Fishboy and Madman Strike Again

Posted: March 19, 2011 in Single-run ("One off") Stories
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I should point out that the title for this story came from my 5-year-old daughter. Of course, from such a playful and almost innocently simple title, I’ve crafted anything but a sweet and child-friendly story. Oh, well, what can I say? When you start with a title before a plot, you never know what will happen.

“Hello, Fishboy,” came the low, growling tone—with just a hint of amiability in it, almost a mocking one—from the telephone receiver. “Been a long time.”

A man who had gone by his birth name Jim Washington exclusively now for six years paused only the barest of moments, and then he tried to make his words steady as he said, “I’m sorry. I think you have a wrong number.”

“No, I don’t,” said the other man. “I’d recognize that voice anywhere. Have you missed me, Fishboy? Just a little? Have you missed Madman?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jim insisted firmly, knowing all too well what was going on.

“I have your little boy, Fishboy. Fishboy’s boy. Isn’t that darling-sounding? I know fishies like you eat little crumbles floating in your fishbowls. How about I grind him up and dehydrate his remains and sprinkle them into your breakfast cereal and the flour in your house and…”

“Stop!” Jim snapped loudly. “You…my son…what do you want, Madman?”

“You, Fishboy. You were always my arch-nemesis.”

“I was never…”

“Oh, you didn’t want to be. You didn’t even want to do any hero stuff. But I wanted you, Fishboy. I wanted an arch-nemesis. You’ve robbed me of a proper criminal legacy hiding all these years. But I found you again. We’ll do it right this time. You’ll come to me. You’ll come alone. We’ll sort all this out. Unless of course you want to have half as many kids and encourage me to go after the girl next.”

Jim’s heart hammered and his throat was dry. He barely got the words out.

“Where? Where do you want to meet?”

* * *

Another time, another place.

Instead of chinos, a polo shirt, some gym shoes and the occasional baseball or bebop cap, he wore that ridiculous costume. A mask of faux fish scales with convex goggles that made his eyes appear so much larger than they really were. Plus those stretchy boots and gloves with the fish fin-like accoutrements. Tight baby blue leggings and almost-as-tight green shorts. And the crowning glory: The Kevlar vest colored in aqua, white and chartreuse, with the stylized F emblazoned over a stylized scallop shell.

It was, he had thought a first, a chick magnet. Who could resist a superhero costume? Then he found out just how wrong he was about that. It didn’t even attract men or boys. Jeers, yes. Adulation, not so much. Dates, never.

Instead of a wife and two kids and a job doing inventory and package management as he had now, he had his mentor, The Hydra, whose own outfit was ridiculous enough. Oh, it was a marvel of engineering—a sort of armored suit with three appendages that looked like draconic necks and heads. Hydra himself was an Ecto and could produce quasi-matter constructs, usually blasts and tendrils that vaguely resembled water. He shot them out of the hydra heads for effect, sometimes adding or substituting electricity instead, since he was a Transmitter, too.

He’d apparently wanted a sidekick for years and had been trying to find one that had some sort of thematic fit. Since The Hydra had gone with a reptilian mythological motif and tried to make his powers seem water and sea-like somehow, Jim was perfect for him.

How the guy had ever found out that he was transhuman at all, much less what powers he had…well, Jim had never figured that out and The Hydra had never answered him when asked. The arrogant, self-entitled jackass did, however, have plenty of other things to say, Jim realized, and had browbeat the teen-ager into the hero business as Fishboy.

Jim had never forgiven him the manipulations that had put him in that silly costume and in danger, just because he had some Morph and Regenerator talents.

He’d never forgiven The Hydra for a life of fighting crime that had constantly put him at risk. That had ultimately turned Jim into an orphan three months after his 17th birthday. That had almost robbed him of his pregnant girlfriend nearly a year after that.

A life that had introduced him to the singularly obsessive Madman, onetime sidekick to Lord Jurassic, seemingly of similar age to Jim and determined to be the arch-nemesis of Fishboy, a reluctant hero who simply wanted to get through high school without ridicule and come out the other side acne-free and with a plan for the rest of his life.

Now, at the age of 24, Madman was still calling him Fishboy and still on the same old kick, except now a five-and-half-year-old boy was at risk.

The Hydra is dead now, and good riddance, Jim thought, but his legacy of screwing up my life continues through Madman.

