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Things were looking bad. Invading aliens hitting us with overwhelming force, the Chrome Cobra kidnapped, half the heroes in town missing, and we were about to get blown away by the Thrugs' mega-laser. Then there was a huge crash of thunder and everything went white.

My first thought after my vision clears and my ears quit ringing is "Holy crap, the Thrugs are attacking us with giant monsters." My second thought is "Holy crap, I think I know those giant monsters." Which is pretty interesting, 'cause most of these guys look nothing like what they normally should.

It's nice to see Hybrid, Hypothermia, Squid Kid, Gearbox, Wheelman, and Jonni Rotten back in town. I don't even mind seeing Princess Nebula with them. I just wasn't expecting them to be 25-30 feet tall.

Wheelman is the closest to our height. He's almost eight feet tall, but shrinking fast. "Hey, guys, how ya doing?" he says casually. "Wish we'd gotten here a few minutes back, but we all ended up shedding nearly all of Gaia's power while making the transition from Olympus to the corporeal realm."

He pauses and grins at us. "Holy crap, I wish I had a camera," he says. "Your expressions are just priceless."

"Incoming Thrug troops," thunders the immense red and yellow robot that I recognize as the previously short-and-skinny Gearbox. "Sensors also indicate Thrug ship is preparing to fire energy attacks. Deploying forceshield."

A semi-translucent yellow bubble springs up around all of us as the ship fires another huge blast at us. The forceshield doesn't even ripple, and when it finally stops firing, we're surrounded by Thrug infantry who also can't get through the shield.

"Maintaining forceshield," rumbles Gearbox. "But our god-powers are fading. We must act soon if we want to use this advantage."

"Hey, guys, hold position for a bit," yells Wheelman. "We need to make sure everyone is up to speed here."

"Okay, could I just say I understand why I recognize Squid Kid," says Miss Mega in a fairly awed tone. "She has the same creepy monster grin, even if she's unbelievably large and even more tentacley. But how in hell am I able to recognize Hybrid at all? Can anyone explain that to me real quick?"

"Hey, look, it's Miss Mega!" says Princess Nebula. "First time I've ever been taller than you. Can I see if I can punch you all the way through the planet's crust, or just halfway?"

"Be quiet, Nebula," says the gigantic walking iceberg I used to call Hypothermia. "Time is short and getting shorter."

"Right," says Wheelman. "Okay, to make the very long story only a little bit shorter, we had to travel to Olympus and adopt aspects of the Greek gods so we could cut off the mind control signal back here on Earth. However, the extra power everyone got from the gods is going to start wearing off now that we've left Olympus. So point these guys somewhere so they can bust up some Thrugs, alright?"

"Yes, dammit, yes, yes, yes," growls Jonni. Good god, she was always a little scary before, but she's way worse as a 25-foot-tall zombie in black metal armor. "Point me at something. I need to fight something now."

"Well, okay," says Iota. "We're going to need to do enough damage to the big mothership up there to get it to warp out of here and take the rest of the Thrug ships with it."

"And we have to get the Cobra out of there," adds Miss Mega. "They're torturing her in there right now."

"If you guys have that much extra power, it shouldn't take you that long to disable the Thrug ship, right?" asks Star. "As long as you can get through the shields, right?"

"We'll have a problem there," says Defender. "According to the IDP's blueprints on Thrug ships, these guys are way too large to fit into the ship. They could get into the hangar bays, but the other corridors aren't large enough to accommodate them."

"Alright, tell ya what," says Greg. "We'll pop their forcefield and drill you a hole into the ship, then you guys go in, wreck the ship, and get Cobra out."

"Are we going to be able to fly all of us up there?" asks Penitente. "Much less get us all down afterwards? Could I suggest a smaller striketeam instead?"

"Might be for the best," says Wheelman. "The avatars can stay here and distract the Thrugs. Might give a striketeam a better chance at getting inside without being noticed."

"Alright, we need a smaller team to go in and shut the ship down," says Atlas. "Quick suggestions for team composition? Let's not spend a long time arguing -- we need to do this as fast as we can."

"Speed and strength," says Daphne. "That means Atlas, Express, and Miss Mega."

