Given whats happened to me in the last few days, it sure would be nice if we didnt have superheroes. Plenty of people, my parents included, remember when they were confined to the pages of Action Comics and the like, and the most exotic flaming thing to be seen above New York City was the Hindenburg. However, as I was born after 1946 (1964 to be precise), its hard for me to imagine a time without bodies passing overhead, film footage of battles, high insurance costs in cities with significant Super action, and life in general with a bunch of rather erratic law enforcement celebrities.
Especially now, having been caught doing but no point in describing it when I have the video at hand, so let me lower the lights and pop it in so you can see for yourself how Sarah Steins life has been fucked up:
News 7 opening sequence: noble music, smiling anchors, montage of Denver images. The scene shifts to a shot of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, thronged with people. The glass arch over the complex is barely visible at the top of the shot. A poster in the window of the Temple Buell Theater announces the return of Les Miserables, but the event taking place this day, proclaimed by a banner slung between the theater and the parking garage, is the Rocky Mountain Arts Festival 1999. Lively Latin music is audible in the background. The camera is currently focused on a black man in a robot costume, miming mechanical moves for some giggling kids. A woman says, "Didnt we shoot him last year? Dont use him if we did."
Suddenly a scruffy, wild-haired man drags a short, curly-haired, elderly woman in front of the camera. Waving a gun around, he screams something incoherent about Jesus and sinners and cleansing. The woman, struggling mightily, cries "Help! Let me go, you son of a *bleep*! Bert! Sarah! Police!"
Then another woman, also short and curly-haired but young and fat, wearing a faded T-shirt and shorts, hurtles between them and the camera, shouting "Bastard! You *bleep*ing bastard! Let her go!" With her right hand she bats at the gun, and
What is she holding in her hand? As the camera struggles to follow the action, there is a jerky glimpse of something like a hammer or mallet in her hand, but its an odd color. She strikes at the gun with it, and the gun is knocked out of the mans hands.
Next, the woman whacks the man on the forehead with another mallet in her left hand. The shot is clearer, and now the viewer can see that the left-hand mallet is indeed the same color as the womans flesh. The angle of the shot makes it seem as if the mallet is actually part of her body, connected to her wrist in place of a hand. Also, her arms seem too slender for a woman of her weight.
By this time the man has released the older woman, who stumbles away, crying. However, the younger woman, still screaming bleeped obscenities, continues to beat on the man with both her odd mallets. The lengths of the mallet handles appear to vary as the woman strikes at the mans face, arms, and chest without stepping forward or even reaching to hit the notably taller man.
Bruised and bleeding from the nose, attempting to protect his face, the man backs up, trips, and falls over. The woman, panting, walks up to the side of the man, and
the camera shakily focuses in to confirm the bizarre truth that the womans hands actually are mallets; but even as the viewer is gaping at this, something even more amazing happens. The hand-mallets soften into shapeless lumps; mass seems to flow down the wrists, and the womans forearms and upper arms thicken; like buds, the hand-lumps split into five finger-petals; and just like that the woman has perfectly normal-looking hands and arms.
"Holy *bleep*," says an awed voice off-camera.
The fat woman, face still ugly with rage, kicks the fallen man in the ribs, shouting "You son of a bitch! Goddamn you to hell! *Bleep* you! I should kill you!"
"Sarah," whimpers the older woman off-camera. The camera pans to her. Her face is contorted with pain as she clutches her shoulder, and tears stream down her face.
Immediately, Sarahs face softens. "Oh God, ma, are you OK?" She turns to the older woman and makes as if to hug her, but the older woman flinches away, saying "Dontthat *bleep*er grabbed my bad arm."
Sarah starts to cry too. She carefully hugs her mother on her mothers left side. "Oh Jesus. Oh God. I cant believe this happened. Thank God I was here. I cant"
Then Sarah notices the camera. She freezes like a rabbit caught in headlights.
Theres more, but most TV stations cut it off at this dramatic and painful moment.
Maybe this wouldnt have been such an enormous pain in the ass if I hadnt been the first person it ever happened to. Not that others havent been seen using their powers "naked," but I was the first to be caught on video doing so. Supers are rather rarer than tornadoes, after all; the ratio of Supers to Norms is about 1:1,000,000.
