Man And Superman
A moral story for our times, with passing acknowledgement to G. B. Shaw
“Wake up! I heard something outside.”
George eased himself over, turning from his side onto his back. His wife Martha was a notoriously light sleeper, having once woken at the sound of a fieldmouse cautiously making its way across their wooden bedroom floor. He kept his eyes shut, hoping she’d forget about whatever it was and let him go back to sleep.
“Get up and see what it was.”
He maneuvered himself reluctantly out from underneath the blankets and shivered a little as his feet touched the wooden floorboards despite the fact they were only slightly cool. It was, after all, nearly summer and a warm breeze was blowing in through the wire mesh of the open window. He made his way over and peered out into the darkness. To his surprise, even with his vision still blurry from sleep, he could see a huge crater just south of their vegetable garden and in the middle of it all a strange green glow.
“What do you see?” Martha’s voice was, as always, lively and inquisitive. George wondered why, as she was the one with an excess of energy, it was always him who had to get up in the middle of the night.
“Not sure,” he mumbled, because he wasn’t sure. If one of the neighborhood kids had driven a pickup truck and crashed into the fence surrounding the vegetable garden there’d be wreckage and besides, a crashed pickup wouldn’t make a deep crater like that. He rubbed his eyes and bowed to the inevitable.
“I’ll get my clothes on and go see what it is.”
Martha sprang out of bed, still lithe at the age of forty-eight, and joined her husband at the window.
“Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed, “what in the good lord’s name is that?”
Instead of replying, George shuffled over to the dresser and began pulling out his overalls.
Minutes later, George and Martha stood on the rim of the crater and peered down at the glowing object. It looked like a huge silver-green egg.
“What sort of a bird would lay an egg that big?” Martha mused, half as a joke and half in perplexity.
“Maybe it fell off an airplane,” George answered. “Probably some military thing. Ten to one we’ll have the Army or the Air Force or some goddamned group here, ordering us around, telling us nothing happened, or locking us up in case we tell the neighbors. Hell, they’ll probably lock up the neighbors too.”
Martha put one arm around her husband’s waist. She felt a tremor of unaccustomed anxiety ripple through her. They’d lived on the farm since their marriage, the farm George had inherited from his parents when they’d died in that awful crash. For thirty years the farm had been their refuge through good times and bad. And now there was a huge green metallic egg right next to the vegetable garden.
“Do you think we should touch it?” she asked.
George shook his head. “Nope. Best leave it alone.”
“But what if there’s somebody inside and they need our help?”
“Most likely some damn tomfoolery machine, if you ask me,” he replied. “I’m not going near it.”
Martha had just opened her mouth to suggest they poke it with a broomstick when their discussion was interrupted by a hatch appearing on the side of the egg and beginning to open. The married couple stared in silence as the opening grew larger and larger. Finally they could see inside. In the very center of the egg, bathed in luminous green from every direction, lay a baby.
“George!” Martha exclaimed. “It’s a baby!”
Her husband winced. He knew exactly what was coming next.
“We’ve got to save it!”
With only a single deep sigh by means of which to express his feelings on the matter, George accepted the inevitable and began cautiously to make his way down into the crater. As he approached the metal egg he was surprised that he felt no additional heat. Only the silent warm breeze gently caressing his face and bare arms told him he wasn’t dreaming all of it. He stood by the egg, looking in at the baby. The baby turned its head and their eyes met.
“Pick it up, George,” his wife instructed.
He leaned forward and put his hands underneath the baby. He guessed it was only a few weeks old. As he lifted it up, the baby kept its eyes on his, seemingly studying him.
George emerged from the crater with the baby in his arms and moments later the baby was in Martha’s arms and George was following her back into their home. Then she stopped and turned around.
“Why don’t you get a shovel and cover that thing up?” she said. “We don’t want the neighbors thinking we’re letting the place turn into a pigsty.”
The next morning, Martha and George sat at the kitchen table sipping their coffees while staring at the baby who lay swaddled in old blankets on the floor near their feet. Martha was beaming, thrilled at the tiny bundle of life that was burbling happily away to itself.
“Will you look at that!” she said. “Our own little baby.”
George glanced briefly at his wife and then looked down at the coffee cup nestled in his hands.
“I’m not sure it’s our baby, exactly,” he said cautiously.
“Well, who else’s is it?” Martha replied in her best I’m-determined-to-get-my-way voice that George knew only too well. “I’m sure I didn’t see anyone else rescuing it from that, um, thing, last night.” She looked at her husband firmly. “And you did cover it all up, right?”
“Well, there we are then. Our baby.”
When they’d both finished their coffee, Martha got down onto the floor on her knees and sat by the child. For a while she simply gazed adoringly at its face, and then she reached out to touch the palm of one of its tiny hands with her index finger. The baby smiled at the touch and closed its fingers around hers.
