They shot the Messenger, Tabitha said, and he wasn’t expected to survive.
“What was he even doing there?” Brad asked. “Breaking up a robbery, a drug deal? That doesn’t sound like him. Last I heard, he was stranded at the Cosmic Gates, lost in the Mists of Time, thinking deep thoughts about truth and justice or something like that.”
“Turns out he was in Poughkeepsie.”
It turned out, much to the shock of the gathered League, that the Messenger had been a fraud.
Brad remembered fighting at the man’s side when the robot armies from the dark beyond had invaded New York, when the deal that Dr. Highbrow had tried to broker with the alien machines fell through and their mechanized armada had crashed into Central Park.
That had been a lie? Those memories were false?
Apparently so, if what Tabitha told him now was true.
“Looks like he wasn’t some celestial being from the distant future,” she said, “just a plumber from upstate who stumbled into some future tech.”
Chief among that technology had been the memory destabilizer. Dr. Highbrow had retrieved the weapon from the Messenger’s hideout—more Motel 6 than fortress of solitude—and she and the Screaming Shadow had spent the better part of the afternoon trying to figure out how the strange apparatus had worked.
It was fifty-first-century technology, that much at least was obvious, and as best they could tell the Messenger had used it to create false memories of himself in all of their minds. Memories of battles that had never happened, intergalactic wars that had never been fought.
Even Prince Nocturne, who biologically speaking didn’t have a mind, hadn’t been immune.
“I guess he finally decided to try and be a real hero,” Tabitha said. “And it went badly for him.”
Here in the confines of the League’s orbital station, she had swapped the mask and costume for jeans and a T-shirt, and Brad still wasn’t used it, casual workplace or not. He knew her better as the Betweener—powers maybe more impressive than the name—and without the bolts of golden lightning streaking from her eyes, he sometimes had to remind himself who he was listening to.
Hadn’t the two of them met in New York? Wasn’t that when Brad had first become a provisional member of the League? If that strange, star-spanning adventure had never actually happened…what had?
Brad knew there had always been a contingent among the League who eyed their alliance with him warily. Once a supervillain, always a supervillain, he sometimes heard them whisper—and that wasn’t just the Whispery Five, or that weird Martian dialect they sometimes spoke amongst themselves.
The League might use this new development as an excuse to drum him out. If they had proof now that he hadn’t truly earned their trust. If half the battles where he had joined forces with them were nothing more than shared delusion. If their camaraderie was just the byproduct of the Messenger’s stolen bag of tricks.
How long, he wondered, before it was goodbye, Bradley Milton, the newly minted Mr. Exceptional, and hello again, old foe, the dastardly Professor Nefarious?
Brad didn’t want to go back to that old life, that old secret identity. He was tired of skulking around in sewers, stockpiling uranium beneath active volcanoes, recombining dinosaur DNA in a lonely laboratory late into the night. And for what? Bank heists and holding the city ransom could buy a lot of things, but not one of them was friendship.
“I think it’s Taco Tuesday in the cafeteria,” said Tabitha. “Wanna come with?”
The mess hall was already crowded, remarkably so, considering that it wasn’t even yet noon. Of course, that was noon station time, Brad reminded himself. How many heroes had flown or teleported in from the planet down below?
Johnny Velocity had gotten there ahead of them, not surprisingly, but so had a string of other regular team members. There was Wally, the Impeccable Man, spooning salsa onto his plate, and right beside him Captain Computo, who Brad hadn’t seen since the android had been swallowed by the time vortex, two, or maybe three weeks earlier. Lady Hera’s Ghost hovered quietly over one of the tables, as did her occasional sidekick the Phantom Boy, and Brad spied several more costumed do-gooders either chatting in line or nibbling on warm tortillas.
Not for the first time, he marveled at the sheer size of the League—was that all twelve Champions of Infinity, huddled in the corner around the soft-serve ice cream machine?—and he worried again that they didn’t really need him as a member at all.
“C’mon, there’s a seat over there,” Tabitha said.
At the end of the otherwise empty table sat Dr. Highbrow. She looked tired and frazzled, more so than Brad had ever seen the scientist look before. A plate of refried beans in front of her sat untouched, while pages of penciled schematics were strewn all about. If he’d had to guess, Brad would have said that she was already at her wit’s end. The patented Thinking Cap she was wearing still had several higher settings than that, but Brad wondered at whatever problem she was chewing on if it was serious enough to merit the unreliable contraption atop her head.
His own knowledge of science was not insubstantial, but it was more of the mad variety, and he recognized only a few of the quantum equations that the woman had hastily scribbled down.
“What’s the damage, doc?” Tabitha asked as the two of them sat.
“Hmm?” said Highbrow, looking up. “Oh, hello, my dear. Just reviewing some of our findings from the Messenger’s device, that’s all. It’s…” She sighed, shaking her weighted head. “I daresay it’s rather more complicated than we initially wagered.”
“Really made a hash of things, did he?” Tabitha said, reaching for the beans.
“Yes, quite,” said Highbrow. She handed Tabitha her napkin and fork. “Muddied reality something awful, it would appear. Even the unflappable Screaming Shadow was taken aback. It’s only—”
“Only what, doc?” Tabitha asked around a mouthful of refried beans.
“It’s only I’m not convinced we should blame the Messenger, not entirely.”
She pointed at the schematics, which Brad still couldn’t quite puzzle out. He’d built a giant robot once, back in his misspent youth, that had rampaged through Paris, and before that he’d studied centuries of arcane symbols and glyphs in a failed attempt to raise an army of the dead. But he didn’t think this was equivalent to either of those two ill-considered pursuits. The mathematics that was spread out across the cafeteria table looked like it was well above his own pay grade.
“The man obviously made extensive use of the memory destabilizer,” said Highbrow. She smiled, not unkindly, at Brad. “With intriguing results. Yet, if our calculations prove correct, it’s altogether possible the device was operational for considerably longer.”
“What does ‘considerably’ mean?” Brad asked.
“Well, it’s rather difficult to say, actually,” said Highbrow. (Brad remembered no such hesitancy in the woman when she and the League had destroyed that giant robot.) “The device creates false memories quite indistinguishable from reality. It therefore makes suspect everything we presume to know. The Shadow and I have a few working theories about how many centuries ago it was first activated, but—”
“Wait a minute,” said Brad. “Centuries?!” He looked around the cafeteria, at the costumed crimefighters zipping from one table to the next, and at the bright expanse of stars outside the space station’s windows. “What are you saying? That none of this is real?”
“Yeah, doc,” said Tabitha. “Are you saying it might not even be Taco Tuesday?”
Highbrow shrugged. “Honestly?” she said. “There might not even be any such thing as tacos, or Tuesdays. We don’t know just how deep the false memories run.”
“Oh,” said Tabitha, the beans for the moment forgotten. “Well that’s unexpected.”
It also changed everything, Brad suddenly thought. Because if everything was up for grabs, if all of their shared history as friend and foe could be rewritten, then the Messenger had delivered a surprisingly wonderful gift.
Brad didn’t have to go back to being a supervillain if he had never actually been one in the first place.
He allowed himself a little smile. Taco Tuesday or not, it was turning out to be a pretty good day.
Fred Coppersmith is a writer and editor from the mean suburban streets of New York. His fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceway’s Inflight Magazine, Mythic Delirium, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among others. He publishes the quarterly zine Kaleidotrope and can usually be found nattering about something or other on Twitter @unrealfred.