“I have to be honest,” Lucy said after a long silence, “I really didn’t expect my day to end up like this.”
They were chained, hand and foot, to a rather dank section of wall far below the surface. After being drugged, they awoke to find themselves restrained thus, and were each displaying different aspects of the same fear and worry. They had not yet seen their captor, and had instead spent what felt like hours simply hanging there. After the initial panic died down, they began to get used to the situation, and even a little accepting of it.
“Eh,” Claire sighed, testing her bonds for the umpteenth time, “I’ve been captive in worse places than this.”
“Me, too,” Melanie countered quickly, “I really thought I was done with it, though… after all this time…”
“You mean this isn’t your first time being chained up in some kind of, uh, Doom Fortress?”
“Hardly,” Claire sniffed, “when you’re in the deep and experimental sciences like I was, there was always some nutjob in spandex trying to use it for world domination. This one time, we had a guy try to use genetically modified corn to cripple the President.”
“How…?” Lucy began, but trailed off into incoherency.
“Well, there was this one time when Black Anarchy was going to collapse the Capitol dome,” Melanie offered, “Had a bunch of us hostage in the rotunda. Tom had to duck out quick… we lost a few…”
The conversation died a quiet death in the silence that followed. Finally, a short whimper issued from Gina.
“I didn’t think I’d ever have this happen,” her voice was nearly sodden, “it sounded so cool when I found out, ‘Married to a Superhero,’ but then… he was never home, and I heard all these stories from you, and you…”
She nodded to Melanie and Claire.
“And it seemed so scary… this is… so scary…”
“Don’t let it get to you,” Claire cautioned, her voice suddenly intense and low. She stared daggers into her daughter in law, hoping to imbue her with a fierce fighting energy of her own.
“Do not,” she repeated, “let it get to you. Yes, these things will happen. It’s not always perfect, being who we are, but you have to keep faith that the man you love will save you and save the day. It’s what keeps you going when you’re down here, or hanging off a ledge, or over a vat of boiling slag… you have to believe in them. They will do everything they can. Trust them. I know it sounds like I’m supposed to say this, but my sons are some of the best men I have ever had the honor to know. They are strong, and smart, and they will always do what is right. We must be strong enough to handle whatever that might bring.”
Another unsteady silence reigned, and in the half light Claire could make out that Gina was crying.
“Gina, listen to me. Be strong. Dan will come for you, he loved you. I know him, and I know this: he is the most dedicated person I have ever seen to this cause, the cause of protecting everyone… especially you. I have never seen someone care so much for the greater good…”
“But what about MY GOOD?” Gina shouted suddenly, her voice clanging off the concrete walls, “What about me? Why did he do this and put ME in danger? Why didn’t he stop when I asked him? I knew he was doing this behind me back, I just knew it. I was always so scared of what he was doing when I couldn’t find him…I got so lonely…”
“Gina,” Claire tried the best to hold her tongue, “I know exactly where Dan’s armor is. I built it. I check it every day. It was never once removed after he promised you. Not once. Not ever. He has always obeyed you, always served you, even when it tore him apart to cover injustice every night on the news and be powerless to stop it… he did it for you.”
“Then why didn’t it feel like it to me.”
“I don’t like saying this to someone I consider to be family,” Claire shifted with a grunt, the chains clattering slightly as she did so, “but you need to pull your head out your ass.”
“She didn’t deal with it as long as we did, Claire,” Melanie offered, “we learned how to deal with this sort of thing: danger around every corner, imminent world’s destruction… I never worried that Tom was out late with other women, I knew he was out battling some maniac.”
“And after a few years, he stopped,” Claire shot back, “because you told him.”
“I did not! I never would!” Melanie’s face flushed, “He told me himself, his job at the factory was just getting to be too much with… with everything else. That’s all.”
“Why do you think he kept working at that factory, Melanie? Do you think he liked it? Or do you think he did it to keep enough money in YOUR bank account?”
