“What the hell happened here?” Vaughn whispered.
“My best guess? Teleportation gone wrong,” Nick replied.
A sphere shaped chunk of reality–approximately 10 feet in diameter–had been carved out of the floor, wall, and several exhibits, then summarily replaced with another sphere shaped chunk of reality from elsewhere. Within that space, a carpeted floor had collapsed into the crater created by the effect. Half of a bed had tipped over near the edge; the part where it had been ‘cut off’ smoldered.
Within this space, there were two girls.
The first girl sat at the center, crouched on the floor. At a glance, Nick could tell she was in shock–her eyes were wide and her skin was clammy and pale. She was a small Asian teenager with rubber gloves and a Marvel Zombies T-shirt. She had a strange metal backpack strapped behind her.
The other girl was at one of the teleportation field’s outer-fringes. She was dressed in a bright orange costume, only her upper half remaining–she had been neatly bisected from the waist down, leaving a cauterized wound where her hips and legs should have been. Nick didn’t recognize her costume, but he recognized her face.
“Oh, Christ,” Vaughn said. “That’s Ja–”
“Accelerando,” Nick corrected him, wary of the girl still present. “And no, I don’t think it is–not actually her. Some sort of… different version, or something.”
The girl at the center of the field looked up, setting her eyes on Nick and Vaughn. She swallowed.
“Okay,” Nick said, and he held his arms out. “Just relax. We’re not here to hurt you or anything. We’re just trying to figure out what–”
“I’m from another dimension,” the girl said. “We stole an omnisphere from a group of dimension-hopping supervillains named Legion. I–” she looked at the girl on the ground. “–activated it when they attacked my house. To escape.”
“Score one for option two,” Vaughn mumbled. “Alternate universe.”
“Okay,” Nick said. “Police’ll be coming in here in a few minutes. We’ll get this all cleared up.”
“Police can’t help me. I need–I need to get back home,” the girl said, and she stood. Her feet were wobbly–she kept looking back at the Jaclyn-clone. “My friends might be in trouble. And–I–I think I’m going to be sick,” she said.
And then she passed out.
“I have an evil twin?” Haley said.
“Yeah, and she’s a lot cooler than mine,” Vaughn said. “Seriously, ‘Shock Jock’?”
Nick, Vaughn, Haley, and Daniel were in Nick’s lab; all of them were still in costume. Anna was at one of the worktables, inspecting the omnisphere.
“So, there’s an alternate version of all of us?” Daniel asked.
“Not the Rocket,” Anna said. “Shock Jock, Beast Girl, Paradigm, Commando, Blur.” When she said that last name, she grew a little pale.
Daniel stepped forward and reached to touch her shoulder. “Relax,” he told her. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Please don’t read my thoughts,” Anna said, her voice scarcely above a mumble. “It’s scary.”
Daniel stepped back and quickly changed the subject. “I take it Paradigm is my alternate?”
“Probably. I never saw him, but he’s got mental powers, and telekinesis. He’s their leader, and their tech-guy.”
“Their tech-guy?” Nick asked.
“Yeah. He extracts whatever knowledge he needs out of the heads of other tech-savvy people,” Anna says.
Nick looked at Daniel. “Can you do that?”
Daniel shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said. “It’s not something I’ve ever tried–or would.”
“Their Storm King–uh, ‘Shock Jock’,” Vaughn said. “His powers were different. I can’t turn into lightning.”
“Slight variances, yes,” Anna said. “It’s not a perfect fit. I think they were trying to find a world close to their own.”
“Why?” Nick said.
“Don’t know,” Anna replied. She straightened and turned. “Do you have some place private I could recharge?”
“Recharge what?” Haley asked.
“My–um, prosthetics,” Anna said, color inching into her face.
“Prosthetics?” Vaughn said. “What are you talking about?”
“She’s got–” Daniel began, but Anna shot him a dirty look. Daniel shrugged, and looked to Nick.
She’s very self-conscious about them, Daniel said, broadcasting his thoughts to him.
