By Benjamin R. Croshaw
Kevin Middenhoffenpock was confused.
This confusion was based on his still being alive and intact.
Perhaps he had been asking for trouble taking a short cut to the science fiction convention through the car park of the nuclear power plant. After all, he was just a little hard of hearing and he hadnít heard the warning sirens blaring away. But in his defence he had been very deep in thought at the time so he could hardly have noticed the crowds of people in safety helmets running full-pelt away from the place.
On reflection, though, it was probably safe to blame himself entirely.
People like Kevin Middenhoffenpock werenít the stuff of legends. If some other passer-by had noticed a nuclear power plant undergoing total core meltdown, they would probably have either dived in and saved the day, or (and this could be considered the more likely supposition) legged it. They wouldnít have just wandered in like a lost monkey whilst reading the leaflet on the science fiction convention, and stood there like a dead monkey when they noticed that everyone was retreating rapidly.
They would have noticed the cracks appear on the red-hot coolant tower and the little dribbles of glowing orange slime appearing and running down the side towards them.
He did notice when the entire tower had disentegrated, but only because a tidal wave of radioactive slime had descended on him.
Kevin didnít know what materials were used in modern nuclear power plants, in this year of our lord 2050. What he did know was that it had felt rather uncomfortable.
Not uncomfortable in the white-hot, acidic, flesh-stripped-from-bones sense of the word - it had almost felt like being tickled, at first. Then the tickling became an itch, and then the itching spread all over his body, and onto some internal bits as well. It was as if someone had inserted a chisel between every cell that made what the world called Kevin Middenhoffenpock, then hammered on each one until he was nothing more than a collection of atoms strung together.
His brain had turned inside out, his eyes had been gazing at strange and peculiar dimensions. His tongue had been tasting forbidden fruits from a million gardens of a million different Utopian worlds (although they do tend to get a bit samey towards the five hundred thousand mark). His nostrils were inhaling the sweet perfume of Transcendence, and his fingertips groped at a sphere of ocean blue. His ears had picked up the heavenly song of the cherubs, whispering to him about how great he was.
He had been aware of the critical mass, the enormous explosion and mushroom cloud, in the same way that a deep-sea diver is aware of an aeroplane going by, but it was nothing but the sigh of a mouse over the incredible, psychedelic sensations which teased at him.
Only after a passing satyr had given him a nudge and a word of advice had Kevin woken, lying face-down in the middle of the biggest crater he had ever seen, let alone woken up in. Where once there had been a high-technology nuclear facility and a fairly large quantity of surrounding countryside (and presumably the wildlife therein), there was now a large saucer of churned earth, around which bits of nuclear facility and surrounding countryside rained down.
He had yanked himself from the perfect indentation of his body and dusted himself down as best he could, then decided he should continue his journey. He toyed with the thought of complaining to a doctor, but decided against it when he considered they probably had much more serious cases to deal with. Besides, what would he say to them? "I was in the middle of a nuclear meltdown, but I donít appear to be hurt, so Iíll be off then". They wouldnít be too impressed.
On the other hand, he had thought, perhaps it would be a good idea to let someone know. If you see someone caught in a nuclear meltdown, youíd naturally (and justifiably so) think theyíd been completely incinerated. Kevin had looked around, looking for someone to wave at, and almost tripped over his cape.
Ah, yes, his cape. He wasnít sure what kind of nuclear meltdown could completely alter your outfit. Perhaps if your clothes were melded together on a molecular level then blown backwards off your body it would form some sort of cape. After all, thought Kevin, it would be silly to assume that absolutely nothing would happen to your clothes during that kind of large-scale disaster.
The melded-together theory, however, didnít account for the bright red colour of the cape, its apparently being made from thick velvet, nor the sequined lightning bolt logo half-way up. It also didnít account for the orange latex tunic with the lightning bolt on the front, the orange tights, the heavy red boots and gauntlets (with lightning bolts, naturally), or the helmet with the darkened visor and lightning bolt coming out of the top. It also didnít account for Kevinís underpants being on the outside, and having transmuted into a dark red posing pouch.
Which was why Kevin was confused as he clumped through the country lanes towards the science fiction convention. He was also more than slightly angry, as his wallet had been in the pocket of his (now vaporized) khakis. Kevin wasnít the kind of person to get angry, but when youíre caught in a nuclear meltdown, and when your clothes are all replaced with sequin-encrusted travesties to the art of tailoring, patience is a rare commodity.
He wasnít as dense as all that, however. It was very apparent to him that he was wearing the outfit of the average cartoon superhero. But Kevin didnít suit that kind of thing - the very idea of Kevin Middenhoffenpock dressed as a superhero is like Jeffrey Archer dressed as a go-go dancer - and he wasnít sure he wanted to be seen like that. He had already experimented with trying to take the garments off - the cape, boots, helmet and gloves were no problem, but it seemed the tunic and leggings were skin-tight and trying to remove them would be like trying to remove the cheese from the toast. The outfit clung to him like sticky-back-plastic round a toast rack.
There was also the matter of Kevinís hearing. As has been mentioned it had been rather less than average, but now it was annoyingly good. He could hear the twittering of birds from miles away. Hell, he could even hear the twittering of mushrooms. Every noise rubbed against his nerves like a cheese grater rubs against an over-ripe kiwi fruit.
Likewise all five of his senses. He could smell the leather/turd combinations of the boots of farmers two fields away. He could inhale deeply, and detect the ripe aroma of beeswax furniture polish at his mumís house. If he wanted to, his vision could zoom in on things a long distance away like the most complicated of sniper scopes.
Kevin toyed with the idea that the run-in with the nuclear power plant had imbued him with superhuman powers. He didnít want that to be true. He couldnít live with superhuman powers. You read a lot of fiction about superheroes saving the world, but the world seemed to get by perfectly well on its own in the real world. How could a superhero lead a normal life? Theyíd be setting fire to the curtains as soon as look at them. Quite literally.
Not for the first time Godfrey wondered why they continued going through this charade.
It was just something he and Stan had done every week for the last eternity, and like the British monarchy it was just accepted without question, having gone on for so long. As he had done for as long as he could remember he drifted into the little conference room and plonked himself down in his seat.
If you were asked to describe Godfrey, youíd have some difficulty understanding why someone wanted him described. He was seven hundred foot tall, and had been nicknamed Ďmidget-breathí at primary school as a result. He was dressed entirely in a long white robe which glowed like the diamond stars above, and golden sandals poked out underneath. The eyes above the lengthy white beard sparkled with inner power, and the bright silver mist which formed his aura shimmered like the ripples on the sea.
"Whereís Reaper?" he asked, addressing the only other occupant of the room.
"I hear heís on a course," said said occupant.
Said occupant slouched in his chair with a broad smile on his face, one leg flopped over an armrest. His aura was a little darker, red and dotted with sparks of agony. He wore nothing but leather from head to foot - boots, shoes, trousers, shirt, jacket, skin, wings... his face was wrapped in a big black bushy beard and a thick moustache which served as tea strainer.
"Howís Martin?" asked Godfrey, hands clasped in front of him, desperate to fill the uncomfortable silence.
"So-so. Lost his comb again."
Fortuitously, the door then chose to swing open and in walked a very gaunt and pale-looking man with a neat, short hairstyle, clad in a navy blue suit and holding a briefcase marked with a scythe logo. His aura was totally black, surrounding him like soot surrounds someone wearing a personal force field.
"Nice of you to show up, Mr. Reaper," said Stan, re-adjusting his posture to appear less presentable. "Shall we get down to business?"
Reaper coughed and laid his briefcase down on the desk. From this he withdrew a sheaf of papers covered in tiny typewritten notes, each headed with the same scythe logo and the initials C. O. L. D underneath. Pausing only to take out and don a pair of half-moon spectacles, he began to read.
"Catermole, Frank; marriage guidance counsellor, sin/virtue ratio: 5:3."
"Mine," said Stan, taking the paper and slipping it into an empty briefcase he had brought with him. Empty, that is, except for a waspís nest and the head of a perjurer.
"Crawford, Janine; model, sin/virtue ratio: 4:1."
"Mine," said Stan, accepting the paper.
As the papers were read out and the Prince of Darkness took each one, Godfrey wondered why he bothered coming. Perhaps, he thought, I should consider being a little more forgiving. A lot of people donít find time to be virtuous, and those commandments he had written were just a little repressive - perhaps he should scrap the one about honouring your mother and father. And maybe the one about coveting - he knew for a fact St. Peter got up to a bit of coveting when he thought no-one was looking.
"Excuse me, Reaper," he interrupted after growing bored of flicking his beard. "Do you happen to know if any of the souls this week qualify for Heaven?"
"Iím sure there were a couple," said Reaper, rubbing the chin which he never needed to shave.
"Could you just do those so I can go and get on with signing a few prayers?"
Reaper looked hurt. "Itís got to be done in order, Godfrey," he said. "You know how the whole typing and filing production line gets screwed up if theyíre not in order -"
Godfrey waved a hand to silence the man. "Never mind. Carry on."
As the list droned on around him and Stan smirked constantly, Godfrey wondered if it was too late to bring out a second edition of the Bible.
A word, now, on science fiction.
Science fiction has never gotten the popular backing it so sorely needs. It tends to make people think of spectacles, acne and trousers done up one foot above normal waistline level. Whatís more, it has become increasingly strained throughout the twenty-first century.
The thing about science fiction is that itís only credible when set in the next century - that way people know itís a comfortable way off. Since the third millennium started setting your books in the twenty-first century was pass¾ - no-one takes it seriously. OK, you might argue that writers could now stick with the twenty-second century, but that just isnít as snappy as twenty-first.
If your science fiction is set in the past or the very near future, then it doesnít impress the punters anymore. If you canít impress the punters, then you lose your revenue. If you lose your revenue, you lose your dignity. If you lose your dignity, you lose your talent. The equation is quite simple.
Therefore science fiction in the twenty-first century was a bit knackered to say the least. It didnít have the entertainment potential of previous generations and was all-round pretty tiresome. Conventions were generally only attended by stubborn old folks who could remember when times were better and lonely young bachelors who had a whole lot of time to kill.
Hence the presence of Kevin Middenhoffenpock, who had been slightly worried about the reception his mutated outfit would produce, but as it turned out had no reason to worry. When he got there half the people in the hall were clad in home-made superhero costumes, spacesuits and general naff garb, due to that weird hormone imbalance in the minds of science fiction enthusiasts, and Kevin had actually been commended on his suit more than once.
