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Everything posted by GestaltBennie

  1. The closest that Craig has to a young sidekick is a teenage boy and girl (his godkids, the children of Frceknight III and Celestar) who occasionally share his adventures.
  2. Highly unofficial, but potentially useful. The Northern Guard.pdf
  3. Cap (Steve) Thor (Sigard Jarlson) Hawkeye (Clint) Captain Marvel (Monica) Captain Marvel (Carol) Scarlet Witch Black Widow Hank Pym/Antman Super Skrull (forcibly assigned, for conflict)
  4. Well, tried uploading it. I don't think that site is for me. Way too many hoops to publish, cut off the story mid-stream, and it looks like it has a shelf life. I write to avoid shelf lives!
  5. Alas, they're in indd and not doc, and fanfiction.net doesn't accept pdfs. It would be a lot of retyping for work that I'm not even sure would interest anyone over there.
  6. More fiction. Purge is the creation of @Reldin .Warning: Some not nice language. A stream of consciousness experiment. Inspired by some art I commissioned recently. (Art by Vincentius Matthew). ___________________ My town. I’d walk into fire for you, Vancouver. And today, I’m doing just that. And the fire strikes me, red as an angry sun. Holes burn in my uniform. Holes burn in my skin. The smell of human flesh, charred and toasting, wafts into my nostrils. Who are these people? The Men in black, armed with red lasers. Slipstreams of sunheat, marveling at my advance. Gritted teeth through dusky helmets. Red tinted lenses, reflecting my light. The light of mighty Mars burns my cloth, my flesh, and, as angry as Mars, I burn back. It doesn’t matter who they are, criminal dilettantes, dancers of misery. Only their crime matters. My eyes are wrath. My hands are ancient gods, the lords of the mountaintop, coiled into fists. And I shine. Beacon of my town. I am Vancouver’s fist. I am the retribution of the north.,My thunder sings. A question burns in me. No, not why, that doesn’t matter anymore. Not who. I’ll leave the identity of the men in black for after the battle, for when the authorities piece together the jigsaw of their crime.(Or maybe they’ll broadcast it, as they do so very often.) No, here’s the question. It’s the simplest thing, asked by anyone who dons the wardrobe. How did I get here? How did our lives become apocalypse? Our roles are wardrobe, and we gird ourselves in them. We are the shield of the innocent. We are the sword of their wrath. We are the singers, and I’ve sung thirty-five years of warsongs. My anthem is thirty-five years of burning blood. Thirty-five years of barely checked rage. Today my song asks: whatever possessed you to do this to my city? Leveled for six blocks, bodies everywhere. Glass mansions of the overclass, now shards, tinkling in ruin. Shops of the poor, broken signs in Cantonese and Punjabi, their brokenness screaming. Did you really believe there would be no consequence? You’ve hurt my people, you bastards. I am their steward, their shepherd. The greater their pain, the greater my wrath. The thunderbolt feels like an orgasm as it issues from my body. Two men fall. Their screams are sick things, as is their twitch amid the rubble. Good. Ultimatums stick in their throats, these black-clad nothings, whose weapons are powerful enough to burn through the mesh of my costume, embroidering my skin with their calligraphy. Ultimatums waft from them like crow calls. And I do not answer. The god within does not like to chat. His conversations are screams, and booms, and the roll of the tumultuous airs, akin to the screaming sky when the world was young. I could fly. I do not. A juggernaut walks in the thunderbird’s place. Talons bared, wings spread. Is he screaming in the ruins? You’ve hurt my people, those squawking, awkward, glorious things. The people of the sea, watching the dark waters in the shadow of the mountains. My thunder is the promise of their retribution. And another two agents fall. The remaining agents continue to bellow, and burn me with their gifted suns, these guns, these pathetic little murdersticks. Plowshares gone bad. That’s a Biblical reference, folks. I’m glad Billy can’t see me now. Or David. Or Alex. Or any of my friends. Well, maybe Avenger. He’d enjoy seeing me like this, the jerk. But I don’t exist to entertain men like him. I never did. The world is a chorus, and I keep it in tune. I nudge the progression of the world’s symphony. But when I’m like this, a vessel of wrath, it’s hard to carry a tune. I guess my life’s pain is fueling my wrath, as if it needed any assistance. I mow down another of these moral weaklings, and I crush a gun for fun, for the pleasure of removing one less instrument of suffering from the world. In doing so, I make a pasture out of a battlefield. One of them is talking on a communicator. I can see him screaming, the little darling. Like words will make a difference now . And, to my dismay, that’s when the sky falls. It’s a modern dragon, coiled hate of technology. The roar of its rotors rattles my body. I hear its delirium, smell its burning fuel. An attack copter, to be prosaic. Technical specs rattle in my brain. Its machine guns rattle. It shares its metal gifts with me. It pounds me with rounds that could pulverize a city. It was built for carnage, and its pilots are reveling in it. I can see the joy in their faces. The craft is as noisy as war fully raging. And I scream as loudly in my response, my body burns and sings, and I twist its rotors into origami. It’s not even a challenge. I burn, and I twist, and the rotor flies from its sheath. They’re only a titanium-aluminum alloy, lined with a little kendrium. I’ve dismantled better. Like a stricken butterfly, the chopper falls from the sky. No more wop, wop, wop, thanks to my rotorectomy, it’s wopless. I put a hand on the undercarriage to slow its fall. This is how you don’t kill people. You can thank me by never pulling this shit again. “Get him! Kill the bastard!” And that’s when they shoot me in the back. I don’t care if you’re Vanguard or Grond, 155mm caliber rounds hurt. A succession of them hurt like a son of a bitch. The smell of gunpowder is everywhere. It’s the smell of Hell -- I know because I’ve been there. Hell is gunpowder, pigshit, and cigarettes, dialed up to eleven. I turn to face my attacker. Twenty feel tall, black angled metals, a robot based on the design of Darth Vader’s helmet. It’s silent as it walks - sound suppressors - the silence is unnerving, especially for its size. It ought to have a grander entrance. The robot’s an old design, styled for the modern age, an offshoot of the old Minuteman robots from the 80s. Its emblem grins at me. Finally, I recognize who these people are, and I scowl. Dragons of hate, a mutant hunting robot, the ultimate weapon against genetic progress. It belongs, as do the agents, to an outfit called Purge. The genetically pious, worshiping a false ideal, a false idol, of stable genetics. As if that were even possible, in a world flooded with mutagens and radiation zones. I really don’t like these guys, these vandals of a phony virtue that inspires them to terror. Genetic purity, my ass, they don’t have any clue what they’re fucking talking about. They’re flat-earthers gone villain. The first time I met them was when they attacked Toronto in force several years ago. Man, that had been a mess.They’ve surfaced periodically, spreading misery in the name of their righteous chromosomes. Killing children. Like the Children’s Crusade of history, but even lower. With a cry of pain and rage, my body becomes electric, a blue white-smear of shock. I materialize next to it, within punching distance. Hurriedly, I see the reloader whirring, spinning, getting ready to unleash its cargo. I shouldn’t be able to do this trick, but I tear at the kendium-laced cables to rip away the firing mechanism. It jerks, almost comically. It raises its clawed appendage to bear, glinting as though it was having an anime moment. Ding! And I grab the claw in mid -swing, and with a grunt and a scream, I snap it into two pieces. The robot should be dismayed. It isn’t. Not in its personality matrix, I guess. This is only the start of my robot surgery. An arm is ripped off next, then the other arm, then a leg. It tumbles to the ground like a helpless spider. I rip off its head, then tear at the circuits like an angry muppet. Like Animal. I’ll deform the head! The electrical discharge should fry me, but instead it feels as warm as a happy puppy. A murder machine dies today. Purge loses again. In the end, I turn to the men in the fallen helicopter, one of whom is trying to limp away. He’s the commander. He gave the orders. He spread fire and death over six city blocks. All just to kill one mutant kid. “P-please, T-thundrax.” You want mercy after you’ve murdered children? I drink in his fear like wine. It’s intoxicating, almost literally. I want to kill him. It would be a better world without the little hate-mongering shithead. Hundreds have died today; had they struck in prime time, it would have been thousands. In my city. My home. Fucking hatemonger. The species should be lifting each other up; we should be supporting each other In our pain in this frenzied madness called life. Not burning city blocks, Not giving our souls to fear and hate. Not giving into the dragon within, not relying on weapons to be a man. Not electing dragons to high office. They just don’t get it! How often have I spilled my blood for these people? How many third degree burns, how many comas, how many nightmares? And they turn around and do this! They exalt the cruel to lofty heights, they hand them power, they surrender the lives of the poor and needy into their barbed fingers? I’m trying to fix things! Make the world a better place! I must be the biggest damn masochist alive. Deep breaths Craig. Don’t lose it. “P-please, Thundrax!” the man pleads again. “Please...” Please let me make you a killer? he seems to ask. It’s as sobering a question as I’ve ever been asked, spoken or unspoken. Deep breaths, Craig. Slow your heartbeat. Calm that Carson temper before all hell breaks loose. You are a WMD. Don’t detonate today. Before you add to the ruin of this city. Of course, I don’t kill him. Instead, I turn his head to inspect the carnage. Then there’s a look of sick satisfaction on his face once more, and I want to kill him all over again. He’s proud of his handiwork. His grin is pure, unadulterated, evil. How dare he! Again, it takes a physical effort to resist the call to wrath. How dare you! What the hell is wrong with you? What the Hell is remotely satisfying about today? More deep breaths, Craig. More deep breaths. Again, I barely win the battle against myself, against the storm god within. That petty, primal, vicious thing. The worst part is that no one would blame me if I lost it. Vengeance is vicious, especially when it’s justified. I hear their voices all the damn time. When you’re so powerful, why do you show so much restraint? As the police arrive and the commander’s led away, to say good-bye to the gene pool, amid the grief I feel in the sheer realization of the scale of death and ruin, I fight the urge to laugh. It’s sick, but I do. I want to laugh. I’m still human. Once again, I’ve resisted the call to place the god first. The god is wrath, the human is mercy. And mercy won, even on a day of smoke and blood. Is this justice, or justification, a voice asks me. Do you place your morality ahead of the dead? No, I answer. I’m alive, and I didn’t lose myself. I did not lose control, I did not violate Craig Carson in my wrath. No enemies died. No flowers were crushed beneath my feet. It’s so important to me that I don’t kill. When I was young and stupid and a sweet kid, it was the most important thing in the world. And now that I’m older and wiser and harder, it still heads my list. I didn’t age out of my compassion, I just understand the price we pay for it a little better. I’m Craig Carson. The shoe salesman’s baby boy. Never a judge, jury, or executioner. Always striving to hold the lamp. Always lighting the way to a better future, lifting the fallen. Making cruel people decent, making decent people better, making good people great, and partnering with the great to ascend the heavens. You mustn’t fall. Too many people fall. They make themselves citizens of fear, and in accepting that dual citizenship, they diminish their homelands. I’m not one of them. I’m Canadian: pure Canadian. As the anthem says, we stand on guard for thee. Not me, thee. For the other. For each other. It’s so hard not to give into the vengeful god within all of us, when we want to get our hands bloody. So damn hard. But the path of rage leads to people building charnalhouses. That’s what we need to prevent. Killing only lays the brickwork of that terrible holocaust. The fearful build walls and furnaces, but the great build towers. To see and appreciate the world, and to watch. But what about that other Canadian icon? “If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies blow...” America matters to me, as a close friend. But Canada is family. They hurt my family. These foreigners, these invaders. Dammit, we are wardens. Not juries, not executioners: wardens. We stand on guard. But isn’t that the mission statement of this profession, to protect, to guard? Because, above all else... I am a protector. It’s the most important thing in the world, at least to me. The fires ebb, and the crews arrive, the dead are counted, the media asks hard, necessary questions, and then it’s time for a tired, weary god to venture skyward, seven hundred leagues east back to Millennium. I’m wounded, but I’m intact, my mission is intact, my passions tempered, my soul bloodied and unbowed. No. not “and unbowed”, it’s “but unbowed”. Stupid Craig stupid. Get it right, Craig, you made too many mistakes today. You made the biggest one possible. You were late getting to the scene of a massacre, and people died... The ambulances, the sirens,they scream at me. You failed, Craig Carson. Failed, failed, failed. I failed. After an hour or so, the crying stops. You can only weep for so long. All tears ebb after a time. My eyes are calm, finally calm, and, flying above the great blue snake of the Saskatchewan River, I slow to sub-Mach speed, and drink in the scenery below: lakes and fields and faces full of wonder. Wonder, even for a schmuck like me. Damn, I love their faces. Damn, they’re worth dying for. Well, one of these days...
  7. I thought I linked this earlier, but I don't see it on the boards. For the patient with a lot of spare time on their hands. Apologies if I did link it earlier and I'm just too klutzy to find it. Omniback.pdf
  8. God save the Queen, who, while not perfect, is a pretty nice girl, even if she doesn't have a lot to say. And happiness to the royal couple, and to all the non-royal couples out there.
  9. While looking through old files, I found this one. It was a free download on the Blackwyrm site, but hasn't been available for years. A bit out of date, but shoulkd have mineable ideas. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1zslTKkLkXIsvX5-Yjw3abNCGYZoor0UC/view?usp=sharing
  10. (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.
  11. 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.
  12. I use him a lot, as you might expect. These days he's pretty much Thundrax's arch-nemesis and the thorn that keeps on poking. He's taken a position as the president's special advisor on superhuman affairs, and is running some horrible black box stuff away from the administration's eye (I don't like Trump IRL, and I'm trying to be careful not to use him as a bully pulpit.) But there is a tradition of politics and RL issues in comics, from the X-Men to Captain America to the animated Justice League to early issues of Action Comics, and I'm quite comfortable using that tradition to tell stories -- if my players aren't uncomfortable with those themes. If they are, then try something else. Besides, these days, punching Nazis is political. So be political.
