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by Jim C. Hines


Stranger shifted in the armchair and forced himself to make eye contact with his therapist: a decapitated head floating in an oversized jar of blue-tinged nutrient fluid. Long gray-blond hair drifted like tentacles. The base of the jar was decorated in a red and yellow floral pattern, reminiscent of the Hawaiian shirts Jarhead wore back in his full-bodied superhero days.

“In all my time on this planet, I’ve never killed anyone,” said Stranger. “I’ve never wanted to before.”

Jarhead’s voice emerged, slightly mechanical, from a speaker below his chin. “Given your history with Scaramouche, it’s no surprise she knows how to press your buttons.”

Jarhead was a former speedster, a superhero from the seventies whose career on the east coast had come to an abrupt end when his nemesis strung a high-tensile wire across the road at neck height. Only the hyperquick actions of Jarhead’s sidekick Robogirl had allowed him to survive… if you could call it survival.

“When do I get to talk? I’ve got traumas of my own, you know!”

Stranger did his best to ignore the taunts, which was difficult, considering they came from within his own bowel.

“It’s talking to you again, isn’t it?” asked Jarhead.

“It’s been particularly irate today.”

The blue-gray skin of Jarhead’s forehead crinkled in thought as his eyelids lowered, curtaining his colorless eyes. “A tumor with anger issues. You know, this would be easier if it would come out and talk to me directly.”

“Tell that hairy bowling ball that if I could uproot myself and move around, I wouldn’t still be living halfway up your alien ass!”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Stranger said.

“It was worth a shot.” Jarhead’s bubbling sigh filled the room. “Start at the beginning. You said you learned of Scaramouche’s escape at your press conference…”

STRANGER HAD LAIN AWAKE all night in his apartment, trying to find the right words for his announcement the next morning. And then someone—he didn’t know who or how—had broken the news online around 3:00 a.m.

The result was a crowd four times the size he had expected, pressing around the pavilion by the river in Lake City Central Park. Cameras and microphones tracked his descent like weapons, and the questions erupted before he finished climbing the makeshift stage.

One man managed to make his voice heard above the rest. “Your tumor currently has more than a dozen Twitter accounts. The most popular has sixty-thousand followers. Can you confirm whether any of these are official accounts?”

“What’s a Twitter?”

Stranger adjusted the polarization of his helmet’s faceplate to better block the afternoon sun. One of the experimental meds in his latest round of chemotherapy had induced extreme photosensitivity. Only two years earlier, he had gone toe-to-toe with a villain wielding a fusion-powered plasma blaster. Now, even five minutes in the sunlight was enough to make his skin blister and peel. “My most recent scan showed seven tumors. The largest and primary is located in the lower portion of my bowel. I assure you that none of them are on Twitter.”

“Don’t ignore me, dude! I want a Twitter! Where can I get one?”

Another reporter spoke up, and Stranger stifled a groan. Thomas T. Thorton had always hated him, producing story after story that warned against the dangers of letting a superpowered alien walk among good, decent human beings. “Do they talk to you?”

“Don’t let him make you nervous. It helps if you imagine every microphone is actually an enormous dildo.”

“The primary tumor does, yes,” said Stranger. “What it doesn’t do is shut up.”

“In other words,” Thorton continued, “you’re officially talking out of your—”

Stranger’s silent command caused the microphone—dammit, now he was visualizing dildos—to twist out of Thorton’s grip. As the microphone tumbled to the grass, it spoke in a tinny voice only Stranger could hear. “Sorry about that, sir. He’s just digging for snappy one-liners. He’s worried your cancer will make you more sympathetic to his audience, and his ratings will drop.”

By the time Thorton recovered, Kelly Kane from the Lake City Sentinel had stood to ask, “What treatment options are you exploring?”

The sensors in his mask allowed Stranger to see the heat in her neck and cheeks, though she kept her expression professional. For ten years she had been a friend. She wanted to be more, and perhaps they could have been, if Stranger had found human females the slightest bit attractive. Only two breasts? And on the chest, of all places?