Startled by the noise, the baby released her finger and began to bawl. Martha stared at her finger, which was pulsing with pain and bright red. Clearly visible were the indentations caused by the baby’s fingers gripping hers and squeezing with a force that nearly crushed the bones within.
George got up and stood over his wife, looking at her finger with perplexity.
“What on earth…?”
Martha got up and went over to the kitchen sink and began running cold water over her finger, sobbing as she did so from the pain and the shock. George came up behind her and put his arms around her. He didn’t know what to say.
After a minute, he stepped back and then went over to the corner of the kitchen where the broom stood propped against the wall. He picked up the broom and, holding it out in front of him, walked toward the baby. Carefully he lowered the broom-handle until it touched the baby’s hand. The baby stopped crying, surprised by the new stimulus. It looked at the broom handle and then clasped it firmly.
George and Martha heard the crunch-snap as the handle disintegrated in the baby’s grasp.
“George!” Martha gasped, “the poor thing will get splinters!”
George withdrew the remains of the broom handle. The baby opened its hand and a mixture of dust and tiny fragments fell onto the blanket in which it was wrapped. The two adults stared at the open palm. It was entirely unharmed.
George chose his next words carefully: “I don’t think this is your regular kind of baby.”
Martha didn’t reply. She stood nursing her rapidly-swelling finger and staring at the child at her feet. Then she took two steps backward, just in case.
George went to the kitchen cabinet and pulled out a carving knife. Martha stared at him but he shook his head.
“I’m not going to do anything bad,” he said. “I just want to try something.”
Standing over the baby, George placed the tip of the blade against the baby’s right arm, just below the shoulder. Very gently, and then with more force, he pressed the blade into the baby’s skin. Nothing happened. George pressed harder as the baby, intrigued by this new sensation, turned its head to watch. Finally George pressed with all his strength. The blade snapped. The baby gurgled with pleasure, thinking this the most enormous joke.
Martha stared at the broken blade. “Oh my goodness,” she gasped, and then, “George! That knife cost us forty-seven dollars!”
Over the following days, George and Martha tried to find explanations for the baby that had presented itself to them. George favored some sort of classified Department of Defense experiment. Martha favored the idea that the baby was an alien from another planet.
“Any alien form of life,” George patiently explained, “would most certainly not resemble us in any way. We’re the chance outcome of a trillion chance outcomes over three billion years of life on this particular planet. Even with convergent evolution, where the same general traits arise independently many times in order to solve the same environmental problems, there’s precisely no chance whatsoever that an alien species would come in any way to resemble our own.”
Martha had to bow to the logic of the argument, but in her heart she clung to her idea tenaciously. She was even thinking of knitting the baby a little sweater with a large S emblazoned across the front, signifying Space-alien. If George would happen to ask, she would tell him it stood for Sidney, her favorite uncle.
Every day that passed, George woke thinking surely this must be the day when someone would come for the baby and difficult questions would have to be answered. But each day came and passed in turn and no one arrived in black suits and dark glasses, or in military helicopters, or in tanks. Gradually the couple realized that if they wanted to, they could keep the baby as their own. They went into town and registered the baby as a home birth; it thereby acquired a birth certificate and became eligible for a social security number and thus one day would have access to credit cards by means of which to build an all-important credit score by means of getting into improbable levels of debt.
It was Martha who named the baby. Wanting it to be able to keep a low profile, she already had its entire life planned out. It would work in an office, perhaps as an accountant or as some obscure functionary in the Human Resources department of a third-rate county bank.
“His name will be Clark,” she announced on the morning they were due to register the birth. “It’s the perfect name for a white-collar worker.”
“I think you mean clerk,” George corrected her.
“The spelling doesn’t matter,” Martha replied insouciantly. “We live in a country where most people can’t even spell fucktard properly.”
George stared at his wife. For a prim preacher’s daughter, the range of her vocabulary not infrequently surprised him.
And so little Clark became the son of an Iowa farm couple. In order to avoid complications that would likely arise from the fact that by the age of three the child could lift a fully-grown cow with one hand, they home-schooled him. This meant that unlike 98% of his peers, Clark learned to read and write and perform reasonably complex arithmetical operations. The Kents also had to pretend to be anti-vaxxers, as there would be no way to explain a succession of doctor’s needles shattering against the boy’s unblemished skin.
After some experiences with porcelain toilets being destroyed as a result of youthful indigestion and stomach gas, young Clark learned to empty his bowels outside. And after the very tragic incident of the unfortunate cow, Clark learned to look around and make sure no living thing was within one hundred yards of wherever he was pointing his rear end. All in all, however, their lives together were reasonably peaceful and very happy.
Until the day Clark turned six.
