Edited by Christopher Leeson
Originally written 2006
Revised and posted Nov. 21, 2018
THE ULTRAMATE SOURCE
Prayer is vain, I called for compassion: compassion mocked.
Mercy and pity threw the gravestone over me
And with lead and iron, bound it over me forever:
Life lives on my Consuming:
And the Almighty hath made me his Contrary...
"Uh, sure. Is there anything else, Doctor Sarn?"
"No, that's it, Blake." The Aladdin bureaucrat clicked off abruptly.
What in blazes had happened at the mall? I didn't even know which mall she was referring to. Did it have anything to do the weird experience I had over at the Kid's Club? No, that couldn't be. She was talking about Sunday, and my disaster occurred on Thursday.
And why was a data analyst being asked to make a report instead of a field agent? It wasn't my job to ongoing operations outside the office. Why was Sarn getting me involved?
I shifted toward Evie. "Scrumptious, did something happen at the Mall Sunday? I mean, was there anything going on there that was important or scary?"
She gave a little moue. "You can't forget that! A bad robot came and started chasing people. Lauren had to fight with it."
A robot? It certainly was beginning to sound like one hell of a week. “What kind of robot?"
“A big one!”
"Was it at the Mall at Topanga Plaza?"
“Were you and I there?”
“You were there, Mommy. I was with grandma.”
“Why was I there?”
“I don't know.”
I paused to think. These little details, as perplexing as they seemed to be, had to add up to some sort of picture, but I still had too few pieces. What had Sarn said? She'd used the term fiasco. There had been a fiasco at the Mall? Shouldn't she have called it an attack or tragedy. A fiasco usually referred to a failed plan. Was the robotic attack somebody's failed plan? Whose plan?
I had a sinking feeling. Aladdin was a tricky and deceitful outfit. It sometimes sent its own agents out dressed as ultras to discredit the vigilantes they impersonated. If people could be manipulated into fearing, would tolerate a government that wish to treat them as criminals or terrorists. Had Aladdin sent a battle robot into a minor suburban mall, intending to start a panic and make it look like some ultra was responsible? That sounded heavy-handed, even for Aladdin.
Momentarily stumped, I punched in another number on my phone menu. This time time I got a real estate office. Once confirming that "I" had a mid-day appointment with a realtor, I asked for a postponement, using illness as an excuse. With that taken care of, the biggest thing left on my plate was learning more about this alternate world. I needed to acquire more information if I was going to stop reacting like a deer caught in the headlights.
"Evie," I said, "do you feel like going out with me?"
"Sure! But you told the man you were sick."
"I fibbed. I need to go and carry out a secret mission."
"A secret mission? Can I be your sidekick?"
"You certainly can! The first thing we need to do is go to the library."
She looked dubious. "Are there robots or monsters at the library, Mommy?"
"I certainly hope not!" I said, not quite able to smile.
A sign at the nearest library of size directed patrons to a parking ramp that was three blocks away. Emerging into the light, we continued our trip on foot. Evie stayed close by my side and at first I thought it was because she was suffering from fright. But her grave and determined expression soon caused me to wonder whether it was me whom she was afraid for. Was Evie keeping close to protect her mother from danger, now that she was no longer a super-powered ultra? I took her little hand and squeezed it. Wherever I found a double of Evie, she was always an easy child to love.
But that raised another question. How _should I react if an emergency arose? I could hardly do more than grab Evie and run -- which was a depressing thought.
Approaching the library, we passed in front of a paperback-and-news shop called the Readmore and I impulsively led Evie inside. I immediately took in the frantic newspaper headlines. Terrifying reports were shouting from almost every article heading. I bought the Los Angles Times on the spot and also asked the clerk for a copy of The Ultra, but the young man replied that he'd never heard of the latter. He recommended instead a newsprint tabloid called The Ultramate Source. Wanting to know how my ultra friends had come though the emergency, I gave in and bought the unfamiliar weekly.
Then we left the news store. A couple buildings down, there stood a coffee shop. Evie was hungry, so I bought us both a brunch. While absently consuming my java, sausage, and eggs, I poured through the Time's lead story, the one describing an appalling disaster in New York.
The events of Friday night had not been merely local. The paper was saying that more than a quarter of New York City had been blasted to rubble by a mysterious explosion occurring on Sunday night. Millions had died. A suitcase-sized nuclear weapon was at first expected, but testing showed that the radiation count was low. The authorities were frantic to find a scapegoat to redirect blame from their muddled disaster response.
