Where There's a Will (Panopolis, #3)

Where There's a Will by Cari Z.
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-405-3
eBook release: 
May 2, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-406-0
Print release: 
May 2, 2016
Word count: 
76,700
Page count: 
269
Cover by: 

This title is #3 of the Panopolis series.

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Being a Hero in Panopolis means living the high life: parties, money, influence, even reality television. And I’m one of the most powerful Heroes in the city. I have plenty of fans, a manager who looks out for me (after himself), and a job that pays the bills. I should be enjoying myself.

Unfortunately, the downside of my superpower means I can’t touch anyone, which tends to put a damper on things. I probably don’t deserve all those perks anyway, since I’m working in secret with two of Panopolis’s biggest Villains to undermine GenCorp—my main sponsor and the company that controls what gets through my force field.

I obviously don’t trust my corporate overseers, but they’ve hired a new scientist who actually seems interested in helping me. Dr. Mansourian might have the answers to all my questions—not to mention a starring role in most of my dreams—but he’s hiding something big. If I let him have what he wants, I might not live to regret it.  

Then again, the way things are going in Panopolis these days, I might not live either way.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

SuperTruther here, folks, your source for everything that’s happening behind the curtain here in Panopolis. And let me tell you, the further I look, the more I realize that the curtain is waaay bigger than you’d ever expect. Because the battle in Panopolis, despite what we’ve been told, isn’t as simple as Heroes versus Villains. There’s no clear-cut line between the people doing good and the people doing evil, and what distinction there is gets blurrier by the day.

Can we call Mastermind a Villain, when he’s made Z Street and its surrounding neighborhoods safer in the past few months than the established do-gooders have done in years? Edward Dinges has better reason to despise Panopolis than most, after being experimented on in the Abattoir, broken out by the Bombardier, and fighting to survive as Mastermind. Now he’s got a power strong enough to sideline some of our most powerful Heroes. So where are his conquests? Where are his crimes? Why do he and the Villains who follow him—and there are plenty, despite what the mainstream media would have you believe—leave their calling cards in brick and mortar instead of wrack and ruin? Can a Villain make you feel safer than a Hero?

And what do you do when you can’t tell the difference anymore?

***

People say I’m a Hero.

That’s pretty much all that people ever say about me, actually. It was all that ever needed to be said in Panopolis. Heroes were bigger than life, but little more than names on a television or shouted from a street corner for the majority of folks. Hell, most people probably didn’t even know my real name. Craig Haney wasn’t an exciting guy. I’d been a fairly average kid, raised by my grandmother after my parents were killed during a battle between Earthquake and Sky King. I’d grown into a fairly average man who wasn’t smart enough to make it through college, so I’d gone into the police academy instead. I’d been a decent cop, but that was all I’d been. Then came the accident, and shortly after that, Freight Train was born.

I missed being Craig sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I got into the police to protect and serve, and I was doing more of that than ever as a bona fide Hero. I liked taking care of people, and I liked being a power for good. I especially liked the fact that I could go toe-to-toe with some of the baddest Villains to set foot in Panopolis, and come out on top. That was what I did now—it was my reason for being. I had to be the best Hero the city had ever seen, because I couldn’t be anything else. Not with my force field keeping everyone and everything at a distance.

There were times when being completely untouchable was depressing. And then there were times like today, when I was so damn grateful for my power I could almost cry.

“Fucking hell,” Mr. Fabulous snapped as he tried to scrape the remnants of a bright-pink bubble off his costume. He wasn’t having much luck; it was incredibly sticky.

“At least it wasn’t an acid one,” I said as I scanned ahead for our quarry. The acid bubbles were bright green, and would have eaten through Mr. Fabulous’s suit and into his skin in seconds. There were steaming pockmarks in the brick sidewalk where those ones had touched down. The blue bubbles froze things, which was a little better but not much if they hit you. All in all, the pink ones were fairly tame.

“Oh yeah, wonderful,” Mr. Fabulous said as he swiped fruitlessly at his shoulder. I pulled him aside before he stepped into an acid crater, but he shrugged away my hand. “Unless you know a quick way to get this shit off, don’t bother me.”

Mr. Fabulous and I shared a manager and were both heavily sponsored by GenCorp, so we were often called in for the same jobs. He had super speed and super strength, and was one of the few Heroes I knew of who didn’t also have pretty unsuper side effects to go along with his powers. Mr. Fabulous wore what I guess I’d call a tactical tuxedo, good against bullets and knives, and close-fitting enough that there were whole blogs devoted to his ass in those pants. I might have bookmarked one of them. Or two.

Hey, I might not be able to touch anyone but myself, but I could appreciate a nice ass, okay? In fact, his ass was the nicest thing about Mr. Fabulous. His personality sure wasn’t anything to write home about.

Another bubble floated back toward us: blue, nasty. I popped it with the trash can lid I’d picked up a block back, and a sheen of ice spread across the front of the metal. I could see it, but I barely felt the temperature difference. Distantly, I heard the familiar strains of Bubbles the Clown’s theme song, sung at a shrill and desperate pitch. We were getting close.

Mr. Fabulous was still trying to scrape pink off his shoulder. “Zane, what the hell does it matter?” I muttered as I snagged another blue bubble out of the air before it could hit the door of an apartment building. This wasn’t the nicest corner of Panopolis—nothing really was nice so close to Spartan Park—but there were plenty of residences around, and plenty of people who could be hurt by these bubbles if we didn’t move fast. “Just leave it alone and focus!”

“It matters because pink isn’t a good color on me, and don’t call me ‘Zane’ in public.” His bow-shaped mouth tightened. “I don’t want to be filmed wearing pink!”

I shook my head. “This problem isn’t big enough for any of the news crews to be here yet.” And it won’t be if we do our damn jobs.

Mr. Fabulous stopped in his tracks. “Wait. Haven’t you talked to Ianthe?”

“Ianthe?” I only knew one Ianthe, and she was my lawyer. Well, our lawyer. The lawyer for most Heroes in Panopolis, actually. “Why would I need to talk to her? Are we being sued?” It wouldn’t be the first time.

“No, to sign the waiver!”

“What waiver are you talking about?”

Mr. Fabulous stared at me in utter horror, like I’d said, What do you mean, we can’t eat kittens for breakfast? He spluttered, but I didn’t have time to waste waiting for his mouth to work again. I moved on, and the strains of the song became clearer as I reached the edge of the park.

“Say hello to Bubbles the Clown! Bubbles is playful, Bubbles is great!” There was a muted splooshing noise, and a moment later a bright-green bubble wafted over the little hill ahead and up to the fountain next to me, bursting as soon as it touched the statue of Panopolis’s original Hero, the Spartan, which was set at the very top. I winced as the acid began to eat off his nose.

