Too Many Long Boxes!
   
     

Opposite Perceptions

by David R. Black

"And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my right mind"
- William Shakespeare, King Lear

Chapter One

Keystone City Airport

Werner Vertigo watched his fellow travelers mull about gate 17B. They shuffled about aimlessly, oblivious to the bustle of the airport - and the world - around them. Few made eye contact with him, and those who did quickly averted their glance.

Did they recognize him? Maybe, but not likely. Dressed in slacks and a collared shirt, Vertigo looked like a typical businessman waiting for his flight. And even though he was the Count and rightful ruler of Vlatava, a tiny country in Eastern Europe, Vertigo hardly made the news. More precisely, he hardly made the news when it came to his politics or policies, but he did make the news when it came to his other activities.

Quite simply, Vertigo was a metahuman criminal, a supervillain as the press says. A supervillain whose powers can distort the perceptions of others, causing dizziness, nausea, and vertigo. And ironically, Vertigo's perception bending powers mirrored the distorting mental illness that plagued his own mind - manic depression.

Even while battling heroes like Green Arrow and Manhunter over the years, Vertigo had fought his own inner demons. He rode the roller coaster of his own mind to the peaks of mania to the valleys of depression. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Psychiatrists diagnosed him as a "rapid cycler," meaning he experienced two or three complete manic-depressive cycles within one year.

Still staring at the people around him, Vertigo let out a loud sigh. Caught in the throes of deep depression once more, Vertigo was going home. Going home to Vlatava. Going home to die.

Life had been delicious a few weeks ago. A mind altering virus, dubbed the "Vile Virus," had infected Vertigo as well as most of the world's other metahumans. The virus not only affected Vertigo's morals, essentially turning him from "bad" to "good," but it had also put a stop to his emotional cycling. His manic depression had disappeared, the chemical imbalance in his body had righted itself.

At least for a little while.

And then his body betrayed him once more, counteracting part of the virus's effects. His condition had reappeared anew, like an archenemy that never goes away, always returning to pester him again and again.

Doctors in Keystone City, where Vertigo had helped to capture a rogue Flash, couldn't explain it. They theorized that, like a normal virus, Vertigo's immune system had found a way to reverse some of the damage the virus had done. His immune system didn't understand that Vertigo wanted the virus to continue. It wasn't harming him, it was healing him. Healing him from a lifetime of pain and suffering.

The gloomy darkness of his disease shrouded his mind once more, and Vertigo had decided, as he had a few times before, that only one thing could free him from his personal hell. Suicide.

The first leg of his journey to the afterlife was over. He booked himself a flight to Vlatava (it was too far to fly there under his own power), and after a brief layover in Metropolis, he'd board an international flight home.

"Excuse me, but is this seat taken?" asked a feminine voice.

Vertigo turned his attention to the voice's owner. She was five feet, five inches tall with sparkling blue eyes and shoulder length black hair.

"No. Help yourself." Vertigo gestured at the seat next to his.

"Thanks. I'm Blythe, Blythe Bonner." She extended her hand and Vertigo shook it. "You headed to Metropolis, too, Mr..?"

"Werner, just Werner."

"Oooh.what a charming accent! I take it you're European? No, wait, maybe Russian? Maybe a Russian who moved to Europe?"

"Actually.."

"This is, like, so cool! I'm going to Europe after a short stop in Metropolis. My agent - I'm an author, you know - has booked me on a tour through Spain, Germany, and Italy to promote my new book."

"I'm not.."

"Hey! Would you like a copy?" Blythe rummaged through her carry-on suitcase, and finding a copy, thrust it on Vertigo's lap. "It's called 'Chicken Soup for the Supervillain Soul.' And it's not just for supervillains! Anyone can read it!"

"Ahhh, I.."

"Oh, have you read it already? No? That's OK, just try it. It's full of anecdotes and true-to-life personal tales written by myself and other supervillains. I, like, used to be a supervillain. I called myself Byte, and I can, like, transform myself into a being of pure energy. My brother and I..."

Vertigo sighed softly and tried to look uninterested. It was no use. The bubbly young girl simply wouldn't stop talking. After a few minutes, Blythe pulled a pencil from her purse, and eraser end down, began rubbing it across her skin violently.

"What.What are you doing?" asked the stunned Count.

"I'm telling you about my book, silly!"

"No, I mean that." He pointed at the eraser.

"Oh, yeah, that. Like, I got zapped by some bad dude named Prometheus back in Gotham. He got into my head while I was in my electric, powered up form, and he reprogrammed part of my brain with the combined works of William Burroughs and the Marquis de Sade."

"Two authors."

"Right, and like, they wrote some messed up stuff. Drugs, addiction, self inflicted pain. I can't help it, but I love the feel of burning myself with pencil erasers. It hurts bad, but it brings such exquisite pleasure! Almost sexual, in a way."

Vertigo had been to his share of psychiatrists, and quickly recognized her condition as sadomasochism.

"Won't that leave scars?"

"Yeah, but they go away when I change into my electric form. You wanna try it?" Blythe offered him another pencil while continuing to whittle into the flesh of her left arm.

"God, I'm not dead yet, and I'm already in Hell!" mumbled Vertigo.

"What was that?"

"I said no. No thanks."

"Hey, that's cool, man. It's not for everybody. Anyway, like I was saying, this is why I'm going to Metropolis before continuing on to Europe. S.T.A.R. Labs thinks there's a scientist there who can undo what Prometheus did. Get me back to normal."

