Continued from last week.
Now like I mentioned, I’m mildly claustrophobic, but I think I must have been experiencing Aeroacrophobia, the fear of open high places, or even just Agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces in general, because I started backpedaling from that window in a panic, feeling like my heart was about to blow out into space the way you see bodies do when someone opens an airlock in those Sci-Fi movies. My backwards progress thudded to a halt when I bumped into what I at first thought was a curved wall or a support column. I turned to behold a sight perhaps even more amazing than the moon. Before me stood a giant: a bald, quasi-Roman attired giant, whose gaze seemed to penetrate all the way down into the bottomless pit opening in my stomach. Bottomless, but not empty, apparently, as I discharged those hot dogs from lunch on the giant’s boot.
“Oh my. You fleshy ones do make a mess,” declared a voice from behind the giant’s other boot. I wiped my face with a balled up wad of Kleenex I had in my pants pocket to see what looked like an otherwise normal man with a robotic head gazing at me. The Phantom Stranger pressed his handkerchief into my hand, and gestured towards the chum spray I left on the giant’s boot. My embarrassment quickly welled to the surface and I proceeded to wipe his boot as clean as I could get it as the robot man continued. “I am X-51, also known as Machine Man, but you can call me Aaron. I sometimes visit Uatu here to observe the human condition while remaining separate from it. That and my synthetic skin facial covering needed laundering.”
“Uatu?” I croaked, finally beginning to comprehend. “Oh, oh, geez, you’re the Watcher aren’t you? I read about you in…. um…. I read about you.” Maybe I shouldn’t keep mentioning Villainy Quarterly, I realized. But it’s true, somebody had interviewed a guy named the Red Ghost and he talked about his exploits on the moon. I never really believed it, because I’m not convinced man has EVER stepped foot on the moon. But here I am now, cleaning pre-consumed hotdogs off a giant’s foot and stammering on like an idiot.
“If I may,” began the Phantom Stranger, stopping only to glare at me when I thought he was saying that to indicate that he was ready to take his handkerchief back. “No, keep it, I have plenty. Uatu, Aaron, I am known as the Phantom Stranger, or simply The Stranger if you would prefer. I believe my…traveling companion has been sent here as part of a grand tour, booked by Axel Asher.”
Uatu sighed, a heavy sigh that seemed to temporarily draw the air out of this lunar chamber completely. “The Guardian of the Nexus sent you here? To observe? Very well, but do not tarry.” Aaron snaked out a hand attached to what looked like a heavy gauge steel cable and gingerly plucked the soiled cloth from my hand. He then produced a pair of binoculars from his jacket pocket; a cable dangling from them seemed to keep the optics tethered to him. He half-dragged me to the window overlooking the Earth, and nodded that I should take a look.
It took me by surprise to find that I could focus all the way down to a single window in an apartment building and make out the label that read “Machine wash warm, tumble dry low, avoid ironing decal,” as an insanely hot redhead folded laundry with an older, wrinkled woman. I stopped peering at her for a moment, realizing that I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking for. I looked around sheepishly until Uatu commanded, “Observe.”
Aaron’s binoculars seemed to change shape in my hands, now resembling something more along the lines of a child’s Viewmaster. “Observe,” he repeated after his enormous companion. And I did. I observed a man I knew to be Nick Fury, one of the heroes of WWII and a man my grandfather called the best soldier the United States Army ever produced, standing on the flight deck of a flying aircraft carrier. A man with a walrus mustache walked up to him wearing a derby hat and handed him a clipboard. From my angle I couldn’t see what was on it, and from the expression on Col. Fury’s I couldn’t tell if he was enraged or bemused. Shortly thereafter, the superhero called War Machine marched landed on the flight deck, with several other version of the same armor landing close behind. I never knew there was more than one War Machine? Was there always more than one? I don’t believe War Machine is Tony Stark, I always heard it was a friend of his who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Then again, I never know quite what to believe when Stark and armor is concerned. But now the focus seems to blur and then clarify, and I’m still looking at the Helicarrier, only now there’s some woman commanding everyone on the flight deck, and no Fury to be seen. And the focus racks again and Col. Fury is giving a report to a member of the Joint Chiefs, with diagrams of Iron Man on other monitors in the conference room. And again the focus blurs and clears, and again it’s the woman seemingly leading SHIELD against the Avengers. Now wait, there’s Fury again and now he’s black and looks vaguely like Samuel L. Jackson. Weird…
“Observe,” said the giant and now I see what I was just talking about. Tony Stark is trying desperately to get out of the Iron Man armor before his coworkers discover his secret. And now there he is mind-wiping everyone on the planet so none of us know his secret. And there he is at a benefit gala and if I read her lips correctly Janet “The Wasp” Van Dyne just asked Stark if he brought his armor. Wait – the scene just shifted again and now Stark is the Secretary of Defense, and there he is on TV in the armor without the helmet. Uh-oh, I think these swift scene changes in the Viewmaster thing are making me queasy. I suddenly feel touched by a bit of vertigo, and my eyes feel like they’re being remote controlled by a six year old with attention deficit disorder.
