Tag Archives: generationextant

GenExt – Tom

I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight
I once believed in causes too
I had my pointless point of view
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
Ben hadn’t even cleared the tops of One Liberty Place when Tom’s voice came crashing into his mind. The bubble wavered a bit, but Ben was sort of expecting it so it wasn’t too much of a shock.
“Nice to see you, too,” Ben shot back.
“Do you even realize what you just did?!” Tom’s voice was accusing, scolding.
“I would have thought by now you’d understand that I’m doing things a little differently than you did,” Ben replied coolly, “or do I need to aim my kick a little lower next time?”
There was a silence then, but Ben knew the line was still open, so to speak. Finally, his brother spoke, composed and metered.
“I’m just worried about you and your wife. You–”
“Oh, bullshit!” Ben was still smiling and chipper, “That’s not why you busted into my head. I can’t read minds and even I know that.”
“Why do you think I called you, then?” Tom was beginning to get flustered.
Ha, he says it’s a “call.” How pompous! Ben thought to himself… only to realize that it wasn’t to himself anymore.
“You’re mad,” he began aloud, “You’re upset that someone isn’t doing things your way. You see, I’m starting to put pieces together, and I’m still thinking about what Dan and I talked about yesterday. You know, don’t you? Of course you do. You remember Greg?”
“I do.”
“And I bet you had some choice words for Dan when he snuffed him?”
“Yes.”
Ben was about to think a few thoughts to himself about how Tom was usually one to make broad speeches and proclamations, but now he was sticking to one word at a time. He managed to catch himself, though, and muffled the thoughts before they entered his consciousness, tucking them away for later.
“Because I’m sure you’ve been in that situation before and, as always, you had some sort of wise lesson to teach him?”
“…yes.”
“You should have gone for an owl costume,” Ben snickered, “and now, you’re upset with me because not only did I have to kill a bad man, just like Dan did, but I’m not ashamed of it. When a man threatens to kill you, Tom… when a man pulls the trigger on you…”
“But that doesn’t mean you–”
“Yes it does! It means I! I do! Because it’s my own fucking life, all right? Maybe I’m the only one in the whole world who doesn’t think you have all the answers, and maybe that means I’m all wrong, but I’d rather be wrong just to spite you than feel like I was on your fucking leash all the time. You sit there with powers like God, and you want to lecture me on how to use the powers I built for myself? Hey, here’s an idea: why didn’t you warn Lucy and I that Scoville was there, huh Mr. Omnipresent? If you can bust into my head whenever you want, why didn’t you help us then? Did you have to teach us a lesson? Were you curious to see what we’d do? Are we just another experiment so you can feel high and mighty and look down and judge us from on high, Mr. Suburban Buddha?”
There was a long silence then. Ben caught a thermal and winged toward Elizabethtown.
“What the hell happened to you, man? When I was a kid, you were the punker. The Gen X-er. You were the guy who cut school to hitch a ride to Seattle and chuck barricades at the police. You were the guy who was gonna set the world on fire and really change things. Now… now, you sit in your fucking fake-Tudor with your 2 cars and a picket fence, you detatch yourself from reality so you can be Mr. Above-It-All, and you think it’s okay to get out of the cape business and just sit there and judge everyone, but let me ask you… if you’re done with it, if you’re above it all, if you’re beyond my silly emotions or whatever… why are you still wearing the ring? Why are you still using it on me, on Dan? Do you use it on Melanie, too? Is she just another one of your experiments?”
“Ben, you can’t understand…”
“No, I think I understand pretty damn well. You love the idea of being the king, you love being powerful… but you don’t actually want the responsibility. You don’t actually want to feel like you have to help anyone. You did your time, right? Don’t you deserve a quiet retirement, didn’t you do enough? No! It’s never enough, and it’s a damn thankless job, but we keep doing it, because it’s the right thing to do. If you want to be selfish, and you want to say ‘I got mine, so fuck you’ and run off to the ‘burbs, then do us all a favor and give the ring to someone who can actually use it, and while you’re at it, get off your goddamn high horse!”
He was crying now, and he had to tear off his goggles to let the water out. Tom was still silent from his undisclosed location, but there was still that feeling of the connection being open. It was almost a sort of warmth.
“God dammit,” Ben hissed, “You used to be my hero. Please… just, please… tell me what happened to you. It seems like something happens to all of us that ruins us, it breaks us, so please… tell me what happened to you so I’m ready when it happens to me.”
The reply was surprisingly immediate.
“Her name was Tina Carmine.”
Tom’s voice was softer, and higher pitched, and it was then that Ben realized he had been pitching his voice down for telepathic communication, using his “hero voice” as Ben liked to call it.
“We were friends in high school, and into college. We probably would have gotten married, but neither one of us were ready to pull the trigger. We just both assumed it would happen eventually: we’d just look around, shrug, and say ‘why not?’ Her Dad was the police chief in Upper Marion, so she got a lot of shit from the other kids when Dad would bust them. We were kind of brought together by those idiots, although I doubt they’d ever know it.”
“I don’t ever remember hearing about her,” Ben interjected, “what happened?”
“Do you remember BrainBreaker?”
“Yeah,” Ben nodded, thinking back to his childhood comics, “Stupid name, awful costume… he wasn’t REAL, was he?”
The silence that followed told him everything.
“My God, I thought they’d made him up for the books! He was a goddamn cartoon character: too crazy, too sadistic…”
“He found out about Tina through her father,” Tom’s voice got very quiet, “It had nothing to do with me. By the time I got to her, he’d already… cut her open. Her brain… there wasn’t anything left. I snuffed out what little there was as a mercy… and then I snuffed him out.”
“Serves him right.”
“But it didn’t help anything, Ben. Tina was still gone.”
His voice was weak now, wavering.
“Dad didn’t give me the ring as a wedding present. I was the first to get one, it was a passing of the mantle. When I told Tina about it, she made me promise one thing: that I’d never use it on her. I only did once, and by that time…”
He heaved a juddering sigh.
“She didn’t do anything wrong. She was even supposed to be protected by her father, by the law. She didn’t even drink or smoke. Said she didn’t like the way they made her feel. And still, that happened to her… I had a bad few years, Ben. I killed a lot of people I probably shouldn’t have, I did a lot of things to men’s minds that I know I shouldn’t have, but I just felt like if I could do enough…”
“Then it would somehow even out, right?” Ben finished, remembering a similar thought he’d said to a psychiatrist.
“But it never would. Every night was the worst night, worse than the one before it, and after a while… you just decide there’s nothing you can do.”
Ben did his best to flatten out the bubble and slow his descent, off into a nondescript piece of land in Lancaster county. He’d found that, if he gave it a little more thought, he could change the shape of the bubble just a little. Circles were easy, he found, but having edges… that required holding a line.
“Melanie doesn’t know about this, does she?” Ben asked.
“And she never will.”
“No, she won’t… because it’s not my place to tell.”
“Thanks.”
Ben couldn’t remember the last time Tom had said that to him. He landed and rolled through the countryside as he sighed himself.
“So, you’re saying something’s going to come along and break me, just like it did you and Dan.”
“I hope it doesn’t.”
“And you’ve decided that, if the whole world is a giant shitpile, there’s no point in picking up the shovel anymore?”
“There’s no place to put it all, if we follow your analogy.”
“Are you saying we completely give up the fight?”
“You can fight in many different ways.”
“Well, I know I’m probably talking out of my ass, and I know I’ll probably be coming to you bawling like a baby someday… but what if, and I’m just thinking… what if I’m already broken? Y’know, the Recession, the jobs, getting shit on everywhere I go… maybe I started from the place you ended up.”
“Ben,” Tom’s voice was growing harsh again.
“I don’t want to cheapen what happened with you and Tina, I know, I know… but everything’s relative, y’know? You said it yourself that you don’t know what the worst is until it happens. Even you found that things got worse after Tina, because of Tina… so maybe I’m already there. I know it seems ridiculous, but you have to imagine: people like me and Luce, we worked so hard to keep our noses clean, because we were promised something good would happen. I don’t have to tell you to imagine what it’s like to spend your whole life hoping for something to start your life around and then have it taken away.”
“You have Lucy.”
“And you have Melanie, don’t you?”
“…yes.”
Ben rolled to a stop in a usual place, an unplowable hollow next to an enormous, ancient oak. He deactivated the bubble and looked at the idyllic blue sky meeting the stunning green hills, all of it bathed in late morning sunlight.
“How about I tell you a secret, too?”
“Go ahead.”
“By the way, are you doing this while at work?”
“Just finishing up.”
“Damn. Impressive.”
“You were saying?”
“Oh, yeah… well, only Lucy and I know this, so keep it under your beard, all right? You see, when I first met Lucy, she was not the love of my life.”
“And she knows this?”
“Yep. She actually had a boyfriend at the time, real wet noodle, y’know? But anyway, when we first started hanging out, it was just that: we were people that liked a lot of the same stuff and liked hanging out. I never felt like she was promised to me, or that it was inevitable. It just turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I actually stole her away from that dork, truth be told.”
“So?”
“So…” Ben rolled his eyes at his brother’s impatient tone, “What I thought was promised to me was a life working my ass off at a job I loved and getting paid halfway decent for it. I never even figured I’d get married, unless it was to some shrew who’d divorce me in three years and take the money.”
“Interesting.”
“So when the job thing, everything I’d ever wanted, fell apart and it wasn’t my fault… well?”
“I can see where you’d think that.”
“Well, that’s some friggen progress, I guess. People like me and Lucy, we’ve got to do things differently. We see life differently from you, or Dan. We had different experiences, but pain, agony… that can be universal.”
He didn’t hear a response in the awkward silence that followed.
“Look, I’m gonna grab the Judge out of this culvert here and drive it into town, so you have about ten minutes if there’s anything else you wanna do inside my head.”
“No, I just wanted to see what you were thinking.”
“You don’t really need to talk to me to do that, do ya?” Ben replied, making a mental not to NOT think about developing some way to block unwanted psychic intrusions, but to definitely think about it later.
“Take care of yourself, Ben. Remember, I’m supposed to die before you do.”
“That was… oddly morbid. So, do we have to say goodbye like on the phone, or…?”
“I’ll be leaving now. But before I go, I’d just like to let you know that I have never used my powers on Melanie.”
“Well, that’s…nice…”
The feeling was gone, and Ben knew he was now truly alone. A few hours later, Melanie came home to their split-level in the suburbs, finishing up her first shift job and rousing Tom from his slumber after his third shift one. As they talked and prepared dinner, Tom remarked to himself again that he had never used his powers on Melanie, but a small, insidious voice in the back of his mind added a quick note that he’d never needed to.
And as Tom watched Melanie grab the vinaigrette salad dressing, which Tom had gently suggested to her over the course of years until it had become her favorite, that same little voice remarked again that it sure was a good thing no one could read HIS thoughts, wasn’t it?

GenExt – Dan

Give a moment or two to the angry young man
With his foot in his mouth and his heart in his hand
He’s been stabbed in the back, he’s been misunderstood
It’s a comfort to know his intentions are good
And he sits in a room with a lock on the door
With his maps and his medals laid out on the floor
And he likes to be known as the angry young man

202 W Dekalb Pike was a pretty little piece of green next to a lot of interstate-highway-drab gray. Ben pulled up in his Judge Intrepid, and found Dan waiting for him outside. He was dressed again in his fedora and overcoat, making Ben feel slightly cheap in his old college windbreaker. Without a word, Dan waved him inside, past the wrought iron gate and down a paved path flanked by immaculately trimmed grass and well-kept headstones.
“Charming place to meet,” Ben tried to break the ice, but Dan just smiled calmly and nodded. They took a side path off the main one, and then another, and another, until they were down to a row of paving stones. Tufts of grass poked in between as they headed to a decidedly more low-rent section of the cemetery devoid of massive angel statues or mausoleums. Finally, Dan’s long legs came to a stop and Ben’s stockier frame did a final hurry-up to meet up.
“Huh,” Ben noted, looking over his brother’s shoulder, “Gregory Breitbacher. Who’s that?”
“I’m surprised you don’t remember him,” Dan’s voice was low and smooth, and his little smile didn’t waver, “He was the BMOC back when I was in high school.”
“Oh, yeah… Greg. He was always front and center on the homecoming float.”
“You remember some weird shit, Banjo,” Dan sighed and looked up at the clear, blue sky.
“Linebacker, Fullback, Prom King… and world-class asshole.”
Dan said it so plainly, so calmly, that Ben couldn’t stifle a sputtering laugh.
“Jesus, Dan. Isn’t that him, right there?”
He gestured to the grave marker. Dan moved his hands into the expansive pockets of his overcoat.
“Somewhere down there, yeah. What’s left of him. I like to come out here once in a while. It gives me perspective.”
“Sort of a ‘life is fleeting’ sorta thing? What, did he crash his crappy IROC-Z at graduation or something?”
The smile nudged upwards just slightly.
“Not exactly. You see… Greg was a complete piece of shit. Complete. I’d be sitting there in study hall, doing my homework, and he’d start something. He tried the usual things at first, all the way back in elementary school: I smelled, I was fat, I was ugly, yadda yadda yadda. And you know what Mom said when I came home from school complaining that a kid was mean to me.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Ben shrugged, “let me guess, it was something along the lines of ‘keep getting good grades and behaving, don’t let it get to you’ things like that?”
“Bingo. And when I asked her why I couldn’t fight back…”
“She’s say something about it not working out, and violence only makes things worse.”
Dan’s smile was getting bigger, now.
“And later on, it became pretty clear that not only could I throw a football pretty well, but I was also doing okay in the classes. Greg, on the  other hand… he appeared to be getting dumber, I swear to God. He tried upping the ante with his bullying, getting physical, shoving me, et cetera… one day he and some older boys decided they didn’t like Tom being such a smartypants either, and I found them in the school yard, holding him down. I jumped on one of their backs, gave it a good shot, but he threw me to the ground pretty hard. We got our asses beat pretty bad.”
Ben was never one to keep from interjecting or interrupting.
“Dan, how come I’ve never heard this story before? I never knew about this!”
“I bet you never knew about Mom finding Tom’s shirt in the wash, covered in shoe prints. Tom… Tom always told me not to tell anyone about us getting beat up. Don’t know why: maybe he didn’t want Mom to get upset, maybe he didn’t want to let them know they got to him…”
“Maybe he didn’t want to admit he lost,” Ben grumbled.
“Either way,” Dan said with a little bemused emphasis, “Greg found out that there was one way to get me angry, and that was the family. Tom… he learned how to screw with their minds a little bit, make them feel like he was almost their friend, so they let up on him a little. I didn’t even act shocked when I found out he got the mental ring, or that Dad gave me the physical one. Because me… I kept fighting. A lot.”
Ben was skeptical. His brother Dan had always been the jovial one: boisterous, handsome, women falling at his feet… or maybe that was just the way he’d always seen it.
“I like to think that part of the reason you didn’t get as much shit in elementary was because they knew I’d beat both their and their brothers’ asses. That, and you were twice as big as most of your bullies, Banjo.”
“It does make it easier, I can only assume,” Ben shrugged, “So what happened to Greg? Don’t tell me you put him under.”
Dan’s eyes widened a little, and his mouth went drawn.
Holy shit, Dan! Like, really?”
“It’s not what you think, Ben… and for the record, you’re a little too excited to hear about this.”
Ben knew it, and he slumped a little.
“Sorry.”
“Scouts came to look at Greg. All the way from Notre Dame, USC even. He had the guts to go, but the minute they looked at his transcripts…”
He stuck a hand out in front of him and made a whooshing noise.
“Went to community college, blew out his knee. The next time I saw him, he was working as a hired goon for Radius… you remember him?”
“Yeah, he was kinda one of your B-listers,” Ben noted, “Ugly-ass costume, homemade bombs.”
“Made his own proprietary blend of napalm,” Dan nodded, “Quantico’s got the recipe, now. He held up the divisional playoff at Three Rivers, locked the whole thing down. I can only imagine Greg was doing it to make ends meet. Last I heard, he’d gotten a least two girls pregnant… I busted in, like a badass, did my thing, saved the day, got a cheerleader’s phone number… I didn’t find out til the ten-year reunion that Greg had been one of the goons there.”
He took a slightly shuddering breath and continued.
“Near as I could figure, he tried to come up behind me. I remember the HUD in my helmet telling me there was an incoming, so I threw a fist back and swatted it. Just like a bug. I didn’t even think about it.”
Ben let the pause hang in the air as it blew cold through the cemetery.
“I didn’t… I didn’t feel it. He just sorta melted, I guess. Sometimes back then, when things got hairy, I didn’t know how to handle the strength the ring gave me… Tom got on my case a lot for that.”
“He got on your case for a lot of things, it seems.”
“I always like to think it was because he was trying to help,” Dan shrugged, “He’d been through some of the issues I’d had, but a few years earlier, so he knew all about it. I’m not really sure what happened with him, but Mom said he had some issues when he first started using the ring. Just like me, he had to learn to control it, I guess… and so will you.”
In the silence that followed, Ben thought about the carnival and the ninety mile-an-hour pitch. He began to wonder, just what was he capable of? Before he had a chance to explore any possible greatness, Dan sent him crashing back down to Earth.
“You killed Scoville, right?”
Ben took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Yeah.”
“How did it feel?”
Ben knew there was no point in lying.
“Good.”
“I know…” Dan said with that little smile again, “and that’s why I come over here from time to time. I do it to remind myself of the responsibilities we have, and how they are so much bigger… but sometimes, I come here just to yell at this son of a bitch.”
Ben stood there, shocked.
“If it wasn’t for assholes like this, I wouldn’t have this feeling of having to be ‘good.’ I wouldn’t crave someone to find to stop, to beat up, to turn in to the cops… I would have this madness, this desire to make things right. If it weren’t for Greg Breitbacher, I could have just been a normal, ignorant guy, or I could have been a full-on boy scout, because I wouldn’t have that feeling like you have, that it feels good to punish them.”
“So what do we do about it?” the words came tumbling out of Ben’s mouth. He’d wanted to ask them since the day Scoville died.
“We always keep aware of it. We always make sure it doesn’t get the best of us. That’s why we’re the good guys, and that’s what makes us the good guys. Because we can, but we won’t. Because we always could, but we never will… God, that sounds cheesy. Sorry.”
Ben had never really seen this side of his brother before. For years, Dan had been the jovial one, the big lug, the fun one with the great smile and women hanging off his biceps… but the nostalgia was beginning to fade from Ben’s eyes now, and we was starting to see that under all those smiles, this… this had always been there.”
“It’s all right, Dan. We’re from a dairy family. Cheese is what we do.”
They made their way slowly out of the cemetery, enjoying the cool breeze. They walked right past a gravestone marked “Tina Carmine,” and thought nothing of it. As they headed back to their respective cars, Ben had a sudden flash of inspiration.
“Hey Dan,” he started slowly and lowly, “You’re going to want to have a camera crew over at the Ben Franklin school tomorrow morning. It’s a Sunday, so let’s go with 8:00. I guarantee there’ll be a story there.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Just a… friendly reminder,” Ben gave a little grin. He went to shake Dan’s hand, but the big brother pulled in his stocky younger brother for a hug.
“Got any idea what to do for a job?” Dan asked when the hug ended.
“Not really, but there is a silver lining. Since I got in trouble with my last two bosses for going off, it’ll be easier for me to find blue collar work that might pay pretty decent. Believe it or not, no one thinks a theoretical physics major is gonna stick around at the average warehouse for $15 an hour.”
“And that’s why they’re idiots.”
“Everyone else usually is,” Ben shrugged with a sarcastic smile, “That’s just the curse of being us, ain’t it?”
“Oh, yeah. You know it.”
As good as the meeting had been for Ben, just to hear that someone else was feeling what he was feeling and that it wasn’t necessarily his fault, Dan was feeling cleansed by the exercise as well. Ben went home and applied for several labor jobs, being sure to cite his previous failures as an employee; by the end of the day, he’d had a callback to work in a factory. Dan made a few calls of his own: to the real estate agent to get the house he and Gina had shared onto the market, and to his best friend at the news station, who seemed curious how Dan might know something would happen, but had gotten used to it over the years. Dan Graf was known to have a “nose for the news” and his predictions were rarely ever wrong. And so, by the time the news van pulled up to Ben Franklin school, the internet had already blown up with the news that someone had vandalized the school. Under the cover of darkness, someone had painted over the sign reading “Ben Franklin School,” replacing the American revolutionary’s name with that of one Raymond Scoville. At eight in the morning, a curiously dressed man stood waiting on the steps of the school: green spandex, threadbare jeans, an equally threadbare red flannel shirt, a ghostly rebreather on his face, a shaggy mop of brown hair, goggles, and boots. There was one new addition to the outfit: a retro-themed white Philadelphia basketball jersey worn under the flannel but over the spandex, proclaiming SIXERS and the number 6.
“You can call me Big Six,” he said to the reporter wearing too much makeup. His voice was altered by the rebreather, but he still tried to lower the pitch.
“I assume you’re some sort of costumed hero?” the reporter asked the obvious question.
“Some of you may already know me, and if you do, you know I’m for real.”
“I have to ask,” the reporter went on, “why did you decide to change the name of a local school from one honoring an American patriot to the name of a recently-murdered drug kingpin?”
“Well, Alundra,” Ben adopted a casual pose, slouching, hands on hips, very unbefitting of a hero, “I deal with the fallout from the actions of people like Raymond Scoville every day. And while it’s all well and good to honor our American forefathers, I think it’s pretty safe to assume there are other schools, buildings, and businesses named after Ben Franklin. But I thought, what if one school, just one, was named after someone who made the wrong decisions in life, who was someone we would all consider a ‘bad guy?’ Maybe, for the thousands of schools telling our children what they can be if they work hard enough, we need at least one school that reminds them what will happen if they’re bad.”
“And what will happen, Big Six?” Alundra was enjoying her moment.
“Well, like all bullies Mr. Scoville was a coward, and he sent his goons to pick on someone he shouldn’t have. He threatened me, tried to have me killed and, well… I killed him.”
Alundra was taken aback on live TV from this admission.
“You did what?!
“When good people are threatened, it’s up to people like me to do everything in our power to defend them. There are heroes, and they are here to help, and…”
The camera’s microphone could just pick up distant police sirens speeding to the school’s location. Ben smiled behind his mask.
“Well, that sounds like it’s my cue to go. Step back please, folks.”
They did as they were told and, in an instant, Ben created a bubble and slammed his feet down on the concrete steps of the school, rocketing himself off into the sky faster that the camera could follow.

