And now for something completely different.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a novelist; over the years my writing found other outlets, but recently those old fiction muscles have been twitching. I’ve answered their call by writing some fiction stuff, and I’ve not known what to do with it, so I’ve decided to just go ahead and publish it on my Patreon.
Here’s a sample of The Ultimate Vengeance of Professor Death, a post-superhero novella in twelve chapters. You can read the remaining chapters by becoming a $10 patron on my Patreon – www.patreon.com/cinemasangha. If you’ve been thinking about supporting the site, this is a great time to do so!
And, full disclosure, I may put this up as a Kindle Single if there is enough of a response. Yes, that cuts into possible new subscribers, but I’m not trying to rip people off, just make a living.
Without further ado, the first two chapters of…
THE ULTIMATE VENGEANCE OF PROFESSOR DEATH
Those words snapped Oscar back to attention. He had been lost in the TV behind the bar, showing the familiar footage of the aftermath of The Final Battle – 15 years ago this week – when the bartender had said those words to him in a hushed, disbelieving tone.
The bartender was pale, frozen with one hand on the tap for Goose Island IPA. He hadn’t started the pour, or else he might be standing there like a cartoon character, beer overflowing the rim of the pint glass. He was staring at Oscar with haunted eyes.
“I’m sorry?” Oscar said after a moment.
“You’re dead,” the bartender repeated. “You can’t be here.”
Of all the things in his life, Oscar was most sure of one: he was not dead. But he was also sure he didn’t know this man; the bartender was in his early 40s and looked a little rough around the edges for this sort of bar. They were in one of those dime a dozen Irish pubs in the Times Square area, places with mix and match decor featuring harps and shamrocks and The Doors of Dublin, places with $18 hamburgers that were dry and served on stale-ish buns. Places where the local suit and tie folks came for their liquid lunches, and returned for happy hours that stretched late into the night. Maybe fifteen years ago this place was rougher, and the tattooed man – cards and skulls up and down his arms, some half-visible text peeking out from the unbottoned top of his white barman’s shirt – would have fit in better behind the scratched and sticky bar, but now, in a cleaned-up, pedestrian-friendly Times Square this guy looked kind of like a plant to remind the tourists of the New York City they had read about in the 80s.
Anyway, Oscar would know if he knew this guy. He couldn’t think of a single person he had ever had a conversation with who had a tattoo across his neck, and that felt like the kind of detail he would remember. After a couple of seconds of strange, awkward silence, Oscar finally said, “I think you have me mixed up with someone else. I’m just visiting.”
The bartender shook his head slowly. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’ve been quiet and clean for the last fifteen years.” He thought about it for a second. “Well, twelve. But I kept my mouth shut. Whoever you’re looking for – it’s not me.”
Oscar prided himself on his compassion. It was one of the things that he brought to the company, he felt, a true understanding for the feelings of others. In this moment Oscar understood this man’s discomfort – Oscar must be the spitting image of some fellow to whom he owed money, or whose wife he had stolen, or committed some other sordid barroom misdeed – but he didn’t know how to disarm it. This guy was having a physical reaction (Oscar briefly was excited about the idea of having a kind of evil doppelganger, a great toy concept if he ever heard one, and he quietly filed it away for the meeting later that afternoon) and Oscar sensed that whatever he said was just going to make the situation weirder.
“Well, that’s good,” Oscar said, as reassuringly as he could. “Tell you what, pour me those beers and I’ll get out of your face, okay? This is our last round anyway.”
The man silently poured the beers and Oscar paid in cash, leaving a big tip. As he brought the three sloshing pints back to the table he thought about what kind of life this man must lead, forever panicked and on the lookout for dark figures from his past. There had been times when Oscar had looked back at his life, fairly bland and unremarkable, and wished he had done something more exciting. Seeing this man’s reaction made Oscar grateful for his quiet life, his small tidy home, his career designing toys for children.
Oscar was in town for the New York Toy Fair, the largest gathering of toy manufacturers in the world. He had never been, and this was his first trip to New York City, and he had made the most of it. Oscar spent his days at the company booth at the Javitz Center and had jetted around the city – using the subway, even! – to see the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, the Twin Towers. He had spent a lot of time in midtown, checking out the Hasidic-owned camera and electronic shops; Oscar was a lifelong tinkerer, a guy with a little workshop in his garage, and that hobby had put him on the map at the company. Over the years he had gotten a reputation for bringing in little gadgets and tech updates that could put new spins on the company’s toy lines, but three years ago he had started a project that had cemented his spot, and earned him a trip to New York City not just as an employee but as a guest of honor at the Toy Fair.
