Before O.S.I.R.I.S, before the betrayal and the drinking and “the Incident at the Tower,” before Captain Commanding (that jerk!), before the new powers and the super suit, there was Rand, a teen boy with a few family problems and a gift for inventions . . . Then the Hero Bomb went off. For the first time, the Fabulous Foxman tells his own origin story in his own words.
The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman:
Excerpts from an EPIC Autobiography
By: Kelly McCullough
By the Fabulous Foxman His Ownself
(and not that silly ghostwriter, whatever he claims)
“You won’t save yourself that easily, Foxman!”
I had a dozen pairs of designer jeans trying to choke the life out of me and the crudely welded neckpiece of my brand-new powered armor was creaking under the strain. I thought about flaming them with the rockets in my boots, but my Foxman suit was only mostly fireproof.
A seam slipped between my neckpiece and my helmet, putting sudden pressure on my carotid artery. Was this really how my short career as a masked hero was going to end? Killed by Michael Damian, my former best friend? Only a few months ago he’d been helping me build a rocket-propelled skateboard in our secret clubhouse. But that was before the Hero Bomb changed the whole world . . .
As my vision darkened I desperately tried to think of some way to transform the horrific Haberdasher back into my old pal.
And . . . I glared at the words on the screen. That version of the story wouldn’t do at all . . .
“No. Denmother, cut that last bit. It makes me sound too weak. If I’m going to do this whole stupid memoir thing, I might as well brag myself up.”
A smooth mechanical voice responded. “I think vulnerability might make you seem more human, sir. More relatable.”
Denmother is the voice in my head . . . literally. I have speakers surgically implanted in my skull so that I can hear her no matter what. She, or rather, it, is the AI that runs my powered suit, my home, and my life.
“You’re a bodiless computer, what do you know from human?”
“Per standing order one-one-three-four, I reviewed all the appropriate literature when you told me you were embarking on a new project. Vulnerability as a means of building sympathy for a character who might otherwise come across as narcissistic or negative is narrative one-oh-one. Also, since this venture is supposed to be in lieu of cognitive therapy and other brain-reprogramming techniques, I think that lying might have a negative impact on your prognosis, sir.”
I paused. I’ve been having some problems lately . . . and not so lately. But I’m finally trying to do something about them—thanks in part to my new sidekick, Meerkat. Unfortunately, the best ways to put your head right involve psychiatric professionals and talking therapy, or meditation.
Shrinks are a nonstarter. If I spill my guts to anybody who doesn’t have the right security clearances, then OSIRIS—the delightful folks who regulate the whole masked hero world—will ban me for good. And, the kind of shrink that comes with an OSIRIS seal of approval also comes with special reporting requirements under the Franklin Act on Metahuman Activities. Since I can’t afford to have the messier stuff in my head get back to OSIRIS—that way leads to banning too, or worse things—I’m out of luck on the psychiatric front.
So, I’ve decided that I’ll guide my own damned meditation and do something like talking therapy at the same time by writing my autobiography. Well, dictating it anyway.
“Oh, all right. I still don’t think I need to reprogram my brain, but I suppose if I’m going to make the effort, I should optimize the new code I’m imposing on my frontal lobes. Let’s try again, only a step further back in time. Dim the lights and hold all my calls, we’re going for a tour of my fundamental neuroses and the bomb that changed the world.”
I really didn’t want to do this. Maybe if I pretended it was a screenplay? A major motion picture all about the fabulous Foxman? Yeah. Let’s go with that. Foxman’s story, not Rand’s, not . . . mine. That would be easier, like talking about things that happened to someone else.
Establishing shot: Close in. A darkly handsome youth crouches on a skateboard in the classic pose coming off a jump, one hand lightly touching the deck which is tilted steeply back. The nighttime background is hard to read, but gives the impression he’s hundreds of feet in the air. His face wears an expression composed of equal parts terror and wonder. His mouth is open as though he is screaming, but all is silence.
Focus on the skateboard: It’s five times thicker than it ought to be and there’s a bright point of nearly invisible flame at the oddly blunt tail. A white vapor trail leads back and down.
Freeze. Shift to bullet time for a fast tracking shot following that trail. It leads downward at a forty-five degree angle to the steel support of a railroad bridge—the ramp. Turn. Zip back along the rough rusty riveted surface to a sharp bend where it leads onto the top of a speeding train. From there it moves the length of a car. Then, the camera drops between two cars and plummets to the rails. The vapor trail continues along the right-hand rail toward shore.
