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Cleansed and Set in Gold
I’m on the ground, trying to breathe through a chest full of broken ribs. The only reason I’m still alive is because I happen to be invisible at the moment. Verlaine is dead. His body is twitching, trying to patch itself up, but the thing that killed him is chewing on his heart, its long tongue flicking. I can hear Verlaine’s fingernails scratching against the rocks.
We all thought Verlaine was immortal. He wasn’t.
Some low-level administrative assistant from the League of Heroes is trying to take a statement from me in my hospital bed. I’m sort of trying to comply, but each time I breathe it’s like someone’s sticking a giant fork in my chest. So I’m not as cooperative as I could be.
“How big was this thing?” he asks.
“Biggest one I’ve ever seen,” I whisper, carefully mouthing the words.
“But still a Ghoul? Same physiognomy?”
“His ‘physiognomy’ is his face. You mean ‘morphology.’”
The lackey scowls at me. “Sorry,” he says.
“If you don’t know what a word means,” I say, “don’t use it. Then you won’t have to apologize.”
He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, looking around the ICU ward, maybe hoping that there’s some more desirable Leaguer that he can pester. But there isn’t.
“Anyway, to answer your question, no. He wasn’t like the others. He was bigger. He. . . his fist was like. . .” I hold up my fist and five needles of pain lace across my chest. I notice that the nail on my left index finger is bent backward, nearly disconnected. They’ve put a bandage on it. This bothers me more than the ribs for some reason.
“His fist was the size of your head,” I finally say. “He put it through Verlaine’s chest like Verlaine was as mortal as you.”
The lackey puts his minirecorder on the table by my bed. His hand is shaking. “How many of them were there? This new variety.”
“I just saw the one. He was leading the others, though. Can you imagine that? A leader. A Ghoul King.”
The next day, the headlines read GHOUL KING KILLS RUSSELL VERLAINE. I can imagine the League’s PR people going back and forth on this. “Is it worse if we admit that there’s some kind of new mutant giant Ghoul running around, or if we imply that Russell Fucking Verlaine was murdered by some regular Ghoul?” I don’t envy them.
After I leave the hospital—against medical advice; which, whatever— I take a taxi back to my apartment. A few unpleasant bites choked down and a potent healing factor kicks in, spreading warmth throughout my battered bones and knitting everything together in seconds. Oh, God. Yes.
I decide that it’s best not to appear too healthy at Verlaine’s funeral, so I take care to walk slowly and gasp for breath every few paces. I’ve even gone so far as to put on fresh bandages around my chest. In case someone uses their X-ray vision to look under my shirt, I guess. Although if they could do that, they could see that my bones aren’t actually broken anymore. It doesn’t matter, though, because all of the people who’re capable of doing so wouldn’t care. And anyway, one of them is lying dead in a box in front of me.
I’m sitting on a cold metal folding chair, pretending to be hurt, watching them lower Verlaine into the ground. It turns out that they need a special crane and a steel-reinforced casket for all of this, because Verlaine’s body is so dense that he weighs just over three tons. The news media are fascinated. Jesus, Russell Verlaine makes good TV, even dead.
When you think “hero,” you think Russell Verlaine. You don’t think of me. I’m not particularly good-looking, I don’t have a fascinating origin story, and I don’t even have a constant set of powers that you can put on a trading card. “David Caulfield, The Wildcard. Powers: variable” is what the League Reserves card they did for me reads. You can buy it for a penny on eBay. Shit, I don’t even wear a costume. I go around fighting criminals and monsters in jeans and an AC/DC concert tee. I am nobody’s favorite hero.
I don’t mind, really. The last thing I need is intense media scrutiny. The less they know about me, the better.
I stay until the coffin is in the ground and the bulldozers have filled in the earth. I’m the only one left except for Jeanie Verlaine, who’s sitting on the ground in front of her husband’s grave. The last thing I’m going to do is go try to comfort her or something, so I whisper my last respects to Russell from my seat and then I get up and try to walk away without Jeanie hearing me.
At the entrance to the cemetery is a woman I vaguely recognize as a reporter for one of the wire services. She’s standing by the gate, smoking, trying to look casual.
“Hey,” I say. “If you’re waiting for Jeanie to come out so you can ambush her, forget it. That’s the last thing she needs right now.”
“Hi, David,” she says, as if I hadn’t spoken. “I’m Toni Evins, from Reuters.”
She intercepts me before I can cross the street. “I’m not here to ambush Jeanie Verlaine,” she says. “Give me some credit.”
“I don’t care what you do,” I say. Why am I being such an asshole? This right here is why they don’t like me.
Toni pretends not to be annoyed. “I’m actually here to talk to you. I heard you were there when it happened.”
“Yeah,” I say. I try to come up with something to follow that with, but I have nothing.
“If you’re interested, I’d like to do an interview with you—get your first-hand impressions, that sort of thing.” She smiles gamely.
I close my eyes, shrug. “I don’t know. I don’t do very well with interviews. I always say the wrong thing. I’ll have to pass.”
The smile fades. Toni levels her gaze at me. Kate Frost looks at things the same way just before she shreds them with her eye-beams.
“Actually, there’s something else I wanted to talk to you about,” she says. “Aside from the Verlaine article, I mean.”
“I really don’t think I’d be interested,” I say, and go to push past her.
She puts her hand on my arm, and her grip is surprisingly strong, however mortal. “Terri Day had invisibility powers, correct?”
“Yeah? So? Terri’s dead.”
“And when you and Verlaine were fighting the Ghoul King, you were invisible. Also correct?”
“I have all kinds of powers. You know: variable.”
Toni’s grip tightens on my arm. “And King Stryker had those green energy blasts. He died, too. About six months ago.”
I swallow, trying not to look nervous. “It’s been a tough year for the League.”
“You were sporting some very similar-looking green energy blasts when you and the League were taking out that Ghoul redoubt north of Chicago. I’ve seen video.”
