Let X Be Y

by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
illustrated by shu

“The length of the acclimatization shaft is the same as the length of your penis,” Justin said, and I knew that he was wrong. The length of my flaccid penis was a precise 3.5 inches, and while erect it was 4.5. The tubular shaft he was holding was at least five inches, which rendered his a generous but inaccurate statement.

I told Justin as much.

“No, I’m sure that can’t be right,” he replied, and moved for the measuring tape by his station. “Take off your pants.”

“No.”

He looked annoyed. “It’ll only take a second.”

“This is unnecessary data for your project,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest. The laboratory on the third floor of Vanguard Tower could be drafty, and right now there were certainly goosebumps on my arms. I rolled my sleeves back down, just to be safe. Then I squinted at Justin. “Wait a second. Are you trying to have sex with me?”

His annoyance increased. “I was merely trying to provide an illustrative example. I know you’re not a visual thinker, Sydney. I was trying to educate you.”

Also unnecessary, I thought, but Justin tended to think like that. Between the two of us that comprised the core of the Vanguards’ tech team, he was the senior staff member whereas I had only been on the team for two years. Justin had had five, plucked straight from the palm of MIT when he had accidentally blown up a small campus building with his electrical experiments. The authorities gave him a choice after that: help the Vanguards, or go to jail. Justin was not a fool.

He did, however, have an irrepressible habit of lecturing anyone he believed was his inferior. Which was to say, any of us who had not accidentally blown up a small campus building at MIT.

I swiveled my chair back around and returned to my workstation. OLIVIA was humming along in her mainframe without a hitch. Justin cleared his throat behind me, and I knew he wanted me to turn around so he could continue discussing his newly designed acclimatization shaft, but I pretended to be busy. OLIVIA needed to be defragmented today, a process which I ran every Thursday at eight a.m. It was 7:58 now. I watched the clock intently.

Two minutes.

One minute.

Forty seconds.

“Oh for god’s sake,” Justin said. “You are completely neurotic. Just run it now — what difference does it make?”

“It does make a difference,” I said without looking at him.

“Explain.”

I opened my mouth, but just then the glass doors slid open and in walked Hugo in full costume. Both Justin and I turned to face him, putting on our best polite expressions, which for Justin was a cross between a scowl and the way he got when he had eaten too much curry and needed to use the toilet. I made my face carefully neutral, which, I was told, was my default expression anyway. Whether or not this was true, I had no idea. I didn’t like looking in mirrors much.

“Hi geeks,” Hugo said cheerfully. “Dr. Rothke, Dr. Songcuya.”

“Tiger Man,” Justin replied.

“Hugo,” I said by way of greeting. When I had first joined the Vanguards’ tech support, I had copied Justin in that I only referred to the superheroes by their hero name. It seemed to provide a professional distance while conveying respect, which was exactly why Justin did it. Since then I learned that it put some of the heroes off. It was no great effort to change the habit and put them at ease — though Justin, clearly, was too set in his ways. Besides, I thought, the day Justin changed anything about himself to put someone at ease would be the day the earth careened into the sun.

Hugo Ramirez was the Vanguards’ team leader. He was a shockingly huge man, giving off the impression of a tank-sized human being. I knew the details of his file because it was my job to be familiar with every piece of data: thirty-four years of age, born in Mexico, crossed the border illegally when he was eight years old, now a naturalized American citizen and very proud of it. With his super strength, he had been Tiger Man for eight years, and had led the Vanguards for four, ever since the departure of their old leader, Queen Majesta, for the west coast team.

Other things I kept in my mental record of Hugo: loved to BBQ, loved his children even more. I knew discussing them would put him even more at ease, further lubricating our professional relations. It was good to maintain a solid relationship with the leader of the Vanguards, whom Justin and I had been hired to support.

“How is your family?” I asked Hugo.

“Great,” he beamed. “Maria’s in her green stage. Meaning she won’t eat anything that’s green. And Bart, oh man, he’s—”

“I’m sure you came here for a reason,” Justin interrupted, adjusting his glasses.

“No-nonsense as usual, huh, doc?” Hugo said. “Yeah, of course. I came down here to talk to you guys about a meeting we just had with Homeland Security. You ever heard of the Chaos Magistrate?”

I blinked. “Yes. Of course.”

“Really? Like what? ‘Cause I’ve never heard of him until today,” Hugo said.

“He had great renown among the hacker community,” I said. “Do you remember the hacking of Interpol several years ago?” I waited for Hugo to nod. “That was him. He disappeared after that, but since you’re here discussing him, I imagine he has returned and is now a threat to us.”

“Got it in one, Syd,” Hugo grinned, and while I did not appreciate the nickname — there is nothing wrong with the name Sydney, it is a fine, strong name, hence why my parents chose it for me — I liked the sound of Hugo’s laughter. I liked the way it bubbled out of him even when we were discussing hackers and villains. I wondered if I could record Hugo’s laughter and have OLIVIA play it for us when we were stressed. Then I wondered if that was creepy.

Hugo spoke. “The reason the Chaos Magistrate disappeared after the hacking was that we caught him and arrested him. He was in jail up until oh… five days ago, when he broke out. Now he’s issuing a threat to the American government, and in particular, us. We were the ones who caught him — this was before you joined us, Syd.” He turned to Justin. “You might remember though. It was very hush hush, but you were around, right?”

“I remember,” Justin said icily. “I also remember you didn’t let me get involved as much as I would have liked.”

“Well, we can’t be losing our lead engineer in the middle of battle, right? Uriah would fall to pieces,” Hugo said. His arm muscles rippled as he slapped Justin on the shoulder. Justin stared at him like a piece of dung under his heel. “Anyway, just thought I’d let the two of you know what’s what. Syd, if the damn bastard tries to hack us, kick him to Mars, okay?”

“Understood,” I said. “Though Mars may not be a practical—”

“It’s just an expression,” Hugo said. He laughed. “I should be going now. Come join us for dinner later. Karishma’s cooking. You can’t miss it.”

Justin and I glanced at each other.

“We’re busy,” he said.

“Very busy,” I added. I resisted the urge to shield my stomach. There were some dangers in the superhero world that even the Vanguards could not avoid. When Hugo was gone, Justin and I went back to work. I could hear him moving around, adjusting his new shaft and locking it into place with his electric drill. After a while, I could hear him set it down and say, out of nowhere, “I really wasn’t trying to have sex with you.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Just so we’re clear.”

“We’re clear,” I said, and I didn’t even look up.

illustrated by shu

:::

The Chaos Magistrate didn’t attempt to hack us that week. There were a few irregularities in the system, but I investigated each and every one of them and determined OLIVIA was under no threat. The universe continued on, however, and the Vanguards went about their usual business of eliminating the small disturbances and upstarts who thought they could take on New York City’s premier superhero team. I could have saved them the trouble and told them right away: fat chance.

(Though why it was called ‘fat chance’ was something I often wondered about. Weren’t their chances opposite of fat, as in, they were slim? Bell was forever trying to explain these things to me, but they just didn’t seem linguistically logical).

Tuesday, Blackout gave us some trouble. When OLIVIA synthesized the police dispatch that announced his presence in downtown Manhattan, I immediately passed the message on to Hugo, who said, “Got it. Prepare for launch.”

Ten minutes later, the team was ready. I watched them gather on the roof of Vanguard tower where the helicopters were ready to take them to their mission. I watched them with avid interest, because even in the two years that I had been their tech support and go-to IT guy, I never got tired of the excitement. There was Hugo in his black and orange spandex, shouting orders. Right at his side was Karishma Mehta, called Captain Justice, a tall and wiry ex-soldier who served as Hugo’s lieutenant. Then there was Bell, the Witch of Endor, an immortal sorceress with the physique of a teenage girl, who was the closest I had to a friend in the tower. She looked right at the cameras on the roof and waved at me.

“Hi Bell,” I said into the coms.

“Another Tuesday afternoon, right?” she said, and then jumped onto the helicopter lightly in her go-go boots.

Z’arek followed her, green-skinned reptilian Z’arek, an exiled prince from the planet Valtan. Uriah Gold brought up the rear in his metallic robot suit, the Aeronaut. Uriah was the newest member of the Vanguards but also the richest, and had provided Vanguard Tower as a gift — before him, we had been operating out of a warehouse on the edge of the city, a secure but inconvenient location for superhero work. Uriah was the scion of the powerful Gold family, and though you could not tell it, what with the metal suit, he was handsome and charming and a constant subject of the tabloids. It was Justin’s job to keep Aeronaut in order, and I knew Justin both admired and loathed Uriah.

Speaking of Justin, where was he? I guessed bathroom break, as he had slipped out of lab without me noticing.

Outside, Aeronaut launched into the sky where he flew alongside the helicopter rather than within. I broadcasted OLIVIA’s feeds onto the wall, which was my normal habit during fights. When Justin wasn’t meeting the demands of his insatiable bladder, we watched them together where he would sit on his bench trying to look bored. But I could always tell by the way his fingers clenched against his thigh that he’d be tense. Justin was always a tightly wound ball of energy, and the slightest malfunction in any of the team’s equipment, especially the delicate machinery of the Aeronaut, could make him… what was it Bell had called it? Oh yes. Freak out.

The Vanguards arrived in Manhattan. They looked down and saw that Blackout had brought goons. I could hear Uriah laugh. He was the first Vanguard to move, a mechanical blur of speed and power. He put a laser through the first goon’s shoulder, and then he sent his fist smashing into another goon’s jaw, knocking him out.

Hugo hit the ground. He roared and started running, smashing through a line of villains. His fists swung wildly, almost erratically, and it was a contrast to Uriah’s measured precision. However, his enemies fell around him like bowling pins. Some were brazen enough to put up a decent fight, but Tiger Man’s animal strength proved to be their downfall.

Karishma moved through Hugo’s wake, deadly and swift, electricity arcing through her gloves like a Cat’s Cradle string. Anyone that Hugo missed, Karishma took care of. I could see the trajectory the two Vanguard leaders were carving towards Blackout. But then Bell jumped to the air and flew over both of their heads, tackling the Blackout’s right hand man to the pavement with a well-aimed shock spell. Z’arek was there too, his poison sting shot hissing from between his lips.

“Aeronaut!” Bell shouted. “What the hell are you waiting for? Move!”

Uriah went firecracking into the fray, landing beside Blackout and striking him full on in the face. He howled, and Bell sent another spell zinging his way. But what made Blackout so formidable was his rapid healing abilities, courtesy of stem cell reconstruction. He recovered in no time, and his bazooka fired into Aeronaut’s chest.

Shock damage 31%, initializing compensatory program, platform level D. The words flashed across Justin’s laptop. Justin was still in the bathroom, but the programs he’d built kicked into gear, stabilizing the suit.

