Soul Survivor
by Scott Bennie


With my gun squarely pointed at Mr. Stitch’s head, I snarl “Freeze, asshole!” in my best police voice. Is it my fault the guy’s powers are giving me the proverbial middle finger?

I pull the trigger, but before the rubber bullet can connect squarely with the dickhead, he makes a quick motion with his fingers. The needles and thread that he carries with him suddenly dip, cut through the bank vault’s marble floor, secure themselves as snuggly as a sewing needle knotted to a thick sheath of cloth, then loop upward and snag the bullet while it’s still in flight. One sewing motion later, the bullet, now tethered by a supernaturally strong thread that’s set in the bank vault floor, falls out of the air before it can reach its target.

Then I fire three more shots, all of which are snagged out of the air just as effortlessly by the sewing world’s premiere arch-criminal.

“Shit!” I snap. “Fucking shit!” Goddamn superpowers. It really sucks to be on the other end of them.

“I’m terribly sorry to upset you, Mr. Champion,” Stitch says, in a meek, demure, matter of fact tone. It’s bad enough to get my ass handed to me, but this guy’s got the height and build of Wally Cox! “But crime is a rude business.”

You know, even with my powers gone, if I grabbed the little weasel, I could still probably break him in two. He stands there with this whole Batman The Animated Series theme villain crap, an exaggerated smallness that contrasts with the politeness and the confidence of his stance. He’s a daylight robber, a supervillain who has no fucking fear of getting caught. A month or so ago he fought Blur, sewed her foot to the ground, and secured it with such impossible precision that they needed to call in a surgeon to safely detach it. Then the asshole’s telekinetic sewing needles secured a getaway on a passing traffic ‘copter.

Like I said, theme bullshit. Never trust a supervillain who calls himself “Mister”. First Mr. Jitters, now Mr. Stitch… fuck, if Majestron had called himself  “Mr. Majestron” the world would now be relocated to “shit creek”.

So I do what I do best, and that’s charge in blindly. Except that blindly doesn’t necessarily mean stupid– first I unlock the taser on the Omega suit and hope he doesn’t do something creative, like sew the taser line to me after I launch it to give me a taste of my own medicine. I tumble as I move into my firing position, hoping that tracking me while I’m moving will throw him off balance. But it’s a futile hope – the villain has his needles ready even as I hit my comfort zone, and I suddenly find myself staring at them as they make a beeline for my eyes.

“Holy shit!” I shout.

I don’t really know how to describe what happens next, except that it’s as painful as Hell, but not quite as bad as I was expecting. Everything goes red, and there’s an incredible pressure on my eye sockets. Then the pain subsides, I’m seeing a translucent redness, and I struggle to open my eyes again.

The eyelids won’t budge.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking. Mr. Stitch is a more genteel brand of sadist. The cocksucker’s needles penetrated my mask like its surprisingly hard NASA plastic wasn’t fucking there, and sewed my fucking eyelids shut. I suppose I should be thankful he just didn’t stick them into my eyes and blind me permanently.

“Good-bye, Mr. Champion.” Stitch says in an almost a whisper. “And keep working on your vigilante career. I’m sure you’ll do better next time.”

The next thing I know the police are on the scene, and once again I can hear the whispers saying that I’m a “has-been”. Okay, that’s not quite the words they use, but let’s face it, what the fuck else could the words “the old Omega” possibly be referring to? Ever since, a few months ago, some as yet unexplained force stole my powers, transforming me from one of the world’s most powerful superheroes into just another plucky kid from Nebraska. But even without my shitty powers, I decided to keep holding the superhero torch, so I honed my fighting skills by working out extensively with some ex-marines, trained in vehicle ops with some professional stuntmen, and developed lightweight but effective kevlar armor and some low yield weapons and a few special tricks and gadgets designed to take the edge off my opponents.

I hear they’re now making a Dark Omega action figure.

But it’s been harder than I thought: just the lack of the special sense that warns me that I’m needed – something that I barely even noticed on a conscious level – has led to many useless evenings riding around on that damn motorcycle with nothing to show but gas bills (the price of gas sucks!). And now that they’ve smelled a weakness, everyone wants a piece of Tommy Champion, and not in a good way. I’ve been in five barfights, started by some punk who wanted to take a swing at a premier superhero. I’ve beaten all of them, the little dickless wonders, including the time I was jumped from behind by three guys. But I’ve also had more fucking stitches than Frankenstein, and right now I’m operating with my ribs taped and a fractured thumb. It genuinely sucks to go from punking out Aristocrat to Back Alley Rats.

No, it hasn’t been a complete failure. I’ve stopped three whole supervillains (including my old buddy, the Chain), and scared away several others, and I’ve only been arrested once for reckless endangerment and got off that one with a stern warning from a bored judge. But dammit, I’ve saved fucking lives, people! You think that’d earn me a little more respect than the “not” portion of People Magazine’s “Hot/Not” list. You’d think the Hollywood Hacks would still invite me to A-List parties, and that Nike wasn’t trying as hard as hell to find some loophole to renegotiate my contract. The only ones who are paying attention to me are the villains – I’ve felt someone watching me periodically, a telepathic watchdog looking over my shoulder, waiting to see if my powers come back.

Fuck them. I’m still Tommy Champion and I’m still better than these weasely ass-tassels can ever fucking hope to be.

An ambulance comes to take me to the hospital – they’ve already called in a laser surgery specialty team – and the police lead me into the awaiting arms of the paramedics. The ambulance doors swing behind me with a loud crunch – it’s an old vehicle and the door’s a little cranky – and I can hear the putter of an overly worn motor as the vehicle carts me away.

“You know, you could have just called me a cab,” I tell the attendant.

“It wouldn’t have been as secure,” a Mississippi drawl answers – in a voice that I’ve heard once before. I immediately bolt,  more of an instinctive reaction than clear recognition, but face it folks, I’m caught. I find myself on the losing end of a wrestling match with an opponent who’s literally a thousand times stronger than I am, and within two seconds I’m completely wrapped up and being forced-fed an anaesthetic.

