Professor Devistato hid behind some big bags of cement powder and pondered his next move. The cyborg he'd been fighting through this building seemed to know him, because she'd called him Axel. That was worrying. Then that other woman had attacked, the one in the black hat and cloak.
Black hat and cloak. That meant 'supervillain'. Old school supervillain. Retro.
No time for thinking about fashion. Focus! Where was he? Evidence suggested a hardware shop, but a far bigger hardware shop than He had ever seen. Was he on some sort of giant planet? No, the hardware items were of ordinary size. He looked more closely at the label on a cement bag. It appeared perfectly normal.
He looked at his blaster pistol. Running low on power, and it was the only weapon he had. Damn the luck! They – whoever they were – had taken him while his Plasma Claw was in for repairs. He took a deep breath. He'd been in tighter situations than this. Usually, though, they'd come with a little warning…
Gwen Harper already had her revenge on the Handy Pavilion as well as on Pendleton. Realistically, she should stop faffing about with the cape and hat and go find a new job. Revenge is great, but it doesn't really pay the bills. She should just throw her white mask and broad brimmed hat into the bin, say goodbye to the Phantasm and update her resume. Hell, the deal she'd cut with Ms Shan had included Shan's promise to provide a good reference.
But there were two reasons she could not stop being the Phantasm. One was Christian. Her loyal servant Christian was in the hands of the DIY Barn. If there was anything she could do to free him, she owed him that.
The other was Axel. She may have cut a deal with the Pavilion. She may have her true ears back. But what she didn't have was revenge on Axel. If Fanaka was right, the Axel she and Nalda had been chasing through the Pavilion was Axel's past self, propelled into the present by misguided gnome.
Still, revenge was revenge. One of Axel's superweapons had exploded and scarred her for life. She probably couldn't kill past-Axel without causing some sort of temporal paradox.
But she could certainly kick his ass.
Nalda was detecting a class B temporal disturbance. Probably this was caused by the arrival of past-Axe-Prof-Devistato, but more importantly, it was messing with her mind. Her mind, after all, was nothing but a computer program. A hugely sophisticated program of massive complexity, but in the end a program is a program, a mass of listed strings of cause-and-effect. As a time traveling cyborg from the future she was designed with more than usual flexibility as to the order in which effect follows cause, but there were limits to what she could handle.
Elements of her programs were fighting one another. Past Axel must remain unharmed to prevent temporal paradox. Axel shot at Fanaka! He must die! No, Fanaka was mere flesh. He must be destroyed for the Age of Machine to rise. And what about the Phantasm? She'd tried to harm Nalda's little students. But Ms Shan had ordered that the Phantasm was not to be hurt…
So many conflicting threads of thought fought each other in her electronic brain. Vital internal subroutines intended to harmonise internal conflict were down, all their cycles diverted to keeping temporal paradox away from her core programming.
She looked down at the sawn-off shotgun in her leather-gloved hand, and felt much less confused.
There was something colourful under the pallet opposite Devistato, just visible in the pale light of the full moon filtering through the greasy skylight. He looked around to check that he was unobserved before picking it up. It was part of a box whose label advertised a laser-level checker.
"The future?" Axel muttered. Yes. Yes, that made sense. He'd been working on a device for de-aging the hated Captain Stellar back to babyhood. Perhaps he'd weakened the time barrier while testing it? If so, had these people even brought him there deliberately? He reached for the most used-looking pocket on his utility belt, and retrieved a hip flask from it. It reeked of aniseed and taking a large swallow made him shudder.
Whoever these people were, they were hostile. That was what mattered. Once they were dead, then he could figure out what was what. He climber slowly to his feet, a plan already forming.
A black shape flitted through Nalda's field of vision. The Phantasm. She was a threat/not a threat/next to die. Axel, it was Axel that she had to kill, all humans, no not all…
"100001011!" she shouted, as some force struck her in the upper body. She looked down at her hands, to see that her left arm had been popped out of its socket. Where had the attack come from? She scanned the visible spectrum… nothing… wait! A tiny spark of coherent light. Someone using a laser-based invisibility system? She reached out with her right hand, striking something fleshy. A neck. She had an enemy's neck in her hand. You never forget that feeling.
The air in front of her shimmered like a Christmas tree, and then there was Axel, held off his feet by the throat, a crowbar slipping from his hand.
"I must break you," Nalda said. It was not the sort of thing she usually said, but somehow it felt right.
The Phantasm perched on top of an enormous shelving unit, looking down. Axel was showering sparks from his broken invisibility unit and Nalda was showering sparks from her dislocated shoulder. Gwen had never much cared for Nalda. She wished there was a chandelier to drop on the both of them, but no such luck.
She dropped lightly to the floor. Neither Nalda nor Axel moved. After a moment's thought, she picked up a broom handle from a display and prodded Nalda hard in the hand. Axel fell free, gasping and Nalda staggered backward. What was up with Nalda? Programming glitch?
Did it even matter?
Gwen gave the air a couple of experimental swipes, before stepping up to Axel's prone form.
"Should I hit a man while he's down?" she asked no one in particular.
"Dare I eat a peach?" she added, grinning under her mask. She aimed at Axel's head and the tip of the broom handle whistled as it swung through the air.
In his cell at Long Bay Gaol's supervillain wing, Axel awoke. Must be Autumn. The change in seasons always made the scar next to his eye throb. He sighed and breathed deeply. The gaol was quiet that night. He could hear little but Dr Crocodile in the bunk below, muttering sleeping threats to Aquaticwoman, and the faint crackle of walkie-talkies in the distance. He rolled over to go back to sleep.
He had nearly returned to his dreams when he suddenly sat bolt upright.
"Wait… What scar next to my eye?" he said. "And wait, why am I in prison, anyway?"
"'F course I still hate you," Dr Crocodile muttered, "I j'st think I should menace other superheroines, too."
"Screw this noise," Axel said. "I'm breaking out."