Pan back to the boy and his board. This time the background is clear—Minneapolis, with the boy hanging in space high above the ice-rimmed Mississippi River. The rocket has cut out. He seems perfectly balanced in the air for one more moment . . . Then, gravity reaches up and takes him. As he starts to fall, sound comes in normally.
Before he can finish speaking, an enormous bright flare starts below the packed deck of the freeway bridge that has come into focus behind him. It looks like a nuke going off, only with strange arabesques of black light, and neon-green edges—the Hero Bomb. For a moment we can see his bones as shadows against the light shining through him, then the noise of the explosion engulfs the scene and the boy begins the long fall to icy black water below.
. . . No.
I tell myself it’s not working dramatically, that my choice to shift gears has nothing to do with the way my heart is filling with lead. I tell myself I’m no good at this screenplay garbage. That, if it ever makes it to the big screen, the ghostwriter will deal with making it cinematic. That I’m going to focus on what happened. I’m good at lying to myself. So very good at it that I almost believe my own nonsense. I turn my thoughts to the idea of a ghostwriter. That’s safe. My breath comes easier. Yes.
What? You didn’t think I was going to let this go out into the world in the rough, did you? I’ve got a reputation to maintain, or the tattered remnants of one anyway. If it ever leaves the server it’ll do so after some serious massaging by someone with some major literary cred—writers are cheap and plentiful, even the award-winning ones. Yes, much safer ground. Time to begin again.
So: Rocket board. Bridge. Train. Falling to my doom. The bomb.
That’s more or less how it happened. I mean, the Hero Bomb might have actually gone off a couple minutes earlier, but moving it up into the moment makes for more drama. It makes it more real than reality, right?
Bone-numbing impact that drives the breath from my lungs. Icy black water closing over my head. Panic!
The voice in my head whispers.
“What’s that, Denmother?”
“Don’t forget the effect of your powers on the rocket, sir. Also, your breathing and heart rate suggest extreme distress. Perhaps, if you put on your armor?”
“The rocket? Yes, but . . . Oh, all right. I’ll put that in too.” Damned AI, keeping me on task . . . keeping me honest . . . saving my soul. “You’re probably right about the armor. Rand is too . . . vulnerable and squishy and close to the problem. Let’s let Foxman handle it.”
I spread my arms as I stepped up onto the armor platform. Nothing happened. Right. Breathalyzer. I’ve been clean and sober for over a year, but what OSIRIS wants OSIRIS gets. After I finished breathing into the tube, there was brief interlude with automated power tools as I slipped out of myself and into something a bit more comfortable . . . red-and-white powered assault armor with a grinning fox mask and fluffy-looking tail, all rendered in a poly-ceramic composite of my own invention.
Now, where were we? Right. Without the Hero Bomb and the powers it gave me, I could never have survived the fall. Even if I had, I’d probably have gone hypothermic and drowned before I could swim ashore. On the other hand, the rocket on my skateboard would never have been half so effective, and I’d have gotten off the track long before meeting the train. That would have precluded the need to use the bridge strut like a jump. But the point is still the bomb and the powers it gave me. No, not me, Foxman.
“All right, all right, I’ll go back a bit further.” This was supposed to be therapy, which demands honesty. Perhaps if I went with something earlier, something safer . . .
It maybe started with my sixteenth birthday present from my dad—Archibald Hammer of Foxhammer Industries—God, how I hated that car.
My relationship with my father was . . . difficult, what with him dumping my mother and using a whole herd of his fancy corporate lawyers to prevent her from getting so much as a penny in the divorce. He thought he’d end up with me too, but when the judge asked who I wanted to live with, I chose Mom. I think that might have been the first time in his whole life my dad lost out on something he wanted—billionaires rarely do.
The car—a brand-new ’88 Corvette—was his latest attempt to buy me back, and I’d sworn never to drive it. Which is why I was messing around with rockets and skateboards. A guy’s got to get around somehow. Besides, gutting that shiny new engine for parts to build the rocket felt like the perfect kick in the balls for the old man. And so it went . . .
“Rand, when are you going to schedule your driver’s test?” My mother knocked on the locked door of my room in our little apartment. “It’s been more than a month. Think of all the things you could do if you could drive . . .”
“I’ve almost got the Triumph running!” I glanced guiltily at the half-rebuilt carburetor sitting on the corner of the worktable I’d welded together from wheel rims and an old security door—but I’d long since lost interest in the project and had started quietly gutting it for parts along with the ’vette. Anybody could rebuild a car. “I want to take it in my own car.”
“A boy your age should be getting out more, going to movies, dating . . . You could use the ’vette.”
