Saturday, November 26, 2011

11/16/11 - Because I Done My Duty

People always ask me why I !@#$ hate The Legion so !@#$ much, and it's a fair question.

I could give the simplistic explanation, and talk about good and evil, right and wrong. But that's a lot of white and black in a world that's as gray as an elephant. So !@#$ that.

I could lie and say that I resent the fact that the other Company got hold of them and turned them into a shadow supers organization, back during the Cold War. Truth be told I can actually see the logic behind it, even if I was not happy about it at the time. So !@#$ that, too.

And I could claim that I really don't like The Big Man and his whole devil in a white suit routine. Maybe some macho bull!@#$ about about this country not having enough room for two gods in it, if he even is a god. But as much of an evil bastard as Biggs is, and how much he's earned what's coming to him, it really isn't about that, either.

It's about something a whole !@#$ of a lot worse.

I always tell people that I've saved the lives of three Presidents. Sometimes I add that I had to shoot one. Most people just hear that and laugh, like I'm joking, but know enough not to ask for details.

But it's true, son. 100% !@#$ true. I once shot a President of the United States of America with the intent to kill, and succeeded.

And it's all because of The Legion.

* * *

It was 1970-something, back when things were still seriously !@#$ weird in a glorious, super-heroic way. The sort of days where you might be battling giant robots in Chicago one week, flying to the edge of the Solar System to tangle with alien invaders the next, and handling various threats to consensus reality once every month or so.

Crazy costumes, outrageous crimes, preposterous dialogue: that was how we rolled, back then.

One day I get a call from one of the more reputable superhero teams that I allied with, back then. They called themselves the Freedom Force, and acted as something of a legacy group to the Liberty Patrol. They even had Mr. USA and Mrs. Liberty along for the ride as charter members.

But, unlike the Patrol, they very carefully stayed out of geopolitical situations, and remained above the black line that people like myself walked over, under, and through. This was done to maintain public confidence and not make any problems for the American government, as well as keep their own body count down. The last thing they wanted was another Korea, and as long as they didn't move towards creating one, the COMPANY pretty much left them alone.

So, as you might expect, most of my dealings with them were on those occasions when the line might be crossed, either because a villain was crossing the line, or a situation had spiraled so far out of control that some kind of serious sanction might be called for. At those times, it was generally understood that I'd be the one to handle the sanctions, so they could keep their hands clean. And at those times, it was understood that I was the one in charge.

Which I why, when I picked up the phone, and they told me the Temporal Marauder was out of prison and up to something, I told them when and where to meet me, and who to bring.

We weren't entirely sure what he was up to, yet. But this was not the sort of person that you wanted to leave to his own devices. If he was in operation, it was going to be one of those groin-kicks to consensus reality that we had to deal with, back then.

And let me tell you, son, reality does not handle being kicked in the !@#$ very well.

* * *

The Temporal Marauder. Aka Joseph B. Bertram. Age 34 at the time of this incident. Short criminal record, all things considered, but saying that his crimes were really shocking was a little like saying that Hunter S. Thompson had a bit of a substance abuse problem. 

Let's put it this way, son: he didn't pick the name Temporal Marauder. We gave it to him after the first time we took his timestream-altering !@#$ down.

I've talked about The King of Time, before, and what a total !@#$-up he was? The Temporal Marauder was his nephew. He was a chip off the old block, except where his uncle was a careless and clueless excuse of a supervillain, he was a borderline psychotic who messed with the timestream just for his own sick amusement.

(That and money, which is where the Legion came in.)

The good news was that, unlike his uncle, he didn't know how to make his own time machine. The bad news was that he had a knack for getting his hands on other people's machines within 48 hours of busting out of jail, and went off to go wreak merry havoc with history as soon as he could. 

So he was out of The Cage, again. Word had it that The Legion had hired him for a job, and actually engineered the riot that helped bust him out. But what they wanted him to do, and why, were questions we had yet to find the answers to.

That said, answer or no, it was up to us to go get TM before he !@#$ something up, again. So I told Freedom Force to assemble their heavy hitters to deal with the problem, and had Shift come along to follow his tracks back into time, wherever they led. I brought a couple others along, too, but mostly as watchers. 

