“Paragon!” Tina gasped, her eyes widening in horror as the stricken hero slumped to the ground. “Oh, Paragon, I’m sorry.”
“You’re a sorry sight, all right,” Tito grumbled, poking Paragon’s prostrate form with his autopistol. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten that it’s because of your Ultimate Friend here that the future you and I come from is a war-torn battleground, a constant struggle between Malevo’s enhanced troops and people like you and I.”
“People who were inspired to fight Malevo after reading about the Ultimate Man who battled him in the past,” Tina cried. “Oh, Tito, having to kill the man I’ve admired for so long in order to prevent his greatest enemy from gaining power is nothing short of…”
“Ironic?” Paragon said, climbing to his feet.
“You…but you can’t be…” Tina gasped, before falling into a dead swoon.
“Now there’s irony for you,” Tito said, leveling his pistol at the Ultimate Man’s chest. “The one person who might have saved you is removed from the fight because of the shock you caused her…Good Lord! That potion, which was supposed to lower the iron in your bloodstream…”
“Has only eliminated the isotopes Iron-A, Iron-B, Iron-C, and Iron-D from my body,” Paragon finished. “I still have enormous quantities of Iron-E left in my system—which, as you’ve noticed, has produced some unfortunate side effects.”
Insert biology/chemistry majors’ reality check here.
“Very well, Paragon,” Tito said. “Even if you have been transformed into the world’s most ironic human being, you can’t possibly dodge a stream of bullets at this range. Au revoir, Ultimate Man.”
“Wait,” Paragon said, but it was too late. A shower of automatic weapons fire erupted from Tito’s weapon. To the Ultimate Twin’s surprise, however, not a single bullet penetrated Paragon’s skin. Instead, each and every shell ricocheted from an invisible energy field surrounding the hero’s body. One knocked the gun from Tito’s hand; another grazed his temple, rendering the boy unconscious. A third shattered a window, bounced off a flagpole, flew in through another window, zig-zagged its way up the stairs, and shredded an eviction notice Paragon’s landlord was in the process of nailing on his door.
“Subdiving parameciums!” Paragon exclaimed, kicking the gun free from Tito’s grip. “I neglected to mention that a side-effect of having large amounts of Iron-E in my system is that it transforms me into a living electromagnet. That little quirk just happened to save my life. Unfortunately, it’s also caused me to erase my entire collection of Grateful Dead bootleg tapes.” He sighed. “Such is ever the thorn-strewn path that must be traversed by those who follow justice.”
The buzzer rang, interrupting Paragon’s soliloquy. “Tamponading tuataras!” he marveled. “Whom could intrude at such a time?”
He leaned toward the door and flicked the intercom switch. “Yes?”
“Dirk?” said the voice, surprised. “It’s Myrna. I was looking for Paragon.”
“Uhh…yes, of course,” Paragon said, cursing himself for forgetting to lower his voice several octaves. “I…uh…watch the place while the master is away. C’mon up.”
Paragon struck the buzzer, and immediately looked about the tastefully-decorated apartment, now decorated with the somnolent forms of Tito and Tina, several dozen steel bullet casings, and an overturned cup of coffee. His secret identity was at stake. Working as fast as only he could, Dixon City’s Ultimate Man mopped, cleaned, polished, repaired the damaged window, freshened the rug, stacked Tito and Tina in the closet, changed his clothes, calculated and debated the merits of a balanced budget amendment, and negotiated a lasting peace between Israel and several Palestinian splinter groups in the time it took for Myrna to ascend the stairs to his apartment.
“Thank the Lord the elevator’s still on the fritz, or I never would have been able to get them to agree to bilateral disarmament,” Paragon thought. “The door’s open, Myrna,” he said, hearing her footsteps in the hall.
“Dirk,” she said. “You always did beat me to all the hottest stories. I need to find a way to get in touch with Paragon. It’s very important.”
A loud “thump” came from the closet where Paragon had stored Tito and Tina.
“What was that?” Myrna asked.
“Rats,” Darringer said, hastily. “Tampa Bay is rife with them.”
“Paragon,” the closet said, weakly.
“And Cuban refugees,” Darringer added. “Those wacky little scamps. You just never know where they’re going to turn up next.”