Suddenly, Lucy’s voice cut through the proceedings. Small and timid, but sharp as a knife.
“Can we stop fighting, please?”
The arguing parties fell silent.
“I… I hate it when people fight… especially family…”
“We’re sorry, Lucy,” Claire said after a long pause, “This has got to be a huge shock to you, and to have us arguing on top of it…”
“I didn’t realize I was bothering you,” Melanie added, “I’m glad you stopped us.”
“Oh, I’m not.”
The voice came out of nowhere, yet seemed to be everywhere at once, until somewhere in the mid distance a figure stepped into one of the tiny, dim pools of light that gave any illumination to the cement block dungeon. The voice was genteel, friendly, with just the tiniest bit of an accent. It almost seemed as if the shred of affectation to the voice was kept there purposefully, right on the edge of consciousness, to upset your ears and brain on an almost imperceptible level. As the figure walked closer all four of the women found their breath held captive in their chests. It was a truly terrifying sight.
“You see, it’s here: away from anyone who could hear or listen or make any kind of judgement, perfectly isolated from any sort of third party, where all of the sweet and perfect truth can be uttered… it is here we see true humanity, free from the jurisprudential bonds that we have taken millennia to forge and perfect.”
The figure was impeccably clad, stitch for stitch, in a Nazi Uniform. Everything from the knee-high boots and jodhpurs to epaulettes and collar insignias. Where a head should have rested, however, was instead a gruesome death’s head mask, glittering reflected silver from a million facets, shimmering in the pitiful bare bulbs as if the mask itself was a light source. Atop the grinning, glittering skull was molded a silver Nazi visor hat, perfect in every detail down to the wreath that enclosed a swastika beneath a rampant eagle. It was the mask that magnified, amplified the beguiling voice, but at no point was it sonorous, booming, or frightening. With arms clasped behind the back of his field jacket, crop in one hand, the figure continued to speak.
“The very word humanity is ironic: to be a humane human, one must ignore basic human nature. And what does that nature tell us to do? Create, succeed, champion and thrive… but above all else, survive. The chief imperative of our sainted nature above the beasts and the rest of biota is to use our skills and abilities to further our place, to sit at the throne as supreme and most favored of all of God’s creations… and yet we do not. We choose, instead, to ape our inferior animal cousins, and to seek and emulate the worst aspects of our still-imperfect race: blind faith, blind affection, blind adherence to doctrines that only offend us at our very primal core… if only we chose to see, what things we could create! We must simultaneously embrace our most primitive and our most high natures to truly find the best for us, the most productive for us, the most logical for us! We must cast aside the stupidity of lower castes of man and beast alike, for they are most alike, and look to the future, only moving forward, disregarding the emotional faults of our past civilizations and the endlessly flawed laws which uphold them. We could create Heaven on Earth for us, the chosen few, completely fulfilling our programming and our purpose in the universe, which is to make all we can with what we have and damn to an infinite Hell those that oppose us with outdated morality and childish means. With the advent of meta-man, there should come a new morality, a new reality, a ways and means to a Utopia beyond our current blinded dreams!”
His voice had built to nearly a fever pitch now, taking full advantage of the mask. It was now that his voice rang and blasted about the corridors deep under Washington, DC, shaking its very foundations and turning the stomachs of his four captors in utter terror. Then, when it seemed they would all most certainly become sick, or worse, from the thesis of the man wearing Death’s face… he removed the mask with complete efficiency and without undue movement, cradling it nicely under his arm. In the place of the horrific, smiling skull was the face of a man who looked no more than thirty years of age. His hair was golden blonde, closely cut at the sides and back but worn rakishly long on top. It was parted smartly in the middle and seemed to hang with wild abandon just above his ears, nearly obscuring his intense, slightly darker brows but proving to be a stunning frame for two of the brightest, most arresting blue eyes separated by a noble nose. Beneath the nose, well sculpted lips curled into a smile, revealing white, shining teeth beneath a Cupid’s Bow and above a lightly dimpled, strongly accented chin and jawline. There was not a soul, alive or dead, who would count this man among the unattractive.
