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The Agent, The Rift, and the Wardrobe: Chronicles of Farren Sixstring

By: Farren Sixstring (Guardian Server)

 

It was a dark and stormy night…nah, too melodramatic. It was a blustery afternoon…too Winnie the Pooh. The wind blew in from the river, caressing the leaning buildings like a lover’s…gack! Too Danielle Steele. The sun is high, the chill in the wind a gentle reminder of autumn…what the hell am I, a morning show weatherman? It was the best of days; it was the worst of days…ugh. Somebody just shoot me.

Fine. Fine! It was a normal day, all right? A freakin’ absolute, run of the mill, boring normal day. It was the most normal day to happen in the entire history of the Gregorian calendar. It was also the day that Farren Youngblood returned to Paragon...well, it’s a start.

*                      *                     *

It was mid-morning in the city of heroes, the sidewalks a quiet vacuum left in the wake of those rushing to work and those returning home to sleep the night off. A few rays of sunlight pierce through gaps in the blue-gray clouds, shining down to the empty road below. Few heroes were working the streets, and even the most aggressive gangs of villainy had decided to give their shake-downs a rest…which meant there were fewer witnesses to see the entrance of the maniacal biker, laughing wildly as he popped a wheelie out of a sphere of blue lightning. It’s essential to make a good entrance, even when you think there won’t be anyone to see it.


Paragon. I smiled beneath the red cloth covering the lower half of my face as I looked around me through shaded goggles. How long had it been? Fifty? No…sixty. Sixty years. A lot of things had changed in that time. I suppose I should have expected it, but the zones, the check points, hell, the freakin’ mile high wall of energy everywhere…the city had lost something while I was away. Its innocence I guess.

 

Now, just to set the record straight, it hadn’t been sixty years for me. Oh, sixty years for the city, yes. But not for me. For me it had been more like a couple weeks. That’s the problem with my job, you really have to get used to how relative space and time can really be. One moment I’m here in the glory days, when the future was bright and glorious and everything you saw was magic. Fourteen days later, I’m back after something called the Rikti War, most of the heroes dead or lost in some god forsaken dimension, and half the city still lying in ruin. The place felt like an abused woman, flinching as she waited for the next slap to her face. Still- I smiled as a hero flew by overhead- she was learning to fight back, and maybe I could be the knife that finally does the bastard in.

 

I wanted to help, but first I wanted to find just one place that felt like the city I remembered. A place that hadn’t been destroyed by time or the ravages of some interdimensional showdown, a place with someone who remembered me, someone I could talk to. I smiled as I guided Vicky off the road and into an alleyway. I knew just the spot. There was still magic and hope in Paragon city, you just had to know where to look sometimes.

 

I stopped Vicky beneath the glow of a neon sign and dismounted. This was it, nestled back in between the skyscrapers that had grown up around it. Artright’s Bar. Granted, some of the sign was in disrepair, making it look more like A tights Bar, but that was an even more accurate description. Jack’s place had been here since before anyone could remember, and it used to be said you weren’t an official Paragon citizen until you’d had a drink in the place at least once. That was the number one rule at Artright’s, and the reason that nearly every hero and even some villains in the city had made it in at one time or another. No matter who you were, no matter what you had done, the first drink was free. After that, you were on your own, kid.

 

For as long as the bar has been around, Jack Artright has been its sole proprietor. Ask people about this and they’d give you some muttered hush-hush crap about “old Jack” being “a bit older than he seems”. Basically this is their way of pussyfooting around the fact that Jack is an immortal. Anywhere else and he’d be a complete anomaly, a freak of nature to some, possibly hunted down and destroyed even in such “enlightened” times as these, but in Paragon, Jack’s kind are…well if not a dime a dozen, then at least more common than elsewhere. Some say that’s the reason Jack stays, tied to a bar that barely breaks even as the world moves on around it- that it’s all worth it just to feel relatively normal somewhere. Others say that if Jack left the city his immortality would end and all the years would catch up at once, leaving him a pile of dust to be scattered in the wind. Some say he sold his soul to an Orenbagan lord. My own theory? Well, honestly I don’t give a damn. If Jack wants to explain it to me one day I’ll lend an ear, but I’m not losing any sleep over it.

 

Wiping the road dust from my boots, I ran a hand across my bike’s headlight.


“Stay, Vicky.”

The bike rumbled in response, and I removed the riding mask from my face and breathed deeply. If you don’t think this was a normal way to act toward one’s bike, well, it wasn’t. But Vicky isn’t a normal bike either. Chew on that for a while.

 

Pulling my goggles up onto my forehead, I ran a hand through silver hair, taking in the surroundings with a broad smile. Run down as it was, this place was still more like the Paragon I remember than any of the slick steel and glass on the main drag.  I glanced up the street, a breeze causing the back of my black suede duster to flap slightly. Vicky let loose with another hiss of steam and I regarded her with a nod.

“I’m getting to it,” I dropped to a whisper as I put a finger over my lips, “We’ve got to do this the right way. You know how I am about making an entrance.”

Doing a quick tap on the welcome mat, I shouldered the door to the club open and struck a heroic pose on its step.

“You can all stop panicking,” I flashed my most cavalier smile of white teeth, “I’m here.”

My smile faded as I scanned over the empty room, eyes widening in confusion. I knew it was an off time but I thought at least…

“Hello?”

“There’s only one person in the world that could have such a bad sense of timing,” the overweight form of Jack Artright appeared from behind a counter, bar rag in one hand, bottle in the other. He gave a nod toward the intruder in his doorway, “Farren Youngblood, Paragon’s prodigal son.”

“It’s Sixstring, now,” I swung the door closed with my hip, “And that’s prodigy. You’d think your vocabulary would expand with everything else.”

Jack scowled as he set the bottle on the counter, “Sixstring, Youngblood. Who really cares? Did you just come in here to insult me, or was there some other asinine reason?”

I swaggered through the room, plopping myself down on a bar stool, “I came for the same reason everyone comes- for the free drink.”

“Sorry,” he whisked up the bottle to place it on a shelf behind the bar, “Only works for newcomers.”

“I was running for my life when I first came over,” I scowled, “And that was sixty years ago.”

“You’re always running for your life,” he shrugged, turning his back, “Too late now.”

“How long have you been such a cheapskate?”

“How long have you been such a smartass?”

“Hmmm,” I tapped my chin, “Well, let’s see. How old am I?”

“How old are you?” Jack turned with a sly smile, “How old is the universe?”

Jack liked to play at questions that couldn’t be answered. He called it mentally stimulating, I called it pointless. Still, Jack was a guy I liked to think of as a friend, so I’d decided I was going to find it endearing. It was either that or I had to kill him.


I played along, cracking my knuckles and leaning back, “How old is time?”

“Why is a mouse when it runs?”

“Ack!” Making a cross with my fingers, I managed to throw myself off balance and fall off the stool, “None of that Zen crap so early in the morning.”

“The Tsoo never seem to mind.”

“Yeah well, that just goes to show how nuts they are,” I pulled myself back up onto the stool, shaking my head, “I can understand waxing all philosophical, but that shit’s just supposed to be confusing. Some crazy ass Buddhist monk thought it would be a great idea to destabilize what people thought of as reality. Frankly, I think it’s kind of redundant here.”

Jack nodded, “Point.”

“Good enough for a drink?”

“Don’t push your luck, kid.”

“Not even for my return?”

“You left?”

“Oh, ha, ha,” I drummed out a beat on the bar with my fingers, eyes slowly going over the room, “Now that you mention it, the place hasn’t changed much.”

“Of course it hasn’t,” he smiled, “I won’t let it. After all these years it’s like the place is part of me. I could renovate it, maybe even make it some sort of trendy cash cow, but that would be like giving up. To see it go would be like..like..”

 

“Like losing a little magic from the world,” I looked up at him, “Like admitting that your life no longer has meaning and that there’s nothing worth saving anymore. You’re fighting to preserve something, and whether anyone takes notice or not doesn’t really mean a damn to you. You won’t let them down even when they’ve forgotten you, and you won’t let this place down for as long as you live.”

 

Jack looked back at me, his brow furrowed, “Something happened to you didn’t it?”

 

“Yeah, you could say that.”


Jack nodded with a sigh, pulling out a bottle from under the counter, “Here.”

The bottle set down in front of me, I stared at the drink for a moment, as if unsure of what to do. Jack motioned me on with a wave of hands, and a half smile fought its way across my lips.

“Why, Jack,” I pulled off the cap with a gloved hand, letting it drop to the bar, “You old softie.”

“You can pay tomorrow by sweeping the floor.”

I gave a thumbs up as I took a swig of beer.

“So, what made you come back? To the city, I mean.”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “Maybe there’s something in my veins.”

“Besides piss and vinegar?”

“Cute,” I held up the bottle, squinting at its contents, “Speaking of piss, wheredja get this beer?”

“You insulting my hospitality?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I clinked the bottle down on the bar, “Maybe I just wanted to see this place one last time. Even if it’s only for a short while.”

“A short while?”

“Yeah, it’s the nature of the business. I get called away a lot.”

“What kind of business do you do anyway?”

“Dangerous and top secret,” I waggled my eyebrows, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

“Oh please,” Jack rolled his eyes, “You’d say that if you worked in pest control.”

“That’s it then,” I held my hands out like a pair of pistols, “Roaches tremble at my name.”

