Thursday, March 31, 2011

STARDUST #5 "Stardust and the Top Kill" - pt. 3

“Jill-” Sean said, but he was saying it to her back as she turned and ran for the front door.

Lauren stood up too. “They're right. That's just... weird, Sean.” She crossed her arms to hold herself and turned to look at the door, as if seriously thinking of running too.

Only Roger stood up and moved closer to Sean. “You wouldn't use that trick to make people do anything else, would you?” Roger asked.

Sean sighed. “It doesn’t work like that, Rog,” he said quietly, sheepishly, embarrassed by everyone's reactions. “You’re a chicken. Cluck. There, do you feel more like a chicken or clucking?”

“No, I guess not…” Roger said. He gave Sean a half-hearted smile.

Sean smiled back, but he could see that from that moment Roger was looking at him differently. He saw the same look, only worse on Jill and Lauren. Sean finally had their acceptance that he had honest-to-God superpowers, but now when Roger, or Jill, or Lauren, looked at him, they looked at him as if he was Stardust, even when he reminded them he was still Sean Causer. And he didn't like that like he thought he would. “C'mon, guys...” he started to say.

“Stardust,” another man called out as he approached from a side hallway. “We just got a call from the Slidell staging area. The pressure tank is ready for the next trial run. As soon as you're ready...?”

Sean took one last look at his sister and his friends. “Yeah. I'm ready. Let's go.”

May 27, 2010
Gulf of Mexico

There were approximately 1,300 ships in the Gulf of Mexico dealing with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but only one tugboat was making its way straight to the oil rig itself. The gulf was quiet around them save for the roar of the engine and the rush of the water being cut by the prow of the boat. Their progress churned the red-orange emulsions on top of the gulf’s waters.

The shore was already lost over the horizon and the crew could just begin to make out the top of the destroyed oil rig. Its skeletal remains seemed to rise out of the waters ahead like a revenant of concrete and steel. For those on deck who had not seen it before, the sight made them shiver.

On board, other crewmen were helping Stardust suit up. He was wearing a yellow and black aluminum Newt suit, an Atmospheric Diving Suit, or ADS. He was moving his arms and legs, testing the articulation points of the suit, while a man behind him double-checked the oxygen tank on his back. The bubble-like helmet was open. In front of him was Barbara Preston, now clad in a windbreaker and jeans instead of a business suit and skirt, trying to get him to focus on her.

“Now, Stardust,” Barbara Preston said, “bear in mind that we’re really out on a limb here. We don’t have Unified Command clearance for any of this. Only NOAA and Fish & Wildlife have even agreed we should consider letting you do this. That ADS is just a loaner, so don’t do anything to get it damaged. It’s not the state-of-the-art ADS 2000, but it’s still expensive. You dive, go as deep as you can, come back up, report on what you could see, and we’ll go from there.”

“Go down, look around, come back, don’t screw up. Check.”

Sean lowered his helmet and, as the last seal on his suit closed, he felt completely closed off from the world. It was like shutting himself off in his bedroom, only if his bedroom was no bigger than the space immediately around his body. He tried to give Barbara a ‘thumbs up’, but remembered that the suit ended in aluminum mittens without separate thumbs holes. He flashed her a smile instead and headed out onto the deck. The crewhands who had been waiting for him out on deck secured a line to the suit, attached on the other end to an emergency winch, and helped him climb over the side of the boat.

This is it! Sean thought to himself. Oh… maybe I should have peed again before I got in here…

The ocean closed in around his helmet as he found himself completely submerged.

“Stardust, do you read me?” Barbara’s voice asked over the radio in the collar of the helmet.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

STARDUST #5 "Stardust and the Top Kill" - pt. 2

“Sorry, Sean,” the woman whose name was Barbara Preston said. “The news stories are getting out, but we're keeping you out of them. We're just not sure how the media would spin it.”

“Great, so my friends and family knew nothing about what I was doing here, because you were afraid of the media?” Sean asked sarcastically.

“The media has been critical of the government's reaction to the spill,” the agent whose name was Josh Moreno said. “It might sound worse if we claimed we'd recruited a superhero to help us. Who would believe it?”

“Why don't you tell us what you've done to help?” Jill asked Sean. She had not taken her disapproving eyes off her brother.

Sean smiled, but began to shake his head like he was going to refuse. He looked down for a moment, avoiding Jill's gaze, but then he recovered himself and looked back at each one of them. “Okay, how about a tour? Your escorts here were feds, though this is a state department office. Apparently, the regional EPA office is in Texas, so whenever a disaster happens over here in Louisiana they have to appropriate offices over here from somebody. Barb and Josh share a cubicle back this way. Can I get my friends into the back rooms, guys?” Sean asked.

“We can clear that,” Josh said, stopping to talk to a security guard.

Everyone else followed Sean as he played tour guide through the lobby to the nearest office doors. “I think she meant what you personally have been doing, Sean,” Roger said.

Sean did not answer until everyone was through the doors and out of the lobby. “You probably won't believe me. Even you won't believe it, Rog, but I just keep getting stronger every day. I've got abs of steel!” He interrupted himself to lift up his shirt. He had kept in shape before, but never had such a clearly defined six pack as he did now. “I can lift 1,800 pounds now,” Sean said as he lowered his shirt back into place. “Rog, I could whip Captain America in an arm-wrestling contest,” he said with a grin.

“I don't understand,” Lauren said. “What can being stronger do to help with an oil spill?”

Sean smiled, unable to resist bragging. “I can move sandbags faster than anyone else. I can carry cleaning supplies onto beaches that would normally be moved there by truck, only I don't scare the beached animals like a truck would.”

“There's more too,” Barbara Preston said, breaking in.

“Yeah,” Sean said, nodding. “You'll probably want to be sitting down for this next part.”

There was ample seating for everyone in the plain, undecorated lobby, but Sean and Barbara chose to stand. Roger, Jill, and Lauren sat in front of them like an audience. Josh had joined them and stood at the back.

