Super & Real
Davis Wilson looked up from his desk. One of his superior officers approached from another desk. He set aside his paperwork and turned his chair. “Yes?”
“Have you got a report on the superpower issue?” The statement came from one of his supervisors from the office that dealt with the information reported to the President. The older man in the expensive business suit had hands on hips, and the bags under his eyes told Davis that he hadn’t slept.
“What I have so far,” Davis replied, “is confirmation from a number of sources at both NASA and CERN that the origin of the Lights was a strange burst of particles from a hole in spacetime above the Earth’s atmosphere.” He shuffled around his desk until he came across several printouts of email conversations. “According to our branch offices in nine different nations, there appears to be a higher concentration of these people demonstrating superhuman abilities where lights directly passed overhead, although we are finding these people everywhere.”
“One of our friends in the CIA told us that there are those mobilizing supers,” The man asked. “How true is that?”
“Most of the activity seems to be low-level gangs that organize around a member who demonstrates powers,” Davis explained. “The strangest case, however, is this man.” He produced a printout of a spec sheet on a Wall Street billionaire in an expensive suit. “Jericho Wilhelm Torvalds, basic ultra-rich guy, no connections to mafia or organized crime, grandson of Johann Torrell, head of Torrell Group. Prior to the Lights, he followed a basic rich-douchebag pattern. Trips to Italy, Germany, then back to New York.”
He produced a second, longer printout. “After the Lights, he makes a doctor appointment, then proceeds to travel, in rapid succession, to Chicago, then Pittsburgh, Atlanta, London, Mexico City, and Los Angeles, all in the span of two weeks.”
Davis’s superior whistled in astonishment. “So, what’s the deal?”
“It doesn’t seem to be assassination or enlistment,” Davis corrected. “They are neither depowered nor killed, and so far, he seems to have given them money and asked for nothing tangible in return. They are not acting as though they’ve been recruited.” He set the printout down. “It’s as if he simply wanted contact with them.”
The supervisor thought a moment. “What if he doesn’t have to steal their abilities?”
“What do you mean?” Davis kind-of knew the answer already.
“Haven’t there been stories where someone could copy other people’s powers?”
Davis nodded. “He could be collecting abilities,” he said. “So, what do you want me to do?”
“Torvalds will be investigated by Reynolds,” the man replied. “You’ll be looking into this.” He set a file folder in front of Davis.
Davis opened it. It was a picture of a red-haired woman, garbed in thick sweatpants and boots, pushing a semi-truck out of some flood waters. What caught his attention was the twisted steel of the vehicle’s frame bent around the hands, not cutting them. “Where was this taken?”
“Southern Kansas,” the man said. “That’s not all. There’s photographic evidence that she flew away.”
Davis read the preliminary report. “Facial recognition…negative?” He looked up. “You checked everything?”
“This person doesn’t exist,” his superior said. “They’ve shown up in about a half-dozen locations, but a lot of the information shows them returning to the area around southern Illinois.”
“Or they have the ability to disguise their true self,” Davis finished. “In fact, the person behind that face could be literally anyone.”
“I know you’re not up on pop culture much anymore,” the man replied, “but do you think you know who that person is?”
He looked at a few more photographs, most of them not in very good lighting conditions. “Flight, strength, invulnerability,” he thought out loud. “Not to mention, energy manipulation. I might be wrong, but that, combined with the red hair, reminds me of the Capacitor character from Furious Comics.”
The man pulled a notepad out of his suit pocket and began scribbling notes. “Get on that, and I’ll get on this,” he said. “Wilson, one last thing. Try to be subtle about it.”
Davis looked up from the photographs. “So, do I just fly into St. Louis and start hanging out in the towns around?”
His supervisor was gone by the time he finished his sentence. A skeptical sigh left his mouth. Not since the time he’d been shotgun on a mission to track down a series of mafia targets had he seen such little to go on. This person had their picture taken by many surveillance cameras around disasters. The amateur evidence taken by cell phones on the site of tragedies popped up on the internet, but nobody had a clue. Getting his phone out, he made reservations on a flight into Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. After rising from his desk, Davis made his way into the equipment room and got his FBI standard equipment bag for a reconnaissance mission. The internet would make his job easier, but right now, he wanted to get some research done. Odds were, if the true person behind the super kept returning to southern Illinois, it meant a base of operations. Experience told him, if the face didn’t register any records of any kind, it had to be a disguise. Likely, he knew, the real person looked much different, otherwise it would have nailed at least a few similarities. Mentally tossing around hypotheticals, if all of this were really happening, the person behind the flying woman could even be someone not female.
Sitting in his car, he pulled out his electronic cigarette and puffed a few. After setting the radio and his cellphone in the charger, he played some anime themes and sat back in the chair, trying to relax. The last few weeks taxed the crap out of his entire agency. His desk had been making frantic phone calls and setting up every possible conversation with every possible scientific entity. Congress had tasked the FBI with investigating every possible angle. He hadn’t had a short, easy day in a long time. Driving home allowed him to wind down as he reminisced about his college days, watching cartoons and studying for tests. Walking in the front door, he set his stuff down on the table and loosened his tie.
“Hey! How was work?” his wife asked.
“Rather calm, for a change,” Davis replied. “I tell you, being put on the super powers thing has been a hell of a trial.” He pulled a glass out of the cabinet and poured some cola. “No more sitting in the office for a while, now I have to go to Illinois to investigate this person who’s been flying around saving lives.”
His wife Yvonne smiled and breathed out a laugh. “So, they’ve decided to be a hero? What a terrible person,” she sarcastically lamented. “So, when are you going to be back?”
Davis shook his head. “Dunno.” He held up his glass. “Tell you what, though, next vacation I get, we’re getting the fuck out of town.” After finishing his soda, he took his equipment into the master bedroom and disrobed, getting into his pajamas. From there, he set his laptop up. “What’s for dinner?”
“Lasagna,” Yvonne replied.
