Monday, April 12, 2010

Better Than Anything

by Matthew Sanborn Smith

First published in the Barnes & Noble anthology, Between the Leaves, Edited by Stuart Miller

That damn tapping woke him up, echoing from somewhere downstairs, beneath the heart of the house. Greg swallowed to soothe his dry throat and pressed the clock stud in the headboard. Excited dust motes, once carefree in their nowhere drift, clung to each other in a passionate frenzy in the clock's field. 12:07 P.M., they glowed for an instant before burning to nothingness while he heard the time whispered in the windless bedroom.

Kelly was gone. About an hour and twenty-seven minutes, he judged, running the coolness of the sheets through the ultra-sensitive fingers of the Glove. They'd made love last night (the Glove still smelled it on the sheets), just like Greg had fantasized when they were in high school together. Well, not exactly like he'd fantasized; he wasn't the same person he'd been in high school.

He studied the creases in his skin at the bathroom mirror, fascinated by what his wrinkled bedding had left for him to read. He fancied himself a scarified tribal chief while running his one bare hand under icy water. Finally he fell flaccid so he could piss before his bladder burst. Nothing had been in to clean for a while. Not much of a need since he'd never had a woman stay the entire night before. Nights with a lady usually brought screams and a quick scramble to throw her scattered clothes into the crook of one arm and she was gone, past the limo driver who had learned to wait for the familiar scenario. The women, more often than not, felt like they had escaped rather than left. He never chased them; he understood. He just wished they would understand that he got more out of lovemaking through the glove's eleven senses than he could ever get from his penis' one. The Glove gave more to his partner, too. Kelly had reveled in it and because of that, he enjoyed it even more than usual. It was the first decent night he'd had since the new season's push had gotten underway. His belly burned just remembering the job.

Reynolds OmniMedia needed a ratings-phenomenon for the Reports, that much was obvious. With the legalization of Obsession, business had been ass-over-elbows downhill and picking up speed at ten Gs a second. But the Holy Alliance had ordered a spring purge and cleansing of the flesh this month. There would be no better time to get people onmind once again before ROM and its kind became a long forgotten memory among powerstims. And Greg Herod felt like he was dancing on air . . . with the ground rushing up to meet him at a thousand feet per second.

Downstairs, Kelly Bourne bounced her wide bottom lightly on her chair, tapping on Greg's 19thCen dining table with a polished teaspoon. A red stim dangled lazily from beneath her tongue. Guess drool doesn't bother her much, Greg thought. He had just come down naked from the bedroom, dragging his feet along the rich cream carpet, beckoned by her tap-tap-tap. She was a beautiful woman, and her large frame only emphasized it. The maroon and gold of her painted nails contrasted exquisitely with her blond hair and the white silk pajamas she seemed to have pulled out of nowhere. She was a vision and Greg wondered for a moment if he couldn't have her here every morning lighting up his palace with her elegant splendor. Marriage? Jesus, last night wasn't that good, was it? He snuck up behind her and swept the spoon from her loose grasp with his incongruous left hand, black and ridged from fingertips to three-quarters of the way up his forearm. It was the Glove, permanently attached and the ticket to the good life that he lived right now.

"Oh," she said, "You scared me." Her plastic stim tinkled to the table and she wiped her mouth on a cloth napkin. "What's wrong, real silver?"

"Yes, but more importantly, the table is real wood." He pulled a chair from the wall and pulled up next to her.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know."

She was even more beautiful than she had been in high school, or maybe it was just that the peer pressure was off now. Back then her enormous size had marked her as a girl not to be dated for fear of recrimination from the other jocks. They all said she was fat. She wasn't though. She was just large. Her size intimidated most guys. Kelly and Greg had been friends and Greg had always thought about going with her but never seemed to get around to asking. But last night after nine years of adulthood and real world, not to mention a towering confidence that didn't exist before the Glove, he'd just about climbed onto her lap at the United Media dinner to the paparazzi's delight.

She was an executive with Reynolds East, the Advertising end of the game. He'd forgotten her father had swung in the upper echelons of the company years ago, her obvious inroad. When he bumped into her at the UM for the first time since high school, everything had fallen into place.

"I was waiting for you," she said now. "I guess I was getting bored."

"Bored? You should have turned on the Reports."

"Oh, no. They don't really do a whole lot for me. I've got to live them, practically."

"I do live them, he said, smiling.

"That's right, I forgot for a second. How long have you had this thing?" she asked, caressing the Glove like a cow's udder.

"About five years now. Dar had it for nine and Germane for thirteen, so I figure I still have some time left."

