Tag: "superheroes"

EP412: Thirty Seconds From Now

by John Chu
Read by Joel Kenyon

Links for this episode:

About the Author…

John designs microprocessors by day and writes fiction by night. His work has been published at Boston Review, Asimov’s and Tor.com. His website is http://johnchu.net

Narrator Joel Kenyon

Joel Kenyon

About the Narrator…

Joel Kenyon is a veteran podcaster, writer, musician and artist. He’s currently a member of the 4 man comedy show, The Undercover Unitards and he also has a weekly independant music show called The Sunshine Happy Kpants Hour. When he’s not recording, he writes a movie review blog, occasionally draws an online comic, paints pictures, writes stories and attempts to make music with friends. Joel is not a fan, however, of writing in the third person perspective, so writing this bio was painful for him. Find him at: undercoverunitards.comtalkshoe.com/tc/113349,
AMomentaryLapseWithJoel.blogspot.com or GregoryRobot.blogspot.com

 

Thirty Seconds from Now
by John Chu

One second from now, the bean bag will thunk into Scott’s left palm. From reflex, his fingers will wrap around it before he’ll toss it back up again. The trick of juggling lies not in the catch but in the toss. The bean bag will arc up from his right hand, but Scott sees his left hand blur now. Phantom left hands at the few places his left hand may be one second from now overlap with each other, and with his real left hand about a foot above the cold tile floor he’s sitting on. The same holds for the phantom bean bags. They overlap each other and the result looks nearly as cubic, red, and solid in the air, stark against the dorm room’s blank walls, as the bean bag does right now resting in Scott’s right hand.

He’s making a good toss. This catch will be easy. His three bean bag cascade looks to him the way he imagines it must look to anyone else, well, if they were near-sighted and missing their glasses.

When he makes a bad toss, translucent Scotts scatter across the room. They reach for the beds on either side of him, lunge for his or his roommate’s desk, and dive over his bed for the closet. They all stretch for the myriad translucent bean bags raining from the stucco ceiling. The bean bags threaten to knock over the desk lamps, bury themselves in the acting textbooks that line his closet shelf and smack against the window blinds. A desperate enough toss and a phantom bean bag may fly through the doorway into the hall.

He does not need his time-skewed senses to know he will eventually make a bad toss. As hard as he tries to keep his sight solid, to make his life predictable, he will drop a bean bag. That’s why he’s sitting on the floor. It’s easier to pick up dropped bean bags that way.

Film Review: Chronicle

I’ve always enjoyed superhero stories — I’ve written a superhero novel and a couple of short-stories, and I’ve seen a lot of superhero TV shows and films. I recently saw Man of Steel, and I have to say that I may actually have enjoyed Chronicle — the story of three friends who gain superpowers — more than that huge-budget film.

Film Review: Griff the Invisible

Fans of True Blood know Ryan Kwanten as Sookie’s buff but not too bright brother, Jason Stackhouse. He plays the role really well, and the writers do a good job with him. But Kwanten isn’t just eye candy. Sometimes, he plays a man with cripplingly-bad social anxiety disorder who just wants to be invisible.

This man is named Griff, and the movie about him is called Griff the Invisible, which I watched last week.

EP350: Observer Effects

By Tim Pratt
Read by A Kovacs
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Diet Soap (2007)
All stories by Tim Pratt
All stories read by A Kovacs
Rated 17 and up for explicit language

Observer Effects
By Tim Pratt

“Ubiquitous surveillance isn’t the problem. Asymmetrical ubiquitous surveillance is the problem.” The Liberator was playing Chinese checkers against himself and talking, talking, talking, like always. “Who watches the watchmen, after all?”

We were superheroes then. Celebrities, back when there were such things. It was a slow night at orbital headquarters, and Eye-Oh was
sitting at the big screen, watching a couple of people fuck — consensually, or we would have done something about it — in an
alleyway. The screen was green with night-vision enhancements, and Eye-Oh’s strange complicated face was perfectly placid and empty as he observed.

“The problem is that we can watch ordinary people, and they can’t watch us,” the Liberator went on. He looked at me longingly, searchingly, and I thought it might be nice to tweak the inside of his brain and get rid of his earnestness, give him a little taste of what infamous brain-damage victim Phineas Gage got when that iron bar slammed through his frontal lobe, a total personality turnaround, from nice guy to sociopath. Let the Liberator be selfish and impulsive and violent and mercurial for a while, so he could appreciate the way normal avaricious sneaky hungry desperate needy people felt.

But that was supervillain thinking, and I’d gone straight and narrow. In those days I cured neurological damage instead of inflicting it. I fixed people. (Except bad people. Those, I was sometimes still allowed to play with with.) I’d refused to give up my supervillain name though. The Liberator had wanted to call me “Dr. Neuro” when I joined his little boys’ club, but I’d insisted on keeping my maiden name, as it were. Doctor. Please. I was a high-school dropout.

“Do you see?” the Liberator said. “If ordinary people could see us, if everyone could see everyone else, it wouldn’t matter if there were no privacy.”

EP349: Origin

By Ari Goelman
Read by Veronica Giguere
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Strange Horizons
All stories by Ari Goelman
All stories read by Veronica Giguere
Rated 13 and up for language

Origin
By Ari Goelman

This is how I find out that I’m pregnant:

I wake up to find Carter standing next to my bed. The fire escape door is open behind him, so the rising sun silhouettes his body. A human silhouette, albeit a little crisper than it should be, as his body bends the light towards him, powering up. Always powering up.

“You’re pregnant,” he says. No particular emphasis on the words, which is as per usual, his voice being run through vocal cords that are not human, formed by lips that have blown hurricanes off course. It’s not that he doesn’t feel emotion, he tells me and anyone else who’ll listen. It’s just that he doesn’t have the same biologically hardwired ways of showing it. Usually I believe him.

“What?” I rub my eyes, push up on one elbow. “That’s not possible.”

He leans over me, and touches my stomach. “I was flying by your apartment, thinking about you. I heard the heartbeat.”

“You told me that was impossible,” I say.

He frowns and asks, “I told you it was impossible for me to hear the . . .”

“Conceiving, Carter,” I say. “You told me it was impossible for us to conceive.”

“I thought it was. I was wrong.” His frown deepens. “I could take care of it for you right now if you want.”

I push Carter away from me and sit up. “For me, Carter?! You mean for us, right?”

“Right. That’s what I meant.” A pause, then. “You’re freezing the bed, Margaret.”

I glance down. Damn it. I’ve covered myself and the bed with a thin layer of ice. I take a deep breath and try to calm down before I do any permanent damage to my bed.

It strikes me that this whole thing smells of Dr. U. “Any idea where Dr. U is these days?” I say.

Carter shakes his head. “Ambrosius is reformed. This isn’t one of his plots, Margaret. You—we—have to decide what we’re going to do.” He winces. “Shoot. Bank robbery in Chicago. I have to go.”

He’s gone before I can respond.

“I should never date other supers,” I say, not for the first time. I put my hand on my stomach. Crap. I can barely keep a spider plant alive. There’s no way I’m ready to be a mother.

I look back at the bed and wave my hand at it, heating the molecules surrounding it until the sheets are dry and warm. Then I call in sick to my norm-identity job at the advertising firm, and get back into bed. Of course I can’t sleep.

After an hour of lying in bed, I get up and spend what’s left of the morning surfing the Internet for information on pregnancy. My Battalion cell phone rings a few times, but I don’t pick up. A few minutes before noon, I hear a tap on the window behind me and find Carter is hovering outside. “Come on in,” I say.

A blur as he detours through the fire escape door in my bedroom and into my apartment. I know. It’s weird—he lets himself in while I’m asleep, but if I’m awake, he’ll always wait until I invite him in.

He runs his hands through his hair. “Why weren’t you answering the phone?”

I roll my eyes. If he wants, Carter can fly faster than the signal on a phone. “What, did the bank robbery in Chicago hold you up?”

“It’s a tough conversation. I thought it might be easier for you to have it from a distance.”

“Easier for me?” I briefly consider incinerating Carter’s costume. I’m pretty sure I could keep the heat contained, but if I’m wrong I’ll end up having to evacuate the building and pay the fire damages. Again. Still, I’m thinking it might be worth the risk.

“Margaret . . .”

“You told me it was impossible.”

“It is. I mean I thought it was. All the dimensions I’ve been through. I mean, for crying out loud, we’re different species.”

“You’re telling me.”

Carter frowns, but for once doesn’t launch into his “Humanity is a matter of action” speech. “Neither of us want it,” he says. “Right? I could take care of it right now.” He looks at my stomach, and before I think about what I’m doing, I’ve thrown a wall of green ice between us, green being the color that stops Carter’s nebulon rays.

My hardwood floors groan with the weight of the ice, not to mention the stress of having all the moisture sucked out of them. If Carter was anyone else he’d be shivering, as all the ambient heat in the room flows into me.

Instead he looks at me in that way. Even now, his eyes make me catch my breath. No iris, no pupil, just blue. As best I remember biology class, there’s no way he should be able to see. Still, when Carter looks at you, you feel him look. I wonder if our child will get his eyes.

