by Starsky Hutch 76
“So, in our last session, you were saying you believe the accident could have been avoided,” the portly therapist said.
“If not for my own stupidity,” the immobile man laying in the bed finished hoarsely. “I still don’t quite understand it.”
“You said the helmet was untested. Was placing a new, untested, and potentially hazardous device on your head the most logical choice?” the therapist asked.
“There was no need to test it!” Steve Dayton exclaimed. “I knew the schematics of the old helmet inside and out. I invented the damn thing! I should know whether it was safe or not!”
“But it wasn’t…”
“No, it wasn’t,” Dayton said grimly. “The new model was supposed to stop any of the kind of feedback I had experienced with the old one, which nearly fried my brain at the time, and later caused me to have a nervous breakdown after I rebuilt it. (*) Instead, the new model was even more volatile. The damn thing exploded while it was on my head!”
“You could have been killed. Most people didn’t think you would ever come out of your coma — even your doctors. For all intents and purposes, you were considered dead.”
“I might as well have been, for all the good my so-called recovery has done me,” Dayton said. The therapist noticed his patient eyeing the water glass on the night stand and held it up for him, guiding the straw up to his mouth. “What kind of life is this? I can’t even feed myself anymore.”
“There seemed to be a disturbing trend in the missions you took leading up to your accident,” the therapist continued.
“They were all hazardous, Doctor, each and every one. It goes with the territory.”
“True. But there was a steadily greater chance of your not coming back from them,” the therapist said.
“What are you getting at?” Dayton said suspiciously.
“Is it possible that perhaps you didn’t want to come back from them?”
“Perhaps…” Dayton sighed. He closed his eyes wearily. “I miss Rita. You’d think it would get easier over time, but it doesn’t. I miss her just as much today as the day she was taken from me.”
The therapist looked at the portrait facing them on the opposite wall of the bedroom. “She was very beautiful.”
“And that was just the surface,” Dayton said. “You hear the term ‘the beautiful people’ thrown around a lot in Hollywood. But she was the only one I’ve ever seen come out of there that I’d describe as truly beautiful, both inside and out. Living without her is agony. I haven’t felt complete since.”
“So, perhaps all this was an attempt to be with her again,” the therapist offered.
“You don’t know what it’s like… to lose someone like that…” Dayton said.
“I might have some idea,” the therapist said. “I’m a widower as well. It’s probably why I was recommended for your case.”
“All you say about me might be true,” Dayton said. “But what good does that knowledge do me? In the condition I’m in, paralyzed from the neck down, it’s not as though I can forge ahead, carve out a new life for myself, as the saying goes.” He turned to his therapist and said, “Tell me, what do I have to live for now?”
The therapist looked stricken. “I can’t answer that for you.”
“I thought not,” Dayton said, staring at the ceiling. “I suppose it’s hard to convince a patient he has something to live for, when you don’t believe it yourself.”
Steve Dayton lay motionless in his bed, wishing he were dead, as he had so many nights. It was a wish he knew wasn’t likely to come true. After all, how was a man paralyzed from the neck down supposed to commit suicide? He didn’t have the working arms to shoot or hang himself, nor the working legs to jump from a ledge. He was trapped in the world of the living, just as he was trapped in a useless body.
His only hope was to find someone willing to put him out of his misery, but it wasn’t much of one. Posing the question to visitors made them fidget uncomfortably and gradually stop seeing him. The only ones who still visited him regularly were Cliff Steele and Garfield Logan — Cliff, because he was probably the only one who could understand what he was going through, and Garfield because he sometimes lived there.
Posing this question to Vernon Questor, who was officially his faithful business manager but in actuality fulfilled any other roles that were needed, nearly cost him his services. Questor had threatened to quit if Dayton ever asked such a thing of him again. Dayton had become too dependent on him to risk losing his services, so he stopped asking. All he could do was lay in bed, reflecting on the hell his life had become and curse the day he’d decided to redesign his helmet earlier this month.
Sleep was a long time in coming, but eventually, its embrace was inescapable. It was a time he dreaded. In his dreams, his bride Rita Farr was alive, he was whole again, and all was right with the world. Upon waking, when he would discover none of it was real, he would enter a crushing depression, much like that of an addict coming down from a high.
This night, sleep had something else in store for him. As slumber claimed him, he seemed to float out of his body and through the roof of his mansion. He took to the skies, experiencing freedom such as he’d never known, even before he was paralyzed, even — dare he think it? — when he’d worn the helmet of Mento.
As he soared through the sky, he felt light as a feather. The world lay spread out before him, with beacons of light shining up from the landscape. They seemed to be calling out to him, not with words, but with an emotional pull. He realized these beacons were people — their souls, to be precise.
