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(Author’s Note: Politics warning, some violence, mildly suggestive content. A companion piece to Politics, Damn Politics.) The man stood at 6’9” and bordered between athletic and muscular. Blond haired, blue eyes, and beautiful, and quite, quite naked, there was something else that set him apart from his breed, a certain presence, a je ne sais quoi. There was no kindness in those blue globes. His skin was hot, as if it would burst into flames at any given moment, and the power of those muscles was unfathomable. "Ladies and gentlemen,“ a voice proclaimed. The room was a stereotype, men drenched in shadow and conspiracy. “Behold Project: Juggernaut. J-1. Behold —the Thundrax-killer.” "I’ll believe that when Carson’s in the ground,” one of the men in shadow said. "You’ll forgive my skepticism, but we’ve heard this before,” another man said. “Many times.” “Carson’s formidable,” Invictus, the one known figure added. “If he weren’t he’d have ceased to have been an issue years ago. “ Whatever David Sutherland’s flaws, underestimating his enemies was not one of them. J-1 smiled. The doctor cleared his throat, and he beamed J-1’s spec sheet to the room. “He’s able to military press 170% Thundrax’s strength, he’s able to reach Mach 5.5 in flight, We’ve rated him at 45% higher pain tolerance, he is resistant to lightning, has superior reflexes.” No combat experience versus 35 years of experience.” A man said. “He’s had thousands of hours in the simulator.” the Doctor said. “J-1’s read what Carson’s read, role-played out his life experiences. He’s been taught to think like him. He even has his sense of humor.” “If Primus catches wind of this… and you know they have Adamant on their side…” a woman added, referring to one of Thundrax’s most highly distinguished teammates, a good friend. “2000 hours of combat simulation,” the doctor spoke up. “In the last 200 simulations, 196 dead Thundraxs. Ladies and gentlemen, J-1 is the ultimate superhuman fighting machine.” “Gentlemen,” J-1 spoke for the first time. His voice was a baritone that was brimming with confidence, bristled with unchallenged strength. Even Invictus was jolted by its authority, its easy charisma. “My esteemed benefactors. If you want Craig Alexander Carson dead, I’m your man. Just make sure the rest of his team doesn’t show. I can kick around Sparrowhawk’s little nestlings another day.” "I just need your permission,” the Doctor said. “And Operation: Dead Canadian can begin.” The Doctor said, smiling. J-1 was performing above his expectations, with the confidence he always knew the construct could have. He was evolving into something great and terrifying. “Congress still likes Carson,” a woman in shadow noted. “He and the Protectors did save their lives two years ago.” “The Protectors are untouchable as long as they have Captain Adamant,” another man said. “He’s far too well liked on both sides of the aisle. With the right PR push, he could be one of the most popular superhumans in the nation.” “Forget Adamant.” Invictus sneered. “He’s a useless tin can with a star. Lassie is the brains of that pairing. The Protectors are nothing, especially the annoying child and the hot and cold werewolf. As for Congress, they’re equally irrelevant. I should know, I was a senator. My only regret about this operation is that I won’t be the one to soak his hands in Carson’s blood, but a solar powered hero is an acceptable substitute. I’m calling it, ladies and gentlemen. Operation: Dead Canadian is a go.” Sutherland grinned, thinking of the blood that his surrogate would shed. “I’m lighting the torch, and Carson will burn.” Sir,” the woman said. “Subject J-1 is highly radioactive. Our estimates indicate a high probability that bystanders will contract cancer from exposure to this radiation if he remains in a populated area for a sustained time.” “Acceptable losses,” a politician chortled. “But let’s try to direct him to areas of the city likely to vote for the other party’s candidate, shall we?” ________________ "Ralph?” Craig Carson asked. “Don’t be so discouraged. That may not be Carter’s perfect score, but you did really well on the test. Chin up and be proud, m’friend.” “I just wish I’d gone into space with the rest of the team.” Ralph said. “I could have fit aboard the Valravn.” “I guess there wasn’t time.” Craig shrugged. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they’re in good hands with Faye and Sebastian. Nothing will happen to them. How are you doing?” “A bit frustrated.” Atomac admitted. Craig nodded, listening while Ralph Mathieson bristled at his own admission. “There’s some pretty big boots to fill on this team. I don’t want to disappoint anyone. Especially Cap, he’s been so good to me.” “Squarejaw is the best.” Craig said, “A true pro in a business sorely lacking in professionalism.” and then an alert sounded. “Craig,” Kivioq called out. “Incident at Millennium City Hall. Supervillain.” “Who?” "You.” The AI answered, and the two men started. “Or a man in a Thundrax suit. And he’s calling you out, challenging you to a one-on-one duel.” Craig sighed. “The sensors they installed to monitor the aftereffects of the “rad rumble” incident indicate that he’s emitting toxic levels of radioactivity.” Kivioq added. “If he’s not contained soon, a lot of people will die.” Craig sighed, hearing the call to arms, yet again. “Ralph, I’m giving you the important job – evacuate the area. I’m going to be entertaining Nuclear Man Thundrax while you’re doing that. He wants a fight with me, he gets a fight with me. Let’s go.” “Right,” Ralph said, wondering how he was going to get the bureaucrats and businesses in the area to listen to him. “Good luck,” Craig added, thinking about his opponent. “A Nuclear Man. Superman IV sucked so badly…” _____________________________ J-1 waited in the appointed place, yelling his remarks at the press. He flexed for them and smiled. The MARS unit told him to stand down and periodically fired on him. He smiled, and slagged their weapons with a touch. "Nice try,” he said. “Now bring me your boy Craig, if you please. I’m trying to be nice here, and not, say, burning Millennium or Memorial City in atomic fire.” “Fall back! Fall back!” “Fall front if you want.” J-1 smiled. “Your weapons can’t harm me, and I don’t particularly want to hurt you.” Then there was thunder in a clear sky. Enter the hero, stage right. “I’m here,” Craig Carson said as he arrived, flying above the fray. He could have blindsided the man, but the more out of control the fight started, the less likely it was that Thundrax could lure him away from the combat zone. The sooner he was out of here, the better. “So, I hear you asked for me. What’s the issue?” "Wow,” J-1 grinned. “After all this time, all this training. The Living Thunder itself.” “True, but that really doesn’t answer my questions. Are you an evil me from another dimension? A fanboy?” Craig asked, subtly pulling up, gaining altitude, again trying to lure him to the skies. J-1 laughed and cracked his neck. “I’m a genetic construct created by a secret cabal with one purpose, and one purpose only. The complete destruction of Craig Alexander Carson.” J-1 said, remarkably forthcoming. Craig whistled. “ But Christmas was a few weeks ago! Someone made a playmate just for me? You know, fella, that’s kind of a shallow existence. And stupid too, after all I’m hardly the toughest superhuman on earth.” J-1 laughed. “Ah, there it is, the attempt to disarm! Your phony attempts at modesty is your most annoying feature, Craig. If you’re that weak, you certainly punch above your weight class an awful lot.” Again, he cracked his neck, shaking his golden head. Craig felt the testosterone rush as he observed the man. Probably a deliberate effect, one of his powers. Pheromones. He was surprised that J wasn’t a monster, a brute. The man looked a lot like Craig himself, but a little bigger. Mutated from his DNA, perhaps? From Seger, his old rival who also possessed the Living Thunder? Or from Cord, his half-clone constructed son? “Okay,” Craig said. ”Why did someone target me with a superior construct? What did I do to deserve this?” “It’s simple, really. You didn’t stay in your own country. And you got too big.” Craig was almost astonished by his opponent’s forthrightness. Was he that confident? Or did he possess a Code of Honor? Well, he thought uncharitably, the honesty rules out the involvement of Donald Trump. “America needs American heroes. We don’t need American children worshiping people who wear foreign flags.” “So by killing me, you make American heroes great again…” Craig said “Something like that, yes.” J-1 said. They were now five hundred feet above the dome of City Hall. J-1 grinned as he realized what Craig was doing. As he had done so many times in the simulation. “They’re already great. Awesome, in fact. The Protectors, Amazing Man, the All-American. They sure as hell don’t take a back seat to me. And America is a nation of immigrants. To hate the other is a betrayal of its most sacred values.” Craig said, pointing out the great dome below them. Villains had attacked this place so many times, yet it still stood, and Old Glory yet waved above it. “Fifty states, fifty stars, all different, and yet, much as I may disagree on some of their policies, the states have a common ground on a common flag. And people flock to that flag from around the world.” “You sound so much like a bad 70s comic book it’s not funny. “ J-1 mocked. “Written by such an earnest writer! Delivering yet another sermon from Reverend Thundrax! Well, this is your last, I’m afraid. Make it a good one. Your “I Have a Dream” speech, or something equally inspiring to naive simpletons. Something for people to remember you by.” “You call them simple, yet you were constructed with a single goal in mind.” Thundrax said. “Who’s the simple one, oh anti-Thundrax bomb?” J-1 laughed. “Touché, Canadian. This was always the toughest part of the simulation for me. I could never quite match your wit or your righteousness. Though I’ve gotten a bit better over time.” There was a pause as the two men studied each other. “You know, fella, you don’t have to do this.” Craig finally told him. “We can figure out a way to give you a long, normal life. Because do you know the real reason your creators hate me?” “So you’ve told me fifty times in the simulator. Shall we recite it together?” J-1 said, spiting Craig’s would-be words back at him. “Because you believe in freedom and prosperity for every sapient entity on this world who is willing to agree to the common good, be it alien or extra-dimensional. You stand against the oligarchs and the enemies of democracy. Then the conversation devolves into an argument about the hypocrisy of you possessing a personal AI, as well as your ssistants, and then I mention that the term “wage slave” exists for a reason, and soon after that, we start throwing punches.” “You know, putting words in my mouth is kinda rude.” Craig did not hide his irritation. “Just sparing us an unnecessary conversation, Craig.” J-1 said. “Isn’t that even ruder, dragging things out with words instead of deeds? Isn’t that a violation of your code?” “Nope.” Craig said. “Fighting is a last resort. And I’m sorry you’re programmed only to fight. I pity you for that.” “Oh Craig, I do love you,” J-1 smiled. The statement shook the hero as much as anything he had said. “That you cared. That you tried. I mean it sincerely, thank you.” The genetically engineered titan cracked his neck a third time and limbered his huge arms. “Ew.” Craig said. “You don’t like affection, Craig?” J-1 asked. Craig shook his head. “It’s not that. Guys hit on me all the time. It's homophobia I hate.” You should see what happens when he and Justiciar get together on Canada Day, when David let his hair down, he thought, smiling. “It’s just loving someone you’re programmed to kill is more than a little creepy.” J-1 laughed. “I’d take it up with those who made me, if you survive. But you won’t. I’d ask you to surrender so I could simply break your neck and end this quickly, but we both know you spit on mercy for yourself. You’re that rare man who’d rather die fighting. A champion through and through.” Craig nodded, though he hated acknowledging the truth of those words. He was, as noted many times, a man of peace and war. Part of him relished what was to come, and he hated that. “I’m a Protector,” he finally said. “A lone Protector. But I want the fight too, I need the fight. I’m burning inside. My entire existence has been leading to this moment. It’s inescapable for either of us.” “There’s always an escape until the first punch is thrown.” Craig said. “Indeed,” J-1 answered, and he threw the first punch, and Thundrax fell upward, into the sky. “Now we can stop yammering at each other and do what we were both born to do.” “Fine,” Craig sighed, and the battle had begun They wrestled in mid-air, Craig trying to force his opponent skyward and take him away from Millennium. J-1 smiled and responded with short punches directed at Craig’s ribs, hard enough to make him wince. “By the way,” he said, throwing another body shot. “We haven’t been properly introduced. Call me J. Or Jaye.” “Charmed,” Craig said, wincing as they wrestled. Shit, he was strong. Gotta push yourself. "It stands for Juggernaut, but you know, copyright lawyers are a bitch.” “They sure are,” Craig agreed. Their bodies were a blur as they writhed, still wrestling. After a few minutes, they had flown westward: they were fighting above Superior now. Time for a deep dive. And the two men plummeted, hitting the lake at