Vertigo buried his head in his hands and wished that she'd just shut up. She seemed capable of talking for hours on end about nothing in particular. He considered using his powers on her - making her too nauseous to sit up straight, let alone talk - but he thought better of it. No need to cause a scene.

By the time the plane began boarding fifteen minutes later, Vertigo had learned more about Blythe Bonner than he ever wanted to know. Her brother Barney, her parents Belle and Frank, the new puppy she named Stormy (after her ex-foe Firestorm), and her secret crush on one of the Backstreet Boys.

He found it all too depressing. Asides from the sadomasochistic behaviors, Blythe's life seemed in full bloom. She was positively full of cheer, love, and hope for the years to come. And to make things worse, she was a reformed villain.

A total night and day difference existed between her world and his world. She had everything he wanted to have, and this realization filled Vertigo with even more despair.

Thank goodness she wasn't sitting next to him on the plane.

The cover of Blythe's book!  (Photomanipulation by David R. Black)

Chapter Two

LexAir Flight #1256

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. We will be arriving in Metropolis in just under two hours. Enjoy the flight."

The flight attendant's cheery announcement belied the crammed conditions on the nearly full airplane. How could anyone enjoy the flight while being treated like a sardine?

Sitting in a middle seat in the back of the plane, between an obese woman and an obnoxious kid, Vertigo felt more crammed the average sardine. The woman, too big for her seat, was spilling over into his seat, and the kid, when not kicking the seat in front of him, bounced up and down on the seat cushion.

"Yeeha! Giddy up horsey!" shouted the kid, bouncing even more violently and rocking the entire row of seats.

"Insolent brat! Knock it off!" said Vertigo tersely.

The kid turned, and making a gun with his fingers, pointed at Vertigo. "Bang, bang, mister! You're dead! Hee, hee, hee, hee!"

Vertigo stared at him icily. "I mean it!"

"Hey, leave 'im alone!" said the fat lady, looking up from her Harlequin romance novel. "And move yer feet, yer takin' up my leg room!"

"Your leg room? This is my space!"

"No it ain't!" she said, lifting up the armrest between the two seats and overflowing into more of Vertigo's seat.

"I paid for my seat, and unless you paid for two." snarled Vertigo.

"You just say what I think you said?" said the fat lady.

"Yeeha! Giddy up horsey!"

"You just say that? I'm talking to you, bub!"

"Yeeha! Giddy up horsey!"

"Why me? Why does this crap always happen to me?" said Vertigo angrily.

"Yeeha! Giddy up horsey!"

"That does it!" snapped Vertigo, grabbing the kid by the arm. "Look, brat, you want this to happen to you?"

Vertigo waggled his fingers at the fat lady, and the kid's eyes grew wide in fear as Vertigo's powers did their work. Her face sweaty and a disoriented look in her eyes, the fat lady grabbed for the emergency brown bag in the seat pocket in front of her.

"I don't feel so good..Think I'm going to.."

WRETCHHHHHH!

The fat lady vomited violently, missing the bag entirely and spewing her half digested lunch into the aisle. Within seconds, flight attendants arrived and took her to the first class section to lie down.

"Well?" Vertigo asked the kid.

The kid shrunk back into his seat, too afraid to move.

The acidy smell of the woman's vomit soon filled the plane despite the crew's promptness in cleaning it up. The passengers soon became restless, but in a pressurized cabin, fresh air was a sorely lacking commodity.

Not bothered by the smell, Vertigo pulled out the copy of 'Chicken Soup for the Supervillain Soul' Blythe had give him. He began to leaf through the pages, looking for nothing in particular, as a way to pass time.

The book contained entries such as '1001 Ways To Kill Kid Sidekicks' by the Joker, an essay on spiting Superman by the Prankster, and another entitled 'How Supervillainy Put Me Through College' by the Thinker, Cliff Carmichael. Vertigo read through 'Papa Was A Supervillain' by Duela Dent and almost laughed aloud at the antics of Catman in 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Arkham.'

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. We'll be landing shortly, so please fasten your seatbelts, and make sure."

"Oh, no we ain't!"

A well built, balding man jumped up from his seat and began waving what looked like a gun. From his seat a few aisles away, Vertigo could tell the gun was made of a polymer, plastic like material probably undetectable by the airport's security devices. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts that were too short, the man produced a small glass vial from his shirt pocket.

"I've got a test tube full of the Vile Virus!" shouted the man as he strode to the middle of the coach class section. "Now tell the captain to put the plane in a holding pattern, or I'll expose you to it!"

A flight attendant talked rapidly on a walkie-talkie to warn the captain while the man continued ranting. His mother was dying of cancer. She couldn't afford proper care, and he didn't have the means to help her, either. Hijacking a plane and holding it for ransom seemed like a surefire way to get badly needed money.

"And we'll stay in a holding pattern until I get my money or we run out of fuel!" shouted the hijacker.

Vertigo eased back in his seat, unconcerned by the hijacker. If he released the virus, then it might re-infect Vertigo and cure his manic depression once and for all. The Vile Virus, believed to have mutated into multiple strands, had the ability to re-infect persons thought to already be immune to it.

On the other hand, if the hijacker decided to start shooting, the plane would likely depressurize and crash. Vertigo planned on dying one way or another. He didn't care if he died by his own hand or the hand of another.

