"And what happens to me?" I didnt want to know, but I had to ask. "Will I suddenly move to Alaska and vanish from the public eye forever?"
"No, no, no, Sarah!" Jack wagged a finger at me and chuckled. "Youve got it all wrong. We wouldnt dream of removing you from your home. Youre going to be part of the new team!"
Now I was confused. "Huh? What about your image problem?"
"Simply making you vanish is an inadequate solution," said Gordon. His smile became wolfish. "Once youre accepted into the team, youll undergo a thorough public makeover. Youll go on a physical fitness regimen and a strict diet. Youll dress better and wear makeup, and youll have your hair done more attractively. Its unfortunate that you no longer possess your Dupla powers, which would have simplified this process, but I estimate that within a year well have you looking like a normal human being."
I stared at him. The biggest argument between me and the Boston Guardians had been that I refused to use my old powers to make myself look like "a normal human being" when not on a mission. I hadnt been as heavy back then, but I was still far off the Super ideal and, presumably, a blot on the Boston landscape. They wanted me bimbo; I wanted me me, and I quit the group partially over this issue. I couldnt believe that five years later, Gordon and Jack were still intent on making me obeying their edicts.
Weightmaster said to Gordon, "What about those stupid powers? Every time she does something shell be laughed at."
"I expect shell be forbidden to display even the most minor of her powers in public, and will likely be kept off the field and relegated to a role as goodwill ambassador to the Norms. That decision will, of course, be up to the leader of the new group."
God, I just love being discussed as if I wasnt there. I just love having my future mapped out by a bunch of people I hate. "Forget it," I said, rising from the chair. "I refuse to join. Id sooner move to Alaska than put up with that kind of bullshit. You dont have to worry about my using my powers in public to humiliate you; I promise I wont do anything to draw attention to myself. Goodbye."
I started to walk to the door, but a puff of smoke descended from the air and turned into a gray wall in front of me. I touched the wall; it was slightly springy but tough, and probably beyond my ability to breach. Turning, I cried, "Goddamn it, I dont want to be a Goodie again! You know my powers arent appropriate for it; why are you trying to make me become one? Why cant I just fade out of the public consciousness?"
"Because, my dear Sarah, of the Internet." Gordon
drummed his twitchy fingers on the table. "Even if we build
the greatest team of Goodies ever seen on this planet and you
move to Alaska, youll still be out there. Every glimpse
of you or your picture will be a reminder that Supers, for all
their powers, can be ridiculous. This association will tarnish
the concept of Supers that weve been laboring to build
for decades. Therefore, we must correct the situation by correcting
you. When youre the physical ideal we require, it will
be your past exploits and self that will be the laughingstock,
not the institution of Supers as a whole."
"How I feel about my powers is my own business, Jack," I said frostily. "Regarding both my forms and my health, I make those decisions, not you."
And Gordon said, "Not any longer."
I lost it then. I was so angry, the tears just burst out of me. "How can you do this to me?" I sobbed, my voice rising to a shout. "Youre going to destroy my life! I dont want these dumb powers, and I didnt want to get caught on video, and"
A waft of sweet smoke blew over me, and my hysteria diminished, my anger lessened to a dull roar. Numbly I reached for the box of tissues that Jack held out to me, and I wiped my eyes and blew my nose. "You realize," I muttered, tossing a wadded-up tissue into the trash can near the bed, "that this in no way diminishes my lack of desire to cooperate with you."
"Kindly refrain from such outbursts in the future," Gordon snapped. "Your lack of desire is not relevant, Sarah. You have no choice in this matter; you will do what has been decided for you, and you will be cooperative."
"Relax and enjoy it, baby," Weightmaster said with a snigger.
Gordon gave him a slight frown (as did SkyKnife), then returned to me. "If you try to leave Colorado or otherwise disappear, we will track you down and bring you back. If you are not cooperative, we will have you declared Baddie. If you thought your life was a shambles now ." His voice trailed off ominously.
I sat hunkered in the chair, silent; what was left to say? Protests were useless. I was screwed up, down, left, right, top, bottom, all points of the sphere. The best I could hope for was compatible teammates, and given the general tenor of Goodies and my lovely experiences with the Guardians, I wasnt real optimistic.
