Sunday, July 29, 2018

19 : Earth Mage


I was the world’s first superhuman. I suppose in some ways, that makes me responsible for everything that has happened since the Doorways appeared. Not that it was my fault that I was sent back with these strange powers, but that my actions which followed could easily be what kept more people going in.

If I hadn’t run away from the authorities, allowed myself to be tested, maybe we could have figured more out about the Doorways before it was too late.

If I hadn’t tried to follow some idiotic notion of being a superhero, made such a public spectacle of my abilities, maybe I wouldn’t have galvanized so many people to take their chance.

If I hadn’t been so squeamish about stopping my opponents for good, if I hadn’t abandoned my country for an easier life in a foreign land, maybe the women I had cared about would still be alive right now.

If I hadn’t…

If I hadn’t…

If I hadn’t…

I closed my eyes and banished such notions from my mind. The guilt of the survivor is a heavy cross to bear, but it is often also misleading. I knew that none of this was ultimately my fault. People would have kept going through the Doorways until someone else popped out first. Their very existence would have been enough for others to take their shot at power, at the risk of vanishing forever. And with myriad Doorways appearing around the world, there was no way to secure them all from entry. One of us was going to be inevitable, I just happened to be the first.

I still could have been less of an idiot about it. I spent a few months trying to be a friendly neighborhood superhero. I stopped some muggings, held back a flood, suppressed a forest fire, rescued some cats from some trees, stopped a gang shoot-out, even halted an attempted car bombing of a school.

I also fucked up a lot. I let a purse snatcher I’d stopped walk free because I was naïve enough to think I had managed to scare them off from further attempts at crime. I later found out on the news that the same man had committed armed robbery later that night.

I once stepped into the middle of a negotiation and caused a hostage to get shot. Not killed, thankfully, they made a full recovery, but when a scared and desperate man is holding a gun to a hostage’s back, me suddenly dropping out of the sky in a flourish of magical wind and fire was the exact opposite way to calm them down.

I’d hated her for it at the time, but Tamara had been right to come after me back then, and convince me to work with the government. I should have stayed with her and Lisa after the Shadow Queen incident. If I hadn’t run away, maybe I could have bridged the gap. Lisa, Tamara, and I, we could have been the first superhero team. We could have compensated for one another’s weaknesses and naïveté. We could have all kept each other in line and found a better way.

Instead, I ran to the other side of the world to keep enjoying my little delusion of being the heroic vigilante. Tamara started her superhuman hit squad. Lisa started her high-profile celebrity hero squad. She, at least, probably made the best choice of us, though it still wasn’t enough.

Even I thought the “Super Fem Force” was a stupid name, that their cheesy pin-up-girl costumes sent the wrong message, that their celebrity status did them more harm than good. But Lisa knew better than any of us the importance of a symbol, of public trust, of outreach. She knew what to say to put people at ease. She knew how to wrangle a group of women who didn’t know what to do with their new powers, and steer them towards a higher path.

But when push came to shove, despite her own great power, a team built on glamour and good feelings couldn’t hack it in a real fight. Most of their work was concentrated on disaster relief, charity and community outreach. When they did fight a villain, they ended up winning mostly because said villain was just an idiot, and the SFF had sheer numbers and power variety over them.

When it came to battling a truly deadly and powerful foe? That’s where Tamara’s Stiletto unit had to do the dirty work. Americans never want to admit that the freedoms and riches they enjoy come at a high cost for many in the world. Most are never even aware of the heinous things done from the shadows to keep them safe and secure. The Stiletto was the superhuman community’s answer to that: America’s super powered kill squad. Tamara sank further into the filth, while Lisa looked the other way.

Even after Mexico, when the Stiletto was publicly ousted and America’s standing in the world finally trashed, Lisa had to deny her knowledge. She had to throw Tamara and her entire group under the bus, despite all their help, lest the SFF be seen as a lie to the people. They had to keep pretending they were the real champions, victims to the government’s deceptions, just so people wouldn’t lose complete faith in our country and its heroes.

In the end, Tamara ended up joining the SFF anyway, under a new look, and the team started handling more serious battles. But the damage had been done, and the whole time, I’d just watched from afar.

There’s no guarantee it would have worked out. But if I hadn’t left, if I hadn’t freaked out and ran after that very first mission with them, could I have calmed down Lisa and reasoned with Tamara, and talked them both into a more pragmatic compromise? If I hadn’t been so concerned with preserving my own childish view of heroism, could the three of us have found a better, safer way together?

If I hadn’t… If I hadn’t… If I hadn’t…

Of course, if I had, would that just mean all three of us would have ended up in that explosion, and it all would have been for naught anyway? There’s no way of knowing. Maybe my staying away does, in fact, have a silver lining. Instead of sharing their fate, I remain to avenge their deaths, to make up for all our mistakes.

I was the first. Even if none of this was my fault, I still have a responsibility to those who came after me. I started us all on this path, and I will see us through to its end.


“You’re such a drama queen, James,” said Max, giving me a smirk. “But you’re cute when you pout.” She reached over a tussled my hair.

