Surrounded by five Hellscorpions, the Weirdo draws his ropegun and laughs maniacally while the disembodied voice of Madman Mastermind issues yet another death threat. The Hellscorpions spit toward the young adventurer, but the Weirdo easily evades the missiles of burning spittle, pirouetting in the air, firing his ropegun, and lassoing the monstrous quintet. The instant the Weirdo lands he’s knocked to the ground by the force of the Powerful Pachyderm running into him at full speed. Before the Weirdo can catch his breath, the extendable arms of Professor Kraken grab him and hold him tight. Have all his foes teamed up against him? Madman Mastermind materializes, facing the stunned teenager, and pulls off his archenemy’s mask, revealing that the Weirdo is in reality—
Steve Rand, sitting at the kitchen table, drops his spoon into his cereal bowl, splashing milk and flakes on the table and on himself. He gasps for air, as if surfacing, desperate for oxygen. His mother scolds him, but he pays no attention to her. He pulls at his face, thankful to be himself again. Much too soon, that ichorous light appears again and swallows him up—
The Weirdo can hear, smell, and taste the dreams of the city’s sleeping residents. Night after night, the sounds are getting more strident, the odours more toxic, the flavours more repellent. For weeks now, the dreams of the innocent have been getting darker and more violent. Using the beacon function of his dreamwatch, he’s finally located the source of the nightmare infestation: the thirtieth floor of an abandoned office building in the ghost town that was once a thriving financial district. Getting inside the building was no problem. His dreamwatch guides him to a windowless door. Behind this door is the source of what’s been plaguing the city. He knows he should be wary of what might lurk inside that room, but it’s not in his nature to balk in the face of unknown dangers. With his blastgun, the Weirdo destroys the door. He hurls a weirdbomb into the room and runs inside, announcing himself with the trademark laughter that has been terrorizing criminals and supervillains since he has taken on this identity. The weirdgas dissipates, and the Weirdo sees that the room is empty. Thick steel walls fall from the ceiling and clang down to the floor. It’s a trap! Ghostly forms surround him, all speaking in one voice: the Malignancy! That monstrous hive mind that seeks to infect and enslave the entire planet. Many times has the Weirdo foiled their schemes. “Your ceaseless obstruction ends this night, Weirdo.” Their synchronized voices echo metallically, with an otherworldly crackle. Whips snap from their insubstantial bodies, lacerating and entangling the trapped vigilante. One of the whips encircles his neck, choking him. Another tears off his mask, “This is the end for both the Weirdo and—”
Steve Rand cries out, more in shock than in pain, when his mother slaps his cheek. She yells, too close to his ear, “Wake up! I’ve told you before not to stay up all night. Reading those comic books. I know that’s what you were doing again. That’s why you can’t stay awake now. Why can’t you just do what I tell you? You have to learn to listen. And to focus on your homework. Or it’s boarding school for you.”
But Steve ignores her. That’s twice in one morning. They’ve never happened so close together before. Barely minutes apart.
“There’s milk all over your clothes! Go change now! And don’t you be late for school again!”
He stands up, still woozy from the shift, and staggers toward his bedroom. But that gooey, disgusting light appears again, enfolding his entire body—
Police sirens fill the night. Searchlights pierce the darkness of the cityscape. The Weirdo is wanted for murder. And the whole city is after him. No-one will believe that he was impersonated and framed by the extraterrestrial Agent Metamorph. No-one knows of the planned invasion, or even the aliens’ existence. Only he can save the world – if they let him. He has spent the entire night dodging police bullets. The Weirdo is exhausted. He must somehow make it home undetected. Once he sheds his costume, he’ll be safe to plan his next move. No-one knows his real identity. He’s only three blocks away from his home. It’s time to active his shadowcloak; he has five minutes before its charge runs out and he becomes visible again. He collapses in his bed just as the shadowcloak effect wears off. His bedroom door crashes open. The police! Officers aim their guns at him, and a detective says, “It’s over, Weirdo, we know you’re really—”
Steve Rand, fourteen-year-old boy, fallen down on the floor in the hall, just outside his bedroom door, his face lying in a pool of his saliva, his mother shouting his name. He can hear her, but he can’t find the strength to respond or even to move or react in the slightest.
Steve wakes up in a hospital bed. Briefly, he thinks it might be the Weirdo, and not Steve himself who’s in the hospital. But, no. This is happening to him. Or really happening. Or whatever. He dimly remembers being brought here in a stretcher. He remembers a nurse taking off his clothes and slipping him into a hospital gown. He had been too detached from his body to be embarrassed about it then, but now he cringes at the memory.