"We have details to work out," continued Gordon, "but we expect to announce our intentions on Friday. Be here at 9 AM to learn your lines. You can leave now. If we need you before Friday, well call."
"Uh-huh," I mumbled, standing up.
This time, the only person who bothered to stand up with me was SkyKnife. "Ill escort her downstairs," she said, and touched something in her pocket. Her appearance shimmered, and another woman, in ordinary clothing, stood in her place. A holoprojectorstandard stuff, and I wondered whether her costume had been holographic too. That would explain why she and the others were sitting around in their "working clothes," something rarely done outside of the comics.
The others seemed surprised that SkyKnife had offered to go with me, but no one objected, and she walked out ahead of me. I trailed after her, and she was silent until we entered the elevator and had gone down three floors. Then she said,
"Im sorry about all this, Sarah. I thought they would simply ask you to leave Colorado. They didnt say anything about forcing you onto the Denver team."
I gazed into her holographic eyes. So she felt guilty and was looking for forgiveness from me. What did she think I was, a priest? "Its nice that youre sorry, but I wouldnt have wanted to leave Colorado, either."
She looked away. "Something has to be done."
"Yeah, sure." The elevator doors opened and I stepped out. "Something has to be done." SkyKnife stayed in, and the doors closed. When I was sure she was out of earshot, I added softly, "And I have to do it."
For there was a way out of this tangle. Not suicide; something more complicated.
"Youre kidding," said Mom. It was 11:30; Id gone straight from the Marriott to my parents house (scaring the crap out of them since they had both gone to bed), sobbed for a bit, calmed down, and told them what had transpired. But that wasnt why Mom, still bleary-eyed from her sudden awakening, had expressed disbelief as we sat around the kitchen table. "Go solo? Isnt that what you said youd never do in a million years?"
"Yeah," I said glumly. "But I dont have much of a choice. The assholes have forced my hand, and this is the only way to stay out of their clutches."
"How will going solo do that?" said Dad. If possible, he looked even more sleepy than Mom. He got up to get some coffee. The rich smell of freshly ground and perked French Roast decaf filled the air.
"Theres an unwritten rule that the first legitimate Goodie solo or team who declares its intention to protect a place should be given a chance to show that they can do it, without interference from other Goodies. I may not be Captain Shield or Skillcat, but I am a legitimate Goodie. If nothing else, the video proves that."
Dad came back with two steaming cups. He gave one to Mom (I dont drink coffee) and sat down with the other. "But can you do it?"
"I think so. Im not as wimpy as I made myself out to be to the clods, you know."
"I think its a terrible idea," Mom said, putting down her coffee and completely ignoring it thereafter. "When you were with the Guardians, I was scared to death whenever you went on a spy mission. I was really grateful when you gave up that nonsense. And now youre saying youre going to start again?"
"Im not quite as vulnerable as I used to be either, Ma," I said patiently.
"But you still dont know much about your powers!" Moms voice started to rise. "Youve only had them for six months. What if you can be killed by Kryptonite?"
"Ma, Kryptonite is pure comics."
"Dont take me literallyyou know what I mean!" She was getting really angry-scared now. "Ive seen videos of Supers blowing down walls and shooting firedo you really think you can survive that?"
I wasnt sure, but I didnt want to say that out loud. "Yeah. On a related tangent, another good reason for me to go solo is that if I really am perceived as wimpy, Baddies wont want to challenge me. So I wont have to worry too much about the heavy stuff."
"No," Mom said acidly, "just knives and bullets."
"First off, we know knives dont do much to me; unlike roaches at motels, they go in and out. Second, I heal quick. Third, Im not a real law enforcement person, so I dont have to fight Norm crime if I dont want to. Plenty of Supers just sort of wait around for Baddies to show up and hardly do anything in their communities."
"You always said you hated Supers who did that."
"Ma! I hate that they act like a higher form of life, not that they dont fight Norm crime. Anyway, until the cops get to know me better, they wont want me roaming around beating up thugs, since I could really screw up their stakeouts and stuff. And I dont want to spend half my life in court testifying against purse-snatchers."