“So, I guess I’m wondering exactly how you got their powers.”
I shrug, a practiced shrug if ever there was one. “A guy at UNC did his doctoral thesis on my powers,” I say. “His conclusion was that I absorb them through etheric proximity or something. It’s way too technical for me, to be honest.”
Toni nods. “Yeah, I read that. Chad Lowenstein. The physics are. . . speculative. And he completely ignores what to me is the most fascinating thing about your powers.”
“And what’s that?”
“That you only get them from dead people.”
There’s a pause as Toni and I size each other up.
“You want the interview about Russell, come to my apartment tomorrow and I’ll tell you all about it. Whatever sordid little details you want. Fair enough?”
She smiles, and I do not like that smile even a little.
“Sounds good,” she says. She turns to go.
“Don’t you want to know where I live?” I ask.
“I already know,” she says.
At home there are a few messages. One from League HQ asking me how I’m doing, which is code for when am I coming back to work. One from Jeanie Verlaine, thanking me for coming to the funeral, asking me to return her call. Surprising, that. The last is from Captain Salem, who wants to go over every second of the battle with the Ghoul King. With Verlaine gone, Salem is probably the only Leaguer that I actually get along with. He understands why we do what we do. He also understands that this is not a perfect world. I think Captain Salem has his secrets, just like Verlaine probably did. Maybe not secrets like mine, but still.
At least Verlaine got to take whatever dirty little secrets he had to his grave. I think about Toni Evins and there’s a ball of dread in my stomach telling me that I won’t be so lucky.
The League communicator bleeps and out of nowhere all sorts of tactical information starts pouring directly into my visual cortex. The Ghoul King and his. . . minions, I guess you’d call them. . . are attacking Chicago.
We’re lined up on an el track overlooking Grant Park. It’s apparently cold outside. I can see Captain Salem shivering a little, even with his big blue-and-white cape wrapped around him. I, however, have come prepared; I have the Human Shield’s invulnerability crackling around me, keeping everything in the world at a remove. At home I wavered between Human Shield and the Rock, whose skin is even tougher. But the Rock’s appearance is distinctive, to say the least, and with Toni Evins poking around, the last thing I need is for people to draw any more comparisons than they already have.
As a Reservist, I’m only supposed to get called up for League duty during an emergency, but everything’s been an emergency lately, so here I am.
The Ghouls are approaching our position in a line. Even the small ones are ten feet high. Their arms hang down to the ground and then some, black (metal?) claws dragging along the streets, kicking up sparks. Mostly hidden beneath their matted white fur are those dead eyes that have thrown the entire Midwest into a panic. Some photographer from Time magazine got right up in one’s face last month and took the cover photo that scared the bejesus out of America. The fact that he was eviscerated by the thing five seconds later didn’t help matters.
More worrisome, however, is the Ghoul King, the impressive fellow that dropped Verlaine. His fists are clenched and dyed rust brown with what I assume is dried blood.
“Wait until they clear the buildings,” says Captain Salem, who’s leading the show. “We want as little collateral damage as possible.” Personally, I’m more worried about the noncollateral damage, i.e., the damage to my person. But I don’t say that.
Everyone else on the bridge splits their attention between Captain S. and the Ghouls’ approach. The Captain is an unlikely leader. He’s fat, for one thing, and yet still insists on wearing his form-fitting blue-and-white costume. He’s also balding and not particularly handsome. But he’s smart and he’s confident, and that makes up for a lot. Of all the remaining members of the League, he’s the only one I’d follow willingly into battle. Apparently the same can be said of Kate Frost, Pickle, and the Lyme Twins, because they show no hesitation whatsoever.
“So, what do you make of this Ghoul King?” Kate asks me, really just making conversation. If we’re being totally honest, Kate is good for looking at and for shredding things with rays from her eyes, and not much else. She clearly could care less what I make of the Ghoul King, and I don’t even bother to answer her.
Captain Salem is the default expert on all things Ghoul, since he’s the one who discovered their origin. When they first appeared six months ago, nobody had any idea where they came from or what they wanted. What they wanted became eminently clear almost immediately: they wanted to kill things and eat them, particularly human beings. Everyone had a theory about them, but it was Captain S. who took the time to study them up close, scanning their cracked-open eggs with some device he’d invented and doing sciencey things with the results.
His conclusion was that the Ghouls are a gift from the seventy-second century, sent back in time by some enterprising villain to plague the twenty-first. Maybe this villain’s goal was to murder Verlaine to keep him from stopping a clone of Hitler from taking over the colonies on Mars six years from now. Who can say? For all we know, whatever fiendish plan he’s cooked up has already succeeded and the timeline has been altered beyond repair and we’re all totally fucked.
The Ghouls hit hard and fast. These are not the disorganized hairy zombies we’ve come to expect. They used to come straight at us, fast and furious, with no regard for their own safety. That made it a lot easier to pick them off. Now they’ve got a general and he’s made them more cautious. Captain Salem quickly adjusts tactics, speaking over the radio implants in our skulls. “I’ll take point,” he shouts over the din of the Ghouls’ screams. “David, you cover for Kate.”
Kate, though deadly with her eyes, has no natural defenses, and thus can’t be left to fend for herself in combat. Furthermore, she’s only lethal against the tough-skinned Ghouls in close quarters; no more than ten or twenty feet. So it’s my job to block for her, going in front and keeping her safe so she can do her thing. Since Kate isn’t the brightest girl, nor the most composed under pressure, there’s the added element of fear that she might, in the heat of the moment, turn my skull into pulp. I don’t know if Human Shield’s force field is proof against her, and I don’t really want to find out.
Pickle is an asshole, but he’s good to have in a fight. He bounces around the park, imparting strange momentum to everything he touches, sending Ghouls flying off in all directions, priceless looks of dumb surprise on their faces. One of them impales itself on a light post. When I look back a minute or two later, it’s still squirming like a bug, fruitlessly trying to free itself.