“Mr. Causer is telling you the truth about his lifting capacity,” Barbara said. “We can't begin to explain how he consistently does it, but he's been repeatedly tested and gets the same results every time. What's more important to us, though, is that his body density is higher than normal too and his ability to resist underwater pressure. As you know, no divers can get down anywhere near the oil leak because it's so deep. All the work is being done by BP's robots.”

“But the robots could use a human supervisor down there,” Sean added. “That's where I come in. I've been training in a pressurized tank for a deep descent. I've already bested the world record and have time to get better if BP keeps dragging their feet.”

“Why is BP dragging their feet?” Jill asked.

“It's a territorial thing,” Sean said dismissively. “They say they've got it under control and don't need help. Yeah, right,” he added, sarcastically.

“Wow,” Roger said. “It's just like you've always wanted.”

“I know, right?” Sean said, grinning from ear to ear. “But wait – there's more. Who am I?” There was a pause where no one answered. “No, c'mon. Someone just say who I am.”

“You're Sean Causer,” Jill said.

“No. I'm Stardust.”

The three of them nearly fell out of their chairs at once. They stared hard as if their eyesight was failing them. They were sure they were looking at Sean a moment ago. Now they couldn't be sure, somehow. He still had features that resembled Sean, but it was like looking at someone you just met and thinking, 'gee, that person looks a lot like Sean', but knowing it was not him. Jill stood up first and moved closer. She walked slowly around the man in front of her, who patiently looked back and smiled. “You're who...?” she asked.

“Relax, I'm also Sean Causer,” Stardust said and, as soon as he did, everyone could recognize him as Sean again.

“That was so... weird,” Roger said.

“What just happened?” Lauren asked. She still could not stop staring at Sean and she seemed to be unconsciously gripping Roger's arm while she stared.

“As far as we can understand it,” Barbara explained, “Mr. Causer is somehow instantly mass-hypnotizing anyone around him.”

“Cool, huh?” Sean said. “If I'd said I was Popeye the Sailor, you might have thought I was Popeye the Sailor. It only seems to work to fool the part of the brain that recognizes people and the more I believe it the more believable it is for others.”

“Sean... for a minute there I couldn't even tell if you were a guy or a girl.”
Sean winced. “Ouch. Okay, gonna have to work on this power some more.”

“You just mind-controlled us?” Jill said, ignoring their banter and physically recoiling from her brother as the realization struck her. “I think I'm going to be sick.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

STARDUST #5 "Stardust and the Top Kill" - pt. 1

May 27, 2010
Slidell, Louisiana, off Route 10

Three men were sitting at the counter in Times Grill. Two of them were regulars. Anthony was the tubby African-American overflowing his barstool and chomping down on a half-pound burger. Harry was a taller, muscular African-American bedecked in bling.

“You believe what everyone's been sayin' 'bout there bein' a superhero round here?” Anthony asked between bites.

“No, man,” Harry replied. “Der ain't such a 'ding as superheroes.”

“What about that guy who stood up to BP's security guards and took photos of everythin' they was tryin' to cover up?”

“Dat don't make 'em a superhero. Anyone can work a camera.”

“Oh yeah. You done eatin' already?”

“Man, you finished off my plate four minutes ago. C'mon and finish so we can go.”

“I'm almost done,” Anthony said, pausing for a drink. “Well, what about how they say he pulled a dying shark to the shore so they could clean the oil off 'em?”

“You give me a big 'nuff rod and reel and I could'a landed that sucker.”

“Well, they say he done it with his bare hands.”

“You gonna believe anythin' somebody tells you? What if I say Halle Berry is waitin' at home for me? You gonna believe that?”

“No, I was just sayin' that's what they say, that's all.”

A lull in the conversation followed. The white man at the counter had eaten more slowly, carefully, savoring the Cajun spices and fried egg on top of his burger. He remained silent throughout, only letting out an “ah” as he finished the last bite.
The waitress, a young African-American with heavy false eyelashses returned to the counter to take away plates. “You done, mister?” she asked the stranger.

“Yep, I think so,” the man said, throwing some money on the counter. “That's one good burger you've got here. Hey,” he said to Harry, patting him on the shoulder, “say hi to Halle for me.”

“Who do you 'dink you are?” Harry asked, offended to have his personal space intruded upon.

“Colonel Sanders,” the man answered.

Anthony, Harry, and the waitress watched him as he left. “I thought he was dead...” Anthony said after the front door closed.

Out in the parking lot, the stranger walked up to a van with ‘EPA’ written on the side of it. A bespectacled, overweight white woman with wavy brown hair stepped out to meet him. “Are you ready now, Stardust?” she asked.

“It was alright, but I'm still hoping that wasn't my last meal. C'mon, let's do this. Shotgun!”

Stardust climbed into the passenger seat of the van and let the woman resume driving. They had a ways left to go before they reached their destination; time enough for Stardust to lean against the door and stare out the window while he reflected back on the events of a week ago...
May 20, 2010
Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality, Baton Rouge

Roger, Lauren, and Jill had been asking around about Sean for two days before the government agents had found them. They were wearing black suits, but they were not stereotypical “men in black”. One was a middle-aged brunette woman with glasses and the other was a short, balding man. When they said they knew where Sean was, there was little argument among the three of them whether they should accept the offer and get in the van of these agents.

Their trust was rewarded when they reached Baton Rouge and an office building on 5th Avenue just a few blocks south of the state capital building. Waiting for them in the building’s lobby was Sean, waving to them. Sean was wearing a black costume Spider-Man t-shirt and black jeans.

Everyone let out a sigh of relief, as nervous as they had been the whole ride in the van. Roger smiled, came over to Sean, and made a playful move like he was going to punch Sean in the gut, a move which Sean was set to block just in case it was not playful. “I should really do it,” Roger said. “Running off and worrying us like that!”

