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I think someone is trying to convince me I'm insane. And to be quite honest, they are doing a very, very good job of it because I'm becoming more certain that I've gone entirely mad.
What I know is that my name is Bertram McKenzie, professor of English at Goodwin College. I am also Polyphemus, highly reluctant monster and superhero.
What I don't know is why I keep seeing fictional characters from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." It started a couple of days ago when the Ghost of Christmas Past appeared before me, caused me to pass out, and gave me a vision of myself and my family in the past. And now today, while I was preparing to go out for the evening's patrol of the city, the Ghost of Christmas Present took over my home and whisked me away on what some misguided dolts might call a "journey of self-discovery" or some such rubbish.
I quickly realize the Ghost and I have been teleported into my daughter Zelda's home in southern Metro City. I haven't been here in a couple of years, but it looks much like I remember it, with the exception of the extravagant yuletide ornamentation. The living room is virtually drenched in holiday decorations -- garlands, kitschy Santa figurines, a gaudy nativity set, and two excessively decorated Christmas trees.
My entire family is here: daughters Zelda and her husband Edward, Penelope and her husband Jason, and Agatha; granddaughters Harriet, Ruby and her husband Thomas, Lora and her husband Blake, Emily, and Violet; and great-granddaughters Carlotta and Katha.
Penelope, Jason, Ruby, and Harriet are playing Scrabble, Lora and Blake are watching the snow fall out the front window while quietly singing Christmas carols to each other, Zelda and Emily are sewing scarves, Agatha, Thomas, and Edward are cooking snacks in the kitchen, and Carlotta, Katha, and Violet are lying on the floor playing some trading card game. I can scarcely believe they all fit in the same house, much less that they seem to be getting along.
"We are unseen to them," says the Ghost. "Unseen and unheard."
"I know the story well enough," I say. "I may have gone mad, but I've not yet lost my memory."
"It's important that you not attempt to speak to them," he says.
"If this is all real, then I expect they really can't hear or see me," I say. "If I've gone mad, then I'm likely twitching on my living room floor anyway."
"That's the spirit!" he says. I barely resist pointing out the pun.
"Oh, I do wish Grandfather were here," says Harriet, looking up from the Scrabble board. "This is one of his favorite games."
"I don't care how he feels about Christmas," Katha says. "I'd just be glad to have him here with us."
"I'd be so happy, I expect I'd start dating boys," adds Violet.
"You are most certainly kidding me," I say to the Ghost.
"I'm just showing you what's happening," says the Ghost.
"The last I heard from Harriet, she told me she didn't even want me around her family," I say. "And I may not be happy that Violet is a lesbian, but I'm quite certain she wouldn't change for me."
"Maybe they're being sarcastic," he says.
"My family does sarcasm exceedingly well," I say. "They could teach a master course in sarcasm. That was barely kindergarten level."
"Oh, indeed?" he says. "Perhaps this is a vision of what your present life should be like. Instead of a bitter, sarcastic family that hates you, perhaps this is a vision of the loving family life you could have enjoyed, if only you'd spent your life drawing them closer to you, instead of pushing them away."
"Alright, just... take me out of here, spirit. Take me out of here now."
"Fine with me, Bertram," he laughs. "Though a man who never sees his family anymore should probably relish an opportunity to see them, even if he can't interact with them. But we have other places to go tonight."
The house fades away to blackness, and is quickly replaced by a dim, grimy alley, littered with garbage, vermin, and human refuse.
"I think I know the script here," I say. "This is where I tell you I don't have any family on this side of the city, and you tell me everyone here is part of the family of mankind, right? Here's where you apply a guilt trip that there is somehow something I could do to aid these people."
"I suppose you are indeed familiar with my nature, aren't you?" says the Ghost.
"Unfortunately, here is where I point out some uncomfortable truths," I say. "My salary is better than that of a lowly instructor, assistant, or associate professor, but even with tenure, I am far from a wealthy man. I could give up my entire salary, and it would make a difference in only a few lives here. I could move as many as I could into apartments, yes? But only for a month or two. And there would be many more who I would never be able to help at all. Who should I choose, spirit? Who gets to be blessed by my random munificence? Who will be condemned to continue sleeping in cold alleys? I know I am not the most virtuous of men, but I do not have that level of cruelty in my heart."
"You do have other advantages, Bertram," says the Ghost with a wink.
"What other possible advantages do I have?" I ask. "Are you thinking of my superpowers? What possible good could they do in this situation? Are you suggesting that these people need something heavy picked up for them?"
"You suffer from a lack of imagination, Bertram."
"No, I suffer from the presence of an obnoxious hallucination that is ineptly trying to teach me Victorian-era moral lessons," I say. "I also suffer from some awareness that the world's problems are not so easily solved through the application of either money or strength. Do you think I've never considered issues like this? Do you think I get all my opinions from TV pundits pushing political candidacies, Bible lessons, and tax cut mantras? I pay attention to the world outside my classroom, sir. We pay taxes, and the government cannot aid these people. We tithe, and the churches cannot aid these people. We donate, and the charities cannot aid these people. I am not completely without sympathy for their plight, but honestly, I am only one man, and neither my money nor my guilt can fix the problem of global poverty. You know that very well, don't you?"
"Perhaps I do, Bertram," he says. "Perhaps this is all true. But I am the conductor on this voyage of reclamation, and I would ask that you spend a few minutes walking among these unworthy souls to learn how they will spend this Christmastime."
"I have to go through the charade so you'll let me go home, won't I?" I say, walking down the alleyway away from the spirit. "Once I come to my senses, I'm going to have a doctor pump me full of medication so I'll never see ghosts again."
