The Rise of Renegade X
By Chelsea M. Campbell
Golden City isn’t your average tourist trap. Sure, it’s got its tall buildings, and the one street everyone knows the crazies hang out on—the teens with green hair and lip piercings that tourists think are an attraction somehow. Like they don’t have them at home. Traveling to see ordinary stuff like that is the same as going to a restaurant and ordering a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s a waste of time and money, and that’s not why people come to Golden City. Tourists aren’t here to throw pennies in old fountains or catch a play—they’re here in the hopes of spying some idiot in tights soaring past the skyscrapers. They want to visit superhero-themed diners and order Justice Burgers and Liberty Fries, served to them by an unhappy wage slave in a polyester cape. They want to visit the Heroes Walk in Golden City Park and see all the shining white statues of the superhero do-gooders who made the history books.
But they don’t come just to see the heroes. You don’t want to know how many tourists harbor the secret hope of getting accosted on the street by a supervillain with a raygun. As if we have time to go around mugging pointless, ordinary citizens. The Golden City Daily News did a report on it last year. Almost 70 percent of all tourists come here hoping for some danger, some excitement, and the chance to see a real-life bad guy. They figure with heroes making up a whole 21 percent of the city’s population, and villains only 14 percent—giving us the highest concentration of heroes and villains in the U.S.—a hero is bound to come along and stop the villain before things get out of hand.
They also come for nights like tonight. I’m Damien Locke, only son of the supervillain known as the Mistress of Mayhem, and what’s about to happen to me is something every tourist Golden City is dying to see, and it’s invitation only. And let me tell you, most superheroes, despite their supposed generosity, don’t invite strangers to their sixteenth birthday parties. It’s a huge rite of passage, and they don’t want to share the big night with nobodies. Neither do I, but let me put it this way: at midnight tonight, my right thumbprint is going to rearrange itself to form a V. It only happens once, and at ten bucks a head—twenty for the whole family—I’m going to make a killing off of it.
Seriously, there are over two hundred tourists at my birthday party, and more are pouring in. It’s amazing what out-of-towners will pay to watch a random villain’s thumb make the big change. Their admission charges will more than pay for the price of the party, which of course isn’t at our house. I rented a hall downtown, big enough to hold five hundred people before we become a fire hazard, and all I had to do to get this kind of turnout was post fliers downtown that said, Supervillain birthday: danger, excitement, and cheap drinks guaranteed!
Strobe lights and a disco ball reflect off the multicolored tiles on the floor, and music blasts from speakers as tall as I am set up in front of the stage. There’s a bar, too, but the owners get the money from that, not me. I’ve got a camera set up so when the big event happens, people will be able to watch on the giant flat screens plastered along the walls.
I’m mingling and signing the occasional autograph—for a five-dollar fee, of course—and trying not to get bumped too hard by the crowd when someone pinches me in the ass, a privilege that was not included in the cover charge. But when I turn around, it’s just my friend Kat. Her costume’s bright purple with black sleeves and writing over her boobs that proclaims her “The Shapeshifter.” She has short black hair, and tonight it has purple streaks in it. Kat can change her shape and form at will. She might not really be wearing that costume. She could, in fact, be completely naked and no one would ever know. Kat’s had her power for a little over a year now, but I’m still waiting for mine to come in, even though it seems like all my friends have had theirs for forever. But I bet when I do get mine, it’ll be really cool. I’ll probably get laser eyes, like my mom, or be able to control lightning, like my grandpa.
“Hey, birthday boy,” Kat says. She’s holding a cup of punch, which my mom “made.” And by “made,” I mean she poured three containers of leftover juice from the fridge in a big bowl and added a packet of Kool-Aid. And homemade booze, of course. If you’re ever at a party with my mom, don’t drink the punch unless you want to wake up naked in a horse pasture with your underwear on your head and a hobo licking a banana split off your stomach. I warned Grandpa last Christmas, but he didn’t listen. You’d think he’d know better, being her father and all.
The punch isn’t for the tourists, just the real guests, and Kat must not have tasted hers yet because she sips it and makes a face. “Wow. Your mom drop one of her chemistry beakers in this stuff?”