But Blythe Bonner, seated on the opposite side of the cabin, did care.

Seated in the second row of seats, Blythe watched the hijacker pace up and down the aisle nervously. He paused at the midpoint of the cabin and waved his gun menacingly.

"Well, what's it gonna be?" he yelled, grabbing a flight attendant by her collar.

"I.I."

"This is the captain. We are now circling Metropolis at 10,000 feet. Ground control has been apprised of the situation."

The hijacker grabbed at the small walkie-talkie held by the flight attendant. Yanking it from her, he shoved her to the floor. "You tell ground control I wanna talk to them directly!"

"Yes sir!" replied the captain via the intercom. "One second please while I patch them through."

With the hijacker's back to her, Blythe readied to strike. She had the ability to turn herself into pure electricity, but how would that help? In such crammed quarters, she couldn't fire a bolt of electricity lest she miss and accidentally rupture the plane's walls. And even worse, if the fight became prolonged, she might accidentally electrocute some of the passengers or short out all of the plane's systems. Her powers needed an open area to be most effective.

Noticing that the hijacker had lowered his gun while using the walkie-talkie, Blythe decided that she needed to act fast. She could subdue him without her powers.

Slipping off her shoes so as not to make a sound, she stood and sprinted down the aisle. Halfway to the hijacker, he heard her approaching and leveled his weapon.

BLAM!!

Blythe shrieked as a bullet tore into her left shoulder. On instinct, and before the first drop of her blood hit the floor, she transformed herself. Blythe felt the familiar surge of power as flesh and bone changed into sizzling blue energy. Blythe was now Byte, mistress of electricity!

Lunging at the hijacker, she zapped the gun from his hand with a well placed burst of energy. She grabbed the man's arms and tried to wrestle the virus vial away from him. Unsuccessful, she emitted a powerful electric charge into his body, and he convulsed wildly before slumping to the floor.

Unfortunately, that same electric charge discharged through the cabin floor and into the plane's electronic systems. The plane bucked wildly as one system after another shorted out, and as soon as the auto-pilot function blew, the plane nose dived violently.

From his seat in the plane's rear, Vertigo watched wide eyed as oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling and passengers were jarred from their seats. Righting himself, Vertigo carefully made his way to the fallen hijacker. Using his powers of flight, he made it to him without a problem, even as other passengers tumbled about in the aisle.

Vertigo rifled through the hijacker's pockets, searching vainly for the vial of Vile Virus, the one thing that could permanently cure him.

"Where is it? Where is it?" he hollered.

"The vial?" asked Blythe, trying to steady herself as the plane tilted to the right. "Wait! Over there!"

Resting near the plane's emergency exit, the vial had lodged itself into a small crack between the floor and wall. Vertigo reached for it, but the plane jerked violently and rolled over onto its right side. Blythe and the unconscious hijacker slammed into him, and Vertigo found himself pinned against the emergency exit.

"Unnhhh! Get off! Shocking me!" yelled Vertigo painfully as Blythe's electric form brushed his body.

"Sorry, just let me.."

"Can't reach it!" Vertigo strained for the vial, but it remained tantalizingly out of reach.

The plane tilted over even further, and now almost totally upside down, the plane's passengers were thrown throughout the cabin. Tumbling, toppling, and stumbling, they crashed into furniture, each other, and what used to be the ceiling.

From the corner of his eye, Vertigo saw his former seatmate, the fat lady, rolling down the ceiling uncontrollably. Unable to stop, she headed straight for the pile of Blythe, Vertigo, and the hijacker. Bracing himself against the emergency exit, Vertigo steeled himself for the inevitable impact.

WHAM!!

The tremendous impact jarred loose the emergency exit, and the quartet of Count Vertigo, Blythe Bonner, the hijacker, and the fat lady found themselves in a free fall. In a free fall at 10,000 feet over the skies of Metropolis.


Chapter Three

Looking down at the rapidly approaching waters of Metropolis's Hobbs Bay, Blythe Bonner felt an overwhelming sense of impending doom. If she stayed in her electric form, she'd survive the fall, but upon hitting the water she'd electrocute herself - not to mention anyone else in the water. And if she powered down to her human form, the fall would definitely kill her.

Near Blythe, Count Vertigo continued his freefall despite his ability to fly. Having missed his chance at getting the vial, he considered just giving up and letting the fall kill him. After all, it didn't matter to him how he died. Perhaps the Lord would still allow him into the afterlife since he technically wasn't committing suicide.

"Werner, Werner!" pleaded Blythe, pointing at the fat lady and the hijacker. "I saw you fly! Please, try to save them!"

Vertigo looked at the hijacker. Still unconscious, he would feel no pain when he hit. Besides, why save someone who would likely end up spending the rest of his life in prison?

Vertigo looked at the fat lady. Frantically waving her arms and kicking her legs, she looked like an ostrich that just realized it couldn't fly. An obnoxious twit, she had bothered him enough on the plane, and Vertigo decided that she deserved her fate.

"No."

"What?" said Blythe, amazed at his lack of respect for life. "If not them, how about me?"

Vertigo mulled over the idea.

"Please? C'mon, don't think about it!" screamed Blythe. "At least save yourself! You have a death wish or something?"

"Yes."

Vertigo swooped downwards at an increased velocity, and stopping his descent, positioned himself under the still falling Blythe.

