Super & Real

Chapter One


The grocery bags plopped down and he collapsed backward onto his couch, breathing heavily. He shook his head and rested. Wow, he was out of shape. His friends were right; he did have to lose weight after all. “Dammit,” he said, recovering. He’d always been a bit chubby, but since getting full-time at the warehouse, he’d gotten so much fatter. The long hours kept murdering his feet and knees, but after being in poverty for practically all his youth, the money more than made up for it, and his waistline expanded accordingly. Pulling the mail from his hoodie pocket, he glanced at each one. The credit card offers he pitched into his burn pile, and his paycheck he opened and checked carefully. They’d finally gotten his name—Manfred Voren—completely correct.

Taking a deep breath, he huffed, and hoisted the six plastic bags into his kitchen and began unloading. Some of the items he chose carefully, as per a recipe he wanted to try. He read the list and arranged each ingredient. Since the recipe estimated a thirty-minute time of completion, he opened his medicine drawer and popped his medication. For the next half hour, he toiled away at the chicken and pasta dish until it very nearly resembled the picture. Scooping it onto his plate, he chowed down while reading comics on his laptop. The latest issue of Breaker featured the main heroine, a tall, muscular power house of a woman, ripping into the powered armor of a bad guy. He knew the lore quite well.

First Breaker was a favorite of his. He’d been reading it since the mid-nineties, having picked it up at age twelve. What attracted him to it, as he had typed into a conversation defending it against arguments of it being outdated, was how unique it was as a comic. “First Breaker,” he had written, plumbing the depths of his childhood memories for the right words, “isn’t just a ‘hey, ‘let’s beat up bad guys and smile for the camera’ superhero story. The main character is Cyroya, a goddess from the fictional ‘Bakeru’ religion. She’s not actually a savior, or a good guy; she’s the main enemy, the Satan of her people’s beliefs. As the Goddess of Strength, she basically shows up in ancient Rome and nearly ends the world, cutting apart entire armies all by herself. Kareth, the God of Mercy and Creation, defeats her, at great cost and casts her into Pareion, basically their religion’s hell.”

He remembered that exchange and how heated he became, even though he realized he was only staring at a computer screen. He’d also introduced several of his friends to it. “Cyroya is cast into the bad place for her many murders, and here’s where it really gets good,” he’d defended. “Where most comics from the late eighties to early nineties—the so-called Dark Age—were just blood and gore for no end, we see her get tortured in Pareion and repent her crimes. That’s when Kareth sends her to the modern world and she must use her powers for good to save humanity, or else spend the rest of eternity in Pareion.”

“So,” his friend Shawn asked, “if this Kareth guy is so powerful, why doesn’t he intervene?”

Manfred took that as his cue. “Because eventually, they encounter threats even beyond the Gods. There’s literally a moment where a guy tells her she can help him take over the universe, and she has a perfectly good chance to kill Kareth and be free of his threat forever. Instead, she helps him defeat the bad guy. It’s great because she’s clearly a recovering villain. You see her have to struggle with the fact that, no, these humans aren’t insects merely there to satisfy your violent urges. You see her literally become a better person.”

He remembered the friend basically answering with, “that’s great, Manny,” and leaving it at that. It was his favorite comic. Shoveling pasta and chicken into his mouth, he pressed the space bar to move forward. Doctor Richard Felaru, the bad guy in the power armor, Manny read, clearly had thought his machine could duplicate the Godess’s power. He’d had her against the ropes, but with the strength of will, she ripped his armor apart. Manny felt like a little kid again. This storyline had been going for the better part of a year, and he was glad to see it end.

“Wow,” he mouthed, reading the last page. The story had ended exactly as he wanted. After finishing his sizeable meal, he washed his plate and silverware, setting it in the drying rack and picking up his laptop. Sitting for too long made his legs hurt, so he walked around carrying it. He shopped for comics online before reading some other issues he had on his computer. Furious Thunder Comic issue 682 appeared full-screen, him clicking on it. He enjoyed it, even though the writing hadn’t always been great. Unlike First Breaker, Furious Thunder was a very traditional super hero story, although not the same as many others. Unlike most of the traditional stories that started in the early Silver Age of Comics, Furious Thunder had started with a female lead. A female lead character, in 1952, was unheard of. Somehow it had managed to avoid being absorbed by the bigger studios, but had suffered in the sixties thus.

The new timeline, he saw, wasn’t quite as good as the one before, but he still kept reading. One of the things that annoyed him was that when the character was first drawn, she was a decently curved woman for sixties standards. Now, she was almost anorexic. It wasn’t unique; many of the big studios had the female supers being model thin, but she was supposed to be a major hero. At least she wasn’t drawn with comically exaggerated breasts—even being a guy, it became annoying and distracting after awhile. Once more, he noticed her pulling her cousin’s pod out of the river. Before it had been a mountain landslide, and the original reboot had it be a river. He knew the story by heart: Michelle Delanter, having been examining archaeological ruins in South America, touched an artifact and was magically transported to another world, where she was forced to fight for her survival for a hundred years, somehow not aging. When she finally succeeded, it was revealed the whole ordeal was an illusory test to see if she was worthy of the power contained within the artifact. She then became Capacitor, a hero that utilized otherworldly energy to possess great strength, speed, and energy abilities.

