by Sean Manseau
“Duncan’s right,” said the gangling kid. June was on the floor with his knee in the small of her back. He’d already taped her mouth shut, and once he’d expertly bound her wrists and kicking feet, he stood to strip of his own coveralls. A baseball uniform, of all things, that was what he had on underneath: red with white stripes, a baseball pierced with a Philips-head screw on the chest. With its red metallic greaves, gauntlets, and helmet, it was an outfit more suited to combat than throwing strikes.
“You've got my vote,” the girl added. "Let’s just waste him and be done with it." She had stripped down to a simple black body suit, with a neckline that plunged to her navel and gloves and boots that matched her shocking pink hair.
“Damn straight!” One Man Army said, pulling on the Maadi’s charging arm to chamber a round.
Sighing, Price pushed himself up from the love seat.
“Lawless,” he said, “I know idiocy comes naturally to you, but try not to infect your impressionable young teammates.” He stepped out of his coveralls to reveal his black suit had acquired a velvety sheen, and the sleeves and collar of his white shirt had grown Edwardian ruffles. He pulled a collapsed top hat from a pocket of the coveralls, popped it to full extension, and settled it on his salt-and-pepper hair. “Any attempt to harm Nicholas will most certainly have very grave consequences. We went over and over this.”
“For Christ’s sake!” Shepherd cried. He had to make some sense of this if he was going to make a plan. Maybe they were a Manson-style family whose desert compound Nicholas had escaped? Psychos that liked to dress up as comic book characters, and that’s where he’d gotten his ideas? “He’s just a kid. Stop pointing that gun at him!”
“Tango, you have him?” Price asked.
“For now,” the girl answered. “He’s strong, though. I’m already getting tired. Hurry up with the little wifey, Timmy.”
“Coming, I’m coming,” the gangling kid grumbled. He hauled June over to the couch and then came back for Shepherd.
Shepherd didn’t recognize the girl, but the gangling youth’s costume brought another lurch of vertiginous unreality. He was dressed up as Screwball, originally a member of the Assailants Association, but who later defected to the Avenging Furies because he was in love with the beauteous Ne Plus Ultra. Screwball threw baseballs that exploded, baseballs that could stun, freeze, burn or paralyze. Dazed, Shepherd groped for Screwball’s battle-cry; all of Nicholas’s heroes had one. Then he had it: Time to bring the heat!
“Let’s stop fucking around,” One Man Army said around the unlit cigar stub clenched between his teeth. “We came for intel, so let’s collect some fucking intel. Straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.” He combed back Nicholas’s blond bangs with the Mahdi’s delta sight. “What do you say, kid?”
Price stepped closer, but seemed to rethink laying a restraining hand on the man’s shoulder. “If you just give me a moment to prepare, I can telepathically—”
“Shut the fuck up, Dr. Cosmos,” One Man Army sneered. “We’re doing this my way.”
Whey-faced, Nicholas sought Shepherd’s eye. His mouth began to form a question, maybe Why is this happening? or worse, Why aren’t you doing something, Shep?
It was almost a relief when he said, “Why are you all dressed like one of my comic book guys?”
One Man Army grabbed the boy’s chin and turned his head back to face him. “Don’t play dumb, Nicholas. I think your little riff about time travel means you know exactly why we’re here. The question is, why are you here? Come on, now, don’t be scared. Speak up. Where are you from?”
Nicholas cried, “I’m from here!”
“Before that!” One Man Army roared. “Before Hyperion found you. Where are you from? What are you?”
Screwball was just beginning to wind the tape around Shepherd’s head, and he managed to wiggle free long enough to shout, “What is he? He’s a little boy, you maniac!”
Screwball smacked him across the back of the head. “Yeah, and thirty years from now, he’ll still be a little boy, Lyle, you dumbass. He’s gonna be ten years old forever. For all we know, he’s always been ten years old.” He paused to listen to his hearing aid. “Dr. Cosmos, Cannonade says that Nicholas has hunter/killers conducting sweeps about 100 klicks to the north and east of the bunker’s position. He’s getting nervous.”
“Tell him we’ll be on our way in two shakes of a pole-dancer’s tits,” One Man Army said. Then to Nicholas: “Listen to me, freak. I’m gonna count to three. If you don’t tell us where’re you’re from and what you’re doing here, I’m going to put a bullet between your eyes.” One Man Army stood and pushed Nicholas to stand against the piled slate wall of the hearth. “One.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Nicholas cried.
“Two.” One Man Army cocked the pistol’s firing hammer—tchak—a tiny mechanical sound that seemed to command a profound moment of silence.
“Shep! Help me!”
Shepherd helpless in his bonds, June with her eyes bugging, screaming behind the gagging tape and bucking as Tango pushed her back against the couch, Dr. Cosmos almost flapping his hands as he sputtered, “Don’t you understand the universe—”
One Many Army said, “Three.”
The report was deafening, the flash lasting only an instant, but searing the retinas. Then One Man Army was howling in pain, his gun hand clutched between his knees. Two of his fingers lay on the floor and one was stuck, jellied, to a picture it had toppled on top of the piano, Shepherd and June smearing cake across each other’s face, the frosting now tinted with blood.
Nicholas, unharmed, scurried back to huddle in the corner behind the end table. Shep could only watch as Tango extended a hand to float One Man Army to the loveseat, where Screwball bandaged his hand kitchen towels and more duct tape. June alternated between goggling at them and Shepherd. Shepherd stared back, trying to will the thought into her head: Don’t worry. Don’t worry. We’ll find a way out of this. Feeling so guilty, as if somehow this was all his fault.
Dr. Cosmos dragged Nicholas, thrashing and kicking, to the couch beside June, where he alternated between cooing Nicholas, relax, close your eyes and relax and screaming for Tango to get over there and hold the brat still already. At one point a tremendous explosion somewhere outside seemed to rock the house on its foundations and the Avenging Furies had leapt to their feet. The tableau of the four of them posed there, ready for action, was so uncanny Shepherd felt like he was falling backward down a deep black hole. They looked just as Nicholas would have drawn them.
After a tense moment Dr. Cosmos put a hand to his earpiece. He nodded at the rest of them to relax and returned to attempts to cajole Nicholas into conversation. The sulfur stink of expended ammunition hung in the room, burning Shep's sinuses. In the aftermath of One Man Army’s accident they’d forgotten to gag him. He’d bided his time, kept quiet. But now Shepherd twisted his neck to look up at Screwball. Abject begging his only option.
“Nicholas has never hurt anyone,” he said quietly. “Please, let him go.”