“C’mon! Let’s do it!”
The eager hiss of enthusiasm in his tone—the yearning and desire—felt palpable. Almost unbearably intense. Pressuring. Intimidating.
“I don’t know…” I responded uncomfortably.
“C’mon! You know you want to. It’ll be good. I promise,” he urged. “Pleeeeease? For me?”
I fidgeted. “This doesn’t feel right. We’ve been friends. We met in the group. We’ve shared so much in sessions. I mean, I like you. We get along well. But this? This seems like…too much. I think you’re getting too caught up in the stuff we used to talk about in group sessions. You’re attaching too much significance. I don’t think I can do that with you.”
“Why not?” he asked, a hurt wavering just under the surface of his words. A little flutter of offense.
“You’re asking too much.”
“No, I’m asking for what’s right between us.”
“How is this the ‘right’ thing, Josh? How? How is it any more right than just being what we are now? Friends. Why do things have to change?”
“Because we’d be better this way,” he said firmly. “It’s the next level.”
“I dunno…” I whined.
“C’mon! Let’s do it!” he urged once more, the passion in his voice again. “Let’s be arch-nemeses!”
* * *
We’d known each other for a little over a year now; given a shit about each other as friends for the past six or seven. The support group for transhumans had about a dozen regulars who hit almost every session among the 30 or 40 who moved in and out of the group in our time there. Josh and I had started going to the group about the same time—well, he started coming about a week after me. Both of us were regulars.
Neither of us had issues as serious as most of the other regulars. Leslie was a Morphic with scaly green skin. Not a single power that she had ever been able to discover—not that she wanted any. She just wanted to fit in, but puberty brought her lizard flesh right after breasts, pubic hair and pimples. She was 16 and would never be able to fit in again. It was rough on her; she was not only our youngest member but easily our most cluster-fucked. As if 16 wasn’t already hard enough.
A few others like Sean, Janie and Theo also had physical changes that marked them as transhuman. Nothing as dramatic as Leslie’s and they also some powers. Mostly useless, except in Janie’s case—she had an Interfacer ability that could make you feel like ants were crawling all over you. Great if you wanted to get rid of a creepy or annoying date or something, but she didn’t much like having hair the texture of wet spaghetti noodles—and pastel blue at that. She wore wigs most of the time, but they didn’t fit well on her and you could just see the lumpiness underneath them if you were paying attention.
Several others looked perfectly normal but had powers that they couldn’t hide or couldn’t control, thus interfering with daily living or causing them to become objects of ridicule or discrimination.
Josh and me—we were lucky. Our powers were mildly cool and significant; it’s just that neither of us felt like we fit in anywhere in life. We weren’t sure we wanted powers and we knew we weren’t going to fit in with hardcore transhumans most likely, and we also weren’t norms. That kind of fucked with both of us. Group helped us sort things out. Gave us a sense of belonging.
We weren’t misfits there. Or at least we were misfits among other misfits. Away from sessions, we bonded over not just being more than human and less than amazingly transhuman but also over music, junk food, movies—and tennis, of all things.
But shit. Arch-nemeses? Josh wanted us to costume up. Not just costume up, but for one of us to be a hero and one of us to be a villain. What. The. Fuck.
* * *
“How is this supposed to work,” I sighed heavily. “And what possible benefit can this be to us—to me, for that matter?”
“What do you mean: How is it supposed to work?” Josh responded, throwing a question to my questions. “We get costumes. I be the bad buy; you be the hero. We mix it up occasionally.”
“We’re friends, Josh. This would mean ending our friendship.”
He laughed so suddenly and harshly it caught me off-guard. I think it did the same for him, as the guffaws quickly turned to a coughing fit. Once he got himself back together, he dabbed tears from the corner of each eye.