He read on, seeing that the origin deviated just slightly, with her finding the artifact and the whole training ordeal montaged in a series of six panels. She apparently explained to her cousin that he had been put in stasis because of his disease, and the pod had cured him, right before the earthquake diverted the river through the area where the building was. She grabbed his hand, and shared some of her power with him. “We’ll talk later,” she told him. “Right now, help me save the people downstream.” The next few pages were of the two of them using their powers to save people from the flooding and earthquake. It was nice to see they’d updated her age. In the original 50’s and 60’s comics, she’d been a teenager and her cousin the same age. Now, she was five years older than him.

His cellphone rang and he set down the laptop. The caller ID read a familiar name. “Yeah, Joey? What’s up?” he asked.

“You still hanging out on Saturday?” Joey said.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Manny explained. “Shit, as much as I work these days, it’s the only time I can.”

Joey let out a breath of a laugh. “Ain’t that the damn truth.” He coughed. “Well, if you’re busy right now, I’ll let you go.”

“Eh, I think I’m just staying home,” he replied. “Nothing much to do ‘round here anyway.” He smiled. “See you then.” Both knew too well what he spoke of. Southern Illinois was well-known for a few major things: abandoned buildings where industry once was, being twenty miles from the nearest civilized anything. If he was going to a movie, it would be fifteen miles to Edwardsville, or eight miles to East Alton. There was one book store the Illinois side of the Mississippi river.

He watched some shows on the internet. After that, closed his laptop. Normally, later in the week, he found himself not wanting to be bothered. Now, though, the thought of being around friends made him feel lonely. Still, the nearest mall worth going to would be almost thirty miles away in the Chesterfield, Missouri area. Popping his knuckles, he made up his mind. He didn’t want to be home alone. At least the mall, far away as it was, presented the possibility of running into friends.

His gas gauge reading full, he started it up and headed towards the Missouri line. Miles of forested areas passed by as he left his house, which was just short of Jerseyville, and passed through Alton. The riverside showed block after block of abandoned buildings where jobs used to be, some fifty years prior. The riverboat casinos with their flashing lights stood in stark contrast to the rows upon rows of taverns and bars that segmented sections of former places of business. The economy had been rough and he was lucky to have gotten a job that paid well.

After crossing the Clark Bridge, the economy seemed to get much better, with the businesses of the Florissant area passing by. After more than twenty minutes of driving, he made it to Chesterfield and one of the few remaining malls performing well in the downtrodden economy. The mall looked uncrowded as Thursday evenings weren’t major business. The first store he hit was the bookstore, checking out their manga collection. There seemed to be only twelve people walking around the store, and none of them he knew. He read a few volumes before he left the store.

Walking around the mall, looking around, he felt a bit dumb. There weren’t that many things he wanted to buy, and none of his friends seemed to have thought to come out here. He popped into a dollar store and bought a generic cola. The man behind the counter looked at his shirt and smiled. “Hey, nice shirt,” he said. “Haven’t read a comic since I was a kid, but those movies are great.”

The man looked to be nearly fifty. Manny regarded the man’s gray hair and lined face. “What’d you read growing up?”

“Well, I read a bit of everything,” the man admitted. “I can’t say I remember much of it. Nice to see Hollywood finally giving a thought to it, though.”

Manny let out a humph. “You can say that again,” he responded. “I think when I was a kid, there was the 1989 movie and other than that, a bunch of crap. Now it seems like everyone likes ‘em.” He shrugged. “It’s annoying. Where were these movies when I was in high school about two-thousand-one?”

They shared a laugh and he left the dollar store. It raised his spirit to feel reassured he wasn’t alone. Entering the video and game store, he looked through the Blu-ray section. He came across a copy of the nineteen eighty-one Capacitor movie. They’d made a crappy sequel in two-thousand-five, and hinted at a Furious Thunder reboot, but he always enjoyed the original. He hadn’t seen it in years or had this updated disc, so he bought it to give himself a reason to have come.

He started the car and set his bag in the passenger seat. Flipping the radio on, a news story talking about lights in the sky over various parts of the world, and what the experts had to say about such things. Even though it might have been interesting, he set his radio to Bluetooth and played music from his smartphone. Pressing the emergency brake off, he shifted into drive and left the parking lot. The highway back to southern Illinois signaled his experiment had failed and he had to return home. Miles of highway passed once again. Nothing much out of the ordinary appeared until he got about halfway home.