“Observe,” Uatu commanded again, and I obey without even realizing it. Through the binoculars I see the X-Men. Every Thanksgiving my Pops used to say, “Thank you O Lord for saving my children from the curse of being a mutant.” When I got older, I whispered the same thing, but not because I fear or hate people born with superpowers, but because I would hate to have to live on the run the way they do. Always hated, always persecuted. I have friends from every race and several faiths, and though none of them happen to look like a fish or project mucus from their fingers or something I’d not be opposed to having a mutant for a friend. But now my nausea and vertigo is getting worse, watching so many contradictory things in rapid succession. How many times is that redhead gonna die and be reborn? Seems like quite the waste of a good redhead. The Wolverine, voted “Hero You Least Want To $#@& With” by a panel of villains in Villainy Quarterly, seems to fight everyone, red and black ninjas, robots of all sizes, fellow X-Men, evil mutantsÃ¢â‚¬â€wow, all of a sudden I’m looking at a winter wilderness where a redhead girl – the same one who keeps dying? – is calling a young man who looks a bit like Wolverine…”James,” if I read her lips correctly. Wolverine’s real name is “Jim?” Man, that’s a colossal letdown.
I observe over and over again at Uatu’s behest for several more minutes, kaleidoscoping images flood my senses. I see a chrome-plated eunuch surfing up into space from a planet that doesn’t appear to have any oceans, I see a graying man in what looks like blue stage magic clothes and an immense, high-collared cape asking about babies he doesn’t remember having delivered – despite his confidence in having been the doctor of note for the birth of twins, I see two teams of superheroes who appear to be identical but wear very different costumes, calling themselves the Squadron Supreme, and I see the living legend, Captain America, the only superhero I honestly respect, unmasking on television in one image and the next he’s organizing a resistance group to oppose registering his identity with the government. He was officially, if perhaps only honorary, a captain in the Army, wasn’t he? I stagger back from the window; still clutching the binoculars attached to Aaron the Machine Man, resolving to retch on the Watcher’s other boot if he commands me to observe once more. The Phantom Stranger stands solemnly, giving no indication of what he’s thinking or feeling. Uatu’s gaze seems to look at me, around me, and through me all at once. He says nothing, but still looks like an angry, giant Charlie Brown at a toga party. And Aaron…where’d he go? The binoculars were connected to him, but I don’t see…
I stumble down the corridor, letting the binoculars reel me in to Aaron, and slowly realizing that I felt like a little bitsy worm on a big hook. As I round a bend in the hall, I find Machine Man standing before Axel Asher’s box, holding up the power-suit. “Oh my, what a fortuitous happenstance. You found my long underwear. This was my favorite pair. I feared them lost after the fleshy one called Meltdown caused our aircraft to explosively decompress.” Underwear?!? I’ve been bounced around reality over a pair of underwear with the feet sewn in them?!? I fall to my knees in defeat.
“I give up. I can’t take it. I spent half of my life savings to get to New York because I thought I had found a super-powered costume, only to have the rest of my money stolen by a bum, get quantum-leaped all over the world and end up on the moon with Charlie Brown suffering from gigantism and a robot whose missing underwear is the cause of all this? My God, I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.” And with that, I do break down.
A man can only take so much.
A voice I will never forget cut through my soft sobbing. “Aw, come on, chin up little camper! If I had known you were going to freak out about everything I would have shown you around personally. But you seemed so cocksure about everything; I figured you could handle it. Guess I figured wrong. I’d rethink the whole supervillain thing if I were you, though. You’re not going to get real far if you can’t keep it together, to say nothing of actually living in New York.” And smiling like the Cheshire Cat, Axel Asher stepped out of the shadows and stood next to the Phantom Stranger and the Watcher, who had followed me down the corridor by this point. Axel turned to the Stranger and asked, “Did he get a chance to meet Superman?”
“No. He met Batman instead.”
Axel stared at the Stranger for a moment, appearing shocked by this admission. “Oh. Well, Hell, no wonder. He made me cry too. Sorry about that, um, what were you planning on calling yourself anyway?”
“Nightmare,” I coarsely cough out.
