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â€˜Neath the Atomic Skiesâ€œNo matter who you may be, there is always someone who is a little worst because he thinks he is a little betterâ€ â€“ Sergio Aragones
The One-Armed Bounty Hunter flicked a match on his metal stump. â€œYou sure about using mutants to track mutants?â€
â€œMy girls are the best north of the Glowing Glass Desert,â€ said Ms. X, â€œand if you want to go through Crater Country, mutants are all youâ€™re gonna get.â€
The One-Armed Bounty Hunter lit his cigarette. â€œMy granddaddy says before the bombs fell, Crater Country was full of amber fields of grain. â€˜Course, back then, if a fella incited a riot in Dodge Cityâ€™s mutant ghetto, like Adam Atomyk did, thereâ€™d be lots of policemen to take him out. These days, thereâ€™s whoeverâ€™s willing to hunt for a bounty.â€
â€œItâ€™s the only way to make a living.â€
The One-Armed Bounty Hunter took a deep drag. â€œWhy does that little girl you brought look so much like Adam?â€
â€œAmy is his twin sister, but I can vouch for her character.â€
â€œYou better. The leaders of Dodge City wanted to boost its population by inviting selected persona non grata to live among them. Mutants there can do anything they want, providing they donâ€™t get uppity. They had a few peaceful years before Adam ruined everything by showing no regard for human life.â€
â€œHeâ€™s out of the city. Why did they post a â€˜Dead or Aliveâ€™ bounty on his head?â€
â€œBecause he took twenty-two mutants with him, and we get a bonus for every head we bring back whether itâ€™s attached to a body or not. Thereâ€™s no way a band of savages led by one little mutie bastard canâ€™t be trouble.â€
â€œIâ€™d thank you to watch your language around the rest of the Sage Soul Patrol. Basher might forget weâ€™re working together if you say â€˜mutieâ€™ around her.â€
The One-Armed Bounty Hunter dropped his cigarette on the cracked and warped asphalt road and stomped it out. â€œIf we bring Adam back, Iâ€™ll consider your team a credit to mutant-kind. But they ought to know not to let the sun set on them on any other town around here. So tell me, Ms. X, whyâ€™s a normal human like you hanging out with genetic misfits like them?â€
Before Ms. X could reply Amy said, â€œI found their tracks. Theyâ€™re heading southeast, towards the Burning Fields.â€
â€œGuess itâ€™s easier for short people to see things on the ground,â€ said the One-Armed Bounty Hunter.
â€œLetâ€™s get this over with,â€ said Ms. X. â€œBasher, Sister Star-Spangled, and Libertina, mount up.â€
Amy jumped on Ms. Xâ€™s cybernetic steed. With the sunset at their backs, the team rode into the encroaching starless night.
â€œI canâ€™t imagine them going as far as the Burning Fields,â€ said Libertina, who lit the way with her flame-thrower torch. â€œThatâ€™s nothing but towers of flames from what were oil fields before the bombs came.â€
â€œPlenty of places to hide in the craters,â€ said Sister Star-Spangled, who kept pace with the horses despite being on foot. â€œThe land used to be so flat people called it the Great Plains. Canâ€™t imagine why they dropped so many bombs here. â€˜Course, it makes even less sense that they dropped bombs in whatâ€™s now the Glowing Glass Desert. Bombing a desert seems outright pointless.â€
â€œWho dropped the bombs?â€ asked Basher. â€œEveryone I ask gives me a different answer.â€
â€œWhoever it was,â€ said Libertina, â€œwe got them worse. At least I hope we did.â€
â€œThat doesnâ€™t make me feel better,â€ said Amy. â€œI donâ€™t like to think there can be a worse place in the world than this.â€
â€œThis country was a beautiful place before the war,â€ said the One-Armed Bounty Hunter. â€œMy granddaddy said back then there were cities, lots of food for everyone, music everywhere, and best of all only humans.â€
Basher grumbled. â€œExcuse us for being born mutants.â€
â€œMutants are all right as long as they stay in their place.â€
â€œSure,â€ said Libertina. â€œWe can clean your houses, but we canâ€™t live in the house next door.â€
â€œIâ€™ll treat you like a human if you act like one.â€
â€œWe canâ€™t change your mind,â€ said Sister Star-Spangled, â€œbut you canâ€™t change our DNA.â€
The argument got more heated as they rode over the broken trail of asphalt marked with rusty signs that bore the number â€œ70â€ in chipped paint over rust. For hours they followed Amyâ€™s lead between the lifeless landscape marked by giant craters, some miles wide, where small towns and farms once stood. Sickly sheaves of wheat stuck out from soil made black and gray from a layer of ash and fallout.
