they intended to steal the flame sling.  Obviously it can’t be allowed to get into their hands, so we came to take it first.”

“Why would you not simply warn Alpha Dog?” the robot asked.  “I make an effective guard when the situation calls for it.  I protected the Backer Bay on many occasions while my teammates slept.”

“Okay, yeah, but here’s the thing…”  I could tell I was losing him.  I might’ve been losing myself a little too.  “We are of the opinion that the flame sling is too dangerous to be possessed by anyone.  We would like to destroy it.”

“The flame sling is the property of Justice Isle.  That would be a crime more serious than trespass.”

“Oh come off it,” the Fastest Food shouted.  “You guys destroyed public and private property all the time!”

“I do not deny that,” the robot said, “but always in instances where the greater good required it.”

“But the Livefeed Thieves…”

“I can find no record of such a threat,” Tin Soldier interrupted.  He touched a finger to his earpiece again.  “There is no mention online of this threat.”

“It’s darknet stuff,” Food said.  “We’ve got a reliable source with connections.  We know it happened.”

“This device was a collaboration between Alpha Dog and the Unfridgable Girl,” the soldier countered.  “It accesses the underbelly of the underbelly.  Figurative language again.  If what you said was true, I would be able to find it.”  Telephony and I glared at Food.  She didn’t say anything in response.  I not only had questions swirling in my head, I had the ones swirling in Telephony’s head in my ear.  We were thinking a lot of the same things.  Had the Fastest Food lied to us?  Had Cocoa Solid?  Had both of them?  I can tell you right away that I threw out the accusations against Cocoa.  They were all about openness with the people they gave chocolates to.  They practically saved my life.  I had some of their stuff giving me extra pluck at that very moment.

“We’re taking the sling,” Food declared without acknowledging her team.

“You are children, not superheroes,” the robot declared.  “Your parents need to be spoken with.  I will hold you here until I can contact them.”

“We can take him,” Food assured.

“What are you talking about!?” Telephony panicked.  “He has a gun!”

“They didn’t leave him in here without so much as a velvet rope and give him any ammunition,” Food surmised.  “It’s empty.  Look at his bayonet too.  Alpha Dog knew he might do something silly like take a swing at somebody when he started up, so he replaced it!  It’s foam rubber or something!”

“It is true,” Tin Soldier admitted.  He raised a hand and brought it down on the base of the bayonet.  The piece broke off and bounced harmlessly across the floor.  “I will still restrain you.”  He held the rifle in front of him with one hand.  He moved the hand to the middle of the stock and started to spin his arm.  In seconds it was spinning faster than a ceiling fan and he was marching towards us.  We were in a fight with a Justice Backer.  I am aware of what that suggests so I don’t need to hear it in the comments.

Pthok!  It was a very strange sound, and I heard it twice more as the Fastest Food fired off three frozen nuggets at the robot.  The first two exploded against the spinning rifle, but the third snuck in between its rotations and smacked Tin Soldier just below one of his lighthouse eyes.  The robot snatched the nugget in his free hand as it bounced away and examined it.

“Chicken nuggets?” he questioned.

“Because they’re poison!” the Fastest Food shouted.  She activated a ketchup grenade and tossed it.  A moment later Tin Soldier’s revolutionary war inspired uniform had become a redcoat.  He was not happy about that.  The rifle stopped abruptly and he leapt forward with disturbing speed.  His fingers wrapped around the front of Food’s shirt and he lifted her off the ground.  She cursed and writhed like a dying hornet, but she couldn’t do anything against his strength.

Tracy was already halfway up his coattails at that point.  I gave him specific whistle-orders that he followed to a tee.  In his scurrying he coated his paws with ketchup, and once he was at the robot’s neck he rubbed his little fingers all over Tin Soldier’s eyes and blocked his vision.  Simultaneously I had Ernest mimic my voice as he flew behind the robot, making it sound like I was trying to jump him from behind.  He took the bait, dropping Food and whirling around as he cleared his eyes.

