LNH: Dashing Tales #7
ben.rawluk at gmail.com
Tue Sep 8 23:53:12 PDT 2015
DASHING TALES, episode the seventh,
"Detective Work? Detective Work!"
by Ben Rawluk
April has to wait for the elevator for ten minutes as it rises from the deepest sub-basements. She stands with her back straight, her chin up, her shoulders back. She has performed in front of a crowd often enough to know how to stand to get the most projection out of her voice. THUNK. The elevator's here; she unlatches the accordion gate and eases over, then steps inside and relatches it. She flashes her badge at a square black sensor inset in the vintage golden menu of button. "Voice identification," says the computer.
"Voice match confirmed."
She hits the button for the appropriate sub-basement -- the holding cells, maybe ten levels down -- and tilts her head forward as the elevator descends. The elevator is sculptural, gilded, Art Deco -- a holdover from the days when this was the Net.ropolis Grand Hotel. Captain Cleanup keeps all the fixtures polished, and April takes a moment to check her reflection for blemishes. She feels (almost) compelled to run a nail in between her front teeth, but there are cameras. Being a member of the Legion means always being watched.
There is another THUNK as the elevator lands; April unlatches the gate, steps out, latches it closed again, and shuttles down a dark corridor. Mood lighting, Research Lass had said, during the tour. She slows as she reaches the checkpoint: a glass-encased booth with Captain Basement sitting inside. He's thick-shouldered and small-waisted, the kind of clean-cut dunderhead who would never understand her poetry, his muscles squeezed into a purple and yellow costume he claims is patriotic, patterned after the flag of Great Nation of Basement.
(She asked him, the first time she came down here, where Basement was, baffled. "You're standing in the heart of it," he said. "I have been charged with defending this realm." No one has been able to tell her exactly where he comes from, or when he arrived. No one's ever seen him above ground, and the Captain claims his powers waned when disconnected from his native soil.)
"Sonnet Queen," says Captain Basement, mildly. The booth is pressed against the lefthand wall, with a metal doorway to the right. "You'll be here to see the prisoner, of course."
"Time for his daily dose," she says.
"You know the drill," Captain Basement says into the microphone. "Step through the gate. The wardings and sensors will detect ill intent, forbidden magic, unregistered technology and evidence of mind control or shapeshifters. Doc Stomper reports we'll be reliably proof against clones, interdimensional doppelgangers and time-travelling assassins some time next week." He smiles, as he always does, the glazed grin of a patriotic brick. They're always improving something around here -- rebuilding, fine-tuning, renovating. Captain Basement is always keen to share the latest developments of his fair country, always treats April like the ambassador of the upper world.
"Thanks, Cap," she says, careful to give him that sparkling smile she's practised for hours in her quarters, the one that's meant to get her on the cover of NET.HERO Magazine.
She braces herself and steps through the gate.
Like stepping through a plate of freezing water, the air thick with radiation and magic. She always holds her breath when her face slips past, like this is the time it kills her. "All clear," she says, inhaling deeply. She flicks out her fingers and looks over her shoulder at the Captain, then takes the stairs down into the holding cells.
The corridor is wide, with cells running on either side. She looks at each in turn, peering through two-way mirror glass. Technically, the LNH can't hold net.villains for long-term, they have to be turned over to the police to be tried. But they can hold them for a while, until appropriate accommodations can be found at any of the local science-fiction asylums and prisons. Tonight they have Doctor Periodic-Table (listlessly counting off elements on the chart printed across his costume), the time-lost Waffle Queen One Million (from exactly one million issues of _Easily-Discovered Man_ into the future), Doctor F and a throbbing white light that has never quite faded (the mysterious reminder of Doctor Delete, Mister Understatement and Polly Popinjay's escape from the cells using only a plot-device).
And the prisoner at the end of the hall.
She shows her badge to the sensor beside the door and repeats "Sonnet Queen" went prompted. The door slides open: a tiny room with white tile on the walls, floor and ceiling, a metal chair bolted to the floor in the middle of the room. A single occupant, chained to the chair. Normally, the Legion doesn't go for chains, but this particularly prisoner is different.
Once upon a time, his name was Clement Bogus. He was (purportedly) a reporter and trenchcoater. "Reporter," in the loosest sense. He worked with Marco's reporter friend, Emma. Now he's undead. He is some strain of vampire -- his skin, his clothing, every drop of colour has been removed. He belongs in an old Lon Chaney movie from the forties. His skin matches the grey of his trenchcoat.
When April steps inside, the vampire writhes, snapping his jaw at her.
The other thing -- the eerie thing -- is that there's no sound.
("It's a bit like Inacoustic Kid -- sorry, Silence -- sorry, Dva! -- from the Alt.Riders," Doc Stomper had said, when Marco and Emma brought the vampire in. "It's like a bubble of silence around him.")
He rocks back and forth in the chair, twists and churns in chains, screams at her -- all without any sound. It's like someone hit 'mute' on a remote control.