Aaron hands me my duffle bag, now empty except for the magazines. As I hold it open, Axel shoots a basket with a wad of white cotton socks. “There’s your money back. I didn’t spend any. And I was joking about wearing the socks. You could have Athlete’s Foot or some sort of fungus for all I know. I don’t tread in used footwear. And I think Nightmare is taken, am I right, Uatu?”
“There is a Nightmare, yes. He is a demon who lords over the dream dimension. Dr. Strange often thwarts his more corporeal schemes.”
“You could add a ‘K’ in front of it and go by Knightmare,” offered the Phantom Stranger.
“We do not have anyone spelling it that way at this time,” confirmed the Watcher.
“What’s the difference? How many Captain Marvels are there at any given time?” reminded Aaron sarcastically.
“It doesn’t matter either way, I can’t be a costumed adventurer without a costume, and I can’t be seen running around in a robot’s underwear.” I resigned.
“Sure you can, just not mine.”
“You left them in the dumpster of a fish restaurant, do you really want them back?”
“Good point….mmmm, they smell like a three piece with extra hush-puppies, no slaw.”
“Ah, so that is the odor I observed in this corridor.”
“Yeah, malt vinegar and fried potatoes.”
And for a few moments, nobody said anything. I gazed out the window, shell-shocked. My life has completely imploded. The Phantom Stranger is standing in an impossibly small shadow and yet managing to look sinister and spooky nonetheless. Axel and Machine Man are debating the merits of fish-scented pajamas and Uatu is stoically taking it tall in. God I never should have left Parts…oh Hell, I’m from the suburbs of St. Louis. We don’t have super folk running around. We have meth labs and crooked politicians and criminally incompetent school board members and crack-heads transplanted from Chicago, just like everyone else. Nothing exciting. Nothing remotely left or right of mundane, just straight-down-the-middle BORING. If not for comic shops and internet porn, I’d go nuts.
“If you are finished here, Axel Asher, I have events to observe,” Uatu offered to break the silence.
Axel suddenly realized that The Watchers don’t typically break for social calls. “Oh, of course, big guy, we’ll get out of your hair…um…way. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“But wait, what the Hell was the point of all of this?” I asked. “Why send me to The Stranger’s world? Why show me any of this?” I had to know. This has been sensory overload. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. Batmen and Phantom Strangers and all these heroes from my world doing things that seemingly contradict themselves and all happening simultaneously. It’s too much.
Axel stepped forward, hands clasped behind his back while Aaron caressed his mechanical face with the power…underwear…looking like a macabre Linus Van Pelt. If a beagle walks in with a dark-haired girl in a blue sundress I’m going to jump out the damn window and drift off into space. Axel brought me back to focus. “It’s complicated, I’ll admit. It all comes down to continuity. In the Phantom Stranger’s version of reality, almost everything is interconnected. Every action has a reaction. If Green Lantern goes rogue or the Riddler goes legit, it happens uniformly across that universe. People get elected, get fired, get killed, and the effects of those events ripple uniformly and predictably, effecting everyone in a uniform and predicable fashion. Am I right, Stranger?”
“Yes, that is usually correct. Like every rule, there are exceptions, but for the most part you’ve spoken precisely,” the Phantom Stranger confirmed.
“Thank you. Now lets take this world, the world of Uatu the Watcher and Machine Man and yourself. When something happens here, let’s say like that time Thor brought Asgard into geosynchronous orbit over Manhattan…”
“What? When did that happen?”
“See, that’s what I mean. It happened. I saw it. Spider-Man saw it. I think Captain America probably saw it. And that’s about it. The Punisher didn’t see it. The X-Men didn’t see it. The Black Panther didn’t know it was up there. How about you, Aaron?
“Nope, missed it. Did you see Asgard flying over New York, Uatu?”
Uatu, now gazing out the immense window at the Earth, didn’t even dignify that question with so much as a glance. “Please.”
“OK, I think I get that our dimension or reality or whatever doesn’t work like the Stranger’s. But so what? I’d bet most realities don’t follow our logic. So what?”
Axel smiled, “But that’s it exactly. We don’t follow any logic. Things can happen here simultaneously to some people and not others. Things do not ebb and flow like the ripples of a stone tossed into a pond. They sometimes don’t ebb or flow at all. And every time this happens, it spawns alternate realities that may or may not function correctly either. There’s a whole team of people who travel the dimensions trying to put things right, but I honestly don’t think they’ll ever succeed. The damage is too widespread. Fixing it would be a nightmare.”
“Well,” I started, knowing full well that I should have dropped this discussion almost as soon as it began. “How’d it get so out of whack in the first place?”
