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Super & Real

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Alejandro Gonzalez, Feb 11, 2020.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter One
    Alejandro Gonzalez

    Alejandro Gonzalez Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    CHAPTER ONE​



    The grocery bags plopped down and he collapsed backward onto his couch, breathing heavily. He shook his head and rested. Wow, he was out of shape. His friends were right; he did have to lose weight after all. “Dammit,” he said, recovering. He’d always been a bit chubby, but since getting full-time at the warehouse, he’d gotten so much fatter. The long hours kept murdering his feet and knees, but after being in poverty for practically all his youth, the money more than made up for it, and his waistline expanded accordingly. Pulling the mail from his hoodie pocket, he glanced at each one. The credit card offers he ptched into his burn pile, and his paycheck he opened and checked carefully. They’d finally gotten his name—Manfred Voren—completely correct.

    Taking a deep breath, he huffed, and hoisted the six plastic bags into his kitchen and began unloading. Some of the items he chose carefully, as per a recipe he wanted to try. He read the list and arranged each ingredient. Since the recipe estimated a thirty-minute time of completion, he opened his medicine drawer and popped his medication. For the next half hour, he toiled away at the chicken and pasta dish until it very nearly resembled the picture. Scooping it onto his plate, he chowed down while reading comics on his laptop. The latest issue of Breaker featured the main heroine, a tall, muscular powerhouse of a woman, ripping into the powered armor of a bad guy. He knew the lore quite well.

    First Breaker was a favorite of his. He’d been reading it since the mid-nineties, having picked it up at age twelve. What attracted him to it, as he had typed into a conversation defending it against arguments of it being outdated, was how unique it was as a comic. “First Breaker,” he had written, plumbing the depths of his childhood memories for the right words, “isn’t just a ‘hey, ‘let’s beat up bad guys and smile for the camera’ superhero story. The main character is Cyroya, a goddess from the fictional ‘Bakeru’ religion. She’s not actually a savior, or a good guy; she’s the main enemy, the Satan of her people’s beliefs. As the Goddess of Strength, she basically shows up in ancient Rome and nearly ends the world, cutting apart entire armies all by herself. Kareth, the God of Mercy and Creation, defeats her, at great cost and casts her into Pareion, basically their religion’s hell.”

    He remembered that exchange and how heated he became, even though he realized he was only staring at a computer screen. He’d also introduced several of his friends to it. “Cyroya is cast into the bad place for her many murders, and here’s where it really gets good,” he’d defended. “Where most comics from the late eighties to early nineties—the so-called Dark Age—were just blood and gore for no end, we see her get tortured in Pareion and repent her crimes. That’s when Kareth sends her to the modern world and she must use her powers for good to save humanity, or else spend the rest of eternity in Pareion.”

    “So,” his friend Shawn asked, “if this Kareth guy is so powerful, why doesn’t he intervene?”

    Manfred took that as his cue. “Because eventually, they encounter threats even beyond the Gods. There’s literally a moment where a guy tells her she can help him take over the universe, and she has a perfectly good chance to kill Kareth and be free of his threat forever. Instead, she helps him defeat the bad guy. It’s great because she’s clearly a recovering villain. You see her have to struggle with the fact that, no, these humans aren’t insects merely there to satisfy your violent urges. You see her literally become a better person.”

    He remembered the friend basically answering with, “that’s great, Manny,” and leaving it at that. It was his favorite comic. Shoveling pasta and chicken into his mouth, he pressed the space bar to move forward. Doctor Richard Felaru, the bad guy in the power armor, Manny read, clearly had thought his machine could duplicate the Godess’s power. He’d had her against the ropes, but with the strength of will, she ripped his armor apart. Manny felt like a little kid again. This storyline had been going for the better part of a year, and he was glad to see it end.

    “Wow,” he mouthed, reading the last page. The story had ended exactly as he wanted. After finishing his sizeable meal, he washed his plate and silverware, setting it in the drying rack and picking up his laptop. Sitting for too long made his legs hurt, so he walked around carrying it. He shopped for comics online before reading some other issues he had on his computer. Furious Thunder Comic issue 682 appeared full-screen, him clicking on it. He enjoyed it, even though the writing hadn’t always been great. Unlike First Breaker, Furious Thunder was a very traditional super hero story, although not the same as many others. Unlike most of the traditional stories that started in the early Silver Age of Comics, Furious Thunder had started with a female lead. A female lead character, in 1952, was unheard of. Somehow it had managed to avoid being absorbed by the bigger studios, but had suffered in the sixties thus.

    The new timeline, he saw, wasn’t quite as good as the one before, but he still kept reading. One of the things that annoyed him was that when the character was first drawn, she was a decently curved woman for sixties standards. Now, she was almost anorexic. It wasn’t unique; many of the big studios had the female supers being model thin, but she was supposed to be a major hero. At least she wasn’t drawn with comically exaggerated breasts—even being a guy, it became annoying and distracting after awhile. Once more, he noticed her pulling her cousin’s pod out of the river. Before it had been a mountain landslide, and the original reboot had it be a river. He knew the story by heart: Michelle Delanter, having been examining archaeological ruins in South America, touched an artifact and was magically transported to another world, where she was forced to fight for her survival for a hundred years, somehow not aging. When she finally succeeded, it was revealed the whole ordeal was an illusory test to see if she was worthy of the power contained within the artifact. She then became Capacitor, a hero that utilized otherworldly energy to possess great strength, speed, and energy abilities.

    He read on, seeing that the origin deviated just slightly, with her finding the artifact and the whole training ordeal montaged in a series of six panels. She apparently explained to her cousin that he had been put in stasis because of his disease, and the pod had cured him, right before the earthquake diverted the river through the area where the building was. She grabbed his hand, and shared some of her power with him. “We’ll talk later,” she told him. “Right now, help me save the people downstream.” The next few pages were of the two of them using their powers to save people from the flooding and earthquake. It was nice to see they’d updated her age. In the original 50’s and 60’s comics, she’d been a teenager and her cousin the same age. Now, she was five years older than him.

    His cellphone rang and he set down the laptop. The caller ID read a familiar name. “Yeah, Joey? What’s up?” he asked.

    “You still hanging out on Saturday?” Joey said.

    “Wouldn’t miss it,” Manny explained. “Shit, as much as I work these days, it’s the only time I can.”

    Joey let out a breath of a laugh. “Ain’t that the damn truth.” He coughed. “Well, if you’re busy right now, I’ll let you go.”

    “Eh, I think I’m just staying home,” he replied. “Nothing much to do ‘round here anyway.” He smiled. “See you then.” Both knew too well what he spoke of. Southern Illinois was well-known for a few major things: abandoned buildings where industry once was, being twenty miles from the nearest civilized anything. If he was going to a movie, it would be fifteen miles to Edwardsville, or eight miles to East Alton. There was one book store the Illinois side of the Mississippi river.

    He watched some shows on the internet. After that, closed his laptop. Normally, later in the week, he found himself not wanting to be bothered. Now, though, the thought of being around friends made him feel lonely. Still, the nearest mall worth going to would be almost thirty miles away in the Chesterfield, Missouri area. Popping his knuckles, he made up his mind. He didn’t want to be home alone. At least the mall, far away as it was, presented the possibility of running into friends.

    His gas gauge reading full, he started it up and headed towards the Missouri line. Miles of forested areas passed by as he left his house, which was just short of Jerseyville, and passed through Alton. The riverside showed block after block of abandoned buildings where jobs used to be, some fifty years prior. The riverboat casinos with their flashing lights stood in stark contrast to the rows upon rows of taverns and bars that segmented sections of former places of business. The economy had been rough and he was lucky to have gotten a job that paid well.

    After crossing the Clark Bridge, the economy seemed to get much better, with the businesses of the Florissant area passing by. After more than twenty minutes of driving, he made it to Chesterfield and one of the few remaining malls performing well in the downtrodden economy. The mall looked uncrowded as Thursday evenings weren’t major business. The first store he hit was the bookstore, checking out their manga collection. There seemed to be only twelve people walking around the store, and none of them he knew. He read a few volumes before he left the store.

    Walking around the mall, looking around, he felt a bit dumb. There weren’t that many things he wanted to buy, and none of his friends seemed to have thought to come out here. He popped into a dollar store and bought a generic cola. The man behind the counter looked at his shirt and smiled. “Hey, nice shirt,” he said. “Haven’t read a comic since I was a kid, but those movies are great.”

    The man looked to be nearly fifty. Manny regarded the man’s gray hair and lined face. “What’d you read growing up?”

    “Well, I read a bit of everything,” the man admitted. “I can’t say I remember much of it. Nice to see Hollywood finally giving a thought to it, though.”

    Manny let out a humph. “You can say that again,” he responded. “I think when I was a kid, there was the 1989 movie and other than that, a bunch of crap. Now it seems like everyone likes ‘em.” He shrugged. “It’s annoying. Where were these movies when I was in high school about two-thousand-one?”

    They shared a laugh and he left the dollar store. It raised his spirit to feel reassured he wasn’t alone. Entering the video and game store, he looked through the Blu-ray section. He came across a copy of the nineteen eighty-one Capacitor movie. They’d made a crappy sequel in two-thousand-five, and hinted at a Furious Thunder reboot, but he always enjoyed the original. He hadn’t seen it in years or had this updated disc, so he bought it to give himself a reason to have come.

    He started the car and set his bag in the passenger seat. Flipping the radio on, a news story talking about lights in the sky over various parts of the world, and what the experts had to say about such things. Even though it might have been interesting, he set his radio to Bluetooth and played music from his smartphone. Pressing the emergency brake off, he shifted into drive and left the parking lot. The highway back to southern Illinois signaled his experiment had failed and he had to return home. Miles of highway passed once again. Nothing much out of the ordinary appeared until he got about halfway home.

    Pulling the car over to the shoulder, he stared at the sky, both awed and weirded out. Streaks of color, vaguely reminiscent of aurora borealis made streaks across the evening blue. However, these were off-colored. Various pinks, oranges, and silvers streaked in with the green and red. It undulated in the sky like some cosmic worm wriggling. Eager, he checked his mirrors and got out. He clicked his phone’s camera app and pointed it at the sky. The image quality wasn’t fantastic, but he wanted to keep a record of this. Some ten minutes later, it faded, and he got back in his car. Since others were stopping and staring, he took his opportunity and left.

    Returning home, he uploaded the photo to his laptop and watched videos on the internet. He opened his bought movies and made sure they worked. After ten minutes, he checked the clock. Work the next morning would be a pain in the ass, so he decided to check in for the night. He set his phone’s alarm clock and changed into his pajamas. The usual evening routine came next: brush teeth, change into pajamas, swallow some pain medication since his feet hurt. Once the ibuprofen kicked in, his mind slipped away into dreams.

    The alarm interrupted his dream of driving through a vague pseudo-city consisting of several places he had been to, while fleeing some nondescript sense of dread. Waking up was an exercise in lifting himself to a sitting position and waiting for his sense of balance to kick in. Shaking his head to clear it, he stood up and stumbled a few steps before righting himself and walking to the bathroom. The routine became second nature: brush teeth, do business, shower. He had a half hour or so before he had to be there, so he made himself a few sandwiches for breakfast along with some coffee. He took a hit of his inhaler and dressed himself before heading out the door.

    The drive to the warehouse reminded him how much he hated it. His work was a decent paying job; it didn’t, however, mean he enjoyed it. The man at the door scanned his ID badge and he walked over to the counter to be assigned. The woman, a middle-aged smoking victim, regarded him with the same deadpan expression everyone got. The number he got was thirty-three with a ‘C,’ and that meant he would be on shampoo duty. If there existed a better demonstration of how to reduce a man to a robot than the next five hours, he would have loved to see it. His task consisted of taking finished shampoo two-packs, placing them in a cardboard box in their slot, sealing the box in plastic when full, and placing it on a palate for a forklift to retrieve when the palate filled. Other than a single fifteen-minute break, he did nothing else. When the lunch break came, he got in his car and drove to the truck stop across the road and bought a sandwich from the refrigerator along with a generic diet soda. After that, he went back to work and another five hours passed by.

    His knees and back ached, and his hands hurt, so when finished he popped two naproxen sodium and finished the last of his green diet soda. It was painful, but at least he was lucky. Some of the other warehouse companies that hired paid only minimum wage. Then again, he rationalized, most of them were staffed by stoners and ex-convicts. On the way home, he stopped by the video rental kiosk and chose some arthouse film one of his friends had recommended. It wasn’t normally the kind of film he watched, but it would be a welcome waste of time. The sun was still up and yet, he wanted nothing more than to plop into his chair and leave the day behind. It bothered him some of his friends worked as much as possible. Other than keeping the house clean—which was the responsibility of everyone with a home—these people exercised for three, sometimes four hours a day, and this is after an eight to ten-hour work shift, and then chores. Maybe by the time they were done, they’d have two, maybe two and a half hours to just relax and do nothing before going to bed at eight-thirty, nine at the absolute latest. His shift started at five-thirty, and he finished at three-thirty. He worked forty hours a week, his default four-day schedule. His arms and back often ached, but damn it, every weekend was three days, he made enough money to pay the bills on a house his parents left him, and that mattered most. Furthermore, if he skipped a few meals here and there, he could save enough money to buy something big. Five years ago, he’d skipped enough meals to buy a two-thousand, five-hundred-dollar gaming laptop. It kicked as much ass as he could hope for. Maybe next year, he would start saving for a new one.

    The movie was ok, not exceptional, but he was glad anyway, because it being Thursday, he wouldn’t have to be back at the warehouse until Monday. He pulled out his PC controller and plugged it into his laptop. He decided to play Inindo: Way of the Ninja, a role-playing game from nineteen ninety-three. A relatively obscure game, he’d rented it once as a kid from Blockbuster Video and enjoyed it so much he played it completely at least once a year. It wasn’t particularly breathtaking, but it was a fun way to pass the time. Noticing the clock on the wall was nine P.M., he saved, put his laptop into hibernation, and stretched his limbs. The night was calling and he didn’t want to stay up too late. Just not having to awake at four the next morning felt great. When he turned in the direction of his bookshelf, he saw the book occupying the top slot—volume one of the 2004 run of Capacitor in Furious Thunder Comics. Opening the graphic novel, he remembered the familiar opening. The heroine, Michelle Delanter, with her trademark red hair, reminiscent of the setting sun, flapping in the wind, stood poised to save lives. Her figure, not quite as anorexic as the new run, had the super-skinny frame of a waif model, which, absolutely did not mesh with her powerful expression. He’d been entering college during the original run of these issues, and they were always a fun time. Hard to believe, it had been more than ten long years since then.

    Replacing the book, he felt a mild static shock. It annoyed him, and he started towards the bathroom when he felt a mild burning sensation wash over him. He pulled his shirt off, having stripped down to his underwear. Furiously he slapped his hands on his torso, trying to locate if something was injured or in some way damaged. A few seconds passed with the feeling increasing before fading entirely. His head felt slightly dizzy and then became normal again. “What…” he uttered. Before he had a chance to finish the thought, he felt a yanking, a pulling. It came from his abdomen. In a scene of utter impossibility, he looked down to the source of the feeling, and saw—as he continued to feel—his large bulbous fat gut drawing in. His entire torso shrank before his very eyes. “No, oonooo!” Trapped in a panicked thought, that he was shriveling up into a corpse somehow, he grabbed and pinched at skin, pulling and yanking, trying desperately to fight it. After a few moments, there wasn’t enough fat left to grab handfuls of. He gasped and panted, wide-eyed at how small his torso had become. Now the pulling came over his limbs. From his waist to feet, and shoulder to fingertip, his flesh tightened and retreated. Coarse hair disappeared, scant, fair body hair appeared in its place. His mallet-like hand with stubby sausage fingers turned into a dainty palm with slender pianist digits extending from them. Legs became thin, smooth, with only faint hair that wasn’t too noticeable. Giant fat feet shrank several shoe sizes. Finally, a twinge travelled up his chest and to the top of his head. His saggy man-breasts became recognizable ‘B-cup’ women’s breasts. Hair grazed his shoulders. “Yeep!” he shouted, tugging at the intrusion, only to see the reddish hair attached to his own head. The voice registered clearly in an adult woman’s range. He stumbled to the bathroom mirror and stared.

    Twenty-year-old, redheaded, superhero, fictional character, Michelle Delanter, or, an incredible facsimile, stared back at him. He shook his head, slamming his eyes shut. No. This is impossible. He had spent years of his life thinking skeptically. It was the reason he’d left religion behind. No, what happened was, he’d gone insane. This was a hell of a hallucination; he hadn’t even had a history of mental illness. Sure, when he was ten, he had a phase where he wanted everyone to call him Batman, but even then, he knew he wasn’t turned into an imaginary character. He ran his hands over his face. The red-headed woman—who, now that he thought about it, had no reason to be a fictional character—rubbed her face the same way. He felt up and down the body, and sure enough, the hands in the mirror moved as well. He took a deep breath and let it go; this was an amazing degree of insanity. He’d really flipped. Not only had he somehow developed a separate personality, but the hallucination was so good, he couldn’t think his way out of it.

    A thought occurred to him. Had he been this red-haired woman all along? He fumbled through his wallet. His driver’s license was the same as it was that morning. Manfred Voren, Illinois Driver’s License, five foot nine, two hundred eighty pounds. He took a selfie, making sure to only photograph from the neck up, and sent it to a friend of his. “What do you see here?” he included with the text.

    Ten seconds later, his friend Jake responded. “Cute girl,” he said. “Nice hair. She your new girlfriend?”

    “She’s a friend,” he replied. He set the phone aside. He sat down on the toilet lid. Either he hallucinated the text, he figured, or else Jake had really seen the girl. That wasn’t evidence enough, he knew, but it was a good start. He honestly expected, had he simply gone crazy, for Jake to say something about why Manny would send a photo of himself. Still, he couldn’t trust his own mind. This wasn’t possible. He had a mountain of evidence to suggest he had spent thirty-one years as Manfred Voren. Thinking about it, he’d never so much as seen a single redhead, anywhere in his life that looked like her.

    He sent the photo to his perverted friend John. “Would you do her?”

    “Sure, I would,” he replied moments later. “Who’s she?”

    “Someone I had a pleasant conversation with earlier,” Manny texted. “Has anyone like her ever been around us before?”

    “No, dude, I wish,” John replied. “Don’t miss the opportunity on this one.”

    He set the phone down. Now he had more evidence. Still not enough to positively rule out his insanity, but two separate friends acknowledged that the photo he remembered taking a minute before was both not him, and not someone they’d seen before. Either he was insane enough to have hallucinated: transforming, taking a photo of the result, as well as his friends reactions, or something absolutely not possible was actually happening. He still didn’t want to accept what had never happened before in human history. He slapped himself to see if he was dreaming; he wasn’t.

    He stood in front of the mirror. In his mind, he could see an image of himself as this woman. He focused hard on the image. He imagined it turning back into him. Nothing happened. After a few minutes, he closed his eyes and saw the image even clearer. He did it again, and still nothing. He imagined both images side by side—himself, as he was before, and her. Nothing happened, except this time, he felt a presence in the back of his head. Not like a person or spirit, but as if a switch or lever had magically appeared in his brain. Obviously, it didn’t have a literal appearance of such a device, or any appearance at all, but he noticed it only when he summoned both images side by side. With thoughts, he manipulated it, imagined it changing. Once more, nothing happened. Almost a half hour passed with nothing changing.

    Opening his eyes, he stared once more at the red-haired woman he’d become. If this didn’t change, if he couldn’t change back, he’d have a lot of hell to deal with. Sooner or later, he figured he’d wake up in a nuthouse or a courthouse, having done something like beating a guy to death because he hallucinated the devil in him or some crap like that. Or, if the absurd turned out to be true, he would have no identifying papers as this woman, and no history whatsoever. He’d have no solutions. If he somehow overcame these problems, he’d be spending the rest of his life as this woman. Could he really commit to that? Could he really pull the trigger?

