GenExt – Reality Check

Ben Graf never considered himself a “superhero.” He had faced pickpockets, dime-store robbers, carjackers, and even the more unsavory lowlifes that walked the Earth… but until now, he’d always just been a vigilante. A weirdo in a homemade costume with an overdeveloped sense of justice. His brother, the Blue Traveller, now THAT was a superhero: power armor, super strength, a winning smile, a well-set jaw, and, most importantly… the Traveller had dealt with supervillains.
There was no way Ben could have prepared himself.
“W-whaaaaat the hell…” he stammered, looking up at the massive gory sentence written on the wall and ceiling above his head.
“Focus, Ben,” Dan cautioned, adopting a fighting stance, “Don’t lose it on me now.”
“But I… I just thought… I mean, wasn’t this place supposed to be guarded by Secret Service?”
As if on cue, that horrible laughter shook the walls of the building again, and Ben heard something hit the floor in front of him with a wet thud. He activated his forcefield and, in the pale green light he saw a severed human ear, still with the Secret Service earpiece partially attached.
“Oh… Jesus…”
“Ben!” Dan snapped, “Stay with me! I need you to be my shield, you got that?”
There was something in those words, I need you, being said from his older brother, someone who had never seemed to need anyone, that brought Ben back from the brink. He swallowed the unpleasantness that was trying to crawl out of his throat and placed a hand in the middle of his brother’s back. The contact allowed the forcefield to cover both of them, and not a minute too soon as a severed arm in the sleeve of a tailored ricocheted off the bubble not a foot from Dan’s head. Ben would not consider himself a religious man, but out of habit and familiarity he found himself speaking to one particular deity with regularity.
“God Almighty!”
“Yeah, this shit’s pretty deep,” Dan muttered, scanning the dark room with a flashlight built onto the wrist of his armor, “Then again, it never was no picnic when you were dealing with Madame Carnage.”
“Hey, Da… I mean, Traveller… you just used a double negative.”
“I’ll flog myself later,” Dan replied with a bitter smirk. He was finding this excursion much different than excursions he had been on with the eldest brother. He was free to be in charge, to call the shots without fear of reprimand, and as a result it didn’t much resemble missions he’d been on with Nevermind… but at the same time he felt a lot more comfortable in the face of the unspeakable.
“Trouble is… our old Madame must be pushing seventy at this point, so this can’t be… watch it!”
The bubble flared up again as another arm bounced off it from the opposite direction.
“Whoever it is, she must be half-damn-monkey to be jumping around like that,” Ben remarked.
“She’s packing something, that’s for sure,” Dan replied, his brow furrowed beneath his helmet, “which leads me to wonder why she isn’t doing more.”
“AAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
“Guess she heard us,” Dan said drily. The voice continued, booming out over the abandoned building.
“YOU ARE MOST CORRECT, GENTLEMAN. I SEEK ONLY TO MAKE YOU FEAR, TO MAKE YOU RETCH, TO MAKE YOU KNOW MY POWER AND TO RUN AWAY FROM IT. RUN, RUN AND SPEAK OF MY POWER AND MY DEPRAVITY TO ALL THAT WILL HEAR, AND WHEN YOU FINALLY VOID YOURSELF OF BREATH, GASP OUT ONLY ‘SHE HAS RETURNED.’ ”
“Well, that certainly sounds like the Madame I read in the comic books,” Ben noted. His eyes still darted too quickly, nervously, uselessly around the room, and his heart pounded somewhere in his head, leaving little room for his brain to think clearly. He relied on his older brother almost completely for guidance, finding only the most arcane and inappropriate knowledge in his mind accessible in the time of duress.
“Yeah, she sounds like the books… I think someone’s been reading too much,” Dan shot back, clenching his fists and trying desperately to find his enemy in the dark, “come on, man… I could use your help, here!”
