Machinations - 3. Arc 1, Chapter 3
CW: self-harm and internalized transphobia in non-POV character
Nathan got in the door and immediately flopped on the couch. After a moment, he pulled Raph’s weighted blanket over him. He needed the extra comfort.
“What’s going on?” Raph asked, emerging from the bedroom. “What did the doctor say?”
“I’m having surgery in a week,” Nathan said.
“Scoot,” Raph said, shooing Nathan’s legs from the couch. Reluctantly, he sat up. “Pacemaker surgery?” he asked, sitting down.
“I don’t need a battery replacement! I’m perfectly capable of powering the thing myself!”
“If that’s the case, then why does the doctor want to replace it?”
Nathan sighed. “She says that the other components could wear out at any time regardless of whether the battery is charged, so it’s better to replace it now when it’s supposed to be replaced than wait for the other stuff to break.”
“So it’s perfectly reasonable to replace it. You just don’t want surgery.”
“You’re not a comforting boyfriend,” Nathan said, glaring at him.
“No,” Raph said, glaring back. “I’m a doctor boyfriend.”
Nathan grumbled and adjusted the blanket. “I hate surgery.”
“Nobody likes it. That’s why we sedate people during surgery. It stops them from running away,” Raph said. “It’s a safe procedure. You’ll be fine.”
“I know, but…” He hesitated. Should he explain it? How should he explain it? What words could convey that feeling? “Finding out about my heart was… terrifying. Even if it’s low risk, it’s still my heart. It still means my heart is wrong and could kill me. And then afterwards, every time I lifted my arm too fast or felt it hurt or had a dizzy spell or felt it move under my skin… I got used to it, but I feel like I’m gonna relive it with the new one.”
Raph leaned over and reached out his hand. Nathan pulled his arm out of the blanket and held it. “You’re going to be fine. I’ll be there for you. So will the team and Eric and Coral and your mom. And you have a lot more experience in living with it now. You won’t have to wait until you’re in the hospital like you would if it breaks; you can get it taken care of ahead of time.”
“Yeah, I know,” Nathan said. “I still feel…” He puffed out some air. “All sorts of things. Is it weird that I kinda feel like I’m abandoning my current one?”
Raph shrugged. “It is sort of part of you, I guess. Maybe you can keep it afterwards. It’s not like it’s toxic waste or anything.”
“That’s good.” Not that he had any idea what to do with a pacemaker lying around. Keep it in a drawer? Put it on some sort of display? Get drunk once a year and talk to it like an old friend?
“And maybe you can talk to the doctor about it, see if she recommends anything.”
Nathan glanced over. “You’re a doctor. What do you recommend?”
Raph gave him a look of infinite patience. “I’m not your doctor, I’m your boyfriend. The only thing I can prescribe is a night of--”
The emergency alarm went off. Excellent, a distraction. A moment later, he felt guilty. If everyone was being summoned, it was probably bad, and probably involved deaths. Nathan scowled and tossed the blanket to the side. “Give me a moment,” he said, and went to get his suit.
The rest of the team was there, fully suited, by the time Enmachina and Scope arrived. That was one of the disadvantages of having a heavy set of armor.
Angelica stood at the front, looking grim. “Late last night, a young woman named Blythe Martins was attacked in her apartment.” She held up a remote and clicked it. The screen showed a living room. Other than the overly floral theme, the most unusual thing about it was scorch marks on the walls. “According to Martins, the man who attacked called himself Convert. He noticed her using superpowers, control over flowers, to encourage some plants to bloom outside her apartment. At around 3 AM, he broke in and proceeded to torture her with electric shock and read verses from the Bible in an attempt to make her give up her powers. Electricity appears to be his only power. One of her neighbors heard screaming and called the police, driving Convert away.” Angelica clicked the remote again, and a video played. Someone in a white robe ran past, looking over his shoulder. It looped, and on the second pass, Enmachina could see a reflection on the front. A cross?
“What about Martins?” Scope asked.
“She’s alive, currently in the hospital. I want you to visit her after the briefing, do what you can for her, and see if you can get any more information. If you want to visit the other patients afterwards, that’s up to you. As for the rest of you, I want you searching for this man. He started out by torturing a civilian. This is only going to get worse.”