Pulling the car over to the shoulder, he stared at the sky, both awed and weirded out. Streaks of color, vaguely reminiscent of aurora borealis made streaks across the evening blue. However, these were off-colored. Various pinks, oranges, and silvers streaked in with the green and red. It undulated in the sky like some cosmic worm wriggling. Eager, he checked his mirrors and got out. He clicked his phone’s camera app and pointed it at the sky. The image quality wasn’t fantastic, but he wanted to keep a record of this. Some ten minutes later, it faded, and he got back in his car. Since others were stopping and staring, he took his opportunity and left.

Returning home, he uploaded the photo to his laptop and watched videos on the internet. He opened his bought movies and made sure they worked. After ten minutes, he checked the clock. Work the next morning would be a pain in the ass, so he decided to check in for the night. He set his phone’s alarm clock and changed into his pajamas. The usual evening routine came next: brush teeth, change into pajamas, swallow some pain medication since his feet hurt. Once the ibuprofen kicked in, his mind slipped away into dreams.

The alarm interrupted his dream of driving through a vague pseudo-city consisting of several places he had been to, while fleeing some nondescript sense of dread. Waking up was an exercise in lifting himself to a sitting position and waiting for his sense of balance to kick in. Shaking his head to clear it, he stood up and stumbled a few steps before righting himself and walking to the bathroom. The routine became second nature: brush teeth, do business, shower. He had a half hour or so before he had to be there, so he made himself a few sandwiches for breakfast along with some coffee. He took a hit of his inhaler and dressed himself before heading out the door.

The drive to the warehouse reminded him how much he hated it. His work was a decent paying job; it didn’t, however, mean he enjoyed it.  The man at the door scanned his ID badge and he walked over to the counter to be assigned. The woman, a middle-aged smoking victim, regarded him with the same deadpan expression everyone got. The number he got was thirty-three with a ‘C,’ and that meant he would be on shampoo duty. If there existed a better demonstration of how to reduce a man to a robot than the next five hours, he would have loved to see it. His task consisted of taking finished shampoo two-packs, placing them in a cardboard box in their slot, sealing the box in plastic when full, and placing it on a palate for a forklift to retrieve when the palate filled. Other than a single fifteen-minute break, he did nothing else. When the lunch break came, he got in his car and drove to the truck stop across the road and bought a sandwich from the refrigerator along with a generic diet soda. After that, he went back to work and another five hours passed by.

His knees and back ached, and his hands hurt, so when finished he popped two naproxen sodium and finished the last of his green diet soda. It was painful, but at least he was lucky. Some of the other warehouse companies that hired paid only minimum wage. Then again, he rationalized, most of them were staffed by stoners and ex-convicts. On the way home, he stopped by the video rental kiosk and chose some arthouse film one of his friends had recommended. It wasn’t normally the kind of film he watched, but it would be a welcome waste of time. The sun was still up and yet, he wanted nothing more than to plop into his chair and leave the day behind. It bothered him some of his friends worked as much as possible. Other than keeping the house clean—which was the responsibility of everyone with a home—these people exercised for three, sometimes four hours a day, and this is after an eight to ten-hour work shift, and then chores. Maybe by the time they were done, they’d have two, maybe two and a half hours to just relax and do nothing before going to bed at eight-thirty, nine at the absolute latest. His shift started at five-thirty, and he finished at three-thirty. He worked forty hours a week, his default four-day schedule. His arms and back often ached, but damn it, every weekend was three days, he made enough money to pay the bills on a house his parents left him, and that mattered most. Furthermore, if he skipped a few meals here and there, he could save enough money to buy something big. Five years ago, he’d skipped enough meals to buy a two-thousand, five-hundred-dollar gaming laptop. It kicked as much ass as he could hope for. Maybe next year, he would start saving for a new one.

The movie was ok, not exceptional, but he was glad anyway, because it being Thursday, he wouldn’t have to be back at the warehouse until Monday. He pulled out his PC controller and plugged it into his laptop. He decided to play Inindo: Way of the Ninja, a role-playing game from nineteen ninety-three. A relatively obscure game, he’d rented it once as a kid from Blockbuster Video and enjoyed it so much he played it completely at least once a year. It wasn’t particularly breathtaking, but it was a fun way to pass the time. Noticing the clock on the wall was nine P.M., he saved, put his laptop into hibernation, and stretched his limbs. The night was calling and he didn’t want to stay up too late. Just not having to awake at four the next morning felt great. When he turned in the direction of his bookshelf, he saw the book occupying the top slot—volume one of the 2004 run of Capacitor in Furious Thunder Comics. Opening the graphic novel, he remembered the familiar opening. The heroine, Michelle Delanter, with her trademark red hair, reminiscent of the setting sun, flapping in the wind, stood poised to save lives. Her figure, not quite as anorexic as the new run, had the super-skinny frame of a waif model, which, absolutely did not mesh with her powerful expression. He’d been entering college during the original run of these issues, and they were always a fun time. Hard to believe, it had been more than ten long years since then.