    Oh my god, he thought.

    It was a trigger!

    He coughed to calm himself. Okay, he rationalized. Let’s assume what, again, I know to be impossible, is really happening. Let’s say I’m somehow turning into a woman and back again, his mind fired. Wouldn’t it be damn inconvenient should, say, a random thought morph you in the middle of a crowded room? He was the kind of guy to imagine spiders crawling on the walls at random. He’d hate to have the kind of power to do that. So, he guessed, should there be a fail-safe, to guarantee that no random imagining of himself would cause the change to occur? He focused on the twinge in his head, the feeling the…whatever the hell it was. He imagined her morphing straight back into him. This time, he didn’t imagine himself manipulating the…well, hell, he just decided to call it the Trigger. He committed. He decided, firmly and completely, yes, he wanted to be fat, almost thirty, underpaid and overworked, Illinois native Manfred Voren. He felt the Trigger change to a different state.

    Like a bad CGI film, his body morphed back into Manfred Voren. The entire process took eleven seconds. His fingers were fat again, his gut stuck out again, and his penis and testicles had returned, along with his ungainly body hair. He could have cheered when he became normal again. He had never been so glad to be overweight.

    And then, his curiosity got the better of him. Oh hell, he realized. He couldn’t let it go. He stepped on the scale, and it read two seventy-nine. Hey, he realized, he’d lost two pounds from the month before. In his mind, he imagined the woman again. He pulled the Trigger by committing to the transformation. Hey, as far as insane ideas went, it was convenient, the equivalent of an “are you sure” before deleting the file from the hard drive. It snapped into its previous state, and the change happened again. This time, the burning was replaced by a tingling, almost like the cold mixed with electric prickling around fur rugs. He stared in bewilderment as the scale plummeted to one hundred and thirty-seven pounds. Wow, not just impossible, he thought, but ultra super-duper impossible, violating the Law of Conservation of Mass impossible. He reversed the transformation and the scale climbed again.

    He decided to go to bed. This insanity could wait until the morning. With thoughts raging on his mind, it took quite a while, but he managed to slip off to dream.

    The sun’s light peering in through the window and shining in his face woke him up. He rubbed his belly and face. He was still Manny and still fat. How much of what happened the night before had been real? He yawned and stretched. Stumbling to the bathroom, he splashed water on his face. Mental images of himself turning into the woman from the night before returned, and with it, a familiar presence. He pulled the Trigger once again. Eleven seconds later, the red-haired woman stared back at him in the mirror, blinking when he blinked. The possibility that this was a hallucination hadn’t diminished much. Much of what he saw continued to be impossible per all the scientific evidence he knew. He had two pieces of evidence he couldn’t necessarily trust because he could have hallucinated them as well. A decision entered his mind. Since what was going on didn’t appear to be harmful or destructive yet, one of the easiest ways to prove it real would be to do things that it would be utterly impossible for a hallucination to deliver. To get there, he had to know if he had been turned into Capacitor, or just a red-haired woman.

    Based on his current supermodel-thin build, it would be utterly impossible for an ordinary woman with red hair to lift a refrigerator. He knelt in front of it, and wrapped his arms around the large metal rectangular prism. He bent his womanly legs and expected his back to scream at him. Instead, he felt weight resistance on par with lifting a beach ball. At fully standing height, he yelped and immediately had to avoid three problems at once: hitting it on the ceiling, dropping it, or banging it into the wall. It felt like carrying a bag of groceries. So, not just an ordinary red-haired woman, he thought, but actually The Capacitor. Gingerly, he set down the fridge. Got it.

    He walked around the house a bit, curious as to how many of her powers he had in this form. If this were really happening, he took mental note, he’d already demonstrated strength. She had several more. He stared all around, trying to activate her see-through vision. What the writers had made sure to do, he remembered from the comics, was not to give her x-ray vision. Her vision was a form of psychic remote viewing, since they didn’t want to imply her eyes gave off harmful ionizing radiation. After long minutes of trying, he found wanting to see further caused layers to become transparent, allowing him to see behind and beyond them. With effort, he gained another small, possibly unreliable, piece of evidence that this wasn’t a hallucination. One layer at a time, he saw past the wall of his house, past the walls of the neighbor across the street’s house, and into the books on a shelf perpendicular to his vision in one of their rooms. One book, he had never once read, The Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway, he saw the cover, then the first page. The next page was backwards, obviously, when the first page became invisible as he saw past it. Exercising his will, his vision returned to himself, having remembered the text of the page as best he could.

    He downloaded a digital version of the book and read the first page. The text matched what he saw. Alright, I couldn’t have made that up, he realized. Unless somehow, he had read the book somehow and forgot that he read it while still remembering the text, which struck him as unlikely. He still couldn’t rule it out, but now, more evidence mounted. The best evidence, he figured, would be to act as though it were real and see how far it went. Certainly, real life broke down all barriers and the truth eventually came out. If he ventured out into the world, and this was a hallucination, it would come crashing down, wouldn’t it? Sure, it could be disastrous, but if he had the insanity to hallucinate to this degree, what could he trust? It also meant, the farthest and most unlikely scenario could be true. Something impossible could truly be happening, and the implications, he scarcely wanted to contemplate, for the whole universe was involved.

    Turning back into himself, he decided to push it. He transformed parts of his body into hers. Individual feet at first, then hands. He could even transfer much of his body fat to her form. This seemed practical, as it meant his clothes would fit her, but at the same time, it bothered him. He thought about it. Ultimately, he shook it off in favor of more pressing matters. Her being fat allowed him to put his clothes on and head outside to do some work. Grabbing the car keys, he headed for the park near Wood River, Illinois. There, he could find a quiet corner of the large open park and practice.

    The wooded areas had quite a few places off the beaten path where people hardly went. In a cluster of trees, he stood, focusing on what he knew. Alright, he thought, one of the most basic abilities she had was flight. She could, in the comics, fly incredibly fast. He focused on his presence and imagined himself moving. At first, just as he expected, nothing happened. Practice made perfect. It was just like riding a bike.

    After twenty boring minutes of trying different mental techniques, he focused on deciding to levitate upwards. Leaves blew away from him in a circle, as if he had a propeller blowing. His feet left the ground by an inch. I’m getting it! He thought. Then he fell backwards onto his butt. He stood, brushed himself off. Fly, already, he mentally commanded. Upwards! Fly!

    As though fired from a cannon he shot up. Uncontrolled at first, he slammed into a tree face first, having surprisingly tested his durability and upon issuing a mental yell of “stop!” he came crashing down with a thump. The thought occurred to him that direction and speed may not be the same mental process. He indicated the direction of up, and decided. Simultaneously, he indicated a speed of slightly above gravity and committed. Like a balloon, he levitated to the height of the tree. At the top, he changed his speed to exactly the speed of gravity. He came to a dead stop and floated alongside the treetop. Left, he focused and thought. Slow. He hovered in the direction of the next tree. What surprised him was that he continued facing the original direction as he moved sideways. He had to turn his body midair to face the direction he moved; it wasn’t automatic. Touching the tree, he stopped and lowered himself. Finesse and fine control would have to wait. He had other powers to practice. What surprised him was that flight worked much like the “trigger” that activated his power: he had to mentally force it so a random thought couldn’t interrupt it.

    Sensory powers were her next major task. Sure, he knew, he’d tested her sight, but now, he had hearing to test. This was easy to activate. Unfortunately, it was hard to focus. A thunderstorm erupted in his head. He heard everything from nearby cars starting all the way down to the footfall of a squirrel. Drowning out everything except people’s conversations proved hard. It wasn’t like the comics at all. Sure, with effort, he could hear what they were saying separately by paying attention to it, but just like regular hearing, everything else mixed in.

    Ironically, the easiest powers to learn were what he expected to be the hardest. Energy projection, which in the comics, manifested as her being able to emit laser-like beams from her hands and directly in front of her eyes, wasn’t hard at all. He thought of the type of energy to be fired. In this case, a powerful beam of laser light. He pointed at a log. Making the decision, the tip of his finger glowed red and a dot appeared on the log, slowly burning. He decided to increase power. The light turned from red to blue, and it ate through the log in seconds. Once stopped focusing, it vanished. The other, super speed, almost felt like turning a knob. He found the world frozen around him as he focused on it. The only disorienting part was movement. He found he could see and process all the information around him, even though he felt the tremendous speed at which he ran. The logical problem was that his clothes didn’t rip off. The only answer he could come up with was that the invulnerability extended somewhat during running.

    He shifted back into his normal male form. Within twenty minutes of testing individual body parts, he found he needed to transform his brain into hers to have any abilities at all. Furthermore, he found he needed at least half his internal organs to be changed to have strength or flight, but sensory powers only required his eyes and ears to change. After a few minutes of testing his sensory powers in his normal form, he realized, it bothered him somehow. It didn’t feel right to him to use powers in his male form. He pondered it a few moments, but shook his head. He had other work to do. Namely, the thing he wanted to do was, in fiction, usually the first thing the hero learned not to do. He’d read enough comics and manga to learn that one of the very first lessons a protagonist learned was not to use their powers for self-interest. It was wrong. To an extent, he knew why it was wrong. But as someone who worked ten-hour days, for less than fifteen dollars an hour, he didn’t care.

    Fortunately, for him, the cities along the Alton stretch of the Mississippi River had one thing in abundance: riverboat casinos. He found one and parked. What game would give him the greatest advantage? He guessed he would start with blackjack, just because it was the one with the rules he remembered the best. The security guard didn’t even card him. His goatee seemed to be proof enough of age. Two stops he made first: the ATM, and then the cage. He got a hundred dollars in casino chips.

    He wandered past the slot machines and found the blackjack table. It was early enough in the day that he was the only one sitting at the table. Knowing what he knew about security cameras and goons wandering the floor, he made a deliberate show of sitting down with his hands above the table and placed his palms flat. This was to provide a visual record, if accused of cheating, that not once did he have his hands below the table, eliminating the possibility of using a card counting device. The dealer, a man in his mid-forties, regarded him. “Hello, sir, this is blackjack,” the man introduced. “How much would you like to bet?”

    Manfred set down fifty dollars in chips. The dealer handed him two cards, face up, a three, and a seven. Before the dealer could pull out his own cards, Manny quietly used his see-through vision. The dealer was going to get a nine and a six. The dealer put one of his cards face up and the other face down. The dealer was in a better position than him now, closer to twenty-one. The next card was a seven. “Hit,” he told the dealer. Now he was at seventeen, forcing the dealer to hit to try and beat him. He saw, however, the dealer’s next card and had to force himself not to smile. It was a jack, worth ten, putting the dealer at twenty-five, a bust.

    “Good job,” the dealer said. “Table pays two to one, so you get a hundred.” He handed Manny a hundred-dollar chip. Manny put down the new chip with the fifty and went another round. The dealer was going to get a seven and a queen: seventeen. Manny looked at his cards to come. He could get a two, a five, an eight, and a three. He would beat the dealer again. The dealer whistled. “Two in a row, that’s something.” He looked further ahead. The dealer would have a nine, and a queen, putting him at nineteen. Meanwhile, he could get a six, a two, a king, and an ace. He would lose either way. He pulled his chips aside and bet fifty before going another round. The cards were dealt. “Ah, I guess no one can win ‘em all.”

    “I’m still in the positive, so, I’m going to keep going,” Manny replied.

    The dealer shrugged. “Sure.”

    This went on for a while. He would bet big when he knew he would win, and bet small when he knew he would lose. He had to stay under some amount just over eleven hundred dollars, because above that, he’d have to fill out a tax form. Maybe he’d do that at another casino, but right now, he had to maximize his starting bet at another casino. After nine hundred dollars, he stepped aside. After cashing his chips in, he pocketed the money and headed out to his car. He put the money in the middle compartment. He stared at it. Two weeks’ pay after taxes still fell short of what he had. He drove off, headed another ten or so miles to another casino. The Mississippi River had several of these to choose from.

    Sitting down at another blackjack table, he sat across from another dealer, and at least two other people sat here. Normally, it would be hard to consider how far ahead to look at the cards, but somehow, her brain was smarter than his. The other people noticed his incredible luck, and he tried to minimize it by placing more on losing bets. After quite a bit of winning, some eleven thousand dollars, security approached and asked him to leave. He went to the main cage, cashed out, and was handed a form.

    “Your Social Security card and Driver’s License, sir?” the cashier asked.

    He opened his wallet and produced them. “Death and taxes,” he joked, handing them over. He filled out the form, and handed it back. An uncomfortable few minutes passed. “I’d like my winnings in a check, please, minus a thousand in cash, if you could.”

    The cashier smiled, returning his identification. “Certainly, sir,” he said. A few minutes later, and he had a check in his pocket and more cash in his wallet. He also had a security escort to his car. He drove off and didn’t stop until he got to a branch of his bank, some four miles away. Shutting the engine off, he realized his heart was pounding.

    He leaned back in his chair. A ragged breath escaped. He had to remind himself nothing was coming after him. He had gotten away with it. Obviously, he figured, otherwise security would’ve pulled him aside then and there. He went up to the ATM and deposited the check. He doubted he could handle explaining things to a live person. He could scarcely believe that almost half a year’s money had entered his possession. Starting the car again, a thought occurred to him.

    Assuming this is real, he realized, it would be absurd to believe it would only happen to him. He’d gotten so mentally high from the winnings, and so distracted by the possibility of insanity, that the basic hadn’t even struck him until this point. After all, he’d unlocked more evidence: the likelihood of him hallucinating turning into another person was high. However, for the insanity option to be the truth, now, he’d have to have somehow beaten the incredible odds of casino blackjack consistently enough to have won almost twelve thousand dollars. Also, he realized he’d only been in the close, Alton casino. He’d never been in this other one. So, he would’ve had to hallucinate something he’d never seen before, in significant detail. So far, he’d made a lot of money, and assuming this wasn’t a giant hallucination, he could make more. But what bothered him is the fact that, he knew what would happen next.

    He’d read enough comics to know that, should he decide to use his powers, he’d be pulled into a situation he had little control of. It rattled him, knowing that, if enough people developed powers like his, society could very well collapse. He’d read plenty of comics and even some novels, and almost all of them had the same message: society can’t handle these things. The last thing he wanted was for the world to turn into Sengoku-era Japan, with local leaders fighting wars with each other. Another disturbing thought was, he could turn into Capacitor. Michelle Delanter was a very powerful super. She had the standard flying brick power set, and fought godlike beings before. In the comics, there had been a great deal of fights she’d been in. Unfortunately, her defining characteristic was that she always had an enemy to fight, many of which were more powerful than her. Obviously, he knew, in those stories, she always won. This wasn’t a story; this was life. He had no guarantees of winning. There were no mentors to teach him how to fight as a super. He had no one to help him learn.

    This was new territory. He sighed and shook his head. “Dammit,” he thought out loud. He started the car. He felt the weight of possible events to come pushing down on him. If only he could wish it away, he believed. Then a mental image flashed through his mind. Some super out of a young adult novel obliterating the entire city and its surroundings. The old him would’ve been a victim, swept away like a sandcastle, no way to fight back. Now, he might find himself having to do battle, but he wouldn’t be a helpless victim. In fact, it might turn out to be his only tool to survive.

    He returned home. If trouble would come to him sooner or later, he would be prepared. He had to know how complex her powers were and to what degree they worked.

    One of the first things he tested was her intelligence. Was she as smart as him? Was she smarter than him? He had to know. In college, he’d completed calculus one with a ‘B’ and that utterly thrilled him. Once he found out he wouldn’t have to complete calculus two he almost danced a jig. Now, he dug around the internet until he came across a year two calculus primer. Since it’d been almost a decade, and his math skills were rusty, he began reading through the descriptions. The websites had various levels of descriptiveness, so if he came across one that didn’t seem technical enough, he found one that was.

    After twenty minutes of reading, his mind snapped back to self-awareness. Suddenly, he became aware the math fascinated him. As far as he knew, it never occurred to him that math could fascinate anyone. More importantly, not once had any of the topics that bewildered him even remotely troubled her. The wiki for Furious Thunder indicated that all the versions of her possessed some degree of enhanced intellect, most being a four out of seven—with two being an average person. The latest incarnation, however, had been upgraded to a five—marked by the descriptor, “high genius.”

    “She possessed an intellect much higher than the common man,” he read, “even before becoming enhanced. Afterward, however, her brilliance was brought to nigh-superhuman levels. Although not as smart as beings such as Psi-Storm, she can outsmart many of the cleverest enemies.”

    Clicking back to the tab with the math instruction, he clicked on a video of a woman explaining some of the history of calculus. I don’t know if I’d wear that, he thought.

    At once he hit the spacebar, pausing the video, and leaning back in his chair.

    He’d just imagined himself, in her form, wearing the woman’s clothes, and found himself not enjoying that idea. He’d analyzed what he would look like in Capacitor form, dressed like that, and it bothered him. He’d judged her clothes. That thought caught him by surprise.

    I’ve never cared about fashion or how clothes look,
    he thought.

    A gasp almost escaped his mouth. The answer immediately presented itself. When I’m physically her, he realized, specifically, the brain, she has a different gender identity than I do. It would have been confusing if he didn’t currently have the intelligence to understand it. As far as he could tell, even though the brain was the seat of consciousness, there was no break in awareness. Granted, he had to admit, it had only been a few days. Still, it was no Jekyll & Hyde; there were no two people. There was just one person, with two different forms. It’s like two different word processors on the same computer, he realized. They have different features, but they share the same basic essence.

    It occurred to him that he’d shifted some excess weight to her form. Even though he did it to make his clothes fit her, it triggered the same body image issues he had as a guy, but worse. Still, at the very least, it made it convenient that his large pants fit her.

    His pants had slid down. He stood there and pulled his pants back up. A thumb and index finger slid into the gap where previously, it had been snug. Standing up, he pushed the chair aside and backed up. His male form re-emerged as he shifted back to normal, even transferring his excess weight back. Checking the waist of the pants, he coughed and shook his head. Somehow, in less than twenty-four hours, her enhanced body burned through enough fat to make his pants loose.

    Shifting back into her form, he clasped his hands over his face, breathed in and out, and sat down on his bed. This would be one hell of a learning curve.
     
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  2. Threadmarks: Chapter Two
    Alejandro Gonzalez

    Alejandro Gonzalez Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    CHAPTER TWO​





    In a five-star hotel suite in Manhattan, a phone rang. A hand reached out and lifted the receiver. “Hello?”

    “Mister Torvalds?” the receptionist said. “Here’s your six A.M. wake up call.”

    “Thank you,” Jericho Torvalds replied. He hung up the phone, rotated to a seated position, then wiped the sleep from his eyes. He stood up and contemplated whether to eat at one of the many three-or-more star restaurants around the city, or at the hotel’s restaurant. Honestly, it had been nice to get a good night’s sleep, even if he’d had to pay a bit more for the suite than he liked. It just didn’t seem likely that the three-star hotels would’ve even given him the kind of sleep he wanted. He showered, washing his medium-length brown hair, putting shampoo in his goatee, brushing his teeth, things that got him awake in the morning. After showering, he toweled off, checking his stocks. He’d made his billions in the stock market, and the competition would eat him alive if he took his eye off the ball for a moment.

    He put on a comfortable polo shirt and slacks, and his custom designed shoes. Exiting his hotel suite, the city opened up to him like a book. Freed from the responsibility of his old desk job, New York presented an opportunity for him to analyze the behavior of individuals. He had a meeting with a former employee of a big accounting firm. Businesses potentially breaking the law meant an investment opportunity. As he passed through the crowd, he found his way to a familiar restaurant. He smiled as he entered in, and the wait staff referred to him by his first name.