Self-conscious about what? Nick asked.
Her prosthetic arms.
She–what? I didn’t see any–
They’re why she’s wearing the gloves. The backpack is the battery. If they don’t get charged, she won’t be able to use them.
“There’s a bathroom back there,” Nick said, pointing behind Anna. “Should be an outlet near the sink.”
“Thank you,” Anna said, retreating. Once she was gone, Nick turned to the others.
“You believe her?” Vaughn said.
“She’s legit, as far as I can tell,” Daniel said. “She’s got some mental defenses set up, but everything I’m reading tells me that she’s being straight with us.”
“An alternate dimension where we’re bad guys,” Haley said. “That’s just…”
“Weird,” Vaughn said. “And why doesn’t Nick get one?”
“Like she said, it’s not a perfect fit,” Nick said. “Some variations. Either way, I think we should contact Lim.”
Anna returned a few minutes later. She flexed her gloved fingertips, apparently satisfied. Nick inspected them as discreetly as he could; it was impossible to tell that they were prosthetics. They moved as naturally as real arms.
He desperately wanted to see them.
As he stared at the gloves, an error message flickered over his viewscreen. Nick grumbled. “Oh, for the love of–”
“What’s wrong?” Haley asked.
“Suit’s been giving me errors ever since Shock Jock flew through it,” Nick said. “Gonna have to run a diagnostic, see if he fried any of the circuitry on his way through.”
Anna was staring at him.
“What?” Nick asked.
“He flew through you?” she said. “Or into you?”
“I don’t see what the distinction–oh, whoa. Something’s happening,” Nick said. More error messages started to flicker on-screen. The meter that measured voltage moving through his suit’s external Faraday Cage started to go haywire. “Uh–”
“Turn your suit off,” Anna said. “Turn it off now!”
“I was really hoping to hold off on this,” Shock Jock’s modulated voice snarled through the helmet. “Still, whatever. I guess I can just kill you now and take all your stuff.”
“Guys!” Nick shouted from inside the helm. “I can’t–the suit’s not responding! He’s overriding–”
“Shock Jock can inhabit and control machines,” Anna said. “Shut it down!”
The Rocket’s eyes turned red. The suit’s arms lifted with a mechanical whirr, pointing the sonics at Haley and Vaughn.
“Oh crap oh crap oh–” Vaughn was cut off by the ringing blast of noise; he went down as Haley whipped up into the air and somersaulted over the Rocket’s head.
Daniel threw his arms out toward the Rocket. A wall of force hit him in the chest, right into Haley’s arms–she clenched both biceps around its waist and neck. Then she squeezed.
“Not enough,” Nick said. “Night Cat, you aren’t strong enough to–”
“Helping,” Daniel said, squeezing his hand down into a fist. A sleeve of telekinetic force enveloped Nick’s armor, lifting him up. “Can you turn your suit off?”
“Hey, what’s this button do?” The engine behind the Rocket suit rumbled.
“Oh crap,” Haley mumbled.
Nick was sent hurtling into the air. He hit the ceiling head-first, along with Haley; there was a terrible thwack, followed by both of them tumbling to the floor. The armor got up–Haley didn’t.
“You–damn it!” Nick shouted. “I can’t shut it off!”
“Rocket,” Anna said. “Quick question. Can you survive a particle beam blast in that thing?”
“Yeah, probably–wait, what?”
Anna snapped a battery pack into the particle beam’s socket she had snatched from one of his worktables and took aim. “Just checking.”
There was a brief, sudden silence, followed by a horrible roar–blinding light swallowed the chamber as Nick’s entire torso disappeared in a ball of superheated flame. A second later, and he was slumped against the far side of the room, an immense Rocket-shaped dent now marring the steel wall above him.
Shock Jock appeared an instant later in a swirl of electricity. Haley leapt from the ground in a fury, delivering a single bone-jarring blow to his head. She followed it with a stab of her sedative-laced dewclaw.
His shades broke in two–followed immediately by his nose. When he hit the ground, it was with a loud thwump.
