I opened the window, moved aside, and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb. Splendid Man zoomed into the room before I could count to one.
“What’s the trouble, Will?” he said.
“I lost my damn keys,” I said.
“Where did you last see them?”
“I had them when I drove home after dinner,” I said. “But I can’t for the life of me remember what I did with them after that.”
“That’s easily taken care of, Will. What time did you get home?”
“Well, then, I’ll just fly back through the time barrier and see what you did with them.”
“But Splendid Man, if you tamper with the past, couldn’t that screw up the future somehow?”
“No, Will,” he said. “I’ve tried before to change the course of history, but it just doesn’t work. That’s why I felt confident, for example, in banishing Giganto the Splendid Mandrill to the distant past, knowing that even his great size and Strontiumite vision would have no effect on the millennia to come.”
“Okay then,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
Splendid Man vanished in a blur and reappeared instants later. “Look in the garbage, Will,” he said.
I did so, and sure enough, under the Burger King bag, there were my keys.
“You’d let so much trash accumulate in your car,” said Splendid Man, “that when you carried it all up, your keys got mixed in with it.”
“Thanks, pal,” I said. “Listen, I hope you don’t mind me using my SOS Comb for something this insignificant.”
“Certainly not. Feel free to summon me with your SOS Comb for any reason, not only because you’ve fallen off a tall building, have undergone a bizarre physical transformation, or are menaced by a motorcycle gang. And the same goes for the toll-free number at my Citadel of Contemplation on the moon.”
“Appreciate it, Splendid Man,” I said. “Hey, now that you’re here, can you stay a while? Or do you have to run?”
“Fly, Will. I don’t think I do, but let me take a quick check.” He turned his body in a complete circle, holding his head at an odd angle. “Everything looks fine. There is a comet hurtling toward Earth, but I see that my Canadian pal, Northern Light, is already zipping off to dispatch it with his power medallion.”
“That’s great,” I said, heading for the kitchen to mix a couple of drinks. “Why don’t you take a load off and we’ll talk.”
“I’d love to, Will,” he said. “But on one condition.”
“What’s that, Splendid Man?”
“That you knock off this ‘Splendid Man’ business. Aren’t we good enough friends yet that you can stop addressing me by my title?”
“Sure thing…Cal,” I said with a grin, using the short form of his native Strontiumese name.
When I returned to the living room Cal was sitting on my couch and scanning my bookshelves. He took a sip of his Manhattan and asked, “So, Will, are there any more books you can recommend for me to read?”
“More books!” I said, my mouth agape. Just last week I’d recommended the entire Britannica Great Books series to him. “You don’t mean you’ve already read every volume you were interested in!”
“I’ve already read every volume, Will. Period. Haven’t I mentioned that, in addition to physical Splendid Speed, the argon-tinged atmosphere and lesser gravity of Earth grant astounding mental speed to all Strontiumese?”
He had, in fact, mentioned that, and in precisely those words. But I still couldn’t get used to it. “And I guess Splendid Vision really helps navigate that tiny print,” I grinned.
“That it does,” he said, in complete earnest. “And I must say, I enjoyed every page of every book.”
I was afraid he would say that. Teaching the big lug some discernment was not turning out to be easy. “Okay,” I said carefully. “But surely you must have enjoyed some more than others?”
He took another sip of his Manhattan, a slow one this time, and I sensed him stalling. For the first time I saw nervousness in those glacier-blue eyes. “Well, of course, I’m no expert…”
“Just tell me what you think, Cal. No one expects you to be a connoisseur of literature yet.”
He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “I appreciate that, Will. I’m a bit gun-shy after all the razzing I’ve taken from Catman, that calico-cowled nemesis of crime, about my taste in books. That’s why I value the way you’ve taken me under your wing. Metaphorically speaking.”
I caught a twinkle in his eye. Before he met me, he would never have been talking about metaphors. “Don’t mention it, Cal. I’m so used to loaning books to friends and having them return them months later only half read. It’s a pleasure to have a pal who actually reads what I recommend.”