After a few hours Amy rolled off of Ms. Xâ€™s horse. â€œThe trailâ€™s taking a sharp turn. Looks like they went into that cluster of craters.â€
The One-Armed Bounty Hunter unslung his carbine. â€œReckon there are a thousand ways they can ambush us in there. Whoâ€™s going to scout it out?â€
Amy patted her boot. â€œIâ€™ll go. My brother wonâ€™t kill me on sight.â€
The posse hunkered down as Amy made her way through the shadows. The smell of smoke and burning meat got stronger as she went deeper into the broken earth.
She ducked behind a boulder framed by flickering shadows. On the other side she heard low whispering voices, metal clanking together, and a babyâ€™s cry.
Her eyes glowed orange as she cautiously peeked around the stone and instantly adjusted to the ambient light from the cooking fires.
This was no band of runaways, this was a colony. There were women and children among the armed bandits, all of them mutants complete with tumors, extra or missing body parts, and ragged clothes. Other than a few rusty rifles and pole-arms made from old farm tools, they were practically unarmed.
Amy saw a short man with a green mohawk on the other side of the camp. She hadnâ€™t seen Adam for years, but she recognized her brother instantly. With skill born from years of survival in the badlands, Amy made her way from one piece of cover to the next without arousing suspicion until she was almost within throwing distance.
Amy tried to get next to him with a quick quiet sprint. She made it a few steps before the ground gave away beneath her. Her fingers barely managed to catch the edge of the pit, and if she wasnâ€™t a midget her dangling feet wouldâ€™ve hit the sharpened spikes along the bottom.
Bells rang from wires pulled when the pitâ€™s roof collapsed. Adam was the first to reach the pit and grab the flailing wrist.
By the yellow light in his glowing eyes, he recognized the face. â€œAmy?â€
Amy swung her leg. Her heel caught a rut in the pitâ€™s wall and gave her leverage as Adam pulled her up.
Adam didnâ€™t look happy. â€œWhat are you doing here?â€
â€œThere are people from Dodge City looking for you,â€ said Amy. â€œThey say you killed some people.â€
Other mutants surrounded them.
â€œWhat do you want me to say, Amy? That I didnâ€™t?â€
Amy stood face-to-face with Adam. â€œWhy do you have no respect for human lives?â€
â€œBecause humans have no respect for ours.â€
Outside the crater, the One-Armed Bounty Hunter checked his watch. â€œYour girlâ€™s been gone for a long time.â€
Ms. X loaded her rifle. â€œGuess itâ€™s time we get her out.â€
Basher brandished her mace. Libertina checked the fuel connection for her flamethrower. Sister Star-Spangled loaded her Uzi.
Due to the distraction Amy unwittingly made, no mutants were watching the entrance to the crater. Ms. X led the Sage Soul Patrol and the One-Armed Bounty Hunter close enough for them to get a view of the whole camp.
â€œYou said there were only twenty-two escapees,â€ said Libertina.
â€œThatâ€™s all the bounty from Dodge City is for,â€ said the One-Armed Bandit. â€œBut over in New Wichita, they pay for each mutant head you bring back. So what Iâ€™m thinking is we kill all but twenty-two, and then decapitate all we kill. Survivors go to Dodge City, heads go north, we all get enough money to survive the winter in luxury.â€
â€œDoes it matter that the ones we kill may be the ones that escaped?â€ asked Basher.
â€œOr that the ones we bring back may not be escapees?â€ asked Sister Star-Spangled.
â€œI donâ€™t recon theyâ€™ll care. I sure donâ€™t. No offense, but yâ€™all look alike.â€
Basher growled. â€œIâ€™ve had enough. No bounty is worth your abuse.â€
Before any of the Sage Soul Patrol could stop him, the One-Armed Bounty Hunter cocked his carbine and shot her and Sister Star-Spangled in the stomach.