  13. Bonus Thundrax art by Vincentius Matthew (https://www.artstation.com/vincentius_matthew).
  14. I've done a lot of Thundrax fiction; this is one of the better ones, written to commemorate Daren's Golden Age of Champions. Warning: Language, Nazis. ----------------------- “Hi Craig,” Captain Chronos said, appearing out of nowhere. “Do you have time to save the world today?” Craig Carson, immersed in a biography of Bertrand Russell. Thank goodness he was something of a speed reader. “Sure,” the hero said. Suddenly the hero found himself standing on a broad flat plain, and a fleet of warplanes soared overhead. They looked like Lancasters, old World War 2 British bombers. “Me and my big mouth,” he huffed. “Hey, Chronos, don’t I get a briefing? Maybe time to call my teammates? Don’t leave me in the dark.” Nothing answered him except the buzz in the skies. Wasps of the air, metal skinned, they buzzed over the clouds, looking for something to sting. And by the profanity of profanities, did they sting! Craig knew them well enough, too well for comfort. He could picture the earth beneath them, exploding in geysers of thrown turf and death and crumbling stone. He was no soldier, but he had seen war, way too many times. Now he was come again to yet another battlefield. A man of peace and a builder awash, as always, in strife. That must have been one of the reasons he’d been chosen. Need someone to fight a war? Call Craig Carson? Need a modern-day gladiator? Here’s good ol’ Craig! Can’t be bothered to give a briefing? Don’t worry, Craig will figure it out! “Fuck it,” the hero sighed, and he just shook his head and plopped down in the middle of the field and watched the sky, craning his golden head and straining his blue eyes. A muscle-bound Buddha. It was surreal. The Lancasters weren’t a symbol of war to him; they reminded him of when he was 17, when he first appeared at the Abbotsford Air Show at the behest of UNTIL, for publicity, and he spent a scorching hot Saturday on the tarmac chatting up the pilots of vintage war machines. It had been quite a show. Then, the planes had seemed like charming relics, curios of a bygone age, and fun to fly along side. Here, working according to their original purpose, they were engines of death, and they scarred the skies with threats of fire, too often consummated. Craig looked at them with totally different eyes. And they were endless. Flying in formation, its engines roaring in thunder, there were hundreds of Lancasters in the fleet. The formation, a flying “V”, imitated a flight of geese, and extended ten miles. The earth shook under them as they passed overhead. “Holy shit,” Craig said, as the endless formation winged overhead, the Allies gift to Hitler, bringers of death. And he remembered Dresden and shuddered. Long ago, Shamus had told him there were no clean heroes. Not in the costumed trade, and this was triply true in war. After awhile, the Lancasters passed overhead and flew out of sight, and the earth stopped shaking. Craig realized that he had been distracted, that he needed to test his capabilities, so with a thought, he made the lightning dance on his fingers. The bolts danced well enough. Thundrax worried that in the dawn of the age of the supermen, whose powers paled in comparison with those who came thereafter, the Living Thunder might be reduced. It was not. He took a minute to concentrate on the local weather: hint of a storm, thunder at dusk, almost perfect weather for a man in a storm god’s body. After awhile, he sensed variations in the weather patterns; the flow was different at the upper altitudes. He had never walked this ground before, but he had been to Europe on numerous occasions, and he recognized the airstream, the Gulf Current. Now that was a new power development, being able to discern geography from the weather. That might be useful one day. The fury of the Lancasters’ thousands of engines had been replaced by an eerie quiet, and the gradual rising of the grass tossed by the wind. It was cool, Craig would guess it was mid-autumn. He made a note of it. Every bit of data could be a life-saver. “Uh, excuse me, Captain,” Craig shouted at the empty field. “Captain Chronos>? I’d be able to do this mission a whole lot better if I knew just what the hell was going on. Briefing please?” There was no answer. “Worse than Incubus,” he muttered, glaring at the white sky. As the sun started to wane, Craig got restless. He rose to his feet and began to move. It was a long trek through open fields, leading to a small dirt road by a creek that was almost as straight as a canal. The silence of the land was absolute: to quote Farley Mowat “and no birds sang”. The planes had probably scared away the birds. The terrain was flat; it reminded Craig of Kansas, save for mountains in the distant south and east. The land was dotted with copses of trees, but the stumps outnumbered the living trees; the milling had been relentless and desperate. Craig examined them, juniper and black pine; they were not the trees of home. “Somewhere, over the rainbow…” Craig sang to himself. “I was left high and dry…” He chuckled. “And I’m wondering and pondering, whether this is the place I’ll die.” His song ended. The powerful hero made for the most unlikely of Dorothys. He could fly over the rainbow. “Well, if I’m going to die here, at least it’ll be the shade.” It was near one of these copses of trees that men in uniform approached him. Soldiers. Craig decided to back away, only to turn around and find a man with a rifle trained on him, wearing the uniform of the 3rd Infantry battalion of the Princess Pats. Craig recognized the uniform, but the badge was unfamiliar to him. His grandfather had served in Italy with the Hastings and Prince Edwards regiment, the Easy Es. Startled, the man trained a Lee-Ensfield rifle, dead on his chest. It may as well have been a stick. The corporal was shaking as if Craig were a ghost. “Sergeant!” he shouted in the direction of the troops. “Sergeant!” “Oh shit,” Craig sighed, and he threw up his hands. “Sarge, come quickly!” Craig decided he needed answers more than he needed to escape, so he held his ground. “What’s your name, Corporal?” “Shut up,” the man told him. “Who’s asking me to shut up?” Craig asked. “I said, shut up, ubermensch!” “Ubermensch?” Craig questioned. “You think I’m German? Uh, look. Corporal? See the Leaf on my chest? I’m as Canadian as you. See?” he pointed to the maple leaf on his chest. “Our flag… oh wait a minute, that doesn’t become the flag until 1965… well the leaf was still on some provincial flags.” “I said, shut up!” the corporal yelped in a high-pitched tone, as his comrades joined him, taking up a circle around the hero. They gaped at each other in wonder and horror. “It’s Sturmvogel!” one of the men shouted. “Fire!” “Wait!” Craig roared. “Wait! You’re too close! Back off!” Bullets bounce off me! You’ll get hit by the ricochets! Back off! The sergeant gulped. “Company, belay that. Ziolkowski, Radio HQ. Tell them we’ve captured Sturmvogel. We need backup. Raise the Ensign.” “Aye sir.” “What?” Craig said. He immediately set his comm link to jam the signal. Fortunately, WW2 radio equipment was primitive, compared to the tech in Craig’s comm implant. A little prick of lightning played the comm like a fine instrument. “We’re just getting static, sir,” a technician reported. “You’re making a mistake,” Craig said. Sturmvogel was the premier Nazi fighting uber of the war, Totenkopf’s retribution, the spear in Hitler’s right hand. “How can you mistake me for Sturmvogel?” Craig scoffed. “Just because I’m tall, buff, and blond, and have powers of superstrength and lightning projection, and got my powers from being struck by a bolt of mystic lightning and waking up in a hospital with my clothes blown off, but no worse for wear…” Craig’s face suddenly went ashen. Sturmvogel even died in 1983, just days before Craig got his powers! "Oh my God... I am fucking Sturmvogel. Am I connected to the most famous Nazi villain of the war? He had never made the connection before. How could he have missed such an obvious connection? “I didn’t realize that Sturmvogel spoke such good English,” the master corporal remarked. “I’m not (*&%$# Sturmvogel,” Craig protested, using the “word that won the war”. “I’m Canadian. I’m from Vancouver. I was born at 2311 Turner, just a block west of Nanaimo Street. About a mile west of the PNE. A house built in the 20s, like all the homes around it, pitched roof, single story. Swing in the back yard tied to an old oak tree. We had this mutant French poodle who shat all over the backyard. Believe it or not, it was named Frisky. Dad named him.” “If you’re Canadian, who won the Stanley Cup?” a man asked. “I don’t know. What year is this?” Craig snapped. “If the Allies are bombing mainland Europe, ’44? 45? If it’s 1944, I think that’s the season that the Rocket got 50 goals in 50 games.” “He only got 32 goals.” An infantryman said. “Okay, my mistake. Maybe that happened in 44-45, not 43-44,” Craig corrected. “Still a great player.” “Who’s in goal for the Canadiens?” “I don’t know,” Craig snapped. “1944’s probably way too early for Jacques Plante, and that’s the earliest goalie I know.” “What the hell is he talking about?” a soldier asked. “Maybe he’s delusional,” another mused. “Let’s give him a fair hearing,” the sergeant said. “Oh wait, I got it!” Craig exclaimed. “I think. It’s Bill Durnan, right?” “Who’s their coach?” “Um, Toe Blake, right?” Craig shrugged. He saw the jaundiced look on the man’s faces. “I guess he’s not.” “It’s Dick Irvin.” “Shit, I should have known that,” Craig could have slapped himself. “Blake’s a player, not a coach,” one of the men scoffed. “For now.” Craig said. “Give him ten years, and he’ll be the greatest coach in NHL history. Trust me.” He laughed, but it was slightly uncomfortable. “It figures that when we get Canadians together, we talk hockey. Unfortunately, I only have a cursory knowledge of the hockey of your time, sorry. Everything between Howie Morenz and the Rocket’s a big blank for me.” “What about the Leafs?” a corporal asked. “Fuck the Leafs,” Craig said. “We’re Habs fans at our house.” Craig laughed, remembering the times when he and Justiciar had gotten into impromptu roughhousing whenever the Leafs played the Canucks. That had been roughhousing to cherish, about the only time David let his hair down. Of course, they ganged up against Dust Devil whenever either team played the Flames. Heh. Horseplay. Montreal was Jack’s favorite team, and it had been dad’s too, from what little he remembered about the man. “Yep,” the master corporal said. “He’s no Kraut. He’s 100% Canadian.” And the men laughed, as the sergeant signaled them to lower their rifles. “Mary, mother of God, look at the size of this monster,” a soldier gasped. “What do we call you?” the sergeant asked. “Big,” a corporal said, and there was laughter. “Carson,” Craig said. “And leave my name out of any letters, or correspondence, and even reports, if you can help it. I’m about as hush-hush as they get.” Hopefully, they understood “hush-hush” in the second world war. “Who are you guys?” Craig asked. “Sir, I don’t think we should answer his questions…” the corporal who captured him said. “Simpson,” the sergeant said, ignoring the corporal. “McGill,” the master corporal said. “Ziolkowski,” the communications specialist said. And the others chimed in, except for the corporal who captured Craig. He was a scout, and apparently, wasn’t much of a joiner. “I’ll unjam your radio.” Craig said, and he pointed to under his right ear. “In the wonderful world of the future, I had a friend build this little doo-hickey for me and implant it beneath the skin. I manipulate it with lightning. It’s a link to my personal computer. And while I don’t have the link here, I can listen in on transmissions, jam, and do a few useful things, like calculations.” ”Oh?” McGill asked. “What’s 336 times 208?” “69,888.” Craig said. “Is he right?” “No idea,” the master corporal shrugged. “You speak German?” “Nein.” Craig said. “I know French well enough. And even a little English.” Of course, he was joking about the latter. It was probably not the best time for it. “You working with the Ensign?” a soldier asked. The Red Ensign, one of Craig’s three big heroes growing up, was the most famous Canadian superhero of the war. He would, if the timestream advanced unaltered, die in 1945 at the hands of the man who would later become Baron Nihil. “I wish I were,” Craig said, and he turned to face the commanding officer. “Always wanted to meet him. He was one of my three big heroes growing up. I did meet his nephew toward the end of his life, and I knew his grandson very well.” “Huh?” Ziolkowski asked. “The Ensign can’t be any older than thirty!” Okay Craig. Time to play your hand. “Look. I don’t expect any of you to believe this, but here goes. I’m a time traveler.” Some of the men laughed. “I come from the Year of our good Lord 2017. I was born in 1969. I’ve been sent back in time to prevent something. Chronos said I had to “save the world”, and as crazy as he is, I have to assume he means it. I just don’t know who, or what, or why, or why me. And no, I’m not crazy, but my life sure as Hell is.” “That’s just mental!” a soldier snapped. “That’s one word for it,” Craig said. “I don’t know about that,” the master corporal said. He pointed at Craig. “If this guy’s Sturmvogel, where’s his accent?” “Maybe he went nuts.” “He’s making too much sense to be crazy.” “I don’t have an accent, unless this flat West coast pronunciation counts. I can’t even fake a bad Colonel Klink impression,” Craig muttered. He got more than a few odd looks for that remark. “We haven’t even seen him use any powers.” Another soldier noted. Craig threw a thunderbolt at a tree, cracking it in twain. “Next question?” he asked the suddenly silent audience. “Would Sturmvogel ever pretend to be Canadian?” a corporal asked. “Why would an arrogant Nazi fuck impersonate a Canadian in the middle of downtown Europe?” Ziolkowski asked. “It’d be beneath them.” “Especially him, Tom.” the sergeant growled. “He’s the fucking Nazi poster boy.” “If this guy lived up to his press, we’d all be dead right now.” A soldier noted. “And he’d be licking the blood off our skulls.” Craig sighed inwardly. From what he recalled of the testimony at Nuremberg, Sturmvogel hadn’t been quite that tasteless but war, like politics, does not cultivate flattering portraits of the enemy. Sturmvogel, as Nuremberg later revealed, was little more than a good soldier who enjoyed a few perks and kept his nose clean. He wasn’t a fanatic. But what’s the difference between a fanatic and a man who doesn’t know how to say no? Does it really matter if your killer’s a nice guy or not? “Are you a distant relative, maybe?” the sergeant asked. The hero shook his head. “I don’t think they would have trusted my grandpa in the Easy Es if we’d been related.” Craig said. “We’d probably have been relocated to a farm in Saskatchewan, like most of the other Germans.” Craig sighed. Also, Sturmvogel looked nothing like his original Craig form, but there was no need to muddy the issue with that factoid. “Okay, have I proved to everyone’s satisfaction that I’m not a Ratzi asshole? If anyone has doubts, just shoot me.” “But if you’ve got Sturmvogel’s powers, the bullets will just bounce off!” a corporal said. “Well, I’m not stupid,” Craig laughed and he turned to the corporal who found him, the man who wore the deepest scowl in the company. There was always one person who couldn’t be convinced. “I realize trusting someone you’ve never met goes against a soldier’s better nature. In war, one mistake, and you’re dead. But I do hope I’ve proved myself. Now let’s think for a minute. Why did Chronos choose me and not some other hero? I’m good, but there’s a lot better than me out there. Someone who knows German, for a starter.” “Because you look like Sturmvogel?” Ziolkowski speculated. “I think you’re right, Craig said. “And that suggests an infiltration operation. And given I was brought here by Chronos, probably to infiltrate a facility belonging to someone who’s not native to this time period. So all we need to do is find out who’s trying to change history. Let’s see, Zorasto’s probably still trapped in Hell. Invictus? It could be, but he’d be more likely to be messing around in Washington than here. There’s Nihil…” “Nihil?” a lance corporal asked. “Baron Nihil. He was known as Ernst Von Niehl before his transformation. Nazi scientist. Major hate-on for Canadians, especially the Ensign.” There was sudden silence, and several of the soldiers cocked their heads to look at the sergeant? So, Craig guessed. This isn’t a coincidence. But the Ensign was part of the operation to kill Von Niehl, the one at the end of ‘44. Something was clearly wrong in the state of Not Denmark. Unless this was an