“Rocket!” Haley shouted, bounding past the unconscious figure and toward the still-smoldering armor. When she reached out to touch him, she could feel the heat. She pulled her hands back. “Can you hear me?”
“Ouch,” Nick said. “Yeah. Fried some systems, but I’m still here.”
Haley immediately turned on Anna, snatching her up by the collar of her shirt. She hefted her off the ground, leaving her feet dangling. “What the hell did you just do?”
Anna squeaked. “I wouldn’t have fired if he didn’t say yes!”
“It’s okay,” Nick said. “Seriously, it’s okay. The suit’s still functional, I think. Going to have to do some ad hoc repairs. But now we’ve got one of their members,” he added. “Meanwhile, I really think we should contact Lim.”
“Alternate universes, huh?” Isaac Lim spoke from the viewscreen. “Haven’t dealt with that in a long while. Kind of out of our jurisdiction, actually.”
“And aliens aren’t?” Nick asked.
Isaac grinned. “Well, yeah. Did you know there’s a whole dimension full of nothing but robots?”
“Sounds fascinating,” Nick said. “But I’m interested in the universe that has evil versions of my friends.”
“We don’t have much data on the parallel worlds,” Isaac said. “That’s something the Agency deals with.”
“Agency?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah. Organization that handles a lot of ‘top secret’ stuff. Getting intel from them can be tricky, though. Usually requires weeks of paperwork. They’re more of the ‘we’ll contact you’ sort.”
“We don’t have weeks,” Nick said. “One of them already infiltrated our headquarters.”
“There’s an alternative,” Isaac said. “I know a guy. Ex-Agent. Dealt with a lot of parallel universe stuff.”
“Who?” Nick asked.
“Old friend. Meanwhile, I’m going to put through the paperwork on this thing, see if I can get the ball rolling. If I can get the Agency interested–”
“We could definitely use the help,” Nick said.
“They won’t help you,” Isaac said. “They’ll solve the problem themselves, then leave you cleaning up the mess. It’ll take me a while to dig up the location of the ex-Agent–a few hours, maybe. Once I find it, I’ll send it over. Contact me if there are any other developments. Isaac out.”
Twenty minutes later, Nick was out of costume and carrying the battered chest-plate of his Rocket armor into the lab when he stumbled across Anna.
She was sitting on top of one of the tables with her shirt off and her back to the door. Underneath, she wore a leather harness that fitted over her shoulders–it strapped beneath her chest, around her waist, and across her back. A set of contacts were set at the base of her neck, with the metal backpack connecting both prosthetic arms at the shoulder.
Both arms were masterpieces of engineering ingenuity–clockwork marvels built of polished steel and engraved with images of interweaving Chinese dragons. The hands and fingers were of particularly clever design, set upon delicate hinges driven by wires that stretched taut across the knuckles, fed back into the metal cusp that protected the fine mechanics of the wrist. As Nick watched, Anna clenched the metal hand into a fist–wires crinkled as the device made a gentle hiss.
“Oh wow,” Nick said, staring at the arms. “Those things are–”
Anna blinked, turned, and went white. “Out!” she shouted.
“Uh, sorry,” Nick said. He slammed the door shut and pressed his back against it, steeping in the awkward silence that ensued.
After a few moments, he heard Anna’s voice behind him, muffled behind the door: “Um, are you still there?”
“Yes. Sorry. I can go. Just was looking for space to do some fast repairs on the suit,” Nick said.
“You’re the Rocket, right? The one who’s good with machines?”
“Uh, yeah,” Nick said. “I mean, I helped build that particle beam you shot me with. So I guess?”
Again, there was a period of silence. Anna finally broke it: “You can, um, come in. I actually need a little help.” A pause. “Just, please don’t be weird about this, okay?”
Nick took in a slow breath and turned back to the door. Then he wrinkled his eyebrows. “Wait, are you decent?”
“The harness covers the front and back, yeah,” Anna said.
