Meanwhile, on the Internet...
The next day the internets exploded.
My morning coffee was already waiting for me, a service apparently provided gratis via the concierge or the maitre d, or some other latin or french word I didn’t know the meaning of. It was in the sitting room, but the smell led me to it and I realized that I had not had a proper cup of coffee in months.
I grabbed the french press pot and the shmancy mug that was sitting there, and strolled into the luxuriously-appointed den with an electric fireplace (which I switched on, because I was cold, as per usual of late), opened up my laptop, and did what I normally did on Sunday mornings verging into afternoon: I surfed the web. It did not take me long to discover that there had been an incident, because it was all over social media in that it was all that anyone would talk about.
Apparently that Sunday morning, while I’d been sleeping the sleep of the Lance in a bed fit for a president, there was an armed robbery going on somewhere down in Bucktooth, Arkansas. (Go ahead and snicker. I don’t remember the actual name of the town, and I don’t feel like looking it up, so we’re going with Bucktooth.)
I can relay the events as I remember reading them thus:
At way-too-early-for-Lance-a.m. a couple of mean hombres stroll into the Bucktooth Savings and Loan carrying shotguns, and ask to make a withdrawal. Despite what you see in movies, the instant two men with guns arrive, the alarm is already tripped, and the local Bucktooth Sheriff’s Department starts to mosey on over to see if Hank has accidentally pressed the button while cleaning again.
The clerks follow the role they know they are supposed to play, and start shoveling money into bags, so that the armed robbers, both wearing ski masks and speaking almost incomprehensible southern dialects, can take their ill-obtained loot to some undisclosed location and get roaring drunk on moonshine to celebrate.
But before they can make off with the goods, they are suddenly confronted in the bank by a man with a garish yellow and black mask, a yellow muscle shirt, jeans, cowboy boots, and a backwards baseball cap. He’s carrying a steel baseball bat engraved with “Slugger” on it. He rushes into the room, and as the bad guys raise their weapons, he smashes his bat on the ground. Cracks appear in the floor, and there’s a loud shockwave of an explosion that knocks the two men back. They try to raise their weapons, but he is rushing like a bull towards them, draws back, swings with all of his might…
And one of the assailants buckles right in the middle as he is caught by the blow, and it instantly ruptures several internal organs from the impact, and snaps his spine, and he’s sent back sailing, crashing through the bank’s glass doors, out into the street beyond, and lands like a meaty baseball.
The other robber screams and raises his weapon but the bat returns for another swing, catches the gun and smashes the barrel into the robber’s face, and the gun goes off, harmlessly blasting the ceiling. Dazed, the robber lowers the weapon, staggering, but the Slugger’s swing catches him right in the side of his head, and he is hit with such force by the steel bat that his head is pulverized on impact, exploding like a watermelon hit by a shotgun at close range.
The mess, as you can imagine, is horrific. Our hero, the Slugger, emerges out of the bank to get help and flag down the authorities, who just a moment before saw a man crash through the bank doors out into the street. He is met, to his initial relief, by the Sheriff and his deputies. With the alarm flashing at the bank, a man shot from the building like a cannon, hearing a shotgun blast, and seeing the masked man covered in blood, gore dripping from the baseball bat in his hands, and moving towards them, they do not ask him to stop and put his hands up. They do not ask him to freeze, or pass go, and he certainly does not collect two hundred dollars.
Those hayseed cops empty clips into him like he’s the devil himself, and some of them even shoot his twitching corpse.
The reaction of the internet overall was pretty cynical, which is the general temper of the internets, because we’ve seen everything by now, and all of it is ultimately disappointing.
Soon as there were people with superpowers, we all knew someone was going to do it eventually. There was speculation about it, nerds everywhere following those who had “come out” as superpowered begging them to start a superhero team, and some of them even did cosplay in their own personal superhero costumes, and milk the fame for all it was worth, and become darlings of social media.
But we never considered them real superheroes. We all secretly hoped that one day, someone would do it for real. Come out of nowhere in a mask and cape, beat up some bad guys, and make the world a better place.
