Excerpt: Heroes & Villains

Lots of people thought that having superpowers was the answer to every problem. They assumed that being able to fly or lift a thousand pounds without straining meant a life of comfort and ease. What they didn’t seem to realize was that having superpowers meant that you had to use them in some way, whether for good or for evil.

After finishing college and getting an everyday job, it hadn’t taken Vereint long to decide that he was going to be a hero. He wanted the love and admiration that doing good attracted. He wanted to be a role model. He wanted everyone to look at him and realize that he was something special, someone better than they could ever be. Only it hadn’t turned out that way.

When he made up his mind to be a superhero, he had to make the tough decision to maintain a secret identity. He couldn’t have the whole world knowing who he really was and hurting his family to get to him, not to mention the fact that it was kind of hard to serve papers to someone when you didn’t know where they lived.

It took him nearly two weeks to choose a superhero name, and then he had to design and make his own costume in secret, since he couldn’t exactly buy a cape off the rack and hope no one noticed who did it. Everything to do with his new superhero life had to be done in secret, even if it did make the whole thing a bit of a pain.

His skills as a tailor left a lot to be desired, though he really tried his best.

Finally, after months of effort, he had everything ready and set out into the city to do his first good deed. He needed a flashy opening move to catch everyone’s attention and start his new superhero life.

A pause to activate his superhearing, and he was fortunate enough to hear a scream for help. It looked like it really was going to be his lucky day.

He flew over the city at the speed of light, a streak of color that barely disturbed things as he passed. It took him less than a second to reach his destination. A burning building with people trapped inside.

Vereint threw himself through an open window on the tenth floor, directly into the heart of the fire. He could hear someone screaming and choking nearby, about a millisecond away from dying. This looked like a job for him.

He bulled his way through the flames, barely feeling them lick away at his flesh. The heat was nothing to his superbody, though he did worry a bit about his costume. Even after having been dipped in flame retardant chemicals that were supposed to keep any cloth from burning, they still smoked and crinkled black at the edges, ready to melt away at any moment.

“Where are you?” he called.

The voice kept screaming and didn’t offer any directions. Maybe the screamer hadn’t heard him.

He sighed and shoved charring furniture out of his way as he wandered through the maze of the burning building, following the sound of screams to their destination—a closed door.

“Stand back!” he yelled, hitting the door with his shoulder. It burst open almost too easily.

He may have gained superpowers, but he hadn’t gotten any wiser with them.

When he knocked open the door, he released the air inside, and the fire rushed toward it. The change in pressure sucked the fire into the room faster than he could even think.

The figure wrapped in blankets near the window was instantly engulfed in flame along with everything else. The screams rose to a shriek of terror and pain.

“Shit!”

Vereint ran forward and scooped the burning woman up in his arms. Without pausing in his mad dash for the window, he clutched her to his chest and dove through the window with a crash of glass and metal safety bars, his body arching so that he immediately began to fall straight down. The air rushed past along with the bricks of the building; his cape rippled loudly in his ears.

People screamed when they saw him falling. They probably thought someone had become desperate enough to jump out of a window rather than burn to death.

Vereint let himself fall until he was about five feet off the ground, then he slowed himself and twisted his body upright so he landed lightly on his feet.

“Medic! Someone get me a medic here!” he screamed, holding out the blanket-wrapped woman. She was making a high-pitched whistling sound, all that was left of her piercing scream.

Paramedics rushed forward and took her away from him, carefully unwrapping her as they lay her on a gurney hastily brought forward.

From the way she had been screaming, Vereint had half expected the woman would be burned beyond all recognition, but really she was barely singed. Her hair smoked and curled, and the skin of her hands was red beneath the black soot, but really she could have been hurt a lot worse.

He had thought she had been flash-fried when he busted open that door and the fire rushed in. It was a relief to see that she would probably be all right if she hadn’t seared her lungs screaming like an idiot.

He blew out a breath and shot upward into the sky, headed back into the fire to save more lives.

