Colin’s door is closed and barricaded with his desk chair. He’s got music playing, to hide the sound of any other activity. There’s no way his mom is going to walk in on him again. He nearly died of embarrassment that time. But ever since he met Summer, and especially after he almost kissed her, he’s felt the need.
The song starts. Colin holds up his TV remote to his mouth, using it as a microphone.
“When you grow up, your heart dies.” “Who cares?” “I care.”
Time to dance!
There’s just something about stupid white-boy dancing that feels good. Colin knows, with certainty, that he looks like the world’s biggest dork. He doesn’t care, because nobody can see it. But he just feels overjoyed!
The old Carlton Dance meme was funny because of how ridiculous it looked. But Colin also knows that at the end of that show, Will Smith, epitome of cool, did the dance too. And that made it cool. Being a dork is cool. In Halcyon City, there’s a ton of superheroes who were the nerds in school. How often do you meet an HHL member called the Quarterback? That’s right, never. Being a dork is okay.
He sings along.
“Somebody call, somebody call it - don’t let it go, don’t let it go - without somebody to hold - without somebody - I just need that body!”
I mean damn, she’s beautiful. But she made herself beautiful. For Leo Snow? For that other boy she talked about?
For herself. Who doesn’t want to feel attractive?
He’d sure like to be attractive.
“Don’t let your heart die, don’t let your heart die, don’t let your heart die.”
He does a spin on the hardwood floor of his bedroom, and almost loses his balance. He flails for a second, and almost loses the remote, but the rhythm goes on.
He knows Summer is his muse for social issues, but she’s also a girl, and impressing her is the most important thing in the world for all those reasons. He’ll say anything, do anything, go anywhere, whatever it takes. He thinks he’s been acting cool around her, but he’ll always, always wonder.
“Keep running on, just hold on, just fight on, until the sun goes down, just remember when you grow up your heart dies.”’
Maybe she can see right through him. Maybe she knows what a dumbass he is. She’s probably laughing at him somewhere. But right now, he’s using the music and the joy to keep that possibility at bay.
“Don’t ever give up. Everything worth doing is hard.”
She’s obviously going through a hard time. Is it because she’s a robot, or a superhero, or a robot superhero? Wait - she’s a robot. Did she not want to kiss him because, y’know, she has circuitry in her mouth, and saliva would cause a short circuit? No - don’t think about that - think about her. What does she need?
“It’s okay to feel lost.”
What did she say? “Please don’t give up on me. I just need a little more time.”
Does she mean that she wants to be his girlfriend? Oh god. That can’t be it. There’s no way a girl like her would be interested in a useless social nerd like him.
But the music promises him she can be, and as long as he sings and dances, it’s able to cast its spell on him.
“Always fear regret more than failure.”
He wants to ask her. He’s terrified of the possibility that she’ll laugh at him. But… what if?
“The sun never sets on your dream.”
It doesn’t matter if she wants to be his girlfriend or not. Whatever she wants, he’ll give it to her. And that feeling makes him happier than all the goofy nerd dancing in the world.
Summer gets a video call from Alycia, who’s still out and about well after sunset. She looks ashen, even on the low-grade video.
“What’s the matter, 'Lycia?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” The other girl isn’t focusing. “Quill business is sorted. I need to reprimand Jason for sloppy security. I spent time hacking. Face recognition data paid off. I’ve identified the three children. They’re Halcyon City locals. Not Gardner attendees, but in high school. Socio-economic stratification suggested no reason for them to associate. I wormed my way into their parents’ bank statements to look for correlations. They all visit the same adolescent therapist. I’ll be breaking into the office to check his files and will forward you any pertinent data.”
Something awful must have been in whatever she found. Summer peers closer. “Alycia, you saw something. What’s the matter? What did you find about them?”
Alycia shakes her head, still staring ahead. “Oh it’s not them. I took the liberty of investigating that young man you associate with, in case he becomes a threat to your well-being and happiness. Including visual surveillance. Oh god.”
The video link cuts out, leaving Summer annoyed that her roommate is spying on her new friend, and more than a little curious about the results of it. But asking more would only encourage Alycia.
The next call comes in an hour later. “I’m very concerned,” Alycia says, without preamble.
“What’s going on?” Summer’s still worried, though now it’s focused on the kids from the park.
“This individual, a Dr. Liljenquist, indicates that he used some sort of unspecified treatment on five children. The impression I get is that there’s some sort of chemical component. It’s possible that he’s creating or activating superpowers in his patients. The subjects all have a psych profile in common. They’re suffering from some kind of phobia or anxiety. I don’t have time to listen to their notes. Listen–”
“We have to stop Dr. Liljenquist,” Summer finishes.