I let out an annoyed sigh and bat her hand away. “Yes, well, I’m glad my soul-baring plea was so amusing to you.”

“We all have sob stories,” muttered Shoggoth. The former Doctress was now in the form of a tall man with pale skin, long blond hair, and icy blue eyes. With “his” white suit and delicate features, a set of angel wings wouldn’t have looked out of place on him, and yet he insisted on renaming himself after one of the most horrific monsters in modern fiction.

I sympathized with the tendency for a bit of self-loathing. Everyone at this table had a cross to bear, some much larger than others. I couldn’t help but flick my gaze over to Strider and Hitchhiker as I thought that.

We were sitting in a public park, situated on curved benches surrounding a round stone table. Most people stayed far away from us. My reputation preceded me and while some passerby stopped and watched us for a few moments, even pointing, no one dared approach us. They knew who I was, and what I was, and they perhaps surmised that the four unknown person’s with me were likewise supers. Most didn’t want to mess with us, even if they looked favorably upon us.

I looked over my assembled team. To my left was Max-Out, who sat leaning with her back against the table, looking out across the park. She was the least problematic of the group. Although sarcastic and presenting a carefree attitude, she was the most professional and seemed the least haunted by her sins. After her time with the Stiletto, she had done much to clean up her act and stick to the regulations of the bounty hunter network as best she could. According to reports, she’d never taken a life unnecessarily. Her relationship with the jack-o-lantern villain was perhaps a biased case, but compared to the other three, she seemed to be the most stable. I had come to her for both her physical power and her ability to maintain a cool head.

Keeping the rest in line would be trickier, but each of them had a talent I felt was necessary. Shoggoth, who sat next to Max, just watched me with a cool, reserved expression. He was largely here to help keep us all alive. Fights between supers had always been brutal, and depending on how one’s powers lined up against an opponent, it was too easy to end up dead or at least grievously injured. There were almost no healers as powerful as Shoggoth.

He insisted on retaining a male form, having become accustomed to it after so many years. He kept himself under icy control, forcing himself to maintain a general disaffected attitude. It was clear the hospital incident, though years in the past, had left a permanent scar in his psyche. He’d done his level best to overcome and heal, but his brutal destruction of that gang showed that he could still snap, and that his traumas still haunted him. I believed that, even if he wasn’t much interested in listening to the part of him that still wanted to do good, he definitely didn’t want to do bad. I hoped that, even as he kept us in one piece, we could help him alleviate some of his internal strife.

To my right, Strider was staring silently at the tabletop, appearing lost in thought, chewing a stem of wheat to complete her cowgirl look. True to our arrangement, I hadn’t revealed the Terraporter’s true identity to the others. I still did not entirely trust her, and it was difficult to get a read on her. In the brief time I’d known her, she seemed to alternate between spacing out in thought and presenting a forced positive attitude. I had not pressed yet her on the details of what had happened in New Gondwana, but it seemed she was determined to put that past behind her. I simply hoped that past would not come back to bite her, and us, in the ass.

Still, her power was one that I could directly counter-act if needed. Better still, it was also one I could boost, greatly amplifying the range of her “terraportation”. Instant long-range transportation would be invaluable to our mission. Beyond that, I also suspected that if this case took us as far as I suspected, we might end up having to go to New Gondwana eventually. What better guide than a deposed Queen with no ambitions to take back her throne?

Finally, between Strider and Shoggoth, was Hitchhiker. I’d been the most concerned about working with her. There was no hiding her past as one of the Fantasmas, and at first, I had worried about her chances of working with Max. But both women seemed willing to, at least temporarily, let bygones be bygones, and work together for now. In fact, I was surprised at how nonchalant she was about the whole deal. There was something a little off about her.

Her crimes very likely matched, or even surpassed, those of Strider, but she likewise refused to allow herself to be chained by her misdeeds. In Strider’s case, I believed it was an attempt to escape her past and renew herself. With Hitchhiker, though, I got the impression that, even if she did feel some remorse, she had ultimately just accepted what she had done as a necessary evil. That or she was simply a sociopath.

I hoped I would not regret this decision, but Hitchhiker’s power of possession and skill with espionage was exactly what I needed to help investigate the mystery of the supervillain epidemic. I had appealed to her general belief that she was, and had always been, acting for the betterment of the world, and that this case was no different. Hopefully, such a sentiment would keep her loyal to the mission, even if she felt no camaraderie with us.

It was a rag-tag group if ever there was one, but it would have to do. In a world without the Super Fem Force, the Stilleto, or even the Fantasmas, and with the rest of the world’s nations unwilling to lend their own champions to assist, the ASP needed a new team to step up. I prayed that we would be enough.


1 comment:

  1. Quite a bit of a team of super screw-ups, aren't they? Earth Mage seems to be the only glue capable of holding them together, but even he seems to have his demons.

    I can only wonder what threats, monstrous or heroic, they'll face in their quest to find out what really happened to the Super Fem Force.