Action Figures - Issue One: Secret Origins (7 page)

“Amber,” Matt informs me at lunch, which reaffirms my belief that names can have destinies attached to them, because I’ve known three Ambers in my life and they’ve all been stuck-up. And this Amber, Amber Sullivan, has gone the extra mile for the cliché hat-trick because she’s captain of the cheerleading squad and is dating the quarterback of the football team, Gerry Yannick. Presently, Amber and Gerry are at their table having a grand old time with their friends. I can’t help but pick up on their habit of periodically glancing in our direction and laughing.

“Ignore them,” Sara says irritably, but it’s not the mockery making her cranky, it’s me. I’ve never been a direct target of this kind of derision before and it’s riling me something fierce, and she’s picking up on it. I try to calm myself, but it’s tough.

“Someone distract me,” I say.

“All right, I’ll offer up a topic for discussion,”
Matt says. “I’ve been thinking about what you said about the robot situation.”

“What did I say about the robot situation?”

“That thing you said about something happening three times being enemy action?”

“Yeah?”

“If we rule out some kind of freak accident or glitch as the reason why the robots are wigging out, that means someone has to be sending them, right?”

“But why would anyone do that?” Missy says. “It’s not like the company is getting anything out of it.”

“Someone must be,” Sara says. “Otherwise why do it?”

“Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Matt says, invoking Michael Caine.

“Let’s assume the someone in question isn’t some total wacko causing trouble for the sake of it,” I say. “Let’s go on the theory someone has something to gain. So: who would benefit from ARC robots going berserk in public?”

“Another company,” Matt says. “ARC has a lot of juicy government contracts to make robots for battlefield use, yeah? If their robots suck, the military might yank the contracts and give them to someone else.”

“Yeah, but how would someone from another company get into ARC to program the robots to go all Godzilla?” Stuart says.

“Hackers get into company computers all the time,” Matt says.

“Yeah, but why would their robots be hooked into the Internet?” I say.

“Maybe they’re connected to an end user by a wireless signal someone is hijacking. Or it’s someone in
the company using a hardwired connection. Or a programmer stuck a Trojan horse virus in the software.”

Did any of that actually mean anything?

“Or the building has gremlins,” Sara says. “I’m not saying these aren’t good ideas, but none of them get us any closer to finding out who’s behind this.”

She’s right, we’re totally spitballing. “All right, let’s boil this down a bit. I think the most likely scenario is that someone with ties to another company weaseled his way into ARC to muck around with the robots and make ARC look bad so his company can poach its military contracts.”

No one disagrees. “Oscar’s Razor, right?” Stuart says. “Simplest explanation is usually the right one?”


Occam’s
Razor,” I say, “but yeah, exactly.”

“But how do we find out who it is?” Missy says.

“Spy work,” Matt says with an excited gleam in his eye. “We go in there and snoop around.”

“What, you mean break in?” I share Missy’s discomfort. Super-heroes don’t break-and-enter as a rule (I assume).

“No no no. We fight fire with fire: we slip our own spy in.”

Less illegal, definitely, but, “I doubt ARC has any job openings for a bunch of fifteen-year-olds,” I say, but I don’t have a better option. No one else does, either. Another dead end. Some super-heroes we’re turning out to be.

The lunch bell rings, ending our barely productive brainstorming session.

“Maybe Chinese will spark some ideas,” Matt says. He informs me Friday night’s standard group outing includes dinner at Junk Food, which is their nick
name for a Chinese place called Silk Sails Cuisine (I don’t get it), and a movie. “Usual time?”

The others agree. As we’re leaving, I ask Matt, “What’s the usual time?”

“Oh yeah. Right. Duh. Five.”

Matt assumed I already knew. He forgot I’m the new girl.

That makes me smile.

The scheduling gods are on my side. Right after school lets out for the weekend I check my phone for messages, and I have a voicemail from Mom. It sounds like she’s made new friends too; she’s going out to dinner with some co-workers and tells me to take advantage of the leftover lasagna. Good for her.

Meanwhile, we’re left with time to kill before dinner. Hitting The Carnivore’s Cave is pointless and their regular after-school hangout, the Coffee Experience, is still closed for repairs (“Where am I supposed to get my damn latté now?” Matt gripes in an unintentional imitation of my granddad).

