by Starsky Hutch 76
From the desk of Commander Steel:
No historian knows exactly what happened to Adam Weishaupt after he was exiled from Bavaria in 1785. The possibility that he killed George Washington and took his place to serve as our first president for two terms has been suggested by at least one fringe historical revisionist. Except for a small patch of blue in the corner, the two main colors of the U.S. flag are red and white — the colors of the Ishmaelian sect of the Illuminati. The Illuminati pyramid rests upon the back of our dollar. Washington formed the Federalist party. The other major party in those days, the Democratic Republicans, was formed by Thomas Jefferson, and there are grounds for accepting the testimony of Reverend Jebediah Morse of Charleston who accused Jefferson of being an Illuminati agent. And, of course, the Democratic Republican Party later split into the two main political parties which are extant in our country today. Thus, even at the dawn of our government, both parties could have been Illuminati fronts.
“So what the hell do you want, Steel?” Jonathan Law coughed. The sick, elderly author was a shriveled shade of his glory days as the Tarantula.
“Is that any way to treat an old friend?” Commander Steel said.
“The Hank Heywood I knew was a completely different man,” Law said. “I don’t know who you are.”
Steel laughed. “I’m still the same man. My methods are just a little more effective these days.”
“Things like kidnapping a former comrade from his hospital bed in the middle of the night?” Law said accusingly.
“You’ll be glad I did,” Steel said. “If you follow along with me, you’ll be through with hospitals forever.”
“I hope you mean in the good sense,” Law said suspiciously.
“Of course I do,” Steel said. “I’m still one of the good guys, Jon. I’m a soldier in service to the government of the United States of America. Same as always.”
“If I were to call the Pentagon in the capacity of a journalist and ask them about you, would they admit to any knowledge of your activities here?”
“I think you already know the answer to that question,” Steel said. “Everything we do here is on a need-to-know basis. We operate on the highest level of security clearance.”
“So what is it you’re offering?” Law asked.
“I want to help you with your health problems.”
“No health problems,” Law said. “It’s called old age. It happens. I’ve made my peace with the Reaper.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Commander Steel said. “You’re younger than I am.”
Law stared at Steel, still strong and hardy, and said, “If you’re offering me some of what you’ve got, I don’t think I can survive being filleted so some scientists can wrap my skeleton in steel and shove a bunch of gizmos in me.”
“That’s not what I was offering,” Steel said. “For you I have a far more fitting process in mind.”
Dr. Togg entered the room, the nails of his wolf-like legs clicking on the linoleum of the floor. Jonathan Law shot up out of his chair, long unaccustomed to the unusual. “What the hell?”
“This is Dr. Togg,” Commander Steel said. “Being the authority on the costumed set, I was sure you would have heard of him.”
“Ah, yes,” Law said, returning to his chair, “Hourman’s old foe.”
“Those days are behind him,” Commander Steel said. “He’s working for us now; he’s paid his debt to society.”
“It looks like he’s paid for it in more ways than one,” Law said.
“If you’re referring to my appearance, I’ll have you know I choose to stay like this,” Dr. Togg said indignantly. “It has all sorts of advantages, not the least of which is my vitality. I was well into my seventies when I last encountered that costumed jackanape known as Hourman. Add to that the time I was forced to spend in this country’s fine correctional institutions, and I am well past a hundred and still holding strong.”
“If you had something like this in mind for me…”
“Don’t be absurd,” Dr. Togg said. “I’ve long since perfected my methods. This particular one suits me just fine, however.”
“It does?” John Law said with disbelief.
“The only disadvantages were the diminutive arms the gambezi process had left me with. I quickly adjusted that but left the slow aging and heightened senses that aid me in my work, along with this fun little option.” He flapped his wings vigorously and rose several feet off the ground.
“So what is it you have in mind for me?”
“Something a little more suited for your chosen nomenclature,” Dr. Togg said, holding up a syringe.
“As long as I don’t end up looking like a giant spider-man, I’ll be happy,” Jonathan Law said as Dr. Togg inserted the needle.
“Funny you should mention that,” Dr. Togg said. “I was inspired by a comic-book one of those Helix brats left in here.”
“What do you mean by that?” John Law said. Suddenly, he let out a scream and dropped to the floor, fire shooting through his veins.
Jonathan Law writhed in agony as his shriveled muscles began to convulse. “Aggh!” he gasped, his eyes bulging from the pain. He raised up on all fours, and his back muscles could be seen convulsing in an unnatural spasm through his shirt.
The wrinkled skin on his face, hands, and forearms began to tighten. His thin, white hair began to thicken, and the color began to return. His frail form began to broaden and grow harder. He stood shakily to his feet, looking once more like the Jonathan Law of the 1940s. “You… you didn’t tell me about the pain…” he said huskily.
“The Jon Law I knew wasn’t afraid of a little pain,” Commander Steel said.
“I’m still not. But it would have been nice to know what to expect.”
“Then I should probably warn you that you might experience a bit of dizziness for a few seconds,” Dr. Togg warned.
Law suddenly lost his balance and went to grab hold of the aluminum folding chair he had been sitting in prior to his transformation. It crumpled in his hand.
“I should also warn you that you now have the proportional strength and agility of your namesake. So have a care what you take hold of,” Dr. Togg chided. “Aside from that chair, the equipment in here is very expensive and hard to replace.”
