ISSUE #0: THE ORIGIN STORY
Mina Pradesh was skinny, wore glasses thick enough to stop bullets, and enough metal wire encased her teeth to fortify an office block, but to eleven year old Kenny Burton she was an angel on Earth.
They met when their first grade teacher, Miss Lathrop (AKA Miss Lather-Up to the more precocious), put them at adjoining desks, and they'd been best friends ever since. However, with seventh grade on the horizon, Kenny was actually starting to notice things about her that he had never noticed before. Things like how her hair smelled like cinnamon, how brown her eyes were; the strange grace that lay behind the gangly movement of knees and elbows, and even the cute way her nose crinkled up when she laughed. He wasn't sure why he was starting to notice such things, but they kept running through his mind like a caffeinated hamster on a wheel.
Kenny had no clue what she thought about him, the workings of the female mind being a total mystery. Maybe she just thought of him as a friend, maybe she felt about him the way he was starting to feel about her, but the odds of that happening were thinner than she was. Kenny held no illusions about himself; he knew he wasn't good looking, talented, or athletic. In the movies, the fat kids were the comic relief and they never get the girl, even the nerdy ones. Sure people often commented on how unique his purple eyes looked, but when you're on the cusp of junior high unique wasn't good, unique doesn't make you the leading man.
Kenny took a deep breath and heaved the cumbersome pack higher on his back. It was loaded with everything Grandma Burton figured they'd need on their little expedition. A pup tent, two sleeping bags, flashlights, extra batteries, some wooden 'strike anywhere' matches, an AM/FM radio, first-aid kit, and enough food to keep a platoon of the Russian Army going for a week.
Kenny tried to explain that they were only going to the Power-lines to watch the meteor shower, not on a quest to the farthest corners of darkest Mordor. Grandma just laughed and said in her usually clichéd style that it was best to have and not need than to need and not have.
Kenny was fully loaded to face the Rapture, and it was playing merry hell with his shoulders. At least his Grandma and Mina's aunt didn't try to join the trip as 'chaperones.' Although astronomy and camping weren't exactly Kenny's thing, he preferred spending times like these alone with Mina, rather than listening to his Grandma and Mina's Aunt Mohinder gossip around the campfire about the folks they dealt with at the bookstore and the bakery. Kenny should have appreciated the time he had before junior high made everything they did together suspect, but all he thought about at that moment was Mina and the weight on his back.
The Power-lines was a wide grassy gash through the forest with power-poles connecting the town of Greenwood to the power plant standing like sentries ready for parade. It was a popular spot for the local kids to play without the interference of adults. Kenny couldn't count how many times he and Mina played Star Trek there. They were always on the same side in those water-gun skirmishes, with Kenny as a portly Kirk, and Mina a gangly Spock, putting a united front against the awesome Klingon onslaught of the McManus twins from Crescent Street.
The Power-lines lay less than a mile from their homes but the backpack's straps chewing into Kenny's beefy shoulders made it feel like a hundred. Mina was much better off, carrying only her telescope and tripod. How much could a bunch of plastic and aluminium tubes weigh?
Kenny offered to carry the telescope kit as well, but Mina refused his offer after seeing how Grandma Burton made him into a one-man pack train. She said that even his good manners had to have a limit; he wasn't Superman after all.
"Isn't the sky beautiful tonight?" asked Mina, looking up at the deep red of the setting sun.
"Yeah," answered Kenny, not really noticing the colour of the sky. "Where do you want the gear?"
"This is a good spot," she answered, much to Kenny's relief. "I can use the big flat rock for the telescope."
Ken slid his burden off, stretched his aching back, and rubbed his shoulders, who were barking mad at him for putting them through this ordeal. The summer humidity made his black hair hang limp on his head and he could feel his first zit forming on his forehead, like a third eye that didn't need glasses.
Mina had no such problems, her light brown skin was blemish free, and she kept her waist length hair in a tightly woven braid that ran down her back. With a hop and a skip, she vaulted onto the top of the flat rock that was to be her makeshift observatory.
After a few snaps, clicks, one pinched finger, and a few choice words, the tent was up. Kenny stood up, his hands on his hips like the classic hero triumphant and said, "The master camper has assembled our fortress."
"Great," said Mina as she carefully aimed her telescope upward. "Come on up, the meteors will be visible any minute."
The last rays of the sun crept below the horizon and Kenny made sure to take the big flashlight as he clambered up the rock to sit next to Mina.
"Look up there," exclaimed Mina; she didn't even need her telescope to see them, streaks of light rocketed across the sky. The sight was so amazing it shortly distracted Kenny from noticing for the hundredth time that Mina was still using the shampoo that smelled like cinnamon.
"Oh my god," he muttered. A parade of fire formed above their heads, the light was so bright, that he didn't even need to turn on the flashlight.
They seemed so close he could almost touch them.
One meteor, then another and another grew larger in the sky. Kenny didn't need to be a science whiz like Mina to realise something.
"Mina!" yelled Kenny as he leapt to his feet.
Mina heard Kenny yell, and was just about to turn to ask him why when she felt his hand shove her off the big rock to the ground below.
"Kenny," she yelled, spitting out a mouthful of grass. This wasn't his kind of stunt. "What the--"
The air above her burst into flame as a meteor struck the opposite side of the big rock. The wail of incoming meteors and the roar of earth and rock torn asunder buried Mina's scream. Instinct took over and Mina
curled up into a ball and tried to squeeze as tightly behind the big rock as possible.
Another meteor struck with a thunderous roar, sending dirt, fire, and smoke flying. Mina dared a peek and saw a third meteor cut through a high-tension wire, sending a cascade of sparks down onto the rock, half of them a strange shade of green.
The broken wire and the meteor locked in an embrace of green fire and sparks and swung down at Kenny's rock like the blade of a scythe. Mina couldn't see where he went and prayed that he wasn't in the path of that terrifying sight.