During my distraction Telephony’s subconscious had informed me he would go for the sling.  I didn’t think he’d have the nerve to break the glass, but he picked up the robot part Tin Soldier had been dramatically crushing in diorama mode and swung it like a brick.  The display case shattered and he reached in to claim our prize.

Not about to be outclassed by three teenage hoodlums, the veteran Backer recovered his vision, sprinted over to Telephony, and snatched the flame sling right out of his hands before we could react.  He looked like he was about to put one arm behind his back to protect the sling and fight us singlehandedly, but he stopped.  His static eyes moved back and forth between us.  I think he reached some sort of impasse.  Then, just like that, he turned and ran through a big set of curtains.

Confusing as it was, none of us suffered under the delusion that we’d won.  Something else had happened that we missed.  Once the Fastest Food was on her feet she shouted that we should give chase, so we did.  The ketchup had soaked into his clothes sufficiently that he wasn’t leaving an easy trail for us.  In fact, there was no sign at all of the direction he’d gone.  We split up, and I had my animals fan out as well.

“He probably already called for help with that earpiece,” Food huffed into our communication channel.

“No he didn’t,” Telephony’s subconscious said.  He was undoubtedly huffing and puffing as well, but the deep part of his brain didn’t suffer from exertion in the slightest.  “We blocked his communication.”

“I didn’t know you could do that,” I told him.

“Well we can’t exactly.  We do have access to his channels though.  We flooded them with noise so he couldn’t send a coherent message.  If he sends an audio message the recipient will hear nothing but us shouting arugula over and over again.”

“Why arugula?” I asked.

“It was the only word we could think of.  We had to shout something.  Similarly, if he sends a text file it will just be filled with the random punctuation marks we thought into it.  We’ve drowned him out essentially.”

“Good work Telephony.”

“A compliment from you is as thrilling as I imagine our first kiss would be.  By our I simply mean both of us within Telephony.  Not Telephony and you.  Not that we’re not open to that.  We’re actually extremely open to it.”

“Okay stop now.”

“I don’t really stop.  I kind of just go on forever; it’s really tiring.”

“Just… just keep the channel clear.  We’re still working.  We’ve got to get our hands on the sling.”

That managed to quiet him long enough for us to work, and work we did.  We searched high and low for that robot past funnel cake stands, restrooms that would never be that clean again, an empty river meant for drifting inner tubes, and some unfinished ride called Monkey Girl’s Swinging Tree.  I spared a moment to think about that one being kind of offensive.

“I’ve got him,” Food said through the radio.  After a few more minutes of running we converged on her location.  It was off the beaten path, behind a shed meant for the park’s eventual security guards.  Tin Soldier was stood, frozen and inactive, before something like a junction box.  It was open.  His hand was on something inside it.  To our dismay, he didn’t have the flame sling on him.

“He must’ve realized he was running out of power when we were fighting,” Food theorized.  “Phony you only moved his key like an inch right?”

“Yeah.”

“So he didn’t have much to start.  With the time he had left he hid the sling somewhere so we couldn’t find it.  Our bigger problem is that.”  She pointed to the robot’s outstretched fingers and the switch they had flipped.  “How much do you want to bet that’s a distress signal, something direct that Phony couldn’t block?”

“The chances seem high,” I admitted.  Ernest and Bridget landed on my shoulder.  They looked tired.  My poor little friends had never done so much.  I was beginning to question if they were cut out for hero work.  “Maybe it’s time to abort mission.”

“I’m not aborting our first baby,” Food insisted.

“We might still have time,” Telephony said… the real Telephony.  “It will probably take hours for somebody to get here.  It is a weekend.  Maybe whoever would receive that is out of the office?”

“Okay,” I acquiesced.  If Telephony was brave enough to go on I wasn’t going to quit.  We had an immediate problem though: the sun was going down.  We were rapidly running out of light to search for the flame sling.  Plus, my eyes were feeling heavier than the rest of me.  I said as much, and the others agreed.  I was surprised Food didn’t argue for at least twenty-four hours of straight heroics, but I guess her health consciousness extends to a good night’s sleep.

