04:10:25 - So So Sodium
Space is mostly empty, without even the basic elements to break up the monotony. So when one comes across something, it's an opportunity to run to the window and say, "Look honey, a chunk of rock...".
Things are somewhat less celebratory when the other object is moving in the opposite direction at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Bad things tend to happen, such as the things now happening to the Bartungle freighter.
Froodl was having a bad day, and the multitude of red lights that had suddenly appeared on his control board made it considerably worse. While waiting for the complete list of damaged components to scroll by, Froodl contented himself with cursing the engineers, the designers, the builders, and the NEAR emptiness of space. He managed to curse the mothers, fathers, dogs, and cats of all the above, and was about to start making things up when the list finally finished scrolling by. Deciding that there was no way something too small to have shown up on his scanners could have done that much damage, Froodl began to prepare for his EVA. This is no small task for a Bartungle, since Bartungles possessed a physiology that made getting dressed in a vacuum suit comparable to getting a three year old into a snowsuit.
Several hours later, a still cursing Froodl was moving back into the cargo hold. The source of his problems became evident in the presence of a hole, about three feet across, and a foot high. A single hole in the outer hull of his ship would have been repairable, or even ignored until he reached dock. The problem was that in turning around, a progression of holes continued to pass through wall after wall, after wall, after wall...for a long, long, ways.
This, he though, will cause problems.
Hiking along the path of holes to the other end of his ship, Froodl eventually found the source of the rectangular holes. Floating against a now rather dented exterior bulkhead was an only slightly mangled...rectangle. It was of no recognizable manufacture or material, with any writing that may have been on the box ground off by cosmic dust, and its more recent passage through most of his ship. At this point there shouldn't have been anything left of the container, considering the damage it had done to several hundred meters of walls and bulkheads, but there it was. A thin seam was visible along one long side, and a set of hinges along the other. Gathering it up, Froodl moved back to his luckily un-perforated living quarters to examine the artifact.
After failing to open the container with drills, pry bars, and a plasma torch, success was gained by knocking twice with a sledge hammer and screaming "OPEN." Froodl didn't think the sledgehammer had done it, and had to resist the urge to keep knocking after it was open. Inside was a rod about 2 feet long, and about 1 ½" thick, rounded at both ends with no visible buttons or switches. It was uniformly dark, and opaque along its length. Picking it up with both hands, turning it over, and looking at all angles, he was still unable to see any purpose. The rod began to strobe gently, a pattern of lights traveling slowly back and forth along its length.
Skipping the grinding, torching, and knocking, Froodl moved directly to the "asking nicely" stage. Looking both ways to make sure no-one was looking, and feeling like an idiot, he said quietly, "Work."
The rod began to play a cheery little "please wait" tune, of the sort heard in elevators galaxy wide.
It completed its tune with a noise best described as "flatulent", and then went silent and dark. Froodl, with a mild feeling of dissapointment, tried again to get some sort of different response. He finally decided that he'd gotten the galactic version of a discarded happy meal toy, and tossed it back into the box. Froodl decided that he'd wasted enough time on the device, and should probably be trying to fix his ship.
In the control room, the list of damaged components had stopped scrolling by, and the ships automated repair mechanisms had settled from a "screaming crimson", into a more mellow "moaning maroon" tone. Calling up the damage control screens again, Froodl discovered additional problems. Not enough raw materiel was available to the damage control systems to complete repairs. A map of the nearby stellar systems revealed that he was passing through the stellar equivalent of "resume speed", so any rescue would be long in coming. Only one system seemed to have a sufficiently advance culture to have the refined elements he required, and it was marked "Restricted: Developing Culture" by Galactic Customs.
Weighing the chances of being caught against the fines he would incur in waiting for a rescue, Froodl set a course for the planet known quaintly by its residents as "Earth."
If anyone could sympathize with Froodl's bad day, it was Max. A recent graduate of the Lakehead graduate program for henchmen, stooges, and mad scientist aides, he had quickly realized that the money was bad, the work was dangerous, and the employers crazy. He seriously thought of joining an Israeli mine clearing team for better pay and safer working conditions after his first henching gig.
A job offer from a cousin who owned a delivery company of questionable legality had led to his current employment, making deliveries to questionable characters. Strange purchases like 400 liters of espresso, brine shrimp, and 80 gallons of salt water. All items easily enough procured, but the outrageous markups his cousin able to charge led him to believe that the "delivery company" was just a money laundering organization. The people at Starbucks were really starting to hate him too.
