Police vans formed a blockade around the stadium, just as Slater predicted. Judy watched through aerial drone-cams as men and women in riot gear swarmed through the parking lot; others the back gates, and some even challenging the front steps, like locusts during the harvest.
Her frown tightened, along with her fists. How had it come to this? She was a comedy actor, for crying out loud! Playing a supervillain would have been the role of a lifetime, but there would be no accolades this time; not when she was playing with real panic.
She swallowed the drums breaking her chest. This was the cost of her liberation, but was it too high? The answer sat cold nder the churning of her gut. The police were closing in, but Judy didn’t run.
Of the veritable pig farm strewn about the locker room, eight remained untied and sat on the bench, sweating while nursing large boxes with ornate bows. They were told not to shake them, or something bad might happen.
“Thing one! Thing two!” she barked at the closest pair. “I need one of you to head to the underground entrance, and the other to the side gates. Do you think you can do that for me?”
The taller player started to sob, and choked to keep it down. On any other day he might have been an impressive specimen of manhood, built to mow down opponents on the field. Alas, the tank was home to a fragile spirit, afraid of something so small as an explosion.
Judy hummed, and tapped his cheek with her glove. “There, there. It’s not as bad as all that.” Suddenly, her fist flew and knocked him off his balance. His present hit the ground, and the entire room jumped back.
The clown was unfazed. “Go out there and say hello to the police, and remember…” She picked up the box and placed it back in his hands. “Handle. With. Care. Or else!”
At least athletes were better at taking direction than actors, she mused, though the trade of obedience for affect would never translate on screen. With any luck it would be her last job for Slater, and she could leave this business behind her.
Across her personal monitor layout, police took corners of the building. They had yet to meet any resistance, and Glimmer Girl was nowhere to be seen...
* * * *
From the moment they saw the flash the crowd erupted into cheers. Suddenly it didn’t matter what the talking heads were saying, the people had a hero: being trans didn’t matter a bit if it meant saving the day.
I circled the arena and came down on the fifty yard line. The roar was enough to split your ears. Ten thousand plus hostages shook off their fear, and placed their hope in the middle of the field. To call that a weighty responsibility was the understatement of the century, but I wasn’t about to let them down.
The jumbotron blinked to life with the face of a clown. She was wearing a domino mask, and long ears with bells on the tips. Knowing who she was under the make-up it made it easier to see her; she had the same daring, wide-eyed smirk that outlived a thousand reruns.
Her voice tore over the collective audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and whatever gender weirdos we scoop up from the dregs, make welcome our special guest, Glimmer G. Irl!” Judy gave faux applause, and giggled. “It is Glimmer Girl, right? That’s your name, or is the jury still out on that one?”
I glared at the monitor, and claimed paces across the lawn. “You can joke all you want, Judy, but this needs to-”
“You know I can’t hear you,” the image chided. “I’ve got the microphone, I’ve got the cameras, and this wonderful little AV set up that says you don’t get a word in. So save your speeches, and all the fan-service bravado, and get backstage to kick my ass, ‘kay?” Her eyes flared; my jaw tightened. “I’ll even make it easy for ya. I’m in the home team dressing room. Go Kings!”
No matter what, she wasn’t getting under my skin.
The jumbotron blinked into darkness, but her voice continued to boom. “Tick tick tick! Can’t stand around all day. Who knows what nasty surprises are just waiting to go off?”
I collected myself. Would I be able to win the day without anybody getting hurt? The crowd sure thought so. From every corner their chants rolled like tidal waves; “GLIM-MER-GIRL! GLIM-MER-GIRL! GLIM-MER-GIRL!” It was the closest I’d ever be to a sporting star.
Shrugging off their accolades, I flew into the locker room entrance. What was waiting inside was anybody’s guess.
* * * *
The squad sprinted across the clearing, and in perfect formation split down the middle. As a unit they rolled against the concrete walls, taking cover from the next potential threat. Their collective breath was thick behind their visors; enough to carry the sound of their beating chests to their eardrums.
Reports streamed in over the radio; Alpha team were in position, followed by Bravo, then Charlie. They had yet to land a visual from any corner, including the road behind the boom gates declining toward the loading bay. Thousands of spectators were sealed in but a short distance away, while the rest lay barren.
Peeling from the rear Bravo Team followed either wall of the angling ramp, and stopped when on their spotter’s signal. She positioned her rifle, and peered around the corner, ready to support the following teammate to press forward.