GenExt – Hospitality, Too

“Why do I have to drive now?”
After a panicked pull over, Lucy was driving the bloated beige sedan as Claire sat in the front passenger seat, her right fist closed tightly.
“I’m trying to see if I can use Tom’s ring; I have to concentrate.”
“But we’re still miles away,” Melanie said from the backseat.
“If I concentrate hard enough, I should be able to get through… okay, I’m in the hospital.”
“Really? Wow!”
“I can’t tell who’s who, though… let me try a little harder.”
There was a short pause before the mother shot bolt upright in her chair, shocking Lucy and causing the car to swerve on the highway. Thinking fast, Lucy pulled out of the skid before the oncoming lanes could panic.
“Nice driving, Luce!” Melanie cheered from the back.
“Sorry,” Claire said, gasping for breath. She swallowed heavily and proclaimed:
“I found them.”
“You okay?” Lucy asked as they took a turn.
“Yeah, it’s just… I haven’t felt a punch like that in a while.”
“Yeah, imagine what it’s like being married to that,” Melanie remarked.
Claire and Lucy shared an uncomfortable look up front, but decided not to pursue it further.
“We won’t be able to get much closer,” Claire noted, “I’m sure the cops have the place locked down pretty soon. There! Up there, you can see the lights.”
The car slowed to a stop on a residential street.
“Whoa! That’s good!” Melanie called out as Lucy tried to parallel park.
“How do you park this boat?” Lucy grunted, turning around as far as she could to back in.
“Badly,” Claire shot back, “But Bob doesn’t want a smaller car.”
“Claire… are things all right there, with you two?”
“Frankly? No.”
“Are you gonna get a divorce?” Melanie asked.
“There’s still the man I love in there, Melanie. I’m not giving up just yet.”
“Just don’t let him walk all over you.”
They parked and got out of the car, walking the half block to the police barricade, which had naturally attracted a small crowd of ghouls.
“So how do we get in?” Lucy asked.
“Well, Lucy…” Clare turned to her daughter-in-law with a puckish smile that belied her years, “how’s your bubble doing?”
“…I’ll try.”
“Good. Melanie, you need to be our diversion. Get the attention of people so we can get close enough to jump the barricade.”
“I’m the diversion?!”
“We can’t have you doing much else, Prego. This is important: once we’re through you need to get back to the car in case we need to make a break for it.”
“I’m not happy I have to stay behind, y’know.”
Lucy had finally had enough as she turned to her sister in law.
“Melanie, can I ask you something? Do you realize what’s going on here? We’re about to head into a situation where we could DIE. Where the guys could DIE. I know you and Claire have had to deal with this before but, frankly, it scares the hell out of me. But I’m still going to do it, and do you know why? Because it’s the right thing to do. As much as I hate to admit it, I’d rather die and see everyone else safe than live out the rest of my life. We have a responsibility here, so quit acting like you’re the last picked for kickball or something!”
“You get used to this after a while, Lucy. The first few times I was like you, but then I had to own up to the reality of the situation and make plans for what happened if Tom didn’t come home. I got the good job, and I worked hard at it, because I knew there might not be anyone looking out for me. You may think I’m being coldhearted, but I’m just being realistic.”
“It’s not ‘realistic’ to divorce yourself from having feelings!” Lucy shot back, “It’s not realistic to just be aloof and out of the way; that’s not what people do! People can only get better if we work together, if we help each other… and yes, people are going to get hurt, but sometimes you have to be willing to get hurt if you want things to get better!”
“Ladies!”
They both turned to the matriarch, arms akimbo on her middle-aged frame.
“We have a job to do, and we’re all going to do it. Right, Melanie?”
“…yes.”
“Good, now get over there and get hysterical. That’ll draw those meathead cops like flies on shit. Lucy, come with me.”
Melanie headed over to the fracas and immediately did well on her word, shouting and working up a few tears about the father of her unborn baby.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think she was legit,” Claire noted with a smile, “she shoulda gone to Broadway, eh?”
“I just can’t understand it,” Lucy shook her head, “I mean, here I am, one stiff breeze away from completely falling apart.”
“You get used to it. We all have our ways of dealing with it.”
“What if I don’t want to, Claire?”
“Well then, you shouldn’t have married a Graf boy, because I’ll tell you this… men in this family aren’t happy unless their fighting something, and if it isn’t some maniac with a bomb strapped to his chest it’ll be the next best thing: their boss, their local representative, the cop who gave ’em a ticket… if they couldn’t fight, they’d up and die… and that’s why we love ’em.”
“Even though they’re fuckin’ nuts?”
Lucy had never said that word before, but it was a night for new experiences.
“Damn right. Now come on, let’s go rescue those idiots.”
Lucy held her mother in law around the waist, closed her eyes, and tried to get that rush again.
“Fuckin’ nuts.”
The bubble formed perfectly, and the two of them pushed off in the vacuum to launch over the barricade, over the fences, and land inside the parking lot.
“That went surprisingly well!” Lucy remarked as the bubble rolled to a halt outside the front door.
“Hey now,” Claire turned to her, “who’s to say it’s not surprising? You got a good head on your shoulders, Lucy. Don’t let anyone make you feel any different.”
As the child of Pennsylvania Quakers, Lucy wasn’t used to such encouragement. She felt a nervous smile creep across her lips, even though her limbs were trembling.
“Thanks. So, what now?”
“Let me try something.”
Claire threw out her hands at the front hospital doors and, despite the powerful emergency locks, the doors buckled and fell open.
“Ha!” Claire tossed her silver hair triumphantly, “Mama’s still got it where it counts. Now, keep close to me, Lucy, and get that shield ready. I don’t want to distract myself too much scanning the hospital for the boys; I’m trying, but I can’t pinpoint them.”
“Try seeing if anyone is thinking about me. Use my name. It’s not one you hear much anymore.”
Claire closed her eyes for a moment as Lucy threw up a shield.
“Got ’em,” her eyes shot back open, “that way.”
The two headed off cautiously down the hallway, rings at the ready. The occasional emergency light flickered and barely lit the hallways. Here and there, they came across someone in a bed, sustained on emergency power, and as they got closer to the location they noticed more and more evidence that Dan had been using his super speed to scan the hallways.
“Oh, God…”
“Don’t go there, Lucy, not yet. Keep thinking about what’s ahead.”
“…okay…”
There was a sudden gust of wind in the sterile environment, and Lucy shielded them both from a rain of medical charts and sample cups. They didn’t have time to wonder about the contents of the cups as Dan stood in front of them, bewildered in the half light. He’d taken the precaution of putting a surgical mask over his face and a bandana on his head.
“This place isn’t safe, ladies, I’ve been telling everybody to pick a room… Mom?!
“How many times did I tell you not to run in the halls, son? Now come here…”
She grabbed him by his collar and brought him down to his knees, which made it possible for her to look the tall man in the eye.
“What are you idiots doing here without your rings? Tell me or I’ll find out myself!”
She brandished Tom’s ring in front of his face, and Dan took time out from laughing at his mother’s antics to reply.
“Oh, hey! That must be what I felt a few minutes ago… but that means she probably felt it, too, and in her state…”
“She?” Lucy asked, “do you mean Gina?”
“…yeah,” Dan replied finally.
“Where’s Ben and Tom?”
“Down the hall a bit. We… I’ll explain later. Let’s go.”
A few moments later, they were all met. Tom had gotten back into bed and was looking pale. Lucy and Ben rushed at each other, embracing.
“God, Luce… I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“I feel terrible that–”
“Ben! Just… drop it for now, okay? You’ll owe me later. For now, here’s your ring.”
Ben felt complete again as the titanium slid on his finger.
“Did it work for you?”
“Yes, it did… but I don’t want it, ever again.”
“I’m sorry, Luce…”
“I want this.”
She grabbed him by his shaggy mane and nearly bent him over backwards with a massive kiss. Once it was over, Ben, now upright again, was without words for a while.
“Jesus, Tom,” Claire remarked, “what did you do to yourself?”
“It was an accident,” Tom lied, “We’ll talk about it later.”
I’ve heard that already, Lucy thought to herself.
Yeah, there’s an echo in here, came Claire’s voice in her head. Lucy jumped a little, but Claire gave her a wink and continued.
“Dan, have you found any casualties?”
“Nothing yet… thank God.”
“Why do you think she’s here?”
“I’d assume a score. Max-Atom’s pills will mess you up something fierce.”
“And you three just happened to…”
“Someone up there hates us,” Ben offered.
“Dan, do you know where Gina is?” Tom asked. Dan, obviously uncomfortable, shook his head.
“Nothing yet. Mom, could you find her?”
“I’ll try. Tom, do you want your ring back?”
“Not in this state. I’m of no use.”
“Oh, horseshit. Stop brooding. Now…”
She closed her eyes and her fist again for a few moments, then re-opened.
“Downstairs. Looks like the morgue. I’m getting a mind full of chaos.”
“A morgue, great,” Ben rolled his eyes, “shall we, Dan?”
“Whoa, whoa, hold on!” Claire’s voice cut through, “She knows I can find her, she is NOT HAPPY… her mind’s focusing, she’s looking to escape!”
“No.”
And that was all that was said before Dan was gone in a gust so big it took Lucy and Ben both to keep Tom’s hospital bed from falling over.
“Dammit, Dan! Luce, I gotta go.”
“I know. You just get back to me, all right?”
Ben gave her a little kiss and a smile.
“All right.”
He formed a bubble and pushed off from a nearby wall, rolling down the hallway at a decent speed. Lucy and Claire turned their attention back to Tom, who was looking pale.
“Tom, what’s wrong?”
“Tom, say something!”
“…pain.”
Claire dug out the medical chart that had been blown across the room and found the name of the doctor. She scanned the hospital for it, but it came up surprisingly blank. When she attempted to find a name tag, she found a pool of blood. Dan was wrong; there had been casualties.
“Oh, God…”
She moved down the list to the admitting nurse, where she found a mind.
This is going to sound really weird, but I can read your thoughts, miss.
“Doesn’t sound all that weird tonight,” the sarcastic tone of the short blonde nurse came back, “It’s a fuckin’ freak convention in here.”
My son was admitted for abdominal pain. Can you get him any medication, please?
“How do I know you’re not the crazy bitch who just killed Dr. Bond for pills?!”
Did she seem like the polite type?
“Good point. I’ll be up in a second. Nothing more I can do for Dr. Bond down here…”
Thank you.
“No problem, crazy-voice-in-my-head. I just hope there’s actually someone there when I get there.”
Elsewhere, in the bowels of the hospital, Dan had found Gina. By continuing to tax Max-Atom’s power pills, her brain had begun to deteriorate even more, making her powers more potent, but also more erratic. Confused after being denied access to secure drug storage and having a moment of lucidity where she regretted killing the doctor, she found herself cornered in the morgue by her husband.
“Gina, please…”
“SHUT UP!” she shrieked in reply, “I’m not Gina! I am Madame Carnage, and I am here to make blood rain from the sky!”
“Gina, stop!” Dan stepped forward, tearing the mask off his face, “Gina, you’re not well. Please, let me help you…”
“Oh, that’s what it’s always been, hasn’t it?” her voice ladled on sarcasm, “I always needed help from you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t pass the mustard with your wonderful family, I’m sorry I–”
“Actually,” a voice rang out in the partial darkness, “I believe the phrase you’re looking for is either ‘cut the mustard’ or ‘pass muster,’ but I suppose it can be forgiven, given the circumstances.
“Smug prick!” Gina hurled a table into the darkness, and was rewarded when the faint light of green bent the table around Ben’s proximity.
“Dan, get her!”
“Ben, just… stay back, ok?”
“Dan! Don’t make me–”
“Ben, NO!”
In a blur, Dan had whipped over and removed Ben’s ring at super speed.
“Hey!”
“Gina, please… we don’t want to hurt you. We need to get you out of here, we need to get you somewhere where… we can find out what’s wrong, where we can make you better.”
“I DON’T WANT TO BE BETTER!” she screamed back, “I ALREADY AM BETTER THAN YOU!”
She launched herself at Dan who, without his armor, had to do his best to dodge her attacks.
“STOP TRYING TO FIX ME!” she bellowed “I AM STRONGER, FASTER, MORE POWERFUL… I AM PERFECTION!”
“No,” he said simply, and caught her hand, taking a moment to glance at the finger she’d earlier self-amputated. The wound looked like it had not healed properly, and was infected. She swung her other arm at him, but he caught that, too, neatly putting a firm amount of pressure on either of her feet with his own to lock her in place. She thrashed around and bit at him, trying to use her head as a weapon, but he kept her just out of reach.
“STOP! Stop! Just… just let me be strong… I’m strong… I’m…”
Her head hung low, with matted brown hair hanging in clumps. When she raised her head again, she was Gina once more, her eyes soft and flighty, her lip trembling.
“Dan? It hurts so much… please give me something to help the pain… I’m scared, Dan…please…”
“Gina, it will be all right.”
He leaned in and kissed her trembling lips, but recoiled quickly. He tasted blood, and he knew it wasn’t hers. This rejection saw Gina fade from her eyes and, with surprising strength, she broke free of Dan’s grip.

“YOU RUINED IT!!!”

Her scream was powerful enough to shatter all of the nearby windows and glass panels. With that, she scampered through a broken window, heedless of the broken glass, and was gone into the night. Ben ran over to check on his brother.
“You all right?”
“I’ll be fine. Probably bruised a rib, though… damn.”
“She’s gone, Dan.”
“I know! I just…”
“It’s OK. Let’s just…”
The thought of everything that had happened that night swam through his head. Ben panicked.
“Let’s just get out of here.”
The two made their way back to Tom’s room, where the short blonde nurse was just finishing giving him some medication.
“That oughtta help you sleep tonight. Give it a few days, nothing strenuous, you should be fine. As soon as you can get home, get some rest… I think I can say that for all of us.”
Ben appeared in the doorway, supporting Dan.
“She’s gone… for now,” Ben offered weakly.
“Aw, hell!” the nurse swore, “did that bitch get to you, too?”
“Only a little,” Ben said quickly, “he’ll be all right.”
“Aw, are you sure? I wouldn’t mind giving him a spongebath or two.”
Despite it all, Dan actually blushed a little bit.
“Damn, you’re cute,” she replied, “you sure you don’t need anything?”
“I had worse when I played football.”
“Okay, champ. Well,” she turned to the family, “this has been a crazy damn night, and if I ever see any of you again it’ll probably be too soon. Me, I’m probably going to drown my brain in a bottle or two of Redd’s and pretend like this never happened. I suggest you all do the same.”
She walked off to take care of other patients. Tom was already looking better, and he asked for his ring back.
“No one tell Mel we’re supposed to go home and drink, she’ll feel left out,” he attempted a bit of humor, “I suppose she’s waiting for us back home?”
“Um, no…” Claire replied, “she was our diversion to get into the hospital. She’s waiting in the car over on Dayton.”
“She’s out there?!” Tom’s face was instantly a mask of horror, “And Gina’s out there, too?!”
“Well, yeah, but–”
Ben didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence, and they were all suddenly back in Tom’s living room, miles away. Ben, Lucy, Claire, Dan, Tom, and Melanie, all standing between the sofa and television, like nothing had happened.
“What the hell?!” Melanie shouted, surprised to be suddenly standing.
“Jesus Christ, Tom…” even Dan was flabbergasted, “since when could you do THAT?”
“Since right now,” Tom winced, pale and sweating. Dan and Ben were supporting him, now, without their even knowing it.
“But hey!” Claire interjected, “what happened to my…?”
She glanced out the window to see the beige Impala in the driveway, where it had been before.
“car…”
“It’s all done. We’re safe. I even wiped the hospital records and the nurse’s memory.”
There was a bit of a gasp from Dan, but he nodded slightly and accepted it.
“We’ll have to put all our strength into finding out where Gina will strike… again…”
and it was then, finally, that the combination of pain of overexertion caused him to pass out. As they laid him down on the couch, Claire suggested the ladies help her make coffee and tea. Seizing the opportunity, but not before checking to make sure Tom really was out for the count, Dan turned and imparted darkly to Ben:
“I’ve never seen him do something like that, ever. I didn’t even know he could. I… I just don’t know what’s going on anymore.”

GenExt – Hospitality

“Are you sure they’ll be all right?” Lucy wondered after the boys hadn’t returned.
“I trust Tom won’t do anything stupid,” Melanie replied, looking down a little glumly at her chamomile tea, “besides, it’s nice to have those guys out of our hair for five minutes, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
“You two are lucky,” Clare said with a sigh, refilling Lucy’s wine glass, “when you’re on the farm, you gotta get used to being with that person twenty-four-seven, and I mean all the time. Especially with us, sometimes there wasn’t any help, and it was just me, Bob, and the cows… and sometimes the cows were better company.”
The two daughters-in-law replied at once, leading to an awkward jumble.
“I couldn’t deal with having Tom around that much!”
“I really wouldn’t mind being with Ben more.”
They stopped in the pall that fell afterward and exchanged looks. Lucy seemed embarrassed, while Melanie seems almost scandalized. She took the opportunity in the silence to plead her case.
“It’s like, we can’t be women like we used to be. I mean, look at me. I don’t think it’s wrong for me to say that I’m successful, and I like being successful… so should I feel bad just because I’m not a housewife for my man?”
“Of course not, Melanie,” Clare refilled her own wine, “but that doesn’t mean everyone wants that sort of life. I never thought I’d go from burning bras to running after heifers, so I’m all over the board on this. Lucy…”
Clare smiled at her youngest daughter-in law.
“Why don’t you tell us what you think?”
“I wish I didn’t have to work as much as I do,” the wine seemed to be loosening Lucy’s tongue, “honestly, all I’d ever want to do is be at home, raise kids… I know it sounds silly, but I grew up in the city, and we never really had a garden. I’ve always wanted to know how you can things… y’know, like pickles and beans and stuff.”
Melanie tried to hide her bemusement in her teacup.
“I know! I know it’s stupid,” Lucy shrunk down in her chair, “but it makes me feel like I’m helping people when I bring in cookies to work, or when I make Ben his favorite dinner… he’s been under so much stress lately, I’m just trying to keep him happy…”
“That’s not your job, you know.”
Melanie set down her cup and fixed a gaze on her sister-in-law. Lucy found herself firing back.
“I was always taught that marriage is a partnership.”
“Partnership only goes so far.  There are things Tom knows I won’t do for him and he’s accepted it.”
“I’m sorry…” Lucy said finally, “but that’s terrible.”
This time, the silence was outright hostile. Lucy took another swig of wine and continued.
“There comes a time when you have to go outside your comfort zone, do things you wouldn’t want to do, or promised yourself you wouldn’t do, because you care for that person. Do you think I like that Ben spends his evenings out running around with Dan? Of course not, but I know if he didn’t…”
“And when does that stop becoming your problem?” Melanie fired back.
“Never! Because that’s what love is! It’s not just a contract or an agreement, it’s not just a situation where you look at what you can get out of it!”
“You’re so naïve.”
“You know what?” Lucy slammed down her second glass of wine, already emptied, which was about 150% more than she has in a typical sitting, “I’d rather be naïve. So what if we’re poor. So what if we don’t have a big, fancy house. I’d rather still believe in the good in people.”
“Oh, for… can we just stop talking about this, please? For the first time in weeks I’ve got some time to myself! Do we really have to talk about the men when they’re not even here?”
“I don’t suppose we have to,” Lucy cracked a wicked smile, “I could ask you about the ethics charges my boss is filing against your boss.”
Melanie again made faces into her tea, while Clare sighed and tried to diffuse the situation.
“Come on, Mel,” Lucy prodded, “I’d love to hear what the company has been circulating around to justify intimidation of workers and retaliatory firing of anyone who even breathes the word ‘union,’ to say nothing of the wage theft charges–”
“I think it’s about time for Jeopardy,” she muttered, turning on a small, flatscreen television that was built under a kitchen cabinet. Almost immediately, the room was bathed in desperate sounding music and blood red graphics as a man with a receding hairline tried his best to sound sincere.
“…has been reported at Bryn Mawr Hospital. Reports coming from cell phones of people trapped inside the hospital say a lone woman calling herself ‘Madame Carnage’ has sealed the building and disabled all of the emergency exits, and plans to start killing. According to eyewitness accounts she is calling out Nevermind and the Blue Traveller, former costumed heroes who have yet to report to the scene, along with a third unnamed man who is said to be their brother. Nevermind and the Blue Traveller, you may remember, were noted for their illegally heroic deeds in the mid to late 90s–”
Claire turned off the television with a jolt. All three of them stared at each other for a moment, and then there was a flurry of action: coats came on, shoes were hastily forced into, and most of the second bottle of wine was left, uncorked, on the kitchen table.
“Damn fools,” Claire hissed, “probably snuck off and thought we wouldn’t notice!”
She walked briskly over to the stairs and shouted up.
“BOB!”
There was no answer. She shouted again.
“We’re going out! There’s pot pies in the freezer!”
Again, no answer. Claire took this as usual and ushered them out the door.
On their way out to the door, Lucy seemed concerned.
“Why was he sleeping upstairs, anyway? Is he okay?”
“It’s a long story,” Claire shot back darkly, “and we don’t have time, let’s go.”
“Wait!”
They both turned to see Melanie looking in shock and horror at her own dining room table, where Ben and Tom’s rings sat, discarded.
“Holy shit,” Melanie hissed.
“Why on Earth…” Lucy walked over to examine them, “why would they… Claire?”
“I have no damned idea,” Claire shook her silver head, “but they’ll sure need them where we’re going. Grab ’em and let’s go.”
“Well…”
Melanie again halted proceedings.
“They said the hospital was closed, didn’t they? On the news? What if we have to use the rings to get in?”
Claire pursed her lips and nodded.
“Good idea. I’ll take Tom’s. Lucy, take Ben’s.”
“How come I don’t get one?”
“Aren’t you pregnant?!”
“Yeah…” Melanie muttered. The three of them headed out and piled into a beige sedan belonging to the matriarch. As they got on their way, Lucy abruptly turned to Claire.
“How did you know I could use Ben’s ring?”
‘What?”
“Ben’s ring,” Lucy continued, “it’s not a super-ring-thingy… it’s hooked up to a transmitter. How did you know…?”
“How did I know he convinced you to get one? Because my baby boy is a worrywart, and I know he probably planned for something like this.”
“Oh.”
“At the very least,” Claire focused on the road and felt a shade drawn over her shoulders, “I know he would have wanted you to be protected if he ever got killed.”
“It always amazes me… no,” Lucy shook her head and found herself smiling despite it all, “no, it confuses me all to hell… how he can be so cynical like that one minute, and the next he’s, well…”
“Naïve?” Melanie offered from the back seat.
“Yeah, that…” Lucy shrunk back down in her chair. Claire felt her shade lift a little as she tried to change the subject.
“You know how to use that thing?” she asked, pointing to the ring that usually sat on Ben’s corpulent hand, and now almost fit on Lucy’s thumb.
“I was told it takes concentration, hard thought; the harder the thought, the harder the shell. Ben said, well…”
“Well, what?” Melanie asked from the backseat.
“Well, he said he usually thinks of two things to get it going: how much he loves me, or…”
Claire could see Lucy’s cheeks turning red, and Melanie leaned forward as much as she could to get a look.
“Or what?” Melanie grinned.
“Or the last time we had sex.”
They all shared a small chuckle, but inside each of their minds was the worry of what lay before them. Meanwhile, inside the hospital, the men were planning the situation.
“Well, by now the news is probably all over this, which mean our wives…” he glanced at Dan, “know about what’s going on. If I know Mom…”
“She ran out the door with Melanie and Lucy in tow,” Dan said with a smirk.
“I just hope Lucy found my ring. She can use it, if she has to.”
“But I thought the ring…” Dan’s voice trailed off as he put it together.
“Little brother, you’re kinda fucked up.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Well, that’s all well and good for now,” Tom grunted from his bed, “but we have a maniac to find.”
He hopped down from the bed in the partial darkness and winced a little. Dan went to help him up, and Ben was afraid to touch him. He threw Dan’s arm off with a snarl and stood up straight, obviously fighting the pain.
“Let’s each take a hallway. Ask the people if they’ve seen her. They’ll figure out soon enough we’re the ones she’s looking for, so if they’ve seen her, they’ll want to give you up. Once you’re sure the floor is clean, go up to the next one.”
“Um, I don’t want to interrupt, but…”
Tom threw a glare at his youngest brother, but Ben swallowed his fear and continued.
“Dan’s still got his run. Super speed, right?”
“Fast enough, yeah. It won’t be pretty, though… physics.”
There was a pregnant, uncomfortable pause as they waited for Tom to give the order, in name only.
“Do it. Just don’t be seen.”
Clutching his fist tight, Dan sped off, sending papers, clipboards, and other medical equipment scattering through the hall. Ben turned back to his oldest brother.
“You should probably get back on the bed…”
“Not while she’s still around,” he shot back, “I can’t defend myself lying down.”
“Tom, I can…” his voice trailed off. He could feel the unpleasantness radiating off his older brother. They sat there for a moment in silence, before Ben felt a familiar sort of prickling feeling going up his spine. He glanced over at Tom, whose expression was not one of familiarity.
“Did you just feel something?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Ben agreed, “it felt like…”
“Is that what it feels like when I scan someone?” Tom asked.
“Kinda, yeah.”
“I’ll have to fix that. Too obvious.”
“Tom, does this mean the ladies are here?”
“It means their close, probably. Depending on who’s using the ring. Mel or your wife might be able to activate it a low-level sweep close to the hospital. If Mom was using it… she designed the ring, she knows how it works, and she might be able to pinpoint our location with a deeper search–”
Another wave went through both of their minds, but this one was more akin to a two-by-four upside the head. When it passed, Ben and Tom heard the faint moaning of hospital patients who had experienced it as well. They looked at each other and spoke in unison.
“That’s Mom.”