He had crafted a series of chips that could be placed inside action figures that, through modified RFID signals, would allow them to interact in unexpected ways. The chips would have encoded data – the personality of the character, his power set or weapons, his relationships with other characters in the toy line – and when placed in proximity to other figures Oscar’s tech would have the figure spit out one of a whopping six thousand verbal cues and engage in any one of two hundred forty seven physical moves. You could put Captain Stone, hard-bitten leader of the Crimson Commandos (the company’s best-selling line since before JFK was assassinated) next to his arch-enemy Secret Snake and they would – depending on a number of variables including weather, time and randomized numbers generated by the chip itself – have hundreds of possible interactions and battles.
Of course this wasn’t Oscar’s intention when he had invented the chip. The Crimson Commandos were the money-makers – they had comics, TV cartoons, a live action movie and a reboot of the live action movie – but he never took to the aggressive, warlike nature of their storyline. Captain Stone and his weapon-encumbered troops fought an endless war against Secret Snake and his Society of Terrorists, a war that was always about violence. Oscar had invented the chip with the hope of launching a new spin-off line from the Crimson Commandos – The Peaceful Warrior line. The interactions between chips? Oscar’s intention was that the Peaceful Warrior and his friends could meet up with polluters, abusers, criminals and politicians and use their ESP powers to understand their foes, speaking to them in words that were disarming and comforting, showing them the error of their ways. Rather than defeat his enemies in single combat, The Peaceful Warrior would turn their hearts, and there would be a light on their chests that would illuminate when the chips had hit the right randomization to create a successful conversion.
Now that light indicated that one of the Commandos had ‘defeated’ an enemy, which every 12 year old in America knew was code for ‘shot dead.’
Oscar gently placed the beers at the table. Rick and John were still deep in the same conversation they had been having when he went to get the final round.
“You can’t have a superhero line without villains,” Rick was saying. Again. For the hundredth time.
John rubbed his forehead. “Relaunching the Legendary Legion line is already right on the boundary of good taste,” he said, trying to patiently get this simple fact through Rick’s head. “We have to do this right or they’re going to eat us alive. They’re going to claim we’re scavengers, picking the bones of dead supermen.
“Look at the protests at the museum,” John continued, gesturing to the TVs behind the bar. The Legendary Legion museum was set to open in two days, and while it would mostly include exhibitions of the men and women of the Legion who had lost their lives in the Final Battle fifteen years earlier at that spot, in their secret Rocky Mountain base, it would also include a small section about their arch-nemesis, the despicable Professor Death, who had set off the explosion that had leveled the base and killed every member of the Legion except Major Tomorrow, who it seemed could not die. That exhibit had raised the hackles of the millions who had come to worship the late Legion as all but gods, and the idea of giving space to their killer was blasphemous.
“That’s just for giving the guy a section in a fucking museum,” John continued. “You don’t see people protesting museums that talk about Nazis, but people hate this dude so much they don’t even want him in a museum where they talk about what a piece of shit he was. So imagine that we put out a fucking Professor Death DOLL and charge parents fourteen ninety-nine to buy a figure of the guy who killed all the superheroes. Jesus, I don’t even care about this stuff and it even makes me kind of angry.”
“So we don’t do Death,” said Rick. “We just create our own villains. But heroes need enemies, otherwise what the hell are they doing?”
“Well,” Oscar butted in. “There are a lot of things we could have the heroes doing. I’ve been thinking about a playset where kids can have the Legendary Legion rescue villagers from a flood -”
Rick and John both ignored Oscar’s comment. “Kids can have their Legendary Legion fight anybody they want,” John said. “There’s a reason we made them to scale with the Commandos and the Terrorists. But we’re selling these toys as ways of honoring these heroes, so it’s going to be up to the kids to make up the stories.”
“No kid wants to buy a fucking memorial figure,” Rick scowled. “That’s the shit you sell for five hundred bucks to the collector crowd. Kids want to bang these toys together and kill the bad guys, and they’re going to be bored stiff by a line that’s just a bunch of dead superheroes.”
Rick knocked back the last of his beer. “Mark my words. This whole line is dead stock by next Toy Fair. We’re going to be stuck with ten thousand moldering Lupus Deis.”
