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Fishing Vessel Xingyun Long
121 miles off the coast of Madripoor
Saturday, February 12th, 2017
02:46am ITC


"Damned useless weather app," Zhiao cursed as he wrenched hard on the helm, struggling to keep his footing as the Xingyun Long lurched starboard. "'Calm seas,' my ass."

In fact, the sky was clear, the moon bright and not a single cloud obscuring the glittering stars above. The sea, however, had grown unusually turbulent, swelling and crashing as if in a typhoon. It battered down on the small fishing boat, slamming against the sides and threatening to capsize her more than once. While deckhands scrambled to make sure everything was secure, captain Zhiao Sun Fan fought to keep them all above water. He could not explain why the seas were so rough, so for now, he would settle on blaming the new LexCorp Global Weather app he had installed on his GPS system to tell him what to expect. With the latest and greatest of modern technology failing him, Zhiao had to rely on his instincts and his years at sea to ride out the.....well, he would say 'storm' were there a storm at all.

"Captain!" shouted Hu Shin, his first mate, "The port engine's out!"

"I know, I know," grumbled Zhiao, cursing the half-hearted job his mechanic had done before they set sail. 'Doesn't matter,' he'd said at the time, 'the money we get from this next catch will be enough for a whole new one.' But the fishing had been bad the past few days, nets either coming up empty or full of fish that were strangely already dead. Zhiao was never the type to believe in omens and signs, but between the nets of dead fish and the roiling sea under a calm sign was enough to make even the most skeptical man start to wonder.

Over a hundred miles between the ship and home, only one working engine, and a sea that was determined to bring them down. Still, the old sailor thought as he gripped the helm so hard his knuckles turned white, there was no boat he'd rather be on in the situation. His father's boat, and his father's father's boat before that, and it had survived everything from monsoons to World Wars. This moldy old pile of junk had more than earned the name Xingyun Long-- 'Lucky Dragon.'

"Get everyone below deck," Zhiao shouted over the crashing waves to Hu, "I'm going to get us out of this mess!"

Hu nodded, and began shouting to the deckhands to drop what they were doing and get below to safety. Meanwhile, the old captain gritted his teeth, and turned again hard to starboard, trying to turn the ship back south towards Madripoor.

A large swell rolled over the deck, water splashing into the cabin. Zhiao's concentration broke when he heard the water hissing, steam rising from the floor. In fact, the usual mist of choppy water grew thicker, as more steam churned in the air above the rolling sea.

No.....not rolling, Zhiao thought. Boiling.

On the port side, Zhiao noticed another swell coming, this one far larger than anything they had seen before. There was no crest, no break in the wave, just a rolling rise in the water like an enormous hill. As if something were moving just underneath the surface......a submarine? No, something else....

....something impossibly huge....

From within the watery hill, Zhiao saw a faint blue glow, barely illuminating the dark mass beneath it. The glow became stronger, and Zhiao became aware of a low humming sound in the air, one that grew louder and higher-pitched as the colossal shape beneath the waves approached.

Vaguely, he remembered hearing an old friend of his father telling stories that Zhiao wasn't old enough to hear at the time. A low hum, a blue glow, things that his father's friend had seen before....in Tokyo.....

"No," he heard himself say, the word a kind of powerless denial that utterly disintegrated in the face of an unimaginable reality.

The old fisherman had been in some tight scrapes in his life before, and on more than one occasion he'd confronted the possibility that he would die. Never, though, had it ever been more certain to him. Never before had it been such an immutable, horrible fact that froze his blood and seized every muscle in his body. He could not even bring himself to scream.

The top of the watery mound broke, pierced by what looked like giant crude blades that sliced through the ocean in three uneven rows. The blue light, now searing to Zhiao's eyes, emanated from these jagged fins, and the low hum had become a frantic buzzing, like a thousand high-voltage wires brimming with power.