“Sorry, I just… I can’t think straight…”
“We were underneath American monuments fighting Mengele’s worst nightmares last spring! What the hell is so different now?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know! You were there, and so was Tom…”
“Well, Tom ain’t here now, is he?!” Dan’s voice went hoarse there as he shouted, a raw nerve scraping across his vocal chords, “Dammit, Ben… think!”
“Sorry!” Ben shouted reflexively, wheeling around to face his brother. A few of the loose ends of red flannel from Ben’s costume whipped about and slapped harmlessly against Dan’s armor, causing him to jump somewhat. Outside, more laughter as a severed foot thudded off the forcefield as Dan looked at his brother and, despite it all, smiled.
“Y’know… your costume really sucks.”
For some reason, Ben found himself smiling, too.
“It’s meant to disorient my foe.”
“Well, it sure does that. They’ll be too blinded by the ugly to act.”
And that was all it took. Suddenly, they were working like a well-oiled machine, in perfect synchronization, like their minds had linked.”
“Lemme toss you,” Dan said quickly, “bounce around this place and see if you can get a bead on her.”
“But you’ll be exposed!”
“I got armor, dingus. And I don’t think she’s trying to kill us, anyway. Just do me a favor and try not to send anything crashing down on my head, all right?”
“I’ll do what I can. It’s like Peggle once I get going.”
“Like what?”
“Never mind. I’ll stick to Atari references from now old, you old bastard.”
“Just for that, you’re getting thrown extra hard.”
And in a trice, Ben was ping-ponging around the abandoned, but solidly built structure inside his bubble, trying to get a glimpse. His breath came quickly behind the rebreather in his bubble as the adrenalin kicked in.
“Damn, she is fast!” he muttered to himself as he struck a cushioned blow off one wall and headed for the opposite, “but if I could just…”
His scientific mind went to work, and suddenly what little of the room that could be seen in flashes of lightning turned into an equation. A point here, a trajectory there, triangulation, momentum, accounting for friction and drag… it all whizzed through Ben’s mind as he saw his chance when a flash of something darted past his right eye in the half-darkness, an odd muddy color through the green tint of the bubble.
“C’mon, you crazy bitch… there!”
He tucked into a ball as he kissed off one wall, throwing his considerable weight to one side of the forcefield and heading to intercept her midway through a jump between once stack of boxes and another massive installation. His sudden change in direction surprised the Madame, and she gave an awkward squeak as the bubble made contact with her, knocking her out of the sky. Immediately, Ben disengaged the field and, in free fall, had the opportunity to get a message to his brother.
“Traveller! Over here!”
Dan, who had been trying his best to follow the glowing green blur with his flashlight, immediately flashed to where he had seen his brother last, seeing Ben flying in one direction and a thin, willowy frame plummet in the opposite. Dan’s reactions were those of nanoseconds, he saw Ben reactivate his forcefield as soon as the message was received and the flashlight shifted, which allowed him to land safely, if very noisily, among a pile of crates. Dan, knowing Ben would be safe, made a bee line for where the Madame had fallen, but what he saw there when he finally approached the little pile of humanity was something he could never have prepared for.
It was Gina.
Her hair was matted and soaked in blood and gore, and her body was covered in tattered and torn red and black spandex that seemed to be designed for a larger person. As such it was gathered and wrapped sloppily around her body in odd places, giving her the appearance of a failed mummification, an ugly mess… but her face, as she lay there, unconscious for the moment…. the face was still the face Dan had loved, the face he had promised to be faithful to, the face that had betrayed him in the bowels of Dr. Holocaust’s obscene laboratory. He was absolutely thunderstruck as thunder rolled overhead, unable to even blink and forgetting to breathe in the presence of all this. After all this time, he had thought he was getting around it, getting over it, but now it all came rushing back.
“Gina…” he murmured, his breath dying as it escaped. Could that really be… her?