The makeshift weapons fired toward a nearby corner, with me adding the sound effects of whizzing bullets, laser beams, and bugs dying horrible, pyrotechnic deaths. Smiling at my handiwork, I blew off the tips of my fingers before bringing up the bottle for another swig.

“The beer’s good,” I pointed at the bottle as I set it down, “Really it is.”

Jack nodded, “Just be careful out there.”

“I used to live here,” I tilted my head to the side, “Remember?”

“I remember,” he gave a reprimanding glare, “Which is why I’m hoping you’ll listen to me this time around.”

I made an x across my chest, “Cross my heart and hope to live forever. Any more words of wisdom?”

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“Opening night for the Artright family jug band,” I cradled my drink protectively, “Now, cut that out, you’re making my beer curdle.”

 

That was the moment SHE walked into my life. There are some forces in nature, some powers in the universe, so great that their magnitude can only be understood by putting their names in capitals. SHE was one of them. One moment the door was there, the next it was scattered in so many splinters across the floor, and SHE stood in the doorway, a white caped form bathed in the glow of electric energy like some avenging angel. All the bars in Paragon, and SHE had to walk into mine.

 

“Agent Sixstring.”

 

Her voice was smooth, like velvet, but it still sounded like death calling for me. Faced with such a force, I did what any real man would have done- I dived under the nearest table, pulled my knees up under my chin, and prayed to God she hadn’t seen me. If the dirty cocktail napkin on the floor had been any larger, I’d have hidden under it too. I had to hand it to Jack for taking everything as calmly as he did.

 

“What the sam hell is going on here?!” He slammed a hand down on the bar, “You’re going to have to pay for that door, lady. If you think you can just-”

 

“It will be taken care of,” there was a click of heels on the barroom floor, and when I dared to open my eyes I could see a pair of tall white stiletto boots making their way toward Jack, “If need be every piece of furniture in this place will be paid for, but I’m not leaving without him.”

 

Please don’t come this way. Please don’t come this way. Please don’t come this way. She stopped right in front of my table, of course. I’d have groaned if I had dared to breathe. Instead, I tried to make the best of my predicament. She always did have the best legs.

 

Her name was Seven and, for lack of a better description, she was one of the nine people that ran the universe…make that multiverse. Every dimension that ever existed could somehow be linked back to them, or rather to the machine that they maintained. They called it the Reality System, a device that had its own plane of existence just to contain its massive size. No one knew where it came from, or even how old it was, but they did know that if it ever fell, all reality, all life, would fall with it. An entire society had been created to maintain it, staffed with the populations of hundreds of worlds. At the head of this society were nine people- The Board of Stability. Six months before, they had captured me, incarcerated me, and eventually employed me. You see, I was what they called a “Walker.” The System usually catalogues everyone and links them rather permanently to a certain dimension. Yes, there are ways around it, like going through a singularity, but that’s not exactly something you survive. I was an anomaly, though, a blip, a zero where a one should be. The System passed over me when I was born, and I slipped through the dimensional cracks. Nothing tying me down meant I could travel through the different dimensions basically at will. This caused some concern in the Board as you can imagine. A free radical like me could inadvertently destroy everything through my actions, or so they told me. They also told me I had a choice - be killed, or work for them. You can imagine how easy the decision was.

 

So it was, that yours truly became Stabilizing Agent first class, hero of the multiverse. What’s a Stabilizing Agent you ask? I guess the job description falls somewhere in between James Bond and a plumber. And Moneypenny gets some doozie clogs in the loo let me tell you. You see, each dimension, each reality, has its own…well…programming language of sorts. Normally, the system has one language per reality. Great. Wonderful. Everyone's happy. Sometimes though, something will deliberately or unintentionally mess with the System. Languages get mixed. Worlds collide. That’s when a rift happens.

 

Rifts, black holes, time warps, call them whatever you like, but what they boil down to is a little tear in space and time and a big pain in the ass for me. If the System’s a computer, a rift is your basic virus. Okay, actually, a rift is your mondo super send dirty pictures of your wife to her parents, send your credit card to Nigeria virus. Unless it’s stopped it will spread and corrupt until the entire dimension is destroyed. Get enough of these things going and the nice dividers between worlds start looking more like swiss cheese, great on sandwiches but crap for stability. Things start leaking through from the outside and getting corrupted the moment they enter. It doesn’t take long before the System starts feeling the pressure.

 

Now, it may not like it, but the System can handle two realities sharing some space.  Get any more than that though, or let the code corruption get too extreme, and you'll get a full system crash. That's when things get really interesting. Rules go out the window. Three worlds converge on one space. Things go boom and wacky-wacky. I mean, if three go in the space for one, then something's gotta go, right? The system starts acting like a body with a virus, and the world goes into absolute chaos. The material from different worlds reacts like matter and anti-matter. Trust me, it isn’t pretty.

 

To prevent this from happening, the Agent seeks out dimensional rifts and, well, stabilizes things. So there you go, the title speaks for itself. It was actually Seven who proposed the idea of me working as a Stabilizing Agent for the Board, so I guess I had her to thank for my life. It was a shame that at that moment she seemed so determined to take it away. Still, even if she was about to kill me, she did have great legs…I shook my head to snap out of my reverie, realizing Jack was talking.

 

“Look lady, I don’t know what you’ve got going against this Sixstring character, but this is my bar-”

 

“I know he’s here,” Seven’s voice was cold, “If you’ve done something to him I’ll make you regret ever-”

 

“If I’ve done something to him?” Jack laughed, “You’re the one that just charged, excuse me, exploded into here like all kinds of hell. Seems to me if someone’s likely to be hurting him it’s you.”

 

Jack was dead. I was sure of it. She would just rip his head off his shoulders, probably with her bare hands. I started to shift under the table. If someone was going to die here it would have to be me. I wouldn’t have Jack throwing his life away just because he didn’t understand who-

 

“You’re right. I’m sorry,” I stopped, unable to believe what I was hearing. She was apologizing? “I guess I was just a little overexcited.”

 

“Um, well,” Jack had the same reaction I did, “It’s alright I suppose. Just…well, what do you want with him?”

 

“Just to talk,” and at that moment, she looked directly at me. I don’t mean through the table, the table just wasn’t there anymore. There was a pop of air as it rushed in to fill the empty space and she was suddenly looking right down at me with her hands on her waist.

 

“Agent Sixstring, how good to see you.”

 

I managed not to squeak. I’m still very proud of that.

 

“Seven,” I brushed myself off and stood as though nothing had happened, “What’s a lady like you doing in a place like this?”

 

“Looking for a guy like you,” she smiled and grabbed me by the collar of my duster, pulling me in until I could see just how blue her eyes were, “I came here for the same reason I didn’t let them kill you, the same reason I created the Agent program. You’re my ticket out.”

 

“Out?”

 

“Out,” she nodded and let me go, smiling a bit as I stumbled backward, “Out of the Board, away from the System. Just…out. I never asked for this, you know. I was born into it. Our job starts before we even exist. We’re planned blips, Walkers born to serve the System. We don’t age the same as everyone else, but neither do we live the same. For longer than I can remember my life has been a chair and a screen, checking over data for a million realities. I had a name once, but I’ve been Chairwoman Seven for so long that I’ve forgotten anything else.”

 

She sighed, and suddenly she was just a woman, not a force or power, but a tired frustrated woman grabbing her last chance to be free of something.

 

“Agent Six…Farren, I’m sick of watching. I’ve been watching for eight hundred years. It’s time I got a chance to live some, to be able to appreciate what it is we work for. Officially, I’m here as your overseer, to make sure you don’t screw up or start abusing your power. There are still plenty on the Board that don’t trust you.”

 

“And unofficially?”

 

She moved toward me, blue eyes sparkling, brown hair moving as if touched by an unfelt breeze (I never have figured out how the hell she does that), and put a hand on my shoulder.

 

“You’re going to teach me how to live, Farren.”

 

There was nothing that said I had to do it. I could have turned her in then. The Board may not have liked me, but they would have believed me. They would have done an investigation, uncovered Seven’s plan, maybe even have disbanded the Agent program and let me go. After that, well, she wouldn’t have been my problem, would she? There were just three things stopping me. One, I was nobody’s stooge, particularly not some rat-bastard inner circle that had decided it could own my life. Two - she had saved my life, even if it had been for ulterior motives. Three - she needed me.

 

Go on. Tell me I’m a sucker, so I can tell you to bite me, and we can both go our merry way.

 

I wasn’t just going to roll over and show my belly though.

 

“Listen,” I moved her hand from my shoulder and looked into her eyes, “If we’re going to do this, you’re going to need to show a little restraint. We can’t have you blowing up an entire zone just because of your enthusiasm.”

 

Seven nodded, “It won’t be an issue. Watch.”

 

She stared hard at a bottle on a nearby table, and soon it began to rock back and forth, gradually becoming more transparent. The effect lasted for a few seconds, then the bottle suddenly snapped back into reality, falling over onto its side to roll off the table and shatter on the floor. Jack muttered to himself as he grabbed a broom and a dust pan.

 

“The Board doesn’t trust anyone,” she shook her head as she turned to me, “not even ourselves. The powers we have only last so long as we’re all together. The longer we’re away, the weaker they get. Give me a few more minutes and I’ll be…well, as normal as you anyway.”

 

I let out a sigh, “Alright then.”