And that—that moment—is when I realize that I’m going to have the baby. Whatever Carter thinks, I’m going to have the baby. The thought makes me feel nauseous. Like my body is just catching up with the situation.

“You’re not thinking of keeping it?” he says. Typical Carter. He can hear the faintest heartbeat of an embryo, but a wall of green ice and he has only the vaguest hint of my emotional state. He doesn’t stay to hear my answer. A blur of motion, and he’s gone. Which I’m tempted to say is also typical Carter. But it’s not. Usually when we have an argument, he’ll ignore anything short of a full scale alien invasion—and I don’t just mean a few aliens, but the whole fleet / superpowered honor guard / mad empress deal. This time, though, he leaves me alone with the melting ice. But not really alone, I guess. I touch my stomach.

A few minutes later, I call Angie—my favorite teammate in the Battalion—to find out who delivers babies for people like us. She gives me the number, and I call and make an appointment for the following day. I don’t say much to Angie, but she shows up on my fire escape a few minutes later with some Chinese takeout and a lot of chocolate.

The next morning I again wake up to find Carter standing over me. “Hi,” I say.

“Hey.” He sits on the edge of the bed, takes my hand between his. “You know. I’ve been giving the whole baby thing a lot of thought.” He pauses, and for a moment I am flooded by affection for him. Then, he keeps talking. “It’s not responsible of us. We risk our lives every day. What if we die?”

I roll away from him, pulling my hand from his. I stare at the wall, but that’s no better. There’s a framed picture of me and Carter kissing—the cover from last year’s Valentine’s Day issue of People. I close my eyes before responding. “Norms die all the time, Carter. They still have babies.”

“I mean. Sure, I’d like to have a child,” Carter says. Something in the way he’s talking makes me think he’s practiced this speech several times before trying it on me. “But it’s selfish. What if one of my enemies—one of our enemies—tries to hurt us through the child?”

The thought makes me bolt upright in the bed, fists clenched. I feel myself absorbing heat, and I take a deep breath and release it. “If anyone tried that, we would kill them. I would kill them. And then I would incinerate their ashes. And then I would incinerate their ashes’ ashes. . . .”

“Exactly,” Carter says. “So what does that say—we don’t kill mass murderers in Sudan—those people we leave to the international justice system—but we destroy anyone who threatens our child? Where’s the morality there?”

He shakes his head. “The truth is we’re not ready for this.”

You’re not ready.”

“And you are?”

“I don’t know.” I swing my legs out of bed and stand up. “I just don’t know if I’ll ever be more ready. I don’t think you can plan these things out.”

“Of course you can. The ability to put off childbirth . . .”

“Enough, Carter.” It’s not that I can’t think of arguments. It’s just that they don’t matter. I want Carter to want the baby as much as me and he doesn’t.

I walk away from Carter, go into the bathroom to wash up. When I leave the bathroom, Carter is gone. I sigh and call for a Battalion transporter. Looks like I’ll be going to the doctor by myself.

The doctor’s office is on the top floor of a midtown skyscraper. There’s an entrance from the roof, a clear sign that he’s used to dealing with supers, and the exam room is the nicest room I’ve ever seen in a doctor’s office. It’s about twice the size of my apartment’s bedroom, and has a spotless white leather couch facing a huge flat screen television. The only sign of the room’s purpose is an examination table off to one side.

The doctor comes in a few minutes later. He’s tall, with salt and pepper hair and an even, expensive-looking grin. “Ice and Fire,” he says, extending his hand. “I’m Dr. Frank. Let me say what a big fan I am. You can be confident that I am fully qualified to deal with your particular—”

A baritone voice interrupts him. “Please, Doctor. All due respect, but you’re not qualified to take the lady’s temperature, let alone deliver her baby.”

Dr. Frank looks at something behind me, and his eyes widen. His mouth works but no sound comes out.

“Now, Margaret,” the voice says to me. “Hear me out. Please. That’s all I ask.”

I don’t have to look to know what’s behind me. Sure enough, when I turn around, I find that a shimmering green portal has appeared a few inches from the wall, and there, outlined in the bright green light, is Dr. Ambrosius Urbinski. Dr. U. As though I wasn’t already having a crappy day.

He looks the same as usual—white linen suit, shoulder-length red hair. Bushy red eyebrows obscuring his beady little eyes.

Judging by the portal, he’s got his damn E-Machine up and running again. He steps through the portal into the exam room, holding a stethoscope towards me like a peace offering.

“Give me one reason not to fry you, Ambrosius. And give it before you take another step towards me.”

He freezes in mid-step, which I have to admit I like. “I’m here to help you, Margaret. You need a doctor.”

I look at Dr. Frank, who has backed up until his back is against the door to the exam room.

“Seriously,” Dr. U chuckles. Not his usual evil laugh, but just a normal chuckle. It creeps me out to hear it coming from him. “I mean a real doctor.” He waves his hand at Dr. Frank. “Please. We need some privacy.” Dr. Frank turns and lunges through the door, almost tripping himself in his desperation to get out of the room.

Dr. U steps closer, takes my hand, and puts the stethoscope on my wrist. “How are you feeling?”

I jerk my hand out of his grip, and set the soles of his loafers on fire.

He grimaces and does a little two-step. “Please. Think of what the fumes will do to your embryo.” I hold my breath, but don’t put out the fire. “Margaret. I’m reformed. The president forgave my crimes. Why can’t you?”

I just glare.

He holds up his hands palms out, wide-eyed with sincerity. Or as wide-eyed as that squinty little bastard could ever get. “Look. I don’t blame you for not trusting me. I know I’ve hurt your feelings in the past.”

“Ambrosius, you didn’t hurt my feelings. You . . . you. Shit. Where do I start? You built a robot imitation of me to try to turn Carter against me. You tried brainwashing me into believing I had lost my powers. You animated the freaking Statue of Liberty and had her trash my apartm—”

“Margaret,” he interrupts. “Holding onto your anger doesn’t help anyone, including yourself. Trust me—I’ve learned the hard way. Forgiveness is the only path to recovery.”

“Recovery.”

“I’m a recovering supervillain. I forgive you and I want you to forgive me. I want us to move on.”

“And I want you to get the hell away from me before I fry you like a frigging French fry,” I say. Part of what’s creeping me out is how convincing he is. I think he genuinely believes what he’s saying.

“Hmm. About frying me. Or anyone else. Has anyone told you how using your powers will affect your embryo?”

I don’t say anything and he says, “Even if they did, it doesn’t much matter. Because no one knows but ME!” He roars with evil laughter, then quickly sobers, looking embarrassed. “Sorry. Um. Old reflex. What I meant to say was look—” He snaps his fingers, and a screen appears in the air next to him. There’s a picture of a smiling pregnant woman with blue and red arrows surrounding her.

“Cold is fine, but unusual heat anywhere near your body is another story.” The woman on the screen puts her hands to her cheeks and looks distressed. “The reverse entropy mechanism through which your bodily tissues produce heat may be extremely harmful to the embryo’s replication, a problem which will be exacerbated by the elevated blood pressure that—”

“No extreme heat,” I say. “I get it.” Speaking of heat, his clothes must be coated with some kind of fire retardant, because it’s taken me a few seconds to get them smoldering, too.

He edges back towards the E-portal. “All right. I’m going. But just think about it. We both know I’m the smartest man in the world. And even if you don’t believe I’ve turned a new leaf—you know I don’t break my word.”

I’m about to let him cower back to his secret fortress. I think about how mad Carter will be when he finds out that Dr. U approached me. I think about how much angrier he’d be if I said yes.

“Screw it,” I say. I cool off Dr. U’s shoes. “Say it all, Ambrosius, and you have a deal.”

It’s true, by the way. Dr. U never breaks his word. That’s how Carter used to stop his plots. They were usually too complicated for us to understand, let alone undo. Instead, Carter would just find Dr. U and dangle him upside down until Dr. U promised to undo whatever his latest scheme was and go to jail. Don’t ask me why Carter never made him promise to stay in jail. The two of them have that classic “old friends/college roommates turned archenemies” dynamic. Not-so-submerged homoerotic if you ask me.

Dr. U puts his hand over his heart, like a six-year-old saying the Pledge of Allegiance. “I swear that I’ll do no harm through action or inaction to you or your embryo or Carter.”

“And no cloning my tissue or the embryo’s tissue without my permission.”

He hesitates. “Okay. Fair enough. No cloning. But you promise to leave me alone. No more setting my clothes on fire to make a point.”

Now it’s my turn to hesitate. I know he won’t break his word, but I still feel like I’m missing something. “Okay. But the deal lasts until I say it does, and I can break it at any time.”

“Five minutes’ warning,” he says. “Give me a chance to get away.”

“Two minutes.” I put out my hand.

He takes it. “Deal. You won’t be sorry.”

I’m already sorry. Still, I have to admit, after we shake, it’s just like any other doctor’s appointment. Well, like any other doctor’s appointment that takes place in another doctor’s commandeered office. He takes my pulse, and my blood pressure. Then he puts the stethoscope on my stomach. I start to ask him if he hears anything, and he shushes me. Then shakes his head. “Nothing. Don’t worry. You’re probably still a few weeks away from a heartbeat.”