Enmachina tuned her out as she outlined which areas to search. He didn’t count with everyone else, at least not when it came to villains with electric or magnetic powers. As predicted, when the rest of the team stood up to leave, Angelica cleared her throat. “Enmachina, please stay behind.”
“Every time you do that, I feel like I’m back in school and I’ve done something wrong,” he said as the others left. “So, being held in reserve again?”
“If I didn’t, the doctors would lecture me into submission,” Angelica said. “Besides, I really do need someone in reserve.”
“Should I go on patrol now, then?”
“Might as well,” Angelica said. “The southwestern quadrant should be well-covered by the rest of the team, but the others need to be checked. After that, return.”
“And spend another day watching the news. Got it.” Enmachina stood up. “See you in a few hours, then.”
“Good luck,” she said.
The patrol went off without a hitch for the first hour. As he was flying over the suburbs, his comm crackled. “Reports of super activity down Main Street. Repeat, reports of super activity down Main Street.”
Enmachina turned on his comm. “Enmachina here. What’s the situation?”
“Dispatch here. Large humanoid wrecking buildings. Ran into a few cars, but police are blocking the road.” There was a large crash in the background.
“All right. ETA is 10 minutes.” He switched channels. “Angelica, you heard that?”
“Yes. ETA is 20 minutes. Think you can manage until then?”
“You say that like the fight won’t be over by then.” He grinned and fired up the boosters.
Main Street was lit up with red and blue police lights. Enmachina heard a loud crack when he was a few blocks away. A few moments later, a bent police car went flying. He spotted something big and blue moving, and landed as close as he could. The police actually looked relieved to see him, which meant the situation had to be horrible.
The blue super, twice as tall as Nathan, looked like a grotesque caricature of masculinity: shoulders that were each twice as big as their head, tiny hips that looked barely capable of holding their torso, a jaw down to their shoulders, massive feet, and hair everywhere. They were completely naked, as well. As he watched, they smashed their head through a window, picked up the shattered glass, and ran it over their arms, which left no mark. They screamed and went for the wall by the glass.
Probably a human. An Atlantean would look completely different when naked and none of the alien species they’d come across were humanoid. That meant this was probably a teen or young adult whose powers had just come in.
“Angie?” he asked, turning on the comm.
“Don’t call me that,” she said. Right, not over public channels.
“Sorry. Initial impressions: Alter Ego shifter who’s changed for the first time. Strength and invulnerability. I’m going to try to talk them down.”
“Any indications of what caused the change?”
“Keep me advised.” The comm clicked.
Time to try diplomacy. “Hey, there!” Enmachina called out. The shifter paused in the middle of slamming their shoulder into a brick wall. “Could you please stop that?” They seemed to be listening, so Enmachina pulled his inhibitor cuff out of one a compartment. “I know you’re probably wondering what’s going on. I’ve got something that can help you out, okay?”
The shifter looked at the inhibitor cuff, but before they could do anything, a gunshot rang out. They stumbled back, screamed at the police, and charged. Nathan flew forward, faster than the shifter, and got his pulse cannon ready. As soon as he reached them, he whipped around and shot the cannon. No matter how invulnerable someone was, they simply had to be affected by pure force. The shifter stumbled, and then looked directly at him. Enmachina ran to the side, away from the officers, and the shifter followed.
“Don’t shoot!” he yelled at the police. Before they could respond, though, the shifter charged at him. Enmachina held his ground and the shifter stopped before reaching him, looking at him quizzically. Maybe trying to provoke him into a response? But they seemed perfectly calm without one. After a moment, they looked back over at the police. Enmachina pointed his cannon at them. “No shooting,” he said. As long as they didn’t shoot the shifter, everyone should be perfectly fine.
Well, they were doomed.
The police fired on the shifter, and immediately the shifter began charging them. They scattered. Enmachina flew to the side and hit the shifter with a pulse, drawing their attention to him again. He flicked on the comm. “Angie… lica, can you get these cops outta here? I’m spending more time protecting them than actually working.”
“I’ll do what I can,” she said shortly. Probably because of the nickname. Or maybe the flying. Or maybe the continuation of what she thought was a vendetta against cops. He didn’t have much time to ponder it, as the shifter charged at him again.