 

Seven cried out, three bottles of brandy exploded, and for a second I thought I was about to die again. Then I saw the smile on her face, and I wasn’t sure whether to be more or less afraid.

 

“Oh Farren, this is going to be fantastic,” she slipped an arm around mine, “We’ll be partners- you and I against all the evil in the world.”

 

“Now wait just a minute,” I turned to her, leaning in close with a scowl, “I never said- ”

 

She kissed me, and all the words I was about to say went skipping off together singing happy little songs. Putting my arm around her waist, I dipped her backward, Jack making a groan of disgust.

 

Partners. We could work something out.

 

*                                  *                                  *

 

Six years later, we were still working it out.

 

To put it mildly, Seven could be quite a handful as a partner. It wasn’t that she was unskilled, she was just…enthusiastic. Batshit if you prefer. Every time trouble cropped up, her eyes started getting a glazed over look, and the sides of her mouth twitched up in a maniacal grin. By the time we reached a mission, she’d be worked up into a whirlwind of destruction, charging out with valkyrish glee. Walls and windows were only minor obstacles, hardly worth her notice.

 

She had a tendency to get overly creative in some of her dispatching as well. Now, ordinarily this wouldn’t have fazed me a bit, but for goodness sake, I was the guy that shot a convict into a prison yard with a cannon; I wasn’t used to being the more restrained one in a team.  I’m managed to convince her to use a sword at least, a slender Japanese number I’d made for her myself for our first “anniversary.” It was more contained than the energy blasts she occasionally favored, and less gruesome than her hand to hand combat. She was touched by the gift, took to it like a master, and eight months later my stomach finally forgave me for the year of hell I’d put it through. She wasn’t sadistic, just…enthusiastic.

 

Word quickly got round the underworld community about her particular brand of justice making, and we soon found ourselves witness to some very interesting behaviors. For instance, one time we had to stop the Banished Pantheon from opening a rift to some spirit world (remember kiddies, rifts are a big no-no to Stabilizing Agents). We finally reach the top level of the building, Seven goes charging out with her katana flying high, and…get this…the zombies, zombies mind you, look straight at each other, scream “holy shit it’s her” and jump out a window from six stories high. Seven just turned to me, smiled that smile of hers, and positioned me perfectly in the sunset at the edge of the building before she kissed me. We blew the explosives on the altar, the top of the building popped like a champagne cork, and we rode the fireball into the sky. Just like the movies.

 

Which, in a way, pretty much summed up Seven’s approach to life. You see, in the years before Seven found her ticket out, she was doing research on life on the outside. The problem lay not so much in her studies- she was an avid and devoted student- but rather in her professors. I refer of course to the honorable Mr. Lee and Chan, and let us not forget some of those summer courses by Mr. Willis and Schwarznegger and all their many associates. Action. Kung fu. Adventure. She’d seen every one you could possibly name, and all the ones you couldn’t too. She lived her life according to the model her teachers set for her, and in Seven’s world every kiss came with an explosion, every dance with a gunshot, and every song with the ring of steel.

 

It was why she’d kissed me that first day. Not because of my charm, or my looks- though both are more than considerable in my not so humble opinion- but because that was simply what partners did in her world. She’d seen all the reference materials- partners were two people, both equally skilled, fighting the forces of darkness together, competing and arguing constantly (except during their moments of sexual tension), and heading toward an inevitable passionate kiss at the end. She’d nailed her definition perfectly; she’d just gone in reverse. For us, the kiss came first, the competition and arguing later.

 

Finding out the reason behind the more intimate and emotional half our partnership was both disheartening and liberating to me. At first, I just felt like part of an equation, a silly variable to plug into her action formula. At the same time though, I discovered that she wasn’t with me to use me, or because of some misguided sense of gratitude. She was with me because it was the right thing to do. And what is love except the one thing that feels most right in your existence? She’d made up her mind, and whether or not it was real to others, it was real to her. Besides, there’s no other passion quite like the stuff in the movies. Any dusty old romance, or a drink and a few well placed words, will get you a kiss or a roll in the hay, but love, real honest to God true love, means you’re willing to blow up three buildings to get to each other.

 

But there I go getting all sappy about things. Suffice to say that neither one of us was in it for a power play or just to get our ashes hauled. She was crazy, but then again so was I, and if she was just a bit more so, well I guess that’s what they call karma. And there’s really nothing quite like the first time you and your partner send an unconscious Crey Eliminator down an elevator with a sign that says- Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho.

 

Seven’s approach to the world helped to keep me in check too. I mean, I enjoyed swinging a sword around as much as the next guy, but after a while the arms could get tired, you know? Sometimes I just felt like taking a couple years off or so. On the other side, even sleep was pretty much for the weak and timid in Seven’s code, but we found a nice balance in the middle. Some days either one of us needed more convincing than others, but we found ways to manage. It was during one particular fit of “heroic apathy” that I received a call from Seven involving some smuggling operations in Independence Port.

 

I had just closed a truly beautiful deal for Sixstring Industries, and was looking forward to a victory dinner followed by a nice quiet evening back at the manor. Yes, you heard me right. Sixstring Industries. It’s Paragon’s second largest corporation, and yours truly is the all knowing CEO. How could such a thing happen in a mere six years? The obvious advantages of time travel, that’s how. When I first came to Paragon so many of its years ago, I’d operated under the title of a “Professional Hero.” It was as good a cover as any, and I found it made me a little extra money over the base survival pay the Board was paying out at the time (which amounted to enough for bread, water, and a cardboard box). Soon enough, I actually had enough for some investments and there’s nothing quite like being familiar with a world’s history (or in this case future) to give you a leg up in financial ventures. I gathered up what I could and left it all with an investment firm with explicit instructions on when to sell and what to roll the profits over into over the next several decades. My plan was to get some hefty investments into computer technology, but in Paragon’s history those companies not only wound up fabricating computers, but reverse engineering all the tech that formed the foundation of the war walls and teleportation systems. Furthermore, five years before my second arrival on the Paragon scene, nearly all the companies I had investments in were bought up by Crey Industries and the stocks shot through the roof. All in all, when I looked up the investment firm (still in business, due in no small part to my little “gambles”), the figures they gave me weren’t quite what I was expecting. After they revived me, they told them to me a second time and I seem to remember making some incoherent giddy noises. Once I’d fully recovered, I decided to look into this megacorp that I owed so much of my success to. What I learned made me realize exactly what I could do with any gratitude. I immediately liquidated everything I had, and used it to become Crey’s main opposition.

 

We were never competitors in the traditional economic sense. I knew enough about the advantages of the established to not get into that kind of a losing battle. If we’d tried to muscle in on bioengineering, pharmaceuticals, software, or even most household appliances and office equipment, Crey would have buried us. Instead, I focused on the few things they couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver - entertainment and heroic services. Now, entertainment is pretty self explanatory, but you’re probably wondering what the hell “heroic services” means. Basically, it means we’re there to supply everything you could ever need for your career as an officially licensed hero. Those enhancement stores? Us. Those costume tailors at Icon? Us. The fact that capes are now suddenly allowed again, and that Dr Smythe’s research just happened to result in some tantalizing auras, both sending heroes of all kinds flocking to establish the newest look? You get the idea.

 

We also have ways of making a heroic career more lucrative. In that way, I guess my title of “agent” takes on a whole new meaning. We’re the undisputed masters of merchandising. We can get you your TV show, your action figure, your video game, your single with a popular band, and we can make sure that you get the most possible out of every deal. I know what you’re thinking- how can you stand to cheapen the image like that? What, it’s less cheapening to think of Statesman working as a short order cook in his spare time, or Miss Liberty doing house cleaning as she tries to make ends meet? Better yet, how about those that have to turn to bodyguard and muscle gigs that make them no better than common mercenaries? The work we do has allowed a lot of good heroes to finally turn their attention to protecting the city full time without worrying about whether or not they’ll be able to pay the water bill. It’s also allowed a lot of older heroes to actually retire comfortably when they decide it’s time to hang up the cape. I say if they have to put up with paparazzi, why not let them enjoy the positive aspects of their fame too?

 

Whether you agree with me or not, business was booming and I’d just scored a major deal with Hero Corp. They needed someone to help with their merchandising ideas, and naturally Sixstring Industries was there to oblige. They had been impressed by the work we’d done for other heroes up to that point, but I think they’d been even more impressed the month before when Seven and I had saved their main corporate tower from a very hostile takeover from the Paragon Protectors. Whatever their reasons for coming to us, it meant one of our biggest scores to that point. There was nothing like commissions on an entire corporation of superheroes, and I was feeling especially celebratory. Naturally, that was when the phone rang.

 

“Farren, we have a problem.”

 

From the music in the background I could tell Seven was calling me from her nightclub. The place was known, naturally, as “The Lucky Seven”, and she was its manager and lead singing act. She called it her “cover,” even though she had a tendency to perform in full uniform with cape and everything. I think she’d seen the whole gig in an 80’s cartoon somewhere, but her music career wasn’t exactly my top concern at that moment.

 

“Seven, I’ve had three board meetings today, and I just closed on the deal of a lifetime. I deserve a break, and dammit you need to take one. Can’t we just send some Hero Corp people to take care of it?”

 

Seven told me exactly where I could find my Hero Corp people, and what I could do with them. I’ll spare you the biologically impossible details, but I have to say I was impressed by her imagination. I sighed, wincing as her monologue tapered off with its last pieces of inventive imagery.

