“Hit me again.”
The old timer held up his glass and twirled it in supplication. Tim smiled and took the glass from his liver-spotted hand.
“That’s ten of these bad boys for you,” he said. “Where you putting it?”
The geezer laughed, paused to cough for a moment, then laughed a little more.
“Nobody knows how to drink anymore,” he said. He shook his head as Tim set the glass back down, now full. “Ten drinks? Really? Feel like I been drinkin’ water all night.”
“If that’s what water tastes like to you,” said Tim. “You might wanna see a doctor.”
The old man laughed again. It was a familiar routine. Tim’s first week at this place had been hell, but the old timer had made it seem a little less so. He was here every night, same time, and no one was ever sitting on his stool when he got there. A regular; probably had forgotten more about the workings of this bar and the crowd it gathered than Tim would ever know.
“You drive here?” Tim asked the old fellow.
“Naw, sonny,” he said. “I walk. Don’t worry. I’m okay. Time was, no one really cared how much you drank. Just cared how you acted afterward. Spent most of the 80’s drunk. Nobody noticed. Well, not that anyone was noticing much about me at all by that point anyway.”
Tim offered another wan smile. He liked the guy. Every night for the past week he’d come in, cracked jokes and talked politics and sports with Tim, and even though there’d been some sharp contrasts in opinion, he’d never gotten angry or stopped his friendly chatter. Some bartenders might get tired of hearing old people prattle on, but to Tim, this was a vital part of the job. Younger drunk guys just turned into assholes. The old fella turned interesting.
“What were you doing in the 80’s?” Tim asked him. He was hoping to get the old guy going on a story. Seniors always had stories to tell, and they were always interesting, at least to Tim. They’d talk about what kinds of jobs they used to work, the conditions they worked under, wars they’d fought in, or their fathers had. The heroes had been different back then, too, and unfailingly you’d hear an old granny talk about how Atomic Man had saved her from being crushed by a falling building. Another might tell about the time they were held hostage by the Terrible Trio and how they’d witnessed the epic battle between the Trio and the Human Rocket, who had taken them out without breaking a sweat. Tim could listen to stories like that all night, but of course, that wasn’t his job. Now it was Sunday evening, and the large, screaming parties of young college kids were likely back in their dorms, trying to get whatever study time or sleep they could before tomorrow morning. The old fella and two middle-aged men playing pool were the only customers.
“Oh, freelance work, mostly,” said the older gentleman. “To be honest, I was mostly done doing anything by that point.”
“I see,” Tim tried to hide his disappointment. He took out a rag and started wiping down the rings and spills from earlier in the evening. The old guy kept drinking and staring at the television mounted over the bar. Tim had been ignoring it for the most part. The volume was turned all the way down, and besides, there wasn’t a game on at present and that was the only time it seemed anyone watched it. He glanced at the screen and saw the news was on now.
“You goddam phony,” muttered the old guy.
“Pardon me?” asked Tim. But looking up, he saw the old guy wasn’t looking at him. He was still staring at the TV.
“Oh, water under the bridge, my friend,” he said. “Long story. You don’t wanna hear it.”
“Actually,” said Tim. “I wouldn’t mind. Got nothing else really going on right now. Say, I’ve never asked what your name is.”
“Ed,” said the old fella. Of course it was. “What’s yours?”
“I’m Tim. Nice to meet you, Ed.”
“You got manners, young fella. It’s nice to meet you, too, Tim.”
“So, who’s the phony?” Tim asked.
“You called someone a phony,” said Tim. “Who did you mean?”
“Aw, you don’t wanna hear about that,” said Ed. “Boring story.”
“Got nothing but time,” said Tim. “I’m here until two.”
“Well, it’s like this, kid,” rasped Ed. He took another drink. “That guy, there. You see him?” He pointed at the screen. Tim turned, and saw a reporter interviewing Captain Glory. Glory had just finished a battle with the Black Angel, and he looked hardly the worse for wear.
“The Captain?” asked Tim. “Well, yeah, he’s on the news all the time.”
“And he’s a prissy-pants phony,” said Ed. The bitterness seemed personal.
“Why’s that?” asked Tim. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard someone express bitterness against one of the heroes. “He save you second?” That was a common complaint among men who’d been rescued from dangerous situations by super-heroes; the heroes were often forced to rescue only one person at a time, and often as not they’d go for the pretty ladies first.
“I never needed savin’,” growled Ed. “Look at me. I look like I need savin’ to you?”
Tim didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t worry about it, kid,” said Ed. “It ain’t personal. Well, not between you and me, anyway.”
“No worries,” said Tim. He’d gone back to cleaning the bar. “So, you know the Captain?”
“I knew him,” sighed Ed. “Or thought I did. Funny, how he can still stand there and smile. I wonder if he even would know me to see me.”
“How’d you come to know him?” asked Tim.
