“Dan, get up.”
Tom and Bob had gone ahead to make preparations, leaving Ben to try and rouse his tipsy brother.
“Oh, we really don’t have time for this!” Ben snatched at the covers, yanking them off the bed to screams of protest from Dan, “he’s got our wives, Dan!”
“Forget it,” Ben grunted, dragging Dan from the mattress, “I’ll explain on the way.”
He didn’t get much of a chance to explain as Dan fell back into unconsciousness almost as soon as he was tossed unceremoniously into the back of the Dodge.
“Well, this is shaping up to be some rescue,” Tom said sarcastically as he crawled into the passenger seat. Bob began to pilot the sedan away from the farmhouse and onto the nearest highway, all the while keeping up an uncomfortable silence. Ben’s guilt overwhelmed him and he was the first to speak.
“…What’s going on, Dad? Who sent the letter?”
There was another long silence as Bob made a turn and finally spoke.
“There’s only one person who would ever sign a note like that,” he said softly, his voice shaking, “and it was someone I thought I’d defeated long ago.”
A slow patter of rain had begun. Bob turned the wipers to the lowest setting.
“He called himself Dr. Holocaust. He was your standard Nazi-sympathizer case: the accent, the jackboots, all of it.”
“I don’t remember reading about him…”
“And you wouldn’t,” Bob put on a little speed as they passed a driver, “At the time my books were being written, Dr. Holocaust was thought to be dead, but it was never confirmed. The government told the publishers that they’d better pretend like he never existed. No one wanted to publicize what that man had done.”
They kept driving, and the rain kept pouring on more and more. Bob started blowing through toll stops one after another.
“I saw…” Bob began, but the words became caught in this throat, “I saw executions, experiments, mutilations… the government conscripted a bunch of us to raze his compound in 1970. There were rumors he was aiding the Viet Cong, but it was never proven. By the time we got there, we had to walk through some of the worst examples of inhumanity I had ever seen. The man made Mengele look like a saint. We found him eating dinner… that was it, he was just… eating dinner. Like a regular person. I tried to bring him in, read him his rights, all of that… but he knew we were coming. Sometimes, I think he wanted us to.”
“What happened?” Ben asked, his eyes growing wide. He expected their to be some sort of climactic battle, but the answer was, in fact, quite different.
“He just started talking, Ben. Talking. He was a philosopher, a thinker of unimaginable power… a man so smart that he’d gone past what it meant to be human. He told us about the amazing breakthroughs he’d achieved: in cancer, in diabetes, in the very science of aging and what it meant to be sick. He’d used people as guinea pigs… and got results. Then he started talking about how much good he had done, how he had been blessed with an ability to truly make the world a better place… and that he was considered evil for doing so.”
Tom made a strange noise in his throat that caused both Bob and Ben to look at him. The eldest brother remained silent, however, and Bob continued.
“He turned their minds. All of them. Got them believing that he hadn’t really done anything wrong, that the only sacrifices he’d made were to humans who were ‘inferior.’ He had so much evidence, so much information… he gave us a damn walking tour. The things he had created were amazing, they reminded me of when I was a child and we’d been promised colonies on Mars by the year 2000. This guy would have made it happen, even if he had to slaughter everyone to do it… he could have.”
They had turned onto the interstate, now, and Bob was driving faster than ever.
“They all began to agree, to see it his way. Maybe, perhaps… maybe they were a new step in evolution. Maybe they were… better. Maybe they were special for a reason, and the rest of the people were meant to sacrifice to create the next world, the better world.”
As he kept talking, Ben felt an icy dagger strike him directly through the heart. These were things he thought about every day: the reason he raged in his cubicle, the frustrations that kept him up at night, the very reason he put on the mask to begin with… it unsettled him to his core. It wasn’t a question of “is this what I will become?” because, in many ways, he was already there.
