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Authors: Robert T. Jeschonek

Forced Retirement

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Forced Retirement

By

Robert T. Jeschonek

Hericane was pursued by her murderously psychotic super hero father, Epitome, for over an hour before she finally realized that he thought he was chasing himself.

It was something he said that finally tipped her off, and it was not exactly hard to interpret. “You don’t think I’ll kill you because you’re
me
?” he screamed as he flew after her at lightning speed. “Then you’re
dead
wrong
!”

This just brought up another question. Instead of asking herself, “Why is my father trying to kill me?” Hericane now wondered, “Why is my father trying to kill someone he thinks is
himself
?”

She asked herself this question as she felt Epitome’s hand close around her ankle, catching her in mid-flight. As he hurled her out of the sky with a mighty swing, sending her plunging toward the city below.

It was a fall that her cape would not survive. With a great effort, Hericane managed to spin around and shoot back up, narrowly missing the lofty spire of the Scalzi Building...but an antenna on the spire snagged her white cape and ripped it from her shoulders. Not for the first time, she was glad that she had designed the cape as a tearaway piece; otherwise, it might have yanked her back to slam into the building.

The delay from such a collision would have given Epitome that one extra heartbeat he needed to catch up and pounce on her.

As powerful as she was, Hericane knew that once her father pounced on her, she might not survive for long. Hericane was easily one of the five mightiest super-powered people on Earth...but she had had a non-powered mother, so she was one generation diluted from the pure source of her father’s blood. Epitome was the apex of the pyramid, the strongest of the strong, the king of the superhuman gods.

And he had lost his mind. The man who had defeated such super-criminals as Heat Death, RNA, Noble Rot, and the Walking World War had fallen victim to his greatest enemy.

Alzheimer’s disease.

Hericane flew as fast as she could away from the Scalzi Building and her father, though her seventeenth sense alerted her that he was following at high speed. Frantically, she tried to think of a strategy to escape him...but she drew a blank.

As often as she had succeeded in high-stress situations before, whipping the bad guys with ingenious impromptu battle plans, this time was different. This time, her opponent was her father, who was incredibly powerful even at the age of seventy-two...and even if she did come up with a plan to beat him, the last thing that she wanted to do was hurt him.

Hericane’s hands were tied, while Epitome had the complete freedom of a disease which, in him, had led to something like insanity.

A sudden, sharp pain struck the middle of Hericane’s back, knocking her from her beeline flight path. She recognized the effect of Epitome’s “dagger eyes” power, which had already hit her at least ten times that day.

The key to neutralizing “dagger eyes,” she knew, was to break out of Epitome’s line of sight. Hericane did so by flashing down and hard to the left, putting a tall office building between her and her father. The pain stopped immediately.

Spotting an opportunity to escape more than just the “dagger eyes,” Hericane stopped suddenly on the far side of the building and ducked back against the wall. Her costume—-a head-to-toe one-piece with chameleonic properties--immediately changed color and texture to match the brick surface against which she was flattened.

Epitome shot past in a streak of red and gold and kept going, as if Hericane were flying between the skyscrapers somewhere up ahead.

As she watched Epitome fly off, Hericane wanted to let out a big sigh of relief...but she remembered how acute his hearing was and puffed out a few tiny breaths instead.

Hericane was by no means convinced that Epitome would not see through her ruse and come back for her. Nevertheless, she took the opportunity to rest for a moment, regaining her strength while she tried to come up with a plan.

And tried not to think about her roommate, Mardi...otherwise known as the super heroine, Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras, who had taken the first hit when Epitome had blown down the wall of their apartment. Mardi Gras, last seen trapped under debris and bleeding from a head wound.

Mardi Gras, the woman Hericane loved.

Hericane’s stomach twisted, and her heart hammered harder. She had to get back to Mardi fast, had to make sure that she was all right.

But before she could do that, Hericane had to stop her father. If she headed for the apartment, and Epitome followed her, she would just be endangering Mardi further. Mardi’s powers enabled her to bombard people’s senses with riots of noise and color and smell and texture...but indestructible, she was not.

Epitome, on the other hand,
was
indestructible. He had the strength to bench press North America, and he had hair follicles that could jump right off his body and drill through concrete or snip chromosome chains on command. He could fly like a jet fighter plane, just an eyeblink slower than Hericane in his old age. Then there was his trademark “Bonus Round,” an adrenaline-burst crisis state in which he surfed the gamut of way-out powers, a new one every five seconds, as if he were surfing channels on a TV set.

