War of the Dimensions
Written for the the anniversary of my supergroup in Champions Online, a Champions/Mutants and Masterminds crossover! "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" (the quoted poem) is by Wilfred Owen.
He was given to soliloquy, that one. Monologues, in the modern parlance. Yet who can blame him? Ancient beyond reason, born in the rage of the first sapient who hurled a stone at his brother, the Warmonger clove the final dimensional wall with the last of many strokes from his mighty axe, and beheld the great jewel beneath him, blue and white and a-buzzing with industry. He inhaled sharply, felt its life and bustle, and the scent of conflict was attar in his nostrils, attar and blood. The world, like most good worlds, was a sacrificial altar. For who did not worship war, who did not lust for its flames, the brace of its barbaric scents?
“I am arrived,” the Warmonger proclaimed, the earth spread beneath him. Revelling in what was to come, he quoted a poem, his deep voice booming the words as cannonfire:
“So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
“A charming story,” the newcomer said, appearing into view. Cables grew out his arms and shoulders, highlighting a skullish face, held in crystal.
“It was not intended as such, but I find it so. I love all charnal grounds,” the Warmonger said. “Now who are you?”
“I am Omega. I am the end of all things, the death of light, the ruin of time, the final despair. I am the ebbing of the fading flame, the last echo of distress, the waning cry. It was I who brought you hither, so you may play with this world as you wilt.”
“An unexpected generosity,” the Warmonger said. The man stank of death, which he enjoyed, and ruin, which was less attractive. He beheld a stillness in the other, which did not interest him. “I assume that you desire the world at war?”
“No,” Omega hissed. “I desire dust! Dust! A world of dust,” Omega said. “Ere the Doom-Coil constricts it, and pulls it to its final fate. I await the fading scream, and the everlasting dark. But there is still time for your sport, ere its terminus, and you might be of mighty assistance. For what is mightier than the impulse that sends the lambs to the slaughterhouse? Do you not crave their braying, their blood? To this end, I make a gift of this world to you."
But finality is my enemy, the Warmonger thought, though he kept his observation hidden. I desire blood and tumult; silence and the grave matters not, it is an anathema: in stillness there is no strife, save the war of the worms. But the Warmonger hid his thoughts. There would be time to wage that war later. Best now to enjoy the banquet laid before him.
“Ray?” Centuria asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Thunderbolt said, feeling the energy bleed very slightly out of him. They’d repair the suit before he was endangered by the energy loss, but his psyche? Disappointment Is a more grievous wound than a suit breach. Ray Gardener Jr. was used to disappointment, the feeling, time after time, that the football of the world had been pulled from him, gleefully, by Dr. Stratos, and by fate itself. He was the son of a superhero, used as a weapon by an arch-villain to bring down his father, the famous Captain Thunder. Thunder’s powers had transferred to Ray, but instead of killing him (as the villain intended), they transformed him, and Ray became the Living Lightning, Thunderbolt. All it had cost him was his physical form. All it had cost him was his father’s career. All it cost him was his life.
He had tried over and over again to restore his physical form, and today he had failed. Again.
“Ray?” the golden-haired girl asked again.
“I don’t want to talk about it!!” His voice would have been louder this time, if he had a throat.
He was using his back-up voice box, which made his words sound even harsher than his more nuanced primary speech synthesizer. Centuria nodded, and accelerated away from him, sighing. Ray sighed as well. Ray, he thought, you are a first-class, asinine, jerkwad of a superhero! Kate Leeds is easily the best thing in my life, and here I am blowing it! Why did being a sullen twit come so naturally?
“Ray, you’re doing it again.” Centuria snapped. “Stop shutting us out. Stop shutting me out. We’re not going to try to help you forever.”
Ray just shook his head. A hiss issued from his helmet, sounding like static. So much of him wanted to hold her, tell her how he felt. She was his kindred spirit. But not today, not after tantrum #68. And he knew if he tried to hold her, he would feel nothing. Ray was just a genie in a humanoid bottle. And when you’re not matter – nothing matters.
“Heads up, people!” Daedalus shouted, calling them to attention. “The day’s not over! Doc’s spotted another dimensional breach at three o’clock.”
All eyes turned to a crack in the sky, like a thunderbolt that did not fade, but which remained in place. The forked lightning of a dimension storm. Out of the void hurtled a winged figure, its limbs blotting the sky, black, beautiful and reptilian.
“Is that a dragon? A fricking dragon?” Johnny Rocket shouted on first sight.
“Wow,” Lady Liberty gasped.
The dragon caught sight of them. Nimbly it swooped to greet them, a black knight sitting on his back. As they drew closer, it hurt to look at them.
“Stand down until we know his intent,” Thunderbolt said. Though the figures irritated him, even looking upon them. Dimensional intrusion, the scientist in Ray told him. Dimensional signature is on an opposing wavelength. Centuria had grated too, when she first came to this world, but not nearly to the same extent.
”I am Sir Gilles de Morphant,” the knight who rode atop the dragon proclaimed. The knight's voice was like razor blades against their skin. Black was his livery and a crow sat upon his shoulder, and his accent was thick and thoroughly French. “I am pledged in service, at least for today, to the Warmonger, Le Belliciste, Le Maître de Gueule Cassée, and let all who oppose me tremble! He has set me aflame, and the earth shall burn! I spit upon mercy and bring death as my gift! Kneel peasants and lowborn, and accept his majesty!”
“Who the blazes is “Warmonger”?” Ray asked.
“Like a Fishmonger, I guess.” Johnny Rocket replied. “But I don’t like what he’s selling.”
“This guy makes my skin crawl.” Bowman added. “Like someone from Anti-Earth, but a million times creepier.” Anti-Earth, of course, being the world from which their evil opposites originated.
“The dragon is mine!” Centuria declared with a shout, rolling her fists into tight balls of fury.
“He calls himself a knight?” Star Knight, a woman in futuristic armor scoffed. “Really?”
“Don’t get cocky!” Johnny Rocket said. “That’s my job! Okay, Freedom League. Let’s show Brave Sir Robin here our version of a good old-fashioned peasant’s uprising!”
“Oh yes,” Lady Liberty said, telling herself it was time to get all 1776 on the black knight’s plated butt!
“It’s the Warmonger, Craig.” Defender said. “He’s back.”
Craig Carson sighed. It had already been a long day, battling VIPER and their latest atrocity, a serpentine abomination they called Ultimate Snake. It had been a tough fight, the big battles always were. Damn giant robot, VIPER’s answer to the Midgard serpent of myth. The Canadian superhero, recently ascended to the leadership of his team, placed his huge palms on the slick glass table, threatening to crack it under his weight, oblivious by his concentration. He stared at the blood-red skinned giant and would not relent. To even look upon him from afar was to invite strife, conflict. “I thought we got rid of the bastard six years ago,” he growled. “He agreed to stay away for five centuries.”
“He’s back,” Defender repeated. “And remember, six years ago, we never beat him. We never even touched him. We amused him. We fought his heralds. And he just sat back and watched and grinned the whole time.”
“Like we were the butt of a cosmic joke,” Craig said, not taking his eyes off the screen. “Or his favorite spectator sport.”
“He feeds off conflict, right?” Kinetik asked. The young speedster looked back and forth between the screen and the acutely concentrating Canadian.
“Yes. And he enjoys it too.” Defender said, remembering the doomsday weapon he left behind, which he helped disarm. A planetary madness bomb, which would have driven the entire population of Earth insane – and stirred them to violence. They had come so close to absolute ruin that day.
“What’s his current location?” Craig asked. “Another war-torn third world hellhole? The gods of war always love a civil war, the more inhuman the better…”
Defender pushed a few buttons on the display, and the HUD shifted, the hologram slowly rotating as data flashed over it. “He opened a portal and vanished just above the ionosphere.” Defender informed him. “So technically he’s not violating his agreement not to return to earth. Of course, his portal might be used by others….”
Craig sighed. He had visited many alternate timelines, met many versions of himself – and almost all them were fascist jerks, who fit quite splendidly in the worlds they lived in. The quiet beep of the electronics, reflected, flashed over his solid form. He was a study of stillness, resolve. His blue eyes were a glaze, but a glaze of fire.
“Am I to go alone?” the Canadian asked.
“Well, the mission is just going to be a sortie. A scouting mission. Until we learn what he’s up to.” Defender said, his gaze also fixed on the screen.
“And we learn the identity of the players,” Witchcraft added.
“As if we need to face more than a ten-billion-year-old cosmic god with an axe that can split this planet.” Nighthawk said.
“Uh huh. All the players. We’ll be ready to join you, once we get a signal. Though there may be a bit of a delay. We've gauged the time differential at about 12 to 1.”
"Twelve days there equals one day here. Gotcha." Thundrax said.
"We call it the Narnia effect." Defender affirmed. “But you’d be the only one on this little road trip, at least at first. After all, you’re used to dimension hopping. You’re our best shot.”
”You’ve also survived a lot more.” Witchcraft said. “Face it, Craig, you even lasted a few minutes in the Q. The real Q. After that everything else is child’s play.”
“When the children play rough,” Nighthawk said. He didn’t approve of sending Thundrax on the mission. It should have been one of them.
Craig Carson looked up to the screen and examined it, trapped between irritation and wonder. There was always a danger of being trapped in a hostile dimension. Heck, that was probably the least of the dangers! The brawny Canadian, second tallest man in the room, carefully considered his options. Even if Defender’s word wasn’t impeccable, he’d still go. “We’ll need a force on this side of the portal. Someone to stay behind and take care of stragglers.”
“I’ve thought of that,” Defender said. “Though you won’t like our candidate.”
“Villain, I take it?” Craig asked.
“The worst.” Defender said.
Defender could only be talking about one man. A villain who had a deeply troubled history with Craig, a man of supreme power – who absolutely could not be trusted. But he’d leave that dilemma for Defender --- the less he had to deal with him, the better. The probable candidate could do the job, if he was willing. But Craig had his work cut out for him, big time.
“Guess I’d better pack for a road trip.” Craig Carson said.
“Stupid dragon!” Centuria shouted, as the beast ignored her best punch and snapped back at her, black fangs glistening. “Why won’t you fall?!”
“Stupid? Ce n'est pas ainsi! Malys is a highly intelligent creature! Reptilian, devoid of emotions, and burning with the flames of war! Il avons mange du lion! Just like his celebrated master!” Black Paladin declared.
“No, he’s stupid!” Centuria snarled. “Just like you!”
“Tiresome child. Such little intelligence for one so powerful,” Sir Gilles sneered, and the knight vanished, reappearing in a flash behind Centuria. She was clearly the most dangerous of this League, but he could tame her impetuous youth, or so he thought. War and impiety burned in the villain’s bones. He was a weapon. “Time to remove you from the battlefield… what?!”
With a shout, Thunderbolt charged the knight, overwhelming him with brute force and – though he dared not admit it – rage. They tumbled on the ground, and then both vanished in a spasm of the Paladin’s darkness. The Paladin had just drawn his sword.
“Ray!” Centuria shouted, and she was sent hurtling by a flicker of Malys’s wings. Daedalus cried out and covered her recovery with a rocket barrage, while Star Knight slashed at its head, his energy saber gleaming as it cast reflections from his pitch-black skull. Meanwhile Ray, tumbling with the black knight, found himself reappearing some distance away. So, the villain could teleport!
“I would have finished the girl,” Sir Gilles said, sword raised. He was holding it like a saber, as if he were fencing. “But this is a more chivalrous combat.”
“Centuria would’ve knocked your block off,” Ray intoned. “Looks like that’s my job now!”
“You will fail, child.” the Black Paladin said. “You will fall.”
“The Hell I will.” Thunderbolt snarled. "And I'm a little old for this "child" BS!"
Screaming, the two men clashed. In a roar of thunder, Ray slammed the armored figure, a heavy blow impacting with a solid metal fist. But the knight was unfazed, and laughing, he reappeared in an anti-flash behind the Freedom Leaguer, and impaled his armor with a sudden sword thrust. The Paladin gave it a sadistic, satisfying twist. Ray screamed.
“A mighty blow.” The Paladin said, savoring the moment. “How mighty will your next one be, after I have drained your soul…” With that, he attempted to channel the hero’s lifeforce – and was stopped in his tracks. He felt nothing from Ray, no soul, no intake of energy. The gash in Thunderbolt’s armor sputtered and spasmed furiously, discharging sparks, but there was no blood. Not a gusher, not a pint, not even a drop. “What—“ the Paladin gasped.
Ray weakened as his energy escaped, and he fell to one knee. “Guess there’s no soul for you to steal,” he gasped, his voicebox rasping the words. “Energy form, chump. No soul to leech off.”
Sir Gilles growled and, in a spasm of darkness, the Black Paladin again teleported above him. He drew his mace, and held it aloft.
“Ca me soûle! Then I will have to settle for your life, monsieur,” Black Paladin said as he brought the mace down, and then he shrieked as a lightning charged hand hit him from behind.
“Dad?” Ray asked, his vision blurred, as a red gauntlet bound hand reached down to him and offered to pull him to his feet.
“No, just a Good Samaritan from another dimension.” Thundrax answered, and he pulled Thunderbolt to his feet. If he knew the young man’s name, the mighty Canuck might have smiled. Or thought it confusing. Or both.
“Connard!” Black Paladin snarled, recognizing a man with whom he had clashed many times over the years. Theirs was the bitterest of emnities. During their last fight, with uncharacteristic brutality, Craig had consigned the Paladin to the torments of Hell. There was not a death that was slow or painful enough for the man! “The Warmonger has made me twice as powerful as when last we faced.” The knight boasted, savoring the brutality to come.
But Thundrax only laughed, laughter tinged with bitterness, and he gathered the storm around him. “What a coincidence,” the hero snapped. “I’ve been boosted too! A little more than double our last meeting. To quote my friend Chivalry, “have at thee, villain!”
“I cannot think of a higher pleasure. Or a more worthless dog in whose name to smite!” Paladin snarled, cursing the name of Craig’s friend and occasional teammate, and the two men did a dance of dueling teleports, vanishing before either could land a blow, reappearing only to find the opponent vanished, again and again. But then, focusing on Thundrax, the Paladin got careless. He forgot about Ray. The Liberty Leaguer thrust a hand into the Paladin’s back, charged with lightning. Thundrax, appearing out of nowhere and slammed Sir Gilles in the front. The two lightning attacks resonated, surrounding Sir Gilles in a globe of electricity many times their normal strength. Sir Gilles shrieked and finally fell to the ground.
“Can we cook, or can we cook?” Craig smirked. “Thanks, mister.”
And then Thunderbolt cried out and tackled Craig.
The surprised hero startled, going from “dad?” to mortal enemy in less than a minute. But Craig refused to struggle against Ray, lifting his hands into a defensive position. “Please listen,” the Canadian paragon said. “What you’re experiencing is the resonance between dimensions. My vibrational frequency is way out of synch with yours, and on top of that, you’re been hurt. The discord field is really strong, making me appear like an enemy.” The scientist in Ray attempted to filter his words, ignore his feelings and make sense of them. “I’m registering to you as the most annoying man who ever lived. Nails on a chalkboard. The field does that. It’s why superheroes from different universes always tend to fight so damned often on first contact. It’ll take time to adjust, but you can do it. In the meantime, I’m going to do something no superhero in those stories would ever do. I surrender. I’m your prisoner.”
“You need to shut up,” Ray snapped.
“Not going to happen,” Thundrax laughed. “I’m a talker. The only time I shut up is at social galas. I hate parties.” He held up his hands, he looked into Ray’s faceplate. He could sense the intricate dance of energies behind the mask. They called Ray “the living lightning”. It was an interesting bit of symmetry with the man he held down, “the living thunder”. “Okay kid, it’s your choice. Beat up the guy who’s surrendering, or not. But if I were you I’d see to that wound. I can only contain that breach with my powers for so long.”
“You’re helping me?” Ray muttered, sensing the truth in his words even through his concussion.
“Of course I am. It’s what I do. Though to be fair, you owe me at least a gold star.” Craig smirked. He probably shouldn’t crack jokes. Until he adjusted to the dimensional creepiness factor, any attempt at humor would backfire. Unfunny jokes were the worst. “Think, man, think. Use your head, not your heart, not this time.”
Ray lowered his fist. “I don’t have a heart,” he said.
“Liar.” Craig retorted, and he held up his hands against the young man’s angry response. “Okay, that remark hit ten times harder than intended."
"That's a really ugly costume." Ray spat.
"Don't grief the Leaf," Craig answered, chuckling. But the levity disappeared when Black Paladin crawled to his feet and roared.
"Round two," Ray said, charging his fists with lightning, though he still sat on Craig's chest.
"Forget it!" Paladin shouted. "I’ve had enough of this wretched dimension,” he snapped. "I'll kill the Carson on his home ground. On my terms!"
“Fine,” Craig said. “Happy to send you back to Hell. Again.”
“Malys! I come! We shall depart!” the Paladin cried, and he vanished. Soon afterward, he would be found winging to his home dimension – his powers still bolstered by the Warmonger.
A nightmare for a future time.
Centuria was the first to reach Ray. She saw the hero on the verge of losing control and assumed the worst. Though she still didn’t quite feel the discomfort as intensely as her teammate. Their dimension signatures were not as discordant. “Need help?” she asked Thunderbolt.
“Not against this creep,” her teammate answered, pointing at Craig.
“Especially when he’s surrendered,” Craig added. “Your friend’s being influenced, miss. I bet he wouldn’t even attack his worst enemy under normal circumstances, if he surrendered.”
“Ray?” Centuria wondered, thinking of how he’d treat Dr. Stratos in this position.
“We come from universes with different vibrational frequencies, so I’m registering as an enemy to him on a subconscious level,” Thundrax continued, slowly and deliberately. “And that’s probably made ten times worse by the fact that Warmonger was here. Either that, or God is a little kid playing with action figures, and the “Ray” action figure and the “Thundrax” action figure are being smashed together while God is saying….” And here Craig’s voice imitated the cadence of a small child. “Biff! Boom! Pow! “Take that Thundrax, ha, ha!” “Oh no, Ray, stop it!” “I am going to annihilate you, Thundrax!” “Oh no, Ray, stop it, I beg you!””
Centuria burst out into laughter, but it was short-lived, when she saw that Ray was not sharing the hilarity. “There’s energy coruscating through you Ray.” Craig noted, sensing the lightning dance within his suit. “It’s agitated. Try to reduce that, if you can.” Craig said. “And I’d really consider getting that armor breach repaired as soon as possible. This lovely young lady can deal with me if I turn into a threat or menace, or something.”
“Ray, he’s not wrong about that,” Centuria said. “Get repaired, now. Daedalus is waiting.”
“Don’t let him out of your sight,” Thunderbolt snapped, and he flew away, bleeding sparks.
“Get him! Take out the cannons!” Craig shouted, soaring past Centuria to close with Hades. This was his third fight alongside the Freedom League, and in each of those fights, he had taken the lead, put himself at the most risk. He had something to prove. Familiarity didn’t exactly breed contempt, but Craig remained in a state of mistrust.
“Another new pup,” Hades said, only to be slammed in the face by the newcomer. He was fast, unexpectedly so, and quite powerful, knocking the death god on his keester.
“A pup who’s been biting bad guys for last thirty-five years…” Craig said, and he turned back and shouted at the team. “You got the Styxine Stone, ‘Bolt?”
“This thing?” Ray said, and with the combined power of the Freedom League, he crushed the stone in his metal gauntleted fingers. Hades shrieked in dismay as he felt the Underworld pull him back like a fish caught in a riptide. “Ooops!” Ray added. He would have grinned, if he had a face.
“I will not forget this day!" Hades snarled, rubbing his jaw. "No peace awaits thee in thy grave, nor the sweet kiss of Lethe. Long the worms will gnarl your entrails!” Hades howled at Thundrax.
"I've heard better threats from worse than you," Craig snarled, hands on hips.
"O proud mortal! Long shall you rot, and oblivion will not stay thy agony! Death is but the start of thy torment!" Hades raged before he vanished. The team shuddered at the hate in his voice.
"Go back to Hell, you chump."Craig spat, smiling in satisfaction. "Death gods," he added with a snort. "You'll die of boredom just listening to their threats."
"Nice punch," Ray admitted. "Reminded me of dad."
“Well. the Styxine Stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Craig quipped, hands on his hips. He apologized internally to his allies, who were groaning at the remark to a person.
“Tell me he did not just say that!” Centuria moaned.
”Now we know he’s secretly evil!” Johnny Rocket exclaimed.
“Truer words were never spoken,” Daedalus said.
“No wonder you never married.” Siren added. “Who’d want you?”
“Hey gang, does anyone want to hear some dad jokes?” Craig quipped, his smirk reaching truly obnoxious levels. “By the way, good work people. Now let’s rescue the sacrifices and tear down this eyesore of a temple. This necropolis is totally not for us,” he smirked at the crude attempt of a rhyme.
“Hey Ray,” Johnny said. “Can you kick him back to his home dimension? Before we become a group of punning old dudes?”
“And I thought Cap was bad.” Siren moaned, referring to Ray's dad, their old leader.
“I’ll head back home soon enough, when we find out what the Warmonger’s up to.” Craig answered. “But as I was saying, good work, people. It’s an honor to serve with you.”
Daedalus gave Craig a long hard look. The initial effect of the dimensional differential had subsided. Yet there was something off about him. No, he handled himself like a veteran, one of the finest he had met in centuries. He was one heckuva secret weapon to unleash on their enemies. But maybe, just maybe, he was trying too hard to fit in. He was like Centuria when she first arrived from her world, just enough of a mystery to irritate. And he was definitely hiding something.
He might be the best addition the team ever got. Or he might betray them, as others had done, at the worst possible moment. A 50-50 shot.
Daedalus considered past betrayals, hissed, and turned his back to leave Craig behind. He was not alone; no one was being particularly friendly to him, except maybe Ray and Centuria, and Johnny Rocket (who was habitually friendly to everyone). But Ray’s attitude had definitely softened. He indeed reminded Ray so much of his famous father, the now-retired hero Captain Thunder. Even his cornball jokes were the same. Groanable on the outside, lovable on the inside.
The rest of the team gauged their injuries and returned to Freedom Hall, their headquarters, which made even the Barlowe or Homestead look like a hovel. But Thundrax bade Ray to halt.
“Hold on a minute, son,” Thundrax said. “I’ve got a question for you. I can sense the lightning beneath the armor, but everyone calls you by a human name, Ray.”
“That’s right,” Ray said.
“Were you human once?” Craig asked. Ray nodded. “Can you become human?” He shook his head. “How’d you like to become human again, sport?”
Ray would have gasped. He can do that? He just focused on the huge Canadian, unmoving. “Yeah, I would,” he finally said, scared that naming his heart’s desire would jinx it. Again. A villain named Mr. Infamy had once given him that desire, then took it cruelly away.
Craig transformed himself into a bolt of lightning, shot to the top of a nearby hill, then used the same trick to return. Demonstrating the transmutation method, Ray observed keenly, measuring it with his senses. The Canadian hero smiled.
“It’s not going to be easy. You need to learn to draw your energy from the air, make up the difference between material and energy states. Lesson one…” he began.
The Castle was a bizarre hybrid of technology and the archaic, wrapped in 19th Century Bavarian trappings. Few men who had ever stepped foot in here, none had done so by invitation. Defender knew that he was taking an enormous risk by coming here, alone. He had one of the most powerful battlesuits in the world. But the suit worn by the castle’s sole resident made his look like a child’s toy.
Defender was fighting against fear and his ancient hate for the fate of the world. There was nothing that James Harmon wanted more than to break the truce he had agreed upon.
With Albert Zerstoiten. Destroyer of Detroit. His dad’s killer. The man he had sworn on his dad’s grave to bring to justice. On the day when the fires of Detroit still burned, despite a hot summer rain.
“You do not know the level of restraint I am showing.” Destroyer said. “Your dimensional counterpart stole many years from me. He kept me penned like a caged dog, taunted me without mercy. He reduced me to an old man, dependent on people I despised for my escape.”
Defender wasn’t in a mood to rehash old history. Only one incident mattered today: the time Destroyer united with the heroes against the Gadroon invasion. Still Earth’s most perilous hour, forty years of breakneck escapes later. Defender had been a small child at the time, a wide-eyed boy staring at the saucers on television. “Let’s just say the fate of the world deserves restraint. Mutual restraint.” Defender finally said.
“Just as Paris is worth a mass,” Destroyer said, quoting Henry IV of France, the Huguenot who converted to Catholicism to win the French throne. “Of course, they killed him anyway. The lesser assassinating the great. Such is the pattern of the years: the great are always assailed by the lesser. But I can hardly expect an American to know real history. Henry was neither a cowboy nor a President.”
“Henry of Navarre. Converted to Catholicism and ascended to the kingship in 1594.” Defender said. “A contemporary of Elizabeth the first of England. Assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic. One of the greatest kings in European history.”
“So, you have access to Wikipedia in your armor?” Zerstoiten sneered.
“Dad hired a lot of private tutors.” Harmon said. “He didn’t raise his son to be a dummy.” Zerstoiten almost certainly knew Defender’s true identity, if any of his enemies did.
“In America, intellect is a privilege,” Destroyer said.
Defender really wanted to mute that sneering tone out of the mass murderer’s voice, preferably with his fists. More than any other man alive. But he had a job to do, a world to save. “Enough sparring, Doctor," he told Zerstoiten. We despise each other, that’s a given. The scrapheaps you keep sending every September to our headquarters is proof of that. But neither of us wants this planet to fall in an invasion from a parallel earth.”
“It would hinder my plans, yes.” Destroyer agreed. “So, self-appointed hero of Detroit, how can Zerstoiten help you protect your little world?”
“You’re aware of the Warmonger’s current location?”
“If you think I’m so negligent as to overlook a major planetary threat, then you do not know Destroyer,” the villain snapped.
“Fine,” Defender said. “You’ve got good wi-fi. Thundrax volunteered to go ahead of us and scout. If Craig calls us through the portal, we’ll need someone on this side to keep stragglers out.” Defender said. “And that’s you, if you agree to this.”
“So, you’ve made an alliance with the Canadian?”
“Yes,” Defender said.
“At least he is capable, even if his choice of associates is suspect,” Destroyer laughed. “I suppose I can agree to provide assistance. It will amuse Zerstoiten that Carson of all people should owe me a debt of gratitude.” Destroyer shot Defender a withering glance. What he would do to his armor, if the fate of the world did not depend on it. Every scar, every setback, they gnawed on him, rats chewing upon a god. “But do not ask Zerstoiten to shake your hand.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Defender snapped.
“So, that’s it?” Ray would have spat. “That was an anti-climax. You want me to hold this energy matrix for a whole month? Before I try anything else?”
“It’s the one we devised that’s most congruous to your physical form.”
“I do feel a tiny bit more human,” Ray admitted. “But I was hoping for, well, more concrete progress.”
“It’s going to be slow,” Thundrax said. “When I was transformed into lightning by the Hobbled Man, it took a Herculean effort and many tries to reform myself.” That had been three years ago, and he still hadn’t fully recovered. He remembered that nightmare vividly: reforming incomplete, as damaged goods, over and over again. “I don’t want you to reform as – well, a vegetable, or powerless, or with your powers out of control. There are many ways this can go wrong.”
“I’d risk a lot for a normal life.” Ray sighed, or at least the intonation canes out as a sigh. “Well, normal as in physical. I wouldn’t mind having the powers that you do.”
“Don’t,” Craig said. “Be alive. Find your own path to happiness, and don’t waver from it.”
“Is something going on with you?” Ray wondered.
“My life is a continuing drama. I had a mad clone out to kill me – but you don’t need to know that. You need to focus on the here and now.” Thundrax said.
“I take it that’s a yes. Can I do anything about it?” Ray asked.
“Nope.” Thundrax said.
“Is it something the team should be worried about?”
“I don’t think so,” Craig sighed. “And you’ll have plenty of warning if it becomes one.” Thundrax said.
A figure suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Doctor Metropolis, the embodiment of the City, especially Freedom City. “Ray,” he said. “Could you and your guest return to headquarters? Something has come up: the day’s not over.”
“He’s called the Meta-Grue. A renegade of his species – and you all remember how much fun we had with the Grue.”
“Fun, fun, fun, until daddy takes your shape-shifting away,” Star Knight snapped, remembering the original invasion all too well.
Daedalus continued. “He’s taken over an old Atom family installation, but we have him cornered,” Daedalus said. “The sooner we strike, the less prepared he’ll be for us.”
The heroes nodded. They were seated at a great circular table in Liberty Hall. An extra chair had been made available for Craig, much to some members’ annoyance. The meeting had not been the friendliest of Craig’s career.
“We’re being run ragged by all those villains!” Johnny Rocket said. “And do you know what it takes to run me ragged?”
“My guess is Warmonger’s stirring them up.” Craig said. “I could call some friends from my dimension. Of course, this whole situation could be a Trojan horse, part of my evil plan to conquer your dimension.” He glared at the heroes. It was like being a stand-up comic in a room where no one was reacting to the material.
“It’s happened before.” Siren said, breaking the silence. Finally.
“It’s happened to me too.” Craig said, happy to finally address the elephant in the room. “You’re perfectly justified in your suspicions. I once had a teammate who took four years before she showed her true colors.” And Connie succeeded in destroying the Guard when she did, Craig might have added.
“You don’t have the attention span for that,” Centuria noted. “You barely stay in a conversation for more than a minute.”
“Too much sugar,” Craig quipped. “But here’s the thing,” he added. “You’ve confirmed what we call “the dimensional sandpaper effect”, the frequency differentials. I’m adjusting, but I’m always going to be a little bit off.”
“So you say,” growled Star Knight. “Not everyone here is convinced on the science. I’m certainly not.”
Thundrax sighed. Even after he’d worked with them, this was ten times harder than it should be. He had no doubts that every person sitting at the table was a good person, the best this world had to offer. He was sitting with an all-star team. But the barriers to acceptance were unacceptable. “Don’t be so paranoid that I can’t help you,” he said. ”But, don’t be so trusting that you fall into a betrayal. If I’m acting like a nice guy – it all could be a front. I could be posing as a Canadian just so I could take advantage of our “nice guy” reputation.”
“Obviously he has not met Team Canada,” Lady Liberty jested. Canada’s superteam on “Earth-Prime” was not the nicest bunch of heroes – most Freedom Leaguers would have preferred dealing with someone with better manners, like the Crime League. Craig had already been ribbed about them many times; he was tempted to go back, grab Justiciar, Ravenspeaker and Forceknight, and show this world’s Canada what real heroes were all about. But this was not his problem; best to leave that for the next inter-dimensional crossover. He continued.
“If you have see any suspicious behavior from me, ask me to explain myself. Don’t accept “I don’t have time to explain myself" as an answer. I don’t get that luxury. I haven’t earned it here.” Thundrax concluded.
“I think he should be locked up,” Star Knight asked, and more people than Craig would
have liked nodded in agreement. “Why isn’t he locked up?”
“Because he’s committed no crime and his information about the Warmonger and the vibrational discrepancies between dimensions has been checked out.” Centuria answered. “And he submitted himself to a telepathic background check, and we’ve found that he rivals many of our greatest members in his heroism and public service. He’s an asset.”
“All of which could be frauds!” Star Knight shouted. “Similar credentials have been forged in the past.”
Craig sighed and rose to his feet, his huge form illuminated by flashes of data and computer processes. Most of the people in the room expected him to walk out, but he did not. Instead, with palms flat on the table, he asked with a nod:
“Pen and paper, please? And an envelope?” Johnny Rocket hurriedly honored the request. Craig smiled, reminded of Kinetik and the other speedsters he knew from home. The brawny Canuck scribbled a quick message, added a crude drawing, stuffed the envelope, and slid it toward Star Knight. She frowned.
“Canadians, or so it’s said, are given to four things. One: grand gestures, Two: self-deprecation. Three: self-righteousness. And four: compulsively apologizing. Well, what I’m doing now falls under the grand gesture category. In the envelope, I’ve written down my permanent weakness. What it will take to kill me. It will kill me. The person who takes the envelope will have my permission to test the method to determine that I’m not lying, and is sanctioned to carry the method out, if I betray you in any way.”
For a moment, all hands were still, and then Daedalus beat Star Knight in taking the envelope. He unfolded the note, read the page, and nodded.
“Interesting,” he said. “It makes sense in a strange way. And I was the right person to receive the information. But the item you mention will not be easy to acquire.”
“You’re heroes. Where there’s a will, there’s at least three ways,” Craig answered.
“Thank you for your trust.” Daedalus said, folding the envelope and tucking it in a pocket of his battle armor – yes, he was that damn practical. “Well played, Mr. Carson. Now, Freedom League, we have a Meta-Grue to smash. Nucleonic energy control, size and density control, telepathy, can become intangible at will: read your profiles, people. We gather at the Pegasus in five minutes.” He turned to Ray. “Not you. Hold on a minute.”
“Sure, D,” Ray said, and they watched the members – and their guest – leave.
“You seem to have bonded with Mr. Carson,” Daedalus said.
“He reminds me a lot of dad,” Ray replied. His face, as ever, was featureless and betrayed no emotion. Not that Ray felt them often. “Right down to the bad jokes. I can’t wait to introduce them. They’ll either become best friends instantly or throw so many barbs they’ll destroy the room with the sheer power of quips.”
“You like him, don’t you?” Daedalus asked. “And you’ve never really got to fight at your father’s side, and this guy is the next best thing?”
“Have you seen his physical strength rating? And you saw what he did against Hades…”
Daedalus fingered the envelope, briefly considering what had been written down within. “Don’t get too close to him. He may not be a traitor. But he will have to go home at some point. A world which produces Warmongers has to be as messed up as ours. He’ll be needed. This isn’t like Centuria. He does have a home to return to. People who love him.”
Ray said nothing, but Daedalus noted how tightly he was clenching his fists. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Let’s get down to business. Just point me at that damned Meta-Grue.”
“I can’t think of any better weapon than you, Ray.” Daedalus smiled. Those that knew him knew that was the highest of compliments from the old artificer. “Let’s go.”
“This is the day,” Johnny Rocket said. It had been a week since the fight against the Meta-Grue, and the team had finally warmed to Craig, at least a little. Especially among the younger members like Johnny. “D thinks we’ve found him.”
Craig roused from the guest bed, yawning, and wrapping a robe around himself absently. Johnny whistled and sped away before the Canadian could respond. But Craig simply grinned, changed into his costume – manually, he had no access to his quick-change power in this dimension, so far removed from the “closet” -- and headed for the ready room.
"Tell him to put a shirt on that dad bod of his," Centuria shouted.
"Not a chance!" Johnny Rocket replied.
"It's okay puritans, I'ma fully dressed this time. I won't get my 80s shirtlessness in your fashion fascist 2010s again, I promise," Craig said, entering the conference room. The meeting had already started.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a confirmed Warmonger sighting,” Daedalus said as the team sat down and the data flashed on their pads. “Gun show, as Craig speculated.”
“After ten billion years, you fall into a rut,” Craig quipped, again emphasizing his foe’s antiquity. “He struck at us through a gun show in our dimension, I figured he’d do the same here. A convenient gathering place for his philosophy. Watch out for weapons coming to life, rising into the air and massacring people. And a single supergun will serve as his herald. You’ll know that when you discover the nearly unbreakable one.”
“And how do we take down Warmonger?” Lady Liberty asked.
“You don’t. He operates on a cosmic level,” Thundrax answered. “He crushed our most powerful superhero like she was a flea,” he added. March 3, 2012. Heralding a bloody summer, and the most desperate hour of his life. It had been six years since that summer, but Craig remembered it vividly, along with the Warmonger’s opening stroke on Marsbase. Poor Emily. “The Star*Guard said that all the heroes on our planet combined wouldn’t have had a prayer against him. Even if every villain in the world fought alongside us.”
“You don’t mind if we test that claim?” Star Knight asked.
“His axe can crack whole planets into pieces with but a single stroke.” Thundrax chided.
“Note to self: disarm him first,” Star Knight said. Craig hoped she wasn’t being serious.
“Beat the plan, show that you won’t be pushed. The only way to win is to earn his respect, and then strike a deal.” Thundrax said.
“That’s not very heroic,” Centuria noted.
“Too many innocents are at stake. You need to play this smart.” Craig answered. “And watch your aggressive thoughts! Being around this guy could’ve pushed Gandhi into a fistfight. Any resentments you have is likely to be pushed tenfold in this guy’s presence. Watch the testosterone.”
“Except him,” Johnny chirped, pointing at Ray. “He doesn’t have any. He has Krrkfizzzterone!”
"Also, I’d like permission to send a signal home.” Craig said. “My mission was to contact the Champions if we found Warmonger. We found him. With your supervision, I’d like to complete my mission. You can send the message and lay out ground rules.”
“You trust these people?” Bowman asked.
“With my life,” Craig said. Though there were a lot of people he’d trust with such a minor thing, he might have added, including the people who sat in this room.
“All in favor of inviting the Champions to the world…” Daedalus asked.
“With the proviso that we can order them to return home at any time.” Star Knight added.
“That’s reasonable,” Craig said. “Oh, and please warn Defender about the dimensional discord, he might find a way to reduce its effects. No sense in you both fighting each other. Oh, and I did promise to leave once we found Warmonger. I’d like to stay, but a promise is a promise. And my word is my word.”
“You aren’t getting out of this that easily, Mr. Carson,” Ray said. “We need a Warmonger expert. You… well, I don’t know what you need.”
“Closure,” Craig said. “Preferably on Warmonger’s face. Oh, and the guy loves to leave bombs and other weapons behind. He’s had time to plant a few, as well as a master control, one trigger to set them all off. The one he pulled on us was a suicidal technopath.”
“Fun,” Daedalus said. “Thanks Craig. Okay, civvies only. Armored figures on stand-by. Expect action. Maybe a Waterloo.”
“This is the best death money can buy,” the gun dealer said. Payment in cash, just the way he liked it!
Martin Schultz smiled, wiping his palms on his “Desert Eagle = Liberty" Eagle T-shirt, with the national bird aiming a .50 action express at the camera. It was one of his best sellers, and while he didn’t have the physique of a superhero, he kept himself in better shape than most of his customers.
“Hey big guy!” he shouted, spotting a blond behemoth in a black turtleneck and fatigues. “You in for some action?”
"Where?" Thundrax asked.