earlier, failed operation? Or maybe whatever Chronos had sent him to stop made the elimination of Von Niehl more of a priority, so the operation occurred earlier, when the Ensign was elsewhere? That itself would be a major change in the timeline! “We have intel that Von Niehl is working on some new project.” The sergeant said. It was a violation of orders to keep it from this new Sturmvogel, but screw it. An ubermensch could help them get home alive. “We’re supposed to locate its position so our bombers can take it out.” ”Sounds like your mission has become my mission,” Craig said. The company would not linger for very long in one place. They were behind the enemy lines, and standing still was death. The presence of the huge Vancouverite with the Olympian frame and movie star good looks uplifted everyone’s spirits, except for the corporal who first found him. That one was a lanky man, almost malnourished, with a Newfoundland brogue and bright red hair. “I’m not the chatty type,” he said with a scowl. “Oh?” Craig said. He had been marching alongside the man, keeping pace, his huge frame able to match their trained marching stride. “The silent are the deepest. And you, Silence, seem like a man with a lot on his mind.” “You don’t want to hear it, sir.” The corporal spat. “I’ll be the judge of that.” Craig answered. “Fine,” the corporal said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Let me ask a few questions about the future.” “I can’t tell you details,” Craig said. “Keep your ^&%$#% details,” the skinny man spat, having no trouble taking the Lord’s name in vain. “This is what I wanna know: if the future’s so damn great, do you still go to war? Are there still maniacs calling themselves politicians throwing kids into the mill to be ground to bits? Do children still go to bed hungry while fat cats count their millions of bucks?” “Billions,” Craig sighed. “Do they spit on people because their skin is a little darker than theirs, or have fewer bills in their wallet? Or their English ain’t perfect or proper, or their parents entered the country through the wrong gate?” “We’re making progress.” Craig said. “Slow progress is infuriating, but it’s still progress.” The man glared at Craig. Everyone was listening in. They knew the dour corporal, they had known what to expect. A few were grinning at the entertainment. “You call yourself supermen? There’s nothing super about men! The whole damn lot of us! We’re just a pack of dirty, lowlife, stinky baboons. We put on airs, and we have our pretensions, and we think of ourselves as more advanced than everything. We ain’t more advanced than nothing! Not even gutter rats! We kill and we grab and we torture and we pillage everything in sight! The day mankind goes extinct and the rest of the world can start to heal up from what we’ve done will be the best damn day in this planet’s history.” Craig winced. “I’ve given my whole life trying to prove men like you are wrong,” he said. Man, Borealis would have burst into applause at that speech, he thought. “I’m frustrated too. Change is agonizingly slow. We repeat our mistakes so many damn times, I could strangle someone. I’ve seen some of the most depraved people out there. I’ve seen Hell. I’ve felt Hell. But as a wise man once said (or will say): Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross. But that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That was one of Obama’s favorite phrases. Wonder what a president would say to a man like Watkins? “That’s just a delusion. The players change, but the dance remains the same.” Watkins spat. Craig laughed and clapped the corporal on the back. “It’s like a hockey game, new names on back of the jersey, but it’s the same ugly crest on the front. And the game remains the same: violent and loud. And the crest on the front of humanity’s jersey identifies our team as greed, violence, stupidity, and hate.” “That’s a long team name,” Ziolkowski joked. The corporal scowled. “I just think we’re going to have to agree to disagree,” Thundrax said. “You know, corporal, you should be a writer. Pollute the world with your cynicism. It sometimes needs a good slap in the face.” “I write a bit from time to time,” the man admitted, not visibly reacting to the compliment. “I can tell.” “Watkins,” he finally introduced himself. “Carson.” “Yeah, yeah, you said that.” Watkins muttered. He reached into a pocket and offered him a cigarette. “Smoke?” “Sorry,” Craig said. “In the future we learn it’s a terrible habit.” ‘Fuck the future,” Watkins said, and he lit up the coffin-stick, savoring its noxious fumes. Craig fought an urge to cough. That’s one thing we got right, the hero thought. They camped before nightfall, when there was still daylight to plot their course, finding shelter in a thick thicket of trees. They unpacked their cumbersome packs and set up tents, setting watch and consulting worn maps by flashlight. Craig helped start a small campfire; there were definitely advantages to be able to throw lightning with your hands, and the men were appreciative of everything except the noise. It was a late September night, long and cold, so cold it even bit Craig a little, who was normally immune to the chill. There must be a touch of magic on the land. He found a place to himself, refused the chaplain’s generous offer of a blanket, offering to say a prayer for him instead and he lay down to sleep, to his appointed round of nightly nightmares. ----------------------------- “You seem to very busy tonight,” a count said. “Drinking and smoking, it is such challenging work!” And the gathering laughed, again. “I expect to be busier, tomorrow,” Sturmvogel told the gathering, and he laughed, and the socialites laughed with him. It was a Nazi party of a Nazi party, and they partook of the finest French wines that could be taken as spoils of war. The sweet pickings of the best chateaus, crafted by obsessive vintners for obsessive drinkers. And Walther Flenners, Stormbird of the Reich, savored them while he owned the room, laughing, smiling, telling jokes that were barely funny, and his world laughed with him. “Tell us about your last battle.” His host asked. “Surely you can drive the mongrels back into the sea.” An old man muttered drunkenly, cradling his schnapps. “Captain Patriot is challenging you to a fight to the finish.” another socialite mentioned. “Such a dull, unimaginative man.” Sturmvogel mocked. “Isn’t this what, our third fight to the finish? Doesn’t he have anything better to do with his life? I’ve given him so many chances, and yet something always seems to happen. He always has an excuse for walking away from the battle. Perhaps they should call him “Captain Retreat”?” “Weakling!” exclaimed a baron who had never seen the hero. “My dog has more courage!” shouted a countess, rattling her jewelry. “After tomorrow, no one will doubt you again,” Von Niehl said. “The infusion process will magnify your strength tenfold. You will be able to lift Destroyers out of the water and capsize them. You will sink battleships with a single punch. And you may break the American at your leisure. You may break anyone.” “Actually, I really don’t wish to hurt my dear Captain Patriot at all,” Sturmvogel said. “Who else would I have to fight? The Red Ensign? General Zima? John Bull?” He took a drink, allowed the wine to strip away the inhibitions of the moment. He was magnanimously tipsy, and the warmth of the moment was bracing. “Poor Captain Battle! Ah, the man missed his true calling as a school teacher. Because he’s always giving lectures.” The room chuckled. “Always too busy trying to be “right” to wage a proper battle. Like so many of my colorful foes, he has no calling as a soldier.” Again, Sturmvogel chuckled, and the Nazi social world chuckled with him. A man sat in a corner, staring at a wall, staring at it so intensely that one might have thought he hated the color of the paint. Sturmvogel noticed him and smiled. “Albert!” he shouted, and he cornered the young scientist and threw his arm around his shoulder. “I am entrusting my life tomorrow to men of science such as you.” “Yes, Sturmvogel,” Albert Zerstoiten said, looking down at his hands. “You are the future.” Sturmvogel said, smiling his smile of smiles, his teeth glinting like frost, clapping him on the back. Albert Zerstoiten nodded and tried to wear one of his own. It came across as very awkward, but it was not insincere. Sturmvogel did have a genuine respect for those who outstripped him intellectually, and deep down, at the core of the sociopathic rage that was Albert’s heart, he realized that and reacted accordingly, with uncharacteristic kindness. But then the audience laughed again, and it seemed directed at young Zerstoiten, the angry little boy, and the wounds reopened, even in a moment of triumph, of appreciation. “You will outstrip all the dunces like me.” Sturmvogel said, smiling like a proud older brother. The words meant nothing to the young scientist. Albert Zerstoiten tried to disengage from the conversation as well and as quickly as he could. He had other concerns. Looking about the room, past the vacuous socialites and party addicts, his attention fell upon someone else. A man with a shrouded face, even more of a recluse than he, stationed in another room, who watched Von Niehl with interest. Zertstoiten had seen the two men converse often, but the shrouded man spoke to no one else, not even Albert. Officially, this was Von Niehl’s project, but he sensed that the strange shrouded figure was pulling Von Niehl’s strings. And the augmentation process was far beyond the baron’s (the Von Niehls had pretensions of nobility) previous researches. Something was wrong with the situation. He would mitigate it if he could. But every instinct told him something terrible was about to happen. “I must revise my plans,” Zerstoiten said. It would not be the last time the future Doctor Destroyer would make that statement. ----------- It was the fourth evening of the journey. The good weather that had greeted Craig at their first meeting was gone, replaced by stormy skies. The storm was good cover for a thunder god from the future, and he had spent a great deal of time skyborne, scouting with his excellent eyes and a pair of field glasses, and the company had managed to stay out of sight. Craig aided them with a cover of storm clouds, and the noon was nearly as dark as dusk. It was not pleasant weather, but the dim light aided the sneak. Shamus had taught Craig that trick years ago (or years from now) – he was (or will be) the sneakiest. Everything I needed to know as a superhero, I learned from SUNDER. Like Avenger’s guide to being as intimidating as Hell. Craig had managed to reprogram his comm. With the help of the communications officer. Craig had placed about 150 German words in memory and fifteen or so useful phrases. It might help him make limited contact with the enemy. The force was meant to infiltrate the Reich, so they also had a few Nazi uniforms and forged papers. Although they were too small for Craig to fit into, his power to change his clothes with a thought allowed him to mix and match wardrobes until he had a passible costume, even if the jacket was off. A stolen swastika for the armband completed the ensemble. “Well, Kaptain,” the master corporal said. “You look like a fucking Nazi poster boy.” “Sieg Heil!” another mocked, and several joined in the mockery. Craig rolled his eyes. “He even smells like a Nazi. P-u!” “Fuck that.” Craig said. He gave the swastika the middle finger before putting it on. "I’m going to have to take a long shower to rid myself of this swastika stench. But okay, now that I’ve Nazied myself up, what do I do?” “You infiltrate the castle,” Sergeant Simpson said. “Look for signs of Von Niehl. And pray.” “Ha.” Watkins said. “I’ll need a volunteer to go with me,” Thundrax said. “Someone who speaks German. McGill, you have my comm frequency. I’ll need you chattering in my ear. It’s a shame I can only transmit the sound… As for the volunteer…” “Me,” Watkins said. “You sure?” Craig asked. “And miss a chance to see an ubermensch get egg all over his face?” the corporal said sarcastically. “I’m in.” “Good luck, Corporal,” Sergeant Simpson said, trading salutes like pinups. The two men had never gotten along, but Simpson rarely deviated from the regs, and the snarky kid had spirit. “Pray for us, padre.” Craig told the chaplain. “Save my prayer for him,” Watkins said. “You know what I think of that bullshit.” The chaplain, unsurprisingly, held his tongue. “I don’t see why you need prayer. From what little we’ve seen, you should be able to wipe out the entire castle without breaking a sweat.” McGill said. “That’s not my mission,” Craig said. “I’m here to stop whatever’s going to change the future. I’m here to save history and that’s it. Not fight your war.” The men bristled at that comment, and several of them muttered about wiping out the Krauts while he’s here. Wartime propaganda was strong, and many of them had experienced losses in Italy, bloody, painful losses. Hard to be reasonable when the eyes of your dead friends called for vengeance. Craig had experienced enough loss over the years to understand the depth of his blasphemy. Words would be inadequate, but they were necessary. He turned to address the men. “I know you want them dead. I know you want to get back to Canada, back to your homes and girls. You all deserve to live long, comfortable lives. But here’s the thing about the Krauts. Most of them are like you, just decent folks underneath.” Craig said. Some of the men groaned uneasily. “Anyone can be scared, anyone can come up through bad times and come out worse for the wear. The end of the last war and the twenties were very bad times for them. They got angry, bitter, and scared. And fear is the door that leads to Hell, and the Razis, they were Hell’s best doormen. But you know something? After this damn war, the Germans get better. A lot of people who make mistakes refuse to own them, they live in denial. Germany didn’t do this. I’m telling you a secret from the future. When Germany were forced to take a deep breath and see what they’d become, they spat it out. They owned all the rotten things the Ratzis had done –and believe me, you won’t know just how horrible they are for another year, until you see the camps.” “We’ve heard rumors,” the sergeant said. “Which only scratch the surface on the horror.” Craig said. “When Watkins talks about how bad people can be, he ain’t wrong.” He flashed the corporal a grin. “Fucking right,” the corporal said, and they laughed. “I still think you should wipe them all out,” a lance corporal said. Craig ignored him. “But where we differ is – I think we can be better. At the end of the war, Germany learned they weren’t the master race, they were just another race, and there was nothing wrong with that. When they applied themselves, they became bigger and greater than anything Hitler ever imagined.” “Things were easy-peasy?” a man asked. “Fuck no,” Craig said. “Europe was divided for a long, long time. Germany was a fractured nation for decades. The poor in the eastern half suffered severely. But the times will get better. Not perfect, because there’s still a lot of shit going down in my time, and some places, like the States, it’s getting worse, but overall, it’s better. So, you’re not just fighting for yourselves, to save Britain and France, you’re also saving Germany too.” “This all sounds like hooey to me,” a corporal sighed. “Should you be telling us all this?” Zolkowski asked. “It is the future you’re telling us, for Pete’s sake.” “I’m telling you enough to give you hope. That’s all,” Craig replied. “I want you to know that if you die, or I die, we ain’t dying for a bullshit cause. We’re dying for people.” “Dead is dead.” Watkins countered. “And noble, stupid bullshit is still stupid bullshit.” “So, let me get this straight. You two go into the castle and hope for the best,” the sergeant said. Craig didn’t really like hearing his lack of a plan expressed so bluntly. “The uniforms did come with forged papers,” Craig said. “What the hell do we do?” Simpson snapped. “Stay someplace safe,” Craig said. “We’re soldiers, not grammas,” Master Corporal McGill said, and there were numerous nods. “Again, how can we help?” “Okay, then,” Craig sighed. Soldiers. Dammit, I just wanted you someplace safe. But soldiers just have to be soldiers. No one likes sitting on the sidelines, but especially those who bleed from crown and country. “Find a place on the edge of town and set up a distraction,” the hero instructed. “Be ready to blow something up. Get close enough that it’ll be noticed, but far enough away that no civilians get hurt.” “Sarge?” “Do what he asks.” Simpson instructed. He saw the advantage in a distraction, easily enough. “We’ll start out now.” Craig nodded at Watkins. “It’s been an honor to serve with