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True Believer

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Outside, winter feels even stranger than summer. The skin that's left over after a runaway dump truck grated me against a building six years ago warns me about the biting cold. My artificial skin tells me I'm someplace warm with a gentle breeze. Just as well that part of my brain is now a computer and sorts these arguments out.

The circuits and neurons can both agree I'd rather spend New Year's Eve at a party than up in Westchester County, staking out a fake Tudor tract house. But life's like this when you're Fatale, cybernetic Amazon and member of the Champions. One of the heroes, hooray.

At least I'm spending my evening with another Champion. They're the only people likely to invite me to a party anyhow.

"He has not approached his lair from the trees," Elphin's high voice murmurs in my left ear. My replacement for an eardrum can pick up and descramble the ultra-high frequency waves her communicator transmits. I'm surprised she'll use the communicator. As a former warrior of Titania's fairy court, she's not big on technology.

"Street's clear," I tell her in return. Then I watch suburbia some more through a leafless hedge, my right eye reporting bad architecture and snow, my left eye registering greens and pinks that represent invisible ranges of the spectrum. Just for fun, I cycle up and down the wavelengths. Nothing. Somewhere in the woods behind the house, Elphin is softly keening a Celtic-sounding tune that's picked up by her communicator. Maybe her song's about winter. I guess we're both trying to be patient while we wait.

The guy we're hunting follows a pattern. Most supervillains do, I've learned. These patterns aren't something we understand, only something we uncover and use to track them down. This particular villain finds a new place. He targets female superheroes, and he takes his time. He's never been seen by a male. When he's done, he always leaves behind a trophy in his latest hideout, the sick bastard.

The most interesting part of his pattern? He kills his targets. That's unusual in our game. All the villains try for us. Few of them succeed. Even when we seem to die, superheroes still come back. But after Evergreen, The Dark Lady, and Calabash, we know this guy's a destroyer, whoever he is, whatever he's named. For now, we call him The Refrigerator, after where he keeps his trophies.

 

My teammates pitched in, but I was the one who discovered how The Refrigerator was paying for his hideouts and tracked him to this suburb. I expected to be in on the capture but thought I'd have lots of company in case of trouble. I was wrong.

Damsel, leader of the Champions, looked at me across the u-shaped table in our Crisis Room and said, "You and Elphin."

"That doesn't sound like good tactics."

Next to Damsel, her husband Blackwolf made a noise of agreement. I didn't react. I'd worked up a crush on him before he went back to her, so now I try to notice him only as needed. Good luck.

Damsel shrugged. Her force field flickered pale blue, another kind of shrug. "I agree. But Mr. Mystic made the suggestion."

"Okay, then," I said. Being the cryptic mage of the Champions frees Mr. Mystic from having to speak much at meetings. It also means that when he does talk, we listen. Even me.

Sitting next to me, Elphin rested her forehead against the pale wood of her spear shaft, her version of a sigh. I looked at her. She asked me, "When will we two hunt?" Her voice belonged to an ageless child, something that would lure helpless mortals into woods and under hills. Friendly toward me, though.

"If he follows his pattern, tomorrow night. Happy New Year's Eve."

 

Now tomorrow night is tonight, and Elphin's talking out back. "The ash and oak here rejoice. They have reclaimed this knoll." She pays a lot of attention to trees. After a year of her company, I'm learning to roll with that. Earlier, when she asked this hedge I'm behind to hide me, I just said thanks.

"Too bad about their new neighbor. The Refrigerator, I mean."

"They will endure. This winter brings the true, deep cold that cleanses."

"Great." As far as I was concerned, the winter could cleanse The Refrigerator all it wanted. Maybe minus ten degrees for six hours would do the trick. "Any sign yet?"

"The woods do not speak of him."

I look around again. This stakeout would be easier if I knew what to expect. I've already been spooked twice, first by a minivan full of college kids and then by a stray cat.

Time passes. Elphin sings to the trees. I wonder if she'd rather be at a party than here.

A car turns the corner, an SUV. My cybernetic memory could tell me everything about its model and make, but I don't care. I do care that it's a rental. "Here comes a possible," I tell Elphin.

"I hear."

The SUV pulls up into the driveway of the house. A man gets out. Nothing special: thirties, pale skin and hair, wearing too much puffy clothing to say anything about his build. But I'm careful. I don't shift positions behind the hedge even though my knees have compacted hollows in the frozen lawn; all my metal alloy weighs a lot. I feel the inner surge as my systems power up for possible combat. My tactical computer comes online.

The guy stands next to the SUV in the driveway, breath visible to my left eye as an orange cloud. He tucks bare hands into his coat pockets and rocks back and forth on his heels. The tactical assistant thinks he's waiting for someone.

