Super-Commodities

A Superhero Short Story written by Andrew Rucker Jones

Super-Commodities

by Andrew Rucker Jones

Andrew Rucker Jones is a former IT expert and American expatriate living in Germany with his Georgian wife and their three children. He quit his day job to become an author, and he has yet to regret it. You can read his blog at http://selfdefeatistnavelgazing.wordpress.com/.
 
Other TTTV stories by Andrew Rucker Jones :https://talltaletv.com/tag/andrew-rucker-jones/

Elastoman picked up a sign that read, “Super pay for superheroes!” and joined the picket line in front of Fluffy Bunny Enterprises next to Flameboy. There was so much energy in the air that Elastoman scanned for Electric Storm, but no, she was still safely in jail.

“It’s about time, old man. Oversleep?” Flameboy jabbed Elastoman in the ribs and Elastoman caught a whiff of burning rubber.

“Great. We’re protesting for better pay and you melt another one of my supersuits. I can’t just buy these things at a Macy’s summer sale, you know.” Elastoman swatted at the burn mark; melted polymer strands stuck to his fingers.

Flameboy’s eyebrow sizzled up. “More like T.J. Maxx.”

“I might be able to help,” Peregrine-Woman called from above them. She landed next to Elastoman. “Our chicks have outgrown their fledgling supersuits. I use them and some polymer thread to sew patches over holes, cuts, and burns.” When Peregrine-Woman saw Elastoman eyeing the patches on her suit at the knees and shoulder blades, she blushed. “A penny saved is a penny earned, right?”

“That’s lovely of you,” Elastoman drawled, “but this picket line stretching before you? It’s not only about money—“

“Safe working conditions!” Flameboy yelled, and The Prefrontal Cortex took up the call.

“It’s about dignity, too,” Elastoman continued over the din and scratched his crotch.

Peregrine-Woman looked away. She hated it when her husband did that, too. So classless.

“How low have we come when our once streamlined, practical yet fashionable, impeccably wrinkle-free, one-of-a-kind supersuits now look like rejects from a quilting bee? Every city deserves to have its superhero looking sharp. It inspires confidence. And we deserve the same dignity afforded every accountant, barista, and ambulance-chasing lawyer in the city we protect.”

“Geez. I was just trying to help.” Peregrine-Woman swooped off to scout for scabs and found one immediately. “No you don’t, Gentrification Man! We’re all in this together!”

“But I hardly have a job to start with and I get no retirement benefits—“

“None of us do!”

“But I’ve been retired my whole working life, Peregrine-Woman!”

“They have all the cards,” Elastoman said to The Prefrontal Cortex. “How are we going to make any demands stick?” He bit his lip and twisted his protest sign until his arms were wrapped around it up to his biceps. “I’m already moonlighting as a librarian—I can reach the high shelves without a ladder—and I write articles about my exploits for the paper, but I still barely make rent!”

“Never fear, my supple super scrivener. They live in symbiosis with us. They must capitulate.”

“Do you moonlight, too, Pre?”

The Prefrontal Cortex gave him a sidelong look, “PC support in Fluffy Bunny’s IT department.”

Elastoman’s look turned to nuns-taken-hostage horror. “How low can we stoop?”

“They’re coming out!” Peregrine-Woman yelled.

Rainbow Man grinned and hoisted two thumbs in the air.

“Out of the building,” she added.

Rainbow Man scowled and dropped his arms.

Four representatives strode in a phalanx to the top of the marble stairs leading from the picket line to the black, fifty-story building of reflective glass. One sported a black cape with a collar half the height of his head. His hair was gelled and he wore a goatee like he was born with it.

“Friends,” he began, and a tumult of boos and hisses arose. He waited. “I say friends.”

The boos and hisses were fewer this time, and someone yelled, “Let him speak.”

“We have received your protestations and spent the hours previous deliberating with the utmost earnestness, for we recognize the validity of your arguments and abjure any injurious business practices we may have inadvertently instituted.”

“Less talk, more justice!” Flameboy yelled. The man in the cape winced at the word “justice.”