We returned to our boat for the night, that way if anyone did show up while we were resting we could just gun it out of there.  Obviously we kept a watch; Food went first.  I admit I fell asleep during mine, but Saintly had his eye on everything.  I’m sure all of you need a rest too after a post this action-packed.  So come back tomorrow for the finale of our mission report.  Until then, sleep well and dream of being the most heroic you.

Mission Report: Day Three

Advocatebackers.com

In the morning, once we had all risen, we peeked our heads back out of the gift shop.  Whatever message Tin Soldier had sent, it didn’t seem like there had been a response yet.  We were free to search.

We were free to search, but we were hardly in the mood.  Look everybody; this is the hardest part to write.  For the most part I don’t want to write it.  This Justice Backer thing is a commitment to honesty though.  It’s a commitment to a certain degree of openness.  I can’t pretend I’m a statue without any cracks dispensing perfect penalties to the crimes I cross.  If Alpha Dog was right about anything, it’s that the money comes when you bleed honesty.

We had a fight in the boat before resting the prior night.  I know you’re already thinking the Fastest Food, and boy did we let her have it over something, but what hurt more were the issues Telephony and I got into.

Okay, chronological order.  The major plot twist happened first.  Once we were down we asked the Fastest Food about Tin Soldier not being able to find the threat from the Livefeed Thieves.  It’s because there never was one.  We weren’t there stopping a crime; we were just committing one.

I might’ve throttled her, but she told us that it was Cocoa Solid’s idea in the first place.  They thought we needed to do something truly radical to really commit to the hero lifestyle.  (If you remember your history Alpha Dog started his team with the theft of an awful lot of property.)

Destroying a weapon that the establishment was insisting on showing off was a good angle for that approach.  I admit I dropped my opposition pretty quickly; I trust Cocoa Solid.  I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for them. In fact, it was my instant shift to acceptance that started the next argument.  Telephony was still raging all over Food while I was digging out my supply of chocolates.

This sucks.  I wanted to write something about these new ones the same way I did my unboxing, but the mood isn’t right.  Nobody wants to hear silly names right now.  Telephony was dead set on ruining them for me.

My hands were a little shaky, just the day getting to me, and I pulled one out of its wrapper.  It was a nice combination of effects according to the tag: calming of the mind, slight relaxation of the muscles, just something to help me sleep…  It was an inch from my gaping mouth when he said it… the bodiless him anyway.  Right in my ear.

“We think you have a drug problem,” he said.  The blue sugar-dusted bonbon hung there in front of my tongue.  My brain froze for a moment while the giant mountain of shit in my head started an avalanche.  Telephony was looking right at me.  He was looking at my uvula like I was some neurotic picking at her own scabs and he didn’t even realize what he was thinking straight into my ear.  He should have.  I smashed the chocolate back down into the wrapper, cracking its shell.  Some of its precious filling escaped into the box.

“These aren’t fucking drugs!” I screamed at him.  Yes, technically they are, but he knows they’re not goddamned heroin.  His chubby face drained of color.

“What?”

“You’re fucking sitting there judging me!  Judging me over chocolates!”

“Look, whatever the other me said, I’m sorry!  I swear I wasn’t even thinking about that!”

“Don’t give me that other me bullshit,” I went on.  “It’s not another you.  He’s not you in a cloak and twirled mustache.  He’s not out to ruin your reputation.  He’s just you!  And all of you looks at me, sees my face, sees what’s in my hand, and proclaims me a drug addict.  All while wanting to fuck me too.  Good for you Telephony; you found a way to be the most infuriating person ever.  You demand pity over your fucking curse and then you turn and pity me because at least neither half of you is a drug addict right?”

“I… I don’t…” he stammered.  Vincent Van woke from his slumber; his remaining ear flopped over one of his eyes.  He sensed the tension in my voice, placed his paws on my crossed legs, and immediately started barking at Telephony.  I didn’t mean to have him surrounded by a miniature furry mob, but I certainly wasn’t calling them off either.  If he was going to claim he couldn’t control it, I was going to act the same way in turn.

