Bob righted himself and made as to walk the short distance over to his sons. He made it a few steps, and faltered.
“Dad!” Three voices yelled at once, crossing the room around the defeated creature to where their father had collapsed.
“Are you okay?”
“Are you all right?”
“Can you stand?”
“Is it your legs?”
Bob allowed himself a small smile. Even now, he couldn’t seem to get his boys to shut up.
“I’ll be fine, boys,” he said, drawing himself up onto his elbows, “I’ll be fine. Go get him. Go get that bastard.”
“We can’t leave you!”
“We’re not leaving you!”
“Just go, damn it!” Bob hollered.
“But Dad,” Tom said gravely, “we don’t know which way he went.”
“There could be a hundred tunnels, hallways down here,” Dan grumbled, “we could get lost in this nut-house.”
“So…” Ben ran a hand through the shaggy hair that stuck out of the top of his mask, “what do we do?”
A voice rang out then: it was crisp and reedy, dripping with sophistication; chipper, polite, and undeniably British.
“You’re going to want to take the path that is furthest right.”
The three boys looked up in the direction they had heard the voice. On the other side of the wall Bob had broken was a shining blue tube with an array of hoses, cables and tubes stretching from it. Inside the tube, suspended in midair and dyed the hue of a robin’s egg, was an elegant if elderly looking man in a full tuxedo. From top hat to tails to spats, punctuated with a monocle and walking stick, the man looked down on the setting, tipping his hat and smiling out of a weathered, but clean-shaven face.
“Who the hell is this guy?” Dan asked, his face crunched into the picture of puzzlement.
“It’s…” Bob made to speak weakly, but his voice had begun to fail.
Ben scrambled forward, trying his best to climb the rubble up to the raised room where the tube lay.
“It’s the Atomic Gentleman!” he said once he reached the top, “he used to fight Dad back in the day… or at least he did in the comics.”
Dan and Tom looked at Bob, who gave a small nod.
“Not only in comic books, dear boy,” the Gentleman said, “our confrontations spanned the globe: we warred in Warsaw, we raged in Rio, we tussled in Tokyo, we–”
“Wow,” Ben inadvertently cut him off in his wonderment, “just like in the comics.”
“Yes,” he allowed himself a small smile inside his tube, “I was so angry then. The accident that caused my affliction left me a walking fission reactor, a casualty of the arms race that simply refused to die. I wanted not power, or control, or whatever it was the said I desired in the comics: I had been robbed of the opportunity to live out my life with the woman I loved, and I sought to punish the world for making it so. Soon after my apprehension by Ultro I was placed in this device and my powers were used by the man you are seeking now to provide him the energy to make his terrible experiments.”
“I thought you couldn’t die, Billy,” Bob said from his position on the floor, “what’s got you looking as wrinkled and wore out as me?”
“It turns out, Robert, that my immeasurable power was, in fact, measurable,” the Gentleman continued, “Dr. Holocaust has nearly bled me dry, and I fear that, had his experiments continued, I would have ceased to be. As much as I used to resent my invincibility, I find that I still fear a cold, lonely death in this tube. I ask you, young…”
He gestured to Ben who politely gave him his name.
“Benjamin, yes… I ask you, young Benjamin, to grant an old man’s favor: release me from this prison and allow me to return to my wife, and let me grow old and die in her presence. I have shown you the way to your quarry, and I will watch over your father until your successful return. After that, I ask that you simply let me go home.”
Ben glanced down to his brothers, who were all looking between him and each other in confusion. Finally, Bob summoned a heavy breath and spoke again.
“Do it,” he said, swallowing hard, “Do it, Ben.”
Tom leapt in to protest.
“But, what if he attacked you, or–”
Bob turned his head and looked his eldest son straight in the eye. His voice was nearly a whisper now, growing weaker by the second.
“I fought with him for seven years, and he never once broke his own rules. I trust him.”
“Sounds like a glowing recommendation to me,” Dan said with a shrug, “go ahead and shut it down, Banjo!”
“I still don’t think this is a good idea,” Tom grumbled as Ben input the sequence according to the Gentleman’s instructions, resulting finally in the capsule opening with a hiss of previously compressed air. A frail man limped out of the tube, relying much more on the cane than when he had entered it thirty years ago.
“Thank you, dear boy,” the Gentleman said, clapping Ben lightly on the shoulder.
“It’s great to meet you,” Ben said with a guilty sort of glee, “It’s like meeting a movie star.”
“Is it?” the Gentleman replied with a little chuckle and twinkle in his eye, “My, how times have changed.”
