Comic books are liars.
Not just because it seems like super powers always seem to come with the physique of an Olympic athlete and the ability to look good in spandex. When someone gets their powers in a comic, there’s always this moment of confusion where they don’t know what’s just happened to them. They got hit by the cosmic beams or bitten by a radioactive whatsit or get handed a bit of shiny jewelry that gives them more power than God. They stand there, looking confused, and two panels later they’re flying through the sky or lifting cars over their head or bending time and space to their will. Their powers just work for them, as easy as walking. They may discover some extra tricks later, or run into a weakness, but for the most part, the moment a newly-minted metahuman gets powered up, they’re ready to go and either fight or contribute to crime.
When Carly Siminsky’s powers manifested themselves in the middle of softball practice, twelve people died in the first sixty seconds. Nearly a hundred more in the minutes that followed, and if it hadn’t been for quick thinking by her coach, the death toll would have been even higher. To this day, Coach Simone keeps the bent and twisted aluminum bat she used on her player as a reminder of the tragedy.
It took Carly three years to learn how to not kill people with her mind. She was taken by Department of National Security to a facility where they carefully and systematically forced her to learn how to control herself. She caused millions of dollars in damage during that time, and it resulted in the deaths of five doctors and seven medical technicians.
Her current practice regimen involved a set of nesting boxes. She was to take all the boxes out and then put them all back inside without letting the sides of one box touch another. If she did, an alarm would go off and the experiment would be immediately ended.
On this day, Carly sat cross-legged in front of the experiment table. The box full of boxes sat on in front of her, gleaming dully in the fluorescent light. Martin, her current lab tech, was sitting behind her, and she could hear the scratching of his pen against paper. She squeezed her eyes shut and started counting her breaths again. She would restart the count every time she was distracted, by Martin, or an itch, or a thought. When she reached twenty, she would begin. This used to take upwards of half an hour, but she’d gotten it down to seven and a half minutes with practice.
Her eyes opened when she hit twenty. She took one more breath and reached out with her mind for the box. The largest one stayed on the table while the next lifted carefully out. All the boxes were metal, each a different color, and she was intimately familiar with them at this point. The second box, dull blue, hovered for a moment, and then set down on the mat. A red box lifted out from that one, and then from the red came a green and from the green a yellow. The final box, about the size of the end of her thumb, was violet. They were all lined up, left to right. She heard Martin make a note behind her.
She took another breath and started putting the boxes back together. This had always been the hard part. This was where she had always failed. The counselor they had her talk to once a week told her not to think about succeeding, that she shouldn’t envision a completed box and a pat on the head from Martin. She should imagine one at a time, the process of completing the task.
Violet went into yellow without touching the sides. Yellow lifted and positioned itself over green. She rotated it, ever so slightly, fighting the urge to stand up and view it from another angle. It lowered, slowly sliding into the green box. No alarm sounded. Carly took another breath, held it, and let it go. The green box lifted up and took its position over the red one. Carly realized she was gritting her teeth, and made herself stop. The red box lowered for a moment, stopped, and then continued with more care and precision than she had used with the other ones. It went in without a sound, and again Carly breathed.
A drop of sweat rolled down the side of her face and she flicked it away without moving her hands. Simon’s writing filled her ears and she wanted to turn around and make him stop, but she knew how that would end. She lifted the red box and positioned it over the blue one. She bit her lip and braced herself for the alarm. This is where it always came. She took flexed her fingers and forced them to lay flat on her thighs, rolled her shoulders and did a slow count to five. The red box started to lower.
Just before it went in, she stopped it. She wanted to stop entirely, to turn around to Martin and tell him that she couldn’t do it – she’d never do it. The first time she had done that, they didn’t feed her for a day. The second time, for two days. There was no third time.
She reached out, feeling the two boxes, feeling along their edges. In that moment, it was like she was both boxes. And she was the air around them, the boxes inside them, the table, the room. She kept her attention on them and closed her eyes. She felt the red box slide into the blue, felt the space between them and a smile broke out on her face. Her eyes flashed open and she spun around to look at Martin. The young man was writing, but he looked up at her through his horn-rimmed glasses and pointed at the last box – the silver one – with his pen.
Carly rolled her eyes. She could feel them, and she understood what it was she was feeling, and why she had failed before. While she kept her eyes trained on Martin, the blue box lifted up into the air, and, without pause, dropped into the silver box without a sound. Martin’s eyebrows rose, he made a note on his form, and stood up. “Well done, Carly,” he said. He extended a hand, and she used it to help herself up. “You’ve made wonderful progress.”
She smiled despite herself. “Thanks,” she said. She glanced back at the nested boxes. “So… what now?”
Martin looked down at the forms on his clipboard. “I take these to my boss, and we figure out what to do with you next.” He patted her shoulder. “You should be very proud of yourself.” He turned for the door, fishing in his pocket for the passcard that would unlock it.
“Martin,” Carly said. He stopped and turned around. She glanced up at the window and walked over to stand between him and it. He looked from her to the door, and he reached into his other pocket. “No,” she said. “You don’t need the alarm – I’m not going to hurt you.” That didn’t seem to ease his mind, but the alarm didn’t go off. “I need to know,” she whispered. “I need to know when I’ll be okay. When they’ll let me out of this place.” She looked up at the window again and then back to him. “Martin, when am I going to go home?”
He held her gaze for a moment, and then looked down at the floor. He cleared his throat. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice thick. “Soon. Okay?” He gave her arm a quick squeeze. “Soon.” He turned around, slid his passcard across the reader, and left the room, the door locking behind him.
She started at that door for a long time. It wouldn’t be hard to open it, that much she knew. Brute force had never been a problem for her. She rubbed the lump in her side, the place where they had implanted the tranquilizer pump. With that inside her, she wouldn’t get three steps out of the room. She sighed and went back to her bed, lay back and stared at the ceiling.
This was her home now. This was where she was going to get better, and where they would help her to stop hurting people. And someday, they had promised, she would be able to leave. She closed her eyes and started counting again. And she breathed, as she counted, the boxes on the table began to un-nest themselves and hover in mid-air. By the time she got to thirty, they were turning in lazy circles around the table, one never touching another.