“Good evening, Mr. Sumerset,” the orderly said, his voice coated with a sugary-sweet enamel.
“Fuck off and die in a greasefire,” the old man replied.
“Now, now,” the orderly said, “is that any way to behave?” He took hold of Daniel Sumerset’s wheelchair and nudged the old man down the hallway. “You really should behave yourself, Mr. Sumerset. It’s only polite, what with all I do for you.”
“You eat my candy-bars and steal my meds to sell to your punk friends,” the old man said. “Be grateful I don’t sneak into the cafeteria and take a piss in your cereal bowl every morning.”
The orderly snorted as they reached Sumerset’s room. “Well, if you’re going to be like that, Mr. Sumerset, then I’m sure you can manage to put yourself to bed tonight, can’t you?”
Sumerset watched as the orderly retreated down the hallway. He fumbled with the doorknob to his room, pulled it open, and slowly rolled his way in.
Michael, his roommate, was sitting up in bed. “You have a visitor,” he said. “An angel at your window.”
Sumerset had gotten used to patiently helping Michael figure out what was real and what wasn’t. But he just didn’t have the energy tonight.
“Mike, it’s just your brain playing tricks again,” he said, and then he rolled his way toward his bed with a sigh. How the hell was he going to get into this thing? “Just go back to sleep, we’ll talk about it in the morning.”
“The angel said he needed to speak to you,” Michael continued, his gray, balding head and giant spectacles making him look peculiarly owlish in the room’s gentle glow. “He said it was a matter of life or death.”
“Okay, Mike. We’ll deal with it in the morning,” Sumerset said, drawing the covers back.
“He said the government sent him.”
Sumerset’s hand froze. “What?”
But Sumerset had already pulled himself back from the bed and rolled around its full length, pushing up to the window. Before he even drew the curtain back, he could see the shape of a figure behind it.
When he opened the curtain, he found himself face-to-face with the Rocket.
Sumerset’s room was on the third floor. The Rocket was hovering right outside, his engine making a low-level hum.
“Huh,” Sumerset said. “It used to be a lot noisier than that.”
“Isaac Lim sent me,” Nick said. “I need your help.”
Several police officers stepped back as the smoking remains of the museum exhibit erupted in a brilliant flash of light.
As the energies dissolved, two figures emerged. One was a young dark-haired teen who stood over six feet tall–his costume was white, with black accents. The other was a very muscular blond girl in what looked like a black special ops military uniform.
“What the hell is–” one of the officers began.
“Kill yourselves,” Paradigm said.
All three officers simultaneously snapped to attention, drew their firearms, and brought them to their temples.
Commando paused for the sound of near-overlapping gunfire. A moment later and she turned to Paradigm. “This is it?” she said.
Paradigm opened his wrist-mounted PDA, reading its output. “Think so. Mm. Yep. Picking up Haley’s signal. Not Vaughn’s, though.”
“Up here,” Beast Girl said, dropping down from above. “Thought you guys would never show up.”
Commando glared. Paradigm smiled. “Good to see you’re alive,” he said.
“Can’t say the same for Jaclyn,” Beast Girl said, gesturing to a white outline on the floor. “Got cut in half.”
“We know. Found the other half on our side,” Commando said.
“How’d you get here?” Beast Girl asked.
“Our benefactor figured out a way to target the residue from the first omnisphere activation,” Paradigm said. “Problem is that it’s a one-shot deal–Bonesaw and Skull still have the device. Unless we can find the original omnisphere, we’ll be trapped.”
“The bitch with metal arms still has it over here,” Beast Girl said. “We just gotta find her. Also, Shock Jock–he hijacked some cape’s armor.”
“Mm. When I spoke to our benefactor, he gave me additional orders,” Paradigm said.
Both Commando and Beast Girl stiffened. Commando spoke first: “What were they?”
“He’s sent me the coordinates to the League HQ in this world. It’s got the tech we’re after,” Paradigm said.