"Overseas," Schultz said. "I got contacts with Proudwater. They could use a big American bruiser like yourself to keep order among the heathens."
“Where exactly? Syria? Lugendu? Afghanistan?” Thundrax inquired.
“Where the Hell is Lugendu?” the man asked. Craig smiled.
“Need to know, buddy,” Thundrax said, covering his mistake. “Need to know.”
“You’re being an ass, dad,” Centuria, who was playing the part of Craig’s daughter, said. She was carrying a shotgun labelled “Little Miss Special”. Someone was having fun at Smith and Wesson. She normally hated guns, but this one was cute. One for the trophy room.
"Father's privilege." Craig said, turning away. "At least until the damn liberuls strip us of all rights."
"Damn liberals!" Centuria laughed.
“Keep an eye out for anything unusual,” Craig whispered. Centuria rolled her eyes. Had he been watching too many movies? Did he really need to say that?
“Actually,” said a man in a NRA hat who stepped in front of their path. Man that was one creepy smile. “Lugendu is a nation in Africa on a parallel earth, run by a man named Joseph Otanga.” Craig started, and the man's smile doubled. It was sickening, like a television evangelist who thought he could mug his way into heaven.
“It is not a particular popular neighbor, but it is feared, and that is the important thing. Even the Snake cannot overthrow it,” a second conventioneer called out from behind. "It is beautiful in its brutality." And there was that smile again.
"Africa burns upon their steaming metal, at the command of their loud weapons." A third man said. "Will you not rally to the call of blood and metal?"
"Craig..." Centuria hissed.
"I see them," Thundrax replied.
They were trapped. Seven people with identical smiles were converging on them. Craig had seen that face before.
“He has listened to the voice of the master. He will invite us back,” a random woman added.
“Harken to the cry of the carrion bird savoring its feast.” Schultz said, the selfsame smile alighting his face.
“Did we just set a new world's record for springing the quickest trap?” Centuria wondered.
“If we didn’t, it’s pretty damn close,” Craig replied. The entire hall was beginning to converge on them.
On an elevated stage, standing at a podium above the fray, an administrator smiled at them, and spoke into a PA system. “All men of blood are my playthings.” the man declared, palming his three piece suit as his skin reddened to the color of blood. “And they walk in my perfect discipline, like true soldiers. The agreement you once made with me, valiant one, will be annulled. As I do with all of these people, so I will do to you.Welcome to my cosmic armada. Welcome to the destiny of your species. You, and all of humanity will be pressed into my army of conquest, and you shall fight across the stars at my behest. Your lives are mine.”
“Never, Warmonger,” Craig said. The game was clearly over, even before it had begun. The pair were trapped like a crippled duck at the start of duck season.
“How your blood will race. Your pretensions will be stripped away in the crucible of conquest, leaving you naked at my feet; creatures of violence, preferring the pain of others to your own, consumed by rage at a universe that crushes your hopes in the impossible.”
“Ten billion years of wisdom,” Thundrax shook his head. “And that fascist garbage is the best you can come up with?”
“Deny the truth of the cosmos if you will,” Warmonger said. “Deny the nature of reality! Such denials are but another struggle, a war of principles and choices! The sparks of your ideals may burn brightly for a time, but when they touch the ground, the real world, it is the flames of war that shall burn.”
“Does this guy like to talk?” Centuria asked.
“Oh yeah.” Craig answered. “He’s a real chatterbox. Thinks he’s a poet too.”
“Thought I noticed.” Centurion’s daughter said, going back to back as the other undercover League members closed into support them.
“I will not touch you. Nor even your allies. Our agreement still binds me,” the Warmonger said. “But my followers are not so easily constrained. Nor him.”
“No,” Lady Liberty gasped as a new figure materialized.
"Not again,” Doctor Metropolis almost sobbed.
“And we don’t have Centurion or the Captain with us this time,” Daedalus moaned.
His arrival was accompanied by the toll of mourning bells. Steam awoke about him as he coagulated into view, in which images of death flowed: a stillborn baby, a child beaten to death by a drunken father, a suicidal teenage girl, a kid, barely an adult, ravaged by AIDS. A room full of children gunned down by the damned, a near-sighted middle-aged man killed by falling rubble from a superfight, an old woman crying in pain from the ravages of old age and cancer. Life was snuffed like candles in a hurricane. Craig Carson had never seen this face before. But Death, how he knew its face so very, very well.
“This is the end of all things,” Omega said. “Worship me, and give into despair. Give into the cold and quiet and the eternal tomb and the coil of unlife about your throats.”
“Are they having a melodrama competition?” Johnny Rocket snapped. “Geez, that dialogue.”
“Battle stations.” Daedalus said, ignoring Johnny for now. “Situation Omega. This is no drill. This is what we’ve trained for, people. For Centurion. Let’s take him out.”
Craig stared at the figure. He had died three times in his superheroic life, and though he had been revived, he felt the throbbing of old wounds. Wounds long forgotten. He had so many. He had sat on the brink of life and death so many times, it was familiar countryside. “Okay,” the Canadian said. “You heard the man. Anyone who quotes from the Book of Revelation right now loses their library privilege for a whole month.”
“No Pale Rider references.” Vixen said. “Gotcha.”
“This battle deserves a finer arena,” Warmonger said, and suddenly the building and its denizens was unearthed – and relocated in a vast rubble strewn devastation of war, somewhere well beyond Freedom City. A once great city, proud and ancient, now a haunt stretching for miles in all directions. Craig thought it might be Aleppo, but it could have been anywhere.
“Much better.” Warmonger smiled, breathing in the smell of the charnal ground as if they were a fresh spring breeze.
“I would have preferred a more populated area,” Omega moaned.
“Let those who would be heroes gaze upon the failure of their ideals,” Warmonger said. “These corpses were hopeful, happy people once.”
“This changes nothing,” Daedalus said, setting the barb aside. He had seen the failure of human ideals for over three thousand years, and had not despaired. Civilization was a sculptor, gradually carving out utopia over the centuries. One day, it would be achieved, but for now, the ideal was a work in progress. A cathedral of human achievement, whose building spanned millennia. Daedalus was a craftsman, he was patient, and in the end, not even the gods will have wrought better. That, Warmonger, is the power of humanity. “Okay, people, focus on death metal over here. Leave black metal alone for now. Attack!”
And so the battle began. The former gun show patrons died in an instant, to be reborn as Omega’s deathlings. They would be fodder for the Doom-Coil later. The Freedom League broke into pairs, doing quick strafing runs against Omega, performing attacks, and quickly darting away before the villain could perform his homing attacks on them. Gradually they wore him down. Gradually the gun show attendees turned minions fell, mostly from Johnny’s whirlwind attacks. But also, gradually the heroes fell, one by one: first, Lady Liberty, then Bowman, then Doctor Metropolis. Mighty champions, all worthy of song; the black death felled them, the will of Omega. The heroes groaned and lay still on the ground, their life force a faint whisper. Omega said nothing, but smiled as they lay prostrate and defeated at his feet. As all people would lay, before death, before his majesty.
“I’m not sure we’re going to beat him!” Centuria said, watching Johnny Rocket fall to a black homing beam that outraced he fastest man in Freedom City. Dad forgive me, she added to herself.
Seeing his teammates waver, Thunderbolt took the lead. “Death or freedom!” Ray snarled, breaking ranks and finally taking the battle to the bad guy. No more strafing tactics. “Time to go down, hero style. It was Death or Glory, his favorite Clash song.
“Keep up the pressure!” Daedalus shouted, seeing a couple of his teammates veer away too soon after Ray was backhanded into them.
“I have survived the pressure of stars,” Omega boasted, and he cut down Siren with a blast.
“This is marvelous,” Warmonger said, delighted by the fight. “A veritable feast!” Thundrax spat an obscenity at him and the Warmonger turned to address the veteran hero. This was the first time he had ever given Craig his full attention, and Craig felt the titan’s gaze intensify the violence within: the primal storm, which magnified to an extent he had only felt once before in his life, on a terrible day when he had lost control. It brought back memories of elder worms and obscene rage, and killing his oldest friends. The Warmonger sensed those memories reawaken, the most heavily suppressed memories in Craig’s mind, and he basked in them. “So, you too have experienced beauty,” he said. “But what you fail to realize, as much as you may belittle my cause, is that I am your strength. The will to defy death, your fighting spirit. That is my gift.”
“Your ally doesn’t seem to share it.” Thundrax spat. He felt sick.
“Death is not my ally,” the Warmonger said. “It is but a byproduct of the crucible, the disposed part. But that which remains is life, strong, and vibrant. Little man, I nourish the universe. Did you not know?”
“We don’t need you, or your discipline or your damn crucible!” Thundrax raged.
“Spoken like a soldier.” The Warmonger answered.
“It matters not,” Omega said, holding Ray limp in his hands and casting his body down to the earth. “I have all but won.” He grinned at Centuria. “Come and fight, child,” he said.
“Ray!” Centuria shouted, and in a berserk frenzy, she fell upon Omega. But then, unexpectedly, the sky opened over them, and through the portal issued, the bright armor of Defender, followed by the other Champions and a half dozen of their closest allies. The cavalry had arrived.
“You heard the man!” Defender shouted. “Teams of two, dambuster runs! Watch out for those death beams!”
“There are too many of them, even for me!” Omega noted. The fight had taken its toll on him too, he was in no shape to fight a fresh threat. In desperation, he turned to the Warmonger. “Ally, now is the time! Now is the hour of our alliance! You must step forward!”
Warmonger merely laughed. “You were never truly my ally. You are but a maggot with delusions of grandeur, feeding on corpses and dreaming of the stars that can never be yours.”
“Man, can these guys chew the scenery.” Thundrax quipped. “They’re worse than me!”
“Fool! Ten billion years of life is nothing in the vast dark of eternity!” Omega snarled, and he pounced on the Warmonger. The cosmic conqueror found that he, even weakened, was powerful enough to pierce the Warmonger’s protective barrier. What followed was a primal clash, an animal thing, as two of the most highly evolved beings of their worlds were reduced to tooth and claw, the level of beasts. The two titans wrestled for a minute, then vanished.
“I think we just won,” Witchcraft told Defender.
Centuria helped Ray to his feet. “It’s over,” she said. One of those superhero things that really don’t need saying, but gets said anyway. Sometimes you just need a capstone, especially to the epic.
“We’d better get your armor fixed,” Craig said, and he turned to Defender. “Defender, Daedalus. Daedalus. Defender.”
“Thanks for your help,” Daedalus said.
“You’re welcome,” Defender answered. “I’d love to stay and chat and take a look at your world, but I’ve got a city to protect.”
“Ah,” said a voice from a hologram globe that had inconspicuously accompanied the
Champions. ”But Zerstoiten would not deny you such a long-deserved repose! Stay Defender, stay as long as you like. In fact, I am insisting on it – by sealing the portal with my force field, then closing it forever and taking control of my city once again.”
“Now who didn’t see that coming?” Defender’s ally Nighthawk moaned.
“Freedom League!” Ray shouted, seeing the barrier appear at the edge of the portal. “Let’s help our guests back to their homes, shall we?” And the Freedom League and the Champions attacked the barrier with all they had, and their combined strength overcame even the best efforts of Destroyer.
“The portal won’t close for a few hours,” Daedalus told Defender. “You can breathe a little easier. Relax.”
“Are all your archenemies such colossal jerks?” Centuria asked.
“He’s a special one,” Defender answered, chastizing himself for trusting Zerstoiten.
With the battle over, the two teams took the opportunity to shake hands and mingle -- except Nighthawk, of course. Johnny Rocket and Kinetik compared costumes and gawked at each other.
“Wanna race?” Johnny finally asked.
“Sure!” Kinetik grinned, and they sped away on the count of three.
“Is it wise to stay?” Nighthawk asked.
“Well, with the portal being held open, we have a little while to get to know each other.” Defender said.
“In other words, no. Unless we want to be..." And Nighthawk spoke the next word like a curse. "... social...”
“C’,mon!” Centuria exclaimed. “Be a neighbor, scowly guy! Find that inner Mr. Rogers and swing for the porch!”
“No,” Nighthawk answered.
"The dimensional differential stabilizer is working beyond specs.” Defender reported. “But I can stiil fine tune it just a little further...”
“Defender,” Witchcraft said. “You putz. Perhaps we should leave before they start to break down, rather than you fretting about them all day?”
“But--- but-- thus may be my only chance to test them when the vibrational differential is this great...”
“Now!” Witchcraft insisted, and she and Centuria traded very approving looks.
“I’m staying,” Thundrax informed Defender. “Ray needs someone to help him become human again, and I’m the best man for the—hey!”
And that’s when Thunderbolt grabbed Craig and hurtled for the portal.
“What the Hell are you doing?!” Thundrax snapped, not resisting the hero’s grasp.
“Sending you home!” Thunderbolt answered. “Telling you to get off the lawn. Thank you for everything you’ve done. I love you, man. My world owes you so much. But you’re needed back home.Your services are no longer required here!”
“Scram! Beat it mister! That’s an order!” Ray barked.
“But I was going to help—”
“I don’t need a messiah, Craig!”
“But your powers...”
“I’ll manage.” Thunderbolt said. “I’ll find a way back to my physical form. And I won’t forget you buddy. Or your terrible outfit.”
“My dimension next time?” Craig asked.
“Deal,” Ray answered. Oh, if he were physical again. He would have worn such a smile! “In you go!”
And with that, Thunderbolt tossed Craig through the portal, back to his home universe. The Champions and the others lingered for an hour or so, but followed soon enough. Only the Warmonger was left behind – maybe – and if he survived his fight with Omega, he could make his own way back.
Craig Carson stood alone in Protectors’ headquarters, sulking a bit. They had reached the other side of the portal, only to find that Destroyer had fled to the Zerstoitenstern. It truly was over, and yet Craig felt the wounds that the Warmonger reopened, especially the emotional ones. He was such a scarred, scarred man. Cosmic Glory, a teammate he had known since she was a child, had told him that he wore depression like many superheroes wore capes; today, of all days, she was righter than she had ever been.
“We’re back!” Glory said as the Valravn returned to base. Craig had come out to the hanger to greet them. “Craig, you’ll never guess what had happened. Dessicus and the Trikon, and the Hzeel, and the Elder Worms, and Firewing! And the Star*Guard! It was epic! And we even saw Mr. Indomitable!”
“Jim said to give you a really big hug,” Sebastian was beaming, happier than Craig had seen him in years.
“Boy, I was great even by my standards!” Jinn declared.
“You almost started an intergalactic war,” Blue Cyclone said, shaking her head.
“Well, glad to be back,” Captain Adamant added, petting his German shepherd Ajax on the head. Ajax seemed glad to be back. He was briefly the first dog of the stars, but there was no place like home. “Hope you weren’t too bored, Craig.”
“I survived.” Craig said, and he readied himself for the next battle. Though he felt his years keenly, though he burned within, Warmonger or no, there was always a next battle to fight. It was his life of a Protector, a costumed protector of the public good, and he would have no other.
Last edited by Thundrax; 04-24-2018 at 12:53 PM.
Re: War of the Dimensions
War of the Dimensions II: This Time It's Canadian!
Author’s Note: For years I’ve been trying to write two Thundrax stories. The definitive story on Justicuar and Thundrax’s friendship is one of them. This is the closest I’ve come, but I’m still not there.
The Ironberg. Starforce HQ, on Algonquin Bay, in Toronto Harbour. The ugliest superhero headquarters in two dimensions.
The battle was over. Again. Craig Carson was sending a rare moment in his human form, firing in the shooting range under the HQ. The pistol, a Smith and Wesson 5946, the Mountie’s choice, felt cold and brutal and rough in Craig’s fingers. He could anticipate its kick. The Constable smiled.
“Take a deep breath, aim for the center of the target and discharge the weapon, holding as steady as…”
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!
“…just like that.” The Constable said, seeing six holes dead center in the target’s chest. The handsome Starforcer’s face crinkled as he winced at the ringing in his ears. Craig removed his ear protection with the smuggest smile imaginable.
“Gosh.” The Vancouverite said. “You think after thirty-five years of RCMP training and practice, I might be getting too old to hold it steady.”
“Uh, um-- I never knew you’re a gun affectionato, Mr. Carson.” the Constable said.
“I’m not,” Craig answered. “I hate the damn murdersticks. But I was trained by Shamus and Avenger. They shot guns good. And today, I just needed something to distract me from what happened to David," he sighed. "And I got tired of hitting a damn punching bag.” he added.
“He’s Justiciar.” The Constable answered. “He’ll be right as rain before you know it, barking orders, and sending us against Kigatilik. It’s what he does.”
“This is not working,” Craig sighed, and he changed back into his superhuman form, the blond behemoth. “David and I have been growing apart in the last few years. I was kinda dreading telling him my news, but now this…” He shook his head. “I just wish he’d wake up. When he’s out for this long, I always worry he’s entered another hibernation cycle. And he really got hurt in that fight.”
That fight. Extradimensional marauders, self-styled heroes, “Team Canada”, who hailed from the same world where Craig had met the Freedom League. Big Thunder, Miss Canada, Luna, Chris Cage, Labrador Rock. They had wanted to hurt them.
Whereas the Freedom League had, after some adjustment, been relatively friendly, Team Canada had immediately attacked. It had been one of the most memorable clusterfucks of Craig’s life, as the extra-dimensional heroes – all pretty much assholes –attacked at the behest of a cloaked figure that turned out to be a villain named Dominion, himself teaming with Necrull in a bid to enslave the Land itself. It had been a chaotic mess. Hero had fought hero! Heroes – namely Justiciar, Dust Devil, the Constable, Prism Girl and the Mariner – were pretty much beaten to a bruised and bloody pulp! “That’s what happens in these little romps.” Luna had said.
But then the cavalry had arrived: Sean in the Forceknight armor, Celesta, Craig, and Ravenspeaker. Craig had put down Big Thunder himself! It would have gone for nought, though, until Sean proved they were being played for suckers, the two teams joined forces to take the fight to the two real villains. All except Big Thunder, the biggest asshole of them all, who was throwing a tantrum in a containment cell, and Justiciar, still paralyzed by Dominion’s nanobots.
“Uncle Craig! We can only keep the portal between worlds open for another fourteen hours! And Daedalus isn’t making any promises about being able to hold it on his end, given the time differential.” Sean exclaimed. The implication was clear. Dominion had to be sent back home, he didn’t belong on this world. He would just cause more trouble if he remained. But if he was sent back, Justiciar might be trapped in a living death forever.
David would tell him to send him back. Every leadership instinct in Craig told him to send him back. But David had been his best friend for most of the last quarter century.
“Tell him to do his best,” Craig said, looking at Justiciar. C’mon David. You’ve been through a lot worse. Wake up. C’mon David. You’ve been through a lot worse. Wake up.
Wake up so I can tell you that I’m leaving the Starforce reserves, to devote my attention to the Protectors full-time. To stop splitting my focus between teams. Even if I know how badly you want to keep the band together, the David and Craig show.
“The storm giant you beat up before I could get to him has woken.” Dust Devil noted. “I think the jerk wants to be beaten up by you again.”
Craig nodded. He didn’t really need to be told. He could sense storms, they raged in his ears and against his skin, a prickling on flesh and blood and scalp. To his senses, the storm that raged around the rival team’s leader was as noisy as it was violent. Its message was blunt: “Face me, you bastard!” Craig ignored it, an unnecessary distraction from Justiciar’s condition.
“Oh! Well, Big’s just a tiny little bit stubborn,” Miss Canada said, throwing yet another sausage at Craig’s dog Hobo, which the German shepherd happily accepted with a symphony of slobber. She was the assistant leader of Team Canada, the far more agreeable ying to her team leader’s yang.
“Wish he’d calm the fuck down,” Dust Devil growled. “This shaking around is giving me a headache.” He turned to Craig. “Couldn’t you just have lost to the jerk?”
“No,” Craig insisted.
“Damn, I fold. Again.” Prism Girl sighed. The Starforcer was playing cards; three of her spectral selves were playing poker against the extra-dimensional heroes’ Chris Cage, and despite her numerical advantage, she was losing badly. She was sure he was cheating but couldn’t prove the allegation; besides her red spectral self was undermining the efforts of Blue and Yellow. The Opportunist scooped up the chips with an obnoxious smile on his face, amused by the competition.
The base shook again, from thunder, from a storm giant’s tantrum. Team Canada, used to their leader’s rages, ignored it.
“Sounds like he’s a fucking sore loser.” Dust Devil snerked, as polite as ever.
“You really shouldn’t swear,” the Constable said. For the millionth time.
“Shut up and deal,” Prism Girl retorted.
Meanwhile, Luna, Team Canada’s werewolf princess, was trying to make eye contact with Hobo. Vying for attention against the sausages, it was a lost cause. Her attempt to grab his attention had a second rival; The base reverberated with thunder, again, from Big Thunder’s tantrum.
“For Pete's sake, Thunder, hold it down!” Luna yelled, going back to trying to catch Hobo‘s attention.
“What a fucking baby,” Dust Devil spat. “Doesn’t the asshole realize that If he just calmed down, we’d have let him out by now? And that jerk’s in charge?”
“No one else wanted the job,” Labrador Rock, a monolithic member of Team Canada explained. He had been quietly trading words with Starforce’s Mariner; a remarkably civil, given that an hour earlier they had been trying to kill each other.
Strange bedfellows. You have to love team-ups.
“Well, the big guy doesn’t handle defeat very well.” Cage said. “Just like certain other people here,” he grinned at Prism Girl.
Two of Prism Girl’s selves held a warding hand over the poker chips. “You’re cheating,” Prism Girl’s red spectral self said. Her blue spectral self gasped, as if she shouldn’t have expected forthrightness (or poor sportsmanship) from her sister.
“Big Thunder. More like Big Dunder.” Dust Devil spat, his head turning in the vague direction of the holding cell. “You have to be pretty sad if you lose a fight to fucking Craig Carson!”
“Then a lot of people are pretty sad, Dust.” Craig snarked back, a bit of arrogance shining through a chink in his armor of humility. Some people had a talent for getting under his skin. Dust Devil snorted and chugged down a beer. Rutting Elk Red, his favorite craft beer from one of Alberta’s best microbreweries. He and Carson traded dirty looks at each other, even if they were actually holding back on the insults while they had company. Frenemies for life, those two. Yet when the chips were down, the two men could count on each other with their lives.
“Yeah, right.” Dust Devil said. “And you owe me a beer.”
“What?” Craig started.
“I pulled your beautiful blond butt out of the fucking fire from that storm giant.” Dust Devil insisted, folding his arms insistently.
“Did not.” Craig said, mocking his pose with his own arms crossing.
“I totally did, jackass!” Dust Devil insisted.
“Please,” Prism Girl moaned. “Let’s leave his ass out of the conversation while we have guests.”
“But it is a beautiful butt,” Miss Canada noted. “Almost as nice as his dog!”
Under normal circumstances, Craig would have been amused. These were far from normal. “First time that my ass has ever compared with a dog,” the Vancouverite muttered. “I’m going to see the prisoner.”
"Good luck, uncle Craig.” Sean said. “And if he doesn’t talk, show him your butt – Ow!” He yelped as Celesta smacked his arm.
“Respect,” Celesta told the teenager, who was rubbing his arm and glowering.
“Thanks,” Craig Carson told the girl, and he shuffled his way to the holding cell.
“Don’t mention it,” Celesta answered smugly.
The holding cells were located in the basement of the Ironberg, Starforce’s ugly HQ. Behind force fields in two adjacent cells were Dominion and Big Thunder. Big Thunder raged when he saw Craig.
“You and me, coward! Rematch!” Big Thunder shouted.
“Kiss my hairy blond butt!” Craig grinned, and he overrode the storm giant’s control of the storm. “Bob,” he asked the base’s AI. “Can you mute the sound of his cell?”
“With extreme pleasure, Craig,” Bob answered, and Big Thunder suddenly found himself silenced. His rage hit Biblical proportions. Which part of the Bible, Craig couldn’t say. Probably King Saul or Ahab, they got pretty damn angry. But he smiled; he’d always gotten along with David’s personal AI.
“Thanks, Bob,” Craig said. “And Bob? Is there any hope—” Craig’s voice caught.
“Of reawakening?” Bob replied. “Against the interaction of his cybernetic systems against alien nanomachines? I wish I knew.”
He nodded and strode to confront Dominion, a new fire in his eyes. The base rumbled again, but from his thunder this time.
Dallas Freeman, would-be tyrant of the futuristic Dominion City, glared at the massive hero as he entered the cell, anger in his eyes. Another of the would-be gods; it marked him as an enemy. “One of my friends has been affected by your nanoplague,” Craig said. It was an inaccurate description, but Craig didn’t care. Anger didn’t lead one to precision with words.
The prisoner rose to his feet and drew himself erect, composing himself with as much dignity as he could muster. “Dallas Freeman, Rank: Dominus, Serial Number: DC 12 000 001.”
“I don’t give a damn. I want my friend back.”
“Dallas Freeman, Rank: Dominus, Serial Number: DC 12 000 001.” His blue eyes blazed in the light of defiance and satisfaction, matching the storm in Craig’s visage.
“If you want to get home, instead of rotting in here when the way between dimensions opens…”
“Dallas Freeman, Rank: Dominus, Serial Number: DC 12 000 001.”
“I really don’t care about name, rank, and serial number bullshit. All I want is my friend back. Not your secrets, nada. You were played for a sucker by Necrull. He abandoned you, you owe him nothing. Or, you can repay him by waking up his archenemy, a man dedicated to hunting him down."
Dallas Freeman laughed. He placed the palms of his hands against the force field of his cell, ignoring the prickles against his skin. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Craig Carson, Thundrax. But you should know who I am, after all, the Freedom League introduced me to the world.”
‘You mean those bastards were telling the truth? Weird. Anyway, Craig Carson, Thundrax, your friend’s gone into cybershock. But the nanobots—well, they’re dying anyways, away from a nanofurnace or a sunarray. He’ll wake up if you push one of his buttons. A surge of anger or two always does the trick.”
“You don’t mind releasing me, right?” the villain asked.
“You’ll be released into Team Canada’s custody,” Craig answered. “What you do in your own dimension is your own affair.”
“Should’ve known you self-appointed heroes would stick together, even after they tried to kill you.” Dominion spat. “How, in good conscience, can you leave me with those animals?”
Craig sighed inwardly, remembering the jokes that the Freedom League had made about Team Canada, jokes that seemed justified, now. They were not paragons.
“They’re the lawful authority, and we have to defer to them,” Craig sighed. “Or I can ask one of the Freedom League to come and hand you into their custody. Star Knight would do it.”
“Hardly an improvement.” Dominion said.
“She’s harsh, but fair.” Craig told the villain. “But those are your two options.”
“Star Knight, then.” Dominion nodded, sighing in resignation, weighing fair treatment against the ease of escape, and deciding to go with fair treatment.
“Fine,” Craig said, and with that resolved, he returned to their guests.
The conversations were getting louder, lewder, and more tired, concerned with nothing that interested Craig. He observed the poker game for a bit; he was sure that Kathy was going to start another fight with Chris Cage. He wished Dust Devil would intervene –the Albertan did have a responsible streak that was concealed by his coarseness, and one of these days, it would actually come out, and he’d take a leadership role. He just wished that day would hasten. He stared at David’s comatose form, resplendent in his white and blue uniform, like the Maple Leafs he so dearly loved. Open your eyes, David, he thought.
Wait. The Maple Leafs?
Craig grinned. He had the answer. The words to shock him back to life. So, an angry stimulus was it? He practically rubbed his hands in glee.
This is going to be good, Craig thought, grinning like a mischievous child at the start of youthful hijinks, a romp. He inspected the blank expression on his friend’s face. So, he needs to get angry, eh? Well no one knows how to push a button like a best friend, unless it was a sibling. Craig was effectively both.
“Oh David...” Thundrax whispered in Justiciar’s ear. “The Maple Leafs suck.”
Justiciar’s eyes opened.
“Leaf Nation sucks.” Thundrax added.
“WHAT!” Justiciar yelled.
“And Toronto really sucks,” Craig said.
Craig didn’t really believe the last statement, but it had the desired effect. With a roar and a shrug of mighty cyborg shoulders, the fight was on. David Burrell tackled Craig, his best friend, throwing wild punches. They were brawling like teenagers, half-laughing while landing wild, vicious body shots and haymakers. When friend fought friend, there were no blows too low, nor words too mean-spirited. “The Canucks suck! Choke artists!”
“At least we make the playoffs!” Craig shouted, throwing a roundhouse.
“Do they do this often?” Labrador Rock asked.
“Every once in awhile,” the Mariner answered. “They’re normally the closest of comrades.”
“Only because you cheat!” Justiciar snapped back. “You should be competing in diving competitions!”
“Oh yeah?” Craig said, rolling Justiciar onto his back. “At least we don’t have Tie Dummy!” Craig snapped, referring to Tie Domi, a player more highly renowned for spirit than for intellect.
“At least we don’t have the sisters!” Justiciar snapped, regaining the upper hand by tugging on Thundrax’s uniform and half pulling it off.
“Uncle David! Uncle Craig! Stop! You’re traumatizing me!” Sean yelled. He was gleefully ignored.
“You scared the dog, jerks!” Miss Canada added, trying to coax Hobo out from under a table, where he had fled at the first sign of a brawl. Sensible hound.
“The Sedins are great players!” Craig snapped back, regaining the advantage.
“Great at being soft!” Justiciar snarled.
“No, great at hockey!” Craig grunted, pausing to deliver a headbutt. “If the Toronto hockey media didn’t suck so bad, they’d realize it.”
“Gentlemen! This is unseemly!” the Constable stammered. “And unsporting to boot! Get your hand off his—”
“Shush! Let the boys have their fun!” Prism Girl cheered. “Rip his shirt, Davie!”
“Are they always like this?” Miss Canada asked.
“Nah. Only on the rarest occasions,” Prism Girl smiled. “They’re usually the responsible ones. But every once in awhile, the inner kid comes out—call it a mating ritual—and all Hell breaks loose.”
“Mate with a Leaf fan....” Craig grunted. “Ha! On the Day they win the Cup, maybe!”
"Canuck fans shouldn’t be allowed to breed!" Justiciiar shouted as he fought back.
“And even then, you’d need to put a bag over your head.”
“I’ll show you a bag!” Justiciar growled. And off the came the shirt. Miss Canada whistled.
“They need to do this more often,” Prism Girl said, not hiding a leer. “Rip his shirt, Craig!”
“Sports fans,” Luna sighed. “Pretend warriors.” But no one ever listened to her when she wasn’t killing someone.
“The Canucks always beat the Leafs,” Craig said, grinding an elbow in his face.
“Which one of us made the playoffs this year, Craig?” Justiciar answered, and he chomped on Craig’s fingers. “How’s this for a riot, Carson?”
“Which team was Sundin happy to play for?” Craig snarled back.
"The team where he had his best years. Wearing the blue and white!” Justiciar punctuated his objection by smashing his cyberarm in Craig’s face.
“I don’t know what you idiots are all worked up about.” Dust Devil interjected. “You’re a bunch of tools. The Flames rule, and the Leafs and Canucks can suck my balls!”
What?” Justiciar and Thundrax roared simultaneously.
“He’s done it now.” the Mariner mourned.
“You’re almost as bad as the Oilers…” And then David and Craig traded a look, and both of them jumped the Calgary-rooting superhero and took him to the ground. The alliance was instantaneous, as if the previous few minutes of fighting had never happened. “Oh, it’s on!” Dust Devil grinned, fighting back against superior odds. “Come bring it, you leaf-clad chumps!”
“You only won the Cup because Joel Otto kicked in that overtime goal!” Craig said, opening a wound that dated back to 1989. Sports fans. They never let anything go.
“You’re a pack of cheating goons!” Justiciar shouted. “You don’t know how to play hockey, so you start line brawls…”
“I’ll go get Big,” Chris Cage said, hurriedly rushing to the cell. “This looks like way too much fun!”
And things got wonderfully silly from there, as the situation turned into a sprawling mess between the two teams. Proving, once again, that the best brawls are all-Canadian.
Last edited by Thundrax; 05-03-2018 at 09:10 AM.
Re: War of the Dimensions
Wrath of the North
Author’s Note: Purge is the creation of @Reldin. Some not nice language. This is a stream of conscientiousness experiment, inspired by the art that’s on the cover of the omnibus.
I’d walk into fire for you, Vancouver. And today, I’m doing just that.
And the fire strikes me, red as an angry sun. Holes burn in my uniform. Holes burn in my skin. The smell of human flesh, charred and toasting, wafts into my nostrils.
Who are these people?
The Men in black, armed with red lasers. Slipstreams of sunheat, marveling at my advance. Gritted teeth through dusky helmets. Red tinted lenses, reflecting my light. The light of mighty Mars burns my cloth, my flesh, and, as angry as Mars, I burn back. It doesn’t matter who they are, criminal dilettantes, dancers of misery. Only their crime matters. My eyes are wrath. My hands are ancient gods, the lords of the mountaintop, coiled into fists. And I shine.
Beacon of my town. I am Vancouver’s fist. I am the retribution of the north.,My thunder sings.
A question burns in me. No, not why, that doesn’t matter anymore. Not who. I’ll leave the identity of the men in black for after the battle, for when the authorities piece together the jigsaw of their crime.(Or maybe they’ll broadcast it, as they do so very often.) No, here’s the question. It’s the simplest thing, asked by anyone who dons the wardrobe. How did I get here? How did our lives become apocalypse?
Our roles are wardrobe, and we gird ourselves in them. We are the shield of the innocent. We are the sword of their wrath. We are the singers, and I’ve sung thirty-five years of warsongs. My anthem is thirty-five years of burning blood. Thirty-five years of barely checked rage.
Today my song asks: whatever possessed you to do this to my city? Leveled for six blocks, bodies everywhere. Glass mansions of the overclass, now shards, tinkling in ruin. Shops of the poor, broken signs in Cantonese and Punjabi, their brokenness screaming. Did you really believe there would be no consequence? You’ve hurt my people, you bastards. I am their steward, their shepherd. The greater their pain, the greater my wrath.
The thunderbolt feels like an orgasm as it issues from my body. Two men fall. Their screams are sick things, as is their twitch amid the rubble. Good.
Ultimatums stick in their throats, these black-clad nothings, whose weapons are powerful enough to burn through the mesh of my costume, embroidering my skin with their calligraphy. Ultimatums waft from them like crow calls. And I do not answer. The god within does not like to chat. His conversations are screams, and booms, and the roll of the tumultuous airs, akin to the screaming sky when the world was young.
I could fly. I do not. A juggernaut walks in the thunderbird’s place. Talons bared, wings spread. Is he screaming in the ruins?
You’ve hurt my people, those squawking, awkward, glorious things. The people of the sea, watching the dark waters in the shadow of the mountains. My thunder is the promise of their retribution.
And another two agents fall. The remaining agents continue to bellow, and burn me with their gifted suns, these guns, these pathetic little murdersticks. Plowshares gone bad. That’s a Biblical reference, folks.
I’m glad Billy can’t see me now. Or David. Or Alex. Or any of my friends. Well, maybe Avenger. He’d enjoy seeing me like this, the jerk.
But I don’t exist to entertain men like him. I never did. The world is a chorus, and I keep it in tune. I nudge the progression of the world’s symphony. However, when I’m like this, a vessel of wrath, it’s hard for me to carry a tune.
I guess my life’s pain is fueling my wrath, as if it needed any assistance. I mow down another of these moral weaklings, and I crush a gun for fun, for the sheer pleasure of removing one less instrument of suffering from the world. In doing so, I make a pasture out of a battlefield.
One of them is talking on a communicator. I can see him screaming, the little darling. Like words will make a difference now.
And, to my dismay, that’s when the sky falls.
It’s a modern dragon, coiled hate of technology. The roar of its rotors rattles my body. I hear its delirium, smell its burning fuel. An attack copter, to be prosaic. Technical specs rattle in my brain. Its machine guns rattle. It shares its metal gifts with me. It pounds me with rounds that could pulverize a city. It was built for carnage, and its pilots are reveling in it. I can see the joy in their faces. The craft is as noisy as war fully raging.
And I scream as loudly in my response, my body burns and sings, and I twist its rotors into origami. It’s not even a challenge. I burn, and I twist, and the rotor flies from its sheathe. They’re only a titanium-aluminum alloy, lined with a little kendrium. I’ve dismantled better. Like a stricken butterfly, the chopper falls from the sky. No more wop, wop, wop, thanks to my rotorectomy, it’s wopless. I put a hand on the undercarriage to slow its fall. This is how you don’t kill people. You can thank me by never pulling this shit again.
“Get him! Kill the bastard!”
And that’s when they shoot me in the back.
I don’t care if you’re Vanguard or Grond, 155mm caliber rounds hurt. A succession of them hurt like a son of a bitch. The smell of gunpowder is everywhere. It’s the smell of Hell -- I know because I’ve been there. Hell is gunpowder, pigshit, and cigarettes, dialed up to eleven.
I turn to face my attacker. Twenty feel tall, black angled metals, a robot based on the design of Darth Vader’s helmet. It’s silent as it walks - sound suppressors - the silence is unnerving, especially for its size. It ought to have a grander entrance. The robot’s an old design, styled for the modern age, an offshoot of the old Minuteman robots from the 80s. Its emblem grins at me. Finally, I recognize who these people are, and I scowl. Dragons of hate, a mutant hunting robot, the ultimate weapon against genetic progress. It belongs, as do the agents, to an outfit called Purge. The genetically pious, worshiping a false ideal, a false idol, of stable genetics. As if that were even possible, in a world flooded with mutagens and radiation zones.
I really don’t like these guys, these vandals of a phony virtue that inspires them to terror. Genetic purity, my ass, they don’t have any clue what they’re fucking talking about. They’re flat-earthers gone villain. The first time I met them was when they attacked Toronto in force several years ago. Man, that had been a mess.They’ve surfaced periodically, spreading misery in the name of their righteous chromosomes.
Killing children. Like the Children’s Crusade of history, but in reverse. Even lower than one of the greatest atrocities in history. Congratulations, boys. You’ve hit the big time of evil.
With a cry of pain and rage, my body becomes electric, a blue white-smear of shock. I materialize next to it, within punching distance. Hurriedly, I see the reloader whirring, spinning, getting ready to unleash its cargo. I shouldn’t be able to do this trick, but I tear at the kendium-laced cables to rip away the firing mechanism. It jerks, almost comically. It raises its clawed appendage to bear, glinting as though it was having an anime moment. Ding!