And I !@#$ insisted on going back, just in case. 

You see, time travel isn't something you enter into lightly. There's a school of thought that you can go back and do whatever the !@#$ you want, because you were already there, and history happened the way it did. But that's bull!@#$%. When you go back, and interfere with anything, you create an alternate timeline, and change the timeline you actually came from. 

(In easier to understand terms, it's more like Quantum Leap than The Terminator. Go figure.)

So while we're in the past, someone has to be here in the present monitoring things to make sure we don't !@#$ anything up. Those someones have to be the sort of people who are temporally sensitive and able to detect changes, and how they happened. And they also have to be able to communicate with us, over the space of centuries, to tell us to fix something we just broke.

And as you can imagine, that's a really hard set of plates to keep in the air at any given time. That's one of the reasons why full physical time travel is so rare: anyone who could achieve it isn't too likely to want to build a machine, both out of fear of what could go wrong, and in anticipation of the logistics headache even the simplest of trips could cause.

* * *

So it's me, Mr. USA, Gold Standard, Swiftfoot, Mrs. Liberty, Dr. Yesterday, The Visionary, and Shift going back in time, and Dr. Power and New Man staying put to monitor the ebb and flow of history. Shift does his usual thing and makes a door for us, and we walk on through, trying to hold onto our breakfast as we follow the weird, shifting path of temporal lightning that the Temporal Marauder made as he went back down the ages.

We wind up in early September of 1901. The 5th, to be precise, and we soon discover we're in Buffalo, New York. The Visionary makes it so we look like we belong there, somehow, and once that's settled we go looking for clues as to what the !@#$ is up to.

Now, I don't like Mr. USA all that much, son. I'm sure you know that, even if, like me, you really don't know why he feels that way. But as soon as we figure out what date it is, he and I both look at each other, like we used to back in The War, and we just know.

We !@#$ know.

What do you mean you don't know? Jesus !@#$ Christ getting a blowjob from Richard !@#$ Nixon on rollerskates, what kind of school did you go to?

September 6th of 1901 was the day that President William McKinley was shot, kid. 4:07 in the !@#$ afternoon after shaking hands for about ten minutes. He was greeting people in public and a little worm named Leon Czolgosz shot him twice in the chest. He lived for eight more days, and when he died Teddy Roosevelt became the President.

Oh my gods, don't tell me you didn't know there were Presidents assassinated after Lincoln. Garfield isn't just a cartoon strip, son.

Why did he get shot? Because there were a lot of anarchists running around, and some of them had guns.

Anarchists? !@#$, you did go to the dumb school, kid. Well, let's explain. They weren't the kids you see with bad haircuts yelling "!@#$ the state" and slamdancing in the front rows of the concert hall to music that sounds like speed-jacked hamsters trying to play guitars and sing at the same time.

That's just punk rock, son. And punk rockers only think they know what anarchy was, or what it really meant. All they know is how to !@#$ off their parents.

The true anarchists were a bunch of people running around back then who thought that we'd all be better off with no government at all. Mostly anti-monarchists, which isn't such a bad thing. But they also despised any kind of authority, even if given by the people to representatives.

Now, don't get me wrong, son. I'm no big government liberal !@#$. If you know anything about me by now, you should know that at least. But once you get past a certain size you need some kind of central authority to make sure things work when there's an emergency, and certain societal needs are met and rights protected.

You need law and order, not mob rule.

But Anarchists thought we didn't need any of that. And they decided to prove it by blowing things up and killing people. Not every one of them did, of course, but after King Umberto of Italy was shot and killed, and then McKinley, well, it got kind of hard to deny there wasn't something violent going on.

(!@#$, Emma "horseface" Goldman and her anarcho-boy-toy wanted to shoot some factory manager for being anti-union. Hardly a ringing endorsement for peace, love, and understanding.)

* * *

Anyway. So we're there, it's 1901, and McKinley's supposed to die in less than 24 hours. We get a communication from the present, and it's not good.