Replacing the book, he felt a mild static shock. It annoyed him, and he started towards the bathroom when he felt a mild burning sensation wash over him. He pulled his shirt off, having stripped down to his underwear. Furiously he slapped his hands on his torso, trying to locate if something was injured or in some way damaged. A few seconds passed with the feeling increasing before fading entirely. His head felt slightly dizzy and then became normal again. “What…” he uttered. Before he had a chance to finish the thought, he felt a yanking, a pulling. It came from his abdomen. In a scene of utter impossibility, he looked down to the source of the feeling, and saw—as he continued to feel—his large bulbous fat gut drawing in. His entire torso shrank before his very eyes. “No, oonooo!” Trapped in a panicked thought, that he was shriveling up into a corpse somehow, he grabbed and pinched at skin, pulling and yanking, trying desperately to fight it. After a few moments, there wasn’t enough fat left to grab handfuls of. He gasped and panted, wide-eyed at how small his torso had become. Now the pulling came over his limbs. From his waist to feet, and shoulder to fingertip, his flesh tightened and retreated. Coarse hair disappeared, scant, fair body hair appeared in its place. His mallet-like hand with stubby sausage fingers turned into a dainty palm with slender pianist digits extending from them. Legs became thin, smooth, with only faint hair that wasn’t too noticeable. Giant fat feet shrank several shoe sizes. Finally, a twinge travelled up his chest and to the top of his head. His saggy man-breasts became recognizable ‘B-cup’ women’s breasts. Hair grazed his shoulders. “Yeep!” he shouted, tugging at the intrusion, only to see the reddish hair attached to his own head. The voice registered clearly in an adult woman’s range. He stumbled to the bathroom mirror and stared.

Twenty-year-old, redheaded, superhero, fictional character, Michelle Delanter, or, an incredible facsimile, stared back at him. He shook his head, slamming his eyes shut. No. This is impossible. He had spent years of his life thinking skeptically. It was the reason he’d left religion behind. No, what happened was, he’d gone insane. This was a hell of a hallucination; he hadn’t even had a history of mental illness. Sure, when he was ten, he had a phase where he wanted everyone to call him Batman, but even then, he knew he wasn’t turned into an imaginary character. He ran his hands over his face. The red-headed woman—who, now that he thought about it, had no reason to be a fictional character—rubbed her face the same way. He felt up and down the body, and sure enough, the hands in the mirror moved as well. He took a deep breath and let it go; this was an amazing degree of insanity. He’d really flipped. Not only had he somehow developed a separate personality, but the hallucination was so good, he couldn’t think his way out of it.

A thought occurred to him. Had he been this red-haired woman all along? He fumbled through his wallet. His driver’s license was the same as it was that morning. Manfred Voren, Illinois Driver’s License, five foot nine, two hundred eighty pounds. He took a selfie, making sure to only photograph from the neck up, and sent it to a friend of his. “What do you see here?” he included with the text.

Ten seconds later, his friend Jake responded. “Cute girl,” he said. “Nice hair. She your new girlfriend?”

“She’s a friend,” he replied. He set the phone aside. He sat down on the toilet lid. Either he hallucinated the text, he figured, or else Jake had really seen the girl. That wasn’t evidence enough, he knew, but it was a good start. He honestly expected, had he simply gone crazy, for Jake to say something about why Manny would send a photo of himself. Still, he couldn’t trust his own mind. This wasn’t possible. He had a mountain of evidence to suggest he had spent thirty-one years as Manfred Voren. Thinking about it, he’d never so much as seen a single redhead, anywhere in his life that looked like her.

He sent the photo to his perverted friend John. “Would you do her?”

“Sure, I would,” he replied moments later. “Who’s she?”

“Someone I had a pleasant conversation with earlier,” Manny texted. “Has anyone like her ever been around us before?”

“No, dude, I wish,” John replied. “Don’t miss the opportunity on this one.”

He set the phone down. Now he had more evidence. Still not enough to positively rule out his insanity, but two separate friends acknowledged that the photo he remembered taking a minute before was both not him, and not someone they’d seen before. Either he was insane enough to have hallucinated: transforming, taking a photo of the result, as well as his friends reactions, or something absolutely not possible was actually happening. He still didn’t want to accept what had never happened before in human history. He slapped himself to see if he was dreaming; he wasn’t.

He stood in front of the mirror. In his mind, he could see an image of himself as this woman. He focused hard on the image. He imagined it turning back into him. Nothing happened. After a few minutes, he closed his eyes and saw the image even clearer. He did it again, and still nothing. He imagined both images side by side—himself, as he was before, and her. Nothing happened, except this time, he felt a presence in the back of his head. Not like a person or spirit, but as if a switch or lever had magically appeared in his brain. Obviously, it didn’t have a literal appearance of such a device, or any appearance at all, but he noticed it only when he summoned both images side by side. With thoughts, he manipulated it, imagined it changing. Once more, nothing happened. Almost a half hour passed with nothing changing.