On the other side of the camp, Amy said, â€œDonâ€™t you see? This is why humans hate mutants.â€
â€œWe got our reasons to hate the humans,â€ said Adam. â€œDodge City was no sanctuary.â€
â€œItâ€™s true,â€ said a nearby mutant. â€œThey enslaved us.â€
â€œWe did the dirtiest jobs for almost no pay,â€ said another, â€œso we got the hell out of Dodge.â€
â€œThe last straw was when they killed one of us,â€ said a third. â€œThat boy did nothing wrong, but they beat him to death in the streets for not bowing to a town councilman.â€
â€œI couldnâ€™t take that,â€ said Adam. â€œWonâ€™t bow. Donâ€™t know how.â€
Gunshots echoed through the crater. The mutants screamed and took cover.
Amy, Adam, and a few warriors ran towards the flashing gun barrels.
â€œDid you bring them?â€ asked Adam.
â€œTheyâ€™re after the bounty posted on you.â€
â€œYou sold out your own brother? And your own kind?â€
â€œDidnâ€™t know what happened,â€ said Amy. â€œSometimes justice is blind. Other times, we canâ€™t see it.â€
Amy and Adam took cover. Amy drew her revolver. Adam loaded a small crossbow.
Amyâ€™s eyes glowed orange. â€œThey arenâ€™t shooting at us. Whatâ€™s going on?â€
With the aid of her enhanced vision Amy saw the One-Armed Bounty Hunter behind a boulder. Ms. X was behind another and shot at him. Basher and Star-Spangled Sister lay in the middle, their blood shining in the faint light, as Libertina stalked around the side with her flame-thrower torch ready for a blast.
The One-Armed Bounty Hunter threw a flash grenade that simultaneously blinded Amy, Ms. X and Libertina. By pure luck Adam had his head behind a sheet of metal during the explosion, so he saw the One-Armed Bounty Hunter moving into a better position with no trouble.
â€œI know that guy,â€ said Adam. â€œHe chased me into Dodge City.
Adam dashed up the crater so quickly he was within punching distance before the One-Armed Hunter knew it. He landed a solid punch that made the bounty hunter fall over backwards and drop the carbine.
Libertina blinked until her vision came back. She saw the man who earned the ire of the Sage Soul Patrol wrestling with the murderer they were sent to apprehend dead-or-alive.
She pointed her flame-thrower torch at both of them and pulled the trigger.
Amy screamed as she ran across the field but the flames were much faster. She plunged into them and tackled her brother. They tumbled down the crater, smoke coming from their hair and clothes.
After they stopped rolling Amy patted her brotherâ€™s mohawk until the fire went out. There wasnâ€™t much left of his hair but a smoldering stub. â€œAre you okay?â€
Adam pushed her off of him. â€œGet the hell off me. I wouldnâ€™t have these blisters if you didnâ€™t lead him here.â€
â€œBut at least now heâ€™s â€¦â€ Amy turned. All that was left of the One-Armed Bounty Hunter was a pile of ashes.
Libertina kicked the pile. â€œThis ainâ€™t right. No bones, no cooked flesh. He shed his duster and slipped away.â€
Ms. X said, â€œLet him go. We need to take care of Basher and Star-Spandled Sister.â€
Basher pushed herself up. â€œIâ€™m fine. What my toughened skin didnâ€™t stop, my healing factor is fixing.â€
Star-Spangled Sister tried to get up but failed. â€œI survived worse â€¦ just canâ€™t remember when.â€
Ms. X looked around. â€œThat greedy bastard will be back. As long as thereâ€™s a bounty on mutants, theyâ€™ll be hunted.â€
â€œOh please,â€ said Adam. â€œYou donâ€™t care about us. Get lost.â€
â€œYou need to move this colony to a safer place, somewhere further from humans and easier to defend,â€ Ms. X said. â€œThe Sage Soul Posse will help.â€
â€œNo, we need to get revenge on the humans,â€ said Adam. â€œWe need to raid Dodge City so theyâ€™ll be too hurt to come after us.â€
Several mutant warriors grabbed their weapons and got behind Adam. The rest, mainly the women and children, got behind Ms. X.
