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The Reflected Universe Revelation

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“I was born an orphan, in a world much like this, only as if reflected through a dark mirror.”

“That's why the Palindrome left those mirrors.”

“Oh no. That was my idea; I always wanted to be an artist. But I was born into an evil world. Skies choked with ammonia, seas full of benzene, baby farms, random suffocations, bears, all of it run by Fatboy Industries.”
—Ivan Avi, a.k.a. the Palindrome, and the Middleman, a.k.a. Clarence Colton, “The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome”

“The Stem-Cell MacGuffin Ascendance”

The Booty Chest, a pirate-themed sports bar with scantily clad waitresses
7:51 P.M.

Clarence Colton had always had issues with authority. Clad in leather chaps, he strode into the bar and blithely ignored the “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” sign. It wasn't like the service here could talk, Clarence thought, casting an appreciative gaze at a waitress' cleavage. Clarence sat down on a barstool, placed his feet on another and glared at the bartender, silently daring the man to ask him to move them.

“Scotch on the rocks,” Clarence drawled, lazily dropping a few chubbies onto the bar. He downed his drink in ten seconds and then asked for another. The bartender was clearly nervous. Initially, Clarence had been pleased to see that, but now he was quaking in his boots. Clarence's glass slipped from the man's fingers and shattered on the floor, and that, Clarence was not pleased to see. Before he could say anything, however, he noted the pure terror in the bartender's eyes, and he realized that it was not, in fact, inspired by himself. Deflated, but interested, he turned around.

Standing in the doorway was an unkempt half-Asian man in a labcoat, who wouldn't have looked that frightening if he hadn't been holding a short, stout tentacle monster on a leash. Clarence blinked, wondering for a moment if this life on this obstructed bowel of a planet had officially pushed him over the edge and into the loony bin. Nope. That was definitely a tentacle monster, straight out of comic books and Japanese cartoons.

“Greetings, lowlifes of the city,” said the mad scientist in a high-pitched, reedy voice. “My name is Dr. Victor Kubota, and I know why you're here. You've come to drown your sorrows. Living in this miserable world, what else is there to do but knock back a few? You see, I used to be exactly like you, lost in this crapsack world under Manservant Neville's fascist yoke. I used to have no hope or dreams other than to sneak a glance at a slutty but sweet waitress in a pirate-themed sports bar. But that was before I discovered my craft and applied my genius. I realized that if I put my mind to it, I could create a powerful life form, beyond what my colleagues at AND Laboratories ever dared to attempt, and with it, depose that egomaniacal despot! They called me mad, but now I have done it! Behold my creation, my friend, my soldier-in-arms, my Teddy!”

The tentacle monster waved. Clarence snorted, and Dr. Victor Kubota turned to him. “Do you have a problem with my Teddy, sir? Too short, too frilly? I realize that my Teddy does not conform to the usual image, but I assure you, within my Teddy lies all that you could possibly desire. If you don't believe me”—here the scientist paused, and his face broke into a malevolent grin—“I can easily show you.”

Clarence shook his head. “Sorry, fruitcake. You got one minute to leave us all in peace before we throw your [bleep]ing ass outta here.”

Dr. Kubota's smile vanished. “And the rest of you?” he asked, his eyes darting around the bar. “Do you also refuse to believe?”

No one answered him outright, but the wave of groans and murmured expletives could hardly be misinterpreted. Dr. Kubota shook his head. “Then I'm afraid you leave me no choice.” He swung the leash violently in the direction of the ceiling, freeing the tentacle monster from its grip. “Attack, Teddy!”

Before Clarence could so much as blink, one of Teddy's tentacles had wrapped itself around his leg in a vicelike grip. Teddy lifted him into the air and then slammed him into the wall. For the first time, Clarence regretted his dishonorable discharge from the Fatboy armed forces upon kneeing his CO in the groin. He really could have used a gun right now.

But he didn't have a gun, and Teddy slammed his head into the bar. Well, anything can be a weapon, he reasoned, and he gripped the bar, squeezed his knee onto a stool, and used the leverage to dive forward, pulling Teddy with him. Clarence grabbed the first bottle he could—crap whiskey, it turned out—and, turning around, hurled it straight into Teddy's face. The monster howled in pain, and Clarence grabbed a second bottle and slammed it against the tentacle that held him. It broke off, and Clarence seized a third bottle and dumped it out over the floor. Then he pulled out a lighter. “Okay, whiz kid, you call that thing off, or I burn this place down.”

“Sorry, man in chaps,” said a commanding female voice, and Clarence looked up to see a tall Indian woman in her mid-thirties, dressed in an Eisenhower jacket and tie. She did have a gun, and she was pointing it at him. “I can't let you do that.” With her free hand she then drew a second gun from her belt, pointed it at Teddy, and fired. Unceremoniously, but not anticlimactically, the tentacle monster exploded, and Clarence found himself covered in exploded tentacle monster slime.

“My Teddy!” screamed Dr. Kubota. “You've killed him! You've destroyed my life's work! You've murdered my best and only friend! Nooooooooooooooooo!” He raced toward the woman with his arms outstretched, as if to strangle her, but she caught him and threw him against the wall. With one gun trained on Clarence and one on Dr. Kubota, this woman embodied exactly the sort of authority Clarence generally had no use for. Only thing was, it had never looked this good.

“Teddy and I could have saved you all! You fool! We were going to overthrow Manservant Neville!”

The woman shook her head, and her voice was cold and disinterested. “I'm no fan of Dear Leader, but I'll take the [bleep]ing Devil I know over the Devil I don't know. What would be next after your dramatic power grab?”

“Taking over Fatboy Command and transforming it into an assembly line to make hundreds of Teddys! First, the United States of Fatboy, and then, the world! My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity!”