“Say good-bye to that nasty frown; Bubbles puts kids in a happy state!” This time the song was interrupted by an enormous sob.

I ran over the hill ahead of me, and there he was. Bubbles the Clown, one of Panopolis’s longtime minor celebrities, in his trademark polka-dot onesie. His head was covered with his usual perfectly coiffed, canary-yellow wig, sproingy locks spiraling out in all directions like a cluster of question marks. His white face paint was a mess though, and the red he used on his lips and cheeks was smeared across his face like open wounds. Bubbles was carrying three carefully contained buckets on a belt around his waist, and held in each hand several metal wands with circular hoops at their ends.

And the people in the park were just standing there, watching him release new bubbles into the air. Either they hadn’t realized what the bubbles did, or they were in shock. I yelled ahead to the picnickers, “Clear out! Get away from the clown!”

“It’s Freight Train!” a woman exclaimed.

“Grab your phone,” someone else called. I wanted to smack him, but I had a lot of experience at working crowds at this point. Repetition was key.

“Get away from the park!” As I got within a few dozen meters, Bubbles seemed to snap out of his funk and turned to me. It was hard to tell his expression behind the oversized red nose, but I thought he was angry. He certainly sounded angry.

“Bubbles will sing you the A-B-Cs,” he hissed, dunking one of his wands into the blue bucket. He made a big bubble this time, so big he could—and did—spin a full circle and connect the ends together again, like a bubble donut. It settled onto the ground around him and burst, turning the grass to solid ice.

He plunged the wand into the green bucket next, a furious, frothy dunking. When he withdrew it this time, he’d made a lattice of bubbles in the hoop, and blew them straight at me, tiny and impossible to dodge completely. “Bubbles will teach you the 1-2-3s!”

“Shit,” was all I had time to say before the bubbles reached me. I held my makeshift shield out, but the first few ate right through it, and the rest glommed onto me and burst over my force field like huge drops of acid rain. Someone screamed.

They did nothing except eat into my uniform, of course. The acid melted away, its residue pooling at my feet like my own personal toxic-waste dump. Bits of blue fabric drifted in the goo for a moment before they vanished. I stepped to the side to save my boots from completely disintegrating.

At least the bubbles had missed my crotch. I didn’t want to be photographed naked in the middle of a fight. Again.

“Ooh, thanks for taking the brunt of that,” Mr. Fabulous said as he sauntered up next to me, finally un-pinked. “I think it’s time to get rid of this clown, don’t you?” He smiled and waved at the growing crowd. “Shall I take this Villain down a peg or two?” he called out.

“You should be getting them away from here, not encouraging them to stay and watch,” I muttered, but Mr. Fabulous ignored me.

“Get him, Fabulous!”

“Oh my god, you look amazing!”

“Can I touch you? Please?”

He winked at the person who’d asked the last question. “Maybe later,” he said, before turning and zipping toward Bubbles the Clown at ten times the speed of a normal person.

Unfortunately for him, it turned out that the ice Bubbles had laid down was extremely slippery, especially when he was going so fast. As soon as Mr. Fabulous hit the frozen grass, his graceful runner’s form turned into an awkward lunge as he tried to stay on his feet. He slid right past Bubbles the Clown, and tripped as soon as his feet hit regular ground again, rolling head over feet across the lawn.

That got some shaky laughs from the observers. More to the point, their laughter got Bubbles’s attention. He turned toward them, malice written in every line of his body. “Bubbles the Clown brings chuckles and joy,” he sang, refilling his left wand with acid green. I gave up on yelling at the crowd to disperse and started for the madman myself, slowly and carefully. Unfortunately, my cautious pace gave him the chance to lay down another wide layer of bubbles around himself with his right hand, this time in pink.

My force field kept things from touching me directly, but that didn’t mean they didn’t affect me at all. If the ground was sticky, then I was going to have to fight to get across it in my boots. And Bubbles seemed to realize that, because he ignored me and blew another round of acid death at the gawkers filming this. The crowd finally began to look up from their filming and back away as the bubbles wobbled in their direction.

“Fuck, just shoot the guy already,” someone yelled shakily.

I would’ve, except that Heroes didn’t use guns. Cops could carry them, but we couldn’t. We were supposed to be above that sort of thing, supposed to use Truth and Justice and whatever power we had at our disposal to apprehend Villains, not kill them. At times like this, that rule really sucked. I churned through the pink muck at my feet, struggling to reach Bubbles before one of his shots got someone in the crowd. Mr. Fabulous was on his feet again and fighting his own way in. Just a bit farther . . .

“Bubbles sings lessons to all girls and boys!” Bubbles the Clown shrieked. “You wanna pay attention to me now, you sorry little shits? After my show got the ax thanks to a lack of viewers? Screw you!” He raised the wand to his face, inhaled deeply, and then—

Something whipped toward Bubbles from out of the shadows, wrapping twice around his neck before I could do more than blink in surprise. Bubbles dropped both wands and clutched at the thin black cord and its glowing red ends—ends that glowed brighter and brighter . . .

“Everybody get down!” I shouted.

A second later, the ends exploded.

It was a pretty small explosion, all things considered. Just enough to turn Bubbles’s neck to red and white slurry, not enough to destroy his head completely. His body crumpled to the ground, buckets spilling out across the grass like the world’s worst Impressionist painting. His head hit a second later, facedown in a green pool. It started to hiss.

“Oh my god, really?” Mr. Fabulous exclaimed. I glanced over and saw him coated with a fine spray of gore, the same that had hit me. Of course, it had sloughed off of me. “Really? This is my day today?” He glared angrily out at the crowd. “Stop filming!”

“Uhm . . .” One of the guys with a camera phone lowered it and looked at us uncertainly. “Which of you guys did that?”

“They didn’t!” The girl who’d wanted to touch Mr. Fabulous was staring raptly at the nearby alley. “It must have been the Mad Bombardier!” There was no one there now, but she was likely right. Bombs of any kind usually meant Raul.

“Bubbles the Clown may have had a point,” Mr. Fabulous grumbled to me as he rubbed a hand over his dripping face. “People have no concept of loyalty.”

I shrugged. “Hey, nobody got hurt.” Except for Bubbles. I’d have to thank Raul, if I ever got out of this pink shit. Sirens were closing in on us now. Hopefully the police had a hazmat team on standby, ’cause we were gonna need one.

“I’m glad you didn’t sign the waiver now, actually; that’s probably the reason the camera crew isn’t working today. It wouldn’t do to have professionals getting this on record.”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded before turning to a bystander, who was creeping awfully close to the rainbow ruin on the ground. “Sir, please step away from the goo.”