* * *

Jim had left a written note, voicemail message and text message for his wife, Grace, to leave work as soon as she could, gather up Lydia, and go to Noah’s house. He was a longtime friend of theirs and a retired hero once known as Ocular. He’d helped Jim escape out from under The Hydra and vanish into civilian obscurity; he would keep them safe for now.

No police, he’d indicated to her, though he’d let her know where he was going. No heroes. I’ll either save our boy or die trying. You get both your guys back or neither at all, most likely.

She wouldn’t like that, but she’d understand the necessity. He only hoped she’d still be his wife afterward. She’d told him never to return to hero work—a demand he’d been happy to heed—but this wasn’t exactly a willing re-entry into that world of madness between transhumans. Maybe she’d have mercy.

When he entered the warehouse he had been told to come to, he followed a series of arrows on the floor, created by blue masking tape, until he entered a large room in which was a huge pool built into the ground. On the far side of it, Madman stood on some sort of raised control platform. There was no sign of his son, but a pile of clothing was on the ground. From the colors, Jim could guess what it was. All that aqua and blue and green and white.

“Welcome, Fishboy!” Madman cried through a microphone, his voice blaring from speakers all around. “Welcome! My God it’s good to see you again, my old foe! Fishboy and Madman strike again!”

“Where’s my son?” Jim shouted.

Madman frowned, and his brow wrinkled. Jim was pretty sure his eyes were squinting in irritation, too, but since the mask that covered his eyes, ears and nose had one-way lenses that displayed a myriad of changing colors to the observer and nothing else, who could know?

“You’re gonna go and ruin my delivery like that? What a showstopper. Let’s try that again,” he snarled. “Fishboy and Madman strike again!”

The words rang out and echoed through the room, and by the time the din had quieted, Jim was close enough that he barely had to shout to ensure he was heard from up on the control platform.

“If we were a team, that would make sense. We’re not. It’s Fishboy versus Madman, you twisted ass.”

“Well, I’m striking at you. You’re going to strike at me—or try to. So, ‘strikes again’ it is,” Madman said, waggling his finger. “Besides, maybe we should have been a team. I offered to cut you in with Lord Jurassic back in the day, or for us to go in together without him. I just wanted you in my life, Jim. Partner or enemy. I wasn’t choosy. It’s just we were meant to be a package. I could always sense it.”

“I never understood why you felt that way,” Jim said. “I still don’t. Some kind of buried homoerotic feelings you’re scared of admitting to yourself? Basic obsession? Stupidity? Anyway, I don’t care. I’m here to save my son. Where is he, and what do I need to do to get him out of here alive?”

“Put it on,” Madman said.

Jim pretended not to understand. It was too much. Too much, damn it. “I don’t understand. Let’s just get to my son. Please…”

“Put on the costume. I know you saw it on the ground. Strip down to your skin. Put it on. Now. Or I press this button here and James Jr. gets to see what nerve gas tastes like.”

There was no place for privacy, and it was clear he wasn’t meant to have any, so Jim stripped naked, leaving his clothes in a heap and then walking nude to the costume that lay ready for him. He slipped it on, feeling more humiliation in that than in being naked before his tormenter, and realized it fit him perfectly. How many times had Madman snuck into the house, perhaps, to make sure he knew Jim’s sizes?

Jim looked down at himself and the perfect replica of his old costume, built for a body that had changed since then. He’d gained another inch or so and gained weight in places; lost it in others.

It fit like a glove. But it felt like slipping on a glove just taken from a moldering corpse. It felt like defeat and death. Still, the water in the pool beckoned, and the costume brought back memories. Those transhuman genes of his, which seemed to have a love affair for the long-ago days before man, when fish were just testing out going on land, urged him to change. To release the gills that would let his complex respiratory system process water instead of air. To let his hands and feet grow longer, wider and webbed.

Jim looked up and asked again, “Where is my son?”

“In the pool,” Madman said. “In a small capsule at the bottom. In the middle. It had enough air to keep him going for a while but as you know, it ain’t running out of air that’s his danger. It’s all that carbon dioxide he’s breathing out that’s getting thicker and will kill him.”

Now that he knew, Jim could just barely make out the small dark shape of the capsule below. Then he heard a loud beep from Madman’s general direction, looked up, and saw his son’s face displayed on a large monitor. He was alive, and fear was in his mocha-colored eyes. But he also looked tired and sick—a paler shade of tan than Jim had seen in a long time. He wondered how long his son had been in there.