She came to slowly, like a kitten. It was a waking up Dan had seen before, during happier times, but it was quickly perverted as she fully gained her consciousness. With a feral snarl, she lunged at the Blue Traveller with abject hate in her eyes, her fingers bearing steel claws in oversized gloves that sparked and scratched at his armor in her wild attempt to kill. One of the claws embedded themselves in his visor, not a hairsbreadth from Dan’s eye and, unable to free it, Gina lunged forward onto Dan’s chest, her slight weight still enough to bring him crashing onto his back, and set to work neatly biting off her own finger before launching herself with superhuman strength thity feet into the air out of the fight and away  through a partially open window. The most upsetting was, despite the initial snarl, she had made no other noises during the short skirmish despite heavy, labored breathing.
When Ben finally made it to his brother, he found him laying on his back, still frozen, the severed finger of his wife still dripping blood onto his visor over his right eye. He was in a nearly catatonic state.
“Dan! Oh, Jesus look at…. Dan, are you hurt?”
Ben couldn’t get a response,
“Oh… God, we gotta get you outta here.”
Thinking quickly, he placed them both in a weightless bubble and slammed his two powerful legs into the floor, launching them out of the window Madame had just exited from, shattering it in the process. Ben knew he had only a few minutes before the air in the bubble expired, and as the sky gained a small, green moon for a split second he scanned the world below for the car. Much to his relief, he saw the flashing lights of the authorities still a few blocks away, which meant there was plenty of time for a getaway.
He allowed the bubble to recede for a moment to get some fresh air, but as he grabbed onto Dan in mid-air he realized just how heavy the Traveller’s armor was. He wasn’t strong enough, and the two of them immediately began to plummet back toward the earth. Ben managed to reconstruct the field, but they were still speeding toward a residential section of DC, straight for what looked to be a top floor bedroom of a house. Thinking in split seconds, Ben closed his eyes tight and held onto his brother, who was once again weightless within the bubble, and struck out hard against the green surface with his legs. Luckily, this shifted the bubble away from the houses, but sent them both careening down a residential street like a pinball.
From there, Ben had to slam his legs this way and that in an effort to keep the ball on the mostly empty residential streets in the early morning hours until the momentum ran out or, as he came to with a chilling thought, another object came in contact with this object in motion. Luckily, Lucy’s many trips to the Capitol had instilled him with a decent knowledge of the geography.
“H Street… 7th… Madison,” he muttered to himself, keeping a tally as he pounded his legs from street to street. They approached the National Mall and, hitting a curb, launched into the air directly in the path of the Washington monument. Gauging his moment correctly, he kicked out and missed the monument only by a fraction so as to sail by and land, finally, safely in the reflecting pool between the Washington spire and the Lincoln Memorial. Finally, his legs turning to rubber, he kicked weakly to get Dan and himself near the edge of the water and let the bubble recede, dropping them both with an unceremonious thud on the water’s edge. Nearby, a homeless person came to investigate.
“What the hell…”
“Have no fear, uh, citizen…” Ben babbled out, his mind defaulting to the comic books of his youth, “Everything is under control.”
“Heh,” the homeless man laughed, “I bet…”
He glanced at the other man, the blue, armor-clad man lying motionless and his eyes went wide.
“Holee shit… ‘zat the Blue Traveller?”
“Uh… yes?” Ben offered, not sure of the reaction.
“Well, hot damn! That guy saved my life back in Mogadishu. Hell of a guy, I tell ya… he all right?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Ben struggled to his feet on weak knees, shaking the water out of his shaggy hair.
“Well dammit, you take care of him. He’s one of the good ones. Nice to see him back, too… I know all the guys in my unit were sad when he disappeared.”
A rogue thought entered Ben’s mind that maybe the news portrayal of universal hatred on supers was a bit of a stretch.
“Well, shit,” the man muttered, “you just let me know anything I can do, and I’ll do it for him. That guy… I owe him one.”