I try to step delicately down the alley, leery of stepping on any of these people. It's quite possible I'm completely intangible right now, but I'd still prefer not to accidentally tread on someone.
The local contingent of homeless people is much as I expected -- destitute, dirty, smelly, pitiful, and pitiable. As I've said, I am sympathetic to the trials these people have to deal with. I would certainly not want to spend a freezing December night trying to keep warm in a filthy alley. But ultimately, do I want them sleeping in my neighborhood? Do I want them sleeping in my house? Never. I wish they had their own homes. But what could I or anyone else do for them?
Midway down the alley, my attention is seized by one of the homeless. She's a young woman, slim and blond-haired, features smudged by dirt and smoke and fatigue, dressed in clothing too thin for the bitter cold. I don't know why she captures my notice, but I find myself unable to take my eyes off of her. It is as if she were the only real person in the alleyway, possibly including myself. I am quite sure it wasn't love -- just fascination, that someone so attractive and luminous could be here in this forlorn place.
She looks up into the night sky, and for a moment, I almost jump back, fearful that she would make eye contact with me. (Even though I do not have eyes -- yes, I've heard the joke before.) But she looks past me, and I am almost disappointed.
"Have you seen enough yet?" asks the Ghost, standing just behind me and startling me terribly. I wheel around toward him and find myself somewhat infuriated by his smug smile. "It's just a bunch of tramps and hobos. Who cares for them? Better they should die..."
"...And decrease the surplus population," I finish for him. "I'm aware of the book, remember? You won't score any points with me for quoting one of Dickens' most familiar lines."
"Ah, you are knowledgeable, aren't you?" he says. "I won't need to repeat the line about workhouses, will I?"
"Of course not," I say. "Though a workhouse system, run humanely, would perhaps be preferable to the patchwork welfare and food stamp system we have now, wouldn't it?"
"You cannot possibly mean--"
"Oh, did I make you angry, Spirit?" I ask as smugly as I can manage. "You can dish out the arrogance but you can't take it very well, can you?"
"Be silent," he says. So very nice when you out-debate one of these bleeding-heart fools. "Come, we have more to see tonight."
The alley fades away, and now we've traveled to a large room, all gleaming metal surfaces, high-tech computer interfaces, and humming electronic laboratory equipment. Cheap pine garlands have been strung up here and there, seasonal carols are playing quietly from a small music player, and a pair of tables have been set up next to a wall. One table holds a punch bowl and cookies, while the other is covered with gift-wrapped boxes.
The room is, of course, full of Metro City's superheroes.
It's actually a bit of a boring scene. Everyone is just standing around talking. Understandable, I'm sure -- it's a Christmas party, after all. No need for fighting or acrobatics or crazed superhero hijinx. Still, the Ghost glares out at the gathering, as if he's disappointed there isn't more mayhem.
Someone has broken out a bottle of champagne, and just about everyone is holding a glass.
"Here's to another year of successful crimefighting," says Atlas. "And here's to another successful one ahead of us."
"I'd certainly drink to that, darlings," says Defender. She taps her full glass against her helmet. "Or at least I will a bit later tonight." She hands her glass over to Wheelman, who downs his glass and hers in rapid succession.
"And here's to not having to deal with that sourpuss McKenzie tonight," says Miss Mega. "So nice to be the tallest person in the room again."
"I was a bit worried he'd take us up on the invitation," says Iota. "Stupid literature freaks."
"Never should've invited him in the first place," says Express. "Stupid Republicans."
"Yeah, it's not like we couldn't have kept this whole thing secret from him," adds Gamma Girl.
"If we're going to have more social activities," says Kumiko, "it would probably behoove us to remember not to invite ugly people."
"Oh, yeah?" snarls Jonni. "What about me?"
"We'll let you stay for the sake of girl power," says the Cobra.
"Girl power!" Squid Kid and Hybrid yell together, high-fiving each other.
"You guys are too mean to him," says Calypso. For some reason, she's limping about the party on a wooden crutch. "I think he's a nice guy -- he just needs some understanding and friendliness."
"I have no idea why you're so nice to him," says Iota. "He's a rotten old grouch. To hell with him."
"Right," says Piledriver. "No reason to act civilized to some pompous old windbag."
"None of you get it, do you?" Calypso says. "I know him better than any of you. He's my great-grandfather, dammit!"
"WHAT?!" I bellow. I can bellow quite terrifically loudly now. The Ghost actually flinches from the noise.
"She said she's your great-granddaughter, Bertram," he says. "Quite a shock, isn't it?"
"Which one is she supposed to be?" I ask, only slightly less loudly than before. "Neither Katha nor Carlotta look anything like Calypso!"
"Well, she is wearing a mask, you know," he says apologetically.
"That is a load of absolute horseshit, sir!" I yell. I don't know that I've ever used that word before, but it seems like something I should say more than once. "Absolute horseshit! Katha and Carlotta are both taller than Calypso! They're both older than she is! I don't care what kind of mask she's wearing -- her features are thoroughly different!"
"Well, like I said, you'd never believe what a difference the right mask makes..."
"Besides that, Carlotta strongly dislikes me, and Katha isn't much more friendly," I say. "Am I just supposed to accept something so ridiculous at face value?"
"I'm merely showing you visions of the present," says the Ghost.
"And why is Calypso using a crutch?" I ask. "Has she been injured in some -- wait a minute. Is she supposed to be Tiny Tim?!"