"You havent said what you think of this," Mom said accusingly to Dad.
Dad looked at her over his coffee cup. "I think its terrible, and I think what those bastards are trying to do to Sarah is despicable, but I cant think of any other way for her to escape them."
"Youd rather have her risking her life than be forced to diet and exercise?"
"Ma," I snapped, "Id be in a lot more danger if I let them run my life! Dont you remember what I was like just before I decided to quit the Guardians? I was this close to suicide." I pinched the air to illustrate my statement. "At least then I had the option of quitting. If I get forced into this new group, I might not even have that out. Thats what scares me the mostthat once they have me, theyll entangle me so thoroughly that I really will have to commit suicide to get out! Compared to that, facing down a Baddie is ." I snapped my fingers.
Mom listened skeptically. "That isnt suicide?"
"No, actually. Its extremely rare for a Baddie to kill a Goodie. Norms are a lot more lethal, and like I said, I dont plan to be chasing Norms."
"You dont plan to."
I shrugged. "Well, if it comes down to that, I think I can take a bullet or two. I havent tried it, obviously, but the evidence suggests that it shouldnt be a big problem. Anyway," I said, getting up, "Ive made my decision, so Id better get started on it."
"Started on what?" asked Dad.
I smiled thinly. "Calling a press conference. I have to announce this ASAP, before the clods can put any of their own plans in action. Uh do either of you know how to actually call a press conference?"
Just before 10:00 AM on Wednesday, October 13, reporters and camerapeople milled around the north end of Utah Park in Aurora, Colorado. Curious onlookers, mostly joggers or walkers and people from the houses across the street, stood and watched from the jogging path, the sidewalk, or Mexico Street, which bounded the park on the north end and was blocked off at both ends by police cars. A few kids from Overland High School and Prairie Middle School, at the south end of the park, had cut classes to see what was going on. More cops did their best to keep order, and nothing except a little flower-trampling took place. Several Aurora Parks & Recreation people were also on hand, not pleased to have their park used in this fashion without permission. However, they had been assured that the event would be over by 10:30.
A continuous hum of speculative conversation filled the ears: What is she planning to say? What will she show us?
At 9:55, I arrived, walking because I didnt want my car mobbed. (Utah Park was only about a half-mile from my parents house.) I was wearing the same clothes Id worn last night, not having a change available at the house and not having gone home. I was pretty bleary-eyed from lack of sleep; two Cokes and a shower hadnt helped at all.
A couple of cops came over and escorted me across Peoria Street, which bounds the park on the west side. They didnt say anything to me, and I wondered if they were pissed about my co-opting the park. Well, let em be pissed. Appearing in court for whatever minor law I was breaking was better than plastering my parents house on national TV again or getting in trouble at my apartment complex.
Camera bulbs flashed. Newscams whirred. Reporters shouted questions. I smiled self-consciously and made for the hastily rigged microphone setup. I fumbled out the little script Id written last night, waved for silence, and began to read, my voice booming from the speaker attached to the microphones:
"Thank you for coming to this press conference. I called it because Ive been doing some thinking over the last few days and have come to a conclusion regarding my status here in the Denver Metro area.
"To be brief, I have decided to become Denvers first on-site superhero. To the best of my ability I will take it upon myself to perform those duties expected of a superhero, without charge to the community and without expectation of reward. I intend to fully cooperate with established mainstream law enforcement agencies, making myself available to them if they desire my services or staying out of the way if that is what they want. I will immediately apply for formal superhero certification as well, in order to ensure that I meet the standards of the larger hero community.
"I believe that my presence will ultimately be of benefit to the Denver Metro area and to Colorado. I promise to do my best to keep the cities safe and to aid the community as much as I can." I looked up from the piece of paper. "Any questions?"
Of course there were questions. People were stunned by my announcement, as well they might after all the jokes, but they recovered quickly enough.
"Sarah, what prompted you to make this decision?"
Big lie coming up. "I realized that even if I didnt declare myself, people would be requesting my services on occasion anyway, so I figured I might as well formalize it."