GenExt – Gut Check

The rest of the meal passed with general good feeling and backslapping for the eldest Graf boy, but through it all Ben could not bring himself to put on a sufficiently happy face. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind, and none of them good. What did this mean for the future of Nevermind? What did it mean about Tom’s own future? He saw his brother chortling with a surprisingly animated version of his father, and both of them seemed… unnatural. Bob was suddenly effusive, and so was Tom, a far cry from his usual stoicism. Something about Tom’s happiness was too sudden, too beaming, unlike anything Ben had ever seen.
But, he countered his own line of thinking, doesn’t Tom have all right in the world to be that happy? He’s got a steady job, and so does his wife, and they live in this quaint suburban paradise, yes… it would only make sense that the baby would come next, wouldn’t it? Yet something about this seemed off; there was a desperation in Tom’s smile. This wasn’t the Tom that had joined, and not quelled, the WTO riots in Seattle. This wasn’t the Tom that psychokinetically held back an exploding truck of fertilizer in Oklahoma City. This wasn’t the Tom that had pushed himself to the limits to locate fragments of psychic energy at Ground Zero, working undercover to connect families to bodies, keepsakes or, in some cases, particularly noteworthy piles of ash. This Tom… who was this Tom?
And it was then Ben caught a glint in the warm dining room light from Tom’s ring, and it occurred to him that his brother may have heard every single word of that. After his parents had left, Ben knew there was no doubt whatsoever that he had. The ladies were in the kitchen, chatting and cleaning up, leaving the three brothers at a tense stand-off in the living room. Bob & Clare had barely cleared the driveway before Tom rounded on his youngest brother, hitting him a glare so dark it made Ben take a few steps back.
“You were very rude tonight,” Tom said slowly. Ben quailed under his older brother’s stare, but something inside him kept his eyes fixed on Tom’s piercing blue eyes. Abruptly, as if he had felt he made his point, Tom’s stare relented, and again Ben saw that fear that had so irked him before. It gave him a nervous, shaking strength that caused words to leap from him, uncontrollably.
“Well, you know… you were pretty rude yourself. It’s not like you didn’t know I’d just lost my job on account of bullshit, and it’s not like you didn’t know I’ve been having a completely horrible week. I know when you’re inside my head, Tom, I can feel it. I know you know I was going completely nuts this week… but you decided to ignore it. Instead of helping me, you decided to pretend like it wasn’t even there. And you throw this party, and you smile and drink in all of this attention, all the while knowing that I’m dying inside. You take your perfect little life and you don’t even try to hide that you’re rubbing it in my face, because I know it makes you feel good.
Dan, feeling odd in the role of peacemaker, tried his best.
“Tom, did you know?”
Tom didn’t answer. Ben kept going.
“Look, I know you guys were poor before I was born. Like, dirt poor. I know the government shut down the supers, and they seized all of Ultro’s assets, and you guys had to make do on a farm in the 80s, and I know that sucked… but for God’s sake! You’ve got the house in the suburbs, and the beige car, and all the trimmings and trappings… Christ, it’s a shocker you didn’t have the baby sooner. I mean, that’s the next step in the equation, right? And that’s how you’re living your life now, Tom, right? Just living it out like a normal person, right by the book? I think you, of all people should know that no one in this family will ever be considered normal. In fact, if I remember correctly you and Dan got bullied a lot for that, right? Yeah: you were poor, and your clothes looked like crap, so the other kids picked on you. So now, you’ve got the clothes and the house and the car, and now you’re the one picking on me. Interesting how that works. Tell me, Tom… how does it feel to become everything you used to hate?”
Tom took a step forward and put the stare back on, but by now it was too late.
“Don’t even think that’s gonna work on me now, big brother. I’m not the scared little boy you can intimidate into silence anymore. I’m not the fat little bundle of nerves I used to be, and you know what? Back then I idolized you. I wanted to be like you. You used to be the coolest goddamn guy on the planet… now you’re… you’re fucking Ward Cleaver, man! What the hell happened to you? This is pathetic!”
“People change, Ben. C’mon…”
“This isn’t about that, Dan!” Ben’s voice shot up an octave, “this isn’t change. This is hiding, Tom. You’re hiding out here in this bungalow, you’re hiding at the factory with your worshippers, and you’re hiding here now with this kid, aren’t you? You just wanna be normal, well fuck you, you can’t be!
All your friends at the factory who drink in every word you say like it’s gospel, like you’re some damn suburban Buddha. The dropouts and burnouts you work with who idolize you, because you seem to smart to them, don’t you? I bet you don’t even have to control their minds to make them like you, do you? I bet it’s easy enough to manipulate them without the ring… but maybe… maybe it’s not your factory pals… maybe it’s someone else?”
“Ben, Jesus!” Dan was visibly shaking, “Stop it!”
“Do you use the ring on Melanie, Tom? Do you use the ring to make sure she doesn’t run away? Is this whole little life you’ve created a part of the ring, Tom? I mean, you keep saying you wanna quit, you keep saying it’s too hard… but I never see you take the ring off, Tom. I think you like using it, when it suits you. Tell me, Tom, when does it suit you? Does it suit you with Melanie–”
That’s enough!” Tom cried, and a wave of psychic energy sent Ben flying across the room and sprawling on the floor. There was an awful silence then, as the ladies in the kitchen finally heard the conversation spill over and were too afraid to move. The silence was finally broken as Ben got to his feet, ignoring the pain, and laughing.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Deep down, you can’t handle it if someone starts asking questions, can you? You’ve had this power so long, you’re so used to everyone agreeing with you, so when someone doesn’t, they’re rude and you bully them, huh? Is that it?”
“Ben, I don’t want to hurt you,” Tom threatened.
“Well, maybe I want you to.”
“Oh, God no…” Dan murmured, shrinking into a chair.
“Is that what you really want, Ben?” Tom straightened up slightly, showing off a wickedly powerful, wiry frame underneath a t shirt.
“Yeah… maybe it is. Maybe I want to have my outside match the inside, so I look as shitty as I feel.”
Ben knew he’d never win a fight with his older brother, especially with the rings on. Ben was getting better at resisting, but there’s still no way he’d even land a blow without Tom knowing about it.
“If that’s the way you want it,” Tom said, cracking his knuckles.
“No rings, though.”
“What?”
Ben cracked a desperate smile.
“C’mon, I heard all the time about the scraps you and Dan used to get in. I was always too big as a kid, and I idolized you guys too much to take a swing at you back then… so, let’s do this.”
He took off his titanium ring and set it on a side table. Tom did the same with his gold plated one. They both adopted a fighting stance, but Ben quickly interrupted.
“Wait, hold on… are we gonna have rules for this?”
Tom straightened up, his fertile mind running through possibilities.
“I figured it would be a rather standard set—”
Without warning, Ben planted his right foot and drove his left, full force, into Tom’s stomach. Caught off guard, Tom collapsed to the floor, whereupon Ben immediately clapped on a blood choke.
“Here are the rules, Tom,” he hissed into his brother’s ear, as Tom gasped for breath, “these are the rules I have to play by, every goddamn day. These are the rules I’m stuck with, because lazy people like you, hiding people like you, didn’t stop things before the whole country went down the crapper, and now people like me are stuck fighting for the scraps. We can’t afford to play by your rules, brother, we can’t play it cool like you always do, because we weren’t as lucky as you were… so we don’t play by any rules. You broke all the rules, and now you have to deal with it… how do you like that?”
Tom didn’t respond. He couldn’t. Dan finally had to pull them apart, and with his ring on he could hold them both at arms length, appalled.
What the fuck is wrong with you?!” he shouted at Ben as Tom coughed back to life. Ben snarled at him like a wounded animal.
I just couldn’t take it, Dan! I couldn’t take it anymore! I work my ass off and get nothing, while he just lays back and has everything fall in his fucking lap! It’s not fair, Dan!”
“Life isn’t fair, Ben! For God’s sake, look who you’re talking to!”
That seemed to calm Ben down enough, but it was about then they noticed Tom had coughed up a little blood.
“Oh, shit,” Dan hissed, “Fuck! We… we’d better get him to a hospital. Ben, I’ll load him in your car. You tell the girls we’re leaving!”
In a flash, Ben was alone in the living room. Regret began to set in, but it was fighting inside his mind with a sense of righteous fury that made a very convincing case. In the midst of all this came Lucy’s voice through the mental fog.
“Honey! What’s going on! Is everyone okay?”
Regret won out, and Ben lied.
“Everything’s fine, hon. We’re just going to go… talk. Maybe have a drink. We’ll be back soon, okay?”
“…Okay…”
“Okay.”
Both of the ladies voice their support, Lucy a little less assuredly. Ben bounded into the driveway and sped off toward the hospital.
“Is he okay, Dan?” he couldn’t stop himself from asking.
“I dunno. That was a pretty good kick you gave him. Might have ruptured something.”
“Hurts like hell,” came a weak voice from the backseat of the Dodge. Ben immediately took his eyes off the road and turned around.
“Tom? Shit, I’m sorry, I…”
“Shut up,” Tom muttered, “and keep your eyes on the road. I can’t steer the car for you. No ring.”
“Aw, shit, mine’s gone, too!” Ben moaned as they turned toward the hospital, “Tom, I’m really-”
“I said shut up!” Tom growled, obviously in pain, “It’s how you felt. Don’t apologize for it.”
They checked him in to the emergency room and waited. Ben, the adreanaline now gone, was beside himself with worry.
“I can’t believe I just did that.”
“Me either,” Dan muttered, “Over thirty years, and I couldn’t ever knock him down.”
“It was cowardly,” Ben gritted his teeth, “I cheated.”
“Hey, read your Sun Tzu,” Dan offered, “cheating doesn’t have just one definition.”
“God, I just can’t believe…”
Ben hung his head in his hands among the old copies of Time and Taste of Home.
“To be perfectly honest,” Dan said quietly, “I think it’s been long overdue. I could just never figure out a way to get that damn ring off him before.”
Ben looked up at him, surprised.
“Oh, yeah,” Dan heaved a sigh, “We fought a lot. And I mean we as in Nevermind and the Traveller. Bet that never made it into the comics. The worst one was, oh… Sophomore year of college for me. Got dumped by a girl, found out she was cheating on me… oddly enough, it was with one of my villains.”
“Wait…” Ben’s mind lit up, “That one actually did make it into the comics.”
“Of course it did,” Dan sighed, “but I bet they didn’t put in how I mauled the fucker.”
“You… you killed him?
“Oh yeah. It wasn’t even hard, either. Luckily, when the guy who stole your girlfriend is threatening to blow up Manhattan… you get some leeway with how you deal with the situation.”
“I thought you guys didn’t kill.”
“Don’t believe everything you read,” Dan’s voice grew hard and bitter, “It was after that… I dunno, I guess I wasn’t satisfied. I was raging in this, well, this guy’s lair, and I caused some nasty damage. Did you know New York has a bunch of old abandoned subway lines? I found a few. Finally, Tom had to, well… he had to put me down, sorta. He got into my head, and he showed me a guy that had killed one of his girlfriends, back when I was in high school. She was collateral damage, but still… Tom went after him, snuffed him out like a candle… but as the guy was fading, Tom saw what was in his mind… and there wasn’t much, y’know? The guy wasn’t really all there, and what was there…”
Dan sniffed a little and brushed away a tear.
“Well, Tom realized there had to be a better way… and that’s when he shut down. That’s when the mask really went on, if you know what I’m saying.”
God,” Ben moaned, “in this business, I can barely tell what the masks are anymore.”
A short, pretty young nurse came up to them and asked them to follow.
“So,” she spoke in a very frank manner as the Graf boys followed her bobbing blonde ponytail, “Tom tells me you guys got a little too much into a backyard football game, huh?”
The knot in Ben’s stomach felt like it had finally overtightened, and burst. It felt better, but not good.
“Yep,” Dan flashed the newsman smile, “Ol’ Banjo here got him good.”
“I bet,” the nurse mused, “He’s a bit of a brick.”
“Back in the day, they woulda called him…”
Dan looked over at his brother with a smug grin.
“A Big Six.”
Ben covertly flipped him the bird as the nurse kept walking.
“Huh. Never heard of that one. Anyway, he’s got a nasty footprint on his shirt…”
“He was blocking a punt!” Ben blurted out too quickly. The nurse sighed a bit as they turned down another corridor. Clearly, she did not care about anything but the patient’s health. She was business, all five feet of her.
“Uh-huh. Anyway, it’s nothing serious, but we’d like to keep him over night to make sure it doesn’t get worse.”
“I’ll call the girls, then,” Dan began, but Ben cut him off quickly and offered to do it. Dan gave his brother a skeptical, sideways glance, but they had reached the hospital bed before he had a chance to go further.
“Here he is. Need anything, just hit the button.”
She stood still for a moment, a pillar of strength in Penn State scrubs, waiting for any further questions.
Christ, you three all look alike.”
And then she was gone. Dan and Ben both approached the bed, where Tom looked as comfortable as he could.
“What did you tell Melanie?” he asked.
“I said we were going out for a drink,” Ben said after a sigh.
“Oh, you shit.” Dan glared at him.
“It’s all right,” Tom interjected, “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, either. Mel would go apeshit if she knew I was fighting again.”
There was something about the way he said “fighting” that lead Ben to believe it meant more than just fraternal combat. Then, with a start, he finally realized that Tom couldn’t read his thoughts. It was surprisingly liberating.
“Still, Tom. I feel…”
Ben honestly didn’t know what to put next. There was an awkward silence before Dan volunteered a word.
“Well, it sounds like you guys have some things to talk about. I’ll leave you to it. Meanwhile, I think I’m going to go hit on that nurse…”
“Uhhh…” Ben still couldn’t put words together as Dan turned to leave, alarmingly more like his old self than he had been in months.
“Oh! That reminds me,” Dan said, quickly turning back around, “Did one of the nurses look like my psycho ex-wife?”
“You’re just seeing things,” Tom grumbled, “Just go.”
He left with a peculiar spring in his step, and Ben wondered aloud.
“What the hell…”
“Dan always does better when he has something to preoccupy his thoughts,” Tom muttered, “Blondes are a safe bet.”
There was another awkward silence as Ben tried to summon the courage to speak. There was still a war going on inside his mind: on one side, regret and guilt over losing his temper. It was first grade all over again, and he was the biggest kid on the playground fighting back against tiny bullies. His mother’s words still ringing in his ears: You have to be careful. Don’t fight them. You’re bigger than them. You’ll hurt them. You have to find another way.
On the other side was the rage that seemed to fuel him. It’s what inspired him to craft the ring, it’s what gave him power, made him feel like he had a purpose and was succeeding in the world… and the world, that world that wanted so badly to break him just for trying to fight back, trying to find another way to get ahead other than being a cheat or a liar… and he wanted to win that fight. He didn’t mind busting a few heads if it meant finally getting the life that the world was trying to keep from him… but was that really the only way?
“Tom, I–”
He was cut off by shock as all of the lights in the hospital went off, quickly replaced by emergency lights and generator power. Almost immediately, the hospital PA system came on, and a shrieking, familiar laughter made a cacophonous noise throughout the entire building. Both Ben and Tom made ready to fight, but then with dismay they felt the staggering emptiness on their ring fingers.
“HOW WONDERFUL TO RUN INTO YOU THREE HERE TONIGHT! I THINK I’LL TAKE THIS OCCASION TO LOCK DOWN THE HOSPITAL AND… HAVE MY WAY WITH THE INHABITANTS!”
The laughter pealed out again, and Ben gritted his teeth against the shrieking sound. Suddenly, her voice descended into a husky sotto voce, and it became clear she was enjoying the situation.
“Nevermind, Blue Traveller, and dear, dear Baby Brother… I’ll kill one person in this hospital every eight minutes… FIND ME IF YOU CAN!”

GenExt – Time goes on

As the week wound itself out, Ben became a dervish of activity. With an updated resume and renewed purpose, he set out for jobs in the area, only to be told at the buildings to apply online. Even the temp agency wouldn’t take his information. By Friday, Ben was scouring the internet for jobs  by day and “moonlighting” by night, and filling the gaps inbetween with desperate catnaps and far too much coffee. He was becoming irritable from the self-imposed lack of sleep, frustrated from silence on the job hunt, and started to suffer from a nasty rash of headaches. By Friday, Lucy had had enough.
“Go back to sleep,” she said curtly, coming out of the shower, “or go to sleep, if you haven’t yet.”
“Don’t wanna,” Ben grunted, staring intently at a laptop’s glowing screen, the only light source in the tiny apartment’s living room.
“You look like crap, and you sound worse. What time did you get in last night?”
” ‘Bout four.”
“Fun night?” she asked, pouring herself some of Ben’s coffee.
“A mugger, three domestic abuse calls, and a speeder on 241.”
“What are you up to now?”
“Reading the news.”
Lucy walked over behind her husband, still in a towel, glancing over his shoulder.
“I don’t know if your brother would call that site ‘news,’ honey…”
“I can trust Dan’s reports, but as for the other stations and those other schmucks… they don’t know what’s really going on out there.”
“Y’know what else they don’t know?”
She threw open her towel, beaming.
“They don’t know what’s going on over here, either!”
Ben finally looked away from the laptop, and his face was like that of a starving man.
“Ohh, I wish you didn’t have to go to work right now…”
“Please!” Lucy scoffed, heading into the bedroom to get dressed, “You’re so worn out I bet you’d pass out before we got to the good parts.”
“Nuh-uh. Just gimme some more coffee.”
“No more coffee for you,” Lucy took a sip, “this is the last of it.”
“I’ll make more.”
“Honey…”
Lucy stepped out of the little bedroom, now clad in an ugly purple polyester polo shirt with the Lancaster County logo on it. It was the sort of shirt that looked the same on everyone: bad, but Ben still cast a hungry eye on his wife as she approached him.
“You really should get some more sleep.”
“I can’t, Luce,” Ben shook his head, “It’s like I’m a shark: if I stop moving, I’ll die. If I can just fill my head with enough thoughts and news and stuff to do… I won’t think about what happened on Monday and I won’t get pissed.”
“Yeah, but you don’t need to take it out on yourself. It’s their fault and it’s their stupid rule. You were a good worker, they’re just assholes.”
“I coulda done more,” Ben said with a sigh, “I coulda been more friendly, I coulda gone out drinking with them or something…”
“Ben, I know you…”
Lucy knelt down next to him and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“Even if you did go out with them, you wouldn’t fit in. You’re just… you’re a weirdo, Ben. Your whole family is.”
A thousand images of costumed vigilantism flashed through Ben’s mind, and he gave a little nod.
“But that’s why I love you, you little weirdo.”
They shared a smile in the dimly lit living room, and Ben placed his aching head against Lucy’s, drawing strength from her coolness and from the intoxicating scent of her hair… not just her shampoo, but her own essence as well, a scent that was tied to a billion moments of joy in his mind.
“Well, sharky,” Lucy said finally, standing up and shouldering her purse, “I’ve gotta go. Promise me you’ll get a little sleep today; I don’t want you looking like crap at your brother’s tonight.”
“Ungh,” Ben replied, remembering his brother’s forceful invitation from earlier in the week.
“And take a shower. You smell like old beer.”
“Yeah, funny story,” Ben muttered into the laptop screen, “one of the beaters last night, he musta been pretty wasted because he thought a cup of Milwaukee’s Best would somehow be an effective projectile weapon.”
“Eeew,” Lucy pulled a face as she unlocked the apartment front door, “Now, get over here and kiss your wife goodbye.”
“If I don’t, do you have to stay here?” Ben shot a look over the laptop, but Lucy shot him down with another look. He made to get up from the dining room table, but paused abruptly with a gasp.
“You okay?” Lucy asked as her husband staggered slightly to the door.
“Speeder last night. Hit me into the side of the Amtrak station. Got a bubble up… but I still smacked pretty good.”
“Awwww, that’s my good little warrior,” Lucy cooed, kissing him on the forehead, “you sure you’re OK?”
“I’ll take a couple ibuprofen before I lay down.”
“Good. I can’t have you crippled for the kids.”
“Ha ha…” Ben laughed drily. Lucy chewed her lip a little bit and spoke again.
“Also, if you’d like… there’s a job open down at the county shop. It’s not much… but you’ll be doing something… and we could use the money…”
“Would I get to see you more often?”
“I suppose so,” Lucy beamed.
“Then it sounds worth it. Better than sitting around here waiting for the phone to not-ring.”
“Great! I’ll ask them about it, and we can talk about it before we go out tonight, okay?”
“Sure thing, honey.”
“Love you!”
“Love you, too. Take care.”
“You too!”
They kissed, smiled, and Lucy went off to work. Ben shuffled back to the laptop and dove again back into the internet news. Before he knew it, it was after noon. He nibbled a piece of toast and headed into the shower. He noted, with a little satisfaction, that since he began “moonlighting” officially he had managed to lose a fair amount of weight. He filled the tub with hot water and crawled inside, trying to soothe his aching back.
On impulse, he slid his head and shoulders under the water with his eyes closed, and imagined for a moment what it might have looked like from above, serene and peaceful under the clear, shimmering water. He listened to the water rush around his ears, feeling comfort in the sensation of water around him, letting himself slip away. It was weightless, careless, and for a moment it was blissful, being away from it all, almost away from existence itself…
He sat back up in the tub with a start, breathing heavily, gulping life back into his lungs. Something very strange had just come over him, and he never wanted to feel like that again. It had been a similar calm to the feeling he felt with his wife, but there was also that feeling of falling away that sickened him. As he finished up his shower, he resolved to work even harder toward that the Lucy feeling and to try all he could to banish the bathtub feeling from his mind. When Lucy came home, she found him shaven, shellacked, and dressed for the dinner party and surprisingly chipper.
“Well, don’t you look nice.”
“Not as nice as you, darling!”
She glanced down at the polo and gave a snort.
“Yeah, right.”
He walked forward and squeezed her in a massive hug.
“I missed you so much!” he whispered into her ear. She responded with a giggle of her own and hugged back.
“Did you get some sleep?” she asked when he finally let her go.
“A little,” he said back with a grin, “I’m trying something new. I’m trying to be happier.”
“Well, just don’t go Stepford on me.”
“Nah. That’s against my programming.”
“Y’know,” Lucy mused as she headed into the bedroom, tossing off the polo, “if you said you were a robot, I wouldn’t be all that surprised.”
“Technically, I’d probably be a cyborg…”
She turned on him, still without a shirt, and shot him a glare.
“Shut up and kiss me.”
“Yes ma’am!”
Later that night, they were sharing that secret smile that married couples do from time to time as they sat around the large dining room table at Tom’s suburban Harrisburg home. The entire family was in attendance, with family patriarch Bob Graf occupying a space at the head of the table. Since his run in with Dr. Holocaust, the last of his super powers had finally drained from him and, after a long hospital stay, the man once known as Ultro was a shell of his former self. He sat slumped in the chair, wheezing heavily and groaning with every exertion. Ben noted with some worry that his condition had seemed to worsen since the last time he saw him, and he pulled his mother aside almost immediately to acquire about his father’s health.
“The doctors can’t find anything,” she shrugged, “it’s like he’s just giving up. I try to get him up and moving, go places, do something… but all he does now is sit in the chair in front of the TV. It’s like he’s completely changed now… I don’t really know what to do.”
“Is it something… mental?”
“He’s refusing to see a doctor for that, specifically. He keeps saying he ‘isn’t crazy,’ so he doesn’t need it.”
“Oh, for crying out…”
That new information seemed to weigh heavily on Ben’s mind during the dinner, as Bob picked at his food and ate very little. Ben seemed to notice that many others at the table seemed not to notice Bob’s odd behavior: Dan looked deflated by the appearance of his two brothers with their wives, and as the meal came to a close Ben understood why.
Tom seemed preoccupied as host of the house, making sure everyone had enough to eat and drink. At the end of the meal, he stood up with purpose and made his announcement to the family.
“Thanks for coming, everyone. We, uh…”
Tom wasn’t his normal collected self; he seemed awkward, possibly even frightened. It was not a side of him that Ben could remember seeing, well, ever. Ben’s mind was already racing, going through a list of possible announcements that could merit this sort of a family meeting. Tom wasn’t usually one for pomp and circumstance, and he usually kept very close to himself on personal matters. Come to thin k of it, he usually kept close to himself on public matters, too. This must have been something very important to warrant coming out of his shell for a dinner and announcement like this. By the time Tom finally said it, Ben had narrowed it down to renewing of vows, some sort of big trip, or most probably…
“We wanted everyone here to tell you this, the whole family, and, uh… well, we’re going to have a baby.”

