Truth. Justice. Minesweeper.

Monday, October 18, 2004

My pager rousted me out of a sound sleep early Saturday morning. I sat up on the couch and phoned in.

"Meet me at the office in an hour. I'll brief you on our way." Click.

He gave me an entire hour of lead time. By Greyghost's standards, he's being almost indecently considerate.

Fast forward.

Quarter after seven in what the Empire City Chamber of Commerce calls the Crumbling Warehouse District. The sun was just coming up and absolutely nobody was around. I pulled the car up behind an old brick building that's owned, indirectly, by the James Street people. Greyghost and I got out of the car and I fumbled for some keys.

"Mask," he said.

"Oh, yeah. Thanks." I pulled a paper bag over my head. (It had eyeholes cut into it.) We entered the loading dock, and I started to gather chairs and a table into the central area. "I don't suppose the electricity is on in here?"

"No. Did you see anyone on the way in?"


He tsked. "There were three in the immediate area."

"Yeah, well. You're the superhero."

Someone knocked on the door. Greyghost and I looked at each other, puzzled. Who knocks? I opened it, and it was a middle-aged guy with glasses, a potbelly, a cardigan and a book under his arm. He regarded me without surprise. "I'm here for the meeting," he said. I moved aside, he looked in, sighed, and entered.

"I'm glad you decided to come, Inkling."

Inkling? Is that who this was? He sat down and said, "You still haven't convinced me of anything. But I can attend a meeting."

Cassie stuck her helmeted head in the door. "Could you come out here for a second?"

I joined her outside. "What's up?"

"That's a nice mask. The classics never go out of style."


"Could you let Greyghost know that there's somebody flying laps a couple of blocks from here? And a guy sneaking through alleys and hiding in doorways coming up from First? Oh, and here." She handed me a backpack.

"This is the stuff from Itzhak?"

"Yeah. I'm going to buzz around some more, make sure nothing goes wrong." She blew me a kiss and took to the air, as a blue bubble containing Ms. Moxie and Bob floated down next to me.

Ms. Moxie gestured and the bubble disappeared. "Who's here so far?" Bob said.

"Hardly anybody," I answered. "Go on in." Still a few minutes until seven-thirty, which is when the festivities were supposed to start. I checked the backpack. There were a dozen pens inside, each taped to a photocopied page. And a blueberry muffin. Cassie's so great.

Eating my new breakfast, I took a stroll around the premises, looking for clandestine superheroes. I probably looked like quite the idiot in my paper bag, but I preferred that to letting any of these super-powered also-ran bozons know who I was and that I worked for Greyghost.

A guy in a black costume flew by on black wings made of some kind of light-sucking energy, swooped in and landed in front of me. "Who are you? Are you here for the meeting?" It was a bad costume; made of cloth, basically, and inexpertly sewn.

"Sure. I'm the famous-ass superhero Ashtray Boy. I fly around the city protecting carpets and furniture from the scourge of overflowing ashtrays. You're Shadow-Falcon, right?"

"You've heard of me?"

"Don't look so surprised. C'mon. The door's on the other side of the building."

By the time we got in there was much more of a full house. Joining Greyghost, Ms. Moxie, Inkling and Bob in the loading dock were two newcomers--a guy in white armor (probably Fantastic Man) and a woman with a domino mask and a blue leotard (Lady Starwind, I guess). I lifted the backpack to show Greyghost, and said, "Perseid's doing a last few patrol loops."

He nodded. "We're almost all here. I'll just wait for everyone to find their seats"

From what I can tell, superheroes all synchronize their watches off the same clock. At 7:30 exactly, Perseid got back from her recon; a cat strolled out of the shadows, jumped up on a chair and turned into a young woman in black denim and a half-face mask; a vaguely human-shaped aqua-colored shimmer appeared on another chair; and One-Eyed Jack let himself in from some interior hallway and said, "Building's clear."

Greyghost looked at me. "There should be one more. Could you close the door after that?"