"Oh, no," he says. "No, no, no, no, no. Nothing at all like that." He isn't the least bit convincing.
"What is your damned game, you charlatan?! Out with it, or I'll thrash you!"
"Ding dong, there's the chimes," he says, looking unexpectedly frightened. "I must take my leave. Bye!"
And the green-robed bastard vanishes like he never even existed.
The superheroes and the high-tech headquarters disappear at the same time, leaving me standing on a flat, foggy plane, stretching out as far as I can perceive.
"Get back here, you damnable coward!" I shout. "You can either return me to my home, or I'll stomp you into the underworld!"
I wait to see if the Ghost will return.
He does not.
I wait to see if I'll wake up.
I do not.
I wait to see if my house will re-materialize around me.
It does not.
I appear to be completely alone here. There are no landmarks. I feel totally lost.
What if I really have finally lost my mind at this point? I've spent the last few minutes entirely buying into the reality of what I was seeing, but the fact remains that it's insane to see fictional characters. I'd fully accepted that the unreal was real, and I don't know if there's any more perfect definition of madness.
And I'm still stuck here on this featureless plane.
I've almost come to accept that this is where my apparently catatonic mind intends to spend the rest of its existence when I see a figure walking toward me. A figure wearing, of course, a hooded black robe.
I stand still and wait for him to walk the distance to me. I'm in no hurry to make his acquaintance, to be honest.
"You're the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come," I say.
He nods slightly.
"Or at least, that's is who you claim to be, if you're not merely a product of my maddened imagination."
He nods again.
"We know where this goes, don't we? You take me to various locations and show me a few people I know, a few people I don't, I act completely obtuse over the fact that I've died, then you take me to a cemetery, and I get weepy over my own headstone. Let's just skip to the end."
"We can do that if you'd like," he says.
"What?" I gasp, frankly astonished. "You're not supposed to talk!"
"I can speak just fine," the Ghost says in an unexpectedly warm voice. "Dickens used my silence as a literary device. Why shouldn't I be able to talk?"
"Well, I'm sorry," I say. "All I know is what I read in the book."
"Yes, you realize that's part of your problem, right?" he says. "You've got the plot and characters locked in your mind, and you don't want to see them change at all. You have everyone in your life categorized and filed, and when they change or surprise you or disappoint you, you get angry about it."
"Oh, is that a fact?"
"In addition, you know what's in the script, so you think that means you're in control of the story. This illusion of control sets you at odds with almost everything in your life -- because you control very little, McKenzie."
"I think I preferred your character as a silent specter of fear."
"The fact that you have so little control over the world around you strikes you as some sort of personal failure," he continues. "But it isn't, McKenzie. No one has any real control. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's part of the human condition."
"What would you know about the human condition?" I ask.
"That should be my line," he says. "Quite aside from your current appearance, you've spent decades trying to show that you were above human needs, concerns, and passions. You've been shown what your life was like before you bought into that delusion. You've been shown how that delusion has affected your life today. My job is to show you the ultimate effects of your delusion."
"And why should I believe anything you tell me anyway?" I say. "Your colleague lied extensively to me."
The Ghost shrugs. "That's Christmas Present for you," he says. "He's got a lifespan of a single holiday season every year, so he never learns subtlety. He always thinks he has to oversell his message. Did he lie about the details? Yes, he did. Did he lie about the overall problem, McKenzie? Are you estranged from every member of your family? Do the local superheroes have no reason to respect you? Is the city full of need that you could help alleviate, even in very small ways? He didn't lie about any of that."
"And I should trust you?" I say. "I should trust something that may be nothing more than a figment of my imagination to show me the future?"
"All I can show you are the shadows of the things that may be," he says. "And because you asked so nicely, we can skip straight to the end of that sequence."
The air ripples around us, and we're in the middle of a large cemetery. No, it isn't a weed-filled graveyard with crumbling crypts and leaning tombstones -- it's a modern cemetery, for goodness' sake. They employ groundskeepers, you know.
I look down, and sure enough, there's a flat memorial plaque inscribed with my name and Starla's.
"Dear lord, that's so horribly disturbing," I say. "A flat headstone? I realize they make it easier to mow the lawns, since you can just drive the mowers over them. But they're just so bland and classless, don't you think?"
"Very droll, Dr. McKenzie," says the Ghost. "You clearly get a great deal of practice telling jokes, don't you?"
"Oh, spare me," I say. "You and your fellow spirits keep expecting me to take this hoary old ghost story as seriously as Scrooge did. I can't do it. It's filled with everything I dislike about Dickens' writing, and it's probably most interesting as an example of how popular literature can transform society. Without Dickens and this story, it's doubtful that Christmas would be a popular holiday at all. But I don't even like Christmas, and the story simply does not move me the way it does many others."
"The sight of your own tombstone doesn't affect you at all?"
"Did you think it would?" I ask. "I'm 84 years old, you know. I've known for quite a few years that I was going to die. Small children and teenagers may be unaware of their own mortality, but everyone else in the world knows how their life story ends."
"You think you know everything, but you pay no attention to details," he says, pointing a bony finger downwards. "Look, McKenzie! Look upon your tombstone!"
Very well, I often don't pay particularly close attention to details, and it takes me several seconds to catch on to what he's trying to show me.
"Died in 2127?!" I say. "What sort of nonsense are you trying to foist off on me?!"
"That body of yours has a vastly expanded lifespan, old man," says the Ghost. "You'll live for a much longer time than you ever expected."
"So I lived over another century?" I ask, still shocked. "What did I die of?"
