Author’s Note: Warning, political content (duh). Storylines are a reaction to the election of Trump and political trends in America that the author is not a fan of. Craig is a very political character, and I don’t shy away from current events. Judge this as you will, or skip the story if the subject matter repels you.
The VIPER commander was halfway into The Speech. You know the one. After a decade, they sound like a broken record; after two decades, they’re as mind numbingly repetitive as the dance music at Caprice. After three decades, they’re as bad as a political echo chamber simulated by the whine of a dentist drill, and I want to bang my head against a wall. The man, having no sense of mercy, continued to drone. This was supposed to be a torture session; but he was too busy ranting to bring on more than standard issue pain. Vicious, but not imaginative.
“VIPER has spent too long in the shadows, Mr. Carson. It has been twenty-five years since the Supreme Serpent emerged, and what have we achieved?”
About as much as any other fascist.” I reply, spitting a lump of blood as the sonics attached to my ribcage were causing a bit of hemorrhaging, as well as dislodging my right eye from the socket. I can see it dangling out of the corner of my left eye – man, that’s gross. “I’m surprised you haven’t gotten into politics. And just like most politicians, you’ve achieved zip, Nada. Zero.” The commander scowled. “Zero, my hero, how wonderful you are…” I add, singing a song from the misspent Saturday mornings of my childhood.
“This changes now!” the commander ranted. “Too long has the snake bidden its time! With those fools controlling Congress and the nation in chaos, now is the time to strike!”
“Hey!” I exclaim. “We agree on something, at least the fool part. I’d high five you, but I seem to be tied up.”
I don’t know what it is about torture sessions that brings out the wiseacre in me. How can you tell when I’m in a bad situation? By the number of jokes I tell! But in truth, the pain isn’t all that bad. I’ve been nuked. I’ve been trapped in the worst part of hell and made to suffer agony on a metaphysical level: torment and despair that you 4chan rejects can only dream about. Hey buddy, you think these gizmos are having much effect? This is amateur hour!
“You will not be tied up long. Only until you sing for me.”
“I already did.” I protest. “You did recognize “Schoolhouse Rock”, didn’t you?” He glared at me, highly unamused. Asshole. Not only does he rip my body apart, he doesn’t laugh at my jokes! “You did see Schoolhouse Rock, didn’t you? You know: “Three is a Magic Number”? Or “Lolly, lolly, lolly, get your adverbs here?” Or did mommy and daddy tell you that you couldn’t watch Vanguard and Friends? Y’know, that would explain a lot...”
"You seem to be forgetting, Mr. Carson, that I am the torturer and you are the torturee!” the VIPER commander hissed.
“Look, I’ve got a graduate degree in pain management.” I say. “I can even make it halfway through one of Biselle’s press conferences without punching the television into next week. So why don’t we end this, and you can give your “Make VIPER great again” speech to your men, who might be wowed by this bullshit like a cloistered political clique on the Internet.”
"If you will not talk, I guess I’ll have to kill you…” the Nest leader said, and then the base was rocked by an explosion. The lights blinked on and off, twice. The klaxon blared.
“WARNING. MICRO-REACTOR CONTAINMENT BREACH. ALL PERSONNEL TO SAFE ZONE 2. BASE SECURITY HAS BEEN COMPROMISED. WARNING. MICRO-REACTOR CONTAINMENT…”
The power flux gives me just enough of a reprieve from the restraints that, with effort, I snap the bonds. Man, that hurts worse than the torture. I had dampened my nervous system to resist the pain – the power restraints didn’t prevent the use of my powers internally – and I immediately attack. I’m in no shape to fight, even if my nervous system was functioning properly, but fortunately, I have a friend. Out of the corner of my working eye, I see a very familiar white and blue figure, a lightweight battlesuit with a tights motif, and a winged helmet.
The Nest Leader didn’t even have time to complete his obscenity. He and his two show VIPERs fell to the Champion’s concussion beams like a ton of bricks.
“Easy Craig, I got you,” Defender said. “Made a mess getting in, though.”
“Micro-reactor,” I note. “Bit more sophisticated than their standard generator.”
“I’ve seen these bases pop up elsewhere.” Defender said. “VIPER’s upgrading. Craig. Again. You’d better hold still. We need to get you into surgery. You’re a real mess....”
I push my dangling eye back into its socket, and do the same for my dislocated kneecaps and my dislocated shoulder. Damn, that hurts. “There.” I say.
