"Jack, are you ready to go?"
Jack startled. He had been staring out the window of the small New York City apartment which he shared with two roomates, Nick and Jane. The three of them were students at NYC College, but were better known to the world as the superheroes Mega Ninja, Mockingbird, and Mr. Macho.
Jack disliked like his superhero name, all the more so because he was scrawny and, let's face it, shy. But as a superhero, it fit him. About a year before the question above was posed, he had started being able to transform into into a tall, muscular man with bulletproof skin and the strength of thirty men. And not scrawny men like Jack, strong ones who went to the gym at least twice a week and used the free weights that make a loud clanging noise when you gratuitously drop them to the ground after a mildly hard set.
He hadn’t even picked the name “Mr. Macho”. One of the first times he was out in his super hero persona stopping crime, a bank robber called him that as an insult. Unfortunately for Jack, the bank manager heard the name and thought that the crook had recognized him. When the story got written up for the local newspaper, the writer, who interviewed the bank manager, referred to Jack as, “Mr. Macho.” Naturally, he couldn't contact Jack to confirm the name, since he had no idea who Jack was or how to get in contact with him. Secret identities are very bad for managing publicity.
Stuck with the name, Jack tried to make the best of it, but what’s the best you can do with a name like Mr Macho?
“I said, are you ready to go out?” Jane repeated.
“Yeah, sorry,” Jack said.
“Preoccupation can be dangerous when fighting crime,” Nick said, “Even for the bulletproof.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jack said. “But we’re not fighting crime right now.”
“That’s my point,” Jane said.
“It’s not like I need to get ready,” Jack said. “Nick is the only one who has to put on a costume.”
“It’s already on underneath my trench coat,” Nick said, “And you know I don’t put on the mask until we’re on the scene.”
“Sorry,” Jack said. “Where are we going to be patrolling?”
“The bank district is always a good place to be,” Jane said.
“It is,” Nick said, “but I was thinking that we should go to the docks for a change. We’ve foiled a lot of bank robberies lately, but it’s been a while since we’ve taken down any drug dealers. And, frankly, ever since people started using debit cards instead of withdrawing cash, the banks have reduced the amount of money they carry on hand and so the bank robbers just don't put as much effort in as they used to. Drug dealers just have better thugs and hardware.”
“I wonder,” Jack said, “if foiling bank robberies actually helps the drug dealers. I mean, what do people use cash for these days other than buying drugs? So by keeping the cash in the banks, are we helping to make it possible for people to buy drugs?”
“I don’t see that it matters,” Nick said. “It’s not our job to run the universe, just to do the right thing. Let’s leave the cosmic balancing to cosmic beings like Archaeon, the Celestial, and Power Pete.”
“I was just wondering,” Jack said. “I wasn’t trying to say we shouldn’t stop bank robberies. I mean the opposite. No matter how fun drug dealers are, we need to keep foiling bank robberies or the drug dealers’ cash supply will dry up.”
“That sounds worse,” Jane said. “I’m not sure that I want to stop bank robberies if that only helps drug dealers.”
“It doesn’t only help drug dealers,” Nick said. “It also helps the banks, their employees, their depositors, and probably somebody else I can’t think of at the moment.”
“Guys, I don’t think there’s any question that we’re going to give up stopping bank robberies entirely,” Jack said. “Our powers a good fit for banks and other commercial buildings, and you know that if we stopped, the Ferocious Five would just take over, and then we’d have to fight the Sewermen.”
“Ugh,” Jane said.
“I dislike stench rats,” Nick said.
“OK, so we’re agreed?” Jack said. “We can go fight some drug dealers tonight, but we’re going to foil at least two more bank robberies this week?”
“We’re agreed,” Jane said.
They filed out the door and into the elevator.
They arrived at the docks half an hour later, as the sun was setting. They found a good spot for observation that left them mostly concealed, and sat down to wait.
“Do you think they’ll be out soon?” Jack said.
