[LNH/ACRA/TEB] Net.heroes on Parade TEB Vol. # 1: The Terrible Ones
milos_parker at yahoo.com
Mon Feb 27 12:55:19 PST 2006
PARADE Vol. 1
The Terrible Ones
BY TOM RUSSELL
I'm very fond of melodrama in general, and
NET.HEROES ON PARADE in particular. Of all my old
work, it makes me wince the least. Winces, however,
still occur and so I've done some fairly extensive
Embarrassing prose has been jettisoned. Overlong
and overwrought dialogue has been trimmed and
reworked. Bad characterization-- particularly Tyler's
tendency towards Mary Sueism-- has been remedied.
And, as later TEB volumes will demonstrate more
readily, subplots and characters that never paid off
have been minimized or deleted wholesale. The pacing
has been tightened and certain themes thrown into
These TEB editions are canonical.
A young man with a face that did not belong to him
stood before the headquarters of the LNH. The face
had thick eyebrows and thicker lines above the
eyebrows that were scrunched up with purpose; the
face's square jaw was locked in a grimace of disdain;
weighty matters seemed to drain all the colour out of
his blue eyes. No, this was not the face of a young
man. This was the face of an old man, a face burdened
by responsibility, purpose, and consequences.
This was the face of a man about to do a terrible
Michette Duclos lay on the infirmary bed, staring
at the ceiling, wishing there was someone she could
talk to. She wasn't alone; the bed next to hers was
occupied by Speed Richardson.
"And, pow," he was saying, "this alien's foot comes
crashing down, debris flying everywhere and rocks are
going to crush us, and there I am. And it occurs to
me: Speed, ol' boy, this could the end, unless you
think of something fast. And I looked over to them--
to Groundswell and the fish and the Ultimate Ninja--
and they were scared. Even the Ninja. He was shaking
in his little Ninja booties. And I said, look, guys,
we've got to be strong. We've got to ignore the
Michette wished she could. It was times like these
that she would gladly trade her mystic lunchbox for a
"There are people counting on us. Somehow, we just
got to beat them! Somehow, we have to find a way!
And that is when I came up with the plan."
"Your plan, if I recollect..." came a voice from
the door. Michette and Speed turned to see a lithe
young woman with pebbles protruding through her skin.
Lily Paschall. Groundswell. "... was to whine while
the Ninja got everyone to safety. Hello, Mimi." Lily
cocked her head towards Speed. "Shrink-Wrap Boy."
"Man. It's Shrink-Wrap Man!"
"Keep telling yourself that." She sat down at
Michette's bedside. "How are you?"
"Been better," said Michette. "Been worse. Been
"Resurrection's a bitch, isn't it?" Lily smiled.
A pointy pebble jutted through her lip. She wiped
away the fresh blood.
"How long has it been...?" Michette trailed off
"Since the last transformation? Oh. Let's see...
about three weeks? Which means I should probably be
due for one in a couple weeks or so. About the time
you get that cast off, I reason."
"And then you'll be the one in the infirmary."
"I'll still be here," offered Speed.
Michette and Lily exchanged a glance, then said in
unison: "Rotten timing!" They burst out laughing.
"Hey!" protested Speed.
"Shut up!" said the girls, laughing.
Maggie Bernard opened the door to her new room on
the third floor of LNHHQ. Her friend Tyler Bridge
followed, carrying her suitcase.
"This is a nice place, Maggie Bernard."
"At least I don't have to deal with my mom."
"At least," said Tyler, setting down the box. He
ran his fingers over the window pan.
"Beautiful view," said Maggie.
"It's okay," said Tyler, taking a seat on her bed.
Maggie did the same. The bed creaked towards her
"So here I am," she said, smiling. "LNHQ. A
bonafide net.hero. Ready to save the world and
"Not just yet. But I will. Eventually. Sometime.
But anyway. this just feels right, you know? A new
start. Everyone's been very pleasant to me. No one's
called me fat yet."
"Oh, Maggie Bernard! Must you chip away at
yourself like that?"
"That's the only way I'd lose any weight," she said
"You got some meat on your bones, that's all," said
Tyler. "You're healthy. Guys like girls who are
"It's true. Girls who are healthy are very
attractive. Girls on dialysis machines, eh, not so
"Yeah, well, I think I'd have better luck with the
dialysis. Doctors are cute."
"Did you know that ninety percent of doctors
world-wide are less than four feet tall?"
"Because nine out of ten doctors can't be long."
Tyler smiled. "Don't worry, Maggie Bernard. Your
suitors will come. They're just shy, is all."
"If you say so."
"Just make sure I meet them first," he said,
punctuating his point by stabbing the air with his
walking stick. "I need to approve and vouch-safe that
their intentions are honorable."
Tyler stuck out his tongue, laughed, and then shook
his head. "That was a rather juvenile gesture, wasn't
"That it was."
"That it was. Now you're starting to talk like
"Well, Tyler Bridge, I've been hanging around you
for too long."
"How would you like to be around me a little
"What do you mean?"
"Even us living-impaired persons need a roof over
our heads. Sure, wandering about the streets, hanging
out in graveyards, bemoaning my unholy existence is
fun for a while. But. It's so boring, Maggie
Bernard. In general, being a ghost without a home to
haunt is a rather solitary and unfulfilling lifestyle.
"What I'm saying is, if you promise not to have
Occultism Kid banish me to wherever we dead people are
supposed to go, I'd be much obliged if you'd let me
stay with you."
"Here? In my room?"
"In your room. I am, above all things, a
gentleman. I'll exit the room whilst you change."
"You're the only person I know who uses words like
"And I'll probably be the only one you'll ever
know. So. Can I stay?"
"Do you have to ask? Tyler, you may stay here
whilst I am with the Legion."
"Oh," said Maggie, pointing out the window.
"There's my friend Lily."
"Oh my," said Tyler, adjusting his spectacles.
"Pray tell, what is her last name?"
"You can just call her Lily."
"Maggie Bernard," said Tyler. "You know that won't
do. Please, tell me the full name of yonder beauty?"
"Don't tell me you have a crush?"
"I don't even know the girl," said Tyler. "Or her
name," he added with special emphasis.
"Lily Paschall," said Maggie.
"Lily Paschall. Is that a miss Lily Paschall or a
"Please do." He licked his chops.
Maggie bit her lower lip. Just after he had
finished telling fat, fat Maggie that she had a
beautiful body, here he was lusting after anorexic
Lily Paschall. God, he was transparent. Even for a
"Maggie Bernard, are you good friends with her?"
"Pretty good. We have a lot in common."
"Besides the ravishing good looks?"
Maggie rolled her eyes. "No. We both have powers
that we haven't any control over. At least I can
count on turning into a giant pink blob at midnight.
She doesn't know quite when she turns into that
"That a technical term, rock-thing?"
"Yep. Look it up. Right next to doo-hickey."
"Hmm," said Tyler. He sat up and started for the
"Where are you going?"
"To get slapped by an angel."
The man with the borrowed face had no trouble
getting past the lobby and into the desired
subbasement. The receptionist looked like he was
going to say something to him, but Dennis merely
smiled and waved in the self-important way that the
net.heroes did. The receptionist figured it was just
another member he had yet to meet.
He set the briefcase on the subbasement floor and
took a deep breath. He was frightened. Frightened of
what he was about to do, and more frightened of the
consequences should he not do it. He closed his eyes
and thought of his Sofya. Of the girl. Of course:
there's always a girl, isn't there?
He opened his eyes and with his sleeve he wiped the
sweat from his furrowed brow. He saw his reflection
in his own cufflinks, the cufflinks his Sofya had
bought him. The three initials inscribed there-- D.
W. M.-- reminded me of who he really was behind the
borrowed face. The initials were staring at him,
challenging him, heckling him: why are you doing this,
Dennis? You know this is wrong... why...?
To silence them, he tore the cufflinks from his
sleeve and tossed them away. They made a pathetic,
barely audible clink.
Focus. Concentrate. Open the briefcase, Dennis,
let's get this over with. Focus.
His hands shook as he reached into his pocket. The
keys jangled and he wondered if anyone heard him.
