THE FIFTH TIME: IRENE & THE ENERGIST
by Earl Wajenberg
Irene was so glad she had had some change in her pocket. And equally glad, of course, that the thugs hadn’t taken it away, along with phone and purse and shoes. And, providentially, one of the coins had been a nickel. If all the coins had had milled edges, she would have been out of luck. But, after interminable amounts of squirming, she had got the nickel out of her pocket and into her fingers, and had started sawing away with it at the ropes that tied her arms to the chair.
After that, there would be the problem of escaping the basement, but the place had a window, and as long as they left her alone and she stayed quiet…
The lights went out. That was not in the script, the one she had in her head. In that script, either she was left alone to work her escape (best), or rescue came (quite acceptable), or the thugs came back to taunt her (poor) or torment her (bad) or… (not going there), or their boss the Mutagonist came (probably worst). But none of these involved the lights going out. She listened hard for a while, then went back to sawing with the nickel.
After some time she could not measure, but not long, the door opened at the top of the basement stairs. A point of blue-white light kindled, like a photo flash that stayed instead of flashing. “Irene? Irene!” The voice sounded as relieved as she felt.
The light became softer, less spark-like, and moved a little. She could see he now held a softball-size globe of light in his left hand, a little above his head. She expected and hoped he would leap down the stairs in one of his super-powered, impact-free jumps, but he just came trotting down at a good speed.
“Are you all right?”
“Uh-huh. What about the bad guys?”
“Out of action. But the Mutagonist could turn up, so we must move.”
By now, he was at her side and she could see him clearly: no great height, thin, broad forehead, mustache sometimes neat but not now and greying like the temples. He left the ball of light in the air and started untying her ropes.
“Can you walk? Legs not numb?”
“I think so. They feel fine.”
“What’s this? Why the nickel?”
“I was cutting my way free.”
“Ah. Well done,” he said, but he sighed. “Make sure you can move. Just a moment.” While she stood and stretched, he went to a breaker box, touched it, and looked thoughtful for a moment. The lights came back on. “Best if things look normal,” he remarked. “Also, I can take this back.” He came back to her side and plucked the ball of light, now looking very wan, out of the air. It vanished in his hand.
She looked him over. He was wearing black slacks and boots and black hoodie. The front hung open, showing a brilliant orange shirt with an elaborate network of thick white piping over it. On inspection, the piping was really electrical cabling. It looked a little more superheroic than the black, but not a lot.
“I didn’t think you needed the harness,” she said, looking at the piping.
“I don’t. It’s misdirection. Most people think I do need it. We want to keep it that way as long as possible. Let’s go.”
Uncle Dan escorted her up the stairs, more concerned with speed than stealth. Above was the main room of the little building. It was pretending to be a machine shop in an industrial park, and it really did have lathes and AI benches and terminals and such, but it also had a littering of unconscious thugs. Irene recognized her erstwhile captors.
“What did you do to them?” she asked, surveying them without sympathy.
“Brain freeze. That is, brain cool. It only takes a dip of a few degrees to put someone out. I don’t think I did any permanent damage.” Irene could not say she cared if he had.
Some of the thugs had heads enlarged by armadillo-like plating, and wore those sleeveless shirts disgustingly called “wife-beaters,” to show off additional plating on neck, shoulders, chest, and arms. They had great knobs on their knuckles, and muscles that looked more as if they had been blown up with a bicycle pump than exercised. One, in another style of strange, had a fathom-long prehensile tail, and tentacles sprouting from his forearms. Another wore nothing but a thong, and had skin that changed color in blotches. Others just had guns.
All were unconscious. Several twitched convulsively, without stop. The chameleon man had curled up and turned white except for a scattering of blinking leopard spots. Tentacle-guy might put himself in knots soon.
“Electric shock?” she asked, nodding at tentacle-guy.
“No, brain-freeze. Didn’t I say? They’re shivering. A lot. A thick skull doesn’t protect against that,” he said in a pleased tone. “Now let’s get you out of here. FALCON figures that the Mutagonist will show up to find out why his henchmen have stopped responding, and they want to be here, waiting but not obvious. And they want the hostage out. That’s you.”
When Uncle Dan vanished, back when she was thirteen, it had been the most horrible time of her life, and of her mother’s. He had just gone, without explanation or reason, except that it was part of some FALCON White Team experiment. She had cried a lot. A military doctor had talked patiently with her and her parents, tried to be both soothing and practical, threw around words like “closure” and “move on,” but in general failed to help.