He had explained his powers to Kelly in their first interview, how he could whisper to objects in his native tongue and persuade them to obey his wishes. That was the night she gave him his superhero name, after an old Robert Heinlein novel. Heinlein’s stranger in a strange land didn’t have super-strength or invulnerability, but the name worked well enough.

“After consulting with Doctor Y, I’ve chosen to discontinue treatment.”

His words stunned the crowd into silence.

“That’s right, baby!” the tumor crowed. “Get me a cape and mask. Me and my minions are invincible!”

He wanted to pull Kelly aside, to apologize for… he wasn’t sure what, exactly. For having cancer? Why should he feel guilty about that?

“Ha! I may be a lowly butt tumor, but that doesn’t mean I can’t mess with your mind.”

Eventually, Kelly whispered, “How long?”

“Tell her it’s not the length that matters, it’s how—”

“According to Professor Edison, six months, one week, and three days.” Trust the man who could peek through time to eliminate any ambiguity about your prognosis.

“How could this happen?” asked another reporter. She sounded affronted, as if Stranger’s disease caused her great personal offense. “You’re supposed to be invulnerable.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s all the times I’ve been shot by death rays, gamma beams, laser weapons, and worse. Not to mention disarming nuclear weapons, flying toxic waste into the sun, and spending ten years on this planet eating food whose compatibility with my biology is iffy on the best of days. Seriously, what do you people put into those microwave burritos?”

“Will your tumor take questions?” asked Thorton.

“Ooh! Tell him I’ll give him an exclusive, but only if I get approval on any photos. Maybe he could use the colonoscopy shot from three weeks ago? Or do you think I looked too puffy in that shot?”

The radio built into Stranger’s helmet saved him from having to answer. “I’m sorry, I have to go. It seems that Scaramouche has escaped from Edgewood Asylum. Again.”

Thank the gods. He spoke to the air around him. Wind filled his cape, giving it a dramatic flutter. The air became his elevator, cradling his body and lifting him up and away.

He missed his old skintight costume, feeling the warmth of this world’s sun on his body, the air rushing past as he flew—

“Quit your bitching. I live where the sun never shines, remember? And the only time I feel the wind is when you break it.”

“EDGEWOOD ASYLUM IS THE dumbest institution on the planet.” Bubbles dribbled up from the corners of Jarhead’s mouth, something that only happened when he was truly pissed. “Crazed supervillains turn cockroaches into giant mechanized war machines or travel back in time to kill the inventor of bacon, and what do we do? Lock them all up in the same place to compare notes!”

This had been Scaramouche’s fourth successful escape. Fifth if you counted the time she programmed a copy of her own mind and uploaded it to Facebook. Thankfully, e-Scaramouche proved to be just as erratic as her creator, and Stranger had been able to trap her in a neverending game of Bejeweled.

“I’m sorry,” Jarhead continued. “But you can’t rehabilitate the woman who tried to assassinate the Prime Minister of Australia with a radioactive platypus. How much have we spent on room and board and therapy for those clowns? If anyone deserves a death sentence…”

His final words hung in the air. Stranger watched the blinking LEDs on Jarhead’s circulation regulator, remembering the sadness on Doctor Y’s pale face as he pronounced Stranger’s own death sentence.

“Ooh. Awkward…”

“Right. Sorry,” said Jarhead. “So you flew to Edgewood.”

STRANGER’S STOMACH GURGLED AS he approached the main entrance, a steel door six inches thick, guarded by twin laser turrets. After a voiceprint check, the door swung open, and he strode inside to greet Doctor April Alexander, administrator of Edgewood Asylum.

“Thank you for coming so quickly.” Doctor Alexander spoke in a whisper, as if this were a church or a funeral home. She avoided looking at his face. “I’m sorry about… you know.”

“From this day forward, I will be known as That Which Shall Not Be Named!”

“We’re on full lockdown,” she said as she led him inside. “Everyone else is secure. Scaramouche was the only one to escape.”