“You don’t get it, do you? Really. You don’t get it,” he said in his best-worst imitation of an exasperated schoolteacher. “Look. I do some crimes. Small stuff, medium stuff—but nobody gets hurt stuff. From time to time, you show up. Sometimes I win, and get away with the loot. Sometimes you win, and I don’t, or I don’t get away with much. But I always get away. You never actually catch me. You thwart me. We give people a show. I give you a cut of the action.”
“Ahhhhhh,” I sighed lightly. “Now I see what you’re driving at. OK. But, aside from a lot of risks and dangers I see here, why you the villain and me the hero? If anything, I’m the more morally fluid of the two of us. You’re more the nice guy.”
“Exactly. I’m kinda sick of being the nice guy and would like a break from that shit sometimes. I’d also like some extra money. And your…moral fluidity…means you won’t just turn your nose up at this kind of venture. I can already see the wheels turning in your head.”
“Allright. I admit you have me thinking,” I answered, “but I’m also thinking about the risks. You commit crimes, you attract cops. Worse yet, you attract white-hat transhumans who might seriously hurt you or at least get you taken into custody by the police.”
“And that’s where you come in,” he countered. “I do a few little nothing jobs that don’t attract much attention and don’t put me at much risk. Then you come on the scene to become my nemesis. You keep showing up every few times I pull a job, the cops are going to just let it be for the most part because they have enough to do. If you’re sitting on my ass—or so they think—they’re going to get complacent and spend time on the bigger, more important fish. Other transhumans have enough on their plates as well and if you and I already have a confrontational thing going, they let us continue it.”
“What makes you figure that?”
“A psych class I took in college on transhuman psychology. A lot of the costumes who are most touched in the head dig on nemesis relationships and establish them early and stay loyal to the few enemies they have. They don’t stray much. And a lot of heroes are fixated on certain types of crime, especially people at risk or being hurt.”
“I think,” I said, drawing out my words slowly, “that you may be oversimplifying things a bit. Transhumans aren’t cookie-cutter people any more than norms are—or low-level trans folks like us.”
“And that’s why we plan this shit out carefully and keep it so that it’s not attractive to white hats and not imperative for cops to respond to. And you make it clear that you’re working hard to keep me from criminal success and eventually take me in. Hell, I even have names for us. I’ll be Id and you’ll be SuperEgo.”
* * *
Clearly Josh had done the Cliff’s Notes version of his psych classes. Hell, I wasn’t even all that confident enough people would have enough rudimentary knowledge of Freud’s theories to even know what the id and super-ego were.
People weren’t going to have a clue what Josh was and a lot of them were going to assume I was SuperConceitedPerson instead of the embodiment of morality serving as the foil to the embodiment of self-gratification.
But hey, he had some good points, and I guess after being in group for a while, I was getting kind of tired of whining about how I didn’t fit into the norm world or the transhuman one. Why not just do both?
As for fighting, Josh was a Morph. He could make these spiky protrusions that looked wicked as hell but mostly were harmless. I mean, he could make them be sharp and potentially harmful, but that took a lot of concentration and he couldn’t make as many pop up. He could make it look like he was dangerous as hell, we could fight, and his “spikes” could bend and break against my skin, making it look like I was a Brute—when in fact all I had were mild empathic powers.
However, those empathic powers could help me sense if there was any malice directed our way, so we could hopefully avoid getting ambushed by cops, transhumans or over-eager civilians.
SuperEgo, though? Man, that sounded almost as stupid as Id. But hell, if this worked, it meant some extra spending money. And no one got hurt.
* * *
“You don’t think it’s a little—contrived?” I challenged Josh. “Id and SuperEgo? A little…I dunno…convenient?”
“Well, that’s the beauty of me doing a few crimes and getting just enough attention for myself,” he offered. “And I’ll call the media; make myself known. No one will give much of a crap about a newbie with no street cred, but it will be enough to make it plausible you fixated on me and named yourself to match my name—or counter it, as it were.”
“There are so many ways this could go wrong,” I moaned. But it was a half-hearted moan, and Josh knew me too well.
