Sunday, September 30, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 12 (Conclusion)

A long time ago, in a more remote part of the country, a boy named Mannix Roberts woke up one day to discover his parents packing everything they owned into the family vehicle, which backfired almost as often as it drove smoothly.

He asked, bleary-eyed, what was going on, and his mother cooed to him, “We’re moving, baby.”

Years later, Mannix learned the truth, that his father had just committed armed robbery, during which he murdered the shopkeep of a convenience store.  Somehow in the grand scheme of things, the motivation for creating the City of Tomorrow was lost.

The Roberts clan arrived on the outskirts of what was to become Metropolis in 1927.  They discovered a rural population centered around an academy Mannix quickly found himself attending.  After he entered the academy grounds, Mannix never saw his parents again.

This school in the middle of nowhere was the remnant of an earlier time, when the area had been rich and prosperous.  The locals would later claim that they were the first victims of the Great Depression.  For Mannix, however, history was just beginning.  He met a circle of friends with whom a vision of the future was mapped out, plans to resurrect the dead world around them, all inspired by the ridiculous books they tried to hide from the teachers.

Upon graduation, Mannix was overcome with an urge to make that vision a reality.  His friends were more reluctant, but they played along.  Before any of them knew it, the year was 1938 and Metropolis was presented to the rest of the country with a grand opening fair, in which the first fruits of its dream of innovation were revealed, along with a prototype rocket that actually shot clear into the sky but never landed.  Some claim it reappeared in Kansas, others Cleveland.

One by one, the friends split up, moving on to other cities, until Mannix was the only one left.  The truth was, he was never very good on his own.  Sure, he had a wife and kids, but they only ended up reminding him of something he’d struggled to deny.  He grew older, more secluded.  His name was lost to the very thing he’d struggled to create, and finally he understood what history was all about.

His wife left him, took the kids.  He was standing outside the hospital when the first grandchild was delivered.  A man named Jasper Finds had replaced him.  Probably never even knew what he had.

Mannix settled down into the very kind of neighborhood he had tried to eradicate from his memory.  He became a bum.  He drank all day long.  No one around him had a clue who he was, and perhaps if they did, they were only spit on him, and he would deserve it.  The vision had passed into other hands, and he wasn’t sure they knew what to do with it.

One day he learned that a plane crash had taken the lives of his family.  The sole-surviving member was a granddaughter, nine months pregnant, barely holding on.  He stood outside another hospital, waiting to learn the fate of his legacy, the only living soul who would remember his name.

The granddaughter died in delivery.  His great-grandchild, Chelton Roberts, was placed in the arms of strangers.  Like an afterthought, Mannix learned that for some reason, Jasper Finds had not been a passenger.

Then one day I stumbled across Mannix, and then Celeste Montano, and some time later put all the pieces together.  The Boy Who Fell to Earth, I suddenly realized.

I’ve been struggling with what to do with all of this.  What do mere humans mean to the City of Tomorrow when there are superhuman aliens flying around in the sky?  I suppose it’s the basic struggle, the fight for the future despite impossible obstacles.  Something like that.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 11

How do you solve the unsolvable riddle?  By risking everything.

I lived my life by playing it safe for seven decades.  Old men either have storied lives or have avoided anything remotely interesting.  Before Jasper Finds came across me in the park, I had every intent to live another three decades exactly the way I’d lived the previous ones.  I wanted that century mark.

I know, it sounds a little silly.  The mileage doesn’t matter if you haven’t gone anywhere.  Except I never saw my life as boring.  I lived in the City of Tomorrow.  Every day was an adventure, even if I was a tourist in my own life.  I learned early on that there were things bigger than me, and I was okay with that.  My parents were humble, simple folk, and I fully expected to follow in their footsteps.  They came from a different time, though.  Metropolis didn’t exist for them.  It was everything for me.  I looked around and saw a wonderland, and that was enough.  I never gave much thought to how it came together, everything that so fascinated me, the landscape, the people, the collective manifest ambition.  I had none of my own.  I was content to live vicariously.  The world around me seemed like more than enough a challenge.

I shouldn’t sell myself so short.  I cobbled out a living by writing about my experiences.  It was nothing fancy, and I did it mostly for myself, working a mediocre job and spending the rest of the time doing what I loved.  I fashioned fantastic stories about the everyday wonders around me, and didn’t need exaggeration to capture them.  Most of it was fiction, but all of it was real.  What else could result from this place?

But I kept to myself.  I kept my head down.  Those who risk everything lose everything.  I risked little and spent a long time getting along.

When Jasper gave me his burden, it didn’t occur to me the extent to which he had drastically altered the course of my life, because at first it seemed exactly like what I’d been doing before.  Jasper had made a career of unearthing secrets.  I had made a hobby of it.  Turns out there are differences between careers and hobbies.