Probably. “You look hot. In both senses of the word.” Did I mention my friend Kat is actually my ex-girlfriend Kat? I’d be seriously regretting breaking up with her right now if she hadn’t cheated on me last year. We might have grown pretty close lately, but there were a couple months when I wouldn’t even talk to her, and I have to keep reminding myself of that.
“Thanks,” Kat says. She looks over the black spandex supervillain costume I’ve got on, ignoring the cool interlocked Ms on the front and staring at the goggles I’m wearing. They’re round and make me look kind of like a bug. Kat raises one eyebrow and grins, and I can’t tell if she’s serious or teasing me when she says, “You look like a total loser in those.”
“All part of the act.”
“What? That you got hit by the ugly mad scientist stick?”
“Why, Kat,” I gasp, pretending to be offended, “that’s an insult to my mother.” My mom’s a mad scientist. It’s a lot like being a regular scientist, except without worrying about legal or moral limitations, and it’s a common profession for the scientifically inclined supervillain. You can even major in it at Vilmore, the local supervillain university. Kat and I have both applied for next fall. Ordinary citizens might not go to college until they’re eighteen, but that’s how your enemies get ahead. Villains have to work a lot harder than that and start as soon as we get our Vs. Especially since heroes have their own school, Heroesworth Academy, and start at about the same time, though I’m sure their coursework isn’t as rigorous.
Kat takes another sip of her punch and coughs. “It is hot in here,” she says. Then she freezes up, her eyes on the crowd. “Oh, no, Pete’s here. He thinks it was worth ten bucks to come here and torment you? Crap, he’s already seen me.”
“Don’t be so hard on our dear pal Pete. He didn’t pay anything, not yet—I invited him.” When she says Pete’s here to torment me, she means his presence torments her. Which is a step up from my last birthday, when I caught her making out with him at my party. In my room. On my bed. And they couldn’t blame it on the punch because Mom was buried too deep in her work—an experiment in splicing goldfish genes with a shark’s—to go to the store for the Kool-Aid. Though Kat’s shapeshifting power coming in a couple weeks before that might have had something to do with it. I liked her how she was, and I thought she liked me. I guess she just didn’t think she could do any better, because as soon as she could turn herself into a supermodel, I was out of the picture.
I lean over and whisper in Kat’s ear, “Don’t shake hands with him.”
If Pete were smart, he would have burned his invitation. Instead he comes straight over to us. Ah, Pete, as thick as ever. Just like old times. Pete’s a year older than me and Kat, and he’s been going to Vilmore since last fall. His superpower is that he can broadcast signals, like to a radio or a TV. He doesn’t need a phone to call someone—it’s kind of creepy. He locks me in a quick embrace, clapping his hand against my shoulder. “Good to see you, man.” It’s not good to see him. He moves to Kat, but she’s too busy downing her punch in one gulp to notice.
“Happy birthday,” Pete says, shuffling his feet. He’s not sure if he should meet my eyes or not. Pete has dark skin, glasses, and a well-muscled torso, if you’re into that sort of thing. “When I got the invitation, I . . . I’m glad there’s no hard feelings.”
And I’m glad he’s been living at school the past six months and hasn’t been around. It’s made it easier not to accidentally run into him. Of course, it’s also made it harder to get revenge.
“Damien,” Kat says, her voice rough from the punch, “I’ll catch up with you later.” She looks at Pete, like she owes him some kind of explanation. “Big, um, bathroom emergency.”
Pete stares longingly after Kat. In a room with over two hundred people in it, I think the last thing he expected was to end up alone with me. “Listen, Damien, about last year—”
Mom dances over. She bumps her butt against Pete’s, startling him and possibly scarring him for life. “Whoo,” she says, tugging on her collar. Strands of wavy red hair cling to her neck, stuck with sweat. She was in the papers at least once a week before I was born. Now her supervillainy is more low-key, limited mostly to tinkering in her lab, making punch the FDA wouldn’t approve of, and extorting money from the government to make ends meet. “I hope midnight gets here soon—we’re running out of punch. Oh, look, sweetie, I knew you’d take my suggestion.” She smiles at the two silver Ms on my costume. “Master of Mayhem.”