GenExt – Adulthood

And it only got worse from there.
As Ben pulled in to work, he heaved a sigh. A few hours ago, he was doing battle with his maniacal, murdering sister-in-law. In a few minutes, he would be just another guy with a headset trying to help people hundreds of miles away set up software… with emphasis on the word “trying.” It was 11:53, so he still had two minutes before they would let him clock in at work. He made his way across the parking lot with feet that felt like lead, his heart aching in his chest and his shoulders slumped.
He wasn’t tired, far from it: this morning he had felt more alive than anything, but now… was this life? Was this what he had been trying for all those years? Was this what he had worked so hard in school for, been teased and spit on and had things thrown at him for?  Was this what working hard in college, not going to parties, always getting his work in on time… was this what it got him? A temp job telling someone in Idaho to turn it off and back on again? He knew he was capable of so much, but he didn’t have the money to start his own business… he wouldn’t even know where to start, and then there was Lucy… he had to provide for Lucy, no matter what.
Ben punched in and made to turn down the hallway that led to the hive of sad people on headsets, but he was stopped almost immediately by an obese man in a garish Hawaiian shirt with thinning, gray hair and narrow-set, docile brown eyes.
“Hi, uh, Ben…” he seemed afraid of something, which was far from his usual jovial attitude.
“Hi, Mike,” Ben said off-handedly to his supervisor, “is something wrong?”
“Well, uh… yes. Could you step over here, please?”
He beckoned to an open door into one of the spare rooms that they used for training or meetings. A sense of dread began to wash over Ben as he stepped inside and heard the door latch close. There was barely room for the two large men to sit comfortably inside it, which did not assuage Ben’s worries. Immediately, his mind ran through a million possibilities: downsizing, lay-offs, outsourcing… or maybe they finally figured out that he broke through their Internet filter in his first month and had been browsing most of his days away? It’s not like he didn’t still have a passable resolution rate on his calls, anyway.
“Ben… you can’t be in here today,” Mike finally said after a long bout of labored breathing.
“Why?” Ben replied cautiously.
“Well, we’re… uh… we’re gonna hafta let you go.”
He knew it was coming, but there was something odd that cushioned the thunderbolt strike to the pit of his stomach. Something… relieving.
“May I ask why?”
“You missed work yesterday,” Mike responded automatically, “That’s one too many, we have to terminate.”
“That was my last one. I had one more day.”
“No, you had already used up your days.”
“When?”
“Ummm…” Mike pulled out a small, torn off sheet of notebook paper from his breast pocket, “The last one was used up February 18th.”
“What, during the blizzard?! The police were telling people that they would get arrested if they even TRIED to drive.”
“We had twenty people make it in to work that day, regardless.”
Ben began to grow agitated.
“I live forty-five minutes away… you’re really going to count that?”
“We have to.”
“So you’re going to count the day I couldn’t drive, and I couldn’t even get out of my apartment building due to the snowfall… you’re going to say I should have been to work that day?”
“Uhhh… yes,” Mike was beginning to sweat more than usual.
“I can’t believe this. You know my resolution rates are excellent, right?”
“Yes…”
“And you know that, when the other people here are chatting or drinking coffee, I’m working balls to the wall to make sure the customers get everything they need?”
“Yes, but…”
“But what, Mike?”
“Well… you do work a lot. It makes other people uncomfortable. Your attitude–”
“My attitude is that I’m here to work first and make friends second, Mike. I was raised by farmers, and do you know how farmers work? They work until there’s no more work to be done… and then they work some more. If the rest of the clods in here want to be scared of me because of that, let them!”
“Please, Ben, don’t get upset,” Mike began to fidget in his seat, “I don’t want to have to call security.”
Ben turned to him with a look that must have been straight from Hell, because Mike shrunk in his seat. Ben closed his eyes to put out the fire, and swallowed a deep breath, forcing himself to be calm.
“Okay, Mike. I know it’s not your fault. I know you didn’t make these rules, you just have to follow them. After all, you can’t lose this job, can you?”
Mike shook his head dumbly.
“So I don’t blame you, Mike,” Ben said, standing up from the chair, “But I will say this. You know how you always joke about how terrible of a singer you are? I know that you only say that because you’re hoping somoene will tell you you’re actually good. So I’m just going to tell you right now that you aren’t. Stop singing in your cube, it’s pissing everyone off.”
Ben moved over to the door and put his hand on the latch.
“Don’t bother cleaning out my locker. I already did yesterday just in case you wanted to fire me for staying home during the blizzard. Guess I got to you before you got to me. Well…”
He popped open the door and let the cooler air waft into a room that was growing progressively humid.
“Be sure to give my wishes to everyone, Mike. I did twice the work of anyone here in half the time, so I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding some imbecile to fill my chair. You call all fuck right off until corporate decides to save a few pennies shipping your jobs to Bangalore.”
There were a few murmurs and nervous whispers outside the open door, but Mike was too paralyzed to move from his chair.
“That’s right,” Ben repeated, “I said Bangalore! The company that owns this company’s company is looking to outsource. Try reading a paper sometime, idiots!”
There were now more murmurs as Ben turned back to Mike, who had changed from pale to completely white. Ben gave him a sarcastic salute and left.
“Don’t worry, boss… I’ll let myself out.”
On the way back across the parking lot, Ben was overwhelmed. He was happy to be rid of that place, but worried about how he left. He was overjoyed that he got to tell Mike off, but he was nervous about the future. And Lucy… what was he gonna tell Lucy? Be the time he got back to the Judge, he was crying… but he wasn’t exactly sure why. He sped out of the parking lot, slamming on the CD player to a song he’d been listening to a lot lately, a Billy Joel song. As he drove through the business park too fast and sang along too loud, he suddenly heard a familiar voice crash into his consciousness as the radio telekinetically switched off.
“Well, that was quite a performance.”
Ben hammered on the brakes and pulled off into yet another parking lot, his face now hot with embarrassment, frustration and emotion.
“Damn it, Tom! Not cool.”
“I wasn’t listening to the whole thing.”
“Bullshit you weren’t!”
“Listen, I just wanted to invite you to dinner Friday. Actually, the whole family. We’ve got an announcement.”
“I’ve got a phone, you know.”
“The music was too loud. You wouldn’t have heard it.”
“Uh huh… so you went straight for the mind-rape.”
“Ben…”
“Just get outta my head, all right? I’ll come to your dinner party, don’t worry. What is it, six? Seven?”
“Six.”
“We’ll be there. Now leave me alone.”
There was no answer, so Ben decided to try to remember every embarrassing fact he could about his older brother instead. When he started running through Tom’s past girlfriends, he realized Tom was no longer listening, so he turned the radio back on and kept driving. If he hurried, he could surprise Lucy with a late lunch and the good or bad news, depending. They could afford it, for now… and hey, at least one dinner this week was going to be free, anyway. With a knot forming in the pit of his stomach, he picked up his phone and dialed speed number seven.
“Hey, honey.”
“Hey!” her voice was startled on the other end. Ben knew this was a mistake.
“I, uh… I got kicked out.”
“What?”
“Work. They, uh…” he couldn’t bring himself to say the word, “they kicked me out. Remember the blizzard last winter?”
“Yeah?”
“They counted it as me taking a day off.”
He waited for a moment as the line went silent. A thousand different combinations, a million different reactions raced through his mind. How would she take this? How would she react? Finally, he got his answer.
“Well, that’s stupid!”
Ben breathed an audible sigh of relief, but Lucy hadn’t heard him. She had a full head of steam.
“You’re telling me… they fired you because you missed too many days… but they counted the day we literally couldn’t get out of our building?”
“Yep.”
“Did they tell you this when it happened?”
“I guess I had to ask…”
“Well, that’s just bullshit.”
Despite it all, Ben found his lips creeping into a smile. It was times like this that he knew he’d made the right choice with Lucy. When the chips were down and things really went to Hell, she was there for him. His smile grew wider as his worry and his fear began to melt away, replaced with an odd sort of calm.
“Thanks, honey.”
“We’ll talk about this more tonight when I get home. I’ve got stuff to do at work.”
“No problem. I’ll go home and work on something nice for dinner. Sound good?”
“That sounds lovely, sweetie. See you then.”
“Yeah…” Ben almost felt himself slipping away into this newfound sea of calm, “Okay. Love you.”
“Love you. Bye!”
The line cut off and Ben put down the phone. He let out a breath that emptied his lungs, staring off into space. Something inside him started to break, just a little, and as the pressure forced the break he simultaneously felt himself rising, as if being let free from a sinking vessel. After an eternity, he finally blinked, feeling his dry eyes scrape the inside of his eyelids. He started his car and drove home in silence, with nothing but the calming purr of a 2.7 liter V6 filling his ears. In a moment where everything should have been chaotic, it had never before seemed so clear.

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.

GenExt – ATS

The brothers emerged into something straight out of a spy novel. Windowless, with several low-hanging bulbs burning hot under utilitarian shades, all of it concealing a brain center of tables, computers and file cabinets that made easy movement around the cramped room almost impossible for someone of Ben’s size. There were two men in pressed, military shirts and loosened neck sitting around a large table in the middle of the room, and they barely even paid heed to the two men who had just entered. As soon as they had looked up, their bloodshot eyes went back to a paper they were studying, and they scratched at stubble-strewn chins while taking care not to burn themselves on what looked like their fiftieth consecutive cigarette.
“Ugh,” Ben remarked as they walked through the smoke, “stinks.”
“Yeah,” Dan nodded as they left the two bleary workers behind a row of cabinets, “I always notice it so much more since Mom & Dad quit smoking.”
“Mom smoked?!” Ben replied, a little surprised.
“She quit right after you were born.”
“Good thing it didn’t mess me up at all,” he said with a smirk, glancing down at the power ring on his left hand. Dan wound their way through this and that until finally coming to one of those doors you just don’t see anymore: solid wood with a large, frosted glass window, like something out of a dime store detective novel. The name, in embossed gold, had been so worn and scratched from years of use that it was unrecognizable, and probably had little to do with the man that was inside, anyway. As Dan opened the door, Ben saw another military man pouring himself a cup of coffee, and this one was impeccably dressed.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said, putting down his ceramic mug and automatically reaching for a Styrofoam cup, “look who’s here.”
“How’ve you been, Tim?” Dan asked as he entered the room casually, taking a seat on one of the hard wooden chairs across from Tim’s hard wooden desk.
“No coffee for me, thanks.”
“How about the Big Six?”
Dan looked over to Ben, who could only wear a confused expression.
“Who, me?”
“Yeah, you,” Dan shot back, rolling his eyes.
“Don’t mind him,” Tim said, pouring black coffee into the cup, “He’s an asshole. Then again, if you came with him, you probably know that by now. I’m Colonel Timothy Scott, US Army. Coffee?”
“Uh… no thanks,” Ben stammered, “Just had breakfast… and I’m Ben.”
Tim shrugged and took both cups back to his desk.
“Oh well,” he sat down behind the desk, adjusting his uniform as he sat, “More for me.”
“Still all spit and polish, huh?” Dan leaned forward in the chair as Tim took a long drink.
“Says Mr. Six O’Clock News,” Tim shot back over the rim of his mug, “Is that fella gonna sit down?”
“He’s just my little brother,” Dan said, almost embarrassed.
“You call that little? He’s about as wide as he is tall.”
“Ben, get over here and sit down!”
“Okay,” Ben did as he was told, again feeling very lost in all of this. Tim turned his peculiar look on Ben and smiled.
“He reminds me of you, you know, Danny.”
Ben winced. Nobody called his brother Danny. Not even Mom.
“Bullshit,” Dan continued without a hitch, “I knew my shit from day one.”
“Hardly!” Tim snorted into his coffee, “Ben, you shoulda seen Mr. Punch-It here when we first had to bail his blue butt out of Sarajevo.”
“It’s not my fault you guys didn’t have the stones to follow me in the first place.”
“WE have orders, you know. Besides, you think they would have trusted the word of a Lieutenant in the middle of a firefight? ‘It’s okay guys, I’m totally the superhero’s friend, it’ll be all right!’ Jesus, Danny boy…. the amount of times I almost got my ass blown because of you.”
“Knock it off with the ‘Danny boy,’ shit, Tim…” Dan lowered his eyelids threateningly, “I’m also the reason you got promoted… but I’m starting to think it was a mistake coming down here again.”
“Oh, but I missed our little spats,” Tim grinned, “And I’ve got to say Iraq was no fun without you and your rowdy bunch of rebels.”
“I’m sure that was the ONLY reason.”
“Um, excuse me?” Ben interrupted the argument and saw four eyes suddenly shift their complete focus on him.
“we, uh… we had a question for you guys and all of your… intel… stuff.”
There was an uncomfortable little silence, until Dan finally smiled and turned back to his friend.
“Well said.”
Something about those two words made Ben feel a little better.
“Tim, we heard about the incident,” Dan continued, “What can you tell me about whatever the heck went down in DC?”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Tim.”
“No, really!” the Colonel put his mug down, “I don’t know anything about it. They’re not telling me shit number one.”
“But…. you’re intel?”
“The only thing blacker than my operations is this fine cup of Sumatran in front of me,” Tim took another rapturous drink from his mug, emptying it.
“Jesus…” Dan leaned back in his chair, a little taken aback. Ben tried his best to put it together.
“So, if they won’t even tell you…”
“It means it’s something bad, kid… and let me tell you, I’ve seen some shit.”
“What do you think this means, Tim?” Dan groaned, rubbing a frustrated hand over the bridge of his nose.
“I think it means you need to stop by The Building.”
“That’s where it was?” Dan’s voice was smeared as he ran the hand down his face, his eyes opening wide.
“As near as I can gather, yes.”
“Someone tried to bust into The Building?”
“I don’t think they just tried to, Dan.”
“…Shit.”
Ben hadn’t seen his brother this worried in some time, but at the same time, he was overjoyed to see some fire back into Dan’s soul. Following what had happened with Dr. Holocaust, he’d gotten so quiet, so distant, but in these last few hours Ben had really seen him come alive again.
“So what do we do?” Ben asked.
“You and me, little brother? We’re going to visit a building tonight.”
“Which building are you two talking about?”
“It’s about six blocks from the White House,” Tim offered, “and it’s got Secret Service protection 24/7. If I was a dealer… it’s where I’d keep the good shit.”
“Like what?”
“All the X Files stuff,” Dan butted in, “UFOs, Hitler’s brain, Doomsday weapons, the last three cases of Ecto Cooler…”
“Ah, knock it off,” Tim gave him a sneer, grabbing a keycard out of his desk drawer and tossing it across the desk and into Dan’s lap.
“There’s a service entrance tunnel that no one is supposed to know about. This’ll get you in, it’s one of our sockpuppets and you’ll be able to look around. Just… don’t mess anything up, all right?”
“Oh, Timmy,” Dan picked up the card, beaming, “We wouldn’t dream of it.”
Ten minutes later, they were back in Dan’s truck, heading back to Pennsylvania.
“You OK with tonight? I didn’t think about it when I told Tim, but is it OK? I mean, Lucy…”
“If we go late, she’ll be asleep. I’ll just say I’m heading to the gym.”
“And she’s okay with that?”
“She hasn’t said she isn’t.”
“Be careful with that, Ben,” Dan said as they changed lanes, “Little things like that can go unnoticed… it can really screw things up later.”
“Thanks.”
He didn’t know what else to say. But, after a moment, something did pop into his head.
“Hey Dan… why don’t you come to dinner over at our place, in Elizabethtown? Lucy always loves having people over, and I know she’d be happy to have you.”
“Nah, you don’t want a sad sack like me around…”
“Dan?” Ben had to summon up a lot of courage to interrupt his older brother, especially during what was becoming a very serious talk.
“I’d like you to come over. I think it would be good for… for both of us.”
“On one condition.”
“Yeah?”
“You fire up the old SNES and we play some MarioKart. Old school.”
Ben grinned as they pulled off the expressway.
“I’m sure Lucy will be thrilled to see the two of us sitting on our fat asses when she gets home from work.”
“Eh. You got the day off.”
“Yeah…. I should probably make the dinner.”
“You’re so whipped.”
“Gladly, with a wife like mine.”
He bit back those words, but it was too late. He knew Dan felt uncomfortable now, and he wished he could take it back.
“Hey, Ben?”
“Yeah?”
“No Rainbow Road.”
Ben laughed. It felt good to laugh.
“Sure thing.”

“This is a nice surprise, honey,” Lucy said as the three sat down to a dinner of Chili mac & cheese with a green salad.
“I took the day off to spend some time with Dan,” Ben shrugged, “so I figured I should make myself useful at home.”
“Better be careful, or I’ll keep you barefoot and pregnant, chained to that stove.”
“Oh, ugh…” Dan closed his eyes, “That is not an image I ever wanted in my mind.”
Lucy enjoyed a small, slightly malicious laugh, and all three tucked into dinner.
“How’s things working for the government, Lucy?” Dan asked around a bit of salad.
“Oh, you know: we the unwilling, lead by the unqualified…”
“Sounds like work at the station. You know what it’s like to correct the fifth grade spelling mistakes of someone making six figures?”
“I just make sure they spell their names right.”
“Cripes,” Ben sighed, “you mean you actually get to SEE your bosses?”
“It’s not worth it, trust me.”
“I dunno, Dan… you get to make decisions. At least one or two a day, right?”
“I guess so.”
“Man… that must be nice. Me, I sit in my cube, I do what I’m told, I read off that script that sounds like it was written by a chimp with brain damage… just once, I’d like to say something different and NOT have some fat bastard jump down my throat about it.”
“Oh, honey,” Lucy tried to smile, “It’s not that bad, is it?”
“Not that bad? Last month I fixed an issue… fixed it! And all my shit-stupid supervisor could say was that I didn’t do steps one and two. Doesn’t matter that I knew step three would fix it and save us both ten minutes of bullshit…”
He saw that he was starting to upset Lucy, and decided to swallow the rest of his anger with a forkful of macaroni.
“Tell you what, Banjo,” Dan sighed, patting his stomach, “If something opens up at the station, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“I’d take it,” Ben muttered darkly, “With this damn degree they won’t let me scrub toilets most places.”
“I kinda like the idea of you scrubbing my toilets,” Dan replied with a grin.
“Ew, this is no longer dinner talk,” Lucy moaned, pulling a face. All three of them smiled and laughed a bit. The rest of the night was spent watching a Flyers game until Lucy’s eyes began to droop and she starting gently snoring on her husband’s shoulder.
“She works way too hard,” Ben said sadly, gently caressing his wife’s freckled face.
“You got a good thing going, Ben,” Dan said with all seriousness, “Don’t fuck it up like I did.”
“It’s not your fault, man. None of us knew you’d marry a crazy person.”
“Yeah… I suppose you’re right.”
Ben put Lucy to bed, and then the two were off, bound for the Capitol again, this time in Ben’s car, the Judge Intrepid.
“So how did you meet that Tim, anyway?” Ben struck up a conversation a few minutes into the drive.
“Like he said, Bosnia,” Dan replied, “I was helping out over there, and after we both were home he was the only one who was able to figure out who I was.”
“Mild-mannered reporter and all that?”
“Yeah…”
They sat for a bit in silence, watching the lights zip by them. Ben had a question that had been boiling inside him for a while, and it finally came out.
“Dan?”
“Yeah?”
“… what’s a ‘Big Six,’ anyway?”
“Ha!” Dan laughed one large, full-throated bellow, “You’ve been thinking about that all day, haven’t you?”
“Maybe.”
“Tim’s a big Roaring Twenties nut.”
“That explains the butchwax and the shined shoes.”
“Pretty much. A ‘big six’ was a name back then for a big fucker like you.”
“Oh,” Ben nodded, keeping his eyes on the road ahead, “I like it.”

As Tim had promised, the keycard got them in without an issue. They had pulled off a few blocks away to change into their costumes and had walked the rest of the way.
“There’s one nice thing about Urban Decay,” Ben muttered, “no one’s out at night to ask what the hell we’re doing out dressed like this.”
“And if they are out, they’re probably stoned out of their minds, anyway.”
They exited the service tunnel through two heavy double doors and into a massive room full of items of all shapes and sizes: boxes, crates, brown-paper and cloth wrapped bundles, and even some arbitrary piles of things in this corner and that.
“So what are we looking for in here, anyway?” Ben asked, adjusting his mask slightly.
“To be honest, I don’t know. But if it’s as bad as Tim said, it won’t be hard to find.”
Ben began to look around in the near darkness, generating as much light with his forcefield as he could. He glanced down at the floor with surprise.
“Did this place use to be a school?”
“Why?”
“The floor… looks like a basketball court. I bet this was the old gym.”
“Would stand to make sense… hey, can you hear that?”
The two stood perfectly still among the detritus as a rhythmic pattern could be heard on the roof and windows.
“Aw, hell… is it raining?” Dan grumbled.
“Sounds like it,” Ben answered.
“These boots really reek if they get wet, y’know. Just saying in advance, sorry if the ride home is…”
A bolt of lightning lit up the gymnasium, and again both of them stopped in their tracks.
“That’s okay, Traveller,” Ben said, relishing being able to use the comic book names in public, “Not like I haven’t been there… Traveller? You there?”
“Did you see that?”
Dan’s voice was quiet, urgent. Something had definitely gone wrong. Ben immediately wet on alert. Another bolt of lightning lit up the gym, and this time Ben saw his brother standing in his blue and yellow armor, stock still, his eyes behind a visor staring directly at a far wall of the building.
“What is it?”
“I think… I think we found it.”
The Blue Traveller activated a small flashlight on his right gauntlet, aiming it toward the wall. There, scrawled in blood with letters nearly ten feet tall, wrapping nearly all the way around the gymnasium, were the words MADAME CARNAGE HAS RETURNED.
“What the…” Ben staggered backward into a crate, disturbed to his core.
And then, suddenly, a shrill, piercing, shrieking cackle of a laugh ripped through the building, bouncing of all the walls at once, making the painted blood sing out in a grisly chorus.
“Ben… Ben?”
“Yeah?”
“She’s still here.”