"Yes, you're going to save me, or yes, you have a death wish?" asked a panicking Blythe.

"Go limp. I'll catch you."

"Oh, gawd, please don't miss! Please don't miss!"

Blythe covered her eyes, too afraid to watch while Vertigo readied to catch her. She felt a loud thump as she slammed into his awaiting arms.

"Wow! You did it, Werner!"

"Ahhhh! Ahhh!" Vertigo's body twitched and convulsed as Blythe's electricity poured into him. "Turn it off..Turn it off!"

"Oh, sorry. I forgot."

Blythe resumed her human form and threw her arms around Vertigo's neck. His blonde hair was standing up on end, and she gently patted it back into place.

"Ugh..oh..Th-Thank you." stammered Vertigo, opening his eyes. "Wait a minute, what happened to..what happened to your clothes?"

He blinked his eyes to make sure he wasn't imagining things, but sure enough, Blythe was naked.

"Except my costume, all my other clothes get burned to crisps when I'm in my energy form" Blythe explained. "And that gunshot wound in my shoulder? Don't worry. All my wounds instantly cauterize when I transform. That's why I don't get scars from the eraser burns, remember? I'm as good as new, see?"

"Yes, I can see that." said Vertigo, looking quickly before averting his eyes again.

Blythe snuggled up tighter against Vertigo's chest. "Hurry up and land, it's getting cold up here!"

Still looking away from her, Vertigo scanned the riverfront for a place to land.

"What's the matter? Big, strong guy like you never see a girl naked before?" teased Blythe, "Sheesh! You've got no qualms about letting two people plummet to their deaths, yet one look at me and you're Mr. Modesty!"

"I.I."

"This would make, like, a great story for my sequel."

"Sequel?"

"Sure, you know, 'A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Supervillain Soul.'"


Landing in an alleyway near the docks lining Hobbs Bay, Vertigo put Blythe down.

"Why're we stopping?" asked Blythe, "And more importantly, why are we stopping in Suicide Slum? Can't we go straight to S.T.A.R. Labs?"

"No," said Vertigo, unbuttoning his collared shirt and removing it. "Here. Put this on."

Blythe took Vertigo's shirt, put it on, and quickly buttoned it. At least three sizes too big for her, the sleeves continued down past her hands, and the shirttails reached almost to her knees.

"Give me your belt" she said as she rolled up the shirt sleeves.

"What?"

"C'mon, please?"

Vertigo rolled his eyes and reluctantly complied. Blythe fastened the belt around her waist, making the shirttails look somewhat like a skirt.

"Ta-da!" Whaddya think?" Blythe smiled at Vertigo.

"I think we should be going now." He walked out of the alley and onto a street littered with broken glass and rubbish.

"Wait! S.T.A.R. Labs is the other way!"

"I know." Vertigo continued walking.

"Hey, wait! Why not come with me?"

"I wanted to go home first, but I suppose this will have to do."

"Home? Hey, don't make me walk all the way to S.T.A.R.! At least get me a cab or something!"

Blythe began running after him, and his sense of noblesse oblige reawakened by the girl's plight, Vertigo stopped and waited. Suicide Slum was the worst neighborhood in Metropolis. Left behind by the Brainiac 13 technology upgrade that had turned Metropolis into a futuristic masterpiece, Suicide Slum continued to wallow in the misery and despair that had plagued it since time immemorial.

The neighborhood (and some of its residents) was an ugly dark smudge on the otherwise bright and shiny image Metropolis projected. Burned out car husks sat alongside darkened, derelict buildings whose windows were shuttered with ill-fitting wooden boards. A large rat scurried out from its hiding place near a sewage gutter and Blythe screamed.

"I am not walking barefoot through all this....this...."

"Garbage?"

"Who knows what I might step in! Carry me? Please?"

"I am nobility! I will not carry...."

"C'mon, Werner, please?" Blythe pleaded in her best damsel-in-distress voice.

"Ahhh...Alright."

Blythe ran towards him, and with a spring in her step, jumped onto his back. The unexpected jolt startled Vertigo, nearly causing him to fall.

"This is, like, so cool! I haven't had a piggyback ride since I was a kid!"

Vertigo said nothing, paying more attention to the wayward glances of the Suicide Slum residents who peeked out at them. Beady little eyes seemed to appear in every window, doorway, and alleyway. And they were all looking at the two strangers who dared to walk so boldly down the street in the middle of the day.

Not wanting to cause another incident, Vertigo picked up the pace and quickly covered a three block distance. Turning down a side street, the dismal gloom of Suicide Slum slowly began to fade, replaced by the stagnant charm of one of Metropolis's old world neighborhoods.

The uniquely architectured buildings had recently received fresh coats of paint, and the street and sidewalks were tidy. Near a fountain in a small public square, a red, green, and yellow flag flew alongside the American flag. The gazes of passersby were more friendly, and some bowed their heads reverentially at Count Vertigo.

Speechless for a brief second, Blythe recovered quickly. "Where are we? I've never seen this part of Metropolis before!"

"Not many have. Welcome to Little Vlatava."

"Little Vlatava?"

"Yes. Only four square blocks in size. Emigrants from my country came here. There are similar enclaves in Gotham, Cleveland, and New York."

"Wow!"

