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Into Thin Space

by David Rich

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

conclusion


Herb was nonetheless thrilled with the opportunity Emma had afforded. On designated nights, they traveled across the nation. From a hold-up in Atlanta to a carjacking in L.A., the spacesuited pair foiled crimes just about to unfold. Through this new dimension, Herb’s old pathetic self could vanish and re-emerge a hero.

Herb was eager to learn the impact of his efforts. Initially, his daily web hunt uncovered local reports of crime-fighters in silvery spacesuits who mystically materialized and disappeared into thin air. As the media connected the dots, the “Reflecting Phantoms” story went mainstream.

Herb’s eyes lit up when he read the school newspaper editorial his hopeless crush Darlene had written. She maintained that these mysterious guardians were a godsend so desperately needed.

Herb wondered how he’d summoned enough courage for confronting villains, but approaching a girl paralyzed him with fear. Finally, he found the nerve after gym class.

“I liked your article about the Reflecting Phantoms,” he told Darlene.

“Thanks.”

He had been hoping for a longer answer. “I’m on your side. Whoever these guys are, they’re doing the right thing.”

“They really make degenerates think twice, don’t they? Hope they fix Armistice Street someday,” she said of a local neighborhood known for drug deals. “Catch you later. Stay dry.”

Despite her gibe about the swimming pool incident, Herb congratulated himself for talking to the girl of his dreams.

* * *

The next morning, Emma overheard the garbled melody coming from the bathroom. She knew Herb despised “top 40,” yet he was crooning a teenybopper love song. At breakfast, Herb was still humming it.

Contemplating what could’ve sparked his behavior, she shot, “Tell me her name!”

“None of your business,” he replied, grinning.

“You have a date, don’t you?”

“No. And you’re the expert?”

“I go on dates,” she insisted defensively.

“Yeah, who’s the last person you went out with?”

Emma thought frantically, trying to recall her last fling. Proud of her slender build and curly blonde hair, she considered herself attractive. Yet, her scarce romances never led anywhere. This was incongruous with her early college days, when her fascination with men was blossoming.

But then her parents had died. Getting close to someone didn’t feel comfortable anymore. Romance bore little importance. Marriage dropped from her ambitions. Motherhood was unthinkable.

“Marvin Rosenblatt,” she answered.

“That guy? Wasn’t he your lab partner?”

* * *

For Emma, discharging a weapon at an offender was an emotionless calculation. She simply was using a projectile to subdue an individual who endangered others.

To minimize lethality, she aimed for the legs or shoulders. Herb argued that law enforcement officers targeted the body’s center of mass. To this, Emma always replied that police lack the benefit of interdimensional travel to appear and vanish at will.

Emma was growing concerned over the anger in Herb’s gestures when he fired his gun. Her intention had been to help him build courage, not to give him a forum for taking out aggressions and swiftly hiding from the repercussions.

Emma feared she’d made a horrible mistake trusting Herb with the fantastic powers of her technology, proving herself yet again an incapable guardian.

It was too easy and sanitary for him: ambush the villain and expeditiously return to hiding. It neither demanded real bravery nor provided appreciation for the ugliness of violence.

Although she recognized the importance of what they were doing for imminent victims, Emma contemplated putting an end to the Reflecting Phantoms’ exploits. Instead, she vowed to watch Herb carefully the next time and confront him immediately afterwards if she observed it again.

However, the next night, events didn’t develop as planned. Taking two armed perpetrators by surprise, Emma cleanly shot one, and Herb hit the other.

Quickly, an unexpected blast sent Herb to the ground. Emma contained her panic as she spotted the third gunman they’d missed. She sprayed cover fire while attending to Herb.

Fortunately, a bullet had just grazed his spacesuit. He was already applying a “quick patch.” When suit sensors confirmed a seal, she commanded their vanishing.

Herb and Emma agreed immediately that the Reflecting Phantoms needed a hiatus.

Although they were safe, Emma imagined a potential sticky consequence. Krawling Laboratories’ unique nickel-coated aramid fiber covered their space suits. While it normally didn’t shed, the bullet probably liberated some material, which could become a clue to investigators.