Another deafening boom filled the air and Mina felt the large boulder beside her split down the middle in a puff of green sparks, smoke, and scorched granite dust.
"Kenny!" she screamed into the thunderous tumult.
Several more explosions made the earth beneath her shake and a shower of dirt and stones come down on her like rain. Then everything fell silent.
"Kenny, are you all right?" Her voice was weak, and she feared the answer. "Kenny?"
A hand hung limp over the side of the split rock. It was a chubby hand with a Star Trek digital watch on its wrist. The watch's face was cracked and broken.
"Kenny!" she screamed as she scrambled back onto the rock. She didn't think about her singed and dishevelled hair, all clotted with dirt, nor did she care about the scorched and pitted hell that surrounded them. All she cared about was her friend, and that he might be dead.
Kenny lay on the rock like a failed sacrifice on a broken altar. His glasses lay in pieces around his head like a crude attempt at a halo, and the cataclysm scorched his Darth Vader T-shirt into rags and ashes. A burn, covered with a faintly glowing green dust, crossed his chest like a whiplash.
Mina grabbed his wrist. He still had a pulse, so she still had hope.
"You're going to be all right Kenny," she pleaded into his ear, getting no response. Then she screamed for help with a volume that belied her thin frame, a volume loud enough to wake the dead.
ISSUE #1: THE HERO RISES
Ken Burton lifted his glasses, rubbed his purple eyes, and looked at his watch. The time was exactly three minutes after the last time he looked. The date though was September 10th, two months to the day after the nineteenth anniversary of the meteor shower. The only commemoration of that event was that he and Mina called in sick, and played tourist for a day at Coney Island.
Today, like every other day, did not call for any commemoration. He had spent it cooped up in the Prudential Building listening to a consultant drone on and on about things Ken had talked about at the office for ages. Corporate logic dictated that the company shouldn't listen to someone they already paid for ideas when they can blow wads of cash more on an outside consultant who possessed all the charm of an uncooked turnip wrapped in sandpaper.
It had sunk into Ken that one day you're a carefree kid walking in the woods with your best friend in the whole wide world. Next thing you know, you're stuck in a live-action Dilbert cartoon and hoping that caffeine will give you the energy to get to sleep.
Ken was ending that day standing at the end of the line in one of those mega-chain coffee shops that had spread through the city like the plague in a medieval slum. The shop's staff was somehow managing to do their jobs without letting the line move a step. It was an incredible violation of the laws of physics and customer service, and they did it with wide toothy smiles that only clothing store mannequins could beat in the sincerity department.
Ken Burton had changed little in appearance since the night the meteors hit. He was quite a bit taller now, but his hair was still black and kept short; and he still wore the same black framed glasses. Although no one could call him a 'fat kid' anymore, you could use the words 'husky adult.' He wasn't a handsome man, but he wasn't ugly either, dwelling somewhere in the vast grey realm of aesthetic mediocrity. If it weren't for his distinctive purple eyes, people would have a hard time describing him in anything but the vaguest terms.
Outside, Manhattan Island was wrapping up for the day, and the streets were crowded with people flocking back to the warm bosom of suburbia.
Ken had his back to the window, his patience with the immobile line and grimacing staff was growing thin. He didn't see the tall skinny man with the shaved head and the AK-47 storm out of the bank across the street.
Ken felt the bullet though.
A sharp sting hit his back, at the exact nanosecond he heard the plate glass window shatter.
Ken spun around with a speed that made time seem to stop. He saw the bullet that struck him, drifting slowly to the ground, crushed and distorted from the impact. Shards of broken glass also slowed in their fall to an imperceptible creep.
Six more bullets crawled through the air towards the coffee shop, leaving wakes of distorted air behind them.
Ken leaped from the line and snatched the bullets out of the air. Touching them stung his hands, but that was nothing compared to what they'd do to somebody normal. Some idiot was shooting like a madman, and Ken had to do something about it.
Gary Wayne Doggett was six foot four, whiplash thin, with a shaved head covered in tattoos declaring his fealty to the Glorious and Pure Aryan Nation. Being so easily identifiable made his chosen career in crime a tricky business resulting in over seventy-percent of his adult life spent seeing the sky filtered through steel bars.
But Gary didn't care about that now. He and his buddies had just scored at least a hundred grand and now he was going to have fun with this mongrel city, starting with what he assumed had to be a Jewish/Catholic/Foreigner/Masonic owned corporate coffee shop across the street.
His let off his first burst at some fat guy in a black coat by the coffee shop's window. Gary hooted in ecstasy at the chaos and death he was dealing like a god of Valhalla stomping mere mortals. Then a gust of wind blew, that guy from the window suddenly appeared in front of him, and he looked mad.
"All I wanted was a cup of stupid coffee with a pretentious name," said the stocky guy holding out his hand. Lying in his palm was Gary's entire first burst, flattened, and crushed. "Instead I get a bunch of these, which I believe are yours."
"What the fuck?" snarled Gary, just who did this chubby sumbitch think he was? Gary Wayne Doggett was going to have to teach this suit a lesson in Aryan superiority. He aimed his AK-47 at the dork's chest, and opened fire.
Bullets belched from Gary's rifle. All hit their mark, but instead of tearing the fat bastard into shredded pig-meat, he just stood there without a hair out of place. Flattened metal mushrooms bounced off the man in the grey suit and black coat and sprinkled around him on the sidewalk.
Just then, Gary's old prison buddy Stubby Bennett came out of the bank in time to catch his partner's amazement. Not knowing the full story, never knowing the full story really, Stubby aimed his MP-5 submachine gun and cut loose.
More flattened bullets littered the pavement.
"Are you two done yet?" asked the freak with the glasses. Not a hair was out of place, and his clothes were untouched by the onslaught.