Anyway, as you might assume, everyone went nuts over me. Saturday night to Monday morning was beyond horrible. I must say, I gained a new appreciation for the Beatles as survivors, what with reporters and curiosity-seekers and cops laying siege to my apartment building, the constant phone calls that forced me to unplug my regular phone and use my cell phone, my name in every headline and my face on every TV channel, "Sarah Stein" topics popping up in every Internet discussion board .
I wont detail the siege, as I was only peripherally involved. I never left my apartment and wouldnt grant interviews, so all the exciting stuff happened to reporters/fans/promoters trying to get past the cops guarding the entrances to my building. You can read about all the arrests and incidents in the archives of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.
However, I do want to show you some media and Internet responses to my plight, since they set the tone for the much more important stuff that would begin on Tuesday. Here, then, is the Sarah Media Mosaic:
STUD1570: I think she set it up cause it was too conicndence with the cameras already there
HeroWorshipBob: So what are Sarahs powers? Anyone ever heard of her before?
TheMAN121: Powers look like a little stretching and minor morphing. Never seen her before. I checked CrackID and they dont have a file on anyone like her.
Bgreen: If she can morph why doesnt she make herself prettier.
AJonesB: I LIVE IN DENVER SHES AN EMBARASMNT TO ME HEROS R SUPPOSED TO BE SKINNY & PRETTY NOT FAT & SLOBY
Crossway455: Do NOT be fooled. Super-Zeros are SATANs agents. Their powers come from the DEVIL. JESUS IS GODS ONLY SUPER-HERO.
Weightmaster4Ever: NO WAY is there any fuckin justice in this world when some fuckin fat bitch like her gets powers. Im so mad I want to fuckin kick the TV in. I hope supervillains come in and kick her fuckin ass. NO FAT SUPERHERO CHICKS!
(No fat superhero chicksboy, did that turn into the mantra of the anti-Sarah crowd. I doubt the clown above invented it, but he was the first place I saw it. Wherever it started, it entered the real world within a few hours, because some news crew caught a squad of male teenagers who looked straight into the camera and chorused, "NO FAT SUPERHERO CHICKS!"
BTW, CrackID is a website devoted to unmasking heroes and villains [or, to those in the know, Goodies and Baddies]. I checked it out to see what they had to say about me, because I had a secret that I did NOT want publicized. Thankfully, the Crackies hadnt uncovered it, but they had posted every damn bit of info published about me in the last two days, including the fact that Im an atheist. Greatnow I had lots of dumbass religious messages to look forward to.)
Straight Shooter, spokesman for Dallass White Hats: "Sarah Stein is entirely inappropriate to the noble tradition of superheroes. Shes physically unfit, she has ridiculous powers, and she couldnt possibly inspire hope and confidence in anyone."
Mathemagician, spokesman for Miamis Aegis: "Everyone knows there are a few of these low-powered individuals out there. Most of these people recognize their limitations and find civilian uses for their powers. Though personally I cant imagine what civilian use Sarahs particular powers would have." Chuckles. "Carpenter?"
Magnet Red, spokeswoman for New Yorks all-female Hear Me Roar: "We sympathize with her. Shes been put in a bad position through no fault of her own." Would the team invite her into their ranks? "We have a rigorous test for potential members. If Sarah feels she can pass it, we would certainly consider her application."
Denver Post: "I doubt she staged the event to promote herself. Shes written a book, but its a four-year-old bibliographynot the sort of thing one would promote in such a wayand shes running a webzine (www.rationalmagic.com), but nothing about it suggests shes reaping any benefits from her national exposure. Of course, the media attention shes getting will likely translate into some short-term profits."
Rocky Mountain News: "Shes not likely to become our fearless protector, but her presence might stimulate the nations established heroes to rethink Denver as a place to protect. We are, after all, one of the few major cities with no superhero presence, unless you count the theoretical coverage of Midwest Security. However, one can argue that were doing fine without heroesthat the reduced insurance costs more than offset the vague threat of a villain attack and the controversial crackdown on street crime."
Lettermans Top 10 reasons why Sarah Stein shouldnt be a superhero:
Lettermans Top 10 reasons why Sarah Stein should be a superhero:
Anyway, back in the real world, poor Mom and Dad had been inundated as well, though not to the extent that I had been. Mom was only the victim and the mother of the celebrity, and as both she and Dad refused to grant interviews, they mostly just had to deal with Moms many friends. As for my friends, the close ones already knew about my powers, so they werent weirded out, but I dreaded facing the rest. I also dreaded trying to go to school (Im a graduate student at the University of Colorado-Denver, going for my second masters). Hell, I dreaded just leaving my apartment. Was my life ever going to get back to even a semblance of normal? Would I have to sneak into the mountains and become a hermit? All kinds of nutty scenarios ran through my head over the weekend.