“You want to know?” I spat.  Then came the tears.  I wasn’t yelling at him anymore.

“You don’t need them,” his subconscious said.  Not even a whisper.  Not even slow.  Just as if it was a fact.

“You want to know why I take these things?  It’s because they’re strong; it’s because they’re unpredictable.  It’s because there’s always the tiniest little chance they might hurt me.  Because I’ve been fucking hurt Telephony.  I hurt myself to contain it.  I don’t do that anymore, but I need something that can hurt me in my life to be the floodgates.  It’s a small hurt that holds back all the big ones, a tiny little wrestler who can take a guy ten weight classes above him.  So shut the fuck up!”

I shoved the chocolate in my mouth.  My fingers raked across my arm immediately after, reddening my skin.  Tracy and the birds were looking at me.  Vincent Van was confused.  Saintly knew to look away.  I always tell myself that I can’t fall apart in front of them, but when I have fucking people pushing my buttons…

“That was spicy!” the Fastest Food declared.  “Damn girl, I wish you were like that all the time!  Speak your furious mind!”

“Fuck you Food.”

“Fuck you too Gorgeous,” she fired right back.  Of course she enjoyed it.  That didn’t matter.  What mattered was what Telephony had to say for himself.

“I’m sorry,” he started.  I expected him to start crying like I was, but he didn’t.  He looked like he’d swallowed a tombstone.  “I want to shut up, but I can’t.  You’re right; it’s me.  I think those things.  I can’t even say it only comes from a place of concern, because I know the other guy would just tell you the truth.  I like you, I find you attractive, and as a result I want you to be a person who doesn’t need those things.”

“It’s none of your fucking business!” I screeched.  Took another chocolate.  I wasn’t even looking at the labels anymore.  My animals didn’t try to stop me.  They knew.  They knew that self-destruction had to be self-contained.  Support was for after it was handled.  Support was the ray of sun that congratulated you for surviving.

“I know it isn’t!” he squealed right back.  “I feel entitled to an opinion on your lives because on the inside, I’m just kind of shitty.  I know that.  You don’t think I know I’m the type of guy who only ever gets heard about on the news after he shows up to whatever building represents his greatest failing and guns down eight people?”

“Why are you even here?”

“It’s the only road that isn’t that one!  I used to think of myself as a nice guy.  Hey, I might be a loser, but at least I’m nice.  Except now, the nice guy is the one everybody watches out for.  The nice guys are the ones who snap!  I have all these thoughts, and they’re just leaking everywhere like my brain isn’t toilet-trained!  I’m sorry!  I’m here because I had to preempt that news story with another one.  I had to go all in on something crazy before the crazy got worse.  But you agreed to be here with me.  You both agreed to be on my team when you knew about my problem.  I am sorry, but I’m doing everything I can to get this done and I didn’t say that shit about the chocolates out loud.”

“Whatever,” was all I had to say in response.  I was too busy trying to focus on the tingling in my throat.  I got a little light-headed.  Obviously you’re not supposed to mix too much of Cocoa Solid’s work.  I went straight to sleep, still crying, with hardly time to lie down and face away from them before the inside of my head went black.

That takes us back to the morning after.  We didn’t exactly make up once we were awake and out of the boat, but we did all agree that the shit needed a lid until the flame sling was destroyed and we were on our way back.

“Now how do we find the sling?” Telephony asked.  We were standing near a frozen Tin Soldier, looking for footprints or any other sign of where he had stashed it.  Vincent Van was sniffing about, but they were just two sterile machines, so there wasn’t anything for him to find.

“We have to think like a 1970’s robot ashamed of his past white supremacy,” Food suggested.

“How do we do that?”

“I guess we’ll just have to think like meaty former white supremacists for the best approximation.”