"You think they're going to give you a few more years to live and hand the Glove to the next young kid?"

"I don't see why they shouldn't. The Glove is the star of the show. I'm basically just a pretty face to carry it around and smile for the Reports. I'll probably think of some way out of it by that time."

"Its last two owners didn't." She had a bowl of oatmeal in front of her, still steaming slightly. She started to eat, not shaken by the Glove at all, but maybe her line of work had just made her jaded. And maybe that's why those awful thoughts of marriage were creeping into his head now.

His link buzzed.

Greg nodded and took it on personal. "Yeah?"

"This is it, you ready?" It was his controller, Sharky. Sharky knew the business backward and throughout and Greg took pains to stay on his best side. When the shit came down came down six years from now, nobody was going to be able to help Greg more. This call was the one Greg hadn't wanted to take. ROM was lighting the fuse. He was their biggest star by far, the only action celebrity that wasn't completely created by Reynolds, the only one who had abilities beyond that of human technology. So when they wanted digits, it was Greg that got tossed into the inferno. And as the consumer took it all more and more for granted, Reynolds played him on bigger and bigger risks. No matter what he told Kelly, he was sure this week, the biggest blitz on the public staged yet, would be the week that killed him.

"It's a bomb, down it the ‘burbs right by you. A plasma bomb," Sharky whined.

"Holy shit. Why didn't they get Blacksmith to do it? That's his bag."

"He'll be there too, but their excuse for having you along is that his hands haven't grown back yet. Just be glad your crisis has arrived and you don't have to worry about it anymore."

"Oh, no, there's nothing to worry about now. Wheeeee!"

"Get on the shuttle in seventeen minutes. Don't be late or else there won't be any place to go anyway." He clicked off.

"Gotta go," Greg said. "Martin can let you out."

"What is it?" She suddenly seemed anxious.

"Just biz."

"What kind of biz? Stay here and let the next guy handle it."

"Look, I know my job better than you do. I gotta hurry, it's an emergency."



"You remember what we talked about last night?"

"Only vaguely. My left hemisphere dissolved in the champagne around one-thirty."

"We talked about early retirement, Greggy, remember? Quit it now, right now, before you go out and they kill you."

"I can't. Not now. It's an emergency!"

"They're making it an emergency, can't you see that? Let someone else do it and you're a normal person again, with your own life. You've got enough money now to do whatever you want."

He wasn't listening, just struggling into a torn up pair of jeans he liked to call his Robinson Crusoes.

"Do you think for yourself anymore, Greg? Why don't you lose that glove for God's sake? Ask it to leave?"

"Look, you don't understand how it is. Things have changed since the last time you saw me."

"What things?"

"Don't you remember me eight years ago? I was studying full throttle just to make Ds, I got fired from five jobs senior year alone, and I was sleeping in my truck because my parents threw me out of the house. I was a nobody. I was worse than a nobody, I was a loser. And it didn't end there. I'd be dead already if it wasn't for the Glove, from alcohol maybe or a gunshot to the head. This is the only thing that makes me anybody. It's the only thing I'm good at! Ask anybody."

"It's not true," she whispered, shaking her head. You're obsessed with that thing, it's taking over your personality."

"You didn't seem to mind it last night."

Her eyes grew cold, and she went back to eating her oatmeal. Somehow he knew she wasn't talking to him any longer. It's not like he could tell her anyway.

"What's this all about anyway?" he asked, "Did Reynolds send you here?"

Kelly let her spoon sink to the bottom of the bowl and rose swiftly. She slapped him hard enough to almost knock him over. "I have to go." She walked away without sparing him a glance and went to the bedroom. Either she was sent by Reynolds and was a good actress or she actually liked him. It was hard to believe this second one.

"Just go home to Chicago!" he yelled, wondering why the evacuation hadn't yet begun. "Fast as you can!"


He tried to get in touch with Sharky on the shuttle. No answer. Sharky had smelled death and bolted.

"Thanks a lot for your confidence, asshole," Greg muttered. He passed the short trip watching the last-minute evacuation on the Reports. Muted anxiety squeezed a small neighborhood with artiturf lawns and fiberglass watchdogs. The National Guard loaded the trucks with people who didn't want to stay but didn't necessarily want to go either. One man tried to bring his wide screen monitor into one of the mottled grey trucks only to have it thrown to the ground and smashed when he refused to give it up. Its shattered plaz was the closest thing to a cry for help the addled neighborhood could muster.