* * *

Taking a break from heroism, personal topics swirled through Herb’s mind. One night, he peeked through Emma’s bedroom doorway. It was always difficult getting her attention when she read.

“Darlene,” he said.

“What? Who?” she responded.

“You asked me her name.”

“Oh.”

Emma lowered the book. Slowly and, uneasily, she asked, “Want to tell me about her?”

“You won’t believe this girl. She’s amazing...”

* * *

Herb couldn’t get his head around Darlene’s marvels. She wrote for the school newspaper, competed on the gymnastics team, and studied jiu-jitsu.

One evening, Herb attended a gymnastics meet. Watching her perform reminded him how physically inept he and Emma were for battling criminals. But he resolved to remain confident.

Fellow students cared little for gymnastics, leaving the bleachers mostly empty. Darlene appreciated that he’d paid interest, so much so she thanked him after the events.

Herb asked about her floor routine, which she happily discussed. But she seemed surprised when he praised her performance. Darlene explained that her scores were weak, and she lacked skills to compete vault, bars, or beam.

When he further expressed admiration for her achievements, she continued downplaying herself. Darlene insisted her Reflecting Phantoms article was an aberration; most of the material she wrote wasn’t good enough for the school paper. As for jiu-jitsu, she chuckled that she’d never survive a real fight. At best, with a lucky surprise kick, she might knock some ‘stooge’ down.

Her modesty bothering him, Herb successfully posed the key question, “Want to get pizza tomorrow night?”

“Umm... sure,” she replied.

Darlene’s facial expressions struck familiar. He gathered she was trying to conjure a kind rejection.

He’d just scored dinner with the ‘perfect’ girl yet remained troubled. He didn’t want a mercy date. But his greater fear was that Darlene was just an ordinary girl who happened to enjoy gymnastics and write occasional articles for the school paper.

* * *

While Herb was on his date, Emma was alone. She stared at the H.G. Wells novel that would keep her company that evening and wondered what had happened to her own love life.

She recounted Herb’s description of Darlene. While Emma hoped Herb wasn’t building her up in his mind, she couldn’t help but recognize how Darlene’s passion and athletic skills might strengthen the Reflecting Phantoms.

And Herb adored her.

An unexpected knock at the apartment door startled Emma. She crept to the peep hole and saw a suited gentleman readying his badge. This was bad.

She hoped they hadn’t found Herb yet.

* * *

Herb couldn’t find words to engage Darlene’s attention. She was standoffish. He feared that a heartless rejection was forthcoming.

“I’ve never seen anyone order extra broccoli. Pepperoni, sure,” he said before recalling she was vegetarian. He remembered she’d said something about despising human predator instincts. Then, he awkwardly bit into his slice of sausage pizza.

Suddenly, a group of disruptive teenagers entered the pizzeria. Herb cringed when he spotted his high school nemesis.

Heath inevitably found them. He sauntered close and fondled Herb’s hair. The gang, all high like Heath, laughed mercilessly.

“HERRR-bert,” Heath crooned.

The snot and sweat dripping down Heath’s face amplified Herb’s fear and revulsion. Eyeing the doorway, Herb spotted Emma with what looked like a golden hula-hoop. He was bewildered.

Then, Emma found them.

“We have to go,” she said, tugging Herb’s arm.

Herb shot Darlene an embarrassed glance. Huffing, Darlene yanked Herb’s other arm, wrenching him free of Heath’s grasp.

Outside, Heath trotted after Herb. However, a balding, muscular gentleman in a denim jacket intercepted Heath.

“Who’s that?” Herb asked Darlene.

“Probably his dealer’s goon.”

“Good. I hope he’s in trouble.”

Darlene’s grimace at his remark deflated Herb. And before he could even enjoy Heath’s fate, Emma lassoed them both with the golden hoop, pulling them into an alley.

“Excuse me!” Darlene protested.

Instantly, the three were floating in the Griffin.

“You did it! Without space suits!” Herb exclaimed.

“What the hell’s going on?” Darlene shrieked. She was confused and clearly unaccustomed to zero gravity.