"No one ever figured it out," he says. "Found dead in your home, no signs of violence, no signs of foul play. Simply dead. A mystery that may never be explained."
"You're a ghost from the future, and you have no idea what happened in the future?" I say. "Stop being pointlessly dramatic and tell me how I died."
"I don't know," the Ghost says. "I'm the Ghost of Christmas Future, not the Ghost of Any Day in the Future. I just do Christmas."
"Well, if you meant for this revelation to have some sort of effect on me, you were terribly mistaken. Living an extra hundred years seems quite nice to me."
"You are once again not paying attention to details," he says. "There is a statue of the Chrome Cobra at her gravesite in Kirkman Cemetery. There's a well-tended memorial garden for Penitente in what used to be called the Chesler Projects. The Interstellar Defense Patrol placed a 300-foot-tall statue of Defender just outside the city where she died. Mauro-Denziger Plaza is the city's largest scientific research complex. Silver Protector Kumiko's funeral was broadcast worldwide. The Express' birthday is a national holiday. And Calypso's statue is downtown. It's considered one of the finest works of memorial statuary in the world. It's been decades since her death, and there are still people leaving flowers, cards, wreaths, and other tributes to her to this very day."
"Barring the five who haven't died yet, there are memorials for every superhero you knew in the city," he continues. "But there's nothing for you, Bertram Ira McKenzie. You get that gravestone, and that's it."
"I don't believe you," I say. "I've done my part. There's no way to deny that."
"You quit, McKenzie," the Ghost says. "You quit, you stayed at home, you wrote research papers that no one read. You died alone, and no one realized you'd passed away until two weeks after you were room temperature. The old hermit with the monster's face, hiding away from everything inside his house, refusing visitors, suing the neighbors. You perished unremarked. You were unmourned. You are unremembered."
"We have not always been on the best of terms," I say, "But I have no doubt that my family remembers me."
"Your family is dead," he says. "They didn't have your longevity, of course. You attended the funerals of your daughters. You did not attend any of the funerals for the rest of them. Oh, you do have family still, but you never met any of your great-great grandchildren, or any who came after them. Forgotten, scorned, unremembered, unmourned. No one missed you. No one needed you."
So of course, I hit him.
Well, I try anyway. He's completely insubstantial, or I am. My fist goes straight through him, I lose my balance and tumble headlong among the tombstones, flailing about and shouting like a fool.
I try to rip up some headstones to fling at him, but my hands go straight through them.
I shout at him at my maximum volume, which should cause anyone significant pain, and it does not daunt him in the slightest. He flicks imaginary dust off of his shroud.
"Materialize, spirit!" I bellow at him. "Become solid so I can shatter those old bones of yours!"
"Why, Dr. McKenzie," he says coolly. "You seem agitated. Did I say something to upset you?"
"I am going to smash you into -- into -- I don't know what I am going to smash you into, but I will smash you, dammit!"
"You couldn't harm me if you tried," he says. "And even if you could, it would not change your fate. Violence for the sake of violence will not save you. Rage will not save you."
"It will make me feel a lot better!" I shout. "And that will have to do for now!"
"And when your rage dissipates and these visions fade, you will still be on the same road to ruin," the Ghost says. "You don't know how to change, do you? Only I can tell you that secret, old man."
The scene changes again, from a daylit cemetery to a deserted downtown street at night. The Ghost and I are standing in front of the main branch of First Bank of Metro City.
"You have become trapped in a mental and philosophical rut," he says. "Too attached to your material comfort and moral expectations to be able to affect the world in a positive way. To break free of that rut, you must make unexpected choices and actions. You must do what is necessary to aid those who need help, no matter the personal cost to yourself."
"This is sounding a lot more complicated and time-consuming than it was for Scrooge," I say.
"All you need to do is go into the bank, get some money, and give it to the poor," says the Ghost.
"Well, first, it's clearly the middle of the night," I point out. "And the banks close at 3."
"I know that."
"Also, I don't even bank here," I add. "I keep my money at Global Bank One, which is a silly name for a financial institution, but the tellers are helpful."
"Listen," he says. "All you need to do --"
"I guess I could do that online banking everyone talks about. But I would have to go home to turn on my computer. And I suppose I would have to do some sort of login information of some sort. And I'm pretty certain you can't just print out money from a home computer, right?"
"Just go in there --"
"Oh, I could go find an ATM machine perhaps. But I think I would need to get an ATM card, and I've never gotten one of those. Credit cards are bad enough. Why does everyone act like checks are so inconvenient?"
"SHUT UP!" the Ghost shouts. "Just go into the bank! Kick the door open, tear open the vault, take the money, and give it to the poor!"
If I had eyebrows anymore, I would be crooking them at him quizzically.
"That's robbery," I point out, hopefully logically. "That's the exact opposite of becoming a better person."
"You have not been paying attention," he says. "This is not a real robbery. That is not a real bank. This is all a vision. By committing this act within the confines of your own mind, you signify your willingness to break free of the boundaries that have kept your morality shackled to your outmoded beliefs. You prove to yourself that you are ready to do what is necessary to become the better person you know you can be."
"That's daft," I say. "I don't know what else I can say about it. It's completely daft. Why shouldn't this vision happen in daytime at my own bank so I can make a proper withdrawal? Why would an attempt to demonstrate that I have become a better person involve me robbing a bank, even an imaginary bank? And where are these poor people I'm supposed to give the money to? Shouldn't we be back at the alley where Christmas Present took me before?"
"No, you're still over-thinking," he says. "Just go in and get the money. Don't worry about logic. Look, here's one of the homeless people to give it to."