“Sounds awesome,” he said. It struck him as a good idea to investigate the character this super-powered woman seemed, at least superficially, to be based on. He downloaded some Furious Thunder comics. Reading reminded him of why he had gotten out of the superhero comics thing. A major factor that turned him off was the repetition. Most of the major arcs seemed to be self-contained, but the status quo always won—that is to say, everything always went back to a standard normal.
Most of the versions of the character had a few standard abilities, at least as far as American superheroes went. The strength, durability, speed, and energy manipulation were all par for the course, with such powers being a dime a dozen. What caught his attention, was the enhanced intelligence of the character. Sure, people wrote the same dumb storylines they always wrote, but what would superhuman, or even posthuman intellect look like in the real world? Would it be like a person, but smarter, or would it give rise to thought processes normal people literally could not comprehend?
After about forty-five minutes, his wife brought in a plate of lasagna and corn and set it on the table by his laptop. She leaned over. “Which comic is that?” she asked.
“At least some evidence points to this character,” He pointed at the screen, “being the basis for the person I have to investigate.”
She let out a whistle. “Wow, a fictional character brought to life,” she thought out loud. “There are a few I’d like to turn into.”
“Funny you mentioned that,” he replied. “There’s no evidence this person ever existed before the lights, so there’s a good chance you hit the nail on the head. She might actually be a disguise or a transformation.”
“Won’t that make it harder to find them?” she asked.
He took a drink of the soda she brought. “Possibly,” he mused. “Still, the internet might do two-thirds of my work for me.”
“Just be careful,” she said, draping her arms around him while he ate. “We’re in a brand-new world. Just don’t get killed.”
The non-stop flight from the nation’s capital to Lambert Airport in Saint Louis took Davis Wilson somewhere between two and three hours. He hadn’t been entirely sure, because somewhere in the middle, he fell asleep for an unknown length of time. He opened his mouth and, using the trained motion, released the pressure in his ears. A simple clearing of his throat, and he waited for the crowd to thin before he got up to collect his luggage and disembark. Only by means of his constant struggle at emotional detachment did he avoid the pandemonium that had plagued the world since the Lights in the Sky. The agency had gotten onto the subject immediately, when news agencies hadn’t even gotten to the guy who could set himself on fire at will. Many different religions started a bunch of shit right after the event, with every apocalyptic nutcase raging their end-times hormones on Facebook and Twitter.
One of the major news agencies, on a television in the lobby outside the terminal gate, displayed the latest story—about fifty religious freaks went up into the Arizona desert and let some Manson-wannabe with electrical powers zap them to hell. He powered on his cell phone, removed it from his belt clip, and dialed.
“Hey, I’m off the plane in Saint Louis,” he said, when she picked up.
“Try not to get lost,” Yvonne said. “Or killed.”
He rolled his eyes. “In this brave new world?” He chided. “I can’t promise you I’ll make it to the next phone call.”
After completing the pleasantries, he hung up and called the local branch office and spoke to the liaison his supervisor had given him to. The man indicated that a fellow agent had driven to the airport and was waiting at the correct baggage claim. Upon reporting in, he went to the baggage claim and saw a man holding a sign.
He raised his hand. “Here,” he said.
The man put the sign down and extended his hand. “Agent Steve Vincent,” Steve said. “I’m here to escort you to the motel and set you up for your investigation.”
“Davis Wilson,” he said, collecting his luggage.
“So,” Steve said, leading him to the rental car. “You’re investigating this woman who’s been flying around?”
“Yeah,” he said, answering. “Nobody’s been so noticeable as her. Most of the powered individuals have been keeping it to themselves, and a few are even pulling all sorts of criminal shit. Hardly anyone’s behaving like the comic books.”
“Isn’t that weird?” Steve asked.
Davis thought about it. “I guess it is,” he agreed. “I mean, seventy years of super-this and amazing-that, and this woman’s flying around pulling trucks out of rivers, and people out of fires, and she’s not even wearing a costume?”
“What do you mean, not wearing a costume?” Steve asked.
“Well, you can walk into Walmart and buy what she’s wearing off the discount rack,” he clarified. “In the comics, everyone wears a freakin’ costume.”
“Must be a cheap bastard,” Steve said.
“At least I can get behind that,” he agreed.
They found the rental car in its spot, dark blue and very average looking. Davis loaded his luggage into the back seat and they drove to a cheap motel on the Illinois side of the river, some fifteen minutes away. They unloaded Davis’s luggage and several other cases of equipment in the trunk, into the room. Then they unpacked everything and set up all the major equipment. Ultra high-end DSLR cameras with lenses in the thousands of dollars range were set up to charge, Video cameras both big and small, with portable microphones and even infrared lenses scattered the bed. There were audio recording devices and electromagnetic field detectors, and weapons too. Guns of various types, both pistols and rifles, and tasers as well. After prepping all the major equipment, they set up the secure internet connection and the secure laptop computer.
“Alright, you know what to do,” Steve said, extending his hand. “If you can get the subject to come in, or you can somehow force them to come in, we’ve got rooms set up. Just give me a call. You’ll be expected to report in at certain times to show that you aren’t dead or compromised.”
Davis shook his hand. “Thank you,” he said, “and I hope I don’t need any of the guns here.” He laughed, they both did. Steve pulled out his cell phone and made a phone call, and in twenty minutes, the agency sent a car to pick him up. Free to work at last, Davis sat down and pulled up social media, looking up any example of the woman he’d seen in pictures before. Sure enough, social media had lit up with dozens of cell phone camera photos, of varying quality, and her face and fingerprints were everywhere. Despite dozens of independent analyses, neither piece of evidence revealed any history of any kind prior to the Lights. The advantage of social media was that each photo had many geographic indications. Even when there wasn’t a label, it proved trivial to compare background shops to Google Earth. Each of the times she disappeared, there had been a pattern. After two hours of comparing photos and videos to each other, he picked it up.