“I hope so,” Jane said. “I’ve got an English paper to write due tomorrow.”
“Is it wise to leave it to the last minute?” Nick asked.
“There’s no minute like the last minute,” Jane said.
Nick was formulating a witty comeback when they heard the noise of a car door slamming. They snuck a little closer for a better look. Seven armed men, accompanied by one man in a business suit came into view.
“I wonder who they are,” Jack whispered.
“Who knows,” Jane said. “There are so many gangs these days, and they’re always merging, splitting up, and reforming. They’re like third tier rock groups.”
“Or sometimes pick-up basketball games,” Nick said. “I’ve heard of craig’s list ads for thugs for just one day.”
“I wonder how well that works,” Jack said.
“And whether any of them are placed by actual criminals,” Jane said.
The man in the suit pulled out a small electronic device, extended some antennas from it, and began to look around with it.
“Homing beacon?” Jack asked.
“That would be clever,” Nick said. “This way the supplier and the dealer never need to meet face-to-face.”
The man in the suit seemed to have locked on to whatever he was tracking, as he walked briskly down the rows of containers. The armed men followed him, weapons at the ready.
“It appears to be time to suit up,” Nick said.
He took his trench coat off, pulled up the neck of his costume, and put on a black metal face mask. It silently grabbed on to the magnetic attachments in the costume and pulled into place.
Jane whispered, “costume.” Her clothes immediately turned white, then melted into a spandex-style unisuit covering her entire body. The only color in her costume was the glassy black over her eyes.
“Do you mind if I hang back and come in from above?” she asked.
“If you like,” the Mega Ninja said.
“Sure,” Jack concurred.
“Wings,” Jane said, and the costume on her fingers extended several feet forming the framework for wings, and then rapidly filled in a film between her hips and the finger struts. She folded them up and tucked them back like a bird’s wing, which is where her superhero name came from.
Jack visualized himself becoming Mr. Macho, and the image of his superhero persona appeared over him, and solidified in a way that doesn’t make much physical sense, but any first-year film student could do in five minutes with free video editing software. Instead of a normal superhero costume, he was wearing a tuxedo. Fortunately, it was a bulletproof tuxedo. So far, it had also turned out to be fireproof, acid-proof, and remarkably comfy when hit with a direct ice blast.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to your transformation sequence,” Mockingbird said.
“Oh, sure,” Mr. Macho replied in a manly baratone, “says the woman who just commanded her alien nanotech space suit to cover her entire body. Because that’s not creepy at all. Especially not that buzzing, slithering sound they make.”
“I may have alien computers crawling up my butt, but you somehow become another person using a bad movie special effect. That’s fine in movies, but this is real life. Even if you don’t use a standard transformation sequence like the Man-Fish, couldn’t you at least use a smoke bomb to cover it over?”
“If I were in public, sure,” Macho Man said, “But I’m with friends, and I thought that this was a safe place.”
“How on earth do you make something that girly sound so manly when you say it?” Mockingbird asked.
“I think it’s time we confronted them,” the Mega Ninja said.
“And since Mockingbird is going to fly in after the shooting starts, and you always step out of the shadows, that means it’s time I confronted them.”
“Nevertheless, it is time,” the Mega Ninja said, and then vanished into the shadows.
“Go get them,” Mockingbird said.
Mr. Macho walked out from their hiding place and directly towards the man in the suit. He didn’t get very far before two of the armed men directed him with the ends of their guns—the dangerous ends, that is, not the flat parts normally held against the shoulder or, if one prefers style to accuracy, the bicep—to stop.
“Good evening,” Mr. Macho said.
The thugs didn’t reply.
“Not paid enough to talk?” Mr. Macho asked.
One of the thugs shook his head no.
“Sorry to hear it,” Mr. Macho said, “I’m sure you’ll get promoted soon.”
The man in the suit walked up.
“Can I help you?” the well-dressed man asked.
