At very long last, the fourth installment of “Homecoming.”
Interesting things when you’re working on a story like this — especially when there’s a long break the way there was with “Homecoming.” You evolve as a writer. The world you’re writing in evolves and changes. Your priorities change. Your understanding changes.
But when you return to something like a serial… you pick it up where you left off. You continue and conclude your story. Which among other things means projecting yourself back — trying to figure out who you were then so you can finish that story… while still taking the benefit of years of experience and perspective to make that story better.
Sometimes it’s easy. Interviewing Trey was like putting on a pair of gloves. Yeah, my hands might not be exactly the same shape they were years back, but the gloves still fit. Others — like “Homecoming” — are harder. For one thing the world of 023SG/Mythic Heroes has changed its essential underpinnings more than once. Amusingly, it’s now closer to its source material than it’s ever been. For another thing, even something as basic as my understandings of human dynamics have changed. I have nearly a decade of happy marriage under my belt — in that near-decade, I’ve learned a few things about how people interact with each other. I’ve had people close to me die. I’ve had disappointments and I’ve had triumphs.
The challenge is to tell the story of Len Davis and Victoria Esterhaus without going back and ‘correcting’ things. I can edit stuff when I repackage all this for publication — Banter Latte is a live mike, and the challenge is to yes-and myself.
That being said, I really, really like Len and Vicky, so it’s nice to get further along their story. I hope folks like it.
(Want to read “Homecoming” in order? Start with Part One!)
—kind of strange to be talking about all this. And recording all of it, you know? I’m going to be interested to see how your movie comes out. If it comes out — I know you’ve got a security clearance but a lot of these things are still classified.
But anyway. We’d been talking about my solo career as the All American Lad after Six Gun Sam retired — and how I’d felt overshadowed by Lieutenant Blockbuster, who wore a metal shell and flew through the air while raining explosive fire down. And you’ll remember I wasn’t at my best. I was a jealous brat, if you want to get right down to it. My parents and Sam tried to talk me out of my snit, but it hadn’t worked, and I’d torn into the Lieutenant like he — or she, as it turned out — was the problem. And then we met Browbeat, who was strong enough to throw cars and tough enough to shrug off bazooka fire. I’d stung him when I shot him in the eyes, but it hadn’t really hurt him… and after we’d tried to take him down two times, Lieutenant Blockbuster’s armored shell was a wreck, and both the All American Lad and the cops had been thoroughly trounced. Browbeat had even given me a warning — he was giving me a week, and then he was coming back. And if I tried to stop him, I’d die along with anyone who tried to help me.
So I’d gone to find Victoria Esterhaus — the girl who’d been in Lieutenant Blockbuster’s shell — in the hospital, because no matter how good a shot the All American Lad was… no matter how well the All American Lad planned… the All American Lad and other normal men like him couldn’t hope to stop Browbeat. Not with what we had at our disposal then. Not with what we did and didn’t know, then. It would be some time before a ‘mystery man’ or something like him could take on a seemingly invulnerable man and win — and when it happened, it wasn’t me who did it.
No, right then? We needed a hero. A super hero. And Lieutenant Blockbuster was the only super hero we had.
Only Victoria Esterhaus had just told me the good Lieutenant was dead.
“What do you mean?” I asked. Just… stunned. We were still in her hospital room, where she’d changed and packed — apparently she’d been discharged and someone was picking her up.
“I mean he’s dead.” She looked at me. “I used the shell to protect myself. Browbeat destroyed it with one punch, and did me quite a bit of harm at the same time. I don’t have any ability to shrug off one of those punches without that shell. If I went out there, he’d kill me in eight seconds.” She looked away. “I don’t mind dying for the cause, Mister Davis, but it seems stupid to die stupidly.”
I frowned. “Can’t you get another shell?”
“Do you see the Army paying for another one? I certainly don’t. And even if they did, it would take weeks to arrive.”
“We can’t just give up. He’s out there and he has to be stopped!”
Victoria looked at me for a long moment. “You know,” she said. “You were pretty firm about the fact that I had no business being in your city. It’s quite something to now demand I protect it. What that something is, I’m not sure. Rude, maybe. Or stupid. Or desperate. But something.”
“I know,” I said. And I did know. I’d thought about that the whole trip over to the hospital. “I’m sorry. I was wrong, Miss Esterhaus. I’m sorry. I should… have been better than that. I should have realized…”
She chuckled. “We all have should’ves, Mister Davis.” She looked back outside. “You asked me, when we talked by the water tower… you asked me where I was while you were putting your life on the line for Topaz City.” She looked down at the street in front of the hospital. At the trees. I remember that. She was looking at willow trees. It’s funny, what you remember. “I was killing people, Mister Davis. They talk about Lieutenant Blockbuster — about how he ‘beat back’ the Germans and killed tanks. But tanks aren’t alive. They have people inside them. That’s who died. That’s how you beat the German army back. I killed a lot of men, and I watched a lot of brave men on our side die too… all while I was… what did you say? Flying around, looking down on people?”
I wanted the whole Earth to open up and swallow me, right about then. I couldn’t have felt lower.