The Lyme Twins are fast, tough, and, most important, capable of beating the shit out of Ghouls as long as they remain within six feet of each other. The Ghouls have yet to figure that out, and when they do, I don’t guess the Lyme Twins will last very long. I want them to survive—they’re good guys, and anyway, I don’t think their powers would do me any good.
I’m doing a fine job blocking for Kate, who’s doing an even better job taking out Ghouls. I count quietly to myself; a nine-second stare from Kate is what it takes to puree a Ghoul’s face. So far, so good.
From my left, I hear Captain Salem shriek in pain. Shriek. I’ve never heard him let loose with so much as an “ouch” the entire time I’ve known him. I sneak a glance in his direction, and I can see him trading blows with the Ghoul King. First of all, this thing is about twenty feet tall, giving it a serious tactical advantage, and second, it appears to be more or less impervious to Salem’s mighty left fist. A fist I’ve seen punch through solid steel. A fist that made Russell Verlaine himself wince during a charity arm-wrestling tournament.
The Ghoul King is making a low, guttural sound. Jesus, is it laughing? Let’s say for the sake of my sanity that it’s growling in pain.
I’ve been distracted for too long, and one of the Ghouls has sneaked past me and taken a swipe at Kate. She’s down on the ground, kicking and scratching. The Ghoul stands over her, swiping with its black claws, eager to disembowel her. If it does, it will lean down into her and slurp her entrails right out of her abdomen.
I leap and catch it off guard. I grab its midsection and we go sprawling down into the grass, still wet with dew. I smell earth. The Ghoul is going wild, trying to spin around in my grasp and claw at my belly. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold it. It wrenches its head around, its neck more flexible than a human’s, and reaches its yellow teeth toward my throat. Its breath is cold, stinking, fetid. A bottomless cave. The teeth sink into my skin and push hard. The force field that surrounds me bends but does not break. I can feel my larynx being compressed and I can’t breathe. Things start to go gray around the edges. Then the Ghoul’s eyes go pink and vanish in a spray of blood. The skin is flayed from its face by an invisible whip. The skull shatters into flinders and the brain melts into gray sludge. Its claws disengage and it falls down hard.
I look up and there’s Kate, pissed off. “You were supposed to be blocking for me, David.” She hits me with a millisecond’s worth of her powers and it’s like being hit in the face with a porcupine.
I stand up, still groggy, and I see why Kate has the luxury of berating me. The Army has shown up and is lobbing mortars at the Ghouls, who now beat feet into Lake Michigan. The Ghoul King shrugs Captain Salem off and follows suit, sweeping his gaze across us good guys. The gaze says, “Next time.” And then he’s gone.
I help Captain Salem up from the ground. He looks like hell. His face is bleeding; one of his ears is practically torn from his head. He says, “One more minute and I would have had him, Dave.”
He goes heavy in my arms without warning and I stumble. He’s unconscious before we hit the ground.
I’m at my apartment watching TV with the sound off when Toni Evins rings the bell. The ticker running beneath the footage of yesterday’s antics in Chicago reads CAPTAIN SALEM FIGHTS GHOUL KING TO STALEMATE. That’s a pretty generous assessment of events as I witnessed them, but we need all the moral support we can get. The alternative headline, CAPTAIN SALEM NEARLY GUTTED BY GHOUL KING, doesn’t have the proper optimistic tone.
Toni Evins is wearing a suit that would be conservative if the skirt were a little longer. She’s wearing makeup, her hair pulled back nicely. She wants to make sure I know how pretty she is. This is supposed to disarm me. It does.
“Nice work yesterday, by the way,” she says, sitting gingerly on my sofa. The place is a bit of a mess, and in a brief fit of passive-aggressiveness, I failed to clean it on purpose. “You paid eight to five in Vegas with six kills.”
“Well, it’s nice to know that I’m exceeding expectations,” I say. I feel like I’m supposed to say something else, but I’ve got nothing. I wonder if this is a journalistic trick, a deliberate silence on her part to keep me talking.
She puts a recorder on the table and the interview begins in earnest. She starts with a few questions about Verlaine’s death. What was it like? How did it make me feel? Describe what you saw, and leave nothing out. This is the sort of interview I’ve done after more than one battle, and the rhythm of it lulls me into a false sense of security.
“You and Russell Verlaine were close, right? In an interview last year, in fact, you referred to him as your ‘best friend.’”
“I don’t remember saying that, but yes. We were close.”
“And it didn’t bother you that Verlaine chose Captain Salem to be his best man?” She pauses, looking me in the eye. “I wonder if maybe you weren’t his best friend.”
“Russ had a lot of friends,” I say. I believe I could come to despise Toni Evins. This is another one of those tricks, I suppose. Catch you off guard; get you to say something incendiary.
Then she goes for the throat. “So, David, how long do you think it’ll be before you show up at some battle with Verlaine’s powers?”
Before she arrived, I felt a little guilty about what I’m about to do to her. But all of my reservations instantly melt away.
“You clearly have some kind of theory about me that you’d like to discuss, Ms. Evins,” I say, with a bit of calculated outrage. “So let’s hear it.”
She stares at me silently for a moment, her gaze flowing over me and through me. More alpha-dog reporter bullshit, I guess.
“Well, the conventional wisdom about you is that you possess an array of powers, and that you can only use one of them at a time.”
“That is what they say.”
“I’m not sure exactly what it is that you do,” she says. “What I do know is that I’ve researched you fairly thoroughly and I’ve noticed a very disturbing pattern.”
I lean back on the sofa, trying to look casual, prolonging the moment for as long as possible. “Which is?”
“That in each instance that you’ve displayed any kind of extranormal aspect, you appear to have inherited it from a recently deceased hero.” Again the alpha-dog gaze. “Or villain.”
