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The Paint Crew:
FAST FORWARD
by Marc Singer

[This story is set in the near future of the Omega universe. Only a potential future, but a very likely potential future as far as I'm concerned... unfortunate, for some of my characters.—Marc]


They strutted into the bar at the height of their fame, when everything the world held was theirs: Record offers. Movie deals. Talk- show spots. Super powers. They fanned out through the Derby, pouring like an ocean wave between its tables and stools with their friends, hangers-on, groupies, dealers, agents in slick suits chattering on cell- phones to no one in particular. They showed off their tight pants, shiny boots, brightly colored shirts with wide, almost cape-like collars—clothing that was almost costume, fashion that showed off not only their appalling wealth but their comic-book social status.

In the fourth year of the new millenium, the best thing to be was an Omega, and the best Omega to be was in a team, and the best team to be was unquestionably the Paint Crew. Every head in the Derby turned to catch them in their glory—and light stayed glinting on metal, and blue clouds of cigarette smoke froze in the air, and time itself seemed to stop.

That was because of Tom Maxwell, who had the Omega power to distort time. It made him a valuable ally in battle, but the real reason the Paint Crew let him hang around was because it made for the best entrances. Time dilated around the Crew as they strutted through the Derby in slow-motion. Everyone else in the bar, slowed to an even more leaden timeframe, simply watched in awe.

Scott Dunleavy waved to them all, his arm drifting heavily through a cloud of suspended smoke. But he was watching Suzanne Delors up ahead of him. Her perfect hair was still flung outwards, almost horizontal, from a playful toss of her head right before Tom hit the special effects. The only thing moving at normal speed was the War song playing in the bar—it had a strange echo, as no other sounds were cutting through the time dilation, but somehow Tom always got the songs to play during their entrances. Probably because he'd watched too many movies. It was a prerequisite if you were going to hang with the Crew.

Scott watched all of them—Tom beaming because he was pleasing his idols, Mike Meade high-fiving an old friend, Tony Ciardi's rubbery body moving through the slow time like molasses. But Suzanne most of all. The Paint Crew had everything—money, style, fame, friends, power, and now the gratitude and respect they'd earned saving the world from Rex Monday. But Scott was the only one who had Suzanne. Even their initials matched. It was perfect.

Scott slowly swiveled his head, taking it all in. Then Tom dropped his power, and with a crash of sound, time came rushing back in.

It was a busy night: people to meet, deals to make, fun to be had. The last wasn't so much recreation as obligation: Paint Crew bashes were legendary affairs, and even if they could never match the destruction of that hotel suite in Memphis (at least not without good lawyers handy), they still had a certain standard to uphold. Scott fraternized with lots of attractive young men and women who he had to pretend to remember. But one woman wasn't talking to him at all.

Scott found Suzanne sitting quietly by the dance floor. "Hey, Suz." He used his sonic powers to insure the words reached her. "What's up? Everything okay?"

"I just got out of the hospital, Scott. I'm not ready for this again." She and Neil Benson had led the squad that fought Monday's army of followers, and a web of bruises still spread faintly across her face and arms. "I shouldn't have come."

"Don't be crazy!" He slid an arm around her waist. "Suz, you are the Paint Crew. We are..."

"Is that so." She wriggled off the stool and out of his grasp. "I need a drink."

She walked away, and Scott stared after her, so intently that he didn't notice Mike Meade approaching behind him. "I think you'd better stay back a while, Scotty."

Scott jumped and turned. "What? What makes you say that?"

Mike raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips, drawing his long charcoal face into his I'm-too-smart-to-explain-that look. Mike's chosen Omega "codename" was Mister Sensitive—no irony there. "I'm an empath, you jackass. I read angst for breakfast."

Scott laughed and leaned, a bit drunkenly, on Mike's shoulder. "You're too damn rude to be an empath."

"Just because I know how people feel doesn't mean I have to give a shit. But seriously, Scott... give her a rest. She's pissed."

"At what?"

"Let it drop, man."

"No, at what? We're at the top of the world, Mikey! We kicked Monday's ass! We're the Paint Crew, baby!" Seized by an impulse, Scott dropped his vodka glass and jumped on Mike's back, moving his hips in and out in a frighteningly real rendition of a dog humping. "We're the Paint Crew, baby! WE'RE THE PAINT CREW!"

Mike rolled his eyes and looked at a nearby table of horrified bargoers. "I'm, ah... I'm sensing a little embarrassment. Am I right?"

Scott wandered around the Derby, seeming to circulate among the guests but always trying to talk to Suzanne. She always spun away from him, keeping Kim Sloane close as her shield, so Scott spent much of the night partying with the others. Being Scott Dunleavy, the riotous Rewind. He floated from table to table, with a bad taste in his mouth that vodka didn't wash away.