Greg ate a spotted banana while he watched a scene recorded earlier of the Bartons, the people unfortunate enough to rent the property on which the bomb had been found. Mr. Barton, still in a worn red plaid robe with a fringe of threads hanging from the bottom, held the poodle that had uncovered the device. His wife, squinting without her glasses, stared down the viewer while crying that they had no place to stay, that their son was fighting in the war, and that her sister had disappeared when they tried to reach her. The reporter asked them if they had any enemies. Greg roared with laughter.

"What the hell could these people have done that would make someone plant a plasma bomb with a fifty kilometer radius on their land?" he shouted at the Report. The reporter's question was ludicrous and yet he asked in the hope that other numbers would think that it could happen to them too.

Then the sensors panned across the yard to show a bomb squad making final preps with the Blacksmith before fleeing into a white chopper. Greg felt his stomach flip-flop more from the sight of him than the fact that he'd hardly eaten. He had hoped the Big Stim would be a one-man show, or at least that he'd be teamed with someone other than the Blacksmith. The Blacksmith was the unofficial leader of the Ac-Cels who hated Greg Herod either for his power, his fame, or a little of both. Aside from that, the guy was an asshole to the nth degree. Too bad plasma bombs were his business.

Everybody and his uncle had a plasma bomb these days; practically the fashion. A hell of a lot easier to make than a standard hydrogen bomb because the parts weren't illegal to buy, own or ship. Sure, it was more expensive than an office building in Bhopal, but it was feasible. The gate could be bought by a government and its registration laundered, and as long as you had a power source big enough, you were in business.

The air near the Barton residence (possibly the former Barton residence) was thick with microscopic stim sensors. Reynolds had the area under an army of security bots to keep the competition out for at least a half hour. More than enough time for the bomb to go off.

Greg felt the sensors salivating as they gobbled up his presence. He was an institution, a one-man SWAT force known as the Fist on the Reports. Not quite as flashy as the young sucks calling themselves Action Celebrities nowadays, but he didn't need flash. He had substance. He had prime numbers, with a history that went back to the last generation.

He'd changed into his costume just before walking out. It made him feel more of a freak than usual, focusing attention on the Glove, what the Reports liked to call the Anything Glove, because that was what it was capable of. The Glove had a name before its wearer did. His entire outfit was deep red save for the Glove. He thanked God he didn't have to wear a mask; his looks saved his identity. Unlike Beowulf or Odd, he was a person, not a costume. A person who carried this thing at the end of his arm.

"Take a seat, hotshot," the Blacksmith called to him. Greg took it without a word. His life depended on this man and he wasn't about to start a fight. There was a small pit around the bomb, allowing as much access to it as possible without moving the thing. On the edge of the pit, like the king of the cockroaches with the dirt as his throne, sat the Blacksmith, real name: Ronnie Moscowitz, the man so famous for defusing bombs he nearly had three-quarters of the Fist's numbers. "There isn't anything the Blacksmith can't defuse," they say. Except maybe his appetite, Greg thought. Three-hundred and two pounds, his Glove remembered for him. And the man was short on top of that. Sure, someone standing six-ten, six-eleven might wear three-hundred pounds pretty well, might even be considered slim, but at five-eight the Blacksmith looked like a pig.

But he was the best. Tore up that warhead the Ibn Mahesh boys got a hold of. Took it apart with the world standing over his shoulder, right in the middle of Washington Colum. Gained lasting fame when he rode the Kitel-Sat as it burned through the sky and he snuffed the self-destruct when it threatened to come down right on the head of Beijing's financial district and wipe out three city blocks. He saved countless lives and thousands of acres of priceless property and was considered a national hero. But now he sat in a pile of dirt while Greg had a 50K plasma bomb between his legs. At the end of the Blacksmith's arms were two white regen tubes ending in temporary plaz fingers that were useless for this type of job. The tubes covered the stumps that were his hands three weeks ago, before they were blown off as he idly tossed a hand grenade to himself. Greg had smirked when he heard the news. Now he wondered how much bad karma a simple smirk was worth, because today the Blacksmith wanted the Fist to be his hands.

Staring at the bomb, Greg couldn't think about the town and city it was about to destroy, or about the tens of thousand of people it was about to kill. The only thing that he could imagine was how it was going to feel to be blown away one-tenth of a second after detonation by a minute chunk of that sun that was beating down on them, transported eight light-minutes in an instant by the gate with the laundered registration.

He felt the bomb's electronic heartbeat through the Glove, a hum that seemed deafening, though it was a whisper compared to the harsh pulsing of the blood through his veins. It was all too real, too alive, slowly coiling to a precise tension that would unleash itself in all God's fury in just seven minutes and he hoped they could stop it. His mouth filled with spit, like it always did just before he threw up, because he remembered that he was "they" and it was up to him to stop it and he didn't know what the hell he was doing.