 

“Alright, I get the picture. This had better be good, Sev.”

 

“Believe me. It is.”

 

Which brought me to the top of a water tank, staring down at a warehouse in the middle of the night, freezing my heroic ass off. You see, it was around this time that some snowballess excuse for a criminal mastermind calling himself the Winter Lord had decided that the best way to defeat Paragon city was to make the whole place a frozen meat locker for superpowered prime cuts. He was, as you may have guessed, pathetically unsuccessful in his machinations, but it still made the place miserable to be in.

 

Seven, as usual, was unfazed, munching happily on a carrot she’d ripped off the face of the last snow creature we’d defeated. That was another thing. Who the hell would send snowmen as thugs? Seven was convinced that one hero in the city had been chosen to come up with the form of the creature that would destroy it. Trying his best to do right, he thought of the most harmless image he could think of…Frosty the Snowman. I could only surmise that her theory was another result of her self education. I just wanted to find the sucker and kick him square in his ice hole. I’d have my vengeance, and it would be a cold dish indeed…just as soon as I could stop shivering. I resolved to install heaters into my next set of armor and did my best not to think about frostbite as I stared down at the seemingly abandoned building below us.

 

I had to admit, the place felt wrong on some deep visceral level, like looking at a brightly wrapped Christmas present and knowing there was a bomb inside. I could sense the energy flowing through the walls, dark, chaotic, and barely contained. Something big was going down here and I knew it had to be stopped. I also knew that saying any of this out loud would mean admitting Seven was right, and somehow I just couldn’t stand to do that.

 

“Explain to me again why you dragged us both out here to die of hypothermia?”

 

“Word got to me from my sources about something very hush-hush the Family was moving through IP,” Seven had a very successful spy network she ran through her club. She would.  “I came here, set up a perimeter, and the sensors went ape-shit. There’s some really nasty tech moving through here and you’d admit you feel it too, if you weren’t so busy being a grump.”

 

“I am not being a grump.” I said grumpily.

 

Seven just smiled and nodded, “The guy in charge of this operation is Antonio Carrelli, though everyone knows him as Fat Tony. He’s one of the big movers and shakers in the outfit, and he’s been spreading word about some new friends he’s been making. He’s our target for the evening; the rest are irrelevant.”

 

“Please tell me this Tony character is one of those careless types that doesn’t waste money on frivolous things like protection.”

 

“Fat Tony?” Seven laughed, “Fat chance. The shifty bastard’s so paranoid he won’t even go to the john without five bodyguards just in case his pecker decides to attack him. His security’s so tight the sewer rats get cavity searches. Why, he’s got lasers installed on-”

 

“Forget I asked,” I ran a hand across my face, brushing the frost from my eyebrows, “So how are we supposed to get into this fortress?”

 

“Simple. Tony will send out a lieutenant and some goons and we’ll just defeat them and take their keys.”

 

“That’s your plan?” I groaned, “Seven, not everything happens like it does on tv you know.”

 

She crossed her arms across her impressive chest, “Name one thing.”

 

“Well you can’t just fly into a place and…,” I shifted my feet, placing a hand on the guard rail of the platform. Of course, it immediately froze to it, and I had to spend the next minute dancing a watoosie as I tried to get it free. I already knew she had me, I didn’t need to be beaten by an inanimate object too, “Well…you can’t just…stupid weather…Look, an otherwise intelligent gangster is not just going to blithely send out his right hand man to-”

 

“Am I interruptin’ sumtin’ between youz two luvboids?”

 

My hand ripped free of the rail and swung up to bang off my forehead, “You don’t have to look so smug about it.”

 

“Have to? No. But it’s fun.”

 

We rolled forward together, catching the lieutenant through each lung with our swords. Thrusting through up to the hilt, we skewered the two goombahs directly behind him too, whipping the blades out and watching them all fall like pinstriped dominoes. A fourth went down as I threw a fedora into his face and ran him through, and I could hear the fading screams of the last as Seven’s attack sent him over the rail for an abrupt meeting with the ground below.

 

“Only five? I think I’m insulted. Aren’t you insulted, boss? Still, that was some mighty fine work there. They tasted a little like spaghetti sauce, though.”

 

I smiled sheepishly at Seven. You know how most guys will claim that their “swords” have a mind of their own? Well, in my case it was literal. Farren Mark I, or Mark as we called him for short and to avoid confusion, was a result of my experimentations in artificial intelligence. At the time I was forging and programming him, I believed I was doing it as a challenge to my technical abilities, but since then I’ve come to realize that it could only have been a bout of temporary insanity. I did my best with him, basing him on the most heroic and dashing personality I could think of (my own naturally), but something apparently went wrong…I mean, I couldn’t really be that annoying, could I? Seven had far more patience with him than I, considering him the “essential comic sidekick,” but even she had to admit he had a tendency toward gabbiness.

 

“And those suits? Come on. The blood stains are the best thing that ever hap-”

 

“Mark.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Shut up.”

 

“Shutting up, sir.”

 

I sheathed him before he started having second thoughts about his temporary vow of silence. Using the tip of her sword, Seven tossed me the keys off the lead button man’s belt. I caught the key ring on the end of my finger, spinning the set around a couple times just to show off.

 

“So where’s the front door to this fine establishment?”

 

“Oh we’re not going through the front. Those keys are for once we get inside,” Seven tapped her chin as she looked the place over, “I figured we’d make our entrance through that fine set of skylights on the south end.”

 

I sighed. Women. Always looking for a chance to break through the glass ceiling. I engaged the flight engines on my armor, while Seven used whatever the hell cosmic forces she taps into to fly.

 

It was a good entrance, I gave her that much. We crashed through the skylights, the broken glass raining down around us to land on the dazed thugs below, and hit the ground fighting. There was just enough time for a quick gasp of surprise, and then the flunkies started flying. After a while it got to be a game of who could keep their target in the air the longest. I won, though Seven claimed it was only on a technicality since my guy’s head got stuck in the grille of a ceiling lamp. I seem to remember saying something about sour grapes.

 

The keys got us through the complex with ease, and the capos did their very best to provide us with amusement. By the time we reached Fat Tony’s office I had to admit that I was really enjoying myself. Seven winked at me, the “recently borrowed” fedora on her head tilted at a rakish angle.

 

“I told you so.”

 

“I didn’t say anything.”

 

“No, but you were thinking it really loud.”

 

Tossing the keys aside, we kicked down the door, jumping on it a few times to finish off the guards beneath it. Fat Tony just stared, his jowled face a rather interesting magenta color by this point.

 

“Who do you wise guys think you are?”

 

“Us?” I turned to Seven and shrugged, “We’re surgeons.”

 

“Surgeons?” Tony stood and his belly flopped onto the desk, knocking over a container of pencils, “Whats would I need with a coupla surgeons?”

 

“Weeeell,” I drew my sword, spinning in a circle that stopped just sort of his neck, “You’ve got that ugly growth between your shoulders. We can get rid of that for you.”

 

He tried to play it cool, but I could see the sweat beading on his brow and the way his mouth was twitching at the corners.

 

“I-,” the twitching increased, and the fat on his neck hit 7.5 on the Richter scale, “I don’ know nuttin’.”

 

“Nuttin’ you say?” Seven pulled her katana, bringing it up to the other side of his neck, “That’s too bad for you, Tony. You see, Farren and I were just discussing whose blade was sharper.”

 

Tony’s eyes widened and there was a slight buckle in his knees, but he managed to keep his mouth shut.

 

“Boss? If I may?”

 

Tony’s eyes passed from Seven to me, until he realized the voice was coming from the sword at his neck.

 

“He wants to talk, boss. He just needs a little time, that’s all. Tony here is a stand up guy. Am I right, Tony my man?”

 

He blinked a couple times and slowly nodded his head.

 

“I knew it. Everything’s gonna be alright, Tony. But you’ve got to give me something to help me out. I mean, I don’t exactly have arms, so there’s not a whole lot I can do if they decide to dismember you.”

 

I winked and gave Tony my best smile.

 

“That’s the problem with being a sword, you know? You don’t really get a say in what you do sometimes. Like, you know, the boss here once used me to filet a guy? It was terrible. If I’d had a stomach, I’d have puked, I swear. Took weeks for some of that stuff to work itself off me. But there was nothing I could do to stop him, because the guy wouldn’t spill the beans.”

 

My smile widened as his face began to pale.

 

“Now, the lady here, she’s got a ball collection…and I’m not talking yarn or rubber bands if you catch my meaning.”

 

Seven licked her lips and blew him a kiss. It was our faithful Bad Hero, Worse Hero, Good Sword routine. A bit unconventional, yes, but it always got us results. Tony’s face had gone as white as it could go, and now he was actually starting to drain the color out of his clothing. I’d never seen anything quite like it.

 

“Wh-what d-do ya wanna know?”

 

“Thatta boy, Tony. I’d pat you on the back, but, you know, the whole arm thing. Just a few little questions and you can relax and lose yourself in a nice bottle of scotch. Boss?”

 

“Three questions, Tony, and I’ll make them easy ones,” I lowered my sword, and Seven did the same, “What is it, where did it come from, and where was it going?”

 

“Alright, alright,” Tony flopped down in his chair, resting his hands on his desk, “Just don’t…don’t even think of tryin’ ta run!”