“Talk to Ianthe,” was all Mr. Fabulous said as he freed himself from the sticky ground. “She’ll explain it. And you look like you’ve got things well in hand here!” He stretched out cautiously and clapped me on the shoulder. I was decidedly pleased to not be able to feel it. “See you tonight, Freight Train.”

And with that, Mr. Fabulous, that jerk face, walked back the way we’d come, leaving me to handle the crowd and fill in the cops.

At least I had a nice view of his best feature as he abandoned me to the hard part of Heroing.

That’s the honest truth, right there. Fighting? It wasn’t so hard. I mean, I got that it can be for some people, but it wasn’t for me. I was untouchable, literally. Nobody could physically hurt me. Keeping other people from being hurt, though? That was tough work. People were curious: they wanted to watch; they wanted to see what was going on. Wrangling them could be a full-time job, and it was one I hadn’t taken seriously enough for a long time. A lot of Heroes still didn’t give much of a damn, but with public opinion the way it was now, that was slowly changing. You had to attempt to shield the crowd these days, or your sponsors would pitch a fit.

The cops pulled up, sirens blaring and lights flashing, and the gawkers gradually started to disperse. I finally shook myself free of the goop and waited at the edge of the mess, staring at what remained of Bubbles the Clown. At the rate the acid was eating him away, he’d be gone before they could figure out how to contain his chemicals.

“Aw no, Bubbles,” one of the cops said sadly as she walked over. “Poor guy! What happened to him?”

Well, no point in beating around the bush. “He went crazy and started trying to kill a whole bunch of people with acid and―” What was that other stuff? “Maybe some sort of liquid nitrogen compound? Freeze goo, whatever.”

“Freeze. Goo.” The cop looked at me like I was talking a different language. “Bubbles the Clown tried to kill people?”

“Yep.”

“I always knew that clown was bad business,” another cop—Pete Grier, I think we used to work together—said as he came up beside us. “All that singing and cheer and shit? That’s not normal.”

“It was an act; it was part of his show,” the first officer retorted. Her name tag read R. Flanders. “Oh wow, I can hardly believe it. I watched him all the time when I was a kid.” She hummed the melody of his song, and I couldn’t quite keep down my shudder. I’d never hear that song the same way again. “You’re saying he went crazy?”

“I don’t know what happened to him”—although he’d mentioned his show being canceled—“but he was definitely trying to hurt people out here.”

“And he . . . what, tripped and fell in his own goop?”

“The Mad Bombardier blew his head off!” one of the more enthusiastic observers added. “He saved us all!”

Pete’s eyebrows crawled so high they almost disappeared into his hat. “The Bombardier? You serious?”

“Yes! Who else lurks in the shadows dispensing justice against the worst of his own kind?” The girl goggled at us. “Jeez, don’t any of you read SuperTruther? That’s, like, the Mad Bombardier’s calling card.”

“That and the fact that Bubbles’s neck exploded,” I said, not wanting to admit right then that I did follow SuperTruther’s blog. It was a controversial subject. “Someone blew it up, and it wasn’t me.”

“Damn,” Pete said. Both cops had disappointed expressions on their faces. “You let the Bombardier get the drop on you?” Pete shook his head. “What are you Heroes doing, getting beaten to the punch by Villains these days?”

“Was Mastermind with him?” R. Flanders seemed sympathetic. “Did he mind-control you?”

God fucking damn it. That rumor was one of the stupidest things I’d ever told a reporter. “I didn’t see Mastermind,” I said flatly. “And I didn’t see the Mad Bombardier either, but whoever it was killed Bubbles the Clown, and probably saved lives in the process. You guys got a handle on this?”

“Oh, sure.” A hazmat van was pulling up now, spilling people in full-body suits across the pavement as soon as it stopped.

“Great. Then I’m going to head out.”

“New call?”

I shook my head. “I’ve got an appointment.”

I didn’t quite run back to my car, but I wanted to. I was already sick of dealing with people, and it wasn’t even noon yet. I started up my Humvee, which was liberally plastered in GenCorp logos and product ads, and headed for the clinic. I might have business waiting with Ianthe, but first I had to check in with my doctors. It was standard procedure after a run-in with Villains.

GenCorp was my major sponsor. In fact, GenCorp was the major sponsor of close to seventy-five percent of Heroes. They put a lot of time and money into us, including providing apartments, free medical care, a living stipend, and a share of the profits from our merchandise. Not a huge share; I mean, I wasn’t gonna make a mint off the few percent I got from sales of Freight Train dolls and T-shirts, but my bank never yelled at me when I made payments on Memaw’s apartment on top of everything else, so there was that. And the medical care was, unfortunately, not something I’d ever be able to go without at this point. Not until Mastermind and his crew figured out what was going on with my force field.

See, the thing was— The thing was, GenCorp was lying to me. They had been lying to me for years, lying about my force field, about how tough it was to work with, about how they were trying to come up with a cure but nothing yet, so sorry, maybe next month! For years I thought the best they could do, the absolute most they could give me, was the bare minimum to keep me alive. A way to eat, a way to get rid of the evidence afterward, and a way to clean off the worst of my body’s sweat and oil. They made specialized straws to feed me through, imbued with a force field that could penetrate my own. Those things were doled out like they were more precious than diamonds, and for years I swallowed that down. I believed it. I let myself get used to isolation as much as I could, which—

Look, I was a shit, okay? I was so eager for somebody, for anybody, that I acted like a bastard. Before Mastermind was Mastermind, he was just Edward Dinges: nice guy, worked in a bank; I saved his life once. He was grateful, and I was desperate, and I didn’t listen when he said he wasn’t interested in dating me. Even worse, I got my grandmother involved.

Turned out, Edward’s boyfriend was the Mad Bombardier, a notorious Villain who specialized in explosives. When Edward had kicked me to the curb, my memaw, who’d been his neighbor, had handed over the recordings she’d made of him and Raul—yeah, I know, so fuckin’ illegal, but no one cared—to the cops. They’d arrested Edward, and I . . . I hadn’t done anything about it. Didn’t try to stop it, just watched him get found guilty of “aiding and abetting a Villain” and sent to the Abattoir. He got out, but no thanks to me.

Edward had been willing to give me a second chance, though. In exchange for helping him break out of GenCorp’s research facility three months back, Edward had promised to help me discover why GenCorp was giving me the runaround. He’d stolen information off a computer there, said he was going to decrypt it and get back to me.

