Legion of Super-Heroes: The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of, Chapter 3: Loss of Humanity

by Libbylawrence

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It was true that Mon-El had lived for centuries as a wraith without the ability to touch anyone, but that fate was not so different from the destiny that Drake Burroughs had received. The hero called Wildfire had stark quarters. He needed little in the way of physical comforts, since he lacked any real material form. He was a being composed entirely of anti-energy. He could only approximate a body by residing within a specially designed costume called an ERG suit. He had plenty of the costumes, and they lined one wall within his rooms. He did have other items of furniture for his own use and for the comfort of any guests. He had such items because, while they reminded him of his own altered condition, they also reminded him of what had been, and what tied him still to humanity.

Wildfire no longer had a physical brain, but he still retained sentience and conscious thought. He also had dreams, for his mind could seek repose in such a manner, if only from habit and if only in an entirely illusory way. Thus Drake suffered from a nightmare as well. He remembered his past. He felt all those old pains again. His parents had died when he was a child. He had been given to foster parents to raise, and with certain governmental payments that he was entitled to because of the nature of his public servant parents’ death, he had lived well. He had been handsome and cocky, and he had sought the career of an astrophysicist at Metropolis University. He had also sought the more worldly pleasures of female companionship, and he had found all he could ever want in the dark-haired girl named Kerri. He had ignored the scolding of his professor about his recklessness, because he was young and the other man was old. Drake Burroughs had things to do, and he had plenty of time to do them in as well. That was wrong.

Drake had kissed Kerri, and he had held her. He had felt the warmth of her body next to his own, and he remembered the subtle things about their relationship. He knew her perfume. He had never forgotten it, and it filled his senses in the dream. He gasped with pain as he relived the accident. One slip of his hands had spelled his doom. One careless touch had resulted in the instant destruction of his physical body.

He had not screamed. Oh, he screamed now from memory. The scream was not truly a vocal sound. Wildfire could only speak by vibrating his energy-based composition in a certain manner, and the sound that was produced only mimicked human speech in a frail and unconvincing manner.

But that was not part of the memory. He knew only that in one shocking instant he had lost his life. That was not literally true. He had survived as the being of pure energy. Still, awareness of his altered condition had been far from an epiphany. He had been as one coming out of a dream to find a nightmare. He recalled the expressions of worry and concern on the faces that gazed down upon him when he had first regained some awareness of the world around him following that instant of annihilation.

Professor Vulcan and his daughter Zera had been in the lab when Drake had recovered some form of perception. He had heard the anxiety in their tones, and he had noticed their emotional glances. He felt sorry for them now as he saw it all again. Vulcan had saved Drake by storing his newly altered body in a containment suit. This suit gave him a body of a kind. He could move and handle things, but always beneath or behind a protective covering. The suit of orange and red had a black visor that robbed him of any trace of a face or any ability to display emotions. Still, it was better than nothing, and that thought had been his own comfort as the father and daughter pair helped him realize just what he had lost.

The nightmare was no distortion of the facts. His past had been a real nightmare in and of itself. Still, he felt that old loss stronger than he had in years. He ached with pain and regret. He felt the sting of tears. These sensations weren’t real. They were phantom feelings like those had by soldiers or accident victims from the ancient wars who had lost limbs but still imagined that they felt sensations where only empty space remained. The nightmare caused Wildfire such pain, because it struck at his most vulnerable area. The vision of past loss and pain aimed itself directly at his emotions, and they were all he had left.

He had adjusted to the new existence. He would never call it a new life. He remembered how the original suit had given him amazing powers, including the ability to alter his size. Those powers had never returned after the destruction of that first Energy Release Generator suit. The suit had given him a colorful name ERG-1, and that in turn had eventually altered to Wildfire. The name certainly matched his passion and his temper. He lashed out at those around him. He did so to drive them away. He had always known that he could not afford to care for anyone, since the accident had taken away any means of physically expressing that love.

As ERG-1 he had attempted to join the Legion, but his powers of body alteration duplicated those already possessed by members like Shrinking Violet and Colossal Boy. He had tried to explain to the group of super-teens that he had another power as well, but it could only be used once.

