The two superheroes lapsed into silence for a moment. They were sitting in the cockpit of the DreadKnight’s DreadKraft, the vehicle’s powerful magnetic engine making a barely audible hum as it propelled them at high speed. At four in the morning, the streets of downtown Venture City were all but empty, the massed skyscrapers looming into steel and concrete canyons.
Eventually, the tension of sitting next to a man wearing a skin-tight outfit while wearing his own skin-tight outfit became too much for The Arcadian. “Thanks again for the help with those guys back at the Natural History Museum,” he said, just to say something. “And, again, sorry for thinking you were with them at first.”
DreadKnight gave him a quick getouttahere wave, “Ah, happens all the time. I mean, I dress all in dark blue and black, it’s no wonder I get mistaken for a bad guy. Still, I’m glad we sorted things out in a hurry. That’s a pretty strong energy-bolt those gauntlets of yours fire.”
The Arcadian shook his head. “But I’ve seen you on the TV news and in the papers for years. I should have… hey, wait a minute, what do you mean, ‘happens all the time’?”
“I mean it happens all the time,” said DreadKnight as he downshifted to take a corner. “The first time I met the Scarlet Centurion he beat the living shit out of me. Now we’re together in the Freedom Brigade and I’d trust him with my life.”
“What? Did he think you were robbing some place?”
“Nah, he was being mind-controlled. The first time I met Hydro-Maid I thought she had just killed a city councilman. Turns out it was one of The Factor’s android duplicates. Raptorman was the worst though. Damn lucky I was wearing my impact-armor that day or he’d have taken my arm off with those bladecasters of his.”
“Wow,” said The Arcadian, his brow knitted in thought. “You know, I’ve only been wearing this mask a few months and I figured the main things to worry about were guys with guns and maybe the occasional giant robot. I never thought to worry about other heroes.”
“Well we’re all wearing masks, and we’re all just jumping into these chaotic situations. Throw in the odd supervillain plot and I’m surprised a lot more of us don’t get killed during the ‘getting to know you’ process,” said DreadKnight. “Say, you don’t mind if we make a quick sweep of the waterfront, do you? Lot of smuggling this time of the morning.”
“No, go right ahead,” said The Arcadian, who then sat staring out the window as the city streets flashed by for more than a minute, lost in thought. He was jolted back to reality by DreadKnight’s short, sharp laugh.
“Man, I know exactly what’s going through your brain. ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into,’ right?”
The Arcadian had to smile, “Well…”
“Tell me something; why did you put on that silly costume and go out to fight crime in the first place?”
“Hey! It isn’t ”
“No, it is a silly costume. I wear a silly costume. They’re all silly costumes. Jesus, each time the Freedom Brigade has a meeting you know the first thing that flashes through my mind? Postmodern dance troupe. Seriously. Now I’m asking, why did you put on your silly costume?”
The Arcadian shrugged. “I just wanted to help people.”
“And how does wearing a silly costume accomplish that exactly?”
The Arcadian sputtered, “Look, the artifacts of power I wield, they, uh… if people found out, I mean, the general public – that I had them – the artifacts, I mean – it would be a danger to my family, my friends.”
“So you go to Wal-Mart and spend five bucks on a ski mask. I ask again, what’s with the elaborate get-up?”
The Arcadian remembered the hours he had spent designing, stitching, and soldering his costume – although he actually thought of it more as a uniform. For all the effort he had put into it, he had never thought much about why he needed it in the first place. It had just seemed necessary, somehow.
“I’ll tell you why,” said DreadKnight, finishing his thought for him, “because it put you on this different plane, somewhere above the normal laws of society. More than that, above the laws of physics.”
“My artifacts do violate the laws of physics,” said The Arcadian. “Conservation of matter and energy for one thing.”
DreadKnight shook his head. “I’m not talking about your powers. Screw your powers. Look at me, I’m just a guy with a fancy car and a belt full of gadgets. I’m still a superhero, and you want to know why? It isn’t my shadow-fist-style kung-fu; it isn’t my years of experience, my demolitions training, or even my snappy patter. It’s the friggin’ outfit. That’s what makes me a superhero. And it’s what makes you a superhero. Try to picture this: say that back at the museum there, one of those thieves had thrown – I dunno – an ancient crystal at you, and it had for some reason disabled all of your mystic artifacts, right? Could you still have beaten them?”
The Arcadian thought long and hard, and after a moment said, “Yes. I’m almost sure of it. They might have gotten in a few lucky shots, but in the end I would have found a way to win.”
“But without your artifacts you’re just a guy. Just one guy against six guys with guns. Hardened, professional thieves. And you’re sure you’d win?”
The Arcadian didn’t know why he was so sure, but the feeling that he would have come out on top was simply there. He was certain of it.
“Okay,” said DreadKnight, “now try to picture this. You’re in your street clothes, but you’ve got all your artifacts in a backpack or a briefcase or something, and you’re walking past the museum just as those thieves come out. You see them before they see you, you’ve got time enough to strap on your gauntlets and everything, but you’re still in your business suit or whatever. Who wins that fight?”
Try as he might, The Arcadian just couldn’t picture himself swinging into action. In fact, he pictured himself getting cut down in a hail of gunfire.
“Tell me the truth,” DreadKnight continued, “if you found yourself in that situation, what’s the first thing you’d do?”
The Arcadian knew exactly what he’d do. It was the most obvious thing in the world, but he felt sheepish admitting it out loud. “I’d run and find someplace out of the way to change into my” he shot DreadKnight an embarrassed look “my silly costume.”