"Is it true that the episode at the Arts Festival was staged by you for publicity?"
"That is absolutely untrue. I had no interest in revealing my powers to the world, and I would never have exposed my mother to the kind of media scrutiny that she ended up getting after the guy attacked her. It was just a horrible coincidence."
"Do you feel that the people of Denver will accept you as their first hero?"
"I think that once I start working for the community, theyll like me a lot better than they have in the last few days."
"What do you plan to do for the community?"
"Well, I "
"STOP!" roared a man behind the crowd.
Everyone turned; I looked up; there was a collective gasp; and I nearly had a heart attack. Standing there in full regalia, having seemingly popped out of nowhere (but had probably just looked normal until he adjusted his holoprojector), was Weightmaster.
I hadnt paid much attention to him in the hotel room, as Id seen his picture many times and was concentrating on Gordon, but in the sunlight he was a truly impressive figure, one of the most recognizable and popular heroes in the country. He was six and a half feet tall. His chest, exposed by a plunging V-line in his costume, seemed an inch deep with black hair, which contrasted nicely with his white body suit with its gold rope trimmings and "WM" in big gold letters. He also had a short white-and-gold cape fluttering behind him, though I knew he removed it when he "worked." (No sane person wears a cape into combat. Can you say "yank"? This is the real world, not the comics.)
His trademark wrestling mask showed only his eyes, nose, and lips, but he was clearly filled with stern admonition. He pointed dramatically at me and said in a fine carrying baritone, "You arent fit to be steward of Denver! I challenge you for that title!"
Oh, crap! Id forgotten someone could do that!
"Challenge?" I said weakly into the microphones.
"Yes!" He strode to my side, dozens of cameras in his wake. I felt like a child next to him. He bent over and thundered into the microphones, "Your powers arent adequate to the arduous task of guarding a city. Therefore, in the interests of the citizens of Denver and the Super community, I must challenge you for the city!"
I must have gone pale; I could feel the blood draining from my face. "And if I refuse to accept your challenge?" I whispered.
"Ive tendered a legitimate challenge. If you refuse it, the Superhero Certification Board will never accept you. No other hero group in the country will recognize your hero status. Some may even declare you Villain. And anyone, at any time, can fight you for the city without the formal challenge. Do you really think you can continue as hero under those circumstances?" Then his demeanor softened. "But I dont want to hurt you. If you yield your place to me, acknowledging that you made an error in judgment, Ill accept it, and you can leave, free and clear of all obligation."
I felt dizzy; this was just too scripted, too pat . Had they planned this, figuring I would make this move, only to get me to humiliate myself in front of the world? Or had they improvised brilliantly upon learning of my press conference? Did it matter?
I thought furiously as everyone waited for my response. What should I do?
If I yielded, did that mean they would leave me alone? Ostensibly, according to the hulk beside me, but I didnt believe that. As Gordon said, I would still be "out there," my existence a stain on the white Goodie hat. I would likely end up back in the scenario I was trying to avoid, with the added humiliation of this press conference behind me.
If I turned down the challenge, I had all kinds of bad things to look forward to. Aside from anything else, without certification I wouldnt be able to get a grant, which would make it hellish hard to operate, even if I did the absolute minimum required of a Goodie. I had declared myself solo to stop being a pariah.
And if I accepted the challenge? No one knew better than me that my powers didnt match up to those of the third or fourth strongest man in the world. I might be able to take some of his punches, but could I do him any hurt at all?
Damn, this was like a computer game, but I couldnt save and restart if I made the wrong choice. And there wasnt even a right choice!
"Well?" rumbled Weightmaster. The crowd of journalists was utterly silent, drinking in the drama of the whole thing.
"I ." I swallowed. "I accept your challenge." Might as well go down swinging.
Surprise rippled through the watchers. Weightmaster gaped at me for at least ten seconds. Obviously, he and his chums had figured Id back down in the face of such overwhelming odds, and he didnt have a prepared response. Finally he shook his head and regained some composure. "Okay," he said, looking around vaguely. "Well, uh, meet tomorrow at, uh, noon in, uh, this park"
"No!" I snapped. My vehemence surprised him anew, coming on the heels of my mousy little acceptance, but this was an issue that had bugged me for years. I despise Supers who act as if the world exists solely for their use. "Were too close to houses and to a major street and to schools. I will not put anyone or their property in danger over this issue."