“Surgery’s done.” Defender’s jaw dropped, just a little, and I smile. “Now help me get “Chuckles” and his two henchboys out of here before the reactor melts.” I add, hoisting the nest leader over my shoulder.
“Dammit Craig, I’m still calling for a medic,” Defender said, and he hoisted the two brickbusters over his own shoulders, like man-sized epaulets, and together we were away.
I’m not sure where VIPER’s taken me, but the nav implant comes back online as soon as I leave the base’s dampening field. They’ve taken me to someplace in rural Wisconsin, Teapublican country, I suppose. That figures. I like a lot of conservatives, despite our obvious differences, but the governor of that state does not impress me. He’d make a great VIPER. I bet the guy wakes up in the morning, starts the day by pissing on a copy of the Sermon on the Mount, right before his morning ritual of kicking cripples.
As you may have guessed, recent events have NOT honed my diplomatic skills.
In the distance, I can see a small jet land in a fallow strawberry field, depositing its fuselage on the meadow. It shifted and rearranged itself, eventually sliding to form a building.
“You watched a lot of cartoons as a kid, didn’t you?” I grin at Defender. “Didn’t get the transformer sound effect down, though.”
“Field hospital module.” Defender explained with a smile. “And another will be landing with a containment module for our guests.”
“Mobile bases?” I wonder.
“Yep!”” Defender’s face bore a proud pappy expression.
"Do they turn into a car?”
“No, but they do connect. Energy efficient, too! So, in you go!”
I would have argued that I felt fine, except that would have been a lie of such dimensions that even a politician would balk. So I enter the module and let him consign me to my fate. It smells like a hospital, like enforced sterility. The walls aren’t the usual painful hospital white, though – they’re silvery steely, and the interior contains plenty of modular, transforming furniture made from chrome and stark plastics. The hero straps me to a very strange, almost alien looking bed, and spidery limbs begin dancing on my skin, drilling holes for IVs to pierce my nigh invulnerable skin. Quality drugs.
"What alien race did you get this from?”
"Enemy race of Ironclad,” Defender replied. “He doesn’t talk about them much. Hold still, Craig.”
"I’m a walking storm,” I answer. “I don’t do “still” very well. It’s like holding your breath.”
The spider arms tear my clothing, except for my crotch (Defender is probably the most Comics Code-friendly hero ever), and spray the air with a nano-antiseptic, clouds of which settle on my skin and sting. My body’s riddled with abrasions of varying kinds and degrees – VIPER had made a real mess. Defender looked over my injuries. “They almost got you this time, Craig,” the hero noted.
"It’s what they do,” I shrug.
"The snakes are rallying again,” Defender added.
"A lot of bad guys are rallying,” I retort. “The snakes always test a new Congress. They‘ve done the same thing for decades.” I could tell from the look on Defender’s face that he would have preferred that I didn’t bring up politics. Not because he is apolitical (Mr. “I won’t register my powers”, nosir!) but, well, polite people don’t do that, and I’m Canadian. We’re supposed to be the poster boys for polite, right?
“Standard ambush. Got a distress call. Damsel in distress turned out to be a bomb that blew up in my face and then they got the jump on me. I don’t think they got any information. Didn’t feel any telepaths running around in my head. Lucky me.”
"They weren’t being gentle with you.” Defender noted.
"If they were gentle, they wouldn’t be VIPER. Oh, be warned. When the nestie wakes up, he’s going to give you the standard issue revenge speech. The man’s a walking cliche factory.” I say. “Metal moron!” I add, putting my mockery talents into overdrive. “Your paltry armor is no match for VIPER! Prepare to feel the fangs of the sssssssnake!”
Defender laughed. That was a rare moment. I’ve known him for close to a decade, and the guy Out-Seriouses Captain Serious. That may have been only the third time I’ve ever heard him laugh. “Sure Craig, sure,” he said.
“I don’t need to know how bad they hurt me,” I said. “I’ll be right as rain in a couple of hours.”
“One day someone’s going to hurt you in a way you can’t heal from,” Defender said.
“Too late,” I reply. “It’s already happened.” I don’t elaborate on the remark.
The truth is, I’ve been in decline for quite some time. First there was the imprisonment in Hell, in the Unconsummated Suicide. The nightmares I’ve had since my first trip to Hell, when I was 15, they’re about five times worse now. Then there was the Hobbled Man’s spell, which fractured me, forced me to reconstitute myself again and again. I Go To Pieces, like the old 80s song. They put me back together, and I pretended everything was fine, pretended I was normal. And then....
