“Madman,” he bellowed, “You’ve pulled that trigger for the last time!”
Madman cackled, “Oh, no, Geronimo,” we heard him growl, “I have one shot left!” He pulled the lever, and the mechanism began warming up for one last shot. Geronimo didn’t stand a chance.
I looked up when I heard footsteps behind me. Marksman was already getting his gear together. I glanced at Shellie; she was already prepping the Situation Station for lockdown mode.
“You two aren’t going to sit here and watch the others fail,” I stated the obvious.
Marksman snorted. “Of course not,” he said, “The minute he pulls that trigger, he can just blast the city with it, and there would be nothing we can do about it.”
I turned back to the screen. The strength meter on the ray was nearing 100%. “Better hurry,” I told the young heroes.
“Are you coming or not?” Marksman asked, pausing in the loading bay of the last shuttle.
I turned to him, “What good would I do?” As soon as I said it, I realized that this was the exact same perspective Geronimo and Stormgale had always subjected Shellie and Marksman to. Here they were displaying the opposite response, giving me the recognition they had been so long denied. I followed Marksman into the shuttle.
“Well, for one thing,” he said as we buckled in and Shellie initiated the launch sequence, “it would help me obey orders.”
I blinked, “What orders?”
He chuckled as we left the ground, “Keeping an eye on you.”
We arrived on the edge of a Norwegian fjord directly beside the mountain. Shellie landed the shuttle, but neither of them moved for several moments.
“Guys,” I asked, “What’s—“ I stopped when I saw what had them so still.
Geronimo stood at the base of the mountain, right in front of us. He was not speaking, he was not signaling—and he did not look happy to see us. All three of us were on full alert as we stepped out into the blowing snow.
“You should not be here,” Geronimo spoke slowly, almost mechanically. “Go back; there is nothing for you here.”
Marksman moved forward, “Gerry,” he called, “We are here to help. Where is the Madman?”
Geronimo still had not budged. “The Madman cannot hurt anyone anymore. We heroes do not need help from the government. Go back to your base!”
“Base?” Shellie murmured, “We aren’t from the government, Geronimo knows—“ She stopped when she realized what was really going on in this situation. “He’s been shot; Madman must have blasted him with the ray while we were en route.” She gazed toward Geronimo with an expression of sympathy, “I guess he’s not impervious to everything, like we’ve always thought.”
“What do we do now?” I whispered.
Marksman looked grim. “Geronimo or no Geronimo,” he replied, “we still need to get into that mountain.” I saw his eyes scanning the crags, and knew he was planning out a route for us. Geronimo still waited; his imperviousness remained intact, as the thick layer of snow over his body didn’t even seem to register.
“Okay,” Marksman said finally, “Shellie, you take the girl—“
“My name is Laura,” I was tired of people referring to my species or my gender instead of my name.
“Fine,” he rolled his eyes, “Shellie, you take Laura, and head straight for the peak, and I’ll come behind and keep Geronimo away, if he decides to follow us.”
“How are you going to do that?” I asked, but Marks was already gone.
“Come on,” Shellie took my hand and we trudged through the snow. We were about halfway to our destination when the ground shook and we heard a large crash.
“Okay, move it!” Marksman shot past us. Shellie and I ran to keep up with him as he led us over the easiest path to the top.
“What did you do?” Shellie asked.
“I tied him to the shuttle,” Marksman explained, “If he tries to come after us—“
A crash so heavy it nearly threw us to the ground shook the mountain.
Marksman paused to survey the damage down below as Shellie and I struggled to our feet.
“The shuttle collapsed on him,” he said, “Move!”
We arrived unmolested at the secret base. It had all the trappings of an evil genius’ lair: the minions in lab coats, the glowing monitors, the stockpile of ammunition—and crowning the landscape, the Madness Ray Gun.
“It’s not going to take long for Geronimo to get out from under that ship,” Marksman whispered, “whether he’s under the control of the Madness Ray or not. That should give us enough time.”
“Time for what?” I asked.
“Well, obviously, I need to find a way to reverse the effects of the Ray!”
“I can get in and free Stormgale,” Shellie volunteered.
“What about me?” I asked.
Marks and Shellie glanced at me. I had no powers, no weaponry, no skill of any kind—at least not one they knew about.
