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Day Two Hundred and Thirty-six: Entrance Exam

January 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Sarah’s fingers started to lose feeling as she clung to the edge of the platform. She tried to use her feet to lift herself higher, but the sides seem to have been coated with the same ultra-slippery coating that they’d put on the ramp far behind her. No friction, no super-speed, and in a few moments she would plunge into the water below.

And that would be the end of her career as a superhero.

Thousands of young people applied to be an official Sidekick with the Global Defenders every year. Of those thousands, hundreds were invited to take part in a rigorous week of exams, tests, and challenges. Of those hundreds, only twenty would be chosen.

Her fingers slipped again, and she whimpered. Any further and she’d be out of the running permanently.

The obstacle course was the most famous part of the test, and the only one that anyone really knew about going in. It started in a vast gymnasium, five kids at a time. Each one had to follow their color-coded track through the room and out into an individually-tailored course. The Global Defenders would provide obstacles that were designed to test each particular applicant’s special power or ability, and failing the course usually meant being kicked out of the trials.

Sarah’s course had started off as a racetrack from hell. When the gun sounded, and the other four students were still getting started, Sarah was already off and running. The track twisted and bent and spun, with a helical loop-the-loop just close enough to the start that she wasn’t sure she could build up enough speed.

She’d made it through, though, and headed for the ramp. There was a gap of about fifty feet, and if she hit the end of the ramp fast enough, she would have cleared the gap easily. But the ramp had been coated, made so slippery that she lost her footing and her speed. She was still going fast, but just barely fast enough. She flew off the end of the ramp, hurtled through the air, and landed arms-first on the other side.

She tried not to look down as her grip slipped again. “No, no, no, no,” she said to herself. Her feet scrabbled against the wall, but nothing happened. She forced herself to breathe slowly, to think about her options. She was a fast thinker, too. Another benefit of super-speed. No matter how fast she thought, though, she couldn’t get ahead of the panic that threatened to engulf her. Another few inches and the dream she’d had since she was a child would be gone.

A howl crawled its way out of her throat as she slipped again and felt her grip come free of the platform. She dropped – and landed on something solid a moment later. Sarah looked down and saw that she was standing on a tall pillar of ice that had risen from the water below.

“Got ya!” Sarah turned to look at the only person it could have been. Claire skidded to a stop on the ice bridge she was using to get across the room, a broad smile crossing her pale face. She waved. “Gotta be more careful, roomie!” she said. A fine mist formed around her hand, and the ice pillar started to rise until it brought Sarah to the edge of the platform.

Once Sarah was out of danger, Claire swept herself off to continue her own course. The two had been assigned as roommates when they arrived at the Global Defenders’ headquarters, and they’d become friends almost immediately. This was the first time they were actually in competition with each other, though. If Sarah had dropped, Claire would have a slightly better chance of getting in.

She shook her head. Enough wasting time. Whatever Claire wanted to do was up to her. Maybe she’d buy her an ice cream later to say thanks.

Sarah hopped on her toes for a moment and took off.

In an instant, she was out of the vast main obstacle room, following the red line that led her through the course on her way through a featureless corridor that seemed to go on forever, even at her speed. She was slightly surprised when the wall started sprouting barriers, when sections of the floor rose and dropped just before she got to them, when hidden guns started to fire beanbags at her from the walls and ceiling. With her reflexes cranked up, they weren’t all that hard to avoid. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, and she sidestepped, ducked, and jumped in all the right places.

There was another jump, this time a lot longer than the first, and she felt her heart skip. If this was was treated the way the last one was, she’d probably go flying right off the edge and into the water. On the other hand, if she slowed down then she’d do the same, treated or not. Sarah gritted her teeth and poured on the speed. The air around her seemed to turn slippery and oily as it slid over her skin, held back from killing her by some strange feature of her powers that she’d never fully understood.

As she shot out over the dark, cold water below, she realized that she was howling – a long, keening scream that trailed behind her like a slipstream. She seemed to hang in the air forever, watching the far platform inch towards her at an impossibly slow speed.

The impact went all the way through her as she landed, and it was a moment before she took off again.

The track curved and looped. There was a maze that shifted and changed as she ran it, and a route that made her skip across the water’s surface like a flat river stone.

Finally, she came to the final room. It was a small chamber with a button on a pedestal, and all she had to do was press the button. She stepped forward…

A curtain of violet energy dropped down around her. It shimmered and hummed, and when she tried to go through it, she got a mild shock for her troubles. The emitter was far above her, a small glowing panel embedded in the high ceiling, out of her reach.

“Damn,” she said, and she could hear her voice quaver. She had come so far, and she could see the end in front of her. She hit the field with the flat of her hand, and the jolt traveled through her arm.

This was the end of a long, long dream. Her powers had started when she was a child, much to the consternation of her parents, and all she’d ever wanted to do was to be a super-hero. To be one of those colorful servants of justice that made the world a better place, and what better place to learn how to do it than here? The Global Defenders had fought off everything from bank robbers to international terrorists to alien armadas, and the graduates of their Sidekick program had gone on to great super-hero careers of their own.

It was all she’d ever wanted, and a thin sheet of energy was all that was keeping her from getting there.

The signs of panic were pretty clear. She was breathing hard, she could feel her heart beating in her chest. Her eyes were watering and ready to overflow, but she kept telling herself that super-heroes didn’t cry. They never cried. And for a moment, she thought that the flickering of the force field was just an illusion, a distortion caused by the tears.