What a great fucking day this has been.

*****

“Good, he’s waking up,” Mr. Mississippi says as I stumble to consciousness. “I’ll take it from here.”

“Yes Major.” A female voice says, and I can hear the sound of shuffling heels on a hard tiled floor. I open my eyes to find that I’m in an impossibly bright world.

It’s a laboratory, and I’m in some sort of examination area. The machines and computers form such a perfect circle around me that Plato would be proud. The Omega Suit is gone, as are my clothes. I find myself naked except for my athletic cup and the tape around my ribs, suspended an inch off the ground by about seven or eight gravity balls that are supporting my frame with only a minimum of discomfort. I’m unable to do more than squirm a little in its grip. A blond crewcut muscle-bound figure in khakis gets out of a chair and turns to face me. His face is vaguely friendly, but not it’s nearly the shit-eating grin I was expecting.

“Hiya, Barnsie.” I smile, realizing that I was being held prisoner by one of my most powerful enemies. Sergeant Kevin Barnes was a soldier during the whole Ireland mess who stumbled into one of the Royal Elite’s experiments, and emerged with some sort of nanotech/magictech hybrid running through his body. He’s close to a physical match for me when I have my powers; the first time we met, the cunt gave me one of the most vicious mano a mano scraps of my life - I barely managed to win it. For reasons I don’t understand beyond shits and grins, I tattooed the word “loser” onto his buttocks after the fight. I’m told he didn’t find it very funny – perhaps because I’d insulted his Deep South “honor” (or whatever bullshit these willful ex-Confederate motards use to justify being an asshole – yeah, I want to be associated with the symbols of people who treated other races like cattle, take that Luke and Beau Fucking Duke) he became a member of the so-called Omega Revenge Squad that interrupted my custody hearing, and he pulled the not-inconsequential feat of fighting Old Glory to a draw. “How’s it hanging, soldier boy?”

“Shall we shut him up?” one of the techs asks.

“Leave us alone.” Barnes says, staring at me, a vacant stare on his Aryan face, and a completely indeterminable expression in his eyes. It’s a mark of fear on the part of about a half-dozen technicians that they obey him as quickly as possible.

“You having trouble getting a date?” I say with a smirk.

“You aren’t in a position to mouth off at me, Champion.” he says, maintaining the cold, slightly vacant stare. His voice is a quiet growl, almost a monotone except for the twinge of an accent, and delivered slowly and softly, with all the inherent contradictions of a pro wrestler who’s scared to disturb a librarian.

“What have I got to lose, Barnesie?” I reply. “I know when I’m royally screwed.”

The big operative shakes his head. I wonder how he was expecting me to act? “You’re not screwed. You’re just crazy,” he tells me in a near monotone.

“Oh yeah? Well so are you, asshole,” I reply, “I’ve seen the service record.” I reply. Actually it was a damn good service record – none of the gratuitous padding you see on the records of many modern-day soldiers. I respect the military, especially those I served with Ireland, but I’ve also met soldiers of the sort that my granddad dismissed as “paper soldiers” – clerks and washouts who couldn’t shoot straight, who received medals for stubbing their fucking toe. I’ve met soldiers whose uniforms are top-heavy with medals, and you go over to talk to them and listen to their war stories, and you find out they’ve never left the country and that Boy Scout badges have higher standards than the decorations they received.

Yes, they were paper soldiers – but not Barnsie, no brass ever gave Kevin Barnes a medal for nose-picking. Before he got his powers, Kevin Barnes worked in special forces – and his accomplishments were outstanding. But the Major cum Sergeant was more brave than he was disciplined, and his record showed his stays in the brig were as frequent an occurrence as a hockey player visiting the penalty box. “I can feel the bond between us.” I tell him.

“No one’s bonding with me.” Barnes tells me. “Don’t screw with me, Champion. Because there’s always a way to screw you worse than you were expecting.”

Barnes’s face seems locked in an almost plastic pose, half-anger, half-stoner daze. It makes it fucking hard to read him, or to know when your remarks get under his skin. “Sure thing Kev.” I taunt him with a smile and sarcasm. “Because you were really fucking screwed. As I said, I did my fucking homework. I saw the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of your little transformation. Not only are you a thousand times more powerful than when you were a special forces dude, you weren’t exactly Brad Pitt with biceps before you had your origin. The river you’re crying is pretty fucking shallow from where I’m standing, Mississippi.”

“Then you know shit all about me,” he spits, and I smile at the obscenity.

“You hear to give me a lesson?”

“No.” The facial expression remains unchanged.

“Then why am I here, Kev?” I smile. “Cloning experiments from your little gang of techs? You going to send an army of evil Omegas to crush the Protectorate? Does the Proxy have the moxy?”

Barnes folds his arms in a frustrated pose, though his face continues to have a Gary Cooper consistency to it. “If anyone wants to populate the planet with more than one Omega, they’ll have to go through me first.”

“And here I thought you and I were buds,” I spit. “Well, you haven’t killed me, and you haven’t tortured me, and you haven’t raped me – telepathically or otherwise. So tell me, Mississippi, if you’re not planning to clone me, why am I here? You wanna rassle?” Again, Barnes’s face remains still as stone. Man, the origin must have done a number on the humor centers of his brain! He finally gives a big sigh. “What’s the matter, Barnes. Your psychosis doing a number on your head?”

He continues to stare at me, like a demented attack dog just before he’s going to strike.

“You forgot to use the word ‘yet’ in that list of yours,” he finally says, and he sighs again. “But I’m no talker, I’m not going beat the almighty Omega in a verbal smackdown, Why would I want to try?”