Opening his eyes, he stared once more at the red-haired woman he’d become. If this didn’t change, if he couldn’t change back, he’d have a lot of hell to deal with. Sooner or later, he figured he’d wake up in a nuthouse or a courthouse, having done something like beating a guy to death because he hallucinated the devil in him or some crap like that. Or, if the absurd turned out to be true, he would have no identifying papers as this woman, and no history whatsoever. He’d have no solutions. If he somehow overcame these problems, he’d be spending the rest of his life as this woman. Could he really commit to that? Could he really pull the trigger?

Oh my god, he thought.

It was a trigger!

He coughed to calm himself. Okay, he rationalized. Let’s assume what, again, I know to be impossible, is really happening. Let’s say I’m somehow turning into a woman and back again, his mind fired. Wouldn’t it be damn inconvenient should, say, a random thought morph you in the middle of a crowded room? He was the kind of guy to imagine spiders crawling on the walls at random. He’d hate to have the kind of power to do that. So, he guessed, should there be a fail-safe, to guarantee that no random imagining of himself would cause the change to occur? He focused on the twinge in his head, the feeling the…whatever the hell it was. He imagined her morphing straight back into him. This time, he didn’t imagine himself manipulating the…well, hell, he just decided to call it the Trigger. He committed. He decided, firmly and completely, yes, he wanted to be fat, almost thirty, underpaid and overworked, Illinois native Manfred Voren. He felt the Trigger change to a different state.

Like a bad CGI film, his body morphed back into Manfred Voren. The entire process took eleven seconds. His fingers were fat again, his gut stuck out again, and his penis and testicles had returned, along with his ungainly body hair. He could have cheered when he became normal again. He had never been so glad to be overweight.

And then, his curiosity got the better of him. Oh hell, he realized. He couldn’t let it go. He stepped on the scale, and it read two seventy-nine. Hey, he realized, he’d lost two pounds from the month before. In his mind, he imagined the woman again. He pulled the Trigger by committing to the transformation. Hey, as far as insane ideas went, it was convenient, the equivalent of an “are you sure” before deleting the file from the hard drive. It snapped into its previous state, and the change happened again. This time, the burning was replaced by a tingling, almost like the cold mixed with electric prickling around fur rugs. He stared in bewilderment as the scale plummeted to one hundred and thirty-seven pounds. Wow, not just impossible, he thought, but ultra super-duper impossible, violating the Law of Conservation of Mass impossible. He reversed the transformation and the scale climbed again.

He decided to go to bed. This insanity could wait until the morning. With thoughts raging on his mind, it took quite a while, but he managed to slip off to dream.         

The sun’s light peering in through the window and shining in his face woke him up. He rubbed his belly and face. He was still Manny and still fat. How much of what happened the night before had been real? He yawned and stretched. Stumbling to the bathroom, he splashed water on his face. Mental images of himself turning into the woman from the night before returned, and with it, a familiar presence. He pulled the Trigger once again. Eleven seconds later, the red-haired woman stared back at him in the mirror, blinking when he blinked.  The possibility that this was a hallucination hadn’t diminished much. Much of what he saw continued to be impossible per all the scientific evidence he knew. He had two pieces of evidence he couldn’t necessarily trust because he could have hallucinated them as well. A decision entered his mind. Since what was going on didn’t appear to be harmful or destructive yet, one of the easiest ways to prove it real would be to do things that it would be utterly impossible for a hallucination to deliver. To get there, he had to know if he had been turned into Capacitor, or just a red-haired woman.

Based on his current supermodel-thin build, it would be utterly impossible for an ordinary woman with red hair to lift a refrigerator. He knelt in front of it, and wrapped his arms around the large metal rectangular prism. He bent his womanly legs and expected his back to scream at him. Instead, he felt weight resistance on par with lifting a beach ball. At fully standing height, he yelped and immediately had to avoid three problems at once: hitting it on the ceiling, dropping it, or banging it into the wall. It felt like carrying a bag of groceries. So, not just an ordinary red-haired woman, he thought, but actually The Capacitor. Gingerly, he set down the fridge. Got it.

He walked around the house a bit, curious as to how many of her powers he had in this form. If this were really happening, he took mental note, he’d already demonstrated strength. She had several more.  He stared all around, trying to activate her see-through vision. What the writers had made sure to do, he remembered from the comics, was not to give her x-ray vision. Her vision was a form of psychic remote viewing, since they didn’t want to imply her eyes gave off harmful ionizing radiation. After long minutes of trying, he found wanting to see further caused layers to become transparent, allowing him to see behind and beyond them. With effort, he gained another small, possibly unreliable, piece of evidence that this wasn’t a hallucination. One layer at a time, he saw past the wall of his house, past the walls of the neighbor across the street’s house, and into the books on a shelf perpendicular to his vision in one of their rooms. One book, he had never once read, The Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway, he saw the cover, then the first page. The next page was backwards, obviously, when the first page became invisible as he saw past it. Exercising his will, his vision returned to himself, having remembered the text of the page as best he could.