DreadKnight nodded as he banked the DreadKraft onto Kirby Drive, the Venture City waterfront spread before them. “You put on the costume,” said DreadKnight, “and it’s like you’re playing by a different set of rules. All the ordinary people, the thieves, the muggers, even the terrorists – hell, even the cops – it’s like they’re chained to the ground. You know exactly what they’re going to do next, and when they go to do it they’re slow, clumsy. You’re almost a little embarrassed for them. But now you’ve discovered there’s this whole other world up here on this new level you’ve found. A whole group of people wearing costumes, playing by these new rules. It’s a little freaky. It’s still a little freaky for me and I’ve been doing this for years now.”
“Supervillains,” said The Arcadian grimly. Those were what you found when you got to the next level. “I’ve only fought two of them so far. The first, Enigmaman, he was just a weirdo who kept broadcasting clues to his next crime. Really lame grab for attention. Got me trapped in a room that was slowly filling with water, but except for that he was a joke. But this other one, Black Trident, we had a fight on the top of the Cole Building. I thought I was dead meat a couple of times during that one.”
“I’d actually worry more about that Enigma-dude,” said DreadKnight. “The ones you have to worry about are the ones that take a personal interest. Sooner or later you find one who makes you the focus of their world, and after a while they become your own private villain. And each time you meet up it gets worse. More at stake. Every time I hear that The Shattered Man has broken prison…” He shuddered instead of finishing his sentence.
“How do I tell the difference between a goofball who wants attention, and a real psycho who wants to wreck my life?” The Arcadian asked.
“Oh you’ll know,” said DreadKnight. “It might happen like this: there’ll be this hostage situation, right? And the bad guy will come out with his list of demands. The millions of dollars, the chopper, the computer passcodes to the whatever, the whole bit. And then, at the very bottom of the list, almost like an afterthought, that you, The Arcadian, be the one to deliver the pay-off. You’ll be looking at the list and all of a sudden it’ll hit you that there’s actually just one demand on there. That the bad guy only has eyes for you, and the rest of it is gravy if they can get away with it.”
The Arcadian smiled as the DreadKraft hummed past the docks and warehouses. “The way you tell it, it’s almost like looking into a crystal ball. Can you see what else my future holds?”
“Don’t laugh,” said DreadKnight, “these special rules we play by? Well, for some reason playing by them means we all run into the same situations over and over again. It’s inevitable. Like, for example, one of these days you’re going to go to outer space.”
“No, really. There will be an invasion in the works, or you’ll be friends or foes with somebody from outer space and you’ll end up going. Rocket ships, ray guns, aliens, the whole deal.”
“So you’ve been to outer space?”
“Yep,” said DreadKnight. “During the Earth/Xartax War, and again as special envoy to the Thrag along with the rest of the Brigade. Two words of advice: stay close to someone who really knows how to pilot a spaceship, and be careful what you eat.”
“Huh,” said The Arcadian as he looked out across the water. The stars over the Atlantic were fading as the sun got ready to rise. “Anything else I can look forward to?”
“Well, one of these days you may travel through time.”
“Okay, now I know you’re yanking my chain.”
DreadKnight carried on like he hadn’t heard the skepticism in The Arcadian’s voice; let him doubt all he wanted, so long as he listened for now and remembered later on. “If you travel far enough into the future, it’s just like traveling into space. Rockets, ray guns, nothing to worry about. If you travel into the past, it will work in one of two flavors: either some tiny thing you do back there will alter the present so dramatically that you have to go back again and fix things, or, you’ll travel back to try and fix something in the present, but everything you do just makes things work out the way they happened in the first place.”
The Arcadian stared long and hard at DreadKnight as they left the waterfront for the city center. “You do realize,” he said, “that those two things totally contradict one another?”
“Yes, they do,” said DreadKnight, nodding. “It gets seriously creepy if you think about it too much. Oh, and talking about creepy, I don’t know if I should be telling you about this, but there’s this parallel universe that causes trouble from time to time.”
“What do you mean, parallel universe?”
“There’s this other universe, see, inhabiting the same space as our own but on a different vibrational key or quantum state or something. I never understood the physics behind it too well. Anyway, the two universes are linked somehow, and we have similar histories, but for some reason everyone good in our universe has turned out evil in their universe and vice-versa.”
“I don’t follow,” said The Arcadian.
“In Universe X, their Abraham Lincoln is reviled as a traitor who tried to destroy the Union,” said DreadKnight. “Their Adolf Hitler is remembered as a hero who saved Europe from the onslaught of British fascism. And, currently, they have their own version of the Freedom Brigade called the Vengeance Battalion. They’re these evil bastard carbon-copies of all us Brigade members – even a version of me called DreadKlaw.”
“You mean like goatee-wearing Spock from that one Star Trek episode?!?” said The Arcadian in disbelief.
“Exactly like that. The last time they crossed the dimensional barrier, DreadKlaw and I duked it out to a standstill in the sewers beneath New Cardiff. We each knew all the other’s moves. Creepy shit that was. Almost like fighting myself.”
They drove in silence for a while until The Arcadian said, “Do you think right now DreadKlaw is out there, driving around with some evil version of me, showing him the supervillain ropes?”
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised,” said DreadKnight.
Finally the DreadKraft reached the Millennium Spire at the center of Venture City and let The Arcadian out.
“Sorry for the long detour,” said DreadKnight from his cockpit. “I just hate to cut a night’s patrol short.”
“I know what you mean,” said The Arcadian as, his gauntlets glowing with power, he began to rise slowly above the ground.
“Wait a minute, you can fly?” said DreadKnight. “I didn’t know you could fly. What have I been doing driving you around for half the night?”
“Looked like you could use the company,” said The Arcadian. Then, with a burst of speed, he was gone above the Venture City rooftops.
DreadKnight smiled after the figure, now glowing faintly in the distance. “Crazy newcomer,” he muttered, then put the DreadKraft in gear and drove off silently into the night.
Copyright 2005, Steve Spaulding
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