“Your droid is sick,” said Ted Kord, CEO of Kord Enterprises, Professional Bore. He grabbed Skeets and set him on a workbench, holding him down like a baby bird.
“Uh,” said Booster. “What?”
“Twenty-first century slang,” Skeets said. “An expression denoting…admiration or appreciation. Synonymous with…‘sweet’, ‘cool’, ‘ass-tastic.’”
Kord, who’d been reaching for a screw driver on his wall, lowered his arm and stared at the bot again. He cleared his throat. “…no, as in physically ill. And I, uh, I think ‘ass-tastic’ just proved that.”
“Listen, buddy, I’m sorry for crashing into your offices — “ Which Booster wasn’t, actually. But you didn’t tell the CEO of the company that. “But, uh, I can…” he sighed. “I can pay for the damages, I’ll leave you my card, just be out of your hair so if you could. Uh, if you could give me back Skeets.”
Kord hooked his feet around the lower bar of his stool and grabbed that screw driver. Back to Booster, he ran his thumb along the seam of Skeets’s interface and went at the screws with a steady hand. “You think I care about broken glass? Come on. I can fix that in two hours. Your robot friend, on the other hand, is running so many stalled tasks he can barely access that dictionary.”
Booster blinked and pressed his lips together.
This was getting…a little out of hand.
He hadn’t been trying to sabotage a Hood blimp, exactly, though he freely admitted it looked an awful lot like it. It was just, somebody had said something about a blimp full of poisonous gas transporting — well, something sinister, definitely — from the Joker to Luthor, or the other way around, or something, but the point was he’d just seen the Hood blimp and panicked, essentially.
The pilots inside had looked so helplessly horrified when he scrabbled onto that platform though. It had almost been worth it, just for that, despite Skeets’s screeching. They’re on a charted flight path, this vehicle is registered, I checked the licensing number with the company, you’re committing a crime, sir, whine whine whine.
J’onn didn’t have to manhandle him into a building to prove his point. That’s all Booster was saying. There was no cause to shove someone toward a glass-walled tower and declare, “Mr. Gold, these are innocent men!”
Ooh, these are innocent men, Booster screeched in his mind, just in case J’onn was listening.
And anyways. It wasn’t his fault, either, that the CEOs or presidents or whatever of companies tended to be at the tops of the buildings they owned.
But somehow it was his fault, because the bloody mayor comes on national TV and he’s all “I’m sure Booster Gold will be more than happy to apologize for any damage he caused, and that neither Kord Enterprises, nor this city, will bear any animosity toward such an upstanding citizen.”
That little bitch. PR was such a fucking nightmare, even in the twenty-first century.
So here he was, Booster Gold, Hero from the Future, Timer Master and so on, apologizing to some round-faced boss in an awful blue sweater and corduroy pants. From behind, no less. Douche could at least face the famous superhero who was apologizing to him.
Booster cleared his throat. “Hey,” he said. “Listen, I appreciate it, but me and Skeets get along just fine as we are. So if we could…” Kord wasn’t even listening to him, was the thing. He was hunched over and, and pressing things and he grabbed what looked an awful lot like dissecting forceps to do something to the exposed circuitry of Skeets.
Despite himself, Booster felt like a kid who’d broken his rubber band car and was petulantly waiting for his older brother to fix it for him. Or like Dad, Dad! Dad, Michelle broke my phone and now the cover doesn’t fit!
“You’re one of…” Kord grunted. “Uh. You know, the…shit, like an all-star football team with…you guys?”
“…the Justice League?” Booster asked him. Jesus, who didn’t know about them? Or couldn’t name them, at least. What kind of joyless fuck was this Kord guy anyways? Probably stayed holed up in his office all day, being really polite to secretaries and not leaving impressions on anybody.
That was just it, wasn’t it? The guy left no impression. Given the choice, Theodore Kord would probably walk around in sweatpants and a t-shirt all day, locked in his tech tower avoiding human interaction. And maybe Booster was just bitter out of some combination of embarrassment and frustration, but he just wasn’t in the mood to deal with some ungrateful computer nerd shoving his sticky fingers into Skeets. Who was either completely fine with this or had been rendered mute.
“Right, Justice League!” said Kord. “I’m a fan, actually. Not an avid one, but I know you guys, uh…” he trailed off and stared at a softly pulsating wire. Booster smirked, because oh yes, they didn’t have self-healing data buffers yet, and fuck you anyways for touching my robot. “I know you get some pretty unfair media attention sometimes. There are some reactionary douchebags out there. So, yeah.”