Kevin was into comics more than anything, and if thereís one thing youíre sure to get at science fiction conventions, itís comics. He had every copy of Fertilisation Man dating back to 2037, except for issue 95 - the swimsuit edition. It wasnít a collectorís item (except to Kevin, obviously), but it was the one he didnít have and full collections fetched quite a packet at auction.
As he perused the racks in the special corner of the hall set aside for the comic book nerds and spotted the key to his nest egg, Kevin suddenly remembered that his wallet had been incinerated in a fiery nuclear blast. Never mind, he thought, the helmet seemed to be inlaid with gold and silver, which may well fetch a bit in barter.
"Nice outfit," said the stallholder, a chappy of about forty in a flat cap and The Amazing Unemployed Man jumpsuit. "Whereíd you get it?"
Kevin fingered the skin-tight latex and flicked his cape out of the way again. "I just sort of mixed it up together from some old stuff," he said carefully, trying not to lie.
"Neat. Let me guess - Captain Neutral?"
Kevin was caught by surprise, in the same way Edmund Hillary might have felt if heíd got to the top of Mount Everest and found a bus stop. "What?"
"Captain Neutral? The logo gave me a clue."
Suddenly Kevin noticed that the logo on his cape and chest wasnít just a lightning bolt, but a lightning bolt set into the shape of an ĎNí. N for Neutral. "Are you saying ... that youíve seen this outfit before?"
He was treated to an odd look, then the stallholder dug around in a comic book graveyard behind his star-spangled curtains. A comic was placed for Kevinís viewing pleasure on the table in front of him, a comic bearing the title ĎCAPTAIN NEUTRAL ADVENTURESí. On the front was a picture of a superhero holding up a demon by the scruff of his neck, one fist poised to strike the terrified incubus. His foremost foot was resting on the head of an unconscious cherub. There was no mistaking that outfit - Kevin was wearing it, for a start. He was taken by surprise, the same way Edmund Hillary would have felt had he reached the top of Mount Everest and found a bus stop with a lengthy queue.
"Ah, Captain Neutral," mused the stallholder. "Remember that huge following he had, Ď23 - Ď27? Remember the film? Bit crap by todayís standards."
"I - remember the cartoon series," said Kevin truthfully, to his own surprise.
"Yeah, and it ran for six episodes before bombing out." The stallholder seemed to become a little angry with the unfair world in which he lived. "Not fair. Donít hear much of old CN these days, except for the odd Saturday-morning repeat."
"He fought for the forces of neutrality -" Kevin said to himself, joining in on the stallholderís wistful musing.
"Heíd go against both good and evil, depending on which was winning at the time. At least it was original." Recognising Kevin as a fellow follower, he leant forward. "Some people say that it was based on truth," he said. "Some crackpot came up with the theory that thereís a Captain Neutral born to every generation, and it only takes some great cataclysmic event to trigger this lucky chapís hidden powers."
Kevin swallowed hard. "H-hidden powers?"
"All rubbish, of course. Captain Neutral was just spawn of someoneís imagination. The same imagination, incidentally, that produced Bedwetter Boy and Mega-Accountant, and shot itself at the age of thirty-seven. A sad end."
"I never caught your name," said Kevin, deciding against confiding in someone he didnít know.
"Kevin Middenhoffenpock. Listen, Maurice -"
He didnít know what made him do it, spill all to someone he hardly knew. Maybe it was that little spark in his eyes that invited you to explain away your troubles. That underbearing stance that said Ďa problem shared is a problem halvedí. Kevin didnít know if two people from the same gender could identify charisma in each other. Not worth thinking about.
Anyway, Kevin did explain everything to Maurice McKenna. About the nuclear meltdown and his part in it, about the psychedelic trip heíd gone through, the feeling of power flowing into his limbs, the disappearance of his dirty gear and the appearance of (apparently) a Captain Neutral costume, the heightening of all five senses that turned his brain into a maelstrom of fireworks, everything. Throughout it all Maurice listened intently, then smiled broadly when Kevin had finished.
"Oh, nice one mate. Very nicely thought out. Very well done. Youíve chosen the wrong guy to play it on, thatís the truth."
"No, seriously!" protested Kevin. "I think Iím the current incarnation of Captain Neutral!"
Another comic book appeared, the Captain Neutral introductory issue. Number one. "Look, you canít fool me. Youíve practically described the introductory issue word-for-word."
Kevin smashed his gauntleted fist on the wooden table, but the presence of said table didnít seem to hinder its progress. In a shower of matchwood the table practically disentegrated, sending comic books and chunks of wood flying everywhere. One splinter spun across the room and shattered a window fifty yards away.
The room was silent now, save for bits of wood raining to the floor. Heads were turned in his direction. Kevin stood in shock, hands far apart, legs akimbo, gazing open-mouthed in horror at the mess he had caused.
"Sorry," he said in a small voice.
Maurice got up from the floor, comic book over his head as a shield, similarly staring open-mouthed at the floor. If only they had both been projectile vomiting, they could have passed for an ornamental fountain.
"Come with me," he said eventually.
"OK, hereís the deal," said Maurice, who by now had changed into normal clothes and was concentrating on driving his van. "We go to my apartment, we prove that youíre not Captain Neutral, we both feel better and you go home, maybe keep in touch as a casual acquaintance, deal?"
Kevin, who was in the passenger seat and still wearing his costume, helmet under armpit, said, "What if it turns out I am Captain Neutral?"
. Maurice concentrated on the road. "Youíre not Captain Neutral. Youíre not. You canít be."
"But I was caught up in a nuclear meltdown -"
"I donít believe you, Kev. Sorry."
They remained in silence until they arrived at Mauriceís flat, a one-bedroom sanctum in a high-rise tower block. He obviously didnít have much time to clean up, what with all the boxes of comic books forming the furniture. While Maurice got the tea, Kevin inspected the boxes.
"Hey!" he called into the kitchenette. "Dishwasher Man! The complete set! Why donít you flog this lot? Could be worth a bundle."
"I couldnít sell them. Theyíre my friends. They give my place atmosphere," came a voice.
The owner of the voice re-entered the living room with two mugs of tea and a deck of cards. While Kevin sipped his tea and read up on Dishwasher Man, Maurice shuffled through the cards until he found the one he was looking for, which he showed to his new companion.
"The ace of hearts," he said. "In Captain Neutral Adventures issue 2, Captain Neutral discovers his power of heat vision by lasering a hole through the ace of hearts during a game of poker. Now letís get this over with before we all get too excited."
Five minutes later, Maurice was having another cup of hot tea, with five sugars. "Probably perfectly natural phenomena. Every single molecule in the heart of the ace of hearts decides to flare up and combust. Happened before."
Kevin just stared at his handiwork with emotions rapidly approaching pride. Lasering a hole in the card had been easier than expected. All he had had to do was gather up some of the pure energy floating round his brain and project it out through his eyeballs. It had stung a little, and he could only maintain it for a second before having to stop, but that was enough to go right through the card and singe the carpet. "Stop kidding yourself, Maurice."
"OK, OK," said Maurice, clutching his temples. "Weíve seen super strength and super vision. You probably are some sort of superhuman, possibly from that nuclear meltdown incident you keep eluding to, but youíre still not the incarnation of Captain Neutral, Iím sure."
Kevin was almost quivering with excitement. He had never asked for superpowers, but it seemed he didnít have much of a choice, and he could learn to live with it. "Maurice, Iíve got the costume and Iíve been in a nuclear meltdown. Face it, I am Captain Neutral: the Next Generation."
Maurice seemed to get angry when he pointed this out. "Captain Neutral was a fictional character! Someone just wrote him down! You canít become him!"
"Whatever. Now what?"
As usual, Godfrey got back in a foul mood.
Which is a very lazy way of expressing that he had hiked from the Confederate Office of the Lately Deceased to his office in Heaven, because it was a bit of a distance. If you took the distance from Seattle to Alpha Centauri and multiplied it by the distance from Kensington to the core of Barnardís Star then you wouldnít even be close. For someone who had made a couple of infinities in his time, however, this was no problem at all, but it did serve to enhance his already foul mood.
"Howíd it go, sir?" asked his secretary, St. Agnes. She had asked every time Godfrey had returned for the last ten billion years, and had never seen the point in stopping.
Godfrey chucked a few papers at Agnes and stormed into his office.
She examined the first few pages. A missionary working in the Third World, and a man who had spent his entire life in a wooden box. She, too, thought it was time Godfrey became a little more forgiving, but had never broached the subject because of that rumour about the tea boy.
Meanwhile, Godfrey had been thinking. Heíd decided the Bible was due for a rewrite when heíd set off, and had had a number of good ideas on the way. This time round he was going to be a lot more benevolent. Now only people who actively pursued things like sodomy, devil worship and daytime television would go to Hell forever, and people who committed minor sins every now and again would get off with maybe one or two years, ten months for good behaviour. He had already thought of a Ďpointsí system - one week in Hell for every deadly sin committed, two for every commandment broken, minus a week for every class C virtue, minus two weeks for a class B, minus a month for a class A. People with negative values would be special VIPs in Heaven who could cut into the front of all the queues.
Heíd also decided to reduce the Seven Deadly Sins to five. Youíd be hard pressed not to feel Jealousy at some point in your life - if you saw a man going by with ten supermodels pampering to his every whim, not many men would feel inclined to say something like Ďgood for you, mateí.
Likewise Sloth. This sin encompassed basically lying around doing nothing at all, and Godfrey felt there were too many holes in the logic. He remembered with a shudder the incident a few years ago when that smug git Stan had used Sloth as a basis for claiming the soul of a missionary worker paralysed from the neck down.
Now all he needed to do was rewrite the Bible. Make it a little easier to understand so there wouldnít be all those colossal and violent arguments. He licked his obsidian pencil and began scribbling on the first page of a pile of paper.
"In the beginning," he said out loud as he wrote, "was the Word, and the word was God."
Nah, he thought. Too wordy. He screwed it up and threw it away.
"First there was nothing, then God turned up."
Not bad. Bit abrupt, there. He wanted to really pad his part - why write an autobiography if you canít exaggerate a bit?
"God sparked forth from the nothingness like fireworks in the night -"
No, no, no.
He was still working on his first page an hour later when Agnes came in. "Postbagís arrived," she said, waving a few envelopes.
"Iím busy, Agnes. Open them yourself and give me the gist."
She eagerly ripped open the first envelope - a brown one. "Thereís a memo here from the Registrar of Supernatural and Superhuman Entities -"
"Apparently Captain Neutralís been reborn."
The pencil snapped. "Thatís all I need," mumbled Godfrey as he searched for another. "Whose sideís he on?"
