|The Unexamined Life
Author: Lorendiac PM
The Phantom Stranger is the narrator. He loses most of his usual advantages and will spend much of the story trying to make sense of it, if he can find the right helpers in his weakened condition.Rated: Fiction T - English - Mystery/Drama - Chapters: 4 - Words: 10,789 - Reviews: 7 - Favs: 1 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 07-15-08 - Published: 11-10-05 - id: 2654845
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My attempt to offer a fanfic narrated by the Phantom Stranger.
General Setting: The DCU as it was being presented in comics published around the first few months of 1993. As a quick summary of what that means: Aquaman still has both of the hands he was born with; Ollie Queen is still alive and kicking; Hal Jordan is still a Green Lantern in good standing; David Knight is the current Starman; Jean Paul Valley is staying at Wayne Manor but Bruce Wayne is still the one and only Batman (Bane has not yet broken his back, but is already planning it); the Matrix Supergirl is dating a red-bearded man who calls himself "Lex Luthor II" and she has never seen or heard of anyone named Linda Danvers (much less merged with her!); Superman recently died and was given a lavish funeral.
I don't promise all of those things will be important to this story, but if you're familiar with the DC comics that were coming out in those days, it gives you an idea of what to expect when superhero guest stars pop in during later chapters (not this first one, sorry!).
This is only the first chapter of something much longer, so of course it ends on a cliffhanger. I have a rough outline for the entire plot, but I'm not ready to commit myself to a given number of chapters.
Chapter One: Meeting the Sorceress
Sometimes, as the Chariot of Apollo slides below the horizon, and shadows lengthen until they cover a city entirely, and stars begin to twinkle through the smog, I commence to walk the shadowy paths in search of the crucial moments in the lives of mortals; moments when they are charged with karmic potential to go very right or very wrong; moments where a few words of wise counsel might help them clarify the nature of the choices they face.
Other evenings, I just pull on my hat to shade my eyes and wander around in the dark waiting for something interesting to happen. It all works out about the same in the long run.
This was one of those latter evenings. For a wonder, there seemed to be no cosmic crisis looming on the horizon in the immediate future. On the other hand, Kal-El of Krypton had recently died and been entombed with great fanfare, but Doctor Occult had already assured me that he was keeping an eye on the situation and still saw reason to hope for the Man of Steel's return if the cards fell right. I was satisfied that the Doctor could monitor things properly without my peering over his shoulder to double-check his observations.
I wandered the shadows of Metropolis for a time, attending to odds and ends of business that fell within my field. I arranged a premonitory dream for a lad who been invited to participate in his very first burglary; argued philosophy for several minutes with a student who had read far too much Soren Kierkegaard and was consequently pondering suicide; whispered in the ear of a woman who intended to give her abusive "lover" one more chance to prove he could control his temper. Based on past experience, I felt it likely my influence would help extend the life expectancy of at least one of the three, though I didn't know which one that would be. These matters were not of the type where I could directly interfere with their self-determination.
Standing on a sidewalk on in Metropolis, I ducked into a narrow alley going north and promptly emerged on West 36th Street, two and a half miles away as the crow flies. This block had a used-book store that I hadn't visited in years. Even I occasionally try to stretch my mind by reading something I have never read before. There was a time when the Great Library of Alexandria was the nearest thing I had to a home; and many centuries later I used to wander through the chambers of a remarkable Benedictine library in northern Italy after closing hours.
I patted a pocket in my opera cape and confirmed that I could purchase anything that caught my fancy. After an adventure in South Carolina the previous summer I had on a whim picked up a wad of American cash that the now-deceased owner would no longer require (and hadn't earned honestly in the first place). Having little need for such mortal preoccupations as the purchase of food, beverage, transportation, or shelter, I might end up keeping some of those bills tucked away for a very long time until I needed to purchase a new hat or cloak or other raiment. (Occult had been trying for five decades to persuade me to experiment with a trenchcoat, and recently I had obliged him, briefly, when we were working together on a particularly important venture, but it had failed to impress me as superior to my old look. Keeping up with transitory fashions is another thing I refuse to worry about.)
As I stepped through the doorway beneath the "Used & Rare Books" sign, I glanced from left to right, taking a quick inventory of the current theme of the displays at the front of the store. All Hallows Eve was a few weeks away, and the displays reflected this. Tables were covered with old books purporting to reveal the secrets of the spiritualistic, the supernatural, the psychic, the paranormal, the arcane, or whatever adjective a given author (or editor) had seen fit to mention in the title or in a separate blurb on the front of the volume. The dealer had humorously arranged stacks of eight different purported "translations" of The Necronomicon on the same table. Choose the version you want to be true, the display seemed to whisper. Antithetical to my own views on the nature of truth, but I rather thought H.P. Lovecraft would have approved. As I drifted near, an auburn-haired woman smiled to herself at something in the middle of one version she was perusing.