Eventually he got so sick of being Rewind that he had a long talk about it with Neil Benson, the part-time Crewman who had never been comfortable being Overman. But Neil inherited that name, while Scott built his own, and Scott knew it wasn't the name that bothered him. The problem was that part of Rewind, part of Scott Dunleavy, was Suzanne and she wasn't there tonight.

And he had to know why. A flurry of motion caught his eye—Kim, leaving Suzanne's side. Scott excused himself from Neil's company and made his move.

"Suzanne."

Scott stepped into view, and all the other sound in the bar dropped away. "Dammit," Suzanne said, "can't I even have my night at the Derby? I'm not allowed to hear anything but you?"

"We need to talk."

He was no fool. He knew exactly what Mike was trying to warn him about, knew he should leave her alone. But as the night sped on and she wouldn't say anything to him, his dread only increased. She hadn't said two words to him since the Monday battle. Not once during all the hospital visits, hours spent holding her hand whether she was conscious or not. And now, even when she was back, it was like she belonged to a Paint Crew that had everyone but him. He felt a tight knot in his stomach, felt an axe about to drop, and he had to confront her. Because taking a falling axe was better than twisting in the wind.

Scott was still wearing the flashy clothes, the silky red shirt unbuttoned to mid-sternum, but his eyes were lucid and serious. He had the worried expression of an eighteen-year-old boy again. "Suzanne, even I can see that something is wrong..."

"You could say that, yeah."

"Then you can tell me, Suz. We don't need to keep playing this game."

"No, Scott. No, we don't. We've been playing it for almost seven years now."

Scott started to moan and roll his eyes—and instantly regretted it, when he saw red anger flush through Suzanne's pale cheeks—but he'd already committed and he finished the exasperated groan. "This again. Suz, I know we've been on and off, but how many times do I have to tell you, you're the one—"

"Never. Never tell me again, Scott, because it'll never be enough. You always tell me I'm the one, but the whole world was watching with Monday and you—" She sniffed, heavily, refusing to cry so soon. "You showed them something else."

"Honey, that was just to stop Monday—"

"I was there too, Scott. I was in the middle of the arena, holding off the mob with my magnetic powers, getting my face smashed in so your team could reach the projector. And then you were on the screen, and in my head..."

It had been the only way. Rex Monday had tens of thousands of followers, blameless but weak-willed people who'd been seduced by his inhuman charisma and his message of sinful self-gratification. At his slightest command, they would've killed themselves just to give him a fleeting smile. That threat had paralyzed Anne Benson, the aging Seekers, their replacements in the Scions... but it was just another challenge to the Paint Crew. They beat Monday by being better criminals, and better pop stars. They seized Monday's psychic control rig and used it to sway the thralls to their side. Only it wasn't working, until Scott stepped into the projector and opened himself up...

"All those women," Suzanne said. "And men..."

"You knew about all of them, Suz."

"Fuck that! I didn't know they meant anything to you!"

Heroes had weaknesses. His wasn't a radioactive isotope or anything so rare; just the human body. To win the crowd, he'd shared it all. The thrill he felt when he first tasted Suz, her mouth sweeter than he thought any person's could be. The greater thrill when they fell breathlessly into bed and he was inside her, finding her so sweet down there as well. They tasted different every time: Suzanne, the college women, the groupies, the other Omegas, the women he couldn't even remember except as a hazy grin after a drunken night. When that wasn't enough, Scott had made that natural transition from sex with multiple women to mixed-group sex to the first man he found so attractive he had to have him alone. And then the other men, all different again, and the drugs, the dancing, the booze, every single thing Scott ever filed in that magically-expanding box called LUST.

"It didn't mean anything to me, Suz. It was just... just lust."

"And lust means something to you! Don't bullshit me anymore, Scott, I was there! That was who you are!"

He'd shown them a life given over to complete gratification—edited that way, of course, to snare Monday's followers. He hadn't shown them any of the hard work, the mourning for lost friends, the constant struggle to hold on to Suzanne for all these years. But the ploy worked because on some level, Scott knew, he really believed in it. He chased after every pleasure, every vice, every piece of ass he saw, but he swore—he swore—nobody ever got hurt.

"And the worst part," Suzanne said, "is that it almost worked on me. While everyone in the arena was wetting themselves, I was almost ready to join the Cult of Scott Dunleavy too. Until I realized exactly what place I had in your life."

"You have the only place in my life. Those others were just—"

"Were just everything I couldn't give you, Scott."

"I don't care about that."

"Well I DO! I don't want to be your first concubine. I don't want to be the one who's special just because she's in the Paint Crew."

"You're special for a hell of a lot more than that, Suz."

The conversation stopped. Suzanne stared at Scott, silently in their bubble of sound while the world raged on silently around them.

"Other people might have fucked me," Scott said, "but they never thrilled me. They never made me feel like I could fly. Maybe that's a stupid thing for an Omega who's been levitated a thousand times to say, but there you have it—you made me fly. No one else... no one else is sweet like you. Suzanne, you're the only person I love."