A year ago, there was an incident in the southwest desert, a villain launched a nuke at Moscow. Oh, I rode it and disarmed it, I was the hero of the day, like Dr. Strangelove (and just like my old teammate Avenger, who did the exact same thing on the Colonel’s nuke that one time in southeast Asia — crazy bastard), I rode the damn missile. But in the process of disarming it, I lost it. I almost flipped the wrong switch. Millions of people almost died because I had one bad moment.
And I had a nervous breakdown. I kept it hidden, bottled it inside. I withdrew from everyone. But there was no fooling UNTIL’s annual psych review. My performance had degraded, badly.
Here’s the funny thing. Am I as powerful as ever? Yep. Maybe even more so. I can lift more, fly faster, endure more of a beating. But it’s a facade. Inside, I’m falling apart. In the eternal struggle between Craig and the Living Thunder he controls, Craig is slipping.
“Nonsense,” Defender said, blissfully unaware of all of this, and he paused to scan the perimeter. “No sign of hostiles.”
"So,” I ask with a sigh. “Nice little tinker toy project you got here, D. How many more of these little secret side jobs do you have that we don’t know about?”
"I could ask the same about you.” Defender said. “I read the report on the Trikon. Secret asteroid base, Craig?”
"It was an expandable module, based on Bigelow habitats.” I answer. Inflatable rooms for space stations, first made for GATEWAY. “I simply thought our mining project could use a few storage modules within range of our drilling sites. And it was hardly a secret. NASA knew about it, and so did Victory.”
"How goes your efforts to expand our species?”
"Lousy,” I sigh. “Everything takes about five times longer than our best estimate. You?”
The same.” Defender said, shaking his head. “I keep thinking if I can get all the superhumans on the same page, overwhelm the villains just long enough that we can turn away from security and work toward improving the human condition…” He shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll live to see the world we could build.”
I almost laugh, but one look at the plaintive expression on the man’s face, even concealed by a half-faceplate, disabuses me of the thought. The man’s so earnest that saying a harsh word to him would be like kicking a puppy.
“Why does doing the right thing have to be so damn hard!” Defender declared. There was a frustration in his voice that bordered on petulance.
“I know.” I commiserate. “And the harder you try to help, the harder you try to coordinate the herd of cats, the harder they push back.” I say. “And the more vicious and childish the sneers get.”
“Now Craig, let’s not go there. Our peers are mostly good people, and I’m grateful we have so many new bodies joining the fight.”
“That’s spin, and you know it.” I spit back.
"Sometimes the spin is true.” Defender shrugged.
He tries so hard, and people just put him down. I remember the old Serve and Protect comm. They made a lot of remarks about him, and they were so damn petty. Vicious crap unfit for the gossip rags, as if they had achieved one-tenth of what this man had accomplished. But you can always tell the smallness of a man by their eagerness to put down others. I wonder who he is, behind that mask?
Or maybe Defender is the face.
“I really wish they’d show more resp--” I stammer.
"Craig, drop it. Please.”
The man had to have picked up some of the chatter. He had to know what they said about him, behind his back. But Defender said nothing; he just inspected the readings on the monitors, like a garage monkey checking a brake job. He must be so bored. Suddenly, he jerked his head, and held it as he listened to a transmission that registered as a buzz on my comm implant.
"I gotta go.” Defender said. “Witchcraft needs me. That is, she has a mission. We have to penetra—“ he stopped, realizing his words had become a bit of a running gag in the superhuman world, like William Shatner’s mispronunciation of “sabotage” in the acting world. “I got to go.”
“Take care. Say hi to Bethany,” I reply.
"That’s right, you know her secret,” Defender noted. “By the way, I heard Celestar finally rescued his team from the Frost Tomb. Give them the Champions’ warmest regards.”
“I haven’t met them yet,” I answer. After forty years, Canada’s most powerful heroes had returned from their icy prison. I was not invited to the party: Celestar and I have never been close. “But when I see Lon, I’ll tell him.”
"That’s one bright spot, I suppose. One spot in a growing darkness.”
"The torture got to you, didn’t it Craig?”
I shake my head. “No, this has been weighing on me for awhile,” I admit. “The world’s changing, Defender. Old heroes are retiring. They abandon the field as if they never existed, never returning phone calls. The ones that stay just get more cynical, less respectful of the mission. New heroes come along, but they don’t last long. And there are fewer and fewer replacements.”
