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Happier Times (IC)


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Date: February 28th, 2010

Sunrise 6:32am, sunset 5:49pm. Low 26, high 30; light snow 8:45-9:45am, overcast the rest of the day.

"Open bookmark 'Wikipedia'. Search: Incandescent Lightbulb. Select all. Activate text to speech; set volume 65 decibels."

Some people listen to music while they walk. Others listen to podcasts of the news or comedy programs. As a new arrival to Earth, Zakitaj Kelembran felt that enjoying the planet's culture took a back seat to understanding the technologies its inhabitants took for granted. He'd already been laughed at for walking face-first into several doors, which were not all automatic as they had been on Khalados, and then struggling with doorknobs; as it turned out, you were supposed to turn the little devices, though it was utterly unintuitive to do so. He had learned the hard way that simply pulling or pushing on them with all the force he could muster was an ineffective way to operate them, and resulted in further gales of laughter. A kindly middle-aged woman had seen him looking lost at the monorail station and guided him through the process of buying a ticket, even purchasing one out of her own pocket when she discovered he had no money, then helped him get off at the right stop; in return, he'd swallowed his pride and listened to her constant tales of beings in her home she called "cats", which he had at first taken to be slang for children, with embarrassing results. He was determined to avoid such situations in the future, if at all possible.

Ever since Physicus had first arrived, when he had been but a child, Zakitaj had been fascinated by the superhero's tales of his homeworld, Earth; now that he inhabited Earth, he was quickly learning that his mentor had neglected to explain just how complicated everything was there. Earthlings made use of technologies the Khaladi had long ago replaced with vastly-improved versions, or simply never developed due to the dramatically different environment back on Khalados. Two days after his arrival, it was still incredible to him that Earthlings built their cities toward the skies rather than into the ground below; he'd now been atop some of the taller buildings and, despite their sturdiness, felt nauseous at how open and unprotected they seemed. He was traveling around without his suit active in order to adjust to the vastly greater gravity of the planet; though he was at the peak of Human agility, it wouldn't do him much good if he allowed the invisible force that still made his limbs feel heavy to make him sluggish, and he didn't want to be defenseless without his battlesuit. And, to reduce the number of incidents displaying his laughable ignorance of Earth to the world, he had begun to use the internet to learn.

He'd found it to be a fantastic resource, filled with ideas, opinions, and explanations. Wasting no time, he'd immediately enlisted a friend to cannibalize and repair a discarded network card to install into his suit. He did find it irritating when he moved out of range of various networks, cutting him off from browsing, but had discovered that he could simply leave a page open even while his suit was inactive and have it read to him while he walked, allowing him to gradually absorb information that might prevent him from making any more of a fool of himself. The built-in browser could also download images while the suit was active, but it was just as well that he was training with only the aural and vocal sensors active; it had proven difficult to walk and read at the same time, and so many of the images that popped up on the internet seemed to be naked Earthlings in the act of copulation. To make a long story short, he listened to the history and engineering of the lightbulb as he walked up the tranquil Keller Street, trying not to think of the awkward, sensitive nature of what he was about to do.

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He'd walked from the monorail station in bustling Parkside up to the older neighborhood of Lantern Hill, which he found to be much quieter and more agreeable, though snowier. The change in architecture was intriguing, from tall constructs of steel and glass to unique two-story houses with gardens and narrower streets lined with leafless trees. He remembered Physicus mentioning growing up in the area in a "brick" house; he assumed "brick" was the name for the material, often reddish-pink in color, which appeared to be some form of stone. He would have to look up the architectural style as soon as he figured out what it was called, though that might take a while, as he was too embarrassed by his ignorance to ask. In any case, he was on the right street now; he just had to figure out which house it was. "Stop," he said. "Open document 'address'. Select all. Activate text to speech." "2125 Keller Street," the suit's flat voice intoned. He stopped in front of a modest-sized house with a well-ordered garden and a stained-glass window depicting a red flower in the front door. This was it. Perhaps he should have called ahead? No, that wouldn't have made it any better.

Taking a deep breath, Zakitaj made his way up to the front door and knocked three times in rapid succession. He waited patiently, shoving his nervousness to the back of his mind and trying to plan out what he was going to say. After perhaps half a minute, the door swung open to reveal a tall, distinguished-looking man in his late sixties, a cane held in the hand not operating the overly-complicated machine known as "doorknob". "Can I help you?" His voice was smooth and quiet but tired, like a gentle breeze that had blown a little further than it meant to. Zakitaj nodded, but didn't smile; it wasn't appropriate given the topic to be discussed. "Yes, I believe so. You're Mr. Erik Sondergaard, I presume? I need to talk to you about your brother." There was a pause as the old man look at him with a new, more critical eye. "How do you know Herbert?" The distrust was understandable; Physicus mentioned many attempts by his foes to uncover his secret identity so that they could threaten his family. "I met him a long way from here. He mentioned the time he broke your arm playing basketball." It had been one of the few stories Physicus had told of his family, probably because he'd still felt guilty about it even so many years later.

Evidently knowledge of it was proof enough. "Come in, Mr. ...?" "Kelembran. But please, call me Zakitaj, or Zak if you prefer." Many of the Earthlings he'd introduced himself to seemed to like to shorten his name, and he wanted to put Erik at ease as much as he could. The old man raised one eyebrow at the strangeness of the name, but nevertheless stood aside to allow his guest entry. Moving inside, Zakitaj looked around at the home's interior; a hardwood floor, several rugs that were clearly handmade, and a few well-cushioned couches and chairs surrounding a low table occupied the room nearest the door.