“Carter already heard one.”

“No he didn’t.” Dr. U shakes his head wearily. “I published an article in Nature two years ago that made it crystal clear that Carter’s whole super hearing/super vision thing is crap. It’s clairvoyance, plain and simple. But psychic powers are too effeminate for your boyfriend’s brand. No wonder he used to get so mad when I tested his abilities.”

“Like when you blew up your dorm room when he was asleep?”

Dr. U pulls out a vial for a urine sample and hands it to me. “I feel really bad about that. You can tell Carter that.”

The whole appointment is like that. Dr. U talking about how guilty he feels about everything. By the end of it, I almost miss the unreformed Dr. U. At least he wasn’t so stinking boring.

A few days later a small chrome box shows up in my mailbox. I press a button and it projects a small hologram of what looks like a fish. A slip of paper emerges from one side of the box. “Embryo week 6, magnified 100 times. Test results all looking good. Drink a lot of fluids. Step away from the projection device (not yet patented). —U.” I step away from the projection device and it dissolves into green flames.

And that’s how it goes. I see Dr. U every few weeks. I take a leave of absence from the Battalion so I won’t be tempted to use my powers. Of course, this also means I don’t have to see Carter every day. I hear about him on the news, of course, although he’s taking a pretty low profile, too. Early in my second trimester he makes a brief appearance to destroy an asteroid headed towards the Earth.

A few weeks later, Angie is over for dinner, and tells me that no one in the Battalion has seen Carter since the asteroid incident.

“Any idea where he might be?” she asks.

I hesitate. I swore never to tell anyone about his hideaway on the moon. I’m mad at Carter, but a secret’s a secret.

Before I can decide, Angie says, “I’ve already checked his little moon fort.” Angie sees my surprise and rolls her eyes. “Puh-leeze. You thought you were the first girl Mr. Perfect took to the moon? The Huntress spent a month there with Carter when you were still in grade school. Anyway, check this out.” She has to squirm to get her Battalion cell phone out of the tight leather pants she’s wearing. Angie is wearing what passes for her street clothes: black leather pants and a matching tank top, cut to allow a hint of cleavage in the front, and a wide range of motion for her wings in the back.

She shows me the screen. “Tell me this isn’t weird even for Carter.”

The pictures aren’t great, but I get a sense that the whole place—previously a sort of super-charged bachelor pad, all big-screen televisions, hologram projectors, and trophies from various super battles—has been totally destroyed.

“What is that?” I say. “What’s the blue stuff everywhere?” I’m thinking it’s an alien species of some kind, but I can’t get a good look on the little cell phone screen.

“Weird, eh?” Angela says. “The whole place is covered—floor, ceiling, walls. It’s like being inside a blueberry.”

“But what is it?”

Angela shrugs and slips the cell phone back in her pocket. “The big brains don’t have any idea. It could be an alien symbiote, could be an interdimensional extrusion.” She eyes me. “It could be a plot by your new doctor friend.”

I shrug, then turn back to my dinner. I’m almost as hungry as Angie these days. Flying takes lots of calories, but so does pregnancy. I talk around a mouthful of barbeque chicken. “Thing is, Ambrosius couldn’t resist bragging about it if it was him. Trust me. He talks so much, it’s a wonder he had time to be a supervillain.”

Angie leans back in her chair, resting her hands on her stomach, which I can’t help but notice is about one quarter the size of mine. “I’d be happier if Carter were around, that’s all.”

“You and me both,” I say. Figures. Like the pregnancy wasn’t bad enough, I have to worry about Carter now, too.

Aside from that, the second trimester is better than the first. The morning sickness goes away, and I get my energy back. For the first time since I’ve had my norm-identity job, I even go a few weeks without missing any work.

Near the end of the second trimester I’m meeting Dr. U in a small house in Westchester for a regular checkup. It’s a cold day for June—which is wonderful after sweltering in the city heat for days. We’re sitting in the backyard with a hologram of the fetus floating in the air beneath the elm tree where I’m sitting. I have to admit it makes me a little teary. The fetus looks like a baby now. The body is finally the right size for the head, and you can see the fingers and toes and even traces of its tiny fingernails.

Dr. U is muttering measurements—either to himself or to a recorder—as he moves the sonogram tool over my distended belly. “Note to self—BPD of 73 millimeters, femoral leg length of 53. Note to self—fetal proportions appear to tend towards Earth norm rather than PM. Note to self—in modifying PM sperm’s genetic footprint, I may have moved too far towards human norm. In follow-up experiment—”

“What?” I say. “What did you just say?”

He freezes, and I know.

“PM stands for Power Man. You did this, didn’t you?” I say. “You somehow instigated this pregnancy.”

His squint becomes so pronounced his bushy eyebrows entirely obscure his beady little eyes. “Now, Margaret. Let’s not get into a blame game. Anyway, how could I be responsible for your pregnancy?”

“Huh.” I force myself to smile. There are some tricks that never get old. In some ways Dr. U is pretty stupid. “You’re right. It’s impossible. There’s no way to knock up a girl—especially a superheroine—without touching her.”

“Exactly. It would be absolutely impossible.” He tries to keep his mouth shut, but he just can’t resist. “Or at least it would seem so. Of course, for someone as smart as me, it was trivial. I just inserted some modified sperm into your Carter’s testes when I last had him in my power. This was before my recovery, of course.”

“Whose sperm?” I’m almost afraid to ask. The thought of carrying Dr. U’s baby literally sickens me.

“His own. It would have to be his own or his body would reject it.” He flushes a little. “As it happened, I—um—had harvested his seed previously.”

“You ‘harvested’ Carter’s ‘seed’? You were gay!” I say. “I knew it. I knew it. Angie and I—”

“Are completely wrong,” Dr. U blushes a little darker. “Not that I wasn’t open to experimenting, but God forbid Carter touch another man. Have you ever seen him as much as hug a male friend? Him and Captain Planet and their handshakes.” He shrugs. “I took the tissue out of the garbage when we were roommates.”

“You swore no cloning.” I hope he did break his word. It would be such a pleasure to freeze him where he stands. Just a few degrees of cold can incapacitate almost any norm.

“I haven’t cloned a thing since we made our agreement,” Dr. U says primly. Averting his eyes, he mutters, “Our agreement said nothing about using the embryo’s excess stem cells to help create a new class of killer robots that can regenerate and recombine with one another at will. A man has a right to his hobbies.”

“What have you done with Carter?”

“What?! Nothing!” Dr. U says. “I’ve been looking for him for months to ask his forgiveness. I figured he was ignoring me.” I stare at him and he meets my eyes. Still, he only promised that Carter would be safe from him, he didn’t say anything about capturing him or stealing his memory or any of the rest of his usual crap.

“Okay,” I say. “You have two minutes. Run.”

“Why? I’m telling you I haven’t touched Carter. And haven’t I been a great doctor?”

“One hundred seconds,” I say. “I’d run if I were you.”

Dr. U just stands there. “Margaret, you’re being really unfair.” He glances down at his wrist communicator, and touches a few buttons. One of them activates a force field. “You’re also making it really hard for me to maintain a caring and empathetic doctor/patient relationship.”

I glance at my watch. “Seventy seconds.”

“Margaret. I hear that you’re feeling angry.”

I nod. “Sixty seconds.”

Dr. U swallows. He touches another switch on his wrist, and an E-portal appears behind him. He doesn’t turn, though. Instead he closes his eyes and hums. Then, eyes still closed, he says, “I don’t have to fight. I have everything I need to be happy already inside me.” He hums again.

“Thirty seconds.”

His eyes snap open. “Fine.” He spins and climbs through the E-portal, muttering. “It’s not evil if it’s self-defense.” The E-portal dwindles and disappears.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath and wait. In about five minutes I hear the distant whirring sounds I’m expecting. Without opening my eyes, I feel the little centers of heat approaching as Dr. U’s robot fleet flies closer to me. I suck the heat of the engines right through the pathetic little heat shields that Dr. U has inserted around them. I’m careful not to let the heat come too close to me, funneling it right back towards the robots, melting their propellers away. I hear the far-off thuds as the robots hit the ground a few blocks away. A few seconds later, I hear the whirring resume.

I sigh and open my eyes in time to see about a hundred robots streaming over the horizon, no doubt using some secondary energy source that doesn’t generate heat. Usually at this point, I would throw up a few walls of flame and ice to slow them down. Instead I focus on taking deep breaths, relaxing and looking vulnerable. As pregnant as I am, it’s not hard.

In past encounters, I’ve been too busy destroying them to appreciate Dr. U’s handiwork, but this time I just watch them approach. I have to admit it—his robots are beautiful. They are sleek and multicolored—silver and gold inlay shining from the green and gold siding. It’s as though a fleet of luxury sports cars have sprouted weapons and learned to fly.

The robots are just a few dozen yards away, when a killer breeze seems to move through them, leaving a debris of robot limbs and hands in its wake. When it settles, Carter is standing there, giving me an angry look. “Why would you call off the truce now?” he says. “It was totally irresponsible, when you can’t even fight.”