Then Uncle Dan had turned up again. It had only been a few months, but he looked older—thinner, with the beginnings of gray hair and crow’s feet. They estimated he had aged ten years or a little under. They had to estimate because he couldn’t remember what had happened or where he had been. All Green Team would tell them (or him) was that he had been retrieved in a quick visit (or expedition or raid; they used all those words) to some place “hi-techy.” Ray guns had been involved, and a scar from a blaster bolt, under the hair on the right side of his head, had a lot to do with Dan’s poor memory.
He had also come back wearing a harness that he could use to manipulate energy. Only basic forms—electricity, heat, and kinetic and potential—and only when in physical contact of some kind. And only he could use the harness. But it had been very interesting to Gold Team, and they had promoted Dan from White Team researcher to Gold Team field agent. Because, in addition to ten years and a harness, Dan had brought back substantial martial skills and a wiry, leathery athletic development.
“The only thing is,” he had told Irene and her parents, “they always make sure I have a minder. They think I don’t notice, but I do. I don’t object, though; they’re quite right. My memory still isn’t up to standard.” Irene had heard her mom grumble that this meant Gold Team treated her brother like a weapon: just point and shoot. But Irene’s dad had said, “Don’t sell Dan short,” and Irene agreed. She thought that the “weapon,” if a little absent-minded, still showed plenty of initiative. As now, for instance.
The entryway was blocked. It took her a few seconds to recognize the obstacle as the surface of an office table. The table floated on its side, legs pointed out and away from them.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I thought a barricade could buy me a little time, if necessary. Wasn’t.” He put fingertips to the table surface. The table glided out as if his fingers were adhesive. He pushed it to one side and let it drop. Then he inhaled with satisfaction, as if breathing in fresh air.
Beyond was the front office of the soi disant machine shop, but now the air was cluttered with floating furniture. Interesting. Before he cut the lights, Uncle Dan had made sure he was shutting the thugs in with him.
He wandered the office, disenchanting desks and filing cabinets, letting them crash, while she retrieved her shoes, phone, and purse. In a minute, he was done and definitely had more spring in his step. “There. Much better.”
“Why does undoing it give you a lift?” she asked.
“Simple physics. I had to put potential energy into them and that energy had to come from somewhere. Now, I admit, we don’t know exactly where, but some of it, at least, is my own. So I took it back. Some people think metas draw on the background– No, we really must get going.”
She strode out the door, a free woman (if fifteen was a woman), where she had been hustled in as a prisoner a few hours before. Then—hurrah!—Uncle Dan put his arm around her shoulder and they lifted into the air and flitted into the evening. Bicycle speed, no faster. Uncle Dan had once explained that the kinetic energy had to come from somewhere, and his was limited. It was simple physics.
“Just you?” she asked, looking around. On previous flights, there had been someone with a jet pack—a Gold Team someone, the minder.
“I was closest and there was no one to enlist as partner.” Maybe his memory was getting better. Maybe there had been no choice. He cleared his throat. “How did it happen this time?”
“Uncle Dan! You make it sound like I get captured every week.”
“It is the fifth time.”
“I saw this sketchy-looking meta at the mall—one of the armadillo guys—and thought he should be investigated. He was looking way too pleased with himself.”
“A meta? At the mall?” There was nothing wrong with Uncle Dan’s perceptions or thought processes.
“He was in disguise. Only I saw his wig slip. And it was in the mall. Well, next to the mall. In a parking lot. Of a (bar),” she confessed, muttering the last word.
“Your folks don’t just tell you to stay away from such places to protect your reputation,” he said severely, or as severely as Uncle Dan ever got. She could see a lot worse on the horizon from her folks. But she was determined to be an investigator, a detective or spy or reporter, and she needed to start practicing now.
His phone squeaked. They dropped as he fumbled for it and Irene squeaked too, grabbing him reflexively. He dropped the phone, but it was on a tether. “Force. … Yes, fine. I have her and we’re en route. … They were all unconscious when I left. … No, alive. I think. … Yes, brain damage is certainly a possibility. … No, all right.” He hung up, then hovered for three minutes, getting his bearings. It turned out he had been flying athwart the right direction.
“Is that the original harness?” she asked once they were back on course. She pointed to the web of white cabling under his hoodie. She wanted to get off the topic of her own strategic blunders, and Uncle Dan was easy to divert.