She took a deep breath, still looking at the willow trees. “Tanks aren’t alive, but Lieutenant Blockbuster was. He — always he, ask anyone — was that shell. That shell struck fear in German hearts. That shell’s what made the newsreels and the papers. That amplified voice, deeper than little Vicky Esterhaus’s voice could ever be… that’s what people heard. And he died, painfully, just like all those tank crews that I killed. I was never a hero, Mister Davis. Not like the All American Lad. I was the fuel and ammo for a weapon, and that weapon’s on the scrap heap. So maybe you’d better get used to that.”
I’ve never felt worse than I did right then. Never. I wanted nothing more than to slink away.
But I couldn’t. Because there was still a job to do.
I moved next to her, looking out the same window at the same willow trees. “Browbeat smashed your shell. I was there. I saw it. He wouldn’t have — at least not then… but despite already taking a bad hit, you attacked him so that he wouldn’t kill me. That’s why he smashed your shell.” I kept watching the trees, not looking at her. Afraid to look at her, even. “You can’t have it both ways, Miss Esterhaus. Either all you did was take out tanks and the crews didn’t matter… or Lieutenant Blockbuster wasn’t a ton of olive drab plate. That hunk of metal didn’t save my life. It didn’t decide to fly down there in the first place. It didn’t stop those crimes over the last couple of weeks. You did those things.”
She didn’t say anything. She just kept looking out the window. So I did the same thing, but I kept talking. “You saved my life, after I’d been absolutely rotten to you for no reason at all. You did. Lieutenant Victoria Esterhaus. Blockbuster.”
She didn’t answer me. I don’t know how long we stood there.
“Miss Esterhaus. Browbeat is going to come back to Topaz City,” I said, finally. “Whatever I did… that’s still true.”
Victoria slid her arms around herself. I saw it out of the corner of my eye. “I… could try to contact someone. I know a few of the others from the—”
“Miss Esterhaus,” I said, softly. “You’re the city’s only hope. You said it yourself. You live here. You’re from here. This is your city. And this is your fight.”
“To die in?”
“I’ve tangled with Browbeat twice now, and I didn’t die either time.”
“You’re different,” she said, still not turning. “You’re special.”
I turned instead, staring at her. “What?”
“You’re special,” she said, finally turning towards me, but looking down at the floor. “You’re the All American Lad.” She took another deep breath. “Even as a kid, you were taking on guys twice your age and twice your size, solving mysteries and making Six Gun Sam look good. You didn’t die because you can’t die. You’re…” she sighed. “You’re a hero. My hero. Once upon a time.”
I stared at her for a long time. My heart was pounding. “Miss Esterhaus,” I said, finally. “I’m just a man.”
“You’re not just anything,” she snapped.
“Sure I am.” I put my hands on her shoulders. She still wouldn’t look me in the eyes. “But I spent a lot of time training and I try. Lord knows I try, Miss Esterhaus.”
“Like I said,” she said, softly. “You’re special.”
“Not really. Not like you. The only difference is, I’ve had a lot of practice and I’ve never had more than a bulletproof vest protecting me.” I took a deep breath of my own. “And you said I made Six Gun Sam look good. And you know what, I thought that too. I was the smart one. The strategist. The detective. Six Gun Sam was the goofy adult who thought he was doing the hard work. A great shot and a great guy, but not the hero. Not like me, right?” I closed my eyes.
“But?” Victoria asked me, softly.
“But… I never really realized… really understood… what Sam was doing. What he was trying to teach me. Seriously, I never thought he could teach me anything outside of marksmanship.” I opened my eyes back up. “You said I was your hero? It’s because Six Gun Sam made me look good, Miss Esterhaus. Maybe I was the detective, but he was the hero. I thought being a hero was fighting crime and looking good and maybe making my ex-girlfriend swoon. He knew what it was really about. He knew it was about stopping the bad guys, helping the good guys, and protecting the innocent. And without him… I’m just a selfish jerk who throws tantrums. And I’m sorry, because I hurt you with one of those tantrums. And that’s just wrong… because when you showed up… when you flew out over the city in your shell… it wasn’t to look good or get your name in the papers. I thought it was but I was wrong. Despite living through all the horrors of war, you decided to use your powers to help people. That’s exactly what a hero does.”
Victoria bit her lip. “Yeah, well…”
I let go of her, stepping back. “That’s what Six Gun Sam did, Miss Esterhaus. I thought I made him look good… but he was good. Through and through. And wiser than I knew. And I was just a smug kid. And I really wish he were here right now, because he’d know what to say to you, dumb fake Western accent or not.”
Despite herself, almost… Victoria smiled a bit. “You risked your life to help people. Whatever your motivation, you still did that, Mister Davis. And… it meant something to a lot of people. Not just in Topaz City. The others in Special Assets… we’d talk about Solitaire, or Spycracker sure… but more often we’d talk about you. The one who was our age, but still clearly in charge, fighting the Nazis without explosive blasts or throwing tidal waves.” She looked back out the window, but didn’t turn away to do it. She still hadn’t looked at me, though. “Maybe you weren’t as good a guy as we thought. It doesn’t matter. You were what we needed.” She laughed, lightly. “There were a lot of sidekicks. Torpedo, Solitaire, Stiletto — even little kids like Jackknife. But you weren’t a sidekick. To us… Six Gun Sam was the sidekick. You weren’t too young to lead the charge. That… made me think I could do something in the fight. Me and a lot of others.”