The woman rolled her eyes. “I thought as much. Sayonara, psycho.” With that, she flipped a switch on her gun and fired, and Dr. Kubota vanished. Then she turned back to Clarence.

“Did you kill that [bleep]er?” he asked, impressed.

She shook her head again. “Teleportation. He's on his way to [bleep]ing Greenland.”

“Who the [bleep] are you, lady?”

“I'm just the Middleman.”

“Shouldn't that be Middlewoman?”

“I didn't invent the title, I'm the just the current [bleep]ing holder. You wanna know more, come to this address.” She held out a business card and smiled. “I could use a sidecar.”

Middleman HQ
3:59 P.M.
Two days later

Clarence leaned against the wall and stared. Even for him, it was a lot to take in. He'd always been pretty good with technology, but the Middleman had weapons and gadgets and things way beyond anything he'd seen. She smirked, watching him squint at the HEYDAR. “Okay, Clarence Colton, you're officially a Middleman-in-training. First order of business is your uniform. I don't give a [bleep] what you pick, but you gotta wear something at least semi-professional, 'cause we're gonna have to bull[bleep] our way through top-level security. You don't have to cut your hair, but lose the leather chaps.”

“Can't we just shoot our way into wherever the [bleep] we wanna go?”

“Only if we want to get shot up ourselves. Go change. Second order of business, martial arts skills. You got any, or what?”

“I did my time in Fatboy army. Picked up plenty in the way of combat skills.”

The Middleman moved into a fighting stance. “Show me.”

Clarence smiled and attempted to do so, only to be floored within a minute. “Ida,” said the Middleman, standing with one foot on his chest, “schedule him a three-month intensive with Sensei Ping. Beware,” she added, casually looking down at him, “the guy's a murderous [bleep]ing psychopath, but he's our only option now that Fatboy's had the rest of the Clan of the Pointed Stick either assassinated or recruited to the Secret Service. So I'm only gonna say this once, be [bleep]ing nice to the guy who's gonna train you to be a lethal man-killer, 'cause he is a lethal man-killler. Got it? Good.”

The Middleman lifted her foot, and Clarence stood up, his mood considerably soured from what it had been a few seconds ago. Before he could say anything, however, the Middleman cleared her throat and continued, “Third order of business is enemies. We fight mad scientists, aliens, and when it's not suicide, Fatboy. Previous Middlemen had to deal with magic as well, but Manservant Neville stamped most of that out.”

“Did you just say magic is [bleep]ing real?”

“Was real. Past [bleep]ing tense. Now go change already, before we get a [bleep]ing red ball.”

The city hospital, if it can be so called
2:32 P.M.
Two weeks later

No amount of profanity could cover Clarence's rage, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to give it his best shot. Not that he didn't look cooler with an eyepatch, but come the [bleep] on! And this hospital was just a [bleep]ing joke.

Though the Middleman had stepped in to rescue him, and nearly had both of her arms broken in the process, her words were of little comfort. “I told you to be [bleep]ing nice. Did he at least teach you anything useful before he put out your eye?”

“Three [bleep]ing Terrors, Devil's [bleep]ing Dance, Pain's [bleep]ing River—”

The Middleman's expression changed. “That's actually pretty impressive. Did you master them that fast?”

“You [bleep]ing know it.”

“When you're healed up, you're gonna have to [bleep]ing prove it.”

Middleman HQ
5:02 P.M.
One year later

It had been a rocky start, but over the course of the year, Clarence had warmed up to being a Middleman-in-training better than he had expected. He'd been tempted to call it a day and take off with the Middlehog after losing his eye, but training with the Middleman herself was less bloody, if slower and more [bleep]ing tedious. She was a hardass, but not criminally insane. This was more than could be said, not only for Sensei Ping, but also for Clarence's CO during his conscription.

He'd still been considering packing it in, but then he'd gotten his first—well, second—taste of fighting evil. And that was fun, at least when it was mad scientists and aliens. Fighting Fatboy was a lot more risk for a lot less reward, but fortunately, he didn't have to do that much. The Middleman hadn't been kidding when she'd told Dr. Kubota that the Devil they knew was better than the Devil they didn't. Manservant Neville, the corporate fascist, was listed as an enemy, but their fight was to oppose him, not to storm Fatboy Command and commit pointless suicide.

At least, that had been the case for the last year or so. Today, it seemed, the rules were about to change. “Manservant Neville's got something we need,” said the Middleman, her arms folded.

“He's got a lot of things we need. Bigger guns, black market whiskey, even bigger guns. Life is good when you're a [bleep]ing corporate cult leader.”

The Middleman shook her head. “Not this time. This time, we really need it, and we're gonna steal it.”

“You hit your head or something?”

“No. Manservant Neville is the only person with access to any kind of useful medicine. You saw for yourself what the [bleep]ing hospital is like. We're not just about fighting evil. We're also about saving lives. He's got the drugs, and we're gonna get 'em.”

“I thought we didn't go in for suicide. Pretty sure I didn't [bleep]ing sign up for this.”

The Middeman's face hardened. “Then I'm giving you a [bleep]ing order.”

Manservant Neville's private control room at Fatboy Command
7:08 P.M.

Clarence had to admit that facing down the guards had been a lot easier than expected. That was probably because for once, the Middleman had been a-okay with shooting their way in. Focused and determined, she cracked the combination on the control room door, and then they were in. Just like that, they were in the [bleep]ing heart of the corporate nation.

The lights were on, and Manservant Neville stood in the center of the room. It had been easy, all right. Too easy. He clearly wasn't surprised to see them. “Raveena Rao,” he said, with a true villain's smile. “And the young Mr. Colton. Welcome to my control room.”

Clarence turned. “Raveena? That's your name? Raveena?”