When she wiped her eyes away, though, she could see it – the emitter was flickering and strobing. She took a breath to calm down, and the effect went away.

That was enough to tell her what she needed to know.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. She looked up – the emitter seemed to be glowing with a nice constant light, but as she stared at it, she thought to herself, Faster. Faster…

The emitter began to flicker faintly, and she concentrated on those gaps, those intermittent pauses. As she did, they became longer – in reality only fractions of a fraction of a second, but she stretched them out and slowed them down until they became a regular pulse. The energy curtain blinked in and out of existence as well, more and more slowly until she could actually see it flow downward from the emitter, like water cascading off a rooftop, only to cut off and vanish into the floor.

Sarah counted to herself – three, two… One.

She stepped through the gap in the curtain of light, walked up to the button and pressed it. The emitter shut down and lights in the ceiling came on, and Sarah could feel her concentration give way. Time seemed to resume its normal flow as the wall in front of her slid upwards, revealing a reception room.

Somehow, Claire was already there. “How’d you…?”

Claire shrugged. “I guess I don’t waste time like some people,” she said, winking.

It was clear that the rest of their group had failed the test. A hologram flickered to life in the center of the room. It was one of the Global Defenders, a young man who called himself Detour. He was able to create wormholes to move from place to place almost instantly. “Good work,” he said. The hologram seemed bigger than life size, and he stood looking down on them, strong arms crossed in front of a broad chest. “We would like to remind you both, however,” he said, seeming to look right at Claire as he spoke, “that these tests are to measure your individual abilities. Wishing to help each other is admirable, but not part of the test. Do it again, Miss Carrington, and you’ll be out.”

Claire looked down at the floor. “Yessir,” she said.

Detour smiled. “Head back to your dormitory,” he said. “Get some rest. The final round begins tomorrow.” The hologram blinked out, and the kids started to move.

“I’m glad you got through,” Sarah said. “But you shouldn’t’ve risked your chances to help me.”

Claire shrugged. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. Then she grinned and put her arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “That’s what heroes do, right?”

Sarah nodded, and they walked together towards the dormitory.

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Day Two Hundred and Seventeen: New to the Game

December 25, 2011 Leave a comment

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

——————

I have a great love of super-heroes, as you may have noticed. I’ve been reading comic books for as long as I can remember, and there’s something about a super-hero movie that I just can’t pass up. I have t-shirts and replica rings, and I would have action figures if I had the room for them. Point is, when I started doing this writing project, I knew that super-heroes were going to play a big part in them.

What is often overlooked is that a lot of the really good stories that you can tell with super-heroes are the same stories that you tell with normal people, only bigger and with tights. So in that sense, I created Mass Man in his eponymous story on day 74.

Here’s what we know about him from this story: he loves being a super-hero, but he hates a lot of the trappings that come with it. The spandex, the mask, being hurled into buildings and having to keep his dignity in front of civilians… Especially his name – Mass Man. It was given to him by a reporter and the name just stuck. Now he doesn’t think he can change it without looking whiny and self-important.

His powers are pretty simple: he can manipulate mass, both his own and that of other things. This means that he can fly, walk through walls, stop bullets, lift heavy things, all that. He doesn’t know how he does it, and he doesn’t really care to know. What he wants is to be a super-hero and not go out there looking like a moron.

His role models are Photon the Magnificent and the Lady of the Rooftops, two high-profile heroes out of Corsair City. When they come to help him with his giant robot trouble, he gets to talk to them about the missteps and problems of being a new hero, which gives him a bit more confidence that he will one day make a name for himself.

Basically, Mass Man is an early twentysomething, and suffering from the same problems that modern young people all have to go through. He’s not sure who he really is, for one. He hates the label that’s been given to him, but can’t come up with anything better. He knows what he wants to do, but really all he can do is emulate the people who do it better. He has those he admires, and he feels both awe and shame when he has to perform in front of them. He’s new at this gig, and feels like he ought to be a lot better than he is, despite not having a lot of experience.

Perhaps that’s because he – like a lot of us – was told as a kid that he was intrinsically special and due for greatness. Maybe he was praised for everything he did, and can’t understand why he’s not getting the same treatment anymore. I dunno – it’s not Bruce Wayne levels of childhood trauma, but what happens to us as kids does a lot to make us who we are as adults.

The story doesn’t go into his backstory a whole lot, but here’s how he looks in my head: he is a middle-class kid from the suburbs, in his mid-twenties, who manifested these strange powers maybe a year or so before the story begins. He lives in a world where super-heroes are real, and so has a career path all laid out for him. Despite that, he doesn’t know anything about being a hero other than the costume and a baritone voice.

A lot of his stories, then, are going to be about growing up – both as a hero and just as a person. These are, in a lot of ways, my favorite kinds of super-hero stories. It’s all well and good when they save the world or vanquish evil, but the stories where they become better people or learn their limits are a lot easier for me to relate to as a reader. I look forward to exploring his world with him.

Day Two Hundred and Twelve: The Good Doctor

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

——————

Tonight’s random pick is one of those characters that got mentioned in a sort of off-the-cuff manner in one story, and quickly grew into someone of real depth and humanity. Damn, but that’s fun.

Let us look at Dr. Julian Harcrow, doctor to the super-heroes:

36: Interviews

  • Professor Harcrow works at the Corsair City University
  • He’s won three Nobel Prizes.
  • He worked with the Heroes United team.
  • He’s looking for a cure to the Gene Bomb set off by Tobias Rhyne.