Not for the first time Oscar found himself wondering if he was where he was supposed to be. Sitting there as Rick and John had this same argument they’d been having this whole trip (an argument that was moot, as neither man was in a position to make any decisions about the relaunched Legendary Legion line, which had been in stasis since the Final Battle fifteen years earlier. They were in marketing) he wondered how he had so happily subsumed his own values in favor of a toy company that was dedicated to teaching kids to kill. He was an inventor, a tinkerer, and he had always dreamed of using his skills to make the world a better place. He dreamed of using his skills to teach children how to love, to be understanding, to be strong by being soft. And yet he paid his mortgage by coming up with gradual improvements on toy gun technology. The Peaceful Warrior tech had been happily snatched up by the company, but the character and his story were of no interest to people who believed, as Rick did, that kids just wanted to come up with deathbringer scenarios.
As they left the bar Oscar decided to peel off from the other two and take a walk. It was about eight PM on a Saturday, and the streets were full of people and honking cars. Oscar had only had two pints, but they had hit him in a weird way, and he made his apologies as he turned away from Rick and John and began walking randomly north.
He was 44 years old, and he had done okay. He had been at the company now for almost fifteen years, and he felt like a fixture. He lived alone, but he was happy, and he filled his time tinkering in the workshop and doing light volunteer work. Nothing that would make the papers, but he knew that spending a few hours a month making sandwiches at the mission was good for everybody. People at work liked him – he was the guy who kept everybody’s birthdays in his calendar, and he always had a smile for everyone – but he knew they also didn’t get him. The toy world attracted misfits and weirdos, people who never grew up, but he was a misfit even among the misfits.
Things were okay, but is okay enough? Is that what four decades of life should add up to – a vaguely satisfying checkmark, a life that is lonely yet endurably so? Sometimes he listened to other people at the office talk and he couldn’t believe how petty and small-minded their concerns were, the way they engaged in pissing match politics and the blinders they kept on themselves. Or how few of them seemed to really care about what they were doing – here they were in a position to mold the minds of generations and they were just clock-punchers, never bringing any extra effort to the office. How did he end up in their company? How did he end up in a contract where his best ideas earned him pennies while they would earn the bosses millions? And why did he keep giving those bosses his best ideas? He knew that he was better than this, that he was –
His self-pitying train of thought came to a sudden stop as he was hit by a taxi cab.
Oscar had unthinkingly crossed 44th street against the light, and he hadn’t seen the cab coming at him. He heard the screech of tires and the sound of a crash and his brain quickly registered them, and he thought “Oh no, someone is in trouble.”
“You’re not dead?”
Oscar stood in the middle of 44th street and saw that a crowd had stopped to stare. At him. New Yorkers, usually unflappable, had come to a halt and gawked at the scene before them. Oscar stood in the middle of the street, and next to him was the dented and battered hood of a taxi cab, which had hit him and somehow, miraculously, crumpled against his legs.
Oscar patted himself down. He was in no pain. There was no blood. He was, somehow, perfectly fine.
Oscar wasn’t stupid. This isn’t a story about a guy who gets hit by a car, finds the front end of that car wrapped around his uninjured legs, and then writes it off and goes about his life, never questioning what just happened.
Oscar went through the next two days in New York City in a daze, thinking about the accident. When he got home he went to his workshop and began doing what he knew how to do best: experimenting.
He sat in his chair in the garage and held a Swiss Army knife against the palm of his hand. He felt the cold blade on his skin, felt the pressure of the knife, and he slowly built up the nerve to push the point of the knife into his flesh at the heel of his thumb. The knife pushed against his skin and… couldn’t break it. He tried to drag the knife along his arm, and he couldn’t break the skin. He could feel the blade scratching him like a tree branch in the night, but he couldn’t cut his skin. He couldn’t make himself bleed.
He knew that he had bled before. He owned a half-full box of Band-Aids that he had applied to numerous slices and scrapes acquired in the workshop. He had once burnt himself real good with the soldering iron, but now he found the iron wouldn’t leave a mark (although he still felt the heat and the pressure).
He was invulnerable. How invulnerable, he didn’t know – and he was reaching the limits of what he was willing to test – but he was certainly hard to injure.
Next he began testing his strength. He kept his car in the driveway, since his garage had been converted to a workshop, so he waited until late at night to put his hands under the front bumper and see what would happen.
He lifted the car like it was a bag of groceries. One second it was on the ground, the next second the grill of the car was above eye level. If the headlights had been on they would have been shining straight up into the sky. It took almost no effort. He didn’t even lift from his knees.
He was super strong. Oscar Diggs was invulnerable and super strong. Gently placing the car back on its four wheels, Oscar did a silent little happy dance in his suburban driveway at two in the morning.