With all that he had going for him, Epitome would have been unstoppable even if he had been in his right mind. Now that he had lost it to Alzheimer’s--or most of it, anyway--Hericane had lost the option of talking sense into him, making him less controllable and more deadly than ever.

Epitome did not even have any weakness, other than whatever had brought on the Alzheimer’s. His enemies had only ever managed to hold him at bay with threats against innocent civilians. Even if Hericane had been willing to employ such threats, she had a strong feeling that they would now be useless against her father. If he was delusional enough to try to kill his own daughter, what were the chances that he would stop his rampage to protect bystanders or hostages?

Not that he had ever seemed to care much for his daughter in the first place.

Hericane detached from the wall and decided to head for help. If she could make it to the Power Structure headquarters in nearby Paratown, the heroes stationed there would surely race to her rescue. Apparently, the heroes who were based in her own home turf of Isosceles City were all away on business or home sick in bed, as none of them had popped up to lend a hand.

Unfortunately, just as Hericane drew a bead on the route that would lead her to Paratown, she heard the telltale nails-on-a-chalkboard screech that heralded her father’s approach.

The screech was a by-product of his use of certain powers simultaneously...in this case, flight and electro-breath. He had tried to have it “fixed” years ago, without success, but the truth was, it never interfered with his crimefighting.

By the time a target heard the screech, it was too late for the target to get out of the way.

This time was no exception for Hericane. Even expecting (dreading) that sound’s recurrence if (when) her father figured out her ruse and doubled back for her, she still did not have time to get out of the way of the bolt of lightning bursting out of Epitome’s wide-open mouth. Even possessing the gifts of super-fast reflexes and high-speed flight, she could not evade the sizzling electrical strike.

Searing current burned through her body like wildfire. Hericane stiffened and dropped like a stone, eyes fixed on the bright blue sky above her as she fell.

She saw her father plunging after her, fists bunched forward and face etched with fierce determination.

Sunlight reflected from his golden breastplate, throwing spots in Hericane’s eyes. She had always thought that the breastplate had made Epitome look noble and powerful, like a Roman centurion...but now, it made him look mechanical and menacing to her.

The red fabric of Epitome’s costume, which once had stretched tightly over bulging muscles, rippled in the wind over his shrunken, old man’s body.

Shrunken, but nearly as powerful as ever. Nearly as deadly.

And his own daughter did not see even the faintest flicker of recognition in his eyes as he glared down at her.

*****

Hericane soon realized that there was a positive side to Epitome’s not remembering anything about her. Thanks to his memory gap, he was not prepared for the super-powered trick or two that she had up her sleeve.

Like the one that she called “the big breakup,” which is what saved her life this time.

Fifty feet or so above the ground, Hericane had the presence of mind to trigger “the big breakup.” In mid-fall, at the flip of a mental switch, she blew her entire body apart into its component cells. A fountain of red and pink leaped upward, streaming around and past plunging Epitome as he howled in surprise and anger.

Epitome was blinded for an instant, which was just long enough for him to crash into the street pavement below. Before he could rocket back out of the impact crater, Hericane’s cells rushed back together, coalescing in their original form, and she bolted off toward Paratown.

As Hericane flashed across Isosceles City, she wondered yet again if Mardi was all right...and she dug deep for ideas on how to deal with Epitome. The only idea that kept coming back to her again and again was that Epitome would be impossible to deal with this time.

Not that that would be any different from any other time.

Hericane had only ever known him to be distant. Cold and remote. At best, he had been an unreadable, occasional presence in her life, unable or unwilling to make any but the most perfunctory connection with her.

She had guessed that it was because of her sexual preference for women, though that would only have applied to her in an obvious way since her teenage years. She did not have a similarly logical reason for why he had acted ambivalently toward her as a child.

Then again, he had not exactly been willing to make connections with anyone else, either. He had always been known as the greatest super-powered hero in the world, but he likewise had a reputation--especially in the hero community--as the unfriendliest guy in the business. He had never gone out of his way to socialize with colleagues or try to improve his image, and he had never seemed to care what anyone thought of him.