your unit, Simpson. Good luck, dogfaces.” “Good luck, all-out,” Ziolkowski said, and they exchanged salutes before departing. Craig looked back, wondering if any of them were still alive in his time, seventy years in the future. Or would they, on his advice, fall into an ambush and die far from home. There were times he was glad he wasn’t a commanding officer. He sometimes marveled at Alex or David’s ability to carry off that burdenous task. But there would be time to dwell on that later. --------- “Albert?” Sturmvogel asked. “Albert?” “Phase one is complete.” Zerstoiten said. “The infusion is a success. Though it will not take in permanently, not yet. The tensile strength of your tissues is substantially stronger.” “Ha!” Sturmvogel said, and they wiped the blood from his body. He was strapped to an operating table, wires and tubes crawling over his body, pumping him with experimental fluids. “Captain Battle will be surprised on our next encounter, no? Finally, he shall not escape.” “We will begin phase two in fifteen minutes.” Von Niehl said. “Curse those generators. Whoever installed them should be shot! Why do I not have more power!” “I should have brought my own generators,” the shrouded man added. Zerstoiten stared at Von Niehl in disbelief. He knew that Sturmvogel was tough, that he would endure when called upon. But fifteen minutes? Before a proper medical exam? He should have spent days in recovery! Albert was bold, and he was more than willing to put another at risk, but these were not his experiments. And Albert did not understand certain elements of the procedure, and those stank of the occult. A mockery of knowledge and human achievement. “If I must, so be it.” Sturmvogel said, reading the concern on Zerstoiten’s face. “Albert?” Sturmvogel asked. “Albert?” “Yes?” Zerstoiten said. “There is a girl in Berlin. Three years ago, she lived not far from the Kurfürstendamm. Her name was Heidi Krause. Her father was a banker. I was… I was not at my best. I’ve always meant to find her and apologize for my unseemly behavior. If I do not survive this process, would you find her? And tell her that I regretted everything? Tell her that at the end, I thought of her?” “Of course, Sturmvogel,” the future Destroyer said. “Thank you, Albert.” Albert Zerstoiten was lying through his teeth. He already had plans to flee to South America, he had already made contact with a boat in Marseilles. Sturmvogel could deliver his own apologies, or his obedience to a failing order would be his undoing. Albert Zerstoiten was NINO: Nazi in Name Only. As soon as this experiment was over, he would be gone. One thing puzzled him: he had no idea why Von Niehl had requested his assistance; they had never had a previous working relationship, and this troubled him. And he continued to watch the man with the bandaged face and hands, the one pulling the strings. ------------------- The castle was slowly coming into view; 18th century and gothic as hell, something you’d see in a 30s black and white horror film. Craig struggled to concentrate on the mission at hand, and practise the phrases he’d been taught, but Watkins was a different mood. “You have a girl waiting for you at home, Carson?” the corporal asked. After days of sullen silence, he was finally bored enough to make casual chit-chat – at the worst possible time. “Not for years. Unless you count friends. What about you? How many hearts are you breaking at the moment?” Craig asked with a wink. “None. Dames all go for lugs with bigger muscles, or bank accounts.” Watkins said. “Skinny guys who are always broke? Palookas like me? We don’t have a chance.” The soldier exhaled the bad memories in a sigh. Some things were too personal to tell, even to a buddy. “But you never married.” “Yes but, well, it’s complicated.” Craig said. “I did marry in an alternate timeline. A woman named Manjita.” “What the bloody hell is an alternate timeline?” Warkins wondered. ”Sounds like something outta Jules Verne!” “Or Baum. Or Burroughs. I like Burroughs. It’s a long story. An enemy altered reality to make me happy enough to stop heroing, and I ended up married for nearly twenty years. Had two wonderful boys. Then I calculated how many people would die if I stopped being a hero, so I reversed it back to normal. Complete unmade those years. I’d like to think in some strange corner of reality, my family lives on.” “Wait a minute, you were given perfect happiness and you gave it up?” “Yeah. The price was too high. Thousands of innocent people would have died. And that was back in 2011 – since then, I’ve been involved in a few incidents where millions could have died, whole cities. So, I chose to break my heart. I abandoned the family and returned to this timeline.” “Man, you’re fucked in the head,” Watkins sad. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard! If I understood it, that is!” “Ha,” Craig smiled at the insult. “There are a lot of days I agree with you completely. I miss my boys. Miss my wife.” Then he spent the next ten minutes trying to forget Manjita’s scent, the feeling of holding her in his arms. The two men continued to jabber until they came within long stair in front of the castle. True to its gothic façade, it was storming as violently as if it were a Frankenstein movie. Even Craig had to shake his hat and wipe the rain from his eyes. “By the way, nice storm,”Watkins groused. “Did you have to arrange it to rain so damn hard?” “I love the rain,” Craig said. “Usually. But this isn’t my doing. I haven’t primed the weather in two days. I haven’t needed to. And I can sense something at work, this storm ain’t natural,” Craig extended his senses skyward. “Someone else’s commanding the elements. This does feels like a trick I’d do.” “Sturmvogel?” “Yeah, more than likely.” Craig agreed. “Barring a secret Nazi weather machine. I should have known saving the world wouldn’t be a walk in the park.” With that, they approached the front gate of the chateau. “Time to put on a show. Okay, corporal, lend me some support. With that, Craig leaned on the soldier. Watkins buckled under the weight and nearly fell to one knee. “Jeez Louise, how much do you &^%$#! weigh?” Watkins spat. “Two hundred and eighty.” Watkins had no response but a groan. “Not counting the fact I’m soaked.” “Shit!” There was no bell, but a large brass knocker, attached by bolt to an old iron door, weathered iron, embossed with laurel leaves. Faux-Greco-Roman designs, popular when the castle was built. Craig hit the knocker and bellowed in a drunken slur: “Öffne die Tür! Öffne die Tür im Reichsnamen!” "Open the door in the name of the Reich. It was a phrase he had rehearsed for days. After five minutes of banging, a shout of “Geh weg!” could be heard from inside. “Lasse mich in ruhe!” “We need shelter from the storm!” Watkins added in German. “He’s an officer of the Reich and he needs immediate assistance! Es regnet Bindfäden!” “Es schifft!” Craig added, not exactly politely. “Come in!” snarled a guard with a drawn Mauser. The corporal yelped, but Craig stomped in, leaving a river in his wake. The gun was trained on Craig as he stomped into the room, shook himself like a dog, and collapsed onto a sofa. “Mein Kopf! Mein Kopf! Ich werde sterben!” he shouted, slurring his words. “My head! My head! Make it stop!” The corporal approached one of the guards and nodded sagely. “The captain is the biggest idiot I’ve ever met,” he said. “You don’t want to hear him when he gets going, what a blowhard! Just give him some schnapps. Maybe he’ll fall asleep. At least then he won’t be throwing more boys into harm’s way.” Craig tittered comically. “His father is a colonel in the S.S. That’s the only reason he has his commission.” Watkins added. “Bungler. Clumsy too. As stupid as his muscles are big.” “He cannot wander the house!” the guard said. “If either of you leave this room, you will be shot.” “I understand. Though that may be preferable to listening to his whining,” Watkins said. Craig continued to moan nearly incoherently. The guards handed him some schnapps. “Danke,” Craig said, and he swallowed the contents of the glass in a singe gulp and tittered. The liquor had no effect on him, but they didn’t realize that. He continued with his drunken slur, muttering: “I should have joined the Lufftwaffe. Oh why didn’t I join the Luffwaffe!” “Because you’re scared to death of flying?”Watkins muttered. That was his code phrase to the men on the other end of his transmitter: they had made their way inside and were ready for the next stage of the operation. They needed a distraction. The guards kept an eye on him – they weren’t comedy Nazis or stereotypical stormtroopers – but Craig was prepared to play the waiting game, at least until the rest of the unit made their move. ********* “The third stage is complete,” Von Niehl announced. “Your body is now primed for the complete transformation.” Sturmvogel coughed and spit out a lump of blood. He felt like he was dying. He felt like something glorious was awakening inside of him. It was the oddest sensation. Even realizing he had powers did not compare to this. To be on the edge of death, and yet feeling alive for the first time. It was like losing your virginity all over again. Albert Zerstoiten wiped away the blood with a blue speckled handkerchief. The colors did not mix well. He nudged Sturmvogel, who was half-euphoric, and nigh dead at once. His head rolled several times until he found the strength to hold it erect, steady. He closed his eyes. “I… am as indomitable… as the Reich,” he told Zerstoiten, though a sharp pain that reverberated in every nerve bundle. He lived in a universe of pain, but it was ebbing. Deep, easy breaths, Walther, he told himself. “Tomorrow, I push the invaders back into the sea.” “And all the Reich will sing of my genius,” Von Niehl said. “They’ll sing of nothing if we do not replace the capacitors,” Zerstoiten said. “They will not hold a charge anymore, and the power consumption of each stage of the experiment has grown exponentially….” “Quit your whining, Zerstoiten,” Von Niehl said. “And to think I was told you were a remarkable intellect. All I see is the ugly little boy that people make jokes about at parties.” Then. as if he had said “nothing can stop me now at precisely the most ironic moment, the lights abruptly flickered, and went out. “The allies must have hit the dam!” Zerstoiten said. “There is a backup diesel generator in the basement, but it was shut down to conserve fuel.” “Find some men and fix it! Now! I will tolerate no more delays.” The man with the bandaged face said. Zerstoiten nodded, and headed to the generator, located in a side passage. As he passed Craig’s room, he stopped and barked at the two men who were guarding Craig. “With me! I may need your strong backs!” Craig sat up with a start. He recognized that voice. It played every year, like a stuck phonograph, playfully skipping. “Citizens of Detroit, for years you have enjoyed peace and prosperity…” Vanguard’s killer. The man who set events in motion that led to his brother’s death, and all the complications thereafter. Savior of humanity against the Gadroon (as if they couldn’t have turned the tide without him), he had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him against the false James Harmon. Murderer of thousands. Slayer of heroes. Slayer of children. And he’s vulnerable, out of his suit. At the beginning, before he’s killed anyone… Three deep breaths later, and the moment passed. Craig did nothing, but watched him leave the room. “The mooks are gone! The house is dark! We can make our move,” Watkins said. “C’mon! The way they came from!” “Yeah,” Craig said, still looking in the direction Destroyer went. “Let’s finish this.” The house was dark, but Craig’s vision was superhuman, and it allowed them to navigate the corridors with only a little difficulty. After a time, he could sense Sturmvogel’s presence in the back of his mind. And he knew Sturmvogel could probably sense him. They finally arrived at the main laboratory, which sat at the center of the castle. Craig gave the technology a cursory glance. Sturmvogel rose from his table and glared at Craig. “Who are you!” he marveled. “The time police,” Thundrax answered. “Sorry Herr Flenners, you’re in bad company. The worst, in fact.” “Thundrax!” the man with the bandaged face gasped, and he fired a blast of concentrated dark winds at Craig. It was Baron Nihil, back from the future to alter his past. Asshole. Craig felt the winds gather: Satan’s breath, the Ensign once called it. Craig barely managed to dodge them. “Die, Canadian!" The time displaced villain was ranting as usual. "Just like your dog of an ensign!” Craig continued to look for a nexus, a control mechanism. As it turned out, he didn’t need to bother. All he had to do was force Nihil to use his powers. After the fifth blast, a force field appeared around Nihil, containing him. Captain Chronos appeared behind Craig smiling. “Well! There’s one Nazi who won’t be Nazi-ing anytime soon. You bad, bad man.” Chronos said. “Wait a minute, Chronos? I didn’t have to beat up anyone? All I had to do was get here?” Craig wondered. “And force him to use his powers. That’s all you needed to do: find him and make him use his powers. That was the whole point I made in the briefing.” “What briefing?” Craig wondered. “The one I gave you…” Chronos said, and he checked an instrument. “Ooops! My timeograph was off by a century. I gave the briefing in 2044. To the second Thundrax, your illegitimate son, the one you got when you banged that woman in Kansas. You sly dog. Losing your powers for a make-out session. And here I thought you only had eyes for that brawny hero from Alberta.” “What?” Craig wondered, though he had long suspected the truth. “Well, it’s three days in time prison for you, Nihil. Use it to work on being a better person,” Chronos said. “Three days?” Craig asked. “Three days that will feel like two hundred years for him.” Chronos explained. “Oh.” “Well, get ready to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag…” Chronos said. “He isn’t going anywhere,” came a voice from behind, and Craig turned around to see Stormvogel holding Watkins by the throat. “Get out of here!” Watkins croaked, staying still as death in the Nazi’s grasp. Heh. At his core, at the time of his testing, the cynicism peeled away to show the hero beneath. Often, cynics were the greatest heroes. In other circumstances, Craig would have smiled. “Donnerdracht is it?” Sturmvogel asked. “Face me, Donnerdracht. A duel of the storms.” “You don’t need to do this!” Chronos insisted. “I can take you without incident. It’s better that way.” “If I agree, will you let him go?” Thundrax asked. “Unharmed?” “Da,” Sturmvogel replied, nodding. “Thundrax!” Chronos protested. “He’s not important in the grand scheme of things.” “He is as far as I’m concerned. Hold my coat, Captain,” Craig said. Sturmvogel blew a hole through the roof and ascended skyward, into the storm, in a blue streak. Craig, his own blue bolt blazing, followed. “Heroes,” Captain Chronos sighed. “And he doesn’t even have a coat!” Craig and Sturmvogel ascended into the heart of the storm, watched the lightning dance around them, heard and felt the symphony of the thunders like a thousand 1812 overtures played at once. Craig turned to his foe. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be much of a fight. The first generation of heroes, of which Sturmvogel was the greatest, was hardly a match for what came afterward. Under normal circumstances, even Bulldozer could have taken this guy. But the situation had changed dramatically: augmented by Nihil’s technology and supercharged by the storm, the Nazi was now Craig’s equal. Perhaps his better. “How shall we do this?” Craig asked. “Not a brawl,” Sturmvogel said. “We shall fight as civilized men. And as gods. The storm shall be our weapon. Let he who is its master be the master of all.” He held out his hands, inviting him to grapple. Craig interwove his fingers with the man, staring him in the face, defiance in his gaze. He was at a distinct disadvantage in this fight; his storm powers had lain dormant for most of his career. But still, this was a Nazi. He thought of his own time, when the Nazis were resurging. He thought of their hate, that the unforgettable lesson had not been learned. There were too many kids who embraced fascism, who celebrated bullies, who despised those who tried to do the right thing. People would rather celebrate monsters than heroes. It was easier to be a monster than to make the sacrifice. They wallowed in the cheap thrill of the horror. Or, like Sturmvogel, they rode the wave of hate and evil without contesting it, men who locked away their virtue in a blind trust. He thought of the Millikan experiment, how easily people acquiesced to evil. And then lightning fell. Wolf-savage, teeth bared, eyes locked in strife, the two men wrestled for control of the storm. It screamed in their senses, and so did they, when the lightning fell. They slashed each other with thunderbolts, wielded as sabers. They stung each other with the storm. No words were exchanged by the two storm gods. Any hope of an easy victory was dashed early. Cloth burned, until they were nigh naked, angels of the storm. Craig could sense the foe’s frustration in his screams. He was sure Sturmvogel could say much the same, for Craig didn’t hide his pain. But Craig would not lose to a Nazi, and that thought drove him onward. He thought of his teammate, Fahrenheit, and the anguish in his voice when he spoke of Destroyer. It was a terrible legacy, and yet from it, men and women of wisdom emerged. He owed it to them to win. To give Germany its future. To let its people heal, and shine. And finally a bolt smote Sturmvogel in the center of his chest, and his body fell limp. Sturmvogel fell from the heavens and smote the cold, wet, ground. Craig landed next to the man, who groaned. He looked up at Craig quivering. “Quickly,” he rasped. “Just—quickly.” Thundrax knew what the German meant, what he expected. “It’d be a helluvalot more merciful than the sadistic bullshit that your Reich is doing to millions of people right now.” Craig said. “Open your eyes, Fienners. Bad days are coming for you, but the worst will be when you discover what your blind loyalty, your unwillingness to question your philosophy, has turned you into. When you stop letting others manipulate you, and allow yourself to think.” “How can I open my eyes when you intend to close them forever?” Sturmvogel asked, still not getting Craig’s intent. The Canadian smiled. “I was saving a friend.” “I was saving a country,” Sturmvogel replied. “The big difference is that the friend is worth saving,” Thundrax said. “Anyway, I came from the future with a message. Fuck the master race. Skin color is just a minor tweak in nature’s cosmetics. It’s lipstick on the human condition. Celebrate the achievements of your culture, but do it without putting others down. The greatness of others does not diminish you. Might doesn’t make right, it just makes you a bully, if you try to impose your will on someone who’s not doing harm. I have a hundred aphorisms, each lamer than the last, and yet all of them are true. I’ll spare you the rest, but I’ll encourage you to read, to think, and to write. Challenge your mind. And If you haven’t figured it out, I’m not killing you.” “You like to talk. All of you.” Sturmvogel said, again spitting blood. “Maybe because the right words, spoken at the right moment, can prevent needless pain. When the world is screaming, it needs soothing words: a mother’s lullaby, not a father’s shouts. And you have to admit I can back them up.” “Ja.” “Just rest, big guy.” Thundrax said. “I won’t be seeing you again. Hopefully, that extra boost of power you got was temporary, but even if it isn’t, you won’t cheat your destiny. You’ve got a date with a mirror, and a good long look at yourself. I don’t envy you.” And with that, Craig Carson returned to his friends. The Nazis, including Zerstoiten and Von Niehl, were fleeing the castle. Craig now realized why the future Destroyer was there; apart from his technical brilliance, Nihil just wanted the sick thrill of barking orders at the man who would one day become supervillainy incarnate, outclassing him by worlds. Zerstoiten would abandon the Nazi cause, while Von Niehl would return to his castle and his date with destiny, with the Red Ensign. “Well, it's time to return to your future and my past,” Chronos said. “Good bye, World War II. Or as it's later called, Evil War XVI. Wish you were the last, but well, every once in a generation, humanity sucks!” “Hang on a minute!” Watkins said, stripping off his coat so Craig could hide his junk. Not that he was a prude, but the big Vancouverite didn’t seem to have much shame. I guess when you look like that, you don’t worry too much about appearances. He turned his ire full force on Chronos. “If you’re an all-powerful being, how come you ain’t done anything about war? Or hunger? Or disease? Or all the other shit in the world.” “Oh dear!” Chronos said. “Well, I’m all powerful, but I’m not really that all-powerful.” "Watkins, please…” Craig pleaded. “I just want to get home.” Watkins rolled up his sleeves and licked his lips. He glared at the emissary of the lords of time and space. Ballsiest thing he ever did. Even ballsier than telling off Captain Grant that one time in Normandy. “Shuddup, Craig,” he said, and the still-crispy Canuck almost burst into laughter. “How about this? This dumb chowderhead over here is busting his britches helping people. Just look at the guy. See what he went through for you?” “Actually, he was doing it for you,” Chronos said. “But he would have done it for me too. Go on.” “Do you think he’d ever ask for anything for himself? Idiot. How about doing something for him for a change? Something swell, something only you can do…” “Well….” Captain Chronos said. “Maybe I can put in a good word with Lord Entropus. There’s one thing I could think of that would be nice.” *********** Craig Carson arrived at 2311 Turner Street and rang the doorbell. He was in Craig form, his human form, an aging man of nearly 50, skinny-armed and starting to put on a ponch in his mid-section, wearing drab, seldom-used clothes to go with his drab, seldom used body. He saw his reflection in the glass in the door, and shuddered. He hadn’t seen his human form in awhile; time was not being as kind to it as he’d hoped. Or maybe it was just time being time. God, am I nervous, he thought. Nerves always bring out the philosopher in me. He rang the doorbell, two short rings, savoring and dreading the response above all things. Manjita Carson answered the bell. “Craig?!” she gaped, staring at her long-lost husband. “I have forty-eight hours in this reality.” Craig Carson said with a choke, for he was weeping as he said it. “Gift from a friend. Forty-eight hours before I have to return to my own timeline, go back to saving the world. Now where are my boys?” They were the shortest forty-eight hours of Craig’s life, and the happiest. ******************* After the final tears were shed, and the fabric of dimensions parted like a curtain, Craig Carson returned home. He immediately set up to work, fearing what he would find. Watkins was dead, Emphysema back in 1973. Dammit, he warned him about smoking. He had published six volumes of blisteringly bitter anti-war poems, one of which won the Governor-General’s award. Sergeant Simpson was promoted to staff sergeant, but died in 1945, during the last month of the war. Most of the others had died with the Ensign, fighting in Von Niehl’s lab. Fuck war. Only Ziolkowski was still alive, living in a rest home in Halifax. Craig flew out to see him. He spent the afternoon with the man. He was blind, being in his late-90s, tired, and he barely had his wits. Time weathered all souls and intellects, good and ill. Craig just smiled and sat next to him, touching his arm to maintain human contact – he marveled at the size of Craig’s hands - and watching him smile. He asked the superheroes for stories, but mid-way, he went into a rant complaining about modern society and how decadent everything had become. Craig shook his head and let him rant, though he remarked he had fought a war to protect that decadence. “Two wars! I was in Korea, and let me tell you that was a sight! All the damn flies, and the heat and the humidity…” “I’m sure it was awful,” Craig assured him, but he stayed at his side, basking in the man’s humanity like any good god, and the peaceful times he had long enjoyed. It was the best salve to the wounds he had taken, the wounds he took everyday. As he noted before, for superheroes, the war never ended. They were a military force in a civilian world, and like military personnel, they often found themselves separated from ordinary citizens, the everyday world, by duty and the stresses of their chosen calling. And that made those days of shore leave especially blessed.
  15. Written for the the anniversary of my supergroup in Champions Online, a Champions/Mutants and Masterminds crossover! "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" (the quoted poem) is by Wilfred Owen. ------- He was given to soliloquy, that one. Monologues, in the modern parlance. Yet who can blame him? Ancient beyond reason, born in the rage of the first sapient who hurled a stone at his brother, the Warmonger clove the final dimensional wall with the last of many strokes from his mighty axe, and beheld the great jewel beneath him, blue and white and a-buzzing with industry. He inhaled sharply, felt its life and bustle, and the scent of conflict was attar in his nostrils, attar and blood. The world, like most good worlds, was a sacrificial altar. For who did not worship war, who did not lust for its flames, the brace of its barbaric scents? “I am arrived,” the Warmonger proclaimed, the earth spread beneath him. Revelling in what was to come, he quoted a poem, his deep voice booming the words as cannonfire: “So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went, And took the fire with him, and a knife. And as they sojourned both of them together, Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father, Behold the preparations, fire and iron, But where the lamb for this burnt-offering? Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, and builded parapets and trenches there, And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son. When lo! an angel called him out of heaven, Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him. Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.” “A charming story,” the newcomer said, appearing into view. Cables grew out his arms and shoulders, highlighting a skullish face, held in crystal. “It was not intended as such, but I find it so. I love all charnal grounds,” the Warmonger said. “Now who are you?” “I am Omega. I am the end of all things, the death of light, the ruin of time, the final despair. I am the ebbing of the fading flame, hope’s last ruin. It was I who brought you hither, so you may play with this world as you wilt.” “An unexpected generosity,” the Warmonger said. The man stank of death, which he enjoyed, and ruin, which was less attractive. He beheld a stillness in the other, which did not interest him. “I assume that you desire the world at war?” “No,” Omega hissed. “I desire dust! Dust! A world of dust,” Omega said. “Ere the Doom-Coil constricts it, and pulls it to its final fate. I await the fading scream, and the everlasting dark. But there is still time for your sport, ere its terminus, and you might be of mighty assistance. For what is mightier than the impulse that sends the lambs to the slaughterhouse? Do you not crave their braying, their blood? To this end, I make a gift of this world to you." But finality is my enemy, the Warmonger thought, though he kept his observation hidden. I desire blood and tumult; silence and the grave matters not, it is an anathema: in stillness there is no strife, save the war of the worms. But the Warmonger hid his thoughts. There would be time to wage that war later. Best now to enjoy the banquet laid before him. ********** “Ray?” Centuria asked. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Thunderbolt said, feeling the energy bleed very slightly out of him. They’d repair the suit before he was endangered by the energy loss, but his psyche? Disappointment Is a more grievous wound than a suit breach. Ray Gardener Jr. was used to disappointment, the feeling, time after time, that the football of the world had been pulled from him, gleefully, by Dr. Stratos, and by fate itself. He was the son of a superhero, used as a weapon by an arch-villain to bring down his father, the famous Captain Thunder. Thunder’s powers had transferred to Ray, but instead of killing him (as the villain intended), they transformed him, and Ray became the Living Lightning, Thunderbolt. All it had cost him was his physical form. All it had cost him was his father’s career. All it cost him was his life. He had tried over and over again to restore his physical form, and today he had failed. Again. “Ray?” the golden-haired girl asked again. “I don’t want to talk about it!!” His voice would have been louder this time, if he had a throat. He was using his back-up voice box, which made his words sound even harsher than his more nuanced primary speech synthesizer. Centuria nodded, and accelerated away from him, sighing. Ray sighed as well. Ray, he thought, you are a first-class, asinine, jerkwad of a superhero! Kate Leeds is easily the best thing in my life, and here I am blowing it! Why did being a sullen twit come so naturally? “Ray, you’re doing it again.” Centuria snapped. “Stop shutting us out. Stop shutting me out. We’re not going to try to help you forever.” Ray just shook his head. A hiss issued from his helmet, sounding like static. So much of him wanted to hold her, tell her how he felt. She was his kindred spirit. But not today, not after tantrum #68. And he knew if he tried to hold her, he would feel nothing. Ray was just a genie in a humanoid bottle. And when you’re not matter – nothing matters. “Heads up, people!” Daedalus shouted, calling them to attention. “The day’s not over! Doc’s spotted another dimensional breach at three o’clock.” All eyes turned to a crack in the sky, like a thunderbolt that did not fade, but which remained in place. The forked lightning of a dimension storm. Out of the void hurtled a winged figure, its limbs blotting the sky, black, beautiful and reptilian. “Is that a dragon? A fricking dragon?” Johnny Rocket shouted on first sight. “Wow,” Lady Liberty gasped. The dragon caught sight of them. Nimbly it swooped to greet them, a black knight sitting on his back. As they drew closer, it hurt to look at them. “Stand down until we know his intent,” Thunderbolt said. Though the figures irritated him, even looking upon them. Dimensional intrusion, the scientist in Ray told him. Dimensional signature is on an opposing wavelength. Centuria had grated too, when she first came to this world, but not nearly to the same extent. ”I am Sir Gilles de Morphant,” the knight who rode atop the dragon proclaimed. The knight's voice was like razor blades against their skin. Black was his livery and a crow sat upon his shoulder, and his accent was thick and thoroughly French. “I am pledged in service, at least for today, to the Warmonger, Le Belliciste, Le Maître de Gueule Cassée, and let all who oppose me tremble! He has set me aflame, and the earth shall burn! I spit upon mercy and bring death as my gift! Kneel peasants and lowborn, and accept his majesty!” “Who the blazes is “Warmonger”?” Ray asked. “Like a Fishmonger, I guess.” Johnny Rocket replied. “But I don’t like what he’s selling.” “This guy makes my skin crawl.” Bowman added. “Like someone from Anti-Earth, but a million times creepier.” Anti-Earth, of course, being the world from which their evil opposites originated. “The dragon is mine!” Centuria declared with a shout, rolling her fists into tight balls of fury. “He calls himself a knight?” Star Knight, a woman in futuristic armor scoffed. “Really?” “Don’t get cocky!” Johnny Rocket said. “That’s my job! Okay, Freedom League. Let’s show Brave Sir Robin here our version of a good old-fashioned peasant’s uprising!” “Oh yes,” Lady Liberty said, telling herself it was time to get all 1776 on the black knight’s plated butt! **************** “It’s the Warmonger, Craig.” Defender said. “He’s back.” Craig Carson sighed. It had already been a long day, battling VIPER and their latest atrocity, a serpentine abomination they called Ultimate Snake. It had been a tough fight, the big battles always were. Damn giant robot, VIPER’s answer to the Midgard serpent of myth. The Canadian superhero, recently ascended to the leadership of his team, placed his huge palms on the slick glass table, threatening to crack it under his weight, oblivious by his concentration. He stared at the blood-red skinned giant and would not relent. To even look upon him from afar was to invite strife, conflict. “I thought we got rid of the bastard six years ago,” he growled. “He agreed to stay away for five centuries.” “He’s back,” Defender repeated. “And remember, six years ago, we never beat him. We never even touched him. We amused him. We fought his heralds. And he just sat back and watched and grinned the whole time.” “Like we were the butt of a cosmic joke,” Craig said, not taking his eyes off the screen. “Or his favorite spectator sport.” “He feeds off conflict, right?” Kinetik asked. The young speedster looked back and forth between the screen and the acutely concentrating Canadian. “Yes. And he enjoys it too.” Defender said, remembering the doomsday weapon he left