The Middleman ignored him, holding Manservant Neville's gaze. “Where's my syringe?”

Manservant Neville plucked a small syringe from his coat pocket. “Compliments of Fatboy Laboratories. May it serve you well.”

The Middleman reached for the syringe, but Manservant Neville withdrew his hand. “I believe the colloquial term is 'ah ah ah,'” he said, wagging a finger at her. “Where's my list of names?”

“List of names?” asked Clarence, confused.

“List of names of all of your allies and other potential threats to United States of Fatboy, as Miss Rao so kindly offered to provide to me in exchange for this.”

Clarence's jaw dropped, and then, in a fit of rage, he rushed at the Middleman. This time, she could not floor him. Manservant Neville produced something else from his pocket: a bottle of Fatboy ale, which he opened as he watched their fight.

“You—went—to—him!” Clarence sputtered as he threw and dodged punches. “I—[bleep]ing—trusted—you!”

“Stop—wasting—my—[bleep]ing—time!” the Middleman gasped in response, before punching him in the face. “Yes, Clarence, I went to him, because I need that [bleep]ing syringe. I promised him whatever he wanted, but did you really think I would let him [bleep]ing have it?”

Clarence shook his head, lunged forward, and shoved her into the wall. “What's in that thing that you needed so badly that you lied to get me to help you?”

Manservant Neville swallowed a swig of his ale and answered before the Middleman could. “That would be the Fatboy cure for cancer, Mr. Colton. A sort of stem cell cocktail, if you will.”

The Middleman nodded as Clarence attempted to process that. “I have leukemia,” she said flatly. “I'm dying. The city hospital can't do [bleep] to help me. I had to go to him.”

“Indeed you did, Miss Rao. Now, this is starting to get rather boring. My list, please!”

The Middleman shook her head. “I wasn't kidding just now. Did you really think I'd let you have it? I was prepared to promise you anything you asked for. Didn't mean I was prepared to bring it. Now, Clarence, what do you say we stop bruising each other and take Dear Leader on a nice little trip down Pain's River?”

Manservant Neville laughed. “Did you really think it hadn't occurred to me that you might double-cross me? I did not become this great society's father, architect, first among equals by taking my enemies at their word and opening myself up to an ambush, Miss Rao.” And with that, he produced a what looked like a dart gun from his belt, and fired at Clarence.

Within moments, Clarence felt pain beyond what he had ever imagined. Even his meeting with Sensei Ping had nothing on it. It was as though his body were on fire. He shivered and clutched at his head. The color went out of his skin, and he spat up blood.

The color also went out of the Middleman's face. “What have you done to him?”

Manservant Neville smiled. “His organs are attacking themselves, all at once and rapidly. Fatboy laboratories have developed cures for everything, but we have also learned to bottle disease. Didn't you ever wonder how we took over so many cities so quickly? You have six months to live, Miss Rao. Mr. Colton has about five minutes.”

The Middleman bit her trembling lip. “How can you do this? How can you do any of this? I've fought my fair share of losers trying to take over the world, Manservant Neville, and so far not one of them has been able to answer why the [bleep] they're doing it. Just for power, with no [bleep]ing clue what that entails. Can you [bleep]ing tell me what the [bleep] you've achieved as our father, our leader, our first among equals other than universal poverty and untold thousands of deaths in your war? Do you ever walk outside, Manservant Neville? It might be easy to order a bombing from a pimped-out corporate office, but look at Clarence. This is what your handiwork looks like. Look at what you've done, you piece of [bleep].”

Manservant Neville shifted and said, uneasily, “I sought to create a society of perfect order and control—”

He didn't finish that thought, because the Middleman kneed him in the chest, seized her syringe, and stabbed Clarence with it. He didn't remember much of what came after, but there was definitely a concussive stun field generator in the mix, somewhere.

Middleman HQ
9:01 A.M.
The next day

Clarence blinked. He was lying on a table, and the Middleman was standing nearby. “So, now you know the truth. I've got six months to live, and then you're the new Middleman. So in the meantime, let's kick some supervillain ass.”

Clarence nodded and smiled. “You got it, Raveena.”

“The Evil Overlord Interlude”

A local church in what little is left of the city center
9:29 P.M.
Five years later

The sight of the makeshift church alone was enough to touch off a pang of guilt in Manservant Neville. The altar was little more than a pile of cinderblocks with cloth draped over them, and the cold metal benches that served as pews during services were currently serving as beds for those who had lost homes to bombings that he had ordered. The church was hidden in the cellar of the bombed-out and possibly radioactive remains of the city hospital. That it even existed at all bore witness to the determination and emotional strength of its priest and parishioners, seven years after Manservant Neville had ordered all religion and other competing voices of leadership eliminated from his brave new world, by any means necessary.

His journey to this place had been a perilous one. Twice he had nearly been shot by men who would have knelt down to worship him as their father and leader if he had only removed his hood, and he had then run into the challenge of keeping up a disguise while being the person with the most recognizable voice in the country. It was more difficult than he would have imagined.

It seemed that many things were more difficult than he would have imagined. He had waged war in the hope of turning a complicated world of freedom into a simple one of control. He had blamed countless victims for their idiocy in resisting Fatboy's will. If they had only gone along, everything would have been simple for them as well. They had brought death squads on themselves, complicating things like that. Fools, one and all! Why did they fight? What reward could those complications possibly bring? How could they be worth it? Why were these people so willing to die?

Lost in his internal monologue, Manservant Neville did not notice the young priest, no older than Miss Watson, until he was right in front of him. “Hello, my child,” said the young man. “I don't believe we've met. My name is Father Pip. I'm sorry if I have ignored you. I was just doing what I could to comfort a young woman who lost her husband in the bombing of Gamma sector. What can I do for you?”

