Not just comic book superheros live here. But when they do, it's amazing what can be accomplished with superhero legends in the hands of a capable writer.
Noted super villain and family man, Doctor Professor Putridor, succumbed Friday night at age seventy-two after a long struggle with the forces of justice.
Putridor was raised on a floating island in the Pacific by his maternal grandparents, the notorious husband and wife biological weapons threat known as The Exterminators. He spent his childhood, schooled in evildoing by his grandparents, off the coasts of New Zealand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, with summers spent in a hidden moon base. When my seventeenth birthday came and went without a word, I decided to take away your powers.
The plan was simple: radioactive powder in your cocoa. You'd promised never to miss morning cocoa after you spent my ninth birthday babysitting a hostage crisis at Euro Disney. You'd kept that promise--when you were home. Lieutenant Chang came back from Proxima Ceti IV a hero. My mom didn't come back at all.
"It was just her time," Dad said, his voice all echoey and weird through the rejuvenation pod that was regrowing his skin. He'd been mauled while saving Lieutenant Chang, but Mom's body had shielded him from the worst of the plasma beast. I could still see the shadows of her outstretched hands on his face, the skin clean and untouched by the burns that mapped the rest of him. I only have the one psy-identifier that California law requires, the unisex cuff I picked out when my abilities were found in the fifth-grade screenings. I wore it when I met you, our eyes meeting over the glistening arcs of glass rims from across the bar. We got to talking, got to flirting, and all your looks were innocuous--at me, the reflections off bottles, the sticky spilled-drink fingerprints on your glass--until you saw it for the first time (I would've noticed if it weren't) and brought it up.
"What's that for, then? Empath? Telepath? Pyrokinetic?" Each said with an accepting waggle of the eyebrows, as though light scandal was the worst that could come of an identifier. Our intrepid heroes were making their way across the wastes of the world. We were in the future. The entire world was wasted. It didn't care anymore, and neither did we, but the heroes, they cared, and they picked up the trash we had left behind to rot. The trash couldn't rot because it was plastic. Everything worthwhile was artificial. Still, the heroes collected the trash and built new heroes from it.
We were buried under a plague of noble heroes. We were in the future. The heroes lived in our homes without our permission and they judged everything we did or didn't do. They frowned when we didn't replace the empty roll of toilet paper. They frowned when we threw the cardboard roll into the recycling bin. We didn't know what they wanted. They refused to tell us. There is a button looming over us, round and red and waiting. If I close my eyes I can see it, a bulletproof plastic case covering it in its shining metallic console. And the console rests in the bowels of a fortress impregnable for its distance as much as for the ring of blue flame surrounding it. Blue flame. Of course she found a way to surround her fortress with a ring of flame, never mind the vacuum, the impossibility of sustained combustion on the naked surface of the moon. It wouldn't be hers without the fire. She needs it, the symbol, the existential warmth of it. She needs the burning, needs to share it, to set it free. That's who she is. That's who she will always be. It's what drove her from the planet that birthed her and why the button hangs over our heads, waiting.
She's going to press it. The cars might as well have been parked. Sixty miles an hour is just not that fast anymore. I ran between the rows, head down, arms pumping. It doesn't propel me much faster, relatively speaking--like running on board a jet plane--but it's necessary. Everything is necessary, if it increases my efficiency by even the slightest margin.
I slowed as I neared the crash site. It's hard to see in the blue-lit twilight that comes when I push myself to my limits; I didn't want to bump anything. Might cause more damage than I prevent, at this speed. I met you the summer I was nineteen. You were a shadow on the wall, tall and intimidating in a way I could never be, and you were all that stood between my first supervillain and me.
You grinned and leapt down in your black domino mask and high-top sneakers, before I even stepped past the mouth of the alley. Darnell stopped throwing bags into the back of the garbage truck for a moment to look up at the two streaks chasing each other across the sky above the city: one red, one blue. He rubbed his callused hands against each other, working the dirt and dust further into the lines of his palms. "Hey, Leena," he said.
Leena climbed down from the garbage truck's cab and walked over. She wiped sweat from her forehead, smearing it with grit. "What's up?" Ultraman enters the room slowly, pausing in the doorway for effect. He has purposely kept us waiting for ten minutes. A smile tugs briefly at the corners of his mouth as he steps ponderously over to the dark green chair at the center of all the lights and cameras. This is the final interview. All the safe and simple questions have been asked and answered. It's time for the tough ones. That's why the network hired me. Our viewers want to know.