Turns out McKinley doesn't get assassinated. Because he doesn't die, Teddy Roosevelt doesn't become President. Because he doesn't become President, FDR doesn't, either. Because FDR isn't President, we get some whispering, spineless joke of an isolationist who doesn't stand up to Hitler, but instead appeases him, right along with Chamberlain.

When Hitler invades England, America throws up its hands and says "oh, well, you take Europe, we'll keep the Americas." Japan doesn't attack, we stay out of the war. Europe gets divided between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, ever at war.

Someone invents the nuclear weapon. The obvious thing happens. Earth of 1970-something is now a radioactive snow-globe held by the Nazis, who were the only ones who had the scientific know-how to survive a nuclear war. The human population is down to half a billion, and no alien civilizations worth a !@#$ will come down to help us out for fear of what might happen.

Yeah, son, I hear what you're asking "All that from one death not happening? All that from the lack of one bullet?"

Yes, all that from one death, or the lack thereof. "The want of a nail" and all that !@#$.

Now, as we later learned, that !@#$-up future was not the ultimate goal. There were actually three or four different things that the Temporal Marauder had to do, one after the other, in order to create the reality that The Legion wanted.

But, well, you remember that little problem about him not actually inventing his own time machine? We find him around the back from the boarding house that generally accepted history says Leon was staying at, prior to the assassination. He's cursing and crying and kicking the weird plastic backpack-on-steroids thing that he'd come here in, telling it to work, !@#$ it, work.

He later told us he thought it must have broken at some point. He either didn't know it took a full day to recharge between trips, or was in such a hurry to get back here and !@#$ things up for his employers that he didn't listen to the instructions.

But that's the Temporal Marauder for you: fearless, eager, and borderline psychotic, but none too bright. 

We aren't in a mood to be nice at this point. We beat him down like a greenhorn featherweight on his first time to the leather bar's basement, tie him up, and take him along for the ride. All the while he's laughing "too late, you're too late," and I have a really sick !@#$ feeling I know what he means. Mr. USA and I keep looking at each other, and I can tell he's praying he's wrong. That we're wrong.

But we're not. We get into the room Leon was letting out and find him on the floor. Whatever anarchist ambitions he had are leaking out onto it along with his brains.

Leon Czolgosz is dead.

* * *

Saying that this is not a good thing is putting it !@#$ mildly. Not only has time just been totally !@#$ up, but our one natural chance to get it back on course has been taken away from us. And, as Shift explains, we can't go back any further and stop this from happening because we've already been here, and trying to monkey with the event any further runs the risk of making things even worse than they already are.

"How much worse?" Mrs. Liberty asks. She was always one for inviting exposition. Dr. Yesterday makes the mistake of telling her, and she vomits uncontrollably for the better part of a half hour.

So now the room smells like brains, blood, and barf, and we've got less than a day to figure out how to salvage this situation. We can't do anything with time. All we have to work with are the pieces we have.

Bring Czolgosz back to life through necromancy? Not possible. Doctor Power could do it, of course, but we'd have to go back to the future to do it, and once we got there chances are good we'd fall into place with the new timeline and not remember why we were back there with a dead guy from the turn of the century in our arms. 

Bring him back to life through temporal monkey!@#$? Also not possible. Sure, Shift can do it, but once someone's dead, you can't really de-death them with time travel. The timeline will start to fracture around the wound almost instantly, and then we're really !@#$. 

Kill McKinley some other way? It could work, but we'd be creating so many variables from that one event that we wouldn't be sure of the ultimate outcome. And once the man's shot, dying, and dead, there's no takebacks.

At some point, they all start looking to me for answers, which makes me horribly uncomfortable because I think by that moment we all have the answer. We just don't want to say it. We don't even want to !@#$ think it. 

One of us is going to have to be Leon Czolgosz. One of us is going to have to take the gun from where he hid it, go to the Exposition, get in line for a handshake, and shoot the 25th President of the United States in such a way that he takes eight days to die.

One of us is going to have to commit that terrible crime in order to get the future, our present, back to how it was the day we left it.