behind, which he helped disarm. A planetary madness bomb, which would have driven the entire population of Earth insane – and stirred them to violence. They had come so close to absolute ruin that day. “What’s his current location?” Craig asked. “Another war-torn third world hellhole? The gods of war always love a civil war, the more inhuman the better…” Defender pushed a few buttons on the display, and the HUD shifted, the hologram slowly rotating as data flashed over it. “He opened a portal and vanished just above the ionosphere.” Defender informed him. “So technically he’s not violating his agreement not to return to earth. Of course, his portal might be used by others….” Craig sighed. He had visited many alternate timelines, met many versions of himself – and almost all them were fascist jerks, who fit quite splendidly in the worlds they lived in. The quiet beep of the electronics, reflected, flashed over his solid form. He was a study of stillness, resolve. His blue eyes were a glaze, but a glaze of fire. “Am I to go alone?” the Canadian asked. “Well, the mission is just going to be a sortie. A scouting mission. Until we learn what he’s up to.” Defender said, his gaze also fixed on the screen. “And we learn the identity of the players,” Witchcraft added. “As if we need to face more than a ten-billion-year-old cosmic god with an axe that can split this planet.” Nighthawk said. “Uh huh. All the players. We’ll be ready to join you, once we get a signal. Though there may be a bit of a delay. We've gauged the time differential at about 12 to 1.” "Twelve days there equals one day here. Gotcha." Thundrax said. "We call it the Narnia effect." Defender affirmed. “But you’d be the only one on this little road trip, at least at first. After all, you’re used to dimension hopping. You’re our best shot.” ”You’ve also survived a lot more.” Witchcraft said. “Face it, Craig, you even lasted a few minutes in the Q. The real Q. After that everything else is child’s play.” “When the children play rough,” Nighthawk said. He didn’t approve of sending Thundrax on the mission. It should have been one of them. Craig Carson looked up to the screen and examined it, trapped between irritation and wonder. There was always a danger of being trapped in a hostile dimension. Heck, that was probably the least of the dangers! The brawny Canadian, second tallest man in the room, carefully considered his options. Even if Defender’s word wasn’t impeccable, he’d still go. “We’ll need a force on this side of the portal. Someone to stay behind and take care of stragglers.” “I’ve thought of that,” Defender said. “Though you won’t like our candidate.” “Villain, I take it?” Craig asked. “The worst.” Defender said. Defender could only be talking about one man. A villain who had a deeply troubled history with Craig, a man of supreme power – who absolutely could not be trusted. But he’d leave that dilemma for Defender --- the less he had to deal with him, the better. The probable candidate could do the job, if he was willing. But Craig had his work cut out for him, big time. “Guess I’d better pack for a road trip.” Craig Carson said. **** “Stupid dragon!” Centuria shouted, as the beast ignored her best punch and snapped back at her, black fangs glistening. “Why won’t you fall?!” “Stupid? Ce n'est pas ainsi! Malys is a highly intelligent creature! Reptilian, devoid of emotions, and burning with the flames of war! Il avons mange du lion! Just like his celebrated master!” Black Paladin declared. “No, he’s stupid!” Centuria snarled. “Just like you!” “Tiresome child. Such little intelligence for one so powerful,” Sir Gilles sneered, and the knight vanished, reappearing in a flash behind Centuria. She was clearly the most dangerous of this League, but he could tame her impetuous youth, or so he thought. War and impiety burned in the villain’s bones. He was a weapon. “Time to remove you from the battlefield… what?!” With a shout, Thunderbolt charged the knight, overwhelming him with brute force and – though he dared not admit it – rage. They tumbled on the ground, and then both vanished in a spasm of the Paladin’s darkness. The Paladin had just drawn his sword. “Ray!” Centuria shouted, and she was sent hurtling by a flicker of Malys’s wings. Daedalus cried out and covered her recovery with a rocket barrage, while Star Knight slashed at its head, his energy saber gleaming as it cast reflections from his pitch-black skull. Meanwhile Ray, tumbling with the black knight, found himself reappearing some distance away. So, the villain could teleport! “I would have finished the girl,” Sir Gilles said, sword raised. He was holding it like a saber, as if he were fencing. “But this is a more chivalrous combat.” “Centuria would’ve knocked your block off,” Ray intoned. “Looks like that’s my job now!” “You will fail, child.” the Black Paladin said. “You will fall.” “The Hell I will.” Thunderbolt snarled. "And I'm a little old for this "child" BS!" Screaming, the two men clashed. In a roar of thunder, Ray slammed the armored figure, a heavy blow impacting with a solid metal fist. But the knight was unfazed, and laughing, he reappeared in an anti-flash behind the Freedom Leaguer, and impaled his armor with a sudden sword thrust. The Paladin gave it a sadistic, satisfying twist. Ray screamed. “A mighty blow.” The Paladin said, savoring the moment. “How mighty will your next one be, after I have drained your soul…” With that, he attempted to channel the hero’s lifeforce – and was stopped in his tracks. He felt nothing from Ray, no soul, no intake of energy. The gash in Thunderbolt’s armor sputtered and spasmed furiously, discharging sparks, but there was no blood. Not a gusher, not a pint, not even a drop. “What—“ the Paladin gasped. Ray weakened as his energy escaped, and he fell to one knee. “Guess there’s no soul for you to steal,” he gasped, his voicebox rasping the words. “Energy form, chump. No soul to leech off.” Sir Gilles growled and, in a spasm of darkness, the Black Paladin again teleported above him. He drew his mace, and held it aloft. “Ca me soûle! Then I will have to settle for your life, monsieur,” Black Paladin said as he brought the mace down, and then he shrieked as a lightning charged hand hit him from behind. “Dad?” Ray asked, his vision blurred, as a red gauntlet bound hand reached down to him and offered to pull him to his feet. “No, just a Good Samaritan from another dimension.” Thundrax answered, and he pulled Thunderbolt to his feet. If he knew the young man’s name, the mighty Canuck might have smiled. Or thought it confusing. Or both. “Connard!” Black Paladin snarled, recognizing a man with whom he had clashed many times over the years. Theirs was the bitterest of emnities. During their last fight, with uncharacteristic brutality, Craig had consigned the Paladin to the torments of Hell. There was not a death that was slow or painful enough for the man! “The Warmonger has made me twice as powerful as when last we faced.” The knight boasted, savoring the brutality to come. But Thundrax only laughed, laughter tinged with bitterness, and he gathered the storm around him. “What a coincidence,” the hero snapped. “I’ve been boosted too! A little more than double our last meeting. To quote my friend Chivalry, “have at thee, villain!” “I cannot think of a higher pleasure. Or a more worthless dog in whose name to smite!” Paladin snarled, cursing the name of Craig’s friend and occasional teammate, and the two men did a dance of dueling teleports, vanishing before either could land a blow, reappearing only to find the opponent vanished, again and again. But then, focusing on Thundrax, the Paladin got careless. He forgot about Ray. The Liberty Leaguer thrust a hand into the Paladin’s back, charged with lightning. Thundrax, appearing out of nowhere and slammed Sir Gilles in the front. The two lightning attacks resonated, surrounding Sir Gilles in a globe of electricity many times their normal strength. Sir Gilles shrieked and finally fell to the ground. “Can we cook, or can we cook?” Craig smirked. “Thanks, mister.” And then Thunderbolt cried out and tackled Craig. The surprised hero startled, going from “dad?” to mortal enemy in less than a minute. But Craig refused to struggle against Ray, lifting his hands into a defensive position. “Please listen,” the Canadian paragon said. “What you’re experiencing is the resonance between dimensions. My vibrational frequency is way out of synch with yours, and on top of that, you’re been hurt. The discord field is really strong, making me appear like an enemy.” The scientist in Ray attempted to filter his words, ignore his feelings and make sense of them. “I’m registering to you as the most annoying man who ever lived. Nails on a chalkboard. The field does that. It’s why superheroes from different universes always tend to fight so damned often on first contact. It’ll take time to adjust, but you can do it. In the meantime, I’m going to do something no superhero in those stories would ever do. I surrender. I’m your prisoner.” “You need to shut up,” Ray snapped. “Not going to happen,” Thundrax laughed. “I’m a talker. The only time I shut up is at social galas. I hate parties.” He held up his hands, he looked into Ray’s faceplate. He could sense the intricate dance of energies behind the mask. They called Ray “the living lightning”. It was an interesting bit of symmetry with the man he held down, “the living thunder”. “Okay kid, it’s your choice. Beat up the guy who’s surrendering, or not. But if I were you I’d see to that wound. I can only contain that breach with my powers for so long.” “You’re helping me?” Ray muttered, sensing the truth in his words even through his concussion. “Of course I am. It’s what I do. Though to be fair, you owe me at least a gold star.” Craig smirked. He probably shouldn’t crack jokes. Until he adjusted to the dimensional creepiness factor, any attempt at humor would backfire. Unfunny jokes were the worst. “Think, man, think. Use your head, not your heart, not this time.” Ray lowered his fist. “I don’t have a heart,” he said. “Liar.” Craig retorted, and he held up his hands against the young man’s angry response. “Okay, that remark hit ten times harder than intended." "That's a really ugly costume." Ray spat. "Don't grief the Leaf," Craig answered, chuckling. But the levity disappeared when Black Paladin crawled to his feet and roared. "Round two," Ray said, charging his fists with lightning, though he still sat on Craig's chest. "Forget it!" Paladin shouted. "I’ve had enough of this wretched dimension,” he snapped. "I'll kill the Carson on his home ground. On my terms!" “Fine,” Craig said. “Happy to send you back to Hell. Again.” “Malys! I come! We shall depart!” the Paladin cried, and he vanished. Soon afterward, he would be found winging to his home dimension – his powers still bolstered by the Warmonger. A nightmare for a future time. Centuria was the first to reach Ray. She saw the hero on the verge of losing control and assumed the worst. Though she still didn’t quite feel the discomfort as intensely as her teammate. Their dimension signatures were not as discordant. “Need help?” she asked Thunderbolt. “Not against this creep,” her teammate answered, pointing at Craig. “Especially when he’s surrendered,” Craig added. “Your friend’s being influenced, miss. I bet he wouldn’t even attack his worst enemy under normal circumstances, if he surrendered.” “Ray?” Centuria wondered, thinking of how he’d treat Dr. Stratos in this position. “We come from universes with different vibrational frequencies, so I’m registering as an enemy to him on a subconscious level,” Thundrax continued, slowly and deliberately. “And that’s probably made ten times worse by the fact that Warmonger was here. Either that, or God is a little kid playing with action figures, and the “Ray” action figure and the “Thundrax” action figure are being smashed together while God is saying….” And here Craig’s voice imitated the cadence of a small child. “Biff! Boom! Pow! “Take that Thundrax, ha, ha!” “Oh no, Ray, stop it!” “I am going to annihilate you, Thundrax!” “Oh no, Ray, stop it, I beg you!”” Centuria burst out into laughter, but it was short-lived, when she saw that Ray was not sharing the hilarity. “There’s energy coruscating through you Ray.” Craig noted, sensing the lightning dance within his suit. “It’s agitated. Try to reduce that, if you can.” Craig said. “And I’d really consider getting that armor breach repaired as soon as possible. This lovely young lady can deal with me if I turn into a threat or menace, or something.” “Ray, he’s not wrong about that,” Centuria said. “Get repaired, now. Daedalus is waiting.” “Don’t let him out of your sight,” Thunderbolt snapped, and he flew away, bleeding sparks. ******** “Get him! Take out the cannons!” Craig shouted, soaring past Centuria to close with Hades. This was his third fight alongside the Freedom League, and in each of those fights, he had taken the lead, put himself at the most risk. He had something to prove. Familiarity didn’t exactly breed contempt, but Craig remained in a state of mistrust. “Another new pup,” Hades said, only to be slammed in the face by the newcomer. He was fast, unexpectedly so, and quite powerful, knocking the death god on his keester. “A pup who’s been biting bad guys for last thirty-five years…” Craig said, and he turned back and shouted at the team. “You got the Styxine Stone, ‘Bolt?” “This thing?” Ray said, and with the combined power of the Freedom League, he crushed the stone in his metal gauntleted fingers. Hades shrieked in dismay as he felt the Underworld pull him back like a fish caught in a riptide. “Ooops!” Ray added. He would have grinned, if he had a face. “By Damnation's Door! Soon the worms will abide in thy corpse!” Hades howled at Thundrax before he vanished. “The Styxine Stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Craig quipped, hands on his hips. He apologized internally to his allies, who were groaning at the remark to a person. “Tell me he did not just say that!” Centuria moaned. ”Now we know he’s secretly evil!” Johnny Rocket exclaimed. “Truer words were never spoken,” Daedalus said. “No wonder you never married.” Siren added. “Who’d want you?” “Hey gang, does anyone want to hear some dad jokes?” Craig quipped, his smirk reaching truly obnoxious levels. “By the way, good work people. Now let’s rescue the sacrifices and tear down this eyesore of a temple. This necropolis is totally not for us,” he smirked at the crude attempt of a rhyme. “Hey Ray,” Johnny said. “Can you kick him back to his home dimension? Before we become a group of punning old dudes?” “And I thought Cap was bad.” Siren moaned, referring to Ray's dad, their old leader. “I’ll head back home soon enough, when we find out what the Warmonger’s up to.” Craig answered. “But as I was saying, good work, people. It’s an honor to serve with you.” Daedalus gave Craig a long hard look. The initial effect of the dimensional differential had subsided. Yet there was something off about him. No, he handled himself like a veteran, one of the finest he had met in centuries. He was one heckuva secret weapon to unleash on their enemies. But maybe, just maybe, he was trying too hard to fit in. He was like Centuria when she first arrived from her world, just enough of a mystery to irritate. And he was definitely hiding something. He might be the best addition the team ever got. Or he might betray them, as others had done, at the worst possible moment. A 50-50 shot. Daedalus considered past betrayals, hissed, and turned his back to leave Craig behind. He was not alone; no one was being particularly friendly to him, except maybe Ray and Centuria, and Johnny Rocket (who was habitually friendly to everyone). But Ray’s attitude had definitely softened. He indeed reminded Ray so much of his famous father, the now-retired hero Captain Thunder. Even his cornball jokes were the same. Groanable on the outside, lovable on the inside. The rest of the team gauged their injuries and returned to Freedom Hall, their headquarters, which made even the Barlowe or Homestead look like a hovel. But Thundrax bade Ray to halt. “Hold on a minute, son,” Thundrax said. “I’ve got a question for you. I can sense the lightning beneath the armor, but everyone calls you by a human name, Ray.” “That’s right,” Ray said. “Were you human once?” Craig asked. Ray nodded. “Can you become human?” He shook his head. “How’d you like to become human again, sport?” Ray would have gasped. He can do that? He just focused on the huge Canadian, unmoving. “Yeah, I would,” he finally said, scared that naming his heart’s desire would jinx it. Again. A villain named Mr. Infamy had once given him that desire, then took it cruelly away. Craig transformed himself into a bolt of lightning, shot to the top of a nearby hill, then used the same trick to