Blackout fired again. Aeronaut recoiled against the blast to her plates, but I knew she could take much more than that. Justin had constructed her out of yingian alloy, the most advanced alloy on Earth — perhaps not even Earth, as Justin had connections with his old MIT friends, who were now top-secret government researchers.

Aeronaut grabbed the Blackout by the scruff of his neck. He fought back, but Uriah went the direction he knew best: up.

Elevation 1000 feet, 1500 feet, 2100 feet, elevation increasing.

“Witch of Endor!” Uriah called. “Catch!”

“Got ya,” said Bell, and Aeronaut let go.

I wanted to watch the Blackout’s plummet into Bell’s net. I wanted to watch it very badly. But OLIVIA scanned the area and informed me of a crisis that needed my attention: Z’arek and Karishma being approached by a goon cloaked in invisibility.

“Behind you!” I said to the two of them. Karishma heard, and delivered a roundhouse kick in the right direction that sent the invisible enemy flying.

“Thanks, Sydney!” she said.

“No problem,” I replied. ‘It’s just my job.”

:::

This hadn’t always been my job, watching out for superheroes. There was a time, when I was young, when the American government thought I might have made a decent superhero myself. It was why they removed me from my home when I was seven years old, taking me from my parents and sending me to a succession of boarding schools and training bases where I was tested again and again for promising talent.

They had seen something originally, in my affinity for computers and code. They had thought they might teach me to interface my mind with my machines, the way they had seen some other gifted children do, crossing that boundary between humanity and technology. In the end, though, I never did have the talent. I could code and hack with the best of them, but I couldn’t call it to my cells, couldn’t make it sing like a bloodsong.

They kicked me out of the program when I was fourteen. Having nothing better to do then, and being too ashamed of my failures to return to my parents, I enrolled in UCLA and pursued multiple degrees in succession, culminating in a PhD in computer science.

I might have had other hobbies, once. I don’t much remember. I defended my doctoral thesis at age twenty, and after that worked in a number of start-ups where they treated me very badly. I was, as my performance evaluations always said, poorly socialized, even among the sort of people who end up being computer geniuses. I couldn’t take a joke. I was excessively formal. I was too fixed on routine. I didn’t like germs.

Who does like germs, I ask.

Bell said she met me once as a child, when she visited one of the boarding schools. She said, honestly, that I didn’t stand out much, and she had had to rack her memory to recall the image of a lonely Filipino boy building careful towers out of Lego.

Are you still lonely? she had asked, looking at me keenly, but I had shook my head.

I lived in Vanguard Tower, surrounded by heroes and their families and their staff. Every morning when I left my bedroom on the seventh floor, I could hear the sounds of them: the laughter, the grunts, the arguments. Why would I ever be lonely?

I even had Dr. Justin Rothke as my lab partner, the renowned engineer who could probably build a nuclear bomb out of two pieces of wire and a headless chicken. Bell liked to call us Tweedledee and Tweedledum, which didn’t strike me as particularly original, but I suppose I could see why she would. I was tall and gangly and gawky-looking, with my tanned islander skin, while Justin was short and pudgy and fair enough to burn under direct sunlight. I always dressed as neatly as I could, with ironed polo shorts and black slacks. Justin’s hair was constantly unkempt, and he had a mermaid tattoo that ran the entire length of his left arm and a lotus tattoo that ran the length of his right. I enjoyed peace, quiet, and a good book in my off-hours; Justin liked to go to bars and start brawls.

We had an uneasy peace between us. I claimed the back of the lab; he had the front, closest to the doors. We did argue about organization and neatness, as Justin was a consummate slob, but in the end we agreed that we could each keep our own section as we liked.

Whatever else, this much was true: I respected Justin greatly, as a professional, as an intellect, as a tireless ghost who moved behind the scenes to make sure the Vanguards had the tech they needed when they needed it. I knew he felt unappreciated most of the time, as he was rarely in the front and centre of the action, but I appreciated what he did, what little it was worth to him.

I said this out loud. “Justin, you should be aware that I very much appreciate your great contributions to the team.”

“Oh shut it,” he said, tearing out a piece of insulated wire from Aeronaut’s leg. “Go get me a coffee.”

“I’m not your coffee boy,” I said.

“Look, my hands are occupied,” he said. “Plus my forehead is getting sweaty. I need someone to wipe it off.” Indeed, there was a bead of sweat on his forehead that was threatening to drop into his contacts.

I frowned. “I’m not your sweat boy either.”

Justin looked at me plaintively.

“Fine,” I said, getting out of my chair. “Workplace rapport building. I do my part. OLIVIA, man the decks.” I fetched a kleenex from a nearby table and dabbed it against Justin’s forehead. “What are you working on right now?” I asked, looking down at his hands.

“Accounting for Uriah’s very human errors,” he said. “Making Aeronaut as idiot-proof as possible.”

“He’s not that bad, is he?” I asked. “I realize that Uriah is not likely to join MENSA any time soon, but he is clever in battle.” I thought about it some more. “He gave me a cookie once. I appreciated that.”

“God, you’re so easy, Sydney.” Justin smirked, and I could not tell if his voice was admiring or disgusted.

“No, machines are easy,” I replied. “People are hard.”

“Yeah?” Justin fitted the wire back into Aeronaut with astonishing grace, given that his fingers were not particularly slender. “I think machines are easy, and people are easy too. After all, we eat, sleep, shit, fuck, try to climb the ladder — what’s so complicated about that?”

“Well, there’s love,” I mused. “I hear love is complicated.” Not that I would know much about it. The closest I had come to love was a classmate rubbing against my thigh during a lecture on algebra, and I think he was only trying to find a pencil he had dropped, anyway.

“Love,” Justin snorted. “Love’s the easiest thing of them all. It sucks balls.”

“Even lesbian love?” I wrinkled up my nose. Justin took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. He didn’t respond, even though I felt it was a perfectly legitimate query.

:::

We had Blackout taken care of, but there was still the larger threat of the Chaos Magistrate out and thirsty for revenge. I spent the next week building an extra shell of security around OLIVIA. It occupied most of my time, and I missed three dinners, two lunches, and all of my breakfasts. I did not even take my tea, which was quite unusual and rattled me so much one evening that I forced myself away from my laboratory up to the shared kitchen, where I brewed my tea.

Bell came in right when the kettle was boiling.

“Hi Bell,” I said. “Your breasts look very perky today.” I had noticed that she enjoyed it when men complimented her breasts, which was partly why she wore clothes that revealed their contours so often.

“Sydney, you fumbling dork, I’m charmed,” she replied.

“What, did I do something wrong?” I asked, confused because she was glancing around furtively.

“No, just making sure Justin isn’t lurking in a corner to smash a rock into my head,” Bell said.

My confusion deepened. “Why would he do that? Justin is more than intelligent enough to know that your magical talents would take him down in about five point seven seconds. Also, he wouldn’t resort to a rock.”

“True, I’d whup his pasty ass.” Bell wrapped an arm around my shoulders and gave me what was called a ‘noogie.’ “How are ya, doc?”

“I am working on an extra layer of security for OLIVIA.” I glanced yearningly at my tea-in-progress and Bell let go of me. “I think it’s going well. Actually, I would be excited to go up against the Chaos Magistrate in our systems, but I don’t think my desire to outsmart him should be more important than the tower and the team’s essential security.”

Uriah walked into the kitchen in Aeronaut’s armour. “That’s very noble of you,” he said through the voice scrambler.

“Why the hell are you wearing that indoors?” Bell asked him.

“Testing it for mobility,” Uriah replied. “Trying out different terrains. Do we have any of those croissants left or did Hugo’s brats eat them all?” He laughed. “Just kidding. Hugo, if you’re listening to this, your children are angels.”

We all assumed the appropriate expressions. Hugo’s children were not, in fact, angels. Angels likely did not kick poor IT technicians in the shins for no reason at all, which Maria had done to me just yesterday. Granted, when I leave my lab after a seven-hour coding jag, I am not always the most human-appearing person, but still. I felt Maria’s violence was unwarranted.

Bell’s phone buzzed between the grasp of her glittery purple nails, and she looked down. “Ooooh, Alexander Wang sale. Bye, gotta go.” She used her powers to teleport out. It was quite a sight, like a hush descending upon the room, a small winter.

“Are you going to the sale too?” I asked Uriah politely.

“Nah, I don’t like Alexander Wang,” he said. “Come to think of it, I don’t like clothes at all. The moment I get home, it all comes off. Don’t you think?”

“What?”

“The feel of air on your naked skin.”

“Oh, I see,” I said. “This is a part of your playboy charm, isn’t it? Don’t worry. You don’t need to practice it on me.” I sank my teabag into the hot water and bobbed it around like a duck hungry for crumbs. If it was bizarre to have this conversation with a metal suit, I tried not to show it.

Uriah was in his armour, but I could picture his rakish smile — like something that belonged on the cover of a Mills & Boon novel. He was a very good-looking man with excellently groomed facial hair. I wanted the name of his barber, but wasn’t sure if I could afford it. At the same time I didn’t consider myself to be a wishy-washy dreamer sort, and even if I was attracted to him, as was most of the population of New York, I knew the chances of someone like me ending up with the golden boy of the Gold dynasty were slim to none. I drank my tea calmly.

“You know, Sydney, we should get to know each other better,” Uriah said. “I spend all that time with Justin, working on Aeronaut, arguing about Aeronaut, getting into blows about Aeronaut… but I feel like I rarely get to talk to you.”

“That’s all right,” I said.

“Let’s have dinner sometime,” he said. “What’s your favourite?”

“My favourite what?”

“Dinner.”

I peered at him. “Really? You don’t need to make nice with me. I’ll happily maintain your servers, food or not. Or, well, I do need food and sustenance to survive, but it doesn’t need to come from you.” I paused. “I’m babbling, aren’t I?”

“Now we really do need to have dinner,” Uriah said. “Call me.”

“You have security cameras in your room. I could—”

“No, like, with a phone.”

“Oh. All right,” I said.

:::

Despite the fact that I was comprised mostly of skin, bones, tea, and Python, Hugo insisted that all members of the Vanguard Tower, whether they be front-line superheroes or back-room support staff, maintain some level of physical fitness. Which was why, every Friday afternoon, Justin and I trudged reluctantly to Gym A where Karishma put us through our paces.

I don’t believe it unmans me to say that I was slightly terrified of Karishma, even more so than Hugo. While Hugo was the team leader, Karishma had the temper and relentlessness of the military drill master she had once been. Soon, under her steely eye, Justin and I were wriggling around like unhappy worms.

“Goddamnit,” Justin grunted. “How flexible do you think I am?”

“Not at all, Dr. Rothke,” Karishma retorted. “If you were actually flexible, we’d be onto the advanced moves.”

I was more flexible than Justin was, but I was also more discomfited by the fact that I had to wear shorts and a flimsy t-shirt. It made me feel naked and vulnerable, and I resisted the urge to run into the locker room and hide. Or at the very least put on a shirt that covered my arms. There was nothing wrong with my arms per se. I knew that intellectually. They weren’t scarred or deformed, but even so, I didn’t like people looking at them too long.