“Jeez-a-loo, sonny,” said Ed. “You just asked a mouthful. How well do you know heroes? I mean, everybody knows the modern players. Bluestreak. Wingspan. Christ, what silly names. They sound so…so…what’s the word? Pretentious, I suppose. We just stuck with what worked, and we were happy. Modern heroes are never happy, ever notice?”
“We?” Tim’s ears perked up. “You were a hero?”
“In my way, I suppose I was, once upon a time,” Ed said. “Nothing like the Captain, I guess, but then, nobody was. He was the best, or so people believed. He did, too.”
“Which one were you?”
In response, Ed drained his drink and pointed over Tim’s shoulder. “Could I have a set of those darts, please?”
Tim grimaced. “You sure about that?”
“Just trust me, son,” said Ed. He sat there resolutely, waiting.
“Okay,” said Tim, putting ten darts on the bar in front of Ed. “Just, maybe stand a little…”
He stopped talking as Ed, not rising from his seat, picked up one of the darts without looking and hurled it at the dart board, on the far side of the room to his right. Quick as lightning, he grabbed a second and repeated the action. In less than three heartbeats, all ten darts were gone. Other than his arm, Ed had remained motionless, and his eyes had never left the TV screen.
Tim’s heart was pounding. He quickly glanced at the pool players, but neither of them were in Ed’s line of fire. Then he looked at the dart board.
All ten of Ed’s darts were stuck there in a perfect circle, lining the 130 mark.
“Too many to try for the bull,” said Ed. “I would have broken the other nine.”
“Whoa,” said Tim. He looked at the old timer like he was seeing him for the first time. “Who are you?”
“I told you, I’m Ed,” said Ed. “Ed Pine. Once known as Liberty Boy, and more recently as Liberty Man.”
“No shit. You’re Liberty Man?” Not that it was hard to believe, after a display like that.
“The one and only,” said Ed. “Fought beside Captain Glory all through World War II. Became his official sidekick. Became the only surviving member of Justice, Inc. and formed the Young Guardians in the fifties. And the Freedom Ring, of course.”
Tim shook his head. Sitting across the bar from him, having a casual drink, was a living legend; the greatest marksman the world had ever seen. He’d charge into battle in a shining red suit, blue armored vest and stars on the barrels of his guns and down his twin bandoliers, and he never missed a shot. Tim hadn’t really followed his career very closely. His heroes had always been people like the Captain, or Atomic Man, or Atlas, or the Shadower. But he’d known about Liberty Man. And here was the genuine article, right in front of him.
“Wow, man,” said Tim. “I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but where have you been? You disappeared in the late 70’s, right? Up ‘til then you’d been a mainstay on the Freedom Ring, and the Guardians are still out there, right? I mean, Moon Girl, Warp, Rainstorm, D’Artagnan? They’re all still active, and well, so’s Captain Glory, the Shadower, lots of guys. And you, well. Um…you…”
“I got old?” finished Ed. “Yeah. And they didn’t. Funny thing about that. But I didn’t disappear, kid. Just faded away.”
“Well, then, if you don’t mind my asking,” began Tim. “What happened?”
“The world happened, sonny,” Ed sighed again. “Kids, people, they see us fight, and they love us. Well, some of us. We’re the ones that beat the bad guys. We put on masks, we wear capes, and the public eats it up. But it ain’t all about the cape, kid. I learned that in the 70’s. Sometimes it’s about bureaucracy. Power plays. And guys like me often get caught in the crossfire.”
“What are you saying, you got canned?” asked Tim. “They can do that?”
“Fire a hero? Sure they can. The military does it all the time. They just call it ‘discharging’. You could say I was discharged too. They even gave me a medal to pin on my ass so that I wouldn’t let the door hit it on the way out.”
“But, why?” asked Tim. “There’s never been a marksman like you. Why would they do something like that?”
“That’s the long story,” said Ed. “You sure you wanna hear it?”
Tim looked around. The two pool players were starting to put the cues away. “Sure,” he said. “Looks like you’re it for now anyway.”
“Well, then hit me again, son,” said Ed. “And pay attention.”
The fifties and sixties were the time to be a super-hero. Back then, the job was almost easy. High-profile criminals all seemed to collectively lose their grip on reality and kept coming up with more hair-brained schemes to either rule or destroy the world. The lower-ranked ones just robbed banks or sent killer robots after us. Defeating them may not have been child’s play, but it was fun, and the credit always went where credit was due. Moral ambiguity wasn’t heard of. We never had to worry about the super-villain’s “rights” or deal with misguided “protests” from people who called us “the real super-villains” or openly took sides with the bad guys. They were just the bad guys. Everybody knew it, and they knew who the heroes were. We got a hero’s welcome wherever we showed up.