Ben couldn’t believe it: this man, clothed in rags and a former Marine at that, was offering what little he had for a man in powered armor that possibly cost millions. Having grown up middle class in the relative country, and after the treatment Ben had endured with other people he had rescued, this was  shocking and welcome turn of events.
“You guys need a place to stay?” the homeless man continued, a surprisingly well-kept set of teeth coming out of a grimy beard as he smiled, “I ain’t got much, but my bench is your bench.”
“Well, I…” Ben began to take him up on the offer, but he was cut off suddenly by a clipped and posh, but haggard sounding voice.
“While I’m sure this man thanks you for your kind offer, I believe I can help them from here.”
Ben turned around to see a familiar, yet surprising face. Sir William Dawes, the aged and reformed super-villain known as the Atomic Gentleman, in a tweed coat, bowtie, waiscoat and slacks even in this absurdly early morning hour.
“Whatever you say, Mr. Peanut,” the homeless man chuckled again, returning to his bench for the night, muttering, “And they say I’M the crazy one!”
“Uh… hey!” Ben stammered, trying to split his time between a potential threat and his shellshocked brother, “Fancy meeting you here.”
“You rolled a bright green ball past my dining room window at nearly eighty miles an hour in the middle of the night… there is nothing serendipitous about our meeting.”
He knelt down slowly and gave Dan a once-over.
“He’ll be all right. Just in shock. Put him in a field and bring him along, my car is waiting.”
A short time later, Dan was resting on a chaise lounge in Dawes’ richly appointed study, the finger removed along with his costume. That took some doing, as Ben had to forcefield each of the pieces to quickly remove them due to their weight. With himself stripped down to his underclothes, Ben tried his best to accept the tea and shortbread cookies from Dawes’ aged yet fiercely domestic wife, but fell asleep before taking a bite. He woke up in a guest bed, all canopy and lace, and immediately rushed to the downstairs of the old brownstone to see that it was teatime again, this time in the mid-morning hours as Dan, Dawes and Mrs. Dawes were enjoying a quiet breakfast. The entire scene was bathed in golden sunlight, completely belying the terror that had come the night before.
“Good morning, dear,” Mrs. Dawes bustled over to usher him to the filigreed table, “So sorry you couldn’t enjoy tea last night, but I suppose you were rather busy.”
She was like a cross between Mary Poppins and that singing teapot. Ben accepted a piece of homemade toast with orange marmalade as he tried his best to study the still troubled face of his brother and the ever-contemplative features of the Atomic Gentleman. Dawes brushed some crumbs off the lapel of his dressing gown and coughed to clear his throat.
“Good morning, Benjamin. I hope you slept well.”
“That’s really neither here nor there, sir.”
“Oh, please. After all you’ve done for me, it’s William… or Will, or even Willy just not… not Bill. I am not some rotund Arkansan.”
“Okay, Bill… is everything…”
He stole a glance at Dan who was eagerly studying a newspaper while plowing through a bowl of Grape Nuts.
“…everything… okay?”
“Your brother and I have been speaking since the early morning. After all you must have done we didn’t begrudge you sleeping in.”
Ben still begrudged himself of it. What had he missed.
“Your brother… well, Daniel, why don’t you take the floor?”
“There’s some serious shit going down, little brother.”
His speech was different, hard and fast… much like it had been right after the incident with Dr. Holocaust.
“I never could master such a… direct approach,” Dawes said with a smile, “but he is correct. You have quite a battle before you, and as someone who has had to manage matters of the heart with metahuman principles, I understand the difficulty you will face.”
As if on cue, his wife tottered over to stand by her man in true Victorian fashion, taking a moment to smooth out a few white hairs on his head and kiss his crown fondly.
“What do you mean, Si… I mean, Will? Matters of the heart?”
“He didn’t see her, Will,” Dan replied, his voice as tense as piano wire, “Only I did.”
It was obvious Dan wasn’t ready to talk further, so Dawes continued.
“It appears your Madame Carnage, this new Madame Carnage, resembles someone your brother used to be quite close with.”