Tears welled in the corners of her eyes. They were held there, by willpower, but Scott thought he'd reached her. Another narrow escape for the remarkable Rewind. He leaned toward her, and before he'd hardly moved at all she clutched him in a tight hug.

"Oh, God," she choked, her lips next to his ear. "I love you. I love you, Scott." She pulled back and looked him in the face; tears were streaming down hers. "But you don't love me the same way. You never will if I always come begging back for more."

"Suz..." He rubbed her arms, hands trembling. It started as a caress but soon he needed her to hold himself up. "Out of all the people in the world... I've always chosen you."

"And I never had to choose you, Scott." She broke off the hug and wiped her face, muttering "Just my fucking luck." Naturally, he heard it. He was the one person in the bar who couldn't miss it. "We need to be apart, Scott. Right now, we don't have a chance."

"Do you hate me that much, Suz?"

She blinked, and another tear rolled down her cheek. "No. Then it would be easy to leave. I have to go because I still love you, god damn it."

She leaned forward to brush a lock of hair out of his eyes, and smiled despite herself as her nose brushed his. And then they were suddenly conscious of how close they were, how perhaps only an inch separated their mouths. And they felt a tug, an irresistible force between the mouths, drawing them together. A force that ignored all the words that had been said, all the "right" things to do, all common sense.

Suzanne's power was magnetism. Over Scott most of all.

They gave in and kissed, passionately, lips and then tongues sliding hotly together. Suzanne still tasted sweet.

Then she slowly pulled back. He leaned forward, mouth still open, but she laid a hand on his chest and gently pushed herself away. "It's wrong," she whispered. "For both of us. Scott..."

Then she turned and ran out of his bubble of sound. The bubble burst, and they were both plunged back into the loud, senseless noise of the world.

Scott's first instinct was to run. Maybe after Suzanne, maybe to the Crew—anywhere. Just so long as he ran. He bolted through the club.

And then everything lurched sickeningly and he froze. He couldn't move anymore, couldn't even finish his step. He could only watch as the crowd whirled and roared around him, faster and faster, and Suzanne slipped farther and farther away. And he was frozen in the middle of all the shallow friends and pointless revelry. Frozen, at the top of the world.

He didn't know if Tom Maxwell was playing some game with time, unaware that the whole universe had just shifted, or if this was simply how it felt to be the one left behind. He didn't know anything until he felt Mike Meade shaking his arm, pulling him back. "Scott," Mike said, the sound turning from a hollow echo to a real voice. "Scott... I'm sorry."

"Mike..." He stumbled in a circle, scanning the bar, but he didn't see her anywhere. "She's gone."

"I'm sorry, man." He haltingly put an arm around Scott's shoulders. "We're here if you want to talk, if there's anything we can do." Tony was behind him, and Neil, and all the rest. "Your friends are here for you."

Mike leaned down so he could see under Scott's bowed head, looked at Scott's tight, angry face—then drew back. "What?" he said, suspiciously. "What the hell is it?"

There was no point hiding it from Mister Sensitive. "I know my friends are here for me. I know Suzanne probably wants to stay my friend, too. Keep the Crew together. And I love you guys for that.

"But I would burn every fucking friend I have if Suz and I could work it out just once."

And that was Scott Dunleavy. Everything was thrown on the fires of his passion—including the passion itself. He tried to overcome it, tried to work out his love and keep the Paint Crew together. Neither one happened.

The Crew stayed together a while longer, still some of the world's premier Omegas. But Scott and Suzanne split apart for good, and when they started expecting the others to choose sides, the whole Crew went with them. There were other reasons for the disbanding—Tony's marriage, Kim Sloane's tell-all book, all the creeping responsibilities of adulthood. But people love romantic myths, and the public generally assumed the Scott-Suzanne breakup ended the Paint Crew. They weren't necessarily wrong.

The Crew all have solo careers now. Scott found his sonic powers were perfect for audio sampling, and quit the Omega world to become a music star. He blends modern electronic composition techniques to a retro-rock sound, living up to the name Rewind, and he's famous enough; but true success still eludes him. Scott's work has gotten more and more personal, and less and less popular. Quite a few critics say his songs are too depressing, too dark, too "angsty." Perhaps they don't like to admit that bad things happen in the world. Or perhaps they're more perceptive, and see Scott's music as a substitute for something else in his life: just a long, slow slide from love into art.

Scott doesn't talk to the Crew much anymore. He finds Tony too frivolous and Neil too intimidating and Kim, he only deals with via lawsuits. And then there's Suzanne... No matter how much time and space they gave it, they just couldn't work it out. Just like Scott feared from the moment she walked away.

Scott still lives in L.A., shacking up with one starlet or another. He tells them he's happy.

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