“Oh, and I’m starting to get a lot out of them!” he said eagerly. “I thought I knew all about truth and justice until I read those Plato volumes.”
“I had a feeling you’d like the Greeks,” I said. “They appreciated the heroic.”
“And what playwrights! I had no idea great literature could be so entertaining. I laughed so hard reading Aristophanes’s Frogs that I would have busted a gut, if my internal organs, like my bodily exterior, were not invulnerable. Do you have anything else by him?”
“I wish I did. But that volume includes all his surviving works.”
“Surviving?” he asked. “You mean some of them have been lost to the winds of time?”
“You could put it that way. All the great Greek dramatists—the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and the comedians Aristophanes and Menander—have been shown to have written far more works than still survive. Ditto for Plato, Aristotle, and the other classical philosophers. One of the great calamities of ancient history was the unexplained destruction by fire of the great library of Alexandria during Caesar’s campaign in 48 B.C., which resulted in the eternal loss of innumerable classics of literature and philosophy.”
“Great Amundsen, Will!” he exclaimed, rising from his seat. “I had no idea! What a tragedy! All those lost works must have been magnificent. One thing I’ve noticed is that those ancient authors never seemed to write a bad book.”
“You said it,” I snorted. “Of course, they were fortunate enough to live in an era when economics and art were in harmony, and an author was encouraged to be true to his vision. They didn’t have to contend with a short-sighted commercial publishing ‘industry’ devoted to snuffing the literary soul.”
“Why, Will,” he gasped, “I’ve never heard you sound so bitter! Have you suffered another setback in your own literary career?”
“You could put it that way.” I explained to him how I’d hit a creative wall in the middle of Chapter 38 of my new novel and how what I’d thought would be the consummation of my years of writing looked doomed to end up as just another item in my trunk.
“Now, Will, you shouldn’t give up so quickly,” he said. “Don’t you think your whole perspective on your work will change once you’ve succeeded in getting published?”
“Published!” I snorted. “What good is getting published if it means betraying my own vision to cater to the blind editors of New York? Even the writers who start out great are seduced into prostituting themselves in this modern world. Look at Norman Mailer! Tennessee Williams! Bret Easton Ellis!”
“But Will. I thought you told me that Bret Easton Ellis has always been bad.”
“That’s beside the point,” I muttered.
He sat back down, took a swig of his drink, and looked at me with grave concern. “It sounds to me, pal,” he said, “as though what you need is some inspiration. Nothing lifts me out of the doldrums of self-doubt like remembering the sacrifices of the great heroes of the past. That’s why I keep life-size statues of Hercules, Samson, and Mother Teresa in my Citadel of Contemplation.”
“It’s different with you. You can defeat Cerebriac as he plunders an alien planet in exactly the way a hero of the past did and people will say, ‘What a hero! Splendid Man is the new Robin Hood!’ If I use someone else’s plot they’ll say, ‘What a plagiarist! Will Jones is the new Jerzy Kosinski!’”
“But Will, didn’t you tell me yourself that every writer draws from the classics? That, for example, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is a Sophoclean tragedy in the costume of the Jim Crow South?”
“Words to that effect, anyway,” I grumbled. “But the last thing the world needs is another reworking of Oedipus.”
“Fair enough,” he said, with a shrewd glint in his eye. “But what if you were to draw your inspiration from a classic that no one else living has read? Say, one of the lost works of the Athenian dramatists?”
“Swell. Except where the hell am I going to read plays that have been lost for centuries?”
“Centuries ago, that’s where!” He grinned and slapped my knee. “Didn’t you say they had them all in stock in the library of ancient Alexandria?”
It took me a few seconds, but then I got it. “Of course! Your Splendid Speed can break the time barrier! You can actually go to ancient Alexandria!”
“Oh, I’ve already gone, several times. But I have to confess I haven’t once stopped by the library. I guess I assumed that since I didn’t reside there, I could never be issued a library card.”