He had a map of the area from the office and he tacked it up on the wall. Each time he found a definitive location to one of the photos of this mystery hero woman arriving, he looked to see if it was in this area or somewhere else in the country. He made a comparison of each point in the local area of southern Illinois, and each point outside it. So far, there had been several trips to California—which corresponded to the areas affected by wildfires—to several flooded areas in the south and along the coastlines, and to six random places in Canada and Mexico. None of them fit a pattern. For southern Illinois, however, it couldn’t be more obvious—each parking lot, abandoned building, or storefront, was in a town within a half hour’s drive of the Alton/Godfrey area.
“You’re flying back near home,” he thought out loud, “then turning back into whoever you really are, then entering a vehicle and driving the rest of the way.” It was a brilliant piece of evidence. It was as genius as it was obvious: the person behind the red-haired heroine wasn’t concerned about people learning a secret identity, because she had no identity. She was no one, connected to nobody important. As long as nobody knew the man—or woman—behind the face, the true person was home free, and so far, they’d managed to blend in well.
He made a memo on his phone of all the stores in the backgrounds of the pictures she appeared in. Setting the GPS, he got in his car and plugged his phone in. Four hours later, he had a pile of tapes in his car from copies made of security camera footage. Upon his return to the motel room, he called Steve. “Yeah, this is Agent Wilson,” he told his liaison. “I need a few more TV’s and VCRs to look over security footage.” While he waited for his liaison to arrive, he walked to a grocery store not far from his room, bought a footlong deli sandwich and a six pack of iced coffee. Chowing down, he put the first tape on and fast-forwarded to fifteen minutes before the confirmed arrival.
In about an hour, a van pulled up and the doorbell rang. “Tell me what you’ve got,” Steve said, as men unloaded the other TV and VCR into the room.
“I’m convinced this person is someone else turning into her,” he said. “At the very least, it’s a great disguise.”
Steve folded his arms. “What makes you say that?”
Davis blinked. “Well, I mean,” he explained, “I’ve already figured out that this person lives here in southern Illinois, about a half hour drive from the Alton area by the riverside.” He looked up from the screen. “They’re absolutely not worried about their real self being found out. The only way that makes sense, is if they know that this red-haired woman has no paper trail of any kind.”
“Still,” Steve argued, “isn’t this person making a lot of mistakes?”
Davis thought about it. A thought struck him. “Not if you consider they haven’t found anyone who can seriously challenge them,” he replied. “Think about it: they know how little the government trusts people. They know how unlikely it is that we’ve recruited a lot of superpowered people. She’s counting on her powers to make all the difference.”
Steve accepted that as satisfactory, and, after the men set up the second screen, left with the others. Davis set the second video on, and fast-forwarded. The rest of the evening, until nine at night, was watching the two videos, from fifteen minutes before to a half-hour after. There were seven vehicles in both videos at the same time. He went to bed.
When Davis got up, he showered, ate the other half sandwich, pounded two iced coffees, and went back to watching videos. There were four vehicles in common in the next two videos. At four in the afternoon, he drove to a big box store and bought twenty new notebooks after having filled the last bunch. He got back and went back to watching videos. By nine, there were two videos left, and two vehicles in common. By eight o’clock the next morning, he had found one vehicle that had appeared in all the tapes he’d collected.
He let out a sigh of relief and jerked off in the shower to celebrate. After dressing, he had more field work to do. The car was registered to a Manfred Voren, and he even had an address. This was too easy, he figured. This had to be a trap. After a few moments’ consideration, he managed to change his own mind. This person’s yearly income was sub thirty-thousand, he saw. The man only had a house because his mother had paid it off, then died, a few years earlier. He worked at a warehouse for barely over minimum wage and had shit insurance. From driving around the small towns outside of Saint Louis, he saw there were tons of empty farmland or parking lots from buildings long-since torn down, that this Manfred Voren could have driven to. The man could’ve made this quite difficult. Instead? Wal-Mart. Target. McDonalds.
He wanted recognition and legality.
He wanted a job.
The subject of Davis Wilson’s investigation had spent the last days in a spree of helping people, figuring out his powers, and crashing and burning a few times. Flight had proved to be a difficult task for Manny. Floating and moving in specific directions he’d gotten the gist of after the first few times. What was a struggle, was acceleration and deceleration. Getting up to a specific speed took effort. Often, the tendency of his female self’s power was to act like a gas pedal. Applying effort caused continual acceleration. Stopping effort seemed like putting on the brakes. Only after about twenty or so flights, had he correctly guessed how to hit and maintain a specific speed. After pulling about thirty or so people out of flood waters in Kansas, he took off for home. At the speeds he flew at, it would take only about fifteen minutes.
There had been other side effects. At first, he transferred much of his body fat to his female self in order to fit into his male clothes. However, her superhuman metabolism burned through it in days. After a certain point, she stopped losing weight, and, according to what he knew of the character’s background, started feeding off otherworldly energy. He hadn’t gotten hungry or tired in her form. He landed in a field, and ran at super speed to hide in a series of bushes out near a parking lot in Wood River, Illinois. Another useful trick he’d discovered, was that her form and his could have separate clothes. Sure, his superhero outfit as her, was a simple running outfit with sweatpants and waterproof boots, but it saved him money. Turning back into his male form, he was wearing a shirt and shorts too big for him. Since she’d burned through most of his body fat, it left his normal male form quite skinny. He had a normal body mass index for the first time in years. As he drove home, he thought it might be a wise idea to buy some new clothes, since he now knew he had a semi-permanent method of weight control.
A careful look through his cellphone contacts reminded him of how different things were for a woman than a man. What he wanted was to be able to go shopping with one of his female friends, so they could give him a good idea of what to wear in his female form. What he discovered, however, was that he had few female friends of his own; most of them were acquaintances or girlfriends of his male friends. Most of the people he knew would be suspicious of the fact that a new female friend had entered his life, and had previously not been on any of their radars. It bothered him that he recognized he would be the subject of a lot of questions. The thought even came to him that perhaps his friends would recognize his female form as the superheroine going around saving lives. Oh Christ, he thought, Manfred, what have you gotten yourself into?
