Monday, January 14, 2008

A Shark's Tale

Something different this week. An online group I'm in is trying to put together an anthology of new stories about old comic book characters. I submitted this one. When I realized that it had some of the mythological and philosophical elements we discuss on the blog, plus a dash of Richard Bach, I decided to post the story here.

This is a first draft, and there's no assurance the project will get off the ground. The characters are in the public domain as far as I know.

So, for your consideration, "A SHARK'S TALE" starring The Shark and the Magician from Mars:

He awoke with a shudder, coughing and spitting up salty water.

"Sit up, son," rumbled a rough-hewn man's voice. "You'll drown yourself all over again."

At the same time he felt gentle palms resting on his bare shoulder and the back of his neck where water ran down from his wet hair. He was lifted gently to a sitting position. There was a sudden pain in his right side. A hand - definitely not one of the soft ones that had helped him up - pounded his back heavily and he coughed again, but no more of the ocean poured out.

He noticed his nakedness except for a pair of latex trunks. "Where's my wetsuit?"

"Had to remove it," the man's voice said. "Too much blood."

"It was necessary, in order to treat the wound." The second voice was a woman's, calm, confident, reassuring. Just listening to her, even before her words sank in, made him feel like everything was all right.

He looked up for the first time. The man leaning over him was also in swim trunks, but he did wear one other thing. A mask. A freaking mask. It was a silly thing to have on in the middle of springtime, nowhere near Hallowe'en even if they celebrated it in this country. Somehow, though, it didn't look silly on him. It was somehow impressive, like an aquatic Lone Ranger. The man had a full, though not long, beard shot through with iron grey.

When he turned to look at the woman beside him his side flared in pain.

"Ahhh! Hell! What was that?" He leaned to take the weight off his side. "What took a bite out of me?"

"Tuna fisherman," the masked man said with a slight smile.

Zak paused. Memory lost to the blur of pain swam back. Yeah. The fishing boats. We were ... where's the rest of us? Fear left his tongue suddenly dry. "Haddie ... Karl ... Allie ... "

"We'll take care of them," the man said. "We brought you here because you needed treatment and ... we have something to tell you. You took a spear in the side."

He sensed more than felt the woman's light touch on his shoulder. He turned just his head this time to protect the side that hurt.

" ... because you stayed to defend your friends," she told him. "It was a very noble thing to do."

He didn't quite register her words because her face had caught him from the moment he saw her. She was beautiful in earthy and unearthly ways at once. Her dress was exotic.

"Are you all right, Zak?"

"Hah!" came from the masked man. "She still doesn't know the effect she has on people. Especially boy people. Sorry, son."

The use of his name had snapped Zak out of it. "How do you - no, who are you people?"

"Ever hear of The Shark?" the man asked in a slightly offended tone.

"You're The Shark," Zak stated with a yeah-right inflection. "The Shark is a myth, a seagoing urban legend."

The man shook his head ruefully. "I wasn't a legend during the war. A mystery man, sure, but everybody who read the papers or watched the newsreels knew about me. The enemy sure knew The Shark! I messed up Nazi and Japanese naval plans pretty good."

"The Shark. Is real."

"Course, I've been under a lower profile since then. Myths tend to fade when people stop believing. There's been a distinct lack of mad scientists and Martian invasions these days, and the latest war ... let's just say deserts aren't my area of operations." The Shark - against his stubborn will, Zak was starting to accept him as that - paused in what seemed like a haze of nostalgia. "But I keep busy. There's still crime on the seas, pirates, smugglers, whatnot. And shipwrecks and disasters. I was in New Orleans helping survivors, but I got a lot of dirty looks because I hadn't averted Katrina. Some even blamed me for her."

"Huh," Zak responded. "Even The Shark can't be everywhere." He continued to amaze himself, but somehow there was no doubt left in him that this man was The Shark. The freaking Shark!

He turned carefully to the woman, who now knelt beside him. "And who's she - Super Ann?"

"She's our Martian invader," The Shark rapped, with only a glint in his masked eyes betraying his humor. "They make 'em cuter these days."

"Shark!" the woman reprimanded. To Zak, "I should heal you now."

Zak glanced at the red-soaked dressing on his side. The red was deepening, and he felt dizzy. The pain was like fire when he shifted even slightly.

The woman was looking calmly at the wound. She didn't do much, just sort of waved her hands at it. Zak couldn't help staring at that amazing face and form, so intent on her that he didn't even feel the pain ... No. Wait. He DIDN'T feel any pain. It was gone and he barely even remembered it. He looked down and saw his own intact, bare flank.

"The dressing's gone," he murmured. He seemed more surprised at that than the raw, bloody wound being completely healed.

"I'm not a Martian invader," the woman said with tolearnt amusement. "You probably don't know me, my career on Earth was even shorter than The Shark's. I was the Magician from Mars ... ?"