“We humbly invite three of your number to the negotiation table, where we will solidify the details of a new contract for members of the Union of Superheroes, Ring of Metropolitan Influence. We await your representatives inside.” The group swooped back into the building.

“Only three?” Elastoman said. “They’re putting us at a disadvantage.”

“I think three of our number are more than equal to their four,” The Prefrontal Cortex replied, then declaimed in sonorous tones to the assembled mass of downtrodden justice-seekers, “Fellow superheroes, I volunteer to lead the negotiation.” There was a rumble of assent and The Prefrontal Cortex mounted the steps. “With your permission, I select Peregrine-Woman for female representation—“ there arose a great cheer “—and Elastoman for the strength of his intuition and convictions.” The Prefrontal Cortex took no answer as assent. The three of them walked into the building, Peregrine-Woman in the middle, her wings curved around the other two like a shield.

On the top floor, they were met by another winged woman. Her wingspan was thrice Peregrine-Woman’s, and she wore a jumpsuit that accentuated her toned, voluptuous form. A side arm was strapped to each thigh and glasses perched on her nose.

“C. Condor,” Peregrine-Woman said, and her wings tensed. “I see they have you playing secretary. Do you enjoy kowtowing to men?”

C. Condor raised her feathery eyebrows. “And where have you been recently, Peregrine? Oh, that’s right. Sidelining your career to raise your hatchlings while Hawkster is out saving the world and such. Thanks, by the way. You’ve made my life of crime much easier by benching yourself.”

Peregrine-Woman’s wings shot out, touching the walls of the corridor they walked down. “Mothering is a noble occupation. I am raising the next generation of superheroes to keep your kind in check.”

“I’ll be sure to mention that to the next policeman I drop from ten stories up. Your new look as a mother suits you, dear. What do you call that? ‘Flabby?’”

Peregrine-Woman screeched and beat her wings. The man in the dark cape emerged from the conference room. “C. Condor, keep your personal squabbles a matter for your field duty. Please, everyone be seated.” He indicated high-backed, plush office chairs around a long oak table. There were embossed placards on the table with each of their names: Dark Mastermind, Brawny Reptile, Nerdboy, Tundra, The Prefrontal Cortex, Elastoman, and Peregrine-Woman.

The Prefrontal Cortex narrowed his eyes at Dark Mastermind. “You calculated which three representatives would be chosen.”

“Nonsense, Pre,” Dark Mastermind said as he sat in the middle of his cadre of evil-doers. “C. Condor made them on your way up.”

The superheroes seated themselves slowly, never taking their eyes off their counterparts.

“Come, come,” Dark Mastermind said. “One would think the seats were booby-trapped.”

“Are they?” Elastoman asked through his teeth, proud at his own savvy comeback.

Tundra’s voice, like glaciers colliding, sent chills down Elastoman’s spine. “Not this time.”

Dark Mastermind spread his arms. “Beloved enemies, would you care to say something before we commence?”

“We wish to remind our respected colleagues that although you have our contracts in your hands, that is, despite being our employer and pay our salaries, we exist in symbiosis,” The Prefrontal Cortex said. Nerdboy snickered.

With a silencing look at Nerdboy, Dark Mastermind began. “I have before me your union’s demands.”

Brawny Reptile growled deep in his throat.

“Heading the list is equal pay. Is that equal pay for male and female superheroes?”

“We demand equal pay for superheroes and supervillains.” Elastoman thumped his fist on the table. Nervousness made him rubbery, so the thump came off as more of a squish. Nerdboy snickered.

“Though what you said would be nice, too,” Peregrine-Woman said to Dark Mastermind.

“Hm. There is disagreement in your own ranks. My friends, that makes negotiation difficult.”

“Equal pay for superheroes and supervillains is on the table at the moment,” The Prefrontal Cortex said. “Nothing else.” When Peregrine-Woman’s feathers rustled he added, “Equal pay for the sexes is for another time. We will all benefit from remuneration equal to that of the villains whose machinations we foil.” Peregrine-Woman sulked but said nothing. Nerdboy snickered.