He downloaded a digital version of the book and read the first page. The text matched what he saw. Alright, I couldn’t have made that up, he realized. Unless somehow, he had read the book somehow and forgot that he read it while still remembering the text, which struck him as unlikely. He still couldn’t rule it out, but now, more evidence mounted. The best evidence, he figured, would be to act as though it were real and see how far it went. Certainly, real life broke down all barriers and the truth eventually came out. If he ventured out into the world, and this was a hallucination, it would come crashing down, wouldn’t it? Sure, it could be disastrous, but if he had the insanity to hallucinate to this degree, what could he trust? It also meant, the farthest and most unlikely scenario could be true. Something impossible could truly be happening, and the implications, he scarcely wanted to contemplate, for the whole universe was involved.

Turning back into himself, he decided to push it. He transformed parts of his body into hers. Individual feet at first, then hands. He could even transfer much of his body fat to her form. This seemed practical, as it meant his clothes would fit her, but at the same time, it bothered him. He thought about it. Ultimately, he shook it off in favor of more pressing matters. Her being fat allowed him to put his clothes on and head outside to do some work. Grabbing the car keys, he headed for the park near Wood River, Illinois. There, he could find a quiet corner of the large open park and practice.

The wooded areas had quite a few places off the beaten path where people hardly went. In a cluster of trees, he stood, focusing on what he knew. Alright, he thought, one of the most basic abilities she had was flight. She could, in the comics, fly incredibly fast. He focused on his presence and imagined himself moving. At first, just as he expected, nothing happened. Practice made perfect. It was just like riding a bike.

After twenty boring minutes of trying different mental techniques, he focused on deciding to levitate upwards. Leaves blew away from him in a circle, as if he had a propeller blowing. His feet left the ground by an inch. I’m getting it! He thought. Then he fell backwards onto his butt. He stood, brushed himself off. Fly, already, he mentally commanded. Upwards! Fly!

As though fired from a cannon he shot up. Uncontrolled at first, he slammed into a tree face first, having surprisingly tested his durability and upon issuing a mental yell of “stop!” he came crashing down with a thump. The thought occurred to him that direction and speed may not be the same mental process. He indicated the direction of up, and decided. Simultaneously, he indicated a speed of slightly above gravity and committed. Like a balloon, he levitated to the height of the tree. At the top, he changed his speed to exactly the speed of gravity. He came to a dead stop and floated alongside the treetop. Left, he focused and thought. Slow. He hovered in the direction of the next tree. What surprised him was that he continued facing the original direction as he moved sideways. He had to turn his body midair to face the direction he moved; it wasn’t automatic. Touching the tree, he stopped and lowered himself. Finesse and fine control would have to wait. He had other powers to practice. What surprised him was that flight worked much like the “trigger” that activated his power: he had to mentally force it so a random thought couldn’t interrupt it.

Sensory powers were her next major task. Sure, he knew, he’d tested her sight, but now, he had hearing to test. This was easy to activate. Unfortunately, it was hard to focus. A thunderstorm erupted in his head. He heard everything from nearby cars starting all the way down to the footfall of a squirrel. Drowning out everything except people’s conversations proved hard. It wasn’t like the comics at all. Sure, with effort, he could hear what they were saying separately by paying attention to it, but just like regular hearing, everything else mixed in.

Ironically, the easiest powers to learn were what he expected to be the hardest. Energy projection, which in the comics, manifested as her being able to emit laser-like beams from her hands and directly in front of her eyes, wasn’t hard at all. He thought of the type of energy to be fired. In this case, a powerful beam of laser light. He pointed at a log. Making the decision, the tip of his finger glowed red and a dot appeared on the log, slowly burning. He decided to increase power. The light turned from red to blue, and it ate through the log in seconds. Once stopped focusing, it vanished. The other, super speed, almost felt like turning a knob. He found the world frozen around him as he focused on it. The only disorienting part was movement. He found he could see and process all the information around him, even though he felt the tremendous speed at which he ran. The logical problem was that his clothes didn’t rip off. The only answer he could come up with was that the invulnerability extended somewhat during running.

