It’s not so different from flying. The wind biting at my cheeks, the roaring against my ears, the alarming acceleration in the direction of sidewalk.
That time, the first time, it took me about two stories to realize I’d made a huge mistake. Another ten to realize I’d prefer survival over splat. Then instincts kicked in, and presto—flying, not falling.
No one learns about their super powers until they’re in a position to use them. Indestructibility means surviving a wound that should have been fatal. I learned how to fly by jumping off a building.
This time, I can’t stop. Hurtling through the air as the ground lurches up to meet me.
Brooks is laughing in my ears.
I can’t remember how to fly.
People bottoming out tend to be in a dark place. Probably why so many of us superheroes wind up on the wrong side of things. Most supers get their powers in a burst: Freak explosions, chemical accidents that would kill a normal person. Usually heroes and villains show up in pairs, the universe’s way of evening the score. Wasn’t like that for me. Falling’s kind of a solo activity.
The treetops whiz past.
Too long on the job and all the dreams are like this. Fighting, falling, flying. It’s all the same. Always wake up before I hit the ground.
Finding Malevolence makes the fight mean something.
He’s my perfect match.
Nemesis at first sight.
Waking up’s the hard part.
Good Guy Issue #100
The gawkers are out in full force.
The hostage situation is an escalation of a bank robbery that broke just after rush hour. The well-dressed commuters walking up the Northern Spoke’s sidewalk would rather see it live than catch a much-safer version on the news.
A single uniformed cop is attempting and failing to establish a perimeter. He’s just a kid, my age maybe, the sort who started on the force after high school and will work the streets until he retires or gets shot.
The District throws a bi-monthly apocalypse. Betting money says he gets shot.
Probably not today though. The bank robbery’s tame by the District’s usual standards. It’s just the hostages who are a complication.
There’s this thing about people in peril that attracts superheroes.
I land beside the cop and win the crowd’s immediate attention due to the fact that I’m dressed like an idiot and they have camera phones. “You realize you’re all at risk of taking a stray bullet,” I announce.
The crowd can take a hint. Very few people enjoy getting shot. Just Indestructoman, and he complains bitterly about the bullet holes in his costume. The rookie cop throws me a look that’s two parts gratitude, one part apprehension. Official word from the police department is that costumed heroes are unlicensed vigilantes. This kid is still new enough not to know that rule gets broken a lot. He fingers his gun. I try to smile.
His trigger finger tenses.
The on-scene detective, on the other hand, claps me on the back and drags me behind the rookie’s feeble barrier tape. He’s a well-dressed, solidly built black guy with about five inches and forty pounds on me. It’s everything I can do to stop myself from hovering a few inches from the ground to meet his eyes.
I’ve seen his face on TV before, in the wake of various supervillain-related disasters, but this is the first time we’ve met in person. I’m guessing he’s heard of me.
“Thank God, we got a super. This perp’s a fucking lunatic. We had him on the phone for all of thirty seconds. Hasn’t got a damn thing on his list of demands. Doesn’t want release or a getaway or anything. Says he’ll be done in a few, leave him be, he’s just robbing a bank because he’s poor. Jesus Christ almighty.”
Seems like a pretty standard reason for bank robbing, but I’m not a trained law enforcement professional. I scratch the back of my neck, thick black leather gloves soft against my close-cropped hair. Have to break that habit. It would be just my luck to knock off the mask because I have an itch. I wonder if the detective expects me to get to work or if I need permission first. He’s not going to arrest me, but the fact that he can looms over us. While I hesitate, he takes out his phone, punches in a number and puts it on speaker.
“Look,” the voice on the other end answers before the first ring has even finished, “already told you I’ll be out of your hair as soon as this idiot stops pissing himself and remembers the codes for the safe. Has the entire world always been this goddamn slow? I don’t want anything from you, so stop—”
“This is Detective Lombardozzi calling to let you know Good Guy is on the scene. Surrender now or I’m turning the show over to him and washing my hands of this whole damn mess.”