Tonight's purchases were actually pretty normal, though the mark-up on them continuted to hover around 3000%. Several tons worth of metal, as well as some powdered metallurgical supplies, nickel, carbon, and some other items he didn't recognize, but the local steel foundry assured him they could provide. The delivery details were none too unusual, bring the materials on a flat bed truck to a dark field a few miles out of town at 1:15 am, and someone would be there to make the exchange. The word "normal" ceased to apply when Froodl arrived to accept delivery. Max was confronted with an alien vessel, complete with a stubby looking alien waddling down the gangway. Henching 101 just hadn't prepared Max for this sort of meeting. The nervous little alien waddled right up to Max, who began to wonder if this strange little alien was here to "phone home."
Max was almost disappointed to hear a string of gibbering from the alien followed by the box hanging around his chest saying "Do you have the metals?"
"Garffplll," replied Max.
The small alien began beating vigorously on the small brown box, hanging from a strap round his neck, muttering obscenities about cheap intergalactic translators. He then saw the waiting truck, and said "ah, there they are." A group of robotic workers began to load the metal onto the small ship, ignoring the still stuttering Max.
"Who? What? You're...you're...an...a" Max resumed stuttering incoherently at this point. Froodl stopped beating the translator for a moment, and turned to face Max again.
"Ah, it does work." Froodl waddled back to Max, holding the rectangular box in his hand. "Well, I don't actually have any MONEY per se, but I'm sure you'll find this piece of junk...er...valuable technology way more valuable." As a small black rod was pressed into Max's hands, the two were intterupted by the harsh illumination of the entire field, and a loudspeaker voice.
"Galactic Customs, you're under arrest for illegal trading with a developing species." Boomed the requisite loudspeaker voice.
"Garffplll," replied Max.
"Prppppttt," added Froodl
Froodl's next response was somewhat more helpful, involving a waddling sort of sprint back to his landing craft. Max's henchly instincts then kicked in, and his body began a sprint for the nearest patch of darkness, while his mind remained gibbering in the center of the field. His instincts knew that the best way to avoid incarceration and death was to stay far, far away from harsh illumination and booming loudspeaker voices. Soon Max found himself a hench sized hole and climbed into it.
With his terror fading to major unrest, Max was able to begin inventory. This included a round black rod, about 2 feet long, and about 1 ½" thick. "Great. I get a visit from E.T., and all I get is this lousy piece of ... something." Turning it over in his hands Max was unable to discern anything new. "Huh, I wonder how this thing even works." The rod lit up, and began to play its happy little muzak theme. However, instead of a fart noise, there was more of a happy bleeping followed by unconsciousness on the part of Max.
Froodl's escape had gone considerably less well, possibly due to his less than rapid sprint to his ship. With a continued use of bright illumination, this one in the form of a spotlight focused on the unhappy alien, Roger continued his interrogation "So, your ship was damaged, and you just decided it was a good idea to violate a GC quarantine rather than wait for help? Is that pretty close?" asked Roger.
"Yes, and if you'll just let me collect the materials, then I'll be on my way, and we'll can forget this ever happened," pleaded a very nervous Froodl.
"You are aware that distributing any material from any of the 2092 developed systems to an undeveloped system is an offense punishable by confiscation of your vessel?" asked Roger.
"Yes, and I told you, I just handed him a piece of space junk, that plowed through the better part of my ship! Just junk, nothing restricted!" Replied a now gibbering Froodl.
The interrogation was re-convened in a slightly less threatening conference room. If any room containing a smiling Phil could be considered "non-threatening."
"We can't confiscate his ship for dumping garbage, but we can fine him for littering," said Rhino.
"Can I still hit him?" said Phil. Froodl did a fair impression of a frightened turtle, cringing into a corner.
"No, but you can escort him back to his ship, and verify his story that he was just passing off a bit of space junk," said Rhino
"Right, and if he's lying, then I get to hit him?"
"Only if he's lying."
Max woke up with a headache, and a bad case of the queasies. The headache caused by him hitting his head on the way to the floor, the stomachache from the range of smells assaulting his nasal passages. The nitrogen in the horse manure was near overpowering, then the realization that he could smell the ELEMENTS that made up the manure made him forget all about the headache. Playing back in his mind the last few moments before his unconsciousness, he began to scrabble through the hay looking for the rod. It had returned to its original flat black coloring, no lights or alien muzak.
"Cool. Magic wand. Wonder what else it can do." A silver sheen began to run up his hand, and over his arm. Max quickly dropped the rod, and the silver sheen faded away. He stared at his hand, turning it over and back, and remembering the sensation when his hand changed, he found his hand slowly changing again. The change stopped at his wrist, and now his hand looked as if it were made entirely of a silvery, shiny metal. Steam and warmth began to emanate from his silvered hand, but an almost subconscious prodding showed him how to control the oxidation, and only minimum effort was required to keep himself from bursting into flame. His new hand felt heavy and solid, and an experimental swing at the wooden wall beside him delivered a satisfying crunch, as well as a throbbing wrist. Experimenting with moving the silvery sheen around his body, Max found he could cover himself entirely, his whole body effectively made from the shiny metal.