Vertigo allowed himself a slight smile. Blythe's sense of awe - combined with the familiarity of the sights, smells, and sounds - stirred a small sense of hope in him. If the real thing wasn't available, then Little Vlatava was the next best thing. And sadly, Vertigo reminded himself, the real Vlatava would never be available again. Its people, beliefs, and customs - an entire country - had been destroyed forever by war.

"There. That is where I'm going" said Vertigo, pointing at a small brick and stucco shop on the main street.

A sign hanging above the building was written in a foreign language. Vlatavan, Blythe presumed. "What's it say?"

"It says 'General Store.' That's the closet translation, anyway. It's owned by Mairina Laikina, an old family friend."

Vertigo opened the door to the store, and a small bell dinged softly. A frail elderly woman appeared, as if on cue, and shuffled towards her two visitors.

"Mrs. Laikina, it has been a long time!" said Vertigo.

"My Count! Please forgive me, if I had known..." said Mrs. Laikina, bowing her head.

"My Count? You really are royalty!" said Blythe excitedly. "This is, like, too cool"

"<No, no.>" said Vertigo in Vlatavan, "<Not Count. Simply Werner Vertigo. I come as a patron. My friend needs new clothes.>"

Mrs. Laikina eyed Blythe carefully. "<A wonderful girl, no doubt. And wearing your shirt, I see! I am sure she will make an excellent Countess!>"

"<No, it's not.....We're not...>"

"<Finally! After all these years! I only hope I live to see the next generation of the royal family!>"

"<No...I said we're not...>"

"<May you sire many heirs, my Count. Vlatava will need a strong ruler if it is to ever arise anew.>"

"<Are you deaf, woman? I said....>"

Mrs. Laikina brushed him aside, and reached out to take Blythe's hand. "Come my dear," she said in English, "Let me get you some new clothes. And tell me all about yourself!"

"Oooh, sure!" said Blythe, walking with Mrs. Laikina towards a rack of traditional Vlatavan dresses. "I just, like, adore this place. It reminds me of my grandmother's house. Is that apple pie I smell?"

"Gooseberry pie, actually. A Vlatavan delicacy." cooed Mrs. Laikina, delighted by the girl's interest. "You must tell me all about you and the Count!"

"We had, like, a really interesting day today" said Blythe as she and Mrs. Laikina walked further back into the store.

"We're not....She's not..." protested Vertigo.

Mrs. Laikina waved at him to be silent, then handed Blythe a blue dress from the rack. "I think you'll look lovely in this. Pay no attention to the Count, my dear. He is a bit.....eccentric at times."

"I think I know what you mean!" said Blythe as she disappeared into a dressing room.

"Sometimes, he is not, how do I say it?" said Mrs. Laikina, "He is not in his right mind."

"Sometimes I'm not either" Blythe giggled.

"Hmm...then I'm sure you'll do just fine together."


Chapter Four

S.T.A.R. Labs

Having finally arrived at Blythe's intended destination, a young receptionist guided Vertigo and Blythe down the labyrinthine hallways of S.T.A.R. Labs. Aside from the copper colored

numbers on the individual office doors, the antiseptic, hospital white hallways all looked similar.

"Whoa, this place could, like, use an interior decorator" observed Blythe. "It's so sterile. It gives me bad jives."

Neither Vertigo nor the receptionist said anything, and they continued down the corridors, the silence broken by the soft click-clack of Blythe's new Vlatavan clogs. Passing by a window looking into one of the labs, Blythe lingered and observed the scientists inside. Wearing full length decontaminant suits with matching hoods, the scientists were carefully examining glass vials under powerful microscopes.

"What are they doing in there?" Blythe asked.

"Working on a cure for the Vile Virus" answered the receptionist. "Using the samples captured by the heroes....well, villains actually....ummm, I mean.....No offense or anything. This is so confusing."

"None taken" said Vertigo. His eyes widened a bit, realizing that the lab contained quite a large cache of the virus. He had missed his opportunity on the plane, but now he had another chance to re-infect himself with the disease. He began planning, figuring out if he could possibly get a virus sample without being noticed.

"Dr. Martin's lab is right next door." The receptionist motioned to them to keep following her. "She's been expecting you."

With one final glance at the virus lab, Vertigo reluctantly followed.


"Dr. Martin? Your guests are here." The receptionist opened Martin's door for Blythe and Vertigo before quickly disappearing down the corridor.

A brunette in her mid-30's, Dr. Marie Martin arose from her desk. "Miss Bonner, nice to meet you. Count, it's good to see you again."

Vertigo nodded his head in acknowledgement. He had met Dr. Martin a few weeks ago in Keystone City. She had examined him and taken a sample of the Vile Virus from his bloodstream. Since then, her effortless quest to develop a method to fight the virus had led S.T.A.R. to appoint her the leader of the Vile Virus Task Force.

"How are you feeling, Blythe?" she asked, "Are you still affected by the programming Prometheus uploaded into your brain?"

"Yes, unfortunately" said Blythe. "See these nice wooden clogs I'm wearing? They hurt my feet terribly...."

"Yet upon getting them, she changed her mind and insisted on walking all the way here from Little Vlatava" said Vertigo, interrupting.

"Exhibiting sadomasochistic tendencies, deliberately hurting yourself," said Dr. Martin, noticing fresh eraser burn scars on Blythe's arms, "Good thing you've come to us."

"Can you fix me?" asked Blythe, her voice full of apprehension.