"I think we need Miss Mega on the ground," says Atlas.

"No way," says Mega. "I can tear that ship to ribbons, and I'll be able to bounce anything they shoot at me."

"You can't fly, and I'm faster than you are," Atlas says.

"Oh, come on," she says. "Do you know how much I'd love to be able to punch out a spaceship?"

"I know, but I still think you'll be needed more on the ground," says Atlas. "If the, um, avatars run out of power too quickly, they might end up being vulnerable to any Thrug soldiers out here. You'll need to try to keep them safe. Besides, if we blow up the wrong engines, and the ship ends up crashing, we'll need someone on the ground who could, you know, throw the whole thing into orbit."

"Aww, Atlas," says Miss Mega. "You say the sweetest things."

"This sounds fine to me," I say. "But let's have more than two people up there, please. I don't want just two people trying to take down a giant spaceship."

"Star and Gamma Girl to dish out some damage," says Iota. "Phantasmo to sow some chaos. Have those ghosts block blaster fire, too, Phan."

"You got it," says Phantasmo.

"We'll need Defender to help us navigate up there," says Atlas. "I don't know my way around a Thrug warship, and those blueprints will be a big help."

"Frankly, darlings, I don't think you realize how much the Thrugs hate the Intergalactic Defense Patrol," says Defender. "They have sensors that'll raise alarms the moment I step on board, and they'll hit us with everything they've got. You'll be better off with me on the ground. But if you need navigation assistance..."

A panel morphs open on one of Defender's gloves, and she takes out five small silver and blue earpieces.

"Everyone wear these," she says, handing them out. "I'll be able to track your locations against the flagship specs and tell you how to get to any location aboard the ship. Just have them back before midnight, or they'll all turn into pumpkins."

"Alright, sounds good," says Atlas. "Are we ready to go? Phantasmo, can you carry Express up there?"

"Sure thing," says Phantasmo. Three wispy spirits break away from the swirling haze of ghosts surrounding him, curl around me, and solidify slightly, hoisting me up off the ground.

"Just tell 'em to watch their fingers," I say.

"Don't worry, poltergeists don't have fingers," he replies.

"I thought poltergeists were invisible," I say.

"Oh, yeah," he says. "Girls, watch your fingers."

Man, what is it with us super-people and the banter before a crisis?

"Okay, Wheelman, let's get this show on the road," says Atlas.

"You got it," says Greg. "Guys, feel like popping that forceshield up there and giving these guys an entrance into the ship?"

"Nebula would be the perfect candidate for that," says Hypothermia.

"Let's wait a little longer," says Nebula. "I hear they're torturing the Chrome Cobra."

"Well, if you're not strong enough for that kind of duty, perhaps Gearbox has the necessary firepower."

"Oh, like hell," Nebula snarls as she starts to spark with electricity. "No one has more power than I do. Watch this."

She points all four arms up (while Gearbox opens his force bubble enough to keep the rest of us shielded) and lets loose with a gigantic, sustained lightning blast. It shoots upwards and hits the flagship's forcefield, rippling across the surface of the field until it suddenly splits open and vanishes.

"More power!" Hypothermia shouts in a voice like the roar of the ocean. "Maximum power, Nebula, or you'll never get through the ship's hull!"

Nebula howls angrily and keeps pushing harder. The lightning bolt blasts into the flagship and actually rocks it upwards for a moment before there's the sound of an explosion and a burst of debris dropping from the very bottom of the ship.

"There!" shouts Nebula triumphantly. "There's your entrance! No one else could've -- oh, what the hell?!"

She was shrinking rapidly, dropping from 30 feet tall to 20 to 15 to ten.

"Damn you, Hypothermia!" she shouts. "I could have kept all that extra power for long enough to take over the city!"

"I know, Princess" says Hypo. "Try to keep your head down 'til this is all over. Atlas, you've got your opening into the ship -- take your team and get going!"

The five of us lift off like a shot.