A civilian's smart phone video had come forward, showing ultras near the blast zone. One of them was a giant of a man in armor, and with him was some yo-yo swinging a scythe. A woman in a black cat suit was also seen, hurling shurikens. When an ill-trained National Guard unit to confront the mysterious group, a officer apparently lost his nerve and sent his men rushing in with guns locked and loaded. A female ultra appeared overhead and proceeded to repel the the panicky attackers with energy bolts. The startled guardsmen started shooting at anything that moved, and even at each other.
In the aftermath, two members of the ultra gang could be tentatively identified. One matched the description of Amber Hunt, a name that was familiar to me – and not in any good way. But the detail that floored me was the allegation that one of the ultras had been a known crime-fighter known as Strike.
I knew that name from my own world. Strike had been the nome de guerre of Brandon Tark before he'd re-christened himself "Warstrike." Was Warstrike still called Strike in this reality? I searched my reading material to find the name of "Warstrike," but was unable to.
How could Brandon Tark ever willingly involve himself in a terroristic incident? Tark, I knew, had suffered a severe breakdown in my reality, following the incredible Godwheel incident. But he had pulled out of it. Was it possible that in this world he had lost his marbles and gone rogue? Still, I didn't want to believe the worst. Maybe Strike had only been on the scene trying to apprehend Amber Hunt and was not a member of her gang. A similar mix-up had wrongly implicated me – as Mantra – in a museum break-in only months before.
I kept reading, but there was not much in the news stories that was useful. The politicians were getting their priorities screwed up, as usual. The dominant party in New York state was shocked at having lost to many of their urban voters and were screaming “treason!” and tried to implicate the Russians, or even our own POTUS, in the disaster. The mayor of New York, no longer sure of a winning margin, was actually demanding that his party be granted a handicap in the next election, as if the atrocity had been some sort of a golf game and not mass murder.
A case were one person dies is a tragedy; a million beings wiped out is only a statistic. I couldn't let the magnitude throw me. I had concerns closer to home. Checking for local news, I found a story that apparently proved Evie's testimony. It had a small picture of the "new Mantra."
I showed it to my little girl. "Have you seen this picture of Lauren in her ultra-suit yet?" I asked. "I wonder where she got that armor." Then I noticed a detail of the picture that I had missed. "Hey, she's using the Sword of Fangs! Evie, how did Lauren get my sword?” I asked.
She frowned. “Gus took it away from you; Lauren picked from where he put it."
“I see,” I said dejectedly. “Where's my gold armor and cloak?"
"Oh, they're in that box under the motel bed, Mommy."
I nodded. The news that these items hadn't been lost afforded me some comfort, but I wasn't sure what earthly good magical armor could do me in my current condition.
If truth be told, I had been one of the most powerful ultras in the world, and glad of it. Commanding so much power had kept my spirits high even while dealing with what was a difficult adjustment to a woman's life. I had practically defined myself by my magic over the last two years? If I couldn't restore that power, what would my life amount to?
Despite my abysmal mood, I continued the research. In The Ultramate Source I found references to new ultras, none of whom sounded like heavy hitters. Who was the pathetic "Thorn Boy," or the crime-fighting acrobat named "Jack Dancer"?
Interestingly, there had been some goof ball in body armor whose whole super career consisted of coming out into the street shouting “I'm the Chaotician" and then being immediately taken out by a mysterious back-shooter.
I also learned that the Strangers and the mercenary ultras of the Solution were still doing their respective things, though the latter remained in semi-retirement -- a move they had taken earlier after destroying their arch enemies. That jived with what I knew from back home. On the other hand, the UltraForce now consisted only of Prime, Ghoul, Topaz, the Black Knight, and Prototype. Oddly, they were based in Headless Cross, Arkansas, not in Miami, Florida.
More amazingly, Prototype was no longer Jimmy Ruiz, but Bob Campbell, obviously operating without a secret identity. In my reality, Campbell had been the original Prototype, until forced into retirement after losing an arm due to mishap. Additionally, Campbell's wife Felicia, a specialist in ultra-oriented medicine, was now part of the UltraForce support staff.
In my own reality, Hardcase had been the unofficial captain of the ultra team, but he was not mentioned in the story. Neither was Contrary, the sexy-dressing ultra who had so impressed the country's fourth-graders.
"Evie, have you ever heard of a couple of ultras named Hardcase and Contrary?"
Evie perked up. There was nothing that she liked to talk about more than ultras. "Everybody's heard of Hardcase, but who's Contrary?"
“You've never heard of Contrary?”
“Uh-uh. What can he do?”
She didn't even remember that Contrary was a woman. “Why did Hardcase leave the Ultra Force?” I asked.
She frowned incredulously. “Mommy, Hardcase never joined it!”
That was strange. Hardcase was a big-time vigilante and an affable guy. Why would he decline a membership? “Silly me,” I said to Evie. “What was I thinking?”