Herb had never heard Darlene holler so loudly.

Catching Emma’s encouraging wink, Herb said, “I guess we’re the Reflecting Phantoms.”

“What!? Why am I floating? Put me down right now!” Darlene screamed.

“We’re in outer space. There is no down,” Herb said, trying to calm her. Moreover, he was proud that he’d remembered Emma’s explanation of weightlessness.

“Listen,” Emma snapped, pulling away the hoop. “Herb and I need to lay low while I make some evidence disappear. Darlene, do you want me to take you home?”

Herb, at first, felt it awkward that his older sister would offer to drive home his date. Then he recognized that not many sisters had an interdimensional spaceship.

Darlene didn’t say a word. Emma nodded, clearly taking Darlene’s non-response as an indication that she was happy to go for a ride.

Emma maneuvered the vessel ‘through’ homes and businesses, arriving deep inside Krawling Labs. Darlene stared at the screen throughout the trip. Herb interpreted Darlene’s face as perplexed, but otherwise couldn’t read the machinations rolling through her head.

Herb wanted to tell Darlene more. He recognized that this was the moment for her to finally see him for what he truly was. Yet, he’d never felt so tongue-tied.

“I need one hour. Touch nothing,” Emma warned.

Then, she climbed inside the hula-hoop and disappeared.

Breaking the silence, Darlene asked rhetorically, “You guys really are the Reflecting Phantoms?”

Herb nodded, still unable to find the right words to say.

“Then we gotta help Heath,” Darlene said.

“You heard Emma! ‘Don’t touch anything.’”

“Heath’s our classmate. He’s in trouble!”

Because things hadn’t been clicking between he and Darlene, he humored her concerns. Having watched Emma many times, he proficiently guided the ship back to the pizzeria. Heath, however, wasn’t there.

“What about Armistice Street?” Darlene asked. “That’s where they do these things.”

“There’s no time! Heath deserves whatever he’s getting anyway.”

“If that’s what the Reflecting Phantoms are about, I’m disappointed.”

Herb was incensed. He’d been foolishly certain that once Darlene saw him as a superhero, she’d fall in love with him. More importantly, the sweet girl he’d imagined was awfully more headstrong than he’d projected. Herb wasn’t even sure he liked her!

But deep down, he knew she was right.

Restraining his outrage, he guided the craft to Armistice Street. Sure enough, Heath and the denim-jacketed man were there.

“We can’t hear them,” Herb explained.

“How do you get into those?” Darlene asked, pointing to the lustrous spacesuits against the wall.

* * *

Still hiding in the Griffin, Herb and Darlene watched the goon’s interrogation of Heath grow heated. Then, Heath drew a chartreuse green-colored switchblade. In response, the goon removed a handgun from the armpit holster under his denim jacket.

“Just like Heath to bring a knife to a gunfight,” Darlene mumbled via radio.

Herb executed their transfer.

Noticing he was a lone spaceman on Armistice Street, Herb radioed hopelessly, “Darlene!?”

He deduced that Emma’s secure system didn’t recognize her. Unwilling to do this solo, Herb decided to return to hidden space and abandon Heath. But when he issued the command, nothing happened.

“Initiate!” he repeated. Nothing.

He could hardly guess at why it wasn’t working. There’d never been a malfunction. Crazy conjectures went through his head. Perhaps Darlene was an evil genius who’d absconded with the vessel, which was now out of range. (He dismissed that theory.)

Regardless, stuck and alone, Herb didn’t want a shootout. Using his suit’s exterior speaker, Herb shouted, “Okay! You, sir! Whoever you are. Umm, let’s take it easy.”

The denim-jacketed man said nothing and backed toward a dumpster.

Herb continued, “How about we both put down our guns, and we just, like, get some pizza?” Then he mumbled, “Okay, bad choice, we just came from there.”

Then came a moment of tense, awkward silence as the goon continued backing away. Herb quickly recognized that the man would attain cover and then open fire.

Herb sprinted towards the dumpster. By the time the gangster was behind it, Herb had reached the other side. They exchanged gunfire. Guts burning, Herb was wasting shots.

