Flight Recordings

Tales of the Starbuck Avenger!!! (70)

Jeffrey Channing Wells

Learning to Fly

Tales of the Starbuck Avenger!!! (70)

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Starbuck Avenger
I failed to fly.

I failed to fly so miserably it wasn't even funny. I dropped like a slightly overweight rock from the roof of the burning parish hall of Saint Raf's. I didn't even have time to preemptively apologize to Mebby for killing her dead. The only thing I did have time to do wasn't even a voluntary act in the strictest sense: as I fell, my eyes left the onrushing ground for just a moment, and amidst the haze from the church fire and Garuda's dissipating smokescreen, I caught maybe a single millisecond's glimpse of the spire of the cathedral, now wreathed in the flames that I had helped to bring about…

…and the Jawbone of Saint Martin glowed white-hot in its stone casing…

…and then all was cool and quiet.

I blinked, dumbfounded, at the sudden change of scenery, at the blinding white lights that surrounded me, and then the nausea of FLIQR transit hit me and I fell, and then barfed, into a snow bank, the Jawbone still sizzling in my hand.

When I was done barfing, I hauled myself back to standing with my javelin and then looked up into the white lights of the awning-type thing above me. Red letters stenciled onto the fluorescent panels gradually resolved themselves into words:


ST. MARY'S HOSPITAL
EMERGENCY ROOM
AMBULANCE PICKUP / DROPOFF ONLY


I coughed, disbelieving, and then hugged the Jawbone to my chest. A single moment of panic quickly passed as I verified that Mebby and Channel Cat had FLIQR'd with me. I grabbed Mebby up again, wincing at the blood that now covered both of us.

"C'mon, Mebby," I said. "Let's disregard that there sign." And I marched, on foot, through the automatic doors of the ambulance bay and into the hospital.

* * *

"Help!" I called out, staggering into the crowded E.R., a semiconscious Mebby at my side. "Wounded woman! We need help!"

I had never before been the person doing this scene -- despite the fact that I had seen it about a hundred times on television -- so I readily admit I didn't know how people were supposed to react when you hauled a bleeding person into an emergency room. Still, I wasn't prepared for, um, absolutely no reaction at all.

I stood there for a moment, looking around stupidly, as doctors and nurses and clerks and technicians bustled about, all doing busy busy hospital stuff, and nobody even so much as glanced up at the two copiously-bleeding women standing in their foyer.

"HEY!" I yelled. I spotted a little desk bell at the admissions counter and banged on it a couple times. "HEY HEY HEY! DYING PERSON HERE!"

Nothing. No response whatsoever. I squeezed my eyes shut. Fuck, I thought, the Coverup. I rescue her from a burning building only to have her die on the floor of the E.R. because reality is trying to pretend we don't exist.

"CAT!" I screamed. "GET IN HERE!"

Channel Cat peered into the E.R. "What seems to be the problem, Miss?" said Channel Cat. "And what can I help you with?"

"The Coverup!" I demanded, as Mebby's blood began to puddle on the pristine tile floor beneath us. "How does it work?"

"I'm sorry," said Channel Cat. "As a master carpenter, my expertise is limited to woodworking and such."

"Goddamn it, Cat," I said, amidst the crowd of unseeing doctors, "I don't care what you think you are or what T.V. program you're tuned into. I know you belong to the crazy homeless superhero guy. And he's old and he seems to know shit so I'm gonna say that you've been around the block a couple times yourself, and so I'm going to ask you for the last time, do you or do you not know how this works? Because if you do know, and don't tell me, my friend is going to die right here in the hospital and THAT WILL MAKE ME VERY UPSET."

Channel Cat closed his little green eyes. "Okay," he said. "I'm still Norm Abram, but I can sense the Cat in here somewhere. And he says… it's the face?"

"The face? Come on, come on, we're bleeding here!"

"The face!" said Channel Cat, sounding rattled. "Clark Kent. Puts on glasses, snows everybody. Me, funny glowing collar, you, pull a headband over your eyes. World looks the other way. A real superhero has a huge, unspoken power to alter the perceptions of the entire world, with just a few small changes to the face."

"She doesn't have a mask!" I said.

"Makeup!" said the cat. "The white gothy stuff. Just the same."

My eyes darted from Mebby to the Cat and back.