It was slow going, but I trusted him to keep me in the loop. After all, he’d been the one who discovered GenCorp had so many of the straws that could penetrate my force field, they kept ’em in packs of twenty. They used them to keep me in line, keep me obedient. Keep me desperate for anything they would give me. It had worked for years, and as long as I didn’t know how to make ’em on my own, I was a captive audience. I couldn’t trust GenCorp to have my best interests in mind.

Just because I didn’t trust them, didn’t mean I could ignore them, though. GenCorp had a standard procedure after any Villain interaction, major or minor: you got checked out by medical. I drove over to GenCorp’s newly rebuilt research center, now with reinforced walls and plenty of internal surveillance, something that hadn’t existed before Mastermind’s break-in. As little as they wanted their actions being recorded, they wanted Villains making off with their data even less.

The clinic had a private entrance in the back of the building, with biometric locks designed to let in only GenCorp health workers, registered Heroes, and their next of kin. Too many reporters had tried to con their way in here, and after Mastermind’s break-in, the board had become paranoid.

I walked into the waiting room and up to the front desk. Phyllis stared at me over half-moon spectacles. She’d worked at GenCorp longer than anyone else I knew of, and had long ago stopped being impressed with Heroes, if she ever had been. She was close to my memaw’s age, and filled me with a similar sense of nervousness.

“Hi, Phyllis.”

“Mr. Haney.” Did I mention she knew our real names? And actually used them? No one else on the staff here used mine, despite me asking them to. I’d stopped trying after six months. “I assume you’re here thanks to Bubbles the Clown.”

I winced. “You heard about that, huh?”

“Mr. Richards the younger has already stopped by.”

Zane. Of course he’d been here and gone, he’d booked it from the scene so fast. “Yeah, that’s why I’m here.”

She handed over a clipboard with a single piece of paper on it, and a pen. “You know the drill, Mr. Haney.”

“Yes, ma’am.” It was a reflex, calling scary old ladies “ma’am.” Phyllis just rolled her eyes and shooed me away from her desk.

I sat down and started filling out the Villain Interaction Incident Report form. Time, date, place, name of Villain/s involved, cause of interaction, estimated civilian casualties— At least there were none of those. I did have to think about how to phrase “saved from one Villain by another” without sounding like a complete wuss, though.

“Spartan Park, huh?”

“What?” I started and glanced over at the girl sitting next to me. It took me a second to place her; I hardly ever saw her out of her suit. “Hey, Firebolt.”

“So, Spartan Park got some action today, yeah?” Her tone was casual, but I could practically hear her bones creak from how hard she was twisting her fingers together. “Sounds like it was a rough one.” She eyed my tattered suit with interest. “Was it an isolated incident, you think?”

“Probably.” I mean, as far as I knew, Bubbles had just lost it. “I’m pretty sure it was.”

“Fuck.” She separated her fingers long enough to run one quivering hand through her hair. Firebolt had been a circus performer who did fire-breathing tricks before a bad fuel mix led to her getting an asbestos-coated GI tract. Now she was a Hero, wearing a special flameproof suit and breathing flames out of specially made masks, and going after Villains like an avenging angel. A bright-orange, marshmallow-shaped angel.

She didn’t seem so hot at the moment, though. Her skin was almost gray, and her eyes were bloodshot. She looked like she’d been skipping meals too.

“Why is that bad?” I asked. “Because I’ve gotta say, you don’t seem ready for a fight right now.”

Firebolt’s thin lips twisted unhappily. “I got dropped by TidyWood Stoves.”

“Oh, that sucks.” Getting dropped by a sponsor was bad news. It meant that they thought you’d screwed up so badly that they were better off without you. It meant your brand was going south. And an irretrievably bad brand meant only one thing: termination of employment by the city. If a Hero couldn’t get work in Panopolis, where there was so much Villainy to combat, well . . . the odds of a smaller city hiring them on was next to nil, and the special medical treatment most of us needed to survive was too expensive to pay for out of pocket.

Firebolt had fucked up bad during Mastermind’s bank robbery three months ago, almost roasting the place’s manager alive in the vault. He’d been outspoken against her ever since then, and the networks had been listening, especially in light of Mastermind’s comparatively good press. She sniffed, clearly about two seconds from breaking down.

“Shit. I’m sorry.” It was lame, but I didn’t know what else to say.

“Yeah, me too.” She swallowed hard. “I mean, I get it. I screwed up before, but I need another chance, you know? I need to show my sponsors I can do this, really do it, or― So, look. If you ever need backup on a job, could you give me a call?” Her hand twitched toward mine, not quite close enough to touch, not that it mattered. Her nails were bitten down to the quick. “Because I’ve got to redeem myself soon, or I’m toast.”

“Sure, let me have your number.” I pulled out my phone, then realized that it had fallen victim to an acid bubble. No matter how durable they made the cases, I managed to go through these things like candy. “Damn.”

“Holy crap.” Firebolt stared at the partially disintegrated phone with wide eyes. “Um . . . how about I just write it down for you?” She jotted it on the edge of her paperwork and handed the scrap over to me.

“Great. Do you want mine too?” She nodded, and I rattled the number off for her, which she dutifully wrote down. Weird, I’d expected her to put it straight into her phone. “I’ll see what I can do for you.” Maybe I could put a good word in with my manager. Ray was a corporate hard-ass, but he usually made an effort to accommodate me. “Let me talk to some people.”

“Thanks, Freight Train.” She made an obvious effort to smile. “I appreciate it.”

“No problem.”

“Mr. Haney.” Phyllis interrupted our weird moment, adding a grabby hand gesture. “Your paperwork, please.”

“Right.” I got up to hand it to her just as one of the bright-eyed interns—I didn’t know where GenCorp found them, but they were too cheerful sometimes—led a man in a blue button-down shirt, dark gray slacks, and a gray jacket into the waiting room. He was wearing a visitor’s badge, but the way the intern kept glancing at him like she expected him to bite suggested he wasn’t just here for the tour.

“This is our Hero Health and Wellness Clinic.” She somehow managed to make her quiet murmur carry like she was shouting. “GenCorp is committed to maintaining every aspect of its Heroes’ well-being, with treatments ranging from minor checkups to psychiatric counseling to major surgery. Your department hasn’t historically had a lot of direct contact with the clinic, but personally I find it reassuring that our Heroes are close at hand, especially with madmen like Mastermind running around the city.”

“I’m sure you do.” The guy didn’t bother to lower his own voice, or keep the edge of irritation out of it that was almost everyone’s reaction to prolonged intern exposure. He had a bit of an accent—nothing I could place from just four words—and was tall and lean, maybe three or four inches taller than me. He was also completely bald, with pale-blue eyes slightly magnified by thick, dark-framed glasses. Probably an egghead of some kind; GenCorp had cleaned house after Mastermind’s break-in, so there were a lot of new staff around. There was no way a lanky, bald science geek should be so hot, but just looking at him made me want to bite my lower lip.

