TWISTS AND RETURNS

by

Josef Koelbl III





"I never really set out to be a superhero and, just between you, me and the potted plant, I was really just interested in making some easy money. You know, I’m super strong, fairly quick and bullets and knives bounce off me and I’m pretty much immune to fire and ice...so my career choices were kinda limited."

They looked at me with expressions that could best be described as ‘unfriendly’. Weird, seeing as how they were the ones that brought me here. I glanced around the sterile room briefly. It looked like a hospital room or a lab - white walls, silver chairs and tables covered with beakers and tubes and papers. And the three of them just stood there staring at me, waiting. Two guys and a girl, like that tv show, one of the guys with his arms folded across his chest and the other just standing there exuding almost as much personality as the lab table. The girl on the other hand was hot. And they all were wearing the same outfit with the blue and gold shield on its chest.

No one said a thing so I figured, since I was a guest and all, I might as well tell them what the hell happened and then maybe they could explain it to me. So, I started at the beginning.

Of everything.

I grew up in Kings Row, a hard scrabble neighborhood in a hard scrabble city. It was all right, I guess. Mom and Dad took care of me and my big sister. Dad worked at the refinery and Mom stayed at home keeping an eye on us. It wasn’t that we were wild kids, it was just that trouble always seemed to be right there handy when we woke up in the morning. Her hands were full, that was for sure.

I was about fifteen when these powers started to show up. They didn’t show up all at once. My first clue was when I got in a fight at school and knocked the kid through a fence. After that they came on pretty quick and I took advantage of them. Girls like tough guys, at least they do in tough neighborhoods.

Soon after that my folks got killed. Drunk driver, hit and run. They caught him and sent him away but it didn’t make me feel any better. It was just me and my sister then. She was nineteen years old trying to raise a rebellious sixteen year old with super powers. I didn’t make it easy on her either. Then she scared me.

"The school called today."

"So?" I said, not caring in the slightest. To me, school was a waste of time. I had this power and I was going to use it...as soon as I came up with a plan.

"You idiot! Don’t you know what’s going to happen to us?" She was practically crying. "If I can’t control you, make sure you go to school, they’ll take you away from me."

That got my attention. "What? Where would I go?" My head was spinning through possible scenarios, all of them bad. "What would they do? I don’t wanna go anywhere!"

"Foster care, probably," she sighed. "You have to straighten up. Go to school." She came over and hugged me tightly. "And you can’t use your powers out there. If they see, someone will come, the government or some scientist, and take you away from me." She kissed me on the top of the head and started crying. "We’re all we have left."

So I straightened up, went to school...most days...and kept myself out of trouble, stopped using my powers. I graduated high school and got a job at the same refinery my dad worked at...he still had friends there...and Sis got a job at one of the diamond houses in Steel Canyon. Things were ok.

Then she meets this South American diamond broker at her office. He liked her, she liked his money and the next thing I know she’s off getting married in Rio de Janeiro. I guess my invitation got lost in the mail.

So I started using my powers for my own benefit. Muggings, break ins, robberies. All small stuff to keep food on the table and money in my pockets. Small enough that I stayed under the radar of the superheroes in town and, more importantly, the gangs that roamed the streets like the Skulls and the Hellions. I was doing all right.

Then the Rikti attacked. Kings Row was a warzone. Battles were being fought on every street corner and destruction was at an all time high. And I did ok. Police and the heroes were too busy to keep an eye out for a guy like me so I did some shopping.

"Looting," Personality Guy, as I came to think of him, sneered. I shrugged and just kept talking.

Set myself up pretty nice in the days after the war. Found a nice abandoned apartment, got a big screen plasma tv, furniture, food, the works. When you’re super strong you can carry more stuff. And in the weeks following the fighting I just went back to what I had always done. Mugging, theft, robbery...the usual.

Until one day I thought I had an easy score that turned into a mess and a half. A fence I knew turned me onto this lab in Brickstown that was supposed to have a pretty big inventory of industrial diamonds. They’re not as valuable as real stones...what is?...but they can be used in lots of stuff the criminal element like. Stuff along the lines of laser weapons. Council and the Freaks are always in the market for that kind of thing so off to Brickstown I go, dollar signs dancing in front of my eyes.

I cased the lab and waited till after midnight to get inside. Getting in was pretty easy, it looked just like a regular office building and forcing a delivery door open was no problem. Inside, however, it was a completely different story. The walls and floors were polished metal. There were scientists roaming the halls and I could see armed guards in front of some of the doors. Outside it looked like cake. Inside it looked like hell.