“You stay here,” Marksman instructed, “be the lookout.” He and Shellie disappeared before I could utter another word. I could only sit back and watch the scene unfold.
At first, it was difficult for me to find the two heroes, but then I saw Marksman’s familiar form, draped in a lab coat, dodging around the minions. A few glanced at him, but I saw him nod to the men and wink at the ladies, and not one of them spoke or did anything to stop him.
As for Shellie, she did not bother with having to borrow clothes. She merely assumed the appearance of one of the minions, and no one glanced twice at her. I watched them both. Shuffling carefully, Marksman made his way to the Madness Ray gun. He behaved as if reading the measurements on the display monitors around it, scrolling through the data with one hand, while the other subtly performed the necessary recalibrations. When all was ready, I saw him remove a stolen pair of glasses and rub his eyes. Was he getting tired?
Immediately, the alarms around Stormgale’s prison blared. Marks had signaled Shellie! I looked toward the sphere. Sure enough, vines and roots spewed from the orb, as if they had pulled it apart to release her. I knew this was just a ruse. In reality, Stormgale and Shellie were in another part of the lab.
Geronimo—still under the influence of the Madman—appeared at the doorway.
“No!” He roared, “She cannot have escaped! Find her!”
All the minions sprang into action, running toward the side of the lab with the prison, and scanning through all the security footage—except one. A solitary white-coated figure slipped into the firing deck of the Madness Ray. I saw Geronimo headed toward it. Had he seen Marksman? I saw the machine warming up, and I knew that Marksman would be too busy trying to figure out how to fire the thing to notice that his target was headed straight for him. I needed to buy him time.
“The minions on the far side froze,” I narrated. To my delight, a group of them did. “One of them had seen suspicious activity on the monitors. He called Geronimo over.”
“Sir!” the minion snapped. Geronimo turned around, and I saw Marksman’s head jerk up as he realized for the first time what danger he had almost been in.
“You need to see this!” the minion cried.
Geronimo reached the bay and stopped as the humming of the Madness Ray reached full strength. Luckily, that was all the time the other heroes needed.
I heard Shellie yell, “Now!”
A thick tree root sprang from the floor of the lab and engulfed Geronimo. The minute he was surrounded completely by tree, Marksman fired the bolt at him. Geronimo had just broken from his wooden restraints, and so the bolt caught him square in the chest. He gasped and fell to his knees.
“Geronimo!” Stormgale cried, and the four heroes reunited. I could not hear what they said, but I had no doubt that they were all reconciled. It could not have come a moment too soon.
“Fools!” A terrible voice rang out. The four superheroes stood together as the Madman himself appeared on a balcony at the far side of the headquarters. “You think a little infiltration like that is going to stop me? Well, say hello to my army! You’ve only trapped yourselves, for there is superiority in numbers!”
The four heroes braced themselves as the minions rushed toward them. I was ready.
“The first wave came,” I narrated, “but these were all computer technicians, so when they saw the size of Geronimo’s muscles and the terrible glint in his eye, they were not so inclined to follow the promptings of their minds.” The first group of lab-coated minions took off running as soon as they got within ten paces of the heroes.
“Destroy the lab!” Stormgale ordered, and she and Geronimo proceeded to do just that, while Marksman kept the minions at bay with an assortment of weaponry he picked up from the minions. Flaming tree roots and vines, heavy winds and sudden frost spread to all the mechanical compartments. Ice began to form over the gears and workings of the Madness Ray gun.
“NO!!” The Madman shrieked. He leaped off the balcony and began attacking the heroes. They were spread out trying to fend off the Madman as well as the minions trying to attack them.
“Just then,” I narrated, “every one of the minions decided at the same moment that this battle was not worth fighting. Rather than attacking, they stood against the walls of the lab to watch the final battle.” Marksman was just in the process of trying to effectively fight off five men at once, when they just gave up and walked away to the edge of the room. The heroes spread out in an attempt to flank the Madman, who wielded a staff that acted as a remote control and intensifier of the Madness Ray. The gun aimed directly toward the top of the staff, so that the Madman could direct it at will. He looked around at the stony faces of his minions. He spotted Geronimo in the crowd and pointed the gun at him, but Geronimo suddenly popped up on the other side of the room.
“Over here, Madness!” he taunted.
