Monday, August 29, 2011

Storytelling Engines: Trial of the Flash

(or "Central City Law")

"Now hold on just a minute!" I hear you say, even before I begin my introduction. (Which I'm fine with, because we've been through a lot together, you and I.) "I've been willing to read about anthologies as storytelling engines, I've been willing to read about histories as storytelling engines--I even went along with you on 'The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe', for cripes sakes!" (It's so charming that you don't swear on my blog.) "But 'The Trial of the Flash' isn't a storytelling engine, it's just a freaking story! A long story, but a story nonetheless!"

But then I hand you the thick, 500+ page collection of the 'Trial of the Flash' storyline. You read the whole thing. At last, you hand it back to me. "Okay," you say. "I think I see where you're going with this."

Because in actual fact, the trial of the Flash isn't just one story. It's a whole status quo for the series, with new supporting characters (the Flash's sexy new lawyer), new antagonists (Big Sir, the grandstanding D.A., the shady lawyer who's determined to get the Flash as his client)...and a new motivation and purpose to the series. The Flash is now a character under suspicion of murder, not a civic hero. How does this change the way people react to him? How do his villains view this now-clouded character? How do his parents, his friends, his ex-fiancee react? The setting of the courtroom, the conceptual setting of being on trial, becomes fertile ground to plant the seeds of multiple storylines.

Obviously, this is a concept that has roots; at any given time, you can flip the channel to a legal show of some kind. "Perry Mason", "LA Law", "Law and Order", "JAG", "The Defenders"...we are fascinated by the law and the criminal justice system. There is endless potential for drama involved, the stakes are frequently life and death, and the fate of a person can depend on skilled, moving rhetoric--exactly the kind of thing a good writer should excel at. The idea of a superhero series that is also a law drama should be bona fide gripping drama.

So why was 'Trial of the Flash' so unpopular at the time that it led to the cancellation of the series and the death of the character in 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'? (Spoilers, sorry.)

There are a couple of reasons. The first is that it is, like much of the late Bronze Age at DC, tinged with just enough silliness to make it seem corny, and just enough painful earnestness and attempts at mimicking Marvel's darker, more introspective characters to take the joy out of it. (There is a reason that DC decided to completely revamp its entire fictional universe at about this time, after all.) Characters like Big Sir are irritating and unwelcome, the attempts at turning this into a serious legal drama merely highlight how utterly comic-booky the whole thing is (Bob Ingersoll kept up a running commentary in his column at the time on the sheer number of major, trial-derailing legal mistakes the series made. It's worth tracking down.) And the conclusion is a ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn a happy ending into the story...and series...when the decision had already been made to bump off the character in another book.

But that's not why it was unpopular. It was unpopular because it was a false status quo.

When a trial begins, everyone knows that it has to end. The law finds the defendant guilty or innocent, they either go to jail or go free, and everyone moves on. Law series don't spend a whole season on one case; they get to the verdict, usually within an hour. When you announce that there will be a "trial of the Flash", people don't want to see how he copes with the pressure of being in the public eye or what the latest legal maneuver will be, they want to see whether he's guilty or not. And every issue where you don't reveal that verdict is an issue where people get a little more impatient. Doing a full two-year long trial almost in real time becomes a recipe for frustration, particularly in a pre-"decompression" era. It's this frustration that comes out in the reviews of the era, and it's this frustration that's probably the reason why we won't see an experiment like the trial of the Flash carried out again soon.

Or maybe we will. If Teen Iron Man has taught us anything, it's that writers will try anything.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Seven

Things got a little bit crazy about then.

No, not crazy. The other thing. Crazier.

Because when the blue-skinned girl did something that I think you'd have to be a telepath to understand, it wasn't just Captain Light that got back up. It was everyone. She undid whatever Mister Meme did to their minds, and she healed their physical injuries, and she even untied them telekinetically. And suddenly it wasn't a handful of desperate superheroes against a horde of supervillains, it was our team against their team. And we have a big team.

You do not know "crazy" until you've been in a really big full-scale super-on-super melee. You're switching off opponents every few seconds because one of their guys comes at you from behind while you're fighting another one of their guys and just when you're starting to have trouble fighting two enemies at a time, then one of your teammates breaks free of their fight and knocks one of your opponent halfway across the room, where they promptly get up and just start whaling on whoever happens to be closest. And then you put your guy down and look around for someone to fight just in time to see some guy that you thought your best friend knocked out getting up for more.