“I couldn’t help but notice all of the automatic weapons,” Mr. Macho said. “I don’t suppose that you guys are drug dealers?”
“Sorry,” the man said, “but if you’re looking to score some cocaine, I can’t help you.”
“What about some ecstasy?”
“I can’t help you there either.”
“Could you perhaps supply me with some marijuana?”
“How about an eight ball?”
“I haven’t even heard of that.”
“I’ll admit that I just made that one up.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t have any drugs of any kind I could give you. Not even cigarettes.”
“In that case, what are you smuggling? It’s very hard to imagine what a party of armed men led by someone with a locator sneaking around the cargo crates in the dead of night are doing except smuggling something.”
“Have you considered that we might be federal agents trying to locate a shipment of drugs before the dastardly villains for whom it’s meant find it?”
“Not to steal from a famous movie, but if you’re federal agents, then where are your badges?”
“We could be under cover.”
“Under cover as what?”
“Well, you assumed we were drug dealers, so how about under cover as drug dealers?”
“Then wouldn’t you have said that you were drug dealers when I asked?”
“You could look like my boss, and I wouldn’t lie to him.”
“I’m pretty sure that an undercover agent is supposed to lie in public even to his boss. Besides which, why would your boss ask you for drugs? Wouldn’t he recognize you?”
“Perhaps I’m wearing a flesh mask?”
“Look, we could keep going at this all night. Are you federal agents?”
“No, but we’re also not drug dealers.”
“Then what are you?”
The man pulled a fancy 9mm pistol from his pocket and pointed it straight at Mr. Macho’s face, the red dot from the laser sight resting directly between his eyes. Of course, Mr. Macho couldn’t see the dot there, but that didn’t make the gesture less threatening. Or, rather, it did not diminish the obvious intent to threaten. Being bullet proof tends to lessen how threatened you feel when handguns are aimed at you.
“Weapons smugglers,” the man said. He then added, to his associates, “defensive formation. There’s a good chance he has friends.”
“With enemies like you, I’m not sure I need friends, but indeed I do have some.”
He paused dramatically waiting for Mockingbird and the Mega Ninja to make their entrance, but nothing happened. The well-dressed man looked expectantly and Mr. Macho shrugged his shoulders.
“They don’t always have the best sense of dramatic timing,” he said. “They’d probably call it substance over style, and maybe they even have a point, but frankly, if you’re going to do something, you might as well have fun with it. I mean, if it doesn’t affect how well you do it.”
“Well, yes,” the man replied, “Clearly clowning around to the detriment of your performance is a bad idea. Speaking of which...”
The well dressed man pulled the trigger, and shot Mr. Macho right between the eyes. The bullet bounced off and clattered to the ground a dozen yards into the darkness.
“Ouch,” Mr. Macho said.
“Let’s see how well you do against armor piercing rifle bullets,” the man said, then called out, “Emilio!”
In his experience, rifle bullets wouldn’t penetrate his skin, but they did hurt quite a bit and usually left nasty welts, so Mr. Macho jumped perpendicular to the thug he thought most likely to be called Emilio and at one who was crouched defensively. Unfortunately, his instincts for matching names with faces failed him, and the thug opposite the one he was going for took aim and fired, hitting Mr Macho in a place that, while not strictly unmentionable, was one of the first to become permissible to make reference to without euphemisms during the waves of TV vocabulary deregulation.
“Owwww! Shit that hurt!” Mr. Macho exclaimed. He went flying forward, but at the last moment caught himself, turned his unintentional dive into the pavement into a graceful roll, and in one smooth motion grabbed the rifle from the thug he had jumped at and threw it backwards towards the man he was now certain was called Emilio while using his other hand to punch the now-disarmed thug, knocking him out. Before Emilio could fire a second shot, he was struck by the gun, knocking him over. Two down, seven to go.
At that moment he heard the sound of a gloved hand hitting somebody with the four-point touch of sleep. It wasn't very loud, but it was distinctive. Another one down, he thought. Then he heard the sound of the man crumpling to the ground. OK, now another one down.