That sounds like a threat. Must have confused me with X. Most fights against Good Guy are non-fatal. Matter of principle. The line crackles with static and then that same voice, pitched a little too high and a lot too fast, says, “Might you could send someone else? Maybe the idiot in the baseball jersey? Or the chick with the legs! She’s totally my favorite.”
Lombardozzi’s eyes flicker to me, appraising. I’m still pretty new on the scene, and if I’m honest, Dodger—the idiot in the baseball jersey—is probably the guy you want at a hostage situation. My skill set isn’t exactly tuned for delicate operations.
The crook on the phone is still rambling. “Got this far under the radar by not picking up a name. I can’t have my first proper knock-down with some pompous asshole who goes around calling himself Good Guy. God, name like that, he probably doesn’t even get laid.”
Insulting, but mostly true. Good Guy isn’t a name I picked out for myself. No one would call themselves something like Good Guy. My first time in costume, X mistook me for someone with nefarious intent and dangled me by my ankles from a rooftop while I screamed, “I’m one of the good guys!”
The press heard, I’m Good Guy.
Not my proudest moment.
X was the only one who took my protests in stride. Only X taking things in stride meant he shrugged and said, “I’m sick of you wannabe heroes anyway. Better safe than sorry.”
Then he dropped me off a roof.
Four stories falling before I remembered how to fly. One day, I’ll get to the point where that’s instinct.
“Does this guy even pause to breathe?” Lombardozzi groans, cupping a hand over the receiver. He rolls his eyes but there’s a tightness in his stance.
The cops think this guy is dangerous. Really dangerous. I should have picked up on that considering he has hostages. The last thing this city needs right now is a massacre. We have to rebuild post-apocalypse every other month and morale’s bad enough.
“Saying you wind up with Good Guy as a nemesis, what happens?” The bank robber’s still ranting. “The press starts calling you Bad Guy. I’m not going through my career as Bad Guy.”
“But you are a bad guy,” I snap.
“Here we go,” Lombardozzi mutters.
“Hey, I’m on speakerphone! That’s rude.” Instead of annoyed, he sounds delighted. “I would expect better from a hero, especially one so proper as Good Guy. Then again half you superheroes have that tragic orphan past. Probably no mother to explain the rules—there we go. About damn time. Sorry, Good Guy, Detective Lobotomy, places to be.”
The line goes dead.
“Detective Lobotomy?” Lombardozzi glares at his phone and throws up his hands. “That’s it. I’m done with supers. The shield is not worth the headache. I want a liaison.”
I would really prefer not to be lumped into the same category as supervillains.
“He’s probably got the vault open,” I hedge.
“Which means my hostage situation will suddenly involve bullets when he decides to make a break for it.” Lombardozzi eyes me critically. “My SWAT crew’s in transit. You guys are all bulletproof, right?”
I’m not, and getting shot hurts. It’s slightly less fatal for me, but I’m no Indestructoman. Dig one bullet out of your arm and you try your best never to have it happen again. Self-surgery leaves a hell of a scar. “I’ll see what I can do.”
When I’m about a foot from the door, it opens and a crush of people spill into the street. The name-tags tell me that some of them are employees, which makes the rest of them customers. The hostages.
I don’t actually like hostages much on the whole. The brave ones have a tendency to die and the others get in the way.
Something blurs in the corner of my eye. I whirl and reach for it, but it’s moving fast and momentum is not my friend. It goes from the teller to the door in the time it takes to blink. I don’t manage to get a grip on the figure but I do inadvertently clothes line him. It sends me spinning and the speedster pitching forward onto the sidewalk. He bounces back to his feet in an instant and squares to face me, eyes appraising. “So you’re Good Guy, then? That’s very… wholesome. You look like a newsie.”
The speeder’s a skinny guy wearing what looks like a spandex running suit straight out of the Olympics. It’s not black, but it’s a close enough green that it might be confused. The mask is actually a pair of old lab goggles. The kind that freshmen chemists buy before their first lab. His entire body is vibrating with excess energy. It manifests in how he fiddles with the straps of a duffle bag stuffed full of what I have to assume is either cash or diamonds.
For whatever reason, most supervillains go for the diamonds.
“I’m not letting you get away.”
