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Flight Recordings

Tales of the Starbuck Avenger!!! (epilogue)

Jeffrey Channing Wells

Learning to Fly

Tales of the Starbuck Avenger!!! (epilogue)

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Starbuck Avenger
It was pretty fortunate that I didn't have to work the next day, because epilogues take time, man.

So it was the next day, and Dorian and me were sitting in the basement gaming hall of the little shop that Dorian co-owns, him in his ever-present button-down and cowboy boot ensemble, me back in my civvies. I had destroyed my faithful superhero uniform, as it was too smoke-damaged at that point to keep, though I held on to the mask and the tiara, just to have some sense of continuity when I inevitably replaced the rest. I would need to make up some excuse to the coffee shop so I could get a new apron before my next shift, but whatever. This sort of thing barely raised the needle on the concernometer anymore. Anyway, after about four baths and eighteen showers, I had taken a dent out of the smoke-stink in my hair, and my superhealing was busily cleaning house inside my body, tidying up the damage that my long, long, fucking long night had caused.

"So they arrested a guy," said Dorian. "For the fire. Turns out that exactly the same time you were doing battle with aliens on the roof, this dude jumped bail and broke into the church."

"We broke into the church," I said. "Our cat kicked the front door in. What was he doing there?"

"Looking for wine, I guess," said Dorian.

"You," I said, "are making that shit up."

"God's truth," said Dorian. "According to the police report, he stole some wine and then was 'messing around with some stuff' in a room in the basement, and I guess accidentally started a fire."

I leaned back against the hard plastic of one of Dorian's folding chairs and stared at the ceiling. The pop machine hummed in the corner.

"So is he a patsy, or something?" I said, eventually. "Was he set up by the universe?"

Dorian shrugged. "He independently started a fire that would have taken out the cathedral. Even if you hadn't. Does it matter?"

"I'm guilty," I said. "I burned that church down too."

"The alien burned the church down," said Dorian, obviously delighting himself with the words. "When he killed the robot."

"I should still confess!" I said, helplessly. "Confess something!"

"Sure," said Dorian. "And the moment you try, the police station has a fire drill. Or you try calling and the phone system crashes. The universe won't let you confess, Trish."

"It's not fair," I said.

"Fair's not the name of the game," said Dorian. "Apparently. You're just going to have to deal with it in whatever way you can, within the confines of our very stubborn reality." Dorian leaned forward and began messing with one of the little Klingon dice on the table, which I have since learned was a 'twenty-sider'. Why anyone needs twenty sides on a dice, I don't know. On a die. Whatever. It just seems excessive, is all I'm saying. "On a related topic," Dorian continued, "Henry called. His grandma's okay. They just had a little scare for a while."

"Just enough of a scare to stop me from cluing him in," I said. "But I can tell you all about it. What the fuck is this shit?"

"Language," scolded Dorian. "And, I don't know. Maybe it's destiny."

"You're destined to be Garuda's little bitch, then?" I said.

"Officially, I'm his marketing and P.R. manager. It's very challenging work, selling merchandise to a client base that may or may not be prevented from knowing of your existence at any given time."

"I'm sure it is," I said. "Look, I don't care what you call yourself or what your actual job is; you're totally his Jimmy Olson now. And that's a fate I don't wish on an-y-body."

"At least I'm on the inside, like you," said Dorian. "So what's gonna happen to your teleport thing?"

"The Jawbone of Saint Martin?" I said. "I'm sending it back to that church in New York where it came from. It's theirs, really. It's not their fault that their pet robot altar / confessor thing went rogue."

"Yeah, but… teleportation?" said Dorian. "How can you give that up?"

"Easy," I said, "it makes me barf every time I use it."

"That's a shame," he said, cocking his head at me.

"Okay, stop that," I said, shooting him a warning look. "You creep me out, Dorian. You're a nicer guy than I expected, but you still creep me out. Worse than anyone so far. I can face down a murderous alien without too much blinking, but I get the willies from 'you on a mission'."

"Like I said," said Dorian. "Geeks with goals. Terrifying."

"No question."

I glanced over at him, then. "Dorian," I said, "am I going to have to kill you someday? To save the world, I mean?"

Dorian shrugged again. "Possibly," he said. "But I'm innocent right now, and that protects me from your wrath, right?"

"I feel like I want to kiss you," I said, suddenly, "because I have terrible taste in men."