“Oh shit,” I hissed.  “Guys.  Look there.”  I pointed to a shape in the sky that rapidly drew closer.  A moment later we all heard its spinning blades.  A helicopter.  A big weird-looking one with a long tail.  Its paint job was the same color scheme as the park’s buildings, so we guessed it was official.  I whistled and got Vincent Van and Saintly to find us a hiding spot both out of sight and downwind.  Their answer was a row of bushes up a mulch-covered hill.

We all hunkered down behind it and shared the bush’s one bald spot like a telescope, for it provided a clear view of where Tin Soldier was frozen and where the helicopter was setting down.  It didn’t even need a landing pad.

Its door slid open as its blades slowed.  Out stepped a quadrupedal metal creature with a long snout.  A new robot.  That could mean only one person: Alpha Dog himself.  The creator of Justice Backers.  The owner of the park.  The chief sellout.  Once his robotic dog cleared the area, he stepped out himself.

“I fucking knew it,” the Fastest Food whispered.  “I knew he’d gotten fat.  How could he not?  This whole place is a greasy capitalist glut.”  She wasn’t wrong.  Alpha Dog was in his sixties now and he had a gut like a cauldron.  Rather than his uniform from his Backer days, he wore some kind of blue tracksuit.  It looked like he’d just come from a locker room or something.

He went around the back of the helicopter and opened another door.  Out poured more robotic dogs in a variety of sizes, colors, and specialties.  Back in the day his inventions were his super power.  Even at the height of their popularity he rarely used more than a pack of five of them.  Ten came out of the helicopter.  He issued an order and they immediately fanned out, alternately sniffing the ground or scanning the area.  Chances were their chemical detectors were stronger than Vincent Van’s natural sniffer.

“We can’t stay here,” Telephony warned.  “They’ll be on us any minute and we can’t take those things.”

“Just hang on,” Food said, holding down his shoulder with one hand.  We watched as Alpha Dog noticed his frozen friend and lumbered over to him.  He grabbed the robot’s key and gave it several complete turns.  Tin Soldier sprang back to life.  They spoke.  A bit of mulch cracked.  There was a green dog barely thirty feet away.

“Can you access his earpiece?” I asked Telephony.  “He might be saying where the sling is.”

“I can’t,” he answered.  “He knows I messed with it and he turned it off.  I think he’s telling Alpha Dog to do the same thing.  Look.”  Alpha Dog did rip something out of his ear and pocket it.  He gave a verbal order to one of the dogs. It ran off.

“Let’s go!”  The hound was twenty feet away.  Luckily we were on the edge of the mulch and it was just dirt behind us.  That facilitated some silent sneaking.  Once we were sure we were out of earshot we got back onto some pavement and offered any ideas we had.  There was only one, courtesy of the Fastest Food.

“I think I know where he hid the sling,” she said.  “Who does Tin Soldier love?”

“Minorities.”

“Well yeah, but who’s his favorite minority?”

“Stop calling people minorities and just tell us who it is,” I growled.

“Electric Eel.  He was always trying to be best friends with that guy on account of nearly killing him and calling him the N-word a bunch of times.  I think he’s still sentimental for the guy.”

“Why do you say that?”  She pointed.  Between two rollercoasters stood a tower with a ring of seats around its midsection.  It was topped with an eel statue tying itself in knots and puking lightning bolts.  It was the ride called Electric Eel’s Shocking Drop.  You’ve all probably been on one just like it.  You put on a harness, it raises you slowly to the top, and then it drops you.  I asked how she knew the flame sling was there.

“We passed by that before we found Tin Soldier.  The seats were at the bottom, not the middle.  He said he could control the park with his earpiece right?  He must’ve turned the ride on when he was running from us, put the sling in one of the seats, and sent it up.”

“That… actually makes sense,” Telephony said, “but how are we going to get up there?  We don’t have any rope or anything and Ernest isn’t strong enough to carry it down.”  Just as he finished, like a lightning bolt of luck, the Shocking Drop lit up.  Blue lightbulbs across it blinked and spun.  The seats started to rise.  It wasn’t the only thing in the park that had come to life; everything else joined in.  Music suddenly blared from every direction.  Fountains and misters went off.  Justice Isle was up and running.

