I woke with my arms shackled over my head. They were connected to a large steel conductor. The weight of my body wrenched them down. Every movement ached in my joints. I’d landed in a BDSM nightmare, and Dr. Vortex had worse planned still. I could make out the slivers of his coat through the uneven panels. He moved between workstations. A haze hung over my eyes like a swamp gas mirage.
Dr. Vortex strolled to my prison. He raised my chin and shone a penlight into my eyes. Resisting earned a firmer grip. He yanked my gaze to meet his. Once the examination was over he let my face drop.
“This next part requires you to be conscious,” he said. “It will be painful, but if it brings you any comfort that it’s for a good cause.”
I wheezed more than I spoke. “What’re you… going… to do?”
He circled the ring to inspect the couplings. He then checked my shackles. Of course he anticipated an escape attempt. “More than your pedestrian mind could ever comprehend,” he said. His attention rested on finer things.
The makeshift laboratory was a scene from DIY hell. It was all sharp edges and bolts strewn across the dusty floor. Near the center gaped a hole torn into the concrete. Cables thicker than my arm snaked from it into various panels. From there they fed into the stocks that encased my limbs.
He turned to a console and transcribed code to another screen. His intellect was incredible. What a shame he spent it in ego dollars.
My fists crunched the faux leather gloves. “All those people you hurt… you don’t… deserve… power…”
Dr. Vortex allowed the insult to wash past him. “Human suffering is temporary,” he said. “Yours and mine included. Why concern myself with the pain of others? History won’t remember.” The words were hard to swallow. How could one person be so cold?
I shook the dizziness. “Is that why you’re… doing this; for some kind… of ‘greater good’?”
He said nothing at first, and doted on the numeric sequence dancing across the screen. “If I have an obligation to humanity as a whole it will be better served with the power you currently own. In the meantime, my only interest lies in taking what’s mine. Not for any selfish purpose, but for further study.”
“Who do you… think you are? God?”
His hum echoed across the cavernous space. “Not a god, his protégé. If there is a celestial watchmaker then I am the repair man. I have seen his creation. Even you must agree that it needs adjusting.”
“Your… head… needs adjusting,” I said.
I attempted to pull free. My shoulders burned in agony. No matter how hard I fought my power was out of reach.
“You’ll find it no use accessing your abilities,” the doctor said. “I’m currently siphoning it for my own designs. Without them you are but a helpless child.” He turned back to his work. It was a statement of simple fact.
The interconnected rings started to grind against each other. A pale hue flickered from its heart and pulled sparks from my skin. The machine bled me through the prickles in my veins. For as long as I had strength I fought against it. Screaming did nothing to blanket the pain. My eyes strained from their sockets. I was blind with agony. Having my powers ripped away was like tearing strips of skin. Every drop lost to him left a hollow corner that would never be whole again.
Dr. Vortex stood before me and considered what he’d done. That indifference was his trademark. “If it’s any consolation you won’t have to live with the pain much longer,” he said.
Delirious words spilled from my mouth. They were the kind you don’t repeat.
* * * *
Something snapped across my face. My ears rang like a thousand church bells. The haze was thicker than the last. A man’s voice roared through the fog.
His hand flew across my other cheek. The burning mark sizzled under my flesh. I opened my eyes to Dr. Vortex as gnashing his teeth. He wrenched me against the grip of his ma and slapped me again for good measure. Spittle landed on my chin.
“How dare you! Of all the unmitigated gall, to pass out in the middle of the process! I told you that you had to be conscious, and you, you pathetic… thing! You ridiculous transvestite! You succumb to the pain like some fragile little lamb! Do you expect me to work under these conditions?”
It was weird that he blamed for his invention, and weirder still for him lose his cool. What happened to the distant, studious figure he prided himself? That man was gone, and replaced by someone desperate.
“Should have… used… a surge regulator… or something,” I said.
Dr. Vortex marched to his station. “What would you know of it, boy?”
“Only that… you shouldn’t be so… greedy! Ha!” The words were like sandpaper in my throat.
The doctor flew himself back and wring my neck. His other hand drew back to slap me again, but paused. The boiling behind his brow settled. Reason anchored him to earth. His grip loosened.
