by Sean Manseau
“What—? Oh man, I forgot all about you, didn’t I, Lyle. Sorry.” Screwball shook his head, snorting laughter. He reached for the roll of duct tape and bit another strip loose. “You don’t get it, man. We’re the good guys.”
“And you used to be one of us,” One Man Army croaked. He slipped forward to the edge of the cushion, holding his bandaged hand high. His skin was gray from loss of blood, and his lip curled until his smile became a rictus. “Until you killed my wife.”
“There it is,” Screwball sighed. After smoothing the tape over Shepherd’s mouth, he patted his cheek. “What do kids do when they’re bored with their toys? They break them, in all sorts of fun and creative ways. But you were always his favorite, Lyle—I don’t think he’s ever going to throw you away. God help you.”
That was when the giant walked into the living room.
Behemoth was nearly eight feet tall; he walked bent over and sideways through the kitchen door, shoved the dining room table aside, and could only stand up straight when he entered the living room. At five hundred pounds, the pine floorboards flexed with his every step. Certain details matched Nicholas’s drawings: he was completely hairless, lacking even eyebrows, and he was wearing a sort of wrestler’s singlet made of steely blue mesh, but instead of a dull glower, his expression had an unmistakable cast of amused intelligence.
Arms loaded with a tarp-wrapped bundle, he indicated One Man Army with a thrust of his chin. “What the hell happened to him?”
Screwball sat on the couch with his cleats up on the coffee table, rolling a baseball over the knuckles of one hand. “He tried to shoot Nicholas, but uh, the gun blew up in his hand.”
Behemoth snorted. “How could that happen? He cleans those things more often than he wipes his ass!”
Dr. Cosmos stood and began to pace. “One Man Army had a misfire because One Man Army is an idiot.” Angry as he was, he still cast a cautious glance towards the love seat before continuing. “We went over this before the jump: the past cannot be undone. We exist; therefore, Nicholas lived long enough to create us. This is immutable. The mere fact we are having this conversation means he will not be killed now. No matter what we do, the universe will take action to frustrate our efforts on that point, no matter how improbable its strategies. I said it before, but let me say it again: we are in a temporal minefield.”
“Cosmo, you do like to hear yourself talk. Is that him?” Behemoth set his bundle down next to the overturned coffee table and stepped past it to loom over Shepherd. His breathing was like the exhaust of an industrial furnace. “Jesus, look how young he is!” One rolling pin finger under Shepherd’s chin tilted his face towards the ceiling. “Cute, too. Never would’ve believed it. But I bet you’re all wondering what I brought you for Christmas.” He grabbed a corner of the tarp and swept it away with a theatrical flourish. “Voila!”
Pieces of what recently, unmistakably had been a robot were piled together: arms, legs, torso and claws, the metal torn, wires dangling and spitting sparks. One of its eyes flickered red light, baleful and blind.
“Finally managed to get into that shed,” Behemoth said. “Pine board on the outside, sheets of carbon fiber nanotube on the inside. Took me twenty minutes to cut into it. This”—prodding a molten lump of electronics with the toe of his boot—“was the welcoming committee. I’ll tell you what, though, it felt pretty damned good mixing it up with one of Nicholas’s toys I could actually take. But I saved the best for last. Check it out.”
He reached behind his back and produced a ball of crumpled blue material, which he shook out and let dangle. A New Mexico State Trooper uniform, only sewn together as a sort of unitard. Instead of standard-issue gray and black, it was cerulean blue with mustard yellow piping, a stylized sunburst on the chest. Just the way Nicholas had carefully colored it for the cover of Avenging Furies #1.
“Christ almighty,” Screwball said, sitting up abruptly. His cleats clattered on the hardwood floor. “It’s Hyperion’s costume!”
Shepherd turned to see June glaring at him. He didn’t need telepathy to know what she was thinking: What the hell have you two been up to out in the shed? He could only shake his head. He had no idea what Nicholas had been up to. But it had something to do with these people. No matter how insane their story, he sensed they weren’t lying. The real world was beginning to shred like a dream on waking, leaving only that uncanniness, that unceasing bad dream jolt.
“No it’s not.” Behemoth tossed the costume into the fireplace, where it smoked and caught flame. “It’s a sham. Not even a prototype. No psionic amplifiers, and the molecular structure of the material is completely stable. No way to tell if that’s because he hasn’t, at this point, solved the half-life problem, or if it’s just plain ol’ polyester. But there was plenty of other good stuff in the shed. I took nanoscale scans of everything, right down to the dried-up mouse turds on top of the roof beams.”
Screwball hushed him with a wave. Hand to his ear, he stared into the middle distance.
“We’ve got real problems back in 2012, boss,” he said to Price. “Nicholas has found the bunker, and now Hyperion and a few of Nicholas’s latest science projects are staging an assault. Cannonade says they can hold them off for a bit, but—”
“How long?” Dr. Cosmos asked.
“He says twenty minutes. Half-hour tops.”
“And how long will it take us to drive back to the jumpzone?”
Behemoth checked his over-sized wristwatch. “We can make it, but we’ve got to go now. You get what you need from him?”
Dr. Cosmos looked dejected. “I haven’t been able to get anything from him. I knew that Nicholas was at least a low-level telepath—it was the most obvious explanation for the way he mentally dominated Shepherd over the years.”
Shepherd started. Mentally dominated?
Price went on. “I was hoping that this early on, though, he might’ve been largely ignorant of his own talents…however, he’s parried my every thrust. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: he designed my telepathic augmentation, after all. I’ve always resisted the idea of omniscience, but there’s a strong chance he designed my abilities so that I might read and influence everyone but him, with this future situation specifically in mind.”
“Blah blah blah,” Tango said, tugging her Mohawk into indignant spikes. “What are we going to do?”