“Alpha Dog must have turned everything on,” I guessed.  “Maybe he thinks it will flush us out.”

“No,” Food asserted, “he just wants to see all the pretty lights he bought.  Either way it’s good for us.  Let’s go.”  The three of us rushed towards the tower.  The occasional robot bark could be heard behind us, the sound nipping at our heels.  We reached it just as the seats approached the ground, but it was wider than we anticipated.  We searched about five seats, and at that point it was already rising again.  We didn’t have a minute and a half to wait for it to come back down.

We hauled ourselves up into the seats.  This was necessary, but that didn’t stop it from being a very bad idea.  I looked down and watched ten feet turn into twenty.  Ernest and Bridget flew in a circle below us.  We needed the sling and we needed it now.

“I’ve got it!” Telephony exclaimed through the earpiece.  He was on the opposite side of the tower from me, but I was glad to hear it because we were rapidly approaching the drop height, marked by a painted bit of lightning around the tower.

“Strap yourselves in,” I warned as I dropped into a seat and did so myself.  About six seconds later the ride emitted some showy sound like Frankenstein’s monster getting his first taste of juice and we started to plummet.  My stomach had nothing but chocolates in it, and I felt what was left of them smack against the bottom of my throat.  The wind threatened to tear Tracy away from me, but I cupped him in my hands and hugged him to my chest.  His tail whipped back and forth between my thumb and index finger like a loose shoelace.

“I might throw up, I might throw up, I might throw up,” Telephony’s subconscious repeated in my ear.  Finally it slowed near the ground, giving us the perfect view of five robotic hounds waiting patiently like we were scraps from the dinner table. As soon as they could reach they were jumping up on us and trying to pull us out.  Alpha Dog, being a hero as opposed to a villain, had designed them as nonlethal, so at least they weren’t digging their metal teeth into my shoulders.

We couldn’t really disembark like that, so the ride started going back up again.  Most of the dogs hopped off or fell back down, but one of them was still on me.  Its mouth was open and I could see a nozzle.  I think it was going to try and spray me with tear gas or pepper spray or something.  I called for help.

Pthok!  A frozen nugget struck its muzzle and caused it to flinch.  I looked over to see the Fastest Food leaning out of her seat and holding the safety strap with one arm so she could get a good angle of fire.  She emptied an entire clip of nuggets into its side, distracting it long enough for me to kick it off.  We heard it crash against the ground.  I angled my head down as far as I could.  It was already getting back up.  They would be on us again as soon as we dropped.

“What do we do?” I asked nobody in particular.  Saintly and Vincent Van were off in the bushes below us, and they couldn’t do a thing about robots anyway.

“I… I might have an idea,” Telephony said.

“We’re all ears,” Food encouraged.

“Advocate, can Ernest copy new voices?”

“More or less,” I answered.

“Have him find Alpha Dog fast.  Get him to say something and come right back.  If we even have time.”  With the hounds on us I was sure both Alpha Dog and Tin Soldier weren’t far behind, so I whistled the orders to Ernest.  He immediately flew off in the direction the hounds had approached from.  The next forty seconds were probably the most stressful of my life.  It wasn’t fear exactly; I saved that for other things.  This was just a tight spot: the difference between a couple years in jail and an entirely new life.  I did not want to get caught.  I didn’t want any of us getting caught.

Ernest and Bridget returned.  I whistled, asking for confirmation of success.  Ernest whistled back.  He had a voice sample.  I sent him over to Telephony.  He’s good with simple orders, so I was confident Telephony could make it clear what he wanted.  We didn’t have time for me to act as the middleman.

We dropped.  This time the chocolate hit the middle of my throat.  My heart skipped about five beats.  I couldn’t take riding the damn thing again, so as soon as I was low enough I took off the straps and hopped to the ground to face the hounds.  They were there, but they were sitting on their haunches with their heads cocked at various angles.  All that mattered was that they weren’t attacking.  Telephony and the Fastest Food circled around once they were out and met up with me.