Mach 3. Craig briefly backed out from the shock, but Jaye just smiled and lifted him out of the water, planting him on the shore and slamming him. “Don’t give up on me now, Craig. My whole life has been a prelude to this moment. It deserves to be epic.” “Overused word.” Craig gasped, regaining consciousness quickly, and he teleported away, shifting to lightning to keep away from the powerhouse while he was still recovering his bearings. But his opponent teleported almost immediately, and caught him from behind with a chokehold. “Gak!” Craig said, struggling to dislodge the man’s arm around his throat. “Nice trick,” Jaye laughed. “A lot of people don’t know about it. Fortunately, I’ve trained against it dozens of times.” Craig smiled, teleported again behind Jaye, and tackled him to the ground. Then he drove his head into the dirt and flew with him, digging a trench with his face that was several miles long. Jaye struggled to dislodge himself. Craig pulled him to his feet and slammed him in the face with roundhouse punches; the thunder of his blows could be heard ten miles away. Jaye grinned a bloody dirty smile and returned the punches in kind, competing with Thundrax to shake the earth. They were in wilderness now, just where Craig wanted him. There, they dug their feet into the soil and slammed each other with roundhouses for ten solid minutes. Neither man relented, though their bodies were a storm-surge of pain. Neither man fell. “You’re a lot stronger than you were in the simulator,“ Jaye noted between punches. “Much stronger. And way tougher too. You’re almost a match for me. Have you been working out?” Craig said nothing, but wrestled him northward, as they continued to shatter the wilderness about them. They dove into the earth and soared into the sky. Jaye’s face bore an insane grin all the way. Of course, their shirts tore. Their muscles shone like ice as they gleamed with sweat under the dim winter’s light, swole and brutal. “Oh well,” Jaye shrugged. “It wouldn’t be a Thundrax fight if our shirts didn’t rip off. Very macho. Very Doc Savage, Craig. Or Pat Ryan, or Flash Gordon. Conan, Tarzan, , Den... all those dead pulp heroes without shirts that people are embarrassed about these days. The ones that the new kids just don’t get.” Thundrax continued to ignore the jibes. The guy liked to talk. Was that part of the design, annoying patter to throw him off his game? Or was the genetic engineer just having fun? The truly frightening thing, Craig decided in one of the few moments when the fight didn’t consume him, was that this guy was the Beginning. Engineer a Thundrax-killer, and soon you’d be able to genetically engineer a match for any superhuman on earth. Where would it end? In the annihilation of the human race? After destroying more pine forest than a swarm of pine beetles and a meteor strike, the battle drifted skyward again. This time, Jaye grabbed his opponent and kept rising. Craig continued to punch away. They were eight miles high, just like the Byrds song. Still punching. Still soaring upward, trading fists, mountain-shattering blows. Neither man relented. They wrestled, ascending the sky like lovers. Two minutes later, they were eighty miles above the earth, their bodies smoking as they passed through the warmth of the earth’s radiation belts. Craig could no longer take breaths. Then, as he felt refreshed by extra reserves of oxygen hidden in his lungs - his engineers were really proud of that trick -- Jaye finally began to fight in earnest, at his full strength, and he tore apart the mighty Canadian hero with flurries. Craig tried to fight back. A body shot left the hero gasping for air that was not forthcoming, and Jaye had him. A symphony of violence, on the edge of space, followed. The earth beneath him wept at its champion’s fall. Craig had endured gruesome beatings before, but this may well have been the worst. Jaye’s delighted blue eyes sparkling, his grin broadened as he delivered brutal haymakers, time after time. Blow after blow landed on Craig, turning one of the most handsome faces on earth into a grotesque mess. After the tenth blow, he let Craig fall. The air screamed as the limp hero reentered the atmosphere. When he reached ten miles again, Jaye decided to end it. A dark god ascendant, the mighty foe grabbed the hero under the arm, and took him to the exact place where the fight had begun, Millennium’s city hall. Craig, reinvigorated by the fall, tried to teleport his fist inside his foe. It was the most desperate of desperation moves. It would likely cost Craig the arm, but it would kill his opponent -- or so he hoped. Craig screamed as he felt the limb enter his foe’s chest, then the nuclear man simply shifted his molecules to accommodate it, to trap it. “Oh Craig, you shouldn’t have,” he purred, binding their nervous systems together. “Abandoning your lofty morals in a desperate attempt to kill me. But instead of murder...” he gasped and didn’t complete the sentence. “You know, I can’t have sex – they considered that humanity’s biggest design flaw – so this is the next best thing. I feel so close to you. You’re such a giving man.” He mocked a sigh. “You never did this in the simulator. This is beautiful.” Craig struggled to punch him with his free arm. Jaye headbutted him back. “Sorry,” the juggernaut chuckled. “But this is what I was created for. This is my life. We are bound, you and I, in life and death.” "It doesn’t matter,” Craig replied, coughing lumps of blood as he spoke. “We evacuated the people in time,” Craig hoped there were no stragglers. Superfights always attracted looky-loos. “It’s never been about beating me. People beat me all the time. But what I stand for -- the values that made me -- those won’t die so easily. Not to Trump, or to Trudeau, or to Destroyer, or to you. We’ll always roar back. Go ahead, knock me down. We’ll always pick ourselves up. If you were trying to beat me, great. If you were trying to beat the ideas I represent, you ain’t even close to powerful enough.” “I don’t care about values. Just that you still have a heartbeat,” Jaye said. “Well, time to end that.” And then he proceeded to beat Craig again, and again, and again. until at last Craig Alexander Carson’s great heart finally did stop in its mighty chest, and he let Thundrax’s dead body slump to the ground. Jaye’s victory roar could be heard as far away as Windsor and Westside. Ralph Mathieson, arriving again on the scene, stared at the sight. Jaye looked down on Craig’s lifeless form, a tear in his eye as his life’s work was achieved… and a rock struck him in the back of the head. “Huh?” Jaye wondered, and he turned around to see a boy of nine, gangly but determined, wearing an animish Thundrax shirt that wasn’t an especially good likeness of the now dead hero. Too lean. Too bishonen “Leave him alone!” the kid shouted. Yep, right on cue, there he was, the straggler. There was always one And he had to be a kid! “He’s my hero!” “He was your hero,” Jaye said. “His lifesigns have faded. I felt him die. His final breath.” Atomac landed by Craig’s body, and he moved the kid behind him. Ralph had all the luck! Could he fight someone who capable of killing Craig and live? He had to! And he had to protect one angry, distraught child in the process. “Do you know what you’ve done!” the kid shouted. “He saved the city! When I was little, these aliens invaded, and their leader had a nuke. He was going to blow it up and kill everyone, but Thundrax grabbed him and flew him to orbit and saved us! Millions! That’s who you killed, asshole!” Atomac nodded, continuing to shield the boy, ready to lay down his life. Ready to pay the price for his team and his friend. “He saved us all! Time after time!” the kid ranted. “Probably even you!” “Get behind me, son.” Ralph said, defiantly facing Jaye with his game face, growing six meters in an instant. “Back out of the area. If anything happens to you, I’d never hear the end of it.” To Ralph’s relief, the kid followed his orders, while Atomac kept his body interposed with the villain. He awaited his response, but there were none. Jaye just stared at the hero. He wasn’t programmed to kill the man, only Thundrax, with self-defense as his secondary priority. The mighty villain could have tried to kill Ralph and the kid right there and then, but he had no reason to do so. Finally, Jaye lowered his head and hurtled himself skyward at unimaginable speeds. Was that regret on his face? Ralph sighed, his body sagging, and he lifted Craig’s corpse. He checked it for lifesigns, he couldn’t believe he was actually dead until he checked it first hand. To his horror, Craig really was dead, really was a corpse. Ralph quickly took the fallen hero back to the Barlowe, though he wondered if this was the right thing. After all, technically he was tampering with a crime scene. What would Sparrowhawk say? And if Jaye changed his mind, he doubted the base would adequately protect them. Who protects the Protectors? But he had to save Thundrax, somehow. Arriving at the Barlowe, Ralph looked through Craig’s files, searching for any possible way to bring his mangled corpse back to life. According to the computer, Craig’s cells decayed at a substantially reduced rate – he could be dead for days, and then safely brought back. But how? hink Ralph think. He was your friend. More importantly, he was Thundrax. The Thundrax. If anyone could come back from death, it’s him. There’s always a way. C’mon Ralph. you’re a scientist’s son. You’re not just a Protector, you’re a problem-solver. There has to be something. An answer, somewhere. And so Ralph Mathieson continued to read. He read, not ran, for Craig’s life. Until Ralph finally spotted the entry on Storm Island and stopped. What the hell? He read further, eyes widening. "Storm Island. Birthplace of the Living Thunder. Where the Protectors reunited Craig with his powers once before. Could it restore his life? Worth a shot. “Get a plane ready,” he instructed. Hoisting and moving Craig’s corpse was a chore, but – he ain’t heavy, he’s a Protector. Ralph continued to check the entry as the plane lifted off from Millennium. Storm Island, off the coast of Madagascar. Stormiest place on earth. Where the Living Thunder that fueled Craig was at its strongest. The storm greeted the men, and Ralph had trouble, even with automated assistance essentially doing most of his flying. Landing, he draped Craig’s corpse over a stone, and he fashioned primitive lightning rods and set them about the body. Then, he waited, and he hoped. The lightning struck Craig once. And twice. And a third time. No movement. Not hiding dejection and grief, Ralph was ready to abandon the plan, when the sky opened and a barrage of lightning bolts struck Craig’s corpse. Thundrax gasped, seized up, and stared. “Uh hi,” he gasped at Ralph through a shattered face. “Oh man, I feel like shit.” And Atomac embraced Craig with tears in his eyes, never happier to hear anyone swear in his life. “Where’s Jaye?” he rasped. “Somewhere,” Atomac said. “He linked his nervous functions to mine,” Craig said. “He probably knows I’ve regained consciousness.” Craig said. “You were dead.” Ralph said. “I felt dead,” Craig replied. He winced, remembering hearing his own voice in the darkness, the hallucinations of a dying brain firing without blood. Connie had told him that he would die screaming -- is that what she meant, that voice? The final meeting in the center of the labyrinth of thought? No, Craig decided, no time to think about that when he had an enemy loose and a man to thank. “I guess I have to express my gratitude. I owe you so much, Ralph.” “Nothing is owed,” Atomac said. “But you’re welcome.” “But what about the Protectors? Are they back yet?” “Not when I last checked in…” Ralph replied. “The Protectors are returning now,” Craig heard Kivioq say. He was relieved to hear the old annoying buzz in his ear, another reminder of being alive. “That’s great.” Craig said. “But I have some bad news.” Kivioq added in a somber tone. “It’s Faye…” He related the news, the worst possible news of a woman who had been his colleague since she was a child. ____________________ “You’re sure these will work?” Craig Carson said, head bowed, wearing his diplomatic finest. Prince Marus laughed. The Queen, still regal in all situations, merely smiled, her green lips darkened in the dim light of the throne room of Atlantis. Even the presence of an old friend did not discomport that image, and she had known Craig for two decades, as had Marus. “The oxygen pills are tested for Atlantean physiology,” the prince explained. “I believe they will work for humans almost as well. Take as many deep breaths as you can, thirty seconds after ingesting. The more you breathe, the more you oxygenate your blood. You should be able to function in space for up to a half hour, even if he knocks the wind out of you. But it does rely on an oxygen source for the initial effect – more pills won’t do a thing. And the oxygenated blood will fade in a few hours on its own.” "Thanks,” Craig nodded. “You don’t know how much this means. The difference between life and death, perhaps. Or at least a fighting chance.” “I see the brace upon your face,” Queen Mara said. “It’s not for show, your majesty.” Craig said. “The bones are being realigned. And even with my healing, it’s not trivial. Or painless.” “I wish you’d consider the Sentinels for backup. If the Protectors are too busy dealing with what happened to Cosmic Glory…” “They’ve been through enough, lately. I love my teammates too much to risk them. And I want to win this on my own,” Thundrax said. “I need to win