114: Dr. Julian Harcrow (interview)

  • He has advanced degrees in biochemistry, quantum electrodynamics, and abnormal psychology.
  • He’s won three Nobel Prizes.
  • He grew up in the poor section of Corsair City.
  • He grew up in a single-parent household (his mother) with many brothers and sisters.
  • He was rescued from a tenement fire by Captain Cosmos.
  • He’s a Person of Color.
  • He went to university when he was fifteen.
  • He designed his own metahuman studies program.
  • He is at least 55 years old now.
  • He helped metahumans understand their powers and find ways to use them better.
  • He’s trying to undo the effects of Tobias Rhyne’s gene bomb.

A lot about Harcrow is right there in the interview, and I’m honestly surprised at how much I came up with. As I think I mentioned before, figuring out some characters is like torture for everyone involved. I want the character to reveal something of herself to me, and she’s saying, “Hell no. You’re the writer, you figure it out.” But occasionally one of them not only cooperates, but offers to do a lot of the hard work.

When I saw Harcrow, a picture popped into my head. He’s an alder black man, with the gray hair of a man who hasn’t stopped working since he was a teenager. He’s exhausted now, demoralized from seeing the gods fall from the sky. It’s hard to imagine what that must be like, but I try to think of it as a fundamental re-adjusting of your world view. Like when you realize that you don’t believe in God, or when you can’t find it in you to care about who’s running for President because they’ll just be the same guy with a different face. The things that kept you going are gone, but somehow you have to keep going.

What’s keeping Harcrow going, of course, is the hope of discovering a cure for the gene bomb, and he’s beginning to suspect what I already know: there is no cure. The heroes who have been nullified will never get their powers back. Ever.

There are two things he’ll see before he dies, though. The first is that there are plenty of non-meta heroes out there who will rise to fill the gaps. “Martial artists, robotocists, time-trapped heroes with amazing future tech…” The physics of his world still allows for all kinds of superheroics, and there will be plenty of people to step in and take over.

The second thing is that the gene bomb only re-configured people with currently active metahuman genes. But the meta-gene is necessarily recessive – otherwise the world would be overrun – so sooner or later (perhaps even right now) kids will be born with meta-genes that are just waiting to be activated. A whole new generation of mutants and accident-prone kids will mark the new age of heroism, and I think Harcrow deserves to see that before he dies.

Anyway, Harcrow is essentially a man in mourning, which isn’t something I’m all that familiar with writing. I haven’t lost something or someone that important, that literally defined my world for me. I know I will someday – that’s pretty much a certainty – and I hope that I am able to handle it with a certain amount of quiet dignity and grace. But for right now, I can explore that feeling through Harcrow.

Let’s see, what else? I’m going to have to figure out what he won his Nobel Prizes in at some point. Quick research suggests that no individual has ever won three prizes – and only a handful have won two. So that’ll take a bit of justification right there, but since he’s at the forefront of metahuman science, I think there are a lot of openings for him to grab a prize or three.

I can look at his rise to fame, and how being raised poor affects that. Our past shapes our actions in a thousand different ways, and that needs to be looked into. Harcrow was poor and black, which is not a childhood that often lends itself to becoming a triple-Nobel winner. How did he rise above the ghetto? How much of those formative years does he still keep around? How does he help the kids who are there now, the ones who maybe aren’t as smart or as lucky as he was?

I’m reminded, actually, of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who tells a story about being a young astrophysics student. He was told by an upperclassman he admired that he was wasting good talent on astrophysics and should have been using it to help “his people,” i.e. working in more political or social issues and helping to make life better in the black community. He says that he struggled with this – he knew that he should be making an effort to help other black kids, to help build the black community, but he also knew that he loved science and astrophysics.

Long story short, he found a way to do both when he was called to appear on TV as a science expert and talk about the sun. After the interview, he realized that not once had they asked him anything as a black man – they had asked him questions as a scientists. And that was his contribution right there. Just being a public black intellectual would challenge white stereotypes and at the same time give black youth someone they could look up to.

I’m probably oversimplifying the story terribly, and if Mr. Tyson would like to correct me, I will be more than happy to fix it. After I stop sqee-ing.

In any case, that’s kind of the model I’m using for Harcrow’s intersection between his racial community and his chosen profession. This is how he contributes and how he makes a difference, by being a person who makes the world a better place by being the brightest man in the room. Of course, writing about race has its pitfalls, certainly. We all remember RaceFail ’09, and the lessons it imparted. But when I do approach it, I’ll do my best, and if I screw anything up big-time, I will gladly seek feedback from people who know more than I do about being a Person of Color.

Eventually, by the way, I’m going to have to work on Tobias Rhyne, too. If anyone can be said to be Harcrow’s nemesis, it’ll be Rhyne, even though the two never met in person. How would Harcrow react to meeting the man who stole everything he loved from the world? Would he be able to hold up to the ethical models of his heroes, or will he just snap and try to pummel the man to death with a lead pipe? I know what he wants to do, but will he let himself do it? That right there is the big story that needs to be told.

There’s also some entertaining back-stories to tell as well. Helping heroes work out their powers, being the scientific point-man for Heroes United, things like that. It could be comedy, a little mystery – who knows? I get the feeling that he’s lived a long and full life, and there are many places where I can drop in and take a look.