"We wouldn't have asked you to come if we couldn't!" Dr. Martin smiled.

Leading Vertigo and Blythe through a door to a lab adjoining her office, Dr. Martin introduced them to the two men who had devised a way to deprogram Blythe.

A bearded man with long, unkept gray hair greeted them first. "I'm Dr. Emil Hamilton. Pleased to meet you."

Hamilton, a leading expert on metahuman physiology, had examined Superman more than any other scientist. Well versed in cybernetics as well, Hamilton had crafted a robotic prosthetic from B13 technology after he lost his left arm in an accident.

"And I think you know Dr. Stachowski" said Dr. Martin, gesturing towards the well dressed young man sitting next to Hamilton.

"Yeah, I know him," said Blythe icily. "I thought Prometheus had infected him with a deadly form of la grippe."

"It takes more than that to get rid of me, baby." Stachowski grinned mischievously.

A whiz kid who earned a doctorate in nano-technology at the age of 23, Stachowski excelled in his field, and he knew it. His arrogance and brash behavior would someday bring about his downfall.

"Miss Bonner, we think we can help you using an AC-MRI electronic pattern regenerator," said Hamilton.

"A what?"

"That." Hamilton gestured at a long, rubber coated metal cylinder laying in the center of the lab. Attached to the cylinder were two computer terminals, a large black box, and a tangle of electric wires.

"The cylinder is normally used for MRIs - magnetic resonance imaging tests" explained Dr. Stachowski. "I customized it for our purposes."

"So, like, what do I do? Get in that thing?" asked Blythe.

"Yes, but first drink this." Stachowski handed her a coffee mug full of a fluorescent green liquid.

"Ewwww, yuck! No way! This stuff looks majorly gross!"

"It's a fast acting dye that will attach itself to any foreign object in your body" said Stachowski. "And what a beautiful body it is!"

Vertigo glared at Stachowski. "Do your job, doctor. Or else."

"Or else what?" sneered Stachowski. "Who's this pretty boy think he is?"

"Insolent swine! I will...."

"Boys, boys, boys! Let's simmer down!" said Dr. Martin. "Count, perhaps you should come with me. We can observe their progress from the other room."

Grabbing his arm, Dr. Martin led Vertigo into the observation room. Situated between the two labs, its glass windows allowed persons to see into Hamilton's lab or the virus lab next door.

Back in the lab, Blythe drank the green liquid. "OK, uggghh, I did it."

"As my colleague was saying," said Hamilton, "The green dye will allow us to remove foreign objects from your body without accidentally removing something we shouldn't."

"And the MRI machine lets you do this?" asked Blythe.

"Yes. Our modifications essentially made it into one big electrical circuit. With an alternating current power source and specially designed ohm filters, we can sift the foreign particles out of your body. You'll need to be in your electrical form, though."

"And what's to keep me from dissipating while in my electric form?" asked Blythe. "I'll need to totally relax my atoms if this is to work, and if I do that, I won't be able to coalesce back into human form."

"See, doc? These metahumans may be bimbos, but most of 'em know how their powers work!" exclaimed Stachowski.

"Stuff it, bub!" said Blythe angrily.

"See the black box over there? That's an electrical pattern buffer" said Hamilton. "It essentially recycles electromagnetic waves, storing them while they are disassembled into their component parts. Blythe, your unique electrical signature - your electrical DNA, if you will - will be safe in the buffer. It will prevent you from dissipating, and when we're all done, we can use it to restore you to your normal state."

"Whoa, this is, like, too much!" said Blythe. "What if something goes wrong?"

"There's always a risk involved" said Hamilton, "But we're confident this will work."

"You still wanna do this?" asked Stachowski.

Blythe paused for a moment. She longed to rid herself of the corrupting influence that had been thrust into her mind. She longed to free herself and get her real personality back. But was it worth the risks? She could learn to live with it, adapt to it, if necessary.

"Dr. Hamilton," she said, "Let's do this. Please deprogram me."

"Very well. Hop into the cylinder, please."

As Blythe walked towards the cylinder, she waved at Vertigo and gave him a thumbs up signal. From behind the observation glass, Vertigo returned the thumbs up. He watched her hop in, and then safe from prying eyes, throw her clothes back out. She didn't want another outfit incinerated when she became electric.


"So how long will this take?" asked Vertigo.

"I don't know. Could be an hour, could be five hours" said Dr. Martin. "It's sweet of you to come with her."

He ignored the last comment. "Will she be OK? I have other things to do."

"Like what? You come all this way just to leave now?"

"Yes. My destiny is calling."

"Your destiny? Count, are you OK? How are you feeling? When we spoke last, the Vile Virus had sent your manic depression into remission."

"It wore off."

"Oh, my" said Dr. Martin, realizing the seriousness of those three words. "You're still taking your medicine, though, right? Verapamil and Depakote?"

"I....I....No." Vertigo turned away and looked into the virus lab behind him.

"Geez, Count, don't you realize that successful treatment depends on...."

"Dr. Martin, I have found something else. Something better, more powerful than the drug cocktail I normally use."

"What? What are you?" Dr. Martin shrunk back in fear as she realized that he meant the Vile Virus. "Oh, my God, no.....Don't...."

"Forgive me, doctor." Vertigo swiveled and punched her with an outstretched left fist. She dropped to the floor, barely clinging to consciousness.