With that, the air next to us briefly unravels, and the blond-haired homeless girl who so fascinated me back at the alley walks onto the scene. She looks up at both of us and smiles. It really is a wonderful smile.
"Did I hear you guys were going to be able to help me out?" she says.
"I may be able to," I tell her. "Apparently, I have to rob a metaphorical bank. It doesn't make the most sense, but that's metaphor for you."
"Metaphorical help for a metaphorical girl," she says.
"That's a good description," says the Ghost.
"Perhaps it is," I say, offering my hand. "My name is Professor Bertram McKenzie, miss. Might I know who I am about to rob a metaphorical financial institution for?"
"Please call me Ava," she says. She takes my hand, and we shake hands for, well, for longer than I expected.
"Professor McKenzie," she says. "You can let go of my hand."
"Of course, dear girl," I say. "But do forgive me in advance for what I'm about to do."
I shove her fairly hard. Not hard enough to send her flying, not enough to injure her much, but enough to make her stumble backwards, to trip over her own feet, and to fall to the ground with a surprised cry.
"Wh-What was that for?!" she asks in shock.
"Because, Ava, you're the only person -- in fact, the only thing, living or inanimate -- that I've actually been able to touch during these visions."
"What are you talking about?" she stammers.
"Everything else is completely insubstantial except for you," I say. "Which means you're the only real person here. Furthermore, when I shoved you, it startled you, and when you fell, it broke your concentration. And the Ghost of Christmas Future disappeared."
I take a step toward her.
"I'm taking you to jail, Ava," I say. "Please don't put up a struggle."
"Like hell, you ass," she snarls.
Her clothing shimmers and is replaced by an armored purple and black costume decorated with a spiral motif. She wears a thick metal tiara crowned with another spiral symbol.
"Supervillains and superheroes," I say disappointedly. "I do believe I preferred the ghosts, Ava."
"You'll join them soon enough, old man," she says.
"Bravado won't keep you out of jail, Ava," I say. "You'd be better off surrendering before I can grow angry that you tried to use me to commit a felony."
"I'm tired of you calling me that name," she says. "You've got another ten minutes to live. You can call me Psychotique for the rest of your life."
"In that case, he'll be calling you that for years to come," says a voice behind her.
She whirls around and shouts, "The Chrome Cobra!"
"Way to short-change the rest of us, chica," says Penitente.
In fact, it's not a particularly large group -- just the Cobra, Penitente, Calypso, Hypothermia, and Piledriver.
"So few, Miss Cobra?" I ask.
"It's a busy night, Professor," she says. "There's a breakout in progress at the Special Operation Squad's metahuman-lockdown facility, with the Metal Militia leading the charge. That's a bit more of an emergency than a lone psychic. Thanks for buzzing us in on this one."
"When did he buzz you in?" Psychotique asks angrily. "I've been watching him the whole time!"
"I pushed you over," I say. "You fell down. I hit this little button on my wrist and started broadcasting everything that happened after that."
"I just wish you'd been wearing your psi-blocker, McKenzie," Cobra says. "Would've solved this whole problem before it even started."
"I was wearing it," I say. "It's not my fault I don't have ears, and you said it would work fine attached to the communicator unit."
"Hah!" Psychotique laughs. "Those don't work nearly as well when you're not wearing them on your head! The only reason I can't operate him like a hand puppet is because his brain doesn't have a normal human brain configuration! But I can make him see and hear anything I want!"
"Well, congratulations, lady," says Calypso. "Too bad the rest of us are wearing psi-blockers properly."
"Right," says Hypothermia. "I think the smart move here is for you to surrender and try to think of some more socially acceptable use for your telepathy while you're cooling your heels in prison."
"Ooh, no surrendering, please!" says Piledriver. "I'm in the mood to go all Ali-Frazier on someone!"
"Oh man, I love you superzeroes," Psychotique says, a thoroughly delighted smile on her face. "Tell me how useful those psi-blockers are against telekinetics."
The air around me -- around all of us, I must assume -- suddenly feels distinctly strange. I feel giant hands gripping me -- solid hands, without a doubt, and yet when I try to grab them to pry them off, they are somehow not solid enough for me to touch in any way.
The Chrome Cobra suddenly hovers off the ground, just for a second, then slams back down onto the street, landing on her knees. She says a very profane word. Then she lifts off again and crashes to earth twice -- bam, bam -- face-first.
Penitente's whip uncoils from his hip, spirals around him, wraps around his neck, and pulls tight. He chokes, claws at the whip. Piledriver grabs at the whip around his neck and prepares to pull it off him, but she's suddenly thrown backwards, and a wide strip of her skin tears away from her face. More artificial flesh is ripped away, though it appears to cause her no pain. She's being peeled like an onion.
Calypso suddenly loses her footing and crashes to the ground. She gets back to her feet, but slowly, and leaving small cracks in the asphalt below her.
"Nice," says Psychotique. "I thought she was a wind controller or something. Didn't even know she had superstrength. Need to do better research in the future, right?"
"That's enough," says Hypothermia. He flings his hands out, launching a half-dozen ice shards at Psychotique, but they all stop and shatter in mid-air.
Then Hypothermia drops to his knees and gasps, "Wh-What are you doing?" And then his chest shatters.
"You monster, what are you doing?!" I scream at her. The others are similarly infuriated, though Penitente cannot draw enough breath to talk, and the Cobra and Piledriver use language which is a great deal more offensive.
"D-Don't worry," Hypothermia stammers. "I've h-had worse. Sh-Should be fine. Need to lie down a minute."