We were quite the group, us heroes. I mean all of us. We were of all stripes; some were humans with abnormally good natural abilities. Some of us had suffered lab accidents. Others had been hit by an object from space, or used outer-space artifacts as weapons, or maybe they were from space themselves. A few were magical. Some of us weren’t even flesh and blood, like Ironheart, the living Armor.
Everybody knew who to call, depending on what was happening. Alien space fleet encroaching on our galaxy? Call the Cosmic Crusaders. Organized crime getting out of control? Call the Shadower. Super-villains on a rampage? Call the Young Guardians. Demon gets raised? Call Mister Magic. But if the threat was the greatest, no matter what, you called the Freedom Ring.
We represented America on the battle field. We were really something, let me tell you. Captain Glory was our leader, naturally. He was one of the first heroes to come on the scene, and absolutely the first to stand for good old American values. The people just loved him, in a way that practically none of the others ever could match. Only Atlas matched him in strength, but Atlas couldn’t fly, nor was he as fast.
Aside from Atlas, you had Hydrowoman, the Solar Centurion, the Black Wraith...and then there was me. I’d been around longer than most of the heroes that were big on the scene. I started off as a teenager during the war. I'd been firing guns since I was a toddler, and it came more naturally to me than walking, almost. I ended up in room with some top brass my fifth week at boot camp and was told that nobody could hit like me. They had an offer for me: would I be interested in joining a squad that they called their “special elite”? Well, hell yes, I would. I was young, stupid and wanted to see some action.
So they introduced me to this guy named Dr. Harlan Strode. Strode was apparently like me, except that his abilities had less to do with spectacular aiming skills and more to do with phenomenal cognitive abilities. Strode was kind of like Sherlock Holmes meets Albert Einstein meets Howard Hughes. Valuable resource. And an insufferable ass. But he grouped us together, us kids, none of us over eighteen. If we had special abilities of any kind, he tagged us for this team. He called us “Justice, Inc.”
But here’s the big problem. We stank. I was the only one with military discipline, and not much at that, and it wasn’t long before it was realized that powers in and of themselves don’t replace training and genuine skill. Strode thought he could supply that himself, but even super-geniuses can’t control a bunch of bratty kids, each of whom has been told they’re special. And one after another, they all died. All but me.
Now, back then, death was just death. I know these days heroes keep coming back, and it seems like you can never keep the really popular ones down for too long, but back then that was definitely not the case. So, here I am, I’m eighteen years old, and I’m attending funerals for friend after friend. Could you imagine the feeling, at that age?
But I wasn’t gonna let it stop me. I was still an Army private, and I would keep fighting as long as the war was on. Wasn’t long after that, old Frank Flagstaff took notice of me. I covered his back at Normandy, and after it had all died down, he approached me in a hospital tent just off the beach.
“Eddie Pine? Liberty Boy?” he asked, extending his hand. “Frank Flagstaff.”
“I know who you are,” I said, taking his hand and giving it a shake.
“That was some shooting back there,” he said. “I’d always heard you were good, but I never thought you could be that good.”
“Uh,” I started. “Thanks.”
“I heard you were with an outfit already,” he said.
“Justice, Inc.," I said, unable to keep the bitterness from my voice. "Yeah. They’re dead.”
“Sorry to hear that. But, listen, son, I have an offer for you and I really think you should listen.”
“Another outfit like Justice, Inc.? No thanks.”
“No, son, not like that.” He asked me to sit and held up a dossier. It was military record, my record with Justice, Inc.
“I don’t know if you knew or not,” he said as he thumbed through it all. “But I’m invulnerable.”
“Not everyone does. They still shoot at me. They can’t kill me, not with mundane bullets, but they try. The only problem is it slows me down. It hampers me. For a while I was happy to draw all that fire as it kept most of the other soldiers safe from Jerry’s shots, but really, I’d prefer they weren’t there at all. As in, if there were someone to mow them down so that I can get to where the really bad boys are. People like Admiral Anger, Lady Lightning and Master Disaster count on Fritz’s foot soldiers slowing me down. I’d like to take out the middle man. And that’s where you come in.”
“You need a guy to provide cover fire?” I asked.
“More or less,” he replied. “Just me, punching my way through those goose-steppers? Sure, I can do that. Me punching through a few of them while the best sniper I’ve ever seen takes out the rest? Now that I can really do. I’d love to see the look on Doctor Bedlam’s face when I punch through his stronghold door before he’s even implemented Phase One of his evil plan.”
I sat there in stunned silence. Frank was looking at photos of me in action.
“So,” he asked after a bit. “Whaddaya think, son?”
“You want me,” I began. “To be your sidekick?”
“If you want to call it that,” he said. “I don’t think I could ask for better.”
I would only find out later that what he meant was “everybody better is already a hero in their own right.” By telling me I was Grade A sidekick material, he was saying I was Grade D hero material. I only wish I’d known that then.