Another robot approaches him from behind and without turning, Carter backhands it, breaking it into dozens of titanium pieces. Behind him, I watch all the pieces from the shattered robots begin to recombine.

“How else was I going to flush you out?” I say. “Where the hell have you been? And what happened to your moon fort?”

Carter looks blank.

“The blue stuff?” I prompt him.

“Child proofing,” he says like it should have been obvious. “That place was all hard corners.”

Once the robot is complete it brings its hands together and points at Carter. Carter casually uses his silver cape to deflect the energy beam the robot shoots at him. “I want you to know,” Carter says, “that I still have a lot of doubts.”

He casts a quick glance behind him and sighs as another nine giant robots fly over the horizon. He looks more tired than I’ve ever seen him.

“Where have you been?” I say again, this time a little softer.

“Working,” he says. “Almost forty million babies have been born since we found out we were pregnant. I was protecting them. Trying to protect them.”

The nine robots combine with the first one to make a staggeringly immense robot, the size of a medium-rise apartment building. Its face bears an eerie resemblance to Dr. U.

“Carter, that’s impossible.” I say. “Even for you.”

He rubs his eyes. “I know,” he says. “I know. Do you know that 3 out of every 1,000 infants die in the crib? No one knows why. It just happens.”

“You can reduce the probability by half if you sleep them on their back.” Dr. U’s voice booms from the robot’s mouth. The robot lurches towards us. “And, by the way, I view this as self-defense. Margaret’s attitude was posing a real threat to my recovery process.”

Carter catches the robot’s giant foot as it approaches us. He flexes and—though this should be impossible given Carter’s mass relative to the robot—the robot flies upwards further than I can see. “The point is,” Carter says, “there’s nothing you can do about it. It just happens. Likewise autism, allergy to wasp stings. Whatever. Even a flu can be deadly to an infant.

“Do you know—200 major banks have been robbed since I stopped caring about crime? Several large insurance companies are suing me for negligence. Our pregnancy has single-handedly sparked the largest run on banks since the 1930s.”

Our pregnancy?” I say. “Did I see you puking every morning for three months? Did I even see you anywhere nearby?”

Carter starts to answer, then glances up. His eyes widen. A few seconds later, I see the robot approaching. Very fast. “Damn it,” Carter says. “I hope the fetus is okay with loud noises.” He leaps into the air straight towards the robot. They collide, and it’s like someone has struck a giant bell right next to my ear.

It turns out that the fetus is most emphatically not okay with loud noises. It feels like it’s trying to kick its way out of my uterus, as it flails around in response to the still echoing sound of the collision. “Shh,” I say, stroking my stomach. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” I take a deep breath. “Don’t . . . get . . . mad,” I say to myself. The effort of not going supernova is giving me a headache. “Shh.” I say again, as much to myself as to the fetus.

Carter lands a few feet away. “Are you okay?” he says.

“No . . . more . . . loud . . . noises,” I say.

“Right,” Carter says. “Sorry.” He glances up. “Uh-oh.”

The robot has split into hundreds of pieces. All of which are headed straight for us, moving very quickly. “Carter, why didn’t you just tell me where you were?”

“Look,” Carter says. “Forty million babies. I . . .” His voice tapers off. “I’m really sorry. No excuse.”

He moves too fast for me to see, but I can feel the friction of his body moving through the air as he shreds the robots. As fast as he shreds them, though, they recombine into other forms, working their way closer and closer to me. And the baby.

I sigh. Do I have to do every stinking thing in this pregnancy? Fine. I drop the temperature around us to as close to absolute zero as possible. Then I expand the bubble of coldness until it covers every robot, while still creating little bubbles of warmth for the trees, squirrel and sparrows that happen to be within that sphere.

It makes my head hurt more, but at these temperatures the robots can’t recombine fast enough. Carter is still moving too fast for me to see, but in a few seconds it’s over. When he slows, he’s shredded the robots into a kind of silvery dust except for a few frozen fragments—the base of a head here, a gauntlet there.

Carter grinds his heel on one of the fragments, and then looks at me full on. Oh, that gaze, I think. “I won’t be able to protect her,” he tells me. “Not totally and completely. Things will happen to her that I can’t control.”

One of the robot’s speakers is still working, although Dr. U’s voice sounds a little tinnier than it did. “Welcome to fatherhood,” he says. “Good lu—”

I pull some of the leftover friction heat into the speaker, and hear the satisfying pop of nano-transistors overheating and breaking as the speaker falls silent.

Carter sits down next to me. It always surprises me how small he is. When he stops moving, Carter is just a few inches taller than me, and no broader than an athletic norm. “She will get hurt, and I won’t be able to help.”

Her, I think, but I don’t say anything. After a second he tries to put his arm around me. After another second, I let him.

 

EP348: Nemesis

By Nathaniel Lee
Read by Mat Weller
Guest host: Dave Thompson of PodCastle
Discuss on our forums.
An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Nathaniel Lee
All stories read by Mat Weller
Rated 13 and up for violence

Nemesis
by Nathaniel Lee

It was the middle of second-period Spanish when I felt my cell phone go off in my pocket. Three pulses, then two. That meant one of my alerts had hit paydirt. I’ve got newsfeeds filtered for keywords, pairing “emergency” and the names of every local school and business I could think of, plus I got Kenny from sixth period computer Science to cobble together a kind of hack on the actual first responders’ radio channels. If my phone had gone off, then there was trouble.

If there was trouble, then the city needed Atom Boy.

So where was he?

Well, if I was in Spanish, then he was in History. No, wait, he’d dropped the AP course. Did he have some kind of math now instead? Crud. I had no idea. I’d lost our hero.

“Miss Ramsey?”

“Ahem!”

“Uh, um, I mean, uh, Señora Ramsey?”

” Sí, Quentin?”

“Yo, uh, yo poder uso el baño?”

“Puedo. Y sí, se puede. Andale.”

I clapped a hand over my pocket to keep my phone-bulge hidden and ran out of the classroom, careful to turn to the right as if I were heading for the boy’s room. A couple of months ago, that wouldn’t have been a bad idea; I’d discovered Adam’s secret when I walked in on him trying to get out of his tights at the end of fourth period. Which he’d missed, by the way, and I’d had to cover for him and pretend like I’d gotten a text from his mom about an emergency dental appointment.

Nowadays, I made him use the locked room in the old elementary school building, next door to the art room. I had a key because Mr. Adelaide trusted me to use it only to work on my project. I felt bad about abusing that trust, but I figure helping a superhero save the world every week counts as some sort of civic duty. I checked there first.

Adam was sitting at one of the old desks, his feet sticking out about a mile because it was designed for five-year-olds. He had his suit half on. His pale chest was bare, exposing those three wispy little curls that he was so proud of. He didn’t look up when I came in.

“Adam? What’s wrong?”

“I’ve lost my powers.” His voice was dull, his eyes unfocused. He sounded grim and deadly serious.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Adam, we’ve been over this. Remember, last month? You thought it was some kind of lingering effect from the Recluse’s poison bite, but it was all psychosoma-whosit.” I ran in and snatched up his backpack, rummaging for his pill-box. “Have you been taking your Paxil?”

“It made me gassy. I’m on a new one now. Starts with an ‘s,’ I think.”

“Well, whatever it is, have you been taking it?”

“No! I want to be me, not what some drug makes me.”

I resisted the urge to punch him. It would be like hitting a steel wall, anyway. Instead, I found the box and opened it. The previous week’s pills were all still in their slots. White pills, red pills, blue pills. Patriotic. “Which one is it?”

Adam shrugged.

“Argh!” I pulled out one of each, thought about it, then made it two of each. He had superpowers. He could take it. “Here. Take these and get a move on.”

Adam picked the pills up. “I told you, I lost my powers.”

“You did not.”

“Did so.”

I glared at him. This called for drastic measures. I turned, picked up a wooden dowel from the supply table, closed my eyes, and whacked him over the head. I used my right hand this time; my left is my drawing hand, and I didn’t want to lose it for two weeks. The actinic flash was blinding even through my eyelids, and I felt myself hurled backwards and into the pile of paper rolls. Better than the chairs, at least. I opened my eyes to see Adam standing, fists raised over his head and crackling with azure energy. His eyes glowed, too, and his hair stood on end and shimmered blue like it was made of fiber optic cables.

“Ha ha!” he shouted. “I’m back. I’m back!” He turned to me and his face fell. “Oh, geez, Q. I’m sorry.”

I glanced at my right hand. My fingertips were blackened, and soot from the incinerated rod reached up to my elbow. I didn’t even feel anything yet. I tried to move my fingers. Oops. Bad idea.

“I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine,” I said, gritting my teeth. I waved him on. “Just go get whatever it is.” I heard footsteps approaching. “Hurry!”

Adam nodded and took off out the window, leaving a trail of sky-blue sparkles that faded gradually. I hauled myself upright and smacked my lips. His backwash tastes like Blue Razzberry slushie. I wonder if he knows.

Someone was rattling the doorknob. Not Mr. Adelaide, then, at least. I’d hate for him to be the one to discover me ruining his secret room. I decided I’d tell them I was messing around with fireworks and burned my hand. As long as the nurse didn’t have a Geiger counter, they’d never know the difference.