I nodded and got up. Before I could cross the room, a howling winter wind blew a cloud of snow in, knocking me back a couple of steps. I shielded my eyes, and by the time I could see again, Icecap was standing in the doorway. "Now the meeting can start," he said.

"I can't believe what an asshole this guy is," I muttered. I swear, it just slipped out.

The rest of the quorum didn't seem impressed either, mostly. Inkling just sighed as if this was the kind of thing he expected all along. Shadow-Falcon's eyes were pretty wide, but then they had been since he got here anyway. Bob said, "C'mon, kid, sit down and let's get this thing over with. Quit showing off."

"Sure, Torque," he said, and took the only empty chair left.

"Before we start," said Prowl--the woman who had come in shaped like a cat-- "can I just say that this is already bullshit? All the SPIA agents are up there at the front and the rest of us are just supposed to fall in line with whatever they say. Now, I'm willing to spend some of my Saturday morning listening to bullshit, but you should know that I don't plan on purchasing any today, thanks very much." Whee! This was going to be fun after all.

I kept an eye on Shadow-Falcon. He looked like the only one who hadn't developed the sensible but annoying superhero habit of concealing his reactions. At the moment he was obviously freaked.

"I'll keep this simple. We are the only masked auxiliaries in Empire City. Crime is increasing faster than our ability to fight it. We've recently lost allies in Manxcat and Surefire, and Ms. Moxie is going to be playing a much-reduced role from now on. If we don't want to be overwhelmed, we need to work together. We need to organize more effectively."

"What about Moonshooter?" asked Lady Starwind.

"We can't find him," said Ms. Moxie. "Believe me, we've tried."

"I can't wait to hear what you mean by 'organizing'," Prowl said. "It's obvious that SPIA's the government's way of trying to control superheroes. It's also pretty obvious that this meeting is SPIA's way of trying to control the superheroes who haven't already signed over their souls."

I made a prediction right then: at next year's meeting, Greyghost will nominate Prowl for SPIA membership.

"You don't know whatever you're talking about!" Cassie said. "SPIA isn't anything like that!"

"This meeting isn't about SPIA," Greyghost cut in. He turned to me. "Have you decided on an alias?"

"I thought I'd go by Dennis," I said. "I had a friend named Dennis when I was little." This was a little piece of theater Greyghost and I had cooked up in order to allow the crowd to call me by my name without knowing it was actually my name.

"The pens?"

I took a pen out of the backpack and waved it in the air. "This is what we want to do," I said. "These things look like pens, but they're actually dedicated cellphones. You can use them like pens, but they write like crap. If you're out chasing Evil Professor Arglebargle and it suddenly turns out he's got three older brothers, you can use it to call for help. I will be on the other end of the phone, and I'll scare someone up for you. So if you ever receive a call on your penphone, it'll be me asking if you can go help another superhero."

"And who are you?" Icecap said.

"He's Ashtray Boy," Shadow-Falcon told him.

"He's Greyghost's assistant," One-Eyed Jack supplied.

"Yeah, and what else is in these pens?" Prowl said. "Tracking device?"

"Yeah, actually," I said. "If someone's about to step on your head, don't you think it'd be good if I knew where to send help?"

"Great. I'll just let the super-powered government agents know where I am at all times. I don't know why I didn't think of it before," she said.

I shrugged. "You can disable that part," I said. "If you want. Doesn't really matter; I'm the only one who gets this information and I'm already bored by it."

"It's a suck-ass idea anyway," she said. "The reason why superheroes are such a strength in this society is that we're independent. If we tie ourselves together this way, we're not independent anymore; we're just another committee that can't do anything."

I could see some people nodding. Icecap and Fantastic Man in particular seemed taken by her argument. One-Eyed Jack said, "Prowl has a point. A loose network is fine, but we do restrict our ability to respond if we attempt anything more elaborate than that. It also makes us more vulnerable; imagine if a bomb went off in this room right now." Lady Starwind and Shadow-Falcon looked around nervously.