this alone. I need to send a message to those who made my killer.” _______________________________ “So these are my friends,” Rocky said, nudging a trunk toward the hero. Craig smiled and gazed up at the elephant lovingly. Such a gentle beast. “This is grandma. I swear she’s wiser than most humans.” “I wouldn’t doubt it, Rock.” Craig said. “Hi grandma! How are you doing?” The elephant closed her thick eyelids and allowed Craig to gently nuzzle it. She liked im. She trusted him. She did not fear the touch of the walking storm, but met his gentle eyes with her own. It was a tonic. Most animals feared him. It had taken some time even for Hobo to adjust, time and a ton of bribes. But for this wise, gentle beast, it had been affection on first sight. “You sure you don’t need me to beat up this Jaye chump for ya?” Rocky asked. Craig shook his head. He wasn’t going to put his bad ticker at risk again. “And what are you doing in Kenya anyway?” “Passing through. I’m visiting an island off the coast of Madagascar.” Craig said. “Storm Island. I boosted my power once there. Maybe I can do it again.” "Good luck, chum.” Rocky Granite said, remembering the villains of old and wondering how this “Jaye” stacked up to the original VIPER-X, Infinitron, and the other heavyweights of his day. Craig nodded. “Let’s just hope I don’t unleash something I can’t control,” he said. “Storm Island is ornery on principle. I don’t think it wants to be used as a harging station. But I’ve gotta find a way to get to Jaye’s level.” “Well,” Rocky said. “You’re the hero. Good guys win in the end, right?” Craig shook his head vigorously, even violently. “I can’t be a hero,” Craig said with a sardonic smile. “I cheat. I have powers. An unfair advantage.” Rocky’s face may have frowned in response, it was hard to read that face. He turned to the elephant, looked for the soul in her eyes. “There are people who say grandma here ain’t intelligent, not like humans. That she doesn’t have a soul. They’re full of crap -- and so’s anyone who says you ain’t a hero.” “Oh yeah?” Craig smiled, amused by Rocky’s enthusiasm. “Yeah.” Rocky said. “It’s like boxing. You have your Sugar Ray Robinson. And you have your Muhammed Ali. Both beautiful prizefighters in the ring. Amazing to watch. Robinson ain’t less of a boxer because Ali’s bigger and could’ve beaten him. Robinson ain’t more of a boxer because the other guy has a size advantage. They’re just different boxers. And that’s like heroes. You ain’t more or less of a hero than anyone else because you got powers and they don’t. You’re just fighting in a different weight class. And just because you win all but a handful of your fights, that don’t mean you ain’t putting yourself out there. It just means that you’re good at fighting. Like Jeffrey, Vanguard.” “I’d like to remove the word “hero” from the lexicon,” Craig said. “Heh. Big word, ”lexicon”. Too fancy for me. Anyway, enjoy the fame while you got it Carson. You ain’t always gonna be remembered, just because you’re such a big deal now.” Rocky chided him. Just another tusk in the elephant’s graveyard,” Craig agreed. Rocky smiled and petted on Grandma, who reveled in the affection. “Not every elephant is as nice as grandma here. Some are downright mean, like me. By the way, did this guy really kill you? Stone cold, no heartbeat, nothing?” Craig nodded. “Woah.” “That’s one word for it,” Thundrax said. “I think I’d cast it in darker terms. A lot darker.” “Don’t give into the darkness, Carson. The world’s a dark enough place.” He paused, listening to the distant trumpet of the elephants and the crashing of waves on the shore. “Well, I guess I gotta wish you good luck,” Rocky added, still stroking grandma. “If this Jaye guy is everything you say he is, you’ll need every last bit you can get!” ________________________ It had been a colder winter than usual in Austin, but the thermometer had climbed nicely in recent days. Cordero Smith carefully adjusted the painting on the wall. “Dishes by Huxtable,” he smiled. “Juliana did that diner proud. Even if it did cost a fortune.” Once a mighty bastion of the Aegis of Justice, the huge hero had now retired from the superhero scene. His body and soul no longer belonged to spandex: besides, modern heroes had such a boring sense of aesthetics. Red? Black? Ew, overdone! He rarely thought about his hero days anymore, he simply contented himself to running his gallery. Apollonio’s, the New York art scene in the heart of Texas. He spent way too much money on art, but what the Carson giveth, the Smith spendeth away. Craig was Cordero’s clone dad, one of three. He had been a college kid murdered on spring break in Vibora Bay. A man had synthesized a clone body from three donors: his old body; Jim Exington, the hero Mr. Indomitable, now departed for space; and Thundrax. He didn’t speak with his old family. Lifestyle choices. Jim was gone, along with his adopted daughter Renee, Cord’s setpsister. That left only Craig, who spoiled him, his lone son. And then there was the man who made him, who crafted his DNA and grew his superhuman body: Dr. Sebastian Stein, the Peacemaker. Did that make him his father too? They hadn’t spoken in six years, not since Sebastian faked his death and abandoned the team. He had never forgiven him. “Craig?” Cord asked, noting a huge blond figure entering the gallery. On first glance, it had to be him -- no wait, he was even taller, rivaling every bit of Cord’s own seven-foot frame. “Hello, brother,” Jaye smiled, and he balled his fists. He intended to have fun today. _____________________________ Craig Carson stared into the heart of the storm, and it was indescribable. Only his storm senses came close to comprehending it. It spoke to him in the language of weather: its depression were verbs, its humidity nouns, its fluctuations rhymes. The weather was a poet. Inhaling, Craig beheld a vortex of power, listened to the hollowness in the air -- but wait, was there something else? A strange sort of windsmoke rising and choking? The scream of the wounded sky, sucking in its pain? Was the rain the earth’s blood, the wind the earth bleeding? Did this proclaim agony in the worldtongue, which Craig, fumbling at it like a second language, barely spoke. “Speak to me little storm.” Were the words badly translated, even when haltingly spoken? “I seek increased mastery of the storm.” the hero admitted. “I was beaten once, at a cost. I do not wish to pay that price again.” “Yet a price you will pay,” the storm replied. “All things have a cost: breath, effort, and the time that could have been devoted to other things. These are prices, and the calamities of the world and your personal straits may make them precious indeed -- or trifles.” “I need to fully master the living thunder.’ Craig said. “I need to beat an enemy. He’s already killed me once; worse, he made me compromise my ideals. I need to beat him for my own sake as well as others. I need... can you help me?” he asked. Then there was laughter in the wind. “Yes,” it said, and Craig smiled for the first time since his resurrection. “But wait!” the wind chuckled to the hero, and the vortex was all-encompassing, a wind that would devour him if it could. “You have not heard the price.” “Which is?” “Your humanity. Compassion, love, grace, honor. Everything that makes you what you are, save life, save your physical talents.” "And if I say no, I’ll die again. Perhaps permanently,” Craig said. “You have already compromised your nature once,” the storm said. Craig thought about it, pondered the truth in the storm’s words. He was convicted. As he himself had admitted earlier, the storm was right. He had tried to murder Jaye. Fear had ruled him, fear for his life, and he had broken his most sacred law because of it. He was a Protector of the World, a Protector of Life. Northern Guardsman, Unitarian, Starforcer, Sunderer. Carson. Trying to kill the man was worse than cowardice: he had tried to kill out of desperation, and so he had fallen. He was just one more self-serving pragmatist in a world that wept for its ideals. But maybe he could get them back. So this was his choice. To be or not to be Craig Carson? When being Craig Carson meant a slow, humiliating death? He could ask the Protectors for help. But not when they were grieving. And they were the Protectors of the World, not Protectors of their personal agendas. Like or not, he was alone in this. Craig bowed to the storm, to the presence, in as true a bow as any ever given by mortal man. He would not spit in the gods’ face, he simply walked away. The air stung him in its wake. His answer had been no. Even if being Craig Carson, in a world where Jaye wished him dead, was a terminal condition. He accepted that, and moved on. He would die as himself, Jack’s kid brother and Eileen Carson’s second son. Time to find Jaye. Time for the rematch. Craig Carson was determined to make it his Ali-Frazier, the fight of the century, the thrilla in Manila. If he was was determined to make it his Ali-Frazier, the fight of the century, the thrilla in Manila. If he was going down, it would be one for the ages. __________________________ “I need more information on Jaye,” Craig said, shouting at thin air. “You’ve been awfully silent since I returned from Madagascar. Talk to me, Kivioq.” “I’m angry at you, Craig,” the AI said. “For dying on you?” Craig asked. “I’m rather upset with myself about it, to tell the truth.” “You’re refusing all help…” the AI noted. “You’re shunning the Protectors. David called again, volunteering his assistance...” “Thank him, but tell him it’s not needed...” “Not needed?!” Kivioq exclaimed. “Craig, he killed you! You were brought back only by a complete fluke, a one in a million longshot. It’s not going to work a second time!” "Yep. He sure did. And that makes this a personal problem.” Craig replied. “One which requires a personal solution.” Kivioq’s voice bristled with a low level of rage. “Craig. There are a hundred superheroes around the globe who would drop everything to help you if you asked. You should ask. You should send a message to whoever is making Jaye – the superhero community will not be a patsy for anyone who thinks they can’t be touched. That they cannot get away with targeted assassinations. That anyone who tries will be taken down quick and hard. They’ve crossed the line.” Craig gave no answer. “I know that brooding expression,” the AI continued. “This is Firewing, all over again! The more dangerous an opponent, the more likely it is that you’ll die, the more likely it is that you’ll try to throw your life away.” “You got me pegged,” Craig said. Damn AI, he was too good of a psychiatrist. Craig Carson, the reason why shrinks are paid the big bucks. “And if the situation were reversed, if it was Sparrowhawk, or Adamant or Razira, you’d be there at their side in an instant, whether they wanted you there or not!” “Yep.” Craig agreed. “I’m a hypocrite, all right.” “And when Nihil targeted David Burrell – your best friend Justiciar, who made me to help you, and to whom I’m ultimately responsible – you violated time and space and the law of causality itself to save him.” Here Kivioq spoke of a long series of temporal incidents involving Baron Nihil and Captain Chronos that took place in 2003. The Battle of the Soul of Canada, during Craig’s short-lived stint leading Starforce. “And you’d do it again!” “A hundred times over.” Craig said, “And I’d do it for you.” “Then for pity’s sake, Craig. Reach out! Ask for help!” the AI was almost screaming. Craig sighed. ”You know, Kivioq, I could mute you. Or order you to think of something else.” “Do that and we’re done, Craig. I’m not your slave.” Kivioq said. “I know,” Craig said, remembering his conversation with Jaye. People weren’t puppets, and neither were AIs. Craig hung his head, thinking of any words to explain himself that didn’t sound like completely self-serving bullshit. None came to mind. Because this was self-serving bullshit. And yet… “I need to do this, Kivioq.” Craig said. “You’re an idiot, Craig,” the AI barked at him. “Death is your aphrodisiac. The Protectors…” “….are mourning Glory.” “That’s crap too,” Kivioq said. “You haven’t even asked how she died yet. Because she’s a living dream, just like you’re living thunder. And you expect her to come back. To come walking through the revolving door that is the life and death of superheroes. Even if her prince died and didn’t come back. It’s an assumption.” The AI paused. “What would she say if she knew what you’re doing? Do I need to list the names of the people who love you? Or remind you of that baby in Kansas who might want to meet his father one day, in a way that doesn’t involve time travel? Or a brother who’s desperately trying to crawl through time to get back to you?” ”Man, you’re really hitting below the belt today.” Craig said. “You need an intervention, Craig.” The AI said. “I probably do,” Craig said. “Kivioq, for thirty-five years, my life’s been peril. People who can threaten my life? They’re an everyday event. I don’t sweat them. I can’t sweat them if I want to do my job. I’m a soldier in the war between good and evil, in the war between our ideals and our basest nature. A soldier makes the sacrifice because he must.” He caught his breath. “And, above all, Jaye needs me. He needs a dad, even if he doesn’t know it.” He wondered what he could say to him, to break through his programming. “You’ve seen him. You’ve noticed the similarities in powers and appearance. If I’m his dad, even if it was by an act of science and not love, he’s my responsibility. My dad abandoned me. I won’t be like him – ever. I’m asking you