Jill and Lauren followed into the lobby, noting the security guards and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signs that had hastily been set up around the lobby. When their gaze came around to Sean Jill shot him a disapproving glare, while Lauren just looked perplexed.

“Now don't go looking at me like that,” Sean said to them, though to Jill in particular. “I've been really useful down here! Haven't you heard anything about me on the news?”

“Not a word,” Jill said.

“At least not any national coverage,” Lauren added.

Now it was Sean's turn to look disapprovingly at the agents who followed Jill and Lauren. “What the heck?” he asked them angrily. “Barb, Josh, you said there wasn't going to be a cover-up!”

Friday, March 18, 2011

STARDUST #4 "Sean vs. Oil" pt. 3

The Due South turned sharply to starboard and, a minute later, was angling out parallel to the nearest island. The oil could be seen at this range coating the surface of the small islands and the stench of the oil was barely tolerable. In the meanwhile, Stardust was holding the sandbag on his back. The crew was all talking about the mystery man in their midst. Aaron and Stephen had spread around that he called himself Stardust, but no one could remember the name he had given when he signed aboard.

Aaron was back at the ship’s rail near Stardust, watching the gap between the hull and the island. “Dat’s as close as we can get!” he shouted. “Stardust, you’ve got five feet to clear!”

“No, he’ll have to throw it ten!” Stephen chimed in. “You’ve got to actually get it far enough onto ‘de island ‘dat it doesn’t fall off!”

Stardust started breathing heavier and, with a final grunt of strain through clenched teeth, heaved the sandbag overboard. The crew, watching intently from the starboard rail, saw the sandbag hit the edge of the island and teeter there.

“It’s gonna fall!” someone shouted.

Stardust came over to the railing, put a hand on it, and vaulted over it. He sailed through the air so long that he almost overshot the entire tiny island. This time he landed on his feet, but the oil-soaked ground made him lose his balance and he tumbled onto his backside. He Sprang back up, half-covered in oil, and seemed to reel for a moment as if the oil fumes were about to overcome him. But then he sprinted back towards the ship, hurdled over the giant boom stretching across the center of the island, and reached the falling sandbag in time to grab it with both hands. To more cheers from on deck, he dragged the sandbag as far back as the boom, lifted it again, and tossed it to the far side.

Stardust looked all around. He almost would have said the sheen on the water looked beautiful, had he not known what it was. The oily sheen was everywhere – as far on the water as he could see to the horizon. And the horrible, horrible smell of it all. How could anything out there endure it?

Someone onboard shouted down to Stardust, “Just 50 more to go!”

The man had said it as a joke and Stardust heard people laughing. He just turned back and looked up to the crew and said, “Let’s do this, then!”

NEXT: Our Elgin supporting cast comes to Louisiana and to terms with Sean’s superpowers. But does Sean, as Stardust, have the power to stop the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history? Find out in “Stardust and the Top Kill!”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

STARDUST #4 "Sean vs. Oil" - pt. 2

“It really comes down to this,” Roger said to Jill. “Sean’s going to go do some crazy dangerous stuff whether you buy him the protective suit or not. If he gets hurt doing it, won’t you feel a little bit guilty if it’s because he didn’t have the suit?”

Sean had turned around and rested his head in his hand. When he turned around he could see Jill was giving him that sad stare like she thought he was crazy and pitiable. That was the one look he could not stand. “No, it's okay, Rog. I knew this wouldn't work. We shouldn't have come. I'm tired of having to defend myself or explain myself and I'm really sick of asking for handouts. I can do this on my own.”

Jill stood up, almost came around the desk, but stopped at the corner. “You don't have to do anything cr--” she said, but she stopped herself before “crazy” came out. Though she had never taken many classes in psychology, she still knew better than to confront his delusion like that.

“Watch the news a week from now,” Sean said coldly, holding in his hurt and anger. “You'll see I'm a superhero.” And with that he turned and slammed the door on his way out.


“I remember,” Jill said. “Does that have to do with why you called me and asked me to come over here?”

“I wanted to remind you of his frame of mind,” Roger explained to Jill while Lauren held his hand. “Four nights ago he was watching the news on TV, said somebody should do something about this, packed some things in a duffel bag, and rode off on his motorcycle. I haven't seen him since.”

“What was on the news that night?” Jill asked, her sarcasm now gone as her concern grew.

“The same thing that's on every night,” Roger said as he picked up the remote for the TV and turned it on. A CNN broadcast popped up onto the screen.

“--called the oil spill ‘relatively tiny’ in comparison to the size of the ocean,” a commentator was saying. “This after the 70th lawsuit was filed today against BP for the disaster.”

“The oil spill?” Jill asked. “What does he possibly think he can accomplish there?”

“Only Sean knows,” Roger said as he watched the images of escaping oil from an underwater pipe on TV.

Jill watched too. For a minute they all watched. Then Jill said, “I don’t know what you expect me to do…”

Lauren, who had only listened all this time, finally spoke up. “What we thought you might want to do is be there for your brother. That’s what Roger and I are doing. We’re using up a few days of vacation time and are heading down there after Sean to bring him home. Are you coming or not?”

May 13, 2010. Later that day.
Just off the Louisiana Coast, Breton-Chandeleur Sound.

The Due South was a fishing charter boat until the oil spill. Now duly deputized, it patrolled the marine bay rescuing oil-laden sea life and monitoring the oil containment booms stretched along the Chandeleur Islands – an enormous orange fence meant to hold back the oil from the 500,000 acres of federally protected water. The oil was a visible sheen out on the water beyond the islands, but the smell of the oil hung so heavy in the air it might have well been right under everyone’s noses.

“Only, as you can guess, it’s not working,” Aaron Clark, with a Cajun accent, was telling the new guy on the starboard side of the deck. Aaron pointed out to the orange booms that seemed to stretch on forever. “Dey’re over-saturated wid’ oil and need to be replaced. We’re waiting for ‘de replacement booms to come. In the meanwhile, we’ve got to buy ‘de sound some time. ‘Dat’s why we’re loaded down wid’ sand bags. We’re going to line the far side of the boom wid’ ‘dem.”

