LNH/PREVIEW: Betterman's Last Flight

Rob Rogers rrogers at uri.org
Fri Oct 12 19:35:42 PDT 2012

Betterman’s Last Flight
  by Rob Rogers

     He paused just before the entrance to Black's office,
feeling rather than hearing the editor's rough, nasal
staccato vibrating through the walls.

     He marveled, not for the first time, at how
quiet the building had become.  When Chet had begun
working at the paper (and how long ago was that, now?
Ten years?  Eleven?) it would have been all but impossible
for the average person to have picked out a single voice
in the newsroom.  The desks (and there had been desks in
those days, not cubicles) outside of Black's office had
swarmed with activity: reporters screaming into phones or
pecking frantically at keyboards or gathered beneath one
of the many overhead television screens, taking bets on
whether the mayor's son would be indicted or the
congressman's wife would stand beside him while he offered
his apology.

     These days the televisions were silent, and the
reporters -- the ones who weren't out on furlough or
swept up in the latest round of layoffs -- whispered
into their phones behind walls of fabric and scrambled
to keep the newspaper Web site stocked with fresh
content, the old 11 p.m. deadline another relic of the
glorious past.  Chet couldn't remember the last time
he'd heard someone in the newsroom laugh, or ask another
reporter how his weekend had gone.

     Other than Marie, of course.  Marie had always been
the exception.

     He knocked, once, on the door of Black's office
before letting it swing open, his six-four frame casting
a long dark shadow across the room.  Marie was sitting on
a gray couch that had survived three of Black's marriages
(and was rumored to have played a starring role in the
demise of at least one of them).  She didn't look up
as Chet entered.

     That, in itself, wasn't surprising.  Though they
were nominally friends -- and had occasionally worked
together on assignment, in the days when the newspaper
could afford that sort of thing -- Marie barely
registered Chet's comings and goings, even in the
shrunken newsroom.

     What shocked Chet was the slump in her shoulders, the
frayed spiral of her hair, the way she let Black ramble on
without bothering to insert a sarcastic remark.  Chet had
seen Marie Sioux exhausted, seen her damaged, physically and
mentally, seen her skating the ragged edges of despair.

     He had never before seen her look defeated.

     "The hell were you doing in that office, anyway?,"
barked Black, who had surely taken note of Marie's mood
but knew of no other way to deal with his reporters than
shouting them into compliance.

     "You knew the place was a likely target.  What in
the screaming blue blazes would you have done if the bomb
had gone off before the Feds got there?  Hell, what'd you
think _I_ would have done?  You seriously think our beloved
publisher would let me hire a replacement if anything
happened to you?

     "Aw, hell," Black said, reaching out -- almost --
to pat Marie on the shoulder before thinking better of
it.  "Whatever it was that kept him... I'm sure it was
damned important.  Right, Wiggins?"

     "It would have to have been," Chet said, his eyes
never leaving Marie.

     "There's a perfectly good reason," Black said,
grunting as he rose from his desk.  "Just like I'm sure
there's a good reason none of the stories we posted at
noon have shown up on the site.  Christ on a cross, the
company keeps us using computers from the '70s for forty
years, and now they suddenly expect us to put our
@#$%^! on the Web faster than some kid who was born
with an iPad in his hand..."

     Black stomped from the room, still cursing at no one
in particular, leaving Chet to stare at the top of Marie's

     "You found the Front's headquarters," he said.

     "You went in before the cops could get there," he
added, when Marie had refused to move or speak or
acknowledge that anyone else was in the room.  "Before
anybody could be sure whether they really had the bomb
or not."

     "You..." he continued, but Marie cut him off.

     "He didn't show," she said.

     Chet removed his hat.  He reached behind Black's
desk, lifted up his chair -- Chet couldn't remember the
last time he'd seen a wooden swivel chair -- and set it
down across from Marie.

     "He had a reason," Chet said, taking a seat.