Day One Hundred and Fourteen: Dr. Julian Harcrow

September 12, 2011 2 comments

Part of writing is getting to know your characters. The way that I’ve been working so far, there’s not been a lot of time to do that. I write a story, and move on – maybe coming back another time to revisit the people I have created, but usually not. So just for fun, I’m going to do some character interviews this week and see what I can find out about the folks who emerged from between the folds in my brain. To do so, I’ve got my list of characters and the fine folks over at random.org, and together I’ll be randomly choosing my subjects. If you have a request for a character interview, let me know in the comments and I can see to it that he or she jumps to the head of the queue.

For our first interview, we will be talking to Dr. Julian Harcrow, a character mentioned but not met in the story for Day 36 – Interviews. What a nice coincidence. Let’s see what he has to say about himself.

——————————–

Good evening, Dr. Harcrow. Thank you for sitting down with us.

Will this take long? I have some experiments in the lab, you see, and they’re vital to my work.

What a great place to start! Can you tell us about your work, Dr. Harcrow?

I, um. Yes. Yes, fine. Where shall I begin? Um…  I have advanced degrees in biochemistry, quantum electrodynamics, abnormal psychology, and I have won no fewer than three Nobel prizes in the lifelong pursuit of the understanding of metahumans.

I’m sorry – metahumans?

Yes. You’d think of them as “super-heroes” perhaps, but not all of them run off and put on tights. Most of them would really rather just be able to live their lives like everyone else. What makes them special is that they are able to do things that they really shouldn’t be able to do – bend steel in their bare hands, fly under their own power, duplicate themselves, that sort of thing. The sheer variety of powers has afforded me a lifetime of study, if not more.

How did you get started in this line of science?

Well, let me see. I remember as a child growing up on the poor side of Corsair City. My family was in pretty bad shape – single mother, far too many children to deal with. And I was smart, even when I was little. Smart enough to know that crawling out of there would be nearly impossible. I had seen others try and fail, and come back to numb themselves with alcohol and drugs.

But then, one day, I saw Captain Cosmos for the first time. You know who he was?

I do remember hearing about him from my parents.

Yes. Well. The first time I saw him was during a tenement fire. Someone in our neighborhood had left something on the stove or fallen asleep with a cigarette – it didn’t matter. Within minutes, the whole place was ablaze, and people were running around like rats caught in a trap. My mother was almost instantly overcome by smoke, my older brothers ran for their lives, and I was the only one who was actually trying to help people get out. But there was no way out. You ever been in a tenement fire, son?

Well, no. No I haven’t.

Count yourself lucky. That place was falling to pieces before the fire started. When the burning began, well… I figured there was no escape. I would die in that slum after all. And then… Then the wall in front of me just – vanished. And there was a man there, this huge man was just… floating there, like it was the most normal thing in the world. He was dressed all in white and gold, and he was shining like the angels my mother had taught me about, except that his skin was dark – even darker than mine! Heh…

I don’t know how many times he had to call me before I realized that I wasn’t dead yet. He saved us all that day. Each and every one of us.

How old were you?

I was twelve years old. About halfway through high school at the time, and when I met Captain Cosmos, it was like I saw my whole future laid out before me. Here was this man – no, “man” isn’t even the right word. This “being,” who had the powers ordinarily reserved for the gods. He could do things that human beings weren’t supposed to do, and yet here he was – walking among us, shaking our hands, kissing our babies. Saving our lives. He was pretending to be one of us. It really made no sense to me, and there was only one way I knew of to deal with things that made no sense.

And that was what got me out. I studied, I applied for every scholarship and loan available, and I worked my fingers down to the nubs to see to it that I’d be able to go to school and get out. Captain Cosmos was my guide.

I wish… I wish I’d had the chance to tell him.

So you started studying metahumans in university?

If you can call it that, yes. Mind you, there were no metahuman studies classes or departments at the time, not to mention that I was a fifteen year-old kid from the inner city. The place was full of walls that I kept having to knock down and traps that I had to disarm, and do it all with a smile. When I finally got to the university at Corsair City, I had to fight tooth and nail to design my own program based on what little information I had about metahumans at the time. My dream, of course, was to get Captain Cosmos into my lab, to talk to him and perhaps really give him a good examination. But it… It just… Well. You know what happened.

Doctor Charkus’ attempt to destroy New York City, correct?

Yes.  Captain Cosmos gave his life to stop that madman. He saved the lives of millions of people – billions, if you really think about it. I was devastated. It was like watching God fall from heaven and lie battered and broken in an alley somewhere. I didn’t think I could even imagine anything worse than that, not for a long time.

But Cosmos’ sacrifice led to the new renaissance of heroism, did it not?

It did indeed. When he died, it seemed like the heroes came up out of the ground, like the dragon teeth of Cadmus. They saw that the world needed them, needed true heroes, and they answered that call. They flew, they ran, they swam and teleported into action, and it stunned me to realize just how many different powers it was possible to have. The world would clearly be in good hands with this new generation. But as many friends as I have made in the last forty years of studying metahumans, I would honestly love nothing more than to see Captain Cosmos one more time.

How did you become active in the metahuman community?

Well, like I said, I was eager to study them, so I just started introducing myself. There’s quite a concentration of heroism around Corsair, so all I really needed was a police scanner and a good bicycle. I was young and reckless and just rode off to whatever disaster or major crime the heroes were solving. And when it was all done, I’d walk right up to them, hand them a business card and say, “I’m Doctor Julian Harcrow, metahuman expert. At your service.” And then I’d just turn around and leave. (laughs) I still can’t believe I got away with being such a pompous ass. The things you’ll do when you’re young…

But you got their attention.