Aaron projected his binoculars again and pointed towards the window. I cautiously approached the unmoving Watcher in the window and observed. I saw a somewhat heavyset man in his 40s, I think – I’m a lousy judge of age, ask my attorney – with a shock of kinda poofy hair. “Seems like an affable fellow. What does he have to do with it?”
Asher’s voice dropped a couple octaves. “Everything. I don’t know why, and neither does anyone else. In fact, I’d wager that no one outside of this hall knows that man as the focus point for our jumbled up continuity. Heroes who live practically on the same block never manage to run into each other. Two of them can operate in Manhattan but only one of them has any knowledge of Asgard’s presence. Nobody knows who is in charge of SHIELD anymore, but if you ask any two heroes right now one will say Col. Fury and the other will insist it’s Director Hill. Tell that one that Iron Man is Tony Stark and they’ll be shocked while the other one will say, ‘Duh. And he’s the Secretary of Defense too.’ Neither will know anything about Dr. Strange or the delivery of the Scarlet Witch’s twins. And like Aaron hinted at, let’s not even go near any of the Captain Marvels.”
“We have a Captain Marvel as well,” offered the Phantom Stranger. “Are any of yours the focus for a collection of godly powers under the stewardship of a wizard named Shazam?”
Aaron’s expressionless robotic face looked disappointed, as disappointed as an expressionless robotic face could. “No, though that would probably be infinitely preferable. Our best Captain Marvel died years ago, from cancer of all things. Very sad.”
The Stranger nodded solemnly. “Natural causes? My word, that is tragic. My condolences.”
Everyone bowed their heads, even Uatu. After a respectful pause, I spoke. “So this guy, the one who messes up our reality, he’s obviously a mutant, right? Why don’t they send a Sentinel or Wolverine or something and take him out?”
Axel gazed over my shoulder and out into the blackness of space. “They who? Like I said, we’re the only ones who know, and there’s no way to prove that he’s responsible. I don’t believe he is a mutant, but every time I try to get close to him he twists reality and shunts me away. It took me two years to get back here this time. I don’t know for sure that he’s not a mutant, or a cosmically enhanced entity, or something else entirely. Not even Uatu knows.”
“Axel Asher speaks true. My vision blurs when I cast my gaze at the one called Joe Quesada. Of all the creatures I observe, only Joe Quesada defies my nature to observe.”
“But we have an idea,” Axel continued. “We think someone might be able to influence Quesada under the right circumstances. Get him to settle on one continuity, one path of destiny, and embrace it. That’s part of the reason why we sent you to the Stranger’s universe. There are unique energies there that your body absorbed during your time there. Don’t worry, they’re harmless, you won’t turn into the Thing or the Hulk. These energies help guide the orderly flow of their continuity. I can’t bring people from the Stranger’s world here very long without upsetting our own delicate balance of energy. The Phantom Stranger can stay a little longer because he walks between worlds.” Axel looked at the Stranger for confirmation, received a nod of agreement, and continued. “So your visit there imbued you with properties of their continuity, which should help you to focus on Quesada and comprehend our continuity better than most. I’ve already spoken to a friend who works at the Daily Bugle, a good man named Ben Urich. He sometimes has lunch with Quesada. He’s going to talk to the managing editor, another good sort named Robbie Robertson. They’re going to set you up as a columnist. Give you a pop culture beat, you know, movies and comic books and professional wrestling and stuff. You’ll file columns, try to get to know Quesada through Urich, and get him to let go of his erratic grip on reality. You can write, I hope?”
“Uh, yeah, sure. I was a journalism major in college.”
“Good. Then you’re all set. And you won’t need Aaron’s undies for the job either.”
“I wasn’t planning on giving them back, so there!”
“You don’t mind taking a legitimate job like this, instead of a life of supervillainy?”
“Axel’s right, I’m probably not cut out to be a villain, and journalism is plenty evil enough.”
“Wait until you meet J. Jonah Jameson.”
The Phantom Stranger brushed my arm slightly, and motioned towards the box. Axel was already stepping in. Aaron slung his underwear over his shoulder and walked off in the opposite direction, muttering something about putting his face on so he doesn’t frighten all the fleshy ones. And then I realized that I barely fit in the box the first time I was inside it and now three men were standing in it with room to spare. “How the heck did this thing suddenly get so big?”
“It’s a tesseract,” replied Axel, as if that made remotely any sense to me. “We’ll drop off the Phantom Stranger first, it won’t hurt to get you a little more exposure to their continuity particles.”
Just as that weird sensation of falling started, and the edges of my vision began to blur, Uatu turned his gaze toward us. “Axel Asher, you forgot to warn him about Bendis.”
Aw no, I thought. There’s the proverbial catch. “What the Hell is a Bendis?”
Welcome to my nightmare.