GenExt – Fried Chicken

“Best French toast in town.”
Ben and Dan were sitting in a local diner not far from where the skirmish of an hour ago had taken place.
“Yeah,” Dan agreed, taking a sip of coffee, “Since I moved to evening news, I’m not up super early like this to grab a nice breakfast anymore.”
“So why were you up this morning, then?” Ben shot him a look over his own coffee cup. Dan blew out a sigh that was only half due to too much French toast.
“I’ve been moonlighting again,” he said finally when he was sure the waitresses were in the back with the cooks and the rest of the diner was sufficiently safe to talk, “Ever since Gina… you know. I just can’t sit around doing nothing.”
“I know the feeling,” Ben said with a laugh.
“Plus…” he lifted up his mug and muttered into the coffee, “It’s a shorter commute to sleep in the truck rather than going to Mom and Dad’s every night.”
“Jesus,” Ben shook his head, “how does Mom handle that?”
“You think she knows?” Dan allowed himself a little smile, “I’ve got covers, and if I need to I’ve got friends with couches.”
“Well, I got one, too, if you ever need it.”
“I know.”
There was something about those two little words that meant a lot for Ben. Sure, it was a crummy, cramped one bedroom apartment, but it was his. He was an adult now, and his brother, his cool, older brother was taking it as a foregone conclusion that Ben would be there for him. There was something about it that absolutely thrilled Ben to his core, until the news broke in with the disturbing, brazen tones of a female anchor trying to fake sincerity.
“Officials say the threat has been neutralized and that, despite some initial confusion, today can continue as normal in our nation’s capitol.”
Ben glanced at the tv screen in the corner of the small dining room, not paying it too much attention. Another day, another crisis, such was the world these days, especially if you watched the news too much. Dan, on the other hand, did something interesting.
“Hm,” he said before turning back to the last few pieces of his breakfast.
“What ‘hm?’ What was that about?” Ben asked as his brother tried his best to be engrossed with French toast, “You know something about that news? The reporter? Is she an idiot? Because she sounds like an idiot.”
“No, that’s not… well, yes, she is,” Dan corrected himself with a shrug, “But that’s not the point. The way she was saying that stuff… someone wrote it for her. Whenever I’m producing her stuff, I’ve got to fix it eight ways to Sunday. Lady can’t spell February half the time. But this… I didn’t write that, and neither did anyone else at the station.”
“So?” Ben leaned in closer.
“So it means it’s a line of bull,” Dan leaned back and put a restraining hand on his stomach, “Listen to the words: neutralized, confusion, continue as normal… that’s what they like to say when they’re actually shitting their drawers.”
“In the capitol?!” Ben asked, slightly agog.
“It happens more often than you think, Banjo,” Dan smiled, “You should know that.”
Ben had a quick memory of deep below the WWII memorial, and gave a lame shrug.
“So what does this mean?” Ben asked, inspecting his empty coffee cup, “Share with me some of that wisdom, crafty veteran.”
“Very funny. Well, I don’t have to be in til the afternoon, you said noon for you?”
“Yeah, but I got one more day to burn,” Ben replied, “I’d gladly play hooky.”
“Well, in that case,” Dan stood up from the table, “we’d better pay this and go to see my guy.”
“Your guy?” Ben asked, standing and stretching.
“Yeah, man. You always gotta have a guy. All the fighters had a guy. Even Dad had a guy… I mean, they turned it into a guy in the comics…. but it was Mom, technically.”
“I always wondered where that corny scientist character came from,” Ben said with a smirk, “Seems like every book had one of those back in the day.”
“You need someone to talk to, someone who’s not in the business, y’know? Someone who can connect you to the world outside your world. I mean, how would you handle it if you only had the people you work with to talk to?”
“I’d lose my fucking mind,” Ben said slowly, the thought of it crushing his chest like an iron weight, “I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s like in that place.”
“So, don’t,” Dan said with a smile, tossing a $20 on the table, “let’s get outta here. We want to make sure we can beat the traffic on the way to DC.”
Ben decided not to ask any more questions, but he did send Lucy a quick message. By the time she finally got back to him, her slightly worried message proved useless, as Dan and Ben were already halfway to the Capitol.
“So, where are we going?” Ben asked, his fingers drumming nervously on the armrest of the pickup, “You’ve got someone with a fair bit of info on this, right?”
“Absolutely.”
“So… Pentagon? Congress?”
“Not exactly.”
The car came to a slow stop in front of a run down fish and chicken stand in an eerily quiet neighborhood. A few old pieces of paper blew across the street as they headed to the front door.
“What the hell is this, Dan?”
“Secret government installation. Why do you think they haven’t been renovating these old neighborhoods in the past twenty years?”
Ben stopped in his tracks on the sidewalk, waiting, pleading with his brother for it to be a joke. Dan simply put his hand on the door handle and beckoned him in.
“You coming?”
“You serious?”
“Look, little brother…”
Dan stepped away from the door and put a hand on Ben’s shoulder.
“You’re about to see a lot of shit that might make you uncomfortable. I’m not really cool with it either, but I told myself a long time ago that it helps me protect people. Sometimes you have to use Big Brother to feed the other kids.”
Ben looked up at him, reluctant to agree, but finally he broke and nodded harshly.
“I still wish they wouldn’t let these neighborhoods rot,” Ben added under his breath.
“Leave your bleeding heart at the door, Banjo,” Dan said with a smile, “we’re going in deep.”
Ben, despite his best intentions, found himself tossing nervous looks every which way, ready to throw up a shield at a moment’s notice.
“Oh, stop,” Dan caught him looking as he opened the door, “What makes you think you’re so special?”
“I just…”
“No, you didn’t,” Dan shook his head, “Look, if you’re going to get all defensive for the poor in this country, you don’t have a right to be afraid of them, too.”
“Uh…”
“Just relax. We’re two scraggly looking white dudes in a beat up Chevy. Who’s going to care?”
“I guess you’re right,” Ben sighed, “Just make sure to keep those newsman teeth hidden.”
They stepped inside to an interior that Ben thought only existed in movies: metal lattice protected the windows, and a massive bulletproof barrier stood between a tiny lobby and the rows of fryers just heating up.
“We’re not open yet,” said a man of Arabic descent with his back to the door. As Ben and Dan approached, Ben noticed that he was in the middle of dressing several chickens with lightning speed and an impossibly sharp knife.
“Well, that’s good,” Dan shot back just as gruffly, ” ‘Cuz I’m not hungry.”
The man’s back straightened, and he turned around to regard the two that had entered his shop. Despite the surroundings, the man had taken good care of himself, with close-cropped hair and a neat beard that didn’t match the grease and blood on his white t-shirt. He looked about fifty, but a good fifty.
“Is that who I think it is?” the man asked, his eyes suddenly wide and his mouth agog.
“Yeah, Farid…” Dan said, a little nervously, “It’s me.”
“Are you… back?!”
“Part-time, for now,” Dan replied with a shrug, “Figured I’d stop by and catch up with old friends. Is Scott in?”
“Like he always is,” Farid smiled, “I don’t think he ever sleeps.”
“Just like old times,” Dan smiled back before remembering he had a guest with him, “Oh Hey, Farid, this is my brother, Ben. He’s, uh, part-timing, too.”
“Nice to meet you, Ben,” Farid beamed from behind the glass, “Come in, come in, both of you!”
There was a loud buzz that made Ben jump a little, but the locks opened and Dan stepped inside the kitchen. Ben followed behind, suddenly hit by a wall of heat from the fryers in the cramped kitchen. It quickly occurred to him why Farid was so thin, he must sweat off twenty pounds a day in here.
“So sorry,” Farid said, wiping his hands on his shirt until it was nearly translucent with fat, “I’d shake your hands, but…”
“It’s okay, Farid,” Dan replied in a gentle tone, the kind Ben usually only heard him use on Mom or Dad, “Just glad you let me back in.”
“Are you kidding? I’m wondering what took you so long. You should come to my neighborhood, it’s a mess. We could use some of that big boom stuff you do.”
Dan laughed it off as Farid turned to Ben, squinting through aged eyes.
“And your brother, he probably brings the boom all by himself!” Farid chuckled over Ben’s wide frame.
“In his own way,” Dan said. Ben was a little too overwhelmed by grease and surprise to say much of anything. In the middle of all this was someone who not only knew Dan’s secret, but seemed to know much more… and here he was, flabbergasted and quiet like a five year old at the adult’s table. Damn.
“He don’t say much,” Farid cut right to the point.
“He’s new to the whole thing,” Dan answered, and Farid nodded sagely.
“Ah, yes, they are always quiet when they are new. Well, good luck, Ben. Come back anytime, it’s on the house. Except–”
“The shrimp. That’s too expensive.”
Dan cut him off perfectly, remembering a line from years past. The two friends shared another laugh as Farid wished them goodbye again and they headed past the fryers into a small pantry. They stopped at what looked like a massive walk-in freezer door, and Dan turned to his brother.
“You all right?”
“Yeah,” Ben coughed the word out, “It’s just… not what I was expecting.”
“Oh, it’ll get there, just wait.”
The two stepped inside the frigid box, which was less than half full.
“Ah,” Ben said with a smile as they looked around, “I thought so.”
“What?” Dan asked as he headed to the far end of the freezer.
“Your buddy, Farid… all that stuff he was using was fresh. Makes sense why there’s hardly anything in the freezer.”
“Not bad,” Dan mentioned, “And just so you know, Farid’s your buddy now, too.”
“Why? Because of you?”
“No,” Dan said as Ben joined him on the far side of the room, “Because of Dad. They used to call him Ahriman back in the 60s; he fought with Dad in the DC area.”
“No shit?”
“No shit. Too bad his eyes went to hell, Dad said he was a real terror.”
“So is Farid your ‘guy?’ ”
“Nope,” Dan replied casually, brushing aside a thick coat of frost to expose buttons, “Farid was in the business. You can tell old war stories, have a beer, or play cards with guys in the business… but you’ve all been there. It’s different with people who haven’t put on a mask.”
He pushed the down button and part of the wall slid away into the next door empty storefront. As Dan and Ben stepped through, Ben couldn’t help but wonder why exactly his brother was making such a distinction between people who have “put on the mask” and people who hadn’t. As the door closed shut behind them and left them in a spartan concrete corridor with only bare bulbs overhead, Ben had an overwhelming sense that he still had very much to learn.
“Wait,” he said with a sudden bit of horror, “Was Farid boning those chickens… could he even see?”
Dan hid his smile from his brother and began walking down the corridor.
“C’mon Ben… let’s go.”

GenExt – Why?

A day later. A Sunday. As usual (or, at least, as usual since the incident with the Nazi villain), the Graf family got together for a big Sunday brunch. There were stacks of thick pancakes, eggs over easy, and a pile or bacon to rival Babel itself. Ben was there with Lucy, Tom, the eldest Graf boy, was with his wife Melanie, and Dan was there… alone. Still nearly crippled from the fight in DC last fall, the family patriarch, Bob Graf, shuffled from dining room table to family room easy chair with great effort, groaning with the seemingly impossible exertion of simply moving. He’d eaten very little, as was the norm lately, and left before the meal had finished. Without the father present, the rest of the family ate their fill, and were settling in with early afternoon mimosas and screwdrivers that made it earlier to stomach another Eagles loss.
“Freakin’ bums,” Ben sighed, sinking into a well-worn couch in the family room, “maybe we should think of pairing up with Pittsburgh again. Two crappy teams together will only suck half as much, right?”
“Pair up with Pittsburgh?” Melanie asked, “Why would they do that? I thought they hated each other.”
“It’s in this book Lucy got me,” Ben replied, gesturing in the vague direction of his wife, who had taken it upon herself to help Clare Graf, the mother, with the dishes and cleanup.
“Apparently back during World War II, they didn’t have enough guys to fill a full team in the NFL, because of the draft. So they started smashing teams together, and Philly teamed up with the Steelers to become the ‘Steagles.’ Pretty weird, huh?”
“Not any weirder than football usually is,” Melanie shrugged, sitting down with Tom on a nearby loveseat. Ben found himself alone stretched out on the couch, suddenly feeling very guilty.
“Hey, hon?” he called into the kitchen, “You guys need any help in there?”
“We’re fine, Ben,” Lucy called back, “enjoy your game.”
“Ehhhh,” he grumbled in return, “It’s the Eagles.”
A few minutes later, they were already down seven points, and Ben started to feel antsy again. To his right sat his father, wheezing and looking to be napping fitfully. It was odd, Ben thought, that Dad had still been sleeping when the children arrived, only to wake, eat, and go back to sleep again. To his left was Tom and Melanie, looking at the game but not really seeming to watch it. Tom had aged in the year since Dr. Holocaust’s attack, with his beard and close-cut hair turning mostly to gray from its blackish, brownish hue of youth. Melanie, a few years younger, looked younger than ever in comparison, with reddish-brown streaks in sandy hair a striking contrast to her bright green blouse. She glanced idly over thick-rimmed glasses as Washington kicked off, every once in a while turning to mutter something to Tom and for Tom to mumble something in return. Ben drummed both hands on his thighs with no shortage of nervousness, feeling quite alone despite a blaring, obnoxious television presentation and Bob’s fitful snoring.
“Uhhh… So, anybody seen Dan?”
He got shrugs from Tom & Melanie and a snort from Bob. With a sigh, he stood up.
“Guess I’d better look for him.”
Ben had been very worried about his “younger older brother” since he’d lost his wife. So, with drink still in hand, he exited the family room. He knew everyone in the family had been worried, but Ben was always one to look on the worst side of things right away. Automatically, his mind went to the fear that Dan had gone off somewhere to do something horrible to himself, and how Ben would blame himself for not going to look for him earlier… but he banished those thoughts from his mind as best he could as he wandered the old farmhouse. He checked in with Lucy and Clare in the kitchen, who shooed him away for fussing too much as they washed dishes. He figured he’d probably just break something anyway with his ham hands. He crisscrossed through the rooms in the big old colonial, from the cozy family room to the old-fashioned kitchen, the Rockwell dining room and the Kinkade study, which had formerly been Tom and Dan’s room in years gone by. He saw it now with the bookshelves reshuffled, the chairs moved, and a single bed crowbarred awkwardly back into the room. Dan was back staying at home, it seemed… no doubt their old house held too many memories. Ben’s room next door seemed to be unchanged from when he’d stayed in it only a few years before, after college and before marriage when the jobs dried up and rent was too much. He looked around his old haunt with a sigh, not only at the dubious decorating choices of a thirteen year old boy but also at the wasted opportunity: why wasn’t Dan staying in here?
“You’re probably wondering why I’m not staying in here.”
Ben turned to face his brother, who was leaning casually on the doorway. Like Tom, Ben noticed how Dan had aged. He was still the tallest of the three brothers, and in good shape, but his shoulders had rounded, his neck seemed to stoop, and there were telltale wrinkles about his eyes and mouth. He was still the face of the six o’clock news, but to those who knew him, it was obvious.
“Yeah, I was.”
“I know it’s stupid, and it probably says a lot of terrible things about me,” Dan said with a sigh, “But I wanted to be back in my own room. I wanted to just… get away for a while after I got rid of the house.”
“Are you… feeling okay?”
Ben didn’t know how better to ask it. In a tense situation like that vagaries were often the best choice. Dan reached out with his long, dexterous fingers and mussed Ben’s hair with a smile.
“Don’t worry, little bro. I’m all right. Just needed a little break, is all.”
“Are you still, uh… ‘working?’ ”
“I haven’t gone out in a while, no,” Dan ran his hand through his own hair, “After it happened, after Gina… I did a lot of it. I took a leave from work after the missing person thing went official, they all said I could come back when I felt ready and all that jazz… but you know what? Going home to that house, seeing everything that reminded me of her… it didn’t really make me feel better. That house was the last place I wanted to be. So yeah, right after it happened… I ‘worked’ a lot.”
“I thought so,” Ben shot back with a smile, “for a while there wasn’t much buzz to be had in the area. You must have scared them good.”
“I scared myself, a little…”
Dan’s sentiment was cut off by a roar from the downstairs television and a shriek of joy from Clare.
“Go go go! Yes!”
Ben turned back to his brother, grinning.
“Looks like the Eagles just tied it up,” he gave a little chuckle, “Mom’s done with the dishes, so I suppose we’d best go down there and join the family, eh?”
He made to leave the room, but Dan’s long, strong arm stretched across the portal like a traffic gate.
“Ben, I talked to Lucy this morning.”
His voice had gotten so much more fragile over the past year, like it was made of glass… but now there was a steel to it.
“You did, huh?” Ben responded, feigning ignorance.
“And something interesting came across the news desk last night.”
“Oh, it did?”
“Ben…” Dan narrowed his eyes and looked down at his brother. Ben tried his best to avoid the glare.
“What?”
“Ben…” the newsman seemed to struggle with the words, which was not normal, “did you kill Raymond Scoville yesterday?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The answer was too quick, too rehearsed, and too quickly swallowed up by a sip of a screwdriver.
“Damn it, Ben!” Dan’s voice was a rough whisper, “You know you can’t do that. You can’t just–”
“Excuse me,” it was Ben’s turn to take up steel as he returned the glare, “But for your information my wife and I were being threatened with death and worse and I was physically assaulted before I acted.”
He lifted up a t-shirt to show a nasty, black bruise on a well fed belly, directly at the bottom of the ribcage.
“You’ll notice I didn’t eat as much at brunch,” Ben continued, “this is a hell of a diet.”
“Ben, you know I–”
“No,” Ben cut him off again, feeling a warmth building deep inside, “I don’t think you do know. I’m still your little brother, acting irresponsibly with a new toy, right? I can’t be trusted to do what’s right in the right situation, I can’t be trusted to simply defend myself and my wife, it must be something I’ve done, because I’m still just a kid, right? It’s not like I’m twenty-six and stuck in a dead-end job that barely puts enough together for us to get by in a shitty apartment, not like I’ve had to grown up pretty damn fast because some jackasses decided to crash the market and take all our jobs or well-being with it, not like I couldn’t go around strangling everyone that looked at me funny, or like you couldn’t go investigate the scene yourself or check the police report or the spent bullet casings, no… you just assumed I did something wrong.”
“Ben, it’s not like that!” Dan tried hard to keep his voice down, “Look, I know what it’s like to have… power. So does Tom, but he just shuts himself down to it. I know you’re not like that, I know you’ve been an emotional ki– person ever since you were little. So I just wanted to make sure things were okay. I just wanted to get your story, too… and I believe you.”
“Well, thanks,” Ben rolled his eyes, “Nice to know someone does. What did Lucy tell you?”
“Not much,” Dan shrugged, “She doesn’t blame you… but she didn’t think you had to be so… extreme.”
‘Well, we live in extreme times.”
“I know, Ben… I’m sorry.”
His shoulders stooped again and his voice returned to glass.
“It probably sounds like bullshit coming from me, but I at least want to say I’m sorry. I was lucky, and so was Tom: we already had good jobs and careers and crap like that before this hit. I was able to get two different jobs right as the country was melting down, and I can’t imagine… I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I just figured you needed to hear from someone that I’m sorry… about all of this.”
There was a heavy silence between the two brothers as the television continued to blare on pointlessly downstairs.
“Fuck,” Ben spat out the word, always uncomfortable swearing in front of his big brothers, “After all you’ve been through, and YOU’RE apologizing to ME? Makes me seem like an asshole, right?”
“Hey,” Dan cracked a tiny smile, “You were always too nice anyway. Maybe an asshole infusion is what you needed.”
“That did not sound right, Dan.”
“Ugh, you’re right. That’s why I have someone proof my stuff before I go on the air. I just…”
Dan didn’t want to let it go before saying it all, so he used the small amount of daylight caused by humor to finish his piece.
“I just don’t want you to go bananas & start going after your old high school bullies or something.”
“Dan? Trust me, they’re not worth it,” Ben replied, before adding with a wolfish smile, “at least, not until you see their bodies on the six o’clock.”
“Ben…”
“Kidding! Jeez, just kidding.”
“You better be,” Dan grumbled, “C’mon, let’s go see if the Eagles can screw it up this time.”
“Sure thing, Dan, but first…”
He leaned in close to his brother.
“Did you tell Lucy about ‘working’ the night shift?”
“No, I thought she knew.”
“Well, uh…” Ben avoided his brother’s gaze all over again, “I haven’t told her… this time.”
“Ben…”
“I gotta do something, Dan. Or else I’ll explode. Everything’s so screwed up… I gotta do something.”
Dan put a hand on his brother’s shoulder, wanting again to say he was sorry.
“I know how you feel. Just… take care of her, all right? You don’t know how much time you have.”
Later that night, Ben was breaking up a routine mugging on the South Side. As bullets bounced off the forcefield and he held the victim behind him, his mind was racing as usual. Make sure to angle the field as best you can, deflect the bullets into the ground, or a wall, try to keep it exterior, try not to spin them anywhere where they could cause a problem. He’s shooting a .45, and from the looks of it a pretty standard model. That’s five, six, seven… he’s got eight shots left. Thankfully, he’s an idiot, so he’s just going to keep shooting. It always amazed Ben how stupid criminals seemed to be, or perhaps it was just the situation that made them so reckless. Either way, his training in the experimental sciences had taught him patience, and analysis, but even without those skills it was clear to see that the crook wasn’t watching where he was going, and the curb was coming up fast…
“Got him!” Ben whispered to himself as the criminal tripped in a very undignified manner, cracking his forehead into the fender of a Buick.
Seizing the opportunity, Ben cut the field and ran to engage the enemy before any more shots could be fired.
“Get out of here!” he called back to the victim, but she was already well on her way to safety, a late night bag of groceries forgotten in the harried worries over an empty apartment and two worried children. Ben approached the mugger and managed to kick the gun away to safety as the bad guy struggled to his feet. Focusing the field around the ring in his left hand, Ben used it to cushion his hand as he brought a fist down, hard, into the meaty section of the mugger’s back. It wasn’t meant to injure or kill, it was a stun, a shock, and the attacker collapsed again to the pavement, cursing at the pain now in his head and shoulderblade.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d stay down there until the authorities arrive, sir.”
Ben always made sure to be as polite as possible in his interactions with criminals. Sometimes they were misunderstood, or pushed to the brink, or simply sick individuals who needed help, not a lambasting. However, in the occasional case, something more stringent was necessary. Ben’s mind spooled back to the events of the previous afternoon, and of Raymond Scoville, but he had no time for late-onset guilt as a Chrysler screeched to a halt in the middle of the road, packed to the brim with friends and confidants of the mugger. Ben knew his field could stop their bullets, especially if he concentrated on getting home to Lucy… but five, six-on-one… this could get dicey, and fast. Ben cursed himself for letting his mind run away with him, for getting complacent, but he didn’t have to do it for too long.
“Get outta your own head, man!!”
The voice was familiar, but stronger and amplified. In a trice, an entire streetlamp hurtled through the back end of the car, shredding the trunk, snapping the rear axle, and leaving the gang members effectively stranded. Ben turned in the direction of the sound to see, bathed in the light of the lamppost he hadn’t used as a javelin, in full blue and yellow battle armor, the Blue Traveller, smiling broadly beneath his metal faceplate.
“You’ll just get yourself killed, dude,” the Traveller kept grinning, proud and tall, “Now, what do you say we get these guys ready for their trip to Curran-Fromhold?”
Ben grinned back out from under his spandex, denim and flannel eyesore of a costume.
“Sure thing… but I’ll need a boost.”
By the time the gang managed to extricate themselves from their ruined car, the Traveller had hefted Ben, in a weightless bubble, and pitched him like a bullet pass at the criminals. Ben became like a human pinball between the high-rises, the bubble cushioning him and cutting down on the force exerted on brick, mortar, and pavement, and a new breather system attached over his nose and mouth allowed him to breath for longer inside the bubble, along with giving him a much more frightening appearance. By the time the policemen arrived, they saw six gang members unconscious in the middle of McClellan street, their guns either empty of bullets or twisted into comical pretzel shapes spelled out the phrase “SUCK IT” next to their senseless forms. A few blocks away, their costumes stowed away in the covered bed of Dan’s pickup, the two brothers finished the job.
“Go away!” the voice called from the other side of the door. Dan and Ben both winced, but tried their best to be heard through the door and over a crying baby.
“Ma’am, I’ve…”
“Shhh, shh, it’s okay, honey. Mommy’s here. I’ll get you some food tomorrow just… just please stop crying.
“Ma’am?”
“I said go away!”
Ben sighed heavily and turned to Dan for help. Dan himself was dressed incredibly shabbily, with a baseball cap dragged down over his face to hide his features.
“You’re probably not going to win this one, Ben. Just leave the groceries and go. That’s all we got.”
“But… someone else…”
“Look around, man,” Dan cautioned, “you think any of these people are even going to come out of their homes until either the sun rises or the blue-and-reds fade away? Just forget it. Leave the groceries, and let’s get out of here.”
Ben looked down at the reassembled groceries and sighed again.
“This world is so screwed up.”
“So? You do what you can, and then… then you go buy me French Toast. C’mon, it’s Monday… don’t you have to be at work in a few hours?”
“Not til noon,” Ben gritted his teeth, “they screwed with my schedule so now I’m noon to eight PM. I barely get to see Lucy. It’s a good thing the money’s worth it.”
“Is it?” Dan asked sincerely, thinking to a time where his work kept him away from a wife.
“I’m using it to get your damn French Toast, aren’t I? Let’s go.”
In eight hours, Ben would be nobody at a call center, and Dan would be prepping the evening news, and the rest of the world would be none the wiser.

GenExt – Issue 2 Introduction

The news would have been all over it… if it hadn’t happened on US government soil. For the time being all those involved, and still alive, were unknown, unpursued, unimportant. Three of them went home to their wives, and one to a home that had so very recently held one. The entire affair was kept incredibly quiet and, thanks to a serendipitous government shutdown, the army corps of engineers was able to extract everything easily away from the prying eyes of the public. The very ground underneath the World War II memorial was now a teeming mass of dead and decaying bodies of the most unimaginable monstrosities ever dreamt by the human mind, and at the center of it all was the dead body of a man who went by many names, but most famously the villainous moniker of Dr. Holocaust. The seemingly immortal Nazi was found dead, his body crumpled and undignified, while a seemingly immortal Englishman, now old and wrinkled, walked the world above free for the first time in decades. And yet, underneath it all, there was one body that was never found…

For a short time, Dan, Tom, and Ben Graf thought that that night had been one aberrant incident, one crazy story to tell on late nights at holidays and family functions when the Yuengling flowed and the kids were asleep. They thought that it would be something they could forget, something they could move away from, but in the back of each of their minds there was a ravenous, gnawing doubt. They had opened the box of Hesiod’s creation and now so much would spill out into the world and they would be forced to reckon with it… but for now, they wanted to be free of it.

But they couldn’t… and that is where this story begins.