However, much to my relief, the Sarah-fever began to die down by Monday morning. Everyone who had something to say had said it, so only the hard-core "superazzi" still hung around my apartment complex, and by the afternoon even they were gone. My novelty value was, thank God, wearing off.
But quoth the Beatles, I shouldve known better .
Tuesday dawned bright and clear and quiet. When I checked the Internet, my name was only on one noticeable thing; on the radio, the DJs were talking about something else; and I wasnt mentioned on either the local or the national news. "God, let it be over," I murmured, rummaging through my kitchen for something tasty.
My search was interrupted when my cell phone rang. I picked it up without a second thought, as only my parents and select friends had the number. "Hello?"
"Hello, Sarah!" a male voice said cheerfully.
I stiffened. I knew that voice. I hadnt heard it in five years, and it was distorted by the cell phone, and I still knew it.
"Jack?" I muttered.
"Right you are! How are you, honey? Its good to hear your voice again!"
I wanted to throw up. "How did you get this phone number?"
He chuckled. "Oh, we have our ways, kiddo, we have our ways."
Of course they did. "Why are you calling me?"
"Cant you guess? Youve been a little prominent in the news lately. So me and a few friends have come up to discuss some things with you."
"Come up? Youre in Colorado?"
"Sure are. Were in room 705 at the Marriott near you. Be here at seven tonight."
"Butbut I cant go out yet," I said feebly. "I cantIm not the person you used to work with. Im, uh, too recognizable."
There was a pause as Jack processed this statement. Then he said "Just a sec," and put his hand over the receiver. After a minute he said, "Sarah? Come at ten instead of seven and disguise yourself as best you can. Theres a locked entrance at the back of the hotel. One of us will meet you there. See you then!"
Before I could protest some more, he hung up.
Shit shit SHIT!
Jack MacArthur, here! The last time Id seen him, he couldnt wait for me to get out of his sight. He had had a sad smile on his face and talked about how the organization would "notice my absence"baloney. Now, Gordon Ogilvy had been very open about how he wanted to see the door hit me on my way out. If he were here .
I should mention that the reason I had worked with these guys was that I used to have different powers and was a member of the Boston Guardians for two years. This is my Other Secret. I was a face-changer, code-named "Dupla," able to become other people (so shapeshifting is nothing new to me, though it feels different now). As the Guardians spy, I was a secret membereven other heroes didnt know I was part of the groupso when I quit I left with no enemies but a ton of knowledge about the members.
So why was Jack here? Who was he with? Did they want me to rejoin the Guardians? (Unlikely; those two years had been educational regarding our mutual incompatibility.) Did they think I might reveal my past and/or my secret knowledge?
I fretted over these questions all day. I was afraid to call my parents and brainstorm with themsome things you dont mention over the phoneso I was stuck dealing with it alone. I thought about skipping town, but the bastards surely knew where my parents lived, and while I didnt think Jack and Co. would do anything to them, the mere notion that they might was enough to keep me in Denver.
When it came time to leave for the meeting, I was a basket case. I crept out in a long raincoat and a Broncos cap tilted to hide my face, and slouched as much as possible behind the wheel. But the drive was uneventful, and soon I pulled into the Marriott parking lot and drove around to the back. A large man leaned against the wall next to the door: Jack. He straightened up as I parked, but he didnt step away from the wall until he was sure it was me walking toward him. Then he waved and trotted over to greet me.
"Jack," I murmured.
"Sarah," he whispered, flashing me a perfect-toothed grin. Except for his buzzcut, he hadnt changed in five years. He was still the same old archetype of superherodom: tall, blond, handsome, muscular, smelling of Old Spice and clean clothes.
"Come on in," he said, unlocking the door with his keycard and holding it open for me. I walked in and let him go past me. As he strode down the hallway to the elevators, me jogging to keep up, he said, "This is a beautiful state, Sarah. You should be proud to live here. Id be in the mountains every day if I were you. Up til now Ive done all my skiing in Vermont, but for my next vacation Im definitely going to Vail. Hey, too bad about the Broncos. I thought theyd three-peat this year even without Elway."
He kept up the inane chatter all the way to room 705, but stopped when he opened the door. Ranged around the room were two men and two women whom I recognized immediately, three by Super costume and one because I unfortunately knew him well. Jack gently pushed me into the room and closed the door behind us.
