“No! No! Heavens no!” Philip protests. “I’m not one of those craven fools! I’m not one that acts as if everything wrong with the world can be blamed on the few with the power to actually fix it!”
I am pleasantly surprised. I rather dislike having to defend my fellow superhumans as I make a very poor example of one. Subhuman is more my breed than superhuman.
“No. I was talking about the socialists in Europe mostly.” Philip continues. “Stalin. Hitler. Mussolini. “Give me your freedom” they say. “And I will protect you from the superhuman. I will mold and shape you like human clay into the state, and the state will be more powerful than any superman.””
Philip is passionate in his opinions. That is good. I can do a lot with a man of strong convictions.
“It is good to find another person concerned with the totalitarian cancer spreading across the sea.” I say.
“I return those words to you sir! But were it only overseas! With FDR putting his blue eagle on Gold Star, the NRA is now virtually unstoppable. They can tell even the most godly of superhumans where to work, what to work, and how to work. Nobody can oppose them!”
Not oppose, but certainly avoid--as I and others have done and continue to do so.
“Take heart.” I say. “The glaring legalities of the NRA will no doubt bring it to its end.”
Philip slowly shakes his head. “Hopefully. Hopefully. But I’m not so sure at this point. Roosevelt managed to get congress to declare superpowers just another form of property--and property is subject to tax and government control.”
“The Supreme Court will overturn it. And what is more, I feel Gold Star will turn against Roosevelt. The papers say that he has begun to argue with Roosevelt with regards to the imprisonment of all the men and supermen violating NRA labor regulations”
“God, I hope he does come to his senses.” Philip gives a low, sad sigh. “Gold Star is...special to me.”
“He is to a lot of people.”
“Damn it all...you know he’s the reason for all this right? He’s the reason for FDR and the NRA and people going to jail because they just want to use their superpowers to dig mines and do construction. Everyone voted in FDR because Gold Star backed him...because Gold Star would never do anything bad for the common man…” Philip gives a bitter shake of his head.
“Superheroes are like any man.” I say. “They have flaws and endeavor to work past those flaws. Have faith that Gold Star will overcome himself as he has any challenge.”
Having self-knowledge, knowing the inner darkness that storms within me, has given me a profound respect for the truly good men of the world. And Gold Star is one of those men, though physically he’s as different from a man as the sun itself.
I saw Gold Star. Once. I saw him as part of a crowd. I was Lee Walker, and I was just one more old man in the crowd. It was a routine morning. I was on a walk to clear my head of all that I had acquired in the nighttime--thoughts that burdened my mind and adrenaline that burdened my body. Suddenly, light filled the streets as if all the clouds had parted. A boy shouted for us to look up, and look up we did.
And there he was, shining like his namesake. He passed over Mainline on his way to handle something or other of earthshaking importance. His poncho fluttered about like a single brown wing. Through rips and holes accumulated over years of adventures, light poured and made the simple cloth poncho look like a cloud full of stars.
He gave us a bashful look like a schoolboy meeting the eyes of his crush, grinned, waved, and shot through the air like a silent bolt of golden lightning. The trail he left behind turned red as sunset then dissolved into an iridescent shimmer.
The world has become a wonderland of nightmares and dreams these past decades. For all my power, all my horror, I am but a little nightmare. I haunt the nights of Mainline like a ghost and prey on the guilty like a vampire. But for some superhumans, the world is such before their power that it is like a dream and they the dreamers.
It unburdens my soul to know that Gold Star dreams us a happy dream as much as he is able.
“Forgive me Philip, but when you spoke of superhumans making basic man soft and of strong men controlling humanity I feared that you were echoing the arguments of the anti-superhumans.”
“Oh yes.” Philip rolls his eyes. “I have heard their “arguments.” I have heard that superhumans will one day fill the planet with their children and drive basic man into the sea. I have heard that any day now Blue Defender will snap and murder everyone he sees out of dissatisfaction with our way of life. How anyone buys into those arguments I do not know!”
I have yet to meet the Blue Defender, and I rather hope that I never will. He has vowed to one day see me imprisoned for my crimes. The only thing keeping him from vigorously hunting me down is the long list of colorful and bizarre villains he pursues--far longer than my own list.