“So I robbed the bank a little.” He hikes the duffle bag up on his shoulder. There’s still a panic around the scene, hostages everywhere, but I’m a little surprised no one has taken a shot at him. “Why do you care?”
I don’t actually care that much. Banks are insured. By the sheer volume of flailing limbs the hostages are waving about, it doesn’t seem like anyone got hurt. “I can’t let you go. Not after you took hostages.”
He snorts. “You know what, Good Guy? Catch me. I dare you.”
Then he’s off, weaving through the crowd of gawkers at top speed, which if I had to guess is a damn sight faster than the speed of sound. Behind me, Detective Lombardozzi is cursing into his radio. “Perp’s a fucking speedster. Get me a time frame. Visuals if possible. I need a trail, people. Keep the search as contained as possible, report every speedster sighting in the city.”
It’s easier for me to fly when I have a nice tall building to jump off first. The ground rushing up is a hell of an incentive for keeping in the air. Starting from the ground, it always takes me a moment to pinpoint that power, that sinking in my stomach. By the time I’ve found it again, the speedster’s not even in sight. I take off anyway and spend a few hours soaring through the city until Dodger flags me down from atop a power line. The faded baseball jersey is unbuttoned, the scripted “Dodgers” cut in half and exposing a smooth white full-body suit that encases everything from head to toe. He’s got three black spots over the spandex on his face. I’m not sure if the psychic’s third eye is a metaphor or literal.
“You’ve lost him,” Dodger says, voice muffled. “Go home.”
I don’t land next to him because I’m still not sure if electricity is one of the forces I’m immune to. I got over the testing-my-limits phase months ago. “What do you mean I lost him?”
His body shifts in my direction, which is as close to eye contact as I get. “Go home, Alex. Have a glass of warm milk and turn on the television. It’s past your bedtime.”
Dodger always makes it a point to greet me by name when there’s no one else around. He’s the most powerful psychic around, and it only makes sense that he’d pry loose a few identities. The name thing is a bizarre form of affection. I mostly find it creepy.
Besides, I’m twenty-one, a couple months into my senior year at college. I’ve been at this since I was nineteen in some capacity or another. You’d think I would have earned some respect.
Oh well. At least the other supers don’t drop me off buildings for fun anymore.
And I know from experience that when a psychic tells you something, you listen. Dodger probably saved me from an early death by tetanus when he took one look at my costume and told me that going shoeless was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen in a super.
Dodger nods as I swoop off, headed back for my apartment.
The window’s open. Always leave it like that when I head out. When apartment hunting, I’d figured that being on the top floor in a building that hadn’t bothered springing for elevators meant no one would notice a super soaring in.
The old rabbit ears on the television take a bit of finagling but I get them in tune in time to catch the end of the late-night news. The runner at the bottom identifies the man on screen as Davey Carlson, Hostage. I recognize his face vaguely from this afternoon. “He did have one thing to say though. After he opened the vault, he said, ‘Tell those clowns my name is Malevolence.’”
The screen cuts back to the anchor, corners of her mouth tugging up beneath the somber expression. “There you have it, First Metropolitan robbed for sixty thousand dollars this afternoon by a masked speedster identified as Malevolence. Despite the presence on scene of Good Guy, Malevolence escaped. The robbery has tentatively been linked to an attempted robbery at the university bursar’s office last month.”
That crime didn’t get a lot of press. Bursars and financial aid offices are always getting knocked over by collegiate would-be villains. More than a few of the angrier teenage heroes got their start the same way. But there’s a pattern of escalation, which means…
A glance at the answer-phone confirms five messages. All of them from my mom, who’s still kind of freaked at the thought me living in a city that routinely gets stomped by horrible monsters. And that’s note even taking into consideration what happened to Brooks a few years back. I flop back on the couch and tug off my mask. “Fantastic.”
I call her. It’s one in the morning, but Mom won’t be asleep yet. She never is after a news report like this.
The conversation is mercifully short. Mom’s one of those old-school types who still rises at the crack of dawn. She just needs a few assurances. Yes, I’m all right. I was in the library, nowhere near the Capital District. No, I’m not getting a cell phone. No, I’ve never hung around with anyone who gallivants around town in a mask.