Flying through these beacons, he was flooded with sights, sounds, experiences, and, most of all, feelings. He found himself drawn from one beacon to the next, fascinated by this window into the souls of others. The ones who called out to him the most were the souls in need. In them, he found an emptiness that matched his own. It was a connection of sorts.
Steve Dayton awoke with the same feelings of disappointment and sadness he always did when he found himself back in his bed. He stared up at the ceiling and sighed. He had come to know every dimple of its stucco surface intimately. But there was something different about it today. Did it seem… closer?
“Good Lord!” came a startled cry from Questor at the doorway, accompanied by the dropping of a sterling silver tray with his breakfast.
Startled by the noise, Dayton fell several feet down to his bed beneath him, along with several floating objects from around the room that came crashing down as well.
“You should have seen the look on Questor’s face,” Steve Dayton said as he recounted his recent experience to Cliff Steele. “I thought he was going to have a stroke. And he’s seen some pretty strange things while in my service.”
“It sounds pretty wild,” Cliff said. “So you made yourself and a bunch of stuff around here float?” He looked around the room, noticing the absence of several object that had been there on his last visit, including vases and lamps.
“It would appear that way,” said Steve. “Apparently, what I thought a dream was quite real. The accident with my helmet did more than paralyze me. It changed my brain somehow… enhanced it.”
“The chief always talked about taking away a little triumph out of tragedy, being the master of your own fate,” Cliff said. “Maybe this’ll help you do that.”
“Exactly!” Steve said, a wild look coming into his eyes. “After the accident, I figured my days of adventuring were behind me because of my condition, but now…!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, there!” Cliff interrupted, holding his metallic hands up. “Lets not get carried away here! You aren’t seriously suggesting going back into action again! Are you crazy?! Remember what happened the last time, when you tried to create your own Doom Patrol? The Titans are still dealing with the former members of the Hybrid!” (*)
“What? You don’t think I have what it takes anymore?” Dayton said. “That I’m not strong enough?”
Cliff Steele suddenly jerked and rose to his feet involuntarily. “What the hell–?!” His metallic arms and legs began to move of their own accord, and he began to dance like a robot marionette. “What… what are you doing?”
“Just giving you a demonstration of my new abilities,” Steve Dayton said. “I believe Garfield calls this one the ‘cabbage patch.'”
“Well, knock it off, will ya?!” Cliff exclaimed, watching his own movements in dismay. “Yer creepin’ me out!”
“As you wish,” Steve said, releasing control of him.
“Whew!” Cliff exclaimed, sitting down. “Do me a favor and never do that again. If I ever decide I want to go on Soul Train, I’ll let ya know, OK?”
“As you can see, I’m not exactly helpless,” Steve said with pride.
“Yeah, whatever,” Cliff said. “The fact still remains that you’re paralyzed. I’m sorry to be blunt, here, but it’s the truth. And someone in your condition has no business going back into action. I’m sorry.”
The former Robotman rose to his feet and said, “The power you’ve been given is a gift that will make what’s happened to you easier to live with. Take it as that and nothing more.” With that, Cliff Steele turned and left.
As the door shut behind Cliff, Steve looked up at the ceiling and said, “You’re right, Cliff. I have been given a gift. But I don’t believe that it’s merely a gift for me alone.”
Using the mouth control of his electric wheelchair, Steve Dayton carefully guided himself into the enormous hangar, which also contained his laboratory, located on his sprawling estate. His gaze drifted around the large room, stopping on different parts, which then took to the air and floated toward him.
Dayton’s body rose and hovered above his seat as his wheelchair came apart, and the pieces moved to allow space for the others that came to join them. All the pieces moved through the air below him as if part of a well-choreographed routine. Then, suddenly, they moved inward, connecting into their new form.
Once this necessary task was completed, Dayton lowered once more into his chair. The hangar doors opened as a windshield rose out of his enhanced chair to cover him, and wings sprouted out from the sides. With another mental command, the chair rolled forward and then took to the air.
Dayton’s super-chair landed on the darkened bridge, rolling silently to a stop. His gaze drifted around, seeking out the person he was looking for. His eyes stopped on the shapely silhouette of a woman standing on the wrong side of the safety railing.
A spotlight rose from the back of Dayton’s chair and pointed at her, instantly bathing her in light. She whirled around in shock, and Dayton stifled a gasp as he was confronted with a face he was totally unprepared for.
In the time since his accident nearly a month earlier, he had watched far too much television, including several documentaries. Her face reminded him of one such program on a fashion model who had been disfigured in a fire. There were still traces of what her face must have looked like at one time, but her nose was too pointed and upturned, her cheekbones way too prominent, and her eyes and mouth too wide and expressive from unnatural-looking skin that seemed ill-suited for her face.