Well, if the cops wouldn’t leave, he needed to get the shifter away from them. He fired again, flying away and hoping the cops didn’t follow. Fortunately, they stayed milled around their car. When they reached a safe distance, Enmachina pulled up, hovering in the air just above their head. The shifter skidded to a halt under him. “All right,” he said. “You’re perfectly safe now. Nobody’s--”
The shifter ran headfirst into the nearest concrete wall, which didn’t seem to hurt them or the wall. Enmachina set himself down and watched. Honestly, he would have expected the shifter to slam him into the ground. That was usually what happened.
Uncontrolled Alter Egos generally worked off of instinct and any urges they had right before changing. So what was this one’s deal? On the one hand, they had charged him and the police. However, before the police had shot at them, they’d been perfectly fine, and as soon as nobody was attacking them, they moved back to attacking the buildings. And that part with rubbing glass against their arm… self-harm? That did explain why they were currently putting their head through a concrete wall. And they’d charged him, but stopped when he didn’t retaliate. Was that only to seek out harm?
So, his working theory was that they were currently in a self-harm phase. Problem was, with their invulnerability and lack of control, that translated to attacking themselves via property and things. His priority was to calm them down, or at least to stop them from causing any more damage while he figured out how to do that. So far, they’d listened while he talked. If that didn’t work, then it was time for a battle.
“Okay,” he said, reaching them. “I think we got off on the wrong foot.” The shifter looked over at him. “Sorry for interrupting you, but could you please stop that for a moment? I’d like to talk.” They put their head back in the wall. “Look, I don’t know what happened to you, but I’m guessing you’re in a really bad place right now. I can help.” After another blow, the concrete cracked. “Stop that!” he said. The shifter glared over their shoulder at him, then resumed. Enmachina touched their arm, and the shifter backhanded him, sending him tumbling until he hit the floral shop on the other side. He groaned, got back up, and walked off the stiffness across six lanes of traffic. Definitely super strength.
Talking was not working. That meant violence. He fired his pulse cannon. The shifter whipped around at a speed that really should have been impossible for their size and swatted at Enmachina. He jumped up, activated his rockets, and caught the shifter’s hand, dragging it up into the air. The whole shifter came along with it, flailing.
“Tell me what’s hurting you,” he said calmly. They swatted at him again, but he swung them so that their arm missed. He tried again. “Tell me why you hate yourself.”
They worked their mouth, and it took a few moments for speech to come out. That wasn’t unusual for uncontrolled Alter Egos. “Ugly,” they said in a deep, guttural voice. “Wrong. Man.”
He frowned. Wait, did that mean…?
They twisted free and fell onto the road. This time, instead of going for the building, they scratched at their face. The face that had masculine features driven up to eleven… because that was part of how they saw themself. Or rather…
Enmachina landed. “Ma’am,” he said. The shifter froze. Maybe a good sign? “Ma’am, would you like some jewelry?” He held out the cuff. “I got a pretty bracelet for you.” Not that he’d personally call it pretty, but it did have colorful stones on it. “Something for a lovely girl?”
The shifter stopped scratching her face, at least. She stared at it, as she had before, and tentatively reached out her hand. Was she smaller and less blue? He watched for a moment, opening up the cuff to max size so it would fit on her Alter Ego arm. Yes, she was definitely shrinking. That probably meant her dysphoria was getting somewhat better. He placed the cuff on her arm and she instantly changed back to a young white woman with very short hair and no visible signs of transition. Enmachina grabbed her by the shoulder before she could fall any further. Her eyes were glazed, but she slowly reached up to cover her chest with her arms.
“Hey,” Enmachina said, “Ma’am? Are you all right?”
The question snapped her awake and she twisted around to see the rest of the street. “No,” she whispered, not in response but in horror.
“Ma’am, it’s going to be okay.” He dropped to one knee.
“I didn’t mean to!” she cried. “I just wanted to hurt myself and then I was growing and then…” she broke off sobbing.
“They’ll understand,” Enmachina said.
“They will?” she sniffed.
“You’re not the first person who’s accidentally caused a bit of damage when their powers wake up,” he said. “In fact, one of my teammates did the same. Now, what’s your name?”