I ripped off my mask. "HEY!" I shouted. And people startled, praise be. "HEY!" I continued. "BLEEDING WOMAN HERE!"

Panicked and concerned nurses suddenly surrounded me. "Not me!" I protested, as they tried to ease me onto one of the beds. "Her! Down there!" I struggled against them for a moment, then tumbled to the floor next to the still-invisible Mebby. Working as fast as I possibly could, I spat hard -- with what little saliva I had left after all the shit I had been through tonight -- onto the edge of my apron cape and gave a series of vigorous scrubs to the white makeup that had covered Mebby's face for every moment that I had seen or known her.

She looked… different, underneath the makeup. Childlike. Time stood still for a moment as I saw Mebweth Hull, small and pale and bare, stripped of her hero identity. For a moment, we were neither of us bleeding, and I loved her very, very much.

And then, time snapped back, as the Coverup released its hold on her. "Holy God!" yelled one of the doctors, crouching down by Mebby's side.

And then all was noise and chaos and doctors barking out orders at nurses and nurses running around and amidst the tumult I stepped back into a shadow, replaced my mask, and became fictional once more. My work tonight was not yet done.

* * *

The automatic doors whisked open for me and I strode back out into the cold night, the Channel Cat in tow.

"Thanks, Cat," I said, as I stared up at the blistering-white lamps surrounding the emergency room.

"No problem," said Channel Cat. "I'm still Norm Abram, by the way."

"Sure you are," I said, trying not to sound patronizing. "Listen to me. You're good at shadowing people. I'm pretty sure you've been watching me for several days now, at the homeless guy's behest. I need you to keep an eye on Mebby. Don't let anything weird happen to her while she's in there. Can you handle that, Norm?"

"I think so," said C.C. "It doesn't have anything to do with carpentry, mind you."

"No, it doesn't. So, thank you for going above and beyond for me. Meanwhile, I've got shit yet to do tonight."

"Such as?"

"Gotta get back to the church. See if there's anything I can do. Verify, if I can, the presence of a dead alien. See if there's anything of the Padre I can salvage." I waved my hand vaguely. "Hero stuff."

"Well, good luck," said the Channel Cat. "Bit of a walk, though."

"Nope," I said, holding up the Jawbone of Saint Martin. "Teleportation relic, remember?"

"Ah," said C.C. "Handy thing, that."

"No doubt," I said, striding down the sidewalk toward the exterior of the hospital chapel, which I knew from experience counted as a Catholic holy place for the purposes of triggering my relic. The plasma burns on my face and arm had already almost healed, and I was hardly bleeding out the back any more, and in my twisted-up world, all this added up to mean that life was pretty darn good.

I glanced up at the cross atop the chapel, and vanished.

* * *

Saint Raf's was well and truly consumed by the time I FLIQR'd back into being. I did the requisite post-teleportation dry-heaving and then looked up at the burning church and parish hall, and felt a little guilty about being impressed by the sight (and for having, you know, been somewhat instrumental in causing it.) A cathedral on fire, crackling flames illuminating the stained-glass windows from within and streaming up into the night sky above, is a sight that you don't often get to see in this modern world. I walked placidly and completely unseen amongst the impassioned firefighters, stepping daintily over the hoses they had trained at the blaze, feeling like a ghost. Any thoughts I had had about trying to get back into the parish hall and check on Absolvatron or the Snatcher were quickly snuffed out by the condition of the building. There was, quite literally, no longer a parish hall to get into at this point. The church, being partially stone, had fared a little better, but the whole complex was clearly a loss.

The Snatcher was dead, I thought. Has to be, in all that mess. And that's really about as far as my reasoning went. Maybe I didn't want to admit the possibility that I had sacrificed the life of a well-meaning (though admittedly psychotic) robot and burned down an entire cathedral for no purpose whatsoever. I did not, and have not to this day, seen a body. And even though I can tell you that there are very good reasons why the Snatcher didn't leave a corpse under the circumstances, I can't be sure, and I have to live with that.

And so I stood and watched as the cathedral burned and I felt the night slipping away and winding down, my adrenaline slowly leaching out, leaving me nothing but tired. Dawn couldn't be too far off. I could hardly keep track anymore but I didn't think I had to work at the coffee shop today, which meant I could go home after this, call the hospital, get Mebby's condition. Assuming she was stable, I could finish that bath I had started, crash out for about twenty-four hours, and then… well, we'd see what happened.