Beast Girl grinned. “Then what the hell are we waiting for? Let’s hit it.”
“One thing. He has special plans concerning our counterparts,” Paradigm said.
It took a full three minutes for Nick to squeeze his armor into the room with relative silence. Sumerset waited patiently.
When Nick finally got inside, Sumerset smiled, leaned back, and pushed his way toward his mattress.
“So what is it?” Sumerset asked. “You finally find out about those Nazis we stuck on Mars? Somebody found Atlantis, again? Ark of the Convenant giving you trouble?”
“Huh?” Nick asked. “Uh, no–alternate universe versions of my friends.”
“Oh, is that all? Christ, that happened every week back in the day,” Sumerset said. “Hell, I’ve kicked my own ass so many times that I’ve lost count.” He reached under the mattress, feeling around.
“Isaac Lim told me that you’ve had experience with the Agency. Said that this was something they deal with. Someone arrived with an omnisphere–” Nick started.
“Do you even know what the Agency is?” Sumerset asked. He pulled out a photo frame from beneath the bed, dusting it off.
“Not really,” Nick said.
“On April 14th, 1865, Abraham Lincoln created the ‘Secret Service’ to suppress counterfit bills,” Sumerset said. “At least, that’s what it said on the tin. Weird name for a group dedicated to fighting funny money, don’t you think?” He handed the photo frame over to Nick.
“I guess,” Nick said, inspecting the black and white photo. It was blurry, but he could make out four figures–and a bizarre, incredibly primitive robot behind them. “Who’s–”
“Nikolai Tesla, Amelia Earhart, an aging Lone Ranger, and the ghost of Mark Twain,” Sumerset said. “The robot is one of Edison’s ‘Auto-Men’–Ford inherited the blueprints after his death and started mass producing them for Germany as a second front in World War 2.”
“Uh… what?” Nick said.
Sumerset grinned. “Agency’s who you called when shit got weird, son. We dealt with the bizarre, the incredible, the utterly impossible. We’re the ones who were at Roswell; the men in black. We beat back the Illuminati and faked the lunar footage.”
“You–wait, you’re kidding me. The lunar landing was faked?” Nick said.
“No, the lunar landing happened. We just ended up faking the footage,” Sumerset said. “So people wouldn’t panic over the secret Nazi moon-base that the astronauts stumbled on. Twenty years alone up there and the poor bastards didn’t even know they’d lost the war.”
“I’m having a difficult time figuring out if you’re serious or joking.”
“Turned out to be for the best anyway,” Sumerset said. “Astronaut flubbed his line in the original run. ‘One small step for man’.”
“Okay,” Nick said. “About these alternate universe people–”
“Out of the sixty three similar parallel universes we documented, only two of them were close enough to ours to reliably produce numerous alternates,” Sumerset said. “One of them was identical, just running three years ahead of ours. The other one had subtle differences–lots of alternate versions of supers and villains. You got an alternate?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Nick said.
“Alright. Good. Probably that last one,” Sumerset said. “Evil Rocket crossed over from that one sometime in the 50s. Killed his ass,” Sumerset added. “For the best, really. Your grandfather made one hell of a scary bad guy.”
“My grandfather was–wait, what?” Nick said, catching himself.
Sumerset laughed. “Don’t worry, kid. I worked with your gramps a few times back in the 60s. Figured you’d have to be either his kid or his grandkid, and I remember him saying his kid wasn’t getting into the business.”
Nick shook his head and tried to focus. “Okay. So that world you mentioned–”
“Nasty piece of work,” Sumerset said. “Had an evil Rocket, who we killed–don’t know what result that would have had,” he continued, “but I doubt it’d be a good one.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me?” Nick asked.
“Two things,” Sumerset said. “If they came here, they want something from you. Something they ain’t got in their world.”
“Okay,” Nick said. “The other thing?”
“Remember that, nine times out of ten, they know what you know. Don’t trust anything, and I mean anything,” Sumerset said. “Alternates might know your worst fears, your secret identities, your passwords–even the location of your headquarters.”