Ben helped the old man down the pile of rubble, depositing him next to Bob.
“It’ll be all right, boys,” Bob sighed as the three regarded the Gentleman with skepticism, “Go.”
“Are you sure?” Tom asked.
“Yes, dammit,” Bob grunted, “I promise I’ll snap his neck if he tries anything funny.”
“He’s right, you know,” the Gentleman said with a well-meaning smile, “I’d snap like a twig in this state. Remember, the path furthest right.”
With one final look, the boys said their goodbyes and headed down the hallway. The two old enemies sat then, near the dead corpse of Holocaust’s monster, looked up at the few stars that were visible through the shattered wall and ceiling.
“Those are yours, eh?” the Gentleman asked as the boys disappeared down the hallway.
“You must be very proud.”
The Gentleman looked down at Bob then, cocking an eyebrow.
“Do you ever think to tell them that?”
“Bob,” the name sounded oddly short in his clipped British accent, “I haven’t seen my wife in thirty years, but tonight I’m going to go home and tell her all the things I thought I’d never get a chance to ever again. We live in a perilous world, Bob. Each day we awake is a day we might not see the end of, particularly for old warriors like you and I. Take it from someone who knows: don’t take it for granted, not a second.”
Bob thought back to all the days he spent agonizing over the loss of his powers, hating having to live what he considered a normal life. Laying here now on the cold concrete he finally realized what his selfishness had cost him: he had had an extraordinary life, moreso after the powers than before. Anyone can be strong and fight when the power was there, but those who fight everyday, regular people fighting incredible battles…
“Y’know, I think I will tell the boys,” he said finally, “if I make it out of here, that is.”
“I don’t think we’ll have much to worry about,” the Gentleman replied, “they seem like strong, capable lads.”
“I’m not talking about them,” Bob said sadly, “My body’s going. I can feel it. I don’t know how much more I got… but hey…”
He laid himself down on the concrete, closing his eyes and looking ready for a nap.
“At least I still had a little of the old stuff in me.”
A short while later, Dr. Holocaust was in his personal laboratory. It was one of several laboratories in the sprawling underground complex, this one serving as the smallest and most intimate for his personal pet projects. He can taken his time: brewing a cup of tea and queuing up just the right Wagner aria. Everything had to be perfect for this, a moment he had waited decades for. It was the be this moment where all of his hard work and dedication would bear him truly supreme above all humanity. He would finally be rewarded as the best of it all, the one who, through only his own labors, became to hold the entire world’s future in the palm of his hand. With the strength of the Blue Traveler and the power of Nevermind, the combined abilities of Ultro, and with a concentrated Immortality Serum from the Atomic Gentleman, there would be none who could stand in his way.
He placed the teacup gently as possible on the desk. He chuckled softly to himself as the steel of the ring on that hand glinted in the harsh light of the laboratory. He’s broken nearly ten cups in the act of picking them up; these new powers had some getting used to. Still, there was something about being able to be in the minds of everyone on Earth simultaneously that was intoxicating, pleasurable. It did give him untold pleasure to be able to know that the last Graf boy was currently standing behind him, plotting how best to, in his own unspoken words, “take him down.”
“I assure you,” he said, daintily picking up the tea, “I’ll know before you even try.”
“I guess you’ve got the rings on,” Ben said defeatedly.
“I’m not an idiot,” he replied, “Although I am surprised you came here on your own. I would have thought that, with your lack of proper powers, you would have sought to protect your family and retreat. It’s all you can do, really.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Ben lamely popped his field on and off a few times, “Are you going to take my ring, too, if you beat me?”
“If?” he chuckled, turning around to face Ben, “I have the strength of Hercules and the mind of Socrates. You don’t possibly think you would even be a problem for me to defeat? I could get inside your head, shut off your ability to form the field, and literally punch you into dust.”
“But that would be pointless for you, wouldn’t it?” Ben asked, “I mean, with your imminent godhood, I’m probably not even worth the effort.”
“You’re absolutely right,” he replied, “but I suppose I could humor you. You have been a most interesting… person. Not foe, but… person. I suppose I owe it to a family that has given me so much…”
He quickly and deliberately doffed the rings, placing them on the desk near his tea.
“You see, here is your trouble.”
He drew his Luger again and fired two quick shots. Ben blocked them with a field, but only barely.
“That field,” he continued, “Seems to be created by an impulse of your brain. The impulse seems to be based in fear, worry, anxiety. I would go so far as to wager you have some sort of anxious disorder: it keeps those fears, those terrible fears directly on the surface.”