"No-oneís. Heís neutral."
"I meant which sideís got the bigger following."
"Powers of Darkness are winning 73-59."
"So heíll be on our side."
Agnes examined another envelope. "Thereís something here from Mr. Stan."
Another sigh. "Right."
"He says he wants more space in Hell for the Damned."
"Tell him heíll have lots of space once this new Bibleís finished. Iím going to pardon a few people."
"He says he needs the space now. And he thinks Heaven is far too big when thereíre only three hundred people in it."
Godfrey rested his forehead on the desk. Hell had been closed down for a while in the past when they were toying with the idea of sending everyone to the same place, the Ninth Underworld, but Stan had taken over the place anyway so Godfrey had acceded to his requests and re-opened the old centre of wailing and gnashing of teeth. The trouble with Hell is that, while Heaven is almost of infinite size, Hell only has residential facilities to accommodate about two hundred million people, and even then theyíd have to share maggot-filled beds. It had been built that way on the basis that not many people would go there, having read all about it and endeavouring to land a place Upstairs. Godfrey had been putting off commissioning an extension for centuries now.
Agnes continued. "He says he may need a few places from Earth, just until the housing crisis is over."
Godfrey stood up, eyes burning. "What?! Heís already got Los Angeles and Kidderminster! Tell him just to squash everyone up. Theyíre not supposed to enjoy themselves anyway."
"Well, Iíll tell him, but he wonít be happy."
"You do that. And tell that son of mine to keep an eye on this new Captain Neutral."
As Godfrey returned to his new edition of the Bible, he wondered if he should stop being ineffable as well. He could live with watching trillions of innocent souls go to Hell forever but he couldnít stand the way they just accepted it all, trooping in with their heads bowed low, averting their eyes. After all, the will of God was ineffable. He had said so himself.
How hard would it have been to include an address and daytime telephone number in the Bible? How bad would it have been to plough through a few dozen letters each week saying things like ĎDear sir, there is just too much feminism in the world these days, please do something about it, yours sincerely B. Smithí?
Being the Almighty, Godfrey thought, is a suckerís game.
"OK," said Maurice, clutching his temples. "You can fly, move at near light speed, shoot fire from your eyes and lightning from your fingertips -"
"Donít forget super strength," said Kevin, rubbing the bruise he had received after accidentally flying through Mount Etna. "I certainly wonít."
"Okay, youíre super strong, you can shrug off bullets, youíve got the costume but Iím still not convinced-" Maurice stopped, jaw wagging silently, hands waving. "Oh, bugger it, yes, youíre Captain Neutral."
"I did hear that the author of Captain Neutral was inspired by a friend of his. Didnít say who."
"There you go." Kevin flexed his biceps. They still resembled peas balanced on a dry stick, but somehow these contained the power to smash tables into bits and crush bricks to powder.
Maurice stepped around the wreckage of his apartment and picked up a comic. His eyes flicked from the cover to Kevin several times, then he suddenly dropped it, pointed skywards and spun round in a way that made Kevin jump. "Yes! You ARE Captain Neutral! You have returned to balance the powers of Good and Evil, and I -"
Kevin waited patiently while Maurice struggled with something behind a dressing screen, then after five minutes he jumped out wearing an outfit that made Kevin suppress a smirk. It was a blue jumpsuit with hood, stitched from a duvet cover by the look of the flower pattern, with a paisley green cape. He was also wearing a pair of pointy slippers and a Virgin Airways sleep mask with eyeholes cut out.
"Whatís that?" asked Kevin innocently.
"I threw it together ages ago. Now, where was I?"
"Er, Ďyou have returned to balance the forces of Good and Evil, and I...í"
"Oh yes." Maurice struck a pose, hands on hips, legs apart. "And I will be your trusty sidekick, Ambivalent Boy!"
Lightning refused to flash. There was a long silence. "Maurice, youíre older than me."
"That may be so," said Maurice, nee Ambivalent Boy, "But that was the name of the Captainís sidekick in the comic books, so thats who Iíll be."
Kevin suddenly slumped into a chair. "This is all moving too fast, Maur - Ambivalent Boy. I canít be a superhero, Iím an unemployment statistic."
"You were born to it, Kev. You are the Chosen One."
"That may be so, but I canít do it."
"You donít get a choice."
Kevin suddenly stood up. "I donít have to do it! I can just go back to being Kevin Middenhoffenpock, forget about all this, slob around."
"Ho yes? And how are you going to take off that costume?"
"Well, er -"
"When you take a communal shower? When you are forced to remove your top in public? What will you tell passers-by?"
"There must be some way to take it off!"
"There isnít. Itís not really clothing. Itís organic. Your body has grown it like a fungus and it canít be removed. Youíre stuck as Captain Neutral and youíre never going back."
Kevin sighed deeply. It looked extremely silly, a man in a superhero costume slouched in an armchair looking miserable, being comforted by a man in a home-made Ambivalent Boy outfit. "Then there is something I must do," he said heroically, picking up the phone and dialling a few numbers.
"Hello, mum?" he said when the ringing stopped. "Thereís something you should know -"
Suddenly Maurice leapt at Kevin, grabbing the phone and wrenching it away from the heroís ear, clamping a hand over the mouthpiece. "Are you mad?" he hissed. "What do you think youíre doing?!"
"If I canít tell my mum, Maurice, who can I tell?"
"If you want to continue living as Kevin Middenhoffenpock," said Maurice sternly, "Youíd be better off not letting on to anyone about your alter ego!"
"What do I tell her, then?"
"I donít know! Make something up!"
Kevin tentatively put the phone to his ear again. "Mum? Iíve lost my virginity. Bye," he said over a space of three seconds and threw down the phone. The shoddy plastic device shattered with his touch. "Now what?"
"Now we work on making you Kevin Middenhoffenpock again."
Maurice went out into a back room, and came out with a large leather satchel and some old clothes. "Take off your boots, your gloves, your cape and your helmet, and put these on," he said.
Kevin did so. "Why are all these buttons loose?"
"You have to be able to rip open your shirt when you need to transform."
That was good enough for Kevin as he squeezed on the trousers over his tights and put on the ill-fitting shoes. With the tweed jacket as well, he was human again. "Whatís the satchel for?" he asked.
Maurice stuffed the gauntlets, boots, helmet and cape into the bag and hung the strap over Kevinís shoulders. "You need to keep your costume with you at all times, especially your helmet. Understand?"
"And donít do any super deeds in public without your helmet. Youíre going to have to lead a double life. Make sure the lives donít cross over and everythingíll be all right."
"I need a mundane job, donít I?"
"Every superheroís secret identity has to have a mundane job. The journalist, or the mild mannered janitor. An unemployed superheroíd be a laughing stock."
"Youíll be the first. Thereís nothing to worry about."
A thought struck Kevin. "Whatís the only thing that can kill me?"
Maurice was all innocence. "Hmm?"
"Every superhero has something that kills them, only one thing. What is it?"
Assigned to his fate, Maurice reasoned he had no reason to hide this sort of thing from Kevin. He dug out a box of Captain Neutral comic books and began reading.
Kevin sipped at his tea, and contemplated being a superhero. He wasnít from another planet and his parents werenít in on it. He wasnít the result of a cocked-up science experiment and he didnít have a mundane job. Who on Earth was he fooling?
Stan, like Richard Branson, always liked to welcome new arrivals in person. Many was the time he could be seen leaning on his black cane, the one with the skull on top, grinning broadly at the shambling masses of ragged, stinking dead souls, trooping down the walkway towards the Registry Office (or lake of boiling blood, if youíd prefer), mumbling the tortured song of the Damned. Stan nodded to a double-tailed demon, treated the crowd to another smile and wave, and clumped off to his office.
His own secretary Manuel was waiting, flicking his tail nervously and loading the in-tray with envelope after envelope. "Another nice day, Manuel," said Stan.
"Yes sir. Nice day, sir."
"Stop being ingratiating. You know I hate people being ingratiating."
Manuel winced. "Sorry, O Putrid Spawn of the Pit."
"Thatís better. Anything in the mail?"
"A Mr. Catermole wants to know if thereís any chance of an upgrade -"
"Let me rephrase that. Anything important in the mail?"
Once again, Manuel winced, and leafed through the pile. Pleas from the Damned, Council notices complaining about the noise, bills from the local sulphur and brimstone supplier -
"Something here from Mr. Godfrey."
"Ah, good," said Stan, leaning back in his black leather swivel-chair. "Iíve been expecting a reply."
"Heís refusing the extension."
"Now thereís a radical development," he said flatly.
"He suggests that everyone squashes up a bit."
Stan was on his feet, smoke rising from nostrils and the desk under his palms. "Squashes up a bit?! Does that cretin not understand the crisis down here? Hundreds of new souls arrive every day, Manuel, hundreds of souls we canít afford! Weíve practically got them standing on top of each other! Do you know how much we spent on sulphur and brimstone this year alone?!"
"Five hun -"
"Five hundred billion metric tonnes of ethereal gold! And our annual budget is -"
"Seventy billion! Iíve had to flog Cerberus to a travelling freak show and open a water park on the River Styx, things are so bad."
"Mr. Godfrey goes on to say that heís planning to pardon a few hundred million of the Damned."
"Heís rewriting the Bible, apparently, make the system slightly more forgiving."
Stan wasnít sure how to feel. OK, he couldnít afford so many souls, but then again having more souls than the forces of Good gave him a constant upper hand. If a billion souls filed into Godfreyís domain then the endless struggle would become slightly less one-sided.
On the other hand, you do need revenue to fight. Heaven was always stinking arse-face rich, mainly because the bodily fluids of the Almighty were worth more than the entire gross national product of three medium-sized advanced nations, so they had strength in technology rather than numbers should the great war between Good and Evil, Armageddon itself, begin.
Stan opted to reply to Manuel with a simple grunt. "Anything else?"
"Judging by the speed with which you replied, Manuel, there is something else and Iím not going to like it."
Manuel swallowed hard. "Thereís a memo from the Registrar of Supernatural and Superhuman Entities."
"Yeess..." said Stan cautiously, returning to his seat.
Manuel decided to get it out quickly and face the consequences. "Captain Neutralís been reborn, sir."
As anyone who has anything to do with incredibly evil beings will tell you, the bad bit isnít when said being is shouting red-facedly, but when heís completely silent, staring at you over steepled fingers. This works in the same way that the worst bit in a horror film is the moment of silence before the monster jumps out.
"I see," said Stan levelly. "And?"
"And what, sir?"
"And are we winning or losing at the moment?"
"So Captain Neutral will be against us."
"For the moment, sir."