“Maybe it’s… your psychosis?” I smile, forgetting just how unbelievably outclassed I am. “Or maybe you caught sight of my dick, and you have to find some other way to compensate?” I grin to empathize it’s a joke. “C’mon Barnsie, you can at least crack a fucking smile. Or do something – anything – maybe you can grab me by the throat and threaten me. It’d be a real affirmation of your masculinity.”

“Whatever, Champion.” Barnes says. “If you’ve got anything to say that isn’t bluster and bullshit, just say it.”

I decide to pause and think about my answer for a second. “What is there to fucking say? Put yourself in my shoes – or my place - Sergeant. Will acting like less of an asshole make me any less fucked? You’re one of my most powerful goddamn enemies…”

“Thanks,” Barnes says, and he smiles for the first time – a goofy grin, as if he turned from Batman into Superman in a split second – and the weird thing is that I think he means it. That completely chopblocks the argument I was trying to put together.

“Man, you’re cracked,” I finally say. “I give you one compliment and you go from stoneface to a smiling good ol’ boy?”

The smile suddenly fades. “That’s how it works,” he says. “Emotions spark, but they don’t ignite. For five seconds out of every minute, I feel something, then everything goes dead. You still think the power’s so great?”

I swallow hard. “Don’t tell me I gave you brain damage in our fucking fight?”

“No. You tattooed my buttocks. You insulted my pride, my honor.” Barnes takes the remark more seriously than it was intended. “Damn!” He turns around, balling his fists, and half-takes a swing at something invisible. What’s this dude’s problem?

“Not ready for prime time, are you, Barnsie? Are they drugging you? Is Mississippi Burning or are they burning Mississippi?”

“I’m getting nothing I don’t need,” Barnes looks back at me with an accusing stare.

“Look man,” I say with actual honest-to-god sympathy. This guy makes Echelon look psychologically healthy, but the core personality’s more sympathetic – Barnes never betrayed the human race to fucking aliens. “I do like to flap my fucking trap, but not when people are… as bad off as you seem to be. I can get serious – or would you like me to avoid the pity trap and keep mouthing off as normal?”

“Do whatever you want, Champion,” Barnes replies. “You’re the prisoner. You’ll know when I want you to shut up.”

“What will you do, duct tape my mouth?”

“No, you’ll be dead,” Barnes promises.

“Why am I fucking here? And why are you here?”

“I just wanted to look at you,” Barnes mutters, the face again caught in a vacant stare. “A soldier doesn’t usually get a chance to look his enemy in the eye.”

This is really starting to piss me off – because I’m wondering whether I’m really going to get out of this alive. Yeah, when I first realized Barnes had me by the short hairs, I thought I was going to die, and that gave me the balls to mouth off and show the middle finger. But now I don’t know what the fuck is happening with this guy, and that’s way scarier. “You wanna look at a Nebraskan?” I finally find the courage to goad him again. “Well, take off the fucking cup and gawk.”

“You’re an exhibitionist,” Barnes replies, and once again his face twists into a weird, earnest expression. “Why are you like that?”

What a weird fucking question. “You honestly don’t understand?” I ask. He shakes his head. “I think it’s something sexual. Psychological at least.” I say. “Old childhood trauma, a need for attention, that sort of thing. But if you’re not about to share your origin with me, so  I don’t know why the fuck I should either.”

Barnes gives me his Golden Retriever looking for food scraps stare for another five seconds. “Fine,” the soldier finally says. “I agree to your terms. I share my pain with you, you share yours with me. Proceed.”

I got to admit, it’s an interesting offer. You first.” I say, picking up the gauntlet.

“Are you an honorable man, Champion?”

“I don’t get a hard-on thinking about honor. But my fucking mouth usually keeps me pretty honest.” I flash a grin. “It’s your call.” Asshole.

Without saying a thing, Barnes seems to accept the offer. “My origins. Jackson, Mississippi. Mud, rain, wind, big wind, a house by the river ridden with termite holes and the sound of migratory birds. No, I don’t remember too much. There’s school of course.”

“GPA?”

“I’d have to look it up,” Barnes shrugs off my question without making the gesture. “I was a decent student. Dated, drove a car into the river, did stupid things. Then there was football. I played defensive tackle. The more stuck-up the opposing QB, the louder I whooped when I sacked him. I was the best athlete at my school, same as you.”

“Told you we had a bond.” I smirk.

“I went into the military right after high school. Natural career fit; everyone told me I needed the discipline. I did get into trouble a few times, but I was a good enough soldier that they made allowances. My career advanced normally, minus the good conduct medals. I served in Panama for awhile as an advisor. Shot a drug-runner… only man I ever killed…”

“Big fucking whoop. What about Ireland?” I ask. “What happened to you there?”

“My squad was sent into one of the lower levels of the Keep.” I swallow hard. It was probably not too far from the place where I fought Autocrat. “Everything was dimly lit, our gear was pretty much useless. Richardson was on point, cocky son of a bitch. He called it “silver shit”, covering the ground, a foot and a half deep, he smiled and told us we’d be proving our manhood by trucking through it with our weapons held above our heads. It’s the classic marine pose.”

“Yeah, I seen the posters,” I reply.

“So here we are, in the middle of this silver crap – on closer inspection it resembled billions of silverfish bunched together – running high on adrenaline, waiting for a Yeoman or whatever to poke his head out, and then suddenly the lights flickered. The moment that happened, the silverfish started to squirm, and there was this hissing sound, like air from a balloon, and a smell like excrement, and then the squad started to dissolve – literally.”

“The moment the power went out…” I guess. “I know your powers are nanotech. I also remember the power fluctuating when the Protectors’ cyberattack hit the Celestial Keep.”

“It was a lab.” Barnes remembers. “Someone there had been doing experiments on nanites – alien ones, just like the rest, I guess. The Royals kept their nanites in a constant state of dormancy, to keep them from eating the Keep. They were meant as a weapon of last resort. When the power flickered, whatever was keeping them quiet no longer did the job. They came to life, it was like some big eraser, literally rubbing us out from the bottom to the top. I reconstituted. The others didn’t.”