 

His fingers dug into the desk with a splintering of wood, and he raised the whole damn thing over his head as he stood. I sighed. Underbosses.

 

“You mess wit’ da Family and you’ll just sleep wit’ da fishes,” papers fluttered through the room, reflected in Tony’s bloodshot eyes, “But you made da mistake of messin’   wit’-”

 

I’d like to take this moment to point out that Seven and I were not just cowering in a corner somewhere, caught in utter surprise and abject horror at this turn of events. We were in fact, lunging forward to show Tony the error of his ways by giving him a few belly piercings. Unfortunately, we never got the chance.

 

You see, as Tony made the mistake of nearly blurting out his mysterious contact’s name, some sort of failsafe went off. The air rippled around him like a pond disturbed by a pebble, and his mouth opened in a silent scream as his body suddenly flattened out. You know those old cartoons where one character gets run over by a steamroller? That’s about what it looked like. With nothing substantial to support it anymore, the desk came crashing down, breaking in half as it hit the floor. By this time, Flat Tony was being condensed down into a single line, his face still frozen in that unheard scream. Soon, even that much was gone, and a slight pop was the last the world ever heard of Tony Carrelli. It was clear to Seven and I what had happened. To keep him from talking, his “friends” had, well, simplified him out of existence. Two dimensions. One dimension. Nothing.

 

That meant these friends had found a way to control the System. It also meant that they wanted us to know it. It also meant we were all in a world of shit.

 

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this, boss.”

 

For once, we had to agree with him.

 

*                      *                      *

 

Naturally, the first step in unraveling this little mystery was to find out just what was in the fresh supply of unmarked crates in Tony’s warehouse. After all, one didn’t exactly hire the Family to guard a shipment of stuffed animals. A piece to this dangerous puzzle lay waiting inside and Seven and I needed all the information we could get as quickly as possible. We moved a surprisingly heavy crate off the nearest pile, delicately removing the lid. Well, I was delicate at least, Seven did this little twirly dance and sliced her half of the lid open. She had a tendency to blissfully ignore little things like bombs that could blow the city or traps that would make your skin melt off.

 

Wiping the sawdust off my face, I leaned in to assess just how deep in the crap we were. A hundred possibilities raced through my mind. Weapons. Drugs. Voodoo dolls of every hero in the city. Some mighty talisman made from so and so’s bunion, or such and such’s wang. A trap that would make my skin melt off – I was kind of stuck on that theme that night.

 

What I got, was another box. Sitting in the obligatory foam packing peanuts was a cylinder of some greenish metal topped with a domed hood, looking like nothing so much as an art deco trashcan. Granted, it was a trash can with a very impressive lock sporting more gears and blinking lights than a Freakshow Christmas party.

 

“Digital mechanism,” I shook my head, “Alright, Mark. Time to do your thing.”

 

I pulled the sword out of the scabbard at my side, resting his blade against the portion of the crate still left intact after Seven’s contribution.

 

“Somebody call for a codebreaker?” The lens set in the guard sprang to life with a blue light, “What would you do without me, boss?”

 

I sighed wistfully, “Have beautiful silences.”

 

I removed two connectors from the pommel, clipping them onto the input pad of the lock. The lens began to blink as Mark cycled through his electronic arsenal, silent aside from the occasional popping sparks from the connectors. I leaned back against a wall next to Seven, enjoying the moment of peace. She smiled at me and patted me on the shoulder consolingly. It wasn’t hard to tell when Mark had broken through.

 

“Boom, baby! Oh yeah! Who’s your daddy? Say my name. Say it!”

 

I had to remember to install a mute button on him. With a hissed venting of compressed coolant, the seal on the container was broken and the lid slowly tilted upward. Seven and I moved forward, squinting into the misty air within. As the moisture evaporated, I could just start to make out the silhouette of the item in question.

 

“Oh you have got to be kidding me.”

 

The great weapon, the imminent threat to Paragon, double contained, sealed with a high tech lock, hidden in a warehouse, and protected by a veritable army of goombahs…was an unassuming black sphere about the size of my fist. It appeared to be made of some sort of smooth plastic, with one side dented in as though it was meant to stack with others of its kind or fit onto a larger whole. I was, shall we say, less than impressed.

 

“It looks like a freakin’ magic eight ball. What is this? Some new kind of villainous plan to corrupt the youth? You shake it to see if Susie likes you and it tells you she will if you rob a bank?”

 

Seven scowled into the box, head tilted to the side as she analyzed its contents. Her eyes narrowed as she stood in silent thought, hands clenched at her sides. I’d like to say I was patient with her, but the truth is I’d started making rude faces by the time she looked up with a sharp intake of breath. I’m in touch with my inner child like that.

 

“Farren, look at it.” Seven’s voice was low as she spoke.

 

“I am looking at it! It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen! I can’t believe you actually-”

 

I found my arm seized in Seven’s “jaws of life” grip, her fingers digging in even through my armor. Her other hand moved up behind my head, forcing me to look back into the container.

 

“Look.” She dug in a little more, just for dramatic emphasis, “Harder.”

 

Far be it from me to turn down a lady. There it was, the same half-assed children’s toy reject silently mocking me from the bottom of its trash can. I squirmed a little in Seven’s grip, but she held firm. That was when it happened. As I stared down, the sphere began to sink into the earth, the surrounding objects disintegrating and swirling around it like alka-seltzers going down a toilet. I blinked and shook my head, the swirling chaos replaced by a boiling mass of shadowy tentacles tearing off pixelated pieces of the world around it to feed its howling center and leaving gaping jagged holes where matter ought to be.

 

“What the-”

 

“Exactly,” Seven let my head go, and loosened her grip on my armor, “Do you know what this means?”

 

“Yeah,” I pulled my arm away, rubbing at the massive bruise where my bicep used to be, “It means my eight ball theory is all shot to hell. Dammit. I liked that theory. It was quick. Simple. We find, we kick, we shmooze, we go home. Now-”

 

“Now it’s time for us to earn our pay, Agent.”

 

“Pay?” I laughed, “Sev, I don’t know about you, but they don’t pay me enough to mow their lawn.”

 

That insane smile came to her face as she winked at me, “Where’s your spirit of adventure?”

 

“In a hot tub somewhere, watching tv, drinking a glass of wine, and laughing its ass off at me.”

 

“You should fire it.”

 

“Can’t. It’s union.”

 

She rolled her eyes and I stuck my tongue out at her. Inner child, remember? Still, there was no escaping it, and I lifted my sword, resting its lens over the smug little sphere I was really coming to dislike.

 

“Alright Mark, what can you tell us?”

 

A beam shot out from the guard, its green trail clear on the misty air within the container. Within a few moments, it was replaced with a stronger laser, then another, and another, until the final was bright enough to light the room and vaporized the water particles on the air. The sphere just sat there, not a single scratch on its pristine surface.

 

“I got nothing, boss. Whatever that thing looks like it’s made out of, it sure ain’t plastic. I hit it with every scanner you gave me and I can’t make it past the surface. There could be anything inside.”

 

I shook my head with a groan. “That’s it. I’m calling in the big gun.”

 

*                      *                      *

 

The “big gun” as it was, was Dr. Jonathan St. John-Smythe. You may remember me mentioning him earlier in reference to the Sixstring Aura Project. The doc was lead researcher on many of our heroic service projects, but he was also talented in the area of what I like to call “unmarketable sciences.” And, unless there was suddenly a spike in demand for black hole paperweights, it was this capacity I was going to need him in. Yes, I knew that Dr. Sheridan actually had the rep of being the “smartest man in Paragon,” but there was something about his Rikti obsession that always made me uncomfortable. The guy was just a step away from living in the sewers and wearing a foil hat if you asked me. Not that the sewers would have been safe. Rikti love the sewers. In fact, every villain in the Paragon loves the sewers for some strange reason. But I digress.

 

Seven closed the container and tucked it under her arm while I made arrangements to have the warehouse cleared and the crates moved to an underground bunker. The last thing we needed was the stuff getting spread all over the city. After that, it was just an easy flight through the city (easy meaning there were only four or five blizzards and a pair of snow monsters) and we landed in Atlas Park just outside city hall. As I began to dial in Smythe’s number on my glove, I was surprised to find the windows in the SERAPH lab still lit. Seven looked at me with a shrug and we went through the doors together, making our way through the cupolaed foyer and down into the labs beneath. We strutted through like we owned the place, my red cape billowing dramatically behind me, her black leather trenchcoat clinging and flowing in all the right places. It was a great entrance, except for two things. One- it was three in the morning and the few people there were lucky if they could see the coffee right in front of them. Two- with that container under Seven’s arm, anyone who did see us probably thought we were some sort of superpowered janitors installing a new recycle bin. Still, you couldn’t blame us for trying.

 

We found Dr Smythe leaning over a table of various salvages, muttering to himself as he cleared aside or stacked the “trophies” of hundreds of eager young heroes. As I cleared my throat, he jerked upright, the lenses over his eyes magnifying them to ridiculous proportions.

 

“Farren?” He lifted the goggles onto his forehead, squinting as his vision adjusted, “And Seven! Welcome to my humble lab. Sorry about the mess.”

 

“I’ve seen it worse,” I swept some lichen samples and e-chips aside with my foot, clearing a path to the workbench. “Working late?”