Instead I signed right up. Captain Glory and Liberty Boy, the Team-up of Tomorrow. That’s what the papers called us. I won’t lie; it was a blast. I could have done it the rest of my life. And the Captain? He was fair. He made sure that I was standing beside him in all photo op’s, even when the photographer would have preferred just him. He made sure I was there in the interviews. But there was a distance there, even then, that I refused to see. He would always come first in public acclaim, and he knew it.
That war ended, but there were always more people to fight. Frank saw no need to end our partnership just because the war was over. By that time I had started leading a new team of heroes called the Young Guardians. It was made up almost entirely of other sidekicks. We wanted to prove we could be a force to be reckoned with even without our primary heroes. We did alright for ourselves, but we were second stringers, and even I started to understand that.
We Guardians split our time between helping our respective heroes and fighting together as a group. And then came the day the Fear League nearly started World War III.
They kidnapped every world leader there was, and planted evidence blaming countries that hated each other on the crime. I’ve never seen global unrest on that scale; the world hasn’t. It was a brilliant plan. They kept the leaders in suspended animation in a vault beneath Doctor Bedlam’s Stronghold. Deathfly, Tachyon, Orca, Photon Man, Redcap and Spiral all flew around the world, creating more strife and whipping up the frenzy, as they claimed to be allied with whatever country hated the one they just attacked. And then they hit us at home. The United States had not seen enemy soldiers on her soil since 1812, but thanks to Doctor Bedlam’s machinations, we got hit by North Korea, China and the entire Middle East at once. Even the heroes were overwhelmed.
“Let Freedom Ring!” Captain Glory famously declared in a televised statement. And just like that, the Ring was formed. Every hero wanted to be a part of it, and most were. And I was there at the founding of it. At the time, I was still pretty young; only in my early twenties, and Captain Glory said that while the Young Guardians were welcome, the Ring itself should only be made of established heroes. I should have let that be my wake-up call, but I thanked him for letting us participate at all, you know, like it was up to him, and brought the Guardians in as back-up. That was apparently all we were good for, even then. We got to watch as the Captain, Hydrowoman, Atlas, Raptor, Mister Magic, the Centurion and the Wraith, even the Shadower banded together. Their combined might broke the League, and rescued the world leaders. But you know all that. What you might not know is what came after.
The Freedom Ring became official very shortly after that. They were given their own headquarters, based out of the Pentagon, and they contracted their services to the American government. I’m sure you’ve heard of PARAGON, right? Well, back then, when the Joint Chiefs appointed a special department to work with the heroes, that was PARAGON’s infancy.
By the early fifties, the Freedom Ring was like the inner circle of super-hero society. You were either with them, or you were a hanger-on. Frank probably understood that, and that was why he decided that he would open try-outs for the members of the Young Guardians, and would take the three best of us. That turned out to be myself, Moon Girl and Warp. That’s when I became Liberty Man. After all, I wasn’t a boy anymore.
That was a turning point for me, professionally and personally. I started seeing myself as an equal to the other heroes, and started getting a kind of respect from people like Hydrowoman or Atlas for the first time. My face started showing up in ads, on products. I got my own action figure. But more importantly, the right people started noticing me. Col. Rex Hammer, who would later be appointed PARAGON’s director, promoted me to captain. By the early sixties, I was part of the inner circle. I sat in on board meetings and my opinion was actually valued, and even set policy a few times.
Probably the highlight of my life, at least for a while, came when the Kry’lar war hit just outside our galaxy. The Cosmic Crusaders asked for aid, and Frank called an emergency council meeting. It was myself, the Shadower, Hydrowoman, Atlas, the Solar Centurion, Mister Magic and Moon Girl.
“Gentlemen,” began Frank. “Ladies. I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the war going on just outside our solar system. The Kry’lar have attacked our outer colonies and the Cosmic Crusaders have asked us to lend a hand. I agreed preemptively, as I was sure I would receive a unanimous yes vote on the matter.”
We all nodded or spoke up in agreement.
“So, the question is,” said Frank. “How do we handle this? If we take everybody to the outer rim, a void opens up back here that the Fear League or the Lords of Tyranny can use to their advantage. So I move we institute a system of squadrons. For the time being, there will be two. The Galactic Squadron, who will join in the war effort, and the home team. Do I have a second?”
“I’ll second,” said Hydrowoman.
“Any opposed?” None were.
“Motion carried,” said Frank. “Now, at present, we have twenty-nine members. The active eight of us and twenty-one reservists. That gives us plenty of manpower to populate both teams. I propose we cap our membership at eight members per team so as to create maximum power with minimal targets. Now, there are only five members with the ability to maneuver in space unaided. Myself, Mister Magic, Hydrowoman, Moon Girl and Solar Centurion…”
The meeting went on for a while, but ultimately it was decided that most of the real muscle on the team would be sent into space. The Shadower and I were first string for the home team. But then Frank and Col. Hammer asked me to stay in the conference room after the meeting was adjourned.