“Dirk,” Myrna said, suspicion growing in her delicately-chiseled features, “is there something you’re trying to hide from me?”
Darringer sighed. For so long he’d wanted to tell her, wanted to be able to share with her—to share with someone—the stories, the pain, the few fleeting moments of glory and the ever-present weirdness of his life. He’d had a feeling about Myrna, an idea from the moment she’d set foot in the door of his newsroom, fresh from some obscure backwater weekly paper in the hills of New England, that she would somehow come to play an important part in his life. Maybe this, after all, was the time.
“You’re right, Myrna,” Dirk said, straightening himself up. “There is something you don’t know about me—something I haven’t told you that makes me different from anyone you’ve ever…“
Before Dirk could finish, the closet door sprang open and the two dazed Ultimate Twins tumbled out at Myrna’s feet.
“Oh. My. God,” Myrna screamed. “You’re a pervert! You’re a child molestor! You’re one of those homeopathic killer-people!”
“Macraméing Muskrats!” Dirk said. “Myrna, it’s not like…“
At that moment, Tito rolled over and looked the slender female reporter full in the face. Both drew back, startled.
“You?!” they both shouted. Tito scrambled for his gun, but Myrna was quicker. With a single swift blow from her pocketbook, the pint-sized assassin crashed to the carpet and resumed his catatonic state.
“Waitaminute,” Dirk said, the gears of his brain tumbling like those of a well-oiled Swiss watch. “How, exactly, do you and Tito know each other?”
“We’ve had a few run-ins before,” Myrna said mildly, pushing her bangs back into place. “Nasty little things, those twins. This makes what I have to say to Paragon all the more urgent. Do you have any idea where he might be?”
“He’s right here,” Dirk said. “I am Paragon, the Ultimate Man.”
There were a few moments of startled silence before Myrna said, “Oh.”
Then, “Oh” again.
Then, “I don’t know where to begin…”
“Begin with what you came here to tell me,” Paragon said, the element of confidence having returned to his voice.
“There’s someone who’s been causing trouble in Dixon City,” Myrna said. “She calls herself the Ultimate Woman.”
“It can’t be…” Paragon began, then stopped. Of course it could. Another side effect of the Iron-E in his system.
“I can’t go into battle right away,” Paragon said, and then explained the whole situation with the twins, the Enhancer, and the iron-depleting potion to Myrna. He would have gone on to explain a great number of other things to her—things the floodgates of his heart, now loosed, were every moment pressing on his lips to say—but stopped when it became clear Myrna had something to add.
“Since you’ve told me…what you’ve told me, the least I can do is to tell you something I haven’t told anyone else for the past five years, something that could save your life. My father was one of the greatest research chemists who ever lived. Unfortunately, he became known more for his contributions to chemical warfare than for any of the thousand things he did to improve the health, welfare, and quality of life of everyone around him.”
“Such is always the way,” Paragon said.
“In his laboratory you are bound to find the answer to your condition,” Myrna said. “In doing so, you will vindicate my father’s memory forever to those who believe him to be a killer. Hurry. The location and access codes to the laboratory are on this card.”
Paragon pressed her hand briefly before heading for the stairs.
“Are you sure you can handle the Ultimate Twins?” Paragon asked.
“Don’t worry,” Myrna replied. “I’ll take care of them. But, Para…Dirk…why did you tell me?”
“Because it’s the truth,” Paragon said. “It had to come out sooner or later, here or anywhere else. I wanted you to be the one to hear it.”
With that, he left the building, nearly trampling his landlord on the way out.
Six hours later, Paragon wiped the sweat from his brow as a series of long narrow tubes, burners, flasks and cylinders finally yielded up the first drops of a cold, phosphorescent liquid.
“At last,” the Ultimate Man said. “I don’t think I can take much more of this irony affecting every aspect of my life. Having all of the elements in this antidote just happening to spell out ‘Ultimate’ was pretty bad. Having the tabulated atomic weight of the final product turn out to be the phone number of a girl I dated in high school who called me the ‘ultimate dork’ was even worse. But having Aaron Levitz pop in out of the middle of nowhere a few minutes ago claiming to be the avatar of Annubis still has me shaken up. I’m pounding this puppy before anything else can happen.”
Just as the phial of antidote touched Paragon’s lips, however, the door to the upper laboratory burst open, and a massive, smoke-belching forklift steamed forward, the Ultimate Woman at its wheel.