“Hey, Ed?” he said, after his friend picked up. “Hey, this is going to sound really strange, but…”
“I heard from Jake that you got a girlfriend!” Ed interrupted him.
If rolling one’s eyes in exasperation made an audible sound, Ed would have been bleeding from the ears. Manny took a breath and held it for a half-second, then let it out, noticeably. “I shouldn’t have sent him any pictures,” Manny thought out loud. “No, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s just a friend.”
“No,” he said, with effort, “not with benefits. That’s why I called you. I want to ask you a favor.”
“Uh, ok,” Ed asked, a tone of confusion in his voice. “What?”
“Can you ask Annie if she’ll take my friend out shopping?” Manny asked. He realized he needed an excuse, and didn’t want to raise suspicion. “It’s her birthday, and I gave her some money for a present, and she doesn’t know what to buy.”
A laugh escaped the phone. “That’s weird,” Ed commented.
“What’s weird about it?” Manny asked, a slight tone of anger in his voice.
“You know,” Ed replied. “A woman that doesn’t know what clothes to buy?”
The barb hit Manny and he didn’t quite know why it bothered him. “Regardless, can you do that?”
“Gimme a minute.” Ed pulled the phone away from his face. “Annie! My friend Manny wants to know if you can take his girlfriend out shopping!” Manny heard Ed speak and rolled his eyes again. He wanted to correct them both now, but it struck him that nothing would stop it at this point. “Yeah, she says she could be ready in an hour. Have your friend call her cell phone. By the way, what’s her name? I forgot to ask.”
Manny clammed up. Mentally cursing himself for not thinking of this contingency, he fired off a command to his brain to provide him with a name as quickly as possible. The pause had lingered for a good second, and soon, the friend would ask a second time, exponentially raising the suspicion. “Jennifer Black,” he said. Internally, he cursed his mind once again. It struck him as the most generic sounding name imaginable. Now, he was stuck with it. He couldn’t just tell one friend that name and contradict himself later.
“Hmm,” Ed replied. “Must be new to the area. I thought I knew everyone around here.”
“She’s from pretty far out of town,” Manny said. Then he slammed his eyes shut and silently swore.
“Really?” Ed shot back without a second spared. “Where’s she from?”
He yelled the first location that came to mind. “California.”
Please don’t ask where in California.
“Where in California?” Manny clenched his teeth.
Again, the first two words that appeared were spoken. “Santa Cruz.”
Silence reigned over the line. “Well, tell her I said ‘hi.’ See you around, Manny.”
“See you around, Ed,” Manny answered, hanging up. Well, that was a flipping disaster.
He looked through his contacts list and pulled up Annie. He transformed into Jennifer, his male clothes disappearing with the rest of his male form. In the days since he first started, he had the sense to buy a new wallet, a spare cell phone, and several pairs of running outfits for his female self. One thing he didn’t want to do was go out fighting in a gaudy costume. Inexpensive shirts, sweatpants, and boots for running would do him just fine. Figuring out what fit proved difficult, especially in the bra department, but it made it easier to replace outfits. Instead of a custom-made costume which would, based on his knowledge of cosplay, cost at least a few hundred for decent quality, he could spend fifty dollars and get two whole sets of outfits, minus the boots. He wasn’t out to look spiffy when he fought crime. Efficiency ruled that roost. During flight, he discovered he could run Jennifer’s extra-dimensional power through his clothes, and they would serve as a barrier. It perhaps didn’t make them indestructible, but they would be orders of magnitude more durable.
Taking off the old outfit, he slipped on a green shirt, not loose, but not revealingly tight, and a pair of snug sweatpants. White socks and a clean pair of waterproof boots finished off the outfit. He went in the bathroom and brushed a bit of dirt out of his long red hair. Looking in the mirror, he found himself reminded once again of the unique nature of his transformation. As Jennifer, she had a different gender identity than he did, even though they were one person, and she did not exist as a separate consciousness. He could swap his body back and forth, and would go back to being male gender, mentally, when his brain was male. She considered herself pretty, and he did too, but the oddity lie in how differently they were. When he was her, she thought of herself as pretty because of a strange sense of feminine self-pride, that he couldn’t explain. When he thought of how he looked as her, he considered her pretty because of his male sexuality. Did that count as narcissism, since he considered her—himself in female form—attractive? These were questions bothering him. Honestly, he would have liked to stay as her most of the time, simply because she was powerful, brave, and vastly able, and he had struggled his whole life for his average existence. Hell, he couldn’t even stop being morbidly obese without her help.
Typing Annie’s contact information into the spare cellphone, he clicked the green call button.
Annie’s familiar voice calmed Jennifer down. “Hi, I’m Jennifer Black, Manfred’s friend,” she said to Ed’s girlfriend. “I was wondering if you could help me. I’m not much an eye for fashion. Could you take me shopping? I need another woman’s eyes for clothes.”
Annie smiled. “Yeah, I’m up for that,” she replied. “So, where did you want to go?”
“It doesn’t have to be the discount rack,” Jennifer clarified, “but I don’t want to break the bank either.”
“Yeah, I know this great place outside of Edwardsville. You familiar with the place half a mile from the Hardee’s and the fish place?”
Jennifer thought about it. “Oh, you mean that place next to what used to be a barbecue place?” she asked.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“See you there in an hour,” Jennifer replied. She grabbed both wallets and both cellphones, placed them into the purse she bought for her female self, and headed out to the car. She would have to be careful not to be pulled over in her current body. If she had to suddenly turn back into Manfred, it would be a pain in the ass. Never had she bought clothes with the intent of actually looking attractive. In fact, the female mind was very different than how she was when she was Manny. She felt a need to look good, for the first time in her life, and had little to no idea of how to execute such an action.
Pulling up to the store, she parked and stepped out into the parking lot. Annie looked her up and down—necessary, since Jennifer stood half a head taller—and smiled. “I’m Annie Wilson,” she said, extending her hand. “So, you’re Manny’s girlfriend?”