Sweating again. Get it out of your eyes.
He put the key in the briefcase. It wouldn't go
in. He shoved it in, trying to force it; of course,
you idiot, you pathetic idiot, it's the wrong key! He
yanked it out and did so with such force that the
entire key ring flung out of his hand. He could tell
from the cacophony of faint jingles that the ring had
broke and scattered the keys. Shit! He didn't have
time for this...
With trembling fingers, he located the key to the
briefcase and inserted it. The case swung open of its
own accord. Light and smoke spilled out into the
room. Dennis covered his eyes and cowered as was
expected of him. He did so not out of reverence for
ritual, but out of real fear.
Fear of what he had summoned. One of the Terrible
Ones. It was long and tall and made of black stone.
Its eyes were red, burning, smoldering, hating. With
a flinty finger, he touched Dennis's forehead and drew
"You have served us well," it said.
"The girl," demanded Dennis, his mouth dry.
"When I have ended the slut who would keep us
beneath, then shall you have your woman back. O how
refreshing it will be to walk the earth again for more
than a stolen moment."
"This is the first time I've walked down the street
without having a thousand fans screaming for my
autograph," said Alicia Avenue as she approached LNHQ.
"Losing your touch?" Her companion, Gary Niceguy,
"Not funny, Gary. I'm not complaining. Nice to be
alone for once, is all I'm saying."
"You're not alone," said Gary. "I'm here. And
once we get inside, it'll be pretty claustrophobic."
"It's been a while since you've been inside," said
"A few years. I'm a bit scared, to be honest."
"You? You can move planets, you fly around, shoot
beams from your eyes. If anyone was going to be
scared joining the Legion of the Net. Heroes, it
should be me. I can't do diddly-squat."
"Plus, your boobs are crooked," said Gary.
"My boobs are not crooked." She crossed her arms
over her chest. "But why are you scared?"
"I let a lot of people down when I did the whole
net.villain thing," Gary said. "If it wasn't for
Golden Man putting in a good word for me, there's no
way they'd let me back in to even try and make up for
"You got a friend you can count on," she offered.
"Yeah, and I took a big shit in his face," said
Gary. "I should have been nicer to him. I don't
deserve this, this second chance."
"Everyone deserves a second chance, Gary," she
They came to a stop.
"Well, here we are, then."
"Here we are."
"Good ol' LNHQ."
Gary turned to Alicia. "What about you? Are you
"Terrified. Let's go in."
"Slapped," said Tyler as he entered the lobby, "but
by an angel."
"I assume this is yours," said Lily. "Apparently
"Which means he never shuts up," said Maggie.
"Maggie Bernard!" snapped Tyler.
"Lily, is that...?" Maggie pointed to the entrance.
Alicia and Gary had just walked in. "It is!"
Maggie rushed up to Alicia. "Miss Avenue, I've
seen all your movies, I'm your biggest fan. I
absolutely loved you in BARRY LYNDON 2: REDMOND'S
"One of her finest performances," said Gary.
"Thank you," said Alicia. "Would you like an
"Let me get some pen and paper from Fred," Maggie
said. She rushed over to the desk.
"Alicia," said Lily warmly. "It's been a while."
"How're your kids?"
"Oh, they're... they're kids, you know? They're
"I didn't know you had kids," said Gary.
"Of course you knew," said Alicia.
"No, I didn't."
Maggie returned with pen and paper.
"Who am I making this out to?"
"You doing the whole LNH tour?" Alicia began to
write the familiar words, `To my biggest fan,'.
"Oh, no," said Lily. "Maggie's one of us."
"Really? Well, you must be stunning in spandex, my
Maggie wasn't sure how to react to that.
"What do they call you, then?" asked Alicia.
"And how do you spell that?"
Gary broke in. "T-h-a-t."
Alicia elbowed him in the ribs.
"Y-e-a-w-o-r-t-h," said Maggie.
"So," Lily said to Alicia. "What brings you to
LNHQ? Researching a role?"
"No, actually. I'm here to join." She handed
Maggie her autograph.
To my biggest fan, Yeaworth Lass-- from Ms.
"Well," said Lily, clasping Alicia's hand. "It'll
be nice to have you aboard. I hope you know what
"I'm a big girl," said Alicia. "I can take care of
myself. And if I have any trouble, I got Gary here to
help me out."
Lily shook Gary's hand. "You used to hang with
Golden Man, right? And then..."
"Right," said Gary. "Used to hang with Golden
Suddenly, there was a scream. Lily recognized it
The Terrible One ripped the lunchbox from
"Let this teach you to take what does not belong to
Michette began to shake uncontrollably. She fell
off the bed and continued shaking on the floor, her
muscles spasming in agony.
"Leave her alone!" With a suddenness that surprised
even himself, Speed Richardson leapt at Michette's
attacker. He caught the Terrible One by surprise,
knocking it over with his weight, sending it splaying
several feet. Speed fell to the ground next to
Michette, his scorched limbs and torn skin bleeding
The Terrible One was gone. Disappeared. So much
like a villain. The smell of skunk invaded Speed's
nostrils. Speed turned to Michette. "Are you okay?
Michette, are you okay...?" He tried to hold her down
and steady her.
"Get off of her!" It was Lily. "What are you
"Something took her lunchbox," Speed said. "She
started shaking. I..."
"Mimi?" Lily squatted down and held her. The
shaking began to stop. Michette smiled weakly and
tried to look Lily in the eye.
"Sub-basement," Michette said. Then she fell
The Terrible One gave Dennis the lunchbox before
stepping into the briefcase. Its hand was burning.
"The slut will be dead before nightfall," said the
Terrible One. "Then you will bring us the lunchbox
and we will release your woman." He disappeared with
a flicker of smoke.
Dennis closed the briefcase and set to work
gathering up his keys. He had just begun when the
five net.heroes appeared.
"Give us the lunchbox," said Lily.
"I'm sorry," he said forcefully. "But I can't do
He crouched down and reached for one of his keys.
"You don't understand," Dennis said, grabbing
"I said don't move!" The five began to approach.
"I said I was sorry," said Dennis. "But I had to
do it. I had to..."
"Sorry doesn't cut it, buster," said Maggie.
"Calm down," said Lily, possibly addressing both
Maggie and the mysterious man crouched before them.
"We won't hurt you if you cooperate..."
"I'm not going to let you hurt her!" said Dennis.
With a flick of his wrist, he unleashed a bolt of
thunder. The net.heroes scattered and ran towards
him. Dennis grabbed a handful of his keys and ran
towards the net.heroes, trying to break past them.
"Grab him!" Lily said.
They tried. Gary thought he had a hold on him, but
Dennis unleashed another bolt of electricity. It sent
Gary flying through the air, crashing into Alicia and
Lily. Maggie and Tyler helped them up and then turned
back towards the stranger in time to see the elevator
"Oh no you don't!" said Gary. He took to the air
and grabbed ahold of the elevator doors, tearing them
open like tissue.
The elevator was empty. The smell of a skunk
filled the air.
On the bottom of the elevator floor lay two keys.
One was marked, 36D. The other, GM.
"This is nuts, Tyler," said Maggie. "We've checked
every General Motors vehicle in a three block radius
and we still haven't found one that matches the key."
"So we try a four block radius, then," said Tyler.
Maggie and Alicia heaved a sigh in unison.
"Do you have any better ideas?"
Maggie and Alicia shook their heads.
Maggie's communication card started beeping. "It's
Lily," she said. She answered the card. "Hello,
Lily. How is she?"
"Not well," said Lily. "We have no idea what's
wrong with her. It's like something is inside her
body, attacking her..."
"We'll find him, Lily," Maggie promised. "We'll
find the guy that did this to her."
"Any luck yet?" came another voice from the card.
It was Gary.
"Not yet," said Alicia, leaning over Maggie's
shoulder. "We're trying every GM we can find..."
Lily spoke up. "You should look for a car that's
missing a license plate. If we don't have the plate
number, we can't trace it to him..."
"That's genius, Lily Paschall," said Tyler. "He'll
try to cover his tracks."