“Then, for heaven’s sake, you’ve got to go read those ancient dramas!” I yelled. “And as soon as you come back to the present you’ll have to stop by and tell me what they’re all about.”
“I have a better idea, Will. We can just zip off to 48 B.C. together and you can have a look around for yourself!”
“Me? Go with you?” I gulped. “But wouldn’t I be…I don’t know…”
“Buffeted to death by the temporal winds that rage along the time stream?” he asked.
“Exactly!” I said.
“Oh no, Will. I wouldn’t let that happen to you. I’ll just wrap you in my indestructible cape, as I do with my pal Bobby Anderssen, that albino cub reporter, take you under my arm, and fly you there safe and sound.”
I jumped to my feet. “Then let’s go!”
Bundled securely in Splendid Man’s cape I was unable to hear, see, or smell the passage of eons as we hurtled back through time. It was a lot like a sensory deprivation tank, only different. Suddenly Splendid Man unwrapped the cape from around my head. The sun glinted on the blue Mediterranean below us. On a small island towered a massive stone structure, undoubtedly the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of ancient civilization. And on the coast a great city came into view: Alexandria herself, center of learning of the Hellenistic world!
Despite the awe-inspiring sights, an irrelevant thought crossed my mind as Splendid Man landed in the great agora in the city center, a thought that I nevertheless felt compelled to voice. “Tell me, Cal, is your hair invulnerable too? I’ve noticed that despite the velocities we attain on our flights, it never looks mussed.”
“Why yes, Will, of course it’s invulnerable,” he replied. “But you must understand that not even invulnerable hair will stay in place against the buffeting it withstands at interstellar speeds. That’s why I use a little dab of Brylcream every morning. It even keeps my forelock in place.”
We proceeded through the teeming city. Even as I tried to soak up every sight and sound around me, I couldn’t help looking ahead for evidence of the great library. My heart was pounding in anticipation of the lost literary masterworks that I, Will Jones, would soon find laid before me. And from those masterworks, who knew what novelistic watershed would pour from my newly inflamed soul and what success would follow? I could already picture myself giving notice at Blockbuster!
“I hope we’ve landed at the right time,” I said. “I’d hate to have come here after the library had already burned.”
“Well, we’ll just have to ask one of the friendly locals.”
“Don’t tell me you speak Ancient Greek.”
“With my power of Splendid Recall, I’m able to be fluent in quite a number of languages, Will. Over six thousand on Earth alone, in fact. And, by carefully manipulating the powers of my Splendid Voice, I’ll make sure to provide translations of everything as we go. I know how uncomfortable it feels to stand by while people converse in a language you can’t understand. That happened to me once with the sponge beings of Procyon 3. Boy, is that a tough language to crack!”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said.
Splendid Man stepped up to a merchant dressed in a toga with a laurel wreath set in his curly blond locks. And sure enough, I heard a simultaneous translation of the conversation as if it were being whispered in my ear. “Excuse me, Citizen,” said Cal, “can you tell two travelers what year this is?”
“What kind of question is that?” responded the merchant. “It’s 48 B.C., of course!”
With a yelp of glee I hurried on, pulling Cal after me.
But as we rounded a corner, the sight of billowing black smoke stopped us in our tracks.
Splendid Man sniffed the air with his Splendid Smell and said, “That’s peculiar, Will. That smells like a gasoline fire to me—and yet gasoline hadn’t yet been refined in this period of history.”
Without another word he caught me under his arm and took to the air. We saw wine-colored flames licking at the marble walls, the broad stairway, and the classical columns of a great building, above the door of which was inscribed, “Alexandria Public Library.” It was too late for even Splendid Man’s powers to make a difference.
Simultaneously, Splendid Man and I spotted a figure wearing a white lab smock and lacking eyebrows, hurrying away with a two-gallon Citgo can clutched in his hand.
“Why, that’s my archfoe, the evil scientist Pox Pascal!” exclaimed Splendid Man. “So he’s responsible for the unexplained destruction of the Library of Alexandria!”