“How?” Stranger asked.

“She…” Her face reddened. “She talked one of the guards into releasing her. The guard died in the escape. I don’t suppose—”

“I can’t talk to the dead.” Stranger sighed. All the precautions in the world couldn’t protect against human frailty. How long had Scaramouche worked to select which guard would be most vulnerable to her manipulations, and to slowly warp her victim’s mind with carefully chosen words?

Each cell was customized to the powers of its inhabitant. Magman lived in a walk-in freezer with precisely controlled oxygen flow to keep him from igniting. Verdana’s cell was irradiated twice a day to prevent her from using her mastery of plants to create a mold-based weapon. Again.

Scaramouche’s cell was unusual in its normalcy. She had no powers beyond her deranged mind, and yet she had proven herself time and again to be one of Edgewood’s most dangerous supervillains.

“Cool new threads.” Across the hall, the Halloween Princess pressed up against the window of her cell. “Tough break, man.”

Stranger stopped. “What do you mean?”

“The cancer. That sucks, dude.”

For a moment, he thought he had stumbled into another of those obnoxious parallel universes, one where supervillains sympathized with their foes instead of celebrating their demise. “I put you in here after you tried to unleash a plague that would have wiped out ninety percent of humanity.”

Halloween shrugged. “Sure, but this is cancer.”

“Me and my boys, we’re the trump card of terror. Steamroller ran over your dog? Cancer! Nemesis stuffs your girlfriend into the fridge? Cancer! Michael Bay announces another Transformers movie? Cancer, baby!”

Stranger threw up his hands and entered Scaramouche’s cell.

“How can I help?” asked Doctor Alexander.

“I need quiet.” He listened to the room’s contents, inviting them to share what they knew.

“She read me last,” proclaimed a textbook about magnetic nanoparticles. An Archie comic piped up to say, “Bullshit! She always took me along when she used the toilet.”

“That was two days ago,” said the stainless steel toilet in the corner. A translucent panel separated it from the rest of the room, providing minimal privacy. “Poor woman was constipated from the meds they fed her to keep her from going manic.”


“She left you a message.” The words came from the pillow on the floor. Scaramouche had neither blankets nor a cot, presumably to keep her from creating some sort of evil mattress-based superweapon. “She asked me to tell you that you were almost out of time.”

“How did she know?” Socialization was kept to a minimum at Edgewood, but somehow the inmates always kept up on the latest gossip.

“Don’t ask me. I just hope the next inmate has better hygiene. Scaramouche would forget to shower for weeks at a time. Do you know what it’s like having that nest of greasy, sweaty hair press down on you every night?”

“Out of time.” He turned the phrase over in his thoughts, but before he could figure out the clue, a noise like a T. Rex gargling boulders erupted from his stomach.

Oh, gods. Not now. Not here. He froze in place, muscles clenched, but all his strength wasn’t enough to fight against his own body.

“Don’t blame this one on me!” his tumor yelled. “This is what you get for trying to kill me!”

“What’s wrong?” Doctor Alexander started toward him.

“Stay back!” He used his powers to fling her out of the room, then slammed the door. He ducked behind the partition.

“Wait, what are you doing?” the toilet cried. “What’s happening?”

Stranger’s belt flew from his costume, and his pants dropped as he flung himself onto the cold, metal seat.

“It’s a bird. It’s a plane!”

Stranger pressed a hand to the wall as his insides exploded.

“It’s Super Shit!”

“I’M SURE DOCTOR ALEXANDER understood,” said Jarhead. “The side effects of chemotherapy aren’t pretty.”

Stranger’s face burned. That hadn’t been the first such incident, but always before, he had been able to reach somewhere safe and private. “I blew a hole the size of a basketball through the toilet and the floor of Scaramouche’s cell. I left a crater two meters across in the sublevel below.”

“I see.” Jarhead pulled his lips tight, struggling not to laugh. “And how did that make you feel?”

“Fuck you.”

“I’M SO SORRY,” Stranger said for the fourth time. “I’ll find a way to pay for the repairs.”

