Tales of the Starbuck Avenger!!! (23)
So there was silence at our table, and chewing.
"S'pretty good," I said, after a while, more to reduce the awkwardness than anything else. "I could do without the cabbage, but, y'know. Good sandwich."
Garuda perked a little but didn't say anything.
I chewed a little more.
"I'm still not sure I'm buying this completely," I said, after a little while, putting the sandwich down. "I've been a college dropout and a general embarrassment to my parents for years now. If all it took was kind of a burned-out failure sense in your life for you to start seeing aliens and crap, you'd get, like, eighty-five percent of America clogging up the Air Force hotline every time Tuesday night happy hour rolled around."
"It's not quite like that," said Garuda. "Disenfranchisement with your life doesn't cause you to come unsynched with the Coverup. It's merely a symptom of it."
"Still, anyway," I said. "I don't get why this is happening to me all of a sudden. Like, two days ago I was doing the normalcy thing just fine. I mean, yeah, my job kinda sucked, and yeah, it's not as though there were a lot of promotional opportunities or anything, but generally things were pretty straight. And then you show up, and suddenly my co-worker is telling me all about secret passages in my coffee shop, a cat wearing a lightup veterinarian collar is sitting on me and talking at me like a black-and-white movie actor and I'm getting beat up by His Holiness the Right Reverend Android G. Killing-Machine."
"Wait a second," said Garuda. "You've been sat on by a talking cat wearing a big, glowing collar?"
"Yeah," I said. "Just this morning, actually."
"One of those conical ones?"
"Yeah," I said. "But this is kind of missing--"
Garuda frowned. "So he's here too?" he said to himself.
"What?" I asked, all distracted now. "You know this thing? Is he dangerous?"
He shook his head. "No no no," said Garuda. "No, he's one of the good guys. Firmly in the Pole camp. It just... concerns me, is all. Madison has always been somewhat underrepresented in the Hero department. There's... well, there's been one, but she's a little strange. And I'm not sure she actually counts as a Super Hero in the first place." He waved the topic off. "Never mind. Neither here nor there. The point is, suddenly, my job transfers me here. And Ironchylde's been hanging around lately, talking about "sensing" something going on, although she can't quite tell what. And now the Channel Cat's here too?"
"The Channel Cat," I said.
"Yes," said Garuda, distractedly. "That's the name of the creature you saw this morning."
"A 'channel cat' is a fish," I pointed out.
"I know," said Garuda. "It's kind of a pun. See, he picks up his powers from satellite TV transmissions, I think, is his thing. Somehow that alien collar on his head translates digital image sendings into honest-to-god super powers, though he's always a bit of a wild card because what he can do at any given moment is pretty heavily tied into what exactly is playing the moment evil strikes."
"It's a dumb name," I said, rather amazingly taking this in stride. "It would be clever if he was actually a fish or something, but the double meaning for his name doesn't actually fit anything."
Garuda sighed in a pissy way. "Look, I think you misunderstand how this works. It's not as though there's some kind of regulatory agency governing what Super Hero names people pick. We're just a bunch of normal folks who get together, chat on the Internet, post things to a message board, that sort of thing. We just happen to spend much of our free time fighting evil with our superhuman powers. That's it. Yes, we have a name registry, but other than that, you can pretty much do and call yourself whatever you want. For instance. There's a girl out in Pennsylvania. Calls herself 'Snow Cat'. Care to guess what she does? For her power, I mean?"
"It's not snow, then."
"Like... ice or something?"
Garuda shook his head.
"Does she generally control the weather, but not just snow, or something?"
I tapped on my teeth for a seocond. "Maybe," I said, "she freezes people with--"
"No. Not even close," said Garuda. He leaned forward.
"She has the power to conjure onion rings," he said.
"Like, fried onion rings?"
"Yep," said Garuda, leaning back. "Actually, they're not real fried onion rings. They're more like, er, ring-shaped onion-flavored corn snacks. Since they're just fried and extruded onion-flavored corn meal, she can actually make them rather prodigious in size, when the situation demands."
"That," I said, "is a really dumb super power."
"See, you'd think," he said. "But you'd be surprised at how often it comes in handy. I teamed up with her once to fight Rudolph the Undying, Vampire Prince of the Steel City, and were it not for Snow Cat, ol' Rudy would have handed us our butts on a silver platter with parsley garnish and a long-stemmed tea rose to boot."
"I thought vampires were all about garlic. Instead of onion."
"Yeah, that was my worry too," he said. "But apparently vampires react similarly to onion. Anything from the allium family, really. Presumably, shallots would also have been effacacious."
"Cuts down on the grocery bills, too," I offered.
Silence for a moment.
"We've gotten kind of side-tracked," I said.
"Yes, yes. Sorry." Garuda sat up and started digging around in his cabbage salad again. "You had a question?" he asked.
"I'm just trying to understand why this is happening to me all of a sudden," I said, sounding strange, weird. Curiously desperate, and scared, but also like I was just on the verge of starting to be something that I actually was all along. Or maybe that's just me reading into it.
"Yes. Unfortunately, I can't help you there." He shrugged. "The fact is, nobody knows how exactly a person gets out of rhythm with the Coverup. Best as we can figure, it's a little choice that does it. Tiny. You go out to eat one night instead of staying home. You choose to take the Subaru into work rather than the Lincoln. You're up late at night working on a hellish presentation for the consulting company you work for and, on a whim, you order yourself the biggest, wickedest espresso drink they've got. And things start unraveling. Slow or fast, it differs, but it happens. Sometimes you can get it back, and you just go, huh, that was weird, and then you carry on with your life, never understanding but never really probing too deeply into it either."