For instance, the people are real when you make it a career.  You can pretend that it’s all fiction when it’s a hobby, you can pretend that none of what you do makes any difference.  When you make it a career, everything matters.  What you do affects someone else.  When it’s just a hobby, you can keep to yourself and keep everything you do to yourself, but you no longer have that luxury when it’s a career.  You start matching faces and names.  You start interacting with the world around you, like stepping from a 2D image to 3D.

In some ways it’s the same, though.  You start immersing yourself in legend, because in a sense you’ve become a part of it.  Names that only seemed like fiction before become reality.  They take on a sense of urgency.  You become a part of the narrative.  You find that the end of someone else’s story becomes the beginning of yours.  In one sense, that was Jasper Finds to myself, but also much more than that.  The whole of the City of Tomorrow, in fact.  The story of the past being written into the future, with a little help from yours truly.

Something happened to the vision that motivated the founders of Metropolis, that key difference that separated it from the rest of the world.  Somewhere along the way, the mechanics started taking over and the vision was lost, and everyone started scrambling to reclaim it.  But in the absence of the vision, doubt started flooding in.  Did anyone truly know what was supposed to be done, what needed to be accomplished?  Jasper Finds figured that the link between the past and the future had to be reestablished, and dedicated his life to fulfilling that task.  Actually, he sacrificed it.

My task was to figure out what that meant, how close he’d gotten.  I’d stepped through the looking glass, saw the mechanics for myself, and now knew what was necessary to revive the vision.  And I think I knew what needed to be done, how to connect the City of Tomorrow to men who flew through the sky and made all us regular folk superfluous.  But then again, maybe that didn't have to be the case.

Friday, September 28, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 10

It’s said that Metropolis was founded because someone had a vision of the future.

I don’t mean to be coy.  Literally, someone had a vision of the future.  That’s what the City of Tomorrow was based on, an actual vision.  The initial days of feverish architectural design was meant to facilitate that vision, to bring about the necessary conditions that would help that vision come true.

What was the vision?  No one knows.

The Apex Club was formed, first and foremost, to answer that question, which burned at the heart of the secret conversation constantly murmuring across the streets of Metropolis.  If you listen carefully, you can hear it, even in the midst of the busy hubbub of workaday life, or at night when anywhere else the whole world seems to be abuzz with anything but matters of truth.

There’s a common misconception that the Apex Club is a scientific organization.  To a certain extent, that’s exactly what it is, but in a slightly more comprehensive survey of disciplines than you’d normally expect.  Mostly it emphasizes the human element, when normally science seeks to downplay our impact in the grand scheme.

But like the City of Tomorrow itself, the Apex Club doesn’t look backward but forward, attempting to make the giant leap to the future, and how humanity factors into that, dismissing the usual pessimism to envision life as it can shape change even in the midst of obstacles.

The main requirement for membership was measurable psychological levelness, which is to say sanity.  They didn’t want potential megalomaniacs who would derail their efforts or warp them.  That’s not something everyone thinks about.

They didn’t know it, but the Apex Club was very much like the original founders.  Sometimes those attempting to explore something are very much like what they’re exploring.

They sought to identify the individuals who had the potential to fulfill the original vision.  To put that another way, exceptional individuals came together to fulfill the vision of exceptional individuals by looking for other exceptional individuals.  Got it?

That’s why they cared about people like Jasper Finds and Charlie Varrick, and why they cared about the identity of the infant under the care of Celeste Montano, why they sought to recruit Martha Thomas, who was to be the last of their agents, who would answer the riddle of the infant and all the other questions, and quite possibly, the biggest one of them all, what exactly was the vision of the future that gave birth to the City of Tomorrow.

Am I talking in circles?  I’ve found that most times it’s necessary to do that in order to understand what’s going on.

Martha struggled to accept what was happening to her, especially the odd way in which the Apex Club chose to reveal itself to her.  In the weeks and months after learning the truth of the clinic, she no longer saw individuals, no longer trusted them, and to its credit the Apex Club realized that this was to its benefit.  Martha was the opposite of everything it had assumed about what it would take in order to solve the riddle.  The fact that she had such a hard time adjusting also meant that she would never be comfortable, and that would only force her to fight harder for her answers.

It’s true that she avoided answering the obvious questions presented her, but it also meant that she answered the ones that the Apex Club never expected to be asked.  That was what made her so valuable.

Martha ended up transcending what she was supposed to represent.  That had always been the goal.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 9

When she was a little girl Celeste did not understand the political underpinnings of her family.

For instance, she did not understand why she had to dress up in her Sunday best nearly every day, because Daddy had visitors over.  It became repetitive, and Celeste wasn’t the type to enjoy the constant attention and the grownups saying how pretty she looked.

In hindsight, that’s probably why she stopped thinking of herself as pretty.  You either begin to believe such things, or reject them, even if they’re true.

Her father was important, and yet she never understood why.  As far as she could tell, nothing important happened at these gatherings, which seemed like a means to make sure everyone was happy, everyone was friends.  There were drinks Daddy didn’t enjoy except on these occasions, which made it all the more scary the more regular they became.