Justin, on the other hand, didn’t mind people looking at him. Why else would he had taken off his shirt? It lent Karishma and me a view of the tattoos that spread across his back like angel wings. I frowned as I studied them. Justin noticed and barked at me.

“Whatcha looking at?”

“I was thinking,” I said, “about the history of tattoo inks and what dyes are traditionally used to achieve vibrancy of colour. Do you know, in Ancient India—”

“The only Indian you need here is me,” Karishma interrupted, circling us like a bear deprived of her honey. “Back to your situps, Sydney, and don’t stop until you give me at least a hundred.”

I glumly obeyed. My muscles promptly revolted and gave me a stomach ache. When I had miraculously accomplished a hundred situps, I lay on the mats and stared at the ceiling, contemplating God and man. Justin rolled over, got up, and stepped on my foot. “Ow,” I said.

“Captain Justice’s distracted. Want to spar?” he asked.

“No thank you,” I said, which was a courteous way of saying, I’d rather be locked in a cage of angry mosquitos. I had sparred with Bell before, where she used the opportunity to teach me how to use my reach and flexibility against enemies should I ever come across any the Vanguards couldn’t save me from. Sparring with Justin was completely different and usually led to bloody noses and anxiety about whether or not he hated my guts, and whether I should be watching my back more carefully in the lab. I figured it probably wasn’t me. Justin seemed to mildly hate everyone. Though maybe I was wrong. I wasn’t always very good at reading people’s motivations.

Justin raised his eyebrows. “If you’re more scared of me than you are of Captain Justice…” Standing, he was towering over me, so I scrambled upwards.

“Of course I’m more scared of you,” I said, settling into a cross-legged position. “Karishma doesn’t fight dirty.”

That made Justin smile. His sweat trailed down the dark hair on his belly, which was, objectively, far too round to belong to any superhero, but which an ex-girlfriend of his had once described to me — assuming mistakenly that I wanted to know — as “cute.” I looked up at Justin quizzically, trying to discover this said cuteness.

I think I stared for too long, because Justin started staring back, eyes narrowed. It made me uncomfortable, so I glanced away. No one could win a staring contest that way Justin could. Think about it: the man could work on repairs and new Aeronaut innovations for hours without a single break in concentration. Compared to that, what was a little eyeball tussling?

“Why are you here?” I asked him, picking at a loose thread on my deplorable gym shorts.

“Because Tiger Man made it a rule, same as you,” Justin said.

“No, I mean, why are you with the Vanguards?” I wondered. “I’m here because, well, people think I’m kind of odd.” Justin gave me a look that I couldn’t decipher. “And you’re odd too. At least I think you are. But you have better social skills than me, and you’re ambitious and you don’t like following orders — so why are you here and not,” I waved a hand, “starting your own company or inventing a new piece of tech or something? Surely you’ve already paid off your debt to the police for the… lab incident at MIT.”

It was a lot of words at once, for me. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, once I had said my piece. Across the gym Karishma was approaching us with a set of weights. I winced preemptively and then looked back at Justin.

“You’re right,” he said. “I’m way too talented to be playing geek squad to a bunch of flying freaks. And the police don’t care what I do anymore.”

I tilted my head. So?

Justin tilted his head right back at me. After a strange moment had passed in which I felt curiously itchy, he laughed dryly. “I thought, with your kind of access to the systems, you knew everything. All our biographical information. Every last DNA test.”

“Just because I have access doesn’t mean I snoop,” I said, offended.

He shook out his shoulders. “You should take advantage of what’s there. Be an idiot not to. Uriah Gold is my half-brother. And he saved my life. That’s why I’m with the team.” Then he cracked his knuckles and went to join Karishma, leaving me alone on the floor.

:::

I never did work up the courage to call Uriah about dinner. What was the point, I thought pragmatically. He was probably only trying to be friendly, and the idea of dinner — or, more fantastically, a date — with Uriah Gold turned my stomach upside down. This might have surprised my coworkers. The Vanguards had hired me for my ability to never blink an eye at anything, but dating… emotions… the existence of other people… well, one has to have limits.

Justin understood full well. While he went on dates regularly, mostly a combination of online sites and fellow engineers who were attracted to his brain, I knew he struggled with making connections too. It was hard not to notice, the way he often came back from a date, threw himself over the laboratory couch, and immediately launched into a tirade against the latest offensive thing a woman — or, sometimes, a man — had done, from wearing too much eyeliner to getting the Fibonacci sequence wrong.

“Do you ever think your standards are simply too high?” I asked him one evening while scanning OLIVIA for any recent activity from the Chaos Magistrate. I picked at an annoying hangnail on my right hand. “Too much eyeliner hardly seems an excuse not to call her back. Not that I would know.”

“Never been on a real date?” Justin said. I regretted telling him this, but I nodded because when you spend the majority of your hours with another human being, it’s hard to hide your general romantic ineptitude. I wasn’t Uriah with his harem of hangers-on in their short skirts and tight tops.

“Maybe my standards are too high,” Justin went on to say, “but I want someone who can keep up with me. Someone I don’t have to constantly explain things to.” He started ticking off his list on his fingers. “Someone I have sexual chemistry with. Someone who doesn’t irritate me.”

“That may prove difficult,” I said.

“Why shouldn’t it? People like us, we’re exceptional,” he replied. “Why should we settle for ordinary partners? Don’t tell me you’d be happy with someone who can barely do mental math in their head.”

I had never much thought about it, to be honest. While I had physical needs like anyone else, I had long since accepted the fact that probability-wise, I would be an eternal bachelor. I didn’t think it so bad. I could get a cat, maybe. I did like cats. Justin was allergic, however.

I chewed my bottom lip while staring at the screens in front of me. I rewrote a few stray lines of code. I took a sip of my tea.

“Justin—” I said.

But he had already put on his headphones and was deep in his work. I decided not to bother him. He had had a rough night, what with the failed date.

There were to be more rough nights ahead, as instead of worrying about the Chaos Magistrate and his technological prowess — which mostly fell to me, to be honest, as the Vanguards were not the most technically literate bunch — Halloween crept up on us. Outside, the trees were turning sugar-brown, but inside the tower Bell threw her annual Halloween masquerade. Parties were more frightening to me than jars full of ebola, but I never could think of an excuse that would allow me to wriggle out of her furious stare. So I went, as I had gone the year before, and the year before that, dressed in the same costume as always: a vampire, all black. I wore the plastic fangs for exactly five and a half minutes before sneaking them off and tucking them into a pocket.

Vanguard Tower was lit up that night, like a beehive with pockets of activity and illumination. The music was blasting from the system, and Hugo was DJing, which meant the songs he chose were very fast and people were dancing very hard. Bell circulated the rooms, hugging and kissing her guests — most of which I didn’t recognize. I went to the bar, asked for a gin and tonic, and then folded myself into a corner where I was content to watch the others while being largely invisible. Or as invisible as a six-foot-tall Asian man in a cape could ever be.

My eyes tracked Uriah when he passed by me. He didn’t see me, of course, but he himself was extremely noticeable, dressed as Elvis. “Not fat Elvis,” I heard him say to his date, a busty blonde in a green mermaid dress. “The other Elvis.”

Were there two Elvises? I nursed my drink thoughtfully.

Karishma was dancing with Z’arek. It was an odd but pleasant sight, his green arms wrapped around her. She kept glaring at everyone who stared, as if daring them to comment. I didn’t think she had to worry about that — we all wanted to keep our limbs tonight.

The hours passed. I had another gin and tonic, and then a screwdriver. The bar was getting more crowded as more guests arrived. Where did they all come from? I wondered as my head grew cloudy with alcohol. I started smiling. That was when Justin leaned over the bar counter and took my hand. “Hey,” he said.

“Hello,” I said.

“Let’s go upstairs,” he said, and I fumbled and nodded yes.

It was hard to remember later, what happened in between leaving the party and climbing the stairs, Justin behind me, ready to catch me should I fall. When I tried to roll my memory back like a save point on a computer, all I could recall was that one moment I was nursing my third drink, and the next I was inside an empty guest bedroom on the fourth floor and Justin was pushing me against the wall, and we were kissing.

It wasn’t the first time we’d kissed. Not the second, or even the third. By my count, it was the fifteenth, and all the other times before had gone just like this: some alcohol, some loss of common sense, and Justin’s hands gripping my collar as he kissed me hot and wet, his tongue sliding into my mouth.

I think I moaned.

I hope I didn’t. It’d be embarrassing. But I might have.

We kissed and kissed, and I started to grow dizzy with the pleasure of it. Justin was — well, very talented at everything he set his mind to, and he never seemed to care that I was far less experienced. What I lacked in technique, however, I hoped I made up for in enthusiasm, because Justin had been the very first person to touch me. Barring that boy who slid against me in class one day — which even I knew didn’t count. So, that made Justin the first. I was twenty-six the first time he put his hands on me. A late bloomer, one might say, and I pictured myself blooming underneath the callouses of his hands, and I kissed him harder.

“Justin,” I breathed.

He stripped me out of my clothes and got to his knees. When his mouth touched me, I felt my legs shake. I grasped his hair for balance, and then flexed and let go. I didn’t mean to be rude. But Justin looked up at me in irritation and said, “Go ahead, I don’t care.” I threaded my fingers back into his hair and tried to bite down on my moans as he took me into his mouth, hollowing his cheeks before starting to suck.

Porn had never done much for me. Some of the boys in the training program used to watch it furtively, or exchange ragged magazines underneath the bedcovers. I’d always been fascinated by the anatomy and the narrative, but it’d never moved me. I’d never looked at the sight of two people in coitus and felt my skin grow hotter than an oven. But looking down at Justin, at the darkness of his hair, at the curve of his cheek, I felt it was all too much. I didn’t know what to say.

My orgasm came upon me quick and fierce. I gasped nonsensical syllables, and then pulled Justin up for another kiss. I tasted myself on his tongue, and he smirked against my mouth before taking my hand and leading me to the bed.

“Spread your legs,” he said, and I was only too eager to comply. I opened my arms and reached for him.

:::

In the morning, we didn’t talk about it. I knew the rules. In the morning, whoever woke up first would pick up his clothes and leave. And we would never talk about it. We would meet each other in our lab and work, and we would argue, and Justin would curse, and we would pretend that I had never held him against my shivering skin as he slid into me.

I felt it was strange. But from what I understood of social mores, sleeping with your coworkers was frowned upon, so it was better to keep it under wraps. Besides, I got the sense that Justin was ashamed of it, and I thought it was a fair criticism: I was nothing like his other dates, the ones he could show off. It didn’t hurt me to admit it — one should always be accurate and truthful.