“Who are you?” she called out. “What do you want? Leave me alone!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, not when I know what you were about to do,” he said, starting to roll forward.
“You don’t know anything,” she said with emotional outrage. “Look at me!” she gestured to herself, which made Dayton take in the full expanse of her body. It appeared to be divided in sections, each representing one of the elements. Even her hair was elemental, having the appearance of long, green grass. The look of her was familiar to him, and he tried to place it.
“I’m a freak,” she said in a voice cracking with emotion. “What kind of life do you think I have, huh? Do you think people want to have anything to do with me?”
He hadn’t been trying to spy on her thoughts, but one memory was so strong it practically leaped at him and grabbed him by the throat. She had been having dinner in a restaurant with a young man. It had taken her months to work up the courage to agree to it, but he had sounded so kind over the phone whenever she would call in to ask about her disability check. During the course of conversation, the silicate false face she had generated hardened earlier than expected and fell into her linguini, revealing her real appearance to him. Seeing the expression on his face as she struggled to stammer out an apology was too much for her, and she ran from the restaurant in tears. That was what had led her to the bridge.
“I’m lucky if people don’t scream and run when they see me,” she continued, stepping over the railing to face him. “Do you have any idea what that’s like?”
“Perhaps,” Dayton said, rolling closer. “The best emotional reaction I get these days is pity. The worst is disgust. So I can relate somewhat to what you’re going through.”
“That’s not the same,” she said.
“It’s not?” Dayton said. “No, I guess it’s not. At least you can walk on your own two legs. At least you can move your own arms. After my accident, I truly felt I had no reason to live. I wanted to die, but because of my condition, even the option of suicide was denied me.”
“It’s been like that for me, too,” she said. “I… I’ve tried almost everything. Nothing I do works. I… I… don’t think I can die.”
“So you were going to try drowning?” Dayton said with disbelief.
“Not exactly,” she said. “I was going to turn into salt or something that might dissolve in the water.
Dayton shook his head.
“I know… I know,” she sighed, sitting against the safety rail and resting her head in her hands. “Really stupid. I was desperate.”
It suddenly hit him who she looked like. Her blatantly female figure, the hair, and even the purse she carried had thrown him. “Metamorpho…”
She looked at him quizzically. “What?”
“You used to work with him for a short time, didn’t you? (*) I remember reading something about it. He has the same condition you do, and he’s leading a very full life.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Sinister Snares of Stingaree,” Metamorpho #10 (January-February, 1967).]
“He was lucky,” said the Element Girl. “He already had somebody before he was changed.”
“Sapphire Stagg,” Dayton said. “I’m familiar with the family.”
“I had hoped he and I might eventually come together, since he and I had so much more in common, but that never happened. Somehow, they stayed together despite everything that should have torn them apart. I’ll never know love like that.”
“How do you know?” Dayton asked.
“I know.” She reached into her purse and pulled out her government ID. The name on it read Urania Blackwell. The picture showed an extremely beautiful blonde, blue-eyed woman. “If I didn’t find love when I looked like her, what chance do I have now?”
“Sapphire loved the man Rex Mason was,” Dayton said. “Somewhere, there is someone who will love you for the same reason. My power allows me to look inside you and see the person you really are. And from what I see, that picture doesn’t even begin to do you justice.”
With these words, whatever barriers had been keeping Urania Blackwell’s emotions in check were broken. She fell to her knees, latching onto him, and burst into tears and was soon wracked with great, heaving sobs. “It’s so hard,” she cried. “Some days I just start to cry and cry for no reason, and can’t seem to stop.”
Dayton was dumbstruck. He certainly hadn’t meant to get this reaction from her. Even before his accident, he hadn’t been good at dealing with the complexities of human emotion. It was one of the reasons he and Rita had wasted so much time before Cliff had had to finally — and literally — knock some sense into him. Now here he was with someone who needed to be comforted — and held — and he couldn’t even raise his arms.
Reaching out with his mind, Dayton caused her luxurious green hair to begin to move as telekinetic fingers stroked her head reassuringly. It seemed to soothe her, and in that moment, he realized he’d found a new reason for being. “I want you to know, Urania, that you’re not alone anymore. As long as you need a friend, I’m here.”
“Rainie…” she said, fidgeting contentedly against him as a child would while adjusting to make herself more comfortable in her father’s arms. “My friends always called me Rainie.”
“Rainie it is, then,” Dayton said, smiling. The windshield rose and lowered itself over them as the wings extended, and the chair took to the air once more.