“Well, if we’re supposed to be a super-team, we should maybe do a little training,” I say, meaning it as a joke, but Matt’s eyes light up.

“Good call,” he says.

“Yeah, I got to admit,” Stuart says, “I want to see what you can do.”

“Me too. Let’s go.”

We hike for a half-hour to someplace they call the Bowling Ball, which is a big boulder in the middle of Milne’s Woods (Milne’s Woods? That can’t be an accident. Is it a hundred acres?). It’s a big nature reserve with hiking trails snaking all through it, and I’m experi
encing some serious déjà vu.

The Bowling Ball is appropriately named. It’s huge, round, and has three big chunks missing from the top that look like finger holes for a giant bowler. Missy gets a running start and leaps. I’m stunned by how much air she catches, and she lands well above the Ball’s equator. Her feet scramble madly and I think she’s going to fall, but she finds some traction and clambers to the top of the boulder and sits in one of the holes.

“Beer me!” she says. Matt puts on his gloves and tosses a cold can of root beer up to her, then passes cans to the others (I get cream soda in a glass bottle, thank you), and completes the human concession stand routine by producing a huge bag of Doritos. Stuart grabs it and tucks in.

“Time to dance, monkey!” he says. “Show us what you got!”

“Are we good here?” I ask. “We are in the middle of the woods.”

“Exactly. Don’t worry, we have our earlywarning system,” Matt says, pointing at Sara. “She’ll pick up on anyone who gets close.”

“Good enough,” I say.

Showtime.

I power up. The light engulfs me and that alone generates some gasps, which are the only sounds besides the sounds of nature. I don’t hum when I’m powered up or when I fly and my energy blasts are silent, which is wicked disappointing. They’d be way more dramatic if they went FWASH or FTYOO or ZWAMP, some kind of cool George Lucas lasery noise.

For my next trick, ladies and gentlemen, I shall
rise up into the air until I am eye-to-eye with my lovely assistant Missy, sitting high atop the Bowling Ball.

“Cooooooool,” my lovely assistant says. “Ooh! How fast can you fly? Could you, like, fly to Canada and bring back a snowball before it melts?”

“I’m not GPS-equipped,” I say, and that there is the biggest problem with flying: it can be a real pain in the butt to find my way back to where I started. If I can identify a recognizable landmark, something I can spot easily from the air, I’m okay. Back home—
back on the Cape
—I had a huge mall to use as my anchor point, but I made sure never to fly so far away I couldn’t find my way back to it. Even if I did, it’s Cape Cod; it’s a ginormous peninsula shaped like a flexing arm, which makes it way more recognizable than Kingsport here in the middle of the South Shore.

“That’s a good question, though,” Matt says. “Have you ever tested how fast you can go?”

“I wouldn’t know how.” Do they make portable speedometers?

“Hm. Have you tried to break the sound barrier, then? That would mean you could hit at least 768 miles per hour at sea level.”

“Did you make that number up?”

“No. That’s really what mach one is. Can you do mach one?”

“I’ve never tried before,” I say, and Matt spreads his arms as if to say
No time like the present
. There’s no tree cover immediately overhead, which means I could shoot straight up and come right back down, which means no worries about getting lost.

All right. Let’s do this.

I climb maybe a hundred feet to get well clear of
the woods, then I gun it—not that I can tell you what
it
is, mind you. It’s not like I think
Carrie fly fast
and off I go. I consciously think about flying as much as I consciously think about walking or breathing.

I can’t help but look down as the woods fall away beneath me, the detail of the treetops mushing together into a green blob. The wind roars in my ears, stings my eyes. Always happens. I should start wearing goggles.

When I look down again I’m looking at a realistic map of Massachusetts, including my sorely missed Cape Cod, in its entirety. A slight adjustment on my way down and I could land right in the middle of Barnstable and go pay Dad a surprise visit. I seriously entertain the idea, until I fail to come up with a remotely believable story for my parents explaining how I made a 120-mile round trip in a single afternoon with no car.