For a moment, Zhiao could see two points of red. Two monstrous, hateful eyes peering at him from the boiling waves. He knew that no turn of luck, no act of any god, could save him now. The devil had risen to take him.

There was a flash of white light, and for a split-second, everything was heat and pain and terror.....

......and then there was nothing.


GIFTS

Chapter 3



Glenmorgan Square
Metropolis
April 1st, 2016


"Gotta hand it to ya, Spit-curl, you sure are persistent!" the cackling aberration says as he hurls a pulsating purple bubble towards me. "I've literally turned your entire world upside-down and inside-out, and here you are, still thinking there's a way you can strong-arm your way out of this!"

Well, he's not entirely wrong, I say to myself flying downwards towards the bottomless sky-pit to avoid the bubble. It bursts against an office building, causing it to sprout enormous hairy legs and begin to tap-dance, sending clouds of dust and shattered glass and debris tumbling upwards into the crackling ground high above us.

I'd been having such an easy day, too, until Jimmy transformed into a sock puppet and all the air turned green.

The entity calls itself.....well, I can't really pronounce it, but the closest approximation you can make with a humanoid mouth is something like 'Mxyzptlk.' He--I assume it's a "he," anyway, given that he's taken the form of a diminuitive balding man with a purple suit and bowler hat-- claims to be an imp from the Fifth Dimension, a being of pure infinite possibility, who enjoys messing with lower-dimensional beings to keep himself entertained. I faced him once about ten years ago, and his 'pranks' were no less destructive and bizarre than they are now.

"I don't have to out-muscle you, Mxy," I say as I weave my way between bolts of nightmares. "I remember the rules from last time I defeated you, and I can do it again."

"Oh right, right, you 'defeated' me," he mocks, rolling his eyes and making exaggerated air quotes from actual thin air as he gestures with his fingers. "I've been giving this sad little slice of time-space you call a 'universe' a subatomic wedgie from the word go today, and so far you haven't even managed to get me to say a single syllable of my name backwards! All you've done is zig-zag around while I've taken pot-shots at you! Speaking of which, BOOM!"

Mxyzptlk points his finger at me, and a beam of white-hot nothing screams towards me. I put every ounce of energy I have into speed, zipping up and down the streets and avenues, banking hard and looping back on myself to keep out of the way of his attack as it slices through skyscrapers like a hot knife through butter. I really hope everything goes back to normal like last time, or the reconstruction effort is going to take ages.

"What's your game, Mxy?" I call out, rolling to the left to avoid a rift in timespace and the thousand gibbering horrors that pour out. "If you can go anywhere in any universe you want, why come back here?"

"Who says I spend all my time here?" he replies, lazily lobbing nightmares after me as I come close to completing the pattern. "This form, this name 'Mxyztplk?' It's like an avatar, a username for an account in one of your video games--well, not your video games, those are all terrible. Maybe more like one of those internet forums where some fat loser in his thirties thinks he's really clever by breaking the fourth wall like that isn't a total cliché by now. Anyway, I use variations on this gimmick all over the place, and I've messed with a whole bunch of different yous."

I have no idea what he's going on about, but it doesn't matter. I've got to keep him talking, keep him throwing his attacks at me, following the pattern....

"And it's not like I just mess with Supermen," he continues. "Sometimes I got and stir up trouble with a space captain in the future. Sometimes I dress up like a triangle and mess with a kid in Oregon. Every once in a while I go screw with a bunch of cartoon horses. But none of those are ever as fun as messing with Big Blue."

The sky below me turns black, and what looks like a gigantic grapevine made of gnashing mouths comes swirling up to chase after me.

"It still sounds like you're a one-trick pony, Mxy," I say, veering near a row of shops as the mouth monster drags itself across them, ripping up the brick and mortar facades. "It sounds like a pretty dull way to live if everywhere you go, all you can think of doing is messing with other people's lives."