“It’s a new car, Rand, and it’s got your name on the title . . .”
. . . And a mostly empty engine compartment—not that I wanted her to know that. “I will never drive that car.”
“Look, just because your dad and I got a divorce doesn’t mean you have to cut him out of your life too.”
“I am not having this conversation again,” I growled as I stuffed tools into my backpack. “No, Mom.”
“Rand, he could do so much for you.”
But I was already going out my window. I used one foot to pin my skateboard to the roof of the shuttered warehouse that butted up against our apartment building, while I closed the window. Then I tipped the board onto the steep slope and shot away. At the edge of the roof I kicked up the nose and dropped six feet onto the top of a shipping container in the fenced-in yard of the warehouse. My wheels barely touched down before I was across and taking the next drop onto the concrete.
In a normal winter I would have had to shovel my way from there to the back door of the battered old building, but it had been unusually warm this year with repeated cold rains wiping out the snow. There was ice, sure, but surprisingly little for late November. As I got closer to the door, I hit the button on the garage door opener clipped to my backpack and, hey presto, I was inside.
The noise of my wheels echoed weirdly as I rolled half the length of the enormous empty space on my way to the old office block. The padlock there was latched with the hasp open so that it couldn’t be closed from the outside. That meant Michael had gotten in before me. No surprise on a Saturday. He was a morning person and I preferred not to get out of bed before noon. The outer office was quite warm—which told me he’d been there a couple of hours—and I could hear the sound of the old Singer industrial sewing machine I’d refurbed for him.
I poked my head into the room he’d taken for himself. “Whatcha working on?”
He never looked up from the machine or the dark velvety material he was sewing. “Got an idea for a formal-look duster. Can’t talk.”
That was classic Michael. Slim and dark haired with a sardonic smile, he was incredibly intense about clothes in every possible way. They spoke to him. Thick wooden closet rods had turned the abandoned office into something like a giant wardrobe or drive-in closet, with thousands of outfits hanging there. Overhead racks blossomed with hats, and hundreds of pairs of shoes and boots stood beneath the clothing. Michael himself had on a fancy three-piece suit from some European clothier’s—odd sewing wear for anyone but my best friend.
I’d met Michael at the extremely fancy private academy we both attended. My dad had paid for my schooling until recently, but I’d been on scholarship since the divorce. Michael’s tuition was covered by the weirdest trust fund you could possibly imagine. His parents had been quite wealthy, if not in the same league as my dad, but they’d died when Michael was thirteen. Now he lived in a big mansion on Summit Hill with a butler he absolutely detested. The trust fund paid for that, his schooling, a modest allowance, any food he ate at home, and an unlimited clothing budget. The senior Damians’ money had come from their international haberdashery empire and they’d left their fortune and their obsessions to their son, along with the deed to this warehouse.
I nodded at the back of Michael’s head and wandered over to the room that had once been the warehouse’s workshop. There on the bench lay the guts of the ’vette’s fuel injection system which I was attempting to convert into the guts of a hydrogen peroxide rocket engine. I wanted to make it small enough to fit between the decks of two skateboards I’d also cannibalized for the project.
As I started my soldering iron heating, I ran a finger along my left eyebrow, feeling for the bare patch left by the little hiccup I’d had with the iron and some spilled rocket fuel a few weeks ago. It had started to grow back, but I liked to remind myself that A) caution is important, and B) any day working on rockets without a dangerous explosion was a good day.
. . . Time passed.
Once Michael helped me put out the small fire on my workbench, we decided to knock off for a bit and get some burgers.
The railway provided us with a little slice of urban wilderness mostly cut off from the city around it. We could sit on the brush-covered slopes out of sight of anyone official and do the sorts of things that teenage boys playing hooky have always done. There were bums around, sure, but we had something of a truce with the regulars. Besides, we were fifteen and sixteen—you know, invulnerable.
But tonight was different. Tonight we were going to test my rocket board. It was December fifteenth, around six p.m.—solidly dark and into rush hour. There’d been some real snow finally, which made the pavement into a death trap for a skateboard going a reasonable speed. Add in the rocket . . . yeah. Not going to happen. Not inside the warehouse either. I’d already had plenty of warning about the dangers of mixing rocket fuel and interior spaces.
That’s how I’d settled on the railway. Not only was it clear of snow, but it was a perfect straightaway. I’d had to rig up a custom wheel set and a magnetic lock, but now the only way off that rail involved me hitting the toe release. That meant I didn’t need to worry about turns or bumps or anything but staying on the board. Perfect!