"Bottom line," Icecap said. "Why should I go along with this? I'm not a government superhero or whatever. Why should I carry this thing around when it's just going to be a pain in the ass for me with everyone calling me for help all the time?"

"Because you might need help sometime," Cassie told him.

He smirked. "Like I needed your help against the Professionals?"

"What does everyone else think?" Greyghost said, looking around the room. His gaze settled on Neontetra, who had been completely silent so far.

oOo Right now, I listen, oOo he said in a liquidy kind of voice that seemed to bypass my ears and go straight to my brain.

Next to Neontetra was Fantastic Man. "I'll see what kind of response you get," he said, his voice sounding metallic through the speakers in his helmet. "No point in being the only guy in it. Am I gonna call myself for help?"

Cassie and Bob both announced their support for Greyghost's scheme, and Prowl said, "There's a surprise."

Lady Starwind shook her head and said, "I don't... really think it sounds like... something I'd be interested in. I don't do this--" she gestured at all the superheroness around her "--very often. I'm sorry."

One-Eyed Jack said, "I'll take one of those pens. We can all use a little help every now and then, and if that's all this is, I have no objection."

"I don't know," Shadow-Falcon said, shaking his head. He kept looking at the bag of pens."It's just... I don't know."

"Give me mine," Ms. Moxie said to me, "but you know not to call me unless the world's cracking in two, right?" I nodded, handing her a penphone.

Now everyone was staring at Inkling, the only one here with no mask or costume at all. He took his glasses off and rubbed his forehead. "I wanted to leave all this behind," he said. "You have no idea what it's like. But..." He looked around at all the superheroes who had turned down the pens. "I know someone has to help." He extended his hand, and I placed a pen in it. He dropped it in his pocket absently.

"I'll only call you if it's an emergency," I told him. He nodded, but I don't think I reassured him.

"Thank you, Inkling," Greyghost said. "It's appreciated."

Inkling's decision seemed to turn the tide. Once he had his pen, first Neontetra, then Fantastic Man, then Shadow-Falcon all gestured to request theirs. I waggled one at Lady Starwind.

"No. Thank you," she said. "I'm going to go now. I shouldn't have come." She slipped out of her chair and walked quietly to the door.

I turned to Prowl. "Still a couple left," I told her. "Going, going, gone."

She held her hand out. "Wanna know what I'm going to do with this thing as soon as I get out of here?"


"I'm going to take it to a guy I know, who's going to take it apart and rip out any Big Brother crap you've got in there. I'll accept your help, and I'll even give you some help if you really need it, but you're not spying on me. Screw that."

"Okay by me," I said. It looked like Greyghost was about to say something, and I didn't want him to, so I went on: "I guess that's it, everybody. Thanks for coming. I hope we don't have to use these pens, but you know we will."

People rose from their chairs. Neontetra faded from view, and Prowl turned back into a cat (blue point Siamese). Icecap said, "What, you're not going to try to sell me on this?"

Again just ahead of Greyghost, I said, "When we were setting up this meeting, we figured that it'd be successful if eight people had these pens at the end of it. There's gonna be ten of 'em walking out that door with new owners. I don't need to sell you on a damn thing."

"Talking pretty tough, there, Ashtray Boy," he said, looming over me.

"I can afford to," I said. "See, I've got this pen where I can call superheroes for help. I'd offer you one, but it writes like crap and you don't need any help."

He narrowed his eyes. "Yeah, I'll take one," he said. I handed it to him, and he said, "Let's see how it writes," and grabbed the paper bag off my head.

I grinned at everyone--nobody had quite left yet, and they were all now committing my face to memory--and said, "Does this ever happen to any of you guys?"

Ten minutes later we were in the car headed back to the office. Greyghost was apparently willing to ride in silence, but I wasn't. "I want some kind of freaking bonus for that. I sacrificed my identity and dignity to get that son of a bitch to join your club, and you never could have done it in a million years. And don't tell me to--"

"Take it up with Cruickshank."

"I said, don't tell me to..."

And so on.

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