"But if there's no plate," said Maggie, "it'll just
be a dead-end anyway. How can we trace it to him?"
"Registration papers, maybe," said Lily. "In the
"If he's smart enough to get rid of the plate..."
"But he's in a hurry," said Tyler. "And he doesn't
expect us to look for a car without a plate."
"No registration papers," said Alicia, closing the
glove-box. "No ID."
"You were right, Tyler," said Maggie. "He's
obviously under-estimated us."
Tyler held the key up so that it glistened in the
sun. He inserted the key into the trunk and popped it
open. "You were saying...?"
The trunk held several small crates, all filled
with videos. Maggie picked one of them up.
"Anus Enough? What kind of movie is that?"
Tyler smirked. "The kind that you need three kinds
of picture ID and a major credit card to rent."
"Let me see that," said Alicia, snatching it away.
"Kids shouldn't be looking at this stuff. Ahem: Anus
Enough, Volume Four, episodes eighteen through
twenty-three of the groundbreaking adult situation
comedy starring Arlie Fertulus."
"Arlie Fertulus?" said Maggie. "What kind of name
is that? Arlie Fertulus. That's a mouthful."
"Wonder how she gets it all in," said Alicia,
tossing the video carelessly back into the trunk of
the car. "So, what does this prove? Our fugitive has
onanistic tendencies. So what?"
"First of all," said Tyler, "it proves that you are
capable of using a four-syllable word next to a
three-syllable word. You must be studying your
vocabulary words. Remind me to give you a gold star.
Secondly, it proves that you still have trouble with
reading for comprehension."
"What are you babbling about?" said Alicia.
"If one looks closely, one will notice that this
particular copy of Anus Enough, volume four, is
To Dennis, the best cinematographer in the
business. Love, Arlie.
"Dennis," said Maggie.
"We have a first name. And a lead."
"A lead?" said Alicia.
"Well, Arlie Fertulus, of course," said Tyler.
"And how are we going to find her?" said Alicia.
"We'll go to her place and see if she's home.
She's on Reckinger, off of Dixon. Apartment B4."
"And how do you reckon that?" said Alicia, looking
over the videocassette again. "What obscure clue am I
missing out on this time, Mr. Know-It-All?"
"Arlie Fertulus is an old friend of mine," said
"Why does that not surprise me?" said Maggie. "Let
me call Lily and let her know what's up."
The trio of newbie net.heroes stood before the door
marked B-4. Tyler knocked twice. The door opened a
little, and half of a snow-white face peeked out from
behind the dead bolt chain. There were three or four
freckles under the visible eye and her hair was a dull
red. She wore no make-up and was in the process of
brushing her teeth; some toothpaste dripped down her
She muttered something with the toothbrush in her
mouth, and Tyler translated: "She says, oh my god it's
Tyler Bridge it's been so long what are you doing here
oh my god it's so nice to see you." He shook his
head. "Same old Arlie Fertulus. She never could
punctuate for shit."
Arlie made a face at him and closed the door. She
undid the dead bolt and reopened it a moment later.
"Come on in," Arlie said. She placed her
toothbrush carelessly next to a video entitled I NEED
YOU IN EVERY HOLE. "Who are you friends?"
"Maggie Bernard and Alicia Avenue," said Tyler.
"Charmed," said Arlie. They shook hands.
"So," said Alicia. "You're an... actress, of
"No," said Arlie. "I'm an actress. Not of sorts.
Just an actress."
"I didn't mean it like that," said Alicia.
"Just... you have to admit... the artistic merits of
SPANK ME LIKE A SLUT are a bit lacking."
"Don't mind Alicia Avenue," began Tyler.
"She's right, though," admitted Arlie.
Alicia crossed her arms and fired a smirk at Tyler.
"That is one of the weaker films in my oeuvre. The
director was a wholly uncreative person and I'll never
work with him again. I'm much more careful now in
choosing my projects, and I only do the films that
have something really special going for them."
"Like?" said Alicia.
"Well, I was just in a sequel to BARRY LYNDON."
"They made a third one?" said Alicia.
"What? Oh, no, no," said Arlie, giggling. "It has
nothing to do with REDMOND'S REVENGE. Everyone
involved with that piece of garbage should be shot.
Especially that no-talent actress with the crooked
"My boobs are not crooked!" said Alicia.
"Sorry," said Arlie. "I didn't mean any offense."
"I'll have you know that the critics loved me in
REDMOND'S REVENGE! Gene Siskel, in one of his last
reviews before he died, said that my performance was
the sole bright spot in the whole sorry enterprise!"
"And I have received similar critical plaudits,"
said Arlie, "for my starring turn in CHERRY LYNDON."
"CHERRY LYNDON?" said Maggie.
"CHERRY LYNDON," said Arlie.
"We would love to stand here and compare acting
resumes all night," said Tyler, "but we're actually
here on business, Arlie Fertulus. Quite urgent
"Business?" said Arlie. "I don't know, Tyler.
This one," she pointed to Maggie, "she's sort of cute
for her size..."
"Not your business, Arlie Fertulus. Our business.
You see, as of late, I have found myself in the
company of net.heroes. Maggie Bernard here goes by
the moniker of Yeaworth Lass, while Alicia Avenue is
known as Ms. Paprika."
"What about you, Tyler? What's your net.hero
"Tyler Bridge," he said. "But that's not important
right now. What's important is that we require your
"Well, you've helped me out more than once."
"One of our fellow net.heroes has been attacked by
someone. She is in grave danger. It is very
important that we locate this mystery man so that we
can find out exactly what is wrong and how it can be
"Now, this fellow was very sloppy and he left us a
number of clues. Among them are these cufflinks,
marked D.W.M. His initials. We know his first
Tyler turned to Maggie and Alicia and stared at
them for a long time. "Uh, we know his... his first
name..." He began to tremble.
"Dennis," said Maggie.
"Dennis," said Arlie. "The W stands for William.
I don't know his last name."
"So you know him," said Alicia.
"I don't much like your tone of voice," said Arlie.
"Yes, I knew him. That doesn't mean that I'm
involved in any of this, or that I would ever hurt
"How can you not know his last name?" said Alicia.
"Yeah, right. What kind of fools do..."
"That's enough, Alicia Avenue!" snapped Tyler. "If
you're here to help us help Michette Duclos, then help
us. If you're going to try and make things difficult,
I suggest you go back to LNHQ!"
Alicia fell silent.
Arlie spoke. "A couple years ago, Dennis was a
camera operator on a few on my lower-budget films.
The less artistic ones, as Miss Avenue would say.
Dennis... he was good at what he did. He tried to
make things interesting, different camera angles...
but he was totally working at odds with the director,
the producer... The last thing we did together was
Arlie nodded. "After that, he disappeared. Don't
know where. He just upped and faded away. I didn't
know him that well, but he was a very sweet, very
gentle man. I don't think he could do something to
hurt someone. He had very lofty morals."
"In your business?" said Alicia.
"I'm going to pretend you didn't say that," said
Arlie. "Once, we were short an actor and I tried like
hell to convince him to fill in. He was good-looking.
Young-looking, you know? He wouldn't do it. He was
married, and he wasn't going to cheat on his wife."
"How noble of him," said Alicia.
Tyler shot her a look and then turned to Arlie.
"How did you find out his middle name?"
"His porn name was William Barkley."
"His what?" said Maggie.
"Porn-star name," said Tyler. "You take your
middle name for the first and the name of their street
for their last."
"So, what's your real name, Arlie?" said Maggie.
"Arlie Fertulus," she said. "I'm proud of what I
do, proud of who I am. Not going to hide it."
"Would the producer have any records on..." Tyler
"Dennis," said Maggie, helpfully.
"Yes," said Tyler. "What about 18 dash 2257?"
"18 dash what?" said Alicia.
"It's a law," said Arlie. "Producers need proof of
age on file for actors in sexually-explicit material.
But that's just on camera."
"A dead end, then," said Tyler. "Thank you anyway,
Arlie Fertulus. Come on, gang. Let's check out this
other key. There can't be that many apartment
complexes with an apartment 36D."
"36D?" said Arlie.