“Eddie,” said Frank. “We’ve never done anything like this before, but as far as I’m concerned, we’ve got the sixteen best of us exactly where they all need to be. Now, as chairman, I’m the one who’ll be leading the Galactic Squadron, but that leaves the home team without a field commander.”
“We’d like it to be you,” said Hammer.
I was floored. Yes, I was one of the two main active members staying on Earth, but the leader? I didn’t know what to say.
“But what about Bobby?” I asked.
“The Shadower is one of our best, true,” said the colonel. “But he’s not a leader. He doesn’t really like people, and he’s, well…he’s kinda creepy.”
“So, really,” added Frank. “It’s gotta be you. After all, you’ve got real military experience, you were the field leader for the Young Guardians, you know what you’re doing. As far as I’m concerned, you’re the only choice.”
Let me tell you, that was the best day of my life. And I mean that day only. It was all downhill from there.
In the months that followed, I led the home team and I think I did a pretty decent job. But there were problems from the outset. Bobby and I...sorry, the Shadower and I never really got along. He kept comparing my performance to Frank’s, which I thought was grossly unfair since I was doing about as good a job as Captain Glory had done, and I did it all without super-strength, invulnerability, or even the power of flight. Bobby had no real room to speak, either. It's not as if he had any powers himself.
There was some other in-fighting in the team, though. Sonic Man was notoriously hard to work with; it was one of the reasons he wasn’t on active duty until we called him for the home team. Raptor complained that there wasn’t enough air support anymore, as if just by flying he was picking up our slack, but on the whole, we got the job done. The world remained safe for civilians the entire eight months that Captain Glory and the others were gone.
But I began to realize something; something I should have realized during the war. Sure, we fought the good fight. Sure, we kept people safe. But the response to it was…different. When people heard about the Freedom Ring, they expected to turn on the TV and see those resplendent blue and red tights, that billowing blue cape with the shining white star on the back. They didn’t want to see some schmoe in blue armor with guns blazing. The interviews with reporters on the scene were still there, but the questions were different; all comparisons between my team and the team under Captain Glory. One openly asked me when the Captain was coming back, as though the team should be restored to its rightful leadership soon.
And here’s something you don’t hear very often; super-heroes simply can’t save everybody. It’s physically impossible. Unless you’re Simulacrum the Multi-Man, you can’t be in two places at once, no matter how powerful you are. So, during my time leading the home team, it seemed like every child who got kidnapped or shot, and we weren’t there, got national coverage, and got talked about on commentary shows for weeks afterward, while every act of heroism we performed was barely mentioned. And all because Captain Glory and the more familiar faces of the Freedom Ring were gone.
Frank and the others returned, battle-weary but victorious, eight months after they left. Atlas was dead, at least for the moment, and Hydrowoman had lost her powers. I remember Frank shook my hand and told me what a good job I’d been doing. I felt like a dog being given a treat.
And it was in those first few days after they came back that Daigon attacked the surface.
I don’t know if you were around for this, but if you were, you remember. A giant, almost unstoppable monster, rising from the sea, huger than anyone thought possible and wielding the power of the oceans. Frank hadn’t been home a week yet, and he had to muster every hero on the planet, and even a few of the villains, to deal with this new threat. It was the single largest, most costly battle I’d ever been a part of.
We lost so many fighters. Mostly they were uniformed soldiers, which the public somehow treated as less important than us, when really they were more important, and braver when you get down to it. But we lost some of our own as well. The Human Rocket. One-Eyed Jack. Moon Girl.
Now, of course, not all of them stayed dead. You get used to that in my world. But somehow, even knowing that death may not be the final end still doesn’t make attending all those funerals any easier. But for me, the hard part was just beginning.
Col. Hammer, Frank and myself made the rounds of interview shows. We talked to Cronkite, to Murrow. We did our best to explain to people what the daily reality for us is like and why the attack by Daigon and the sea was so devastating. The public wasn’t interested in that. They were ready to blame someone and for whatever reason, they decided it was my fault.
It didn’t matter to them that Captain Glory was already back when it happened.
You see, the Daigon attack was an excuse, not the real reason, for the public to turn on caped crime fighters in a hurry. We had become larger than life to them, like movie stars or star athletes. And that’s how they treated us. Just like the public turns on a new coach who can’t produce an immediate victory, or a new, young, hot movie star whose first lead role flops big, they had turned on me. I was no longer Liberty Boy, the stalwart sidekick of Captain Glory and an essential part of the Team-up of Tomorrow. I wasn’t Liberty Man, intrepid leader of the Freedom Ring home team. No one cared about my victories. No one cared if I saved twenty lives in three days. I had become the face of failure.