“And?” I say.
“I have two main questions. First, do you kill them, or do you wait for them to die?”
She pauses again, waits for a response, and when she gets none, plows ahead. “Second, what do you do to them?”
I can’t resist smiling just a little. Then I choke down the smile and put my hands up in mock surrender.
“Okay, Toni. You got me. You got me dead to rights.”
I stand up from the couch and start to pace the living room. “I’ll tell you everything. But on one condition.”
She perks up. “Which is?”
“That after I tell you, you agree to give me two days to leave the country before you print my story. That’s all I ask.”
Now I’ve hit her where she lives. There’s no way she’ll say no. “Well?” I ask, giving her my own practiced gaze. “What do you say?”
She stands. “I’d say you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Toni’s impressed by the false wall at the back of my closet, and the secret, silent elevator that takes us down to the basement of my building. When the elevator door slides open, the chill of the refrigeration units hits her and she flinches.
“Oh. . . my. . . God,” she says.
There are five tables lined up in the room. A few bare light fixtures illuminate the concrete floors and walls with a harsh, unforgiving light. On each table is a body covered in a sheet. Each body was placed there on purpose this morning, each occupant chosen for the fullest effect. On the far side of the room is a set of freezers with glass fronts, each holding several shelves of plastic containers, clearly labeled.
“What is this?” she says, and for the first time her composure slips. She’s forgotten her alpha-dog moves.
“You wanted to know the truth, and here it is,” I say.
I lift the sheet from the body closest to us. His skin is pale and wan in the harsh light. I put his helmet on earlier to make sure that he’d be instantly recognizable. “The Human Shield,” I say.
I pull the sheet down from the next table. “Terri Day. The See-Through Girl.”
Another sheet. “King Stryker.”
Toni Evins backs away from me, her head cocked to one side. “What. . . what do you do down here?”
I take a step toward her, smiling what I hope is a wicked smile. “I eat them, Toni.”
I take another step and she flinches back. “I eat the flesh right off their dead bones. That’s how I get my powers.”
“You’re lying. You’re just screwing with me.”
I pull the sheet entirely away from the Human Shield’s body, pointing to the neatly carved-out sections of his thighs. “Sorry. No.”
Toni struggles to regain her composure. “How. . . how do you live with yourself?” she asks.
I can’t hold the act any longer. I shove the sheet back over Human Shield’s naked body. “Do you think I like this?” I shout. “Do you think this is what I wanted?”
I shove Human Shield’s gurney and it rolls a few feet, tapping against the one holding Terri Day. “I am disgusted by myself. Every time I get a call from the League I have to force myself to come down here. I gag every single time I put a piece of them in my mouth. Can you imagine the horror of this? The horror of being me?”
Toni comes a bit unglued. “Then why do you do it?” she asks.
“I ask myself that question every single day,” I say. “But then I see some pregnant mother get shot by a bad guy in pink tights, or some Ghoul tear apart a bus full of kids and. . . what would you have me do?”
I get right up in her face. “What would you do?”
Toni walks the length of the room, reaching out to touch each gurney in turn, but finding herself unable. “You realize that I can’t keep something like this to myself.” She looks back and forth, from the bodies to me. “The world needs to know about this.”
It’s time for this to end. I walk to the far end of the room, to the one body that I haven’t yet uncovered.
I pull the sheet back, gently. Donna Porter’s world-weary face looks blankly up at nothing. “Do you recognize her?” I ask.
“No,” says Toni, forcing herself to look.
“No, of course you don’t. Donna wasn’t much of a hero. She was terrified of fighting, couldn’t stand the sight of blood. Her power was a curse to her. She hated using it, and I think—and this is just a theory, okay?—I think she let herself get killed.”
I pull the sheet down from her, exposing her nakedness, her total vulnerability. “You know what Donna’s power was?” I ask.
Toni shakes her head, unable to speak.
I pick up a scalpel and carefully cut away a square of Donna Porter’s leg. I hold the morsel up for Toni to see.
I pop the bit of meat into my mouth, chew slowly, swallow, making sure that Toni watches it all. Not for her sake, but for mine. “Donna’s power was mind control.”
Toni’s eyes widen. She steps back from the table, stumbling over her own feet.
“Donna could have ruled the world with her power,” I say. “But it disgusted her, just like mine disgusts me. The difference, though, is that I keep doing it, despite how much I hate myself.”
I can feel Donna’s power rushing into me. I can feel Toni’s mind in my mind. It’s like an intricate web, constantly in motion. The tendrils of that web are clearly outlined in my mind, each strand representing a thought or a memory. I can feel the currents in her mind: the disgust, the fear, the nausea. I can sense her decision to turn and run.
“Stop,” I say, feeling the nerve impulse rush down to her feet and stopping it. Toni freezes, wavering.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” I say. “You’re going to take your little recorder and you’re going to erase any evidence of your time here today. Then you’re going to go back to your office and destroy any notes you may have about me.”
I take her by the chin, gently, forcing her to look at me. “Are we clear so far?”
I allow her to nod.
“If you’ve discussed your suspicions about me with anybody—an editor, say—and they ask you about me, you just tell them that there’s no story there. Tell them that the UNC student’s dissertation turns out to be right on the money.
“And then you forget all about this. Whenever you think of me in the future, you’ll think about how uninteresting I am. Thinking about me at all will make you feel bored.” I’m saying all this aloud, but the words aren’t really necessary. I’m rearranging the web of thoughts in her mind, putting all of this information directly into her cerebrum.
“You’re going to leave here now, and you’re going to forget you were ever here. By the time you get back to your apartment, you’ll already be thinking about other things. Nice things.
“And you’ll feel good about yourself. You’ll think of things that you always wanted to do and you’ll make plans to do them. You’ll let yourself love freely. You’ll forgive yourself for everything you’ve ever done that you regret.