There was a checklist of super powers he had compiled after having wracked his brain to remember what the abilities of those old-time heroes had been. Oscar had been alive for the ‘golden age’ of superheroes, but they had never really mattered much to him. He lived in the midwest, and their adventures always took place on the east coast or in space or deep beneath the ocean or whatever. He knew about them, in the same way he knew about the Olympics or the Super Bowl, but in the same way he had never paid much attention to them. He could fill in a crossword puzzle that asked for the “Creepy member of the Legendary Legion” (Sewer Rat), but that was about it.
But he was able to come up with a pretty good list. He sat in his backyard and tried to shoot lasers out of his eyes, and only succeeded in giving himself a headache. He focused his thoughts on his neighbor, but couldn’t pick up anything or seem to influence his actions. Oscar stared at a wrench in his workshop for a good ten minutes, but it never so much as shifted its position. He tried to will himself invisible, but couldn’t seem to make it work, and then he realized that he didn’t know whether or not an invisible man would be able to see himself. After all, the light passing through him should make him invisible to himself as well, but in that situation light would also be passing through his own eyes, making him blind. He didn’t remember if any of the Legendary Legion had invisibility powers (none did, although Sewer Rat could camouflage himself against his background), but he figured anyone with invisibility powers would have to be not blind in order to use them. The only good way to test invisibility, he reasoned, would be to take off his clothes and film himself, and that idea did not appeal to him. He could suddenly lift a car over his head, but that had not impacted the stubborn love handles he had been fighting since he was 38. He didn’t need to film himself naked. He just struck invisibility off the list.
Finally he came to the last item on his list. The final power he could think of, and the one that gave him a tickle in the pit of his stomach, a feeling of equal parts excitement and fear. He had to see if he could fly.
That is how, on the third day of his experiment quest, Oscar Diggs came to be standing on the roof of his home at three in the morning. His street was quiet, and behind him a sliver of moon poured silver light on the tidy houses and their tidier lawns. He had never seen the street from this angle, and even just two stories above the ground he felt wind rippling his clothes. He had been going to work every day, sitting in meetings, he had brought in cupcakes for Marge’s 29th birthday (she was celebrating it for the 30th time this year), and the routine had made all of his weird experimentation seem distant, like part of a dream life. Now, standing on his roof, looking at his neighborhood with new eyes – he could see the bell tower of the Presbyterian Church from up here – what had been a dream snapped into focus.
He was perched on the sloping side of his roof, tiles slipping just under his feet. He was filled with terror. He was filled with excitement. He looked up at the sky, black but with enough moonlight to pick out the wispy thin clouds passing by, and thought about himself up there, under his own power, soaring through the air. The life he had led – the satisfactory but unfulfilling one – had just been a prelude to all of this. This was why he had been born, to take to the sky and to be truly unique and special. The terror slipped away, replaced by a bracing sense of destiny. Looking up into the dark sky, Oscar jumped up and forward, off the edge of his roof.
He fell directly into his backyard.
His fall was broken by the small garden he had been tending back there, a place to grow tomatoes he would use for homemade sauce, but he knew that even if he had landed on the deck he would be okay. The spell was broken, and Oscar laughed, brushing the dirt out of his thinning black hair. He wasn’t going to be flying or shooting lasers or using telekinesis, but he was strong and he couldn’t be hurt and he was, really and truly, superhuman.
Having lived in a world that once had enough superhumans to field an actual team of them, this idea wasn’t entirely crazy to Oscar. But there had been no new superhumans on the scene since the Final Battle. Even the costumed criminals, who weren’t super powered but got gaudily dressed up in response to the presence of the Legendary Legion, fell away. One of them had ended up becoming the dictator of a small country in Africa, and he still dressed like a weirdo, but not really that much weirder than a lot of your standard issue dictators.
While Oscar wasn’t some Legion fanboy he did know enough to recognize how weird it was that he suddenly received powers. He had not been in a lab accident. He had not been engulfed in a radioactive mist or been at the site of an extraterrestrial encounter. He hadn’t held an ancient medallion or seen a strange comet fly overhead. The beer hadn’t even tasted weird that afternoon in Times Square. If he had been born with these powers, shouldn’t they have manifested long before?
He thought that perhaps they appeared in response to being hit by the cab, but that didn’t make sense. He had broken his arm three years earlier while playing tag football at a company picnic. Surely the powers would have kicked in then, if they were innate and just waiting to be triggered by trauma. None of this made any sense to him.
That night, the answer came to him in a dream.
Read the rest at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha!