Tock Tock touches the glass face of the old-fashioned alarm clock, which is the timing mechanism on Doctor Ontological’s abstraction bomb. The Doc may be a genocidal mad scientist, but he certainly has a classical style.
Its examination complete, Tock Tock straightens its whirring metal legs and reports back. “Sympath, I have located the device. It’s not good news, I’m afraid.”
Its partner’s voice crackles over the collection of crystal, copper wires and radium batteries comprising Tock Tock’s auditory systems. “Hard to believe it could be worse than this, buddy,” she shouts back, over the pop of gunfire and the whine of heavy machinery.
Sympath is leading the search for survivors of the Dichotomists’ attack on the Brucker Building, Colossus City’s premier research facility. She’s been pitching in since the first assault an hour ago, in which the black and white-clad terrorists turned their deconception rays on the Brucker laboratories, blasting half of its staff, information and load-bearing structural walls out of existence. Sympath mopped the floor with the demolition squad, but as rescue crews arrived, more armed Dichotomists emerged from hiding to hinder their efforts.
Tock Tock went after their leader. When he cornered Doctor Ontological in the top-floor infraphysics lab, they exchanged the usual boasts of superiority, threats of incarceration and invitations to switch sides. They fought as well, though their brief battle came to little more than superficial scuffing and more property damage. Doctor Ontological had uttered one last tedious threat – “In a few moments, Tock Tock, you and this pathetic city will never have existed!” – before unveiling his bomb and disappearing in a haze of Higgs bosons and red quarks.
“The device is designed to collapse the barriers between thought and reality,” says Tock Tock. “It appears to contain hologrammatic representations of the collected works of Borges, Argento and Kafka, thirty hours of concert footage of various suicidally depressed performers, and a plastic Alice in Wonderland doll dating from 1951, still in the original packaging. The casing is made of planks from Baba Yaga’s hut.”
Sympath whistles. “I won’t ask how you know that,” she says. “Sounds like Doc Ont went to a lot of trouble. Can you defuse it?”
“I think so,” says Tock Tock, “but not from here.”
“What does that mean?” Sympath can control human opinions and punch holes in brick walls; very little gives her cause for panic. Tock Tock does not need her powers of heightened emotional intelligence to detect the signs of rising concern in her voice.
“The bomb does not entirely exist within the prevailing conceptual framework. I’ll have to follow it back to its source.”
“Tock Tock, you don’t need to take that chance. I’ve already called Sophie Osmosis. She’ll be here in eight minutes. She can move the bomb out of phase with this universe and-”
“That only moves the problem to someone else’s universe,” says Tock Tock. The hands on the old alarm clock sweep slowly toward midnight. “Besides, even allowing for the inaccuracy of this timepiece’s display, insufficient time remains for other plans. It must be now, and it must be me.”
“Tock Tock.” Sympath knows better than to argue with it, but Tock Tock understands she is experiencing an undesirable emotional state. “Be safe.”
“I will do my best to return intact,” it assures her, before cutting the transmission. It estimates two minutes to detonation, give or take a few seconds. The margin for error is slim.
Tock Tock is confident that only it is capable of dealing with this situation – an existential crisis with high explosives attached. It is almost unique in Colossus City – an artificial entity every bit as implausible as the bomb in front of it.
When it first appeared in Cutthroat Lane back in 1963, it had understood itself to be Tock McPherson, Robot Private Eye. McPherson had been a hard smoking, hard drinking, womaniser with a trench coat and a snub-nosed .38. After a decade of busting organised crime and exposing crooked property rackets, he had suddenly become Shiner, the political freedom agitator and self-declared Protectress of Protestors. In another six years, she became Sam Glass, the Ghost Warrior. Then DJ Statue. Then the Vanguard of Victory Street. Then Focus, and a dozen others.
Tock Tock has been more people than anyone it knows. Even Night Shrike doesn’t change identities so often. If anyone can deal with an existence-level threat, it’s an entity whose existence resides in fundamental unreality.
Ignoring the crackling neutrinos, Tock Tock finds a detached copper wire and threads its fingers along it until they disappear. As expected, the wire leads out of the reality to which the lab, Sympath and all of Colossus City is attached.
Squeezing uncomfortably through the microns-wide wormhole, Tock Tock emerges into a mirror of the physics laboratory it just left, though this one is pristine, unmarked by any super-battle. The end of the wire is wrapped around a nail hammered into a wooden crate about the size of the abstraction bomb.
Doctor Ontological leans against the empty crate, eating an apple.
“Welcome,” says Doctor Ontological. “You took your time.”
Tock Tock ignores the mad genius and carefully plucks the nail out of the box. The wormhole instantly collapses.
“You orchestrated the murder of dozens of people. You tried to kill millions. I am placing you in custody.”
“You haven’t saved them yet,” observes Doctor Ontological, crunching the apple loudly.
“I’ve disconnected the bomb from its power source.”
“Not at all. You’ve replaced its power source.”
A tug of gravitons plays at the fringe of Tock Tock’s senses. It feels them snaking back toward the bomb. If it doesn’t get far enough away, the bomb will detonate.
“Only you can stop my true master plan.” Doctor Ontological holds out a battered brown garment. “I brought you this.”
“Tock McPherson’s trenchcoat?”
“Give my regards to the 60’s. If you’re lucky, it’s far enough.”
Tock Tock dons the coat.
“This isn’t over,” it warns, as it jumps back to where it began.
It’s another Colossus City superhero story (past ones have been Mister Extra, Flyers, and Mother Sun and Sister Moon). This one owes more than a small tip of the hat to Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s early ’90’s run of Doom Patrol, which probably had a bigger influence on me than is strictly healthy.
Edit: Oh for goodness sake, I accidentally published this early and can’t seem to unpublish it. So, uh, enjoy the sneak preview, all you people inexplicably watching this page on Thursday evening!