“Mr. Haney.”

I reluctantly glanced over at Phyllis before the visitor and I could make eye contact. “Yeah?”

She snapped her fingers. “Paperwork.”

“Right.” I handed it over, and she waved me toward the back.

“You’re in five today. The nurse decided to combine this with your usual appointment.”

Five. Great. Time for my weekly colon cleanse. It was a gross necessity of my life, one mitigated since I’d gone exclusively on a specialized Nutrigro smoothie diet. Now I got all the protein, carbs, and fat I needed in two drinks a day, and the formula was designed to produce very little waste.

The only person who’d ever tasted one of my custom smoothies other than me was Edward, when he’d had me over for dinner once. I’d thought he was going to spit it out on the floor. I couldn’t blame him. The taste definitely took some getting used to. Did I miss cheeseburgers and fries? Shit, did I miss beer? Absolutely. But the smoothie diet was worth it to keep other people out of my ass in the not-fun way.

Not that I’d had the fun way in years. Fuck if I was going to dwell on that now, though.

I headed back to exam room number five, where a nurse was waiting patiently for me. There was a doctor in charge of the clinic, but he was just that: “the doctor.” No name, not that that was unusual with GenCorp’s bigwigs: most of the directors were strictly anonymous, and so was the doctor who supposedly read our reports and supervised GenCorp’s Heroes’ health.

I’d never met the doctor, and I didn’t care to. My post-Villain incident checkups were rote by this point, and the weekly maintenance didn’t take much time. Just a few injections to inhibit the stuff that made me messy—hair growth, sweating, and bad breath, that I knew of—and the other thing, and then I was good to go.

The process was silent and detached, and over in about an hour.

“Everything appears to be normal,” the nurse said, as I stood up and refastened my pants. My uniform used to be one shiny piece, but let’s be honest: nobody looks all that good in a Lycra bodysuit. I much preferred the simple blue pants and long-sleeved shirt that I wore now. Or I would have if they were less in pieces. I needed to remember to stow a change of clothes in the Humvee. “Do you have anything you’d like me to bring to the doctor’s attention, Freight Train?”

“Nope. I’m doing good.”

“I’m glad to hear that. We’ll see you next week, unless you run into another Villain before then.”

Run into. Yeah, like I’d bump shoulders with one while I was out grocery shopping or something. “Sure.”

Firebolt was gone by the time I got back to the waiting room, and so was the newcomer. Too bad; I would have liked to have seen Mister Hot Scientist again. Not talk to him, though; the last thing I needed to do was embarrass myself by opening my dumb mouth. The science staff did so much work to keep us Heroes alive: made medical breakthroughs and came up with shit that probably would have won Nobel Prizes if it weren’t proprietary. Yeah, some of ’em were also lying bastards, but I thought—I hoped—that most of them genuinely cared about their work, and the good stuff it did. Such as keeping a plebe like me alive.

I didn’t deserve to be a Hero, not really. I knew that down to my bones. But I couldn’t help what I’d become, so the least I could do was be a Hero in a decent set of clothes. I’d drop by my apartment and change before I went to see Ianthe.

There were definite perks to being a popular Hero in Panopolis, and one of them was the apartment that GenCorp had fitted me with. I got the whole bottom floor of a building four blocks from GenCorp’s headquarters, which was way more space than I needed. I didn’t have a vintage car collection or a bunch of pre-Raphaelite artwork to house (and if I had to hear about Zane’s goddamn Rossetti again I was going to punch him in the face). So most of my apartment was empty space, a vast cement-floored expanse that I’d bought a Roomba to go wild in. All I required was a bedroom, a fridge for my shakes, a space for my couch and TV, and my home gym. I didn’t work out in public gyms anymore—too many gawkers. People were often surprised that I needed to work to stay in shape. Like having a force field was supposed to bulk up my muscles or something. Ha. Nope. I had a full set of weights and an elliptical machine in my spare room; for some reason, I kept breaking treadmills.

I fastened my three locks, reset the alarm, and checked that the window blinds were down before I let myself relax. There was a lot of money in selling “candid shots” of Heroes to the tabloids, and I’d been in them too often to be casual about it. The last time had been, huh, almost a year ago. It had been a picture of me and Edward in a bookstore, him handing me a novel with a little smile on his face. At first I’d liked that picture, until I’d figured out that his smile was too strained to be genuine. He’d been tolerating me, not liking me. That had been a rough lesson to learn, but I’d gotten it through my thick head eventually.

I stripped out of my holey uniform and dropped it, and my ruined phone, in the trash can, then ambled back to my bedroom and flopped down on my enormous bed, bouncing my ancient stuffed tiger onto the floor. I couldn’t feel the softness of the comforter beneath me, or smell the detergent that I used to enjoy, but I liked the way the bed caught me, a gentle jostle that was the friendliest touch I got most days. I reached over to the bed stand for my backup phone—I went through too many of the things to not keep a backup at home. Plenty of new messages lit up the phone’s display. Shoot. I closed my eyes and lifted it to my ear.

“Hey there, how’s my favorite Hero doing?” Ray’s voice burst through the phone like a firework, bright and loud and always a little shocking. “I saw some amateur video of your tussle this morning—bad luck, huh? I’ll see if I can get it taken down. We don’t need people to see you and Mr. Fabulous being beaten to the punch, am I right? What am I saying, I’m always right.”

His tone went from blithe to serious. “Hey, I set up an appointment for you with Ianthe at four, okay? She’s got paperwork for you to sign. Nothing major, just something that will do wonders for your career if it takes off like I know it will! So make sure you sign it ASAP, FT. Fabulous may be the first from the mark in this new wave, but as soon as people get to know you better, I’m sure there’ll be as much demand for you.”

What the hell is he talking about? I frowned as he finished up.

“Gotta go, contracts to negotiate, people to schmooze! And speaking of schmoozing, you’re expected at GenCorp’s Future Stars of Industry gala tonight, remember? Don’t forget, and don’t try to call in sick; we all know you don’t get sick, buddy. Wear your tux, okay? It’s black tie. Bye for now, FT!”

I’d been working with Ray for close to five years, and he still called me “FT.” Like he couldn’t remember Craig or something. And what the hell was I supposed to be signing, anyway?

The next message was from Ianthe’s office. Excellent, maybe I’d get some answers.

“Craig, this is Viv for Ianthe Delavigne. I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to reschedule your appointment at four today. Ms. Delavigne is unfortunately indisposed.” Damn. That happened a lot with her; hopefully she was okay. “We’ll see you tomorrow at two, if that’s acceptable. Thank you for your understanding.”

