Monday, April 11, 2011

Earth-349: The Star-Spangled Kid

Earth-349: The Star-Spangled Kid
by Anton Psychopoulos, Ph.D.

Disclaimer #1 This story is set in a hypothetical parallel world within
the pre-Crisis DC Universe, based on a story in Superman #349, but not
limited by that story or any other.

Disclaimer #2 Some characters appearing in this story are based on
copyrighted characters owned by DC Comics, Inc., Marvel Comics, Archie
Comics and others. Their use here is not intended to infringe or
disparage those copyrights.

Disclaimer #3 This story is not recommended for persons under 18 or the
easily offended, particularly those who are offended by themes such as
transgender, intergenerational dominant/submissive relationships and
alternative medicine.

"Tell me what you don't like about yourself," Doctor Fate invited.

Sylvester Pemberton made a vague gesture, taking in his massive chest,
brawny arms and treetrunk thighs.

"I'm not who I'm supposed to be. I'm not . . . me."

Sylvester Pemberton didn't, it was true, look like a "Sylvester Pemberton".
With his build, his curly red hair and his broken nose, he looked more like
one of the roughnecks who worked on the oil rigs surrounding the city of
Stella, Texas, than he did the man who owned most of them (to say nothing of
an automobile plant, assorted office buildings and a movie studio). He didn't
look like anyone's image of a multi-millionaire, not even a Texan one. He
also didn't look like his own image of himself, and that was what had brought
him to Doctor Fate's office.

"And what can I do to help you become . . . you?" Fate asked.

Nelson Fate, M.D., didn't, in his turn, look much like a student of the
mystic arts. He didn't wear robes, or a tunic, or a turban. He didn't even
wear a medallion or amulet with his conventional blue suit, just a yellow
necktie. He looked more like a youngish physician, which he was.

"I don't know. I guess that depends on what you can do. I mean, you
have a reputation as a miracle worker, but I don't want to presume that you
can just wave a pointer over me and turn me into Jayne Mansfield. I'd
settle for being able to live in my skin."

Fate nodded.

"I'm glad to hear you say that. I find that my patients tend to be more
satisfied if their expectations aren't too specific. Not necessarily too high
-- often I can give them more than they were hoping for -- but if, say, someone
has their heart set on a crock of gold, they wind up disappointed when I hand
them a shoebox full of stock certificates."

Pemberton nodded.

"At this point, I'd be satisfied with any outcome that leaves me feeling like
I'm not stuck for life in some sort of masquerade costume.

"I've tried to reconcile myself to being a man. I've tried to be good at it,
get all the pleasure I can out of being this big strong fast healthy stallion.
I've played sports, driven race cars and worked on them, loved women, built up
my business until it seemed silly to want to make any more money. I did all
those things well, and enjoyed them, but I was living someone else's life.

"So finally I decided that if I really, truly was a woman inside, I needed to
be a woman on the outside. But, well, you can imagine what the doctors told

"Too tall, too broad, muscles and skeleton too massive."

"Even if they carved and stitched like Doctor Frankenstein, there's no way I
could ever pass for a woman, even an ugly woman."

He sighed heavily.

"Doctor, you're my only remaining hope. If you can turn me into a woman,
fine. If you can cut the woman's heart out of me and leave me feeling like a
man, fine. And if you can't . . . .

"Right now, my only alternative is to just . . . I guess you'd say move on to
my next incarnation."

Fate shook his head.

"As a Lutheran, I'd say nothing of the sort, but that's beside the point.
Let's see what I can do for you."

Fate turned towards one of the white enameled cabinets that lined the walls of
his consulting room, alternating with rude wooden masks and strange elaborate
hangings that reminded Pemberton of the famous Aztec calendar stone. Fate
began removing things from shelves, assembling them on the brushed-steel

"Um, Doctor, could I ask you -- how did you get involved with all of this
stuff? I mean, you used to be a regular doctor, right?"

"An M.D.?" Fate asked, not looking up from his preparations. "I still am, and
I still write plain old prescriptions when I need to.

"But how I started moving outside the mainstream? It was acupuncture."