"This can't be happening!" blurted out Stubby.
"I'll kill--" Gary didn't have a chance to finish his sentence before the stocky guy tore the AK-47 out of his hands and crushed it like tinfoil.
A light push from the stranger sent Gary Wayne Doggett flying hard into the bank's brick wall. The wind gushed out of Gary and he collapsed to the sidewalk, his head spinning, and his limbs possessing all the strength of broken rubber bands.
The next thing Stubby felt was a gust of wind, then his MP-5 flew from his hands, split down the middle, spilling parts, and bullets. A pair of annoyed purple eyes appeared just inches in front of him.
"Play-time's over," said the man with the glasses and what looked like purple eyes.
Stubby went airborne, hit the metal light pole with a tinny clang, and collapsed unconscious to the sidewalk.
Throughout all this, their third associate, another prime specimen of the Glorious and Pure Aryan Nation named Lenny Carlson, sat in their getaway car watching the whole insane circus.
Once Stubby's fate sunk into Lenny's shaven skull he slapped the old sedan into gear and put the pedal to the floor. That fat bastard was going to pay. Whatever body-armour he was wearing it wasn't going to save him from a couple of tons of premium American steel crushing him into paste.
"Die motherfu--" screamed Lenny. He wasn't able to finish the thought before the entire front end of his premium American steel death machine collapsed inward like a cheap tent.
If Lenny was wearing his seatbelt he would have avoided crashing through the windshield and landing headfirst on his car's now crumpled hood. But Lenny wasn't one for following The Man's Rules even if their purpose was to keep him from getting a concussion, three broken ribs, and enough lacerations to make the emergency room nurse not even try to count.
Ken Burton stood for a half second with the wrecked car wrapped around his thick waist. With the robbers out of commission people started to slowly raise their heads.
People are looking at me, thought Ken, panic gripping him like an icy claw.
They stared in awed silence at the scene. Panic's icy grip tightened. People were staring at the mess, staring at him.
Ken Burton extricated himself from the wrecked sedan. An onlooker took out a cell-phone camera, intent on capturing this moment and Ken's face for posterity. Others started following suit. Within seconds this was going to be the most photographed car wreck since Princess Diana.
In for a penny, Ken thought, in for a pound.
Ken Burton took off, straight into the air, trailing little scraps of car behind him.
Anne Yamato was determined to prove to the world that she was more than just a pretty talking head reading the teleprompter. She was a real journalist with an Ivy League degree to prove it, but so far had spent her two years with Channel 8 Action News covering dog shows and filling in for Sunny the Weather-Watcher (she used to be the Weather-Girl, but that wasn't 'PC' anymore) whenever Sunny needed fresh botox to keep the ravages of turning twenty-eight at bay.
Anne wanted something she couldn't find at the kennel club or pointing at cartoon clouds on a map of the Tri-State area. She wanted respect as a journalist, and now was her chance to get it.
Anne carefully pulled a lock of her hair just slightly out of place. It gave her the appearance of urgency without sacrificing her air of professional competence.
Bernie, her one-man camera crew, plugged her headset directly into his camera and the transmitter that would beam her report directly to the Channel 8 studios. She could have used the News-Chopper's state of the art sound system, but the tinny sound of the headset's microphone was much more dramatic.
"We're almost there," said Virgil, the News-Chopper's pilot, he was a Desert Storm vet, and trained to fly Blackhawk choppers under fire. Anne hoped his nerves were steely enough to get in close enough for Bernie to get the shots they needed.
"You're on," said Bernie, "in five, four, three, two--"
"This is Anne Yamato," she said gravely, looking directly into the camera's glassy eye. "Coming to you live from the Channel 8 News Chopper. Shots have been fired in Midtown Manhattan, and we are told that there is a bank robbery in progress--"
The whole helicopter shuddered and rocked as a dark shape rocketed past.
"What was that?" asked Anne.
Bernie aimed his camera. "It's not a missile," he said, and then he paused, his unshaven jaw almost hitting the floor. "It looks like..." his voice trailed off.
"Like what?" asked Anne.
"Like a fat guy."
"What?" Then Bernie turned on the external camera's monitor. It did look like a heavyset man flying but without the benefit of a Channel 8 News-Chopper of his own.
"After him," Anne ordered Virgil. The chopper banked into a sharp turn and lined up the rapidly shrinking figure. "Keep the camera on him," she ordered Bernie. She then clicked the button for a private conversation with the Channel 8 news-control centre.
"Harvey," she said, "are you getting this?"
"Yes," answered Harvey Krantz, the Channel 8 news director. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"I don't think so," replied Anne. "Keep us live. We're going after him."
Ken looked over his shoulder. There was a white and blue helicopter on his tail.
Damn it, he thought. This whole day was turning into his ultimate worst case scenario. Things had gone too far. He was in danger of being exposed and spending the rest of his life as a glorified lab rat. That was not an option for Ken Burton.
Ken cursed and tried to calm down. They hadn't locked him up yet and that white and blue helicopter couldn't go to the places Ken could. Ken dived deeper between the skyscrapers and hoped the pilot wasn't crazy enough to follow.
He was wrong.
"And furthermore," said Alan Smythe from his brand new senior vice-president's desk as his eyes wandered along the nicely shaped calf of Debra, his new secretary, "this problem is the purview of the product distributor, and not our--"
The broad window of his new corner office shuddered as a vaguely man-shaped object rocketed past.
"What the hell was that?"
The whole room shuddered next as a white and blue helicopter shot past in hot pursuit. If this sort of thing kept up, then maybe corner offices weren't as great as they said.
Ken glanced over his shoulder. The chopper still clung to his trail like stink on old cheese. Seeing no reason to endanger the lives on the chopper any further, he shot for the open sky. Virgil let out a mad hoot, pulled back the stick, and kept up the chase.