This is actually a new, strange experience for me. I don't think anyone's ever had to take me flying before. I can travel faster than anyone else in town and can even beat flying heroes to the tops of buildings just by taking the stairs. But now, I feel unsteady, maybe a little overwhelmed by the sensations of flight as the city falls away below us and the spaceship looms larger and larger above. It certainly doesn't help that I'm not in control of the travel plans.

"Be calm and relax," purrs a woman's voice seductively in my ear. "We won't let you fall. Pretend you're riding a roller coaster."

"I hate roller coasters," I say a little nervously. "They're too slow. And my vision is fast enough to let me see the rails bend on the curves."

"I'll brook with no talk of 'rails' and 'curves' in my presence, young man," says an older voice nearby. "It is not proper to behave that way around respectable ladies."

"Don't listen to either of them," says another woman's voice. "Just don't start up any of that superspeed movement, okay? You don't want to run the risk of scattering us, do you?"

Hell, no. I don't really relax, but I sure as hell don't move a muscle.

All of us fly up toward the ship, Phantasmo's ghosts deflecting stray energy beams as we go. We fly into a large hole that Nebula had torn into the hull. We settle down into one of the ship's corridors -- the Thrugs are already starting to file in here, attracted by the chaos of Nebula's lightning bolts, but Atlas and Star scatter them with a combination of cosmic blasts and floor-shaking foot-stomps.

There's a crackle from my earpiece. "Everyone's aboard," says Defender. "First, the bad news: I'll have to recommend everyone split up."

"Oh, come on, Defender," says Phantasmo. "Everyone knows you never split the party."

"I don't know anything about your D&D jokes, darling," says Defender. "I am a woman of culture. Now listen, you have three objectives you have to take care of. We need someone to make it to the bridge and put some serious scare into the crew. We need someone to go to the engine room and wreck some but not all of the engines -- need to leave one or two online so they can activate hyperspace and leave Earth. And we need someone to look for Cobra and keep the corridors clear of Thrugs."

"Don't we know where Cobra is?" asks Star. "You've got the blueprints for the ship in your head, right?"

"Unfortunately, shockrippers are officially banned by the Thrugs," says Defender. "Obviously, the Thrug military is ignoring that ban. That means there isn't an official Shockripper Room -- they're keeping it off the grid, and it won't show up on the ship specs."

"Did you say there was good news?" asks Gamma Girl. "I think we could use some good news."

"The good news, dear, is that you won't need my help to find the bridge and engine room," Defender replies. "Casualty rates for the Thrug military are so high, even in peacetime, that they'd never get new soldiers to memorize how to get all over the ship. So as you'll notice, they color-code the floors."

We look down a number of thick colored lines stretching down the corridors.

"Follow the green line to get to the bridge," Defender says in our ears. "Follow the red line to go to the engine room."

"Alright, I guess that'll work," says Atlas. "Star and Phantasmo, you're heading for the engine room. Remember to leave at least two engines undamaged. Gamma Girl, you and me are heading for the bridge. Express, go find Cobra, and see if you can keep the corridors clear -- we don't want to fight our way through waves of Thrug soldiers on our way out."

"One more thing," says Phantasmo. "Ghosts, I need three of you apiece to go with these guys, deflect energy blasts, and help out with any simple tasks they request. Please fasten yourselves to them securely -- I don't want anyone getting separated, lost, and stranded on an alien planet, okay?" As small groups of spirits leave Phantasmo and attach themselves to Atlas, Star, and Gamma Girl, Phantasmo adds, "Super-people, please be nice to my ghosty friends."

"Okay, people, enough chit-chat -- let's go save the day," says Atlas, and we all take off.

I tear down the nearest corridor, delivering a half-dozen punches to every Thrug I come across. I come to the first door and don't even bother trying to open it -- even if it hasn't been programmed to open only for Thrugs, it'd take too damn long to slide open. I just vibrate straight through it. Weapon storage -- not too surprising. I grab a couple blaster pistols, just in case I run into anyone I can't beat up with my fists.

The other four are probably at greater risk of being attacked or shot at by the Thrugs, but I'm willing to bet I've got the most difficult and important job -- I have to find the Chrome Cobra before the others can force the Thrugs to warp-retreat back to their homeworld. If I can't find her, we have to leave her, and I don't want to leave her in the hands of these monsters. So I have to work fast.