He shifted back into his normal male form. Within twenty minutes of testing individual body parts, he found he needed to transform his brain into hers to have any abilities at all. Furthermore, he found he needed at least half his internal organs to be changed to have strength or flight, but sensory powers only required his eyes and ears to change. After a few minutes of testing his sensory powers in his normal form, he realized, it bothered him somehow. It didn’t feel right to him to use powers in his male form. He pondered it a few moments, but shook his head. He had other work to do. Namely, the thing he wanted to do was, in fiction, usually the first thing the hero learned not to do. He’d read enough comics and manga to learn that one of the very first lessons a protagonist learned was not to use their powers for self-interest. It was wrong. To an extent, he knew why it was wrong. But as someone who worked ten-hour days, for less than fifteen dollars an hour, he didn’t care.

Fortunately, for him, the cities along the Alton stretch of the Mississippi River had one thing in abundance: riverboat casinos. He found one and parked. What game would give him the greatest advantage? He guessed he would start with blackjack, just because it was the one with the rules he remembered the best. The security guard didn’t even card him. His goatee seemed to be proof enough of age. Two stops he made first: the ATM, and then the cage. He got a hundred dollars in casino chips.

He wandered past the slot machines and found the blackjack table. It was early enough in the day that he was the only one sitting at the table. Knowing what he knew about security cameras and goons wandering the floor, he made a deliberate show of sitting down with his hands above the table and placed his palms flat. This was to provide a visual record, if accused of cheating, that not once did he have his hands below the table, eliminating the possibility of using a card counting device. The dealer, a man in his mid-forties, regarded him. “Hello, sir, this is blackjack,” the man introduced. “How much would you like to bet?”

Manfred set down fifty dollars in chips. The dealer handed him two cards, face up, a three, and a seven. Before the dealer could pull out his own cards, Manny quietly used his see-through vision. The dealer was going to get a nine and a six. The dealer put one of his cards face up and the other face down. The dealer was in a better position than him now, closer to twenty-one. The next card was a seven. “Hit,” he told the dealer. Now he was at seventeen, forcing the dealer to hit to try and beat him. He saw, however, the dealer’s next card and had to force himself not to smile. It was a jack, worth ten, putting the dealer at twenty-five, a bust.

“Good job,” the dealer said. “Table pays two to one, so you get a hundred.” He handed Manny a hundred-dollar chip. Manny put down the new chip with the fifty and went another round. The dealer was going to get a seven and a queen: seventeen. Manny looked at his cards to come. He could get a two, a five, an eight, and a three. He would beat the dealer again. The dealer whistled. “Two in a row, that’s something.” He looked further ahead. The dealer would have a nine, and a queen, putting him at nineteen. Meanwhile, he could get a six, a two, a king, and an ace. He would lose either way. He pulled his chips aside and bet fifty before going another round. The cards were dealt. “Ah, I guess no one can win ‘em all.”

“I’m still in the positive, so, I’m going to keep going,” Manny replied.

The dealer shrugged. “Sure.”

This went on for a while. He would bet big when he knew he would win, and bet small when he knew he would lose. He had to stay under some amount just over eleven hundred dollars, because above that, he’d have to fill out a tax form. Maybe he’d do that at another casino, but right now, he had to maximize his starting bet at another casino. After nine hundred dollars, he stepped aside. After cashing his chips in, he pocketed the money and headed out to his car. He put the money in the middle compartment. He stared at it. Two weeks’ pay after taxes still fell short of what he had. He drove off, headed another ten or so miles to another casino. The Mississippi River had several of these to choose from.

Sitting down at another blackjack table, he sat across from another dealer, and at least two other people sat here. Normally, it would be hard to consider how far ahead to look at the cards, but somehow, her brain was smarter than his. The other people noticed his incredible luck, and he tried to minimize it by placing more on losing bets. After quite a bit of winning, some eleven thousand dollars, security approached and asked him to leave. He went to the main cage, cashed out, and was handed a form.

“Your Social Security card and Driver’s License, sir?” the cashier asked.

He opened his wallet and produced them. “Death and taxes,” he joked, handing them over. He filled out the form, and handed it back. An uncomfortable few minutes passed. “I’d like my winnings in a check, please, minus a thousand in cash, if you could.”

The cashier smiled, returning his identification. “Certainly, sir,” he said. A few minutes later, and he had a check in his pocket and more cash in his wallet. He also had a security escort to his car. He drove off and didn’t stop until he got to a branch of his bank, some four miles away. Shutting the engine off, he realized his heart was pounding.

He leaned back in his chair. A ragged breath escaped. He had to remind himself nothing was coming after him. He had gotten away with it. Obviously, he figured, otherwise security would’ve pulled him aside then and there.  He went up to the ATM and deposited the check. He doubted he could handle explaining things to a live person. He could scarcely believe that almost half a year’s money had entered his possession. Starting the car again, a thought occurred to him.