I stop climbing. I’m higher than I’ve ever been before. The sky is a radiant, crystal-clear blue like I’ve never seen before. It’s amazing. I could stay up here forever. Or until I pass out from a lack of oxygen.

I wonder if that’s what happened to my dead alien? Did he come to Earth for some reason and suffocate because he couldn’t breathe our air? No, that’s dumb. Why would he come to this world if he couldn’t breathe? Hmm. Maybe it wasn’t a voluntary visit. He did crash land, after all.

Questions for another time, Hauser, you’re here on business. I descend gently rather than go into freefall so I can try to pinpoint my launch pad. I find the woods again (I think) but I can’t tell where the others might be. I try something on a whim.

Sara!
I “shout” with my mind.
Can you hear me?

Loud and clear
, Sara “says,” causing me to flinch. It’s the weirdest experience, hearing her without
hearing
her (and that’s saying something, considering my yardstick for weirdness is in a much different place than it was several weeks ago).

I can’t find you guys.

Hold on.

I hold on. For a couple of minutes I hold on, then there’s a pop, a whistle, a hiss, and a streak of bright red light soars up from the forest: a signal flare, complete with easy-to-follow contrail. Good call, Matt.

“That was awesome!” he beams as I touch down.

“That was loud!” Missy says. Her face is screwed up in pain and her hands are mashed over her ears.

“I did it? I went supersonic?” I say, the thought thrilling me beyond words.

“Yeah, like, the second you took off,” Stuart says, and I notice a sparse carpet of fresh leaves on the ground. I must have jarred them loose when I hit supersonic speed, which apparently was right away.

Wow. It’s hard not to be impressed with myself.

Nothing quite measures up after that. We test how bright I can glow (answer: insanely bright), and Matt tosses clay skeet shooting targets for me to zap out of the air, which tells me I need to work on my aim something fierce. Out of fifty throws, I hit six targets. Oh, and I sheared off the top third of a perfectly good tree with one of my missed shots. Fail.

A couple hours after we entered the woods we make our way back out. I’m starving by the time we reach Silk Sails, which is this really big, fancy-looking Chinese place with a cool koi pond in the front, com
plete with fountains, a small waterfall, and a scale model of a Chinese junk in the middle of the pond.

(Oh. Junk Food. I get it now.)

The host on duty calls the others by name and leads them to a room in the back, which has a bar, some booths and scattered tables, and a small stage.

“What’s this?”

“This is where Junk Food hosts Friday night karaoke, the greatest contribution to American culture Missy’s people ever made,” Matt says, and I get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“I’m not taking the blame for karaoke,” Missy says.

“Half the blame?”

“Shut up.”

The waitress comes, and she too knows everyone at the table. She’s cute and she plays along with Stuart as he flirts with her outrageously. He’s so overthe-top there’s no way she could take him seriously, but it defuses what could otherwise be a creepy situation. I mean, Stuart is probably half this woman’s age. I know cougars are kind of an in thing nowadays, but
ew
.

“Scoff if you will,” he says to me, catching the look on my face, “but you watch, I’m going to get extra dumplings.”

“Hey, quiet,” Matt says. We follow his gaze to the TV over the bar. The sound is off but the closed-captioning tells us that earlier today, some bigwig from ARC announced the company was shutting down its artificial intelligence branch until further notice. Internal investigation, reassigning employees, plans to make good on the damage, blah blah blah—the rest doesn’t matter. This development effectively ends the investi
gation we never got off the ground.

I’m surprised at my disappointment. I thought all our talk about busting into ARC and solving the mystery and saving the day was, well, just talk, but I guess I got wrapped up in the idea.

“Well, crap,” Matt says.

“So much for that,” Stuart says, and the final nail in our grand plan is hammered into place.

By the way, yes, they made me sing. Matt broke the ice and did an earnest and irony-free rendition of
Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
, so after that anything else would be
American Idol
material by comparison, but I can belt out anything by the Boss like nobody’s business. I have a rough edge to my voice, like Pet Benatar (who I also love), so I sound natural doing anything by Bruce. Tonight I went for
Cover Me
from
Born in the USA.

Nailed it.

Thank you, I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress.

EIGHT

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