“We kept trying to reason with him, but he had an answer for everything…” Bob continued at the Intrepid approached 90 miles an hour, “and he honestly believed it. It all made sense to him. For a few moments, and I hate myself to say it… it made sense to me, too. Poor Switchback, she attempted to read his mind, get to the bottom of things… she lasted about a minute and then… then she wouldn’t stop crying…”
Ben could see a few tears shining on his father’s face as they ran down to his collar. He looked around the passenger’s headrest to see his brother’s face, but Tom pulled away into the night.
“I couldn’t take it,” Bob finally said with a sob, “I just couldn’t take it. I didn’t want our world to be built like this. We were better than that, I… I just knew it. I told everyone to get out, including Dr. Holocaust. I punched out my fair share of heroes that night, I can tell you, and the rest had no choice but to carry their bodies outside. No one could have gone toe to toe with me, not back then…”
Ben felt his brother begin to stir next to him in the backseat, groaning softly.
“But the Doctor… he wouldn’t leave. Said he had no reason to. Said he’d done nothing wrong. I took his place apart brick by brick, I tore every wall apart until it all came crashing down on our heads. When RipTide finally pulled me out of the rubble, no one knew what happened to Holocaust. We had supers searching all over the country for him, and we couldn’t find so much as a hair. Then the government moved in, paved over the whole lot, pretended like it wasn’t even there anymore. Holocaust got placed on the “probably dead” list, and for years… I actually thought he had.”
Bob gave a hard laugh then, and clicked his turn signal to pass.
“I should have known. Should have known that piece of… filth wouldn’t be dead. I really wanted him to be, though. I wanted to be able to live a normal life, raise kids, have a family, all that crap… I should have known this would come back on me.”
“It’s my fault, Dad,” Ben said quietly from the backseat, “I didn’t think anyone was listening, I said it out loud… I put us all in danger, just because I wanted to feel special.”
“I would find it hard to believe that a man like Dad described would need someone slipping up in a call center to be his final piece of the puzzle,” Tom began, but Ben cut him off, his voice rising in volume.
“But maybe it was!” he shouted back, feeling a pit open up in his stomach and threaten to devour him whole, “Maybe I made that mistake, and why? So I could get something off my chest? I put my entire family in jeopardy, the people who mean the most to me in life… just because I wanted to be recognized?”
“Ben,” Bob’s soft voice carried over the din of his son’s, “don’t do this. If you start going down that road, believe me…”
“I complained… I complained all the time about people who kept insisting on how ‘special’ they were, even when they weren’t… and who am I? I can’t even land a decent job, but I kept insisting I was special. I mean, Dad… your generation, they accomplished some amazing things, they changed the way we live our lives. Tom, Dan… your generation fought back, tried to get back what had been lost after Dad’s generation. Everyone got on this whole ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ crap… and you guys, you taught me that sometimes it was right to be angry, to see a problem and fight it, to protect what Mom and Dad tried so hard to create: Watergate, Vietnam, Kent State… they just wanted to make the world better, and then… there’s my generation. What do we do? We live in our computers, we talk in sound bytes, we’ve created a world where everyone’s okay because no one tries to make it better… I want to be better than okay!”
There was a short pause then while Ben caught his breath.
“Huh,” he laughed bitterly, “Lucy says I’m insufferable, she says I’ve got a complex… I’ve spent the last three months beating up people I thought were somehow wrong where I was right… and now… I’ve gone and done this.”
The youngest son looked up to see the face of the oldest staring back at him from the left side of the headrest, his blue eyes blackening with intensity.
He knew Tom could have gotten into his head, forced him to be happy, even removed unpleasant memories… but he didn’t. For the first time in his life, Ben felt his older brother respected him, and he was no longer the overweight little boy sitting at the table with the adults.
“If you want to be one of us… you’ll need to remember one rule.”
“Now is now.”
“He said, ‘now is now,’ little bro!”
Tom and Ben both turned to see Dan coming too, slurring his speech a little as he tried to right himself in the back seat.
“When you’re in this business,” he blinked his eyes unevenly, “you can’t let what happened, like… five minutes ago get in your head and keep you from doing what you need to right now, in this… second.”