Zak gave her a blank look. She laughed.

"Never heard of me, huh? I had to return to Mars in the early forties. Trouble with the green Martians. My sister was instigating again. I had to enlist the aid of my ... " Her face lit in a radiant grin. " ... finny friend here; he'd fought green Martians on earth before."

Zak looked even blanker after the explanation. "Your sister is a green Martian? You're not green. Unless that's 'green' as in ecologically friendly, am I babbling?"

"Oh, no ... There are two species on Mars, not just one human race with minor differences like on Earth. The greens are a whole different branch of evolution. They tried to invade Earth in the forties, but The Shark stopped them. My sister, who goes by The Hood, was a revolutionary among the human Martians. She tried to enlist the greens to her cause. Am I going too fast for you?"

The Martian woman paused. Zak was trying his best to take all this in.

"I was born Jane Gem35. My father was Martian and my mother was Earth human. Somehow their combination of genes plus exposure to a certain ray gave me the ability to ... alter reality. Like magic. I put down my sister's plans on Mars, then visited Earth and helped in your World War II. When she returned from the 'dead' and joined with the greens I went back."

Zak looked from The Shark to the Magician from Mars. "Wait, wait! There's no life on Mars. The Mariner probes - "

Jane smiled. "Alter reality?"

"Oh. Yeah. So, the greens are evil?"

"No ... oo ... " the Magician replied softly. "Most greens and humans are decent, peaceful people. As with certain groups like your Muslims on Earth, a few crazy radicals give them a bad name. The worst thing such zealots do is not their acts of violence, but the hatred they brew among peoples who would otherwise be friends. But we've settled all that since the forties: Mars is at peace now."

Zak was rubbing his soggy hair, feeling his scalp for bumps. Nothing. Maybe he wasn't suffering from a concussion.

Okay. This was real. But there were other realities too. Nasty ones.

"Haddie ... my friends," he grated. "They ambushed us. Spear guns and hooks! They were going to kill us."

"You were protesting the slaughter of dolphins," The Shark said.

"Peacefully," Zak amended. "We were unarmed."

"Of course," the Magician from Mars said levelly. "And you were doing more good than you know. Dolphins are as sentient as we are! But to the fishermen they are dumb animals, and their livelihood is in their catch."

"They shouldn't be allowed to kill sentient beings!" Zak interrupted. "Liveelihood or no livelihood."

"We're with you," The Shark said, arms folded over his chest. "Protector of the seas and all. The fishing crews were trying to scare your people off. Once it gets out of hand, violence likes to escalate. I don't know what set if off, but you took the first spear."

Zak looked shocked.

"When you spouted blood and fell into the sea ... well, they're rough men and they won't want witnesses."

"Did they - ?"

The Shark cut him off grimly. "Nobody did anything since you disappeared, thanks to Jane."

"I suspended time," the Magician said almost in embarassment. "But when I let it go again, they'll try to silence them."

"But you're gonna save them, right?"

"No," said The Shark.

"You are," said the Magician from Mars.

Zak was getting tons of experience practicing his blank stare.

"Tell him!"

The Shark unfolded his powerful arms. "I'm getting old. Did you ever hear how I became The Shark?"

At Zak's head shake he went on.

"There's been a Shark since there were oceans. Neptune selected the first one. Since then - "

"Neptune," Zak stated.

"Neptune." The Shark nodded. "Since then when a Shark is ready to retire, he assumes the role of Neptune and picks the next Shark. I got selected in 1939 and I've been going since then. Fighting Martians, sea monsters, looney scientists, dictators, pirates, disasters. I'm ready to neptune out."

"Oh, great," Zak muttered. "And I'm the Chosen One. The Buffy of the Seven Seas."

It was the Martian woman's turn to try on a blank gaze.

"Cultural quip," The shark said wryly. Back to Zak, "We picked you because you are already started. You love the seas. You fight against the polluters and slaughterers of sea life."

"But not wearing a mask and ... and swim trunks, and bashing heads! I'm not exactly a man of action."

"No," mused The Shark. "You are a man of learning. You know science and technology and legalese, and you have thev guts to take on the people who'd spill them for you. The big monsters these days are the pig-headed politicians and the greedy conglomerates that'd despoil the seas, and the world, for profit."

"Don't rant," shushed the Magician from Mars. To Zak, "That makes you the perfect Shark."

"With a few super powers tossed in," The Shark grinned.

Zak stared sharply at him. "Super powers like what?"

"Your basic defender of the deep tricks. Breathing under water of course. Strength, super-fast swimming, commanding sea creatures, teleporting from one body of water to another."

"You're kidding."

"Nope. All you leave behind is a little puddle of water."

Zak shook his head in disbelief, not at what The Shark said but at the ease with which he was accepting it.