And, worst of all, one of us is going to have to continue to be Leon Czolgosz, through his short trial, short incarceration, and one-way trip to the electric chair.
"One of us," I say. But there's no question who it's going to be. There's only one person there who has the know-how, the skill, and the horrible sense of greater duty to the future to do that horrible thing. Only one of us who would be willing to take the blows, sit in prison, and go to trial. Only one who could ride the lightning and walk away.

Mr. USA goes and gets Leon's gun, and for a brief moment I think he's going to volunteer, which would be the decent thing to do, even if it's just symbolic. But instead he hands it over to me, sadly.

"We will never speak of this," he says, both to me and the others: "God forgive us all, this has to happen, but we did not do this. We have been forced into this for the greater good. God help us all."

Gold Standard picks that moment to be sick in his robot-face helmet. Shift says something weird. Temporal Marauder starts giggling again, but stops when he's kicked by Mrs. Liberty.

And, having nothing worth saying to say, take that gun in my hands, and prepare myself to kill a good man.

* * *

Good man, I say. Bad man? Criminal? Puppet? Average joe? 

A President's no saint or god. He's just a man who's managed to convince a majority of his fellow countrymen to vote him into one of the most powerful, yet powerless, political positions in America.

But still, there's something almost sacred about that position. Something special, or touched by the divine. It's as if being invested with that office has made you the godhead for millions of people that you'll never meet and know in one lifetime, but somehow know you (or think they do) well enough to trust you with their welfare, their money, and their lives.

You wake up on a bad day in the face of a bad situation, and they trust you to talk to them, and ease their fears. They trust you to send their children off to war, or keep them home. They trust you to be the voice of their conscience and their hopes, and to represent them to the world. 

They trust you to be them, in a sense. And maybe that's why we're always so !@#$ weird about them. Maybe we're our own worst critics. Maybe we're astonished at how wrong we can be about people, sometimes. 

Or maybe we're disappointed too easily in them because we're too easily disappointed in ourselves. 

That's a little of what I was thinking as I stood in that line, that day. The Visionary had made me look like Leon, and turned Shift invisible so he could walk beside me and tell me what to do, when. I'd wrapped my hand in a bandage to conceal the weapon, and gotten in line right where Shift had told me. 

All the while I'm only half-listening to what Shift's saying. I'm looking at the man down the line, shaking hands with people who'd come to see him. I'm wondering if he was smiling, or just looked somewhat constipated all the time. I'm wondering what he was thinking.

(I'm also wondering how anyone could imagine he could be safe, here. All the places someone could have stepped out of and shot at him. All the ways this room could be turned into a death trap. Were old time assassins just that unimaginative, or had we just been !@#$ lucky all this time? I'll never know, son. I just never will.)

And then it's me and him and 4:07 pm. 

He smiles at me, almost imperceptibly, and extends a hand to shake the one that's bandaged. I slap his hand out of the way with my free hand and pull the trigger, two times. Both shots are precisely fired to achieve the historical effects, and Shift tells me I'm doing fine, especially when I only weakly try and fight back when the security boys do the obvious thing.

At some point I hear the President speak. He tells the men working me over to go easy on me. I remember that, the day before, he told his secretary that he'd be safe at the reception: no one would wish to hurt him.

He was half right, there. I had no wish. I just had a duty. 

* * *
The rest is history, really. You can !@#$ look it up. The short version is that McKinley died, Teddy became President, and Leon Czolgosz was put to death in the electric chair. 

You remember I said that you can't de-dead someone with time travel without causing the whole timeline to crash in? Well, it turns out you have a ten second limit before it happens. So they de-deaded Leon the moment they threw the current on me, and then swapped him for me in the chair. So he was dead, then alive, and then dying from the current. 

It must have been one !@#$ of a mind!@#$.

And no, son, I'm not sorry for him. He wasn't a victim in all of this. History had already happened, and in that history Leon Czolgosz, high on Emma Goldman's anarchist !@#$-fumes, decided to kill the American President, and followed through on it. That the Temporal Marauder went back and !@#$ things up by shooting him in the noggin with a gun that wouldn't be invented for sixty years the day before he planned to kill him was just a serious deterrent to his goals.