"You'll contaminate....You'll...."

With a powerful kick, Vertigo shattered the observation window glass and flew into the virus lab. Surprised by the noise, hooded scientists developing the cure stood motionless, too afraid to move. Crawling into the lab, Dr. Martin managed to hit the security alarm. Red lights began flashing, alerting S.T.A.R. security guards to the theft in progress.

Letting loose a blast of his dizzying powers, Vertigo easily made his way to the virus vials while everyone else in the room fell to the floor, too disoriented to move. Uncorking one of the test tubes, Vertigo swallowed its contents, chugging vile virus like a teenager would chug a soda pop.

"Finally! Finally!" yelled Vertigo. "No longer will I suffer!"

"It won't work!" cried Dr. Martin while writhing in agony on the floor. "Not how you want it to. Maybe for a day. Maybe for an hour. But not permanently!"

"Lies! More lies!"

"But what if I'm right? And ten years as a physician tells me I'm right."

"Then....Then I'll need more! Vertigo grabbed two more virus vials and prepared to ingest them.

The flashing red security lights suddenly turned blue, and Dr. Hamilton's panicked voice came across the lab's intercom.

"Code blue in room 220! Code blue in room 220!"

"Code blue? What's that mean?" shouted Vertigo.

"It means something went wrong, " said Dr. Martin. "They're losing Blythe!"


"Stachowski! What's wrong! We're losing her!" said Emil Hamilton, frantically monitoring Blythe's energy signature on a computer monitor.

"Removal of foreigns complete. Trying to restore her pattern from the buffer." said Stachowski cooly.

"Damn it! It's not working! Our power source is inadequate!" said Hamilton. "Not enough EM energy in the upper wavelengths!"

Flying back into the observation room, Vertigo crashed through the windows and into Hamilton's lab. Glass sprayed everywhere, and Stachowski and Hamilton ducked for cover.

"Get her out of there!" Vertigo shouted, pointing at the MRI cylinder.

"Why don't you get out of here, pretty boy!" said Stachowski. "And let me do my job! You did want me to do my job, didn't you?"

Enraged, Vertigo directed his full power on the young doctor. Electromagnetic pulses emanating from his fists pounded Stachowski's eardrums, and the doctor vomited violently before collapsing to the floor. Blood flowed from his nose as he lapsed into unconsciousness.

"Vertigo, wait!" said Hamilton, glancing at his monitor and noticing an influx of power. "Your powers! They use upper wavelength EM pulses just like the buffer! You can save Blythe!"

"How?" asked Vertigo.

"Just let me get out of here, and then cut loose with your powers," said Hamilton. "If we work fast, it might work!"

"Time is of the essence?" asked Vertigo as he ripped the cover from the buffer, exposing its circuitry. "Then let me feed it directly!"

"No! You'll be killed!"

"I don't care."

Gripping the buffer tightly, Vertigo directed his powers into it. He felt the familiar shock of Blythe's electricity pour into him, and he tried his best to ignore the searing pain.

"It's working!" said Hamilton. "Her pattern is 50 percent restored.....60 percent restored....70 percent...."

Sweat trickling down his forehead, Vertigo struggled to maintain the same intensity level. He had never tried anything like this, never explored the full limits and abilities of his powers. Smelling burnt hair, Vertigo realized that the power feedback was burning his hands and arms.

"80 percent....90 percent.....95 percent...."

The RF feedback cooking his flesh from the inside out, Vertigo howled in pain. "Ahhhhhhhhhhh!"

"100 percent! We've got her!" exclaimed Hamilton. "Just let me open the hatch, and...."

"Hey, Dr. Hamilton!" said Blythe as she emerged from the cylinder. "That wasn't so bad! I think you did it!"

Releasing his grip on the buffer, Vertigo toppled over, his hands smoking and singed a charcoal black color. As he tried to stand, he fell over once again, unable to regain his balance. For the first time in his life, Werner Vertigo felt dizzy.


Chapter Five

Late Evening. The streets of Metropolis. Dr. Martin's car

"This is such a total bummer" said Blythe, sitting in the car's passenger seat. "How'd he manage to get away?"

"All the commotion, I suppose" said Dr. Martin as she popped the clutch into a higher gear. "Between making sure you were OK and getting Dr. Stachowski to the ICU, Vertigo just slipped out."

"You really think he's going to....going to..." Blythe struggled for the words. "You know..."

"Commit suicide? Maybe. He hasn't been taking his medicine, he has a past history of attempting it, and from what you told me about his actions earlier today...."

"Oh man, this is so uncool."

"Blythe, you said you had an idea of where he'd go. How sure are you?"

"Like, pretty sure, I guess. He was heading home when we met in the airport. If he can't go home, the next best place is...."

"Little Vlatava!"


Fully clothed, Werner Vertigo stood in the middle of the fountain in Little Vlatava's central plaza. The water level reached slightly above his ankles, to the lower part of his shins. A nearby stone statue of a mermaid squirted water in a rising arc above the fountain, and Vertigo cooled his badly burned hands in its gentle spray. In the water underneath, the moonlit reflection of Mrs. Laikina pleaded with him.

''Please, my Count! I beg of you..." Mrs. Laikina's frail body rested on the stone perimeter of the fountain, and with an outstretched hand, she reached out for him.