“Correct. I’ll text you his address. We’re doing this, right now.”
The doctor lives in an upscale house. Even at this late hour, the lights are still on in a room upstairs. The pair stare from a concealed point in the bushes, which Alycia is confident is a blind spot in his home security system.
“Maybe he has a chemical laboratory in his basement,” Summer suggests.
“He’s probably field testing a new mutagen for somebody in the military-industrial complex,” opines Alycia.
“I think we should go in and - confront him,” Summer says.
Alycia responds by cracking her knuckles through the gloves. “‘Confront’, huh? Fine. Let’s go.”
Mask on, Charade picks the lock downstairs. Radiance, face covered and holograms off, takes point, in case some kind of trap or gunfire hits the pair. The two reach the door of the lit room without incident.
The doctor sits by himself at a desk, holding his head in his hands. To Summer, he looks defeated, and against her harsher impulses she feels a moment of sympathy.
“Dr. Liljenquist,” Charade barks. Summer privately envies Alycia for the ease with which she pronounces the name. She had to enunciate it out for herself, and is still not confident–
The doctor rises, turns, looks, and recognizes. “Superheroes. The Menagerie. Ah. You’ve followed my children to me. But you should leave, before it hurts you.”
“Nobody’s getting hurt, if you cooperate,” Charade warns, in a flat tone of voice.
“It’s out of my hands.” The doctor shrugs elaborately.
“What did you do to those kids?” Summer asks, from behind her own mask.
“I cured them of their fear,” the doctor says.
“By turning them into chemical supers?” Summer can hear the rising hate in Charade’s voice.
The doctor actually chuckles. “Not me. We haven’t found it yet - the Key - but our powers are weak. But you two. Oh my, yes, you two have much fear. You can help us.”
The two girls watch as a black miasma rises from the doctor’s body, like morning dew evaporating into a mist. Summer rezzes her own holograms in response, and spreads out a protective barrier. She hears Charade next to her, muttering through gritted teeth: “Only a fool gets high on his own supply.”
The miasma pours forth and smashes against the barrier of light, but does not break it. As it withdraws to try again, Charade draws her guns - fitted with non-lethal rounds, over her grumbling objections - and aims. The weapons have a laser sight, and Summer can see the intersection of the red dot and her own barriers. As the light blinks into being, Summer opens a gap in the hologram, just long and wide enough for Alycia to take her shots without compromising protection. The two have practiced this move together. But it doesn’t matter - the bullets penetrate the miasma and vanish without a trace, without even damaging the far side of the room.
“Let me heal your fear!” the pair hear, in a voice that both is and is not the doctor’s.
Summer tightens her barrier. But the voice comes again, and fervently hopes only she can hear it. “Everyone at Blintzkrieg knows what you are. Chaima has a good laugh about her ‘espresso machine’.”
“No!” she shouts, aloud, and realizes that Alycia is shouting too. What is she hearing?
“I’ve taken control of Colin.” The voice changes, deepens. “He’s afraid of looking like a fool in front of you. Stop me, and nothing will hold back his terror. He’ll run away from you, tell everyone–”
“NO!” In a moment of weakness, Summer sees a pair of red lights on her barrier. She opens it, instinctively, mistaking it for Alycia’s laser sights. And through that gap, short as it is, the miasma comes - and engulfs Charade.
“SO MUCH FEAR!” comes a new voice - Alycia’s, but with the same alterations and deepenings. The doctor collapses.
Summer rushes forward, toward Alycia, but is thrown back by a monumental wave of force. The black miasma is all around her. Then it draws back. Alycia is surrounded by a black aura. Bat-like wings of inky darkness snap open from her back. The combination of Charade and whatever possesses her bursts through the roof of Dr. Liljenquist’s house and flaps off into the sky.
Summer wants to follow. But she knows nothing about this thing, or how to combat it, or how to free her friend. Her head turns, and she sees the doctor, now on the ground gasping for air. The miasma has left him entirely. Did it find a new host? If so, is he now himself? If anyone can help now, he can.
She rushes to his side in time to hear his first words.
“… I’m so sorry. It had me. I’m so sorry…”
“Tell me what that thing is,” she says, gently as she can.
The doctor looks at her a moment, eyes focusing. “Oh. You’re a superhero? Thank god. That thing… It’s like a parasite. It takes control of you, through your fear. It gives you powers related to that fear. Find yourself assaulted in a bathroom, and you gain the ability to go anywhere, but only if you’re in a bathroom… Hurt by a father you see as an ogre, and you gain power over a reflection of him…”
Summer quails. Alycia is strong, and brave, but with her upbringing and life experience…
“How do we beat it?” she asks.
The doctor looks at her wearily. “How do you defeat any fear?” he asks.
If only I knew.