Barney fumbled with his keys in the dark. He figured that he had forgotten to turn on the porch light. Although, it usually came on with a light sensor. It ran on a nuclear isotope with a half-million-year long half-life. Now he was trying to remember which of his novelty keychains was the one with the house key on it. He leaned to one side and put his grocery bags on his hip. Flipping through his key rings he found the small vinyl figure of Hildi with big blank eyes. He shook his head. How could he forget?
Walking inside his home, he wondered why all the lights were off. He always left a lamp on in the living room. It used to be a doomsday device that vented power through a constant tiny pilot-light at the top. Barney had thrown a lampshade over it and called it decor. It was actually pretty dangerous to leave the light off he thought. Barney navigated around some laundry he had been folding and reached under the shade.
He said, “Hey Rotor, here girl. I brought you some treats. Where is that mutt?”
The light clicked on with a snap. Barney jumped back. He blew on his fingers. They were a little burned from the ignition.
“Welcome home, Barney,” said Amy Dangerous spinning around in his recliner.
He jumped again dropping his grocery bags. “Oh damn. Hell, woman. Are you trying to kill me?”
She looked hurt. Amy had a fat pit bull curled up in her lap. She was scratching the dog behind their ears. Its tonguing hung out of their mouth in joy. Amy said, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you but I always wanted to have a dramatic reveal like this. Is the dog new?”
Barney took a seat on the couch next to his folded clothes. He said, “Yeah, ever since Tonia has been out of the house more I thought I could use some more company.”
The pair sat in silence for a few moments. A clock ticked away the moments. The clock was completely normal and ran on two AAs. It had novelty hands that made it look like a pair of wrenches and a tire. Rotor panted in rhythm with the clock.
Barney exhaled, took a breath, licked his lips, and then said, “So? What’s going on?”
Amy’s eye widened. She said, “Oh, right. Barney Steel, I know you’ve been fighting crime without a license. So, as your friend, I’m here to ask that you turn yourself in.”
The old man stared at her. The dog cocked its head and held one ear up. Barney let out a hearty laugh. He slapped his knee and rolled to his side. “What?!” he asked. “At my age, I thought it was pretty neat I got my own groceries without breaking a hip. But you think I’ve been fighting crime? I’ve been fighting with boredom. What makes you think I’ve been out doing the capes thing?”
Amy looked frustrated. She pulled out a cell phone out of a flight suit pocket and tossed it to him. He started swiping through the pictures. She said, “I can spot one of your designs from a few miles away. Don’t try and play coy with me. That’s one of yours. It’s been showing up at a lot of small-time meta-gang meetups and knocking their heads together. Which wouldn’t be a problem, usually, but it disrupted a five-year undercover operation. Two friends of mine almost got busted because of it.”
Barney’s face was stiff. He rubbed his lip. Amy asked him a question but he didn’t respond. He grabbed a pen. He started scribbling out a wiring diagram on the back of an old magazine. After a while, he looked up. The recliner was empty. Amy was in the kitchen. Barney walked over to the kitchen counter bar. Amy was putting his food away.
“You put my groceries up?” He asked.
She smiled then said, “I know better than to bother you when you’re nerding. What’s the word? Do you recognize the armor?”
He held the magazine up and said, “It’s based on my designs but that isn’t mine. The base chassis looks exactly like a hunk of junk I put together to beat up Garth a few months ago though.”
Amy looked shocked. She asked, “Trouble in paradise?”
Barney rolled his eyes and said, “We were working through stuff. Listen, it looks like someone stole my designs but I promise you it’s not me. I could track it down. The energy source for this has to be pretty beefy. It’d give off a personalized energy signal, just like the one in my garage.”
Amy reached into a cookie jar. Taking a chocolate chip cookie out she inspected and dropped it back in. Barney raised an eyebrow. He reached over to a different jar and handed her an oatmeal raisin. She smiled. The superhero asked, between bites of cookie, “So, where’s this tracker?”
Barney laughed and replied, “What makes you think I have one lying around.”
