“Rocket,” the man said, “I am here for your execution.”
Joe landed in the lot, facing the giant. As he looked up, he wished he’d brought heavier weaponry. He had a bad feeling he wouldn’t be bringing this guy down with a solid punch, or even the now weaponized sonics.
He took a breath. Maybe he’d get lucky. For now he’d try to talk the giant into surrender, or at least into leaving.
“How about we postpone the execution for a little while? I’ve got a few questions I’d like to ask you, and maybe you’ve got a few questions you’d like to ask me.”
The giant raised his arm, the one with the black bracer, and said, “No, you will die now.”
Colors swirled around the bracer. Suspecting he didn’t want to find out what that bracer did first hand (even if he did feel a degree of technical curiosity), he said, “Wait, at least give me your lineage and the reason for my execution, so I that I can know whether or not you’re worthy to face me.”
The giant snarled. “Worthy? Worthy? You dare to consider even the possibility that you might outrank me in purity? I’m the creation of the second lineage of Magnetus the Purifier, the lineage of Kocratus, the lineage that learned the language of the Ancient of Ancients, the lineage that eradicated the first lineage of Magnetus when they were Corrupted, and the lineage whose servants stand first among all servants of the Abominator civilization!”
The giant seemed to stand a little taller. “Now tell me little warrior, who do you serve? No one of significance I would wager.”
“Before I tell you that, what about the Corruption of the Second Genetic Replicator of Kocratus when the smallest servants of the first lineage changed the second tube of the replicator, requiring Kocratus to destroy an entire line of descendants?”
The giant turned red in the face, and Joe wondered if he’d gone too far, but the giant let his hands fall to his sides, clenching his fists, but not attacking.
“That was a baseless falsehood! The third lineage of Magnetus spread that rumor only to cause scandal and weaken the first lineage! When I tell you the true reasons for the destruction of that gene line you’ll understand how worthless that ridiculous lie was…”
When the creature reached the three minute mark in his explanation, Joe smiled within his helmet. He’d seen Lee hold up an Abominator battleship for half an hour by trotting out this particular argument. It was as if all the Abominator lineages thought it important to turn their AI’s into fanatic windbags armed with every argument for the superiority of their own creators.
That thought brought Joe back to the earlier question. Who was this guy? He looked familiar, but not like any of the Abominator servants Joe had seen.
Whoever this giant was or had been, Joe felt sure he’d known him as a man.
And if that was true the fact that he was now sounding like a typical Abominator AI was disturbing.
The giant ranted and raved, but he paused, tilting his head upward and staring at the sky for a moment. Then he started talking again, but Joe knew who it was.
* * *
Four months earlier, back in the middle of May, Joe sat in his office. He’d rented a small one on the second floor of one of the office buildings downtown. His was next to Dykema Tailors. They were nice enough, and too busy to be nosy.
He was grateful for that as circumstances kept “Joe Vander Sloot, Consulting Engineer” (or so said the block letters on the window of his door) out of the office more often than any normal consultant could be and still pay rent.
Joe felt grateful the clients he kept continued to come back, and pay his rates–which under Giles’ tutelage he’d managed to increase substantially.
Staring at the designs of the machine that he’d just received in a manila envelope, Joe understood why. According to the phone conversation he’d had, the company’s engineers couldn’t understand why the machine cost so much in maintenance and downtime. The machine was supposed to create plastic tubes used in medical equipment, but spent enough time not working that they were considering a complete redesign.
From the plans alone, the solution seemed obvious enough. He could reduce the number of moving parts by nearly a quarter in one section. That alone might solve their problems, but he felt fairly sure he could reduce the machine’s size by a third with a more drastic solution.
On one level, it wasn’t unusual, but it still surprised him that graduates from Ivy League schools couldn’t see what he, a graduate of the far less prestigious Grand Lake State College, did.
He began writing down his ideas on the legal pad he kept next on his desk, drawing basic versions of the new plan.
Midway through, a man stepped through the door. Joe thought he looked like he was in his early twenties. He had pale, blond hair, and blue eyes. The man’s cheekbones were a little stretched, reminding Joe a little bit of concentration camp victims he’d seen during the War.
This man wasn’t anywhere near as far gone as some of them, but he hadn’t been eating enough. His ragged blue jeans and faded winter jacket hinted that he’d been hungry for a long time.
Joe wondered if he was on drugs, but didn’t think the man looked like a hippie.
“Excuse me, sir,” the man said after he shut the door. “You’re the Rocket, and I need your help.”
Even though every part of his body wanted to fight, Joe kept his voice calm. “I think you must be confused. I’m a consulting engineer. I keep odd hours and get called out to factories as I”m needed, but it’s not because I’m a superhero.”
The man smiled faintly. “You don’t have to pretend,” he said. “I’m Mark Simmons. I was in Red Lightning’s legions. They called me Foresight back then. I’m not a match for the Mentalist, but I can see into the future, or at least I can when I have the power elixir.”
Joe kept his face calm, hoping the Mentalist might show up out of nowhere. He’d done it the last time someone had shown up knowing his name.
The man paused, tilting his head, and staring at the corner of Joe’s office for a moment before continuing to talk.
“I’m here,” he said, “because I’m on the run. Someone out there is searching for people who can develop powers, and they’re not human.”
* * *
Joe could see Mark’s face in the monster’s, and remembered how the man had disappeared after leaving them with a few clues about where to look for the creatures hunting him.
As he began to wonder when Mark had been caught, he realized, the creature had stopped talking.
The giant stared at him, teeth bared. “A trick,” he said. “This is a trick!”