Well, Ray would be pissed, and so would Zane, but fuck them. I waited for the next message to start.

“Craig, it’s your memaw.” So it was. “I just saw you on the television. What on earth was that? I thought you took care of the bomb-y guy months ago! You’re not falling back into your bad habits, are you? Remember”—I said the next part with her—“laziness is a recipe for failure.”

She heaved a sigh over the phone. “Don’t be like your father, Craig—my god, the laziness of that man. Your mother wasn’t that bright, but she was so pretty, she could have had almost anyone, you know, and she chose, what, a handyman? She could have had a lawyer! A lawyer, and you know how much money they make—you’re paying yours enough. You know the company will pay for your lawyer if you use one of theirs, don’t you? You could be—”

I deleted the message. I’d heard it all before anyway. Don’t be lazy like your dad, don’t be stupid like your mom, not that you can help it, honey. Yeah, I’d skip that refrain this time around.

The next message was Memaw again. “And I forgot to mention, you’re coming over tomorrow for Sunday dinner. You can tell me about your week. Only the good parts, though.”

I deleted that one too. Like I ever forgot a Sunday dinner.

Two messages from people requesting interviews, both of which were trashed. If people wanted publicity from me, they could get in touch through Ray. That was what he was there for, after all. If this kept up I’d have to change my number again. The last message began to play.

“Hi, Craig, it’s your friend from down the road.” My breath caught in my throat, and I had to actively stop myself from gripping the phone so hard I crushed it. “I was just calling to let you know your cat’s gotten out again. Maybe you could come pick it up later tonight? Tomorrow night’s okay too, if that works better. I’m in Apartment Three. Thanks, see you soon!” Edward’s message ended, and I exhaled slowly.

I hadn’t had a pet in years. The cat was a code. He had news for me, hopefully about the information he’d stolen from GenCorp that he’d been trying to decrypt ever since. “Apartment Three” meant he’d be in the third safe house I was acquainted with, a place well outside of Z Street territory but nowhere near the Hero-heavy downtown. I glanced at the time. Shit, was it only one in the afternoon? I didn’t want to wait another ten hours for—

Wait, no. I had the gala to go to. And Ray wasn’t gonna let me off easy, either; if I showed up, then I was going to have to stay the whole time. Which meant I wasn’t going to get out of it in time to meet with Edward tonight. I groaned and slapped a hand over my eyes.

I was over Edward, I was. So what if he was one of the only people who ever used my name or was nice to me without fawning over me? He was incredibly, completely, and absolutely off-limits. Raul had made that clear to me, not that he’d needed to. I might be kind of slow, but I learned from my mistakes. The elaborate and detailed threat from the Mad Bombardier on how he would destroy me, force field or not, had been unnecessary. And a little frightening.

I glanced at the clock again. No meeting with Ianthe, no meeting with Edward . . . and I wasn’t about to go over to Memaw’s until tomorrow. Looked like I had time for a workout, and a few episodes of The Blue Planet before I’d need to start getting ready for the party. Nothing like David Attenborough to chill out to after such a frustrating morning.

 

Chapter Two

Ah, the glitterati of Panopolis. It’s a combination of minor celebrities shoring up their support from the dark-suited movers and shakers, corporate businesspeople, and Heroes. Throw a bunch of plus ones looking to climb the social ladder in there, and I can safely say that I’ve never seen so many bloodless battles play out in a single room.

I wish I could compare the process to chess, or even checkers, but it’s more like a game of shuffleboard. Everybody’s slinging their weight around, trying to knock themselves into a better position by taking out someone else. Whoever hosts the event gets to do the mental math of winners versus losers at the end of the night, and the prize is increased invitations, increased access, increased influence.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall during one of these affairs . . .

***

You know those dreams where you’re doing something and everyone is staring at you, and you have no idea what’s wrong? And nobody will tell you, and there’s no door that’ll let you leave—they just all lead back to the same place? That was what my social obligations for GenCorp felt like to me: an inescapable maze of people I didn’t know giving me attention I didn’t want. Some of them I could beg off of, but tonight? Tonight it was all hands on deck.

Here was the thing about public events: I actually liked them. No, honest—I liked getting to be Freight Train for events like ribbon cuttings or dedications or, y’know, Hero Day at the local zoo. People know what to expect from me when I’m in uniform, and I know how to give it to them. It’s not all kissing babies and shaking hands, but getting to sign autographs for kids who come over dressed up like me is always pretty cool.

Private events, on the other hand . . . ugh. They meant playing by a bunch of rules I wasn’t comfortable with. I hadn’t grown up going to fancy parties; the fanciest thing I’d been to before I became Freight Train was my high school senior prom, where my date and I had gotten super drunk and ended up vomiting side by side behind the auditorium before we ever got around to kissing, much less actually fooling around. He was so embarrassed he never spoke to me again after that. I think he ended up working as a plumber in Spokane.

The point was that it took years before I stopped making a fool out of myself at these parties. All the rules about when to speak, what to say, how to greet people with the appropriate level of politeness, how to excuse myself from the banquet part of the evening without being rude . . . they drove me nuts. Mostly, going to society events had been a crash course in learning to keep my mouth shut. I was there to provide some politician or celebrity or, in this case, corporation with Hero cachet, nothing more.

The Future Stars of Industry gala was GenCorp’s annual party for its investors. GenCorp trotted out their top brass, big brains, and super brawn for the edification of the shareholders, while surrounding their guests with expensive booze and tiny, never-ending appetizers. People flew in from all over the world for this party, to see and be seen, to discuss deals and futures and important stuff, while getting happily soused under the watchful eye of GenCorp.

I wore my only tuxedo, its bow tie tighter than a noose around my neck. It was a few years old by now, but I wasn’t going to waste money on another one. If I was lucky, I’d get called out tonight by a Villain who’d do me a favor and dispose of this damn suit before I had to wear it again. My shiny shoes squeaked slightly as I made my third circuit around the ballroom, exchanging pleasantries with people who had to read my name tag to figure out who I was.

“Ooh, Freight Train, how exciting!” one older man exclaimed. “I saw you on CBS the other day, that thing with the squid? Very impressive!”

“Thank you, sir.” I’d never been happier that I couldn’t be squeezed to death than when that giant squid had reached out of its tank with its tentacles to wrap me up as enthusiastically as a toddler who’d just been introduced to tape.

“It seems like they need to get better security at the zoo,” the woman with him commented. “This is the third time someone’s broken in to experiment on the animals, isn’t it? It’s so sad.”

“Panopolis should designate a Hero for the zoo.” The man stared at me expectantly. “Sound like something you’d be interested in, Freight Train?”