"Yeah," I said, thinking about walking home via Main this morning instead of my usual route, wondering how the morning would be going if I hadn't. Wondering how my life would be going if I hadn't. "I think I know what you're talking about."
"And sometimes," Garuda continued, "you can't get it back. And you turn into someone like me. Or that one radio person. Or one of those weird conspiracy-spouting folks that you always thought quite mad before you saw everything they were talking about going on with your own eyes."
"Huh," I said.
"Yes," said Garuda. "Deep, scary stuff. Anyway, Trish, let us hope that you're in the former category rather than the latter, that your recent experience with the Absolvatron turns rather quickly into a brief, unpleasant memory and you end up living yourself a quiet, normal life from here on in."
I laughed. "Yeah," I said. "Let's hope."
...'Cause that was right, wasn't it?
"However," said Garuda. "If your Coverup rhythm doesn't come back. For whatever reason. And any more of those Goffin... simulacra bother you ever again."
"Yeah?" I said.
"I want you to keep this." Garuda fished around in the gun-pocket of his coat for a second and came up with the little gray needle he had scratched me with the first time we met. "It's selenium," he said. "Actually a semi-metallic selenium alloy. I don't pretend to know how that works, but actually understanding Polaris technology is Sister Aquarius's job. Anyway. Hit them with that. It should incapacitate them for long enough for you to get away."
"Okay," I said. "And how am I supposed to know who they are, I mean, assuming they don't do that thing where their eyes roll up or anything?"
"It can be difficult," said Garuda. "The one thing that all of them have is the imprint of a tiny pink parrot-like bird somewhere on their necks. The Absolvatron's, for instance, is right at the nape."
"Right," I said. "Okay, yeah, I feel stupid for not noticing that amidst him trying to, you know, kill me and everything."
"Don't," said Garuda, showing super sarcasm-avoiding powers, if nothing else. "It was, as I mentioned, a rather extreme situation for you."
"Uh huh," I said. "So what's with the bird idea, anyway?"
"That's the Goffin Robotics maker's mark," said Garuda. "The artificial intelligences currently in charge of the facility haven't been able to figure out a way to eradicate it." He smirked. "Doctor Goffin was a proud old bastard," he said. "Anyway, I realize this is going to be of limited utility to you, since even as much as a simple scarf will partially cover it up, but it's the best I can do."
"So I wait until one tries to kill me again. Gotcha."
"As I said, it's the most I can offer. Oh, and I can give you my cell phone number. I've got a special ring-tone set up for Super Hero emergency calls." He fished a pen out and started scribbling something on our receipt.
He paused midway through, and the reason he paused was because I was laughing.
"What?" he said.
"I'm sorry," I said. "This is just so goddamn crazy. I gotta know what you picked for your Super Hero ringtone."
Garuda actually blushed a little. "Really," he said. "It's really not imp--"
"C'mon," I said. "You owe me."
He dithered for a second. "All right. You remember the old Batman television program? The Adam West one?"
"Oh, man," I said. "Tell me you didn't do the Commissioner Gordon Hotline sound."
"I did," he said, "in fact, use that sound. Yes."
"That's perfect!" I said. "That's so great. I'm going to call someday when you're around just so I can hear it."
"Please don't," said Garuda. "My Super Hero emergency phone line is not a toy."
"Okay okay okay," I said. "I won't."
"Good," said Garuda, passing the slip to me. "If you're ever in trouble, call me."
"Okay," I said, taking the paper. "If I can't beat the next one, I'll give you a ring." I started back in on my sandwich for the last few bites I was going to be able to take, and I didn't notice for a while that Garuda had started staring at me.
"What?" I said, around a mouthful of sandwich.
"I'm sorry," he said. "What did you say?"
"I said--" I started, still talking around my food, but then I decided it was getting silly, so I swallowed what I was working on and dropped the rest of the sandwich on my plate. "I said," I repeated, more clearly, "'If I can't beat the next one, I'll give you a ring.'"
He frowned and narrowed his eyes at me. His glasses caught the light for a moment. "You... 'beat' the Absolvatron?" he said.
"It's not that you just ran away or something."
"Oh, no," I said. "It's really easy. See, all you needed to do was realize that the Absolvatron doesn't actually want to beat people's heads against the door. He's just trying to get them into the nearest confessional. Something about his programming must be stopping him from knocking the doors down himself -- I dunno, maybe the church he came from asked that there be safeguards against that sort of thing -- but apparently there's a really glaring, nasty loophole where if he hits the doors with some other person it's actually them doing the breaking and entering, but not him. At least that's the idea, anyway, but I imagine peoples' heads tended to fail way before the locks ever did. Anyway, you just have to ask him to do your confession right on the spot, and he'll leave you alone. He is a forgiving robot death machine, right? Forgiving people is totally hard-wired into him. You just have to figure out what he wants."
Silence. I took a sip of expensive water.
"You... worked this out? On your own?"
"Actually, it was kind of me panicking at the time. But since then I've been, y'know, theorizing and crap." I had some more water. "I'm not dumb," I said.
Garuda just stared at me as though I had turned into a fish or something.
"You're not supposed to fight them," he said.