He pointed over his shoulder to a chart on the wall which showed a human body
patterned in numbered dots and what looked like contour lines.

"Western medicine ignores acupuncture. Just pretends it isn't there. Then
one day, a colleague of mine tried to interest me in it, so I patiently
explained to her that acupuncture was an absurd superstition, that she was
wasting her time chasing after a worthless placebo. I showed her how the
points don't correspond to the layout of the nervous system, or the
musculoskeletal system, the blood vessels, the lymph nodes, nothing.
So obviously, any benefit gained from sticking needles in the points can
only be a placebo, right?

"She was stubborn. What a nuisance. Finally, I challenged her to join me
in conducting a double-blind clinical trial. I began the study with every
confidence I would prove that the so-called acupoints were nothing, that
you could jab a needle in at any random point and get the same results."

He turned back to Pemberton, his fingers carefully measuring an exact length
of red yarn, cutting it with a knife that looked like it was made of silver,
and winding the yarn carefully around some small object. He shrugged

"And guess what? My findings showed quite convincingly that acupressure was
real and powerful. Live and learn."

Pemberton gave another look to the wall hangings, seeing them now as tools of
the trade rather than decorations, or props. He was especially puzzled by a
design of many ellipses, labelled in a rusty brown ink in some alphabet
Pemberton didn't know, annotated in English in pencil: "Raggador (Saturn) . . .
Munnopor (Jupiter) . . . Cyttorak (Mars) . . . Agamotto (Earth) . . . ."

An antiquarian would probably have screamed at the sight of a parchment
centuries old being scribbled on that way, but Fate clearly thought of it as
simply reference material.

"Next, I studied acupuncture from its practitioners, who were happy to tell me
all about the chi fluid flowing through its tubes to each organ of the body.
It all made sense, except that there is no such fluid, and there are no such
tubes. But if you treat a person for impaired chi flow, they get better, even
when it involves flow to an organ like the hara--"

He placed a cupped hand over his abdomen, between his navel and his pubis.

"--which also doesn't exist. It doesn't exist, but you can put your hand
there and feel it. Try it and see.

"From there, I guess you could call it a slippery slope. Homeopathy, remote
healing, voodoo, hoodoo, astral projection . . . . I seemed to have a knack
for these things, and modesty aside, I think I can do about as much in the way
of quote -- 'magic' -- unquote as anyone else between here and Las Vegas."

Pemberton was startled.

"Las Vegas is a center of magic? Real magic, not the stuff on stage?"

"Sorry. I keep forgetting what the mundanes know and what they don't. Never
mind about Vegas, okay?"

Pemberton said nothing, but filed the information away, along with Fate's
second slip in speaking of "mundanes". Doubtless those in the know had
ruder names for the rest of humanity.

Fate finished what he was doing and handed Pemberton a lightweight object
about a foot long.

"It, er, looks just like a Debi doll."

Fate laughed.

"It is. There's no crime in working with convenient materials. A
mass-produced item, new and unused, has very little psychic residue to
contaminate a spell. I often use new jars, books that have never been read,
knives that have never cut, and so forth. If you were to undress Debi there
and pry open the slit in her back, you'd find that lock of hair you gave me,
along with a few other things, including a mint-condition nickel from the year
of your birth. But please don't check. Just take my word for it."

Pemberton nodded.

"Wouldn't want to void the warranty."

He turned the doll in his hands.

"And this will . . . what, exactly? Turn me into a woman? Make me
stop wanting to be one?"

"What it will do, exactly, I can't say. What it will do in some fashion
is heal the division in your spirit. It may make your body conform with
your spirit, or it may set your woman's spirit at peace in some other way."

"'Set it at peace'? That sounds rather . . . ominous."

"I'm not going to lie to you, Mr. Pemberton: I can't say with
certainty what this treatment will do to you. It may very well cost
you something precious -- your manhood, your womanhood, or something
else entirely. Possibly your life, though I wouldn't be offering you
this if I didn't think the chances of that were quite small."

Pemberton set the doll down on the desk in front of him, looking at it
more warily now.

"And how do I use it?"