He has vague recollections of a string of brief dreams about the Weirdo, each one of them ending in disaster for the adventurer. And then, a long period of blissful oblivion.
For the first time in months, Steve feels rested and at peace. Maybe it won’t happen again, he hopes. Why does he suffer these hallucinations?
Why and how did he ever dream up the Weirdo? He doesn’t crave adventure. Smiles, let alone laughter, do not come easily to him. He is nothing like the teen vigilante, nor does he aspire to be like him. And yet, he has now lived through hundreds of dangerous episodes where he becomes – or, at least, it feels as if he becomes – the Weirdo, always in the thick of deadly combat with grotesque villains.
Getting through high school without getting noticed and coping with his overworked, lonely, bitter mom is hard enough as it is. He doesn’t need or want any of this strangeness.
And yet, every day, for more than a year now, he has zoned out of real life and segued into this fantasy life. But that morning he collapsed had been the most intense ever. Three episodes, back to back. And not ordinary episodes, either. In all three, a different incarnation of the Weirdo had been trapped by some of his worst enemies. Maybe to the death. Followed, later, by dream images of more versions of the Weirdo being defeated time and again.
Could it be over? Had his subconscious finally gotten the message that he didn’t want to experience this craziness. Had he dreamed the conclusion to his serial hallucinations?
Steve hasn’t hallucinated once since being released from the hospital eight days ago. But the absence of his hallucinations has not afforded him the relief he had hoped for. He hasn’t slept a wink since.
Earlier, he stole some of his mother’s sleeping pills. He gulps down four of them and slides into bed. Hours go by, and he doesn’t even doze. He’s both restless and exhausted. His mom doesn’t know about the sleeping problem, but at one point he’s going to get so tired that she’ll be bound to notice. He has to solve this by himself, and soon. She’ll panic and blame him, and it’ll be a waking nightmare. The less she notices him, the better.
The night is interminable. When the morning light starts to seep through the drapes he gets up and decides to take a bath before breakfast.
The bath is soothing. Calming. Steve is using his mom’s aroma-therapy oils. They smell girly, but the effect is nice. This almost feels like being asleep. The hot water, the steamy air, the dim lighting ...
... And he wakes up with his head underwater, drowning. Something’s holding him down. But he can’t see anyone or anything. Nevertheless, abrasive, scaly invisible fingers dig into his flesh and prevent him from surfacing.
Scaly? He remembers this sensation. He’s being held down by Doc Croc, one of the Weirdo’s most vicious enemies. As soon as he realizes this, Steve is no longer in the bathtub, but in the sewers, beneath the city, wearing the Weirdo’s psychedelic costume. Doc Croc is drowning him, killing him.
And there’s another figure behind him, one he can’t quite make out. He can hear his voice, though, and it sounds vaguely familiar, but it’s too distorted by the water for the Weirdo to identify it. “After this, there’s only one left. The most pathetic one.”
The Weirdo dies, and Steve springs up in the bathtub and starts spewing water, emptying his lungs. He coughs; it’s painful, like sandpaper. He tries to get out of the bath, but he’s weak and trembling. He leans over the side of the bath and projectile-vomits the entire contents of his stomach on the floor.
The retching seems to go on forever. Finally, after he brings up only bile for three times in a row, it stops. He can’t remember ever feeling so weak and drained. The smell is so disgusting.
Steve coughs uncontrollably, each cough grinding against his insides. He starts to cry – from pain, from despair, from humiliation. He tries to keep the noise down, so as to not wake his mother, but he can hear the coughing reverberate through the apartment.
His mother, of course, bursts into the bathroom.
But to his surprise she doesn’t yell at him. There’s a combination of fragility and resolve in her glance that he has never seen before. “My baby...” she repeats over and over again as she steps barefoot through the sludge of vomit, bile, and water on the bathroom floor, to reach her crying, coughing, and trembling son, who’s holding on to the side of the tub with what little strength he has left.
She kisses his forehead. She gently rubs his bare back. Then she rests his head against her chest, and for the first time since he was a little boy he remembers that he loves his mother.
Doctor Parnum is an idiot and a dork. It’s been weeks since Steve has told him anything even resembling the truth. Steve hates coming here, being forced to smell the therapist’s aftershave and the tobacco odour that wafts from his tacky clothes. His lapels are so wide they reach back into the 1970s.
After months of medical testing he did not want to undergo, after countless ineffective prescriptions, it was determined that Steve’s insomnia was purely psychological.
Again with the constant prodding about his childhood. Steve doesn’t even bother to keep track of the lies he tells the therapist. He repeats stuff from TV or from movies. Steals the anecdotes of other kids at schools. Mixes it all up. This entire process is so irrelevant. As if he would ever reveal anything intimate to this man.