She didn’t have to say anything. He cracked a smile and grabbed his keys. They walked out the back door into the junkyard. Rotor followed close behind. Crickets chirped. Most of a flying saucer was up on cinder blocks. A mechanical dragon was in a couple of heaps. There were also some cars in different states of dismantlement.
Amy asked, “I thought I heard you retired?”
Barney shook his head. “I mean, you’re not wrong exactly. I kind of shut down after… after the Artificial Invasion. I turned my focus on Tonia. Now, I’m getting back into it some. If the scrap is interesting that is.”
Amy gestured at some of the cars. Barney shook a finger at her. “Those are classics, thank you very much.”
The old man unlocked the garage side door. Stepping inside, he flipped a few switches and rows of fluorescent lights clicked on. Rotor ran around the room sniffing things and wagging their tail. One side of the room was a pile of odds and ends of metal. On the other side was a well-organized workbench. Beside the bench, a ladder leaned against a bulky shape covered with a tarp.
Barney said, “See? What did I tell you? My suit is right here where I left it.”
He pulled back the tarp. It was empty except for a human-shaped wire frame and a note. The note said, ‘I OWE U’ and ‘-XO’. Barney’s hand crumpled up the note. He walked to his work table and collapsed onto a stool.
Amy put a hand on his shoulder. She said, “She’s a smart girl.”
Barney nodded. “That’s what I’m worried about.”
He picked up a box with a handle and several antennae. Clicking a switch, it started buzzing. He moved it around till he turned it toward the sky over the junkyard. Rotor began to bark. The dog was facing the wall but its head moved like it was tracking something in the air. Its head transformed. From nose to neck, their face opened into a satellite dish.
“Are you for real?” Amy said, “Your dog is a robot?”
Barney huffed. He asked.“I can have hobbies, can’t I?” He turned to the dog-bot. “What is it, girl?”
Rotor cocked their head to the side and let their tongue dangle for a moment. They let out two quick happy barks but stopped. Rotor started growling. Their head snapped back together and they ran outside in a burst of energy.
Amy and Barney followed. The junkyard was quiet. Even the crickets had stopped chirping. Rotor was still growling at a blank patch of sky. Amy squinted but didn’t move. Barney toggled a switch on his glasses. The lens glowed a faint amber.
He said, “Rotor, sit.” The dog obeyed. “Rotor, deploy flak missiles on my target.”
A pair of rockets unfolded from the sides of the dog. Their nose followed Barney’s eyes. For a second, they both followed something in the air before Barney blinked. Both rockets took off at their target.
Amy scoffed. She said, “You and your toys.”
Barney chuckled. A faint explosion lit up a low hanging cloud. Silver flashes followed. Thunder echoed off the neighborhood. Then silence again. Barney took a few steps back. A suit of power armor fell like a stone toward the junkyard. It was smoldering but intact. Amy started to take flight but Barney held up a hand. Thirty feet before impact, thrusters fired off from the armor. They slowed it down till it landed with a gentle drop.
The helmet slide open to show Tonia’s face. She said, “Daddy?! What’s the big deal with using the EMP flak rockets? I could have died!”
Barney stood ridge.
Tonia continued, “Okay, I’m sorry. It was just gonna be a one-time thing and then it just sort of happened again and then there was a real big emergency but I took care of it but then you wouldn’t believe this thing with some vampires and then my friends were in danger so I had to do it again and now, well… uh… I don’t know I feel like I need to do.”
“Sparkplug,” Barney interrupted.
Tonia blinked but continued, “No, don’t ‘Sparkplug’ me. You know what? I need to tell you something. I am an adult, daddy. I can make my own choices. This is something I have to do for me. This is my calling.”
Barney cleared his throat and said, “Sparkplug.”
Tonia didn’t stop. “This isn’t about wanting to be like mom or living up to her legacy. I wanted to help people and this is my way of really being who I wanna be. Don’t you understand?”
Barney raised his voice, “Tonia Maria Steel. Look behind you.”