Indeed I did. One day, a young woman who called herself Prizm showed up at my lab in a flash of light. She said that she wanted to know more about her powers – how they worked, how she could use them better. And I kept up my facade of being a “metahuman expert” and schooled her in basic physics. Her powers were light-based, so we learned about the electromagnetic spectrum and what it could do, and it just went from there. I designed some training activities out of whatever I had laying around in the physics lab, and a few weeks later she’s calling herself Photonika and doing some really amazing things.

I… uh… I didn’t have any say in the name, though.

How long was it before you were the go-to scientist for the metahuman community?

Not long. It’s a smaller group than you think, and word travels fast. Pretty soon I’m being counseled on missions, and even asked to actually do medical tests on heroes, which was what I’d wanted to do in the first place, and I made some amazing discoveries. I unlocked a lot of what it means to have superpowers and what they do to the human body. I spent years working with these people and helping them understand themselves. There was probably no greater body of data on the planet than mine on the biology and physics of metahumans.

Well. Perhaps one. But we know how that turned out.

You’re referring to Tobias Rhyne’s gene bomb?

Yes.

(pause)

You have to understand. The men and women who died that day? They were my friends, most of them. And even the ones who weren’t, I knew their names. I knew who they were. And I had to watch them fall out of the sky. Burst into flames. Drown. Slam into walls. And that day, everyone came to see me. I had tried to keep my job as the Doctor to the Super-Heroes quiet when I could, but there was none of that anymore. My office was filled with people, panicking. Panicking! These were men and women who could shrug off bullets, who slapped around giant frog-monsters or wrestled continents, and they were sitting in my office just… broken. Crying, some of them. Begging. All of them.

Begging.

I tried to help them, I really did. When I told them that they weren’t metahumans anymore – that they were just human, it was like trying to explain death to a five year-old. They just didn’t understand. Some got angry. Some got really quiet. Some of them thanked me politely, went home and killed themselves. Every time I thought I had had enough, every time I had to lock my door and just weep and swear it was for the last time, there would be another knock at my door. There would be someone desperate for help, who thought I could save them. Who thought I would be the one to rescue them from hopelessness.

I’m sorry. Just… just give me a moment.

(pause)

Later, a group of non-meta heroes got together to try and capture Rhyne. Martial artists, robotocists, time-trapped heroes with amazing future tech. They assaulted his underwater lair, but it was too late. He was gone, his labs were destroyed. They brought me what data they could find, but it wasn’t anything I didn’t already know. Whatever allowed him to commit this… atrocity, he took it with him.

Have you made any progress towards restoring powers to anyone?

No, not yet. But that certainly won’t stop me from trying. Someone will track down Rhyne, or I’ll figure it out for myself. One way or another, there will be a new renaissance of super-heroes before my day is done. Mark my words.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I still have those experiments to deal with.

Of course. Thank you for your time, Dr. Harcrow.

Day Seventy-four: Mass Man

August 3, 2011 3 comments

I’ve never really liked giant robots.

Yeah, they look cool, and if you’re going to be making a B-movie and just happen to have a scale model of your city lying around, then go for it. You can’t beat a giant robot for that kind of thing. Giving teenage boys psychological problems, teaching small-town America the value of accepting differences, there’s really nothing giant robots can’t do. If you ask me, “Hey, you wanna get some beer and popcorn and watch a giant robot movie marathon?” I’d be all over that. I’d even buy the beer.

No, it’s the real ones that get on my nerves. I had just enough time to process that thought before I went slamming face-first through a series of brick walls, finally coming to rest in a local bank, covered in plaster and brick dust and embarrassment. I stood up slowly, with whatever dignity I had left, shook the dust out of my cape and held up an assured and confident hand to the employees and customers who were staring at me in horror. “Sorry for the disturbance, folks,” I said, dropping my voice an octave. “Don’t worry, I’ll have that little nuisance outside taken care of in a minute.” I tugged at my gloves, gave the bank manager a little salute, and walked to the door, back straight and chin held high, and if I could have died right then and there I think I just might have.

Once outside the bank I was able to get into the air and look around. It’s hard to miss a fifty-foot robot, especially when it’s bent on beating its way into the city armory. I honestly had no idea what Professor Anguinine thought he could accomplish. Here he had the money and the know-how to build a massive battle robot, practically impervious to anything that we could throw at it, able to stomp around the city like a four year-old playing dinosaurs, and what does he do? Does he patent his technology, maybe license it off to the military? Does he spin off his discoveries into consumer production and make himself insanely rich? Does he turn his engineering brilliance towards making a better infrastructure for his nation, thereby earning himself immortality in the eyes of the world?

He tries to break into an armory that doesn’t even have weapons in it anymore.

I flew over to the great glass dome that covered the pilot compartment, and gave the transparent dome a nice tap. With my fist. It rang like a bell, but didn’t crack, and Anguinine looked up. He’d really gone all-out on this “Evil Genius” thing: a white lab coat, goggles, flyaway hair. He even had the giant metal gauntlet on his right arm. For all I know, he ordered the whole thing from a kit.

But then again, I’m wearing spandex, a cape and a mask stuck on with spirit gum, so who am I to criticize?

I could barely hear him screech through the glass. “Mass Man!” I sighed. I really, really hated that name, but it was the one that damn reporter gave me, and it stuck. Trying to change it would be like the guy you called “Billy” all through college insisting that he be called “William” now because he’d gotten a job where he had to wear a tie. All it would get is a confused look, a good laugh and a reputation for being an uptight jerk. But, as unfortunate as the name is, it’s basically accurate – I manipulate mass, which allows me to do a whole bunch of interesting, super-heroey things. I can fly, punch through stuff, walk through other things, lift the unliftable. I have no idea how I do it, though. I just do.