“Midnight Marvel.” Not that Mom’s supervillain name isn’t cool, but naming myself after my mommy? Yeah, that would make me the lamest villain on the planet. “It’s a stage name, just for tonight.” I haven’t decided what my real villain name is going to be, but I figure I have two years at Vilmore to figure it out.
“Pete!” Mom says, as if she just noticed him—I guess she didn’t care whose butt she was bumping. “I haven’t seen you in ages!”
“Pete’s been busy,” I say, saving Pete from stupidly gaping at her for five minutes, struggling to come up with an excuse for why he never got invited back to our house.
“Very busy,” he repeats, sticking his hands in his pockets and avoiding Mom’s gaze. You can’t blame Pete for that one. Mom can shoot lasers out of her eyes.
“Oh, there’s Taylor!” Mom spots her boyfriend in the crowd. I don’t really like that she’s dating or that she brought him to my party without a cover charge, but he is the dean of Vilmore, so I suppose I can let it slide until the admissions process is over. “You boys have fun,” Mom says, getting ready to bounce her way across the dance floor again. “And don’t forget, honey, you’ve only got about twenty minutes before midnight.”
“I didn’t know if I was going to come,” Pete says after Mom leaves. “I only got your invitation today.” He takes his hands out of his pockets and relaxes his shoulders. “But we used to have a lot of good times, and I wanted to apologize.”
“You had a whole year to do that, Pete.”
He stiffens. “I was afraid you’d be mad.”
“Getting mad’s a waste of time.”
“Oh, good, I’m glad you feel that way, because there was never anything between me and Kat. Not really. We were just friends, and now I’m seeing this new girl, Vanessa, and she’s great. Not that Kat isn’t, you know, great, ’cause she is. It’s too bad you and me, all three of us, couldn’t still be friends, you know?”
“Yes, it is.” I take out a long, thin piece of paper, the kind you might put a grocery list on, that I’d rolled up into a little tube and stuffed under the band of my goggles. I unroll it and hold it out to him. “You know what this is?”
He squints at it. It’s hard to read in the dark party hall, and the disco ball only makes it worse.
“This is my list, Pete.” My list of people who need “dealing with,” to put it lightly. Nobody messes with me and gets away with it. Well, except maybe Kat. Not talking to her for months was getting off easy. I was going to put her name on my list, I really was, but at first I was too depressed to bother. Then I kept putting it off, and then we were talking again, and then . . . we were friends, and I didn’t have the heart. It just worked out that way. It’s not like I’m a sucker for her or anything.
I point to the name at the top of the list, where it says Pete Heath. “And here’s you.”
Pete knows all about my list, and his eyes go wide behind his glasses. “Damien, I told you, I’m sorry.”
“It’s too late.”
“It’s never too late—”
“No, really, it is.” I sigh. “I laced your invitation with a little something Mom concocted.”
“No.” I roll up the list and stuff it back under the band of my goggles. “I hope you washed your hands after you touched it. I hope you didn’t, say, go to the bathroom or anything. Or eat. That would be just awful.”
“What?!” Pete bites his nails, a nervous habit, then pulls his hands away from his mouth like they’re diseased.
I take my cell phone out of my pocket—I hate keeping anything in my pockets in this skintight supervillain costume; it’s revealing enough as it is without any extra bulges—and check the time. Fifteen minutes till midnight. “Let’s see, you probably picked up your mail about noon . . . and you knew it was my birthday, and you knew the invitation was from me. So . . . quarter after twelve? That accounts for enough time for you to stew over what happened last year before deciding to open it.” I tap my fingers against the side of the phone. “I’d say you’ve got half an hour to get home before the ugliest, itchiest rash you’ll ever have bursts to life on your skin.” I wiggle my fingers at him for emphasis. “Lots of pustules. It should last about two weeks.” I grin as pure terror spreads across his face. “Oh, and Pete? I’d bind my hands if I were you. To keep from scratching, especially down there.” I nod toward his crotch. “You wouldn’t want to scar or get infected.”