 

“I don’t know how you talked me into this.”
Benjamin Joseph and Lucy Marie Graf, now married for over a year, were wandering around many of the abandoned industrial areas that now littered the city of Philadelphia in post-industrial America. Ben, as always, was following along as an accessory to his wife’s historical whims.
“You know we’re technically doing something illegal,” he complained as they walked through an abandoned factory yard, “There’s no telling what’s lurking around in here.”
“I’m not worried,” Lucy replied, looking back and smiling, “I’ve got you to protect me.”
Ben glanced down at the titanium ring around the third finger of his left hand and pulled a wry face.
“Yeah, sure.”
“Oh, come on!” Lucy raised her voice until it echoed around the eerily empty space, “This is the first time we’ve had a lot of time off together in weeks, let’s enjoy it!”
“I don’t see what’s to enjoy about traipsing about the Tetanus Palace here.”
“Oh, come ON, Ben!” Lucy rolled her eyes, her voice almost hoarse with excitement, “This is where America experienced its peak! This was the engine that drove the greatest country in the world, the amazing expansion and rise of the rockstar of the international scene, the good ol’ US of A! There’s so much history here: people worked here, lived here, they provided for their families here… they sweat and bled and beat themselves to death to make sure they could ensure a better world and a better chance for the generations to come! It’s so inspiring…”
“Good thing none of those guys are still alive to see what happened to it,” Ben muttered angrily to himself as he kicked a bit of scrap.
“Hey, Lucy, don’t go running off too far, I don’t want to lose you–”
Shhhh!
He looked ahead to see his wife rooted in place, standing stock still. It reminded him of when the cows on the farm were scared: they didn’t know where to go, they didn’t know what to do… it wasn’t their fault, they weren’t prepared to deal with the world. Lucy, growing up as she did on an upper-middle-class cul-de-sac, probably didn’t think that a simple romp through an empty mill would bring them face to face with murderers and thieves. Ben felt copper land on his tongue as his jaw tightened, and he rushed as best he could to get between his wife and the danger.
Three men, all lean and hungry, were approaching the both of them out from one of the empty outbuildings. By the time Ben was able to get in front of Lucy, he could get a good view of their faces.
“Ben… I’m sorry…” she whispered, terrified.
“It’s okay,” he whispered back, “I’ll take care of it.”
“Hey!” one of the men called out, still a fair distance away. The Grafs pretended like they hadn’t heard.
“Do you know who that is?” Lucy asked over Ben’s shoulder.
“Yes, I do,.”
His answer was simple, brutal.
“His name is Raymond Scoville. Drugs, arms, money laundering… if they made milk illegal today tomorrow he’d own a dairy.”
“Why is he here?”
“Probably a deal of some kind,” Ben replied, “Hell, his… group probably owns this property as a front.”
“Group?”
“Hey, man!” they called out again, getting ever closer. Ben sighed. He never wanted to level the truth at his own wife… but he had to.
“They’re not just street gangs anymore, Luce… they own cops, council members, Congressmen. Scoville has been brought up on anything you can think of. Murder, arson, rape… it never matters. He’s got the money, and he makes the rules. He’s got fall guys and patsies and contingencies and systems from here to California, and he’s never seen a minute behind bars. They can never pin it on him… and sometimes… sometimes they make him look like a goddamn hero.
His fist clenched tighter around his ring as the three men approached, dressed in a finery Ben could never even hope to afford. The two men that flanked them pulled out chrome plated pistols, pointing one at either side of Ben’s head. The man in the middle: the shorter, skinnier, older and wiser man, stood between them, eye to eye with Ben. There was that horrible feeling for a split second that can only be felt when you are physically in the presence of absolute and unrepentant evil. Ben struggled to keep his breath level, telling himself over and over again to keep it under control, to mitigate his rage. He had to protect Lucy, first and foremost… and maybe, just maybe… if things went well… it would be time to have a little fun.
“Hey, man, what’s wrong?” the middle one called out, a smug, cocky smile slicing across his bony features, “You deaf or somethin?”
Ben’s voice was flat, emotionless to the point of inhuman.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know you were calling out to us.”
“Ohhh!” Scoville replied in a mocking drawl, “You think there’s someone else here, man?”
Ben did not answer. Scoville gave the word for his henchman to cock their guns as he pulled a grisly looking butterfly knife out from the jacket of his tailored suit.
“We were just here to observe, sir,” Ben replied flatly, “My wife is a Historian, she works for the state. She was just interested in the history of the old mill.”
“Well, that’s too bad, man,” Scoville’s head bobbed from side to side, like a cat toying with its prey, “See, if you woulda called me, man, I woulda given you the keys, but since you do this… well, that’s trespassing, man…”
“You can see that we have disturbed nothing on your property. We will apologize to you and leave. We have a little money, if you would like us to pay you–”
There was a flash of light as the knife was found hovering a centimeter from Ben’s throat.
“Motherfucker,” Scoville’s voice was still singsong, still mocking, “I don’t need any of the money your poor ass could rustle up. Bitch, I own this town! I own this place, and I got so much money I pay the city so I DON’T have to do shit to keep it up, man. What makes you think I’d want your fuckin’ money?”
“I was merely trying to be polite.”
“Yeah? Well I don’t think your voice sounds very polite, fucker,” Scoville brought the knife back in front of him, zipping it back and forth in front of him in a dizzying flurry, “I don’t think you’re sorry you trespassed on my fuckin’ land at all, motherfucker. I think I might have to teach you a lesson about other people’s property, motherfucker!”
He was really getting riled up now, but Ben could tell from the stony reaction of the henchman that this was nothing new. It was all theatrics, meant to intimidate. It was a bully’s greatest weapon, as Ben had learned fighting crime on the streets… and he had learned exactly how to disarm it.
“There is no need for that,” he replied, as calmly as ever, “There is no need for violence.”
“I’LL TELL YOU WHEN THERE’S GONNA BE VIOLENCE, MOTHERFUCKER!!!”
Perfect, Ben thought, he was finally starting to lose his cool. In a spitting rage, Scoville had his two thugs roughly escort Ben and Lucy over to a nearby building, where he had them line up as if they were to face a firing squad. Again, two pistols were pointed at each of Ben’s temples.
“How you like that, motherfucker? My boys are gonna blow your fuckin’ head off, then we’ll see who makes the rules.”
“You don’t scare me.”
That was it. He knew the perfect time to play his trump card. Scoville swung hard, but not too hard, connecting with Ben’s stomach and bringing him to his knees. It wasn’t meant to damage, or to injure for long-term… it was meant to intimidate, and Ben would not let himself be intimidated, not by the likes of him. He’d learned over the past year that there were good guys and bad guys, and that 99% of the time the lines were never all that clear… but every once in a while, you get that 1% of people… and that 1% deserve what they get.
“Ben!”
“I’m okay, Lucy,” he said, standing up, “Maybe a bruised rib. Okay. Just hold my hand.”
She did so. She knew. Scoville, however, thought it was the height of hilarity.
“Awwww! Lookit the happy couple, thinkin’ they gonna die together like some fuckin’ storyboook. Well I’ll tell you this, Fat-Boy.”
Another attempt at intimidation. Wouldn’t work, he’d been called worse.
“After my boys try their best to make their bullets meet right in the middle of your fuckin’ brain…”
Scoville’s knife danced around in front of his face again.
“I might just get to know your fat-ass wife, too. And then, I’ma cut her up like a little piggy! WEEEEE! WEEEEE!”
He continued squealing, imitating a pig as best he could, but Ben’s flat voice was still heard over the shrillness.
“Sir, I’d prefer you not insult my wife.”
“WHO THE FUCK LET YOU MAKE THE RULES, MOTHERFUCKER? I SWEAR TO GOD, I–”
“You really should think twice about what you’re going to do.”
“Think TWICE? Motherfucker, I don’t think TWICE. I think ONCE, and that’s why I got the guns, and you got NOTHING! That’s why I got the money, and your poor ass is wearin’ fuckin Wal-Mart! I make the decisions, I’m in charge, and that’s why I’m driving the Lambo out front and you’re goin’ home in a motherfuckin’ bodybag, motherfucker!”
“You really should reconsider.”
“RECONSIDER THIS, BITCH!”
All it took was a split second. Scoville wasn’t hard to read. Ben saw him switch the knife from left hand to right hand, and he knew he was coming in for the strike. He also knew that the wheels were already in motion for his two goons to finish him in the event their boss couldn’t. Their brains were already sending signals to pull the trigger. It was all so easy to see, and Ben even allowed himself a small smile. They were all so stupid.
He grasped his wife’s hand tightly, completing the circuit, and in a flash the both of them were surrounded by a pale green hard-light bubble. Scoville’s knife bounced off and sailed two hundred yards away, sending him staggering backwards and driving his custom made suit into the dust. The two henchmen, unable to bring back their spent bullets, could only watch in disbelief and horror as their bullets bounced off the shield and nestled themselves perfectly right between each henchman’s eyes. They were dead before they hit the ground. Ben let go of Lucy, and started after Scoville, his strides long and hard and determined over the sun-baked dirt. It didn’t take him long to reach Scoville and, using the forcefield, he shoved him up against the wall Ben himself had just so recently been put up against. Scoville could do nothing but dangle by his neck, a scant few inches off the ground, looking down in horror at his two dead companions, and the smiling face of the man currently holding him. Scoville struck out with his fists and with his feet, but the field held strong.
“I told you,” Ben’s voice was like an industrial grinder, “I TOLD YOU.”
Scoville tried to speak, but he couldn’t even breathe.
“You know, it’s almost kinda funny,” Ben continued, well aware he didn’t have too much time left in the bubble before running out of air, “This field is powered by brainwaves. Yep, got a little chip in my head that controls it. And, you see, when I feel strongly about something, it makes the field even stronger. That’s how I’m able to stop bullets, or knives… and it always is knives, isn’t it, Scoville? I know you always use a knife, I know the execution-style your thugs use to kill people. I knew exactly what was going to happen there, down to the millisecond. I know everything about you, Scoville. I even know how you take your coffee in the morning… and you gotta watch that sweetened condensed milk, haha… that stuff’lll kill you.”
He allowed the field to retract just enough for Scoville to take a desperate, involuntary breath before clamping down again.
“And I knew, but you didn’t, that the stronger my willpower is, the stronger I am. And, well…”
He looked over to Lucy who was standing a fair distance away so as to avoid all the blood. He gave her a wink and kept on grinning, but it wasn’t a smile she’d even seen before. He turned back to Scoville and stared him dead down, his clear, blue eyes to Scoville’s bulging and cloudy ones.
You just threatened to rape my wife. I wonder… how strong do you think my will is now? Do you think it’s strong enough to snap your neck?”
“Ben, no…” Lucy’s voice erupted from her in a ghastly sob.
“Well, do you?” Ben continued, looking at the fear in Scoville’s eyes, relishing it. After all the fear he had inspired in others, now he knew what it meant. Perhaps finally, now, at the end, but only when his own life is threatened, does the coward and the bully and the inhuman monster know fear and regret. Ben’s smile grew even bigger, until it seemed like his face might break.
“Well… let’s find out.”

He snapped like a twig.

Don’t let me die, I have got so much to do.

Ending #1:

A few months later. The first warm day of Spring.
Two cars pulled up  and parked where the smooth asphalt met the meticulously tailored grass. Three men stepped out of the first car, a Dodge Intrepid. All three were dressed in simple suits with white shirts and black ties, and as they started off into the grass they seemed to form a line that sorted them nicely: the first and shortest had a beard, the second a goatee, and the third was the tallest and clean shaven. The third man also carried a bulky suitcase easily in one arm, an accessory that seemed rather out of place with the surroundings of grass and trees and beautiful stone. As they continued to walk away from the car, women in the second car went about their business. The eldest opened a newspaper and busied herself with a crossword puzzle, while the second read across the center console of the vechicle a headline that proudly boasted about plans for a new World War II memorial after the structural integrity of the original had been compromised during a freak Washington, DC earthquake. The woman in the back, conversely, found herself engrossed in a tacky supermarket tabloid, whose front page read “MYSTERIOUS GAUNTLET FOUND IN UNDERGROUND ARMY RESEARCH LABORATORY: IS THE BLUE TRAVELLER BACK?
“Thanks for getting that back for me, by the way,” the tallest man said as they sidestepped between two benches, “I can’t believe I left it behind.”
“It was a crazy night,” the shortest said. His walk seemed very free and languid as opposed to the other two men, who strode with definite purpose.
“Besides, I had to get…”
He jerked his head slightly in the direction of the suitcase. The tallest nodded.
“Are you sure we won’t get in trouble for this?” the man walking in the middle finally made to speak, “I mean, should we go around advertising like this?”
“If we’re going to do it,” the shortest replied coolly, “The people need to know we’re there for them.”
“It might get some nasties riled up,” the tallest said with a smile, “but it’s been too long; they deserve a good riling. Besides, you’re not scared of them, are you… little brother?
“I guess I don’t have the luxury to be,” the one in the middle replied.
“Those who choose to do wrong need to be afraid,” the shortest one said, almost poetically, “and those who become wronged by them need to be given hope.”
“So it’s worth it?”
The short one turned to the one in the middle.
“For now.”
“Reminds me of a book I once read,” the middle one mused, ” ‘All the world will be your enemy… and if they catch you, they will kill you…’ ”
“But first,” the tallest said with a grin, flexing his fists reflexively against the hand of the suitcase, “they must catch you.”
“Digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”
The short one finished the quote as their destination came into sight.
“So,” the middle one gave a smile of his own, “you guys read it, too?”
“Who do you think put it on your bookshelf when you were a kid?” the tallest said with a laugh.
“Digger, listener, runner,” the middle one repeated, “sounds a little like us, doesn’t it?”
“And we will have many enemies,” the short one said curtly. All three of them came to a stop, then, in a small, green glade dotted with stones. In the middle of them, a simple one stood, festooned with flowers, tributes, books, action figures, impossibly old cans of soda, trading cards, and all of the other minutiae of a hero. The plain gray stone was hard to read around all of the items and the flowers and the hand-written thank-yous from thirty year olds who remembered the man who saved them once, a lifetime ago. Beneath it all, it read:

BOB GRAF
“ULTRO”
1961-2007
THE MAN OF NOW

Tom gently cleared away some of the items, making a space at the front of the headstone. Dan stepped forward and opened the briefcase into the grass. A sudden cloud crossed in front of the sun, as if aiding the three men in their disguising. Within seconds, the suits were discarded and placed into the briefcase, after four items were removed. Finally, the cloud receded, and the metal mask of Dr. Holocaust clanged hollowly onto the space at the front of the headstone, the grinning skull laid reverently by Tom. On a signal from Tom, Ben stepped forward and, with a forcefield clad fist, hammered an iron spike through the top of the mask, through the metal and the stone and into the soil below. If the skull mask could look up from its fixed place, it would not have seen Tom, Dan and Ben Graf standing over it, but instead the full-clad and costumed figures of Nevermind, the Blue Traveller, and Ben Graf, the newest Superhero without a name. Dan flexed his newer, slimmer armor, Tom re-adjusted the skullcap of his costume, and Ben attached a new invention, a rebreather mask allowing him to have access to oxygen while sealed in a forcefield. His voice, Ben’s voice, sounded stronger, fortified out from the mask, something that pleased the youngest brother immensely. His two brothers did not notice, however, as they stood at the grave of their father, a hero in his own right: to them, Ben’s voice had been strong enough for some time now.
“Hey, Dad,” Ben said, thinking back to the moment inside the tent on his wedding day when his life had changed forever, “What’s up?”

********************************************************

Ending #2:

A few weeks later. Pennsylvania Avenue.
A hospital, even when quiet, always hums with the energy of its machines and medicine. The very people that work there to save lives seem to exude an energy, part nervous, part determined, at all times as they move through the hallways. Most people find hospitals uncomfortable, but three women sitting on a bench outside one of the many, many rooms seem affected by none of the usual hospital energy. One reads a local newspaper, absentmindedly, constantly scanning over the top of the page for any interfering nurse or orderly. The second has busied herself with a magazine featuring a charismatic senator’s face splashed on the cover. The third woman, oddly enough, is reading a supermarket tabloid that begs a question: ARE THE SUPERS BACK? BT’S GAUNTLET FOUND IN SECRET LAB BENEATH LANDMARK! She looks up from it every once in a while to chuckle softly, shake her head and look at the ceiling. A few different times hospital staff have tried to enter the room, but the newspaper woman, the eldest of the three, gently shoos them away, explaining that her three sons are inside to see their father and would like some privacy. So far, it has succeeded in keeping the staff at bay.
Inside the room, the three sons are standing at the foot of their father’s hospital bed. The lights are off and the shades are drawn, for good reason. All around are beeping machines, whirring machines, and machines that seem to serve no visible purpose, all connected to the elder man by a series of tubes, clips and other adhesives. He seems to be asleep, with his head gently reclined, and his mouth open, snoring slightly.
“I think that’s the quietest I’ve ever heard him sleep,” one of the sons notes.
“Shh,” another one cuts him off, “I don’t want to draw any more attention than we have to.”
“Why?” the first argues, “you think someone’s going to ambush us here? Jury’s still out and whether or not it WAS us.”
“It wouldn’t be at all if you hadn’t left your gauntlet behind!”
“Hey, take it easy,” a third voice pipes up, “He wasn’t exactly in the best place at the time.”
“Hh,” the first replied with a snort, “Just don’t get us into too much trouble, all right?”
There a long silence where the three men fidget and cast uneasy stares around the hospital room. In the attached bathroom, three sets of shirts, pants and shoes sit, neatly folded.
“Can’t you just… y’know… wake him up?”
The first voice wants to shush the second again, but settles for an agitated groan.
“In his condition, anything I do could cause some serious brain damage.”
“How do you know that?”
“Well, I don’t,” the first voice stammered a little, “I just don’t want to try because I don’t want to hurt him.”
“Aw, BS!” the second said with his own snort, “I know you’re good enough to get out if things get bad. I once saw you telepathically squeeze a blood vessel to prevent an aneurysm, so don’t give me that.”
“Fine,” the first responded, a little frustrated, “how about ‘I don’t want to read my Dad’s mind while he’s unconscious,’ does that sound better?”
Another small silence followed, but this one was charged with an energy that came tumbling out in the second voice.
“What, are you afraid he’s gonna be having naughty thoughts about Mom or something?”
“Gah!” the third voice popped up again, “I could have gone the rest of my life without hearing that!”
“Quiet, both of you!” the first voice snapped, “Fine, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Be careful,” the third voice called out quietly. Within a few moments, the heart rate picked up slightly on the monitor, and the man’s fingers began to move slightly. Before long, there was movement in his upper body, and then his shoulders, and then finally his neck and head. The last thing to move were his eyelids, that opened weakly, almost sleepily. Bob Graf squinted hard in the lack of light.
“Who’s there?” a cracked, weary voice escaped his lips. Tom quickly fetched him a glass of water.
“Turn up the light a little, Ben.”
The third voice did as he was told. After Bob had taken his water, he feebly tried to clear his throat. All joviality aside, Dan Graf was quickly as bedside.
“Take it easy, Dad, take it easy.”
“Damn,” Bob grumbled, “I’d say I felt stiff as a board, but that’d be an insult to boards.”
He blinked with visible effort and continued to squint at his sons in the low light.
“Am I getting any better?”
“A little,” Tom said frankly, “but you’ll still be here a while. It’s a good thing you’ve been a farmer all these years, or explaining all that was wrong with your body would have been pretty difficult.”
“Doctors are sorta dumb that way,” Dan chipped in, “they apparently think a cow can kick as hard as Grand Master Malice used to.”
Bob gave a grunt and shifted a little in bed, limited as he was by the instruments all around him.
“Sometimes it felt that way,” he said with a bit of dry humor, “and I don’t think I’ll be out there hip-checking heifers anymore. I’m just plain shot, aren’t I?”
There were some uncomfortable murmurs along the lines of an affirmative.
“At least I got one more run,” he sighed, slightly bitterly and slightly sadly, “hey, where’s Ben?”
“Trying to get these stupid lights to work, Dad!”
The third sons voice came from a fair distance away.
“You’ve got to work the switch and the slider,” Dan called out helpfully.
“Which switch?”
“The third one.”
“From the left?”
“What?”
“Yes!” Tom replied grumpily, “third from the left.”
Within a few seconds, the lights came up. Bob’s eyes, at first screwed up tight, shot open wide now, shining with pride. For the first time in some time, he smiled broadly, exposing all of the false teeth he’d come by in the years of fighting crime.
“Ah, that’s better,” he said happily, taking another small sip of water, “But get over here, Banjo. I wanna look at my boys.”
Ben quickly hopped into frame, his ridiculous costume clashing with Dan and Tom’s professionally made ensembles.
“My boys,” Bob said proudly at the three costumed men standing at the foot of his bed, “my boys.”
Ben struck what he hoped was a triumphant pose. He thought back to the moment inside the tent on his wedding day when his life had changed forever, and decided to start things all over again where they had started.
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”

***********************************************

Well? Which one’s better?

God bless… God damn.