"Oh, come on, Boy Scout," he sneers. "You're talking about an infestation of bags of wet meat, some fuzz on a wet rock, like they're actually people? I mean, you're essentially to them what they are to the bacteria in their stomachs, and you think they're your friends! Get some perspective!"

With that, I fly up directly towards him, stopping inches from his face.

"I think you're the one that needs some perspective today, pal."

"Oh yeah? And what exactly do I need to--"

Casually, I glance downward to the crumbling buildings, the swirling sky-pit and the rings of circling debris.

Slowly but surely, he sees the destruction he's wrought has formed a pattern.

Or rather, a sequence of letters.

"Wha......I, err.......you--"

By trying to hit me with his most devastating attacks, he wrote it with his own actions into the fabric of the universe itself. In huge flaming letters.

KLTPZYXM


"You know the rules, imp," I say, the game truly over. "Now put everything back the way you found it, and then get the hell out of this dimension."

"But.....that's--....I just....you....ahhhh! HA! He suddenly starts to laugh. "AH-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!"

It's not a laugh of triumph, or of a villain whose master plan has just come to fruition. It's the kind of laugh a con man might get when he realizes he's been out-conned.

"Oh! Oh, you are good, Spit-Curl! I gotta say, I'm impressed!" Wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, Mxyzptlk snaps his fingers, and without so much as a 'poof,' the sky and ground are where they should be, the gibbering horrors are banished to the dark places of the multiverse, and none of the people are sock puppets or vegetables or chalk drawings anymore.

"Don't worry yourself, farmboy, I'll stick to my word and make myself scarce," he says, slowly fading away as the laws of probability reassert themselves.

BUT KNOW THIS: his voice rings through my mind. A CRISIS IS COMING, FAR GREATER THAN ANYTHING YOUR PUNY REALITY HAS EVER KNOWN. NEW GODS ARE AWAKENING, AND THEIR WAR WILL SOON SWALLOW ALL. BEFORE THIS IS OVER, YOU WILL STAND ALONE AGAINST THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL THAT WAS OR WILL EVER BE. AND YOU WILL FAIL, SUPERMAN. YOU WILL FAIL.

Below me, life goes on like nothing had happened. People are heading to and from their work, popping into stores, trying to catch the cross-town bus or riding the monorail. The LED banners in Glenmorgan Square start playing an advertisement for LexCorp's new 'Net of Tomorrow' software. The Meteors are warming up for the afternoon's game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

And just like the last time, I'm floating above it all with a look of bewilderment and a tinge of horror.

I feel something in my hand that wasn't there a moment before. It's a note, hastily written on a scrap of paper that simply hadn't existed.

Supes,

Don't think I'm a bad sport. I left you a prize for winning today, but I'm not telling you what it is. You'll find out soon, though, and I can't wait to see how you handle it.

-Mxy


Off across the bay, I hear a fire siren. I find myself blinking a few times before I shake off the surreal daze, and then I crack my knuckles and get back to work. Whatever 'prize' the imp has gifted me, I can deal with it later.

For now, I've got a job to do.


GIFTS

Chapter 2



The Fortress
Somewhere in the Arctic Circle
July 16th, 2013


"So," Conner says, his hands in his pockets as he looks around at the vaulted crystalline ceilings and morphing liquid-geo displays, "This is the Fortress, huh? Kara never let me in here while you were gone-- she said it's because she's worried I might have some Cadmus sleeper-program left in me, but I think she just does it to tease me."

"Well, you won't have to worry about that anymore," I say as I enter in a sequence of gestures at one of the many computer terminals. After a moment, the swirling nanite cloud forms into a slim pentagonal key with the El family crest at the head, and I pluck it from the cloud and hand it to him. "Your very own command key. Now you've got full access to everything the Fortress and Kelex can do, just like Kara and me."

Conner eyes the key, then gives me a skeptical look, but ultimately takes it and puts it in his jeans pocket.

