I spent the rest of the night doing homework, and I was at it till eleven o’clock.
After I stuffed my books back in my backpack, I sat at my desk, staring at the screen of my laptop. It sucked. I didn’t have time to do much more than go to bed. Cassie could probably stay up for days with no effect, but if I didn’t start sleeping soon, I’d sleep in class.
I might be able to get away with reading a few chapters of a book — provided I didn’t get involved enough to finish it. Then I might find myself going to bed at four in the morning.
I considered opening up the laptop again. Haley or Daniel might be online.
I wondered if Rachel was still up. I supposed I could go and check. I’d heard her practicing guitar a little bit, but that had been a couple hours ago.
So maybe, I told myself, I should just to go to bed.
I got into pajamas, got into bed, and congratulated myself for going to bed at an hour at which I’d sometimes found myself wearing the Rocket suit. I might, I thought, actually not feel dead tired the next morning.
Lying in bed, I listened to the breeze through the open window, open at night for the first time this year.
The screen ripped, and a dark figure flew through the window.
I tried to get off the bed, and onto my feet, but didn’t even get the chance to pull myself up.
Justice Fiend held one gloved hand over my mouth, and pushed the other into my abdomen before I got anywhere.
I grabbed his arm with both hands and tried to move it away. I might as well have tried to pick up my high school.
Double V’s database rated Justice Fiend a 7 out of 10 for strength. They rated the Grey Giant an 9, and the Rocket suit a 5. They had only news reports to go on so the data had a fairly significant fudge factor, but that didn’t change the fact that they rated a normal, unmodified human a 1.
Their rating scale didn’t go up one unit at a time either. Each number represented a big jump up from the last — kind of like the Richter scale.
I didn’t try to bite his hand. Double V rated his “durability” an 8 out of 10. Grenades exploded harmlessly against his skin. My teeth weren’t going to get anywhere.
If I felt afraid before, it was much worse now.
Only the hand covering my mouth stopped me from screaming.
I tried to get it under control. I tried to think about the Rocket suit’s design and speculated about ways to improve the efficiency of the engine or change the fuel mixture.
I couldn’t concentrate.
I tried something less complex — finding all the prime numbers less than 500.
Still too hard.
Ditching anything that required complex thought, I concentrated on breathing in a way that Lee had taught me.
That was a little better, but not much.
Still, the fear ebbed a bit, but it might have been Justice Fiend more than anything I’d done.
“When I pull my hand away, tell me where the Ball is.”
He pulled his hand away.
“How did you find me?” Maybe I could distract him?
“I’m asking the questions.”
My line might not have been original, but his came out of every Hollywood interrogation ever made.
Cliché or no, it didn’t stop him from moving the hand off my chest, and up to my throat far too quickly for me to do anything about it.
Then he pulled me upright, and leaned into my face. “Where’s the Ball?”
I tried to think of things I could do. Making a lot of noise might bring my parents, and even though the block might make them forget it, they couldn’t do much to help. Calling Rachel would help, but how could I call her without getting my parents too?
“I don’t know where the Ball is,” I said, making my voice a little louder than usual.
“Tell the truth!”
“I don’t know!”
Something in me wanted to tell him, but the need wasn’t as overwhelming as it felt when we’d first met him. Maybe Lee’s exercises had worked. Maybe I’d just gotten used to it.
His grip on my neck tightened, and it became harder to breath.
“You want to do this the hard way? Because if you do, it’s going to hurt.”
I tried to think of anything I could do that didn’t involved calling for help. I couldn’t generate enough force to make martial arts useful against him. Could I count on him being unwilling to kill or maim a high school student?
From the grimace on his face, I didn’t feel certain of that. The shadowy, agonized figures in the lining of his cloak argued that hurting people didn’t bother him much.
“All right,” he said, “if that’s the way it’s going to be–”
Rachel had faded in next to Justice Fiend. She held the pistol from Grandma’s Ghostwoman costume in her hand, but wasn’t wearing a costume. She wore black jeans and a black t-shirt.
“Let go of my brother,” she said.
“A gun? I see my reputation hasn’t made it here. Bullets bounce off my skin, sister. So unless you know where the Ball is, it’ll be better if you stay out of this.”
She phased the barrel of the gun an inch deep into his chest. “The bullet will become solid when it leaves the barrel. Are your lungs invulnerable too? Will they stop it? Or do you think it will just bounce around, turning your insides into swiss cheese?”
He tried to move away, but since he stood next to my bed, holding my neck in place with one hand, he really didn’t have any place to go.
He lashed out with his left hand, moving it through her head. He didn’t connect with anything.
Rachel barely moved.
Justice Fiend’s expression went blank. Then he watched her for a moment. “You won’t shoot me. You’ve never shot anyone in your life.”
“There’s always a first time. Besides, let’s say you’re right. Let’s say I’ve never pointed a gun at a live person before, and I’m horribly, horribly nervous. I wonder how long I can go before firing it accidentally?”
He stared at her.
Then he let go of my throat, and flew out the window. Bits of the storm window’s metal frame went with him.
Rachel took a deep breath and sat down in the chair next to my desk. She put the gun down next to my laptop.
Her hands were shaking.
She looked at them for a moment and folded them together.
I touched my neck. It still hurt a little.
“Thanks,” I said.