"Just let it stew for a while, then," said Dorian. "In the meantime, Breath Weapon is playing tonight at the club, and we can while away the hours between now and the show introducing you to Card Warrior." He reached to a table behind him and artfully shuffled a deck of oversized nerd-game cards.

"Okay," I sighed, totally giving in to my inner geekiness, at last. "Deal me in. Just a round or two, though -- I've got stops to make before I do anything tonight, and they don't involve you."

"Go ahead, keep your secrets," said Dorian, smiling cheerily. "They will all be mine eventually."

"Fuck you," I said, equally cheerily, meeting his smile with one of my own.

He held up the top card of his stack. "Okay, this is a power card," he said, pedagogically. "It gives you power."

Our game began.

* * *

The stop I had to make was, of course, St. Mary's Hospital. What kind of person do you take me for? The kind who finishes an epilogue without mentioning one of the most important people in her life? Certainly not!

I walked shyly into her room on the surgery floor. I expected whiteness and sunlight, or something, but the surgery floor at St. Mary's is really dark and subdued for some reason, so it sort of put a damper on my mood. And anyway, it's hard to be authoritative and forceful in a hospital. There's just so much other authority flying around. Mebby had heavy dressing on her chest wounds and was apparently on fluids because of the massive blood loss, but was awake and normally-colored, and she looked over towards me as I walked in. Not at me, mind you. Looking at is rarely Mebby's style. But she looked in my general direction, and that was good.

"Hey," I said, smiling, and producing a cellophane-wrapped package from behind my back. "Bought you a bunch of flowers from the gift shop. Thought it'd give you something to talk to."

A ghost of a smile crossed Mebby's face as I retrieved an empty vase from a cupboard, filled it with water, plunked the flowers in, and maneuvered it to her bedside table. She stroked one of the petals.

"They is hell of beautiful," said Mebby. "But b-- basically annoying."

"Oh," I said.

Mebby struggled around the words that stuck in her throat. "J-- just that they is flowers. All they gab about is s-- sex." Mebby waved her hand, weakly. "Sex sex sex," she said.

"Good to know," I said, screwing my face up. "Or maybe not so good to know." I reached for the vase. "I can take them away if you want."

Mebby shook her head. "L-- leave them," she said. "They will hell of make me think of you."

"You'll have me to make you think of me," I said. "Every day until they clear you to leave, I'm so totally here. And has the Channel Cat been checking on you? I told him to check on you."

"Y-- yes," said Mebby. "He has basically been giving me a load of unasked-for medical jibber jabber. I think dogg was t-- tuned into a hell of obnoxious T.V. doctor show."

"What the hell, cat," I said.

"W-- what the hell indeed." Mebby sighed, then. "I am s-- sorry," she said, "I did not protect you."

This woman kills me. Kills me dead. "You're sorry?" I said. "You? Look at me, twelve hours later I'm not even limping and you're laid up in the damn hospital. I didn't do a very good job of protecting you, is what we should be saying."

"I am basically the experienced one though," she protested, her eyes downcast.

"No, no no, forget that, Mebby. You're not my mentor anymore, remember? We're partners. And I'm sure you'll have plenty of opportunities to save me in the future."

She nodded. "L-- least you helped in the final battle," she said. "While I was over pissing on the curtains."

"That's true," I said. "You pretty much pissed on curtains the whole time."

Mebby laughed her weird little shy coughing laugh. Then I laughed a little. Then we both laughed together. And then we stopped. It wasn't that funny. But it was, kinda.

"Mebby," I said, "I want to tell you something. I know what you said before, with the secret identities and the hypothetical torture-information-out-of-you scenario and the thing with the fingernails, but I'm so totally not going to be happy unless and until I say a thing to you."

I put my hand on hers. "My name," I said, "Is Tricia Hocking. People call me Trish."

Mebby stared down at her blankets. Color rose in her cheeks.

She tried to speak, got stuck, tried to speak again, got stuck again. She squinted hard, pushed and forced, and then relaxed and took a couple deep breaths.

"G-- good name," she managed, finally. "Trish."

I nodded. "I'm fond of it," I said. I pulled a chair over to her bedside, sat in it, and set my chin down on her white hospital sheet.

"Partner," I said, looking at her.

"P-- partner," agreed Mebby, patting my head.

The day went on.

* * *

And, finally, we're gonna see one day down along the road like about three months. Winter had finally given way to Spring and then to a very early Summer. There was moisture in the air at midday and fog settled over the country at night. And I was standing beneath the John Nolen Drive underpass at four-thirty in the morning, watching the cars whirr past in the distance, talking to a homeless man and his cat.