Now, Steve can only fall asleep from utter exhaustion, managing to sleep on average two or three times a week. And even then he rarely stays asleep for more than three or four hours at a stretch. He has no control over when he falls asleep. At any moment, his body may decide that it can no longer withstand being awake, and he sinks into sleep with no warning. On the bus. In class. In therapy. Anywhere. And once he’s asleep nothing can wake him up. He loves it when it happens in therapy.
He’s tried sleeping pills, exercise, masturbation, reading – nothing succeeds in putting him to sleep. The dark circles and wrinkles around his eyes make him look twenty years older. His grades have nosedived. His mother is constantly, cloyingly concerned. At first, he loved her devoted attention. She was so focused on his well-being – without being judgmental, without always trying to tell him what to do. She’d really rallied when he desperately needed her to. He felt close to her. Like they were a real family, and not the broken dysfunctional twosome they had been for too long. But it’s become too much. She suffocates him now.
Steve stares at the certificates on the wall behind Doctor Parnum. The writing is too small for him to make out. He glances at the framed photos of trees and mountains and lakes.
Wait – what’s the doctor saying?
“... I know who you really are. I’m surprised that you haven’t figured out yet that I am controlling this lame-brained puppet. I have no fear of telling you. I want to gloat. To savour these moments with you, knowing that you know that you are trapped! Here, with me. You can’t get out of coming here. You’re by far the weakest of all your multiversal incarnations. And I’ve got you in my clutches, Weirdo. The last one of you. I travelled from reality to reality to engineer your downfall in all parallel histories. Your mind is mine! And soon the world – all worlds – will be rid of you. I’ve travelled to this mundane world to get my final revenge! You’re under the power of ... Madman Mastermind!”
“How do you know those names? I’ve never told you about any of this. I’ve never told anyone!”
“What are you talking about, Steve? What names? I was asking you if we could change days next week...”
In a panic, Steve springs up out of the big leather chair. He grabs his bag and runs out of the doctor’s office without another word.
By the time Steve gets home, his mother is there, even though she should be at work. Immediately, Steve understands that Parnum called her and told her about the way he fled his office. What can he tell her to get her on his side? He can’t see that jerk anymore. Steve must have babbled about the Weirdo one of the times he fell asleep in the doctor’s office, and now Parnum’s playing some sick game with him ...
His mother says, “Come sit with me, baby,” Steve sighs and joins her on the couch.
She takes his hand. He hates it when she gets too touchy-feely with him, but he lets her. He needs an ally.
“You’re smart enough to know that the doctor called me.”
“Tell me your side of it, Stevie.”
Ugh. He loathes that baby name. But he doesn’t object, glad at this opportunity.
“Thanks, Mom. But can I get up and get a glass of water first?” He needs to stall, to figure out what to tell her.
“Sure. You stay here. I’ll get it.”
She comes back, sits down, and hands him the glass; and he gulps it all down.
Steve’s worked out what to say. “He’s just creepy, Mom. And he smells bad. I don’t trust him. There’s something kind of pervy about him. I don’t want to see him anymore. I’ll see another doctor if you want me to. And I won’t make a fuss. I’ll cooperate. I promise. Just don’t make me see him again. Please.”
“Are you scared of him?”
Steve pauses, then nods. “Yeah, I guess I am. I hadn’t of it that way. But that’s it. You’ve got it.”
“That’s what he said when he called. That you were growing scared of him because the therapy was getting somewhere. You’re getting close to the heart of the problem. It’s not the doctor you’re scared of, baby, it’s whatever happened to you in the past to make you like this.”
“What do you mean, ‘like this’?”
“Well, your problems. A new doctor’s not a good idea, baby. You’d be starting from scratch, and you’re getting so close. You just need a little more—” The doorbell rings. She squeezes his hand again, and he can see in her face that she’s holding back tears. She gets up to answer. “Just sit here, Stevie. I’ll be right back.”
She opens the front door, and three big men in white suits come in, followed by Doctor Parnum.
Steve’s mother is crying now. “This’ll be good for you, my baby. I’m sorry. But you need to get better. Trust the doctor, Stevie. He’s a good man.”
Diagnosed as violently delusional and self-destructive, Steve is kept strapped to his bed in the sanatorium.
As he does every night, Doctor Parnum comes by to gloat. “This is simply too delicious. Seeing you so helpless. Really, I should just be done and have this idiot I’m mind-controlling kill you.”
Steve strains against his bonds. But it’s no use. He swears at the doctor.