“Mommy,” Evie said in a very sad voice.
"What is it, Sweetie?"
"Does God always answer prayers?"
That question seemed to have come out of thin air. "Why do you ask?"
"'Cuz my prayers didn't come true. I always ask Him to bless everybody, especially you and Gus. But He didn't. Why?”
Faith was so important to a child's development; I had to answer this carefully.
"Evie," I finally replied, forcing a smile, "what you're asking is the same question that wise men have been asking for a very long time."
“What do they say?”
“Nothing. They can't always understand the ways of the Lord.”
The corners of her mouth turned down. "Those wise men don't sound very smart."
"Maybe not. But we have to trust that His way are for the best. We should keep on doing good deeds."
"But wouldn't doing good be easier if you were still Mantra?"
I sighed. "Maybe. But this is how I look at it: Until my magic comes back, I'll just have to go on doing all the good things I can, even if it can only be in little ways. That's what firemen, police, and nurses do."
Evie, looking very sober and serious. "Why doesn't He let you keep doing good in big ways? He could make your magic come back if He wanted to, couldn't He?"
I squeezed her hand. "Of course. God can do anything. But sometimes His plan is so huge that we can't see what it is at first. Would you know that you were looking at a whale if you only saw a little piece of it that was no bigger than a postage stamp? And God did bless me, because I'm still here with you. I'd choose having you instead of ultra powers, if I had to."
"Because you make me smile."
She looked down, biting her lip. "It's hard to smile now, Mommy.”
Too true. And it would have been a lot harder for her to smile if she had known the truth, that her own Mantra was effectively dead. If I could leave this world, I had to leave it. If I didn't, it would be the Evie of my world who would have to suffer. There just wasn't enough of me to go around.
"Mommy,” the little girl suddenly declared, “the Sunday school teacher tells us about how angels save people. She said that when she was a little girl an angel came to help a farmer. A tractor'd tipped over on him. The kids knew it was an angel because he came like from nowhere and looked just like a stranger. He helped the kids and their mom lift the tractor and then disappeared when they were helping their dad get up. Why doesn't some angel come now, to help you, me, and Gus?"
I shook my head. "Maybe an angel will come soon, but unless we are very smart, we might not know that it's a angel. There are two different kinds of angels. Did your teacher ever mention that?"
"You mean good angels with bird wings, and bad angels with bat wings?"
"No, Button. I mean regular good angels, and also good people who help people whenever they can."
"I think Mantra was that kind of angel," she volunteered.
Kids say the damnedest things.
I reached out to draw her close, but, all of a sudden, her hands started trembling again.
"Evie, what's wrong?"
"You f-forgot, Mommy. Because I got so awful scared, m-my hands shake sometimes."
I cupped both her little hands in mine and lifted them to my lips. Soon the quaking stopped.
"This is very bad, Darling. Did -- did we ever take you to a doctor?"
"Not yet. There's been no time. You said we'd see a doctor when we got to Sanfrisco."
I still held wrist firmly. "We certainly will. My little girl has to be well and happy. That's the most important thing in the world."
She shook her head emphatically. "No. Helping Gus is most important."
I nodded. "You're right again. I'm going to try to find a good angel, or maybe one of those secret angels, and try to get him to do exactly that."
"Do you really think you can, Mommy?"
"I'll work at it very hard."
She seemed to brighten a little. I urged her to finish her lunch. While she was doing so, I paged to the science section of the L.A. Times.
Speak of the devil! It said that both strategic air defense stations and civilian observatories all across the face of the earth had monitored a series of powerful energy spikes occurring on Friday night. The source of the surges seemed to lay in Earth's near-space and didn't originate from the sun. The unprecedented phenomenon was still under investigation.
Reading on avidly, I found that countless observers has seen the sky display a purplish glow. Green-colored bolts had struck the earth at random places on every continent. In many cases, these strikes correlated with bizarre events. Some individuals spontaneously gained ultra powers. There were instances of inexplicable deformations, death, and madness, but an even more amazing thing had occurred in Oakland, California. Unburied dead had allegedly come to life. The corpses had ranged into the surrounding neighborhood, killing several passersby and breaking into homes. Fortunately, the Strangers had arrived in time to rescue many potential victims and destroy the undead marauders.
Next, something I found in the L.A. City section caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. Seemingly, distinct energy strikes had been seen in many places, including Canoga Park. A little after seven, local time, a bolt had engulfed a home on Leadwell Street where a "special" boy was living with his family. Later, that same youngster was seen exercising ultra-type powers in a very destructive fashion, before being taken into custody. The other energy bolt struck a different Canoga Park home over an hour later.