“If the crane holds,” Stephen Jones chimed in, sounding nasal from pinching his nose to keep out the reek of the oil. “Dose aren’t sandbags you can pick up and carry down in ‘de hold. Each one’s a ‘dousand pounds.”

Once the concern was voiced, there was nothing left for anyone to do but watch as other workers manipulated the old, rusty crane that had been mounted to the deck of their ship and lowered it into the hold for a sandbag. The crane creaked and groaned as it heaved its heavy load. The sandbag – about a five foot cube of thick white plastic filled with dark sand visible through the opaqueness of the plastic -- cleared the cargo hatch and was looming over the deck when the crane broke. The sandbag fell and at such an angle that Aaron, Stephen, or the new guy were in danger of being hit and crushed – or would have been if they were still where they were. As soon as the sandbag started to fall, the new guy scooped up each man near him under an arm and made a standing broad jump of 12 feet that carried them safely out of harm’s way. The sandbag crashed onto the deck behind them and the three men tumbled onto the floorboards as well. The new guy was the first back on his feet. He dusted off his black jacket while Aaron and Stephen stood up slowly.

“How did you do that?” Aaron asked.

“That’s what I do.”

“Who are you?” Stephen asked.

“I’m Stardust.”

In the meantime, more crew had come running to check out what went wrong. A white-haired, fat-faced man who had been among the first to reach the crane loudly proclaimed, like a doctor at a murder scene, that the crane was dead.

The captain of the Due South, a man with thick glasses, came from the main cabin to investigate and was told the same diagnosis. “And there’s no way to fix it out here?”

The white-haired man, a mechanic or engineer, shook his head.

“Well…I guess we sail back to port…” the captain said, as crestfallen as the rest of the crew.

“Wait!” Stardust said. He walked over to the big sandbag, crouched low next to it, and clutched the white plastic bag at the bottom.

Some of the deckhands chuckled at this, while others thought the joke was in poor taste. Certainly no one expected him to be able to lift it. But that was just what he started to do. Aaron and Stephen, already having seen one display of his strength, were the first two to urge him on as the man called Stardust lifted the sandbag over his bent knees. Soon every man on deck was shouting like a cheerleader as Stardust slowly stood up and hoisted the sandbag to waist level and, straining, rested it on his hips.

“Go! Go! Go! Go!” the men chanted, entranced by this superhuman display of physical prowess.

With one final push, Stardust lifted the sandbag completely over his head. “Get me closer to the islands and I’ll toss it overboard!” he shouted.

The crew cheered. The captain yelled several times until he could be heard over the cheering. “You heard that man!” he shouted. “As close to shore as we can get without running aground! Hurry!”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

STARDUST #4 "Sean vs. Oil" - pt. 1

April 10, 2010. 9:55 pm.
Gulf of Mexico, 42 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana.
Deepwater Horizon.

Every pressure gauge in the control room was off the scale, but the pressure in the room was not so much lower.

“I’ve never seen gas levels that high!” a Transocean mechanic exclaimed. “It’s gonna be a blowout for sure!”

“You want to explain to the day-shift manager tomorrow why we had to shut down all systems all night because you were so sure it was going to be a blowout?” the BP night-shift manager asked sternly.

“He’s right!” another employee said, standing up to his bossy, overbearing manager for the first time. “You’ve got to sound the alarm and let everyone evacuate!”

“The Hell I will! Tell all crews to keep replacing the drilling mud! The pressure will drop!”

“No it won’t,” another man said and rose up from his chair. “I don’t know about ‘de rest of you, but I’m getting off ‘dis rig before the whole ‘ding blows!”

“Get back in your seat or I’ll see you’re fired!” the manager protested. “Don’t you walk out that door, Jason! Jesus!”

The man who had walked out the door was named Jason. The manager had called out to Jesus when a pillar of fire so blindingly bright it was like the finger of God erupted out of the drill column.

Every alarm claxon on the rig exploded with sound that almost – almost -- drowned out the roar of the pillar of fire that roared with the unholy intensity of a million corporate executives screaming. And over that din, a lone man screamed to the manager – the one man who might have stopped everything that followed – asking, “Are you happy? Are you happy? The rig’s on fire! I told you this was gonna happen!”

May 13, 2010.
Elgin, Illinois.
Roger McGill’s house.

Roger answered the door for Jill, who noticed his girlfriend Lauren was already there with him. Jill, as a nurse, felt she was particularly good at reading faces from how people reacted to news at the hospital. Roger looked distraught, while Lauren only looked concerned. She could only imagine how she would look when they finally got around to telling her.

“Come on in,” Lauren said. She came up to Jill and gave her a hug, Roger just moving out of the way of Lauren's characteristic affection.

Jill followed Lauren to the Roger and Sean's living room and found it unusually tidy. Sean obviously was not home. “Well?” Jill said, turning around to Roger and asking him with growing impatience. “You said you had something to tell me about Sean and I’d better come over to hear it. I just got off a 12-hour shift, so I’m in no mood for small talk. Why don’t we get right down to it?” She picked up a stack of videogame cases off the nearest chair, sat them on the floor, and then sat down in the chair with her purse on her lap. “What is it this time? Fell off a roof again? Finally got himself arrested? Do I need to get my checkbook out…?”

Roger sighed. “I’ll have to catch you up first. You remember when Sean and I were at your house a week ago?”

“Oh yes...” Jill said, and she did.


“You want me to buy you a bulletproof vest?” Jill had asked that day in her study. It was often about money when she was talking to Sean, but this was a new one.

“I’m getting stronger, but I’m not invulnerable or even bulletproof,” Sean said with a casualness that almost made that sound rational.