And I grab the claw in mid-swing, and with a grunt and a scream, I snap it into two pieces. It makes a sound like a car cruncher in action at the PNE. The robot should be dismayed. It isn’t. Not in its personality matrix, I guess.
This is only the start of my robot surgery. An arm is ripped off next, then the other arm, then a leg. It tumbles to the ground like a helpless spider. I rip off its head, then tear at the circuits like an angry muppet. Like Animal. I’ll deform the head! The electrical discharge should fry me, but instead it feels as warm as a happy puppy. A murder machine dies today. Purge loses again.
In the end, I turn to the men in the fallen helicopter, one of whom is trying to limp away. He’s the commander. He gave the orders. He spread fire and death over six city blocks. All just to kill one mutant kid.
You want mercy after you’ve murdered children? I drink in his fear like wine. It’s intoxicating, almost literally. I want to kill him. It would be a better world without the little hate-mongering shithead. Hundreds have died today; had they struck in prime time, it would have been thousands. In my city. My home.
Fucking hatemonger. The species should be lifting each other up; we should be supporting each other In our pain in this frenzied madness called life. Not burning city blocks, Not giving our souls to fear and hate. Not giving into the dragon within, not relying on weapons to be a man. Not electing dragons to high office. They just don’t get it! How often have I spilled my blood for these people? How many third degree burns, how many comas, how many nightmares? And they turn around and do this! They exalt the cruel to lofty heights, they hand them power, they surrender the lives of the poor and needy into their barbed fingers? I’m trying to fix things! Make the world a better place! I must be the biggest damn masochist alive.
Deep breaths Craig. Don’t lose it.
“P-please, Thundrax!” the man pleads again. “Please...”
Please let me make you a killer? he seems to ask. It’s as sobering a question as I’ve ever been asked, spoken or unspoken.
Deep breaths, Craig. Slow your heartbeat. Calm that Carson temper before all hell breaks loose. You are a WMD. Don’t detonate today. Before you add to the ruin of this city.
Of course, I don’t kill him. Instead, I turn his head to inspect the carnage. Then there’s a look of sick satisfaction on his face once more, and I want to kill him all over again. He’s proud of his handiwork. His grin is pure, unadulterated, evil.
How dare he! Again, it takes a physical effort to resist the call to wrath. How dare you! What the hell is wrong with you? What the Hell is remotely satisfying about today?
More deep breaths, Craig. More deep breaths.
Again, I barely win the battle against myself, against the storm god within. That petty, primal, vicious thing. The worst part is that no one would blame me if I lost it. Vengeance is vicious, especially when it’s justified.
I hear their voices all the damn time. When you’re so powerful, why do you show so much restraint?
As the police arrive and the commander’s led away, to say good-bye to the gene pool, amid the grief I feel in the sheer realization of the scale of death and ruin, I fight the urge to laugh. It’s sick, but I do. I want to laugh.
I’m still human. Once again, I’ve resisted the call to place the god first. The god is wrath, the human is mercy. And mercy won, even on a day of smoke and blood.
Is this justice, or justification, a voice asks me. Do you place your morality ahead of the dead?
No, I answer. I’m alive, and I didn’t lose myself. I did not lose control, I did not violate Craig Carson in my wrath. No enemies died. No flowers were crushed beneath my feet.
It’s so important to me that I don’t kill. When I was young and stupid and a sweet kid, it was the most important thing in the world. And now that I’m older and wiser and harder, it still heads my list. I didn’t age out of my compassion, I just understand the price we pay for it a little better.
I’m Craig Carson. The shoe salesman’s baby boy. Never a judge, jury, or executioner. Always striving to hold the lamp. Always lighting the way to a better future, lifting the fallen. Making cruel people decent, making decent people better, making good people great, and partnering with the great to ascend the heavens. You mustn’t fall. Too many people fall. They make themselves citizens of fear, and in accepting that dual citizenship, they diminish their homelands. I’m not one of them. I’m Canadian: pure Canadian. As the anthem says, we stand on guard for thee. Not me, thee. For the other. For each other.
It’s so hard not to give into the vengeful god within all of us, when we want to get our hands bloody. So damn hard. But the path of rage leads to people building charnalhouses. That’s what we need to prevent. Killing only lays the brickwork of that terrible holocaust. The fearful build walls and furnaces, but the great build towers. To see and appreciate the world, and to watch.
But what about that other Canadian icon? “If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies blow...”
America matters to me, as a close friend. But Canada is family. They hurt my family. These foreigners, these invaders.
Dammit, we are wardens. Not juries, not executioners: wardens. We stand on guard. But isn’t that the mission statement of this profession, to protect, to guard? Because, above all else... I am a protector. It’s the most important thing in the world, at least to me.
The fires ebb, and the crews arrive, the dead are counted, the media asks hard, necessary questions, and then it’s time for a tired, weary god to venture skyward, seven hundred leagues east back to Millennium. I’m wounded, but I’m intact, my mission is intact, my passions tempered, my soul bloodied and unbowed. No. not “and unbowed”, it’s “but unbowed”. Stupid Craig stupid. Get it right, Craig, you made too many mistakes today. You made the biggest one possible. You were late getting to the scene of a massacre, and people died...
The ambulances, the sirens, they scream at me. You failed, Craig Carson. Failed, failed, failed.
After an hour or so, the crying stops. You can only weep for so long. All tears ebb after a time. My eyes are calm, finally calm, and, flying above the great blue snake of the Saskatchewan River, I slow to sub-Mach speed, and drink in the scenery below: lakes and fields and faces full of wonder. Wonder, even for a schmuck like me. Damn, I love their faces. Damn, they’re worth dying for.
Well, one of these days..
Last edited by Thundrax; 06-08-2018 at 11:15 PM.
Re: War of the Dimensions
Author’s Note: The villain of the piece is a Pallas creation. To celebrate the game’s longevity, Cryptic put together a picture of Thundrax on the Great Wall of China. I guess because I’ve played the game a lot. I figured it deserved a short story, so this is it.
Off the Wall
And when I awoke – I guess I was sleeping – I was on the Great Wall of China.
How do I recognize it? And who the hell am I?
White suit. Spandex. Superhero, or a superhero cosplayer. Red gloves. A pointed sigil on my chest. I think it’s a maple leaf. Symbol of Canada.
Canada. Is that who I am? Justiciar?
Wait. That guy isn’t quite as muscle-bound as me. Man, those are serious triceps. And how do I even remember him?
“David,” I say. “David Burrell.”
I remember holding this costume for the first time, rough fabric against my fingers, saying that it was a tribute to him, my best friend. Best friend? Who does that make me?
“You dance great, Craig.” David tells me, as I held him in my arms. We were waltzing. David had just come out of the closet to me after twenty years – though I had suspected it almost from the beginning--- and I wanted to show him it didn’t matter. So I asked him to dance, and I didn’t blink. Boys of Summer was the tune, David’s choice, playing on a tinny AM radio in David’s apartment. I can see you, brown skin shining in the sun/ Walking real slow, smiling at everyone...
It was so cluttered we barely had room to dance. But he was so happy. His green eyes blazed.
“Brown skin? We’re the palest bastards ever,” I remark. I laugh, and he laughs too. It’s a relief. He was worrying needlessly. Fear makes us stupid. I’d never toss our friendship over a lifestyle choice. All I want is his happiness.
“Happiness is a solitary pursuit,” another voice says, whispers from the shadows, and there’s a throb in my temples. I frown.
I picture David’s face. He’d want me happy.
“No. He hates you for rejecting him.” the voice says. “David Burrell hates you.”
No, David’s like a second brother to me. The one I don’t argue with. He’s my brother in arms, still in the cluttered apartment, as the world dances around us. There’s not a drop of hate in him. Or even though we argue, in my other brother.
My other brother. Jack? Yes, Jack. The man who raised me.
But who am I?
“Do not remember.” the voice tells me. “Oblivion is a womb, warm and comforting, Stay within its confines. Live in the moment.”
It’s soft and assuring, and with a sob, I fall back into the comfortable. Any man would. The dance is forgotten. I perceive only the stiff breeze, and the rough stones beneath my feet, and— the explosion?
In the distance, I see a Mega-Destroid, a monolith of orange steel, tearing at the wall. Oh, what they could be, if Zerstoiten’s god was not given only to destruction. With a start, I jump, and I’m airborn. There’s a crack of thunder. It’s singing to me: Craig, it cajols me. A Scotish name for “rock”. If I’m Craig and the thunder’s singing to me….
“No. Ignore that, at once!” the voice snaps.
“But I’m needed...”
“NO!” a voice shouts from the sky. “You’re not allowed to gain a sense of yourself. Only the crudest impulses, those that lay at the bottom of your soul, are allowed. Begone, Craig Carson, and revel in your basest instinct, your reptile self.”
“Well, well,” I snap at the villain. He’s clad in black from head-to-toe, like Tolkien’s ringwraiths. A least he didn’t add red to his tacky ensemble. At least he’s not Zerstoiten. The pain in my head, the vertigo, identify him as a more metaphysical threat. “If it isn’t the Irrepressible Id. Man, I haven’t seen you for awhile. Not since the blu-ray release of that awful movie. So how’d you do it, Id? How’d you steal my memories? Did you jump me from behind? Catch me when my superego wasn’t looking?”
“No, you little fool. Your own failures let me in,” the Irrepressible Id proclaims. Fear trickles out of his voice. It’s a very personal darkness, exquisitely wielded by the demiurge. “Your closest lieutenants, joining the machine. Captain Adamant under assault from dreams. Your protégé, falling under the spell of a mass murderer. Failures.”
“Jinn, not reading the copy of the Bill of Rights I sent him,” I retort, as the memories come flooding back. They say the devil cannot abide mockery. “Jinn. What was I thinking?”
Memories. Of how bad the situation is at home. How badly I’m needed.
“That. And so much more. So many failures.” The walking horror movie smiles. “Your frustration let me in. And truth to tell, wasn’t it better when you forgot? When you just felt?”
“Goodbye, Id.” I say dismissively, brushing my arm in his direction.
“Sparrowhawk abandoned you to failure.” The Id tells me.
“Good-bye, Id.” I repeat. My eyes narrow at the remark. It wasn’t even remotely true, but that one hurt.
“Your days as the great savior are over. Summer is giving way to autumn storms. Razira and Peacemaker shall give themselves over to the machine, and you shall be able to do nothing to prevent their remaking. Your friend Ted will fall at the hand of his enemy. Ted, the son of your delusions.”
He’s firing on scattershot now. Just pushing buttons and seeing which will trigger a
response. He can only torment me if I let him.
I will not let him.
“Good-bye Id.” I finally snarl.
“So many deaths, Craig.” The Id grins. “Will Kostadin take your soul? What will godsblood do for the lich? How many lives will he take when he’s engorged by your power?”
None, I almost say, but no. Let him have the last word. No more replies. No more verbal sparring. The joust is done.
"And then there’s Jaye. He’ll die with your name on his lips, cursing.” he adds, thinking he’s twisting the knife.
I’ve had enough of this crap. The Id isn’t one of those villains you beat by punching, so I fly away, like the old hymn. I converge on the Mega-Destroid, who’s already engaged with a group of Chinese supers. A woman throws force field triangles at the monster; they make musical clangs when they strike him, that’s a new one. The human gong.
They shout something in Mandarin at me. I don’t understand it. But when I strike the Mega-Destroid and make a dent, that’s the universal language. They cheer.
I don’t recognize any of them – they’re not members of the Tiger Squad, but they’re happy to see me. Good. They’re my lift home. Because there had to be some reason the Id stranded me on the opposite side of the globe, as far away from my friends as possible. I’m being kept away from Millennium for a reason. I need to get back.
Me, Craig Carson. “Rock, the Rock’s son”, to translate it from the Scottish. I wonder if my parents realized the redundancy when they named me. It seems to fit my life like a glove.
The life of a costumed protector of the public good. A superhero. And Millennium can never have too many heroes, even “failures” like me.
And I’m not alone. Success is what happens when a multitude of failures refuse to give up.
Last edited by Thundrax; 05-02-2018 at 05:38 AM.
Re: War of the Dimensions
The Two Canadians
It's a long way to Tipperary. And it's a long way to Vancouver, at least from the Great Wall, where the Id stranded me. That was an adventure; every nerve in my body is feeling the effects of that fight. The Chinese fly me as far east as Vancouver, but I'm under my own power back to Millennium. I really don’t have time for distractions, but the RCMP catches me flying over Canada, and they flag me down.
“Craig, we’ve got a feral superhuman operating in Northern Ontario. Can you take a quick look?” they asked.
There's duty for you. I'm still wondering why the Id stranded me so far from home, what was going down in my absence. But you don't say no to the RCMP., Yep, they always get their man, especially when that man is me!
"Alright," I promise. "A quick look." A quick look in a wilderness as large as the Pacific Northwest and half the state of California combined.
“Sure, anytime.” I say. Because sometimes I’m not very smart. I guess I’ve got time for a quick sortie for queen and country.
My quarry is described as a naked wildman. The guy’s apparently got knives built into his arms – helluva a surgery. He’s on foot, in heavy woodlands with only a few dirt roads, so he only has about forty miles of range. He had an altercation with a camper. The guy got spooked by a stranger, shot him with a shotgun, and the bestial guy responded by disemboweling him and threatening his girlfriend. Mr. Shotgun’s in critical condition at a hospital in Sudbury – lucky to be alive, thanks to an evac helicopter – but Mr. Feral’s still on the loose. Apparently he got better from the shotgun almost immediately, and he shredded the shotgun with his claws as easily as if they’d been atom-thin blades. Short, Caucasian, hairy, with lynx-like tuffs in his hair.
And there he is. Thank you, sat cams. You make my rocking world go round. Six miles north of my position, going to high ground on foot. Densely muscled – attractive in an earthly sort of way. Weird hair. just as advertised. But yeah, short, just above five feet tall. Not that I make short jokes, not against potential killers.
A sonic boom, and I’m there in under five seconds. Thank you nuclear furnace that’s probably going to kill me soon, but which has boosted my powers.
I assume he can’t speak English, so I hold out a palm to ward him. He snarls, and there’s a snap and a click sound, as metal claws come jutting out of his flesh. Man, that looks painful.
“I don’t know why Hudson sent another flag-breath after me, but you can tell him for the last time that I ain’t joining up with him!” he snaps. I guess he can speak English. Good.
“I don’t know a Hudson, unless you’re a rogue employee of the Hudson’s Bay,” I quip, referring to a Canadian chain store. Keep it light, Craig. Get him to calm down. So far, everything he’s done – that you know about – was self defense.
“Well, good for you. Now, stay back! I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice,” he growls, as if it were a catch-phrase.
Great. I was given orders to bring him in. I’ve no reason to violate them, at least not yet.
“Look, I’d like to help you if I can…” I say. “It’s kind of the raison d’etre of the business. Helping people, protecting people. It’s even in the name.”
“I’m warning you for the last time, bub!” Adrenal rage is building in him, rage in his blue eyes. They’re actually a nice shade. If he was calm, he’d actually be handsome, except for the silly hair. And people made fun of me when I still had the old trademark mullet! “Back off!”
“I just want to talk,” I say, hands still held out to indicate peaceful intent. “Nothing more. No fighting.”
“Wrong answer, bub!” he says, as he lunges at me, claws extended.
Well, that went well.
I teleport behind him. “Settling things peacefully is never the wrong answer,” I quip, because I'm a quipper.
He lunges at me again, claws shining, reflecting the woods in their deadly curves. “I told you to shut your hole!” he snaps, lunging again. He’s fast. Not quite superhuman levels, but you can tell that he really knows how to fight. So much for diplomacy. Maybe I should have offered him some clothes.
“Sorry.” I say. “As I was saying, I'm not really a "shut your hole" kind of guy. I’m Craig. What’s your name?”
"Scott." By the smile on his face, I can tell he's lying. Probably a private joke.
With an animalistic snarl on his lips, and his body shining from sweat, the man swings at me again – way too close for comfort – and I teleport behind him. “What do you want me to do? I really don’t want to hurt you.”
“Bub, you won’t. These claws are made from the strongest material on earth. They cut vanadium steel like butter. My bones are laced with the stuff. You can’t kill me.”
“Lucky for me, I don’t kill. I wear the flag,” I say. “We’re peacekeepers, not warmakers.”
“That’s bullcrap,” he snaps, lunging again. I wonder why the obscenity was watered down. “Canada’s killed plenty of people. What about the Chinese working the rail lines? What about the Indians when the buffalo herds were slaughtered? What about the residential schools? What about the St. Louis?” he adds, referring to a boatload of Jews turned aside prior to the Second World War.
You know, for a pissed off savage, he’s awfully talkative. And he's correct on all accounts. There are plenty of skeletons hidden in the national closet.
“I’m trying to do better. I want to do better.” I tell him. “But I really can’t do better if you spill my guts all over the Canadian Shield now, can I?”
“Too bad for you, bub.” Mr. Claws says, his metal gifts flashing in the sun as he brandishes them at me. I teleport again – again in the nick of time. I give him a spark on his naked butt, just to let him know what I could do. He yowls, but doesn’t back down.
“You think this is a joke?” he snarls. For someone so short, man he has a deep voice. Growly too.
He’s sized me up, gotten my rhythm down. He’s this close to nailing me, and the Living Thunder that composes my skin is as inadequate a defense against those snickersticks as ordinary flesh and muscle. He was designed, by some obscene genius (probably like the people who made my clone) to kill.
So I change tactics. Assuming he’ll be in the optimum position to stab me, I teleport to one side, and snag a wrist.
I can practically smell the testosterone in his sweat. It’s rich, wild, and bracing. I can feel the housing where his claws are sheathed, cold hard metal, and his heartbeat. The latter is crazy-wild; he's having a real adrenaline rush. This guy’s out of control; he couldn’t act peacefully even if he wanted to. The adrenaline surge’s probably a built-in defense mechanism. He stabs me in the shoulder with his free hand; it hurts like hell but it’s only a grazing blow, it doesn’t sever the tendons. Good.
“That’s enough, lynx-head.” I snarl, referring to his hair. Like I should talk about hair, me and my mullet worn well after its time! I snag his other free wrist and ascend. Low speed, only a few hundred miles an hour. Don’t want to hit Mach speed with unprotected passengers, even superhumanly tough unruly ones.
“Let me go, or I’ll—”
I stop at 40,000 feet. Oxygen deprivation will hit him pretty quick at this altitude. I position myself so I’m taking the brunt of the Jetstream – it’s freezing up here – and I stare into his blue eyes. “I could take us to orbit. Let you asphyxiate on the edge of space." I had a clone who pulled that trick on me once. "But I’m not a killer. In fact, I'd like to avoid even being a maimer. I’m a sunshine and bunnies storm god sort of guy.”
“Good for you.”
“Plus, it's "be kind to naked guys" week. So calm down, and I’ll let you down.” I joke, and I descend to just over five miles. The air’s breathable here, though it’s still really thin and incredibly cold. “When you’re calm, I let you down gently.”
“And then I walk. Or we dance.” He growls.
“You nearly killed someone.”
“He shot me first. I was backing off, and he still shot.” The short smelly naked guy replied.
“What the hell were you doing all the way out here?”
“I was fighting Spi—, well this dame with six arms, and she opened a portal.” The man said.
“Dimensional transit. So you don't really belong here. And your clothes didn’t survive the trip?”
“Nope. And that was my favorite shirt, too!” the man mourned.
That’s dimensional travel for you. I guess he’s about as used to unintended nudity as me; if anything, he seems even more comfortable with it. “Well, give me a few minutes when I set you down, and I’ll find you some clothes.” I say. “Even if you did stab me.”
“Well, you were an ass,” he replies. “And I’m used to it, bub. Just because people call themselves heroes, it don't mean they don't fight. I've scrapped my friends plenty of times. Happens all the flippin' time.”
Are they truly your friend if you try to kill them? I cluck my tongue. “Has anyone told you that your world is really dumb?” I finally blurt. Hell, I never even took a swing at All-Star or Avenger!
He's about to retort something less than pleasant, but that’s when the Valrvn swoops overhead. “Are we interrupting a hot date, Mr. Carson?” Blue Cyclone asks me over the loudspeaker.
“No.” I answer bluntly.
“Wow, he’s my size!” Jinn remarks in the background. The man squirms from embarrassment.
"Why do I get the feeling he's really annoying," the naked man growls.
"Nah, Jinn's great," I reply. I mean it too, even if he rubs me the wrong way from time to time.
“Craig, we need you back in Millennium,” I hear Sparrowhawk say. Immediately I know it’s serious – she interrupted her leave of absence. “We've been trying to track you ever since the Id abducted you. There’s been an incident at Mercy Hospital. A major assault by some old familiars. The Progeny held them off, saved God knows how many people. Ballistic held the line. You’d have been so proud of them.”
“Those are great kids,” I shout back. “We’re coming aboard. Get this guy a blanket. I’ll drop him off with Silverback, and meet everyone back at the Barlowe…”
"So this is goodbye?" Mr. Naked Guy Having a Bad Hair Day asks.
"Sorry. I'd put you up myself," I say. "But I got work to do. Although I will do everything in my power to make sure you get home, That's a promise."
He looks me in the eye for a few seconds, as if judging my honesty. Then as much as he can do after a fight where he tried to kill me, he relaxes.
"Thanks bub," he finally says. "If you ever come to my world, look me up. Just watch out for enemies trying to jump me. I got a few."
"Why does that not surprise me?" I say and he laughs and laughs.
"You got no idea, pal." the stranger grins. "But if you do show up there, the beer's on me."
"Sounds good. Just don't make it Molson's. Or Labatt's," I tell him. He squirms a little uncomfortably. He must have more working class tastes than I. I'm a Guinness guy.
With our taste in beers established, I enter the familiar skies over Millennium and make a beeline for Cambridge and one very surprised ape. It was good to be back where I belonged.
Re: War of the Dimensions
Going to throw in a few old stories, just for kicks. Hope you enjoy them.
It Beats The Alternative
“Morning, Mr. Carson,” the security guard said, nodding his head slightly as the huge man walked toward the elevator. “Is everything okay, sir?”
“I’ve had worse days, Stan.” Craig replied, turning briefly to face the guard. Stan Wiebe was a bit of a fixture at the night shift at Flux-Carson, Thundrax’s company, an energy and mining firm. Stan was a reliable employee who liked the night shift. “Are the kids doing okay?”
“It’s flu season,” Stan answered. “Lynette’s home with both of the little monsters.”
“Ah,” Craig acknowledged. The rangy security guard grinned sheepishly and then turned his head as he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Craig caught a glint of a moving shape reflecting off steel and glass, rubbed his eyes, and...
“If the pipes burst, I’m not sure that the insurance will cover the flooding.”
When Craig finished rubbing his eyes, he gasped. He was no longer in the spacious lobby at Flux-Carson’s office in downtown Millennium City, towering over everyone in his superhuman Thundrax form that he wore most of the time. Instead, he was in his normal body, his Craig form, dressed in overalls, sitting next to a plumbing kit, apparently working on the kitchen drain in a house he didn’t recognize, while a woman in a housecoat with pink floppy bunny slippers yammered at him.
“Uh– what?” he said.
“The flooding,” the woman, a short Asian lady of Chinese ancestry told him curtly, then began yelling at a bawling infant in Cantonese. Even weirder, Craig could understand a few words of what she was saying.
Craig got to his feet and took in a deep breath. “Excuse me, Mrs. Fong,” he said, not realizing that he had correctly identified her by name. “I need to make a few phone calls.”
Mrs. Fong looked at him disparagingly. “Why do you need to do that?” she snapped. “The pipes.”
Craig sighed, even as he examined the surroundings in an attempt to get his bearings. “This will be off the clock, I promise,” he said. The sentence came easily to his lips, almost as if it had been a long-standing habit.
Craig ignored the woman’s angry glare as he reached into his pocket and picked out his StonePhone. He dialed a number, suspecting he wouldn’t be connected.
“UNTIL Command, Canada. Please speak your name, rank, and security code.”
“Craig Carson,” Thundrax answered. “Your average friendly neighborhood superhuman law enforcement lifer. Rank —Acting Captain. Security Code –this probably won’t work– Jack-Canada-Alpha-Twenty-Ravenclaw. Formerly of SUNDER, 1983-1992; formerly of the Northern Guard 1993-1998, formerly of Star*Force 2000-2004, currently freelance paranormal in the Millennium City, Michigan, USA.”
“Your voice print matches a Craig Alexander Carson,” the UNTIL operator says. “But you only have a Security-1 access, and no acting rank. You’re on the auxiliary list.”
“Auxiliary list?” Craig wondered. “That’s one hell of a demotion. I need to speak to Project Ourenos. My guess is that I’m either experiencing an illusory construct, a dimensional shunt, or a timeline fracture.” His voice was oddly calm as he casually discussed a phenomenon that was normally beyond human comprehension. Thirty years in the world of superhumans has that effect.
“You have no clearance for Ourenos. You shouldn’t even know about Ourenos.”
“I know!” Craig blurted, slightly irritated. “The fact I know about it rules out the hypothesis that my previous superhuman life was a lie. When was my last previous transmission to UNTIL?”
“September 12. 1995.”
“Am I dead?” Craig asked.
“Negative,” the operator said.
“The current date is...” Craig looked at the display on his StonePhone. “July 26, 2011. Nearly twenty years since his first team had broken up. He had spent a lot of years in the “trade”. Is that correct?”
“I can confirm that.”
It was the same date that he remembered from the lobby of Flux-Carson in Millennium City. So this isn’t time travel, he thought. Craig decided to ignore the implications of having not contacted UNTIL in sixteen years. A timeline where he lost his powers? Perhaps. He could always try to switch into his Thundrax body, but it would be better to find out more information first, just to make sure that choice wouldn’t be a mistake. If Thundrax had been killed years before and he’d somehow escaped by becoming human, transforming back into that body would be a fatal mistake.
“Okay!” Craig declared. “Just send a message to Ourenos’s operations officer. I guess I need to hope that a long inactive Canadian’s request for help won’t be beneath their notice. My apologies for the unusual nature of this request. Five minutes ago, I was in Millennium, with all of the UNTIL privileges of a Captain... It’s still Millennium City, right? Not Detroit?”
“Yes, Mr. Carson,” the voice informed him. “But your GPS identifies your current location as Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.”
“Back in my old body, in my old hometown,” Craig responded. “I’m even in my old job, plumbing.”
"Mr. Carson, there’s a situation in Toronto that requires my attention.”
“Understood,” Craig answered, rubbing his side. “Good luck. Wish my old teammates on UNITY well.”
“There are no records of you serving with UNITY.”
“Figured that. Good luck anyways.”
“Good luck to you, too, Mr. Carson.”
Craig shut off the phone and did a quick vanity search on wikipedia. Thundrax. Member of SUNDER. Founding member of the second Northern Guard. Quit the team in 1995, shortly after the battle against VIPER where they met Dr. Nexum for the first time. Unlike in his familiar timeline, his identity was never putted by a lunatic UNTIL commander. The true identity of Thundrax remained a mystery that absolutely no one cared about. Just another third rate, retired super.
The next step was to check on Flux-Carson Enterprises, his corporate interests, and the Carson Foundation, his charity. Neither existed. Flux, his old SUNDER teammate, was still retired and running his small, very profitable, mining company, which (back in the “real world”) Craig had taken over and expanded. Using another SUNDER alumni, an earth elemental named Elemmus, to prospect for petroleum reserves and rare earths had made them richer than Craig imagined possible, fueling the billions that the Foundation granted to worthy causes every year. Here, though, the Foundation disbanded in 1995, and its much smaller charitable operations were taken over by a division of Doerksen Tech, run by Craig’s old Northern Guard teammate Forceknight.
“Are you ever going to finish my sink?” Mrs. Chow complained shrilly.
Craig, feeling as exasperated and as beaten as he would have against any supervillain, put away the StonePhone and finished working on his plumbing. It had been two decades since he last worked with his brother in Carson Plumbing, but he found the work familiar and oddly satisfying. A few minutes later, after installing a new fitting, he looked up at Mrs. Chow and said happily: “Job’s done. You have a two year guarantee on labor, and a ten year guarantee on parts. Sorry about the wait.”
Mrs. Chow sighed and signed the invoice. Craig scanned her credit card, completed the transaction, and departed. Checking his GPS, Craig saw they were somewhere on East 37th. About four miles from home. He made up his mind to return, quickly canceled his four remaining appointments for the day, and returned to his house.
2651 Turner Street In the timeline he identified as his own, his old family home had been blown up by Deathclown, the self-proclaimed “Just for Laughs Icon of the 90s”, after his secret identity had been outted, and had never been rebuilt. Except that in this reality, his secret had never been leaked and Deathclown was now performing his sideshow act in Stronghold North, thanks to Ravenspeaker. Good ol’ Billy, Craig told himself. He wondered if Ravenspeaker was back in Vancouver, or still stuck in the North near Steelhead and the Cat’s Cradle.
The drive home was an eerie experience for two reasons. First, it impressed on Craig how little driving he had done lately, since he left the political career he never had, he had never done anything except fly or let other people do the driving. Second, the avenues were full of ghosts. He hadn’t been back to his old Turner Street neighborhood in a very long time. Some of the houses were gone, replaced by commercial properties as rezoning took its toll on the old neighborhood, but enough was intact for Craig to experience a strong case of deja vu. Part of this timeline seemed familiar to him – he didn’t know what he was about to face, but Craig supposed that once he got there, things would fall into place as seamlessly as they had with Mrs. Chow. That thought scared him. Suppose this was an assimilating timeline – the more he got in touch with the timeline as it happened here, the harder it would be to extricate himself?
Craig parked on the side of the road and did a little more fact checking. Thank God for the internet. It wasn’t just for porn. The world was still intact, so clearly someone else stepped up on those occasions when he was involved in saving the planet, but what about those other times? Did his absence make an impact?
Craig looked up a few more events on his StonePhone. Flight 164, which he’d saved in 1999? Crashed. 126 people lost their lives. 2002 building collapse in Toronto? 29 people. Mega-Destroid incident in Millennium? 41 dead, four of them heroes, including two of his closest friends.
“Damn,” Craig shook his head as he processed the consequences of his absence. Probably over a thousand people over the course of his career directly owed their lives to Craig, and that’s not including the impact on their families, or the lives that had been changed for the better by the charitable work of his Foundation.
Armed with a better knowledge of the stakes, Craig returned home, determined to solve the problem – only to stop short when he saw a pack of kids playing road hockey in his driveway. His youngest son Raj, proudly sporting a Trevor Linden jersey, was showing off again, stickhandling past his friends and making a beautiful shot into the corner of the net. The kids cheered (and jeered) and traded taunts in Punjabi – Raj’s friends, like Raj’s mom, were Indo-Canadians, proud of their Sikh heritage. Raj was twelve, but he looked closer to fifteen, combining the size of the Carsons with the graceful, natural athleticism of the Dhaliwals. He was the best athlete at his school and he knew it.
“Dad!” Raj shouted, switching to English. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
Craig stood at the edge of the driveway and stared at the boy, mouth open slightly. He couldn’t bring himself to speak.
“Dad?” Raj asked. “You having a stroke?”
Craig shook his head, still staring at the son he never had. He could feel his heart pound in his chest to a drumbeat he never imagined he’d experience. The teens continued to shout at each other in Punjabi, which Craig didn’t know how to speak, except he was now completely fluent in the language.
“I’m okay,” he finally said. “Don’t break a window,” he added; he wasn’t really sure what parents were supposed to say, but it sounded parental.
“Only sucky Bruins break windows!” Raj yelled back, referring to the team that beat the Canucks in the recent Cup finals. They had replaced the Black Hawks as the team to rag on.
Craig tried to remain collected as he entered his house, but what he saw shook him to his core. The house that had been destroyed fifteen years earlier, suddenly restored to life – and then aged a decade and a half: its thin 90s carpeting had been replaced by wood laminates, there was a different chesterfield, colorful curtains that reflected his wife’s ethnic heritage, and the house smelled of curry: strong and bracing. Over a tinny AM radio, the sound of World Music could be heard, a howling female voice singing in Punjabi to the relentless beat of tambourines.
“Craig!” Manjita Carson exclaimed, coming out of the kitchen. Dressed in a frilly blue skirt and a modest yellow top; her skin was a healthy bronze-brown, and she was as slender as a woman in her mid-30s who had two kids could reasonably expect to be. “What are you doing home so soon? What did you forget this time?”
Craig stared at his wife as another flood of vivid yet false memories crashed into his skull. It had only been a month after he left the Guard that he found her, abused by her first husband. He fought so hard to get her out of that marriage, fought even harder to win her affections, and the fight to reconcile with her family – that was the hardest of all, and still ongoing (at least with her grandparents, though they loved the kids). Those had been the hardest struggles of his life, harder than fighting against Borealis or Firewing or Mechanon, but they were worth it. He couldn’t help but smile at the discovery of an unexpected true love.
“What’?” Manjita questioned the dreamy look on her husband’s face.
“I...” Craig’s attention was diverted to the issue at hand. How do you say that? How do you possibly tell someone you love that you’re really a long-retired superhero and that their entire life, including their children, is a lie, a timeline gone astray or an illusion? “We need to talk.”
“Then talk.” Manjita said. “What is it, Craig?” She was clearly sensing that something was wrong. Craig could see the wheels already turning in her head.
“It’s something that happened years ago, before I met you,” Craig stammered. Damn, this was hard, “It’s nothing to do with you, but I have to deal with it.”
“Dad’s a bigamist!” Raj said, peering his head through the front door. “Is she at least hot?”
“Shut up, Raj,” JJ, his eldest son, snorted, appearing at the doorway near the bottom of the stairs. He was shorter than Raj and stockier, somewhat resembling Craig’s brother Jack, after whom he was named. Always dressed in black from head to toe, the coke bottle glasses he wore gave him an artsy appearance. Punjabi goth, he liked to call himself, and unlike his brother, he wore a turban and had rejected Craig’s Christian faith in favor of the Sikh religion. He was smart, quiet, and introspective, almost the polar opposite of his hyperactive brother.”This is serious,” he insisted.
“Raj, tell your friends to go home, now.” Manjita snapped.
“Hey guys, dad’s having an affair and mom wants you all to go away so she can yell at him.”
“Raj, cut it out or I’m beating the crap out of you!” JJ, who was smaller despite being a year older, had always been far more serious than most kids his age, and was also capable of handling himself when things got rough, including against his brother. It was not an empty threat.
“JJ, Raj, cut it out!” Craig snapped. “No one’s fighting. But you’d better send the boys home. You call all be Alex Burrows some other time,” he insisted, referring to the pesky Vancouver Canucks star. The drama subsided with the disgruntled future NHL superstars returning to their respective homes and JJ and Raj staring daggers at each other.
“Craig, now that you’ve upset the entire neighborhood, what’s this about?” Manjita asked. “And I want answers.”
“Do we have a brother or sister we don’t know about?” Raj smirked.
“No, but we could put you up for adoption,” JJ snapped back.
“Please...” Craig said, sighing heavily. “I really don’t know where to start, and this is just making it tougher.”
“Now you’re scaring me,” Manjita said. “Craig, you’ve told me about your parents and your brother. What could you have held back from us that would be any worse than what your dad did to you?”
The conversation was suddenly interrupted by the blare of a familiar klaxon, albeit one that Craig had never heard before. Vancouver’s citywide supervillain alert. The pungent beat of the World music station was stilled for a minute, replaced by a warning in Punjabi and English. Yep, a supervillain alert alright. Third in the last month. All residents were instructed to avoid the Greyhound/train terminal on Main until further notice.
“All the way downtown,” Raj said. “As usual.”
Craig shook his head, and the room did a collective gasp.
“Dad, you’re not—” JJ stammered.
Craig sighed. The call was inexorable. But not this time, not for once.
“You gonna do a magic trick for us, dad?”
“Yes,” Craig replied. The biggest one I got, he might have added. He figured this wouldn’t kill him – if Thundrax had died in the line of duty, he’d have remembered a memorial, at least. He was willing to take the risk. “Now stand back as far as possible.”
I hope this doesn’t kill me, he added to himself. The three finally took a step back. “A little further,” Craig added. They did so, and then the thunder sang.
Craig Carson closed his eyes and tried to mentally get in touch with the Storm, the primal Storm of the world, that battered the planet in the days before mankind. It was very hard to reach now, as if he really had been out of touch with the living thunder for over a decade. He struggled and strained for a few seconds, agonizing seconds when he thought the storm would never come – but then there was a rush of wind, and a triumphant roar of thunder, and a flash of lightning that blew out every fuse in the house. The weak body of Craig Carson was gone, replaced by something far greater.
Craig felt young and strong again, and heard the storm singing to him, a distant drum. He looked down upon his hands, and they were mighty. And young, as if he hadn’t aged a single day in twenty years. Because he hadn’t. Not in this body. Time, not even a day, did not weather him for so long as he wore the Gift.
Manjita’s jaw hung open, as did Raj’s. JJ gave a slow nod – did he suspect? Craig had never shared that secret with him.
“Dad!” Raj gasped. “You’re buff!” He looked over Thundrax’s old school blue and gold skintight costume. “And gay!”
Craig removed the mask he hadn’t worn (at least in the real world) in sixteen years. It used to feel so comfortable, but now it was stifling. His friends from the other world would no doubt be horrified by the absence of his trademark mullet. “Raj!” Thundrax sharply stated in a tone that was familiar to his kids, despite it being spoken at a lower register. “How many times have warned you about casual homophobia? You’re grounded.” He paused to think. “Now where were we…”
“Grounding Raj,” JJ replied without missing a beat.
“And getting some answers.” Manjita finally added. “Are we in danger? Is that why you became that thing?” It seemed to Craig, looking into his wife’s huge brown eyes, that she had a different thought. Why didn’t you tell me?
“I certainly owe you those,” Craig admitted, “And no, you’re not danger. I almost wish it were that simple.”
“Dad, what is all this?” Raj said, ignoring (for now) the proclamation of his grounding. “When did you become a superhero?”
“Don’t you know anything?” JJ scoffed at his younger brother. “That’s Thundrax. Old time Vancouver superhero.”
