Ascendant/A Time and A Case for Everything
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
(This story was featured on the "Best Of" episode of the City of Stories podcast.)
A Time and A Case for Everything
Eric woke to the sound of the alarm clock and groggily looked at the time. 7:30. He had slept for all of 48 minutes, an almost decadent amount of time given the requirements of both his metabolism and his schedule. He hurried through his morning routine and briefly considered taking the train into work, then abandoned the idea when he remembered that the Yellow Line was still under repairs from a Freakshow attack late last week. In the mirror, the thin, nondescript face of Eric West stared back at him while he contemplated alternate routes to work.
It’ll be faster if I fly, he thought, besides, it’s cheaper than a cab.
He closed his eyes and concentrated. There was a warm, tingling sensation across his skin, and when he opened his eyes again, the blue eyes and lantern jaw of Ascendant were looking back at him in the mirror. He pulled on his uniform, threw his work clothes into a knapsack, and opened the window near the fire escape. Idly, he wondered what day it was.
The cybernetic lizard wearing a business suit waiting patiently on the fire escape was Ascendant’s first clue that it was, in fact, Monday.
The creature superficially resembled a crocodile or alligator (Ascendant remembered there was some easy way to tell the difference, but he doubted it mattered one way or the other), with hairless, green yellow skin. An array of nasty looking teeth was hinted through thin, slightly parted lips. Its right hand was cybernetic, as was one of its eyes. The suit was, judging by the fit, tailor made to the creature’s roughly human dimensions, although it didn’t seem to follow any specific style that Ascendant was familiar with. It clutched an almost comically small briefcase in its left hand. Although he had no experience reading the body language of whatever bizarre species the lizard belonged to, Ascendant didn’t think it looked hostile. If anything, it looked slightly bored.
“Um. Can I help you?” he finally asked.
“Sleehmmmhammak!” it spat back in a brutal, sibilant hiss, then pounded its fist against its chest.
“Sorry,” it said in a faintly English accent after a moment, “A little phlegm there. I keep forgetting how much oxygen is present in the environment of this time.”
“Yeah, you, um, sorta get used to it after a while, I guess,” Ascendant said warily.
“You are the one called Ascendant,” it said in a tone that was not exactly a question and not exactly a statement, but a frustrating combination of the two.
“That’s what it says on my nametag,” Ascendant replied.
There were several moments of silence as the lizard surreptitiously attempted to find the nametag on Ascendant’s brightly colored costume.
Finally, Ascendant gave an exasperated sigh, “Look, there’s no nametag. That’s just something I say to confuse the Hellions. It apparently also works pretty well on suit wearing… cybernetic… lizard… What the heck are you, anyway?”
“I represent the law firm of Mandelbaum, Smegel, G’norax, and--” at this point, the lizard made a loud, keening noise, like a cat in a blender, “—temporal attorneys at law,” The lizard reached into one of the pockets of its suit and withdrew a what looked like an almost transparent sugar cube, then offered it to Ascendant, “My identicube. My name would be unpronounceable in your primitive language, so you may call me The Liti-Gator.”
Ascendant was quiet for several moments. Eventually, he said, “I’d rather not.”
“It is too late to change it, I’m afraid. The papers have already been drawn up and notarized. The Liti-Gator shall be my legal designation for the proceedings.”
“Papers? Proceedings? What are you talking about?”
“You are being sued, Ascendant, by the inhabitants of the year 2499, for your flagrant violations of the Superpower Regulatory Act of 2498.” It opened the tiny briefcase and handed the stunned superhero a stack of transparent papers barely larger than postage stamps, “You may consider yourself served.”
“Wait, you can’t just come into the past and sue me for—what are you suing me for again?”
The Liti-Gator sighed and pointed at the tiny stack of transparencies, “It’s all right there in infrared and ultraviolet,” he said, “Simply put, your use of superpowers for the past two years is illegal in the year 2499.”
“I’ll try to taper off over the next four centuries, then.”
“It is not quite that easy. Under the Temporal Prosecution Act of 2499, all laws in effect in my time may be applied retroactively at the prosecution’s discretion. In layman's terms, any law we make in the future is considered law now.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Ascendant said.