Pete gapes again. He looks at his arms like he’s got bugs crawling all over him. I see him scratch, but it’s only because I’ve creeped him out. I know it doesn’t itch yet. Mom’s good at what she does. If her concoctions are known for anything, it’s for being consistent and precise: same results every time.
Pete swears at me, tells me to do something with my mother that I most certainly will not be doing, then storms off, flailing and cursing. “Bye,” I call after him, giving him a little wave. “So glad you could make it.”
I check the time on my phone again before stuffing it in my pocket. I look down at the embarrassing bulge it leaves on my hip, like I have a weird growth or something. I need to get one of those gadget belts, so I can put my high-tech supervillain gizmos in it. You know, like my cell phone.
Kat creeps back after Pete leaves. “What’d you say to him?”
She bites her lip. “Damien, I’m so sorry . . . about last year and . . . everything.” She leans in close. She looks up at me, and there’s a moment where we gaze at each other, like in the movies. I’m considering kissing her for the first time in a year, even though I know it’s a bad idea, when she pokes at my eye through the goggles and says, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You look like an insect.”
“All the cool kids are wearing them.” I back away, so I’m not standing within lip-touching range. “I guess you’re not cool.”
I hold out my wrist and check the watch I’m not wearing and head for the stage. “Time for the Midnight Marvel.”
Kat grabs my arm. She pulls me back to her. “Damien, wait . . . I—”
I push the goggles up, so we’re actually looking in each other’s eyes this time.
Her forehead wrinkles, and her bottom lip trembles, and she looks like she wants to say something serious. Then she sighs and says, “I wanted to wish you happy birthday.”
Before I can respond, sparkling lights shimmer to life onstage. Mist pours out across it, and the loudest version of “Happy Birthday” I’ve ever heard blares through the room. I shove my goggles back into place. I take my cell phone out and give it to Kat to hold. No embarrassing bulges for the camera. These people have paid to see a show, but not enough for that kind of show. I stand up straight and salute her before heading backstage.
To get on the stage, you have to go up a set of stairs. There are only about ten steps, but it’s enough to send my stomach lurching and my heart pounding. I might not know what my superpower is yet, but I certainly have my weakness down. I hate heights, and anything that takes me off solid ground.
I tell myself it’s only a couple of steps, it’s not worth freaking out over, and especially not when I’m expected onstage to live out one of the most important moments in my entire life. I sweat on my way up, but my internal pep talk works, and before I know it I’m safe on the back side of the stage and my heart rate returns to normal. Thankfully there are curtains separating me from the audience, so no one but me had to witness my struggle.
The crowd cheers when I make my appearance on the stage, my face over three feet tall on the big screens. I raise my arms up, and they cheer even louder. I grab the microphone. My voice echoes through the giant hall. “Hey, Golden City!” That one gets me some whistles. These people are all from out of town, from cities all across the U.S., and maybe even other continents—I think I saw a Japanese tourist or two when I was making my rounds—but they like to feel like they’re part of the real Golden City and not just the museums and guided walking tours. “For those of you who’ve never been to one of these, you’re about to witness the most spectacular transformation in your life. At the stroke of midnight, my body will fulfill the role laid out for it by the wonders of genetics, sealing my fate as the Midnight Marvel.”
Except it’s science, not destiny, despite what my cheering audience would like to believe. When the whorls on my thumb rearrange themselves tonight to form a V, it’s because way back when, some scientist did experiments on the differences between supervillains and superheroes. It turns out we’re similar in a lot of ways—like, you know, we’re both super and everything—but there are also distinct differences in our DNA. Enough so this scientist guy could make a virus that affected only villains. In an effort to “bell the cat,” so to speak, he worked out this genetic alteration for supervillains and spread it amongst the populace, outing anyone with supervillain ancestry.
Big surprise, some villain scientists got together and retaliated, making a second strain that affects heroes, giving them an H. They also started Vilmore way back in the day, to support the education of the best and brightest villains, so we could always fight back against crap like that. Mom says we’re related to one of them, and that’s why she became a scientist, but I have yet to ask my grandparents to confirm this.