And everyone's going nuts with their powers. I'm just fast and agile, but Stormcrow was literally the eye of a hurricane. An actual hurricane in the middle of our conference room. And while our conference room is big, a hurricane makes it seem a lot smaller. Freezing rain was pouring onto every flat surface, people were slipping and sliding, lightning bolts were zapping out all over the place--it was a lot more comfortable for us than for the bad guys, because Stormcrow has really good control of her powers, but I was still soaked to the skin for the second time today.

And vines were tangling around supervillains and smacking them into walls, and Neutrino Man had caused some sort of a minor runaway nuclear reaction in the corner that was flash-boiling the freezing rain into radioactive steam that was choking a bunch of bad guys (he swears blind that it's quick-dissipating and has no long-term side effects. This. Worries. Me.) And laser blasts flew through the air and projectile darts launched at people and got swept up in the hurricane and wound up hitting entirely other people and anyone who wasn't otherwise occupied was kicking or punching or stabbing or hovering in the middle of the room thinking really hard...

And in the center of it all, Regent and Captain Light were duking it out. Regent launched a punch that would have knocked my head clean off its shoulders and halfway down the hall, and Captain Light didn't even flinch. The impact sounded like another thunderclap in the din, but Captain Light just smiled.

Then he punched back. The whole room lit up with a blinding flash as Captain Light's energy field interacted with Regent's force field in a way that neither one of them expected. Regent went backwards into the wall hard enough to embed itself in it, and Captain Light...didn't move. But his whole costume was covered in soot and it smoldered in places until the rain put it out.

"Enough of this," Regent said. He pried himself out of the wall and touched his left wrist with his right. A door opened in the air. "You have forced my hand further, Captain. When next we meet, I will have to take stronger measures to carve this cancerous notion out of the world I am destined to rule."

Captain Light started towards him, but Silver Rage blocked his path. The statue's grip prevented him from flying further. "Destiny is just what we make it," he said, fighting to free himself in time to stop Regent's escape. "You might be powerful, but that doesn't make you better than anybody else."

Regent chuckled. It was a soft sound, but it somehow carried over the wall of noise. "You don't know anything, do you? I am Regent, one of the Lost Monarchs of the Shadow Histories, and I will reclaim what is mine. And next time, I will not be so merciful." And with that, he stepped through the door and vanished.

After that, it was just a matter of mop-up. A lot of mop-up, but mop-up nonetheless. We beat the bad guys that didn't make a run for it when they saw their leader vanish, we dumped them in the hands of local law enforcement, I had something like a gallon of Purplesaurus Rex Kool-Aid (ever since I got my powers, I have been absolutely addicted to sugary drinks. At least they're cheap.) And then I realized just how tired I was, and I practically collapsed onto my bed to sleep.

And I dreamed about how it all started...

TO BE CONTINUED...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: Soulless

I'm a little late to extol the virtues of "Soulless", by Gail Carriger, given that she's already got something like three sequels published and is almost finished with a five-volume cycle of novels about protagonist Alexia Tarabotti (called "The Parasol Protectorate")...but it's just so damn refreshing these days to read a sci-fi fantasy novel that doesn't make me want to break out the red pen and edit the book into something readable that I feel like I have to tell people about it. "Soulless" is genuinely fun, a charming and light-hearted read that will leave you wanting to read passages out loud to random passers-by, and it's also an inventive spin on the oh-look-it's-werewolves-and-vampires-again genre, this time with a steampunk twist. (Everyone always does werewolves and vampires. Someday, I will write my novel about the ancient and epic rivalry between mummies and Frankenstein's monsters.)

The novel focuses, unsurprisingly for something that bills itself as "An Alexia Tarabotti novel", on Alexia Tarabotti, an outspoken Victorian woman who was born without a soul. This doesn't seem to inconvenience her ethics, emotions, or principles, but it does mean that she involuntarily renders any vampire or werewolf that touches her back into mortal form for as long as she holds onto them. This makes her a "person of interest" to the werewolves and vampires of London, who are entirely too civilized to eliminate her as a threat to their very existences, but definitely sensible enough to want to keep an eye on her. As such, she finds herself embroiled in intrigue, as well as in a romance with the Alpha of the London werewolf pack.