“Gina…”
Despite Dan’s words, she kept on screaming and sobbing.
“Why did you do that? He held the secrets… he could have made us all so amazing… like gods!”
“Gina, stop it…” Dan tried again, taking a step toward her.
“Oh, SHUT UP, DAN!” She shrieked back, lashing out at his outstretched hand with her fingernails. They clanged harmlessly off his still-armored right hand, “It’s easy for you to do it, isn’t it? Everything’s easy for you, and your family… everything’s just so easy, isn’t it? You wonder why people hate you, why I…”
Her voice melted away. She couldn’t bring herself to say it. Instead, she tried something else.
“You remind them of how useless they are, of how stupid they are!” her face was red and puffing up from the emotion, “you make people feel inferior, just by walking in a room. I thought… I thought that with you, maybe I could be like that… but you only made it worse! And that man…that man!”
She gestured to the body that was Dr. Holocaust.
“He could have made me just as good as you, just as special…”
“He didn’t care about, you Gina! I do.”
“No you don’t!” she bellowed, pushing him aside and kneeling down next to the Dr.’s body, examining the still handsome features of the dead man.
“If you did, you would have done something different… you would have made yourself something different, for me…”
“You don’t think I tried?” Dan shot back, a little angry, “I tried to get along with your crazy mother, I tried to adjust? You don’t think I did?”
“It’s not that you didn’t try,” she said softly, still crying, “it’s that you couldn’t. You couldn’t stop being just so damn… you.”
“I can’t stop being who I am, Gina,” Dan said finally, firmly, “I won’t lie.”
“I know you can’t. And that’s why… that’s why I hate you!”
In a flash, she grabbed the metal Death’s Head mask of Dr. Holocaust and swung it at Dan’s head with all her might. It bounced off harmlessly and skidded to a stop next to the doorway. Gina let out a cry because of the shock of the blow and fell into a heap on the floor, her hand bleeding slightly from the metal mask.
“That fucking armor was always there, wasn’t it?” she sobbed bitterly, “I could never get through it.”
“I was unaware that you needed to,” Dan shot back coldly. Tom diplomatically knelt down to examine her hand.
“Let me see,” he said, craning his neck while still sporting broken arms, “It might be broken.”
“No!” she cried, “I don’t want another of you looking at me… you freaks!”
She leapt to her feet, kicking out at Tom and striking a grazing blow against one of Tom’s arms that caused him to grit his teeth. Both Ben turned to his injured brother as Gina made to dash between him and Dan to escape.
“Dan, grab her!” Ben called.
Dan reached out, but was unable to restrain her as she stumbled over to Holocaust’s desk, noting a control panel built into the wood.
“He said he wanted you to take care of all his creations, didn’t he?” She said with a manic smile on her face, “I’ve seen them, you know: I wandered around these tunnels, and I saw them: they’re hideous, ugly, monsters… they could probably rip you all apart!”
“Gina, no!”
“He wanted you to take care of them, so why not set them free!”
She slammed her palm down on the control panel, and suddenly the underground compound was awash in red warning lights, sirens, and the sounds of opening  cast-iron doors.
“No, let’s see how super you boys really are!”
And, with a cackle, she headed for the door.
“Dan!” Ben shouted, “get her, damn it!”
But again Dan was too slow, and Gina once again disappeared into the halls, laughing in her insanity.
“What the hell, Dan?” Ben blustered, trying to help Tom over to the desk, “what happened there?”
“It’s not something for you to worry about, Ben,” Tom said darkly, “we have bigger problems, now.”
“Yeah, the inmates have a day pass, now. Can you sense them?”
“I sense nothing,” Tom said, his face grim, “Holocaust made them without fully functioning minds, without souls… they are barely animals. Some of them won’t even feel pain.”
“Then I guess they won’t mind if Dan punches the shit out of them!” Ben shot back with a grin, “right, Dan?”
But Dan was silent, still looking at the steel & diamond ring in his gauntlet-free left hand.
“You know,” he said with a sad laugh, “I could have gotten another ring. But this one was so cool.
“Now is not the time, Dan,” Tom rose from the edge of the desk, brushing away a fussing Ben, “we have work to do.”
“She said she hated me.”
“Some people always will.”
“But why her?”
Tom used his telekinesis to turn Dan’s head round to face him. His body followed numbly.
“I don’t know, Dan,” he said, his blue eyes piercing into Dan’s, but not controlling, not manipulating. Dan blinked a few times at the sound of that phrase.
“You don’t know?” he asked, almost sleepily, “YOU don’t know?”
Tom nodded slightly, as though his neck pained him, too.
“Well, there’s a first time for everything, I guess,” Dan replied to the nod, the ghost of a smile starting to show above Dan’s strong chin.
“I say when I’m wrong,” Tom shot back defensively.
“Yeah, like twice.”
“Maybe I’ve only been wrong twice.”
“And maybe I’m a god-damned kangaroo.”
“Shut up, Dan.”
“I don’t really want to.”
“What if I make you?”
“What, are we still teenagers? You going to beat me up with those busted wings? I’d like to see you try!”
“Don’t be so cocky, Dan…”
Guys?!”
Ben found himself between his brothers,  putting up a forcefield… just in case.
“Don’t we have something more important to do right now?”
As if on command, horrible shrieks began to emanate from deep within the bowels of Holocaust’s lair.
“Dad and the Gentleman are out there, and if those… things get to them…”
Dan and Tom gave each other a look that seemed to say “we’ll settle this later.”
“Right,” Tom nodded, “We’ve got work to do.”
“Just like in the old days?” Dan said, his face lit up with a giant grin.
“Like the old days,” Tom replied, his face still stony. Then, he allowed himself a slight bit of a smile with one more barb.
“Just don’t get like you used to, Dan,” he said, almost embarrassed, “All that whooping and gung-ho garbage. It makes you look retarded.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“Huh.”
The three had made their way out into the hallway, and the floor had begun to rumble beneath their feet. They made their way back to the main chamber where Ultro and the Atomic Gentleman still sat, ready to put up a final stand.
“You’ll have the benefit of a bottleneck here,” the Gentleman offered, “that is, until they start smashing down the walls. What’s above us nowadays, anyway?”
“World War II Memorial,” Tom shot back, expertly cracking his neck in preparation.
“I fear, not for much longer,” the Gentleman replied.
“That’s okay by me,” Ben said, “I always thought it coulda been better, anyway.”
There was another smash, and now there seemed to be an awful smell filling the room.
“They’re not much for hygiene,” Dan muttered, raising his fists.
“Damn it, Dan!” Ben said with alarm, “where’s your other gauntlet?”
“I dunno,” Dan shrugged casually, “over there, somewhere.”
“Well, go get it!”
The shrieks were now closer than ever. Dan grinned under his armor.
“Oh, well… guess I’ll have to do it with one hand behind my back!”
“Dan,” Tom said quietly in that voice that always seemed to carry.
The newscaster’s good mood immediately evaporated as he got ready for another scolding. Much to his surprise, Tom smiled broadly from beneath his beard.
“Don’t hold back this time, all right?”
Dan laughed loudly and began stretching his arms and legs animatedly.
“Oooh, I’m gonna hate myself in the morning for this, but… worth it!”
With one final smash, a horrific hunchbacked abomination lumbered into the chamber, spewing what appeared to be a flammable chemical from a loose approximation of a mouth and sparking it into a plume of flame from a loose approximation of a nose. Ben dove in front of his family, erecting a field in time to block the fire. Immediately following the flamethrower were a multitude of other nightmare creatures, all designed for military purposes ranging from tunnel blasting to air reconnaissance. Organic, command ready machines for Holocaust’s new army. Nevermind immediately leapt into action, levitating the rubble around him to use as bullets against the airborne foes. If one of the creatures got too close, they were liable to have whatever appendages they sported twisted around themselves, then hurled bodily through telekinesis. With all of his mind controlled powers rendered moot, Tom have moved to a gruesome offensive. Ben kept in front of both his oldest brother and the two older men, throwing up protective shields and doing his best to shove away the onslaught. Between the two, they managed to hold their position, but made no significant offensive movement.
That was Dan’s job.
The Blue Traveller launched himself into battle with a roar; lashing out, as he promised, with only his right hand. His left elbow and forearm, however, were still armored and made a deadly pairing as Dan tore through the ranks easily: punching, kicking, headbutting in a dervish of blue and yellow. Ben took occasional glances over to make sure the Traveller was safe, but he never needed to. Ben noticed, oddly, that the chaos of the battle and the constant crush of flesh around his brother would have made a very ugly page in a comic book, but this was how battle really was: disorganized, confusing, a mess to anyone looking in from the outside. Ben pushed a mutant with machine guns for arms over in the direction of Nevermind, who immeidately impaled it with a spare piece of construction iron. He took only a moment to remark to himself that what he just did was actually pretty cool before another creature with massive digging claws was set upon him, only to be drop-kicked into oblivion by a flash of royal blue.
“Hey, you got a little schmutz on ya, little bro!” Dan called out as Ben wiped monster blood and spittle from his forehead, “Now you really are one of us!”
Ben took the opportunity to lash out with a fist encased in a field, stunning one creature long enough for Dan to turn around and double-sledge the monster through a far wall.
“Home run!” Dan whooped.
“With an assist,” Ben corrected him. Dan launched himself back into battle, laughing above the din. It was his unbridled laugh, the kind that used to make the walls of restaurants ring when they went out for family dinners.
“Dear me,” the Gentleman called to Ben, “is he all right?”
With another joyful holler, Dan leaped into battle against three of the Sonderkommandos, dispatching all three almost simultaneously with an acrobatic  mix of strikes, flips, and aerial cartwheels. All the while he was calling out to himself, proclaiming his strength and power, and always, always laughing.
“Oh, you think you got what it takes, tough guy? BAM!”
“C’mon, c’mon, let’s do this! BOOM!”
“You want some? Do ya? HAHAHAHAHAHA!”
“Sir,” Ben said after pushing another monster away, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this ‘all right’ before in my life.”
In a whirlwind of activity, the monsters were finished. With the structural integrity of the building now suspect, the three brothers made to help the older men back to the surface. As they approached Bob, they found their father looking very worn, very tired, barely able to hold himself up on his elbows.
“Nice job, boys,” he said breathlessly, “You make a pretty good team, just like when you were kids.”
“You’ve got to get him out of here,” the Gentleman’s voice was even more strident, and worried, “He seems to be fading, and fast.”
“I want to say,” Bob’s breathing was getting haggard now, “I want to say to you boys…”
The three knelt down next to their father, each of them quickly removing their masks so their father could see into their faces. The scared faces of three children who, despite everything else, had no idea how to handle their father seeming so feeble.
“I just want to say that… I’ve always been proud of you. All three of you. I’m so proud–”
Halfway through his sentence, Bob Graf’s eyelids fluttered, and he lost consciousness. Tom was quick to catch his head before it hit the concrete floor, hovering it just inches off the ground with his telekinesis. Dan and Ben helped Tom bear their father out of the tunnels and back into the elevator that they had come down on. When they reached the surface, they found their eyes stabbed by early morning light. Knowing that the government would soon be called in to investigate the disturbance, they hurried back to the car like thieves from a mark, where the ladies were waiting for them.
“Is everything all right?” Claire called out, running forward, “Bob went back, he said he had to help…”
She saw her husband’s body being laid carefully in the back seat of the car.
“Oh, Bob! No!”
“Get him to a hospital,” Tom said flatly, his eyes boring into those of his mother’s. Claire took one deep breath and crawled into the back seat, cradling Bob’s head in her lap.
“You two,” Tom motioned to Lucy and Melanie to get in the front of the car, “as quick as you can.”
“Where’s Gina?” Melanie asked simply. There was no reply. The car sped out of sight, leaving the three brothers with the former supervillain Sir William Dawes, The Atomic Gentleman.
“You three ought to hurry,” he said, adjusting his still immaculate French cuffs, “You’re bound to attract some attention looking like that.”
“We could say the same about you,” Ben replied. The Gentleman gave a little chuckle.
“A man my age, dressed like this, out and about and disoriented in the early morning? In Washington, DC? I could use any one of a number of political fundraisers as an alibi.”
“Good point,” Dan said with a nod and a smile, “so… where are you going, anyway?”
The Gentleman adjusted his lapels and sighed, looking up at the sky.
“My boy, I think I am going to journey home, and find my wife. After thirty years, she’s probably wondering where I’ve gone. I always told her, if something happened to me in my… demon days, that she could find me in a certain spot, in a certain park. I don’t want to disappoint her. Tell me… is it spring?”
“Uh, no, actually,” Ben shook his head, “It’s fall. Almost winter.”
“Ah, yes,” he smiled broader now, “It was around this time of year when I disappeared, if I remember correctly.”
“And you’re sure your wife will still be waiting for you?” Tom asked with no undue skepticism.
“Of course, my dear boy,” the Gentleman replied, his eyes twinkling a bit, “Wouldn’t yours?”
The Gentleman snapped up his cane and doffed his white top hat at the trio, bidding them adieu.
“I originally sought the aid of Dr. Holocaust because my atomic energy made me nigh-immortal. I have done terrible things to a great many people; I viewed my accidental powers as a curse that robbed me of a life with my beloved. Though it took several years, I believe my powers have been completely siphoned off, and now I am looking forward to going home, growing old, and dying next to the woman I love. Surely, you would not begrudge me that?”
There was an uncomfortable silence that followed. The Gentleman stood, firm and strong, against the three shuffling Graf boys. Finally, Dan stepped forward.
“No, we wouldn’t,” he said, extending a gauntlet-clad hand to be shaken.
The Gentleman shook his hand warmly, and then the two others.
“It has been a long winter since my wife saw me last,” he said with tears at the corners of his eyes, “but I suppose no winter can last forever… even a Nuclear one…”
And with that, he was gone into the massive, sprawling National Mall.
“Did he really do all the stuff he did in the comics?” Ben said after a pause.
“And then some,” Tom replied plainly.
“And we didn’t bring him in?”
“No.”
“…why?” Ben said it not so much as a question, but more as a noise of confusion, still a boy struggling to comprehend the thoughts of a man.
“Because he went through a torture that no one should have to.”
Dan popped his helmet back on, effectively obscuring enough of his face. The sadness was still unmistakable in his voice.
“Dan,” Tom tried his best to be diplomatic, “With those creatures running loose, there was no way Gina would have–”
“I know.”
With a sigh that sounded surprisingly heartfelt, Tom slid his own skullcap mask back over his head.
“Ben,” he said, looking toward his younger brother.
“Yeah?”
“If we come in contact with you, will we be in your field?”
“Should be.”
“And if we all hold our breath, do you think Dan could put enough downward thrust to bounce us to the nearest hospital?”
“Oh,” Ben started, a bit taken aback, “well, I suppose so. It’ll be incredibly dangerous.”
“Little brother,” Tom shook his head slightly, “You’ll have to understand: everything we do is incredibly dangerous.”
“Good point,” Ben began, only to be cut off by the sound of approaching police cars, “Well, looks like we don’t have much choice.”
With Tom held in a bearhug by Ben, and Dan holding onto the both of them, using his armored suit for protection, the three of them shot off into the early morning sky, a light green blur propelled by the Blue Traveller’s immense strength. A few police were quoted as saying they thought they saw “a big, green, snot bubble flying off the National Mall,” and were summarily given extended vacations. The CIA would eventually uncover Dr. Holocaust’s lab deep under the World War II memorial, and within months a media frenzy surrounded the peculiar sinkhole that had developed under the structure, causing the government to build a completely new memorial on the spot.
Back in the present, Ben chanced a look down as they flew airlessly to the nearest hospital. On a bench near the Jefferson memorial, he thought he could just make out a man dressed all in white, holding an old lady in a pink ensemble, frozen in a romantic embrace before the chilly autumn morning sun.

I’m begging you, let me work!

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?”
“What happened?”
“Can you stand?”
“What’s wrong?”
“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!”
“You’re hurt!”
“What’s wrong?”
“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.
“Yep.”
“You must be very proud.”
“I am.”
The Gentleman looked down at Bob then, cocking an eyebrow.
“Do you ever think to tell them that?”
“What?”
“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.

Vae, puto deus fio.

There really was nothing they could do. The monster barreled into them, scattering Dan and Ben like ninepins. They were protected by forcefields and armor, respectively, but both brothers had difficulty righting themselves after the assault.
“Dan!” Ben groaned, “How’s the armor?”
“Holding,” his brother replied, “and your… thingie?”
“Just as long as Chuckles here doesn’t knock me unconscious.”
The creature struck again. Luckily, its titanic size and strength made it a rather slow-moving adversary. Try as they might, the brothers could not completely avoid each blow from the massive, swinging arms.
“It’s really hard to get away from this guy,” Ben mentioned as the two ducked into the doorway they’d originally entered from, “when he makes the floor shake every time he takes a freakin step!”
“Reminds me of a guy I fought in Philly once,” Dan said between saving gasps of air, “big strong ape of a guy, genetic experiment.”
The two of them scrambled further into the hallway as the Sonderkommando’s hand tried in vain to reach them inside.
“Any plans, little bro?”
“We could always try to wait him out,” Ben muttered, “This place looks ready to come down on us any minute.”
“I don’t much like that plan,” Dan replied darkly, “I wish I had my ring!”
“What about Gina?” Ben asked after tossing a loose piece of concrete at the retreating arm and hand, “We going after her?”
Dan threw a piece of his own, smiling grimly as the creature howled.
“I’m sick of begging her to stay,” he said, his smile fading immediately, “This is her decision.”
“But–”
“Hey,” he fixed his younger brother with a fierce gaze, “I screwed up back there. I let him get to me. I shouldn’t let anyone hurt my family. Not anybody.”
“You’re not the only one who screwed up,” A voice came from behind them. The two brothers turned around to see Tom: bloodied, shuffling, both his arms in makeshift slings… but not out for the count.
“I never went eye to eye on what exactly it meant to be me, to be us…” he looked around at his brothers, “I just wanted to stop fighting all the time.”
Dan smiled as the three brothers looked across at each other in the dimly lit hallway. The creature howled outside, feeling cheated.
“Looks like your friend is going for a running start, Banjo,” Dan noted, “Guess it’s your turn.”
“What do you mean?”
“Confession time. We can’t have a great, big group hug if you don’t spill your guts, too.”
“Are you serious?!” Ben shouted, “With that… thing outside?”
“Tom’ll come up with some sort of plan in, like, two seconds,” Dan waved his hand dismissively, “Til then, it’s your turn.”
“Confessions, huh? What’s my big fear?”
“Yeah, lay it on me.”
Ben didn’t even have to think about it.
“You want my big fear? You want to know what keeps me up at night? You want to know why I dressed up like a gypsy and ran out into the streets with nothing but an untested prototype hard-wired into my brain?”
With a bloodcurdling shriek, the monster charged into the wall. Everything shook, and bits of the lair fall all around them.
“I don’t want to let you guys down. Let my family down. Even before I knew what you guys were, even when I only knew you two behind the masks, I knew you as two of the coolest goddamn guys that ever walked the earth. You guys were geniuses and strongmen long before I knew you had powers. I was lucky, I got both of you to help raise me, and you two are just as much the same as you try to be different. I learned how to be analytical like you, Tom, and I learned how to be bold like you, Dan, but at the end of the day we’re still brothers. Everyone in our family are good, strong people: and that includes Mom, Dad, and the ladies. You gotta be strong to make it in this world, and you sure as hell gotta be strong to make it in our family.”
The beast struck again, sending more bits of concrete and masonry cascading.
“You guys were… still are… my heroes, even when you’re not in spandex… and every day… every day I go to that damn dead-end job, and I hear about all the problems in the world, and I feel like either I can’t do or I’m not doing anything about it… I feel like a failure. Not to myself, though… if I let myself get away with looking like this…”
He patted his still ample belly, tears clearly in his eyes.
“I do not want to fail you guys, or Mom, or Dad, or anyone in my family. That’s what scares me, and that’s what keeps me going. And I know that whatever that Nazi jackass says isn’t going to mean a damn thing to me… because my family will always be there.”
There was a small silence then as the Sonderkommando retreated for another attempt.
“Dass beau-tee-ful,” Dan said in a ridiculous meat-head accent, sniffing in an exaggerated manner but still smiling that TV grin.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ben summoned up the courage to finally make a rude gesture, albeit jokingly, in his brother’s general direction. It felt like, after years of being the kid, he was finally being allowed to be a little more mature… so he chose to respond in the most immature way possible.
“Anything you want to say, Tom?” Dan asked hopefully. Tom nodded seriously and turned to face Ben.
“What can you tell me about the composition of your forcefields?”
Ben’s eyes flickered momentarily to Dan, who gave him a look that seemed to say “that’s the best you’re going to get out of him, so enjoy it.” Ben took a second to bask in his oldest brother’s newfound trust in him before explaining.
“I haven’t really tried too much, to be honest. I can cover myself and probably either of you two… Dan, you’d have to duck down for it.”
“Good thing you’re as broad as a barn door, eh?”
“Thanks,” another rude gesture, “I’ve been able to sort of ‘push’ people with the fields, too, and they do a good job insulating my hands if I have to punch someone.”
“Could you insulate yourself?”
“What?”
“Your entire body,” Tom looked a bit frustrated, “could you cover your entire body in a field?”
“I don’t know,” Ben looked worried, “It might create a vacuum, or it might leave me with no air after a short time.”
“You can hold your breath for a bit, right?”
“Yeah, but–”
“Do it. Dan!”
He motioned with his neck for the middle brother to come closer.
“I want you to see if you can pick him up.”
“I can, but not for long. My ring…”
“I know you don’t have your ring!” Tom snapped quickly, not wanting to be reminded, “If Ben can seal himself, it might create a bubble or vacuum that could make him significantly lighter.”
“Uh, it could also murder him.”
“He should be able to survive long enough,” Tom said quickly, “Ben, can you try it?”
“Uh, sure…” He looked to each of his brothers, forcing a smile over the fear.
“Either of you guys know CPR?”
He got a smile from Dan, and it was enough. Ben closed his eyes, activating the computer system embedded under the skin under his temple. It took that unique human impulse to make it happen, the impulse that turned off the self-preservation instinct, the impulse that told you you might die. In the work of an instant, there was a whoosh of energy and, suddenly, Ben felt himself afloat. Of all the things that could have, or should have gone through Ben Graf’s mind at that time, he felt himself overwhelmed with a childlike sense of glee, the first he’d had since Dan, Tom and himself had put on their gear. The first thought that giddily flew through Ben’s mind as Dan hefted him as easily as a baseball was:
I can fly.”
And fly he did. When the monster had reached its furthest point, all three of the brothers leaped out from hiding. Incensed, it flung itself forward, howling through the spittle and the broken teeth.
“Hold on, Dan…” Tom had his legs bracing himself, and nothing else, “not yet.”
“Say when, Tom.”
“Hold…”
“Just like third base back in Summer Rec.”
“H-hold…” Tom’s voice wavered ever so slightly.
“You all right, Ben?”
Inside his capsule, Ben nodded, breathing as shallowly as possible.
“Dan…”
“Yeah?”
“Dan?”
“Yeah?!”
“NOW!!!”
With a roar, Dan took a short crow-hop and flung the light green ball as hard as he possibly could. He felt a little something give in his right elbow, but he pushed on. Ben flew from Dan’s hand as a projectile, screwing his eyes up as tight as he could and rapidly using all of his air in panicked breaths. The monster was barreling forward when Ben made contact with the misshapen nose, right between the piggish eyes. The Sonderkommando stopped in his tracks, poleaxed, as Ben’s capsule began to ricochet off the walls, ceiling, and floor of the room. Inside, Ben kept repeating the same phrase, even as he ran out of air.
Don’tbreakDon’tbreakDon’tbreakDon’tbreakDon’tbreakDon’tbreakDon’tbreak!!!”
Finally, Ben got the courage to open his eyes when he felt the momentum cease. He was lying on the floor again, a spent bullet.  He removed the force field, his lungs screaming in agony as he began to pull fresh, useful air back into them. He took stock of his surroundings and noted with horror, long after his brothers did, that the creature had not been felled.
“Tom.. Tom!!!” Ben cried when he breath had finally returned, “It’s not dead, Tom! I think I just made it mad, Tom!”
“Shit!” Dan hissed, trying his best to split the distance between he and his brother, “Shit!”
Tom, still leaning against the wall, felt his eyes open wide and his brain begin to ache as he began to force his brain to work.
“It must not have a standard human brain…it must have been augmented, changed… that monster!
Dan skidded on his kneepads to a halt next to Ben, trying to help his brother to his feet.
“Dan, what are you doing?”
“Fuck if I know!” Dan hollered, “now, move!”
“Where?” Ben screamed, chancing a look back.
“I don’t know!” Dan screamed back, “Ask Tom, he’s the brainy one!”
“Aw, bullshit! You had the best ACT score!”
Is this really the time to discuss this, Ben?
“Well, if we’re going to die, I might as well get it all out now!”
The monster was still dazed, allowing Ben and Dan to stumble back to Tom at the far wall. Still, they continued to bicker as brothers do.
“You think we’re going to die, huh?” Dan shot back tauntingly, “I guess you don’t have a lot of faith in your brothers!”
“That’s ridiculous!” Ben spit the words at Dan, “I didn’t mean–”
“Shut up, both of you!” the oldest brother shouted. Dan and Ben both fell silent after Tom’s outburst.
“Listen…” Tom said, narrowing his eyes. The two brothers tried hard to listen over the slavering of the monster and, soon enough, a rhythmic thumping noise could be heard coming from the outside: slowly at first, but quickly gaining in speed before a voice, a powerful voice seemed to sing out from the very stone of the building, seeking to bring down the walls of the structure he had brought down once before.
“Get ready for Ultro…

The Man of Now…

THE MAN OF WOW!!!!!”

The wall immediately to the left of the monster collapsed in an explosion of building material as the overall-clad Bob Graf powered through the wall, fist extended, delivering a punch directly into the temple of the Sonderkommando monster. The punch concussed the brain of the creature, nearly snapping its neck from the impact and killing it stone dead before it hit the ground. Bob hit the ground hard, on one knee as the abomination fell behind him.
“My God…” Tom said, his mouth hanging open in wonder.
“Man, that catchphrase…” Dan said, half in awe and half in embarrassment.
“Well…” Ben said with a small shrug, “It was the 70s.”

Why, yes, a bulletproof vest.