"First of all, keep it with you at all times. Ideally, carry it in
your hand or in your pocket. Cradle it in your lap. Sleep with it under
your pillow. You should experience some kind of results within 48 hours,
if you're going to. And if you don't, come back in and we can talk about
other treatment options."

Pemberton put on his suit jacket and slipped the doll into the inside
breast pocket. It made a noticable bulge, but not a conspicuous one.

"I haven't worn a shoulder holster in awhile, but I have one. I'll get
it out."

And that was it. Fate advised him to call as soon as any noticable
effects occurred, they shook hands and he left.

The day passed uneventfully, the Debi doll constantly by his side, and
he dutifully placed it under his pillow, the way he had with the china-headed
doll he'd found in the attic when he was five. In a gaudy pair of pajamas
he'd always liked, he went to bed, wondering what he might find in the morning.

In his dreams, he was lying in bed tossing and turning. Mostly it was
his own bed, but sometimes it was some other he'd once slept in, and other
times it was a bed he'd never seen before. Sometimes he was alone, but more
often he felt very crowded. He remembered only on scene among many when he

A voice spoke softly in his left ear, speaking dream gibberish: "As
sure. Simmered at walls are jaunt."

A deeper voice in his right ear answered, "Are jaunt. 'Fess see

Pemberton woke up sweaty and miserable, with an appalling headache and
soreness in every joint. He felt strained, stretched, hollow yet lead-heavy.
He noticed that he was drenched in sweat, and was wearing only the red and
white striped bottoms of his pajamas.

He didn't notice the shower running in his private bathroom until the
water was suddenly shut off. He sat on the bed, facing the bathroom door,
waiting to see what would emerge. He sat there waiting for long enough to
start feeling foolish, and then the door opened.

A young girl, no more than fourteen or fifteen, stepped out in a cloud
of steam. Pemberton's pajama tops, blue with a print of stars, hung on her
like a dress. Her hair was neatly wrapped in a towel, a trick Pemberton had
never mastered, back when he wore his hair long.

"Oh, you're up. Good."

Slim and petite, everything Pemberton had ever admired in a woman, the
girl moved gracefully around the bedroom, assessing its furnishings and
artwork critically.

"Take a shower, you reek."

Pemberton moved to obey, without even thinking about it. In the bathroom he
looked at the pink bar of soap sitting in the dish, then went down the hall to
one of the guest rooms. Its attached bathroom was stocked with unopened
travel-size bars of soap and bottles of shampoo. For some reason, Pemberton
felt a powerful urge to shower with Lifebuoy this morning.

When he came out of the shower, he found the girl talking with his
housekeeper, who nodded rapidly as she wrote down her instructions,
occasionally adding, "Si, si."

". . . make it a Ladyform Sportswoman, size 30A. And a Terpsichore
leotard, size 2, type K, the one with an attached cowl, in the Number Seven
print -- that's dark blue with stars. Terpsichore K-7, size two, got it?
Good. Okay, and then go down the street to Peak Sports and buy three pair of
Long John tights, size small, in red, six pair of whatever socks they have,
also in red, and a pair of Jackie Taylor All Star sneakers, size 5, the
ll-black kind. Not the regular black, the ones where the rubber is black,
too. That's important, the all-black ones, the, um . . . ."

"Monochrome," Pemberton supplied.

"Yeah, good, monochrome. Okay, see ya when you get back."

The woman nodded twice, saying "Si, don~a," and bobbed a rudimentary
curtsey as she left.

Pemberton looked at the empty doorway after his housekeeper was gone.

"She never curtseys to me."

The girl shrugged.

"Guess she just responds well to a confident authority."

Pemberton looked at his unleashed anima skeptically. She clearly
thought very highly of herself.

"Um, hello. Good morning."

"'Morning, Sylvester," the girl said brightly, rising up on tiptoes to
kiss him on the cheek.

"Er, what name should I call you?"