Amy stood in the middle. She looked at the mutant women and children. â€œI want to fight the evil, but if we sacrifice the future then we have nothing to fight for.â€ She looked at Adam. â€œRevenge will only hurt more people.â€
â€œAnd forgiveness will show we can be hurt.â€ Adam turned to his supporters. â€œLetâ€™s move.â€
The two groups split and went opposite directions across the broken earth beneath the atomic skies.
The One-Armed Bounty Hunter
Amy and Adam Atomyk
The Sage Soul Patrol
OK, I got another one. The art is a little different due to the setting, but I think this may fit the multiverse concept.
Good – by then I should have another one done.
Sorry it didn’t work out for you guys. You should really try writing to 50,000 words, even if you can’t do it in a month. The exercise alone gives a sense of accomplishment.
No pic of Ice’s new costume?
THat’s exactly what I was thinking – something that spreads yet becomes an instant barrier. I figured Amy wouldn’t know that, so I left it out from her point of view.
These are awesome! BTW: I’m going to work an Amy Atom cameo in the upcoming chapter of Zero Level.
The black-on-black is rather hard to read. Maybe it should be bulk yellow against white stars – like Star Wars’s intro crawl.
â€œI can say without a doubt that there are an infinite number of universes. Some are just like our ownâ€¦ but for one or two significant events, exactly the same.â€ â€“ Lex Luthor
It always ends the same. Iâ€™m sick of this. He may get ahead at first, but I always win in the end.
The One-Armed Bandit robbed a bank with a shrink gun. By the time the Urban Soul Patrol arrived, he had thousands in shrunken dollar bills in his belt-pouch. He also had enough energy left in his gun to reduce the Urban Soul Patrol to the size of their own action figures.
He didnâ€™t shoot me. Thank God. I donâ€™t need to be any shorter.
Instead, he threw a bunch of little balls that exploded in thick purple gummy smoke at me. How does someone make smoke gummy? Whatâ€™s the point? Why would someone think of that?
Of course, it takes more than smoke to stop Amy Atom. A few atomic right-hooks tore right through that mess like it was silly string so fast I caught a glimpse of the One-Armed Bandit going around the corner.
I sprinted to the intersection. I didnâ€™t see him. I looked left, I looked right, I looked up, I looked down â€¦ I saw little green rectangles on the sidewalk. And thanks to my atomic vision, I saw the little Benjamin Franklin on each.
For a genius, the One-Armed Bandit can be pretty stupid. He had a hole in his pocket.
I followed the trail of miniaturized money like every other New Yorker goes after dollars. It led to an abandoned graffiti-covered diner on 357 West Street. One atomic punch turned the boards over the door into toothpicks.
There was nothing between me and the One-Armed Bandit. For some reason, his suit was blue and white instead of red and black, and he had a sheriffâ€™s badge instead of the dollar sign.
My eyes glowed as radioactive power surged into my fist. â€œBetter hope that new suit of yours will save you from the VIP â€“ very intensely painful â€“ ass-whoopinâ€™ Iâ€™m gonna dish out.â€
He raised the metal bulb on his stump. â€œI never run from you.â€
I swaggered in. â€œSucker, please. You made me chase you this far.â€
A familiar voice to my left said, â€œNo, that was me.â€
Before I could turn a force as big and hard as the A-train slammed into my side and threw me against the wall.
Through the stars in my eyes I saw the One-Armed Bandit in his usual red costume. â€œYou got a twin?â€
The One-Armed Bandit in blue pointed his stump at me. God damn if it didnâ€™t feel like my bones were bending without breaking. â€œYou wonâ€™t beat me up this time.â€
The One-Armed Bandit in red slammed me again. I couldnâ€™t move or roll. I took it full on the chin, and damn it hurt. My head was rolling. I donâ€™t know how I stayed on my feet.
He tapped some buttons on his wrist. His stump glowed bright yellow. â€œOne-Armed Bandit wins. Fatality.â€ His stump glowed yellow.
â€œHey!â€ shouted the One-Armed Bandit in blue. â€œSheâ€™s had enough. Letâ€™s call the police.â€
â€œSay what?â€ the One-Armed Bandit in red and I said at the same time in the same way.
â€œSheâ€™s a criminal,â€ said the One-Armed Bandit in blue. â€œThatâ€™s why we fight.â€
â€œMaybe in your universe,â€ said the One-Armed Bandit in red.