His tumor hadn’t stopped babbling. “Did you hear when that shit went supersonic? We should weaponize this! What kind of range do you think we can get? We’d have to modify your suit, but—Ha! Your suit butt!”

“It’s all right,” said Doctor Alexander, though her face was pale, and her eyes were still watering. “Our insurance covers acts of superpowers. Even… even this.”

“Imagine dropping a bunker-buster like that on just one villain’s hideout. Every bad guy in the city would either surrender or run for the hills. Nobody’s going to stick around and risk that. It’s the fecal equivalent of the nuclear deterrent!”

“I think I need to turn this over to another hero,” Stranger said.

“No! We can do this! Just you and me, Tumor and his sidekick, Brown Thunder!”

“This isn’t your fault.”

Her sympathy made him feel worse. He swallowed an unexpected lump in his throat. He couldn’t control his own body, couldn’t control his emotions… the only consolation was that his helmet hid his anguish. “What if someone had been working in the sublevel?”

“You’ve still got a bit of gas in here. Stop clenching and let it fly, man! Wait—I’ve got it! This is brilliant! Methane’s flammable, right? If we install a rear-mounted pilot light, you could fight evil with your superpowered flamethrower!”

“Nobody knows Scaramouche as well as you do,” said Doctor Alexander. “You said she left you a message. No one else could have heard that. We need you.”

She was right, damn it. “Scaramouche said I was almost out of time.” Time… “The university.”


Stranger was already rising into the sky. “She’s going after Professor Edison at Lake City University.”

For the past two years, Edric Edison had been working on what he called “magnetic time.” He argued that true time travel was currently impossible, due to the immense computational difficulties in navigating both time and space simultaneously. Travel backward even a single minute, and the entire universe moved around you, leaving you sucking vacuum. But if you treated an object as four-dimensional, an unbroken solid stretching through time, you could yank a future or past version of that object into the present. As long as you had the original to use as an anchor.

How many past and future Scaramouches would she create? She would delight in the paradoxes, and an army of sociopathic geniuses would be unstoppable.

Police cars blocked the street in front of Edison’s building. A crowd pressed around the wooden barriers by the entrance. They exploded into cheers when they spotted him.

He landed harder than he had planned, cracking the blacktop. Damned peripheral neuropathy. At this point, he doubted he’d ever get full feeling back in his extremities. He searched for the nearest uniformed officer. “What happened?”

“Professor Edison is gone, and his lab was ransacked,” stammered a young rookie whose nametag read Conroy. “We’re glad you’re here, Stranger. You look good. I mean, you don’t look sick. Not that I’m a doctor. And I know your costume hides everything, but… you just don’t look like someone who’s dying.”

“Tell him about the superpoop!”

“We love you!” shouted a man near the back of the crowd.

“We know you’ll beat this!”

“You’re so strong!”

“Strong?” Stranger turned to face the woman who had spoken. “You think these malicious lumps of flesh cannibalizing my body make me strong?

“Temper, temper!”

“Not the cancer,” she said. “The way you’re facing it. Your courage and dignity are an inspiration to the whole city.”

Stranger strode toward her. “You all know I disappeared for two weeks in March.” He heard his voice rising, but he couldn’t stop his anger any more than he could have held back his eruption at the asylum. “I gathered a sphere of air around myself and flew to the dark side of the moon. Do you know what I did there?”

The crowd shifted uncomfortably.

“I cried like an Earth baby. And then I punched the fucking moon. Do those sound like the actions of a strong, courageous, dignified man?” He stomped toward the entrance. “I need to question Edison’s lab.”

“There’s more,” the police officer said, weakly. Stranger sighed, knowing from experience what he was about to say. “Scaramouche has also kidnapped Kelly Kane.”

JARHEAD PURSED HIS LIPS. “Some would say the courage isn’t about your breakdown, but about your choice to come back afterward.”