When I hang up, I’m bone tired, but I can’t help thinking about the speedster. Malevolence is a better name than Bad Guy for sure, but it’s a mouthful. Brooks would have loved it, but Brooksie always had a soft spot for the villains. Said they had more fun than us heroes. When’s the last time you heard a hero laugh? If you can fly or something cool like that, you’d think you might spend just a little time enjoying it.
I pull on a blanket and glare at my busted space heater. Maybe I’ll laugh in the summer.
Good Guy Issue #101
The time to leave for class comes a damn sight earlier than it should. I miss so much because of my extracurriculars that I make sure to haul myself to lecture if all my limbs are attached. My usual attire is a sweatshirt and jeans with holes torn through them. Good Guy wears suspenders over a long-sleeved, three-button cotton shirt, and slightly baggy but neat brown slacks. Also, combat boots.
Alex Manners definitely doesn’t do combat boots. You’d be lucky to see him out of flip flops no matter how low the temperature dips.
I tug up the straps on my backpack and push the massive pair of glasses up my nose. I’ve got to wear contacts when I’m Good Guy, but I’m too lazy to bother in everyday life. Besides, eyes tend to glaze right over the dorky bespectacled history major when they’re considering suspects for possible superheroes.
“Hey there, Alex.” Elle Nieves grins as she locks the door on the apartment next to mine. “How goes the crime fighting?”
Okay, so the secret identity is safe from everyone but Elle. In my defense, she ran across me the same day I got a massive dose of truth serum blasted into my face. I told her absolutely everything.
She thought I was joking.
Because who would look at someone like me and think superhero? Elle’s under the impression I’m a delusional shut-in. Considering I make most of my exits from the apartment window, the only time she ever sees me leave is when I’m heading to campus.
I can almost hear Brooks laughing.
“Same old, same old,” I say. “Bank robbery. Very messy.”
“I heard someone got away with it. Malevolence? Sounds like he’s a bad one.”
“You’re judging a book by its cover. For all you know, Good Guy’s a real prick.”
“And someone calling himself Malevolence is secretly a saint?”
“Touché. At least he bought a thesaurus before picking the name.”
Elle punches me in the shoulder. The flinch is easy enough to pass off as pain. “You know you’re ridiculous, right?”
“I am the least ridiculous person you’ll talk to this morning. You work for a shrink.”
Elle’s a receptionist at a psychiatrist’s office. To my knowledge, the office has never had any supervillains or heroes come through as patients. Which is great because someone would probably try to kidnap her to get to me.
Or something. It’s not like I have a lot of friends to choose from.
“They’re not all crazy, you know. No matter what you think,” she snaps and by then the trek down the stairs is over. “You can make fun of me all you want when and if you snag a job with that history degree of yours. Until then, forget it.”
She’s gone without even a backwards glance.
I trudge to the bus stop, flipping up my hood to stave off the freezing drizzle.
Class time turns into nap time, but that’s not exactly new.
Looking past the bluster, Worst Nightmare’s just a kid. She’s maybe fifteen with miles of long dark hair and a face that gets fuzzier the harder I try to memorize it. She pulls fears out of the heads of the population, crafts horrific monsters out of thin air and tosses them loose in the city. Today is her biggest outing to date. The city’s in chaos, all heroes on deck. Psi’s down for the count, but Psi doesn’t do well when she’s missing the sun’s pick-me-up. Even though I can feel high noon’s ghostly warmth, it sure as hell looks like midnight. And if I have to guess, Psi’s nightmare is missing the sun’s blessing.
I’m skipping my afternoon class for this, but with the inky blackness spiraling out from the Wheel in the direction of the college quarter, I’m thinking maybe it gets canceled.
As the wind picks up, Worst Nightmare’s hair billows back, her cape trailing dramatically behind her. She looks like a goddess. Something to be feared. Lightning crackles with every step she takes.
“It’s an illusion,” Dodger calls over the wind. “None of this is real. She’s wearing pajamas.”
Right. Because in addition to mild bouts of telekinesis, Worst Nightmare can make you see whatever she wants.