Jennifer shook Annie’s hand. “Manny and I are just friends,” she said, immediately gritting her teeth invisibly at having spouted such a cliché line. “I’m new to the area and he’s being so very helpful.”
“That was nice of him to lend you his car,” Annie said. “Ed bitches whenever I have to drive his.”
Jennifer shrugged. “Yeah, I know that one,” she replied. “So, I’ve always sucked at judging what looks good. Help me out anyway you can.”
They headed into the store. “You’re tall,” Annie explained, walking her around the various parts of the store. “And you’re pretty tone. So, you’re big into fitness, huh?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I do a lot of running and lifting.”
Annie whistled. “I need to start working out again,” she said. “Anyway, you need to look at clothing that will…” she searched for a word, “demonstrate your figure to the world. I mean, take this,” she handed her a pair of jeans, “and I think they’re—God, I wish I had your hips and thighs—great for accentuating your curves.” She pulled a few pairs of other pants off the shelf. “You don’t want too tight and you don’t want too loose. You’re not showing off, but at the same time, you are.” She took a breath and looked up. “I’m sorry, does that make sense?”
Jennifer smiled. “Yes,” she replied. “It does.”
She stuck her hand in one of the pants pockets. “These pockets are, about an inch or two at the most,” she said. “Why don’t they have decent pockets?”
Annie let a laugh escape. “Oh, you’re new to that, are you?” she asked. When Jennifer gave her a cocked eyebrow, she nodded. “Okay, here’s the deal. Most women’s pants either have fake pockets, or none at all. I don’t know why. I guess they just want to screw with us. You could probably find someone to sew real pockets on if you wanted to. That’s what I did.”
“No problem,” Jennifer replied.
“For tops,” she told her taller friend, “you have to strike a delicate balance between exaggerating your breasts—which, no offense, is a concern for you—and looking like you’re wearing a tent.”
“So,” Jennifer said, grabbing a black shirt off a nearby rack, “something like this?”
Annie’s eyes widened a bit. “if I wore that, I’d probably look acceptable,” she explained. “With your figure, if you wore that, you’d be the center of attention.”
She blinked at those words. “Is, that bad?”
Annie mulled it over. “If you’re ok with strangers hitting on you, no,” she replied. “It’s just that, it was made for more petite-chested women.”
Jennifer imagined it. She shook her head, placing it back on the shelf. “No, wow, ok, you’re right on that one,” she said.
They selected a series of outfits, which took about an hour and Jennifer began to understand why, as Manny, she hated shopping. Despite wanting to look good as a woman—and stop wearing the same stuff over and over again—she found the tedium of clothing shopping boring. Still, it was an exercise she wanted to get good at. As she stepped into and out of the dressing rooms repeatedly, she noticed guys that accompanied their significant others, occasionally glancing over at her. It struck her as both a compliment and an irritation.
The two of them gathered several different outfits that Jennifer ended up liking. Having tried each one on, Jennifer wondered why the hell she couldn’t figure out what a decent outfit looked like. She went up to the counter and pulled out the cash and paid for her outfits. It came to almost two hundred dollars—and that was the cheap store. It bewildered her how expensive women’s clothing was.
“You got a hell of a deal, looks like!” Annie noticed.
Jennifer gave her a look. “That’s cheap?”
“For seven outfits?” Annie said, bewildered. “Of course it is!”
Jennifer shook her head. “Sorry,” she apologized. “I’ve just never paid much attention to clothing.”
Annie coughed. “Honestly, if I had your figure, clothing would be my priority one.” She put a few outfits of her own on the table. “I mean, you could buy the cheap crap at the warehouse stores, but this is decent clothing.”
Jennifer resisted laughing. As Manny, she was used to buying a single pair of twenty-five-dollar shoes to last a year or so, and shirts for five bucks apiece. The outfits he bought were purchased for economy at all costs. Now that she saw how expensive her outfits were going to be, she would buy women’s clothing and be sure to protect it from harm. She went back to her car.
“Did you want to get something to eat?”
Jennifer turned her head. “Um, sure!”
“Is the Italian place by Walgreens ok?”
“Yeah,” Jennifer said. “That’s fine.”
They drove five minutes through Wood River and came to a small restaurant. As they sat down and ate, Jennifer noticed she drew attention. Finally, a man came from a table over, a middle-aged looking gent, and pulled a chair up to the table. “I saw you on the internet,” he said. “You’re one of those people with magic powers!”
Annie shot a look between the two of them, startled. “You know,” she said, “come to think of it, I knew you looked familiar!”
“Yeah,” Jennifer said. “I was hoping to just have a nice meal, though.”
The man only partially took the hint. “I ain’t gonna take up too much time. I just want to thank you,” he explained. “Those fires are brutal.”
“It’s sad how many people were trapped,” Jennifer replied. “I was pulling people out for days.”
“That’s amazing,” the man said. “You just found yourself one morning, able to do these things?” Jennifer nodded. “Man, I don’t know. It’s like a miracle from God!”
“Thank you, sir,” she said. After shaking his hand, he finally returned to his own table. Annie stifled a laugh.
“How did you end up with a guy like Manny?”
Jennifer—Manny—blinked a moment in surprise. “What’s wrong with him?” The statement came out more defensive than she would have liked.
Annie quickly shook her head. “Oh, nothing really,” she said. “I mean, I hate to talk bad about my boyfriend’s friend, but he struck me as kind of flaky.”
Jennifer shrugged for effect. “Oh, I don’t know,” she argued, “he was nice enough to let me stay with him and he hasn’t even hit on me.”
“That’s awfully nice of him,” Annie admitted. “I mean, I know he’s a really decent guy, he just doesn’t have motivation. His mother died—God rest her soul—and she willed the house to him, otherwise he’d be homeless. He works at the warehouses, where he used to open boxes ten hours a day for minimum wage. Now he tells others how to open boxes for slightly above minimum wage for ten hours a day.”
Jennifer scoffed. “I don’t really see what’s wrong with that,” she said.