“Yeah, but it will be fun as hell, won’t it?”
* * *
It went so well for three months it was almost scary.
No, scratch that. It was scary. Josh’s theories all played out with perfect precision. Hell, I started to wonder if he might have some Psi precognitive powers or was a Brain or something.
We weren’t getting rich by any means, thanks to our “keep it under the radar” policy and our lack of desire to actually hurt anyone. But we were making decent bank in addition to our regular jobs. And this extra stuff was all tax-free. And, for the most part, thefts that were covered by insurance policies. Victimless crimes—or as close as we could manage, anyway.
I was even starting to like my aqua-and-sage bodysuit with the all-white full-head mask. Made me feel cool. Empowered. Sexy, even. Josh didn’t look half-bad in his Id costume, either. Red bodysuit, forest-green vest with “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll” stenciled on it in white, with an all-black full head mask. We weren’t visual mirror images of each other, but in a way, it kind of felt that way.
And all the while, seeming to be adversaries and working like a well-oiled machine. Like we’d been doing it for years.
So well. So smooth. So perfect.
Of course it would have to go to hell, right?
* * *
Id and I had finished yet another job. We’d “fought” and he’d run off with a little under half the ill-gotten gains he’d been going for. I’d surreptitiously snatched up a few leftovers that, of course, everyone would assume had went with him. But overall, it looked like I’d foiled him at least in part.
And now we were meeting in a dark alley to split the proceeds and get ready to go our separate ways. For a little while at least; we’d meet up later for a bite at the Caped Cuisiner, wearing different costumes like so many of the fanboys and fangirls who hung out there hoping to rub elbows with a few real costumed transhumans, whether heroes or villains. You could never be sure who was real or wasn’t in a restaurant like that. It was part of the allure.
Neither Josh nor I expected to have an audience of one at the end of the alley. I had sensed something—predatory—in my mind. We both froze when we saw her and I figured that Josh’s heart rate was at least as overhyped as mine was. Id and SuperEgo seen together. We might actually have to fight a costumed hero.
Or was it a hero?
The woman calmly appraising us was someone I didn’t recognize. I shot a quick glance at Josh and he seemed to understand my intent—maybe it was a little of my empathic powers transmitting my worries to him. He gave me a look that screamed: I don’t know who the hell this is, either.
Our observer smiled and stepped into the alley. Put up her hands in a way that suggested I mean you no harm. But her red eyes seemed to hold some kind of vague threat all the same.
She looked all the part of a Goth wet dream, with powder or foundation that gave her face a very pale look, with heavily kohl-lined eyes—those red, red eyes. A demon crimson that I wasn’t sure was Morphic in nature or colored contacts. Two black circles on each cheek and glossy black lips. From the neck up, looking all the world like some Goth doll or puppet. From the neck down, an outfit that seemed part Catholic schoolgirl from hell and half succubus going to a rave.
The woman tapped one high-heeled red pump-sheathed foot attached to a mesh-nyloned leg. She smiled a smile both warm and cold.
“A bit contrived, don’t you think?” she asked, and that voice seemed to fill not only my ears but every open crevice in my brain. “SuperEgo and Id. Didn’t you think someone might catch on?”
Josh’s mouth hung slack and he managed an “Um” before he said lamely, “What do you mean?”
We couldn’t look weak; not now. “Who are you?” I demanded, though I realized my voice was sluggish and low. Much like my thoughts. But those at least were beginning to clear now.
“Now, now,” the strange woman chided, and I felt that clarity shatter as her voice hit all the right notes to make me do nothing but listen attentively. “Let’s not play dumb, Id. And SuperEgo, that’s all right. My name is Caterwaul. I’m an associate of Janus and Underworld, and I just want to get to know you both a little better.”
I saw Josh lick his lips and blink almost sleepily. At the “a little better” part, I swore I saw his eyes light up with desire.