I think it all depended on him, on the Slugger. He was the first superhero. He was the one that took our hopes and dreams and did it for real.
And what happened when he did? Let’s take stock: In the real world, the first superhero, with actual super-strength, did not peacefully subdue the bad guys while issuing clever repartee, he killed them in grim silence. Then he got shot by the cops as the suspicious masked figure he really was. I couldn’t have fucked up a debut like that any better myself.
I guess we all came back to reality a little bit after that. In the end, we sadly realized, this wasn’t going to look anything like it did in the comic books.
The media knew of about six different cases in the US of individuals with unexplainable powers. All of them, as far as I’m aware, had a lifetime invitation to be a lab rat. Of course, they also got all the fame, and fortune, and product endorsements to go with it.
No thank you.
The Super Six, as they were called, already had a string of movie deals lined up, they were on talk shows, and I was sick to death of every boring one of them. Their powers ranged from super strength, like our former friend The Slugger, to invulnerability, to invisibility. Really cool powers, all of them, and they were nothing but circus freaks.
Chuck Sanders, who had the egregious name ‘Sanderman’ was the one who was invulnerable, and that was a shame, because he was the one I wanted to die on fire the most. He was beautiful and chiseled, and before he realized that no one had found a way to kill him yet, he spent most of his time on the beach.
Women probably loved him even before he was a superstud.
He was making a killing in public displays of his invulnerability. He’d had six grand pianos dropped on his head, had fallen from the top of the Empire state building, and in a top-rated program on CBS that had all of the teenage girls everywhere peeking through their fingers, he endured and survived with ease heavy weapons fired from the M16s of a battalion of Marines. They showed it in slow motion over and over again, how the bullets just bounced off of him.
Chisa Keita was the girl with super-strength, a former Olympic gymnast. Maybe ninety pounds soaking wet, they hadn’t found anyone, even an Olympic weightlifter, who could beat her in arm wrestling. She had a cool African accent, dazzling white smile, and was on the Wheaties box picking up a rhino. I call her a former Olympic gymnast not because she won anything, but because the committee wouldn’t let her compete anymore once they discovered she was enhanced. Superhero name: Black Mamba.
Layla Finnegan appeared to have the ability to predict the future. I liked her the most, because she reminded me of myself a little bit, or at least of old Lance. Shy and awkward in front of the camera, I had no idea how they’d ever sell her in a movie. I could just imagine her trembling hand trying to sign the contract they handed her. She had mousy black hair when she started, and glasses worse than my old ones, but once Hollywood got a hold of her, she had the same plastic, too-perfect complexion as everyone else, and her hair was blown out, teased up.
I can’t read minds over the screen, but I would look at her among the other members of her “team” and I would just feel sad for her. Someone small who had been swept up in the hysteria of a nation, made a celebrity almost against her will.
I say almost, because, if I had to guess, Layla probably was doing it willingly. When had anyone ever paid attention to, or ever cared about little old Layla? Now suddenly everyone wanted to be her. I thought I understood how she must have felt, how nice it feels to suddenly have power when before you were nothing.
Layla’s superhero name? Fortuna.
Jules Cameron, with his nearly incomprehensible cockney accent, was always coming onto talk shows as a surprise guest by appearing out the air on screen. His gift: Invisibility. Superhero name: Incognito. He had a catch phrase, which got old for me faster than a cat meme: “You cannot stop the invisible hand of Justice!”
Only two more of these dicks, bear with me.
