Late Winter 2005, LoVE Base, Near the Grand Canyon
The last part of the ride with Chaosboy was very slow and very rough. We eventually went into a tunnel before parking.
“Okay,” he said. “Ya can take that thing off.”
I did and there was not much to see. The headlights on the Land Rover were illuminating the form of Tom Tyree. Tall, gaunt, and middle-aged, he was standing about ten yards in front of the vehicle with his arms crossed. We were in a cave about twenty feet in diameter, with a tunnel behind us and a tunnel in front of us where Tom was standing.
I ignored Chaosboy and got out and walked to Tom. “So, I’m here. What is it that you wanted to say?”
He looked me up and down, frowned, and then smiled. “Is it any wonder she’s had enough of you? Always jumping right in, never any foreplay.”
I smiled and crossed my arms, matching his pose and expression, and just stood there. I was annoyed, but letting him see it wasn’t going to help. Actually I was very annoyed. How is it that everyone always seemed to know my business?
“All right then,” he said. “I’ll give you the tour.”
He took me down the tunnel, harshly illuminated by bare bulbs strung along the wall. We came out into a large cave that was about fifty feet in diameter with a relatively flat dirt floor. There were several tunnels exiting this cave in various directions. In the center of the cave was a round table with chairs set around it. Sitting at it was Charles Calvin, aka Dr. Cheese. He had his round-rimmed glasses and lab coat on.
“You know Dr. Cheese,” Tom said.
I nodded and gritted my teeth. I disliked the guy immensely. His super power was the production of enzymes. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But think about it. Enzymes are biological substances that cause chemical reactions. So, the magic that turns milk into cheese: enzymes. Almost all chemical reactions in your body involve enzymes.
Dr. Cheese reached up and took my hand, shaking it. His hand was moist and limp—I wanted to wipe it off, but didn’t. He smiled but didn’t speak.
We’ve had our run-ins. He once infected several orchards of oranges in Florida. He would walk past the trees touching each one and infecting it with an enzyme. That enzyme infected the tree and transformed the oranges, turning them poisonous. The poison was subtle, though, and wasn’t detected until the juice was in the market. The compound in the juice lowered inhibitions, kind of like being very drunk, and resulted in chaos all over the country for a few weeks.
He never did ask for anything. Once I finally caught up with him, he claimed he had been experimenting. Actually, he called it “my little social experiment.”
See why I wanted to wipe my hand? God knows what kind of enzyme he just infected me with and what kind of chemical reaction it could cause in my body.
I hated the guy, I really did. But I kept my mouth shut and followed Tom.
“This is Byte,” Tom said as he introduced me to an attractive woman of about thirty. She was dressed simply, in jeans and a black turtleneck, but she moved in a sensuous way that was quite alluring. “That’s B.Y.T.E., you know, like computers. Digital something or another.” His hand waved vaguely at the racks of computer gear behind her.
Byte smiled and pushed her shoulder-length blond hair behind her right ear. “A pleasure,” she said, shaking my hand. Her grip was firm and confident.
“Byte here is the nerve center of our operations,” he said. “She handles communications, research, and simulations.”
“Simulations?” I asked.
“We do a lot of mathematical modeling,” she said, “looking at odds and probabilities. Attempting to predict future patterns based on historical information. Data mining for unseen trends, that kind of thing.” She spoke with an English accent that to my untrained ear sounded like she was well educated.
“We model everything,” Tom said. “We don’t make a move unless we like what we see in the simulations. In fact—”
“You’re going to want to see this,” Byte said, looking at me and interrupting Tom. She pointed at a large monitor hanging from the ceiling and it turned on. On the screen was Diane Madison, her perfectly coifed hair and plastic smile making me feel uncomfortable in way I couldn’t quite explain.
“Join us at seven p.m. central, eight p.m. Pacific for a WNN exclusive report: Neutrinoman Unmasked. We delve into the real life of this real superhero and explode the secrecy surrounding him and other quantum-morphs.”
The screen muted as a commercial for Viagra came on. I stood there staring and blinking at the screen while some grey-haired guy talked earnestly about how happy he was now that his penis works better.
I felt a gentle squeeze of my arm and looked at Byte. The look on her face appeared to be compassionate, genuine. It made me wonder what she was doing here. I looked around and saw that Tom had left and was talking to Dr. Cheese. I looked at her face and head closely. I couldn’t see any equipment on her. Like a headset so she could hear what was on WNN. Or a remote so she could turn the TV on.
“You’re a…” I stammered.
“Q-morph,” she said, nodding her head. “I was a geek in a server room when the cosmic rays hit. I was installing some new servers and some bad wiring sent the Internet flowing through me. Not enough electricity to kill me or anything, but it turned my legs to jelly and I woke up a few hours later and could sense the data going through the air.”
I nodded in awe. “Were you bit or anything?”
“You’re wondering about the third element. Cosmic rays, plus freak accident, plus gene changing catalyst. Like the rat in your case.”
“I had gotten a flu vaccination right before the accident. Near as I can figure, that was the third element.”
I nodded, still dazed by where I was, who I was with, and what I had just seen on the TV.
“Do you need to sit?” she asked, taking my arm and guiding me to the table.
When Chaosboy had told me that my secret was about to come out, I had believed him. It was kind of inevitable. Everyone knew I worked at Palo Verde. Everyone knew that Neutrinoman used it as home base. Starting with a list of employees and with a little effort, it was going to be found out.
