Axel --or, as he was increasingly thinking of himself 'Old Axel' -- took cover behind a burning Volvo station wagon, and looked down the front of his shirt. He was covered with bruises. Fresh bruises. That wasn't how this was supposed to go down. If young Axel was being injured, old Axel should certainly be seeing new/old scars. It was one of the surest signs of temporal chicanery. But fresh bruises... that made no sense.
He glanced over the top of the car. Mild mannered Jane Nguyen was screaming as she beat a fallen Barnling with a garden rake. A barrage of rockets aimed at Bruce were absorbed by one of Fiona's water spouts. Axel ducked his head down again.
If he'd just been there, doing what was required of him... making super weapons for the Pavilion, then the Barnlings wouldn't have stood a chance. Instead he had ended up in prison. Somehow.
Time! Something was going wrong with time. Well, whatever it was ought to be affecting his memories, too. Axel concentrated, clearing his head of the noises of the battle raging outside and thought back to the day it had all "happened."
Axel didn't work much, in those days. Or, at least he didn't work much at his actual job. He arrived a little before the start of trading, took what materials he required from the shop floor, and retired to what used to be the staff lunch room.
The staff ate outside, these days. The lunch room was for work now. On the Formica table in the middle of the room sat the an extraordinary arrangement of timber and steel, designed to look like a found-material sculpture suitable for a large garden and work like a military-grade automatic weapon.
Fanaka was already hard at work when Axel arrived. He was a brilliant engineer, and Axel appreciated the help. Unfortunately, Fanaka lacked something in a weapon's designer. Killer instinct, perhaps.
(But then, how many people had Axel killed? Really killed, not shrunken or frozen or propelled into another dimension or turned into bandicoots. How many people had he really made run-down-the-curtain-and-joined-the-choir-invisible dead?)
"Hello, Axel," Fanaka said. "Been ironing out some of the kinks in this anti-aircraft gun. Turns out, we were nearly there. Just needed more tension on the occy straps that drive the secondary kerosene pump. But one question..."
"Why do we need an AA gun?"
"There have been reports of gliders," Axel said. "The Barn has been sending them up for low-level night-time surveillance. Cunning. Nalda and I have been running a RF blocking system to prevent them using drones. Gliders, though… silent and easy to miss if you aren't looking for them."
Axel couldn't help noticing the wistful look that crossed Fanaka's face when he mentioned the name 'Nalda'. This was no time for love. The man was soft.
(Axel had worked alone, so he'd definitely never murdered one of his own henchmen just to show how evil he was. Oh, wait… he killed Captain Antarctica that one time, didn't he? But she'd been up and about again in under a month, so probably that didn’t count.)
"You mean to shoot down surveillance gliders?" Fanaka frowned.
"No," Axel said. "Ms Shan has been organising some canvas decoys to feed false information to the glider spies. You know, like that fake army they made in World War II to confuse the Nazis… Oh, sorry. I keep forgetting you come from an alternate timeline."
"I think I know what you mean, though," Fanaka smiled. "We did something similar when we were retaking Ghana during the Third Aztec War."
(Then again, can the love of a man for a killer cyborg from the future ever truly be said to be 'soft'? And surely someone died during one of Axel's crimes. He'd attacked Brisbane with mutant starfish. Twice. That's got to kill somebody.)
"Okay, well if we're happy with the AA gun, perhaps we should move on," Axel said, checking a clipboard. "Let's see… earthquake ray has been vetoed as likely to cause collateral damage. I guess that means we're moving onto ramping up the power on those nailguns."
There was a knock on the door. Fanaka tossed a tarpaulin over the AA gun as Axel answered it.
"Just me, sir. Buck Dusty."
Axel let Buck in. He carried two cups of coffee and wore a Stetson hat, faded jeans and leather chaps as well as his Handy Pavilion shirt.
"You're on guard duty for today?" Fanaka said.
Axel looked from Fanaka to Buck and back again. Buck wasn't soft. Axel had never seen Buck commit even the smallest act of violence, but you only had to see the man's eyes to know. If Buck ever did come to kill a man, he'd never lose a second's sleep over it.
(The Human Sea Wasp! A fellow villain. Axel had shot him in the head, point blank during the BloodSlaught, back in '99… No. Wait. That turned out to be a robot duplicate. Damn it!)
"I was about to say, Axel," Fanaka said. "I have this interdimensional energy source. It's Christian's I think, but since no one's seen him lately I don't think there's a problem in our using it."
"Interesting. Use it for what?"
Fanaka shrugged. "Make a teleporter device? Walk right past the Barn perimeter. Or gather power from outside our universe, bypassing the laws of conservation of energy. Or, if things get bad, we could just summon Cthulhu."
Axel lit a cigarette. "Last I heard, the Great Devourer was not taking my calls. Let's see this thing."
Fanaka reached his hand into a brightly-coloured woven bag. When it came out, it was holding a crystal skull. Axel sucked his breath in so hard, his drew his cigarette into his mouth until it burned his lip. He coughed it out into the sink, aware that someone was pounding on his back. When he stopped choking, he looked around to see a very worried Fanaka, and Buck trying to dislodge an icecube tray that was locked into the bar fridge by a crust of frost.