“Where else was I supposed to go? My own world blew up, remember? Besides, the moon’s boring. Nothing happens there but the occasional meteoroid strike. You want to know what a conversation with the moon sounds like? ‘Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.’ It gets old fast.”

“Have you considered a brain-jar? It’s not as bad as you’d think.” Jarhead began to pace back and forth on the desk, carried by the spider-like metal legs on the base of his jar.

“Even if we could cut off my head, and even if your technology could be adapted for alien biology, it’s too late. The cancer metastasized through my body. It would just follow my head into the jar and kill me there.” Stranger shifted in his chair, trying to find a position that didn’t aggravate the aches in his joints. “Everyone wants to help. Scaramouche is the only one to come up with a solution that might work…”

THE AIRPORT WAS EMPTY when Stranger arrived. Police and airport security had pulled everyone back a full five hundred yards: the government’s minimum recommended distance for a potential superpowered showdown.

In one hand, he clutched the wooden puzzle box he had found in Professor Edison’s office. Scaramouche had defaced the intricate multicolored woodwork with the word Pandora scrawled in blue Sharpie marker. “Repeat the message, please.”

The box was happy to oblige. “Terminal six. Hope to see you soon.”

His tumor chuckled. “‘Terminal.’ Just like you. I like this woman.”

Stranger swooped toward the terminal, where he spotted two figures sitting in a luggage truck beside an abandoned passenger jet.

Scaramouche sat waiting, her legs extended and crossed on the dashboard. A white mask hid her face—the mask of comedy, not tragedy, which was reassuring. When Scaramouche wore her other mask, the body count skyrocketed.

Behind that mask hid the mind of a genius. As Doctor Mona Merlo, she had earned PhDs in psychology, physics, and law. Her masks also hid the horribly scarred results of a scheme gone wrong, something involving a nanoexplosive, a trained ferret, and a microwave. Merlo’s brilliance was matched only by her randomness.

“Stranger!” Scaramouche jumped to her feet. “Long time no see! How’s my favorite butt-bleeder?”

Kelly Kane was chained to the passenger seat. Scaramouche had used multiple chains, making it harder for Stranger to use his powers to free her. A metal tank sat in the first of three luggage carriers hitched to the tiny truck. Explosives covered the tank like oversized, blinking pimples.

“Sulphuric acid,” said the tank. “Strong enough to burn the eyes right out of her head. If I move, the bombs go off. And the boss can set them off by remote. Oh, her seat’s wired, too.”

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Kelly grimaced. “It’s not like this is my first kidnapping. Be careful. She’s even more manic than usual.”

Her pulse and respiration belied her outward calm. Trying to keep his own anger under control, Stranger held the wooden box out to Scaramouche. “All the evils of the world escaped from Pandora’s box, until only hope remained. Hope for who?”

“For you, of course.” Scaramouche brought a cup of Starbucks coffee to her mask. She fitted the straw through the mouth and sipped slowly. “You and I go way back, Stranger. You’re like the husband I never had.”

“You had a husband. You mutated him into a gorilla.”

“Details. The point is, I can give you something the doctors can’t.”

“What’s that?”

“A choice. Two, in fact. Cancer is such an ugly, boring death,” she said. “You deserve better.”

“I resent that. Punch her in the face!”

“You’re going to do me a favor and kill me? No thanks.” Stranger concentrated on the chains, asking them for their weaknesses.

“Oh, but it would be a glorious death in the arms of the woman who loves you.” She laughed. “Don’t look at me like that, K.K. Everyone knows. In supervillain circles, there’s a running bet as to what would happen the first time you two kids did the deed. I’ve got five grand that says the first super-orgasm would kill her.”

“What’s the other choice?” Stranger snapped.

She shrugged. “I could just cure you.”

“Don’t listen to her, boss! It’s a trick!”

Of course it was a trick. And yet… “What’s the catch?”

Scaramouch took another sip of coffee before answering. “You have to help me kill the Stranger.”

“YOU’RE GOING TO NEED to explain that one,” said Jarhead.