“Costumed protector of the public good,” Craig corrected, out of force of habit. He hated the word “superhero” in both timelines, believing that a hero is produced by a man’s deeds, not his suit. As usual, his kids rolled their eyes.
“He was with the old SUNDER team back in the 80s and also joined the Northern Guard for a year before he retired. Hasn’t been seen since around the mid-90s.”
“Ancient history,” Raj snapped back with a defensive huff, tugging slightly on his jersey. “Besides, the only superhero worth following is Lion Khalsa,” he added, referring to the controversial Sikh vigilante who had waged war on crime in Vancouver for the last ten years. If the situation weren’t so serious, Thundrax would have protested the lack of respect from his son.
“Craig, what isn’t so simple?” Manjita said.
“I am so texting this to Gurhan!” Raj said.
“Do that and you put us all in danger,” JJ snarled at his brother. “And I’ll break your fingers.”
“Hey!” Raj objected, though he quickly put away his cellphone.
“Raj, I need you to hold off. Just this once, keep this to yourself.” Craig turned to his wife.”Manjita, you know that a life as a superhero gets pretty crazy. That’s why I walked away from it.”
“What kind of crazy?” Manjita asked.
“The craziest.” Thundrax said, rubbing his sides. “It’s as though I’m running my life on two tracks at once. One of them is real, the other isn’t. In one reality I left the Guard in 1995 and retired from the supers business, met you, and raised this family. In the other, I didn’t leave the Guard and went on to a career with a lot of teams, then in politics, and then in business, as well as remaining a super.”
“You were successful in all of those?” JJ wondered
“Somewhat,” Craig said. “The political career kinda sucked, but I spent six years in Parliament.”
“Seems to me that’s the fake one,” JJ replied. “Politician, businessman, major superhero? Come on! This sounds like a villain giving you a wish fulfillment fantasy. It’s classic comic book. Of the two realities, which is the more believable one? This one.”
"Dad, you have got to be kidding.” Raj added, biting his tongue as he was about to use a much stronger word. “For one thing, no one can fake someone as awesome as me. And for another...” He paused for a second and completely abandoned his argument as another thought came to mind. “Dad, if you’re a superhero, does that mean we can all become supers too?”
“Don’t think so,” Thundrax said.
“Craig?” Manjita said slowly. “What do you intend to do?”
“Find out the truth. And set things right.”
“What if we’re both true?” JJ asked.
Craig sighed. It wasn’t impossible that both realities were real, rather than the Familyverse being the illusion, Craig could be the linchpin holding everything together. Alternate realities were almost as big a headache as time travel. “I need to find out first. JJ.” Craig said.
“Dad, you can’t be serious,” Raj said. “You know we’re the real ones, right?”
“Raj, my memories of this timestream are a lot hazier,” Craig answered. “It’s as though my memories of this timestream – and you guys – are being superimposed on the real ones.”
“Dad, take it from the superhero fanboy geek,” JJ stated. “Here’s what really happened. Some old villain from your past targeted you. Maybe Thorn or Brainstorm or one of the other telepaths you faced in the old days. Or maybe one of your old enemies hired one of the newer telepaths, like Menton or Headspace.”
“Okay,” Craig said, agreeing it was a plausible scenario.
“He or she telepathically finds out your identity. He then gives you amnesia, and telepathically superimposes an alternate timeline to manipulate you, and when you start remembering the real one, it feels like it’s a fake. The resulting turmoil tears your life apart, and wham! Revenge! Served slow and twisted! It’s a believable scenario.”
“Huh?” Raj said in response to his brother’s hypothesis.
“I don’t think so, JJ.” Thundrax stated. “But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. In the supers business, not many things are.”
Manjita sighed, finally breaking a long, contemplative silence. Pursing her lips slightly, in a tone that seemed as reluctant as Craig’s at the start of the conversation, she said “Craig, I trust you to do the right thing. That’s what you’ve always done. But your first responsibility is to this family. To the promise that you made to me when you rescued me from—” she hesitated to say the name. “To the promise.”
Craig had no words for that. How do you tell someone who loves you that you never made the most important promise of your life? This is insane, Craig thought, and he tried to focus on those who he saved in the other reality. No, in the actual reality. He couldn’t afford to accept this.
“You’re all crazy!” Raj spat.
“Dad’s grown six inches and put on a hundred pounds of Schwarzenegger,” JJ retorted. “This may be crazy, but it’s fricking real.”
“How do you intend to look into this?” Manjita asked.
Craig pondered for a second. “The timelines diverge in 1995, right around the Guard’s battle with VIPER and Dr. Nexum. Something happened at that time that caused this. Justiciar’s the most accessible member of the old Guard. I’m going to see him and find out what went down.”
“Uh dad,” Raj asked. “Isn’t this kind of short notice? What makes you think a bigshot like Justiciar is going to want to see you?”
“When I’m like this, your old man has a way of getting into the places he wants to go,” Thundrax answered, pointing to himself. “Don’t worry. I’ll get my answers and come home.” He moaned as the logistics of the situation occurred to him. “I guess I’ll have to cancel tomorrow’s appointments,” he said with a sigh, and then he realized this was only the beginning of his logistical problems. “I’ll have to fly under my own power. Man, I hate these long cross-country trips.” Craig knew they didn’t have a lot in savings to waste on a plane trip – a far cry from the wealth he was used to enjoying, and the transporter credits he had with UNTIL for these sorts of emergencies – and the four hours it’d take him to fly from Vancouver to Toronto wouldn’t’ t be a picnic.
“But dad, what happens if we’re the lie? You rewrite the last fifteen years?” JJ asked. “You’re going to just snuff us out?”
Craig paused, a sick feeling in his stomach. “JJ, an awful lot of people are dead in this timeline who should be alive. Thousands. Looking at you, I could trade this timeline for the real one in a heartbeat. But keeping you alive while others have suffered and died... I can’t do that. If you could trade your life for the lives of a thousand people, would you make that trade?”
“It would suck,” JJ said.
“Crazy,” Raj said. “You’re both frigging crazy!” he spat and stormed out of the room. With a nod, JJ followed his brother, muttering something about keeping Raj from acting even more like Raj than usual.
Manjita turned to Craig. Now that they were alone she could finally speak her mind freely. “I should curse you,” she said, the emotional wounds fully visible at last. “You never told me. How could you not tell me?”
“I honestly don’t know why I didn’t,” Craig replied. He knew the accusation was coming, and it was deserved, but it still hurt worse than a gut punch from Grond. “I might have had a good reason. Or maybe I was a coward. Maybe I was just running. I didn’t run from villains, but I have been known for not facing up to my personal demons all the time.”
“I have noticed,” Manjita concurred and the disquiet that had come over her deepened even further. “You know Craig, it’s hard to think of myself and my entire life – our life – as an illusion.”
“Trust me, it’s hard for me too,” Craig answered. “But you existed before 1995. Therefore, you must exist in the other timeline,” he speculated.
“I see,” Manjita’s expression darkened. “I remember my life before you came. It was not pretty. You took me away from the living hell that was my marriage to Bindi. I don’t even want to think about what my life would have been without you.”
“I have to believe that any woman who’s had the strength to keep me on course for fifteen years would have the strength to escape,” Craig said.
“But Raj and JJ will be gone,” Manjita stated. “At best, they’ll be different children, with a different father.”
“I know,” Craig sighed, avoiding looking directly at his wife as he said it. “I’m sorry.”
Manjita shook her head, waves of frustration coming out. “What did we do to deserve this? What did they do? Craig, the strange thing is that this...” and she poked him in his chest. “...doesn’t really surprise me. You’re a superhero. You’ve always acted like one, always had that code. What was it JJ once called you? A paladin?”
“That bloody game,” Craig muttered, not entirely approving of his son’s pastime of Dungeons and Dragons.
“That’s beside the point. The numbers Craig, the numbers. You’ve always pushed yourself – and us – justifying that we have to do the greatest good for the greatest number, hosting dinner parties we couldn’t afford, working for the causes.”
“I thought you were my partner in this.” Craig responded. “You’ve worked harder than I have for the issues we care about…”
“So many people need help!” Manjita said, repeating a phrase that Craig used so very often.
“They do!” Craig insisted. “And it was always for the things we both believed in. But most of it was you. I’ve seen you push yourself in ways I never could.”
Manjita started to cry. “Craig, I can’t play numbers with my children! A thousand lives for my children? I’d take that trade in a heartbeat. A million? I’d take that one too.”
Craig instinctively grabbed her and held her. She bristled for a few seconds, but quieted, her body softly sobbing in his arms, gentle spasms softly embraced in his Herculean grip. “Manjita, JJ might be right. This may be the real thing. If it isn’t, and the worst happens, I’ll find you. I promise. I’ll find you. I’ll meet you again for the first time.”
Craig Carson released the embrace, and then bent down and kissed her. She looked so small, he thought, keeping in mind that Thundrax was much taller than Craig. Then, tears streaming down both of their cheeks, Craig walked out to the backyard patio, quickly accelerated to about 200 mph –- fast enough that neighbors wouldn’t notice the blue blur, climbed to an altitude of 20,000 feet, hit Mach 1 and went hurtling eastward to Toronto.
He could feel the Living Thunder inside him sing, ecstatic to be used after so long. Craig ignored that feeling. There were too many other emotions welling inside him.
It was a relatively uneventful flight, though Craig expected that Transport Canada was probably going to try to corner him at some point and give him a lecture about transcontinental flights at speeds exceeding the sound barrier. A news story he’d looked up on the Internet placed Justiciar in Toronto. It was not his favorite city: in his accustomed timeline, despite living there for years during his Guard and Starforce days, he wasn’t a native son, and plenty of Torontonians had let him know that over the years, especially in the mayor’s office.
David Burrell, Justiciar, however, was a different story. During the first adventure of the Guard, the attack of the Gadroon in Northern Canada, they were sidetracked into investigating the smuggling of Gadroon technology, which led them to the lair of a villain named Cyberlord. Justiciar, one of his experiments in cyborging, had been held in stasis for a decade. In the conflict between the Guard and Cyberlord’s mercenaries, Justiciar was accidentally released; recognizing Forceknight’s costume, he immediately joined the heroes and fought fearlessly at their side. From the moment they first met, Craig knew the man was something special. He and David became close friends almost immediately. It had been less than two years since Craig had lost Jack in the destruction of Detroit, and David entered Craig’s life at precisely the right time, assuming a surrogate role in place of his big brother. For his part, Justiciar leaned on the big Vancouverite as a trainer, sparring partner and a confidante, appreciating his intelligent conversation, his love of adventure, competitiveness and dry sense of humor. Anyone who knew them could have guessed they’d be a natural fit as best friends, to the point where some people made snickering jokes about them, the David and Jonathan of the superhero set. Craig couldn’t fathom any circumstance that could set them at each other’s throats.
Craig intended to drop in at Burrell Industries and visit David in his office, but it was evening when he arrived in the great lakeside metropolis, so he turned his attention to the large lump of iron that Celestar had landed in Toronto years ago that was now Starforce headquarters. He’d never be allowed through the concealed hatch or the vehicle bays, and that only left the main concourse. The exterior entrance was well-lit; as he approached a recording of Justiciar’s voice shouted through a loudspeaker:
"Target identified as Thundrax. Do not move. You have no authorization for entry.”
“Kivioq! Bob!” Craig shouted at the loudspeaker, knowing that both the base’s and Justiciar’s personal AIs could hear him. “Emergency code: Assiniboine-24-Finger” Hopefully, the change in worlds didn’t affect the code.
“Emergency code accepted,” the AI said. However Bob wasn’t a stupid AI and had some discretion built into his protocols. “Additional query required. Explain how you came to have this code.”
“That’s a long story,” Craig answered. “It’s an educated guess based on the knowledge of that code for this base in an alternate timeline. I guessed the code would remain the same here.”
“Explanation is beyond acceptable perimeters.”
“Look. Just tell David to get his shiny chrome butt out here.” Thundrax stated. “Or if he’s not here, give me lodging for the evening. You can inform Dust Devil that I’m challenging him to an arm wrestling match for his room. Or something.”
Craig was expecting Bob to correct him, and tell him that Justiciar’s cyborging had left his buttocks mostly intact, but the AI decided to drop the argument. A couple of minutes later, Justiciar came out, accompanied by Prism Girl (in all seven of her colorful forms). “Craig?” he said, gasping in amazement. The change in timelines hadn’t seemed to have worn on Justiciar’s appearance. Some suspected that his periodic hibernation cycles preserved his youth, or perhaps he had the Dick Clark gene. In any event, David Burrell was the same as he ever was, a craggy yet boyish face which more often than not, bore a toothy grin, and a scraggly scruff of reddish-blond hair, the sort that Italian mothers loved to muss. His eyes were wide open in amazement, a sight Craig wasn’t used to seeing, given how eternally composed the Canadian champion seemed to be.
“Hello from Vancouver,” Craig smiled back, waving sheepishly. A flood of memories had come back to him the moment when he first saw David. He remembered a very embarrassing drunken brawl at Forceknight’s wedding. He remembered a couple of times when Justiciar had called him on the telephone and Craig angrily hung up on him. But he didn’t remember the quarrel that caused such an unexpected rift between Craig and someone he considered to be among his closest friends.
“Hello from Toronto,” David replied, smiling. “Uh – are you okay? Why on earth are you here Craig?”
“Looking for some answers. Look, Kathy,” he turned to Prism Girl. “I promise I won’t try to kill the boss. Could I just have a few moments of privacy? I have a feeling this is going to rehash some stuff that happened a long time ago, and there’s no reason for you to get mixed up in this.”
All seven Prism Girls squinted and gave Craig a dirty look. “How do you know my name?” three of them asked, two simultaneously.
“Educated guess,” Thundrax answered, telling himself he needed to be more careful with knowledge gleaned from the other timeline. It didn’t help that Craig had once been quite intimate with the free-spirited Greek-Canadian heroine. “Don’t worry,” Craig said, almost blushing at that memory. “Your secret is safe with me, scout’s honor.”
“Go on, PG,” Justiciar told his teammate. “This conversation is long overdue.”
Prism Girl nodded and returned inside the headquarters. Craig turned back to Justiciar. “First, what little I remember of our last few conversations in this timeline aren’t very pleasant. I’m sure I was an ass. I want to apologize.”
“Accepted,” Justiciar said without hesitation. “You just used the word ‘timeline’. Do you know how many alarm bells that sets off?”
“Yeah, sixty,” Craig answered back. “David, one moment I was in Millennium City, in my corporate office, in a reality where I never left the Guard until we all broke up in ‘98. Next thing I know, I’m a plumber in Vancouver in a reality where I left the team in 1995 and retired from superheroing completely. Something happened that caused it.”
“Craig, you don’t remember?”
“Nope. Memory of that time is foggy. But the timelines diverge there. The last thing I remember clearly in both timelines was our fight against VIPER, the first time we faced Dr. Nexum.”
“That’s not what caused you to quit,” Justiciar stated. “It was what happened right after that one. Our fight with Professor Alternative.”
“Alternative?” Thundrax said, incredulous. “The joke villain? The one who wanted us to experience alternate lifestyles, so he shot us with a gay ray?” Thundrax almost burst into laughter.
“Yeah, that’s the one.” Justiciar said, glumly.
“I don’t remember what happened in this timeline,” Craig explained. “In mine, he seemed to think that ray would increase our libido as well as change our orientation.” He shook his head. “All we did is look at each other funny and tell bad jokes at Alain’s expense after the effects wore off.” Alain was, of course, their teammate Voyageur, who fashioned himself as something of a lady’s man.
“It was more than that, Craig.” Justiciar said. “I guess in this timeline, the “gay ray” was a little more powerful. Things got out of hand. Then Ann saw us and came to the wrong conclusion.” Ann was his teammate Snowblind, Craig’s first crush. “She ran off, presumably to clear her head, got captured by Tilingkoot, who sacrificed her to bring back Kigatilik, who then went on a rampage. Over nineteen hundred people died in Vancouver.”
“Huh?” Craig stammered. Unlike the other times things had been described to him, the memories did not come flooding back. How could he not remember something like that? He should have at least remembered seeing the memorials.
“The only way we could stop Kigatilik was to drop a building on him. Forceknight was down, so I was in command. I ordered you to do it and you did. And it worked. We stopped Kigatilik long enough for Billy to use his Haida spirit magic and banish him back into the Frost Tomb.”
Craig took a deep breath. “A lot of people died, David,” he said. “I can understand why I was upset, but quitting for sixteen years? Turning my back on all my friends?”
“The building you – we– dropped on Kigatilik was an office tower. They hadn’t finished evacuating and we knew it. But we were desperate, spent, we’d given everything we had, Celestar had shown up and almost turned the tide, but Lon wasn’t really battle-ready, and he went down.
“In 1995? So soon after his nervous breakdown?” Craig noted. “Yeah, Celestar wasn’t in shape for that fight.”
Justiciar continued. “A whole platoon of UNTIL troops had been wiped out, and the Justice Squadron were off planet. You, me, Billy and Augury were all that stood between Kigatilik and the complete annihilation of Vancouver. But there were still over a hundred people inside that building. Over fifty of them died when you toppled it, and more were injured for life.” Craig’s jaw dropped. “That’s why you quit. You surrendered yourself to the authorities, asking them to press manslaughter charges, but it was 1995. People were on edge because of the Quebec referendum. The federal government feared a major supers scandal, surrounding a team sponsored by the government of Canada, would give the pro-sovereignty forces the push they needed to divide the country. So the incident got buried. Everyone thinks Kigatilik was solely responsible for those deaths, and they’re not wrong. Pretty much everyone from Prime Minister Chretien down to the Red Ensign told you to keep your mouth shut for the good of the country.”
Craig took a deep breath.”Damn.”
You always took a hard line on not killing people.” Justiciar said. “Even more than I did. You couldn’t continue after that. Ravenspeaker and I both quietly kept an eye on you over the years. I kept hoping you’d get over it. Every time I tried to reach out to you...”
“That I remember,” Thundrax answered. “Man, it feels weird. David, I remember you as being probably my closest friend for years. Any reality where we are not good friends just has to be, well, wrong.”
“So how much do you remember about this reality?” Justiciar asked. Craig could hear the slight buzz of the cyborg’s diagnostics cycle kicking in, a noise that most who knew David Burrell were familiar with.
“Enough that the people I know exclusively here matter to me. Especially my family.”
“You never married?” Justiciar wondered.
“I’m engaged to a beautiful and wonderful lady,” Craig answered. Sarah. There was another reason to get back home, a big one, he might have added. “No kids as far as I know, except for a clone who shares part of my DNA.” He shot David a long look. If it hadn’t been for him, Cord would be dead, and so would everyone whose life he saved in the future.
“Sounds like you don’t have much choice, Craig.”
“It’s not that simple,” Thundrax admitted. The weird thing is, I’m happy here. Really really happy. Being a dad and watching the little sperm banks grow into honest-to-god men is just absolutely incredible. Coming home from a day at work with regular hours, talking with Manjita about her volunteer work, being an elder at the church, watching you guys on the tube and making snide comments about Dust Devil’s costume...” Both men chuckled. “I didn’t think the ordinary life could feel this good. I’m wondering if I’m in a mental construct.”
“The old “perfect life” trap?”
“I wish Alan Moore had never written that comic book, too many low-grade hypnotists have plagiarized that plot,” Craig stated, referring to a classic Superman story involving a hallucinatory reality. “But I’ve been in plenty of illusions. So far this one seems remarkably consistent, there are no glitches in the passage of time, and I don’t feel a telepathic presence: that vague sense I’m being watched. Of the high-grade telly-tubbies that I know, Superior doesn’t do illusions, Menton’s holed away in Stronghold, and I’m hardly a priority target for Mentalla and Eurostar. Nor am I at the top of PSI’s hit parade.”
“That leaves Professor Alternative,” Justiciar speculated. “If he’s the key, then it’s more likely some of his crazy
“If it is, he’s outdone himself,” Craig mused, folding his arms and laying the palms of his hands on his biceps. “An alternative timeline certainly fits his MO, but this is several orders of magnitude above anything he’s done before. And last time I heard, he was out of action. He tried to use a “sensitivity gun” on the Crucifixion of Crime, only to find out the damn thing didn’t work on hardcore sociopaths. The man responded by breaking every bone in his body.”
“That’s what happened here, too. Crucifixion’s a real piece of work. You couldn’t pay me enough to live in Hudson.” Burrell spat as he mentally accessed the Starforce database. “Okay. Kivioq says that his injuries occurred five years ago. That’s enough time for even the Crucifixion’s brutality to heal – mostly. Alternative’s real name is Dr. Miles Walstrom. His parole officer’s report mentions he’s employed in a villain rehabilitation program at FutureScope in Millennium City. I have a home address.”
“I’ll take it,” Thundrax said. “Thanks.”
“2692 Grand River. Apartment 226. And anything for you, Craig,” Justiciar said. “I’m just sorry it took alternate timelines to bring the band back together.”
“Okay McCartney,” Craig replied. “I may as well head out.”
“I’m Lennon, you’re McCartney,” the normally stolid Torontonian quipped. “You need backup?”
“Against Alternative?” Craig laughed. “He’s just an ordinary guy with weird ray guns who can barely shoot straight. This hardly calls for firepower. I do have one favor to ask though, David. And it’s a big one.”
“Oh?” Justiciar questioned. “Name it.”
“Timelines are, well, beyond my comprehension.” Craig said. “If I somehow manage to fix this, I have no idea what happens here, whether this timeline is dimensionally solvent so it just keeps on going without me – let’s call it the EverReady bunny parallel dimension theory – or if it completely blanks out of existence. If it does turn out that this timeline persists but I disappear from it, I’ll need someone to look after my family. I don’t want Raj cursing the father who abandoned him the same way I did with mine.” Thundrax’s dad had abandoned the Carsons when Craig was only five, and that memory – and the rejection and guilt – had haunted him for his entire life. UNTIL psych evaluators always had a field day with it.
“I’m sure he never would.’
Craig smiled grimly. “You don’t know my son,” he said. “But if it’s too much trouble....”
“Craig, when it comes to the people you love, there’s no such thing as too much trouble.” Justiciar stated. “I’ll look out for them. I promise.” The cyborg paused for a moment as the diagnostic cycle finished. “And Craig – if you do come back, I want to see you once in awhile. I miss our adventures. The Force is great, but I miss the Guard.”
“Absolutely,” Craig answered.
Craig gave Justiciar a long hug, something David Burrell never expected, but found extremely welcome, even without Alternative’s ray gun. The floodgates of a long hoped for reconciliation had opened at last, and Justiciar’s eyes were watering, a rare occurrence for the stoic Canadian hero. “I’ll catch you back in Steelhead, buddy,” Craig smiled. “You take care of that girlish figure of yours,” he ribbed.
“Steelhead?” David wondered. “Why on earth would I be freezing my butt up there?” But Craig was already rising into the sky, a familiar sight in Toronto during his Starforce days.
The flight from Toronto to Millennium was much shorter than the earlier one, but Craig had even more qualms. This was a no-win scenario: lose a family? He had complained so much about the life of celebrity he had lived for the last two years, the frequent condemnation on political “news” channels, the daily lynching he took in the Free Press. He had complained that too many people looked up to him to be the leader he could never be. Now, he could escape all that. He could live a happy, normal life. All it would cost him were the lives of people that everyone dismissed as already dead, and the complete abandonment of his principles.
A thousand thoughts raced inside Craig’s heads as he found the familiar lights of Millennium City nighttime skyline welcoming him from the other side of the US-Canada border. He knew it as well as he knew his hometown of Vancouver. Not stopping at the border (bad Craig!), he crossed over into Westside and after a quick search, came to a group of condos on the river. He had committed the address to memory, and it was not hard to find the building. He shifted to Craig form and waited for someone to open the front door of the condo and then sneaked inside. He could have broken down the doors, but Craig, despite the emotional turmoil he was experiencing, wasn’t yet ready to commit to violence. It was a dark, not exactly upscale domicile – it would be hard for even an allegedly reformed supervillain like Walstrom to pass most background checks – but Craig wasn’t overly interested in the decor, nor the bad smells, a swamp of the urban poor which was acerbated by an ongoing record heat wave. He found the door to Walstrom’s apartment and knocked on it, hard. It took about six sequences of knocks to get any response, just before Craig was ready to break down the door.
The door creaked open and a bleary eyed man with short, graying hair, and a long blue housecoat answered in a timid voice: “What is it this time?” Behold the supervillain, who had already gone to bed. A morning person, Craig thought in disgust. Changing into his Thundrax form with a clap of thunder, he grabbed at the safety chain and snapped it like a string, then pushed himself inside, knocking Alternative hard to his back. The man howled and began to crawl backward toward a ugly, dilapidated green sofa. Thundrax grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and shoved him – though he was still careful not to slam him – against a cheaply papered wall.
“Why me?” Thundrax asked. The anger boiled over, and a low growl of thunder filled the apartment. “Of all people, why did you target me?”
“Please don’t hurt me!” Professor Alternative begged. As supervillains go, he was not the most courageous of his lot. Craig didn’t know the man well, probably no one did. A loner, a recalcitrant college professor, a discredited social scientist who believed humanity was too set in its ways to survive, so he had devoted his life to one crazy scheme after another to force people to experience other points of view. It even had a hint of nobility about it, Craig thought, except that he was always pointing one type of a ray gun or another at people. Craig had no idea what the man’s origin was, quite possibly a social experiment got wrong, expanding his consciousness so he could make his miraculous arsenal of empathy, while transforming him into an obsessed nutcase. He wasn’t a hard man to defeat – hell, once Gordon Lightfoot, the aging Canadian folk singer, put him down for the count. Professor Alternative was one of those utterly pitiable villains whom Craig felt deeply sorry for – except under these circumstances.
“Just answer the question!” Craig roared.
“Because of the interview!” Walstrom stammered, shaking and close to tears.
“What interview?” Craig demanded.
“The one with you on the CBC on your country’s national holiday. You and that Canadian reporter. The one where you talked about the pressures, the responsibility, and how you weren’t up to it. How the press was making your life a living Hell.”
“But...” Craig stammered. “That was just me venting. They caught me in a bad mood, and when I’m like that, I get introspective. My life’s not that bad. But even so, why me? And how?”
Walstrom straightened himself, sensing the possibility he might escape the scenario without donning a body cast. “If I tell you, can you promise not to tell anyone else? Especially my parole officer?”
Craig snarled back, and the sound of thunder could be heard in the room. “I promise not to act like a frothing Hudson City vigilante!” he snapped. “Tell me!”
“Okay!” Walstrom said, again almost sobbing. “I borrowed a device uncovered by the government. The spider of realities. It was taken from some cosmic being – Valak, I think, took it from something called a Galaxian.”
“Galaxar!” Craig corrected, and his heart sunk. The Galaxars were cosmic entities of incredible power. But powerful enough to create a separate timestream? Even Craig had to wrestle with that concept. “But why me?” he asked again, almost pleading for an answer.
“Because you, of all the superheroes who ever spoiled my plans, were kind to me. You never hurt me or even insulted me, unlike that horrible Frenchman and that Hudson City psychopath. So I used the spider to make you a reality where you were maximized for happiness.” Alternative explained. “Did it work?”
“Yes,” Craig answered, letting the Professor go and shutting the door before the neighbors could disturb the conversation. “But at too high a cost. Too many other people were hurt in the alteration.”
“Silly superhero,” Alternative chuckled. “The world’s still intact. Life still goes on. Why not enjoy it?”
Thundrax refused to respond to that remark. Coward. “Why didn’t you use it to make yourself happy?” he asked.
“I tried. I couldn’t. It only works for other people,” Alternative said mournfully. “Would you like a cup of coffee? I could use one.” He glanced invitingly into a dirty kitchenette, where unwashed cups and plates piled like an unstable jinga game in the kitchen sink. Craig really didn’t feel like drinking from any of those, though he wasn’t here to critique the man’s housekeeping skills.
“Sorry Professor, I’m not letting you out of my sight,” Craig said. “Until you’ve restored the timeline to normal.”
“But why?” Alternative said, a child’s willfulness present in his vocal tone.
“I don’t try to take shortcuts with my life. If I change the world, I don’t want it done by a magical or cosmic doohickey, like your spider,” Craig paused, remembering some of the other insane McGuffins that villains had used over the years. “I want to change it through the force of my will, and by my abilities, and only by those. And I want to make the whole world a better place, not just my little corner of it. I will not take happiness at the cost of other people’s lives. That’s the antithesis of who I am. So change it back. Please.”
“What about your security guard? He was affected by the happiness ray too!” Alternative informed him.
“What happened to him?”
“Um, I think he won the lottery.” Alternative said.
“I’ll think of something.” Craig answered. “Look, I appreciate your attempt at kindness. And this world is wonderful. I think about what I’m about to lose, and I know I’ll bawl my fucking head off.”
“Then don’t. Be happy. It’s what everyone wants from life, right? Life is short, Craig. I can call you Craig, right?”
Thundrax sighed and swallowed hard. How can one man just ignore happiness? How? Like this, Craig thought, and he steeled himself. He never hated himself more in his entire life. But he had to do this.
“Either you change me back and surrender the spider, or this isn’t going to end well for either of us. I know I was belly-aching, but my life before this was pretty damn special, and even in the bad times, my friends always saw me through. I was living great adventures, making the world a better place, and I had more fame and wealth than I ever imagined when I was a kid.”
“Yes, I regret I couldn’t fix your childhood.” Alternative said. “I could only change you from the time of our first meeting, not earlier. I couldn’t undo your father’s abandonment, or the deaths of your brother and mother. Fortunately, I could act before you lost your secret identity. It would have been more problematic if people knew who you actually were.”
“I’m asking nicely, Professor.” Thundrax repeated.
“Fine,” Walstrom grumbled “This is the last time I ever do any of you heroes a favor.”
“Thank God,” Craig exclaimed.
Walstrom reached into a jar next to the cup where he soaked his false teeth and drew out a silver spider amulet, not dissimilar to the ones which warded against Qliphotic effects, He opened his palm and the spider suddenly animated and bit him, drawing a trickle of blood. The device required bio-energy for a trigger the effect. A light shone from the spider, quickly encapsulating Walstrom, and he fired a beam of light at Craig.
Craig mouthed the names of his children, and the world dissolved in a flash, and he and Stan were back in the lobby of Flux-Carson. Stan noticed the intruder, lurking in a corner in a lab coat, and immediately drew his pistol. A little late there, Stan, Craig thought to himself, smiling. Craig warded him off, and held out his hand. “The spider, Professor. Now.”
“What do you intend to do with it?”
“It’s a Galaxar object, so I can’t destroy it,” Craig said. “I’ll put into a robominer and tell it to bury it in as deep as it can go.” On the moon, he added, silently to himself.
Like a child forced to return a stolen toy, Alternative placed the spider in his hand. “Hope it bites you,” he said, muttering to himself.
“Now go. Stay out of trouble.” Craig said. The professor dolefully trundled back to his condo.
“Aren’t you going to arrest him, Mr. Carson?” Stan asked, holstering his pistol. Craig shook his head, strode to the front desk, grabbed a piece of paper from a pile of stationary, and scrawled on it with a fancy pen emblazoned with the corporate logo. “IOU, ten million dollars.” He signed it, and passed it to Stan. “Uh– why did you just do this?” the puzzled guard stammered.
“The money will be transferred into your account in the morning,” Thundrax said. “Call it compensation.”
“I didn’t realize you were such a kidder, sir,” Stan said.
Craig smiled. Let the guard find it in his account the next time he checked his balance. Oh, to see the look on his face, he thought to himself.
“I’ve got things to do, Stan,” Craig told him. “See that I’m not disturbed for anything short of the return of Dr.
Destroyer or an alien invasion.”
“Yes sir,” Stan said and Craig went up to his office. He ignored the pile of emails and reports and went immediately to search the Internet for Manjita Dhaliwal. It didn’t take that long, though the emotions welling within Craig made it seem like an arduous process, digging in the morgue of Vancouver newspaper and Sikh community sites, searching piece by piece in an emotional jigsaw puzzle, putting together a final picture that was sunk like a knife into Craig’s soul and wouldn’t stop twisting.
His name was Ramanjit Dhillon. He was a social worker for the provincial ministry, who took Manjita’s case upon referral from a woman’s shelter where Manjita had fled after a miscarriage. They fallen in love – it was so easy to fall in love with that woman – and he’d help her escape from her first husband. They married. Craig saw pictures of the wedding. One boy, 6 lbs., 3 oz., named Gurinder. Born August 21, 1998. It looked like they’d be happy. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Although Bindi, the abusive creep of a first husband, had been put in jail, his parents were both wealthy and incensed at the disgrace of their son. On May 7, 1999 they hired a pair of contract killers, who shot and murdered the couple in their Richmond home.
Their deaths sparked outrage, especially in the Sikh community, particularly among women, as Manjita had been a tireless volunteer for local women’s groups. Now the tigresses of the Punjab, as Manjita had called her confidantes and co-workers, were roused. They marched on her behalf, twelve weekends in a row, each rally bigger than the last. By the twelfth week, the premier of British Columbia was marching with them. They used money they raised to build a woman’s center in her name. They continued the tradition and held one memorial rally every year. They demanded justice and the politicians promised it, but no charges were ever laid. Money? Influence? Diplomacy? (Bindi’s family had powerful roots in India). Craig could only speculate. It took the murderous intervention of the vigilante Lion Khalsa Singh, who killed the alleged hit men and Bindi’s grandfather in 2003, to finally bring closure to the tragedy. If bloodshed truly was closure; staring at those newspaper articles, it didn’t feel very much like it was closed at all.
Gurinder had been spared from the massacre and was being raised by Manjita’s parents. That was good to know, as Craig remembered them as being good people, once they’d gotten used to the marriage. The marriage that now had never been. He left another message for the Foundation CFO, arranging for an extraordinarily generous donation to the Manjita Dhillion Center, and setting up a scholarship fund for her son. When he had finished what needed to be done, he finally allowed the emotions to sink in. He buried his head in his arms on his desk and remained in that pose for hours, until dawn finally broke over Millennium City. Craig’s personal motto was “strive to make every tomorrow better than every yesterday”. This coming tomorrow, however, might be a very hard one to salvage. Some tomorrows are like that
Last edited by Thundrax; 05-05-2018 at 12:41 PM.
Re: War of the Dimensions
On the Rocks
I: New York, 1986: My Enemy.
“C’mon Vanguard,” I said, annoyed at the hero of heroes. It had been a twenty-minute fight, one of my best ones, and I was really feeling the moment. But the guy just shook his head, brushed himself off, and rose to his feet. He was looking down at some fancy wrist communicator, Dick Tracy stuff and speaking with someone. My ears ain’t so good, especially when I’m armored up.
“Sorry Rocky. It’s Destroyer. After that stunt with the mind control and the Statue of Liberty, he’s gotta take priority. We’ll finish this fight another time.”
I sighed, and growled slightly. Choosing Doctor Destroyer over Rocky Granite! Like I was a punk or something! “I could go on a rampage. Then you’d be sorry!”
“Daggnabbit Rocky,” Vanguard sighed. “You aren’t the rampaging type, and we both know it!”
“But V! Playing with Kauffman and his PRIMUS dickwads ain’t much fun. Not compared with our dust-ups!” I shouted back.
“You just don’t get it.” Vanguard said. “These fights are only fun for one of us.”
I sighed. “I’m going to kill you next time,” I vowed.
“Sure Rocky,” Vanguard replied. “Sure.” Matching me sigh for sigh, the big V went airborne, and in a swish and a horizontal slash of red, painting the sky with his heroism, he was off to face Doctor Destroyer.
II: Stronghold 1991: My New Home.
The force field closed behind us. We were alone in the cell’s visitor’s room, just Vanguard and me. Like old times.
“Hey Rock,” Vanguard said, adjusting his cape – the damn thing would always be in the way – and taking a seat. “They’re making you behave, I hear.”
“Don’t really have much choice,” I said, shaking some loose grit from my knuckles. I’d give anything to be punching him in the face again, to bury him alive and watch him rise from his grave like a horror movie: my horror. I remember the first time he did it – I’d have crapped myself, if I could still crap. “Heard you and Destroyer had another throwdown?”
“We sunk his island.” Vanguard reported, and he shook his head. “What a waste. Smartest man in the world, unbelievable engineer, and all he wants to do with his life is this Nazi garbage. So much wasted potential. And he saved us from the Gadroon. You remember that, Rock?”
“Yeah.” I said. “The Gadroon Invasion. Didn’t we actually team up?”
“No,” Vanguard said.
“I’m sure we did,” I insisted.
“No, it was you and Brawler. Remember?”
“Oh yeah, that guy.” I said, smacking my forehead. “How’d I ever confuse him with you! I’m such a dunce! Must be why I ended up in here.” I added, knocking on the forcefield. Stronghold. They finally did it. They finally managed to get me behind a force field I couldn’t bust down.
“Well, challenging the Sentinels wasn’t the smartest thing you ever did.” Vanguard agreed.
“Hey, after everything Bravo said about me…”
“You were stupid, Rock.” Vanguard said. “I don’t get why you think you needed to fight at all.”
“Because whenever I’m not fighting, I feel dead.” I told the hero. He shook his head.
“There’s always an alternative. You can do better…” Vanguard said, and then his watch buzzed. He looked down and read some message displayed on its surface. Heroes and their toys. The hero scowled. “Archimago’s doing what?” He turned to me, bulldog irritation inscribed on his rugged face. I almost laughed. “I swear the villains just get sicker and sicker.”
“I ain’t disagreeing.” I told him. I didn’t like my colleagues in the villain world anymore than he did. “You gotta run?”
“To another dimension. I may not be able to get back for awhile. I’ll arrange for Dr. Silverback to send a robot visitor until I return. I know how lonely you get.”
“I’m going to kill you,” I promised. But the restraints that kept me from forming rocks on my skin made that a less than credible threat. “And your sideburns look stupid.”
“Sure, Rocky, sure.” Vanguard replied.
“And did I mention I’m going to kill you?”
“You sure did, Rocky.” Vanguard said. “And you just might do it. If one of the new kids doesn’t do me in first. Or Destroyer.”
“Old Albert’s peeved about having his island sunk?”
“Destroyer’s peeved about everything,” Vanguard stated.
I nodded back in agreement. “I’m sorry I ever teamed up with that joker.” I muttered.
