(I entered this short story in a competition for DemiCon 25 and it won second place! The other entries are available here.)
Greg was buffing the lobby floor when the new volunteer showed up, 20 minutes early. The volunteer was a small, slight man wearing a 3-piece suit and matching overcoat. He walked with an air of confidence that betrayed his unimposing appearance.
Greg turned off the floor buffer and went to greet him.
“Hello there! My name is Greg; I’m the lead Patient Care Assistant in the long-term care wing.”
“Something like that. You must be Mr. Maclaren.”
“Dr. Maclaren. You can call me Paul.”
“Oh, you’re a doctor. What kind?”
“I see. Well, this is a purely non-medical position, Paul. You’ll just be interacting with the patients on a personal level, one-on-one. The director mentioned that you’re interested in dealing with one resident in particular?”
“Yes, the anonymous patient.”
Greg perked up. “Oh? That’s excellent. He never gets any visitors.” He looked around to see if anyone was watching, even though the lobby was completely empty. “But we’ll have to talk about it first. Let’s go to my office.”
“Lead the way.”
Paul followed Greg into a cramped side office that doubled as a utility closet. Greg shut the door behind them and sat down on the metal folding chair next to the card table that functioned as a desk. Paul sat stiffly on one of the two metal chairs on the opposite side.
Greg cleared his throat and spoke. “The patient you want to work with isn’t actually anonymous. In fact, we know exactly who he is.” He looked around again. When he was satisfied that no one was hiding between the mop and a rack of industrial chemicals, he continued. “It’s Magna Man.”
“Yeah. He ended up here after a traumatic brain injury.”
Paul raised an eyebrow. “I thought Magna Man was supposed to be invincible.”
“So did he, until he hit the pavement going Mach 10. Headfirst. After that, his thoughts got a little jumbled.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of a long story. It all started with that accident. He landed in the middle of Times Square during a routine battle with some fusion-powered robotic weapon crafted by Professor Whatshisface. You know, the bad guy.”
“Right. Despite his head injury, Magna Man managed to destroy the weapon and fly away.”
“They said on the news that he had finally decided to leave the planet for good.”
“That was a cover-up. A couple of hours after he flew off, some teenagers found him at a nature park in Albany. He was stumbling around and knocking over trees, so they called the police. The army dispatched a helicopter and flew him out to Fort Drum.”
“Did they find out what was wrong with him?”
“No, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The doctors didn’t have any way to take tissue samples and none of the medical scans could penetrate his skull. X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasound were all totally useless. No one had any idea what was going on inside his head. The doctors didn’t know what oral medications would work, if any, so they just tried to keep him comfortable and well-fed. Once his condition deteriorated even more, they announced that he had left the planet. Then, after a few more days, he stabilized and began to recover. I guess they don’t call him superhuman for nothing.”
“I take it there were repercussions from the injury?”
“Big time. When he woke up, he was extremely confused and couldn’t even speak. He had lost a lot of his motor coordination and didn’t seem to understand people when they talked to him. No one was sure what to do, and things had gotten dangerous.”
“Because of his super strength?”
“Right. They didn’t have to worry about it when he was unconscious, but once he could move around, he started breaking things and hurting people.”
Greg backtracked when he saw the look on Paul’s face. “I mean, it wasn’t intentional, and none of the injuries were too serious.” He sighed. “Well, one of the nurses became paraplegic, and one of the doctors lost his right arm past the elbow.” He shrugged. “The army knew they needed help, so they tried to calm him down and brought him here in a heavily armored van. We’re used to dealing with traumatic brain injuries, so we made some progress with him. After a few rough weeks, he started to relax and get along. He’s been here for about six months now.”
“How bad is he? Will he ever get back to fighting crime?”
“I doubt it. He’s functioning at a very basic level, but we haven’t seen much evidence of higher brain activity. He still can’t speak. The good news is, he’s fairly docile, and he gets along with the staff and other residents. He also seems to be more aware of his strength, so there haven’t been as many accidents lately.”
“I see. Is he mostly self-sufficient? Can he take care of himself?”
“For the most part. He feeds himself and he’s toilet trained.”
“That’s good to know. I was afraid he might be wearing a diaper or something.”
Greg looked sheepish. “He does wear special undergarments, just in case.” He cleared his throat. “It’s not usually a problem, though.”
“Right. So what does he do with his time?”
“The staff conducts several activities with the residents: arts and crafts, stories, group meals, and special events. He watches a lot of TV.”
“I can imagine.”
“Anyway, I’m really glad you’re here. All the other patients have friends and families who visit, but obviously, Joe doesn’t. We only call him ‘Joe’ because it’s one syllable and he responds to it. We’re not sure who he really was. After all, his identity was a secret, and nobody ever came looking for him.”
“That doesn’t give you many options for eventually releasing him.”
“Yeah. As far as we know, we’re taking care of him indefinitely. The army decided to pay him a monthly stipend for services rendered, and we put that towards his expenses. We write off the rest as a charitable donation.” Greg stood up. “I guess that’s everything you need to know. Are you still willing to work with him?”
Paul got up and nodded. “I think it will be an eye-opening experience.”
“Good! I’ll introduce you. You can take this chance to get to know one another, and if you’re willing to keep working with him, we can arrange for regular visits.”
Greg led the way out of the office closet and walked down to an open door at the end of the hall. He knocked on the door frame and went in. Paul followed him inside.
Joe’s room was spacious but spartan. He had a small bed, a coffee table, two easy chairs, and a wide-screen plasma television. The other walls were adorned with a few poorly colored drawing pages and several large holes in the drywall.
Joe was sitting in one of the chairs. The media always said Magna Man was 6’5” and weighed more than 300 pounds, but in person, he seemed even bigger. Despite his size, he wasn’t at all intimidating, in part due to his vacant smile and the plaid flannel pajamas he wore.