Stan swivelled on his chair and stared out of the window (double-glazed, naturally) at the Eight Circles of Hell. The red-hot ground was now completely unseen under the writhing, endless sea of damned souls, wailing and moaning with anguish and fear as giant insects crawled all over them and left corrosive secretions. A few insects were missing, having been set upon by the rampaging mob and eaten. This is the evidence of the Hell overcrowding problem, and it had been the same image for the last few centuries. An extension was definitely necessary. Maybe he could eat into the natural caverns next door, no-one seemed to own them, but he needed planning permission and theyíd be filled up in literally seconds anyway.
Without looking away, Stan said, "Remind me again what kills Captain Neutral?"
"Artichokes!" said Ambivalent Boy triumphantly, pointing at the brightly-coloured squares of action he was reading. "You can only get killed by artichokes!"
Kevin Middenhoffenpock, alias Captain Neutral, gave his sidekick a Look. "Artichokes, eh?"
"Ah yes," said Stan. "Artichokes. Well, donít just stand there. Load down a few of our chaps with artichokes and send Captain Neutral to yet another early grave."
"Is that strictly wise, sir?"
Stan raised a bushy eyebrow at this apparent rebellion. "Why shouldnít it be?"
"Well, Captain Neutral can be a valuable ally when weíre losing -"
"Heís too unpredictable. Heíd change sides at little or no notice. His goal is to keep us neck and neck, while MY goal is to be constantly winning. Have him killed. Heís much more useful dead than alive."
Bowing and scraping, Manuel scampered out and Stan leaned back, hands behind head. His life these days was nothing more than a collection of disappointments and unpleasantnesses strung together. First the housing crisis, then the financial crisis, now Captain Neutral.
Being the Ultimate Evil, thought Stan, is a suckerís game.
To Kevin it was like having his soul removed. A wind that no-one else felt whipped at him, sucking at him like a vortex. He could feel his infinite power drifting away like smoke from a barrel, being inexorably drawn by some invisible vacuum cleaner. He could hardly see, he was practically deaf, his jaw hung open as he lost the strength to hold it closed. His limbs numbed and his stomach turned, he was locked and paralysed in position.
"Alright," he slurred, "Iím convinced."
Maurice breathed out and slammed shut the lead box. Instantly the feeling returned to Kevinís body, then a few seconds later his superhero energy returned like Tequila Sunrise to a tall glass. "So," he said, "The only thing that can kill me is an artichoke, because it draws away my power. Are there any other vegetables you feel you need to tell me about?"
Maurice screwed up his face. "I think in issue 66 Captain Neutral fell ill after eating a swede," he said.
"OK. Steer clear of root vegetables. Good advice. Now what?"
"Now we go and find your secret hideout."
Maurice made for the front door, but Captain Neutralís iron arm got in the way. "What secret hideout?"
"Captain Neutralís Neutrovault. A subterranean complex where he could monitor the world and establish what he needed to do. In the comic it was under a military base."
"Middlesex, I think."
"Are you sure this is the site?"
Kevin, dressed in his Kevin Middenhoffenpock gear and carrying his satchel, looked around. At first glance they seemed to be in a perfectly ordinary suburban street in Middlesex, standing in front of a small boarding house called the Honey Bear, boasting Bed and Breakfast and Vacancies.
"Itís just this doesnít look much like a military base to me."
"Maybe they just have very small missiles."
"Weíre not going to get some answers just standing here," said Kevin sternly, marching up to the door and knocking.
After a few minutes of shambling footsteps they heard five different locking mechanisms undo, and finally the door creaked open three inches, still on the chain, revealing a single suspicious eye. Judging by the bloodshot nature of the eye Kevin surmised that it belonged to a very old man.
"Yers?" trawled the creature behind the door in a thick Welsh accent.
"Excuse me, do you happen to know if thereís a military base round here?" asked Maurice.
"No military base round here, lads," quavered the man.
"Itís just weíre doing some research on the Captain Neutral comic book series -" said Kevin in his best acting voice.
"Captain Neutral?" asked the old man in a rapid, who-me-goodness-I-have-no-idea tone of voice used by people who rely on other people not entertaining the notion of asking funny questions. "Goodness me, I donít know anything about that."
"Could I just talk to my partner here in private? He seems to be tugging on my sleeve."
Maurice and Kevin turned their backs on the door, walked down to the end of the front garden and spoke in that time-honored huddled, conspiratorial fashion. "Something strikes me about that man," said Maurice.
"Yes, he did smell rather strongly of Branston Pickle, I thought."
"Thatís not what I meant."
"The original Ambivalent Boy was Welsh."
"A lot of people are Welsh, Maurice. Some may even live in Middlesex."
"It all makes sense! The writer of Captain Neutral changed it from a suburban semi-detached house to a military base because that sounds better, and after the last Captain Neutral died Ambivalent Boy opened a B&B on the site of the old Neutrovault!"
"You got all that from a Welsh accent?"
"Admit it, itís possible."
"Yes, alright, itís possible, maybe even true, but I donít see how weíre going to convince this guy to spill the beans and let us in."
"Seems straightforward to me."
There was a long pause as Kevin raised an eyebrow and Maurice looked smug. "Well?"
"Just show him his old mentor. Captain Neutral."
Kevin coughed up a lightning bolt. "You expect me to walk up to this guy who may well be the original Ambivalent Boy only because he has a Welsh accent, and take all my clothes off?"
"Transform into Captain Neutral. Yes. Just spin round very fast and get changed at the speed of light, every super hero does it."
Kevin and Maurice turned around again and addressed the eye peering through the door crack. "Excuse me, are you the original Ambivalent Boy?"
"Nice one, Maurice."
For a brief fraction of a second the expression worn by the eye was one of pride, then went straight back to a mixture of fear and suspicion. "Captain Neutral and Ambivalent Boy were fiction, boys. Go and play somewhere else." The door tried to close, but Kevinís foot was in the way. So far in the way, in fact, that the chain was ripped from the door frame and the entire wooden rectangle was torn from its hinges.
"Sorry," said Kevin sheepishly, lowering his foot. "Splintered wood seems to follow me around."
"No-one on Earth is that strong!" said a voice from floor level. "No-one except -"
"Captain Neutral!" sang Maurice, striking another pose.
"Oh yes, him too."
"Watch this, mate. Go ahead, Kev."
Kevin kicked out a leg, knocking a dent in the door frame, and spun himself like a ballerina, accelerating until he was lost in a tornado blur of colour. The old man, back on his feet, watched in open-mouthed horror as the colours red and orange swirled into the maelstrom and streaks of lightning flashed at the surrounding garden, setting the privet on fire. Soon the blur subsided and Kevin screeched to a halt, trousers on head.
"Sorry, sorry, itís very hard to concentrate when youíre spinning at near light speed. Hang on -"
Once again the tornado appeared, emitting the brightest fiery light. Maurice checked his watch and the old man leant on the dented door frame. Then Captain Neutral emerged from his transformation, stuffing his shirt into his satchel and swishing his cape.
"Good lord!" said the old man, stepping back. "Itís true! Captain Neutral has been reborn!"
"So you ARE Ambiva - what do you mean, Ďitís trueí? Who told you?"
"Iím a recognised node of the Registry of Supernatural and Superhuman Entities network. I publish a weekly newsletter. Come in and Iíll show you."
Pausing only to offer enthusiastic double-thumbs-up to each other, the immortal Captain Neutral and his human sidekick Maurice stepped through the wrecked doorframe.
"The trzzn nzw arzzzvzzg zt pzztfzzm zzzz z thz zzzzzzzz zzzz frzzm Chzzpzhzm, czllzng zt Zzzzzzt, ZZzzzzzm znd Zzzzzzzzzz."
"Any of you catch that?" asked Samson.
The collection of sorry articles manning the railway platform shook their heads collectively. They were indeed a lacklustre bunch, but then everyone Ďdownstairsí was busy dealing with the housing crisis in their own special way. This quartet of deceptively human-shaped entities were the best the unemployed statistics had had to offer, all social misfits, all dressed in identical tight black uniforms. Think Michael Myers in the Halloweíen films (minus the mask naturally), think the costume used by Brandon Lee in the first The Crow film before he got hold of the trenchcoat from the black guy he stabbed to death. Remember?
"Doesnít matter," said Sally. "If Captain Neutralís alive, heíll make his presence felt soon enough."
"Captain Neutralís alive?" enquired Sidney, the smallest of the bunch.
"Didnít you hear? Re-born. Nuclear meltdown. No idea who."
"So weíve got to kill him," said Stuart, musing to himself. "I didnít think that was possible."
Perhaps we should elaborate on this grouping. As youíve probably guessed they are all demons who have assumed human form. There had been very few human forms remaining in the shop, most of them being used by field agents spying out possible new territory, so they were decidedly unlovable.
Samson, the undisputed leader, had undisputedly the best costume, but even that was a face only a mother would love, if she wasnít fussy. The body was around thirty years of age. He was well-muscled in the legs, but otherwise weedy. He had a little goatee beard and scrawny moustache, but his head was otherwise devoid of hair. He stood with pride and towered in both the physical and non-physical way above the rest, resonating his black intentions.
Sally had gotten hold of the body of a seven-year-old girl, and in between matters of business she would bemoan the loss of her magnificent demonic chest. She had long blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes but could not be considered girlishly cute - she had the air of one of those old-fashioned scary ventriloquist dummies, and seemed to have skimped on her smiling lessons.
From Stuart things went downhill even faster. His body was in its fifties with a big thatch of silver hair plonked on as if an afterthought. He was shorter than Samson and what muscles he had had when he was in his demonic form were lost upon his deckchair frame and skinny torso. A pair of round spectacles rested on his nose, leaving little red flakey marks.
And now we come to Sidney. What can be said? Shorter even than Sally, his new body hung off him like a baggy sweater. He slumped even when standing, and he had no hair on his head, not even eyebrows. Big blue veins stuck out of him and his eyes barely fit in the sockets. Which was odd, because the ugly git had found work as a part-time incubus in the ethereal realm.
"What are these things, anyway?" enquired the same ugly git, opening the suitcase he had been lugging around on behalf of the team. Innumerable green objects tumbled out all over the station platform, so he hurried to collect them all up. The skin of his hands flapped loosely around as he dug around at ankle level.
"Large sprouts?" noted Stuart. "Whatíre we carting large sprouts around for?"
"Theyíre not sprouts. Far too big to be sprouts."
"Too small to be cabbage."
"What do we do now?"
The four Hell Spawn looked blankly around at the rapidly emptying station platform, and as one demon shuffled towards the exit. "Hang about somewhere until Captain Neutral does something, I suppose."