Taking off the Earthling shoes he'd been given the previous day to avoid tracking water and dirt from outside all over the house, he walked into the room and, at Erik's request, took a seat. A moment later, a short woman who was a little younger than Erik and would once have been quite beautiful came through one of the nearby doorways. "My wife, Rosemarie. Rosie, this is Mr. Zakitaj Kelembran." Giving her a brief smile and a genuinely-meant "charmed," Zakitaj received a nervous smile in return. "Mr. Kelembran... I'm sorry, Zakitaj, says he has some news about Herbert." A lump stuck in the young man's throat, and after a moment of awkward silence, he spoke up. "Yes, I do. I'm afraid he's... he... he passed away."

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"Oh, Erik..." Rosemarie's voice had a hint of melody to it that was almost entirely lost as she gasped and threw her hands to her mouth, then hurried over to give her husband a hug. Erik's face twitched as he tried to contain himself, his shocked eyes moistening as he hugged his wife back. After a moment he spoke, his voice even quieter than before. "Rosie, please go put a pot of tea on. Zakitaj and I need to talk alone for a little while." "Of... of course, dear." She hurried off through the door she had come from, and Erik sat down heavily in a chair across from Zakitaj. He was managing to hold any obvious outward expression of grief in check, but pain was still evident in his eyes. "I haven't seen Herbert since he left in '84. Please, tell me what happened to him." And Zakitaj began to tell the story of Physicus in his life, from beginning to end, while Erik listened attentively, taking in every detail.


Erik leaned back at last; he'd been on the edge of his chair, staring right into Zakitaj's eyes as the incredible story unfolded, understandably wondering if it was all some sick joke. "So. All of that, and not so much as a postcard. It figures." Zakitaj shook his head. "He had no way of contacting you, but that didn't mean he'd forgotten you. He just felt that he couldn't stay on Earth while the work he'd dedicated his life to was illegal and those he helped considered him a criminal." Erik smiled sadly. "Sounds just like Herbert. From the moment he found out how to use his power, everything else took a backseat to being Physicus. He was so... distant, and edgy, whenever he wasn't out in some slum stopping a drug deal. I told him it was no way to live, that he was throwing away everything he'd worked towards, but to him his whole life had been a journey to that way of living, even if he hadn't known it before. I couldn't understand why he wanted to leave when he finally had a chance, no, an excuse, to go back to the way he had been. As time passed, I figured out that he didn't want to be normal. He didn't want to make a normal difference, and wouldn't settle for giving anything less than everything."

Zakitaj nodded. "He was single-minded, but for all the right reasons." "All the right reasons, yeah, but that didn't prevent him from cutting himself off from everybody who cared about him." Sensing that they were at an impasse, and not wanting to put any more strain on Erik, the alien visitor changed the subject slightly. "How did Phi... pardon me, Herbert gain his powers? He never told me about it." "Bit of a long story," Erik replied.

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"Back in '67 I was fresh out of law school, and he and I started up a practice; he was in his early thirties, and both of us were determined to be the best, most honest prosecutors the USA had ever had. We were going to take just the cases we were sure about and keep criminals off the streets. But things were getting more complicated here in Freedom; pretty much everywhere, actually. Drugs were a huge problem, and no matter how many people we put away, there were more people who'd been model citizens the day before and human wrecks after. We started getting constant death threats; people threw things at us on the way out of the courtroom. We couldn't understand it; we were sure we were making things safer for everyone, but everyone seemed to hate us for it."

"Perhaps that's the way your brother felt after the Moore Act." Erik thought on that for a moment. "Maybe. In any case, it was getting hard to keep going. By Fall of that year, when we'd been going about six months, we heard from a concerned friend in the police department that a local gang which had lost several members when we got them convicted was gunning for us; being young and stupid, we thanked him for the tip and kept working on our case. On the way out of the courtroom the next day, there was a drive-by shooting; Herbert pushed me behind a concrete flowerbox and tried to follow, but he was hit three times in the chest in midair. If paramedics hadn't been on-hand to watch over a witness prone to heart failure, he probably would have died then and there. They got him to the hospital with catastrophic damage to both lungs; they got the bullets out, but gave him three days to live, tops.

Now, I wasn't going to stand for that, so I went and got a second opinion. The other doctor, I can't for the life of me remember her name, suspected that there might be bone shards in his lungs that, if removed, could allow him to live a little longer. To find out, they put him through one of those magnet-things... what do they... right, an MRI scan. Anyway, they didn't find any bone shards, but something did happen.""What?" The inquiry was proceeded by a long silence, and so it had been intended as a gentle prod. Erik took no offense, and took a deep breath before continuing the story. "Well, they put him back on life support, and we started planning his funeral; he had no brain activity or anything, but his heart was beating, so he wasn't clinically dead. I got a call at four in the morning two days later that said his heart was giving out, so I showed up; you know, hold his hand as he went, or something. More for me than for him, seeing as he had no idea of what was going on.

Anyway, I was there with him when, out of the blue, he just vanished. No *poof*, no puff of smoke, he was just gone; he even left his IV behind. I called the police, who are used to dealing with crazy stuff in this city, and they were worried that some crazy scientist or something had stolen his body for experimentation. But when I got home, he was sitting there working on our next case like nothing had happened. When I told him about it all, he said, 'but Erik, I've been right here the whole time! Are you sleeping okay?' It was bizarre; I thought I was losing my marbles, but everyone else agreed with my story."