Ken saw the distinctive spire of the Chrysler building a half-mile ahead. If he played his cards right he could make it.
"Can you get a better picture?" asked Anne.
"It's zoomed in as far as it'll go," answered the cameraman. All their high-tech gear and they still couldn't get a clear look at the strange figure flying above the city. Reports were coming in that he had stopped the robbery she was originally going to cover. There were also crazy stories coming from witnesses about him taking bullet hits without even flinching and crushing a speeding car with his bare hands.
It was all crazy talk, but it had the makings of a great story, maybe even a local Emmy, if she could just get a shot of his damn face.
"He's gone," said Bernie, the monitor showed only the approaching Chrysler Building. "He put on a burst of speed and went poof."
"Poof?" asked Anne.
"He disappeared," said Virgil, piping in his two cents. "This guy went faster than a frigging rocket."
"Did you get all this Channel 8?" asked Anne. The director back at the station told her she was on live. Faced with an audience of possibly millions, Anne thought on her feet. "This has been an incredible sight; we have what appears to be a man flying, apparently unaided, through the sky over of Manhattan. He's vanished just as quickly as he appeared. Where he's gone and how he did all this is anyone's guess."
Sandra Kettle, a junior intern with a firm of architects, came out of the copy room counting still warm sheets of paper, only to freeze dead in her tracks. A stocky man in a grey suit and black coat was climbing in through the window, a good fifty stories up.
"Hi," said the man, seeming embarrassed as he shut the window behind him. "It's--uh--it's the only place in the city I can smoke."
"They must be very strict here," answered Sandra.
"You better believe it," answered the man as he straightened his windblown tie. "I've been thinking of quitting, it's too much of a hassle."
"That's a good idea," said Sandra. A sudden gust of wind caused her newly copied reports to fly from her hands and flutter in the air like frightened birds. The man from the window was gone.
"This city," muttered Sandra to herself.
Those who knew her would say that the past nineteen years had been good to Mina Pradesh. Her once stick-thin figure had blossomed into the shapely yet slender standard that made models envious. Her aunt Mohinder Pradesh would say to her during visits home that she had finally 'grown into her face.' Mina still wore her waist-length hair in her trademark braid, but her glasses no longer needed to be so massive, and the braces that had encased her teeth for most of her childhood were long gone; leaving her with a straight and stunning smile. Despite the preponderance of evidence around her, Mina had no idea how beautiful she was, and remained oblivious to the admiring and sometimes covetous stares of co-workers, colleagues, and casual passers-by. On those rare moments when she looked in the mirror, the skinny, angular kid still stared back at her through bottle-bottom glasses.
However she wasn't looking into the mirror now. Instead Mina sat in her Brooklyn apartment, dressed in her most comfortable MIT sweats, watching the news that had dominated TV and radio all day.
Anne Yamato was telling her story and showing her incredible footage to a stunned nation courtesy of a live link with a cable news channel.
"In my career," she declared in all earnestness to the cable news anchor, "I've covered wars, crimes, and devastating disasters, but I've never seen anything like this."
"I have to admit that it's pretty unbelievable footage," added the anchor, an affable talking head with a subtle southern accent. "This average looking man in a suit was apparently deflecting bullets, smashing cars and defying gravity."
"You should try seeing it in person," added Anne with a smile and a laugh. "I thought somebody had fired a missile. Then he shows up on our monitor and I thought somebody was pulling some elaborate practical joke, but the testimony of the eyewitnesses corroborate--"
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Mina looked up. Clinging to her skylight was the shape of a man, back-lit by the moon. Since she was ten-stories up, there was only one person it could be.
Mina waved to the shadow, the shadow waved back, and she reached behind her couch for a long pole tipped with a small metal hook. One quick poke of the latch and the skylight was open.
Ken Burton squeezed in through the window and glided softly down before collapsing on the couch.
His wrinkled suit and mussed hair would make anyone who didn't know his story think that Ken had just survived a near fatal accident.
His wrinkled suit and mussed hair would make anyone who didn't know his story think that Ken had just survived a near fatal accident.
"Have you seen the news?" asked Ken, his voice a barely audible moan, as he draped his balled up coat on the arm of the couch.
"Yes," answered Mina. "You've been on every channel all night."
Ken moaned. "This is a nightmare," he said. "I couldn't go home because the place is probably crawling with god knows who."
"Relax," said Mina, her smile revealing her perfected teeth. "All they have is a picture of your backside over Manhattan."
"Really?" asked Ken, his voice brightened slightly, "but what about the eyewitnesses? The street was full of people, with cameras."
"The best description they can get is of a man in a grey suit and a black coat," answered Mina. "Your secret's safe."
"You figured out who it was."
"I have an advantage," replied Mina. "I actually know a bullet-proof flying guy who wears grey suits, so, I made an educated guess."
"You guessed? How many other bullet-proof flying guys do you know?" asked Ken with a mockingly arched eyebrow.
Mina whacked him with a pillow and laughed. Ken joined in, mostly out of relief than any real humour.
"That was so damn close," he muttered as he yanked off his tie. "I came this close to ending up in a lab."
"Don't be silly," said Mina. "You're bullet-proof, can fly, and can punch through reinforced concrete without breaking a sweat. Who on Earth is dumb enough to try to lock you up?"
"I'd rather not risk that kind of confrontation."
"Besides," continued Mina. "It's not like I haven't run you through the wringer enough times. All I have to do is give them my old notes."
Ken chuckled at the memories of all those silly tests and winced slightly.
"You're hurt?" this surprised Mina.
"The robber was using an armour piercing bullets," answered Ken. "It's nothing serious, just a lot of annoying little bruises. During the whole thing, I made a point not to flinch. Guess I didn't want to look-- I don't know-- un-macho."
"Un-macho isn't a word, now open your shirt," ordered Mina. "I'll get my taser."
"Un-macho isn't a word, now open your shirt," ordered Mina. "I'll get my taser."