I took a moment to look out the window. Adam was already out of sight, his trail hardly visible against the deeper blue of the sky. I turned and looked at my half-finished sculpture for Honors Art. I called it “Heroism.” I’d miss working on it.

I went to open the door.

#

That evening, I decided to go to the fort. I had to wait for Mom and Dad to go to sleep; I was grounded for a month in addition to the three-day suspension I caught for creating a fire hazard, and the only reason it wasn’t worse was because I’d managed to convince everyone I’d wanted to use the fireworks as part of an art project and not just as a prank. Not a bad idea, actually. I wish I’d thought of it before. At any rate, it’s a good thing Adam didn’t get superpowers until after I was already known as a “good kid.” We’d both have been expelled by now if I didn’t have that reputation to draw on. Even so, I was already on the last threads of trust with most of my teachers.

It was dark out in the woods. We’d had candles and flashlights and stuff stashed here for ages, though, and ever since I started taking Art class seriously, I’ve made sure I also had a good bright lamp and spare batteries. The fort itself was basically falling apart now. It had been falling apart when it was new, for that matter, just a couple of planks leaned together. We had a tent set up, though, and waterproof camping bags with all kinds of useful things. I know Adam kept his spare costume out here, for instance. And his porn stash.

My hand was all covered in ointment and bandaged up. They’d had to send me to the actual hospital because the nurse’s office didn’t have the right supplies. I still don’t think it was that bad. It just stung, was all. I could have gotten worse at a regular old campfire. It’s not like Adam hit me directly with one of his energy beams or something. I used my forearm to balance my sketchbook and kept my palm turned away. It itched, but I knew better than to try and scratch it. Being Adam’s friend meant knowing a lot about burns.

The first few pages of my sketchbook had some abortive landscape drawings and a first attempt at a still life for last month’s assignment. In the corners and the margins, though, were my anatomy studies. Mostly Adam, at least the recognizable ones. Adam laughing, Adam with his hair all glowy, Adam taking off from the barbecue pit at his house.

The others were all Belinda.

I never drew her in full. An eye, or a hand, or a shoulder; never enough that someone could recognize her. The stuff with Adam I could pass off as imagination, but when someone stole my sketchbook – and let’s face it, in high school, that’s a “when,” not an “if” – I emphatically did not want them to be able to figure out I had a pathetic geek crush on Linda. She goes by Linda now; she used to prefer Bella, when we were all little, but she hates those stupid vampire books and says they ruined the name for her. For all I care, she could call herself Snot-Hog the Uglinator and I’d still draw her in my sketchbook. I’d broken my rule, now that we were coming up to Winter Break, and started work on a full portrait of her. I wanted to give it to her as a present, but I also wanted to be able to disappear for two weeks right afterward if it didn’t go over well.

I’d been drawing it for over a week, working on getting everything just right. It was hard to work mostly from memory, but it wasn’t like I didn’t know what she looked like. She stared up at me from the page, her eyes dark and a hint of a smile playing around her lips. The background wasn’t filled in yet; that was what I’d come out here to work on. I’d decided on a vaguely Classical theme, so I started on the rough pencils for a set of columns and some curling vines. Maybe a fountain in the background. It was a relief to lose myself in my work for a while, like diving into a pool on a hot summer day, letting the stress and fatigue and pain drizzle away and leave me in peace. I decided my ego was bruised enough that I was allowed to indulge in a little fantasy, so I sketched myself in as a companion for Linda, off to one side. Very lightly, so I could erase it afterward; that would be more than a little presumptuous to give as a gift. It was only when I came to the face that I realized I’d drawn it wrong. This shape was tall, athletic, with a strong chin and pale hair.

I’d drawn Adam out of sheer habit.

Suddenly I didn’t feel like drawing anymore.

With a buzz and a rush of air, Atom Boy landed in front of me. “Hey, Q!”

“Hey, stranger,” I replied. “So what happened? The official news isn’t too helpful.”

“Oh, it was the Lizardtron again,” Adam said breezily. “Marcus thinks that the Genegineer is back, but I recognized that hydraulic work; I think it’s got to be Doktor Tektonic.”

“Who’s Marcus?” I turned off my lamp then closed my sketchbook and tucked it by my side.

“Huh?” Adam’s hair faded back to its normal blond hue, and stopped waving around like an anemone. “Oh, didn’t I tell you about him? He’s this old guy, I think he used to be Mentat, but now he’s a professor at some school for ‘special’ kids, if you know what I mean. He’s been coaching me. You know, mentally.” Adam tapped his head. “It’s cool. I checked his story out, and the Dean of Admissions said they’d offer me a place if I wanted it.”

“You’re leaving? Before graduation?”

“Well, I didn’t accept yet. I have to think about it, you know?”

I hesitated. This was a minefield. “You… haven’t mentioned any of this.”

“Oh, man, bro, it’s just been so busy. Like, the Underground attacked, and then there was that whole trip to the alternate Earth, and Marcus’ voice stopped when I went on that new medicine and I thought maybe it was all a hallucination and it was only today that he got through again. And then I lost my powers or I thought I did and you totally saved the day on that one, Q, Marcus said to tell you that you were cool about that with the thinking fast and stuff.”

“Did he actually say that?”

“No, he said something about a ‘level-headed young individual’ and stuff, he talks like he’s a hundred or something, but he would’ve said ‘cool’ if he knew any words later than like eighteen-twelve or whatever, and I think you gave me a little too much because I feel way hyper, do I seem hyper to you? Mom said it’s a side effect and it’s worse than farting in class but I can’t really tell what do you think?”

“Your mom’s usually right.”

“Dude, I am not getting back on the fart pills. That was awful.”

I managed a smile. “Oh, hey, I got your homework for tonight. I finished most of it, but I’m not in French so I couldn’t do that part.” I pulled the sheaf of papers out of my backpack and stood, careful of my burned hand.

“Q! You are the man, I swear to God.” Adam plucked the papers out and leafed through them.

“I even got a few wrong so they won’t figure out you didn’t do it yourself.”

Adam punched me lightly on the arm. It kind of hurt. “You doof.” Unexpectedly, he grabbed me and pulled me into a rib-cracking hug. “Man, I don’t know what I would do without you. You are my best friend, Q; I mean that.”

“It’s okay, Adam,” I squeaked, barely able to breathe. “You’d do the same for me if you could. You saved my mom from that giant centipede, remember?”

“Yeah, but that’s different.” Adam released me and ducked into the tent to change out of his costume. It’s amazing the difference clothing makes. No one’s ever even commented how much Adam Baum looks like Atom Boy. Probably the glowing blue hair helps. It’s really distracting. “Anyway, I have to get home. You want a ride?”

“Nah. You make everything taste blue for a week when you do that.”

Adam laughed. “You’re such a weirdo, Q. What does that even mean?”

“I’m serious! Have any supervillains ever complained about it?”

“Shut up. Oh, hey, by the way, be careful ’cause if it is Doktor Tektonic, then he knows my real identity and he might come around and cause trouble. Don’t touch anything shiny that ticks, okay?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

And then he was gone, and the little clearing in the woods where we’d played together as little kids was suddenly darker and full of shadows.

#

The problem was that Adam really was such a nice guy. If he’d been arrogant about it, or if he’d expected me to do all this stuff for him and made a big deal about how busy he was with important stuff elsewhere, or if he’d rubbed my face in my nothing-specialness, I could have been resentful and angry and gotten it out of my system. Adam wasn’t like that. He was honestly surprised whenever I did things to help him out, and he never tried to exclude me or lie to me. He forgot stuff, but that was Adam. He was like a giant, super-powered puppy, happy and cheerful and endlessly loyal. Completely unselfconscious. And completely thoughtless. As in literally without thought. It just never occurred to him that his powers were anything but awesome or that there were any other lives that could be lived, and if he’d had any idea that the sheer rotten unfairness of the whole situation upset me, he’d be even more miserable than I was.

I couldn’t hate Adam for being Adam. All I could do was bottle it up, swallowing my resentment like a slimy toad that crouched in my gut, cold and clammy and undying. Every day, the toad would try to climb up and get out, to force my mouth open and croak bile at Adam and Mom and Dad and Mr. Adelaide and everyone, and my job was to keep him locked away. The toad was my nemesis, my own personal supervillain, and at least I could beat him if I couldn’t beat anyone else. That was how I tried to think of it, anyway. It helped, a little.

I started skipping school to hide out at the fort and work on my drawings. Forged a note about strep throat; all that imitating Adam’s handwriting meant I had lots of practice at that kind of thing. Why should I go? Adam was gone most days, and I hated every class except Art, which I couldn’t enjoy anymore because Mr. Adelaide was mad at me for “abusing his trust,” and what could I tell him? “I had to do it to help a superhero fight a giant robot dragon”?

What could I tell anyone, really? That I was mad at no one because my friend had superpowers and I was afraid to talk to a girl I liked because I didn’t? Everyone around here tried to pretend like superheroes didn’t exist and harrumphed about them whenever they showed up on TV. They’d sure as heck never believe that it was Adam the screwup, the “Baum kid, isn’t it a shame,” who’d saved the city all these times. And I didn’t want to reveal Adam’s secret; they’d make him stop if they knew who he was, make him get licensed and registered by the government and probably sent out to the Middle East or something. I’d promised to protect his identity, and I would keep that promise.

