‘We move now to another part of this blighted urban hellscape. This as you can clearly see was a department store, a part of the American landscape that was on it’s way out long before this city met it’s doom. The employees are all gone, the fixtures removed, the shoppers long since moved on. Only one man remains here, and what he’s waiting for is not available in any store.’
He knew his time was coming soon. He could hear the beast returning. It had already killed the rest of his friends. They’d died one by one, and not well. Now he was left, and it was coming. He sat with his back against the wall of the small cage. Around him the beast had gathered it’s own idea of interior decor-posters, road markers, disfigured mannequins, and all manner of strange ‘art’. The beast was near now, he could hear it’s clawed feet pounding as it ran, bounded and cavorted along. Then, as it always did, it began to sing.
“I have to admit, as heldentenors go you’re hard to beat.”
The Monster slid to a stop, “You are too kind. I fear this part requires for something a bit more spieltenor. I will perhaps have to pitch down a bit...”
“Oh no, you’re coming along beautifully. Your ability to mimic all sorts of voices and tones is really remarkable, but you’ll never reach your full potential just copying others. You need to find your own voice.”
“A fine point, and one I shall carefully consider.”
He sat up a little. He was weak-no water or food for days, “Have you come back to kill me?”
“Oh, I might in a minute. I have something a little more pressing on my mind than your horrible demise.”
The Monster was great and sleek, skin like quicksilver with a vaguely lupine body. It’s limbs ended in dreadful talons-he had seen It shred aluminium like tissue paper. It’s face was vaguely avian in shape, and it’s mouth was in the form of a razor sharp beak. Worst of all was neither claws nor beak, but the tongue. The Monster scampered over to a clothing rack, on which it had hung the emptied skins of it’s many victims. It pored over the choices, selected one, and then trotted like the cat that caught the mouse to a changing screen over in the corner.
“Oh? You do seem to be in a bit brighter mood than you have been lately.”
“Well you’ve been singing a lot less Gounod, for one.”
“Well!” It peeked above the edge of the screen, but of course it was a human face now. There was more rustling behind the screen and then she appeared. The Monster had clothed itself in the skin of one of it’s victims, this one a rather glamorous debutante. The Monster turned and posed with arms outstretched, “How do I look?” The Monster had chosen the guise of someone he knew better than himself, and even he couldn't see the deception.
“Stunning.” The word caught in his throat. Seeing her like this sent a tremor of fresh grief through him. He coughed and steeled himself, “So what is it that you’re so excited about?”
“The Master is returning! I can sense him, you know. He’s on the move and soon….oh!” She leaned against a disfigured mannequin and put a hand to her head dramatically, “Oh rapture! Oh delight! The Hunt will begin again!”
“So you’ll be leaving this place?”
“Oh yes, it won’t be long now. Don’t fear, I will definitely kill you before I go. I would never leave a poor human to just suffer.”
“You are too kind.”
“Now now, there’s no need to be like that. You knew from the moment I brought you here, that you were going to die, and join my wardrobe. Why it’s what I do, you know? But while I am boundlessly cruel, I am also generous. Before your agonizing demise I shall permit you one last request. A final meal perhaps? A ten second head start?”
“There’s no food left anywhere, and I’m too weak to be much sport.”
“Der Holle Rache, from Die Zauberflote. Your male tenor may still need a little work, but your coloratura soprano knows no equal.”
“Well chosen. This then shall be my final performance for you. I, Popsy the Warwolf...or shall I use my stage name? Jeanne-Marie Baubier?”
Gunfire was rattling off the walls and the hitmen had nearly advanced within touching distance of Gunfire was rattling off the walls and the hitmen had nearly advanced within touching distance of Sofia’s barricade when an armoured taxicab with the words HEROES FOR HIRE written on the side burst into the street with a shrieking of tires.
It executed a flawless bootlegger’s handbrake turn, screeching smoke up as it swivelled, and the hitmen scrambled back before they got hit by a ballistic vehicle. Sofia and her bodyguard gaped as one of the passenger doors on their side propped open, but neither of them hesitated when a voice urged them to come in before the shooting restarted.
“Hello.” Said the woman in the driver’s seat, as they scrambled in. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m your Hero For Hire today. Do you agree to the terms and conditions?”
“What?” Sofia said, and flinched when the glass on her window cracked as a bullet impacted directly on it.
“I’mma take that as a yes.” The driver said. “’Excuse me, got to set up the fare. Always takes a –there we go. Buckle up!”
The accelerator slammed to the floor. The engine roared. The tires span for a moment, and then the car leaped ahead, guzzling up miles and gasoline like it had a personal obligation to contribute to climate change. Sparks flew as the car forced its way out of the too-narrow alleyway and Sofia and her bodyguard were flung about as it swung into the open street, and roared on.
“Safety belts on, people.” The driver said. “Can’t be getting you hurt.”
Sofia fumbled for her belt, unable to avoid noticing that this taxi was much more internally padded and externally armoured than most she was used to seeing, and glanced out of the back window for signs of pursuit. There were several sinister black cars pulling out of traffic and accelerating towards them.
Sofia’s bodyguard checked his pistol, and cursed. “Out of ammo.” He said. “Does this thing have any weapons?”
“It’s a taxi.” The driver said. “It has a fare meter.”
“Fare meter actually works in that case, but please don’t.” The driver said. “It’s calculating your fare.”
Sofia glanced at the number on the meter, and then gasped. It was a large number. It had a lot of zeroes on it.
“We’re paying that for a taxi ride?” She said.
“No, you’re paying that for a Hero For Hire. Operational costs.” Bullets rattled off the armour and the driver swerved to avoid a collision with one of their pursuers. “Wear and tear on the paintwork. Don’t worry, it’s all based on a percentage of your income. Very financially democratic. Apparently, you’re loaded.”