This romance is actually one of the best parts of the novel. It's charming in that "Jane Austen's 'Emma'" sort of way, but Gail Carriger is the kind of writer who very proudly and openly acknowledges that romance generally leads to sex. The characters in this novel are grown-ups, they have naughty bits, and they enjoy using them. I am a big fan of sex-positive attitudes in literature, I always feel like there are far too many writers who disdain talking about what their characters do in the bedroom (because who could possibly be interested in that?) and so a writer who not only writes sex scenes, but does them extremely well, is a rarity to be treasured.

Apart from that, though, the novel has plenty of humor, an interesting plot that draws you on, a lead character who is sensible and funny and independent, a guest appearance by Queen Victoria, and almost enough dirigibles. (According to the interview with the author at the end, the regrettable lack of actual dirigible travel will be rectified in the sequels.) I'd say more, but the horrid thing about good reviews is that you don't want to reveal too much. With a bad review, you want to explain every grim detail to warn the reader away, but a book like "Soulless" begs to be experienced rather than explained. So go read it. You'll enjoy it immensely.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Six

The blue girl looked around. The room was filled with madmen, monsters, killer robots, living statues...an entire team of supervillains, assembled by the arch-nemesis we didn't even know we had, Regent. Us heroes? Most of us were down on the ground, tied up and unconscious to prevent them from killing themselves. The survivors were bruised, bloody, and about as beaten as we could get without being actually beaten. But for a moment, all of it paused as we waited in stunned silence for her to explain her sudden appearance.

"Wait, don't tell me," she said. "I have a test on this next week..."

Yeah. That didn't exactly break the stunned silence.

"Okay," she continued, "the guy in purple and gold is Regent, that's obvious. The girl on one knee next to him is, um...Hummingbird, and the robot in the corner...is that the Doomsday Clock? Shoot, I can't remember now. I think the girl with the knives is Stabbily Ever After, but I don't know for sure because duh, you can't draw her picture, and they're fighting, um...Feeral? No, wait, Saavij."

She continued pointing at us, one by one. "And that's Captain Light on the floor and Gunmetal Grey standing over him and Silver Rage with the axe next to him and, and, um...no, wait, don't tell me...oh, it's right on the tip of my tongue...Bloodcalled! Wow. I've never seen a real vampire, not since they all went to the Black Nebula in 2754. I thought she'd be paler. And--"

Regent interrupted. "A time traveler," he said. "Interesting." He gestured towards the fox-woman fighting John Q. Public. "Vulpine, subdue her. Not too much damage, please. She has valuable intelligence for us." The beast pulled away from John, her teeth scraping grooves into his baseball bat as she lunged backwards, then she turned and leapt for the blue girl...

And gently glided to a halt in mid-air. "Oh, come on," the blue girl said, as Vulpine flailed helplessly in a vain attempt to gain momentum. "I'm flunking history, not telekinetics. I thought you were supposed to be some kind of master strategist or something?"

Regent nodded his head graciously. "Part of a master strategy involves gaining intelligence through the effective use of feints and gambits. For example, I know that you are overconfident, not easily vulnerable to physical force...and thus I change my tactics. Meme?" He gestured to the teleporter. "Share your understanding with her."

I raced across the room, hoping to knock Mister Meme out before he could work his crazy death-wish mojo on our only chance for surviving all this (slim as it was...) But the cyborg woman dashed away from John Q. Public just as fast, dropping into a fighting stance right in front of me. "I want you to be aware that I'm not happy about this," she said, her words spilling out too fast for anyone but me to follow. "I view the state as nothing more than a tool of oppression against the masses, and Regent is really just another dictator. But he's a dictator who planted a small bomb next to my aorta, and there's really only so much you can do to bring about a new age of enlightenment and a freedom from the tyranny of government when you have a smoldering crater where your heart should be."

I launched a feint at her midsection in Serpent Style kung fu, then shifted stances and styles at the same time to aim a kick at her face in a Tae Kwon Do style. (I make up for my lack of depth in any one style by knowing a lot of them. It's kind of what happens when you have five minutes to kill, a stack of books on martial arts, and a reading speed that gets measured in pages per second.) I was gratified to see her head snap back with a sharp grunt of pain, but she wasn't down for the count. And I knew I probably had less than a second of real time before Meme did his thing.

The cyborg slashed at me with her knuckle claws, and I barely managed to avoid them. I'd never seen anyone as fast as her except me, and it was a close second. She launched a flurry of darts from a wrist-launcher, and I had to fling myself to the floor as they passed overhead to embed themselves harmlessly (I hoped) into Zombie Samurai. I got back up, but I could tell it was already too late. Meme's eyes had locked with the blue girl's...