“Do you know the worst argument I have heard? It’s the one about “common vulnerability.” They say man is only altruistic because his individual weakness causes him to rely on others. Rot! It is in weakness that man is evil. Not in strength!”
I have to agree. I have seen too much not to. All the wicked, evil men I have captured and slain have been driven by weakness, by deficiency. Murderers, arsonists, rapists--they rarely have any power be it financial, physical, or social. The ones that do are driven by a fearful association with power. They fear the loss of power and will sacrifice anything to stave off that loss--anything.
“Are you familiar with the anthropological works of Dr. Hercules Stone?” Philip asks.
“Yes.” I reply. “I’ve got all of his works in the library. He’s a wonderful guide to the rapidly growing world of superhuman anthropology.”
I’m more than familiar with the man’s works. I’ve met Dr. Hercules Stone as the Trespasser. He was every bit the genius and gentleman his reputation made him out to be. It was a damnable shame we ended up fighting. That chapel had such a beautiful stained glass window…
“Ah, it’s great to see another fan of the superhuman anthropologist and anthropologist of superhumans--as they say!”
Ah good lord. Is that really what they call him now? And he lets them? Poor man.
“I’ve talked to many people that feel that Dr. Stone is propagandist for his “race.” Philip says. “As if superhumans were a race! Each of them has more differences with each other than with any given basic! Oh it is so refreshing to talk to someone that actually understands Dr. Stone and his arguments! “Mr. Walker, do you recall what he wrote about the uh, secret identity phenomena? In...I believe it was Princes of Dawn?”
“Yes it was and yes I do. He wrote that contrary to the prevalent notion that many superhumans adopt aliases and theatrical disguises to disassociate themselves from their actions and terrorize the populace, they adopt these alter-egos as a form of humility. In their civilian ego, they restrain the use of their powers so as to blend in with their friends and family. They avoid putting on airs as it were. And in their superhuman ego, they become living symbols and use their powers in the service of these symbols be they symbols of justice or protection or what have you. He called superhumans viri hodie--men of today. They exist entirely within the moment-of-action, applying themselves to whatever need is present before moving onto the next without complaint or compensation.”
“Exactly sir! Neatly paraphrased!” Philip praises me. “That self-knowledge, that self-mastery, that discipline! That is the key to saving the modern world!
If only I was one of them. If only I was viri hodie. But I am not. I am too haunted by my past and my pain to ever live entirely within the moment-of-action. I do not wear a disguise as a form of humility. I wear a disguise to protect myself and my loved ones from the consequences of my actions and to make men very, very afraid of me. When I am in costume I am not a symbol. I am a warning. I do not stand for anything abstract or noble. I do not stand for protection or reassurance.
I am what the tiger’s stripes are. I stand for what they stand for.
Oh Philip, Philip, your enthusiasm for our conversation wounds me. It must be difficult to be so passionate about superhumans in a city haunted by the Trespasser. I bet that when you so much as mention Dr. Stone to one of your socialite friends they bring me up and suddenly you’re forced to defend superhumans from my comparison.
I am sorry for that.
I am sorry that I have been considering you to be my agent.
And I am sorry that I am still considering making you my agent.
“Far too many people see superhumans as just fleshy scaffolding for supernatural miracles.” Philip says. “They see them as simply men with supernatural resources, with capital to be taxed and controlled. They do not see that superpowers force a change in the psychology of a man!”
“I believe Dr. Stone called that change the “challenge of duty”.” I say.
“Yes he did. Every superhuman is challenged by his superpower and becomes better because he is challenged. His superpower gives him the ability to accomplish almost anything he desires, but it also alienates him from those around him. Man’s natural empathy kicks in, and instead of his empowerment leading to a ring-of-Gyges powertrip like the anti-superhumans would predict, it leads to the challenge of duty. The superhuman is challenged to form a behavioral strategy to balance the possibilities of his godly power with his human desire to conform to social pressure. It is only aberrations that behave like the monstrous tyrants that haunt the nightmares and pamphlets of the anti-superhumans! Aberrations just like basic men who stab their wives! The data in Princes showed that criminality among superhumans is much lower than among basics proving that superpowers generally have a positive psychological effect. And yet everywhere the superhuman is treated like a beast of burden that must be yoked! People covet their power. Covet their characters I say, not their power!”