("It might be a strain of vampirism introduced from one of the B-Movie Looniverses," Occultism Kid had offered. April had stayed near the back, watching. "We should consult with Very Big Boy, though I don't think they're from compatible realities.")
"Hi," she says, after a moment. Her voice is hoarse, so she coughs and repeats the word. The vampire doesn't listen, his only response being to attempt to attack again. She stays back, near the door, ready to run. She is holding herself very, very still right now. Back straight, shoulders back, head up. "I know, I know, you would rather I wasn't here. You can't speak, won't communicate with writing," she says. A dry erase board and a marker have been placed near the door. "But I'm just here to keep you comfortable, okay?" Drugs don't work. Conventional hypnosis can't overpower whatever spell is driving the vampire. They called her in for a reason. "I promise, you'll enjoy this. Appreciate it."
The creature stares at her, at her neck. She wonders if she should be down here alone like this; if the vampire attacked, nobody would hear anything.
(When Sally from Administration gave April her business cards, the tagline was OUR BUSINESS IS DANGER, so...)
"I'm not scared," she says. "I'm not."
The vampire leapt for her, slamming backwards against the chair. Not a single sound, but April flinched anyway, taking a couple steps back.
"Fine," she says. "You asked for it." And then she closes her eyes, and summons up all her energies. After Marco joined, Linguist Lass took the pair of them aside and observed that, in a way, their powers were balanced against each other. Where Marco's poetry was so stomach-curdlingly bad that you never knew what was going to happen, April had a gift. She took a breath and opened her mouth. She recited fourteen lines, ten syllables each, Shakespearean rhyme scheme. Like crystal, molecules woven delicately and precisely. The lines scanned, and any deviation from perfect metre was so considered and measured like a moment frozen.
The vampire's head was down. He shivered. Occultism Kid had said that her power was like a vision of heaven that the vampire would never be able to hold. Throughout the process, Emma hadn't moved. Emma had stayed until they pulled her out and locked the door. Marco had sulked in the corner and eventually left to go eat cheesecake in the cafeteria while April spoke to Occultism Kid.
She really wanted to be friends with Marco. Really. Being new was tremendously lonely.
She stops by the bookstore off the lobby, leaving extra copies of her book with Browsing Boy at the counter. He looks up at her from flipping through a Jack Kirby omnibus and gives her a thumbs up, says, "My wife says you're doing great!" It makes her uncomfortable, sometimes, the way the older Legionnaires seem to exclaim everything, sometimes. They're constantly announcing their moves, and they speak a little louder than they need to. I'm right here, she wants to say, but she doesn't.
"I'm glad," she says, because she doesn't know what else to say but has been to enough parties with poets, chatting away about each other's books, to fake it when she has to. She smiles and turns and swirls away, as though mingling-mingling-mingling. She sweeps by Irma at the front desk and repeats the smile, then drifts out of the lobby and into one of the back corridors. She could, perhaps, return to her quarters, but what would she do?
They don't really talk about this, do they? The down-time. It can seem like forever between missions, between world-saving. Not everybody can disappear into a lab. There are only so many hours in a day she can spend in the Library, writing poems in one of the carousels way at the back.
She drifts through the headquarters common areas. The TV room, the lounge, the Mission Monitor Room -- she finds Multi-Tasking Man alone, playing Pong on an ancient Atari that he's hooked to the central computer; Doc Stomper comes flapping before she can say anything, desperate to unplug it before it gains sentience and tries to destroy them all. She stops by the empty basketball courts, the Peril Room is locked for a training session, and no one is allowed in Ultimate Ninja's gardens -- a courtyard in the middle of the building, somehow open to the air and sunlight. She stops at the floor-to-ceiling window and watches him tend it.
She gives up, eventually. There are people everywhere, but she doesn't know how to talk to any of them. "Computer," she says. "Please locate Marco. I mean, Bad-Poetry Boy."
There are classrooms in the LNHQ. Maybe that shouldn't surprise April; from what she's seen in the archives, there are always at least two or three subgroups of teenaged net.heroes that have been arbitrarily deemed "students" and sent to study with Bibliography Boy or whoever. She stops at the door with the frosted glass window and peers inside. Emma stands in front of a portable chalkboard, chalk hovering over the surface. Marco slumps against one of the cramped desks lined up in rows in front of it.
Neither of them look up, but Emma says, "Hey, April."
April slips inside. Marco's in his Bad-Poetry Boy costume, and Emma's in a blue hoodie and red jeans. Her dark brown hands are covered in chalk dust. The chalkboard is covered in writing -- "Clement Bogus" in a circle, with lines going off to words like "vampire" and "warehouse district."
"You're investigating, then?" April settles onto the edge of the teacher's desk up at the front of the room. The hero-boots are starting to make her feet hurt.
Emma shrugs, not looking away from the board. She scratches a few more words onto the cloud and stands up back. Emma scrapes at her nose. "The big boys can't find anything. Occultism Kid thinks Bogus might have brought something back with him from the Hell dimension he stuck us in, but that doesn't feel right to me. There was nothing there like, well, like that." She squints at the board. "They've never seen a vampire like him. Apparently, there are strains, but we don't know if we have a plague of silent movie creeps about to fly down upon us. Have you seen him today?"