Jonathan Law stared at the hand that had crushed the chair and said, “I hope Angela doesn’t mind going by the name Lady Tarantula from now on,” he said, referring to the great-granddaughter of Olga Weisinger Clatterbuck, his old housekeeper; Angela Leonard was like a granddaughter to him, and she had recently taken up the identity of the Tarantula herself. (*) I have a feeling I might need to hang onto my old title for a little while longer.”
“That brings up another good point,” Commander Steel said. “How you can reimburse us for this service we’ve done for you.”
“I won’t do anything unethical,” Law said.
“Relax,” Commander Steel said. “It’s not your soul I’m after. Just a little of your time.”
Steve Trevor had only been back to Belle Reve for a short while before he was summoned into the office of Commander Steel. The first thing he noticed was that Steel’s light fixture appeared to be flickering on and off in a weird pattern. “Ignore that,” Steel said to Trevor, his face buried in a file. “I’m having a technician drop by later to fix whatever is wrong with it.” He gestured to a chair in front of his desk for Trevor to sit down in.
“Welcome back, General Trevor,” Commander Steel greeted. “I’m glad you chose to return. Coffee?” he said, pleasantly, gesturing to a cup at the edge of his desk.
“Very nice,” Steve Trevor said, sipping his coffee as he eyed the man on the other side of the desk warily; he was suspicious of Commander Steel’s unusual congeniality. The commander appeared to be having a cup himself, so he continued to drink it. In the back of his mind, he noticed that it had a strange, minty smell to it. “All pleasantries aside, though, why did you bring me up here to your office?”
“For a very good reason,” Commander Steel replied, the light pulsing in a steady pattern behind him. “It’s time for you to see the fnords,” he said, taking the coffee cup from Steve Trevor.
“The what?” Trevor said nervously. The word he thought he’d heard made absolutely no sense, yet it filled him with a horrible sense of dread. His mind reeled and wanted to blot the word from his memory — or, better yet, to simply black out. He wouldn’t let himself.
Then his eyes locked onto the newspaper on Commander Steel’s desk; it was dated several years back, and that was where he saw the fnords.
The feature story of the newspaper involved another of the endless squabbles between Russia and the U.S. in the U.N. General Assembly, and after each direct quote from the Russian delegate, he read a quite distinct Fnord.
The second lead was about a debate in Congress on getting the troops out of Costa Rica; every argument presented by Senator Bacon was followed by another Fnord. At the bottom of the page was a Times depth study of the growing pollution problem and the increasing use of gas masks among New Yorkers; the most distressing chemical facts were interpolated with more Fnords.
Suddenly, he saw Commander Steel’s eyes burning into him as the light behind him continued to pulse rhythmically, and he heard his voice: “Your heart will remain calm. Your adrenaline gland will remain calm. Calm, all-over calm. You will not panic. You will look at the fnord and see it. You will not evade it or black it out. You will stay calm and face it.”
Steve Trevor’s mind jumped way back to his first-grade teacher writing FNORD on the blackboard, while a wheel with a spiral design turned and turned on his desk, turned and turned, and his voice droned on, “If you don’t see the fnord, it can’t eat you; don’t see the fnord, don’t see the fnord…”
Trevor looked back at the paper and still saw the fnords. This is one step beyond Pavlov, he realized as he wiped nervous sweat from his brow, or his dog, to be precise.
“The first conditioned reflex is to experience the panic reaction — technically called the activation syndrome — whenever encountering the word fnord,” Commander Steel explained as he handed Steve Trevor a glass of water. “The second conditioned reflex is to black out what is happening, including the word itself, and just feel a general low-grade emergency without knowing why. And the third step, of course, is to attribute this anxiety to the news stories, which are bad enough in themselves anyway. Of course, the essence of control is fear. The fnords produced a whole population walking around in chronic low-grade emergency, tormented by ulcers, dizzy spells, nightmares, heart palpitations, and all the other symptoms of too much adrenaline.”
As his own anxiety left him and he heard Commander Steel’s words, Steve Trevor felt a genuine pity for his countrymen. Conditioning such as this would — or had — produced a populace of sheep willing to believe anything they were told, walk through pollution and overcrowding without complaining, never protest, never fight back, never show much happiness or curiosity or normal human emotion, live with perpetual tunnel vision, or walk past a slum without seeing either the human misery it contained or the potential threat it posed to their security. He had probably been guilty of this himself, despite whatever decorations for valor he might have received in his lifetime. He had lived most of his life as the typical soldier, just following orders. Now he would always wonder if it was his own sense of duty or this.
He suddenly got a hunch and turned quickly to the advertisements. It was as he had expected. No fnords. That was part of the gimmick, too. Only in consumption — endless consumption of specific goods — could people escape the amorphous threat of the invisible fnords.
Steel showed him other newspapers from around the world, and it was the same in every one he looked at. The fnords all stopped appearing on the same month and year as the first one, as if whoever was manipulating the media in such an insidious way had suddenly lost interest.
Steve Trevor wondered what would happen if he pointed out a fnord to somebody who hadn’t been deconditioned as Commander Steel had just deconditioned him. What would he or she say? They’d probably read the word before or after it. “No, this word,” he’d say. And they would again read an adjacent word. But would their panic level rise as the threat came closer to consciousness? He thought it more likely to end with a psychotic fugue in the subject. The conditioning, after all, went back to grade school. No wonder we all hate those old teachers so much, he pondered. We have a dim, masked memory of what they’ve done to us.
“Who is responsible for this?” he asked angrily.
“Vandal Savage,” Commander Steel answered.
“Savage? The old JSA foe?” Trevor said incredulously. “But he was never that big a heavy-hitter.”
“Maybe not,” Commander Steel said. “But the Illuminati is.”