I know it sounds like I pity myself, like I think it’s unfair. I kind of do. It’s really not fair. And up until then, my life had been more than fair, so I’d come to expect the sort of treatment others are grateful to receive even briefly in their lives. I didn’t realize just how proud I was of being Liberty Man, and just how much I thought of myself as him, and not as Eddie Pine, until the day I realized I felt better not being in costume when I went out in public. I realized I had been all about pride and vanity for a while now. So what I could hit a moving target at a hundred paces while facing in the opposite direction? I was just a man. And in the months following the aftermath of the Daigon attack, that message was driven home to me.
Of course, I still thought I had my team mates.
Then came the day I woke up in my apartment and turned on the TV. I hadn’t worn my Liberty Man costume in over three weeks at that point. I was feeling like Eddie Pine, nameless schmuck with no glory, no fame.
And on the screen, being broadcast by CNN, was Frank Flagstaff in full Captain Glory regalia. At his side was Col. Rex Hammer in full uniform. Frank was the one talking; he was in the middle of his speech.
“…And it is for those reasons,” he was saying. “That I and Col. Hammer have decided that it is best that we disband the Freedom Ring effective immediately, and that we are turning over national and international defense issues to PARAGON, though I will continue to work with them on a part-time basis, as I am sure many of my colleagues will, as well. Rest assured, while the team will no longer exist, myself and others like me will continue to…”
I shut the set off and sat there in a daze. My team mates were all I had left. And now there was no more team.
As I sat there, I knew with certainty what the news commentators would say. I caused this. My “failures of leadership” would be held responsible. I decided then, that was the end of Liberty Man.
It wasn’t all bad. Thanks to my time in the military, I ended up joining the Freedom City police. My actual name, unlike Frank’s, had been kept out of the public, so no one realized who I was. But while it paid the bills, barely, it never felt like a real job. I was a marksman, a sniper. You don’t realize just how few times a police officer even pulls his gun, let alone fires it. But perhaps this was a better life. They weren’t blaming me for every criminal who escaped capture or justice anymore.
But part of me still longed for the life of the active duty super-hero. I figured this out the day I realized that PARAGON had decided that it was a good idea after all to keep a fully-staffed super-hero detachment on the retainer. After all, it wasn’t like super-villains were any less prevalent, and there were still a few groups out there, performing acts of heroism and getting good press again. This included the Guardians, for that matter. Moon Girl had come back to life and Warp and Rainstorm were still active. With a couple of new guys, it was business as usual for them.
So, naturally, when the call went out for super-heroes to come try out for the new Alpha Brigade, I answered it. Even if, strictly speaking, the call hadn’t been for me.
The Alpha Brigade looked a lot like the Freedom Ring, but with a name that fit more with the military structure of PARAGON. There were Beta and Delta Brigades, too, but they weren’t super-heroes. Frank was still the leader of the group, and Atlas, returned from the dead, was his right-hand man. Hydrowoman still didn’t have her powers, but other newcomers made up for the absence. All in all, a pretty awesome team, and I wanted in. So I did what any mature, adult man would do. I quit the force and showed up at PARAGON headquarters, back in costume, ill-fitting as it was, as Liberty Man.
I knew something was up when I was halted at the front gates by security and made to wait five hours before anyone came out to see me. When they finally did, it was some young punk in a freshly pressed uniform.
“Mr. Pine?” he asked. I almost couldn’t answer him. Here I was, in my world-famous costume, I even had my guns with me, and he had to ask for my name. And to add insult to injury, he addressed me by my civilian name, even when I had announced myself as Liberty Man.
“Yes,” I finally said, lamely.
“Come with me, please.”
I didn’t know what else to do, so I followed him. I thought about pointing one of my guns at him and demanding he go get Frank or Col. Hammer or someone I recognized as the same level as me, but I knew that it had been a long time since anyone would consider me even close to their level.
He led me into a conference room and told me to take a seat. Then he left. He was gone long enough for me to wonder if he meant “take a seat” as in “please pick up a chair and leave with it, because that’s more than you deserve.” I decided I’d rather count the name plates encircling the wall. Maybe see if I could find my name on one of them. I didn’t, but then, I actually hadn’t finished when a door at the opposite end from the one I’d came in from opened, and four people walked out. I recognized two of them immediately. The third looked familiar.
“Hey, Ed,” said Frank with an awkward smile. Col. Hammer—sorry, General Hammer shook my hand. Neither looked pleased to see me. It wasn’t until seeing him in person for the first time in years that I realized Frank had not aged a day since I’d first met him. The man had to be in his sixties, possibly seventies by then. But he could pass for thirty. I was suddenly aware of my thinning, graying hair. My god, I could have passed for his father.
“Frank,” I said in response. “General. I suppose you know why I’m here.”
“Actually,” said Frank. “We were hoping you’d enlighten us.”
