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Black Man and Cracker Jack Battle the Universe
Universe: Battle the Universe
Word Count: 3800
Summary: Reggie has a bad day and ends up a costumed vigilante by accident.
Notes: This was the original story the whole BTU series (not to mention its name) spawned from; notes on the series’ evolution at bottom. It was sponsored by the Patreon crew!

Reggie’s brother had died just before the election results went public. The two events were always entangled in his mind, especially as the years progressed. He remembered the glass in his hand, the taste of the cola, the sound of his father’s voice choked up over the phone. He remembered being numb, confused, unable to understand the old man’s words, and sitting down at the TV out of sheer habit. And he remembered seeing the news on the pixelated old screen, the new president smiling and glad-handing with the other suits.

The phone call was an earth-shattering shock; the election was not. Forever afterward, Reggie would be perplexed by anyone who felt otherwise. Of course the universe (or the country, at least) would take a sharp right turn for the worse, without Kevin. What else could he expect?

That had been years ago, and Reggie was certain that he hadn’t really felt anything since then. Without Kevin, there seemed no point. Kevin had been the bright one, the one going places; if he hadn’t succeeded, what hope did Reggie have? So after an initial bout of hysteria (which he got over very quickly, he was sure), he withdrew into himself, turned off his feelings, and went through life on autopilot, just trying to get through the day even as everyone and everything around him seemed to go crazy. Protests, then riots, rose, surged, and were crushed. Blackouts started rolling across the country due to strikes and crack-downs, and Reggie was still fine. In his mind, nothing seemed to really change.

Even as those damn silly superheroes started popping up, whether to fight the new system or join it, it didn’t really register. Reggie became wary enough to take up Krav Maga courses again (he’d stopped for a while, after what’d happened), but otherwise, he tried to ignore it as best he could and keep his head down. Instead, he focused on juggling his part-time gigs and insuring that nobody at any of them knew much about him. In a way, being emotionless proved invaluable for customer service. Reggie always remembered his orders, never called in sick, always had a smile. His coworkers liked him, but none really knew him, and that seemed to be ideal.

He might’ve continued on like this indefinitely, had it not been for that goddamned Smithson wedding party.

Le Bon Monde got big groups renting out the whole restaurant periodically, and the Smithson wedding party had been enormous, lavish with their spending, and a royal pain in the ass for everyone involved. Since Reggie was always reliable and pleasant, of course they’d asked him to pull a double for it, and because Reggie always needed extra money, of course he’d said yes. He had dashed and served and smiled all through the hours of belligerent drunks and inappropriate rants on politics and religion, and been forced to sneak his medication on a bathroom break, but it’d been worth it—the tips were enough to finally finish paying off that collections agency.

Even if he’d had emotions, though, Reggie would’ve been far too tired to feel glad. It was late. The buses weren’t running regularly anymore. His feet hurt. His medication was starting to set in, making him even drowsier. He just wanted to take his tips and paycheck, clock out, and go home.

It was his fault, really. The fatigue had done him in, and he hadn’t been properly aware of his environment like usual. He didn’t notice the people tailing him until he was cornered in the bus station cubicle, and then they were saying, “Pardon me, sir, but do you have a moment to talk about the future our country?”

Reggie tried to bring himself to care, to say something, but couldn’t find it in himself. All he could feel was a leaden resignation. Of course this was how it would end. Of course. He hadn’t even finished clearing out the last medical bills yet.

But then he thought of his parents, who’d already lost one son, and he thought of his small collection of houseplants, which would most assuredly die without him. In an intellectual way, it felt unfair to die on them. So Reggie put down the shopping bag of leftover knishes he’d planned to have for breakfast, put up his hands, and tried to fight.

He did better than he had any right to. He was exhausted, and there were six of them. Apparently all the years of Krav Maga paid off, plus he had the bus station wall protecting his back, but eventually, they overwhelmed him.

The last thing he saw before the pipe came down on his head was a flash of red and blue, and he prayed it wasn’t the police.

Coming to was painful. Reggie almost felt regret at still being alive.

But then he opened his eyes and forgot all that. First, because he was propped up on a soft couch, not lying on the cement sidewalk or in the back of an ambulance. Second, because the couch was in a gargantuan, obviously expensive and well-ornamented house he’d never seen before, the kind of place one of the Smithson wedding party guests might’ve lived in. Finally, and more important than the rest, was the man standing in front of him, a slightly built white man dressed from head to toe in Confederate flag spandex.

Oh lord, it had finally happened. Reggie had been kidnapped by a supervillain.

“Are you okay?” The white man asked.

No. Nothing about this was okay. But Reggie said nothing, trying to push back the throbbing in his head and scan the house for exits, even though part of him wondered why bother. He saw paintings, vases, knickknacks as useless as they were expensive. No windows. Were they in the basement?