“You must have lost a lot of loved ones,” I say. “I’m sorry, man.”

“I don’t remember a lot. My brain didn’t reassemble right. There are a lot of memory gaps, and most of the emotions are dead, though as I said before, occasionally they spark back to life for a few seconds and they fade out again,” Barnes admits. “I don’t know how I got out of the Keep. Chessmaster found me, three days after the destruction.”

“A lot of villains were picking at that corpse.”

“So I’ve heard.” Barnes nods. “I thank it took awhile for the nanites to put me back together,”

“You know, Barnesie, I was there and it was a chaotic… mess,” I say. “No one was deliberately trying to sacrifice you guys. No one was deliberately left behind – it was just a fucking zoo.”

Barnes smiles for a fraction of a second. Again. “That’s not why I’m on the… “the other side”,” he says, referring to the supervillain profession. “I survived because the nanites chose me. Physically big, really stubborn, strong willed, I was their choice. Chessmaster pretty much figured out what had happened to me on sight. He trained me for awhile, but my brain was slow. It was a lot worse than I am now – I actually have coherent thoughts most of the time.”

“That better than me,” I joke. Naturally it’s lost on him.

“I guess he lost patience with me, because he ended up selling me to the Proxy.”

“Selling? Like a slave?”

“No. More like a sports draft pick.”

“There ain’t much difference.” I smile. “And that’s when we met in that bank vault – and I stripped you to your briefs and tattooed “LOSER” on your buttocks.”

“That about covers it.” Barnes says. “Though I don’t understand your need to disrespect me. You wouldn’t mind explaining it, would you?”

“Hey!” I smile. “You got it wrong. That wasn’t disrespect, it was respect. It was a good fight, wasn’t it?”

“In a schoolyard sense, perhaps.” Barnes replies. “Though you’ve done similar things to people you disrespect.”

“It’s… uh… it’s fucking jock thing, I guess,” I struggle to explain it.

“Even before my accident, I’d stopped being a jock. Or any sort of a kid. The only thing that’s left in me now is the soldier.”

“That’s no fun.” I smirk.

“Fun. Riiight.” Barnes’ emotions again begin to flare. “You know. I don’t give a shit about how fun – how competitive – a fight may be, be it against you, Old Glory, or Avatar. I just want to win it – or fulfill the mission objectives. You beat me, and you kept me from my target, and that… I guess you could say it pisses me off.”

“Hey! I pissed off the Borg! Cool!”

That’s it… he almost snaps. I feel it but he maintains his control. Damn. “You’re still a big, dumb kid, Champion. Do you think these cute games make me respect you? Do you think I care about “a good fight” or “competition”? Depending on the situation, I’ll beat you, I’ll kill you, or whatever the mission calls for, and that’s all that matters. I respect “good competition” about as much as you respect peace and quiet.”

“Too bad, Barnesie.” I say. “Because it was a fucking awesome fight, and you can’t even understand the compliment.”

“I understand it, Champion.” Barnes replies. “But I don’t get it. It’s like a ten year old telling me that I have big muscles. I remember that I thought it was a cute comment, but now it’s like a forgotten scent that’s almost in my nostrils – I remember it happened, but it has no relevance to my life.”

“And I wish I was in a condition to give you a rematch.”

“There won’t be a rematch between us, Champion. That’s a promise.” Barnes says as he bows his head. “Where were now?”

“You were being fucked up the ass by nanites,” I remind him.

Barnes nods. “Crude, but accurate. I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep. I miss sleep like a son of a bitch. Some nights I lie alone in my bed for hours, trying so hard to relax that tears come to my eyes - but it doesn’t happen.”

“There’s major suckage there.” Man this is reminding me of Echelon. Fuck. I hope these two don’t hook up.

“The nanotech needs the time for itself. Eight to ten hours a day – six if I’m real lucky, the machines that make up my body undergo a regeneration cycle. Every day, they take me apart and put me back together again.”

“Shit…” I gasp. I’m so flabbergasted that I don’t even go near a lame Humpty Dumpty joke. Wasn’t there a supervillain named Humpty Dumpty back in the 50s?

“I could tell you that it’s painful, but…”

“The word pain doesn’t begin to describe what it feels like?”

“It’s like being tortured, raped and dying at the same time.” Barnes says, eyes still remarkably close to motionless. “Imagine a cigarette lighter held against your skin, slowly burning it an inch at a time, feeling it travel along your body, leaving behind prickles that grow into a shooting pain. You get drunk, you take drugs, and it don’t matter. Pain is pain is pain is pain…”

“You ever thought you might get a better health plan elsewhere?” I ask, wondering why he didn’t turn to some superheroes for assistance.

“The government would take me apart and not allow me to reassemble. You know it, I know it, nobody’s that damn naïve anymore,” Barnes tells me. “And as for the Protectorate… why the fuck should I trust them?” It’s the angriest I’ve seen Barnes get so far. “If they hadn’t been so busy sitting on their asses in orbit, waving at Avatar, I wouldn’t be in this shit in the first place.”

“You ever been mind controlled, Barnesie? You ever felt a telepath in your goddamn skull?” I spit. “You ever seen the woman you love turned into a homicidal maniac and start playing games with you because some mental case got fucking bored one day?”

It’s hard, remembering what Sarah went through, not to feel an intense emotion. Barnes looks at my outburst and blinks. “Wow.” His voice is as blank as his expression. “You’re wrong. I ain’t holding Avatar responsible. But how many weeks did Avatar run around as the Emissary before they did anything?” His voice suddenly gets very emotional, he’s snapping. “They’re just like the government. They watch, they set policy, and when people die, they don’t take responsibility, they don’t do jackshit!” He takes a deep sharp breath and gets erect, almost as though some circuit-breaker had been triggered to keep him calm. “Oh mother,” he says under his voice.