That’s when he started to change.  In her earliest memories of him, Daddy was perfect, not in the way that most children will accept Daddy as perfect unless given very specific reasons not to, but that he really did everything that a little girl will appreciate, even the things she will never expect, not to spoil her but surprise her, always surprise her.

That was in the beginning.  In hindsight even the perfection was an act, a means to buy her love, even if his was genuine, even if hers would have come without all that effort.

In later years, and not just because she was growing older, Celeste started to notice the change.  The gatherings were only the start of it.  How do I know any of this?  Because like Jasper Finds, I started to find answers to questions nobody asked, like a curse.

Daddy didn’t become corrupted so much as misled.  He only wanted what was best, and like all desperate men his need to satisfy his ambitions made him more desperate, more susceptible, more willing to compromise.  He was the last of the founders, come many years after the City of Tomorrow had entered the future and discovered that the rest of the world hadn’t followed.

What that meant was the end of the dream.  No one appreciated that more than the little girl who was growing up too quickly.

So one day in a meaningless act of defiance she broke the charade and made her public life take a turn that it wasn’t supposed to.  She rebelled in the most profound way she knew how and got her name tattooed on the back of her shoulder.

It was like a brand.  Everyone knew who she was already, knew who her father was, but she was supposed to be modest, be a good girl, stick to the script and let the public at large believe that she was just like everyone else, just more privileged.

The tattoo itself was a common gesture, something her kind was never supposed to do, but still common enough.  The fact that it was a tattoo wasn’t the problem, but rather that she had stitched her own name across herself.

What did it really mean?  That she had broken the code, of course.  That she had taken pride.  That was the one thing her father had never done.

But her father was dead, slumped over one evening in her favorite chair, dropped of a heart attack.

What did she have left to prove?  Who did she have left to entertain in her meaningless way?  That was when she adopted the baby.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 8

As you might assume by now, Jasper Finds was my informant.  Why did he the need to confide in me?  Mostly because I kept what he told me to myself.

Jasper got the information everyone needed.  He was not indiscriminant about it, and he was always careful.  If there was something he felt should remain hidden, he kept it that way.  Over the years, he built a rather large store of such knowledge.

It was exactly that material that he confided in me.

I used to be one of those old men who sit in the park playing chess.  I was never any good at it, and after a while, even the novelty of getting a free win off me wore off, and I stopped finding matches.  I started to sit there, staring at the pieces, wondering all manner of weird things about them, what it might be like to live in a world where kings and queens and pawns were still the agents of change, the old world in the new, as if that’s not what still dominates our lives.  Well, maybe not in Metropolis.  We have certain checks and balances here.  We’re the City of Tomorrow, after all.  We’re what the whole world’s going to be like, in the future.

Sometimes I wonder what the means, too.

When Jasper Finds unceremoniously sat down in front of me, waving his hand in front of a face staring blankly ahead, it took a moment to realize what was happening.  Even for me, it’s not every day a living legend crosses my path.  It’s a common misconception to believe that anyone in the relative proximity of greatness will run across it in their lifetime.

He started to laugh, and I asked what was so funny.  He said, “To find such a man in such a cliché.”  I wasn’t amused.  Like people anywhere, I could sometimes take my good fortune for granted.  I was living in Metropolis!

He started to explain himself more lucidly.  For some reason, I stood out for him in the vast sea of humanity, something about inherent humility that he found hard to overlook, something he used to see in himself and still wanted desperately to believe in.

I stopped him and asked who he was, because at that time I was as ignorant as the next guy, no clue to the vast wonder all around me, the hidden history of the City of Tomorrow still waiting to play itself out, with just a few pushes left.

It was only then that I looked into Jasper’s face, and noted how ashen it appeared.  I started to piece his motives together for myself.

Without very much fanfare and shelling peanuts the whole time, he told me everything he knew, everything he’d never told anyone else before.  “Keep it alive for as long as it takes.”

For as long as it takes?  Wasn’t I going to be the end of it?  Everyone would love to see the fulfillment of what they experienced in their lifetime.  The truth is, that’s very near impossible.  History doesn’t work like that.

After finishing, he simply got up, scooped the shells into a pocket, and shambled away.  I think the obituary was printed within the week, and I almost missed it, still frantically trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with all the information I now possessed.  I barely knew the man, but I started crying on the spot, whether for the man or the terrible responsibility he’d given me, I don’t know.

Why had I been chosen?  Had he really known me so well?  I sat back down in the park and there waiting for me was a young woman holding a baby, didn’t even know I was there.  She quickly got up.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 7

The truth of Charlie Varrick’s defining action is less miraculous than the legends, but then again, perhaps it’s moreso.  Such is the problem with reality.

I only recently learned it myself, and that’s the reason I’ll telling you any of this, because it begins to tie the whole thing together, but you’ll see how for yourself.  Well, hopefully.

Charlie Varrick wasn’t so extraordinary, and neither was the act that defined his life.  In many ways, it’s what we expect any decent individual to do, even though many people wouldn’t have done it, and nowadays it seems downright superheroic.