For his sixth birthday, the Kents took their young son into Smallville to buy him an ice-cream and go see a movie at the local theater. They’d been into town innumerable times before without incident and young Clark was excited because he rarely got to see popular entertainments. The Kents didn’t own a television set and also unlike every other family in the entire nation they didn’t own a computer. In consequence, Clark entertained himself by reading and imagining stories in his head and by studying because he loved to learn new things. These traits all marked him out as a complete social misfit, destined forever to remain on the outside of contemporary society. But he was too young to know this awful truth and so he was, for the time being, perfectly content.
The Kents were walking down Main Street, young Clark happily licking his chocolate ice-cream cone, toward the cinema building. George was looking in the direction Martha was indicating, toward a cream-colored dress displayed on a mannequin in the window of Smallville’s only clothing store. Three bored-looking teens were loitering outside the boarded-up library, obligatory smartphones in hand. A young mother was pushing her newborn in its stroller across the road. Old Mr Jeffries was making his laborious progress down the other side of the street, bent forward over his walking-frame. It was a warm early summer day in Smallville, just as ordinary as all the days always were.
Looking back on the incident later, Martha recalled how quickly everything happened and yet also how slowly things unfolded. The rusty old red Chevy pickup lurched around the corner onto Main Street and the teen-age driver leaned sideways, disappearing from view. It was later established that he’d dropped a pouch of weed and was trying to recover it from the area under the passenger seat. As a result, he wasn’t aware of the young woman pushing her baby across the road directly in front of his vehicle. According to his testimony given to police after the event, he didn’t even hear her scream.
George and Martha heard the scream, however. As did young Clark. In Martha’s recollection, he dropped his ice-cream cone and a moment later, before the cone had even hit the sidewalk, he’d lifted the truck into the air with his left hand, causing it to flip upward and then over onto its roof. The young woman, paralyzed with fear, stood immobile just a few feet from Clark, staring at him with her mouth wide open. George recovered his wits a few moments before his wife and went out into the street toward the scene of carnage.
“You can put that down now, son,” he said gently. Clark obediently let go of the fender which had come off the truck the moment it flipped, carried up and then over by its own suddenly arrested momentum. George put his arm around his son and hastily they returned to their own old pickup truck and drove home, hoping the incident would quickly be forgotten.
Which most likely would have happened, had it not been for the three young men with their cellphones. One of them, a boy called Steve, had by chance been ironically filming downtown Smallville in order to post the video later on Youtube complete with ironic commentary about how lively and action-packed this tiny corner of Iowa always was. Instead, he found himself with a genuine sensation and non-ironically posted it on every social media account he possessed. For a brief instant, Steve earned enough through associated advertising to pay his way through college. Which he would have done, had he not actually spent the entire sum on weed and beer before he was old enough to sit his SATs.
Two days later, the black SUVs arrived and surrounded the Kent’s farmhouse.
Martha and George were subjected to extraordinary rendition and disappeared into a black site, never to be seen again. Their farmhouse was rigorously searched and then carefully burned to the ground. The official cause was given as an electrical fire resulting from old wiring, a tragedy in which the old couple perished in their sleep.
The video uploaded by Steve to all his social media accounts remained online but critics quickly pointed out the obvious evidence of it all being a deepfake: the blurry image of the supposed young boy, the fact the exhaust pipe of the upside-down Chevy was on the wrong side, and the “easter egg” of a smiley face emblazoned on the side of the stroller in every fifth frame — a detail only noticeable when viewing the replay in ultra-slow motion. Within hours, the wisdom of the Internet labeled Steve’s video an amusing joke and he was offered a part-time gig working for a multiplayer videogame company that went out of business two weeks later when its venture backers realized there was no real market for games featuring 3-d snails laboriously crawling up the side of plaid-covered flowerpots.
The driver of the pickup truck was charged with drunk-driving and sentenced to ten years incarceration in the State prison where his youth ensured he received plenty of attention from older sexually frustrated inmates. The young mother was found to be psychologically unfit, her baby was put into care, and she was transferred to a secure mental hospital and subject to indefinite detention.
Clark himself was taken to an ultra-secure facility where experts drawn from the CIA, the NSA, and Israel’s Kidon unit gathered to interrogate the child. While the Israelis argued for commencing with a psychological approach, they were over-ruled by their US counterparts whose jurisdiction in the matter made their word law. Naturally wanting to go easy on the boy due to his young age, the CIA operatives began with waterboarding him.
Over the following days, Clark was variously shot, electrocuted, gassed, slammed with a huge metal projectile, and blasted by flamethrowers for twenty-two minutes and eight seconds precisely, this being the time it took to consume every last drop of gasoline available. To the consternation of the USA’s brave defenders of freedom, nothing worked. Clark kept asking to see his mom and dad, and kept telling his interrogators that he’d answer any questions they had, but the US security agents knew these were mere ruses. As experienced operatives, they knew better than to fall for the old innocent wide-eyed civilian routine. So they strapped 10kg of C4 against his body and detonated it, sure that this would finally induce him to spill the beans.