But, now that it was happening, I felt extremely disoriented. I didn’t sign up to be a superhero, and to this point, anonymity had been one of the only things keeping me sane, giving me a shred of a normal life. And now? I had no idea how I would cope with the world knowing who I was.
“How about some cheese?” Dr. Cheese asked, sliding a plate towards me. The smell was intoxicating and a welcome distraction. “I made it myself,” he added. I pushed the plate away.
The plan had been a simple one. The military was expecting Toxicwasteman or one of his people to contact me. When they did, I would agree to a meeting, learn all I could, and then alert the military to their location. They would swoop in and take them all into custody.
Sitting there smelling Dr. Cheese’s cheese, reeling from the upcoming outing of me as Neutrinoman, I just had to laugh. It was such a simplistic plan. So easy. So logical.
Except Chaosboy had given me a chance to warn my family. I knew I was supposed to be the hero and they were supposed to be the villains, but it was Toxicwasteman that saved the day when we last met in Yellowstone. He had used me as a pawn in his plan, but he had gotten the job done.
But, what if he was using me as a pawn again? What if he had arranged for this little Diane Madison thing, this unmasking of a superhero?
I was so confused. But sitting there with Dr. Cheese watching him nibble on pieces of cheese was not doing me any good.
“What’s with the lab coat?” I asked him.
“Huh?” he asked, pushing his round glasses back into position and brushing at his short grey hair. He was a chubby little dude, built like a fireplug.
“You are always wearing a lab coat. What is up with that?”
“Well, I am a doctor, after all,” he said with a sniff.
“Yeah. Doctor,” Chaosboy said as he sat down and started eating the cheese. “Oh, man. Cheesy, you’ve outdone yourself.”
“You were a podiatrist before the accident,” I said. “Why wear a lab coat now? We’re in a cave. There’s no one else here.”
He pulled the white coat tight, monogrammed on the pocket was “Dr. Cheese.” He blinked rapidly, his eyes twitching around before meeting mine. “Do you really want to know?”
I nodded. I didn’t know if I did, but staying trapped in my head was not a good thing.
“Branding,” he said with a nod, before picking up what looked like a piece of Havarti. My mouth was watering. I was more than a little hungry.
“Branding?” I asked.
“Yes, branding. Depending on how all this turns out, there might be some value in my name and image. Endorsements, appearances, product sales. The lab coat is my brand. So I wear it, you never know when you might be seen.” His hand hovered over the plate of cheese—he seemed to be deciding between a piece of cheddar or another Swiss. “Are you sure you don’t want some?” he asked.
I was worried about them poisoning me, but I was hungry, and the cheese did smell fantastic.
“You know,” Tom began as he sat down beside me. “You really ought to consider branding yourself. You could be making a mint off of endorsements right now. Neutrinoman energy drinks, Neutrinoman comic books and movies. LoVE has a team of lawyers on retainer. If you were to join us, we could make all of that happen.”
My hand darted out, almost against my volition, and snagged a piece of Swiss. It was amazing; fresh and sharp, rich and creamy. I rationalized that if they had wanted to poison me they already had. If Dr. Cheese had wanted to infect me he could have done it when we shook hands. “Wow,” I said, surprised when I heard myself speak.
“No one does cheese like Dr. Cheese,” Byte said as she sat down on the other side of me. She placed a large tablet computer in the middle of the table on a stand. She smelled of roses with a hint of patchouli. I didn’t recall her having that scent on when we met. I found it a bit distracting.
“Let’s do this,” Tom said. As I sat there eating some of the best cheese I had ever tasted, Tom and the rest of them made their pitch.
The lights in the cave dimmed, seemingly of their own accord, with a single light shining from above on the table. This left the cave outside the circle of light dark and murky. On the tablet appeared the letters L. o. V. E. in 3D slowly rotating.
“This table,” Tom began after clearing his throat, “is round for a reason. Like King Arthur of legend, everyone here has a voice. Everyone here contributes. Everyone here knows the plan. We have no secrets from each other.”
Tom got up and slowly walked around the table. There were eight chairs, but only five us sitting there.
He stopped behind Dr. Cheese, his hands resting briefly on the man’s thick shoulders. “Doc here is our medic and our chef. His enzymatic superpowers are useful in a variety of situations. He can cause destruction if need be, or get us through a door quietly and quickly. His enzymes can harm or help depending on our needs.”
With a smile Tom moved to Chaosboy. “Chaosboy here is our luck. Everything, and I mean everything, goes better with him. He is our eyes and ears in the world, our talent scout, and the first one to join me.”
He moved on to Byte, his hands caressing her hair before going to her shoulders. “Byte here is the nerve center of our operation. She can get us through any firewall, can disable any security system, retrieve for us any data, and takes care of managing our finances.”
“I,” he began, standing behind his own seat, “am the brains of the operation, and sometimes the brawn. I keep us on mission and on task.”
He then moved behind my chair and put his hands on my shoulders. “You, Neutrino, you could be our most powerful weapon. The aliens fear you, fear your power, and with good reason. We need you to save this planet. We, literally, cannot do it without you.”
He sat back down. “Our mission is singular and focused: destroy the alien threat; save the planet; have a party.” After a dramatic pause he looked me directly in the eyes and asked, “Will you join us, Nik?”
This is the end of the excerpt.