return. Demonstrating the transmutation method, Ray observed keenly, measuring it with his senses. The Canadian hero smiled. “It’s not going to be easy. You need to learn to draw your energy from the air, make up the difference between material and energy states. Lesson one…” he began. ************* The Castle was a bizarre hybrid of technology and the archaic, wrapped in 19th Century Bavarian trappings. Few men who had ever stepped foot in here, none had done so by invitation. Defender knew that he was taking an enormous risk by coming here, alone. He had one of the most powerful battlesuits in the world. But the suit worn by the castle’s sole resident made his look like a child’s toy. Defender was fighting against fear and his ancient hate for the fate of the world. There was nothing that James Harmon wanted more than to break the truce he had agreed upon. With Albert Zerstoiten. Destroyer of Detroit. His dad’s killer. The man he had sworn on his dad’s grave to bring to justice. On the day when the fires of Detroit still burned, despite a hot summer rain. “You do not know the level of restraint I am showing.” Destroyer said. “Your dimensional counterpart stole many years from me. He kept me penned like a caged dog, taunted me without mercy. He reduced me to an old man, dependent on people I despised for my escape.” Defender wasn’t in a mood to rehash old history. Only one incident mattered today: the time Destroyer united with the heroes against the Gadroon invasion. Still Earth’s most perilous hour, forty years of breakneck escapes later. Defender had been a small child at the time, a wide-eyed boy staring at the saucers on television. “Let’s just say the fate of the world deserves restraint. Mutual restraint.” Defender finally said. “Just as Paris is worth a mass,” Destroyer said, quoting Henry IV of France, the Huguenot who converted to Catholicism to win the French throne. “Of course, they killed him anyway. The lesser assassinating the great. But that's the pattern of the years: the great are always assailed by the lesser. But I can hardly expect an American to know real history. Henry was neither a cowboy nor a President.” “Henry of Navarre. Converted to Catholicism and ascended to the kingship in 1594.” Defender said. “A contemporary of Elizabeth the first of England. Assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic. One of the greatest kings in European history.” “So, you have access to Wikipedia in your armor?” Zerstoiten sneered. “Dad hired a lot of private tutors.” Harmon said. “He didn’t raise his son to be a dummy.” Zerstoiten almost certainly knew Defender’s true identity, if any of his enemies did. “In America, intellect is a privilege,” Destroyer said. Defender really wanted to mute that sneering tone out of the mass murderer’s voice, preferably with his fists. More than any other man alive. But he had a job to do, a world to save. “Enough sparring, Doctor," he told Zerstoiten. We despise each other, that’s a given. The scrapheaps you keep sending every September to our headquarters is proof of that. But neither of us wants this planet to fall in an invasion from a parallel earth.” “It would hinder my plans, yes.” Destroyer agreed. “So, self-appointed hero of Detroit, how can Zerstoiten help you protect your little world?” “You’re aware of the Warmonger’s current location?” “If you think I’m so negligent as to overlook a major planetary threat, then you do not know Destroyer,” the villain snapped. “Fine,” Defender said. “You’ve got good wi-fi. Thundrax volunteered to go ahead of us and scout. If Craig calls us through the portal, we’ll need someone on this side to keep stragglers out.” Defender said. “And that’s you, if you agree to this.” “So, you’ve made an alliance with the Canadian?” “Yes,” Defender said. “At least he is capable, even if his choice of associates is suspect,” Destroyer laughed. “I suppose I can agree to provide assistance. It will amuse Zerstoiten that Carson of all people should owe me a debt of gratitude.” Destroyer shot Defender a withering glance. What he would do to his armor, if the fate of the world did not depend on it. Every scar, every setback, they gnawed on him, rats chewing upon a god. “But do not ask Zerstoiten to shake your hand.” “I wouldn’t dream of it,” Defender snapped. ************** “So, that’s it?” Ray would have spat. “That was an anti-climax. You want me to hold this energy matrix for a whole month? Before I try anything else?” “It’s the one we devised that’s most congruous to your physical form.” “I do feel a tiny bit more human,” Ray admitted. “But I was hoping for, well, more concrete progress.” “It’s going to be slow,” Thundrax said. “When I was transformed into lightning by the Hobbled Man, it took a Herculean effort and many tries to reform myself.” That had been three years ago, and he still hadn’t fully recovered. He remembered that nightmare vividly: reforming incomplete, as damaged goods, over and over again. “I don’t want you to reform as – well, a vegetable, or powerless, or with your powers out of control. There are many ways this can go wrong.” “I’d risk a lot for a normal life.” Ray sighed, or at least the intonation canes out as a sigh. “Well, normal as in physical. I wouldn’t mind having the powers that you do.” “Don’t,” Craig said. “Be alive. Find your own path to happiness, and don’t waver from it.” “Is something going on with you?” Ray wondered. “My life is a continuing drama. I had a mad clone out to kill me – but you don’t need to know that. You need to focus on the here and now.” Thundrax said. “I take it that’s a yes. Can I do anything about it?” Ray asked. “Nope.” Thundrax said. “Is it something the team should be worried about?” “I don’t think so,” Craig sighed. “And you’ll have plenty of warning if it becomes one.” Thundrax said. A figure suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Doctor Metropolis, the embodiment of the City, especially Freedom City. “Ray,” he said. “Could you and your guest return to headquarters? Something has come up: the day’s not over.” ******** “He’s called the Meta-Grue. A renegade of his species – and you all remember how much fun we had with the Grue.” “Fun, fun, fun, until daddy takes your shape-shifting away,” Star Knight snapped, remembering the original invasion all too well. Daedalus continued. “He’s taken over an old Atom family installation, but we have him cornered,” Daedalus said. “The sooner we strike, the less prepared he’ll be for us.” The heroes nodded. They were seated at a great circular table in Liberty Hall. An extra chair had been made available for Craig, much to some members’ annoyance. The meeting had not been the friendliest of Craig’s career. “We’re being run ragged by all those villains!” Johnny Rocket said. “And do you know what it takes to run me ragged?” “My guess is Warmonger’s stirring them up.” Craig said. “I could call some friends from my dimension. Of course, this whole situation could be a Trojan horse, part of my evil plan to conquer your dimension.” He glared at the heroes. It was like being a stand-up comic in a room where no one was reacting to the material. “It’s happened before.” Siren said, breaking the silence. Finally. “It’s happened to me too.” Craig said, happy to finally address the elephant in the room. “You’re perfectly justified in your suspicions. I once had a teammate who took four years before she showed her true colors.” And Connie succeeded in destroying the Guard when she did, Craig might have added. “You don’t have the attention span for that,” Centuria noted. “You barely stay in a conversation for more than a minute.” “Too much sugar,” Craig quipped. “But here’s the thing,” he added. “You’ve confirmed what we call “the dimensional sandpaper effect”, the frequency differentials. I’m adjusting, but I’m always going to be a little bit off.” “So you say,” growled Star Knight. “Not everyone here is convinced on the science. I’m certainly not.” Thundrax sighed. Even after he’d worked with them, this was ten times harder than it should be. He had no doubts that every person sitting at the table was a good person, the best this world had to offer. He was sitting with an all-star team. But the barriers to acceptance were unacceptable. “Don’t be so paranoid that I can’t help you,” he said. ”But, don’t be so trusting that you fall into a betrayal. If I’m acting like a nice guy – it all could be a front. I could be posing as a Canadian just so I could take advantage of our “nice guy” reputation.” “Obviously he has not met Team Canada,” Lady Liberty jested. Canada’s superteam on “Earth-Prime” was not the nicest bunch of heroes – most Freedom Leaguers would have preferred dealing with someone with better manners, like the Crime League. Craig had already been ribbed about them many times; he was tempted to go back, grab Justiciar, Ravenspeaker and Forceknight, and show this world’s Canada what real heroes were all about. But this was not his problem; best to leave that for the next inter-dimensional crossover. He continued. “If you have any suspicions about me, ask me to explain myself. Don’t accept “I don’t have time to explain yourself. I don’t get that luxury. I haven’t earned it here.” Thundrax concluded. “I think he should be locked up,” Star Knight asked, and more people than Craig would have liked nodded in agreement. “Why isn’t he locked up?” “Because he’s committed no crime and his information about the Warmonger and the vibrational discrepancies between dimensions has been checked out.” Centuria answered. “And he submitted himself to a telepathic background check, and we’ve found that he rivals many of our greatest members in his heroism and public service. He’s an asset.” “All of which could be frauds!” Star Knight shouted. “Similar credentials have been forged in the past.” Craig sighed and rose to his feet, his huge form illuminated by flashes of data and computer processes. Most of the people in the room expected him to walk out, but he did not. Instead, with palms flat on the table, he asked with a nod: “Pen and paper, please? And an envelope?” Johnny Rocket hurriedly honored the request. Craig smiled, reminded of Kinetik and the other speedsters he knew from home. The brawny Canuck scribbled a quick message, added a crude drawing, stuffed the envelope, and slid it toward Star Knight. She frowned. “Canadians, or so it’s said, are given to four things. One: grand gestures, Two: self-deprecation. Three: self-righteousness. And four: compulsively apologizing. Well, what I’m doing now falls under the grand gesture category. In the envelope, I’ve written down my permanent weakness. What it will take to kill me. It will kill me. The person who takes the envelope will have my permission to test the method to determine that I’m not lying, and is sanctioned to carry the method out, if I betray you in any way.” For a moment, all hands were still, and then Daedalus beat Star Knight in taking the envelope. He unfolded the note, read the page, and nodded. “Interesting,” he said. “It makes sense in a strange way. And I was the right person to receive the information. But the item you mention will not be easy to acquire.” “You’re heroes. Where there’s a will, there’s at least three ways,” Craig answered. “Thank you for your trust.” Daedalus said, folding the envelope and tucking it in a pocket of his battle armor – yes, he was that damn practical. “Well played, Mr. Carson. Now, Freedom League, we have a Meta-Grue to smash. Nucleonic energy control, size and density control, telepathy, can become intangible at will: read your profiles, people. We gather at the Pegasus in five minutes.” He turned to Ray. “Not you. Hold on a minute.” “Sure, D,” Ray said, and they watched the members – and their guest – leave. “You seem to have bonded with Mr. Carson,” Daedalus said. “He reminds me a lot of dad,” Ray replied. His face, as ever, was featureless and betrayed no emotion. Not that Ray felt them often. “Right down to the bad jokes. I can’t wait to introduce them. They’ll either become best friends instantly or throw so many barbs they’ll destroy the room with the sheer power of quips. ” “You like him, don’t you?” Daedalus asked. “And you’ve never really got to fight at your father’s side, and this guy is the next best thing?” “Have you seen his physical strength rating? And you saw what he did against Hades…” Daedalus fingered the envelope, briefly considering what had been written down within. “Don’t get too close to him. He may not be a traitor. But he will have to go home at some point. A world which produces Warmongers has to be as messed up as ours. He’ll be needed. This isn’t like Centuria. He does have a home to return to. People who love him.” Ray said nothing, but Daedalus noted how tightly he was clenching his fists. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Let’s get down to business. Just point me at that damned Meta-Grue.” “I can’t think of any better weapon than you, Ray.” Daedalus smiled. Those that knew him knew that was the highest of compliments from the old artificer. “Let’s go.” ******* “This is the day,” Johnny Rocket said. It had been a week since the fight against the Meta-Grue, and the team had finally warmed to Craig, at least a little. Especially among the younger members like Johnny. “D thinks we’ve found him.” Craig roused from the guest bed, yawning, and wrapping a robe around himself absently. Johnny whistled and sped away before the Canadian could respond. But Craig simply grinned, changed into his costume – manually, he had no access to his quick-change power in this dimension, so far removed from the “closet” -- and headed for the ready room. "Tell him to put a shirt on that dad bod of his," Centuria shouted. "Not a chance!" Johnny Rocket replied. "It's okay puritans, I'ma fully dressed this time. I won't get my 80s shirtlessness in your fashion fascist 2010s again, I promise," Craig said, entering the conference room. The meeting had already started. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a confirmed Warmonger sighting,” Daedalus said as the team sat down and the data flashed on their pads. “Gun show, as Craig speculated.” “After ten billion years, you fall into a rut,” Craig quipped, again emphasizing his foe’s antiquity. “He struck at us through a gun show in our dimension, I figured he’d do the same here. A convenient gathering place for his philosophy. Watch out for weapons coming to life, rising into the air and massacring people. And a single supergun will serve as his herald. You’ll know that when you discover the nearly unbreakable one.” “And how do we take down Warmonger?” Lady Liberty asked. “You don’t. He operates on a cosmic level,” Thundrax answered. “He crushed our most powerful superhero like she was a flea,” he added. March 3, 2012. Heralding a bloody summer, and the most desperate hour of his life. It had been six years since that summer, but Craig remembered it vividly, along with the Warmonger’s opening stroke on Marsbase. Poor Emily. “The Star*Guard said that all the heroes on our planet combined wouldn’t have had a prayer against him. Even if every villain in the world fought alongside us.” “You don’t mind if we test that claim?” Star Knight asked. “His axe can crack whole planets into pieces with but a single stroke.” Thundrax chided. “Note to self: disarm him first,” Star Knight said. Craig hoped she wasn’t being serious. “Beat the plan, show that you won’t be pushed. The only way to win is to earn his respect, and then strike a deal.” Thundrax said. “That’s not very heroic,” Centuria noted. “Too many innocents are at stake. You need to play this smart.” Craig answered. “And watch your aggressive thoughts! Being around this guy could’ve pushed Gandhi into a fistfight. Any resentments you have is likely to be pushed tenfold in this guy’s presence. Watch the testosterone.” “Except him,” Johnny chirped, pointing at Ray. “He doesn’t have any. He has Krrkfizzzterone!” "Also, I’d like permission to send a signal home.” Craig said. “My mission was to contact the Champions if we found Warmonger. We found him. With your supervision, I’d like to complete my mission. You can send the message and lay out ground rules.” “You trust these people?” Bowman asked. “With my life,” Craig said. Though there were a lot of people he’d trust with such a minor thing, he might have added, including the people who sat in this room. “All in favor of inviting the Champions to the world…” Daedalus asked. “With the proviso that we can order them to return home at any time.” Star Knight added. “That’s reasonable,” Craig said. “Oh, and please warn Defender about the dimensional discord, he might find a way to reduce its effects. No sense in you both fighting each other. Oh, and I did promise to leave once we found Warmonger. I’d like to stay, but a promise is a promise. And my word is my word.” “You aren’t getting out of this that