The bar was hazy with cigarette smoke; it hurt Lucian’s eyes as he sat at the bar, nursing his beer. The jukebox was playing a country song Lucian didn’t recognize; they all blended together for him. His musical tastes ran more to Dave Brubeck and MJQ, but try getting that in a bar in Dover, Delaware. Far and away the major clientele base was airmen from the big Air Force base, and civilian employees thereof. Lucian sighed as he took another sip of beer. At least it beat staying at home, reading John D. MacDonald novels and feeling sorry for himself. Didn’t it?
“Hey, sport,” a female voice beside him said. “Buy a girl a drink?”
Lucian looked around, not in the direction the voice had come from, but in the opposite direction, to see whom the girl was talking to. There was no one there.
“Yeah, you,” the voice said. This time Lucian turned to see who was speaking. She was small and slender, but very pretty. She had long, raven-black hair that flowed down her shoulders like chocolate syrup. Her skin was porcelain-smooth, free of any blemish. She was dressed rather oddly for this bar, too. Most of the women who came in here on the make, looking for an airman to hitch up with and draw government benefits from, wore cowboy boots and denim skirts, or some variation on that attire. This one wore a sleeveless black shirt and black leather pants. “Do I get the drink or not, chief?” the girl asked.
“Oh. Oh! Sure,” Lucian stammered. “Ah, what would you like?”
“Whatever you’re having is fine,” she said, smiling. The smile somehow made Lucian nervous. He signaled the bartender and ordered a beer for the girl. When it came, she took the mug by the handle but did not take a sip; she just looked at Lucian over the head of foam.
“I’ve been watching you for a while,” she said. “Sitting there, moping over a beer, not talking to anyone. Pardon a cliché, but you look like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
Lucian sighed. “It shows that much, huh?”
“Want to talk about it?” the girl asked. “It sometimes helps.”
“Well, it’s a long story,” Lucian said.
“I’m not catching a bus or anything,” the girl encouraged, still not drinking her beer.
Lucian tried to decide whether to tell the story, then figured what the hell. “Did you ever hear of the Mind-Grabber Kid?”
“Should I have?” the girl asked simply.
Lucian shrugged. “I guess not. Well, maybe I should begin at the beginning. My name is Lucian Crawley. All my life, for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a super-hero. I used to read about ’em in comics and watch ’em on television; and then, when I was about five or six, the real super-heroes started appearing. I knew that what I wanted, more than anything else, was to be one of them.
“When I reached puberty and realized I had special abilities, I figured it would be easy to become a super-hero. I have what they call telepathic powers, you know? I can reach out, touch another mind. I figured that alone was enough to make me a hero. I mean, Batman and Green Arrow had no special powers at all, right? So I tried to make a name for myself as a super-hero. But it never caught on. Maybe it was the dumb name I came up with for myself — Mind-Grabber Kid. You should hear some of the ideas I rejected. Anyway, I became bitter that I hadn’t become a world-famous super-hero overnight. My admiration for the big heroes like the Justice League of America turned into jealousy. So, one night, when my telepathic brain picked up the thoughts of an alien race called the Ur, I had a brainstorm. If I could get these aliens to eliminate the competition of the JLA for me, then I could become the famous super-hero I’d always wanted to be!” Lucian sighed. “It sounded like a good idea at the time.”
“So what happened?” the girl prompted.
“Well, the JLA, with a little help from a guy called the Creeper, got out of the trap I’d sprung on them, and convinced the Ur that they were good guys after all. And I agreed to retire Mind-Grabber Kid for good. (*) My parents, scandalized, packed it all up and moved us somewhere far away, where they’d never heard of Mind-Grabber Kid. That’s how we ended up here in Dover. That’s where we’ve been ever since.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Versus the Creeper,” Justice League of America #70 (March, 1969).]
“Tough break,” the girl said. “Well, keep your chin up, Lucian. Things may turn around for you.” The girl set her untouched beer back on the counter, lithely slid down off her stool, and without another word, walked out of the bar. Lucian watched her go.
“Weird,” he said to no one in particular, and took a big swallow of beer.
“Lucian? Is that you?” his mother’s voice called from somewhere in the kitchen, as Lucian came in the front door of their apartment.
“It’s me, Mom,” Lucian called, tossing his jacket over the back of a chair.
“Lucian, I put some community college literature in your room,” his mother called. “Please read it through, dear. Thoroughly.”
“I will, Mom,” Lucian said with a sigh.
“And Mrs. Loockerman called,” his mother continued. “Her daughter is coming down from Newark this weekend. She’s studying marketing principles at the University of Delaware. You should give her a call, Lucian.”
Lucian didn’t even bother to answer that. He walked into his room and shut the door. He put a beat-up old Les Baxter cassette in his stereo and tried to listen to the music through the pops and crackles as he lay on his bed, hands behind his head.