“I know who you are,” said Manservant Neville, careful to use the local accent instead of his natural one. “I've sought you out because your reputation precedes you, Father. I wondered if you might be willing to hear my confession, somewhere a bit more private.”

“Of course, my child. The confessional is just through here. Would you mind waiting for a moment? I've got to go and find some unconsecrated host so that I can feed a couple of starving unidentifieds.”

“Isn't that against your rules?”

Father Pip shrugged. “They're starving, my child.” He gestured toward a door. “I'll be right there, my child, and remember that the Lord is with you always.”

Manservant Neville stepped into the confessional and watched as Father Pip held out unleavened bread to the bedraggled pair, who looked as if they hadn't had a spray of soup in days. When the priest returned, he shut the door firmly. “Listen to me, Father,” he said, his accent slipping as effortless authority seeped into his voice, “I am going to lower my hood, and you are going to be quiet as a mouse. You are not going to scream, or gasp, or shout my name, and then later you are most certainly not going to tell anyone that I was here. Do we have this absolutely clear?”

The color had gone out of Father Pip's face. “I can't let you do anything that might harm my parishioners,” he said, his voice trembling.

“Do as I say, and no harm will come to anyone. Do we have a deal?”

Father Pip nodded uncertainly, and Manservant Neville lowered his hood. Father Pip did gasp, but he had the good grace to cover it with a coughing fit.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, and I need you to help me understand how and why my quest for order and simplicity seems to have achieved nothing but chaos and misery. All this year I have been plagued by doubt, and each day I think more and more about trying to return control to the people. I tried to create a perfect society of simplicity, one corporation above all men, but now I am forced to wonder if perfection can only be achieved by questions, complications, free elections, non-aerosolized soup, and environmental protection.”

Father Pip nodded solemnly. “Carry on, my child. I have all the time in the world.”

Manservant Neville's private control room at Fatboy Command
10:02 A.M.
Two weeks later

Wendy Watson knew what she wanted. All her life, she had sought order and control, from coloring inside the lines to piloting her father's DC3 with obsessive accuracy. She was always careful, whether drawing or flying. In kindergarten, she learned that if she pressed too hard with the crayons, they would break in half, and she didn't like that. By the age of 11, she knew that if she allowed her mind to wander even for a second while flying, the plane could go off course and her stomach would seem to rise up in her throat, and she really didn't like that. She had been thinking about a boy at the time, and she decided afterward that this could not be allowed to happen again. Pretty things were nice, but they were not worth the feeling of things happening beyond her control.

When she was 14, Wendy's father disappeared under mysterious and as of yet unexplained circumstances. Perhaps if she had been born into a world with kindly psychologists trained to help children cope with parental abandonment, she might have emerged from her trauma a more resilient and empathetic person, but she wasn't, and she didn't. Wendy Watson lived in the United States of Fatboy, and as she looked around Manservant Neville's private control room, she was particularly pleased about it. In just a few short hours, it would be her control room, surrounded by armed guards ready to serve her every whim. She'd had only to show them the Real Time Situation Recording Archive to get them on her side.

Wendy had accepted the job as Manservant Neville's right-hand woman because of her admiration for his vision of a New World Order, with the emphasis on order, but now she could see that he was weak. It had angered her, at first, to watch the great Manservant Neville equivocate at the feet of that pathetic weasel of a priest, turning his back on the perfect, adamantine grip of control that she had slaved away countless hours to help him achieve. But then her anger had dissipated, as the obvious solution had presented itself.

Manservant Neville had yet to announce any new initiatives, but he had begun to meet covertly with members of the opposition, and he spoke to the priest nearly every night. He had a plan, Wendy knew, but it did not have a chance in hell of success. She had organized her own covert meetings with arms dealers and cryogenics specialists. She was ready, while Manservant Neville was far from it.

Wendy did not know what had happened to put the fear of God into Manservant Neville, and she did not care. Soon, he would know the fear of Wendy Watson. She would not kill him, of course. That would be inefficient. She had considered having the priest assassinated, but decided against it. He would live to know the pain of disillusionment. Father Pip would live to wonder where he had gone wrong, what he had done to drive Manservant Neville away. He would be tortured nightly by this question, and he would never get an answer. As the woman behind the curtain, Wendy Watson would soon have the entire corporate nation under her control, and she would never be weak. She would never doubt.

“The Terminal Idealism Downfall”

A protest rally outside Fatboy Command
12:00 P.M.
Two months later

Five years after the death of Raveena Rao, the Middleman found that his job was getting harder. Lately, there were a lot fewer mad scientists, virtually no aliens, and a lot more Fatboy crackdowns. Ida had urged him to recruit a Middle trainee, and he had to concede that she was probably right. In his last skirmish with the forces of evil, he'd almost lost his other eye.

He hadn't been sure where he'd been expecting to find a worthwhile Middle sidekick, but if he'd had to guess, he wouldn't have imagined that it'd be here. For anyone with a lick of common sense, protest rallies were a thing of the past. Free speech was a nice idea, but not worth the mass public execution that usually followed. At this point, any and all intelligent opposition movements had gone underground. Only the most deluded citizens continued to picket like they did in the old country. This left the Middleman in a sour mood, since it was his [bleep]ing job to save their [bleep]ing asses.

The leader of this rally was some neo-hippie type called Tyler Ford. The Middleman had never heard of him, but according to Ida, the kid had a record a mile long, and a Fatboy Command file to match. You name the cause, he'd championed it. Return to democracy, save the environment, equal rights for people who'd developed gills after exposure to radiation, no bears near children. From his position in the shadows, the Middleman watched as Tyler took the stage, scanning the windows of surrounding buildings for sniper rifles trained on Mr. Hippie's head.