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Rosemarie came back into the room with a steaming ceramic pot with some sort of nozzle sticking out of one end; putting it on the table, she went back into the kitchen for cups. "As it turns out, the lack of brain activity should have been a dead giveaway that something weird was up; the doctors assumed that it was because his brain was only getting enough oxygen for the most basic of functions, like keeping his other organs working, but we found out by digging through some records that he only lost brain activity after the MRI.

Apparently he'd been born with some extra mutant gland in his body that had been activated by the powerful magnet. Basically, it allowed him to disassemble his molecules, pull them toward an object of great mass, and then reassemble them, all at beyond the speed of light; at least, that was the theory we got from the metahuman specialist we visited. I kept telling him it didn't matter, and that he was no less valuable and no more of a burden even with his 'power'. I thought he'd be distraught; I was wrong. He loved the idea, and kept telling me that he finally had a chance to do the kind of field work we could never get done before. His lungs and ribcage somehow healed completely, and he started training himself to teleport at will. After a lot of convincing, he got me onboard with his new plan: he would capture the suppliers, the people who had caused the problem, and I would get them convicted. We were finally treating the problem, not the symptoms. That was the plan, anyway."

Returning once again, Rosemarie poured a greenish liquid through the pot's nozzle and into three cups. She slid one of them across the table to Zakitaj, and he took it up, thanked her, and raised it to his lips. It was warm, even hot, but somehow also soothing; half of the taste reminded him of the snow-muffled scent of the gardens outside, a scent he had come to love since his arrival on earth. The other half, he couldn't identify. "Thank you, Ms. Sondergaard; it tastes... I'm sorry, but I don't know the word." "Well, it's herbal tea, and it's a little bitter..." "That's it," he said with a smile, "it tastes 'bitter'. Thank you. It's very good." She smiled a little less nervously in return. "If you don't mind my asking, Erik, what went wrong? He talked about having you as his partner for a good ten years, then just stopped mentioning you. I understand completely if you'd rather not discuss it..." "No, no, don't worry about it. It's a time for remembrance.â€

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“We had a... falling out over a good friend, a retired police officer; the same guy that warned us about the hit. He was a witness in an otherwise shaky case against a nasty mid-level manager in a corrupt pharmaceutical company, and Herbert was sure his testimony would put this guy away. I didn't want him to testify, though, because the case was ugly; I didn't think we'd have enough evidence to convict him even with the testimony, and I was sure something bad was going to happen to him if we put him on the stand. Herbert had been Physicus for about eleven years by then, and he had the whole 'veteran hero' complex going. He said that he would be able to protect our friend even if things went bad, and after a while I believed him. We both turned out to be half wrong. Some thug ran up and shot our friend in the middle of testifying, and he died before Physicus could do anything; we did convict the guy, but the cost was way too high for me. I told Herbert I didn't want anything more to do with this 'hero' stuff.

At the time, I didn't realize that he was taking it even harder than I did, and by ditching him I'd made it much, much worse. It wasn't an acceptable trade for him, either, and he got increasingly depressive, though I was still too angry at him to see it. It wasn't until six years later, the day after he left Earth, that I found out the other key fact; teleporting caused stress on his body that artificially aged him. He'd been 42 at the time of his failure, but the best estimate I've gotten said that his muscle degeneration made him look like he was sixty and in poor shape, despite constant exercise. I always wanted to... to say I was sorry, and that I'd been wrong. It looks like I'll never get the chance." Erik had become very, very quiet again, and Rosemarie put a supportive arm around his shoulders. Zakitaj was quiet for a while, sipping his tea. The Physicus he knew hadn't been depressed, but as he'd gotten older he'd gotten the impression that there was a mournfulness his teacher was hiding to prevent it from spreading to his student. He'd never talked about the experiences Erik had revealed.

"We do have Herbert's... remains, which I will of course turn over to you. I would like to be present at the funeral, if that's acceptable to you." Erik nodded tiredly. "Of course. If not for you, we'd never have known what happened." "If not for him," Zakitaj countered, "I wouldn't be alive to tell you what happened, nor would any of my companions." He drank the last of his tea, carefully setting down the cup as he gathered his courage to say the hardest thing yet. "I'm sure we'll be in touch when that comes to pass, and I wouldn't want to intrude upon your hospitality any longer, but I do have one final question to ask." Erik detected his change in tone and looked up, meeting his eyes. "What would that be, Zakitaj?" The alien did his best to contain his fear. This had been the moment everything that had happened so far was leading up to; it might be not unlike the transformative moment for Physicus that Erik had described, and in more ways than one. "I was inspired and taught so much by Herbert; he told me about his work here, and I remembered it when my homeworld was destroyed. I possess a battlesuit that only I in all the universe can use, a battlesuit that gives me abilities far beyond those of normal humans.

With your permission, I would like to be the next Physicus."

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Erik was quiet for a while, and Zakitaj waited patiently. He had almost simultaneously delivered news of the man's brother's death and effectively asked to replace him, though he hoped it wouldn't be seen that way. Regardless, it was a large step for both of them to make; he'd already come to terms with the fact that, in the eyes of both the Khaladi and those who had known Physicus, he had big shoes to fill, but Erik would to have to accept that someone else would take up not only his brother's mission but his very name if he allowed what was being suggested. "Bad things happen to good people, Zakitaj. Herbert almost never even got gratitude, and he gave up any chance he had for a normal, relatively peaceful life. Once he became Physicus, he never looked back. I've had chances he never had; I'm a happily married man with two children and five grandchildren, a man who lives comfortably and works for an honest, relatively safe living. You have the chance right now to put that suit of yours away. You're still young; you could have what I have, and probably more."

