...and I Feel Fine
by Constance Eilonwy, a.k.a. dotfic
contact: eilozette at earthlink dot net
Spoiler warning: Through "Divided We Fall"
Disclaimer: All characters (save the narrator, who is mine) are the property of DC Comics/Warner Bros. Thanks as always toMissy for catching the typos and any other embarrassing errors.
A/N: This is a follow up to my previous story "I, Janitor" but you don't have to have read that to get this.
My youngest joined me on the couch where I was watching the news, had been for the past two days. She cupped her hand over my ear, her curls tickling my cheek, and whispered,
"They didn't do it, Daddy."
I don't know how she knows things like that, but she does. Her whisper drowned out the talking heads on the TV, three men in suits sitting around a shiny Formica table, arguing. The picture cut away, yet again, to the damage in the desert.
Some stations have shown footage of the League helping with the rescue and cleanup. Some haven't.
I wasn't on duty when it happened. I was home, doing normal home things. The gutters needed cleaning, the car needed an inspection, my oldest daughter needed her homework checked. Just an ordinary day until I turned on the TV to catch the game and a special report broke in.
They didn't do it.
The beam may have come from the Watchtower, but there is no way in hell they did it on purpose. Or even accidentally, through negligence. No way.
"A menace. It should be clear to anyone..."
"That's what you get for trusting aliens. Look at what happened during the Thanagarian invasion."
"What we teach our children—"
"...several bills introduced on the senate floor this week to tighten security and regulate..."
Things were never ordinary, not on the Watchtower, but there was a routine. I had friends there. Some of them could run faster than a bullet, or create matter out of nothing. Some of them could fix a computer or weld a crack in the outer bulkhead. Can't say I took it for granted, either, because I think it's a cool job, the coolest job ever, and much as I love being with my family, I still got butterflies every time I stood out in the field with the other guys ready to be teleported up to work.
But when the news broke, I felt like I'd taken it for granted. Ordinary would never happen again.
"...calling for the immediate disbanding..."
"...couldn't have done it..."
"It was only a matter of time. Absolute power..."
The day slid on around me. My wife came and sat with me and I gripped her fingers tightly, needing her touch. My older daughter wrote an essay for school about it. She read it aloud before bedtime. I burst into tears, scaring my daughter and alarming my wife, who has never seen me cry. They both hugged me, saying reassuring things while I felt like I should be reassuring them.
I fell asleep in front of the TV. As if by keeping it on and knowing what was happening, what was being said, I could somehow help. Because the truth was I was completely powerless.
What good would power be anyway? What if I could do magic, or shoot trick arrows, or shape shift? It wouldn't stop people from believing what they want to believe.
There were casualties.
I didn't learn until later what happened up on the Watchtower, although the 24/7 networks had vague reports of missiles. Someone, somewhere knew exactly what was happening up there but they hadn't shared it with CNN. So it was only after it was over that I found out what went on up there.
There were casualties.
The League was almost outmatched. They hid the techs (helpless, ordinary humans that they were). An Ultiman found them and attacked. The techs rushed the Ultiman.
One tech was badly injured and in critical condition. Another one died. I didn't know either of them personally but a buddy of mine was in the charge. He told me about it over the phone, shock thick in his voice, as if he were describing things that had happened to someone else, or confessing a bad nightmare he'd had.
There were casualties.
Steel. Supergirl. Dude, imagine it being bad enough to do damage to Supergirl.
We'd heard other things, too. Something about the Flash dying and coming back to life. Weird. I mean, he's a great hero and all—saved a lot of people. I saw him on the news working the rescue efforts. But returning from the dead? That's the kind of mind-blowing stuff I'd expect from Superman or Batman (who's maybe part vampire anyway) or J'onn J'onzz. Not Flash.
Probably gossip just got things screwy. I'm sure there was some fact in it—the rumor mill said that in addition to coming back from the dead he also saved the world from Brainiac. Now that, I had no trouble believing.
So, there was a funeral for the dead tech. Although we were allowed to tell our families about our jobs, they weren't ever supposed to go anywhere near it. Instead I went with some friends from my section.
I figured it would be pretty small. Maybe the techs who worked with the deceased, and the ones who had been in the charge. The memorial was in an auditorium at a small college. Turned out they needed an auditorium, and them some.
Every seat in the place was filled, and there was barely standing room. We found a spot to stand near the back, and looked out over the sea of subdued, dark suits and dresses that only made the splashes of color stand out more.
Green, red, blue, gold. Cowboy hats and feathers, capes and quivers, and everything in between.
He was only a technician, Grade B, but they were there. They were all there.
After the dead tech's friends spoke, some of the heroes did too, Green Arrow, the Elongated Man, and Wonder Woman, who praised his valor and spoke of Elysium.
Superman stood in the side aisle with the Flash and Supergirl. He squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them something damp was shining high on his cheek, red in the glow of the exit sign.
Then I got it, why they came, and why the techs rushed the Ultiman. I knew it all along, but not as a clear idea I could explain to myself, why the tech had been willing to die. It sounds crazy but standing at the back of that stuffy, somber auditorium, I realized I'd have been willing to die too, if it had been me who had been on duty. I thought of my wife and my girls, and thanked God I hadn't been.
Days after we refused to let them quit, I was at home again, watching TV again, doing my best impression of the bored and underemployed.
On the TV there was still arguing. The League should be disbanded, the League was the best thing to happen to the world, the League should fall under the jurisdiction of the U.N., the President, the C.I.A. The League was a front, a sham, a political tool of a shadow government. The League was the only hope in an insane world.
When the call came, I left the TV on mute, watching the mouths silently flapping. I gripped the phone and nearly passed out when I recognized the voice on the other end.