On the bright side, I'm pretty damn good at working fast.

I have to search through almost three-quarters of the ship before I find her -- that takes me just over 64 seconds. And I wish I'd run a lot faster now.

I'm not really sure how to describe this shockripper device. It takes up half a room, it needs four different Thrugs to run it, and it involves electricity, knives, a bunch of chemicals, and some kind of sonic noise-blasting machine. And some stuff that seems to fade in and out of existence. Like I said, I don't know how to describe it, and I'm sorry I ever became aware the damned thing existed.

I take out the Thrugs as fast as I can and as hard as I can. I don't even try to shut the machine off -- trying to decipher the control panels of alien species is a sucker's game. Easier to disassemble it at superspeed. So a fifth of a second later, I've got enough of it torn apart to haul the Cobra free.

She's not in the best of shape -- they never really got through her armor, but it's been pretty severely damaged. And she was clearly feeling the effects of whatever the shockripper was doing to her. She's semi-conscious -- really out of it.

I start to check her pulse to try to see if she's got any more severe medical issues, and even with my speed, she still manages to grab my hand and hit me with a submission hold. At the same time, she tries to jam her thumb into my eye. I'm still fast enough to dodge her and get free of the hold, but then she grabs me and judo-throws me into a wall.

Should've known she woulda trained herself on how to fight speedsters.

She's on me before I can even get up, jamming her knee into my lower back and planting the palm of one of her gloves against my temple. I hear a couple clicks and realize she's trying to activate her hard-light weapon systems. I'm damned lucky the Thrugs broke the gloves, or I'd have a hard-light sword through my brain.

"Christ, Cobra, get off me!" I yell. "It's me, Derek! Calm down, dammit!"

She jumps off me suddenly and stammers, "Oh shit, Express! There were all th-these Thrugs everywhere and some kind of machine with knives and s-stuff..."

She starts to keel over, but I'm fast enough to be able to catch her. "Don't worry," I tell her. "We're here to get you outta here and wreck up the Thrug ship. You're gonna be okay, soon as we can get you back down to the ground."

"Sounds really great," she says. "I gotta throw up now."

She lifts the bottom part of her mask, leans over, and pukes all over where my shoes had been a quarter-second ago.

"I could use a glass of water," she says blearily. "And a nap. And a -- and a cheeseburger. With onions."

Good god, I've never seen her this wiped out before. And she still almost killed me less than a minute ago. But I can't just leave her here now. I don't know that she could defend herself. Besides I'm supposed to get her out of here -- I'd be crazy to leave her behind.

"I gotta carry you, Cobra," I say. "You gonna be good with that?"

"Yah, sure, whatever," she replies.

I pick her up in a fireman's carry -- really hoping she doesn't forget who I am while she's in this position. She could do me some serious damage if she decides I'm a Thrug.

"Defender, you there?" I say. "I've got Cobra."

"I heard," says Defender's voice in my ear. "I've already relayed the news to the others. Suggest you move to the engine room and start clearing a path. Remember, follow the red line to get to the engine room and green to the bridge."

So I take off again. No vibrating through walls this time -- can't risk it with a passenger. So I run 'til I find the red line painted on the floor and start following it. I hit every Thrug I find out in the corridor -- Cobra swings a few kicks at some of the Thrugs we pass -- and I try to use the blaster pistols to blow up a few computers and security systems as I go along.

I make it to the engine room after about a second. Star and Phantasmo have already done a great job of wrecking things up. I may not like Star, but there's no way to question how effective cosmic-powered energy blasts are at blowing apart any kind of machinery. Phantasmo's causing less damage to the engines, but he's still more than proving his value here -- there's an army of ghosts blocking blaster fire, throwing Thrug soldiers and technicians around, and just generally causing a lot of mayhem.

I slow down once I get into the engine room, and as soon as Star and Phantasmo see Cobra, they race over.

"How is she?" asks Star.

"Beat up and tortured, but alive," I say. "She still almost killed me when she thought I was a Thrug, so she's probably doing better than we thought."

"How are you doing, Ms. Cobra?" asks Phantasmo. "Anything we can get you?"