And she laughed. "Oh, puh-lease!" she said. "Amateur hour is officially freaking over, pal. I'm already taking college credits in telepathy; did you really think a vat-grown one-trick pony like this was going to do anything?" She held up a finger, and Mister Meme slumped to the ground, unconscious. "He's all thud and blunder, no subtlety. Doesn't even know how to stop a simple Circadian reset."

She turned, glaring at Regent. "Honestly, if I hadn't also aced my 'Ethical Uses of Unusual Abilities' course, I'd peel you out of that armor and give you a good spanking. As it is, I'll settle for earning extra credit towards my major." She closed her eyes, and waves of invisible energy poured off of her like a heat haze.

Regent reached down and ripped a hunk out of the floor, hefting it with both hands. His earlier sang froid was clearly gone. "I don't know what you think you're doing," he said, "but I have no further patience for it. I'll--"

"You'll put that thing down," Captain Light said, slowly rising to his feet. His fists crackled with unearthly energies. "I know it's a cliche, but why don't you pick on someone your own size?"

TO BE CONTINUED...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How To Make Twilight Awesome

I watched the Rifftrax of 'Twilight' last night, and while I could review the film itself, I think I know my reading audience well enough to be reasonably sure that you've all formed your opinions of the film/book/franchise already, and they're not good. (The only thing I think is directly worth mentioning is the lighting in the film. They chose a tonal palette of muted, wintery blue and green lighting that made the whole thing even more of an ordeal than it would have been already. I felt like I was watching the world's first movie shot entirely underwater.) But it did occur to me that the movie could actually have been very intense and intelligent if they'd made one small change...

It would have been actually pretty decent if Bella hadn't loved Edward.

I mean, I'm not telling anyone anything they don't already know when I say that Edward comes off as a creepy, domineering, borderline abusive stalker. He threatens her, he breaks into her room, he veers between wildly overprotective and actually endangering, he constantly talks about how he loves her so much that he wants to kill her...it's a non-stop Disturbing Behavior Festival, and you spend the whole movie wishing Bella would come to her senses and get a restraining order.

But what if that's exactly what she did? What if she really did recognize that Edward was downright dangerous, that his obsessive attraction to her was a threat to her life and safety, and that he really was a bloodthirsty monster whose tenuous self-control was the only thing that stood between her and a brutal death with an eternal unlife hungering for the blood of the living if she was "lucky"? What if, on realizing it, she then realized that there wasn't a whole hell of a lot she could do because getting someone involved was just signing their death warrant, and her only hope involved establishing an emotional connection with the Cullen family so they saw her as more than just a meal? You've already got the tension of "abusive boyfriend and girl who knows that nobody can help her", might as well make deliberate use of it instead of fighting it for your entire franchise.

A four-book series about a teenage girl trying desperately to stay on the good side of a group of barely-sane vampires, knowing that there's no hope for her if they take a mind to kill her, but needing to use them to keep her away from the even crazier vampires because apparently her super-power is being yummy? That might be readable.

If, y'know, someone else wrote it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Five

"It was Captain Light that forced my hand," Regent said, swatting John Q. Public halfway across the room with a casually dismissive gesture. He got back up--John had a knack for rolling with punches, and an absolute refusal to give up--but he was wobbly. A bipedal vulpine creature with red fur loped across the room in a single vicious lunge to take advantage of his momentary weakness.

"Before Captain Light, the heroes were merely...firefighters," he continued. "You ran around, you stopped villains where they arose and made threats of themselves, and you never thought that there might be someone who planned instead of simply rampaging." I raced in and aimed a rapid-fire punch at his mid-section, but my fist skidded off of an invisible energy field and slid off to the side, its momentum harmlessly dissipated.

In my peripheral vision, I saw Saavij backed into a corner by a humanoid robot wielding twin khopeshes. (I played lots of D&D, okay? I can tell you the names of lots of different medieval weapons.) Her long swords clashed in a blur against its wickedly-hooked ones, but reinforcements were already coming to the robot's aid. "But Captain Light...he had a vision. An idea. Under Captain Light, you became a movement. And movements are dangerous things."