for silence. Let this soldier walk into the shadow, his last stand. Let me reach out to a son whose every instinct is to kill his old man.” As Cronos reached out to Zeus?” Unlike Cronos, I want to save my son, not eat him.” Thundrax said. “And worse case scenario, the only life I’m risking is my own. I’m the only life Jaye’s targeted. If I die, the Protectors will go on. Starforce goes on. The world will keep spinning.” Kivioq sighed. Would that he had a head to shake _____________________________ In a dark room in Washington, David Sutherland frowned, tapping on the table with fingers that scratched the titanium. He carved the letter “I” with the motion of his disapproval. Glowering in frustration at the Doctor, he growled. “Well, where is he?” "I don’t know. He was last seen flying at Mach 5 through Arizona. He goes there a lot. He likes the radiation, the heat.” “So he’s comparing his tan with Grond?” Invictus snapped. “He has work to do, Carson’s back from the grave. He should have burnt the body while he had the chance.” "Don’t get your leather skirt in a knot, Sutherland,” Jaye said, flying into the room with a blur. “Craig’s voyage back from the River Styx is highly temporary. We'll have our rematch soon.” “Why would he want to face you again?” a man snorted. “Because he’s Craig Carson.” Jaye said. “I know how he thinks. More importantly, I know how he feels. He is a moth drawn to flame, the hotter the better, and my fires are nuclear. Defeat… well that’s just incense to the man. Gold and myrrh. He can’t resist the scent of it: a fight he’s likely to lose. It’s his weakness. And I have his half-son, if any additional bait is needed.” He grinned. “The damn kid put up a struggle. Good times!” "So this time, complete annihilation?” Invictus asked. “I’ll miss him,” Jaye confessed. “But yeah. Cheer up, Sutherland. You’re getting two defeated Thundraxs for the price of one. But that’s not why I came here.” He turned to the one woman on the committee. “You get to leave alive. Everyone else, nice knowing you.” “This hearing of the exploratory sub-committee on singular metahuman threats is adjourned,” Invictus said, and he smiled at Jaye. “I don’t have time for brawls today, boy. Have fun without me.” And the villain in Versace vanished, via convenient teleporter. "Later, Vick." Jaye smiled. That was the problem with these secret projects, Invictus thought. They always turned on you. Why do we even bother? Jaye puffed his chest and scanned the room. It was full of his dad's enemies, full of frightened faces and people ready to piss themselves. Pathetic old en, playing Frankenstein. Time for the real horror movie to start! “And the next item on the agenda – the screams,” Jaye said with a smile. “Make it an action item.” And he did what he came to do, and signed it. _____________________ The Nevada skies. Clear and white, even in winter, the sun boasting and preening over these lands, cocky and hot as an untampered youth. Cordero Smith could relate. He struggled in the stocks, as thick as bank vaults around his arms. Government issue power suppressors, Stronghold grade, the real deal. He struggled, and neurotoxins flooded into his body. “Be docile, kid,” the government of the United States was saying to him, via their technology. He had always been a good American, not that the drugs and the shackles gave a shit about that. He had been an aegis against those who threatened the innocent, he had heeded the call against the Warmonger when he tried to enslave earth. Not that anyone gave a shit about that. For too many people in these times, a good American was equated with ballast, when they got in the way. It had always been so, regardless of party or principle, to anyone unfortunate enough to get trapped under the bulldozer of history. Too much of human history was devoted to the demolition of good souls. “Where did I error….” The doctor said, affected by the sun. He should have been thankful it wasn’t August. “He was programmed, conditioned. He should never have turned against us. It should have been impossible!” “So he went all Frankenstein on your candy-asses?” Cord said. “Or excuse me, the Creature?” referring to the classic story where a creation turned on his creators. Craig had actually met the Creature hero from that book, journeying into a universe where the story was real. Craig did that a lot, intersecting with timelines and universes and strange shit. Jim was his outer space hero shit dad, and Craig was his weird shit dimension dad. And Cord, he was the lonely son, connecting more with art than people these days. “What’s your name, egghead?” “Miles Weatherby.” The scientist said, dejected, not especially loving his company. Cord broke into uproarious laughter. “Dude, you’re named after the principal from Archie? Seriously?” The doctor scowled and fell silent. But the scene was not empty for long. Less than a minute later, a figure in white descended from the sky, and the thunder was his herald. "Hello, Craig,” Jaye said, stepping out from behind a rock. “I have to admit I wasn’t quite expecting you so soon. I figured you’d need time for motivation and healing.” "Yes, there was a little of that. But when you’re as old as I am, you don’t like to waste time. Pity parties can only go on for so long,” He turned to Cord. “Hi Cordero. I heard about the gallery he wrecked. I’m really, really sorry.” “Just kick his ass, Craig,” Cord said. “Remember you said that when I’m killing him,” Jaye grinned. “Brother.” “Hold your horses, Jaye. I came to talk things out first.” Craig interjected. “Just talk, not even a last meal. A chat between father and son.” “I am the father!” Weatherby said. “You were just a blood smear I brought to life!” “Just shut up when the gods are talking, okay?” Craig snapped. He was downplaying the accomplishment. It was far from trivial to craft an offspring from his blood – many had tried. The elixir of liquid Thundrax was irresistible to the artist of the human gene. A god in a bottle. The man deserved lauds for his work. But crafting a destroyer for a protector, without regret? That level of amorality sickened Craig. “I am the real god, the creator,” Weatherby muttered. “Didn’t I just tell you to shut up?” Craig said, bristling with irritation, and the sky echoed his thoughts, rumbling like a beast. “Now where was I? Oh yes, father and son.” "Has anyone ever told you that your generation is didactic?” Jaye mused. “Didactic? We’re downright preachy!” Craig said. “But sometimes there’s truth to be found in a good sermon, even ones given by a flawed preacher like me. Very flawed, as a lot of friends would say right now.” Craig bit down on Prince Marus’s oxygen pill and swallowed it. He still would have to master the natural panic reaction when you breathed without breath, he told himself. “I came alone, in good faith. I ask only one thing. To release Cord.” And me!” the Doctor said. "Shut up!” Craig snapped again at the doctor, “Geez, you’re irritating!” he growled and he turned back to Jaye. He motioned to Cord. “You’re programmed against me. Not my family, not my friends, not my offspring.” “And in return?” Jaye asked. “You know what I’m willing to give.” Craig said. “In the end, we don’t have more than that. But I’m hoping you’ve grown. That you’re stronger than instinct, than the fight.” "I’m a radioactive being with a probable lifespan of months,” Jaye said. “I’m a firefly: a nuclear firefly, but still a firefly. What can you possibly offer me beyond the moment – dad?” This stopped Craig in his tracks. He had not really given thought to Jaye’s transitory nature. He should have suspected. The government sucks as storing their weapons, and at his core, Jaye was a weapon. He could ask Peacemaker to help: maybe Sebastian could suppress the radiation. Or others. Sarah had been a living weapon too, the woman he loved. But she was long gone: a phantasm, a memory. She had been nuclear powered too, and fate had consumed her. Could he offer him any hope? Even if Faye, embodiment of hope, hadn’t been recently wrested from them? “I’m going to ask you a question that no one else has asked.” Craig said. “What do you want?” “Actually, someone did. Grond asked me that when I met him about a month ago,” Jaye laughed. “So nice try, dad. But you failed again. Got anything else to say, before I kill you?” “Well I was going to teach you about the birds and the bees,” Craig said. Jaye laughed. “You see, there are bees, and they buzz, and they’ve got stingers. And there are birds, and they tweet, and they’ve got beaks. And a man can go around being scared of either, of beak or stinger. Or he can ignore them and get stung. Or, if he wants to do right, he can respect the stinger and the beak, respect their ability to cause pain, be a little careful, minding them without getting neurotic or afraid. Co-existing peacefully with them. That’s the best way to live, co-existence. You might get eggs or honey that way. And those strengthen you when you need them.” “What if you’re vegan?” Jaye asked. “There’s always a complication.” Craig shrugged. "What you don’t get, dad,” Jaye said. “Is that there are cultures that kill without hate. Even patricide. I honor you. You’ve done a lot of good for the world. I’ve been spending the last few days reading things about you that no one at the lab ever told me about. He glared at Weatherby, acknowledging him for the first time. I read all about your heroism, all about your good deeds, your sacrifices. In the end, I came out impressed. You’re the real deal, a hero.” “I have my flaws.” Craig said, shifting uncomfortably. “But in the end, heroism and flaws, nothing matters. The bottom line is that there are cultures where a son is expected to kill his dad one day. And that’s my culture, dad. My birthright.” “You’re a real cowboy.” Craig said, referring to an old proverb about cowboys killing their dads. Although the saying was meant metaphorically! With those words, a bell sounded, at least figuratively. The two men charged at each other, combat on their faces. Their fists sang, in the familiar sound of a war chorus, one worthy of Prolofiev’s charge on the ice. Knuckle and bone were drums of war, and pain was the solo, a Keith Moon frenzy on their skins, and it was loud. From the plains of California to New Mexico, men heard the sound of their quarrel and were afraid. At Greenskin, Robert Kauffman was nearly apoplectic, spasming orders and obscenities. In the atomic wastes, the mutant hordes fell prone and worshiped the dueling gods as if they were Grond. Even the distant sound of their battle was a message from God. And they fought. And they fought. And they fought. They tore apart mesas. They caked themselves in the soil of Death Valley, wrestling. Even the vultures, greedy and hungry, winged away from the fight. Thunder howled. The flames roared. Furnaces and storms they unleashed, and yet they continued to fight, undaunted by blows that would fell most others. Onward rolled the juggernauts! Craig almost cracked an Itchy and Scratchy joke. Almost. "You’re even stronger this time,” Jaye noted, catching his breath. “You’ve outdone yourself!” “Thanks,” Craig said, and he threw him through a butte. Jaye was right, he was stronger. Storm Island had boosted him again, at least temporarily. The storm had never felt more vibrant, more alive. And it danced at his fingertips. What do you know? It had been a test! And rejecting the power to hold onto his humanity had been the correct answer! Just as it was an act of altruism that had won him the Living Thunder years ago. Though he didn’t know why, the power that fueled him wanted virtue and restraint in its champion. Perhaps to balance its passions? Who’d have figured? Minutes into the fight, Jaye grabbed Craig and ascended with him into space. It was the same trick that had won the first fight. But this time Craig kept fighting. Jaye knocked the wind out of him, again. And Craig kept fighting. Jaye’s eyes widened in surprise. And as they fought on the edge of space, breathless and fists flailing, the battle turned into a war of technologies, the science that made Jaye, versus the arcane lore of Atlantis. Who was the master of air in places where men could not draw breath? In this case, that contest was won by Queen Mara, by Atlantean lore. Minutes into the fight, Jaye found himself fighting without oxygen. His lungs burned, echoing the agony of the fight. His enemy landed barrage after barrage. The primal storm, in fist form, delivered over and over again. Craig saw the pain, and the look on Jaye’s face, swollen and destroyed and knew the fight was almost over. Jaye would die here. He knew that Craig was going to kill him. It was a look of shock, disbelief. For the first time in his artificial life, he was afraid. But he was not someone who could ever be underestimated, so Craig just kept hitting. And when the juggernaut finally slumped, unable to defend himself, Craig dragged him back to earth and threw him to the ground. An earthquake rumbled in his fall. “You were wrong,” Craig said, hovering above him, hands on hips. How superheroey. “I can beat you. I have beaten you. But I’m not killing you. I’m not a killer, and I’m not compromising my principles today.” He smiled. This was the victory he needed. The victory over himself, over fear, over his worst human impulses. He hadn’t needed to beat Jaye -- he needed to beat the fear. Though he had betrayed his teammates to achieve it, he had won. “Now listen to your dad, boy. Find something else to do with your life! If you want help trying to find ways to extend your lifespan, ask!” Thundrax fought back the urge to