“A lot of people said I was crazy to organize this,” Tyler said into his megaphone, “but I believe in you guys, and unlike Manservant Neville in that annoying propaganda he's got on repeat, I really mean that. I know what you're all risking to be here today, and I can't thank you enough. Your bravery shows that we are strong. We don't need a first among equals. We are equals, and it's time for us to raise our voices and put an end to Fatboy's regime!”

A very pretty sentiment, the Middleman thought, and one that was sure to get young Tyler's head blown off if he didn't spot the sniper soon. He'd checked all the buildings he could see, which meant that the [bleep]er had to be behind him. [Bleep].

“Together, we can do it! We may not have Fatboy's power, but there are more of us than there are of them. Maybe not right here, right now, but all over the country. No one is happy living under the corporate fascist yoke. It's just that most people are too afraid to raise their voices. We've got to show them that they have nothing to fear. We are the people; we have the power; and we will fight—”

Tyler didn't finish that thought, because the Middleman had tackled him. The sniper's bullet grazed their heads as they fell to the ground. With an unerring skill he'd been honing for years since his ascendance, the Middleman rolled over onto his back, sprang to his feet, and shot through the offending window with deadly accuracy.

Tyler Ford also sprang to his feet. “Look at this man!” he shouted. “He is living proof of what I've just said, a true hero for the people! We are strong, and we can win!” Then he turned to the Middleman, megaphone extended. “Thank you, sir, you've just saved my life. What's your name?”

“Sorry, bro, that's [bleep]ing classified. I'm just the Middleman. Look, I like your spirit, Fordo, but if you wanna fight Fatboy, you gotta stay covert. That sniper was them asking nicely. You and your little friends have about thirty seconds to get the [bleep] out of here before it starts raining gunfire.”

Tyler opened and closed his mouth, as if unsure of what to say in reply. The small crowd whispered among itself, but made no move to disassemble. The Middleman groaned, then seized the megaphone. “Didn't you hear what I said? Run your [bleep]ing asses off if you want to live!”

Just at that moment, it did begin to rain gunfire, and the crowd took the hint and bolted. The Middleman pulled Tyler down, shielding him. “Look,” he whispered in his ear. “I wasn't kidding when I said I liked your spirit. Sorry I ruined your party. You wanna keep up the good fight, come to this address.”

Tyler squinted at the business card. “The Jolly Fats Wehawkin' Temp Agency?”

The Middleman grinned. “Temporary employment is a [bleep]ing exciting field.”

Middleman HQ
9:00 A.M.
The next day

New Middleboy Tyler Ford chose a exceedingly professional uniform. He was an eager and obedient learner, until the Middleman got to the part about martial arts skills.

“I'm not gonna send you to Sensei Ping, but you gotta learn something or any old Fatboy goon'll be able to break you in half. You'll be training with me, five hours daily until you can bust some [bleep] up.”

Tyler shook his head. “I can't do that. I'm a pacifist. I can't hurt people. It's wrong.”

The Middleman gaped. “This isn't Candyland, Fordo. This is the United [bleep]ing States of Fatboy. You fight, or you die, and you're too valuable to [bleep]ing die, so you're gonna have to fight. Sorry, but them's the breaks.”

Tyler folded his arms, and he shook his head again. “I can't, Chief, really. I can't do violence. I can't even play violent video games. They make me wanna puke. I see enough of that carnage when I'm walking down the street.”

The Middleman gritted his teeth. “I didn't recruit you to be my [bleep]ing secretary. You wanna be a Middleman-in-training, you gotta get out on the street. You can't change the world with pretty talk. You got a mouth, they got guns, guns beat mouths. You saw that at that rally of yours. You wanna fix this world, or not?”

Tyler swallowed. “I do. I really do, more than anything else. I just don't know if I can.”

“Will it help if I tell you that I know you can?”

Tyler smiled. “I think it might, actually.”

Middleman HQ
9:45 A.M.
Three months later

Tyler hadn't been kidding about being squeamish, but over time the Middleman had been able to at least teach him defensive moves. However, what Tyler lacked in combat enthusiasm, he made up for in tactical intelligence. He wasn't a great fighter, but he was smart enough to be able to avoid most of the fighting. In general, Tyler could be persuaded to demonstrate his combat abilities only when villains threatened an innocent life. Unfortunately, when they threatened his own life, Tyler seemed to prefer speechifying to good, old-fashioned hitting. Sometimes, he even sang a song. He'd always wanted to be a musician, it seemed. For the Middleman, it was as inspirational as it was maddening. To his surprise, it had actually worked on several occasions, including run-ins with Fatboy guards.

“We got a red ball from O2STK,” he said, as Tyler buttoned his suit jacket. “That Eurotrash [bleep] Lord Jeremiah Purcell is smuggling high-tech weapons and gadgets and things into the city. We've gotta get our hands on 'em before Fatboy does. I'm on break-into-the-heavily-guarded-vault-and-steal-[bleep] duty. You're on keep-the-[bleep]er-occupied detail. It's your lucky day, Fordo. Your target's preferred haunt is the Booty Chest.”

Tyler blinked. “The pirate-themed sports bar with the scantily clad waitresses?”

The Middleman grinned. “Right [bleep]ing on.”

The Booty Chest, a pirate-themed sports bar with scantily clad waitresses
10:15 A.M.

Lord Jeremiah Purcell was easily recognizable. Once upon a time, he'd been a high-flying socialite, his smuggling to supervillains well-known but always impossible to prove, but the war had brought him down to the level of the common people, a fact he desperately tried to conceal when he wasn't drowning his sorrows at a pirate-themed sports bar with scantily clad waitresses. Tyler didn't think it would be too hard to keep him occupied. All he had to do was flatter the man by appealing to his interests.