"Yeah," said Tyler. He handed her the key. "He
dropped this as well. We figure it's to his
"No, I recognize this key. It's to a locker I have
at a bus station out of town. It's been missing a few
weeks... but I can't believe he would have stolen
it... there must be something wrong. Someone must
have some dirt on him, or be after him, or something."
"That may be," said Tyler. "But right now the most
important thing is that we find him. And so the next
step is to go to that locker."
"Alright," said Arlie. "We can take my car. It's
a long ride to Adamsburg, so anyone who has to use the
little girl's room better do it first."
"Adamsburg?" said Alicia. "Why have a locker that
"It's the only one I could find with a locker
"What's so important about..." began Maggie.
"My cup size."
"Empty!" said Arlie as she slammed the locker shut.
"All my stuff is gone!"
"Let me see," said Alicia.
"Don't believe me?"
"No." Alicia opened the locker and peered inside.
"She's right. It's empty. Damn it! We're running
out of time!" She punctuated her point by banging her
fist against the inside of the locker. A loud click
filled the air. Alicia withdrew her hand.
The inside of the locker was glowing.
"What's happen..." began Maggie. Before she could
finish, she and her three companions vanished into
thin air. Of its own accord, the locker quietly
Dots of light danced before Maggie's eyes like
Maggie rubbed her eyes vigorously with her chubby
fists and opened them again. She-- and the others--
were no longer in the bus station. Of course they
weren't. What would be the point of disappearing in a
burst of light if, when it was over, they were still
at the bus station, scratching their heads?
They were in a narrow corridor made of brick; the
wall was covered with moss. Sludge lined the floors.
Torches on the wall, about a hundred feet apart, gave
off the only light. At each torch there was an
intersection, another hallway that ran perpendicular
to the one that our heroes found themselves in
"Well now," said Tyler. "This is a rather
interesting development, isn't it?"
Arlie shook some sludge from her boots, or tried
to, at any rate. It was to no avail. "Not a pleasant
"Astute as always, Arlie Fertulus," said Tyler.
"Well, I'd say we're on the right track."
"What makes you say that?"
"How many bus lockers do you know of that possess a
spatial teleportation feature? Probably not many.
Now, the important question is, is it for our
"I don't follow you," said Alicia.
"I do," said Maggie. "He means that he's not sure
whether or not this guy put this teleport thing in the
locker because he uses it himself or because he was
Tyler pondered for a moment. "But if he was going
to send us to an unspeakable demise, we would have
demised by this point and ceased to be speaking. I
think that... that... he... that he resides here."
"You think he lives here?" said Maggie, aghast.
"Rent must be cheap," quipped Alicia.
"Come along, children," said Tyler. "The game is
Dennis watched as they walked down the hallway,
their bodies becoming tiny, receding dots. He start
to sweat and to shake; he always started to shake when
he was angry, and the angrier he got, the more
violently he shook. His body quaking and his stomach
pounding, he shrunk to his bed and tried to calm
himself down. Breathe.
He could not afford to be angry. It ruined his
precision and tomorrow would require precision. If he
was going to have his Sofya back, he could not brook
the presence of this net.heroes. They would ruin
everything. He had done evil in the name of love, and
if it was all for naught, all because of these...
"They are here. In my labyrinth, in my home.
Fine. Then let the labyrinth's children bear arms in
her defense." He began the incantation.
Alicia let out a string of profanities. "We've
been wandering around this stupid maze for half an
hour and we haven't found a thing!"
"Patience, Alicia Avenue," said Tyler. "We're on
the right track."
"This whole situation is screwy."
"I don't like being here anymore than you do," said
Arlie, "but I think Tyler's right."
"Of course you think he's right," said Alicia.
"He's your friend. Besides, any brain power you had
has been fucked out of you by your co-stars."
"No need to get nasty," said Arlie.
"Look, Tyler," said Alicia. "Just because you and
this `actress' think we're on the right track doesn't
make it so. I mean, who put you in charge, anyway?"
"Technically," said Maggie, "I've got Legion
seniority, Miss Avenue. And I agree with Tyler."
"Who asked you, tubby?" Alicia regretted it
instantly. She mumbled an apology. "I shouldn't have
said that. I'm just so stressed out. This is so
screwed up. Duclos is in trouble, I want to help her,
and this just doesn't feel like I'm helping, you know?
I mean, what are we doing down here, pussyfooting
around? If this guy is here, wouldn't he have spotted
"You have a point, Alicia Avenue," said Tyler.
"Things have been suspiciously quiet. But this is our
"Besides," said Maggie, "what other option do we
have? I mean, we don't know how to get out of
"Well, the locker got us in. There should be a way
to get back to the locker," said Alicia. "I'm going
back, see if I can find something that looks like a
trigger. If you want to come with me, fine." She
started back the way they had came.
"Miss Avenue!" said Maggie. "Wait! We should
"My gut tells me we're in the right place," said
Tyler. "And my gut has yet to be wrong."
They watched as she disappeared into the darkness.
"We should go after her," said Arlie.
"Let her go," said Tyler. "If that's the way she
wants to play it..."
"It's not a game, though. What if she gets hurt?"
"She'll be fine."
That's when they heard her scream.
"Is she going to be okay?" Maggie asked.
"I don't know," said Tyler. "She's lost a lot of
"Oh my god oh my god oh my god..."
"Ssh," said Arlie. "Alicia, just calm down.
You're going to be okay..."
"Oh my god that oh my god that that thing oh my
"She's delirious," said Tyler. "Maggie Bernard,
Arlie Fertulus: do either of you know how to dress her
Tyler pulled back the torn flaps of Alicia's
costume. There was a long laceration across her
"I took a course," said Maggie, shrugging. She
detached Alicia's cape and began to dress the wound.
"His head," said Alicia. Her skin was as white as
her bulging eyes.
"I knew we shouldn't have let her go off on her
own," said Arlie.
"He had no eyes," said Alicia. "He had no eyes!
And he called me... called me mother...!"
"I know, Arlie Fertulus," said Tyler. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize to me."
"Alicia Avenue, I'm sorry."
"It called me mother..."
"Ssh. Alicia. Ssh," said Arlie. "It's going to
Maggie finished dressing the wound. "That'll stop
the bleeding. She should get some real medical
attention, though, someone with antibiotics,
"I agree," said Tyler. "Let's try and find that
trigger before whatever that is comes back."
"I'm not your mother!" Alicia screamed, her arms
flailing. The others turned to see a creature
stalking out of the darkness.
The thing was hardly a foot tall. Its head was
bulbous, far too large for the tiny body it rested
upon. Its nose was small, its mouth a gaping maw.
True to Alicia's description, it had no eyes.
The body was half-formed. Instead of a definite
hand with definite fingers, it possessed a webbed
mitten of flesh. From its naval hung a long cord of
flesh, twisted about its body like a snake.
The entire thing was glazed over with blood.
"Oh my god," said Maggie. It was all she could
"Do not speak of your god," said the thing. Its
mouth did not move, but remained open and terrible.
"He is of no regard to the Neverborn. Only thing that
concerns Neverborn is his birth. Neverborn will crawl
inside mother and make her love him the way mother
should. Mother hated me and killed me inside. Mother
hated me and so Neverborn will hate mother back and
hurt mother like she hurt me."
"Tyler," said Maggie, tears of shock and horror
streaming down her red cheeks. "I don't understand.
What is that thing? What is it?"
"It's a fetus," realized Tyler. "An aborted fetus.
A giant, demonic, aborted..."
Arlie doubled over and vomited.
"Get away from mother," said the Neverborn.
Without any warning, it leapt towards Alicia. In a
flurry of motion, Arlie stood up and produced a large
dildo from her pocket; she swung, smacking the
Neverborn in its skull. It fell to the ground.
"You have hurt Neverborn!" it said. "Are you my
It stood up and charged towards Arlie. She tried
to strike it with the dildo again, but it grabbed hold
of it with its webbed hand and crushed it with ease.
Just as easily, Arlie realized, this thing could crush
her. It leapt at her, knocking her down, grabbing her
by the throat.