"Ooh, Samson, decisive planning."
"Shut up Sal. Youíre seven years old now, stop flirting."
"Now," said Samson, addressing his team like a schoolteacher would address his pupils on a field trip. "Weíre on a secret mission direct from Stan himself to assassinate Captain Neutral, apparently using some method involving these large sprouts. Now, to maintain a constant disguise, you must all memorise and study the roles you have been given." He took four sheets of laminated paper from his briefcase and handed one to each of his fellow assassins. "You can read them later, but to summarise, Stuart and I are homosexual lovers, Sidney is my misfit younger brother, and Sally is our adopted daughter. This way we will blend seamlessly into modern British society. Any questions?"
"Why canít I be a homosexual lover?"
"Because, Sidney, weíre trying to keep this credible, and no-one could ever fall in love with you. Not even another bloke."
"Letís sort out some lodging and start waiting. We may be here a while."
CAPTAIN NEUTRAL RE-BORN?
It was revealed yesterday by the Registry of Supernatural and
Superhuman Entities that the long-unlit light on the tactical map
which represented Captain Neutral has begun to flash once
again. Whether this is just an equipment failure or evidence that
Captain Neutral has been re-incarnated as he is so wont to do,
the Registry has refused to tell us.
Kevin, back in his non-superhero outfit, read the article a second time before putting down the badly-printed monochrome newspaper. Victor, as the old man had introduced himself as, had admitted to being the original Ambivalent Boy but had thus far refused to expand.
If Kevin had thought Mauriceís quarters were a bit of a memorabilia-fest, Victorís made them look like a prison cell. What wallpaper there had been was completely obscured by posters - film posters, promotional posters for the comic books and merchandise, advertising posters for the cartoon series - all on Captain Neutral. Every single issue of the comic was filed in plastic wallets in the Welsh dresser, every single merchandising opportunity adorned the shelves like treasured family relics, even the novelty condom embarassment. The films and every episode of the cartoon series all had separate videos, neatly labelled and laid in meticulous order. But some artefacts betrayed Victor as something more than a simple fan - in an arrangement of bell jars were evidence, presumably, of his and Captain Neutralís achievements. The one closest to Kevin contained a single bloody tooth, and a brass plaque read ĎAll that remains of Archibald the Mad Scotsman, circa 1954í.
"I was sidekick to the last Captain Neutral," said Victor, setting down a tray of mugs. "He was killed by our arch-enemy, Dr. Diablo, by being force-fed an artichoke. I was just fourteen at the time."
"So what happened to you?" asked Maurice, sipping his coffee. "Whereíve you been all this time?"
"Lying low. I know Diablo is still after me, so I opened this guest house and ... stopped being Ambivalent Boy. I was nothing without Captain Neutral anyway. But now youíve returned! This should keep for a few issues."
"How can Diablo still be after you? He was pretty old when the original Captain Neutral was killed, heíll be long dead by now, I should think."
Victor shook his head, rattling his false teeth. "Dr. Diablo was a resourceful scientist. Heíll have found some way into the present, mark my words."
Kevin turned around from his perusal of the bell jars. "Why havenít there been any more Captain Neutrals until now?"
The old Ambivalent Boy waved a hand and made that odd farting noise through his lips. "There was at least one, must have been, but his powers never appeared. He wasnít caught up in a great cataclysmic event. Not like you, Kevin. Not like the last Captain Neutral. Gregory was his name. American." Victor sat and stared down at his slippers, in remembrance of a great man.
"Victor," said Maurice tactfully, "We have reason to believe that the Neutrovault is round here somewhere. Do you think you could show us it? It is rightfully Kevinís now, I believe."
Victor seemed to ignore the request. Without looking up, he addressed the new Captain Neutral. "Kevin, I want you to tell me that you want to be Captain Neutral."
"Okay, I want to be Captain Neutral."
"Are you really sure?" said Victor in that tiresome manner old people seem to enjoy. "You have to be one hundred percent behind the cause. Youíll have to live with your double identity. Youíll have to accept having to commit evil deeds as well as good deeds, so as to keep the eternal conflict fairly balanced. Gregory sometimes couldnít handle the bad side."
Kevin, who as far as he knew couldnít see a bad side, knelt down and laid a hand on the doddering old manís arm. "Victor, I swear on all my superhero powers that I will accept the role of Captain Neutral and endeavour to keep the eternal conflict balanced. Okay?"
For an instant their eyes met, and somehow Victor saw Kevinís conviction, that he spoke truth. He smiled and pushed himself out of his armchair, clutching his walking stick, and lead the way to the kitchen, where he knelt in front of the gas oven and, with the practised movement of the safebreaker, placed his ear to the glass panel and began rotating the knobs. Only when each was in an obscure angle forming a seemingly unrelated pattern did he seem satisfied, whereupon he turned on the interior light and opened the oven door.
The oven turned out to be not an oven after all, but a secret entrance to a narrow passageway and staircase, formed from the very living rock underneath the boarding house and leading down into a dark, moist natural cavern. Taking the interior light - which turned out to be a flaming torch - the old sidekick led the way down, moving with the grace of a man who has done this routine millions of times but with the excitement of a man who hasnít done it lately. Kevin followed behind, stooping under the low ceiling and pit props, and Maurice brought up the rear, rubbing the bruise where his head had caught the oven door.
The stairs seemed to descend for miles. Kevin lost track of how far theyíd gone, his mind wandering on the subject of superpowers, artichokes and mad scientists. Maurice lost track because he was still concussed. Only Victor remained resolutely strong as they went, holding the torch like the Statue of Liberty, concentrating on his shambling gait in case he tripped. "Havenít been down here for forty years," he said over his shoulder. "And that was just to vacuum."
The torch offered so little light that Kevin couldnít see beyond a tiny radius. He couldnít tell there was a deathly deep abyss either side of the staircase, but nevertheless he knew, and didnít want to know either. He just kept his gaze focused on the floor.
Then they rounded a curve, and the Neutrovault was below them in all its glory. Which wasnít very much glory, because everything was covered in dust sheets. The cavern was enormous, the perimeter was completely invisible even with the fluorescent lights turned on. The points of mile-long stalactites jabbed down at the trio like the accusing finger of Justice, leaving Maurice rather uncomfortable. Kevin looked around, mouth open, arms out wide, as if this vault was the most amazing thing heíd ever seen.
"I used to run guided tours for the fans," said Victor, pulling a dust sheet away to reveal a long-dead computer bank, covered in small bulbs, screens and switches. He dug out the plug from a pile of rubble and dust and stuck it in the power outlet, then it only took a couple of kicks for the thing to flare into life, bleeping and humming like all computers should. "But they closed us down when some kid went joyriding."
Kevin decided not to ask what they were joyriding, and inspected the museum exhibits.
"Itís all for show, really," continued Victor, operating the computer. "The softwareís the important thing. Captain Neutral Home Office 2.0, completely virus-checked and iMac compatible."
"Uh-huh," said Maurice, trying to sound interested, while Kevin lifted the corners of a few other dust sheets and squeaked with delight. "What does it do?"
"What do you think? Monitors the worldwide status of Good and Evil forces." The main screen now bore a bar graph with only two bars - one white, one black. The latter was taller than the former by a long way. "What did you think the giant satellite dish on the roof was for?"
"I thought you had digital television."
Kevin joined them at the controls. "Iím not sure I understand, Victor," he said. "Why do I have to do all this?"
Victor didnít look away from the screen. The green glow highlighted a million more crags on his aged face. "For every good deed, a bad one must be committed. There has to be balance. If one force is greater than the other, mankind becomes subtly and subconsciously different. Society slowly crumbles. As it has been doing since the 1960s, incidentally, after Gregory died."
Maurice nodded. "Right - war, corruption, crime, itís all been increasing steadily since then."
At last Victor turned to Kevin "Without Captain Neutral, one of the forces always has the upper hand. Whichever one that is, it spreads greed and malice throughout the Earth realm, slowly polluting the minds of innocents. The young are the most susceptible, but you probably guessed that."
Maurice and Kevin nodded. "Victor," said Kevin, intending to test the water, "Iím not sure about doing really evil deeds. Murder and stuff."
Victor smiled. "Gregory had that problem. Always slipping Good the upper hand to grab a few headlines. At the moment Darkness is winning, so itíll be strictly good deeds for the time being, but later on... donít worry, weíll start small, petty theft, stealing childrenís sweets, that sort of thing. Then onto grander theft - petrol stations, bank heists, you know what Iím talking about. When youíre settling in, weíll have a crack at drug smuggling and dealing. Then, if you think youíre up to it, maybe weíll try a spot of terrorist bombing and first degree murder. Donít worry, you wonít have to do it often."
A slightly twisted smile crossed Kevinís face, but he dismissed it rapidly. "What if I get arrested?"
Victor, annoyed somewhat with ignorance, threw his hands up in the air. "You wonít get arrested! Youíre on an unstoppable quest! Youíre above the law! All world governments recognise your prerogative, youíre safe!" he shouted.
Kevin and Maurice, who had both appeared to shrink several inches, straightened up. "Victor," began Kevin.
"I know what you want to say, Kevin."
"And the answerís no. I wish it could be yes."
Kevinís eyebrow climbed Mount Forehead. "Er -"
"Iím just too old to be Ambivalent boy anymore."
Trying not to appear relieved, Kevin nodded understandingly. "Actually, I wasnít going to -"
"My days of keeping the eternal conflict balanced are over. Iíve retired."
"Good, because -"
"Iím sure Maurice here would make an excellent new Ambivalent Boy."
"Itís funny you should say that -"
"But I will help you any way I can. I shall man the computers, keep in constant touch, and I will let you live in the guest house."
Maurice, who had been inspecting the Ambivalent Boy motorbike with high eyebrows, piped up. "For free?"
"Naturally. Serving Captain Neutral once again would be payment enough." Victor looked around. "Well, I think itís time you started your quest. You go and start flying around, right a few wrongs, Iíll send you details of world disasters as they arrive."
There was a thunderclap and a blast of energy, and where Kevin Middenhoffenpock had stood there was now the immortal, behelmeted Captain Neutral, hands on hips, legs apart. "Yes! I, Captain Neutral, have returned! And I pledge by the grave of Gregory that the eternal balance will be restored!" His dramatic transformation now complete, he rocketed into the air with a blast that knocked Victorís walking stick out of his hand and sent Mauriceís flat cap flying.
"What are you waiting for?" enquired Victor as debris tumbled from Kevinís makeshift point of exit. "Get on that motorbike and start sidekicking!"