     "He did NOT have a reason," Marie said, exploding
at him in a fury that caused him to stumble and fall
onto the hard little rug in front of Black's desk.

     "He was searching for the Front too, just like I
was," Marie snapped.  "I checked the feeds before I went
in.  There were no disasters.  No major crimes.  Not a
cat in a @#$%%^ing tree between here and D.C.  So WHERE

     Chet climbed to his feet.

     "We should talk upstairs," he said.

     Marie looked around.  "Black's office not private
enough for you?"

     "There's something I need to show you," he said.

     "Throwing me a surprise party on the roof of the
building?  It's sweet, Chet, but my birthday's not for
six months.  And I'm not exactly in the mood."

     Chet held out his hand.

     "Fine," Marie snapped, leaving his outstretched
hand hanging in the air as she rose from her seat.
"Not like I have anything better to do anyway.  Or
anyone, apparently.

     "That was a joke, Wiggins," she said, following him
into the elevator.

     "I know," Chet said.  "Figured you'd hit me if I

     "A nicer guy would have given me a reason to hit
somebody," Marie said.

     "I saw you deck Professor Xenophobe last month, when
he tried to hold the newsroom hostage," Chet said.  "I'm
not nice enough to stand in front of that."

     "That's sweet," she said.

     They rode in silence the rest of the way to the roof.

     "God," Marie said, pulling her blazer shut against
the cold.  "I'm going to miss this building."

     "You think the paper's going to sell?"

     "They'd be crazy not to.  We have half the staff we
did when... God, Chet, remember when they used to keep
a helicopter up here?  When you could come up here at
4 a.m. -- just before sunrise -- and see the trucks
pulling away down below, and know that in an hour or two,
a hundred and twenty thousand people over three states
would be reading one of your stories over breakfast?"

     "I never really stayed here much past midnight, Marie."

     "No," Marie said.  "I guess you didn't.  What was it
you wanted to show me, Chet?"

     He had already unfastened the first three buttons
of his Oxford shirt by the time she turned to ask him
the question.

     "Hey now," she said, covering her face with her hand
as she turned away.  "Look, Chet, you're a sweet guy, but
I'm just not interested... and luring me on to the roof of
the building to disrobe is not exactly the healthiest way
of getting my attention."

     "Marie," he said.

     It was the change in his voice that caused her to turn

     "Oh my G..." she said, the words catching in her throat
as she stared at the raised "B" at the center of his uniform.
"You... you...

     She blinked.

     "WHERE THE HELL WERE YOU TODAY?" Marie shouted, placing
one hand over the "B" and shoving him backwards.

     "I'm sorry," said Betterman, neatly folding the crease
in Chet Wiggins' trousers and hanging them -- together with
his blazer, tie, dress shirt and hat -- inside a newspaper
box near the entrance to the stairwell.  "It was something
that I had to do."

     It took a moment for Marie to process what he had said.

     "Wait," she said.  "Are you saying you deliberately did
not come to my rescue this afternoon?"

     Betterman frowned.  "It's a bit more complicated..."

     "You're saying you LET those goons tie me to a chair and
wave a gun in my face... all of the time talking about how
they were going to level the city with a bomb..."

      "Believe me, it wasn't something I wanted to do."

      "Well, what the hell was stopping you?" Marie asked.
"Another coup in Thailand?  Tsunami in Mongolia?  Wait,
let me guess.  You decided to peek into the prison dimension
again and let three more psychopaths with super-powers loose
on an unsuspecting world."

     "Mongolia is a landlocked country," Betterman said.

     "It had BETTER be!" Marie said, no longer caring whether
what she was saying made any sense.  "I mean, apart from it
being me -- and, you know, I really thought you and I had...
an understanding... but isn't it, you know, your JOB as the
city's resident super-hero to..."

     Marie stared at the mask-like device held, outstretched,
in Betterman's hand.