There wasn’t too much time to dwell on these thoughts, anyway. The day after Halloween was the day the Chaos Magistrate first attempted to breach our systems. OLIVIA threw up the first warning as his program snaked through the firewall, and I flew into action, knocking over my tea with the elbow. As the hot water and leaves dripped all over me, I turned all of my attention from covertly watching Justin to monitoring what was happening on the screen.

He was in the S Drive. His worm was moving fast, digging through the data. I started coding a counter-attack as quickly as I could, blocking the holes that he might use — holes I had not even noticed before, which said something about the Chaos Magistrate’s brilliance. But there was nowhere in OLIVIA he could go without me knowing, because I had built her from scratch. She was my system, my darling, and my pinky hit ENTER ENTER ENTER as I executed her the way Uriah might have executed a fast turn on his Maserati.

“Is he out?” Justin asked, leaning over my shoulder.

“Not yet,” I said. His voice was a distraction. I could feel the tickle of his breath against my ear. It smelled faintly of salami. I nudged him aside and hit the keys again. ENTER ENTER ENTER.

The Chaos Magistrate’s worm disappeared. OLIVIA sent up the safe signal.

I leaned back in my chair and waited, patiently. One minute passed. Then two. Then three. OLIVIA remained silent. Then I noticed the pool of tea on my lap. “Oh,” I said. Justin handed me a napkin, wordlessly. I started wiping myself up, grimacing. “We’ll have to tell Hugo,” I said as I threw the wet napkin into the garbage. Being me, I missed. That was all right. I was too busy opening up my com and tapping out a brief message to Hugo.

System breach CM. Failed attempt. - SS

Hugo’s reply was instantaneous. OK

“Justin,” I said when I was done. I would never admit it to him, but I liked the sound of his name, solid on my tongue like a rock. Sometimes I said it for no reason at all. Generally not in public, though.

“What?” he asked, leaning away from me. We were standing too close. It was clearly unnerving him. He turned around and walked back to his station where he picked up a wrench and examined it, then set it aside, the wrench having offended his sensibilities somehow.

“You helped in the capture of the Chaos Magistrate last time, didn’t you? What was he like?” I asked.

“An arrogant ass with the face of a Jurassic reptile,” Justin shrugged. “Thought he was smarter and nervier than anyone else.”

I looked at the screens. “He’s pretty smart,” I said quietly.

“Then you’ll just have to be smarter,” Justin said. “And change your pants.”

:::

Funny enough, it was my pants that proved to be the real danger. My polyester Walmart pants.

These pants had never caused me any problem before, but then a seam ripped when I was trying to put them on one morning, and these perfectly innocent pair of pants became a nuisance. Justin pointed them out to me. “When I said, put on your pants, I mean ones that aren’t exposing your ass,” he said, and I wondered briefly if he was staring at said ass. But then I shrugged and decided it was time to buy a new pair of pants. Black, of course, and cheap, as I saw no need for expensive fripperies if I was only going to sit in front of a computer monitor for seven hours at a time.

There was a store in Chinatown that I went to often, so at the time in the morning when I would normally take my first tea break, I straightened and told Justin I’d be away for a few hours. “Clothing myself,” I said by way of explanation.

“An unfortunate necessity,” he replied.

Was this, as they said, a come-on? I squinted at him. Justin smiled, and then stopped smiling. Stranger and stranger.

“All right,” I finally said. “Don’t send the army after me if I’m late.” I paused. “Really. Don’t send the army after me. I know you have your contacts on speed-dial.”

He waved an airy hand. Then off I went. November was a chilly month, colder than I remembered New York usually being. It was certainly much colder than my early childhood on the west coast – it was funny. I had very few concrete memories of my parents before the government took me away from them. Only a pinhole memory of my father’s shiny black hair, my mother’s manicure. We were poor. I did remember that. My parents left the Philippines for a better life for their son, but they must have been proud people, even while toiling away in their minimum wage jobs. I remember this because I remember my mother’s manicured nails, which she faithfully had done every Saturday at the cheap Chinese-run salon down the street – she wanted so badly to fit in with the other ladies at the bank where she worked, even though they were tellers and she cleaned the floors.

I wondered what they would have thought of me. If they would have considered their sacrifice worth it. I was, by most measures of the word, a successful adult. I had a well-paying job for a well-known superhero team. My work helped keep New York and the rest of the eastern seaboard safe.

Yet – my mother’s nails. They were chipped the day she hugged me goodbye. I remembered that she didn’t cry. My parents were not criers, and to that end, neither am I.

I had a younger sister too. The government didn’t take her. Not enough talent, I suppose. I watched her sometimes, staring at a Facebook photo here or traffic camera footage there. Justin once asked why I didn’t simply get in touch with my family again, now that I could hack any government database I wanted to. He had a point. But I felt it was… complicated. They must have moved on after losing me; who was I to reopen old wounds? Better to have a clean ending than a messy stay in a state of limbo, I’d always felt.

Anyway. My pants.

My new Chinatown polyester pants, which had been blasted clean through by a laser. A laser in the hand of a masked villain in a silvery cape, who stood at the entrance to the store while the elderly couple who owned it cowered underneath the counter. “Ah,” I said, and put the torn pants down. “Not those?”

The dastardly villain said something. I wasn’t sure what. My ears were ringing from the sound of people screaming on the streets outside. I wish they would scream a bit less, though I was perfectly sympathetic to their plight. Lasers are not our best friends.

“Ah?” I tried again.

“…the Chaos Magistrate…” something something.

I considered my options. If this minion of the Chaos Magistrate wanted me dead, then there wasn’t much I could do about it. Karishma’s training, while well-intentioned, had never gotten me to the point where I could dispatch enemies on my own, at least not without a laptop and a sprinkler system. These thoughts ran very quickly through my head, and I glanced at the frightened store owners before stepping forward. “Take me as hostage,” I said. “I don’t mind.”

“Oh Sydney,” said a familiar voice. “You should never be so accommodating.” It was Aeronaut, and he was behind the silver-caped villain.

I ducked.

Good choice.

Aeronaut blasted the attacker in the chest with two beams. Not enough to kill, but enough to knock him off his feet and to the ground, where Aeronaut whipped out a pair of cuffs. You might think the metal suit’s fingers too heavy to manage something as delicate as handcuff-work, and you’d be right. But Justin had rigged a magnetic system for it, and the attacker was trussed like a pig in no time. He grunted as Aeronaut pressed a knee to his back, hissing a few choice words in his ear.

I heard sirens outside. The police had arrived. I tried to give the owners a comforting smile – spoiler alert: I don’t think it worked too well – and I stepped over the villain’s body on my way out the door. I didn’t bother to look at his face. What does it matter? There are always more to come.

“Thanks,” I told Uriah.

“Says the man who didn’t even call me about dinner,” he replied. “Want a ride home?”

“I don’t have any pants,” I said.

“Yes you do…?” Uriah said, glancing up and down my legs. I resisted the urge to shield myself like a shy Arthurian maiden. I couldn’t even decipher his expression, what with the metallic robot mask and all.

“I mean the pants I came to buy,” I informed him.

“I see,” Uriah laughed. “Well, I don’t think you’ll need them, not if I have any say in it.”

Another pause.

“Why?” I asked.

“Come to dinner,” Uriah said, “and I’ll explain.” Then Aeronaut swept me into his arms and we flew into the sky, where the clouds were clear and fluffy, and looked like Scottish sheep.

:::

“The Aeronaut is an advanced war machine, not not some kind of pickup line,” Justin grumbled later that evening when I told him what had happened in Chinatown. He was kneeling in front of the empty suit, adjusting a setting that Uriah had apparently horribly readjusted while he was saving me from kidnapping and/or death. There was a streak of engine oil on Justin’s cheek, and I wondered what he would do if I walked over and licked it off.

Not that I would. Such an act would be terribly unhygienic. But just a thought.

“I don’t think Uriah needs the Aeronaut to meet new people,” I said. “He’s rich, handsome, and passably charming. And I don’t believe he is actually interested in me, not when he parties with supermodels.” I folded my hands over my knees serenely. “Don’t you think?”

“I think Uriah likes a challenge, and you’re a challenge,” Justin said. “Plus you have that whole clueless geek-monk-code wizard thing going on, and Uriah is depraved enough to fall for it.”

“Geek-monk-code wizard thing?” I echoed.

“Some people are into it.” Justin yanked at a wire with his bare hands. “Then again, some people are into being fucked up the ass by Smurfs.”

“Really?”

“All the mastery of computers at your fingertips, and you’ve never gone on the internet?”

“Smurfs…” I thought about it. “You think Uriah likes intercourse with Smurfs?”

“No, you idiot, I think he likes ‘intercourse’ with guys like you, guys who walk around in their own head and when you take one look at them you just know they’re probably virgins, pure and innocent as a brand new memory card, and they’ll probably be just so eager for it when you finally do get them to bed, so eager and grateful.” Justin scowled.

I studied him. “Do you like that?”

“Not really my thing, Dumbledore.”

“You sure had a lot to say about it. Sixty-four words, in fact. I counted.” I glanced at OLIVIA to make sure she was running properly, as was my habit every other minute. “Though I will admit, this conversation is strange and is making me uncomfortable. Do you need any help with that?”

Justin had wriggled underneath Aeronaut and was fixing something in the groin area. He once told me that was where he stored the fuel cells, ‘just like in real life’ quote unquote. I watched him work for a good while before he grunted and gave me an answer. “Yeah, this cell’s come apart. There’s a piece of it stuck way back. Your fingers are longer than mine.”

I went over and fitted my head where he was indicating. Unfortunately this put my head right above his crotch. Justin was wearing jeans, and I knew that his skin must have been very warm; I knew this from memory. If I looked up a little further, I could see his chest rise and fall underneath his Double Fine t-shirt. “Where?” I asked quietly.

“There,” he replied. He pointed, and when I still didn’t understand, he grabbed my hand and slid it inside Aeronaut’s torso. “Further,” he said. I nodded, which was a bad idea as it bobbed my chin on his denim-clad groin. I quickly stopped nodding.

Inside Aeronaut, it was a mess of wires and chips. I was a coder, a software expert, and while I presumably knew more about hardware than the average person, given my CS background, I was nowhere near Justin’s level. I was the brains behind programs, firewalls, executions; his was the hand that built the flesh, bone, and circulatory system.

“Do you feel it?” he asked impatiently, his fingers stopping where they could reach no further. I rotated my wrist around and slid my fingers in further, until I touched the hard edge of the chip that had gotten stuck deep inside Aeronaut’s body.

“I have it,” I said, pulling it out gingerly. “Here.”

Justin eyed me. His eyes were green, for those interested in details like those. They were bright behind his square glasses. His eyelash length was about average. He had crinkles in the corner of his eyes that deepened when he smiled, and when he frowned, which was more often. “Bambi,” he said, “Iet me give you a piece of advice. Uriah’s my half-brother. I know him better than anyone else. He’s a flirt, a total playboy. Don’t go to dinner with him. Not even if it’s Mexican.”