Tyler strode into the Booty Chest and ordered a plate of wings at the bar. Upon receiving it, he tipped the waitress generously and carried the plate over to Lord Jeremiah Purcell's table. “Fancy a game of shabumi?”

As Tyler had predicted, Lord Jeremiah Purcell's eyes lit up. “Oh, how I've missed that game. Manservant Neville had all of my fellow players decapitated before I could have my manservant, the speechless, thoughtless brute Govinda, decapitate them in the event of a cheat! What is your name, friend?”

“You can call me Duke Silver,” said Tyler, and he held out his hand. “But don't get all mushy on me, Lord Jeremiah Purcell. I'm here to play.”

Lord Jeremiah Purcell shook it. “Have you a rare artifact to wager?”

Tyler produced it. “La Cage de Lumière, the world's most complicated diamond. You shine a light through it and it literally makes a cage of light.”

Lord Jeremiah Purcell smiled. “Most satisfactory. I shall wager this. Official defense schematics from the Battle of DC, signed by General Jefferson Armstrong McClellan himself.”

Tyler smiled. “Your deal, Your Lordship.”

“Not so fast, boys,” said a female voice, and Tyler looked up to see a young Latina woman dressed head-to-toe in black. Her dissolute demeanor was instantly attractive, and she seemed strangely familiar. The longer he looked at her, the surer Tyler was that he had seen her before, but he could not place her. “Got room for a third player?”

“Of course,” said Lord Jeremiah Purcell, “provided that you can pay the entrance fee.”

The woman placed a complicated device on the table. It looked like a rainbow-colored battery. The writing on it was in another language, but Tyler had seen it before, and he swallowed hard. “Made in Clothar?” He gazed at the woman, impressed. “Whoa. Who are you?”

She shook her head. “Need-to-know basis, Mr. Silver.”

“I don't need to know your name, my dear,” said Lord Jeremiah Purcell warningly, “but I will not be taken for a fool. What does it do?”

“This,” replied the mysterious woman, and she removed a small recording device from one pocket. She pressed a button, and a split-second piercing scream rang from the tiny speaker. The Clotharian object flashed, and then a warphole opened up above their heads. “It's a warphole generator. This is a pocket-sized version. Usually they're about the size of a cheesy boy band soundstage.”

Tyler was fairly certain that his jaw must have not so much dropped as embedded itself into the floorboards, but Lord Jeremiah Purcell was unconvinced. “In English, please.”

“It creates a pocket-sized rip in the fabric of space,” said Tyler. He stared at the woman, trying to imagine who she might be. Whoever she was, she was obviously trouble. And yet, instead of danger, all Tyler felt when he looked at her was a profound sense of giddiness.

The woman stared back at Tyler. She looked uncomfortable, and she looked like someone for whom feeling uncomfortable was a rare thing. “Welcome to the game,” said Tyler, smiling warmly at her.

Tyler found it difficult to concentrate on the game, which was a very dangerous problem when playing shabumi, even with the speechless, thoughtless brute Govinda safely absent.

He'd never believed in love at first sight, but there was something about this woman, and it wasn't just his feeling that he'd seen her before. He was drawn to her, as powerfully as he was drawn to music, and to social justice.

If he were a third party, advising a similarly besotted friend, Tyler would have rationally suggested that this probably had something to do with the woman's cold detachment. He would have pointed out that defrosting a beautiful ice queen is a popular fantasy that doesn't work in real life the way it does in the movies. He would have told his friend, as kindly as he could, to step away from the unholy melodrama that was so clearly waiting to happen.

But he wasn't a third party, and the rational side of his brain that valiantly tried to interject these things went unheeded. His poker face failing him, Lord Jeremiah Purcell easily called his bluff, and the black-clad Latina woman of mystery took the siege.

The dilapidated shack that was once Lord Jeremiah Purcell's nefarious mansion
11:58 A.M.

At times like these, the Middleman sorely missed Raveena Rao. He'd figured that Purcell had been planning on selling his booty of mass destruction to Fatboy, but he hadn't counted on a bunch of heavily armed goons already being there, waiting to collect. He really could have used another Sensei Ping-trained body, taking them on. Tyler wouldn't have been much help, maybe even a liability.

At least he had managed to escape with most of the loot. He hadn't been able to reach one very large case that almost certainly contained the jewels of the collection, but he'd definitely scored some high-quality machine guns for his trouble. Once he'd got them, it had been easy enough to escape with them, because the thing about stealing weapons was that it meant, if you pulled it off, you had [bleep]ing weapons. He'd taken a nasty beating getting in, though, and that had left him [bleep]ing pissed off. As the Middleman sped out of sight on the Middlehog, every muscle in his body ached, and his mood registered as somewhere between “furious” and “murderous.” These days, it was a disturbingly regular feeling.

He had to admit, though, that this wasn't new. Five years without a partner had toughened him up physically, but emotionally, it had worn him down and nearly out. Tyler's presence had actually done wonders for his mental health, as frustrating as his lack of violent instincts could sometimes be.

The Booty Chest, a pirate-themed sports bar with scantily clad waitresses
12:04 P.M.

As Tyler and Lord Jeremiah Purcell acted out a complex hand-clapping physical challenge, which anyone unfamiliar with the rules of shabumi would have considered a much more natural action for a group of third grade girls, their third player received a message on her Bluetooth. With the challenge completed, Lord Jeremiah Purcell sipped his drink. Seconds later, he began to choke. This, Tyler realized with a jolt, was not part of the game.

“What—treachery—” gasped the dying smuggler. He attempted to grab at his throat, but he could not control his arm movements, and only succeeded in knocking over his beer. Tyler attempted to help him, but the woman was seated between him and the open floor, and she did not move.