I stared at the cathedral a moment longer. The firefighters had stopped trying to save the building and were now focused on containing the blaze. A burning timber loosed itself from the roof and fell into the sanctuary, sending up a fountain of sparks. Hell of an ash-can run, Starbuck Avenger, I said to myself. Hell of an ash-can run.

I turned to go.

"Wait," said my Inner Greatness.

"Christ," I muttered. "Now what? I've got a bath calling me."

"We're forgetting something," she replied. "I don't know what."

"What, the scooter?" I said. I glanced over to the spot about a block away where we had ditched the Metropolitan. It was still there, and appeared to be in fine shape. The police would recover it, the owner would eventually claim it, and no-one would ever know the part that it had played in our little drama tonight. I had liked the scooter, though. I pondered getting one of my own someday. There was this one dealership you always heard about on the radio--

"Topic," said Inner Greatness. "Stay on topic."

"What topic?" I said to her, helplessly. "What am I forgetting? We ride up to the church on the Metropolitan, we disembark because Garuda's stupid smoke thing makes it imp--"

Inner Greatness stared at me.

"Garuda," I said. "Where the fuck is Garuda? We left him on the steps, and…" My eyes flicked back to the steep concrete stairs leading up to the ruined cathedral, which were now soot-blackened, cracked, and unnervingly free of unconscious superheroes. "…now there's no Garuda," I finished, lamely.

Inner Greatness continued staring at me, her expression changing from alarmed realization to pissy expectation.

"He woke up," I said. "Aaand… he left."

"You dislike him," said Inner Greatness. "But he's still a hero. By trade, at the very least. What would you do, in his shoes?"

"Okay," I said, "I wake up after being clocked on the head by my nemesis. I wake up, and… the door is busted open, and… the church is on fire… and…"

I trailed off, looking into the flaming sanctuary, now a maze of fallen and burning wood.

"I go in after him," I said, squeezing my eyes shut. "Because I'm fucking stupid."

"Exactly," said my Inner Greatness.

"He's in there now," I said.

"Mm hm."

"So what am I supposed to do?" I asked, helplessly.

Inner Greatness put her hands on my shoulders.

"One last fucking stupid thing," she said.

* * *

And so, I did one last fucking stupid thing. I tossed my javelin and the Jawbone safely into a nearby snowbank and then, yes, I went back to the cathedral, weaving my way around the firefighters' cordon, walking dreamily past and through the pressurized water streams and stepping deftly up to the broken threshold for the second time in one evening. The heat inside the burning sanctuary was like a wall, the smoke, well, also like a wall. "I will die," I said, pointing, "from breathing that."

"Don't be silly, said my Inner Greatness. "You're practically invulnerable. Nothing to worry about. In you go."

"I hate you," I said to my Inner Greatness. I took a deep breath, lowered my head, and charged inside.

Inside the sanctuary, it was exactly as bad as I had feared. Worse, if possible. It was, in fact, a pretty good depiction of what I imagined Hell to be like, if I even believed in that stuff anymore. What with the flames and the burning crosses and all. It didn't take me long to realize that my healing power, while possibly life-saving, had no power to stop the smoke from getting in my eyes and lungs and making things real goddamn unpleasant.

I ducked as low as I could to get under the smoke and forced my way further in. Nearby, another beam from the compromised roof tumbled into the sanctuary. If I got hit with one of those things, I thought, I would be trapped underneath until this entire building burned around me, and I would be forced to live through the act of being burned to death without the relief of actually being able to die. Even if my body recovered from such a thing, I'm not sure my brain would. I made a mental note to not get hit with falling timbers that were also on fire. It's good general advice that I would encourage all of you to take heed of in your daily lives.

I picked my way across the beams, the flesh on my skin searing and blistering every time I touched a surface. It hurt, and then it healed, but it still hurt. I could no longer see for the smoke, and my clothes were starting to char, and I was starting to hack up big globs of soot that my system was trying to force out of my lungs, and I had known, known this was fucking stupid, but I did it anyway. I could have just taken the mask off again and talked to the firefighters, but it wasn't like delivering Mebby to the emergency room. As soon as they knew I was there, I would be off the scene, with no time or opportunity to figure out how exactly to get Garuda's mask off so that the professionals handling the blaze would even know somebody was alive inside. Garuda would die, and I wasn't even sure anyone would discover his body. My universe is a bitch like that.