One night as he was walking home from another lousy day at work Charlie heard someone calling for help.  It was a residential neighborhood, exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from such a scenario.  The other unusual element was that the man calling for help didn’t need it himself.  He was asking on behalf of another man, who was presently crouched down and holding his head, which if Charlie had been able to see clearly enough given the poor lighting, would have noticed a fair amount of blood on it.

The man asking for help on this poor individual’s behalf only wanted Charlie to make a phone call.  The man seemed to be impatient, but Charlie was never one to judge.  As soon as he related the basics of the situation, he got in his truck and drove away.

As Charlie understood it, the man had come across the victim of an assault, and given him a ride home.

The victim was an old man, though he looked like he could have been twenty years younger than he was.  Charlie knocked on a neighbor’s door and asked to make the necessary call.  It didn’t occur to him that the man who had just driven off could have easily doe that.

The call was quickly made, with the neighbor being a relay of information, including the particular spelling of the victim’s name, Mannix Roberts.  The first name was certainly unusual, but Charlie didn’t give it a second thought.  If you’re catching on to a pattern, you’re not the first one.

Charlie hadn’t intended to stay, but the more questions the dispatcher asked, the more he realized that he should.  He reassured Mannix Roberts as best he could, but neither was feeling very chatty that moment.  An ambulance arrived and a phalanx of medics emerged, started asking questions, and as soon as Mannix was identified as the victim, Charlie started feeling superfluous.

He walked on.

Within weeks he started noticing people treat him differently.  Charlie had always been a private sort of individual, maybe even mysterious, but he had never experienced a reception like this.  He didn’t think for a moment that it had anything to do with the incident that night, but of course it did.

Even I didn’t know who Mannix Roberts was the first time I heard the story.  I asked and was surprised to learn that he was the founder of Metropolis.  The founder of the City of Tomorrow the victim of a common mugging?  How had he even gotten himself into such a situation?  That much isn’t important to the story, but the fact that he had become an anonymous old man is, and the fact that someone stopped to help him in his hour of need was something he never forgot.

Somehow that steamrolled into the legend of Charlie Varrick.  The more he tried to distance himself from that legend, the more people started to wonder if they had the right man.  The source of the legend died years before anyone could try and confirm it, making it that much harder to verify, and therefore that much more of a legend, that much more distorted, a part of the fabric of the future, when the impossible in fact became reality.  But that’s the kind of thing that happens here, what we all believe in, even if that belief turns out to belong more to fiction than anything else.

Monday, September 24, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 6

Martha Thomas spent three months as an intern in a law office until she was approached to volunteer at a clinic on the outskirts of town. After college it was a welcome change of pace, a step away from the daily grind that she had welcomed, a natural extension of her studious upbringing. Finally she could enter the sea of humanity. She assumed the opportunity came more because of her looks, however. Dedicated as she was to intellectual pursuits, Martha was used to the world accepting her foremost for her beauty, which had already become something of an albatross. She spent as much time trying to achieve her goals as trying to avoid those who only wanted Martha as a trophy. The clinic was exactly like that for six months. She endured it. It was mostly clerical work, but sometimes Martha could convince herself that she was making a difference in the lives of the patients she saw pouring in on a regular basis. Sometimes it could be overwhelming. She wanted to feel bad about her problems, the lack of respect, being treated like an object, but so many of the people she saw were experiencing real pain, real torment, that they felt in a visceral way every waking moment, and all they wanted was to live without it. She knew there was some revolutionary work being done at the clinic, but she had no part of that. She had a degree that was sitting in a drawer in her apartment, which she very much wanted to use, and the more time she spent at the clinic, the more Martha convinced herself that she could use it there. When the opportunity didn’t come, she started to use her spare time to work on her own ideas. She’d seen enough, knew enough, about the problems the clinic treated. She knew what discharged patients took with them, prescriptions with complicated names but ingredients she could identify. She bit her tongue when all she wanted to do was share her ideas at work, and so she worked it out at home. That didn’t help the time pass at work that much easier, however. If anything, it made it worse. It made it a real grind. Never do something that’s more personally fulfilling outside of work hours. It makes it impossible to care about work. Yet something remarkable happened to Martha. After six months, she was called into the innermost offices of the clinic. It was explained to her that the directors knew what she’d been doing. She thought she’d been careful. She’d never tested on humans, never told anyone. The directors told her not to panic. They explained that the six months had been a test, and she had passed with considerable grace. There was only one way to become a member of the Apex Club, and that was to prove that you were selfless, that you would go out of your way to improve a situation, no matter the personal cost. At first, Martha was angry. All she wanted to do was to curse the directors, walk away from the clinic, and never return. She was asked what she’d do next. Probably apply her research, was Martha’s reply. Let us see it first, they said. What could the harm be? Let us validate it. No hard feelings. She was still upset. She felt humiliated. But she figured they were right. She’d spent six months at least believing the clinic was a legitimate operation. She’d done her research because she believed that. In a week she was informed that the directors were impressed. She’d come up with innovations they’d never considered. She wanted nothing more than to tell them what she thought about that. Something held her back. Something was always holding her back, she realized. She was waiting for something. The Apex Club? She accepted an invitation for a tour, and official introductions. She listened to their goals. She came to embrace their ambitions. Martha wondered what she would have done without patience. After all, it was the future that had always concerned her.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 5

One day I went to church.

