Austin Irons was sitting on the train quietly minding his own business, his knees up and his feet jammed against the back of the seat in front of him. His straw-colored, wavy-haired head was buried in the latest issue of Marvel’s The Avengers. The last panel of the comic book concluded with superhero team victorious over the time travelling villain Kang the Conqueror, a conclusion that curled Austin’s upper lip. He looked out the window at the twinkling evening lights whizzing by, not quite sure why the villain didn’t know that The Avengers would defeat him. After all, the antagonist in the story was a time traveler from the future. The writers could invoke alternate timelines as an explanation, but Austin always considered these types of plot hole defenses contrived. He tossed the rag on the empty seat beside him.
“You like comic books, kid?” came a vaguely familiar voice from across the aisle.
Austin lazily turned his head towards the man he may or may not know. “Yeah, I guess so.” The man was not much bigger than all sixteen years of Austin himself. But his face, it was almost like looking in a mirror, maybe a funhouse mirror, the kind of mirror that distorts your face by making it look older. The man was clearly forty at least, with notable lines forming around the mouth and eyes.
Austin payed a little more attention to the finely suited interrogator. “I know you, mister?”
“Yes, you know me very well,” the man replied as he folded both hands over the top of his gold-handled cane. The handle was molded, too, in the shape of a lion’s head, the head similar to drawings Austin often did. The gentleman dipped and tilted his head a bit, a scratch of bemusement on his lips. “You know me well because I am you.”
Austin scoffed. “Whatever, mister, I’ve got an assignment to read.” The youngster pulled his backpack into his lap and started shuffling the contents around until he found the book he was looking for; a biology book. He was about to pull it out when some insistence in the older man’s voice stopped him.
“I can prove it,” the man’s words came out hastily. “When you…we, were thirteen, we were having wet dreams about Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, sometimes all three of us together. You’ve never told anyone that, huh? How could I know that if I weren’t you? I’m you from the future.”
Austin’s eyes flew open and his head almost came off as he looked around the train car for other passengers. No one else was really within earshot, though, or at least Austin hoped the clacking of the train tracks drowned the old man out. His eyebrows furrowed into a deep angle towards the bridge of his nose as he leaned towards the man.
“If you’re me, why are you trying to embarrass the shit out of me right now?” Austin tried to keep his voice low.
“Because you need, we need to get your heart rate up. This train is going to crash any moment now,” the refined figure informed.
“Wait. What? How do you know that? And what’s getting my heart rate up have to do with the train crashing?” Austin’s heart hadn’t come down from the embarrassment yet. Instead he grasped the handrails of his seat, just in case.
“Not much time to explain, kid. But if you’re not scared right now, your super powers aren’t going to manifest themselves when this train crashes,” the man explained.
“Super powers, really? Like the X-Men; their powers usually manifest themselves during an emotional crisis or trauma! Man, that’d be really cool,” Austin considered. “Oh shit, am I a mutant?” Now the young man’s heart raced at the thought of becoming something more than human; super human. He took a good look at the man across the aisle from him; it looked like being a mutant was going to pay off at some point.
“But wait,” the wheels in Austin’s head turned, “Are you, I mean ‘we,’ you? whatever, strong enough to survive this train crashing? You, we must be.” The teenager’s head whipped forward, waiting for a lurch in the commute. Austin whipped his head back towards the man. “Am I super strong and indestructible like the Hulk? Doesn’t matter…”
“Any second now…” the older man pulled his sleeve back to observe the time on his Rolex. Then he returned his attention to Austin, observed the lad waiting and shrugged his shoulders. “Any second now…maybe…maybe not.”
Austin fidgeted in his seat. Then a minute went by. Then another. He started to settle down. He would look expectantly at his future self, gulp, and wait again. And be frustrated again.
“How come we’re not crashing?” Austin asked. Disappointment dripped from his lip.
“You want to crash? You’re so hung up on getting super powers you don’t even really care about the other passengers,” the older man’s face twisted. Then he looked up at the roof of the train car, possibly beyond to some hidden observer. “And they say I’m the villain.”
Austin’s nose crunched up. “I don’t understand. I just want my super powers. Is the train going to crash or not?” he asked, irritation rising in his voice. The man just shook his head at the youngster. “Whatever, mister. Good one, you really had me going there. Asshole.” Austin reached back into his backpack and tugged the biology book free. As the book came clear of the backpack, it was followed by a slow moving cloud of jade smoke. A bit surprised, Austin gasped and inhaled some of the smoke.
“What the hell?” Austin responded as he instantaneously felt liquidy all over. He felt like the world was one big pillow and he was sinking into it. His otherwise normal seventy-two heart beats per minute plummeted to forty-two. “What’s…happening? If we crash…I don’t even think I’ll care.” Austin was tranquil but with a touch of gregariousness.