She raises her head groggily. "What's Cecil doing here?" she asks. "This isn't a school night for you, is it?"

"Shhhush, ma'am," Phantasmo says nervously.

"Need one of us to carry her?" asks Star.

"Don't worry about me," I say. "I'm strong enough to carry her for a long time yet. Defender told me to head over here. Any idea what's up?"

Defender's voice breaks in. "Sorry, just enjoying the delightful banter between you all," she says. "Actually, just wanted to let you know you've probably done enough damage to the engine room -- head for the bridge. As quickly as possible, please, but don't run off and leave them, Express. Let's avoid having anyone get separated from this point on."

And we're heading back out again. By now, the Thrugs are finally starting to get mobilized. We run into a few large patrols heading for the engine room -- I'd prefer to dodge around them and keep going, but with slower people behind me, that's not an option. Luckily, having Star and Phantasmo around means I have to do a lot less punching. Star blasts a lot of the Thrugs before I even get to them, and Phantasmo's ghosts send even more running in terror.

Still, there's no let-up, and I'm feeling a lot less effective when I have to run this slow. Yeah, I can dish out dozens and dozens of punches without getting tired, but I wish I didn't have to move so slowly.

The crowds of Thrugs get even thicker as we get closer to the bridge. By now, we've got Thrugs chasing after us and Thrugs in front of us trying to get into the bridge. Makes me wish we'd brought more people to help with the fighting. Cobra's starting to perk up more, but I'm sure as hell not letting her down to help -- half of her kicks miss their target completely, and I don't want to risk having her collapse and get trampled in the crush.

We get into the bridge mostly thanks to el Phantasmo having his ghosts squash most of the Thrugs up against the walls so we can get past them. Once we're inside, Atlas barrels past us and throws an armload of Thrug officers out into the hallway. He backs up, and Gamma Girl flash-welds the door closed.

After that, Gamma Girl pulls the Cobra off my shoulders and bear-hugs her.

"Is that you, Mom?" Cobra asks. "Could you make me one of your pastrami meatball sandwiches?"

"Whatever you want, you poor girl," says Gamma Girl. "You know my kids have been begging to have you come over to see 'em again, right?"

So then it's the six of us and the captain of the Thrug ship, a short, bloated lizard with a tall green crest on top of its head. It's about time we got the odds on our side again.

Atlas turns to the Thrug captain and smiles. "Six of us and one of you, asshole. At this point, you beg to surrender to us, right?"

I don't know if the Thrug can even understand him, but he smiles right back, with a lot of needle-sharp teeth, raises his arms in a half-shrug, and nonchalantly presses a button on his wrist.

The whole bridge is filled with noise, intensely painful, cutting through every single thought in my brain. All the strength in my legs just vanishes, and I drop to the floor, along with all the other heroes in the room. Even Phantasmo's ghosts are getting scattered and dissolved by the vibrations.

Hands over my ears, trying to plug the noise out. How could anything hurt the brain so damn much? It's not even all that loud, but it just slices clear into the pain receptors like nothing I've ever felt.

The Thrug captain laughs like a barking seal, strolls back to a weapons cabinet on a nearby wall, and pulls out an ugly, curving hatchet. He walks over toward us, flipping the hatchet from one hand to the other.

The Chrome Cobra stands up.

"You spent an hour shooting that noise into my skull," she says. "And that was combined with electrical shocks, caustic chemicals, and knives. Didn't you think I'd get used to that after a while?"

She punches him hard enough to knock out three teeth, gets him in an armlock, takes the hatchet away, and shuts off the sonic generator on his wrist.

"When you get back home, tell your leaders that we're getting tired of seeing your ugly butts over here," Cobra says while the rest of us are getting back to our feet. "Next time you invade, we'll follow you back and show you what a real invasion looks like."

And after another couple punches in the face and a really hard kick in the chest, she drops the captain to the deck unconscious.

"Let's see whether my Thrug language lessons have paid off," Cobra says. Then she makes a guttural bark and a couple of screeching noises.

"Okay, that should be the command for the ship computer to warp back to the Thrug homeworld in a few minutes," she says. "Now someone catch me so I can pass out." And she falls forward into Atlas' arms.