     "What's this?" she asked.

     "It's a portable breathing device," Betterman said.
"You should really put it on."

     Marie examined the mask, then looked at Betterman.

     "Where were you keeping this?" she asked.

     "The same place I keep my cape," he said.  "And believe
me, if I had any idea how much ironing that was going to
require, I never would have worn a cape in the first place."

     Marie lifted the mask.  "You'll notice I'm deliberately
not screaming at you for keeping your dual identity a secret
from me all these years," she said.  "That should let you
know just how angry I am that you didn't come to save me this

     Betterman waited until the mask was in place before
wrapping his arms around her waist.

     "I know," he said.

     "Listen," Marie said, her voice muffled by the mask.
"This thing had better not be part of any weird fetish or
... whooooooOOAAAAH!" she screamed, as Betterman launched
the two of them skyward at remarkable speed.

     "On the up and UP!" he said, and as the streets of the
city below became a tangle of indistinguishable lines,
and then a mass of brown, Marie had to admit that Betterman's
battle cry -- which she had always found somewhat
ridiculous -- had never been more appropriate.

     Though the wind whipped at her hair and the edges of
her skirt, and her stomach continued to execute a series
of somersaults worthy of Cirque du Soleil, Marie -- true
to Betterman's word -- found she had no difficulty
breathing as the two of them climbed up and up, his
muscled arm warm and firm around her waist.

     They rose until the clouds around them had thinned
completely, until the blue and the indigo and even the
purple of the sky had been drained away, leaving only
the moon -- so close she could almost touch it -- and
the stars, and the blackness that surrounded them.

     It was then that Marie noticed what was, at
first, only a glimmering dot in a sky that was full of
them, until it grew to a small and then a much larger
sphere, a rocky, icy planetoid pockmarked with craters
-- and, Marie saw, a tiny door, with a little stone
porch hanging just below.

     It was there that Betterman landed.

     He mouthed something that might have been "Welcome
home" in the soundless emptiness before placing the
palm of his hand against the center of the door.
There was a whoosh!  and then another whoosh!  and
before Marie could speak or think or process
what was happening, they had passed through a series
of airlocks and entered a small room...

     ...that looked like a page from the L.L. Bean
catalog come to life.  Wood paneling covered the walls,
and an oval, red-plaid rug spread across the floor.
An overstuffed brown leather couch, wooden rocking
chair and green recliner surrounded a brick fireplace,
which flared to life with a quick blast from Betterman's
thermal vision.

     "What do you think?" Betterman asked.

     Marie mumbled a muffled something.

     "You can take the mask off in here," Beterman said.

     "I said," Marie said, removing the device, "it's
definitely a boy's apartment."

     "Actually," Betterman said, taking a seat in the
recliner, "my mother picked out everything."

     "You bring your mother up to your orbiting space
clubhouse to do the decorating?" Marie asked.

     Betterman smiled.  "No, she's never been here.  But
the interior is an exact replica of the cabin where Chet
Wiggins grew up.  The exterior... well, have a look at
the backyard."

     He rose, and Marie followed him toward the rear of
the little cabin, where a porthole framed the view from
the other side of the asteroid.

     She gasped.

     "It's like... it's like a whole city of crystal,"
she said.  "And that waterfall... it's flowing upside

     "It's actually a deposit of frozen methane," Betterman
explained.  "The sun melts the edge of the pond, and the
solar wind carries it up the side of the glacier.  I
thought it was a nice effect, so..."

     Marie turned to look at him.  "What is this place?"
she asked.  "Why have you brought me here?"

     "Remember a few years ago," Betterman said, "when
Professor Xenophobe used his gravitation device to pull
one of the near-earth asteroids into a collision course
with the Earth?"

     "Of course," Marie said.  "I... this is THAT
asteroid?  You kept it as a souvenir?  Don't you
usually hurl those sorts of things into the sun?"