Maggie and Tyler were rushing towards her, but it
seemed to Arlie that they were moving in slow motion.
Arlie felt her eyes rolling back into her head... the
pressure in her throat... in her empty lungs...
Arlie struggled to keep alive, to keep conscious,
to keep fighting. She opened her eyes, and saw the
hideous, empty eyelids of the Neverborn staring back
at her. That's when it occurred to her:
This thing. It might be the last thing she ever
saw. His horrible, blood-soaked face, his grotesque,
twisted mouth, his tiny ears and nose. This hateful
thing could be the end of her.
She'd overcome worst than him! She'd be damned if
she was going to lie down for some hateful ugly little
midget! The last thing Arlie Fertulus was going to
see was going to be a smile, damn it! Not this thing!
She grabbed it by the wrists, trying to pry the
webbed things from around her neck before it wringed
it like a dirty washcloth. "Neverborn is stronger
than you," it said.
Tyler had arrived. "Unhand her, foul brigand!"
The Neverborn's umbilical cord flung out and
whipped Tyler into the wall.
"Neverborn!" It was Maggie. "She's not your
Arlie could feel the grip loosening around her
throat. She took advantage of it and pushed the
Neverborn away. It didn't seem to pay Arlie any mind.
It had turned its attention towards Maggie.
"Maggie Bernard...?" said Tyler, pulling himself up
off the ground.
"I'm your mother," said Maggie.
"And guess what? I still hate you! I'm glad I
"Neverborn shall go in your belly and come out of
your birthing-hole, mother. Neverborn shall make you
hurt!" It leapt towards her.
"Please god," whispered Maggie. "Let this work."
It plowed into Maggie, its dirty flippers digging
into her belly like a thresher. There was a moment of
piercing pain, a bleeding, tearing flash of blood.
She fell to the dirty, sludge covered-floor, the
Neverborn's claws never losing their terrible hold of
her belly. Then Maggie felt it: like bubbles all over
her body. She smiled.
"Why is mother smiling? Neverborn does... not..."
The thing screamed as its body began to boil.
As her body absorbed her clothing and the
Neverborn's flesh, she felt her own flesh transforming
into the pink gelatin form that she so often despised.
Today, at this moment, she celebrated her deformity.
As her hands and arms became as half-formed as the
Neverborn's, her black eyes watched as this vulgar
perversity squealed. She felt him still fighting as
he was brought down into her belly. Her wounds healed
in a flurry of boiling bubbles and the only evidence
they had been there at all was a quickly fading froth
in the shape of the lacerations.
She felt a sickness in her non-belly as the
Neverborn's huge head was digested, as the hideous,
frail husk of its skeleton was discharged from her
body. She stood up, nude, formless, pink: a blob.
"That was a stupid chance to take, Maggie Bernard,"
said Tyler. "But you saved us all. Thank you."
Maggie did not respond verbally. Her blob-body had
no mouth. The blob merely shrugged as she gave a kick
to the skeleton. It smashed to pieces on contact.
"Well," said Tyler, taking stock of things. "At
least we know now that we're on the right track."
"Alicia needs medical attention," Arlie reminded.
"So, let's see if we can find that teleportation
trigger, then. I want you and Maggie Bernard to take
Alicia Avenue back to LNHQ. I'm staying until I
find... the... guy."
"I'm dead, Arlie Fertulus. What's the worse that
can happen? I can't be made more dead than I already
am. Of all of us, I'm the best choice to stay."
Maggie shook her gelatin body fervently. Tyler
"Alright. Maggie Bernard can obviously take care
of herself. So she stays too."
"I think I found it," said Tyler. He pointed to an
oddly-coloured stone on the floor.
"How can you be sure?" asked Arlie.
"We won't be until you step on it. When you get to
LNHHQ, see about getting us some reinforcements.
Godspeed, Arlie Fertulus."
She hugged Alicia's clammy body close to her own
and stepped on the stone. In a blinding flash of
light, she was gone.
"Well, then, Maggie Bernard," said Tyler. "Let's
find us a bastard."
Speed Richardson, the protector of men and
preserver of meats, tried to hold his pounding skull
with one of bruised, lacerated fists. The helmet he
had to wear (part of the containment suit which gave
him some modicum of control over the powers he wielded
as Shrink-Wrap Man) made it impossible to rub his
aching temples and nurse his migraine. Frustrated, he
let out a loud sigh.
"You're up," said Lily.
Speed nodded. "How's Duclos?"
"Not good," said Lily. "She has some kind of weird
fever. I'm very worried." She swallowed. "Though...
she might be in a lot worse condition, if not for you.
Your injuries were pretty severe, and you still
jumped in to try and save her. That was a brave
thing, Speed. I appreciate it."
Speed was silent.
Lily afforded herself a small smile. "I see.
You're all bluster and then when you do something that
actually warrants it, you haven't an ounce. That's
"You try too hard to impress people," observed
Lily. "The Ninja wouldn't let you be part of the LNH
if he thought you were a coward."
"What about Coward Lad?"
"For every rule, an exception."
"When she gets better..." Speed said. "Could
you... could you tell her?"
"Uh, sure, Speed. Sure."
"I mean, put in a good word for me?"
"I guess. Can... can we talk about this later,
Speed? Right now I'm..."
"Sure, sure," Speed said. "I understand. I
gotcha. Um... one more question?"
"Does she have a boyfriend?"
"Never mind. I... uh, later." Then, almost as an
"Is... is that why...?"
"What? No! I just... never mind. That's not the
way I... oh, forget it."
"I don't think she'd be much interested in you,
Speed," said Lily sharply. "I can't speak for her,
but I know Mimi pretty well and you're not her type.
And while it was sweet of you, very brave, very
commendable... what you did isn't going to change how
"That's not why I did it!" Speed said forcibly.
"That's not what I'm saying at all! I just... oh,
"Alright," said Lily. "Let's just pretend this
whole conversation never happened."
"Marker, the net.heroes are still approaching.
They are still in our home."
Dennis turned; before him stood assembled the
"My lords, I did not expect you so soon. As I
understand it, Duclos still is alive..."
"Not for long," said the Terrible Ones in horrible
disunion. "And our meeting is predicated on you being
alive tomorrow. There is a monster and a ghost in our
"I have already summoned one of the Neverborn..."
"And they have already destroyed it. Their ally is
going to gather reinforcements. More of them, more
powerful. As we are presently unable to defend
ourselves in our own home, we turn to you to do so.
Your situation is most precarious. Her situation is
Sofya. "No. Please. No."
"Get rid of them, Marker."
"I can easily summon an entire legion of
"And the fat slut will destroy them just as
easily," said the Terrible Ones. "Summon the ram."
"But... but that will cost me my soul..."
"It will either be yours or your woman's," they
said nonchalantly. "The choice is yours."
"I... I will summon the ram."
"Good. Summon the ram. Destroy the net.heroes.
Protect the lunchbox at all costs. For your woman to
live, Michette Duclos must die. But her death would
be meaningless if we have not reclaimed what is
rightfully ours!" One of the Terrible Ones reached
for the lunchbox. His hand began to smolder. "Soon.
The Terrible Ones faded from view.
Dennis William Marker began the incantation. It
would cost him his soul.
He stole a glance at his wife's photograph.
It would be worth it.
"Maggie Bernard, do you hear anything?"
Maggie shook her head.
"There it is again," said Tyler. "Ssh."
Maggie hadn't said anything.
"Stop walking for a second."
Though they stood perfectly still, Maggie could
distinctly hear a set of footsteps disturbing the
muddy sludge that lined the labyrinth's floor. Its
approach was steady and deliberate.
"It's getting faster," said Tyler.
Tyler took a few steps forward, trying to peer into
"Getting faster," he said again. "Sounds almost
like... a gallop...?"
If he was afraid, he did not show it. Maggie was
afraid, but she could not show it: no emotion was
betrayed by the two large black inexpressive dots that
were her eyes in her blob-body. She looked down for a
moment and, in one of the less polluted splotches of
water, she saw her naked pink gelatin body reflected
back towards her. How strange I am, she thought. How
"Footsteps getting faster and faster. Reminds me
of the beat of the R. B. Greaves 1969 bubblegum
classic, `Take a Letter, Maria'. Did you like that
one, Maggie Bernard?"