This one time, I tried explaining what I do to a scientist, a guy from the government, and he just looked at me like I was insane. “Mass doesn’t work like that!” he yelled, and then spent a half hour trying to explain how I couldn’t possibly be able to do that things that I do. I just shrugged, ghosted through his wall and went on to stop a train from careening out of control into a nunnery or something like that. Honestly, in a world where metahumans are flying around all the time, I don’t see what he was getting all worked up about. I still hate the name, though, and refuse to incorporate it into my costume in any way, shape or form.

In fact, I considered changing my costume to a Catholic priest’s robes, but I figured no one would get the joke. Not to mention I wouldn’t get invited to speak at elementary schools anymore.

“You’re done here, Professor!” I boomed. “Your reign of terror ends now!”

He just pitched his head back and laughed. “My reign of terror? My reign has JUST BEGUN!!” He cackled, a real, full-throated supervillain cackle, which was about where my patience ran out. I reached through the glass like it was thin air and went to grab him.

That’s when he hit me with the nerve gas.

I’m strong, and I’m tough, but I’m not invulnerable. Not on the inside, anyway. I started coughing so hard that tears ran out from under my mask, nearly undoing the spirit gum. I couldn’t get any air into my lungs, which is really distracting – a bad thing when you need at least some concentration in order to keep yourself hovering fifty feet in the air. I dropped to the shattered concrete, my fingers clawing at my throat as my windpipe swelled shut. The only thing I could see through my darkening field of vision was a giant, spiked robot foot hovering over me, ready to pound me into a bloody mess.

That’s when the world exploded with light.

I couldn’t see clearly, but I knew that the robot had been blasted away by something of terrific power. A human-like shape in silver and blue cruised over me in the direction the robot flew, and that was the last I saw as my eyesight dimmed.

A moment later, someone clamped a gas mask over my face and said, “Just breathe. You’ll be all right.” I did as I was told, as if I had any other real choice, and almost immediately my eyes started to clear and I was able to breathe without feeling like someone was jamming spikes into my lungs. I turned, keeping the mask over my face, and then I almost dropped it.

It was the Lady of the Rooftops, the guardian of Corsair City! I don’t know what she was doing in my town, but she was a legend in the metahuman community. She was one of the first to come out publicly as a hero and dared the police to stop her from cleaning up Corsair. They figured it was easier to just go along than to fight her, especially after that helicopter incident.

And if she was here…

I looked up and around, and she laughed under her mask. “He’ll be around soon enough,” she said. “Just keep breathing. Anguinine’s toxin is nasty, but predictable. This ought to clear you up pretty quickly.” I nodded and got my first good look at her. She wore dark grey and green, and the armor she wore made her look even more dangerous than she already was. There were countless rumors about the tech she was sporting – no one knew if she was a meta or not, whether she was using human technology or alien, or even something from the future. All we knew was that she was not someone you wanted to be fighting against. I said something to her that got muffled by the mask. She cocked her head. “Sorry?”

“It’s very nice to meet you,” I said, feeling only slightly more embarrassed than I had when I left the bank. Ever since I put on the tights I’ve wanted to meet her, and him, but not right after getting my butt whipped by an insane engineer. “I don’t usually suck this bad.”

She laughed, and I imagined she was beautiful under that mask. “We all went through it,” she said. “You’ll get better, Mass Man.”

I winced and tried to cover it by taking another lungful of whatever she had given me. We sat like that for a minute or two when a light flashed a few feet away from us and Photon walked out of nowhere. If I had been tongue tied talking to the Lady, my brain just shut down when I saw him.

Here’s an unpleasant reality about the super-hero community: despite the fact that most people look just awful in spandex, we all wear it. Why? Because he does. Because he’s Photon the Magnificent, dammit, and he is probably one of the very few who can really pull it off. But for more than just fashion sense, he is a true model for anyone who calls him or herself a super-hero. He’s gone toe-to-toe with world-class villains, saved the planet more times than normal people change cell phones, and yet still manages to be the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. Except for the people who are supposed to hate him, no one does.

He walked over to me, and I tried to stand up. “No, no,” he said. “Don’t stand up. That gas can be pretty nasty.” I stood up anyway. He reached out and shook my hand, and I nearly passed out. “Professor Anguinine’s robot is disabled, and he’s in the hands of the police,” Photon said. “You did good work out there.”

“Seriously?” I said. “I got my ass kicked. Twice!”

Photon laughed and shook his head. “The first week I tried heroing,” he said, “I got completely bamboozled by a gang of fourteen year-olds. They had me searching high and low for ’em, and by the time I found them, they’d spent all the money they’d stolen on weed and booze.” He grinned at The Lady, who carefully didn’t meet his gaze. “If it wasn’t for The Lady here, I probably never would have found them.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Point is, we all have our bad patches. You get through ’em, and you go on.” He looked me right in the eye, and for a moment I could understand the power those eyes possessed. “I’m sure you’ll make us proud.”

He looked over at The Lady of the Rooftops and nodded. She took the respirator from me and stored it in a pouch hanging off her belt. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “We’ll see you around.” She tapped her wrists together, and the guards on her forearms started to glow softly. She put her arms to her sides, looked up, and took off into the air.