No henchmen in sight, and this wingnut’s clothes didn’t match those of the bus-stop attackers, but Reggie didn’t recognize the significance.

“I got to y’all as fast as I could,” the white man said in an atrocious fake Southern accent, “but that sure was a bad knock to the head you done took. I wasn’t sure what your insurance status was, so I brought you back here for my, uh, my personal nurse to take a look at you. Yeah, that’s it. Boy howdy. She says you’re going to be fine...”

Reggie was confused. What was the guy talking about? Where were the goons, the ransom demands, the threats? Why wasn’t Reggie tied up? And why was this supervillain offering him a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin?

Then Reggie figured it out.

“No,” he said.


No,” Reggie said. It’d been years since he had a strong emotion, and go figure that the first one he would experience now was raw disbelief. “You can’t be a superhero.”

The man struck what he apparently thought was a heroic pose. “The Confederate, at your service.”

Reggie threw the pill bottle at his head, got up, and walked away. Or tried to. The bottle missed by a mile, and when he got to his feet, a surge of lightheadedness hit him. He swayed and would’ve fallen if the guy (Reggie would not call him by his stupid-ass name) hadn’t gotten under his shoulder. For a moment, Reggie thought he’d take them both down, but for all the man’s size, he seemed oddly dense and solid.

“Whoa, whoa, hey, I said you would be fine, not that you are--”

“Get off me, man,” Reggie said. “I’m going home. Where’s the bus?” Did the bus even come to this part of town?

“I can’t really let you walk out of here without blindfolding you first...”

“Uh huh. Bus. Where it at?”

The white guy looked a little affronted, but he got his accent back on (it’d slipped when he kept Reggie from falling) and said, “I guess there’s a stop that goes by a few blocks from here, but I don’t know which--”

“Good, great.” Reggie tossed the guy off and made his way (carefully) to the door. He didn’t care which bus it was; eventually, it would bring him somewhere that wasn’t here, likely to downtown, and he could get home from there.

Out of habit, he checked his pockets, only to find them empty. He searched his clothes with growing alarm, but it was useless. His keys, phone, and wallet were gone.

He turned on the “superhero.” “Where are they?” he demanded.

The white guy crossed his arms. “Look, I’ve got super-strength, not super-speed. The way I done figure, they took your rootin’-tootin’ wallet before I got there.”

For a moment, Reggie thought he’d just settle back into numbness. But then, he felt something inside him twist, torque, and finally break, and he found himself wanting to scream. His tips, his cash, his phone--

Apparently Mighty Whitey wasn’t so clueless as to miss Reggie’s impending freak-out. “What? You’ll make it back, right?”

That was it. Reggie exploded.

“Screw you, man, I had a wedding party, man! I was on my feet ten hours, man, I made enough to pay back… stuff, man!” His voice was getting higher and higher, but he didn’t care. “My heating bill in that wallet! My rent money in that wallet! You know what my landlord is like, man?”

“Calm down, brother, let’s just--”

“We ain’t related!” Reggie bellowed. Then he realized that the longer he spent shouting at the man, the longer he’d be in his presence, and started going for the door again, trying to wrestle himself back under control. The emotions were overwhelming, unwanted. “You know what, no, forget it, I--”

But then his hand touched the doorknob and he got an idea. He turned around, stared hard at the vigilante.

“What?” the guy asked.

“You been doing this long?” Reggie asked.

“A while,” the man said defensively. Which probably meant no.

Reggie was starting to suspect this guy had been one of the wedding party guests who’d just lucked into wandering by at the time of the fight, but he was in no mood to be picky. “Then you know who beat me up?”

He expected no proper answer, but to his surprise, the man shrugged and said, “Well, sure. They’re the Patriotic Front, I’ve been dogging them for weeks...” and then he started rattling off a bunch of information that Reggie was in no condition to process.

Finally, Reggie cut him off with a raised hand. “Wait, okay, hold on. Do you know where they take the money?”

“Well, sure,” the guy said. “They take it down to this crummy place off of Central, then shove it in a safe. I’ve been trying to catch them while they’re there for ages, would’ve made it too except I ended up saving you instead.”

Reggie deeply objected to being classified as “saved,” but didn’t protest. Instead, he groped for a chair and carefully eased into it. As long as he wasn’t moving too much, he felt all right, though his head was pounding. The rest of him seemed to be all in one piece, at least, and he was calming down, becoming more rational.

“Okay. So you do know. Can you write this, all this stuff you telling me, down? And tell it to me again, slowly this time?”

The vigilante looked at him blankly. “I guess. Why?”

“You want to take them down? I’ll help you. I need that money back.”

“Bubba, you’re not getting that wallet back.”