"Call up Tom Troy," she said briskly, naming the senior member of
Pemberton's family law firm, the lawyer he went to for the most personal
matters. "Tell him to find a birth certificate for a girl born thirteen to
fifteen years ago, who died before she was a year old and whose living
relatives, if any, don't live in Stella. I'll be Mary or Courtney or
whatever her name is. And have him write up a petition to name you as my

She actually picked up up the phone and handed it to him. He dialed,
feeling a bit shell-shocked. He'd never liked know-it-all children, and under
normal circumstances he would have given a snip like this one a good talking-to
by now, or maybe even a spanking.

These weren't exactly normal circumstances, though. He made the call,
asking Troy to hold his questions for later.

He dressed, and found her in the kitchen, cooking up a dozen-egg
omelette while his bemused Japanese cook made waffles. He suddenly noticed
that he was ravenously hungry, feeling as though he had a girl-sized hollow
inside him. His clothes still fit, but he had to fight down an urge to find a
bathroom scale.

It was a good breakfast, a raucous good time, in fact. It felt good to
tear into waffles, slap butter onto biscuits, guzzle coffee and juice. The
girl made jokes about events from their shared childhood, told him her opinion
(sometimes surprising) of his friends and his employees. She seemed to have
all of his memories up until the night before, but definitely had her own
interpretations of things. Perhaps most startling was when she confided that
she thought Dr. Fate was "yummy".

She unwrapped her now-dry hair, revealing that it was a flawless
sweetcorn blonde, almost the same shade as a Debi doll's. That similarity
gave him an uneasy feeling that softened when he remembered that it was
also the color of his mother's hair.

The housekeeper returned with her arms loaded with shopping bags. The
girl took them into a guest room and emerged in a startling skintight
outfit in red white and blue.

"Well, Syl, what do you think?"

He chuckled.

"Well . . . you look like a superhero, more than anything else."

"Well, duh, that's because I am a superhero. I'm the Star-Spangled
Kid. You're going to be my sidekick Stripesy."

Pemberton shook his head, smiling.

"Look, that sounds like a lot of fun, but --"

"It's what we're going to do, Stripesy. Don't give me a hard time
about this."

Pemberton chuckled again, nervously.

"So, uh, what does a superhero do, anyway?"

"Fun stuff. Wear crazy clothes. Drive high-powered cars.

"Listen, you know how you were thinking about building a really hot custom
car? You should stop putting that off -- we're going to need a really fast,
reliable car. And you can trick it out with all sorts of James Blaise stuff --
bulletproof glass, smoke screen, caltrops and stuff. And stuff that just makes
sense, of course: a first aid kit, a police scanner."

In spite of himself, Pemberton felt a stirring inside. Building a really
spectacular car -- he'd dreamed of it for years. Yet he'd never followed
through. As with so many other things, he'd never been able to apply
himself wholeheartedly. Perhaps his new self could do it. Perhaps . . . .

"Another thing superheroes do: they hang out together. The Avengers have that
mansion in New York, and the Freedom Fighters have that armory in Coast City,
and they're both, like, party land.

"There are four or five other long underwear types in Stella: the Vigilante,
the Crimson Avenger, the Shining Sword, the Spider. Let's have them over to
Stellar Studios for dinner, and see what they think about getting together on
a regular basis. We could have the press in and charge all your rich friends
a thousand bucks a ticket for the Police Survivors' Fund, and afterwards it
can be just us super guys."

Pemberton nodded thoughtfully. The girl's -- the Kid's -- proposal wasn't
totally nonsensical.

"Well, if we were going to do this -- and I'm not saying we are -- that name
Stripesy seems kind of . . .limp. How about Stars and Stripes?"

"Stripesy," she said firmly.

Pemberton sighed.

"How come I can't seem to say no to you?"

The girl smiled, showing a hint of sympathy.

"Probably because I'm so much stronger than you. Remember, I was the woman
in you, your female side, your anima. Every man has that, but if it
hadn't been the strongest part of you, being a man would never have torn
you apart the way it did."

"And now I'm, what, the leftovers? A shell of a man?"

She shrugged.

"I guess you are what you make of yourself, Syl. Same as the rest of us.
Me, I'm busy making something of myself."

Pemberton was silent for awhile, turning the Kid's words over in his head.
He was about to say something when the housekeeper entered, announcing that
Mr. Troy had arrived with some papers to sign.