Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Secret Identity

When you're going to step out on your wife, you'd better have a plan, and Mark Maitland had a doozy. It wasn't that he didn't love Stephanie, he was the first to point that out, even (and usually) to whichever girl he was explaining the intricacies of his marital woes to. No, he loved Stephanie. Which is why he bought the spandex, ultimately. He didn't want to hurt her.

Annual company shareholder dinner. He was there with Stephanie, the both of them suffering through disjointed insufferable conversations and the kind of chicken curry liable to get whoever crafted it called before The Hague. She looked beautiful, standing there across the room making small talk with Artie Preston about whatever goddamn thing Artie Preston was in to these days.

It was sheer elegance in its simplicity, the plan. After all, Mister Upstanding had to be somebody, and Mark was of the right build and you never saw under the guy's Mecha-Halo, right? Mark kept a police scanner in his study, not obvious but something you could find if you were looking for it, and if there was a bank robbery in progress or if Mesmeron or the Preying Mantis threatened to blow up the Triboro bridge, he had his permission, tacit, no questions asked, to step out for the evening.

The hard part was finding the right color of spandex to match the guy's traditional bluish purple and leaving a swatch of the stuff in just the right place. Again, not too obvious, but he didn't want to go to the whole trouble of telling the girl at the fabric store that his wife was really, really in to Mister Upstanding and hence the bolt of the damn stuff he was buying, of which he'd only use a scrap, and enduring that knowing look as she scanned through and why couldn't it have been one of those frumpy women you so often find in stores like this?

There had been the predictable craze of 24-hour news speculation on who the flying wonder who averted the terrorist strike and locked up The Human Pyramid could be, but as with any news story that doesn't gain immediate traction, after a while it was forgotten and the question of just who Mister Upstanding was faded into the dull obscurity of B-list celebrity deaths and environmental catastrophes. But he had to be somebody, and why not Mark Maitland, mild-mannered accountant for a great metropolitan banking concern?

Shareholder meetings are their own brand of depressing, and that was before Holestyn & Tamura lost twenty percent of its net value in a single year. Mark had been on the task force assigned to massage the message to HT's annual dinner for its bigger stakeholders, to finesse the truth, to insert phrases like "emerging markets," "new direction," and "history of excellence" and just let them lie there in Don Holestyn's speech, for anybody to find. After dinner there was supposed to be dancing, an affair that in years past had been jubilant to the point of getting him nearly caught with Norma from Accounts Payable giving her the ol' Accounts Receivable. This year? Not so much. Dour as a Junior High dance, this was, with Investors and Employees on opposite sides of the dance floor milling around uncertain and vaguely resentful of being here int he first place. Stephanie was a real champ at these things. he was always glad to have her in his corner.

He didn't notice the rumbling at first. He was talking to one brave investor who'd managed to breach the enfilade of low-ranking employees to ask him point blank what HT was going to do in this positively ghastly market when Mark finally noticed the rumbling.

Then the ceiling tore apart. And giant robot spiders flooded in.

What is it about supervillains and the maniacal laughter entrance? The Tarantulist, astride a fifteen-foot mechanical spider, descended upon the party with an army of soulless killer arachnids aiming to be the second-worst thing to happen to Holestyn-Tamura since the Recession started.

"Bring me Don Holestyn!" the villain demanded. "I have six-hundred shares in this fucking company!"

Somehow, in the panic, Stephanie had made her way to his side. Mark was too busy trying not to wet himself to possibly anticipate what she was about to say.

"I'll hold them off."

"What?" he asked. Fucking spiders! Fucking ROBOT fucking SPIDERS! They were the size of dogs! Prowling around, herding them to the center of the room.

"I'll hold them off. You know. Create a distraction. A disturbance. Get their attention. So you can...you know."

"So I can WHAT?!"

"It's okay, Mark. I know. I know. It's okay."

Oh, fuck.

He gulped. He hoped not too outwardly obviously. Then he said the most perplexing thing he'd ever said in his life. He said "Okay."

Stephanie smiled the smile of a woman married to a superhero. She moved to the center of the crowd. Don Holestyn was crouching under the hors dourves table. Several people looked like they were positively rooting for the Tarantulist.

"Hey!" Stephanie shouted. "We're in an economic recession, you jerk! Holestyn & Tamura isn't any better off than any other company!"

He had a window. And he had a duty, a moral imperative to his wife, to get past the robot spiders and escape to safety. He would call the police, that's what he would do. The police would warn Mister Upstanding and the whole thing would be taken care of. Yeah. Yeah! He could do this.

Slowly, he insinuated himself backward, not looking for the spiders, not yet. People were actually listening to his wife. Go figure! And she was making sense! He ducked past a chunk of fallen masonry and by the barest breath of good fortune slipped past a spider that was attenuating its laser-guided unpleasantness toward Stephanie's back to reach the double-doors and slip out of the ballroom.

He eased the doors shut and began to run. The hallway was perversely quiet. He bolted down the deserted corridors of Holestyn & Tamura, forgoing the elevator, skipping down steps three at a time.

Gotta get out.

Gotta get out.

Gotta get out.

All at once he was in the night again, the city awash in familiar sounds, ignorant, apparently, of the ordeal inside. Only then did he try his phone. And...nothing. Jammed? If he got farther away...Mark had already started to run again when the light and the whoosh like a low-flying jet signaled that, right on time, Mister Upstanding had arrived.

Mark couldn't see the man's face, not clearly, not enough to make it out. The halo was like a lens-flare on God's movie camera, just obscuring the hero's features. He was taller than Mark, broader-shouldered, and in that moment of first contact Mark was seized by the reality that, really, he didn't look a thing like this guy.

"Tarantulist," Mark huffed at the--still floating, the bastard--superhero. "Inside."

"I know." Oh, and the voice. Deep, rich, crackwhorefucking baritone. Stephanie was going to know. She was going to know for sure. He wanted to retch.

"How many hostages?" Upstanding asked. The deal on Mister Upstanding was this: Far in the future, we will evolve past greed and cruelty and stepping out on your wife and tax evasion and over-watering your lawn and then we'll have technology--something called post-singularity by all those commentators who sprouted up back in September of '01 after Upstanding averted those plane hijackers--which will basically allow us to do anything. And, as the hero explained to David Letterman's highest ratings ever, they sent that technology back in time to be used by a person of perfect moral goodness. Not quite his direct words, but seeing him now, Mark wanted to punch the smug asshole straight in the face.

"Seventy," he managed. "Maybe more...my wife is in there. Sir. My wife is in there." He had no idea where that last part came from. At the mention of hostages, Mark could swear he caught a grin through the man's fucking lens-flare halo. No moral ambiguity here. Just a bunch of innocents and one pissed off guy with a robot spider army. Simple.

"Stand aside," the hero said. "Leave it to me."