“…kill you,” X huffs, beating me to the punch. “Dodger, I’m going to kill you for this one.” He has one of his myriad of guns drawn, tracing the movements of something I can’t see. I can only imagine what it takes to scare someone like X, but his eyes are wide behind the mask and his movements lack their usual lazy efficiency.
What I see is something completely different: Brooks lurching up at me from ground level, the skin half rotted from his face. My mother is two steps behind, staggering her arms outstretched, mouth working without sound. It’s not real, just a nasty hallucinated ball of all my issues. My worst nightmare.
“You can always leave,” Dodger suggests, striding toward the vortex of the storm. “I’ve got this under control. This isn’t any of your business.”
Like hell it isn’t.
I tear my eyes from the scene to walk forward, straight through my apparition. It vanishes into mist. Dodger gives me a small, surprised nod. Between X and me, I wasn’t the one Dodger thought would get his act together.
X, still slightly wild-eyed, whirls, gun training on a lamppost, a bush and finally on me. Dodger’s over just in time to push the weapon skyward before it goes off into the night. “Knock it off, X.” He puts a hand on either side of his temple and commands, “See.”
The spare gun from X’s holster is out and pressed against Dodger’s throat in the blink of an eye. “Stay the fuck out of my head.”
Dodger doesn’t even flinch, his voice still low and reasonable. “Take the kid, and get out of here. You’re hallucinating and that makes you a liability. Worst Nightmare is mine.”
Heroes get all proprietary about their villains. I haven’t missed that. Less than a month into this gig, I realized no one touches SuckerPunch save X and that Worst Nightmare’s gifts are the sort that only Dodger can diffuse. It’s the same for villains. I’m pretty sure that ninety-eight percent of what Pitchfork does is designed to catch Indestructoman’s attention. Indestructoman just happens to be playing hard to get.
“I’m not a kid,” I protest as X grabs me by the shoulder and steers me two streets over.
“Stay put or go home,” X orders before drawing a sword from the endless array of weapons strapped to his back and jogging into the night.
When I’m positive he’s not going to turn around, I flick him off.
“Holy hell, y’all are better than cable,” someone from above says.
I look twelve stories up to see Malevolence sitting on a rooftop, his legs dangling over the edge, apparently unconcerned by the carnage as he munches on popcorn from the carton in his hand.
“You know, it’s considered rude to eavesdrop.”
A few kernels of popcorn hit me in the face. I can’t help but be a little impressed by the aim. Then again, I’m not sure if Worst Nightmare’s wind storm is reality or illusion. Malevolence smirks as I wipe the greasy streak of butter from my cheek. “You know you’re pathetic when the other heroes put you in a time out.”
“Malevolence,” I say, “we have unfinished business.”
“Do all you heroes talk like this? I’m genuinely curious. Is there a class? I mean, the villains do it too and if this is contagious, I might be in the wrong line of work.”
In the time it takes for him to finish his rambling, I’ve remembered how to fly and am hovering a foot in front of his face. He grins at me, unperturbed. “Got to say, I like your trick. Something biological, I’m guessing. Doesn’t look like anything you designed, which means you must have one hell of a genetic mutation. How does someone even go about learning to fly? Because if this is something anyone can learn, I’m definitely giving it a try.”
That’s not an answer I’m ever going to share with someone who would kill me given half the chance.
“Recalcitrant?” Malevolence says. “I like that in a hero. Always preferred to do most of the talking, but hold on. I actually know this part! This is the part where we fight, yeah?”
Before I can answer, he jumps to his feet and slams an uppercut into my jaw. It happens so fast it takes me by surprise, and that’s not good for someone hovering in midair. I plummet toward the pavement, grasping for that feeling again. Survival instincts kick in before I hit the street, just like they always do, and I stare at the rotting hand of zombie Brooks reaching for me from the sidewalk. Looking up, I see Malevolence peering over the edge of the rooftop, curious to see if he’d killed me.
I ascend twelve stories in a second and clip him in the jaw on my way.
The blow is enough to lift Malevolence from his feet. He lands three yards back, wiping the blood from his nose and looking smug as hell about it. “Thank God,” he says. “I hate them pacifist sorts of heroes.”