How the hell do I address him...?
"Yes, sir, Mr. Jones...I mean...three o'clock, Tuesday. I'll be there."
I hung up, putting my palm to my face.
Sometimes I am an idiot.
In a marble-floored foyer, they searched me and checked my I.D. The temporary location of the Justice League's Earth embassy was one of those former mansions converted into offices in downtown Metropolis. Dark polished wood, oriental carpets, high ceilings. Made me nervous. I wore a tie and kept tugging at it as some sort of assistant showed me into a large office and shut the door.
The Martian sat behind a huge mahogany desk, his face reflected upside-down in its polished surface. The only object on the desk was a phone that looked more complex than anything I'd ever seen when I mopped floors for the Air Force.
"Please, have a seat," he intoned, gesturing with one long, blue arm. So I did.
The chair was slippery leather. I kept sliding down.
"As you know, the League has decided to establish an earth embassy. We feel we have been too far...out of touch."
I nodded, my throat dry.
He gave me the faintest of smiles. "There is no need to be nervous. Allow me to explain why you are here. We reviewed all the personnel files and have hand-picked those we would like to use to staff the embassy. You have an interesting, and long, resume, you do exemplary work, you are reliable and discreet. Both Green Lantern and the Flash speak highly of you. We would like you to become Head of Maintenance at the new embassy. While it is being built, you will supervise all cleaning operations during repair on the Watchtower."
There was a rushing sound in my ears. It took me a second to realize it was my own blood pumping through my veins. It took me another second to realize the Martian was looking at me expectantly (and maybe a little amused) and that I hadn't said anything for a good long while now.
"You...want me to..."
"If you are interested, of course. If you would prefer a different posting, we can discuss it. Or if you choose to leave, the League will provide a generous severance package along with a strong letter of recommendation."
I tried to process all of it. Really I did.
"We are not firing you," he explained in a helpful tone, laying his palms flat against the shining dark wood of the desk. "We are offering you a promotion."
More seconds passed. A car honked outside. A truck rumbled by on the street one story below the office.
"An answer would be preferred at some point," he added dryly, "but tomorrow is fine if you need to think it over."
He raised a severe brow. "No?"
"Not 'no, I don't want the job,' I mean 'no, I don't need to think it over. Yes. I accept."
"Good. There will be a substantial raise. There is one other matter—a second proposal. As you are so highly trusted we would like to invite you to serve on a special task force that will have several representatives from the League as well as the staff. We would like you to listen for any discontent, unrest, complaints, or unhappiness. Report anything to the group, which will then decide as a whole whether to act upon it. We need to know how we are being perceived. This is also a security measure. The transition to Earth-based relations will be a difficult time."
The bubble of excitement inside of me popped.
"You want me to spy on my coworkers?" I asked flatly. "Listen to their conversations and report them?"
"I would not put it that way, but yes."
Then it was over after all. Gone. Done.
"I'm sorry, I can't accept. You'll have my resignation tomorrow."
The Martian folded his hands on the desk. "Are you sure?"
I prayed I wouldn't cry. Not there in front of him.
"Very well." He unfolded his hands. "We have no intention of assembling a task force. I merely needed to read your reaction to the idea."
"It was a test?"
He heaved a sigh. "A measure I feel necessary."
"You aren't going to spy on your staff?"
"No, we are not. Proposing the task force was merely an opportunity to bring out strong emotions for clearer readings."
A mind test.
"Well that sucks." I stood up. "You're poking around in my brain to make sure I can be trusted?"
"Not just you. Everyone I have interviewed has undergone the same test."
"Let me explain something to you. The whole point of trust is that you trust. Period."
"It is not that we do not trust..."
I slapped my fist into my palm. "Yes it is. You're so worried about us not trusting all of you that you forgot about the other part. It's this kind of thing that got you guys so out of touch with the rest of us." I took a deep breath. "We all look up to the League. We trust the League. Anyone who doesn't feel that way has already quit or will turn down any job offer, because they'll know they didn't believe and they don't belong here."
I turned for the door.
Mind read THIS, hero...
I was halfway to the door when he called out, "Wait."
"Was that a test, too?" I asked, with my back to him. "To see how I'd feel about being mind-probed? You have your answer to that." I turned back around. "You are one scary S.O.B., you know that? Is Batman more paranoid than you?"
"Batman warned me not to take this approach. Your reaction bears out his predictions. It is annoying when he is right all the time."
"I guess Batman's more smart about people than I thought," I said.
"We have dismissed several candidates from the Watchtower staff because of their over-willingness to participate in the task force. Though they were not evil or dishonest, I sensed their minds were hungry for power. Others were as upset as you are when I told them about the test but they kept their own counsel and accepted it as a necessary unpleasantness." He paused. "You are the first to give me a lecture on it."
"Yeah, well, I've seen a lot..." I mumbled, feeling my face growing warm.
"Do you think I should stop the tests?"
"Yes. Try just asking them straight up what they would think about spying on their colleagues, even for the greater good. Tell them the minute they enter this room that you're going to be scanning their emotions and can hide nothing from you."
"Do you now...no longer believe? Have I lost your trust?" His eyes were uncanny, bottomless, filled with meaning but blank on the surface. There was something so eternally sad about that long, thin, angular face. "I have made a mistake. Forgive me. I hope you will still accept the position."
Slowly, I nodded.
He reached his hand across the desk, palm flat. I stared at it a moment as if I'd forgotten my own customs, but then I reached out and grasped it. We shook hands. His skin was cool and dry, almost like leather, and the grip was powerful but oddly gentle. He let go quickly.
I wondered how many humans he'd shaken hands with.
I still trust them.