Kord jerked open a desk drawer and pulled out some damn confusing calipers, keeping his eyes on the wire he’d managed to loosen but not pull out. He set them on the wire and twisted a knob to fasten the two prongs around it, staring at some kind of readout on the handle. He whistled. “You build this yourself?”
“Well – no, but I still know more about Skeets than you do.”
Kord loosened the calipers and swiveled around in his chair to look Booster straight in the eye. “You’re one of those people that just puts their computer on sleep mode before going to bed, aren’t you,” he said. “Like, just so you don’t have to wait for it to shut down or boot up in the morning.”
“…” Booster said, utterly betrayed.
“Uh-huh.” Kord grinned.
The very worst thing about Theodore Kord was that he was neither superhero nor hot chick. He had no right to be so – just, so – to Booster. Booster Gold! He was up there, wasn’t he? Maybe not up there up there with Batman or Superman or anyone, but he counted. He didn’t have to be treated like a little kid apologizing to the nerd on the playground.
“Hey,” he said. “Relax, okay? I’m not gonna hurt your baby. It’s just, I always kinda wanted to get a look, you know? Geeks and their tech,” he wiggled the calipers. “And I like what you guys do. Gives me the fuzzies.” He laughed. “Give me my moment so I got a story for my secretary tomorrow.”
Booster huffed and rubbed his lips together, then leaned his elbow against a nearby shelf. He realized this stunk of a savvy businessman trying to get a look at some 25th century tech, but some niggling little pansy feeling in his gut told him this guy was harmless. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I get it. It’s just, starstruck morons don’t usually steal my shit.”
“I didn’t steal your shit! Listen, five minutes with me will save – Skeets – like hours in the long run when it comes to processing time. Do you even have a tech guy for this stuff?”
Kord looked back at the bot, who seemed unfairly calm given that he was having open-heart surgery done on him in the middle of some fancy office with Prussian blue leather chairs and a demure, minimalist fish tank in the back. Skeets wibbled a little, but that was it.
“…well…not…” Booster sighed.
He’d had a long day. He’d embarrassed himself in front of an impressive number of people, his costume had a long rip down the back that he was pretty sure showed an inappropriate amount of skin, and – and now Ted Kord, Apparent Professional Dork, was making fun of him.
Look at this guy. Corduroy pants so worn at the ankles that you couldn’t even see the cords. The button-down peaking out of his chunky blue sweater was some terrifying variant of paisley that Booster was pretty sure had never been socially acceptable. He looked like the kind of guy who should be struggling to find you a good reference book in a local library, not a tech genius in charge of a sprawling, multinational company.
What kind of CEO had the time to fix somebody’s robot?
Booster glared at Ted Kord’s frumpy back and sat down on the floor, pretzel-style.
And after a few minutes, he started to realize that maybe he was going to be here longer than the ten minutes he’d been planning on.
“Man,” he groused. “Aren’t you done yet? How long’s it take to fix a robot?”
“Just add another five minutes for every time you let this thing bump into a wall or fall into a swimming pool.” From this angle, all Booster could see were his shoulders, hunched and moving together like funny little hills. If he had to guess, Kord was probably a little pudgy underneath those layers, just enough so that his finger barely sunk when he poked his belly. The kind of guy that switched between hating himself for it a little and telling himself he was close enough. Probably.
Booster grunted and put his hands on his knees, then leaned back to look at the ceiling. Fancy white – stucco or something, like thick paste half-molded and full of brush strokes still. He felt himself lean back just a little too far and bang, thunk, the back of his head hit the floor. He straightened out his legs.
“Didn’t sign up for thiiis,” he sang to himself, drumming his fingers on the floor.
“Chill your balls. At least I’m not taking my story to the press and complaining about how you’re a menace to society,” said the lumpy shoulders, made black against the bright lights shining into Booster’s eyes.
“Did you just tell me to chill my balls?”
“Yup. Meant it too.”
Booster screwed up his face and laced his hands behind his head. “That doesn’t seem like a very…chief-executive-officer kind of thing to say.”
“You should see me on casual Fridays,” he deadpanned. “Every third Friday of the month is Ted Kord’s Personal Hawaiian Shirt Day.”
“I have one with pineapples and dolphins on it. It’s pretty classy.”
Booster snorted – didn’t laugh out loud, because he was still pissed and didn’t want to give the satisfaction – and tapped one foot against the ground. “Wow. That must get you all the ladies,” he said.
“Yup,” said Kord.
Lying on the floor waiting for a disgustingly polite CEO to fix your bot, and the guy wasn’t pissed off and demanding recompense or clawing at stardom. Must be something wrong, Booster thought. It was getting harder to see Kord in the light; this late in the fall the sun called it quits earlier every day.