Something was waiting by the upper level of the dock. Their adrenaline sharpened, and an officer roared, “put the package down! Now!”
Once upon a time Apollo Jackman was a prince among men; born from humble beginnings, until a football scholarship put him on the college circuit, and ultimately a draft pick on his hometown team. He had a husband, a surrogate carrying their child, and had plans to buy his mother a house after the end of his first season. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined staring down the barrel of a dozen semi-automatic rifles.
What resolve he had left started to shake apart in his hands, in which he held a box with deep crimson wrapping, and a pearl colored ribbon. It’s weighed was not as great as the overall burden that reduced a grown man to a whimpering child.
“I said put it down!” the officer barked again.
Apollo shook his head. Beads of sweat, thick as rain flew from his brow. “She said… she said something bad would happen if I let go. I can’t. I… I… please! Don’t make me do it!” His eyes fixed shut, away from the barrels facing him down.
One of the officers lowered her weapon, and raised her hands. “We’re not going to hurt you,” she said. “Just follow instruction, and we’ll get you out of here, safe and sound.”
The player choked. “Can’t you see? She’s watching us! Even now!”
The officer eased back, and hissed into the radio. “We need a bomb squad down here. Lower dock, east.”
Somewhere in the building, perhaps behind a veiled curtain, Apollo heard the clown witch laugh. With death in his hands and guns drawing closer she watched, no doubt pleased at the unfurling of her design.
* * * *
I flew into the cave, deep into the guts of the complex. Without the stadium lights and billboards there was only a concrete labyrinth, and the endless number of supply doors with no real destination.
The dense walls stifled the crowd enough that I could make out other sounds; pipes, the ventilation system, even the buzzing of fluorescent lights, but no voices or footsteps. I threw myself down the narrow corridors and grabbed at random turns.
Time was wasting, but just when I couldn’t be any more lost there was a wisp of blue and white. One of the players ducked into a side room, like he was afraid.
“Wait!” Something wasn’t right.
I turned the corner and the air shattered, followed by exploding pink goop that knocked me to the ground. It stuck like taffy across my face and down my arm, holding me to the ground, and growing tighter with resistance.
He pleaded through the muck. “I’m sorry. I-I didn’t want this! I really look up to you!”
It was nice to be appreciated, even as the pink slime thickened around my throat. What was this stuff? Where does a TV actor even get that kind of thing? I pulled for all I was able, hoping the goop would lose tension; all I had to do was keep the pressure on.
Riotous cackling cut through the air. “Whoop! Looks like you caught a big one!”
Judy’s boot flew into my ribs with all the force of a wrecking ball. All the pain of the last few months came screaming back, and seared to my core. The only relief was a new, fresh agony in the form of a kidney shot.
“Are you gonna get up or what?” she chided. The goop’s hold was relentless. “Come on, kid. I’m trying to give you a fighting chance here. There’s an audience out there rooting for you, and they’re not going to like it if you go down in the first round. Can’t you hear them?”
I couldn’t hear a thing with pink slime pushing into my ears. I pushed, and I pulled; when was it going to break?
“Even Tarzan here is behind you, and he’s the one who-”
No more words. With every ounce of strength I had energy pulsed from my skin, burning like a tiny sun, and bubbling the goop to ash. Judy flew across the room; my hand was still fixed to the ground, but I could breathe! Not that I could enjoy it for long with the clown rolling back to her feet.
She came at me with a haymaker; I blasted the ground and came right back with a chunk of cement gooped to my arm. It crashed against her, blunt, clumsy, and completely ineffective. Brute force hadn’t worked before, and it wasn’t going to start then.
The room seemed to close in as she brought her weight down, turning the improvised weapon against me. She smiled, but not really. Somewhere beneath the wild mania there were only traces of the real Judy Kramer; it was only a matter of time before the monster swallowed that too.
“That’s it, kid! Really sell it!” she hissed. “I get this over, and I’ll get to walk away! Killing you is the only way I get my life back!”
Judy came down with the ceiling behind her like some inevitable force of nature. She had all the leverage; there was only so long I could hold her back. So I flew, unleashing wave after the next of photon energy, and crashed through every wall while using the clown’s body as a shield.
I couldn’t know where I was going. All I had was rocket power and the stink of sweat pressing into my face. Suddenly, it was the break of day, and both villain and I landed face first in the grass.