“Man, you’re hot, Caterwaul,” he said in a near-stutter. “Oh, God, I’m sorry. I don’t want to offend someone who…”
“No offense taken,” came the silken reply. “I might let a costumed guy of a certain persuasion buy me a drink sometime. But I wonder if the surprise under my costume might be too much for him to handle.” At that, Caterwaul thrust her pelvis just a little, but lewdly all the same, and I wondered if I saw a bulge there. I wondered what she—or he?—really wanted with us.
“Why would we warrant your attention?” I asked. “Are we stepping on your bosses’ territory? Are you here to…”
“…hurt you?” Caterwaul offered. “Do I need to?”
Josh and I both shook our heads, though I wasn’t certain if she did need to. Or wanted to. Or what we could do to avoid something like that. She oozed menace even as her voice made me want to sit down in front of her and ask her to just talk to me forever. I wanted to have her whisper sweet-anythings in my ear—and I’m not even into women.
“Territory,” Caterwaul said. “Well, one could say that all of New Judah is the territory of Janus and my lovely boss Underworld. One could say you owe us a cut of your action.”
It all clicked into place. Then again, Caterwaul had made it pretty obvious even to my semi-addled brain.
“We don’t make all that much,” I said unsteadily. “I mean, maybe you think we do, but I’m afraid—and I mean literally afraid—that even if we handed the whole amount of tonight’s take you’d be offended.”
“Ten percent will be fine,” Caterwaul said. “Now and in the future. Here’s a card. You can call it to get more instructions on where to put the current and future tributes to Janus and Underworld. We’ll do the honor system—for now. Hopefully we can keep it that way. You’d be surprised how much money adds up when you have enough small-timers in a giving mood.”
I took the card with a trembling hand, and shivered in I don’t know what kind of emotion as Caterwaul’s fingers lightly grazed mine.
“Ta-ta now,” she said, and turned sharply on one scarlet heel to stride away, hips swaying languidly.
I looked at Josh. He stared back helplessly, the nerdy good boy at the fore. Confused and uncertain now.
“We can’t go back now,” I said. “I don’t think that not producing income for them is going to be good for our health.”
* * *
It was scary, those next three jobs, even if they were lower-key and safer than the three before. We were shaken to the core. Uneasy. Nervous. Bad combination for pulling off flawless crimes and performances.
But we got our rhythm back. We found the joy. And ten percent wasn’t the worst thing in the world. We stepped up our game for the next couple jobs. We were back.
But, you know, some things aren’t meant to last.
* * *
“A bit contrived, don’t you think?”
The words sent a chill up my spine. Exactly the ones Caterwaul had said before. Burned into my mind. But this time a man’s voice.
A man all in black. Black mask that was almost a helmet, with no eye holes and no features except a red question mark over his mouth. His leather duster billowed slightly with a gust of wind.
One of the heroes you least wanted to be known by. Not the most violent, but the one who seemed to have eyes everywhere in the city and have agendas mostly his own.
“Oh, God,” I moaned.
“Relax,” he said. “Or try to. You two are stupid as hell doing this, and it’s going to end in tears one day. Frankly, I don’t have time or inclination to bust you for your small-time shit. You keep not hurting people, I keep not caring much. Except for one little thing. Your work is going to put you in contact with information and people. I’m going to expect to hear some of that information from you. That will keep you out of jail—at least as far as I’m concerned. Here’s a card with a number. Use it. If not often, at least enough to let me know you’re serious about remaining free birds.”
I took yet another card, with fingers just as jittery.
And yet another costumed transhuman walked away from us leaving nothing behind but demands and ultimatums.
I looked at Josh—at Id. He looked at me—SuperEgo.
We were now on the hook to the toughest villains in the city and to the most mysterious hero in it. Two fake nemeses who had to produce assets for some very real ones.
How long before those interests collided?
How long before one or the other knew we were working for the enemy?
It was going to be a while before we found our rhythm again. We would. I was sure of it. We were survivors now. Veterans.
We were also well and truly screwed.