"Fanaka, that's… Holy crap! I haven't seen one of those since… I thought they were destroyed when… The power, Fanaka! The power! Even the power of Magalagenica, the Star Cluster that Walks Like a Woman couldn't… Shit."
"Axel, you're babbling."
"Fanaka, the power you hold in your hands could crush worlds and rewrite time," Axel said. He grabbed the icecube tray from buck, shook out a cube and pressed it against his burnt tongue. "Improp'ly used, it could burn cont'nemts... deftroy milliyes."
"And if properly used?"
"If properly used, it wouldn't do that. That's what 'properly' means."
The door opened wide. Axel, Buck and Fanaka looked up as one. It was only Sadie McGregor, her usually austere white face flushed red, and her auburn hair had escaped its tight bun.
"Axel, the police are outside," she said. "It is about the armoured car heist."
The horror of seeing one of the skulls had taken all of Axel's attention and he hadn't been in the least self-conscious about forming the centre of a Stooge-like tableau. That changed rapidly, and he felt the blood rush to his face. He stood up straight, dusted himself down and put the icecube tray on the table with an ostentatious flourish.
"Armoured car heist?" he said. "That was months ago. Are things… Don't tell me crimes are still illegal even when you committed them months ago? That hardly seems fair."
"'Fraid so, Prof," Buck drawled. He seemed oddly pleased, Axel thought, and filed that fact it away for later consideration. "And you on parole and everything. Even if they can't convict, it ain't lookin' good for ya."
"Oh, no," Sadie smiled. Axel realised he'd never seen her smile before. It was just as well, because apparently her smile was nothing but a horrible manic rictus. "No, no, no. No, you shall meet justice, Axel, yes, sweet justice. But not yet no no justice delayed is justice denied, no you shut up! You!"
"Uh…" Axel said.
"I confessed," Sadie said. "I confessed to the heist. No worries. The greater good. The greater justice. The Barn must not prevail, no, no. The weight is lifted from you and Fiona and Norman. I take that burden, and I shall carry it for you. No, a lie! A lie! Yet how can I not? Others carried greater burdens, greater sins for the good of all. Can I do any less?"
She stopped talking, and stared twitchily at Axel. even without seeing them, Axel could feel Buck and Fanaka staring at him too. Dealing with Sadie's meltdown seemed to be his responsibility. For some reason. But he was after all one of the most intelligent human beings ever to be born. Shouldn't be too hard to think something.
"Er…" he said.
Axel felt Fanaka's arms propelling him out the door. He didn't know why, until he saw the uniformed policemen, and heard the door close behind him. Yes! Hide the weapons. Good call.
"We're looking for Sadie McGregor?" said one of the cops, a burly sergeant.
"Me!" Sadie said. "I am guilty. Take me away!"
"Caution this woman, constable," the sergeant said. "Who are you three?"
"Co-workers," Fanaka said. "Surprised, baffled coworkers."
The sergeant looked at Axel more closely. "Don't I know you?" he said. "Yeah, reckon I do. You're Professor Devistato, aren't you? See that?" The sergeant rolled up a blue uniform sleeve. "I got that scar during your acid attack on the Dapto."
"But you didn't die," Axel said. Damn it, had anyone died in one of his attacks?
"Guess I didn't," the sergeant said, unimpressed. "You on parole, Devistato? Well, I'm glad you're on parole in my neck of the woods. You set one foot out of line, and you'll be back at the Bay before you can count ten."
"Axel!" Axel looked away from the sergeant, to see Ms Shan, Mrs Lebeau from Centre management and Ali from power tools, all jogging towards him. What was happening? Was the skull cursing him? He hadn't even touched it yet. Did that seem fair?
Buck grabbed Axel by the shoulder, and leaned in, his mouth close to Axel's ear. The move suggested friendly advice, so Axel stayed still and listened.
"I work for the DIY Barn, Axel," Buck whispered. "Helped 'em capture Zorbar, and helped 'em capture Christian. Been reporting to 'em on your work, too."
Buck let go of Axel and stepped back. Time seemed to stand still. Axel was aware of what was going on around him, but only in a distant way, like what he was seeing was nothing but a vivid memory. Sadie was being cuffed. The sergeant was snarling. Ms Shan and the others were quickening their pace. Fanaka, opened mouthed, one hand on Axel's chest, trying to hold him back. For a second, it could have gone either way.
Then Buck winked.
There was fog in Axel's head, and a fire in his gut and an itch in his own knuckles, and then Buck was on the concrete floor, blood running from his smirking lip.
The sergeant's snarl turned into a warm smile. "And you, my friend, are under a-bloody-rest!"
"Good one, Axel," Sadie muttered.
Behind the car Axel dragged himself from memories that he was sure hadn't been there just a day before.
"Takeaway points," he said to himself. "Massive time distortion. Somehow connected to Buck and the Skull."
"And me!" said a voice. "Don't forget me!"
Axel turned his eyes sideways. Sitting slightly further along from him was a little man, about two feet tall. He had a little goatee and wore clothes that could be best described as 'Goth-Hobbit'.
"I'm not forgetting you," Axel said. "Because I have no idea who you are."
"Evil Brownie," said the evil Brownie. "Now that I think of it, you didn't know about me. Only Donna did, but Angela distracted her with freaky Japanese porn and she never got around to dealing with me. How do you do?"
And then the DIY Barn exploded.