"GARUDA!" I yelled, into the fire. No response, and now I was good and stuck, because I knew logically that now was the time to give up. There really was no sense in continuing this. I dropped my hands to my sides…

…and my hand brushed up against the bulge of my new cell phone, which, this whole time, had been sitting in my pocket on account of my not having changed pants for days. I pulled it out, and the heat was not yet so intense that it had melted the little thing. I ducked back to a cooler part of the fire, and found the little business card that our Mr. Spector had given me, the one with his emergency hero phone number on the back, again, thanks to the no-pants-changing thing. My fingers shaking from raw nervous stress, I managed to hit all the buttons and the send key, and…

There. In the dark and the smoke and the roar of the fire, I could just barely hear it, from a point off to my right. It was the Commissioner Gordon ringtone, just like he had said. Garuda, I thought, you giant nerd. I forced my way through the smoke, following the noise of Garuda's cell phone, and found him, at last.

He was conscious again, possibly having been roused by his goddamn super-loud ringtone. The brassy-looking bird helmet was still dented from his encounter with the Absolvatron earlier in the evening, but really the most problematic thing was the way he had not heeded my advice about not getting hit by a falling support beam. He struggled weakly beneath its weight.

Garuda turned to look at me.

"It's you," he croaked, and then let out a series of heroic coughs.

"Yeah," I said. "It's me."

"I couldn't dissuade you," he said.

"We continue this conversation," I said, "when we are out of the burning building." I clambered over a toppled pew, my foot slipping on a pile of charred hymnals, and tried to get a fix on the situation.

"Christ," I said, sizing it up, "you had to go and get hit by the biggest damn girder in the whole roof." I winced, clenched my fists once or twice, and put the all of my strength into shifting the mass. Searing pain and splinters filled my hands, and I failed to shift the mass even an inch. I tried again, to the same (no) effect.

Squeezing my eyes against the smoke, I yelled back at him. "Get your helmet off!" I shouted. "I'll talk to the firemen!"

"Can't," said Garuda, his voice going a bit dreamlike. "Fixed on. Only comes off with the wrist stud. Can… can you reach it?"

I looked into the tangled mass that had Garuda pinned. "Jeremy," I said, "I can't get anywhere near your arm, and now you officially have a stupid costume for yet another reason." I threw myself at the beams again. Where was the super-special strength that even normal people were supposed to have under these circumstances? The kind where grannies lift whole Hondas off of dogs and shit like that? That's supposed to be de rigeur for being just an everyday human, and I was a damn superhero! What the hell good were my powers? I couldn't apparently fly. I could kind of read minds. I can throw a javelin hard enough to cut stone, but the strength apparently didn't transfer to, you know, lifting, so it was absolutely buttfuckingly useless. The only thing I really could do, that I really shone at, was not dying when catastrophically injured. And what kind of shitty hero power was that, come to think? All it meant was that I could sit here, still alive, my powers preserving me, while everything else around me burned and died. What kind of talent is that for a hero? That's… that's the exact opposite of the way things should be in this business. My powers should save other people, not myself! I, I thought, AM A LOUSY FUCKING SUPERHERO.

I threw every ounce of my rage and frustration into one final push and…

…the beams moved.

I blinked, my eyes running constantly from the smoke, and looked up. Above me, suspended at the exact mathematically perfect leverage point for the mass of burned wreckage, was wrapped a tiny silver chain.

"Motherfucker," I said, coughing again and shaking my head. "Come on, big G. Let's get you out of here." I pulled Garuda from underneath the mess of timbers, and, leaning heavily on each other, we hobbled out of the burning church, debris falling and fire-blooms welling up on our wake, out to the front steps, where we met the only man that could possibly be there, and he was holding the other end of a silver chain, braced against one of the metal railings, and just because he was a dickweed, he was holding it with a single finger, just to show that he could.

"Give me a lever and a place to stand…" began Tackle, theatrically.

"…and you still won't be able to stop being a complete ass," I finished. "Hi, Tackle. Garuda, this is Tackle. He is also apparently a super hero. Bit late to the party, huh?"