“You worried about him and her?” Vaughn said.
“Huh?” Haley looked up from the computer. “Who?”
“Nick and Anna,” Vaughn said.
Haley wrinkled her brow. “Anna’s in the lab, working on the omnisphere,” she said.
“Yeah, I know, but I mean–just in general,” Vaughn said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, I mean, she’s a tech-dude, like Nick,” Vaughn said. “And she’s got those weird–what did Daniel call ’em? ‘Pross-fetus’. You know Nick’s probably all crazy about those things. Plus, she’s cute.”
“Prosthetics,” Haley corrected. “And no, I’m not worried. That would be dumb,” she added.
“Okay. I’m just asking because, you know. Maybe I’ll make a move,” Vaughn said.
Haley rolled her eyes. “She’s not your type. Also, she’s from another dimension. Don’t think it’d work out.”
“You never know,” Vaughn said. “Could work like a long-distance relationship, y’know?” Vaughn was interrupted by a beep. “Hey, is that someone at the front door?”
“Nick’s new security protocol,” Haley said. “Is he back already? Thought it would take longer than–”
When she looked at the nearby camera viewscreen, her words promptly stopped. One by one, each camera was being deactivated.
“What the hell?” Vaughn said.
The lights went out, then were immediately replaced by red auxiliary lights. A moment after that, the elevator started moving.
Haley and Vaughn sprang to their feet. When the elevator opened, three figures stood inside.
“Sorry to intrude,” Paradigm said, flanked on either side by Beast Girl and Commando. “But we’ve got business.”
“So,” Daniel said. “What’s my alternate like?”
“Scary,” Anna said as she inspected the omnisphere from one of the lab’s worktables. “Doesn’t respect other people’s mental privacy.”
Daniel peered at her. Anna looked up, shrugged, then mumbled. “Yeah, alright,” she said. “Also, he lobotomizes people. I don’t think you do that, right?”
“So you do the tech back home?” Daniel said, tactfully changing the subject.
“Yeah,” Anna said. “Well, me and Sumerset.”
“Old guy. Ex-Marine engineer. Kind of, um, our mentor, I guess? He used to make power armor and equipment for heroes back in the day,” Anna said. “He’s pretty grouchy, but also pretty awesome.”
“You don’t have power armor,” Daniel said. “I was wondering about that–you don’t do anything like Rocket?”
“I–no, I guess not,” Anna said. “I don’t know–I just never really did anything beyond a support role, y’know? I wanted to, but the others would always want to keep me out of a fight. No powers, really.”
Daniel opened his mouth to reply, but the lights went red. He looked up, then down at Anna.
Anna wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “Hide.”
“No,” Daniel said. “Grab the particle beam cannon.”
Vaughn threw arc after arc of electricity at Commando, but each successive burst only seemed to piss her off. She’d grunt and convulse as lightning crawled over her skin and carved scorch marks across her uniform, but after a few seconds she’d recover.
“You know,” she told him, drawing near, “this’ll go a lot easier if you tell me where the girl is.”
“Sorry, what was that?” Vaughn asked, moving back. “I don’t speak crazy bitch.” He produced another spark of lightning, aiming for Commando’s head. This time, she saw his hands rising and rolled low, kicking off the floor and jumping high.
Beast Girl had already rammed Haley into the hangar; Paradigm had disappeared for the lab. There was no one between him and the Cassie-clone except his powers–and inside, he couldn’t bring the full brunt of his weather control to bear.
He tried to pull out enough wind to fly, but she was on him by the time he’d coaxed up a breeze. She hit him in the chest with both knees, throwing him to the ground and pinning him. When she wrapped her hands around his throat, he grabbed her shoulders–then grimaced.
“Yes, that’s a brilliant idea,” she said. “Electrocute the girl who’s on top of you. I’m sure that’s going to end spectacularly well.”