“I wish some of the new kids weren’t quite so violent.” Defender said.
“Every generation of heroes has that,” I note. “I can’t really say mine was any better. Not when I was mentored by Shamus and Avenger. So Kid Gunplay and Lady Tormentula are off the hook. At least until my mood sours.”
Defender nodded, conceding the point. “But they all have potential, Craig.” he said. “That’s where we come in, right?”
"I suppose so.” I groan as I feel something suddenly jerk inside me. A bone untwisting, tendons reattaching, or something equally gross and medical. Defender inspected the monitor. “Will I live?” I chuckle.
“No snake’s going to be able to kill you,” Defender replied, smiling. “The hospital module should inform you when oiu can be safely discharged,” he blurted, changing the subject with all the subtle deftness of a California driver making a U-Turn at sixty miles an hour. “A jet will pick it up. Can you stay with it to Millennium?”
“Sure,” I say. “After all, I do owe you. You rescued me from a horrible fate. Those VIPER monologues are torture!”
Defender nodded, his face stoic as a Roman orator carved in granite. I wish he’d laughed at the joke. Then blue flame issued from his boots, and in a flash and a streak he was gone back to the city.
I arrive back in Millennium in the early evening. Daylight savings time; the sky was brighter than my brain, which was in a bit of a fog after the torture and the drugs and the flight home. Kivioq was anticipating my return, and I could see the lights on.
The glass doors on the patio open as I enter the apartment. I’m about to become naked with a thought and head for the shower when three men in PRIMUS uniforms dash around the corner and surround me, weapons drawn.
"Hold on, Rambo. Let’s see some ID.” I say.
“McKelvie, PRIMUS,” a Silver Avenger barked, flashing a badge. “We understand you’re storing contraband in this apartment!”
They shouldn’t even know where this base is located. I hide my home.
I stammer something barely coherent. A second agent approaches, holding up some alien artwork that I had been collecting. They’re awfully bold. “We found this, sir…”
"Looks like you have some explaining to do, Carson.”
"It’s a gift,” I explain. “From the Mandaarians. They had an explorer up in the Arctic, and his party ran afoul of the Gadroon...”
“Suuuuuuure,” the agent said, his voice twisting in contempt. Asshole.
The government’s been out to get me since the last election. Or, to put it more accurately, someone in the new government, someone in high places, VIPER maybe, nested in the new administration, is out to get me. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve tried to slip someone into the changing of the guard. Or the sixth. I’ve been hassled on at least three occasions by someone in the government over the last two months, and I don’t think it’s just because I’ve harbored unkind thoughts about the new administration, as much as I want to be a partisan jerk. Something is rotten in the state of America.
“Lawyer,” I say, as an agent came out bearing more artifacts: one of them is an Orichalcum conch, a blood gift from Queen Mara. “Now. And get your hands off my collection.”
“Bite me,” one of the agents retorted, and they snickered like a pack of delinquent high schoolers as they roughly handle an object that predates human civilization by ten thousand years.
"Maybe if you hadn’t arrested us eight years ago, we might show a little more sympathy,” one of them sneered, bringing up an incident where PRIMUS was researching WMDs on Canadian soil in violation of treaty and VIPER seized control of the weapons. When it was over, the rescued agents were arrested, thrown in jail, and deported. Kaufmann’s had me on his shit list ever since. “Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it, Carson?”
I really, really need to sleep, and I know they aren’t going to let me hit the hay anytime soon. This is going to be one very long, long night. These aren’t any PRIMUS agents I know. Cross-referencing their badge IDs, they’re mostly from the Richmond Virginia field office. Why drag them to all the way too Millennium when they already have an office in the city?
These boys are pretty far afield. Hmmm...
Enough of this crap. I run down my enemies list, trying to determine who’s in a position to do this to me. As it turns out, the name I’m looking for is at the top of the list.
I enter the northern Virginia DARPA office like a storm. An agent points a pistol into the face of a god. Poor jerk. I bite down on the barrel, chomp off two inches, and spit it out.
“That’s what you call gun control,” I quip, and I nudge the agent aside. With a rip and a crunch, I casually perform a doorectomy on the entrance, and enter. Thunder and lightning surround my form, the thunder louder than the alarms. I’m pissed. I want him to know I’m pissed.
“Invictus!” I rage again.
"Why Craig,” David Sutherland was sitting at a desk, dressed in a business suit. “You really need to go through my secretary. You’ll hurt his feelings.”