Jill's husband was not home, so it was just her, her brother Sean, and Sean’s best friend Roger with her. Jill was sitting at a desk with her hands clasped in front of her and both men standing in front of the desk as if they were applying for a loan in a bank. Of course, except for the bank part, that was exactly what they were doing.

“It’s a tactical assault vest,” Roger said. “We brought you printouts of the specifics we got online. This guy Sean found can modify the vest into a full protective costume with sleeves and leggings of thick nylon, what they used to make vests out of before Kevlar…”

“Roger, I understand why you’re here,” Jill said. “You’re here to make it sound like this is a well-thought out plan. This guy Sean found – is he someone you’ve actually met or some guy online?”

“It’s a very reliable message board,” Sean said.

Jill turned to look at her brother and simply nodded. “And how much is he asking for?”

“Two thousand-three hundred dollars,” Sean said.

“So, you want me to give you $2,300 to give to some guy online you don’t know, in exchange for a bulletproof costume so you can go on riskier superhero work?”
Sean leaned forward on the edge of the desk. “Look, I understand you don’t believe I have superpowers and you don’t understand all this superhero stuff, but I’m at the point now where I need to be doing more important work and, yes, there may be a greater risk of harm involved."

Friday, March 11, 2011

STARDUST #3 "The Thief Revealed" - pt. 3

“That's it,” Sean said as he lunged forward. He batted the Taser out of Kevin's hand, grabbed him by the shirt, and slammed him into the shelves against the wall.

“I've had just about enough of this, Kev! You know, you've never sent my computer a virus Ruben couldn't get rid of. I would have shared my pop with you if you'd asked. I'm actually glad if you have my motorcycle instead of someone I'd never find. And I had no clue about your stupid code hidden in the thefts. But the one thing you've done, the worst thing you could do...” Sean lifted Kevin effortlessly off his feet, at arm's length, with one hand. “...was saddle me with such a lame nemesis. Now, when I need people to take what I can do seriously, you're going to make a joke out of me!” He started to shake Kevin.

“You're hurting me...” Kevin whined.

“Sean, put him down,” Roger said. He had found the front door open and seen enough of what was going on to be genuinely concerned.

“Relax,” Sean said. He tossed Kevin down and Kevin fell in a heap on the floor. “I just want to make sure Kev doesn't try anything this stupid ever again.”

“I think he's learned,” Roger said. “What do you want me to do?”

“The right thing. Call the police.” Sean walked over to the coffee table piled with comic books. He picked up a comic book on the top of the heap and looked over the cover. “We'll teach them all to take us seriously. Right, Rog?”

“Right, Stardust,” Roger said.

NEXT: Things turn serious as we enter the penultimate chapter of Stardust's origin. Don't miss “Sean vs. Oil”!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

STARDUST #3 "The Thief Revealed" - pt. 2

Roger emerged on the north side of the bridge and found Sean reading the side of the bridge. The graffiti had been painted over already, but only a single coat through which the two-foot tall, black, spray-painted letters were still readable.

I dare you to find me, Stardust, before more is stolen,” Sean read.

“He even included the commas,” Roger observed. “You don’t see grammar like that in graffiti usually.”

“What did Tony say?” Sean asked.

“He didn’t tell anybody.”

“Okay, give me the phone. I want to talk to Ruben.”

“No, man,” Ruben said when he was on the phone. “I figured that was your thing and you’d let people know your way, you know?”

“That just leaves Kevin,” Roger said as Sean hung up.

“...He's not answering.” Sean creased his brow and tapped the cellphone to his forehead as he thought. “I've just got this gut instinct telling me we need to get to Kevin's. Maybe it's a new power, like a danger sense?”

"You think Kevin's in trouble?" Roger asked. The concern in Sean's expression told his flatmate everything he needed to know.

Kevin lived in Elgin like the others, but in an apartment complex in the northeast part of town. There were only a few parking spaces left in the parking lot to choose from.

“Just drop me off here,” Sean said. “I'm going up first.”

Sean pressed buttons at the building entrance until someone buzzed him in. His gut instinct seemed to be confirmed when he reached the second floor landing and saw, down the hall, the front door of Kevin's apartment was suspiciously ajar. Without knocking or calling out loud, Sean pushed the door open a little wider and peeked inside. There was a black cord stretched tight across the doorway that the door would hit if it opened any wider. Sean squeezed through the doorway as open as it was and stepped over the cord carefully.

There was still no sign of Kevin. The front room was a mess, but that was normal. Comic books were lying all over, properly bagged, but not in any type of order. The cord ran between hooks screwed into the walls and ran all the way around the room, past the half-wall with the window that looked into the kitchen, across the hallway to the rest of the apartment, and disappeared up under a shelf buried in clothes on the far side of the living room. Curious, Sean tugged the cord.

Thud. Looking up, Sean saw a dart sticking out of the door that had not been there a moment earlier. Across the room, some clothes had fallen off the shelf and revealed Kevin's crossbow was mounted there.

“Okay, that was just dumb,” Sean said loudly.

“What do you mean, dumb?” Kevin's voice came from the kitchen. “It's a classic trap.”

“It's the crossbow you bought in the Medieval Times gift shop. I know you're behind the counter, Kev. Come on out.”

“Of course,” Kevin said, standing up. “It's only fair that you see the architect of your sorrows at the last. Tell me, did I really have to give it all away with the Stardust reference or were you just toying with me?” Kevin was dressed in his best suit, holding a white cat in his arms and petting it.

“When did you get a cat?”

“I borrowed it from a neighbor,” Kevin said, looking slightly embarrassed. “Tell me you at least got the pattern to the thefts...? Oh, come on! I can tell by the puzzled look on your face that you didn't.” He dropped the cat and came into the living room, snatching up comic books and holding them up one at a time. “Ms. Marvel, Hawkman, U-Foes – each time the issue after their first appearance, just like the letters that come after the first letters of their names spell my name backward. And this was my second time through my name. It was so easy!”

“Okay, that is seriously the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Why would you... Holey moley. This is like the ending to Unbreakable? You want to be my supervillain?”