Vaughn glared, then choked. His grip on her arms tightened. If there was no other way…
“No, but seriously,” Commando said. “I can regenerate. You do that, you’ll kill yourself, and I’ll be fine.”
Vaughn blinked. Commando sighed.
“As much as we’d love to,” she said, “we’re not here to kill you. Just neutralize you.”
“You’re holding back.”
Haley growled and sprang up on top of the League jet. Beast Girl brushed freshly crushed concrete off her leather jacket shoulder and stepped through the hole in the wall, baring her fangs up at her.
“You’re scared to go too far, aren’t you?” Beast Girl said. “The powers. It’s okay. I was scared too, a long time ago.”
“Shut up,” Haley said. She extended her fingers into claws and pounced.
Beast Girl’s entire figure grew in size–she gained nearly a foot in height. Muscles bulged as her leather jacket creaked beneath the sudden pressure of her swelling form. Before Haley could adjust her trajectory, Beast Girl stepped into her path and delivered a devastating head-butt.
Haley smacked back against the jet, head-first. She rolled into a crouch and snarled. Beast Girl hadn’t just grown in size–what looked like a thin veneer of fur glistened over her figure. Her fangs and claws had grown–and her eyes had turned blood red.
“Then, one day,” Beast Girl said, speaking around her fangs, “I realized I liked being the biggest, baddest mother-fucker around.”
“I said shut up,” Haley said. She grabbed hold of a nearby miniature forklift by its mast and pivoted; the tires scraped across concrete as she threw all of her weight into it. Her shoulders rippled with effort as the forklift slid off the ground and flipped over itself, aimed straight for Beast Girl.
Beast Girl leapt above it, kicked her feet down into the cab, and managed to pounce Haley before she could recover. Sedative-soaked clawtips dug deep into her shoulders.
“You know what your problem is?” Beast Girl said as Haley’s vision started to fade. “You just don’t know how to embrace your inner bitch.”
When Anna heard the entryway’s hinges creak, she swung the particle beam around to target it.
The door crumpled inward like a wet tissue; Paradigm batted it aside with only a thought. By the time Anna had turned the beam on him, he was already seizing her up in a telekinetic fist, locking her metal arms down and lifting her in the air.
“So you’re the little tech-wizard,” Paradigm said. “Our benefactor didn’t say anything about guaranteeing your safety.” He tightened his hold. Anna cried out.
“I assume he did say something about guaranteeing ours, then,” Daniel spoke, stepping into the lab.
Paradigm paused. He watched Daniel closely, as if scanning him for weaknesses. Then he smiled. “You’ve already lost. My teammates have neutralized your friends. Be a good boy and step aside.”
“You’re here for Shock Jock and the omnisphere,” Daniel said. “You can have both.”
“I’m here for whatever I want,” Paradigm replied.
Let her go, Daniel said, broadcasting his thoughts.
You don’t stand a chance, Paradigm said. In a contest of wills, I’ll win. You aren’t willing to kill. I am.
Oh, I’m willing to kill someone, Daniel said. The real question is who?
Paradigm narrowed his eyes.
I’ve scanned my friends’ minds. You’re taking pains not to kill us. You need us alive for something, Daniel continued. If you don’t let her go, I’ll telepathically turn off my own heart.
Paradigm scoffed. You wouldn’t.
I’ve already set up the hypnotic trigger to do it, Daniel said. Unless you let her go–intact, physically and mentally–in the next five seconds, it will happen automatically.
Four seconds passed as Daniel and Paradigm stared, each measuring the other’s worth.
On the fifth second, Paradigm released Anna. She slumped to the ground, coughing.
Cleverly played, Paradigm said. You can have her. We’ve acquired what we need. He glanced to where Anna had been working on the omnisphere–the device was plucked up from its workstation, floating into Paradigm’s hands.
A moment after he turned and left, Daniel slumped against one of the workstations, panting.
“Jesus Christ, that guy’s brain is scary,” he said.