Cheers erupted as I shook debris from my hair. Judy, too, brushed herself off, and jangled her bells. This time she had nowhere to hide, and no walls to bounce off; only a hundred yards of open field.
“Give it up, Judy,” I said. “You can’t walk away from this.”
She sneered. “Sure I can!”
I balled my fists. She just had to do it the hard way.
* * * *
Outside the arena, toward the end of the block, Captain Salvador Ortega leered at a video screen. He studied every inch of ground the robot broadcast through the feed; every footprint, ever track, and every speck of gravel leading toward the package.
Apollo Jackman was even more beleaguered in high definition. His pores glowed with sweat, and his nostrils dripped, as though he were a fearful child, and not a grown man. Regardless, their watch was not on him, but the cube shaped object in his hands. Tremors ran down his arms as gravity took its toll.
“Tell him to keep still,” Ortega barked.
The message passed through his subordinate, through comms, and to the officers holding the line. Apollo nodded, shaking bullets from his brow, but struggled to still himself.
“What have we got?” the Captain continued.
A woman behind the main display snapped up. “Sir! Radiation levels at 0.22 microSieverts. Colorimetrics read negative for nitroaromatic and nitramine explosives; no nitrate, chlorate, or peroxide, either.”
“Can we get a scent?”
“Releasing gas,” reported another. The machine hissed through the monitor, matched only by minor spikes on the readout. Every eye moved closer, caught in between ticks of the clock, hypnotised by the robot’s subtle work.
Apollo shook. His eyes darted back and forth like flies. “What’s going on? Suh-something tastes funny!”
The Captain grunted, “keep him quiet, damn it.”
Their focus was maddening, and pulled the team into a never-ending instant over which oblivion hung. Breath caught in Ortega’s lungs, along with the taste of dust and heat; the same he held from Afghanistan, to Iraq, and beyond. Wherever he seemed to go, the spectre of death would follow.
Suddenly, fingers on the video feed slipped, and the box was in freefall. Even from a block away Ortega and his team jumped for cover, as though a divine hammer from above was about to strike. Their arms clutched their heads to keep them flying from their bodies, and then…
On the screen was Apollo Jackson, down to his knees, whimpering. Before him was a misshapen box, out of which rolled a large, maroon medicine ball; the kind athletes used in their training.
A younger officer followed the readout before him. “IMS just came back negative, sir.”
Ortega climbed upright, and grit his teeth. He brought his fist down on the console, and stifled a roar. “All that work, and for a fake-out,” he said. “Give the order! All teams, move in!”
* * * *
Judy ran like a banshee from hell, but still I was faster. Exploding blasts threw the turf, and sent her tumbling. In an open field with nothing to bounce off she was as good as caught; all I had to do was land the final blow.
The crowd cheered louder than any game I’d heard on television. It was like being drunk all over again, with their belief egging me on toward victory. More than ever the clown needed to fall.
All it took was one false step before she went flying into the air, limbs flailing with no control. I struck while still in the air, and planted her face into the grass from twenty feet up. It was the kind of force that would break a normal person, but Judy had proved she was tough enough.
She pulled herself upright, and frowned. “You want to fight me? Come on! Fight me fair and square! On the ground, no fancy laser beams! Just you and me, mano a mano!”
I flew around in a wide arc. “You’re kidding, right? You think you can goad me into a fistfight with a failed comic who rips teller machine out of walls? Sure, Judith. Tell me another one!”
It was sad, really, watching her crawl in a circle in search for an exit. She had to know she was beaten. Where could she have gone?
The crowd were getting restless. Some had climbed over the barricade and were moving toward centre field. Others started to chant ‘FIN-ISH HER! FIN-ISH HER!’ like it was some kind of game. Maybe it would have been better if I knocked her out; then she could wake up in a prison cell, far from the humiliation.
Judy sneered up at me, and flashed her teeth. “Okay, kid. Stop me if you’ve heard this one!”
Faster than I could even blink she dropped an object from her sleeve, and with superhuman strength pelted it into the air in the direction of the stands. I was already in motion before I registered the blinking light; it was a grenade of some sort, and I had to stop it.
Last I remembered was curling my body around the device, and clasping my legs. There was no pain, and no sound; only a flash that tore through my body. Whether I was dead or not was hard to say; there was no darkness. In fact, it was just the opposite.
I don’t know how long it was before I coming back together. Each holographic cell containing complete information of the whole collated with the others, and danced until they formed a larger body.