I’m not here to advocate religion, or tell you what I think about it, so simply accept that statement as it stands.  I went to church.

The pew in front of me, and more specifically the space directly in front of me, was empty up until a few moments before the service began.  A family quickly scampered to fill it.  The individual who ended up in front of me was a young woman.

Now, you ought to know that modesty is supposed to be one of the virtues of attending church.  Modesty, however, was not one of the virtues of this young woman.  She wore a tube top that exposed her bra straps, and every time she bent over even in the slighted degree, the bottom of the bra could be seen.

I think it goes without saying that this was in the recent past.  In the more distant past, I’d like to believe that this would never have happened.

Let me also reassure you at this point that I am not a dirty old man.  I relate this young woman’s attire not because I went to church looking for something like that, but because it happened, and who she was.  You may not believe it, but her name was Celeste Montano.

I know what you’re thinking, but the tattoo on the back of her shoulder made it clear enough.  It in fact proclaimed “Celeste Montano.”

The Montanos were the last of the founders, several generations removed.  They were a beacon of the immigration drive that still represents Metropolis.  We’ll accept anyone here, even though in many ways we’ve become just another big city.  We cling to our ancient ambitions and ideals, but sometimes it’s hard to see how the City of Tomorrow hasn’t joined the rest of the corrupted modern age, slipping into ambiguity.

Celeste was famously orphaned at a young age, which makes the rumors about her and her child all the more ironic.  She was holding and trading off an infant throughout the service, with relatives or friends, I don’t know.  The infant is said to be another orphan, and if you can believe it.

If Celeste comes from the last founders, that infant is said to derive from the first.  Strange circles of fate.

The service continued for close to an hour, as it usually does.  The whole time, I wasn’t thinking about the infant, but it was excuse enough to distract my attention toward that tattoo.  Was it really Celeste Montano, or just someone who found a new trend?

The thing is, the young woman kept looking over her shoulder.  Maybe it’s a common fallacy, to assume that because you’re thinking it and they’re doing it, that the person constantly turning their head like that is giving you the view that you want, helping guide the visual conversation, just as aware as you are in your obsessive thoughts that the action is necessary.

It was her.  It was Celeste Montano.  She’s the girl all the boys in school are infatuated with; forget all the pop princesses and swimsuit models.  In this town, they all pine for Celeste Montano.  How was I to know, a wrinkled old man, that I would sit behind her in a church service?

She’s a part of this narrative because of the infant, however.  Everything in the City of Tomorrow points toward the future.  The founders pointed toward a man who could fly, who came to Metropolis a different kind of orphan, an alien.  In a way, every citizen here is an alien, even if some of them are reluctant to admit it.  Celeste Montano was an alien in that service, and she playfully juggled an orphan that some of us had been waiting for all our lives.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 4

The only person in Metropolis who ever knew everything there was to know was Jasper Finds.

Yes, it was probably an alias.  Finds had an alias.  Charlie Varrick was an alias.  Even my name, Barton Summary, is an alias.  Names can be changed.  Names aren’t important.  The important question is, can you tell the truth about someone by looking at them?  Most people assume they can, but most people are wrong.

By all accounts, Finds had an uncanny ability to read people.  He didn’t even have to question them to know their answers.  It was the same with everything else.  He was the most intuitive man alive.

The major newspapers attempted to get him on staff repeatedly.  As a consequence, he never granted them an interview.  He didn’t like the intrusion.  A man who read the world like an open book probably preferred to keep his own life as private as possible.  I assume it was his revenge.  If he was to have a gift, he wasn’t going to make a mockery of it by giving away his secrets.  If anyone had been worthy, they would have been able to do it themselves.

Finds was asked many times to help unravel the mystery of Charlie Varrick, and it was the only request he denied, other than those about his own life.  It made more than one person wonder if Finds was in fact Charlie Varrick.  Let me put that rumor to rest right now.  I knew Jasper Finds.  One does not accuse one legend of being another.  Finds wouldn’t have had time to be Charlie Varrick, besides.  People would have noticed him missing.

If you want to have a secret like that, your other identity had better have a good excuse for missing time.

Finds never had any missing time.  He could account for everything.  He started out as a police informant, found on a routine hustle on the street, brought in and questioned, and when he baffled every officer sent into the interrogation room with his answers, the truth was eventually revealed.  He had never shown up on the radar before.  He was a complete surprise.  The explanation worked itself out.

That doesn’t mean that the law didn’t keep tabs on him.

Once exposed, however, everyone seemed to learn his secret, and the increased public scrutiny helped shake the hassle of detectives who had been shadowing him, which for a man like Finds was like a mosquito buzzing about, impossible to ignore.