Moonlight glinted off the metal blade of the five inch knife Vertigo clutched in his left hand. "I am tired of this, Mrs. Laikina. Tired of trying so hard and always failing."

"You are not a failure! Your mind is not well at the moment."

"My mind has never been well!" Vertigo said angrily.

Mrs. Laikina silently wiped away a tear. She could not argue with him about that - he was right. She had served the royal family for 20 years before coming to America, and she had known Vertigo since he was a child.

"My Count, I love you like a son. Please, for me, please don't....."

The headlights of Dr. Martin's approaching car shimmered across the fountain's blue-green waters, and Mrs. Laikina slowly rose to her feet.

"And here come more. More people who care about you...love you." she said quietly.

Dr. Martin hastily parked the car, and she and Blythe quickly ran to the fountain. Upon seeing Blythe, Mrs. Laikina smiled faintly and motioned to her. Bending over slightly, Blythe listened as the hunched old woman whispered into her ear.

"My dear, there is an old Vlatavan saying: Real love is a man's salvation" she whispered. "In his own way, Werner cares for you. He will listen to you."

Blythe nodded and turned to Dr. Martin. "Take Mrs. Laikina and find a phone. Call for an ambulance."

Dr. Martin did as told, and gently taking Mrs. Laikina by the hand, went into the store to call 911.

Still wearing the Vlatavan dress and wooden clogs Vertigo had bought her earlier in the day, Blythe climbed into the fountain and slowly walked towards Vertigo. His back was to her, but he turned at the splish-splash sound of the water.

"You'll ruin the shoes." he said.

"That's OK." said Blythe. "I never, like, got a chance to thank you. You saved my life twice today."

As Vertigo moved out of the shadows and into the soft moonlight, Blythe saw his blackened, singed hands. She stifled a gasp upon seeing that his fingernails had cracked and blood was slowly seeping out.

"Oh my God! Your hands! Let me....."

Vertigo shrunk back and put his hands back under the arcing water's gentle spray.

"You were very brave to do that," said Blythe, "And it worked. Dr. Hamilton's machine deprogrammed me. I'm back to normal."

"I'm not. I never will be 'normal'" said Vertigo quietly. "I thought the virus would help, but Dr. Martin was right. It didn't."

"But there's medicine that could..."

"No more medicine. I'm tired of living like that. Dependent on pills to keep my mind under control."

"I know there's no easy cure like what was done for me, but there's, like, just gotta be a way to make you better....Eventually. Look at all the cool stuff people like Dr. Hamilton can do. Genetic cloning, space travel, microscopic machines. They'll figure out a better way to treat you, maybe cure you one day."

"I don't want to wait for 'one day' that might never come."

"Well, like, I do know that if you give up now and kill yourself, you're forfeiting any chance you have of getting better. Life is full of surprises and changes. Quit now, and I know for sure you'll miss out."

"I....I...."

Blythe gestured at the surrounding buildings. "The people here care about you. I saw how they looked at you when we came here earlier."

"But the real Vlatava is gone. Gone for good." Vertigo hung his head at the painful memory.

"So? Look at this place! It's beautiful, like a diamond in the rough! The people here are making a place for themselves, and I'm positive you'd be more than welcome."

"But... But I've disgraced them. My actions. I'm a villain."

"From writing my book I've learned that people think that villains embody all that's wrong and evil in this world - like there's one big mold all bad guys come from. You're not evil, Werner, you're just confused. 'Villain' is just a label put on you - put on us - by people who don't understand."

The roar of an approaching ambulance siren pierced the quiet night air. The noise grew louder and louder until the ambulance screeched to a halt a few yards from the fountain.

"And so you called more people who don't understand?" yelled Vertigo, gesturing at the ambulance. "I'm just another crazed lunatic to them!"

"They want to help. Like, why would Dr. Martin and I come here if we didn't care about you?"

Vertigo thought for a moment, but had no easy answer for her. "You could zap me with your powers and force me to go with them. Why haven't you done that yet?"

"We all want to help you, but you have to decide if you want to be helped. Do you want help, Werner? Do you want to live?"

Vertigo looked Blythe in the eyes for the first time. He saw her sincerity and genuine concern. He looked at the ambulance where Dr. Martin held a sobbing Mrs. Laikina in her arms. He looked at the splendor of dawn breaking over the rooftops of Little Vlatava. He looked back at Blythe, then threw the knife into the water and took a step towards her.

"Oh, Werner!" Blythe embraced him, throwing her arms around him tightly. Vertigo stood awkwardly, his arms at his sides, unsure if he should return her embrace.

Leading him gently by the arm, Blythe helped him out of the fountain and to the waiting ambulance. Dr. Martin and two paramedics sat him on a stretcher and began treating his injured hands. An initial dressing applied to the wounds, the paramedics lifted him into the ambulance and prepared to close the doors when Vertigo spoke faintly.

"Blythe?"

"Yes?" Blythe jumped into the ambulance so as to hear him better.

Vertigo extended a bandaged hand toward her. "Come with me. Please?"

Blythe gingerly took his hand in hers. "Of course."

THE END

David R. Black is Fanzing.com's magazine editor and chief archivist. A big fan of "The Warlord," he has a cat named Shakira and is looking for a girlfriend named Tara....

 
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This story is © 2001 by David R. Black.
Count Vertigo and Blythe Bonner created by Gerry Conway
Chicken Soup for the Supervillain Soul created by D.J. LoTempio

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