“You will not goad me,” he said. “I need you awake and able to withstand the rest of the procedure.” Dr. Vortex made a point to ignore me after that. He needed to master his rage lest he overlook important details.
It was the stale air radiated cold and gave the room a sense of night. The corrugated iron panels over the windows made it impossible to know for sure. Who knows how long I’d been hanging there, stretched until my limbs locked in place.
It was minutes or more when I heard sirens. Dr. Vortex followed my ear. His response was immediate.
“You brought them here!”
“No,” I wheezed. “You said… no cops…”
Torn between his work and the oncoming squad Dr. Vortex rushed the boil to a decision. He grabbed a fistful of my hair and twisted it until our eyes met. “Know that whatever happens is on your head!”
I should have been thankful when blinked out of sight. With only few minutes in my favor I could make my escape. Cold iron clasped to my wrists, and the machine drained my power. That wouldn’t stop me from trying. I wrenched my arms until the joints near popped, and pulled some more.
Metal clanged in the darkness and was followed by the sound of grinding. Something stirred, though I couldn’t make out what. Was it the police? I pricked my ears to listen, but their sirens were still too far.
“Who’s there?” I said. “I’ve got… finger guns, and I’m not afraid to use them!”
The stranger poked her head into the light. She nursed a bright red fire ax she had no idea how to use. Of all the people to come to my rescue I should have known Tanya Truman was front of the line.
She scanned the laboratory. “He’s gone, right?” Tanya placed the weapon down and tended my wounds. The shackles confused her same as me. “Jeez, KC. What the hell did he do to you?”
It hurt to smile, but so did everything else. “Don’t… worry. I’m only… bleeding… on the inside…”
“Yeah, yeah. Great time for gallows humor,” she said. “How do I get you out of this thing?”
It was a rhetorical question. Tanya scoured the benches in search of something, anything. Not that there were any locks on Dr. Vortex’s machine. Letting me out alive was never on the cards.
“Can you use your powers?” she asked.
I shook my head. “The… machine-”
“Machine, right.” She followed the cable leading from the hole in the ground. Her expression tightened. Tanya reclaimed the ax. “Does this thing have an off switch?”
“I… don’t know…”
A mighty boom echoed in the distance. Siren sounds fizzled like a bird of prey plucked from the top of the food chain. We both knew what happened.
Tanya stared at the thickest cable. “I’m going to get you out of here,” she said.
“No, it’s… it’s live!”
Her grip throttled the ax handle.
“Tanya, remember… who the hero is… in this relationship!”
She bit her lip, and raised her weapon high. “I’ve been watching out for you since grade school, and I’m not stopping now!”
With all her strength she dropped the blade. It sliced through the cable like the body of a snake. Sparks flew to every corner. It was over in a split second. The circuit breakers flipped and the space went dark.
I hung in the machine, still wrenched under my dead weight. Its hold was relentless even without power. Something stirred inside my chest. Power denied was back in reach. I pulled my semi-substantial hands from the shackles. Luminescence cast gold hues on the cluttered room, and to the corner. There Tanya lay. I raced to her side.
Her arm was bloody up to the shoulder. Flesh bubbled with severe burns. At best, there would be scars. “That… hurt,” Tanya said. She laughed and shook with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Damn right it hurt! How could you do something so stupid? Even for me! That was so beyond dangerous, I can’t even!”
“We all know I’m the real superhero in this relationship,” she said, and she was right.
I tore the already shredded leg of my costume and wrapped her arm. There were better bandages, but it stopped the bleeding. With any luck it would last until she got proper care.
“How did you even find me?”
She smiled a painful smile. “You know you’re internet famous, right? People post sightings all the time. One search engine, some networking, and voila!”
I beamed from the corners of my mouth. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Stupider than swinging a fire ax at a live cable?”
The sound of gunfire resonated in the distance. Heavy objects collided with the earth. We sat on the edge of a war-zone. Traditional force didn’t stand a chance against that kind of enemy.
“I have to stop him.”
“You’re in no shape to fight,” Tanya said.
