(This is Part Two; please read The Boardroom, Part One before you read this. Actually, you should read the entire blog - that's right, the whole damn thing - before you read this)
It’s uncomfortable when people announce their godhood in front of you.
“Well,” I say. “I can sing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in Pig Latin.”
More silence. Dr. Quark looks at me like I’m a bug.
“He does that a lot, the secrets of the universe speech,” Ted says, referring to Dr. Quark. I’m stunned – did Ted just make a joke?
Quark continues, ignoring Ted. “I have a higher purpose, Mr. Mackenzie, and I’m willing to break a few Earth laws to reach my goal. I would expect you of all people to understand. Your relationship with the police could best be described as adversarial, yet you persist in pursuit of the greater good, breaking the law every night.”
I bite back the obvious comment about how my nocturnal activities haven’t spawned any unstable miniature black holes lately. I don’t want to push my luck.
“My goal is simple: I want to bring dimensional technology to the planet, to humanity, before it’s too late. Think of the possibilities, Mr. Mackenzie. Think of the problems it would solve.”
I smile sourly. “And of course, it’s proprietary technology, right? You’d license it to humanity - but at a price.”
“Yes, we would stand to make a lot of money,” Dr. Quark says in a matter-of-fact way.
“One has to cover one’s costs,” Aaron Clarke says.
Ted Bradbury bristles. “You got something against making money, Mackenzie?”
“Defensive much, Ted?” I say. “Yeah, I have a problem with making money when you’re doing mad scientist shit and accidentally creating black holes just to make a buck. Call me crazy.”
“Let’s move on,” Dr. Quark says flatly to me. “Next question?”
“All right. Are you shutting down QuantumWorks?”
Quark sighs. “Yes. Given the circumstances, we think it’s best to suspend the project until we can figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.”
That’s the answer I was looking for. “Okay then, why did you bring me onboard? You must have known I was The Velvet Marauder – I don’t get why you’d risk having me hanging around.”
Dr. Quark smiles, and there’s actual warmth there for the first time. “To be honest, we were scouting you for a project. We wanted to monitor you up close, see how you reacted.”
“Who’s we? QuantumWorks?”
“The Storm Riders.”
He lets that one sink in for a minute, and then speaks: “We’re interested in expanding our organization by creating a network of auxiliary heroes. It’s similar to Silver Striker’s affiliate program, but instead of a loose network of on-call agents, we want to form a few regional super-teams to support The Storm Rider mission.”
“Like a minor league,” I offer.
“More like a bush league,” Ted says.
I mouth the words “fuck you” to Ted as Dr Quark continues.
“The regional teams would handle terrestrial threats that the Storm Riders might not otherwise have the time to handle. It would be a good opportunity for young heroes to learn tradecraft and get some experience, and provides the Storm Riders with a large pool of potential replacements if one of us is killed or otherwise incapacitated.”
I’m a little insulted that he thinks I need to work on my tradecraft, but I’m flattered that I’m even on the Storm Riders’ radar, to say nothing of actually being a candidate for an auxiliary program. I must rule.
“Why didn’t you just ask me?”
Mr. Black chimes in from the corner of the boardroom. “That’s not how it works.”
Who is this guy? I turn my attention to Mr. Black as he rises from his seat and approaches the table. Big fella. “Okay, so how does it work?”
Mr. Black says, “We place candidates under surveillance so we can get a better idea how they work. We’ve been monitoring you for nine months now.”
“Surveillance?” I ask. I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this. “What kind of surveillance?”
“We bugged your house with KOMA probes and set up micro-cameras in your secret chamber and gym-- ”
Without missing a beat, Mr. Black says, ““We bugged your house with KOMA probes and set up micro-cameras in your secret chamber and gym.”
This is a nightmare. Am I blushing? I must be blushing, because I’m thinking of one night a few weeks back when I was online in the Secret Chamber, looking at pictures of Valkris. Specifically, I was looking at video footage of her famous “wardrobe malfunction” during the battle with those zombie conquistadors. Don’t tell me you haven’t looked that shit up – she’s got to be the most Googled heroine ever. Anyway, I might have, you know, engaged in activity which requires the use of tissue paper that night – and these guys have it on video.
“Oh Christ,” I mutter, hiding my face in my hand.
Mr. Black says, “We also installed GPS tracking devices in your armor, and set up a video feed through your goggles for point of view shots.”
I’m still hung up on the whole masturbation thing, so I’m not sure I heard him right. “You what?”
Patiently, Mr. Black says, ““We also installed GPS tracking devices in your armor, and set up a video feed through your goggles for point of view shots.”
“How the hell did you do that?” I say.
“It was built into the armor.”
But my armor and stuff comes from My Guy -- Wombat referred him to me. Is MY Guy in bed with The Storm Riders? “Wait a second – are you My Guy?” I ask Mr. Black.