He starts to fall forward, but suddenly lifts up into the air. Cracks continue to spread across his body, with chips of ice crumbling onto the street. Two of his fingers fall off.
"Let him go, Psychotique!" the Cobra shouts. "I will turn you into hamburger if you don't lay off him right now!"
"Shut up, bitch," Psychotique says. The Cobra lifts off the ground again and slams repeatedly back down.
"Stop this, Ava!" I shout at her. "What possible purpose could all this destruction have?"
"Are you kidding?" she says. "This barely counts as destruction. Besides, killing superheroes has always kinda been a dream of mine."
"I don't believe you!" I say. "Let them go, they've done you no harm!"
"Maybe you missed the threats of violence just a couple minutes ago?" she replies. "That traitor Piledriver -- I can't believe I used to belong to your fan club! How could you turn babyface on us?!"
"Wrestling is fake, dork-a-mundo," says Piledriver. She appears to have no more skin left on her, making her look like a robotic skeleton, and Psychotique is starting to tear her costume up as well. "Now leave the jacket alone, girl, this is nice material."
"I'm going to start tearing your arms off next, I swear," Psychotique says. "But I'll tell you what, professor. You're not really a superhero, are you? You never wanted to be one, you'd be happier just staying home nights and teaching classes during the day. I really don't need to kill you. Go ahead and go home."
"I'm hardly going to abandon anyone here."
"Nah, go ahead," she says. "You're really not cut out for this hero stuff anyway, right? Tell ya what, I'll let you take your pal Calypso, too. Killing the other four will be more than enough to make my name, don't you think?"
"Nothing doing!" Calypso shouts as Psychotique again forces her to the ground telekinetically. "I'm gonna stomp you into a psychic puddle!"
"Well, I gave her a chance, didn't I?" says the villainess. "So I get to kill five superheroes after all."
There's a screech of tortured metal from Piledriver. More of Hypothermia chips away. Penitente gasps for air. The Cobra gets slammed another few times against the ground. Calypso drops to her hands and knees with a groan.
I've had enough of this. So I scream at her.
As I suspect I've mentioned before, I can scream terribly loudly. Iota tells me my decibel level is dangerously high, to the point of causing physical pain and some tissue damage, and he's suggested that I avoid using the top volume unless it's absolutely necessary.
I consider it absolutely necessary right now.
"STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING!" I scream, and Psychotique flinches back, slapping her hands over her ears.
"Wh-What the hell was that?" she asks. "Oh my god, that hurts!"
"THIS BEHAVIOR IS UNACCEPTABLE!" I howl at her. "YOU ARE BREAKING FAR TOO MANY LAWS, AND YOU MUST GO TO JAIL!"
She has both hands clamped tightly over her ears, staring at me in shock and fright. "Cut it out already," she says. "What the hell is wrong with you?!"
"YOU HAVE DECEIVED ME AND ATTEMPTED TO MAKE ME ROB A BANK, AND YOU HAVE ATTACKED THE CITY'S DEFENDERS AND PLOTTED MURDER AGAINST THEM AND someone capture this horrible woman, quickly please AND YOU HAVE DEFILED MY MEMORIES OF MY FAMILY AND THAT WILL NOT STAND, YOUNG WOMAN!"
"It's your collar," says the Cobra. "Go ahead and take her out."
"I HAVE FEW ENOUGH HAPPY FAMILY MEMORIES AND no, I won't do it, someone else do it before her hearing adjusts AND I TAKE IT AS A PERSONAL AFFRONT THAT YOU WOULD SO BADLY INTERPRET THEIR TRUE CHARACTERS FOR THE SAKE OF CRASS THIEVERY!"
"Idiotas," Penitente growls, tearing his whip from around his neck and throwing it on the ground. "I'll do it. Gimme a scrambler, Cobra."
He begins running at Psychotique. The Cobra tosses him a small flat device that looks like an adhesive patch with a battery attached. I stop shouting as he passes me. Psychotique looks up just as he slams the patch into her forehead. The impact knocks her over on her back, and when she falls, she lies still, aside from an occasional twitch.
"My god, man, what did you do to her?" I ask angrily. "I was hoping to avoid deathly violence altogether!"
"It's a psychic scrambler," says the Cobra. "Disrupts her ability to use any psionic powers, plus it puts her brain in shut-down mode. Should keep her unconscious 'til the police can pick her up."
"Oh my god, oh my god," Calypso cries. "What about Hypothermia? He's dying!"
"He's not dying, chica," says Penitente. "He's had worse than this lots of times. He'll recover and re-freeze."
"Right, but he'll recover faster if we get him some water he can use to replace his lost mass," says Cobra. "There's a Metro Mart down on 56th. Calypso, Penitente, Piledriver -- wait, where's Piledriver?"
"I'm over here!" she shouts from a nearby alley. She's mostly hidden in the darkness and is waving one metal arm at us. "Do any of you have anything I can wear?"
"Anything to wear?" asks Penitente. "Do you even have any skin left on you?"
"No, not really," she says.
"So what's it matter?" he says. "We won't see anything."
"Screw that!" she shouts back. "I'm still not going to run around naked! Someone get me some clothing!"
The Cobra sighs deeply, opens up a compartment on her belt, and pulls out a shiny emergency blanket. She tosses it to Calypso.
"Take that over to her," she says. "And tell her to run for home. If she sticks to the alleys, she probably won't be seen by anyone."
"Oh, come on, Cobra," Penitente says as Calypso flies to the alley. "She just looks like a robot skeleton at this point, right? This is all just silly."