The chair is especially designed to accommodate his bulk and support his weight. Hyperdeveloped muscles are evident even beneath the fabric of his suit coat. They bunch and shift beneath his skin with every movement he makes. Together with his granitic features and the brow ridge that canopies his eyes, they turn him into a caricature of physical strength. Listen here, son. There are rules to being a hero, and sometimes it isn't best to learn them on your own--
No, no, she can wait. I know you're eager, but she's locked away, she isn't going anywhere. You can go to her any time. Just be patient.... The old man set the bottle in its stand, leaned back into his pillows, and sighed.
"Perfect. I've still got my touch." The door to the roof slams shut with a bang and I jump, involuntarily. For a moment Roger is nothing but a dark figure illuminated from behind, and then he is reduced to the orange pinpoint of his cigarette as the light from the doorway is extinguished.
"You okay?" he asks. The orange light glows brighter as he takes a drag. Dora didn't recognize him when he walked into the store. Not at first. She only knew someone important had entered because her supervisor, Madame Furie, said so in her earpiece. "Code Yellow," Madame Furie said, leaving her to try to remember which emergency that was supposed to be. Not the one for police, Code Blue, which went off pretty frequently at month's end, when the cops were trying to fill quotas. Not the one for robot armies, Code Steel.
No, this one was Code Yellow, which she didn't remember, followed a moment later by, "Holy crap. It's Power Star." Clay felt his blissful night sputter and die in the morning reality of public transportation. "No, really--I don't take the bus."
Her jaw dropped open--but she kept the morning-after smile fastened to her face. "I thought you were joking. How else are we going to get there?" Sasha took what looked to be the third- or fourth-to-last sip of her Jack and Coke, still flirting with the idea of a second round. This was pure fantasy, she knew. After a shift and a half at the hospital, she was too tired to linger in the little roadside bar, neat and quiet though it was. And she didn't want her breath to get too boozy, in case the girls woke up when she snuck in for their belated goodnight kisses.
Someone--a man, she thought--slid onto the stool to her left. The bells over the door hadn't jingled, which meant the man hadn't just come in, but had probably been one of the anonymous heads turned away from her, toward the baseball game on the TV mounted above the far end of the bar; which in turn meant his change of position likely had something to do with her. There was this bunch of people, like maybe fifteen or sixteen of them, who just out of the blue suddenly got the superpowers of their choice. Raymond chose the power to make really delicious food that's also good for you.
Some of the other new superpeople laughed when they heard his choice. "Ha ha!" said Laser Eyes Guy. "Mom power!" Charlie let the temporal freeze come instantly. The slowing of time was instinctual now. He'd had months in the sanitarium to perfect it. He flipped it on like a light switch as soon as he heard the gunshot.
The gun was pointed at Meaghan. Had he not slowed time, the bullet would've already entered her torso. As it was, he could see the bullet hanging in midair. We were sitting across from each other on the subway car. I wouldn't have been looking at her--there, I mean--except it was the first thing I noticed. Sometimes your body reacts in a certain way, whether you want it to or not, or even before you know you're doing it. Face, chest, face. Sometimes I hate myself for being so hormonally driven. Which doesn't stop me from being that way.
Once I'd seen, it was too late. I mean, I couldn't stop looking, wondering if it was real. I studied her face. I knew it was her. The stripes, those colors, that metal-studded bra strap--all peeking out from beneath the collar of her cotton sundress. And I knew it had to be real. I mean, the rest of it could be fake or a joke or themed underwear (themed underwear?). But a metal bra strap? It had to be her. Dmitri's exists in the cracks between the city, in the red zone, where the officials are too busy with the girls to see anything else. It's the only place Kane can go without someone watching him. He sits at the end of the bar, the amber whiskey in his glass trembling in time with the thumping bass of the music overhead.
"You want a dance?" The trucks roll into town like a fog, muted colors and brands dotting their sides like worn heraldry. Soon the spikes are down and Sluggoth is pouring the sand. Rime lifts the tents with cool, arctic winds from his fingertips. Panoply's clones hammer nails and put up boards. And everything starts to look familiar again.