He winked at me and grinned. “Don’t waste your time regretting things you can’t change, Rock. That was when, ’77? That was years ago, way in the past, before anyone realized just how big a threat he was. We just listened to the name, laughed, and made stupid jokes.”
“Yeah, Dr. Detroit. Still, I...”
“Let’s talk about you,” Vanguard interjected, speaking in that tone that reminds me so much of dad, that tone I hate so very much. “Now you promise to behave in here. I know it’s rough, it’s a really bad break, but I believe in you. You’re a survivor. And I promised your brother that in ten years time, that I’d appear at your parole hearing and say good things about you. We’ll get you on the straight and narrow yet.”
“Kiss my ass,” I said, though I don’t really have one. I stuck out my tongue at Vanguard, but the guy just nodded back – always the perfect manners, never lost his cool or said a bad word. I grinned as I watched the big guy walk away, or at least as close as this misshapen excuse for a mug gets to a grin.
III: Stronghold 1992: Death of a Robot
“Salutations.” The robot said. I could already tell it was programmed by Silverback, and was going to annoy the crap outta me. Third visit, and I already never wanted to see it again.
“Evening Robby,” I told him. That’s a Forbidden Planet reference, in case you kiddies didn’t know. Best science fiction picture ever made. (Only Day the Earth Stood Still and Sirians Attack come close). “Tongues were sure wagging a few days ago.”
“They should have satisfied their thirst,” the Silverbackbot said.
“Har! Har! Har!” I roared. “No, you mechanical idjit. I meant people were talking. I saw old Green Adder over there chatting up a storm with the guards.” I pointed at a snake mutate in an adjoining cell. He never spoke to me, never even tried. “Did VIPER finally bite the biscuit? Those creepy snakes in their green longjohns give up the ghost? That would make my day.”
“No,” the robot replied. “Although another of your old enemies is dead.”
“Oh really?” I asked, a little cheerfully at the unexpected good news. “And just who bought it this time? Please tell me it was Brawler or Black Rose. Or if I’m real lucky, it’s the Drifter.”
“No,” the robot answered. “The identity of the superhuman who perished was Jeffrey Sinclair. Vanguard.”
I can’t really describe what I felt at that moment. It‘s the same emotion I felt when mom died, or Tabitha saw me for the first time after the change. Suddenly, unexpected dead. Suddenly, unexpected, the safeties on my emotions came down. I was a primed weapon. “What!” I shouted. “No this can’t be! Your programming’s on the fritz! Not Vanguard! Not Jeff! He was indestructible!”
“He intercepted an asteroid hurtling towards earth. He was travelling at light speed. The asteroid was travelling at light speed. The collision destroyed them both and saved the human race.”
“Fuck the human race!” I shouted.
“Detroit was also destroyed…”
After that, I don’t remember much. I blacked out. Later, I briefly caught sight of the damage I did to the cell. I can only imagine what I did to the robot. Robots rights activists have probably put me on their hit list. I didn’t care. I was beyond berserk. People don’t break out of cells in Stronghold. People don’t break out of their restraints in Stronghold. I did both. I tore into Green Adder’s cell. And Devil Girl’s. And Maulageddon’s (I know, the name was stupid, but hey, it was the 90s). And Rictus. And old Buzzsaw, that mean old bastard. No one could stop me, they ran if they had any sense. I’d been starved, but that didn’t matter; now I was gassed, and even radiated. It didn’t matter. They broke the bank on experimental tech, and it was trained on me. None of that mattered. I was a Grond level package of strength and rage, and I had been set loose.
They now call what happened “the Rocky event”. Nowadays they put trainees through the scenario, it’s one of their favorites. The trainees who run in it shit bricks. Sometimes they even use it to train young superheroes. I couldn’t care less. There were only two people who I cared about in this whole shitty godforsaken world: my brother and my enemy. An enemy who always treated me with respect and dignity. An enemy who always looked me straight in the eye, and never ever flinched. You don’t know how amazing that is until you stand in my monstrous shoes. No one looks at me. Ever. Everyone turned their heads, except him. An enemy I tried to kill, over and over again, and he repaid me with restraint and kind words, not quips, not jokes, not insults. An enemy who never lost hope in me, even though I’d thrown hope in the toilet years ago. The best of humanity, wiped out by the worst.
Of course I raged.
And when everything was over, when the heroes arrived and beat the living snot out of me, over and over again until I finally fell, when the smoke and the dust cleared and the construction crews came and shook their heads at the damage, when the judges called me a menace and said that I needed to be put asleep. I watched my judgment on close circuit tv with the lawyer my brother hired. The guy was deadly afraid of me, like everyone else. Except Vanguard, he was never scared. They resentenced me, and the news wasn’t pleasant: twenty years in electronically induced mindless slumber. Like disco, heh. Twenty years in a coma, with enforced dream state breaks so I could appreciate that time was passing. An inhuman sentence for an inhuman creature. But really, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. I was sadsack cliché #57 – I was already dead. Vanguard was the only one who had ever held out any hope for me. And my hope died with Vanguard.
So they took me to a big chamber, with a big Rocky sized chair, and they weighed me down with the chains of technology. I made jokes. No one laughed, they never do. Then there was a man in a hood pulling a lever – as if I’d ever want revenge on him if I awoke – then there was darkness. Then, finally, peace. My last words were that I’d give dollars to donuts that I’d never wake up, that some fuckwad would destroy the planet before the end of my sentence.
Then I slept.
IV. Millennium City, 2017: My release.
Miraculously, when they awoke me the world was still standing. Not for lack of trying. A whole passel of new supervillains had shown up while I was asleep, and they were worse than the generation that preceded them.
And the heroes aren’t much better.
My brother, Jimmy – Jimmy Grazer, he changed his last name because of me – is paying for an apartment in Millennium. The city that didn’t exist before I was put to sleep. It’s an amazing town, but not my apartment; he could only get an apartment for a monster in certain areas, and they’re not particularly desirable. I don’t have much of a social life. There’s a club downtown that caters to freaks, but Jimmy says it’s infested by a pack of occult types. Goths with powers, he calls them. The occult makes my skin crawl. I don’t visit it.
So I spend most of my life watching SNN. Jimmy doesn’t think I should be looking at that crap – I should stay as far away from my old life as I possibly can. Maybe he’s right, but it draws me like a moth to a proverbial flame. I have to study these people, get to know them. There’s a guy named Defender who leads this city’s version of the Justice Squadron. He has a reputation for being a dork, and no one seems to respect him. I almost feel sorry for the guy. But I’m more interested in seeing if anyone’s taken the place of the big V.
“Thundrax – the new Vanguard? Protector, Star*Forcer – what’s the latest on Millennium City’s most respected hero!”
Wait a minute. What’s this?
I watch as an attention deficit disorder inducing series of images flash on my screen. Blond, white skin. He looks like the whitest white guy on the planet.
So this is the joker who’s replaced Jeff? The new big cheese? Some blond Canadian in a white bodysuit that may as well be a ski outfit, with lightning bolts pointed at his crotch? Real subtle, mister. I bet you get all the ladies, or all the guys. Apparently, there are a lot of rumors. SNN airs a two-year-old interview; the guy is way more polished than Vanguard ever was, and he’s more thickly built too; he doesn’t have the classic V proportion that Jeff pulled off so well. I continue to watch as the biography flashes information. Apparently, he was a local hero in Vancouver back in my day. Not that I ever cared about a west coast Canadian shithole. I keep watching. Wait a minute, he’s an ex-politician? What kinda fucking superhero is that? What modern day boy scout goes into politics?
And to top it off, he’s also in business. He’s a fucking billionaire. God, I wish I could vomit just so I could throw up on the screen. He gives a lot to charity. So did Jeff, and Vanguard was no billionaire. His old team used their powers to make themselves rich? That’s so damn unethical. I should have done it years ago. Then I’d be the rich, respected hero!
Five minutes into the interview, and I want to punch him until he no longer has a face. And it keeps getting worse. He’s an arch-liberal, a socialist, but he’s okay with having more money than Harmon. Okay pal, whatever. He goes into Westside and beats up poor people: petty thieves and gang members who’ve never gotten a single decent break in their life, showing off with his powers. That’s real liberal of you, you phony. What else do you do, charge little old ladies for help in crossing the street? And yes, bullets bounce off his ass. Surprise, surprise. Of course he has perfect teeth, and can bench press Mount Everest, and fly faster than all the Navy jets in Top Gun put together. Of course his interviews sound like sermons, with a cheap moral lesson at the end, like those terrible cartoons my cousin Alex’s kids used to watch back in the 70s. I’m getting terminal levels of smugness just from watching the guy.
Finally, I turn off the TV and stew for awhile. SNN is a hack network, but when you have a subject as plastic and as obviously a phony as Craig Carson, it’s especially painful. I think of Jeff, and I remember what heroes used to be. Then I go for a walk. It’s time for work.
I haven’t really left the apartment since my release from prison. I’m not comfortable in open spaces, and I hate seeing the sudden turn of people’s heads as they’re filled with a desire to not look at me. Not even the looky-loos. People would rather gawk at a car crash than catch a brief glimpse of my face. I’m probably the number one cause of whiplash in Millennium City.
There’s a drone circling around me, taking pictures for my parole officer. I hope he’s enjoying the feed. I call the drone “Steve”.
“This man is a paroled felon,” Steve announces to the general public, the easily frightened herd. “Keep your distance, but do not panic. He is being monitored and will not harm you. Do not panic, he will not harm you.”
It’s annoying at first, but after awhile, you get used to it. Like everything else in life.
I do have a purpose for getting out though. My parole officer wants me to find a legit job, one with no criminal connections. Not the easiest thing for an 8’ tall earth elemental with his own P.A. system advertising he’s a supervillain. Still, I do what I gotta do, which brings me to New Tanghal Tower and Thain Construction. It’s a busy place, and the jackhammers are screaming so loud that no one can hear poor Steve. Aw. My brother’s wrangled me a job here, but one look from the foreman and I know it’s not happening today – or ever.
“Hey!” the foreman said. “We can’t let you on site without a properly fitting hard hat. Union rules.”
I knock on the top of my head. “Hey! I can headbutt a nuke,” I told him. I’ve done it too.
“Union rules.” He repeated, as if the words were garlic and I was a vampire.
“Whatever,” I shrugged. I give up on the idea of work and go back to walking. I wave at Steve to follow. It’s not really needed, but the chatterbird keeps broadcasting his warning. Bless his fucking mechanical heart. That’s when I notice a sign on the edge of the property.
“New Tanghal Towers is enabled in part by grants from Harmon Industries, Cambridge Pharmaceuticals, and the Carson Foundation. Construction for a better Millennium City.”
“Better for everyone except me,” I grumble. Again, there’s Craig Carson’s name. Is it fucking everywhere in this stupid city? I rip the sign down –by “accident”, since I’m being monitored. I’m sure me and my parole officer will have a “conversation”. Bite me, asshole.
I pass a billboard for Adair Media, and there’s Carson’s face again. He, Defender and some jackass named Foxbat are plastered all over the damn city. Can’t I even walk two blocks without seeing that name or his face? Two measly blocks? For a change, these Adair guys don’t like him much, they painted him with an evil grin and devil horns. I’d laugh at how juvenile it is, except that the documentary backed it up. Could they be doing a smear job?
On the liberal who runs an energy business? On the guy who says he’s not interested in power but went into politics?
Nah. Fuck this hypocrite.
I think of Jeff, and though I know he wouldn’t approve, there’s only one course of action left to me. It’ll cost me my freedom, but screw it, my life’s been a disaster since they released me from Stronghold anyway.
I’m going to kill Craig Carson.
V: 2017 Millennium City: The Quest for Carson
“Hi!” I said, strolling to the front desk. I have what passes for a smile on this hideous mug, hoping it doesn’t advertise my bad intentions. Flux-Carson’s corporate headquarters is across the street from the Champions building; I think ol’ Craig-o must have a mutual defense pact with the Champions or something. It makes sense, really. There are two men in Turtle armor with weapons trained on me – but those gooch guns are tinker toys to me, and both of the agents know it. I’ve managed to grow a bit of my armor back (it’s a lot like hair. When I go full hippie, that is fully armored, I’m a match against Vanguard or Grond. Against anyone else, half-armor should do.)
“How can we help you?” an extremely nervous receptionist asked.
“I am here to see my good ol’ buddy Craig,” I said, looming over her.
“I’m afraid you’ll, I mean---“ the receptionist stammered.
“Yes?” I asked, leaning in. I can loom menacingly with the best of them. And after the day I’ve had. It’s fun.
“Vanessa!” a short Japanese woman shouted, professionally dressed as they get, emerging from an elevator. “Get to the back! Leave this man to me!”
“Yes, Ms. Rimi,” the woman blurted, and backing up, she retreated away from the lobby.
“Bye!” I said, smiling like a complete asshole. “What a nice gal.”
“She is,” Rimi said, and she closed with me. It was comical. I could crush her so easily, but the woman still glared at me. I’ll give her credit, she has more balls than the guards at Stronghold. “Craig may be a soft touch, but I am not.”
“You’re his pet bitch?” I asked.
“Yes,” Kondo Rimi replied. “Villains are not welcome at Flux-Carson. I invite you to leave, Mr. Graziano.” She said, referring to me by my birth name. “At once.”
“That sounds downright unfriendly.” I replied. I was in full villain mode. I hadn’t been in villain mode in decades. It felt so good, not giving a rat’s ass.
“Then the sound matches the intent,” Rimi replied, continuing to glare at me. Again, I could crush her so easily. I could crush her, but…
“Just send for your boss, okay toots?” I asked, still adopting a jocular tone.
“He is in Canada on business,” she claimed. There’s no hint of a lie in her demeanor but with a woman this cold, it’s hard to tell. Indeed, this is the first thing I’ve seen out of Carson that actually impresses me. He hires good people.
“What kind of business?” I ask.
“Kigatilik,” she said, referring to a demon-god of the north who’s been a major pain of late. I’m surprised she answered the question.
“Tell Carson he’s got bigger problems,” I say, and I scatter a layer of dirt on that polished marble floor, getting as much of the surroundings as I can. Rimi coughs, then coughs out a curse. “I’ll be at the project on Rivard Street. Tell him to come alone. We have business.”
This probably won’t work. He’ll probably send UNTIL instead. Or MARS. But I’m an old school supervillain, and I take the direct approach. I’m not changing now. So, it’s challenge time. The way we used to settle these things.
I chase away the construction workers at the New Tanghal Tower – bet you’re regretting not hiring me now! – and I settle in for the long haul. It’s a four hour wait, so I amuse myself by reshaping girders. Can’t bring it down yet. But four hours later, it’s showtime.
“Mr. Granite,” Craig Carson said, appearing in a flash. “Congratulations on your release.”
“Well,” I said, training my attention on Thundrax. He’s doing his best to appear unnerved, but he’s faking it. I can kill him at any time, and he knows it. “I don’t really think it’s that much to congratulate me over.”
“I disagree,” Thundrax said. Yeah, if anything, he’s even more handsome in person. The dude has presence. Despite the danger, he has a lot of composure. “You were a big name villain while I was still a rookie fighting the Brotherhood in Vancouver.”
“Everyone’s forgotten me, Carson.” I tell him. “I need to make them remember.”
“Rocky, please listen to me,” he pleads. The sonuvabitch is smart enough to know what I can do to him. “You’ve served your time. There are no outstanding warrants against you. You have a clean slate. Take advantage of it.”
“Fuck you,” I tell him. “And fuck your clean slate. The outside world’s a joke.”
“There are a lot of philosophers who would agree with you.” Craig says. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. You like Janis Joplin? Me and Bobby McGee?”
“She’s okay.” I tell him.
“More than okay. But let’s stop fencing and get down to business,” Thundrax says. “You’re having trouble adjusting to the outside world. I understand, putting your life back together is hard. You desperately want to get back to your comfort zone, and that’s fighting heroes. In fact, it’s the one thing in the world that makes sense to you. And, for some reason, you’ve chosen me as your next target.”
“Don’t psychoanalyze me.” I tell him. “It’s rude.”
“I’m trying to understand you,” Thundrax replied.
“Well that shouldn’t be too hard,” I spit. “After all, you’re the perfect hero. The new Vanguard.”
“We both know that’s bullshit,” Thundrax said, and my eyebrows would’ve raised if I still had any. The hero swears! Well, well! “Vanguard was unique. If there’s ever going to be another one, it sure as hell ain’t gonna be me. I’m not fit to hold his cape.”
“Then why do people keep referring to you as the new Vanguard?”
“Because life is scary and people are frightened. They remember Vanguard, how great and selfless he was, and the idea of having a new one gives them some comfort. People are constantly looking for a savior.” Thundrax tells me. “Be it me, or Vanguard, or Donald Trump.”
“Fuck Donald Trump,” I say. Craig said nothing in reply, but I swear there’s a crack of a smile. “You say all the right words, and you act all humble. But I’m looking into your eyes, Carson. And it’s the same, arrogant douchebag expression I’ve seen on everyone’s faces my entire life. You think you’re better than me. Everyone thinks they’re better than me!”
“Nah, you want to know the truth, it’s all just armor,” Thundrax replied. “That’s all arrogance is, it’s just another form of armor. Life’s not easy, even for those who pretty much have it all. So they – we -- need something to dull the pain. For some people it’s booze, for some it’s religion, and for others, it’s attitude. Look at you Rocky. You may be the strongest person on the planet at the moment. But even with all that strength, life hurts like one helluva son of a bitch, and the pain won’t stop.”
“You giving me a psychiatrist bill at the end of this, Carson?” I asked, mockingly.
“A shrink isn’t a bad idea at all.” Thundrax said in an earnest tone. I could have laughed.
“A shrink would only lie and lie and lie to me. Just like everyone else.” I tell him, scowling. “I am so sick of lies. Oh Rock, you’ve served your time, you ain’t gonna be punished anymore. Oh Rock, the sight of you doesn’t fill us with horror. Oh Rock, we’ll make it as easy as possible for you to live a normal life. Every action, every look that people give me tells me that’s bullshit. I can do the work of an entire construction company if I wanted, and this chickenshit outfit won’t even let me in the door. And you play the victim…”
“I’m not a victim,” Carson said.
“…and you pretend to be humble, just so you can “handle” me, Psychologize me. Get me to… what’s the word… oh yeah, emphasize.”
“Again, I want to help solve your problems.” Carson raised his hands in protest. But no.
“There’s one way I think you can help me. And only one way.” I’m getting angrier by the second. The smooth phony. That jerk, thinking he could use me! Me! Well, it’s time to do the world a favor.
“Let’s dance,” I say.
It’s time to kill a politician.
V: Millennium City 2017: The Fight
I lunge, and he dances away from me. I gauge his speed, he’s a reasonably nimble flyer, and it’s obvious he’s well-versed in getting out of the way at the last minute. We dash around the construction site, and I’m smashing as I go. It’s great, the collateral damage, it feels therapeutic after those assholes wouldn’t give me a job. Less fortunately, I’m not connecting with the hero. Nor is he even trying to hit me back!
“C’mon Carson,” I taunt, staying in place. “One freebie. Give it all you’ve got.”
“So you can turn your body to sludge and trap the fist?” Carson replied. “Don’t think so. I’ve fought your kind too often.”
I’d forgotten he’s been fighting during most of the time I was in prison; the guy’s got experience. Every motion is considered, there’s no wasted space. Hell, he’s probably got the same combat experience as Mark in our last fight. And after two minutes, it’s obvious that I’m really off my game. My fighting skills have gone way downhill – thirty years in the hole will do that to a guy. I’d have ended this in under thirty seconds in the old days.
I tag him once, but it’s a glancing blow. He got lucky. Didn’t even break anything. He finally delivers a right cross and it’s a beauty, it sends me somersaulting backwards into a pile of girders. A nice punch, but it’s not heavy enough to make much of a dent. I get to my feet, the grin still broadly stretching across my face. I’m finally feeling alive again, for the first time in thirty years. Carson can throw me around all he wants, but that’s as good as he can do.
Well what do you know, he was right! He really isn’t on Vanguard’s level!
“Har! Har! Har!” I laugh at him. Thundrax says nothing, but yells obscenities at me with gritted teeth. Well, fuck you too, pal.
Next, he tries to use the objects on the construction site to his advantage. He kicks me into the cement mixer, and gritting his teeth, tries to mix me into a block of rubble. It’s actually kind of fun, tumbling around. Makes me feel like a kid again. I break out of the mixer and fire blobs of liquid crap at him.
“Nice try, Thundrax!” I shout at the hero. “But ’lm building your tomb brick by brick!”
“You’re tiring, Rock.” Carson said, and he’s right. I haven’t done this in years, and I’ve forgotten how to pace myself. I’ve slowed way down. I need to end this fight fast now.
So I gather up a pile of dirt and rubble, integrate it into my body, and spread myself wide. I’m going to hit him like a snow shovel. He won’t be able to dodge this. I gather the grit and debris, like I’ve done a hundred times before, and I spread myself, the same trick I used to defeat Wildbird back in ’70, and then I hear something pop. My chest is burning, my stomach is burning, my left arm falls limp, and I collapse onto my back.
God, what is happening?
Carson immediately stops. I’m pretty incoherent, but in what little is passing for conscious thought, I’m betting he thinks I’m faking. The bastard. I’m not faking, you bastard! But no, wait, no he doesn’t. He’s grabbing at my chest, tearing away my armored chitin, the protective planks I’ve been growing for weeks until he’s got a clear channel to my skin. Then I seize up, and my vision flashes for a split second. What the—wait, he’s shocking me. He’s applying lightning CPR? I guess you do what you gotta do with the tools at hand. I seize up again, like some corpses do when they’re thrown in the cremator’s oven, and I gasp.
VII: In Rocky’s Head
“Hey Rocky,” the voice tells me. “You’re not doing so well, buddy.”
“But you bit it. Way back…”
“I know what they said,” Vanguard told me. We were in Christopher Park, on a sunny hot day, sitting next to each other on a bench. Vanguard was throwing breadcrumbs at pigeons. Is that all I was, another pigeon? But none of these questions mattered right now. “If you couldn’t kill me, do you think a big space rock could do me in? C’mon!”
“I’m sorry Vanguard,” I said, and I’d be blubbering if I had tear ducts. “I’m so sorry. I promised to go straight, and I couldn’t…”
“You never made me that promise,” The Big V noted.
“Not in words, no.” I say.
“The only promise you made was to kill me,” Jeff said. “Every time we met, you made it.”
“I never meant it.”
“I know,” Vanguard said, and he laughed. It was gentle laughter, I can’t remember ever hearing him laugh before. It’s the rarest kind of laughter, loving laughter, laughing without even a hint of contempt or condescension. “Now I’m going to ask something of you, and it’s the hardest thing anyone could ever ask, because I know what a terrific fighter you are. I want you to let go. Don’t fight what’s happening.”
“You want me dead?” I asked. Vanguard shook his head and threw a huge chunk of bread at a Canada goose.
“No!” Vanguard insisted. “Rock, there are people fighting to save you. Right now, you’re confused. You’re ready to fight everyone. Don’t fight these people. Let them do their jobs. Let them bring you back.”
“He’s one of the good ones, and you know it.” Vanguard said. "Deep inside, anyway."
“He’s too good to be true.” I objected.
“That’s the cynic talking. That’s the world talking. But you know something, Rock? Cynicism is just another form of armor,” Vanguard explained. “It thinks it’s the only honest thing in the world. But it isn’t. It isn’t reality. Here’s what’s real.” And then Vanguard took my lumpy, misshapen clump of a hand and placed it into his own strong fingers, gripped it, and I sobbed without tears. “That, now that’s real. Giving a damn about someone else, not shutting ourselves out of people’s lives with cynicism or contempt. And you know what else cynicism won’t tell you? Every once in awhile you meet someone who seems too good to be true, but when you get to know them, they’re exactly what they appear to be. “Someone special.”
“If you say so,” Jeff replies. “But I was thinking about that kid you were fighting. Carson. He’s not perfect, because no one on earth is perfect. But he’s a good man. You tried to kill him, and he still didn’t hesitate. He’s still fighting to save you. That’s a good man. Heck, that’s sort of damn fine hero that I’d want as my friend.”
I couldn’t argue, but at the moment, Carson meant nothing. I only cared about the man beside me. “You ever going to get back to us, V? In the flesh?”
“I’m here now,” Vanguard said. “Whenever you need me the most, I’m going to be there. And when you go on that final journey and the grim reaper’s trying to take you somewhere you don’t deserve to go, I’m going to show up, punch him in his ugly mug and we’ll walk through heaven’s pearly gates together. That’s a promise.” I laugh.
Vanguard sighed and finished feeding the pigeons. “It’s time. Now wake up. Wake up and learn how to live again. For me.”
VIII: Millennium City 2017: His bedside manner
And I wake up. Learning how to live is another matter.
When I wake up, Carson is there, along with a woman in blue and black and a big armored figure with a star on his chest. I guess I can’t blame them for not taking chances, but still, even at my worst, I always did my best to make sure hospitals and schools were off-limits. You don’t need to be doing your shit around kids.
“They had you in an induced coma for three weeks.” Carson explained. “They just brought you out. How do you feel?”
“Like there’s sawdust in my skull.” I say. “Well, I guess I’m going back to prison.”
“You would be, If someone here had decided to press charges,” the woman says. Even as groggy as I am, I can tell she didn’t approve. “He didn’t.”
“Carson?” I wonder. "Why?"
Craig Carson smiled at me. “You get one break, Rocky. One, and this was it.”
“Waking up is my break.” I say.
“That too,” the armored guy says. I wonder how much firepower he’s got.
“He’s calm,” a woman’s voice comes over the comm. “He’s a bit groggy, but he’s not an immediate threat.”
“Thank you, Psion.” The woman in blue and black said.
“Okay guys, let’s not make him nervous.” Thundrax told his team. “I’ll speak to him alone.”
“Was someone in my head?” I wonder.
“It was a precaution.” Thundrax said. “We needed to monitor you waking up. That’s all she did. Psion is about as professional as they get.”
“They still give me the creeps.”
<I get that a lot>, a voice inside my head says. <But I’m here for you, to aid in your recovery.>
“She’s only here to help,” Thundrax says, repeating what she already told me.
“Yeah, yeah, I get that a lot,” I spit bitterly. “Everyone wants to help ol’ Rocky. But does anyone really do anything except flap their gums and feel righteous?”
“Well, we’re working on it,” Thundrax said as the others cleared out. He took a package off the table and unwrapped it. “Here, try this.” It’s some large cube with the texture of gum.
“What do I do with it?” I ask.
“You eat it,” Thundrax answered.
I pop it into the misshapen hole in my face that I call a mouth, and my eyes widen. “Holy shit! I can taste it!” It’s been close to fifty years since I tasted anything. “Is that orange?”
“We were aiming for orange,” Thundrax explained. “We took samples of your taste buds – you still have them, but they mutated along with the rest of you – and we engineered some foods that would actually stimulate your palette. I’ve got about a dozen other samples. We wanted to improve your quality of life.”
“You did that for me?”
“Friends care. We lift each other up. Too many people in this business are just combat machines. A long time ago, one of the nastiest villains in my life challenged me to do better. I’ve tried ever since.”
“You listened to your enemies?” I wonder. “I’m impressed.”
“Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.” Carson’s giving another sermon again, but I’m listening. "A person can’t find their true potential if they’re hating themselves. And nutritional science has advanced a lot over the years.”
“Do you have one that tastes like a good steak?”
“Yes,” Carson says, and I laugh until it hurts.
And that was the turning point for me, tasting a fake plastic orange. From there, my saga gets pretty crazy – and beautiful. I want to leave Millennium, hell, I want to leave the damn country. I want a fresh start, there are way too many bad memories here. Carson gets some folks to arrange for a long worldwide cruise, and I get to see the world. It changed a lot in the thirty years I was logged off. I fell in love with Africa, of all places, and though it took a lot of wrangling, eventually I relocated in Kenya. The cities there aren’t all that much different than those in the States, and the country is beautiful. There are elephants. I love elephants. I became a local “friendly monster” in Mombasa, one of the coastal cities with some great beaches and parkland. Kids play all over me, and a pair of young women care for me. Tons of food have been made for me, and I’m happy. I can’t fight anymore, unless it’s an emergency, but everyone gets too old to fight, and you gotta accept it. You have to accept your limits before you can learn how to fly.
And that’s my story, so far. I’m still a monster, watching the world grow old around me, but it doesn’t hurt so much anymore. I’ve got a date with the reaper, but maybe, just maybe, Jeffrey Sinclair and I will walk through those pearly gates together. And maybe, just maybe, until that happens, my life can be beautiful.
Last edited by Thundrax; 05-05-2018 at 12:40 PM.
Re: War of the Dimensions
I Fall for Her Every Time
And so an unlikely angel tumbled from the sky, cast from the heavens into the heart of the Kansas farmlands.
Crap, thought Craig Carson as he descended, the world spinning, the uninviting solid ground spinning beneath him as he approached all too rapidly… Was this it?
Craig Carson’s thoughts had been consumed with Sarah. It hadn’t been that long since he had heard the report of her death, from a source that was damn near unimpeachable. The sky itself had seemed darker today, perhaps reflecting Craig’s mood, which was dark indeed. Powers were strange and terrible beasts, almost as strange as the people who wielded them. He had been flying over the American Midwest; not his usual route. But it was scenic, grand in its simplicity (at least from the sky). Craig was bound for Denver at Mach 3.2, his best flying speed, to pay a visit to Ted’s (Seventy-Six, former leader of Millennium’s Guardians team) brother Jake in Denver. A handsome young firefighter; Jake had asked if he was available. Craig had turned him down as politely as he could. Sex was an even more awkward subject for Craig than it was for most people, as awkward as it had been for him in the 80s, when a teenage Craig, exalting his newly minted superhuman body, realized he could pursue superheroics or women, and had decided that superheroics was the less embarrassing option.
But he liked Jake on a personal level, and Denver was so far from his usual haunts that he even felt a modicum of safety there. Also, he had always enjoyed the act of flying itself, even though it was a little hard to see when he exceeded Mach 2, when the wind forced itself into his eyes and stung like a hornet.
Craig had felt himself slowing a bit as his storm sense rattled and the world became staccato in his senses, like a bad videogame. To the south, a twister had been winding across an empty stretch of plains. It was already dissipating, and Craig contacted the National Weather Service to see if he was needed to evacuate people. They had told him not to bother, virtually no one lived in the area, and there were storm shelters for those who did. Craig simply scowled at the storm, which beat like a throbbing heart in his storm senses, pounding on his eardrums. It was reaching Maynard G. Krebs level of bongo, Craig thought as he shook his head and tried to clear his senses.
Maybard G. Krebbs. God, Craig you’re such a relic, he chided himself, as he watched the storm.
Tornadoes had always filled him with foreboding. He had some very nasty nightmares about then when he was 4, after he watched the Wizard of Oz for the first time. Oh, those damned winged monkeys! Scary as fuck when you’re tiny! Dad had come into the room and put his big arm around his shoulder, and even Jack had seemed concerned. It didn’t help. Craig should have been more appreciative at the time: six months later he wouldn’t have a father. No, five. Stupid movie. Pushing the film aside, Thundrax had made several passes over the area, watching the tornado dissipate into the clouds. He felt something, something like a knife scraping his skin. A moment of foreboding?
Then the world had started spinning, but not from a tornado. This was the mother of all vertigos. Craig’s first thoughts had been that he was under attack. He had slowed as best as he could manage, and prepared for a very awkward landing. He tumbled.
Fortunately, his powers hadn’t completely shut off until he was close to the ground, and he didn’t reach terminal velocity. But he landed hard, as though someone pulled out the rug from under a sumo wrestler. His right arm struck the ground awkwardly – a sprain, if not a break – and he bruised most of his body on the impact.
The rejected angel spat a series of obscenities into the sky.
“Kivioq…:” Craig moaned, silently counting his aches. But though his comm was working, he couldn’t manipulate enough electrical energy to transmit. Craig’s communicator was subdermal, operated by the subtle manipulation of his powers. “The hell?” the hero muttered.
After a few minutes, Craig worked up the energy to get to his feet, howling when tried to move his right arm, though he could put pressure on it. Inspecting the limb in the dim stormy light he couldn’t spot any sign of a fracture. But something was not right, he wasn’t healing, and after a quick test, he couldn’t fly either.
“Okay Craig,” he sighed. “Someone’s neutralized your powers yet again. Wonderful.”
Craig spotted a farm several miles in the distance. He had seen it from the sky, just before the world started spinning. The twister had given it a wide berth. The winds were still whipping pretty hard and there was a cloudburst. Both of these should have registered on his senses, his third eye, as he called it, but it had also closed. A black rain battered him, and Craig lay on the ground and shouted at it to stop. He knew it wouldn’t, and it did not.
After a few minutes, Craig worked up enough of an inner, determined fire, to walk to the distant farm. The rain was pounding heavily enough to sting his face, turning into tears, and the wind gusts sometimes stopped him in his tracks and even drove him back a step or two. But always the brawny, determined Canuck managed to regroup and force himself to push ahead.
“Not today,” he said. “Not ever.” But the storm laughed at his defiance.
So Craig hobbled ahead in the wind and rain, driven by discomfort and sheer force of will. He was the Living Thunder. Weather wasn’t going to stop him. Powers don’t make the man. He had not yet learned to control the tempest (save when he cast lightning bolts and flew) with any great precision, but felt that he was on reasonable terms with the elements, and this was a minor setback. “I’ve been betrayed,” he joked, chuckling to himself.
Maybe he would get his powers back. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he was stuck in a powerless version of his Thundrax body. Whatever. He would adapt. Maybe not as a superhero, but he could still perform some good in a world that badly needed it. That was all he wanted. He was a performer, and kindness was his act, a form of stage magic. Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat? Here’s me feeding a thousand hungry people. That’s one helluva rabbit.
Oh, the things that a man can do in this world.
UNTIL tried to hail him repeatedly, but he could not transmit an answer. The angel had been cast down to earth, to Kansas, and he was a bit hobbled. It didn’t matter to Craig. The comm told him that whatever had happened, the phenomenon was global. Magical supers from Black Paladin (wait, he had escaped imprisonment in Hell? Again?) to Witchcraft to a team in India which he had never heard about had lost their abilities. They hadn’t keeled over and died, nor had they vanished from existence. But something big had gone down.
Craig remembered a similar occasion when Destroyer had neutralized every superhuman on the planet, way back in 1991. These things just happened, and a superhuman who couldn’t roll with the punches didn’t last long in the profession. Roll with the weird.
Craig’s train of thoughts was running wildly, but they helped him ignore the deluge and made the time pass more quickly. It always did. Eventually the farmhouse he had seen in the distance became less distant, though the prairie maintained the selfsame awesome vastness. In winter, he thought, this must be a bleak landscape indeed. Even Saskatchewan had more hills. Despite the vastness, the weather had imposed a childish untidiness, with telephone wires that had been knocked over in the storm scattered like children’s toys. He was still getting the UNTIL channel on his internal comm, but that was thanks to UNSAT, and the signal was mercifully faint. He stepped over the gate, which had been pushed over to the storm. He made his way to the door, noticing the forlorn baying of many goats from a distant barn. Poor animals, he thought, but in this weather and its quickly encroaching aftermath, the “poor animals” included people too. The house was a rancher, brown planks and white metal, good wood and aluminum siding. Looks like it was built in the 70s, or so Craig judged. He liked country homes – they weren’t as cramped as many he had seen in the city. And, being a guy (or so he thought) he respected the need to spread out and claim space.
He rang the doorbell, three rings actually, but it wasn’t working. He knocked on the door, but no one answered. Dejected, Craig plunked himself down on the porch, not caring about the damp. He may have lost his powers, but his suit was still water resistant. But where exactly was he? He knew he was somewhere over southern Kansas, or maybe the western part of Missouri. There were no borders for the skyward traveler. And in his situation, did it really matter?
“Oh Jake. If I hadn’t stopped for that stupid burger in Indiana, I’d be in Denver right now,” he moaned. It hadn’t even been a very good burger: cold and soggy and a patty tasted like sawdust. Just like him right now. And he continued to wait and soak in the rain. He hoped that after a few minutes, his powers might return, but he didn’t feel nary a spark.
About ten minutes later, with Craig ready to depart in a fit of boredom (he never had much of an attention span), a woman came trudging to the door. She was just on the border of middle age, a tad younger, clad in jeans and a denim shirt which, against all odds, looked recently laundered. Must be the owner. Craig straightened out his suit – this was one of the few times he actually could feel it riding up his crotch, and he smiled at the woman.
“Hi. I’m an evil Canadian socialist scumbag, and I need to phone for a lift,” Craig said. “May I come in?”
Way to be a jerk, Craig, he told himself. Dude, turn off the banter.
“Hi,” the woman said with recognition in her eyes. “I don’t really have the welcome mat out – not in the middle of this flipping storm – but I suppose I can be neighborly to my neighbor from the north. One phone call. Just don’t drag the press back here, capeboy.”
Craig chuckled and nodded, and held up his injured wing. She gasped. “You’ve been hurt.”
“Fell out of the sky.”
The woman nodded. “I did recognize the tights, Mr. Carson,” she told him. It wasn’t as though Craig wasn’t one of the most recognizable supers on the planet. This wasn’t Caprice, which catered to the myopic; the real world recognized its own. “What could knock a fella like you out of the air?”
“The magical equivalent of an EMP, I’m guessing,” Thundrax answered.
“Magical?” the woman said, her voice deeply tinged by skepticism. Unlike Millennium, few people in the real world bought into the presence of the mystical. Craig smiled.
“Just call it weird science. Everyone else does,” the hero said, and he pulled himself to his feet. “I really would appreciate a sling for the arm.”
“How’d you break that big hamhock?” the woman asked.
“Didn’t. Think it’s just a sprain,” Craig replied.
“I’ll do what I can.”
“Thanks. You have a name?”
“Yes,” the woman smirked.
“And what might it be?”
“Marjorie. Marjorie Harris. Just call me Marg. Or what everyone else does, mom.”
Craig laughed. “You know who I am, but friends call me Craig,” he said.
“It’s a little early to be calling us friends,” Marg remarked.
“I try to be as friendly as possible, and early is better than later.”
“That’s not what they say on Fox,” she answered, referring to the news channel.