I frowned. Mexican was my favourite.

“Especially not if it’s Mexican,” Justin said, amending his earlier statement. “Rule number one of Vanguard Tower: don’t fuck around with your coworkers. It makes it awkward for the rest of us, and I personally don’t need your weird personal mess to deal with every day.”

“But what about—”

“What?” He challenged me with his stare.

You and me, I wanted to say. But I didn’t. Instead I sighed and said, “That seems fair enough. I don’t want to create any ‘weird personal messes’ for the rest of you.” I thought then of Uriah’s cheekbones, his smile on the cover of Forbes magazine. Oh well. Justin was right. It wasn’t as if I stood a real chance anyway.

Justin read my expression – he did this better than anyone else. “Come on,” he said in a nicer tone, “don’t be sad about it. Let’s get drinks when we’re done, and we’ll play some chess too, okay? I’ll even let you beat me for once.”

That got my attention. “Ha,” I said. “You’re on.”

:::

Justin was my favourite person to play chess with. If I thought too deeply about it, he was actually my favourite person in any number of arenas, despite his prickly personality. He was my favourite person to work with, because of his brilliance; he was my favourite person to drink with, because he would always order drinks for me that he thought I would like; he was my favourite person to sleep with, because he… all right, I no longer wanted to think too deeply about it.

Our chess win record was 54% in his favour, 46% in mine. It would have been dead even, save for those occasions when a supervillain attack occurred in the middle of a chess game and we were called to our stations. Justin always wanted to return to the game when the crisis was over, while I was almost always tired and uninterested afterwards. Hence, he would win, and I would congratulate him before curling up and taking a nap. Justin always did have indefatigable energy.

This time, he won. Then we decided to play a rematch, and I won. We were at Cordelia’s, which was a bar not far from Vanguard Tower. They had a private back room where the Vanguard team members often went when they didn’t want to be recognized; Cordelia’s was extremely accommodating this respect. Justin and I generally didn’t bother. We weren’t likely to be recognized. Well, save for the Chaos Magistrate, who had clearly recognized me enough to send his goon to attack me – but the Chaos Magistrate was a hacker with near-divine access to all sorts of personnel files. The average paparazzo was not.

Justin and I, when we frequented Cordelia’s, often sat on the patio when the weather was nice. It wasn’t particularly nice this evening, but we both wore sweaters. Mine was fraying at the edges. His was lumpy. We were the twenty-something male equivalents to the dowdy aunts you read about in British novels, and neither of us cared. We had the chessboard between us, and a number of empty glasses, which the servers kindly removed. They also kept refilling, thanks to Justin’s requests.

By midnight, we were thoroughly sozzled.

“I think… I think I’m drunk,” I announced. “Why am I always drunk around you? I never get drunk. But those drinks you pick are so… so… good.”

Justin grinned into his glass. “It’s ‘cause I have good taste.”

“Yeah, but… how?”

“Maybe if you stopped wearing polyester pants, you’d figure it out,” he replied.

“Why’s everybody… making fun of my pants?” I pinched them, testing out the fabric. “They’re good pants. But not these. These are ripped. I tried to sew them up again, but I don’t think my sewing’s very good. I bet you’re really good at sewing.”

Justin spread his hands. “It’s a manual task. I do okay.”

“Not fair,” I said. “Brains and brawn.” I mulled over this basic inequity, and then stopped because Justin was licking his lips. I didn’t actually like when he did that, because it made the floor of my stomach drop as if someone had stomped all over it. Justin looked at me; I looked back. Brains and brawn, I thought, perhaps a bit uselessly, because Justin reached a hand over the table, grabbed my collar, pulled me forward, and kissed me.

It was wet and mean, the way most of Justin’s kisses started. He showed no mercy; he had an agenda, and it was my job to catch up. It was rather awkward with the table between us, and all the pointy chess pieces, and we had never kissed in public before. All of these distractions whispered at the back of my mind, but then Justin’s tongue traced the edge of my lips, coaxing my mouth further open, and I forgot I possessed a mind to begin with.

It was with Justin that I realized why people like sex. It had never seemed logical to me, that people would enjoy losing their minds so much, even people with the smartest minds I knew. But Justin had taught me, even from the very first time – which hadn’t been that great, to be honest, as I’d been shy and confused, and he’d been drunk and impatient. But even that very first time, I learned something from Justin. Nothing to do with how machines and Aeronauts responded to his touch, but how I responded to his touch, to the blunt grasp of his fingers, the gasp of his breath.

I didn’t have much to compare it to, but I suspected that Justin was objectively a very good kisser. He approached it like he approached a task: with utterly single-minded devotion. We kissed until I needed to come up for breath, and then his teeth tugged the corner of my ear. “I already slid the server a bunch of twenties,” he whispered. “Let’s go to the private room.”

“Um,” I said.

His tongue traced my ear from top to bottom.

“Okay,” I said.

There was a couch in Cordelia’s private room. I had sat upon it before, when Bell invited me out to drink with the other team members. She would sit there, her and I, sometimes with Z’arek squeezed beside us. No one was there now when Justin pushed me down on it, and no one was there except for the two of us when I scrambled on top of him and started kissing his neck.

“God, Sydney,” he groaned. “You have the most amazing mouth. I want you to suck me with it.”

“Yes,” I said, simply. I helped him out of his shirt and kissed my way down his chest. My fingers played with the fly on his jeans, and I cupped him through the fabric while Justin’s mouth fell open in a slick groan. It made me feel good, accomplished. Even more so when I worked his jeans and boxers off and put my mouth on his member. Justin gasped and bucked his hips up.

I choked, almost. I put my hands on him and pushed him back down. Justin complied – one of the few instances where he followed my lead in anything – and lay there, panting, as I took him inside my mouth. I mimicked what I liked when he gave me a blowjob, and I alternated between moving him in and out of my mouth, and using my tongue to lick his head, particularly the spot tucked underneath that made him thrash. I let my fingers pleasure him as well, rolling his balls gently around on my palm before giving them their respective long licks. A chain of saliva lingered between my mouth and his balls before I broke it off.

I wanted to bring Justin to climax, but he had better ideas. Once I felt him start to pearl underneath my tongue, his taste growing bitterer and a vein growing larger on the head of his member – once that happened, he pushed me off and flipped us over. I landed on my back. The cushions on the couch were scratchy, but they weren’t on my list of priorities as Justin efficiently worked me out of my clothes and started licking between my legs.

“Do you… do you have anything?” I asked breathlessly.

Justin quirked an eyebrow at me.

“I mean, of course you do,” I said. “What was it they say about Boy Scouts? I, uh, forget.” I squeaked as Justin produced lube and slicked his fingers in it. The squeak turned into an even more embarrassing sound when he pushed those fingers inside me, stretching me open.

I wasn’t sure what my old instructors would have thought, me acting so whorish. I was sure it was never one of the lessons they had hoped to impart – but here we were anyway, a thoroughly unusual arrangement, with Justin preparing me with his fingers before kissing my thigh, smiling wolfishly, and then pinning both of my hands above my head. He used one hand to do it, and all right, his hands were smaller than mine, so they weren’t able to cover my wrists entirely. But Justin had strength, much more than me, and in any case I wasn’t about to move. He held me down with the same careless confidence he used when testing Aeronaut, and then he pushed his hips forward and entered me.

I turned my face away, breathing into the back of the couch. I suddenly didn’t want him to see my expression. But Justin was greedy – hadn’t I always known this? didn’t he always steal the last piece of candy in the jar? – and he made me look at him. “Sydney, don’t flake out on me now,” he said, and so I looked. I looked at him pushing above me, looked at the fierce, intense expression on his face, looked at the flexing of his tattoos and he thrust into me.

It was astounding. It was always astounding. Justin took everything from me as if it was his right, and I could only moan and arch up for more. His hands kept me pinned the entire time, and I felt the trickle of his sweat down his arm and into my knuckles. I climaxed, hard. He followed me not long after, and I could feel him spill inside me, wet and harsh and human.

We hadn’t used a condom this time. I realized that, after. All sorts of firsts: first time kissing in public, first time without protection.

Could men be beautiful? I never used to think so.

Justin was beautiful.

:::

The next time the Chaos Magistrate attacked me, I was on the subway, returning to the Vanguard Tower from a tech conference. Bell had insisted on me taking a team car, with a driver, but I hadn’t wanted to, and in the end I simply stood there like a stone until she gave up. It was a good thing Bell never used her magical powers on me – that just wouldn’t have been fair. So I was taking the subway and curiously watching the other people around me, while also trying to read my Dan Simmons novel, when someone put a hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Not this time.”

A needle went into my neck.

Oh no.

It was as if I could see it all happening from above my head, which was probably a result of the drugs. I saw my body fold in two, my head banging somewhere in the vicinity of my knees. I saw my attacker retract the needle and ignore the startled noises from the passengers all around him. It was a woman this time, blonde and masked, also wearing high heels, which I found imminently impractical. If I were a supervillain, and also female, I would wear flats all day while committing my nefarious acts.

She did not. She tossed her blonde hair over her shoulder and then tossed me over her shoulder as well. She was very strong as she waited for the next stop, and then carried me off the subway car without any pause.

“Grgggghh,” I moaned hazily against her neck.

“Darling, do me a favour. I need all the passwords to OLIVIA. Now would be nice,” she said, stroking my cheek with a finger. She took me to a station washroom, still ignoring the people who stared at us. I imagined they thought she was a dominatrix and I was… well, the drooling prey that I was. Once we were inside the washroom, she pushed me inside an empty stall and took out another needle.

A truth serum, I bet.

She jabbed it into my arm. “Now tell me,” she said cheerfully. “The first password to crack OLIVIA open.”

“Uh,” I slurred, pushing against the urge.

“Tell me, sweetheart, and I’ll even let you go pee afterwards,” she said, which was quite an incentive as indeed I was feeling the urge to urinate. My poor, badly repaired pants. It looked like they were going to suffer quite a soiling as well. I wondered if the Vanguards were ever subjected to these moments of indignity.

“Tell me,” she pressed. “The first password.”

“Justin,” I said.

“Your grouchy smartass boyfriend isn’t here,” she said.

“Ummm,” I said. “Justin?”

And then there was a crash and a bang, and I’ll give you three guesses who was here, coming to my rescue. I waved my arms happily at Uriah in the Aeronaut suit and nodded eagerly as he and the blonde serum master started duelling. He punched and she dodged; then she punched, and he dodged. Both of their fists were strong enough to break through the bathroom walls, and it was a good thing the Vanguards, thanks to Uriah, were rich, because the cost of damages was going to be high and I doubted Blonde Woman would pay her part.

Uriah put her through the wall. She got up, and then seemed to think the better of it. She took off through the hole in the roof.