Dark Mastermind winced. “‘Pay’ is such an inexact term, I’m sure you’ll agree, Pre. Look at us,” he gestured around his side of the table. “We don’t draw a salary at all. We are invested in Fluffy Bunny Enterprises and our income derives from that investment. Dividends give us a comfortable lifestyle, and on a rainy day we can sell stock to raise capital.

“You, on the other hand, are salaried workers, and I believe you prefer that life. It affords stability and predictability. That’s important for those who choose to start families.” He indicated Peregrine-Woman.

“Not all of your income derives from your investment,” The Prefrontal Cortex said.

“Oh, we rob a bank every now and again,” Dark Mastermind waved a hand, “or extort ransom from governments with doomsday weapons, but barring a commission to the perpetrator or a profit-sharing deal with an outside client, all of that revenue goes back into the fluffy bunny. We live in something very similar to a collective.”

“Well maybe we want in on that collective.” Elastoman snapped. Brawny Reptile growled.

Dark Mastermind’s eyebrows lifted. “You want in on a life of crime? Well, now. That changes the entire face of the negotiations.”

“What? No! We just want more money.”

Dark Mastermind smiled. “Don’t we all?” Nerdboy snickered.

“Then let us into the collective,” Elastoman said. “That would give us equal pay.”

The Prefrontal Cortex rested his right lobe in his hand in proxy embarrassment as Dark Mastermind rebutted. “My dear Elastoman, I don’t think you understand how the collective works. Everyone contributes all assets they pillage during their schemes. A reward is calculated based on size of contributions, innocents killed, and incapacitation of superheroes, which is further weighted by length of incapacitation and risk the superhero poses. Does that sound like something you would put your signature under?”

Elastoman fumed in silence. Nerdboy snickered. Elastoman fumed in louder silence.

“And you keep all the supervillains reporting honestly?” The Prefrontal Cortex asked.

“Pre,” Dark Mastermind knit his brow and shook his head, “A basic course in game theory is required—“ The Prefrontal Cortex gave a knowing ‘ah!’ “—so they understand the implications of cheating. And for those who don’t understand even simplified game theory—“

Brawny Reptile moaned, “Prisoner’s Dilemma!”

“—we have a simple but effective set of punishments for misbehavior.”

Brawny Reptile moaned again. Nerdboy pressed a button on the console in the desk before him and Brawny Reptile’s body quivered with an electric shock. Nerdboy snickered. Dark Mastermind gave Nerdboy a look that was caught between “not now” and “well done, sadistic young protégé.”

“You can change the reward system,” Peregrine-Woman said.

Dark Mastermind gave her a pitying smile. “Pre?”

“I assume,” The Prefrontal Cortex said, “that would require reconstituting Fluffy Bunny Enterprises. It would be tantamount to destroying one corporation and setting up a new one.”

Dark Mastermind sighed. “The legal fees alone could bankrupt us, and I fear mass defection if we tear down a good thing just to accommodate your … moral inhibitions. We would be left a hobbling, dim-witted mockery of what we currently are, and we wouldn’t be able to pay your salaries at all.”

“It seems a simple raise would be the most expedient course of action,” The Prefrontal Cortex said. “Ten percent.”

Brawny Reptile snapped his jaws.

“I must admit I’m surprised,” Dark Mastermind said.

“It’s only logical,” The Prefrontal Cortex maintained.

“Yes, surely, from your point of view. But we just gave you a 1.8% increase last year—of our own volition—and inflation is at an all-time low. We feel last year’s increase was a generous valuation of your work based on current freelance superhero compensation and similar contracts we have with the National and Global Rings of your union.”

“Those guys never help us out,” Elastoman grumbled. Nerdboy snickered.

“You know those numbers allow wide interpretation, Dark.”

“Not as wide as you might think, Pre, once you adjust for health benefits, compensated travel time, the value of stability versus income fluctuation, and independent valuations of the market value of your brands.”

The Prefrontal Cortex stared at his adversary. Dark Mastermind’s arguments were reasonable. Short of begging, The Prefrontal Cortex wasn’t sure how to get anything more out of their CEO. He decided to try pregnant silence.