"Good," said the homeless man, in his weird, wavering voice, as he situated himself on the broken chunk of masonry he had chosen as a bench, idly stroking the slumbering form of the Channel Cat. The cat's collar glowed a peaceful green which pulsed to his little kitty snores. "You got my phone call."

"I did," I said. "What's this about?"

The homeless man ran his hand through his greasy hair. "First," he said, "you must tell me who I am."

I had given this matter a lot of thought, and I returned with the only conclusion I could possibly draw. "You're Polaris," I said. "You're the greatest hero on this planet. You created and led a hero league that people still talk about, a hero league that fractured and disbanded as soon as you vanished. Garuda can't shut up about his time with the Justicars. But now they're gone."

"I didn't lead them," said Polaris. "They led themselves. I took the best and brightest heroes your world had to offer, and I gave them toys, toys, fancy little toys from my own world, which is now dust."

"Why did you disappear?" I said, maybe a bit too pointedly. "Why did you abandon them?"

Polaris paused, as though this was the first time anyone had ever asked him the question. For all I know, it might have been. "It didn't… feel right," he said, at last. "They were a league in name only, filled with strong… powers but… they were not a league, no. I was sent here to create a league that could withstand the coming storm."

"This storm," I said. "Does it involve Mister Thousand? The Goffin androids?"

"Yes," said Polaris.

"Does it involve my quasi-frienemy Dorian Palmer?"

"Yes," said Polaris. "Perhaps differently. But yes."

"What is the storm?" I asked.

There was a long silence.

"And so, little Mooncalf," said Polaris, apparently abandoning the topic. "Have you found friends with which to play, as I asked?"

I bit my lip in frustration. Apparently, we weren't going to talk about the storm today. I could have raised a stink, but… well. To hear Garuda talk, Polaris was obscenely powerful, and to hear Polaris talk, Polaris was happy bat fucking insane. It was not a good combo, and I resisted the urge to be lippy to the crazy man who could possibly reduce me to a grease spot on the highway, superhuman healing powers be damned.

"I have," I said. "It turns out there are more heroes around than any of us were really willing to admit. Corpseflower and me and Garuda, and then there's Ironchylde, who's hanging around a lot more lately. And then there are those two trackers, the werewolf dude and that chick who I don't know what the deal is with. And Tackle, on occasion, when he can be bothered to give a damn. And Corpseflower keeps promising to introduce me to this Shootingstar lady when she swings through town. She's some kinda Montana cowgirl or some shit, hell, I don't know. Point is, Corpseflower vouches for her, and that's good enough for me. We'd even take your cat back, if you decided to let him run with us."

"I'll consider it," said Polaris. "And have you been having fun?"

"More work than fun," I said. "We're all just so damn disorganized. Garuda's got hecka business presentations going on in his alter ego, so there are just some nights he can't patrol. And he never talks to Corpseflower about it. And Corpseflower is doing her own thing and she always wants to protect the entire city all the time, even though she has access to me and the trackers and she always just stretches herself too thin, y'know? So I got us together having some informal little meetings at Garuda's apartment / condo thing. Ironchylde makes snacks, and we talk about what's what and who's busy what days, and I think we're gradually getting a halfway decent pattern of patrol coverage going on. So that's kind of cool."

Polaris nodded. "Good," he said.

"Yeah, I got the idea from the Baby-sitter's Club books, so you know it's good."

"Ha," said Polaris. I'm not sure if it actually counted as a laugh.

A few uncomfortable seconds ticked by. I shifted from foot to foot.

"So…" I said.

"Yes, very good, 'so'," said Polaris. "My little Mooncalf is wondering why she's here."

"On a highway underpass at close to five A.M., yes," I said, desperately trying to tone down the Bitch.

Polaris levered his tall, not-quite-symmetrical form up off the masonry and walked away, gesturing for me to follow. I glanced back once at the sleeping Channel Cat, then tagged along behind.

The world's greatest and possibly craziest superhero led me to a point where an earth-retaining wall had been painted with an elaborate fool-the-eye mural in days of yore, long before the John Nolen underpass had been constructed or even dreamed. What had once been a quite visible piece of public artwork was now shoved back and hidden and half-cemented over, but it was still there, if you came at it from the right angle. The chipped paint showed an image of a green countryside, kinda Roman-looking, dotted with impressive canyons and white flowing fountains.

"This is kinda neat," I said, looking up at it.

"Hyperbia," said Polaris, studying the forgotten mural.