“Bye,” I said blurrily. I peered at Uriah. “Tell me the truth: are you stalking me? Do I have a GPS on me?” I squirmed around, looking for bits of technology attached to my bottom.

“I told you: I like you, Sydney,” Uriah replied. “I’d like to get to know you better. Even if you are a magnet for supervillains these days.”

“They just want inside my computer,” I said.

“You heartbreaker,” Uriah said lightly.

“No,” I corrected him. “You’re the heartbreaker. Because everybody wants you. Because I’m supposed to want you too.” The me that was floating above my body this entire time was horrified; Uriah and I barely knew each other, so why was I having intimate conversations with him? But I tried to cut the other me some slack: he had truth serum bloating up his veins, after all.

“And do you?” Uriah asked in that same mild tone. “Do you like me?” Except it didn’t sound mild at all. There was an edge to him, like he was maybe angry. But that didn’t make sense. Why would Uriah be angry at me? People didn’t make sense.

“I think you’re very attractive,” I told him honestly.

“Really?” he continued in that flirty-but-actually-annoyed tone that I couldn’t understand. “On a scale of one to ten, how much?”

“Seven?” I tried. “I don’t actually like your facial hair that much. Which is funny. I never knew I had opinions on facial hair.” I touched my own face, which I shaved meticulously. Justin generally kept himself well-shaven too, except when he was doing a major project and forgot, after which his jaw would be covered in stubble. I never minded.

Uriah was staring at me with Aeronaut’s golden, glowing eyes.

“Why are we having this conversation?” I finally said. I tried to move my neck but it kept flopping backwards like Playdough. “I want to… I want to go home. Take a nap. All right?”

“Fine,” Uriah said.

“I’m sure you’re a very good kisser,” I told him by way of consolation, and he should have been grateful. If the rough way he pulled me into his arms and carried me out of the station was any indication, Uriah Gold did not like being told he was a good kisser. What a weird man.

:::

“Did we use a condom?” I asked Justin when we were back in the lab the next day. It was not a real question, because I knew perfectly well we hadn’t used a condom, but faking ignorance was sometimes better than telling the truth – a hard, anti-intuitive lesson I had learned.

He swiveled around from his computer and blinked at me. Then his eyes narrowed. “Did we? I don’t remember.”

I touched my neck where it still hurt from the subway attack. I saw Justin take a deep, sharp breath.

“Should we… should we talk about this?” Please don’t, I thought. Another hard lesson I had learned was that me and Justin talking about anything other than work was likely to lead to awkward silences and strange, jumbled emotions. But I had seen actresses on Bell’s favourite soap operas do this, posing this exact question, and the weight of a hundred episodes of soap opera couldn’t be wrong.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Justin said shortly.

“You seem… not happy,” I said slowly.

“I’m pretty sure the barista spit in my coffee because I tried to hit on her this morning,” Justin said. “This is bad coffee. Of course I’m unhappy around bad coffee.”

“You hit on baristas?” I asked.

“It’s a free country,” he said. “I can hit on anyone I like.”

“That’s true,” I said, mulling it over. My stomach felt strange. I attributed it to lack of breakfast. “Do you think you’ll ask her out on a date? You ask a lot of people on dates.” I paused. “Oh wait. If she spit in your coffee, then maybe you shouldn’t ask her out on a date. Probably.”

“There are always other baristas.” Justin was looking in straight in the eye. He was wearing a sweater that had a hole in one arm. I realized I also had a sweater with a hole in one arm. Was that my sweater? No, it wasn’t, but it would have been a nice thought.

“Yeeeees,” I said, struggling to make sense of this conversation. “There are always other baristas. I could run the algorithms for you, if you like. With enough data, I could figure out how many baristas there are in the city.”

“Yeah, that’s not what I want,” Justin said.

“You want something?”

“Fuck, Sydney, you really are so fucking clueless,” he spat. He swiveled around on his chair, but I wasn’t ready to let him go. I cleared my throat and rolled my chair towards him. When he didn’t answer, I cleared my throat and rolled towards him even more. I was practically ready to launch a rear attack when Justin whirled back around. “Gack!” he said. “Why the hell are you so close?”

“Hi,” I said.

“Sydney, you’re creeping me out. Stop it.”

“Sorry.” I shrugged. “I’m just worried about you. You don’t seem well.” I regarded him, trying to remember all the reasons a person might not be well. He didn’t look sick, per se. Perhaps it was the barista’s rejection. But Justin had been rejected plenty of times before and it never seemed to bother him that much. Unless this one was special? I felt queasy again. Then I remembered something else. “Is it family problems?” I asked. “I don’t have a family anymore, so I don’t know much about it, but you have a family, right? You have Uriah. You never explained how Uriah is your half-brother.”

“Once upon a time,” Justin said, leaning away, “a very drunk rich man had sex with a single mother waitress at a bar. Nine months later, I was born.”

“I see,” I said. “Was that a bad thing, being born?”

Justin snorted. “It worked out okay. But doesn’t mean I have any warm fuzzy feelings for that drunk rich jerk.”

“Uriah Gold, Sr. is dead,” I pointed out.

“Can’t say I’m too sad about that,” Justin replied. His lips quirked into a wry smile. “Can’t say his widow’s too sad about it either. She’s the one who contacted me after the funeral. Said she always felt bad that my mother and I had been left all alone. That was how I met Uriah. How I got welcomed into the fold, so to speak.”

“And he saved your life, Uriah?”

“Yeah.” Justin looked aside. “It may astonish you to know that I was a really angry teenager. Really, really angry. I did a lot of drugs too.”

“But Uriah doesn’t do drugs,” I said. This much I knew from the magazine articles I had read. Uriah was a poster boy for clean living and yoga, with possibly the flexibility to match. Or so the magazines had said in a conspiring, disturbing tone.

“Uriah doesn’t do drugs,” Justin agreed. “Perfect, flawless Uriah. Saving his fucked-up little brother and packing him off to rehab. Giving him a job with the Vanguards after.” His lashes dipped onto his cheeks, dark and contemplative. “But I’m big enough to admit the truth. If it weren’t for Uriah and his nauseating generosity, I’d probably be dead in a ditch somewhere.”

I swallowed. It was a world I didn’t understand; addiction had never seemed very logical to me, putting yourself at the mercy of a monster that controlled you in the end. But I couldn’t say as much to Justin, nor did I want to. “Do you still ever, you know…” I trailed off, trying to find the right words to say.

“Want to shoot up and smash everything around me?” he said.

“Yes, that.”

“Every day,” he said. “Every fucking day.”

“But you don’t.”

“No,” he said. He hesitated. I was fascinated; a vulnerable Justin was a very rare sight. Usually he hid so well behind his sharp words and his temper. “There are lots of reasons, most of which don’t have to do with Uriah at all. There’s my mother. She’d never forgive me. There’s this job. Even though I never get enough recognition, I know I’m bettering the world. There’s… the people I work with.” He glanced at me, quicksilver. “Well, except you, Dr. Songcuya. You’re kind of a pain in my ass.”

I blinked.

“I’m just kidding,” Justin said. “You’re not so bad, hey. Even if you make your tea way too watery.”

Good, because you were doing some very interesting things with your tongue on me the other day, I did not say. I pushed down those words and looked to OLIVIA, which provided a reminder of what I did want to say. “Just in case I ever do get captured. Or killed. Or decapitated, though I very much hope I won’t be decapitated,” I said. “The first password is JuSTIN34#. There’s a pound symbol at the end. The second ‘u’ is lower case. Just so you know.”

Justin twitched. I suddenly felt very tired, and stood up. “I’m going to bed. Good night.”

:::

I had once strolled into a Methodist church service and mistaken it for a book club, so I think it was fair to say that reading the temperature of a room was not my professional forte. However, I had enough wits in this area to sense that something was shifting between Justin and I, and it was something cold and brittle, reducing my name on his pink tongue to “Dr. Songcuya” after which I was forced to address him equally as “Dr. Rothke.” We had never truly called each other by our doctorates before, not even on my first day at work when he rolled up to me and said, “Hey Bad Hair Day, pass me that wrench.”

I had a stomach ache worse than ever, and I felt — what was that feeling? Embarrassed? I had told Justin the first password for OLIVIA, and now that I thought about it, I wished I could take it back. I considered the possibilities of developing a time machine for this very purpose, and then nixed that idea because the time machine would probably require Justin’s help.

Stupid, Sydney. Stupid stupid stupid.

I proceeded to eat three cookies and one macaroon, just to avoid stuffing my fist in my mouth. Justin pattered on behind me, occasionally dropping a tool and cursing. His voice was neither melodious nor attractive — it sounded like a honking walrus. My stomach ache only got worse. I ate another four cookies.

This cookie compulsion could have gone on for hours if Justin had not said, “I’m taking Aeronaut out for a run to test the new stabilizers. Spot me.”

“Okay,” I said too quickly. I had done it many times before. Spotting Justin while he flew Aeronaut was an incredibly easy task, as it mostly involved me behind on hand to call 911 if he should crash. I turned around and watched Justin put on the suit, opening his hands and starting the magnetic controls for the pieces to fit around him. They fit perfectly, which suddenly struck me as interesting, since Justin and Uriah had very different body types. Uriah was tall and well-built while Justin was, well, not. There was typically enough room inside Aeronaut to compensate for the difference in width, but the difference in height was a constant annoyance for Justin when testing Aeronaut. This time, I noticed no difficulty. Aeronaut squeezed Justin in as like snakeskin.

“It fits well,” I said.

“I wouldn’t build something that doesn’t,” Justin replied through Aeronaut’s metallic voice.

“I mean it fits you well.”

“Yeah, so what?” Justin tossed back. He started clomping out of the lab, and I followed him, still thinking. We were both quiet as we navigated our way onto the grassy expanse behind the tower with all the warning sets set up for pedestrians and passersby: DANGER, THIS IS A VANGUARD EXPERIMENTAL ZONE, BEWARE SUDDEN EXPLOSIONS AND NUDITY. I clutched my sweater to my chest, just in case of sudden nudity.

“Okay, ready,” Justin said. He didn’t give me any time to respond in the affirmative before he blasted up into the sky, doing a loop-de-loop. It made me smile, because Justin was like a little child when he was wearing Aeronaut. It made him so happy. It was such a shame, I thought, that he couldn’t be Aeronaut for real. He was good at it. He knew the armour inside and out. Why shouldn’t the creator be able to use his own creation? Just because Uriah was famous and Justin wasn’t? Just because Uriah was some sort of physical Greek god and Justin was more Hermes than Ares? Aeronaut was supposed to be the great equalizer.

Standing there, in the slightly damp grass after a night of rain, hearing Justin whoop inside my com link as he flew, I imagined a future where that angry young man he had been could take his place among New York’s greatest superheroes. It felt like a fairy tale, but I’d always liked fairy tales — they may not be rational, but they come from the truest, deepest parts of us, the squishy bits that even I understood were maybe the most powerful engines of all.