“Let’s go,” Telephony’s subconscious ordered while his body hoisted the flame sling over his shoulder.

“Wait, what happened?” I asked in a whisper, not sure how much the hounds could understand.

“Those dogs take verbal commands from Alpha Dog,” his subconscious explained.  “We think Ernest briefly attacked the man’s head and got him to shout a few things.  One of those words was stop.  We had him repeat it into our headset and redirected it to his dogs’ communication systems.  They think they’re getting an order to stop directly from him.  Let’s get back to the boat before they figure it out.”

There was no argument from me.  We headed straight for the gift shop, with all my pets either directly in front of or behind us.  All we had to do was get in and start her up; we’d be long gone before Alpha Dog could make it back to his helicopter and chase us down.  The gift shop doors opened for us automatically now that the power was on.  We passed the Woman’s Touch Tank and descended into Sportfish Bay.

The boat was still there… but not exactly in one piece.  There was an array of small mechanical parts arranged on the ground in front of it.  They were all lined up and categorized by size as if someone was about to assemble something.

“I have disassembled your engine,” Tin Soldier said.  The robot popped up from inside our boat and stepped out into the midst of his handiwork.  “There is no escape now.  Please put down the flame sling and turn yourselves in.  Since you are aspiring heroes, I believe Alpha Dog will be lenient.”

“No surrender!” the Fastest Food cried.  She started emptying her crispy clip in the robot’s direction.  He sidestepped every shot, expertly navigated his own field of engine parts without knocking one of them away, and picked her up by the shirt again.

“Perhaps lenience is not appropriate.”  He raised his metal hand, I think to give her a good smack across the face.

“Wait!  Don’t!  I’m black!”  He actually paused.  Now, I don’t know if the Fastest Food is black, thanks to her gloves and mask we never saw an inch of skin, but knowing her I would have to guess it was a lie.  Either way it worked.  He dropped her.  Even after all these years he’s still compensating for his racism in all the dumbest ways.  It did give us an opportunity to actually talk to him, but we had to hurry; I could hear the hounds approaching.

“Tin Soldier,” I started, trying to impart plenty of respect, “We’re trying to carry on the Justice Backers name.  We’re trying to reclaim it.  We want to destroy something dangerous.  It’s not a bad thing.”

“Why does the name need reclaiming?” he asked simply.  “Many of the Backers still live.  They have the claim to the name, not you.”

“Look around you man!” the Fastest Food chimed in.  She rose to her feet and brushed off her jacket.  “Merchandise.  High fructose corn syrup stands.  Photo booths for kids and losers wearing mass-produced plastic masks of you.  Is that your name?  Is that what you stood for?”

“The climate has changed,” the robot said after a momentary pause.  “Literally and Figuratively.  When Act-of-Goddess protected the world’s vulnerable environments from exploitation, the world decided it would no longer tolerate us.”

“That was you.  The lichen was your struggle,” I said.  “You might not want to hear it, but you’re part of our struggle.  You’re part of the old creaking machine now.  People look to us and say we’re nothing.  We’re young, we’re entitled, we’re lazy, and we’re sensitive.  All the things people say when they’ve stopped caring about giving and started taking things back.”

“You care only about giving?” he asked after another pause.

“Giving what we can.  Right now what we have to give is a kick in the pants.  Figurative language.” I hoped he would like throwing that in.  “The flame sling is a hurtful thing.  The world will be better without it.”  Silence… except for metal paws.  They were in the gift shop.  He could process the situation a little bit faster.  Just saying.  You know old computers though.

“Do you promise to defend the underprivileged and vulnerable?” he asked.  “Including people of all ethnicities, ages, ability level, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and socioeconomic status?”

“We absolutely do!” I assured him.  Tin Soldier pulled the rifle off his back, and after a brief terrifying moment, tossed it onto the organized engine parts.  Screws rolled in every direction.  He raised a fist and swiftly punched himself in the cheek, leaving a small dent.  Then he dropped to the ground as if all the power had been cut off from his legs.