"You're right about all of those things," Zakitaj replied, "I could live as others do. But my people expect more of me. I am the last of a noble lineage, even if I am not a legitimate child of that line, and the only person who can use my battlesuit. I am also the most knowledgeable of the Khaladi with regard to Earth's ways, and the one who led them here. I must be the one to prove to the people of Earth that the Khaladi are valuable members of society. Great things are expected of me, and while many did not know the name of Physicus, I know that the man who bore it did great things. Perhaps I can make it great again, as a tribute to the memory of my teacher." Erik nodded, but still seemed unsure. "I realize what this might mean to your people, but, for the sake of my brother's memory, I ask that the goals he set out to be accomplish be the first priority of any 'Physicus'. Promise me that, before you think of your people, you will remember the mission of Physicus: to seek out those who plan the problems. Remember that ten percent of Humans are good, ten percent evil, and eighty percent able to be swayed either way. Promise that, above all else, you'll fight the evil ten percent. Don't be content with those they've swayed, because their numbers are infinite and their capture irrelevant. Do you swear?"

Zakitaj thought about that for a moment. By making such a promise, he might be forced to sacrifice opportunities that would improve the public standing of his people. He was foregoing the chance to gain recognition by turning in a stream of small-time thugs, but that hardly seemed to be an honest way to do things in any case. Physicus had it right with his intention to deal with the source of the problem, and to promise to do what is right is a promise any hero should make. "I, Zakitaj Kelembran, do so swear." Erik nodded again in response, smiling a little this time. "Good. You have my blessing, though you may come to regret this choice. Since you have convinced me, I can't just leave you in the dark about the world you've now entered. My brother had a network of contacts, knowledgeable and well-connected people who wanted to help; I'll speak to them for you. And I think it's time for me to make up for my mistakes. I'm coming out of retirement." Rosemarie looked concerned. "Are you sure, Erik?" "I owe Herbert for the way I treated him before," her husband replied, "and I'm still a damn good lawyer, if I say so myself. Plus, this way I can keep an eye on Zakitaj. I'm no expert on this super-heroing stuff, but I can provide insight he might not otherwise get."

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"Make sure you're not jumping into something you might regret, either. I don't want to see you hurt, Mr. Sondergaard, and you know firsthand how dangerous the roads I'm going to be traveling are. Besides, you have a family already, which is more to risk than the possibility of one." Erik shook his head. "My mind is made up; as long as I agree with what you're doing, and you're willing to accept my help and advice, I'll be the legal side of the little team surrounding Physicus. It'll be interesting to work with someone who has a public identity this time." Zakitaj smiled more broadly and stood, extending his hand. Erik took it, and the two shook firmly. "Mr. Sondergaard, I look forward to a long and prosperous partnership. I swear I will do everything in my power to live up to your brother's memory. Now, I'm sure you'll have matters to take care of. I'll send you an email so you know where to reach me, and we can plan things from there. Thank you so much for your time, and for the information and other assistance you've so kindly provided. And for your wife's tea, of course. I'd be honored to be back just for that."

Erik smiled too, though his melancholy was understandably still present as he showed Zakitaj to the door. "There is one more thing," he said after a moment. "My brother used to spend a lot of time at the Lantern Hill Cemetery, up by Saint Stephen's. He told me once that I should look there if anything happened to him, but I didn't want to get involved for a long time, and I didn't really expect... well, in any case, you're the person with the best right to whatever it is. Perhaps you should go find it." Zakitaj nodded. "Thank you. I will." Erik closed the door with a final wave, and Zakitaj turned and walked back to the snowy sidewalk. "Open bookmark 'Google Maps'. Search 'Saint Stephen's Freedom City'. Select first link. Select textbox 'directions from'. Input '2125 Keller Street'. Select text box 'directions'. Activate text to speech." With computerized instructions guiding him on his way, he set off further up the hill that gave the district its name. He'd not yet seen an Earthling burial ground, and if Physicus had left something behind that he'd never even mentioned, he wanted to know what it was.

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Ten minutes later...

Crowned with snow, the tall, steepled figure of Saint Stephen's rose above the nearby houses, the richly-colored light of dusk just beginning to shine through its beautiful stained glass windows. Tall and proud despite its obvious age, it seemed to shelter the rows of weathered headstones beside it like a parent would a small child. Zakitaj was fascinated; his people had often regretted their history, as it had been full of harshness and barbarity, especially compared to the new heights they had since reached. But the Earthlings appreciated the past, and sought to preserve and document artifacts of their history. He quietly walked among the graves, reading "Anna Smith, Loving Wife and Mother, 1741-1783" or "Keith Summers, He Served his Country, 1893-1917". His people had practiced cremation for thousands of years, scattering the ashes of loved ones to the winds both to free their souls and to conserve space on a crowded planet. There was a certain appeal to a full-body burial, though; it was like these people were just sleeping, waiting for the time when they might be reborn. He wondered where Physicus would be buried; probably not here, as it looked like the graveyard hadn't been expanded in some time.