 

The doctor gave me a confused look, “Me? Oh goodness no. I always try to be up around this time. Edison always claimed he did his best work during bouts of insomnia.”

 

Okay, so maybe going to Sheridan wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Still, I had to follow Farren’s rule number three hundred and forty two: It never hurts to butter up your employees.

 

Edison? Hah! Edison was a hack compared to you, Johnnie boy.”

 

He smiled for a moment, then shook his head with a frown, “You know, Crey’s talking about cloning him.”

 

I rolled my eyes, “He’ll fit right in over there.”

 

“We’ll see if what they grow ‘fits’ at all. Did you see their attempt at Einstein? I never saw it in person, but from what I’ve heard the poor thing-”

 

“We need something examined, doctor,” Seven plonked the container on the workbench with a resounding metallic clang, breaking Smythe out of his monologue.

 

His face went through a series of expressions: puzzlement at the bench, appraisal at Seven, and accusation at me, “Did he make you carry that thing the whole way over here?”

 

“Make me?” Seven laughed, “No. He just knew better than to offer taking it. We’ve been working together for six years. He knows how I can be.”

 

That much was true. While Sev certainly wasn’t someone who would throw flowers in the trash or get offended if you opened a door for her, she was a very capable, sometimes very scary woman and there were times that she really wanted to do things herself. Thankfully I’d become pretty adept at recognizing those times, and carrying the container had been one of them.  

 

“Besides,” Seven turned to me with a wink, “He knows I’m better at dealing with hazardous materials than he is.”

 

I shook my head. We both knew damn good and well that she was the woman that used to keep nitroglycerin in vodka bottles until the infamous “Jello shot incident.” But that’s another story, and we’d needed a new kitchen anyway.

 

Smythe let out a little gasp of glee and practically clapped his hands as the container opened with its usual hiss of misty coolant. He leaned forward to take in the contents, eyebrows rising and falling like two gray fuzzy caterpillars trying to start a wave. His eyes widened, then squinted, then fell into a sort of Quasimodo half-and-half as he looked up at me.

 

“Are we going to start marketing retro children’s toys?”

 

I wanted to look at Seven and shout “I told you so,” but I managed to hold it back with only a slight quivering of my mouth. Seven nodded a thank you to me before turning back to Smythe.

 

“Despite what it may look like, doctor, you’ll find this item has much more intriguing properties than vague predictions of the future.”

 

He looked back at me, rubbing his hands together in delight, and we began our usual exchange.

 

“Is this big?”

 

“Gigantic.”

 

“Dangerous?”

 

“Apocalyptic.”

 

“Frightening?”

 

“I’m crying inside.”

 

“I’m on the job.”

 

“You’d better be. Um, I don’t think that’s such a-”

 

Smythe yelped and pulled his hand free of the container, shaking off the black cloud around his arm. He’d made the mistake of trying to touch the sphere and was forced to make the rest of his statements while simultaneously sucking on the ends of his swollen fingers.

 

“Yeth, yeth. Tho I thee. Motht interethting.”

 

Grabbing some tongs off a shelf, he carefully lifted out the sphere, blowing on it before placing it inside a nearby ring of blue light in the floor.

 

“Thith statith field thould keep it in check.”

 

As the sphere entered the ring, there was an explosion something like a sonic boom and smoke began to pour from several nearby machines. First, the light in the floor began to dim, then every light in the building. We were in total darkness when the droning backups kicked in and blue arcs of electricity played across the cables on the floor. As the lights flickered tentatively the field snapped back into place with a plaintive whine. To his credit, Smythe kept hold of the sphere throughout it all, his free hand wrapped around the tongs in a white knuckled death grip. After a while he actually dared to open one of his eyes, scanning the room cautiously before he slowly released the offending object. The sphere hovered in place as the tongs let go, and we all let out a sigh of relief.

 

“There. Thee?” He gave me a shaky smile, “Nothing to it. Gith me tonight with it. I thould have thomething for you by morning.”

 

I patted him on the shoulder, “Thanks, doc. You’re the best.”

 

“Yeth. I know. Jutht remember that when you’re giving out grantth.”

 

I gave him an encouraging thumbs up as Seven and I made our exit arm in arm, strutting out like we strutted in, and pointedly ignoring the scowls we received from various civil servants cleaning up spilled coffee and overturned monitors. Once outside we took to the skies once more, this time making our way to that blessed little piece of heaven also known as home.

 

Home for me was the mansion fortress known as Sixstring Manor. Located on a forty acre private island off the coast of Talos, the expansive bay around it made it easily defendable against diabolical archvillains and the equally, if not more, diabolical paparazzi. The mansion itself covered nearly a tenth of the island, a vast architectural masterpiece of columns, fountains, gardens, balconies, pools, and the best defense system money could buy. It also had the best entertainment system money could buy. And the best kitchen, the best aquariums, the best showers, baths, beds…you get the idea. There were days I would wake up, kiss its floor, and vow I would never leave its beauty again. That night more than ever it was the showers and four poster bed that called to me.

 

We landed on the cliffside balcony adjoining the main living room, a quick retinal scan opening the deceptively strong doors of the glass wall. Well, not glass technically. Like everything else in the mansion it and the doors were made of super tensile materials cooked up in the R & D labs. No hurricane or nuclear missile was going to scratch my baby.

 

I stepped into the sunken living room letting out a deep sigh as the warmth of the gas fireplace chased away the cold from my bones. Seven moved up beside me, taking my hand in hers and laying her head on my shoulder.

 

“I really appreciate you coming out with me tonight.”

 

I kissed her hand, looking into her eyes as I brushed a melting snowflake from her cheek, “There’s nothing to appreciate. You were right about everything, and I was a grumpy pain in the ass. That’s why I need you to keep my priorities straight.”

 

Turning away, I unbuckled the scabbard from my waist and opened up the living room weaponry armoire. Mark yawned peacefully as I unsheathed him and placed him on the blade cleaning back mount, a series of lasers going to work removing the night’s grime. I closed the doors, taking a deep breath as I contemplated how good it would feel to get the grime off myself as well.

 

I smiled, giving the best gentlemanly bow a scoundrel like me can muster, “That being said, there’s nothing I’d rather do right now than get a shower and a good night’s sleep in that comfy bed of ours.”

 

“Farren, I don’t think you understand,” she pulled me close, wrapping a leg around my waist as she whispered into my ear, “I really appreciate it.”

 

Alright, so there was one thing I’d rather do.

 

*          *          *

 

After a while, we did eventually make it to the bed. A while after that, we did actually decide to use the bed for sleeping. The next morning brought a call from Dr Smythe that inevitably led us to the worst section of the sewer system imaginable.

 

“Sev, are you sure this is right?”

 

I shook some of the gelatinous mixture of raw sewage and Rikti blood from my glove, dodging a fountainous spray from the rusted pipe behind me, and cringing as roaches crunched under my feet.

 

“These are the coordinates he gave us,” Seven shook her head, staring down at the data pad in her hand, “I know it’s unpleasant, but this is serious, Farren. Smythe said that thing had colon written on it.”

 

Colon, eh?” I raised my boot up, “Well I’m standing in the contents of someone’s colon right now.”

 

Seven scowled at me, tucking the data pad away in her belt, “Like the grammatical device colon. Like something that can bridge two worlds. That means it’s a rift maker. These things could tear the city apart. It’s our duty to destroy them.”

 

I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it.

 

She let out an exasperated sigh. “What now?”

 

“Heh. You said doodie.”

 

“Pull yourself together @g3nt!”

 

I stopped cold, the smile disappearing from my face. Something in what she said sounded wrong. Terribly wrong. Wrong in the way that sent off all sorts of alarms in my head and had me praying I’d just misheard her.

 

“What did you say? Say it again, slowly. And listen to yourself.”

 

One plea kept repeating in my head- please say it right, please say it right, please say it right.

 

“Wh@t? I s@id, ‘p00l y0urs3lf t00g3th3r @g3nt.’’’ Please say it...shit.“f@rr3n wut’s h@p3ning?!”

 

“1t’s @s 1 f33rd. th1s 1s teh wurk 0f my n3m3s1s L0rd Ungr@mm@t1c@1!”

 

“10rd Ungr@m@t1k@1! n0! wut r we 2 d0?”

 

“1ts @ll @ tr@p. kw1k, 7, h@nd m3 teh 133t r3p311@nt!”

 

“1z 2 l@t3! 1…1 w@nt u 2 pl m3h!”

 

“1 n0 pl u n00b! U suk 1 r001!”

 

“1 n0 suk! U r t3h suk!”

 

“n00000000000oooooooooooooooooooooo!”

 

I woke from my recurring nightmare, shaking and screaming like usual. Beside me I heard the sound of steel sliding across cloth as Seven whipped out the katana she kept under her pillow and went into a battle stance.

 

“What? What is it? Where is it?” Her eyes scanned the room, looking for a threat, the blade of the sword glinting silver in the moonlight from the windowed balcony. Then her eyes settled on me and the sheepish apologetic look on my face. They narrowed with realization and her voice came out as a low groan, “Oh Farren, you and that stupid grammar dream.”

 

“Hey, that dream really bothers me!”

 

The sword disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, and Seven flopped her head back down on her pillow with a grunt. I shook my head.

 

“One of these days you’ll lay down too hard on that and have a near death experience.”

 

She rolled over on her side to face away from me.