For the next half-hour he dragged people out of the burning building, though by the end a lot of them were barely breathing chunks of blackened meat. He had begun to think that just letting them die would have been a mercy, but the paramedics rushed them off to the hospital and refused to even think about letting them slip away peacefully, never mind what kind of lives they’d have if they lived.

Tears had dried on his cheeks before they had even gotten wet. The heat of the fire was such that spectators had backed up nearly a block without any real urging from the police and fire department. He could barely feel it, but to normal humans just standing on the street it was like having their whole bodies stuck in an oven. They were sweating and uncomfortable, though their curiosity held them there, watching as he did his best to be a superhero.

As the firefighters at last soaked the flames to a bearable level and set about putting the building out, Vereint landed on the street and let his shoulders sag. He didn’t hear anymore screams. Everyone was either out of the fire or dead. There was nothing more that he could do.

Without thinking, he scratched his nose, and the smell of burnt pork sticking to his hand almost brought him to his knees. He turned his head and began to vomit into the gutter. Cameras flashed and he twitched and turned, bile still burning the back of his throat.

The whole reason he had dressed up and set out to make a reputation for himself was so he could be a superhero and be on TV and in the newspapers. What he hadn’t really counted on in his almost childish fantasies was having to handle the bodies of the dead and dying. It hurt worse than he had ever thought it could. He had never been that close to people that badly injured before; he just wasn’t used to it, and it showed.

He was captured on film losing his lunch, a superhero showing weakness. For someone without a reputation to speak of, it was a real blow for his future career, though he didn’t even realize it yet.

“What’s your name? Who are you?” a reporter screamed.

Vereint drew in a deep breath and forced his shoulders square. He put on the heroic look he had practiced in front of the mirror and forced himself to ignore the taste in his mouth.

“My name is Starburst,” he said firmly.

“Starburst? You mean, like the candy?”

Even after all the work he had taken to think up his superhero name, Vereint had never even thought about the candy. He felt color staining his cheeks and knew somewhere inside him that he had messed everything up.

Once a first impression was made, there was no getting that moment back. And a lot of those cameras were broadcasting their imagery live.

*~*~*

Warrick had been a superhero for years. He was universally revered as being the epitome of bravery. If there was trouble, he was the first one called in to handle it, though no one knew his real name, only his superhero alias.

He had been in Chicago on business when the fire started, so he wasn’t able to be there to save the day. He didn’t even hear about it until later that night when he walked his jet-lagged body in through his front door and switched on the TV in passing.

The fire, though it had taken ten lives, hadn’t really been all that bad compared to some of the other disasters that had befallen the city in recent times. Compared to a super brawl between the city’s crime fighters and, say, the Hammer of Doom, one building burning down was barely a news tidbit and probably wouldn’t really have caught anyone’s attention, except that it marked the birth of a new superhero.

The cameras stroked across the meathead’s body, making love to him the way cameras always did with super people.

Warrick looked at the guy and felt an irrational surge of distaste. He couldn’t explain it, but he instantly didn’t like something about him.

He was handsome enough, in a clean-cut, all-American kind of way, looking the part of the superhero with easy perfection. His black hair was cut short and combed in a rather Richie Rich-esque side style, showing off the clear lines of his face. Skintight black spandex hugged his body, the purple starburst logo on his chest sparkling with silver edges. He wore black boots with purple buckles and a black Kato mask, as though that would ever hide his identity if someone really wanted to know who he was.

His purple cape rippled in the breeze, and he looked every bit the part of the hero.

The guy was good-looking and managed to sound fairly intelligent when he was asked questions, but Warrick had to shake his head in disgust when the news cut to a scene from earlier in the day when the hero was throwing up like a complete waste of superpowers.

“What a fucking wimp,” Warrick muttered, using the remote control to switch off the TV. As a real hero, he had no sympathy for someone who was obviously a poseur.

Never mind whatever superpowers the guy had. It was easy to see that he wasn’t going to be anything to respect in the future. He was just a flash in the pan hero who was going to burn out before he even had time to wear out his first cape.

Blue Ice yawned and rubbed the back of his neck. He was really tired. It was time for him to go to bed and forget about caring about the new hero.

The guy wasn’t going to last his first week before cracking.

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