easily, Mr. Carson,” Ray said. “We need a Warmonger expert. You… well, I don’t know what you need.” “Closure,” Craig said. “Preferably on Warmonger’s face. Oh, and the guy loves to leave bombs and other weapons behind. He’s had time to plant a few, as well as a master control, one trigger to set them all off. The one he pulled on us was a suicidal technopath.” “Fun,” Daedalus said. “Thanks Craig. Okay, civvies only. Armored figures on stand-by. Expect action. Maybe a Waterloo.” ******** “This is the best death money can buy,” the gun dealer said. Payment in cash, just the way he liked it! Martin Schultz smiled, wiping his palms on his “Desert Eagle = Liberty" Eagle T-shirt, with the national bird aiming a .50 action express at the camera. It was one of his best sellers, and while he didn’t have the physique of a superhero, he kept himself in better shape than most of his customers. “Hey big guy!” he shouted, spotting a blond behemoth in a black turtleneck and fatigues. “You in for some action?” "Where?" Thundrax asked. "Overseas," Schultz said. "I got contacts with Proudwater. They could use a big American bruiser like yourself to keep order among the heathens." “Where exactly? Syria? Lugendu? Afghanistan?” Thundrax inquired. “Where the Hell is Lugendu?” the man asked. Craig smiled. “Need to know, buddy,” Thundrax said, covering his mistake. “Need to know.” “You’re being an ass, dad,” Centuria, who was playing the part of Craig’s daughter, said. She was carrying a shotgun labelled “Little Miss Special”. Someone was having fun at Smith and Wesson. She normally hated guns, but this one was cute. One for the trophy room. "Father's privilege." Craig said, turning away. "At least until the damn liberuls strip us of all rights." "Damn liberals!" Centuria laughed. “Keep an eye out for anything unusual,” Craig whispered. Centuria rolled her eyes. Had he been watching too many movies? Did he really need to say that? “Actually,” said a man in a NRA hat who stepped in front of their path. Man that was one creepy smile. “Lugendu is a nation in Africa on a parallel earth, run by a man named Joseph Otanga.” Craig started, and the man's smile doubled. It was sickening, like a television evangelist who thought he could mug his way into heaven. “It is not a particular popular neighbor, but it is feared, and that is the important thing. Even the Snake cannot overthrow it,” a second conventioneer called out from behind. "It is beautiful in its brutality." And there was that smile again. "Africa burns upon their steaming metal, at the command of their loud weapons." A third man said. "Will you not rally to the call of blood and metal?" "Craig..." Centuria hissed. "I see them," Thundrax replied. They were trapped. Seven people with identical smiles were converging on them. Craig had seen that face before. “He has listened to the voice of the master. He will invite us back,” a random woman added. “Harken to the cry of the carrion bird savoring its feast.” Schultz said, the selfsame smile alighting his face. “Did we just set a new world's record for springing the quickest trap?” Centuria wondered. “If we didn’t, it’s pretty damn close,” Craig replied. The entire hall was beginning to converge on them. On an elevated stage, standing at a podium above the fray, an administrator smiled at them, and spoke into a PA system. “All men of blood are my playthings.” the man declared, palming his three piece suit as his skin reddened to the color of blood. “And they walk in my perfect discipline, like true soldiers. The agreement you once made with me, valiant one, will be annulled. As I do with all of these people, so I will do to you.Welcome to my cosmic armada. Welcome to the destiny of your species. You, and all of humanity will be pressed into my army of conquest, and you shall fight across the stars at my behest. Your lives are mine.” “Never, Warmonger,” Craig said. The game was clearly over, even before it had begun. The pair were trapped like a crippled duck at the start of duck season. “How your blood will race. Your pretensions will be stripped away in the crucible of conquest, leaving you naked at my feet; creatures of violence, preferring the pain of others to your own, consumed by rage at a universe that crushes your hopes in the impossible.” “Ten billion years of wisdom,” Thundrax shook his head. “And that fascist garbage is the best you can come up with?” “Deny the truth of the cosmos if you will,” Warmonger said. “Deny the nature of reality! Such denials are but another struggle, a war of principles and choices! The sparks of your ideals may burn brightly for a time, but when they touch the ground, the real world, it is the flames of war that shall burn.” “Does this guy like to talk?” Centuria asked. “Oh yeah.” Craig answered. “He’s a real chatterbox. Thinks he’s a poet too.” “Thought I noticed.” Centurion’s daughter said, going back to back as the other undercover League members closed into support them. “I will not touch you. Nor even your allies. Our agreement still binds me,” the Warmonger said. “But my followers are not so easily constrained. Nor him.” “No,” Lady Liberty gasped as a new figure materialized. "Not again,” Doctor Metropolis almost sobbed. “And we don’t have Centurion or the Captain with us this time,” Daedalus moaned. His arrival was accompanied by the toll of mourning bells. Steam awoke about him as he coagulated into view, in which images of death flowed: a stillborn baby, a child beaten to death by a drunken father, a suicidal teenage girl, a kid, barely an adult, ravaged by AIDS. A room full of children gunned down by the damned, a near-sighted middle-aged man killed by falling rubble from a superfight, an old woman crying in pain from the ravages of old age and cancer. Life was snuffed like candles in a hurricane. Craig Carson had never seen this face before. But Death, how he knew its face so very, very well. “This is the end of all things,” Omega said. “Worship me, and give into despair. Give into the cold and quiet and the eternal tomb and the coil of unlife about your throats.” “Are they having a melodrama competition?” Johnny Rocket snapped. “Geez, that dialogue.” “Battle stations.” Daedalus said, ignoring Johnny for now. “Situation Omega. This is no drill. This is what we’ve trained for, people. For Centurion. Let’s take him out.” Craig stared at the figure. He had died three times in his superheroic life, and though he had been revived, he felt the throbbing of old wounds. Wounds long forgotten. He had so many. He had sat on the brink of life and death so many times, it was familiar countryside. “Okay,” the Canadian said. “You heard the man. Anyone who quotes from the Book of Revelation right now loses their library privilege for a whole month.” “No Pale Rider references.” Vixen said. “Gotcha.” “This battle deserves a finer arena,” Warmonger said, and suddenly the building and its denizens was unearthed – and relocated in a vast rubble strewn devastation of war, somewhere well beyond Freedom City. A once great city, proud and ancient, now a haunt stretching for miles in all directions. Craig thought it might be Aleppo, but it could have been anywhere. “Much better.” Warmonger smiled, breathing in the smell of the charnal ground as if they were a fresh spring breeze. “I would have preferred a more populated area,” Omega moaned. “Let those who would be heroes gaze upon the failure of their ideals,” Warmonger said. “These corpses were hopeful, happy people once.” “This changes nothing,” Daedalus said, setting the barb aside. He had seen the failure of human ideals for over three thousand years, and had not despaired. Civilization was a sculptor, gradually carving out utopia over the centuries. One day, it would be achieved, but for now, the ideal was a work in progress. A cathedral of human achievement, whose building spanned millennia. Daedalus was a craftsman, he was patient, and in the end, not even the gods will have wrought better. That, Warmonger, is the power of humanity. “Okay, people, focus on death metal over here. Leave black metal alone for now. Attack!” And so the battle began. The former gun show patrons died in an instant, to be reborn as Omega’s deathlings. They would be fodder for the Doom-Coil later. The Freedom League broke into pairs, doing quick strafing runs against Omega, performing attacks, and quickly darting away before the villain could perform his homing attacks on them. Gradually they wore him down. Gradually the gun show attendees turned minions fell, mostly from Johnny’s whirlwind attacks. But also, gradually the heroes fell, one by one: first, Lady Liberty, then Bowman, then Doctor Metropolis. Mighty champions, all worthy of song; the black death felled them, the will of Omega. The heroes groaned and lay still on the ground, their life force a faint whisper. Omega said nothing, but smiled as they lay prostrate and defeated at his feet. As all people would lay, before death, before his majesty. “I’m not sure we’re going to beat him!” Centuria said, watching Johnny Rocket fall to a black homing beam that outraced he fastest man in Freedom City. Dad forgive me, she added to herself. Seeing his teammates waver, Thunderbolt took the lead. “Death or freedom!” Ray snarled, breaking ranks and finally taking the battle to the bad guy. No more strafing tactics. “Time to go down, hero style. It was Death or Glory, his favorite Clash song. “Keep up the pressure!” Daedalus shouted, seeing a couple of his teammates veer away too soon after Ray was backhanded into them. “I have survived the pressure of stars,” Omega boasted, and he cut down Siren with a blast. “This is marvelous,” Warmonger said, delighted by the fight. “A veritable feast!” Thundrax spat an obscenity at him and the Warmonger turned to address the veteran hero. This was the first time he had ever given Craig his full attention, and Craig felt the titan’s gaze intensify the violence within: the primal storm, which magnified to an extent he had only felt once before in his life, on a terrible day when he had lost control. It brought back memories of elder worms and obscene rage, and killing his oldest friends. The Warmonger sensed those memories reawaken, the most heavily suppressed memories in Craig’s mind, and he basked in them. “So, you too have experienced beauty,” he said. “But what you fail to realize, as much as you may belittle my cause, is that I am your strength. The will to defy death, your fighting spirit. That is my gift.” “Your ally doesn’t seem to share it.” Thundrax spat. He felt sick. “Death is not my ally,” the Warmonger said. “It is but a byproduct of the crucible, the disposed part. But that which remains is life, strong, and vibrant. Little man, I nourish the universe. Did you not know?” “We don’t need you, or your discipline or your damn crucible!” Thundrax raged. “Spoken like a soldier.” The Warmonger answered. “It matters not,” Omega said, holding Ray limp in his hands and casting his body down to the earth. “I have all but won.” He grinned at Centuria. “Come and fight, child,” he said. “Ray!” Centuria shouted, and in a berserk frenzy, she fell upon Omega. But then, unexpectedly, the sky opened over them, and through the portal issued, the bright armor of Defender, followed by the other Champions and a half dozen of their closest allies. The cavalry had arrived. “You heard the man!” Defender shouted. “Teams of two, dambuster runs! Watch out for those death beams!” “There are too many of them, even for me!” Omega noted. The fight had taken its toll on him too, he was in no shape to fight a fresh threat. In desperation, he turned to the Warmonger. “Ally, now is the time! Now is the hour of our alliance! You must step forward!” Warmonger merely laughed. “You were never truly my ally. You are but a maggot with delusions of grandeur, feeding on corpses and dreaming of the stars that can never be yours.” “Man, can these guys chew the scenery.” Thundrax quipped. “They’re worse than me!” “Fool! Ten billion years of life is nothing in the vast dark of eternity!” Omega snarled, and he pounced on the Warmonger. The cosmic conqueror found that he, even weakened, was powerful enough to pierce the Warmonger’s protective barrier. What followed was a primal clash, an animal thing, as two of the most highly evolved beings of their worlds were reduced to tooth and claw, the level of beasts. The two titans wrestled for a minute, then vanished. “I think we just won,” Witchcraft told Defender. Centuria helped Ray to his feet. “It’s over,” she said. One of those superhero things that really don’t need saying, but gets said anyway. Sometimes you just need a capstone, especially to the epic. “We’d better get your armor fixed,” Craig said, and he turned to Defender. “Defender, Daedalus. Daedalus. Defender.” “Thanks for your help,” Daedalus said. “You’re welcome,” Defender answered. “I’d love to stay and chat and take a look at your world, but I’ve got a city to protect.” “Ah,” said a hologram globe that had inconspicuously accompanied the Champions. ”But Zerstoiten would not deny you such a long-deserved repose! Stay Defender, stay as long as you like. In fact, I am insisting on it – by sealing the portal with my force field, then closing it forever and taking control of my city once again.” “Now who didn’t see that coming?” Defender’s ally Nighthawk moaned. “Freedom League!” Ray shouted, seeing the barrier appear at the edge of the portal. “Let’s help our guests back to their homes, shall we?” And the Freedom League and the Champions attacked the barrier with all they had, and their combined strength overcame even the best efforts of Destroyer. The battle over, the two teams shook hands and mingled -- except Nighthawk, of course. Johnny Rocket and Kinetik shook hands and compared costumes. “Wanna race?” Johnny asked. “Sure!” Kinetik shouted, and they sped away on the count of three. “The dimensional differential stabilizer is working beyond specs.” Defender said. “But I can stiil fine tune it just a little further...” “Defender,” Witchcraft said. “You putz. Perhaps we should leave before they start to break down, rather than you fretting about them all day?" "But--- but-- thus may be my only chance when the vibrational differential is this great..." "Now!" Witchcrafit insisted, and she and Centuria traded very approving looks. “I’m staying,” Thundrax informed Defender. “Ray needs someone to help him become human again, and I’m the best man for the—hey!” And that’s when Thunderbolt grabbed Craig and hurled for the portal. “What the Hell are you doing?!” Thundrax snapped, not resisting the hero’s grasp. “Sending you home!” Thunderbolt answered. “Telling you to get off the lawn. And thank you for everything you’ve done. I love you, man. My world owes you so much. But you’re needed back home.Your services are no longer required here!” “But—but—” “Scram! Beat it mister! That’s an order!” Ray barked. “But your powers...” “I’ll manage Craig.” Thunderbolt said. “I won’t forget you buddy. Or your terrible outfit....” And with that, he tossed Craig through the portal, back to his home universe. The Champions and the others soon followed. Only the Warmonger was left behind – maybe – and if he survived his fight with Omega, he could make his own way back. **************** Craig Carson stood alone in Protectors’ headquarters, sulking a bit. They had reached the other side of the portal, only to find that Destroyer had fled to the Zerstoitenstern. It truly was over, and yet Craig felt the wounds that the Warmonger reopened, especially the emotional ones. He was such a scarred, scarred man. Cosmic Glory, a teammate he had known since she was a child, had told him that he wore depression like many superheroes wore capes; today, of all days, she was righter than she had ever been. “We’re back!” Glory said as the Valravn returned to base. Craig had come out to the hanger to greet them. “Craig, you’ll never guess what had happened. Dessicus and the Trikon, and the Hzeel, and the Elder Worms, and Firewing! And the Star*Guard! It was epic! And we even saw Mr. Indomitable!” ‘Jim said to give you a really big hug,” Sebastian was beaming, happier than Craig had seen him in years. “Boy, I was great even by my standards!” Jinn declared. “You almost started an intergalactic war,” Blue Cyclone said, shaking her head. “Well, glad to be back,” Captain Adamant added, petting his German shepherd Ajax on the head. Ajax seemed glad to be back. He was briefly the first dog of the stars, but there was no place like home. “Hope you weren’t too bored, Craig.” “I survived.” Craig said, and he readied himself for the next battle. Though he felt his years keenly, though he burned within, Warmonger or no, there was always a next battle to fight. It was his life of a Protector, a costumed protector of the public good, and he would have no other.
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