Maurice struggled into his flowery pyjama bottoms. "Hang on, hang on," he stalled, hopping stupidly. "Iíll need to take my shoe off."
The very first thing he felt when he woke was cold. Horrible, gripping cold that lashed him like an icy whip. He shivered, teeth chattering, and grabbed for his bedsheets. They werenít there. Neither was the bed, or his clothes for that matter. He was, in all fairness, coated in a thin layer of sticky brown slime and was squeezed uncomfortably into the bottom of a glass cubicle. Outside the cubicle -
He blinked rapidly and pulled some of the foul-smelling gunk out of his face and hair. Visible through the slightly steamed glass was some kind of laboratory, white and surgical and yet apparently unused for a long time, full of computer equipment and robotic implements that bleeped and zapped like good computers should. Standing around his cubicle, huddled together like nervous penguins, was a collection of white coat-clad boffin types, staring with wonder at him.
The muddy, cold, naked man wobbled to his feet and stumbled out of the now open cubicle, whereupon an old horse blanket was thrown over his shivering form and he was led by concerned hands towards a door marked Ďemergency showerí.
A young boffin with long hippy hair and the obligatory clipboard appeared to be the ringleader. "Welcome back, Mr -"
"Doctor Diablo," stuttered the villain.
Cast your mind back if you can to the winter of 1967. The Second World War was a distant memory. The birth of Movies, Games and Videos was a comfortable way off. And if you asked someone what theyíd want, what theyíd really, really want, they would ask you to please get off the dance floor and sling your bloody hook.
And the last Captain Neutral was very much alive, but not for much longer. At the time of this little flashback, he and his teenage sidekick Ambivalent Boy were standing in a circle of unconscious henchmen who lay scorched and groaning. Lightning still crackled between Captain Neutralís fingers, as he gazed with total hatred at the sorry form in front of him.
Standing on the other side of this large room, which was incidentally a room in a decaying underground secret base, was the villain of villains Dr. Diablo. An elderly man in a black trenchcoat, scarf and hat, not unlike Tom Baker as Dr. Who, who was standing with absolute terror, staring knock-kneed at his foe.
"End of the road, Diablo," said Captain Neutral in his trademark macho American accent.
"I still have one card left, Captain Neutral!" called Diablo, digging into his trenchcoat.
Ambivalent Boy leant on his mentor with boredom. "Oh, give up!" he shouted in his trademark macho Welsh accent. "All your henchmen are defeated, the base is half destroyed and the self-destruct systemís initiated!"
Trying to ignore the calm voice of the computer politely requesting that everyone leg it before ten minutes and seventeen seconds have expired, Dr. Diablo withdrew his hand and let fly. It was a terminally accurate throw.
As the small green vegetable spun through the air and became closer to him, Captain Neutral gasped as his powers began being drawn into the artichoke. And opening your mouth is not a smart move when something deadly is spinning towards it.
For those few who witnessed, it was the most sickening thing they had ever seen since that sorry incident with Archibald the Mad Scotsman. The first bit - Captain Neutral clutching at his throat as the artichoke slipped down it, dropping to the floor, rolling around and screaming with internal agony - was bearable, but it was when Captain Neutral began to expire proper that both Ambivalent Boy and Dr. Diablo felt the presence of their last meal hang lightly in their respective stomachs.
Captain Neutral appeared to be being sucked in from within. Unspeakable green dribble bubbled on the corner of his mouth, his skin tightened and turned grey, veins and tendons stuck out horribly. Then the red flesh hoovered up his skin and he mercifully died, but the process wasnít finished. His muscles and connecting bits turned brown and rotted away, plopping in large chunks onto the floor and instantly evaporating. Even the Captain Neutral costume, formed as it was from his own body, dissolved and sunk into the nothingness. Soon all that remained was his bleached skeleton, sprawled across the metallic floor in the pose of death.
"Now then, Ambivalent Boy," said Dr. Diablo, staring at the corpse and swallowing the speck of sick that had appeared, "looks like itís just you, now." He looked up to see that Ambivalent Boy had apparently legged it and sealed the door on his way, not unlike the startled rabbit he so closely resembled. At this point the computer tactfully reminded him of his impending doom.
So Dr. Diablo was sealed up in his base and was atomised by the explosion.
Or at least, that was Ambivalent Boy (nee Victor)ís perspective. As we already know he suspected Diablo had survived and was after his blood, but never saw the nemesis again. For the record, this is what happened.
Running back and forth through his ruined laboratory like a mad monkey and listening in terror to the tannoy, Dr. Diablo searched for an escape route, but none tentatively sidled into appearance. As the one minute marker came up, the large metal and glass cubicle in the corner of the room caught his eye.
The experimental cryogenics booth. Diablo doubted it would survive the explosion, but at least he wouldnít be awake to suffer it. He quickly whipped off his clothes, kicked the Ďstartí button and leapt into the cubicle, which filled with freezing gas. This was hideous agony for a brief second before he lost consciousness, whereupon his body was caked with frost and icicles from head to foot. His empty eyes did not see the booth fill slowly with brown preservative chemical, nor did they see the glop freeze solid around him, for they were comatosed along with the rest of him.
Meanwhile, the base was utterly destroyed in a massive, cataclysmic explosion, from which Ambivalent Boy barely escaped with his life, and which he later attributed to unexploded German weapons from the First World War. This didnít account for the explosion taking place in Indonesia, but he managed to scrape through the press interview by faking a seizure.
And, buried under a billion tonnes of rubble, Dr. Diablo slept soundly in the miraculously undamaged prototype cryogenics chamber. Amazing how these million-to-one risks pull off, isnít it.
Dr. Diablo wasnít evil, despite his name. He was evil every now and again, but then so was Captain Neutral. To expand, he was the logical opposite of the aforementioned superhero. While Captain Neutral always fought for the side that was losing, Dr. Diablo fought for the one that was winning. That way they were constantly and consistently arch enemies at all times, so that was part of the motive for wanting to kill Captain Neutral, but there is another.
As has been mentioned, in the eternal good/evil conflict there has to be balance. There has to be a Moriarty for every Holmes, a yin for every yang, a sweetie for every sprout. Dr. Diablo is also constantly reincarnated in every generation, and it also takes a cataclysmic event for his secret personality to appear. When Gregory the American was Captain Neutral, Dr. Diablo was re-born in an Australian fisherman named Keith who was perfectly happy with his simple life, catching his lunch and eating it. However, on an occasion when Good was triumphing and Gregory was forced to be Evil for a bit, he caused a major toxic chemical spill in the small area of Pacific Ocean in which Keith worked.
A terrible storm had taken place at the same time, but the fisherman was not one to be deterred. As he raised his metal fishing rod to cast his hook, lightning struck him and the poor man plopped over the side into the sea of glowing chemicals. This was all it took for the phoenix to rise from the ashes; Dr. Diablo was reborn, and this time round he had more than just a passing dislike for Captain Neutral. He dedicated his life to bringing about the superheroís early death, as revenge for bringing forth the villain once again and cutting short a happy, simplistic Australian life.
And because Dr. Diablo always backed the winners, money constantly flowed in his direction. He could afford to hire a high-technology base in Indonesia in which to plot and form schemes with which he could exterminate Captain Neutral. He could also afford to hire that small army of henchmen villains always seem to think they need.
It was one of these henchmen, who had escaped the destruction of the base and had gone back to loot, who discovered Dr. Diabloís cryochamber, but this wasnít until 2016 and long after both Captain Neutral and his nemesis were stripped of their respective consciousnesses in their respective ways. With Dr. Diabloís swiss bank account said henchman built a new base, a replica of the old one, and kept the cryochamber constantly monitored until the day Dr. Diablo could be revived. That day came when it became worldwide news on the Registry of Supernatural and Superhuman Entities network that Captain Neutral was reborn.
You might want to play some incidental music at this point while you read. Something low and sinister, I wonít be too specific.
Dr. Diablo, clad now in an ocean grey jumpsuit, sat silently and unmoving in the little conference room. Essentially it was identical to the conference room he had seen (from his point of view) only a few hours ago, over eighty years hence, but there were subtle differences. Such as the stereo system in the corner and the row of Noxious Whiff albums on Ultra CD.
Dr. Diablo was also a complete stranger to everyone else in the room. They were all either new henchmen or descendants of old ones, who had been passed down the ideals of anti-Neutrality for the four score year wait. The same young boffin mentioned earlier sat at the head of the table and referred to his notes, while everyone else kept their eyes fixed on Captain Neutralís nemesis, all except for one man who seemed to be playing the spoons.
"The year is 2050," the boffin with the prearranged notes was saying. "Your comatosed body was found in the wreckage of the last base, and a replica base has been built. Excuse me -" here he addressed the young scientist playing the spoons, "- would you stop that, please?"
"Iíve got an audition tonight!" protested the spoon-clapper. "I could be on five grand a show!"
"Well, do it outside."
The man stood up, reluctantly. "Right you are."
"And cut your hair."
When the door had slammed shut, the grouping returned their ingratiating grins to Dr. Diablo. "You have been in cold storage for eighty years. There has been a third World War and one minor nuclear holocaust, terrorists have assassinated the last world leaders, so the president of the USA is Michael J. Fox II and the King of England is Simon I. Richard Branson now owns ninety-seven percent of Eastern Europe, and -"
"Why have I been resurrected?" came a flat, Australian accent.
There was one tellingly vast silence.
"Patience, doctor," said the worried hippy. "Acorn has now monopolised the computer industry after Microsoft went into liquidation -"
"Perhaps you didnít understand my request," continued Dr. Diablo, still looking at his lap and speaking levelly. "I have been kept frozen for eighty years without being revived, and only now, for no currently apparent reason, have I been woken. Now, are you going to tell me why, or am I going to have to have you killed in the most imaginative and gory way I can contemplate?"
"H-how fortuitous that you brought that up," stuttered the hippy boffin, "because I was just about to explain all."
"The thing is, er, doctor," continued the poor man, trying his best to improvise after dropping his cue cards. "We didnít want to wake you up until this thing that has happened happened, because without this thing that has happened your existence would cause massive imbalance in the eternal conflict, and youíd probably be assassinated by the Ethereal Realm if that happened -"
"Itís Captain Neutral, isnít it. Heís been reborn."
"... and, to cut a long story short, Captain Neutral has been reborn. Yes. Well done."
Dr. Diablo still didnít look up. "How do you know?"
"We picked up the message from the Registry. They faxed us as soon as they knew."