Michael shook his head as I locked the board onto the rail. “I don’t know, Rand. Don’t you think this is kind of dangerous? Maybe an unmanned test first . . .”
“Don’t worry. I’ve already tested the thrust on the rocket seventeen ways from Sunday. It’ll barely get me up to fifteen miles an hour before it tops out. A bike goes way faster than that. If anything goes wrong I can jump clear easy. It’ll be fine.”
“What about the bridge?”
“That’s nearly a mile away. I don’t even have enough fuel to make it that far. I’m going to go half a mile on rocket assist, max. I’ll coast to a stop well short of the bridge. I’ve done all the math more times than I’d care to count.”
I was more nervous than that, but hell if I’d admit it to Michael. I did check the straps on my helmet and various pads one more time. I know I didn’t mention them in the script version of this scene, but that’s the movies, man. Safety gear isn’t cinematic. I stepped up onto the board.
“Wish me luck.”
“Good luck, crazy man!”
I poised the toe of my sneaker above the rocket engage, and . . .
The world vanished with an intense purple flash like the world’s biggest black-light strobe firing off. For one brief instant I could see Michael’s skeleton like a green framework within the translucent purple outline of his body—oddly, nothing else seemed to go translucent. But I barely registered that over a sensation that felt like someone pumping every cell in my body full of hydrogen and lighting it on fire.
The sound of the Hero Bomb hit like summer lightning taking out the tree I was leaning on. If not for the sheltering banks of the railway, I think it might have knocked me off the board. Is it any wonder I accidentally stomped on the rocket ignition?
Instead of the fizzy noise I’d grown used to in testing, the rocket engaged with the full-throated roar of a fighter plane. I should have fallen off, but I could feel the board working with me, telling me what it was going to do and when. It sort of gripped my feet as well. Add in new and, as yet unrecognized, improved physical strength and reflexes and I stayed on. I must have been going close to a hundred miles an hour when I reached the bridge and saw the oncoming train.
Terror filled me and I stomped on the tail of the board. I forgot to toe the magnetic release, but it let go anyway—possibly in response to my unvoiced command. The rocket lifted me up . . . up . . . and I just cleared the front of that first car. I shot along the roof, knowing that I was going to fall between it and the next one and die. But then the board spoke to me again—pointing me at a possible out. Without thinking, I followed its direction, leaning to the right so that I sailed off the side of the car, hit a steeply angled girder, and rode it like the world’s craziest skateboard ramp. My fuel ran out a few feet short of the end, but I kept right on going, rising up off the girder in a beautiful ballistic arc . . . that ultimately terminated in the cold black waters below.
Freezing! Drowning! Dying. Yet still burning with the cellular level changes the bomb had initiated . . .
Tumbling and twirling and passing out only to wake up on a narrow tongue of ice sticking out into a calm place in the turbulent waters. Somehow crawling to shore and staggering upright. Dragging myself homeward. Stopping briefly at the warehouse to steal a change of clothes from Michael’s too abundant supply . . .
A mistake, that, in retrospect. A silly, stupid, childish mistake, that I would later compound hopelessly. But I didn’t dare let my mom see what the fall and the river had done to my own clothes. There was no hiding the mud or the blood. She’d have grounded me for a million years if she caught me coming in wearing that, or found it later.
Michael was smaller than me, and most of his clothes were hopeless, but I noticed a cheap-looking suit on the end of one of the racks that seemed bigger than his usual choices. It was a little tight, and the fabric was in terrible shape—picked up at Goodwill for parts probably—but it would do enough for decency’s sake, and it wasn’t
covered in river muck and my own blood.
I blew out both shoulders of the jacket climbing onto the shipping container, and ripped a knee open on the brickwork below my bedroom window. Then the zipper stuck as I was trying to get out of the pants, and I had to break it. I felt pretty bad about what I’d done to my borrowed wardrobe, but I was shaking and burning and freezing all at the same time. I couldn’t think or see straight, and once I’d stripped off the ruined clothing, I dropped it out the window so my mom wouldn’t find it and wonder. Then I fell headlong into bed.
“Rand, honey, are you finally coming round?” I felt a cool touch on my forehead.
I remember vaguely thinking Mom must have popped the lock—easy enough with a screwdriver. She normally respected my privacy, so something important must have happened.
“Mmm, fine. Jus’ need a little sleep . . .” I started to slip back into dreamland.
She caught hold of my shoulders. “Honey, you’ve been sleeping for nine days!” Before I could even think to respond she pulled me up into a hug.