Sergeant Rex Jefferson had the distinction of having the best recorded hand-eye coordination in the world, and went from a slightly above-average shooter on the range to then, after the Event, breaking all Guinness world records for shooting. Just as mean with a baseball, rocks, or pennies, and no, as much as he was recruited for it at first by every team in the country, the Major League baseball commission ruled that no one with super-normal abilities could play in the League. He had that hard-boiled military thing going for him, and was shaped like a wedge. Superhero name: Crackshot
And then there was Eddie Chu, aka “Iron Dragon”. Something of a mix of abilities between Rex, Chisa, and Chuck, he was banned from competing in any professional sport. His ability I could best describe as superhuman athleticism. He could jump higher, run faster, punch and kick quicker than anyone in the world. While not invulnerable, he could still take a beating, and while no match for Chisa’s strength, he could still hit like a truck. Literally. He demonstrated it on an old rusted Buick in his yard, and the result looked a lot like my Mini after the semi got done with it. The funny thing about him is that he had never studied martial arts before gaining his abilities. But he’s a natural, and the movie studios got him into training the second after they saw the video on YouTube of him leaping and running around in his yard. The way things were going, it seemed as though they’d be keeping him pretty busy pretending to be a badass, which was another sour note for me.
There was a common theme here. We were okay to be freaks, to be celebrities, to be part of that fantasy world, because there we’re harmless. But we could not take part in the normal world.
Considering what happened to The Slugger, I suppose it’s not too surprising. The Powers That Be are not nearly as worried about the Super Six when they are self-absorbed commercial celebrity products, used as convenient marketing puppets and propaganda tools that also allow the government to do research on them. In other words, The Slugger didn’t have an agent, and so he was fucked from the start.
I may be an accomplished idiot, but one thing I knew right away was that my abilities needed to stay my secret, to take to the grave. If I opened my big mouth about it, I figured I’d end up in the grave a whole lot sooner. At the very least, I didn’t want to be forced to do cheap hypnotist tricks before applauding audiences like a trained seal.
Besides, I was living their stupid lifestyle for free. I didn’t owe anyone anything. I didn’t even really need money. Considering the accident, it would have been nice to be invulnerable. Super strength sounds great, but I’m not much of a slugger, and speaking of him, his powerful muscles did nothing to stop him from being perforated by gunfire. Hand-eye coordination mastery is cool, but lacks versatility unless you want to hustle people on the basketball court. Invisibility, okay, that is a superpower that everyone wants from the time they are seven years old, but I wouldn’t have traded my power for his, or any of theirs.
I did not want to be a superhero or a supervillain. I did not want to be a celebrity, either. I’m not very good in the limelight. My power suited me just fine, with everything going on behind the scenes, and me getting away with whatever the fuck I wanted.
Despite all this superhero worship I’m griping about, there was also, as you are probably aware, a whole lot of hysteria about it. A lot of fear mixed with a toxic brew of envy and there were plenty on Capitol Hill, not to mention media pundits and religious figures who were pushing the idea of putting in place a screening program for every American to determine if they had such abilities, for the good of themselves, of course. Of course. It was totally altruistic. But also for the good of the American people. For times when that argument didn’t cinch the deal, they’d inevitably be sure to include “For the children.”
Honestly. I hate this country sometimes.
On the eve of the night before I returned to work at Choicepoint Systems, while I was eating room-service sushi, I thought of The Slugger, and the Super Six. I was pissed off at them for selling out, and at our stupid culture, that had turned being a superhero into a cult of celebrity, like they did with everything else.
It was like these six hapless idiots were on an episode of American Idol, and there were only six people in the country who could audition, so they all got in by default. That they were all more interesting and photogenic people than I was doesn’t help my feelings on the matter.
So, yeah, I suppose I was a little jealous, too. This was the closest thing we’d ever get to real superheroes and supervillains, and they were just doing it for pretend. And people still loved them for it. Loved them more, in fact, than if they were doing it for real, it seemed. But people would never know about me, they would never celebrate me like that. And forget for the first time ever about me for a moment, they didn’t celebrate The Slugger like that. He was already dead and cooling, old news. Few could even generate a fuck to give while the Super Six was livestreaming their Super Slumber Party.
They actually did that, I’m not making it up. Although Black Mamba and Fortuna did look pretty hot in their superspandex, which was ninety-eight percent of the reason I tuned in to watch it in the first place.
Don’t judge me.
The last thing I did on Sunday night, while sleep clawed at me and the blue glow of the laptop screen in the darkness irradiated my eyeballs, was to follow a tweet that looked interesting. Although, almost any tweet looks interesting at 2 a.m. when your decision-making faculties have closed up shop for the day and gone to bed without you.