I could contradict him – I should contradict him, because I know that the Protectorate were working their asses off looking for Avatar. But there’s also a part of me that’s wondered why, with all the incredible tech at the Protectorate’s command, they didn’t have failsafes built in to handle it when a member goes rogue. Yes, I know I’m not in Zodiac’s fucking shoes - but who knows what the limitations of the Monolith truly are?

“I’d like to help you.” I say, and the moment I say it, I realize I’ve let my guard down too much and I’m probably going to burned big time.

“You mean that you feel sorry for me. You were right the first time, Champion. Pity sucks.” Barnes’s response is surprisingly noble.

“Sorry. Normal human response. Nothing you’d understand anymore,” I say. It doesn’t offend him, in fact, he seems to agree with it.

“You’re a strange one, Mr. Champion. Even more than most people, you’re a damn oddball. Mind if I share something private?”

“You’re gay?” I spit back. It doesn’t make him blink.

“That impulse has been burned out of me by the nanotech. Like food, or sleep, I want sex some times – like an addict having a sudden craving - but most of the time I feel nothing. No, Mr. Champion, I was never a homosexual, and even if I had been, I wouldn’t want to screw someone like you who’s barely out of high school.” I almost object at the remark. “But there’s something about you don’t understand, and it’s been bugging the hell out of me ever since we met.”

“Why do I look so much better in BVDs?” I smile. That doesn’t phase him either. Man, I hate that.

“Why the hell was it that you were the first superhero with enough balls to go into Ireland?” he asks. “You’re a punk, you’ve got a big mouth, a bigger ego, and people like that don’t normally go places where they don’t have to go, and yet— ”

I shrug. “Sure I’m an asshole. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also be a brave fuck. Most of the time.”

“So you were brave when the lightning hit you?” he asks. People have pretty much known that part of my origin from Day One.

“I was unconscious. Ain’t nothing brave about that.”

“And your family?” Barnes asked. “I shared my ‘shit’ with you, Champion. Time to keep your word.”

“Okay,” I say, knowing somewhere inside me that this guy’s a mortal enemy, not a drinking buddy. But there’s something about him – maybe the need to engender an emotional response, any response, that gets my jaws flapping. “Let’s picture a medium-sized farm in a nice picturesque town in Southeast Nebraska, in an enclave of Mennonites. Sound boring?”

“I can’t answer that question anymore,” Barnes says with only a trace of sadness.

“The west side of town is flat as far as the eye can see: it’s… uh… brown in summer and fall, white in winter, green in springtime. The East side has a few hills, that’s where I used to go sledding in winter. The town itself is a cluster of buildings and churches, a 7-11 and a radio station, all surrounded by farmland. The radio just plays country music, so I lesson to FM from Lincoln. The corn grows like forests, harvest time is like Christmas, except you don’t chop Christmas trees with a combine. Then there’s the smells: one wrong turn down the wrong road and the chickenshit smell gets so bad that you can choke on it. Nothing smells as bad as chickenshit. And all the kids are bored, so we wrestled, played football, and screwed girls and hoped our fucking minds wouldn’t get as numb as yours.”

“Sounds picturesque,” Barnes says, unconsciously uncrossing his arms and moving them down to the sides of his hips. Maybe I’m boring him. “That’s Milford. Go on. What about your farm?”

“It’s pretty big. Been in the family for four generations; I was born there, in a barn on the property, just like a calf.”

“No shit?”

“No shit. There was even a story on ‘Barn Boy’ Champion in the local paper.” Even when I was born, I was a fucking celebrity. “We’re pretty much like most local farms, we grow wheat, corn, and whatever the current government subsidized crop might be. After World War II it was run by granddad; then – don’t ask me what year, sometime in the mid-80s, he turned it over to his youngest son, my dad.”

“I’ve seen pictures of your father.” Barnes informs me. “I can see where you get your looks from.”

“Thanks!” I smile, mimicking his first emotional response. “Dad and I – well, there’s not even a hint of an Oedipus complex, or any conflict. I’ve pretty much worshipped him from the moment the midwife first spanked my Nebraska ass.”

“I had a brother I worshipped,” Barnes replies. “Then he became a lawyer, and that changed him almost as much as the nanites changed me.”

I almost laugh – it’s the best kind of joke, the unintended kind. “My dad’s best described as laconic. He always kept his emotions in… well, I only saw him ever get mad three times that I can remember. He was always there for you, but…” I shake my head.

“He spent a lot of time invisible.” Barnes replied. “I understand. What about your mom?”

Man, that’s a loaded question. “Well Dad left her holding the bag, a lot. And trying to control me made for one fucking big bag. She spent a lot of time playing bad cop,” I add, smiling wryly. “You paying attention, Mississippi?”

“Uh huh.” Barnes replies. His stare was starting to get a little vacant again.

“Mom and I fought pretty much from the moment I came out of the womb. And I –admit it - I was a little shit from as long as I can remember. Any chance I got to fight, I’d fight. I terrorized anyone – including my teachers – who stood in my way. And I had a second cousin whose family were the Champion family’s old enemies, who lived just down the road.”

“I take he was a target?”

“God… some of the things I did to him were just criminal. I once tied him to the fucking railroad tracks for Christ’s sake. He nearly got hit by a train, and I just laughed because I’d made him scream. And then I made it sound like I was the goddamn hero because I didn’t leave him to die.”

Man, I hope I never get into some stupid temporal paradox to meet my younger self, because I’d fucking kill him.

“You mean your cousin Stephen Arnold Doerksen,” Barnes says, and I lift an eyebrow. “We do the research too, Champion. He’s attending Northwest Community College, studying to be a pilot, while working on your farm. He’s also openly homosexual, a metahuman of indeterminate power level and last year in Los Angeles, he rammed the Carnefactor with a propane truck and killed it – as much as creatures like that can be killed.”

“Stay away from him,” I snarl, momentarily forgetting the weakness of my bargaining position.