"This is still really weird," he says, looking downward. "Not coming to the Fortress, I mean, just.....this whole thing, it's......I don't really know how to deal with it."

"I know how you feel," I say, trying to put a hand on his shoulder, but he walks away before I can.

"You really don't," he mutters as he walks off, down the winding corridors towards the Interstellar Zoo.

"Don't mind him, he's always like that," says Kara, flitting through the air as she greets me. "Everything with him is always so grim and so serious. I've been telling him he needs to start dating; it'd do him a world of good. Maybe see if Batgirl's seeing anyone? Or if Wonder Woman knows any Amazons who are looking for--ooh! I know! That Raven girl from the Titans! She's always all 'ohhh, look at me, I'm so dark and misunderstood, isn't that coooool,' she'd be perfect for--"

"You know he's got super-hearing like us, right?"

"Pffft, I say that to his face all the time," she shrugs it off.

"Still, I'd appreciate it if you'd go easy on him," I say, taking a sterner tone, "He's having a tough time getting used to, you know......the situation."

"Okayyy, fine," she relents. "Speaking of, how are you doing?"

"Oh, you know," I shrug, "about as well as someone can be doing, given everything that's happened while I was.....away."

Kara raises an eyebrow.

"You're saying that like you went on vacation," she says. "You were dead, Kal. I was supposed to look after you, help raise you, and by the time I came to Earth you'd already lived out your life. I only knew about you through stories, hearing the members of the Justice League talk about you, seeing your statue in Heroes' Park. Now you're back, and you've been acting like you'd just stepped out for a long lunch or something."

I sigh.

"Honestly? I've just been trying not to think about it," I admit. "The world's changed so much since Doomsday. And not just the 'tights and fights' part of my life. Lois is having a hard time with all of this. And I'll be honest, it's not easy for me to get my head around it, either. So for now, I think it's best if I just focus on the job and let everything sort itself out."

"Well, if you ever need an ear, I'm always here, cousin," she says, opening her arms wide. "Hugs?"

"Okay, but-

"Huuuugs!" she exclaims, squeezing me with enough force to crush a mountain.

"Nnngh!....Kara.....can't breathe--"

"Oh! Ogmigosh, sorry!" she gasps. "I got a little carried away there."

"Not to break up the touching moment here," says Conner, re-entering the main hall, "but that Kelex computer just told me there's a pretty massive storm approaching Thailand. Do we wanna, I dunno, go help people or something?"

"You're right! We should go save people together! It'll be awwwwe-sommmme!" She exclaims, zipping out of the Fortress's main entrance and into the open air. Before I go, Conner grabs my arm.

"Hey, um, Superman," he says. "God, I don't even know what to call you. I mean, are you like, my dad now? My big brother? Or--"

"Let's start with Clark," I say with a slight chuckle.

"Right, right, um, Clark," he nods. "I know everyone's going through a weird time right now, and maybe I'm not the best about dealing with it. I just wanted to say, y'know.....thanks. For being cool with, y'know....with me."

"Don't worry about it, Conner," I say. "I don't where you came from, or what Cadmus or ARGUS or anyone else wanted you to do. You're family now, and whatever you decide you want to do, whoever you decide to be, I've got your back."

That may actually be the first time I've ever seen him smile.

"Now come on," I say, giving him a pat on the back. "We've got a force of nature to fight. You up for it?"

"I'm always ready," he says, cracking his knuckles.

I take to the skies, and look down to see Conner bounding across the frozen plains, taking a half-mile or more with every stride.

Things are strange these days, everything's so uncertain. But it's times like this where having people who are there for you means the world. My second lease on life was a gift, to be sure, but having a family to share my life with this time.....that's a whole other gift entirely.
So Byrd's character proposal got me thinkin'......not about doing a similar character, but an otherwise out-there property with an established history in comic books, and one that could be a great catalyst for team-ups.

Byrd may prefer to do mystery stories, but me? Well.......I like to think big......

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