"Is that the name of the painting?" I asked, wondering why I had never seen this thing before. I mean, I had ridden with my parents down the John Nolen underpass for however many years, and while not obvious from the highway, it was also not invisible, if you knew where to look. Surely at some point, I would have glanced in this direction…

…and I remembered standing in the middle of a crowded street, in full costume, and having not one person give me the time of day, and then I thought maybe it wasn't so improbable after all.

"Not the name of the painting," said Polaris. "The name of the land it leads to. This is one of the last remaining gates to Hyperbia, Realm of Heroes. I have brought you here because the stars are in alignment tonight."

"I'm sorry, what the crap?" I said.

"The gate opens soon," said Polaris. He walked over me and took me by the shoulders and shook me around in what I presume was supposed to be an encouraging gesture. "I have chosen you as my new starting point, little Mooncalf! I am re-founding my league!"

"Cool?" I hazarded. "I'm sorry, but what--"

Polaris gestured violently toward the mural. "This land!" he cried out. "This land will teach you to be a true Super Hero! You will be trained and trained and you will earn power beyond your wildest imaginings, and it will give you the strength to stop the storm!"

"Um, yeah," I said. "You know, I realize it's early, but I have work in a few minutes. Gotta be there when the coffee shop opens, and, um, I don't really have time to earn power beyond my wildest imaginings right now."

"Time in Hyperbia runs fast," said Polaris, earnestly. "Alarmingly fast. Years of training would pass in seconds. Yet you would not wither or age, only grow in your strength. I need you to be my anchor, little Mooncalf."

I reached for my cell phone, backing away slightly. "Yyyeah," I said. "Hold on a sec. I gotta call my peeps."

"No," said Polaris. "You must make this choice on your own, Mooncalf. I need to know if you'll return me the right answer."

"Okay, fuck this shit," I said, my caution eroding. "Is this how you operate? You come to our planet and you gather a bunch of heroes together and you give them fancy alien costumes that appear and disappear when you push a button and you just expect that this will somehow magically create the hero league you're looking for? And then you crash and burn and a few years pass, and then there's me. And you tell me to connect with friends and peers, so I connect with friends and peers, and we build our own little league from the ground up. And we've got something that's tiny and kinda pathetic, filled with losers and rejects, but it works, damnit, it works. And in the middle of all this, you drag me away from it all and show me a gate to a place that will make me, just me, a great superhero and you want me to make this decision by myself?"

I stood there, breathing heavily for a moment. Polaris stared placidly at me.

"Christ Jesus, man," I said, when no response was immediately forthcoming. "No wonder everything you do turns crappy! How do I know this gate works like you say it does? I don't! I might still risk it, but not without consulting with Corpseflower, with all my friends, so we can figure out the best course of action. Because we're a team, goddamn it."

I shook my head. "Plus, um, I've got patrol tonight," I said. "An' I already asked Garuda to swap with me once this week, and if I fall into some trans-dimensional void through a half-forgotten magic mural he'll get real pissy with me. So I'm sorry. If I could take a rain check on your star alignment thing, I would. But I don't think I can. So no."

Polaris continued staring at me.

"And… that was the right answer," I said, a bit lamely. "The answer you were looking for all along. You wanted to see if I cared more about my friends than I did about becoming a great hero. And this," I said, gesturing up at the Hyperbia mural, "isn't even a magic gateway at all. Just some old painting or something. Am I right?"

"More or less," said Polaris. "If it makes you feel any better, you had me at 'fuck this shit'."

"Well, good," I said, still sullen at having been jerked around. "So I passed your test. What next?"

"Go to work, little Mooncalf," said Polaris. "The world is full of trials, of people in need. You and your friends are here to make things better, and there is no shortage of work to be done."

"And what about you?"

"I'll be in touch," said Polaris, ambling crookedly back to the masonry slab and picking up his cat. He sat back down and broke eye contact altogether, fussing with C.C.'s alien collar a little.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, I understood this as my cue to leave. I picked my way across the broken dirt of the John Nolen underpass and emerged near Basset Street, where I began my hike back up the Acropolis in the direction of Gorham Street, where my day job was waiting for me.

* * *

I was a little late to work after all that crap with Polaris. Thankfully, Justin was awake, conscious, and not at all high that morning, which was, all in all, pretty remarkable. The lights were glowing and the store was open and there was coffee brewing, and it didn't even matter that it was the shitty-ass hyper-roasted stuff that Corporate makes us sell, the Gorham Street Starbucks looked and smelled like heaven.