"So are we gonna rescue my friends now or what?"

"I thought we'd take you to the Shark's Teeth - "

"Shark's Teeth."

"Your new domain, son. Give you a few months' training, then Jane'll let time go, you teleport in and - "

"Hold it. Training, that's fine, super powers good too, the whole Shark gig sounds decent, but how am I supposed to concentrate on training when my friends are in danger?"

"Time is stopped!" The Shark repeated, exasperated. "You could train for years and they'd still be safe until she sets it in motion again."

"Shark," the Magician soothed. "He's right. We can't expect him to focus until he knows his friends are safe." She looked at Zak. "I can send you to them now. Are you ready?"

"Doesn't matter!" Zak rapped. "Do it."

"I will. But not as Zak." She raised an arm in his direction.

Zak didn't feel a thing, but when he looked down he saw himself wearing the costume of The Shark. He lifted his hands, felt the blue mask across his face. He did seem stronger, more powerful. He stared at his hand, flexing his fingers. They were webbed.

"I'm going to transport you now," the Magician warned. "Shark and I will teleport ourselves. Go!"

And Zak saw blue ocean over his head and darker blue below him. He had no difficulty breathing. He hurled himself at the surface above and came bursting out of the sea in a spout of water, to the scene he last remembered.

Twilight. Haddie, Karl and Allie were on a slime-slick rocky point above a sudden fall to the sea. A motley mob armed with spearguns, pikes hooks and scowls faced them. The fishermen had come around the point on some tall rocks that jutted from the deep below them.

Everybody's eyes turned to the sudden sound from the sea. The wave from zak's appearance washed them with salt spray. One of the fishing crew pointed a shaky arm at him and yelled, "Oceaan duivel!"

Zak astounded himself by plummeting down onto the rocks in front of the fishermen and landing on his feet without losing his balance.

"Back off," he said calmly. "There's no need for violence. The guy you hit with the spear is all right and he's not going to be pressing charges."

The mob roiled in anger and confusion.

He heard Karl yell, "They don't understand you!"

"I can tell them!" Allie cut in. She shouted something that sounded like gibberish to Zak, but he remembered that she knew the local language.

Her words didn't seem to impress the seamen. They waved or aimed their weapons. Zak tensed. He fixed his gaze on the angry fishermen and noticed something in the water beyond them.

Fins. Real shark fins. The fishermen were on a lower strand of rocks that the sea water lapped against. The sharks circled just beyond the rocks. Zak wondered. He couldn't summon sharks. Yet. The Shark and the Magician from Mars must be around here someplace.

"They may not understand us," he said over his shoulder. "But they'll understand them." He pointed behind the mob's backs.

Yells of terror and anger erupted from the men. The rocks trailed back away from Zak and his group into shallows and then sandy shore, and the fishermen scrambled for it.

They halted on the safety of the sand and threw vile looks and curses back at him. Then they bran, vanishing around the rock precipce.

Allie retained enough composure to yell, "Where's Zak? Who are you?"

"Zak's fine. He'll be away for a while. I ... had to take him to a treatment center, he'll contact you when he's able."

"But who are you?" Karl demanded.

Zak wished he had a silver bullet or a shark's tooth to hand them. "You ever hear of The Shark?"

"The Shark? The folk hero from the forties?" Karl answered.

"No!" Haddie and Allie replied almost in unison.

Zak tensed himself to dive. He waved a half salute at the group and said, "You will."

He hit the sea feeling more at peace than ever in the green-blue depths. Glancing about on a whim he saw The Shark swimming powerfully at his right side and the Magician from Mars encased in a transparent shimmering sphere to his left.

The Sharks Teeth turned out to be a series of interlocking underocean caverns where Sharks were trained and based. They emerged into dry air inside the caves.

"You two are dripping," the Magician frowned. She waved her arm and they were dry.

The Shark looked different. He no longer wore the blue mask but a longer whiter beard and red trunks.

He's Neptune now, Zak thought. God help us, this is all real. He's not The Shark any more, I am.

I'm the freaking Shark.

"Let me get this straight, um, Neptune. You're going to train me to turn into a puddle?"

Neptune laughed. "Takes practice, son. Lots of practice."

Zak looked at the Magician. She was so beautiful but, "Aren't you his age?" he asked. "You look, what, eighteen? Twenty?"

She smiled a little wickedly. "Magic," she smiled.

"How do you do it? Reset reality? Can you train me to do that?"

"I'm afraid not. It's partly in my mixed Earth-Martian DNA. But it's also spomething that your Hindu holy men understand, and your quantum physicists are beginning to. It has to be learned early, before it's too late."

"Too late?"

"Yes." The Magician from Mars sent him another mysterious smile. "Reality can be made and unmade, but you have to start doing the impossible before they tell you it's not possible."

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