“No, they sure don’t,” Craig answered with a laugh. He followed her into her house, which to Craig’s dismay, looked like a branch office for the Republican party, up to and including a picture of Ronnie Reagan. The decor was folktale America, smart and practical and simple, with a lot of dark woods. She led hun into her kitchen to dry off, and lady handed him a stack of towels.
“Reagan, eh?” Craig said, looking at the framed painting on the wall next to an American flag.
“Yep,” Marg laughed. “We’ll have to get an exorcist in here after you’re gone to get rid of the stench of liberal,” she remarked. Craig laughed again. “What’s the joke?” his host deadpanned, but with a twinkle in her eye. Then they got to the important business of swapping stories. Marjorie Harris had inherited the farm from her first husband, who had died of cancer. Just like mom, Craig thought. She actually revealed her age, 46, when she mentioned that her three children had flown the coop.
“Randy would be pissing himself right now,” Marj told him. “The boy don’t like your politics, but he loves your right hook. Especially when it connects with some villain’s jawline.”
“Thanks. Wish he was here so I could meet him,” Craig said.
“He’d want to punch you,” Marjorie said.
Craig laughed again. “Everyone wants to do that,” he answered.
Despite his injured wing, Craig insisted on helping the lady recover from the storm as best she could. There were a million chores to be done in the wake of the tempest. and Craig insisted that he help out to the best of his ability. He tried to help gather some goats, one-armed and powerless, and slipped three times on the mud. Marg laughed harder each time.
“We’d better get you out of that costume. It’s as dirty as sin.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad.” Thundrax admitted “You got anything that would fit?”
“My oldest boy’s shorts and T-shirt. Maybe.” Craig nodded and accepted the change in clothes, though they were a little dull. He wasn’t used to looking into a mirror and seeing Farmboy Carson grinning back like a cornfed moron. Heh.
The comm was still chirping, though fortunately at a barely audible volume. The reports were coming in like an out of control stock ticker. A lot of people had lost their powers. And the culling had begun. Someone had tried to kill Dr. Eclipse in Boston, and though the New Paladins had saved her life, she had been seriously injured. Team of mercs, maybe VIPER. In New Haven, a wacky, harmless villain named the Blue Manticore had been murdered, possibly by an offshoot of the same attack squad. That one, though, efinitely wasn’t VIPER, just some men in black. “Someone may be attacking targets rendered powerless by the anti-magic wave,” the dispatcher warned.
“Eh?” Craig wondered out loud. IHA or Purge, maybe? Invictus again? Viceroy was still at large and plotting somewhere. Or maybe it was Furious Storm, that guy who had once controlled his friend Gabe and sent him on a rampage. He hadn’t been seen in years.
“What’s the matter?” Marg asked.
“Nothing,” Craig replied. Even if someone was attacking magical supers, it was unlikely that he would be a target. There were easier targets to get to than some Vancouver kid who had fallen to Kansas.
Or that’s what he told himself. Sometimes Craig was too humble for his own damn good.
They spent the rest of the day inspecting the farm, and doing emergency repairs to the goat pens. It was hard work, but even with a damaged wing, Craig did the best he could, and that was very good indeed. During a break, Craig finally worked up the courage to tell her about the attack squad reports – a third had come in, again men in black and not VIPER – and inquire about her husband. “Dead,” she said. “Supervillain named the Tar Baby suffocated him.”
“I’m sorry,” Craig said, as much out of reflex as contrition. “Is he still at large? I’ve never heard of a Tar Baby, apart from the old fable about the rabbit.”
“He was just a punk kid. Went to St. Louis and got nabbed by some woman who wore a cape and a crown and thrown in jail.”
“Not sure. She came to the farm once though. She was nice enough, but she sure was funny looking. God, I told her. You fight crime in a bikini?”
Craig laughed. “I’ve been known to take off my shirt once in awhile,” he admitted.
Supper was light, as there was still no power, so the two ate from cans of baked beans and had a few ham slices. Marg rescued a pail of ice cream from the freezer, and shared it between thenm before it melted. They gorged themselves on rocky ripple. Craig slept in her oldest boy’s room, doing his best to fit on the bed. There were pinups of several young female country singers all over his room. Craig had never heard of Miranda Lambert before, she was very, very blond, as blond as he (and that sometimes embarrassed Craig). Hopefully her voice was as pretty as her picture.
As he was drifting to sleep, Craig could feel someone walking in his mind. Probably an UNTIL telepath, he decided. But he was too groggy to try to raise a conversation, and he quickly drifted to sleep. He kicked himself for that in the morning.
With the morning also came breakfast, which was steaming on the griddle. Marg had gotten a small generator working, and they had waffles, scrambled eggs and bacon: as all-American as it got. Craig sighed, not used to other people serving him in their homes, and he promised himself that he’d work for it if she asked. But the wi-fi was still down, as were their internet and phone lines. Craig reminded himself that he should send her one of his company’s portable solar stations as a way of saying thanks.
“Somebody should have flown a netbot here,” Craig opined, referring to the latest fashion in drones.
“We like our privacy in this county.” Marg replied. “Though I can’t imagine it’s going to be down for too much longer.”
Craig sighed and monitored the channels. “Somebody’s taking a run at people affected by whatever happened. UNTIL’s advising anyone affected by the “EMP” to lay low and go to ground.”
“United Nations ain’t too popular in these parts.” Marg said.
Craig sighed. “Everyone needs a scapegoat,” the hero replied, a little ungraciously. Marg just snorted and shoveled hash browns on his plate. She promised to take him to the nearest town so he could contact the army. “They can protect you better than a woman with a few guns, if it comes down to that.”
“It won’t.” Craig said. “Someone watches too much bad television.”
“That crap will rot your brain.”
“Human brains are stronger than you give them credit for.” Craig said.
“Have you sat down lately and watched daytime TV?” Marg asked.
After breakfast, they climbed into a pickup truck and headed to town. But the pair was doomed to disappointment. There was only one crossing over a small river, and the bridge had been taken out by the storm. Marg cursed.
“Any deserted farms nearby?” Craig asked. Marg shook her head and pointed across the river. “Well, that’s no good,” the hero muttered.
“We can take refuge in the tornado shelter,” Marg suggested.
“No, we’ll be trapped there. Odds are low that anyone will come after me here, but we need to be prepared just in case.
Any firearms in the house?” Marj snorted and stifled a laugh.
“I thought all you Canajuns hated guns.”
“Not all of us, but I do.” Craig answered. “Violence in general is wrong. I’ve hated every punch I’ve ever thrown in a real fight, and I’ve thrown thousands. But everything has its time and place, and you don’t last over thirty years in this business by being stupid.”
“Or a pacifist.”
“Sadly no,” Craig admitted. “Np Gandhis allowed in the superhuman club, I’m afraid. And I learned a lot from the RCMP.”
“And from All-Star?” Marg asked, referring to an ex-teammate on the Protectors. He was Marg’s eldest son’s favorite hero, a man without compromises, known for a nasty gun and nastier mouth.
“Only how to be a jerk.” Craig answered. He and Nate’s relationship had been contentious at best.
Marg led them to her husband’s firearms cabinet, and Craig loaded up with a shotgun and a lot of shells. “You can use that with the arm?”
“It’s feeling a little better today,” Craig said, not lying, but damn, he missed his superhuman healing right now. “I wouldn’t mind something usable against aircraft.”
“Even Americans don’t need that to be a farmer.”
Craig wandered over to a vanity, where there was a picture of a rangy young man in overalls. This wasn’t her husband, and the picture had been notably pushed back on a cluttered shelf. “Your brother?”
“Nope. My second. We divorced last year.” Marg said, her voice not hiding the scars. “Jeffrey ran off with someone younger and prettier. And atheist. I think he’s in Kansas City. The boys liked him, and at least he sends the cheques on time.” She paused and peered up at Craig, if trying to understand him. “What about you?”
“I was in a relationship.” Her face twitched at the word. Relationship was the liberal way of saying you’re too much of a coward to get married. “She kept putting off the wedding, and finally broke it off altogether. Her name was Sarah.”
“What was she like?”
“A tigress. Almost literally,” Craig chuckled. “She was pretty. Not gorgeous, not in the arm candy. super model sorta way, but I loved to look at her. I could spend hours just looking at her. And she was beyond brilliant, her intellect was breathtaking. But she was also a private person,” Craig answered. “Very private. She hated the spotlight, at a time when I was drowning in floodlights. After the whole registration sponsorship thing.” Craig was inspecting his weapon as he talked.
The perfunctory tone was enough to tell Craig to drop the subject. “Sarah was engineered,” he recollected. “She was designed as a perfect killing machine, but desperately wanted to go beyond that.”
“We could use her right now.”
“She’s… gone,” Craig said.
“Oh. I’m sorry Carson.” Craig nodded, peering into her brown eyes. They were pretty too, Craig told himself, and then he chided himself over the distraction. Survival came first. Craig finished his inspection of the murderstick, and found it satisfactory. He loaded his pocket with shells. “How did she die?”
She joined with a cybercollective and lost her individuality, Craig might have said. But he couldn’t go there yet. “It was a unique death,” he finally said. “For a unique person.”
“Dead is dead,” Marg said, bitterly reflecting on her own loss. All Craig could do was nod. “I miss mine ttoo,” she said after a long silence.
Craig quickly changed the subject. His unwillingness to talk about the woman was almost comical. “If someone is sent after us, you’ll be a target, Marg. Is there any place you can go to be safe?”
“Not if they don’t want no witnesses, or kill everyone out of spite. You’re stuck with me, Carson,” she replied.
“Been stuck with worse,” Craig said.
Craig examined the landscape around him, and decided it was an enemy. Any potential attackers would certainly outgun them – sorry Second Amendment fans – and though there were plenty of places to find cover, they would be pinned down as soon as they took advantage of them. Maybe if hey were lucky, UNTIL would find them first.
At two o’clock, a black helicopter did a low pass of the property. It was black, unmarked. “We aren’t lucky.” Craig sighed.
“Should we hail them?” Marg asked.
“No,” Craig answered in a tone that was definitive. Though it hurt like hell to use his arm, he readied the shotgun. “You’d best stay down.” He peered out the window. Worse case scenario, hide until I’m dead and they’re gone.”
“Don’t be a hero? God, Craig, you’re such a hypocrite.”
“I know,” the hero replied. “Now do what the hypocrite says, eh?”
Craig propped up a sofa for cover, readied a cloth, wet it, and tied it around his mouth. He would give anything to be able to see into the infrared spectrum, a trick he could occasionally pull off when the lighting was just right. “Mr. Carson!” a bullhorn blared. “This is the FBI. We know what’s happened. We’re here to restore your powers. Just come out now. It will only take a couple of minutes.”
Craig almost laughed. He turned to Marg and shook his head. “Okay,” the voice said. “We’re coming in now. Please cooperate, and this will be as painless as possible.”
“I’ll bet,” Craig muttered, cradling the shotgun.
“What if they’re the real FBI?” Marg asked.
“The real feds would be a lot more patient,” Craig said. “And they would have assessed our medical situation first.”
“Mr. Carson, VIPER is on its way. It’s imperative that you leave now.”
“None of the other attacks were VIPER,” Craig noted to Marg in a hushed voice. It hurt him to absolve the snakes; that hurt worse than the damn arm! “I heard the report about the other attacks. VIPER wouldn’t make a statement and not wear their uniforms.”
“You’re basing this on fashion?” Marg was deeply skeptical.
“Yep. Clothes make the snake. Whoever’s doing this is being systematic, but it’s not VIPER.”
“Too bad it’weren’t the snakes,” Marg muttered. “Buncha retards in pajamas.”
“No. If this outfit was VIPER, we’d already be dead,” Craig answered. Unlike others, thirty-plus years of fighting the terrorist group had given him more than a little respect (much as he hated them) for the effectiveness of the group that had killed so many of his friends.
“We gonna answer them?” Marg asked.
“Only with this,” Craig answered, brandishing the shotgun.
Minutes later, the door was kicked in, and as Craig foresaw, a tear gas grenade was thrown the enclosure. Craig didn’t hesitate. He stood up, aimed at the opening, and fired as soon as he heard the footsteps near the door. Both barrels. God, the kickback hurt. Son of a bitch. Then there was a odd silence. Without a word, Craig scampered back, doing his best to reload while his lungs were stinging and his eyes were watering. The world exploded behind them with autocannon fire from the helicopter. The time for pretenses was over.
Craig groaned and staggered while he struggled to reload with a badly hurt arm and now, a significant bruised sternum where he held the shotgun. Marg had already made her way down a small hallway to the kitchen and had taken cover. Out of the tear gas cloud came a second grenade. Craig, however, had time to kick it back and dash ahead before it detonated, and turned a corner so most of the shrapnel ended up in the drywall. The grenade went off with a spectacular boom.
“Damn, that was lucky,” he shouted as he struggled to reload. Marg turned around the corner and fired two rounds into the cloud of tear gas. She couldn’t tell if the shots had hit anything, or even if there were people there to be hit.
“Told you to stay down.”
“You did?” Marg said, and she turned and fired another shot. Craig might have admired her poise, she moved like a trained soldier. He wondered who taught her that. In his business, that skill was a lifesaver. She rounded the corner before they could return fire, but no one did. The autocannon could have killed their own men. “If I’d stayed down in there, I’d probably be dead.”
She was right, but there was no time to acknowledge her, or so Craig told himself. Coward. The helicopter was nearby, and God was it loud, battering their eardrums and rattling every piece of glass in the house. Probably depositing soldiers on their flank. From Craig’s brief glimpse, it wasn’t a military copter, just a refit, but a refit with an autocannon was dangerous enough. Likely, they were being herded into a killzone.
“Back the way we came,” Craig decided, hoping that he was right about the men behind him no longer being a threat. He was taking deep breaths now, and his heart was a jackhammer. Thump thump thump. Marg was scarcely less tired, and a good deal more frightened. Also buzzing in Craig’s pounding eardrums was a frantic message about one of the hostiles spotted in a remote section of eastern Kansas, and a team sent to intercept. Cavalry. But could they keep out of the way of the helicopter’s guns in time?
More gunfire was dispatched, this time through the kitchen window. Craig’s instincts were true, though, the pivot back had saved their lives. Marg looked back at her now destroyed kitchen with a sob. “Bastards,” she muttered. Then she saw the bodies, men clad in black, some parts of them destroyed red smears, and briefly froze in horror.
Son of a bitch, this is butcher’s work.
Craig pushed the two dead bodies out of their path with an adroit foot, and then moved without hesitation. Grabbing Marg with his good arm, he charged out of the rubble strewn hole that had once been a front door, stumbling but not falling. The helicopter was not in sight, but it was very audible. Craig pulled the woman toward a field to their right, the west side of the house. There was a gardener’s shed there. Craig surveyed the farm with new eyes.
“All these open fields suck,” he decided. "What I wouldn't give for fir trees."
The helicopter made a pass above them, but the pilot was flying a little too low, looking for good shots rather than a target. Sign of an amateur, Craig thought. The average VIPER pilot wouldn’t have made such a mistake. They bolted for the shed. He estimated it was fifteen meters, maybe twenty. Haul ass, Craig.
Their lungs burning with exhaustion, adrenaline, and traces of tear gas, the pair took refuge in the shelf. They panted.
“What if they blow up the shed?” Marg asked.
“They do have grenades,” Craig noted. “And you’re probably right that we do need the space. so we do need space.
They’re going to notice our bodies aren’t in the house soon, and the barn’s at least four hundred yards away, across open fields, without a lick of cover. So your choice, Marg. Do you want to probably die here, or make a run for the barn, and probably die there, even if we managed to make it.”
“Barn,” Marg said. “Die alongside my goats,” she added with a smile.
“Well, if they’re going to kill us, at least they’re going to be forced to breathe in the smell of goat shit.” And so they began their last run.
At around the three hundred meter mark, with Craig holding Marg with one arm, North by Northwest style, they heard shouts behind them. “Get em!” one of them cried, as predictable as bad cinema.
Craig rounded into the barn and slammed and barred the door behind him, groaning as he worked the bad arm. He estimated they had about thirty seconds to prepare themselves. Craig exchanged the shotgun for a pistol and took a position in a hayloft. Marg took up a rifle – bolt action, a good one – and found a corner behind a feed. The door rattled a few times and voices were shouting outside. Even Craig, who was alert and had excellent hearing, couldn’t discern what they were barking. Then the door blew open – they had used C-4 and a detonator. The goats were alarmed and burst into a chorus of panicked braying.
In better days, Craig would have stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips in the Superman pose, grinning as the bullets massaged his chest. Probably making a cheesy, obnoxious Silver age quip like “that tickles” when the grenades came rolling in, like marching song saints at Mardi Gras. But no, even when he had his powers, it had never been that cheesy. Silver age cheese was for Vanguard on his better days, and he was long dead. Now all Craig had was a prickly farmer’s wife and a herd of screaming goats, and enemies were at the door.
Smoke grenades came pouring through the entry, and the guards were rushing. They were almost directly beneath Craig. This is it, the Canadian decided, and the wounded bear pounced down upon its prey, snarling.
Shots rang out, punches were thrown. Craig’s agility was amazing for a man of his size. When motivated, he moved like a gymnast. He wasn’t quite on Nate’s level, who performed a spectacular acrobatic death dance accompanied by impossible shooting, or Sparrowhawk, who did much the same but with electrified batons, but it was still a marvel to witness. Way better than any of the combats in Thundrax: The Movie.
The opponents were armored, but at SWAT level at best, and their body armor proved a poor defense against Craig’s punches, even without his super strength, not after he wrenched off their helmets. The agent whose helmet wasn’t torn off received a knee in the groin, hard enough to crack his cup, and a second knee did the job. Should have been steel and not plastic. A movie fight choreographer would have grinned at the sight, provided he didn’t have the common sense to be terrified out of his mind. Two of the agents fell quickly, and before he knew it, Thundrax was engaging a third agent, combat knife in hand. Craig grabbed a pitchfork. They swung at each other, but those were “getting to know you” swings, ,missing wildly. He grunted as he swung.
“I’m gutting you, Carson,” he hissed under his breath. More bad movie dialogue.
“Take your best shot, pal.” Craig replied in kind.
The fourth agent drew a handgun and aimed at Craig’s head, only to go down when Marg, rifle in hand, shot the man in the back. Craig nodded and sliced his man in the arm, and then caught him below the ribs and pinned him against the wall with a sudden charge. The man swung at him with the knife, catching him in the upper chest, but it wasn’t a fatal spot, and the adrenaline was pumping quickly enough to dull the pain. Two left hooks were sufficient enough to end the fight. It did not, however, end the braying of the goats.
Craig moved to examine the agents while binding them up. The chopper made several passes of the barn, once firing a futile bust into the roof. “Stay away from the opening,” Craig said.
The helicopter made one more pass, then tried to gain altitude before it exploded in a pretty burst of air to air missile fire. UNTIL had arrived.
“Thank God,” Marg said, collapsing to her knees and sobbing from relief and exhaustion. Craig held her until she stopped sobbing and quivering.
“I’m a damn fool,” she said.
“No,” Craig answered her. “You’re fucking strong.”
“Don’t feel strong,” Marg answered. “And stop swearing.”
“Yes ma’am,” Craig agreed, and he let her go and began to examine the surviving agents. He tore off strips of one of the survivor’s clothes and fashioned them into bandages.
“Let the bastard bleed.” Marg replied, spitting the words.
“Don’t swear,” Craig chided her. But she was not in the mood to laugh at jokes.
“He’s only going to cause more misery.”
“I don’t leave people to die. Are you pro-life, Marg?”
“I ain’t pro-killer,” she spat. “Maybe you should stop being a damn hero and trying to save everyone.”
Craig groaned and clutched the wound in his side again. “We need one of them alive so the authorities can question him,” Craig said. “I may act like a social activist with muscles, but I’ve always had practical reasons to back my moral stances. Killing is both wrong and stupid.”
“Fine. They’ll probably just put him in one of those prisons with the soft comfy chairs.”
“There are no prisons with soft comfy chairs.” Craig said.
“And cushions,” Marg added, scowling. “He’s probably just got a suicide pill or something.”
Craig smiled and held up a capsule. “We got to him in time,” he said, chuckling. “Don’t touch the bodies, they’re now evidence.”
“Evidence of them being evil pieces of crap?” Marg said, holding about a dozen cuss words in reserve.
“That too,” Craig said, and he limped to the bathroom and brought out a large first aid kit. He began to treat the agent’s wounds, but he used duct tape to tie his hands and feet together first.
“What if he comes after you for revenge?” Marg asked.
“What if he reforms and wins the Nobel Peace Prize?” Craig answered.
“I’m putting my money on revenge,” Marg said, and her attention was turned to the outside. There was the sound of a second helicopter. “Oh, oh.” Marg said.
Craig bolted to the window and took a quick peak, rifle at the ready. “UNTIL markings.”
“Almost as bad as the last one,” Marg snapped.
“The UNTIL channel on my comm is buzzing. It’s them.”
The rest of the story was a blur to the woman. A bridgelayer had been placed over the river, an an APC with a squad of UNTIL agents arrived to rescue them. To their dismay, Craig ordered them to form a pair of work details and repair the farm. “The lady’s been told that all UNTIL does is intrude on American soil.” He told them. “Let’s prove her wrong. I’ll foot the bill for the repairs.” While the agents grudgingly labored, Craig and Marg’s wounds were treated and they were driven to Kansas City to recuperate. They stayed in separate rooms, but sometime after midnight, after a nasty nightmare and trembling like an old woman, Marg knocked on Craig’s door and kept answering it until the bleary-eyed Canadian, clad in a deep blue bathrobe, was forced to acknowledge her.
“I’m sorry, Craig,” the farm woman said. “I can’t be alone tonight. I tried.”
“I’d welcome company too.”
In the morning, Craig awoke, and he felt the clouds congeal and blow, and a light rain was falling. Craig smiled, and he knew his powers had returned. Tuning into the Starforce frequency, he learned what had happened. The Justice Squadron had defeated an outfit unimaginatively calling themselves the Blackguard. Probably the third or fourth outfit to use that name, and not anywhere in the league of the previous one, Warblade’s team. They had stolen some magic doohickey, a mystic origins superpowers cockblocker, but Brawler, with the help of a conveniently stockpiled rocket launcher, had blown it up. The guy was almost as much a jerk as Nate, but like Nate (though he’d never admit it), he got things done.
“I guess I’d better head back to Millennium,” Craig said, forgetting poor Jake in Denver. “You wanna come see some sights?”
“Maybe one day, Craig,” Marg said.
“You sure?” Craig asked.”It’s a real nice city. All the conveniences, and a little more.”
“Would I be able to drive my truck there?” she asked, knowing that Millennium’s automated traffic system wouldn’t allow it. Thundrax shook his head. “I really can’t, Craig. I’m a woman of the soil. Practically half-plant myself.” She laughed, but it was tinged with a little sadness. “I don’t do well when people try to uproot me. I need my home soil. I need the smell of goats and dirt in my fingernails.”
Craig had no words. Both the hero and the woman sagged in disappointment. The silence that followed was agony. Finally, the hero straightened himself, curtly thanked the woman for all she had done, and went skyborne. Though he checked up on her from time to time, they never saw each other again.
“And that’s the story,” Marg said, looking up at her son. “Craig Carson was your father.”
Kyle Harris stretched his rangy, muscular limbs –the kid was extraordinarily well-built for an eighteen year old, and had (as his mom said) three levels in Heartbreaking, and stared at the picture of his dad, his mind lost in the vertigo of revelation. “So a god from Canada fell to Kansas and he’s my dad?”
“Thundrax was one of the big heroes of his day. At least for a few years, after he put his thumb in the eye of the registration laws and found a few loopholes. Yep, I’m afraid that’s your secret shame. Your dad was… a liberal.”
Kyle laughed and mussed his red hair, which he wore too long for his mother’s liking. “Oh mom,” he laughed. “But he was a good man?”
“Good? One of the best. But not perfect. A long way from perfect. As I said, liberal.”
“Did you love him, mom?” Marg shook her head in response to the question.
“Real love is a house, and what we had on that night was only a lean to,” she said. “I liked him well enough. Now if I’d met him twenty years earlier, I would have been speechless. He was breathtakingly handsome. But what he gave me, now that was the most special part. It’s why I’ll always love him, the gift.” Kyle smiled at the remark. “Son, you have a legacy to live toward. And some of it, the reckless courage part of that legacy, I’d rather you didn’t try to live up to. But the rest of it… ”
“I’m pretty reckless.”
“I know.” Marg’s reply was sad and resigned. She long gazed at her son, hoping the sight of him would burn in her retinas and never be taken away.
“We’ll see mom. We’ll see.” Kyle promised.
And that was the moment the second Thundrax was born.
Last edited by Thundrax; 05-05-2018 at 12:44 PM.
Re: War of the Dimensions
Time Enough for War
Warning: Language, Nazis.
“Hi Craig,” Captain Chronos said, appearing out of nowhere. “Do you have time to save the world today?”
Craig Carson, immersed in a biography of Bertrand Russell. Thank goodness he was something of a speed reader. “Sure,” the hero said.
Suddenly the hero found himself standing on a broad flat plain, and a fleet of warplanes soared overhead. They looked like Lancasters, old World War 2 British bombers. “Me and my big mouth,” he huffed. “Hey, Chronos, don’t I get a briefing? Maybe time to call my teammates? Don’t leave me in the dark.”
Nothing answered him except the buzz in the skies. Wasps of the air, metal skinned, they buzzed over the clouds, looking for something to sting. And by the profanity of profanities, did they sting! Craig knew them well enough, too well for comfort. He could picture the earth beneath them, exploding in geysers of thrown turf and death and crumbling stone. He was no soldier, but he had seen war, way too many times. Now he was come again to yet another battlefield. A man of peace and a builder awash, as always, in strife.
That must have been one of the reasons he’d been chosen. Need someone to fight a war? Call Craig Carson? Need a modern-day gladiator? Here’s good ol’ Craig! Can’t be bothered to give a briefing? Don’t worry, Craig will figure it out!
“Fuck it,” the hero sighed, and he just shook his head and plopped down in the middle of the field and watched the sky, craning his golden head and straining his blue eyes. A muscle-bound Buddha. It was surreal. The Lancasters weren’t a symbol of war to him; they reminded him of when he was 17, when he first appeared at the Abbotsford Air Show at the behest of UNTIL, for publicity, and he spent a scorching hot Saturday on the tarmac chatting up the pilots of vintage war machines. It had been quite a show. Then, the planes had seemed like charming relics, curios of a bygone age, and fun to fly along side. Here, working according to their original purpose, they were engines of death, and they scarred the skies with threats of fire, too often consummated. Craig looked at them with totally different eyes.
And they were endless. Flying in formation, its engines roaring in thunder, there were hundreds of Lancasters in the fleet. The formation, a flying “V”, imitated a flight of geese, and extended ten miles. The earth shook under them as they passed overhead.
“Holy shit,” Craig said, as the endless formation winged overhead, the Allies gift to Hitler, bringers of death. And he remembered Dresden and shuddered. Long ago, Shamus had told him there were no clean heroes. Not in the costumed trade, and this was triply true in war.
After awhile, the Lancasters passed overhead and flew out of sight, and the earth stopped shaking. Craig realized that he had been distracted, that he needed to test his capabilities, so with a thought, he made the lightning dance on his fingers. The bolts danced well enough. Thundrax worried that in the dawn of the age of the supermen, whose powers paled in comparison with those who came thereafter, the Living Thunder might be reduced. It was not. He took a minute to concentrate on the local weather: hint of a storm, thunder at dusk, almost perfect weather for a man in a storm god’s body. After awhile, he sensed variations in the weather patterns; the flow was different at the upper altitudes. He had never walked this ground before, but he had been to Europe on numerous occasions, and he recognized the airstream, the Gulf Current. Now that was a new power development, being able to discern geography from the weather. That might be useful one day.
The fury of the Lancasters’ thousands of engines had been replaced by an eerie quiet, and the gradual rising of the grass tossed by the wind. It was cool, Craig would guess it was mid-autumn. He made a note of it. Every bit of data could be a life-saver.
“Uh, excuse me, Captain,” Craig shouted at the empty field. “Captain Chronos>? I’d be able to do this mission a whole lot better if I knew just what the hell was going on. Briefing please?” There was no answer. “Worse than Incubus,” he muttered, glaring at the white sky.
As the sun started to wane, Craig got restless. He rose to his feet and began to move. It was a long trek through open fields, leading to a small dirt road by a creek that was almost as straight as a canal. The silence of the land was absolute: to quote Farley Mowat “and no birds sang”. The planes had probably scared away the birds. The terrain was flat; it reminded Craig of Kansas, save for mountains in the distant south and east. The land was dotted with copses of trees, but the stumps outnumbered the living trees; the milling had been relentless and desperate. Craig examined them, juniper and black pine; they were not the trees of home.
“Somewhere, over the rainbow…” Craig sang to himself. “I was left high and dry…” He chuckled. “And I’m wondering and pondering, whether this is the place I’ll die.” His song ended. The powerful hero made for the most unlikely of Dorothys. He could fly over the rainbow. “Well, if I’m going to die here, at least it’ll be the shade.”
It was near one of these copses of trees that men in uniform approached him. Soldiers. Craig decided to back away, only to turn around and find a man with a rifle trained on him, wearing the uniform of the 3rd Infantry battalion of the Princess Pats. Craig recognized the uniform, but the badge was unfamiliar to him. His grandfather had served in Italy with the Hastings and Prince Edwards regiment, the Easy Es. Startled, the man trained a Lee-Ensfield rifle, dead on his chest. It may as well have been a stick. The corporal was shaking as if Craig were a ghost.
“Sergeant!” he shouted in the direction of the troops. “Sergeant!”
“Oh shit,” Craig sighed, and he threw up his hands.
“Sarge, come quickly!”
Craig decided he needed answers more than he needed to escape, so he held his ground. “What’s your name, Corporal?”
“Shut up,” the man told him.
“Who’s asking me to shut up?” Craig asked.
“I said, shut up, ubermensch!”
“Ubermensch?” Craig questioned. “You think I’m German? Uh, look. Corporal? See the Leaf on my chest? I’m as Canadian as you. See?” he pointed to the maple leaf on his chest. “Our flag… oh wait a minute, that doesn’t become the flag until 1965… well the leaf was still on some provincial flags.”
“I said, shut up!” the corporal yelped in a high-pitched tone, as his comrades joined him, taking up a circle around the hero. They gaped at each other in wonder and horror.
“It’s Sturmvogel!” one of the men shouted. “Fire!”
“Wait!” Craig roared. “Wait! You’re too close! Back off!” Bullets bounce off me! You’ll get hit by the ricochets! Back off!
The sergeant gulped. “Company, belay that. Ziolkowski, Radio HQ. Tell them we’ve captured Sturmvogel. We need backup. Raise the Ensign.”
“What?” Craig said. He immediately set his comm link to jam the signal. Fortunately, WW2 radio equipment was primitive, compared to the tech in Craig’s comm implant. A little prick of lightning played the comm like a fine instrument.
“We’re just getting static, sir,” a technician reported.
“You’re making a mistake,” Craig said. Sturmvogel was the premier Nazi fighting uber of the war, Totenkopf’s retribution, the spear in Hitler’s right hand. “How can you mistake me for Sturmvogel?” Craig scoffed. “Just because I’m tall, buff, and blond, and have powers of superstrength and lightning projection, and got my powers from being struck by a bolt of mystic lightning and waking up in a hospital with my clothes blown off, but no worse for wear…”
Craig’s face suddenly went ashen. Sturmvogel even died in 1983, just days before Craig got his powers!
Oh my God... I am fucking Sturmvogel. Am I connected to the most famous Nazi villain of the war? He had never made the connection before. How could he have missed such an obvious connection?
“I didn’t realize that Sturmvogel spoke such good English,” the master corporal remarked.
“I’m not (*&%$# Sturmvogel,” Craig protested, using the “word that won the war”. “I’m Canadian. I’m from Vancouver. I was born at 2311 Turner, just a block west of Nanaimo Street. About a mile west of the PNE. A house built in the 20s, like all the homes around it, pitched roof, single story. Swing in the back yard tied to an old oak tree. We had this mutant French poodle who shat all over the backyard. Believe it or not, it was named Frisky. Dad named him.”
“If you’re Canadian, who won the Stanley Cup?” a man asked.
“I don’t know. What year is this?” Craig snapped. “If the Allies are bombing mainland Europe, ’44? 45? If it’s 1944, I think that’s the season that the Rocket got 50 goals in 50 games.”
“He only got 32 goals.” An infantryman said.
“Okay, my mistake. Maybe that happened in 44-45, not 43-44,” Craig corrected. “Still a great player.”
“Who’s in goal for the Canadiens?”
“I don’t know,” Craig snapped. “1944’s probably way too early for Jacques Plante, and that’s the earliest goalie I know.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” a soldier asked.
“Maybe he’s delusional,” another mused.
“Let’s give him a fair hearing,” the sergeant said.
“Oh wait, I got it!” Craig exclaimed. “I think. It’s Bill Durnan, right?”
“Who’s their coach?”
“Um, Toe Blake, right?” Craig shrugged. He saw the jaundiced look on the man’s faces. “I guess he’s not.”
“It’s Dick Irvin.”
“Shit, I should have known that,” Craig could have slapped himself.
“Blake’s a player, not a coach,” one of the men scoffed.
“For now.” Craig said. “Give him ten years, and he’ll be the greatest coach in NHL history. Trust me.” He laughed, but it was slightly uncomfortable. “It figures that when we get Canadians together, we talk hockey. Unfortunately, I only have a cursory knowledge of the hockey of your time, sorry. Everything between Howie Morenz and the Rocket’s a big blank for me.”
“What about the Leafs?” a corporal asked.
“Fuck the Leafs,” Craig said. “We’re Habs fans at our house.” Craig laughed, remembering the times when he and Justiciar had gotten into impromptu roughhousing whenever the Leafs played the Canucks. That had been roughhousing to cherish, about the only time David let his hair down. Of course, they ganged up against Dust Devil whenever either team played the Flames. Heh. Horseplay. Montreal was Jack’s favorite team, and it had been dad’s too, from what little he remembered about the man.
“Yep,” the master corporal said. “He’s no Kraut. He’s 100% Canadian.” And the men laughed, as the sergeant signaled them to lower their rifles.
“Mary, mother of God, look at the size of this monster,” a soldier gasped.
“What do we call you?” the sergeant asked.
“Big,” a corporal said, and there was laughter.
“Carson,” Craig said. “And leave my name out of any letters, or correspondence, and even reports, if you can help it. I’m about as hush-hush as they get.” Hopefully, they understood “hush-hush” in the second world war. “Who are you guys?” Craig asked.
“Sir, I don’t think we should answer his questions…” the corporal who captured him said.
“Simpson,” the sergeant said, ignoring the corporal.
“McGill,” the master corporal said.
“Ziolkowski,” the communications specialist said. And the others chimed in, except for the corporal who captured Craig. He was a scout, and apparently, wasn’t much of a joiner.
“I’ll unjam your radio.” Craig said, and he pointed to under his right ear. “In the wonderful world of the future, I had a friend build this little doo-hickey for me and implant it beneath the skin. I manipulate it with lightning. It’s a link to my personal computer. And while I don’t have the link here, I can listen in on transmissions, jam, and do a few useful things, like calculations.”
”Oh?” McGill asked. “What’s 336 times 208?”
“69,888.” Craig said.
“Is he right?”
“No idea,” the master corporal shrugged.
“You speak German?”
“Nein.” Craig said. “I know French well enough. And even a little English.” Of course, he was joking about the latter. It was probably not the best time for it.
“You working with the Ensign?” a soldier asked. The Red Ensign, one of Craig’s three big heroes growing up, was the most famous Canadian superhero of the war. He would, if the timestream advanced unaltered, die in 1945 at the hands of the man who would later become Baron Nihil.
“I wish I were,” Craig said, and he turned to face the commanding officer. “Always wanted to meet him. He was one of my three big heroes growing up. I did meet his nephew toward the end of his life, and I knew his grandson very well.”
“Huh?” Ziolkowski asked. “The Ensign can’t be any older than thirty!”
Okay Craig. Time to play your hand. “Look. I don’t expect any of you to believe this, but here goes. I’m a time traveler.” Some of the men laughed. “I come from the Year of our good Lord 2017. I was born in 1969. I’ve been sent back in time to prevent something. Chronos said I had to “save the world”, and as crazy as he is, I have to assume he means it. I just don’t know who, or what, or why, or why me. And no, I’m not crazy, but my life sure as Hell is.”
“That’s just mental!” a soldier snapped.
“That’s one word for it,” Craig said.
“I don’t know about that,” the master corporal said. He pointed at Craig. “If this guy’s Sturmvogel, where’s his accent?”
“Maybe he went nuts.”
“He’s making too much sense to be crazy.”
“I don’t have an accent, unless this flat West coast pronunciation counts. I can’t even fake a bad Colonel Klink impression,” Craig muttered. He got more than a few odd looks for that remark.
“We haven’t even seen him use any powers.” Another soldier noted.
Craig threw a thunderbolt at a tree, cracking it in twain. “Next question?” he asked the suddenly silent audience.
“Would Sturmvogel ever pretend to be Canadian?” a corporal asked.
“Why would an arrogant Nazi fuck impersonate a Canadian in the middle of downtown Europe?” Ziolkowski asked. “It’d be beneath them.”
“Especially him, Tom.” the sergeant growled. “He’s the fucking Nazi poster boy.”
“If this guy lived up to his press, we’d all be dead right now.” A soldier noted. “And he’d be licking the blood off our skulls.”
Craig sighed inwardly. From what he recalled of the testimony at Nuremberg, Sturmvogel hadn’t been quite that tasteless but war, like politics, does not cultivate flattering portraits of the enemy. Sturmvogel, as Nuremberg later revealed, was little more than a good soldier who enjoyed a few perks and kept his nose clean. He wasn’t a fanatic. But what’s the difference between a fanatic and a man who doesn’t know how to say no? Does it really matter if your killer’s a nice guy or not?
“Are you a distant relative, maybe?” the sergeant asked. The hero shook his head.
“I don’t think they would have trusted my grandpa in the Easy Es if we’d been related.” Craig said. “We’d probably have been relocated to a farm in Saskatchewan, like most of the other Germans.” Craig sighed. Also, Sturmvogel looked nothing like his original Craig form, but there was no need to muddy the issue with that factoid. “Okay, have I proved to everyone’s satisfaction that I’m not a Ratzi asshole? If anyone has doubts, just shoot me.”