“So, I go down there to get the capsule, and you gas him before I get him out. Is that it? Because I don’t see you really giving me a chance to win here.”

“You gonna rush me and hope for the best? Won’t take but a moment for me to press the button to gas him. But hey, let me show some good faith.”

With that, Madman went over the tube that led down the capsule. He cut it with a knife, and stepped away.

“Now I can’t just kill him,” Madman said. “But you also just lost the easiest way to pull it up out of the water. So now you can’t come after me. Not unless you want to hope your boy isn’t about to pass out and die from CO2 poisoning. Every moment you wait is another risk. Every minute we might fight puts him closer to being dead. So you need to go down and get him. Of course, that water is just riddled with poisons of all kinds, I should mention. So can you bring yourself to do it?”

Jim considered that. He’d die for his son, but what good would that be in the end, unless he could die saving him? He gauged the depth of the capsule. There was no way of knowing how toxic the pool was. But it was clear he could never wrestle the capsule all the way to the surface on the air in his lungs. To survive long enough to get his son out of there, he would have to breathe eventually. He’d have to let his gills consume tainted water and hope that he could live long enough to get his boy out and free him from his tiny prison.

He knew what he would do. There was no choice. He was a father who loved his son.

As he walked toward the edge of the pool, he spoke to Madman without looking at him. “This is a deathtrap. Not a fight. Why all the trouble? You could have shot me from a car with less money spent and less time wasted.”

“I spent two years building this with my own hands!” Madman screeched. “I knew I’d find you. This may be a deathtrap or not. All I know is I win either way. If you die, I get to close the books on you and move on to something or someone new. It’s the only way I can let go. Or if you live, which means your boy dies, you’ll have a reason to carry on a vendetta with me until one or the other of us is killed. I get what I want no matter what. Win-win. You’re the one who loses.”

Jim didn’t respond, but simply began the change and dove into the pool. He pushed downward with powerful strokes. The deeper he went, the higher the pressure. It wasn’t a big deal for a body now designed to live underwater. But it made it harder not to give in to the temptation to use his gills. The pressure pushed at his ribcage and his exertions were burning up the oxygen in his system. His chest made a slow progression to searing pain and his head was swimming in a fog of gray by the time he even got to the capsule.

His son stared out at him in terror, not recognizing his father in the costume; not even knowing that his father had once been someone called Fishboy. In some attempt to put the boy at ease, Jim smiled and gave a thumbs-up signal, and hope flared in little Jimmy’s eyes. Weak and dim, but hope nonetheless.

Jim wrapped his arms around the capsule, and used his powerful legs and his feet—now almost spade-shaped and webbed—to push him up back toward the surface. The swimming was easy enough for his modified form, and the load of the capsule wasn’t beyond his physical abilities. But the weight slowed his progress all the same. The depth they were at made freedom so far away. His muscles screamed and cramped and demanded that he feed his body oxygen so that they could do their job properly. His head swam vertiginously and he knew he would pass out if he didn’t unfurl his gills and breathe water.

But the moment he did, the timer on his life began to tick. How much poison was in the water? How long would he last? Some small part of him feared death but mostly he feared dying with his son still trapped. He had to hold out as long as possible before he gave his body what it so self-destructively cried out for—oxygen from the water or oxygen from the air. One was still too far way and the other was laced with God only knew what.

Jim realized his progress was slowing, and felt the weight of the capsule begin to pull him downward. He screamed inwardly and tried to press on. But it was no use. They were going to die. His son was going to die. Unless…

The gills pressed out from beneath his skin, and he drew in water to bathe them in the ready source of oxygen—the ready source of his poisoning as well. His gills burned with both the overexertion to replenish his body’s oxygen and with the touch of the poisons. Pain lanced into his head and down his neck. His muscles began to cramp and knot in new ways.

But Jim had what his body needed to fuel his exertions, and he pressed on again. He swam with all the speed he could muster, straight up, feeling death flow through his gills and into his blood and through his organs.

Now it was a race again his demise. He was racing to delay his own death so he could prevent his son’s. The only problem in the end was that his sacrifice would leave his son helpless in the presence of Madman. The only comforting thought as Jim pushed toward the surface was that his end might put an end to Madman’s interest in his son. The other hope was too unlikely to wish for, and so Jim latched on to the only thing he could.

Reaching the surface.

Then freeing his boy.