But easy money has a powerful grip and it was squeezing my arm pretty tight. I found an unguarded door close to where I came in and slipped inside a locker room. One of the brainy types had left his labcoat. I put it on quick, grabbed a clipboard that was hanging on the wall and went back out into the hallway, looking like I owned the joint. First rule of breaking and entering - look like you belong and chances are no one will bother you.

I walked down the corridor, eyes glued to the papers on the clipboard. I went past scientists and security, there were guys armored up crackling with energy, some had frost glistening on their hands. I saw an elevator up ahead and went to it. One floor up the corridor twisted to the right. Guards were everywhere. There were doctors scurrying to and fro from one sliding door to another. I rounded the corner and in front of me a door made of two giant slabs of thick armor plate blocked my path.

Looked like a vault to me. If there were industrial diamonds in the place, I figured they’d be behind door number one. I checked behind me and the hall was empty. I was alone, finally. I put my ear to the door and listened, like any kind of sound would get through those thick pieces of steel. Rubbing my chin, I tried to suss out how I was going to get in. Even with my strength they were too thick to break down. I reached out and placed my hand on the locking mechanism at its center and the damn thing just slid open. Surprised the hell out of me. And the ten or so people inside.

Not a vault. Not even close.

There was a guy in a surgical mask and a lab apron surrounded by men and women in form fitting blue costumes. Their heads were encased in a helmet-like mask with no facial features but I could feel them looking at me.

Time stood still until I said, "This isn’t where I parked my car!" and they all surged towards me. Some flew, some didn’t. I tried to get out but they were just too damn quick and they were on me like that ( I snapped my fingers for emphasis, but the three of them just kept staring at me). Some of them sprouted quills and claws and energy blasts tore up the floor around me.

I fought. I was able to knock a few down. I grabbed the ankle of one and spun her into a wall. I clocked one of them a good shot on the jaw. But the numbers were too much and a boot caught me square in the temple. I dropped like a sack of potatoes and my head bounced on the cold metal floor. The last thing I saw was the doctor standing over me, one of his eyebrows raised, and I heard him say, "Interesting," and I was gone.

I woke up sitting in a big metal chair. My forearms and shins were encased in thick solid steel manacles attached to the things arms and legs. I kept my head still as my eyes darted around, trying to see where I was and if I was going to die any time soon.

It was the same room the fight was in. I could see now it was some type of laboratory and it was huge. Banks of computers lined the walls and at some locations between them were hospital gurneys. Its center was dominated by a raised platform surrounded by what looked like, to me at least, four space ship cannons. They had a big white bulb at their tops, glowing and pulsating rhythmically. A long tube extended down circled by flashing white rings. At the tubes end another white bulb throbbed, only this one was much smaller. The whole device crackled with energy and I could see electricity arcing from it every few seconds.

The doctor was almost in the middle of it, standing at a console turning dials and flipping switches. I looked around the room again and I can tell you...to say it was disheartening would be an understatement. I was stuck and I wasn’t getting out.

Then a deep voice behind me says, "Doctor."

He looked up from his console towards me and even at that distance I could see his bushy eyebrows come together. He turned back to his control board and flipped another switch. The low hum in the room stopped and the bright white light faded away. It was then that I saw the table beneath the space guns. On it was one of the blue suited goons that had beat me down. The doctor helped her to her feet and came over to stand in front of me. He pulled off the surgical mask and cap he was wearing and his wild grey hair sprung out. I swear, compared to this guy, Einstein looked like he had a $500 haircut.

He looked me up and down. "You were quite a surprise to me, my boy." His thin lips spoke perfect English with a high German accent, just like in an old war movie. "You hero types are usually not so easy to defeat." He raised an eyebrow. "But then, you are no hero, yes?"

I learned a long time ago - when in doubt, say nothing. I was trapped and I had nowhere to go. I knew it. And he knew it. So I waited.

After a sigh he said, "No matter. I am Dr. Albriecht and perhaps we can use you." He gestured at the men and women standing around us. "These," he began, "are the result of endless hours of training and medical enhancement. You have seen first hand what they can do."

Dr. Albriecht waved the group back and leaned in close to me. He smelled like formaldehyde. "They are an elite force gathered to protect the citizens of Paragon City from the forces of evil. We have also taken it upon ourselves to keep a watchful eye upon the heroes of our fair city. Power such as theirs requires constant monitoring, vigilance." He was laying it on so thick I knew he couldn’t be telling me the truth. But doubt equals silence so I kept listening.