“So, what I suppose I’m saying is,” his voice brought to mind a honeyed apple, “How do you really feel about your daughters-in-law, Mrs. Graf?”
Meanwhile, the Graf men had just boarded an old-fashioned freight elevator cleverly secreted away beneath what was now the World War II memorial. The entire structure creaked and howled as metal slid against metal.
“So much for the element of surprise,” Ben groaned, adjusting the mask about his head. He glanced about the elevator, expecting to hear the ever-present response, but for possibly the first time his entire family was silent. Ben’s eyes went to and fro between the people he had always known as family, but now looked upon as the gods of his youth. Nevermind stood, lithe and powerful in midnight blue from skullcap to toe; gauntlets, boots and Tom’s constant, piercing blue gaze. To his left was the Blue Traveller, whose own form-fitting ensemble was hidden in several places by royal blue and canary yellow armor, Dan’s protection for his own body from the stresses and dangers of super abilities. Both Dan and Tom’s faces were obscured, but it was their eyes now that told Ben they were his brothers, familiar eyes that had taught him how to play baseball and read Tolkien and listen to Nirvana or REM. He had seen those eyes peering out from masks countless times before in hastily shot newspaper photographs and speculative television reports, or gazing stalwartly from the pages and panels of his favorite comic books. Finally, between Ben and his two brothers were the softer, mistier, watery eyes of Bob Graf, the man once called Ultro, clad in no armor or Spandex, simply a flannel shirt and denim overalls. With a jolt, the elevator hit the bottom of the complex, and three of the four men exited.
“Dad?” Ben asked as Dan and Tom went forth into a dimly lit cement corridor, “Aren’t you coming with us?”
“Can’t,” Bob’s voice ached with sadness, “I don’t have what you guys have anymore.”
“But you can still help.”
“Naw,” he waved a hand at his youngest, “I’d just get in your way, boys.”
“What are you saying?” Ben’s voice cracked with surprise, “You know this nut we’re going up against, you know the terrain, you probably remember where to go…”
His voice trailed off as Tom approached him from behind, laying a restraining hand on his brother’s ragged shoulder.
“He’s going to stay here, Ben. Come on.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense, we need him!”
“He doesn’t want to!”
Tom’s voice was harsh then, and surprisingly angry.
“He’s done enough. He doesn’t want to anymore.”
Ben looked hard into his father’s eyes, which seemed to be on the verge of tears. He kept hearing his father’s stories in his head of past battles and villains, and how his eyes shined when he told them. They didn’t shine like they did now. But still, Tom’s grip remained firm.
“Get your hand off me…” Ben said slowly, as if testing his voice for the first time, “please.”
“You need to calm down–”
Tom sudden found himself flying through the air, pushed away by a bright green bubble his brother had generated.
“God damn it, Tom!” Ben seethed, “I’m not seven years old anymore! You can treat me like this… and I… I can’t listen anymore!”
“Ben,” Tom repeated, picking himself off up the floor and dusting himself off, “You need to calm down…”
“I don’t want to! I’m sick of being calm, I’ve been calm my whole life! I want to do something, be something! It was easy for you to be anything you wanted to be, all it would take is a wave of your hand and you could change people’s minds–”
Ben cut off Tom with a cutting, mocking tone.
“—but I know you didn’t. I know you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if you did. It would have compromised this whole ‘Suburban Buddha’ thing you’ve got going on… but you didn’t even need to. You’re smart enough… you can make people think what you want them to think without that ring, can’t you?”
“That’s enough,” Tom’s voice began to harden.
“Boys, knock it off,” Bob ventured weakly, but Ben was deaf to all around him.