“You're one to talk about treachery,” she said coldly. “That's what you get for wasting my time.” Lord Jeremiah Purcell unceremoniously expired into his molé sauce, and the woman stood up and began to send a text message. Tyler stared at the body in horror, but then he looked up at the woman, standing and texting, in a black suit and glasses, her hair slipping into her eyes, and then, finally, the profile clicked into place.

“Holy 'Tangled Up in Blue.' You work for Manservant Neville. I've seen you in a photo.”

The woman's head snapped up, and within seconds, Tyler was looking down the barrel of a red ray gun. “Outside. Now.”

The alley behind the Booty Chest, a pirate-themed sports bar with scantily clad waitresses
12:08 P.M.

In order to keep herself safe from assassination attempts or the odd coup d'entreprise, Wendy Watson expressly forbade cameras anywhere near Fatboy premises. From the moment she'd seen this guy, she'd known he was dangerous. For one thing, he was a cute boy, a dangerous luxury that the secret ruler of Fatboy could ill afford to allow to distract her. That he recognized her, however, automatically put him into the category of those who could not be allowed to live.

“Now,” said Wendy, pointing her gun directly between the eyes of the cute boy who knew too much, “where, exactly, have you seen a photo of me?”

The cute boy shook his head. “If you think this is going to scare me, you're wrong. Having a gun pointed at me is getting to be pretty routine at this point.”

Wendy shook her own head in response, and fired her weapon just close enough to graze his shoulder. “I'll repeat the question.”

The cute boy grimaced and put his hands up. “Okay, no need to all excited. The people I work for are trying to complete dossiers on Fatboy's head honchos and support staff. We've collected all the newspaper clippings and old documents that we can. If it makes you feel better, I couldn't figure out where I recognized you until you sent that message. In the photo, you're walking, talking, and texting. You could put the cast of an Aaron Sorkin show to shame.”

Wendy rolled her eyes. “The vainglorious TV writer who tried to do a show about Fatboy's inner circle without knowing one thing about us?”

Tyler smiled. “That's the one. Hey, what happened to him, anyway?”

“Need-to-know basis. Now, who are you, and who do you work for?”

“Who I work for is also need-to-know information, but my name is Tyler Ford.” Tyler held out a hand. “What's yours?”

Wendy's eyes widened. “Nice try. So you're the guy who inspired an insurrection among our guards.”

“Is it true that they're not allowed any contact with the outside world? They have people they care about out there, you know. And does Manservant Neville really forbid them from drinking anything other than milk?”

Wendy shrugged. “Milk builds strong bones.”

Tyler stepped forward. “Their lives could be so much better, and so could yours. I—the people I work for—we can help you. Look at your life. Look at your choices. You straight-up murdered a Eurotrash smuggler because he disappointed your boss somehow. Actually, I think I might know how, but that's neither here nor there. Is this who you are? Is this really the life you want to live? Because it doesn't have to be this way, I promise.”

After a moment's thought, Wendy bit her lip, and she allowed her voice to come out smaller and weaker. “How do you know? Look around us, Tyler Ford. What in this world can make you think there could ever be a better life?”

Tyler smiled. “I get to hope because I fight for it. You wanna put down that ray gun now?”

Wendy replaced the ray gun in her belt, and Tyler placed his hands on her shoulders. “You gotta help me, though. Where can we meet?”

Wendy reached into her pocket. “Take this. It's an all-access Fatboy magnetic card. It'll get you in anywhere. I'll meet you outside Manservant Neville's private control room, at exactly midnight tonight.”

Middleman HQ
3:15 P.M.

The Middleman folded his arms, his muscles sore and his head about to explode. “Are you out of your mind?”

Tyler shook his head. “No, Chief. I can help her. She wants to change.”

“Look, Fordo, there's nothing wrong with hoping to score a little tail every now and then, and evil can be [bleep]ing sexy when it wants to be, but dating Catwoman never ends well.”

“This isn't a comic book, Chief. This girl's for real. I saw it in her eyes. And if she was putting me on, why would she have given me this?” With that, Tyler produced the Fatboy access card.

The Middleman was unimpressed. “To lead you into a [bleep]ing ambush, no doubt. Forget this chick, Fordo. This is a whole [bleep]ing world of trouble just waiting to happen. You don't even know her name, and trust me, that's no accident on her part.”

Sensing a losing battle, Tyler decided to try a different tactic. “Look. I know that Purcell's poisoning was related to your successfully stealing most of the weapons and gadgets and things Manservant Neville wanted, but you said there was one thing in his vault that you couldn't get. It was valuable, right?”

“Undoubtedly. It's also out of our hands now. I got enough to stop them ending this crapsack world tonight. That means I'm [bleep]ing done for the day.”

Tyler folded his arms, defiant. “How can you say that, Chief? We can't just give up. That's not who we are. You're the Middleman. Why don't we take this card, use it to get in, steal the case of weapons, and if my girl is waiting for me, I'll go talk to her, and if not, we'll hurry right back out, no harm done.”

The Middeman shook his head. “The one time I broke into Fatboy Command, I almost died from cancer cocktail poisoning. The odds of our getting out alive are way too [bleep]ing low.”

Tyler smiled. “But you did get out alive.”

The barren grounds surrounding Fatboy Command
11:50 P.M.

The Middleman had to admit that breaking into Fatboy via stolen access card was a lot easier than shooting the place up, if a lot less fun. He and Tyler made their way across the grounds, and then Tyler touched the access card to the steel door.

Then the Middleman kicked himself for tempting fate, as multiple deafening, cacophonic alarms began ringing. This was definitely a trap, and although the Middleman was angry, he wasn't surprised. So much for Tyler bringing the evil princess back to the Light Side of the Force. He should never have given in.