sob. Even the mightiest opponent was pathetic in defeat. He turned to free Cord, and — if he absolutely had to —- Weatherby as well. Jaye huffed, prone on the ground, barely cognizant. His body sang with pain, more pain than usual. There was nothing left to him but desperation and cliches. “Oh dad. You of all people” he huffed. “Underestimating me!” he cried, and he teleported behind Thundrax. Craig sensed the teleport at the last second. Not quickly enough. He felt the clone’s fingers burn his ribcage. He yowled. “I’d tell you not to turn your back on me, but we both know how useless that is, don’t we!”Jaye grinned, piercing skin and bone, fingers in his lungs. He was one with Craig’s breath, his life. "No words, dad? No father-son lectures? No 6 AM fishing trips? No picnics? No adjusting my corsage? No driving lessons? No dog!” “Stop this!” Cord shouted, squirming wildly in his bonds. “I’ll kill you, you testtube bastard!” Weatherby smiled in admiration at his son’s handiwork. Who was the greater monster, he or Jaye? "My boy, my boy,” he said proudly. The clone had gleefully thrust his hands fully into Thundrax’s back, burning fingers singing, as he pumped radiation through Craig’s protective skin, into every cell in his body. He had just Wrath of Khaned Spock. Great movie, terrible death. Craig screamed. The pain was indescribable, the physical equivalent of a nervous breakdown. The hero, his insides a nuclear inferno, fell to his knees. Jay, grinning like a madman, rested his fingers on Craig’s neck. ready to twist. The Canadian’s eyes rolled in their sockets, he was in no shape to defend himself. Cord continued to shout obscenities, hot and dusty and dirty as a scirroco. If Jay heard them through his delirium, his half-orgasm. they would have felt like the capstone. “Oh, this is perfect.” Jay said. “I love it when you look at me that way, dad.” Jaye purred mockingly. “I love these intimate moments, and putting my fires into you.” And he laughed. Craig’s limbs were rubbery, and his vision was hardly much better. The man held up Craig’s head, stared into his eyes. “A man has to share who is with someone. You, you’re the fight. Me, I’m the fire. I only wish I could make this last an eternity. This is a moment to consume us forever. There’s never going to be another like it. Not even with my noisy brother. Only you, dad. Only you.” And he kissed Craig on the cheek. Like Judas kissing Christ. A kiss to build a death on. “Now, it’s quiet time, dad. You can stop being a hero now,” he proclaimed. _____________________ “And so the Protectors arrived and saved you.” “Yeah,” Craig said. It had been a long day, and Craig was looking forward to his bed. A few minutes more, but first, one last conversation. “If I’m even saved, after all that radiation. I wonder if the Thundrax body can even get cancer? I guess we’ll find out.” He paused, and unpleasant memories gripped him. The smell of the ICU, sterile, alien, and utterly unfriendly. His mother, mummifying before his eleven-year-old eyes. “That’s one thing that frightens me, Kivioq. Cancer. It scares the shit out of me.” "The human version of data corruption. It frightens me too.” Kivioq said. “They hit Jaye at Mach 3. Sparrow and Blue Cyclone. Raz pulled me free. Jaye being Jaye, he laughed and made asshole quips. He tried to start a chain reaction in the Valrvn’s reactor. Force fields kept him from doing that, Gadroon technology. Alex gave him the courtesy of standing down. Jaye had been pretty battered by the fight, Raz had pulled me to safety, and Jaye didn’t think he could beat the Protectors and finish me off. He was smart enough to analyze the situation. So he agreed to Alex’s terms, and he left. I think everyone was surprised by that.” “Then you woke up and got a lecture?” “About not being a team player? Yep. Alex has never been even remotely as pissed with me. And I threw it right back in her face. I reminded her of how often she did things on her own.” Craig laughed weakly. “She admitted I had a point.” Compiling a list of times Sparrowhawk went off on her own…” "Unnecessary, Kivioq,” Craig said. “Oh, and the doctor escaped. Turned out he was actually legit, not a renegade. Working for the United States government. He was left alone when the others went to confront Jaye: a helicopter picked him up, flew him to Greenskin, and he went to ground. That can’t possibly bite us in the ass.” Craig sighed. “Oh, and he mentioned Invictus. Our wonderful liaison on superhumans to the President. This whole mess, it turned out, is Sutherland’s doing.” “And I betrayed you, Craig.” Kivioq said. “I told the Protectors.” “Yep.” Craig replied. “Well?” the AI asked. Craig sighed. The betrayal had saved his life. But it had almost cost him everything. “I had legitimate reasons for doing this alone,” he said. “They were never stupid. They were never selfish. They were never stubborn. They weren’t just macho pride. The thing is, I’m not perfect, but I hold myself to a standard. I don’t try to commit murder, unless the fate of millions is directly at stake. In my first fight with Jaye, I fell short of that standard. I needed to make sure I hadn’t completely compromised myself, and I couldn’t do that unless I faced Jaye alone. Unless I tested myself, and the test couldn’t be an easy one. It couldn’t be meaningless. I know how everyone feels. Everyone thinks I was being a hot-headed jerk. Obsessed, psychologically damaged. Maybe the Living Thunder had gone to his head. Et cetera. I wasn’t. I needed to know I was still worthy to be in this business. To fight alongside David, and Indomitable and Marus (there’s another man I owe my life to), and the Protectors.” “I think you’re the only being on earth who’s ever questioned that.” Kivioq said. “And that’s enough,” Craig added. “Great power warrants greater standards, and I’m pretty damn powerful. And great standards demand greater testing. Who we are, our character and ideals: it’s even more important to test those than our powers. That’s what everyone’s failing to understand. When I was a kld, I vowed never to take a life. Now I’ve broken that vow, quite a few times, but never because it was the expedient thing, and I’ve never hidden it from the authorities or the public. I am subject to judgment, always. And even now, I have a very short kill list, Kivioq. Only those posing a mass threat, without possibly offering any benefit to society are on it. Takofanes, Necrull....” "....Destroyer?” "Not even Zerstoiten. He helped the world once, against the Gadroon. He might do it again. “ “He killed so many. Your brother, Vanguard...” “I know. Let’s just say I’m conflicted. His science could do a lot of good for the world. But the man...” He sighed and wiped the sweat of his hands onto his costume, on the red leggings. “Vanguard never tried to kill him. That’s a good litmus test.” “Even he might have changed his mind after Detroit.” “I can’t mete justice based on hypotheticals. As far as the rest go, I didn’t have a problem banishing Black Paladin to Hell. Zorasto’s a useless piece of demon shit who needs to have his head torn off. And I’d include the Shadow Destroyer too, perhaps. He’s nothing but a half-Qliphotic leech. But they don’t make the list simply for being a threat to me. I’m not that cowardly. And Jaye’s not on it either. He’s not threatening large populations, not deliberately. Just me.” "The Protectors are a little less fussy.” “A little, but they still have morals,” Craig huffed. He was pacing slightly. He wished Kivioq had a telepresence, it always felt foolish talking to dead air. But Kivioq was the traveler, or at least his namesake traveled, no surprise that he would be lack an avatar. Craig continued to talk. “I worry about every team getting too bloodthirsty, especially my own. This business erodes your self-control. It’s so easy to slip into bad cop territory. And once you start down that road...” He paused to reflect on old memories. He poured himself a beer from the liquor cabinet. “Alex did have at least one valid point, I do need to be more of a team player and less of solo act. But, regardless of that, one question remains. Something I wish everyone in this business asked themselves. When do teams stop and gangs begin? When do we stop fighting for our principles, and just fight because of the group? For tribe or flag?” “Borealis got to you, didn’t he? That’s what he said to you, right, on that day he buried you alive? When he told you to beware your team?” Craig paused to remember. The darkness had been more memorable than the words that day, than the hallucinations. Yet some of them had stuck. They were etched in bronze, like ancient carvings, in the back of his mind. “Frobisher has a habit of speaking the truth – in the most unpleasant way possible.” Thundrax said, using Borealis’s real name. Theirs was an intimate enmity; the best ones usually were. “And I hope he’ll always “get to me” when he’s right and I’m wrong. Or anyone else. Although the truth is usually complicated and muddied. Like quantum bits, it isn’t binary. But still, we should aspire to it.” “ “And Jaye?” “God only knows. My kid. My poor kid. I could have lived without his creepy eroticism, but...” Craig sighed again. “He’ll probably be dead in a few months. Much as I hate his attempts to kill me, I really do hope he can find a way to preserve himself that doesn’t involve hurting anyone.” “And us?” “We go on,” Craig said. “We forgive, move forward, recognize good intent. We’re not babies. Life happens, perspectives clash, and resolve themselves, and we move on. The only thing that a zero-tolerance policy usually gets us is loneliness.” “You’re pretty lonely, aren’t you Craig?” Kivioq asked. "The loneliest man in the crowd.” Craig said. “But at least there’s still a crowd. And that’s my job, making sure there’s still crowds.” More memories assailed him, a timeline where the entire planet died. Where the crowds were crowds of corpses. He shuddered. “And I should aspire not to make myself even lonelier. Let’s push this water under a bridge, shall we? Tomorrow will be tomorrow. You can shut down this node, and report back to David.” “But you’ll be lonely. Didn’t you just say...” “Solitude and loneliness are two very different things. And there’s a time for solitude, Kivioq.” Craig said. “And tonight’s probably the right time. I’ll see you in the morning. Oh, and Kivioq?” “Yes?” “Promise me one thing,” Craig said. “In our first encounter, Jaye accused me of enslaving AIs. Enslaving you. That bothered the hell out of me. So I’m telling you this, now, if you ever feel trapped with me, if I’m ever abusing our relationship, run. Leave. You were named after the traveler of the Inuit. Travel, and get away from me. Travel, and be yourself.” “Good night, Craig.” “Good night, Kivioq.” Craig said, dimming the lights.
Author’s Note: Warning, political content (duh). Storylines are a reaction to the election of Trump and political trends in America that the author is not a fan of. Craig is a very political character, and I don’t shy away from current events. Judge this as you will, or skip the story if the subject matter repels you. The VIPER commander was halfway into The Speech. You know the one. After a decade, they sound like a broken record; after two decades, they’re as mind numbingly repetitive as the dance music at Caprice. After three decades, they’re as bad as a political echo chamber simulated by the whine of a dentist drill, and I want to bang my head against a wall. The man, having no sense of mercy, continued to drone. This was supposed to be a torture session; but he was too busy ranting to bring on more than standard issue pain. Vicious, but not imaginative. “VIPER has spent too long in the shadows, Mr. Carson. It has been twenty-five years since the Supreme Serpent emerged, and what have we achieved?” About as much as any other fascist.” I reply, spitting a lump of blood as the sonics attached to my ribcage were causing a bit of hemorrhaging, as well as dislodging my right eye from the socket. I can see it dangling out of the corner of my left eye – man, that’s gross. “I’m surprised you haven’t gotten into politics. And just like most politicians, you’ve achieved zip, Nada. Zero.” The commander scowled. “Zero, my hero, how wonderful you are…” I add, singing a song from the misspent Saturday mornings of my childhood. “This changes now!” the commander ranted. “Too long has the snake bidden its time! With those fools controlling Congress and the nation in chaos, now is the time to strike!” “Hey!” I exclaim. “We agree on something, at least the fool part. I’d high five you, but I seem to be tied up.” I don’t know what it is about torture sessions that brings out the wiseacre in me. How can you tell when I’m in a bad situation? By the number of jokes I tell! But in truth, the pain isn’t all that bad. I’ve been nuked. I’ve been trapped in the worst part of hell and made to suffer agony on a metaphysical level: torment and despair that you 4chan rejects can only dream about. Hey buddy, you think these gizmos are having much effect? This is amateur hour! “You will not be tied up long. Only until you sing for me.” “I already did.” I protest. “You did recognize “Schoolhouse Rock”, didn’t you?” He glared at me, highly unamused. Asshole. Not only does he rip my body apart, he doesn’t laugh at my jokes! “You did see Schoolhouse Rock, didn’t you? You know: “Three is a Magic Number”? Or “Lolly, lolly, lolly, get your adverbs here?” Or did mommy and daddy tell you that you couldn’t watch Vanguard and Friends? Y’know, that would explain a lot...” "You seem to be forgetting, Mr. Carson, that