"I dosed him a little while ago."
"It's awful down there," says Marco, the first thing he's bothered to say to her. She wishes he wasn't so moody. He was fine the other day when they were eating lunch on the back steps.
April crosses her arms and hunches forward. "It's okay. I don't mind it so much. It makes me feel useful. They haven't called me for a mission in a while." She slides off the desk and circles around to stand by Emma. "So, does this mean you're one of us now? A Legionnaire?"
"What? No. I -- there could be a story for the Netizen, if there's a vampire plague." She looks across at April and says, "But if you feel like lending out your brainpower, maybe you can help us solve this. Do you think we can kill this silent movie type with all the traditional weapons?"
"Well, you said he was avoiding sunlight when you brought him in."
"There's a kind of werewolf made out of moss." April and Emma look behind, toward Marco. "Called Lychens. Occultism Kid was telling me." He's looking down at his phone, flicking at the screen with his thumb. He looks up. "Sorry. Emma was talking about strains of vampire. It made me think--" He stops. He looks away. "Sorry, I'm babbling." He slip his phone into his pocket and shifts his weight from foot to foot, raising his head and looking more engaged. "Bogus wasn't a vampire the last time we saw him. That means there's a vampire out there. Only there's never just one vampire, is there? Not for long."
April blinks. "Where did you find him?"
"Warehouse district," says Emma. She pokes at the words on the board with the nubbin of chalk. "But he would have been by the Netizen, I'd imagine. When it happened. Bogus doesn't -- he wasn't straying too far from the office lately. Field trips to Hell notwithstanding."
"Maybe we go do some investigation on the street," April says. She's surprised, but doesn't show it -- schools her features into a blank expression. She never really pictured herself as a detective, still hasn't quite found her footing with the Legion. "I know they probably want to wait until they know what -- what Bogus is, but the trail's going to be going cold." She almost sounds like a net.hero. Her head spins a little. She reaches out and touches the wooden frame of the chalkboard to steady herself. Marco's grinding his teeth and looking down again. What is his problem? "Marco -- what is it? What's up with you? We're in the middle of--"
"I'm fine. I'm sorry. I'm just--" He takes a breath and then makes eye contact with April. "I haven't been sleeping."
"Is this about Bogus?"
"Or Occultism Kid," says Emma, but she shuts up the second Marco gives her a look.
"I'm -- it's stupid. I'm missing Scott a bit. It's also weird not living at home anymore."
"We can stop over and see your parents after we solve the mystery," says Emma.
"I'm fine," says Marco. He pushes off from the desk and fishes out a packet of bus tickets. "This is good. Doing some actual work. You're right, we should be investigating. Don't worry about me. I'm a net.hero! Net.heroes don't stress about break-ups and homesickness. It's all supposed to be big operatic death and -- and--"
Emma reaches out and takes the bus tickets away from him. April envies their ease. "No bus today, kid." She turns and pokes April. "You still have flight privileges, right?"
Sonnet Queen (April Fu), Bad-Poetry Boy (Marco Ramirez), Emma Dash, Research Lass, Clement Bogus and Doctor Periodic-Table are owned and reserved by Ben Rawluk, copyright 2015.
Captain Basement and Irma the receptionist were created by Ben Rawluk; both are free for use.
Doctor Delete, Mister Understatement and Polly Popinjay were created by Cornelius Goetz von Olenhusen, and are sorely missed.
Doctor F was created by Saxon Brenton.
Waffle Queen One Million was presumably created by the Zeta-Twelfth Clone of Rob Rogers.
Dva/Silence was created by Jamas Enright.
Occultism Kid was created by Josh Geurink, marked free for use.
Doctor Stomper was created by T. M. Neeck, marked free for use.
Browsing Boy was created by Jeffrey Klein, marked free for use.
Ultimate Ninja was created by Ray Bingham, marked free for use.
I'm getting them out of the LNHQ for a while! I always had a habit of getting characters stuck in there and then having to crowbar them out.
_Miscreants_ is still one of the great unrealized LNH stories, and I've returned to it a couple times. Presume that its protagonists are continuity-locked at the point of escape, and the LNHQ sometimes rotates them up where people can see.
Browsing Boy is a character I used to write when I was responsible for the mess that was the Net.Titans (along with Linguist Lass, and Research Lass). I will eventually have Research Lass show up "on screen" in Dashing Tales. I was debating, the first time I brought her up, whether she was Research Lass from the Net.Titans days, a previously unknown niece carrying on the legacy, or some temporal distortion caused by the swirling currents of Hypertext. I kind of like the idea of a grizzled older net.heroine coming in and yelling at the kids.
An LNH One Million is a bit too out of date to be a parody, but let's all take a moment to imagine what the robotic Easily-Discovered Man Lite of the future looks like.
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