“Man, ain’t you listening? I didn’t say ‘my wallet’ I said ‘money.’ They robbed me, you want to shut them down, I can get you a plan and get some money back. You down?”

Reggie had to admit, he didn’t feel much like a mastermind. He was bruised, battered, still in his Le Bon Monde uniform, and he could feel a lump rising on his head. But to his surprise, the guy lit up like a child at Christmas.

“A team-up? Sure! I mean, I saw the way you hit, and you seem cool, so let’s do this!” He pulled up a chair. “My name’s Jake.”

“Uh huh.”

Jake waited for more, then said, “If we’re going to work together, I should know your name.”

“We ain’t working together,” Reggie said. “I’m using your stupid super-powered ass to get my money back.”

Jake crossed his arms. “You know, I did save you from getting beat to death, and all you’ve been doing--”

Reggie raised a hand to silence him. “And you’re pissed that I’m not all grateful, right?”

“Well… yeah! What gives?” The fake accent was gone again.

Reggie looked at him, this man dressed in Confederate flag spandex. This guy seriously had no idea why Reggie didn’t like him. He looked honestly wounded.

There was no point in explaining it to him. Reggie was tired and concussed and still preferred to act as though he were numb. So instead, he said, “You only in the business of saving people if they kiss your ass enough?”

“No. But a little thanks would be nice.”

“Get my wallet back and I’ll say thanks for that,” Reggie conceded.


And Jake pulled up a table and a laptop, and they got to work.

It turned out that for all his super-cracker bullshit, Jake actually did have some decent knowledge about the Patriotic Front. He’d just never written it down or organized it. For someone like Reggie, who lived and died by WebCalendar and his spreadsheets, it was horrifying, but after some water, aspirin, and microwaved wedding snacks, he got to work and started putting it all together into something he could use. After a while, Jake even started getting the idea and being a little less scatterbrained in his explanations. In not too long, Reggie felt like he had a good enough understanding of the Patriotic Front’s ins and outs of the building to even make a basic plan.

“Man, what luck that I went and saved you!” Jake said. “I’ve been trying to do this for ages but something just didn’t feel right or something. And now here you are!”

“Yeah,” Reggie said. It was a weird feeling—he most certainly did not like Jake. But even with the concussion and the bruises, he felt more clear-headed than he had in a while, a sense of purpose. He couldn’t fathom why, so he set it aside. He had his money to get back.

First, though, he had to raid his would-be hero’s closet. Vigilantism was still against the law, and Reggie had had enough bad luck for one night. He didn’t want to rely on the mercy of the local cops, should they catch him.

Luckily, his work outfit was black slacks and shirt, and Jake had a spare baseball cap to shadow Reggie’s face. A trench coat to cover the gold ‘B.M.’ on his breast pocket, and he was set.

Just as well. Despite his strength, Jake was a small guy. Reggie was pretty average in size, but the trench coat was the only thing that came close to fitting.

Then it was off to the garage for Jake’s car. Reggie half-expected it to be decked out in Confederate flag decals, but apparently the man wasn’t completely stupid; the garage was full of cars, but the one he went to was an elderly Volvo. With an air of practice, Jake yanked off the plates with one hand, (“it’s cool, man, we’re teammates now, I don’t have to blindfold you now,”) and then it was off to the Patriotic Front’s safehouse.

It was… a surprisingly boring place. Not that Reggie had expected a classic mob-owned speakeasy or anything, but this was an anonymous two-story place with no sign. Jake assured him that the entire building was owned by the Patriotic Front: “I’ve been staking this place out for ages. Trust me!”

Later on, Reggie would realize the whole plan was a terrible idea, one he would only have come up with while desperate and punch-drunk. Really, it boiled down to, “punch people until the money appears.” By all rights, it should’ve ended with Reggie in a prison cell. (And probably sharing it with Jake, seeing his luck.)

But here was how it actually happened.

First, Jake flunked the plan in the first five minutes. Instead of quietly sneaking in like Reggie said, he horse-kicked the gang’s front door down and dashed in screaming, “FREEEEEDOMMMMM!”

For a moment, Reggie had just stood there, watching slack-jawed. Then he realized two things. First, even Jake didn’t deserve what would surely be a painful death at the hands of gangsters who were clearly smarter than he was. And second, there was no way Reggie was getting his wallet back if this didn’t work.

But Reggie had no powers, only a concussion. No way was he going in there to get his ass beaten and shot. There was already shouting and the sounds of fighting. Nobody had come out yet, but they surely would soon.

Reggie looked around frantically for something he could use. And there was Jake’s Volvo, the Crackermobile, sitting idling on the curb for a quick getaway…

Reggie jumped in the car, put it in reverse. He drove around the back of the building, parked in front of the rear entrance, and turned to see what Jake had.