“Um.” She shook her head. “I have a name, but I hate it and I don’t have a new one.”
“How about we stick with ma’am for now?” Enmachina said, and she smiled. “Now, ma’am, you will have to go through the courts. I won’t lie, it’ll be pretty stressful, but nine times outta ten, you’ll wind up with a sentence of community service and therapy and having to wear the inhibitor cuff unless the therapist says otherwise. And after that, you’ll have an open job offer anytime you like it. How’s that sound?”
She sniffed. “Not so bad?”
“Yep. And we have a really good healthcare package. It has dental. And it even fully covers transitions, if that’s what you need.”
“Well, I…” She looked down and yelped. “I’m naked!”
“Um, yeah,” he said as she tried to cover her lower half. He looked around, but nothing nearby was clothing. “Sorry, but I don’t have any spare clothes for you. Angelica will, though.” A shadow passed overhead. “Oh, here she is. Good timing.”
Angelica dropped to the ground and stood up, brushing herself off. “I take it you’re the shifter?” she said, taking her trenchcoat off and handing it to the girl. She nodded as she put the coat on.
“Yes, ma’am. She is completely back to normal,” Enmachina said, placing just a tiny bit of emphasis on the she part of it.
Angelica raised an eyebrow, probably at the emphasis, and then she nodded. “Good. Now, I’m afraid I have to take you in,” Angelica said to the girl. “We’ll go to the police station first for a report, but then we’ll take you back to headquarters and keep you there.”
“Okay,” the girl said, curling up within the coat.
“Don’t worry,” Angelica said, her voice gentle. “I’ll be there with you. And I know something about facing the police while being trans.” She put an arm around the girl’s shoulder and looked up at Enmachina. “As for you, good work talking her down. Go back to HQ for a break and wait there.”
“Understood,” Enmachina said. He glanced down Main Street. Plenty of wreckage, but insurance would deal with it. He waited just long enough to see Angelica guiding the girl to a nearby police car, and then took off.
Hopefully, the girl would be all right. The legal system did tend to let people off the hook for the first time, but mostly because of sheer practicality. Prisons simply weren’t capable of holding supers for long, and spending time in prison increased the chances of becoming a villain. That was especially true of people who accidentally caused trouble: they felt victimized by the system, partly because they were.
Further complicating matters was that there was a chronic lack of power for most superteams. If someone remembered the superteam as someone who rescued them from their own power, then they’d be much more likely to join up. Plus, community service could be served working for the Corps, even if they weren’t active team members, so they had a chance to get a good feel for what it’d be like working there. For people who didn’t mean to do whatever they did, it was a good solution.
If someone did happen to cause trouble on purpose, the only choices were to keep them locked up or to execute them. Even then, execution had an annoying habit of failing because villains kept coming back from the dead. At least with prison, you knew when someone broke out and could take the proper precautions. You couldn’t prepare for someone returning to life. Besides, very few supervillains committed crimes that actually carried the death penalty, and nobody wanted to encourage the vigilante heroes to start murdering any harmless villains.
And so the heroes banded together to force lawmakers to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment for borderline cases. Unfortunately, there wasn’t nearly as much support for doing it with the non-super part of the population. That was probably because there weren’t nearly as many consequences for letting them rot than with powered people. The prison system really was ridiculous in general. From for-profit prisons to the inhumane conditions, they were just--
A burst of pain, followed by numbness. Everything went dark, or was that just his systems? He was falling. The systems rebooted, just long enough for him to see the cameras and think, oh, that’s the ground, before they shut off again from the impact. He felt dizzy. Wait. Had that been an electric shock? His pacemaker! He tried to feel for it, but the suit was in the way. Would feeling it even help? He doubted it would.
Someone flipped him onto his back. Good. Someone was there to help. “I have a pacemaker,” he tried to say, but the words wouldn’t come out. Was his voice modulator even working? Hopefully they would just call an ambulance. But whoever it was began dragging him by the legs. That was wrong. Weren’t you supposed to leave someone in place for… a reason?
His camera flickered back on. The person holding his legs was dressed in a white robe with a gold cross on the front.
The world went dark again, and this time, it wasn’t the cameras shutting off.
Thanks for reading!
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