“I . . .” What? What could I say to that? If I said no, then it would come off like I hated animals. If I went with yes, then I was shirking my larger responsibilities. I had no clue who these people were, but I’d been misquoted often enough that I was wary of saying anything that could be taken the wrong way.

“Freight Train, there you are!” Salvation came in the form of a familiar blonde woman with big hair and a gleaming dress. She smiled brightly at the couple beside me, who were clearly as suckered by her razzle-dazzle as everyone was at first. “Do you two mind terribly if I steal him away? I wanted to talk to you about the interview.” She didn’t wait for them to agree, just took me by the arm and pulled me toward the wall.

Jean Parks was one of the few people who never hesitated when it came to touching me, even though she didn’t like the buzz of the force field. It helped that we were old friends, but her tenacity helped even more. She might have been a friend, but she was a reporter first and foremost, and ruthless when it came to sniffing out a story. I didn’t trust her any further than I could throw her, but Jean went easier on me than she could have where I was concerned. Case in point: right now.

“You could have broken that story,” I said as she steered me toward a bunting on the wall. The folds of fabric were thick enough that you could almost disappear back into them if you pushed a little. “‘Freight Train: zoo savior.’ Or maybe ‘Freight Train: animal abandoner.’ Whatever you think makes for a better headline.”

“Oh please.” Jean rolled her eyes and snagged a flute of champagne from a passing waitress. The bubbly gold liquid was the same shade as her dress, and almost as sparkly. “People don’t want to hear about you being a jackass, Craig; you’re Panopolis’s poster child for Heroes. And everybody knows we can’t waste you on securing the zoo. Anyway, a freaking X-ray scanner would catch nine-tenths of what Villains smuggle in there, but the city council says it’s not in the budget.”

“Huh.” That figured. X-ray scanners were practical, and therefore forbidden.

“Yeah, huh.” She took a drink, then sidled closer to me. “While we’re on the subject of Villains, though, I have to ask . . . do you have any idea how I could get in contact with Mastermind?”

I almost choked on air. “What― Why would I know that?”

“You’re his nemesis, aren’t you?” she demanded. “You get called in whenever he’s making trouble! Or, more recently, saving people, cleaning up Z Street—I hear he’s opening a clinic!”

“You follow SuperTruther, don’t you?” SuperTruther was a blogger who made it his—or her, nobody knew—business to dig up the worst of Panopolis’s dirt and spread it around. SuperTruther was on Panopolis PD’s Most Wanted list for espionage, thanks to his almost magical ability to infiltrate places and make contact with people that just shouldn’t be possible. Hell, I was half expecting him to do an exposé on me someday, revealing my unholy alliance with some of our city’s biggest Villains. It was just the kind of sensational story that Jean would probably love to get her hands on, friend or not. “You’re allowed to use SuperTruther as a source?”

She shrugged. “What my boss doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Have you been down there, though? Is it true?”

“I haven’t delved deep enough into Z Street to know.” Plus, I didn’t exactly get weekly updates from Edward. Cleaning up Zosimos Street, the epicenter of Villainous activity in Panopolis, was a process that would take years, and he didn’t seem to have time to send a memo every step of the way. “He has been pretty active down there, though.”

“So he has. One of our most notorious Villains, trying to better his neighborhood.” Jean’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she swirled her champagne. “Or maybe setting up the infrastructure to take it over completely and turn it and all its residents into his slaves.”

“Those are your only options?”

She shrugged. “Those are the only ones that will sell, and that’s the only thing my boss cares about lately. I’d rather peddle the truth, but I can’t do that if I can’t interview the guy.”

“You can’t interview a Villain.”

“Why not?” she demanded. “Mastermind has gone out of his way to ensure the safety of civilians in his conflicts with the establishment. He isn’t going to hurt me, and he’s got such a story to tell! Why wouldn’t he want to do an interview with me? Especially if you were there to facilitate it?” She smiled winsomely at me. “Come on, I know you’ve got a soft spot for the guy. If you could be there to guarantee our safety, to promise a cease-fire for, oh, just a couple of hours? I could have the story of the century!”

If I stared at her any harder, my eyes would fall out. “You’re crazy if you think Edward would trust me for something like that.”

Jean honest-to-God batted her eyelashes at me. “Aw, you still call him ‘Edward’? You’re so cute! See, this is why he would go along with it! Because he probably knows that, deep down inside, you’re a big squishy marshmallow of a man. Do you still keep Tiggles the Tiger next to your pillow?”

“Please shut up,” I moaned. “You promised not to use anything you learned about me when we were kids against me, remember?” Jean had been my neighbor before my folks died. Playdates had happened. Secrets had been learned.

“The sooner you agree to help facilitate an interview, the sooner I’ll stop bringing up your— Oof.” Jean stumbled into my arms, her champagne splashing over the front of my tuxedo. She turned with a snarl to confront the guy who’d just walked into her.

She was beaten to the punch.

“I’m so sorry!” Zane smiled apologetically at her. “I’m afraid I was going too fast. Did any of that get on your dress?”

Jean lost her scowl. I might be her favorite Hero, but Mr. Fabulous wasn’t someone she could afford to snap at. He had just as much influence in the Hero community as I did. More in some ways, since his dad was a member of the city council and had been for decades. “I’m fine. Fortunately Freight Train was here to break my fall and take the brunt of my drink.”

Zane turned his smile on me, and it was way less apologetic now, kind of a smirk. “Good thing you’ve got a force field, then, right?”

“His tuxedo doesn’t have one,” Jean pointed out.

“He hates dressing up anyway, don’t you Freight Train?” He leaned in close to me and whispered, “For fuck’s sake, sign the fucking paperwork already. I’m sick of delaying the shooting schedule!” Then he backed off and turned his charm on Jean again. “Let’s go find you another glass, shall we? And we can talk about mediating that interview you want.”

Jean bit her lip, apparently torn, which was dumb. She didn’t need to worry about me. “Go ahead,” I said. “I’m about to turn into a pumpkin anyway.”

Ten minutes to midnight, and once it was here I was gone—Ray could just suck it. I hadn’t seen him for more than a minute since I first arrived; he was a schmooze machine. Zane got his way and took Jean off on his arm, and I stared down at my sodden tuxedo with a frown.

“It probably won’t stain,” a voice offered from my left. I almost did a double take. I hadn’t even noticed the man standing there, and I definitely had reason to. It was the scientist from earlier, the one who’d been getting the tour. Now he was in a―I think it was a dark-gray suit? I wasn’t quite able to tell until he stepped away from the bunting. Before that it was almost like his head was floating in space above a vaguely man-shaped piece of velvet decor. Weird.