He never sought any of it.  He would have preferred to live his own life.  I heard enough complaints about it from Finds to confirm that it wasn’t just an act, that he was genuinely annoyed by the reaction to his gift, that he wished he could just crawl back to obscurity, when he could pass his skills off as coincidence, which most people are more than ready to believe.

The more I dug around, though, the more I learned that even that would have been impossible, that he had been used by the very culprits in the sting operation that had exposed him.  Most people love a good conspiracy even more than they love coincidence.  Someone finally decided that Jasper would finally be found.

The thing about Finds is that his memory remained sharp.  Often when someone uses a gift like that, it grows dull, like a punishment in advancing age, a payment in turn for abusing it over the course of a lifetime.  Maybe the Apex Club wanted to study him for that reason alone, or maybe they were just hoping that he would help them solve the riddle of Charlie Varrick once and for all.  One legend leads to another.  That’s the way it always works.  At least, that’s how most people like to believe it.

In the City of Tomorrow, a man like Jasper Finds demonstrated throughout his life that big achievements could have simple methods and ordinary results.  He was always a neighborhood concern’s first refuge.  Care to know the truth about someone?  You could always trust that man to tell you.

Friday, September 21, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 3

The legend of Charlie Varrick fascinated denizens of Metropolis for decades.  It’s said that he was one of the primary reasons the Apex Club stuck around for as long as it did.

You see, he was known as the Man Who Fell to Earth.

Now, before you get carried away, the appellation was always assumed to be allegorical.  The tricky part is, the legend grew because no one really knew what it meant.

The obvious interpretation is that Charlie literally fell to earth, and the implication is that he survived.  Since he exists in legend more than documented reality, it’s assumed that he lived in the earliest days of the city’s foundation.  Yet all attempts to verify his existence have been rebuffed throughout the years.  Most assume that he lived under a series of aliases, and that “Charlie Varrick” itself is merely the most famous ones.  If you poke around the basements of my best friends, you’ll discover scrapbooks full of purported identifications in newspaper clippings and circus flyers, even the commemorative brochure from the opening of Metropolis.

Did he survive a fall?  Such a sensational story would likely leave an impact, but also theoretically a trail in trade journals and perhaps permanent enshrinement in the medical field.  As he’s already a cult figure, it might be argued that religion already found Charlie.

Chances are, however, that the fall is metaphorical.

Perhaps he was one of the founders, and he suffered a fall from grace, and that’s why no one talks about any of them anymore.  That would certainly solve a couple of mysteries, wouldn’t it?

But he seems more common than that, even if he lived an uncommon life.  If you visit a playground, you’ll still hear children sing rhymes about him:

Charlie Varrick fell to earth
He’s been falling since his birth

Those are the only ones I know, I’m afraid.  The strange part is, I think I chanted them myself when I was that age, which would make it a long time ago.  I suppose the fact that even I don’t know may say something about Charlie.  Maybe he was the pied piper of the founders, leading them to this ground, marking a spot as it were, a truly symbolic fall.

Yet the memory is a funny thing, as I’ve suggested.  Charlie is such a part of the background chatter that it’s difficult to separate the man from the legend, especially when there’s more legend than man to him.

Do I have my own theories?  Sure I do.  I could name a dozen men, and a few women, who could’ve been Charlie.  Can I come up with a single individual actually named “Charlie Varrick”?  Searching through the public record will quickly solve that particular mystery.  Do an Internet search.  You will probably come up with a ghost or two.  Maybe there’s a connection.  I wouldn’t put much stock in that.

No, Charlie is the guardian angel of Metropolis, a man who never existed in the past and so is as much a man of the future as anyone, on whom you can project anything you want, insubstantial, ephemeral, a part of someone’s dream.

Still, that doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to find him.  As I said, the Apex Club did, for a very long time.  Their efforts were seen as dubious by some, a discredit to everything else they hoped to achieve, chasing after a legend when they were supposed to be inventing fact.  Well, discovering the unknown was always their game.  What else did their critics expect?  I will say that I gave them a little help, in a roundabout way.  But more on that in a moment.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 2

The biggest loss to the legacy of Metropolis after it became defined bald billionaires and flying men was the Apex Club.  Consider it the Manhattan Project and the Justice League rolled into one.

It was the dream of Martha Thomas.  Martha inherited a sizable fortune from her industrialist father, but chose to invest it in the City of Tomorrow.  There was no greater champion of scientific and social innovation than Martha Thomas, and to put it simply, Metropolis wouldn’t exist today without her.

In order to achieve her lofty goals of revitalizing everything that had originally motivated the foundation of the city, Martha formed the Apex Club, gathering the brightest minds of her generation to not only solve the problems of the day but anticipate those of tomorrow.  That’s not to say that they dawned garbs of sackcloth and bemoaned the evils of humanity, as all the would-be street-level saviors do now.  Their job, as they saw it, was to anticipate the needs of mankind before anyone realized they existed.