He then saw a white flash streak into the light where they were—he had approached the well-dressed man near a street light—and slam into another of the thugs. Four down.
Mockingbird jumped up with the aid of a flap from her wings, avoiding the bullets from two thugs on either side of her. Neither thug was struck, but in both cases it was a close call as evidenced by the screaming in unison of, “Hey! watch where you’re shooting!”
The Mega Ninja took advantage of the momentary confusion to charge up a throwing star with mystic energy and throw it into the thugs who had turned to see whether the recently shouted admonishment might be meant for him. When it hit him, the energy transferred to him in a flash of light, and he joined his colleagues in the land of unintended slumber.
Towards the apex of her jump, Mockingbird flapped to propel herself forwards, then said “wings off; katanas” as she was hurtling through the air towards the nearest adversary.
Since Mr. Macho wasn’t immediately next to any conscious thugs, and figured that between the Mega Ninja and Mockingbird the other thugs had at best seconds left, he ran off in the direction the well dressed man had gone.
About twenty yards ahead, he saw a glowing circle in one of the containers, and the well dressed man pulling something out of it.
“Where are you going?” Mr Macho shouted.
"Me?" the well-dressed man replied. "Nowhere. This guy, though?"
He tossed a large model airplane into the air, and it whoosed out of site into the darkness.
"What was that?" Mr. Macho asked, having stopped right in front of the man.
"Among other things, any evidence there might be against us."
"You're not the police. Presumably you intend to turn us over to the police, but they can only hold us if they have some evidence that we've committed a crime. But there's nothing illegal here."
"What about destruction of private property?"
"What destruction? That hole? We didn't do that. That requires a high powered laser. None of us have one of those."
Mr. Macho stood there, dumb founded.
"You're new at this, arent you?" the well dressed man asked.
Mr. Macho didn't say anything. The sound of battle was over now. Mr. Macho waited for his colleagues to join him, which they did a few seconds later.
"What's going on?" Mockinbird asked.
"He launched whatever it is he came here for on some sort of model airplane. Now we don't have any evidence against him or his thugs, so we can't turn him over to the police," Mr. Macho replied.
"I can fly," Mockingbird said, and gave the command to her suit to activate her wings.
"Now that we're not fighting any more," the well dressed man said, "Perhaps I can save you some trouble. How fast can you fly?"
"I don't know," she said. "I've never clocked myself. Why?"
"Can you beat a Cessna?"
"I've never raced one, but probably not," she admitted.
"The plane which I may or may not have launched is approximately as fast as a Cessna. It's also got a head start, it's painted black, and you don't know which way it's heading-"
"It wen't that way," Mr. Macho interrupted, pointing.
"You're not seriously suggesting that experienced arms dealers would program their recovery vehicle to go in a straight line, are you?" the well dressed man said.
"Well, I was. But now that you say it... I see your point," Mr. Macho said.
"My dear fellow, even inexperienced arms dealers would have their recovery vehicle go in a random direction for a mile or so, then circle around its point of take-off to get onto its proper course. I mean, it's not like we actually build the things ourselves. You can buy them online. There's an entire industry in anti-superhero tech. All businesses face problems and come up with solutions. You're no different to us than Somali pirates are to cargo shipping companies, if you'll pardon the comparison. Obviously we're the ones—allegedly—on the immoral end, but in both cases there are people who use force to take the things we sell while they're in transit. And like them, one of the lessons we've learned is that sometimes it's easier to let yourself be captured. It's not like the pirates can actually run a cargo ship, and you can't put us in prison. You're individually powerful, and flexible because you operate outside the law, but to maintain that flexibility you can't take prisoners yourselves. And in business, like war, it's best to use the enemies' strengths against him. His weaknesses, he can overcome."
The trio visibly slumped. They had been beaten.