But away from the dark-red decoration, his suit had reasserted itself, as had the gray shirt he wore, and a tie that just barely kept him from being completely monochrome thanks to a faint white pinstripe running through the fabric. His blue eyes seemed bigger when I stood a few feet from him, accentuated by those thick black frames. I couldn’t make myself look away.

I could, however, make myself speak, if only to end the awkward silence that we had going on now. “Yeah, but I kinda wish it would.” I tugged at the shirt a bit. “I’m not a real fan of formal wear.”

“Only politicians and professional sycophants are fans of this sort of formal wear.”

I chuckled. “Yeah?”

I could have smacked myself—“Yeah,” like that was a really intelligent answer, but what the hell. No one came to me expecting rocket science, and I got an answer out of him anyway.

“Indeed. Those people who cling hardest to society’s ideas of formality and decorum are usually those who would rather be judged on their appearance rather than their actions. There’s nothing wrong with looking nice, of course, but I daresay you get more done on a daily basis in your uniform than you ever would in a tuxedo.”

“Well.” I shrugged. “A tuxedo’s not exactly fighting gear.”

“If I recall correctly, Mr. Fabulous fights in a tuxedo.” The man smiled, just barely. “Which do you think that makes him? Politician or sycophant?”

“Ah . . .” I wanted to say “both,” but I wasn’t going to badmouth a fellow Hero to a guy I didn’t even know. “Sorry, what’s your name?”

“No, I apologize for not introducing myself sooner.” He held out a hand. “Ari Mansourian. I’m the new head of GenCorp’s R&D department.”

“Wow, that explains the chameleon suit!” Suave, so suave. I wanted to pull a Wicked Witch and melt into the floor, but Ari seemed pleased.

“Something like that, yes. I saved my newest prototype for social situations I’d rather avoid. It’s amazing how many people will look right past you if you make an effort to blend in.”

“I wish I could wear one of those outfits,” I said wistfully. “But I’m supposed to be seen. I’m Craig Haney. Or, well, Freight Train.” I finally shook his hand, lightly, so the touch wouldn’t shock him too much. “But I guess you already knew that.”

“I did. I’m interested in knowing other things, however.” Instead of letting go of my hand, he brought it closer to his face. “Fascinating. So it doesn’t extend to affect the cloth?”

“Nope.” I let him keep my hand, even though my heart sank a little. Naturally he was more interested in my force field than he was me. He was a scientist.

“But there must be a kinetic element to it, correct? An aspect of the field that shifts within it to make impact easier for you.”

“Um.” Heat bloomed at the base of my neck. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The force field doesn’t only shield you from touch; it facilitates your destructive impact, doesn’t it?” One dark eyebrow rose expectantly. “Otherwise you could bang away at walls all day but never smash through them. Hence, a kinetic component.”

“I have no idea.”

His eyebrows shot up. “You mean you don’t know how your own force field works?”

The heat had completely covered my face by now. “It never came up? I mean, they totally did research when the accident happened, enough to figure out how to keep me alive, but they weren’t wild about answering my questions back then.”

“That’s ridiculous.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “But then, I don’t know why I’m surprised.”

“Yeah.” I rubbed my free hand over the back of my burning neck. “Why would they tell a grunt like me, huh?”

Unexpectedly, Dr. Mansourian shook his head. “That’s not what I meant, not at all. You’re the first person who should be informed of the full import of your abilities. They’re yours. How else will you make informed decisions about your treatment?”

“What treatment?”

He blinked at me. “Everything. Medical, psychological, rehabilitative if you wish it . . . your treatment. I saw you in the clinic earlier today. Weren’t you there for treatment of some kind?”

“Uh . . . yeah? I mean, I go in after a tussle with a Villain, but mostly I just show up there for maintenance.”

“Main-ten-ance.” He cut the word to bits as he spoke it, his tongue sharper than a knife. “What does that mean?”

“You know.” I gestured at myself. “Keeping it clean, mostly.”

Dr. Mansourian frowned. “That sounds rather dissociative.”

What was he talking about? “I go in once a week unless I’ve been in a fight. The rest of the time, I take care of things on my own. I can’t get sick, and they give me stuff to eat that covers all my vitamins and minerals and stuff.” I tried on a smile, just to see if he’d buy it. “It’s fine, really. Sort of ideal, in a way.” I mean, who wanted to get sick? I couldn’t even remember what having the sniffles felt like.

I wanted to remember that.

Dr. Mansourian looked at me for a long time before finally releasing my hand. I hadn’t even realized he was still holding it. Not that I could feel it either way, but it was nice not to have been dropped like a radioactive potato.

“You know, one of my newer areas of research is improvement and streamlining of Hero-adaptive technologies. Giving you better tools to get your job done, that kind of thing,” he clarified when I gave him a blank stare. “I believe the CEO of GenCorp would very much like me to create a fabric that is better able to withstand the destruction you face so often, among other things.”

“Yeah, they’re probably sick of seeing my bare ass make national news.” My blush, which had been receding, flooded back full force. “I mean―”

Dr. Mansourian didn’t seem bothered. “You’re exactly correct. Would you be willing to help me test out some options?”

I knew my mouth was open, but I couldn’t quite force it to shut. “You want me to help you with something science-y? Really?”

“As long as your schedule permits it, of course.” He tilted his head a little as he looked at me, the light playing off his bare scalp. “What do you think?”

“I’d . . .” be cool, be cool, “like that.” I internally wiped my own forehead with relief at not blurting freaking love that, holy shit, are you serious? “Whenever’s good for you.”

“Let’s try for this next week, then, as long as you’re not called away. Say, Monday at noon? I’ll meet you in GenCorp’s lobby.”

“Great.” I could barely believe it. I was going on a science date. Well, not a date, and I wouldn’t be the one doing the science, but still. My inner eight-year-old, the one who wanted to be a marine biologist when he grew up, was doing a happy dance. “Thanks.”

“No, no.” When Dr. Mansourian smiled this time it was wide, his teeth on full display. “Thank you.” 

from Crystals Many Reviewers

I don’t know what kind of magical dust Cari Z sprinkles on her stories to make me want more, but she really needs to keep it up because I am undoubtedly a lifelong fan of this author because of this series! Great job!

from Love Bytes Reviews

Where There’s A Will takes the Panopolis series up several notches and leaves the reader desperate for more.

from Joyfully Jay

Once I started I couldn’t put it down, and loved watching the story unfurl. . . . [A] fantastic addition to the series.

from Delighted Reader

[A] nice blend of gritty action and character development. I would definitely recommend these to folks who enjoy light m/m romance set against a sci-fi world.

from The Jeep Diva

[A]n exciting fast paced read.

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