As the open air beckoned just out of reach, Jim surged forward in the way he had so many times before, launching himself out of the water like a missile. His clawed fingers had a firm grip on the capsule as he broke from the pool into the air and his gills retracted. He dragged fresh air in again, his blood still swimming in toxins, and crashed onto the floor at the edge of the pool.

Darkness was embracing him. His vision was going dark at the edges, and his thoughts were garbled. He fumbled at catches and latches, his fingers shaking and slipping, until finally he wrenched the capsule open and pulled Jimmy out.

The boy gasped for air to fill his starving lungs, and Fishboy lost his grip on awareness as the floor rushed up to greet his falling body.

* * *

Words trickled at the edge of his consciousness and at first his ears and mind could gain no purchase on them.

Slowly, he made out Madman’s voice, a taunting, self-satisfied lilt to it. “You actually did it, Fishboy. You saved your son. Wow. Now I just have to figure out if I let him live to cower over there, or take out the fruit of your loins.”

“Fuck you,” Jim burbled weakly. “You…won…all right? Over. Over.”

“Really? No, it’s not over until I watch the light burn out of your poisoned eyes, Fishboy.”

Madman grabbed at the mask and goggles, and ripped them from Jim’s head. He leaned down, rank breath giving Jim just a little jolt of mental clarity with the irritation it brought—like smelling salts, only more sour.

“I’m going to enjoy watching you die,” Madman said, bending down lower to stare right into Jim’s eyes. “Die, Fishboy.”

“OK,” Jim said quietly. “But…don’t want to…hog…all that fun…to myself.”

He took hold of Madman’s arm. His grip was weak, but it didn’t need to be strong. Tiny spines and tendrils extended from his flesh, and pumped a potent neurotoxin into Madman’s body. Whatever had been put into the water was deadly but dilute, all the better to fuel Madman’s desire to make Jim suffer slowly. But what Jim gave to Madman was pure and sharp. By the time the villain knew what had happened, he was already clawing at his throat, going into seizures, and well on his way to paralysis and—most likely—death within a few minutes.

That last thing was uncertain, but Jim couldn’t bring himself to care one way or the other.

“Yeah…you noticed my clothing sizes…changed over the years…didn’t you?” Jim said, rolling over weakly to look at the man—to look into a new set of dying eyes. “But other things…you couldn’t…see. My body had some…other changes in…store, too. So much prehistoric…shit…it had yet to do to…me.”

Once again, Jim lost his grasp on consciousness, but at least this time he didn’t have to bother with the falling part.

* * *

Another set of sounds digging at his awareness and pulling his attention away from dying.

Softer sounds. A child’s voice.

“Daddy? Daddy? Please don’t die, Daddy.”

Jim eyes flickered open. Little Jimmy’s face was right in his own. His breath wasn’t much fresher than Madman’s had been, but it still seemed sweeter by far to Jim.

“Hey, Cap’n,” Jim said. “How…how ya doing?”

“I’m OK,” the boy said, sniffling. “Are you gonna die, Daddy? Please don’t die.”

“Go to my pants…over there. Get…get my phone.”

When his son didn’t move, he added, “We need…help. Jimmy. Please.”

The boy scuttled off, and brought back the phone. With trembling fingers, Jim managed to text his wife: Get us now come quick

* * *

It wasn’t that much more typing or tapping than trying to get her number dialed, and he had precious little energy for talking anyway. When the phone rang, he ignored it. He needed to conserve his strength. Besides, when he didn’t answer Grace would be more motivated to get to them fast, because she’d assume the worst. Win-win, but a better win-win scenario than Madman had thought he’d concocted for himself.

Jimmy touched his father’s face, crying as he looked at the sickly hue of the skin—turned from brown to something almost like rust-tinged tan.

“Are you gonna die, Daddy?” he asked again.

Jim thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t think so, Jimmy. I don’t think so, Cap’n.”

His voice was feeling stronger. He knew if he could get out of the water before he died, he might have a chance, and that gave him something to hold on to now. More games with his children. More time with Grace. More life to live if his body would let him.

Of course, Madman couldn’t have known I was a Regenerator, too. That’s not the kind of thing you advertise. It just makes the bad guys thrower heavier artillery at you. Or brew stronger poisons.


“Yeah, Cap’n?”

“You’re a superhero.”

The words made a little glimmer of tears push out from Jim’s swollen eyelids, and he almost laughed but only managed to cough and choke a little instead. “Yeah,” he admitted. “But never before today, son. Not really before today. And never again.”

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