“No, I'm your nemesis,” Kevin said, pulling the crossbow off the shelf. “You think I wanted to be nothing but a supervisor at Meijer for the rest of my life? Like all the great superheroes, you give your nemesis a sense of purpose. I've dogged you for years without your knowing it. Sending you e-mails I knew I had viruses in them. Spitting in your pop cans when you weren't looking. Following you on your patrols without your even knowing it.”

“You spat in my pop cans?”

“Taking... your motorcycle.”

Sean was not sure if he could be angry with Kevin before, but it came easily now. He lunged for Kevin.

Kevin had grabbed something else on that shelf under the crossbow. He dropped the crossbow and let Sean have it with a Taser.

Sean cried out and jumped back. The Taser had given him a nasty jolt, but did not hurt as bad as he thought it would. “Geez, Kev!” he said, leaning forward and putting his hands on his knees. “I've always wanted someone to take me seriously as a superhero, but this is ridiculous! Have you even thought this through as to how it's going to end? I'm going to have to haul your butt to jail!”

“No, you're forgetting the nemesis always gets away to come back another day,” Kevin said, backing up to the window. While he held his Taser defensively in one hand, he fumbled with the window with his free hand, trying to open it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

STARDUST #3 "The Thief Revealed" - pt. 1

“I'm playing Runescape here.”

Roger watched Sean, in a T-shirt and jeans, sitting at Roger's computer. "So... no fresh ideas on how to find the thief?”

“I'm waiting for an e-mail back from the superheroes I know online. I'm hoping someone can come up with something for me because I'm tapped out. I tried staking out the comic book store. I tried hanging out in the store to flush out the thief. I tried learning what I could about the issues that were taken to see if there was something they all had in common a collector would want them for, but they all seemed to be random thefts.”

“Are you giving up?”

Sean sighed. “I'm a superhero, not a private investigator. I'm no good at this. What I'm good at is helping newbies on Runescape. These kids are trying to do the second quest now.”

“Is that really as important?”

Sean pushed his chair away from the computer and let his frustration show in his voice. “Well, what do you want me to do, Rog? Have you got any ideas?”
Roger just shrugged. “Just seems like we ought to be doing something.”

“I know,” Sean said. He still sounded frustrated, but not with Roger. “I know.”

Unsure of what else to say, Roger stepped into the hallway when his cell phone rang. They both recognized it as Lauren's ringtone. “Hey hon!” Roger said into the phone.
“Uh-huh. Yeah, Sean’s here. The Daily Herald? No, we don't get that here.”

"Who reads newspapers anymore?” Sean asked.

“Lauren says there's an article you need to see in the local news section.”
Sean perked up. “Would that be on their website?” he asked, pulling his chair back up to the computer.

Roger asked Lauren. “She says she doesn't know.”

Sean started typing, but stopped abruptly. “You know who gets the Herald – Jim! Hold on...” Sean said and he jumped out of his chair and sprinted down the hall for the front door. He flung open the front door and confirmed what he had remembered from earlier that morning – their next-door neighbor had not picked up his Herald yet. It still sat at the end of his driveway in its plastic sheath.

“We owe Jim a newspaper,” Sean said as he came back inside with the paper. He dumped the contents onto the floor and pulled the sections apart until he found the local news. He scanned the front page in a second and shouted, “Rog, come on!” as he ran back to the front door with the paper in hand.

“Whoa!” Roger cried in surprise. “What did it say?”

“No time!” Sean said as he paused at the door. “You can read the article in the car! Come on!”

With that, Sean was gone. Roger could hear him already out in the driveway. Sean stood at the driver's side door of Roger's 2000 Ford Taurus, shouting, “Toss me the keys! I'll drive! You read!”

Roger surrendered to Sean’s sense of urgency and complied. He slumped down in the passenger seat just in time to get the newspaper thrust in front of him.
Sean squealed the tires as he peeled out of the driveway. “Did you read it yet?” he asked.

“You know you’re not insured to drive this car,” Roger answered.

“Just read it, will you?” Sean asked as they left Jill’s street, heading west for Elgin.

“I’m reading, I’m reading…” Roger said. “For the fourth night in eight days…” he read out loud, “…a graffiti artist has been taunting Elgin’s resident superheroes.” Roger read more intently now, as the importance of this began to dawn on him. “Following three nights of challenging Captain Amazing to catch him, last night’s challenge was instead to… Stardust.”

“Have you told anyone I changed my superhero name to Stardust?” Sean asked.

“No. Well, Lauren, but nobody else. And I don’t think she likes to talk to anyone about you.”

“The bridge the last graffiti was on is under Route 20. If we’re lucky, they haven’t painted over it yet.”

They drove for a few minutes in silence. Roger thought about something and then asked, “You read the whole article that fast?”

“Yeah,” Sean said. “I’ve been reading a lot faster lately. Maybe that’s another superpower. Have you got the number for Tony’s store on your phone? Call him and ask if he’s told anyone about Stardust.”

There were several places where Route 20 was supported by bridges. One such place was where it passed over Route 25. There were residential houses on the north side of the intersection and businesses on the south side. Sean parked on the south side, in a gas station parking lot, and then they both ran up to the bridge.

“No sign of it on this side!” Sean said. He raced ahead, balancing on the curb of the road where it ran under the bridge as cars drove past him.

Roger followed more slowly, raising a hand to his uncovered ear so he could hear Tony on his cell phone better.

“It’s on this side!” Sean shouted.

Monday, March 7, 2011

STARDUST #3 "The Man Who Stole Comic Books"-pt.3

“Tony’s got a lot of comic books worth more than $80,” Sean said as he thought out loud. “And it’s not like the thief doesn’t know their value. Tony has price tags on every bag. The thief must be purposely taking less expensive ones.”

“Or they’re crimes of opportunity and the thief never has time to grab anything pricier,” Roger said. “Are you serious about this?” he asked, changing the subject.
“I mean about being Stardust?”