“We need and deserve more money!” Elastoman hollered.

So much for pregnant silence, The Prefrontal Cortex thought.

Dark Mastermind inhaled deeply and contemplated the ceiling. At length, he said, “I think I can squeak out another 0.2% salary increase without risking insolvency. Can we agree on that number?”

Elastoman shrugged and crossed his arms. Peregrine-Woman nodded with downcast eyes.

“Accepted,” said The Prefrontal Cortex. “But if your calculations of our salaries are based partially on brand valuation, we should be given the chance to influence that valuation.”

“Agreed, dear nemesis. What is your demand?”

“We want the option of rebranding, and Fluffy Bunny Enterprises should bear the costs.”

Elastoman rolled his eyes and Peregrine-Woman studied the wall. The branding question had been The Prefrontal Cortex’s brain child and had found little support in the union apart from Flame-Retardant Preteen Genderless Amorphous Mass and Male Stripper (“I temporarily strip supervillains of their powers!”).

“We agree,” Dark Mastermind said. “Provided there is a limit on rebranding frequency and we have veto rights on new brands. You can’t call yourself Destroyer of that Lying Slimeball Dark Mastermind. That’s just slanderous.

“I’ll have C. Condor design an application process to ensure we have a solid cost-to-benefit analysis, the name is not already registered, and the name does not potentially break any laws.” He tapped briefly on the console in the desk in front of him. Without looking up, he asked, “Out of curiosity, Pre, how will you rebrand yourself?”

“Just PFC. If Kentucky Fried Chicken can do it, so can I. My moniker is wordy and physiologically inaccurate in implying superior intelligence. That cortex regulates the impulsive, emotional, frankly messy parts of the brain. Some idiot reporter coined it, and Fluffy Bunny cemented it through press releases.”

“It will be a pleasure doing battle with you, PFC,” Dark Mastermind said with a smarmy smile. “Next, I would like to group paid vacation, sabbaticals, paid sick days, and maternity leave together. Friends, those are perks we don’t even grant ourselves. In the interest of fairness, we will have to respectfully decline those demands.”

Peregrine-Woman groaned and flopped back into her wings. “I need that maternity leave. Hawkster and I can barely make ends meet, and with our inattentive, fly-by parenting, we’ll be lucky if our fledglings don’t turn into exactly the kind of supervillains we’re protecting them from.”

Dark Mastermind clucked with his tongue and shook his head. He also typed a reminder into his console to recruit Peregrine-Woman’s chicks.

“And I want a job to come back to. I’m sure you’ve been eyeing White Lark to replace me.”

“I will not discuss staffing decisions,” Dark Mastermind said, then considered. “I understand your concerns. I will ask my own people if we want our contracts thus amended. If we do, the road is open to discussing this during the next round of negotiations. Is that satisfactory for the moment?”

PFC looked at Peregrine-Woman, who gave him another downcast nod. “We will accept your concession for now. We want a better answer next time, though.”

Dark Mastermind nodded. “I will do my best, Pre—uh, PFC. Let’s move on to safer working conditions.”

“Every day,” Elastoman began, nearly shouting, “we risk acid baths, falls from great heights, dismemberment, maiming, and sexual impotence.”

PFC raised an eyebrow and Peregrine-Woman covered her mouth with a wing to hide her surprise.

“Is it too much to ask to do our jobs safely?” Elastoman said.

“Elastoman can’t get it up,” Tundra rasped. Nerdboy snickered. Peregrine-Woman covered a guffaw with a cough.

Elastoman turned on her. “Just wait until it happens to Hawkster. You won’t find it so funny then.”

“But friends, that’s like a trapeze artist who wants to work on the ground. Danger comes with the job.”

“Elastoman doesn’t come with anything,” sniped Tundra, and Peregrine-Woman doubled up with laughter.

“Just making it longer doesn’t do it, does it, bro?” Nerdboy said and sank into his plush chair, losing control to his snickering.