“Do you understand all of that?”
Toni nods and I let go of her.
“Let’s go, then.” I lead her gently by the elbow back to the elevator.
At the door to my apartment, I kiss her on the cheek. “I’m sorry about this,” I say. “I really am. But I’ve reached a point where one more immoral act barely weighs in the balance. And I don’t think you’ll suffer for it.”
“You had it all worked out,” she says, her voice weak. I admire her willpower. Speaking at all under Donna Porter’s spell must be nearly impossible.
“You’re not the first reporter who’s asked those questions,” I say.
After she leaves, I sit down on the couch and try not to throw up. I give myself five minutes to despise myself, and then I put it out of my mind and move on. I have to.
Someday I really need to send that bastard at UNC a thank-you note.
On the machine there’s another voice mail from the widow Verlaine. I delete it without listening to it. Then there’s one from Captain Salem asking me to come see him at League HQ. My stomach clenches into a knot. My first thought is: He knows.
Of course, that’s what I always think.
As League Chairman, Captain Salem gets a nice cozy office on the top floor of the building. Said building, I learn from a sign in the lobby, is being renamed Verlaine Tower. Captain Salem waves me in and shuts the door, sits me down in a comfy chair, and then just stares at me from across his desk.
“What’s up?” I say.
In response, he opens a desk drawer and takes out a gold pin, pushes it across the desktop toward me.
“Welcome to the League, David,” he says. “Lifetime member, as of today. No more of this Reservist bullshit.”
This is the moment that any B-list hero dreams of, being pinned and getting your code name etched onto the granite block outside and getting your own chair at the big table. I feel like a fraud. But I take the pin anyway.
“We would have had a proper ceremony,” he says, “but with the whole Verlaine thing it just seemed. . .”
“No, I understand,” I say. I don’t have to tell him that I don’t want any ceremony; he knows me well enough to figure that out on his own.
“Verlaine always told me that I’d be a lifer over his dead body,” I say.
For a second I think the Captain is going to jump over the desk and throttle me with his massive fists. But he laughs, louder and longer than is really necessary over such a tasteless and untimely joke.
“He really liked you, you know,” says Captain Salem. “He said you were the real deal.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t be a dipshit, David. You know exactly what it means.” He stands and tugs down on his costume front, but it does his profile no good. “Russell Verlaine saw more than the rest of us. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” I say. He’s not talking about the X-ray vision.
“I miss him,” I add.
Captain Salem walks around the desk and lays a giant hand on each of my shoulders. “Welcome to the club, Wildcard. I wish it was under better circumstances.”
There’s nothing really to say to that.
“Oh yeah,” he says, clouting me on the back, knocking the wind out of me, “Analytica’s satellite intelligence thinks it knows where the Ghoul King’s going to strike next. As a full member, you get to be one of the first in line to have your ass handed to you by the thing.”
He stops me by the door on my way out. “If you’ve been saving some really fantastic power for a special occasion, David, now would be the time to debut it.”
Operation Interceptor is planned for 0600. I spend the night before in the basement, looking at the dead bodies laid out in my own lair. “Who’s it going to be?” I ask them. “Which one of you stands the best chance in this thing?”
It occurs to me for the first time that everyone here is dead for a reason. Whatever powers they had, it wasn’t enough to keep any of them alive.
After hours of deliberation, Human Shield gets the dubious honor. I slice a chunk the size of a sugar cube from his left buttock and choke it down. Fifteen seconds later I punch the concrete wall and don’t feel a thing.
At 0540 I’m standing on a beach in Wisconsin in cutoffs and flip-flops with nine other Leaguers. It’s cold and the capes are snapping in the wind. Spandall keeps out the cold fairly well, but only if it actually covers your body. It’s clear that Kate Frost and the Muse are freezing their asses off in their skimpy little outfits. Kate hasn’t said a word to me since Chicago, which is fine with me.
Analytica’s satellite intelligence has given us an 89.4 percent probability that the Ghoul King and his minions will show up to ravage downtown Milwaukee sometime between now and noon. The Army and National Guard are on standby—in monster situations the League always gets the first crack. The government likes it that way because it doesn’t cost them anything, and the Leaguers like it because it gets them on TV more often.
At 0725 or thereabouts, Captain Salem and Power Pat are taking turns seeing who can pound the biggest hole in the sand when it happens. There’s an explosion of spray and the Ghoul King erupts from the water, surrounded by roughly sixteen billion of his Ghoul friends. The actual number, I will learn later, is more like six hundred, but still more than we’ve ever seen in one place. Hell, it’s more than we even knew existed.
Captain Salem waves us forward, himself in the lead, heading straight for the King. Over the comm he’s alerting the military to what they’ve already figured out, which is that this has suddenly become a weapons-free, all-hands-on-deck, get-the-fuck-out-here-now situation. All hell then promptly breaks loose.
What not even Analytica has predicted is that the Ghoul King has given his army the ability to fly. We discover this when the first Air Force jets hiss low over the beach to strafe the enemy, only to find the enemy leaping up into the sky and tearing their wings off as if the planes were giant houseflies.
Kate Frost is the first to die. I watch a Ghoul literally tear her head from her shoulders. It makes a wet sucking sound.
He grabs me next and tries the same trick, but because I’m surrounded by Human Shield’s force field, he’s unable. In what I assume is frustration, he leaps up into the air and hurls me down onto the beach from a height of about a hundred feet. The impact takes my breath away and makes my ears ring, but through some miracle of physics doesn’t pulverize my bones. For a solid minute, all I can do is lie on my back and watch the bloodbath going on around me. Automatic weapons fire sizzles over my head; mortars concuss in the water. I can hear the sonic booms of Power Pat and Captain Salem’s punches. I feel the ground vibrate as Muse unleashes her subsonic growl at some nearby Ghoul, and then hear the sound of its bones snapping to shards in response.