It was the Glove's fault. The power at the end of his left arm that made him the most widely recognized person in the world, according to Gallup. Discovered by an international exploration team off of Barnard's Star twenty-seven years ago, it was the first known piece of extra-terrestrial space garbage. It was a piece of trash, a McDonald's wrapper tossed by some alien out of the car window as it zoomed through a no-name galaxy. A piece of trash that made Earth call back its little ships and adjust its focus to hiding from the universe it once believed it could conquer. The thing had looked like a living Koosh ball made of crude oil when they first brought it on board the research vessel Brahe. After a few days it decided against spending any more time in their labs and escaped to make contact with Robin Dar, an astrophysicist who changed professions soon after her return to Earth. It became a glove when it met her, the Glove, and hasn't made any long-lasting changes since. Reynolds had snapped up Dar with a fat contract the minute her slender foot had hit civilian ground and ushered in the era of the Action Celebrity. And now, a generation later, Greg Herod looked at the thing that made him one of the richest stars in the world and despised it. We might all be killed, but you'll survive and crawl onto the next person in line, he thought.

The Blacksmith puffed on his cigar, cool as a killer's knife. He always got that way around bombs, the only time he really relaxed. After a long, slow drag, he rationed his speaking breath like a miser. "Not sure why they called me in at all. Pretty whiz kid like you oughta be able to handle the whole operation with that supercrutch your career's leaning on."

"You want to leave?" Greg asked. "Why don't you run down that chopper?"

The Blacksmith let cigar smoke twist from between his yellow, solid teeth. His look said he was ready to pounce if he could, but he just said, "Get your boy through that screen, first off. There's a few different detonators in these things. You try and take off that screen, you'll trigger one of ‘em."

Greg's fingers grew as long and as thin as knitting needles and the Glove penetrated the mesh screen which separated him from the internal workings of the bomb.

Moscowitz sat back and spoke with the air of a backwater lecturer leaning against a pickle barrel. "You'll see they use different bombs and situations to hook different numbers. Most of ‘em ain't this elaborate. Usually, for an investigative angle, the bomb could be gasoline and a nine-volt, they'll just hide the damn thing and the whole show'll be on finding it. On those, I'm suddenly the big criminal psychologist, who tracks it down ‘cuz he knows how these terrorists think.

"Ones like the Kitel-sat are just plain old action, like I'm fuckin' James Bond or something." He choked out a loud laugh, spitting his cigar into the freshly turned earth. "These ones here are for numbers who're into MacGyver."

"What the hell is MacGyver?"

"Forget it. The numbers don't remember either but they eat it up. I like to think of 'em as puzzle bombs."

"I don't give a damn what you think of them," Greg said, "Just as long as you keep your torn-up ass on the business at hand and let me live after six minutes from now." Moscowitz chuckled, like he had something on him.

"There's a seal here," Greg told him. "It's a . . ." He didn't want to believe it. Saying it out loud would make it true and he didn't want it to be true.

"It's a what?" the fat man yelled.

"It's an atomic lock."

"Oh, Christ," the Blacksmith whispered. He touched his throat mic with his right stub and relayed this to his superiors. He nodded slowly as his inner ear received the instructions Greg couldn't hear, and said:

"It's a safe bet whoever designed this thing doesn't want to let us in. So the key is going to be something very rare and possibly unstable. Now, unless you have something in that hand that can figure out what we need and transport it here immediately, we're fucked. Plan B is to pick your favorite direction and run like your ass is on fire."

Greg fought dizziness now, trying desperately to keep a grip on the rational, thinking part of his brain because he knew that no matter what else it could do, the Glove couldn't get him away far enough, fast enough to escape.

"Wait," he said. "My glove. It changes shape. I can try to pour myself into the lock till it's the shape of the key, fill the lock and open it."

"That's great," he said, "but we don't know what kind of atom it'll be until the exact microsecond you become it. It could fall apart and fry the shit out of us."

"Would you rather die now maybe, or die in five minutes definitely?" Greg watched the sweat dribbling out from between the thick ripples of fat on his partner's neck. The Reports' instant editors never showed that to the public. What else were they editing now?

"Do it already!"

