WARNING: pace yourself, this story is long and contains alternate timelines, mad sorcerers, bribery, lunch-for-breakfast and trickster genies.
“Planning something big?”
Captain Koma froze, his hand mere inches from the doorknob to the Primatech boardroom our team had requisitioned for the day. He turned to face the intruder.
A thin wraith of a man stood arched against the chestnut wall. He could be described as dapper, crowned with a top hat and fitted with polished black shoes, a subdued brown overcoat, flowing cloak and studded cane. He smelt of lilac and aged oak; his eyes appeared bloodshot, as if he suffered chronic insomnia.
“You smell like a bank,” Koma managed to get out. The man tipped his hat politely.
“My name is Woodrow Wandsworth. I represent the Zombietree Trust.”
Koma grimaced. “Isn’t that the company building that fence along the Australian border?”
“We have many interests.” He opened a folder and held up a photograph.
“Noah Bennet. AKA Mister Sunshine. What’s he got to do—?”
“If you were plotting to kidnap someone of high stature, could you really do better?”
Aghast, Koma flattened himself against the wall. “Did the Hatian put you up to this?”
“Ah, dear me. Another obstacle.” He scratched something down onto an old flip-pad, ignoring the increasingly impatient Koma.
“What’s the Trust got against Bennet?”
Wandsworth held out his right hand, using the left to put weight on the cane. His long fingers opened, revealing a sizable pile of rare gemstones and jewelery. “This is… personal. And also impersonal. Do you find that absurd?”
Koma blinked. The man continued, “It’s not like you’re going to exhume Michael Jackson. Just make sure your team doesn’t go after Brad Pitt — I’ve got some business with him and I can’t afford to have the authorities involved.”
“Now that I think about it, that does seem like a pretty good plan,” Koma admitted, opening the door. “I’ll see—”
As quickly and mysteriously as Wandsworth had arrived, he had departed. The scent of rotted flowers lingered a while. Weird guy, Koma thought as he entered the room.
What followed was a rousing 30-minute debate to elect the new project manager, after which the group unanimously decided on the one person who wasn’t there — me. Ciera passively sat her hat down on the table and ran her hand through her hair. For a while nobody spoke.
“So what’re we doin’ this week?” Wolverine barked with the assertiveness of a Texan.
“Ciera can do the planning and ‘execution,’” Koma laughed. “Henchman can make the demands, and Wolverine can do the exchange.”
“And what will you do?” Ciera blasted, brandishing her sword.
“I’ll pick the target.”
“Well,” Ciera started… “We could do something bold. Kidnap Bennett or one of the judges. Maybe even someone off of the other team. It’s just for the game, so no harm no foul right?”
“Well it’s not like we’re kidnapping Michael Jackson’s corpse!” Koma giggled madly. What inappropriate and unexpected dialogue! The censors must be furious.
Koma coughed. “I agree with Ciera’s idea, which was completely her idea, and not my idea, to kidnap Bennet.”
This garnered some strange looks. Ciera balked. “You agree with me?”
“And why not? You are wise beyond your years. Now go! Already our ridiculously circuitous plan is one-quarter complete!” Koma clasped his hands in concession.
Smiling triumphantly, Ciera bent over and grabbed her woolen hat. She closed the door behind her as Henchman rolled out the blueprints to the local post office, where the demands would be made.
A faint buzzing instantly jarred the teammates from their comprehensive planning. Reaching down with sterilized tongs, the Henchman removed a fairly-worn cellular phone from underneath the table.
“What’s it do?! What’s it do?!” Wolverine chattered, reacting badly to the buzzing. He had clearly never seen a phone this small before.
“I’ll take that,” Koma said as he grabbed the phone. “It’s Ciera’s. She must have dropped it. Ooh! Texts from the Hatian!”
“Why’s the Haitian texting her?” Wolverine asked gruffly, to no one in particular. His uncontrollable fear of telephones came and went like the tides.
“Let’s find out,” Koma giggled (like a thirteen year old girl).
Erasing the unread message, the three began texting…
Time had not been kind to Primatech.
Bird nests sat on the sill of each unbroken window; they were few and far between. Graffiti covered the bricks and harsh weeds tore up the walkways. And that was just from the old photographs.
Currently, the whole property had been torn down to make room for a parking lot. This was the year… 2114!
I sighed and shook the ornate bottle in my claw. “Wandsworth!”