    The news showed a laundry list of ups, downs, and betrayals in the stock market. He clicked over to the science tab. If the price of solar continued to drop, as it had for the past several years, he might have to place an even higher investment in it. A lone news article caught his eye. Some upper atmosphere event had scientists confused and concerned. He clicked on the video.

    “Physicists all over the world are concerned,” the news anchor said. “Last evening, around seven-thirty P.M. Pacific Time, a series of strange colored lights appeared over much of the globe. Measurable effects have yet to be determined, along with the cause. Government officials have said that neither communications nor infrastructure seems to have been affected, and not to panic.”

    He clicked off the video. It wasn’t particularly interesting to him. Strange lights in the sky? Probably nothing. If it affected any satellites or communications infrastructure, then he might have to worry about certain stocks of his, but other than that, he felt no concern. The soup and salad arrived, and he put his food away and began eating. The fork stirred the Italian dressing in with the lettuce and greens, and lifted the mixture to his mouth. The familiar flavor shot through him like a bullet. He had to close his eyes. As much as he loved southern California, the food in Manhattan could be so much better. These places didn’t use any store-bought dressing; they made their own. It was worth the prices normal folk couldn’t pay. Someone brushed against his shoulder as they stood up to go to the restroom.

    A second feeling shot through him. A…presence…appeared in his mind. Words failed him; he felt as though a burst of energy had gathered inside of him…somewhere…and he couldn’t explain it. A thought entered his mind. As clear as the morning sky, he could see a woman, standing in front of her bathroom mirror, levitating her toothbrush, and soap dispenser. The thoughts in her head—that she activated a ‘trigger’ in her mind, and like an invisible hand detached from her body, could move and manipulate things around her. He felt her disbelief at first, and worry she had gone bonkers, and saw several hours of tests, where each thought in her head he saw as clear as day. Like a flash of light, it passed, leaving him where he sat.

    “Oh! I’m sorry!” A woman said, placing her hand on his shoulder. “Clumsy me, I’m just trying to find the bathroom.”

    He looked up and saw the woman from the…vision, or whatever that was. “N-no,” he stammered. “That’s quite alright.” She left, and he found himself staring at her as she walked. Part of the vision was that she was standing outside her apartment, on the street corner, when the lights shot overhead. She looked up as a green beam shot by like a banner carried by a supersonic jet. One of her friends had pointed up and gaped in awe.

    He turned his gaze to the salt shaker across the table. He manipulated the trigger in his mind by wanting to move the salt shaker. Her memories showed that, somehow, the trigger acted as an “are you sure” option. It guaranteed you wouldn’t accidentally kill yourself, for example, by imagining strangling yourself, if someone had told you that was a possibility, thereby causing you to think it. The salt shaker slid across the table to his hand, but only once he committed to it.

    The thought occurred to him, the insanity of the whole thing. He pulled himself to a fully upright position in his chair. What kind of lunacy was this? Had he gone insane? What sort of hallucination was this? Surely, if people had encountered such a thing in the past, if it had existed since the dawn of man, human history would be vastly different. Such impossibilities didn’t just pop into being.

    The lights in the sky, he thought. He’d never heard of aurora borealis showing such colors before. Could something impossible have simply come into being now? Was he on the precipice of human history undergoing a rapid change? If powers started materializing, he figured, like in those ridiculous superhero movies, it would upend all of civilization. This would change everything. What a challenge this would be; he had no guarantee of survival.

    Another thought occurred to him. Assuming this was real—which he could neither ignore or assume—he would have to rise to the occasion. It stood to reason that if there was no active selective mind behind the process of who got powers, many of the people would use their power for gain at the abuse of others. It wasn’t a question of ‘if.’ Depending on the quantity of people involved, the world could become a battleground. First, though, he realized, he’d have to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating. A simple unclipping of his phone from his belt and he called up his doctor. The doctor would show either the world had changed, along with a fundamental understanding of physics, or he had gone insane. Some kind of tumor could cause such a level of delusion. Either way, the news would be world-shattering.

    After eating, he paid the meal and began to walk down the street towards the hotel suite. A strange sensation, separate and in addition to his newfound mental ‘trigger,’ it materialized as a vague twinge, like the feeling of hairs standing up from static, except dissociated from him. Every so often, maybe one person in a crowd of two thousand, would give off a signal in his brain not functionally dissimilar to radar. He guessed the amount, based on the conglomeration of people he saw in front of him, and the sparseness of the twinges. New York, the most populous city in the United States, would by statistical probability alone have the highest concentration of people with powers, if such an event were truly happening. Amazingly, this new radar-like sense extended for miles. Although the actual surroundings could not be seen, he knew instinctively how far away and in what direction in three-dimensional space each powered person was from his location. His senses extended almost all the way to the edges of the city. A rough count gave him his previous guess. By doing some quick math in his head, he figured that, if roughly one out of every two thousand people would turn, then, out of the seven point four billion people on Earth, somewhere between three point six and three point seven million people would be powered. That meant it was some four ten-thousandths of a percent of the world’s population. While that might initially give the laity a sense of positivity, he figured, the power presented by those people indicated a potential problem.

    As a member of the top one percent, he had purchasing power all by himself equal to millions of people combined. It neither bothered him nor pleased him—it was simply an effect of his activities in the stock market. Wealth, however, could be predictable, and, despite what those on the left believed, was not an indication of greed nor intent to inflict harm on others. No, he knew how concentrating wealth in the hands of the few could change society, and how trickle-down economics failed not because of the fault in the policy itself, but on greedy politicians who kept ruining its implementation. Wealth created the hotbeds upon which wars were fought and waged, but even the worst of the worst—World War Two in all its horror—was self-contained. It had limits. He doubted nuclear war would ever happen under normal circumstances because the wealthy in power on all sides of conflict enjoyed being able to spend their money. The biggest detractor to civilization-ending events, he understood, was rich people who wanted to continue going on vacation and enjoying their vast purchasing power. Only the insane wanted to go backwards, to have to farm again. Farming was what machines and the poor who’d been left behind did. It was why he never found movie villains believable—more often than not, they possessed incredible fortunes, and were perfectly willing to end civilization, to end their only way of going on cruises and travelling in luxury, in order to obtain some half-moronic ideal of human perfection or eugenics, or to impose some perfect society that made no sense.

    No, his ideal of a perfect society, he knew, would be one where as many people as possible would be able to experience the kind of joy and luxury he experienced. His grandfather, the billionaire Johann Torrell, had completely and utterly exiled his mother from the Torrell family fortune before he was even born. The man had been appointed, in his late thirties, the head of the massive wealth created by immigrant ancestors three-fourths of a century earlier, and he would expand it further. His youngest daughter had, in nineteen seventy-nine, at the age of twenty-two, partied hard enough to be disinherited. That meant that young Jericho had, almost as soon as he was born, given a burden of infamy. Changing his name to Torvalds, to escape the stigma of a partying mother, he entered and excelled at college, and fought his way up the corporate ladder, exhibiting an almost-supernatural gift for playing the stock market. Unlike most of his distant siblings, glued to their desks in upper floors of Manhattan office buildings, he would cash in his stocks at certain points, effectively turning digital money into cash, guaranteeing he could go where he needed to go. No more offices would plague him, and no more desks would he sit behind, or meetings to attend. Other than his tax people, and secretary, he never worried beyond making sure his existing stocks were ok.

    His joy came from his freedom, and idiots who would be perfectly willing to bring down all of society in order to be worshipped as gods would be the end of that. He didn’t need or want to be in charge. Those who did, however, were his enemy. A sense of willingness to fight entered his mind. The wheels would have to turn and someone would have to turn them—after attending his doctor’s appointment to make sure nothing was wrong with him, he had work to do.

    Lifting his phone to his hear, he called his doctor and set up an appointment for later in the day. He wanted an MRI of his brain, and due to his financial position, his doctor assured it would be done. Meanwhile, he would test this insanity to see if it was real or not. Based on the information he’d gotten, by touching the woman, he’d copied her power. If this did not happen to be a hallucination of his, then the lights in the sky had to be related to the cause, especially since the pictures he saw on his phone showed colors not before seen in the sky. He took a deep breath, and used his powers of telekinesis to move the gravel around his feet away from him. As a minor test, it seemed fitting. If this was dementia, he had gone too far to be saved, he imagined.

    Slowly, he made his way through the crowded streets towards the nearest person who lit up his mental radar. A man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties, wearing a dirty sports jacket and a worn baseball cap, strode slowly uptown. Jericho pushed through the crowd, approaching. He made his way up to the man and casually brushed past him. As his right arm connected briefly with the man’s left, a series of scenes played out in his mind. Images flashed before him, scenes of the man in his bathroom, activating his power. He vanished from his bathroom, appearing in the bedroom on the other side of the wall. It seemed the man could teleport, his range limited to about fifteen feet in any direction. As the man tested his power further, he discovered variations on the ability; he could teleport from a chair, seated, to a standing position, or vice versa. He could teleport from a stationary sidewalk to the interior of a moving car, or the other way around. After the long string of images stopped, the man turned and looked at Jericho. “Hey! Watch where you’re going,” he said.

    “Sorry,” Jericho replied, walking on.

    He made his way back to the hotel suite. Forget the day’s trading, he thought. This would be the story of a lifetime. Assuming this didn’t turn out to be the result of a brain tumor, the entire order of the world would change, possibly not for the better. Comic books had not been a part of his childhood. He logged onto the internet, and bought several digital comics to read. He picked the most mainstream issues he could find, from the big publishers, to see what tropes from fiction people might try to bleed over into reality. It occurred to him the idiocy of trying to imitate works of fiction—aimed at children, at that—but he wanted to be as up to date as he could be. It never hurt to be too prepared, he knew. Not more than a few minutes into reading the most popular hero of all-time, he found himself scoffing at how ridiculous some of these tales were. Still, as he waited for his appointment to arrive, he read on. It bothered him how so many people might have powers, and their entire idea of what to do would be inspired by works aimed at teenagers some fifty years ago.

    Frustrated at the lack of depth to comics, he turned to television and movies. There had been a few attempts to translate comic book superheroes into more serious media, and he wanted to see most of all, what people thought and expected. After a few episodes of a few different shows, he clicked off his laptop. The clock indicated it would be a little under an hour until his appointment. He paced around the room. He checked his bank account one more time. It gave him an idea. It seemed, assuming this was real, that his power was the duplication of abilities. Once more, it seemed the smart thing to do would be to simply collect as much as possible. He would have to outperform the rest, and by having the most, it would offer the best chance at surviving.

    Out the door of the hotel, he walked. To get to the doctor’s office would be a long walk, but it would take him right past a person, with powers, just sitting on a sidewalk. Placing the power on in his periphery, he could sense the person. It was a child, reading a pirated page of Japanese manga on a smartphone. In order to get there faster, ducking and weaving through the crowd became necessary. After switching sidewalks more than once, he crossed the street and saw the child swiping to a new page on the phone. Carefully, he shifted his stride to the left, and his swinging left hand collided “accidentally” with the child’s left temple.

    At once the scene flashed into his mind. The child sat on his chair, staring at an unplugged television. The child leaned forward, staring intently. Moments later, the LEDs flashed to life, the cartoon playing and echoing sound through the speakers, despite not having an apparent power source. The scene shifted to about an hour later. The young boy stood at his doorway, watching his mother struggling to open a pickle jar. His fingers twitched and his right eye opened a hair wider. The woman suddenly jerked the lid, an audible pop of the seal coming loose. Her muscles, he had momentarily enhanced.

    “Hey! Watch it, asshole!” the young boy beckoned, lifting his baseball cap back onto his head, covering his swirly hair.

    “Terribly sorry,” Jericho replied, returning to his stride. The child could enhance. He wondered what that meant. Could the boy enhance…anything? He had to test this one out. This could potentially be a jailbreaker for other powers he got. He turned away from the crowd on the street and into an alley. Leaning against a dumpster, he triggered his teleportation ability. In his mind, a three-dimensional duplicate of the world around him appeared, his mind remote viewing as though he were astral projecting. He could see up to fifteen feet in every direction. The world froze around him, not moving, as he journeyed the tiny bubble of available places to teleport, in his mind. He activated the child’s ability, which was a separate trigger—which impressed him, as each trigger was represented all by itself. He would have to remember that. Focusing the child’s…enhancement ability…on the teleportation ability, saw the sphere of available space expand. Soon, the whole of New York city sat within his vision. It seemed he was a ghost, able to travel through any solid surface to choose a destination; meanwhile, no time passed in the real world. He zoomed his vision from where he was, to an unoccupied stall in his doctor’s waiting room—instantly, no less. He popped out of being from where he was, and came back into existence in the doctor’s office. The smallest possible unit of time had passed. Eagerly, he left the bathroom and made his way to the waiting room.

    “I’ve got an appointment with Doctor Fields,” Jericho said, approaching the receptionist.

    “Mister Torvalds!” the receptionist said, pulling up his record on her computer. “Well, it says here you’ve got forty minutes until your appointment. Is your insurance information still the same?”

    He nodded. “Sure. I’ll just wait here.”

    “Okay! I’ll let the doctor know you’re in as soon as he’s done.”

    He took a seat in a chair in the corner. Curious to test his powers, even as he sat, waiting for proof it was or wasn’t really happening, he triggered his enhancement ability on his normal power duplication. Suddenly, he could do more than see where the nearest people with powers were. Their actual powers became known to him. About ten miles from him, a man with enhanced strength ripped a door off a car to get to a man inside. Using his remote viewing associated with teleportation, he saw the man’s gang insignia on his neck. The guy in a business suit, the target, was parked in a garage and sat mid-scream in the drivers’ seat. Jericho took a short stroll back into the bathroom, and hid out of sight. He teleported to ten feet behind the man, behind a concrete barrier.

    “You should’ve known that Benny was going to get pissed about the money,” the overweight, hulking man said, hauling the suited gentleman out of his car.

    “I’m sorry! I’ll have it tomorrow!” the man pleaded.

    “Perhaps debts shouldn’t always be settled out of court,” Jericho said, approaching. He did his best to sound confident. Honestly, his heart pounded. Triggering his enhancement ability onto his telekinesis, he strode forward, ready to strike any moment.

    “Who the fuck?” The brute said, reaching for his gun, only to find his hand unable to move. “What?”

    Jericho strode forward. “So, either this is the most in-depth hallucination ever,” he said, “or there are many people with powers.” He had the man completely frozen in place. The suited gentleman took the opportunity to scramble into his car and take off, door be damned. Jericho gave a smile and placed a hand on the brute’s chest. A scene popped into mind. The brute, with two of his comrades, beat a man to death as a brilliant flare of many colors showered overhead. They looked up and stared at the huge variety of colorful beams of light, as their prey tried to scramble away. The scene then changed to the man awing his friends by lifting cars of varying sizes as mob types cheered, drinking. Then, there were scenes of men breaking various boards, crowbars, and pipes against his skin. Apparently, a shotgun blast finally left a wound on his chest resembling a popped zit. He wiped the slight ooze of blood off and they laughed, continuing to drink.

    “Oh, Christ,” Jericho sputtered, almost heaving at the images of brutality. He shook his head. “Wow, holy fuck.”

    “What the fuck, man, how in the hell?”

    Jericho focused on the farthest away place he could see with his teleportation. Miles out into the ocean, he could see almost to the bottom by enhancement. With a bit of focus, the man disappeared from where he stood frozen, and appeared near the sea bed. He intentionally went back to focusing on his own self and away from the man’s predicament. Durability and strength or not, at that depth, no one would be bothered by that brute ever again. He teleported back into the bathroom stall and sat, clutching his head in his hands. This power business had serious drawbacks he hadn’t even considered. The guilt start to hit him, as he realized the truth, that he had killed a man. As he walked back to his seat, he pondered the implications.

    He’d just taken the life of a murderer. The reason that could even be possible, was because he’d acquired a power that enabled him to rise to the top. He let out a quiet sigh and leaned against the wall in his seat. Just as he predicted, the battle had begun. Now that a new set of circumstances had been introduced to the world, people began to explore their newfound opportunities. People, both good and bad, were separating themselves from the rest of the population. As in business, those able to go further than the competition would rise to the top.

    “Not going to be a victim,” he whispered to himself. He looked up at the television in the waiting room. A breaking news story showed a person in London, in the middle of the street, catching fire and walking around. The news anchors told of how everyone was seeing it and speculating on whether it was a prank. He raised and lowered his eyebrows. Well, he figured, assuming he wasn’t in a vivid hallucination, the ball had already begun rolling. The first soul dumb enough to show himself to the public, and break the temporary masquerade, had arrived.

    “Mister Torvalds?” the receptionist said, breaking him out of his stupor. “The doctor will see you now.”

    “Hmm? Yes, got it.” He stood up, and strolled slowly into the exam room.

    He gazed around the room and saw all the various instruments. This would require a show. If he merely told the doctor he thought he was having a hallucination, it would be three weeks or more and multiple visits to specialists before the answer would arrive. No, an immediate response would be needed. The doctor knocked, interrupting his train of thought, and smiled as he stepped in.

    “Well, Mister Torvalds,” he greeted, shaking the man’s hand. “What brings you in for this visit?”

    He let out a sigh, squaring his eyes at the doctor. “I might be suffering from a hallucination, and I need to know for sure,” he explained. As he saw the doctor’s facial expression betray the gears turning in his head, he took the initiative by making the doctor’s phone fall off the counter. The doctor made a noise and reached quickly, only for it to freeze in midair.

    The outstretched, middle-aged doctor’s hand, halted. He stared at the phone, wide-eyed, for a moment, unable to speak. His gaze remained fixed on the cell as it levitated towards Jericho’s hand. Jericho reached out and handed it to the doctor, the man taking it, then realizing his mouth hung open. “How the hell…?”

    Jericho leaned in. “This morning,” he explained, “I touched a random person by accident in a restaurant, and suddenly, I can see her moving objects with her mind. Visions of her in my head. Then, I can suddenly do what I just did.” He looked deep into the doctor’s eyes. “If I’m imagining all of this, I need to know. Normally, this would take over a month. Do you think we can have some tests done today?”

    The doctor leaned back in his chair, coughed, and breathed in and out. After an uncomfortable minute, he cleared his throat again. “Honestly, I think you might have to do that again a few times,” he explained. He laughed and Jericho returned the feeling.

    “Thank you,” he said. “I’ve been worried about it all day.”

    Over a period of three hours, Doctor Fields begged, stole, and borrowed every free moment he could. He lied his way into an MRI of his patient, then a series of blood tests and even a CT scan. Money be damned, he thought, and after all, Jericho had promised to reimburse him well. The repeated scans and tests made the doctor certain, either they would discover an incredible series of coincidences followed by a rather nasty brain tumor, or else it would be revealed that superpowers—straight from fiction—were real.

    At the end of the day, Jericho felt a lot better about himself. None of the MRIs, CT scans or X-rays had turned up anything positive. There were no suspicious growths, no new additions or sudden disappearances, so the power, assuming it existed, was magical. What intrigued him, though, was the fact that it seemed to have specific rules. The fact that a mental trigger existed to turn the ability on and off struck him as odd. Still, assuming the blood tests were accurate and no drugs were in his system, he couldn’t deny reality. His skepticism hadn’t been abated completely, but he had evidence and that was the language he spoke.

    Jericho, at the end of the ordeal, shook his doctor’s hand. “It seems we live in a strange new world,” he said.

    The doctor let out a deep breath. “I tell you, this is a hell of a revelation,” he replied. He held up his phone. “Would you believe there are three separate cases on the news already?”