Barnes suddenly smiles again. “I’m not interested in meeting him,” he says, and for about four seconds it has a normal human expression before something in him snaps and he reverts to a stone face again. “But you weren’t exactly his buddy growing up, were you Champion? Not when you tie him to railroad tracks.”

Damn. Not only do I have to keep the bargain, I’m in one of those moods where it’s almost impossible to shut the fuck up. Why do I fucking get like this? “I did worse to him. One winter, I beat Steve up, stripped him naked, tied to a fence post and left him exposed to sub-zero temperatures for close to an hour.”

“You must have gotten in trouble.”

“Not that time. Steve always kept his mouth shut.” I reply. “Oh sure, he whined his ass off to me, but get an adult in the room, and you never heard such quiet. Of course, given the psychotic piece of shit who raised him, if he had actually admitted that I’d beaten him, his dad probably would have hurt him worse than anything I ever did. No, Steve was a loser, but a tough loser, and for a guy like me, that was the best kind.  I beat him up about once a week, in fact it turned into a fucking ritual. Every time I beat him up, I marked “B.U.D.” on my calendar – “Beat Up Dorkson” – and I even gave numerical ratings to how badly I beat him: how long did it last, did I bloody him, did I make him cry…” Looking back on it, even I find it hard to believe I did that. “Man, I was a complete and total shit.”

“You ever score a 10?”

“Nope. Ten stood for death.” I remember ghoulishly. “Nine was permanent injury. Our final fight was an 8: hospitalization and long term injury. It was in the fifth grade, we’d gotten back a history paper on the history of the Omaha Indians, and we both got “A”s, but Steve had a higher numerical score. He was so fucking happy, and I couldn’t take it, so I picked a fight. I guess I was in a real mean mood, because not only did I beat him down and stripped him to his underwear, I demanded that he beg for mercy, and when he refused, I broke his arm in three places. That’s when dad finally stepped in and stopped what I was doing to him. He took me to the hospital, forced me to apologize, and made me swear I’d never pick a fight with Steve again.”

“And you kept your word?”

“We were on the Milford wrestling team together, so we wrestled occasionally, but it never got nasty. Steve was light-heavyweight and Kenny, our second string heavyweight, was a much better competition, so Steve and I never developed a rivalry. After Steve came out of the closet, Kenny and I organized a nude wrestling tournament among the upper brackets of the team to show our support for his decision. That was an experience. Steve embarrassed himself – he’s had a crush on me for years - but I just laughed it off. That’s what the whole tourney was about, you know, teammates should support each other.”

“It was only high school,” Barnes interjects. But I ignore the observation. An army guy should acknowledge the importance of the team, and by tenth grade, even though I treated him like a third-stringer, Steve was still part of the team.

“And that’s when we really stopped being enemies. But we didn’t become good friends until last year, when Steve got away from his old man and started feeling secure enough about himself to become a real man. No, we’ve never had a real fight since.”

“Why’d you pick on him in the first place?”

“He wasn’t that much smaller than me – I never really went after the class runts except for a couple of human Chihuahuas who mouthed off at me – and he was a Doerksen. The Doerksens had been enemies of the Champion family for three generations, ever since Steve’s grandfather raped my great-aunt and forced her to marry him while everyone else was away in Europe fighting World War II.”

“I never cared for soap opera.” Barnes interjects.

“God, our families were all soap opera. Growing up, the Doerksens represented everything bad about humanity that wasn’t Manuel Noriega, Echelon, or Saddam Hussein. Granddad really hated them: before he died, I’d secretly share whatever I’d done to Steve that week with my granddad. It made him smile during the cancer.”

“Sounds like a sweet guy.”

“Ex-forces, war hero, you’d have liked him.” I reply. “He was straight out of Tom Clancy’s right-wing wonky wet dreams, except granddad was more than just some cardboard fucking fictional character whose purpose in life is to explain milspec and act as a political placeholder.”

“What did you say?” Barnes says, wondering what the fuck I’m talking about.

“You know, Jack Ryan, man without fear, man of complete bullshit? Yeah, I liked the first few books, but Ryan became so perfect and so infallible that he just makes me want to puke. There’s writing and then there’s masturbating, and in the last few books it’s hard to read the fucking pages for all of the far-right semen Clancy’s sprayed on them.” Suddenly Barnes expression twists into something dangerous, and there’s a burning in those gorgeous green eyes of his. Fucking Ace. I continue my spiel. “He’s more fucking invincible than I was when I had my powers. Like what’s Ryan going to have his sock puppet do next – die and go to Heaven just so he can warn God that He has faulty intelligence on the fucking devil?”

Barnes has finally had enough of my critique. He reaches over to me, finally grabs me by the throat and snarls with a breath that smells like a cougar that’s been eating rotten meat for a week: “I… LIKE… Jack… Ryan!”

You know if he wasn’t choking the hell out of me, I’d be laughing my fucking ass off.

“’Hey!” I manage to croak through the grip. “The last few books haven’t worked for me,” I say. “Let’s agree to disagree, ‘kay?”

“You were talking about abusing your cousin,” Barnes reminds me as he lets go of my throat and takes two steps backward. “So talk.”

“Yeah,” I rasp. “My cousin the victim. And Steve made a great victim. He was stoic enough that he never finked on me, he was tough enough to give me a tussle; he always lost, but he was incapable of turning his back on me and walking away from me whenever I called him “Dorkson”. For some reason, that made picking on him an incredibly cool (if even more incredibly shitty) thing to do. So how much do you remember of grade school, Barnsie?”

“Not much,” Barnes replied. “Though yours reminds me a lot of boot camp.”


“Maybe Steve was a distraction. I was always getting into trouble. In middle school, I was so anxious to get big that I got into ‘roids – man I ended up hating that shit. But I guess you can say things really changed when my aunt and uncle died in a car crash. Fucking drunk hit ‘em. We had to take care of the kids. They were originally going to stay with my uncle Sean, but when he realized how badly my cousin Buck was brain damaged in the accident, he bailed. We haven’t seen him since. Dad decided that we’d  take them in, but Mom didn’t want them.”