“Enough already!” Elastoman bellowed. Brawny Reptile snarled at the noise. The room regained its composure.

“I can offer company-paid hazmat suits and hardhats if that will help,” Dark Mastermind said.

“Fighting in hazmat suits?” PFC asked with a frown. “That would put us at a disadvantage.”

“Not you, PFC,” Dark Mastermind said. “You fight with your blinding intelligence. When have you ever thrown a punch or been dunked in acid?”

“Do you have hazmat suits built for wings?” Peregrine-Woman asked.

“We would have to special order it,” Dark Mastermind said, “and I can’t guarantee good results.”

“Mine has to stretch,” Elastoman said.

“Leave plenty of space below the crotch,” Tundra grated. Nerdboy outright laughed.

“I think,” PFC spoke over the tumult, “hardhats are our best option at the moment.” With a last snicker, the room again became quiet.

“Done,” Dark Mastermind said. “Would it be acceptable if they bore the Fluffy Bunny logo? It’s good advertising, and the greater our income, the more we can offer you at a later date.”

“We’re supposed to fight you while wearing that hideous rodent—“

“Lagomorph,” PFC corrected.

“—emblazoned across our foreheads?” Elastoman asked. “I don’t see you wearing it.”

Brawny Reptile lifted an arm high. “Fluffy Bunny good!” Tattooed on the underside of his upper arm was the logo, upside down and barely visible on the scaly skin.

“There, you see?” Dark Mastermind pointed. “Some have it tattooed to their very bodies. As for the rest of us at the table, it’s casual Friday.”

Peregrine-Woman whispered to PFC, “Why don’t we have casual Friday?” He waved her off.

“We do, however—“ Dark Mastermind withdrew his wallet from his back pocket, “—have a corporate partnership with MasterCard. Our employees get an attractively low interest rate…” He displayed his credit card to the superheroes and tapped the upper right corner where the Fluffy Bunny logo was engraved.

“We need new furniture for the aerie in a hurry,” Peregrine-Woman said with a covetous look at the card. “Talons, you know. Couches don’t last long. Most banks aren’t in love with the credit rating of the average superhero.”

“C. Condor can give you an application form on the way out,” Dark Mastermind said.

At mention of the name, Peregrine-Woman crossed her arms and huffed back into her seat.

PFC spoke. “Your argument is logical. We accept the Fluffy Bunny logo on the hardhats, and I would be interested in an application form for the credit card.”

“Hey, Elastoman,” Nerdboy said in a stage whisper. “Maybe having a rabbit on your helmet will help with your, shall we say, procreation problem.”

Before Elastoman could twist himself into a balloon animal in a blind rage, Peregrine-Woman said, “I want to discuss corporate-sponsored scholarships to institutions of higher learning. Statistically, villains attain a higher level of education and hold more advanced degrees. This is due to the economics of our professions: financially if not morally, crime pays. Some of that money goes to further education, widening the gap between hero and villain. We must level the playing field by giving superheroes equal access to educational opportunities.”

Dark Mastermind smiled. “As a man of stupendous intellect—“

“—unnaturally obtained,” PFC interjected.

“—I want my employees to attain the highest possible education. Fluffy Bunny Enterprises has an excellent relationship with the local community college. I’m sure we can arrange something in time for next semester.”

“You recruit supervillains from a community college?” Elastoman asked.

Dark Mastermind laughed. “Heavens no! We hardly recruit supervillains. Most come to us straight out of post-doctoral programs.” Dark Mastermind chuckled again. “No, you see, we need accountants, writers for advertising copy and press releases, IT experts—” he winked at PFC, “—and so on. For those jobs, we draw heavily on the community college. We are the largest regional employer.”

“You think the community college would be good for us?” Peregrine-Woman asked.

Dark Mastermind stroked his goatee. “Some of their courses are consistently full, but language classes are always available. They specialize in Baltic languages.”

Elastoman sneered. “When am I going to need Latvian?”

“Soon enough,” Tundra replied, fixing his nemesis with a steady stare. Elastoman squirmed in his seat, his buttocks squeaking like rubber balloons.