I still had enough pride to feel it sting when my friend said that.
“Well,” I said. “I was never technically discharged, and I’m sure snipers like me are still pretty rare. I’d like to sign up for Alpha Brigade.”
A long silence fell over the room. Finally Hammer broke it by ushering forward the one person in the little group that I didn’t recognize; a stern-looking woman in a power suit.
“Ed,” he said. “This is Senator Elaine Parish. She’s the new head of the Senate subcommittee on superhuman affairs.”
“I'm overseeing PARAGON headquarters,” she said, not even bothering to shake my hand. “Much has changed in recent years, and to be honest, the change has come far too slowly for my taste. Mr. Pine, I don’t suppose in all your years of shooting people for the previous administration it ever occurred to you that a super-hero’s primary duty is to the public good?”
“Actually,” I said, angrily. “That was always foremost in my mind.”
“Really,” she said. “Then perhaps you’d care to explain to the family of Mr. Martin Keen why he is dead?”
“Martin Keen?” I asked. “The Chloroformer? Plant powers, right? He kidnapped the mayor’s daughter.”
“And you shot him,” said the senator. “You did not apprehend him, or detain him. You simply ended his life.”
“He,” I said, more slowly. “Had kidnapped…the mayor’s…daughter.”
“Mr. Keen was on a variety of drugs at the time,” said Senator Parish. “They affected his behavior, but it was possible to rehabilitate him. Or at least it was. Until you shot him.”
“I did what was necessary to save a little girl,” I said.
“Necessary?” snapped the Senator. “Perhaps the building you allowed to fall after chasing Nucleo through its support structure, killing over three hundred people was necessary as well?”
“He was gonna set off a bomb that was gonna destroy half of New England,” I practically shouted. “He was using his nuclear touch to incinerate beams as he went by them. I couldn’t stop that, but I could stop him from setting off that bomb, and I did!”
“Tell that to the over three hundred victims of your negligence,” she said.
“There’s not a single one of us managed to save every life that got in the line of fire,” I said, pounding my fist on the table. “Not even Captain Glory over there.” Frank’s face fell.
“That may be true,” said Parish. “But there are…other factors to consider there. General?”
Rex Hammer stepped forward and looked at me with regret in his eyes.
“Fact is,” he said. “The world is still in pretty bad shape, and it only got worse when we disbanded the Freedom Ring.”
“Other world powers began rising,” said Senator Parish. “They all have their own super-heroes, and villains. It’s often hard to tell the difference.”
“Right, and it became clear to us that a response was necessary,” continued Hammer. “The problem the government saw was in the measure of that response.”
“Measure of response,” I repeated. “I don’t follow.”
“The simple fact is,” he said with a twinge of reluctance in his voice. “That people feel safe when they know super-heroes are on the job. But they expect their heroes to be…well…super.”
Realization struck me then.
“You mean to tell me,” I said. “That I’m no longer welcome on any team the government sponsors…because I don’t have super powers.”
“You are an unpowered, mundane human,” said Senator Parish. “Who has caused as much or more wanton collateral damage to public and private property and threat to human life as any super-villain. Maybe a decade or two ago we called people like that super-heroes. But now the government calls them terrorists, Mr. Pine.”
“All those lives I saved,” I said. “All those super-villain plots I ended. You’re telling me that none of those matter anymore because I honed a natural skill rather than getting hit with radiation or having a magic talisman? What about the Shadower or One-Eyed Jack? They aren’t any more powered than me.”
“And neither the Bob Fleming, nor Jack Jaspers was offered a spot on Alpha Brigade,” said Parish.
“To be honest, you’re getting off lightly,” said a familiar voice. The last of those who'd come in with Frank stepped to Senator Parish’s side. As he spoke, my vision turned red. “As far as I’m concerned, you, Mr. Fleming, Mr. Jaspers and any other vigilante should be facing a grand jury right now. But less stringent methods are being employed. The government will allow you to remain free as long as you refrain from any further acts of vigilantism.”
I finally knew him. He'd worn a mask then but I'd never forget that voice.
“Terry Briscoe,” I spat. “Doctor Bedlam. Just what in the love of hell are you doing here?”
“Dr. Briscoe is my chief of staff,” said the senator.
“You have gotta be shittin’ me,” I snarled. “He’s a goddam super-villain! The worst one of all!”
“He served his time,” said the senator calmly. “And he was announced fully rehabilitated five years ago. He ached to become a productive member of society and his record in my service is impeccable. Let me ask you, Mr. Pine; how productive have you been as a member of private society?”
“Like yourself, sir,” said Doctor Bedlam. “I have no super human abilities to speak of. But I haven’t refused to move on, resting on my laurels and mentally reliving my glory days. I use my genius for the people now. You could, if you would simply let go of the past.”
“Go to hell,” I snarled. “I should have sent you there a long time ago.”