Adam wasn’t around, though. He was off hunting for that person who’d rebuilt Lizardtron and doing stuff for that jerk Marcus and his stupid superhero school. Some kind of test or something. He said he’d found Doktor Tektonic, but even though the Doktor was defeated, the “Prismatic Matrix,” whatever that was, was still missing. Adam didn’t go into much detail, and what little he did say was kind of Adam-ish and therefore mostly unhelpful. I didn’t pressure him. He’d tell me if he wanted to.

Or if his big new friends let him.

So I was alone. Some days I could see the flash and hear the distant rumble of Adam fighting some new monster, but mostly I saw and drew and tried to lose myself for a while. I finished the picture of Linda, but I didn’t give it to her. I tried, once. Went to school and everything, but when I saw her, she was getting into some guy’s car with a bunch of friends and they were all laughing and talking and basically every single person in that car was light-years out of my league, attractiveness-wise. So I left and swallowed the toad back down and went to the woods. I drew studies of everything in the clearing, one tree at a time.

That was how I found the artifact. It was buried in the ground, deep, as if it had impacted with a lot of force after traveling from far away. It glinted in the morning sun, and I had to dig for twenty minutes to get it out. When I did, I found that it was a little handle, like a set of brass knuckles. On the front, where there’d normally be the actual, you know, brass knuckles, there was just a glittery gem-looking thing. It was obviously superhero stuff. I should have called Adam immediately and had him or Marcus or whoever come and get it and contain it and make sure it was safe or whatever, but I felt the toad clawing up my throat and I didn’t.

I put it on my hand instead.

The gem flashed, and the whole thing made a whirring, clattering sound and folded out in some way my eyes couldn’t follow, and suddenly I was wearing a little gauntlet with all kinds of buttons and sliders on it. I tried to pull it off, but it wouldn’t come. I figured it had to be turned off first, so I started trying the buttons and switches one at a time. I’m not an idiot; I kept the business end pointed off into the woods. The fourth switch I tried – a little slider thing at the wrist – made the whole gizmo retract back to its little handheld form. The third button I tried, though, the big green-and-purple one on top, made the gem in front flash and send out some kind of beam that turned a two-foot-thick tree into crystal and shattered it to dust.

I stood there for a while, holding the gizmo and looking at that pile of glittering shards. I felt my lips curl into a smile, and it seemed like they stretched wider and wider until my mouth must have looked like a toad’s.

#

For the rest of that week and the weekend, I tinkered with the gizmo. I figured out how to do lots of things. It had dozens of different weapons, and a couple of them looked like they were means specifically to take on Adam, based on what I knew of his weaknesses. He can’t deal with this one kind of alien crystal stuff – something about the molecular structure – that looked a lot like what the tree turned into, and his power gets borked if you can set up a feedback loop, which is hard because the stuff he puts out is kind of electrical and kind of laser-y at the same time. The glove could do it, though. It also had a force field, a couple of stealth modes, and – my personal favorite – it could fly, at least for a little bit. There’s nothing like the feeling of wind in your face without tasting sour-sweet fizz for hours afterward. I figured out flight on Sunday.

I went back to school the next day. It is really amazing, the feeling you get from walking around with a weapon of mass destruction in the bottom of your backpack. I definitely recommend it if you’re having self-esteem issues. I saw Dave and Deke, who used to take my lunch money every day when I was in third grade, and I waved like we were old friends. They looked at each other, confused, but something in the way I was walking must have told them it would be a bad idea to mess with me. My teachers were all angry about me being absent, especially when I told them I hadn’t even checked on the website what the homework was. I got a lecture every period, but I just smiled and nodded and thought about how I could use my gizmo to destroy the whole school if I wanted.

Linda was there, too. I saw her talking with Adam in homeroom. When had he decided to come back to earth? They were laughing about something. The toad kicked hard at my diaphragm, and I turned my wince into a smile.

“Hey, guys!” I said, leaning in. They both glanced up at me and went quiet. “How’s it going?” I asked. I winked at Adam, and he grinned his goofy Adam-grin, thinking everything was cool.

“It’s great. My big project is almost done.” Adam would make a terrible spy. Thank God he doesn’t take Drama.

“Cool. So… I didn’t know you and Linda still hung out.” I kept my voice casual, icy-calm. I thought about the gizmo.

“Yeah. She’s, uh, helping me with my French homework,” said Adam, blushing a bit. I clenched my teeth.

“Jeez, Adam, you make it sound dirty,” Linda rolled her eyes. “Just because I let you copy my papers doesn’t mean we’re dating or something.”

“No, not like that. It’s just… not really helping… if I don’t… um…” Adam’s blush deepened.

“It’s cool. I just hadn’t seen much of either of you lately. Other than, you know, like, Pre-Calc. I haven’t talked to you since like last year, Linda.”

“I tried to call you the other day,” said Linda, not meeting my eyes. “Your mom said you were grounded. Did you really try to burn down the school?”

“You’ll have to ask Adam about that one.” I was smiling so hard it hurt my cheeks.

“I thought you went home early that day?” Linda asked Adam.

“Uh…”

See, this is why he needs me. His secret identity would be toast in a half-second if it was up to him. “Nah, Adam’s just a total pyro. He burns things down like once a year at least. Hey, Linda, I need to talk to you. It’s about Art. Do you mind?”

“I gotta go anyway,” said Adam, looking grateful to escape. “See you around.” He left as fast as I’ve ever seen him move without leaving those stupid blue sparkles behind.

“What’s up?” asked Linda. She was biting her lip. Was I making her nervous? Maybe I was wound a little tight. I tried to remember that I was in control and totally all-powerful if I wanted to be. I forced myself to relax.

“I’ve been working on a secret art thing. You know, for the final project? It’s out in the woods right now. I thought maybe you could come and, y’know, give me pointers and stuff? I want it to be awesome because Mister Adelaide is kinda peeved.” There. That sounded totally natural.

Linda looked skeptical. “You mean out in that silly ‘secret fort’ you and Adam had in grade school?”

“Uh, yeah.” Think about the gizmo, I told myself. You’ve got the power. “Yeah, out there. I know it’s dumb, but it’s a big secret and I can’t reveal it until it’s ready, you know?” I licked my lips. “Please? It really would mean a lot to me to have your opinion.”

She met my eyes for the first name. I’d forgotten how blue they were. “Okay. Tomorrow, though, all right? I have cheer practice tonight. Around four?”

“Sure. It’s not due until Friday. I can make changes if I have to, still.” I stood up again. “Thank you.”

“Sure,” she said. When I glanced over my shoulder, she had her head down, staring at her notebook.

#

I spent Tuesday wavering between feeling like I was flying with the sun on my face and feeling like I was in the bottom of a muddy well. I tried to chase the toad away by focusing on warm and happy things like the gizmo and Linda’s expression when she realized what I could do, but the toad kept coming back. Finally, I just resigned myself to the cycle. I have no idea what anyone said in any of my classes. The gizmo sat at the bottom of my backpack, and it was as if I could see it through my desk and the plastic and canvas, glowing like a tiny second sun, just for me.

After school, I ran to the woods and waited. What would I say to Linda? I tried playing out several scenarios while I waited for her to arrive. Maybe I’d just be hovering overhead when she got in and I’d call out and she’d look up, all dramatic and stuff. On second thought… flying with the gizmo is kind of awkward, and I didn’t want her to see me looking like I was hanging from invisible monkey bars. Maybe I’d just casually activate it and shoot a tree. Except she might just get scared and run. But I could catch her, and then… yeah, okay, bad idea. I wished Linda smoked because I knew how to get a really thin little laser and I could be all, “Need a light?” But she didn’t. I couldn’t decide, and I got restless. I paced for a while, but then I started wondering why Linda wasn’t here yet and maybe she got lost or maybe she wasn’t coming at all. I felt vaguely nauseated. I sat down. I checked the time. Half past three. How was I going to kill a half-hour?

I pulled out my sketchbook and tried to clear my head. A charcoal pencil is like Pepto-Bismol for the soul. I drew a leaf. I drew my hand, encased in the gauntlet. I doodled a little stick-figure Adam and then drew a beam from the gauntlet that traveled across the page and scribbled him out, like I used to do when I was little and mad at someone.

Idly, I flipped the pages backwards and saw the drawing I’d finished, the portrait of Linda. Because I knew what to look for, I could just make out the remnants of the empty-faced Adam shape I’d drawn when what I wanted was to put myself in the picture. I imagined myself there now, with my gauntleted hand resting on Linda’s shoulder. Would her expression still have that faint wryness to it? Or would she be biting her lip and glancing away to the side, towards where Adam had been until I erased him?

“Quentin?”

I glanced up, startled. Linda stood on the edge of the clearing, opposite the tent.

“What are you working on? Where’s your art project?”

I didn’t know what to say. I handed her my sketchbook. Her cheeks went pink. “That’s beautiful,” she said. “I wish I actually had a dress that nice. You should be a fashion designer.”