Defender's voice crackles in our ears. "Did something just go really badly wrong up there?" she asks with a slight edge of panic in her voice.

"I don't think so," says Star. "Why?"

"Well, according to my readings from the flagship, it's going to be launching itself and all of you back to the Thrugworld in about eight seconds."

Oh, hell.

I can absolutely get myself out of here and back to the hole in the ship's hull in less than eight seconds.

I don't actually know how to get from the bridge to the hole, so I'll have to spend some time searching for the right route to take.

By now the corridors outside of the bridge are jam-packed with Thrugs trying to get inside, which will probably slow me down some more.

And there's no way in hell I can carry all five of these people at the same time.


I vibrate through the welded-shut door and through the small army of Thrugs trying to force their way inside. I run down one corridor, down another, down another, run into a dead end, and backtrack. I do that over and over and over...


...and over and over and over...


...and over and over...


I find the hole. It's guarded, of course. About two dozen of them. I bludgeon about 15 of them before I realize I don't have time to waste with this.


I run back to the bridge, following the green line on the floor to make sure I'm taking the direct path back. I vibrate through the Thrugs and the door. I grab Cobra, push her into Star's arms, and yell, "Hold onto her and don't let go!"


I yell at Phantasmo, "Recall all your ghosts now! Don't let any of them let go of you no matter what!"


No more time to explain anything.

I've got to get the welded-shut door open and clear out some of the Thrugs blocking the corridors. So I grab Atlas, hold him in front of me, aim him at the door, and run as fast as I can. This would hurt like hell if I were doing this by myself, and I wouldn't even do much damage to anyone but myself. We hit and dent the holy hell out of the door -- and it still hurts like hell. I drag Atlas back to the opposite wall and take another run at the door with him. It takes six tries to break the door down.

One second.

After that, I run him down the corridors, letting his body knock down anyone in front of us.

Atlas is heavy as hell.

I get him back to the hole in the hull and throw him out, putting enough extra speed into the throw to make sure he'll travel a decent distance away from the ship before it launches itself into space.

Three-quarters of a second.

Back to the bridge. I grab Star and Cobra, run them back through the corridors, and throw them out the hole.

A half-second.

Back to the bridge. I grab Gamma Girl, run her through the ship, throw her out the hole.

A quarter-second.

Back to the bridge. I grab Phantasmo, all his ghosts wrapped around and through him, run them all through the ship, throw them out the hole.

An eighth of a second.

I jump out behind them.


The air around me catches fire, and the atmosphere starts screaming at me. Gravity reverses, normalizes, reverses again, then kicks in twice as hard as normal. All the oxygen in my lungs gets punched out of my lungs.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the mothership is gone, the smaller Thrug ships are seemingly winking out of existence, and there's just Metro City, 2,500 feet below me and falling fast.

It takes all of three seconds for Defender to fly up and catch me, which just makes me wish I'd brought a book to read on the way down.

So yeah, the Earth is saved. There'll probably be a parade sometime next week, special editions of the paper, and all that happy stuff. But for now, we're all on low-key celebrations.

After I check my phone messages and divide them between "Help, there's an alien invasion going on!" and "There's an alien invasion going on, and also, here's something else we legitimately need help with," I swing by Kirby's Grill on 118th. It's a usually deserted hole-in-the-wall, but it's Daphne's favorite burger joint.

We don't have anywhere near the full roster of Metro City heroes tonight. Hypothermia, Atlas, Gamma Girl, and Star have taken off to go hang out with their families. Phantasmo has been ordered home to do schoolwork. Miss Mega is out helping clean up rubble. Iota is out compiling data on the Thrugs. Gearbox, Jonni Rotten, and Penitente are out on patrol.

The rest of us -- me, Chrome Cobra, Daphne, Hybrid, Squid Kid, Wheelman, and Defender -- are all sitting here in Kirby's, just hangin' and shootin' the shit. Hybrid and Squid Kid are back to looking like their old selves and not 20-foot-tall gods. I'm on my 14th beer, but it's damn hard to get drunk when you have a superspeed metabolism.