“Of course,” Sean said as they approached their house. “I mean, I’m not 100% sold on that name if you have a better one, but I definitely need a more serious superhero identity for what I can do now.”

“But that’s just it,” Roger said as he parked the car in the driveway. “How can you be so sure that you have superpowers? The gunman who froze up, how do you know he just didn’t have a medical condition or something?”

The car doors slammed shut as the two friends walked around the front of the car and confronted each other.

“What about my getting stronger?” Sean asked.

“Sean, you lifted 350, not a ton. And you said yourself you’ve been working out.”

“Not that much! I’d have to be taking steroids to get that strong so fast…” Sean noticed the look Roger was giving him. “Geez! I’m not taking steroids!” he shouted as he walked away from Roger. Then he turned around and came back up to Roger – right in Roger’s face and looked him in the eye. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

Roger looked away and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know what to think,” he said.
“I wish I could see an example of this superpower you say you have.”

“And I’ve been avoiding eye contact with you for two weeks to keep that from happening,” Sean said, calming down. “I was afraid because I don’t know if the mesmerizing effect will always be temporary. I didn’t want anything to happen to you and now – now I find out that you never believed in me.” Sean turned and stalked off toward the front door.

“The Hell I didn’t!” Roger said, following Sean. It was his turn to be angry now.
Sean, unaccustomed to hearing his friend sound like that, turned back again.
“I have been nothing but a supportive friend to you all these years of being Captain Amazing! You want to do feed the homeless in a superhero costume? Fine with me! You’re going to be late on your half of the rent this month because you gave too much to charity again? Hey, that’s why I put in long hours at work, because I know you’re like that! And I have always admired that about you. That you don’t just read about superheroes in comics and think how cool they are and go back about your life. You live out those ideals you read about every day. So you want to be Stardust now? Fine. You say you have superpowers? Fine. You want to catch a comic book thief? Well, let’s go inside, dig through our collection, and see how those superheroes would go about it,” Roger said. When he was done he unlocked the door and went inside.

Sean followed and put his hand on Roger’s shoulder. “Thanks,” Sean said with a smile.
Roger turned around and smiled back.
NEXT: Well, we haven’t met our Man Who Stole Comic Books yet, did we? Wanna bet he shows up next issue? When our next title is “The Thief Revealed”, it’s good odds!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

STARDUST #2 "The Man Who Stole Comic Books"-pt. 2

“Because Captain Amazing is a bit of a joke,” Sean said with his face looking down at the table in front of him.

Roger understood how difficult that must have been for Sean to admit.

“This is a whole new chapter of my life I’m going to be entering into now,” Sean said. “It calls for a fresh start. That’s why, to go along with being the first true superhero in the world, I’m going to become… Superman.”

“Superman?” Tony said with a laugh that almost made him choke on his second slice of pizza. “You can’t call yourself Superman!”

“Tony’s right…” Roger said. He prepared in his mind what to say next, knowing how much ridicule secretly bothered Sean and not wanting it to sound like that. “DC comics would sue your pants off if you called yourself Superman.”
Sean looked around from face to face for some encouragement.

“Well, I think Superman would work,” Kevin said. “If you worked harder to keep your identity secret, how would they ever sue you?”

“It’s not just a question of how they would,” Ruben said. “Superman stands for doing what’s right. Using a trademarked name illegally… it would just send the wrong message, man!” he said, shaking his head.

“So what do you all recommend?” Sean asked.

“How about a public domain name?” Tony asked. “There are plenty of superhero characters with history almost as old as Superman’s and those names are up for grabs.”

“Oh! Oh! Black Terror! Alan Moore made him rock!” Kevin said, getting excited for the first time since the meeting began.

“I was thinking Stardust,” Tony said. “I was even reading a blog the other day that was claiming the old Stardust character was based on an actual person – the very first of the real life superheroes – back in 1939.”

“Stardust…” Sean said, nodding approvingly. “I like that. It would tie in nicely with how I got my powers too. Very well, from now on you can call me Stardust. Now, onto the second order of business, which I e-mailed everyone about in advance. I need your input to decide how best to use my newfound powers.”

“So that’s why you wanted to know what one thing we would fix in the world if we had superpowers…” Kevin said, as if he only now understood the e-mail from earlier.

“What powers do you have exactly?” Ruben asked.

“Well… I don’t entirely know,” Sean admitted. “I did sort of paralyze the gunman in the store by wishing he would freeze. I’ve also been working out a lot more and I’m stronger and faster than I ever was before. Not at superhuman levels, but I seem to be getting stronger and faster every day. Just this morning, I was lifting 350 lbs at the gym.”

Kevin whistled. “That’s pretty impressive there, Sean,” he said.

“Well, when I thought this was all theoretical,” Tony began, “I was thinking I would end world hunger and Earth’s water shortage.”

“That’s technically two things,” Kevin pointed out.

“Those are great goals,” Sean said, “but, unfortunately, I haven’t exhibited any ability to create food or water – yet.”

“There’s that earthquake that happened yesterday in China,” Ruben said. “I think I read thousands of people got injured by it. They probably need a superhero the most there right now.”

“Haiti is still rebuilding from their earthquake,” Roger added, “and they’re a lot closer to home. Also, if you’re seriously considering leaving the country to help out overseas, you could always just join the Peace Corps.”

“Good point, Rog,” Sean said. “As a matter of fact, I did apply to volunteer with them already, but I’m bothered by the fact that they’ll decide where to send me and what they’ll ask me to do. What if they fail to make the most use of what I can do? That’s why I want a back-up plan, in case I have to go out on my own.”

“I picked Somalia,” Kevin said. “Two words. Fighting. Pirates.”

There were several “ooo”s that escaped from the men sitting or standing around the table, including Sean. “Oh, that’s a good one,” he admitted. “I like that. I’ll consider all your suggestions and get back to you.”