My voice came back, but I used it like a moron. “I stole it from a magazine. The look of the dress, I mean.”

She nodded, her eyes still on the picture. I hadn’t really captured her, not properly. The liveliness of her eyes, the tiny crinkling at the corners of her eyes…

“Is this for me? Is this what you asked me out here to show me?” She looked up, and our eyes met again. I felt something flip-flop inside me that didn’t feel toad-like at all.

“Yes. No. I mean, um. That’s you. Yours. That picture is- I made it for you. But I…” I froze. Linda was looking at me, expectant. I couldn’t think what to say. She was here, she was back out at the fort like when we were kids, and I hadn’t talked to her in so long and she didn’t know why, maybe she thought I didn’t like her anymore but I did and… and…

“Adam is Atom Boy,” I blurted.

The words hung in the air for a moment. Then Linda laughed. Not a disbelieving laugh, but real belly-shaking hilarity. She doubled over and laughed until she was out of breath.

“It’s true! I’m not kidding! It’s why-”

“No, no, I believe you,” Linda waved a hand, not looking up. “God, no, it makes so much sense now. Of course he is. He thought that up himself, didn’t he? Probably thought it was hilarious. Adam Boy!” She glanced up and burst into peals of laughter again. “Oh, God, no wonder he didn’t want to come to the pizza party, if he’s a superhero on the weekends.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and hiccupped, then looked up at me. “What about you?”

“Me?” I slipped my hand into my pocket and gripped the gizmo. “I’m nothing special. I’m just a normal kid.” My other hand shook a little. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and clasped both hands together in front of me.

“No, no, I mean do you want to come to the party on Saturday? It’s a holiday thing. Everyone from school is going to Gallagio’s. Pizza and stuff.”

“I, um…” I felt my cheeks burning.

Linda coughed and chuckled again, as if a laugh got stuck in her throat. “So why tell me about Adam? Did he ask you to tell me? Is he trying to impress me?”

“No, I just… I thought you should know. If you were going to hang out with him.” I stared carefully into the distance over her left shoulder.

“‘Hang out’?” Linda looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh. Oh! Quinnie, you are so silly sometimes, you know that?” She walked forward, still holding my sketchpad. “Adam’s a sweetheart, but he’s… he’s kind of Adam. I don’t think he’s even noticed girls yet, honestly.”

She was close enough to touch, close enough that I smelled her perfume. There was a moment of silence.

“Do you remember what you got for me for my eleventh birthday?” she asked abruptly.

I responded instantly: “A pink Power Ranger zord and all the accessories.”

She smiled. “I still have her, you know. She’s on my dresser, right in front of the mirror. I see her there every morning. Sometimes my mom leaves notes for me in her hands, like she’s waving a sign at a parade or something.”

A high-tension wire was twanging in my innards. I felt like I should be paying attention, but I wasn’t sure to what. “Why do you bring it up?”

“No reason.” Linda leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. She pulled back, looked me in the eyes, and then kissed me again. On the lips, longer and deeper. By the time my brain caught up to what was happening, my body had already reacted, my hands coming up to rest on her back, my mouth opening, my eyes closing. She breathed out, I breathed in. There was no one else in the world. Somewhere far inside me, in the place where my thoughts ran dark and cold, something slick and green hopped in and disappeared without a ripple.

Then Linda pulled away. “So I’ll see you on Saturday,” she said, and it was a promise and a question all at once.

“Yeah…”

She handed me my sketchbook. “Keep my picture safe until I can find a frame for it, okay?”

“Okay.” I felt as though I had just come out of a coma, a long lapse that left me blinking in a strange new day.

“Will you need a ride?”

“Yeah, probably.” I thought of something else. “Um, I’ll have to sneak out, so meet me down at the corner, okay? I’ll be grounded still.”

“Won’t you get in more trouble?”

I shrugged. “It’ll be worth it.”

Linda smiled again, and the sun shone inside me. She began to walk away. “Oh,” she said, turning back, “should I keep Adam’s secret identity, um, secret?”

“Yeah,” I said, rubbing at the back of my neck. “You, uh, probably shouldn’t say anything to him either until I figure out how to warn him.”

She giggled again. “Okay. I can’t believe I didn’t figure it out already. God, it is so obvious in retrospect.” Her eyes twinkled. “You were a good secret-keeper up until just now. I never would have suspected you were involved. You’re so respectable sometimes.”

“Linda, I-” I blushed. I had no words left. I’d forgotten how to talk.

“Shh,” Linda held up a finger. “Take your time. You’ll figure it out eventually. I always said you were the smart one.”

I watched her leave. I slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out the gizmo. I could give it to Adam. One of his superhero friends or mentors would know what to do with it. I could keep it secret in my backpack for emergencies, just to know it was there. Or I could learn to use it better, maybe wait for Adam to need some help, a sidekick or a superhero partner, the start of a new team. I could do anything I wanted with it, really.

But I didn’t need it anymore.

I found the hole where I’d unburied it weeks ago and dropped it in. I covered the hole with dirt and dragged a log over it to hide the scuffmarks. Adam would find it, eventually. Or he wouldn’t. Maybe that was part of the test, to see if Atom Boy was worth inducting into the ranks of the real superheroes. I wondered if Adam would pass. I hoped he would; it’s all he’s ever really wanted.

“Good luck, Atom Boy,” I said aloud. “And thank you.”

Superheroes II: Metropolis, we have a problem

Hello 2011! I hope everyone had a happy and safe holiday and are ready for a kick-ass year… wait, it’s halfway through January already? Oh boy. But hey, this year is an odd number, and a prime one at that. That’s got to be a good sign. Right? Right.

My last post about superhero prose fiction seemed to generate a few comments, not only here but also over at io9 who were kind enough to reblog it. I made a lot of omissions, some glaring, and I knew I would. I’ll return to the subject of superhero prose fiction later on where we can talk properly about examples of the genre. In that post I missed a lot of titles (Playing for Keeps, Brave Men Run, George RR Martin’s Wild Cards, Union Dues, In Hero Years, I’m Dead, to name just a few), but only because I don’t think these are (or were) signs particularly of a forthcoming movement towards superhero prose fiction. As I said last time, superhero prose fiction has been around almost as long as superhero comic fiction has been, possibly starting with The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther from 1942 (the plot of which, involving ghost ships and Nazis, sounds awesome). While it’s probably impossible (and foolish) to try and generate a comprehensive list of superhero prose fiction, we can at least take a gander at some prime examples of the genre a bit later. As it happens, my prediction might have been right up the wazoo anyway, as it looks like the YA dystopia is shaping up to be the Next Big Thing. I might be wrong but it seems to me that the vampire/werewolf trend originated in YA books too, before influencing more adult-oriented works. Although I’m not quite sure where the fashion for zombie originated – is there a YA zombie series that I don’t know about?

Anyway, I wanted to touch on superheros again for a moment as there is something that has been bugging me recently. NBC’s new superhero TV series The Cape has started, as has the Cartoon Network’s latest DC universe animated series, Young Justice. The fact that they both debuted at more or less the same time is just coincidence and not particularly relevant, but it does serve to illustrate a little problem I – a comics fan and superhero write –  have with the genre.

Live-action superheroes just don’t work.

Uh-uh. Hold the hate mail and move the mouse away from the comment button. Let me explain.

The Cape is attempt – one of the first, I think – at creating an original, made-for-television costumed superhero. Costumed is the key here, although it’s probably unfair to single out this one particular issue with The Cape given that it really is the least of the show’s problems (which, off the top of my head, include the title, the premise, the cast, the characters, the plot and the writing… but other than that it’s pretty great, no?), but it does illustrate my point. Vince Faraday, aka The Cape, looks immensely silly when dressed up as the superhero. Okay, the suit is assembled from bits and bobs from the Carnival of Crime (yes, the Carnival of Crime) and based on a comic book character beloved by his son (although not a comic book written like I have ever read, although I suppose Vince was adding in the exposition and description himself when he read an issue to his son in the first episode). But… no. It’s impractical and is looks silly.

So what’s new? This is comic book stuff, right?

Actually, yes it is. The Cape would work fine as a comic book, assuming it was written by someone who knew what a comic book was (unlike the writer of the TV series it seems). The bits we see of the actual (fictional) comic in the TV show looks okay. And superheroes in cloaks and hoods are a dime-a-dozen, and there’s plenty of scope for dramatic flowing fabrics.

It’s perhaps telling that other, more successful television superhero shows have neatly avoided the problem of silly costumes by not featuring them at all. Everyone in Heroes was in civvies. The other currently screening superhero TV series, No Ordinary Family, likewise has avoided comic book cliche, visually at least, even if the central premise of the story is as old as the hills. Misfits, that UK subversion of televisual superheroics clad our anti-heroes in the orange jumpsuits required by their community service, and even cracked a joke about traditional superhero costumes in one memorable scene from the second series. Notably, when a costumed superhero does appear, things start to get creaky, because it’s a guy in a silly suit (although they didn’t do that bad a job). Looking at earlier examples, The Flash was stuck in a bizarre muscle suit in 1990, and the less said about the 1997 attempt at a live-action Justice League of America, the better.