His thoughts turned to his reason for being in the area: finding whatever his mentor had left behind. The graveyard probably wasn't even close to the largest one the Earthlings had built, but it was large enough that searching every square inch of it would take a very long time. Erik had said that Physicus spent a lot of time here; where exactly would Physicus want to be if he was in this area? He had always loved the sunset, so Zakitaj decided that fact ruled out the eastern side of the church, where the view would have been blocked by the building. He'd been equally keen on the sunrise, though; that left the back of the church, where both would be visible. Physicus had also always liked the number seven, so Zakitaj counted seven headstones from the left (his mentor was left-handed) and seven back. The inscription on the grave he arrived at was much too faded to be legible, so he took it to be a very old one indeed. Bending down, he looked around it and eventually spied a bit of circular grey plastic. Excitement filling him, he dug at it with his hands, eventually creating a small mound of dirt and a grey and black canister. He popped the lid off to reveal a roll of film, which he quickly covered to prevent exposure; non-digital cameras had been one of his first searches on Wikipedia.

As he pondered what the images might contain, it was entirely lost on him that, hunched there with dirt on his hands in the fading light, he looked rather like a grave-robber or vandal...

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Under the long shadows of the yew tree at St. Sebastian's, a string of eerily hollow laughs had been ringing out. But while the source was otherworldly, the reason behind it was wholly benign.

Maria Hayridge, a native of Freedom, was a secretary with a dream: to make it big in Hollywood, specifically as a comedienne. She had just two problems, though. One was that she got nervous around people, especially large crowds of people. The other was her remarkably good looks: when she finally worked up the courage to audition at assorted nightclubs, it was clear her routines (which were fairly good) weren't the bits the club's managers were interested in seeing. Each audition caused her to get more flustered and frustrated ("flustrated", she'd say), so it would be weeks between auditions while she re-gathered herself.

One night, she got a break, and was able to get through an entire audition with a nightclub manager. He liked her work, and told her to come in the following week.

The morning of her debut act -- November 16th, 1905 -- she slipped in the shower, cracked her head, and died. Her spirit lingered, unable to move on until she could fulfill her long-sought goal: to perform her comedy act. Worse, she could not manifest as some translucent spirit; her shyness around people magnified in death so she was wholly invisible and inaudible to them.

In Dead Head, she at last found an audience.

You really have been a wonderful audience, but I'm almost at the end, so I'll part on this: never let a fool kiss you, or a kiss fool you. And don't mistake asthma for breathless passion!

Dead Head laughed again, then applauded enthusiastically for Maria. She bowed, and was about to say something, when she noticed her spectral form was aglow with a celestial light, and she suddenly felt a sense of freedom she'd never felt before. She looked to her audience, who merely smiled and nodded to her, and she knew this was it. She closed her eyes, and was gone from this world.

"Hoo boy, I ain't laughed like that in years," he said, "an' it's always nice when they move on like that, all peaceful an' serene. Now, who's next? I believe I have an appointment with- uh oh."

The undead's thoughts were interrupted when seeing the spirit of a young man in late 18th century garb running up to him. Mister Dead Head! Mister Dead Head! he cried, clearly disturbed by something.

"What is it, Thomas?" Seeing the lad like this was deeply troubling, especially since Dead Head had yet to figure out why he still lingered.

There's a man disturbing a grave! At the back of the church!

Lantern Hill's resident defender took up his weapon of choice, a well-worn shovel he had stuck in the ground during Maria's performance. "Is he alone?"

Yes, sir... well, no, not exactly, the lad corrected himself. Thoughts of the dead weigh heavily on him. He did not chose the grave at random, he searched for it.

"Good lad, Thomas, you did the right thing in coming to me. Now, go see to the other children, make sure they keep away."

Dead Head stalked towards the back of the church, towards the reported disturbance. He wondered who it could be; most graverobbers and necromancers waited until night was fully upon them to do their foul deeds, not the first hint of twilight. As he rounded a corner, he could see the figure's back, hunched over a grave it had been digging at.

"Can I help you, sir?," a thin voice rasped out from behind Zakitaj. Zak had heard similar voices before, from the elderly or the infirm, but this did not quite sound like either.

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Zakitaj had been about to get up and leave; the film wasn't going to develop itself, after all, and he badly wanted to know what secrets it held. Then the rasp sounded behind him, harsh and startling, and he swung around quickly. Having shed the jumpsuit he arrived on Earth in for a civilian t-shirt, fleece jacket, and jeans, he looked much like anyone else in Freedom City might, complete with an iPod headphone in his right ear. The being he faced, however, was the antithesis of normal in appearance; the smell of rot lingered about him, and it was easy to see why.

It was as though the man had been lying exposed to the elements and carrion-eating vermin for some time; his flesh was a putrid purplish color, twisted and puckered unpleasantly, and hellish green flames flickered in his strangely intact eyes. Zakitaj's chestnut-brown hair had been described as a mane, but it hung straight down to his shoulders, clean and lustrous. This being had a tangled white mess radiating out from its head, further adding to the corpse-like illusion. It had to be an illusion, of course. The dead didn't walk; it wasn't explicable by any principle of science. No, this had to be some sort of sick joke; Wikipedia told of a holiday, All Hallow's Eve, when the Earthlings dressed up to frighten one another for sport. Perhaps this was some sort of leftover.