Chat with real supers at http://he.ro! #realsupers
Real supers? I, along with everyone else, knew of six in the United States. What was this? A website for maybe twenty people around the world?
I’m a programmer. I’m savvy. One of the elite digerati of the modern age. I’m not that stupid. It’s going to be a website with maybe a thousand people, all of them pretending they are superheroes or supervillains, posting their cosplay pics. That’s what I figured.
But what the hell. It was a splash page that required you to log in to do anything interesting, but the slick design was bisected diagonally, with the top half being white, and the bottom being black. “Hero” it said in black on the white section, “Villain?” it said on the black section, in white lettering, with the word ‘or’ split across both panels. “Hero or Villain? You decide. Meet the real supers, or if you’re a super, make friends or evil plots with the only social network dedicated to supers!”
I clicked to sign up, and a loading icon came up while it did its thing, blooming into a larger modal, filling the screen.
Hello. Welcome to He.ro! Are you a super, or a fan?
I selected ‘Fan’ and laughed. That was easy. It faded out, and the next screen said this:
Thank you for selecting ‘Super’, Lance Thorn! By what name would you like to be called on He.ro?
I sucked in my breath. “What. The actual. Fuck.”
Text appeared on the screen.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
“Who are you?” I shouted, no longer tired.
Spider. It was accented by an animated tiny spider GIF crawling around the name.
“How are you doing this?”
Surely you are smarter than this. You do not think you are the only one with powers?
“Ah,” I nodded. “You’re like a super hacker. I just wasn’t expecting you to know my name.”
Hotel registry. But your secret is safe, and once you select your name I will no longer refer to you by your real name, Lance Thorn.
“But now you know my secret identity.”
Too late to fret about that now. But I am the only one who will ever know. My security is too good. Your identity is safer here than in any system in the world.
“Seems like you’re setting yourself up for blackmail here.”
Only if you’re a dick.
I grinned despite myself, aware that my laptop had a webcam, so Spider could probably see me. “How did you know I was a super?”
I looked at the text box in front of me, figured the damage was already done, and typed in a name, “Mindbender” and hit submit.
Nice. Mindbender, I like that. What you can do?
A textbox appeared, where I was supposed to describe my powers. I tried to skip it, but the button was greyed out. I sighed, and typed in, “Mind powers” and hit submit.
Boring. Don't want to give it all away?
The final step appeared, and gave me the choice: Hero or Villain?
I just stared at the screen, and after awhile Spider returned as an overlay, with a bunch of little spiders crawling around the fuzzy edges of it. In the center, his message appeared:
Come on, Mindbender. Make a choice.
“I choose neither,” I said. "That's a choice."
You must choose one or the other. Everyone does.
“I’m not everyone. I don’t need to make a choice.”
Everyone needs to make a choice.
“Not me. I’ll just close the tab to your little website right now.”
And then I fry your hard drive. Don’t test me, Mindbender.
“What do you get out of me joining your little vanity site?”
“Friends don’t fry their friend's hard drive. Besides, depending what I choose, I might be your enemy. What did you pick?”
I am the admin. My account doesn’t work like that.
“So everyone has to declare what side they are on, except you, is that it?”
My site. My rules.
I had a moment where I wrestled with myself on this one, let me tell you. On the one hand, everybody wants to be the good guy. I just wasn’t all that sure yet that I was the good guy. I was basically the equivalent of a con man right now, but was I using my powers for good or evil?
And then I got irate about the whole thing. It was verging on 2:30 in the morning, and I didn’t even believe in good and evil.
“Fine,” I said. I hovered my mouse over ‘Hero’, raised my finger, and then quickly jerked the mouse to the side and clicked “Villain”. Because fuck him.
Then, once I’d completed his little song and dance and created my account, I closed the tab and waited for a moment, glaring at the screen to see if I got any further contact from the little extortionist.
I didn’t, so I snapped the thing closed, staggered to my bed, and fell into it without brushing my teeth.
My last conscious thought was about what a cool name Mindbender was.