Annie cringed. “I mean, there’s nothing really wrong with it,” she countered, “but he’s perfectly willing to keep doing that for the rest of his life.”
“He found a feedback loop that works,” she said. “I’m not bothered by it.”
Annie laughed this time. “Oh, believe me,” she said, “I’m not the least bit bothered by it, he can live his life how he wants. I just think it’s a shame, because he could be so much more.”
“He’ll figure it out,” Jennifer said, willing her teeth to unclench in her mouth. “In fact, I think he might surprise you yet.” It felt strange being able to find out the truth about how people thought about her male self. On the other hand, it was a power she could abuse easily. What bothered her was the knowledge that friends of Manny probably complained about him as much as anybody else. It shouldn’t bother her, but it did.
After a good twenty minutes of shooting the breeze, Jennifer made up some excuse and called it an afternoon, she headed back home. With the new outfits she had, she could be more natural more often as Jennifer, and Manny could have his separate day to day from her. It struck her as curious—they were but one consciousness, and yet, Manny as Jennifer felt his male self as the less useful self. She had already started thinking of her female self as “she” and “her” when this side of her was active, and as “he” and “him” when she was Manny. The familiar sight of her home street snapped her out of it as she pulled up towards the familiar driveway.
Her nerves clenched a bit when she saw an unfamiliar car. Her heart felt like it would skip any moment now.
Dark blue Ford Crown Victoria, she thought. Standard vehicle for law enforcement. She used her visual powers. The gun and handcuffs were safely tucked away in the glove compartment, along with identification. Davis Wilson, she read. FBI. A quick roll of the eyes and she pulled into her driveway, to see a moderately pale man with burnt cinnamon hair, and a look on his face of above average nervousness.
She stepped out of the car after pulling into the driveway. She leaned against the vehicle and closed her eyes. “Do you have a warrant, Agent Wilson?” she asked.
He shook his head, trying to hide the fact that his heart raced. Sure, he had a basic idea that he wouldn’t be immediately killed, but the possibility always presented itself. The woman’s demeanor indicated a slight nervousness, although he could tell she didn’t seem truly worried. His lone presence—the lack of any sort of response—probably told her more than his words could. What he felt, though, was that she had more reason for bravado than he. Subtle twitches in her face, to her hand drifting left and right, told him she wouldn’t hesitate to flee. The stereotype vehicle, the badge and gun in plain sight in the car, were all planted specifically to get an easy reaction out of her. “No,” he uttered. “My superiors don’t care much, but you probably already knew that. We both know I can’t hurt you.”
She let out a graveled breath. “Then why should I stick around and talk to you?” she asked. This agent was here to arrest her. Sure, she hadn’t committed a crime, but being so powerful as to stop disasters, was sure to alarm the government. Still, there was one man standing here, and not an army of specialists. The ball was in his court, even if he protested otherwise. She couldn’t harm him—obviously—and if she fled, a sterner response would come her way. The message came in loud and clear: comply quietly or else.
“Believe it or not,” he answered, “I’m not the bad guy.”
“So why are you talking to me?”
He pulled out his phone and pulled up video of severe California wildfires. “You happened to be the first to respond with this degree of power,” he explained. “Sure, there are powerful people around, but you’re the biggest, most noticeable person.”
“So, if I work with you,” she asked, “then I’ll be treated fairly?”
He shrugged with his hands. “I can’t promise that,” he said, “but I can promise you will be mistrusted if you don’t at least talk to us. You know how scared the government gets when anyone has any kind of power other than them.”
Her head slumped a bit. “If anyone threatens me, I’m out of there in a moment,” she promised.
“Hey, no one’ll be able to stop you.”
Jennifer sat, hands on the table. The cold, artificial light beaming down on her, she took a sharp breath and let it out. She’d been seated for the better part of ten minutes. Behind the one-way glass, she saw several men in expensive suits and ties, discussing her. “I have civil rights, you know,” she said, turning her gaze directly at them. “I have the right to be informed of the crime I’m being accused of.”
Dave Wilson looked at his superior. “She can see and hear us, you know,” he said. “I thought you told me you weren’t going to do anything this drastic.”
“Look,” the older man replied, “so far, we haven’t seen anyone with the degree of power she’s shown.” He glanced at the woman in the interrogation room. “Look, we know nothing about you other than you are incredibly powerful.”
She gave them a glance. Dave turned to his superior. “Ok, here’s what we need to do,” he said. “Let me talk to her. One on one, no recording, no nothing.”
The supervisor raised an objection. Dave cut him off. “Sam, if you trust me, trust me.”
Sam shook his head while letting out a sigh. As much as it bothered him, he couldn’t ignore out of hand such a request. Dave had one of the cleanest track records he’d ever known. It almost bothered him at some point that his subordinate was well-known for not bending the rules. If protocol had its way, he would have ignored the request and sent word above to the FBI director’s desk. Likely, the President would be informed, and the word would come down to do whatever could be done to contain, threaten, or possibly, eliminate this person. Sam considered himself a traditionalist—any connection that could be exploited would be used. Dave wanted not an interrogation, but a conversation—that idea bothered the old FBI agent. Still, the odds they could charge this woman with a crime that would stick were slim at best. Furthermore, they were in brand-new territory with her powers. He grit his teeth, squinted his eyes hard, and released. “Alright,” he said, acquiescing. He turned to Dave and motioned towards the room. “You have the floor. I’m going to trust you,” he pointed a finger in his subordinate’s face, “and if you so much as give me the impression you’re gonna fuck with me, I’ll make you regret you ever signed on.”
Sam left the observation room. Dave Wilson popped his head left and right, then headed into the interrogation room. The door slid open, and he stepped quickly to the metal chair opposite the woman in the cuffs. “Hey,” she said. “Think you can get these off of me? I don’t want to break them and get charged with destruction of property.” He read the sarcasm in her voice before he saw her half-skeptical look.