Assuming this is real, he realized, it would be absurd to believe it would only happen to him. He’d gotten so mentally high from the winnings, and so distracted by the possibility of insanity, that the basic hadn’t even struck him until this point. After all, he’d unlocked more evidence: the likelihood of him hallucinating turning into another person was high. However, for the insanity option to be the truth, now, he’d have to have somehow beaten the incredible odds of casino blackjack consistently enough to have won almost twelve thousand dollars. Also, he realized he’d only been in the close, Alton casino. He’d never been in this other one. So, he would’ve had to hallucinate something he’d never seen before, in significant detail. So far, he’d made a lot of money, and assuming this wasn’t a giant hallucination, he could make more. But what bothered him is the fact that, he knew what would happen next.

He’d read enough comics to know that, should he decide to use his powers, he’d be pulled into a situation he had little control of. It rattled him, knowing that, if enough people developed powers like his, society could very well collapse. He’d read plenty of comics and even some novels, and almost all of them had the same message: society can’t handle these things. The last thing he wanted was for the world to turn into Sengoku-era Japan, with local leaders fighting wars with each other. Another disturbing thought was, he could turn into Capacitor. Michelle Delanter was a very powerful super. She had the standard flying brick power set, and fought godlike beings before. In the comics, there had been a great deal of fights she’d been in. Unfortunately, her defining characteristic was that she always had an enemy to fight, many of which were more powerful than her. Obviously, he knew, in those stories, she always won. This wasn’t a story; this was life. He had no guarantees of winning. There were no mentors to teach him how to fight as a super. He had no one to help him learn.

This was new territory. He sighed and shook his head. “Dammit,” he thought out loud. He started the car. He felt the weight of possible events to come pushing down on him. If only he could wish it away, he believed. Then a mental image flashed through his mind. Some super out of a young adult novel obliterating the entire city and its surroundings. The old him would’ve been a victim, swept away like a sandcastle, no way to fight back. Now, he might find himself having to do battle, but he wouldn’t be a helpless victim. In fact, it might turn out to be his only tool to survive.

He returned home. If trouble would come to him sooner or later, he would be prepared. He had to know how complex her powers were and to what degree they worked.

One of the first things he tested was her intelligence. Was she as smart as him? Was she smarter than him? He had to know. In college, he’d completed calculus one with a ‘B’ and that utterly thrilled him. Once he found out he wouldn’t have to complete calculus two he almost danced a jig. Now, he dug around the internet until he came across a year two calculus primer. Since it’d been almost a decade, and his math skills were rusty, he began reading through the descriptions. The websites had various levels of descriptiveness, so if he came across one that didn’t seem technical enough, he found one that was.

After twenty minutes of reading, his mind snapped back to self-awareness. Suddenly, he became aware the math fascinated him. As far as he knew, it never occurred to him that math could fascinate anyone. More importantly, not once had any of the topics that bewildered him even remotely troubled her. The wiki for Furious Thunder indicated that all the versions of her possessed some degree of enhanced intellect, most being a four out of seven—with two being an average person. The latest incarnation, however, had been upgraded to a five—marked by the descriptor, “high genius.”

“She possessed an intellect much higher than the common man,” he read, “even before becoming enhanced. Afterward, however, her brilliance was brought to nigh-superhuman levels. Although not as smart as beings such as Psi-Storm, she can outsmart many of the cleverest enemies.”

Clicking back to the tab with the math instruction, he clicked on a video of a woman explaining some of the history of calculus. I don’t know if I’d wear that, he thought.

At once he hit the spacebar, pausing the video, and leaning back in his chair.

He’d just imagined himself, in her form, wearing the woman’s clothes, and found himself not enjoying that idea. He’d analyzed what he would look like in Capacitor form, dressed like that, and it bothered him. He’d judged her clothes. That thought caught him by surprise.

I’ve never cared about fashion or how clothes look, he thought.

A gasp almost escaped his mouth. The answer immediately presented itself. When I’m physically her, he realized, specifically, the brain, she has a different gender identity than I do. It would have been confusing if he didn’t currently have the intelligence to understand it. As far as he could tell, even though the brain was the seat of consciousness, there was no break in awareness. Granted, he had to admit, it had only been a few days. Still, it was no Jekyll & Hyde; there were no two people. There was just one person, with two different forms. It’s like two different word processors on the same computer, he realized. They have different features, but they share the same basic essence.

It occurred to him that he’d shifted some excess weight to her form. Even though he did it to make his clothes fit her, it triggered the same body image issues he had as a guy, but worse. Still, at the very least, it made it convenient that his large pants fit her.

His pants had slid down. He stood there and pulled his pants back up. A thumb and index finger slid into the gap where previously, it had been snug. Standing up, he pushed the chair aside and backed up. His male form re-emerged as he shifted back to normal, even transferring his excess weight back. Checking the waist of the pants, he coughed and shook his head. Somehow, in less than twenty-four hours, her enhanced body burned through enough fat to make his pants loose.

Shifting back into her form, he clasped his hands over his face, breathed in and out, and sat down on his bed. This would be one hell of a learning curve.