An approving murmur rose up from the audience. Finally, I had scored a point. Weightmaster considered, then nodded. "Okay. I guess as challenged Super, you have choice of venue anyway. Where do you want to fight?"
Easy, Sarah. Calmly. Wisely. My mind flicked over and rejected several places, and then I had it. "Out around East Hampden, at the beginning of the High Plains. Its close enough to be accessible to the media, but far enough away so we wont endanger people or property. And were doing this on Friday, not Thursday. I need time to get my affairs in order, and itll give the media and the city more time to prepare."
If I hadnt thrown that stuff about the media in, Weightmaster might have insisted on Thursday, but I scored my second consecutive point. "Okay, Friday at noon." Then he looked out at the journalists and said, "Im now available to answer questions."
At my press conference, mind you. But the media were happy to indulge the man who would likely become Denvers real first on-site hero. I slipped away from the park with only a few people watching me and no one at all caring that I had left.
My parents were Not Pleased with my decision. Mom had visions of my broken body lying in a ditch, and Dad thought I was crazy for taking a wild chance when life with the new team wouldnt have been that bad. I went over the reasoning that had led to my decision, pointing out that Weightmaster was unlikely to do me serious hurt, as it would look bad for a powerful, experienced hero to make mincemeat out of a feeble newbie. Also, life with the new team would have been twice as bad if Id backed down and had the incident hanging over my head.
They werent convinced. We yelled back and forth for a while to no good effect, so I decided to go home, sleep, and work on my strategy. They didnt want me to leave, thinking they would never see me alive again, but I was convinced that whatever happened on Friday, I would at least be around to talk about it, so I left.
Naturally, some reporters were back to being interested in me and were waiting at my apartment building. As I had definitively established myself as a public figure, I consented to answer a few questions. I thought Id be nervous and stammering, but I found myself surprisingly calm, articulate, and even witty. (I guess the thought of being pounded into paste made mere reporters seem pretty harmless.)
R: Sarah, do you think you have any chance against Weightmaster?
S: Not really, but I need to see how well I can operate against other Supers. If Im really that ineffective, it would be best to find out sooner rather than later. (Hey, Im Jewish. Self-deprecation is genetically encoded. And good for eliciting sympathy.)
R: Whats your strategy against him?
S: To survive.
R: What will happen if you lose?
S: I dunno. I might have to leave Colorado. I hope notI grew up here, and I dont want to leave.
R: Would you consider being a hero somewhere else?
S: It depends on how badly I get beaten.
Once in my apartment I fell into bed and dozed fitfully for about an hour. Unable to sleep more than that, I got up and jumped onto the Internet. I had to maximize what advantages I had over Weightmaster, and the primary one was that I knew what he could do, or could at least look it up, but he didnt know what I could do.
What, you thought I told them all about my powers? Are you nuts? Everyone holds back, even from their teammates. Everyone keeps a secret or two for emergencies. And everyone knows everyone else has secrets; the issue is how significant they are. So Gordon and the others knew that what I showed them wasnt all I could do, but they didnt know what Id held back. They might make intelligent guesses, but they wouldnt be sure. And I hoped they figured that if in defense of my mother the best power I could manifest was turning my hands into mallets, then what I was holding back was either really wimpy or noncombat stuff.
Meanwhile, Weightmaster had been around the block for years; millions of people had been watching and discussing him. If he had any secrets left, I would be very surprised, and anyway he wouldnt be likely to reveal them in a nationally televised fight.
So I surfed the Web, gleaning information about my opponent.
Exceptionally strong; it was estimated that he could lift 10 tons, and he certainly could pick up cars and punch holes in brick walls.
Tough, inherently so; his costume was strictly for disguise.
Not fast on his feet, but however slow he was, he could certainly outrun me.
Overconfidence and grandstanding in fights; more than once hed been zapped while posing for pictures over a supposedly unconscious opponent.