He slipped his hand into his pocket, produced a keyring, and took the cuffs off, throwing them aside. They clanked on the floor and he shoved his keys back into his pocket, letting out a huff. “Ok,” he began, “I told you that you might not get treated fairly.”
The redhead across the table took in a breath. “Yeah,” she uttered, loud for effect. “I’m sure.” Her hands gestured open-palm, seeming to say, “what the hell’d I expect?” and she let the rest of her breath out. “I mean, sure, I guess I decided to help people based on the comic books I read, but I didn’t think the government swooping in and crashing the party was so literally true, you know?” Dave watched her eyes. Anger flowed, mixed with frustration and several garden variety irritations, but also, what was hidden underneath her tough-girl act, a sense of fear. The right hand went to the back of the neck, scratching. Not because of an itch, it said, but nervousness, covered with the faintest coat of paint. Her hand came down, flat palm, on the counter. The eyes darted to it and back to him, so quickly, it spoke of her genuine concern of breaking the table, then attempting to hide it after the realization.
“Sadly, I don’t know what you expected,” he countered, “or what I expected, honestly.” He fumbled in his right pocket for his wallet. He produced a faded, black leather wallet, badly eaten by age around the edges. He removed his driver’s license. “This is who I am,” he said. “I got into law enforcement because I saw the shit going down long before people could post about it on Facebook.” He set it aside, face up, pointed at her. He shifted his head upright. “Let me tell you something that may shock you. Did you know that the year Columbine happened, was actually a record low in school shootings?” The left corner of her mouth twitched slightly, the eyes bulged just enough to be seen. She found herself surprised, he knew, and then lost her train of thought.
Jennifer breathed harshly through her nose. “No,” she said. “Didn’t know that.”
He gestured, hands perpendicular to the table, fingers extended, a “what have you” gesture. “You see, all Columbine did was make school shootings known to white people.” He pulled himself back to a fully-upright seated position. “School shootings used to happen all the time, with most of them never getting reported. Know why?” Her mouth straightened to a near line. The mental gears were turning, mild offenses being felt on behalf of minorities occurring in her mind.
“Most of the school shootings taking place in inner city school districts,” she guessed. “News doesn’t care too much about black people.”
“Dead on,” he said, pointing for effect. “Columbine was straight-forwardly not what the news expected.” He began counting on his fingers. “Upper-middle class white community. Not an area wide with crime. Popular kids not from broken households.” He paused a moment. “Most importantly, despite what the media projected, they were not bullied loners. They were well-known, and they were the bullies.”
“I did not know that,” she said. “But what’s your point?”
He leaned in again. “My point is,” he answered, “I made it to my current position by paying attention to nuance.” He tried to avoid swallowing so as to hide his nervousness. “You haven’t killed me yet, or broken out, or just flat out fucked off. Despite the fact that we both know you could. I have several hypotheses as to why, but I’d like to hear you.”
She huffed. “Don’t laugh, but I actually didn’t want to have to deal with you trying to arrest me a second time,” she said. “I figured if I went with you now, I wouldn’t have to do it later, when you brought guns and bombs and whatnot.”
He saw her eyes not move from his. No upward movement spoke of either no using the imagination to picture an answer, or an incredible ability to hide one’s dishonesty. Her rising and falling chest spoke of calm breathing. No sudden nervousness from thinking up an answer and worrying about it. She was either an incredible liar or an honest, scared-to-death novice trying to get through a question and answer session without a problem. “You’re just trying to help people,” he said, folding his hands together. “But here’s the issue. Here’s where we come into play.” He removed a file folder from under the desk and set it down, opening it up to reveal pictures of various rescues. “You’re off to a hell of a start. A fire in California and a series of tornadoes in the Midwest.” He pointed to a series of documents. “But you don’t exist. Facial recognition, prints, hair, nothing. You straight-up came into existence a little over two weeks ago. You don’t have citizenship, you don’t have anything. You popped up out of thin air.”
She studied him for a long moment. “You don’t really believe that.”
Her eyes flickered left and right so quickly, it almost evaded him. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”
A momentary jitter of the neck. A sense of worry? Fear? The minor movement told him he was on the right track. She might as well have confessed and proven his theory true. “So, what now?”
“I believe you are not the person I’m seeing,” he explained. “For all I know, you could have been a different person, transformed into a fictional character. Or, you could be a shapeshifter who takes on the powers of what they look like. What I am sure of, however, is that you’re not worried about physical harm to you as you are now. You seem to be worried about the harm to someone else—namely your alter ego.” She looked down quickly, then back up. He was on the right track. “You’re wearing pants that have pockets, when most women’s pants have fake pockets or none at all, which means you’re wanting to carry a wallet.” He leaned back in his chair a bit. “Which means you’re planning on carrying identification. Which means you want to be official.”
Jennifer thought back to her usual male self. Manny wanted to be a superhero when he was a kid, but as a teenager, reality bore down on him. The “secret identity” thing that they did in the comics bothered him. What he couldn’t imagine was having a steady job where he left the office at convenient times to save the world and came back at will. It worked in the Superman comics because newspapers had worked differently back then. The next possibility, working during the day and fighting crime at night, was a definite non-starter because he didn’t want to be like Batman—all heroics and no play made Manny a dull boy. “You’re right,” she said, snapping back to the now. “I want to save lives, preferably with no micromanager, and get paid to do it.”
Davis nodded. “Good,” he replied. “We’re getting somewhere.”
Jennifer bore down slightly on the table, causing its metal hinges to creak. “Let me be clear,” she insisted. “I don’t want to be a mercenary, I don’t want to be a soldier, I want to use my powers to save lives.”
He shrugged. “Great,” he replied. “Awesome motivation.”
“You need to look me in the eye,” she explained, “and let me know you understand.” She leaned in. “I don’t want to be an extension of the Defense Department, I don’t want to be law enforcement, I want to answer only to the innocent people who need help.”
“That way you can save everyone,” he said. “I understand.”
“I hope you’re not bullshitting me,” she said, leaning back.