Tonia stopped and turned. A robotic monster with bright red eyes, a smooth chrome body, a mouth full of metal crushing teeth, and eight claw-tipped tentacles landed behind her. Tonia’s facemask slid back into place with a snap. A tentacle raised to crush her. Amy lifted off the ground but Barney held up a hand. He said, “No. She is an adult. She needs to clean up her own mess.”
The tentacle slammed down on Tonia. Her arms grabbed the appendage in time to keep from crushing her but the force pushed the suit into the hard packed dirt. The tentacle whipped around her and threw her over the lot into Garth’s front door.
Amy said, “Barney, what are you doing? Let me help.”
Barney said, “She’s got this.”
The robot threw three of its arms at Tonia. She deflected the first two and landed a haymaker on the third that broke the arm completely. The creature screeched a high-pitched yowl of pain. It reared back and punched her off her feet. At that moment, Garth’s front door opened. The Guardian had enough time to say, “What the hell is going on out–” before Tonia crashed into him. The pair flew backward through his front hall. The sound of broken glass and cursing followed.
Barney leaned over to Rotor. He whispered something and said, “Fetch!” while pointing at the garage. The dog took off with an affirmative bark.
The robot clicked its claws and paced around Garth’s front yard. Thrusters lit up the darkened hallway as Tonia rocketed out of the house. She raised both of her arms over her head and brought them down as balled up fists on to the eyes of the robot. It wrapped a pair of tentacles around her.
Garth rushed out to her side. He called out, “Use your foot jets for a rapid kick. Get it off balance.”
One of Tonia’s legs delivered a barrage of rocket-fueled kicks. The robot tried to move its weight but fell on its broken tentacle. Tonia broke free and gave it a few quick jabs breaking a few more of its eyes. She turned and ran toward the garage.
Barney stopped her. Rotor ran to his side and dropped a pipe-shaped device. She picked it up, twisted the top, and turned back toward the robotic monster. It slammed into her knocking her off her feet. The robot’s jaw opened into rows of interlaced crushing discs. It pushed her into the ground. She took the rod device and threw into its mouth. A wave of static exploded from the rod. The machine went limp. Tonia’s armor shut off. Every light on the block went dark. Rotor’s head lowered like they had fallen asleep.
Garth wrapped his bathrobe around himself and walked toward the machine. He crossed his arms. He said, “Well, young lady. This is awful. How, uh, dare you go behind our backs with this.”
Barney rolled his eyes. “You can drop the act, Garth. I know a ‘Guardian Haymaker’ when I see one.” He walked to Tonia’s side and knelt down. He slid her facemask open manually. A few lose tears streamed down her face.
Tonia asked, “Are you gonna make me quit?”
Barney shook his head. He said, “Nah, but we are getting you a tutor.”
Garth huffed. He said, “I don’t mind working with her. It’s been fun.”
“No offense, Garth,” Barney started, “I just think it wouldn’t hurt to get some more help.”
Tonia smiled. She said, “Thank you, daddy.” She tried to stand up but couldn’t move. “Oh, would you mind getting this thing off me.”
“Sure thing, Sparkplug,” Barney said. Then he stopped. “One quick thing. Where is my power armor?”
Tonia laughed, “Uh, what? This is it. I made some modifications but-”
“Like hell, that’s a whole different suit,” he said.
She sighed. “I blew it up fighting the Amazing Richard. I used the self-destruct and remote pilot feature to rescue my friends.”
His eyes widen for a moment before whistling. He said, “Alright. Well, that’s a good reason.” Barney patted his mechanic jumpsuit pockets. “Drat, I left the keys for the analog forklift inside. I’ll go look for them. You don’t go anywhere. Hey, Amy, help me look inside the house. You too, Garth.”
Tonia craned her head as far as it would move. She said, “Hey, uh, dad? Daddy? Hey. Hey! Guys? Amy? Garth! DAD!”
Amy turned to look over her shoulder. She asked, “Seems a little mean, doesn’t it?”
Barney didn’t answer. He rubbed a small figurine on his keys with his thumb. With his other hand, he searched his phone’s contact list spelling out I… C… H… A…
The End for Now