The Madman whirled around, and in his periphery, could see Stormgale trying to reach the gun to disable it.
“Oh no you don’t!” he said, shooting at her with the staff. Stormgale vanished into thin air, and the beam hit a minion, who immediately cringed as the increased volume of Madness caused mild insanity. The Madman immediately went through the ranks of minions, trying to find his enemies.
A shrill whistle split the air. Madman turned to see Geronimo, Marksman, and Stormgale all gathered around the operational Madness Ray gun. He turned back to his ranks, only to see that the minion in front of him was not a minion at all, but Shellie! She assumed her regular form as she snatched the staff from the Madman’s hand.
“Now!” she told Marksman, at the same moment she dashed away from Madman and pointed the staff at him. Marksman pulled the trigger, and the full strength of Madness enveloped its maker.
The Madman crumpled as his mind literally tangled itself in his head. He was so overcome with Madness that he had no will or capacity to do anything himself.
“Stand up,” Geronimo ordered.
Madman did so, staring vacantly.
The four heroes watched him carefully.
“Raise your arms,” Stormgale tested the effects.
There was no hesitation as the man obeyed, stretching his hands in the air as far as they would go.
“Cluck like a chicken,” Marksman ordered, and the room was filled with the cacophony of a very terrible impression of the animal.
Geronimo shook his head. “Enough,” he said, and Madman stopped clucking. “Put your hands on your head.” Geronimo clapped restraints on the Madman and led him away as Stormgale used her powers to permanently disable the Madness Ray gun for good.
The ride back to Phantasmic City was a quiet one. I observed that Geronimo was watching the two younger heroes with a new appreciation. After all, hadn’t he been the one to say that he had no need of the other two, yet he also had been the one to fall under the Madman’s influence? Without Marksman, they would have never been able to stop the Madman; without Shellie, even, the Madman could have overpowered the all, or at least Stormgale would have not gotten free at just the right time to provide the diversion Marksman needed to help Geronimo recover his mental faculties. And then there was—
I hastily turned away as Geronimo looked at me. I could see that he had not expected me to be there, nor was he entirely sure what part I played, if any. No one would ever know my contributions to their narratives. I figured I could just leave it at that.
Shellie docked the shuttle at the Spire. No one spoke as all five of us separated to our rooms. I alone knew what would be happening next: my time here was over. I needed to leave. I wrote a short note thanking the heroes for their hospitality, and I walked out of the building. I took one last glance as I stepped out onto the street, waving at the penthouse to no one in particular, and walked down the street.
I wondered how long it would be till I began the next adventure. I didn’t faint at all, I saw no one suspicious, no mysterious hand dragged me into a dark alleyway that would become a tunnel into another world—had I gotten it wrong? Was there still something else for me to do?
I found a small hotel on the next block. I walked inside. Everything was strangely quiet and grungy. The desk was old-fashioned, complete with the bank of mailboxes behind it. The grey-haired woman behind the counter looked as if every single corner in her figure had been sharpened on a whetstone.
“I’d like a room, please,” I asked her.
She stared daggers at me over her horn-rimmed glasses. The key she placed on the counter seemed more of a dare than a service. I took the key and proceeded to my room.
On my way to the correct floor, I passed silent maids carrying linens. A man sat on the landing, his face buried in the newspaper. A burly man with an impossibly small dog escorted a lemon-faced woman down to the lobby. A harried mother with three children hushed them furtively as I passed. The hallway of my room stood completely empty. This place was giving me the creeps. My heart did not stop pounding until I stepped into the room and locked the door behind me.
The room offered little comfort to the eeriness that crawled over my skin. The fervently-patterned wallpaper was horrifically garish, and all the light fixtures gave off a weak, yellow glow. I lay on the bed, but the mattress was very flimsy at the top and rock-hard at the bottom. I tried to spread the blankets over me, but they were flimsy and floppy. The pillow felt lumpy. I noted the falling evening outside. I would spend one night in this hotel, then leave again in the morning to find whatever it was that kept me in this adventure. Against all odds, I fell asleep as soon as I closed my eyes. In my dreams, I was literally falling a very long distance before suddenly my surroundings seemed to level out, and I felt the bed beneath me seem far more comfortable than it had been before. Sleep never felt so good.