Only now did the villain share glances with his new cringing minions. The tiny red spark of hatred glowed in each of his eyes. Hatred at Captain Neutral more than anything, but also hatred for cryogenic technology and hatred for the buffoons he was now forced to rub shoulders with. His still weak finger pointed at choice members of the board. "You," he said to the work experience boy, "go and hire a thousand more henchmen."
The pimply youth scampered out, and the questing finger singled out the hippy boffin, who jumped with fright. "You," said the doctor. "Go down to the market and pick up a pound of artichokes. Everyone else -"
The everyone else in question leaned forward.
"Go down to the main laboratory and ask about their euthanasia programme."
They trooped out with eagerness. Itís not every day you get slaughtered for Dr. Diablo. Only two people remained in the room - Dr. Diablo himself, and the other work experience boy.
"I donít get it," enquired the youth, eager to learn something. "Why are you so against Captain Neutral?"
Dr. Diablo looked at him as if he had asked why the Spice Girls had been assassinated. "The eternal balance, kid. Donít worry about it."
"You mean that since there has to be an evil deed for every good one, there has to be a Dr. Diablo for every Captain Neutral?"
"But surely that would mean you are nothing without each other?"
Dr. Diablo stalked over to the boy and leaned his backside on the table. "Captain Neutral always fights for the losers and I always fight for the winners. We are always against each other, but thatís not why we quest for each otherís deaths. Perhaps what does make us spiteful is the fact that we are both constantly reminded that we cannot exist without each other."
"Oh. Sorry, sir."
"Go and get me a cup of tea, then throw yourself into the biological waste vat."
As the bepimpled one scampered out, he almost ran into the spoon-player, still getting into practise. The spoon-player flicked his long, brown hair out of his eyes, and wiped down his little goatee beard and thin moustache. Now we come to examine this man a little closer, it becomes apparent that his white coat was not so much a coat as a robe, and golden sandals poked out from under it. He smiled at the memory of Dr. Diabloís level voice, and as he smiled his pure white aura sparkled with inner beauty.
Then he lifted his arms, embracing thin air, and vanished in a flash of divinity.
"Oh, and sir -"
"Dr. Diabloís turned up again, sir."
"By the wind of Nostradamusí bum, do I have to tell you everything? Have him killed too! You know what happens if one exists without the other."
"Right away, sir."
"Oh, and Manuel -"
"Have I ever told you that you are about as pointless as a parakeetís plimsoll?"
"As senseless as a celibateís cervix, as useless as a eunuchís urethra and as superfluous as a unicornís beanie hat, but never as pointless as a parakeetís plimsoll."
"Wonders never cease."
Captain Neutral mastered flying quite quickly.
Every one of his amazing powers was fuelled by the unlimited, electrical energy which buzzed inside him like angry bees in a space helmet, and just as unpredictably. His super strength and super speed were formed from super-power upgrading his muscles to beyond human control. His super-vision, as we have touched upon, happened when he focused the power to his eyes. Likewise his lightning bolt power to his fingertips. And to fly, he propelled himself upwards by blasting sufficient power to launch a rocket through the soles of his feet.
Or to be more precise, through his verrucas.
No, itís true. Ask any superhero who can fly if you can see their feet, and youíll be guaranteed to find verrucas, athleteís foot, corns and/or blisters. Not that theyíre a problem - a necessity, unless you fancy ripping your toenails off, putting your feet on upside-down and walking around like a penguin in a jockstrap. Many superheroes like to run around the world a few times every morning just to build up some really repulsive foot ailments.
Cavorting round the sky with enough energy to light up Soho for a year being blasted out of his foot warts, Kevin was completely without worry for the first time in as long as he could remember. Poking holes in the local cumulo-nimbus and emerging drenched in evaporated rainwater, he whooped with glee at his freedom from gravity. This is what I call a perk of the trade, he thought. When Iím off duty Iíll bring a few dirty mags up and read on that cloud over there, thatíd be something...
Far below, his super-hearing detected the sound of Ambivalent Boy trying to keep him in sight on his motorbike. Doesnít know what heís missing.
For the first time since he became superhuman Captain Neutral suddenly found himself feeling immensely superior to the human race. Far below there were little, unimportant people, scurrying around like ants filling their time with pointless duties in the short space of time between their births and their deaths, having to act according to a list of futile little regulations. While he, Captain Neutral, champion of eternal balance, had the freedom of the sky and freedom from law. What a lucky superhero he was indeed.
The radio crackling into life brought him out of his vacant musing. The burst of static caught him off guard, made him lose concentration, and for an instant he was falling unsupported, but he soon righted himself and was hovering again with a series of short bursts of power.
"Base to Neutral One, please respond, over," came the feedback-laden voice of Victor.
"This is Kevin, if thatís what you mean," spake he.
"Do it properly. Say Ďoverí, over."
"Youíre supposed to say Ďoverí so I know when youíve finished speaking, over."
"Youíll know when Iíve finished speaking, because itíll be slightly less noisy than when Iím not finished speaking," said Kevin patiently.
"Suit yourself. Thereís a gang of bank robbers in New York making a getaway in a motorised yacht just off the coast, apprehend and take in for arrest."
"Just good deeds for now, right?"
"Youíre not saying Ďoverí anymore."
"Come on, theyíre getting away!"
"Calm down. Did you hear that sonic boom? Iím half-way across the Atlantic already." Kevin glanced down and examined the rolling blue waves as they went past, reminding himself.
"You should be there by now! Why so slow?"
"Whatís the rush? Theyíve only got a speedboat. Iím Captain Neutral!"
And with that sound byte lodged in history he cut off the transmission, banked left and rocketed away, leaving a fading red streak.
Meanwhile, Ambivalent Boy started up the jet boosters and floatation devices on his motorbike and tried his best to keep up with Kevin, zipping across the water faster than any boat but not nearly as fast as Captain Neutral.
Julian ĎLemoní Meringue was a very, very nasty man. Some might say evil, but that word can have a double meaning in these enlightened times. His hobbies were robbing from the naÎ ve, child pornography and mutilating small furry animals. His gnarled, harsh hands were clamped around the rail of the boat and his unfeeling, cold eyes stared out to the horizon. To anyone else it was just a horizon, but to Lemon it was the land of opportunity, where his ill-gotten gains could be quickly spent and covered over. As he thought of all the whores he could force himself on with the kind of money stashed in the boat, he unleashed a long-winded, loud and evil laugh. What a nasty man.
With his brother Strawberry and his father Apricot they formed a nasty trio, feared by the public and despised by the police. Captain Neutral didnít know all this, of course, and it may have made him hesitate while he considered the implications.
"Lemon," said Strawberry, who had joined him at the stern. "Dadís been using notes for toilet paper again."
"Trust him to get over-excited. Any sign of the pigs?"
"Theyíre down below sniffing for truffles."
Lemon didnít even have to rephrase himself. He and his family engaged in this kind of banter until their heads ached and they were threatening each other with death, but there didnít seem to be any reason to stop.
"Picked up a boat a few minutes ago, but far too slow."
"Any other traffic?"
How fortunate he chose to say that at that point, because a heavily accessorised motorbike with what looked like boosters spewing fire and jet wings sprang up over the hull like a happy lamb, bringing up a shower of brine, and landed with a squeal of rubber on the deck, leaving black marks. Lemon and Strawberry stared at the device sufficiently long enough for Apricot to emerge from the hatchway, clutching handfuls of overly creased and horribly stained dollar bills, who stood and stared too.
Because we havenít yet fully described Ambivalent Boyís motorbike, now would probably be an opportune moment. Imagine if you will a normal motorbike with all the mod cons, like those fifteen superfluous rear view mirrors (are motorcyclists known for having fifteen heads?). Now imagine this machine a lot bulkier than normal but with a bright blue shell over it, so it gives the impression of being stuffed with machinery and gadgets tantalisingly out of view. The shell is covered with little sealed hatches and hinged covers, the entry and exit ports for the extendable, er, extras, controlled by the little LCD panel between the handlebars. A bulky pump-like device straddled the pillion, straining combustible elements from the surrounding atmosphere and converting them into fuel.
As the Meringue family watched two jet wings, fully five yards across each, folded back onto the main body shell of the bike like some complicated origami action and a duo of, yes, rocket booster engines disappeared into their respective little hatches. Ambivalent Boy kicked out the stand with his two-foot pointy boots and emerged from his intimate clinch with the vehicle.
To find the barrels of three nasty guns pointed in his direction. The Meringues hadnít gotten to where they were today without being able to adapt radidly to unfamiliar situations, and if they saw such an astonishing motorbike theyíd be more likely to run off with it than admire it.
"Got yourself a fancy pair of wheels, there, boy," said Apricot in his trademark Redneck accent. "Think weíll take it when youíve explained how it works on water."
Maurice, who hadnít gotten to where he was today without reading a thousand and one comic books, most of which had very similar ideas on the subject of fire-fight stand-offs, tried not to let his terror show and forced his mouth into a smug grin. "Water? I donít see any water," he said with hardly any stutter at all.
Lemon gave him a look of withering scorn reserved for nasty men with guns. "Thereís water everywhere, chum. Why donít I let you take a closer look?"
Macho line, thought Maurice, but not based on visible evidence. He raised a smug eyebrow which says Ďfunny you should say thatí and cocked his head in the direction of the area outside the boat.
Which turned out, as Lemon discovered to his horror, to be filled with seventy-nine percent nitrogen, twenty percent oxygen and one percent greenhouse gases. What little water there was was present as vapour, hanging in the air and condensing on their skins. Far, far below reassuringly hard concrete streets and structures sidled past, unconcerned about the shameful display of showing off overhead.
Yes, the entire boat had long departed from the watery embrace of the sea and was now drifting through the atmosphere at a height of roughly fifteen hundred feet. The reason for this, as the family discovered, was a rather weedy-looking man in a tight-fitting orange and red superhero outfit carrying the vessel by the main steam funnel. They looked for the helicopter, but none became apparent.
"Jesus H Christ," intoned the nasty men.
"Close enough," smarmed Ambivalent Boy, who had handcuffed the villains to the handrail while they were preoccupied.
"Job well done, Mau - Ambivalent Boy," said the superhero.
"Thank you, Ke - Captain Neutral," said his sidekick.
"That wasnít much fun," said Kevin when he and Maurice were airborne again. "When do we get to rob a petrol station?"
"Patience, Kevin, patience."
"Well, Iím not sure I like this outfit."
"Who does, Kevin."
"I meant outfit in the sense of operation."
"Iím sure you did."