I breezed in through the front door. "Hey, Justin!" I called out, pulling my apron on over my head. "Sorry for being late. I was just talking to this crazy homeless guy. Thanks for getting things started."

"It was really hard!" yelled Justin from the back room.

"I love you for it!" I called back. "Scones are on me come break-time!"

Justin grunted. It was his version of high thanks. I spent a little while arranging the biscotti properly, because nobody but nobody arranges the biscotti properly on night shift, and had just managed to sign into my register when a grad student from campus slouched in through the front door. He had about a week's worth of razor stubble, he clutched his laptop like some sort of primitive talisman, and he had clearly dressed in the dark that morning. I recognized the look: dissertation with thesis, and defense coming due. Poor schlub had probably spent the last two weeks in some form of private hell. He looked a bit like the guys we hauled out of the secret isolation tanks in the basement of the Thompson Commerce Center, only he had clothes on and was not covered in electrodes and nutrient goo. That was a few weeks ago. Fun times.

Anyway, I thought, being imprisoned in your own private torturedrome by a crazy-ass government-run A.I. is kinda like trying to prepare for your thesis defense. They were both bad. In different ways. But, thankfully, the world has people like me. Because at night I will haul your buck-naked nutrient-gel-covered ass out of the personal V.R. hell you're trapped in, and in the morning, I will serve you delicious delicious coffee to get your day started right and send you on your way smiling. I spend both my days and my nights improving the world in which I live, in vastly different, but equally valuable, ways. And I'm happy about it.

Mister Thesis Defense shambled up to the counter. I smiled. And just for a moment, Mister Thesis Defense smiled back. It was a good feeling.

"Hi!" I said, feeling the warmth of the moment fill me until I could hold no more. "Welcome to your friendly neighborhood Starbucks! How can I help you today?"

And it wasn't just a screed. I really wanted to help him. Because I make things better. It's what I do. It's my job.

Because I'm a barista.

And I'm a super hero.

  • Nice. Updating the TV Tropes page now. :)
  • Now I have to read it over from the beginning. That works nicely!
  • Typo alert: "Pont is, Corpseflower vouches for her"

    So good. I'm going to have to go back and read the whole things from scratch.
  • "I would need to make up some excuse to the coffee shop so I could get a new apron before my next shift, but whatever."

    Or maybe the coverup will do it for her.

    "They will hell of make me think of you."

    Everything that immediately comes to mind for me to say might embarrass Mebby, so... *so many ellipses*.

    I'm so glad Trish is who she is and does what she does. And frankly, I can think of few things more horrifying than "Alarmingly fast. Years of training would pass in seconds. Yet you would not wither or age, only grow in your strength." ... and then having to work at Starbucks in a few minutes.

    Thanks, now I need to get back from reeling from _the ending_, though I expect to read this a lot, it makes me as emotional as any good series.
    • Point 1: "Good news! Corporate is making us wear new-style aprons, effective today! Just throw away your old ones."

      Point 2: She's a bit of a heartbreaker, in't she?

      Point 3: I would forget where all my stuff was after that long.

      Point 4: Thanks! Glad you liked.
  • And... I'm still way, way behind. I feel terrible. I really need to read through this whole series again and then get back to writing 13R, because you've written fanfic for me and I haven't written any for you!

    Congrats on finishing! I'll let you know what I think once I've read it all. *grin*
  • Yay for a successfully completed series!

    I enjoyed the whole thing.

    I really need to go back and re-read the whole thing now that all the Chekov's Guns have gone off, so I look at them, all bright and shiny and unfired, and admire them.

    Other than the fact that it's too personal and unofficial for this sort of thing, I'm left wondering what Trish would name her new "league".
    • Shortly after this conversation took place, she began calling it the "City-Sitter's Club". The name stuck.
  • I hereby salute your completion of yet another little slice of AWESOME in the world.

    Bravo, sir. Bravo.
  • I just read the whole story, pointed here by Shaenon's link from the Narbonic director's cut commentary. Way spiffy. I like your use of the Weirdness Filter trope, which I haven't see used in a superhero story before, or implemented in this particular way, and most of the characters, especially Trish and Mebby, are fully developed and convincing.
    • Thanks for the feedback! I'm very regretful that the whole story took so long to tell, and I'm sure it suffers a little from the erratic nature of having several years of style development occur over the course of the piece, but I'm glad you liked! In the end, I think it's uneven but good stuff.
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