His newfound super abilities seemed to demand a super-name. A moments pondering produced a grin, and a new name. "Heavy Metal Max." he decided, and then looked around for more things to hit.
It didn't take long for Phil to find out that she wouldn't be hitting anyone today. The hole running from one end of the ship to the other was evidence enough that the damage was real. "What made this hole? It must have been incredibly hard to retain its shape after coming through the bulkhead, and all of those holes look like an almost perfect rectangle," said Phil.
"It was a box, I'll let you see it if you want later," replied a distracted Froodl, intent on supervising the repairs now being conducted on his ship.
"What kind of box?" asked Phil, now sensing that she might actually get to do some hitting.
"Uh...box? Um, no, I meant space rock..., I mean if it was a box, then there would have been something in it, and then it wouldn't have been space debris, and...oh no."
Phil smiled; she would get to hit someone.
"So the "space debris" was actually a piece of alien technology?" asked Jack, his head and shoulders visible on the communications unit Phil was using.
"And quite the piece of technology as far as I can tell. I opened the box, with a little instruction from Froodl. It all responds to voice commands. I just asked it for the contents of the box, and the inside lit up with a complete instruction manual. This thing is incredibly old. Seems that there were some cultures doing research into a set of mostly latent abilities to exhibit control over singular elements out of the periodic table. This device was designed to take people with those latent genes, and activate them, turning a latent ability into an active one, even included a sort of a primer for how to use the abilities. Quite a feat of engineering actually. Of course, most cultures had very low populations of even latent gene carriers. Seems humans are a bit unusual in that, the box indicates that there are literally tens of thousands of people who have at least portions of the latent gene structure."
"Can the technology be reproduced?" said Jack leaning towards the screen.
"We have the instructions for the device, but it would be like trying to build a nuclear reactor with a stone and two twigs, we just don't have the supporting technology to build anything like this stuff. What's better is that someone on earth already has the device. Seems our friend here had no idea what he was trading and gave the device to the human male we saw scrambling away from the sting earlier."
"Can we find him?" asked Jack.
"No real way of tracking him now, but I'm sure that we'll be hearing about it soon enough from the evening news. Those sort of abilities just aren't that common."
"I'll have Roger put out any feelers he's got going and try and find out if anything like that is making the rounds of the black market. In the meantime, get right back Earthside, if this character turns out to be trouble, we'll need to exert some rapid damage control."
"Meaning I get to hurt someone?"
"Meaning you get to hurt someone."
Max kept himself busy experimenting with the rod, and his own rapidly growing set of abilities. With a little effort he could change any part of his silvered body into any shape, ranging from a large heavy fist, to a razor sharp edge. He could also change the density of the metal, though a heavier body meant a smaller one. Further experimentation and he realized that he could feel the ... sodium he realized, all around him. Exciting the sodium in a near-by pile of horse manure caused the pile to quickly burst into flame. Even quicker was the realization that some things just shouldn't be set on fire if you plan to breathe. The final bonus was the ability to generate enough Sodium to make a flaming 10-pound ball of metal that could hurl fast enough to make it in the major leagues.
Now the question of the day was what to do with these new powers. A more altruistic Max might have decided to join the hero business. Heck, there was definitely money to be made in metal working, but with the role-models your average hench can be expected to grow up with, the decision was an easy one.
By the time a now smiling Phil had returned, Jack had a briefing well under way.
"Carla, contact the League of Heroes, and let them know that this is a GC affair, and that we need them to stay out of it. Roger, you contact War, and have him pump Hydrogen Guy on any information he can give us on dealing with a rogue elemental, but try to keep the alien technology part quiet."
Rhino interrupted "Why keep quiet? Wouldn't it be easier to plan if everyone to knew the source of his abilities? Not to mention the possible uses we could make of it ourselves."
Jack thought for a second and then replied. "If it gets out that we have a super-hero machine, we'll have to fight every wanna-be hero, vigilante, government, military agency, and sight-seer to get it back. We can't expose cultures to alien technology, and if we let so much as a breath out that these powers aren't unique, we won't ever be able to pry it out of the hands of whatever dictatorship manages to get its hands on it."
The comm. screen then lit up with the face of Radar. "The runner at the sting has made his first public appearance already, we've got him on local television, I've already started jamming the transmission, but I'll patch his signal in to you."