I glanced over the Necronomicon display, saw nothing I hadn't seen before, and moved on to another table. Nothing really caught my fancy - I wasn't sure what I wanted, but I was sure I didn't see it. I ducked behind a bookcase, sidestepped, and emerged out of a patch of shadow across the street from a similar establishment in downtown Gotham. Thirty feet to my left on the sidewalk, a balding man blinked and rubbed his eyes, then peered at me and at the dark area I had just vacated, apparently unable to convince himself that I had been standing there all along before I started moving across the street. He didn't actually try to speak to me, so I let him draw whatever conclusions he would.
A bell tinkled as I went through the front door, but no one overtly reacted to my presence. A clerk was at the cash register, selling something bound in black leather to a dark-skinned woman. A towheaded lad was peering at an assortment of old science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. As I moved further back between rows of shelving, I noticed an auburn-haired woman in a green ensemble was standing near a sign that proclaimed those shelves to be the "New Age" section. As I passed behind her back, I heard her softly humming something that sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it right away.
A minute later, as I was peering dubiously at a book that purported to offer the truth about the Metaphysical Role of Count Saint Germain in 18th Century Europe (it might be worth buying for the amusement value, given that I had actually known Saint Germain back in the day) the auburn-haired woman turned around and, out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly realized that her profile was a remarkably good match for that of the auburn-haired woman who had been holding a soi-disant edition of The Necronomicon a few minutes ago in Metropolis. And hadn't that woman also been wearing a dark green sweater, with slacks, boots, and purse all of the same color?
My life is full of synchronicity. For example, some have suggested I deliberately wait as long as it takes for certain individuals to use the word "stranger" in a sentence before I "just happen" to wander into their field of vision and start talking to them, but those claims are . . . well, not entirely false, but greatly exaggerated. More often than my critics would believe, such a "coincidence" was entirely unplanned (by me, at least). It was possible that these two auburn-haired, green-clad young women were entirely unconnected with one another. Or they were identical twins who lived in different towns. Or . . . too many possibilities, and my enhanced perceptions weren't helping much in narrowing them down, thus far.
The balderdash about Saint Germain could wait. An experiment was in order. I left the store in the conventional fashion, then cut across a parking lot. When I was shrouded in shadow in the narrow gap between two minivans, I sidestepped to Opal City, just down the street from a shop of antiques and collectibles run by a young man named Jack Knight. (A mile away, his brother David was continuing the proud tradition of "Starman" in an encounter with some car thieves.)
I window shopped for a minute, waiting. An auburn-haired young woman sauntered down the sidewalk, whistling an old tune. (Need I mention her wardrobe was green?) She passed me by without a word and faded away into thin air as she passed under a street lamp. The synchronicity hypothesis promptly collapsed. A moment later I was twenty feet behind her as she entered a Wal-Mart in Columbus. I trailed her through the store for a few minutes. She paused by a magazine display, leafed through a fashion magazine for a minute, then replaced it neatly on the rack and faded again.
I followed her trail to a large bookstore in Hub City. I could have emerged directly in front of her, but there was no clear need to force the issue. It was possible that she was leading me into a trap, but I do not turn tail and run every time a mystic wants my attention; I should never get anything done that way. Still, if something interesting didn't develop soon I would probably shrug this off and leave her to continue her shopping spree alone.
Naturally, that was when she broke pattern, as if to say "here's my message; what do you make of it?" I stood directly behind her at the sales counter as she put down a load of science fiction novels she had plucked off the shelves as she moved toward the front of the store.
Her selections included:
Robert A. Heinlein's Methuselah's Children.
Roger Zelazny's This Immortal.
Poul Anderson's The Boat of a Million Years.
Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars.
Larry Niven's Protector.
Each and every one of them a tale involving physical "immortality" (or at least vastly extended life expectancy) in some fashion. Was that what she wished to discuss with me? Her agenda was still an open question. Even at such close range, her mind was mystically shielded against any casual probe (as I was now verifying). It was conceivable (but far from certain) that I could breach her defenses if I tried hard enough, but it would be very rude to try and possibly risky. I purchased a copy of Silverlock, by John Myers Myers, as an excuse for my being just behind her at the sales counter.