I pick myself up and stagger around for a second, trying to get my bearings, but bearings elude me. Ghouls are everywhere, in the sky, on the ground, in the water. They’re clawing and biting at anything they come near. One of the Lyme Twins is lying bloodied on the beach, thus rendering the other one both terrified and powerless. Power Pat is either unconscious or dead, on her back in the surf, the waves rolling over her massive biceps. To the good guys’ credit, the beach is also practically carpeted with Ghoul corpses, and the sulfuric smell of their blood is nearly overpowering.
A hundred feet or so, down the beach, Captain Salem is duking it out with the Ghoul King. The King has a distinct height advantage, but the Captain moves incredibly quickly for such a fatass. The famous fists are pummeling the King pretty badly, but the Ghoul King gives the impression that he could do this all day, whereas Captain Salem is already starting to flag.
My head clears and I’m running across the beach to help the Captain, dodging downed Ghouls and soldiers alike. I get tripped up a couple of times, and I’m swiped and bitten at more times than I can count, but the Human Shield has yet to fail me.
I get within striking distance of the Ghoul King just in time to see him take Captain Salem’s right fist in his own and crush it. The Captain, for all his machismo, screams like a baby, and I don’t blame him. He pulls back a bloody lump of flesh, his eyes wide. The Ghoul King pauses, as if giving the Captain a moment to realize how dead he is before the Ghoul King finishes the job. Then the monster seems to lose interest in him and just tosses him aside. The Captain hits the ground with a soft thud, still more or less alive.
I check my back pocket, and my emergency rations are still there. I take out the baggie and grab the hunk of raw meat that was once part of the Nightingale’s shoulder. In the heat of the battle I barely even notice the taste. I count to fifteen, then crouch down and leap into the air with all the strength I have left. Whatever crazy shit it is that resides in the Nightingale’s cells that allowed him to fly kicks in and I’m airborne. Ten seconds later I’m halfway across Lake Michigan, but the acrid smell of dead Ghouls doesn’t leave until I’m almost over New York.
I’ve crossed so many lines in my life that I didn’t think there were any more left to cross. But it turns out there’s one more.
I fly home for some supplies, and then to the cemetery, where I touch down on the ground in front of Verlaine’s grave. I sit down and look at the fresh earth, sifting it in my hands, knowing I’ve got to hurry and not wanting to. I’ve got a bit of Digger Jakes wrapped in cellophane and I’m unwrapping it when I hear footsteps behind me.
It’s Jeanie Verlaine, bringing flowers to her dead husband’s grave. She doesn’t seem surprised to see me.
“Hello, David,” she says, forcing a smile. “I was wondering if I’d see you here. I’ve been watching you guys on the TV all morning. I saw you fly away.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I. . .” I trail off.
Jeanie sits down next to me and places the flowers on the fresh dirt. They’re daisies. For a second, neither one of us says anything.
“I know why you’re here,” she finally says.
“What do you mean?”
She looks at me, forces me to look at her. “David, Russ had powers nobody knew about. He could look at someone’s DNA, just standing in front of them, and know how a particular gene would be expressed. He understood people; he could see right into their hearts. You know, their secret hearts.”
I look away.
“No, David, listen. Russ always knew how you got your powers. He knew it five minutes after meeting you. But don’t worry; I’m the only person he ever told about it.”
“I’m not sure what to say.”
“Russ knew that someday you might need him. You know, that you might need his powers. Especially if. . . you know.”
“If someone killed him, you mean.”
“Right.” She takes a deep breath. “He knew that if he ever got killed, then you might need to. . .”
“I would have to eat a piece of him, Jeanie.” I’m sweating and I feel cold at the same time. “I would have to dig him up and cut off a piece of him and eat it. Don’t tell me that doesn’t revolt you.”
She stands up, holding her hands to her head. “Of course it revolts me. I think it’s disgusting!” She turns away. “I’m not Russ.”
She sniffs and wipes her nose with the back of her hand. “But it doesn’t matter what I think. Russell knew and it didn’t bother him at all. He pitied you.”
“I don’t want his pity!” I bark.
“Yes, you do. You want his pity. He was a better person than us. He had a perfect moral worldview, can you imagine that? He just knew right from wrong. He never felt jealousy, never felt sorry for himself, and he never condescended to anyone. He knew how hard it must be to be you. He knew how much you hated yourself for doing it, and he knew that you did it anyway because you were willing to sacrifice your own self-worth in order to do the right thing.
“Don’t you get it? He loved you for that. He said that it made you a better person than him, because he never had to make the choice that you did.”
As usual, I can’t think of anything to say.
“Look,” she finally whispers. “We’re wasting time. We both know what you need to do here. I can’t watch you do it, so I’m going to leave. But I needed you to know that you had Russ’s permission. You had his blessing.”
She turns to go, then says, “He figured you probably couldn’t bring yourself to do it otherwise.”
“He was right,” I say.
I wait for her to go. She hurries along the path and disappears from view. I choke down Digger Jakes and start clawing at the dirt. I can feel the grit sinking into my fingernails, cold and eternal. Then Digger’s power kicks in and the hole opens wide. In less than a minute I’m in a dank hole, standing over the coffin of my best friend, looking down at his face. Even in death, his body refused to be tarnished. The hole in his chest has sealed itself, leaving him perfectly whole in his spotless gold Spandall costume.
Before I even touch him, I realize my stupid mistake. Verlaine’s body is virtually indestructible. I have no idea how I’m going to eat it.
I’ve got just enough Nightingale left to fly myself home, praying that nobody comes across Verlaine’s open grave in my absence. I rifle through the basement, thinking furiously. What am I going to do? I go through about a dozen of the containers in the freezer, tossing them aside one by one, before I remember the Rock.