“Oh, no. A mock-up. The original’s back at the lab. We’re still researching it. Trying to repair it.” Current theory was that the harness did not grant Dan his powers (clearly) but might have taught him or endowed him. This became obvious when he finished an action-packed assignment with the harness in tatters but his powers intact. Irene lived in hope of someday getting powers of her own from a restored harness. After all, if there was anything genetic to it, she was a blood relative.
“I wish you’d wear a cooler outfit,” she said as they touched down in the empty parking lot of a different industrial park. “You’re the Energist! You should have something in white and orange, with a lightning bolt or an atom symbol on your chest!”
He made a dismissive noise. “Those are for publicity. And for young mesomorphs who are, uh, ‘ripped.’ No one wants to see a skinny middle-aged duffer flapping about with a cape.”
“A cape would be cool! The wizard bit. Wizards can be, uh…”
“Skinny and old? I’ll bear it in mind.”
They got in the car, a disappointingly ordinary-looking sedan, though at least it was orange and had all the latest gadgets. In fact, she suspected it had more than that, and that FALCON had had its talons in the works. She hoped so.
They tooled off into the evening, not toward home, she noticed. She hoped he remembered where he was going, since she didn’t know.
She looked over the gadget array on the dashboard. “Uncle Dan? You’re running on empty.”
“It’s all right. I had the oil changed just last week. Or two weeks ago…”
“I mean, won’t you get tired, running the car off your own energy?”
“Oh, I’m not. The trunk is full of those new capacitors, based on promethium-metalloid super-atoms. I just juggle the energy from them to the engine cylinders. Just basic physics. Gold Team said they didn’t want me running low. ‘Getting peckish,’ I think she said… I hope they’re declassified soon; they could be very good for phasing out fossil fuels.”
“‘Declassified’?” Irene suddenly realized that being an intrepid investigator and having juicy secrets might conflict.
“Oh… That’s right, you’re not cleared. Uh, please don’t…”
“I won’t. The juggling isn’t a strain, is it?”
“Oh, no. It’s like knitting.”
“When Aunt Norma—that would be your Great-aunt Norma, of course—gets upset, she knits up a storm. Finds it soothing. I have two of her scarves. Anyway, it’s like that. And when I start getting low, I go to the power plant and park near the reactor housing. Pull in some waste heat. Does them a bit of a favor, really. Everybody wins.” Irene supposed that being on the Gold Team had its privileges, so he was cleared for parking next to nuclear reactors.
He looked at her sideways. “You’re not going to ask me about violating the Second Law, are you?”
“Hadn’t crossed my mind,” she answered with complete honesty. “What second law? Would you get fined?”
“The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Some people think it doesn’t apply to meta powers, but in this case, it’s still just basic physics, only with little to no loss. A single battery pack can– Oh, blast!”
“What?!” He was braking and turning into a random parking lot.
“A single pack. I brought a single pack with me in case I needed a pick-me-up. I left it in the shrubs by the door. She’ll have my head when she finds I’ve left it.”
Irene wasted no time wondering who “she” was. She thought quickly, then picked up Uncle Dan’s phone. She redialed the last number. “Hello, this is Irene Bell. … No, everything is fine. But my– Dr. Force is driving, so he couldn’t call right now. We need– … Oh, just a moment.” She turned to Uncle Dan, who was giving her sideways looks as driving conditions permitted. “She needs you to say a password for stress analysis on it and stuff.” She passed him the phone.
“Uffington,” he said crisply. “No, wait, that was last month. Ah… Flagellum. … Yes, fine. … Of course I’m a bit stressed. I’ve just rescued my niece again. Do you want me to do the humming thing? … Okay, thanks.” He passed it back.
“During the extraction,” Irene said to the unseen FALCON agent, relishing the agent-y word, “we left behind a piece of equipment in the rush. Can you pick it up please? … Just a capacitator. … Yes, I mean ‘capacitor.’ In the bushes by the entrance. … Yes, that’ll be fine. Thank you.” She hung up.
“There!” she said brightly to Uncle Dan. “Fog of battle. That kind of thing. And you were responsible and told them.”
He grinned. “Rush, my eye!”
“Well, you did get us out of there ‘pretty nippy.'” This was one of his archaisms. “You save my a– uh, scalp, I save yours. Teamwork!”
Irene wondered if she could get a job as Uncle Dan’s minder. Maybe not now, but after high school. After all, if someone was going to point him and pull the trigger, it ought to be someone who cared about him. No harm in asking.
This story was originally posted on Earl’s site “Wind Off the Hilltop“.