Maggie did not like that one.
"Yeah, it's terrific, isn't it? I think of all the
pop songs about divorce, it's the best."
Maggie would have sighed if she could. If only she
had a nose with which to exhale. Or, even better, a
mouth. Then she could tell him to shut up.
The footsteps were getting much faster, much
louder. Maggie knew they were near, she could feel
the ground shaking. She peered out, but could not see
a thing in the dim lighting.
Then, it became visible.
It was the largest, ugliest, woolliest sheep that
either of them had ever seen.
"Melanie Sefka told us to eat our animal crackers.
In this case, however, I would like to suggest a
strategic retreat, eh, Maggie Bernard? ... Maggie
Bernard...?" He turned. The blob-bodied girl had
already started running. Tyler followed suit.
"A door!" said Tyler, huffing and puffing and
breathless. The two of them had reached a doorway
above which hung a decapitated Ram's head. "It's too
small for that monstrosity to fit. Come on, Maggie
Suddenly, they heard a pathetic whimper. Tyler and
Maggie turned behind them to see the giant sheep
backing away in fright. "Whatever that was, it's
obviously afraid of something around here. Or in
there." He looked at the darkened doorway
thoughtfully. "Which means we're on the right track,
I think. Come along, Maggie Bernard. Let's proceed
They stepped inside the darkened room.
Four seconds later, a deafening boom was heard,
followed by two low thumps.
The first thing Alicia saw when she regained
consciousness was a brilliant white fluorescent light.
White spots danced before her eyes like nymphomaniac
stripper yo-yos. She tried to lift her hands to rub
the sleep out of her eyeballs, but her arms were
wholly uncooperative. She felt weak, groggy...
She was flat on her back. A bed... next to her bed
was some Kirby Tech. Ah. She was in the infirmary.
In LNHQ. Damn it! Her first real mission, and she
botched it up. Her insides had been torn to shreds by
that... that thing. What use was she?
"How are you feeling?"
The voice came from her right. Alicia, using most
of her strength, managed to roll her head from the
left to the right. It was Arlie.
"I'm doing fine. Where's Lily?"
"I think she went to the little girl's room."
"Little girl's room." Alicia tried to chuckle.
The sound was slow, gargled, and awkward.
"Are you in any pain?" Arlie asked.
"Well, I'm not exactly experiencing mind-blowing
"I just want to make sure you're okay."
"Said I was fine. Where's Tyler and..." She
blanked on the name.
"Maggie. They're still in there, snooping around."
"That underground place. Where the... thing got
"It was a nasty little bugger, wasn't it?" Arlie
said. "You're lucky Maggie knew first aid. And that
I didn't get any red lights on the way back to
"So I owe you my life."
"I'm not trying to be churlish."
"So I am?" said Alicia.
"I didn't say that either."
"Well, what are you trying to say?"
"I just want to make sure you're okay! Jesus!
This isn't some game where I want to one-up you or
make sure that you owe me. What's your problem,
Alicia did not answer.
She wanted to be a net.hero. Wanted to make a
difference. But so far, she was just a liability.
What use was she?
Maggie groaned before she opened her eyes. The
sound was comforting in some ways; it meant that she
was a human being again.
The room was dimly lit by a modest lamp with a soft
vanilla coloured shade that lent a pleasant glow to
the unpleasant surroundings. Like the rest of the
labyrinth, moss lined the walls and sludge lined the
floor: a little less sludge, maybe, and the strong
smell of incense lessened the horrid sewage stench.
She was seated on a wobbly chair, tied to it around
the waist; it let out a wooden squeal as it struggled
to hold up her weight. She did not feel the wood
splintering against her skin; that's when she noticed
she was fully clothed and that the clothes were just
her size, very comfortable. She would have to ask
Dennis the name of his tyler. Tailor. She meant
But speaking of...
He was seated next to her, also just beginning to
"Well, then." Maggie turned towards the voice.
Behind her, seated on an old mattress, was Dennis.
"You're awake. An introduction is in order. I am
Dennis Marker and you are the people who are intent on
"You're mistaken, Dennis Marker," said Tyler.
"Though I am a ghost of many talents, murder has never
been a strong subject for me. No, we came to
apprehend you. To find out what you've done with
Michette Duclos and how to remedy it."
"How noble," said Dennis. "So that's the plan,
then? You're going to take me with you to your
precious LNHQ, I'm going to cure Duclos and then I'm
going to the slammer for ten years?"
"That's the general idea, Dennis Marker," said
"You're insulting my intelligence. Apologize and I
will make your deaths swift."
"Two problems with that. First off, I'm already
"Secondly, if you touch one hair on Maggie
Bernard's head, I will kill you. I'm not a violent
apparition by nature, but I'll certainly give it the
old college try."
He must be bluffing, thought Maggie. He wasn't
this confident before. He must be bluffing. That's
when she saw a faded photograph on the floor. She
picked it up. "Who is this?"
"Put that down!"
Maggie passed it to Tyler.
"Don't touch that!" said Marker.
Tyler let it drop to the floor. "Is that the wife
that Arlie Fertulus said you were so loyal to, Dennis
Marker? What's her name, Dennis Marker?"
"You have no right!" he cried out, anguished.
"Leave my Sofya be."
"Hmm. Someone's read the Brothers Karamazov.
Let's see... I'm a bit rusty... she was something of
an innocent, wasn't she? But she was married to a
wicked man. A debauch. Is that what you are, Dennis
Marker? A vile pornographer, a man fooling around
with the Dark Arts... is that it?"
"Are you an evil man, deflowering your pure, white
"Not true! Not true!"
"I bet she'll be so proud of you," Maggie chimed
in, "when she hears about Michette and Miss Avenue."
"I had to," said Dennis. He began to sob.
"They're going to kill her, my Sofya. They're going
to kill her and corrupt her soul unless I do it."
"And that means you can kill Michette Duclos?" said
"I'm not killing her!" said Dennis. "It's the
lunchbox. Even... even if you got it back, it's too
far along now. I can't let you endanger my Sofya..."
"Can you cure Michette Duclos, Dennis Marker?"
"My Sofya. My Sofya..."
"I don't know Michette very well," said Maggie.
"But there are many people who love her very much.
She has friends. Maybe family. She is a good person,
like your wife. What kind of bargain is that, Dennis?
One pure soul snuffed out for another?"
"What's her name, Dennis?" Maggie asked. "What's
her real name?"
"Dennis Marker, you can still redeem yourself.
Cure Michette Duclos. I swear we'll do everything in
our power to save your wife. And I am a ghost of my
"My Sofya..." Dennis headed towards the door,
Michette's lunchbox in tow.
"Stop!" commanded Tyler.
"I'm sorry. Tell your friends I am sorry. But I
can't... I can't risk my wife. She's all that matters
to me now. All that matters."
Dennis headed out the door.
A second later, he fell backwards, blood squirting
from his nostrils. He was out cold the second he hit
Lily stood framed in the doorway. "Reinforcements.
This is him, then?"
"Yes," said Maggie. "How's Alicia?"
"Better than Mimi. Can he cure her?"
"I think so, Lily Paschall," said Tyler. "Did you
come down her alone?"
"I got Niceguy with me. He's out in the hall
beating up on some giant sheep."
Lily slammed her fist down on the table. "You've
got to cure her."
Dennis did not answer.
"What kind of person are you? You say that you did
this all out of love for your wife? ... and so you're
going to let Mimi die, for that? Doesn't make any
sense to me. Damn it, say something!"
Lily pointed a finger in his face. The skin popped
at the tip of the finger, and a few pebbles jutted out
from underneath. The stone-encrusted woman shook the
new blood from her fingers. It landed in his face.
He swallowed, hard. "I'm sorry, Miss Paschall.
But I can't. If I cure her, they'll get my Sofya...
my wife. Then all these horrible things I've done
will be for naught."
"We'll get her back for you. But first, you've got
to save her."