“For such an allegedly polite people, you Canadians sure need a lesson in manners.” Invictus grinned, and he rose from his chair. “Well, how shall we do this?”
“I didn’t come here to fight,” I snap. Never did I mean a sentence less in my life.
“Aw, now that’s disappointing. You came here to trash my office?” Invictus smirked. “Just like you trashed my life? Altering the timeline so my triumphs… my victories… meant nothing.”
“Reality altering is your specialty, Sutherland.” I snap. “And I like this reality better than the one where you turned me into a villain.”
I really need to recap things for the audience at home. Invictus and I have a long history. Here’s the summary of a decade of trading punches: David Sutherland Jr., aka Invictus, was a superhero. He foiled the plans of VIPER and a lot of other prominent threats, was charismatic as hell, and used the PR to become one of the great patriotic heroes of his day. With superhuman strength and toughness rivaled only by a handful of beings on the planet, and solar energy powers to match, the Virginia super-man, the Unconquered Sun, rose to the highest of heights in the superhuman world.
Then he became a US Senator, the junior senator from Virginia. Blue dog democrat. But as the years wore on, ugly rumors surfaced. Popular superheroes who got too close to Sutherland were implicated in scandals; some went to prison, others merely lost their reputation and retired. Rumors surfaced about Sutherland, rumors of a sexual nature, really ugly, ugly ones. People who investigated him had accidents, fatal accidents.
Sutherland claimed VIPER was trying to frame him, and most of us believed him. Until the Champions uncovered evidence that there was no frame. Sutherland was called to the Champions HQ to explain himself, but he brought his men, the CenturyCorps. The 100. He captured the heroes and had all but drained them of their powers when I stumbled on the scene, beat up the fake hero, and freed the Champions. And thus a grudge was born.
Three years later, Invictus used extra-dimensional beings called the Song and attempted to alter the timeline by changing America’s iconography— change symbols, change the world —so that America became a bastion of fascism. It’s disquieting to know that reality’s so fragile. I (and some allies) stopped him, but Sutherland had altered the timeline enough that the charges against him had been dropped before the Champions had invited him to the HQ, so that disastrous meeting had never taken place and Sutherland was still a public hero. Only the Champions and I still remembered the original timeline.
Thus began a long campaign where David Sutherland tried to destroy my life, releasing hints of scandal into the press, framing me for the inadvertent creation of killer storms, and when that didn’t work, he again altered the timeline to turn me into a villain. But that, too, backfired on Sutherland; and when the timelines finally settled, he no longer had his followers and lofty reputation, or his money. I thought it would take him years to rebuild.
But here he was, less than a year later. The President’s Special Adviser on Superhuman Affairs. A cabinet position in all-but-name. A perfect non-partisan pick, at least on the surface.
“So what can I do for you, Thundrax?” Invictus asked. “And if the answer is deport you back to your icebound shithouse of a country, well, this is your lucky day.”
I seethe, but do my best not to show it, not to him. “I’m here in the States legally,” I snap. “And you know it.”
“Yes, at least until we repeal that pesky little UNTIL treaty.” Invictus grinned. “Then I will personally enjoy booting you in the ass as we send you across the line. But seriously, Carson, why are you still here? You only came to the States to deal with Zerstoiten, and well, he’s dealt with. So why don’t you just go?”
“I still have some unfinished business,” I snarl. “And a team.”
“Until Sparrowhawk loses interest, and the Protectors drift apart for good.” Invictus said. “God knows how it ever lasted four years. Speaking of drifting apart, such a shame about Tesseract. Very careless of you, Craig, letting a teammate die. Failing someone who was depending on you. Yet again.”
I should have known the bastard would bring her up. Tess had been broken into fragments of reality along her timestream, a temporal jigsaw puzzle. Or at least that’s how I understood it. Her death had been sudden, and hit everybody hard. “Tess isn’t dead.” I declare to the smug bastard. “ We’ll get her back.”
"Suuuure.” Invictus smiled.
I didn’t like the way the conversation was going. Sutherland was way too comfortable. “But I’ll share your best wishes with the team – and her father.” Her dad, a US Senator, was not especially welcoming to his daughter’s enemies. Though I didn’t know if he’d be much more welcoming to me. He had to be grieving.
“Be my guest,” Invictus grinned. “You have noticed how many of your old friends and teammates you’ve lost lately, haven’t you? The world’s changing, Carson, and not in your favor. You keep sticking around, and for what? To watch teammates die and disappear? To watch friends drift away? How often do you need to be abandoned before you take the hint?”