That someone comes. My computer puts up an arrow to show me the arrival. Down from the dark, a costumed figure descends from the sky. A superhero, female. I'm on my feet and leaping the hedge even before her information comes out of the files—- Zephyra, flight and atmospheric manipulation, strictly small-time. She lands on the end of the driveway, out of arm's reach of this guy. That's good. But she's starting a speech. That's bad.

The soles of my feet have sprouted crampons that bite into the ice on the road as I run. A flicker like moonlight on snow, and Elphin flies over the rooftop of the house, iridescent wings whirring. Around us a sudden wind is shaking the bushes and trees, stripping away the last dead leaves left from the fall. Not me, not Elphin. Probably Zephyra.

I can tell when she spots us. Her head snaps up toward Elphin and back around toward me. The wind wails, rising higher, trying to shove me over on the icy asphalt. I'm still moving, but I'm slowed. Elphin is slowed. A classic mistake-- Zephyra thinks we're with The Refrigerator.

He doesn't make her mistake. "You're not what I want," he shouts at us. His hands come out of his coat pockets, skin on the back of his fingers glowing.

Now that I'm close, I know I've seen him before. I lean out as I run, evading Zephyra's grab as I pass her, closing with The Refrigerator. "Big deal," I yell back, something like that. Turns out I don't know what I'm talking about. He clenches his fists and the world stutters.

 

The world stutters. Time slows. My focused peripheral vision tells me Elphin's arm is cocking back, about to launch her eldritch spear. Zephyra is twisting around, trying to do something to someone. The Refrigerator blurs into static on my tactical display. All of a sudden, my camera eye isn't registering anything around him that my combat computer wants to process. Uh-oh. Magic.

When his spell hits, it's bad. There's an all-over shimmer. The fight seems to have stopped. Are we frozen? Maybe The Refrigerator was a better nickname than we knew. Then power whips around me, an entangling force that shows up as a blizzard on my display. All at once, I remember lives I never lived.

Serving my genius creator with all the unquestioning loyalty and love of my cybernetic heart...

Avenging the tragic murder of my parents through my subsequent life as a courtesan-assassin...

Betraying my father the mad scientist for a handsome superhero with the brains of a baboon and the libido to match...

I wouldn't know what's happening if not for training with the Champions, listening to their stories. Alternate worlds are battering me. I'm assaulted by the possibilities of ten thousand different lives. But these aren't my choices. These aren't anything I'd want to be.

The dump truck ground away most of my memories along with the left half of my body. When I scrawled my signature on Protheon's papers in the hospital, I volunteered blind. They told me I'd be a super soldier, the future of warfare. The results are impressive. I'm fused flesh and metal. I'm four inches taller now and three hundred pounds heavier. I'm not delicate, or glamorous, or designed for seduction. I'm no sexier than I can manage on my own-- usually not very. But now someone else forces those possibilities on me. The Refrigerator.

As The Refrigerator's alternatives rework me, my back tries to curve, to extend, to flatten. My breasts seem to swell hugely and squish together, then pull apart and flatten into cones. My feet arch, straighten, shrink. My legs lengthen and thin, shape curves where no curves should be. I don't want to talk about what happens to my lips or my butt. Even my silver hair whips through more styles than you'd find in a salon sample book. None of the changes make much sense.

Everything hurts, but the pain's not the worst. Memories I don't want lash at me, trying to replace my own. I'm living a hundred unwanted lives.

Ruling my criminal syndicate as a femme fatale until I battle the masked detective I somehow can't resist...

Helping my slightly smarter, slightly tougher partner. Always one step back and to the side when the press takes the pictures of him...

Giving it all up for the love of a good man...

My combat computer pings a warning. Somehow it's sieved out my world's data from all the static and noise. So slowly that it's almost imperceptible, The Refrigerator is closing in on me. Just below each knuckle, a rune glows blue-white on his fingers. They fuzz out my video chip. But I can still see he's holding an X-Acto utility knife, thick razor blade extended.

"You won't be what I want," he says.

Each of his words takes a minute to understand, almost lost amid the echoes of other, possible words. But I recognize his voice now. It's already on file in my brain.

 

Damsel spends a lot of time fund-raising for groups like Oxfam. A few months ago she talked me into volunteering for a charity affair, one of those things where donors cough up money to wine and dine with celebrity guests. This group also had populist pretensions. They'd run a two dollar raffle where the winners could line up after lunch and get autographs from the attending superheroes.

My line would be short, I thought. An easy gig. I was wrong. Sure, Damsel's line was twice as long as mine, but I still sat signing stuff for hours. Fat people, thin people, rich people, poor people, dull people, strange people, all waiting to see Fatale.