The three Costumes were well-known big shots: Weightmaster, one of the strongest men in the world, in his wrestler-like outfit and hood-mask; SkyKnife, aerial speedster, wearing her aviator helmet and scarf and blue-white skin-tight uniform; and Smoke Ring, her face hidden in a cloud of smoke, her clothing just shirt and jeans. All three stood up when I entered.
The other man remained seated at the rooms tiny table, staring at me. Gordon Ogilvy, a.k.a. the Stickler, ostensibly one of the smartest men in the world (but after beating him at Trivial Pursuit, I had my doubts). He wasnt in costume since he didnt have to hide his real ID from me. I noticed hed put on weight, which brought him up to anorexic. As usual, my gaze drifted to his hands, which rested on the table; his fingers twitched constantly, as if to symbolize the never-ending flow of thought in that great brain of his. Also on the table was a small box, a standard supertech device called a SafeTalk, a combination "cone of silence" and whiz-bang debugger. Hed invented it.
And dont forget good old Jack MacArthur, or Captain Shield, he of the gleaming smile: field leader of the Boston Guardians and erstwhile boss of the Stickler, though who bossed around who had been a bone of contention for years. He sidled past me and gestured at the chair that SkyKnife had just vacated. "Have a seat, Sarah."
Feeling small and fragile in the company of these powerful people, I moved uneasily into the room past Weightmaster and SkyKnife and sat on the edge of the chair.
As Jack and Weightmaster sat in the last two chairs and SkyKnife sat cross-legged in the air, Gordon sniffed and said, "You have created us a considerable problem."
Shithead! At least my flare-up of anger nullified some of my nervousness. "How is it your problem?" I muttered.
"Not ours specifically," said SkyKnife. She had a soft, level voice. "That of SupersGoodiesas a group."
"Image problem, kiddo," said Jack. He grabbed an open can of Coke on the table and swigged it. "Its never good for the Biz when one of us gets laughed at."
"Even if youre not officially a Goodie," added Smoke Ring. Her voice was artificially altered to an electronic croak.
"Sorry for the bother," I growled. "I did it deliberately to smear the good name of Goodies, you know."
Jack chuckled at that. He was like Dr. Hibbert in The Simpsons, always chuckling. In fact, except for skin color, Jack had a lot of things in common with that character. He put down his can and smiled at me. "Same old Sarah, same old razor-sharp wit."
"Cut the crap, Jack," Gordon barked. They shared a hostile look, but Jack shut up, and Gordon steepled his fingers and continued: "First, tell us about your powers. Your Dupla powers are gone?"
"Yeah. I lost the face-changing when I had my second Power Event."
"That complicates things," said SkyKnife, shifting around in the air.
"A minor problem," said Gordon. To me: "Someday youll describe your second PE for me. However, this is not the time. What are your powers now?"
Thats one of the rudest questions you can ask a Super. I gave him a dirty look and said in my best Bartleby the Scrivener voice, "I would prefer not to tell you."
Jack chuckled, but Gordon wasnt amused. He leaned forward over the table and said, "Sarah, we" he gestured at the three Costumes "have a limited amount of patience. This information is critical to our plans, and if you wont supply it voluntarily, well have to become more persuasive."
The Costumes nodded. Smoke Ring blew (or at least emitted from the cloud around her head) a multicolored smoke ring that hovered in the air, waiting for direction.
Whatever form their persuasion took, I wasnt ready to endure it. So, choosing my words carefully and forcing down my loathing, I said,
"My powers are not much beyond what youve seen already. I have limited stretching; I can reach about six feet. As you saw, I can change my hands into mallets. I can also turn my arms into tentacles. Im a bit stronger when my arms are tentacles; I can lift about 350 pounds with them." (Weightmaster snickered.) "And I can grow extra arms and a turtle shell. I can only make one change at a time, except for the stretching."
When I finished, Weightmaster gave another sardonic snort; SkyKnife hid a smile; who knows what Smoke Ring thought; Jack chuckled; but Gordon just nodded and said, "Do you have the typical Stretcher resilience and resistance to physical harm?"
"No. Im tougher than I used to be, but I can still be cut by a knife. Im a pretty feeble Stretcher, after all."
"Your shell doesnt protect you from knives?"
"Yeah, but it only covers my back."