"You have to understand," he said. "I didn't
intend for this to happen. I've always been curious
about the Dark Arts. It just... went too far. I got
involved with the Terrible Ones..."
Lily sat down in a motion of sympathy. Dennis
couldn't tell if it was genuine or not, but it didn't
seem to matter to him, either.
"They were things of unspeakable evil. When the...
the lunchbox was created, it condemned them to life
beneath the ground. When they do walk on the surface
world, they are weak and will soon begin to wither and
"They want very badly to walk the surface world.
They can't unless they have possession of the
lunchbox. But as long as the chosen one-- the
lunchbox bearer-- still lives, the lunchbox itself can
kill them. Which is why they entrusted it to me.
"I wasn't going to help them get the lunchbox, at
first. I did all the right things. I kept them
entrapped in a circle, I did all the protection
spells. But they were crafty. They got ahold of my
wife... and now I'm at their mercy."
"Why summon them in the first place?"
Dennis shrugged. "Curiosity. I wanted to know
about good and evil. About where the line is. How
far one can pursue pleasure before it becomes vice."
"Why? Do you think you crossed the line?"
Dennis ignored the question deliberately.
"If you consider yourself a good man," Lily said
gently, "then you have to know that this is wrong.
Who are you to let Mimi die?"
"The instant she is cured, they'll know. And
they'll kill my Sofya. And who are you to let her
"Fine," said Lily. "Then we'll save your wife
first. Tell us what to do and we'll do it. Then you
"You have a deal, net.hero. In my room..."
"In the catacombs?"
"Yes. There's an amulet. Break it. That is the
signal for the trade-off."
"Won't they know that Mimi is alive?"
"Her life force is so dim that they cannot tell the
difference. If When I cure her, though, they will
feel that oppression on them."
"Grab my Sofya. Do not fight the Terrible Ones.
You will surely lose."
"Tyler," said Lily. "You go down to the holding
area and you keep an eye on Dennis. You have his
number, psychologically. Keep him in check."
"Whatever you say, pretty lady," said Tyler with a
"Maggie, I want you to stay here in the infirmary
and keep your eye on Alicia and Mimi. I want to make
sure they're looked over."
Arlie cleared her throat.
"By someone who has the power to defend them,"
added Lily. This seemed to placate the porn star.
"From what you explained, Maggie took care of the
Neverborn situation quite ably."
Maggie blushed, not used to receiving compliments.
"Niceguy, you're the strongest one here. In case
we need some muscle, you're coming with me."
"Is that it?" said Alicia groggily. "Just the two
"We need to be fast. The more people that come
with us, the more that person becomes a liability.
Niceguy and me will do just fine."
Gary flew through the air, holding on to Lily by
her armpits. She held on tight to the fake lunchbox
Stomper had cobbled for them.
"Can I trust you?" said Lily.
"I need to know that I can trust you. Mimi's very
important to me."
"If you don't trust me, why ask me along?"
"Because you're the logical choice," Lily said.
"I took care of the sheep the first time around,"
said Gary. "Look, if this is about my time as a
net.villain... that's not really my fault, you know?"
"It was this woman, Maddie Frost. Every bad thing
I did, I did for her sake. Because I loved her."
"That sounds like Marker's rationale. I say,
you're responsible for what you do. No matter who
you're in love with. Nothing absolves someone of
"Marker crossed a line, though."
"Yeah, he did. Did you?"
Gary did not respond.
Outside the door to Marker's room lay the battered
body of the giant demonic sheep. Gary afforded
himself a grin and admired his own handiwork.
"Damn thing's still out cold."
"Let's hope it doesn't wake up before we're done,"
said Lily, almost as if it was a prayer. Gary bowed
his head in a reverent nod.
They entered the dimly-lit room. On the floor,
next to a splotch of blood that had sprayed from
Dennis's broken nose, there was a photograph of a
pretty, blonde-haired girl.
"His Sofya," said Lily. "Quite a looker. Her real
name's Wendy. Just remember that. I doubt she
answers to Sofya."
"Did you ask him?"
"Just a hunch. Tyler explained who Sofya was. On
the one hand, it means she's innocent, which is how
Dennis sees her. On the other, it shows us his
self-loathing: he's the terrible letch corrupting
"And there's the amulet," said Gary, spotting it on
the nightstand. He picked it up in his left hand.
"Ready when you are."
He squeezed, and his dense muscles smashed the
amulet into dozens of pieces. He shook the remains
from his fist; some golden bits of it stuck to the
heavy creases of his palm.
Their voices preceded their appearance.
"Marker... is the slut dead?"
The first Terrible One appeared: ugly, unholy,
unliving stone. Gary could see his own reflection in
its cold, rocky face. Its eye burned like molten
lava; its mouth hung open, unmoving even as sound
issued forth. "You're not Marker..."
The most horrific thing about it, though, was not
its ghastly appearance; it was that all the Terrible
Ones, all twelve of them, looked exactly the same.
"No, we're not," Lily said. "He is detained. And
in answer to your question: yes. Mimi Duclos. The
best friend I've ever had. Is dead. This is yours,
then." She cautiously began to approach them,
tightening her grip on the lunchbox.
"Give it to us...!"
"The girl," Lily said.
"Ah, yes," said the Terrible Ones. They stepped
aside, their footsteps making no noise, to reveal
Wendy Marker. "Give us the box, then."
"The girl first."
"Do not toy with us, woman."
Lily handed the box to Gary. "I'll have him
"Then your blood will run from your pathetic flesh
"Then I'll be with Mimi," Lily said nonchalantly.
"Gary. Crush it."
Gary began to apply the smallest amount of
pressure. The Terrible Ones became desperate. "No!
"Stop," Lily said.
"Impudent wench," hissed the Terrible Ones. They
huddled together, hiding the girl once more,
Gary shifted his eyes from the Terrible Ones to
Lily. She seemed so composed, so sure of herself.
Here they were, doing the right thing and doing it
right. Soon, it would all be over and they'd be back
at LNHQ, collecting high-fives.
This is what it felt like to be a hero. A rush of
energy, a feeling of pride, of certainty. You were in
control, cool, collected. You knew who you were. No
doubts. No insecurities. You were in the zone, in
your element, you were master of your element, of your
When you were a hero, you were the man! You were
proud of yourself and what you did...
And Gary had done so many things he wasn't proud
of. So many evil things. Things he had done for the
sake of Madeline Frost. Innocent blood was on his
hands, and the only thing he could say in defense was
that he loved Madeline Frost.
Then Maddie went and died on him.
Without his excuse, he stopped doing bad things.
Now he was turning over a new leaf.
Now he was doing something good. Now he was
feeling good. And it wasn't the same good hero vibe
he had been riding on early in his career. It was
entwined with his regret and his guilt, transformed it
into more than pride or an adrenaline rush.
Transformed it into redemption. And this? This was
his first, small step in that direction...
The Terrible Ones turned back to the net.heroes,
stepping away from Wendy. The girl trembled and
walked towards them. Gary put his hand on her
shoulder. The first small step...
Lily tossed the box towards the Terrible Ones. One
of them caught it, holding it in his long tendrils.
"This... this is not our box. The slut still
"Niceguy!" Lily commanded. "Get the girl out of
here, find the trigger, go back to the surface!"
"I'll be fine! Go! Go!"
Gary held the girl close and flew, fast as he
could, past the Terrible Ones. He looked back to see
a bright white light flashing in the room.
"I got to make sure Lily's okay," Gary said,
setting the girl down.
"Don't leave me here..."
"You'll be fine. I'll be right back."
Gary flew back inside the room. "Lily!"
He punched one of the Terrible Ones in the face and
it crumbled to the floor.
"You idiot! I told you to get the girl out of
A Terrible One seized Gary by his neck. He could
feel the rocky fingers begin to dig in through his
steel-hard hide. With an impressive display of
strength, he flung the Terrible One from him and into
the wall with a jerk of his neck. Gary turned towards
She had transformed! No wonder she said she could
take care of herself! Though she was still a lithe
young woman, her body was now composed of rocks and
pebbles. In her capable fist, she wielded her cosmic
battle-ax. With relative ease, she cut a Terrible One
"The girl will be fine," said Gary. "Come on! I
can't let you have all the fun!" He picked up two
Terrible Ones by their necks and bashed their heads
"This isn't a game!"