Suddenly I was standing at the edge of the field, dizzy before the crowd. I could barely make out their celebration through the ringing in my ears, and fell before I could spot the clown.
Where the hell did she go?
* * * *
“I did it, Slater; I actually did it,” Judy hissed. “Now get me outta here like you promised!”
She broke several world records sprinting down the back streets, leaped over fences, and bounced between walls to gain height. On foot no ordinary human would be able to catch her; the Milestone SCD, however, posed a different threat; perhaps even more than Glimmer Girl.
Cutting between street corners and bounding across blocks she was almost certain the sirens were behind her. She scaled the angle of an industrial storm drain separating one side of town from the slums, back in the direction of home base. There her employer would be waiting for her, ready to evacuate, just as promised.
The wailing of police cars tore across the bridge. They must have been desperate to follow her into this no man’s land, which was understandable; she’d humiliated their hero, along with what passed for the city’s ‘kings.’ Even if it was for pretend, even if it was Slater’s idea, they would never forgive what she had done.
Her shoulders began to twitch, prompting a giggle. The treatment was losing effect; she hadn’t much time! Judy pushed herself faster, harder, and cleared the gaps between buildings in single strides.
Finally, she reached the rendezvous point. “Honey, I’m home!”
She kicked the door of the safehouse open to find nothing there; no people, no getaway van, and especially no Slater. In their place was crates and dust, as though her memory of the place was some kind of bad dream.
Judy screamed at the highest pitch until her throat was raw and dry. Her fists smashed through walls as though they were dirt, and planks like toothpicks. They had made a fool of her! Worse, she should have known that it would come to betrayal.
The sirens stopped. Red and blue flashed between the cracks in the boards. The rest played out like it did in movies. “This is the Milestone Police Super Crimes Division,” and “come out with your hands up,” blah blah blah. Judy never liked action movies, anyway.
In the face of her final curtain call, the clown did as instructed, dawdled through the front door against the face of countless weapons, and held up her gloves. She slipped them off with her teeth, one by one, and threw them to the ground. Then she drew back her mask, and shook loose the mop of hair beneath.
She grinned at the captive audience, and threw her arms wide. What the hell? Her career was over anyway. “Surprise!”
An industrial taser, the kind designed for superhuman behemoths, launched from the top of an SUV, sending enough volts into her chest to even bring the likes of her down. It seemed fitting somehow to go out with a bang.
* * * *
It was twilight before the emergency crews found exits for the attendees, with only a handful requiring medical attention. Psychologists were also on hand to counsel anyone who might have been traumatised by the event, but few took them up on the offer. Most people complained that they didn’t get to see a football game, or were happy about seeing a ‘better show.’
As for me, I was a wreck; exhausted, still hungover, and nursing an old injury, like I’d been put through the wringer and fed back in reverse. Without the strength to fly home I opted to watch the crowd, telling them that I was there to make sure everyone was safe. It was as good an excuse as any.
The sun had almost set by the time Captain Ortega was ready for our signature ‘talk’; you know, where he would lecture me about about responsibility and say I did a good job in so many words. His usually kempt hair, both on his face and head, had been reshaped by sweat. This time he appeared surprised; that is if the rise of furry slugs on his brow were any indication.
“What are you still doing here?” he murmured.
“I thought, you know, since we didn’t finish that press conference…”
“Go home,” he said. “Rest.”
“Are you sure you don’t need me for anything?”
He was already crossing another checkpoint. “No!”
I climbed onto the bumper of one the police cars, and called after him. “But what about my statement?”
The Captain continued to move through the crowd, and conversed with his officers instead. I remembered those men in the press room, and the half-finished apology. Did that no longer matter?
A stranger whooped when they caught me peering over the cars. I couldn’t understand a word he said, except maybe ‘hero.’ That counted for something, I guess.
* * * *
The camera zoomed to a desk facing away from the cityscape of Milestone. Between them sat a middle aged man with a shaved head and a red tie. He smirked to the audience, and introduced himself.
“Good morning. You’re watching ‘Across the Aisle.’ I’m your host, Alex Kirkman. Today’s discussion centers on one of our hometown figures, Glimmer Girl, whose status as transgender has been sparking a lot of controversy. Joining me in the studio are our panelists.”
The camera panned over two men who could not be more different; first, a young man wearing a baseball cap and a hoodie. “Rapper, author, activist, and spoken word artist, Omar Fresh-” The other was an older man with slick, balding hair and a suit. “And columnist, and syndicated editorial radio host, Race O’Halloran. Gentlemen, welcome.”