"A movement, an idea...these spread from person to person. They unite them under a banner. Inevitably, you would learn of my existence, and you would oppose me. And this I could not bear." Goth Grrl's shadow had already enveloped her, transforming her body into a monstrous creature of living shadow, but she was duking it out with a raven-haired woman with glowing red eyes who was flinging around shadow bolts of her own. And an androgynous woman in a tuxedo who was flinging multi-colored blasts of burning smoke, and an armored man wielding a sword of pure flame...yeah, we were outnumbered pretty badly. At least two to one, now that most of our team was unconscious and suicidal.

"It has been said, of course, that you cannot kill an idea." As he spoke, Regent was punching back at me. I dodged--I was still a lot faster than him--but his misses shattered concrete where they landed. He only had to get lucky once. "The people who say that lack ambition and planning, though. The trick in killing an idea is catching it before it has time to breed."

Shining Dragon Fist's hands glowed bright with her inner qi, but the woman she fought had fists that seemed to absorb that light. The eyes that woman had...I couldn't let myself get distracted, but I'd seen eyes like that before. They were like Zombie Samurai's eyes. Dead eyes. "And so I planned," Regent said, drawing my attention back to the fight. "I knew that I was dealing with heroes, and heroes have weaknesses. Loyalty, integrity, decency...these are levers, for a man who knows how to move them."

Zombie Samurai was advancing on a ten-year old girl, his sword drawn. This would have bothered me a lot more if the little girl hadn't been holding a sophisticated rifle, taking chunks out of his dead flesh with each shot. One of them ricocheted off his steel-reinforced skull with a loud 'clang', and he staggered...but kept going. That was, until a squat, toad-like humanoid of indeterminate gender tackled him into the wall.

"And so I created a threat." Regent's fist whizzed past me, so hard I felt the breeze of its passage. "One that you would have to battle, because it was evil. One that attacked your friends, so that you would have to help them. One that stirred the anger and hatred you try so hard to resist, causing you to react without thinking. 'Mister Meme' was my Trojan Horse, softening you up for the kill."

Gunmetal Grey's steel fists clashed against an axe blade as he dueled a silver statue whose eyes blazed with an inhuman fury. His perpetually-morphing metal skin healed each nick and cut, but I could tell that it happened slower each time. "And now we move into endgame. You were already defeated before I even entered the field of battle, and your every action merely postpones the inevitable. Should you yield and swear fealty, even at this late hour, you will find me merciful...but I cannot allow you to oppose me."

I tried to focus on my own battle, as I kicked and thrust and swung punch after useless, ineffectual punch against the force field, but I couldn't ignore the others. Saavij was now matching her two swords against four enemy blades, desperately whirling them to block the twin daggers of another little girl. This one had a cold, terrifying smile and the gleam of madness in her eyes. John Q. Public had his bat shoved into the jaws of the fox-woman, which left him open to punch after spike-knuckled punch from a cyborg woman with a mohawk. Her fists were coming away bloody now, but he refused to cry out. All around me, everyone was fighting their hardest...and they were losing. We were losing--I caught a glancing blow to my shoulder that spun me around so hard I tumbled to the ground.

"Yield or die," Regent said. He'd never even raised his voice. "You are fighting a general who has won a thousand battles before your grandfathers were born. This moment was destined to happen. I have planned for every eventuality. Your only choice is whether to suffer in futility, or bow to a superior...force...?"

His voice trailed off as he heard the growing hum from the center of the room. The battles slowed, then stopped as we all looked up towards the wind that came from nowhere and went to nowhere. We all watched as the light grew from a glimmer so faint it was almost imaginary to an almost blinding radiance.

And then it faded, leaving a woman floating in the center of the room. Her skin was a rich, royal blue, contrasting vividly with her blonde hair. She wore a dress made out of some kind of slick plastic, and there was some kind of strange device on her wrist. She looked at us with a faintly confused smile on her face.

"Hi," she said. "I'm here to watch the first battle between Captain Light and Regent." She looked around at the semi-conscious heroes, the desperate grimaces of pain, the horde of villains. "Um...am I late?"

TO BE CONTINUED...

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Storytelling Engines: Doc Savage

(or "The Nazis Were Bad PR")

It's a little unusual, reading the 1970s comic-book adventures of Doc Savage and the Fabulous Five; the character and his gadgets, methods and sidekicks are more firmly rooted in the pulp traditions of the 1930s than perhaps any other pulp hero of the era. (Which is why it may not surprise you to note that the Doc Savage doesn't even try to update the character, setting him instead in his own time.) The Shadow, the Spider, Zorro, Fantomas, Solomon Kane, Sailor Steve Costigan...they all have their pulp elements, and they've all made the transition to other media and endured the test of time (well, maybe not Sailor Steve Costigan...) But when you think of the elements that make up a "pulp hero", you ultimately wind up coming up with Doc Savage just as surely as if you're ticking off boxes on a checklist.