I shook the dizzy out of my head. â€œHold on. Whatâ€™s this about â€˜hisâ€™ universe, One-Armed Bandits?â€
The one in blueâ€™s eyebrows almost shot off his head. â€œIâ€™m not the One-Armed Bandit, Iâ€™m the Short-Armed Law.â€
â€œWe had a deal,â€ said the One-Armed Bandit. â€œWe work together to take out our enemies. Thatâ€™s why we made this diner temporarily exist in both of our universes with a temporal force-field.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t know you were a crook when we did that,â€ said the Short-Armed Law. â€œI thought Ivy Isotope was bad in this universe too.â€
I asked, â€œWhoâ€™s Ivy Isotope?â€
The boarded up door on the other side of the diner exploded into toothpicks. The girl who came in looked just like me except her suit was bright yellow and her eyes glowed blue and purple. And instead of my smile, the one boys say lights up my face like a pinball machine when you win the free game, she had a scowl sourer than rancid cream cheese.
She pounded her palm with her fist. â€œTwo Short-Armed Laws? I got twice the ass to kick.â€ She cocked her head at me. â€œWhatâ€™s with the ugly girl?â€
I cocked my head right back. â€œExcuse me?â€
The One-Armed Bandit shot the Short-Armed Law in the back with a concussion blast that threw him against the wall. â€œIvy, help me take out Amy Atom and together weâ€™ll conquer two universes.â€
Ivy Isotopeâ€™s eyes glowed a violent shade of violet. â€œAs long as we split it.â€
Now when I say I get out of tough situations, this isnâ€™t what Iâ€™m talking about. Fighting your nemesis and an alternate universe version of yourself after getting a super-powered smackdown – thatâ€™s not tough, thatâ€™s impossible.
But I run after bad buys, not away from them. I dug my heels into the ground and put up my dukes.
The One-Armed Bandit charged his stump.
Ivy Isotope put her glowing fists together.
They were going to hit me with their best shots. I diverted my energy into an atomic shield. It wouldnâ€™t absorb all of the punishment, but maybe thereâ€™d be enough left of me for my mama to recognize.
I shut my eyes.
I didnâ€™t see the Short-Armed Law blast Ivy Isotope as he slammed against the One-Armed Bandit. Both of their shots went wide enough to miss me.
Ivy Isotope charged another blast. Before she could fire I hit her with an atomic right-hook. She rolled with it and responded with an uppercut.
The One-Armed Bandit and the Short-Armed Law wrestled. The One-Armed Bandit got on top. He charged his stump and held it high. â€œYou wonâ€™t look like me anymore.â€
I couldnâ€™t let this happen. I didnâ€™t even think about Ivy Isotope pulling back for an overhand punch. I hit the One-Armed Banditâ€™s chest with a blast that threw him through the open door.
The Short-Armed Law leaned back and sent a blast of his own into Ivy Isotopeâ€™s shoulder. She stumbled and fell into the street.
Both the One-Armed Bandit and Ivy Isotope ran away, off to their own universes.
The Short-Armed Law smiled as I helped him up.
â€œIt always ends the same,â€ I said. â€œWe fight, I win, he runs away. Iâ€™m sick of it.â€
The Short-Armed Law said, â€œItâ€™s nice to win against Ivy Isotope for once.â€
â€œWhat. You donâ€™t always win?â€
â€œIvy Isotope runs me down and beats me up so often Iâ€™m so sick of it.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re the good guy!â€
â€œI fight so she wonâ€™t hurt anyone else. I assumed she â€“ you â€“ were the same everywhere. I didnâ€™t ask too many questions I reached across universes the same time the One-Armed Bandit did. I donâ€™t deserve this, my only victory.â€
â€œIf you always lose, why donâ€™t you give up?â€
â€œIf you always lost to the One-Armed Bandit, would you quit?â€
â€œI want to say no, but â€¦â€
The Short-Armed Law became more transparent. I could see through him like he was a ghost. â€œI donâ€™t think you would if it meant saving other people.â€
â€œWhy are you disappearing?â€
â€œThe temporal force-field is fading. Soon weâ€™ll be separated by universes. All we have left is this moment.â€
He crouched. We hugged. I felt him fade through my fingers.