Both thanked the host for being invited.
“Race, I’d like to start with you if I may. You’ve been extremely vocal these last few weeks, saying that figures like Glimmer Girl have a negative social influence, and are even dangerous to children.”
“That’s correct,” Race said. “We’ve seen this time and time again. The so-called transgender community have a radical agenda that seeks to recruit children into a lifestyle that promotes drug-use, deviant sexual acts, and suicide. They latch onto figures like this ‘Glimmer Girl’ who appear wholesome on the surface, and use them as a Trojan horse to spread their ideology.”
The host turned his attention to the other side of the desk. “Omar, I see you shaking your head over here. You’ve got something you’d like to say?”
Omar bit his lip. “You know, I’ve been sitting here all of ten seconds, and I haven’t a single real thing come out of your mouth, know what I’m sayin’? For real, have you ever met a trans girl? Some of them got nasty problems, some of them are real tight, but all of them - all of them - are trying to make the best of their situation.”
Race seethed. “And making ‘the best of their situation’ involves sterilization and genital mutilation. Is that what you’re getting at?”
“Look, all I know is that you or me don’t get an opinion on what makes somebody else happy, especially when they’re not hurting nobody. Besides, you were a Glimmer Girl fan before you found out her business, right?”
“I was,” he said, “but then she was discovered to be a liar. She is dangerous, perhaps not intentionally; but her lifestyle is harmful, especially to children.”
Omar could barely contain his laughter. “Says who? Some quack ‘pediatricians’ who don’t got no real qualifications?”
“We’ve seen it through her actions,” he continued, “when she attacked two police officers in a crowded area, showing a blatant disregard for bystanders.”
“For which she has since apologized and made amends,” the host interjected.
“Then we saw her working with the police,” Omar said, “where she then liberated an arena full of football fans! Ten thousand people! They all think she’s a hero! So maybe she’s not the enemy of law and order you think she is. All you got left against homegirl is that she’s transgender, and that’s as hateful as it is weak.”
Alex shrugged, and turned to his guest. Race O’Halloran opened his mouth, but no words came from it.
* * * *
When I made it back to the dorms the room was dark. Not especially late, but I figured Tanya was still recovering. She needed it, and so did I, so homework could wait.
I crashed onto the bed like a comet, shut out the sounds of conversation down the hall, and pulled the duvet over my shoulder. The heavy day drained into the sheets, and pulled me toward sleep. Gods, it was just what I needed; after too many days of carrying the world it was good to let go.
Maybe I should let it go for good, I thought. A normal life with only moderate responsibility; I never thought I’d crave the mundane, but life has a way of turning things on its head.
* * * *
The final treatments had been the most effective, but even they were not destined to last. As the days waned so did Judy’s strength, her endurance, and her dexterity. Muscles wound tight and joints froze, taking the place of the reinforced manacles saved for superhuman threats.
For several months she had a certain freedom, only to land back in a solitary room. The new prison was no better or worse than the last, save that her current television only had basic cable. If nothing else, at least she had reruns.
During the commercial breaks she counted the chips in the paint, and learned the contours of the cracks splitting off the door that didn’t need a lock. It was her home, perhaps for the rest of her life, however long that would be.
It was the seventh day of forever, and she already knew the routine; wake up, go to the bathroom, get bathed, et cetera. She knew which orderlies were the most trouble, and which she could milk for sympathy. As fate would have it, she had fans.
What she didn’t expect was the sudden appearance of a man in a purple coat; a man who, if he did belong in a prison or a hospital, had more free reign than he rightly deserved.
“Don’t scream,” he said. His voice was flat, and monotone.
“If you’re here for an autograph, then I’m sorry to tell you my writing hand ain’t working too good.”
“Nothing so droll,” he said. “I’m here because you can be of use to me.”
Judy rolled her eyes. “Of what possible use is a bed-bound cripple like me to anybody?”
“You won’t be for very long,” he said.
When the staff came to administer her evening medication she was gone; her bed was empty, and her monitors were unplugged or switched off. Where she had gone was a mystery, though to many not as pressing as how.
* * * *
NEXT ISSUE: Life is chaos for Glimmer Girl, and then she receives a visit from The Voice for a team-up she didn’t ask for. Stay tuned for our next issue, “Crosses to Bear”...
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