“My weapons and armor dude.”
Dr. Quark interjects. “Your equipment was all designed by Hephaestus, our weapon smith.”
“You gotta be fucking kidding me.” Hephaestus designed my suit, my Marauderangs? The guy who makes Midnight Rambler’s armor, who designed the Storm Shuttles, who made Sun King’s containment suit, the guy who made the Katana giant robot? “Hephaestus made all my shit?”
“More accurately, Hephaestus’ team of engineers made your shit,” Quark says.
I stand up and walk away from the table, mind racing. This is all happening too quickly, I’m getting flooded here. If I was just a little smarter I could have figured this all out months ago. Steadying myself at the buffet table, I pour myself a mimosa. They’re all looking at me when I turn around. Ted Bradbury has a big smirk on his face. He’s enjoying this, watching me squirm.
“Hang on a second,” I say. “Wombat referred me to My – to Hephaestus.”
“Yes,” Mr. Black says. “Wombat was under consideration for the teams as well. Hephaestus designed his suit and spades.”
“But the KOMA probes – Hephaestus made those, right?” Nods. “But he does work for villains. I fought this ninja once – he was planting KOMA probes--”
“That was me,” Mr. Black says.
“That was you? In the Interbionics Building that one time?”
“That was me.”
“Who are you?”
Mr. Black says, “I’m The Midnight Rambler.”
Any other time this would be a major, mind-blowing revelation, and I’d be awe struck by the presence of the hero who, let’s face it, I’ve idolized for years. Now I’m just numb. Plus, The Midnight Rambler has been privy to some of the most humiliating episodes in my life: the embarrassingly one-sided fight with Ninja Rambler, the varsity football pep talk I gave myself in the bathroom before this meeting, and my pathetic masturbation session inspired by one of his teammates. Oh, and Midnight Rambler probably watched the video of me pissing myself that one night when I was drunk and decided to go on patrol. No, I’m not exactly psyched to finally meet my hero. Not like this.
“Great,” I say gloomily. “You’re The Midnight Rambler.”
“So you were planting bugs in the Interbionics Building that night and I came along and screwed it up.”
“Not entirely,” he says. “You didn’t find all the bugs; I got the information I needed.”
“So I was right. Interbionics is dirty.”
The Midnight Rambler nods. “They’re in league with The Pomeranian government and have developed some extremely dangerous technology in their lab in eastern Washington.”
“And that robot I fought – the Insekt model. That was a Pomeranian robot that Interbionics was going to use to guard their lab.”
Then it hits me. “Hey! Hey, you were the waiter at the Interbionics Christmas party, the one that slipped me the note warning me about the champagne!”
“Yes. And I was the one that broke into your house and stole the canister of material you retrieved from Interbionics. It was very helpful, having a sample of that material to analyze.”
“Well, what’s in the canister?”
Mr. Black smiles. “I can’t say unless you’re part of the team.”
“That’s bullshit!” I say, forgetting who I’m talking to. “I risked my ass to get that canister! I saved the fucking day during that Christmas party!”
“Yes. But I’m still not telling you until you’re part of the team. I don’t share intel with outsiders.”
“I can’t believe this,” I say. “You guys spy on me, jerk me around for the better part of a year, and now you’re holding out on me.”
Dr. Quark gets up and pours himself some coffee. “Any other questions?”
I’ve segued from embarrassment to anger now, but I stay cool. “Sure. What about Margo? Is she involved in all of this?”
“Ms. Thompson was brought on to the QuantumWorks project as a further incentive for you to join,” Quark says. “We were aware of your feelings for her and thought you’d be more likely to participate if she were involved.”
Aaron Clarke adds, “She’s an excellent project manager, though. Quite intelligent. She was suspicious of the entire program from the beginning.”
“What about Hydrangea? Was she working for you guys?”
Dr. Quark sits back down and sips his coffee. “We’ve had our eyes on her for a while, but direct surveillance was impossible given her powers. She’s been tapped to join our teams.”
I say, “So was she working for you during the whole Hungry Ghost caper?”
“No,” Quark says, but I’m not sure I believe him. “We approached her shortly afterwards to ask for her help with the unstable dimensional vortex. Hydrangea is impressive. She’s barely tapped into her full potential. In time…”
“Good for her. What about the bacon smell, what’s up with that?”
“Well, an inevitable byproduct of side slipping – matter teleportation – is a fairly strong odor at the destination point. Originally it was an overpowering brimstone stench – like the devil had farted.”
His joke gets a little courtesy laugh from me. I get the impression that Dr. Quark has explained the bacon smell a million times and he always throws that little gag in there.
“You can imagine how a noxious smell would undermine the drama of Dr. Quark suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Through a great deal of trial and error, I managed to change the smell to a sickly sweet perfume odor. I kept working at it, and now we have the relatively discrete bacon smell. I’m working on a Nag Champa scent right now. Next question?”