     "I try never to waste what the universe has given me,"
Betterman said.  "And besides, I wanted a place of my own."

     "Rents in the city are that bad?" Marie asked, folding
her arms.

     "I needed perspective," Betterman said.  "In my line of
work, it's easy to start believing your own press."

     "Even when you are the press?"

     "Especially then," Betterman said.  "Marie, you called
me 'Betterman.'  You came up with the concept of a 'super-
hero'... and now, wherever I go on Earth, that's who and
what I am.  And I'm grateful to you for that.  But from
time to time, I need to remind myself who I really am."

     He nodded toward the porthole.  "When I look out
that window, when I see the whole cosmos stretching out
before me -- solar flares the size of mountains, vast
swirling fields of gas left over from the birth of the
universe, a billion planets full of life as yet
undiscovered by humanity -- I remember that I am a child
of the stars.  When I sit in here" -- he nodded to the
couch, the rocking chair, the little clock ticking away
on the mantelpiece -- I remember that I'm just a boy from
Colorado, a dreamer with a human heart."

     "Which still doesn't explain why you've brought me
here," Marie said.

     Betterman looked at her.  Marie tried, as she
always did when they were together, not to think about
what those eyes of his were capable of doing.

     "I wanted you to understand who I am," Betterman
said, "and to understand who you are."

     Marie, suddenly very tired, sat down on the couch.

     "I think I have a pretty good handle on that, actually,"
she said.

     "Marie," he said, in a voice that was halfway between
Chet Wiggins and Betterman, "have you ever wondered why
-- out of all the women on Earth... I chose you?"

     Marie snorted.

     "Oh please," she said.  "Are you kidding?  I have two
Pulitzer prizes, I speak six languages, I have an apartment
with the" -- she glanced at the porthole -- "second-best
view on the planet, I can still fit into my junior prom
dress, and I've been on the Maxim Hot 100 list for four
of the last five years.  You may be the closest thing our
world has to a god, flyboy, but let's not get too full of

     Betterman raised his hands.

     "Fair enough," he said.  "And there's more.  The first
time I appeared in public -- when I stopped the Webcrawler
from demolishing the city -- do you remember how people
reacted to me?"

     "Sure," Marie said.  "Half of them wanted to set up
churches in your honor.  The other half wanted to establish
a new section of the military to contain you."

     "It was an awful, uncertain time," Betterman said.  "I
didn't know whether to accept a crown... or go underground...
or launch a first strike against the people who wanted to
put me in a cage... or leave the planet altogether.

     "And then you started writing about me," he continued.
"You said that my powers... my example... gave me the
potential to become a 'better man.'  You told the world
what it could do with me... and told me how to serve the

     He placed a hand under her chin.  "I can see through
walls... view distant galaxies... count the number of quarks
spinning inside an electron.  But neither I, nor anyone I
have ever known, has ever been gifted with the kind of
vision you have.  It's why I'm hoping you'll make the right
decision when you learn the truth."

     Marie jumped up.  "Truth about what?"

     Betterman paused a moment before continuing.

     "Years before I came to the city... before I had any
idea who I would become or what I would do... I spent some
time among the native peoples of Australia.  They have a
concept of time... of reality... somewhat different from
our own."

     "The dreaming," Marie said.  "I've heard of it."

     "Do you ever wonder," Betterman said, "if the world
you and I live in is... a dream?  A story?  Something
invented by one mind, for the edification or entertainment
of others?"

     "Not really," Marie said.  "It's not like it would
make much of a difference if it was.  And besides, how would
anybody know?"

     "It's an interesting question," he said.  "How would you
know if you were living in a dream?  And if you were, how
would you be able to identify the dreamer?"

     "I suppose it wouldn't be good for your image if you
flew around pinching everyone you met," Marie said.

     "In the last fifteen years, Marie," Betterman said,
"how many times have I saved you from some kind of danger?"