Ken knew better than to argue and opened his wrinkled white shirt. The diagonal scar left by the night of the meteors was now just a narrow ridge of raised and mottled flesh. Small bruises left behind by normally lethal bullets surrounded it in a random formation.
"You poor dear," said Mina as she crouched beside Ken and activated her taser. A small electrical arc formed at the head as she poked the centre of his chest with it.
Ken giggled, ever since the change he found normally debilitating electrical shocks both ticklish and helpful. The bruises faded away and in seconds everything healed, except for that one scar that refused to go away.
"All better," said Mina, putting her taser away. "It's kind of funny; if it wasn't for that meteorite both you and a lot innocent people would be dead. What kind of maniac opens fire on a crowded street?"
"What kind of maniac robs a bank in Manhattan at rush hour?" asked Ken. "These guys were not only crazy; they were thicker than two bricks."
"The TV says that they're wanted in three states for murder," continued Mina getting back on the couch. "Despite you freaking them out with the flying, everybody's calling you a hero."
"Pull the other leg it whistles 'Dixie.'"
"I'm serious," Mina hit him with the pillow again. "It's all over the world now. You saved lives and nabbed the bad guys; that makes it official."
"It can't be," said Ken. "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"The opposite is true," said Mina. "You were the right person in the right place at the right time. If it were anyone else a lot of people would be dead."
"It's just that," Ken's voice tapered off, "I've kept this secret for so long, I've put a lot of effort into hiding all this. I don't think I'm ready for it to be public knowledge."
"We can still keep it secret," said Mina. "I've been thinking about this for a long time. You can wear a disguise and have a secret identity. You can be a real life superhero."
"I don't know what you're huffing at the lab Mina, but I'm not a superhero," he answered. "This isn't a comic book or some cheesy movie. This is real life."
"Think about it," snapped Mina with another flick of the pillow. "This isn't the first time. Do you remember the fire at the Arbuckle house, or all the other times you saved someone on the sly? I say seize your destiny. You've already got more experience than anyone else has at doing it, and you have the powers to back it up. You're already a superhero, you just won't admit it."
"Come on," said Ken. "I might have the powers that you need to be a superhero, but no one's going to want to see me in tights. I'll have people trapped in burning buildings saying: 'No, thank you, I'll wait for the next one please.'"
"Your disguise doesn't have to have tights," said Mina. "I've got some ideas and none of them involve tights."
"At least you haven't completely lost your senses," said Ken. "Look, you're probably right, but I still think it's crazy, because despite all that's happened, all that I've done… deep down, I don't believe it myself. I still feel ordinary. Does that make any sense?"
Mina leaned over and hugged Ken. An electric current more unsettling than any taser filled his chest. Her hair still smelled of cinnamon.
"Yes, it does make sense," said Mina, "but you have a gift and I think the world needs you."
"Even if it's crazy?" asked Ken.
"Especially when it's crazy, a real-life superhero will give people hope that there's someone out there willing and able to do the right thing," said Mina, letting him go, much to Ken's regret. "At least think about it."
Ken got up from the couch and buttoned his shirt. "I will."
"That's all I want."
"Mina," said Ken. All this talk of seizing destinies had inspired a crazy old notion in his head to say something that he should have said years ago.
"I'll call you," he said before leaving, this time through the door.
Outside, Ken could see the lights of Manhattan from across the moonlit river, and called himself a tool.
"I feel like a tool," said Lieutenant General Alfred Hopper, as he looked at himself in the mirror.
"I think you look sharp," said his wife Miriam, admiring the cut of the dark blue suit he only wore under duress.
"This is asinine," said Hopper, adjusting his dark green tie. "I'm the chairman of the goddamn Joint Chiefs. I earned the right to wear my goddamn uniform in the goddamn Oval Office," a statement that earned him a disapproving tsk-tsk from his wife.
The General's robust physical condition belied the fact that he was almost sixty-five and close to retirement. He wanted to end his military career doing his duty for his country, but he wanted to do it in uniform, not in a monkey suit playing courtier to a man who so far hadn't done anything to earn the respect of his office other than winning an election.
"The first lady doesn't like uniforms in the White House," said Miriam.
"It's an insult," he said as he picked up his briefcase, "not just to me, but to everyone who ever served this country. Besides, she shouldn't even be at this meeting. The First Lady has duties of her own and they don't involve national security."
"Just don't say that in front of Munsen," said Miriam. "I'd rather not see you running a weather station in Alaska."
"Just don't say that in front of Munsen," said Miriam. "I'd rather not see you running a weather station in Alaska."
"Don't get me started on TV boy," grumbled Hopper remembering that while the General was off earning his goddamn right to wear his goddamn uniform in the goddamn Oval Office, the current Commander in Chief was no doubt charming wannabe starlets out of their clothes with promises of TV work that could only be believed while in a pot-induced haze.
Hopper kissed his wife goodbye. "This could run late," he said.
"I've seen the news too," she answered. "You've got a lot on your plate. Now go, you don't want to keep the President waiting."
General Hopper, Admiral Sheen, Air Force General Kurtz, FBI Director Carter Snodgrass and even CIA Director Evan Lowell were kept waiting in the Oval Office for over half an hour.
The military men were all dressed in the nearly identical dark suits that Evan Lowell called their Beltway Camouflage. Each one wore a different coloured tie, Hopper, the soldier, wore dark green, Admiral Sheen wore distinctive battleship grey, and former fighter pilot Kurtz wore a bright sky blue. It started out as a joke when the First Lady first laid down her no-uniforms rule and Sheen suggested different coloured ties to tell each other apart. In the three years since Sheen first cracked that little jest, it went from an act of petty rebellion to an administrative necessity.
It wasn't too long after his swearing in and the beginning of the no uniforms rule that they noticed Munsen taking long pauses whenever he had to mention one of them by name. The President of the United States honestly had a hard time sorting them out without the ties.