“He won’t stop until he has me. Until then everyone’s at risk. I’ve got no choice.”
Sliding to the wall Tanya pulled me close. “Promise me something,” she said. She threw the full weight of her good arm around my neck. “Come back alive, okay? No matter what. You don’t let him win.” Her voice cracked with more emotion than even she was comfortable.
I squeezed her back. “You’re not going to make out with me, are you?”
“Sure,” she said, “if you weren’t like my freaking sister.”
Throwing myself back to the fight was crazy, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to run. In a burst of light I shattered the panels and flew into the sky. My flight path drove into Dr. Vortex’s sights.
* * * *
It was a scene of absolute mayhem. SWAT vans flew from the asphalt and into the long grass. They sat upturned like forgotten toys. Further down the road were plumes of smoke, thick enough to lose someone. There was yelling, but no gunshots. The police learned that bullets wouldn’t help them.
I skirted along the ground and looped before plunging into the cloud. My heart beat like a jackhammer. The smoke was dense and oppressive. It concealed everything more than two steps ahead. I came across a pair of cruisers. Their windscreens were cracked and chassis twisted. In the driver’s seat there sat a bloody figure with a handkerchief pressed to his mouth. He barely registered as I breezed past. Dread stirred in my gut.
Dr. Vortex’s voice cut through the ether. “Allow me to make this simple. You and your people double back and allow me to conclude my work. In exchange you may collect your wounded, and continue your lives ad nauseam.”
I followed the voice and made sure to dull the light of my form The element of surprise was on my side.
“You’ve seen what I can do,” he said. “It would be foolish to trust your eyes, let alone the path of your bullets! I am he who bends space, who with a single step crosses untold reaches! You, pitiful apes that you are, only have your loud, violent tools. Why resist a force that you cannot distinguish from sorcery?”
A scream mingled with gunshots. Flashes through the smoke betrayed a man at his limit. He unloaded a clip into the nothingness. His primal cry was cut short by a gurgle. Seconds later his body struck the asphalt with a thud.
It was the chance I’d been waiting for. Blazing at top speed I tackled a human shape. I gripped the mad engineer with every last ember of will, and pushed him through the cloud. Beating winds dulled my proclamation. “This ends now!”
Our bodies blinked from one side of the globe to the other. The sun and the moon flashed before our eyes along with the buildings under them. Jungles, huts, glaciers and endless sand. Nature itself turned on its head so that the force would rend us apart.
For all my life I clung to him. I gripped his torso and grabbed my wrists. Not upturned gravity or whatever else he had would sway me. My holographic body burned brighter than it ever had. Photon heat shredded through his coat and to the man beneath it.
“Let go of me!” Like I would.
In a final, desperate act he turned to the void. We fell together, directionless, silent and unprotected in the infinite. It was the scale that loosened my grip, and the fear I would never make it back to Earth. That was all Dr. Vortex needed to push away. He floated out of reach.
Still burning like a miniature star I latched his arm and the device strapped to it. He couldn’t wrestle me away, at least before my aura fried his circuitry. Dr. Vortex blinked as his life flashed before his eyes. Did he have any regrets? I reached out to him, but by then it was too late.
The universe writhed around us. What control he had was gone. Cosmic forces tore at the fabric of our being until we flew apart. Dr. Vortex screamed without a sound. He flailed until he stopped. His eyes glazed over. A moment later the universe blinked and I was stood on the road.
The smoke cleared. Officers in assault gear tended to one another. None were spared the villain’s wrath. The extent of Dr. Vortex’s carnage would give me nightmares for weeks. My adrenaline ran cold, and fear had a chance to slip back.
“Kid, you okay?”
I looked to the man in the tactical vest, but couldn’t find any words. We’d seen the last of Dr. Vortex. Even through the exhaustion and trauma, nothing could be sweeter.
* * * *
Home wasn’t the same after that. It prompted designs to sell the house and move. Dad made a pet project of it to occupy his time. It was an effective recovery tool. After all we’d endured he stopped trusting corners. Without powers to help him cope he needed a new source of safety.
Before we knew it the weeks had past, and it was the day of our graduation ceremony. There couldn’t have been a more perfect time to say goodbye to an old life.