“Do I-“ Sofia’s bodyguard began.
“You’ll get a separate charge. Don’t worry, it’s basically like one percent of princesses’s here.”
Sofia glared at him. “You’re the heroes for hire, then.” She said. “I’ve heard about you. Who are you working for?”
“Don’t know. Got contacted out of the blue, asking if I wanted a job that went fast and helped people. Strictly no kill-rules, so stop looking for guns in the back there.” She added, as Sofia pulled her hand out of the door rack. “You’re probably some sort of mafia princess or something, so be glad we’ve got a no-judgement policy on life saving.”
The car rocked as something hit it with a heavy thud and the driver yanked the wheel into the tailspin so they’d stabilize. After some taxi-appropriate cursing towards whoever had hit them, she resumed.
“But yeah, got a new job offer, and hell if this doesn’t beat the old one. I mean, it was faster, but I didn’t get any respect. They kept on running bets on how many of my passengers would die and calling me Crashpad which I felt was a little unfair, because, y’know, everyone lived.”
“They called you what?” Sofia said, as the taxi broke through the streets and into a wide open bridge.
“Crashpad. I actually made a lot of winnings by betting on-“
“What was your old job?”
“You were a test pilot called Crashpad?” Sofia yelled. “How bad were you?”
“I was a great pilot.” Carol Danvers said. “I can crash anything.”
“Don’t you mean dri-”
“Nope. Hang on.”
The taxi burst through the safety railing and off the bridge, slammed onto another bridge, weaved through oncoming traffic for a few seconds, span on a hard ninety-degree right turn to duck back into an alleyway, and continued on. Carol listened out for a moment, and then grinned as the dopplering distance of pursuit indicated that they’d evaded attention.
“Fantastic!” She said, turning around to grin at her passengers. “I got you all out in one piece, and I didn’t even cra-“
There was a shudder, and then bang, and then the long wet hiss of a fire hydrant slowly exploding.
“What it means when I can crash anything,” Carol explained, as the airbags slowly deflated, “is that I can drive anything. Alien saucer ended up in my hands at one point and it flew like a bird. The landing, though, that’s the tricky bit. Never could get the hang of landings. Or stoppings. This here taxi’s the first thing I’ve driven that’s been built with that in mind. Everyone alive?”
A pair of groans answered in the affirmative, and a layer of armour on the taxi’s fenders fell off to reveal another, tougher layer of ablative armouring, and a quick purr of the engine revealed it was still running.
Carol grinned. She loved this taxi.
“Heroes For Hire, people, life-saving operation at your service! See yourselves outta the car and if you’re ever in trouble, just tell your friends to call 868 and we’ll be on our way!”
Hero-For-Hire Carol Danvers was famed for being able to drive or fly anything – cars, helicopters, aircraft, spacecraft, and strange multidimensional alien travel vehicles operating on principles that human minds shouldn’t be able to understand.
Her sole and only flaw as a pilot is that she has apparently only ever heard of the concept of a crash landing.
No one’s died yet, but there’s a reason why unkind people have called any plan with her piloting and passengers on it a flying Crashpad.
Peter Parker figured he’d done pretty well for a guy in his position.
Okay, yes, technically he wasn’t in the shape he’d been when he was young. And alright, if you wanted to get even more technical, the years of barely treated PTSD were a real pain in the ass. And right, he and his wife were “on break” right now, and that was miserable, and the lawsuit over backpay was still unresolved, so he wasn’t in something he’d call a good apartment, but…
But a lot of the other people who’d been there hadn’t gotten home at all. So when he was sobbing and eating pizza in the shower, he was at least alive to eat soggy pizza. And it meant that when life knocked him down, well, he’d just get back up again, like he had every time before.
Once this ringing in his head stopped.
After a minute, he realized that the ringing wasn’t in his head, but at his door. Probably best to answer it. He was pretty sure the rent check hadn’t bounced, even if someone would check a place that still had tarp covering up damage from the impact, but that was not an argument he wanted to have.
He opened the door.
“I swear, the bank said… oh. Hey Peni.”
“You’re soaking wet. Were you wearing your clothes in the shower?”
“There was a leak. In the roof.”
“We’re on the top floor. And it’s sunny.”
“It was the time roof. Look, I’m very busy, so unless you were here to talk about how weird it is when it starts raining indoors, maybe we can move ahead with this conversation.”
Peni stepped inside.
“I still have trouble believing we’re related.”
“Yeah, well. A lot of Parkers in the world.”
Peni shook her head.
“And less than a dozen people with the genetic markers for SPIDER series personal assault suits. If anyone could fake that, we’d have very different lives.”
“I’m, like, eighty percent retired. You know that, right?”
“Yes. Unlike you, I’m not entirely out of the loop. But that’s why I’m here. You’re the least culturally connected person I know, and maybe the only person I’ve met who hasn’t seen The Steel Spider cartoon. I know you’re smart enough that you’ll have some ideas I haven’t tried. So, I’ll get out my notes, if that’s alright. We can say it’s family bonding.”
“Uh… okay. Sure. Make yourself comfortable, and...”
The ringing again. Peter sighed.
“And I’ll get the door. Nice to know that people really care about you and aren’t just exploiting you for your connections or the fact you used to pilot a robot…”
“People exploit you. It’s how life works. Caring about them just make it hurt more when it happens.”
“I always forget what a bundle of sunshine you are.”
Peter walked over to the door, looking away from Peni.
“Just a second. And…”
He opened the door.
“Hey cousin Peter! Nice to see you again! It’s…”
It was beginning to look like a very long day.
Peter Parker used to pilot Leopardon, the first of the SPIDER series mechs. He's currently 80-90 percent retired. Really.