Normally, they held such meetings in the secure National Security Council room below the West Wing. But to do that required the presence of the National Security Advisor, and she was persona non grata since making an ill-advised comment on Munsen's private life at a press conference. Her replacement hadn't taken office yet, because he was busy wrapping up things at his hedge fund, so it meant playing Munsen's little avoidance games.
A sure sign that this was an emergency was the presence of Evan Lowell. He wasn't officially persona non grata, but he wasn't exactly welcome in the Oval Office. Munsen had cancelled the traditional morning briefing from the CIA Director for fear it might tell him something that might actually require him to do something, like make a decision, or act. Munsen's unwillingness to see his own DCI became yet another topic of mockery among the folks in Washington. When an escaped mental patient drove his rusty old Impala into the gates of the White House, the Beltway Wags joked that it had to have been Lowell trying to get an appointment.
They didn't dare fire Lowell; Munsen's predecessor had lured him out of retirement and he had single-handedly rebuilt the CIA from scratch finally ending what seemed an unending series of embarrassing leaks, scandals, and blunders. Even Munsen's most partisan advisors believed that it was better to keep a fellow as sharp as Evan Lowell in the tent pissing out, than out of the tent, pissing in.
The door opened and a stern looking Secret Service Agent came in. "The President of the United States," he announced and they all stood up at attention to greet their commander in chief.
President John Munsen was a handsome fellow, with a square jaw, artificial tan, soft blue eyes, and matched streaks of grey just above his temples. Scuttlebutt was that a hair-dresser, imported from Beverly Hills, touched them up each morning to keep him looking distinguished without looking old. He was dressed in a navy-blue housecoat with the presidential seal on its breast and matching black pyjamas.
His wife Vanessa Faraday Munsen was fully dressed for a power-lunch at Spago's in a dark red pantsuit.
"Please sit down," said President Munsen. His visitors returned to their places, while he sat at his desk and Vanessa took her usual perch in a wingback chair beside it.
Snodgrass was the first to speak.
"Mr. President, did you see the news today?"
"When was he supposed to do that?" snapped Vanessa Munsen, her blue eyes jabbing him like a pair of sharpened icicles. "The President has had a very busy day. He had to go right from Andrews Air Force base to a very important function."
Yeah, thought Hopper, another goddamn fundraiser. He held so many of them since he took office the joke around town was that you couldn't leave home without signing a check to Munsen's re-election campaign. Sadly, it was necessary to cover the fines his party had to pay for violating campaign finance laws during his first election.
"We normally wouldn't disturb you," said the Air Force chief Kurtz, "but this is a very urgent situation."
"What, short of war, is so urgent that it couldn't wait until morning?" said Vanessa, her tone chilly enough to freeze mercury.
"Do the Canadians have the bomb?" asked Munsen with that oh-so familiar smile. "That's okay, I couldn't sleep anyway, and it's not like I can watch the late shows anymore. What's up?"
Snodgrass hit the play button on the office's DVD player.
"This was broadcast live in New York earlier this evening," said Snodgrass. "It was also picked up by the wire services and all the major networks."
Munsen and his wife leaned forward to get a better look. Hopper kept his own expression strictly business; but he smiled inside as he watched the look of shock come across their normally unflappable faces.
"Did you drag us out here for some kind of joke?" asked Vanessa.
"This is pretty unbelievable," added her husband. "It looks like a guy flying like Superman."
"Like I said," reiterated Snodgrass, "it was broadcast live in New York. There were also over a hundred witnesses to this same man stopping a violent robbery by," Snodgrass consulted his notes, "and I quote, 'beating the living snot out of the shooters and their car before he flew away.' He was pursued by the TV news chopper that shot this footage, but he was lost somewhere around the Chrysler building."
"Damn," drawled Munsen, his southern accent, tempered by decades of living in New York and Los Angeles, always slipped out when he was surprised or upset. Hopper's money was on a little of both tonight.
"What are the details?" asked the First Lady.
"They're straightforward," answered Snodgrass, "at least as straightforward as this situation can be. A white male, average height, stocky build, with dark hair in a grey suit and dark coat got in the way of a robbery in progress. The robbers--"
"Alleged robbers," corrected Vanessa, "no one's been convicted yet."
"Alleged robbers," corrected Vanessa, "no one's been convicted yet."
"What do you mean by 'stocky?'" asked Munsen.
"Fat," answered Admiral Sheen. "Chubby, zaftig--"
"Can a man be zaftig?" asked Kurtz, "I thought only women can--?"
"Can we get back on topic?" asked Vanessa Munsen, her patience a razor's edge.
"The alleged robbers," continued Snodgrass "had allegedly opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle. They had allegedly shot the fat man in question multiple times with said assault rifle and an additional submachine gun. The bullets allegedly bounced off the fat man, as I mentioned earlier, without damaging him or his clothing. He knocked two of the alleged suspects out with single blows, and that's when the alleged getaway driver allegedly rammed him."
"Let me guess," said President Munsen, a man who had seen a lot of television. "The car didn't hurt him."
"It folded up faster than the French army," added Sheen, earning an icy glare from Vanessa, but he was overdue for retirement and didn't give a damn.
"Any idea who this guy is?" asked President Munsen.
Snodgrass shook his head. "So far we've collected images from around seventy-five cameras that were in the immediate area, and none have a clear picture of his face. Now, the car is in the NYPD forensics lab and our people are looking at it too," added Snodgrass. "It looks like it hit a concrete pylon at full speed, but the videos say otherwise. We also obtained these from the NYPD." Snodgrass reached into his case and pulled out a large clear plastic evidence bag filled with crushed and mangled bullets.
"Are those for real?" asked the President peering closely at the bag.
"They're real Mr. President," answered Snodgrass.