He drew his eyes back from Kord’s busy shoulders and up to the ceiling again, settling his hands on his stomach. He glanced at Ted’s hands and down at his own again, tapping his fingers against his abs. All those muscles…
Jeez, when was the last time he’d been this quiet in the company of somebody else? It had been going for a full five minutes, or what felt like five minutes, and nobody had said anything. Mostly it was because he couldn’t talk to Skeets, and God knew he didn’t have anything to say to the civilian.
He should go work out like a normal person, in a gym in basketball shorts and a ratty t-shirt. Did he even own a ratty t-shirt? They generally got ruined by something or other before they could even get ratty. And obviously he didn’t have t-shirts from things around this era. He didn’t really have a civilian life. Not really. Not the way Ted Kord, CEO, lover of Hawaiian Shirt Fridays had a civilian life.
Some nights he fell asleep in front of the TV trying to remember all the right slang, did that count?
Or there were the ill-advised hook-ups, when he could get them, which wasn’t often enough. Huh.
All those muscles. What were they good for?
It was shit like this, though. This right here was why he shouldn’t be left to his own thoughts. He started thinking he was some insane person with no life, and only half of that was true.
“So,” Kord said after a while.
Booster sat up because, one, Ted Kord CEO didn’t need to see leader of the JLI making an ass of himself on his floor, and two, Booster was really hoping ‘So’ was code for ‘I am done fucking up your robot and will return him to you now so that we may never speak of this again’.
But Booster only saw lumpy sweater shoulders moving up and down and back and forth while Kord programmed himself up a storm. Wrong on both counts.
“So what?” Booster said.
“How’s uh, life as a hero?”
“Yes. Everything is awesome, all of the time.”
A pause in the shoulders. Kord’s scapulas made funny shadows, lumps in the knit of his sweater. “You make a habit of lying to the people you should be apologizing to?”
Booster scowled and flicked a piece of dust off his knee toward Kord’s desk chair. “Not really,” he said.
“Guess this is a kinda shit day for you,” he said, and then the shoulders were moving again like pistons in an engine. Booster leaned sideways to see if Skeets was okay, if Kord was taking notes to build his own evil Skeets to help him do evil businessman things, but he was just scrolling through some code. Probably.
“You think? I embarrassed my entire team for no good reason,” he frowned, “And I’m going to have to reimburse you because otherwise I get all these bitchy letters about how I’m a bad person. And now you have Skeets and I am sitting on your floor telling you this. It’s not,” Booster sighed. “It’s not my finest moment.”
Kord actually laughed at him for that, big and full like a seagull. But Booster, in all his wisdom, figured he’d screwed up enough for the day. There was no need to respond. Instead he just started picking bits of dust off his suit, and rubbing the ring with his thumb to shine it up. A sharp corner of the insignia kept getting caught on his thumb.
“Imagine how I feel,” Kord said. “My Chicago offices get trashed and now I’m making an ass of myself in front of a superhero. And my secretary is withholding bread from me.”
Booster stopped and looked up again. Ted Kord snorted and swiveled around in the chair to grin at him, and Ted Kord, CEO had light eyes and hair that was either red or brown. Booster couldn’t tell, not with the sun fading behind him.
“Apparently if she goes on a diet, she can’t be getting me sandwiches,” he waved his hand in the air, crossed one leg over the other. “Too much temptation. I think she’s just trying to get me to eat better. Which doesn’t explain the snack packs.”
“…snack packs?” Booster had a sinking feeling that snack packs were something like Lunchables: only made sense in the context of this century, and deeply regretted by subsequent generations.
Ted didn’t even look at his desk, just plucked a small plastic packet out of his drawer and threw it to Booster, who caught it without thinking. Purple and white packaging and the overzealous, bold half-lies typical of advertising around this era.
“’Cheez-It One-hundred Calorie Snack Packs’,” Booster read. “’A Fantastic Way to Stay Full During the Day!!!’ With three whole exclamation points, too.”
Ted nodded. “They really went all out,” he said. “I think they just got overexcited, bless their corporate hearts.”
“You eat this stuff?” Booster said. He pinched either side and pulled it open at the top to reveal a bunch of skinny orange hexagons all cowering in the lower corner of the bag.
“Unfortunately,” Ted said. “At least when I’m working. Mel knows I’ll just revert to junk food when I’m busy, so she keeps me stocked with stuff like this.” He patted his stomach through the sweater, though even that didn’t give Booster a terribly good idea of how big a guy he was.
“Is it, uh, good?” Booster asked, eyeing them. They reflected off the shiny silver lining, which crinkled menacingly.