“They also have a strong program for the humanities,” Dark Mastermind continued. “The professor for ‘History of Asia, 1850 to the Present’ is especially engaging.” Seeing skeptical looks around the table, he added, “But if history isn’t your thing, they offer English composition and writer’s workshops.”

PFC lit up like a CAT scan. “I always wanted to write my memoirs.”

“It’s a great way to supplement one’s income,” Dark Mastermind said. “Did you know that Fluffy Bunny Enterprises has a publishing subsidiary? Send us your manuscript. If it meets our high standards I’m sure we can agree on good terms.”

PFC raised his eyebrows and nodded.

“Now, dear friends, do we have agreement on the point of education?”

“Those aren’t the kinds of courses that will help—“ Peregrine-Woman started to object.

“Oh, Peregrine-Woman, forgive me! All of that must sound rather dull to the avian mother of a new brood. The community college also offers outstanding introductory courses in nutrition and ornithology.” Dark Mastermind beamed at her with a smile that didn’t touch his eyes.

Peregrine-Woman was unsure if that smile made her more or less comfortable. But the courses did sound interesting. She nodded at PFC.

“We have a deal,” PFC said, “and I think I can get a manuscript to you by the end of next month.

“The next topic is job mobility. Our contracts don’t permit relocation.”

“Why would you move?” Dark Mastermind asked.

“Lower cost of living,” Elastoman grumbled.

“Better schools,” Peregrine-Woman said, “and a lower crime rate. I don’t want my chicks growing up in a city as dangerous as ours.”

Dark Mastermind considered. “I respect your arguments, friends. You are tied down geographically by your special relationship to your evil counterparts. Heroes and villains are sewn from the same cloth and live in a delicate balance of power. But that is precisely why relocation is a difficult demand to entertain. Let’s say for the sake of argument that PFC here swaps metropolises with you, Peregrine-Woman.”

PFC moaned and put his bulbous head in his hands.

Peregrine-Woman looked at him. “What?” she asked. “What about it?”

Dark Mastermind smiled and steepled his fingers. “My dear, can you imagine facing off against me?”

“Piece of cake.” Peregrine-Woman rustled her wings. “I would nab you with my talons and fly you to prison. Case closed.”

PFC moaned again. “You would bollocks the whole thing up. Isn’t it obvious he would work from hiding and never put himself in a position to be hoisted into the air? He’s a modern knowledge worker, not some brawny, blue collar, redneck supervillain whose answer to everything is to punch it.”

Brawny Reptile growled.

“No offense,” PFC hastened to add.

Brawny Reptile flashed his long, venomed fangs.

Keeping Brawny Reptile in his peripheral vision, PFC addressed Peregrine-Woman again. “Fighting Dark Mastermind requires matching his intelligence. It requires careful planning.”

“And I dare say it takes … hm … panache, isn’t that right, old friend?” Dark Mastermind winked at PFC. A smile flickered at the corners of PFC’s mouth.

Peregrine-Woman lowered her head and blushed.

“We can allow job relocation if and only if a superhero and every supervillain in his or her oeuvre wish it. I’m afraid there’s no way around that ugly truth, Peregrine-Woman.” Dark Mastermind shook his head.

“But I can’t find a cheaper apartment!” Elastoman ejaculated.

“And those pills you keep getting e-mails about cost something too, right bro?” Nerdboy smirked.

“Objection noted, Elastoman” PFC rushed on, “but you will simply have to convince your nemeses to move with you.

“We have reached agreement on every point. Where do we sign, Dark?”

Dark Mastermind typed at his console. “The contracts are on the way.”

“While we’re waiting,” Elastoman huffed, “I’ve always wondered: why a fluffy bunny?”

A smile tickled the corners of Dark Mastermind’s thin lips. “It started as a cover, of course, but it grew on us. With our IPO we dropped the cover, but we didn’t have the heart to cast off the bunny.”

C. Condor strode into the room and expanded her wings to their full width, tips touching opposite walls across the long side of the room, before refolding them and placing a leather-bound folder and a credit card application in front of each superhero. Peregrine-Woman rustled her wings and tried to keep them folded in the face of C. Condor’s bating.

