by Sean Manseau
Nicholas sat down next to him and untied the strings of the portfolio. “Me and Shep collaborate on this.” He looked to June. “Is that the right word?”
“It is,” she said, smiling. To Price she added, “For the record I don’t approve of comic books. But boys will be boys, I guess. Whether they’re ten, or”—she smiled slightly at Lyle—”thirty-five.”
The pink-haired girl led Lawless to the couch on the other side of the coffee table. June, trailing a reassuring hand across Shepherd’s back as she passed, went into the kitchen to make them some coffee. Shep remained standing with arms folded tight, as the Bristol sheets of their unbound comic book were handed around.
“I draw everything,” Nicholas explained. “But me and Shep come up with the stories together.”
Page after page detailing the adventures of Hyperion, master of the forces that power the sun, and his sidekick Teslaboy, a prodigy of technology whose creations got him into terrible jams almost as often as they saved the day. Among his myriad other talents, Nicholas was a remarkable draftsmen, and Hyperion and Teslaboy unmasked were faithful renditions of Shepherd and himself.
The pink-haired girl, looking grim, turned a page around for them all to see and tapped a panel with a lacquered nail: Hyperion igniting and taking to the sky. “It says, ‘I am the Sun.’”
“That’s his catch phrase,” Shepherd offered. “Helps with the characterization.” June, returning with the coffee, gave him a withering glare. Shep grimaced in acknowledgement. He needed to look like an adult here, not an overgrown kid. But looking over their shoulders at carefully inked panels, he couldn’t help thrill at what he and the boy had made. The stories were uneven, but the stuff that was good rivaled anything Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had ever dreamed up. Sometimes when he and Nicholas were on the cabin’s rear deck, drinking iced tea and excitedly coming up with new plot lines, Shep got just the faintest sense of how it would feel to be Hyperion, a man with powers so great they’d all but burned away his humanity. It was glorious.
Duncan Lawless let out a surprised grunt and slumped back on the couch, one hand clamped to his face, while the other let loose a sheet of paper that the gangling youth caught as it drifted to the floor. The pink-haired girl leaned in to see as his eyes scanned the page, and then he breathed, “Holy shit, it’s her!”
They’d found Arcane, Mistress of the Dark Arts, a pin-up girl with a nimbus of white curls and a skirt slit high on one thigh. She and her husband, the super-powered soldier-of-fortune One Man Army, were locked in fierce combat, Arcane struggling to land a killing blow, One Man Army desperately trying to destroy the alien implant that was controlling her actions.
Tentatively, June set the coffee service on the table before them and then drew back to clutch Shep’s arm, puzzled and frightened. He raised a single eyebrow in response—he didn’t know what was going on, either. He was getting the bad feeling that these people were not who they claimed to be. But with Nicholas in their midst, Shepherd's ability to act was greatly circumscribed. He needed to get the boy back upstairs.
Price had tented his fingertips and pressed them to his lips. “Thirty years ago. He had it all planned out. I wonder if there are sketches of the rest of us.”
Lawless’s shoulders were shaking. The man was crying, Shep realized. What the hell—? “This issue was pretty good,” Nicholas said dismissively, as he collected the pages and slid them carefully back into the portfolio. “But the next one is gonna be boss. You want to hear what it’s about?”
“Certainly,” Price said, glancing around at his crew. “I think we’d be very interested to know.”
“Well, the thing is, I was kind of stuck. Because I’d given the Avenging Furies—that’s this group of heroes that my main guy, Hyperion, leads—I’d given them this villain that was just too powerful.” Nicholas set a cup and saucer in front of Price, and then used both hands on the pot to carefully pour the coffee. “No matter what I tried, I couldn’t think of a way for them to beat him. A couple of them even got killed trying, which I felt bad about. But there are rules, you know? You can’t just make anything you want happen so there’ll be a happy ending. There had to be a way for them to win, though. Then I started thinking, well, if they can’t beat him now, what if they could time travel, go into the past and find out information that will help them beat him in the future? But the problem with that is—”
Lawless surged from his seat between the gangling kid and the pink-haired girl, clawing for the zipper at his collar. He shouted, “Cry havoc!” and in one motion ripped his black coveralls off. Underneath he was wearing a skintight body-suit, something one of those Olympic ski-jumpers might wear, and Christ, was the guy built, every muscle swollen and straining.
Almost faster than Shep could follow, he threw the coffee table aside to seize Nicholas from the loveseat and slam him to the floor among the television parts scattered at the foot of the fireplace. Nicholas screamed in pain and terror. And now Lawless had a gun in his hand, easily the largest handgun Shepherd had ever seen. The barrel alone as long as the man’s forearm, the muzzle wide as a screaming mouth, and pointed at the boy's blond head.
June screamed and lunged for them. Shepherd blocked her with his left arm as he drew his own weapon, a movement he had practiced thousands of times, had actually executed twice in the line of duty, but never, ever imagined having to perform in his own home. He bellowed, “Drop it! Drop it!”
“He knows, Cosmo,” Duncan said. He didn’t even glance Shepherd’s way. “I don’t know how, but he does. Christ, he’s fucking with us, can't you see that?"
Shepherd shot him.
And missed. Except he couldn’t have missed; he was standing eight feet away, aiming center mass on a chest as wide as an oil barrel, his shoulder, hand, and gun sight in perfect alignment with his will. But he had to have missed, because when he fired, Duncan lurched backwards and hit the fireplace hard enough to dislodge the de Kooning print June had hung above the mantle, but he did not fall. He looked down at his chest, impossibly unmarked, then up at Shepherd.
A girl’s voice cried “Mind over matter!” and an invisible hand, soft and yielding as warm dough, but massive and irresistible as a construction crane, pinned Shepherd’s arms to his body and he was off his feet, accelerating to smash against the rough boards of the ceiling twenty feet above, then against the silver-framed daguerreotypes on the wall, then back against the piano.
“Enough!” Price shouted.
Shepherd slid to the floor, still restrained by that invisible hand, concussed and trying to suck air back into his lungs. His nose had broken against one of the lodge’s rafters and blood was trickling down the back of his throat. He was vaguely aware that June was close by, screaming in rage. But his primary concern was Nicholas, who wasn’t making a sound, and Duncan, with his artillery.
“I say we do him right now!” he was bellowing. “This might be our only chance. I say we do him now, and fuck all that egghead bullshit. I’m not going anywhere. Temporal paradoxes can suck my cock.”
Duncan’s bodysuit was camouflage, Shepherd could see now, but an odd sort, little square blocks of olive, gold and black instead of the tiger stripe he had worn in Vietnam. Over his shoulders he wore a combat harness laden with ammo pouches and grenades, and huge black holsters were strapped to his legs, one empty, the other filled by another preposterously huge pistol. On his chest: a yellow Roman numeral I in a circle.
Shepherd blinked at him, trying to will the situation to come into focus, and suddenly it did, with the very last word in bad dream jolts. One Man Army. The guy was dressed up as One Man Army! One of the Avenging Furies, the superhero squad that battled all the villains populating Nicholas’s imagination: Some Disassembly Required, Caterwaul, Abbatoir, His Name Is Legion.
This couldn’t be happening; One Man Army was not real. But that gun pointed at Nicholas’s head undeniably was. A Maadi-Griffin .50 caliber, impossible for a normal man to hold steady with one hand, but One Man Army was no normal man, was he?