8FOLD: The Nostalgics # 3

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Thu Aug 3 21:27:05 PDT 2006

   What no one knew at the time was that our first,
secret battle was also the first skirmish in the
Keyhole War.

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" The Keyhole War "  PLOT BY THE RUSSELLS

   The gist of it was this: all time is always in
flux, and there's a great deal of overlap with other
timelines.  Anomalies turn up, and before they get out
of control, these guys call the Time-Eaters take care
of it.  They actually take the loose threads that
threaten the fabric of our universe and they absorb it
into themselves.
   They're immortal beings, very powerful, and so of
course one of them went rogue, he went totally
bat-shit.  The rogue Time-Eater decided that all of
time was divergent, and so the only way to keep it
tidy was to eat it all.  Let things start over. 
Needless to say, this upset the other Time-Eaters.
   The rogue made some alliances with some of the
dumber aliens in the universe, and among them was the
race that Michael hailed from (Michael being the alien
we fought at Burlington's).  It turned out that he
wasn't just there to kill students.  He was sent to
kill one particular student, Johnny Lawson, a human
being whose powers rivaled those of the Time-Eaters. 
And they needed Johnny, because the rogue had stripped
them of their powers in his first sneak attack. 
Johnny, for reasons I never fully understood, was
impervious to the rogue's powers.
   The crux of the war was around this device that
could destroy matter.  The rogue wanted the device to
destroy the universe in one fell swoop.  The
Time-Eaters wanted it to destroy the rogue, and they
wanted Johnny to lead a group of heroes to do that.
   The Time-Eaters recruited roughly a hundred of us,
and from that hundred, chose eight for this dangerous
mission; the rest of us would stay on the Time-Eater
home world and protect the now powerless Time-Eaters
from the alien assaults.
   Sproing had been recruited into one of these
intergalactic wars for the fate of everything several
times before.  He agreed that, for the bulk of us, it
was just a lot of fighting and waiting around, that
you didn't really accomplish anything.  David had
another perspective on it: if it wasn't for us
fighting mooks, Sproing and the other "important"
players in this little universal drama might not be
able to get their job done.
   All I know is what Sproing told me: it's a whole
lot more satisfying when you're a part of things, then
when you're just there.
   I mean, sure, it was something big.  Reilly was
real gung-ho about the whole thing, he said it made
him feel important even if he wasn't part of the main
squad: we're all connected, he said to the hundred or
so other assembled Earth heroes (and villains) left
behind.  Here we are, helping to win a conflict upon
which rests the fate of time itself.
   Me?  It made me feel that much smaller.
   At least Reilly got to make a speech.

   There were eight members to Johnny's team, but the
only three I met (besides Sproing) were the Green
Knight, Docrates, and Synthea.  Synthea was alright,
and she hung around with us a lot.  Fairly soon,
Reilly (observant as ever) sussed out the truth: she
was hanging around with David a lot.  Sproing was a
little disheartened, as he thought that he and Synthea
had a little thing going.  That little thing, as he
called it, consisted wholly of her smiling awkwardly
while he made jokes about the size of her breasts.
   David, though, on the other hand: David was in
love.  The two of them made a very brief but
passionate connection before she left with Sproing and
the others.  Her death hit him hard.
   Like I said, she was nice enough, and she had a
very sexy body for a robot.  I couldn't hear her.  I
couldn't feel her in my brain: I came to the
conclusion, then, that she wasn't really alive.  That
she was just a pretty toy.  Maybe, I thought at the
time, that's why I'm not particularly interested in
her when it seems like every other single male on
Time-World is slobbering over her.
   Or maybe it's because we just failed to make a
connection.  Synthea's big thing was music.  Her
powers were musically-based, and she was passionately
devoted to all genres.  She tried to share some with
me, but I was never one for music.  When you live with
a chorus in your head, each new sound is a threatening
   Still, as Sproing said oh-so-romantically, tits are
tits, and yet her impressive gravity-defying metal
knockers had no sway over me.  And really, when I sat
down and thought about it, I never really had that
much interest in sex, in girls.