While Captain Neutral muttered to himself Maurice noticed a red light flash on the screen of his flying motorbike. He punched a few buttons and the display was filled with reams of information, far too much to conceivably be given undivided attention to by a man riding a rocket bike one hundred feet above the Atlantic ocean. He skim-read the establishing paragraph and read aloud his conclusions. "Thereíre a load of protestors living in a forest that the council want to turn into an orphanage."
Kevin frowned. "Whoís side am I on?"
"Oh, come on. How could one of those parties be considered Ďgoodí and the other Ďevilí?"
"Maybe the protestors are all shirt-lifting lefties."
"Maybe the orphanage is a front and they really want to build a whore house."
"Nothing ventured, Kevin."
"Letís just pretend I understood that for now."
Unlike the Meringue family, who were nasty, the Three Jolly Knockwursts was a nice place. A nice pub. A pub with all the traits needed to qualify for niceness. The landlord was jolly and fat with braces and a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up. An old man in a flat cap sat hogging an entire booth with a single solitary pint from which he took tentative sips, as if it was the home of a small but vicious plesiosaur. A few more men in flat caps and, yes, tweed jackets played darts half-heartedly in a corner.
Today the place was toned down a little by the quartet of ugly people in black uniforms sitting around nursing beer in three case studies and lemonade in a fourth. They had spent an hour looking for a pub that served food so that the youngest member could get in, and none were in a particularly good mood.
"I am not in a good mood," said Sally. "Downstairs I can drink as much ethanol as I want. Up here I can only get in select establishments because of some outmoded and entirely futile human regulations."
Samson didnít look up from his detailed examination of the table top. "If I have to tell you again to get back into character, Iíll give you a jolly good spank." Sallyís eyebrow flicked upwards in a sort of Iím-game-if-you-are gesture, but it was lost on Samson who was busy concentrating on the sensations as a puddle of beer on the table corroded his sensitive human nose.
Stuart had somehow gotten hold of todayís edition of the Sun and was perusing it with his legs crossed in that Iím-clever sort of way. He would often sharply rustle the paper and fold his lower lip upwards in an intellectual pout to continue the illusion, successfully hiding his near-illiteracy.
"Thatís interesting," said Sidney from over his shoulder, not illiterate but unaware of the concept of illusion. "Apparently that if there was a plesiosaur in Loch Ness it would have to survive on the equivalent of a human being eating one artichoke and two sprouts per week."
"Wish I could live on one artichoke a week," muttered Samson to his friend the table. "Or better still, none at all." As one their eyes fell upon the now half-empty suitcase which skulked under Samsonís friend. They didnít have much money for food, and it seemed stupid not to take advantage of the cargo.
Stuart patted his stomach in unpleasant memory. "I can begin to understand why Neutral steers clear of these," he whined. "If I have to eat another bloody artichoke, Iíll foam at the mouth myself."
The door opened.
The door closed.
The room quitened.
The room filled with murmur again.
"Bugger me backwards," voiced Sally into her lemonade. "Look whoís here."
"Donít look! Heíll see us!"
Sally muttered something only the foursome heard.
"Him?" enquired Sidney. "Where?"
He made eye contact.
Like the Three Jolly Knockwursts the forest was a nice place. A canopy of lush green foliage allowed spots of sunlight to rain down on the earthy ground, where worms and insects romped and played. The trees were a healthy brown colour, not that ill-looking dark green or grey some forests can only manage, and provided the homes of rare birds and cutesy-wutesy squirrels. On this lovely, sunny day a small, adorable rabbit poked his nose out of the ground, gazed out in wonder at the world, and was kicked fifty feet by a policeman in a bad mood.
"Bloody pests," he said.
His companion, a man in a fluorescent green waistcoat, said, "I wouldnít say that when the press get here."
"Why not? Weíre going to build an orphanage. The tabloids will lap this up."
The man in the fluorescent green waistcoat was about to concede when he spotted a subversive skipping along towards the protestorís camp, or Ďlefty-landí as the constable seemed keen to name it. "Hey! You!" called Mr. Waistcoat. "Go and tell your hippy mates that weíve called in the Armed Response Unit to shift you buggers!"
The hippy stopped skipping and tried to gather his dignity, which was considerably difficult for a grown man with long hair, a paisley headband, flares, a vest with one of those upside-down-Y-in-a-circle symbols on the front, flowers draped around him and an acoustic guitar hanging by a strap. "I know my rights, Mr. Fluorescent Waistcoat," he said, then added "Man" as an afterthought. "Weíve got immunity. You canít lay a finger on us."
"No-oneís immune to plastic bullets and tear gas, boyo."
"We may surprise you yet. Man." With that, the lefty shirt-lifter stormed off into the deep forest, strumming his guitar idly and singing songs about how his best friend was very tall with green hair and made of wood.
Something nagged at Mr. Fluorescent Waistcoat. He looked to Mr. Policeman to see if he was equally worried, but the behelmeted warrior of justice was busy trying to spit on a leaf by his foot.
"That hippy struck me as rather odd," said Mr. Waistcoat experimentally.
"Donít they all."
"I meant odd as in not like other hippies."
At last Mr. Policeman seemed to think about this, and a frown crossed his face. "Now I come to think of it," he said, "Iíve never seen a subversive wearing a velvet cape before."
"Or red shiny boots."
"And those red and gold gauntlets looked a bit out of place."
As one they stared blankly into space, then shrugged and muttered something to each other about young people today.
"Hello, Jesus, what are you doing here," said Stuart flatly over a space of two seconds.
Jesus Christ adjusted the collar of his trenchcoat and took his mineral water over to the vacant seat round which the four demonic agents sat and stared guiltily at the tabletop. "I didnít expect to see any of you boys up here," he said, planting his divine hips on the stool, which later became a venerated object. "Itís, er, Stuart isnít it? Well, Iím just here to see that Captain Neutral settles in smoothly. He is the most important person on Earth, you know!"
"Thatís absolutely amazing," said Sidney brightly. "Weíre actually here to assass -" at this point he noticed the frantic gestures his companions were making, and more to the point noticed the seven-year-old female elbow establishing terminal velocity in close vicinity to his human pleasure zone. "Assas - assa - Asda. Weíre going to Asda."
"Oh," said Jesus, whose heavenly gaze slipped momentarily to the overflowing suitcase by his feet. "For a moment I thought you were field agents sent to scout for more territory."
Samson looked up for the first time since he had sipped his drink. "And that," he slurred rapidly, "Is exactly what weíre going to do after weíve gone to Asda."
"So how is the crisis down there, anyway?"
What you have just witnessed, ladies and gentlemen, is a demonstration of the universal ĎI donít want to enter into a conversation with you so Iím just hoping youíll become disinterested and piss offí reply to any innocent request. Incidentally, starting a query with Ďsoí and ending it with Ďanywayí is the universal expression of ĎIím just trying to fill an awkward silence by asking a question the answer to which I have no interest whatsoeverí, so Jesus and Samson were on pretty level terms.
"Iím sure Dadíll have finished his new Bible soon, so youíll have a lot more space to stretch your talons!"
Grunts chorused round the table.
"Thatís interesting," said Jesus, after an embarrassing silence and spotting the front page of Stuartís newspaper, "Looks like Captain Neutralís started as he means to go on."
Suddenly the paper slammed down onto the table and the four demons gave detailed perusal of the front page. Filling most of the page was a huge full-colour picture of what looked like a weedy gentleman in orange tights and a red velvet cape depositing a large and expensive motorboat on the roof of some building or other. Further perusal revealed a trio of miserable gents handcuffed to the handrail and another, older gentleman in what looked like a duvet cover riding a flying motorbike. The headline screamed, ĎNOTORIOUS BANK ROBBERS CAPTURED BY TIGHTS-WEARING TRANSVESTITE!!!!í, delegating, incidentally, the story about the nuclear bomb scare to page twelve. The word Ďexclusiveí appeared not once but twice, a sure sign that the Sun was excited about the scoop.
Stuart scanned the text with difficulty, but he only needed to read the first few words ĎThe notorious Meringue family were captured today by a man in tights with the apparent ability to fly and carry huge weights...í
Sally examined a later paragraph. "ĎMany people have already examined the similarities between the manís costume and the costume of the long-defunct comic book hero, Captain Neutral -í"
"Yes!" exclaimed Samson. "The trap has been sprung!"
Jesus got up. "Well, I see you lot have something to talk about, so Iíll be off."
"Good luck assassinating Captain Neutral," he concluded, and left.
Meanwhile, back in the forest, a hippy was busy stroking his favourite tree, caressing its heavenly bark and loving its leaves in appreciation of natural beauty, when he heard the bushes rustle behind him. Which was odd, as there was no wind. He gave the foliage due appraisal, but it remained still and seemed to contain nothing but leaves. He shrugged, and skipped over to the main camp.
Whereupon two clumps of aforesaid leaves on top of the bush rose slowly to reveal hilariously that they surmounted the headgear of none other than Captain Neutral and his sidekick Maurice, who stared with some distaste at the spectacle in front of them.
"You took your time," said Maurice.
"I decided to come in subtly this time," muttered Kevin. "Letís face it, flying in at the speed of light and uprooting several trees on the way past would somewhat give the game away. What am I doing here, anyway? Whoever heard of a superhero infiltrating a subversive group? This is a job for MI5, not Captain Neutral!"
"Keep quiet!" hissed Maurice as another hippy flicked his head in their direction, making the heroes duck down in a flutter of chlorophyll.
For a few more minutes they stared at the little scene taking place, then Ambivalent Boy said, "What I donít understand is why, if these hippies love forests so much, they ruin them by living in them."
Captain Neutral conceded the point. The shirt-lifting lefties were occupying a small clearing, within which they had set up a number of turd-coloured tents. Not many of them were actually occupying these tents, however, preferring to listen to Genesis and take part in group hugs around trees. They all had long, unkempt hair and vests, without exception, and several had guitars. A few serious fanatics were standing right up to trees with their eyes shut and their trousers down.
"What in the name of Joan of Arcís epiglottis are that lot up to?" said Kevin quietly.
"I think theyíre making love to the trees. Interesting idea."
A superhero eyebrow shot up fully two inches. "Youíre not serious?"
"Well, at least they donít heap emotional blackmail on you afterwards."
"So says the voice of experience."
They remained in silence for a while, watched with open mouths as one woman apparently climaxed, and something occurred to Kevin. "Do you think shagging trees counts as sodomy?"
Maurice frowned. "Interesting point."
"Plants are hermaphrodites, arenít they?"
"I think, Kevin, that indulging in quickies with horse chestnuts can be considered sinful."
Captain Neutral flicked aside his long blonde wig. "Reckon weíre on the side of the police, then."