“And that’s why she left?” Barnes asks. “I’ve read the reports, but no one’s ever given a reason.”

I shake my head. “It was a lot worse than that. After her folks died, My cousin Cynthia went off the deep end – not that she was ever fucking stable to begin with – and it didn’t help that mom never could stand her. Cynthia started doing a lot of horrible things to us, especially to mom. She stole some of her personal stuff, burned some of the others – including her wedding dress – fuck, she even skinned mom’s favorite cat and nailed it to her bedroom door… Man, that bitch needed help.”

“She should have been sent to a private institution.”

“We wouldn’t do that. Dad tolerates people – like me – way too much for his own fucking good. Dad said Cynthia was our responsibility, and that was that. Then the bitch started coming on to me. Hiding my clothes when I took showers, sneaking into my bed at night, the whole Adirondack love thing. Thank God we didn’t have rufies back then,” I add, referring to the date rape drug.

“Now this is a soap opera,” Barnes face reflects one of his brief emotional surges.

“God yes. I didn’t want a fucking thing to do with her – I may be nuts, but even I ain’t into incest. Cynthia then stole the Glenn Close playbook and played the crazy bitch to perfection. She burned down Lori Thiessen’s house because I was dating her at the time – no one caught her, but she bragged about it to me afterwards. Then she accused me of raping her. She even pressed charges. The cops let me go because of lack of evidence, so she decided to ‘sic her brother on me.”

“Buck, right? The one who had been brain damaged in the accident?”

I nod. “Buck and I were fucking close, we were as close as fucking brothers before the accident. After the crash I was the only person he trusted. But the bitch can be one fucking good actress. She’d have to be in order to make Buck understand what a “rape” is. So here my cousin, who was two inches taller, fifty pounds heavier than I was, and whom everyone suspects is a low level meta because he’s so goddamn strong, attacks me in a barn and tries to kill me. It was the nastiest fight I’ve ever been in – even worse than Autocrat or Avatar – especially since I didn’t want hurt Buck, and Cynthia was yelling at him to…”

No. Let’s not go there.

“Go on,” Barnes prods.

“Buck hurt me real bad. Finally, I was a broken-down, beaten hulk on the straw, and Buck was standing over me with a pitchfork, and Cynthia wanted me dead. Then mom came in – I don’t know how she knew enough to come there, because she never went out to the barn at night –and distracted him. Mom had never been happy with Buck – he could be very dangerous to be around – and she insisted on having him taken away and locked up permanently.”

I never want to see that little bastard again, Bradley Champion!

“Sounds reasonable.” Barnes says.

“But I loved my cousin. He’d been my best bud for as long as I could fucking remember, just like dad and Uncle Cranston had been. And it wasn’t Buck’s fault that he was so screwed up. Yeah, so I lied to cover up the attack, and before I know it, I was in front of the cops, accusing mom of beating me instead of Buck. That’s when mom packed up her things, left the house, and never came back. She stayed in her church. Later that Christmas, I got moved by the Christmas spirit, so I visited her to apologize and see if we could reconcile. Instead, I found mom screwing Reverend Dueck in the church basement.” I take a deep breath. “So I never sought her out again. And I’ve always hated Christmas too.”

Fuck. Why did I say that? I haven’t even told Michael that. Probably because he knows me well enough to fill in the rest.

“I don’t think I can blame her.” Barnes answers. Despite the fact I’ve given him a shitload to absorb, he responds almost immediately.

“I don’t anymore – not the rational part of me. I even hope she’s happy. But that’s it. The terrible secret of my past.”

“There’s more to it than what you’re telling,” Barnes says.

“There’s worse, but that shit goes to the grave with me,” I say. “I don’t know if that’s really constitutes an “origin”, Mississippi. Three years later, I’m hit by lightning, and I get superpowers.”

“Did you have any portents? Any idea that you were destined to get them?”

“Well,” I remember. “There’s the legend of the ghost of this Indian princess who drowned in the 1880s. Anyone who sees the ghost is supposed to be destined for something big – fame and fortune, terrible tragedy, finding a shitload of booze by accident, that sort of thing. When I was seven, Buck and I were tromping through the brush one evening, and we thought we saw the ghost. Turns out it was just a weird looking bush that was lit way funny in the moonlight.”

“Then the answer is no. But the lightning hit you, and you discovered you had powers.”

“Yeah. And the first time I flew… fuck, it was so much better than sex. Was it as good for you?” I smile broadly. “Your powers?”

“The fact that I had powers didn’t register emotionally.” Barnes replies. “Not for weeks after the transformation. And even then the thrill only lasts a few minutes at a time.”

“Fuck. But me, I had too much fun,” I explain. “I used the powers to wreak havoc at school for months. I might even have gone onto your side of the fence – fucking joyrides have created more than one villain – when suddenly I got the opportunity to be a hero, and thanks to some friends of mine, I took it. That got me notice, and helped me realize that “superhero” could be a smart career choice, and Nike fucking agreed. I remember strutting into Los Angeles, a completely arrogant sonuvabitch – God was I dork – but I did what I set out to do, and that was to capture the city and make it my bitch. I did it. These days, when you think of Los Angeles, you think of earthquakes, Hollywood, surfers, and Omega.”

“And then you lost your powers,” Barnes notes, and I’m forced to confront the truth.

“And then I lost my powers. Oh, I fought back, hard., I trained and I bled and I took punches until I puked my fucking guts, but I couldn’t keep the big ass “has-been” sign from appearing over my head and flashing more obnoxiously than a fucking neon strobe light. It was amazing how little time it took for the press to start ignoring me. Faster than goddamn lightning.” I shake my head, wondering why I’m baring my fucking soul to this schizoid Locutus of the Borg. “You’d think I was Robert Blake.” I sit back and smile. “But I’m still alive and thrashing.”