"The only way armour piercing bullets like these can get this mangled is if they hit an Abrams tank."
"The only way armour piercing bullets like these can get this mangled is if they hit an Abrams tank."
Hopper nodded. "I have to agree with Director Snodgrass on that."
"I don't fucking believe this," muttered Munsen. "This is out of a--"
"Comic book sir?" asked Kurtz.
"That's right," said the President, his drawl at full throttle now. "A goddamn old funny book I'd use to get from the drugstore. Bullet-proof people don't go flying around major cities. It's nuts."
Just then, Lowell decided to enter the conversation with his deep stentorian voice.
"We can be thankful for one thing Mr. President."
"For what?" asked Vanessa.
"That he was stopping the robbery," said the CIA Director, "and not committing it."
The Oval Office fell silent. Hopper was always amazed at the old bastard's ability to stun everybody with what should be bloody obvious. The Director of Central Intelligence had thinning white hair and a bookish air that belied the fact that during the most frigid days of the Cold War he was a top field operative with seven dead spies, traitors, and terrorists under his belt that they knew about. He only spoke when he absolutely had to, and when he did; it was usually the conversational equivalent of a hand grenade.
"I think he's using some kind of high tech device to do all this or at least look like he's doing it," theorised Vanessa. "It has to be something pretty advanced and top secret." Vanessa cast an icy glance in the direction of her visitors from the Pentagon.
Hopper shrugged. "The Army doesn't have anything like that on our drawing boards, let alone lying around for any fat guy to pick up and play with. Our R & D guys are still playing catch-up with the Bond movies."
The other officers nodded in agreement.
"There is one person," said Lowell, "who, if such technology were possible, would have it."
Again, all eyes were on the CIA Director.
"Who?" asked President Munsen.
Lowell took a sip of ice water. Hopper admired the old bastard's ability to milk his moment. "I'm not accusing anyone of anything," continued Lowell. "But Hamilton Trask's technological resources outstrip the resources of even the US government."
A hush fell across the room. The generals and the G-man were amazed that Lowell had the stones to broach the subject of Hamilton Trask. The President and Mrs. Munsen were honestly at a loss.
Vanessa Munsen broke the silence. "Who is Hamilton Trask? I've never heard of him."
"Very few have," answered Lowell. "He doesn't attend campaign fundraisers."
Hopper had a big shit-eating grin inside and figured that Lowell must have a balls made from stainless steel and Kevlar. No one else would even dare make such a statement.
Snodgrass jumped in, hoping the break the icy wall between the First Lady and the CIA Director. "Trask avoids all public events and media attention."
"What does he do?" asked President Munsen, forcing his accent back down to its calm drawl.
"Everything," answered the FBI Director. "Just about every major technological or business advance of the past few decades has his fingerprints on them, even though you're not supposed to know it."
"His people also do a lot of defence contracting," added Admiral Sheen, "usually consulting on fixing or upgrading other company's projects. When his people are involved there are never any scandals or unnecessary cost overruns."
Kurtz and Hopper nodded in agreement. Then Hopper added, "His people fixed a problem with our tank's targeting system. Not only did they fix it, it worked above and beyond the original specs."
"His people also fixed the Bureau's database last year," said Snodgrass. "We haven't had a bug or a problem since, but Trask is the Bigfoot of the high-tech world. There's more myth about him than fact."
Evan Lowell pulled a thin manila folder from his briefcase. "There's a reason for that," he said. "During World War Two, Trask was put in change of co-ordinating British, Canadian, and American intelligence operations against the Axis. First thing he did was expunge almost all of his personal information from the public record. This is all that's left."
Lowell placed the file on the President's desk. Munsen paused and looked at the plain beige folder for a second before opening it. When he did open it, only three items were inside. There was, encased in plastic, an eighteen-ninety-seven birth announcement from the Halifax Chronicle newspaper from Canada, another encased clipping announced the nineteen twenty-six marriage of a wealthy inventor to a Boston socialite named Betty Markham. The third item was an eight by ten black and white photograph. It showed a wiry man in his sixties shaking hands with a much younger version of Evan Lowell. True, Lowell had more hair in the photo and fewer wrinkles, but you couldn't miss the focus in his eyes, as sharp as rifle sights. The wiry man next to young Lowell was completely unremarkable, with his sad hooded eyes and pale almost ghostly complexion. If it wasn't for the novelty of seeing a young Evan Lowell anyone looking at the photo would be hard pressed for anything interesting.
Munsen paused. "Are you telling me," he asked, his inner hillbilly crawling back up, "that this might be the work of a man who has to be a day older than dirt?"
"I met him once," answered Lowell as he carefully scooped up the file, "when I accompanied my father to a dinner for former OSS agents. Trask was the keynote speaker. It was his last public appearance, but he was, how should I say it? Impressive, he was very impressive. Although we only talked briefly, I realised that this was the smartest man I would ever meet. Like I said, if it can be done, Hamilton Trask would figure out how first."
"How do you even know he's still alive?" snapped Vanessa Munsen, she could smell a plot to politically embarrass her husband, one of many thanks to John's penchant for girls with big breasts and even bigger mouths.
"You could ask him yourself," said General Hopper.
"There's a contact number on file. He doesn't like anyone to know where he is, but he's never out of touch."
"It's for emergency use only," added Snodgrass, "but I think this flying man can be considered an emergency."
"Of course," said Lowell as he carefully placed his precious file back into his briefcase. "There is another possibility."
"What's that?" asked Munsen.
"That some ordinary looking fellow really is Superman."
Munsen reached for his secured telephone and hoped no one noticed the slight tremble in his hand.
"Jenny," the President asked his secretary, "I need the number for a Mr. Hamilton Trask, please."
Sailors who plied the oceans sometimes spoke in hushed tones about the mysterious black ship. It was a massive vessel, seen only in the most remote places, far from the major shipping routes. The stories always described glimpsing it in the distance before it vanished like a ghost into the mist.