The truth was, he had never had to care. He was the mightiest man alive. No one could tell him how to act or what to do.

That was why, at first, Hericane had almost been grateful for the Alzheimer’s. The intermittent memory loss of the disease’s early stages had softened Epitome’s sharp edges, even occasionally made him seem vulnerable. For the first time in years, he had phoned Hericane out of the blue and shown up at her apartment unexpectedly; though he had done so by mistake and had not seemed entirely certain whom he was talking to or visiting, Hericane’s heart had still quickened at the sound and sight of the father who was finally turning to her in his hour of need.

Hericane had not been the only one to notice and appreciate the difference in Epitome. His super-heroic peers had noticed changes in him as well: overt friendliness; eagerness to partner with other heroes for adventures; and an unprecedented (for Epitome) willingness to let others take the lead in dangerous situations. None of this had been characteristic of the old Epitome. Behind his back, people had even joked that they had liked the new Epitome better than the old one...though some had not seen his changes as a laughing matter. Some heroes had realized early on that Alzheimer’s and the mightiest man alive would be a volatile combination.

And they had turned out to be right.

Epitome had begun to have outbursts of anger in public. He had said and done inappropriate things without explanation or apology. He had begun to make mistakes, serious mistakes that would have killed civilians if not for the intervention of other superhuman heroes. Twice, he had forgotten who the bad guys were and had turned against his partners. Beduin, Haiku, and Mr. Séance all had broken limbs to prove it.

By the time that the super community had seen enough and staged an intervention to convince Epitome to retire, it had been too late. He had become almost completely irrational. From the look on his face that day, Hericane had wondered if he had even understood a word that was said to him.

It was then that the super heroes had learned the answer to a question that they had never before thought to ask:

Who can make the most powerful man in the world retire?

Answer: Nobody but the most powerful man in the world.

*****

Since Epitome’s disappearance after the failed intervention, the super heroes had wondered what his next move would be. None of them had guessed that it would be to try to kill his daughter...and that he would seem to think, in some crazy way, that she was him.

Hericane had not guessed it, either...though, today, she had correctly predicted that she had not seen the last of him while slipping out of his crosshairs via “the big breakup.” Even as she had been rocketing toward Paratown, she had known that eventually, Epitome would catch up to her again.

He did so just as Hericane crossed the city limits.

The instant she heard her father’s trademark warning screech, Hericane veered hard to the left. Unfortunately, as always, hearing that screech meant that it was too late to avoid whatever attack it signaled.

This time, the attack came in the form of a nerve-wrecking synaptiquake and a two-fisted sledgehammer blow to her back. As soon as they hit, Hericane screamed in pain and shot straight down like a cannonball dropped from an airplane.

She plunged forty or fifty feet before shaking off the shock and rolling out of her fall. Swooping upward, she sprang into a fighting stance and spun around, looking for her father.

She could not see him anywhere. As she turned and scanned the heights, training all twenty-one senses on her surroundings, she wondered if Epitome had activated his Bonus Round of unpredictable powers, and one of those powers was a stealth mode.

Just as Hericane was thinking that, she felt waves of compressed air buffeting her from behind, pushed ahead of a dozen approaching, airborne objects. She whipped around in time to see twelve bricks hurtling toward her and pulverized each of them with a hyper-fast chop of her hand.

Hericane did not react quickly enough, however, to deflect or dodge the next mass to fly toward her. The bricks had been a diversion.

Epitome came next.

He blasted shoulder-first into her midsection, knocking the wind out of her and blowing her back and down. Before Hericane could catch her breath and retaliate, he slammed her at high speed against what felt like a slab of solid granite.

Then through it.

Looking out from her haze of pain, Hericane saw that Epitome had driven her through a power plant smokestack and kept on going. He was still propelling her backward, toward who knew what obstacles.

Toward who knew what pain.

“I won’t let you kill me!” said Epitome. “I won’t let you do what I did!”

Then, suddenly, the clear blue sky turned psychedelic.

Hericane squinted at the flashbulb bursts of light and the riotous swirls of pulsing color that bloomed all around her. A cacophony of discordant sounds, like an orchestra the size of a city tuning up all at once, exploded from nowhere at what felt like ear-bleed level.

Hericane’s heart pounded, but not from shock or pain. Her heart pounded because she knew at once who was responsible for the chaos.