The Costumes and Jack exchanged amused glances. Schmucks, did they think I wanted these crapola powers?
"Show these form changes to us," commanded Gordon.
That was the last thing I wanted to do. But again, with little choice, I stood up and removed my coat. "I wont do the extra arms or the shell for you," I said sullenly. "They break through my shirts. I dont want to ruin this one, and Im not stripping for you."
Gordon scowled. "Nevertheless, we will see them. Jack, go get a couple of your undershirts. Cut out the sides of one and the back of the other."
So Jack did this while I demonstrated the rest of my repertoire for my scornful audience. When I changed my arms into tentacles, Gordon felt them to see if they still had bonesthey didnt. "Fascinating," he murmured. "Bone to flesh transformation."
Then Jack brought me the altered shirts, and I went into the bedroom and put on the open-sided one, all the time looking longingly at the window and wishing I could dive out and run away. But that would have been a bad idea, so I returned to the main room and grew my four extra arms. This got the first real rise out of the audience, partially because I was a grotesque sight with six arms (not that my tentacles or mallets were gorgeous), and partially because, in the eloquent words of Weightmaster, "Look at the way her stomach shrank when she grew those things!"
Saying, "So it works both waysbone to flesh and flesh to bone conversion," Gordon squeezed one of my new arms to ascertain that it had bones and squished my flesh between his fingers to see for himself how malleable it was (not very).
Then I changed shirts, taking off my bra, and grew them my turtle shell. As with my extra arms, my fat deposits (including my breasts) shrank as it grew. It domed over my back from my shoulders to my butt, and I showed them how I could pull in my limbs and head; my semi-malleable body came in handy here.
Jack and SkyKnife pounded on my shell for a few minutes (Weightmaster couldnt whack on me without sending me through the floor). I felt the blows only in a distant way, as if I had a pillow on my back and my cat had jumped on it. Then SkyKnife attempted to cut through it with her pocket knife, but the blade snapped off, which was the only pleasant thing to happen that evening.
When they finished abusing me, I reabsorbed the shell and went back into the bedroom to put on my clothes. As I came out, I said, "Have you gotten your fill of me yet? Can I go now?"
Gordon gave a sharp laugh. "Hardly! Now that we know what you can do, were better equipped to make plans. Sit down."
"Plans for what?" I said warily, again looking at the bedroom window before I obeyed his command.
"For the new Goodie team that will soon assume the stewardship of Denver."
I stiffened. This was beyond bad; it was catastrophic. My hands started to tremble, and I gripped the arms of the chair and leaned forward to hide their motion. "Denver doesnt need a Goodie team. Midwest Security covers us, but theyve never had to come here. Only two Baddies were ever seen in Colorado, and that was twenty years ago. It doesnt happen here!"
"MSs coverage may have been adequate in the past," SkyKnife said patiently, "but with the new millennium nearly here, who knows what youll need?"
"I represent Midwest Security," said Smoke Ring in that distorted voice. "We want to remove Colorado from our sphere of influence. Were already too thinly spread as it is. A Denver team would relieve a lot of pressure on us. Besides providing coverage for currently unguarded territory, some territory currently part of MS would move to the stewardship of the Denver group, which will also provide backup coverage of several other states whose groups are small or frequently busy, like Arizona."
I couldnt believe what I was hearing. "How much territory are you expecting one team to cover? How many people do you intend to be a part of this team?"
"Obviously a fair number, though not quite as many as in MS, as the territory in question isnt thickly infested with Baddies."
It will be, I thought bitterly. It will be.
For this seeming boon to Denver was actually a bane. Goodie groups dont discourage Baddies from appearing; they attract Baddies who want to test themselves against worthy opponents. The Goodies deny this charge, but why else do Baddies hang around well-patrolled cities like New York when theres plenty of loot in Denver?
And where you have Goodies and Baddies, you have superbattles; and where you have superbattles, you have increased insurance rates, collateral damage, civilian casualties. Up to now, Denver had been spared these depredations. But these five people, embodying the wishes of the larger Goodie community, were happy to inflict them on my home town simply to spare their profession a little bad press.
Bad press . "How does putting a team in Denver solve your image problem?"
Jack spoke up: "It shows the good people of Denver that the Goodie community cares about their welfare. By stepping in, well reassure them that Goodies are no laughing matter and can be relied upon to shield them from harm."
"Thus," added Gordon, smiling thinly, "we shall wash away the stigma of your appearance with a wave of true heroes."
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....