"Why don't you lend her your costume, then?" I say.
"Ah, to hell with you guys," he says, throwing his hands in the air.
"Come on, people, let's focus," the Cobra says as Calypso returns. "We need to get Hypo some water. Penitente, Calypso, head for that Metro Mart, borrow some mop buckets, fill 'em with water, and get 'em back here. Polyphemus and I will watch Hypo and Psychotique."
Once the others have disappeared down the street, the Cobra turns and favors me with what must be a thoroughly withering glare beneath her helmet.
"Professor," she says. "When I tell you to take someone out, I kinda mean you should take her out. You were the only person here who wasn't recovering from some sort of attack at the time."
"Merciful heavens, woman," I groan. "The villain is defeated, everyone survived, everything is as it should be. Can we not simply accept the victory for what it is? Must you find fault with everything?"
"Honestly, yeah, I kinda have to find fault. I need to know what you're capable of, and I need to make sure you're going to be capable of doing more than before. It's for your benefit, my benefit, everyone else's benefit."
"This is never to my benefit," I say. "This is always to your benefit. This is always to give yourself an opportunity to berate and nitpick."
"You're a fine one to talk, jerkass. You won't take criticism, but you sure as hell love whining about what everyone else does, don't you?"
"F-For fuck's sake," Hypothermia moans from the pavement nearby. "Could you assholes check your colossal damn egos and just talk to each other? Civilly? At least give me a few minutes of peace and quiet while I'm falling to pieces..."
"Sorry, Kelvin," says the Cobra. "Post-combat adrenaline."
"Yes," I say. "Many apologies. And to you, too, Cobra. I didn't attack because I wasn't sure I could hit Psychotique without killing her, and because I felt someone who had actually suffered injuries at her hands should have the opportunity to retaliate."
"Ahh, well, thanks for the consideration, but for the most part, we're not going to need to get revenge on a villain for a standard-issue scrap like that. Maybe if it were a more personal case, but you know, she'd spent a few days targeting you and apparently playing with your memories and perceptions. It should've been more than personal enough for you to want to score some payback."
"Perhaps," I say. "But again, it was very unlikely I could strike her without killing her. You have impressed upon me more than once the severe penalties I'd suffer for that."
"I've been teaching you to fight," she says. "You may not be happy about it, but I know you're learning something."
"Yes, and I keep pulling my attacks because I'm afraid I'll cause you some serious injury."
"I've been hit by stronger people than you," she says. "I've been seriously injured by people weaker than you. And honestly, Professor, I'm a much better fighter than you are. You'd have to work really hard to hurt me. Besides, if you're pulling your punches, that means you're probably not going to injure me, Psychotique, or anyone else. That's a good thing."
"Perhaps," I say. "It still doesn't seem right, does it?"
"Dr. McKenzie," says Hypothermia. "I think you're having an attack of empathy."
"Nonsense," I scoff.
"Don't back away from it now," he says. "Compassion never killed anyone."
"It is nonsense," I say. "Psychotique may have tried to trick me with the Charles Dickens nonsense, but I'm no sentimental fool."
"Did she try to gaslight you with that 'Christmas Carol' stuff?" asks the Cobra. "I hate that book, too. So cornball and overwrought. But it's not like you weren't empathetic before, right?"
"That's slander, young lady," I say. "I'm not some soft-hearted milksop. I have, by necessity, a hard head and a hard heart. I don't mind admitting it. It's the way adults make their way in the world."
"My ass," the Cobra says. "I may have pressured you into being a superhero, but you've taken to it like you were born to it. And not just the fighting -- honestly, I wish you were a little more aggressive when it came to combat -- but you're one of the first people into burning buildings, you're nice to kids, you sit around after rescues and worry about what you might've done wrong. You're fantastically kindhearted, and I wish you didn't work so hard to hide it behind all that bluster and crankiness."
"I would not take your psychoanalysis as gospel for any amount of money," I tell her. "All of your insights into the human psyche are oriented around badgering people to do what you want them to."
"This is true, but you don't have to take my word for it," she shrugs. "I got all that from Express. He's got a counseling degree, and the only thing that keeps him from getting bored by all us slowpokes is trying to figure out what makes us all tick. I trust his insights completely, so I've known for months that you're a good superhero."
"Bah," I say. "Nothing but --"
"Humbug?" says Hypothermia.
"Flattery!" I shout.
"Whatever," says the Cobra. "Heads up, Hypo -- we've got superheroes incoming with a few buckets of water."
As it happens, the convenience store only had two mop buckets they could loan to Calypso and Penitente, but those seemed to be enough to significantly rejuvenate the afflicted Dr. Mauro. While he's slowly regenerating his lost ice, the Special Operations Squad arrives to take Psychotique into custody. The Cobra calls Atlas and the other heroes and receives a report that the jailbreak has been largely quelled, with only a few criminals, including the three captured members of the Metal Militia, Devil Wasp, Strych-9, and Professor Quackers making their escape. This is unfortunate, but the alternative would be all the superpowered criminals in the jail roaming free in the city.
The Cobra and Penitente escort Hypothermia back to his home and orders Calypso home before her curfew, though she relents to allow her to follow me home to make sure I'm alright after my psychic ensorcelment.
"Dr. McKenzie, do you want me to fly you back to your house?" Calypso asks once the other three have departed.
"Let's walk instead," I say. "It's been a stressful night. I'd enjoy a more leisurely stroll home."