As Epitome let go of Hericane, snapping his eyes shut and clamping his hands over his ears to try to block the sensory assault, Hericane relaxed and let herself fall.

As she expected, Mardi Gras was there to catch her. Mardi Gras, who had let loose the storm of light and color and sound that had shaken mighty Epitome.

The instant she landed in Mardi’s arms, Hericane threw her own arms around Mardi’s neck and hugged her hard. The bells on Mardi’s red and gold jester’s costume jingled as Hericane squeezed.

“Thank God you’re all right,” Hericane whispered in Mardi’s ear. “I was scared that he’d hurt you.”

“He did,” said Mardi, “but I still got your back, baby. And I got help, too. Look there.”

Hericane turned and followed Mardi’s gaze to a glowing disk of energy that was whirling nearby. As she watched, though the disk was flat, and no one hovered in the air behind it, a black-gloved hand punched out of the disk’s center. The hand was followed by an arm strapped with timepieces from wrist to shoulder, and then a face emerged.

A face that Hericane recognized.

“Overtime!” said Hericane, watching as the familiar costumed hero slid out of the disk. The insignia on his chest was a stylized image of clockwork gears, representing his particular super-powered specialty: time travel.

When a second man began to emerge from the disk after Overtime, however, Hericane did not at first know who he was.

The newcomer was younger than she or Mardi or Overtime...in his early twenties, perhaps. He wore a gleaming white costume with ruby trim and a crimson cape.

The most striking thing about him, though, at first, was his hair. It was bright blonde, shining like spun gold, and cascaded in a perfect, smooth fall all the way to the middle of his muscular back.

“Who’s he?” said Hericane, her eyes glued to the new arrival as he cleared the disk.

“A new recruit,” said Mardi. “Courtesy of Overtime’s latest time-chute. He’s a real Epitome expert, you might say.”

Hericane continued to stare at the long-haired newcomer...and then, suddenly, her attention was snatched away by a familiar blaze of pain in her side. Even as she realized what it was, she knew that there would be worse to come.

When “dagger eyes” struck, she knew that her father would not be far behind.

Sure enough, just as Hericane tried to twist away from the painful beam, Epitome flashed up from below and snatched her from Mardi’s arms like a football. On his way past, Epitome cuffed Mardi on the side of the head, sending her spinning away toward the ground.

As Epitome clasped Hericane against the hard metal of his breastplate and carried her off, she hauled back one fist and hammered it into his jaw with all her strength. Epitome responded with a head butt that knocked Hericane senseless.

As Hericane struggled to regain control of herself, he raised her high overhead. He looked as if he were ready to hurl her to the ground below.

“I won’t let you
kill
me!” he said, visibly shaking. “I won’t let it happen again!”

Then, just as suddenly as Epitome had snatched her from Mardi, someone grabbed Hericane from Epitome.

It was the newcomer who had followed Overtime through the chute. He flashed Hericane a blinding smile as he swept her away from her father.

Though Hericane had thought that he had looked handsome from a distance, she decided that he looked stunning up close. The smile, the bright green eyes, the creamy skin, the golden hair...all of it mingled in artful perfection, as impossibly ideal as a retouched photo or a painting.

He turned to her, and she was lost in his gaze. She was held firmly by his intense personal magnetism...and something else. Only after he had set her down on the roof of a factory where Mardi was waiting did she know what it was.

Familiarity.

The man leaped away before Hericane could say a word to him. He headed straight for Epitome, who hovered some distance away with a frown of deep confusion on his face.

“I know him from somewhere, don’t I?” said Hericane.

“You might say that,” said Mardi Gras.

At that moment, Hericane heard the familiar screech of her father’s powers in action...and everything fell together. Her eyes widened and a chill raced up her spine as she figured out who the long-haired man really was.

Because her seventy-two-year-old father was not the one using his powers at that moment.

But the long-haired newcomer was.

“Oh my God,” Hericane said in a hushed voice. “It’s him.”

Mardi Gras put a hand on Hericane’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Yeah, it is,” she said. “We figured it was the only way.”

“My father’s younger self,” said Hericane. “Overtime brought him from the past.”

Mardi nodded solemnly. “He’s the only one powerful enough to stop Epitome.”