In the main tent, around the sand and dirt floor of the arena, a wooden wall is erected eight-feet tall. The worn, angled seating rises from there. A makeshift gate sits on the side where the opponents emerge, and another across from it from where I emerge. Real boulders dot the floor for cover or weapons, or both. Everything is wood or stone, nothing metal. Destiny drove him forward like a taskmaster from the bus, up the grand entranceway into the ballroom at the Civic Centre, past the sign-in table where he received his laminates and loot bag, onward to his publisher's booth in a back corner. There it was: the fabled anthology, bright with colour but creepy enough to grab his attention. He picked up a copy to examine it closely, saw his name on the cover, third from the top, felt a surge of satisfaction. His first sale as an author.
"Do you like science fiction?" "Ladies and gentlemen, although all of the participants are consenting adults, the final act of the evening is illegal under United States law," said the announcer. "Fortunately, our ship has passed the twelve-mile limit, so we are in international waters."
Guillermo turned his attention from his frozen strawberry margarita to the stage as the ceremonial drums ushered in the feather-clad dancers. At the center of their multicolored whirling, the black-masked priest stood behind the altar. The drums grew louder, slower, and the dancers parted to allow a young man to walk step by step to the altar. Face painted crimson, he was stripped to the waist. Sweat glittered on his chest. "How's he been?" my sister asks, entering the room I am not in.
"Not good." Our mother stands in the window, her silhouette like a beacon of dark across the city's nightlights. "During the day, he's okay. He even smiles. But at night." When she turns, our mother's gravel grey face twitches. "I'm running out of options here, Maggie." Over the fields of Afghanistan where the red poppies flower, Bazooka Joy, former Girl Guide, rides a chopper into battle. Distant explosions rock the air but are dimmed by the sound of the rotor blades. Bazooka Joy, the All-American Girl Hero, runs her hand through her short-cropped hair and stares down where a virtual map enforces itself over the landscape.
Who is she hunting? A rogue Taliban? An Al-Qaeda operative? Or perhaps an evil drug lord intent on, if not world domination, at least the opening of profitable new markets for heroin in the land of the free and the home of the brave? It is possible even Bazooka Joy doesn't know. Music plays in the background. Something classical and German with a beat--not bad. The chopper heads lower in a graceful arc. Bazooka Joy drops some napalm on the poppy fields. Anti-aircraft machine guns open fire. The chopper rises, swift as a bird. This was what I got for being nice to the new kid and inviting him to hang out. Reading through my comics collection in my bedroom, we'd been arguing all morning.
"You're so stupid," he said for maybe the millionth time. "If you could be invisible, why would you choose to be a shapeshifter instead? You could just go wherever you wanted in secret." I've already taken the pills. I hope they kick in before Jupiter comes to kill me. I sit on my sagging mattress, spiral notebook on my lap, ballpoint in my hand, deciding how I should finish the letter.
To everyone else Jupiter's a wondrous champion--leader of the world's greatest superhero team, the guy who turned back the Kraxx invasion of Earth, the man who made it safe to walk the streets of New York City at night. His ability to be a heartthrob and a family man at the same time doesn't hurt, either. The hero roars up on his Harley, and deploys a grin that could melt an ice cave. "Hey hon, what's new?"
I can tell you firsthand that it's impossible to hate a hero. It's also difficult to date one, unless you enjoy dangling from cliffs, being chased by henchmen through a burning building, or struggling winsomely against chains that bind you to the tracks. Otherwise, you'll never get his full attention. He's too busy running out the front door, still chewing half a mouthful of the full-grain pasta lasagna that you baked, because there's an earthquake or someone's cat is stranded up a tree. The Terrible installed a conveyor belt exclusively for her. It carried Invulnerabella along, wriggling helplessly toward the metalworks's blazing furnace, her sinewy arms bulging against carbon-titanium cables. Her curse stole her strength whenever she was bound; the material was purely showmanship. His trap would immolate her in the same metalworks that had forged these cables. It was the perfect doom, better than all the other dooms he'd ever concocted for her.
"History will remember me. Not Dr. Ogre. Not Male Gaze. It was The Terrible who conquered you!" It was a summer of superheroes. Children's dreams peeled themselves off the backs of cereal boxes and shimmering TV sets and thundered upward, ululating with joy and desire. Three-inch crusaders swarmed between skyscrapers, firing lasers from eyes and floss from wrists. Paul sketched their battles from window to office window, pressing so hard his pencil point snapped.
Not just comic book superheros live here. But when they do, it's amazing what can be accomplished with superhero legends in the hands of a capable writer.
by Paul Blonsky
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***Editor's Note: A bit of adult language in the story that follows.***
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