The Rock was known as the Indestructible Man until a chemist with a grudge found a way to destruct him. Then the Rock was just known as “deceased.” Rock’s been sitting on a gurney in the freezer for months. It took weeks to plan and execute the removal of his two-ton body from Highland Cemetery, where he’s still believed to be buried, just a couple rows down from Verlaine. Now his dead eyes are staring up at me from inside their granite-like lids. His skin feels like polished marble; he is all over a dark green speckled with silver veins. His particular mutation left him without genitalia, so he never bothered to wear a costume. He just went around naked, wearing nothing but a fanny pack to keep his keys and wallet in. Aside from the fact that I’m certain to take on his very distinctive appearance if I eat him, the lack of genitals is another big reason why I’ve never done it.
There’s nothing to do about that now. I get a fresh scalpel and look down into the wound in Rock’s chest where the mad scientist hit him with his chemical spray. Though unfortunate for the Rock, the hole is a godsend to me, because I couldn’t bite through Rock’s skin any more than I could bite through Verlaine’s. But inside the hole, his guts are just as soft and pink as anybody’s. I slice out something that might be a bit of lung and pop it into my mouth.
It’s not something you get used to.
When Rock’s power suffuses through me I suddenly feel heavy and cold, and every part of me aches. God, is this how Rock felt all the time? I never heard him complain about it, not once. He was actually one of the most upbeat guys you ever met. For my own sake, I tell myself that this pain is just a side effect of the admixture of Nightingale and Digger Jakes and everybody else I’ve been snacking on the past few days. I’ve learned the hard way that a mixed diet is fraught with peril.
Now that I’m the Rock, I realize that I weigh about a million pounds, and I’m not sure if my car will even support my weight. So I steal my neighbor’s Hummer, holding my breath as I settle down into the seat. The thing protests, the frame groaning miserably, but goddamn if that machine isn’t worth the price tag and the lousy mileage.
By the grace of God, when I pull up next to Verlaine’s grave, it’s just as I left it. I jump down into the hole without thinking and fall right onto Verlaine’s chest with a heavy thud. To his credit, and to the point of this whole enterprise, his ribs don’t even bend.
I kneel down in the grave, leaning awkwardly over the open coffin. I tear the Spandall from his right arm and hold the arm up in front of me. The musculature is perfect, the skin unblemished. I feel like I’m defacing an idol.
I bite down. Nothing. It’s like biting steel. I bite again, harder this time, and I can feel the skin give way, just a little, but my Rock teeth sing with a queer pain, like I’m biting down on electrified tinfoil.
I bite down as hard as I can, clamping my jaw on Verlaine’s forearm like an attack dog. I can feel the teeth beginning to crack in my mouth. The pain, my God the pain is unbelievable. Just when I think I can’t take another second of this, Verlaine’s skin parts and his flesh pours into my mouth, soft and clean, filet mignon.
The transformation is mind-blowing. Verlaine blasts through my system, ejecting the Rock without a moment’s notice, totally taking me over. I feel him surge into my bones and muscles, bubble up into my brain. My teeth begin to heal. My body balances and relaxes, poised and graceful. My mind reels; I’m dizzy with the potency of it. Then Verlaine seeps into my consciousness and I feel a sense of clarity like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’m gasping, trying to control my thoughts. Everything is so obvious. Verlaine, who he was. Me, who I am. I see the way Verlaine saw, not just with my eyes, though this too is astonishing and I find myself drinking in even the tiniest aspect of the visual world. But I feel his goodness and wisdom as well. I reflect on myself. I see and understand David Caulfield: Wildcard in a way that I’ve never, ever known myself, and I realize that this is how Verlaine always knew me.
I know that Verlaine, though he would never have told anyone, apparently not even Jeanie, actually held one small, petty jealousy.
It was of me.
Flying with Verlaine’s power is nothing like flying on Nightingale Air. The wind doesn’t fight against me—it becomes my ally. The Universe lifts me and carries me where I want to go. I can sense the globe underneath me; I can feel the vibrations of the cities. I can smell the Ghoul King and his children ahead of me while I’m still over Pennsylvania.
I see him the instant he clears the horizon, my vision cutting through clouds and air pollution. I can see him like he’s right in front of my face. I feel invincible.
Oh my sweet fucking Christ. This is exactly how Verlaine must have felt flying toward the thing on the day he died.
Verlaine wasn’t invincible. He wasn’t immortal. My skin crawls and even that sensation is multiplied a hundredfold by my enhanced awareness. What chance do I have?
It’s too late, though. The Ghoul King has put down everyone who’s stood against him. It’s been almost three hours since I left the fight and the King and what remain of his minions are having the city of Milwaukee for brunch. I see him right in front of me. I’m flying at around six hundred miles an hour. Somehow he senses me coming and turns to meet me. Unable to pull back in time, I accelerate directly into his lashed-out fist at the speed of sound.
To Verlaine, pain is a sensation that, like all sensations, can be savored by his heightened consciousness. My own way of thinking about pain—i.e., that it hurts—vies with Verlaine’s and it’s like I’m seeing double, but with my mind instead of my eyes. The pain separates what is quintessentially me from what is quintessentially Verlaine, and the comparison in no way flatters me.
It takes a second for me to realize that I’m on the ground and that the Ghoul King is standing above me, shrieking. His right hand is hanging at an odd angle and I realize, peering through his rocky exterior with X-ray vision, that my impact on him broke two bones in his wrist. All I broke was my nose. Take that, asshole.
My mind gets caught up in the many nonvisible spectra for a second, and when I switch back to plain old light, I note that in the Ghoul King’s left hand he is holding a minivan. I don’t need Verlaine’s insight to realize that the King’s plan is to brain me with the minivan, so I pivot and stand, gracefully pirouetting my body in the air. My God, how this body moves. That sense of total invulnerability rises up in me again, and I remind myself that this very feeling is probably what got Verlaine killed in the first place. If I have any advantage over my old friend, it’s that I understand the concept of limitations.