But then my lovely little fairy tale rammed to a halt on the tracks, because logistically there was still a great barrier: Uriah. Uriah would hardly give up Aeronaut to his geeky half-brother.

What if Justin built another suit? Then there would be two metallic men on the team.

Somehow, this didn’t strike me as a great idea either. If there was anything I’d learned in my two years of working with superheroes, and an entire childhood of government agencies trying to force me to become one, it was that they were all kind of horribly narcissistic. Nobody wanted their shtick stolen. Uniqueness was more important than solidarity. The Vanguards were better than most, because Hugo never let his team members get too full of themselves. But they were still celebrities and better-than-human specimens of magic and talent. They were like dogs pooping on the carpet in this regard. They couldn’t help themselves.

I tilted my head to the sky and saw Justin fly so high he was a mere pinprick against the golden apricot that was the sun. My stomach clenched some more. I sincerely hoped it wasn’t indigestion.

:::

I wasn’t the only person the Chaos Magistrate had been targeting, though I seemed to be his favourite. The reasons were obvious to me: I was easier prey than any of the superheroes, and I was his best access to the mainframe. If he got me, then he could get the rest of them without a whole lot of effort, because as physically stunning as Hugo, Karishma, Bell, Z’arek, and Uriah were, they were, as a group, totally useless around computers. If I went down, then they would have the part-time staff, who weren’t, frankly speaking, as good as I was. They would have Justin too, but while our skill sets overlapped in some areas, he didn’t know OLIVIA as well as I did.

So of course the Chaos Magistrate would go after me. I just wish he didn’t have to do it on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. He went after me while I was in the shower, walking Bell’s dog, eating a frank from the street. The relish squirted all over my face when he went after me that time, and I was a green-faced monstrosity when Uriah finally rescued me. It wasn’t fraying my nerves per se, because I could probably survive an entire zombie apocalypse and never look up from my book, but it was quite distracting. As superhero monikers went, Relish Face wasn’t my favourite, though it was what Bell started calling me.

“Aww, Sydney, but you look so cute when you’re disgruntled,” she said when I got back to the tower and she wiped my face with tissues. “Actually you look cute all the time, like a lost, puzzled little antelope, but this is especially potent.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, suffering her ministrations. “And your dog urinated on my leg the last time.”

“My Fluffy? No way,” she said.

“Yes, she did.”

“Liar,” Bell chimed. “So yeah, what have you been up to lately? I haven’t seen you much. You and Justin have been all holed up in that Loser Den of yours.”

“We’ve been trying to protect the rest of you from the Chaos Magistrate,” I said plainly. “And it is a quite airy, well-ventilated den, if only you would ever step foot in it.”

“Sorry, I’m allergic to nerdfighter,” she said. “Plus Justin’s been giving really weird vibes lately. Weirder than usual, I mean. I accidentally ate his toast the other day and I thought he was going to throw me to Cthulhu.”

“Cthulhu isn’t real,” I told her.

“Oh, baby sweet cheeks,” Bell said sadly, “when you get to be a nine-hundred-year-old sorceress like me, you don’t say those things so lightly.”

“Hmm,” I said. This deserved further investigation, but just then Aeronaut walked into the salon. Bell took one look at him and rolled her eyes so hard her mascara seemed to do the tilt-and-whirl.

“Are you still in that stupid suit?” she said. “Don’t you get sweaty?”

“Don’t you wear something that doesn’t look like it belongs in some two-dollar strip joint?” Aeronaut retorted.

“Thank you for saving me,” I said to him. “Again.” I scratched the bruise at the back of my head from where the Chaos Magistrate’s latest minion had thrown me to the ground after stealing my hot dog. “You might just want to clear your schedule for the time being.”

“I’m not your personal bodyguard,” Aeronaut said crossly.

“Really? That’s news to me,” Bell said. “And why are you in such a bad temper, Gold? Your fake tan not fake enough? Latest girlfriend dump you?” She folded her arms across her chest.

“People don’t dump me,” Aeronaut said. “You’ll find it’s the opposite way around.” He moved to the couch but seemed to realize that in a gigantic metal suit, sitting was about as easy as trying to scale the Alps. He stood there, arms hanging at his sides. “You’re one to talk about my love life, Witch of Endor. How many guys have you gone through this past year?”

“At least twenty,” she said happily.

I furrowed my brow. “Bell,” I said. “Can I ask you a question? Oh, well, I’m going to ask it anyway. You can pretend to not hear it if you want. But have you ever… ever been in love with any of them?”

She looked genuinely astonished. “No. Why should I?”

I struggled for an answer. “Harlequin?”

“Love is an unnecessary complication,” Bell said. “Loves slows you down and makes you weak. I like the guys that I’m with; they’re great fun and they have nice abs. But I know better than to fall in love with any of them.”

“What about Hugo, though?” I asked. There were pieces of this puzzle that I wanted to make sense of. “He’s married. He has children. He’s in love. And he’s team leader. Are you saying that Hugo is weak?”

“Hugo is different from me,” Bell said. “And he’s different from Uriah here. We’re not playing the same game at all.”

“I don’t know what this game is at all,” I admitted.

“No, of course you don’t,” she said. “You’re like us, Sydney. You’re not a romantic. You think with your brain before your heart, and that’s fine. Not everyone has to be like us — for example, your lab buddy is totally a heart-before-head kind of guy — but a good team has a combination of both. We’ve got Hugo and Z’arek as our touchy-feely types, and then you’ve got me, Karishma, and Uriah, who just don’t give a fuck.”

“But the stories,” I said. “Marriage. A house. Two kids.” All those late nights when Justin turned on the TV in our lab and set it to the Hallmark Channel, and I couldn’t help but watch, fascinated.

Aeronaut snorted. “You believe in that stuff, doc?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe it was the mood lighting.”

“We make our own stories,” Aeronaut said. “We can be whatever the fuck we want to be.”

“I agree with Tin Man here, for once,” Bell said, nodding. “Let me put it this way. We’re extraordinary people, literally superhuman. Yes, you too, Sydney; there aren’t a lot of people who can do what you can with a piece of code. We’re the best of the best, so riddle me this: why pick the option to be ordinary?”

:::

At night, I wondered about the Chaos Magistrate, this man I had never seen or met, yet whose existence had been massively inconveniencing me as of late. He was extraordinary too. Why did he choose the path that he chose? What was he like? I almost never wondered about the myriad villains the Vanguards came across, because what was the point — there was always someone new to fight. But this man, he chose me as his target. Unlike most of our enemies, who forgot that the Vanguards even had support staff, the Chaos Magistrate knew. He was probably watching me right now.

Unpleasant thought. Must erase.

I had trouble sleeping, however. The thought of the Chaos Magistrate attempting to hack us right this very moment prompted me to return to the lab in my pyjamas with a mug of warm milk. I settled into my seat with a sigh, watching OLIVIA’s lights flicker like tiny fireflies. Then a shadow moved behind me, and I whirled around, trying to remember the self-defense moves that Karishma had taught me, but looking honestly more like a drunken praying mantis.

“Chill,” Justin said. “It’s just me.”

“Hi,” I said, dropping my clawed fingers. “Are you also having trouble sleeping? Are there problems with Aeronaut?”

“I sleep like a hooker after blow,” Justin said, dropping into his chair. He put his chin on one hand and looked over at where Aeronaut was standing, silent and shadowy. “Finished the latest calibrations. When shit with the Chaos Magistrate gets real, there shouldn’t be any problems.”

“There are always problems,” I said. “If humans are perfect, how can we expect technology that we create to be?” I wrapped my hands around my mug. Mmm, very warm.

“You think people can’t be perfect?” Justin asked.

I looked at him in astonishment. “You mean you think they can be? You?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re a misanthrope,” I said. “You hate everything. Except sprinkles on your doughnuts. And cats. You do seem to like cats.” I considered this. “Do you think we should get a lab cat? Bell has Fluffy. Why can’t we have a cat?”

“I don’t want a cat,” Justin said, though his eyebrow twitched in what was clearly desire. “And no, there’s no way I think people can be perfect. But it doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to be the best — I mean, what’s the point, otherwise? To be mediocre? I’d rather blow my grandpa and jump off a bridge first.”

“I like that your mind immediately leaps to incest,” I said.

“You like lots of parts of me,” Justin leered.

“Well,” I said.

Silence. Very, very awkward silence.

“Why do you think the Chaos Magistrate is doing what he’s doing?” I finally asked, filling the silence with the sound of my sleepy voice. “His random attacks seem juvenile in effort, in no way appropriate for someone of his supposed intellect. It must be a distraction.”

“I think so too,” Justin said. He adjusted his glasses. “Then again, it could just be the erratic choices of an erratic mind.”

“He doesn’t have an erratic mind.”

“Yeah?”

“No one who codes the way he does can be too erratic,” I said. “Which says nothing about his personal choices, but there’s too much elegance in his work, too much—”

And that was when Aeronaut exploded.

I heard it before I saw it, and I felt it even before then: the sudden whipcord of heat, the high pressure in the room that squeezed my head right before Justin flung himself over me and tackled me to the ground. See, an excellent candidate for superhero, I thought before my vision turned ivory white and my ears made a sound like popcorn in the microwave. The lab was very warm, and I took a sharp, painful breath as I struggled out of Justin’s grip. Something had happened — what had happened? Analyze and proceed.

“Justin,” I said, shaking his shoulder. Fear hissed through me when he didn’t move. “Justin, what’s your condition?”

The explosion had knocked the glasses off his face. He groaned. “Get off me,” he said.

What? But he was the one—

“Never mind,” I said. “We have a critical situation.” Looking around me, Aeronaut was in pieces and the lab was on fire. The sprinklers had turned on, and they were soaking us, hair plastered to our dirty, bloody clothes. I looked down and saw a piece of shrapnel sticking out of my leg. I blinked. It didn’t seem to be in a critical place. Better if I left it in for now.

“No shit we’ve got a situation,” Justin said. “Tiger Man! Tiger Man! Can you hear me? Hugo!”

“What is it?” Hugo answered.

“Aeronaut detonated. Looks like bombs,” Justin said shortly. “Get your asses down here and do something about it.”

“No, don’t,” I interrupted. “Stay as far away as possible. This could be a trap. Dr. Rothke and I will handle it.”

Hugo paused. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure,” I said. I stood up and winced. Justin looked at the shrapnel in my leg and his lips tightened, but he wasn’t in a much better condition. There was a burn streak on his arm and traveling down his back. I held out a hand to him, and he grasped it. We both wobbled as we stood, and then I wheeled towards OLIVIA.

The servers had been damaged. But that was all right. We kept backup servers in an undisclosed location. Still — I had to move fast. Or as fast as I could move with a piece of Aeronaut in my leg. I lurched over to the computers, with Justin following me, keeping an eye out, and I sank into my seat with a muffled cry. It was really hurting now. My knuckles were white as I switched OLIVIA over to the backup servers and logged in.