They had rejected him, but he had followed them on a mission to the agricultural world called Manna. There he had used that unique power to save Colossal Boy from death. The power consisted of exploding out of the containment suit as a cloud of pure anti-energy. (*) Oh, he felt that old sensation as he relived that memory. He felt it as if he did not know what it meant. He felt the fear again as he lost the only means of living as a material being again. He later realized that he could indeed exist outside the suit, but was that a blessing or a curse?

[(*) Editor’s note: See “The One-Shot Hero,” Superboy #195 (June, 1973).]

He struggled as his mind became engrossed in the nightmare. He saw the empty void of space. He felt the isolation as he remembered the journey of what felt like one year’s duration as he had crossed space and eventually made his way to Earth. It had been one year without any contact with any living beings. It had been a year without any possible way to reach out to another sentient being. That year had been terrible, but it was not the worst part of his nightmare.

Drake remembered his return to Earth and his effort to make the Legion members realize that he was alive and that he was in need of help. He recalled the inhuman malice of the black-garbed being called the Molecule Master. That android had lacked any semblance of life, yet it had seemed more human than the anti-energy that composed Drake’s own body.

He had defeated the creation and regained a new version of his containment suit by using a weird device stored in Legion Headquarters called the Miracle Machine. (*) Now he shook his head and wondered again for the thousandth time why he had not used the reality-altering device to return him to full humanity instead of merely restoring his suit.

[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Betrayer from Beyond,” Superboy #200 (March-April, 1974).]

In any event, he had also tried to seek out a past love. He had rushed to the park where he and Kerri had always met, and he had found her alone. His efforts to communicate with her had only resulted in her flight. He scared her. He lacked a face. He looked like a monster. She ran. He followed, and her mad flight almost resulted in her death. Instead, he had prevented her from crashing her hovercraft. He had saved her life, but she had been seriously injured as well. That moment had driven home to Drake the truth that, while he could be Wildfire the hero, he could never again be Drake Burroughs the man.

That past regret lingered, and he relived his many adventures with the heroic teens. He had been one of them, and he was proud of that. He felt that pride even in the throws of the nightmare. Still, the Legion had brought him more than adventure and a purpose. The team and his work with the young pupils of the Legion Academy had brought him Dawnstar. The Amerind tracker was a natural for the team. Her powers enabled her to fly through the void of space with astonishing speed and no protection. She could also find almost any trail. She came to the team, and she came into his life, and he melted.

That was a sign of his old sarcasm. Even in the nightmare that possessed him, he could make a smart comment. He had fallen in love with her. She had gradually allowed him to become closer to her. She had possessed her own set of barriers, and he had broken through them over time. Still, for all the pleasure their rapport had brought to his life, he had also felt a new pain more keenly than ever before.

Dawnstar was beautiful. She was everything he wanted out of life. However, he could never touch her. He would never know the touch of her hand or the thrill of her kiss. This agony haunted him constantly. Her proximity was a bittersweet mixture of what he needed and what he could never have. Still, she cared for him, and that was enough. It simply had to be enough.

Then she had departed on the grand tour of the galaxy that was a part of her culture. She had left him behind in search of a soul mate. She felt her journey across space would lead her to the man she was meant to be with for her journey through life. Wildfire saw her passage through space. He witnessed it, although in the waking world he had certainly not accompanied her. In his nightmare he saw the end of the trip. He saw how his effort to follow her had brought only her anger and her confusion. How could he be the man of her destiny? Had fate brought them together at that point or merely his reckless nature?

That question might never be answered, since she later met a man named Jhodan on a planet called Exile. Her time there had ended abruptly, as her arrival had led to the spread of a disease caused by the mere presence of her non-native self on the isolated world. She had left Jhodan behind, but she had also left some part of her heart. She cared for him, and she now wondered if he was truly her soul mate. (*) This haunted Drake, and the very thought of losing what little they had together caused him more pain than anything he had experienced before. That pain tormented him within the nightmare, and he screamed.

[(*) Editor’s note: See “Into Exile,” Tales of the Legion #321 (March, 1985), “Lost Among the Missing,” Tales of the Legion #322 (April, 1985), and “Look Homeward, Legionnaires,” Tales of the Legion #323 (May, 1985).]

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