Pulp heroes tend to straddle the border between human and superhuman (Doc Savage has honed his physique and mind to the pinnacle of perfection with two hours of special exercises every day), they have elaborate near-futuristic gadgets (the Helldiver, the rapid-firers, the flying wing), they fight elaborate and outlandish foes (in the Doc Savage comics, he fights lizard-men, scientists who harness lightning, and fake pirate ghosts who work out of a high-tech mock pirate ship) and they work out of some sort of an elaborate secret lair (the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.) Even Doc's sidekicks are almost like "mini-pulp heroes" all their own, with one being a two-fisted chemist, another being a brilliant lawyer with a sword-cane, and so on. It almost feels like Dent took every single pulp trope and put them into the blender in an attempt to create a sort of pulp ubermensch.

Which is, in a nutshell, the problem with the character. He is portrayed, with absolutely no sense of irony, as a person who has improved mind and body to the point where he is considered by everyone in the series to be a sort of "superior being". Lesser characters question Doc's decisions briefly, if at all, before seeing that they're in the presence of a blond, bronzed superman who's smarter than they are and has superior judgment. The Fabulous Five accept his every word without question. Only Pat Savage, Doc's cousin and a superwoman in her own right, is allowed to suggest that he might be wrong about anything (usually about not letting her tag along.) He is every inch Nietzsche's ubermensch...

And that's a philosophy that hasn't aged well. The association with the Nazi regime served to highlight the uncomfortable truth at the heart of Nietzsche's ideas: It's very easy for anyone at all to decide that they are superior, have a higher moral understanding than others, and should not be subject to the rules set by "lesser beings". Every sociopath believes himself to be an ubermensch, and every murder improves the world in their eyes by removing those believed to be beneath contempt. (This is also the Republican economic philosophy, I believe...)

Doc Savage kidnaps criminals and lobotomizes them, he believes that women have no place doing dangerous jobs despite meeting women who are every bit as capable and competent as he is, and he ultimately accepts no input from anyone or anything other than his own moral compass. Generations of human experience have shown us that people like that are actually very dangerous and kind of creepy, something that limits the Doc Savage storytelling engine right from the get-go. Gadgets, sidekicks, and methods make a series, but it doesn't help if you suspect right off the bat that your main character isn't much better than the people he fights.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Four

It's not easy, carrying a body.

It's even harder when the other person, the one who's holding them under the arms, is taller than you are by a good foot. My arms were aching from the effort of keeping the feet properly elevated. I was determined not to show the strain, though. We were two people on a mission. (Well, peopleish. I've got bird DNA, and Zombie Samurai's dead and still walking, but I think we technically qualify. Nobody knows the rules anymore. Not when we've got electric cat-women on our team.) Our team was depending on us. I just hoped I hadn't screwed everything up too bad.

I should probably clarify, the body we were carrying out wasn't dead. It was Mister Meme--I know, you probably guessed that one--and he was "just" unconscious. But I was still worried, because one of the things I've learned about being a superhero is that it's a lot harder to knock a person out than it looks on television. I've punched bad guys nine, ten times, as hard as I can, and all I've got for my troubles is a really pissed-off bad guy who's spitting teeth. And I'm not proud of it, but I've sent some guys to the hospital when I was just trying to subdue them. Mister Meme was unconscious. That could mean concussion, skull fractures, maybe never waking up. We couldn't afford that.

That was what was going through my head. On the surface, I was trying to remain calm and collected. I had to. I'd told Zombie Samurai that all this was part of my plan. "We need to get him back to our headquarters," I'd said, "and we can't afford to risk moving him through the city with his powers. Every human being is a potential hostage. We get him back to base fully neutralized, we take stock of the situation, and we do whatever we have to in order to make him fix our friends."