A distraction. Of course it was a distraction. I could see the Chaos Magistrate’s work already, taking over the system without me to combat him. I immediately started working on it, and lines of code swirled across the screen like snowflakes. My head was throbbing. For the first time in my life, it was hard to concentrate — and I had worked through colds and injuries before. But right now it was difficult not to wonder if Justin was all right, and the others — how was Bell? How was Fluffy? How were Hugo’s children?

We could hear noises through the window. Justin limped over. “Shit,” he said. “They’re descending on us.”

Hugo’s voice crackled over the com. “Vanguards, to me!”

“Got it!” Bell shouted back. “Get to a high position. We’ll blast them off!”

The Chaos Magistrate was still working, still trying to batter our systems. I could see exactly what he was trying to do: he was trying to unlock the gates so that his people could get into the tower. My shoulders slumped and I clenched my teeth. Just outthink him, I told myself. It wasn’t supposed to be hard. Just find his moles in OLIVIA and weed them out.

“Come on,” Justin said from behind me. His voice was quiet. “Sydney, you’ve got this.”

“I don’t have a choice,” I said. “Wait, where are you going?”

He was gone before I had my answer. I didn’t have time to worry. I turned back to OLIVIA and on we went. A few minutes later, Aeronaut’s voice was on the com. “Backup suit 5.4,” he said. “I’m on it!”

I looked at the cam feeds and saw Aeronaut join Bell where she hovered in the sky above the fray. 5.4 was an old version of the suit, much clunkier than Justin’s more refined upgrades. But it would do. Bell’s hands formed pink balls of magic that she threw down at the Chaos Magistrate’s army, freezing them inside their own bodies. Aeronaut swooped and grabbed them by the ankles.

Hugo roared as he burst onto the scene, super strength at the ready. He started punching left and right. Karishma joined him with her electric bolts, eyes flashing. Z’arek spat poison between his green teeth. The Chaos Magistrate’s goons reared back at first, but then they pushed onwards. The Vanguards and their enemies met in the middle of the tower’s front lawn, and while I struggled against the Chaos Magistrate on the servers.

He could not get in.

I wouldn’t let him in.

This was my system, my home.

A message popped up on the screen. tt hi dr., i’m going to shoot down your boyfriend if you don’t stop right now</tt>.

I typed furiously back. i'll hunt you down where you can't hide

touchy.

I left the message alone. I wasn’t here to banter with villains. I was here to get them the hell off my computers. My leg throbbed as I worked, and every now and then I glanced at the cameras to see how the fight was going outside, until I stopped being able to do that at all. The Chaos Magistrate’s worm was burrowing deep inside my code, and it was spreading fast, very fast. I stopped trying to face him head-on and opened a text screen where I started a new program.

what's the matter, smartypants? you've gone quiet. given up?

I could see his virus take over the controls. The atrium door opened. The back door opened. Security was being compromised. “Sydney, what are you doing?” Hugo yelled over the coms. “You’re letting them in!”

I didn’t answer. I kept typing into my new file, sweat beading on my upper lip. I could see some of the Chaos Magistrate’s goons make a break for the open doors. Karishma stopped them at the atrium. Aeronaut took the back.

“Sydney!” Bell was saying. “Close the doors!”

I hit enter. My new program executed like a flying kick, and with a speed that mimicked the way Aeronaut had detonated, I saw the Chaos Magistrate’s virus go dead, piece by piece, flooding out of the system. Right before the last piece was forced out, I sent him a message, the last message he would ever get from me.

go away.

He went away.

Outside, the doors were closing. The Vanguards were using the process to trap the last of the enemies, herding them into corners where Z’arek effectively administered his paralysis poison. Aeronaut flew out further, and he opened his internal cameras to let us see what he was seeing: a van parked a few blocks over, and inside a handsome blond, broad-shouldered man who looked like he should be on coffee commercials, hunched over his computer.

Was that him then, I wondered. The Chaos Magistrate? He looked nothing like a tech wizard villain. He resembled the superheroes on old-time baseball cards, the golden age of Helium Man and Wonder Scout. But when he looked up angrily, Aeronaut took him out with a punch to the jaw. That was the end of that then.

I slipped out of my chair and onto the ground. Everything hurt worse than ever, and I was feeling rather miserable over what had just happened. My poor laboratory. All of it to pieces. This lasted for about a minute, and then I told myself firmly: it didn’t matter. It was just stuff. It could be built again.

Bell burst into the room right when it seemed like the perfect time to close my eyes and take a nice nap. “Emergency team, get over here!” she said, and I smiled at her, feeling at rest.

:::

These things transpired in the weeks to come:

1. Learning Aeronaut had exploded because each time the Chaos Magistrate’s minions had attacked us prior, they had been transferring explosive nanobots too small for the eye to see onto our skin. Mine especially, and since I often touched Justin or Aeronaut directly, some of these bots had transferred onto the suit. This was why the Chaos Magistrate had hassled me repeatedly: to expose me to enough nanobots to effectively detonate the entire armour, thus creating a distraction that would allow access to OLIVIA.

2. Arresting George Rubino, aka the Chaos Magistrate. The judge did not grant him bail, and Justin and I went to visit him not long after. He was indeed the handsome blond man I had seen on the camera and standing outside of his cell, seeing his blank face, I found I had nothing to say to him at all. He was just a hacker too bitter to save; when he broke out of jail, he should have changed his name and moved somewhere sunny. He could’ve gotten away with it, I think, and it might have been a good life. This time, I told the guards not to let their guards down. Maybe they would. Maybe Rubino would escape again. If so, we’d be ready.

3. I was right. The shrapnel, while unfortunate, hadn’t struck me in any critical areas, and the blood loss was only moderate. I was out of the hospital within a day, and using a cane for a few weeks after that. I found it difficult to walk with a cane and hold a hot mug of tea at the same time, but I managed.

4. Uriah Gold announced his retirement from superheroing. He had a press conference in the lobby of his family’s flagship hotel, where he told the reporters that while he believed he’d done great good as Aeronaut’s pilot, he’d gotten into superheroing out of a sense of boredom and glamour.

“I’m more mature now, and my life has changed,” Uriah told the flashing cameras, smiling ruefully in his designer suit. “I used to be such a partying bachelor. But that was before. Now I’m getting married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and in a few months we’re going to have a baby. I don’t want my daughter to grow up with an absent father. There are great men who manage both family life and superhero life, like my friend and leader, Hugo Ramirez, but I don’t know yet how to do it. So I’m going to be stepping down from the limelight and changing the world in other ways, like starting the Uriah Gold Charitable Foundation.”

“Catchy,” I said while watching the TV with Justin at my side. “I wonder who his fiancé is.”

“Oh, she’s one of his lawyers,” Justin replied, uninterested while reading something on his cell. “You know the type. Dark, gorgeous, ambitious. She’ll keep him on his toes.”

“And a baby.”

“That’ll keep him on his toes too.” Justin looked up from his cell phone. “I’m glad for him, seriously. Uriah’s kind of an ass, but he’s.. he’s done good.”

On the TV, Uriah was still talking. “Actually, this should come as a surprise to few. The truth is, I’ve been pulling away from the Vanguards recently, been taking some breaks to reorganize my head. But don’t worry! This isn’t the end of Aeronaut. A new pilot is taking over, someone who deserves the role much more than me, considering he was the one who built Aeronaut in the first place. She’s his baby, and for the past few months, he’s been the one who’s actually–”

Justin leaped forward and turned off the TV with a speed that would have amazed Flash Boy.

“I was watching that,” I said mildly.

“Let’s not watch crap,” Justin said, and he was doing something funny with his face that involved both looking wholly embarrassed and also kind of aggressive. I sighed and swiveled around gingerly to face him properly on the couch. I tried to put as little pressure as possible on my leg.

“It’s not a secret,” I said. “I know you’ve been the guy inside Aeronaut lately. When I originally thought I was talking to Uriah, I was really talking to you.”

The colour was high on Justin’s cheeks. “The fuck?”

“It was obvious after I saw you test pilot Aeronaut. I never paid much attention before, but this time I did, and it was clear to me that the pilot inside Aeronaut this past month was the same pilot in front of me.” I set my hands on my knees in resting position. “So it wasn’t Uriah who was saving me all those times. It was you. Thanks.”

Justin looked like he wanted to throw himself in front of a bus.

“Can I ask you a question?” I said.

“Grggghh,” Justin replied, which was the best response I was going to get. I chose my next words carefully, weighing each one on my tongue.

“Do you like me?” I asked.

“God.” Justin buried his face in his hands. The tips of his ears were scarlet. “You’re such a dweeb, Sydney. You are the least cool person I’ve ever worked with, and the most clumsy person I’ve ever had sex with. You are a fucking weirdo. And I can’t get you out of my head.”

“Oh,” I said.

“But it’s like you don’t even care,” Justin said, the words spilling out of him. His face was still in his hands. “We fuck, and then you act like everything’s normal the next day, and I get so confused because did it mean anything to you, oh fuck it probably didn’t, and why am I telling you all this soppy shit? But I sit there across from you and I go crazy and I hate that when I was trying to be Uriah and flirt with you, you flirted back, because you know what? I’m a much better kisser than he is, and you should feel lucky that I even want to kiss you, because I’m awesome and you’re just so—”

I took pity on the poor man. It was like tranquilizing a sick penguin. I leaned over and gently pried his hands off his bright red face. “Justin,” I said.

“What?” he snapped.

“I — I like you too,” I said. “Um. That’s the truth.”

“And?”

“What do you mean, ‘and’? What else am I supposed to say?” I asked, baffled.

“I just gave you an entire babbling romance novel speech, and you give me two sentences? What the hell?” He tried to pull away from me, but I wrapped my fingers around his wrists and pulled him closer. Justin shivered. I had never seen him this shy before, and it intrigued me. I doubted it would last much longer. Tomorrow we’d go back to our normal selves, and he would be bossy and controlling and obsessive — and the thought of it made me buoyantly happy. But for now I reeled him in and looked right into his bright green eyes.

“Let’s go build something together,” I said, the most romantic statement I knew.

“Let’s go bang first,” Justin said.

“Okay,” I replied, “that is a viable option as well. I fully support your way of thinking.” I released Justin’s wrists and touched my knuckles to his warm cheek. He leaned into it and closed his eyes, breathing hard. Then he opened them again and grinned at me with all of his mad genius charm.

Now will you take off your cheap, ugly pants and let me measure you?” he said. I told him that seemed a reasonable request at this point in our burgeoning relationship. We stared at each other in dead awkward silence for a moment, unsure of what to do, and then started laughing at the same time as we fell towards each other, tumbling against fabric and skin and heat. Justin stuck his hands down my cheap, ugly pants. It was exceedingly pleasant.

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/251137.html)

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