He did it and he could feel subatomic particles snapping into their tiny orbits. His heart beat twice for every electron/proton pair that he added to the formula and still his work was rapid. He found himself slowing as he neared the minefield toward the end of the periodic table. Suddenly his wrist expanded into an impenetrable black dome which surrounded the bomb. Looking up, he felt a shiver at the bottom of his back. The Blacksmith saw Greg's look of surprise at what happened and he looked like he found out something dirty, some vile secret about the Fist.

"It sometimes acts to protect its owner without my instructions," Greg explained with a sheepish smile. The Blacksmith leaned back, slowly, now regarding the Glove as an unpredictable animal, rather than the product of an unknown science.

Something was wrong.

"I'm stuck," Greg said.

"What do you mean, stuck?" His eyes darted around the obsidian shield of the Glove, vainly attempting to see through to the problem.

"I've got ninety-four electrons and as many protons in place. The lock's full up but it's not opening."

With a soft thud, the Blacksmith nearly damaged himself as his right stump darted to his throat mic. He spoke quickly, but remained coherent.

"Isotopes!" he shrieked.

Greg's breath returned to him as the Glove now continued its work. Why didn't it take care of that in the first place?

"There it is!" he cried feeling the lock open. It's plutonium 244. Stable enough, though it was dicey getting to it. The shield wants to stay in place," he added almost as an aside. "I can feel my way through from here." Two minutes and counting.

The Blacksmith asked him, "What's next?"

Even with the glow of the inner clock, the light within the bomb was virtually nonexistent. But although the Glove is capable of more senses than an unaided human, it's sense of touch has always been its most superior sense and Greg trusted it through the remainder of this operation.

"There are some buttons." He felt the painted marks to identify their functions. "They're . . ."

"What? They're what?" the Blacksmith yelled.

"It's a transport gate," he said, not quite believing himself. "Not the plasma transporter, it's the kind with the buttons. It's a second gate."

The Blacksmith's eyes grew wide. "What?" He was on his throat mic again. "Oh shit! It's not supposed to be there!"

"What do you mean? What do I do, you fat son of a bitch? Hurry!"

"I don't know, I wasn't briefed on this!" His voice was wet and cracking. He was about to get up (to do what? Run?) when Greg willed forth from the Glove a metallic leash around the Blacksmith's throat to quiet him, and he looked into the Blacksmith's eyes.

"You aren't shit, are you? All the shit you've given me about being nothing without the Glove and now the truth comes out. All this time I thought you knew your stuff and you were just an actor. Well, don't worry about the bomb because I'm killing you before it blows!"

"Nggg!" the Blacksmith said as he pointed to his head. Greg released him as a soft female synthetic said over the Blacksmith's amplifiers:

"This is the Reynolds OmniMedia emergency crisis containment unit. Please enter the following jumpgate coordinates: Del. Del. Sig. Pi. Omi. Del. Omi."

"No!" Greg yelled. "It's a setup!"

"What? You crazy son of a bitch, punch it in!"

"But anything could . . ." A cold realization settled to the bottom of Greg's stomach. "You people didn't need me to crack this bomb. You wanted me to take on whatever's coming through this gate, whether it's an army or a nanocloud!"

"Look, we needed you for both. We can argue about this later. If there is any later in twenty-seven seconds, goddammit!" He looked at his chronometer and desperately whacked his stump against the Glove's improvised dome, cracking his regen tube. Green liquid spilled out, exposing an embryonic set of fingers.

Greg willed the leash around the fat man's throat once again. "Listen, you bastard, this glove gives me the power to wipe out anything Reynolds can throw at me. You know I can crush whatever's coming through the gate and you should also know I'm crushing you next. And Reynolds is in deeper shit than you, because contract or not, I'm taking control from here on out." Greg took satisfaction in the slight bulge of the Blacksmith's eyes as the glove punched in the code Greg had already forgotten in the heat of the moment. The clock ticked off its last three seconds and Greg prayed to God that he wasn't about to be blown to Hell.

He screamed when the burst of heat and light from the gate that appeared at his side burned his skin. He screamed more from fear than pain, imagining for a second that the bomb was exploding. The Glove tugged at his hand, like it wanted to separate itself from him. Almost instantly Greg collected himself and turned to face the foe from the gate.

Ronnie Moscowitz, born loser, thrust into fame by a fluke, laughed triumphantly, forgotten by the Glove's leash. "Reynolds can't wait another six years, Pretty Boy. The funny thing is, without your five-fingered money machine, they couldn't have afforded their little jaunt to Barnard's Star."

Greg's gut was ice and his eyes were trained on the large woman before him. She wore a suit made of a black, ridged material. It covered her from scalp to sole with one notable exception: Her left hand was bare, its nails painted maroon and gold.

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