     "I don't know," Marie said, suddenly not liking the
direction their conversation was taking.  "A few dozen,

     "Two hundred and thirty-six times," he said.

     "I'm a girl who likes trouble," she confessed.

     "No doubt," he said.  "And we work together, and I
have a... I have feelings for you.  So certainly I keep
a closer watch upon you than I do most other people.
But I'm not perfect, Marie.  I can't be everywhere.
Doesn't it strike you as odd that despite all of the
situations you've placed yourself in over the last
several years -- erupting volcanoes, cloned dinosaur
attacks, terrorist threats, showdowns with Professor
Xenophobe again and again and again..."

     "He, at least, never had a hard time telling me
how he felt about me," Marie said.

     "...that I've always been there, just in the nick
of time, to save you?  Do you know the number of crashes
... disasters... explosions... horrific accidental
deaths... that take place every day that I can't prevent,
no matter how hard I try?"

     "What are you saying?" Marie asked.

     "I always knew there was more to you than met the
eye," Betterman said.  "Lately I've begun to suspect
that the universe feels the same way.  Because even when
I'm not there to protect you... as you saw this afternoon
... life intervenes to make sure you aren't harmed."

     "I think the lack of air on this rock is getting to
you," Marie said.  "You're... you're talking crazy."

     "Am I?" Betterman asked.  "You just traveled from
sea level to Earth orbit in under two minutes, without
any protection from the cold, lack of atmospheric
pressure or cosmic radiation.  That trip would have
killed anyone on this planet, except me.  And you."

     Marie sat down again.

     "Let me tell you a story," Betterman said.  "Once
upon a time, there was a man named Chet Wiggins..."

     "I know this story," Marie said.

     "No, you don't.  Because this Chet Wiggins wasn't
an alien who fell to Earth from space and became a hero.
This Chet Wiggins grew up on an Earth that was full of
heroes... so many, in fact, that they formed their own
legion.  And Chet was the most powerful of them all.
A man named Captain Continuity."

     "So what happened to this Chet Wiggins?" Marie asked.

     "One of his enemies -- because there are always
enemies -- captured him, and placed him in a trap," Betterman
said.  "The trap was a kind of dream.  And in that dream,
Chet could forget all about being Captain Continuity.  He
could live the kind of life he had always wanted to live.
And someone else could be the kind of hero he believed he
was supposed to be."

     "Let me get this straight," Marie said.  "It's not
enough that you're Betterman -- strange visitor from another
planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal
men.  You're now also Captain Continuity, godlike super-person
from another reality who dreamed all of existence into being."

     "That's not what I'm saying at all, Marie," said

     "And I -- you think that because I didn't die or get
hurt when I was supposed to, that I'm your perfect immortal

     "Listen to me, Marie," Betterman began.

     "No, you listen to me, Chet.  Or Betterman.  Or Captain
Continuity.  Whatever you want to call yourself," Marie
said.  "I gave you a name and a role... and I tried to give
you something like a sense of responsibility.  I'm sorry if
somehow you mistook that for a Messiah complex."

     "Marie," Betterman said, and something about the way he
said it made Marie sit down again.

     "Haven't you heard what I've been telling you?" he
asked.  "I'm not the hero of this story, Marie.  I'm not
Chet Wiggins.  Not the real Chet Wiggins, anyway.  I'm not
Captain Continuity.

     "You are."

     In the moments that followed, the only sounds in the room
were those of the fireplace, and of the little beige clock
above it.




     The Legion of Net.Heroes proudly (if belatedly) presents

                B E I G E   C O U N T D O W N

     More preview segments appearing at the LNH Authors Group
     beginning next week.

     Beige Countdown #9: "The Created and the Damned"
     in December 2012.

     Captain Continuity created by Robert "Mystic Mongoose"
     Armstrong and Jeff "Drizzt" Barnes.

     Beige Countdown created by Arthur Spitzer.

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