“I… I’m glad. I really am.” I took a long, deep breath. “But I’m not what we need now, Miss Esterhaus. You are.”
“…it’s… easy for you to say that, but—“
“Look. We have a week. One week before Browbeat’s coming back. He wants to psych me out, get me to leave. He says if I fight him then, he’ll kill me.”
That got her attention. She finally looked at me, her eyes wide. “Kill you?”
“And anyone who tries to help me, yeah.”
“What are you going to do?”
I paused for a long moment. “Well,” I said, “I’m going to go out there and he’s probably going to kill me.”
She stared at me.
“I may not be the hero I thought I was, but the cops followed me into that last fight. I took the job, and I can’t quit it now.” I bit my lip. “All I can do is die trying… unless you’re there with me.”
She looked into my eyes. I could see… something. She wanted to believe. But she couldn’t. Not quite. “And I’ll die with you if I do, and no one will be saved.”
I met her gaze. “We have a week, Miss Esterhaus. A week to teach you.”
“Teach me? Teach me what?”
“How not to die.” I finally smiled, just a little bit. “If you want to learn.”
She looked down, thinking.
“If you don’t think you can do this… if after a week you don’t think you can be a hero, then I’ll respect that. You did your part. You helped win the War. But give me a week and I think we can have you ready.”
“Ready for what?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe to still get killed right alongside me. But maybe to beat him, instead.”
She looked back up, finally. “Okay.”
So now I had a student.
“I’m sorry. Am I interrupting?”
I looked at the door. It was her brother, Victor. Still the too-clean, too-clever milquetoast. Though now I remembered that milquetoast volunteered for service on his eighteenth birthday. I don’t think Sam would have dismissed him so quickly as I had.
“No… I…” I realized I had no idea what to say to Victor.
“This is Len Davis,” Victoria said. “He’s the All American Lad. He’s going to teach me how not to die while I browbeat Browbeat.” She snickered. “I may have some doubts.”
“…I’ll bet you do.” He looked at me, a little incredulously.
“…lesson one,” I said, a little ruefully. “Secret identities. We wear masks because we don’t want people to know our real names—”
Victoria laughed. It sounded… like a real laugh. “Tor’s part of my ‘secret identity.’ They wanted the illusion that Lieutenant Blockbuster was a man, because who’d ever believe a girl could beat a German soldier, powers or no?”
“Remind me to introduce you to Solitaire,” I muttered.
She blinked. “…I’d really like that,” she said, softly.
Victor rolled his eyes. “And she’s off the subject. They needed a fighting man to be in the records, just in case someone went looking. I agreed, because I knew it’d help keep Vicky safe. That’s why they trained Vicky up at the National Guard base, and why she marched at graduation — so no one would think the flying gunship that appeared in Europe two weeks later was this dizzy skirt over here. As for me? They shipped me out to the Pacific so no one would twig to the two V. Esterhauses. I ended up in the Western New Guinea campaign. Army Signal Corps.” He cocked his head. “What did you do in the war, Mister Davis?”
“Volunteered on my eighteenth birthday, was commissioned, and continued to be assigned to the Liberty Brigade. Nothing compared to what people like you did.”
“Yeah, because fighting all those spies with guns and explosives at — what, fifteen? That was nothing.” Victoria sounded even more amused. I was glad to hear her spirits were up. “C’mon, Tor. Don’t grill him. We have a lot of work to do. And don’t think I’ll forget that ‘dizzy skirt’ crack. And me wearing trousers, no less.”
“What is this ‘Tor’ business?” I asked.
Victor rolled his eyes. “Our parents thought it would be cute to name us Victor and Victoria. Before we could talk we’d become Tor and Vicky. Come on, Vicky — let’s go home.”
She looked at me. “Home? Or somewhere else, Mister Davis? We have less than a week, right?”
I nodded. “Let’s go back to my place. Mister Esterhaus, if you were Signal Corps I’d sure like to have you come with. We don’t know what we’ll need out there, but communications and logistics’ll be crucial.”
“Oh, don’t worry. If Vicky’s going, I’m going.” He frowned, looking at me. “I’m not sure I care for the company she’s keeping.”
“Tor…” Victoria said, with a warning edge in her voice.
“Today, Mister Esterhaus? I completely agree. C’mon. You can follow me.”
So that was our cadre. One signal corps vet from the pacific, one mystery man, one exploding super hero who they never taught to duck, one greengrocer who used to pretend to be an unconvincing old west cowboy, and my parents. We had to figure out what a squadroom full of cops and moonlighting National Guard soldiers couldn’t figure out — how to take down a man who seemingly couldn’t be hurt… without letting him kill our hero… and me, for that matter… in the process.
I think I could use something to drink. How about you? Let’s pick this up in a few minutes, okay?