"Very funny,” I spit. “Laugh it up.”
“How can I not? Your world is just smoke and ashes, Craig, but mine—? Mine just gets more and more solid. More power, more authority. The future is heading in my direction now. The day of the costumed degenerate is almost done. Now, thanks to political adeptness that you never had – member of Parliament, ha! – I get to blow out the candle.”
I laugh. “You’re really trying to provoke me, aren’t you? But behind the wall of smugness, I can read you like a Harold Robbins novel – complete trash. And you know what the trash wants, more than anything? To take that hand of yours, smush it up into a fist, and beat me to as bloody a pulp as you can. Well this is your lucky day…”
And I throw a folder onto his desk.
“A release form.” I say. “You and me, no holds barred, to the finish. Off planet, if need be, to avoid legal responsibility.” He smiled. “No agents, no backup, nothing. Just two, big, angry men who know how to fight, how to hurt people, and one of us walks away.”
Let’s end this. Finally.
Invictus opened the folder. He took the fountain pen off his desk, smiled as he lowered it to touch the page – and forged a giant X over the contract and then tore it into two pieces.
"My game, my rules,” Invictus said, and he threw the contract back at me.
I shake my head and laugh. I had a feeling that would be the answer, in fact, I was expecting it. “No, I’m not going to call you a coward, Sutherland. Or make threats. You know what I can do to you – what people of conscience and justice can do to you, to your plans. The day will come, when you will regret your choice today. When you had a chance to beat me, and passed it up.” I smile. “The universe is a helluva lot bigger than you, David. The day you discover that will be the worst day of your life. And it’s coming.”
"Spare me the melodrama, Carson. I’ll be too busy running the country to have time for it.”
“It’s not even close to over. Harass me? Harass my friends? We haven’t even gotten warmed up.”
“Just run off, Craig. Go tell someone that you’re sorry, or something. Something Canadian. And shut the door on the way out,” Invictus said, smirking back at the shorn doorway. “Run off, so you can get back to being a third rate imitation of Vanguard, a great American superhero. Take a hike, go back to being the Zellers of superheroes, a cheap cut-rate Canadian imitarion!” And he laughs, and it’s pure mockery.
I back away, scowling. He’s way too pleased with himself.
I had hoped Sutherland would be more forthcoming, spill his guts a bit more. As it was, it was an exercise in futility. Perhaps even one in the loss column. But it rarely hurt to rattle some cages, and if anything, that cage needed all the rattling it could get.
The smuggest cage in America. Fuck him.
“This is just going to make it ten times harder to do my job.” I sigh, throwing aside the newspaper in disgust. I didn’t think I could stand to see the sight of the agitator’s face again. “There’s already people in Congress talking about deporting me. If I hadn’t help save them from Borealis last year, they’d probably have the votes to do it.”
“Bleh bleh bleh.” Oldguard said, yawning. He was a Golden Age superhero, but he still packed two fists of dynamite. And a mouth full of perfect teeth. We meet once a month for coffee and bullshit, when our schedules allow. The old hero continued his spiel.
“I remember when people swore that Nixon was going to forcibly conscript every superhero and ship ‘em to ‘Nam, and it never happened. Craig! You gotta stop this pointless worrying and just do your duty as long as you can. Let the politicians be politicians, and just answer the call. You’ll get through this.”
There’s a buzz in my ear, and I instinctively crane my neck in response. My communicator’s going off. “Campus Martius Park.” I reported. “IHA rally. They need someone to monitor it, with tensions running high as they’ve been the last month.”
I’m faster than the old-time hero, so I grab the man’s arm and head skyward. He whoops as he’s dragged along; I’m glad he enjoys this. The Park is not far from the Barlowe; it was a cultural center of old Detroit, often used as a venue for protests. The firebrand’s choice. There, I indeed see a clump of IHA protesters – the Institute of Human Advancement, anti-meta bigotry central - and something else.
Black and red banners with a distorted cross. Swastikas. Neo-Nazis had crashed the rally, brandishing their ghoul symbol in their hideous colors. The young fascists had taken up a position on the right of the IHA, and taunted members of the crowd who decidedly didn’t share their views. Even some of the IHA were making a stand against them. I guess they saw the Rocketeer. They were bigots, but they were American bigots. Sensing that it’s about to become a lot more violent below, I land directly between the two camps. It’s time for Captain John Alexander Carson’s grandson to make his own stand against the children of the Reich.