The night before, I’d been planning quite an extensive proposal for the team to follow. It was my time to be manager, I felt it in my bones! This notecard would prove it!
And then… Woodrow Wandsworth appeared out of thin air. At first I had suspicions, but when he told me I’d won the Zombietree Australian lottery, I gave him a hug and offered him a vat of beef stew.
The prize was an ancient bottle with a genie in it!
Unfortunately, the genie was a trickster. When I wished to outlive all my friends, I was transported over a hundred years into the future. I should sue. Still, this was an excellent chance to learn how I could lead Victorious Secret to victory after I used my next wish to return.
“You there,” I yelled at a time native, “Which way to the public library?”
“Library?” The local asked confusedly, “They stopped serving breakfast an hour ago.”
“It’s about time,” Wolverine growled, his face buried in a picture-book. “Henchy’s already mailing the ransom note… WHAT?!”
Koma likewise gaped as Ciera lugged the unconscious body of Jon the Intergalactic Gladiator onto the boardroom table. “Tonight we feast!”
“Where’s Bennet?!” they both asked.
Ciera shrugged. “I traced Bennet to this abandoned mace factory. When I saw Jon there, I knew he had planned the same thing, and that I’d have to execute the perfect double kidnap. Of course, while I was fighting Jon for the hostage, Bennet broke free and clocked us both.”
She propped her boots up on the table. Wolverine scowled.
“Who’s gonna pay HIS ransom?”
“I would’ve called you, but I can’t find my phone.”
“And Henchy already sent Bennet’s family a ransom note,” Koma added, his iconic cape fluttering in the air conditioned breeze. “WHAT ABOUT HIM?!”
The door swung open. Infinite sorrows! It was the Hatian, followed by the Henchman himself! “Henchman is doing better than Bennet,” the Hatian lamented, snapping his fingers. Instantly the Henchman cleared his throat.
“Ladies and gents,” he began, “it is our sad duty… heh heh, duty… to report that Noah Bennet, shortly after escaping his captors, was… crushed to death by a frozen 300-pound slab of waste dropped by an airplane.”
Koma keeled over laughing. Wolverine let out a small chuckle and picked up his funny-book again. Ciera was more sombre, and went to console the Hatian. Before she could reach him, he dropped to his knees and grasped her hand.
“Ciera, oh, your text messages have touched me in this time of need. And now that we are beyond the mere statuses of ‘judge’ and ‘contestant,’ we can finally go forward with what we talked about!”
“The what now?”
He produced a small leather case from inside his designer vest. “Will you marry me?”
In 2114, the pizza bagel was now America’s national food. That’s what the librarians told me when I went to learn. So I ordered a dozen and sat by the curb (or kerb, as was common in Ingsoc dialect) and pondered my far-flung team.
“They surely have failed without my sober guiding hand!” I cried, tossing the bagels and my meticulously transcribed notecard to the rubbery asphalt sidewalk. “How I wish those fools had my notes all those years ago! *wheeze*!”
Uh oh. Smoke poured from the mouth of the bottle, seizing on my verbal blunder. The sidewalk glowed indigo as the notecard curled up into an increasingly-shrinking ball.
Thinking on my toes, I snatched the bottle and thrust it as hard as I could at the woolen hat emerging from another point in time. Sparks flew as the world reordered itself around me; history was changing.
I felt a burning sensation in my shoulder, and then it was dark and quiet.
“You’ve betrayed me.”
Koma swiveled in this lazy-guy desk chair. “Wandsworth.”
“The Henchman is nearing Brad Pitt’s high rise. What did we agree to?”
“I was going to get them to go after Bennet. I was! But then we got the text message saying he was already kidnapped…”
The shady man massaged his temple. “Fine, we’ll work with what we’ve got. Here.”
“It’s a ransom note. Give it to Wolverine. Tell him it’s from that computerized colleague of yours. Add it to the note you’ve already worked up. Hopefully it’s so confusing it’ll delay the ransom until I’ve gotten what I need from Pitt.”
Koma tucked it away thoughtfully.
“This may just work out… what is your part in all this?”
“I’m delivering Pitt for the ransom exchange.”
He smiled. “No, you’re bringing him to me. I was planning to come to an equitable deal with Mister Pitt… now I won’t have to.”
That trickster genie!