Greg turned off the TV and said, “Good afternoon, Joe,” speaking slowly and distinctly.
Joe looked at him and smiled.
“This is Paul,” Greg continued. “He’s going to be coming by once in a while to hang out with you.” He turned to Paul. “I don’t want him to get too overwhelmed, so I’m going to leave you two alone for a bit. Are you comfortable with that?”
“I’ll be fine,” Paul said.
As Greg walked out, he said, “I promise that you’ll be perfectly safe, but I’ll be waiting in the lobby if you need me.”
Paul made sure he was gone, then sat on the easy chair across from Joe.
“Hey there, Max,” he said. “I suppose I should call you Joe, since that’s what they’re doing. You probably don’t remember me, but my name is Dr. Megalo.” He looked around. “I’ve known you were in here for a couple of months now.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to think when I found out. When I first heard you had left the planet, I considered it a victory. Humans would be free to act however we liked without you pushing your morality on us.” He sighed. “The problem was, it didn’t fit the profile. You’d never abandoned anything before, especially not after such a minor scuffle. I had to be sure, so I looked into it. Once I realized the military was involved, I started searching their records. Oddly enough, it was a so-called ‘accounting error’ that led me to this facility. And here you are.”
Joe had stopped trying to listen and started staring off toward the door.
Paul stood up and looked back to make sure no one was there, then took a flashlight out of his coat. “You know, I never understood how you wore a costume without any pockets,” he said. “Now, let’s have a look at you.”
He walked over and shined the light into each of Joe’s eyes. “Irregular pupillary response,” he said. “Unequal pupil size.” He snapped his fingers on either side of Joe’s head. “Left ear less responsive. Could be tinnitus.” He held up his index finger. “Can you touch my finger?” Joe reached for his finger and missed, then tried again and touched it. “Good. Can you touch your nose?” Joe managed to touch his nose on the third try. “Good. I certainly don’t want to test your strength or reflexes, but your muscle tone looks good.”
Paul sat back down. “Well, a human with your symptoms would likely have suffered from severe cerebral hypoxia or a cerebral hemorrhage, probably both.” He shook his head. “Even though you look completely human, your physiology still baffles me.”
Joe nodded politely, but clearly didn’t understand.
“You might be surprised to find out that I collected samples of all your bodily fluids last year. Saliva, mucus, tears, urine, feces, earwax. Even semen.” He chuckled. “That was an interesting mission.”
Joe smiled at the laughter.
“I thought those tissue samples would help me understand you, but they were useless. Your DNA is completely alien. I had nothing to compare it with. I could have asked for help, but it would have taken a team of scientists years to figure it all out, and I had to work alone, for obvious reasons. Everyone thought you were invincible, but it turns out an indestructible brain can be damaged by bouncing around in an indestructible skull. I wish I could take credit, but it was a complete accident.”
Paul stood up and took a few more items out of his pockets, including an oxygen mask, a plastic hose, and a small gas canister. Joe watched, transfixed.
“No, my plan was a bit more sophisticated,” Paul said. “It hit me after I thought about all the times I saw you catching your breath after one of my machines struck you. You might have been impossible to hurt, but you gasped for air just like any human would. I was still trying to figure out the details when you had your little accident.”
Paul attached the plastic hose to the mask and the gas canister.
“This is argon gas, Joe. It’s completely odorless and tasteless, but it’s heavier than air, so it will sink into whatever your body uses for breathing and displace all the oxygen. You won’t notice anything; you’ll just fall unconscious and asphyxiate. You probably would have objected to this in the old days, but now I doubt you’ll have anything to say. Besides, it’ll put you out of your misery.”
He finished securing the hose and took a second oxygen mask out of his coat.
“If you’re nervous about the mask, I brought an extra one for me. It won’t have any argon, but at least you won’t be alone.”
He put on his own mask first, then Joe’s. Joe smiled at the game they seemed to be playing. Paul reached for the canister of argon, but before he could pick it up, Joe took a tiny silver robot out of his shirt pocket and handed it over. Paul looked at the toy and froze.
“This is the Violator Mark II.” He looked at Joe, who was still smiling beneath the mask. “They make toys based on my machines?”
He sat back down and took his mask off. Joe mirrored his actions, taking off his own mask.
“They think it’s just a game,” Paul said. “They must think I’m some kind of cartoon character.” He held up the robot. “This machine took nine months to construct. The original version took six months.” He shook his head. “You destroyed it in 25 seconds.” He sighed. “This one was just supposed to subdue you. I only decided to kill you after you threw a school bus at it. There were kids in that bus, Max.”
Paul dropped the toy on the ground. Joe frowned.
“I suppose if the toy companies knew what I looked like, they’d make a little version of me, wearing a cape, rubbing my hands, and twirling a handlebar mustache.” Paul stood up and started putting the equipment back in his coat pockets. “I don’t need to kill you, Joe. I already put you in here.”
He started to walk out, but Joe picked up the toy and stumbled across the room after him. Paul turned back. Joe handed him the toy with a concerned look on his face. Paul sighed and put the toy in his coat pocket. Joe smiled broadly and grabbed him in a bear hug, managing not to use too much of his superhuman strength. After he let go, he walked over to the TV, turned it on, and sat down. He waved goodbye as Paul left.
Paul tried to get out of the lobby as quickly as possible, but Greg noticed him anyway. He stopped buffing the floors and walked over.
“What did you think?” Greg said. “Are you going to come back?”
Paul looked at him. “I think so,” he said, “but I’m not ready just yet.”
“I understand. Call us again if you change your mind.”
Paul nodded and walked out. Greg turned on the floor buffer yet again and whistled Magna Man’s theme song as he worked.