When Heath attempted to run, the thug shot Heath in the leg. His chartreuse switchblade fell to the ground. Herb took guilty delight watching Heath tumble, writhe about in agony, and beg for his life.

But soon Heath shouted, “Look out!”

The warning was just enough for Herb to duck. He’d taken his eye off the gangster, who was now atop the dumpster.

A shot grazed Herb’s helmet, cracking the glass.

Herb tried firing back, but his weapon was empty. Fortunately, the gangster was checking his own ammo.

“I just want O’Malley!” the villain shouted to Herb. “Get lost.”

Holstering his gun, Herb weighed running and saving himself. Then he looked at Heath. Instead of a vicious bully, Herb saw a frightened and troubled teen who desperately needed his help. When the thug aimed his gun at Heath, Herb knew he had to act.

He ignited his suit’s jet pack for maximum thrust and flew at the man. Herb slammed into him, knocking away his gun. They both fell from the dumpster to the ground.

Herb quickly recognized his plan’s flaw. Wounded, Heath couldn’t retrieve the gun. Meanwhile, the gangster easily out-wrestled Herb and stumbled toward the weapon. Next, he’d kill them both.

But as the goon reached for the gun, out of thin air, a diminutive spaceman with the golden hoop appeared with a perfectly aimed surprise side thrust kick.

It was barely enough to knock him down.

Next, the newcomer grabbed the gun, tossed it and a towel to Herb, and ran to Heath. Herb followed, but first extracted Heath’s chartreuse switchblade from the ground.

“Press the towel into his wound!” Darlene’s brash voice rang in his headset.

Darlene set the golden hoop around them and covered Heath’s eyes. Promptly, the three materialized inside the Griffin. Emma quietly winked at Herb from the navigation panel. He couldn’t wait to get out of his spacesuit to hug her.

“Just after you landed on Armistice Street, the ship took off.” Darlene lamented via radio. “Emma auto-piloted it back to her lab when she realized it was gone. Apparently, she has a homing app on her phone. We came for you as fast as we could.”

* * *

Emma was pleased that delivering Heath to the nearest ER had gone perfectly. Darlene and Herb were arguing about next steps. Seeing their body language, Emma was confident that romance wasn’t brewing. Herb, at least, had been risking the effort.

Glancing at the teardrop-shaped firearm in Herb’s holster, Emma confronted the grief she’d been storing. In her mind, she said goodbye to her parents and vowed she was doing her best to heal her brother’s universe. At that, Emma felt not so incapable after all.

At that moment, Emma noticed an encouraging text she’d received. Marvin Rosenblatt had accepted her proposal to meet for coffee. She knew he’d certainly appreciate exploring the astrophysical phenomena of alternate universes!

Emma cracked a smile and laughed in a way she hadn’t in a very long time. It was time for her to stop hiding in her secret dimension.

* * *

Having heard nothing from his drug dealer, Heath O’Malley’s optimism grew daily. He figured no commonplace criminal would invite further attention from the Reflecting Phantoms.

At last, he returned to school in crutches from his gruesome leg wound. His buddies celebrated by shoving little Herb Weaver into a locker.

Heath noticed disappointedly that Herb lacked his usual frightened, agonized expression. The clenched, trembling lips were gone. Instead, Herb almost seemed to be grinning at him.

Eventually, Darlene Luvina arrived. She got into the bullies’ faces, ordering that they cut it out. It was adequate distraction for Herb to squirm away.

Then, Heath noticed a green object Herb had left on the ground. One of Heath’s buddies darted after Herb, but Heath blocked his friend with a crutch. Heath recognized the object as his chartreuse switchblade that he’d lost in the gunfight. Heath almost fell on his injured leg.

Darlene patted Herb softly on the back and darted away.

As Heath glanced at Herb and Darlene, Heath recalled the two small but courageous spacemen who’d helped him that night. He grew nauseous, and a wave of gastric juice flooded his esophagus. He deemed it time to lay off Herb Weaver.


Copyright © 2019 by David Rich

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