The now strongly modified face of Max appeared on the screen, his skin a light, shining grey, his features metallic, with out-sized hands and feet at the ends of bulked-up arms and legs, even his voice had a metallic tint to it. "Unless I am paid 150 million dollars, in the next hour, I'm going to tear apart this metal foundry, killing everyone in a 20 km radius around me." Having been surrounded by the finest in Super villain rolemodels, Max began describing his plans in painful detail, when he moved on to describing the flavors of crullers to be served at the after annihilation party, Radar came back on screen.
Radar came back on the view screen. "I was able to scramble that transmission, so we're the only ones who know he's there, but we'd better do something within the next hour."
"All right" said Jack. "Get suited up and ready for combat, we'll take him down fast, and be out of there well before the hour is up. He's only been working with these powers for a day now, so we can assume he'll be sloppy using them. If we can isolate him from the technology, he might even lose control of his abilities. Kit up, and meet in transport in 5 minutes, move now."
Max amused himself while waiting by making rude shapes out of the molten metals in the foundry, and seeing how many banks he could make off of the chemical tanks with flaming balls of sodium before one of them blew up. His record was one bounce so far.
His snooker practice was interrupted by an explosion removing both his side and corner pockets. A heavily armored duo, followed closely by a small group of more conventionally armed and armored troops came in through the newly renovated wall. "Under Galactic customs reg..."Roger didn't get to finish his statement before diving to the ground to avoid a flaming ball of sodium, aimed at his head.
Phil's extensive knowledge of traffic court, and engineering, led her to take the most direct approach, hitting him very, very hard with a very, very heavy hammer. The hammer stopped inches away from Max's head, as if it had struck solid rock. A metallic hand then reached out to grip an equally immobilized Phil, expanding to wrap around her entire helmet, and lifting her into the air. Rhino, in his carpenter ant armor rushed in with his usual finesse, delivering a massive head-butt to the stomach of the metallic monstrosity. The impact was enough to knock both Phil, and the wand from his grasp. Phil being caught by Rhino, and the wand being scooped up by Shimo. Rising from the wreckage of what used to be a cinder-block wall, Max started flinging flaming sodium balls at any movement that could be seen through the dust.
"Well, that didn't WORK, did it?" shouted Shimo, the sound of alien Muzak being drowned out by the sounds of flames and explosions. The happy burbling was missed by all, as was the flash of light. Especially by the now unconscious Shimo.
The melee went on for a few minutes with vicious interchange of weapons, and gunfire. The bullets sinking harmlessly into the sodium, and the fireballs of sodium ripping through structure, and igniting material wherever they landed. Finally the combination of blunt attacks from Phil's hammer, and the mechanized fists and head of Rhino, began pushing the elemental back towards the melting vat. Both Shimo and Phil hoped the high heat might do more damage than their own attacks. A now conscious, though woozy, Shimo began to drag himself along the ground, his head reeling, his stomach roiling with the urge to vomit. The suddenly powerful fumes of burning chemicals leaving his eyes watering and his head swimming. Struggling across the floor, Shimo crawled towards the sounds of battle.
Backed up against the melting vat, his skin steaming from the heat of the vat behind him, his abilities straining to prevent his own ignition, Max made one last attempt at pushing back his assailants, drawing molten sodium from the vat behind him to melt the grate between himself and his assailants. The grates snapped underneath the weight of the heavily armored Phil and Rhino, and they crashed to the floor below. The far end of the grate lifted like a teeter-totter, and the disoriented Shimo was catapulted into the arms of the elemental. Max began to crush Shimo with a metallic bearhug. Shimo, gasping, seemed to become insubstantial for a moment before both shapes were lost in the flash of a massive explosion.
[Several hours, and 30 band-aids later]
"Shimo was a latent what?" said Carla.
"A Oxygen Elemental, when Shimo went elemental the high heat from the spilled molten metal, and the sudden introduction of an accelerant was enough to light up our friend like a roman candle. Now he's scattered over a three block radius, so there's no way the pieces can ever come back together," replied a still bruised Rhino. "The official story is an industrial accident, so we won't be facing any questions there either. As for running into any more rogue elementals we're pretty sure that technology was one of a kind."
"This technology hasn't been made for millions of years, chances are there were only a couple of them ever made, and the chances of running into another working model aren't worth considering," added Phil.
[scene fades to the blackness of empty space]
[narrators voice] Space, though mostly empty, is also infinitely vast. Moving through the vastness of space at a considerable fraction of lightspeed, more roughly rectangular boxes, their labels scoured by cosmic dust continue to float.
[The sound of alien muzak plays briefly before credits]