There was still plenty of time left for a heated debate about who was the best Green Lantern ever before Tony called the meeting adjourned. As Kevin was throwing out the pizza box and Ruben was re-bagging the Green Lantern and Blackest Night comic books that were under discussion, Tony caught Sean’s attention.

“Look,” Tony said in a lower than usual voice, though still loud enough for anyone to hear, “I was going to ask Captain Amazing to look into this for me, but maybe this is a job Stardust could do for me too. Someone’s been stealing comic books from the store. Some good ones too. I lost a copy of Brave and the Bold #43 just last week.”

“Was that the first issue of Hawkman’s tryout series?” Sean asked.

“No, the second one, but it was still worth $80. Can you look into it?”
Sean thought about how little luck he had finding his stolen motorcycle these past two weeks, but said, “Sure, this sounds like a job for Stardust.”

Sean did not bother to put his mask back on as Roger and he walked out to Roger’s car. Sean talked about the comic book thief half the way back home.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

STARDUST #2 "The Man Who Stole Comic Books"-pt.1

There was a Deadpool poster by Dave Johnson on Sean Causer’s bedroom door. Roger McGill knew this because every day for the past two weeks, instead of seeing his roommate, Sean, he saw the door closed and the Deadpool poster on it. Roger was not a big Deadpool fan to start with, but as the weeks passed, Roger began to have a slightly irrational reaction to the poster and began taking things out on the character. “Fine, miss V!” Roger shouted at Deadpool. “Don’t think I’m Tivo’ing episodes for you, either!” he told the poster with unbridled scorn.

This, though, was Wednesday and Roger had every hope of encountering his reclusive roommate this day. Roger knocked on Deadpool’s head with reckless abandon. “Sean, are you coming or what? You don’t want to be late!”

This time the door did open. Roger was surprised to see Sean suited up in his Captain Amazing costume. Sean always came to these meetings as himself. Sean was looking blankly into space, as if deep in thought.

“You okay?” Roger asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Let’s go,” Sean said without looking at his friend.

“Why the costume tonight?” Roger asked as they went through the house to the front door.

“Didn’t you read your e-mail?” Sean asked.

“Dude, my bedroom is 10 feet away from yours. I have to read my e-mail now to find out what’s going on with you?”

Whether it was the irritation in Roger’s voice or whatever was on his mind that was distracting him, Sean turned silent. Roger did too, so they rode together in silence in Roger’s car from Elmwood Drive out to Walnut Avenue and Tony’s Comics. Tony’s Comics was a specialty store where Sean and Roger had shopped loyally for the last few years. The doorbell chimed as they entered.

“Hey, Captain Amazing!” Tony exclaimed as they walked in. Tony was a big, heavy man with curly black hair and thick glasses. He was wearing a black Rorschach T-shirt.
Whatever shirt Tony was wearing tied directly into the store’s buyers’ club discount, so that meant a 5% discount on all Watchmen-related merchandise that night.
Sean was usually more enthusiastic when recognized as Captain Amazing, but tonight he simply nodded and said, “Everyone in back?”

“Just the regulars,” Tony said as he moved out from behind the counter to the front door. He put up the “closed” sign so they would not be disturbed.
The best thing about Tony’s was the meeting room in the back. Every other Wednesday night for the past year, Sean had been coming to the meeting room. Roger made the meetings as often as his work schedule – and his girlfriend Lauren – allowed. The meeting room had some stacks of cardboard boxes at the back wall – back issues the general public could only view on request, but tonight’s group could peruse as they wished. The group sat at a folding table with folding chairs. A pizza box was already open on one end of the table next to some cans of pop, while copies of this week’s comic book releases were lovingly protected from such messy fare on the opposite end of the table.

Kevin was already in attendance, right next to the pizza. Kevin was a tall, gangly young man of 25 years, with spiky red hair, a BA in English literature, and a stock supervisor job at Meier’s. Also there was Ruben, a 32-year old computer repairman who took computer repair training to escape from gang life, but still insisted on dressing in gold chains, hairnets, and hoodies. He was also the only one of them married already, though his wife had never actually spoken to any of them.

“We have a quorum tonight,” Tony began. “I call this special meeting of the Justice League of Elgin Comic Book Fans to order. I’ll also be immediately turning the floor over to our special guest, Captain Amazing.”

“Seconded,” Kevin said as a point of order. He looked more interested in the pizza than the proceedings.

“Any objections?” Tony asked.

“We can still discuss this week’s new releases, right?” Ruben asked.

“Later, if there’s time. All ayes, no nays? Great – the floor’s yours, Captain,” Tony said and he moved around the table to get a pizza slice.

“Thank you all,” Sean said as he stood up. “First of all, I’d like to thank all of you for respecting my ‘secret identity’, such as it’s been, over the years. But, as I’m sure you’re all aware, I’m also League member Sean Causer,” he said as he removed his mask.

“No way!” Kevin said in mock-astonishment.

“I always thought Roger was Captain Amazing,” Ruben said with equal sarcasm.

“Yes, ha-ha,” Sean said with a knowing nod. “But I’m telling you this because, as of tonight, I’m retiring the identity of Captain Amazing. It’s been a lot of fun – I can’t deny it – and I think I’ve done some good as him too, but that’s all changed since the Aurora Event.”

The smiles faded from everyone’s faces at that mention. Everyone remembered the green lights in the sky that night - remembered being terrified or excited or both at the worldwide, one-day phenomenon. Though life went on as usual the next day and the day after that and the 12 days after that, everyone was still aware, at least deep down, that something was fundamentally different now.

“I have superpowers now,” Sean said. “Real superpowers. You might have read about the robbery I stopped the day after the Aurora Event. What the papers didn’t say was that I used a superpower to do it.”

The robbery, the newspaper accounts, and Sean’s claim of having superpowers were all old news to Roger, but he was still trying to process the shock of Sean giving up being Captain Amazing. “Why does that mean you have to give up being Captain Amazing?” he asked.