“I—What?!?” I forced my eyes open. “You’re kidding, right?” But the look on her face said she was anything but.
“No. I wish I was—”
Her mouth kept moving, but I couldn’t hear a word she said over the ringing in my ears. You see, I had finally looked past her face to see the room around me. It was my bedroom, but not the one in the apartment. It was my old room in the Hammer mansion up on Summit Hill.
“You didn’t go to Dad for help just because I was sick, did you?” It would have hurt her terribly to have to do that. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, Rand. I didn’t go to your dad.”
“Then why are we here?”
“Because there was more room for the doctors to set up and come and go as they needed in your house than in my apartment.”
“I . . . What do you mean, my house? You know I don’t want to live with Dad.”
“Honey, there’s no easy way to say this . . . Your father is dead.”
“What? How?” I felt suddenly hollow, empty at my core where the fiery ball of rage I’d built for my dad collapsed in on itself, leaving nothing behind but an icy void. He couldn’t do this to me. We hadn’t settled anything yet!
My mother kept talking. “There was a bomb . . . a sort of radiological bomb.”
“Like a nuke? Was that what that flash was? I could see Michael’s bones right through his flesh!”
“Something like a nuke, yes. It took down the I-94 bridge, but they say that was only because of the priming charge. The actual radiological effect didn’t do physical damage to anything, but it killed . . . Well, a whole lot of people, hundreds of thousands.”
“Oh my God!”
“Hang on Rand, let me finish, because there’s more and it’s really important. They’re saying the death toll was . . . asymmetric. Some people who were fifty feet away from the blast were completely unaffected. Some who were fifty miles away were killed. Others, a very small number of others, were . . . changed.”
“Changed, how? And what’s that got to do with me?”
“You wouldn’t wake up, so I called nine-one-one. When the paramedics tried to move you, you picked one of them up with one hand and threw him across the room. They radioed it in and less than ten minutes later a helicopter arrived. There was a woman in it . . . a very strange woman. Her hair was green and gold, like those circuit boards you’re always taking apart. She had more gold tattooed across her cheek, like a circuit set right into her skin, and her eyes . . . brrr.”
My mother hugged herself and shivered. She looked frightened, and that terrified me. I’d never seen my mother scared of anything, not even when she was fighting my dad’s legions of flesh-eating lawyers during the divorce.
“She put a little blue box on your forehead. After a minute or so it beeped and a green light turned on and she nodded at the paramedic. ‘He’s one of ours all right, get a gurney and load him on the chopper.’”
“‘Like hell!’ I said.”
“Then what happened?”
“I was about to put my body between you and the door when your father’s lawyer walked in.”
My father had about a zillion lawyers, but only one that my mother would refer to as “your father’s lawyer.” Marcus Hamilton was Lucifer in a pin-striped suit and my father’s personal pet devil.
“Hamilton said, ‘Did I hear you tell those paramedics to take my client somewhere while he’s unconscious and against the wishes of Camilla Hammer, his mother and legal guardian?’”
“The woman with the weird hair looked at him then and sniffed. ‘Do I smell lawyer?’”
“Hamilton handed her his card. ‘I am the chief legal officer for Foxhammer Industries, and my client is the primary shareholder and ex officio chairman of the board.’”
“I’m what now?” Blinking owlishly, I interrupted my mother’s retelling of the earlier scene.
The voice of Marcus Hamilton spoke from somewhere behind her now. “You own a controlling interest in Foxhammer, worth one-point-seven billion dollars, though it’s to remain in trust until you reach eighteen or pass a series of tests your father left for you. Likewise, about another billion and a half in mixed assets.”
That was terrifying. “Oh. My.”
The lawyer stepped forward. “Now that you’re properly awake I need your authorization to make some phone calls—you are properly awake, aren’t you?”
“I think so. Phone calls?”
“I need to speak with the woman your mother was telling you about. She’s the director of OSIRIS, a government intelligence organization that is taking the lead on the aftermath of the bomb that killed your father. She became much more cooperative after I pointed out the sensitivity of grabbing the owner of one of America’s most important defense contractors in the middle of a military emergency, but she was most insistent that she have the opportunity to talk with you if you recovered.”
“If?” I said.
My mother gripped my wrist. “We were so worried.”
“I guess I better talk with the lady from OSIRIS,” I said.
Marcus nodded. “I’ll see to it. She calls herself Backflash.”
The next few weeks passed in a sort of manic blur.
I had a number of conversations with Backflash as she outlined the effects of what has since come to be known as the Hero Bomb on those with the right gene complexes. How we had been granted special gifts that we could use for good or evil, and how OSIRIS was hoping to steer our talents in the proper direction.