“Okay.” He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Anna had removed a plate from her left arm’s bicep and was adjusting the tension on the wires. It looked like incredibly awkward work–the arms weren’t designed to adjust one another. When Nick stepped in, Anna turned red and shrugged. “I just got them a little while ago,” she said.
“They’re incredible,” Nick said, and then he frowned. “I, um, mean that in a totally not-creepy way.”
“It’s okay,” Anna said. “I kind of figured you’re into the tech and not the whole ‘girl-with-fake-arms’ thing.”
“People start acting really weird when they realize my arms are prosthetics,” Anna said. “I just need help resetting the tension on this one–Beast Girl hit it with her claws, it’s been out of sync ever since.”
Nick stepped forward. Anna extended her left arm and moved the right out of the way. As Nick inspected the metal wires that gave the arm its tension, he peppered her with questions.
“I heard DARPA was working on nerve-responsive prosthetics, but nothing as advanced as this,” Nick said. “I’ve never seen anything like it–is it alien?”
“Chinese antique,” Anna said. “About two centuries old.”
Nick peered at her.
“Yeah, I know,” Anna said. “It’s pure clockwork. I’ve tried reverse engineering them, but I’m terrified of breaking something. Best I could manage was an upgrade from crank-powered to battery-powered.”
“They ran on a crank?” Nick asked, incredulous.
“Yeah,” Anna said. “Sue had to crank them for a half hour just to get them working for a full day. And if I used them to, like, push a car or something, they’d burn out in a few minutes. Now they’re a little more manageable.”
“Maybe I could help you figure out how they work,” Nick said. “I mean, if this technology is two hundred years old–it could be revolutionary. Where did you get them?”
“My mother,” Anna said. “She gave me them as a gift.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Nick said.
“Well, she is the reason I lost them,” Anna said.
“That’s–hm,” Nick said, upping the tension. Anna’s fist clenched with a tight click. “That’s not so cool?”
“It’s complicated. Also, I think that’s perfect,” Anna said, opening her hand and closing it several times in succession. “Yep! Thanks.” She hopped off the table and retrieved her T-shirt, pulling it over her head and down over the harness. “Oh, yeah,” Anna said. “I noticed you’ve got some retro gear yourself, over there.” She gestured to a suit of ancient Rocket armor that had been disassembled on a table. It looked like something out of the fifties–big, bulky, and full of wires.
“Oh, that’s an old project,” Nick said. “Remote controlled suit. It was my gr–predecessor’s idea,” Nick corrected himself. “Just in case he had to appear at two places at once or something like that.”
“Like Superman!” Anna said.
“Superman had robots,” Anna said. “He’d show up as Clark Kent in one place and have a robot pretend to be Superman, and… um, you don’t really read much comics, do you?”
Nick grinned. “A little. Loses some of its appeal when you’re actually punching bad guys in the face.”
Anna peered at the disassembled armor for a few moments. “I always really liked Superman,” she said. “I mean, Batman’s awesome too, but I always liked Superman more.”
“Batman doesn’t have powers,” Nick said. “Still holds his own. Like us.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s why I like him,” Anna said. “But he fights crime because his parents are dead. Superman fights crime just because it’s what he wants to be.” Anna pointed at the retro-armor. “Like that–why are you doing that?”
Nick shrugged. “S’fun,” he said. “Interesting challenge.”
“Right. Batman wouldn’t do something like that. Not just for the heck of it,” Anna said. “But Superman would. I dunno–you hang around people who are fighting evil because they have to, rather than because they want to–it’s kind of a relief to meet somebody who’s more like me.”
Nick opened his mouth to reply, but the intercom came on. “Rocket?” Haley’s voice called out. “Lim’s sent us the address. Got it up in the lobby.”
Nick and Anna both looked at the armor in his arms. Anna smiled sheepishly and shrugged her arms. “Sorry,” she said. “Kind of ate up your time.”
“S’okay,” Nick said. “I’ve fixed my spares. I’ll take one to meet this ex-Agent.”