“Professor Edison’s time magnet.” Stranger stared at the carpet. “Scaramouche couldn’t really cure my cancer. What she could do was reach into the past and pull a younger version of me—a cancer-free version—into the present. Combine that with any halfway decent mind-swapping device, and voila. I’m young and healthy again.”

Jarhead whistled. At least, Stranger assumed that was what the sound was supposed to be. It came out more like a dolphin’s clicking laughter translated through a synthesizer. “Ingeniously cruel. How did she respond when you refused?”

Stranger didn’t answer.

“You did refuse, right?”


“That’s beside the point,” said Scaramouche. “What’s important is that you survive. And since you’ll know your younger body is susceptible to cancer, you can start screening earlier. You didn’t discover the tumor until our shootout at the ice cream factory, right?” She giggled. “I thought I had finally built a bullet that would work on you. Hit you right in the ass. Made the whole ‘getting-the-shit-kicked-out-of-me-by-cartons-of-ice-cream’ thing totally worth it.”

Stranger wasn’t exactly bulletproof, but bullets liked him. They tended to lose their way and tumble to the ground when fired in his direction. At point blank range, they simply refused to leave the gun’s barrel. “You want me to sentence my past self to this?

“I want to offer your past self the chance to save your life.” Scaramouche’s frozen, grinning face tilted to one side. “Or are you saying the younger you wouldn’t sacrifice himself to save a fellow hero?”

“The paradox—”

“Timeline split, just like the Parallel Universe War of ’09. Or the evil Gold Panther and his ridiculous goatee. Don’t sweat it. The universe is very bendy. It will be fine. Probably.”

Stranger struggled to focus through the mental haze that clung to his thoughts. “That’s what you really want. To create an alternate timeline. One where Scaramouche never had to worry about the Stranger.”

“It was either that or steal some fossils and try to raise an army of dinosaurs. I may do that anyway, because who doesn’t love dinosaurs, right?”

Stranger studied the tank again. The acid wouldn’t hurt him, but it would almost certainly kill Kelly. He couldn’t suppress all of those individual explosives at once.

“What’s it going to be, John?”

It took him a second to realize Scaramouche had called him by his human name. “I’m not—”

“Stop it.” Scaramouche waved a gloved hand. “Voiceprint matching. Facial comparison software on the mouth and chin your old mask left exposed. General build and body language. Not to mention ‘John Knight’s’ convenient Powerball win years back. Yet, despite your millions, you kept your job in the newsroom. All the better to keep tabs on the city, right? Until recently, when you—I mean, he—went on longterm medical leave.”

Kelly was staring at him. “John?”

“How could you not know, Kane?” Scaramouche asked. “You’re supposed to be a reporter!”

“If you knew, why didn’t you say anything?” asked Stranger.

“This was more fun.” Scaramouche waved a hand impatiently. “Go on, show her. You’re dying anyway, right?”

With a sigh, Stranger removed his helmet.

“Whoa.” Scaramouche jumped back. “Never thought anyone could make me feel pretty. When did the alien acne start?”

“Side effect of the treatment.” He touched the swollen lumps. Uneven stubble covered his scalp and much of his face.

“Why didn’t you tell me, John?” asked Kelly.

Stranger managed a small, self-deprecating smile. “I was afraid some psychopath would use you against me.”

“You’ve tried to kill him so many times,” Kelly said to Scaramouche. “Why would you save him?”

“Because this is a ridiculous way to die!” Scaramouche shouted, suddenly furious. “Killer robots, psychotic alien gladiators, zapped into the seventh dimension of Hell, that’s how people like us are supposed to die. If nothing else, we should tumble over a waterfall to our deaths together like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty.”

“I thought Holmes survived,” Kelly said.

“Shut up. The point is, fuck cancer. Cancer’s not even an ironic death. It’s just stupid!”

Stranger had never been able to outthink Scaramouche. “If you let me die—”

“Then they import a new hero.” Scaramouche snorted. “I can’t stand temps. They don’t understand our routine.” She tapped a control on her wrist, and the explosives began to beep in unison, a chirping chorus of impending death. “I don’t have all day. I have yoga at four thirty.”