Not to harp on the present too much, but the Apex Club did more than infinitely refine the same technology, making the same things smaller and more diversified.  As I’ve said, the brightest minds look for something new.  Cynics will tell you there’s nothing new under the sun.  Cynics are notably absent from our brightest minds.

This is not to say that the Apex Club did not run into opposition.  There’s always opposition to change.  I’ve also said most of us exist in a lethargy of normality, and we like it so much that we actively abhor those who attempt to alter the predictable and routine and well-established.  We preach all the time about supporting people like Martha Thomas, but more readily reward her exact opposite, those who reassure mediocrity.  We claim to reward success, when we really only care about achievement, and the achievements we most value are incredibly mundane.  When it isn’t, we find a way to downplay the achievement.

The Apex Club fought that every step of the way, and that’s what made it all the more remarkable.  As I’ve said, the City of Tomorrow wouldn’t exist without it.  It’s one thing to bring Metropolis into being.  It’s another thing to maintain it.  The only way to maintain Metropolis is to keep its vision alive.  Innovation through routine.  It’s an irony that was not lost on Martha.

Skyscrapers were nothing new when Metropolis came into being, but they discovered a new dimension in this city.  Visitors always notice that.  After a while, most of the world’s architects stopped inspiring awe, everywhere else but in Metropolis.  That’s the singular contribution of the Apex Club.  Their towers were taller, sturdier, and filled with infinitely more complex ideas than any that had been seen before.  The famous L-shaped building you know today was originally Martha’s tribute to her father, Lon Thomas.  Yes, it has since been appropriated.

The Apex Club had its successors, too, some of which you may be aware of.  In more ways than is typically appreciated, it was the missing link of the 20th century, too modest to boast, not secretive enough to develop a cult following, but behind everything that came to define the City of Tomorrow, after it was determined that simply maintaining what sat in the foundations would have been a betrayal to them.

I never met Martha, never sat in on a board meeting of the Apex Club.  Martha’s funeral drew thousands from around the whole world, representative it’s said from every continent and probably from most countries, even those who had never directly benefited from her work, but who nonetheless drew inspiration from her.  I suppose in a way I did meet her, because I attended the funeral, too.  In her final interview she exclaimed a deep ambivalence to her legacy, and regret that she had not done more, that in time no one would remember her name.

I suppose it’s true.  Sometimes referenced in editorials, but you will seldom hear her name today.  The march of progress eventually leaves everyone behind, even its greatest champions.  Yet if I could tell Martha anything, it’s that she hasn’t been forgotten, that she was every bit the success she strived to be.  It’s just, we haven’t even begun to see the fruits of her labor.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

City of Tomorrow, Part 1

People tend to forget that Metropolis existed before him.

The other thing they forget is that before they learned to expect routine from their lives, they used to discover new things all the time.

It can be a hassle to imagine the world differently from what you’ve come to expect.

I’ve lived here all my life.  My name is Barton Summary and I’m old enough to be your grandfather, so when I say I know this town, hopefully you’ll take my word for it.

Metropolis, as I’ve been getting around to saying, was known as the City of Tomorrow from the very start.  It wasn’t always dominated by greedy billionaires, but I’m sure they had their part in its origins, too.  I mean, how else is something like this going to happen?  You don’t end up with this kind of innovation just by accident and speculation, though a little of that helps.

Its founders imagined Metropolis at the vanguard of the future, and fought hard to keep the march of progress going, long after dreams of utopia settled into the quagmire of reality.  To achieve that, it had to remain at the forefront of the imagination, like any major center of population.  Attractions were built into the cornerstones of the city, but it was also necessary to build celebrity.  The founders were themselves celebrities, eccentrics one and all, though they were always the private type, preferring to keep their creation in the spotlight.  Perhaps if you look in the archives or City Hall, you’ll see a picture of them, catch their names.  After all, Metropolis wasn’t named after anyone.

It was to be the quintessential city, that’s how it got its name.  The only way to lay claim to such a boast was to constantly maintain it, some might even say militantly so.  Before the dream started to collapse and crime and suicide took over its brightest spots, Metropolis was always known for order.  It had a place for everything and everything in its place.  Success came at a price.

The City of Tomorrow was born in the 20th century.  It was populated with dreamers to match the dreamers who conceived it, restless spirits who agitated for the future, innovators in every field.  The only problem with a dream is that it always gives way to reality.  Reality dictates that dreams have practical applications.  Practical applications have a way of annihilating dreams.  Metropolis fought this never-ending battle for decades.  It had tried to transcend the world.  It learned, over the course of time, that the world cannot transcend itself.

Year by year, day by day, reality began to sink in.  The City of Tomorrow was forced to grow up.  But, as with any forced behavioral change, remnants of a prior existence stubbornly clung around the edges.  The past could not be entirely erased, especially when it was so greedily fixated on the future.  As the future grew more grim, the dream became more entrenched.  Those who hadn’t grown up in it and watched it erode began to come to Metropolis, still believing in that dream.

Whoever said there are no second acts in American lives never came to the City of Tomorrow.