When PFC had speed-read to the end and nodded, the superheroes signed. C. Condor collected the folders, snapped her wings open wide and shut again, blew Peregrine-Woman a kiss, and left. Peregrine-Woman screeched, but PFC frowned and Elastoman rolled his eyes, so she sulked.

Dark Mastermind stood and all stood with him. “Today we have taken a great step toward a world in which all overly endowed men, women, and genderless amorphous masses are free to pursue a career that ignites their passion without fear of poverty or suffering the indignity of compensation incommensurate with their contributions to society. Friends, I thank you for your cooperation. I speak for all of us when I say I look forward to meeting you in battle, each imbued with the vigor that comes from fair compensation and respectful treatment. We will strive to make our coming altercations worthy of your efforts and remain forever in your debt as those who give our lives meaning and foil our plans at every turn. Without you, this enterprise would never succeed.”

Dark Mastermind paused to let his peroration sink in. “PFC, could you check my console before you leave? It’s been acting funny.” He turned his back on the superheroes and strode out of the room, Nerdboy, Tundra, and Brawny Reptile close behind.

The moment the door closed, the troop of villains burst into laughter. When they stopped, Tundra asked, “What if the rest don’t accept the new contract and continue to strike? Wouldn’t that be bad for business?”

Nerdboy grunted. “I agree. People will invest in any business if they feel like someone is checking that everything is on the up-and-up. Take away the supervision and we might find ourselves in trouble with our stockholders.”

“Not at all, friends. We would simply fire them all and hire new superheroes,” Dark Mastermind answered. “Corny do-gooders with superpowers are as replaceable as the beer in your refrigerator.”

“Why did you dangle the credit card in front of them, boss?” Tundra asked. “I thought it was for us.”

Nerdboy snickered and Dark Mastermind signaled him to answer.

“Elementary, my dear half-wit.”

Tundra rumbled like a glacier calving, but Nerdboy ignored him and continued.

“MasterCard gives Fluffy Bunny a kick-back on all interest paid, so their money comes right back to us.”

Tundra rumbled again, but in devious appreciation.

“That’s only the tip of the iceberg, if I may use that phrase,” Dark Mastermind said. “When they go into debt, that debt is partially to us. MasterCard acts as a front, but the card is through Fluffy Bunny. It gives us additional leverage over them.

“This, dear cohorts, is the lesson from today’s negotiation: our greatest weapon against their kind is no longer our superpowers. Those are passé, and superheroes are a doomed race. No, friends, pure economics puts them right in our clutches.”

Nerdboy whistled low in appreciation of this new, insidious weapon. Tundra nodded understanding. Brawny Reptile’s eyes remained blankly reptilian.

“Now we listen in on them through the security feeds, right?” Nerdboy asked. “It’ll be fun to hear their self-justification for why they came away empty-handed but still did a great job.”

“That, my brainy little protégé,” Dark Mastermind pointed a slender finger at Nerdboy, “is an excellent idea.”

Back in the conference room, Elastoman had turned to his fellow negotiators at the sound of laughter outside the door. “Have we just been hoodwinked?”

“Were you not paying attention?” PFC replied from his supine position under the conference table where he poked at cables. “We made progress on all fronts.” He crawled out and bent over the console at Dark’s place.

“I admit, I had hoped for more,” Peregrine-Woman said while filling out her credit card application, “but you can’t walk into a negotiation and expect to get everything you demand.”

“I hope the rest of the union sees it that way,” Elastoman sighed.

“Once we tell them our reasons for the agreement we settled on, I’m sure they will,” PFC said. He jabbed at the console and straightened. “There.”

Elastoman peered over his shoulder. “How did you fix it?”

PFC shrugged. “Jiggled the cables and rebooted.” They walked out the door.

At the elevator, Peregrine-Woman murmured to Elastoman, “I can imagine why you’re not satisfied, but maybe next year we can work something out to help you with your … little problem.”

Another burst of raucous laughter from down the hall surprised them all.

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