That was what I told him. But he looked at me with those eyes...dead eyes. Killer's eyes. And I knew he knew. Just as sure as I knew, looking at him, that he'd used that sword when he was a living man to end someone's life, I could tell that he knew that when I came into that room, when I hit a helpless man over and over and over, each blow rocking him back faster than he could possibly recoil...I wasn't trying to knock him out so we could carry him back to base. For a few seconds, before I got control of my anger, I was just lashing out at the person who hurt my friends. For a few seconds--and a few seconds, to me, feels like a few minutes--all I wanted to do was kill someone.

And I could tell that Zombie Samurai understood. He didn't say anything, though. Maybe things like that, you don't have to talk about.

We got him to our transport flyer and made it back to base in record time. (I don't know whether I inherited some sort of intuitive flying skills from the bird DNA, or if the flyers were just designed to be really user-friendly so that henchmen could pilot them, but I was great with those things.) My stomach was clenched up in knots; we didn't know just what to expect when we got there, but we knew it would be bad.

The bad news was, only five of them were upright. The good news was, the rest of them were trussed up and semi-conscious. I have never felt more grateful to see my friends beaten up and bound with electrical cord than at that moment. "What happened while we were gone?" I asked Goth Grrl. "How come you're not like...the rest of them?"

Goth Grrl looked down at me. She looks creepy when she's staring at you; it's the black eyes. Black-on-black-on-black, no pupils or irises. They stand out even more against the ultra-pale skin. "I share my head with a ghost and a primal darkness spirit. It gives you a different perspective on death."

I nodded. "And the others?"

Gunmetal Grey cocked 'his' head. I could hear the servos whirring under the synthetic skin. "It appears I have no analogue for 'death' in my database. The concepts Gaian Champion was talking about did not translate."

John Q. Public had heavy bags under his eyes, like he was wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he gripped his baseball bat tightly. "Just too stubborn to die, I guess. Same as the Fist, over there."

Shu bowed deep and low. "It is a question of being centered within the universe," she said. "The wheel of karma turns, and it will continue to turn after this body is passed on to its next life. I tried to explain it to the others, but..." she shrugged. "It took me my entire life to achieve the humble understanding I now possess."

I looked over at Saavij. She had found a hunk of meat somewhere in the stores and was gnawing on it. "Kra pochitila mar ka sangiri!" she shouted, pulling into a defensive crouch to protect her prize. "Fo-od! Go-od!"

"Right. Got it." We'd been working with Saavij, but she still had a vocabulary of about fifty words of English. Metaphysical concepts probably didn't get through to her. "Okay, let's start waking this guy up and explaining why it's in his best interests to undo his messes." If we can, I added mentally. His head was lolling in a way I didn't like.

It was a few very tense minutes before Mister Meme opened his eyes. In that time, we tried cold water, light slaps to the face, shouting...but it wasn't until John reached over and pinched the guy's earlobe as hard as he could that Meme's eyelids shot open and he yelped loudly. "Wha-huh-wazza?" he mumbled.

I'd never seen anyone but me move as fast as Zombie Samurai drew his sword and darted in to put its edge right at Mister Meme's throat. "I will make this very simple, animal. This is an amazing world that I have been returned to, filled with wonders to stagger the imagination. I have no doubt that if I slit your throat, we will find someone else in this fantastic new universe to restore our teammates. So while I am willing to spare your life if you undo what you have done, do not mistake this for a bargaining chip. Not for a moment."

Meme's eyes narrowed. "What makes you think I can fix it?" he asked.

"Because you are not dead. If the idea kills anyone who understands it, you would not be able to pass it on. There must be a piece of information, something you withhold from your victims that prevents them from seeing the true solution."

Meme grinned again. God, I hated that grin. "You're pretty smart, dude, you know that? A lot smarter than me. Me, I'm dumb, I'm shallow, I'm amoral..."

I couldn't help it. I snarked, "And those are your good qualities?"

He looked over at me. A thin line of red appeared at his throat before Zombie Samurai could pull the sword back. "No...and that's just what I was made to be. I was grown two weeks ago, built out of flesh to become what I am. Obnoxious, stupid, dangerous, the kind of threat that you'd have to bring into your base to deal with...and a large-scale teleporter." His mouth opened, wider than any human mouth possibly could, and light burst forth from it. It flooded across the room in a stream, manifesting into over a dozen human forms. The one in the middle wore a suit of sleek golden armor, with a dark purple cloak draped over his shoulders.

"I am Regent," he said. "I understand that it will take you some time to understand how thoroughly you have been outmaneuvered, but you would be wise to kneel and show fealty now. The alternative is pain."

TO BE CONTINUED...