“I used to think you were so cool, Tom, that you were going to change the world and make it a better place… what happened? All I see you doing now is changing the world to make it better for you. You could do anything, but instead you make sure you’re comfortable, and it makes me sick. You don’t fight anymore at least… not any battles you think you could lose. You’ve surrounded yourself with all those guys from the factory, with Melanie… all people who’ll never tell you that you’re wrong. Well, you’re not a hero to me anymore, and I’m damn sure ready to tell you you’re wrong–”
Ben fell to the ground, bent over in agony, both hands clutching at his head.
“Damn it, Tom, I said knock it off!”
Bob’s voice thundered in the small, concrete space with a strength that surprised even him. Tom relented, staggering backward in momentary shock, almost a revulsion of his actions. He found himself up against the armored wall that was Dan who, despite it all, was laughing.
“Man!” he grinned, “It’s weird to be the one outside the fight for once. I never thought you had it in you, little bro!”
“So,” Ben grunted from the ground, wiping a trickle of blood from his nose, “You still are a little human in there, Tom.”
Bob pointed a gnarled, calloused, powerful finger at his youngest son, who fell immediately silent.
“Listen,” his voice trembled now, but not with its previous impotence, “I know I’ve been a shitty father. I know I wasn’t there for your baseball games. I missed all your first steps… but God damn it all…”
His eyes were clear now as he helped Ben to his feet… clearer than Ben had ever seen them. With his pot belly and thinning hair, it seemed for all the world that Bob Graf was heroic again, despite it all.
“I at least had the good sense to give you each other. You’re brothers: when I see the three of you together, when you’re talking or playing ball or even in the same room… there’s an energy there, and it has nothing to do with the rings on your fingers. That energy scares people, you know: Tom, it kept you from finishing college; Dan, it keeps you from running that damn TV station, and Ben…”
He shook his head slightly, and a smile crept onto his craggy features involuntarily.
“I think you’ve got it worst of all. You learned from your brothers, and from me, stubborn as oxes and half as ugly. You had all those years watching us, loving what we do… but no one ever told you that the world’s going to hate you for it, that it’s going to keep you from getting a decent job, and now with this damned recession…”
He called the three boys to stand close together, waving, beckoning with his hands until they were eye to eye to eye.
“But at the end of the day, no matter how badly the world beats you down, no matter how many times they try to tell you it’s wrong to be right, it’s bad to be good, it’s stupid to be smart… you still got your family you come back to. That… that makes me feel like I did something right as your father.”
There was a long silence, then, as the three boys stared long and hard into each others’ eyes. Finally, remembering the day of his wedding, Ben thrust out a hand clad in augmented titanium. He was quickly joined by diamond and steel, 14 karat gold, and a weathered, 38-year steel band.
“Like we’re superheroes,” Ben said with a grin.
“Like we’re brothers,” Tom asserted.
“Like we’re family,” Bob said proudly.
“Like we’re going to go kick some Nazi ass!” Dan shouted, almost giddy. The three broke and Bob immediately took charge.
“All right, boys: we’ll head down this tunnel here, it’s the main, it can’t have collapsed. Ben, I’m going to want you to take point and throw up a shield. Make sure you keep on the right side of the wall: he’s a sword guy, and he’ll want to come at you from his right. You’re a lefty, Ben, so keep that shield high. The main chamber will be after about a quarter of a mile… and don’t worry.”
He flashed a quick smile that was so charming and so effortless that no comic could have properly rendered it.
“I know this guy. If he does anything to our ladies, he’ll want us to see it. They’re fine, but we’ve got to hurry.”
And with that, Ben threw up a light green shield and the four made their way, single file, down a dank corridor, with Tom bringing up the rear. In front of him, Dan tossed back an irresistible jibe.
“Little kid’s finally standing up for himself, wouldn’t you say?”
“He’s getting arrogant,” Tom hide his face behind his beard, “like you.”
“And he pulled a mental cartwheel that got you pretty pissed,” Dan smiled back “reminds me of you.”