I also watched a lot of TV where the exploits of some of my fellow metahumans were making big news, and a whole new language was growing up to describe them. Most notable was Captain Commanding, with his amazing strength and near invulnerability, but there were many others, both heroic Masks and villainous Hoods. Some of the crimes sounded incredibly surreal, like the Dayton’s department store where the entire contents of the menswear section had assembled themselves into matching outfits, broken out a glass door, and marched away into the night.
When I wasn’t doing that or listening to mind-numbingly intense lectures about the family holdings and Foxhammer Industries from Hamilton, I was out in my dad’s workshop behind the main house. Say what you will about my father, he made his money the hard way, by dint of a true engineering genius and an absolutely ruthless pursuit of the commercial ends of that genius. The carriage house he’d converted to a workshop was amazing, and I was . . . three-quarters out of my mind.
The machinery spoke to me. All machinery spoke to me, but especially the tools in the workshop. They wanted me to use them to build something amazing. I think much of my dad’s soul, if such a thing exists, is there, tied forever to the machines he loved more than people. Working with them made that cold, empty place where my anger used to live feel less . . . dead.
I don’t know if I can really express it properly. I didn’t hate what my dad had done to my mom one tiny bit less. But the rage was gone and I had begun to admit to myself that much of the fire I’d felt was a desire to prove my father wrong. To make him admit how unfair his treatment of my mom had been, how unfair it was that he had forced me to choose between them, how unfair it was that he’d put me in a position where the only answer I could give the judge was the one I had. He took everything from her, everything but me. If I’d chosen him, it would have killed her. I loved them both, and I would have sold my soul not to have to make that choice, but because of him, I had to.
He forced me to push him away. I had wanted to make him see that, to apologize to me for making me destroy the relationship between us. Now that couldn’t ever happen. My father was gone, and I could never make him ask me to forgive him. And if he didn’t ask . . .
“Sir, are you all right?” Denmother’s cool voice cut across my memories. “Your heart rate and blood pressure are both spiking into the red zone. Do you need me to administer a tranquilizer?”
I shook my head. “No. This is the point of the exercise. I need to do this, to feel it . . . I’ll be all right.” I didn’t believe that, but I couldn’t stop now. It really was the point.
Working with my dad’s tools, I built the first iteration of the Foxman suit. On TV I’d watched Captain Commanding and some of the others picking up tanks and throwing them around. I wasn’t anything like that strong, but I knew that I could be. Stronger even. I just had to build my own muscles. My dad had gone beyond my reach, but his spirit spoke to me in the sizzle of the welder and the whine of the metal saw. I hammered out my new identity on the forge of his soul.
Most of the world thinks of the battle with Spartanicus—when I saved Captain Commanding’s life—as the first appearance of Foxman. That’s because I never told anyone about my fight with the Haberdasher—the day I broke my best friend . . .
I went over every inch of the suit again. I’d been able to run isolation trials with all of the weapons, and with the force amplification generated by the muscle boosters one arm or leg at a time, but the rockets didn’t work that way. Testing them was an all-in kind of bet. Either the crude flight AI I’d built would allow me to successfully pilot something with the lift aspect of a brick, or it wouldn’t, and I would run into something solid at several hundred miles per hour. If the latter happened, the armor might save me. Or, then again, it might not.
I don’t think I’d have tried it if I was completely sane, but I wasn’t even close at that point. In addition to the changes the Hero Bomb had wrought in making my body stronger and tougher, it had done a major rewiring job on my brain. And those aspects weren’t even close to settled at that point. I suspect that all of us who have acquired powers of the mind through exposure to the radiation that triggers the metahuman gene cascade go a bit mad for a time. Especially those of us who came to it young, when the brain is stewing in hormones.
When I finished with the maintenance checklist on the armor proper, I took the tail off and ran one last pressure test before filling it with a special hydrazine-based fuel mix I’d concocted. That was the original reason for the tail—somebody always asks. It provided me with an external tank for rocket fuel, and that made sense for all kinds of reasons, starting with ease of separation if something went wrong, and ending with keeping the major explosives on the other side of the armor from my precious hide. The tail was never just about decoration, though I’ve always thought it looked great. Tails are cool.
Once I armored up, I slipped into the darkened yard and toggled the fuel valve. Hydrazine flowed through armored lines on the outside of my legs down to the ports in the rocket nozzles in my boots. Taking a deep breath, I lowered my hands to my sides and engaged the catches on the steel bat wings that I used on that first version of the suit. Raising my arms to ninety degrees gave me something of the look of a flying squirrel.