   I made it through the first three or four battles
by the skin of my teeth.   It got really bad on the
second day.  I ended up surrounded by aliens, my head
pounding and sweating, my whole body convulsing in a
hot panic, and I screamed for Reilly again and again. 
He came running and scooped me up in his arms, his
beautiful strong arms.  Held me so close, and he was
so warm and rippling and tense.
   Unfortunately, in doing so, he had dropped what he
was doing, and this allowed some aliens to get past
our frontlines.  The heroes did, in the end, manage to
repel them, but Gravitaser was pretty badly injured.
   That night, the alien forces retreated to their
camp on the other side of the lake.  We all gathered
in the Time-Eaters' strong-hold, and there was talk of
attacking at dawn.
   When they were making the battle plan, the Human
Zeppelin (kindly) suggested that I stay behind.  That
it might be for my own good.  The other, more
established heroes-- who had been giving me the evil
eye most of the day-- quickly agreed with varying
degrees of vehemence.
   I knew they were right, but I didn't want to admit
that they were right.  And I was relieved to get out
of another huge battle, but at the same time, I didn't
want to be relieved.  That's not what being a hero is
about, is it?
   I didn't protest though.  I had gotten used to
letting Reilly stand up for me.  Not this time.  He
went with the group.  We had an argument that night
about it.
   One thing he kept throwing in my face was my track
record with the Nostalgics.  Sure, I came through at
Burlington, but that was because it was one of those
happy moments of serendipity in which my power was an
asset instead of a drawback.  Our other (public)
skirmishes were not so kind.
   I freaked out big time in our official debut, and
though Reilly had to come running to save my ass, I
don't think it put too much of a damper on things.  No
one got injured, the bad guys didn't get away,
everyone was able to hold their own, except me.  Bad
from my point-of-view, but still a solid debut for the
group as a whole.
   The next time out I was actually able to keep
myself together throughout the battle.  Granted, I
wasn't much use, as I had all the fighting prowess of
a paraplegic gnat, but I didn't get in the way,
either.  It was afterwards that I ruined things.
   A number of would-be fans gathered after the
baddies had been locked up in the titanium-reinforced
paddy wagon, and Sproing was fielding questions,
playing the consummate spin-doctor with that strange
high-pitched squeak of a voice he had.  Even David was
smiling; people seemed to have quite forgotten his
stint as a super-powered terrorist.
   That's when the noise started to build again,
that's when the plants and insects and neighborhood
animals and single-cell organisms and most of all,
David's virus, David's terrible screeching-whispering
virus with its talons digging deep into my brain,
until I couldn't stand it anymore, until the pressure
was too much, too insistent, until I touched Reilly on
his arm (it tensed up immediately, he knew what was
coming) and asked him if we could go home now, that I
wasn't feeling well.
   Reilly said, quietly, that I'd have to wait a few
minutes.  In retrospect, he wasn't always as there for
me as my brain would like to think he was.  But that's
what the brain does to your loved ones: it distorts
them, makes them better than they are.
   I tried to hang on, but I just couldn't.  Sproing
was answering yet another damn question about his
trials and tribulations, the continuing saga of a man
and his bounce, when I just broke down.  I started
screaming and fell to the dusty earth, holding my head
in my hands and crying for sweet, sweet mercy.
   The impromptu press conference/meet-greet came to a
quick end, and Reilly picked me up with his arms and a
grumbling, are you happy now?
   But no, I wasn't.  And I wasn't happy for the next
couple of weeks.  Sproing gave the impression, in
terms both subtle and blatant, that I did it on
purpose, to spite him, to take something away from
him, to focus attention on myself.  But I didn't want
attention on myself.  I didn't want that pressure.
   And so we argued that night on Time-World, and he
kept coming back to the fact that I had a history of
flaking out in the field, and that he had a history of
having to pick me up and hold me and make sure I was
okay.  A history he was getting tired of.
   The same thing happened with my parents. 
Eventually, they got apathetic to me and my needs, my
father before my mother; my mother was alternatively
apathetic and caring.
   "I don't want you to be tired of me," I said to
Reilly.  And I told him, later, "I like it when you
hold me."
   And he held me in his arms, and he kissed my mouth
for the first time.  He took me that night.
   I was afraid in the morning.  Our lovemaking felt
too much like closure, like an ending, not enough like
a beginning.  It felt like he was saying good-bye.  I
had this premonition that he wasn't going to come
back, that he was going to go off to battle and I'd
never see him again.  I worried in vain, of course.
   I wasn't the only one that stayed behind.  Cap
Phantasm had become pretty senile at this point, and
Gravitaser was recovering.  (Happenstance stayed
behind to take care of her.)  It felt like a sick bay,
and what hurt the most was the realization that I
belonged there.
   There were a hundred other heroes on Time-World
with us.  A hundred who were all capable of holding
their own in battle.  Why not me?  Why wasn't I born
with Sproing's powers, or David's?
   I wanted to be a hero!  I wanted to help people! 
But more and more, it seemed like this was the wrong
calling for me.  Some might say it was heroic of me to
be a four-colour, and put myself in these situations,
but others might say it was stupid, and dangerous not
just to myself, but to others.  Gravitaser was ample
proof of that.
   Maybe it wasn't my calling after all.  Maybe I
should have been an animal whisperer or a
psychological botanist or something.  Those thoughts,
those doubts, have been haunting me my whole
professional life.  And, after we made love, Reilly
had said much the same thing.  Maybe once we get back,
he said gently, I should resign from the Nostalgics. 
Goodman could fill my slot with someone else.  (Reilly
mentioned Fleetfeet, one of the original candidates,
and he was still alive at this time.  Another death
I'm ultimately responsible for.)
   [*-- Not quite.  See JOURNEY INTO... # 3.]
   And, coming from Reilly, for the first time, these
words made sense and were convincing beyond the realm
of self-doubts.  I was given these powers to make a
difference; shouldn't I, then, be making a difference?
 Why waste my gift by applying it in the wrong
   And as he went off to battle with the rest of them,
I made the amoebas a little promise: if Reilly comes
back alive, then I'll quit.  I'll give up this stupid
dream of mine, for him.
   Of course, he did come back alive, and I did not
quit.  I didn't see that as breaking my promise,
because that morning seemed to provide a different
answer to the question.