Earthlings in general seemed to enjoy the feeling of being afraid, or more accurately the adrenaline rush that came with it, an ingrained survival instinct that most Freedonians never actually put to use due to leading relatively safe lives. Zakitaj, on the other hand, was quite incapable of feeling fear for himself. He had learned the hard way that life was cheap when he'd lost everything dear to him in one fell swoop. Death was a separation of atoms that would come for him when the laws of probability sided with his enemies one too many times, or else when his internal organs wore out; until then, he would live his life and do his best to complete his mission. He wasn't religious, like many of his people. He merely scientifically accepted the inevitability of his demise and took advantage of the time he had. For that reason, it wasn't difficult to stare into the face of death that now confronted him.

"That's alright, thank you," he responded evenly to the being's inquiry, meeting its strange eyes with his orbs of soft aqua. "I found what I was looking for on my own. Though I do have a question for you: my calendar seems to indicate that this is the last day of February. Isn't Halloween in October?"

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Not a-feared of me at all, Dead Head thought, he must be a necromancer. Or a really weird graverobber. Maybe he's new to this, looking to score some quick cash from someone who can't fight back?

When Zak rose, the figure before him had kept looking down, focused on the grave. "Pardon me, madame," he said as his head craned up to meet Zak's. "I'm sorry, I wasn't asking you if I could help. I was talking to the gentleman ya just robbed."

"But to you," the strange being continued, pointing at the roll of film in Zak's hand with the blade end of the well-worn shovel he held, held in an arm that appeared to bend somewhat... wrongly, "I say you've got about 5 seconds to explain why I shouldn't put you and the item you just took into the ground."

Zak noted that the strange being never once blinked his fiery green eyes.

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The accusation of theft was the last straw. Whoever or whatever this being was, it had crossed a line. "I am not a thief," he said in the same, even tone of voice he had used before. Pulling his suit's gloves forth from his coat pockets, he deftly pressed them onto his hands, which he then clenched and unclenched. Silver and deep purple raced across his body, forming a suit that seemed to be somewhere between solid and liquid. It covered his pants, but because of the way he'd located the chestplate, it arced under his jacket, leaving the fleece perched awkwardly on top. As though it didn't bother him in the slightest, he casually unzipped it and tossed it over the grave, even as he made a mental note about the problems of bulky clothing coupled with quick costume changes. "I've done nothing wrong, and I'm not looking for trouble. Kindly back off."

He didn't really expect results from his little speech; this guy was clearly insane if he thought he was talking to the dead.

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Crud, he's goin' for a weapon!, Dead Head thought.

"Oh, no ya don't!" the bizarre and clearly psychotic being shouted. While Zak's reflexes were quite good, and he was not caught totally unawares by the considerable speed the being showed in swinging its shovel around and over in an high arc, his armor was not fast enough to fully activate before said shovel came crashing down upon the top of his skull. "What, ya think that just because the dead just lie there and can't fight back, ya can take whatever ya want from 'em? Well this one's fightin' back!"

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Zakitaj was pretty quick, but not quite quick enough; just as his suit was about to engulf his head, the corpse-thing's shovel came down right on his crown, leaving a ringing in his ears and the knowledge that he was going to have a hell of a bruise there in the morning. Only a moment later the phaseweave formed itself into his helmet; he noted the obvious dangers of such surprise attacks. Now armored, he was probably invulnerable to that blasted shovel, but if something more lethal had struck him in that window of opportunity, he might not be around to ponder the problems of a six second charge-up time. Under the technological marvel he wore, he was all too human.

This was also evidenced by the simple fact that he was now quite pissed off. Still, he remembered where he was, and that he had a reputation to uphold. Getting into an extended brawl with this lunatic in a treasured historical site wasn't a good way to kick off his superheroic career. When his eyes would finally obey him and see straight, the world stopped spinning, and his ears were back to hearing the madman's voice trying to talk to the dead rather than the rushing of blood throughout his own skull, he spoke again, still keeping his voice even.

"If you're going to try that again, could we at least move to the street? It'd be a great shame if the headstones of your friends here were damaged. They don't make things that are two and a half centuries old anymore, I'm told. I'll happily repay you for trying to crush my skull once neither of us can be charged with vandalism and destruction of cultural artifacts."

And he did intend to repay the corpse-man, tenfold if he could. Given how hard he could hit with a shovel, his derangement clearly wasn't harmless. It was time to take him down and prevent him from dealing anyone else such a solid whack. He was gambling that the insane notion that the being was speaking to the dead would mean it would want to keep the headstones intact. Making sure to face his adversary, Zakitaj slowly backed toward the street. He was probably immune to shovel-strikes now; it was time for a little payback.

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How is he managing to keep his voice so even and- wait, what'd he just say?

"Well, well, could it be that I'm mistaken?," the clearly insane being replied. Though his facial expression barely altered -- the rictus grin remained unchanged -- the tone of his voice did show he was open to negotiations. "Sure, I'll go your way. In fact, fer bein' such a good sport," he said as he jerkily shambled after Zak, appearing to use the shovel as a walking aid to steady his balance, "I'll give ya two free hits on me! After that... well... we'll jus' wait an' see."

Mercifully, the nearest street was a small side path, one with no vehicles on it.

"'Course, if'n we get out here and you just turn tail and run with what you stole," he added, "I will come after ya."

Once they both got out to the street, the bizarre being stood in the middle of it, and faced Zak. He held the shovel loosely in his left hand, and had both arms spread wide. "Show me whatcha got, graverobber! Betcha can't even knock me down!"