The old rush was back again. The feeling that he
was in control, that he was the master of this moment.
With each punch he threw, it felt as if he redeemed
one of the lesser sins he had committed. Within a few
minutes, the Terrible Ones disappeared. Gary brushed
the dust from his body and smiled.
"Well, we saved the day. We beat the bad guys."
Lily was not as congratulatory. "You directly
disobeyed my order. I'm your senior."
"I was a net.hero long before you even..."
"I've spent more time as a net.hero. Consistently.
Continuously. You don't get it, do you?"
"I guess not," he said with a shrug. He started
out the door. "I came back to help you, and...
The giant, demonic sheep had disappeared. There
was no evidence it had been in the labyrinth at all.
No evidence save the dead body of Wendy Marker.
"I will not help you."
"There isn't much time," said Tyler. "If you don't
help us, Michette Duclos is going to die."
"Then let her die," said Dennis. "I choose to let
her die just like he chose to let her die."
Tyler turned to Maggie. "Stay here and watch him,
Maggie Bernard. I'm going upstairs for a moment."
"You tell him," said Dennis. "You tell him that
Duclos's blood is on his hands, not mine!"
"I've tried for half an hour," said Tyler as he
entered the infirmary. "Still isn't budging."
"Damn it," said Lily, barely audible. She was
lying in one of the beds, having reverted to her human
form. Tyler surveyed the room grimly. Michette
Duclos, Lily Paschall, Alicia Avenue and Speed
Richardson-- all of them were out of commission,
having been injured (or had their injuries worsened)
during this mess. And if it was all for nothing... if
it all came to naught...
"I'll talk to him," offered Arlie.
"You?" said Speed. "What can you do? And who are
"You've been out of the loop," said Tyler. "Arlie
Fertulus, this is Speed Richardson, a.k.a. Shrink-Wrap
Man, protector of men and preserver of meats. Speed
Richardson, this is Arlie Fertulus, the actress."
"I thought you looked familiar... were you in MED
SCHOOL 2: BONING UP ON YOUR ANATOMY?"
"I was the nurse with the cripples."
"So," said Arlie, "long time no see, Dennis."
Arlie smiled. "Red. I had forgotten you used to
call me that. You remember when we were shooting TALL
GLASS OF MAN-MILK and you were coming in for a
close-up and you bumped into me. You were so
embarrassed. And you said..."
"Excuse me, Red."
"Right. It was on the tape. You were so upset
that you broke the illusion. Director didn't give a
shit. That was the difference with you. You cared
about what you were doing. Just you and me, we cared.
It was a moment. Our moment."
"I guess. I missed you, Red. Missed being part of
"Why'd you leave, Dennis?"
"Don't you know?"
"No. Just one day you're gone, no forwarding
"I gave it up for her. And now she's dead."
"I'm sorry for the loss..."
"Shut up!" He stood up, his body quaking with
Arlie's natural smile disappeared in a flash.
Coldly, she intoned: "Sit down." He did so. "I'm
helping a friend of mine. Tyler Bridge is a friend of
mine, he's a good person. From what I gather, most of
the people up there are good people, they're trying to
do the right thing. Even... even Gary Niceguy..."
"I have nothing to say to you."
"Dennis... you care about people. I know you do.
You're really a gentle soul."
"You don't know me. The real me."
"Your wife loved you. She wouldn't love you if you
were really a bad person."
"You haven't been paying attention lately,
"You've done some bad things," Arlie said. "That
doesn't make you a bad person. Please. Save her
life. Show us... show us all... that you're a good
"Shut up!" he screeched. He stood up again. "And
you will not tell me to sit down. Get out. Get out!
You think you can come down here and be friendly and
plead for her, you think you know me? You think
"You used to call me Red."
"That was a long time ago," he said, the thunder
leaving his voice. "Another lifetime."
"You're a good man, Dennis."
"I'm a weak man. And so it is very easy for me to
let Duclos die."
"Wheel me down there," Speed said. "I'll suffocate
the bastard in shrink-wrap. And then he'll either
cure Mimi or he'll die."
"Then he'll die," said Arlie. "He's too angry
about his wife. No threat is going to work."
Gary cleared his throat. He had been silent since
they had gotten back to LNHQ with Wendy's remains.
"I'll talk to him."
"I think you're the last person who should talk to
him," opined Speed. "It's your fault this happened."
"Give him a break!" said Alicia. "He didn't do it
"Didn't do it on purpose? So what?" said Speed.
"It's not intentions that count. It's actions. And
his actions have left her dead and endangered
"So let me make up for it," said Gary.
"How?" said Speed. "By pissing him off more?"
"No. Threats aren't working. So let's give him an
incentive." He walked out the door.
"Um, Gary Niceguy? What...?" Tyler called after
him. Gary kept walking.
"How dare you come down here, after what you've
"I'm sorry," Gary said.
"You think you can just waltz down here and
apologize and all will be forgiven? You think that
makes it okay, that I'll go upstairs smiling and I'll
heal Duclos? You must take me for some kind of
"No, I don't."
"Then why are you here, net.hero? This takes
balls, I've got to give you that. You bastard,"
Dennis spat. "You stupid bastard. You deserve to
die! She didn't do anything to you! You deserve to
"You're right. I do deserve to die."
"What kind of trick is this?"
"No trick. No ploy. I just want to square things.
Just want to try and make amends."
"You can never make amends. Nothing but your
corpse will satisfy me."
"Then you can have it. Just heal Michette first."
"I knew it. This is a trick."
"No trick. I've done a lot of bad things in my
life. Too many to make up for. Just when it seems
I'm making some headway, doing things right, I always
seem to screw up. But this is a chance... this is
chance for me to do something right. Maybe I'm damned
for all I've done. Maybe I'm beyond redemption. But
I've got to try, got to try to do the right thing.
And if giving you my life will save Michette's... then
I'll give you my life."
Dennis nodded thoughtfully. "I, too, am beyond
"All the more reason to make the effort," Gary
said. "Try to fix the mess you've made and let me fix
the mess I've made. Save Michette. Kill me. And
then go on with your life and try to... to do good."
"You're offering me vengeance and absolution in the
same breath. You'd be a terrible priest."
"I just can't let Michette Duclos die. She's
"So was my Sofya..."
"I know. Don't you think I know that? That's why
I'm going to let you kill me."
Dennis waved his hands silently over Michette. She
began to murmur, to move, to sweat.
Gary watched, allowing himself a grim smile. For
the first time, he knew what it felt like to be a
hero. This was his first truly unselfish act; his
first truly heroic act. This was what it was about.
Not adrenaline. Not glory. Not control.
Doing the right thing.
He was doing the right thing for the first time.
And for the last time...
Michette was coughing now, breathing, her eyes
fluttering open. "God, I'm alive," she said. "It was
Dennis turned towards the other bed-ridden
legionnaires. "For good measure," he said as he waved
his hands over them. Their injuries healed up, as if
they were never there in the first place. He then
turned and looked at Gary.
"Let's go, then," said Gary.
"You're letting him go?" said Speed.
"Part of how I got him to come up here."
"What's the other part?" said Tyler suspiciously.
Gary did not answer. "Let's go."
"You're both leaving...?" said Speed.
"No," said Dennis. "Only I am. He stays here. To
Gary smiled, his eyes welling up with tears. "I
don't deserve this. I don't deserve this grace."
"Neither do I," said Dennis. "But we have both
been given a chance to obtain redemption. Do the
right thing, Gary Niceguy. Live. And try to do right
by those you've done wrong.
"And so I go, to do the same. And there are lots
of people by whom I've done wrong. As for you,
Michette Duclos..." He turned towards her. "Know that
so much as been done today, so much has been risked,
for your sake and your sake alone. Know that you are
loved. And return that love, in kind."
The net.heroes turned and looked at Michette for a
brief, wonderful moment. By the time they had turned
back, Dennis Marker was gone.
(C) COPYRIGHT 2002, 2006 TOM RUSSELL.
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