He fired two more shots, which were again blocked.
“And it also has made you more than a little… resilient to my usual tactics of fear and doubt. Yet what you seem to have in mental acuity you lack in any sort of offensive capability. What are you planning to do, anyway? Push me to death?”
He fired one more shot, which as again blocked.
“Not exactly,” Ben said with a tiny smile, “you see, here is YOUR trouble: you turned your back on the table… and you’re out of bullets.”
Holocaust spun around in a panic, only to see the rings missing from the desk behind him. Before he could utter a word, Ben had rushed up behind him and locked him in a bearhug, enacting a forcefield around the both of them that caused them to float in place.
“We’ve only got a few minutes of air in here,” Ben grimaced as he fought to contain the Nazi, “and if you try to knock me out, my brothers will gladly return the favor.
“But… how? I couldn’t sense them… I didn’t see them!”
A low, sinister laughter seemed to come out of the shadows, followed by Tom, holding his ring in the palm of one of his crippled hands. He rose out from behind Holocaust’s desk, laughing through the pain, a grim gritting smile beneath his beard.
“One of the first things I did was learn how to counteract my own power,” Tom said happily, “and I taught my brother how to cloak his own mind against other psychic enemies.”
“It’s real easy, see,” Dan said, emerging from behind the desk as well, “you just gotta think of nothing. And you know how easy that is. But I noticed something after a while…”
The two brothers approached the bubble where the third held Holocaust captive.
“It takes a pretty smart guy to be able to think about nothing, actually,” Tom finished the sentence for his brother, smiling genuinely now at Dan.
“And it takes a pretty strong guy to grab a ring with a broken arm,” Dan added. The two brothers smiled at each other, seeming to find peace in each other’s paradoxical features.
“So, what’s it gonna be, Holocaust?” Ben hissed into the ear of his enemy, “because pretty soon I’m going to black out, and this forcefield is going to go away. Not too bad for a couple of ‘normal’ people without any powers, huh?”
“You haven’t defeated me,” Holocaust spat, “you’ve cheated me! Three to one, it took three of you to defeat me! Your father accomplished the task himself! You are all barely one third of the man he was!”
“Probably,” Dan said, flexing his fists once again with the old, familiar power, “but he wasn’t exactly Father of the Year.”
“We’ve all got our problems,” Tom said with a certain kind of finality. Ben locked his hands tighter around Holocaust’s midsection, but noticed that most of the fight had gone out of him.
“And your problem is that you’re about to be very, very dead,” Ben said while releasing the forcefield. Dr. Holocaust fell in a heap to the concrete floor, his hair askew, his eyes clouded, his uniform soiled and wrinkled. He cowered now beneath the Graf boys.
“Does it feel good?” he said in a weak voice, his voice quavering, “Do you feel you have succeeded? That you have won? Are you right, and am I wrong? I wanted to make this world better, or at least make more sense… it doesn’t make sense now… are you proud that you defend your senseless world? Do you feel good and justified in protecting a world of such evils?”
“Evil or good, it’s not our job to rule the world,” Ben said, stepping forward, ring at the ready. He then added, with a twinge of melancholy.
“Sometimes I wish it was…”
He caught a glance from both of his brothers, but for once it wasn’t a glance that said “behave yourself, little brother.” It was two glances that said “we know what you mean.” They had been there before, and they had had to make their peace with those thoughts, those ideas, in their own separate ways. There was a man now that lay before them, a pitiful wretch now, who had not been able to handle those questions. Ben looked down and saw, for one disturbing second, what he could have become. But no, he thought almost immediately: he had Dan, and Tom, and Mom and Dad, and even Melanie… and Lucy…
“You must be a very lonely man,” Ben said then, quietly. Dr. Holocaust heard him, though, and rose to his feet, his eyes now brimming with tears. He couldn’t manage any words, but nodded twice, bitterly.
“There are experiments,” he said finally, between gasping sobs, “in all these hallways. Please give them release. They… they need it. Now…”
He turned to Dan and Tom, closing his eyes for the last time, and spoke his final words.
“I would have liked to have brothers like you.”
Dan reared back for what would have been the Punch to End All Punches, but Tom stayed his arm, asking instead that Dan place the gold ring on his finger. He grimaced and swore, but the ring found its way. Tom closed his eyes then, and in a flash, his mind was burnt to a cinder. Dr. Holocaust’s body slumped over onto the floor, an empty vessel.
From the open door to the laboratory, Gina Graf saw him fall, and screamed.