Possibly affected more than most by sonic attacks; not relevant even if true, as I couldnt take advantage of it.
Sensitive to comments about his intelligence early in his career, but not lately.
A rivalry with the other American Bricks; not relevant.
Not too good at changing tactics in midstream; by implication, not terribly bright.
Close and punch.
Throw things. He was good at hitting people who were far away by throwing large objects at them. I congratulated myself for choosing that empty chunk of land as a fight venue; he wouldnt have anything big to chuck at me.
Pick up big things and hit several people at once with them.
And other standard Brick moves. Nothing creative, though he was good at what he did, as he often prevailed even if the opposition knew what he was likely to do.
Hm. The psychological stuff was my best bet but hardly a scale-tipper. Better to go over my own powers.
I had more forms than Id shown the clowns. Actually, I had a lot moreI had gained a new form every Thursday morning for the last six months. Which is why I insisted on a Friday match; it couldnt hurt to have another form in my repertoire.
But even with 24 forms I didnt have much relevant to the situation. Many were plain useless, like "Fuzzy" (I name my forms as a memory aid), which grew hair all over my body. A few had possible peripheral value, like "Sproing" (jumpy legs) or "Sensor" (sharpened senses). "Neanderthal" increased my strength, but hardly to Weightmasters level. Then there was the icky stuff, like "The Eyes Have It," which grew a ring of eyes like a headband around my skull. (Could I gross him out? Nah.) I also had my "base" powers, usable with any form: mild stretching, some resistance to damage, quick healing.
But not one of my forms could do damage to Weightmaster. I fulfilled the main condition of a Super: I could take out a Norm in less than ten seconds. But I wasnt nearly as powerful as a regular Goodie. So unless Thursday morning brought a really powerful form (unlikely) or I came up with a brilliant combat maneuver (unlikely), it was puppethood for Sarah Stein.
I normally dont sleep well on Wednesday nights out of anticipation, but I was so exhausted from the previous night that I conked out at 8:30, waking up at 5:00. My new form typically made its appearance between 7:00 and 7:15, so I spent the time either Web-surfing for more Weightmaster info or trying to force myself to morph into something powerful. Come on, body, I told myself, straining in front of the bathroom mirror, mama needs a new pair of combat boots. God, I wish I knew what governed the form-gaining so I could control it, or at least anticipate what was to come.
As the sky began to lighten, I began probing for the feeling I get that announces a new form ready to be assumed, and redoubled my efforts to force a potent form. It was still early, but I hoped I could trigger it prematurely. Id tried to do so before, but this was the first time Id ever needed a new form; maybe the urgency would prod my unconscious, or whatever governed the form-gaining, into a little obedience for once.
Despite my efforts, the change-feeling didnt show up until 7:06, at which point I rushed back to the bathroom mirror. When the change-feeling appears, I get directional urges around the parts of my body that are going to change. This morning, the urges throbbed in my hands and feet. My hands felt like something would erupt from the palms; my feet felt like they were going to stretch in front and back. This didnt seem promising, but what could I do? I let my body flow in the direction of the urges.
Thin, pointy bone poles thrust themselves sideways out of my palms and grew until they touched the floor, at which point each bulged a bit a few inches from the bottom and grew a little ring. Reflexively, my hands clutched onto the poles. At the same time, I had to turn sideways as my feet flowed outward in both directions, becoming slender rectangles that lengthened to several feet each, then curled up slightly in the front. As they reached their final length, they stiffened into bone.
I scowled at my reflection. Great. I needed something to take down one of the worlds strongest men, and I got skis and ski poles. I didnt even know how to ski.
Glumly naming the new form "Bum Ski," I reabsorbed the useless appendages and sat before my computer, staring at a picture of Weightmaster on a fan site. He would likely be overconfident, expecting I wouldnt put up much more fight than a Norm; could I use that to my advantage? Was that enough of an advantage? Would he be distracted by the cameras trained on the fight? What could I do, if he was?
Was there any possible way I could win?
See the "About the Editor" page. This is by no means my first non-Beatle story, but it's one of the few I have that I've actually finished....