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"You'll regret that offer, I think." Still vocally calm, Zakitaj was unable to suppress the anger in his mind. He'd been not only accused of being a criminal but deliberately attacked by this crazy creature which was clearly some sort of perverse illusion, and now that he was away from the graves, he had no reason to pull any punches. Yet he wondered if there was more than just a fearsome costume to his foe; if it had hit him with such force and skill, it probably wasn't just any old Human, though he still discounted the possibility that it was exactly what it appeared to be. The supreme confidence with which he was offered an opening told him that his foe was confident he could survive any hit his battlesuit could deal; while he might simply be overconfident, he might also be right. In order to get through that rubbery outer armor, he was going to have to pick a target carefully.

Taking a deep breath, he steadily raised his clenched right hand, opened it, and turned it sideways, as though extending it for a long-distance handshake. He let his air out, then took more in again and held it in; sighting down his own arm as though it were a rifle, he took all the time he needed to line up the kinetic projectors in his fingertips with one of his opponent's shoulders; if his foe was, in fact, wearing an armored costume, that area would be less armored to allow him mobility. If not, the off-center strike to an area of his foe that was bony might spin him around and leave a significant bruise, perhaps one to rival what Zakitaj himself had just endured. And yet, if that didn't work, what was he going to do? Perhaps he should be inventive foremost, not as a backup plan.

Rather than try and send the madman down on his backside with a smarting arm, Zakitaj decided to try something he'd never thought of before. He deftly fiddled with a few settings, checked his aim again, and fired, but not directly at his opponent. Instead, he had invisibly excited the air molecules around the supposed walking corpse, effectively causing a massive increase in air pressure that just might force his foe to his knees and would at the very least slow him down and make him an easier target, assuming he wasn't able to dodge out of the way. "Let's see how you deal with that, shall we?" Time would tell if his smugness was premature.

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"OOOF!" was the sound the air rushing out of the strange beings lungs made.

Crud, this guy's some kinda air-bender. An' his next move's likely t'be t'put me up, up, and away!

"Cute... trick..." the being gasped out; it would make sense that talking in an area of such magnified air pressure would be difficult for anyone using lungs and vocal chords. "But... I... got... one... bet... ter..."

Zak heard a series of disturbing popping sounds, and he now had further proof of this being's insanity: it was dislocating its joints in an attempt to contort its body and wriggle through the snare, an act which had to be incredibly painful! Either this being was a complete masochist, or was high on some manner of narcotic. Plus, it should be impossible for it to break free in such a manner -- while Zak was sure there were some gaps in the pressure-bubble he'd made, especially along the ground, this being would have to not only dislocate almost every single one of its major joints but also partially cave in its ribcage to-


To Zak's surprise and concern, that is exactly what the being did. In a surprisingly short time, it had popped out its limbs, compressed its chest and skull slightly, wriggled under the pressure bubble like a mouse squeezing through a hole, then stood back up and restored itself. Well, mostly; its left arm still hung loose out of the shoulder socket and dangled at one side.

And through it all, through every bit of it, his eyes never once shut, never blinked. They just stared at Zakitaj.

"That all ya got, ya windbag?"

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Zakitaj was totally speechless. Bile rose in his throat at the sight of his adversary's casual willingness to crush itself every which way in order to escape his trap, and he only barely managed to keep it down. That dead flesh wasn't a costume, or it wouldn't pop and crackle so... realistically. It couldn't be a simple druggie, or the body couldn't have reassembled itself; in fact, a druggie wouldn't have survived at all. Perhaps a metahuman with immunity to pain and an incredible regeneration factor? But the regeneration factor probably would have relocated his arm by now if it were so. Physicus had told stories of martial artists so skilled that they could contort their bodies practically into oblivion, but this... thing didn't seem to have the discipline for that.

Though glad he hadn't bothered with a simple kinetic bolt, which he was now sure wouldn't have done much, Zakitaj was all out of bright ideas. A being able to subject itself to such pain would not be afraid even of his booming voice and flashing eyes, and his weapons had proven quite useless. He lowered his hands to his sides, feeling the kinetic projectors in his fingertips cease in their silent vibrations, and decided to try a simpler tactic: reason. A few moments would tell if lunatics could be reasoned with. He caused his helmet to become transparent, revealing the ugly purplish bruise forming on his forehead, and looked straight at the bizarre being he'd been fighting. His anger still simmered, but now it was tempered by awe, confusion, and more than a little bit of disgust.

"Yes, that's about all I've got. What in all the cosmos are you, anyway? It seems we can't harm each other now; perhaps we should talk."

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"Hunh... a man who knows his own limits. That's a mighty rare sight."

Luring me in? Or is this legit? Eh, I thwacked him once, I can do it again if need be, so I'll give 'im a listen.

"Though, if'n you recall" the being said as it crouched down -- still keeping its unblinking eyes on Zak -- and reached under the pressure bubble with its flopping dislocated arm to retrieve its shovel, "I did start questionin' first. Who are ya, and what're ya doin' stealin' from that grave over yonder? Ya don't look the type that's strapped fer cash, or the type to traffick in black magic, so what are ya doin' disturbin' mah friends here? Answer me that, an' I'll tell ya what folks 'round these parts call me."

Its arm still hung loose. It did not seem to notice.

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"So be it," Zakitaj said with a heavy internal sigh. If he wanted this to end peacefully, and perhaps simply to end at all, he was going to have to play by this strange being's rules. "I am called..." He almost gave his real name, but that wasn't what he was going to go by while armored. Not anymore. He'd earned the right to take up another identity. "I am called Physicus, and, as I told you, I didn't steal anything." He opened a temporary gap in his armor at the shoulder, pushed it forward, and allowed the film canister to roll down his armored sleeve and into his hand before holding it up in the fading light. "An old friend of mine left this hidden in the graveyard. I believe it contains information he wanted me to have in the event of... of his death, which has now occurred. You can ask your friends; it doesn't belong to them, and never did. Industrial plastics weren't around when that grave was dug."