In the back, there was a jack and an extra can of gas. Perfect. He grabbed both, made sure the car was placed right, and then sloshed gas all over everything, just in case. After a quick double-check of the car’s position, he dropped the jack onto the gas pedal and scrambled out of the way.

The car smashed into the building hard and caught fire, but Reggie didn’t stick around to see the response. He was already running around the side, trying to find something else to distract the Patriotic Front with.

He failed that goal, but found something better: a fire escape. It took some acrobatics from the Dumpster, but he finally clambered up. This brought on another surge of dizziness, but he held still and it passed. Just as well—some thugs ran out the back door to handle the fire. A couple came looking for him, but didn’t notice the anonymous blob all in black in the dark. They moved on to rejoin Jake’s fight at the front; maybe they thought the man was crazy enough to have done it all himself.

The window was locked, but Reggie was able to kick through it. With all the chaos and fire, he doubted anyone would notice another alarm going off. As quickly as he could, he crawled in and the thick trench coat protected him from most of the broken glass. He prayed Jake had been crime-fighting long enough to develop a reputation as a sole operator; Reggie was feeling sick from his exertions and didn’t think he’d survive another fight.

He lucked out. In front of him was an office that, judging by the overturned chair, had been vacated in the hurry. On a table was an abandoned ledger and a lot of money.

Reggie didn’t have time to sort through it. He shucked the coat, swept the money into it, and gathered it all in an awkward bundle. Even in the bad light and confusion, he could tell there was far more money here than he felt okay with just taking for himself; whatever, he’d just have to divvy it up and figure out what to do with the rest later. For now, though, he had to go. He could hear sirens; the fire had apparently drawn the fire department, and the cops would surely be right behind them.

Reggie was starting to feel nauseous and dizzy again. Between that and the awkward bundle, he had to take the fire escape carefully, step by step. By the time he made it down, he could see the fire engine.

Apparently he wasn’t the only one. He heard a shout of, “cops!” and everyone scattered, hero and villain alike. Jake came sprinting out the front door, singed and disheveled but grinning.

“Where’s my car?” he asked.

“Uh...” Reggie said, and glanced back at the flames.

He expected Jake to be angry, but instead, he beamed. “Oh man, good idea! Don’t worry, I’ve got others.”

And he took off running. Reggie tried to push through the concussion and disbelief and keep up.

He didn’t make it far. He had to stop before he fell over, and Jake stopped him in an alley between apartment buildings.

“You okay? You got it?” Jake panted.

Reggie nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak.

“Can you run?”

Reggie shook his head, which only made the world spin worse, and had to lean back against the bricks for support.

Then they saw the teenage girl at the window above and across from them. She had box braids, a mouth full of gum, and her phone out, recording them.

Shit. Shit. Reggie pulled his hat lower over his face, but there was nothing else he could do. He couldn’t even stand up on his own.

Jake, of course, struck a pose. “Hello, ma’am!” he said in that awful accent, and beamed.

“Hey,” the girl said, and popped a bubble. “You the ones who took on the Patriotic Front?”

“Darn tootin’!” Jake said before Reggie could stop him.

“Cool. So who are you guys, anyway?” She frowned at Reggie. “What’s the BM stand for?”

Oh no. Reggie had taken off his coat. The bundle in his arms mostly hid his chest, but the gold letters still showed up in the street light.

And Jake, damn him to hell, put his arm around Reggie’s shoulders, and declared, “This here is my crime-fighting partner, Black Man!”

It was just as well that Reggie was too busy trying not to collapse or throw up to do anything. He was already going to end up on ViewTube; he didn’t want to be up there strangling Jake.

The girl seemed equally dubious. She made a face. “If you say so… and what about you?”

And Reggie suddenly got his best idea of the night. Plus the nausea subsided enough to speak. With a new surge of strength, he stood up straight, gripped Jake’s shoulder hard enough to get his attention, and gave him a sadistic grin.

“Why,” he said, “this here is Cracker Jack!”

Jake gave him a look of horror, but it was too late. Within two days, they would become a viral Internet meme sensation. Everyone would know their stupid names, and Jake’s face. (Fortunately, the video quality would be too poor to make out Reggie’s, or the letters on his shirt.) They would be stuck with their five seconds of infamy for all Internet eternity.

“To mutually assured destruction,” Reggie murmured in Jake’s ear, and took off running.

Notes: This is the story where Battle the Universe gets its name from. Originally, Reggie and Jake were to be the comedic semi-incompetent protagonists, very much in the vein of Justice League International, of which I was a big fan at the time. While the tone and framing of the characters have changed a lot, the actual plot events of this story have changed precious little in the intervening decade plus. Zambi (in quite different form) predates them by maybe a few months, and Mig came a few months later; it wasn’t until years later that they all ended up as an ensemble cast.
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