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.
“Not that he has a moral high bar to clear, but 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.
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.”
“It’d be a helluvalot more merciful than what your Reich is doing to millions of others.” 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?” 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 words prevent needless pain. And you have to admit I can back it 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 suoervillainy 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.