“But if you’ve got Sturmvogel’s powers, the bullets will just bounce off!” a corporal said.
“Well, I’m not stupid,” Craig laughed and he turned to the corporal who found him, the man who wore the deepest scowl in the company. There was always one person who couldn’t be convinced. “I realize trusting someone you’ve never met goes against a soldier’s better nature. In war, one mistake, and you’re dead. But I do hope I’ve proved myself. Now let’s think for a minute. Why did Chronos choose me and not some other hero? I’m good, but there’s a lot better than me out there. Someone who knows German, for a starter.”
“Because you look like Sturmvogel?” Ziolkowski speculated.
“I think you’re right, Craig said. “And that suggests an infiltration operation. And given I was brought here by Chronos, probably to infiltrate a facility belonging to someone who’s not native to this time period. So all we need to do is find out who’s trying to change history. Let’s see, Zorasto’s probably still trapped in Hell. Invictus? It could be, but he’d be more likely to be messing around in Washington than here. There’s Nihil…”
“Nihil?” a lance corporal asked.
“Baron Nihil. He was known as Ernst Von Niehl before his transformation. Nazi scientist. Major hate-on for Canadians, especially the Ensign.”
There was sudden silence, and several of the soldiers cocked their heads to look at the sergeant? So, Craig guessed. This isn’t a coincidence. But the Ensign was part of the operation to kill Von Niehl, the one at the end of ‘44.
Something was clearly wrong in the state of Not Denmark. Unless this was an earlier, failed operation? Or maybe whatever Chronos had sent him to stop made the elimination of Von Niehl more of a priority, so the operation occurred earlier, when the Ensign was elsewhere? That itself would be a major change in the timeline!
“We have intel that Von Niehl is working on some new project.” The sergeant said. It was a violation of orders to keep it from this new Sturmvogel, but screw it. An ubermensch could help them get home alive. “We’re supposed to locate its position so our bombers can take it out.”
”Sounds like your mission has become my mission,” Craig said.
The company would not linger for very long in one place. They were behind the enemy lines, and standing still was death. The presence of the huge Vancouverite with the Olympian frame and movie star good looks uplifted everyone’s spirits, except for the corporal who first found him. That one was a lanky man, almost malnourished, with a Newfoundland brogue and bright red hair. “I’m not the chatty type,” he said with a scowl.
“Oh?” Craig said. He had been marching alongside the man, keeping pace, his huge frame able to match their trained marching stride. “The silent are the deepest. And you, Silence, seem like a man with a lot on his mind.”
“You don’t want to hear it, sir.” The corporal spat.
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Craig answered.
“Fine,” the corporal said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Let me ask a few questions about the future.”
“I can’t tell you details,” Craig said.
“Keep your ^&%$#% details,” the skinny man spat, having no trouble taking the Lord’s name in vain. “This is what I wanna know: if the future’s so damn great, do you still go to war? Are there still maniacs calling themselves politicians throwing kids into the mill to be ground to bits? Do children still go to bed hungry while fat cats count their millions of bucks?”
“Billions,” Craig sighed.
“Do they spit on people because their skin is a little darker than theirs, or have fewer bills in their wallet? Or their English ain’t perfect or proper, or their parents entered the country through the wrong gate?”
“We’re making progress.” Craig said. “Slow progress is infuriating, but it’s still progress.”
The man glared at Craig. Everyone was listening in. They knew the dour corporal, they had known what to expect. A few were grinning at the entertainment. “You call yourself supermen? There’s nothing super about men! The whole damn lot of us! We’re just a pack of dirty, lowlife, stinky baboons. We put on airs, and we have our pretensions, and we think of ourselves as more advanced than everything. We ain’t more advanced than nothing! Not even gutter rats! We kill and we grab and we torture and we pillage everything in sight! The day mankind goes extinct and the rest of the world can start to heal up from what we’ve done will be the best damn day in this planet’s history.”
Craig winced. “I’ve given my whole life trying to prove men like you are wrong,” he said. Man, Borealis would have burst into applause at that speech, he thought. “I’m frustrated too. Change is agonizingly slow. We repeat our mistakes so many damn times, I could strangle someone. I’ve seen some of the most depraved people out there. I’ve seen Hell. I’ve felt Hell. But as a wise man once said (or will say): Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross. But that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
That was one of Obama’s favorite phrases. Wonder what a president would say to a man like Watkins?
“That’s just a delusion. The players change, but the dance remains the same.” Watkins spat. Craig laughed and clapped the corporal on the back. “It’s like a hockey game, new names on back of the jersey, but it’s the same ugly crest on the front. And the game remains the same: violent and loud. And the crest on the front of humanity’s jersey identifies our team as greed, violence, stupidity, and hate.”
“That’s a long team name,” Ziolkowski joked. The corporal scowled.
“I just think we’re going to have to agree to disagree,” Thundrax said. “You know, corporal, you should be a writer. Pollute the world with your cynicism. It sometimes needs a good slap in the face.”
“I write a bit from time to time,” the man admitted, not visibly reacting to the compliment.
“I can tell.”
“Watkins,” he finally introduced himself.
“Yeah, yeah, you said that.” Watkins muttered. He reached into a pocket and offered him a cigarette. “Smoke?”
“Sorry,” Craig said. “In the future we learn it’s a terrible habit.”
‘Fuck the future,” Watkins said, and he lit up the coffin-stick, savoring its noxious fumes. Craig fought an urge to cough.
That’s one thing we got right, the hero thought.
They camped before nightfall, when there was still daylight to plot their course, finding shelter in a thick thicket of trees. They unpacked their cumbersome packs and set up tents, setting watch and consulting worn maps by flashlight. Craig helped start a small campfire; there were definitely advantages to be able to throw lightning with your hands, and the men were appreciative of everything except the noise. It was a late September night, long and cold, so cold it even bit Craig a little, who was normally immune to the chill. There must be a touch of magic on the land. He found a place to himself, refused the chaplain’s generous offer of a blanket, offering to say a prayer for him instead and he lay down to sleep, to his appointed round of nightly nightmares.
“You seem to very busy tonight,” a count said. “Drinking and smoking, it is such challenging work!” And the gathering laughed, again.
“I expect to be busier, tomorrow,” Sturmvogel told the gathering, and he laughed, and the socialites laughed with him. It was a Nazi party of a Nazi party, and they partook of the finest French wines that could be taken as spoils of war. The sweet pickings of the best chateaus, crafted by obsessive vintners for obsessive drinkers. And Walther Flenners, Stormbird of the Reich, savored them while he owned the room, laughing, smiling, telling jokes that were barely funny, and his world laughed with him.
“Tell us about your last battle.” His host asked.
“Surely you can drive the mongrels back into the sea.” An old man muttered drunkenly, cradling his schnapps.
“Captain Patriot is challenging you to a fight to the finish.” another socialite mentioned.
“Such a dull, unimaginative man.” Sturmvogel mocked. “Isn’t this what, our third fight to the finish? Doesn’t he have anything better to do with his life? I’ve given him so many chances, and yet something always seems to happen. He always has an excuse for walking away from the battle. Perhaps they should call him “Captain Retreat”?”
“Weakling!” exclaimed a baron who had never seen the hero.
“My dog has more courage!” shouted a countess, rattling her jewelry.
“After tomorrow, no one will doubt you again,” Von Niehl said. “The infusion process will magnify your strength tenfold. You will be able to lift Destroyers out of the water and capsize them. You will sink battleships with a single punch. And you may break the American at your leisure. You may break anyone.”
“Actually, I really don’t wish to hurt my dear Captain Patriot at all,” Sturmvogel said. “Who else would I have to fight? The Red Ensign? General Zima? John Bull?” He took a drink, allowed the wine to strip away the inhibitions of the moment. He was magnanimously tipsy, and the warmth of the moment was bracing. “Poor Captain Battle! Ah, the man missed his true calling as a school teacher. Because he’s always giving lectures.” The room chuckled. “Always too busy trying to be “right” to wage a proper battle. Like so many of my colorful foes, he has no calling as a soldier.”
Again, Sturmvogel chuckled, and the Nazi social world chuckled with him.
A man sat in a corner, staring at a wall, staring at it so intensely that one might have thought he hated the color of the paint. Sturmvogel noticed him and smiled. “Albert!” he shouted, and he cornered the young scientist and threw his arm around his shoulder. “I am entrusting my life tomorrow to men of science such as you.”
“Yes, Sturmvogel,” Albert Zerstoiten said, looking down at his hands.
“You are the future.” Sturmvogel said, smiling his smile of smiles, his teeth glinting like frost, clapping him on the back. Albert Zerstoiten nodded and tried to wear one of his own. It came across as very awkward, but it was not insincere. Sturmvogel did have a genuine respect for those who outstripped him intellectually, and deep down, at the core of the sociopathic rage that was Albert’s heart, he realized that and reacted accordingly, with uncharacteristic kindness. But then the audience laughed again, and it seemed directed at young Zerstoiten, the angry little boy, and the wounds reopened, even in a moment of triumph, of appreciation. “You will outstrip all the dunces like me.” Sturmvogel said, smiling like a proud older brother.
The words meant nothing to the young scientist. Albert Zerstoiten tried to disengage from the conversation as well and as quickly as he could. He had other concerns. Looking about the room, past the vacuous socialites and party addicts, his attention fell upon someone else. A man with a shrouded face, even more of a recluse than he, stationed in another room, who watched Von Niehl with interest. Zertstoiten had seen the two men converse often, but the shrouded man spoke to no one else, not even Albert. Officially, this was Von Niehl’s project, but he sensed that the strange shrouded figure was pulling Von Niehl’s strings. And the augmentation process was far beyond the baron’s (the Von Niehls had pretensions of nobility) previous researches. Something was wrong with the situation. He would mitigate it if he could. But every instinct told him something terrible was about to happen.
“I must revise my plans,” Zerstoiten said. It would not be the last time the future Doctor Destroyer would make that statement.
It was the fourth evening of the journey. The good weather that had greeted Craig at their first meeting was gone, replaced by stormy skies. The storm was good cover for a thunder god from the future, and he had spent a great deal of time skyborne, scouting with his excellent eyes and a pair of field glasses, and the company had managed to stay out of sight. Craig aided them with a cover of storm clouds, and the noon was nearly as dark as dusk. It was not pleasant weather, but the dim light aided the sneak. Shamus had taught Craig that trick years ago (or years from now) – he was (or will be) the sneakiest.
Everything I needed to know as a superhero, I learned from SUNDER. Like Avenger’s guide to being as intimidating as Hell.
Craig had managed to reprogram his comm. With the help of the communications officer. Craig had placed about 150 German words in memory and fifteen or so useful phrases. It might help him make limited contact with the enemy. The force was meant to infiltrate the Reich, so they also had a few Nazi uniforms and forged papers. Although they were too small for Craig to fit into, his power to change his clothes with a thought allowed him to mix and match wardrobes until he had a passible costume, even if the jacket was off. A stolen swastika for the armband completed the ensemble.
“Well, Kaptain,” the master corporal said. “You look like a fucking Nazi poster boy.”
“Sieg Heil!” another mocked, and several joined in the mockery. Craig rolled his eyes. “He even smells like a Nazi. P-u!”
“Fuck that.” Craig said. He gave the swastika the middle finger before putting it on. "I’m going to have to take a long shower to rid myself of this swastika stench. But okay, now that I’ve Nazied myself up, what do I do?”
“You infiltrate the castle,” Sergeant Simpson said. “Look for signs of Von Niehl. And pray.”
“Ha.” Watkins said.
“I’ll need a volunteer to go with me,” Thundrax said. “Someone who speaks German. McGill, you have my comm frequency. I’ll need you chattering in my ear. It’s a shame I can only transmit the sound… As for the volunteer…”
“Me,” Watkins said.
“You sure?” Craig asked.
“And miss a chance to see an ubermensch get egg all over his face?” the corporal said sarcastically. “I’m in.”
“Good luck, Corporal,” Sergeant Simpson said, trading salutes like pinups. The two men had never gotten along, but Simpson rarely deviated from the regs, and the snarky kid had spirit.
“Pray for us, padre.” Craig told the chaplain.
“Save my prayer for him,” Watkins said. “You know what I think of that bullshit.” The chaplain, unsurprisingly, held his tongue.
“I don’t see why you need prayer. From what little we’ve seen, you should be able to wipe out the entire castle without breaking a sweat.” McGill said.
“That’s not my mission,” Craig said. “I’m here to stop whatever’s going to change the future. I’m here to save history and that’s it. Not fight your war.”
The men bristled at that comment, and several of them muttered about wiping out the Krauts while he’s here.
Wartime propaganda was strong, and many of them had experienced losses in Italy, bloody, painful losses. Hard to be reasonable when the eyes of your dead friends called for vengeance. Craig had experienced enough loss over the years to understand the depth of his blasphemy. Words would be inadequate, but they were necessary. He turned to address the men.
“I know you want them dead. I know you want to get back to Canada, back to your homes and girls. You all deserve to live long, comfortable lives. But here’s the thing about the Krauts. Most of them are like you, just decent folks underneath.” Craig said. Some of the men groaned uneasily. “Anyone can be scared, anyone can come up through bad times and come out worse for the wear. The end of the last war and the twenties were very bad times for them. They got angry, bitter, and scared. And fear is the door that leads to Hell, and the Razis, they were Hell’s best doormen. But you know something? After this damn war, the Germans get better. A lot of people who make mistakes refuse to own them, they live in denial. Germany didn’t do this. I’m telling you a secret from the future. When Germany were forced to take a deep breath and see what they’d become, they spat it out. They owned all the rotten things the Ratzis had done –and believe me, you won’t know just how horrible they are for another year, until you see the camps.”
“We’ve heard rumors,” the sergeant said.
“Which only scratch the surface on the horror.” Craig said. “When Watkins talks about how bad people can be, he ain’t wrong.” He flashed the corporal a grin.
“Fucking right,” the corporal said, and they laughed.
“I still think you should wipe them all out,” a lance corporal said. Craig ignored him.
“But where we differ is – I think we can be better. At the end of the war, Germany learned they weren’t the master race, they were just another race, and there was nothing wrong with that. When they applied themselves, they became bigger and greater than anything Hitler ever imagined.”
“Things were easy-peasy?” a man asked.
“Fuck no,” Craig said. “Europe was divided for a long, long time. Germany was a fractured nation for decades. The poor in the eastern half suffered severely. But the times will get better. Not perfect, because there’s still a lot of shit going down in my time, and some places, like the States, it’s getting worse, but overall, it’s better. So, you’re not just fighting for yourselves, to save Britain and France, you’re also saving Germany too.”
“This all sounds like hooey to me,” a corporal sighed.
“Should you be telling us all this?” Zolkowski asked. “It is the future you’re telling us, for Pete’s sake.”
“I’m telling you enough to give you hope. That’s all,” Craig replied. “I want you to know that if you die, or I die, we ain’t dying for a bullshit cause. We’re dying for people.”
“Dead is dead.” Watkins countered. “And noble, stupid bullshit is still stupid bullshit.”
“So, let me get this straight. You two go into the castle and hope for the best,” the sergeant said. Craig didn’t really like hearing his lack of a plan expressed so bluntly.
“The uniforms did come with forged papers,” Craig said.
“What the hell do we do?” Simpson snapped.
“Stay someplace safe,” Craig said.
“We’re soldiers, not grammas,” Master Corporal McGill said, and there were numerous nods. “Again, how can we help?”
“Okay, then,” Craig sighed. Soldiers. Dammit, I just wanted you someplace safe. But soldiers just have to be soldiers. No one likes sitting on the sidelines, but especially those who bleed from crown and country. “Find a place on the edge of town and set up a distraction,” the hero instructed. “Be ready to blow something up. Get close enough that it’ll be noticed, but far enough away that no civilians get hurt.”
“Do what he asks.” Simpson instructed. He saw the advantage in a distraction, easily enough.
“We’ll start out now.” Craig nodded at Watkins. “It’s been an honor to serve with your unit, Simpson. Good luck, dogfaces.”
“Good luck, all-out,” Ziolkowski said, and they exchanged salutes before departing. Craig looked back, wondering if any of them were still alive in his time, seventy years in the future. Or would they, on his advice, fall into an ambush and die far from home. There were times he was glad he wasn’t a commanding officer. He sometimes marveled at Alex or David’s ability to carry off that burdenous task. But there would be time to dwell on that later.
“Albert?” Sturmvogel asked. “Albert?”
“Phase one is complete.” Zerstoiten said. “The infusion is a success. Though it will not take in permanently, not yet. The tensile strength of your tissues is substantially stronger.”
“Ha!” Sturmvogel said, and they wiped the blood from his body. He was strapped to an operating table, wires and tubes crawling over his body, pumping him with experimental fluids. “Captain Battle will be surprised on our next encounter, no? Finally, he shall not escape.”
“We will begin phase two in fifteen minutes.” Von Niehl said. “Curse those generators. Whoever installed them should be shot! Why do I not have more power!”
“I should have brought my own generators,” the shrouded man added.
Zerstoiten stared at Von Niehl in disbelief. He knew that Sturmvogel was tough, that he would endure when called upon. But fifteen minutes? Before a proper medical exam? He should have spent days in recovery! Albert was bold, and he was more than willing to put another at risk, but these were not his experiments. And Albert did not understand certain elements of the procedure, and those stank of the occult. A mockery of knowledge and human achievement.
“If I must, so be it.” Sturmvogel said, reading the concern on Zerstoiten’s face.
“Albert?” Sturmvogel asked. “Albert?”
“Yes?” Zerstoiten said.
“There is a girl in Berlin. Three years ago, she lived not far from the Kurfürstendamm. Her name was Heidi Krause. Her father was a banker. I was… I was not at my best. I’ve always meant to find her and apologize for my unseemly behavior. If I do not survive this process, would you find her? And tell her that I regretted everything? Tell her that at the end, I thought of her?”
“Of course, Sturmvogel,” the future Destroyer said.
“Thank you, Albert.”
Albert Zerstoiten was lying through his teeth. He already had plans to flee to South America, he had already made contact with a boat in Marseilles. Sturmvogel could deliver his own apologies, or his obedience to a failing order would be his undoing. Albert Zerstoiten was NINO: Nazi in Name Only. As soon as this experiment was over, he would be gone. One thing puzzled him: he had no idea why Von Niehl had requested his assistance; they had never had a previous working relationship, and this troubled him. And he continued to watch the man with the bandaged face and hands, the one pulling the strings.
The castle was slowly coming into view; 18th century and gothic as hell, something you’d see in a 30s black and white horror film. Craig struggled to concentrate on the mission at hand, and practise the phrases he’d been taught, but Watkins was a different mood. “You have a girl waiting for you at home, Carson?” the corporal asked. After days of sullen silence, he was finally bored enough to make casual chit-chat – at the worst possible time.
“Not for years. Unless you count friends. What about you? How many hearts are you breaking at the moment?” Craig asked with a wink.
“None. Dames all go for lugs with bigger muscles, or bank accounts.” Watkins said. “Skinny guys who are always broke? Palookas like me? We don’t have a chance.” The soldier exhaled the bad memories in a sigh. Some things were too personal to tell, even to a buddy. “But you never married.”
“Yes but, well, it’s complicated.” Craig said. “I did marry in an alternate timeline. A woman named Manjita.”
“What the bloody hell is an alternate timeline?” Warkins wondered. ”Sounds like something outta Jules Verne!”
“Or Baum. Or Burroughs. I like Burroughs. It’s a long story. An enemy altered reality to make me happy enough to stop heroing, and I ended up married for nearly twenty years. Had two wonderful boys. Then I calculated how many people would die if I stopped being a hero, so I reversed it back to normal. Complete unmade those years. I’d like to think in some strange corner of reality, my family lives on.”
“Wait a minute, you were given perfect happiness and you gave it up?”
“Yeah. The price was too high. Thousands of innocent people would have died. And that was back in 2011 – since then, I’ve been involved in a few incidents where millions could have died, whole cities. So, I chose to break my heart. I abandoned the family and returned to this timeline.”
“Man, you’re fucked in the head,” Watkins sad. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard! If I understood it, that is!”
“Ha,” Craig smiled at the insult. “There are a lot of days I agree with you completely. I miss my boys. Miss my wife.” Then he spent the next ten minutes trying to forget Manjita’s scent, the feeling of holding her in his arms.
The two men continued to jabber until they came within long stair in front of the castle. True to its gothic façade, it was storming as violently as if it were a Frankenstein movie. Even Craig had to shake his hat and wipe the rain from his eyes.
“By the way, nice storm,”Watkins groused. “Did you have to arrange it to rain so damn hard?”
“I love the rain,” Craig said. “Usually. But this isn’t my doing. I haven’t primed the weather in two days. I haven’t needed to. And I can sense something at work, this storm ain’t natural,” Craig extended his senses skyward. “Someone else’s commanding the elements. This does feels like a trick I’d do.”
“Yeah, more than likely.” Craig agreed. “Barring a secret Nazi weather machine. I should have known saving the world wouldn’t be a walk in the park.” With that, they approached the front gate of the chateau. “Time to put on a show. Okay, corporal, lend me some support. With that, Craig leaned on the soldier. Watkins buckled under the weight and nearly fell to one knee.
“Jeez Louise, how much do you &^%$#! weigh?” Watkins spat.
“Two hundred and eighty.” Watkins had no response but a groan. “Not counting the fact I’m soaked.”
There was no bell, but a large brass knocker, attached by bolt to an old iron door, weathered iron, embossed with laurel leaves. Faux-Greco-Roman designs, popular when the castle was built. Craig hit the knocker and bellowed in a drunken slur:
“Öffne die Tür! Öffne die Tür im Reichsnamen!”
Open the door in the name of the Reich. It was a phrase he had rehearsed for days.
After five minutes of banging, a shout of “Geh weg!” could be heard from inside. “Lasse mich in ruhe!”
“We need shelter from the storm!” Watkins added in German. “He’s an officer of the Reich and he needs immediate assistance! Es regnet Bindfäden!”
“Es schifft!” Craig added, not exactly politely.
“Come in!” snarled a guard with a drawn Mauser. The corporal yelped, but Craig stomped in, leaving a river in his wake. The gun was trained on Craig as he stomped into the room, shook himself like a dog, and collapsed onto a sofa.
“Mein Kopf! Mein Kopf! Ich werde sterben!” he shouted, slurring his words. “My head! My head! Make it stop!”
The corporal approached one of the guards and nodded sagely. “The captain is the biggest idiot I’ve ever met,” he said. “You don’t want to hear him when he gets going, what a blowhard! Just give him some schnapps. Maybe he’ll fall asleep. At least then he won’t be throwing more boys into harm’s way.”
Craig tittered comically.
“His father is a colonel in the S.S. That’s the only reason he has his commission.” Watkins added. “Bungler. Clumsy too. As stupid as his muscles are big.”
“He cannot wander the house!” the guard said. “If either of you leave this room, you will be shot.”
“I understand. Though that may be preferable to listening to his whining,” Watkins said. Craig continued to moan nearly incoherently. The guards handed him some schnapps.
“Danke,” Craig said, and he swallowed the contents of the glass in a singe gulp and tittered. The liquor had no effect on him, but they didn’t realize that. He continued with his drunken slur, muttering: “I should have joined the Lufftwaffe. Oh why didn’t I join the Luffwaffe!”
“Because you’re scared to death of flying?”Watkins muttered.
That was his code phrase to the men on the other end of his transmitter: they had made their way inside and were ready for the next stage of the operation. They needed a distraction. The guards kept an eye on him – they weren’t comedy Nazis or stereotypical stormtroopers – but Craig was prepared to play the waiting game, at least until the rest of the unit made their move.
“The third stage is complete,” Von Niehl announced. “Your body is now primed for the complete transformation.”
Sturmvogel coughed and spit out a lump of blood. He felt like he was dying. He felt like something glorious was awakening inside of him. It was the oddest sensation. Even realizing he had powers did not compare to this. To be on the edge of death, and yet feeling alive for the first time.
It was like losing your virginity all over again.
Albert Zerstoiten wiped away the blood with a blue speckled handkerchief. The colors did not mix well. He nudged Sturmvogel, who was half-euphoric, and nigh dead at once. His head rolled several times until he found the strength to hold it erect, steady. He closed his eyes.
“I… am as indomitable… as the Reich,” he told Zerstoiten, though a sharp pain that reverberated in every nerve bundle. He lived in a universe of pain, but it was ebbing. Deep, easy breaths, Walther, he told himself. “Tomorrow, I push the invaders back into the sea.”
“And all the Reich will sing of my genius,” Von Niehl said.
“They’ll sing of nothing if we do not replace the capacitors,” Zerstoiten said. “They will not hold a charge anymore, and the power consumption of each stage of the experiment has grown exponentially….”
“Quit your whining, Zerstoiten,” Von Niehl said. “And to think I was told you were a remarkable intellect. All I see is the ugly little boy that people make jokes about at parties.” Then. as if he had said “nothing can stop me now at precisely the most ironic moment, the lights abruptly flickered, and went out.
“The allies must have hit the dam!” Zerstoiten said. “There is a backup diesel generator in the basement, but it was shut down to conserve fuel.”
“Find some men and fix it! Now! I will tolerate no more delays.” The man with the bandaged face said.
Zerstoiten nodded, and headed to the generator, located in a side passage. As he passed Craig’s room, he stopped and barked at the two men who were guarding Craig.
“With me! I may need your strong backs!”
Craig sat up with a start. He recognized that voice. It played every year, like a stuck phonograph, playfully skipping. “Citizens of Detroit, for years you have enjoyed peace and prosperity…”
Vanguard’s killer. The man who set events in motion that led to his brother’s death, and all the complications thereafter. Savior of humanity against the Gadroon (as if they couldn’t have turned the tide without him), he had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him against the false James Harmon. Murderer of thousands. Slayer of heroes. Slayer of children. And he’s vulnerable, out of his suit. At the beginning, before he’s killed anyone…
Three deep breaths later, and the moment passed. Craig did nothing, but watched him leave the room.
“The mooks are gone! The house is dark! We can make our move,” Watkins said. “C’mon! The way they came from!”
“Yeah,” Craig said, still looking in the direction Destroyer went. “Let’s finish this.”
The house was dark, but Craig’s vision was superhuman, and it allowed them to navigate the corridors with only a little difficulty. After a time, he could sense Sturmvogel’s presence in the back of his mind. And he knew Sturmvogel could probably sense him.
They finally arrived at the main laboratory, which sat at the center of the castle. Craig gave the technology a cursory glance. Sturmvogel rose from his table and glared at Craig. “Who are you!” he marveled.
“The time police,” Thundrax answered. “Sorry Herr Flenners, you’re in bad company. The worst, in fact.”
“Thundrax!” the man with the bandaged face gasped, and he fired a blast of concentrated dark winds at Craig. It was Baron Nihil, back from the future to alter his past. Asshole. Craig felt the winds gather: Satan’s breath, the Ensign once called it. Craig barely managed to dodge them.
“Die, Canadian!" The time displaced villain was ranting as usual. "Just like your dog of an ensign!”
Craig continued to look for a nexus, a control mechanism. As it turned out, he didn’t need to bother. All he had to do was force Nihil to use his powers. After the fifth blast, a force field appeared around Nihil, containing him. Captain Chronos appeared behind Craig smiling.
“Well! There’s one Nazi who won’t be Nazi-ing anytime soon. You bad, bad man.” Chronos said.
“Wait a minute, Chronos? I didn’t have to beat up anyone? All I had to do was get here?” Craig wondered.
“And force him to use his powers. That’s all you needed to do: find him and make him use his powers. That was the whole point I made in the briefing.”
“What briefing?” Craig wondered.
“The one I gave you…” Chronos said, and he checked an instrument. “Ooops! My timeograph was off by a century. I gave the briefing in 2044. To the second Thundrax, your illegitimate son, the one you got when you banged that woman in Kansas. You sly dog. Losing your powers for a make-out session. And here I thought you only had eyes for that brawny hero from Alberta.”
“What?” Craig wondered, though he had long suspected the truth.
“Well, it’s three days in time prison for you, Nihil. Use it to work on being a better person,” Chronos said.
“Three days?” Craig asked.
“Three days that will feel like two hundred years for him.” Chronos explained.
“Well, get ready to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag…” Chronos said.
“He isn’t going anywhere,” came a voice from behind, and Craig turned around to see Stormvogel holding Watkins by the throat.
“Get out of here!” Watkins croaked, staying still as death in the Nazi’s grasp. Heh. At his core, at the time of his testing, the cynicism peeled away to show the hero beneath. Often, cynics were the greatest heroes. In other circumstances, Craig would have smiled.
“Donnerdracht is it?” Sturmvogel asked. “Face me, Donnerdracht. A duel of the storms.”
“You don’t need to do this!” Chronos insisted. “I can take you without incident. It’s better that way.”
“If I agree, will you let him go?” Thundrax asked. “Unharmed?”
“Da,” Sturmvogel replied, nodding.
“Thundrax!” Chronos protested. “He’s not important in the grand scheme of things.”
“He is as far as I’m concerned. Hold my coat, Captain,” Craig said. Sturmvogel blew a hole through the roof and ascended skyward, into the storm, in a blue streak. Craig, his own blue bolt blazing, followed.
“Heroes,” Captain Chronos sighed. “And he doesn’t even have a coat!”
Craig and Sturmvogel ascended into the heart of the storm, watched the lightning dance around them, heard and felt the symphony of the thunders like a thousand 1812 overtures played at once. Craig turned to his foe. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be much of a fight. The first generation of heroes, of which Sturmvogel was the greatest, was hardly a match for what came afterward. Under normal circumstances, even Bulldozer could have taken this guy. But the situation had changed dramatically: augmented by Nihil’s technology and supercharged by the storm, the Nazi was now Craig’s equal. Perhaps his better.
“How shall we do this?” Craig asked.
“Not a brawl,” Sturmvogel said. “We shall fight as civilized men. And as gods. The storm shall be our weapon. Let he who is its master be the master of all.” He held out his hands, inviting him to grapple. Craig interwove his fingers with the man, staring him in the face, defiance in his gaze. He was at a distinct disadvantage in this fight; his storm powers had lain dormant for most of his career. But still, this was a Nazi. He thought of his own time, when the Nazis were resurging. He thought of their hate, that the unforgettable lesson had not been learned. There were too many kids who embraced fascism, who celebrated bullies, who despised those who tried to do the right thing. People would rather celebrate monsters than heroes. It was easier to be a monster than to make the sacrifice. They wallowed in the cheap thrill of the horror. Or, like Sturmvogel, they rode the wave of hate and evil without contesting it, men who locked away their virtue in a blind trust. He thought of the Millikan experiment, how easily people acquiesced to evil.
And then lightning fell.
Wolf-savage, teeth bared, eyes locked in strife, the two men wrestled for control of the storm. It screamed in their senses, and so did they, when the lightning fell. They slashed each other with thunderbolts, wielded as sabers. They stung each other with the storm. No words were exchanged by the two storm gods. Any hope of an easy victory was dashed early. Cloth burned, until they were nigh naked, angels of the storm. Craig could sense the foe’s frustration in his screams. He was sure Sturmvogel could say much the same, for Craig didn’t hide his pain. But Craig would not lose to a Nazi, and that thought drove him onward. He thought of his teammate, Fahrenheit, and the anguish in his voice when he spoke of Destroyer. It was a terrible legacy, and yet from it, men and women of wisdom emerged.
He owed it to them to win. To give Germany its future. To let its people heal, and shine. And finally a bolt smote Sturmvogel in the center of his chest, and his body fell limp. Sturmvogel fell from the heavens and smote the cold, wet, ground.
Craig landed next to the man, who groaned. He looked up at Craig quivering. “Quickly,” he rasped. “Just—quickly.”
Thundrax knew what the German meant, what he expected. “It’d be a helluvalot more merciful than the sadistic bullshit that your Reich is doing to millions of people right now.” Craig said. “Open your eyes, Fienners. Bad days are coming for you, but the worst will be when you discover what your blind loyalty, your unwillingness to question your philosophy, has turned you into. When you stop letting others manipulate you, and allow yourself to think.”
“How can I open my eyes when you intend to close them forever?” Sturmvogel asked, still not getting Craig’s intent. The Canadian smiled.
“I was saving a friend.”
“I was saving a country,” Sturmvogel replied.
“The big difference is that the friend is worth saving,” Thundrax said. “Anyway, I came from the future with a message. Fuck the master race. Skin color is just a minor tweak in nature’s cosmetics. It’s lipstick on the human condition. Celebrate the achievements of your culture, but do it without putting others down. The greatness of others does not diminish you. Might doesn’t make right, it just makes you a bully, if you try to impose your will on someone who’s not doing harm. I have a hundred aphorisms, each lamer than the last, and yet all of them are true. I’ll spare you the rest, but I’ll encourage you to read, to think, and to write. Challenge your mind. And If you haven’t figured it out, I’m not killing you.”
“You like to talk. All of you.” Sturmvogel said, again spitting blood.
“Maybe because the right words, spoken at the right moment, can prevent needless pain. When the world is screaming, it needs soothing words: a mother’s lullaby, not a father’s shouts. And you have to admit I can back them up.”
“Just rest, big guy.” Thundrax said. “I won’t be seeing you again. Hopefully, that extra boost of power you got was temporary, but even if it isn’t, you won’t cheat your destiny. You’ve got a date with a mirror, and a good long look at yourself. I don’t envy you.” And with that, Craig Carson returned to his friends. The Nazis, including Zerstoiten and Von Niehl, were fleeing the castle. Craig now realized why the future Destroyer was there; apart from his technical brilliance, Nihil just wanted the sick thrill of barking orders at the man who would one day become supervillainy incarnate, outclassing him by worlds. Zerstoiten would abandon the Nazi cause, while Von Niehl would return to his castle and his date with destiny, with the Red Ensign.
“Well, it's time to return to your future and my past,” Chronos said. “Good bye, World War II. Or as it's later called, Evil War XVI. Wish you were the last, but well, every once in a generation, humanity sucks!”
“Hang on a minute!” Watkins said, stripping off his coat so Craig could hide his junk. Not that he was a prude, but the big Vancouverite didn’t seem to have much shame. I guess when you look like that, you don’t worry too much about appearances. He turned his ire full force on Chronos. “If you’re an all-powerful being, how come you ain’t done anything about war? Or hunger? Or disease? Or all the other shit in the world.”
“Oh dear!” Chronos said. “Well, I’m all powerful, but I’m not really that all-powerful.”
"Watkins, please…” Craig pleaded. “I just want to get home.”
Watkins rolled up his sleeves and licked his lips. He glared at the emissary of the lords of time and space. Ballsiest thing he ever did. Even ballsier than telling off Captain Grant that one time in Normandy. “Shuddup, Craig,” he said, and the still-crispy Canuck almost burst into laughter. “How about this? This dumb chowderhead over here is busting his britches helping people. Just look at the guy. See what he went through for you?”
“Actually, he was doing it for you,” Chronos said. “But he would have done it for me too. Go on.”
“Do you think he’d ever ask for anything for himself? Idiot. How about doing something for him for a change? Something swell, something only you can do…”
“Well….” Captain Chronos said. “Maybe I can put in a good word with Lord Entropus. There’s one thing I could think of that would be nice.”
Craig Carson arrived at 2311 Turner Street and rang the doorbell. He was in Craig form, his human form, an aging man of nearly 50, skinny-armed and starting to put on a ponch in his mid-section, wearing drab, seldom-used clothes to go with his drab, seldom used body. He saw his reflection in the glass in the door, and shuddered. He hadn’t seen his human form in awhile; time was not being as kind to it as he’d hoped. Or maybe it was just time being time. God, am I nervous, he thought. Nerves always bring out the philosopher in me. He rang the doorbell, two short rings, savoring and dreading the response above all things.
Manjita Carson answered the bell.
“Craig?!” she gaped, staring at her long-lost husband.
“I have forty-eight hours in this reality.” Craig Carson said with a choke, for he was weeping as he said it. “Gift from a friend. Forty-eight hours before I have to return to my own timeline, go back to saving the world. Now where are my boys?”
They were the shortest forty-eight hours of Craig’s life, and the happiest.
After the final tears were shed, and the fabric of dimensions parted like a curtain, Craig Carson returned home. He immediately set up to work, fearing what he would find. Watkins was dead, Emphysema back in 1973. Dammit, he warned him about smoking. He had published six volumes of blisteringly bitter anti-war poems, one of which won the Governor-General’s award. Sergeant Simpson was promoted to staff sergeant, but died in 1945, during the last month of the war. Most of the others had died with the Ensign, fighting in Von Niehl’s lab. Fuck war.
Only Ziolkowski was still alive, living in a rest home in Halifax. Craig flew out to see him. He spent the afternoon with the man. He was blind, being in his late-90s, tired, and he barely had his wits. Time weathered all souls and intellects, good and ill. Craig just smiled and sat next to him, touching his arm to maintain human contact – he marveled at the size of Craig’s hands - and watching him smile. He asked the superheroes for stories, but mid-way, he went into a rant complaining about modern society and how decadent everything had become. Craig shook his head and let him rant, though he remarked he had fought a war to protect that decadence.
“Two wars! I was in Korea, and let me tell you that was a sight! All the damn flies, and the heat and the humidity…”
“I’m sure it was awful,” Craig assured him, but he stayed at his side, basking in the man’s humanity like any good god, and the peaceful times he had long enjoyed. It was the best salve to the wounds he had taken, the wounds he took everyday. As he noted before, for superheroes, the war never ended. They were a military force in a civilian world, and like military personnel, they often found themselves separated from ordinary citizens, the everyday world, by duty and the stresses of their chosen calling. And that made those days of shore leave especially blessed.
Re: War of the Dimensions
Burning down the House
On the planet Malva, most advanced world in the galaxy, some years ago.
Ariax Thone had descended into the caverns, again. One of many caverns. Long ago, he had become one with his quest – now he had become one with the deeps. They were limestone carved and weathered into irregular shapes by water and time. Alone of all the vistas on Malva, they were jutting contrasts in asymmetry, and the shadows made them moreso. And they haunted Ariax’s soul.