Paragon’s jaw dropped.
“It’s you,” he whispered. “Mary Lu…the woman from my dreams.”
“I’ve heard that one before,” Mary Lu Retina replied, gunning the forklift’s engine. “Hand over the enhancer, or become a Paragoner.”
“The enhancer? You mean the antidote to my condition is the same formula Malevo will use to control the world? Then Tito and Tina were right. I really am responsible for the enslavement of humanity!”
“Don’t play innocent with me, Ultimate Man,” Mary Lu spat. “If you didn’t want Malevo to get the formula, why did you brew it in his laboratory?”
“That’s right, Paragon,” said a familiar voice. Dirk felt himself shoved backward by an invisible, inexorable force as an energy shield shattered the forklift and coalesced around the bodies of he and the Ultimate Woman. “Perhaps, when I was unburdening my soul to you before, I should have mentioned that I’ve kept a few other things secret for the past five years. For instance, I never told you my true name…the one my father gave me…Myrna Malevo!”
“Doctor Malevo’s daughter!” Paragon gasped.
“Hey, you’re good,” Mary Lu said. “You must have read a lot of Hardy Boys mysteries while growing up.”
“I don’t believe it,” Paragon muttered. “Myrna is Malevo’s daughter, and Mary Lu…she tried to kill me with a forklift.”
“You and the Ultimate Twins destroyed my father’s body, but not his spirit,” Myrna continued. “Horst-Bock Pilsner Malevo was nothing if not a master planner. He foresaw this very circumstance, and that is why he arranged to have the raw genetic material for his new Ultimate Body available on the very spot where his assassins would strike him down.”
“What do you mean?” Paragon asked.
“I mean,” Myrna said, “that I will use my father’s science to transform the bodies of Tito and Tina into one, perfect, Ultimate Being, to be imbued with the reincarnated spirit of my father—who will then use the enhancer you created to rule the world!”
“But I have the enhancer,” Paragon said, “and you can’t have it. So nyah, nyah, nyah.”
“Why is it,” Mary Lu said, “that whenever I’m stuck in a death trap it never happens to be with MacGyver?”
“I don’t need the enhancer you hold in your hand, idiot,” Myrna said. “The laboratory’s security cameras recorded every instant of its creation. It can be duplicated easily—once my father has been restored to life!”
“No—” Paragon began, but was cut off as Myrna made the energy field soundproof. With one eye on her captives, she typed away on her computer console in a frenzied flurry of activity. Below her, in a long, shallow pit, Tito and Tina held each other, trembling, as Malevo’s Molecular Scrambelino whirred to life.
Myrna smiled, Paragon screamed noiselessly, and Mary Lu covered her eyes in horror as the deadly particle beams fused the bodies of Tito and Tina together, forming them into one, shimmering, bloblike-proty that glowed with pulsating radiation. None of the three noticed a dark figure entering the laboratory silently at the far end of the chamber.
“And now,” Myrna said, speaking into a sleek black microphone, “I give my instructions to you, oh mass of fertile, Ultimate life that will bear my father’s genius for generations to come. I have now adjusted the Scrambelino to pry forth the fabric of the ethereal world itself, and release the spirit of he who created all of this into your perfect body.”
The dark figure stole noiselessly toward the control booth.
“You will now assume the spirit, personality, powers and abilities of the being whose name you next hear,” Myrna declared.
The protoplasmic being nodded in assent, just as the uninvited guest to Malevo’s rebirth glanced for the first time at the horror being assembled in his laboratory.
“Almighty God…,” the figure gasped, in a voice loud enough to be recorded by Myrna Malevo’s microphone.
Myrna screamed as an unearthly light burst forth from the chamber.
To be continued…
Can the Creator become the created? Will Paragon escape the daughter of his deadliest foe—and if so, can he avoid the blackness of his future? Who is the mysterious figure who invaded Malevo’s lab? Will Tito and Tina return from genetic oblivion? What is the real significance of Paragon’s dream? Whatever happened to Scarecrow’s brain? All of these answers—and a thousand more questions—in a story that could only be called:
Next issue: Chapter 12: “Point of Departure” or “Divine is Easy, Comedy is Hard” by Bill Keir