There is very little in my character than any man should want.
Can I make you my agent Philip? You have enthusiasm. You have strong convictions. You believe superpowers should be used to fix the world. And yet...I am an aberration. True, I am not an aberration to the same degree as so say, the Sphinx. I do not use my powers to harm innocents for my own ego like that body-stealing mentalist. I would kill the Sphinx and all others like him if given the chance and derive much pleasure from doing so.
But I am still an aberration. And you would have to accept that, Philip. Even my empowerment was an aberration by the standards of Dr. Stone. My empowerment was not a challenge of duty. And if it was, I certainly failed it. My empowerment was a descent into Hell from which I have not emerged.
There I was, in the cracked and muddy no-man’s land of Ypres, Belgium.
There I am still, when old wounds keep me awake at night and my mind wanders back through the years.
My gabriel armor was scattered about me like the pieces of a smashed mosquito. My cavorite wings were skeletal fingers stabbing into the air. My cheek rested on the puddle that remained of my rhecite--flowing metal--helmet.
I saw fire. I heard screams. I wondered if I was in Hell.
Then there was the ringing sound of a spent artillery shell being struck with a hammer--the sound that all soldiers of the Great War in the Air understood regardless of nationality.
There was yellow. Yellow everywhere. My eyes and throat burned. My skin blistered through my clothes. The sounds of far, far too many men dying slowly of suffocation filled my ears. I felt myself begin to join them and I prayed that death would find me quickly.
But death did not find me at all.
My body rejected the poison, rejected the pain, rejected the death that was rightfully mine. I breathed in yellow, cytotoxic sulfur and I breathed it out again. My lungs healed. My skin healed. I stood up and shrugged the shredded metal of my armor off like snow.
But I was the only Lazarus that day. And I did not walk out of the tomb.
I looked around and saw the dying and there was nothing I could do. In helpless confusion I knelt down near one soldier, friend or foe I could not tell, and watched his face contort and turn and there was nothing I could do. The dying saw me through their tears and clung to me like drowning men in a yellow sea and there was nothing I could do.
And then my senses became superhuman.
I heard whispered, choked prayers. I heard hearts winding down to stillness. I heard lungs struggle to work with seared membranes. I heard men weep, and cry, and wail, and die.
And when the yellow cloud moved on I heard them still.
The bodies were cold and dead and motionless but I heard them still.
I know now, that what I heard then was the cloud of mustard gas doing its satanic work on another battlefield miles away. But I knew nothing of what I was then. I knew only that I was alive among a field of dead men who would not stop screaming.
I thought that I was haunted.
I thought that the ghosts of the dead were angry at me because I would not die.
I screamed for the ghosts to let me be or let me die, to do what they would to me but only be quiet.
I was found hours later, still screaming.
My screams were the first cries of a newborn fresh from the womb of war.
It took some time for the doctors at the field hospital and myself to realize that I was a superhuman. Initially, they thought I was just one of the far too many soldiers in the war wounded in the mind and I thought I was haunted. The footsteps down the hall were to me the soldiers marching to their doom or marching to take me to Hell. The gunshots and artillery fire miles away from the field hospital were the sounds of Ypres echoing forever.
But the incredible resilience and strength my empowered body demonstrated upon examination led to tests, and these tests led to the discovery that I had superhuman senses. This knowledge helped me, but it did not quiet the old screams of Ypres I would often hear--that I still sometimes hear to this day. The old screams were purely products of my mind but I heard them as clear as reality. Whenever my powers caused me to hear a distant sound without an immediately identifiable source, something triggered in my brain to cause me to hear the old screams.The doctors called it trauma induced schizophrenia aggravated and perhaps caused by superhuman abilities.
I knew that the old screams were not ghosts, but that did not make them any less haunting. If anything, it made them more haunting. The Carnaki Foundation began educating the public about manesology in 1913 and showed that di manes could be reasoned with--and if that failed, bound to aetheric instruments.
But madness cannot not be reasoned with and it cannot be bound.