I dwelled on my reflection. Somehow I forgot to hate the person staring back. Sandy hair swept over my brow. The patterned green skater dress hugged my growing figure. My glossy lips popped. The world made more sense that way. Still butterflies churned in my stomach.
It was 9:35 when the mini-van pulled to the curb, and Tanya exited the panel door with her arm in a sling. She chirped like everything was normal. Thank the gods for that.
“He’s upstairs,” my mother said. The pronoun grated on my nerve.
Before Tanya passed the threshold I was in the hall. A smile cut through every instinct to hide or explain it away as some kind of game. I descended into their line of sight, running my hand down the banister for support. I had their attention and stopped. I didn’t have to do much, only stand there.
Mom and Dad turned to one another. Their expressions did backflips. It might have been funny if there wasn’t so much riding on their reaction.
“Well,” I asked, “what do you think?”
Tanya nodded. “Suits you,” she said. Of course this was old news to her.
We stood, frozen, the picture of awkwardness. There was no kind of manual for this situation, at least that we’d ever read. My Dad shook his head and forced a chuckle. “What’s with the getup, kiddo? You’re either early or late for Halloween.”
Mom bit her lip. She knew; she’d always known, but could never bring herself to face it. Now she would have to.
“It’s because I’m a girl,” I told them, just like that. I told them like it wasn’t a big deal, like it didn’t shatter the illusion they had since the day I was born.
Mom swallowed a lump. “You’re not a girl. I have the baby photos to prove it.”
“No, Mom, I’m a girl,” I said. “My name is Kaira, and this isn’t dress up. I’m not gay. This is… me. I’m trans. I don’t want to pretend to be a guy anymore. That’s not who I am. This is.”
Silenced balanced on a point, ready to swing any which way. Tanya took my hand. Her Mom was ready with the getaway van.
My father fought to articulate the words. “How long have you been doing this?”
Both parents gravitated toward each other. “And there’s no way we can talk you out of it?”
My heart wrenched to protect the girl inside, as though they could steal her away. I held to myself, determined to cast off any shame. It didn’t belong to me anymore. Tears pricked my eyes. I smiled to keep from trembling.
“Why would you do that when I’m finally sort of happy?”
A million thoughts bounced across that tiny room. We spoke as many conversations in a glance. This was to be the way of things from that moment.
Mom threw her arms around me, then Dad. It made sense in spite of everything. We connected in a way that only family could. To think I worried about losing them, and over something so basic.
* * * *
It was a solemn graduation adorned with flowers for Adrian. Both principal and vice principal gave speeches in his honor. Following were the co-captain of the basketball team and one of the cheerleaders. They remembered him as a talented athlete, funny, and loyal to his friends.
Tanya bit her tongue through the ceremony. She leaned over to whisper. “You know the worst part? Now they can sweep all the horrible things he did under the rug for good. God, that pisses me off.”
She wasn’t wrong, but I couldn’t bring myself to agree. Nobody deserved to die like that, not even Adrian. I allowed for the people who cared to have their moment.
Only a handful clapped when they called my name on stage; my Mom and Dad, Tanya’s folks, and some teachers. Whatever. I was a high school curiosity, never popular, and showing up in a dress set that reputation in stone. The sooner it finished the sooner I could leave the place forever.
When it was over Tanya and I wandered under the bleachers by the track field. We lay on the grass and carved a goodbye message into the wood supports – ‘KC + TT 4EVA’ inside of a star. It was the last time we would take refuge there, and good riddance to it.
Tanya kicked her feet back and stared at the day through the panels. “So, we’ve finished high school. What do we do now?”
Once upon a time there was no future, and next I had a world before me. I pulled my knees to my chest. “Go to college, get a job…”
“But first we have a kick-ass summer,” she said.
It was a solid idea, if we could pick up the pieces before then.
Tanya positioned herself on her good elbow. “What about… you know, her?”
The morning sun beamed down on top of us, washing the cosmos in its light. It burned as if it would go on forever. That same force stirred in my chest. As long as it shone then so would I; whether as a Glimmer Girl, or an ordinary one.
The End of the Beginning