   What I didn't know at this time was that we had
won.  Johnny Lawson and his little group had found the
matter-destroying device that the warring factions of
the Keyhole War were after, and they used it on the
rogue Time-Eater.  It was not without its casualties.
   Synthea, in trying to save the Green Knight, was
caught up in the same blast that got the rogue
Time-Eater.  And, when the Time-Eater was destroyed, a
blast of energy hit Johnny Lawson and killed him, too.
 And a couple of heroes (I'm sorry, I don't know which
ones) died on the battlefield that morning.
   Every war has its cost, and its fallout.

   When the rogue Time-Eater was destroyed, the
time-energy contained within himself-- the divergent
timelines he had "eaten"-- burst out into our
universe.  The other Time-Eaters, regaining their
powers in that same moment, tried to direct the
divergents and anomalies to Time-World so as to
minimize the effects.
   In fact, it was quite beneficial: with two heroes
dead and the aliens gaining, the battle's outcome
looked dim.  And then, wham!: alternate versions of
heroes, new heroes we never heard of, all of them
having been consumed because their power levels were
too awesome-- they show up, and, in short order, the
aliens are pounded into submission.
   And I didn't know any of this at that time.  All I
knew was that I was sitting there with Cap Phantasm,
Happenstance, and Gravitaser, when a taller and more
muscular version of myself walked into the room.
   He had a much better costume, a cool green off-set
by crisp white, overlapping at a chest marked by a
four-pronged starburst.  He wore no mask, and his hair
was neatly coifed.
   He introduced himself as Ark, and if he was
surprised to see me, or recognized the resemblance, he
didn't say anything about it.
   "I'm not here to hurt you," he said.  "I'm here to
protect you."
   He went on to explain that the battle was pretty
much over.  An alien, however, had found its way into
the compound.
   I heard a quiet buzzing in my head, like the
scuttling of insect legs.  But I couldn't make out any
images, and so I just stood there like a goon.
   Ark put his hand to his forehead and concentrated. 
"Come out," he commanded.  "Show yourself."
   A giant beetle appeared on Gravitaser's bed,
looming over her head and suddenly increasing in size.
   "Stop growing," said Ark.  "Get off the bed.  Lie
down on the floor.  Go to sleep."
   The beetle fell over and into a deep sleep.  Ark
put his two prime fingers in his mouth and blew.  (I
can't whistle, myself.)
   A golden retriever, wearing a facemask, rushed into
the room.  "Show this riff-raff the door," said Ark,
punctuating his surreal comment with a deep and hearty
laugh.  "Ha-ha-ha!"
   The dog picked up the beetle in his mouth and
dragged him out of the room.  I could hear the dog,
but he didn't sound like most dogs.  It wasn't a
pattern of instinct and images, but rather coherent
thoughts and sentences, rendered in a perfect English
with intermittent and nonsensical barking noises.
   Happenstance shrieked, and I whirled around to see
that a snake was in the room.  His brain worked much
like the dog's, and my link to it was tenuous at best.
   "Don't worry," said Ark with another odd laugh. 
"That's only Orpheus, my boa."
   The constrictor climbed up Happenstance and licked
her in the face.
   Ark laughed again and said, "I think he has a crush
on you.  Come now, Orpheus.  We must be off!"
   Orpheus gave Happenstance another smooch and
slithered out the door.  Ark turned and followed.