She lingered near the doorway until I had made my purchase, then sauntered out, me following. It occurred to me that given how little I knew about her, I really had nothing I needed to say to her. The Phantom Stranger does not lower himself to ask other strangers why they are trying to attract his attention. I seriously considered cutting this off by sidestepping several times in quick succession and finding something else to do with my evening. Speculating about her motives had been entertaining for a few minutes, but I didn't want to make a career out of it. Perhaps she sensed that my interest was wearing thin.
Without preamble, without even looking back at me over her shoulder, she said casually, "You don't have a listed mailing address. I suppose I could have sent something to the Justice League—you used to call yourself a member of a previous version of the group—but I didn't know how often you stopped by to pick up your messages at the current team's headquarters."
"Never," I conceded as I stepped up to stand beside her. Neither her voice, nor face, nor what I could detect of her basic psychic aura (despite the shielding) rang any bells in my memory. I was reasonably certain that she was wearing her own face, however. Her psychic shields—products of spellcasting rather than of "natural" telepathy or technological enhancement—prevented me from even ferreting out her name, as I can almost always do without much effort at such close range. The most plausible explanation was that she was just as young as she looked—early-to-mid-twenties—which probably meant she was only newly operating as a solo act with her full power after a long apprenticeship with someone else. If she had been operating independently for any great length of time, I very likely would have recognized her from past experience.
This auburn-haired sorceress, on the other hand, obviously knew "who" I was - at least in the most general sense. To rub it in, she had earlier been humming (I now realized) the old tune, "Strangers in the Night." A song of love at first sight, as I recalled—was she hoping for a quick fling so that she could boast about a tryst with the elusive Phantom Stranger?
(She was attractive enough, but it wasn't going to happen - the tryst, that is. Even supposing it was really her objective. On the other hand, I doubted I would take the trouble to try to refute her if she later started bragging about one anyway. Such things had certainly happened before. I'd long since concluded that the stranger and more contradictory the rumors that spread about my lifestyle in mystic circles, the better. But I was probably getting far ahead of myself. Still, following this chain of speculation gave me something to do while I waited for her to get to the point—I was disinclined to play straight man by feeding her a series of questions, as if I were hanging on her every word.)
She asked the first question. "Any thoughts on why I went looking for you, Stranger? If it turns out you already know, it'll save me an awful lot of explaining!" She grinned engagingly.
"I am sure you already know I cannot easily read your mind. Your taste in reading matter suggests an interest in immortality."
"No; more of an interest in attracting your attention by waving an intriguing theme under your nose," she assured me. "I've read all these books, years ago. And watched the Highlander movies, to boot. And lately the 'Highlander' TV series that just started last fall. But there are plenty of other ways to approach the problem of immortality, without trying to steal yours. Even supposing I could, which I don't know for sure and don't propose to test."
"Immortals are a dime a dozen," she said dismissively. "Ponce de Leon may never have found his Fountain of Youth, but there are plenty of others who have mastered the trick somehow. Cheating death, postponing it for millennia, returning from it good as new, switching bodies, a bunch of different answers to the same old question. Vandal Savage, Ra's al Ghul, Solomon Grundy, the Resurrection Man, Arion of Atlantis, the Shade, Hawkman and Hawkgirl if we count good old-fashioned reincarnation, various 'artificial intelligences' who are still young in years but might last millennia if the tech base doesn't collapse, mythological entities a-plenty in every corner of the world -- and that's just some of the ones who spend most of their time on and around this little old planet instead of hanging out on New Genesis or Oa or places I've never heard of." As she spoke, we had taken seven-league strides, side by side for the moment, and were now in the suburbs of Chicago.
She carried on with her discourse. "And I haven't even mentioned the ghosts whose bodies are moldering in the grave but whose spirits continue to play an active role in the world of the living, such as Boston Brand or Gentleman Jim Craddock. Nor the clones with the memories of the originals—Project Cadmus has done that with Jim Harper, so I know it's a perfectly feasible approach to gain Reincarnation On Demand. Someday I may even try it. The old brain in the old body would still experience death eventually, but the copy of my psyche that had been downloaded to the clone-brain wouldn't remember or care about the final trauma it hadn't experienced, would it?" We had detoured through Gateway City, Oklahoma City, and Fawcett City, and were now pausing in Happy Harbor. She was still carrying the conversation, such as it was.
She waved a hand dismissively as she added, "Hey, if I just wanted immortality in a hurry and all else failed, I'd capture a vampire and force him to turn me into one of his own. Simpler than trying to compete with Ra's in the Lazarus Pit business. And I'm bright enough to avoid leaving a trail of dead bodies, drained of all blood, twin punctures visible on the neck. If you believe the movies, that would be a surefire way to attract the attention of vampire hunters every time, which would be a pain even if I weren't moronic enough to leave behind eyewitnesses and/or enough other clues for them to go the distance by getting a good description and tracking me all the way back to my lair - instead of just scratching their heads and saying, 'Gee, somewhere in this metropolitan area, concealed among millions of ordinary residents, there must be a vampire!' No, I'd probably just start doing all my grocery shopping at the local blood bank through a dummy corporation disguised as a private clinic or research lab."