He shrugged, and flicked his finger away from the chain, and behind us, thirty tons of flaming rubble crashed back into the sanctuary. "Better late than never," he said. He adjusted his makeshift mask, just a strip of black cloth tied around his face at nose level. It was perfunctory, but it apparently worked, as the firefighters took no notice of any one of us as they slowly advanced on the now-shrinking flames. We walked away from the church, cutting through their ranks without comment, and the three of us collapsed into a high snowbank nearby, where we lay, watching the fire.

"Are you gonna die?" I said, looking over at Garuda.

"Heavens no," said Garuda, still coughing a little. "Not now. I've shrugged off worse than this. Possibly if you and… this other gentleman hadn't shown up, I might have. What about you? Are you in any danger?"

"Superhealing," I said.

Garuda sighed. "It figures," he said. "Look, about all this… weirdness on my part. It's just… there was a girl, very much like you, back where I came from. I exposed her to this whole hero business, and… things didn't end well. I was hoping to keep you on the periphery. But I can see from the mask and the… apron being worn backwards as a cape and the little crown that I have failed miserably."

I shrugged. "Ima Super Hero," I said, and left it at that.

"The Absolvatron," said Garuda. "Is he…?"

"Dead," I said. "He died in the fire, saving us from a greater threat than himself."

"I'm sorry," said Garuda.

"You sure as fuck should be," I said.

"No, I mean, I'm sorry about not listening to you and --"

"Garuda!" I said. "Just drop it, okay? I don't need the whole schpiel."

"I'm sorry," he finished.

I sighed and looked up at the stars, which were fading in the smoke and the oncoming dawn. "Crap," I said. "I need to find a phonebook."

"What are you looking for?" said Tackle, rummaging around in his pocket and pulling out some little thing or another. I glanced over at him.

"I need the number for the E.R. at St. Mary's," I said, and Tackle began fucking around with the little thing. "What the hell is that?"

"It's a Blackberry," said Tackle.

"Shit, you and Dorian both with the pocket computers. Am I going to be forced to get one of those someday?"

"Yes," said Tackle. "When I rule everything, yes, you will."

"All the more reason for me to kick your ass now," I said, weakly, but I didn't. He held up his little pocket computer thing for me to see, and I dialed the number I saw there with my own goddamn cell phone, heaven help me. After about eighteen transfers, I got the information I needed and blipped the phone off.

"She's okay," I said. "She's gonna be okay."

"Who?" said Garuda.

"Corpseflower," I said, remembering at the last moment to call her by her hero name, and then realizing I had probably slipped up around the Channel Cat once or twice. I figured it was okay -- the Cat was with the homeless man, and the homeless man knew everything already. But she hadn't trusted Garuda with her real name, and Tackle? I didn't know what was up with her and Tackle. I looked over at him, but he didn't meet my eyes. He looked a little gray.

"What's up between you two?" I said.

"Never you mind, chickadee," said Tackle. "It's just… good that she's okay. Good that I didn't kill her by hesitating."

"Mm," I said.

"Corpseflower," said Garuda. "She's the one who watches over the University. The one I saved from the Acrobat."

"Yeah," I said, trying and failing to keep the bitter out. "The one you said wasn't a real hero. The one who was up there fighting for all of us alongside your robot nemesis while you were taking a nap underneath some burning wood."

"I'm sorry about that, too."

"Enough with the sorry, dude," I said. "Mistakes were made. Regrets are had. I get it. Let's just shut the fuck up and recover for a while, okay?"

"Okay," said Garuda, and Tackle also murmured his assent.

We lay there in the snow for a while as the fire consumed the last of the cathedral.

The sun rose.
  • Awesome. It's always a joy to find more Starbuck Avenger on my page.
  • I have this horrible suspicion that in the near future there'll be little new Starbuck Avenger showing up in my intertubes, making reading this both vaguely bittersweet and awesome.
    • Yeah, while it's not a certain thing, I think I need to concentrate on some stuff that doesn't lean so heavily on properties I don't own. Hopefully, you'll like what's coming, though...
  • "'Good that I didn't kill her by hesitating.'"

    What. An. Ass.

    In about the second third of this part or so it begins to finally feel like a wrap arc-wise back to where it all began.
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