The lady of the house in that instance had heard noise coming from upstairs, where her daughter was hosting a Mantra fan-club meeting. The lady had gone to check on the children when she was confronted by a horrifying creature lurking inside her daughter's room. It fled, but all the girls were missing for several hours. When they trailed back to their homes later in the night, none were able to remember where they had been.
The "special" ultra boy in story had to be Gus, but what about the weird thing that the woman had seen? Canoga Park wasn't all that large and it had just one Mantra fan club that I knew about -- a clique consisting of Heather Parks and her friends Jessica, Samantha, and Trish.
"Evie," I asked, "did anything happen to Heather Parks last Friday?"
She looked up excitedly. "Are you remembering things now, Mommy?"
"I wish I were. But it says in the paper that some Mantra fans in CanogaPark were frightened by a monster. I know that Heather has a fan club."
"It wasn't a real monster. I mean, it was a real monster, but it was only Heather and her girlfriends. They got turned into a monster with four heads."
For the love of Pete! No wonder Evie had been left a nervous wreck after Friday night! "Four girls became one monster?" I asked.
She nodded. "Lauren tricked the monster into fighting with Gus. When they starting beating up on each other, Gus got knocked out and the girls all broke apart and stopped being a monster. They couldn't remember what'd happened." Then her face turned sad. "Why couldn't Gus have changed back, too?"
Lauren seemed have worked overtime on her very first night as a ultra! I took Evie's hand and kissed its fingers. "Pumpkin, I wish he had as much as you do. Maybe he got a stronger dose of the same bad magic that changed the girls. But the girls are still okay, aren't they?"
"I suppose," she murmured without enthusiasm.
"Did our house get hit by lightning that night?” I asked
Evie blinked, as if the question were an odd one. "No, Mommy. It didn't thunder at all. But the sky looked awfully funny. It was sorta purple."
I considered that. The paper reported that an energy bolt had hit the house, but for some reason Evie hadn't noticed anything. Likewise, the story didn't say that Mrs. Parks had heard lightning before the monster appeared. Stranger and stranger. Their had to be some underlying connection between all these different threads, if only I could find the key.
I again encouraged Evie to finish her lunch and, when she had, the two of us went over to the library. Once there, I helped her find some good books to read in the children's section and made for the Internet terminals.
A net search of various keywords turned up bits of intriguing information. Many sites were calling Friday evening the "Night of Terror," which name, from everything I'd heard so far, seemed to fit.
News stories provided more information about the Night of Terror, but the jumble of incidents didn't bring me any closer to understanding the bigger picture. When I at last put "Eden Blake" and "Canoga Park" into the search window, I hit pay dirt.
The Weird World blog reported that one Mrs. Eden Blake of Canoga Park, along with a young daughter, Eve, and her son, August Jr., were all at home when a green bolt was observed striking their tract home on Leadwell Street at about 7:15 P.D.T.
According to the website, Eve had gone into her brother's room and found him practicing what she called “magic.” Alarmed, Eve called for her mother to come. When the latter arrived, August reacted with a violent attack upon Mrs. Blake. According to Blake's mother, Barbara Freeman, also of Canoga Park, Eve was forcibly detained by her brother for a short while, but managed to flee outside when a caller at the door distracted young August.
For the rest of the night, Mrs. Blake remained unaccounted for, but Mrs. Freeman reported that her had daughter had come back in the early morning accompanied by Evie. The latter she had located at the home of a friend with whom she had taken refuge. It was Mrs. Freeman's allegation that Eden Blake could not remember where she had been between the time of her son's attack. Mrs. Blake herself was not available for comment, having been summoned out of town by her employer. At the time of the news interview, Eve was safe in her grandmother's care.
The article provided a few more details supplied by young Eve herself. Before the energy bolt struck, August Jr., a twelve year old who had tragically suffered a disfiguring accident last spring, had been expecting to go with his father, August Blake Sr., to the first Bearcat football game of the season, at the sports field of the local high school. When Mr. Blake canceled at the last moment, August Jr. became incensed and showed aggressive behavior toward his younger sister. Mrs. Blake had intervened and disciplined the boy, confining him to his room for the rest of the night. The child's resultant anger might have contributed to his threatening behavior later on.
A chill coursed through me, like a cup of ice water poured down my back. In my own reality, big and little Gus had likewise been planning to attend the season's first Bearcat game. If the two worlds could share so minor detail, might they not have also shared something major? Something catastrophic? Could the strange things that had come to pass in this reality have happened there, too? Had my own family suffered a similar disaster? Could some of them be injured or even killed?
How I wished that I could be back with them at that moment.
TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 4....