Splendid Man changed direction, but before he could swoop down on the smooth-browed villain, Pascal climbed into a time bubble that he had hidden behind some olive trees and vanished into the time stream. Defeated, we watched the building crumble before our eyes.
“Is there nothing we can do?” I asked.
Splendid Man’s brow was furrowed in thought. “Yes, Will, there is one thing we can do. We can travel a little further back in time and be here waiting for Pascal when he arrives.”
“Great,” I sighed. “And we can go back a little further, can’t we? To give us time to read a few plays?”
“Tragedies, comedies, philosophical dialogues, you name it, pal! And since we’re going back only a short time, we won’t need to take to the air to get there. Borrowing a tip from my friend Quickie, the swiftest man alive, I can vibrate at Splendid Speed and break the time barrier while apparently standing still.”
He took hold of me and vibrated, and I watched the flames die down and the building rise up again before my eyes, as if by a trick of cinematography. Suddenly we were standing before the library in all its splendor. We ascended the stairs expectantly and passed through the mighty doors.
The library was actually only one part of a larger complex called a museum—though “museum” was meant in the ancient sense, denoting an institute of study. There were wings for mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. We passed a botanical garden and a menagerie. The latter reminded me somewhat of Splendid Man’s menagerie in his Citadel of Contemplation, only I didn’t spot any species from other star systems.
Suddenly a sculpture caught my eye. It was of Aphrodite. And brother, anybody who says the ancient Greeks were all gay needs to brush up on his scholarship! I promise you, whoever set his chisel to this honey’s curves wasn’t thinking about Spartan warriors wrestling in olive oil! For a minute I even though of asking if Cal if he knew any Hellenistic dolls he could fix me up with. But then I remembered that long distance relationships hardly ever work out.
Splendid Man, I noticed, had also stopped before another sample of the classical sculpture that decorated the institute. After studying the marble nude of an Olympic athlete, he commented, “The Greeks certainly had a healthy attitude about the body, didn’t they, Will?”
“Great observation, Cal,” I said, and I’ll confess I felt a swell of pride. When the big guy had first asked me to help him become more cultured, I’d had my doubts, but under my guidance he was starting to show sides of himself that I’d never imagined were there.
At last we entered the library itself. We discovered, however, that it wasn’t easy finding the books we were looking for, since the Dewey Decimal System hadn’t been invented yet. Failing even to find an author and title catalogue, we sought out the librarian. An elderly woman in a frumpy toga, her hair drawn back into a bun, sat at the Returned Scrolls counter.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” whispered Splendid Man, once again translating for me as he went. “We’re looking for the later works of the great Athenian dramatists and philosophers of the Age of Pericles.”
“Right this way, please,” she said. She led us down shelves of scrolls arranged into the popular Greek genres: Epics, Odes, Gnomic Elegies, Dithyrambs. She patted a shelf and said, “The Drama section is here. You’ll find Philosophy around the corner, next to Sports Stories.”
We plunged into the scrolls. Going alphabetically, we came first upon Aeschylus. Splendid Man translated the titles from the Greek as he read. “Agamemnon…The Eumenides…. Oh, here’s one that wasn’t in the Great Books, Will. It seems to be a sequel to his Prometheus Bound.”
“You mean…it’s the legendary, lost Prometheus Unbound?”
“Actually, this one’s called Prometheus and the Chamber of Secrets.”
“Wha—?” I exclaimed. “Can you scan it and see what it’s about?”
“I’ll do better than that, Will. I’ll read the whole thing at Splendid Speed and condense it for you.” He flipped through the scroll at a blur and said, “What a clever idea!”
“So what is it?”
“In this one, our plucky Titan hero has to use the magic fire he stole from Zeus to fight an evil wizard!”
“No! I don’t believe it!”
“He’s left the ending open too, so he can continue the series. I wonder if the next one is here?”
“My God,” I said. “That’s…that’s terrible!”
“Well, I enjoyed it,” Splendid Man said. “It’s true that it rambles a lot more than his earlier works, but the characters are certainly endearing.”