“That’s it. Keep it up. Sound and behave like the violent lunatic I want them to believe you are. It’ll make killing you all the easier.”
“Aren’t the cameras recording you, too? I don’t understand. Why are you pretending to be Madman Mastermind? Why are you doing this to me?”
“Silly boy. Only you can hear this. The cameras are picking up some psychiatric mumbo-jumbo I’m having the doctor say. I’m not pretending anything. You’re the last surviving iteration of my archenemy, Steve Rand, alias the Weirdo. But I got to you just as your powers started manifesting, before you’d learned to master them. You’re the easiest of them all. The others were all hard work.”
“What are you talking about, you lunatic? I don’t have any superpowers. Besides, I haven’t hallucinated or dreamt about the Weirdo in months. Why do you keep bringing up that crap? Let me go back home!”
“Why do you think drugs can’t affect you? You’re quite the topic of conversation around here, you know. I should probably finish you off before they decide you’re too interesting. Every Weirdo is different. I’ll admit I’m a bit curious as to what your full range of powers would be, but not so curious as to jeopardize my mission. Enjoy your last sleepless night, Weirdo. Tomorrow, you die. I’ve scheduled a private therapy session. But you’ll be in restraints. I’ll have this body strangle you, with no-one around to stop it. And then I’ll leave the doctor behind to take the blame for your murder. The useful fool won’t remember any of this, of course. Then, I can continue with my plans unopposed.”
“What plans? Why do you want to kill me? I’m just a kid. I don’t care what you do. Please let me go back to my mom. Please.”
“My plans? Oh, the usual. Mass murder. Random mayhem. Slavery and subjugation. Absolute power.”
“Of course! I don’t call myself Madman Mastermind for nothing.”
Steve Rand is brought into the doctor’s office in a straightjacket. He’s been screaming that the doctor wants to murder him, but no-one believes him. They all think Steve’s crazy. He’s screaming even louder now, faced with Doctor Parnum himself.
One of the orderlies asks, “Should we gag him, sir?”
“It won’t be necessary. But do stand outside and make sure we’re not disturbed. He’s liable to shout about his delusions. Begging to be ‘rescued’ – but don’t interrupt us unless I call for you.”
“Yes, sir.” The orderlies leave them alone. The doctor locks the door behind them.
“Well, now,” gloats Doctor Parnum. “Isn’t this cozy? Only a few minutes of life left, and then you’ll never interfere with my plans again.”
Steve is silent now. Glaring. Maybe I should play along. Maybe that’s what he wants. If I play along, he’ll stop all this nonsense. Stop scaring the shit out of me.
“You’ll never get away with it, Madman Mastermind.”
“Oh, please. Stop with the clichés. They’re so beneath you. You, my greatest foe. Well, the most pathetic incarnation of my greatest foe. I saved you for last because you were the least dangerous.”
“How do you know that? You admitted you didn’t know the full extent of my powers. Maybe I’ve been playing possum. Only pretending to be trapped.”
I should do the laugh, thinks Steve. The Weirdo’s maniac laugh, which always seems to scare his enemies. I’ve never tried it in real life, but I’ve hallucinated it enough times. I should be able to do it.
Steve laughs. And the doctor falters. Fear flashes across his face.
Steve laughs even more. He becomes the laughter. And that’s when he knows. The laughter is the key. It unlocks the Weirdo. He really is the Weirdo, after all. And he knows what his particular power is: he can channel the abilities and memories of all the other Weirdos who have ever existed across the multiverse.
His hallucinations weren’t hallucinations at all; they were growing pains. His body and consciousness adapting to his burgeoning powers. And the lack of sleep was due to an energy imbalance because he hadn’t used his powers yet.
Steve Rand slips out of the straightjacket with practiced ease. His hospital gown vanishes, replaced by the garish uniform of the Weirdo. His guns appear in his holsters. His weapons belt is filled with weirdbombs and other gadgets. His shadowcloak is fully charged. His dreamwatch is searching for the location of Madman Mastermind’s real body – not this puppet he’s been mind-controlling.
Inside Doctor Parnum’s body, the essence of Madman Mastermind cowers.
“You realize your mistake now, Madman Mastermind. You should have killed me while you had the chance. I’m the most dangerous Weirdo you’ve ever faced.”
The Weirdo laughs again. His dreamwatch has found Madman Mastermind’s secret lair. The hunt for evil is on.
The Weirdo’s laughter echoes throughout the sanatorium.
This story originally appeared in Tesseracts 15: A Case of Quite Curious Tales (Edge 2011), edited by Julie Czerneda & Susan MacGregor.Follow
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