"But these...," he waved his arms again at the ’protectors’. I noticed he liked waving his arms and calling them ‘these.’ "They do not come by their gifts naturally. I have given them power. Power such as yours." He began to pace in front of me, looking at me occasionally. This was going south on me in a hurry and my heart started sinking so deep I thought my chest might turn inside-out.

"You have been resourceful to get this far. I think...," he turned and looked me square in the eyes. He took a couple of steps until he was standing directly in front of me. "I think we can use you. Join us. You will be doing some good and you will be well compensated for it."

"Do I have a choice?"

"There is always a choice, dear boy." He waved his arm and three of the Protectors came forward. One of them released me from my chair, the other two took up positions on either side of me. "You have one hour to decide your fate. Take him to a...holding area." With that the three ‘heroes’ lead me away.

The ‘holding area’ was a cell. I had seen enough of them to remember what they looked like. It was maybe 10 x 10, drab metal walls and a drab metal chair. I sat. ‘Decide my fate’ he said. I shook my head. Fate. My fate was that I had three choices.

One, join up and live. Two, decline and die right away. Or three, decline, become a guinea pig, let Dr. Crazy von Nutso take whatever DNA or stem cells he could take from me and then die. I really didn’t have to think about the choice I was going to make. That was about a year and a half ago.

And that’s how I began my career as a superhero.

I sighed and looked up at my three new friends. Arms-Crossed-Over-My-Chest Man and Personality Guy just stared at me frowning. Hot Girl shook her head and said, "Go on." Oh yeah, she wanted me, I could tell. So I sighed again and continued my sad tale.

Things went pretty well for a while. I was actually doing some good, which was a new experience for me. They put me on a team with five other Protectors and we were doing what we were supposed to do - protect the city. We stopped a Devouring Earth raid and rescued a bunch of lawyers, although I was never sure if that was a good deed or not. We stopped the Vazh from polluting the city’s water supply and we were all over the Clockwork.

But then, as they came to trust me more, we started doing some other stuff. Industrial espionage, extortion, kidnaping. You know that new PC operating system Crey Industries came out with three or so months ago? We hung the guy who developed that off of one of the Talos statue’s horns until he signed it over. Poor slob gets no reimbursement, no royalties, no recognition. I learned that the Paragon Protectors served the interests of Crey Industries and were at the beck and call of Countess Crey.

"And you were OK with that?" Hot Girl asked.

I shrugged and smiled a crooked sad little smile. I’m not a nice guy. I really don’t care too much about anyone other than me. I had a sweet apartment in Founders Falls, money practically burning a hole in my pocket so, no, I had absolutely no problem with what I was doing.

But there’s always that line that you just can’t cross over. Sometimes you don’t even know that you have a line until it appears right there at your feet.

I saw my line tonight.

I had just got back to the lab in Bricks after taking care of some Freakshow gangbangers that had tried to hijack one of Crey’s weapon shipments. I was at a console typing in the last of my report and the Doc and a couple of Protectors were standing behind me. I wasn’t paying too much attention but as I finished my computer work some of what Albriecht was saying started to register and I caught the tail end of it.

"...package should be arriving momentarily. This may well be a very auspicious day." He looked very smug and his eyes were wide with excitement.

What package? We had stuff come though all the time but I had never seen the Doc that...well...giddy. Disturbing. Then the steel slabs of the lab door slid open and a Protector walked in calmly and handed Albriecht his package like she was handing him a sandwich. My eyes were glued to it and I think my heart got so cold it almost stopped beating.

The Doctor held his package at arms length, regarding with a cold scientific eye the squirming bundle in his hands. It was a baby, a year old, maybe more. It had red skin and jet black hair adorned with a little blue bow. It was a girl. She didn’t cry. She didn’t make any sound at all, for that matter, but she looked mad as hell.

"Yes, excellent," Albriecht whispered. His eyes were practically tearing up, he was so happy. "If this unit has half the power of its parents, we will be very lucky indeed." He held the child closer to him and began to pace about. He was going into full monologue mode now and I listened hard. "We will bend her to our will, harness her power as our own. And, if time reveals that she cannot be cowed, I will take what she is and give it to all of you!"

Holy crap. If the kid didn’t preform how he wanted that freak was going to dissect her like a frog in biology class.

My line. Right there in front of me.

I sighed and stepped forward, at last removing the faceless mask all us ‘Protectors’ wore. "Doctor," I said softly as I twisted my mask in my hands.