I engaged the rockets . . .
The next five minutes involved more direction changes than a bouncy ball shot into an empty concrete mixer and more close calls than a tap-dancing buffalo in a crowded antique shop. I had to open my helmet and throw up—twice. But at the end of that time, I was flying in a more or less controlled fashion. That wanted a destination, so I decided to stop back at our secret clubhouse and pick up some of the gear I’d left there. I landed at the back door a few minutes later, opened it, and . . .
Picture the storeroom for a costume shop at the largest theater you ever heard of—filled with endless rows and heaps of the most bizarre and wonderful outfits you can imagine. Picture several such rooms. Toss the contents into the biggest clothes dryer in the whole world. Start it up. When it’s spinning its fastest, open the door. The inside of the warehouse looked like the laundromat in the middle of that clothing explosion.
There were clothes everywhere and in every possible attitude. Heaps of clothes, racks of clothes, entire outfits hanging in the air like sales displays sans the mannequins, shirts arranged like the petals of some gigantic sartorial rose, rows of pants caught seemingly mid–dance number. It was a pandemonium of sartorial excess, and it filled the warehouse from floor to ceiling.
What had been going on while I was away?
I started picking my way toward the offices and my own little workroom. I had crossed perhaps fifteen feet when a green-faced figure in a gray suit and a bowler hat leaped at me out of one of the piles of clothing, swinging an umbrella at my face. It happened so quickly I didn’t have time to do anything before the umbrella hit my steel muzzle and snapped. Then I overreacted, pointing my left fist at the thing’s chest and firing both of my wrist-mounted rockets.
They punched straight through and blew up a huge mound of clothing on the other side. For one horrified moment I was certain I’d killed someone. But despite the gaping holes in its chest, the figure didn’t fall, and once I had a moment to really look at it, I realized it was nothing more than an empty suit. Literally. There was no one inside the gray wool coat and pants, and what I had initially taken for a face was actually a handbag made to look like a huge green apple perched between the white shirt’s collar and the bowler hanging above.
The suit lunged. Extending the broken umbrella like a rapier, it drove the jagged end into the eye socket of my helmet. That startled me, but didn’t do any harm, as it encountered an inch-thick circle of bulletproof glass and bent double. Spinning, I extended the blades that took the place of rockets on my left wrist and sliced the outfit in half. It crumpled and fell to the floor. But even as I started to breathe a little sigh of relief, I saw other outfits staggering up from the piles—an entire army of empty suits rising to assault me like some twisted allegory for corporate America.
I should have turned back, but I was closer to the offices than the exits, and I fought my way forward, slicing down one faceless attacker after another until a great wave of sweatpants tumbled me and I broke my blades on the concrete floor. I might have gone under and stayed under then, but I saw the office block through a gap in the fleecy waves and triggered a brief burst from my boot rockets, launching me forward through the open doorway. Before I’d even come to a stop I kicked the door shut behind me.
Rising to hands and knees, I glanced around. Through the inner door on my left, I could see Michael working away on his sewing machine. At least, I presumed it was Michael—it certainly looked like him from the back, though what I could see of his outfit looked even wilder than his usual style. A natty bottle-green collar was just visible above the red velvet of his long coat, while a tall black top hat rose above.
“Is that you under all that banal ironmongery, Rand?” It was Michael’s voice, but wrong somehow—simultaneously muffled and manic.
I nodded, then realized he couldn’t see me without turning around—which made me wonder about his comment on my armor. “Yeah, are you all right, Michael?”
“Michael is dead,” he replied. Then he stood and slowly turned around.
In addition to the tall hat and what was now revealed to be a Regency-style velvet topcoat, he wore a pair of tight black trousers and high, polished riding boots. His face was partially hidden behind a sort of veil made from black netting that fell all the way to his cravat. Wide measuring tapes crossed his chest in an X, like a pair of bandoliers. They were studded with dozens of shining needles, as well as a wide variety of pearl and shell buttons, tiny spools of thread, thimbles, and other tools of the sewing trade.
“If Michael’s dead, who are you?” I asked. “And how did he die?”
“I am the Haberdasher, though I was Michael Damian right up until you killed him.”
“I . . . What now?”
“You murdered him along with that ruined suit you so casually discarded.”
“Suit, wha—” But then I remembered staggering home after the Hero Bomb and borrowing a suit from the rack here. “Wait, that thing?” I leaned forward into the doorway. “It was more than half wrecked when I put it on. Surely you’re not going to freak out about that?”