The prime example is The Dark Knight. I’m a Batman fan and I love this film… but Batman himself is a bit silly. When he sticks to the shadows like he should, no problem. But there is one surprising scene where he terrorises The Joker in a police interview room. A brightly lit police interview room. The Joker here looks amazing, as tailor-made purple suit aside, he is just wearing clothes. But in the glare of the fluorescent strips, Batman looks very, very silly. An interesting experiment in creating a more comic book-like Batman is the fan film Batman: Dead End, which features a Batman in grey spandex fighting… erm, aliens (as in Aliens aliens). Okay, so the story is a little odd, but Batman looks pretty good. However, sticking an actor in skintight lycra causes all sorts of problems with movement, result in the need for careful choreography to avoid unsightly creases and bulges. The forthcoming Green Lantern film is avoiding this by using an entirely CG costume, but from the trailer it looks a bit peculiar (although it would help if the eyes of the mask were whited out, like in the comic).

Of course, I’m generalising. There are exceptions. Marvel seem to be doing a better job. Iron Man looks amazing, by virtue of the fact that the suit is hard, metallic, robotic. The best example of successful live-action superhero costuming might be seen in the X-Men films. Here, brightly coloured spandex is swapped for dark leather which looks great and, importantly, moves well, despite Logan’s initial dismissal of the rack of jumpsuits. Spider-man likewise is pretty slick, if a little CG-friendly. Back in DC land, Watchmen too manages it admirably, with the current crop of heroes looking pretty cool while their predecessors, very cleverly, were clad in rather more home-spun costumes. Jonah Hex might have been a train wreck of a film but it looked pretty good, but then Hollywood has a long and glorious history of Westerns and, like the Joker in Batman and everyone in Heroes, the people in Jonah’s world just wear normal, if customised, clothes.

But what’s this got to do with The Cape and Young Justice? Well, Young Justice is better than The Cape in all respects, and is shaping up to be one of the best DC animated series in a long while. But visually, it is just so much better than The Cape. Superheroes just work in animation, which is perhaps not surprising given the ease of transition from static comic book pages to moving animated scenes. The inhabitants of the DCU, at least, have never looked better than in Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. Any impracticalities or craziness in superhero costume design that just fail in the real world fit perfectly into animation, just as they do on the comic book page. It’s the same when you’re reading prose superhero fiction – as a reader you’re in control of the action, and everything looks just tickety-boo.

Unfortunately/fortunately (delete as applicable) I’d say The Cape is set for cancellation before the season is out. Hopefully Young Justice will settle in for a long run, but on the basis of the double-length pilot episode, its well deserved. Looks aren’t everything – far from it, in fact – but certainly The Cape is not a great example of live-action superhero design.

Now if NBC were looking for a circus-themed superhero, why didn’t they just commission a live-action series of Deadman?

Superhero fiction: the next big thing?

There is an old writing adage worth paying attention to: don’t write for the market. What’s hot now may not be hot next year, and considering a book may take two to three years to come out after being picked up by a publisher – and that’s not counting the time it takes to actually write and sell the thing – deciding to jump on the current trend is not a good idea. This probably applies more to specific concepts rather than genres as a whole. For example, while zombies, vampires and werewolves are currently ruling the roost, horror as a general genre is also experiencing something of a resurgence. So although writing a paranormal vampire romance is not the best idea (unless you have something unique and/or amazing), writing something in the horror field might be a good bet, as a genre trend might have a longer cycle of popularity and decline.

Might.

Predicting trends is also pretty much impossible. Although you can spot signs here and there, a scene will have pretty much established itself already before anyone notices, and it’s only in retrospect that you can more clearly identify the key titles and writers responsible. Many publishers will try to pick a trend anyway, and some will even rush-release titles to cash in. You can usually tell which books these are, and I really have no idea if it works as a method of generating a quick buck. Bully for them if it does.

So far, so good. Two facts: don’t write for a trend, and trends are impossible to predict anyway. Got it? Got it. So whatever you do, don’t ask me what the Next Big Thing in genre fiction will be, because I don’t know, and if I did know I probably wouldn’t tell you.

But… maybe it’s superhero fiction.  I said maybe.

Superhero prose fiction has been around for as long as its comicbook equivalent of course, but has been paid far less attention than the original material for an obvious reason: superheroes are visual. They wore bright costumes in the late 1930s because the bold colours really stood out amidst the monotonous gray of the corner news stand. They caught the eye, and what better way to show Superman lifting a car over his head than to show Superman lifting a car over his head.

But prose is different. Everything takes place in the reader’s head, and what they see will undoubtedly be completely different to how the writer pictured it, even if he or she goes crazy with description. That’s how prose works and what makes it so brilliant. But this may explain why superhero fiction, while enjoying a modest level of popularity over the years, has never really caught on. In fact, I’ve met a lot of people who raise an eyebrow when I mention that I’ve written superhero prose fiction, so ingrained is the notion that superheroes are for comics and comics are a visual medium.

The most notable recent example of superhero fiction that had a slightly higher profile among the public was Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. When this novel was released in 2007, public telephone boxes in the UK were transformed with wraparound advertising, playing on the traditional cliché of Superman. The book isn’t bad either, although it’s probably more important as an example of how superhero fiction can work outside of a visual medium.

Unfortunately, the momentum of Soon I Will Be Invincible was quickly lost – just last month the author updated his blog to say that he has some more books scheduled for 2011, but that’s a gap of nearly four years since Invincible came out, and in the interim trends in science fiction, fantasy, and everything genre have changed. Another notable entry is From The Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by Minister Faust, also from 2007, but while this comedy novel gained something of a cult following, like Invincible it perhaps arrived too early.

Why then am I breaking one of the golden rules and predicting an upswing in superhero fiction? Well, my friends, there are signs.

Superheroes have always been popular material for film adaptation, more so now than ever. I think this is because of all media, film (especially big budget film) is the one that can match the visual spectacle of comics. And just look at the line-up of comicbook adaptations coming in 2011 and beyond: Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3… the list goes on.

But all of these are adaptations of existing properties. This is logical, of course – with the gargantuan amounts of money spent on Hollywood productions it makes sense to stick to the tried and true, and it’s also a good way for publishers like DC and Marvel to get their characters and stories to a wider audience. Off the top of my head I don’t recall an original superhero concept on the big screen, except for Pixar’s The Incredibles, and Megamind from Dreamworks, both of which are CG animation. Hancock, starring Will Smith, might be the only live-action original superhero film of recent times, but its not exactly a shining example of the genre.

More interesting than film – and possibly more indicative of a growing trend – is the explosion of superhero television shows, specifically original superhero shows. Heroes was the first, but after a spectacular first season it floundered terribly and was ultimately canned. Currently we have No Ordinary Family, a drama series about a family of four who gain superpowers after surviving a plane crash in South America, and the forthcoming The Cape, about an ex-cop framed for murder who joins a circus and, erm, gains superpowers and stars Summer Glau as a…*cough* investigative blogger. Actually, it looks better than it sounds. The SyFy network is also developing Three Inches, a series about superheroes with rather pathetic powers (cover your ears, Mur!), and Alphas, a series about… actually, nobody seems to know. Of note, The Cape appears to be the only example so far of series about costumed superheroes, and even in this case they have a rationale for it (the cape in question being a circus costume). Surely I wasn’t the only one wishing that the characters that populated Heroes would just cut to the chase and form a spandex-clad crime-fighting league?

Anyone? Moving on…

The most interesting superhero television series comes not from the US but from the UK. Misfits is about five delinquent youths sentenced to community service for a variety of small crimes. Caught in a bizarre electrical storm, they are each gifted a power, and over two series (the second of which has almost finished screening here in the UK) become embroiled in an increasingly bizarre sequence of events which include murder and lot of sex (although not always at the same time). It is easily the best written British television series at the moment and is a dynamite subversion of the superhero genre and concepts.

Really, it’s genius. If you can see it, see it.

So what of books then? What signs are there that superheroes are about to become something big? Firstly, there’s the Masked anthology, edited by Lou Anders, which features short fiction from a number of comic writers and well-known novelists. Angry Robot Books is set to release The Damned Busters by Mathew Hughes later in 2011, in which an office worker summons a demon who grants him his greatest wish, to be a superhero.

Numerous online magazines and fiction sites have also sprung up, extolling the virtues of superhero fiction – Superhero Novels, A Thousand Faces and Beta City, to name but three.

Perhaps an even bigger sign that Something Is Coming is the fact that comic writer Bill Willingham is the guest of honour at WorldCon 2011, being held in Reno, Nevada, a convention traditionally tied very strongly to science fiction and fantasy literature (ie, prose fiction).

Will 2011 be the year of superhero fiction? Maybe. The signs are there. If the superhero genre does explode, I’ll be very happy indeed, as I love superheroes and have written a lot of superhero fiction. If that bandwagon is a-comin’ to town, I’ll be jumping right aboard (and thus breaking rule number one. Le sigh.).

Am I right? What are your picks for superhero fiction, and what other signs have I missed? Or is this all for nothing, and you really can’t predict forthcoming trends? I’d love to hear your comments!