    “We’ll know it’s gotten serious when the government says something about it,” Jericho stated. Anyway, I’ll be sending you a sizeable check in the mail soon.”

    “Good luck, and try to keep in good health!”

    Jericho waved at the doctor on his way out. He stopped by the front desk and got his paperwork straightened, before heading outside and walking in the direction of the alley. He hid behind a dumpster for a moment, and when sure no eyes were watching, teleported into his private bathroom outside his business office. Stepping out, he walked down a short hall and opened the door, startling his secretary. She scrambled to get the papers on the right of her desk in a neat stack. “Mister Torvalds!” she said, frantically organizing. “I had no idea you’d be in! I was about to leave. What can I do for you?”

    “Have you heard on the news about the developments around the world?” he asked.

    Her eyes shot from left to right, as she calculated which of the topics she’d read that day would be what he referred to. Then, she saw on her laptop, the latest news feed and an obvious choice sprang into mind. “You mean,” she said, pausing for a moment, “these unexplained abilities being demonstrated around the world?”

    He gave a smile and a point. “Yes! Exactly.” He approached. “So, what do you know?”

    “So far,” she said, recalling the articles she read, “a guy in the U.K. demonstrated his ability to catch fire and return to normal at will, no harm done to him. A woman in Chicago took a bullet to the chest in a grocery store robbery and was healed by the time the EMT’s arrived to check on her, and a man in Los Angeles turned into someone else in a crowded shopping mall.” She skimmed the latest report on her computer. “Some people are saying it’s the end of the world, others, are saying comic books are real.”

    “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear,” he said. “get my jet ready in two hours, pull whatever strings you need to get it done, I’m going to Chicago.”

    She nodded, reaching for the phone. “Yes, sir!” She glanced up at him. “How many passengers?”

    “Just one,” he replied. “See you later.”

    He waved and she waved back as she spoke into the phone. He stepped back into his private bathroom and teleported back into his apartment suite. Sitting on his couch he pulled his laptop front of him. Since he hadn’t grown up a geek, he had a lack of knowledge of subjects that he had previously considered irrelevant. Now, though, if powers vaguely similar to those of superhero comics were in fact truly real, it stood to reason that they would influence how people perceived the real version. What that meant was that he stood at a disadvantage from the perspective of information. One of the major comic book publishers in the country had an unlimited digital package, he signed up and began reading. Time progressed, and he digested the histories of major superheroes at an alarming rate. Even as a child, he would have dismissed these stories as drivel. Now, though, they stood to have a real impact on world events. He had to know, and he had to know yesterday. Looking up at his watch, he noticed the time.

    Gathering his immediate belongings, he located a vacant stall of a bathroom near the front entrance of the airport. It would be another hour before takeoff, but he had no time to dillydally. One of the main powers he wanted presumably was in Chicago. He would not miss it.
     
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  3. Threadmarks: Chapter Three
    Alejandro Gonzalez

    Alejandro Gonzalez Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    CHAPTER THREE​



    I.​




    “Wilson!”

    Davis Wilson looked up from his desk. One of his superior officers approached from another desk. He set aside his paperwork and turned his chair. “Yes?”

    “Have you got a report on the superpower issue?” The statement came from one of his supervisors from the office that dealt with the information reported to the President. The older man in the expensive business suit had hands on hips, and the bags under his eyes told Davis that he hadn’t slept.

    “What I have so far,” Davis replied, “is confirmation from a number of sources at both NASA and CERN that the origin of the Lights was a strange burst of particles from a hole in spacetime above the Earth’s atmosphere.” He shuffled around his desk until he came across several printouts of email conversations. “According to our branch offices in nine different nations, there appears to be a higher concentration of these people demonstrating superhuman abilities where lights directly passed overhead, although we are finding these people everywhere.”

    “One of our friends in the CIA told us that there are those mobilizing supers,” The man asked. “How true is that?”

    “Most of the activity seems to be low-level gangs that organize around a member who demonstrates powers,” Davis explained. “The strangest case, however, is this man.” He produced a printout of a spec sheet on a Wall Street billionaire in an expensive suit. “Jericho Wilhelm Torvalds, basic ultra-rich guy, no connections to mafia or organized crime, grandson of Johann Torrell, head of Torrell Group. Prior to the Lights, he followed a basic rich-douchebag pattern. Trips to Italy, Germany, then back to New York.”

    He produced a second, longer printout. “After the Lights, he makes a doctor appointment, then proceeds to travel, in rapid succession, to Chicago, then Pittsburgh, Atlanta, London, Mexico City, and Los Angeles, all in the span of two weeks.”

    Davis’s superior whistled in astonishment. “So, what’s the deal?”

    “It doesn’t seem to be assassination or enlistment,” Davis corrected. “They are neither depowered nor killed, and so far, he seems to have given them money and asked for nothing tangible in return. They are not acting as though they’ve been recruited.” He set the printout down. “It’s as if he simply wanted contact with them.”

    The supervisor thought a moment. “What if he doesn’t have to steal their abilities?”

    “What do you mean?” Davis kind-of knew the answer already.

    “Haven’t there been stories where someone could copy other people’s powers?”

    Davis nodded. “He could be collecting abilities,” he said. “So, what do you want me to do?”

    “Torvalds will be investigated by Reynolds,” the man replied. “You’ll be looking into this.” He set a file folder in front of Davis.

    Davis opened it. It was a picture of a red-haired woman, garbed in thick sweatpants and boots, pushing a semi-truck out of some flood waters. What caught his attention was the twisted steel of the vehicle’s frame bent around the hands, not cutting them. “Where was this taken?”

    “Southern Kansas,” the man said. “That’s not all. There’s photographic evidence that she flew away.”

    Davis read the preliminary report. “Facial recognition…negative?” He looked up. “You checked everything?”

    “This person doesn’t exist,” his superior said. “They’ve shown up in about a half-dozen locations, but a lot of the information shows them returning to the area around southern Illinois.”

    “Or they have the ability to disguise their true self,” Davis finished. “In fact, the person behind that face could be literally anyone.”

    “I know you’re not up on pop culture much anymore,” the man replied, “but do you think you know who that person is?”

    He looked at a few more photographs, most of them not in very good lighting conditions. “Flight, strength, invulnerability,” he thought out loud. “Not to mention, energy manipulation. I might be wrong, but that, combined with the red hair, reminds me of the Capacitor character from Furious Comics.”

    The man pulled a notepad out of his suit pocket and began scribbling notes. “Get on that, and I’ll get on this,” he said. “Wilson, one last thing. Try to be subtle about it.”

    Davis looked up from the photographs. “So, do I just fly into St. Louis and start hanging out in the towns around?”

    His supervisor was gone by the time he finished his sentence. A skeptical sigh left his mouth. Not since the time he’d been shotgun on a mission to track down a series of mafia targets had he seen such little to go on. This person had their picture taken by many surveillance cameras around disasters. The amateur evidence taken by cell phones on the site of tragedies popped up on the internet, but nobody had a clue. Getting his phone out, he made reservations on a flight into Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. After rising from his desk, Davis made his way into the equipment room and got his FBI standard equipment bag for a reconnaissance mission. The internet would make his job easier, but right now, he wanted to get some research done. Odds were, if the true person behind the super kept returning to southern Illinois, it meant a base of operations. Experience told him, if the face didn’t register any records of any kind, it had to be a disguise. Likely, he knew, the real person looked much different, otherwise it would have nailed at least a few similarities. Mentally tossing around hypotheticals, if all of this were really happening, the person behind the flying woman could even be someone not female.

    Sitting in his car, he pulled out his electronic cigarette and puffed a few. After setting the radio and his cellphone in the charger, he played some anime themes and sat back in the chair, trying to relax. The last few weeks taxed the crap out of his entire agency. His desk had been making frantic phone calls and setting up every possible conversation with every possible scientific entity. Congress had tasked the FBI with investigating every possible angle. He hadn’t had a short, easy day in a long time. Driving home allowed him to wind down as he reminisced about his college days, watching cartoons and studying for tests. Walking in the front door, he set his stuff down on the table and loosened his tie.

    “Hey! How was work?” his wife asked.

    “Rather calm, for a change,” Davis replied. “I tell you, being put on the super powers thing has been a hell of a trial.” He pulled a glass out of the cabinet and poured some cola. “No more sitting in the office for a while, now I have to go to Illinois to investigate this person who’s been flying around saving lives.”

    His wife Yvonne smiled and breathed out a laugh. “So, they’ve decided to be a hero? What a terrible person,” she sarcastically lamented. “So, when are you going to be back?”

    Davis shook his head. “Dunno.” He held up his glass. “Tell you what, though, next vacation I get, we’re getting the fuck out of town.” After finishing his soda, he took his equipment into the master bedroom and disrobed, getting into his pajamas. From there, he set his laptop up. “What’s for dinner?”

    “Lasagna,” Yvonne replied.

    “Sounds awesome,” he said. It struck him as a good idea to investigate the character this super-powered woman seemed, at least superficially, to be based on. He downloaded some Furious Thunder comics. Reading reminded him of why he had gotten out of the superhero comics thing. A major factor that turned him off was the repetition. Most of the major arcs seemed to be self-contained, but the status quo always won—that is to say, everything always went back to a standard normal.

    Most of the versions of the character had a few standard abilities, at least as far as American superheroes went. The strength, durability, speed, and energy manipulation were all par for the course, with such powers being a dime a dozen. What caught his attention, was the enhanced intelligence of the character. Sure, people wrote the same dumb storylines they always wrote, but what would superhuman, or even posthuman intellect look like in the real world? Would it be like a person, but smarter, or would it give rise to thought processes normal people literally could not comprehend?

    After about forty-five minutes, his wife brought in a plate of lasagna and corn and set it on the table by his laptop. She leaned over. “Which comic is that?” she asked.

    “At least some evidence points to this character,” He pointed at the screen, “being the basis for the person I have to investigate.”

    She let out a whistle. “Wow, a fictional character brought to life,” she thought out loud. “There are a few I’d like to turn into.”

    “Funny you mentioned that,” he replied. “There’s no evidence this person ever existed before the lights, so there’s a good chance you hit the nail on the head. She might actually be a disguise or a transformation.”

    “Won’t that make it harder to find them?” she asked.

    He took a drink of the soda she brought. “Possibly,” he mused. “Still, the internet might do two-thirds of my work for me.”

    “Just be careful,” she said, draping her arms around him while he ate. “We’re in a brand-new world. Just don’t get killed.”



    II.​



    The non-stop flight from the nation’s capital to Lambert Airport in Saint Louis took Davis Wilson somewhere between two and three hours. He hadn’t been entirely sure, because somewhere in the middle, he fell asleep for an unknown length of time. He opened his mouth and, using the trained motion, released the pressure in his ears. A simple clearing of his throat, and he waited for the crowd to thin before he got up to collect his luggage and disembark. Only by means of his constant struggle at emotional detachment did he avoid the pandemonium that had plagued the world since the Lights in the Sky. The agency had gotten onto the subject immediately, when news agencies hadn’t even gotten to the guy who could set himself on fire at will. Many different religions started a bunch of shit right after the event, with every apocalyptic nutcase raging their end-times hormones on Facebook and Twitter.

    One of the major news agencies, on a television in the lobby outside the terminal gate, displayed the latest story—about fifty religious freaks went up into the Arizona desert and let some Manson-wannabe with electrical powers zap them to hell. He powered on his cell phone, removed it from his belt clip, and dialed.

    “Hey, I’m off the plane in Saint Louis,” he said, when she picked up.

    “Try not to get lost,” Yvonne said. “Or killed.”

    He rolled his eyes. “In this brave new world?” He chided. “I can’t promise you I’ll make it to the next phone call.”

    After completing the pleasantries, he hung up and called the local branch office and spoke to the liaison his supervisor had given him to. The man indicated that a fellow agent had driven to the airport and was waiting at the correct baggage claim. Upon reporting in, he went to the baggage claim and saw a man holding a sign.

    He raised his hand. “Here,” he said.

    The man put the sign down and extended his hand. “Agent Steve Vincent,” Steve said. “I’m here to escort you to the motel and set you up for your investigation.”

    “Davis Wilson,” he said, collecting his luggage.

    “So,” Steve said, leading him to the rental car. “You’re investigating this woman who’s been flying around?”

    “Yeah,” he said, answering. “Nobody’s been so noticeable as her. Most of the powered individuals have been keeping it to themselves, and a few are even pulling all sorts of criminal shit. Hardly anyone’s behaving like the comic books.”

    “Isn’t that weird?” Steve asked.

    Davis thought about it. “I guess it is,” he agreed. “I mean, seventy years of super-this and amazing-that, and this woman’s flying around pulling trucks out of rivers, and people out of fires, and she’s not even wearing a costume?”

    “What do you mean, not wearing a costume?” Steve asked.

    “Well, you can walk into Walmart and buy what she’s wearing off the discount rack,” he clarified. “In the comics, everyone wears a freakin’ costume.”

    “Must be a cheap bastard,” Steve said.

    “At least I can get behind that,” he agreed.

    They found the rental car in its spot, dark blue and very average looking. Davis loaded his luggage into the back seat and they drove to a cheap motel on the Illinois side of the river, some fifteen minutes away. They unloaded Davis’s luggage and several other cases of equipment in the trunk, into the room. Then they unpacked everything and set up all the major equipment. Ultra high-end DSLR cameras with lenses in the thousands of dollars range were set up to charge, Video cameras both big and small, with portable microphones and even infrared lenses scattered the bed. There were audio recording devices and electromagnetic field detectors, and weapons too. Guns of various types, both pistols and rifles, and tasers as well. After prepping all the major equipment, they set up the secure internet connection and the secure laptop computer.

    “Alright, you know what to do,” Steve said, extending his hand. “If you can get the subject to come in, or you can somehow force them to come in, we’ve got rooms set up. Just give me a call. You’ll be expected to report in at certain times to show that you aren’t dead or compromised.”

    Davis shook his hand. “Thank you,” he said, “and I hope I don’t need any of the guns here.” He laughed, they both did. Steve pulled out his cell phone and made a phone call, and in twenty minutes, the agency sent a car to pick him up. Free to work at last, Davis sat down and pulled up social media, looking up any example of the woman he’d seen in pictures before. Sure enough, social media had lit up with dozens of cell phone camera photos, of varying quality, and her face and fingerprints were everywhere. Despite dozens of independent analyses, neither piece of evidence revealed any history of any kind prior to the Lights. The advantage of social media was that each photo had many geographic indications. Even when there wasn’t a label, it proved trivial to compare background shops to Google Earth. Each of the times she disappeared, there had been a pattern. After two hours of comparing photos and videos to each other, he picked it up.

    He had a map of the area from the office and he tacked it up on the wall. Each time he found a definitive location to one of the photos of this mystery hero woman arriving, he looked to see if it was in this area or somewhere else in the country. He made a comparison of each point in the local area of southern Illinois, and each point outside it. So far, there had been several trips to California—which corresponded to the areas affected by wildfires—to several flooded areas in the south and along the coastlines, and to six random places in Canada and Mexico. None of them fit a pattern. For southern Illinois, however, it couldn’t be more obvious—each parking lot, abandoned building, or storefront, was in a town within a half hour’s drive of the Alton/Godfrey area.

    “You’re flying back near home,” he thought out loud, “then turning back into whoever you really are, then entering a vehicle and driving the rest of the way.” It was a brilliant piece of evidence. It was as genius as it was obvious: the person behind the red-haired heroine wasn’t concerned about people learning a secret identity, because she had no identity. She was no one, connected to nobody important. As long as nobody knew the man—or woman—behind the face, the true person was home free, and so far, they’d managed to blend in well.

    He made a memo on his phone of all the stores in the backgrounds of the pictures she appeared in. Setting the GPS, he got in his car and plugged his phone in. Four hours later, he had a pile of tapes in his car from copies made of security camera footage. Upon his return to the motel room, he called Steve. “Yeah, this is Agent Wilson,” he told his liaison. “I need a few more TV’s and VCRs to look over security footage.” While he waited for his liaison to arrive, he walked to a grocery store not far from his room, bought a footlong deli sandwich and a six pack of iced coffee. Chowing down, he put the first tape on and fast-forwarded to fifteen minutes before the confirmed arrival.

    In about an hour, a van pulled up and the doorbell rang. “Tell me what you’ve got,” Steve said, as men unloaded the other TV and VCR into the room.

    “I’m convinced this person is someone else turning into her,” he said. “At the very least, it’s a great disguise.”

    Steve folded his arms. “What makes you say that?”

    Davis blinked. “Well, I mean,” he explained, “I’ve already figured out that this person lives here in southern Illinois, about a half hour drive from the Alton area by the riverside.” He looked up from the screen. “They’re absolutely not worried about their real self being found out. The only way that makes sense, is if they know that this red-haired woman has no paper trail of any kind.”

    “Still,” Steve argued, “isn’t this person making a lot of mistakes?”

    Davis thought about it. A thought struck him. “Not if you consider they haven’t found anyone who can seriously challenge them,” he replied. “Think about it: they know how little the government trusts people. They know how unlikely it is that we’ve recruited a lot of superpowered people. She’s counting on her powers to make all the difference.”

    Steve accepted that as satisfactory, and, after the men set up the second screen, left with the others. Davis set the second video on, and fast-forwarded. The rest of the evening, until nine at night, was watching the two videos, from fifteen minutes before to a half-hour after. There were seven vehicles in both videos at the same time. He went to bed.

    When Davis got up, he showered, ate the other half sandwich, pounded two iced coffees, and went back to watching videos. There were four vehicles in common in the next two videos. At four in the afternoon, he drove to a big box store and bought twenty new notebooks after having filled the last bunch. He got back and went back to watching videos. By nine, there were two videos left, and two vehicles in common. By eight o’clock the next morning, he had found one vehicle that had appeared in all the tapes he’d collected.

    He let out a sigh of relief and jerked off in the shower to celebrate. After dressing, he had more field work to do. The car was registered to a Manfred Voren, and he even had an address. This was too easy, he figured. This had to be a trap. After a few moments’ consideration, he managed to change his own mind. This person’s yearly income was sub thirty-thousand, he saw. The man only had a house because his mother had paid it off, then died, a few years earlier. He worked at a warehouse for barely over minimum wage and had shit insurance. From driving around the small towns outside of Saint Louis, he saw there were tons of empty farmland or parking lots from buildings long-since torn down, that this Manfred Voren could have driven to. The man could’ve made this quite difficult. Instead? Wal-Mart. Target. McDonalds.

    He wanted recognition and legality.

    He wanted a job.



    III.​



    The subject of Davis Wilson’s investigation had spent the last days in a spree of helping people, figuring out his powers, and crashing and burning a few times. Flight had proved to be a difficult task for Manny. Floating and moving in specific directions he’d gotten the gist of after the first few times. What was a struggle, was acceleration and deceleration. Getting up to a specific speed took effort. Often, the tendency of his female self’s power was to act like a gas pedal. Applying effort caused continual acceleration. Stopping effort seemed like putting on the brakes. Only after about twenty or so flights, had he correctly guessed how to hit and maintain a specific speed. After pulling about thirty or so people out of flood waters in Kansas, he took off for home. At the speeds he flew at, it would take only about fifteen minutes.

    There had been other side effects. At first, he transferred much of his body fat to his female self in order to fit into his male clothes. However, her superhuman metabolism burned through it in days. After a certain point, she stopped losing weight, and, according to what he knew of the character’s background, started feeding off otherworldly energy. He hadn’t gotten hungry or tired in her form. He landed in a field, and ran at super speed to hide in a series of bushes out near a parking lot in Wood River, Illinois. Another useful trick he’d discovered, was that her form and his could have separate clothes. Sure, his superhero outfit as her, was a simple running outfit with sweatpants and waterproof boots, but it saved him money. Turning back into his male form, he was wearing a shirt and shorts too big for him. Since she’d burned through most of his body fat, it left his normal male form quite skinny. He had a normal body mass index for the first time in years. As he drove home, he thought it might be a wise idea to buy some new clothes, since he now knew he had a semi-permanent method of weight control.