 

“Good night, Farren.”

 

“You could be a little more supportive, you know.”

 

She reached out her arm without looking at me, “patting” me on the back with just slightly less force than it would take to dislocate my shoulder. “There, there. Poor baby.”

 

“Fine,” I remained sitting up, folding my arms across my chest, “When all communication breaks down into meaningless gibberish, you just remember how you ignored my warnings.”

 

“There is no Lord Ungrammatical.”

 

“Then how do you explain ‘ain’t’? What about ‘I could care less’ when they mean ‘I couldn’t care less’? ‘I could care less’ means they do care!”

 

“I’m not listening to this.”

 

“And have you ever tried talking to that Aussie chick, Wirraway? I mean, what the hell is she speaking? ‘Coo-ee mate! It’s a fair dinkum bonzer of a fix ya got. Lemme throw a dingo on the barbie and chug me Foster’s before I walkabout in the bush with ya, by crikey.’”

 

“Enough! I’m not having this conversation again.”

 

“But this is serious.”

 

“No, this is st00p1d.”

 

“Did you-” I stared at her as she settled in under the sheets, debating the risks of keeping her awake for an argument I would never win. It wasn’t a long debate.

 

The next morning came as mornings always do- beautiful, and shiny, and too damn early. I knew the morning was a real one because there is yet to be a dream equivalent of morning breath, or those oh so lovely aches and pains that tag along. The latter were having a convention that morning and I found myself thinking back through the night and trying to figure out when the spiked steamroller and the herd of elk stampeded over me in bed. The only thing my mind could come up with was a vaguely remembered dream. I closed my eyes, trying to figure out what it had been about, and wondering if I had some new form of sleep walking where you throw yourself into a wall repeatedly the whole night then jump back in bed right before you get up. Pushing out the songs of the birds, and the sound of Seven stretching, I tried to focus on the dream that had put me in such a state.

 

Smoke. Lightning. Laughter.

 

It was there for a second, flashing in parts before me. A black cloud of smoke roughly in the shape of a man, infused with arcing bolts of red electricity. That maniacal laughter as it reached out for me, laughter that served as a counterpoint to my screams. Darkness. I opened my eyes, feeling worse than before and deciding that sometimes we forget things for a reason. I was in no position to question nature’s defense mechanisms. Not without coffee, anyway.

 

I made an exit from the bed that was slightly less graceful than a sack of potatoes falling off a shelf and began stumbling my way toward the kitchen. I could here Seven’s controlled breathing and the whoosh of her blade as she went through her morning routine, but I never bothered to turn around. Don’t get me wrong, normally I enjoy watching a gorgeous naked woman do tai chi with a deadly weapon in her hand as much as the next guy, but that morning my heart just wasn’t in it. Making my way into the kitchen, I started fighting with the stupid coffee machine, desperately trying to find the grind button and banging it on the counter in frustration. Then I realized I was in the living room, beating the crap out of a table lamp. Maybe it was better to just get the beans first. I shuffled over to the pantry, throwing its doors open.

 

“Hey boss.”

 

I grunted.

 

“This is the weapons closet. The pantry’s in the kitchen.”

 

I grunted.

 

“Rough night, eh?”

 

See above.

 

“That stupid grammar dream?”

 

I slammed the doors on him, fell backward, hit an end table, and landed on the couch. I sighed. Couch. Couch good. Not as good as coffee, but good. Coffee too much work. I snuggled in and smiled as some of the pain began to subside.

 

Seven came out, perky as ever, and I do mean perky everywhere- damn what a body. I was just awake enough to begrudge her the black silk robe she slipped on before she moved gracefully over beside me.

 

“Farren?” She stroked my cheek, looking me over in concern, “Oh Farren that dream really got to you didn’t it? Baby, I’m sorry. I should have-”

 

I took her hand in mind, kissing it lightly and trying my best to give an eloquent response, “Not fault. Second dream. Worse. Dunno.”

 

She nodded and squeezed my hand, “How about I make us some coffee and breakfast? Maybe that would help?”

 

“Food,” my mouth twitched as I tried to smile, “Good.”

 

She kissed my forehead, “Coming right up. Omelettes okay?”

 

I licked my lips and rubbed a hand over my stomach, generating a smile from her.

 

“I’ll take that as a yes. Don’t go anywhere, I’ll bring it to you.”

 

Seven’s uncanny propensity for learning anything she sees on a tv to perfection, combined with a cable line up that included three cooking channels, equaled culinary heaven. I breathed deeply as the air filled with the wonderful aroma of the pending meal, complete with some sort of exotic coffee Seven picked up on one of her interdimensional jaunts the week before. Maybe it wasn’t going to be such a bad morning after all.

 

Naturally, this was when the phone rang. I flailed about blindly with my hand, not want to put forth the effort of lifting my head. Eventually I found the phone set and mashed down the talk button.

 

“Go away!”

 

“Oh dear have I called the Trolls by mistake?” Smythe’s voice came out on the speaker phone, “Farren, are you there? Have you been captured?”

 

“Farren no live here. Wrong number. Go away.”

 

I hung up the phone. It was probably just the fate of all reality hanging by a thread. It could wait. Seven stuck her head out of the kitchen.

 

“Who was that?”

 

“Wrong number.”

 

She raised an eyebrow suspiciously at me and I cringed as the phone rang again. Seven disappeared into the kitchen once more, picking up the phone in there before I could find the button to mash down beside me. I could hear the muffled conversation as she finished up what would have been a wonderful, relaxing morning breakfast. Thirty seconds after hanging up, Seven was back in the living room, somehow completely dressed in a black leather ensemble of trench coat, corset, pants, and stiletto boots.

 

“I told him we’d be right over.”

 

My lower lip quivered, “But…but food!”

 

She promptly produced two paper plates with omelettes and two travel mugs of coffee.

 

“We’ll eat on the way. It’ll be fun!”

 

*                      *                      *

 

Have you ever tried eating an omelette while flying through a major city? Of course you haven’t. Stupid question. Well, let’s just say that it gives “egg on your face” a literal meaning and you swallow more than a few bugs. When we landed outside city hall I used the one clean edge of my cape to wipe my face off with. I was beyond caring. Seven was of course, pristine.

 

“Relax,” she sauntered over to me, lightly blowing a bit of cheese off my cheek, “You look dashing.”

 

“I look like the floor of an elementary school cafeteria.”

 

“Yes,” she kissed me on the cheek, “but such a dashing floor.”

 

“Thanks,” I gave her a tired, lopsided smile, “And thanks for breakfast. It was good…what I got to have of it.”

 

“Birds need to eat too you know.”

 

“I know, Sev. But a condor? I mean, let’s forget the fact that it somehow developed a taste for cooked mushrooms strong enough to make it damn near kill me for them. Where the hell did it even come from?”

 

“This is Paragon,” she shrugged, “If it was normal, we wouldn’t be here.”

 

“Yeah, well I’m still having Mark check up on the files of every ‘Raptor’ or ‘Bird-boy’ in town. One of those suckers is getting a nice dry cleaning bill.”

 

Entering city hall, we were once again met with suspicious stares. Apparently, tales of last night’s “incident” had been passed on to the morning shift. Great. I was becoming a piece of office lore. I could see my future with pimple faced interns roasting marshmallows and telling spooky stories about me reshuffling records and eating databases in the dead of night. Our footsteps echoed on the marble floor, the only sound breaking the hushed silence that seemed to hang around us like a cloud. Finally we were at the stairs, life in the various bureaucratic offices returning to normal behind us. I breathed a sigh of relief, then groaned as my leg muscles let me know exactly how they felt about stairs right then. I debated engaging the flight system on my suit, but with the morning I’d been having I decided it would probably send me crashing through a wall to explode on the Atlas monument outside, releasing the forty ton globe which would promptly land on a bus full of nuns or the President’s motorcade. With that lovely image in mind, I settled for hobbling down the steps like an eighty year old man with my left hand gripping the center railing for dear life. Seven kept pace with me the whole time, not saying anything, but obviously ready if I needed help. She nodded once to me when we reached the bottom, and I gave her a shaky thumbs up as I continued to steady myself on the railing. The hall to the SERAPH lab seemed to lengthen exponentially like one of those cornball nightmare sequences you see in movies, and I could feel my heart begin to race from the anticipated exertion. What the hell was wrong with me?

 

“Here,” Seven lifted my arm up, putting it over her shoulders and putting her own arm around my waist. Together like this we were able to make it the entire five hundred feet without me suffering even one brain aneurysm.

 

“Ah,” Smythe looked up from a computer display as we shuffled in, “Excellent. Thank you for coming so soon.”

 

 “This had better be good, Doc.” I grunted my appreciation to Seven as she eased me into a chair. It was one of those cheap plastic numbers that Smythe favored due to ease of replacement in an environment prone to explosions, but at that moment it was the most comfortable piece of furniture I’d ever sat in. As I debated proposing to it, Smythe raised his hands in placation.

 

“It is, it is. I assure you. Well, maybe not ‘good’ per se, but definitely important,” he moved past me and began punching a password into a nearby keyboard, a large screen lowering from the ceiling as he spoke, “At about five o’ clock I was finally able to manipulate a sensor into getting past the protective shell of this…thing. This is what I found.”