“It appears those processed meat bullets were moving at a greater velocity than I anticipated,” he said.  “One of them temporarily disrupted my operations.”  The lights in one of his eyes flickered for a second.  I think it was his attempt at a wink.  “Take this and go.”  He reactivated the device on the side of his head and used it to power up one of the robotic whales for the ride.  Its back popped open and revealed just enough room for all of us.  Cocoa Solid would have to accept the boat as collateral damage.

“Thank you sir.  It’s really been an honor,” Telephony assured the robot as we headed towards our escape submersible.  If we had to run into any of the Backers, I’m glad it was him.  I think most of them would’ve told us some kind of ‘grow up’ shit.  We’re pretty much over anyone else’s ideas of what that means.

“You, with the nugget gun,” Soldier called to us as we were climbing onto the fake blue leather seats inside the whale.  The Fastest Food looked at him.  “Don’t pretend to be African-American, especially when dealing with the authorities.  That group suffers from exaggerated hostility on the part of many officials.  It is an injustice I never corrected.  If you are African-American then I apologize for my insensitivity.”

“Okay.  Gotcha,” was all she had to say.  Luckily the whales were built for idiots to pilot, so I had an easy time getting us submerged and out of the bay.  As we descended Food caught a glimpse of Alpha Dog entering the bay.  He came careening in on a robotic dog sled.

“Son of a bitch,” she said.  “He’s sitting on that thing too.  He used to stand on that sled.  Fat fuck.”

I think there were safeguards in place that kept the sub rides from leaving the borders of Justice Isle, but Tin Soldier must have disabled them for us.  We were out in the middle of the ocean, far below the surface, before we all took a moment to breathe.  I set the controls to something labeled tread water.  We all looked at each other.

Despite everything, we smiled.  My joints all felt like they were falling apart and my jaw ached from the tension, but we did it.  We even did it with the approval of a Justice Backer, not that we needed it.  Now came the culmination of the mission: the controlled burn.

There’s something we haven’t shared with all of you until now.  There was an additional reason for this particular mission.  There were several other dangerous things we could have taken from Justice Isle and destroyed.  We chose the flame sling because we intended to use it.  Well, Cocoa and Food chose it, we thought there was a threat to steal it out there, but once we were all onboard with the object itself we knew what our course of action was.  The flame sling destroys one’s online presence.  It’s perfect for cleansing someone of their old self, their infected chrysalis, and letting them be reborn as a superhero.  Nobody will ever figure out who we are now.  We’ll never have a Deckard situation on our hands like the original Backers did.

I went first, standing hunched against the whale-back ceiling with my arms out.  My pets watched curiously.  The Fastest Food switched the flame sling on.  Its tacky red plastic lit up.  It sounded like… nothing at all.  The hologram flames that emerged from its tip were intense and beautiful.  They struck through my ankles and moved up my body.  I felt a tingle, but it was just my mind slowly accepting what I was doing.

Every piece of me in this digital world crumbled to ash.  I had to rebuild this site as well as rewrite and repost several things afterward.  It was a small price to pay.  Just like most people on the internet, I had made myself vulnerable to tracking for basically no good reason.  I accepted the fire.  I embraced it.  It hit my eyes.  Good riddance past.  Hello heroism.

The others went next.  After that we did what we had set out to do.  We disassembled the flame sling and dropped the pieces in the ocean, miles apart.  We left the whale on the dock where we had first picked up the boat.  Somebody would eventually find it and return it, especially since we put in a call on some passing person’s phone saying where it was.  Thanks random person (they liked our costumes).

That’s it boys and girls.  The new Justice Backers have asserted themselves.  We’re not like the old.  We’re weaker and we’re stronger.  We’re weirder and we’re more open.  We’re also one.  We’re also nothing but heroes, because everything else is ash.

If you’d like to give to our cause, click below.  You don’t have to go anywhere to be a part of something powerful.  All it takes is your attention.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s