    A careful look through his cellphone contacts reminded him of how different things were for a woman than a man. What he wanted was to be able to go shopping with one of his female friends, so they could give him a good idea of what to wear in his female form. What he discovered, however, was that he had few female friends of his own; most of them were acquaintances or girlfriends of his male friends. Most of the people he knew would be suspicious of the fact that a new female friend had entered his life, and had previously not been on any of their radars. It bothered him that he recognized he would be the subject of a lot of questions. The thought even came to him that perhaps his friends would recognize his female form as the superheroine going around saving lives. Oh Christ, he thought, Manfred, what have you gotten yourself into?

    “Hey, Ed?” he said, after his friend picked up. “Hey, this is going to sound really strange, but…”

    “I heard from Jake that you got a girlfriend!” Ed interrupted him.

    If rolling one’s eyes in exasperation made an audible sound, Ed would have been bleeding from the ears. Manny took a breath and held it for a half-second, then let it out, noticeably. “I shouldn’t have sent him any pictures,” Manny thought out loud. “No, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s just a friend.”

    “With benefits?”

    No,” he said, with effort, “not with benefits. That’s why I called you. I want to ask you a favor.”

    “Uh, ok,” Ed asked, a tone of confusion in his voice. “What?”

    “Can you ask Annie if she’ll take my friend out shopping?” Manny asked. He realized he needed an excuse, and didn’t want to raise suspicion. “It’s her birthday, and I gave her some money for a present, and she doesn’t know what to buy.”

    A laugh escaped the phone. “That’s weird,” Ed commented.

    “What’s weird about it?” Manny asked, a slight tone of anger in his voice.

    “You know,” Ed replied. “A woman that doesn’t know what clothes to buy?”

    The barb hit Manny and he didn’t quite know why it bothered him. “Regardless, can you do that?”

    “Gimme a minute.” Ed pulled the phone away from his face. “Annie! My friend Manny wants to know if you can take his girlfriend out shopping!” Manny heard Ed speak and rolled his eyes again. He wanted to correct them both now, but it struck him that nothing would stop it at this point. “Yeah, she says she could be ready in an hour. Have your friend call her cell phone. By the way, what’s her name? I forgot to ask.”


    Manny clammed up. Mentally cursing himself for not thinking of this contingency, he fired off a command to his brain to provide him with a name as quickly as possible. The pause had lingered for a good second, and soon, the friend would ask a second time, exponentially raising the suspicion. “Jennifer Black,” he said. Internally, he cursed his mind once again. It struck him as the most generic sounding name imaginable. Now, he was stuck with it. He couldn’t just tell one friend that name and contradict himself later.

    “Hmm,” Ed replied. “Must be new to the area. I thought I knew everyone around here.”

    “She’s from pretty far out of town,” Manny said. Then he slammed his eyes shut and silently swore.

    “Really?” Ed shot back without a second spared. “Where’s she from?”

    He yelled the first location that came to mind. “California.”

    Please don’t ask where in California.


    “Where in California?” Manny clenched his teeth.

    Again, the first two words that appeared were spoken. “Santa Cruz.”

    Silence reigned over the line. “Well, tell her I said ‘hi.’ See you around, Manny.”

    “See you around, Ed,” Manny answered, hanging up. Well, that was a flipping disaster.

    He looked through his contacts list and pulled up Annie. He transformed into Jennifer, his male clothes disappearing with the rest of his male form. In the days since he first started, he had the sense to buy a new wallet, a spare cell phone, and several pairs of running outfits for his female self. One thing he didn’t want to do was go out fighting in a gaudy costume. Inexpensive shirts, sweatpants, and boots for running would do him just fine. Figuring out what fit proved difficult, especially in the bra department, but it made it easier to replace outfits. Instead of a custom-made costume which would, based on his knowledge of cosplay, cost at least a few hundred for decent quality, he could spend fifty dollars and get two whole sets of outfits, minus the boots. He wasn’t out to look spiffy when he fought crime. Efficiency ruled that roost. During flight, he discovered he could run Jennifer’s extra-dimensional power through his clothes, and they would serve as a barrier. It perhaps didn’t make them indestructible, but they would be orders of magnitude more durable.

    Taking off the old outfit, he slipped on a green shirt, not loose, but not revealingly tight, and a pair of snug sweatpants. White socks and a clean pair of waterproof boots finished off the outfit. He went in the bathroom and brushed a bit of dirt out of his long red hair. Looking in the mirror, he found himself reminded once again of the unique nature of his transformation. As Jennifer, she had a different gender identity than he did, even though they were one person, and she did not exist as a separate consciousness. He could swap his body back and forth, and would go back to being male gender, mentally, when his brain was male. She considered herself pretty, and he did too, but the oddity lie in how differently they were. When he was her, she thought of herself as pretty because of a strange sense of feminine self-pride, that he couldn’t explain. When he thought of how he looked as her, he considered her pretty because of his male sexuality. Did that count as narcissism, since he considered her—himself in female form—attractive? These were questions bothering him. Honestly, he would have liked to stay as her most of the time, simply because she was powerful, brave, and vastly able, and he had struggled his whole life for his average existence. Hell, he couldn’t even stop being morbidly obese without her help.

    Typing Annie’s contact information into the spare cellphone, he clicked the green call button.

    “Hello?”

    Annie’s familiar voice calmed Jennifer down. “Hi, I’m Jennifer Black, Manfred’s friend,” she said to Ed’s girlfriend. “I was wondering if you could help me. I’m not much an eye for fashion. Could you take me shopping? I need another woman’s eyes for clothes.”

    Annie smiled. “Yeah, I’m up for that,” she replied. “So, where did you want to go?”

    “It doesn’t have to be the discount rack,” Jennifer clarified, “but I don’t want to break the bank either.”

    “Yeah, I know this great place outside of Edwardsville. You familiar with the place half a mile from the Hardee’s and the fish place?”

    Jennifer thought about it. “Oh, you mean that place next to what used to be a barbecue place?” she asked.

    “Yeah, that’s the one.”

    “See you there in an hour,” Jennifer replied. She grabbed both wallets and both cellphones, placed them into the purse she bought for her female self, and headed out to the car. She would have to be careful not to be pulled over in her current body. If she had to suddenly turn back into Manfred, it would be a pain in the ass. Never had she bought clothes with the intent of actually looking attractive. In fact, the female mind was very different than how she was when she was Manny. She felt a need to look good, for the first time in her life, and had little to no idea of how to execute such an action.

    Pulling up to the store, she parked and stepped out into the parking lot. Annie looked her up and down—necessary, since Jennifer stood half a head taller—and smiled. “I’m Annie Wilson,” she said, extending her hand. “So, you’re Manny’s girlfriend?”

    Jennifer shook Annie’s hand. “Manny and I are just friends,” she said, immediately gritting her teeth invisibly at having spouted such a cliché line. “I’m new to the area and he’s being so very helpful.”

    “That was nice of him to lend you his car,” Annie said. “Ed bitches whenever I have to drive his.”

    Jennifer shrugged. “Yeah, I know that one,” she replied. “So, I’ve always sucked at judging what looks good. Help me out anyway you can.”

    They headed into the store. “You’re tall,” Annie explained, walking her around the various parts of the store. “And you’re pretty tone. So, you’re big into fitness, huh?”

    She nodded. “Yeah, I do a lot of running and lifting.”

    Annie whistled. “I need to start working out again,” she said. “Anyway, you need to look at clothing that will…” she searched for a word, “demonstrate your figure to the world. I mean, take this,” she handed her a pair of jeans, “and I think they’re—God, I wish I had your hips and thighs—great for accentuating your curves.” She pulled a few pairs of other pants off the shelf. “You don’t want too tight and you don’t want too loose. You’re not showing off, but at the same time, you are.” She took a breath and looked up. “I’m sorry, does that make sense?”

    Jennifer smiled. “Yes,” she replied. “It does.”

    She stuck her hand in one of the pants pockets. “These pockets are, about an inch or two at the most,” she said. “Why don’t they have decent pockets?”

    Annie let a laugh escape. “Oh, you’re new to that, are you?” she asked. When Jennifer gave her a cocked eyebrow, she nodded. “Okay, here’s the deal. Most women’s pants either have fake pockets, or none at all. I don’t know why. I guess they just want to screw with us. You could probably find someone to sew real pockets on if you wanted to. That’s what I did.”

    “No problem,” Jennifer replied.

    “For tops,” she told her taller friend, “you have to strike a delicate balance between exaggerating your breasts—which, no offense, is a concern for you—and looking like you’re wearing a tent.”

    “So,” Jennifer said, grabbing a black shirt off a nearby rack, “something like this?”

    Annie’s eyes widened a bit. “if I wore that, I’d probably look acceptable,” she explained. “With your figure, if you wore that, you’d be the center of attention.”

    She blinked at those words. “Is, that bad?”

    Annie mulled it over. “If you’re ok with strangers hitting on you, no,” she replied. “It’s just that, it was made for more petite-chested women.”

    Jennifer imagined it. She shook her head, placing it back on the shelf. “No, wow, ok, you’re right on that one,” she said.

    They selected a series of outfits, which took about an hour and Jennifer began to understand why, as Manny, she hated shopping. Despite wanting to look good as a woman—and stop wearing the same stuff over and over again—she found the tedium of clothing shopping boring. Still, it was an exercise she wanted to get good at. As she stepped into and out of the dressing rooms repeatedly, she noticed guys that accompanied their significant others, occasionally glancing over at her. It struck her as both a compliment and an irritation.

    The two of them gathered several different outfits that Jennifer ended up liking. Having tried each one on, Jennifer wondered why the hell she couldn’t figure out what a decent outfit looked like. She went up to the counter and pulled out the cash and paid for her outfits. It came to almost two hundred dollars—and that was the cheap store. It bewildered her how expensive women’s clothing was.

    “You got a hell of a deal, looks like!” Annie noticed.

    Jennifer gave her a look. “That’s cheap?”

    “For seven outfits?” Annie said, bewildered. “Of course it is!”

    Jennifer shook her head. “Sorry,” she apologized. “I’ve just never paid much attention to clothing.”

    Annie coughed. “Honestly, if I had your figure, clothing would be my priority one.” She put a few outfits of her own on the table. “I mean, you could buy the cheap crap at the warehouse stores, but this is decent clothing.”

    Jennifer resisted laughing. As Manny, she was used to buying a single pair of twenty-five-dollar shoes to last a year or so, and shirts for five bucks apiece. The outfits he bought were purchased for economy at all costs. Now that she saw how expensive her outfits were going to be, she would buy women’s clothing and be sure to protect it from harm. She went back to her car.

    “Did you want to get something to eat?”

    Jennifer turned her head. “Um, sure!”

    “Is the Italian place by Walgreens ok?”

    “Yeah,” Jennifer said. “That’s fine.”

    They drove five minutes through Wood River and came to a small restaurant. As they sat down and ate, Jennifer noticed she drew attention. Finally, a man came from a table over, a middle-aged looking gent, and pulled a chair up to the table. “I saw you on the internet,” he said. “You’re one of those people with magic powers!”

    Annie shot a look between the two of them, startled. “You know,” she said, “come to think of it, I knew you looked familiar!”

    “Yeah,” Jennifer said. “I was hoping to just have a nice meal, though.”

    The man only partially took the hint. “I ain’t gonna take up too much time. I just want to thank you,” he explained. “Those fires are brutal.”

    “It’s sad how many people were trapped,” Jennifer replied. “I was pulling people out for days.”

    “That’s amazing,” the man said. “You just found yourself one morning, able to do these things?” Jennifer nodded. “Man, I don’t know. It’s like a miracle from God!”

    “Thank you, sir,” she said. After shaking his hand, he finally returned to his own table. Annie stifled a laugh.

    “How did you end up with a guy like Manny?”

    Jennifer—Manny—blinked a moment in surprise. “What’s wrong with him?” The statement came out more defensive than she would have liked.

    Annie quickly shook her head. “Oh, nothing really,” she said. “I mean, I hate to talk bad about my boyfriend’s friend, but he struck me as kind of flaky.”

    Jennifer shrugged for effect. “Oh, I don’t know,” she argued, “he was nice enough to let me stay with him and he hasn’t even hit on me.”

    “That’s awfully nice of him,” Annie admitted. “I mean, I know he’s a really decent guy, he just doesn’t have motivation. His mother died—God rest her soul—and she willed the house to him, otherwise he’d be homeless. He works at the warehouses, where he used to open boxes ten hours a day for minimum wage. Now he tells others how to open boxes for slightly above minimum wage for ten hours a day.”

    Jennifer scoffed. “I don’t really see what’s wrong with that,” she said.

    Annie cringed. “I mean, there’s nothing really wrong with it,” she countered, “but he’s perfectly willing to keep doing that for the rest of his life.”

    “He found a feedback loop that works,” she said. “I’m not bothered by it.”

    Annie laughed this time. “Oh, believe me,” she said, “I’m not the least bit bothered by it, he can live his life how he wants. I just think it’s a shame, because he could be so much more.”

    “He’ll figure it out,” Jennifer said, willing her teeth to unclench in her mouth. “In fact, I think he might surprise you yet.” It felt strange being able to find out the truth about how people thought about her male self. On the other hand, it was a power she could abuse easily. What bothered her was the knowledge that friends of Manny probably complained about him as much as anybody else. It shouldn’t bother her, but it did.

    After a good twenty minutes of shooting the breeze, Jennifer made up some excuse and called it an afternoon, she headed back home. With the new outfits she had, she could be more natural more often as Jennifer, and Manny could have his separate day to day from her. It struck her as curious—they were but one consciousness, and yet, Manny as Jennifer felt his male self as the less useful self. She had already started thinking of her female self as “she” and “her” when this side of her was active, and as “he” and “him” when she was Manny. The familiar sight of her home street snapped her out of it as she pulled up towards the familiar driveway.

    Her nerves clenched a bit when she saw an unfamiliar car. Her heart felt like it would skip any moment now.

    Dark blue Ford Crown Victoria
    , she thought. Standard vehicle for law enforcement. She used her visual powers. The gun and handcuffs were safely tucked away in the glove compartment, along with identification. Davis Wilson, she read. FBI. A quick roll of the eyes and she pulled into her driveway, to see a moderately pale man with burnt cinnamon hair, and a look on his face of above average nervousness.

    She stepped out of the car after pulling into the driveway. She leaned against the vehicle and closed her eyes. “Do you have a warrant, Agent Wilson?” she asked.

    He shook his head, trying to hide the fact that his heart raced. Sure, he had a basic idea that he wouldn’t be immediately killed, but the possibility always presented itself. The woman’s demeanor indicated a slight nervousness, although he could tell she didn’t seem truly worried. His lone presence—the lack of any sort of response—probably told her more than his words could. What he felt, though, was that she had more reason for bravado than he. Subtle twitches in her face, to her hand drifting left and right, told him she wouldn’t hesitate to flee. The stereotype vehicle, the badge and gun in plain sight in the car, were all planted specifically to get an easy reaction out of her. “No,” he uttered. “My superiors don’t care much, but you probably already knew that. We both know I can’t hurt you.”

    She let out a graveled breath. “Then why should I stick around and talk to you?” she asked. This agent was here to arrest her. Sure, she hadn’t committed a crime, but being so powerful as to stop disasters, was sure to alarm the government. Still, there was one man standing here, and not an army of specialists. The ball was in his court, even if he protested otherwise. She couldn’t harm him—obviously—and if she fled, a sterner response would come her way. The message came in loud and clear: comply quietly or else.

    “Believe it or not,” he answered, “I’m not the bad guy.”

    “So why are you talking to me?”

    He pulled out his phone and pulled up video of severe California wildfires. “You happened to be the first to respond with this degree of power,” he explained. “Sure, there are powerful people around, but you’re the biggest, most noticeable person.”

    “So, if I work with you,” she asked, “then I’ll be treated fairly?”

    He shrugged with his hands. “I can’t promise that,” he said, “but I can promise you will be mistrusted if you don’t at least talk to us. You know how scared the government gets when anyone has any kind of power other than them.”

    Her head slumped a bit. “If anyone threatens me, I’m out of there in a moment,” she promised.

    “Hey, no one’ll be able to stop you.”




    IV.​



    Jennifer sat, hands on the table. The cold, artificial light beaming down on her, she took a sharp breath and let it out. She’d been seated for the better part of ten minutes. Behind the one-way glass, she saw several men in expensive suits and ties, discussing her. “I have civil rights, you know,” she said, turning her gaze directly at them. “I have the right to be informed of the crime I’m being accused of.”

    Dave Wilson looked at his superior. “She can see and hear us, you know,” he said. “I thought you told me you weren’t going to do anything this drastic.”

    “Look,” the older man replied, “so far, we haven’t seen anyone with the degree of power she’s shown.” He glanced at the woman in the interrogation room. “Look, we know nothing about you other than you are incredibly powerful.”

    She gave them a glance. Dave turned to his superior. “Ok, here’s what we need to do,” he said. “Let me talk to her. One on one, no recording, no nothing.”

    The supervisor raised an objection. Dave cut him off. “Sam, if you trust me, trust me.”

    Sam shook his head while letting out a sigh. As much as it bothered him, he couldn’t ignore out of hand such a request. Dave had one of the cleanest track records he’d ever known. It almost bothered him at some point that his subordinate was well-known for not bending the rules. If protocol had its way, he would have ignored the request and sent word above to the FBI director’s desk. Likely, the President would be informed, and the word would come down to do whatever could be done to contain, threaten, or possibly, eliminate this person. Sam considered himself a traditionalist—any connection that could be exploited would be used. Dave wanted not an interrogation, but a conversation—that idea bothered the old FBI agent. Still, the odds they could charge this woman with a crime that would stick were slim at best. Furthermore, they were in brand-new territory with her powers. He grit his teeth, squinted his eyes hard, and released. “Alright,” he said, acquiescing. He turned to Dave and motioned towards the room. “You have the floor. I’m going to trust you,” he pointed a finger in his subordinate’s face, “and if you so much as give me the impression you’re gonna fuck with me, I’ll make you regret you ever signed on.”

    Sam left the observation room. Dave Wilson popped his head left and right, then headed into the interrogation room. The door slid open, and he stepped quickly to the metal chair opposite the woman in the cuffs. “Hey,” she said. “Think you can get these off of me? I don’t want to break them and get charged with destruction of property.” He read the sarcasm in her voice before he saw her half-skeptical look.

    He slipped his hand into his pocket, produced a keyring, and took the cuffs off, throwing them aside. They clanked on the floor and he shoved his keys back into his pocket, letting out a huff. “Ok,” he began, “I told you that you might not get treated fairly.”

    The redhead across the table took in a breath. “Yeah,” she uttered, loud for effect. “I’m sure.” Her hands gestured open-palm, seeming to say, “what the hell’d I expect?” and she let the rest of her breath out. “I mean, sure, I guess I decided to help people based on the comic books I read, but I didn’t think the government swooping in and crashing the party was so literally true, you know?” Dave watched her eyes. Anger flowed, mixed with frustration and several garden variety irritations, but also, what was hidden underneath her tough-girl act, a sense of fear. The right hand went to the back of the neck, scratching. Not because of an itch, it said, but nervousness, covered with the faintest coat of paint. Her hand came down, flat palm, on the counter. The eyes darted to it and back to him, so quickly, it spoke of her genuine concern of breaking the table, then attempting to hide it after the realization.