There was no time to think or even to cuss, though, because the din of the alarms was quickly followed by the roar of bullets. The Middleman fired back in all directions, and he punched closer guards with his free hand, kicked them, and even head-butted them. There were too many of them, though. The only option was to set off a concussive stun field generator and beat a hasty retreat.

“Cover your eyes and then get [bleep] out of here!” the Middleman shouted to Tyler, who, for once, was also engaged in rapidfire fisticuffs.

“I'm going!” Tyler shouted back, and the Middleman reached into his pocket, pulled out the concussive stun field generator, covered his eyes, and threw it. Then he ran for his life.

It wasn't until he was outside the gates that he realized Tyler wasn't behind him. He looked around and squinted at the ground, hoping he hadn't been hit. Then his Middlewatch beeped. Tyler hadn't gone out. He had gone in.

“Chief, I'm surrounded by Fatboy agents,” said Tyler. He looked more afraid than the Middleman had ever seen him. “Why'd you leave? Chief?”

The Middleman couldn't speak. Tyler Ford, the one person who'd never given up on this evil world, was about to be killed, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. All he could do was stare in horror.

A red ray gun appeared in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. The agent holding it was out of frame, which would make even a revenge hunt impossible. “Please,” said Tyler, holding his hands up.

The Middleman felt sick to his stomach. He didn't want to see it, but he couldn't look away. “No!” Tyler screamed, as the Fatboy agent fired.

Middleman HQ
2:39 P.M.
The next day

Ida had a red ball from O2STK, but the Middleman was in no shape to answer, and he realized, in the sort of moment of clarity that, counterintuitively, one could only have in a drunken haze, that he didn't care. Five years he'd been busting his ass in this [bleep]ing job, trying to save this [bleep]ing world from itself, and what did he have to show for it? Raveena Rao had been the Middleman for ten years, and all she'd got was that lousy leukemia. Tyler Ford had cared about the people of this [bleep]ing place more than anyone he'd ever known or ever expected to know, and all he'd got was his life snuffed out by a ray gun. This world didn't deserve saving. The Middleman grabbed his flask and gulped down more whiskey. Then he sat back in his chair, ignoring Ida, for what he was pretty sure was going to be a long [bleep]ing time.

“The Cliché True-Love Salvation”

Middleman HQ
10:01 P.M.
Six dark, profanity-laden, alcohol-soaked months later

He had been right. It was a long [bleep]ing time. Too long. So long, he'd forgotten what being the Middleman meant. Strange that it would take a Middle trainee from a parallel universe to snap him out of it. Stranger still that she'd turn out to be not only the mirror doppelganger of Tyler's killer in this universe, but also Tyler's girlfriend in her own universe. That was just [bleep]ed up.

In the Middleman's opinion, Tyler Ford was in a class by himself when it came to optimism, kindness, and general goodness. However, as he wiped shaving cream from his face, buttoned up a shirt that he was bothering to wear for the first time in months, and raked his eyes over the exquisite form of Lacey Thornfield, he knew that she was also in a class by herself. Ida had suggested that rescuing the other Wendy Watson from her Fatboy-ruling, Tyler-murdering self in this world was his chance to make good again, but Wendy was merely the link between the two.

He had told Lacey that he'd liked the way she'd handled herself back at Fatboy Command, and he'd meant it. But he'd also liked the way she'd handled herself seconds before, stiff-upper-lipping a fond farewell to the best friend she could never have. Girly sapfest it might have been, but the Middleman had known since Raveena Rao's death that it took true emotional strength to let go of someone you'd be all too willing to rely on if only you could, and that was to say nothing of reconciling yourself to the fact that this person lived in the same skin and shared the same brain as someone who'd once betrayed you.

He wasn't sure precisely how Lacey had spent the last five years, but based on Wendy's short explanation of the existence and evil of herself in this world, it couldn't have been an easy time for her. She'd have every right to hate every incarnation of Wendy Watson, but instead, she was just glad there was at least one version of her who was the good person and loyal friend that Lacey had thought she'd known. That also required serious toughness and grace, more than the Middleman himself could claim to have. Suffice to say that parallel universe Wendy was very [bleep]ing lucky that he'd met her before learning that her double in this universe had killed Tyler Ford.

The Middleman would, of course, have been lying if he said that he hadn't been instantly, magnetically attracted to Lacey, and that that hadn't also played a part in his hiring her. She smiled at his appreciative glance, and that only made her more desirable, as every kind of partner.

“What are you thinking?” he asked her, trying to keep his eyes on her radiant face.

Lacey twirled a few strands of hair around her finger. “You want the honest answer, or the one that keeps the mood intact?”

The Middleman laughed, and he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I can handle honest.”

Lacey bit her lip. “Okay. I'm thinking about how 48 hours ago, if you'd told me that you wanted to recruit me for a super-secret covert organization with the primary objective of bringing down Wendy Watson, I'd have been all for it. But now, with mirror Wendy showing up and meeting you and...all of this, it's just—it's just weird to snap right back to listing my Dub-Dub as Public Enemy Number One.” Lacey smiled. “I know this isn't going to be easy, but it's the best thing that's happened to me in a long, long time.”

The Middleman nodded, and he moved closer, wrapping his arm around her. “It's time for you to step out of your Dub-Dub's shadow, Lacey Thornfield, just like it's time for me to step out of the shadows in general. You had it rough, and you're probably gonna have nightmares about it for a long [bleep]ing time, but you made it through, 'cause you're strong, and that's why I need you here. I got the muscle, you got the heart. What do you say? Think we can help each other make this world worth inhabiting?”

Lacey smiled, and she wrapped her arm around the Middleman. “I think so, yeah.”

He wanted to kiss her, but refrained, knowing it was too soon. “Then let's kick some Fatboy ass.”