As Told by Dakota Sue
So, I told you about how I met Mr. Rose, right? (I know Fairy is an Elvish honorific, but I’m human and there is no way I’m calling him that.) Well, after we parted ways I delivered those gaskets to Blackstone Manufacturing in Texas.
The Teamsters’ Local was making some sort of stink about rates at the time, so I decided not to try and pick up any jobs in Texas. The Union and I aren’t especially fond of each other, largely since I’m not a member and I charge lower rates than they do. Yeah, so it’s illegal. Sure, I would have been in trouble, if, that is, they’d ever managed to prove my existence to the government. A bit of a sticky proposition when you’re entitled to a Secret Identity. Yeah, yeah, I have one. I try not to take advantage of it too much. The Union finally stopped bothering me when more direct methods proved even less fruitful. That doesn’t mean that I want to get in their way when they decide to bulldoze a couple of manufacturers. I got back out on the Road again as soon as I could.
Texas is an utterly unreasonably big state, though, and I was still a long ways from the border when lunchtime came around. I tried to put it off, but when you’re hungry, you’re hungry, so I parked at the most deserted truck stop I could find. I mean, this place was a dive, it looked like it was built during the Van Buren administration and not painted one single time since then.
I knew two things instantly when I walked in the door; that I was in trouble, and that it was too late. The inside looked like what you might get if you merged a diner with a cruise ship and exploded a piñata all over everything. That, and it was full of Mexicans: smoking Mexicans, drinking Mexicans, eating Mexicans, Mexicans talking and lounging and playing pool.
There was no backing out, so I put on my best amiable idiot face, stumped over to the counter and plopped myself onto a stool. I stared at the menu blankly and then pointed to one of the other diners. “I’ll have what he’s having, and a cup of coffee.”
The counter guy flicked his gaze over my head at the back corner of the place, then nodded slightly and poured me some coffee. To this day I don’t know what it was that I ate. I was just polishing it off when the door burst open and this porcelain doll leaped into the room.
“Surrender, evildoers!” she shouted.
Now, I have to describe this girl to you, otherwise you won’t understand just how ridiculous she looked at that moment. Her long, glossy black hair was contorted through a fantastic headdress that very much resembled a set of bagpipes without the bag part. Bits of ornate jewelry dangled off the ends of the pipes, making a sad tinkling noise whenever she moved her head. Her face, neck, arms, and legs were painted white, with bright red on her cheeks, lips, finger and toe nails, while her eyes and eyebrows were outlined by great lines of oily black. In addition, she was wearing an Oriental-style tunic in glaring neon green brocade and high-heeled sandals that made my ankles ache in sympathy. In her left hand was a sword, and in the right was another sword, both with enormous red tassels dangling off the end of the handle.
I seriously considered just putting my head down on the counter and laughing, but before I had the chance the counter guy burst out, “Hey! You’re not supposed to be here yet! We haven’t even started work on a new plan!”
Did I say before that the heroes were worse than the villains? I take it back. I forgot the tendency that the villains have to act like they’re involved in some sort of enormous game with the heroes. If people get killed, it’s not a game. It’s not a sport, either, because the ones getting killed aren’t the participants, who presumably signed up for this idiocy, but the bystanders. It’s considered bad form to kill one of the participants, but bystanders are just collateral damage.
China-doll’s eyes were slowly widening as she took in the extent of the crowd. Several dangerous metallic noises made it clear that these gentlemen were quite well-armed and not at all amused.
“Ahem,” I said. “Do you fellows mind if I take this young lady outside and explain some things to her?”
Everyone stared at me blankly for several seconds. From the darkest, smokiest corner came a deep, rumbling voice, a voice that sounded as though it could not have come from anything human.
“Why would we let you do that?”
I reached out and casually crushed my coffee mug in one hand, throwing the shards over the counter. The voice chuckled like an earthquake.
“By all means, take her.”
I got up and dug out some money to pay for the food, then sauntered across the floor. The girl seemed likely to protest, so I grabbed her shoulder and pushed; she sagged abruptly and I hauled her outside before she could recover. Several lookouts were lying on the ground groaning. Well, maybe she wasn’t totally incompetent.
I pointed to the cab of my truck. “Get in.”
“I don’t have to take orders from you!”
“No, you don’t. You can stay here with the Mexicans if you prefer.” I climbed up myself and started the engine up. After a bit the girl knocked on the door and I let her in.
“My friends left without me,” she said.
“I’m not surprised. What’s your name, kid?”
“Nice. You been in the hero business long?”
“Well, um, not exactly.”
“No . . . I’m still at the Academy. My friends told me they’d heard about this den of smugglers here, and they thought it would look good on our transcripts if we took them out. They were supposed to go in the back but, well, they left.”
Never mind villains, teenagers are definitely the worst. I revved the engine a bit, shifted it into gear, and pulled back onto the Road. “This would be Claremont Academy?”
“Kind of a long ways from here.”
“I was visiting my family for vacation. Um . . . what are you going to do with me?”
“Right this minute? I thought I’d drive you to Little Rock, where you can catch a bus to wherever you decide to go. I’d recommend back home, personally.”
“I should go back to the Academy.”
“Because . . . I’m a super! That’s where I belong!”
I shook my head. “Belong? That and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee. Or maybe you think it’s normal that friends try to get one another killed?”
She shrank into herself a bit.
“This was a great country once, when there was still a Law and it applied to everyone. If you weren’t a super, well, you could work hard and build your own defenses, or buy them, or the regular old police had them . . . enough at least to keep the villains in check if no super was convenient. Vigilantism was actually frowned upon instead of worshipped. Then they started to get the idea that super-powerful weapons and armor were too powerful for anyone but supers . . . they decommissioned the special police and military units, they made manufacturing and research almost impossible or banned it outright in some cases. Now no one can fight a super except another super. They get to have Secret Identities and act outside the bounds of any law. Then we get this Academy that churns out equal numbers of villains and heroes, all without principles other than wearing a stupid suit and fighting the other group. It’s pathetic.”
“Well, what about you?”
“What about me?”
“If all that is true, why don’t you do something about it?”
“I am doing something about it. I’m minding my own business.”
“Driving a truck?” One of the ludicrous black eyebrows rose dramatically.
“At least it’s an honest way to make a living.”
“Yes, but for how much longer?”
“For how much longer? If things keep getting worse, as you say, then how much longer do you think you can keep making a living this way? One thing I did learn at the Academy is that, if you can see a problem then you have to do something, because there is no one else.”
“What can I do, fight? They’ve got plenty of idiots for that already, and you see how it’s turned out. I thought about it, I did, it’d be a real challenge, but that’s not enough.”
“Not fight. Talk. It seems to be your strong point.”
“Oh, sure, who will listen to me?”
“Well, I did.”
After I dropped her off I dug out that card Rose gave me. Maybe I would go see him. It’s not like I’d be committing myself or anything.
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