“How true to form, Robert,” Holocaust noted with a bit of satisfaction, “I had peppered my speeches with enough spaces for cliffhangers and dramatic pauses so that Ultro could make his necessarily heroic appearance. You are a bit late getting here, however.”
“I’m old now,” Bob grunted, “I’m stiff and sore somedays. I can’t say the same has happened to you.”
“I’m pleased you’ve noticed my youthful complexion,” Holocaust ran his left hand through medium length, perfectly styled blonde hair, “But you won’t have to worry about your aches and pains much longer.”
He swiftly drew a Luger with his right hand, aimed at Bob’s heart, and fired. Even with metahuman speed, Dan was barely there in time, his armor dented heavily by the close range bullet.
“Ah,” Holocaust shook his head, almost laughing, “I must always wait for the perfect moment to strike, I like a proper setup.”
Without warning, he fired three more shots. Ben quickly dove in front of Tom, erecting a forcefield in time for one of the bullets to be deflected. With his eyes shut as tight as he could, fearing the field wouldn’t hold, he heard the other two bullets ping off Dan’s armor. Safe.
“You won’t be able to protect them forever,” Holocaust said coldly, simply, “and if you continue to shield them, Benjamin, I will have no choice but to turn my attentions elsewhere.”
Ben didn’t have to wait to see the mad doctor turn his pistol on Lucy before he snarled.
“You son of a bitch, I’ll–”
The doctor wasted no time quickly burying a warning shot into the concrete just above Lucy’s left ear.
“You’ll what, exactly?” Holocaust said with a smile, turning around to face them again, “You’re powerless, more powerless than the rest of them. You cover yourself, protect yourself, you have almost no offensive capabilities. Tell me, is that the way you’ve always lived your life: hiding inside a bubble, raging against the world despite being impotent to combat it? How apropos.
My demands are simple,” He continued, “I simply wish to have an exchange with all of you: an exchange of ideas, and of rings. If you value the lives of your beloveds, you’ll surrender your powers to me so that I can complete my… collection.”
“Is that how you keep yourself young?” Claire called out, her face still red as she hung on the wall, “The power you siphoned off all the heroes who complied with the government?”
“Of course not,” Holocaust replied immediately, “their powers are only to inflict damage, to destroy. I have my own secrets to perpetual youth, and my own secrets as to what Congressman Abend has been up to.”
“Dan!” Ben hissed as much under his breath as he could muster, “Dan, while he’s distracted, take him out!”
“Ah, yes,” the doctor countered nicely, having easily heard Ben, “Why doesn’t Daniel simply attack? He has the speed, and the strength, he could easily beat me to a pulp. Perhaps he’s simply been waiting for the proper order to do so. He was always the Dumb Muscle in the unit, wasn’t he, Thomas?”
He fixed Tom with a smug gaze that caused a sneer to grow under Tom’s beard.
“Perhaps he’s afraid of what would happen, in his current emotional state, if he were to unleash his strength. You’ve lectured him on that before, haven’t you, Tom? Did some innocents get caught in the cross-fire? Did a loved one? You told him to keep himself, and his power in check… but what of you, Thomas? I bet you have all sorts of power in your mind, I would very much like to have a conversation with you.”
“Dan, just do what he says,” Gina called out, “give him your ring. Help me. Get me out of here!”
“Hold on, Gina, just… hold on!”
“I don’t want to hold on!” her voice was frenzied, desperate, “I want to leave, Dan! I want to get out of here!”
“I find her sudden loyalty intriguing,” Holocaust mused, “especially in light of her recently disclosed indiscretions.”
The words went through Dan like a thunderbolt. He was visibly weakened as he fumbled for a response. Doctor Holocaust aided him in finding it.
“Yes, she confessed not long before you arrived, Daniel. Thoughts of a most salacious nature.”
“Gina…”
“I’m… I’m sorry, Dan. I’m just… I’m always so scared. I’m alone, you’re always working… I get so scared, I get so alone…”
Even covered in armor, it was obvious to see that Dan was crumbling inside. The rest of the family tried their best to bolster his courage, but it was all in vain. Dan finally collapsed to the point where he was nearly bent double and, with one movement born of frustration, he tore the gauntlet off his right hand. He flung it through the far wall and, with his other gauntlet,  ripped off his ring. Immediately his body flexed with the strain of holding the heavy armor, but he held firm. With a grunt, he tossed the ring across the sparse room. The small steel and diamond ring made several gentle noises on the concrete floor, coming to rest near Dr. Holocaust.
“Excellent,” said the mad doctor, “we’ll be in touch, Daniel. Go ahead, Tom, use your telekinesis to undo the manacles. I promise they aren’t rigged to any explosives… yet.”
In a trice, Gina was free, running to her husband. As she made to pull Dan away, he managed to stand firm.
“What’s the problem, Dan? Let’s go!”
“Not without the rest of them,” he said softly, struggling to his full height, “Holocaust, you have enough power to defeat everyone else in this room. Your mental power is now matched by the incredible physical power of that ring. For the ability to destroy us all, I ask only that you spare the women. My brothers… and my father… they can make their own decisions. Just, please… don’t hurt the women.”
“I see now,” Holocaust’s eyes seemed to glitter, “It was a woman, wasn’t it? Someone who got too close to your power, and paid the price. Was it one of yours, Dan? No, if it had been yours, you would not have found the strength to go on… it was one of Tom’s, wasn’t it?”
Ben swore he could hear the muscles in his eldest brother’s jaw tighten with an audible click.
“But Thomas, always the collected one… you had to pretend it didn’t really bother you, did it? No doubt she was the great love of your life, the one you did all of the fighting for… it would explain your… decisions with Melanie. You were alone, weren’t you, after your brother inadvertently murdered the love of your life… or was it really inadvertent? Surely you’ve scanned your brother’s mind countless times to find proof of that incident, haven’t you? Who would be able to resist, with the power you have. It isn’t like Dan, who can choose not to fight… you’re tempted every hour of every day. And after you pored over your brother’s mind, it was so easy to do another brother, a father, a mother… a fiancee…”
“Oh, shut up!” Melanie hollered from her perch.
“Tell her, Thomas. Look her in the eye and tell her you haven’t scanned her, you haven’t read her brain like a book and bent her to your whims. Haven’t you ever wondered, dear Melanie, why there are no children in your home? Perhaps it was another of Tom’s little tricks…”
NO!!!”
A visible wave of pyschic energy tore through the room, flattening everyone and shattering the manacles in the process. When Ben finally pried his eyes open through a splitting headache, he saw Tom advancing on the villain, walking without touching the ground, his entire face alight and glowing with untapped energy. It streamed out from his eyes and mouth, forming a stark outline with his nearly-black beard. Ben forced himself to look away, into the face of Dr. Holocaust, who for the first time seemed to be showing fear.
I would never… I will not manipulate the woman that loves me. Her love is too precious to me to tamper. My powers are great, greater than any this world has ever seen… but my love is greater.”
He reached down and, with a motion of his hand, hauled Holocaust into the air by the collar of his SS uniform.
“I see all of time and existence. I know the thoughts of every creature that has lived in this universe. I can tap into the very soul of creation and bend it to my will. I could exterminate your brain and erase you from the continuum with a single thought. My power is infinite. I see your very subatomic source: you are only a man.”
The fear on Dr. Holocaust’s face turned into a sneer as he shot back into the face of God and the Devil and everything inbetween.
“Then do it, Almighty. Expel and purge the heretic. Excommunicate the filth from your congregation. Become what you are destined to be and smite me, O God!”
The power flew from Tom almost immediately, and he hit the ground hard. This gave Holocaust the change to swiftly snatch up Dan’s ring and painfully twist Tom’s arm into a gruesome figure. Tom bit back the scream of pain, feeling his molars crack from the exertion as he did so.
“Give me your ring.” Holocaust demanded.
“Never!”
“I can break you, Thomas.”
“Get out, everyone!” Tom screamed in agony, “I can hold him. Everyone, GET OUT!”
There was a sickening crack in Tom’s right arm, and his hand went limp. Still, Holocaust was unable to claim the ring. Tom’s mental block was holding.
“I’ll get the women,” Ben said, throwing up a force field, “Dan, get Dad to the exit!”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…” Dan said, over and over. It was Bob who had to help him to the exit of the room. They were soon joined by Gina, Melanie, Lucy and Claire as Tom’s screams again crashed against the walls of the bunker.
“Give it to me, Thomas,” Holocaust said, his tone growing less even, “I won’t ask again.”
“Burn in Hell,” Tom gritted, blood flowing from his mouth and nose, down into his beard.
There was another sickening crack, and both Tom’s arms were broken. Finally unable to handle the pain, Tom passed out and Holocaust gained both the rings. He placed his two fits together, glorying in the sensation.
“The power of Ultro… finally!”
He  turned to the assembled group, raising one arm and telekinetically tossing Tom’s senseless form in their direction.
“I’m done with that,” he said calmly, “and unless the one without any real powers wants to try and fight me, I’ll let you all on your way. I, naturally, have work to do.”
“You can’t get away…” Ben said slowly, almost as if it was involuntary, and odd.
“I believe the line should be ‘you’ll never get away with this,’ but seeing as how I already have…”
Dr. Holocaust sauntered over to the far exit of the chamber and punched a rapid sequence into a keypad.
“I really don’t have time for the melodrama. I know there should be some climactic battle now, but I’ve already been shown to be more than a match for all three of you, even with your powers, so it hardly seems necessary.”
“You haven’t fought me yet,” Ben said, stepping forward.
You?” Holocaust seemed on the verge of laughter, “the one with the green bubbles? Why should I even bother. I don’t even consider you a threat. You lack any sort of meaningful ability, such as your broth–”
“I’m going to stop you right there,” Ben spoke up, feeling his stomach clench as he did so. He’d always had a nervous stomach, and he was not envying himself tomorrow morning… if he lived that long.
“I know what you’re trying to do: you think that my biggest weakness is this feeling of impotence, of nothingness. I can’t possibly live up to my brothers, so you’re going to keep twisting the knife until you beat me in my own head. The thing is, Doc, you’re right. That IS my problem. The only difference is, MY problem isn’t YOUR problem.”
“I’m not sure that even makes sense, Benjamin.”
“Whatever. Do you know what it’s like growing up the fat, awkward kid in a house with those three? Dad, the man’s man, Tom, the Quiet Genius, Dan, the Headstrong Ladykiller? Nothing you can do to me will even come close to what the three of them used to do to me on a daily basis… but that’s family. Yeah, I’ve got some major problems, and sure, it still bothers me, and yeah, it keeps me up at night, but I had a luxury my brothers didn’t have: I got to grow up with both of them. I got the best of both worlds between the two of them, and I know that no matter how bad they piss me off, or how crazy the world gets and how much I just wish I could make it all go away…. I know for a fact that my brothers, and my father… and my sisters… I know that they’ll be there for me. You see, you can break us all down one by one, but we’ll never give up the fight because we still have each other, and even after some of us are dead and gone, our words, our essences will still be there, and that is where our strength is … and that’s why you won’t be able to beat us when we’re together.”
“I do believe someone has been watching too many episodes of My Little Pony,” Holocaust said after a pause, “Very well, if you choose the path of your own extermination, Weakling, I will grant it to you.”
He punched one last button on the key pad and the entire far wall opened up to reveal a massive, ogre-like creature: 30 feet tall, obscenely muscled, veins pulsing green under pale and clammy flesh. Stringy, sparse black hair hung in a greasy mop over beady yellow eyes that barely emerged from a hideously sloped forehead and malformed nose. As the beast snarled, sickly spittle fell from its blackened gums onto the floor in gobs, and the floor shook as it shambled forward on feet that looked closer to an elephants than a human being’s. It flexed massive arms that hung nearly to the floor as it waited, seemingly for a command from its master.
“Behold, what one iota of metahuman power can be manipulated to create. It is these creatures that will win the wars and subjugate the masses under me, as I use the twin rings of Ultro’s power to oppose any and all resistance. I will finally be given what it is that I deserve.”
He turned back to Ben, smiling broadly.
“I’m reading your mind as we speak Ben. I see every fear in your addled brain. More importantly, I see why you donned a costume and made yourself a ring: you believed that you had something to give to the world, you believed that you were ‘special’ and as such were held to a different set of rules and expectations. You refuse to believe that you are not destined for great things, but in the crevasses of your mind you fear the all-consuming night of death and pointlessness and a life that will not be remembered, a life that was not worth living. You fear very much what I fear, you want very much what I want. It is a shame that my Sonderkommando will be destroying you; we could have had many good conversations.”
Despite his brave words, those last comments struck at the heart of Ben: all of the conversations had with Dr. Dalton, with his mother, with his wife… he was no better than this monster. He wanted the same things, he believed in the same ideas of his own superiority and recognition… could it really be?
“Don’t listen to him, Banjo,”  Dan said, “I bet you could kick this monster’s ass.”
The fear seemed to melt from Ben’s body as he turned to his older brother.
“Really?”
“Really,” Dan smiled back, “just remember all those times you wanted to kick my ass when we were kids and… bang!”
He threw out his un-gloved fist in a mock punch. Ben couldn’t help but smile, too.
“Dad, Mom,” Ben said, “Can you get everyone out of here? You’ll have to carry Tom.”
“We got it,” Claire said as she began instructing the sisters on how best to bear Tom out, “good luck, Ben.”
“Yeah, good luck,” Melanie offered, still attending to her husband. Lucy ran forward and threw her arms around Ben’s neck, kissing him passionately as he held her as close as he could.
“I could just run away,” he mumbled through tears that ran hot down his mask, “we could all just run away, Luce.”
“Ben…” she pulled away for a bit, letting her bright eyes sparkle with tears before they ran down her freckled face, “I can’t pull you away from this. Not now. I believe in you.”
“Let’s go, everybody,” Bob butted in suddenly, Doc Holocaust’s being too patient in letting us say our goodbyes, he won’t be patient much longer.
With that, the sisters, Clare, and Bob made to leave. Bob called back to his old foe with bitter resentment.
“See you in Hell, Holocaust.”
“I doubt it, Ultro.”
Dan tarried in leaving with the rest. Gina came back to scold him.
“Dan, what are you doing? We’re leaving!”
“Ben… are you sure you don’t need any help?” Dan offered. Ben looked hard into his eyes, and saw that they, too, were filled with tears… but they also looked… almost excited, almost eager.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.”
“Hon, I have to stay with Ben,” Dan said simply, “he needs me right now.”
Almost immediately, Gina broke out into bitter tears.
“HE needs you? What about me? I NEED YOU! I’M MORE IMPORTANT, DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?”
Behind them, the massive Sonderkommando howled for its prey, but Holocaust held it still.
“No,” Gina whimpered, choking on her tears, “You never understood that, and you never will. I was never part of your family, not like this! You never made me part, I never felt like I belonged, and THIS…”
She brushed past her husband and made to walk across the hundred yards or so between the Graf boys and Dr. Holocaust. She turned back then, her voice full of venom.
“This just proves it. You never loved me… not enough!”
“I see that both of you brothers have chosen to die!” Holocaust’s voice rang across the room, “So be it. I have been fair in allowing only those who choose to stay to fight. You have both chosen; this is your battle. I am sorry to have lost the both of you, as you were both rather intelligent. Good-bye, gentlemen.”
He left then, down a labyrinth of corridors, with Gina hot on his heels, screaming through her tears.
“WAIT! DOCTOR HOLOCAUST, WAIT! TAKE ME WITH YOU! I WANT TO BE STRONG LIKE YOU! I WANT TO TALK TO YOU SOME MORE! PLEASE, PLEASE LET ME COME WITH YOU, PLEASE!”
And with that, they were both gone, and the Sonderkommando was released.

Ha. You’re out.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve met,” Claire’s voice was hard and even, “And nothing has changed since then. I didn’t buy into your crap then, and I sure won’t now.”
“Oh, but you can’t blame me for trying,” Dr. Holocaust’s voice was still friendly, genial. His smile was still disarming, charming.
“I suppose I could have a talk with the others,” he continued, walking up and down the row of chained women, “I doubt all of them would share your fortitude.”
“You better not be insulting my boys’ taste in women,” Claire shot back with the ghost of a smile. She tried to catch of each of the young ladies in turn, hoping to inspire them, but Dr. Holocaust had already started to work on them. It had often been said that he had no superpowers, and as a result most of the heroes of old underestimated him, or found themselves confused by him, which made their minds all too easy to plunder. In reality, the man dubbed Dr. Holocaust had one very important power: he was a perfect example of a human being.
“You.”
He extended his index finger as he rounded the end of the little procession, leveling his gaze directly at Lucy.
“You know who I am, don’t you? My face… you recognize it?”
“Yes…” Lucy said after forcing the words through her steeled throat, “but I can’t remember where.”
“My dear, you should be commended for even knowing me. Not everyone watches C-SPAN, you know.”
“I’m sure I’ve seen you before, too,” Melanie offered, drawing only a sidelong glance from Holocaust.
“Of course you have. So who am I, Lucille? It is Lucille, isn’t it?”
“Er, yes, although I don’t much like to use that name.”
“I understand completely. I never much liked my full name, either… which is why you might remember me instead as Congressman Bill Abend.”
“That’s it!” Lucy’s eyes widened with recognition, “That’s you! I mean, that was you… but how did you?”
“How do I stay so young?” Holocaust’s voice was still a honeyed sound, “Perhaps I’ll let you ladies in on that secret a little later. I have, after all, all sorts of creations down here to benefit all of mankind. This is an expensive laboratory to maintain.”
“So… so who is Bill Abend?”
All conversation stopped. Dr. Holocaust turned slowly to Gina, who had asked the question, approaching her with the single-mindedness of a cobra.
“You are not one of them,” he said plainly, simply, “I do not know why you are here. You… intrigue me. Therefore, I will answer your question. That is, of course, unless our historical scholar can do me better.”
“Bill Abend had one of the most turbulent records in the history of the House of Representatives. He managed to whip up public opinion for all sorts of bizarre initiatives. He was instrumental in supporting the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. He was constantly re elected, despite being disciplined many times. In 1976, he declined to run for re-election…and then he simply vanished. He became a footnote in history.”
“Ah, but a footnote can also denote a source, Lucy,” he took his time selecting that last word, that name, “and I have not had an idle thirty-five years. I am one of, if not the primary source for every major invention and advancement since the Ford Administration. The US Government has worked with me in several capacities, under several names, to create everything from Stealth Bombers to the modern Internet. I have been the invisible hand behind the very world in which you live your lives: my mind and my creation have given birth to every material item you now hold dear. If I had known before that the American model was so easy to pervert and corrupt, I would have left Congress to the buffoons years earlier. I much prefer working on the inside.”
“And how, exactly, can you prove any of this?” Melanie shot back forcefully, “Because right now, to me, you’re just a Neo-Nazi who locked me in his basement.”
“You could always ask your mother in law, Melanie,” he replied, “although something tells me you won’t be satisfied with the answer. Rather, simply look into my face, look into my face; I know you trust your own judgement, so tell me what you see.”
He stepped up very closely to her, uncomfortably so. She could smell his light cologne, hear his gentle breath, almost taste his scented breath, but he did not touch her in any way. Melanie was bound and, although her neck could move, it was not enough to avoid his piercing gaze. After a few torturous moments, Dr. Holocaust relented.
“What did you see, Melanie?” He asked Melanie, walking in a great circle around the dimly lit room, “tell them what you saw in my eyes, what you know to be true: tell them that you saw the Exceptional. Tell them that you truly saw a human being who is beyond your recollection, a human that is above you, better than you. I am aware of how your husband can read people, and with no doubt you have been able to mimic some of his skills. Perhaps he even used some of them on you, but tell me… do you see your better when you look at me?”
“Of course not!” she hissed, wounded, “That’s arrogant!”
“Arrogant?” Holocaust’s smile grew wider, “I hardly think so. You see, when I was only fourteen years old I stoked the fires of Birkenau. I was always a bright boy, it was almost too simple to lie my way into the Fuhrer’s army. I learned so much there, but not as much as you, or the history books, might think. I did not learn to become some sort of inhuman monster, far from it. I learned what humanity truly is: selfish, greedy, duplicitous and, above all, powerful. There is such power in humanity that we restrain with our idioms and our morals. If we only were to set ourselves free, we could solve all of our problems, and the price in blood or guilt would be paid back a hundredfold. Beyond guilt, beyond fear, beyond shame, there is power. You…”
He approached a terrified Gina.
“You understand me. I can see it in your eyes. There have been times when you are tempted away from your husband, into the arms of another man, but what holds you back? Only the outmoded ideas that hamper the pure potential of humanity. You fear because you know whatever love affair you engaged in would have such power, and furthermore you fear the guilt you would have because of it. But why fear, Gina? You have done nothing wrong. In fact, you understand more than the others that hang here with you: you understand yourself, you understand the basis of your humanity in all of its ugly and glorious forms. Within the core of humanity is the power that made us the dominant creatures of this world, we need only to grasp it…”
“That’s disgusting!”
“And you,” Dr. Holocaust rounded on Melanie, “You are afraid to tell me that I am right. You’re afraid to tell me that you agree, that this is a horrible world full of horrible people, because admitting that would ruin the world you have constructed, a world wherein you reign over such a small kingdom, where your word is law. Without your construction, and without those laws of decency that govern it, what is to stop me from cutting you to the quick within your own castle walls and ceasing your unsolicited but cherished opinions once and for all? And you call me arrogant… I am simply reality.”
“Be strong, girls,” Claire cautioned when Holocaust stopped for breath, “It’s a trick, don’t listen!”
“But they have to listen, Claire!” the Doctor rounded on her now, his words carrying great weights of pleasure as they rolled from his tongue, “They always listen. One way or another, they listen: either they listen now, and they are transformed, or they listed later, after they have been broken… but they always listen because I am always right.
“N-no!” Lucy blurted out, her eyes wide in terror, cursing her mouth for the very act of speaking.
“Oh?” Dr. Holocaust was grinning now, “Are you wishing to challenge me?”
“The things you say… they can’t be right. They just… can’t.”
She was crying openly now, near the breaking point. Holocaust played with a crystal cross that hung around her neck.
“And why is that, Lucille? Is it because your Christ told you so? Your Christ, whose words have been bastardized and raped throughout history, along with countless other well-meaning prophets? I am no such friendly soothsayer, unlike your sanitized Messiah. He knew the evils of the world, and he struck out at them as I strike out at sloth and indolence today. Your kind choose to ignore his activism, and focus only on your reward… that very cross you wear, how many souls could it have purchased from the jaw of poverty, or disease, but instead you wear as a shield, as a crutch?”
“No, please…”
“Yes, sorry? What was that?”
“I don’t…” Lucy’s voice was nearly inaudible through sobs, “I don’t want it.”
“Ah yes,” Holocaust fondled the cross further, “let the cup pass from me, Fraulein…”
“No.”
Lucy’s head snapped up for an instant, and her eyes glimmered with a rare fire.
“I don’t want what you have. I don’t want that power. I wouldn’t even know what to do with it all.”
Dr. Holocaust stopped for just an instant, then, tapping his index finger to his bottom lip.
“We’ll talk again,” he said flatly, “Perhaps when you aren’t so… distraught. I am sorry that I had to do this to you, ladies. You see, I had to find a way to get the attention of your men. Your husband went into hiding and, to his credit and to yours, it did take me some time to find him. As soon as I surmised that the entire family was involved in the enterprise, my curiosity was piqued further, and I knew I simply had to bring them down here.”
“I suppose you have lots of traps or guards waiting for them, or something?” Melanie asked.
“Oh, far from it,” Holocaust replied, “this crumbling wreck could not support any kind of major defense. I can barely keep my lab in working order after Robert’s little episode. He destroyed my work, government-sanctioned work mind you… I could have him arrested in the blink of an eye, and the execution of Ultro could take place in front of all the world to see… but I don’t want that. I don’t want him dead, I merely want to talk to him and, by extension, his sons. They are my antithesis, and I wish only to gather data. The other supermen, when I have found them, have been so easy to talk to, but Robert was always so adamant. Why was that, Claire? Do you know?”
“I’m not talking,” she shot back with hooded lids, “Or maybe you would understand this: keine sprechen, Arschloch!
“You always were so clever, I can see why Bob was quick to snatch you up. Of course, it certainly helped his case that you happened to be as clever as you are, it was probably worth putting you in mortal danger from time to time for the romance, don’t you agree?”
“Stop it,” Claire hissed.
“And you, Melanie,” he said as he moved down the line, “I understand you don’t have any children. Surely the danger of a life like Tom’s played into that decision, didn’t it? I mean, imagine if your son or daughter was chained up, down here, with the bad, bad man…”
He didn’t wait for a response, he moved on to Gina.
“Recently married Gina, and with a rocky go of it, from what it seems. He’s always away at work, isn’t he? Always working those long hours, standing in front of that camera, putting his face out to hundreds, thousands… do you feel alone, even with his familiar face on the television screen every night? Does the thrill of marrying a local celebrity fail to soothe the loneliness? Is his ego, his commitment to doing what’s ‘right’ for all the little people… is it doing right by you?”
He moved on.
“And Lucy. I told you I’d come back. So strong in your faith, and the newest addition to the Graf family… they do not share your faith, do they? What else do they not share? They are so loud, so opinionated, like nothing you ever experienced in your comfortable suburban lifetime; don’t you just wish you could find the off switch sometimes?”
Holocaust pivoted neatly on a highly polished heel, gesturing down the line to Claire.
“Think, Mother Graf, if you will of Bob’s Melancholy. Think, New Sisters, of the Melancholy of your own men: Dan tries so hard to get the word out, Tom hides in his factory, and Ben?”
The next words came out so quietly and so deftly that only Lucy heard them.
“He’s new to the experience, but his melancholy is compounded by those who came before him.”
He spoke out to the group at large again.
“They get sad, they get angry, they get frustrated for seemingly no reason. Dan strives to cope by being stronger, doesn’t he, Gina?”
“Y-yes…”
“And Tom… Tom merely augments his world to fit his desires. Haven’t you ever wondered, Melanie, whether you have surrendered free thought to your husband, and if his mental powers control you to do his bidding?”
“Yes…”
“Melanie!” Claire hollered.
“And Lucy,” Holocaust wore a face of almost pity, “Doesn’t it confuse you, bother you that Ben simply can’t find a decent job? In your mind you know that he is capable, but what keeps it from him? You hide the truth from yourself, because it is uncomfortable: you cannot stand to see him working the drudgery he is now, you know he can do more… but you hide it. You do not wish to be uncomfortable.”
He leaned in close, but his voice did not soften.
“Life should be uncomfortable. It is only through our faults and our failings that we can become better. Let go of your worries and your hatred of your own faults. Embrace them, free yourself… it’s what Ben would want.”
Lucy turned to her sisters and her mother-in-law, fear shining in her eyes.
“He’s right, you know…” she gasped.
“These men are devious!” Holocaust’s voice rang from the rafters, “They are broken and faulty human beings in the way that they do not acknowledge their faults. They capture the women, shining examples, and they force them to fit the mold they want, force them and intimidate them, sometimes even without knowing, into being what they want. They are boys, but they are smart boys who have learned how best to create their toys. You see, this is the issue with having such power in such flawed individuals: they force their truly human nature into a dungeon called civility, but the prisoners fester beneath them and their noxious gases pollute their beings. The world represses so much that it spills out in the very thing they fear…”
He gestured to each of the sisters in turn.
“Insecurity!” Melanie.
“Infidelity!” Gina.
“Failure!” Lucy.
“And finally…” he approached Claire, “it manifests in you, Claire. Your mother, she never really cared for you, did she? It’s not a great leap in logic, by your own admission, I’m sure, that you have lived your life and built your family in way to ensure you would not be the distant, scolding mother you grew to despise. But listen to your words of the past few minutes… think about them. Did you ever once tell them that you loved them, that you cared for them? No. You scolded them, you instructed them…  just like your mother would have.”
Claire suddenly came alive, wrenching her wrists and ankles against the chains. The others could not plead with her to stop, their minds were all swimming with uncertainty. When the blood started flowing from underneath the manacles, Holocaust knew he had won this round, and began taunting her.
“Oh, how very unladylike, Claire. Surely your mother wouldn’t have approved of all this!”
HEY!!!
As if he knew it was coming, Holocaust turned around delicately to find himself confronted with the four emerging shapes: Nevermind, the Blue Traveler, Ben in his ragtag costume and, leading them all, a fuming Bob Graf.
“I knew Mona Klemper. By the time she finally kicked the bucket, aged 94, she had called me everything but a white man because I’d ruined her daughter’s life. She was a right old biddy, but I’ll tell you right now…”
He adopted his old fighting stance, the straps of his overalls straining from still powerful shoulders.
“My wife is no Mona Klemper!”

All compound things are subject to breaking up.

“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.
“Don’t ask.”
“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…”
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–”
“That’s ENOUGH!”
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.”

Nobody shot me.

“Dan, get up.”
“Uhhhh.”
“Get up!”
Tom and Bob had gone ahead to make preparations, leaving Ben to try and rouse his tipsy brother.
“Whyyy…”
“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!”
“Whaaa?”
“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.”
“Ben.”
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.
“Stop.”
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.”
“What?”
“Now is now.”
“What?”
“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!”
“You’re drunk.”
“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…
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.”