“Are you threatening him?” snapped the Senator.
“Has the world gone nuts since I stepped down?” I shouted. “What the hell happened? Super-villains serving on senate subcommittees? People with useful skills shunted out of the system because we don’t meet your arbitrary definition of ‘super’? Is this still America?”
“This is the new America,” said Senator Parish. “It’s up to you to decide if you still have a place in it.”
I took a slow look around the room at the four of them. The only two looking back at me were a frosty woman who I wouldn’t have known from Eve prior to now, and a man who had always been a bitter enemy.
My two closest friends refused to meet my eyes.
“Frank,” I said. “You can’t let this happen. We’ve always been friends, haven’t we? You trusted me. Put me in charge of the team. Told me what a good job I’d done. But we go back even further, don’t we? Remember coming into that tent? Remember telling me you needed my help? I couldn’t believe it; the great Captain Glory asking me to help him. And I did help you, didn’t I? I stayed by your side for decades. Tell me my loyalty earned me something, Frank. Tell me it wasn’t all for nothing.”
To his credit, Frank looked chagrined.
“I'm sorry, Ed,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. "It's not my call."
Inside me, I felt Liberty Man die.
“So that’s it,” I said. “Thirty-five years and it’s so long, Ed. Fuck you for your service. You won’t be needed anymore.”
“We’re not just sweeping you under the rug,” said Hammer. “We offered Bob Fleming and a few others to be kept on retainer as consultants. The same offer could be made to you. We’ve also commissioned medals for all retiring heroes.”
“I was against that,” broke in Bedlam.
“The invitation to that ceremony should arrive next month,” finished Hammer.
“Keep it,” I whispered. My voice was going. “Keep all of it. I’m done.”
I turned to the door I’d been led through. Behind me I heard Bedlam titter.
Just as I was about to walk through the door, I turned and looked back at Frank.
“I want you to remember this moment,” I said to him. “In five or six years when you look around you and see who you’re working alongside, I want you to remember me, in this moment, walking through this door. Because that’s the last sight of me you’ll get. One day, I might need rescuing, but I won’t be screaming for Captain Glory to save me. I’m already dead. Everything that meant anything to me in my life died today. And as far as I’m concerned you’re dead to me, too, you son of a bitch.” I opened the door. “Just remember this,” I said, once more. And I left.
“I liked those last words,” said Ed as he finished off another drink. “Too bad they weren’t really the last. I was still so hungry to be recognized for my achievements that I went to that stupid award ceremony, let Frank put that worthless thing in my hand, and smiled for the cameras with him.”
“And was that the last time you saw him?” asked Tim.
“Well, it was the last time we talked,” replied Ed. “But that was because he was then officially free of me. No more mill stone around his neck. Not anymore.”
“That really sucks, Ed,” said Tim. He wasn’t sure what else to say.
“It does, sonny, but you get used to it after a while.” He paused to take another pull from his glass. He was now on glass fifteen. “Like I said, it ain’t all about the cape. But that’s not just true of heroism. It’s true of life. It can’t be all about the recognition, kid. It can’t be about glory. Otherwise, you end up like me, unrecognized and sitting in an empty pub, drinking up what’s left of your pension.”
Tim sighed. It had been a good story. Shame about the ending.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” he said. “The Guardians are still out there. Fra…I mean Captain Glory is still out there. They still look young. What happened?”
“Well, as to that,” smiled Frank. “You forgot about Dr. Strode. He found this enzyme a long time ago and messed around with it in his lab. Discovered the cure for aging. Immortality in a pill. He was considering marketing it, but he understood how effectively it could be misused. So he and the government kept it a tight secret. And they used it on those who were useful to them. It’s the same reason popular heroes never stay dead for long. They keep finding ways to bring them back, and they found a way to keep them from getting old. Heroes that remained popular with the public, even if they weren’t in government employ, got daily doses of this pill. Many of them weren’t even aware of it; agents secreted it into their food. Frank’s been taking it since the war. It may very well have been in my diet for a while. But not anymore. When I was no longer of any use to them, the supply was removed, and here I am. I know I don’t look 89, but I certainly don’t look as young as Frank Flagstaff. Only real mark of my hero days left over.”
“That’s unbelievable,” said Tim.
“Oh, tell me about it,” replied the old fella.
“No, I mean, I can’t believe it,” said Tim. “Drugs that prevent aging? Using it on super-heroes instead of to cure the world’s ills? You can’t be serious.”
“That’s our government, boy,” said Ed with a sad smile. “Believe it. One of these days, Frank Flagstaff won’t be any use to them anymore. And then he’ll be in here with me.”
“That’s horrible,” said Tim. “Who’d want to live that life?”
“Who indeed, sonny? Who indeed?” Ed sighed loudly and looked down into his glass.
“Hit me again.”