I watched all of it unfold.  I was there in the beginning, and I was there when it all started to come apart, and there when it started to come together again.  And yes, I was there when he arrived.  That’s a story for a different time, though.  This time, Metropolis gets its due.  This time, you get to hear about the City of Tomorrow, and some other souls who found their way in the improbable Metropolis, where dreams were planted long ago.

Maybe it all sounds foolish to you, just one more delusion in a time of delusions, a time that has forgotten the lessons of the past, and the old adage about those who forget them.  Maybe so, but you don’t know Metropolis like I do, and that’s what I mean to correct.  New things are possible.  You just need to look around.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Dead But Still Walking

At a certain point you will accept anything as normal.  Everything you know was at some point new, after all.  It was with extreme reluctance that the world accepted the undead in this way, however.  It was a process that took several centuries.

Let that sink in: several hundred years of zombies shuffling about.  Most people still find it creepy, but at least now it's so commonplace that they're almost easy to ignore, mostly because there are now ways to cope.

They still shamble wherever they want.  Their heads are smashed in with less frequency.  You tend to forget who they used to be, even if they still retain a resemblance of someone you used to know.  Actually, it's easier now to identify them, because in the early days, it was usual to fixate on what they were rather than who they'd been, even when a transformation happened during an activity that made it hard to ignore.

Planning your day around them is a matter of course.  Once you know how to avoid provoking them, they're almost like any other animal.  They're no longer human, after all; they might as well be a new species, which is exactly what some have classified them, even defended them as, which was considered insensitive by others, at least originally, but has become something they teach in the classroom now.

Maybe in another hundred years they'll simply be an urban myth, like alligators in the sewer.

Since they don't talk it's always been hard to imagine what may be going on inside their heads, which is another reason why they're now considered animals, because that's the eternal question that has always haunted humans, what another life-form thinks when the communication barrier seems impassible.  As you might imagine, there's a cottage industry devoted to interpreting them, now that they aren't simply an object of horror.

And yes, some disturbed individuals keep them as pets.  But what do you expect?

For a nominal fee, you can visit exhibits in most major cities around the world dedicated to the history of their existence.  Trade journals still try to explain why they appeared in the first place.  There are religions that have sprung up around them, extremists who target other nations because of them, end-of-the-worlders who still cling to their anachronistic beliefs.

As for me, I still have never seen one.  Most of my friends have, and sometimes I wonder if I should seek them out, if that would somehow give my life greater meaning, more fulfillment.  It sounds stupid when I admit that.  I mean, they are what they are.  I might as well say I want to see the bottom of the ocean.  I mean, I suppose I could, but would there really be a point?

Maybe I will care more as I grow older.  Right now, I don't, and I know that's not what you want to hear in this essay, but I figure the truth is more important.  Maybe there's more to say on the topic, more that you want to know about what I think, but I'm done writing about it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Captain Bebop and the Stripe-Suited Sugar Stalks

He was presumed dead.

Ten years ago on a visit to the planet Jarvis, a survey team Captain Bebop led against the advise of his executive officer was buried alive by an avalanche.  To his surprise and horror at discovering everyone else dead, Bebop survived.

Crawling from the rubble, he spent the next few weeks learning how to keep doing that.  His training had not prepared him to do it on a planet like Jarvis, however.  It was like something out of a cartoon, completely absurd.  The only thing remotely serious about it was the pit of corpses he left miles behind him.

It was the stripe-suited sugar stalks that got to Bebop.  They were everywhere.  He spent the first few weeks trying to survive and actively avoiding the bizarre stalks.  He didn't trust them.  They looked like sugar stalks, but he didn't trust them.  He ached for something sweet, but he didn't trust the stalks.

The husks on the stalks looked like pinstripe suits.  That's perhaps what unsettled him the most about them.  Growing up, he'd been terrified of well-dressed men.  They only did things like badly represent his father, uncle, and best friends in court.

There were other things he could eat, fruits and vegetables that were as recognizable as the stalks, usually a lot juicier than any he'd had before.  The first few times he had what he considered a Jarvis apple, he splattered himself thoroughly.  He was sticky for months.

But he was alive.

The animals all tried to be his friend.  At first he was terrified of even the most adorable creatures, but they kept licking him.  He'd never killed a living thing, and he wasn't about to start with these things.  Sometimes he wondered if they were simply cleaning him.

Somehow, as the years passed, Bebop survived.  He lost track of time.  He no longer thought of himself as a starship captain.  He stopped thinking of everyone he'd lost, and all those he left behind.  He stopped wondering why the rescue parties never came.  He could no longer remember what it was like for someone other than himself to respond to his verbal thoughts.

The sugar stalks kept mocking him, however.  He wondered if he'd gone mad.  He supposed it didn't matter.

He mounted the courage one day to break the husk and lick a stalk.

It tasted like bubblegum.  He hadn't had bubblegum since he was a child.  It was only appropriate.

Later that day, when he was drifting off to sleep, he wondered if he would wake up as that child.