Hoping that logic and evidence were enough to get through to the mind of even a madman, Zakitaj decided that it was time for him to ask his own questions. "Now that I've given my explanation, how about you give me yours? Who are you, what are you, and how can you do what you just did? And what on Earth is 'black magic'?" The being's explanations would probably be shot through with insanity, but even in the words of the mad there was often some underlying truth.

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"An old friend of mine left this hidden in the graveyard. I believe it contains information he wanted me to have in the event of... of his death, which has now occurred. You can ask your friends; it doesn't belong to them, and never did. Industrial plastics weren't around when that grave was dug."

The creature's nearly-expressionless face just managed to convey a sense of annoyance at this. It turned towards the graves they had been at and called out, "Hey! Is this guy," it pointed to Physicus, "joshin' me? Or is he really just pickin' up somethin' a friend left?"

Nothing appeared to Zak's eyes, no whisperings picked up by his ears. All exactly as he'd expected.

"Thomas, yer the one who saw 'im -- did you see 'im dig all th' way down, or just partway?"

It appeared as if the strange being was watching someone move from around the church, and listening carefully to someone, but Zak still saw and heard nothing.

Dang, looks like I owe this guy an apology. And Thomas a lesson in not jumpin' th' gun.

The being whirled quickly back around to face Zak, and held its right arm outstretched; the left one was still dislocated and flopped about. "Sir, it does indeed appear an egregious mistake has been made, and for mah actions I do sincerely apologize. I-"

The being paused as it had glanced down and seen its flopping arm.

"Oh, my, that is embarassin'! Lemme jes... there!" it said as it popped its wayward arm back into place, "that's got it!"

"Now, where was I... oh, yes! Who am I? Well, folks 'round these parts got lots o' names fer me -- some of which I shall not repeat -- but you can call me Dead Head. As fer what I am... well, that's a bit trickier. I would normally list a few film references, but since ya've never heard of black magic, and on account of them fancy clothes ya got on, I'm guessin' yer not from around here, so any movie I mention would be lost on ya. Hrrmm...."

The being tapped on its chin with one finger, deep in thought.

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Zakitaj was rather surprised that his strategy had worked; the being was still talking to thin air, but he seemed to be somewhat reasonable after all. Looking back on his own actions, he felt a twinge of shame; he'd reacted with hostility because of an insult to his pride, but it wasn't unreasonable for the... whatever it was to have thought him to be a grave robber. Reacting in the way he had had earned him a bruise and an unnecessary fight, but in another situation it might have allowed criminals to go free and the innocent to be harmed. He'd only just taken up his new responsibilities and he'd already made a mistake. When the being was done relocating its arm with another unpleasant pop and pondering how to explain its existence, he forced out words that dealt a blow to the pride he'd been trying to protect.

"I... should also apologize, Mr. Dead Head. Given my position, and the manner in which I reacted to you, I can hardly blame you for being protective of your friends." It sounded like madness, but that might make his confession easier for a madman to understand. Besides, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing for a graveyard to have a guardian. He hadn't heard any prior complaints. "And no, I'm not from around here, and much remains in this culture that I am unfamiliar with. Please try to explain regardless. I've seen many amazing things since I came here, but all of them made at least some sense to me. I can't seem to find any principle of science that would allow you to appear and do as you do."

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Ohh, so he is a newcomer! I could really have some fun with him!

Did the frozen rictus grin on the creature just widen a bit?

"Yeah, I get that a lot," it said while slowly walking towards Zak. As it spoke, its voice took on a practiced cadence, as if it were reciting something from memory, "Okay, let's see if we can start from the beginning: I am demised. Passed on. No more. Expired, but not gone to meet my Maker. Stiff. Bereft of life, yet not resting in peace. If I weren't standin' here in th' street, I'd be pushin' up the daisies. My metabolic processes are hist'ry. I've kicked the bucket, shuffled off my mortal coil (then put it back on), and am the new rep for the Choir Invisible. I am an ex-human."

Dead Head knew the newcomer wouldn't recognizes his little speech as a Monty Python reference, but good lines are good lines.

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Zakitaj had no idea what Dead Head was babbling about, as he seemed to be using words he hadn't come up with himself, but he did get the general idea, which was also the obvious and impossible conclusion: that he was, in fact, both dead and alive. Every bit of reason the alien half-prince had ever been taught railed against that thought. People who were dead were dead. Their brains stopped functioning. Even if that somehow didn't happen, their hearts stopped pumping blood to their brains, which then suffocated, killing all of their brain cells and then making their brains stop functioning. Horror stories had been written on Khalados about nanomachines using the dead as puppets, and while this wasn't impossible, they wouldn't be able to do the things Dead Head did. Nor could any mutation allow life after death and decay, because mutations affected bodily processes, which no longer occurred after death.

Despite his absolute certainty that the supposed zombie-man was wrong and probably incapable of explaining himself due to insanity, Zakitaj held his ground and spoke again, trying not to let his confusion creep into his vocal patterns too much. "I... don't think that can be the beginning, because you haven't answered why you aren't quiet... err... resting... err... not moving, like your friends in the graveyard over there. Could you please try to explain to me how you came to be a walking corpse, rather than just an ordinary corpse?"

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