Stranger sagged against the truck. He couldn’t let Kelly die. “You win.”

“The hell she does!” The tumor’s outrage bubbled through Stranger’s thoughts. “Nobody defeats Tumor and the Fecal Tornado!”

Scaramouche giggled as she retrieved the time magnet from another trailer. The pistol-sized device resembled a radar gun.

“I’m sorry, John,” said Kelly.

Scaramouche sang in Italian as she calibrated the time magnet. “October third of 2002, wasn’t it? You were in a coma after moving the moon back into its proper orbit. If I pull you through from that day, the young you should sleep through the whole mind transfer.”


Stranger clenched his jaw. “If you have something to say…”

“Forget the acid tank. Just stop scarface from triggering it.”

“I can’t control people. I’m not telepathic.”

“Double dumbass. You’re talking to me, aren’t you?”

“You’re a tumor, not a person, and I can’t control you.”

“That hurt. You can’t control me because I’m superpowered. Scaramouche isn’t. More importantly, the meat in her skull isn’t.”

The words hit him like a sucker punch from Gargantua. No matter how twisted Scaramouche might be, she was also brilliant enough to make this so-called “cure” work. That hope had wormed its way into Stranger’s heart, poisoning his thoughts just as his tumors had done to his flesh. With Kelly in danger, he had no choice. He had to accept Scaramouche’s offer, because it was the only way to save an innocent life. If that meant killing an alternate version of himself, so be it. But if there was any alternative…

“Damn you.” He couldn’t decide who was more cruel: Scaramouche, for offering hope, or his tumor, for taking it away.

Stranger concentrated, trying to imagine Scaramouche not as a person, but as a collection of flesh and blood and bones. A body, complex and beautiful and fragile. A biological machine controlled through the junction of electrical cables to the brain. He focused on that pulsing lump of electrochemically-active meat and whispered, “Stop.”

Scaramouche collapsed like a discarded Muppet.

Stranger studied the controller on Scaramouche’s wrist. “How do I use you to deactivate the bombs?”

“What did you do?” Kelly whispered. “She’s not breathing.”

“She’s not doing anything,” Stranger said. “I shut down her brain.”

“You killed her?” She sounded horrified.

“It was my tumor’s idea.” He finished disarming the trap, then snapped the chains holding Kelly in place. He picked up the time magnet. His hands shook. Clenching his jaw, he crushed the device to scrap.

“Can you revive her?”

“Don’t do it! Wait another twenty seconds, and she’s a rutabaga for life!”

With a sigh, Stranger willed Scaramouche’s brain to live.

“SO YOU BEAT THE VILLAIN, saved the girl, and mastered a new aspect of your powers,” said Jarhead. “Sounds like a win to me.”

“It was. I think I owe her more than I realized.”

“Why is that?”

“You owe me, you ungrateful alien superdouche! If I’d known what you meant to do next, I never would have taught you that trick!”

“Because after I returned Scaramouche to Edgewood, I started thinking. If I could force her brain to shut down, why couldn’t I do the same to an ordinary human tumor?”

“I saved your life, and in return, you declared war on my brothers and sisters.”

“I thought you couldn’t control the cancer.”

“I can’t control mine.” He sat back in the chair. “How many people do you think I could help in six months? And when my own tumors finally begin to win, I thought I’d take a nice, long flight into the sun.”


“No.” For once, the tumor was mercifully silent. “Just a hero and his arch-nemesis tumbling over the waterfall.”

Story Notes:

Jim would like to thank author Jay Lake for his help and encouragement on this story, as well as for his honesty and openness in sharing the ugly details about living—and dying—with cancer. Well fought, sir.

Jim C. Hines is the author of the Magic ex Libris series, which has been described as a love letter to books and storytelling. He’s also written the Princess series of fairy tale retellings and the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy, along with more than forty published short stories. He’s an active blogger, and won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. You can find him online at

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