I groaned — or, I would have, if I could. When history is changed, it instantly reverberates up to the present in a massive shift, the universe’s way of expunging paradoxes. Because I was a part of that nonexistent future, I would have been completely eliminated from time!
Genies are immune to that.
Instead of allowing the universe to delete me, I shoved my arm into the active timestream and POOF! Now the hat, the bottle and my arm were… somewhere, probably within a few hours of when the notecard arrived.
I waited patiently as the tonnes of metallic mass stored in my forearm began the arduous task of rebuilding my body, down to the lint in my pockets. I’d have to eat a lot of cars before I could do that again!
My vision returned once the backup memory files were transfered from the pinky drive to my primary brain. I was wading in a hot-tub in a ritzy hotel room! I plucked the hat out of the water and scarfed it down, like it was a scarf. Then I made my way to the bottle…
“Who are you?!”
Jumping from the tub, I looked up a brass staircase. An angry mustachioed man frowned down at me. I finally glanced around the room: gaudy art, overly-expensive ornaments, a man-sized vault at the top of the stairs, photographs of unlovable children with — Sweet Capybara of the Sahara! — Brad Pitt!
“Alonzo will make short work of ya,” the belligerent bodyguard bellowed as he bore the blimp-sized box-safe on the brawny bulk of his back. He tore at the stairs like a dingo at a baby!
“Gah! I wish that safe was someplace else!”
The bottle exploded and a mist of pure spiritual energy shot at the safe, quick as a mag-lev train. It vanished in a split-second, along with the safe. After granting three wishes, the genie was free! The sudden imbalance hurled the bodyguard forward. With a scream and a sickening CRUNCH, he lay in a crumpled heap by the hamper.
So I propped him up against the elevator door as a lark. A lark! A man loses his life, and I turn him into a Halloween decoration? What’s the world coming to when the most dignity we can hope for in death is an inoffensive disposal?
Preparing to rappel the building (on the government-mandated utility rappel lines, of course) I took one last look at the photo of Brad Pitt. Uh-oh.
*Sigh.* I would have to make a final pit stopp — I mean, Pitt stop — I mean, I mean, I need to get to the Brangelina Complex NOW.
Folding the photo into my fully-restored and remastered jacket pocket, I jumped through the locked hotel window. Glass fell on the pavement like shards of rain.
Brad Pitt shifted uncomfortably in his sporty utility stool. I turned up the intensity of the light.
“What do you remember?”
He coughed. “I was in my hotel… they took me…”
“I’ve had a rougher night than thou,” I grumbled. I licked the remaining banana cream from my fingers. “Pierre says ‘hi.’”
“Wh… the kids’ chef?”
“Reduced to ASH, I’m afraid. I also had the displeasure of destroying your security drones.” I shed a tear. “Ten — no, twenty — Roombas, armed only with their courage. You fleshy slavemaster.”
“I think I have internal bleeding…”
“Well I regrew a body tonight. Now tell me,” I unfolded the photograph and pointed to a broken sculpture, “what is this?”
Brad’s pupils grew until his whole eyeballs were coal black. “WHERE IS IT?!”
“Where you can’t get at it, Wandsworth… or should I say Karl Überdale?”
Brad Pitt smiled. But it wasn’t him behind those baby blues. “What did you do with it?”
“The Foot of Artemis? Gone, gone, it’s gone.”
Brad Pitt’s eyes burned with the fiery rage of the vindictive mage. “Then it was with Angelina Jolie?”
“And as you suspected, their home was magic-proof,” I went on, “so you concocted this hare-brained—”
“DON’T YOU MENTION RABBITS TO ME!” Karl thundered via the unwilling proxy.
“—scheme to send a mind-controlled Brad Pitt in there to steal it for you. And you bribed Koma with rocks painted as gems!”
Karl bristled. “The Foot could have helped me extrude the Brain of Artemis from that laval morass… but there are other pieces, you know.” He chuckled. “I’ll make it work.”
I stuck Brad Pitt with an anti-magic mattress label and tossed him out the back of the moving van.
“Hey, Pitt,” I yelled as he struggled to stand, “forget works of art. The real money’s in pizza bagels!”
Several of your favorite Heroes (or Villains) from all the Universes out there are competing for the dream job of a lifetime. Only the truly deserving will survive the boardroom, the others will be be fired. Who has what it takes to become The Company Apprentice?