Photon and I watched her go. “A word of advice,” he said, and my attention snapped back. “Find yourself a friend. It makes the whole process a heck of a lot easier.” He took a step back. “Pleasure working with you, Mass Man,” he said, and with a streak of light, he was gone too.

I stood there in the rubble outside the armory, watching the sky. He was pleased to work with me. With me! Work! I could hear the reporters running up, and they were shouting questions that I didn’t really hear. They were also shouting my name, and for the very first time in my career, I didn’t hate it.

I cleared my throat, adjusted my mask, and took to the sky, leaving the reporters behind to watch Mass Man take off into the clear blue sky in order to watch over the city he loved.

Day Thirty-six: Interviews

June 26, 2011 7 comments

“All right, Mister Vails, it says here on your resume that you used to be… Umm…” The unemployment counselor looked up from the resume to the tall, muscular man who was sitting uncomfortably across the desk from her.

“Photon.” He cracked a knuckle with his thumb. “The Magnificent,” he said. His voice was flat, almost a whisper, and his wide shoulders slumped.

She made a note on the resume. “I see. And this was before the gene-bomb?”

The man nodded, and didn’t look her in the eye. The gene bomb had gone off two years ago, detonated by Tobias Rhyne, an inventor and technologist-turned-supervillain. Rhyne had developed a method by which metahumans could be stripped of their powers, and thanks to years of defeat at their hands, he had finally gone and done it. When the bomb went off, there were 5,313 metahumans working around the planet. Some of them were in mid-action when it happened, and plummeted from the sky like a horrible four-color rain. Others were suddenly subject to the laws of physics that they had previously ignored, and the results were grisly at best.

Those who survived had to do so without the powers they had come to rely on, and as yet no one had managed to find a way to reverse the effects. Professor Harcrow, of the Corsair City University – a three-time Nobel Prize winner and frequent ally of the international peacekeeping squad Heroes United – was said to be working on a cure. To date, though, no metahuman had recovered his or her powers. Some tried on their own, hunting down lightning storms or trying to re-create the cosmic vortexes that had blessed them in the first place. They were, to a man, unsuccessful.

It became necessary, then, for them to try and re-integrate into regular human society. Even those who had maintained secret identities were having trouble coming to grips with their situation. For them, being a super-hero was the real job. Newspaper reporting, working in an auto garage, being a police officer was just a way to pay the bills. Now it was their real life, and much like soldiers returning from war, they were having problems assimilating.

Constance Wixted had just started processing these claims, and they were starting to get to her. She had seen Photon the Magnificent before, of course – everyone had. The silver and blue costume he wore was unmistakable, and after he saved the Golden Gate Bridge from being turned into a harmonic earthquake generator by Lord Temblor, his fame rose as high as he did.

Now he was sitting in her cramped and dingy public assistance office, hoping to find some kind of work that was as fulfilling as world-saving. “Okay,” she said, trying to pitch her voice somewhere cheerful and optimistic. “What skills do you have that might be valuable to employers?”

He looked up at her, and she remembered for a moment the cosmic blasts that he used to be able to shoot from them. There was a video on YouTube of Photon holding back a rampaging battle tank with those eyes. Now they were flat. “I can type,” he said. “And I’m very organized.”

“Those are good,” she said. “Anything else?”

He sat there, and exhaled. “I’m good with people.”

Constance fought the urge to rub her eyes. “Mister Vails, I understand you’re in a difficult situation….”

“Do you?” he asked. He looked at her again, and for a moment there was strength in his face. “Have you ever seen the sky in the infrared? Have you ever felt the earth move under your feet and known that you moved it? Have you ever had an entire city thank you for returning it from a shadow dimension?”

She shook her head. “No, I – I haven’t.”

“Then you don’t understand anything,” he said. He stood up and took his coat from the back of the chair. “Thank you for trying, Miss Wixted,” he said. “This isn’t working for me.”

She stood with him. “Wait, Mister Vails!” He turned and looked over his shoulder. “Maybe… maybe you could do some work with an NGO, or a charity – I have a few here that-”

He shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s just… It’s just not the same.” He put his coat on, and she watched him as he walked through the waiting room and out the door.

Constance dropped back in her seat. She made a note in Vails’ file – “Pending” – and dropped it into a tray on her desk. “Next,” she said. A tall woman with green hair and a willowy figure stood up, smoothed her dress, and came into the office, closing the door behind her.

“Miss Pierce?” The woman nodded. “Sorry to see you here again so soon. The arboretum job didn’t work out, then?” The green-haired woman shook her head and, quietly, began to cry. Constance stood up and brought over the box of tissues she made sure was always within arm’s reach.

“Don’t worry, Miss Pierce,” she said. “We’ll find something for you.”

Day Twenty-nine: Initiation

Theo stood up from the crappy office chair the club had lent him, and looked out into the dancing, grinding crowd that packed the Underdome on a Friday night. There must have been five hundred people, all pressed against each other and most definitely in violation of fire code. But they were loving it, each and every one of them – everyone who could fit on the dance floor was there, putting their bodies to the mercy of the beats that Theo was giving them, surrendering to the harmonics and the rhythms that filled every inch of the venue.

He tweaked the bass a little, giving it a velvet feel that slowed the crowd down a bit. He didn’t want to push them too far too soon. He closed his eyes and felt out the crowd, letting them move the way he wanted them to move, inching them closer and closer to that high that he promised from the moment the first foot hit the floor.

It was like sex, he often thought. Sex with five hundred people at once. He took a long pull from the water bottle. No wonder he loved it.