"I killed President McKinley because I done my duty," he said, when questioned: "I didn't believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none."

I don't know if I could tell you how angry and sad it made me to have to say those words in his place. Because part of it was true. I had done my duty, that day. The same duty they call me in for all the !@#$ time. 

The same one I gladly performed on the Temporal Marauder the moment I was well clear of the electric chair, and we were getting ready to go home.

No one else knew what was coming, except for maybe Shift. Gold Standard was giving the psychotic little !@#$ the standard "Freedom requires justice, and when justice is denied Freedom Force will blah blah blah" speech, and I just walked past him and blew his !@#$ brains out with his own gun.

For some reason that really !@#$ off Mr. USA. But I looked in square in the eye and repeated his own words back to him: "'We will never speak of this,' I think you said? Do you think he'd keep his !@#$ mouth shut?"

No answer to that one. He knew I was right, he just didn't have to like it. And, with that, I took the Temporal Marauder's body, strapped it into his working time machine, and programmed in a course for twelve hours before, without recalibrating the spatial coordinates.

What did that do? Strand his dead !@#$ in deep space, twelve hours and 799920 miles behind the Earth.

(As Warren Ellis recently pointed out, time machines have to be space machines, too, otherwise you'll wind up in the !@#$est places. Good of him to finally realize this. Me, I've known since day one.)

So, having saved us the trouble of hauling the freak's dead !@#$ back to the future, explaining what happened, and having yet another too-good-for-its-own-good time machine lying around, ripe for abuse, Shift takes us back home to the present, which is, thankfully, no longer a glowing Nazi snowball, and I tell everyone it's over. 

But it never is, son. It never is.

* * *

I've killed a lot of people in my time. I lost count a long time ago. Most I forget as soon as they're gone, but some I never will. 

I'll never forget Hitler looking up at me as I brought hell down on him. But he deserved it, and more, so I laugh about it. The goat!@#$ who caused Computer Hell took a long time to die, so I remember him well. Laugh about that, too.

An evil god or two, since they take so !@#$ long. Various supervillains, science terrorists, and high ranking Soviet scumbags get a mental picture or two. Laugh riots, one and all.

But poor Thomas, the unwitting Legion mole? No laughter there. That one's gonna scar me.

Poor Rockethand, crying? I'll never forget that one, either. I still need to have words with Dr. Yesterday about that, come to think of it...

And President McKinley? How do you make your peace with something like that? How do you shrug something like that off?

It's not enough to say it was my duty. It's nowhere near enough to say if we hadn't done it, things would be so much worse. My mind may know these facts, but my heart keeps saying something different.

It keeps telling me there had to be a better way to do it, somehow. But !@#$ if I know what that was, son. !@#$ if I know.

What I do know is that I can make you ten plans to bring down the monsters of the world, and one of them just might stick to the wall hard enough to work. But in that moment, in that boarding house, with some of the smartest, most capable people around me, in a time when wonders were second nature, and we rewrote the book on "possible" seven times before breakfast, none of us could think of a way to fix the mess that didn't involve a historical tragedy being performed by one of us.

You know, when I took the gun in my hands, and committed to the action, Shift said something that's always worried me. He said "This is the present. This is the future. Beware the Ides of March."

I never got a straight answer out of him, and I wasted a chance to ask him again the last time I saw him, which is probably the last time I'll never see him. I think he was warning me not to take that gun too lightly, but sometimes I wonder if...

...


!@#$ it. I'm tired of thinking about it. I'm going to drink myself to the point of oblivion, eat Tjbang sticks by the truckload, and then concentrate on finding that perfect way to !@#$ The Big Man with the end of my largest gun.

Maybe then I'll be able to replace that moment when that good man smiled at me, just before I shot him, with the moment before I shoot the head of The Legion.

Maybe then I'll finally put it behind me. 

(SPYGOD is listening to The Same Deep Water as You (The Cure) and pounding Pomegranate Mojitos like tomorrow's already gone)

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