“Actually, according to testimony you will give under oath in 2016, it is not even in the top ten,” the Liti-Gator countered, “Besides, ignorance of the future law is no defense according to Chapter 320, Section 73, Article 4 of the TPA.”
“Um… Ok. Look, assuming I even believe this for a moment, how much am I being sued for?”
“We have calculated that in the terms of this time’s currency and inflation rate, the damages amount to approximately one kajillion dollars.”
“That’s not even a number.”
“It is in 2499,” the Liti-Gator maintained, “It is a number with so many zeros after the one that it has to be shown in three dimensions, since to accurately portray it, the zeroes must be put above, below and alongside the one as well.”
“This is definitely a Monday, alright,” Ascendant observed.
“I understand your confusion. I, too am out of my element. Normally, I work patent law. The only reason I’m serving you your papers is because the sharkoids of my firm are all in court this morning.”
“How do, um, ‘sharkoids’ and ‘Alligator men’—“
“We prefer the term ‘Alligator American’,” the Liti-Gator interjected.
“Fine, Alligator Americans, then, how do you even get law degrees?”
“We were not always this way. However, centuries ago, in order to make fiercer legal combatants, lawyers began to have their DNA combined with that of nature’s most lethal predators. I’m half alligator, and as I said, I only work patent law. The mixture of deadly creatures needed to make a good trial attorney in my time would make any foe you’ve faced so far seem pale by comparison.”
Ascendant looked aghast. “Why would you do that to yourselves?”
“Please try and understand that the society I come from is one ruled by lawyers. For decades, our entire economy has been based upon suing one another. People wanting a particular item would sue a store owner that possessed that item for mental anguish stemming from desire for said item. The store owner counter sues them for the cost of replacing the item. Employers sue potential employees into servitude for withholding skill sets from them, and employees in turn counter sue the employers for mental hardship caused by having to work, with the settlements taking the place of what you would call ‘wages’.”
“Quite the Utopian society you’ve got there,” Ascendant said dryly.
“It was,” the Liti-Gator agreed somberly, “However, over the years, contractual law evolved to a point where ironclad, legally binding agreements became impervious to even the most dedicated litigation. Without the ability to sue one another, our economy is at a standstill. Thus, we’ve decided to support ourselves by suing the past.”
“Out of curiosity, is THAT going to be on the 2016 list of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard?”
“No, it is not.”
“It’s going be a weird decade,” Ascendant said to himself.
“In any case,” the Liti-Gator continued, “You are our first defendant. In fact, your defeat at your upcoming trial will make the public understand that even the mightiest superhero is no match for the power of legal retribution. This case will, in a sense, become the foundation of our society, allowing people to understand that litigation is the one ultimate power in the world.”
“I see. Um… Should I go hire a lawyer or something?”
The Liti-Gator shrugged, “You may, however, it will make no difference to the outcome. History already shows that you lose the case.”
“Look, I’m running late for work and if I’ve got no chance at winning this thing, how about we settle out of court?”
“You would do this?” the Liti-Gator asked, raising a cybernetic eyebrow.
“Might as well,” Ascendant shrugged, “I don’t have time for a big court proceeding anyhow. Why don’t you draw up the papers and we’ll work out a payment schedule for one kajillion dollars spread out over four hundred years. You save on court costs and I save on hiring a law firm that’s just going to lose. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.” Ascendant paused, then added, “Except, you know, technically speaking, me.”
“Very well, then,” the Liti-Gator tapped a few keys on his cybernetic hand. Another small transparent sheet emerged from a slot. “Here is the agreement. Put your thumbprint here.”
“Excellent. Your first payment—Wait—What—“ The Liti-Gator said as it began to fade from view, “What is the meaning of this?”
“Not sure, exactly,” Ascendant shrugged, “You did say my case was part the foundation of your society. If I had to guess, I’d say that by agreeing to settle out of court, you’ve altered your timeline and paradoxed yourself and your civilization out of existence.”
The Liti-Gator vanished in a howl of fury. Ascendant looked at the space the bizarre creature had previously occupied.
“Freakin’ Mondays,” he muttered, shaking his head before flying off.