The Cobra is on her second chili cheeseburger, her mask rolled up to just under her nose so she can eat. She slouches and burps a lot when she eats, which I think I'll chalk up to her still being a little bit delirious.

"I just wish I could remember any of this," says Squid Kid. "How could I miss out on a global mind control scheme, a trip to Olympus, turning into a giant blob monster powered by the gods, and an alien invasion? That's unfair on a cosmic level."

"If it's any comfort, you're probably going to enjoy the best week of your life," says Wheelman. "Anyone who served as an avatar is."

"Why, what's up?" asks Daphne.

"It's just the way it works once you've had a god aspect with you," says Greg. "You get insane levels of power in the godrealm, followed by rapidly declining power back in the corporeal world. After a couple hours, you're back down to your normal self, except for residual divine energy that makes you unusually strong, skilled, and lucky for another seven to ten days."

"Hey, great," says Hybrid. "I should start playing the lottery."

"Well, not so much the lottery," says Greg. "Think a bit more mundane. Cooking the best meal of your life, sinking baskets from half-court, finishing every work or school assignment perfectly, scoring dates with supermodels and movie stars. And trust me, crimefighting is gonna be a breeze for about a week."

"Okay, that's pretty good news," the Cobra says through a mouthful of burger, "But Princess Nebula was an avatar, too. Maybe you shouldn't have let her go."

"We didn't get to consult with you, dear," says Defender. "Because you were dozing and delightfully loopy until we finally got some food in you. Besides, Nebula did get us into the mothership. I was inclined to let her slip away and chalk it up to a temporary amnesty for a temporary ally."

Cobra lets out a mighty burp. "You're paying for my food," she says. "Because I survived the big scary shockripper, and you'll have to tell your pals in the Intergalactic Defense Poopyheads that they're poopyheads."

"Someone get her another order of cheddar peppers," says Lenore. "I wish I had my phone so I could record all this."

"Princess Nebula may be a problem," says Wheelman. "But it may be a few days before she even realizes anything's different -- if she even realizes it at all. I'd plan on allocating a few extra heroes to deal with her next time she puts in an appearance."

"You talk about all this like you've seen it happen before," Hybrid says. "How many of those god-aspected battles have you seen?"

"That was my first one," says Wheelman. "But ya know, I already am god-aspected. And the awesomeness of my daily life compared to the monotonous tedium of everyone else's existence makes me happy every day that I was born the way I am."

Cobra tries to say something through a mouthful of cheeseburger, then gives up and just keeps chewing.

"Nice," I say. "I'm just disappointed I never realized you were a demigod. The winged sandal logo you have on everything should've been a giveaway."

"Ehh, it's not like there are any guidebooks out there about how to recognize a demigod," Greg says. "Though that might change soon. Hybrid, remember us talking about what a rough time children of love gods go through?"

"Yeah, I remember," says Hybrid. "Depressing as hell."

"Well, I've got some good news," says Wheelman. "I had Hypothermia call up one of my cousins -- one of the kids of Asclepius, the god of medicine -- and they're gonna see about putting together a pamphlet on common features of young demigods, to distribute to every pediatrician and youth counselor in the country. Might be able to shop it around to some international health organizations to get the word out farther."

"Oh, that's great!" says Hybrid. "I'll have to tell Jonni -- she'll be, well, she'll be as close to glad as she ever really gets."

"Greg, I'm going to have some of my contacts give you a call," says Defender. "That sounds like the kind of project someone would award grants for."

"Wait, wait, why didn't you ever tell me there were grants to be had?" says Daphne. "I would love to get in on some nice grant action."

"Darling, they don't award grants for private detective work," Defender says. "The people I know tend to award them for science, the arts, charitable work, et cetera."

"As much work as I do for you super-types for free," says Daphne, "I should qualify as a charitable foundation. Send me some names so I can at least fill out some applications. Or have some of those rich tycoons put me on retainer. Rent's comin' due soon, and mama needs some scratch."

"You could register as a full-time superhero," I say. "The government pays you a stipend for that. It isn't a lot, but it helps handle the food and rent bills."