After the first hour I'd handed the signatures and small talk over to my computer's repetition application. I fought boredom by analyzing why people stood in my line. Some were collectors, I decided. Completers of sets. Some thought they'd have a better chance getting to me than someone more famous. Some liked the underdog. Some thought only obscure heroes were cool. Some were awed or curious or admiring. Some of the men had an odd look in their eyes. Another half-hour and I realized that the look meant they were interested in me. Losers.

The Refrigerator had been raffle winner number one hundred and seventeen. His suit had been expensive and well-tailored. He wore nice kidskin driving gloves. Good looking. He'd had me sign an article in GQ about the Champions' latest battle with Doctor Impossible. I'd seen the hungry look in his eyes.

I gave him a few polite words. Maybe other female superheroes at other times also gave him polite words. I guess he wants more. I guess he's found a way to demand more. Like deciding how we should live our lives. Like taking trophies for consolation when we disagree.

 

My power gone, I sink onto my knees, silver hair falling forward over my face as the villain laughs...

Broken by the death of all I cared for, I run mad and destroy...

Defeated, I see the razor-knife approaching to cut and collect...

I need to get off this carousel. Frantic, I try to recall any memory that's mine rather than his. The chaotic cloud of alternatives swirls around me and I clutch at the best possibility I can find—- memories that thread from another pair of interested eyes.

 

These days, a division of Blackwolf's corporation meets my cybernetic support requirements. Protheon, the Ohio outfit that built me, shut down; they were a front for a supervillain's scheme. I still need someone for my three weeks of maintenance each year, to replace the outworn bits of me, to feed me the drugs that keep half my body from rejecting the other half. I suppose I should feel lucky a teammate's company can handle my problems.

I don't feel lucky. Especially when I sit in a room on a chair that has to be reinforced to bear my weight, waiting for the latest bunch of lab coats to come play with their favorite toy—me.

Most of them don't talk to me. They speak with me, but only to get any information that they want. Today's crew is typical. A pretty Asian woman tinkers with the wires in my torso for an hour without saying a word. A middle-aged man with a chin beard feeds me pills and asks me for read-outs from my biological systems monitors. He's polite, but he might as well be comparison shopping for food processors.

I'm surprised by my last appointment of the day, a tall and lanky guy named Joe. His name's on his badge, but he introduces himself with a smile. As near as I can make out, he's point-man on my combat software team. He's also an enthusiast.

"Did our revision of the sonics control work?"

"You didn't get the diagnostic download?"

"From when you fought Pale Joey? We did. Nice job. And it functioned, sure." He waves a hand, dismissing. "But I need to know how it felt."

I consider. "Good. Comfortable."

"Neat. That's what we're after." He spins around on his pivoting stool to type a note, long, graceful fingers clicking keys on his laptop. "I think you'll like this latest macro for your Awareness.exe."

"Enhancement or patch?"

Maybe he hears something in my voice. "Patch, but nothing radical. Your breath won't smell of elderberries."

The joke's really lame, but he's trying. I laugh.

"It'll speed your data input selection." He grins, a little shy. "Do you want to see what we're working toward?"

"Sure."

He hands me a memory pen. As I download information through a port on my forearm, he turns his laptop to show me the diagrams on its screen. "Human judgments are supported by logic but made using emotions." He points at a snarl of curves. "Since some of your tactical modeling runs faster than neurological chemicals can diffuse, the conflicting rates of input can lock you down in crisis situations." His forefinger pokes at another multicolored graph. "If you're overloaded, our goal is to have an override in place that'll let you focus on a single stream of input." He keeps talking. A lock of chestnut hair slips down over his forehead and gets pushed back into place. After several minutes of numbers and neurophysiology, he pauses in his lecture. Pivoting back to me from his laptop screen, he says, "I guess I'm babbling."

His expression is intent. I can see his eyes, clear grey behind his glasses. His look is familiar—- he's interested in me. I think of all the autograph hunters. Parting my lips to agree that he's babbling, I'm going to squash him flat. Another loser.

The world stutters, and other possibilities try to push their ways in. I grip this one thread of memories tight.

Loser. Why loser? Seizing that single question, my circuits and neurons work fast. My so-called reasoning comes clear. He's a loser because he admires me. I'm too proud to join any club that'll have me as a member. Only those better than me will win my admiration. The ones beyond my reach are the ones who are worthy, who can pull me up. Who can fix me. Make me what I want to be.

Bad logic, I think. For lots of reasons, bad. Nothing but a funhouse mirror's reflection of The Refrigerator's crazy.