He tried to punctuate that last word with a meaningful prod to Ben’s chest, but pathetically missed.
“I mean, look at me!” he continued, “I work in one of the most ridiculous industries in the world. We tell people what we think they want to hear, instead of what they should hear. Cuz, y’know, it might be depressing! So me, mild-mannered reporter that I am, I try to get them to listen to what’s really goin’ on in the world… everyone thinks I’m too… serious.”
Ben shared a glance with Tom, who looked slightly skyward in appeal.
“So, it ain’t perfect, hell no,” Dan slurred again, “But it’s something. Only problem is, Gina don’t quite get why I’m upset at work. Don’t know what’s gonna happen there. I guess she figured she married Six O’Clock and she was gonna be……..”
He trailed off for an extended pause, twittering his lips in an attempt to complete his thought.
“Jackie O, or somethin.”
Tom grunted in frustration.
“Dan, go back to sleep.”
“But there’s fightin’ to be done!”
“I fight better drunk.”
“Dan…” Tom fixed his brother with a quick gaze, and the middle brother immediately fell back asleep.
“He doesn’t drink much, but when he does,” Tom sighed, “One night, we took out Deathsbane… but we lost the hostage. Dan got so drunk he almost let our identities slip in McGrath’s, I had to put him out.”
“Did this happen often?”
“Only when we’d lose one.”
“And how about you?”
Tom readjusted himself back into the passenger seat and gazed out at the slick, black road.
“Like I tried to explain to Dan several times… now is now.”
“Would you two quit bouncin’ around,” Bob growled, “you’re makin’ the car dance all over the damn road.”
Suddenly, Ben was reminded of countless drives to destinations near and far, family car trips. The way his father said that, it was almost an automatic response. Ben couldn’t remember how many times he’d heard him say that before: Dan would be flicking his ear, Tom would be teasing Dan, Dan would be fighting with Tom because Dan picked on Ben… they had seemed such a normal family.
“A normal family,” he repeated quietly to himself, drowned out by the drone of the engine, the pounding of the driving rain, and the swish of excited windshield wipers. He thought about what his father had said only minutes ago, about wanting a normal life. He thought about the face Lucy would make when he’d go off on the state of society, when she’d talk about “superiority.” He thought about his doctor, saying he needed to find an outlet for all of this… and nothing had made him feel quite as good as when he put on that mask… but what did the mask really mean?
“Dad,” he asked as his father turned off I-95, “are we supposed to be normal?”
His father had no answer. They were on Massachusetts Avenue now, and Ben started to have feelings of deja vu. These were the same streets he and Lucy had driven during their honeymoon. The honeymoon, where it all started with a hotel room invader, where he had protected Lucy…
My God, he thought, I couldn’t protect Lucy.
She was his counterpoint, she was the one who brought him down to earth. Every time she rolled her eyes, it kept him here, kept him human. She was so smart, she didn’t even know it. He was the man who made a force-field ring, and more often than not she could run circles around him in a conversation. If she only knew how important she was to him, he thought. He told her that he loved her every day, sometimes several times, but as the Intrepid finally came to a stop, he realized that even that wasn’t enough.
The three piled out of the car and, with a click of his fingers, Tom woke up Dan. He was still a bit tipsy, but almost three hours in the car had done him some good. It was nearly Four AM now, with the autumn days shortening and the sun still tardy to rise. Bob and Tom popped the trunk of the car, and began handing out equipment. Dan looked up with surprise.
“Uh… why are we at the Washington monument?”
“It’s Constitution Gardens, Dan,” Bob said plainly, “back in the 60s, this was a Navy and Munitions building… until I tore it down.”
“So where’s the base?” Ben asked was handed his pile of ragged flannel.
“Just like it was back then,” Bob replied, turning to face 56 pillars in the distance. He glanced down at the garish purple, yellow and green pile of spandex in his hands and, with a sigh, tossed it back into the trunk and closed the lid.
“We’re going underground.”
“Dan, get up.”