"Stop!” I shout with a voice like thunder, barely audible above the shouts.
The men merely laugh at me. I guess everyone’s used to my thunder routine by now. “Go back to Canada, you…” one man shouted, ending it with a word that rhymed with “agate”.
“We’re taking back this country!” another said. “Border’s that way! Go home!”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that we don;'t need you anymore? You’re irrelevant!"
Irrelevant. Big word. The jerk must be a college boy. That disappoints me; that anyone so bright would ally with the darkness. He thinks we stopped being relevant in World War 2. But as long as someone flies that flag, or rules in accordance with to its principles, we’re relevant.
"Hey —!” adding a word that rhymed with “basshole”. “We won the election!” a third man snarled. “I don’t have to bow before you anymore!”
"Most of the people in this country know how to welcome a neighbor. Same as most folk in mine.” I counter.
“Hit him!” a protester shouted at me. He was doing his best J. Wellington Wimpy impression: Let’s you and him fight. Hamburger optional.
“No,” I say, throwing up my hands. “You’re not at war with this man, as much as you or I might find his beliefs difficult to stomach. The values we cherish do not conveniently cease to apply the minute we come face to face with an enemy, and if we stand for anything, we must stand for those: reason over ignorance, peace over brutality, justice over whim, and…”
“Yihaa!” Oldguard shouted, and he leapt into the pile of Nazis and began thrashing them with his fists. “I’m punching Nazis again! I’m putting the hit on Hitler Junior!”
I shake my head. Sometimes I hate this business.
After the dust settles, I receive a call to meet with Justiciar in Toronto. Star*Force business, and I’m still on the reserve list. After wishing the old-timer well, I head across the border, as usual. But I didn’t reckon on the return journey.
"Stay put, Carson.” the customs agent said. “Or we’ll have to restrain you the hard way.”
It’s been four hours.
Four flipping hours.
It was supposed to be a routine procedure, implemented by Obama and Harper in 2009, to facilitate a hand-picked list of Canadian supers crossing the line to fight the Qularr and later, a similarly select few American supers crossing the line to fight Kigatilik. I was on the list. Bit of a dirty business, allowing sanctioned heroes to cross into Canada with their own private weapons arsenal, when the law looked askance at people bringing a BB gun across the line. But it worked; fly over the border, transmit a code, and you were allowed in. No lines, no customs. But today was different. Today customs ordered me to stop at the Windsor line and come in. Today, customs agents and the INS held me for four hours as they questioned me, badgering me about my homes, my finances, and the smallest, most detailed areas of my life. All the while, making veiled insults about my masculinity – why do you wear tights, you attracted to boys? –and mocking my politics. Rednecks. I bore it stoically, what else could I do? But I wanted to punch someone, badly.
Where are the damn supervillains when you really need them? Paging Bulldozer...
Learning of my comm implant, they want access to all my channels, and logs of all of my broadcasts. My army of lawyers (as well as the Canadian media) finally break the floodgate, and I’m free to go onto Millennium City after four hours. Four humiliating, wasted hours.
How many people could I have saved in those four hours? How many died?
I smash a few of the cheaper objects in my home until I feel better. The place needed redecorating anyway. After a few minutes of smashing, my secretary arrives.
“Rimi, I want our best INS attorneys on permanent stand-by.” I snap. “And I want the border monitored for attempts to pull this crap on other supers. This needs to stop now.”
“Craig, it won’t stop.” Rimi said. “You can’t punch out Capitol Hill...”
"And I want those agents who harassed me IDed. I can play dirty too. If they pull this crap on me again, I will leak their identities. If they want to abuse their power, they can be held to account. These little Napoleons have one chance to be responsible with their authority, then it’s war.”
"Craig, this is NOT a good idea…” Rimi interjected.
“Since when did you ever lie down and take bullshit from bigoted little martinets?” I snap. “Democracy is only as strong as the watch we set on it!”
Yes folks, I’ve entered the Zone. Again. The preachy, political, moralizing, self-righteous zone that my critics hate so much, the place where my friends say I should never go. And right now, I couldn’t care less. I want to grab the world by the collar and shake it until it starts making sense again. Avoidance of conflict is cowardice. I’ll go back to Hell again before I let them turn my world into Hell. Rimi is practically screaming at me.
“Listen to me, Craig! This is precisely what they’re expecting you to do, because it’s what THEY would do! You’re the hero! You’re the shining beacon on the hill. You’re the one who has the light of goodness and niceness coming out of his ass!”