The mysterious man stood up tall and proud. His chest heaved with satisfaction. “Oh, actually, the train doesn’t crash for another ten minutes, Mr. Irons. Or should I call you ‘Iron Austin’?”
Austin wanted be excited by the sound of his superhero name but couldn’t muster the strength. Instead he felt himself beginning to enter a white hall of oblivion. “I…don’t…get it.”
The man quickly sat back down on the edge of his seat facing the youngster. “Oh, let me explain! That’s what they do in comics, after all, and I wouldn’t want you to die without knowing why. I suppose it’s a character defect inherent in all villains, wanting to get the last word in,” the man prattled, his eyes black with clichéd, metaphorical coals.
“Anyway, yes, this train is going to crash. That’s what happens in my future. That’s when your powers manifest. But I’ve made sure the crash doesn’t quite happen the same way this time. No more Iron Austin to be a thorn in my side in this world or any of the others but the one I came from.” The man scooted over and sat beside the slumping teenager.
“Who…are you? Not me? My…arch enemy?” Austin tried to make a fist with his five noodled digits and failed.
“Is that any way to speak to your daughter, father?” the man asked with a placid face.
Austin did have just enough strength to raise his eyebrows. “What..are you..talking about? You’re..not even..my son?” The would-be hero melted into his seat like a slug. Saliva began pooling in the corners of his mouth.
“No, for god’s sake that’d be far too simple!” the man took a handkerchief from inside his jacket pocket and dabbed the corners of Austin’s mouth. “Oh, it looks like you’re fading so I better make this fast.
“You see, in the future you’re the world’s greatest superhero – Iron Austin.” The man waved a hand across the air as if directing people’s attention to a theater marque. “But as you take advantage of your celebrity status, you maybe have a one night stand and that unfortunate, forgotten young lady has a daughter. Despite a conclusive paternity test, you dismiss me and my mother; you want nothing to do with us. Hoping to win your favor, I study. I study a lot. Turns out I have a super power, too – super intelligence. So I tried to inject myself back into your life, fight crime alongside you but all you did was insult me, saying intelligence isn’t enough to fight evil. Instead you train a young boy to be your sidekick, a placeholder for the son you always wanted but never had. Finally when I was old enough, I had gender reassignment surgery to become a man. When I did that, you treated me even worse than before. You wouldn’t even look at me. You wouldn’t look at me long enough to even insult me.” Austin’s eyes were shutting so the man elbowed him sharply. “Is this contrived enough for you yet?
“The best part came when you wrote your autobiography. You thought it was funny to include that bit about Black Widow and Scarlet Witch. You also, foolishly, included the scene in which your powers manifested themselves, how it happened.” The man pushed the tip of his index finger against Austin’s nose. “That was very dumb, father. But you’ve always been dumb. What else explains your failure to see that your super intelligent child would become your nemesis who builds a time machine to go back into the past and use a heart stopping poison to kill you before you ever became a superhero?”
Austin’s chest felt like an anvil was coming down on it, slowly but surely. Breath was a fleeting ghost. He gave whatever he had left to take in some air. “I…don’t…believe you. Villains…lie.”
The man interlaced his fingers on his lap and bowed his head. “Yes, yes you do, father. Just so we’re clear, everyone else in our future thinks you’re a hero, but I know you as a villain. Villain’s abandon their children. Right now – here – I’m the hero, saving my other future selves from you. I can’t stop what happened to me. I can’t go back and interfere with my own timeline. Believe me, I’ve tried. It can’t be done, paradoxes being what they are. I would love to explain it to you but you wouldn’t understand, I’m afraid,” the man raised one corner of his mouth.
“But I can go back and visit other timelines and prevent you from becoming a superhero as many times as I can. Fortunately for the world – unfortunately for me – there will be other superheroes besides you. At least they’re a lot better people than you and deserve a fair fight. Yes, they deserve that. But I don’t plan on doing any such thing.” The finely dressed figure brought his eyes down upon his dying parent.
Austin was going to slip to the floor in a tangled mess but the man put his arm around him and set Austin on his side, the youngster’s head in his lap. “There, there, father, go to sleep. Go to sleep.” The future stroked the past’s hair as Austin’s eyes flickered goodnight. “I’d sing you a lullaby but you never taught me any.”
Iron Austin broke and stopped breathing.
The gentleman stood up and made for the doors when they opened at the next stop. He left the teenager ‘sleeping’ across the two seats, no one the wiser and besides it was too late. After the doors closed and the train pulled away from the station, the child from the future snapped a finger towards another teenage boy who was leaning against a lamppost, smoking a cigarette. His hair was highlighted purple and he wore Goth inspired make-up.
“You! You there,” the man called, “Aren’t you Kyle Abbott? Wow. Finally, the future Dragon Lantern right before my eyes. Do you know that you, we, are going to be famous some day? I know because I’m from the future. In fact, I’m you from the future. Listen, I can prove it!”
All Rights Reserved © 2016 John J Vinacci