“Forget it,” I muttered. “Read something else.”
“Here’s Aristophanes. Goodness, that fellow wrote a lot, didn’t he?”
“Do you see any lost works?”
“I sure do pal,” he said, already speed-reading a scroll. “Wow! I can see you doing something really great with this plot!”
“What is it?”
“It’s called Fast Times at Plato’s Academy.”
“Oh yes! And there’s a hilarious scene where those rascally students wreck Eupolos of Thessaly’s chariot and blame his Olympic opponents!”
“Oh, Lord,” I said.
“What’s wrong, Will? I thought you’d be more excited.”
“Let’s try again,” I said. “I know Euripides won’t let us down.”
Splendid Man looked and said, “Here’s one. It’s called The Phallus Monologues.”
“Gasp!” I gasped.
As he finished zipping through the scroll, Cal’s cheeks reddened in a blush. “This one’s rather daring,” he said. “It’s a series of men talking about their…er…manhoods.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “It ends with a loud dramatization of a orgasm.”
“By the entire Greek chorus, yes. But how did you know?”
“Move along,” I said. “Move along.”
The rest were no different: Menander’s My Big Fat Hellenistic Wedding and Sophocles’s Oedipus III: Revenge of the Sphinx. I crumpled against the shelves in despair. “I can’t believe it,” I moaned. “How could they do it? How could they throw it all away for a quick buck?”
“Will, didn’t you tell me once that all the basic plots of Western literature are contained within the works of the Greek dramatists?” asked Cal. “Couldn’t they just have burned themselves out?”
I glared at him.
“Well, I’m sorry you didn’t find anything to inspire you,” he said. “Maybe we should move to the Philosophy section. Didn’t you tell me there’s always consolation in classical philosophy?”
That I had, and as we rounded Sports Stories and came upon shelves filled to bursting with copious scrolls, I felt my spirits rise a little. For I, Will Jones, was about to become the first modern man—or at least the first modern, non-Splendid-Powered man—to discover the lost works of the men who had forged the consciousness of the West.
“Here’s something by Aristotle I don’t recognize,” he said, unrolling a long scroll.
“Aristotle,” I said in hushed tones. “The greatest mind of the ancient world.”
“Yes. It’s called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Sophists.”
I began to see spots before my eyes.
“Oh, and here’s an interesting one, Will. It’s by a fellow named Heraclitus and it’s called The Same River Never Runs through It. He seems to be trying to explain metaphysics through fly-fishing.”
An anguished groan escaped my lips. “Put it down! I don’t want to know any more!”
“But here’s the Plato section!”
“No, Cal! Don’t look at it!”
“But you love Plato, Will. And here’s one I’ve never heard of before. Don’t you want to know what it’s called?”
I couldn’t help myself. After all, it was Plato, the fountainhead of western thought. “Okay,” I said. “Shoot.”
“Attaboy, Will,” he said. “It’s called Men Are from Athens, Boys Are from Sparta. Would you like to know what it’s about?”
“No!” I screamed. “Let’s just get out of here!”
As I dragged him toward the exit, Splendid Man said, “Aren’t you being a little harsh, Will? Some of those philosophy tips were awfully useful. And those plays were sure entertaining.”
“Catman was right,” I said. “You’ve still got a lot to learn about literature, Splendid Man.”
“But I don’t understand, Will. What exactly is it that distinguishes high art from hack work?”
“It’s not something I can put into words, Cal. Ernest Hemingway expressed it best. He said that you just have to have a built-in shit detector.”
“Will!” exclaimed Cal, aghast. “There are children here!”
He hurried me outside. As we stood on the steps, his splendid nose sniffed the air. “I smell gasoline again,” he said.
“Pascal must have arrived via his time bubble,” I said.
Before the words were out of my mouth, tongues of flame were darting around us. Splendid Man reacted instantly, using his Splendid Suction to rob the flames of oxygen and snuff them. I saw spots before my eyes again, although for very different reasons this time, but then he exhaled and I could breathe again.