The old salts said it was a trick of the light and anything else was pure bunk. The more paranoid said that it's a secret government spy ship scouring the seas for UFOs, while the superstitious claimed that it's a modern day version of the Flying Dutchman. It had to be a ghost-ship, because anything else would appear on radar. Most dismissed those stories as pointless babble by sailors with too much time on their hands.
All their theories were wrong, but the ship did exist. The builders originally intended it for a fleet of luxury liners, ferrying wealthy passengers to exotic ports of call. That was until the president of the cruise line and the CEO of the shipyard got a special visitor with sad hooded eyes and an intensity that belied his elderly frame. They quickly decided after a review of the contents of the visitor's briefcase to let him have the ship instead.
Of course, the vessel's new owner didn't just take it as is. For six months his own people controlled the shipyard in Denmark, granting paid vacations for anyone not in on the plan, whatever it was. The visitor's specially imported workers were an odd bunch, they spoke a complex tongue no one, except the visitor, seemed able to understand or even identify. They were handsome exotic figures, with long aquiline noses, spidery tattoos adorning their temples, and straight, jet-black hair.
One day, after watching them completely gut and reconstruct the ship for over a month the CEO's secretary approached him with a book. Her son was studying anthropology and she had brought his textbook on South American natives to show him something. It was an old black and white photo of several tribesmen and a thin man with pale ghostly skin and sad hooded eyes standing on the banks of the Amazon. The natives were handsome men with long aquiline noses, straight jet-black hair, and distinctive spidery tattoos adorning their temples.
The CEO had figured that his secretary had solved the riddle of these mysterious workers. They were from South America, nothing strange about that. But the riddle only deepened when the secretary pointed out that a disease outbreak in the nineteen fifties supposedly wiped out this tribe.
The CEO decided not to ask any questions about their elderly visitor and his people. The visitor's money was real and that's all that really mattered to his stockholders.
Very soon the ship, it's hull coated in a glossy black substance the visitor refused to explain, slipped out of dry-dock and into the ocean during the night, without fanfare or attention. The CEO and his client never saw the ship or their visitor again, and that was fine by them.
Now, ten years later, that same vessel cruised through the waves as the sun rose over the Pacific.
Deep within the bowels of the vessel a lone figure sat in an elaborate mechanised wheelchair and studied a wall of TV monitors through sad hooded eyes and thick glasses.
He was an old man; even he would admit that he was now a withered version of a once larger man, with his ghostly complexion, sunken cheeks and near skeletal hands on the control pads. However, his sad hooded eyes still radiated an impressive intelligence from behind the immense lenses of his spectacles.
Right now, those lenses focused on the monitors surrounding him. Each screen showed the same footage with different pundits offering different commentary, in different languages. The Babel of voices would have overwhelmed any other listener, but not Hamilton Trask. Even as a boy, he could simultaneously distinguish and understand the individual conversations of a crowd of chattering people, or pick out that the second chair violin in a full orchestra was a little flat on one note.
Besides, it was the image of a stocky man in a grey suit and dark coat flying free as a bird that held his interest. He keenly reviewed every frame, and knew that something very important was afoot.
The door behind him slid open with a low hiss. Trask didn't need to turn around to know who it was.
"What is it, Ms. Brady?" asked Trask, never taking his eyes off the monitors.
Ms. Brady, a tall woman with blood-red hair, and the trim figure of a natural athlete answered: "President Munsen is on line five."
Trask smirked to himself. So, he thought, the President of the United States has deemed to call little old me.
"Tell him that I'll call him back," answered Trask.
Ken Burton stood in front of the bathroom mirror and looked at himself. Sure, he thought, he was a bit on the doughy side, okay, maybe a little more than a bit, but he wasn't without his charms. Other women had found him attractive, a few at least. Most of his dates in college were exchange students from countries where any man with all his original teeth was a prime catch. Lately there had been several women rebounding from better-looking men, who figured that a dip below their normal standards would make them feel better.
Stop thinking like that; Ken commanded himself. That kind of thinking isn't going to win Mina. I have a lot to offer. I just have to sell her on the idea.
"Mina," Ken asked his reflection. "We've known each other for a long time...and... I was wondering if you'd like to someday..."
No, he thought, too tentative. Be decisive.
"Hey, Mina," said Ken to his reflection in what he thought was his most decisive tone. "Want to go out? I know a new place in Chinatown that's really great."
That's it! That's the ticket!
Decisive, without being bossy, and it also didn't sound desperate. Despite being desperate, he definitely didn't want to appear that way.
Ken turned from the bathroom mirror and marched out into his living room. This was his moment, and he was going for the gold before he chickened out.
Ken's living room, like the rest of his apartment was small, with tightly crammed bookshelves, and furnished in a style he called 'thrift-shop utilitarian.' Ken considered sneaking in the same way he went to Mina's apartment. But a quiet and quick recon of the building showed that it wasn't crawling with shady agents in black suits. His secret was still safe.
Ken picked up the phone and hit the speed dial button for Mina.
"Hello," it was Mina. Ken felt his chest tighten.
"Hi Mina," he said. "It's Ken. I've been thinking and..."
For what seemed like an eternity but what was actually less than a second, Ken paused.
"I'll do it," he said. "I'll try your plan."
Mina's squeal of delight almost blew out his phone.
"You've made me so happy," she said, the obvious smile in her voice sending chills through his chest. "I've got everything all set. Meet me at the lab tomorrow after work and I'll give you a big surprise. Okay?"
"Your lab," answered Ken, his voice a stunned monotone. "Yeah, I'll be there."
"I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yeah, I'll be there. Goodbye."
Ken hung up and slumped on his couch. He seized the moment all right, only it was the wrong moment.
"I am such a tool."
To Be Continued...