“I can honestly say that I’m not,” he replied. He rested his hands on the table again. “Look, so far, no one has discovered anything capable of hurting you. You could have flown out of here through the ceiling at any time. I bet you could have leveled New York in an afternoon, if you wanted to. I can’t speak for my superiors, but I get it.”
“So, why am I still in an interrogation room,” she asked. “And for that matter, how does a girl that didn’t exist three weeks ago become ‘official’ to the government?”
“I’m going to talk to my superiors about that,” he said. “Stay here.” He exited the room, cleared his throat once, and headed down the hall. He knew where the breakroom was and he found his boss standing next to the fridge, drinking a cup of reheated coffee. Sam Louis was a hard-ass and one that did everything by the book. Dave found it impressive, honestly, given that the man often dealt with situations no rule had existed for. Talking him into anything was going to be a serious pain in the ass.
“So,” Sam began, looking up from his coffee. “What does our princess want?”
Davis rolled his eyes. “Look, sir,” he offered, “she wants to save lives. She doesn’t want to be a cop or a soldier, she wants to be a serious ally of ours.”
“I prefer allies that are predictable and controllable to some extent,” Sam shot back. “Having a girl that can shrug off mortar rounds and pick up bridges be my ally isn’t either of those things.” He set down his coffee. “Besides, the American people will know our answer is, ‘hey, just trust me?’ Does that sound like bullshit or what? Also, since she doesn’t have citizenship she technically is illegal.”
“If I may be frank,” Davis answered, “the fact that she doesn’t want to fly into the nearest Goldman Sachs vault and steal a pallet of twenty million dollars should give us a sense of relief. If we get her official citizenship, and let her work, she’ll save FEMA potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“Alright, I give you that,” Sam replied. “I don’t fucking like it, but you’re right.” He pointed a finger. “But the men above me are stupid enough they won’t believe it. They talk in terms of loyal soldiers and voters. They speak exactly a language of control and the status quo.” Davis held his breath a moment. “You think those dumb fucks are going to agree to this?” He didn’t know what pissed him off more: the fact that Dave was right, or the fact that this was completely new territory.
Davis wiped his face with both hands. “Boss, listen,” he said. “It’s a sales pitch. That’s what these Wall Street billionaires in the White House cabinet think, right? Have her save someone important. Shouldn’t be too hard. How many school shootings have gone down? With random people getting powers, she’ll have a shitload of opportunities.”
Sam took a drink, his eyebrows raised. “That’s cold, Dave,” he said. “Even for you.” He let the reheated coffee steam escape. “But that just might be the answer. So, you gonna look for it, or am I?”
Dave nodded. “So, what excuse do I give for letting her go?”
Sam shrugged. “She asked for a lawyer,” he said, “we couldn’t interrogate or charge her with a crime. Local jurisdiction in her field activities are a bitch. We didn’t send her to immigration because we don’t think that’s a problem. Hell, you can make up something for that if you want.”
He nodded again and headed back to the interrogation room. She looked up from the table. An exasperated glare escaped her face. “Any word from on high,” Jennifer asked. “or do I get to wait here?”
“You asked for a lawyer,” Dave replied, “and so, I can’t interrogate you, and I can’t charge you with a crime.” He winked. “Even though I probably could.”
Understanding creeped onto her face. “Ok,” she simply stated.
He leaned in. “Look,” he whispered, “to get what you want, you’re going to have to save someone important. I’m going to look into it, but something tells me it won’t be necessary. I’ll be in touch. Get it?”
She nodded. “Alright.”
She exited the room and he followed close behind. The dozen or so different ideas kicking around in his head about what to do, but if he was honest, he would say he was scared shitless. Walking two and a half feet in front of him stood a woman who could get hit by a cruise missile and not be badly hurt. What struck him as worse had to be his lack of power over anything. Before, even as an agent, he had a deal of control over a rational situation. Now, he could do nothing except know who was who.
“I’m going to drive you back home,” Davis said, “and I’m going to keep you up to speed.” A thought entered his mind. “By the way, if Jericho Torvalds visits you, I want to know at least something about it.”
Jennifer entered the rear of the vehicle. “Is he the billionaire investor guy with granddaddy issues?”
Davis laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “The reason he might visit you, is, he’s hopping all over the globe, talking to people and giving them money. We suspect he’s talking to people with powers.”
As they drove back to the house, Davis flicked off the power to the radio and the dashboard camera. Jennifer leaned back in the seat and took a deep breath. “So, the superpower thing has you busy as hell, right?” she asked. Small talk calmed her down sometimes. Nothing quite so traumatic as surrendering to the FBI and being returned in the span of a few hours to set one on edge, but it went better than she had hoped. Her more cynical self said she only got out this easy because she had white skin, but even still, she wanted to minimize risk. If she showed them calm control before they went looking for her, it could only work out for her best interest.
“Calm before the storm,” Davis replied. “I mean, so far, we’ve only gotten minor reports of people skirmishing with police and crap like that.” He cleared his throat. “So far, the really powerful players, wherever they are, they’re staying quiet for now.” He turned a knob to shut off the car stereo. “Look, I’m going to level with you, I’m sure you’ve already guessed.” He felt the air become slightly electric. “I was trying to avoid having to say it in there, but I’m guessing you’re Manfred Voren or you have a strong connection to him.”
Jennifer swallowed. “What are you getting at?” Even before the words escaped her mouth, she knew. Or, at least, she thought she knew. He could have blabbed to his boss exactly what he knew. The information would pass up the grape vine. Instead, he was trying to protect her, at least to some degree.
“You can interpret this as me being scared shitless,” he replied, “or how ever you want. But in any case, I’m trying to show you I genuinely am interested in where you take this from here.” He coughed. “You legitimately have survived temperatures hot enough to melt lead, and tornado debris moving at hundreds of miles per hour bounced off you. You could steal almost anything, and no one could stop you. And with your secret identity, you could’ve made it almost impossible to find ‘you’.”
“T…Thank you,” Jennifer said. She found it hard to ignore the logic, and yet, the normal human nervousness came back.