Somewhere in the storm of possibilities, I change my mind. Maybe I'm rewriting my timeline or maybe I'm picking my own alternate history. I don't care. In my new world, I finish parting my lips and say to Joe, "No. You're interesting. Keep talking."

He does. I'm not surprised when he offers me the experimental software enhancement to implement what we discuss. I am surprised when he stops lecturing and starts chatting. Next thing I know, I promise to join him and some friends when they watch Nosferatu. His place, this Tuesday evening.

My mind follows the new thread of memories. I recall more. I'm watching Nosferatu with a bunch of hot-shot nerds and having a good time.

I'm watching The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2001. I'm suggesting Buckaroo Banzai, a faint recollection from back before the dump truck. I'm eating carefully chosen Chinese takeout with the gang at Roger's Brooklyn loft. I'm hearing my new pal Amanda dish gossip from the Epidemiology Department at Columbia. I'm fixing the woofers in Joe's stereo speakers. I'm kissing Joe back. His searching hands are interested, friendly, exciting—- just right.

Reality stutters again. I'm furious when The Refrigerator's mojo tries to force me away from my shiny new past toward his desires, toward something he wants me to be. So I use my year-old software enhancement to override his multiple inputs and focus on my single, my chosen self.

 

And I'm back in Westchester. In winter.

Even with the enhanced macro running, moving through all the alternatives is like pushing through a blizzard. I have to force my legs to take each step forward. They could do so many other things. But I still move faster than The Refrigerator. My hand grasps his left wrist, twists. He starts to lose the X-Acto. His possibilities speed up, a whirlwind of magic. They gather density around my grip, along his glowing fingers—ten thousand ways he could be free, hold on to his knife. That's when the barbs of Elphin's spearhead rake across the fingers of his other hand. Magic meets magic, and briefly my display whites out.

Blood damps down his glowing tattoos. They flicker and smoke. He screams, more in fear than in pain by the sound. Something's yanking him from my grip. I can't tell if he's being tugged away by the keening wind or by the storm of possibilities. Then he seems to fray into a million shards of static that dissipate in all directions.

My tactical display clears, the confusion gone. He's disappeared. A decasecond check to be sure, and I don't see him anywhere. His open X-Acto lies in the snow on the driveway. Elphin is half crouched a few feet away. Spear in one hand, she's ready to lunge again.

Instead she straightens, her wings thrumming. "He lost faith. Then his other selves must have taken him. Each would want some scrap of power."

"They can keep him."

Someone punches me from behind in the shoulder. Pretty ineffectual. My tactical computer already told me it's Zephyra. I easily turn in time to block a second punch with my palm.

"Hey. That was my bust," she says.

All in all, I'm feeling pretty good. I swallow the obvious reply and substitute, "Could you cut the wind?"

She gives me a glare and does. Off on the sidelines, Elphin twirls her spear, coming close to a grin. Down the street a dog barks. Someone's porch light turns on.

When we check inside the house, there's nothing in the fridge. Somehow I didn't think there would be. I'd bet that The Refrigerator's intended trophy is what Zephyra uses to give me the finger before she flies away.

Back outside on the front driveway, I dial my built-in cell phone. Then Elphin and I wait for our chauffeured car to come and take us back to Manhattan. Once we're resting against deep upholstery, I say, "The power was in those runes, I guess."

"Yes."

"What were they?"

For a second I think she won't answer. Then she holds up her right hand, knuckles toward me. "This was an avowal of love and faith." Her left hand. "This, of hate and folly."

She doesn't know why I laugh. I have to tell her about the classic movie I watched with Joe and my friends at Halloween.

When I'm done, I ask, "How did you fight through that alternate worlds crap?"

"I am of fairy. My fate is not my own. Not that man's, either. I only needed to remember." Her eyes are fey. Distant. Tired. Sometimes you can tell she's hundreds of years old, not human.

Human or not, Elphin's still a friend. And now I have fresh memories to remind me of what that means. "Doing anything else tonight?"

"No. This is not the true turning of the year."

"Even so, we have the holiday off. Want to come to a New Year's party?"

"A festival?"

"Sort of. My pals are getting together tomorrow around ten. We're eating a fancy breakfast. Watching the Rose Parade."

She likes flowers, I know. As she considers, she shimmers faint silver. I catch a whiff of winter, of snow on pines. "I'll bring the granola."

I think that's a joke. But I'd bet she will bring granola.

 

The Refrigerator's still a mystery. We don't know who he is. The way he disappeared, we may never find out. Although supervillains, like superheroes, do come back. But if he does, I'll be ready. I've settled on my strategy.

From now on, I'll fix my own life. To hell with The Refrigerator and his fellow messiahs, too. I can do without those guys. These days, I'm my own true believer.