What had happened to him? Where had his life gone wrong? He had remembered something some adult had told him when he was a little boy, a teacher or minister or some such. Everyone is born with a purpose, he had been told. Beethoven was deaf, and he created beautiful music. John Milton was blind, and he wrote wonderful poetry. Everyone has a role to play in the grand design. So what was his? He was given these telepathic powers, and for what reason? To waste his life living in a three-room apartment over a furniture store? To hide out from the shame he had brought on his family by trying to be a super-hero? That couldn’t be the design. Could it?
A noise outside his window made Lucian glance that way. What he saw made him get up suddenly and press his face to the glass.
Airmen in military uniforms were marching down his street, filling the entire avenue with their marching bodies. There seemed to be no order to them; he saw colonels and majors and other ranks he couldn’t recognize but obviously with a lot of shiny stuff on their collars, marching elbow to elbow with AFCs. And there were nonmilitary personnel marching, too — civilian workers from the Air Force base. It was as if everyone at the base had suddenly decided to go out for a stroll.
What the devil was going on?
“Hey! What’s going on? Where are you all going? Hey, somebody! Listen to me!” Lucian had run out into the street, and was jumping up and down, waving his arms. The airmen and others marching down the street did not seem to see or hear him; they gave no notice of him, just went right on marching.
“Hey!” Lucian yelled. “Are you deaf? Can’t you hear me?”
“I can hear you fine, Lucian,” Mr. McAllister, the proprietor of the small shoe store across the street, called to him. He had been sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store. “What’s on your mind?”
“Mr. McAllister!” Lucian called. “I was talking to these airmen here!”
McAllister’s face assumed a puzzled look. “What airmen?”
Lucian goggled. “These airmen! All these guys marching down the street!”
McAllister looked up the street and down it and scratched his head. “I don’t see nobody, Lucian. Maybe you’ve got a touch too much sun.”
Lucian opened his mouth to retort, then closed it again. OK, something was definitely screwy. A seemingly endless stream of airmen and other base personnel, marching down the street — they couldn’t seem to see or hear him, but he could see them. Nobody else, apparently, could. Oh, yeah. Bad juju.
Concentrating, Lucian did something he hadn’t done in years. He used his mental powers. Flexing his mind like a long-unused muscle, he reached out to touch the minds of the airmen. The message he received was loud and clear.
Get out of the base. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you. Walk out and don’t stop walking until you’re in Pennsylvania.
As a further test, Lucian turned his telepathy on Mr. McAllister. There, too, was a clear message. You don’t see anybody marching down the street. You don’t hear anybody marching down the street. The street is empty.
Lucian frowned. They were being mind-controlled. The base personnel, Mr. McAllister, maybe everyone in town — everyone except him? Why?
Well, if all the base personnel were ordered out of the base, chances were the answer was at the base.
Lucian hesitated for just a moment, then ran back into his apartment.
Inside his apartment, Lucian made a grab for the phone. Then he thought better of it. Who was he going to call? The police? The National Guard? And tell them what? He’d never be able to make them believe it. Like as not, he’d end up in a padded room wearing the kind of jacket that doesn’t let you look at your watch. He could always call the Justice League — if he had their number. But he didn’t. He wasn’t important enough for that.
Lucian heaved a great sigh and went to his room. He opened his clothes closet and shoved aside hangers full of slacks and sweaters never worn. He found the package wrapped in black paper, taped to the back wall of the closet. His mother had burned the original. Three years ago, on a night after too many beers and too much dwelling on the past, he had ordered this one made. Why, in the cold light of sobriety, he hadn’t destroyed it when it arrived, he had never known.
Minutes later, a small motorbike was tearing down Route 13, headed for the Air Force base. A motorbike bearing a colorfully garbed young man, with a grim expression on his face, his forehead wrinkled in thought.
Mentallo? No. Brain Boy? No. Saturn Lad? Where had that come from? Brainiac Junior? Hell, no! Lucian had reached no clear decision regarding his nom de guerre when he reached the air base. He had only been considering names to keep his mind off how scared he was. His motorbike roared through the gates unchallenged. The place was like a tomb: empty, silent. Lucian reached out with his mind, trying to find another human presence on the base.
Ah. There. In that big hangar, third from the left. Deciding not to announce his presence, Lucian parked his motorbike and approached the hangar on foot. He crept up to it and found the door wide open. Inside he saw a huge, gleaming fighter jet, kind of like the ones in Top Gun but different somehow, with subtle differences in styling and contour. He also saw a slender young man in a harlequin costume bent over a sheet of schematics laid out on a table, studying them.
“Hello,” the clown said brightly, looking up. “I’m going to kill you.”