Ben heard the spoon hit Dan’s bowl with a clang and saw his brother glaring at the old man. Dawes heaved a sigh.
“Your brother is convinced that it is his former wife, brought back from her disappearance. I do not yet have proof of this, so I cannot say for sure.”
Dan pulled a sour look and went back to his Grape Nuts.
“Still, given his description, and my time spent in Dr. Holocaust’s lab, his story may have credence. It is possible that the former wife…”
“Gina,” Dan muttered, “and she IS still my wife.”
“Indeed… she may have stumbled upon something in the deepness of Holocaust’s lab, something that would have given her what she wanted. Tell me, are you familiar with the man Steve Sanders?”
Ben shook his head.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Would you remember him if I used the name ‘Max-Atom?’ ”
Ben thought for a moment before his eyes went wide with recognition.
“Wait… do you mean that old comic book from the 40s? Dad had some of those in his closet. It was super cheesy, he had some sort of power pill that made him super-powered for a short period of time, and…”
This time, realization made his eyes and his brow fall.
“It was all real, wasn’t it?”
“Indeed it was,” Dawes said, patting his wife’s hand and standing up. He clasped both hands behind his back and, like his youth as a professor at Cambridge, began to lecture.
“It is very possible that this… woman came across a stockpile of Max-Atom’s power pills in Dr. Holocaust’s laboratory during her mad escape. The pills would have allowed her to escape and would have given her that feeling of specialness she seemed to desire so… but there is a dark side that the comics did not show you. Steve Sanders, the original Max-Atom died before the age of fifty, a casualty of untested science used on his own body. The pills are destructively addictive and wreak havoc on the nervous system, leaving Sanders to die young a frothing, slavering madman in an institution, craving those pills until the day he died. My only guess is that this woman took the pills, and an old costume from the heyday of Madam Carnage, and is currently on the warpath.”
“Her costume was all fucked up,” Dan muttered, “Tied off and wrapped up. It needed to be: I fought Madame toward the end of her career, and even heading into her fifties, she was certainly… built. Gina didn’t have those.”
“It is my thought that this woman was looking for a larger stockpile of the pills in government warehouses, and when she saw the two of you she decided to live up to the name of Carnage. She quite possibly suffered a psychotic break in Dr. Holocaust’s dungeon, and the pills are only standing to make it worse. Be that as it may, I believe that, for all its unfortunate implications… you will be the only ones who can stop her before most of this city is awash in blood.”
“So, like I said,” Dan finished up his Grape Nuts, “Serious shit.”
He stood up from the table and thanked the Dawes’ for breakfast.
“I can’t tell you how grateful we are for your help. I know I wasn’t worth much of anything last night… I have some thinking to do. But for now, we both have to get to work, right Ben?”
With shock stabbing him in the pit of his stomach, his eyes shot to a grandfather clock on the opposite end of the dining room, which was just about to chime eleven o’clock.
“Aw, hell… I’ve got work in an hour!”
He jammed the rest of the bread in his mouth and, still in an undershirt and shorts, made to head out the door.
“Aw, dammit! My car’s halfway across town, too! If I miss another day, it’s my ass…”
“I will give you a lift,” Dawes said, changing out his dressing down for his tweed, “Just wait a moment.”
“Besides, Banjo…” Dan smirked as he himself rose from the table, “Where you gonna go in your skivvies? Doris here’s got us some clothes this morning, so change. You can be a little late, I promise.”
“But… I hate being late.”
“Welcome to being an adult, Ben.”
He turned those words over and over in his mind as Dawes drove his Jaguar to where the Judge Intrepid was still parked, thankfully just far enough away from the police cordon. They gave their farewells and made to head into the car, but not before Ben noticed a pale yellow sheet wedged under his windshield wiper.
“Fuckin… a parking ticket?!”
And so, the superhero was late to work that afternoon, because he first had to go and pay a parking ticket.

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