“That was the suit that founded a stitchery empire,” replied the Haberdasher. “My mother hand sewed it for my father so that he’d have something appropriate to wear to the bank when he asked for a loan to start their haberdashery business. It was the one true thing I had left from my parents’ life, and you practically destroyed it! It told me all about your abuse and the way you threw it out the window—threw it away like garbage!”
Before I could so much as take one step farther a whole swarm of designer jeans leaped on me from behind, squeezing and tugging—half blinding me. I had to do something quickly, or the horrible Haberdasher’s army of animate apparel would be the end of me! I activated the tiny circular saw in the back of my right gauntlet. If I could just cut through the death-dealing denim without slicing my own throat . . .
But even as I cautiously applied saw to fabric, a precisely aimed fedora wedged under the edge of the spinning blade, causing it to seize with a sharp whining sound. Within seconds I had strips of denim pressing deep into the hinge mechanisms of my armor at knees and elbows, binding them up and rendering much of my amplified strength moot. When a seam slipped past my neckpiece and started to cut off the blood to my brain I knew I only had seconds to act . . .
As I went over backward, I spotted a tattered suit pinned on a tailor’s dummy where the Haberdasher had begun to make a painstaking series of repairs, and I realized I only had one chance. Triggering the rocket in my right boot for a fraction of second, I washed the dummy with the briefest burst of flame while I aimed my other boot at the nearby racks. It was a calculated risk. If I burned the place down, I’d cook with it, but I figured that here, in his inner sanctum, was where the Haberdasher would keep his most precious items of apparel—witness his father’s suit.
“Let me go, Haberdasher! Let me go, or I’ll burn them all to a crisp. I swear I will, I will burn every last one of them, and you will hear them screaming in your dreams for all the days of your life.” I didn’t know that Michael could hear the clothes talking to him in the same way I could hear machines talking to me, but it was the only card I had to play.
“You wouldn’t,” he whispered, but the denim eased up on my throat. “They’re alive, Rand, alive and aware. If you burn them . . .”
“I don’t want to do it, but if it’s me or a rack of clothes, you can bet your life which way the fire will go.”
“I . . . Don’t. No, please. Let the garments go unharmed. I surrender.”
The jeans released their grip on me, falling to the floor in loose piles. I had defeated my first Hood—to borrow this mad new world’s parlance—but I didn’t have the foggiest notion what to do with him next.
I couldn’t keep my rockets trained on the clothes forever. “So, now what?”
I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud until I heard a quiet answer from the room behind me. “OSIRIS will take it from here, Foxman. That’s the reason we exist.”
“Backflash?” I glanced over my shoulder and found myself looking deep into green eyes flecked with gold.
She walked past me and Michael tensed, but then moving with astonishing speed, she touched a small black device to the back of Michael’s neck where it fastened itself. Instantly, his shoulders slumped and he went unnaturally still.
Backflash touched the black box and spoke quietly. “There’s a helicopter waiting outside, Haberdasher.”
He nodded a zombie sort of nod and started shuffling toward the door. Halfway there he stopped and looked at Backflash. “They said I was mad about clothes, mad. But I showed them all. The clothes speak to me . . .”
“I’m sure that they do, Haberdasher, and that they will again in the future. Now go on out to the chopper.”
Then he was gone, and Backflash was walking a slow circle around me, looking over the armor and occasionally touching this bit or that. “Nice work, Rand. Nice work indeed. You show very great promise.”
I blinked at her owlishly—my head felt like it was full of lint. “My best friend nearly just killed me over a cheap suit. And with one, come to think of it.”
Backflash nodded, and I thought I could see a sort of sadness deep in her eyes. “Yes, he did, and there’s going to be a lot more of that sort of thing before it gets better. A lot more.” Then she turned, and without another word, followed Michael out the door.
I went to the suit on the tailor’s dummy and patted out a faintly smoking spot on one lapel. I would take it home and see if I couldn’t repair it for Michael. I owed him that and more. After all, I knew a thing or two about unfinished business and dead fathers . . .
The voice that spoke into my head then was clean and genderless—Denmother. “Excellent first session, sir! A good step in the right direction.”
I wasn’t so sure that rebattling the Haberdasher and the past would help with battling my current demons, but I guessed it was a start, and I had promised Meerkat that I would try. I owed my sidekick that . . . and so much more.
“The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman: Excerpts from an EPIC Autobiography” Copyright © 2015 by Kelly McCullough
Art copyright © 2015 by Junyi Wu