There’s one other letter possibility, if the two virus strains mix, but heroes and villains don’t exactly hook up a lot, so it’s only happened a couple times. If those stories about kids getting “the third letter” are even true and not urban legends. It’s always supposedly happened to someone’s cousin’s friend or whatever. Not to anybody anyone actually knows.
And then, of course, there are also plenty of ordinary citizens in Golden City, and they get squat for their sixteenth birthdays and can only hope to get invited to a really cool party like this one.
But as I said, my thumbprint changing into a V tonight isn’t destiny, it’s the result of Marianna Locke losing her cool for some guy sixteen years and nine months ago. It’s not even a marker of how great a villain I’ll be, or that I’ll be able to make a career out of it. I’m going to have to work hard to do well at Vilmore and turn myself into a successful, front-page-worthy villain.
“Can I hear a ‘happy birthday’?” I ask the crowd.
They scream it back at me in a wide range of accents. A clock appears on the big screens. 11:59. Tick, tick, tick, it counts down the seconds. This beats New Year’s any day. My heart pounds. My whole body’s going to explode. The cameras zoom in on my thumb.
The clock changes to 12:00. I feel a wave of relief—this is it—and watch as my thumbprint changes . . . not into a V. I blink, hoping my eyes aren’t working right under the stage lights. But no. My stomach churns with horror. There’s a letter on my thumb all right, but it’s not a V. It’s not an H, either—it’s something even worse. I quickly hide my thumb in my fist. My nerves tingle. This can’t be happening. This doesn’t happen to real people. The lights pouring down on me suddenly feel really hot. I sweat underneath my costume, and it starts to itch.
The audience is still waiting for their moment, the people in the front rows looking at me, everyone else staring up at the screens, wondering why I’m not giving them the show they paid for. A murmur runs through the crowd as I pretend to be sick, stumbling off backstage behind the curtains. It’s not hard to fake. Maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me, since I was so nervous. I double over in case anyone’s watching and try to work up the courage to examine my hand.
Kat’s the first one to run after me. She skids to a stop, misjudging the distance between us, and practically falls over top of me. “Damien, what happened? You okay?”
“No,” I say, clutching my stomach. “I shouldn’t have eaten the shrimp.” I fake gag to prove my point. My stomach really is a mess, though, and if I pretend much more, it’s going to turn into the real thing.
Kat steps back.
If I’m right about what I saw, I can’t go back out there. I promised these people a show, and they’re going to get pretty pissed if they paid ten bucks for nothing. My mind races, wondering what the hell I’m going to do, when I remember Kat’s a shapeshifter.
“You have to be me,” I croak.
She nods and works her magic. That’s one of the great things about Kat—she doesn’t ask questions when I’m in trouble, she just helps out and gets things done. There’s a shimmer, and then it’s me nodding. Well, almost me.
“Your . . . nose is . . .” I fake another heave. “Crooked.”
But she doesn’t listen. She straightens her new insect goggles and hurries back onstage. I hear the crowd liven up, and by the extra loud applause and cheering, I take it Kat’s given them the show they wanted. She can change her looks at will, so no one has to know her thumb transformed four months ago—she could make a living off of stupid tourists with that trick.
I relax as much as I can in this situation. My hands tremble. I feel dizzy, like I’m looking out the window from a ten-story building. I hold my thumb out, willing it to have changed into a V. It hasn’t. On my thumb is an X. A big fat stupid X! I feel the vomit rising in my throat as that sinks in. I’m shaking all over and I think my heart is going to stop. And that’s when I know I’m tainted. The third letter isn’t just an urban legend. I have both strains of the virus, and there’s only one way that could have happened.
Mom, who has a lot of explaining to do, tromps backstage, out of breath. “Damien!” she wheezes. Her high-heeled boots make loud clomping noises on the floor. She puts a hand on my back. “Sweetie, what happened?”
“I don’t know,” I say, glaring at her with my thumb in her face. “You tell me.”