Ariax bowed, and began the complex ritual of Speaking. It was a long, involved process, and even an expert was prone to error, even if the Malvan tongue was as calcified as the stone, still the gladiator found the speech difficult, and the calcification of the Stones did not help matters. Finally, trembling with effort, the sheer burden of remembrance, his body trained and tested, Ariax took a seating position.
<<Speak your secrets, ancient. I would beg to hear antiquity’s voice.>>
<<Why do you feign humility, when you have none?>> The Stone asked. It was in a testing mood.
<<I have been to the caverns, and they told me to seek you. They told me that if I won your favor, you would share your wisdom like a banquet,>> Ariax said. <<And I hunger.>>
<<Do you?>> the Stone asked. <<How? Do you possess a physical defect? Do the nutrient and water microbes of the air fail to satisfy your wonts? Does your skin not soak in the sun, and kindle its fires as a feast?>>
<<They do not, for I do not wish them to,>> Ariax said. <<I do not seek comfort, or the cradles of the air. Comfort has become our people’s poison. I seek growth.>>
<< My footsteps are a testament to the surety of my path and the bedrock of my conviction,>> Ariax Thone declared.
<<Then you are not a Malvan,>> the Stone answered, and it fell silent.
Ariax sighed and concentrated. He perceived the location of the next stone, a cavern over thirty dark leagues from where he stood. There the conversation would continue, if he did not tire of the struggle. Tire of the honing. Perhaps it would only be a few words. Not a Malvan? What did that mean? It was more than sufficient to prick him onwards. Ignoring the wet dank of the deeps, Ariax Thone, abandoned this secret place for the next. Perhaps there, he would find the key to unlock the Grand Temple and the Furnace of the First Ones. Perhaps there, he would find the answer to his quest. It would be a long journey.
“Look! Look! It’s Craig!” Agatha shouted, spotting the hero descending out of the sky, a thunderbolt dressed in the form of a man. “Rory! Rory!” Her calls were gleeful and wild.
“Tell the old man to take his time,” Thundrax smiled, landing, and he greeted the old woman with a hug, holding her as gently as if she were made from fine crystal.
“Hey!” Rory exclaimed, delight on his face. “It’s the big shot! You finally found some time for us little people!” And both men laughed, and exchanged embraces and back claps. They had both lived dangerous lives since the last time they saw each other, and the reunion had been far from a sure thing. “Watch it there, big timer. My back isn’t what it used to be!”
“They finally got you to retire,” Craig said. “Now you can learn to relax!”
“Retirement!” Rory Weston spat. “Bah!”
“I’m just glad to find you in Vancouver.” Craig said. “When I founded my scholarship, I came by the house but you were in Tahiti.”
“You should have just kept flying west and joined us.” Rory laughed again. And Craig laughed too. “We had a great time snorkeling and spelunking. I’d loved to have introduced you to those caves.”
Rory Weston was Craig’s oldest friend in law enforcement. He had served in Vancouver PD’s anti-metas unit, the Six Month Men (a not-always-funny joke about their expected life expectancy), and had been the man with his weapon trained on Craig when he first awoke in hospital with his powers. He had let Craig go, and Craig had never forgotten it. The officer had been reprimanded for his action, but Craig had more than compensated him. He bought him a new home, in Vancouver. Twice. He had put his kids through college. And then, once they were grown, Thundrax had put their kids through college. And he was happy to do it yet again for the next generation when they got to the right age, if he survived.
For now, Craig observed the couple with joy and concern. Aggie definitely was slower and less shar; than she used to be. Rory’s body was wracked by injury and age, and he was quickly out of breath. The man needs to watch his ticker. But he was still hearty, and smiling more than ever. He had survived the front lines in hell. Not many of his old colleagues could say that.
“I’ve been very busy, Rory.” Craig reported.
“I’ve seen that!” Aggie exclaimed. “I thought you’d used up your fifteen minutes of fame, but you just keep getting bigger. They’re always talking about you on the news. And you’re with that pretty blond, the one with the sticks.”
“Uh, Sparrowhawk and I are just friends, Aggie.” Craig said, and even his pasty Nordic complexion reddened. After that business with Nate, he doubted that Sparrow was in a hurry to date anyone any time soon, let alone another colleague. Rory laughed and offered Craig a beer. It was Molson’s – hardly Craig’s favorite brand, but he took it and savored it. Good company makes bad beer better.
They spent hours talking and relaxing, the waning summer sun keeping them warm until dinnertime. Rory brought out some steaks, and applied copious amounts of barbecue sauce, and brought out skewered vegetables. It was a plebeian feast, royal in its richness, common in its attendance. And for a few hours, the mantle of Thundrax was lifted from the hero’s shoulders, and he felt like good ol’ Craig again. A nobody, an ordinary Joe, living an ordinary person’s life with good friends and good conversation, and the world’s cares were lifted from his shoulders for the first time in a very long time.
So much so that for one of the few times in his life, he was caught completely offguard. By the shadow that fell from overhead and the sound of flaming wings.
Flaming, searing wings, raining a shower of sparks on the roof.
“In the name of the Phazor!” Firewing’s smooth baritone proclaimed. The villain’s voice had a harsh edge. “You are hereby sentenced to death by fire!” And he lobbed a fireball at a section of the home, and then a second fireball. “So falls all of the enemies of Malva!”
“Wha—” Craig proclaimed. Firewing? Here?
With a screech, the cosmic god’s white flames, hotter than the surface of the sun, shot through the roof like a meteor strike, setting the interior aflame. Aggie suppressed a scream. Seeing his handiwork ignite into a huge blaze, Firewing bristled, and then, with an aching sigh, winged his way skyward.
“Our home!” Aggie cried, watching a lifetime perish in flame.
Craig was tempted to take the battle to the villain, but one look at the flaming house pulled him back to earth. Swallowing, he looked up into the sunny sky and sighed. There was very little moisture in the air. Very little for him to work with. He did his best to make it rain, to command the normally complicit sky to yield its liquid treasures, while the smoke billowed and the fire raged. When he lost hope of repairing the damage, Craig went inside to salvage what he could.
Aggie sobbed. Rory held her, telling her that the greatest treasure he had was still in his arms.
“UNTIL, this is Carson.” Thundrax growled. “Do we have any idea of the current location of Firewing?’
“He’s in your neck of the woods, Craig,” A familiar voice said. The ID confirmed that it was none other than HUGIN, one of UNTIL’s AIs, and himself an old friend of Craig and his brother. “In the heart of downtown Vancouver, on Georgia St.”
“Great.” Craig muttered sarcastically. He was not hiding. The bastard wanted a fight. “I can’t believe it,” Craig said. “It’s been five years. Why would he choose now to strike at me? And he mentioned the Phazor—“
“What’s a Phazor?” Rory asked.
“The Ruler of Malva. The most powerful man in the galaxy.” Thundrax said.
“Thank you, Breen,” the Phazor said, dismissing his cousin. He stared at his visitor, the gladiator, muscle and brutality wrapped into a singular form, with the fixed Malvan bird-like stare that other species found so unnerving, at his handsome visitor.
“You wished to see me, Phazor?” Ariax asked. He knelt and kissed the sacred flame as it was presented to him. His lips burned, but he said nothing. He did not wince. He dared not show weakness, and dared not show disrespect. He had been a gladiator. It had been the trade of Thone family for millennia. Gladiators were supposed to know their place.
“I have brought you here at the bidding of the Master of Games,” the Phazor said. “You have been absent lately.”
“My absence from the arena was approved, Glorious Flame,” Thone said. “I am no deserter or craven.”
“That does not concern me. What interests me was where you went, and what you visited. Know that you may wander anywhere you wish on Malva without notice – except the caverns.”
“The way was not barred.”
“Only those seeking the Wisdom Stones may enter there.”
“I did seek them.” Ariax affirmed.
“I know,” the Phazor said. “And also I know what you asked of them. You are seeking a secret. To become a Starwing or a Firewing.” Valzad said, seeming to preen, displaying his red-brown hair, a mark of royalty. The gladiator nodded. The Phazor continued as if he had not responded. A robot interrupted them, providing the ruler with a bar of shaxx. He sniffed it lustily and bristled. Even he would not have done so in polite society: the deed was not a mark of respect, nor did he offer to share with his guest. “Few have done so in these times. Few enjoy the wild places.”
“I have sought them with hands, and feet and eyes,” Ariax replied, meaning that he had done the quest without teleporters. In the old way, as a physical ordeal.
“The Firewings were weapons of war,” the Phazor said. “The Golden Hunters were weapons of war. There is no war on Malva. They are not needed. They are not wanted. Surely you know this.“
“May I speak in candor, Eminent Magnificence?” Ariax asked.
“You may, gladiator.” The most powerful being in the galaxy replied, taking another sniff of the dancing spice.
“I have spoken to the Wisdom Stones, as well as with many offworlders. The galaxy is changing. It is evolving rapidly, so rapidly that in time it may even affect us. A Firewing could be a useful agent on the outer worlds.” Ariax said. The Phazor snorted in derision.
“The galaxy is always changing,” the Phazor said. “Yet we endure, unchanged.”
“But is such stasis wise? Do we still not have enemies in the cosmos?” Ariax said, and he rebuked himself. That was a punishable thought, and those were punishable words. Yet the Phazor cackled, a high pitched laugh that humans might have mistaken for birdsong.
“I so admire your boldness. But I see through your mask, Ariax Thone. Yes, it is true we have enemies, and deadly ones. But that is not your concern. You are no protector. There is nothing noble in your quest. You do not seek enlightenment. You do not seek to elevate our race. You seek only victory.” The Phazor chided.
“I am a fighter,” Thone declared. “A son of a fighting man, just as he was a fighting man’s son. Victory is all I crave.” The Phazor again snorted derisively. “And have you not sanctified the games in patronage and song?”
“I have.” The Phazor said. His voice again quavered. “I enjoy seeing the fighting spirit of our people rekindled. It has slumbered too long. But you do understand I cannot tolerate a starwing on Malva, do you not? Nor a Firewing, nor a hunter. There are reasons that weapons are consigned to the arenas, or to museums.”
“You have many weapons of your own,” Ariax said, again overstepping his bounds. The Phazor was renowned for his odd habit of collecting arms, from daggers to starships. He stored them upon a world made into a museum.
“I do,” the Phazor admitted. “But few living ones. And of the living, none is a Malvan.”
“So you are forbidding my quest?” Ariax asked.
“No,” the Phazor said. “We need your spirit of discovery, adventure. Whatever your motives may be at this time – know that time is long, and people are malleable. Motives will change over the course of years. They always do. But we do not need such creatures on this world. If you become a Firewing, you will need to become an exile. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” Ariax Thone answered.
“And you may not survive the transformation.” The Phazor said. “The flames have consumed far greater men than you.”
“I do not wish to live in the shadow of defeat. If I am weak, the flames are welcome to my carcass.”
“I will send you to a blue world on the other side of the galaxy,” the Phazor said. “A pretty planet, much like our own eons ago, ere we tamed it. The natives call it earth.“
“I’ve heard the name. Fellows of the arena fled there. Now it appears I may renew our battle on that sphere. What is my mission there?” Ariax Thone asked.
“To bend it to your will. Or to be bent to its will. There you might find the victories you seek. Or you might be changed. Either way, our peoples will be conjoined to a common purpose.” The Phazor smiled. “Like sex.”
Ariax nodded stoically. The gladiator was sworn to chastity, lest the arena handlers treat him as a whore, but he was no prude, though he did not join in the lavish extravagances for which the Phazor was famed.
“And you will report directly to me.” The Phazor stated. “As you yourself once said, we still have enemies. Perhaps I will need you as a weapon against them. Should I ever give an order, for creation or destruction, you shall be my instrument upon the earth. More than likely, I shall never give one. Or it may be frivolous, a momentary fancy. Regardless, your obedience must be absolute; greater than the void between worlds, and stronger than the stars, lest the darkness come again.”
“Craig,” HUGIN said, alarmed both by the news and the tone of Craig’s voice, “Do I need to remind you that on the last three occasions you fought Firewing, you ended up unconscious with third degree burns, and twice was put on life support on critical condition.”
“I’m motivated now.” Thundrax barked. He was looking around the neighborhood from the sky, flying over Commercial Drive and 23rd. Just to the west of his old stomping grounds. He had worked at the Dairy Queen on Commercial and Broadway on the night he was transformed. If he was to die tonight, it was fitting that he would get one last look at the place where it all began. A lump formed in his throat.
“You were also motivated then.” HUGIN said. “On that night in Millennium. When he brought down that skyscraper and incinerated the Paladin.” HUGIN said. “Yet he bested you in seconds.”
“Let’s just say this guy has a really big unpaid bar tab.” Thundrax replied. “And it’s collection day. Now where is he? Is he still in Vancouver?”
“Craig, the odds are astronomically against you. You will not succeed.” HUGIN replied.
“Heh. Clever pun,” Thundrax said. “Astronomical. Good one, HUGIN.”
“At least call in backup.” HUGIN said. Craig sighed as he flew away westward, above Terminal and Broadway, hovering above the SkyTrain line. A train passed in the other direction. Many hands pointed out the window, skyward. Vancouver’s hero had returned.
“He’s made it personal,” Thundrax said. “And it’s Firewing. You know the man’s code. Best to keep it man to man.”
Thundrax had never heard an AI sigh before.
“I do not understand how you have survived for so long.” HUGIN said. “To face Firewing alone in battle is virtually suicide. Do I need to you read you the names of the heroes he’s killed?”
“Already read them.” Craig said. “Dozens of times. Do I need to recite the list?”
“I’ll have a medical team ready to extract you if needed. Or a Stronghold unit, in the unlikely event that you triumph.”
“Have a hot sleep unit ready,” Craig instructed. “The name will never be more apt. Now where exactly is he? Tell me, HUGIN.” He was scanning the police band anyway, in the case the AI wouldn’t tell him what he wanted.
“1151 Georgia St.” UNTIL’s AI relented.
“Well, well. Near one of my other enemies.” Thundrax said.
“That’s no way to talk about the President of the United States,” HUGIN chided.
“Then drop it from the log,” Craig snapped, and he shifted direction, heading for downtown Vancouver. There was a searing feeling in his stomach. He was about to take on the foe he had never beaten. The man who had beaten him badly, every time. And this time there was no backup to save him.
Firewing had taken a position just above one of the newest skyscrapers in Vancouver: the Trump Hotel. The newest addition to the Donald’s empire rose 62 stories above the city skyline (though Donald claimed it was 69 (as if underground parking counted in the total, anything to add to his grandeur -- Firewing, who had seen worlds where towers stretched into orbit, would have laughed at the boast); the villain watched as the streaking white figure approached him; a blur of blue lightning surrounded the man’s form. “Thundrax.” Firewing said. He knew him well enough from past encounters to recognize him. “Well, well! This day has gone from farce to mere comedy.”
“You and I have unfinished business,” Craig called out with a snarl. “Deadly business.”
Firewing nodded. “As you wish, warrior.” He shouted, to be heard over the sound of his wings as they crackled and flapped. The title was as close to a compliment as he got. Craig tensed, clenching his fists, and there was thunder in a clear sky.
In the back of Thundrax’s mind, he counted the grudges he held against Firewing. Always Thone had beaten him badly. Always it had been the most painful of defeats. They first fought when Craig led Star*Force, the Toronto hero team. In 2003, they fought outside the CN Tower. Firewing seared him to the bone. Like a roast. Then there was the battle—more of a skirmish really, – on the moon. A chance encounter, while Craig was answering a distress call from a crashed alien ship. Craig only found a dead alien and Firewing. That day he had fried Thundrax in his spacesuit, puncturing it (evaporating it in a single shot, really) and left him for dead. Friends had to rescue him.
And, worst of all, he again remembered the day five years ago, their last major battle. The day when Firewing got bored, so he took up a position over a building in downtown Millennium. and challenged its heroes to attack him, vowing destruction if the heroes failed to put up a fight. And they came. And fell. Craig was one of the first on the scene, and one of the first to fall, but there were others.
And one died.
Craig remembered cradling Paladin’s charred corpse as it lay in a crater where a city street had once been. He screamed into the sky. Vowing vengeance, he had used his Malvan friend Aliona to relay a challenge to a duel: personal combat in the Arizona desert where no bystanders would be hurt. Firewing had agreed to the match with contempt, but he did not show at the appointed time and place. Perhaps he thought Craig was beneath him. Or perhaps he was detained by some other, long forgotten matter. “This is long overdue.” Thundrax said as the memories smote him: the rubble, the dead body. The lightning bristling across his form, the thunder, nature’s PA system, booming his voice. His foe would not mistake his words.
“Is it?” Firewing shouted, and he paused. “I think it may well be!” he exclaimed after some consideration. He had forgotten about the promised duel: Thundrax had hardly been a worthy challenge or a memorable duelist, though he knew Craig was strong and was highly regarded by the humans. “You are indeed fortunate, human,” the villain said. “For you will now hear what few beings in the galaxy have heard: an apology from the lips of Firewing. For I regret not fulfilling our bargain.”
“You killed Paladin,” Craig said.
“Was that his name?” Firewing asked. “I must thank you, Thundrax. For I deserve to know the name of a vanquished foe, and any event, his valor should not be forgotten.”
“And today you attacked people I cared for.”
“Did I?” Firewing asked.
“If you want to get to me, leave my friends out of it,” Craig snapped. He had assumed the strike against Rory had to be meant for him. “I’m easy enough to find.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. And I care even less,” Firewing said. “You may be mighty among the fleas, but you are still just another insect to me, Thundrax.” He respected the man’s courage, but that was far as it went. “There is no glory to be won in your defeat.”
“Fuck glory,” Craig said, and he took the battle to his foe. There was a crack of thunder, and for a moment even Firewing was dismayed.
Craig, despite his bold words, was cautious. He needed to lead his foe away from innocents, even at a hotel named after Donald Trump. After all, it was only licensing. Craig flashed bolts of lightning as his foe, booming with thunder, but he aimed high, so they would not hit the ground. Firewing, circling in the sky, a meteor given wings, threw back bombards. He exchanged volleys with the hero, but the ex-gladiator mostly gauging his opponent’s speed and maneuverability, not making a serious effort to burn him, not yet.
To the onlookers, this was not a skirmish but an apocalypse. Rich men screamed and feared for their lives and fortunes. “It’s Firewing!” more than one onlooker shouted, not hiding their terror, not forgetting what Firewing could do to a city when riled. The capitals of the world: New York, Millennium, and Toronto, all bore the scars of previous battles. London had burned once. They fell down on their faces, and even the most blasphemous soul prayed as the two combatants, no longer seen as hero and villain, but as dark angels gone to war, played in the sky.
Firewing noted that Thundrax was leading him to open water. Protecting the gnats. He smiled. He noted that the hero, for all his rage, was fighting smarter than he had before. He was faster, stronger, far more agile, much more practised in flight; sometimes he even turned into a thunderbolt and materialized away from his flight path, frustrating the Malvan’s attempts to incinerate him. Firewing could not quite draw a bead on him, at least not in the early going. Thundrax was also fighting with more confidence, confidence that only came with intense practise and training. Firewing could respect that. He almost seemed like a different opponent.
Slam! With the two combatants directly over English Bay, Craig made his move. Teleporting atop Firewing, he grappled with the Malvan, howling at the flames that seared him, but putting aside the pain to throw as nasty a haymaker as he could. It would have rattled Destroyer. Firewing blacked out for an instant, and the two men plummeted into the water. But Firewing was far from beaten, and fired back with a concentrated ball of steam that hit Craig like a rocket. The hero flew backwards out of the water, hurtling like catapult shot. Firewing emerged from the depths, laughing.
This was the most fun he had had in months.
“Admirable attempt, Thundrax.” Firewing shouted, watching the hero right his course in the sky. “But I am as at home in the waters as I am in the cold vast of space, or in the molten fire of stars. Now, you have my attention. You bespeak some new grudge against me, and clearly you are enflamed. As I am in a generous mood, I would pause and understand your issue better. What is my crime against the gnats this time?”
“You attacked an innocent man’s home today,” Craig said. “They were friends of mine. What honor can you derive from killing an old man and woman?”
Firewing burst into uproarious laughter. “Oh this is a cosmic jest indeed! That of all the billions of homes that the Phazor should lead me toward, he would send me to one with so mighty a defender!”
“You weren’t deliberately targeting me?” Craig wondered.
“I was not.” Firewing insisted. “Had I been ordered to kill you, I would not have relented until I beheld your flaming corpse with my own eyes.”
“Why would the most powerful man in the Malvan Empire order you to kill a powerless elderly couple on the other side of the galaxy? It makes no sense!”
“Human,” Firewing said. “Even I, as arrogant and as willful a son of Malva as has ever been, will not question my Phazor. His word becomes my deed.”
“And what if someone was impersonating him?” Craig asked.
“Es’alta… phaz’ra…. Indormialv…. Cur’to… Kuolts….” Firewing recited. “There is more, but I will not speak those words aloud. But know, human, that code cannot be faked.”
“And a telepath cannot extract it?”
“No,” Firewing insisted. The certainty in his voice was unnerving. “Even the mightiest. I am trained to resist the telepathic intrusion of the Thane and the Elder Worm. My mind is sealed. And the secrets of the Phazor, triply so.”
“You’re very proud, as usual, Thone.” Thundrax said. ”But I’ve faced some really, really frightening telepaths. My will’s normally very strong, but the best telepaths…” He sighed. “Perhaps your pride is blinding you to the abilities of your enemies.”
“WHAT!” Firewing raged, and he hurled a fireball at Craig. The hero barely managed to dodge it. Firewing readied a second. “YOU DARE TO CALL ME A LIAR!”
“Not exactly.” Craig said.
Firewing seethed, on the verge of renewing the attack. Yet finally he relented -- barely, by the thinnest of margins. “It appears you have a very feeble understanding of truth.” Firewing shouted, his hands still charged. He made a visible effort to calm himself. “Natural, I suppose, on a planet of liars, that you would make so cavalier an accusation!”
“You have to admit that it’s an extremely unlikely coincidence. Astronomically so.” Thundrax argued.
“Human, those who are stuck in the mud should not speak of the stars,” Firewing said. “I should destroy you for the insult, but this is a planet of deceit, and I did wrong you once upon a time, so I’ll give you an opportunity to resolve this to our mutual satisfaction. You have three planetary rotations to discover the truth. At the end of the third cycle. I will present myself, and I will expect you to kneel before me and beg my forgiveness. Perhaps I will be in a clement mood. Otherwise, your city burns.”
“Now just wait a minute!” Craig shouted.
“Three days, human,” Firewing shouted back. “Then my wrath is kindled and will not be restrained!” And with that, Firewing soared skyward, and not even Craig, fast as he had become in recent years, was even remotely a match for the speed of Ariax Thone.
Craig sighed. So touchy about his honor. “I hate it when my opponents go all Klingon on me.” He said.
“Craig?” a voice said on his comm. “Are you receiving me?” It was Ralph. Atomac, the size-changing hero who was one of the two newest Protectors. “I just spoke with UNTIL's AI. He mentioned something bad happening up in Canada. We just got a report that you and…”
“Hey Ralph.” Thundrax said. “Yeah I know. I had a fight with Firewing, and everyone’s freaking out. Especially me. I need you to check the old logs of an old Protector named Aliona. Not her personal files, of course, but I need to see if she ever communicated with a Malvan named Tateklys….”
“It is done.” Firewing said, presenting himself before the throne. He burned as a star.
The Phazor rose, gazing at the burning figure. Even he had to be a little awed. The fire kissed the contours of his body like a star. His flesh, his muscles, they shone. A crown of fire raged upon his head. About him, the luminescent airs sang in the flames, crackling.
“I am prepared,” Ariax said.
“No,” the Phazor replied. “You are not. No man is prepared to bear such power. And you are not just a creature of power. You are a being of hope. You are a symbol. You light the way for peoples.”
“I care only for victories.” Firewing said.
“For now.” The Phazor said. “It will take some time to settle into your role. Your doom. But you will, in time.”
“I swear I will never yield to a foe,” Firewing said. “I make this vow before my Phazor, before all of Malva. Let all know that there is one force that shall remain constant in the universe. And that force is me, me and my victories.”
The Phazor sighed. Valzad had hoped for better from this young gladiator. Youth was too often a fool’s flame. “Know, Ariax Thone, that there is more than one type of battle, and one type of victory. The physical is but the simplest. You must hone every weapon at your disposal, and your mind most of all. In the meantime, never forget you are my agent. None may command you, but me. And you must obey my commands without question. The enemies of Malva are scattered to the corners of the galaxy, and our star thrives. But still we have enemies, and they look to our decline with great eagerness. And we have given them much to look upon, in recent millennia.”
“They shall wither in the flame. As shall the humans.”
“No!” the Phazor said. “I send you to test your spirit, not to destroy. And I send you to grow in wisdom; Malva has treasures in abundance, but that remains the most elusive treasure of all, and the most sorely needed. Be lenient on the apes, they may thrive one day, and it will be to our benefit, if we remain their friends.”
“As long as they know their place, Phazor, I shall restrain the urge to burn their bodies lifeless.”
“Heh.” The Phazor chuckled. "Spoken like a gladiator."
“Thundrax!” Tateklys smiled. ”The mighty Thundrax! You who have the won of the acclaim of even the jaded billions across the galaxy! You whose name is sung in the stars! Mover of mountains! King of the storms! And you seek us! You seek the welcome embrace of the sands, and the exhilaration of blood trickling down your face! You seek our very own Lunar Games!”
For a change, Craig was not grappling half-naked in the sand, which normally happened when he was dragged to the Forum Malvanum, but was Tateklys’s guest in the Praetor’s box. Craig had to admit he had a pretty good view of the decadence and violence. It was the Club Caprice of Gladiatorial arenas. But he was here on business, he wanted answers, not spectacle.
“You didn’t come to compete against the galaxy’s most vicious warriors?”Tateklys asked. Man, Craig thought, every word the praetor spoke dripped of snake oil and blood. For his part, Thundrax loathed him. He was worse than Firewing. He made men like Firewing. He loved the sound of his own, insincere voice. He never, ever shut up. And worst of all, Craig dared not insult the man. Instead he matched him insincerity for insincerity, and smiled.
“I didn’t come here to fight,” Thundrax said.
“A ratings draw like yourself! Preposterous! Do you know the quarter hours I had when you were the arena’s star attraction?” Tateklys replied. “Did you know that you beat Violent Death Theater by over seventeen points? You even made people turn the channel on the Great Evisceration Game!”
“You kidnapped me!” Craig snapped.
“Thundrax, please! That’s all in the past! And don’t look on what happened as kidnapping! Look upon it as a cultural exchange!”
Tateklys’s hand drew to his shoulder. Craig regarded it as if were leprous. “I came with some questions that need answers,” the hero said.
“Well then!” Tateklys announced. Every sentence he spoke sounded like he was calling a wrestling match. “It appears you have a need and I have a need. You seek answers, and I seek a ratings draw for the afternoon’s matches. The bargain seems simple enough. The Mighty Thundrax vs. the Thorgon Killing Machine! The champion of Man vs. the Death Giant of Gaxxion! The Living Thunder against the Walking Death of Kyvron-11! Win those three fights, and I’ll give you all the answers you crave! I’ll even tell you the intimate secrets of my mother!”
Craig’s eyes almost rolled out of their sockets. “You’re really insisting that I fight?”
“The galaxy is clamoring for you. The Phazor himself called you “the beautiful human”.” Craig sighed. “It’s a fair trade, Thundrax.” Tateklys continued. “The knowledge I have gained through sweat and blood against your sweat and blood in the arena.”
Craig sighed, defeated. “If I must," he said, already steeling himself against the pain to come. He still hadn't fully recovered from being blasted by Firewing. "But no killing. And no maiming.”
“Such amusements need not spice your matches,” Tateklys smiled. “Yet.” The audience would get more bored with him over time -- they always did.
Craig shook his head in disgust and asked the Praetor to hand over the damn harness.
Three hard fought matches later, after the Thorgon Killing Machine was stripped of its blades and left in a heap, after the Death Giant of Gaxxion had been schooled and forced to yield by a simple leglock (his pain tolerance was shockingly low, after he matched strength against strength with the exceedingly powerful death god of Kyron-11 (“Walking Death” turned out not to be hype for a change – it was a real bruising fight), the weary, harnass-clad Canadian returned the royal box.
“We had a bargain,” Thundrax said.
Tateklys smiled at the sweat-soaked Canadian, awash in his own blood. They had not been easy combats.Craig noticed that for all his smiles and faux-friendliness, the praetor kept his distance from him. That was understandable – Thundrax reeked of his animal heritage as well as his combats, Yet Tateklys, having what he wanted, also not dismiss him. He was a bastard, but a bastard of his word.
“Now,” the Praetor of the Lunar Games said. “What is it that I can help you with?”
“Firewing received a message from Malva. I need to know that it’s genuine.”
“Oh? Ariax Throne?” Tateklys was always mispronouncing the name. He noticed Craig shooting him a questioning look. “He always calls me “Talk-o-kles” and tells me I talk too much. And I always call him Ariax Throne because the gladiator has delusions of lordship. Not to mention his damn cult. They’ve become pet names over time.” He paused, and spent some time admiring Thundrax's nearly naked form. Little wonder the Phazor found him so fetching! But best to focus on business, he thought, scolding himself.
"Tell me the authorization code.” Tateklys insisted.
“Es’alta… phaz’ra…. Indormialv…. Cur’to… Kuolts… that’s all I remember.”
Tateklys’s face suddenly turned white, and the look of horror was universal to humans and Malvans. He clicked his tongue at the back of his throat, twice, then turned from Thundrax. He did not dare to face Craig.
“What is it?” Thundrax asked.
The praetor turned, visibly composing himself. “I regret that I cannot keep our bargain. You have my word that a price – and a lofty one – will be paid to you one day when it is within my power. For now, I will do you the greatest favor that anyone has ever performed for you in your life. I will send you home, and council you with my centuries of accumulated wisdom – forget this matter. Leave it be.”
“I trust that’s all I’m getting,” Craig said.
“Give my best to Aliona, if you see her.” Tateklys said.
“Haven’t seen her in years,” Craig replied. “I think she left the planet.”
“Then she is a fortunate one,” Tateklys replied. He brought up a holographic display, and his feathered eyebrows rose. “He’s getting another transmission from the Phazor,” Tateklys said. “This is unprecedented. It’s beyond precedent.”
Craig frowned, chafing at the leather harness he wore. Two women were fighting on the arena, one with whips, and a second with taonga sticks, not unlike Sparrowhawk. Craig could not care less. Another transmission meant another kill order.
“Get me down to the damn planet now,” he said.
Craig materialized in the middle of a busy back yard, still wearing the harnass. He blushed and with a thought, changed into his unitard.
“Craig Carson, really!” Aggie said upon first sight of his clothing.
“Are you into kink now, Craig?” Rory ribbed. “Do I need to call in the vice squad on you?”
Rory was with his wife and children, with plenty of grandkids thrown in the mix. They were holding a backyard barbeque, steaks on the grill, slathered in sauce. “It’s a long story,” he said, blushing. “But I’m afraid you’re all in danger. We need to get you out of here.”
“Uncle Craig!” said a strapping fellow. This was Rory’s youngest son David, a strapping lad in his mid 30s, also a cop, and by all reports, a damn good one. “What’s this all about?”
“You’re all in danger.” Craig said. “We need to get you someplace safe…”
And the pyre awoke, materializing as a phoenix in their midst. That was a new trick. Firewing rarely used stealth, at least not in Craig’s experience. “Now that I know why my Phazor summoned me," the villain declared. "There is no place that is safe for you on earth. Or in the stars."
“We had a deal!” Craig shouted.
“Which does not apply to them,” Firewing said, in a voice so contemptuous that it would have done Destroyer proud.
“You’ll have to go through me to get to them,” Craig said.
“Step away from them, Thundrax,” Firewing ordered.
“No.” Thundrax insisted. “Never.”
"Do not be a fool!" Firewing hissed.
"If respecting life makes me a fool, then I'm a fool." Thundrax boasted,
“No! You do not understand.” Firewing said. “You are the one in great danger. Step away from them, now. For your own sake!"
Rory chuckled. “There are enough of us here to begin the process,” he said. His voice had a strange, strained tone. ”You should have come with us to Tahiti, Craig. Then you would have been with us when we found what we found in the caves. Then you would have joined us.”
Craig turned around. He saw his friends. They were flickering like bad holograms, giving him glimpses of something else.
"The error was mine," Firewing said. "Had I known the Phazor's full purpose, that his order was not a mere whim, I would have been more diligent in following the command." He had thought it a drunken insult.
“They are the worm, Thundrax,” Firewing growled. “The worm! The enemies of the galaxy! Enemies of Malva! Surely you have seen them before. Surely you have seen how they steal the bodies of the human animal, carve them, gut them of reason, gut them of everything human or Malvan and fill them with their evil!”
“Rory—” Craig stammered.
"He's kinda telling the truth," the not-Rory said. "Of course, "evil" is a primitive label, fit only for melodrama. But we're worms now. Rightful rulers of the galaxy, both in time immemorial, and in the now."
“We can get you back. If it’s early in the transformation—” Craig had faced the elder worm before. It was never a pleasant experience, but he had reversed the transformation before. Surely he could do it for his dearest friends.
“Why would I want to be human again?” Rory Weston, the man who saved Craig, the man who set him on the path of heroes, the only father figure he had left, said in a scoffing voice. “Oh Craig, we’re glorious.”
“We won’t be changing back!” Aggie said. “We’re wise to that trick. That’s why we gestated for years in these bodies. We’re fully worms now. All of us.” And the family closed around Craig like a net. He sent a distress signal to HUGIN, to raise UNTIL and the Protectors. It was jammed.
“They wish to make you one of theirs!” Firewing hissed. Craig had wondered why Thone had not attacked yet, but now he could see why. He was encased in a psionic field. The elder worms were telepaths and telekinetics of a high order; not powerful to defeat Firewing, but able to slow him for long enough – to transform Craig into one of them. When the Living Thunder was united with the worm, who knew what his limits would be?
“Focus, brothers and sisters." David said. He seemed to be the leader. Poor kid. He had bounced him on his knee as a tyke. Davie was still a toddler. The kid had idolized him. Now, he was a mocking, desiccated husk, bent on his destruction. "Carve his soul, and cast it out! Give his body to the worm!”
Craig struggled, under as heavy a telepathic assault as he had endured in years. He could feel them scratching at him, gouging him, trying to pick at his mind and pluck it like a kid working on a scab. They burrowed into him, as casually as a man gutting a fish.
“Damn you, Thundrax!” Firewing shouted. “Fight back! Fight them as hard as you fought me! Always in our battles, I have broken your body, but never did I break your will! Not once! Do not insult me by giving in to such offal!”
"Oh. Do shut up, Malvan." Rory said.
“He is contained. And the Carson is almost ours. " David said. "And when he is one of us, then we will use him to lure the Protectors into our grasp. And Starforce. And the Champions. Do not fight us, Uncle Craig. Just surrender, and give us the earth!”
“Thundrax!” Firewing shouted. “Do not let them do this!”
“No!” Craig shouted, barely able to hear anything but the storm in his ears.
“DO NOT LET THEM!” Firewing gave one last cry.
And then the storm broke.
Craig had no reckoning of the next few seconds. Maybe it was the transformation, maybe it was the storm protecting him. Maybe he even passed out from the telepathic assault, and the Living Thunder took over his body. Whatever it was, it was a mercy.The world was only flashes of black and red and weeping, and the sky wept with him. The sound of his heartbeat and the thunder were one. He had never felt this way before, never experienced anything remotely like this. The world was thunder. When he regained awareness, he was standing in David's backyard, his family dead at his feet, bodies scattered everywhere. Their skulls had been crushed. Craig was sobbing. Firewing, himself weary from his assault, placed a hand on his shoulder. It was a gaze of comradeship, one of the few times the Malvan had established an emotional bond with anyone on earth.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Fuck off,” Craig wept, staring at the carnage. Firewing nodded. For once, even he understood. The day had pierced even the armor of callousness that the gladiator had carefully donned every day for decades. He said nothing, but they stood together, two enemies side by side, in the middle of ruin.
“Poor Rory,” Craig sobbed. "He fought supervillains with a pistol, even the Brotherhood. He fought cancer in the 80s and beat it. Punk-X put him in the hospital for over a year with some… well, those were sick injuries. And he never gave up. He never stopped putting himself on the line for people.” He coughed and caught his breath. “What a fucking reward for helping people. Being turned into a monster.”
“If he had not died,” Firewing said. “Millions would have died in his stead. Perhaps your entire planet would have to be sterilized. Take joy that these few lives were offered in substitution for billions.”
"He was my friend,” Craig said. “He was there for me at the very beginning.”
“He was a deep cover operative of the elder worms. For a creature such as this, sentimentality is not just weakness, but absolute folly,” Firewing said. “Your entire race was threatened, including all that he loved when his mind was free. That man would be thanking you now. I can understand your grief, Thundrax. But put it aside and appreciate the larger sacrifice. His death spared peoples.”
“Fuck off.” Thundrax repeated.
Ariax Thone simply nodded. “You will have a chance to avenge him, against the worms and against me. We’ll resume our battles. Fate is uncompromising in this regard, and ever we are destined to fight upon opposing sides.”
“Good,” Craig spat bitterly.
Firewing nodded and ascended. Ariax Thone had lived on earth for two decades. The race of men had largely been a mystery to him; he did not deign to relate to humanity, these mere ants, nor give thoughts to the design of the anthill. But here, in the death of a single peace officer and his family, for a few fumbling seconds, he understood what it was to be human, and perhaps gleaned the true purposes of the Wisdom Stones in sending him to this raw coarse jewel of a world.
Craig Carson fell to his knees and wept. Everyone who had been a father figure to him was gone, ripped away in brutal and senseless ways. His dad. His first team leader, Shamus. And now Rory. He wept and wept. Years of weeping, pent up and bottled, were loosed at last, and the flood could not stop. So many people he knew were gone. There were so many people he had never taken the time to mourn. Duty forsakes the mourning cloak. And what if these people had been the Protectors? Would he have done the same thing to Faye or Sebastian or Alex or Razira?
His mind flooded with questions he did not want to ask, he wept and wept. Perhaps one day he would pick himself off the ground again and fly and fight again. But for now, he was spent.
Last edited by Thundrax; 05-07-2018 at 05:08 AM.