“You can try one. They’re both disgusting and unsatisfying, which means they must be good for you, right?”
Booster scowled and placed the bag delicately on the floor.
“Wait, sandwiches are good for you. You can put lettuce and tomatoes and stuff in them.”
“That’s what I keep telling her!” Ted said, and swung back around in his chair. “And yet, every day: snack packs. The bane of my existence. There’s nothing worse than coming back from lunch to discover one of these bad boys on your desk, waiting for you.”
Booster laughed and swung onto his feet, coming to stand behind him. It was a real damn shame about Ted Kord, because he seemed like a decent guy. Booster could get along with a guy like this, probably. But Booster was Booster Gold and Theodore Kord was Kord Enterprises, and besides, civilians only ever got into trouble. This guy would probably get kidnapped and ransomed before Booster even left the city.
Yeah, no. He knew this story by heart.
Besides, came the thought, Everyone around you right now is already dead where you come from.
Booster sighed. “You’re almost done, right?” he asked, looking over Kord’s shoulder. Most of Skeets looked like it was in the right place; just part of the front panel had been removed.
“Yup. Just basic stuff, but I think your buddy’s back at full capacity, at least.” He snapped the cover on – Booster winced – and did something with the screwdriver blocked by his hands.
Skeets chirped back to life and shot off the desk to hover by Booster’s shoulder again, and thank God.
Booster grinned and wrapped a knuckle against Skeets. His chest felt tight. Like he was breathing against a big elastic band around his ribs. That seemed about right.
“Good to have you back,” he told him. “How was surgery?”
“I am functioning more efficiently, sir.”
Booster blinked. “You are?”
“What are some synonyms for ‘sick’ in the twenty-first century, then?”
Instantly: “Sweet, cool, awesome, ill, duuuude, rad, amazing, magnificent, overwhelming, mind-blowing – “
“Whoa, buddy, you made your point,” he said. “I appreciate it. Sorry about your roof,” he told Ted, who was watching him funny. He glanced at the windows past Ted’s head and wished they could open. “Thanks. Exit’s down the hall and to the left, right?”
“My pleasure. And uh, it’s a little more complicated than that. Old buildings, you know, all these random staircases…still, sturdier than the one you broke this afternoon.”
“I said I was sorry!”
Ted laughed and stood up, tugging the sweater down over his hips. He patted Booster on the shoulder. His fingertips were cold from the screwdriver in a weirdly solid way, and Booster tried not to think about that.
He went down the stairs two at a time in front of Booster, and kept his eyes on his feet the whole time. Ted didn’t look up when he pushed open the door to the street, just yawned and glanced back at the staircase.
“You sure you don’t want compensation? ‘Cause trust me, the stink the media would raise over me trashing some innocent company’s building and not paying for it totally trumps coughing up the funds.”
Kord laughed. “How about I don’t talk to the media about it?” he said, “The way I never talk to the media about anything but what my company’s actually doing. Promise I won’t get you in trouble, Mr. Gold.” He folded his arms and leaned against the open door and smiled. Ted Kord had a big smile.
“Right.” Booster rubbed the back of his head. “Booster.”
“You can call me Booster. ‘Mr. Gold’ makes me sound like an infomercial mascot.”
Ted nodded. “Cool,” he said. “See you around, Booster. Hey, if you ever need a tech guy for anything, think of me, yeah?”
Right, because he needed to drag a nerd with a monstrous IQ and a bunch of body issues into the freakin’ mess that was the JLI. “Will do,” he grinned and clapped a hand to Ted’s shoulder.
“In the meantime I’ll just try my best not to break anybody else’s windows!” he said. “Who knows, maybe I can work the adorable klutz angle to my advantage tonight.”
Okay, Ted Kord, CEO could sometimes see through his bullshit. Good to know.
“Catch you around,” Booster said. He tripped over his words and smiled over the tripping.
But he tromped outside anyways and was all set to just take off into the sky, maybe let the street lights glint off the gold majestically before disappearing into the night, when Ted asked him, “So wait – what is it like, really?”
“What?” He tried to exchange looks with Skeets and failed.
“You know. Being a hero. Being in the Justice League.”
Booster stared at him for a second.
What’s it like, this guy asks. Like he was interviewing Booster for a job. What was it like volunteering at an animal shelter? What was it like being an assistant librarian? What’s it like seeing the absolute best and worst of everybody in the world on a daily basis and being pretty sure you can’t ever measure up to the things you’re able to do?
“Uh,” he said. He thought about saying ‘sick’ just to fuck with him, or saying ‘pretty cool’ and conceding the point.
“Lonely,” Booster said, then shot straight up in an unwelcome rush of embarrassment.