“For now. You’re lucky you didn’t run into one of the people from the Omega Revenge Squad who really wanted revenge.”

The Squad. They’d invaded my custody hearing (there’s another consequence of losing my powers… the judges don’t think I can protect my kid). “What was up with you joining those assholes anyway?” I ask him. “It doesn’t seem like a great fit, you and revenge.”

“Don’t take it personal,” the Mississippi accent thickens. “I was just there to make connections with some of the other villains for the Proxy.”

“You? A social animal?”

Once again, there’s a minor flaring of emotion. “They were all crazy,” Barnes says.

“Did the Brickyard tried to make a pass at you?” I ask, smiling.

Barnes blinks and doesn’t answer the question directly. “They never realized your powers were gone. If they had…” It’s pretty obvious what he’s saying, so I make a slashing motion across my throat. ‘That must have been rough.”

My face reddens. “Rough. Yeah, rough. But do you know what the worst injury I’ve suffered since the court fiasco was? It was so fucking stupid. I’d driven my motorcycle into a Taco Bell to pick up some fastfood shit, and there was this kid there, this snotty Latino seven year old punk, who wouldn’t fucking believe I was the real Omega unless I showed off my superstrength. And being the fucking dumb-ass dickhead that I am, I just had to do it, I just had to take a six hundred pound motorcycle and dead-lift it. Can you say “hernia”? It kept me out of action for a fucking week! Plus I dropped the fucking bike!”

“Your physical capabilities…”

“…are still somewhat better than a peak human of my size and build.” I inform him. Hell, it’s not like it’s that hard to figure that out after even casual conversation. “If I were a true normal, my ass would have been grass by now. On the other hand, if I were a true normal – one who could pass the tests – I’d retire, find a university and take a wrestling scholarship and pursue my old Olympic dream.” Fucking Shane Barlow – number three in the country in only his sophomore year at Iowa State. And I could take him, even if we lost to him in the State final. “I think the whole role-model thing’s bullshit, but if there’s one thing I can be proud of, it’s that a lot more kids are going into high school wrestling because of me.”

“That’s not much of an accomplishment.”

“Fuck you.” I snap back. “Why should your fucking opinion matter? You’re just a genetically modified slab of human beef, brainwashed, santitized, nanitized, whatever! It’s too fucking bad you lack the capacity to understand the simple joy of taking another guy onto a mat and making him your bitch, and the struggle that required of your mind and body to put him there. Maybe you don’t understand any simple joy. Maybe you don’t know fuck all about anything!”

“I know how to kill you.” Barnes finally threatens me.

“You don’t know how to break me. Because I ain’t backing down, not even from you, even if you crack my skull like a fucking egg.”

Not that the bravado registers on this dork. He’s zoning out again.

“So where do we stand, Mississippi? You want to raise the cage door and kick the rat around the room when it tries to attack you. You wanna get some payback? Let’s do it.”

As I say it, I’m actually looking around the room, seeing what pieces of equipment I might be able to juryrig into a weapon to use in the fight. I’ve been subconsciously looking and thinking of an escape plan this entire time. But that’s when Barnes gives me the dryest, most emotionless laugh I’ve ever heard.

“I’ve already gotten my revenge, Champion.” Barnes explains. “While you were unconscious, our surgeons implanted a tiny bomb into your cerebral cortex. Any attempt to remove it will trigger it. Any attempt to interfere in our operations will trigger it. And even if you get your powers back, I’ll bet your brain isn’t armor-plated.”

Holy shit. Wasn’t losing my powers bad enough? “Fuck!” I scream.

“I appreciated the effort to bond with me. It was a thing of beauty. And now I do feel the connection – from one asshole to another.” Barnes adds insult to injury. “It was the most human I’ve felt since I stumbled out of the Celestial Keep. Thank you Tommy.”

“You asshole!”

“I know I am. It’s wonderful. It’s human.” Once again, I see Barnes fight against the glazed expression – I guess it wasn’t bullshit to throw me off my guard. “You’re free to live your life normally, Champion. Beat up the bad guys. We don’t like the Royal Elite or Mindshadow or the Black Priest – especially the Priest – either. It’ll a much better planet when they’re gone. But as I told you, Champion – we aren’t having a rematch. I’m not some high school wrestling rival who feels a burning need to avenge his past defeats. I just want to win – there’s enough pain in my life that I don’t want to take a pounding just to get a cheap adrenaline rush – so I play to win. And it looks like I just… “kicked your ass”… without even throwing a punch.”

“You fucking bastard.” I snarl at him. Let me fucking loose and kill me like a fucking man.

“I respect your psychosis, Mr. Champion, but you might consider this a wake up call. Grow the hell up Tommy.” Barnes concentrates hard to keep himself from screwing up the moment of triumph. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do, and you’ve got to get your powers back, boy, so you can keep doing the fine work you’ve been doing. Work I respect.”

“You’re full of shit!” I snarl.

“Aren’t we all?” Barnes smiles again, and manages to hold it for a few seconds. “The techs will show you to the door, Champion. Be glad you’re getting out of here with only a microscopic skull fracture (and a few scars around your eyes, courtesy of Mr. Stitch.)”

Barnes begins to walk to the door to leave. “Barnes!” I shout. “On that “no rematch” clause. Don’t fucking bank on it.”

“I knew you’d say that,” Barnes replies as he walks out the door. In the brief second he turns around to shout at me, I can see the smile fade from his face in slow motion, like a film dissolve. That’s when the technicians come in, raise their needles like wine glasses, and inject me. When I wake up, I’m lying half-nude on the ground under one of the few surviving bushes of my beachhouse.

Okay gang, maybe it’s karma for all the shitty things I did when I was a kid, but I’m practically naked, beaten up, powerless, publicly humiliated, dismissed by the press and there’s a bomb inside my head. Can anyone think of a more appropriate point in my career to quote that hoary old comic book cliché: “Now it’s MY turn”?

Didn’t think you could.


 

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