    “Sadly, I don’t know what you expected,” he countered, “or what I expected, honestly.” He fumbled in his right pocket for his wallet. He produced a faded, black leather wallet, badly eaten by age around the edges. He removed his driver’s license. “This is who I am,” he said. “I got into law enforcement because I saw the shit going down long before people could post about it on Facebook.” He set it aside, face up, pointed at her. He shifted his head upright. “Let me tell you something that may shock you. Did you know that the year Columbine happened, was actually a record low in school shootings?” The left corner of her mouth twitched slightly, the eyes bulged just enough to be seen. She found herself surprised, he knew, and then lost her train of thought.

    Jennifer breathed harshly through her nose. “No,” she said. “Didn’t know that.”

    He gestured, hands perpendicular to the table, fingers extended, a “what have you” gesture. “You see, all Columbine did was make school shootings known to white people.” He pulled himself back to a fully-upright seated position. “School shootings used to happen all the time, with most of them never getting reported. Know why?” Her mouth straightened to a near line. The mental gears were turning, mild offenses being felt on behalf of minorities occurring in her mind.

    “Most of the school shootings taking place in inner city school districts,” she guessed. “News doesn’t care too much about black people.”

    “Dead on,” he said, pointing for effect. “Columbine was straight-forwardly not what the news expected.” He began counting on his fingers. “Upper-middle class white community. Not an area wide with crime. Popular kids not from broken households.” He paused a moment. “Most importantly, despite what the media projected, they were not bullied loners. They were well-known, and they were the bullies.

    “I did not know that,” she said. “But what’s your point?”

    He leaned in again. “My point is,” he answered, “I made it to my current position by paying attention to nuance.” He tried to avoid swallowing so as to hide his nervousness. “You haven’t killed me yet, or broken out, or just flat out fucked off. Despite the fact that we both know you could. I have several hypotheses as to why, but I’d like to hear you.”

    She huffed. “Don’t laugh, but I actually didn’t want to have to deal with you trying to arrest me a second time,” she said. “I figured if I went with you now, I wouldn’t have to do it later, when you brought guns and bombs and whatnot.”

    He saw her eyes not move from his. No upward movement spoke of either no using the imagination to picture an answer, or an incredible ability to hide one’s dishonesty. Her rising and falling chest spoke of calm breathing. No sudden nervousness from thinking up an answer and worrying about it. She was either an incredible liar or an honest, scared-to-death novice trying to get through a question and answer session without a problem. “You’re just trying to help people,” he said, folding his hands together. “But here’s the issue. Here’s where we come into play.” He removed a file folder from under the desk and set it down, opening it up to reveal pictures of various rescues. “You’re off to a hell of a start. A fire in California and a series of tornadoes in the Midwest.” He pointed to a series of documents. “But you don’t exist. Facial recognition, prints, hair, nothing. You straight-up came into existence a little over two weeks ago. You don’t have citizenship, you don’t have anything. You popped up out of thin air.”

    She studied him for a long moment. “You don’t really believe that.”

    Her eyes flickered left and right so quickly, it almost evaded him. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”

    A momentary jitter of the neck. A sense of worry? Fear? The minor movement told him he was on the right track. She might as well have confessed and proven his theory true. “So, what now?”

    “I believe you are not the person I’m seeing,” he explained. “For all I know, you could have been a different person, transformed into a fictional character. Or, you could be a shapeshifter who takes on the powers of what they look like. What I am sure of, however, is that you’re not worried about physical harm to you as you are now. You seem to be worried about the harm to someone else—namely your alter ego.” She looked down quickly, then back up. He was on the right track. “You’re wearing pants that have pockets, when most women’s pants have fake pockets or none at all, which means you’re wanting to carry a wallet.” He leaned back in his chair a bit. “Which means you’re planning on carrying identification. Which means you want to be official.”

    Jennifer thought back to her usual male self. Manny wanted to be a superhero when he was a kid, but as a teenager, reality bore down on him. The “secret identity” thing that they did in the comics bothered him. What he couldn’t imagine was having a steady job where he left the office at convenient times to save the world and came back at will. It worked in the Superman comics because newspapers had worked differently back then. The next possibility, working during the day and fighting crime at night, was a definite non-starter because he didn’t want to be like Batman—all heroics and no play made Manny a dull boy. “You’re right,” she said, snapping back to the now. “I want to save lives, preferably with no micromanager, and get paid to do it.”

    Davis nodded. “Good,” he replied. “We’re getting somewhere.”

    Jennifer bore down slightly on the table, causing its metal hinges to creak. “Let me be clear,” she insisted. “I don’t want to be a mercenary, I don’t want to be a soldier, I want to use my powers to save lives.”

    He shrugged. “Great,” he replied. “Awesome motivation.”

    “You need to look me in the eye,” she explained, “and let me know you understand.” She leaned in. “I don’t want to be an extension of the Defense Department, I don’t want to be law enforcement, I want to answer only to the innocent people who need help.”

    “That way you can save everyone,” he said. “I understand.”

    “I hope you’re not bullshitting me,” she said, leaning back.

    “I can honestly say that I’m not,” he replied. He rested his hands on the table again. “Look, so far, no one has discovered anything capable of hurting you. You could have flown out of here through the ceiling at any time. I bet you could have leveled New York in an afternoon, if you wanted to. I can’t speak for my superiors, but I get it.”

    “So, why am I still in an interrogation room,” she asked. “And for that matter, how does a girl that didn’t exist three weeks ago become ‘official’ to the government?”

    “I’m going to talk to my superiors about that,” he said. “Stay here.” He exited the room, cleared his throat once, and headed down the hall. He knew where the breakroom was and he found his boss standing next to the fridge, drinking a cup of reheated coffee. Sam Louis was a hard-ass and one that did everything by the book. Dave found it impressive, honestly, given that the man often dealt with situations no rule had existed for. Talking him into anything was going to be a serious pain in the ass.

    “So,” Sam began, looking up from his coffee. “What does our princess want?”

    Davis rolled his eyes. “Look, sir,” he offered, “she wants to save lives. She doesn’t want to be a cop or a soldier, she wants to be a serious ally of ours.”

    “I prefer allies that are predictable and controllable to some extent,” Sam shot back. “Having a girl that can shrug off mortar rounds and pick up bridges be my ally isn’t either of those things.” He set down his coffee. “Besides, the American people will know our answer is, ‘hey, just trust me?’ Does that sound like bullshit or what? Also, since she doesn’t have citizenship she technically is illegal.”

    “If I may be frank,” Davis answered, “the fact that she doesn’t want to fly into the nearest Goldman Sachs vault and steal a pallet of twenty million dollars should give us a sense of relief. If we get her official citizenship, and let her work, she’ll save FEMA potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.”

    “Alright, I give you that,” Sam replied. “I don’t fucking like it, but you’re right.” He pointed a finger. “But the men above me are stupid enough they won’t believe it. They talk in terms of loyal soldiers and voters. They speak exactly a language of control and the status quo.” Davis held his breath a moment. “You think those dumb fucks are going to agree to this?” He didn’t know what pissed him off more: the fact that Dave was right, or the fact that this was completely new territory.

    Davis wiped his face with both hands. “Boss, listen,” he said. “It’s a sales pitch. That’s what these Wall Street billionaires in the White House cabinet think, right? Have her save someone important. Shouldn’t be too hard. How many school shootings have gone down? With random people getting powers, she’ll have a shitload of opportunities.”

    Sam took a drink, his eyebrows raised. “That’s cold, Dave,” he said. “Even for you.” He let the reheated coffee steam escape. “But that just might be the answer. So, you gonna look for it, or am I?”

    Dave nodded. “So, what excuse do I give for letting her go?”

    Sam shrugged. “She asked for a lawyer,” he said, “we couldn’t interrogate or charge her with a crime. Local jurisdiction in her field activities are a bitch. We didn’t send her to immigration because we don’t think that’s a problem. Hell, you can make up something for that if you want.”

    He nodded again and headed back to the interrogation room. She looked up from the table. An exasperated glare escaped her face. “Any word from on high,” Jennifer asked. “or do I get to wait here?”

    “You asked for a lawyer,” Dave replied, “and so, I can’t interrogate you, and I can’t charge you with a crime.” He winked. “Even though I probably could.

    Understanding creeped onto her face. “Ok,” she simply stated.

    He leaned in. “Look,” he whispered, “to get what you want, you’re going to have to save someone important. I’m going to look into it, but something tells me it won’t be necessary. I’ll be in touch. Get it?”


    She nodded. “Alright.”

    She exited the room and he followed close behind. The dozen or so different ideas kicking around in his head about what to do, but if he was honest, he would say he was scared shitless. Walking two and a half feet in front of him stood a woman who could get hit by a cruise missile and not be badly hurt. What struck him as worse had to be his lack of power over anything. Before, even as an agent, he had a deal of control over a rational situation. Now, he could do nothing except know who was who.

    “I’m going to drive you back home,” Davis said, “and I’m going to keep you up to speed.” A thought entered his mind. “By the way, if Jericho Torvalds visits you, I want to know at least something about it.”

    Jennifer entered the rear of the vehicle. “Is he the billionaire investor guy with granddaddy issues?”

    Davis laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “The reason he might visit you, is, he’s hopping all over the globe, talking to people and giving them money. We suspect he’s talking to people with powers.”

    As they drove back to the house, Davis flicked off the power to the radio and the dashboard camera. Jennifer leaned back in the seat and took a deep breath. “So, the superpower thing has you busy as hell, right?” she asked. Small talk calmed her down sometimes. Nothing quite so traumatic as surrendering to the FBI and being returned in the span of a few hours to set one on edge, but it went better than she had hoped. Her more cynical self said she only got out this easy because she had white skin, but even still, she wanted to minimize risk. If she showed them calm control before they went looking for her, it could only work out for her best interest.

    “Calm before the storm,” Davis replied. “I mean, so far, we’ve only gotten minor reports of people skirmishing with police and crap like that.” He cleared his throat. “So far, the really powerful players, wherever they are, they’re staying quiet for now.” He turned a knob to shut off the car stereo. “Look, I’m going to level with you, I’m sure you’ve already guessed.” He felt the air become slightly electric. “I was trying to avoid having to say it in there, but I’m guessing you’re Manfred Voren or you have a strong connection to him.”

    Jennifer swallowed. “What are you getting at?” Even before the words escaped her mouth, she knew. Or, at least, she thought she knew. He could have blabbed to his boss exactly what he knew. The information would pass up the grape vine. Instead, he was trying to protect her, at least to some degree.

    “You can interpret this as me being scared shitless,” he replied, “or how ever you want. But in any case, I’m trying to show you I genuinely am interested in where you take this from here.” He coughed. “You legitimately have survived temperatures hot enough to melt lead, and tornado debris moving at hundreds of miles per hour bounced off you. You could steal almost anything, and no one could stop you. And with your secret identity, you could’ve made it almost impossible to find ‘you’.”
    “T…Thank you,” Jennifer said. She found it hard to ignore the logic, and yet, the normal human nervousness came back.
     
    Armentho and Biigoh like this.
  4. Threadmarks: Chapter Four
    Alejandro Gonzalez

    Alejandro Gonzalez Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    CHAPTER FOUR​



    I.​




    Jericho’s private jet touched down at Lambert St. Louis International Airport. He picked up his briefcase on the way out and a brand-new Ford Taurus was waiting for him. Normally, he’d drive Mercedes or BMW, but he didn’t want to risk damaging such nice cars in the worse parts of southern Illinois. The ghettos of East Saint Louis happened to be his first stop, and since the economy had left the town behind almost three-quarters of a century earlier, it had become a breeding ground of crime and squalor, and the fruit of abandonment would become obvious even a few miles out. Forget what the racists said about black people, it was basic math: when any chance to make money disappears from a community, caused by valid business decisions or not, the result is violence and crime.

    “Good lord,” he whispered to himself. “This place is Walmart-ville.” Even having grown up not rich and having to make himself so, it never ceased to startle him how outside the city, any semblance of culture simply died. Forget city versus country, rural versus urban spoke more truth than any political map. The chief sources of jobs out here were part-time work no adult should have to do. Even as an objectivist, even as a supporter of conservative fiscal policies, it disturbed him how much adult value went to waste outside of the major cities.

    He parked on the street corner outside an apartment building that had seen better days. Not a half block down the street, the half-remains of a ruined brick building lay undisturbed. People walked the streets looking half-suspicious and half-jealous of the white man in the expensive suit driving a new, clean, undamaged car. With several of his new powers active, Jericho himself felt little danger. His sense of unease, he had trained himself to overcome, somewhat like a soldier, forcing himself to stare down guns and knives. An elderly man sat in a chair near the entrance to the building. The door had a hole in it with decay around the edge of the hole. “Excuse me,” he said.

    The elderly man looked up. “Careful,” the old man warned. “Lookin’ like that, you’re liable to get robbed.”

    “Understandable,” Jericho replied. He brought the name to the front. “Do you know if Demarcus Edwardson is in?”

    The man scratched his chin. “Maybe,” he replied. “What do you want?”

    “You may not believe this,” the billionaire answered, “but I want to help him. I’ve heard some bad news lately.”

    “Nothin’ but bad news around here,” the old man said. “If you ain’t here to hurt that poor boy and his momma, I guess they’re in.”

    “Thank you.” Jericho nodded and walked forward.

    “Hell, white boy like you never fired a gun or stuck someone with a knife in his whole life,” the man correctly guessed.

    The truth was, Jericho could easily have identified the location. What he wanted was to establish himself as known to at least someone on-site to lessen the inevitable curiosity as to why he was there. Plus, no one could accuse him of sneaking around the world if he made his presence known. He mounted the stairs, ignoring the smell and damage to the walls, and found a certain door on the third floor. He knocked.

    “Who is it and what do you want?” A black woman’s voice answered the door. It did not open.

    “My name is Jericho Torvalds,” he said, standing back from the door. “I know a Demarcus Edwardson lives here and he has something that I want to give him a lot of money for.”

    A chuckle echoed through the wood door. “That’s rich,” she said. “The asshole who gives bad financial advice on the evening news is standing outside my door and wants to give me money. Right.”

    “Look at it this way, ma’am,” Jericho said, taking a breath and a pause. “You’re living in a shithole. I suppose both your son and you work, and your combined income is almost enough ninety-nine percent of the time. You’re one catastrophe away from homelessness, and in terms of escaping the cycle of crushing poverty, neither of you are going anywhere. What more have you got to lose?” No answer came for a long moment. “Besides, I’m not in possession of a weapon, and I know you’ve got a gun on you.”

    After the last part, he heard an audible gun cock, and the door slid slowly open. She focused her sights rigidly on him. “I don’t know who you are,” she said, “but you’ve got exactly three minutes.” She walked backwards, gun and sights on him the whole time.

    He stepped in, slowly to avoid raising the tension, and sat down in a loveseat across from her and the boy. There was a second gun sitting next to the boy on the sofa. “I’ll not need three minutes,” he said. “I’m here to copy your superpower, and in exchange, pay you a great deal of money. Honestly, with the amount of powers I’ve copied, I could easily have taken it by force and neither of you could stop me, but I don’t believe in that.” He exhaled and inhaled again. “Governments use force. Coercion is evil. Rational adults use negotiation and diplomacy in business transactions.”

    “Look around you,” Demarcus said. “Look where we are. Why do us a favor?”

    “I’m not doing you a favor,” Jericho countered. “I don’t do anyone any favors. I subscribe to Ayn Rand.” He noticed a lack of understanding. “Objectivism, plain and simple. Show any selflessness to someone else only if that person matters to you selfishly. Quite frankly, I don’t have a soft spot in my heart for you or anyone around you. I’m not going to give you an ounce of charity.”

    The boy and his mother started to get it. “So, you’re…” She began.

    “The boy has something I want very much,” he said. “I am willing to pay a pretty penny for it.”

    “Why?” The boy said.

    “Currency has value only because everybody on this Earth wants at least some of it,” Jericho explained. “If society were to collapse, paper money and precious metals would be worthless, no matter what the idiots trying to scam elderly people on late-night television infomercials say. Food, water and survival skill would become the new currency. The manager of a Wal-Mart with a working freezer and a fully loaded guns and ammunition department would be the new Jeff Bezos.”

    A dawning look of understanding emerged on them. Jericho continued. “I am wealthy. I got to a place in life where I can fly in my own jet, eat at any restaurant, no matter how expensive, and have any gadget or trinket I want. I got there by figuring out the best ways imaginable to acquire that which others place tremendous value on.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “Superpowers are now real, I believe, based on now countless pieces of evidence. Therefore, I’m simply securing my place among the top one percent in that regard as well. Your power will help me advance my power wealth.”

    “Alright,” Demarcus said. “What’s your terms?”

    “Here’s my terms,” Jericho explained. “We shake hands. Your power is replicated. I gain a flawless copy. You don’t even have to lose your power, or have it weakened in any way. In exchange, I will set up a long-term investment in your name that will pay you a dividend of at least one hundred thousand dollars a year for the rest of your life, even taking inflation into account.”

    Demarcus sat stunned. Jericho saw this and smiled. “No tricks?”

    The boy was skeptical. It pleased the billionaire, as so many others hadn’t even so much as questioned what the hell was happening. He reached into his wallet. “Here’s where I want you to be,” he said, dropping it on the table between them. “Oh by the way, here’s a down payment to show you how serious I am.” He placed two thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills on the table. “For your rent as well as your car repairs. Consider it a bonus.”

    The two sat in stunned silence. It was more than both of their wages for a month combined, before taxes, just sitting there in cold, hard cash. They looked at the man in the suit, and the business card to a law office, and watched as he walked away. “Didn’t you want to copy my power?” Demarcus said.

    Jericho gave him a puzzled look. “The deal isn’t done until bound by contract,” he said. “That way, I can’t weasel my way out easily.”

    As he walked out the door, he caught the tail end of whispered conversation, discussion over the degree of belief they had over the offer. He would give them the opportunity to take him up on his offer. Based on everything he’d done so far, he believed he’d gotten them to take him up on the offer. They wouldn’t need a second bit of prodding. Only a few had denied him, and even the most skeptical buckled when he came to show them actual money. These people were desperate enough that they couldn’t afford to be too skeptical. He got to his rental car, which thankfully, had not been vandalized, and started the motor. His next target was quite a drive from here, and he wished suddenly he had not been squeamish about his choice of car. The mid-range American car served acceptably, but if he had his expensive German car, the ride would be smoother. Still, as orchestral music played over Bluetooth, he took a sip from his bottled water and followed instructions towards Alton. After a good thirty minutes or so, of endless gas stations, mini marts, and fast food restaurants, not to mention the Targets and Walmarts, with very few places of culture in sight, he found his way to the small house in a subdivision behind a McDonalds.

    He pulled the car up to the road beside the driveway, perpendicular. The lawn had been mowed not a few hours earlier, he could smell. Up two steps, he stood in front of the front door. He knocked twice. From the front door emerged a man about his age, hair freshly washed and a bit of stubble around his face. He could tell from the loose skin on the man’s neck and arms that he’d recently lost a great deal of weight. The man’s shirt and pants looked relatively new because they fit very well. He knew from people he’d met that sudden weight loss leaves one with clothes of various sizes too big.

    The young man looked at him skeptically. He registered a strange sensation; this person somehow knew the billionaire had been coming. The guy didn’t look as surprised as he should have been. Jericho estimated that the news would have reported that he had been travelling all over the world, but even still, it concerned him that someone should have any degree of inside information.

    “Let me guess,” Manny started, placing hands in pockets. “You’re this ‘Jericho Torvalds’ guy?”

    “Yes,” Jericho replied, “and I’m guessing that means you know why I’m here?”

    “Hmm, you know I have a power, and for some reason you’re here to…what, steal my abilities?”