 

The last keystroke rang out with a clicking finality, and the screen blipped to life with a jagged, fragmented image. At first I thought it was a malfunction, but as I watched, the image changed, reshaping itself into another nightmare of black shards. The center pulsed and flowed like a lava lamp shot in high speed, while the outer edges took turns melting and crystallizing into ever-changing spikes of obsidian hue. They twisted and jinked in impossible angles and I felt myself growing nauseous watching them. If M.C. Escher and Timothy Leery had gone into the sculpting business together, I don’t think they could have come up with something more wack. Able to stomach it no longer I looked aside to Seven. She stood in stoic silence, but her hand was white knuckled as it gripped a nearby table-edge, fingers denting in the steel surface. Taking care to keep the pixelating image on the screen out of my periphery, I looked Smythe in the eyes.

 

“Just what in the name of Numina’s spectral panties is that?”

 

His pupils had dilated, and his lip twitched as he shook his head. “It’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” pressing a button beside him, he turned off the now smoking screen, and steadied himself on a workbench, “Are you familiar with the Third Law of Thermodynamics?”

 

I nodded my head, replying in perfect textbook format, “As a system approaches absolute zero of temperature, all processes cease and the entropy of the system becomes a minimal constant value.”

 

Knew it? Hell, I’d designed weapons based on it. The idea had come to me about six months before, after a particularly nasty event with a steroid-laden rift. The thing was out of control and big as a warehouse by the time Seven and I had been able to get to it, and to shut it down we’d actually had to cross over the event horizon at its edge. Combining our stabilizing powers that close to the core allowed us to win out in the end, but not without our share of scars. Seven was left drained and disoriented for days, and it was a week before I came out of my coma. Sometimes, when you stare into the Abyss, it doesn’t just stare back, it punches you square in the kisser. Needless to say, being tossed around by tornado force winds of chaos and withstanding the crushing gravity of a black hole was not an experience I wanted to have again. Hence my weapon idea- the Stability Grenade.

 

It begins with a perfect crystal. The substance it’s composed of is of no consequence, so long as it contains absolutely no impurities or flaws, and thus zero entropy. Take said crystal and reduce the temperature around it to absolute zero. In accordance with the Third Law, the entropy of the crystal system will remain a stable constant, and in the case of the perfect crystal that constant will be a whomping zero. There you have it. Pure stability on tap. Simply design a containment device to maintain the essential absolute zero temp, preferably without freezing everything that touches it (like say, the agent’s fingers), launch from the proper device (I’d prefer modified grenade launchers and assault rifles, or a mortar system in a real pinch), and pray to God that it reaches the rift’s center like it’s supposed to. Once there, the containment shell opens, exposing the uber-stable payload of perfect crystal Pepto-Bismol to the stomach acid entropy of the offending rift. In the end, both the dimension and the agents are saved from some nasty ulcers.

The idea was simple, elegant, and, given most of reality, impossible. Completely perfect crystals simply don’t exist in the real world, nor has mankind ever reached absolute zero with any scientific means, let alone held it for an indefinite period of time. Enter Seven and her connections to the Board. While as a whole the Board is the most ponderous bureaucracy ever to exist, every bureaucracy is made up of people, and sometimes people can make the lumbering beast act in spite of itself. Seven knew the people in all the right places- R&D, System Maintenance, and Engineering – and soon production of the Stability Grenade had begun. Physical limits and containment were both dealt with in one fell swoop- simply create a pocket dimension where a single perfect crystal and a temperature of absolute zero is the norm. Pocket dimensions were nothing new to the Board, and were routinely used in storage devices. Think Bags of Holding, Mary Poppins’ luggage, and Dr Who’s base, and you get the idea. A small self contained dimension prevented any outside forces of energy from contaminating the payload, and also prevented the ridiculously low temps from killing anyone who touched the handheld device. Nothing says insulation like the wall between worlds. Upon use, the tennis ball sized pseudo-dimension would self terminate, expelling the crystal system out into the dimension of activation and beginning the rift neutralizing process. Even replicated by the thousands, the simplistic physical rules and tiny size of the pocket dimensions would put no strain on the Reality System, and would be the answer to all my problems. Well, most of them, anyway. The big ones.

 

Which of course meant they were taking forever to get done. The first shipment was supposed to arrive in a couple of weeks, but as I sat on that oh-so-comfortable cheapy chair, trying really hard not to think about the image I just saw, it might as well have been two years. I gritted my teeth and met Smythe’s overdilated eyes again.

 

“Please tell me that’s not what I think it is.”

 

The doctor swallowed, his voice shaky, “A perfect crystal at absolute zero, if such a thing were possible, would have zero entropy. This device contains a core that fluctuates along a range of plasma state levels, and there are random spikes of gravitic forces within it that should flatten or tear apart any structure able to form. The idea of a crystal matrix able to hold under these conditions is…well it’s simply unfathomable.” He gestured toward the sphere held in the containment field, “Yet there it is. A shifting structure, each iteration holding the most flawed configuration of molecules possible. It defies every law of stereodynamics and conservation of energy. It simply should not be. It’s-”

 

“The perfect imperfect crystal,” I finished the statement, “It’s pure entropy.”

 

There was a squeal of metal as the chunk of table came off in Seven’s hand. She never bothered to look down at it, her eyes frozen on the thing suspended in the corner. Braving broken bones in the hopes of offering some comfort, I took her hand. She squeezed, but thankfully without the same steel wrenching force. Our worst fears were confirmed. Speaking in terms of standard tech, our enemies had tactical nukes while we were still mastering gunpowder and waiting for ours in the mail. Strategically placed throughout the city, there would be no way for us to stop all the devices in time during a synchronized activation. The resulting instability would overwhelm System resources, crashing the dimension, and destroying all life within it, including me and Seven. Game over, man. Just game over.

 

The only ray of hope we had was that, sans the piece under analysis, the entire intercepted shipment was held two miles underground in the most secure facility ever created. I didn’t exactly heave a sigh of relief, but at least I was able to breathe again. Then my thrice damned phone started ringing. I squinted my eyes shut when I saw the number. This couldn’t be happening. Taking a series of deep breaths I managed to hit the receive button with a trembling finger.

 

“Let me guess- Sir, there’s been a problem. The entire shipment has been stolen.”

 

“Sir, there’s been-,” the young man’s voice paused, “That’s amazing, sir! You’ve developed some sort of way to tell the future?”

 

“No, kid. I’m just getting good at detecting patterns.”

 

*                      *                      *

 

The Sixtring Covert Security Bunker, affectionately known as “The Hole”, lies deep beneath the ground in Crey’s Folly. I chose Crey’s Folly for three reasons. One- it was the only area close to the city where such a complex could be built without seriously messing with any major utilities. Two- should something ever go horribly wrong, it was isolated enough that the populace could remain protected, safe, and blissfully unaware. Three- the name of the place was just too darn poetic to pass up.

 

The entrance to The Hole is located within the Portal Industries section of Crey’s Folly, another piece of poetry too good to pass up. If you make it past the unassuming abandoned factory exterior, you’ll find yourself in an equally unassuming abandoned factory interior, complete with piles of rebar and rubble in random locations and rusted machinery that looks like it stopped running somewhere around the late Industrial Age. Pull enough levers and have luck on your side, and after a couple hours you may just find the switch that lifts up the pneumatic cogs and gears of a large generator to reveal a set of silver elevator doors. Oh, and by the way, your identity has already been checked via facial matching against all known files, and you also have at least a hundred lethal and non-lethal security measures trained on your every movement. Those piles of factory refuse have a lot more than they seem to in them. If you’re just some overly curious kid/spunky reporter/escaped pet monkey you’ll suddenly feel a bit dizzy, then wake up back at home with no traces of the gas or dart that downed you. Have more sinister notions and you may just find yourself disintegrated.

 

But let’s pretend none of that is working. You get your kid/reporter/monkey/criminal self into that nondescript elevator and find yourself looking at a keypad with no floor levels. Don’t know the code? Oh, I’m sorry. Gee, thanks for playing, pick up some soap as a consolation prize, and don’t come back. Ever. This system is pretty much foolproof for any kid or monkey, but oh those spunky reporters and wacky criminal masterminds demand a little more. Knowing the right code will get you a thousand feet below the surface to the first containment level and security checkpoint. The shafts are arranged in a staggered fashion on opposite ends of each level, so that to reach the next lowest level, you must pass the security of the level above. Fields projected out into the surrounding earth prevent all known forms of teleportation, so no sneaky shortcuts are allowed. Each level contains a control station with the requisite comms and banks of cameras scanning at various energy frequencies, run by a team of three security personnel. From the control hub, these three overlook and direct the four security teams for each level, each consisting of ten individuals with enough training and equipment to make even a Malta Gunslinger wet himself.

 

All in all, there are ten levels to the complex, each separated by a thousand feet of solid earth. Naturally, the most cataclysmic items of destruction were stored on the lowest level, with the items becoming more relatively “non-threatening” with each higher section. Threat levels are determined along two attributes- capacity for destruction (city, world, solar system, galaxy, dimension, multiverse)  and time frame of said destruction (years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds, milliseconds). There are no research stations. It isn’t a place where you go to learn about things, it’s a place where you lock them away and wish to God they’d never existed. Impervium doors shield the world above from the greatest threats to all life as we know it, sometimes five layers deep.

 

It was one of these five layered security measures that I found myself staring at that morning, or would have been staring at if it had still been there






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