After moving to a new facility and burying the agents who’d died in the unfortunate structural collapse caused by the explosion, the next group of operatives elected to try a different approach. They simply asked Clark where he’d come from and how he’d acquired his extraordinary physical abilities. Unfortunately, Clark didn’t know. His parents had never told him about his provenance and he’d never learned of the metallic egg in which he’d arrived. His special powers were as much a mystery to him as they were to everyone else.
So the new group of interrogators changed their tactics and proceeded to waterboarded him, shoot him, electrocute him, gas him, slam him with a huge metal projectile, and blast him with flamethrowers again.
While this was going on, George was already dead. Being waterboarded isn’t for everyone, and it definitely wasn’t for George. His fatal heart attack brought to an abrupt close any chance his interrogators had of extracting useful information from him. Undeterred, they proceeded to electrocute Martha in traditional fashion, with one electrode attached to the big toe of her right foot and the other to her clitoris. After shocking her twenty-seven times (just to be sure), they let her answer their questions. In this way they learned about Clark’s provenance and within hours a special team had located, excavated, and extracted the large metal egg that had brought Clark to his parents six years earlier. Certain that they’d learned everything they could from Martha, she was taken to a small cell and executed as a traitor to her country, after which her body was cremated and her ashes scattered over the Atlantic Ocean.
For weeks afterward, government scientists sworn to secrecy used every tool at their disposal to study the metal egg, which had long since ceased to glow. It took the scientists two weeks to open the hatch, as it had re-sealed after the baby had been removed. Hoping to see all sorts of exciting controls and instruments within, the team of scientists were deeply disappointed to find nothing whatsoever except for the blanket in which the baby had been wrapped. Aside from some curious features of the weave, the fibers were not miraculous but simply a polymer that any Earth laboratory could have manufactured. There was nothing inside the egg to hint at its provenance.
Nor did the egg itself provide many clues. It was comprised of an alloy unknown to the scientists but none of the elements of the alloy were unusual: just carbon, platinum, and titanium. Eventually the team was able to cut a small hole in the egg using a high-powered laser, but the shell was the same all the way through. In the end, they concluded it was simply a storage module of some kind, equipped with a life-support system but no propulsion, guidance, or anything else. Whatever transported it to Earth was doubtless long gone.
With a vague sense of failure, the team of eminent scientists submitted their ultra-secret classified report. By a series of extraordinary coincidences over the following weeks all the members of the team suffered fatal car crashes, heart attacks, scuba-diving accidents, and one choked to death on an extra-sticky Chinese rice ball. Everyone agreed that such a run of coincidences, while highly unusual, was just about statistically plausible and that was the end of all discussion of the matter.
Clark, by now the subject of bureaucratic rivalries involving all the various US government agencies and military organizations, was after much dispute transferred into the care of the US Army where he was subjected to an extensive re-education program intended to turn him into a true American patriot. His instructors began by explaining what a dangerous and perfidious world he lived in, and that only the USA stood alone as a shining beacon on a hill, possessed of virtues such as freedom and democracy. All other nations were actual or potential enemies. The Army instructors then proceeded to enumerate the most dangerous of these enemies, beginning of course with the French, otherwise known to all true American patriots as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
The intention, formulated at the highest echelons of government, was to transform the young boy into a deadly weapon who could be pointed at whatever future foes the USA would need to manufacture for the sake of domestic popularity. To this end, Clark was shown countless images of horror, some of which weren’t even the result of US actions. His instructors were hoping to desensitize him to human suffering, the better to enable him to inflict it on others when the time came for positive forward-oriented defensive aggression against whatever enemy had it coming to them this time.
After two weeks of relentless bombardment with propaganda and an endless succession of pictures detailing one inhumanity after another, Clark reached his limit. One night, while his captors were winding down by watching some harmless child pornography and drinking cheap whiskey, he punched his way through the ten-foot-thick concrete wall of his cell and walked to the perimeter fence, 50 caliber rounds bouncing off him harmlessly as sirens wailed and searchlights illuminated his progress. He ripped the electrified fence sufficiently to make a gap through which he could pass, and then he walked through the minefield surrounding the camp. As the mines detonated underneath him they tickled his feet but Clark was in no mood to laugh. He’d seen quite enough to change his mind about the benevolence of the world and specifically of the people who over-populated it. All he wanted was to find somewhere he could rest peacefully before setting off to find his parents. He knew, in his heart of hearts, that once they were reunited, all would be well.
All he had to do was find them.