   The anomalies lingered on Time-World for a little
bit.  Then the Time-Eaters said that they would have
to absorb them, that they didn't belong.  Some of them
went along willingly.  (Ark was one of those.)
   Others put up more of a fuss, the villains mostly,
but a few heroes.  And, since they had all, heroes and
villains alike, fought alongside their "real"
counterparts, the Time-Eaters gave them a special
dispensation and allowed them to exist.

   Before we left, there was a funeral service for our
fallen comrades.  David was pretty bummed out.  Though
they had only known each other a short while, he cared
very deeply for Synthea.  How deeply we wouldn't know
until we had gotten back to Earth.
   After the funeral proper, people mingled and
grieved.  Sproing seemed pretty oblivious to the pain
around him, opting instead to bounce around playing
court jester.  Some people laughed and forgot their
pain.  Most of them stared at him with cold, beady
eyes.  He didn't seem to care until David told him to
leave him alone.
   He stopped bouncing and stalked off to some corner
to feel sorry for himself.
   I tried to comfort David, but what I had to say
really didn't help him.  I'm really no good with
people, with pain, with empathy.  I try.  God, I try. 
But sometimes I feel a deeper connection to the
animals and plants that obliterate me daily.
   David's virus wasn't as bad as usual; it was quiet
and mumbling, on the wane.  That was the first time I
realized how deeply David and his virus were
connected, how symbiotic the relationship was.  When
David was saddened, so was the virus.  With a chill I
wondered what kind of mood David was in when the virus
was murderous.
   Reilly, of course, was more attuned to David's pain
than anyone.  He was able to find the right words, the
right gesture, the right touch on the shoulder, to
coax a sad little smile out of David.  I wish I could
remember what Reilly said to him, but I don't.
   After Reilly left, I tried again to comfort him,
basically parroting what Reilly had said.  It came
across as insincere.
   Strange.  The things I had said sincerely had come
across as not appropriately sympathetic.  Always this
feeling, like I just can't win...!
   The Green Knight came up to David, to tell him how
noble Synthea was, how thankful he was that she saved
his life, that she had died a hero.  I should have let
the Knight finish talking with David, or, better yet,
I should have left David alone when it became apparent
that my presence was bothering him.
   But I noticed the Green Knight had a new costume. 
He had come to Time-World wearing some silly
turtleneck sweater, ski mask, and corduroy pants. [*--
   But now, he was dressed in a proper costume, very
snazzy and form-fitting.  Like I said, I should have
waited, but I just burst in on their very private
conversation and asked him where he got the costume.
   He explained somewhat tersely, and palpably shocked
at my butting-in, that the Time-Eaters had a machine
that created clothing, and had invited any hero who
wanted a new costume to make it.  Then he turned back
to David.
   I broke in again, and now David was looking at me
with hate in his eyes, hate that was magnified by the
sudden flaring-up of his virus's deadly
thought-patterns.  And I asked, where is the machine? 
The Green Knight told me where it was, and before I
could ask another question, he put his arm on David's
shoulder and walked with him, telling him about a love
that he, too, had lost.

   I found the machine with ease, and it dove into my
brain, plucking the images that lay there, ready and
fertile, and compositing them into a new costume.
   It was cool green and crisp white, with a
four-pronged starburst on the chest.

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            (C) COPYRIGHT 2006 TOM RUSSELL.



Tom Russell
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