Doomed by K W Taylor
Doomed by K W Taylor
Every interview began the same. The opening question wasn’t much different than what you’d hear if you were applying to be a secretary, a surgeon, or a defender of justice. Too many pairs of eyes stared at me from across the conference table; too many pens scribbled notes on my résumé.
“So what experience do you have as a sidekick?”
I wanted to sigh, but I had gotten really good at not wilting at the question. I’d gotten it at every single audition, and this one would be no different.
Plaster on the grin. Last time I was honest, I remembered, that didn’t work, so this time be truthful, but market yourself. It’s all about spin.
“I chose a different path when it was time for my apprenticeship,” I said, still grinning. “The thing is, I exhibited natural talent at a young age for my superpower, and so my mentor and I determined that instead of being her sidekick, I would instead do better with a mid-level leadership role overseeing her teenage spin-off team.” Grin, grin, grin, look proud of yourself. Don’t mention that this was all basically babysitting and secretarial duties. Do not mention that!
One of the team members—I think she called herself Falcon Girl or something; I’d been through too many auditions to remember—put the eraser end of her pencil to her bottom lip and frowned. “But you had street-level experience, right? You were on regular patrols?”
This was where they always got me. Define the word “on.” Define the word “patrol.” I was often all command-centering it, cloistered away back at the base, available via cell and radio and whatnot, scanning maps of sewer systems for easy getaway points. When the teens were patrolling, they were blips on a GPS-monitoring screen to me, not comrades in arms out in the actual trenches. Did it count as being “on patrol” if I was simply giving them advice as they did the actual risk-taking?
“I can’t let you out on the streets yet,” Skeleton Key had told me at our initial meeting years earlier. “I . . . you need protection.”
It had stung, but when she explained her fears about my power, I understood. Mostly. It just sucked that now I was unemployed because of how much she wanted to shelter me.
“I assisted with patrols, yes.” I knew my face was bright red, but short of using my power and disappearing completely, there was nothing I could do about showing my hand.
A look passed between Falcon Girl and the Teflon Wonder. He frowned under his golden mask, the edges of satin crinkling down at the corners of his eyes. At the end of the table, Astro Lad cleared his throat.
“Um, it says here in the letter of recommendation from your mentor . . .” He paused, squinting at the file folder in his hand. “Uh . . . Skeleton Key, was it?”
Key, yes,” I confirmed with a smile. “I was her protégée for two and a half
years.” It felt good to be able to tell the truth about some parts of my
background, at least. “I learned so much from her.”
“Skeleton Key is wonderful,” Falcon Girl confirmed. “I really admire what she did with youth programs.”
“She founded the Honor Society.” A guy in the corner in a green hoodie and purple tights piped up. He’d been silent up to that point and I hadn’t caught his name. “I was a member. Class of ’03.”
I peered at him. Something about the jawline under the shadow of his hood was familiar. I scanned my brain for team member rosters. “Ed . . . Eddie? Eddie . . . um . . . ”
“We don’t use secret identities here,” snapped Falcon Girl.
I closed my mouth, my teeth coming together with a sharp clack.
“It’s okay,” Eddie said. “I used to be Banzai back then. Now I’m Range Rover.” He blanched. I suspected this change of handle was not his idea.
But I did remember him now. Banzai. A precocious member of the Society during my first year with Skeleton Key. He could solidify water with just a touch, which was more helpful than you’d imagine, being by the bay. A great skill, although I always thought mine was more useful.
“Your power is coveted by the opposition,” Skeleton Key once warned me. She had a way of making even harsh things sound gentler, her big owl-eyes magnified by her giant goggles. “I want you to nurture your gift, practice with it. Be careful who you share it with.”
“Wow, Banzai, you sure did well for yourself,” I said, grinning more broadly. But it still stung. Someone I’d tutored and taken care of was now in the place I wanted to be: full member of a real team, albeit a second tier one. You were pretty much at the mercy of the satellite versions of the Noble Alliance when the Uprightness Division turned you down.
“I would feel honored to work with you as a peer,” I told Banzai, swallowing the little lump forming in my throat.
He gave me a weak smile, tilting his head back far enough that I could see the pity in his eyes. He knew damn well the extent of my apprenticeship, and with him as a voting member here, I knew this afternoon would garner me another “thanks but no thanks” voice mail.
“Well, thanks for coming in, Stealth Scout!” Astro Lad was chipper, his movements quick and the handshake from the tentacle in the center of his chest surprisingly hearty. “We’ll let you know.”
Of course you will. Of course.
It was raining outside. I barely realized I was doing it when I slipped into the ladies room of the coffeehouse next to the Noble Alliance’s lair. I withdrew the invisibility satchel from my pocket, wrapped my clothes in it, and shifted to my other mode.
It was cold traversing the streets of San Francisco naked in the rain, but it was also comforting to be utterly and completely ignored. I reached my apartment building quickly, since I could simply dodge around traffic instead of waiting for crosswalks and fussing with an umbrella. Sprinting felt good, and after a few minutes my sweat warmed up the rain on my skin, leaving me feeling pleasantly soggy and clear-headed by the time I unlocked my front door.
“Good afternoon, Stealth Scout.”
I shrieked, which caused my concentration to falter. My shield fell, my cloak dropped, and I stood naked in front of the strange man in my living room.
He smirked before making a big show of spinning around away from me. “I’ll give you a moment,” he said. “It was rude of me to barge in.”
I pulled my clothes on quickly. “Rude? Try illegal.” In my satchel was a retractable baton; I palmed it and shoved my cell phone into my pocket. “You have two seconds to explain yourself before I call the cops.”
“Are you sure you want to do that?” The man canted his head toward the closed door that led to my guest bathroom. “I know about your little hobby,” he said. “I could make things very difficult for you.” He half turned. “And do drop that little kubotan, dear,” he added. He tapped a finger on his wrist, making a distinctly metallic sound. “You’d simply dent me, which is not exactly a deterrent except to make me put myself in the shop for a buffing.”
“Buffing?” I blinked at him.
The man’s neck made an odd grinding sound as he laughed, and that’s when I noticed there was something off about his skin; it was too poreless, too perfect. He looked to be at least in his twenties or thirties by his carriage and clothing, but there wasn’t even a hint of creasing at his eyes. The skin didn’t even bunch as he smiled, only sort of melted deeper into his face to allow room for the movement of his eyes, mouth, and forehead. His nostrils were oddly small as well, as if to just give a necessary impression rather than to be truly functional. If he’d been human, he would have been attractive, but in a stilted, off-kilter way. But he was very clearly not human.
“You’re a robot,” I said matter-of-factly.
His smirk grew somehow smirkier, and I felt a shiver down my spine, a mix of disgust and . . . no, just disgust. If he were a robot, there was no sick thrill at noticing that he was handsome. He was probably built like a Ken doll, after all.
“We don’t like the term ‘robot,’ dear,” he said. “I mean, really now, do I look like Rosie from The Jetsons, hmm?”
I rolled my eyes. “Look, whoever, whatever you are, get to the point and get out, okay? I got stuff to do.”
“Like plan your next bank robbery?”
I felt like growling. “You don’t know me. You don’t know why I—”
He made a puppet gesture with one hand. “Blah blah blah, yes, of course, you have bills, you have reasons, what have you. Save it.” He withdrew a card from his inside jacket pocket. “If you ever want to get serious about your avocation and turn your spare-time activity into your day job, call us.” He spun and marched toward my front door. “We could make things very helpful for you, Stealthy my dear. Think it over. Someone will be in touch.”
When the door shut behind him, I looked at the card. “Cohort of Doom,” it read, followed by a phone number and, inexplicably, a Twitter handle.
Supervillain collectives are on fucking Twitter now? “Have you no standards?” I asked the card. “Seriously? Where is the mystery and secrecy and cloak and dagger stuff?” I sighed and shoved the card in my pocket. Still, I knew who the Cohort was. And among the villainous types, they were . . . well, it was like being recruited by the Majors instead of the Minors. If they were interested, I could really make my mark.
Among evil types, I reminded myself. You’d make an evil mark among evil people.
This was one of the things Skeleton Key had warned me about, of course. The temptation of my skill set for the wrong crowd. I crossed my small living room and opened up the door to the guest bath.
On the countertops were stacks of money, large bills, serial numbers still traceable. I had to wait until I could get it laundered safely before I could get it out of the apartment. The heat had to be off for at least another month.
I sighed with regret as I stared at the money. Because this, this evidence of my own susceptibility to misuse of power, was the other thing Skeleton Key cautioned me against.
“And I betrayed you,” I murmured. I went against her ideology just so I could afford not to take a dead-end day job while I searched for a team who would take someone with so little experience. But it was crappy of me to steal instead of bartending or barista-ing or temping or something.
“No,” I admitted aloud. “Not just ‘crappy.’ Evil.”
“Personal gain is going to be appealing,” Skeleton Key had told me, “and you have to be strong enough to resist it.”
“I’ll get on a good team,” I’d assured her. “Someday, you’ll be so proud of me.”
I shut the bathroom door just as my phone started ringing.
“Cohort of Doom or Noble Alliance?” I wondered aloud, staring at my phone’s display. The caller ID read simply “Unknown Caller.”
I slid my finger across the screen. “Hello?”
Copyright K W Taylor 2019