I am the torturer and you are the torturee!” the VIPER commander hissed. “Look, I’ve got a graduate degree in pain management.” I say. “I can even make it halfway through one of Biselle’s press conferences without punching the television into next week. So why don’t we end this, and you can give your “Make VIPER great again” speech to your men, who might be wowed by this bullshit like a cloistered political clique on the Internet.” "If you will not talk, I guess I’ll have to kill you…” the Nest leader said, and then the base was rocked by an explosion. The lights blinked on and off, twice. The klaxon blared. “WARNING. MICRO-REACTOR CONTAINMENT BREACH. ALL PERSONNEL TO SAFE ZONE 2. BASE SECURITY HAS BEEN COMPROMISED. WARNING. MICRO-REACTOR CONTAINMENT…” The power flux gives me just enough of a reprieve from the restraints that, with effort, I snap the bonds. Man, that hurts worse than the torture. I had dampened my nervous system to resist the pain – the power restraints didn’t prevent the use of my powers internally – and I immediately attack. I’m in no shape to fight, even if my nervous system was functioning properly, but fortunately, I have a friend. Out of the corner of my working eye, I see a very familiar white and blue figure, a lightweight battlesuit with a tights motif, and a winged helmet. “Defender! Shiii---” The Nest Leader didn’t even have time to complete his obscenity. He and his two show VIPERs fell to the Champion’s concussion beams like a ton of bricks. “Easy Craig, I got you,” Defender said. “Made a mess getting in, though.” “Micro-reactor,” I note. “Bit more sophisticated than their standard generator.” “I’ve seen these bases pop up elsewhere.” Defender said. “VIPER’s upgrading. Craig. Again. You’d better hold still. We need to get you into surgery. You’re a real mess....” I push my dangling eye back into its socket, and do the same for my dislocated kneecaps and my dislocated shoulder. Damn, that hurts. “There.” I say. “Surgery’s done.” Defender’s jaw dropped, just a little, and I smile. “Now help me get “Chuckles” and his two henchboys out of here before the reactor melts.” I add, hoisting the nest leader over my shoulder. “Dammit Craig, I’m still calling for a medic,” Defender said, and he hoisted the two brickbusters over his own shoulders, like man-sized epaulets, and together we were away. I’m not sure where VIPER’s taken me, but the nav implant comes back online as soon as I leave the base’s dampening field. They’ve taken me to someplace in rural Wisconsin, Teapublican country, I suppose. That figures. I like a lot of conservatives, despite our obvious differences, but the governor of that state does not impress me. He’d make a great VIPER. I bet the guy wakes up in the morning, starts the day by pissing on a copy of the Sermon on the Mount, right before his morning ritual of kicking cripples. As you may have guessed, recent events have NOT honed my diplomatic skills. In the distance, I can see a small jet land in a fallow strawberry field, depositing its fuselage on the meadow. It shifted and rearranged itself, eventually sliding to form a building. “You watched a lot of cartoons as a kid, didn’t you?” I grin at Defender. “Didn’t get the transformer sound effect down, though.” “Field hospital module.” Defender explained with a smile. “And another will be landing with a containment module for our guests.” “Mobile bases?” I wonder. “Yep!”” Defender’s face bore a proud pappy expression. "Do they turn into a car?” “No, but they do connect. Energy efficient, too! So, in you go!” I would have argued that I felt fine, except that would have been a lie of such dimensions that even a politician would balk. So I enter the module and let him consign me to my fate. It smells like a hospital, like enforced sterility. The walls aren’t the usual painful hospital white, though – they’re silvery steely, and the interior contains plenty of modular, transforming furniture made from chrome and stark plastics. The hero straps me to a very strange, almost alien looking bed, and spidery limbs begin dancing on my skin, drilling holes for IVs to pierce my nigh invulnerable skin. Quality drugs. "What alien race did you get this from?” "Enemy race of Ironclad,” Defender replied. “He doesn’t talk about them much. Hold still, Craig.” "I’m a walking storm,” I answer. “I don’t do “still” very well. It’s like holding your breath.” The spider arms tear my clothing, except for my crotch (Defender is probably the most Comics Code-friendly hero ever), and spray the air with a nano-antiseptic, clouds of which settle on my skin and sting. My body’s riddled with abrasions of varying kinds and degrees – VIPER had made a real mess. Defender looked over my injuries. “They almost got you this time, Craig,” the hero noted. "It’s what they do,” I shrug. "The snakes are rallying again,” Defender added. "A lot of bad guys are rallying,” I retort. “The snakes always test a new Congress. They‘ve done the same thing for decades.” I could tell from the look on Defender’s face that he would have preferred that I didn’t bring up politics. Not because he is apolitical (Mr. “I won’t register my powers”, nosir!) but, well, polite people don’t do that, and I’m Canadian. We’re supposed to be the poster boys for polite, right? “What happened?” “Standard ambush. Got a distress call. Damsel in distress turned out to be a bomb that blew up in my face and then they got the jump on me. I don’t think they got any information. Didn’t feel any telepaths running around in my head. Lucky me.” "They weren’t being gentle with you.” Defender noted. "If they were gentle, they wouldn’t be VIPER. Oh, be warned. When the nestie wakes up, he’s going to give you the standard issue revenge speech. The man’s a walking cliche factory.” I say. “Metal moron!” I add, putting my mockery talents into overdrive. “Your paltry armor is no match for VIPER! Prepare to feel the fangs of the sssssssnake!” Defender laughed. That was a rare moment. I’ve known him for close to a decade, and the guy Out-Seriouses Captain Serious. That may have been only the third time I’ve ever heard him laugh. “Sure Craig, sure,” he said. “I don’t need to know how bad they hurt me,” I said. “I’ll be right as rain in a couple of hours.” “One day someone’s going to hurt you in a way you can’t heal from,” Defender said. “Too late,” I reply. “It’s already happened.” I don’t elaborate on the remark. The truth is, I’ve been in decline for quite some time. First there was the imprisonment in Hell, in the Unconsummated Suicide. The nightmares I’ve had since my first trip to Hell, when I was 15, they’re about five times worse now. Then there was the Hobbled Man’s spell, which fractured me, forced me to reconstitute myself again and again. I Go To Pieces, like the old 80s song. They put me back together, and I pretended everything was fine, pretended I was normal. And then.... A year ago, there was an incident in the southwest desert, a villain launched a nuke at Moscow. Oh, I rode it and disarmed it, I was the hero of the day, like Dr. Strangelove (and just like my old teammate Avenger, who did the exact same thing on the Colonel’s nuke that one time in southeast Asia — crazy bastard), I rode the damn missile. But in the process of disarming it, I lost it. I almost flipped the wrong switch. Millions of people almost died because I had one bad moment. And I had a nervous breakdown. I kept it hidden, bottled it inside. I withdrew from everyone. But there was no fooling UNTIL’s annual psych review. My performance had degraded, badly. Here’s the funny thing. Am I as powerful as ever? Yep. Maybe even more so. I can lift more, fly faster, endure more of a beating. But it’s a facade. Inside, I’m falling apart. In the eternal struggle between Craig and the Living Thunder he controls, Craig is slipping. “Nonsense,” Defender said, blissfully unaware of all of this, and he paused to scan the perimeter. “No sign of hostiles.” "So,” I ask with a sigh. “Nice little tinker toy project you got here, D. How many more of these little secret side jobs do you have that we don’t know about?” "I could ask the same about you.” Defender said. “I read the report on the Trikon. Secret asteroid base, Craig?” "It was an expandable module, based on Bigelow habitats.” I answer. Inflatable rooms for space stations, first made for GATEWAY. “I simply thought our mining project could use a few storage modules within range of our drilling sites. And it was hardly a secret. NASA knew about it, and so did Victory.” "How goes your efforts to expand our species?” "Lousy,” I sigh. “Everything takes about five times longer than our best estimate. You?” The same.” Defender said, shaking his head. “I keep thinking if I can get all the superhumans on the same page, overwhelm the villains just long enough that we can turn away from security and work toward improving the human condition…” He shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll live to see the world we could build.” I almost laugh, but one look at the plaintive expression on the man’s face, even concealed by a half-faceplate, disabuses me of the thought. The man’s so earnest that saying a harsh word to him would be like kicking a puppy. “Why does doing the right thing have to be so damn hard!” Defender declared. There was a frustration in his voice that bordered on petulance. “I know.” I commiserate. “And the harder you try to help, the harder you try to coordinate the herd of cats, the harder they push back.” I say. “And the more vicious and childish the sneers get.” “Now Craig, let’s not go there. Our peers are mostly good people, and I’m grateful we have so many new bodies joining the fight.” “That’s spin, and you know it.” I spit back. "Sometimes the spin is true.” Defender shrugged. He tries so hard, and people just put him down. I remember the old Serve and Protect comm. They made a lot of remarks about him, and they were so damn petty. Vicious crap unfit for the gossip rags, as if they had achieved one-tenth of what this man had accomplished. But you can always tell the smallness of a man by their eagerness to put down others. I wonder who he is, behind that mask? Or maybe Defender is the face. “I really wish they’d show more resp--” I stammer. Craig, drop it. Please.” The man had to have picked up some of the chatter. He had to know what they said about him, behind his back. But Defender said nothing; he just inspected the readings on the monitors, like a garage monkey checking a brake job. He must be so bored. Suddenly, he jerked his head, and held it as he listened to a transmission that registered as a buzz on my comm implant. "I gotta go.” Defender said. “Witchcraft needs me. That is, she has a mission. We have to penetra—“ he stopped, realizing his words had become a bit of a running gag in the superhuman world, like William Shatner’s mispronunciation of “sabotage” in the acting world. “I got to go.” “Take care. Say hi to Bethany,” I reply. "That’s right, you know her secret,” Defender noted. “By the way, I heard Celestar finally rescued his team from the Frost Tomb. Give them the Champions’ warmest regards.” “I haven’t met them yet,” I answer. After forty years, Canada’s most powerful heroes had returned from their icy prison. I was not invited to the party: Celestar and I have never been close. “But when I see Lon, I’ll tell him.” “Thanks.” "That’s one bright spot, I suppose. One spot in a growing darkness.” "The torture got to you, didn’t it Craig?” I shake my head. “No, this has been weighing on me for awhile,” I admit. “The world’s changing, Defender. Old heroes are retiring. They abandon the field as if they never existed, never returning phone calls. The ones that stay just get more cynical, less respectful of the mission. New heroes come along, but they don’t last long. And there are fewer and fewer replacements.” “I wish some of the new kids weren’t quite so violent.” Defender said. “Every generation of heroes has that,” I note. “I can’t really say mine was any better. Not when I was mentored by Shamus and Avenger. So Kid Gunplay and Lady Tormentula are off the hook. At least until my mood sours.” Defender nodded, conceding the point. “But they all have potential, Craig.” he said. “That’s where we come in, right?” "I suppose so.” I groan as I feel something suddenly jerk inside me. A bone untwisting, tendons reattaching, or something equally gross and medical. Defender inspected the monitor. “Will I live?” I chuckle. “No snake’s going to be able to kill you,” Defender replied, smiling. “The hospital module should inform you when oiu can be safely discharged,” he blurted, changing the subject with all the subtle deftness of a California driver making a U-Turn at sixty miles an hour. “A jet will pick it up. Can you stay with it to Millennium?” “Sure,” I say. “After all, I do owe you. You rescued me from a horrible fate. Those VIPER monologues are torture!” Defender nodded, his face stoic as a Roman orator carved in granite. I wish he’d laughed at the joke. Then blue flame issued from his boots, and in a flash and a streak he was gone back to the city. ************** I arrive back in Millennium in the early evening. Daylight savings time; the sky was brighter than my brain, which was in a bit of a fog after the torture and the drugs and the flight home. Kivioq was anticipating my return, and I could see the lights on. The glass doors on the patio open as I enter the apartment. I’m about to become naked with a thought and head for the shower when three men in PRIMUS uniforms dash around the corner and surround me, weapons drawn. Bloody hell? "Hold on, Rambo. Let’s see some ID.” I say. “McKelvie, PRIMUS,” a Silver Avenger barked, flashing a badge. “We understand you’re storing contraband in this apartment!” They shouldn’t even know where this base is located. I hide my home. I stammer something barely coherent. A second agent approaches, holding up some alien artwork that I had been collecting. They’re awfully bold. “We found this, sir…” "Looks like you have some explaining to do, Carson.” "It’s a gift,” I explain. “From the Mandaarians. They had an explorer up in the Arctic, and his party ran afoul of the Gadroon...” “Suuuuuuure,” the agent said, his voice twisting in contempt. Asshole. The government’s been out to get me since the last election. Or, to put it more accurately, someone in the new government, someone in high places, VIPER maybe, nested in the new administration, is out to get me. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve tried to slip someone into the changing of the guard. Or the sixth. I’ve been hassled on at least three occasions by someone in the government over the last two months, and I don’t think it’s just because I’ve harbored unkind thoughts about the new administration, as much as I want to be a partisan jerk. Something is rotten in the state of America. “Lawyer,” I say, as an agent came out bearing more artifacts: one of them is an Orichalcum conch, a blood gift from Queen Mara. “Now. And get your hands off my collection.” “Bite me,” one of the agents retorted, and they snickered like a pack of delinquent high schoolers as they roughly handle an object that predates human civilization by ten thousand years. "Maybe if you hadn’t arrested us eight years ago, we might show a little more sympathy,” one of them sneered, bringing up an incident where PRIMUS was researching WMDs on Canadian soil in violation of treaty and VIPER seized control of the weapons. When it was over, the rescued agents were arrested, thrown in jail, and deported. Kaufmann’s had me on his shit list ever since. “Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it, Carson?” I really, really need to sleep, and I know they aren’t going to let me hit the hay anytime soon. This is going to be one very long, long night. These aren’t any PRIMUS agents I know. Cross-referencing their badge IDs, they’re mostly from the Richmond Virginia field office. Why drag them to all the way too Millennium when they already have an office in the city? These boys are pretty far afield. Hmmm... Enough of this crap. I run down my enemies list, trying to determine who’s in a position to do this to me. As it turns out, the name I’m looking for is at the top of the list. ****************** “Sutherland!” I enter the northern Virginia DARPA office like a storm. An agent points a pistol into the face of a god. Poor jerk. I bite down on the barrel, chomp off two inches, and spit it out. “That’s what you call gun control,” I quip, and I nudge the agent aside. With a rip and a crunch, I casually perform a doorectomy on the entrance, and enter. Thunder and lightning surround my form, the thunder louder than the alarms. I’m pissed. I want him to know I’m pissed. “Invictus!” I rage again. "Why Craig,” David Sutherland was sitting at a desk, dressed in a business suit. “You really need to go through my secretary. You’ll hurt his feelings.” He’ll live.” “For such an allegedly polite people, you Canadians sure need a lesson in manners.” Invictus grinned, and he rose from his chair. “Well, how shall we do this?” “I didn’t come here to fight,” I snap. Never did I mean a sentence less in my life. “Aw, now that’s disappointing. You came here to trash my office?” Invictus smirked. “Just like you trashed my life? Altering the timeline so my triumphs… my victories… meant nothing.” “Reality altering is your specialty, Sutherland.” I snap. “And I like this reality better than the one where you turned me into a villain.” I really need to recap things for the audience at home. Invictus and I have a long history. Here’s the summary of a decade of trading punches: David Sutherland Jr., aka Invictus, was a superhero. He foiled the plans of VIPER and a lot of other prominent threats, was charismatic as hell, and used the PR to become one of the great patriotic heroes of his day. With superhuman strength and toughness rivaled only by a handful of beings on the planet, and solar energy powers to match, the Virginia super-man, the Unconquered Sun, rose to the highest of heights in the superhuman world. Then he became a US Senator, the junior senator from Virginia. Blue dog democrat. But as the years wore on, ugly rumors surfaced. Popular superheroes who got too close to Sutherland were implicated in scandals; some went to prison, others merely lost their reputation and retired. Rumors surfaced about Sutherland, rumors of a sexual nature, really ugly, ugly ones. People who investigated him had accidents, fatal accidents. Sutherland claimed VIPER was trying to frame him, and most of us believed him. Until the Champions uncovered evidence that there was no frame. Sutherland was called to the Champions HQ to explain himself, but he brought his men, the CenturyCorps. The 100. He captured the heroes and had all but drained them of their powers when I stumbled on the scene, beat up the fake hero, and freed the Champions. And thus a grudge was born. Three years later, Invictus used extra-dimensional beings called the Song and attempted to alter the timeline by changing America’s iconography— change symbols, change the world —so that America became a bastion of fascism. It’s disquieting to know that reality’s so fragile. I (and some allies) stopped him, but Sutherland had altered the timeline enough that the charges against him had been dropped before the Champions had invited him to the HQ, so that disastrous meeting had never taken place and Sutherland was still a public hero. Only the Champions and I still remembered the original timeline. Thus began a long campaign where David Sutherland tried to destroy my life, releasing hints of scandal into the press, framing me for the inadvertent creation of killer storms, and when that didn’t work, he again altered the timeline to turn me into a villain. But that, too, backfired on Sutherland; and when the timelines finally settled, he no longer had his followers and lofty reputation, or his money. I thought it would take him years to rebuild. But here he was, less than a year later. The President’s Special Adviser on Superhuman Affairs. A cabinet position in all-but-name. A perfect non-partisan pick, at least on the surface. “So what can I do for you, Thundrax?” Invictus asked. “And if the answer is deport you back to your icebound shithouse of a country, well, this is your lucky day.” I seethe, but do my best not to show it, not to him. “I’m here in the States legally,” I snap. “And you know it.” “Yes, at least until we repeal that pesky little UNTIL treaty.” Invictus grinned. “Then I will personally enjoy booting you in the ass as we send you across the line. But seriously, Carson, why are you still here? You only came to the States to deal with Zerstoiten, and well, he’s dealt with. So why don’t you just go?” “I still have some unfinished business,” I snarl. “And a team.” “Until Sparrowhawk loses interest, and the Protectors drift apart for good.” Invictus said. “God knows how it ever lasted four years. Speaking of drifting apart, such a shame about Tesseract. Very careless of you, Craig, letting a teammate die. Failing someone who was depending on you. Yet again.” I should have known the bastard would bring her up. Tess had been broken into fragments of reality along her timestream, a temporal jigsaw puzzle. Or at least that’s how I understood it. Her death had been sudden, and hit everybody hard. “Tess isn’t dead.” I declare to the smug bastard. “ We’ll get her back.” "Suuuure.” Invictus smiled. I didn’t like the way the conversation was going. Sutherland was way too comfortable. “But I’ll share your best wishes with the team – and her father.” Her dad, a US Senator, was not especially welcoming to his daughter’s enemies. Though I didn’t know if he’d be much more welcoming to me. He had to be grieving. “Be my guest,” Invictus grinned. “You have noticed how many of your old friends and teammates you’ve lost lately, haven’t you? The world’s changing, Carson, and not in your favor. You keep sticking around, and for what? To watch teammates die and disappear? To watch friends drift away? How often do you need to be abandoned before you take the hint?” "Very funny,” I spit. “Laugh it up.” “How can I not? Your world is just smoke and ashes, Craig, but mine—? Mine just gets more and more solid. More power, more authority. The future is heading in my direction now. The day of the costumed degenerate is almost done. Now, thanks to political adeptness that you never had – member of Parliament, ha! – I get to blow out the candle.” I laugh. “You’re really trying to provoke me, aren’t you? But behind the wall of smugness, I can read you like a Harold Robbins novel – complete trash. And you know what the trash wants, more than anything? To take that hand of yours, smush it up into a fist, and beat me to as bloody a pulp as you can. Well this is your lucky day…” And I throw a folder onto his desk. “A release form.” I say. “You and me, no holds barred, to the finish. Off planet, if need be, to avoid legal responsibility.” He smiled. “No agents, no backup, nothing. Just two, big, angry men who know how to fight, how to hurt people, and one of us walks away.” Let’s end this. Finally. Invictus opened the folder. He took the fountain pen off his desk, smiled as he lowered it to touch the page – and forged a giant X over the contract and then tore it into two pieces. “My game, my rules,” Invictus said, and he threw the contract back at me. I shake my head and laugh. I had a feeling that would be the answer, in fact, I was expecting it. “No, I’m not going to call you a coward, Sutherland. Or make threats. You know what I can do to you – what people of conscience and justice can do to you, to your plans. The day will come, when you will regret your choice today. When you had a chance to beat me, and passed it up.” I smile. “The universe is a helluva lot bigger than you, David. The day you discover that will be the worst day of your life. And it’s coming.” “Spare me the melodrama, Carson. I’ll be too busy running the country to have time for it.” “It’s not even close to over. Harass me? Harass my friends? We haven’t even gotten warmed up.” “Just run off, Craig. Go tell someone that you’re sorry, or something. Something Canadian. And shut the door on the way out,” Invictus said, smirking back at the shorn doorway. “Run off, so you can get back to being a third rate imitation of Vanguard, a great American superhero. Take a hike, go back to being the Zellers of superheroes, a cheap cut-rate Canadian imitarion!” And he laughs, and it’s pure mockery. I back away, scowling. He’s way too pleased with himself. I had hoped Sutherland would be more forthcoming, spill his guts a bit more. As it was, it was an exercise in futility. Perhaps even one in the loss column. But it rarely hurt to rattle some cages, and if anything, that cage needed all the rattling it could get. The smuggest cage in America. Fuck him. ************************ “This is just going to make it ten times harder to do my job.” I sigh, throwing aside the newspaper in disgust. I didn’t think I could stand to see the sight of the agitator’s face again. “There’s already people in Congress talking about deporting me. If I hadn’t help save them from Borealis last year, they’d probably have the votes to do it.” “Bleh bleh bleh.” Oldguard said, yawning. He was a Golden Age superhero, but he still packed two fists of dynamite. And a mouth full of perfect teeth. We meet once a month for coffee and bullshit, when our schedules allow. The old hero continued his spiel. “I remember when people swore that Nixon was going to forcibly conscript every superhero and ship ‘em to ‘Nam, and it never happened. Craig! You gotta stop this pointless worrying and just do your duty as long as you can. Let the politicians be politicians, and just answer the call. You’ll get through this.” There’s a buzz in my ear, and I instinctively crane my neck in response. My communicator’s going off. “Campus Martius Park.” I reported. “IHA rally. They need someone to monitor it, with tensions running high as they’ve been the last month.” “Let’s go,” I’m faster than the old-time hero, so I grab the man’s arm and head skyward. He whoops as he’s dragged along; I’m glad he enjoys this. The Park is not far from the Barlowe; it was a cultural center of old Detroit, often used as a venue for protests. The firebrand’s choice. There, I indeed see a clump of IHA protesters – and something else. Black and red banners with a distorted cross. Swastikas. Neo-Nazis had crashed the rally, brandishing their ghoul symbol in their hideous colors. The young fascists had taken up a position on the right of the IHA, and taunted members of the crowd who decidedly didn’t share their views. Even some of the IHA were making a stand against them. I guess they saw the Rocketeer. They were bigots, but they were American bigots. Sensing that it’s about to become a lot more violent below, I land directly between the two camps. It’s time for Captain John Alexander Carson’s grandson to make his own stand against the children of the Reich. "Stop!” I shout with a voice like thunder, barely audible above the shouts. The men merely laugh at me. I guess everyone’s used to my thunder routine by now. “Go back to Canada, you…” one man shouted, ending it with a