“I’ve bled for these people! I’ve broken my body for these people! I’ve suffered third degree burns all over my damn body for these people! Radiation! Plague! The torment of the damned! I’ve had demons play with my soul! I’ve lost my brother for them! Hell, I’ve taken a fricking nuke for these people! Twice!”
“Yes, you have,” Rimi said. “But you made those sacrifices for a reason!”
"I’m not letting this planet go down a shithole and let millions die just so a handful of lazy billionaire sociopaths can get richer! I’ll turn villain before I let that happen!!”
Outside, there’s a flash of lightning. Storm’s brewing, a big one. And I’m to blame.
“Calm down, Craig!” Rimi begged. “Please!” This can’t be her. Kondo Rimi never begged for anything in her life... but no, she’s frightened. Terrified. Of me. And deep down, I don’t blame her one bit. There’s a piece of me that’s frightened of myself.
“I-- I--” I gotta calm down. Breathe Craig, breathe. I bet Vanguard never got this mad. I’ll bet he never considered the unthinkable.
In a time when the corrupt hold power, is heroism villainy and villainy heroism? My loyalty has never been to the law, except when the law protects the people. I am, at my core, a lower middle class kid barely scraping by on the streets of Vancouver’s east end. No matter how high and mighty I get, how many homes and glass towers I own, that earnest, struggling kid from the poor side of town is always inside me.
“Don’t play their game!” Rimi shouted, and we spend some time calming down, even as the rain furiously pelts against the window. I take a long look outside, at my handiwork. The sky is black, and the rain is a river of hot angry tears. The sky is weeping in rage.
“Alright.” I say, taking a deep breath. “Alright. But we are going to hire more lawyers and make them available for any super who needs them.” I mutter. “Free of charge.”
“Talk to Sparrowhawk. I’d like to see the look on her face if they tried to stop her ship from crossing the line.”
“Just calm down, Craig. Calm. Down. Things will get sane again. The world survived Hitler and the Countess. We can survive the idiots who are doing this to you now.”
Thanks, Rimi,” I say.I can hear a hint of an exasperated sigh from the woman, though she’s hiding it. Superheroes, dealing with them is like raising kids without the fun part. I bristle, but do my best to calm down. The storm continues to rage. Deep breaths Craig. Deep breaths.
“I can’t be the only victim of this crap.”
"Then maybe you need to join forces.” Rimi said.
“Sparrowhawk has a strict no politics rule on the Protectors. She needs one, with people on the team as politically oriented as me and Tess. “I’m going to ave to decide whether this fight is worth leaving the Protectors.”
Rimi stared at the storm. “This isn’t our country. This isn’t our fight. The country has its advocates. Protectors like you, well they’re rarer.”
“It’s still our planet...”
“Craig, you know you shouldn’t say that. You know what a can of worms that opens.”
“But to be silent in these times...”
"Taking punches is your job,” she said coldly, and she’s right. “This is just another punch, Craig!”
I want to sit down and sob. Damn you for being right, my friend.
"So, what next?” Rimi asks.
“I don’t know.” I say. “No that’s a lie. I know exactly what I have to do. I’m going to stay stolid, stoic, the perfect Canadian. The perfect hero, down to my glinting teeth.”
The perfect lie. Man, I am so glad my brother isn’t around to see me now.
Things are falling apart faster than I suspected, at least from my perspective. And if UNTIL bridles me and keeps me from pursuing the public good, then I can leave UNTIL and they won’t be able to put me in a cage. I’ll be free to help the world in whatever way I choose, however it needs. No one would mention the few incidents where I hadn’t lived up to the standards of a paragon. The ones that kept me up at night. No one would mention the words “burn out”. No probation, no psych exams. I won’’t receive a lecture every time I team with the Protectors. But if I leave – I won’t have diplomatic sanction to move freely across the line. Mind you, if the government is clamping down on my movements any way...
I pour myself a glass of whiskey, and sit down to watch the storm. Ironically I’m feeling a stronger connection with the weather these days. My storm control powers, which had always vestigial, are growing at last. Maybe one day, I can play the skies and the storm like an instrument. Lightning is my keyboard, thunder my drums. What a band I’ll be. Like Asia, I live in the Heat of the Moment (that’s an old, mediocre song, kids). In the meantime, I’m dealing with another storm, the storm of politics. I need more booze. Because I’m losing this battle.
Politics, my real arch-enemy, is going to send me to the gutter yet.