"You'd have to pay me a hell of a lot more than just a stipend, Derek," Daphne says. "And I don't want to be a superhero. Being a professional investigator barely covers the bills -- I'd be crazy to give it up for a weakass government kickback."

"There are other benefits to the job, Daphne," says Squid Kid. "There's helping others, vanquishing evil, and most importantly, getting heaped with adulation everywhere you go."

"I'd rather get paid to help others and vanquish evil," says Daphne. "And some of us don't give a damn for public adulation."

"Psshyeah, right!" Cobra suddenly erupts in a loud, contemptuous bray. "I've seen better acting in Van Damme movies!"

"Okay, Cobra, I think you need to go home and sleep for about 20 hours," says Wheelman. "You're way beyond --"

"You!" Hybrid interrupts. She's standing up, leaning forward, her hands white-knuckling on the edge of the table, staring at the Cobra in astonishment and rage. "You! All along, it was you!"

Cobra looks up at her, suddenly looking surprised, and actually drops the remnants of her cheeseburger. "Wh-What are -- I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Like hell," Hybrid snarls, her eyes yellow and her muzzle and fangs out so fast even I barely see the transformation. Her claws are digging into the wood of the table.

Cobra stands up fast. The rest of us all move fast enough to look like we've rehearsed this stuff. Defender and Daphne move directly in front of Cobra. Squid Kid wraps a couple of tentacles loosely around Hybrid's arms. I'm standing next to her, waiting to see if I'm going to have to take some more drastic action.

Wheelman is the only person who hasn't moved. "Let's everyone stay calm and sit down," he says in as reasonable a tone as he can manage. "I think we could do with another round of beers, right?"

"I don't know what's going on," says Squid Kid quietly. "But let's not do things this way, okay, Hy? Let's remember we're all pals, okay?"

"Cobra, dear, whatever you just said," Defender says tensely. "Please excise it from your vocabulary."

"Don't have time for this," the Cobra says. She turns and sprints for the back exit, kicks the door open, and vanishes into the night.

"What the hell is this all about?" asks Daphne. "Hybrid, what the hell?"

"Come on, Hybrid," I say. "She's gone, so you can settle down. Just settle down, alright?"

Hybrid lets out an angry growl that echoes throughout the grill. Luckily, we're the only customers in here at this time of night, and the barman and waitress finally give up and flee into the kitchen.

"Sshhquiddie, let me go," Hybrid snarls. "Had enough shhoshhhalizhing. Let me go now."

Lenore shrugs. "You're the boss, Hy," she says as she starts uncoiling her tentacles. "Just promise me you'll calm down before you take off some dumb mugger's arm, okay?"

"Pleashhe," Hybrid says as she lopes for the front door. "You know me betterrr than that, don't you?"

She pushes the door open and takes off.

"Goddamn crazy superheroes," says Daphne as she heads back to her seat.

"Why do I feel like I just missed the punchline of a really tasteless joke?" asks Wheelman.

"Shut up, Greg," says Lenore. "What's with you staying back in your chair whenever there's a crisis?"

"Was that a crisis?" asks Greg. "Besides, I already saved the world earlier tonight, remember?"

"This has been a charming evening, darlings," says Defender. "But I think we've traumatized the restaurant staff enough. Could I recommend everyone head for home and get some sleep while I'm negotiating the tip with our much-abused waitress?"

"Love a woman who'll pay the tab," says Wheelman, getting up. "Anyone need a ride home? Or to a cooler bar?"

"Not me," says Daphne, shouldering past us all. "I'm walking back to the office tonight. Need to check up on some cases."

"I'm swinging myself back to the dorms," says Lenore. "Maybe I'll visit some of Hybrid's usual haunts and see if I can get her to tell me what's up."

"Yeah, I'm gonna take a jog around the city and see what's going on before I head home," I say. "Everyone have a great night." And I'm out the door and halfway across the city.

Not really the weirdest day of my life. I ran across the country, got some folks to the hospital, beat up some supervillains, took on a Thrug invasion fleet, and helped save a bunch of my fellow heroes before we got rocketed to a hostile alien world. Definitely not the weirdest day.

Just the weirdest ending to the day.

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