I’ve got two good fists, so I go in swinging, pounding at the Ghoul King with everything I’ve got. He’s covered with stinking fur, but the skin beneath the fur is unlike other Ghoul skin. It’s like shale, sharp and grating. I can feel my knuckles scraping against it.
The King’s still got one good hand, and when he gut-punches me with it, I am forcefully hurtled backward like a cartoon character. I arc over the bloody beach, remembering just before I slam against the sand that I can fly. Instead of slamming into the beach, I sort of skim across it, creating a rill of glass from the heat of the friction of the sand. I’m down again.
Clarity again, like pure water, overcomes me. I can hear the waves and the Ghouls rampaging down State Street. I can hear the whipping of the news helicopters’ rotors and I can see and hear their newsfeeds, translating the satellite transmissions into sight and sound in my mind. Everyone is watching me. All eyes are on David Caulfield. The Wildcard.
I sing to gravity and I’m buoyed up and again I rush the Ghoul King, looking for a vulnerability that neither Verlaine nor Captain Salem was able to find. Somewhere to the left of me I can hear the Captain’s ragged breathing; he’s still alive.
I strike over and over, pounding the monster with fists made of pure momentum, and if he slows at all I can’t sense it. He’s swiping at me with those black claws but I’m able to stay just ahead of him. I’m learning his rhythms. I can see him as a collection of atoms, as a coherent energy system, as an expression of artificial DNA. All kinds of stuff. These perceptions keep me alive, but don’t give me any more advantage than that.
We slug it out for long minutes; I can count the exact ticks of a watch on the wrist of a dead soldier. I hit the beach thirty-seven minutes and nine, ten, eleven seconds ago. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate—the everythingness of Verlaine is draining me.
No, wait. It’s something else. I’m scanning my own body chemistry and I don’t like what I see. The RNA in my cells is beginning to revert to David Caulfield standard. Any minute now, Verlaine’s power will start to drain from me, and I’ll be dead. I’ll be a sidebar in a magazine article about the Milwaukee Massacre, which is what CNN is apparently already calling it.
Move, dodge, punch, retreat. We’ve fallen into a rhythm. We’re up in the air now, I realize, a hundred feet above the beach. The Ghoul King flies with dire purpose, pushing off hard against air. I can’t keep this up. Gravity is tickling at my body now. I pull back and lurch downward, losing my grip on the sky for a moment. He kicks me in the face and I feel my occipital bone crack. Verlaine’s now-sluggish healing factor grudgingly repairs it.
I am going to fall.
The Ghoul King grabs me by the neck and squeezes. I manage to wrench my fingers beneath his, just enough strength remaining in me to keep my head from popping off, but I can no longer breathe and the world is going black. The Universe in all its manifold glory recedes and regular reality returns in muddled sounds, the smell of blood, and pain, pain, pain.
The Ghoul King smells victory. He lifts me up to stare directly into my eyes, to show me the bleak, relentless intelligence behind his own. He opens his mouth and shrieks in victory.
I stretch out my neck and bite off his tongue.
In wild rage, he flings me away. I’m sailing through the air, swallowing living meat that tastes like rubber and acid. I’m a slave to physics now; with the last shreds of Verlaine’s clarity of thought, I plot the parabolic trajectory of my fall to earth. I tumble over and I can see the sand rushing up toward me. The last Verlainesque sensation is the fading voice of a reporter shouting, “Jesus Christ, he just bit off that thing’s tongue !”
I hit the earth hard and roll, wet sand clinging to my fur. My rough skin and claws kick up gouts of sand. Hunger swells up in me. Raw hunger, desperate hunger, and hatred. Nothing has ever felt as good or as satisfying as this. I stand, turn, and regard myself above me, floating downward, sensing my own confusion.
The Ghoul King snaps into place inside me and I know that I’m me and that he’s him, but I don’t think that he understands that. He’s reaching out toward me, recognizing me, wanting me. I think maybe the Ghoul King is actually a Ghoul Queen. There’s something motherly in its gaze. No, yes, I am female. I am reaching out.
I jump off the ground toward her. We connect and I slash with my claws with every ounce of strength I possess. There’s an infinite well of potential energy behind my motions, powered by hunger and hate. I catch my self/enemy by surprise. She is reaching out to embrace me and her blood spills out and turns to spray in the wind.
She is cunning and bold. She is brilliant. She somehow intuits what has happened, that she has been copied. She swipes at me with a look of purest rage, but her strength has already begun to fade. I’m digging, digging inside her exposed abdomen, slicing up everything I can touch. She becomes deadweight in my arms and we fall together in a tangle. The fall is so slow—her sense of time is not human; we seem to be falling forever together. The two seconds of our descent are smeared out over what feels like minutes.
I turn my head to look down and the soldiers and reporters and bystanders and the few remaining Leaguers are all looking back at me with varying degrees of mixed hope and horror. They know. The smarter ones are putting it together already. The Wildcard, his powers, dead heroes, a bitten-off tongue. Maybe somebody’s already dispatched a camera crew to Verlaine’s grave, where Jeanie may still be waiting. I have no idea what she’ll tell them. It doesn’t really seem to matter.
Lights pop. The whole world flares up. Flashbulbs and impact. Time returns.
The ground rises to meet me for what feels like the hundredth time. A dragon is dead in my arms and I have become it and I have slain it.
James Maxey is the author of the Dragon Age fantasy series: Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed. A graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop and Orson Scott Card’s Writers Boot Camp, in 2002 he won a Phobos Award for his short story “Empire of Dreams and Miracles,” and has since published numerous short stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction and elsewhere. His first novel was the cult-classic superhero tale Nobody Gets the Girl, which was ahead of the current curve when it comes to superheroes rendered in prose tales, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that he knocked this story out of the park.
© 2010 Lou Anders