And if you did hunt and kill for sustenance, you'd make sure the bodies were never found—or were so badly burnt that no autopsy would ever ascertain that they had been exsanguinated before entering the fire, I concluded silently. Her casual willingness to share her stream-of-consciousness ideas on immortality only went so far; she obviously had no intention of baring her soul to me regarding any major sin she actually anticipated committing.
She continued along the same lines, postponing the moment when she would mention why she had started bird-dogging me in the first place. "Of course, I'd either have to sleep all day or else get used to smearing on the sun block really thick before I went out."
"Sun block would not avail you much—it's not a scientific problem of how much ultraviolet radiation actually penetrates your flesh."
"Figures. But I wasn't really interested in doing it that way."
Meanwhile, we had stridden in and out of Tulsa, Philadelphia, Lansing, Keystone City, and now entered Colorado Springs. I still didn't know exactly how she was doing it—not the same way I do it, for a certainty, but neither by going through the necessary steps to use any of the traditional spells that would be well-suited to a series of rapid teleportations (or the functional equivalent). Perhaps some artifact on her person that had been bespelled and charged with power in advance, so it could do most of the work without demanding much of her attention as we went along?
I finally decided asking one leading question wouldn't kill me. "Then what are you interested in? More than a quiet transcontinental stroll in my company, I presume."
She stopped in a state park just outside Indianapolis. "Have you ever heard of the Dark Chamber?"
I chewed on that. "Was there not a novel by that name, several decades ago?"
"If you say so—I wouldn't know. But I meant it as the name of a contemporary outfit; not anything fictional or defunct."
"Something on the mystical side of things?"
"I do not recall ever encountering such a group, then." And my memory for such things is very long and very reliable, I didn't bother to add.
At the moment, we were walking normally down a trail through the woods and about to pass a swarthy man who had his hands stuffed in his pockets and was staring at a burbling creek. There was a green flower in his buttonhole.
"Then—" she broke off. "Wait. Before I say anything more specific . . ." Suddenly she waved a hand in an elaborate gesture and a glowing circle seemed to spring out of the ground all around us, roughly thirty feet in diameter. The swarthy man was caught just inside the rim; he expostulated and jumped back from it—he was now trapped inside the circle with the two of us; or he seemed to view it that way.
I didn't. I could see at a glance that the circle should serve as a baffle to frustrate any outside attempts to hear our conversation by means technological or magical; but had no heat or other potency that would give a man as much as a blister if he physically stepped over and away from it. Granted, a layman could be pardoned for failing to perceive such distinctions, but I knew this was more childish showmanship than anything else. "Just my companion's little joke, sir!" I assured the swarthy man. "You are free to walk away whenever you please!"
The man stared at the glowing perimeter and reached up nervously toward his throat, as if to loosen his tie and facilitate breathing. "Really? If it's so safe, you go first! Show me!"
"Why not?" I conceded. "Watch—"
I was interrupted as the auburn-haired woman raised and then lowered her right hand, twice. Two more glowing circles appeared, centered on our position, each wider than the previous—ergo, I was now standing at the center of a bullseye, if you cared to look at it that way. I didn't care for the notion at all. I still saw no true threat within those flamboyant circles, no hostile magic looming overhead, no hint of demonic activity—it was quite possible that she merely valued her privacy and had something explosive to tell me—but I suddenly grabbed the swarthy man by the left arm and prepared to take us elsewhere if need be. "Do not move," I advised him. "In just a moment -"
The sorceress had begun chanting something that, to the best of my knowledge, was not the verbal component of any spell under the sun. Familiar, though.
"Weave a circle round him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise."
"Coleridge?" I inquired, more amused than anything else. "Is that really—"
I was interrupted as the swarthy gentleman touched the flower in his buttonhole and a clear liquid spurted out of the blossom—into my open mouth at point-blank range. The Phantom Stranger requires neither food nor drink for sustenance, but my mouth still connects to my gullet, which still connects to the stomach that I almost never use. Some of the liquid followed that path down into my digestive system before I understood what was happening. It was neither honey-dew nor the milk of paradise, but it made a unique impact.
I clamped my lips shut, loosened my grip on the man's arm,and tried to sidestep a thousand miles to the west—but I had suddenly forgotten how! I was still grappling with that discovery when the swarthy man's hand chopped at my neck.