The sky flared as the young Epitome blasted his older counterpart with a bolt of electro-breath. The old man fell back fast, then caught himself and pressed forward against the crackling stream of energy.

The confused look was gone from his face, replaced by grim determination. “How many times have I put you down today,” he snarled, “and you just keep coming back for more.”

Young Epitome cut off his electro-breath to answer. “This is the first time we’ve met,” he said. “You don’t remember because you’re sick.”

When she heard this exchange, Hericane understood another of the day’s mysteries for the first time. Throughout Epitome’s attacks, she had wondered why he had thought she was him...and further, why he was trying to kill her if he believed that she was him.

Now, she knew.

“He never kept pictures around the house,” she said. “I never knew he looked so much like me when he was young.”

“He sure did,” said Mardi.

Hericane nodded slowly. “When he came after me, he didn’t think I was him as he is today,” she said. “He thought I was him from years ago. He remembered coming forward in time as a young man to fight himself as an old man.”

“He knew this would happen all along,” said Mardi, “but he ended up making it happen. By attacking us to try to head it off, he forced us to get help from the only person who could stop him.”

“Himself,” said Hericane.

As she and Mardi watched, old Epitome drove a fist at young Epitome’s stomach, then another at his chin. Both blows glanced off seemingly without impact, as young Epitome hovered calmly in place without so much as a wince.

The next time that old Epitome took a swing, young Epitome caught his fist with one hand and held it effortlessly in place.

“Listen to me,” said young Epitome. “You are sick. You need help. Let me help you.”

Old Epitome struggled against his young counterpart’s grip, working to free his captured hand. “You’re a
liar
,” he said. “You won’t
help
me. I
remember
how this all
ends
.”

“You have
Alzheimer’s disease
,” said young Epitome. “You don’t know
what
you remember anymore.”

“I
remember
!” said old Epitome, still straining to wrench his hand free.

Without a twitch of effort, young Epitome steadily pushed his older self’s fist away from him. “You almost killed your own
daughter
because you thought she was
me
!” he said. “Still think you’re in your right
mind
?”

For an instant, old Epitome looked down at Hericane and Mardi on the factory rooftop. Even from a distance, Hericane thought that she glimpsed a flicker of clarity in his eyes.

Then, it was gone, if it had ever truly been there. Old Epitome started to glow with an aura of hazy, golden light.

“No!” shouted Hericane, launching herself off the rooftop toward the action. “Don’t
do
it, Dad!”

She knew exactly what that golden aura meant.

Old Epitome was not going to surrender. Instead, he was pulling out all the stops.

He was going into the Bonus Round.

So was young Epitome. With his older self activating a rapidly changing sequence of unpredictable powers, what else could he do?

For a moment, the young and old Epitomes hung in the sky, their combined auras swelling and brightening. Then, the auras shifted from gold to red, and the men exploded away from each other.

They charged back together immediately, each glowing with a different light and surging with a different power as the Bonus Round fully engulfed them.

Hericane intended to hurl herself between them and cut the battle short, but Overtime rocketed up to block her path. When Hericane tried to swerve around him, he grabbed hold of her and froze her in place with the Pause Inducer mounted in his gauntlet.

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “That’s a fight you don’t want to be in the middle of.”

Hericane wanted to correct him, tell him that she
had
to try to save her father, but she was on pause and could not speak. All that she could do was watch helplessly as the young and old manifestations of her father battered each other with a stream of destructive powers.

Both Epitomes changed powers in the blink of an eye, switching from one to the next every few seconds. It was a dizzying whirl of fire and ice and cyclones and explosions and body parts that multiplied and distended and vibrated faster than the eye could see. Even Hericane, who knew her father’s abilities well, did not recognize some of the transformations and emissions on display in the heart of the duel.

One man grew to five times his original size, and the other man shot purple rays from his fingertips. Clouds of scalding steam hissed out of one man’s nose, while the other man split into a dozen razor-sharp slices.

While Hericane watched, the two Epitomes flashed from nightmare vision to ink blot blasts, from plague breath to laser fists to slave rays to spike skin. Young Epitome’s limbs disappeared, then punched back in from another dimension, glowing orange and seemingly detached from their owner, to pummel old Epitome from different directions. Old Epitome turned into a sheet of malleable golden metal and wrapped around young Epitome’s head, sealing it in a sphere without a single opening.

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