    The investor shook his head. This guy wasn’t very nervous. To his estimation, this guy must be at least partially activated already. “No, not steal,” Jericho corrected. “I want to copy your ability. You’re in to be paid a lot more money than whatever you’re making. You don’t even have to lose your power.”

    The man looked a bit skeptical, but generally seemed to be accepting. “And you’re…what, assembling powers to be a hero?” he asked.

    Jericho chuckled a bit. “No, nothing so grandiose. I’m just wanting to be well-protected and stocked with abilities when the new order of wealth in the world asserts itself.”

    Manny looked oddly at the man after his last statement. “Come in, I guess.” He entered through the doorway, motioning behind him. Footsteps told him the rich man followed. “What do you mean, new order of wealth?” But he knew already. Or, at least he guessed he did.

    “Simple,” the investor corrected. “Money is the main order of wealth because people accept it in some form everywhere. If society collapsed, food and water would be the new order of wealth. Someone might be financially poor, but if they have an incredible power, they’re quite wealthy in terms of power, because superpowers are going to make people valuable.”

    They sat in separate loveseats in Manny’s living room. Jericho leaned forward, folding his hands together in his lap. “Give me your pitch, rich man,” Manny said.

    “I’ll be blunt,” he said. “You let me shake your hand, I copy your ability, and I set up a long-term investment paying at least a hundred grand a year until you die. Basic enough?”

    Manny leaned back in his chair. He could not afford to resist such an offer. It would remove him from his poverty, and even enable him to save lives without having to worry about money. And yet, this guy was exactly what bothered him. Here was a guy who had the power set to put a huge dent in world suffering and would not do such a thing. “I’m not going to bullshit you,” he told the billionaire. “I’m not in a position in my life where I can afford to outright reject you.” Jericho nodded in mutual understanding. “But you’re setting yourself up to have all the abilities, just so you can be the man with all the weapons. With all you’re going to be capable of, you’d be able to single-handedly save the world. And yet, all you’re worried about is you.”

    Jericho let out a sigh that indicated he had heard such words before. “I have to say, Mister Voren,” he explained, “I’ve heard this kind of moral statement before. As a follower of Rand, I…” He saw the man roll his eyes. “What?”

    Manny’s lip straightened out, and his eyes lowered to a skeptical, somewhat exasperated gaze. “I hope it’s no offense, but I can’t stand the writings of Ayn Rand.”

    Rather than be offended, the billionaire gave a look of genuine interest. “Go on,” he prodded. “Tell me what you find disagreeable?”

    “Ooh hoo,” Manny uttered, trying to avoid laughing. “Where do I begin? The fact that her characters are terribly characterized, either Mary Sue perfect, or Disney villain? Sometimes both at the same time? How everyone we’re supposed to side against is a blatant strawman? How her books contain hilarious mistakes?”

    Jericho folded his hands together as he reclined. “Hmm,” he countered. “I didn’t get that reading of the text of Atlas Shrugged or Anthem at all.”

    “I read Atlas Shrugged because it was supposed to be her magnum opus,” Manny shot back. “I was either in one of two moods: wanting to punch a hole in the wall angry or laughing my ass off at the terrible prose and characterization. It’s borderline unreadable.”

    “Give me an example,” Jericho stated. He’d had debates about Atlas Shrugged before, and he looked forward to what this person had to say. Masters of literary intellect had fought back and forth over Rand’s longest work before. He’d listened to fiery debates over the Objectivist ideology. Maybe a common opinion would be what he needed. Or not. Maybe this man’s ordinary level of education would prove uninteresting. Still, he had to know.

    “We’re told that main character Dagny Taggart is descended from Nat Taggart, who founded the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad without government assistance or government loans of any kind.”

    Jericho felt stifled by the pause. Clearly there was a point he wasn’t getting. What was the problem? “And?” he asked.

    “In the real world,” Manny explained, “the only way for national railroads to get the land they needed to build all the way to the coast was by eminent domain.” He shrugged. “You’re telling me this man was such a genius he managed to convince all these people to sell their land, and he bought land with no government help whatsoever? It’s ridiculous.”

    Jericho leaned forward. “Even if I give you that,” he said, “that’s not a knock on the ideology behind the story.”

    “If the foundation is rotten, the house will fall,” Manny countered. “This is supposed to be her best work. If the ideology is supposed to be presented at its finest here, this is a problem.”

    “A bit of a nitpick,” the billionaire said, “but ok, I’ll grant that. It seems implausible. But surely that’s not the biggest problem.”

    Manny took a thinking breath. “No,” he continued. “The core of her ‘great men make history’ idea of Objectivism is symbolized by John Galt. This is the biggest Mary Sue I’ve possibly ever read.” Jericho leaned forward. Manny took this as a sign to continue. “He straight-up invents a perpetual motion machine. Something that is physically impossible. So, his plan is to cause the government to collapse by getting all the best people with the best ideas to escape and hide away, and thus society can’t go on without them? Is that really believable?”

    “Why not?” Jericho countered. “Look at what Henry Ford created. Not just the automobile, but the assembly line.”

    Manny shot him a surprised look. “You’re really telling me you believe no one would be able to come up with that idea in his absence?”

    “Maybe scientifically, someone else could come up with it.” Jericho changed gears. “But the core idea of Objectivism is that the government should not be allowed to take from someone who earns money and give to someone who doesn’t, and people should not do what is not in their rational self-interest.”

    “That’s one of the problems with this world,” Manny fired off. “Eighty-six people have the combined wealth of the bottom three billion people.”

    “What’s wrong with that?”

    Manny let out a bellowing laugh at that. When he saw the rich man’s serious expression of genuine confusion, his laugh increased. “Yeah, I needed that,” he said.

    “No,” Jericho argued. “I mean it. They earned it.”

    “Oh, please,” Manny exclaimed. “Do you honestly believe that? Are you really that naïve?”

    “I’m not dumb enough to believe every wealthy person worked hard,” Jericho clarified, “but someone earned that money they inherited. Isn’t it the right of a parent to bequeath his money to his children?”

    “The average CEO makes almost three hundred times the pay of his average worker,” Manny said, trying to counter, “and can you honestly tell me you think the CEO works three hundred times harder?”

    “Shouldn’t a successful rich person have the right to create a dynasty of wealth?”

    Manny blinked hard. This man was not going to let him change to an easier target. “Not if it results in five or six generations of people who don’t have to contribute anything useful to society, and not if less than a hundred people can have more money than a huge chunk of the human race, no.”

    Jericho leaned back in the chair. “Can’t say I’m surprised,” he stated. “I can absolutely understand why you feel the way you do, even if I disagree with you.” He collected his thoughts. “And to answer your question, the CEO may not work three hundred times as many hours as his ordinary worker, but his work is three hundred times as important.”

    “Even IF that were true,” Manny shot back, “which I doubt, does that mean that it’s okay for him to pay them much less than they’re worth? Or to fail to share the benefits of extra profit with them? These are people who need to do more than mere survival. Also, how is he going to succeed without cogs in his machine?”

    He wasn’t expecting such an erudite statement from the man. He dismissed it immediately, of course, but the man started to speak a bit clearer and more firmly. That impressed him. “They agreed to work for the pay the market set,” Jericho explained, “and he’s not obligated to share his extra wealth with them, no.”

    “Wow,” Manny stated. The conversation hit him hard. The wind was knocked out of him. “That’s spectacularly shitty.”

    “That’s the way it is,” Jericho fired back. “If everyone followed this ideology, there’d be none of these problems. People become too dependent on government assistance.”

    Manny raised his eyebrows a moment. “Well, in any case, I think you’re dead wrong, and your ideology is terrible, no offense.”

    Jericho reached in his pocket and removed a business card from his wallet. “Anyway, if you want to finalize our deal, go here.”

    “Hold on,” Manny said. “Aren’t I allowed to counter with a stipulation?”

    Jericho turned, awestruck. “Ok,” he said, barely able to comprehend. No one had even considered the possibility of a counter offer.

    “Do you have a power in that growing collection of yours,” Manny asked, “that allows you to see things from someone else’s point of view?”

    The billionaire searched his mental storage. In the large group of abilities that he’d already acquired, there was one that allowed him to insert himself directly into the memories of another person. He wondered where this was going, although he believed he knew. “Go on,” he said, curious.

    “You can cut the money in half,” Manny suggested, “if you use that power to see the world through my eyes.”

    Jericho’s eyes went a bit wide and his eyebrows raised. “Really,” he said. A small whistle escaped his mouth. “That’s not a very wise financial decision. I’ve got a huge incentive to take you up on it, and not much disincentive.” He stepped a bit closer. “Tell you what. Give me a strong disincentive that you think I’m not considering, and I’ll take you up on it, no discount needed.”

    Manny didn’t have to hesitate. “You might end up changing your mind.”

    “Not likely,” the rich man countered. “Although, it might end up giving me a better defense of my position.”

    “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.”

    Jericho’s face didn’t change, but his internal smile was wide. “Tell me who said that, and I’ll take you up on it.” The expected answer was astronomer and famous skeptic Carl Sagan.

    “P.C. Hodgell in ‘Seeker’s Mask.’ People often think Carl Sagan said it, but there’s no evidence.”

    The billionaire said not a word. He simply stuck out his hand. Manny saw the grin emerge and shook the hand. He felt nothing out of the ordinary. He saw the rich man’s eyes go dim for a moment. When he came back a second later, he let go and shook his head a bit. “T…thank you,” Jericho stammered. The smile was fake enough to indicate something serious had transpired. “You’ll hear from my accountant shortly.”

    “Nice doing business with you,” Manny said.

    The billionaire made his way to his rental car and sat down. Firing the engine up, he ran the air conditioner and kept the radio silent. He sat in stunned silence, listening to the hiss of the fan and the sound of his own breathing. What he expected had been to experience the memories of the man named Manfred Voren. The experiences of the working poor would reveal the truth of his belief and perhaps challenge a detail or two of his ideology, but he would ultimately emerge unscathed. That wasn’t remotely what happened.



    II.​





    The power Jericho copied placed him literally inside the body of Manny Voren in memories reconstructed not by frail, malleable human psyche that changes the story every time a person thinks of it, but rather by supernatural power capable of accuracy.

    Manfred Voren was born in early nineteen eighty-six in southern Illinois. His views came to be dominated by poverty. When he was just a boy, no older than twelve, his father had lost his job and spent the next eight or so months struggling to find work. His mother had to support the two of them with her nursing income, and it hadn’t stretched very far. Even when the father had found work, it hadn’t been the same. Jericho saw all these moments in great detail, as an observer in the moments of the past.

    When Manny found work at the age of sixteen, he fought tooth and nail to perform his best and keep his chin up. His efforts often resulted in failure: his parents’ income would fall short and he would have to supplement their income. Two jobs apiece and his parents still couldn’t survive without occasional public assistance. This floored him; how could hard working adults, pushing themselves to their limits, need public aid to survive? He’d gotten used to seeing people fail. How could competent people fail like that?

    As he sat in his rental car, listening to the sound of the air conditioner, he snapped out of his thoughts. Never mind, he thought. I’ve got powers to test out. He found the trigger in his mind for the newly-acquired ability from this person. He pressed the mental switch and activated the power.

    He opened his eyes and stared in the mirror.

    Nothing about his body looked different.

    Reaching down, he took the cigarette lighter and burned himself with it. Then he activated a regeneration power he acquired. Damn it. Why isn’t it working?

    He took a breath. He pictured a number of mental images and activated his power each time. After a good five minutes of trying, he gave up. He looked identical to how he’d looked before, with no new abilities. How could he see a trigger in his mind, activate it, and have nothing happen? He wanted to barge in the house again, and demand answers, but it occurred to him that Manny wouldn’t know any different than he did.

    Using his primary ability, he probed the ability he’d acquired to see what the purpose of the original power was. It took a few minutes, analyzing with his full attention. With the assistance of the enhancing and increased intelligence abilities he copied, the answer came to him quickly. Manny had gained the ability to turn into the character he’d like to be most.

    A thought creeped into Jericho’s mind. There’s no character I’d like to be, he realized. He let out a chuckle. They always told me I was a bit narcissistic.

    “Oh well,” he thought out loud. Sure, he’d lost money on an ability he couldn’t use, but he’d copied so many recently that the losses weren’t that tragic. Already, he’d gotten abilities that would guarantee his long-term survival and were some of the most useful imaginable. He drove off, making another phone call to his accountant as he drove to the nearest branch of the gym he belonged to. It led him out of Wal-Mart Land and into the buildings and highways of Saint Louis.

    He parked in the lot and made his way into the gym, showing his identification at the front desk. He’d bought a new set of gym clothes on the way to the building, and carried his bag and his new combination lock into the locker room. A quick search gave him access to a shower with a draw curtain he could use to hide away from the others.

    “Here we go,” he muttered to himself, setting the towel on the plastic seat. He stared at his nakedness in the florescent light. His body had decent muscle tone and low body fat, but he’d never been an exercise nut who put serious effort into being a top athlete. Inside his mind, out of the collection of power triggers he had, he instantly located the ones for both regeneration and optimization. He’d copied the first from a child who had recently miraculously recovered from cancer as well as a broken leg. The mother had been ecstatic to find the child had powers and was not, in fact, possessed. The second was from a man who had been overweight his whole life, only to lose a hundred and fifty pounds of fat and gain seventy pounds of muscle since the lights shone overhead in the sky.


    At first, little happened. He’d hoped the regeneration would speed up the optimization, but it seemed they counteracted each other.

    Then his body lit up as if ablaze.

    His teeth grit to avoid him shouting. The pain was incredible. It lasted a good thirty seconds, as he watched his body reconfigure into the icon of physical perfection. His breath came back to him in gulps, as he wiped sweat from his brow. His arms, while not ludicrously huge, had grown by several inches. His body fat had changed a bit, revealing tone like he’d never had before. His chest muscles were well-defined, and his legs were thick trunks of meat where before he looked spindly. Wow, he simply thought, turning the water on. He wet himself down, dried off, and dressed.

    The new clothes he bought, he’d intended to be bigger and looser, just in case this happened. Now, they fit his more buff body more tightly. His flat stomach had a six-pack and his chest stuck out now.

    The fastest treadmill maxed out at twenty miles per hour. His sprint barely taxed him, and he felt his legs fatigue very slowly. That’s what I call ‘optimization,’ he thought.

    While running, he thought about Manfred Voren’s life experiences. As a fan of Ayn Rand’s work, he’d always fielded criticism of the literary work. Probably the most familiar arguments, typically from positions of perceived moral superiority, bothered him because these people honestly believed the rich had some outsized responsibility to society at large. What he knew from his education and his experiences in the stock market was that the rich fulfilled their role in society and enriched the masses simply by doing what made them rich in the first place. However, having inserted himself into the memories of the young man put him in shoes of another person as much as anyone could possibly be. He got to experience what the man had been through.

    The mother had a marketable skill in demand. The father was the same way; he was a welder. How could it possibly be that they needed public assistance? The memories he’d experienced answered his question as soon as he had it. The economy had basically ceased to exist in the eighties when the companies that ran the factories that hired almost everyone in the surrounding communities outsourced to China. Furthermore, he saw other damning things. Multiple families only survived because they often supported each other. The place he referred to as Wal-Mart Land only turned into that once the economy that made people able to life a middle-class life disappeared. There was a time where most of the people Manfred grew up with didn’t have to subsist on incomes from retail and fast food. Manfred’s own memories took a proverbial sledgehammer to everything Jericho believed.

    The worst part of all was he believed he’d grown up middle-class and not rich. Sure, he became a billionaire in his early twenties, but through the lens of Manfred’s own memories he saw just how rich he’d been. His mother had been a University professor on an income that was fantastic by the standards he now saw. He’d grown up in a gated community in a five-bedroom house his mother had paid off by the time he was eight years old. Even though he held his grandfather in contempt for disinheriting Jericho’s mother and dooming him to have to struggle, he now saw his mother had such a huge advantage that transferred to him. She’d benefitted from the most impressive college education money could buy and was able to parlay connections made with her father’s name into a teaching job at a prestigious university and he suddenly realized just how many of his accomplishments were built on a name he thought he’d thrown away.

    What did he believe? He didn’t know anymore. All he knew was that he would have to base his decisions on more than just one person’s memory. Coming to a decision he cleaned himself off and got dressed. As of now he had more information to gather.


    III.​





    Using several new powers in conjunction with each other, Jericho located several powered individuals he hadn’t managed to speak to in the past few days. As his repertoire changed with each new power gained, he found the synergies between them a fascinating learning experience. The St. Louis area had some surprisingly good restaurants, he noticed, and the flexing of his financial muscle got him a private dining room. He could dine in peace and focus his abilities. On the way in, he experienced the memories of several members of the wait and cooking staff. The degree to which his experience differed from the average person bothered him. Still, he felt determined to get over it and get on with his life. He wasn’t going to radically upend his behavior based solely on this new information.

    Now he had the ability to know the names of the targets that appeared on his radar ability. A Reverend Jack Hurst had recently developed an ability, and he would have to fly to Oklahoma to get this one. There were several closer targets he could get, but given his experience with religious people, he wanted this one to be over as soon as possible. The afternoon sun still hung above the horizon, but the events since the lights had weighed on his mind and he wanted to relax and process his thoughts. After paying his bill, he drove his rental car to the nearest hotel and checked into their first available suite.

    His suitcase dropped by the computer desk. He’d worry about the stock market later. Despite making his enormous fortune from it, he now knew about a superior market. This market, he knew, didn’t have very many competitors in it, so he had a true first mover advantage. These thoughts excited and worried him. Dozens of abilities had become part of him and he had more to get. A particular skill that he prided himself on was his knack for finding use for things. A lesser mind might not find a use for manipulating insect carapaces, but he could imagine several. So his goal was to grab whatever ability proved available, and worry about use later.

    His thoughts kept drifting back to the experience of living the young man’s memories. Just having access to another person’s life experience radically changed his perception. Even though it made him think about things in a way he’d never expected, he believed the struggle between his prior beliefs and the views of the other person would prove beneficial in the long term.

    What other experiences could he add to his mind? This thought raced around. The harrowing nature of living the memories of another person taxed him. This wasn’t receiving a summary, he got inserted into the person’s life. Years of their life passed in the instant of real time it took to make contact, and he had to live each long day. However, this provided him an experience like none other. Who else, besides the person he got this power from, could say they literally lived another person’s life?

    He found his way back to his hotel suite and checked the time on his cell phone. His office should still be open. A phone call later and his secretary picked up on the first ring. “Mr. Torvalds?” she said.

    “Starting tomorrow, I’m doubling your pay,” he said. “Anyway, check my schedule. You know that one black activist who kept slandering me on CNN? Do you think you can get in touch with her and see if she’d be willing to meet with me to discuss civil rights?”

    An uncomfortable pause followed. “Sir,” the secretary said, “she left her card as a token gesture. I don’t think she actually wanted to meet with you. If you want, though, I’ll certainly try to call.”

    “You know what?” he interrupted. “I think it’ll mean more if I call her. What’s the number?” Another pause of significant length happened. Then the secretary read him the number. “Alright, I’ll call her. Thank you.”

    “You’re welcome, sir.”

    He hung up and dialed.

    “Sharon Francis,” the husky female voice replied.

    “Yes,” he began, “Mrs. Francis? This is Jericho Torvalds…”

    “Uh-huh,” she interrupted. “This is a surprise. After the comments you made about Black Lives Matter on Fox, I didn’t expect you to call.”

    “Look,” he cut in, “I was hasty and I over-generalized. I think my position will be better if I sit down and actually hash it out with you.”

    He waited for her laughter to die down. “Alright,” she said, “I’ll give you this: we sit down and talk, and I get to record the whole thing on audio. You can’t take back anything you say.”