Pascal appeared from around the corner of the museum. “Splendid Man!” he gasped. “How ironic that we should meet thousands of years in our past for our final showdown!”
“Fiend!” snarled Splendid Man. “How could you try to deprive the world of one of its great treasure troves of literature?”
“The world will be better off!” hissed Pascal. “If not for me, every classical scholar on earth would be crushed by disillusionment at the spectacle of the world’s greatest writers disgracing themselves! Without me, what would become of the world’s intelligentsia?” With that, he drew a glowing silver rock from under his shirt, tossed it at Splendid Man’s feet, and ran for his time bubble.
I reacted instantly as Splendid Man crumpled groaning to his knees beside me. I hurled the glowing Strontiumite at Pascal. My years as a Little League pitcher paid off, because I struck him smack on the back of his head.
“Good toss, Will!” said Splendid Man as he apprehended Pascal and pushed him into his time bubble. “This will teach you, Pascal, that no matter how well-educated we may be, none of us has the right to decide which books will or will not be read by succeeding generations! That’s the democratic way!”
With one hand, Splendid Man hurled the time bubble into space, explaining, “I’m sending Pascal on a little trip through time and space. Thanks to my Splendid Aim, he’ll materialize back in our own time, orbiting the moon. Later I’ll retrieve him and return him to the maximum-security penitentiary where he belongs.”
As he vanished into the sky, we heard Pascal calling, “We’ll meet again, Splendid Man, for our final showdown!”
Splendid Man turned to me and said, “Although he is a twisted, diabolical genius, Pascal does have a love for the finer things in life. This love has made him a hero on the argon-free planet Poxor where, ironically, I am looked upon as a villain.”
Suddenly the elderly librarian rushed down the stairs, waving a slip of parchment in her hand. “I saw what you did for us, young man!” she said to Cal. “And as a token of appreciation, I’d like to present you with this honorary library card to our wonderful library, the center of learning in the Hellenistic world!”
Splendid Man’s face lit up and he said, “I’m truly honored, ma’am. I’ll give this card a place of honor beside my many trophies of past adventures in my 21st Century Citadel of Contemplation.”
We waved goodbye and Splendid Man flew us to a nearby hilltop for one last look at this glorious city. As we gazed in awe at this monument of civilization, Splendid Man put his arm around me. Suddenly, by an ironic twist of fate, a lightning bolt cleaved the clear blue sky and struck the museum. The great building burst into flames.
Splendid Man twitched beside me, but he made no effort to fly down and combat the blaze.
“Splendid Man!” I cried. “Why don’t you do something?”
“Because it was meant to be, Will,” he said. “As I explained before, not even a Splendid Man can alter the course of history.”
“How tragic,” I said. But I have to confess that I was secretly thinking it was probably just as well. I never would have guessed it could happen, and I certainly wasn’t going to mention it to my heroic pal, but on this one I actually found myself agreeing with the evil Pox Pascal.
Splendid Man looked awfully glum as he wrapped me in his cape for our return to the present. “I hope you’re not too disappointed that this trip to the past amounted to nothing, pal,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll admit that I was at first. But I hope you know that I'm not in this friendship in the hopes of benefiting from your Splendid Powers. It was worth it just to have this time together, even if I am still as stuck as ever on Chapter 38 of my novel.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Will. And I want you to know that, even though my Splendid Powers turned out to be of no use to you, your own splendid knowledge of history and culture was a huge boon to me.”
I didn’t get the chance to thank him for that, because just then his cape closed over my face and we hurtled into the time stream.
When he uncovered my eyes I found us high in the air over San Francisco Bay. Our leisurely flight took us over Telegraph Hill. I would never have thought that it could happen in real life, but as we flew by Coit Tower, a little girl on the top pointed at us and said, “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a U.F.O.!”
“No!” her mother cried. “It’s a weather balloon!”
“No, it’s Splendid Man!” said a man in a business suit. “But who the heck is that with him?”
Splendid Man and I smiled at each other knowingly.