So we start off walking. She calls her parents to get permission to miss curfew for once. We buy each other coffee at a Starbucks. (Well, she actually makes the purchases -- the front door is far too narrow for me to get through.) I regale her with analysis of The Scottish Play -- though I try to avoid prattling on for too long -- and she suggests a modern film adaptation of one of the Bard's comedies that has gained some renown.
When we're two or three blocks from my home, Calypso stops and says, "Okay, Dr. McKenzie, go ahead and spill -- what's it like getting the Christmas Carol treatment?"
"Well, I think it was more irritating than anything else," I say. "I'm no great fan of the book, so being forced to live through it was fairly wearying. And Psychotique was probably less familiar with the book than I was. She had some interesting interpretations of some of the ghosts, and I was genuinely mystified about what was happening to me -- but I felt very little emotional investment in most of her scenarios."
"Most of the scenarios, huh?" she says with a grin. "So which ones did the trick? Did she show you your grave and get you to turn over a new leaf?"
"Actually, quite the opposite," I say. "My name on a tombstone didn't bother me at all. But there were some visions of the future which were quite disturbing."
"Whoa, really? Like what?"
"She showed me that I'd live for another century, but I'd become a hermit, hide away from the world, give up all the silly superheroics, and in the end, I'd be forgotten and unmourned by everyone. All the rest of you would have grand memorials, and I'd be disregarded and neglected by everyone, even my own family. It -- Well, it upset me a great deal more than I expected it would."
"Oh, wow, that does sound pretty bad," Calypso says. "But -- okay, two things. First, remember, she's not actually precognitive. If she could really see the future, she would've known you were going to scream her eardrums out, right?"
"Well, yes, I suppose that's true."
"And second, I promise, if I outlive you, I'll totally mourn you," she continues. "Not to sound all chipper about it or anything. But I promise to show up at your funeral and wear black. And I'll probably cry, too."
"You're being facetious," I tell her.
"I hope that means sensitive and caring," Calypso says. "And completely awesome. Because I totally am. I think Psychotique was just lying to you to make you feel rotten about yourself. But I can guarantee that I'll mourn you. I think you're cool, and it'd make me sad if you weren't around. And you know how to make sure everyone else mourns you and remembers you?"
"Don't quit," she says, smiling. "Don't hide yourself away, don't be a hermit. Keep being a good guy. Call your kids and grandkids, or at least send them Christmas cards or flowers or something. Swallow your pride and tell 'em you miss 'em. And be nice to your students every once in a while -- I bet they deserve a break, right?"
"I can't do all that," I say. "You're asking me to completely surrender my dignity and grovel before them all."
"You can be dignified and forgotten," she says. "Or you can be dignified and not a total buttmunch. It doesn't require giving up any dignity at all, sir."
"Hmm. Well, I will think about it."
"Think about that vision Psychotique showed you," she says. "Then put on your big boy pants and call your kids. Oh, and come to the party we're having! It won't hurt you to eat some Christmas cookies with us!"
She holds her fist up for me, and I obligingly tap mine against hers, which seems to be the way superheroes in this city express friendship and solidarity.
"Remember, white elephant parties don't mean you bring an elephant to the party," she says, hovering up into the air. "Get a fun, goofy gift -- not too expensive -- wrap it up, and bring it to the party. We'll have fun, guaranteed!"
"Fine," I say. "Do I need to bring refreshments?"
"Nah, but I bet we could use some paper plates and napkins," she says. "Get something festive, man, not the boring stuff!"
"I'll see what I can find," I say. "Calypso, one more thing before you go?"
"Sure, what's up?"
"Please forgive what may seem an unusual question, but are you one of my great-granddaughters?"
"As I said, it's an odd question," I say. "But please humor me?"
"No, sir, sorry," she says with a bemused smile. "I'm definitely not one of your great-granddaughters. Do I want to know the context behind that?"
"Perhaps not," I say. "Maybe I'll tell you at the party, unless I decide it's just too embarrassing to tell."
"Okay, then," she says. "I'll keep my fingers crossed that you'll be able to tell me. See you at the party, sir -- glad to see you're coming out of your shell!"
She smiles, waves, and flies off for home.
Well, the young lady is perhaps a bit overly optimistic. I can't change my personality overnight -- nor would I want to. For the most part, I like my personality just fine.
But truth be told, I was very disturbed by the idea that no one would remember me after I died, and that I would stop caring about my family enough to stop attending their funerals if I outlived them. So am I willing to work harder to improve relations with my children and grandchildren? Yes, emphatically. Do most of them still hang up on me when I call? Well, yes, even more emphatically.
Will they accept Christmas cards? Perhaps. Will they accept requests to meet for coffee or lunch? Perhaps. I hope so. It's worth trying.
Why attend the Christmas party? With an assortment of superheroes I don't like? In part, because I've essentially promised Calypso I'd be there. Promising to bring paper plates and napkins is likely the equivalent of a binding contract.
In part... I may not dislike Metro City's superheroes as much as I've said.
Could I have stopped Psychotique by myself? I think not. And they couldn't stop her without my help. We assisted each other against the Metal Militia, against the Zorgosauruses, against the Church of Sorrow and many, many others. They are fine allies. I find myself enjoying their company from time to time, even if pride insists that I say otherwise.
Yes, they're irritating, crude, violent, and unintellectual. They're prone to mad action and angst, foolish jokes, towering rages. Some of them are sex-obsessed. Some of them indulge in ridiculous wordplay. They're all of those things, without a doubt.
But then... so was Shakespeare.
I walk the next two blocks to my home, making plans for tomorrow's classes. I even whistle on the way.
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