I point at Ted Bradbury. “Who is he?”
“That’s Ted,” Dr. Quark says.
“I mean, who is he really? You’re Dr. Quark, he’s The Midnight Rambler, he went to M.I.T. – who is Ted?”
“I’m retired,” Ted says. “I don’t do the cape thing anymore. I’m a businessman now.”
“Okay, who were you then?”
Ted hesitates, and then says, “I was Action Lad. Then I was The Wanderer.”
The room is quiet for a moment.
Then I bust out laughing. “You were Action Lad?” I cackle. “Fisticuffer’s sidekick? Holy shit, Ted!”
Ted jumps to his feet, pissed, as I nearly collapse laughing. One part of me knows how inappropriate it is, but I can’t stop myself. Maybe it’s the stress of the situation, I don’t know.
Laughing, I point at Ted. “Dude, and you had those shorts and the little cape!”
“Shut up, Mackenzie,” Ted says, clenching his fists.
“I’m just trying to picture you in those shorts, Ted.”
“I’m warning you.”
“And the Wanderer!” I laugh. “What was with the shoulder pads and shit? When was that ever cool? You looked like an extra from that Olivia Newton-John movie, with the roller disco--”
“Xanadu,” The Midnight Rambler offers.
“Right!” I cry. “Xanadu! You should combine the two looks, Ted, and wear those short-shorts with some big fucking shoulder pads and that headband.”
“I think that will do, Mr. Mackenzie,” Dr. Quark says.
But I’m on a roll. “The Wanderer! I heard Siegfried and Roy sued you for stealing their look!”
Ted lunges at me, snarling. I’m ready for it, and I swing my fist around in a roundhouse punch aimed right at his face.
My punch stops. I stop. Ted stops. We’re suspended in mid-action, totally frozen, but Dr. Quark and the others can move. It’s the strangest sensation, like when you just space out and stare for a minute into space. Do you ever do that? Just kind of zone out, staring at nothing, self-hypnotized, lost in non-thought? It’s sort of like that – I feel like I am able to move, but won’t.
Dr. Quark approaches and looks at me. “Do you have any more questions, Mr. Mackenzie?”
“No, I think I’m good,” I say. I’m keenly aware that he could wrap me up like a pretzel if he wanted to.
He waves his hand and Ted and I float away from each other, weightless. Dr. Quark puts us on the other side of the room and lets us go.
“Now then, if you’re done antagonizing Mr. Bradbury, let’s talk business,” Dr. Quark says.
“Talk business?” I say, smoothing out my shirt. “Are you kidding? You guys offer me a fake job, bug my house and my armor and shit, and just generally play me like a chump, and you want to talk business?”
“You’re letting your pride dictate your actions, Mr. Mackenzie,” Dr. Quark says. “Be reasonable.”
“Fuck reasonable. You made a fucking black hole, dude! How is making a black hole on accident any worse than making one on purpose? I mean, if Diabolik did this you guys would be on him like stink on shit!”
“Nice analogy. Lower your voice,” Dr. Quark says, his eyes growing dark.
“Sorry,” I say quietly. “Let me tell you quietly, then: I quit. Connor Mackenzie quits, The Velvet Marauder quits. I don’t want to be part of your little ant farm.”
“Don’t be stupid, Mackenzie,” The Midnight Rambler says.
“Let him go, you don’t need him,” Ted says.
I hold out my hand. “Give me my phone back,” I say to Dr. Quark, who is glaring at me now. I don’t think he hears the word “no” a lot. Or “fuck,” for that matter.
The Nokia transat phone that Silver Striker gave me appears in my open hand with a flash of light.
“Thanks,” I say, pocketing the phone.
They’re all looking at me.
I start to walk out. Nobody is saying anything. Lightning doesn’t fall from the sky.
I stop at the boardroom door and turn around.
They’re all looking at me.
Deliberately, I walk across the room to the buffet table. I grab a croissant and hold it up.
“I’m taking this,” I say, then walk out.
My heart is thumping heavily in my chest as I walk down the main corridor of the QuantumWorks annex for the last time. At the end of the hallway Hydrangea waits for me, standing next to one of the big non-carnivorous potted plants. She’s wearing a green silk kimono-type gown, and looks tired.
“Hello back,” I say bitterly.
“I quit. I’m walking away. I don’t want any part of that bullshit, I don’t care who they are.”
“You’re angry,” she says in her Katherine Hepburn voice. “You shouldn’t make any rash--”
I stop in front of her. “You could have told me. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was instructed not to,” she says.
“And if Quark told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that?” I say, then instantly regret it. What a dumb thing to say. What am I, seven?
“What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I turn and walk away. “Have fun working for Mr. God Complex.”
She calls my name, but I’m gone.