"Please don't look so dejected," the well dressed man said. "Look on the bright side. You certainly did a good job with my rent-a-thugs. I'll get the full discount for poor performance from the agency."
"Agency?" the Mega Ninja asked.
"You don't think that we retain a full time staff of thugs, do you? We only need them occasionally. Why would we incur the carrying costs for full time staff when they're only needed a few times a month? We do what all businesses with variable labor requirements do: we get contract staff from an agency. It's significantly more cost effective for us, and since the agency can smooth out the employment cycles of boom-and-bust operations like weapons dealing, it can provide its employees with health insurance, 401k, and so forth, making them a far better employer than any of us would be. As so often happens in capitalism, it's win-win.
"Actually, it provides another benefit, too, which is that since the thugs stay with one employer, it becomes possible to collect data on their performance, then sell their services at an appropriate rate, so that we can choose the level of service we need."
"So you can rent four-star thugs?"
"Not exactly. You identify the sort of superhero attention you're likely to attract, and whether you need to outright beat them or merely stall them for a certain amount of time, and if the latter, for how long. Truth to tell, it gets a bit complicated and there are actuarial tables involved, but the result is that there are performance guarantees versus various levels of superheroes. I'm assuming you can't bench press more than 15,000 pounds?"
"I've never tried," Mr Macho said. "How heavy is that?"
"Very approximately, a large semi truck without its trailer."
"I doubt I could," he said.
"And you, sir..."
"Mega Ninja," the Mega Ninja said.
"Thank you. Mega Ninja, I saw that you can infuse objects with mystic energy to knock someone out. Is that the extend of what the mystic energy does, or can you accelerate objects past 500 feet per second that way?"
"I can only change the effect of hitting, I cannot make objects move."
"OK, good. The thugs I hired should have been able to last at least four full minutes against you. At a minute and a half, I am entitled to a seventy five percent refund. And since I got my cargo safely off, this really was the best possible outcome. I really must thank you. Can I buy you guys a drink or something? You've earned it."
"No thanks," Mockingbird said, not entirely keeping the bitterness out of her voice.
"Buck up, chaps," he said. "There will be other nights, other villains. I'm sure you'll run into drug dealers tomorrow night. They're nowhere near as competent as we are. But please don't spread it around that I said that. They are customers, after all. Good night!"
He tipped his hat to them and walked off. Mockingbird raised a hand as if to restrain him, then just let it drop. The three heroes stood there for most of a minute in silence.
"That went about as badly as it could have," Mr. Macho said.
"They could have also injured us," the Mega Ninja said.
"Speak for yourself," Mr. Macho said. "I've got a welt on my backside that hurts like crazy."
"I'll never figure out how you make such girly stuff sound so manly," Mockingbird said.
"I think it's the baritone," the Mega Ninja said.
"No, it's more than that," Mockingbird said. "There's something in the cadence, and the rise and fall of his tone."
"You know, guys, I'm right here," Mr. Macho said.
"Speaking of which," the Mega Ninja said, "perhaps it's time we disappeared into the night. I've heard stories of superheroes getting blamed for the actions of villains that I would not like to live through."
"I have a paper to write," Mockingbird said.
Mr. Macho simpy nodded.
They each left in their own way, the Mega Ninja disappearing into the shadows, Mockingbird flying off, and Mr. Macho leaping from container pile to container pile. He could comfortably clear about fifty feet in the standing broad jump and since it was night his tuxedo was black, so didn't stand out against the night sky. Not that there was anyone watching, anyway. He made his way to an unobtrusive alley, then turned back into Jack before walking on the busier streets to the rendezvous point. As usual, he was the last to arrive.
The three made their way back to their apartment in silence. The only thing they really wanted to talk about was off limits in public.
When they entered their apartment, they were startled to discover a man in a long coat and fedora sitting on their couch and playing Grand Theft: Auto on their PS3.
"Come in," he said, "and close the door. Archaeon has a mystic quest for you, and my talisman can only prevent eavesdropping in a single room."