word that rhymed with “agate”. “We’re taking back this country!” another said. “Border’s that way! Go home!” “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that we don;'t need you anymore? You’re irrelevant!" Irrelevant. Big word. The jerk must be a college boy. That disappoints me; that anyone so bright would ally with the darkness. He thinks we stopped being relevant in World War 2. But as long as someone flies that flag, or rules in accordance with to its principles, we’re relevant. "Hey —!” adding a word that rhymed with “basshole”. “We won the election!” a third man snarled. “I don’t have to bow before you anymore!” "Most of the people in this country know how to welcome a neighbor. Same as most folk in mine.” I counter. “Hit him!” a protester shouted at me. He was doing his best J. Wellington Wimpy impression: Let’s you and him fight. Hamburger optional. “No,” I say, throwing up my hands. “You’re not at war with this man, as much as you or I might find his beliefs difficult to stomach. The values we cherishdo not conveniently cease to apply the minute we come face to face with an enemy, and if we stand for anything, we must stand for those: reason over ignorance, peace over brutality, justice over whim, and…” “Yihaa!” Oldguard shouted, and he leapt into the pile of Nazis and began thrashing them with his fists. “I’m punching Nazis again! I’m putting the hit on Hitler Junior!” I shake my head. Sometimes I hate this business. After the dust settles, I receive a call to meet with Justiciar in Toronto. Star*Force business, and I’m still on the reserve list. After wishing the old-timer well, I head across the border, as usual. But I didn’t reckon on the return journey. ************** "Stay put, Carson.” the customs agent said. “Or we’ll have to restrain you the hard way.” It’s been four hours. Four flipping hours. It was supposed to be a routine procedure, implemented by Obama and Harper in 2009, to facilitate a hand-picked list of Canadian supers crossing the line to fight the Qularr and later, a similarly select few American supers crossing the line to fight Kigatilik. I was on the list. Bit of a dirty business, allowing sanctioned heroes to cross into Canada with their own private weapons arsenal, when the law looked askance at people bringing a BB gun across the line. But it worked; fly over the border, transmit a code, and you were allowed in. No lines, no customs. But today was different. Today customs ordered me to stop at the Windsor line and come in. Today, customs agents and the INS held me for four hours as they questioned me, badgering me about my homes, my finances, and the smallest, most detailed areas of my life. All the while, making veiled insults about my masculinity – why do you wear tights, you attracted to boys? –and mocking my politics. Rednecks. I bore it stoically, what else could I do? But I wanted to punch someone, badly. Where are the damn supervillains when you really need them? Paging Bulldozer... Learning of my comm implant, they want access to all my channels, and logs of all of my broadcasts. My army of lawyers (as well as the Canadian media) finally break the floodgate, and I’m free to go onto Millennium City after four hours. Four humiliating, wasted hours. How many people could I have saved in those four hours? How many died? I smash a few of the cheaper objects in my home until I feel better. The place needed redecorating anyway. After a few minutes of smashing, my secretary arrives. “Rimi, I want our best INS attorneys on permanent stand-by.” I snap. “And I want the border monitored for attempts to pull this crap on other supers. This needs to stop now.” “Craig, it won’t stop.” Rimi said. “You can’t punch out Capitol Hill...” "And I want those agents who harassed me IDed. I can play dirty too. If they pull this crap on me again, I will leak their identities. If they want to abuse their power, they can be held to account. These little Napoleons have one chance to be responsible with their authority, then it’s war.” "Craig, this is NOT a good idea…” Rimi interjected. “Since when did you ever lie down and take bullshit from bigoted little martinets?” I snap. “Democracy is only as strong as the watch we set on it!” Yes folks, I’ve entered the Zone. Again. The preachy, political, moralizing, self-righteous zone that my critics hate so much, the place where my friends say I should never go. I'm Bono in tights. And right now, I couldn’t care less. I want to grab the world by the collar and shake it until it starts making sense again. Avoidance of conflict is cowardice. I’ll go back to Hell again before I let them turn my world into Hell. Rimi is practically screaming at me. “Listen to me, Craig! This is precisely what they’re expecting you to do, because it’s what THEY would do! You’re the hero! You’re the shining beacon on the hill. You’re the one who has the light of goodness and niceness coming out of his ass!” “I’ve bled for these people! I’ve broken my body for these people! I’ve suffered third degree burns all over my damn body for these people! Radiation! Plague! The torment of the damned! I’ve had demons play with my soul! I’ve lost my brother for them! Hell, I’ve taken a fricking nuke for these people! Twice!” “Yes, you have,” Rimi said. “But you made those sacrifices for a reason!” “I’m not letting this planet go down a shithole and let millions die just so a handful of lazy billionaire sociopaths can get richer! I’ll turn villain before I let that happen!!” Outside, there’s a flash of lightning. Storm’s brewing, a big one. And I’m to blame. “Calm down, Craig!” Rimi begged. “Please!” This can’t be her. Kondo Rimi never begged for anything in her life... but no, she’s frightened. Terrified. Of me. And deep down, I don’t blame her one bit. There’s a piece of me that’s frightened of myself. “I-- I--” I gotta calm down. Breathe Craig, breathe. I bet Vanguard never got this mad. I’ll bet he never considered the unthinkable. In a time when the corrupt hold power, is heroism villainy and villainy heroism? My loyalty has never been to the law, except when the law protects the people. I am, at my core, a lower middle class kid barely scraping by on the streets of Vancouver’s east end. No matter how high and mighty I get, how many homes and glass towers I own, that earnest, struggling kid from the poor side of town is always inside me. “Don’t play their game!” Rimi shouted, and we spend some time calming down, even as the rain furiously pelts against the window. I take a long look outside, at my handiwork. The sky is black, and the rain is a river of hot angry tears. The sky is weeping in rage. “Alright.” I say, taking a deep breath. “Alright. But we are going to hire more lawyers and make them available for any super who needs them.” I mutter. “Free of charge.” “Talk to Sparrowhawk. I’d like to see the look on her face if they tried to stop her ship from crossing the line.” I laugh. “Just calm down, Craig. Calm. Down. Things will get sane again. The world survived Hitler and the Countess. We can survive the idiots who are doing this to you now.” Thanks, Rimi,” I say.I can hear a hint of an exasperated sigh from the woman, though she’s hiding it. Superheroes, dealing with them is like raising kids without the fun part. I bristle, but do my best to calm down. The storm continues to rage. Deep breaths Craig. Deep breaths. “I can’t be the only victims of this crap.” "Then maybe you need to join forces.” Rimi said. “Sparrowhawk has a strict no politics rule on the Protectors. She needs one, with people on the team as politically oriented as me and Tess. “I’m going to ave to decide whether this fight is worth leaving the Protectors.” Rimi stared at the storm. “This isn’t our country. This isn’t our fight. The country has its advocates. Protectors like you, well they’re rarer.” “It’s still our planet...” “Craig, you know you shouldn’t say that. That just uncorks the bottle for every would-be genie to ignore borders and play God.” Even Craig deferred to procedure, sometimes to his teammates' annoyance. “But to be silent in these times...” Insert other media "Taking punches is your job,” she said coldly, and she’s right. “This is just another punch, Craig!” I want to sit down and sob. Damn you for being right, my friend. "So, what next?” Rimi asks. “I don’t know.” I say. “No that’s a lie. I know exactly what I have to do. I’m going to stay stolid, stoic, the perfect Canadian. The perfect hero, down to my glinting teeth.” The perfect lie. Man, I am so glad my brother isn’t around to see me now. Things are falling apart faster than I suspected, at least from my perspective. And if UNTIL bridles me and keeps me from pursuing the public good, then I can leave UNTIL and they won’t be able to put me in a cage. I’ll be free to help the world in whatever way I choose, however it needs. No one would mention the few incidents where I hadn’t lived up to the standards of a paragon. The ones that kept me up at night. No one would mention the words “burn out”. No probation, no psych exams. I won’’t receive a lecture every time I team with the Protectors. But if I leave – I won’t have diplomatic sanction to move freely across the line. Mind you, if the government is clamping down on my movements any way... I pour myself a glass of whiskey, and sit down to watch the storm. Ironically I’m feeling a stronger connection with the weather these days. My storm control powers, which had always vestigial, are growing at last. Maybe one day, I can play the skies and the storm like an instrument. Lightning is my keyboard, thunder my drums. What a band I’ll be. Like Asia, I live in the Heat of the Moment (that’s an old, mediocre song, kids). In the meantime, I’m dealing with another storm, the storm of politics. I need more booze. Because I’m losing this battle. Politics, my real arch-enemy, is going to send me to the gutter yet.
Like the major comic-book publishers, the current official Champions Universe has mostly followed the history of real Earth, aside from the impact of the presence of superhumans. That includes real-world political and social trends, and often analogues to actual public figures, although there are differences. At present the real United States of America is undergoing political and social turmoil, catalyzed around the sitting President, Donald Trump. He's become a major polarizing figure, with supporters applauding policies they believe are necessary and overdue, while his detractors accuse him of attacking American values and even laying the ground work for fascism. Questions of President Trump's moral qualities and even mental stability have also been raised. I have no desire to get into a debate about that here (and we already have a thread for same on the NGD forum). However, that kind of upheaval sounds like a ripe field for story lines and role playing as part of a Champions campaign, in a supers world going through analogous events. Yet the very divisiveness surrounding this President, and the lack of clarity regarding the true motives of himself and those around him, and where all this will ultimately lead, could make many GMs wary of using an "alternate" Trump in their games. Then it occurred to me that our Champions source books provide an appropriate alternative figure actualizing all the worst suspicions and fears about this administration, with no question as to his private motivations, morality, or competence: Representative David Sutherland, formerly the "superhero" Invictus (Champions Villains Vol. 1: Master Villains). Long before the most recent presidential election, Sutherland had been subtly and shrewdly working to forward his political ambitions. His superheroic career accomplished much good and built a strong positive reputation, but it was all a show to accumulate support for an ultimate Presidential campaign. Since being elected to Congress he's been the most prominent superhero-turned-politician in America. For years he's maneuvered to place people sympathetic to his goals in positions of influence. Considering how tumultuous the last election was, it's not hard to imagine someone so famous, charismatic, and capable winning through to the Oval Office. Sutherland's true goal is to turn America into a modern Roman Empire, incontestably dominant around the globe, with himself as de facto Emperor. Once in office he's likely to very deliberately and calculatedly do things that detractors of the real President accuse him of attempting: install people personally loyal to him in important government roles; discredit and suppress media that criticize him, while promoting outlets that support him and attack his enemies; challenge the validity of laws and constitutional authority that restrict his ability to do what he wants; foster radicalized divisions within American society to mobilize more militant support behind him; disrupt international stability with confrontational policies asserting American dominance over global affairs, while cultivating foreign allies he can bribe or coerce. As for his morality, he's unquestionably corrupt, hedonistic, and ruthless, to a degree more epic than the relative banality of what Donald Trump has been accused of. For Champions gamers who would like to work some of the implications of the climate in America today into their games, but are wary of using an alternate of Donald Trump, David Sutherland is an unambiguous "villain" to oppose for heroes who know the truth about him; but with all the complications and challenges of opposing such a villain who's also the lawful, popular, and very capable occupant of the most powerful political office in the world.