Down on one knee, Dr. Volkow lifted the oddly shaped lid straight up, gingerly, without scraping the insides of the device. He studied the machine’s guts for a moment — skeletal wiring, bright metal, bitter colors — and a light akin glee touched his eyes. He threw his head back with a bark of a laugh.
Eric Hardwood, aka the mostly invulnerable superhero Waveform, watched over the supervillain’s shoulder. “So you can disarm it?”
Volkow set the lid aside. “No.”
“Then why’d you laugh?!”
“Disarmament is one of several options.” Volkow removed a glove and slipped a bare hand carefully through a gap, reaching for something. Thick vine-like cables connected the device to the ground like an octopus to a bivalve, integrated through the concrete and beyond; physically removing it from the Grehill Reactor facility was out of the question.
But options. Options were good.
“Okay, so the other options…” Work quickly, Volkow. Eric glimpsed a wall-mounted clock ticking away in the far corner of the reactor’s auxiliary control room. We have twelve minutes. Anxiously rubbing together gloved hands, he waited for a characteristic long-winded explanation but the villain gave none. “This is the part where you share the options.”
The parka-wearing criminal withdrew from the device a sleek metal disc threaded with wires and fibers. “I stopped by your mother’s to congratulate her on your birthday.”
Droll on reflex, Eric snapped, “Stop buying her flowers!”
Volkow pocketed his glove and fiddled with wires. “You see, that’s like telling someone not to adopt a kitten, or to stop recycling, or to never target pedestrians in crosswalks while operating needlessly dangerous vehicles. But, rest assured, I brought her no flowers this time.”
Eric eyed him. I bet he brought her something else then. “Aloe plant?”
“Ah.” Ivy is cool.
Brows gathering, Volkow tilted his head as he inspected the metal disk more closely. “The front door of her darling home was wide open when I arrived,” he muttered. “Something was burning somewhere, a vacuum cleaner was plugged in with the cord strewn all over the carpet like a complicated trip-fall hazard; not to mention a laundry basket of clean clothes, much of which had fallen out, blocked half of the front hall. Your mother stood in the middle of the living area mesmerized by the Channel 4 news.” He glanced over his shoulder briefly, with pause. “If you’d expected to die, I trust you’ve at least attempted to contact her since then.”
Eric clenched his jaw. He hadn’t.
Volkow continued. “She recognized me as a, er, an acquaintance of yours and demanded an update. At the time I knew nothing of your latest plight, and her own intel was limited because she hadn’t heard from you, thus she made me promise to check up on you. I then resolved the flaming skillet on the stove, made her tea, and left. Mothers are precious. They shouldn’t be kept in suspense.”
Trying vainly to not feel guilty, Eric glued one eye to the ticking clock. Every passing second steeped Eric’s insides with adrenaline. I think I liked him better when he was Neutrino’s self-centered partner, robbing banks with crazy one-of-a-kind weapons that actually hurt me.
“Consider surprising her with a new apron.” Volkow returned the metal disc into the device, easily, like he wasn’t afraid of it, but also like he didn’t know what to do with it. “The one she was wearing belongs in a museum.”
If he takes much longer and can’t prevent the implosion, there won’t be time for him to get out… and he doesn’t usually take this long to do anything. Eric said evenly, “I think you’re wasting time.”
“On the contrary, I’ve added a week to the timer.” Rising, Volkow snatched an old-fashioned red phone from its mount on a nearby wall and dialed a number from memory. “That’ll give you, me, or whoever plenty of time to sort this out. I can’t fully deactivate the device with the present equipment, but neither can Neutrino detonate it remotely. You’re welcome.”
He listened to a voice from the receiver and smiled. “Nancy, dear, it’s Abram. Yes, ma’am…” He flicked a look toward Eric. “He’s right here.”
Volkow extended the phone to the superhero, green eyes cold.
Stuck in a sticky stare-off Eric stiffly accepted the receiver and held it to his ear. “Hello?”
The voice of his mother, Nancy Hardwood, gushed over the line. “Eric! Are you okay?!” She went on a long spiel, weeping and rambling in nervous relief, to which Eric half listened as he watched Volkow return his attention to the device, deep in thought.
Nancy raged with concern. “I want you to introduce me to more of your super-powered friends so I know who to call when I can’t reach you. Don’t get me wrong, I am very, very happy you’re letting me make your birthday dinner tonight — Abram let me know yesterday, sweet man — but I was so worried! Are you sure you’re all right? The news — what they’re saying –.”
“Everything’s fine, Mum,” said Eric, wiping his face. “But I have to go. I’ll talk to you later — wait, dinner? He what? That –”
Volkow leered at him.
“Was absolutely how I planned my evening. I-I… missed your good home cookin’, heh heh… I’ll see you later? Around 6 o’clock? Great, love you.” Hanging the red phone in its matching cradle, he frowned at the turned back of the once-again-preoccupied villain.
My super-powered friends.
He wanted to be angry but, instead, he scratched his head with a gusty sigh. “Whatever you did, tell me it also means we can come and go and that thing won’t go off.”
“It does,” said a voice that belonged to neither Eric nor Volkow. Neutrino, the device’s builder, loomed in the control room entrance at the top of a short stack of metal stairs framed by matching pillars like a black-and-yellow clad thunderhead. “And, while I should be infuriated that my plan has stalled, all is not lost. Blood will still be had.” Drawing a unique pistol, he leveled it in Volkow’s direction. “Starting with you.”