The crowd was starting to get its energy up again, and it was only eleven, so he moved the song to something simpler, more familiar. Give them a chance to relax a bit before going over the edge ’round midnight. Small clumps of dancers stopped, looking around as though they just remembered where they were. They hugged or high-fived or slapped an ass, and moved to the bar. The other reason to let them have their heads again, of course. As much as Theo loved what he did, he loved to get paid, too. And for a DJ like him, with what he brought to the booth, he was worth every penny they gave him.

He sat down and leaned back in the chair, taking a moment to himself. The groove-pop continued, promising the dancers a chance to relax, but with more to come if they want it. A couple of beautiful girls stood down in front of the DJ platform, all sweaty and gorgeous and alive, and they yelled something that he couldn’t hear. Well, he could. But it was more fun to pretend that he didn’t. He flashed them a hundred-watt smile, and there was a jump in the music that made them all laugh with unrestrained joy. He waved as they bounced off. The bartender took it as a signal for another water and sent his boy over.

“Great set tonight, Theo,” the kid said, tossing a plastic bottle underhand.

“Thanks,” Theo said. Even over the music, his voice was clear. “How’re we doin’ tonight?”

“We’re full up. And by the looks of it, this crowd’ll be here till dawn.”

Theo laughed. “Maybe they will, but I won’t. Your uncle’s only got me ’till three, and then I have other shit to take care of.” He drank again and waggled it at the kid. “Thanks for the water, Kev.”

Kevin smiled broadly and went to leave. Before he took another step, though, he stopped, and looked around. The DJ stage was usually a tangle of wires and turntables, at least three different Macs and milk crates full of CDs and vinyl. But when Theo was here, there was none of that. Only one laptop, and that was just playing a bright and hypnotic screen saver. And it didn’t seem to be connected to anything at all.

He looked at Theo, and Theo looked at him. He gave a wink, finished the water bottle, and turned back to the crowd. The music took a new turn, clean and renewed, and Theo immersed himself in the crowd again.

The night climaxed around two, in a confluence of sound and rhythm that left the dancers joyful and exhausted. They left in small groups, flushed and happy, ready to come back next week. Theo shut down his laptop and slid it into the new messenger bag he’d bought the week before. The computer wasn’t necessary, really, but he had to have something. No point in being too much of a show-off.

Kevin’s uncle handed Theo an envelope with a smile and a slap on the shoulder. “Same next week?” Theo nodded and left the club, the doors locking behind him.

He turned up his collar against the cold and started making his way to a main street to catch a cab. This time of night there would have to be at least one to take him home. A little sleep, a bright new day to work on some remixes and mashups and maybe a date in the park.

“Hey, man,” a voice said from behind him. It was high and tremulous, just the right sort of voice for a pitiable homeless guy. And fake. Theo could tell that much. “Got any change?”

Theo kept his head down and tried to walk a little faster. Footsteps picked up behind him, at least two. “You got nothing for me?” the voice said again, dropping any pretense of being a harmless beggar. A third person stepped out of an alley in front of him, and Theo stopped. The yellow of a streetlight glinted off a knife. “Hell,” Theo whispered.

The guy behind him laughed. “That’s good,” he said. “You’re smart. No need to get pointy things involved.” The knife-wielder stepped forward, perhaps a little more inclined towards involving pointy things, and the two guys he couldn’t see came closer as well. “You just give us whatever money you got, and you can go on home safe and sound. Everybody’s happy.”

Theo took a breath. “Fireworks,” he said.

There was a moment of silent confusion. “The hell?”

Theo let the breath out, and an explosive blast of sound erupted outwards, warping the air itself and throwing his attackers into brick walls. It also broke windows and set off car alarms on the whole block. The men lay on the ground, blood trickling from their ears and noses. After a moment, Theo could hear sirens off in the distance, coming closer. “Stupid,” he said to himself. How could he think a blast like that wouldn’t attract attention?

He started to run.

An electric-blue blur passed in front of him and resolved into a woman – taller than he, with short black hair and a full-face mask. He stopped short and let loose with another concussive blast.

The woman vanished and reappeared behind him before the echo died. “Nice,” she said. “Got anything faster than sound?”

He spun, and she was gone. “What the hell are you?” he yelled, his voice amplified and distorted. It sounded monstrous.

“She’s just making sure you’re who we’re looking for,” said a voice from the darkness. A tall man in a glowing red and black suit emerged from the shadows, as if unwrapping them from around himself. He wore a helmet that should have looked stupid, but didn’t. The woman in blue appeared next to him in a rush of wind. “We’ve been looking for you for quite a while.” He looked up, and everyone followed his gaze. “Isn’t that right?”

A girl floated down from between the buildings, bringing a soft fall of snow with her. She had pale blue skin and hair so white that it glowed in the darkness, and had compound, lenticular eyes that made her look not of this earth. She carried a staff in her left hand, and it hurt to look at.

When her feet touched the ground, she was a full head shorter than Theo. She reached up to touch his chin, and a faint hum filled the air. “You are he,” she said. Her voice echoed as he heard it, and the echoes persisted. “We need you.” Those eyes filled with light and compassion, and peered into him in a way that Theo had never known. They blocked out everything else but the hum, and the echoes, which were already starting to weave their way into a dreamlike melody.

She blinked, and it was gone. Without looking away, she said, “Take him.”

Theo had just enough time to see the man in the red and black armor raise a hand. Shadow flowed from it like a swarm, and enveloped him. All Theo had time for was one scream, and even that was cut short.