    “Absolutely,” he agreed. She audibly gasped. Apparently, she hadn’t expected him to agree to those terms. “Where are you? I’ll meet you somewhere.”

    “I’m having a sit-down interview in my New York apartment with Anderson Cooper at ten o’clock tomorrow morning,” she said.

    “How about the Waldorf Astoria at two p.m.?” He offered. “I’ll pay for any food or drink you want.”

    “You’re serious about talking to me about black issues and civil rights?” Her tone bit him.

    He put on a smile and brightened his tone. “You can film the fucking ordeal if you want,” he offered. “I just want a new perspective.”

    “You know what?” she said. “You’re on. I am going to hit you with some hard questions. You are going to answer for the shit you’ve said.”

    No problem,” he said, verbally leaning into it. He hung up. He made a few phone calls and got the jet gassed up and ready for flight and booked a room at the Waldorf in New York along with a conference room and even paid extra for food service to it. Once the hotel heard his voice and confirmed his credit card, they were more than happy to be accommodating. To hell with it, he thought. His power collecting could wait. After all, he had quite a collection already.

    A thought passed through: could he speed up the relevant sections and get just the important parts of a person’s life? There seemed only one way to find out. He teleported to behind a dumpster in the alleyway and walked out onto the street. Casual clothes had been the choice so as not to create too much fuss. Business formal could be saved for making deals.

    The first target to attract attention came into view. A shapely woman in what was clearly an evening dinner dress underneath the pea coat. In his collection of triggers in his head, he activated the ones for heightened awareness and perception and combined it with the empathic experience power. Stealthily his hand grazed hers as he strolled.

    Her life story, complete with tragedy and triumph, seemed to flash by. Some twenty-six years seemed to take only eight months of experiencing instead of real-time. As he returned to his own body, only microseconds having passed in actual time, he did his best to not make her think something wrong. If he acted out his shock and surprise, she’d have thought him a pervert who got off on brushing up against women on the street.

    She’d been in an abusive relationship with a guy who seemed almost clueless as to the effect he had on her. It almost bothered him as much as willful abusers. Based on what she knew, at this point in the evening, he’d be at their apartment watching television. He found their residence with his teleportation’s radar sense and appeared behind the couch. At times like this, he thanked the ability for being silent.

    I hope this works
    , he thought. He held his palm outstretched behind the man’s head and activated a mental projection power to combine with the empathic one and willed the experience of the woman into her boyfriend’s mind.

    “What the hell?” The boyfriend shouted, almost shooting forward. Jericho turned invisible and inaudible, backing up and watching. The man turned the television off and sat there in stunned silence for a solid minute. Tears actually began flowing from the man’s eyes. “Oh…my God…” Jericho left when he saw that the woman’s memories got the point across. He teleported back to his hotel room.

    A feeling of positivity swept over Jericho unlike anything he’d felt before. It perplexed him. Before, every logical center in his brain told him that doing things for strangers for no benefit went beyond pointless into actual harm being done. By being altruistic to others, one deprived them of their ability to be self-reliant.

    A chuckle escaped his mouth and he paused and laughed mentally at the absurdity of it. How could he be so clueless? It didn’t require one to become a hippie to help others. “Christ,” he muttered to himself. He couldn’t believe how rigid his style of thinking had been. Some people truly were being helped to the point of losing their self-reliance, but none of that justified making an iron-clad rule as rigid as he used to believe from Ayn Rand. Did he find her ideas completely devoid of value? He didn’t know. But it meant the real world resisted being put into such tiny boxes as the political and philosophical talking heads seemed dead-set on doing.

    After that, he took a shower and went to sleep. Sleeping took up a lot less time since he could use one of his acquired powers to regenerate his brain and need only a tenth as much.

    An hour later, he woke up, rested and ready. The clock on the wall read ten thirty. He made his bed and walked over to his laptop on the work desk. Placing his hand on the keyboard, he activated a technopathic ability. Being able to do late-night stock trading was much easier when one could mentally project into technology.


    IV.​





    Manny woke up and called in to the agency he worked for and quit his job. On the way back from the day’s events, he would stop by and turn in his badge. He still had plenty of money from his gambling winnings, and he would get more from that billionaire, assuming of course, that the man kept his word. He showered, brushed his teeth, and after drying off, put on the new thin clothes he’d bought from the local Target. Being able to use his female self to lose weight rapidly had served him well, although he would probably have to get his license set straight the next time he got it renewed. Placing his wallet and cell into the purse he’d bought, he shifted into Jennifer Black. The clothes her male self wore went with him. She changed into her usual heroics costume and put a spare set of clothes into the purse. The normal outfit she wore into action consisted of two t-shirts on top of each other, two layers of yoga pants, thermal socks and cheap rain boots. It had been carefully designed to be inexpensive and replaceable. Sure, she could channel her energy through it and the material became water and fireproof, as well as bulletproof, but it never hurt to be careful. Honestly, what blew her mind was that the bra she wore cost almost five times as much as the outfit without it. The shirts, pants, and cheap rubber boots came up to just a hair under fifty dollars. Bras that came in her bust size cost her over two hundred dollars for a very plain looking undergarment. She would make sure to get more money and buy plenty of replacements.

    She left the house, locking the front door. She made it to the car and reached into the purse for the key.

    A car approached from the entrance to the subdivision. Jennifer swore. Damn it, Annie, she thought, why the hell’d you have to tell Ed?

    She activated one of her speed powers and time seemed to freeze. Activating flight, she took off into the sky. High above the stratosphere, almost half the globe could be seen. Enhanced vision showed her huge sections of land up close. An explosion at a factory in Mexico had set much of a nearby small village on fire. Using both speed powers in tandem, she flew to the site in seconds. She zoomed through the wreckage, pulling out injured survivors. As she touched them, her power flowed through them, allowing her to grab them at hypersonic velocities without destroying them on contact. It took her the better part of a minute to zoom through all the buildings, grabbing those in harm’s way. After that, she found several fire engines still on their way and brought them faster than they would have arrived on their own.

    She flew back up to the sky and responded to several car accidents in several states. After that she looked for-and found-a few dozen cases of hikers in the wilderness stranded in places. It might have seemed like small potatoes to someone else, but being able to help anyone meant a lot to her. Her heightened intelligence and senses meant she could scan hundreds of square kilometers of ground with a single glance. Police outside of a major drug den in Baltimore were taking gunfire. She disarmed the gang and fled, depositing the weapons safely outside the building. No one saw her coming or going.

    Before returning to the sky to look, she stopped at a local library and checked the internet for any events that might be big news. There were several politicians giving speeches and she stopped by each one. It would be a bust, she realized. No disgruntled voters carried guns or bombs into the event for her to respond to. She would have to wait for the big chance that Davis Wilson told her about. The last one, a Democrat by the name of Jan Dunsmith, had appeared at a fair in his home state of California, and as she scanned the crowd, no one posed a threat. This was a bust.

    A gunshot rang out. The bullet smashed against her hand three inches from the representative’s face. She saw the gunman’s face and before he had a chance to fire off a second shot, she had the gun in pieces at her feet. “What the…?” The man cried out, looking at his hand where the weapon had vanished from. He looked up and saw a tall redhead standing in front of his target.

    The frightened crowd parted around the man and he took off running. The next thing he knew, he had disappeared from the crowd and was seated on the stage, facing the cameras.

    Jennifer had made a deliberate show of the event, capturing the man and leaving him on the stage ndfor everyone to see. The guards quickly approached the congressman and shielded him from harm. Officers rushed the stage and surrounded the dazed gunman. “Are you ok?” she asked the congressman.

    He seemed dazed. “I’m…” He struggled for words. “I’m alright.” He blinked. “I’m sorry, thank you for saving my life! You are…?”

    “Jennifer Black,” she introduced. “I’m glad I could be here to save your life.”

    The look on Jan Dunsmith’s face told of his recognizing her. “Yeah!” he exclaimed. “I remember you! You saved those fifty-nine people from the wildfires downstate!”

    “I’m always pleased to help,” she said, shaking his hand.

    “Tell you what,” he said. “If there’s anything you need, just stop by my office and I’ll be happy to help you out.” He produced a business card.

    “I’ll be in,” she said, placing the card in her pocket. She gave a pleasing smile and flew off, deliberately not activating one of her speed powers, enabling them to see her leave. With her goal of obtaining all the official paperwork to live, and just as importantly, do business, as her powered female self, she’d just accomplished her first major goal. There wasn’t anything wrong with being Manny, she just preferred to be in the form with powers.

    She couldn’t believe her luck. There had been a major incident like Davis had said. She was able to respond to it almost immediately. The morbidity of it hit her almost as soon as the thought entered her mind. Politics in America had become so heated, the climate so polarized, that she was able to be at a would-be assassination within the first five political rallies she attended. The thought bothered her. In seconds she returned to her house. There were two separate cars waiting there. She recognized all three people at once. “Damn it,” she swore under her breath.

    “Jennifer, look,” Ed said. “We’re not trying to intrude. It’s just that…”

    She folded her arms. “What, Ed?” she said, impatiently. She turned to Annie. “I thought we were on the verge of becoming friends!” She glanced over at John and chose not to mention him. “You could have called. I’m busy saving lives and trying to figure all this out. These powers are only a couple weeks old to me.” At the end of her diatribe, her anger came crashing down as she saw the frightened expression on their faces.

    John swallowed. Even considering his weight problem, his sweating seemed excessive for the mild weather. “L…look,” he stammered. “We’re…it’s just that we’re concerned about our friend Manny.”

    One of her eyebrows raised. “Concerned about…” Her eyes went wide as she realized their implication. She used her vision power and saw that Ed’s gun was in the cargo pocket of his shorts. “Oh my God, you’re seriously worried that I…” She hastily looked around. No one was within shouting distance who could make out specific words. Still, she lowered her voice. “You’re seriously worried that I’m threatening him!”

    “You have to admit,” Annie countered. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Manny might not be a bad person, or even bad looking, but how could he conceivably be with someone like you? You’re way out of his league.”

    Jennifer laughed. “Wow,” she said, folding her arms again and giving a stern glare. “I thought men could be sexist.” She laughed again. “Let’s go in the house and I’ll show you what’s going on.” She saw the apprehension. The hand closest to Ed’s cargo pocket inched closer. “Come on. If that’s what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have let you approach me.”

    They followed her up the concrete steps and onto the porch. She looked around and saw no one staring and opened the front door. Each person took their shoes off and took seats on the couch and the loveseat next to it. “Alright, what’s the secret?” Ed asked.

    Jennifer waved her arms in a what-have-you motion. “What the hell,” she uttered. Activating the trigger in the opposite direction, her body and clothes transformed before their very eyes. In under ten seconds, Manny Voren stood before them. Annie almost collapsed in shock. John clutched his chest and almost fell backwards. Ed simply stared wide-eyed in disbelief. “Ta-da,” Manny shrugged and gestured to his body.

    “I…um…that…uh…” John tried to say.

    Annie took in the sight. This young man had a skinny frame, but the same slightly curly hair and pale skin proved it was Manny. “You’re…wow…” she simply uttered.

    “Hold on,” Ed stated. “You are Jennifer? How does that work?”

    John composed himself slightly. “I…stop a moment,” he said, forcing his will to gather. “That red-haired woman, is that Capacitor from the Furious Thunder series?”

    Ed turned to John, then flashed his glance back at Manny, and then back to John. “Wait…what?”

    “Wait a minute!”

    They all stopped and sat quietly at Manny’s sudden outburst. He blinked a few times and wiped his eyes. “Geez,” he uttered. “This is why I kept it a secret. I love you guys, but Christ you’re a bunch of leaky pipes when it comes to secrets.” He flipped the trigger back and his clothes and body vanished to be replaced by Jennifer in her outfit once again. “This,” she continued, “is what happened. The Lights or whatever the hell they’re calling it happened and suddenly, I discover I can turn into a fictional character.” Ed’s mouth opened to begin a question. “Yes?”

    “Aren’t,” Ed asked, “her breasts smaller in the comic?”

    Annie looked at him and prepared to smack him.

    “They would be,” Jennifer said, “if I ate nothing. She can feed off her energy itself. Unfortunately, I like food. Ok? Good thing her metabolism is post-human.” She gestured at her chest. “But, good lord bras are expensive at this size. I’m almost tempted to stop eating in this form just to get back to normal size.” She let out a sarcastic chuckle. “At least that would do something for the unwanted touching from other people.” She huffed. “Okay, any relevant questions?”

    “Can you have powers in your male form?” Annie asked.

    “If I want to experience gender dysphoria, yes.” They looked somewhat confused. “Powers seem to come from my mind. Changing just the brain gives me powers in either form. But my female brain is a woman and my male brain is a guy. Got it?”

    “So,” John added, “what about the fact that you don’t have paperwork as Jennifer?”

    “Working on it,” Jennifer shot back.

    “This is incredible,” Ed said, leaning forward. “The scientific implications of this blow my fucking mind.”

    “Believe me,” Jennifer said, “I thought I was going fucking crazy. If scientists want to study my body without hurting me, I’m all for it.”

    “Just a second,” John interrupted. “Jennifer Black? I thought the character’s name was Michelle Delanter?”

    Jennifer shot him a look. “If you turned into Clark Kent would you go on CNN and say to the world, ‘Hey, my name is Clark Kent?’”

    John pondered this a moment. “Wow!” he gasped, pointing for effect. “Smart!”

    Annie looked at the combination of the faded orange t-shirt combined with the dark grey yoga pants and five-dollar generic rain boots. “What kind of superhero costume is that?”

    Jennifer put hands on hips. “Well, excuse me for not having the tailoring skills of Yaya Han,” she chided.

    “Who?” Annie asked.

    “Famous pro cosplayer,” John said. Annie nodded, not knowing anything about it.

    Jennifer gestured at the bewildered friends. “Any more questions?”

    “A ton,” Ed answered, “but something tells me we shouldn’t.”

    “Thank you,” Jennifer complimented. She let out a long sigh. “Criminy, what am I going to do with you guys?”

    “What do you mean?” Ed asked.

    She waved her arms at them in an indicating gesture. “You guys!” she exclaimed. “You know about it! Now what?”

    John piped up at this barb. “Hey, look at the comics,” he advised. “Doesn’t the hero lying to his friends and family usually turn out bad?”

    Jennifer pondered this. At first it seemed so simple, but the more she thought about it, the more she was right. If the enemies knew about it and her friends didn’t, she would be endangering them for the sake of her privacy. But a counterargument came up just as quickly. “Wait, but won’t that mean you’re in on it, and you’ll have to lie?” she argued. “After all, everybody can’t know who I really am.”

    This seemed to stump them. “Look,” Annie said, chiming in. “There’s got to be a safe point where some people have the right to know and some people don’t. You’ve been hanging around with us since before high school.”

    Jennifer nodded and shrugged. “That is a good point,” she agreed. “Anyway, now that this ordeal is over, what did you want to do?”

    The three looked around. “What do you mean?” Annie asked.

    Jennifer gestured at them. “You’re here, after all. Might as well do something.”

    Ed looked like he wanted to say something, but John interrupted him. “We want to see you use your powers!”

    Jennifer rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that the most cliché thing there is?”

    “We have to know what we’re dealing with,” Annie said. “I guess it makes sense.”

    Jennifer sighed again. “You know what? Fine. I guess we have to do this shit at some point,” she conceded. She thought of a destination where she could have a lower chance of being spotted. “You know the park outside of Belleville?”

    The three debated amongst themselves. “You mean the big one?”

    “Yeah,” Jennifer agreed. “Not the small one in town.” They seemed to understand and headed out the door. Hastily, she changed into a more casual outfit of jeans, a short-sleeved black shirt, and a thin dark brown jacket. She grabbed her purse and headed out the door. After locking the door, she activated both speed powers and ran, following the highways and sidewalks. She covered the distance of almost thirty-five miles in under a minute. Once there, she deactivated one of the speed abilities and walked around the park with everything frozen around her, checking out who was there and in what direction they were looking at. She made her way into the women’s bathroom and sat in an empty stall, shutting the door. Then she deactivated the last speed power and exited the bathroom, walking out into the park with everything moving normally. She went on a leisurely stroll while she waited for her friends to drive there. Taking in the scenery with her heightened senses proved to be a real treat. Colors no other person could see hit her eyes. She hadn’t stopped to appreciate the finer details of her newfound powers, but she found she could hear the rumblings of the ground beneath her, frequencies no human ears could register. If she focused on her eyes, she could see infrared and ultraviolet, although not with much ease.

    After more than a half hour, the three cars entered through the brick and iron gate at the front and parked in the medium-sized of the three parking lots and she picked up her walking pace to greet them.

    “Let me guess,” Ed said, stepping out of the car. “You ran?”

    Jennifer shrugged. “Why not? Fastest way of getting here,” she said.

    “So,” Annie replied, “show us what you’ve got!”

    Jennifer looked around and judged the safest place in the park to go to. “Get close, like, skin to skin,” she advised. They huddled together. “Alright, hold each other tight. I’ve got to be able to pick all of you up at once. Nobody let go.”

    They all grabbed each other by the waists, tightening their grip. She grabbed as many of them as possible, holding them like an oversized barrel. With a slight heave, she had the lot of them in one go. An instant later, they were more than a half mile away on the opposite side of the park. She set them down gently. They stepped back, stumbling over each other. “Woah,” John said. From everyone’s point of view except Jennifer’s, they were huddled together in the parking lot, surrounded by a bunch of leaves and a brisk wind, and then, they vanished and were in the forested area near the edge of the park. “Super speed! I like it!”

    “Wait,” Ed said. “I might not be the geek you are, but I thought there were physics problems with super speed.”

    “There should be,” Jennifer said. “I should be running into bugs, and if I’m going fast enough, causing nuclear fusion by running into particles. I don’t know the details.”

    John shook his head. “And the strength thing,” he noticed.

    “Right,” Jennifer agreed. “Like lifting a watermelon with the tip of a safety pin. I should be punching right through any object with a big surface area because my hand is a small surface area.”

    Annie and Ed looked at each other. “So, most movies and comics just ignore that!” Ed said.

    “Wow, never even thought of that,” Annie replied. “Makes sense, though, it’s like a knife cutting a sandwich.”

    “I can’t wait for science to figure out how this works, “Jennifer explained, “think of what mankind will be able to do once we know how this works.”

    “How do you know science will be able to figure this out?” John asked, folding his arms.

    “This isn’t chaos,” Jennifer countered. “You buy a car because you know if you turn the key, it starts the car. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a car. If it was truly paranormal, I wouldn’t be able to predict how to make it work.”

    Annie pounded her fist into her open palm. “I get it!” she said. “It’s a part of nature, therefore, it has rules!”

    “Even magic has rules.” Jennifer walked around, surveying the surrounding material. She picked up a jagged stone, roughly the size of a football, and crushed it in her hands, shaking the pebbles and powder out of her grasp. “So, what do you want to know?”

    Ed laughed. “Come on,” he said, “Give us a show!”

    “Alright,” she said. A quick glance around with her senses showed her no one could see her. She flew up into the air, grabbed a log from the ground, about five feet long and two feet wide, chucked it into the air, and flew through the center, splitting it in half. She focused her hands on each half, and a burst of light shot out of each one, incinerating the wood.

    Each one stood clapping. “I don’t believe this!” John said. “It’s just unbelievable!”

    “I’ve been doing everything I can,” Jennifer said. “I’ve been saving lives. But we all know what happens next.”

    Ed cocked his head in confusion. “What happens next?”

    John blinked, then his jaw almost went slack. “Oh my god.”

    Jennifer nodded. “Right,” she said. “The villains always show up when the heroes do.”
     
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