Albriecht pulled his eyes from his prize and stared at me for a few hours...or seconds, it could have been either. "Is there a problem, dear boy?"

I looked around me quick as I could. The female Protector that brought the baby in was standing just to my right. The doc had two more standing at his sides, male, and if I remembered right, energy blasts and super strength were their powers. There were about four more of them on the other side of the lab. I hoped I could get out.

All that thinking and looking took less than half a heartbeat. I blew the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding out through my nose. I nodded. "Yeah...there’s a problem." As soon as the words were out of my mouth I backfisted the female, stunning her, knocking her back and she fell, more from surprise and shock than anything else.

The energy bolt blasted the floor in front of me and I was thrown back about twenty feet. I landed, crouching, and launched myself forward. One of the protectors dropped down almost on top of me and hit me with a left - right combination that dazed me for a second. I saw him press in, trying to set me up with a left jab. I leaned back so that the punch fell short. The right cross was almost directly behind it. I turned my body a bit to the side and reached up with my left hand, grabbing his wrist and pulling him into me. He was completely off balance as my right fist buried itself in his face, between his nose and upper lip. He fell at my feet and I jumped over him, trying to get to the Albriecht and the baby.

The energy wielder was blocking my path but then I felt a searing pain in my right side. I looked down and saw a long clawlike spine sticking out the side of my belly. It retracted with a ‘schruuup’ and I dropped to my knees. Then I simply fell over, my head hitting the cold hard steel floor, cursing myself for not remembering the girl I struck in the first place.

But then, something...odd. I noticed the shadows in the room got very long, stretching away from me like it was late late afternoon. It was getting hotter and brighter by the second.

It was as if someone had broke off a piece of the sun and put it in the room with us. There was a thud in front of me and I saw the female Paragon Protector, the one who had just stabbed me, hit the ground. She had a smouldering cauterized hole burned through her chest. She lay there dead, looking at me and I could almost see her sightless eyes through her faceless mask.

The room was spinning as I moved my eyes upwards and I saw Dr. Albriecht with a look of abject terror on his face. "YOU!" he exclaimed. But strangest of all, I saw the baby smiling, stretching her arms out toward the sun.

And then I woke up here.

My new pals looked at each other in confusion. Their faces grew dark with concern when I mentioned the baby. But when I talked about the light and the heat, they looked like I felt - bewildered.

"What do you think?" Crossed-Arms asked.

Personality Guy shook his head and stroked his chin. "I don’t know. I don’t even know if we can believe this guy. He’s a criminal; a thief and a liar"

"Sitting right here," I said with a bit of indignation.

Hot Girl frowned, which still seemed to look sexy. "That baby sounds like..."

Before she could finish, the door to the room crashed open with such force it slammed into the wall behind it. In the doorway were two women. One had her arm around the shoulders of the other and it was clear she was hurt pretty bad. Her short blonde hair stood up in small spikes and a pair of red goggles were down around her neck. She wore a grey one-piece bodysuit that was so tight you could see the outline of her...abs. Her left arm was folded across her body and her hand was clutching at her side. She was wounded in almost the same place I had been and blood had run down the side of her costume, staining it almost to the knee.

The other woman had jet black hair and she looked as if she had been in the fight of her life. She supported the blonde with her left arm around her waist and I noticed she was wearing the same costume as my three interrogators. It was pretty torn up and there was a huge gash through the blue and gold shield on her chest. The both of them were just as hot as Hot Girl but the black haired one had a scar over her right eye that circled it and went down her cheek like a question mark.

And then, I didn’t think I was capable of smiling a smile as big as the one that appeared on my face. Cradled on the right hip of the black haired girl was a baby, a year old, maybe older, with red skin and jet black hair, still wearing that little blue bow. I’m a manly man but, dammit, if I didn’t almost cry.

The three in the room ran to the door. "WillowWind!" Hot Girl exclaimed, "are you all right?" Crossed-Arms and Personality Guy were helping the blonde to a table, all the while looking over at their friend.

"I’m fine, Buttercup." Buttercup? Hot Girl was named Buttercup? Jeez.

"Are you ok?" Personality Guy was asking. "What’s been going on?"

WillowWind looked at each of them in turn. Her face was streaked with tears but she had a smile of such radiant happiness it almost caused my heart to crack. And even though her voice was a whisper, her two words filled the room like a shout.

"He’s back."



THE END? NO, NOT EVEN CLOSE....

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