Then he’s on me.
Malevolence is far from the strongest villain I’ve faced, but he’s definitely the fastest. I’m starting to get the idea that a half-dozen blows to the kidney will do about the same as a single huge one. Five to one I’m pissing blood tomorrow.
The speedster is laughing, dancing away from my most powerful punches like it’s nothing. I’m built more for brute strength than speed, and it shows. Malevolence can literally run circles around me. His one weakness is that in order to hit me, he has to get within an arm’s length.
I’m not ashamed to say that most of the shots I get in are thanks to blind flailing. Malevolence takes each hit harder than I do, and I’m starting to see the pattern in how he attacks. It’s enough to use his momentum against him and toss him into a wall.
He has to struggle to get back to his feet, a fine mist of blood spraying out of his mouth with each breath. “Oh, you’ve got a steep learning curve. I like you.”
“Are you insane?”
The grin Malevolence flashes me is stained red. “Hey now, I was just crashing this party because I thought I might be able to scavenge something in the inevitable carnage, but this…” He gestures vaguely to something in the space behind me. “This just got a whole hell of a lot more interesting.”
Brooks is behind me, his ruined face oddly luminescent in the dim light. When he reaches for me, I don’t stop him. Maybe this is how it ends. He cups my cheek in his cold hands, only then it isn’t Brooks. The rotting flesh falls away to smooth skin and deep-cast eyes. The mouth takes a distinctly feminine turn and the hair sprouts like a time lapse photograph, and then it’s Worst Nightmare drawing her frozen fingers against my temple. The smirk with its faux-innocent turn, the voice, all-encompassing and I have just enough time to think, oh shit, before my world grays out.
Brooks is here.
Not the Brooks from the rooftop lurching out from my nightmares, but the other one, the Brooks who is practically my brother. Brooks with his whip-sharp mind and shit-eating grin. Brooks who is reckless and ridiculous and likes starting fights he knows he can’t win. Brooks who died when he stepped in front of a bullet that by all rights should have been mine.
Brooks who lay in the gutter while my drunk ass sobered up real quick as the ambulance sirens screamed through the night. Who promised me, Alex, gonna be all right, man. Not even gonna rat you out, and when I protested, called me a stupid fucking asshole and passed out.
Brooks who died almost a week later because of infection and complications from the surgery.
The Brooks who is here doesn’t look quite like the one I last saw in the hospital. This one’s older, the Brooks who could have been. His hair is longer, curling around the ears, his face a little more gaunt and the grin a lot sadder, but I’d know him anywhere.
“I missed you,” I say.
“Yeah, if I had a nickel for every time you told me that,” Brooks says. “You really ought to stop missing me and start paying attention. It’ll save you a hell of a lot of trouble.”
“Attention to what?”
“Are we going to have this conversation every time you see me? Because I’m sick of it.”
My head is throbbing. Feels like someone has fingers in it, wiggling them around. Looking for something. “We’ve never had this conversation.”
“You’re driving me up the wall, you know that, right? I’m going to start trying to destroy the world. I’m done saving you. You don’t notice the people saving your sorry ass.”
“I don’t need saving.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You need saving all the time, but I’m not about to start this argument again.” He goes to the fridge, scowling when he finds no alcohol. “You’re planning to bang that Elle chick of yours someday, right? Because way I’m looking at it now, I’ve got a better shot at her than you.”
“Ah, but at least I’ve got game.”
I try to punch him in the shoulder, but miss. Probably for the best: My punches pack a wallop these days. “Worst Nightmare tried to get me to think you were a zombie. You were coming after my brains.”
Brooks snorts. “I’d be a fucking excellent zombie. No way would I go after your brain-dead ass.”
“I wish you didn’t die.”
Shaking his head, Brooks steals a book off my coffee table and says, “I’m about done with this dead thing. I’m going to have to get drastic. Mark my words, Alex, that’s a threat. I’m threatening you.”
I laugh and look up to the ceiling, thinking this is about as far from a nightmare as I can get. The nightmare is when I wake up, he’s still be gone.